12th Mar 2012 12:40am | By Editor
Chasing Bohemia in the streets of Rio de Janeiro amongst hustlers and drug lords, well-travelled Carmen Michael finally found her home.
Before she was an author, Carmen Michael was an executive in the travel industry. But one day she felt so fed up with being stuck in her London office that she booked a one-way flight to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A planned three-month holiday turned into a year of what she calls "living recklessly" with the locals. And the result is her first book - Chasing Bohemia - a rollicking good read, full of characters and the colourful culture in Rio. TNT caught up with her over the phone... Are you still living in Rio de Janeiro? Yes, I'm out here in Australia for a couple of months basically just to launch the book and sort out visas. My general visa crisis! Yeah, you kind of over-stayed your welcome... Are you legal now? In Brazil? No! I go there every year on a tourist visa and they just let me stay. They're pretty laid-back - it's not like Australia. They let you stay for six months, but then you can extend your stay if you pay a daily rate, which you know, they choose. Or they choose not to charge you. How did you manage to get under the skin of Rio? I certainly don't go on the normal track. I never hang around the typical tourist restaurants or places. I always try to find a local connection when I travel. You have to surround yourself with interesting people. You have to trust people. You've got to be open to the people of the country. Sometimes you do get ripped off. So what! You lose like 20 or 100 dollars. Get over it! What's your advice to travellers who do not follow guidebooks? You have to define your own experiences; I think it's important not to have them defined by other people. Travel is very much a reflection of what you do in life and I think it's really important to not do mass-produced stuff. Because I've been working in the travel industry for so long, and really on the edge of it, like doing destination development for STA and stuff, and I just got bored of travel and the mindset people get into. You can travel around the world and have exactly the same experience as someone else. It's important to get off that and do something random. I was a bit nervous reading your book - you went to some very dangerous places, yet you seemed pretty unaffected by it... I guess I did go through Rio in a surreal bubble. I felt I was in a film and was just watching things go on around me - and that's very much being a detached traveller. But then you have experiences that jolt you into engaging. I've got a story that's not in the book. It was one day when I wanted to go up to a favela called ProvidÃªncia, the oldest favela in Rio. I went there with my friend Chiara, and the representatives of the community told us there had been some fighting, police had been up there, and there had been an exchange of gunfire, but it had "just finished". As we were winding our way up to the top through the shacks, it got quieter and emptier. There were murals on the walls of Osama bin Laden - which of course is merely a rebellion against all social structures which a lot of the favelas have - and suddenly a guy came across our path and started screaming. This absolutely freaked us out! Were you afraid? Well, as we were going back down, we met two middle-aged women telling us to come up with them. We got to the top and we were totally overcome by the amazing view, and turned around, but they had disappearing down the lane. Then the situation hit us... We had just walked into what is called 'boca de fumo' which is the middle of the drug dealing operation. There were about hundred heavily armed men staring right at us, and I remember just thinking we needed to make some sort of connection. I looked one guy in the eye and said "hello". I just got "What the hell are you doing here?" At this time I'd been in Rio for eight months and I'd started testing boundaries that shouldn't be tested. So are you still chasing bohemia? No, I actually found it in the chaos of RIo. I think sometimes you need chaos for inspiration. What would you do if you only had 24 hours in Rio? Rio is an aerial city, and you'll have to see her from the top, and I'd say from Chinese Vista. You have to spend a night in crazy Lapa. And I reckon old Rio because that's where people really live. You'll have to go to Copacabana obviously. The beaches are awesome too. It's so full of life. Chasing Bohemia: A Year of Living Recklessly in Rio de Janeiro is out now in bookshops.