“It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others…Being closely observed by a companion can also inhibit our observation of others; then, too, we may become caught up in adjusting ourselves to the companion’s questions and remarks, or feel the need to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity.”
― Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
Je vien d’arriver…. I just arrived here in France. Or it seems so, but so many little moments have already passed, and even some big enough to warrant a story or two. Before I get to those, I have been remiss in recounting an important travel episode that happened in summer 2012. At the time, I was so absorbed in the experience, and perhaps posting pictures on Facebook, that I couldn’t find a way to write it down. As I think about the last 24 hours here, with new memories courtesy of Airbnb, I think it is appropriate to account for my first experience with the service, which has opened the door just a little, for this shy geek girl with dreams of being worldly.
Airbnb started as a graphic guy’s quick scheme to make his rent in the bay area. It has since become an economy, a social network, and more personally, a burst of courage and small stories that have enriched my storybook, making me much more entertaining at parties. It first brought me to a corner of Rio where the artists and bourgeoisie live alongside the homeless, the persistent throng of Friday and Saturday night, and a yellow streetcar beckoning another era in this colonial city. It was July 2012, I had just been in Buenos Aires on business, traveling on my free weekend, not just to Rio, but to Isa and Paolo, and their stack of colorful boxes called a home on the edge of Santa Fe and Lapa near the center of the city.
Arriving at nearly 2am, without enough Real to pay the cab driver. Paolo, an ex telecomm engineer from Italy who first came to Brazil to follow his passion for African drumming, with a smile paid the fare and said “don’t worry about it”. The pulse of Lapa, at the bottom of a steep urban staircase leading down from the house, was still strong and I could feel it humming through the green wooden shutters in my simple room on the upper, entry level floor.
I awoke the next morning to warm coffee, cake and conversation with Paolo. Isa was working at her computer and perhaps more shy due to her limited English. At noon, my driver, Carlos, arrived to shuttle me around to the sites in Rio. We danced a sort of made-up language tango as he tried to teach me a little Portuguese and I faked my part by adding some extra ‘zhh’ to my French/Spanglish responses. Carlos was quite a bit younger than me but treated me as if we were kids playing together. Excitedly taking me by the hand and pulling me, because he discovered a friend who could get me to the front of the queue for the shuttle up to Christ the Redeemer atop the Corcovado. The day went like this, he directed me, I visited, he fetched me, and so on. As the sun set, I was staring down at the lights of the city from Pão de Açúcar – Sugarloaf mountain.
The day was not over. Around 9:30 pm it was time to go out for dinner. I was invited to join Paolo, Isa, and their neighbors, a young couple – husband, Lino, also from Italy, pregnant wife, Rita, a Rio native – and their friend, Elisabetta, who had just arrived from Bologna for a visit. A neighborhood steak grill restaurant – cook at the table, side dishes shared all around, trust your companions not to poison you – hosted a group with three duets crossing and in parallel, in Italian, Portuguese, and Italian. We laughed until midnight, when Paolo asked if I’d like to see Lapa. He drove me in the van he uses for his recycled fabrics business, and gave me a tour of the all night outdoor party, with young people absolutely pouring out onto every street, something I would have been very nervous to do alone. Paolo proudly showed me the best clubs and restaurants, and how the colonial buildings had been gentrified to host the entertainment tastes of a new generation.
After a happy sleep, I braved the rainy Sunday to visit Santa Fe’s artist studios which were open for the weekend. I met and talked with the starving, the struggling, the passionate, and the well-established. I viewed not just their studios, but their homes. That evening was a baby shower for the neighbors. I met all their friends, most of whom had come from a rally for the local candidate running on a marijuana platform. I, having known Rita and Lino for less than 24 hours, was welcome as part of the family. Among the local delicacies were hot dogs and popcorn (Pipoca). And from the faithful Mac, tucked into a nook in their tiny apartment, blared the cool tunes of Gilberto Gil.
My last day took place on a tropical, undecided Monday. Elisabetta, with her jetlag and fresh mosquito bites, walked with me for miles around the city center and it’s massive park. With her poor English and my lack of Italian, we found that we had a reasonable French proficiency between us. Later, after discovering the metro and enjoying our beer on Copacabana beach, we had somehow connected as fellow travelers, though we were 10 years different in age, and in other respects maybe worlds apart, with our only common connection that of speaking French and a set of coincidences set in motion by Airbnb.