Friday, July 26, 2013

Hosting visitors – being an ambassador

Luiz and I have had the privilege of living in a couple of very desirable vacation destinations: first in San Francisco for many years and now in Brazil, just outside Rio de Janeiro. We are accustomed to hosting out of town visitors.

While in San Francisco our approach was to simply offer our guests keys to our apartment, a comfortable place to sleep, a transit map of the city and a quick rundown of the unique qualities of each neighborhood. That was pretty much all they needed to keep busy.

Here in Niterói the brief is a bit more complicated.

Aside from our Brazilian friends, both national and from back in the states, most everyone else who visits does not speak Portuguese. And believe me, it is rare to find English speakers while traveling in Brazil, outside of pousada owners and self-identified multi-lingual tour guides. Seasoned world travelers don’t let something as routine as a language barrier dissuade them from coming to discover a bit of Brazil, but it can be somewhat daunting for others.

Both Luiz and I are proud locals who are happy to settle in to a good long orientation for what to expect and how best to tackle it. We’ve got a Portuguese phrase book, a guide book listing historic points of interest in Rio, intimate knowledge of bus, ferry and cab transportation options (unfortunately there is no real definitive transit map to offer up), and specific insider tips for local beaches, two day getaways and champion natural and cultural spots throughout the country.

Thanks to our friends Carlinhos and Dü in Ouro Preto and the extended Santana family in Sete Lagoas, we have developed an A-game, full-on Minas Gerais-worthy breakfast offering for guests
Our work and home demands (OK, maybe not “demands,” but sh*t we gotta do)do not always allow us to accompany our guests in their local explorations or extended travels in Brazil. We are frequently setting them off to experience things on their own. This means we have to set them at ease about the adventure ahead.

So many people have a somewhat exaggerated view of the dangers they may encounter in Brazil. Let’s face it, Rio, São Paulo, Salvador and some rural areas have quite a reputation for violence. Tourists fear taking the bus at night, venturing into unknown neighborhoods, asking strangers for help, or even simple encounters with the police. Truth be told, there are good reasons behind the development of these national stereotypes, but I am of the mind that you have to be pretty unlucky to actually experience any of this chaos during your brief visit.

Most violent crime in Brazil (like nearly everywhere else on the planet) happens between people who already know each other, or when strangers cross limits they should know better than to cross (like trying to buy drugs on the street). In urban areas like Rio and São Paulo, gun violence is most often between the police and another party. Travelers out to experience the best Brazil has to offer should rarely, if ever, cross paths with these sorts of dangers.

Petty theft, inflated pricing, dogged pestering for your business or willful avoidance pretty much make up the bulk of the less than wonderful experiences tourists are likely to have. It is exceptionally unlikely that a visitor will ever be in physical danger. Don’t sweat it, I say. Get out there and have fun.

Focus on the positive – you are on vacation! Most visitors will enjoy a favorable (or really favorable) currency exchange rate that will have you enjoying all your favorite activities at a steep discount.

Intercity bus travel is exceptionally comfortable, fast, and affordable. Overnight “sleeper” buses save time and you don’t have to pay for a hotel room. In recent years air travel within Brazil has dropped significantly in price. And for some, when visiting a new big town or city, hiring a driver/guide for the day is well within budget, if this helps you settle in and enjoy the sights without stressing.

Our biggest challenge as hosts tends to be helping our guests manage their expectations regarding how much they can see and experience in what is usually a brief two weeks (or less) time frame. We have to remind folks that Brazil is larger, geographically, than the continental United States. Most people can easily see that a typical first time visit to the USA does not include a stop in New York City, Disney World in Orlando, the Grand Canyon and San Francisco and the wine country in California. Similarly, it is best to decide what region of Brazil you wish to visit and plan to spend some time there, leaving the Amazon, Rio, the Pantanal and Salvador to more than one trip.

Buy an extra pair of rose colored glasses from the beach vendor. You are on vacation, after all. A Brazilian vacation is about experiencing cultural expressions like hugs and kisses between new friends, spontaneous music/song when a group gathers, endless food at a family gathering, unsolicited assistance when you need it most, and a heartfelt invitation to come back for another visit. Not to mention the phenomenal natural beauty that is the rain forest and its inhabitants, thousands of beaches both popular and remote, canyons and waterfalls, crystal clear waters, endless sand dunes, a wetlands area nearly half the size of France, as well as historic towns and villages frozen in time.

Whether you enjoy a cold coconut water or a strong caipirinha, consider your glass always half full.


American Heart Brazilian Soul said...

Love this lost post Jim! Great job!! Abracos!!


The Reader said...

Excellent post! I especially love that you mention the US size comparisons -- we had to do that when a family member wanted to visit Foz de Iguacu "since we'll be so close already." Reminded said family member, who lives in Colorado, that the request was akin to us asking to go see the Golden Gate Bridge, "since we'll be so close already..."

then had to remind that "but the flight is only so many dollars" doesn't benefit those of us paid in Reais.....Visitors, remember that your hosts are not enjoying the same currency exchange rate as you are.

Danielle said...

I have been Jim and Luiz's guest and I can vouch for their hospitality! :D

Jim said...

Thanks Ray.

Reader - yeah, some folks can forget that while they are enjoying a vacation they have saved up for, we continue to be living on a budget...

Danielle - Y'all come back now, ya hear? And bring your hubby next time. :-)

Carrie Thorn said...

Dear Jim, what a fun post! It's been years since I was the recipient of your hospitality in San Francisco, but I remember that you are a fabulous cook and host. Would love to visit you and Luiz in Rio at some point in the not-too-distant future. Hope you are both well and happy.

Love, Carrie

Christopher Wright said...

Hi Jim, great post your insights and curiosity keeps on wetting my appetite for Brazil. I'm starting to see Brazil as a continent kind of another Latin America in itself. Can you get by with Spanish? (I'm English but live in Spain)

Jim said...

Carrie - it would be a DELIGHT to have you!

Christopher - Conventional wisdom is that Portuguese speakers can pretty much understand enough in Spanish to get by, but Spanish speakers have a harder time understanding Portuguese. Not many Brazilians speak Spanish. But your Spanish skills will give you a good foot up when tackling Portuguese. C'mon down!

bee and jay said...

Totally agree with your approach & attitude! We're looking forward to the time we'll be able to be back in Brazil!