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.

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.

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.

Back to Solo.
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.
(The Hindustan Times)

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