How I Accidentally Became A Celebrity Gringo In Brazil

Gringo is not an insult in Brazil. Seriously.

11/08/2016 1:43 AM AEST | Updated 18/08/2016 5:05 AM AEST
Ant Sharwood
Ant and Brazil are having a bit of a love affair.

Well, that was unexpected. I woke up the other morning and it seemed like half of Brazil was talking about me. How did THAT happen?

Covering the Rio 2016 Olympics was never about me. It was about 400 incredible Australian athletes, 11,000 international athletes and one fantastic city called Rio de Janeiro.

My job was to add a generous salt and pepper sprinkling of passion, excitement, colour and context to all of that -- which I hope I've been doing, and which I plan to keep doing for another week.

But a funny thing happened on about my fourth day in the country. I was covering the archery, where Australia won its first medal on the first day of the Games at the Sambódromo, the fabulous outdoors arena which is home to Rio's annual carnival.

After I'd written my story, I walked to the bus stop through a narrow alleyway on the side of the stadium. It's exactly the sort of neighbourhood all Australian journalists had been warned to avoid before coming to Rio.

But I was excited. This looked and smelled like the real Rio. Not the beautiful-but-sterile Rio of the sparkling Olympic Park precinct, and not the spectacular-but-over-photographed Rio of Copacabana and Christ the Redeemer, but the real Rio. The real Brazil. People in a real street living real lives.

Naturally, I stopped for a beer. Hey, journalism is thirsty work, you know. I learned a tiny bit of Brazilian Portuguese before coming here, so I was able to sit and enjoy the evening with some Cariocas, as Rio locals are known. I took a photo, which I tweeted.

It was such a simple picture. It was blurry and had bad lighting but it clearly struck a chord. A few people retweeted it. Then a few more. Then it seemed like half of Rio was sharing this photo and some others I took in the area, like the one in the bar where people were dancing.

As you can see, these images (and several more) have now been liked and retweeted hundreds, even thousands, of times. Then came the news stories. There was a blog on a popular Brazilian website, whose headline translates as "The Journalist Most Enjoying The Rio Olympics". And there was this one, which also celebrated the constant fun I was having in Rio.

Never mind the 43 Olympics stories and counting I've filed out of Rio to date. According to Brazilians, I was spending the entire Olympics wandering around Rio taking happy snaps and having a good time.

Brazilians started tracking me down on social media. Most of them called me a "gringo". In much of Latin America, this word is an insult. Here, it's a generic term for foreigners of any race or skin colour, and can even be a term of endearment.

"It's not an insult at all!" a spokesperson from responded to my inquiry about the word. "You know that Brazilians love a funny thing and that's what gringo is about. Is a silly way to call people from another countries."

Even Brazil's official ministry of tourism extended a personal welcome.

But why? Why have Brazilians responded so positively to a few amateurish phone cam images of their streets and people?

Because Brazilians want to be loved. They also want to be respected, and want the world to stop disparaging them.

There are always negative stories before any Olympics, but there were more than usual this time around. The foreign press had plenty to work with, from a dysfunctional national government to dead fish in the rowing lagoon, to corruption in the Rio police force and other cops who weren't being paid at all.

Some of the criticism was hypocrisy. America, the nation that brought you an Olympic Games in Los Angeles, wrote of Rio air pollution. England, the country that brought you the River Thames, focused on body parts in the water at Copacabana.

But much of the negative coverage was fair enough, and this stung Brazilians. Through the lens of a huge messy metropolis (and what city anywhere in the world is not that?), they found themselves portrayed as second glass global citizens. Brazilians hate to feel that. Who doesn't?

"Australia is Brazil that works," wrote one Brazilian to me on Twitter. Of all the comments I received, that's the one that really stuck in my head.

I think he meant that our people share the same friendly, convivial spirit, but that the institutions that govern Australia are more functional than Brazil's. That's probably down to good luck as much as good management, but whatever the case, it doesn't make us better than them.

The thing about Rio (and I imagine, the rest of Brazil) is this. It is very difficult to present a facade here. Behind the most beautiful beaches rise slums. Australia is different. There is no favela behind the Sydney Opera House. The problems of our country are out of sight and out of mind for tourists.

But that doesn't make us better as individuals or as a collective people. Even in Rio's shabby neighbourhoods, there is life, love, laughter and warmth towards strangers. That's what Brazilians want the world to know about them. And I guess that's what I've conveyed in the images I've shared on social media.

In short, this gringo has judged Brazilians on who they are rather than what's wrong with their country. And at the risk of sounding corny, who they are is wonderful.

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