Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Daniel Martindale

Dusk fell swiftly. Rio’s short December days  captured tourists unaware in their web. Wandering alone down the unfamiliar road, heart pounding, wondering, worrying, quietly praying. Suddenly consumed by vulnerability. Only daring to hope of a safe arrival back at my hotel. Hope was my best option but far from guaranteed. 

The planes arrival in Rio the previous day had been unspectacular. Only the dense London traffic around Park Lane had prevented me catching the earlier flight. Simply relieved to have finally landed into the Rio night before jumping a taxi to the hotel. The driver had looked quizzical, muttering unknown phrases. Speaking no English he had feverishly grasped my scribbled note into his knarled hand. It read Hotel Florida. He gestured, prodding the paper several times, repeating the hotel name again and again. Hotel Florida, Hotel Florida.

Having woven our way through the city’s samba beat and bright lights heading for the hotel, the hoped for oasis of tranquillity never materialised. Having missed the earlier flight, the Hotel Florida had been the only remaining option. Situated only minutes from Copacobana beach, yet glitz and glamour weren’t part of the façade. A dozen or more night owls were sat on the hotel steps, some drunk, some homeless, some hookers with their customers.   

Knowing only a single word of Portuguese the whole room booking process had been completed with arm waving and meaningless gestures. Only the word VISA on the credit card seemed to cross the international language barrier. Making ones way up the narrow stairs was tortuous. In this hotel you carried your own luggage, luxuries weren’t even on the options list.

Entering the room and turning to switch on the light, a flash swept briefly through the darkness. The blown bulb left me moving hesitantly across the room searching for another light source. The bedside lamp came to the rescue, casting a dim glow that signalled the arrival of several moths. This room was basic. Thinking they’d entered through the open window, only to realise there was no glass in the window. Turning to lock the bedroom door but finding no lock, so jamming my heavy case across its base. This wasn’t the Rio of travel brochure fame.

Lying awake from the noisy exploits of the other rooms occupants, planning my first trip for the following day. Being a keen gardener the Botanical Gardens sprang to mind as the ideal first trip. With distant views of Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer it also promised interesting holiday snaps

Having hardly slept I’d woken early and made my way to the bathroom. The taps creaked into life, spitting wildly before finally spilling their contents into the filthy basin. Mildly refreshed from grabbing a quick breakfast before heading off for the taxi rank. The taxi driver treated his first customer of the day cheerfully. Pointing at my pristine tourist map, with the Botanical Gardens marked with a big red cross, to ensure there were no misunderstandings as to my destination. With no conversation to break the silence we sped through the city. Busy commuters and shopping malls passed in a blur. After what seemed like an age the taxi pulled over on a quite road. The driver gestured towards a large gate indicating the entrance. With no sign to indicate otherwise it was as well the driver knew the area well.Thanking the driver with a small tip then wandering off into the wooded area.

The distant views of Christ the Redeemer had first caught my attention. Although the camera was basic I tried valiantly to photograph the famous statue in a new way. Continuing to walk and snapping all manner of vegetation, seeking out interesting holiday images wherever they lay. Finally stopping to eat and quickly devouring my small packed meal, which had been prepared by the hotel’s kindly breakfast waitress that morning. She must have thought it necessary, my slim Caucasian frame obviously in need of a good meal. Rising to continue taking pictures, the cameras meter indicated that a faster film speed was needed. Only then did it dawn on me that in my enthusiasm to see the gardens the day had passed quickly.

Racing for the exit, the light was fading rapidly, shadows replacing brightness. In my eagerness no plans had been made for the journey back to the hotel. Miles from anywhere, no person in sight. My heart started pounding. How exactly was I going to get back to my hotel ?. Starting to panic and running back in the direction that the taxi had brought me. Still no people in sight, no cars, just trees and eerie silence. My panic hightened. In my enthusiasm to tip the taxi driver, I’d given him every last bit of money in my wallet. Thud, thud, thud, my heart pounded and pounded. Thirty five minutes since leaving the Botanical Gardens and no sign of anybody or anything. Darkness fell deeper and visions of a night walking scared and alone flashed across my mind. Stopping and sleeping under the stars till morning was an option but I chose to walk.

My feet dragged heavily, sweat soaked my shirt, now dazed and scared. Eighty minutes had passed but it felt like a lifetime. The gold frame of my glasses glinted. Looking up expecting to see the peaceful moonlight a halo of light bathed my eyes. A voice pierced the darkness. Though not recognising a single word I’d instantly recognised the same battered taxi and felt blessed.

The driver instinctively stopped and beckoned me back into his cab. My heart fell silent. The warmth of the cab a welcome respite from trudging the lonely street. I was safe. Safely on my way back to Hotel Florida. It may have been a dreadful hotel but in my mind it was now a palace of dreams. Very sweet dreams !