Impressions from my travels

Watching people in Rio

Watching people can actually be a good habit

On my second evening in Santa Teresa — the most bohemian neighborhood in all Rio, and located on top of a steep hill — I returned to the place I had discovered the night before. The Explorer Bar was not only conveniently located within a stone’s throw of the airy 1950s apartment where I was staying, but its cocktails had also been greatly praised by my Airbnb host. I went two days in a row, only to discover the second time that what the young waiter had proclaimed excitedly on my first visit — that during their daily Happy Hour everything was half price — was genuinely exaggerated. The truth was that if you ordered one cocktail, the second came for free. Duh! That couldn’t tempt me; I barely survived one. Furthermore the discount didn’t apply at all to the food items on the menu. There I had it: all day long I had been looking forward to a delicious meal at a fancy new place at an affordable price, and now this.

But since I was already comfortably seated on the lush patio, overlooking the busy street below me with the tram line where people kept coming and going, and feeling too exhausted from a day of walking around and sightseeing in the heat, I just stayed and ordered something anyway. Prices were about twice as high as at the local restaurant across the street where I had lunched the day before and where they served plates loaded with specialties from Northeastern Brazil: pan-fried beef or chicken with rice and a heavy bean sauce plus French fries on top of it. Even though this was filling for my stomach and easy on my budget, I had decided I couldn’t possibly take my meals on a daily basis at that friendly neighborhood place if I wanted to fit into my samba costume on the night of the big parade a week later. So my focus shifted to the fancy place with the great view, just slightly elevated above the street. I ordered a Nasi Goren with a light Brazilian twist and a hibiscus tea.

Feeling satisfied with my choice, I leaned back in my chair and decided to leave my iPhone in my purse, settling instead into my old and mostly forgotten European habit of watching people. Now there is a difference between watching people and checking somebody out. I’ve lived in the USA long enough to understand and respect that it is generally considered intrusive to look at somebody on the street for more than a split second. But in these days of social networking, with everybody sticking their nose in a phone, most of us don’t even know how to make eye contact. I find this a regrettable situation, mostly for younger folks who have not learned how to establish what I consider basic human contact. But whenever I travel abroad I find it delightfully refreshing that this form of human contact still exists. And so I enjoyed immediately the Brazilian way of making a quick eye-contact on the street, acknowledging someone’s presence, followed by respectfully moving to the side to create enough space on a narrow sidewalk for two people to pass, or to briefly smile at each other, mumbling a greeting. That’s all. It breaks the isolation, it establishes a connection and it creates the basis for communication. 

In this way I sat at my table under the trees of the Explorer Bar and watched my surroundings. And I became aware that I was being watched, too. It was mainly young couples on this Friday night: Brazilians, locals from the neighborhood or maybe from some neighborhood close by. Young, fresh faces, no make-up on the girls’ faces, but they were all nicely dressed, with a little artsy jewelry here and there. Most of them looked like they had just come from work or maybe from studying at the university. Most of them were white, middle-class people clearly from cosmopolitan Rio, polite, and apparently educated. And most of them appeared to be quite curious about their discovery of this new bar in the center of hip and bohemian Santa Teresa. The guys seemed to be particularly insecure, most of them not being at ease at first, undecided as to where they wanted to sit until their girlfriends got tired of moving from one seat to another. One couple finally decided on a table, but just as the guy leaned back in his chair a leaf fell on his nose, whereupon he frantically waved his hands across his face, leapt up and once again the seating arrangement had to be changed. When their menus came, they stuck their noses in it and there was a long silence as they both studied both the drink and the food menu.

Then my attention shifted to another couple that kept wandering about the patio, also unsure where to sit. They finally decided on a table at the outermost corner of the garden which allowed them the best view of the street. However, the guy, again uneasy, switched the seats, and reorganized things so that he and his pretty companion were facing the patio with their backs to the street. Once again there was a long silence as they both buried their faces in the menu. He apparently kept asking her questions upon which she nervously glanced around, her black curly hair bobbing, searching for a waiter who might be able to help. When something caught her eye she excitedly tried to show it to him on his menu, running her finger across the printed page and reading the description loudly to him. With wide eyes and a big smile she seemed to be trying to convince her friend of something she liked. Finally the waiter appeared and they placed their order, but not before asking him a question or two. Then they sat there in embarrassed silence, not knowing what to say after having acknowledged their lack of knowledge in matters of fancy cocktails. But when their drinks arrived they eagerly began to slurp. Their faces brightened, and altogether they seemed to be so pleased with their order that they made each other try each other’s drinks. More happy smiles, more hair bobbing, and then a long and passionate kiss.

Learning about the neighborhood by watching from my kitchen window.

I leant back and let out a long breath, feeling relieved for both of them. A happy ending! The evening could have ended badly if the drinks hadn’t been okay, or if she had lost patience with him being finicky, or if he had thrown a tantrum, or whatever. But no, these two at least had successfully managed a new and uneasy experience together, and it seemed like a promising start to their weekend. The first couple, in the meantime, seemed to be happily engaged in conversation at their table, and while they enjoyed their drinks, the waiter brought a plate of something which they admired with big eyes and carefully and respectfully put their forks in: another success.

I slowly walked downhill home, carefully placing my feet on the cobblestones, with happy joy in my heart. Life can be so simple. Just look around you and watch.