Get To Know Rio de Janeiro Guide Emel Mangel

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Rio de Janeiro guide Emel Mangel can show you the sights and art of the great Brazilian city, as well as how to go to the beach like a local (don’t take a towel!). Growing up in Germany, Emel followed her passion to Rio, becoming a licensed guide in 2013, and tries to show clients what it’s really like to live in the city, its artistic side, and where to buy the best pineapple juice.
How did you get into your field?

The background situation was that when I had my Masters in Cultural Studies in my pocket, I felt the urge to flee my desk and just be outside every day. I didn’t feel like Germany was the place to meet that need and as I had already published an entertaining book about Brazil (about how to behave absolutely wrong and gringo-style), so I considered moving to Rio to pursue a more adventurous career.

Two trigger situations happened that made this idea become more concrete. The first was when I went for a road trip in California in an old-fashioned VW bus. I thought: I want this car and I want to take other people around. The second situation came to me back at home in the library: I borrowed a bunch of books about art from Brazil and thought, ‘I bet nobody shows this fantastic side of Brazil and, especially, Rio de Janeiro as the center of many art movements.’

I am still saving up to buy a VW van, so for now I hire drivers with a car/van according to the size of the group.

How did you make the transition to becoming a tour guide?

I sold my stuff, packed my bags, took an apartment in Rio and signed up for a course to become a licenced tour guide.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I get up early, make my way through the chaotic traffic and arrive at a hotel to greet new faces ready to be enchanted by this marvellous city. Most are day-tours to either Sugar Loaf or Corcovado plus other sights. During the high season, I also offer walking tours that are not private. We meet at Favela Vidigal or the Port Zone in order to get to know these two socially and artistically exciting places. At the end of the day, I almost always go home with the impression that I have made new friends – what better job could there be?!

Have you got a certain style of guiding, or do you just run with it on the day?

It’s hard to judge one’s own style – but I guess my specialty is my personal approach. I don’t mind talking about my own experiences and I like to get to know more about my clients. I try to keep in mind: what do I want to know when I am in a different city? I want to know what it’s really like to live there: the little twists advanced Cariocas (Rio residents) know, where to get the best pineapple juice, what kind of people like which neighbourhood, what a favela is, how to behave at the beach and so forth.

What is the best part of your job?

To see Rio’s incredible landscape every day and to talk to people from all around the world and keep learning constantly. To try to fill the responsible role of being the one who explains this place of dreams and clichés of extreme gang violence and half-naked easy women to visitors, and to work against prejudice - I try to explain how much of this is a truth in Rio and how much is media exaggeration. To sometimes have clients who trust me so much to say, “You decide where we are going today!” To see how people become enchanted by the beauty of the city.

What’s the most bizarre experience you’ve had on a tour or trip?

On top of the trendy Favela Vidigal, a client and I were having a coffee when we suddenly saw a guy who looked like David Beckham. At some point, my client, who was wearing a soccer t-shirt, said, “He’s also got the same tattoos as David Beckham!” And actually, he was surrounded by a translator and camera team. And he was wearing a bra under his shirt! We thought maybe he had been on some charity photoshoot for women’s rights or just that it was David Beckham not taking himself too seriously? Then, the scene got even funnier: A woman saw him from afar and started to run in his direction shouting “Boris Beckham!”

Every job has its ups and downs. Are there any aspects of your job that you don’t like or aren’t that keen on?

There are those 40°C days in summer vacation time, the heat, the endless lines…On those days, honestly, I would rather take you to a waterfall in the forest instead of Christ the Redeemer or Sugar Loaf, but somehow, nobody books that.

As an experienced guide yourself, can you explain what the benefits of hiring a guide are?

At the traditional sights, we skip a lot of lines. In general, we save a lot of your precious vacation time thanks to our knowledge of how to get around. Furthermore, a guide gives you the caption to the picture you are taking. And, if you book a special interest tour on arts, ecology or a far out place, you can dig deep into local culture so easily without having to go with a book in front of your nose or study for half a year before your trip. Since I became a tour guide, I also take a tour guide wherever I go on a trip.

Tell us something about your location or activity that only a guide would know.

When you go to the beach in Rio, take neither a book nor a towel. Only gringos do that. Brazilians go to the beach to talk to others and they like to dry their skin in the sun. Beaching is a performance, Cariocas are very aware of the gazes and they want to look good.

What about the art of Rio gets you excited?

What excites me is a certain lightness that occurs even in socially engaged art. A great example is Helio Oiticica, who invited people to dance barefoot in the sand in huge dresses and encouraged them to discover new aspects of themselves in this dance. Performance and experience have been the focus of Brazilian art since the 1950s – I think this is knowledge worth spreading and lots of Brazilian artists deserve so much more international credit than they were getting until recently.

In your view, what makes a good tour guide?

To be honest and open, likeable, to make decisions with the client’s interest in mind and not commissions or other personal advantages. And to combine knowledge about a place with organizational and improvisational skills.

Have you got any tips for people who are interested in booking a guide like yourself, but aren’t too sure what to look for?

Look for somebody who does not have the same tours as everybody else. It is very probable that this guide puts his or her heart into his or her work.

If you liked this, you might also like Explore Brazil and Experience Favela Vidigal.

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