My journey to Rio de Janeiro also known as Cidade Marvelhosa (marvellous city) started 2 years ago. I was searching for volunteering opportunities in the summer in my hometown, when I accidently found that the Rio 2016 Olympic Games were looking for volunteers. I filled in the long application form without believing that it would ever become reality.
However, during those 2 years my blurred dreams of Brazil were becoming more vivid every day. My first invitation letter came in January, earlier this year. I was really happy and booked my flights and accommodation straight away. Unfortunately, my first invitation letter was later cancelled because I hadn’t paid enough attention to details; but actually it was for the best, despite the fact that I lost a bit of money while changing accommodation. It meant that I ended up living in the southern part of Barra da Tijuca with 4 other volunteers from Baltic countries. My final position as a volunteer was a team member of Event Services in Olympic Aquatic Stadium and Rio Olympic Velodrome.
The start date was 6th of August, but I arrived to Rio de Janeiro on the 22nd of July. It was a good decision to arrive earlier as Brazilian culture can be shocking for Europeans who are accustomed to precision. It takes at least 3 days to learn to be patient, especially whilst waiting for a bus, not to stress that there are no signs, or you can rarely see a crosswalk (it’s ok to run through the street, but you usually have to run fast). You also have to take extra care of your personal belongings. However, people are always smiling and usually try to help lost gringos (this is what locals call foreigners). The main problem I found was that only a few Brazilians speak English. This was extremely challenging for me when I started to volunteer as well as I knew only few phrases in Portuguese.
After a week in Brazil you feel much more relaxed and the ‘cold’ (with an average of 22 degrees) winter of Cidade Marvelhosa reminds you more of a summer. Rio has the right to be proud of magnificent beaches and breath-taking scenery. In my opinion, the biggest treasure of Rio is its nature, as it is a very unique combination of endless ocean and up to 900 metres rock hills.
But enough about Rio, let’s talk about the most important sport event this summer. It’s no secret that first South American Olympic Games didn’t manage the budget so well. I had a chance to see Barra Olympic Park a week before the opening ceremony and a lot of things hadn’t been finished at that time. Additionally, Brazilians are never in a rush, if you see someone walking fast in the street, it’s most likely to be a foreigner. This kind of attitude caused me a lot of concerns. Especially, when they were already having problems with the Olympic Village, which was also based in Barra. The media was already spreading the news that some delegations decided not to stay in the provided accommodation because of plumbing and electricity problems. For the matter of fact, Australia’s representative gave a week to fix all the problems before talking to the media, but it wasn’t enough. So Olympic Park didn’t look promising. Luckily however, it was ready just in time for the first day.
My first day didn’t go so smoothly. I was over 2 hours late for my first shift. The bus route had changed because they closed some streets near Olympic venues. The first day was complete chaos, people waited hours just to get into Olympic park, some of them missed the games. The majority tend to blame poor organisational skills, but the situation was also influenced by some lifestyle habits. It is common sense to arrive at least an hour before the game for most of us, however Brazilians might show up 10 minutes before and be angry that security checks take so long.
After the messy first day, the second day was a complete relief. There were no major queues and everything went pretty smoothly. I also think that Security did their best. National force and local police (local police might be corrupted) were guarding Olympic city day and night before and during The Games. Plus, the popular parts of the city (Lapa, Central, Copacabana) and stations were also guarded during the games. I felt safe most of the time and didn’t get into any trouble.
The Brazilians in general are really friendly and warm people. They always kiss you twice when saying hello and give you a big hug if you seem sad. Therefore, it was expected of volunteers to create a welcoming and warm environment. All team leaders that I had a pleasure to work with were extremely nice, dedicated and caring. The only issue was that they barely spoke English as almost all of them were Brazilians. We use to have a meeting every morning where the manager would give the basic info and discuss the issues, which occurred yesterday – everything in Portuguese. I used to just ask other people to translate to me what the manager said. The biggest problem was that they needed people who would communicate in English with the athletes, Olympic family and tourists. But they often couldn’t communicate that well with international volunteers. This was a bit exhausting, but after first day I figured out how to tell where the attendee’s seat is.
They would always say thanks to us at the end of the day so I felt like my work as a volunteer was appreciated. I was lucky, because in aquatic stadium and velodrome we always had enough volunteers, so we didn’t need to work extra hours. Also, as I did speak English, I was always working inside the stadium, so I got to see everything that was happening. Our shifts were reasonable (around 5 hours – lunch included). Usually, the qualifications were in the morning and finals in the evening. However, if you worked in the morning but wish to see the finals, you could stay and help. The system wasn’t very strict. We were able to leave earlier if we needed and no one really checked when you come back from the lunch break. It used to take a while as we could eat as much as we wanted and there were coffee and sometimes ice cream afterwards.
People usually get surprised when they find out that flight tickets and accommodation weren’t paid. But in my opinion, it wasn’t their duty to pay for flight tickets. It would have been great if accommodation was provided, but London Olympics didn’t provide it either. All volunteers got free uniform – 3 t-shirts, 2 trousers, jacket, hat, bag, shoes, 3 pair of socks and a flask (this one unfortunately I lost in the jungle). The trousers weren’t exactly fashionable, but if you made them into shorts they were wearable. We also got a Swatch watch and few pins that everyone loved. The pin trading is a real thing and it didn’t matter if you wanted them or not, everyone got involved. The transportation card was also included, which allowed us to use all kinds of public transport. We were supposed to only use it on the days we worked, however I must admit I was travelling for free the whole month.
Overall, this journey was an adventure of a lifetime. The South America is undiscovered, completely different and new for Europeans. The official Rio Olympics’ slogan “Um mundo novo – a new world” conveys it perfectly. Perhaps it wasn’t the most successful games in the history, but as one Carioca said: “we have a lot political, environmental and social issues, we need something to inspire our nation and to show us that we can do something good”. They did it and hopefully inspired people for the future.
Interesting things I discovered about Brazil:
They hold your bag on the bus
On the peak hour buses in Brazil are absolutely packed. So the lucky ones, who are comfortably sitting always offer to help the people standing by holding their bags on their knees. That is one of the friendliest gestures that I have seen in the whole world.
It’s ok to be shirtless
On hot days Brazilian men walk shirtless exposing their stomachs everywhere from city center to sleeping districts. Also, girls usually hike with the swimming suit bra.
There is no ‘typical’ Brazilian
Rio de Janeiro is such a mixture of races and cultures that everyone can be thought to be local. However, the thing that separates Brazilians from foreigners is that locals are always tanned.
The bus drivers are crazy
They speed up to 100km per hour and then quickly stop. You feel like you’re on a roller-coaster.
Text and photos by Bartė Šimaitytė.