Being solo traveler is tough.
Being a solo traveler who doesn’t speak the language of the country you are traveling in is tougher.
Here’s the tale of my adventures getting to Ilha Grande off the coast of Rio in Brazil. My story has a happy ending, but also had some unsettling moments. Overall, the event highlighted how unique traveling solo in foreign countries can be and how you sometimes have to just follow your gut.
After my week on Floripa I flew to Rio de Janiero for another week of travels through Brazil. Now my travels would be all by myself. This wasn’t unsettling as I had traveled solo before. My extra week involved 3 days on Ilha Grande, an island off the coast with no cars, dirt roads, and incredible beaches, followed by 3 days in Rio de Janeiro.
Getting to Ilha Grande is not the simplest task as all the locations for water taxis, ferries, or schooners to the island are anywhere from 2 to 3 hours from Rio. I wanted to arrive on the island on Sunday the same day I left Florianopolis, so I had arranged a transport from the Rio International airport to Conceição de Jacareí, one of the cities with transport to the island until 6:15 pm. I was pushing it on getting to the island on Sunday as my flight arrived at 2:20 pm, my transfer left at 3:30 pm, and it takes about 2 hours to get to Conceição de Jacareí to catch the 6:15 pm boat to Ilha Grande. The 2 hour journey is only if there is no traffic and traffic around Rio is known to be wretched.
Before the journey began I was most concerned about getting to the boat on time because the transfer company (ilhagrandeadventure.com) expressly warns you in the contract that traffic in Rio can be bad and if you miss the last boat to the island you WILL have to stay in the town and wait till the next morning to head out. They will NOT find a hotel room for you. You are on your own if you miss the last boat to the island. Shit, I was trying to catch the last boat to the island and I have notoriously bad luck with travel (see this misadventure and this one). Ultimately, I took a deep breath and donned my casual, calm traveler hat and just settled into the journey.
Ultimately, I needn’t have worried as everything went completely smoothly getting to the launch point. My driver got me to the dock right on time. I was the only passenger in the transfer van so our journey was direct with just a quick stop for the toilet and snacks en route. We got there so quickly I had time to spare on the other end.
With everything going so smoothly I felt like this was the part of the adventure when things would go awry. I was correct.
I didn’t have a ticket for the boat to the island so the van driver parked outside a travel agency and went in to procure me a one. The driver spoke very little English so our conversation went like this.
Driver: “You, ticket?”
Me: “No. Buy”
A woman then came to the van and looked surprised when I was in it all alone. Some Portuguese was exchanged between her and the driver before she directed her attention to me. She handed me a ticket and map of the island. She then gave me the instructions for how to catch my transport to the island, which were wonky and totally left me feeling unsettled.
- Normally, she informed me, she would go to the dock with me and wait until the boat came. She would then place me on the correct boat. However, that day she was feeling quite tired so she was going home and I was going to get myself on the boat to the island. Hmmm, ok this should be interesting.
- She ASSURED me that it was easy and I would have no trouble.
My Instructions from her:
First, I go to the dock and go to the ‘right’ (she is pointing to the left as she says this). It is very important that I go to the ‘right’ (again pointing left) to catch the boat on that side of the dock because these are the boats to Vila do Abraão, the city on Ilha Grande. I am really confused because she keeps saying “go to the right”, but she is pointing to the left, so I reiterate that I should indeed turn “this way” where I point to the left. She nods vigorously. “Yes to the right”. Ok, I got it. I think. Shit what am I doing?
Next, I wait for a boat like the wooden boat that is currently docked. That is NOT my boat as that is a tourist boat, but my boat will look similar to that one. Wooden. Yes. Ok, I got it.
Then she tells me she doesn’t know the name of the boat that I will take to the island because one of the boats broke over the weekend and so she has no idea the name of the boat that is running at 6:15 pm, the one I am to take to the island. Alright, now I am wishing this woman could hang on through her tiredness for 30 more minutes to get me on the right boat, but I don’t ask this and instead just nod my head that I am confirming what she is telling me.
My final instructions are that the boat comes at 5:45 pm. The captain will yell “Abraão” so I know it is the correct wooden boat. I will hand him my ticket and I will board the vessel. The boat will depart at 6:15 pm taking around 50 minutes to get to the island.
Her parting words because I look so uneasy after her litany of ‘simple’ instructions are “Don’t worry. It is simple. You will have no trouble.” Right, I think.
I make to get out of the van but she says “no, no, the driver will take you there”. I can see the dock from where we are parked, but I dutifully get back in the van and allow him to drive me the 100 yards to the dock. I figure I should keep him around as long as possible before I am left on the dock alone. He parks next to the dock and I open the door of the van. I take a deep breath and look back at him. “Thanks for the ride”, I say to him hoping he’ll wait with me until I get in my boat. Of course, he has to get back to Rio so he just nods and says bye to me. I am now all alone on the edge of Brazil waiting for an unspecified boat to take me to the island. What the eff have I done?
The view is lovely so I take out my camera and snap some pictures as I walk to the end of the dock. As I am walking I realize I am the only gringo on the dock. At the end of the dock I throw my backpack down and sit on top of it to wait until 5:45 pm when my wooden boat is due to arrive. It is about 5:15 now so I’ve got some time.
About 5 minutes later a man in a shirt that kinda looks like a tour shirt approaches me talking quickly in Portuguese. I tell him I don’t understand him. He then asks “Abraão?” I respond that yes I am going to Abraão. He then starts gesturing to another part of the dock that is not where the travel agent woman told me to go. He starts repeating in English “flat boat, flat boat”. I am now really confused, so I respond with “no flat boat, wooden boat”. I gesture to the wooden boat currently docked to reaffirm what I am saying. He keeps going on and on in Portuguese and I can tell he is getting frustrated with me because I don’t understand but I am trying to following the instructions from the travel agent lady.
After a few more iterations of him saying “flat boat” and me saying “wooden boat”, I realize that more guys are showing up, so my inability to understand is now drawing a crowd. Great, I am a freaking zoo animal, the gringo with no language skills. I am still seated on my backpack not ceding anything to this man and his entourage, but I am feeling even more unsettled. I finally take my ticket out of my back pocket to show him the text. I point to the time on the ticket because it is not 5:45 pm yet, the time I am supposed to get into my boat. I am hoping that this will finally lead to a resolution and that we can get away from me being a zoo animal at the end of the dock.
Nope! He takes the ticket out of my hand and keeps saying “flat boat”. Then he says “Camille, yes, yes, Camille” as if that proves that he is in this with her and that everything is alright even though this was not in my very long set of instructions for how to get to Ilha Grande. Also, Camille is written on my effing ticket so he could just be reading it. In reality this proves nothing to me. I remain seated feeling more and more defeated.
All while this is happening the sun is sinking behind the mountains. Dusk is settling over the town and with dusk comes a pressing need to get off the dock and onto the island.
Then he turns around WITH my ticket and begins to walk down the pier away from the location Camille told me to be. Shit. MotherEffingInstructions. Damn it! What do I do?
In that split second I realize I have two choices. One is that I sit on the end of the dock like a stupid gringo as the sun goes down and it gets dark in the tiny town at the edge of the sea OR I follow him to get my damn ticket back.
I do the latter. I hoist my backpack onto my shoulders and follow him and the entourage down the dock.
Shortly, he stops next to a line of people that include a young couple, two dudes, and a family. He yells “Abraão” and everyone in line nods. In that moment I realize he was actually helping me out by putting me on a fast boat (a flat boat) to Ilha Grande with these other people. Oops! I really am a dumb gringo.
I dutifully get in line with the others and in the next minute we are boarding the boat. I have no ticket to hand over when we file on board as the man already confiscated it at the end of the dock during our ‘lost-in-translation’ moment. No worries. There is space for me and within moments we are shooting across the sea under ever more darkening skies headed to Ilha Grande. My misadventure really was just an adventure except for the unsettling language barrier moments.
Some people reading this will probably note that I am not just a solo traveler, but a solo female traveler. When I wrote this story I decided not to focus on being a woman but to instead focus on being alone. I really never felt threatened because I was a woman alone on the dock dealing with a man trying to get me in a random boat. I felt unsettled because I was alone at the end of a dock at the edge of Brazil unable to understand the language.
In the end, I got to the island in half the time, which was great because I could then find my hostel on the island during the waning dusk light instead of under a blanket of dark. The journey in the fast flat boat was pretty great. Thanks tour man for getting in this boat even though I made it super hard for you.
Here is a video I took when we were docking in Vila do Abraão. The funny part was the driver didn’t turn on the music till we were practically at the dock on the island. The rest of the journey we just listened to the motor.