When I arrived in South America, of all the sights I wanted to see and exotic locales I hoped to wander, only a single city earned a spot on my “Must-Visit” list: Rio de Janeiro. We’ve lived in Paraguay for three years and, until now, other South American travel-priorities always superseded a visit to the Brazilian city of sand and samba. And with good reason. Machu Picchu, Patagonia, Uyuni, the Amazon and the Andes of Northern Argentina (among others) are tough competitors. We’ve focused most our vacation-time on outdoor pursuits and have hiked and camped a lot during our travels.
Then we had Alanna, our beautiful baby girl. As I have now learned, travel plans change rather drastically when you have an infant.
Carrying a tent and your own gear on your back as you hike around a canyon or coastline is feasible. Carrying a tent, your gear, a bazillion diapers, wet-wipes, butt-cream, clothes, cute little hats, teething toys, sleepers, a stroller, breast-feeding pillow, spit-up cloths, baby shampoo, blankets, and the baby itself increases the difficulty-level slightly!
For our first excursion outside of Asunción with Alanna, we quickly decided on Rio. It was a modern city, which implied a smorgasbord of pharmacies selling diapers, wipes, butt-cream, baby-medicine and any other necessities that might arise suddenly. A quick Google-Images search revealed that Rio has relatively well-maintained sidewalks – something we've learned never to take for granted. Rio has beaches - we love oceans. Rio boasted a variety of food and craft beer – we conveniently enjoy both. Also, for Danielle, Starbucks. It was decided. After two visits to the Brazilian embassy to apply for and acquire our visas, we hopped on a few planes and embarked on our first travelling adventure with our chubby-cheeked daughter.
I don’t want to bore you with the specifics of our baby-centred daily itinerary in Rio de Janeiro, so I’ve boiled down our baby-travel experience of traveling in Rio with a four-month old daughter into four observations:
1) I know that our week-long experience in Rio does not enable us to make a definitive statement regarding Brazilian attitudes towards children. However, I’m going to make one anyway: Brazilians seem to love babies. Even more than the average person loves babies. No, seriously; they really love babies.
Alanna’s drooling, droopy jowls were a magnet for cheerful commentary from smiling cariocas. The first phrase I learned in Portuguese was “Ela tem bochechas enormes,” or “she has enormous cheeks.” Alanna’s cheeks were pinched and fondled endlessly by random strangers ogling her “bochechas;” she basked in the attention by smiling coyly and then turning away in a vain effort to appear uninterested in the newfound attention. Having a baby in tow was also a magnet for kindness. Shoppers held doors for our stroller. Our Airbnb host playfully carted Alanna up four flights of stairs while we dealt with our bags. Taxi drivers stalled traffic by waving us across the street. Passerby’s helped pack our monster-stroller into Uber vehicles. While changing a (particularly gnarly) diaper on a Copacabana bench, a street-vender snatched her dirty diaper from the ground, folded it up neatly, and disposed of it in a rubbish bin before returning for a rewarding smile from Alanna. I could go on. In short, we were overwhelmed by the kindness we received throughout our week-long visit to Brazil’s star-city.
2) Our Airbnb was right on Ipanema beach, so a few hours of each day were spent strolling along the iconic wave-patterned cobblestone of Copacabana, Leblon and Ipanema. On these daily excursions, we tucked Alanna comfortably into her stroller, lathered sunscreen on her legs, wrestled a hat onto her balloon-head and picked our way through the joggers, cyclists, surfers, sun-tanners, beggars, vendors, police, artists, and tourists who swarm the beaches. It was relaxing to walk, chat and observe the incessant parade of humanity with the sounds of pounding waves and honking horns as a backdrop. Alanna clearly demonstrated the ocean-going nature of her parentage by falling asleep almost every time we left the Airbnb to the rhythmic song of the ocean. It was great.
3) Dragging a baby around amplifies the difficulty in taking quality photographs of our travels. This lesson was best-exemplified by our experience at the Cristo Redentor, the Brazilian behemoth Jesus-statue overlooking the city that was selected as one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. The throngs of maniacal, camera-wielding tourists made it difficult to navigate our stroller, let alone watch our bags, pose and snap photos from odd angles. When Alanna started fussing to boot, we basically gave up, gave the outstretched stone arms a final glance and took off to calm an impending scream-storm. In previous travel-escapades, I could take my time and try to capture quality pictures. Now that we have our gorgeous gordita in tow, getting the right shot is subservient to the whims of my daughter’s attention span and ever-changing mood. On the bright side, pictures of myself have been generally improved by the beatifying presence of my daughter.
4) Travel-dining with an infant is a radical break from our pre-baby habits. We found ourselves searching for food that would be easy and quick rather than finding Brazilian fare. Leisurely conversation over food and drinks has come to a temporary halt; when we settled into our seats for a meal, we understood that we had a ticking time-bomb in our possession that would inevitably “explode” by loudly demanding a feeding, a bum-change or a change in scenery. The unintended result of this knowledge was that we ate in restaurants less and relied even more heavily on supermarkets than normal.
Our first journey with Alanna was a learning experience. We didn’t do or see as much as we likely would have in our pre-baby days. It was well-worth it though. Our experience of Rio de Janeiro was enriched by sharing it with her. I wouldn’t trade the addition of her smiles, globs of drool, cuddles and wide-eyed wonder to our travels for anything! Rio de Janeiro will stand out in our memories not for the beaches, the food, the views or the friendly carioca vibe; will be memorable because it was our first big adventure as a little family.
And I’ll always remember the meaning of “bochechas enormes”!