“Welcome to HELL.”
For the past few months, Rio de Janeiro has been swept up in controversy after controversy as it prepares for the 2016 Summer Olympics. First responders are underpaid and protesting. The Zika virus is spreading at an alarming rate. Premeditated attacks have been stopped. The water is vile and contaminated with human waste. Human body parts are washing ashore on the beach. The actual buildings may not be ready for the 500,000+ tourists coming in.
In less than 24 hours, I’m flying to that same Rio, and I’m scared as hell.
I don’t really know how to go about introducing my #SurvivingRio coverage for SportsChannel8. My name is Brett Thompson, and I’m a rising senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. I’m traveling down to Brazil to cover the Olympics on behalf of UNC’s School of Media and Journalism. I’ll basically be freelancing video and written work for outlets across North Carolina. One of those outlets is my new home at SportsChannel8.
I do feel like I need to address how pretentious this journal/blog/whatever you want to call it may come across. I’ve always disliked the idea of writing about your personal experience somewhere and expecting people to care about it. The goal of this trip is to cover other people’s stories, yet here I am documenting mine, and I’m aware of how self-centered that may appear.
I’m also very aware of the fact that I am not special; I’m one of 29 other students the J-School is sending out to Rio, and we make up just a small fraction of the media coming in from across the world to cover the Games. I’m not some big-name national personality with a recognizable face. In fact, unless I have my giant camera on me, I’m just another American tourist in Rio for the month.
This post was going to be about my probably overblown fear of whatever may take place over the next 24 days in Brazil. About the uncertainty surrounding the Games, how the farthest I’ve traveled outside of North Carolina was New York City for three days. About the moment I had this morning, sitting around a coffee table with my absolute best friends who had traveled from my hometown of Lincolnton, NC to celebrate my birthday. About looking around the room and seeing faces I grew up with, recapping the previous night’s shenanigans, laughing, smiling, and suddenly realizing: I’m about to leave all of this behind.
Then I got two calls within the span of one hour. The first was from my sister, Tricia, who had taken a break from work to check on me. The second, while I was writing the original post, came from my grandmother, who I (and most of my Twitter followers) affectionately call Grammy.
Tricia knew that I was pretty much freaking out on the inside. I’ve been downplaying the trip with family and friends, joking about how the J-School could have saved money by buying me a one-way ticket and that they should bury me in my Harambe t-shirt when I get shipped back to the States. It’s easier to laugh about these things than it is to fret until the moment is staring you right in the face. But Tricia was one of the few people I could honestly tell I was scared, because she had been there before.
In August 2011, Tricia flew out to Nairobi, Kenya to work for Young Adult Volunteers, a Christian organization that sends young adults across the world to do mission work. Her trip lasted a year, and along the way came some heavy personal adversity. She told me about her experience, and how when she left the United States, she didn’t know what it would look like when her flight landed. How she didn’t know what the place she stayed at would be like, and how fortunate I am to have some amazing friends coming with me, because she knew nobody.
That call eased my nerves. It reminded me that this kind of travel is something millions of people experience at least once, if not on a frequent basis.
Then, Grammy called.
“You know the Lord is watching you and we’re all thinking about you.”
“Think about the good times you’ll have.”
“I can’t wait to hear your stories when you get back.”
The next one especially hits home, because Grammy’s story is so awesome. She didn’t have the easiest time raising my mom and uncle. Her husband left her with both of them, and she worked two factory jobs to support them. I can’t imagine that kind of strength and the courage and the sacrifice she made. She wanted to spoil her two children, and worked her ass off to make it reality. What’s crazier is that she never acknowledges it. She’s never outright brought it up with me. She’ll tell you about giving my mother a quarter to get a Coke, or buying my uncle a toy he wanted, but she’ll never tell you how hard she worked for those luxuries.
“I’ve been through some pretty rough times myself, but I got through it with prayer.”
And then, in classic Grammy fashion, she made sure to make a final request:
“If you see any of my favorite ball players (AKA: former Tar Heels), tell them I’m cheering them on.”
These two strong, beautiful, completely badass women completely changed my perception of this journey in the span of about 40 minutes.
I was so damn scared. And sad. And nervous.
Then Tricia called, and I felt confident. Then Grammy called, and I felt loved.
#PeopleForgetThat love is a powerful thing, especially in 2016, where headlines are cluttered with shootings, institutional racism, bigoted politicians and anything in between. It’s emotionally draining to see it all unfold, especially when social media has put us directly in these settings as if we were actually there.
To hear from those two, unannounced, when I needed anybody to fix my mindset? It meant the entire world to me. It outweighed any potential tragedy or negative event that had clouded my mind in the place of what should be a life-defining adventure. That’s the power of love working, and that’s why I implore anyone who reads this to call somebody they love, a friend, a sibling, a parent, a spouse, anybody, and remind them what they mean to you.
Not every #SurvivingRio post will be this preachy or serious, and this might even be the only one remotely like this. I’m sure I’ll look back on it in a year and cringe at how cheesy and ridiculous this was.
In less than 24 hours, I’m flying to Rio, and I’m still scared as hell. But I’m loved, too, and that’s enough to motivate me to pack this suitcase in front of me and embark on the journey of a lifetime.