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.

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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.