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Ground Zero: Touchdown in Rio


I made it! I'm in Rio de Janeiro!!!
I had a direct, twelve hour flight from London Heathrow with a plane half-filled, mainly with what appeared to be leisure passengers. After a quick take-off, the pilot banked to the right and set a south-westerly course. We overflew Spain, Portugal, trailed along the western coast of the African continent, before making our way over the southern part of the Atlantic ocean. By the time we made landfall at a point near the city of Salvador on the north east coast of Brazil, the stunning sunset I witnessed from my window seat gave way to a beautiful night time sky pierced with loads and loads of stars. I eagerly peered out of the window to get my first look at the continent that was essentially going to become my home for the next two months. Since it was so dark, I couldn't really see anything, and didn't until we made our approach into Rio de Janeiro International airport several hours later.

All the travel guides I read in the lead up to my departure from London mentioned that almost no one speaks English in Brazil and they weren't exaggerating. Upon arrival at the airport, on the way through to the formalities, I don't know if subconsciously expected the passport control officer to greet me with a crisp "and how do you do today, sir?" but I didn't expect her to know absolutely no English at all.

I stepped up to her desk, handed her my passport and filled-in landing card with a 'hello', and I think she replied back with a hello. She asked a question in Portuguese (have no idea what it could have been) but I smiled and nodded vaguely, then she stamped my passport and handed it back, saying something that I could only presume to be 'goodbye'! At this point I realised I would seriously have to start brushing up on my Portuguese and Spanish language skills.

They say that South Americans can create chaos out of the most ordinary things and I had a preview of that on the flight into Rio. Before we began our descent, the BA cabin crew started handing out landing cards (for non-Brazilian nationals) and customs forms. The problem is that all of it was in Portuguese! So while I could decipher some of the questions ('nom' was likely asking for my name) some of the other questions left me, and everyone else completely mystified. Even upon landing, instead of well-placed airport signs directing people where to go, airport personnel stood in strategic locations waving people to where they were supposed to go. I tried asking one of them what some of the questions on the forms meant, but all that got was a "no English" followed by a shrug. So I just guessed what the questions meant and hoped for the best.

It felt surreal getting in the taxi at the arrivals concourse of the international airport at nine o'clock in the evening, throttling our way through various roads and tunnels to my hostel in the Zona Sul (Southern Zone), pulling up to the check-in counter next to the busy bar packed with backpackers chilling out, checking in, getting my keys, walking into the lift all the way up to room 32, and unceremoniously dumping my belongings (a middle-sized, fifty litre backpack) on to the bed.

In the taxi enroute to Ipanema, I was practically giddy with the thought that this was all for real. All those ideas brainstorming in my head over the past year, months of planning what I'd like to do in my gap year, weeks of launching awareness roadshows all around the UK to promote various charities in an effort to bump up my cash reserves, all paid off and I was in f***ing South America, in f***ing Rio de Janeiro. WOW!

The taxi driver had the appearance of a composed, wise man, yet hurtled around corners like a demonic maniac. At one point I seriously thought of clutching my travel insurance papers in my tightly-clenched fist. That way, if the worst were to happen, any compensation payments for my parents would be efficiently processed.

'S' (name changed to respect privacy) was the very first fellow traveller I talked to. She was in one of the beds in my twelve bed dorm room. Norwegian, 20ish, on the last leg of her adventure. She was reading a book and very friendly. We talked about where she and her other three friends had been and what they had planned for their last week before they return home. Soon enough, some Dutch guy came in, who made his way to one of the other bunks. Solo traveller. Seemed polite but you could tell he was reserved in that awkward European way. I was so jumped up with excitement I could have chatted non-stop for hours with my toothbrush if I had to.

By this time it was nearly eleven pm local time and I was starving. After asking for some directions from the hostel staff, I walked out, strolled down the street, rounded the corner and after very quick deliberation, ordered a nice, simple, plain, conventional cheeseburger from a small cafe.  Did not feel keen on embarking on a gastronomic adventure and unwittingly ending up with something truly exotic yet horrific on my plate, like slow-roasted python head wrapped in toad skin.


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