American Tourists

One sad fact about my life, which is made even sadder because I suspect it will never be rectified, is that I never had the opportunity to live in Rio de Janeiro. I’ve been there a number of times, and I even had a project that kept me there for a couple of months, but its not the same. I should add… most people I have known that have gone to Rio will agree with the statement: “It’s the easiest city I know of in the world with which to fall in love.”

That’s not to say that Rio doesn’t have more than its share of problems. Its violent, traffic can be awful, the water is, um, unclean, etc. And of course, the Rio that most non-Cariocas (“Carioca” being what the locals call themselves) will see is a specific Rio, the Rio of the middle class and the wealthy. When I say Rio, my mind thinks of a few neighborhoods, for those who know the city – along the waterline from Gloria to Sao Conrado. For those who don’t the city, that includes Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Of course, there is a lot else, and while I’ve spent time in the North Zone of the city, and I know, intellectually, that its part of Rio, Rio still means only those few neighborhoods to me.

I have seen figures that indicate that (not surprisingly) more tourists in Brazil are from Argentina than from any other nationality, but that Americans consistently come in at number two. However, about 2.5 times as many Europeans as Americans visit Brazil. Now, this is anecdotal (I’m sure data is available, I just don’t have it) but European visitors, on the average, are more adventurous. Go to the middle of nowhere in Brazil, and if you run into a foreign visitor, it’s a German or Danish or Dutch backpacker, or maybe seven of them. Take a boat up the Amazon and you’ll find 12 Europeans and two Americans traveling together.

Americans (who from my limited observation to be almost all white) generally stay near the famous tourist attractions; many Europeans (not the English, who for whatever reason act like Americans) will actually go out and see the country and try the local foods. Asian tourists make Americans look positively Indiana Jones-like; even in a city like Rio, they only venture anywhere in packs (all dressed the same) and travel almost exclusively in tour buses. (I note that this behavior is a fine way to experience robbery Brazilian-style; its more efficient to stop a tour bus full of Japanese tourists and relieve them all of their belongings at once than it is to pickpocket Europeans one at a time.)

So I was wondering… why is it that Americans, rugged individualists that we like to believe we are, are, in general, so timid when it comes to foreign travel? And does it say anything about whether Americans really are rugged individualists?