Writing this on a plane returning from Rio de Janeiro to what I’ve heard is a bitingly cold New York City. Homesick for sure, but not particularly thrilled about it. Rio, if you haven’t been, is the most aesthetically beautiful city I’ve ever been to in my life. In the seven days I’ve been here, covering quite a bit of ground with our film crew, I haven’t found one spot devoid of a breathtaking vista.
But before I drift into a Xanax-weighted slumber, there is one thought about a particular experience and its stark juxtaposition to everything I’ve seen in my twenty-plus years in New York City that I’d like to get down on paper.
We spent one day profiling an athlete in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Rio proper called Bangu. Lower middle class, comprised of wide dusty streets flanked by small, colorful concrete houses, the infrastructure isn’t particularly impressive if you keep your eyes at ground level (through as with everywhere there are gorgeous tree-covered mountains on the horizon in every direction). The commercial center of the neighborhood consists of a shopping mall, a few not-so-tantalizing restaurants and a smattering of unremarkable bars. Nothing that a Michelin or Zagat or even a Yelp would bat an eyelash at.
Yet I can say, Xanax-induced sentimentality notwithstanding, that Bangu is my favorite neighborhood I’ve encountered anywhere in the world so far. And it’s because of something intangible found in something tangible.
The spirit of the people.
That sounds lame, but the purest emotions often are. Bangu is filled with the most genuinely welcoming, engaging, and warmest people I’ve met. The hospitality on the part of our profile subject’s family is somewhat of a formality in Brazilian culture, but the openness and un-jaded sincerity of their hospitality was something a jaded New Yorker did not expect.
To be greeted as old friends and immediately feel like old friends is humbling. People in Rio are very communal by nature, but to have an entire neighborhood open their doors and see children rushing into the street and clamoring with genuine joy to welcome and interact with strangers is truly moving. Portuguese, one of the most beautiful languages I’ve ever heard, is pretty much impossible to understand. Even for a decent Spanish speaker like myself, the accent renders similar words unintelligible. But that didn’t keep our hosts, young and old, from beaming with excitement as we had totally random conversations in two different languages.
We communicated with gestures, we repeated things over and over again until some kind of tepid understanding was reached, we just shouted the names of random pop stars we both knew, our cameramen and host did the Single Ladies dance to raucous applause. We left understanding about 1% of what was discussed, and felt like we could come back anytime.
That doesn’t exist in New York.
I live in the East Village, a neighborhood which I could tell you with a straight face that I “love.” But what do I love about it? The fact that some of my friends live there and I don’t have to take a subway to see them when I decide it’s time to leave the isolation of my apartment? The bars and restaurants opened by outside entrepreneurs that come and go with fluctuating real estate prices? That it’s yet to be tainted by condos?
But is it really a neighborhood? Or just a group of people in isolated existence with intersecting lifestyle interests but pretty much no interest in each other whatsoever. A place where common courtesy passes for community. It’s not Bangu. And while I am homesick, and I can’t wait to get back to the friends and family with whom I share that totally unfettered Bangu-style compassion, I’d be pretty bummed if it weren’t for this Xanax.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons