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 [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.