My mother told me never to gossip. She told me never to spread rumors and to be wary of believing the ones I hear. I can't say that I have always been a faithful listener to that advice. Although my mom was certainly right. Gossiping does always seem to lead to trouble - hurt feelings, misunderstandings or worse. At the beginning, the advice was in reference to small things. For example, not telling tales about other kids in class.
"William eats paste."
"Well, Susie eats glue sticks."
The damage was generally minimal. Tearful children rushing to the teacher about the seemingly innocent fibs. Things escalated in high school.
"She's a slut."
"Well, he's an alcoholic."
Then the damage was a little greater. Trips to the principal and even school-wide assemblies often followed where we were admonished for our behavior and warned about the potential harm it could cause. As I got older, I saw exactly what my principal and my mother had meant. Neighborhood rumors about cheating husbands and bad mothers. Political rumors about, well, cheating husbands and bad mothers. Friendships and elections were won and lost based on them. But it wasn't until recently that I realized how rumors can even affect an entire country's economy and reputation.
I just got back from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This was the third time I had had plans to go. Each time I prepared for the trip, the reactions I received from friends, family, and even strangers were all the same.
"It's very dangerous there, you know."
"Don't pack anything that you don't want stolen."
"People get kidnapped and killed there. A lot."
The first two times I had planned to travel there, my plans were derailed by scheduling snafus and overpriced plane tickets. But this last time, I actually managed to get all of my ducks lined up. I did a lot of research before this trip. I couldn't wait to see Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Maracana, their incredible soccer stadium. I wanted to drink caipirinha, to dance Samba, and to feel the anticipation of Carnival. And so I left home with no jewelry in my possession, a belt beg with a secret money pocket, and I prayed. Honestly. I prayed. All of the tales I had been told left me wondering if I was taking a horrible risk. And then we arrived.
It was beautiful. It was lush and green and the architecture was amazing. The people were so kind, tolerating my broken Spanish that I used in lieu of Portuguese. And the breadth of things to see and do was almost overwhelming. The City of Samba, the Sambadrome, the Academia da Cachaca. I wanted to see and do everything. And we did.
Rio looked like so many other cities to which I have traveled, with its many neighborhoods ranging from the poorest to the richest. There was fantastic graffiti, beautiful fauna, and, yes, favelas. The shanty towns where electricity is stolen and the law is often useless. The drugs and gangs and poverty there often leads to violence, which sometimes spills out into the city streets. But much of it stays within the favelas themselves. So, just like in any other major city, if you don't belong there, you don't go there.
A friend of mine actually toured one with a guide and said it was like any other poor neighborhood in any other city. It was heart breaking and it was powerful and it was no surprise that it would be unsafe for a lone stranger. Chicago has Cabrini Green. Los Angeles has Compton. New York has the South Bronx. And I have never been to any one of them. People living in favelas have families. They go to work. They don't (thank God) wear scarlet letters. They are part of the city.
I felt as safe in Rio as I have felt in every other major city I have visited from Hong Kong to Manhattan. I danced with handsome Latin men who didn't mind suffering injured toes. I dined in local haunts, where the food was often as surprising as it was delicious. I spent a whole day lying on the beach with a group of locals who it turned out lived in favelas themselves. I shopped in the busy city streets and I was mindful of where I was and watchful of what was going on around me. In other words, I was a smart traveler.
There is crime in Rio and the rate of that crime is too high. But Rio, I believe, is a victim of the rumor mill about which my mother warned me so many years ago. Everyone seems to have a friend of a friend of a friend who had some dreadful experience. But I have yet to meet someone who personally had such an experience. I consider myself lucky to have enjoyed a safe trip to Rio. But I consider myself lucky any time I return home safely from a trip.
The world can be a dangerous place. But when that sense of danger is the result of unnecessary and unsubstantiated gossip which keeps us from enjoying the wonders of world travel, it's inexcusable. I loved Rio. The impossibly grand mountains. The incredibly friendly people. The wide and sandy beaches. The amazing food. The music that dares you not to dance. The frozen Asai topped with fresh bananas and crunchy granola. The fashion. The shopping. All of it.
You should be careful if you go to Rio. But you should be careful when you go anywhere. Making yourself a target with glittery jewels hanging from your ears and a camera swinging from your neck may well bring you trouble. But denying yourself the world because some guy told you that some guy told him that some other guy said that Rio is dangerous, is not a sign of clear thinking. Be careful next time you hear such rumors and tell the gossiper that you actually know someone who went to Rio and had a fabulous time and arrived back home safe and sound. And remember what my mother always says, "If you don't have something nice to say, perhaps you shouldn't say anything at all."