My family was a Servas International (a global travel exchange organization with a mission of peace building) member ever since I was 10 years old. Back in India, we use to have people from all over the world visit and stay with us for up to a week at a time. They would bring with them stories of where they lived, what they did and showed me photographs of their lives. This was my first exposure to other cultures as I traveled vicariously through my guests. Perhaps that’s where the interest in international traveling settled within me.

When I was planning to go to Rio de Janeiro, I had been warned of issues of traveling alone there. The city is not the safest place in the world and very few people speak English. I wasn’t about to learn Portuguese at this point, so I decided to make virtual friends with a few locals who I could connect with in Rio. I wrote to members of Servas International. There are a number of Servas hosts in Rio who offer to be day hosts (meaning they meet you for sometime) and night hosts (offer a room at their home for couple of nights) with the sole intention of meeting new people. I sent emails to a few hosts introducing myself and asking for two nights stay and heard back from Yara Silva.

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Yara turned out to be a wonderful lady who was passionate about showing off her beautiful city to me.  She came to meet me on my first evening in Rio and gave me a walking tour of the posh neighborhoods of Ipanema and Leblon.  She pointed out all the places I should eat at and educated me about the different types of restaurants in Rio. We had fresh acai juice at a fruit stand and planned my itinerary laying out the different attractions to see in the next few days.

The following day, Yara and her friend Lucia took me to a Rio+20 expositions at the Copacabana fort. If I had to find my way around the buses on my own, I would have never made it there! I observed as the two ladies showed me how the local transit system worked. Then we went off to eat snacks at a neighborhood restaurant. I let them order typical Brazilian dishes in their local language – bacalao, pastel and feijoda, and introduce me to the local cuisine.

I also spent two nights as an overnight guest at Yara’s home in Barra de Tijuca, a newer suburb of Rio with gated residential skyscrapers and lagoons flowing through. Yara has a beautiful three bedroom condominium with a beautiful view of the hills on one side and swimming pool on the other. The residents say the area is the Miami of Brazil. You can go to pristine beaches, quiet gardens as well as giant supermarkets in Barra de Tijuca.

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My last day in Rio, Yara drove me to the Tijuca Forest. Few people know that this lush green rainforest is only minutes away from the bustling city. It offers acres of thick vegetation where people can hike, bike, camp, or just breathe the fresh clean air. There are also numerous waterfalls and wide variety of flora one can enjoy. Although Yara has been going to the Tijuca Forest since she was a child, she never gets tired of it and looks forward to the opportunity of taking people there.

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The reason I want to share this experience with you is to tell you that my experience of visiting Rio would not had been the same had it not been for my host Yara and her friends. Staying with someone locally, seeing places and talking to the natives makes you understand the culture at a much deeper level.  You get to know about the restaurants where locals eat and visit locations that may be off the beaten path. It gives you some sense of security and comfort that you will not feel otherwise when visiting a different country.

Even if you are not a member of Servas or any other travel exchange programs, try to find contacts (through friends, social media, or your network) that can meet you and be your local guides when you are traveling abroad. It will change your perspective!