RU Abroad with Zahra: How to Not Be a Tourist

When I wrote “Travelling Alone as a Woman”, I was, to be honest, bullshitting myself. I wanted so much to believe that all of that could be true, and would happen to me to calm my nerves. I was wrong, all of that and MUCH, MUCH more happened in just a span of 7 days which I cannot start to put into words – it’s ironic, considering I’m a writer. The second I landed on the Houston airport for my flight connection, I met a woman from Rio and her 9-year-old daughter with whom I spent our 4-hour layover. By the end, I felt like we were neighbours because we had talked about everything imaginable. She even invited to hang out with her in Rio and helped me get a cab to my hostel when we arrived. Thank you, Vanessa and Hope.

As soon as I put my bags down, some students from Sao Paulo working at an NGO at my hostel invited me for lunch and though only 2 of them spoke English, we stayed in touch the entire time I was there and made the most out of our nights at local bars. They got me trying brigaderoes, a Brazilian chocolate treat my tongue worships me for eating and helped me with directions using basic Portuguese. I’ll visit them again when I go to Sao Paulo for a weekend next month. Thank you, Sergio, Sara, and Murilo. That’s what I love about travelling, you don’t just meet the locals, you meet people from all over, who, just like you, are looking for something bigger.

I love tourists, but I don’t always appreciate what they bring to the city. For me, I appreciate the local experience while still catching the glimpse of all the jaw-dropping landmarks. I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat myself, this is not a vacation, and I’m not a tourist, I perceive myself as a traveller. One of the most wonderful things that make my day is when locals stop me mid-road and start asking me for directions in Portuguese. Though I repeat “Eu não falo Português” at least a 100 times, I think I’ve won Brazil. So, I made a simple list of how to not be a tourist.

  1. Don’t buy an “I <3 *insert city you’ve been in for 3 days*” shirt.
  2. Take the local bus and subway, minimize on the taxis.
  3. Stand on the local bus and subway.
  4. Only carry google map screenshots, no one uses big maps anymore, it’s 2015.
  5. Walk confidently, even if you are going the wrong way.
  6. When attempting to bargain without a common language, use the resting bitch face from your group projects and stare at the vendor until he says, “For you, 2 for 5”.
  7. Stay in a hostel. The advantages of living in a hostel are endless: you usually get free wi-fi and breakfast, the receptionists know where the parties are, you instantly meet new people, and end up in places that look like something out of Instagram.
  8. Spend your money on experiences, not shopping.
  9. Ask for recommendations with food and restaurants, avoid fast food, even if it is the cheapest option. But if you’re desperate, attempt the local fast food instead of McDonalds.
  10. Make a list of what you want to do, but don’t follow it.
  11. Be open to meeting new people, not everyone wants to rob you, but be smart. Be spontaneous and befriend locals, even if it is only for a night.
  12. Get WhatsApp. It’s not big in Canada but trust me, this app is the ultimate travel tool for not having an international phone plan.

I got in touch with some people from Brazil before I even left through a friend’s friend’s friend’s connections. Lord praise the internet for making it so easy to connect with people halfway around the world. Thank you, Lais. They advised me on some good tours to join, where to watch sunsets and what to expect from the weather. So yes, I did pack an umbrella, and yes, it did come in handy.

I wanted to remember Rio and how kind it was to me. So I asked Raquel, my hostels receptionist, to take me to a tattoo parlour. There was no way I was going to settle for a stupid postcard to remember this beautiful place. Though I only ended up getting a piercing, I made a friend I will forever be grateful for. We traded Polaroids I will treasure on my bedroom walls.