There’s more to Rio de Janeiro than thong bikinis and dancing until dawn, as Laura House and baby Soren discovered.
Brazilians, it turns out, are cuckoo for kids. Who knew that a child was an all-access backstage pass to the friendliest side of Rio de Janeiro?
Last spring, my husband, Todd, our 20-month-old son, Soren, and I headed to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. That’s right—the sexy beach spot famous for barely-there swimwear, steamy Carnival festivities and a dance-until-dawn samba scene—with a baby. Rio is probably not top of mind for a family getaway, but we’re not Disney types—yet (Junior may wear us down someday). And, while the 10-plus-hour flight could have been our undoing, the easy two-hour time difference seemed reasonable enough for our first experiment in international family travel.
Our plan was met with a mix of: Awesome! Is it safe? Your baby will be kidnapped! While purse grabbing does happen, the upcoming host of both the World Cup 2014 and Olympics 2016 has been building up infrastructure, working to drop crime rates and generally ensuring that the city is safer for all visitors.
Frankly, we were less concerned about crime than logistics like securing visas and the 11th hour please-don’t-tell-us-to-cancel-this-vacation-over-an-earache pediatrician visit. Incredibly, the regular travel annoyances melted away when we checked in for our flight (when have you ever said that?). At the gate, people parted for older passengers and families during priority boarding, all but pushing us to the front of the line to board first.
On the plane, I witnessed a flight attendant bouncing a toddler up and down the aisles as if it was a routine part of his job. We’d passed through the looking glass into an alternate reality where children weren’t considered a total in-flight nuisance.
The Brazilians, it turns out, are cuckoo for kids. Who knew that taking a child to Brazil was an all-access backstage pass to the friendliest side of Rio? People stopped to coo at Soren in Portuguese everywhere we went. There was the woman frantically waving her arms chirping like a bird to coax a smile from him as Todd snapped a photo, the cab driver who whipped around to play with him at every single stoplight and the ladies at the beach who were ready to pack him up with their towels and take him home.
We’d navigated long flights, language barriers (Soren signed off with “Ciao” everywhere) and our fears about venturing outside comfort zones.
I’d like to say this phenomenon occurred because he’s just that adorable, but our experience was far from unique. A friend who was recently in Rio with his three children was also blown away by the welcome they received. And Todd and I weren’t the only ones who enjoyed it: Soren was more than happy to be the center of attention. He’d flash an impish grin here, play peek-a-boo with a napkin there, and accept any candy, fresh fruit and extra slices of bread that came his way. We barely needed to feed him ourselves.
We split our stay between the funky Santa Teresa neighborhood and beachy Ipanema. Todd and I expected to like Santa Teresa, with its bursts of graffiti, ornate former mansions, squirrel-like monkeys bouncing in the trees and cafes vibrating with live music, and it turned out to be an ideal enclave for all of us. Navigating cobblestone streets with a stroller was awkward, but the pay-off of relaxing with a giant beer after dinner with our son happily transfixed by bongo players was worth the bumpy ride. Musicians even invited him to bang a drum or strum a guitar.
The beach, however, was closed for swimming (raw sewage alert!) during two of the three days allocated for the sandy, bucket-and-spade-geared portion of the trip. It was still postcard perfect, and taunting us, during our early morning and late afternoon ambles. Soren loved stopping for giant coconut drinks at the beach bars and exploring the beach playgrounds posted along the Ipanema and Leblon stretch.
There were, of course, mishaps. Our camera broke on day two, leaving us with only grainy iPhoto shots of the art-deco marvel Christ the Redeemer and the camel-humped Pão de Açúcar, which was featured in the James Bond film Moonraker. We only made it to two of the restaurants we’d been recommended (our favorite was Zazá Bistrô Tropical, an entertaining mash-up of South American and South Asian flavors, packed with folk art and collectibles, which Soren appreciated). Our son could manage a mere 20 minutes seated during our unfashionably early dinners, although servers would often swoop in and relieve us of him so we could finish our meals. Nightlife consisted of drinking wine and reading—we weren’t closing down the clubs, but hey, it was a more exotic locale than our couch in Brooklyn.
And none of it detracted from the fun. We had our adventure, and the adoring Brazilians certainly helped. We’d navigated long flights, language barriers (Soren signed off with “Ciao” everywhere we went), mystery dining experiences and our own fears about venturing outside our comfort zones. One of the secrets of a successful travel experience is welcoming the unknown, and, I decided, the same goes for parenting. It’s a realization I will happily blame on Rio.
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