On Handbags (Unpacking Adventures in Rio)

I haven’t written in a while.
I am sorry.
Forgive me.

(WARNING: Long Read Ahead.)

I learnt a new word recently. I wager I shall be teaching you a new word today as well. Anthropomorphism.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, anthropomorphism is the showing or treating of animals, gods and objects as if they are human in appearance, character or behaviour. In the dictionary, right next to the definition of anthropomorphism, you will find a picture of me, smiling. In the picture, you may also spot Faith, my very first laptop, Frankenstein, who came after Faith, Felicity, who came after Frankenstein and Frodo, my beautiful, sleek screen who sits on my desk at work. I have considered naming my red suitcase which I now take on all my travels and adventures. I feel like we have been through so much together in so many different countries and continents…and that is just the tip of the ice berg. Yeah, I have a compulsion to get attached to inanimate objects. Anthropomorphic tendencies are strong within me.

Hence this post about my handbag.

I know, I know, if you know me you might be wondering if I really meant to write handbag. Or maybe it is only me who thinks it extraordinary that I am at a point in my life where I actually choose a handbag for different occasions. As in, I even have options! As silly as this may seem, having a handbag to me has always seemed such a badge of adulthood, something that always seemed so far away from where I was in life, yet here I am now. A real handbag too, one with more that just one pocket, one a little bigger and more practical than a sling that you use to go to the club, or on a Saturday when going somewhere without your backpack. The Women in Tech will relate, for as long as you are lugging a backpack with your laptop all around town, a handbag is rendered meaningless. Everything else can go into the backpack as well.

The handbag I went with to Rio, now accepting suggestions for her name, is beige, youthful and practical sized. A gift from an aunt of mine. The reason I get attached to several of my more used handbags is because I have found that they become custodians of stories that are at risk of being forgotten, through the discovery, days, weeks, sometimes even months later, of little things you put in various little pockets of the handbag. Little things that bring forth memories of an adventure, an experience, sometimes just a mundane day.

So this is a story about the things I found in my handbag days and weeks after my trip to Brazil. I thought it a creative way to start telling you guys about my adventures in Rio.

First, in one little pocket I discovered a little handkerchief with an embroidery of a posy of flowers.

Here’s the story of the handkerchief…bear in mind I like being heavy on the intros so fix yourself a cuppa coffee or tea, might be a sec before we get to the handkerchief itself.

So I was in Rio attending a Symposium which was ideally ending on Friday at noon-ish. Which it did. There was something scheduled for the afternoon, but only for members of the Network of Centres(NoC), one of the main bodies responsible for organising the Symposium. Knowing I would be free from noon as I am not a member, a couple of individuals and I planned on doing some sight seeing with the afternoon.

Friday came round and then the afternoon session of the Symposium happened to be opened up to the general public, in a bid to get more people aware of what NoC does and how they can be a part of it if they were interested. This was a difficult decision to make, I thought of all the connections I had made and the way in which attending this afternoon meet and finding out how to engage more would strengthen those ties, but in the end I decided to stick to my plan and go sight seeing. YOLO!

So two other guys and I were probably among the few of the bunch who decided to go out into the town, our afternoon plan, to see ‘Christ the Redeemer’. Christ the Redeemer is a statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that was built as a symbol of Brazilian Christianity. In 1850, the idea of building a religious monument was first suggested by a Catholic Priest. It wasn’t until 1920 when a group petitioned for support to build a landmark statue that it became a reality. The design was chosen from several ideas and construction began in the 1920s, taking nine years to finish. Today, Christ the Redeemer is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Blowing off that last session to see a (New) Wonder of the World seemed like a fair trade off to me.

We could have just taken a cab and been there in a jiffy but then I convinced the guys that we should take the more adventurous route, public transport. How else does one get to know a city if not by getting lost and then finding oneself in it again and again? This is probably one of my absolute favourite things about traveling.

Out to figure out the city we went. That morning, a colleague of mine had asked at the hotel for instructions on how to get to our destination so we knew what tram to take, what station to get off at, from where we could hop onto a subway train and be on our way to the monument. What we now needed to figure out was how to load money onto the transport cards we had been given by the organizers. So, Rio is a pretty cashless city from what I gathered. They have NFC cards(Near-Field Communication) to make payments for everything. Similar to the M-pesa 1-tap payments solution that Safaricom is rolling out, tap and go.

These cards they gave us for transport were loaded up with just enough money for our trips to and from the Symposium venue. Not a single cent more or less. :-/ So on the tram on the way to the subway station, we asked the attendant on board how to load money, or at least we tried to.

I say tried because, Brazilians typically do not speak English. At all! Which made me wonder why we as Africans, Kenyans, Nairobians, city dwellers in general, seem to have swallowed this notion that knowledge of this foreign tongue, the white man’s, is absolutely necessary for survival in the new world. Post-colonial colonisation? I do not know. I am however not one to speak as my Kiswahili is not the most ‘native’ sounding. That is however something I intend to actively work on, so perhaps we should pick up this conversation then.

The attendant was really helpful but not helpful at all. One of my colleagues…okay, there were 3 of us. Ciira, also a Kenyan, and Kola, a Nigerian. Kola posed the question to the attendant, ‘How do we load money onto the card?’ He understood that we were enquiring about the card but I reckon that was it because, with all the English that he could muster he very ably explained to us that to access public transport, you just got on board and had to ensure you validated your card before taking a seat and proceeding. So his job was to just randomly make a pass through the tram checking with some device whether the current trip had been paid for. Keeping people honest I guess. All this was very well explained to us using the most abstract and basic English words and despite the fact that he was not telling us anything we did not already know, I was very touched by his concerted efforts to help us as much as he could.

We got off our tram and tried again, asking around trying to figure out how to load money onto our cards and this time found someone who helped us out. Turns out at each tram station, there are ATM-like machines where you can put in cash and load credit onto your card.

We did this and then got down to the subway, always taking out the instructions Ciira had gotten from the hotel reception as though we were treasure hunting and this piece of paper was a map to keep us on course. Navigating the city was quite a pleasant experience, in my opinion. The signage everywhere made it really easy to get around. Why can’t Nairobi be like this? * sobs uncontrollably * We were able to take the correct train, get off at the right station and take the correct exit that brought us right to the place where we could buy tickets to go up to see Christ the Redeemer, which is atop a mountain, Corcovado mountain.

Across the street from this station was a quaint looking church which I wanted to go into, if only to see what churches in Brazil look like. I derive pleasure from just looking at churches in different cities, so I left my colleagues sorting out the tickets and ran across the road, disregarding the traffic lights like a genuine Nairobian would, and ran up the stairs leading up to the little church.

As I got closer to the main entrance, I noticed an old lady on a wheel chair who had previously been somewhat hidden from sight by a pillar. She sat, bent over something that was occupying her attention on her lap. ‘Hola’, I said, as I walked past. Which btw, may not be the best idea ever. Allow me to divert a little to explain why. So I did not get the sense that I stuck out in Rio. By this I mean that, Brazil has the biggest population of black people outside of Africa. Did you know this? I didn’t either. Point is, I could pass for a Brazilian! I really could!
So every time I smiled at someone and said ‘Hola’, in greeting, they would quickly proceed into more conversation in Portuguese, which of course I did not understand. Now, Portuguese is somewhat similar to Spanish. And I had been learning Spanish for a couple of months, so when the Portuguese started coming through, I would always say, in Spanish, ‘Sorry, I don’t speak Portuguese’, and ask if they spoke English. To which they would respond no but quickly follow up with the fact that they could speak and understand Spanish and then proceed to start talking to me in Spanish. Which would lead to me trying to explain that I really could not speak Spanish as functionally as it had initially appeared. Ha ha. Then we were back to square one, unable to find a common language of communication. Such adventures. My little Spanish really came through for us severally that day though.

Okay, back to the lady outside the entrance of the church. I went through much the same with her, saying ‘Hola’, her being excited to engage in conversation in Portuguese, me telling her in Spanish that I did not speak Portuguese and asking if she speaks English. She did! Her English was exceptionally good too, which really shocked me because she looked less affluent that the average Brazilian. So we got to talking, she asked me where I was from, how long I had been in Rio and then proceeded to show me what she was hunched over, working on. She was embroidering little patterns on handkerchiefs on her lap and selling them. She asked me if I would like to buy one, each cost 10 Real. Pretty pricey for a single handkerchief if you ask me, this translates to a little over KES 300. I told her we could talk about it when I was on my way out and proceeded into the church.

I came out and decided, why not. Why not buy that somewhat overpriced handkerchief. So I did. I took out 20 Real, handed the note to the old lady in exchange for the handkerchief and waited for her to give me change. At this point, I noticed Ciira frantically waving at me from across the road, clearly signaling that some urgency was needed. The old lady, I felt, was meanwhile taking her time telling me stories about her Israeli origins and how she had ended up in Rio while looking for change. She could only come up with 8 Real, 2 Real less than what I needed. I was ready to let the balance go but she had this brilliant idea to give me several Euro coins that she had and said she was unlikely to ever get the chance to spend. I thought, why not, and so she continued to rummage through her belongings hitched onto her wheelchair and came up with a white paper bag full of coins. I stuffed both the handkerchief and the bag of coins and hurriedly got back to Kola and Ciira across the road.

The handkerchief remained in my bag until I came home but the bag of coins, that I opened later that evening when I got back to my hotel room. It was filled with Real. Clearly she had given me the wrong bag. I thought about the friendly old lady, wondered how much she would miss these coins when she discovered she still had the Euros she could not spend, wondered if she perhaps came by them begging on a street corner somewhere.
* sobs uncontrollably *


In another little pocket, I found a pack of what I later discovered is chewing gum. Here’s the story…

On my last day in Rio, it rained and rained and rained. In the narrative of my life, this was happening because Rio was sad to see me leave. Raining in Rio. This was however also incredibly annoying and inconveniencing because given that my flight was at 5.30pm I had planned to spend my morning exploring a few tourist haunts as well as checking out the famous Copacabana Beach. Well, those plans fell through so instead I decided to check out a market and see how successfully I could spend the remaining Brazilian money that I had. Now because this day trip was pretty impromptu, I didn’t have enough money on my transport card to go to and fro. This was no big deal though because the day before, Kola, Ciira and I had discovered how to to load money onto the cards. So I happily got together the stuff I would need for the day and headed out, braving the rain because who goes all the way to Rio to spend money on an umbrella, to the tram stop and to the station where I could load money onto my card.

Now here is where things started becoming somewhat frustrating. First, I’m standing in line in the rain. It gets to my turn and I expertly take out my card and successfully navigate all the menus at the load-up-you-transport-card-ATM up to the point where I feed cash into the machine. Then whereas all the menu options had English translations up to this point, a red, scary error message pops onto the screen and it is all in Portuguese. I immediately freak out because there’s a whole line behind me and I have no idea what is going on. Panicked, I look around for the attendants that normally hang around to help and finally spot one as the ATM-like machine is in the process of, thankfully, spitting out my money. So the attendant comes and with the little English he speaks, manages to communicate to me that the error is occurring because the machine does not give change. I am trying to load 10 Real onto my card and feeding into the machine a 20 Real note, which was the absolute smallest denomination money I had.

I turn back to the people behind me in line and ask if any of them has change, two 10s, they either shake their heads or stare back at me blankly, possibly wondering why this girl is in Brazil and trying to speak to them in a foreign tongue. The attendant points me towards a newspaper stand and says….”Change, change”, so I get out of line and run towards the stand, still getting soaked in the rain. At the stand, I flash the 20 and say, ‘Change? Two 10s?’ And whether he has understood or perhaps because he has no idea what I am saying, the guy at the counter just says, ‘No, no.’ Another one seated close by says, ‘McDonald’s. Change.’, while pointing towards a nearby McDonald’s outlet so I conclude he knows what I need and thank him using the one legit Portuguese word I know, ‘Obrigado.’

Back in the rain and then into McDonald’s, I stand in line for about 5 minutes waiting for my turn to get to the cashier and again, no joy. I flash my 20 and ask for 10s and still get ‘Nos’.

At this point, I am ready to give up, so I do. I resolve to either find another station somewhere ahead where I can load up my card or just take a couple of illegal free trips and risk being caught.. Worst case scenario, they catch me and deport me, maybe I even get a shorter more direct trip home than my scheduled return flight. Heh heh!

The directions I got off Google Maps were pretty accurate, I had absolutely no trouble finding the market, and it is upon entering this market that it occurred to me that given the experiences of my morning, having small bills would be beneficial. So going past a mobile kiosk of sorts, I stopped and pointed to the smallest, cheapest thing I could spot and gave the shopkeeper the biggest note in my possession. He sorted me out and I quickly stuffed whatever I bought into a side pocket of my handbag and proceeded to enjoy some minor retail therapy in light and sometimes heavy showers.

Come to think of it, this is probably why I came home with a cold. All that rain!

That, however, is the story of the chewing gum. To be honest, the way the gum was packaged, I thought it would be one of those sweet and chewy sweets. You know, the ones that are very bad for your teeth, they’re my favourite!

At the end of the day, making my way back to my hotel, I did get caught trying to take one of those illegal free rides and was kicked off the tram, but let that be a story for another day. This one is already over 3000 words long.
Heh heh!

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