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Remembering Brazil and hoping Solo is right

While reading stories on Brazil’s crime, Zika virus outbreak is scary, the reality is a whole other matter.

olympics 2016 Updated: Aug 04, 2016 20:37 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times
An athlete from Ghana dances with Brazilian performers at a welcoming ceremony at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
An athlete from Ghana dances with Brazilian performers at a welcoming ceremony at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.(AP)

A sense of déjà vu hit while reading USA goalie Hope Solo laying into the American media ahead of the Rio Olympics. Two years ago, Zika hadn’t become pandemic but visitors to Brazil were afraid enough to put off being part of the World Cup experience in a country that calls football a beautiful game. Just as Sol Campbell did ahead of the Euros in 2012.

The scare-mongering --- I can call it that, having spent 37 days travelling in Brazil in 2014 --- reached my in-box one day before departure for Sao Paolo. It is one thing to read news agency reports about the high crime rates, violence in the ‘favelas’ that made it seem like Fernando Meirelles’ ‘City of God’ was being enacted in real life, and another being forwarded a two-page e-mail of things not to do should you want to live to tell your World Cup story. The e-mail, no doubt well-intentioned, from a European football journalist of international renown, sure tempered the joy of being invited to a programme where Pele and Cafu were to be the guests of honour that had reached minutes earlier.

Among the things it made me do was take a phone more battered than some jalopies that pass off a taxis in Kolkata. “We don’t have an internet plan for you as no one here uses such phones anymore,” I was told as I tried to get a SIM card for my handheld in a Sao Paulo mall bustling with life late in the evening. No internet on the phone therefore for an assignment where there’s an eight-an-a-half hour time difference with India.

Feeling settled in

The night before, following the longest-haul, economy class flight of my life, and may it stay that way, I was met at the airport by Christiane, whose taxi I would use during all subsequent visits to Sao Paulo. Her English and our Portuguese were useless for conversion but through a mixture of proper nouns and improvised sign language, she gave us a low-down of how Sao Paulo was readying for the football carnival as we sped down the freeway named after Ayrton Senna. By Day 3, my accreditation card having arrived in a heartbeat unlike in Germany and South Africa where there were long queues, and the 10-minute walk from the Paulista metro station to my apartment in Bela Cintra seeming just like the pleasant late evening exercise it is supposed to be, I felt settled in. And Brazil felt a lot safer than it was being made out to be.

There would be many such walks in different cities and at different hours, there would be taxi rides to catch red-eye flights and negotiating through airports, some with terminals little bigger than the size of your neighbourhood store, and dinner at roadside cafes near midnight but never did I feel threatened. What came through instead was the warmth of the people.

Warm, loving people

People who apologised for not speaking English --- my telling them that the fault lay with my pidgin Portuguese would be summarily dismissed --- and thought nothing of leaving their shops unattended to show me the way. A waiter in Porto Allegre asked if two ‘Indianos’ had ordered ‘bovina’ (beef) by mistake, a burly policeman left his post and hailed us a cab when we indicated that we wanted to go to Senna’s memorial but didn’t know how and a taxi driver in Belo Horizonte made it his life’s mission to help an Indian get a battery for his phone.

And there was Marina Lane, a young girl at our hotel in Rio, who agreed to accompany two Indians to where Garrincha lived because we wanted to ensure that nothing was lost in translation. In the same hotel, when a journalist from Pakistan and I interviewed the owner for a story, the caiprinha was on the house. By then, Brazilian hospitality didn’t feel unusual anymore. And the story from another Indian journalist of a cabbie refusing to take money because his meter was faulty --- “that’s my fault, not yours,” being his explanation --- didn’t seem incredulous at all.

What did though, were all those warnings. They seemed like half-truths. We weren’t the only ones affected by them. “Is it true that rape is India’s biggest problem now,” a waiter in Belo Horizonte asked hours before Brazil took on Germany in that epic semi-final.

It turned out that an e-mail from an Indian journalist based in Brazil that had information about media centres, not carrying traveller’s cheques, the need to keep a valid identity proof with you, information about food and weather, proved far more useful. The evening of beer he organised with Indians in Sao Paulo too is fresh in the mind. Yes, he too had spoken about the need to be careful in ‘touristy’ spots but then, that is an advice you would give to anyone going to a new place.

After the World Cup was done, the European journalist who had sent out that e-mail was seen enjoying an evening at Rio’s Garota de Ipanema, perhaps the only restaurant in the world that is named after a song.

Back to Solo. “I think the American media has been really tough on people of Brazil,” she said, according to the Associated Press. “I feel a little bit bad because when you come here you learn for yourself. I think that we’ve been very hard on the local people.”

Solo also said she is taking precautions and has spoken to doctors before leaving the USA. “I don’t know why, but we like to sensationalize everything and scare people and then … when the games go on, everything goes on as planned, ends up being a beautiful tournament. And I expect no less here.”

As Rio tells the ‘gringos’ (foreigners), ‘Bem-viendo Brazil’ (welcome to Brazil), I hope Solo is right.