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.

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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.

Sabbatical 2012 [Day 13-16] Rio de Janeiro

Travel

Travel to Rio de Janeiro was done with pretty much no problems. LAN was a pretty decent no-frills airline. They had the same Boeing model that we flew on AA, but it was much nicer inside. The flight in was interesting – we had to circle around the city a few times before landing. I was amazed at how tall the mountains surrounding Rio were. I knew that there were the big hills right in the city, but not quite what was surrounding it. The views were already spectacular from the plane.

No machine guns. Again. Maybe machine guns aren’t the norm? Come to think of it, greeting people who have already passed through security lines and been allowed to board a plane with machine guns may be a bit excessive. Maybe they are afraid that somebody slipped in with a pair of nailclippers on their carry-on and need to be well equipped to handle it.

Immigration was the simplest yet. We already had our visa, so we didn’t have to pay the reciprocity fee as in Chile and Argentina. Stamp the passport. Our bags were being loaded onto the carousel when we arrived. Nice! Then we just walked through the “nothing to declare” line and that was it – nobody looked at our declaration forms.

Now to get some money. Just have to find the giant selection of ATMs and money exchange places like the last two airports. They’re always located right when you leave the baggage area, all hoping to steal your rt money with horrible exchange rates and fees, or hiked up ATM fees.

Well, not at Galeao. I asked in the worst made-up Portuguesified Spanish where an ATM was, and they pointed up the steps. We had to go 2 levels up escalators and walk way down to the end of the terminal, where we found ALL of the airports ATMs. What. The. Hell.

It seems like whoever laid out Brasilia laid out this airport, too. Wouldn’t it be nice if we just had one single “convenient” location for getting money? Nice and compartmentalized. Nevermind where you are coming from, going to, or that it is the absolutely worst location for anybody entering the country who needs Brazilian Reais. To top it off, most of the regional banks don’t seem to work with foreign ATMs at all, so it starts feeling like you’re playing slot machines on whether or not money is actually going to come out of this device. This should be an amazing mess when Rio hosts the World Cup in 2 years, and again with the Olympics in 4.

Language

Shit. Shit. Shit. The last time I was in a country where I didn’t speak the language was China, and somehow I survived. I had a lot of help, though. Company-arranged cars, English-speaking hotel staff and car drivers, and we were nearly always chaperoned by co-workers.

I had convinced myself that I’d be able to get by with my limited knowledge of Portuguese, understanding of some basic verb conjugations and how to pronounce the letters. Just take my Spanish and process it through a Portuguesifimifacion 2000 filter and I should be good, right?

No. No not at all. It turns out that pronunciation is far more important than I had expected, as it can sound like very similar words. Cab drivers were confused by simple things that I didn’t pronounce correctly, like “hows it going?” or “cinco nove cero (5-9-0)”.

To top it off, my brain was still in Spanish mode, so all that my tongue wanted to say was Spanish sounds. It wasn’t working well.

It took a good day or so for me to get accustomed to the new sounds, and for my brain to shift to actually even attempt to speak the proper language. I’m slowly re-learning a lot of what I knew at some point from my informal Portuguese class at UT. Unfortunately, it’s probably not quite enough. By the end of our time in Rio, though, I was forming complete sentences and a few people even told me that I spoke Portuguese very well. I think this really means “wow, you speak Portuguese at all”. Hey, I’ll take the encouragement.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep having fun saying words like ‘restaurante’ (pronounced hes-tau-ranch-ee), Botafogo (hehe), Ipanema (contrary to common englishifications, ehp-ah-nehm-a), ‘obrigado’ (oh-brie-gah-doh). It’s really quite beautiful, although sometimes still a bit silly sounding as people seem to always draw out their vowels as if trying to teach somebody the correct pronunciation of something.

Accommodations

This was our first experience with staying at a vacation rental rather than a hotel or hostel on the trip. We found a nice but humble penthouse apartment in Copacabana on AirBNB that was owned by a French couple who seemed to do a lot of traveling. The place was clean and felt like a real home. It had a large rooftop terrace which we enjoyed the city and sky views from. We even got to have our own bedroom which was very welcomed as we were both tired of waking up from each other’s snoring.

The house rules were basically to not eat any of the delicious french cheeses that were sitting in the freezer, or French wines that were in the wine fridge. Drats! Guess we’ll have to make caipirinhas.

Oddly, the kitchen was a bit lacking in cookware. Some of the pots and frying pans were simply designed to not have a handle. I have no idea why this would ever be beneficial or desired. There was also a pretty meager selection of knives – no chef’s knife to be found. Either this French couple doesn’t cook much, or maybe they take their good cookware back with them to France when they are not in Brazil.

Copacabana, despite the imagery brought by the famous tacky song, reached its peak in the 50’s and kind of went on a seedy decline since, but seems to be back on its way up and is now safe again to wander around. The whole 5km or so beach strip extends about about 5 blocks wide with nonstop highrise condos and apartments, and stores and restaurants at the street level.

Food

Food was a mixed bag in Rio de Janeiro. We had some great Brazilian food (although far too large of portions) in an old, hilly part of town called Santa Teresa. We probably finished about 1/3rd of it.

Then we decided to make some food, which was nice for a change. At the grocery store, we bumped into an older American expat guy who struck up a conversation with us about the neighborhood. He recommended a bar called “Acadamia de Cachaça” – precisely what we (thought) we were looking for. Cachaça, for those of you who don’t know, is a spirit distilled from cane sugar. What makes it different from rum? Well… nobody seems to know.

Oddly, the food at that bar was pretty decent (though Alex’s was mediocre), and the Cachaça was pretty awful. The Caipirinhas that we were served were bitter, weren’t filtered from seeds or pulp at all, and had a nasty alcohol finish. Not quality by any means. Academy of how to not make drinks, I guess.

Natural Beauty

There is no mistaking it, Rio de Janeiro is absolutely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life. Despite a large city being nestled on the few flat areas between the mountains and the beaches, that is exactly what makes it so amazing. The mountains all look structurally unsound – as if they were hand-crafted of clay and were ready to collapse at any point. Cariocas (the name given to people from Rio) seemed to think the same, because several mountains feature giant artificial support structures to keep them from collapsing.

The beaches are bountiful, and several of them are quite long. Each has its own character, vista, and appeal. They all have beautiful Brazilians.

The sky is clear at night, and blue in the daytime. The temperature is perfect. The mountains, where not too steep, are lush with tropical foliage and wildlife, including monkeys!

There is a good reason that this is the most visited city in the world.

Jesus Christ – The Big Guy

One of the biggest tourist attractions in Rio is to go up a mountain to see the gargantuan statue of Buddy Jesus. It is visible from nearly any spot in the city where your view isn’t blocked by one of thousands of midrise buildings.

Going on a weekend was not the best idea, because hoards of locals go up to visit the statue and take pictures on their day off. We had to wait about 3 hours or so to take the next available swiss-style train up the mountain. It was worth it.

Some other important guy. No Horse.

Incredibly vistas of the city, sea-formed clouds pouring over the mountain, winds, and tons of people mesmerized by their favorite character in history – Christ, The Redeemer.

Pão de Açúcar – Sugar Loaf Mountain

Waking up early on a Sunday was a great way to go to Pão de Açúcar – one of the more notably vertical mountains on the coastline. It has a very long cable ride up to the top from one of the neighborhoods, and after the 3hour wait to see Jesus by train, we thought it would be best to try to beat the masses.

It worked – mostly. One nice thing about Catholic nations is that on Sunday mornings, everybody is stuck in church and it leaves the city wide open to roam around without the locals and tourists getting in the way. Dining on a Sunday can be a bit of a challenge, though, as most decent restaurants seem to close.

We bought our tickets for the cable car, immediately got on the next one, and began our ascent. Nothing too notable to mention in words other than we noticed how terrifying it looked to be on the flights landing at the airport near to the mountain. They came very close to the mountain after pulling a giant U turn, and immediately had to land on a pretty short runway along the ocean. Yikes. As long as they don’t clip the cable on the way down…

The rest of this magnificent place is best told with photos.

Fitness & Fashion (or lack thereof) on the Costa Sul

After lots of sight-seeing, it was time to finally hit the beach. After all, its Rio de Janeiro! The beach was PACKED. Not too many people were in the water, although it was a fairly comfortable temperature and seemed visibly clean. Mostly kids and elderly men pretending to be kids were the only ones playing in the crashing waves.

It is probably already known, but there are lots of gorgeous people in Rio de Janeiro. Race is widely varied – from caucasian Portuguese descent, latino mix, or African descent, or any combination thereof. A substantial number of people could pass for underwear models. Certainly not everybody is completely fit, and I’d say not even half. But the point is that it may be something close to half. Nowhere in my life have I ever seen such a fit, sexy group of people who take such great care of their bodies.

Women, no matter what their shape, age, or skin condition all wore bikinis. Sometimes you hoped they revealed a little less – or bought a size that actually fit their rolls. Sometimes, you wished they showed a little more. But bikinis it was.

Guys wore either tight-fitting speedos – brief or square-cut trunks. Or they wore board shorts. It was probably about half and half, but it was nearly guaranteed that if the guy was in terrible shape or was over 60 that he was rockin’ the smallest, tightest speedo possible. Funny how that works out, isn’t it? I admire their lack of shame.

So, that’s all fine and dandy. Wear as little as you want on the beach, as far as I’m concerned. Especially if you have the body to do so. The thing that stood out the most was that this beachwear was also acceptable clothing to be wearing pretty much anywhere in the Costa Sul. Going shopping in a classy mall in Ipanema? Speedo! Hanging out at a local bar? Speedo! Movie with the girlfriend? Board shorts and soccer jersey!

Button-down shirts, jeans, or any form of casual dress-shoe were almost nowhere to be found. It was quite the opposite of Venezuela, where wearing shorts and flip flops indicated that you were probably poor and of a lower social status. Brazilians didn’t give a shit. Its hot, they’re near the beach, and they don’t want to be bothered with changing clothes or putting on some pants over that sexy speedo for anything.

So it seemed.

Money

Rio is an interesting lot. On the drive from the airport, we passed some pretty poor neighborhoods that looked like they’d be lucky to have any form of running water, electricity, or sanitation. Then, once you’re in the Costa Sul, you feel like you’re in the wealthiest place on the planet – rivaling Champs Elysees. The further west along the coast you went, the more money there seemed to be. There is certainly lots of disparity between people’s wealth.

Rio and Sao Paulo have rocketed up to be in the top 10 most expensive cities in the world. This is partly due to the strength of the Real, but also gets boosted by the tourism and inflation within the country. Think New York, Boston, or San Francisco pricing relative to the rest of the USA..

Bonus Day!

Monday, we wake up around 7:15am or so, ready to head out of Rio to Iguazu. Everything is pretty much packed and ready to go. Its kind of sad, really. I groggily check our flight information. Everything is in order – flight leaves about 10:30am. Gol Airlines doesn’t show any sign of going bankrupt. I check the hotel information in Iguazu. Uh… crap! We made the hotel reservation for the wrong day! Oh no!

I go back to the trip itinerary. Wait, maybe… oh, looks like we leave Rio TOMORROW. I quickly inform Alex of our extra day in Rio. We were both kind of surprised that somehow we both managed to completely get the day of our flight wrong. Both of us are fairly seasoned travelers.

We had no complaints, though. There was so much more to do and see. Time to get the day started – no rush or pressure this time.

Alex Gets Sick

The only downside to the day was that Alex began to get sick with a sort of headcold. He went back to bed since we didn’t have an itinerary set for the day. Being sick in Rio is no fun, but at least we had a nice base camp to hang out in.

Jardím Botanico – Botannical Gardens

Once Alex got a nap in, and I finished my workout routine, we grabbed some lunch and headed to the Jardím Botanico – bottanical gardens. They were stunning. Lots of plants, some monkeys, 200 year-old palm trees, walking trails, zen gardens. Photos.

Centro

Alex was tired and headed back, but I wanted to see the city center where there were some museums and old buildings from when the city was founded and was the capital of Brazil before it was moved to Brasilia in the ’50’s.

Emerging from the metro in the Centro is like getting off a plane in another city. No longer along the coast, people were now dressed for success in full business attire, hurriedly walking from their workplace to their chosen mode of transportation to get home. Business suits, button-ups, blouses, dresses. Aha! I guess Rio does have some fashion sense after all. You just have to leave the beach and not be out on a Sunday.

The Centro has some old buildings which are cool to look at, and I stopped at the building where Congress used to meet. A nice guy there gave me a lot of explanations of how the government worked, and how the building had transitioned from being a national building to now just be used by the state government.

He also was inquisitive about our own politics, and what I thought was going to happen in the elections. Naturally, I have no idea, but I shared my thoughts about the candidates and why each one may win over the other.

I was surprised to learn that voting in Brazil is not just a right – its mandatory. Failing to vote in an election is punishable by a hefty fine, and also could prevent you from getting a job, a passport, or visa. Mandatory democracy sounds like an interesting concept. I have to wonder how that would change the political landscape in the US.

Oh, and of course – what centro wouldn’t be complete without a guy on a horse? This guy has a Catholic grenade. watch out!

A Gente – The People

We had some mixed experiences with people in Rio. I thought that being a laid-back beach place in paradise that everybody would be bubbly and happy. It was actually rarely the case in our experience, though. People in the service industry seemed kind of aloof. We were lucky to get eye contact, let alone a smile. Nobody joked around. Cab drivers didn’t even attempt to make conversation or inquire where we were from. Sadly, we didn’t feel much love from the people. I guess, like any heavily touristed city, the locals get a bit jaded and just want all of these invaders to GTFO. I understand. So we did.

Actual Departure

Well, once we figured out the day of our flight, it was time to rest and get ready to head to Foz de Iguaçu, Brazil to go see some of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls.

I know you’re sick of us foreigners, but I’ll be back, Rio. Definitely. Até logo.

Sabbatical 2012 [Day 12] Buenos Aires – Level Up

Thanks to Pluna – we really didn’t have many options for flying out of Montevideo to get to Rio de Janeiro. So, we had to return by boat to Buenos Aires. This was not by any means a bad thing, as Buenos Aires was an awesome city. We were also excited to stay at a different part of the city – Palermo.

The ferry ride from Montevideo is quite a bit longer than Buenos Aires to Colonia, as it is basically at the opposite end of the bay. The ferry is also a lot smaller than the Colonia ferry, but also quite fast. Rest assured, despite its smaller size, it too has a duty-free store and also smells like perfume. It also has a small cafe where I discovered that you can buy the most disgusting tortilla (as in Tortilla Española) with spinach and about 1 cup of salt, pre-packaged in a plastic container left to sit in its sulfery awfulness. Two bites of that and I threw it away.

We get back to Buenos Aires. Ah, so familiar. Cab it to Palermo… wait. What is this place? Its completely different from Recoleta, and any of the parts we had walked through. Really, it is like we just arrived at a new city.

Palermo, unlike its above-ground-cemetery and walking-zombie-lady neighboring borough, has much shorter buildings that seem to be kept in very good shape. The streets are much more quaint, and have lots of interesting little cafes and restaurants – which is of course expected at this point from Buenos Aires. But they’re just a bit more chic – a bit more quaint, and the clientel is a LOT more attractive. Money and beauty may be synonymous in some places. But, maybe Palermo just attracts a different kind of person than Recoleta – like the kind of person who… doesn’t like living by a huge creepy cemetery.

Our hotel, “Five Cool Rooms” – which sounds less like a hotel and more like a sequel to a Tarantino film – was substantially nicer than the Ayres Recoleta in every regard. It was hard to spot from the street because its only facade was a door and a small sign. Once inside, it opened up to a nice, chic glass-enclosed courtyard, with no street-facing rooms. It was quiet. It smelled amazing. The beds were the most comfortable we’ve had yet on the trip. Shame, really, that we didn’t stay there to begin with. They did outright lie to us about the hot tub working, though.

Not having good food on the boat, we were both quite hungry and grabbed some food at a cool café.

Palermo even has bars in their stores. Now that is how to shop!

We walked around Palermo, realized that we needed more money from an ATM, and thought we’d go find a bank for an ATM. Simple, right? We’re in a major, well-off part of town. No, not simple. We walk to the main drag, and there are no banks. Turn around and walk further down, no banks. It was baffling. I don’t even remember when we found a bank, but it took us nearly 30 minutes of walking to find a bank, and another 10 to find one which would accept foreign cards.

Time to spend that money on drinks. On a terrace. With a nice view of a square. Complete with obnoxiously slow service that we’d come to expect at this point.

Lesson learned. Next time, stay in Palermo. A nice way to end our 2nd visit to Argentina. But bring money.

Don’t cry for me, Argentina, we’ll be back in Iguazu in just a few days after hitting up Rio de Janeiro.