Day One: A Crash Course in Navigating South America

When the airplane touched down on the runway at Rio Galeão airport in Rio de Janeiro, I stared out the window in a state of disbelief. After planning this trip for nearly a year, I had finally arrived, and I didn’t want to get off the airplane. I was alone and terrified.

What did I get myself into?

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Of course, staying on the airplane wasn’t an option. I had no choice but to stand up, swallow my fear, which I would do many more times throughout the next four months, and make the long walk toward baggage claim.

“First time in Brazil?” the immigration agent asked before stamping my passport. I nodded. “Welcome, enjoy,” he said with an amused smile. I took my passport back and kept walking. It must be fun, I thought, watching all the bewildered and sleep-deprived gringos like myself filing through his line.

I collected my brand-new Osprey sixty-five liter backpack from the carousal and awkwardly hoisted it onto my shoulders, still working out the best technique for getting it on. Upon exiting baggage claim, it occurred to me I didn’t know how to be sure I was taking a safe taxi.

I thought a lot about preparation in the weeks before my trip. Was I prepared? How would I know if I was prepared? I was not off to a great start.

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Too tired and impatient to connect to the Wi-Fi and look up the information online, I figured the men shouting “Taxi!” inside the airport must be official in order to be allowed in. It was shaky logic, but I went with it.

These men inside the airport were not actual drivers, but “grabbers” whose job was soliciting passengers.

I went up to one of the men and inquired about price. According to my hostel directions, the trip should cost between seventy and eighty reals, so I knew the man’s first offer of one hundred was far too much, and negotiated the price down to seventy. At least I got that part right.

After agreeing on price, the man led me upstairs and told the driver where I was going. It was a yellow cab and looked legitimate, so I threw my bags in the back and got in. We whizzed past other cars, jerking back and forth as the driver accelerated and braked, paying no mind to lanes or speed limits. He asked me question after question, glancing between his phone, the road, and me. I wished he would just keep his eyes on the road. I searched around for my seatbelt for several minutes, but there wasn’t one to be found.

Assuming we didn’t die in a fiery car crash first, I was acutely aware of the fact that this guy could literally be taking me anywhere and I wouldn’t know the difference (there are tools that could have soothed my worries in this situation, but I didn’t know that at the time. I’ll come back to that later).

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We drove past the sparkling Guanabara Bay, favelas (Brazil’s famous “slum” neighborhoods), and skinny teenage boys selling broken cellphones on the side of the busy road. After about thirty minutes, we stopped on a quiet narrow street lined with colorful, grungy buildings. The driver turned around and told me it would be ninety reals—twenty more than I agreed on with the grabber. Right away I realized my mistake of not reconfirming the price with the driver before ever getting in the taxi. I tried arguing with him before finally handing him eighty real and getting out. He grumbled something but got out to help with my bag, pointing me to a blue building.

I was pretty sure my hostel was yellow, based on the pictures I saw when I made the reservation a few days before.

He insisted we were at the correct address before getting into the taxi and driving away. Hoping I was mistaken, I scanned the building for the hostel’s sign. Nothing. I checked the buildings next to it and across the street before concluding that I was, in fact, not at the correct place.

Rio street

I leaned against a building, trying to remain calm. For all I knew, I was miles away from my hostel and there could be someone waiting to rob me, kidnap me, or worse—my parents’ worst fears when I told them I was traveling to South America alone.

I stood on the sidewalk for a couple minutes weighing my options, probably looking panicked and definitely looking lost. A young woman was overseeing electrical work on the building next to me. She happened to speak English and asked if I needed help. I felt nervous and vulnerable, but I had little choice but to trust her, still hoping I wouldn’t fall victim to some elaborate scheme to harm me. I told her the name of my hostel and she looked up the directions on her phone. It was around the corner, about three minute’s walk from where we stood. Relief washed over me. I wanted to kiss her. She walked with me to the hostel where I thanked her profusely and went inside.

While my concerns were justified—crime, especially theft, is extremely high is Brazil, particularly in the larger cities like Rio— Brazilians turned out to be some of the warmest, friendliest people I met throughout my trip.

After checking in, I climbed into my bunk, hot and exhausted. Rio’s ninety degrees and ninety percent humidity were a shock to my system coming straight from freezing temperatures in my hometown of Minneapolis, which I had left nearly 24 hours before. I laid there, listening to people chatting in a myriad of different languages as they passed the open window below. I heard a rooster crow—a sound that struck me as odd in a city with a population over six million—then passed out, happy and exhausted. I made it.

Rio Sign

So, what lessons did I learn that day?

  1. Know what you’re looking for when in comes to official taxis before you arrive.
  2. Know how much a taxi should cost to your destination. You can usually find the information on your hotel or hostel website. Before doing any sightseeing, ask reception how much a taxi should cost to the city’s main attractions.
  3. Confirm the price of your ride with the driver, even if you already agreed on a price with an attendant, BEFORE getting in the cab. You have no negotiating power if you wait to discuss price until after you’ve arrived.
  4. There is an amazing app called Maps.me, which I downloaded halfway through my trip, and it’s the BEST thing EVER. Everyone travelling internationally needs this app. Not only could I have used the offline GPS tracking to give myself peace of mind and ensure we were heading in the direction of my hostel, but I could have also used it to navigate myself to my hostel when the taxi driver dropped me off in the wrong place.
  5. Lastly, be brave. It’s going to be okay.

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