The past two weeks have given me a chance to explore the city of Rio. When traveling longer distances or in heavy traffic, often it’s fastest and cheapest to travel by subway. Every once in a while I’ve been lucky enough to snag a seat next to a stranger or feel the air conditioning. But I feel that I’ve been exposed to the true Rio when I’ve ridden the subway during rush hour.
On any given day, from 5 to 7 pm, the metro transforms from convenient transportation to an overstuffed metal tube. Picture hundreds of human bodies pressed against each other for minutes that seem like hours. In a matter of seconds, they peel away and maneuver out of the crowd in time to make their stop.
I’ve been amazed by the attitudes of people collected in each small metro car.
Everyone wears the same look of exhaustion after a long day, but it’s followed by eye contact and a bright smile. With daily trips on the subway, I’ve noticed there are few personal space boundaries below ground. However, even after a tiring day, Brazilians choose to remain open and break personal boundaries by standing extremely close and locking eye contact for minutes on end.
This is a stark contrast from the individuals traveling around the U.S. who try desperately to stay in their bubbles, hiding behind phone screens and earphones. My personal bubble was popped on my first rush-hour metro trip when my face was shoved into an armpit and my legs pressed against an elderly woman.
As comfortable as that may seem, the genuine and inviting nature of locals here has eased the tourist pains and helped to break a strong language barrier. I’ve never ventured underground without cariocas offering a warm smile or assistance finding my way. Originally, I was hesitant to pull out my map in fear that I’d be targeted as a tourist, but staring at a map with a puzzled look has resulted in various locals to approach me to offer directions.
I began this journey under the assumption that looking like an American would alienate me, but instead I’ve found the opposite—the eagerness for Brazilians to make everyone feel included and welcome. Even while 4,500 miles away from “normal,” I’ve never felt more at home than on a subway in Rio de Janeiro.
2013 photo of Rio subway station by Eduardo Fonseca Arraes, used under Creative Commons license