Diary of a backpacker 2 – Rio and beginners bad luck

My first diary entry read:

‘I find myself in a pretty little room in a quaint hotel called Santa Clara, somewhere near Copacabana Beach. There are beautiful wooden shutters on the windows, a sparkling red tiled floor, and dazzling whitewashed walls decorated by a painting of a pretty young black girl with a colourful headband in her hair.’

Before embarking on my year of adventure I had made a promise to myself to keep a diary that I would endeavour to keep as up to date as possible. It would prove to be the greatest souvenir of my time away and something that I can still leaf through today with fond memories. Although I would make many friends on my trip, it was to my diary that I entrusted all of my deepest thoughts and emotions. It would be my confidant as I learned new things about the world and about myself.

My flight to South America had been pretty good and I’d managed to sleep for parts of it. Upon touching down in Brazil I noticed it was raining and jokingly thought I might as well have stayed in Newcastle. I was due to begin a Gap Tour with a guide and a small group of travellers. It was called ‘Coast to Coast’ and would last 45 days. It would take us through Brazil, Bolivia, and into Peru, before ending in Lima on the Pacific coast. As it was not to begin for another three days it gave me the opportunity to explore Rio by myself.

I went for a long walk along Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches. The surroundings were completely stunning. You could be looking up a side street just off the beach and suddenly you would catch sight of a mountain peak shrouded in mist. It was beautiful. There was a great vibe on Copacabana with sand sculptures and people enjoying themselves. I stopped off to watch a game of football tennis on the beach, played by a group of tanned locals. They were pretty amazing, their football skills that is. ‘That’s why Brazil has won five World Cups and England has only managed the one’, I thought to myself. ‘They get to go to the beach and practice keepy uppies all day long in the sun, whilst our lot back home are stood on street corners getting up to mischief or they’re stuck indoors sheltering from the cold and the rain. It’s the weather’s fault!’

Sand sculpture on the famous Copacabana Beach

The next morning I woke up refreshed and full of beans. I went down and had some breakfast which I felt they might have put a little more effort into. I had bread and jam with some sort of tasteless melon juice to drink. Later I went for a walk down to the hippy market at Ipanema Beach. It was full of the usual tat and there were a handful of food vendors, but there were also many lovely things on offer such as jewellery, bongos, sarongs and other handicraft stuff. In the end I bought a couple of cool paintings. They were cheap but I really liked their originality. One of them was of a group of cats in a band playing musical instruments and the other was of a cat taking the place of the Christ the Redeemer statue with the caption ‘Jesus Cat’. I loved the market’s vibrany and bohemian feel. The colours, the noise and the hustle and bustle of the people made it come alive.

I stopped off for a drink at a stall on Ipanema Beach. I had a coconut with the top cut off. The man put a straw in it so I could drink the delicious milk. Whilst sitting there sipping my drink I watched the people go by. People watching is an activity I would find myself doing a lot on my travels. By simply observing people you can learn a lot about the place they are from. I noticed that they do seem to like their dogs here, little ones mainly. They dress them in little woolly petticoats and put daft shoes on them. Some of the owners had even given them ponytails. Was there really any need! On the way back to the hotel I was stopped by a bloke who asked if I wanted a woman. I politely declined his kind offer. He then asked me if I wanted cocaine of marijuana. Again I declined and carried on walking. ‘I’m going to have to be careful round here’, I said to myself.

That night I went down to Copacabana Beach by myself for something to eat. It wasn’t much fun eating alone but I don’t mind my own company and I had a bit of a laugh with the waiter. The food was pretty good. I had a Cuban steak which is basically a steak with a banana on top. It was a bit of a bizarre combination but I enjoyed it. It had been raining all night, as it had been for the majority of my stay in Rio so far, so I decided to head back. It was dark and the far side of the street away from the beach where I was walking was poorly lit. I was stopped by a black man who came towards me and asked for a cigarette. I wasn’t very happy as he hadn’t even said please, but I got my cigarettes out and was just about to give him one when he snatched the box from my hands and shouted, “Give me money, give me money!”

I said no but he started pushing me and repeating himself aggressively, “Give me money, give me money!” I was just looking at him in disbelief and, shaking my head, I told him he was getting no money from me. He had big wild eyes. I was wondering if he would give up or if I would have to put up a fight. It was very scary. I looked around but nobody else was around and it was pretty dark. Then before I had a chance to do anything he pulled a knife from his pocket and, waving it at me, he shouted again, “Give me money, give me money!”

As soon as the knife came out I reached straight into my pocket for some money and gave it to him. He snatched it and ran off. I turned round and watched him as he disappeared as quick as a flash in the other direction. The whole incident must have only lasted for about a minute but it was one of those moments that seemed to last for ages in slow motion. I kept replaying it in my head as I walked briskly back to my hotel. When I arrived I told the receptionist what had happened. He just casually said that Rio was a big city and there is crime in every big city. His nonchalant attitude really made me feel better!

Back in my room I took a few deep breathes as I lay on my bed to allow what had happened to sink in. I felt bad but I knew that if I’d put up a fight he’d probably have stabbed me. On a positive note I was only down 60 Reals which was about £15 at the time. I could have lost a lot more if I hadn’t hidden the majority of my money in the little pocket compartment in my jeans. I had heard that Rio had a bit of a crime problem so I felt I should take the extra precaution of hiding it, just in case, but I never actually thought anything would happen. It was very unnerving and unsettling, especially for it to have happened on only the second day of my trip. It certainly wasn’t the best of starts. And why was it still raining? I should have just gone to Manchester where the rain never ends! And I’d been bitten 3 times by a mosquito, once on my stomach and twice on my head. The itching was driving me mad!

It was time to go to bed. It hadn’t been a good night but at least I was safe and well. I was sure tomorrow would be a much better day, especially since I had booked up for the ‘Day in Rio’ tour. It might have even stop raining by then!

Drinking coconut milk on Ipanema Beach

2 thoughts on “Diary of a backpacker 2 – Rio and beginners bad luck

  1. Hello mate, I ended up staying at Hotel Santa Clara after a 3 month tour of S. America with Circus of Horrors, August 1997
    We were in São Paulo airport for 8 hours till the flight home. On a whim , 4 of us spent £12 on a 400 mile coach
    journey to Rio. Hotel Santa Clara was £25 per night for a twin room, so we spent a week in Rio for £100!
    It was winter but still 24 degrees and sunny. We did the usual suspects and took the Funicular to Jesus & Maracana was open to tour.
    We performed in Rosario opposite the football stadium and got vip tickets to see Maradonna make his comeback debut for Boca Juniors against Rosario team Newells Old Boys.
    Rio was crime ridden in 1997 and 2 of our lads were targeted.
    Muggings were generally opportunistic back then.
    Your diary brought back memories.
    Ps. I was led to believe that Ronnie Biggs stayed in the Hotel Santa Clara after his rapid departure from Australia?
    Anyway, best of luck,
    All the best,
    Andy Higgins (musician)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Andy!
      Sounds like quite an adventure you had. I’d have loved to have seen Maradona’s comeback match. When I was in Argentina I got to see a couple of games. One was in River Plate’s huge stadium against Tigre and the other was in Defensores de Belgrano’s dilapidated old ground which only had fans on two sides of the pitch!
      My travel writing is from 2005 so not sure what Rio is like now, but back then it was definitely a bit dodgy, and I imagine even more so when you visited in 1997. It’s a shame as it is a wonderful place. I hadn’t heard that Ronnie Biggs stayed at the Santa Clara, but it could easily be true.
      Just looked up the Circus of Horrors, looks a bit like Cirque de Soleil but on acid! I bet you’ve got some stories!
      Take care and all the best!


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