An amazing city, Rio de Janeiro can also be exasperating if you’re not prepared. The 500,000 foreigners visiting this month for the Summer Olympics will soon discover the challenges of life in the self-proclaimed cidade maravilhosa, from its world famous congestion to its quirky social norms.
Here are eight ways for visitors to not enjoy their time in Rio, and some advice for those hoping for otherwise.
1. Wait for waiters to serve you
Those accustomed to prompt restaurant service and complimentary water will likely be left wanting in Rio, which is not known for its friendly customer service. The problem is widespread, as customer service standards have not kept pace with a consumption boom that increased demand for salespeople. To grab a waiter’s attention, cariocas (people who live in Rio) don’t hesitate to shout chefe! (“boss”), irmão! (“brother”), comandante! (“commander”), and presidente! (“president”). Give one of those a try, if you dare. Or better yet, call out your waiters’ name like a real local.
2. Act like it’s always Carnaval
Live samba everywhere, scantily dressed dancers parading the streets, parties on every block, alcohol flowing freely… As much as Rio sells itself as the city of Carnaval, that party is largely confined to a few weeks in February. Rio is a functioning city where people work and raise families. Visitors sometimes expect otherwise, as when Esquire declared: “Governments collapse, and mosquito-borne plagues come and go, but love is always in the air.” Actually, no.
3. Be offended when cariocas don’t get back to you
Brazilians are famously outgoing and friendly. But cariocas are also notoriously bad at committing to anything (including attending the Olympics). A common phrase in Rio is a gente se fala, which literally means “we’ll talk,” but it shouldn’t be taken as a literal commitment to talking again – it’s more like a friendly way of saying, “let’s stay in touch over the coming years.” If a new Brazilian friend doesn’t return your message or fails to materialize on the day that you agreed to get together, well, you’ve been warned.
4. Don’t speak Portuguese
Not speaking Portuguese is a good way to miss out. Brazil has one of the lower English proficiency rates in Latin America, with only about 5 percent of the population speaking the language fluently, well behind neighboring Argentina. While it’s certainly possible to get around Rio without knowing Portuguese thanks to ample English signage and the fact the city sees more than a million foreign tourists every year, knowing a little Portuguese can go a long way in breaking the ice and showing interest in local culture.
5. Bring up “1-7”
If you want to be a bore, bring up Brazil’s 1-7 loss to Germany during the 2014 World Cup. Brazilians themselves are quick to joke about the humiliating match or shrug it off with apathy and anger, but don’t expect them to be especially happy to talk about it with a judgmental foreigner. Better to first be self-deprecating toward your own country with a conversation-starter like, “So how about that Donald Trump?”
6. Complain about traffic
Rio’s traffic ranks among the worst in the world and behind only Mexico City regionwide, costing residents hundreds of hours per year stuck in gridlock. A common phrase is ta tudo parado (“everything is stopped”), and you’ll be pulling out your hair if you expect otherwise. A taxi driver who recently spent 2 1/2 hours making the 22-mile trip from the center of Rio to the western neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca, site of the Olympics, declared, “I’m never coming to Barra again.” Perhaps for the same reason, people often run late. Be quick to forgive others’ tardiness. It’s rude not to.
7. Go around shirtless or in a bikini
The stereotype of cariocas always wearing a bikini or speedo is true enough on the beaches, but you’ll get stares if you dress that way on the street and you might be turned away from entering markets or shops. “When we go to the U.S. in winter we get made fun of because we don’t have a clue how to dress,” said lifelong resident André Neves. “The same thing happens when foreigners come to Rio, they don’t have a clue how to dress.” Know the etiquette: women cover themselves with a thin towel called a canga, men wear long surf shorts, and both wear some kind of chest covering like a t-shirt. Only at the beach do the clothes come off. As Neves said, “You go to the beach prepared to go to other places.”
8. Expect to experience the “real” favela
Just like a quick visit to New York City won’t reveal the life of a New Yorker, don’t expect to understand life in one of Rio’s 1,000 favelas just by taking the tour. Often called slums, favelas more accurately might be described as improvisational low-income communities, maze-like neighborhoods that are culturally rich and structurally fascinating. Tens of thousands of foreigners visit the favelas each year, often with the help of guide services. A short video sketch by Brazilian comedy troupe Porta das Fundos shows what many locals think of the influx, with actor Gregório Duvivier dressed up as if on safari, standing up in a jeep and saying, “We are entering the favela, the natural habitat of the poor. If we are lucky we’ll see another example of the poor man. Take photos, just don’t feed them because they are well fed.”
Kurczy is a special correspondent for AQ based in Rio de Janeiro.
Tags: Rio Olympics