I didn’t mean to quit my safe job and move from Auckland to Rio de Janeiro, but here I am

Moving to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, wasn’t something I intended on. I came for a five-week holiday to train in a style of dance I teach, Brazilian Zouk. Now, who knows how long I’ll stay?

Breaking up with my fiance in October last year, due to irreconcilable differences, may have had a hand in my desire to move to the other side of the planet. Since that happened, just existing in the same city as the man who was going to be the father-of-my-children gives me an existential itch so strong I feel like jumping out of my own skin.

Besides, in my first few weeks here, I was enthralled, totally hypnotised by Rio, and as I met its gorgeous, gregarious people and danced every night till dawn, it increasingly intoxicated me from every side.

Never have I had such a visceral reaction to a place. So, after much, pained deliberation, I decided to do something that my previous self would have considered insane: I quit my reliable job in tech and decided to give Rio time to reveal to me what it has to share.

If I was doubting my choice at all (which I was), the gods soon had their say. Twelve hours after handing in my notice for my Auckland-based job, the entire ground floor of my Mount Eden home was destroyed by the January flooding.

Filthy water flooded in at head height along much of my street. Sweeping into my home, it destroyed the lounge, kitchen and dining room. Everything is now stripped back to the gib and being rebuilt. I can’t go home even if I want to.

* Living in NZ half the year and Amsterdam half the year gets us out of the ‘rat race’ of Auckland
* Dog breeder’s garden on Auckland’s southern border is the perfect rural haven
* The lucky Kiwis who have their own private islands in the Hauraki Gulf

But I’m not complaining. Rio has a thousand faces (or 6.48 million, to be precise) and, after being here for two months, I’m no closer to a decisive view of this city now than when I arrived. There are many Rios, and depending on where you live and who you go with, on how much money you have, your experience will be entirely different.

This could be said of any big city, I know, but I’ve never seen people live in such economic disparity, so closely.

I am constantly, keenly aware of how lucky I am to be living here in the relative luxury of nice AirBnBs afforded by freelance journalism and my slowly decreasing savings of New Zealand dollars.

By night, when I travel home to Ipanema from a club somewhere in the city, what I see never fails to shock me. We pass street after street of stunning apartments, towering palatial fortresses with twinkling lights that crown expansive tropical gardens. Outside their 3-metre high security gates, countless lines of homeless Brazilians sleep with their cheeks bare to the sidewalk below.

Rio is known for its favelas, it has cities within the city, worlds within worlds. But I’m not staying there. Yet still the uber-poor and the ultra-rich live so closely side by side, that to me sometimes their proximity seems to rival the embrace of the Lambada.

There’s a famous Samba song by Daniela Mercury that goes, “Rio, Rio, Rio; Rio pra não chorar (Rio, Rio, Rio; I laugh not to cry); Pra quem não sabe, sou Rio (For those who don’t know, I’m Rio); A cantar (Singing)…”

This is the marvellous city expressed perfectly: You need to stay singing and dancing, keep going to the beach, keep stepping out at night, keep exploring and expressing, despite the dangers, despite the struggle, despite all the poverty; or you might just start crying.

Rio natives, known here as Cariocas, appear to know the above paradox intrinsically and therefore chase pleasure and seek god in equal amounts. The longer I live here, the more I applaud this and the more I need it myself.

Ipanema beach, where Rea says she goes to do her Portuguese language homework “with a coconut in hand".


Ipanema beach, where Rea says she goes to do her Portuguese language homework “with a coconut in hand”.

What is the point of the bad days in your life if you can’t escape to the sand on Saturday? Or spend a few of the early hours dancing carefree in the embrace of a beautiful stranger?

How can you tolerate the heat, the grind, the inequality of this beautiful city in a giant Jesus’s literal shadow without the relief of the thought that there must be something larger looking out for you?

Despite having grown up around Brazilians and their culture through the world of dance, I still expected to walk into a scene from notorious films like Elite Squad and City of God. When I arrived I was clenching my anxiety tighter than a rosary.

One of the AirBnB apartments in which Rea has stayed in Rio de Janeiro in the past couple of months.

Anabela Rea

One of the AirBnB apartments in which Rea has stayed in Rio de Janeiro in the past couple of months.

I spent my first night here in my Leblon apartment, not realising I was staying in the safest suburb in town, peering nervously out the window before having something I recognise now as a panic attack.

On the second day, I summoned the courage to step out into the street and, quite unexpectedly, fell hopelessly in love with this insane combination of Jumanji and Paris, otherwise known as Rio.

A heady, sensory experience, I will always remember my first walk out that day. The lush and jagged geography, the Portuguese-style mosaicked streets, the orchids growing in the sprawling trees, the incredible food, fashion, design and music I discovered, and in the distance always, glimmering sands and a turquoise sea.

Rio de Janeiro, as pictured from the Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado mountain.

Anabela Rea

Rio de Janeiro, as pictured from the Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado mountain.

I’m living my dream.

Rio is the Mecca of dancing and my life these days is a heady, nocturnal mix of training with some of the best dancers in the world, social dancing all night, sleeping till lunchtime, and then crawling to the beach in the afternoon to practise Portuguese verb conjugation and re-gather energy like a lizard in the sun.

Rea, dressed up for Rio de Janeiro’s celebrated Carnaval in February.

Anabela Rea

Rea, dressed up for Rio de Janeiro’s celebrated Carnaval in February.

My life is so refreshingly different here and whilst personal and home security is a constant thought, you do get used to it.

What’s been harder to get used to is all the moving around: I am now in my sixth Airbnb in Ipanema’s Posto 8, and in three weeks, will be moving to be closer to Jesus than ever, renting a loft in leafy Cosme Velho at the base of the Redeemer.

I yearn to put down roots but finding a long-term apartment while not speaking the language is proving difficult. I speak some basic Portuguese already, all of it filtered through the Spanish I learned at university, but even then, trying to be understood can sometimes be very challenging.

At a time in my life when I literally do not know what the future holds, I have had to become very comfortable saying “I don’t know” and “I don’t understand” a lot.

I have staved off the uncertainty of my nomadic lifestyle by acquiring four plants, one coffee mug, one memory foam pillow (because: dancer’s neck), and an entire second suitcase of new clothes. What can I say, I shop when I’m emotional and am single-handedly stimulating the Brazilian economy.

Some things are jarring – like that everyone lives in apartments here, they run red lights at night, there’s traffic at 1am. You can drink cocktails in takeaway cups, but not the water from the tap in your place; and you can’t flush your toilet paper.

But these things aside, I can’t speak highly enough of the rich social culture, sophisticated design, fashion, restaurants, and medical industries; the staggering natural beauty of this city, and the delicious, gorgeous friendliness of the Brazilian people.

I have made so many friends here in such a short time and found people to be so kind, helpful and welcoming to me.

If it’s the people that make the place, then any difficulties aside, I can wholeheartedly say that Rio is an amazing city to visit or to move to, and you’ll be having the time of your life before you know it. Just remember to start going to the gym maybe three months before you arrive.

Good luck and remember to look me up.

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