Part 1: The World Cup & Me
Our lives are measured in milestones: birthdays, anniversaries, and major life events. But for fans of the Beautiful Game, they’re also measured in World Cups, when “real life” takes a backseat every four summers and the world focuses its attention on a month-long football fiesta.
You never forget your first World Cup experience. Mine was 2002, when I was living in Hong Kong as a young boy. China had qualified for the first and only time, getting thrashed unceremoniously in all three group-stage games by scorelines of 3–0, 4–0, and 5–0.
Our collective hopes were then latched onto our Asian neighbours, the South Korean team, as they knocked out Italy and Spain to qualify for the semifinals, becoming the first-ever Asian team to do so. It was an emotional rollercoaster, one that eight-year-old Ricky had no way of dealing with other than becoming hopelessly addicted to the sport.
Four years is a long time, though, and every memory of a subsequent World Cup brings me back immediately to a different phase of life.
Germany 2006, when I resolved to stay up late to watch the games (given the time difference in Asia), but fell ill with a bad fever after the first night.
South Africa 2010, when I was in much better shape for those all-nighters, and actually managed to see all 64 matches. The opening match had coincided with the last day of school, and every day onwards, we’d have a kickabout with the Adidas Jabulani match ball in the evenings until 10pm, when it was time to rush home and watch football until sunrise.
(And those vuvuzelas, man – if you know, you know.)
Then came Brazil 2014, which would take place in the summer of my second year in university. It was around late 2013 when I was thinking about what the summer of 2014 might look like, and that’s when I conceived of the idea of actually travelling to Brazil and experiencing the biggest football tournament on Earth in its spiritual home.
I’ve written before about the feeling of compulsion to embark on a trip after conceiving of it – the feeling that, now that you’ve had the idea, you absolutely must go – and this was the first of many times that I would experience such a feeling.
Part 2: Planning the Trip
And so I got to work, taking on extra hours at my university tutoring job at the time to scrape together a few thousand dollars and make the trip happen. This was all before I discovered Miles & Points, and I was mainly concerned with finding the cheapest cash fares down to Brazil during what would surely be an immensely popular time to travel.
Eventually, a friend and I found a $1,200 fare from Toronto down to Rio de Janeiro on Air Canada and TAM via Miami, followed by the direct flight back from São Paulo. That sounded good to us, so we went ahead and pressed “Book”, splashing out a large chunk of our budget on the flights. Another friend who lived in the UK would be joining us, and she got her flights sorted out soon after that.
Then it came time to book accommodations.
Now, several years after the fact, I would return to Rio de Janeiro for a second time and enjoy a wonderful stay at the JW Marriott on the Copacabana beachfront, but back in 2014, I had neither the knowledge nor the wherewithal for such luxurious trappings.
And so onto Airbnb and HostelWorld we went, looking for shared hostels that fell within our limited budgets, eventually securing beds for seven nights in a hostel in Rio’s Lapa district that looked like it would do the job just fine.
Meanwhile, for six days in São Paulo, I relied on the help of a family friend to book us a short-term apartment rental in their residential compound.
Overall, I think I had budgeted around $3,500 for the entire trip, and half of that was already spent on flight and hotel bookings. It’s no wonder that, in the following years, I began wondering if there might be a better way to travel. 😉
In the weeks and months leading up to the trip, my friends and family members would invariably remark at how worried they were for my safety on this trip.
Like many places outside of the developed world, Brazil is a place whose unsavoury reputation in the media can often get ahead of itself, leading to a never-ending stream of concern from those around me as to whether I’d get robbed, stabbed, or worse.
For my part, I mostly fended off these concerns with a mix of youthful hardheadedness, confidence in my ability to adapt to new situations, and that sense of compulsion to take the trip. In a phase of life when I was very much uncertain as to what the future held, what was the point if I couldn’t go through with pursuing something I was certain of?
Part 3: Arriving in Rio
And yet, as my friend and I got ready to board our plane in Toronto, and the prospect of spending two weeks in an entirely foreign Brazil started to feel real for the first time, there was this unspoken sense of, “What on earth are we getting ourselves into?”
We didn’t know anyone in Rio, we were unfamiliar with the lay of the land, and our only means of communication would be the raw and untested Portuguese that I had picked up from completing half the language tree in Duolingo.
There was a real chance that we would be totally out of our depth as a trio of 20-year-olds, but at the same time, there was an acceptance that we were definitely not turning back now – we’d simply have to roll with it, come what may.
A sunny long layover at Miami Beach later, we boarded the evening TAM flight to Rio de Janeiro, sleeping surprisingly soundly before waking up in the Marvellous City.
The first test of our abilities came immediately as we exited the doors of Galeão International Airport. While there was thankfully no hassle from the taxi drivers, we still needed to tell the driver where we wanted to go, and the address of our hostel – 24 Rua Manuel Carneiro, Lapa, Rio de Janeiro – didn’t seem to make much sense to him.
In broken Portuguese, we managed to convince him to take us to Lapa, but we were no closer to finding our address upon being dropped off in the neighbourhood. And none of the passers-by on the street seemed to know where Rua Manuel Carneiro was, or seemed to have even heard of the street, for that matter. My mind was racing: did we get duped into booking a fake hostel? Had hundreds of dollars gone down the drain before the trip even started?
It was by sheer chance that, after wandering around for half an hour like the clueless tourists that we were, I peered through an alleyway and saw a street sign on the opposite side that said “Manuel Carneiro”. We had made it!
Upon arriving at the street itself, though, we realized that Rua Manuel Carneiro was only the official name of a street that’s much better known as something else. In fact, it was hardly a “street” at all in the traditional sense – it was the Selarón Steps!
I had unwittingly booked a hostel that was perched about halfway up these world-famous colourful steps, a famous Rio landmark, without even knowing it!
We made our way up to #24, knocked on the door, and 10 minutes later we were sitting with all of the other hostel guests in the living room watching Brazil vs. Chile in the Round of 16. And for a moment, I took note of how surreal it was to be here, living a dream, watching Brazil play in the World Cup while on their home soil.
Part 4: Catching the Travel Bug on the Selarón Steps
As we had expected, the hostel turned out to be exceedingly bare-bones, with ramshackle dormitory-style bunk beds and a single shared bathroom among 20 people that, for obvious reasons, we did everything we could do avoid using. But on the other hand, it had everything we needed as a group of travellers, and more.
Breakfast was offered in the mornings: a few ham and cheese sandwiches and some coffee as we sat by the balcony, watching the steady stream of tourists making their way up the steps. The community living room was always alive with activity, especially when the football was on.
And we really enjoyed getting to know our new friends from all around the world, however ephemerally, whether it was on a day out at Copacabana Beach or hitting up Lapa’s lively bars for free-flowing capirinhas before trudging back to our bunk beds as a group during sunrise.
One day, shortly after visiting Christ the Redeemer up on Corcovado Hill, our group of three musketeers got caught in a heavy downpour, and so quickly changed our plans and headed back to the hostel in the afternoon. That evening, the power went out across Rio de Janeiro, meaning that there’d be no World Cup football on TV for the night.
Our group of hostel guests simply sat around the room in total darkness, sharing laughs and stories in a little bit of English, Spanish, and Portuguese and a lot of hand gestures, and when that got boring, we found other ways to have fun.
The Selaron Steps outside are famous for their ceramic tile decorations, and even the sloped diagonal surfaces on the outside of the steps are covered in ceramic tiles as well.
With the downpour going on, those sloped surfaces became an almighty waterslide for anyone who dared to try it out, and we took turns egging each other on to slide all the way down, even though there was definitely an element of danger about it looking back.
Rio de Janeiro is an unabashedly laid-back city, and its gorgeous beaches, lively bars, and the infectious love for life among its residents left an indelible mark on me in July 2014, spurring me on to pursue similar new experiences around the world year after year in the future.
Part 5: São Paulo to End
Compared to Rio and its penchant for the maravilhosa, things are definitely more put-together and businesslike in São Paulo, and our time in Brazil’s largest city would undoubtedly pale in comparison to Rio as a result.
It was nice to take the public transport around and visit a few local attractions, getting a taste of life in one of the true megalopolises of the world. However, one of our group also came down with a bad illness, so we also spent a fair bit of time indoors snacking on homemade pão de queijo (the best cheese bread that you’ll ever have) that my family friend would deliver to our door.
In a throwback to four years ago, we spent a few evenings kicking the ball around – this time the Adidas Brazuca – with some local kids in the courtyard.
And on a somewhat sombre note to finish, I also have very raw memories of watching that semifinal – Brazil 1, Germany 7 (seven!) – in a local restaurant, and feeling an entire nation’s hope, dreams, and all that is good in the world palpably evaporating into thin air.
As an ardent football fan, there’s no celebration more fervent than the one you’ll find in a World Cup host country among thousands of fellow fans from all around the world, and I consider myself truly fortunate to have forged ahead all those years ago and made my dream trip to Brazil 2014 a reality. I’ve since made it to Russia for the 2018 World Cup as well, and look forward to these trips every four years in the future.
But I’d also pinpoint this trip to Brazil as the moment that I truly caught the travel bug, when I realized that there was still a whole world of places to discover, of people to connect with, and of serendipitous moments to be lived through, outside of the safe and familiar destinations I had visited in Asia, North America, and Europe until then.
The feelings I had experienced before, during, and after this trip – which I would later describe as the five stages of wanderlust – left me craving even more, crystallizing in my mind the notion that a lifetime of travel was something I wanted to commit to. I’ll always have Rio to thank for that.