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  • Writer's pictureDawnelle Salant

On Thursday night, I get some news that changes the trajectory of my whole trip. My 95 year old grandmother, who had a fall 3 days ago, is not doing well. Her doctor has urged family to come and say their goodbyes. It is with a very heavy heart that I book a flight home for the next evening and start packing. My grandma and I are close; my grandparents lived in the same town as me and she took care of us after school. We spent a lot of time together. She is the quintessential Grandma - baking cookies, making gigantic, delicious meals and forcing seconds on us. To this day, all of my friends still call her Grandma - that's how loved she is. I am destroyed and it’s hard to be alone at a time like this.

My flight doesn't leave until 9 p.m., so I get up and head out to say my goodbyes to Rio. I wander down the Selaron Steps, but my feet don't take me any farther. I sit and people watch, soak in the sun, and wipe away the sweat that runs down my face with love, because I know that soon I will be back in the snow. Even though it’s only 11:30, I have my final caipirinha - a mere 5 reals from a street vendor at the bottom of the steps, and it’s magnificent. I sit and cry on the steps, the cold caipirinha providing comfort in more than one way. I force a smile for a selfie and marvel at how happy I look. Taking photos always helps take my mind off things, and I spend a good hour capturing the area and the people here today before I move on.

When I’m finished, I go into one of my favourite tourist shops and try to get rid of some of the Brazilian reals I have left. It’s not hard and I end up carrying around a bottle of passionfruit cachaca with me all day. My only plan for the day is to visit the RioStar, a giant wheel like the London Eye that was recently constructed here. There are very few people waiting, and I get a whole compartment to myself. I sit alone and cry again; taking in my final view of Rio is breaking my heart, which is already broken for my Grandma. It’s a nice view; a favela climbs the hill on my left and on my right, Guanabara Bay stretches out into the bright sun. I have fallen even more deeply in love with Rio, and I had so many great plans for the next month. I was supposed to start volunteering with underpriveleged children on Monday, and several weeks later I was meant to be heading south to do more volunteering as a photographer at a bioreserve in the Atlantic Rainforest. I’m sad for all the things I won’t get to do, but I know where I need to be. I’m grateful for the time I spent here; I got to really know Rio and I was lucky enough to go beyond being a tourist and immerse myself in the day to day life of the most marvelous city on the planet. I will be back. I’m not done with Rio.

*Sadly, my grandmother passed away before I made it home. I was devastated, but relieved to know that she didn’t suffer and is at peace and with my grandfather once again. I truly believe that getting me home when she did was my grandma’s last gift to me; I landed in Calgary right before Coronavirus started getting really scary and travellers were called home and asked to self isolate. She kept me safe, and I only hope she knows that I am grateful that she prevented me from getting stuck in another country, alone, during a global crisis. I came home to a different world, in more ways than one.

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  • Writer's pictureDawnelle Salant

This morning, after packing up my mom's stuff, we go for one last wander together. We walk up another hill to the famous Parque das Ruinas - the remains of a palace that overlook both Santa Teresa and downtown. We have lunch here - the views are incredible, and then make our way up to the top of the skeleton of walls that remain of the palace. From here we can see downtown; the modern looking Cathedral of Rio, all the office buildings and famous Lapa Arches. As sad I was to leave Copa, I am so glad I have a whole new area of the city to really get to know. That night I go to the airport with my mom and shed more than a few tears when I say good-bye. In the taxi on the way back to my flat, I feel very alone, but also very excited about what lays ahead. When I visited Rio the first time, I knew I wanted to come back here and just be a part of this city, on my own, and experience it as more than just a tourist. And as scary as it is, I've made that dream come true.

The next day, I will admit I am a little lost without my mom. I take a day to just relax and get caught up on some laundry, some grocery shopping and photos. I even find a documentary about Brazil on tv in English; it’s a nice, semi-normal kind of day.

The next morning I get up and attempt to walk to the Colombo Bakery for breakfast. I have downloaded the step by step instruction by google and at first I am ok. I walk down the Selaron Steps, again revelling in the fact that I live so close to the iconic landmark. When I get to the main street at the bottom of the hill, I spend some time photographing the old buildings covered in graffiti. I know some would think the graffiti ruins the architecture, but I think it adds to it. It just seems right here - in downtown Calgary it would look all wrong, but here, it’s like the artists decided to spruce up some old structures and bring them back to life. It works.

I cross over to the Lapa Arches and take some more photos and then follow the next steps to the bakery, but I get hopelessly lost. The directions are clearly wrong, as I have an idea where I’m going, so I hail a taxi and ten minutes later I’m sitting in the ornate restaurant with my Kobo and the best espresso I’ve ever had. I order an omelette with salad for breakfast and just enjoy the time and space. It’s probably the fanciest place I’ve ever had just breakfast and it’s one of the loveliest hours I’ve spent indoors in Rio.

My next destination is the Portuguese Reading Room, and low and behold, my directions are completely wrong again. I eventually make my way to the marble building and enter in silence. I sign the guest book (I’m the only overseas visitor today) and read the rules. I am not allowed to touch the books or be noisy, much like any library/museum. Except this is the most spectacular reading space, and possibly room, that I have ever been in. I feel like I have stepped onto a Harry Potter set and the books are going to fly off the shelves at any second. It’s incredible. There are ropes preventing the tourists from getting too close, but there are a few people sitting in the desks behind them with books. I want to run my hands over the pages of the books, smell them, hold them up to the light and unravel their mysteries. But I have to do with just looking at them from afar.

It’s not a big room, but the ceiling is extremely high and looking up makes me dizzy. It must be at least 3 stories high and every shelf is packed with books. Whoever lined them up so perfectly and evenly must be an organizational wizard. On the higher levels, the book shelves are bordered by pillars and overhangs with elaborate designs, and railings run around the upper levels that are fancy enough to have their own museum. When I look toward the ceiling, my eyes are drawn to a beautiful stained glass window that lets just enough light in to illuminate the majestic space. I have never seen anything like this room. I actually think this is must see on any visit to Rio; I hadn't even heard of it the first time I came here, but it's definitely worth a visit if you ever come to the Marvelous City.

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  • Writer's pictureDawnelle Salant

The next day is our last full day in Copacabana. My mom flies out on Tuesday and tomorrow we move to my new place in Santa Teresa. We have a lovely day on the beach and make our way to Ipanema for sunset. This is another Carioca thing to do - watch the sun set over Ipanema on the rocks that separate Copa from Ipanema, Arpoador. We find a spot to watch what is showing of the sun dip behind the mountains that frame the beach, but it’s too cloudy. Apparently as the sun dips below the horizon, everyone claps, but today, we don’t get to experience this. We do get to have a cold beer on the beach, I do get to watch a guy wrapped in a Brazilian flag sarong dance his butt off to his own music coming out of headphones, and I do get to listen to two guys with a guitar play some lovely music. Once, when I look up at the high rock behind me, I also get to the see bare bottom of a thonged woman getting her photo taken with the sunset in the background. We have a good laugh as she probably didn't realize that her butt was bared to all us spectators down here. We didn’t see the usual spectacular sunset, but we did get to experience another Carioca pastime.

The next morning, we pack all our stuff into a taxi and head to Santa Teresa. My new place is amazing - it’s right on a hill, just minutes from the Selaron Steps and it is beautiful. It’s modern - everything is new and bright white except for the red light fixtures which give it just the right amount of colour. The best part is the common terrace, it overlooks Sugar Loaf mountain, a favela and the Santa Teresa valley. It’s perfection - I can’t wait to have a beer here and watch the sun set.

We walk around Santa Teresa, have lunch and then a really bad coffee at a hole in the wall. I need some groceries, so we walk down to the nearest grocery store and immediately solve the mystery of how so many Brazilian women have amazing butts - the hills! Oh my, the hills and the steps nearly kill us. Google says it’s a 7 minute walk, and yes, downhill it was, but walking back up the steep, winding hills takes us nearly 30 minutes. We are still not used to the heat, and the heavy groceries don’t help! We make it back just in time to watch the sun set over Sugarloaf. It’s my mom’s last night so emotions are high. I’m very excited about the next chapter of my trip, but it’s going to be tough getting used to being alone!

The landlady told us about some live music happening pretty much right next door that night, so we head over to Bar do Serginho and grab a table. We sit right outside the small bar, and are surprised to see that the musicians are setting up in another building directly across the street. It’s almost like a garage - the whole front door lifts up and it’s filled with tables and white string lights. It’s like something out of a movie. As we eat, the music starts. It’s a slow kind of Bossa Nova, with no words, and it’s beautiful. I love watching the people - so many show up directly from the beach, still wearing swimsuits and sarongs, covered in sand. Cars and motorcycles zip in between us and the music, but it doesn’t matter. It’s kind of the perfect last night for my mom - just hanging out on a street corner in Santa Teresa, the only tourists for miles.

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Hi there! I'm Dawnelle - travel photographer, adventure seeker and digital nomad currently exploring  South America. 

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