backpacking

Rio Rundown

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It was a lack of foresight that came biting back at us the moment we arrived at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

When we were in São Paolo the day before, my companion, Mondy, and I discussed about already changing our moneys to some Brazilian reais , but Mondy persuaded me that we might get better exchange rates from money dealers upon arriving at our destination the next day. It was a good thing though that I had already decided to buy fifty US dollarsworth of Brazilian currency; it was all we had to tide us over throughout our entire trip from São Paolo to Rio.

When we arrived at Rio, it was early Christmas morning. Mondy immediately asked around if there were any money changers nearby, but he was told that such establishments were closed for the holiday. I had barely enough reais left to get us a taxi ride to our ultimate endpoint – the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema – and so Mondy and I decided to walk all the way to our destination.

With a street map to guide us, we made our way from the bus station to Rio’s central business district. We constantly kept an eye out for a place where we can have our money changed, but, as expected, every commercial establishment throughout the length of our walk was closed. An hour must have passed when Mondy and I found ourselves taking stock of our situation. I finally decided to just make an international ATM withdrawal and Mondy followed suit. Finally with some Brazilian reals in our pockets, I asked a local how we could get to our intended destination by bus.

Before this trip, Rio de Janeiro had been nothing more than a fantasy for me, some far-fetched destination that I could only vicariously experience through television programs and travel magazines. The names Copacabana and Ipanema were likewise nothing more than titles of old songs that I heard from my mom’s radio when I was a kid. Now, I was finally delving into that very fantasy, seeing the images from all of those television programs and magazine articles finally take on tangible shape, smell and sound. And as the bus finally wound its way through the fashionable avenues of Rio’s coastline districts, the all too familiar trains of those Barry Manilow and Antônio Carlos Jobim melodies from my mother’s radio started resonating in my head.

Another episode of interminable walking ensued as we got off the bus. Mondy and I scoured for some affordable accommodation since most of our choices were either full or beyond our budget. Our search continued well into lunchtime when a couple – a Caucasian fellow named Michel and his younger Orientallooking female companion named Zeny– asked us if we needed any assistance. We readily responded, and Michel gave several suggestions. Zeny then asked from where we were, and got delighted when she found out that we three were all Filipinos. She then appealed to Michel, who owned a villa nearby, to let us stay overnight at their place for free. Mondy and I were simply overjoyed to have come across such fortune.

After having billeted us in their place, the couple treated us to lunch at some nearby pub. Michel told us how he had been travelling extensively while tending to his trading business. Meanwhile Zeny recounted how long she had been out of the Philippines since accompanying Michel. Amidst our agreeable fare of chicken, pasta and local beer, I relished our stories of travel and of taking chances.

I had little time to go anywhere else that afternoon. I just managed to squeeze in a visit to the iconic Cristo Redentor statue and the exuberant Avenida Nuestra Señora de Copacabana. But Rio – with its sultry effervescence and its laidback joie de vivre – quickly latched on to my affections.

It was easy for me to forget that it was still Christmas. There was something about spending such a cherished holiday traveling in some faraway place that I couldn’t put my fingers on. I found subtle exhilaration in finding myself by myself amidst the company of amicable strangers in such a far-flung place. In as much as the distance and the separation isolated me from what I had been accustomed to, it had likewise confronted me in a way that I totally did not expect.

I remember a line by William Least Heat-Moon in his book Blue Highways: “When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you.” Aptly enough, it seemed during that Christmas evening that my life before coming to Rio was only a vague, distant memory. Somehow, the concept of home became somewhat of a blurred notion for me.

I left the next day for Argentina where I was meant to catch my flight back to the Philippines. I was to return to the same old household and to the prospect of facing the onslaught of work backlog. A quiet pang of resentment then stirred inside me, as if some aspect of me had died during that very Christmas evening. I no longer knew what I would be coming back home to. All I knew was that I didn’t want my journey to end, that I only wished to remain on the road, wandering, roaming, searching, learning.

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