“Walking is a virtue, tourism is a deadly sin.” Bruce Chatwin
I wonder if it is possible to move to and establish in a new place without becoming a tourist the first few days or weeks. The countless “so how close to the beach do you live?!” questions that come through emails and phone calls from friends abroad make me think twice about how I should see Rio de Janeiro. I will get to that in a second, but first some words on this past week.
When I arrived to Rio’s international airport Galeão I realized how little time I had had to think about studying abroad. My summer internship in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon had ended just three days before and I still had (and have) many documents and reports to write. PUC-Rio’s (my host university) staff met exchange students at the airport the morning I arrived and in a matter of minutes we were on our way to our respective host family’s place. My host-mother came out of the apartment to receive me with a hug and a warm “Bem-vindo Diego!” She showed me my new room and before I even noticed we were in the kitchen telling each other stories about our lives with a cup of coffee. After living in Norway and the US for four years, I can’t describe how that first morning made me think of home in Guatemala. “All Brazilians are friendly” may be an exaggeration, but my experiences in Rio de Janeiro and the Brazilian Amazon so far have shown me the incredibly welcoming side of this culture.
Every morning at 8:30 a.m. I cross the street in front of my apartment to take a bus to PUC, usually with my German flat-mate who is also an exchange student at PUC. The twenty-five minute ride to PUC seems nothing compared to the hour and a half or even two hours some local students take to get from their homes to the university. Most exchange students at PUC live in Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Sul (“South Zone”) which includes the city’s richest neighborhoods and most famous beaches. I had some trouble deciding what I wanted to write in this entry about Rio de Janeiro. I could describe my neighborhood’s busy streets, Copacabana’s beaches or even the scenic path I take when I bike from the university back to my apartment in the afternoons, but I would certainly be describing just a small section of Rio de Janeiro’s reality.
I continue to wonder – is it possible to move to and establish in a new place without becoming a tourist the first few days or weeks? Tourism continues to exploit the same discourses that built Brazil’s image abroad as an exotic, happy, and social destination. In addition, a tour around the city’s favelas (typically described as low-income shanty towns) is now part of some tourists’ plans for their visit to Rio de Janeiro. These two contrasting touristic destinations (Copacabana’s famous beaches vs. some of Rio’s poorest areas) seem to dominate the tourism-related advertising I have seen around the city and online. And the conversations I have had with foreign and local students at PUC make me think such discourse is not strictly limited to tourism, but goes as far as influencing how Rio’s residents present their city to others.
Is it possible then to “experience” Rio de Janeiro under a different scheme? I have my doubts. Getting to “know” a new place is, of course, a subjective experience, yet I truly hope I find a way to step back from the common descriptions of Rio de Janeiro and settle as a student as soon as possible. My first “solution” was to read Brazilian literature with stories that take place in this city. I recently finished reading “Quando ia me esquecendo de você” [“When I almost Forgot About You”] by Maria Silvia Camargo, and as I thought about this entry I struggled to avoid presenting you with a typical “Zona Sul” description of Rio de Janeiro, an exotic presentation of the city’s high levels of socioeconomic inequality, or Camargo’s romantic view of Rio’s atmosphere. How we position ourselves within and in relation to a new space will certainly determine our views and experiences regarding such place. I just hope that in the next couple of weeks I find a position that allows me to take a step away from becoming yet another tourist in Rio de Janeiro.