From anxiety to joy at the Summer Olympics

Where making the right connections made all the difference.

Cariocas observing the Olympic Rings on the 4km long, scalloped beach of Copacabana

It’s miraculous how Rio de Janeiro recently pulled together the world’s largest sporting event, welcoming thousands of international visitors and athletes for what was a successful and safe two weeks. The reality of the exciting Olympic Games was a sobering, far cry from the uncertainty and fear I experienced before landing in Brazil.

“Do you really want to head down there and come back with Zika?”, one guest asked me as I was running food at a restaurant outside of Washington D.C. a few days before my departure. “Do you know anyone there?”, asked another.

I was even “blessed” by one regular who commented I would be mugged, hurt, pick-pocketed, or victim of a terrorist attack.

Here I was, going to a country I never had visited with my best friend, Christine, to see the Olympics. As time got closer to the Games, my feelings of excitement and readiness started turned into anxiety. Media reports pointed to Rio as a danger threat due to Zika, violence, petty theft, the unstable economy and political situation with threats of terrorism. While I took these stories with a grain a salt because I knew from my Brazilian friend that some were being overblown, it didn’t help that everyone in my life was worried, too.

New Jamaican, solo-female traveler friend at Rio de Janeiro–Galeão International Airport

Despite the negative press and fear filled assumptions, I knew I needed to set out on this three-week journey. It was my Must telling me to go and board that flight to Rio.

Luckily, that calling from within was right.

“Hey girls! Let me know when you are settled into your Airbnb and would like to meetup to walk around Copacabana and grab a great meal…I know some good, safe spots.” — Isabella

As soon as we arrived Rio, Christine and I experienced first-hand how a mutual connection or “friend of a friend” can enhance one’s journey, making it more local, authentic and enriching, rather than uncertain, iffy, or scary.

Fortunately, before our trip, we connected with our host Airbnb family and three Brazilians — two who shared a mutual connection with us and lived in Rio (Isabella and Pedro) and one who went to the same international school in Tokyo as me (Ana-Carolina).

First view of Christ the Redeemer coming from Rio de Janeiro–Galeão International Airport

Once we arrived, they took time out of their lives to meet up, help us get around safely and experience the culture like a true “carioca.”

We saw everything from Paralympic dancers in front of the Steps of Lapa to a Mexico City film crew on the beaches of Copacabana. We danced away Christine’s 25th birthday at a three-story, jazz-infused samba, choro and pagode spot in Lapa. We ate and drank a ton of feijoada, açaí, pastels, brigadeiros, caipirinhas (the list goes on…) and joined free, community workouts. (Thanks AfroVibe for helping us keep in shape!)

Our hosts and connections made so many miraculous moments and memories with us that the least we could do was extend some of our Olympic tickets to our new friends, which led us all to even greater moments. It was thrilling to be apart of this contagious cycle of welcoming, connecting, and sharing with others.

Outside of an Ipanema gelato and clothing shop with Kerri Walsh Jennings and Ana-Carolina, who has great eyes...
There is nothing that compares to being with your new friends and immersed in a crowd of 50,000 fans screaming, dancing and crying tears of joy.

On our last night together Christine and I agreed, this trip was of the most transformative trips of our lives — not just because of the Olympics, the beautiful sights and authentic cultural experiences we had — but because of the warmth and welcoming nature of our new friends and the Brazilian people. Knowing a local through a mutual connection and learning how to navigate the culture even prompted me to go on solo trip to Paqueta Island. Here I was welcomed by an inclusive Brazilian woman who spoke English and a wonderful couple that owns the quaintest hotel on the auto-free 2.3 km (1.5 miles) island.

Ricardo and Leandro of Hospedaria Santa Barbara in Paqueta Island, Rio de Janeiro

What is great about getting out of your comfort zone, traveling to unknown places, and not worrying what others will think of you, is the opportunity to connect and meet with locals who want to help and get to know you. This, on any day, trumps negative press and misinformed opinions, and, as I’ve learned, gives you confidence, vigilance, and strength to get up and live your dreams rather than listen to what you “should” do. Yes, it is true that Brazil is in a major economic and political crisis. It is true that there is disparity, poverty, and violence and one must be safe and vigilant. But it’s even more true that the media tends to focus on everything wrong in any given situation, a disservice to locals and potential international visitors.

Reflecting and relaxing on Arpoador rock.

So, are you going or thinking of going somewhere unknown but feel nervous, uncertain? Are you letting excuses/opinions get in the way just like I was? Rest assured, you’re not alone. However, humans are usually happy to help others who are seeking guidance and expertise, so you’re certain to meet someone willing to help wherever you travel.

What Sergio and I are doing at Conjr is along the same lines: giving travelers confidence and locals purpose by bringing them together through a mutual connection so they can both mutually be rewarded with an amazing, shared experience.

You can best bet, I look forward to our Brazilian friends visiting me in the U.S. or Japan in the near future, so I can give them an edgier, more beautiful and authentic version of the places I know and love, just like they did for us. #Disneyhirepedro

Little did we know three weeks later…

**Stay tuned for further photo/videos.