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.

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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.