Brazil 2014: backpacking through the WorldCup

Mexico, as most countries in Latin America, is well known for its soccer crazed population. People here, specially men, choose a team and they are loyal to it until the day they die. Mexicans cry, laugh and root for their teams as if their victories were the single most important achievement of life. People sacrifice plans and social gatherings just to watch their favourite teams play. Some of the worst fights I’ve seen are caused by rivalry between different national teams and claiming your favourite soccer club out loud to a group of strangers can either get you a bunch of new friends or a couple of life-long enemies. That’s how strong is the Mexican love for fútbol.

Even so, I was raised in a household free of all this typical soccer enthusiasm. My brother has always been very sporty, but he never really got into soccer and all the fanaticism that surrounds it. He is actually a rock climber and has the most pacific personality that usually accompanies this specific outdoorsy activity. He has never understood the obsession that most guys here get over their soccer teams and he has always preferred to stay out of any type of conflict created because of two colliding teams. My dad, on the other side, does get a strong type of sport hype, but this one comes directly from a game that is not even played much in Mexico. He loves football, American football.

The only real influence I ever got to even pick a soccer Mexican team that I could say I somehow preferred comes from my grandpa on my father’s side. He loves Chivas, the second most famous and important team in Mexico, and he actually watches the games and gets excited for them. I love my grandpa, and watching him get excited every time they played convinced me completely to grant him my soccer support, so whenever either my dad, brother, or I get asked the very important question of who do we root for we always say Chivas.

If there ever is a sport playing in the TV of my household is American football. I believe none of the members of my family would have ever even watched a whole soccer game if it weren’t for the WorldCup. All of the soccer alienation in my home completely cancels for the WorldCup. The beautiful WorldCup.

Ever since I can remember, my less than soccer loving family has woken up at ungodly hours of the night whenever needed, to watch Mexico play in the World Cup. The fact that my first World Championships were in live-time of countries like France and South Korea meant that we had to be available at times when no one should even be awake. This, in the mind of a 6 and later 10-year-old, created a really big impression, so I have the most vivid memories of watching and actually loving every World Cup game Mexico ever played. This is where I finally started to understand all the enthusiasm that surrounded the sport. I was fascinated by the illusion that the whole world got together to root for their teams. I guess all the marketing and the fact that everything from songs on the radio to toys in my cereal celebrated the event helped to create an even bigger fan in me.

As I grew up, I only got more and more surprised and amazed by this whole event. I know a lot of people are sceptic about it, but in my head, anything that got the world together for something as pure and passionate as a sport was worthy of my love. This worship only got multiplied when I got to experience a World Cup with people from all over the world.

When I travelled to Australia in 2010, for my first academic exchange experience, the South Africa 2010 Worlcup happened. By the time it started, around July, I was already more than happy in my new environment and I had so many new friends from different nationalities (mostly Brazilian and German) that the World Cup experience was now better than ever. I got to root not only for Mexico, but for every other country my best friends were from with almost the same amount of enthusiasm, which was even more amazing. In past World Cups I mainly only watched the Mexican games, and we never really got that far, so this time, having other favourite teams like Brazil and Germany was like getting even closer to the win. By the time the World Cup was over I was already back home, and I remember that I was the last member of my family who was still watching almost every game in remembrance of all the friends I loved and missed so much. It was around this time that I decided to make going to a World Cup a bucket list item of mine.

Four years later, when I decided to do my second exchange to Chile, I always had the World Cup in the back of my mind. I knew there was a strong possibility for me to actually make it to Brazil but I was also aware of the fact that there was a really big chance I might not get there either, and that was okay too. Weeks passed and either fate or destiny or the universe, call it whatever you like, arranged itself for me to be able to travel to Brazil for around 12 days with my two Mexican best friends.

Long story short, towards the end of April, just as I was starting to loose hope that I might actually travel to the World Cup, one of my Mexican guy friends who was really into soccer and without whom I would have never made this dream of mine come true, found crazy cheap flights to Brazil. It didn’t take longer than an hour to get me convinced and talk to my parents, and we bought the tickets. We didn’t have absolutely anything else figured out, only the dates and the tickets, and I felt happier than ever. We were completely aware that Brazil, and specially Rio (where our flight landed), in those dates would be the most expensive place on earth. Probably all of the hotels and hostels would have been booked by then and we didn’t even care. We were willing to sleep in street benches if it was necessary. We believed we still had enough time to plan everything.

Throughout the next weeks we were able to buy the local plane tickets, create a route and decide the cities we were going to visit. *Unfortunately, Mexico lost its last match a day before we were supposed to leave (the really hurtful, and legendary #NOERAPENAL game against The Netherlands), so we were not able to follow them, or get to see them play*. The cities we decided to visit were Rio, Brasilia and Sao Paulo, and once we had the dates and everything kind of figured out we started looking for cheap, or any available, accommodations.

The trickiest part was figuring out where we were going to sleep in Rio, because even the cheapest hostels were around 50-80 USD per night, which was way over our budget. It was through couchsurfing that I found a guy that was offering a camping site for 40 reales per night per person (around 10-12 USD) so we decided to book that because it happened to be our last resort. We bought a pretty inexpensive tent and didn’t even bother to buy sleeping bags because we figured it’d be too hot and we could just use some blankets as a sort of mattress.

Finding accommodation in Brasilia and Sao Paulo turned out to be way easier. I contacted around 50 people (seriously) through couchsurfing as well, and managed to find some hosts for the three of us during our stay in each of those cities. We had everything ready and figured out a couple of days before our trip and I was beyond excited about it.

The first city we arrived to was Rio, and it was as amazing as I remembered it. The last time I was there I wasn’t able to see Christ the Redeemer (the Corcovado) from up close because of the cloudy weather and I was really bummed about it. I remember my mom telling me that you always had to leave something unresolved, a reason to go back, to the cities you loved that forced you to return. When I looked at Christ the Redeemer from up close I remembered her words and felt such a rush of emotion because it was true, in the end I was able to look at it up close and it was even more meaningful to me. I felt happier than ever.

It turned out that our camping site was around 1 hour away form the main beaches, still, we were able to visit most of the main touristic spots of the city, and some more random ones (like a museum of the history of Brazilian paediatrics, for real). After Rio we went to Brasilia, by plane, and we actually ended up cancelling our couchsurfing host and staying with a friend of mine, who I’d met in my first exchange in Australia. It turned out that, even though he was studying/working in a different city, he was going to be spending some days at his house, back in Brasilia, and he was nice enough host me and my friends.

We arrived to Brasilia and my friend went to pick us up at the airport. What was so special about this city, besides the fact that I felt so happy to see my friend again after so many years, was that from that moment on we stopped being tourists and became locals. We felt so welcomed by my friend and his family, everyone was so friendly and extremely nice to us that we felt right at home. The days we spent there were some of the most amazing ones.

We got to attend a really local and really massive Brazilian college party, we ate a bunch of delicious food, we were driven and shown around the city by locals; everything was oh so amazing. Along with all the eating and partying we did we also got to rest and relax so much during these days, we stopped worrying about the usual backpackers’ stuff. As if all these things weren’t enough, it turned out that one of Brazil’s matches was being played during our stay in Brasilia (against Colombia) so we actually got to be part of a true Brazilian World Cup local’s party. My friend had a sort of massive patio where all of his friends and family were invited to watch the game. Everyone brought food, music, and the best vibes and light-heartedness that Brazilians are well known to have. We cheered, sang and had the best time with them. Of course Brazil won.

We left Brasilia reluctantly and flew directly to Sao Paulo… which brought us back to the backpacking reality. We arrived to this huge city and looked for our couchsurfing host’s address. It turned out he wasn’t actually home at that time but he had left his apartment keys at the reception for us, which seemed so strange. We couldn’t believe someone would trust three strangers so much as to actually leave them the keys to his home right there, without haven’t ever met us before, but we went right in and decided to rest for awhile since there was no one else around. Our host, Dennis, turned out to be truly one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. He actually had a two-bedroom apartment, with bunk beds in each one so he hosted as many couchsurfers as he could, all the time. He was really so nice and selfless, he didn’t ask for anything in return from any of the couchsurfers and he actually sometimes slept in the living room or in a friend’s house himself in order to be able to host more people, he was amazing.

Unfortunately, Dennis wasn’t around a lot to be able to show us or let us know any of the touristic spots, he was very busy with work so we barely even saw him. We made our way as usual tourists, searching online for the main places to visit and walking around as much as we could. We found that Sao Paulo was actually very similar to Mexico City, or any big city in Latin America really. Huge crowded streets, lots of pollution and traffic and a bunch of interesting museums, churches and open spaces to visit. We went around the city as much as we could and we enjoyed it, but it definitely turned out to be our least favourite city between the three we got to visit. The fact that we got some rainy days and that we were actually starting to get tired of all the traveling I think also had a sort of negative impact on our stay in Sao Paulo. Furthermore, it was during those days that the infamous 1-7 Brazil vs Germany game was played, so it was safe to say there was a gloomy (to say the least) atmosphere in the city.

After around 3 or 4 days in Sao Paulo we travelled back to Rio, this time in an overnight bus (surrounded mostly by Argentinians), and we got back to the city for my last couple of days. This time we got to the experience the city in a completely different way because we were actually hosted by a friend’s family again. This time we arrived to the house of one of my Mexican friend’s classmates back in Santiago. It was so random and so nice of her but this also goes to show just how nice Brazilians are. She wasn’t even home yet, as she was also still doing her exchange in Santiago, but she asked her family to host us while we were there and they agreed. I felt so embarrassed to arrive at her house, it was so beautiful and she lived practically by the beach so we had an awesome location. Those last couple of days we just walked around by the seaside streets. We took it pretty chill because we also got some rainy days, so we couldn’t really do much, and we had already seen most of the main spots.

After two days it was finally time for me to go back to Santiago, and this turned out to be a whole ordeal. I barely made it in time for my flight because of the crazy traffic in Rio. It took me almost three hours to get to the airport, I arrived last minute only to find out my flight had actually been delayed and then cancelled. They sent me in a flight to Sao Paulo, and after getting there they sent me by bus to another airport (there’s two in SP) and there they finally put me in a plane to Santiago. I got to Chile around 5 or 6 in the morning, when I was supposed to get there the night before, at 11pm, but when I finally got home I was just glad to be back.

Traveling to the World Cup was definitely a dream come true, even if I didn’t get to go to any of the live matches. Watching the games in the fan fests, with the locals as well as with so many other people of different nationalities was more than enough for me. In the end, this trip didn’t end up to be just about the World Cup, it meant being able to travel with two of my best friends in a country that I so much adored. We had so much fun and got to experience a million different and random things that we’ll always remember. Brazil brought us so much closer together, it welcomed us and showed us the warmness of its people and the beauty of its cities. 2014’s World Cup is now so much more than just a check mark on this travel bucket list of mine.