Sabbatical 2012 [Day 13-16] Rio de Janeiro

Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accommodations

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

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

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

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

Food

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

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

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

Natural Beauty

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

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

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

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

Jesus Christ – The Big Guy

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

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

Some other important guy. No Horse.

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

Pão de Açúcar – Sugar Loaf Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it seemed.

Money

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

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

Bonus Day!

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

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

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

Alex Gets Sick

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

Jardím Botanico – Botannical Gardens

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

Centro

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Gente – The People

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

Actual Departure

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

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

Sabbatical [Day 5] Skiing with Brazillians

Last night, wandering around for probably about an hour trying to find a place to eat (Santiago is in dire need of Yelp), Alex and I stumbled across a Ski trip place. We had planned on going on a ski trip – which, it turns out, would be my first time ever really skiing. On a whim, we wandered in to check the pricing. It turned out to be cheaper than the one we had originally planned to go to, and more importantly they noted that we would have to have already picked out our rental gear before the vans took off in the morning, which basically gave us time to make an immediate decision on the matter.

Done.

Ski trip it is. Picked our boots, picked our coats, snowpants, goggles. Then we went in the back room and were assisted by a guy who looked oddly like Jack Black in selecting some skis and poles. He slowly worked at adjusting the skis for our boots, and haphazardly converted pounds to kilograms (which I think he did incorrectly, with some decent falls my skis never detached). Our names were written on the skis in permanent markers, and we were told to be there in the morning.

We were. Along with an entire van full of Brazilians. I’m convinced that this particular outfit must have been featured in the Lonely Planet – Portuguese Edition or something. Their logo even had the Brazilian flag, and the guy helping us was from Rio. Alex and I immediately take notice of our immersion language experience, and are only more excited for the Brazil portion of the trip.

Off we went, late as scheduled. Within 30 seconds of the bus/van taking off, we were already in trouble. One of the store employees was pounding on the windows of the bus, telling the driver to stop. The Brazilians made a big fuss about it and laughed. It turned out that we were running into a road sign. And perhaps even the bus behind us.

A crunch and a smash later, we were un-parallel-parked later, and on our way. Thirty minutes into the trip, we began ascending the Andes. Forty minutes into the trip, we began our winding roads and hair-pin turns up to the summit of El Colorado Ski Resort.

Nearly every hairpin turn was taken at roughly 30mph. There was minimal braking. There was suggestive yielding to oncoming traffic. There were very small rail guards. It seemed that every 45 seconds we were either facing running directly into a cliff, or directly off of a cliff.

Each turn, the Brazilians showed us how to express fear in Brazilian Portuguese. I believe it went something like “OOOeeeeEUeoEeee!!!!” Hopefully, this knowledge will not come in handy in Brazil.

We made it.

I was amazed at the frenzy at the base of the slopes. Nearly all of the skiers seemed to be Brazilian. What? Why? Where are the Chileans? No Americans? Any English Speakers? Nope. Then, 75% of the skiers seemed to be about 75% of my age – and height, for that matter. This should prove to be humiliating.

It was – for a bit.

Alex tried showing me some basic moves. He kept talking about Pizzas and making a pizza and doing pizza turns and though I knew where he was going with it, I think it turned my mind to food and I was falling more than I was moving along any particular vector in euclidean geometry. Then he went up to actually ski, and I got my professional instructor for an hour to teach me how things are done. It turns out that he was from Japan. Masuke… Maruke…  Marusake… I can’t remember his name right now. But, his English was slightly better than his Spanish, so that is how he told me basic directions. Laughing at my errors, however, was shared in a universal language.

Within the hour, I learned how to sort of slow down (as much as my lanky hip flexors would allow), turn a bit, and look slightly pro while doing it. He assured me that with a few more days training, I would be ready for Olympic tryouts. Encouragement goes a long way when skiing is one of your biggest fears.

So the lessons ended, I made it down the big bunny slope hill without dying or piercing my instructor, who encouraged me to press my ski poles into his chest while he skiid backwards and slowed me from flying down the Andes at 800kph.

Then, Alex had the fortune of skiing with me. More like spectating, I guess. And he photographed me – while skiing backwards. Then videotaped me, while skiing backwards. At some point, he caught me skiing ever-so-overly-fast, directly into a “slow down” sign, thus knocking it over. Oh, the irony.

So we had some breaks. Alex went off to do real skiing while I did my best to not die. I succeeded, and I even started to get the hang of it by the end. My hip flexors and back said “thats enough”, as did my watch.

Brazilian’s watches run precisely 10 minutes slow. We sat on that bus, waiting for everybody to get back on at the designated 5pm. Nobody… nobody, nobody….. then, 5:10pm and suddenly 20 Brazilians pile onto the bus at once. It turns out, I don’t even think they were a big group of people who knew each other – its just how it is.

We went down the scary hills and switchbacks, which at this point was actually quite slow from all of the ski-evacuation traffic. Again, we did not fly down or into a cliff, despite the driver’s numerous attempts.

The day was a success, ended by a rather disgusting Chilean sandwich. I wonder if this is how many Chilean’s days go. They have fairly terrible food here in Santiago. Lots of  hotdogs, hamburgers, and other nasty things. Figuring it seemed to be the national cuisine of Chile, we went for one of these things after the trip. I got a vegetarian equivalent of “El Completo” which normally carries a hot dog – but in my case they just removed that integral ingredient. Mushrooms, onions, peppers, about 2 cups of guacamole, 1 cup of mayo, all slathered into a hot dog bun. It was the messiest, most mediocre and fulfilling thing I could have eaten at that moment. I was hungry. Tomorrow, I expect to have cholera.

Chilean Merlot, some craft beers, some chores of doing laundry, and a long skype chat with Alex’s girlfriend, Lindsey, ended our last night here in Chile. Tomorrow, we are off to Montevideo.

So long, oeste de America del Sur!

Foreign Accents

So I’m back in Ohio for the holidays. In a coffee shop.

There is a table to my right, with two older women and an Amish man seated. They are speaking. I cannot understand them.

Dutch?

The women are not dressed as Amish, and it would be odd for them to be speaking Amish Dutch.

Iba fume ieeheh. Shon shanganiz if albenen on ten. Thurrsde if lar eh iz bizzeh. Auff en war mar der car crashen.

What the hell is this? I try to focus.

It is – surprisingly – English. Is this the accent I grew up with? It sounds like these women are from Minnesota. Are they rolling their r’s? Where are these z’s coming from? Where are the “th” sounds? Why do all vowels sound like a soft “i”?

This has happened before, where English sounds foreign to me. I can zone out and unfocus to a point where it just sounds like phonetic noise. As if I were watching TV in Chechloslovakia. Meaningless combinations of consonants and vowels with an occasional understood proper noun… “Bleh nartio ard funfo par kun Wal Mart der hur friewenhsha bata da hunse bata subitastar.”

What it boils down to, is that we sound pretty funny speaking English.