False Shutter

(An excerpt from some journal entries in Spain. 4/5/2006)

They asked me to take their photo.

I don’t know why.
They are complete strangers on the street.

The first words they said to me:
<<¡Un Foto!>>
They would never see it.

Why do they want me to have a record

of them

of their stupidity

of their drunkenness

of their narcissism?

Why waste my film, my time, my money for them?

But I pointed the camera, adjusted the lens, pressed my finger on the shutter release.

<<OK>> I tell them, and smile.

Except it’s a lie, I never released the shutter

released the mirror
revealed the film

They were doubtful.

<<No hay flash>> I explain to them. That was true.

And they went off satisfied with my lie.

And I am OK with that.

Except that now I don’t remember how they look.

Sabbatical 2012 [Days 25-27] Recife. The Pretty. Bon Voyage

I’m writing this nearly a month from the first day we arrived in Recife. It turns out that re-adjusting to life in the States is not only time consuming, but welcomes my attention more than reflecting on the trip.

After dropping off our rental car (about a 45 minute procedure) we grabbed a cab to our hotel in Boa Viagem. If you couldn’t decipher from its similarity, it means “Good Journey” or, as we say in English, “Bon Voyage”. Since this was our port of departure from South America to the United States, a place named the equivalent of Bon Voyage seemed pretty suitable.

The irony is that any voyage within Boa Viagem was actually a terrible voyage due to the ridiculous amount of traffic on the surface streets. Roads were jam packed with cars that couldn’t make it through intersections. The culprit seemed to be a combination of construction, poor traffic light timing, and poor urban planning. The cab ride to our hotel which is nearly walking distance to the airport took almost 30 minutes. Absurd.

We arrived at Hotel Aconchego, found out that they didn’t really offer internet in the rooms. No matter, we could use the public wifi in the lobby area which seemed to be served by a 33.6kbps modem, shared by all of the guests.

The staff was incredibly helpful and friendly. One guy even offered to help me out with my cell phone issues. I had bought a SIM card to be able to make and receive calls on my phone, as well as have a data plan, but the thing basically only worked properly for a single day before I could only receive calls. No data, no outgoing calls, effectively no cell phone. Thanks, TIM. Should I have expected any more from an Italian company operating in Brazil? He had no success, though. Luckily, my friend who I was waiting to see, Patrica, could still call me and receive calls from our room phone.

We thought we’d go to the beach for a bit more. I asked if there was snorkeling along the reefs (Recife means Reef), to which the concierge responded “Well… we have a bit of a shark problem here in Recife”. Its true – the number of shark attacks in Recife is astoundingly high because due to pollution of various nearby habitats, the sharks no longer have natural sources of food to feed on, so instead, they hungrily attack swimmers, divers, snorkelers, surfers, etc . Had the hotel guy not reminded me, the numerous signs along the beachfront certainly would have.

No need to worry about that though. The moment we stepped foot on the sand of the mysteriously deserted urban beach, it began to rain. I guess locals were avoiding it for a reason. I guess not every day on your sabbatical can be rain-free.

So, we hung out in the hotel lobby while waiting for my friend to be available. Got some drinks, sat by the pool, got some snacks, some drinks. Basically, this is all we did in Recife for the next day. We were just exhausted from traveling and walking and walking and simple things being difficult. The hotel staff did recommend their bus tour of the city. Normally we avoided such a blatantly touristic excursion, but Alex and I were ready to finally shut our brains off, be hauled around a city and told what to think of it and not have to worry about cabs or itineraries or schedules or maps or sunset time or any of the above. We signed up.

 Patricia finally showed up much later than originally planned. This, of course, is due to that traffic problem mentioned earlier. Our original plan was to go to Olinda – an old colonial town probably meaning “the pretty” just bordering the North of Recife – for dinner, but due to that same traffic problem and the rain we decided it was best to stay nearby and go to one of the seafood joints along the shore. It was actually quite good food, and ridiculous quantities of food. I don’t recall the name of the dish we got, but it was basically a big seafood stew served in a giant pumpkin-like gourd. Delicious.

Patricia’s toddler, Sara, was absolutely adorable and well behaved. Patricia ordered her a side of french fries for dinner. When they arrived with the rest of our food, Sara’s eyes widened, her dimples deepened and revealed the biggest smile, and she immediately, without thinking, turned to her mother and gave her the biggest, strongest, longest hug of appreciation I may have ever seen in my life. Imagine how she’ll react when she gets a puppy or a car!

We also met Patricia’s husband who had to come a bit later due to work. Being a fellow tech guy, we talked a bit about our jobs in broken Portuguese or English, and Patricia and I chose to speak in our Spanish roots. We did, after all, meet in Spain… in Spanish class.

We said goodnight and made plans for the following day which unfortunately didn’t happen due to me coming down with a cold and Patricia being exhausted from running around all day. I was glad that we were able to meet up after so much time, even if it was just for a night.

Tour Bus

The tour bus was an interesting experience. We were the only people on the tour from our hotel, and the bus had to go around to pick up other passengers from other hotels before we went on our way. Everybody else was native Brazilian except for us. The tour was thus naturally in Portuguese. I, unfortunately, understood very little. Part of it may have certainly been that I was feeling quite ill at this point and really, honestly, didn’t want to think or focus on anything other than pretty things which deserved a photograph.

We saw the following on our bus ride:

  • Old Recife – the original settlement of the city which feels very Portuguese. Its also mostly uninhabited and a bit run-down apart from the fresh paint. Another colorful slum, it seemed.

  • A phallic statue on the water. Everybody knows what it looks like. Everybody giggles.

  • Carnaval Floats – Some storage place where you can look at a lot of the float-like costumes used for carnaval parades. Some were pretty well done. Some – not so much. All of them were utterly creepy.

  • Olinda – A small UNESCO heritage town just to the north of Recife up in the hills with amazing vistas and, of course, the obligatory quaint old housing that makes for lovely offset-window photography

  • Traditional Pernambuco Carnaval dance performance demonstration. I’ve never seen a more flamboyant dance in my life. Splits. High kicks. More Splits. Umbrella twirling with tassled costumes. Holy. Effing. Crap. They got a tip for humility.

  • A trinket store that sold a ceramic goat drink dispenser, activated by pulling the goat’s tail. You can imagine where the drink was dispensed from. More astounding were the male and female human varieties. We got demonstrations for a few of them.

  • Churches.

  • More Churches.

  • Churches.

  • Some water tower art exhibit?

  • A jail which was converted to a town cultural center which was converted to a massive souvenir shop
  • On the ride back in the van – a very poorly produced muppet-like TV show, recorded on VHS. It also featured the most obnoxious laugh track ever.

Overall, I was glad we did the tour. I also was glad to remember why I don’t often do tours.

Bon Voyage

Brains fried, bags packed, my throat sore and head clouded up with a cold – it was time to return to home sweet home. Land where cell phones work and ATMs don’t hold your cards hostage, and you don’t even need ATMs most of the time because everybody accepts credit cards to begin with. Land of English and Spanish and whiskey and beer and hotdogs not covered in 2 cups of mayo. Land of the free and the pastey-white fundamentalist Christians who I almost started to miss – if not just for their Type A organization skills. Land of the smiling, friendly waitstaff.

But who am I kidding… there’s no passion fruit, mate, empanadas, or swimwear models. Its a net wash, really.

Return hi-lights:

  • Long taxi ride to go like 1 mile. Again, thanks to that Boa Viagem traffic problem.
  • We are told that the Federal Police (aka international travel security personnel) are on strike
  • Our incoming flight delayed over an hour, outgoing flight delayed another hour.
  • As expected, due to a relatively short layover time in Miami and persistent poor on-time performance by AA on the Recife flight, we miss our connection to Dallas and get stuck in Miami.
  • Somehow, we convince the AA attendant that this is their fault. The key was mentioning the delayed incoming flight, but not the federal police strike. She gets us complementary hotel rooms.
  • The hotel is a Holiday Inn. Its a terrible hotel – the worst of the trip. I was sick. I had about 4.5 hours to get sleep before we had up. What do they tell us when we arrive? Smoking rooms only
  • The hotel restaurant was decent, featuring a large array of cuban cuisine – none of which was vegetarian. The check took a whopping 45 minutes to process, even after a very angry Brian stomped up to the host and offered to pay cash if it would help GTFO any faster.

Eventually, we made it through Dallas and back to Austin. I realized – I don’t even remember the flight to Dallas, or being in Dallas airport, or how long we were there. Perhaps we were never there, after all – which I would be totally fine with.

Life resumes back in the US with a very odd day of combined feeling of complete exhaustion, restlessness, pre-occupation, anxiety, happiness, sorrow, and, well, basically I was as tired as I had ever been but could hardly sleep. When I did wake up from a nap, I nearly panicked because I had absolutely no idea where I was. I thought I had been kidnapped to some strange place in Brazil. It took a solid minute to have my environment fall back into place and realize I was home.

I was home.

Sabbatical 2012 [Days 23-25] Porto de Galinhas

Travel

Getting to Porto de Galinhas was going to be a bit challenging. Unlike Foz de Iguaçu and Iguazu, which were very small towns and easily navigable, Porto de Galinhas is located over an hour south of Recife. We had my smartphone with some offline maps, but no navigation.

Renting a car in Brazil may actually take longer than buying a car in the USA. This is not the speedy “oh you have a reservation? Here are the keys, please head out that door on the left to your car” experience. No, there is paperwork. There is a $1000 deposit on your credit card, and some other deposit. And you get insurance, and you show your international drivers license. And then there is typing, and radioing, and typing, and calling, and more typing. And oh, the typing. Seriously, I got a loan and title in less time.

But off we were in our VW Gol. This car was one notch up in class from the Chevy we had in Iguazu – compact instead of economy. What does this mean? For one, it means the car is a heck of a lot slower at accelerating either due to its size or maybe the engine. It could also be due to the fact that this car also has power steering. And cupholders! And electronic locks! The radio was interesting – it had USB and SD card slots to presumably listen to MP3’s, but it lacked any form of digital tuner for the radio, so you had to scroll through each station to find anything. No matter – there were no stations worth listening to.

On the Route

The route to Porto de Galinhas is quite beautiful. Once we finally got out of Recife, the terrain changed substantially. The land is much more hilly than I had expected. Not large, gently rolling hills, but very steep , medium height and bubbly hills like you might imagine from The Shire, or Teletubbies. The sides of the hills were covered in sugar cane stalks. It was green. The road made no effort to cut through these hills to make an efficient path, but instead just rode along the valleys at the base of them. It made for fun driving, but also a bit scary considering how sometimes unpredictable the other drivers and motorcyclist could be.

We had to stop to get gas. Ethanol, actually. The experience was worth it. They brought us a little tray with two waters, filled up with the requested number of liters, and then refused a tip. I had to use the bathroom, and one of the attendants had to come over with a key to let me in.

Our hotel was a bit difficult to find in the small grid, as Google mis-placed it on the map and people didn’t quite know how many blocks things were apart by driving. Eventually, we found the hotel, pulled in the car, dropped off our bags, and headed to the beach.

Porto de Galinhas

Porto de Galinhas reminded me quite a bit of Akumal, Mexico. It’s a really small town known for its snorkeling. Though a bit bigger than Akumal, it still has a small-town feel and is a very nice escape from the urban beach cities like Rio, Salvador, and Recife.

Leaving the hotel, we were a short walk on a sandy road to get to the beach. Not 100m from that road, we found a small stand where some surfers were offering lessons. Alex has wanted to try surfing since our trip to Puerto Rico. We immediately took their offer.

Surfing

With Skiing, I was very nervous I’d run into something going quite fast, or do the splits, or cross my legs into some horrible binding. With surfing, I guess you just have to worry about not drowning or being torn up by a shark.

We got terrible instruction. Neither guys spoke English, and the words they used in Portuguese seemed unlike anything I knew in Spanish. Great. Our instruction was the following.

  1. Lie on the board on your chest
  2. Paddle
  3. Stand up quickly to catch the wave and ride it.

So simple. Right? Right….

No, its horribly not that simple. Well, 1 and 2 are simple enough until you’re trying to paddle out and an incoming wave decides to crash your progress. You’re supposed to basically be a submarine when this happens, going face-first into the wave with your board and emerging from the other side. In practice, when given a giant board like I had, this didn’t work out so well. I lost my board several times, and for some unknown reason the guys didn’t give me an ankle tether, so I had to run back to the shore to fetch it.

I started almost getting it, hopping up on the board, and riding the wave for maybe 6-7 feet before losing balance and falling off, losing the board, and having to fetch it. Frustrating.

One of these times, I grabbed the board by a small rope loop that was attached – where you’d normally hook your tether. At that moment, a wave came crashing into the board, pulling it along and damn near ripping off two of my fingers with it.

I was done, my fingers throbbing, me tired from paddling and constantly running to shore, and not receiving any instruction other than “paddle paddle paddle!…. Now! No! Not now! Now! Oops!”

I’m much better at sun-bathing. So thats what I did while Alex continued to play in the waves for a while.

Food

Town was best reached by beach at night. It was illuminated like a football field.

We had some pretty fantastic food in Porto de Galinhas. It may have actually been some of the best Brazilian food we had. Sao Paulo had amazing food – but it was all of other types of cuisines. For brunch, we ordered an açai bowl which was basically a frozen açai sorbet with bananas, granola, and raisins on top. I could definitely have that for breakfast every day of my life.

Two great restaurants were Barcaxeira and Gato do Rua. The first was a pretty unassuming place with good food and some silly photographer attempting to take pictures of menu items. He was not good at his job – every photo they took looked yellow, poorly framed, and awful.

So posh, even the urinal was fresh.

Gato do Rua was very posh, with a small downstairs store, an upstairs bar/cafe out back, and the restaurant in the front. We enjoyed our meals while watching people outside on the street take

Big Cock Pics.

Porto de Galinhas translates to Port of Hens. Or chickens. Because of this, the town has taken the name to heart and there are t-shirts and other souvenier offerings of chickens, roosters, hens, eggs, feathers, nests, coups – anything chicken-related that you can think of. Most notable is that the city has many large sculptures of chickens around the city, painted in various different ways. Other cities have done this as well – like the painted buffalo in Buffalo, NY. Austin has painted guitars, and I think it had painted longhorns for UT at some point. These chickens appeared to be male, though. Big cocks. People loved them, and no matter what big cock you looked at, somebody was taking a picture of it. Obviously, it was a great source of jokes for us for some time.

Here are pictures of big cocks, and some of the people taking pictures of them.

Conversations with the Hotel Staff

I got to a point with Portuguese where I could finally stumble through some basic conversations with people. Not bad, eh? I very much enjoyed sitting at the outside bar by the pool, having some drinks, and speaking with a couple of the younger staff members. One girl said that it was her first day on the job, and needed some assistance from the other guy on how to make the drinks, record the order, etc.

We built up a good rapport with the two of them, and talked about where we were from, what life was like in Porto, and whether anybody had kids, brothers, sisters, etc, etc, etc. I got into a conversation with the girl about the economy in Brazil, and the discrepancy between rich and poor. It was a bit sad. She has never left Porto de Galinhas, but wants to go to many places but said she probably never could because of how little money she makes.

She also said that if she were to go into like a dance club, nobody would want to dance with her because they’d know she was poor, but if I or some rich Brazilian walked in, that everybody would be all up on them. Considering how integrated Brazil is, I was surprised to hear this because I don’t know what exactly could tip anybody off as to how much money she has (or doesn’t). She’s a pretty girl, regardless, so who knows – maybe its just insecurities coming out.

I tried to reassure her that Brazil’s economy is on the upswing, that the government is now lending money to other countries and when a nation becomes wealthy, inevitably people move from poverty to middle class as is currently happening in China and India – and has already happened in Japan. Maybe this helped re-assure her a bit. Who knows.

Anyways, she lives in an incredibly safe, tranquil village in the tropics right on the ocean in paradise. What else do you want, really? I can’t help but be jealous. The grass is always greener on the other side, I suppose.

Sabbatical 2012 [Days 20-23] Salvador de Bahia

Our arrival in Salvador was one of the latest we had the entire trip. We wanted to have enough time in São Paulo to be able to have a relaxing lunch before the flight. Pizza, unfortunately, didn’t work out as planned. The flight on Gol went quite smoothly. Deboarding the plane was quite fast and efficient, although they kind of routed us around the airport in this big horseshoe shape which was odd. By the time we made it through the rat maze, our luggage was just getting onto the baggage carouselle.

Now, to get the pre-arranged taxi ride that our Airbnb host, Liliana had arranged for us to bring to her apartment. We waited. Nobody with my name. Why not get some money from the ATM while we wait? Sure, not too difficult this time, surprisingly. Wait some more – still no driver with my name on a sign.

At this point, I decide to put my TIM Sim Card to use and call Liliana to see whats up. She calls the driver, and says that he’s running a bit late. Ok, we wait. Wait. Then some guy comes by with my name on a paper and walks us out to the curb, except he says something about him not actually being our driver. So we wait at the curb for our driver, who doesn’t come.

I call Liliana again. Its been about 35 minutes. She gets a call at the same time from the driver, who is “10 minutes away and has a friend there who can get us”. We wait another 10 minutes – and nobody comes. Screw this. We get in a normal cab and give him the address.

Arrival

Liliana was in the gate of her apartment waiting for us when the Taxi pulled up, and she showed us into her lovely apartment that had ecclectic art pieces covering nearly any free space to decorate it. This was our first time just renting a room at somebody’s place where they would still be living there. We were hoping it’d be a good experience – learn some more about the local neighborhood, culture, get good hints, and see how somebody in Salvador really lives.

It was interesting to sit down in a home of somebody you’ve never met before as a guest. A bit awkward, certainly.

So… who are you? Here is your bedroom.

We made some smalltalk, asked where to get some decent food, and were told that the Shell station at the corner of the block has some really good Crabs. “Try the Tuna Crab”. Tuna Crab? Interesting….

So we walk to the Shell station. Indeed, there is a restaurant located there right along side the parking lot, and its nearly packed with people. We get some menus. Crepes. OOOhh… Good Crepes. Tuna Crepes. It makes sense now. They were indeed pretty good, considering the location and the price.

Both tired from traveling and waiting for the Taxi, we returned to Liliana’s to go to bed. Somehow we either thought that we’d be fine without air conditioning, or didn’t notice that the place didn’t have air conditioning. The room was pretty warm at night, and the street noise from outside kept us up and from sleeping very well. So it goes.

Pelourinho – Aka Peló

The next day we woke up and took a cab to Pelorinho, the historic part of town. It was an interesting area, with lots of brightly colored buildings a la Valparaiso, and many women in these big-butt traditional dresses out in the streets trying to get you to come into their souvenier shops. We saw a couple guys doing capoeira in the square, but it seemed half-hearted and solely to get tips or photos. I’ve seen better capoeira in Austin.

We finally walked into a church. Kind of amazing it took that long to get into one, considering their abundance in South America.

Sometimes, two just isn’t enough.

I was hoping there would be a lot of live music, from things I’ve read. Unfortunately, this wasn’t really the case. I did hear a catchy song though. Not a good song, but a catchy song. It was blasting out of giant speakers mounted to the top of a car. Every block, we’d hear it approach in the taxi, and then we’d hear it disappear for a bit, then get louder. Then Doppler effect. It turns out, the song was a jingle for a political candidate, Petro Godinho. We heard this song pretty much any time we were on the street.  It got stuck in my head more than any Samba or other Brazilian music that I’ve had in my head since going to Spain. I’ll bet you could hear this song. Thanks to the interwebs, it is possible!

You might think this was a unique and interesting way to broadcast your campaign. Or, you might think its silly and outlandish to have such a jingle play on the streets. Except, in Salvador de Bahia, it seemed every single politician had their own African-inspired-music jingle to play on rooftop-mounted speakers. Its just the unfortunate norm for propaganda distribution.

It came time to eat. We wandered around a bit, found this little side street where this guy with dreds showed us his menu which didn’t look too great. But then this big bubbly happy lady came up to us and said we could have some free caipirinhas and had a better-looking menu, so we sat down next door. I felt kind of bad for not going to the first guy’s restaurant, but hey – this lady was super smiley and did a much better job selling.

We got our free caipirinhas, and a big bowl of this boullobaise-like dish with lots of seafoods inside, along with a plate of rice, some corn flour, and hot sauce. It was pretty delicious, but incredibly salty and buttery. I had a headache from it by the time we left.

It was time to go to the beach. Nice, warm waters and did the usual rent-a-chair and get some beers as in Rio de Janeiro. The way the Porto de Barra beach is situated, you actually get to watch the sunset from the beach, facing the ocean. Salvador had that going for it over Rio – where the sun sets behind you. A woman happened to come by offering a chair massage while the sun began to set. Sure, why not? Yeah, its a bit overpriced for how long it lasted, but you know what? It was dang worth it. Paradise.

The next day was also spent almost solely at the beach. I failed to find any kind of cultural offerings that had tickets still available, such as the Folkloric show or a drum show by a group called Odulum. Shame, really, to miss such an opportunity.

Salvador’s Recent Decline

Speaking with several people, we got the clear picture that Salvador has been on a downward slope over the last 5 years or so. It is less safe, larger, and dirtier than it has apparently been in the past. Theories are abound as to why this is – either the growth itself or that the drug lords from the favelas in Rio and São Paulo were forced out of those cities during the cleanup, and sought a new businessplace in Salvador.

Favela Rooftops near Pelourinho

The result was kind of deprsessing. Nobody walks around at night for fear of mugging. We always had to be on guard, which isn’t exactly how you want to be when on vacation. Even Pelorinho felt empty compared to what I had read and heard to expect from it. I certainly hope that Salvador can bring itself to be the city that it once supposedly was.

Buildings missing roofs

Crazy Taxi Ride to the Airport

We say goodbye to Liliana, and head to catch a cab to the airport early in the morning to begin travel to our next destination – Recife. At the same Shell station where we previously had gone for Crepes, a taxi flashed its lights and pulled up to our assistance – except there were already 2 passengers in the back seat – a mother and her young daughter. They say that they’re getting off in a couple blocks, so we go ahead and get in the cab.

The mother explains to me in Portuguese that they’re heading to the little girl’s school, that she’s late because they were actually in another city the night before. We drop the girl off, the woman gets back in the taxi, and we presumably begin to head towards the airport. She explains that she lives on the way. Fair enough.

At some point, the driver gets a cell phone call, and there is some exchange between the woman and the driver. We pull off to the side of the road at a random driveway near the beach, and the woman says something about getting out into another cab. I wasn’t sure if she meant that just she was going to take another cab, that we should take another cab, or that all 3 of us are getting in another cab. It was the latter. So we transfer all of our luggage to another cab and our new taxi friend and new driver, and off we go to the airport.

The woman begins to bad-mouth the previous taxi driver who she revealed to be her neighbor who she depended on for rides for years, saying he was rude and that she’d never use him for a ride again because it was so rude that he took another fare when he already had us in the car. It was kind of funny, but I almost felt bad that maybe we had instigated some falling out between neighbors.

She got off at her stop, and we headed on her way to the airport. On time. No luggage missing or kidnappings. Hey, at least we got the story and had some fun exchange with this lady.

Sabbatical 2012 [Sidenote] Bathroom Doors, Teflon Tape, and Slamming Car Doors

Doors

Alex and I couldn’t help but notice for the first two weeks that not a single one of the bathroom doors in all of our accommodations worked without issue. Either the door would get stuck once you closed it and you’d have to push all your body weight to open it. Or the door wouldn’t close properly, and you’d have to slam it shut. Or the lock would stick and sound like a gunshot when you open it. All of this is rather annoying when you’re sharing a small room with somebody and don’t want to wake them in the middle of the night.

Please, lets fix those doors.

Teflon Tape

It also seemed that none of these places have discovered Teflon tape for plumbing. Every single shower head leaked around the sides, spraying either the bather, the wall, the ceiling, the tile, the floor – what have you. I think that our hotel in São Paulo may have been the first to have a shower head that only sprayed where it was intended to spray.

Car Doors

I had forgotten about this part of traveling abroad. Americans have a terrible habit about slamming car doors. I got yelled at by numerous Venezuelans about this when studying abroad there, and never really thought I had actually shut them hard in the slightest.

When taking a cab in Buenos Aires, I got in and closed the door. The driver turned around and said (in Spanish) “Sure its closed?”. I opened the door and slammed it harder. Apparently, though, his first statement was sarcasm. “If you do that again I’ll get out of the car and show you how to close the door”

Venezuela flashbacks immediately came back. I felt terrible. I saw little stickers on the cab’s window saying to gently close the door. Obviously, this guy had a pet peeve and I pushed his buttons.

I gave him a nice tip when paying, feeling bad about the whole misunderstanding and apologized for slamming the door. He asked why foreigners do that, and I explained that our older American cars weren’t made quite as well as the cars they have, and often required being shut harder in order to ensure that they locked. Furthermore, with cold weather the weather-stripping would harden and rot, and the metal would rust. I appeased him by saying his brand of car was better than our Fords.

Again, I apologized for slamming the door, got out of the car…

and slammed the door.

What an ass. Some habits are hard to break.

Sabbatical 2012 [Days 18-20] São Paulo – Big Tokyo of South America

Travel

This time, our flight was on a real Gol flight. The plane was substantially cleaner and newer feeling, with LED mood lighting, grey seats instead of vomit-green, and … magazines in the seat backs! What luxuries.

We descended over São Paulo, South America’s largest city by population, and I was amazed at how vast and dense the city was. It was a neverending sea of skyscrapers and midrise apartments for as far as the eye could see. The only time I remember feeling remotely similar was landing in Mexico City, or maybe Phoenix. They were both quite different, though. Mexico city is squished into a valley between mountains, and feels pretty medium dense. Phoenix is gargantuan in the land that it takes up, and is expansive disgusting block suburbia that goes on forever… or at least until they decided to stop building the water grid. The population is nothing in comparison.

São Paulo from the sky looks nearly fake, like somebody copied and pasted the same city blocks over and over and over again to form an enormous metropolis.

That it was.

More Money Problems

It was time to get some more Brazilian Reals from an ATM. This time, they actually put the ATMs in a somewhat decent location in the airport. Good! Go up to the ATM, swipe the card in the slot, pull it out…. uhm. Try pull it out…. Try even harder to pull it out…. Its stuck. FANTASTIC.

So the next 15 minutes is spent trying to figure out how to get my debit card un-stuck from the ATM machine, which seems to have a little pin in the way, blocking its extraction. I try giggling it, I try to get attention of anybody in the airport who looks at all official. I try calling the phone number on the ATM – except the payphones don’t really let you call, and I have no idea how to really make such a call. I’m frustrated. After Iguazu’s stupid ATM issue I was about to rip off somebody’s head. Alex took 10 steps back.

Finally, a family of about 6 people used the ATM next to me, and saw that I was having issues. It turns out that they were from Buenos Aires, en route to New York or something. 3 little girls, a mom, dad, and maybe an uncle or something. They all hovered around as getting my card out of this evil ATM became their number one priority. Finally, Alex hands over his pocket knife to the guy (yes, we gave somebody a knife at an ATM in Brazil). At this point, either security is going to come over and resolve the problem, or we’ll resolve it ourselves.

It turns out that this guy seems to have some experience getting cards out of ATMs. With two quick flicks of the wrist, he had that little pin out of the way and my card out of the machine. Security never bothered us or even seemed to care.

We all rejoiced in victory as I got money out of another ATM, and I thanked them and we wished each other safe travels.

Another stupid money problem overcome.

Accommodations

We booked a hotel at the Mercure Pamplona. So far, it was probably the overall nicest traditional hotel that we had stayed at. The beds were quite comfortable, and it had a desk right behind the beds. The way it was set up kind of made it feel like the desk was some kind of mission control center for the beds, though. Either way, it was clean, the showers operated properly, the staff was friendly and helpful, and after spending an hour trying to get onto their network, I finally figured out some strange workaround to whatever wifi issues they were having. Or they had just fixed it while I happened to be trying. Who knows.

Bruno – Alex’s Friend

Alex had a friend from his school in Saudi Arabia who was happy to greet us and show us around. It wasn’t really the ideal timing, though, as he had just arrived from an international music tour the day before, and had to pack for a trip to some other south american country (Ecuador? Bolivia?) for a wedding the following day. We were really sandwiched in, but Bruno was awesome and took us out to dinner at a great Middle Eastern restaurant in a swanky part of town. Then we got ice cream at this cool place that had giant old-school metal milk jugs for chairs and delicious local flavors. He pointed out some other good Italian restaurants, a good place for coffee for Alex, the coffee snob, and then took us to a cool bar/restaurant that had an amazing view of the city.

During our drinks at that bar, we realized that we were all quite tired from our various travels the day before. Alex and I had just been speed-hiking through the jungle in Argentina just hours before (really? that was the same day?) and Bruno had been in Europe not too long before either. Yet, the excitement and fun just kind of masked all of the logical reasons to want to crash into a bed, and we stayed up and talked for a while anyways – until it was finally time to depart and say goodnight.

Gastronomy

São Paulo is known for being a cultural epicenter of Brazil, much like New York is to the USA. Its a huge megalopolis, but many great things come from it. One of the most important things is the food that is available. In fact, this is what one of my co-workers from Brazil said. “São Paulo – not too much to do there unless you like food. Then you’ll really like it. Eat a lot of amazing food”

Well, he was right. And we did. For whatever reason, São Paulo has a lot of Italian influence. I guess Italy has had its fair share of gastronomic imperialism on the world anyways. Much like New York pizza is coveted in the US, São Paulo pizza is regarded as the best in Brazil. We were quite excited to give it a try.

Beyond Italian, São Paulo has the largest Lebanese population outside of Lebanon, and the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. Combine that with the amazing local foods of Brazil, and you have a mecca for amazing combinations of ancient recipes from foreign lands with new flare. I was giddy with anticipation for what I’d get to eat.

Sushi was my absolute priority. Alex found a place that was very close to the hotel called Azami sushi. I called to make a reservation, asked if anybody spoke English, and was passed to somebody who spoke incredibly fluent Spanish with an Iberian accent, and he said they only had bar space. Perfect!

Side-note: I’ve been a vegetarian for the past 8 or 9 years. The only animal food I have ever missed or craved has been sushi. I missed out big time on not eating it on my trip in Japan, and so I decided on this trip that I would break the rule and begin eating seafood for the month to be able to try local dishes and delicacies. It has been a good decision so far, but I look forward to returning to a strictly vegetarian diet on returning to the States.

We were walking down the street of the restaurant, following address numbers, and Alex finally said “it … should be here….” and we looked around and only saw some house looking place next to a tall condo, next to another tall condo. No sign, no sensation of being a restaurant in the least. Finally, a guy standing outside said something in Portuguese that seemed to question whether we had a reservation, and I said yes, and we were invited into the home.

It didn’t take long to realize we had the language barrier issue again, so we were introduced to one of the sushi chefs, Luciano. This was the guy I talked with on the phone. Thick castillian Spanish that seemed to be unaffected by his time in Brazil in the slightest. Was he Japanese? Luciano? Brazilian? Spanish? Who cares, the guy could communicate to us in various languages and was an expert at putting fish on a plate in the most fantastic creations I’ve ever had in my life. We agreed to a reduced menu – partly because the full menu involved a steak that I wasn’t going to eat, and the price was quite up there. But you know what? I’ll never remember that money, but I’ll never forget how amazing that food was or the overall experience.

I believe when I was having a piece of fish with a passion-fruit sauce underneath, that my eyes actually began to water. I worried that food may never be this good again, and that I had been ruined.

The next morning, Alex and I went to the coffee place that was recommended (though Alex had already gone the morning before when I was feeling sick) and he tried a flight of various local espressos. I think he felt about the same way that I did with the sushi – ruined, spoiled. Coffee may never be that good again. Heck, even I ordered a macchiato of my favorite of his flight offerings. I don’t even drink coffee!

We got Italian food that was also superb. And we were excited to try the famous pizza on our last day before our flight – except one thing. All pizzerias seem to be closed for lunch! What a bummer. We walked around, asked several people where a pizza place is, but they all seemed to indicate that it was somewhat absurd to try to go to a good pizza place for lunch, so we gave up and got more Mediterranean food. Not bad.

Finally – I hate the word ‘gastronomy’. I like what it stands for, but the word itself conjures up images of gastro-intestinal diagrams, Pepto-bismol tablets, constallation charts, and the Nasa Logo. Lets work on a better term, shall we?

Other Notes

Considering the size of São Paulo, the portion of the city that we were in felt safe, clean, and people were quite friendly. Service was delivered with a smile – unlike in Rio de Janeiro.

Walking the neighborhood wasn’t quite as interesting as the other cities. To me, the architecture all felt quite uniform and uninspired. It reminded me of Tokyo – lots of mid-rise to high-rise buildings that all had the same basic concrete structure. There were a few interesting designs here and there, but its nothing like the States where we make visual big deals of any buildings over 15 stories.

The terrain of the city was unexpectedly hilly. At times, it was so steep that it reminded us of being in San Francisco. They manage to completely hide this with the grid structure, though, as the map makes it look like the land is perfectly flat and all roads are at 90 degree angles to each other. Well, the roads are at 90-degree angles where they intersect, but they go up and down and leave the buildings to deal with construction however they must. At one point when we were in the taxi to the hotel, I was mid-sentence in saying “they need an upper and lower Michigan Ave like in Chicago to deal with the traffic” when we actually dipped below street level into a tunnel. I guess they were one step ahead of me.

The night view from the roof of our hotel looked like something surreal. The sky was lit so much from the city lights that photos look almost like they were taken in daylight. It seems unnatural, fake, dream-like. I imagine that the film ‘Brazil’ was heavily inspired by this city – perhaps the only inspiration to the film as it has nothing to do with Brazil whatsoever.

Final Thoughts

I’m glad we went to São Paulo to experience it. I can say with confidence that it is not a city I could live in. Like Tokyo, it is simply overwhelming. Taxi drivers still don’t fully know their way around the city, and probably never could. It is literally beyond counting the number of buildings and residents. It is impossible to ever feel like you’ve “conquered” the city’s offerings – or even broached such a stance.

Some cities just get to a size where they seem to completely lose control of growth.

If consumption is your thing – being food, fashion, arts, or other shopping – then this is a great city. It comes with a price – both monetary and in peace of mind. At least, for me.

Lastly – if you’re homeless, you can’t afford a horse. Probably because you spent all of your last money to commission this statue of yourself.

Sabbatical 2012 [Days 17-18] Cataratas de Iguaçu

Travel

Traveling to Iguaçu was simple, but a bit of an experience. It was our first domestic flight in Brazil. We booked all of our travel on Gol airlines – a decent looking discount airline with a pretty new fleet and an orange color scheme. They seem to be relatively successful (unlike Pluna) and are definitely inexpensive. When we got in line for checking into the flight, the girl directing people to the appropriate line seemed kind of confused about our destination. Then she took our passports and disappeared for a bit behind the counter. Then she came out again with our passports (luckily) and told us we actually booked a Webjet flight.

Webjet was another discount airline that was recently acquired by Gol. Webjet has an awful lime green color scheme on everything, and their logo is the ‘@’ symbol. Get it? They’re technical. They understand the interwebs. Well, hopefully their brand disappears as fast as the .com failures.

The webjet plane was a relatively new 737 with an interior that looked like it was designed in the late 60’s. More puke green. The landing was a bit rough. Alex said people in the back of the plane clapped, happy to be alive. Still better than our Vivaaerobus landing.

We flew in to Foz de Iguaçu, on the Brazilian side. Rented a car from Avis – a small Chevy (Opel, really) with a stick shift, no airbags, no power steering, and no cupholders. Most Americans would die. How can you possibly drive if you have to exert force on the steering wheel and shift while holding a 64oz high fructosified Big Gulp at the same time? It drove like a go-cart.

Our hotel, Boutique Hotel de la Fonte, was actually located on the Argentine side of the falls, so we drove over to Argentina, blew through (the complete lack of) Brazilian customs, and quickly entered Argentina for the 3rd time, got our passports stamped again, and went through the small town of Iguazu to get to the hotel.

Accommodations

As soon as we entered the hotel, we were happily greeted by the owner, a very friendly older Italian lady who was very happy to receive us. I later found out that she spoke like 7 languages and has lived in several countries. Her assistant was also quite helpful. At the moment we got to the check-in counter, we were given two glasses of Champaign. Now that is how to treat a guest!

The hotel was really, really nice. Not terribly expensive for what we got. Basically, it was a small pousada with a swimming pool, a hot (well, warm, but better than anything previously) tub, a few log-cabin like buildings with high lofted ceilings and (in theory) one-way mirrored glass windows for privacy.

We made a dinner reservation, I booked a massage, and we were told that we should go see the Brazilian side of the falls first – which was contrary to our original plan. After thinking it over, we agreed that it made the most sense, though.

More travel. And Falls

So, off we went back to Brazil. The Argentine side of customs seemed pretty uninterested in anything other than stamping our passports again, but there was no line so we made it through quite quickly. Then on the Brazilian side… again, no customs, no immigration, no stamps. Is there even a border here? It must be nice to have Argentina as your southern neighbor – no arms or drug trafficking, no immigration problems. Just let ’em in. Nobody even checked our visas.

We drove on down to the falls park. From there you have to pay for your parking spot, get some entrance tickets, and then take a double-decker bus to slowly go on to the actual park where you can walk around.

After getting off the bus, we immediately saw some funny animals that kind of looked like a cross between an ant-eater and a racoon. They were really fast, though, and they were quite camera-shy. I must have taken 20 photos of them, and nearly all of them ended up being of their rear ends because by the time I hit the shutter, they were off in the other direction. Despite people being told numerous times against doing so, they fed them for attention and got close, even at risk of rabies. Oh well.

There were a decent amount of people, but it wasn’t overly crowded. We descended the pathway and started to hear the roaring of the falls. The mist became visible, and the temperature dropped from the evaporation. Then, they came into view for the first time and were spectacular. But that was only the beginning, the tail end of the falls. We kept walking, and walking, and there were more and more and more falls. It really put Niagara to shame in its vastness.

Brazil and Argentina both did a fantastic job at preserving the natural beauty and sanctity of the falls as well. There was not an ounce of commercialization on either side of the falls – apart from a few cafes (which were welcomed) and licensed people selling ponchos (also welcomed). Just two expansive parks with well-hidden walkways. You had to strain your eyes to see tourists or walkways on the other side of the border. Kudos to both countries for such preservation.

The falls were beautiful. The last part is where you get to walk out right in front, get your clothes soaked, and test your camera for its water resistance capabilities. Ours passed the stress test, luckily. Then you go up an elevator to get a nice big view of the falls as if you were in a helicopter.

A little wet, a little cold, and definitely tired after a full day of travel and walking, we headed back onto the bus to the car, crossed into Argentina for the 4th time where they actually asked for my car papers this time and seemed a little disappointed that everything was in order.

My massage was delayed due to a miss-communication. But it was quite relaxing. Dinner was pretty great – I tried a local river fish that was seared quite nicely. I had some nice dessert too, but can’t remember what it was.

Argentine Side

The next morning we woke up decently early, got ready, had some breakfast at the hotel, hung out with their pet bird, and headed over to the Argentine side of the falls. The experience was quite different in many ways. First of all, you pretty much drive right up to the park. No bus involved. Second of all….

Money Problems

Argentina makes it nearly as difficult as they possibly can to give them your money. This has been the case throughout the country. I have no idea why they make life so hard on tourists with foreign bank accounts, but they do.

Unlike the Brazilian side of the falls, the Argentine park doesn’t take any form of credit or debit card payment for the roughly $26 entrance fee. Hundreds (maybe thousands?) of people come to this park every day, and you don’t take credit cards? Are you kidding me? This wouldn’t be a problem, of course, if we had enough Argentine Pesos left over, but considering that we were hours from leaving the country for the last time, we had avoided pulling out more cash from the ATM.

No problem – we’ll just get more money from an ATM. Except for one thing – there is just a single ATM. It is located within the park, past the entrance. So, if you need money to get in, you have to somehow magically get into the park without a ticket first. Does nobody see a problem with this?

I explain to the ticket collector guys, and they let just me in, while Alex has to sit and wait. The ATM is in one of about 20 unmarked buildings. It is about 300m from the entrance. So I have to walk roughly ½ a mile round trip just to get money, wait behind some old guy who has never experienced technology before to trade stocks or save the world economy on the ATM for 5 minutes until I can finally pull out money, hike back, and buy my stupid ticket. Of course they don’t give you any coins for change, either, because I guess they just don’t make those in Argentina anymore. Good luck taking the bus!

The Falls. Finally

After the whole money/ticket fiasco which set us back some time, we had to kind of book it through the park at a rapid pace. When you are walking behind hoards of field-tripping school children, that pace gets slowed down substantially. In Brazil, the trails were mostly paved. In Argentina, they were nearly all elevated metal grating walkways – which at times could become quite slick when wet.

There was one particular moment where we were leaving a viewing deck, and Alex stopped to tie his shoe. As he started to do so, this huge group of excited, slow-moving school children began advancing our way, blocking any hope of passage should we fall behind them. Panic ensued, and I was encouraging Alex to tie faster. His eyes widened, his hands in a panic frenzy. It was like a scene from Indiana Jones, worried that you’re going to get hit by the giant rolling boulder or locked in a tomb forever. We ran away just in the nick of time, and continued our high-speed photo-shutter run through the park.

At some point I made a little friend on our hike. A butterfly (or moth?) landed on my finger and just felt like it was the perfect place to hang out for a good 15 or 20 minutes. I walked around with my new pet, and lots of people noticed it, pointing it out to their children. It made for some interesting photos, too. Thanks, lil guy.

The view from Argentina was quite nice, as we were pretty much walking over the falls themselves. It had good close-up views as well. Unlike the Brazilian side, when you got up to a point where you’re about to get soaked, there was no convenient poncho-seller trying to get your money for something you actually want. Because Argentina makes it difficult to give them your money. Instead, we had to suffice for a poncho that Alex somehow ended up with from China. It worked… kinda.

Despedida

With the clock ticking towards our flight – which left from the other side of the border – we decided it was time to head back to the car. In the parking lot, I just had to…

 

The deep red soil which covered all the roads and sidewalks in Iguazu made it too easy.

We left the park with enough time to get our bags from the hotel, cross the border into Brazil (another Argentine stamp, another passage into Brazil without the slightest of glances), grab some food at a little stand along the road, refill the rental with gasoline and use up the remnants of my Argentine Pesos (of which I could do without ever seeing again), and head on our way to São Paulo.