June 11, 2009

Traveling Alone to Rio de Janeiro

June 10, 2009

Just twelve days after an eventful day of air travel with my husband and three kids, I set out again for a long trip. This time, I went alone. I left my apartment in Kingston at 11:30 am, and was scheduled to arrive in Rio de Janeiro at 11:20am the next day, thanks to long layovers and three connecting flights.

Ken, the taxi driver I have befriended, came right on time to pick me up. I bid my family farewell and got into the cab. On the way, Ken asked me how my research was going – if I had found any deportees yet. I told him about Evelyn, a deportee who is going to be my research assistant, but let him know I'd also like to find deportees through other means, especially middle-class deportees. He reiterated that middle-class deportees might not want to talk to me. I asked Ken if he has family abroad, and it turns out he has a daughter who has just left for the US and who plans to join the US army. His transnational connections are not surprising – there are as many Jamaicans on the island as there are outside the island.

During the 30 minute ride to the airport, in addition to pointing out key monuments in Kingston, Ken again warned me about walking alone, especially at night. He mentioned that the street near my house often is not very busy at night, and I need to be careful. He suggested that if I were to walk home, I should take the busy streets, even though it is a longer walk. Nice he's concerned about my welfare. This is a common theme in our conversations, and, in fact, in conversations I have with many Kingstonians. Even the person who rented us our apartment sent me a list of warnings and instructions to follow in order to get from the airport to the apartment. When we arrived at the airport, Ken let me know I could call him to come pick me up when I arrived. I thanked him and went into the airport.

Traveling alone, I just have a bright orange hard-cover carry-on suitcase and a small green laptop bag. Traveling light means I don't have to worry about losing a bag, or counting at every turn to make sure all four suitcases and ten carry-ons are still with us. It was so easy to check in, go through security, have a meal, get on and off the plane, go through immigration, then security again, have another meal, and get on the next plane. Sounds like a lot, and it would have been, with three small children. Alone, it was just one thing after the next, all to be taken in stride.

All of these warnings about walking alone in Kingston have reminded me that Rio de Janeiro is not exactly the safest city in the world. Moreover, whereas I have not actually witnessed any crime in Kingston, I have seen several muggings in Rio. I first traveled to Rio in February 1999. I went there with the intention of finding a job in a hotel or restaurant and getting to know the city. I didn't actually end up doing all of that, but I did stay in the city for about three weeks on that initial visit, and became quite familiar with Avenida Atlantica in Copacabana. During my first trip to Rio, I met my husband, Fernando, but that story is for another time.

In 1999, I was 25 years old, and in search of adventure. In that spirit, I befriended some of the artists and musicians who sold their wares on Avenida Atlantica. Since they were my friends, I hung out with them in the evenings when they would sell their handmade necklaces and artworks to tourists, most of whom seemed to be from Argentina and Uruguay. These artists referred to themselves as artesanos, and distinguished themselves from the microbios (people who asked for money or sold small trinkets), the prostitutes, and the petty thieves who robbed the tourists, and perhaps sold cocaine.

Although these groups did not generally intermingle, there was mutual respect among them as they all worked in the same space, and it was to everyone's benefit. Thus, the petty thieves never bothered me, as a member of the artesano group, and we didn't say anything when they robbed the tourists. I remember very well one time when an Argentine tourist was walking down the street, and a young, skinny, dark-skinned boy approached him with his fingers under his shirt as if he had a gun. He pointed his finger at the tourist and demanded money. The tourist handed over the money and left the scene immediately. The robber walked away, and realized that the stack of bills was seventeen one-dollar bills and cursed the tourist. The double-trickery in that event was almost comical. What surprised me even more was that this same robber came to that corner to rob every evening. His petty thieving went unpunished, and he could operate from the same spot every night.

I find this hard to believe, but I wrote it in my diary, so I suppose it's true. I once witnessed a case where a police officer was present during one of these muggings, and literally turned his back the other way. It will be interesting to return to Rio and see if the muggings are as commonplace, and also if some of my artist friends are still there, ten years later. My hotel is on Avenida Atlantica, so I will be sure to see them if they are still there.

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