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 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 [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 [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.