Archive for December 2009

A Lazy New Year’s Eve

December 31, 2009 - 7:46 pm 1 Comment

In the pouring rain, Gog and I braced ourselves for a walk to Copacabana. Copacabana was supposed to be a little sketchy, especially on New Year’s Eve. And since it’s next to but not connected to Ipanema Beach, you have to walk a short stretch of road off the beach to get there.

Along the way, police, security lighting, and other tourists made us feel safe. Eventually making our way over to Copacabana to check out the pre-party scene. We are hearing stories that the beach is going to fill up with up to two million people, so we thought it would already be getting crowded. But it wasn’t. Maybe the rain is discouraging people from coming out. The beach is pretty long, so I can see how millions of people could fit on it.

As we walked around, we kept whistling “The Girl from Ipanema” and Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana,” two songs which have gotten stuck in our heads for a few days now. “Copacabana” isn’t even about Rio’s Copacabana Beach, but it’s got a Jimmy Buffett beach-like feel to it, and it’s so damn catchy.

People are standing at the water’s edge throwing flowers and candy and wedding veils into the ocean. It would be a lot more romantic if the current swept it all away, but the waves just wash everything up onto the beach like litter.

A Gift for Yemanja?

Reveillon 2010

We sat down for some ultra-strong caipirinhas at a bar called Meia Pataca and watched the crowd slowly increase in density. Local workers assembled stages and lighting structures in front of us for the DJs and live bands.

By all accounts, tonight should be a spectacle. Everyone wears white, and Gog and I have our outfits ready to go. Tati told us that there is a local New Year’s tradition of standing in the ocean, jumping over seven waves, and making a wish. I’ll have to think of a good one.

Tati also warned us that the restaurants all book up on New Year’s Eve, so in what I thought was a stroke of planning genius, we decided to go back to Carretão Churrascaria for a large dinner. By filling up at 4pm, I figure we should be able to go the rest of the night without eating.

Green Means More Meat

Sitting in the apartment right now. It’s not dark yet, but already I’m starting to hear firecrackers popping outside. So weird that it’s actually going to be 2010. Have we really made much progress since 2000? Are we anywhere close to having a Space Odyssey?

Happy New Year everyone!

A Tour of Rainy Rio

December 31, 2009 - 3:13 am No Comments

Still no bags when we woke up this morning. We had a tour or Rio to catch, so we didn’t have time to make any calls.

The bus was late. When we finally got on, we jammed into seats too small for normal human beings. Lucielmo (I think that was his name) was our guide. He spoke in bits and pieces of Portuguese, Italian, and English, never using a complete sentence in any of them, sometimes using the microphone and sometimes not. Instead of practical information, Lucielmo filled the time with double-talk, a stupid grin, and goofy comments, including one borderline offensive one about a Lebanese tourist who married a Mexican woman and how their relationship, wedding, and babies were probably “explosive.”

Our “city tour” of Rio, one of the included items in the package, consisted of us zooming through the city and listening to Lucielmo trying to figure out what he saw ten seconds after we passed it. I would have liked to stop at the beautiful building that I think was the Theatro Municipal. We did stop at the strange-looking Rio de Janeiro Cathedral.

Rio de Janeiro Cathedral

Next, we went to Sugarloaf Mountain, a place that offers scenic viewpoints of Rio. By this time, it had started raining, and by the time we took two cable cars to the top, it was fogging over.

Rio from Sugarloaf Mountain

After walking around a bit, we headed back down and then started looking for everyone else. Lucielmo hadn’t given us any times or places to meet up, so we hung out in the parking lot for a while and waited. By the mid-morning, pretty much everyone was fed up with him.

The lunch included with the tour was much like the other meals we’ve had here, a meat and sides buffet. With the quantity of red meat consumed in this country, I wonder two things:

a) Where and how big are the farms for all these animals?

b) What’s the rate of cardiac disease in this country?

After lunch and without notice, Lucielmo was replaced by a woman who wasn’t much better. Like Lucielmo, Regina talked a lot but didn’t really tell us anything. What she was good at was abandoning on the bus for almost thirty minutes on Corcovado while she went to go scream at some other Portuguese bus drivers.

Corcovado is the site of Christ the Redeemer, a giant statue of Jesus with outstretched arms at the top of the mountain and one of the highlights of any trip to Rio. When we arrived, it was raining and foggy. Regina finally got her shit together and found a driver to take us up the windy roads to viewpoints and the statue, but visibility was near zero. After taking an escalator and some stairs to get up to the viewing platform, you could not see the city below nd could barely see the enormous statue right in front of us.

Southwest View from Christ the Redeemer

Christ the Redeemer

All in all, everyone associated with running the tour acted like they had never done it before. We arrived back at our apartment two hours later than scheduled, tired and soaked and annoyed.

Still no bags. By this point, the web site was useless. We had spoken on the phone with five airline reps of questionable commitment and intelligence. And in a move of stupefying incoordination, the latest was that American Airlines had sent our bags out for delivery to different addresses at different times by two different delivery companies, but they could not give us any more details. Fed up, Gog got the number of one of the local deliver companies and called. The guy who answered said that he actually had both bags, tracked them down, and told us that they were out for delivery, confirming with a driver on the other line that he had the address correct.

A little more confident that Gog would have fresh underwear in a few hours, we went out for dinner at Garota de Ipanema, the restaurant where “The Girl from Ipanema” was written. We took a break from red meat and had some scrumptious pizza and a side of potato salad with tuna. We washed it all down with caipirissimas, caipirinhas that replace cachaça with rum and taste a whole lot like mojitos.

Garota de Ipanema

Doug & Me in Garota de Ipanema

When we got back to the apartment, the doorman smiled and told us that OUR BAGS HAD ARRIVED. Gog was like Tiger Woods winning the Masters, dropping down to one knee and pumping his fist into the air so violently that a normal person would have dislocated his shoulder. We rushed to our room and dug out some fresh clothes. Gog’s four-day-old underwear belongs in a museum.

We tracked down Tati and met up with her at a bar in Ipanema. She brought along Marinha, an old friend of hers. Together, we drank and played games, including 3-5-7 (ask me and I’ll show you sometime), a connect-the-dots-to-make-squares game I used to play with my Dad when I was younger, and a fun test where we each took turns drawing the other’s home country on a napkin. Tati’s USA was priceless. Looked like a rectangle with a penis.

Country Drawings

Tomorrow, we wake up with clean clothes and will do our best to enjoy the last day of the decade.

The Walk Down Ipanema Beach

December 30, 2009 - 4:19 am No Comments

Had a very productive morning, adding Skype credits to my account so that we could use my laptop to affordably call Tati and American Airlines and Doug’s bank at home. Skype’s amazingly cheap for international calls, and it’s a must for any traveler with a laptop.

Craving bacon and eggs, we searched for a decent place for breakfast but couldn’t find anything. Traditional breakfast is hard to find in this area. Everyone wants to feed you meat. We had to settle for turkey wraps at Rota 66, a Tex-Mex restaurant in Ipanema.

Then we had some errands to run. Walking the streets of Ipanema are tourists who seem to be from Brazil or other parts of South America. There don’t seem to be a whole lot of American or European types walking around. The locals come in all shapes and sizes: tall and short, fat and skinny, light and dark, hairy and bare. In general, people look happy and seem friendly, and we haven’t really been scared about being mugged or pickpocketed. False sense of security? Or is it really not that bad around here?

Fish Market

Walking around in the warm humidity with my jeans and thick shirt was getting uncomfortable, so I used the rest of my US$25 American Airlines credit to buy some sweet purple shorts and a sweet black sleeveless t-shirt. I feel a hundred times better and, according to Tati, I ALMOST look like a carioca (a native of Rio).

We stopped at a travel agency to book a tour of Rio for tomorrow. Seems like a pretty good way to efficiently see all of Rio’s main attractions, including the city center, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Christ the Redeemer. We stopped for an açaí (ah-SIGH-ee) smoothie, which was awesome, and then headed to Ipanema Beach to meet Tati and her friends.

Surrounding Ipanema Beach are magnificent, jagged mountains that look like they’ve been rendered with 3D computer software. It actually looks like the mountains of Milford Sound, New Zealand quite a bit.

The sand is light brown and warm and squeaks with each step. Apparently:

Squeaking sand can be found on beaches on every continent in the world (except maybe Antarctica). Not all beaches squeak though, it only occurs when a certain types of sand (silicates, carbonate of lime, etc.), with grains at a certain size (around 300 micrometers), create layers from the wind and moisture. The sand also has to be well weathered, smooth, and fairly spherical.

The strange squeaking noise is caused from the friction of the layers rubbing against each other.

Also, polluted sand will not squeak. So if a beach stops squeaking, it’s because foreign matter has mixed in with the sand and taken away its voice. So if your beach squeaks, you know it’s clean.

Ipanema Beach is roughly divided by numbered lifeguard stands. Tati told us to meet us at #9, which is apparently where the coolest and best-looking people tend to go. Every girl wears a bikini, with bubble butts and large boobs everywhere. All the guys wear Speedos, and most (especially on gay Beach #8) are pretty jacked.

Doug and I felt a little small and pale, so we took off our shirts, slapped on some lotion and got to work. The blazing sun and humidity made things borderline uncomfortable, so we rented a giant beach umbrella and sipped coconut water and beer.

The ocean was chocolaty brown. Not sure if it’s pollution or natural, but it didn’t stop young couples and families and me from frolicking in it. The waves were coming in pretty good, throwing people all over the place. I’m not normally an ocean person, but it felt so nice.

Before heading back, Doug and I walked down to Arpoador, at the east end of Ipanema Beach, for a magnificent view. Walking the beach, Doug and I felt very safe. No suspicious looking characters anywhere.

Ipanema Beach

Tasty Bottoms

Yellow Umbrellas on Ipanema Beach

After showering and getting back into our dirty clothes, we met up with Tati and her cousin at a churrascaria (restaurant with all-you-can-eat meat) near our apartment called Carretão. DELICIOUS, and amazingly cheap. Our bill was R$269, which works out to US$39/person for filet mignon, sushi, sides, dessert, and wine.

Back at the apartment, we checked the American Airlines site and saw that the bags should have been delivered, but we still haven’t gotten them. So we fired up Skype and called them. The lady said that we should expect them tomorrow morning, and to call them back if they don’t come in.

So we headed out, in the same clothes we’ve now been wearing for three days. I have some new clothes so I get to mix it up a little bit, but Doug has been bravely roughing it with his gray t-shirt and khaki Transformer pants.

We cabbed over to Tati’s house (nice place!) and met her family and friends. They had no problem with my name but much difficulty with Doug’s. “Dug? Dog? Ahahah. Hot Dog!” We all had a few drinks and then took a bus into the city center for music and dancing. We had gotten a late start, so most of the bars around Lapa were very busy with long lines to get in. We finally settled on one, Carioca da Gema, and went inside. It was uncomfortably crowded. I’m normally not into being pushed around, but I was willing to deal with it since we are in Rio and the live samba band was great.

Now a moment to discuss the seemingly idiotic payment system used in bars and clubs and some of the restaurants in Rio. When you try to go inside, you are held up at the door by a girl or guy who figures out how many people there are in your party. Then, if they have room for you, they will give each person in the party a piece of paper with their name (they put “Gog” on Doug’s) and a list of all possible items for purchase with checkboxes. If there is a cover charge to go in, this is marked on the paper before you go inside. Then you drink. Each time you order something, you hand them your paper and they mark off one of the checkboxes next to the item you ordered. At the end of the night, you have to see the cashier to pay your bill. And if you don’t time it right, you’ll find yourself waiting in an enormous line for up to an hour, losing your buzz and killing your momentum. You cannot leave the building unless you give the person at the door your receipt showing payment.


Although the Lapa area seems like it could be a little sketchy, Doug and I felt safe again tonight. I’m sure it helps that we were hanging out with a large group of locals, and that Tati is keeping a close eye on us. Tati, by the way, rhymes with “scratchy.” That’s how she and her friends say it.

Tati has been amazing to us. She’s always available to hang out, get a drink, or grab a meal. She picks us up and takes us places, gives written instructions to our taxi drivers, and makes sure we don’t get run over when we cross the street. We are surely seeing things and going places we never would have without her. With Tati, everything in Rio has been almost too easy. Muito obrigado, Tati!

Still no bags back at the apartment. The web site no longer displayed our bag information, so we fired up Skype and called American Airlines again, asking WTF the deal was and whether or not we could get additional credit to buy new clothes since our bags have been lost for three days. No, but maybe they will give us a credit if they don’t show up tomorrow. I can’t believe American Airlines expects its customers to stay in the same clothes for three days when losing their baggage. By tomorrow, Gog will be going on his 4th day of wearing the same clothes, and he is, understandably, getting a bit irritated.

We need to be up at 7:30am tomorrow for our Rio tour. Boy, am I tired.

A Night in Rio

December 29, 2009 - 12:24 am No Comments

Our Rio Apartment

Dinner with Tati at a little restaurant called Boteco de Garafa, in the nearby neighborhood of Leblon (lih-BLON). I treated myself to a lime caipirinha (Brazil’s national drink) and got drunk after three sips. Good stuff. Was nice getting to know Tati, who is a local and seems very happy to show us around Rio for the next few days.

At Boteco da Garrafa

After dinner, Tati showed us around Ipanema and Copacabana by car. She said we’d be going places where I could take pictures, so I took my camera. While driving along Copacabana Beach, I started asking Tati some questions about the prostitutes leaning on the parked cars. Trying to accommodate me, she stopped in front of one and rolled down the window. I was scared. I asked her to keep driving.

We parked the car, and Tati said it was OK to take pictures. With nightclubs flickering on one side of the road and a well-lit but empty beach on the other, and lots of sketchy looking characters in between, I was a little scared, but Tati reassured me. I stepped onto the beach and immediately got looks from three rather large and scary-looking Brazilian guys, but it turns out they were security guards wondering WTF this gringo was thinking. Tati walked over to them, struck up a conversation, and everything was fine. I bet there aren’t a lot of people who have taken pictures of Copacabana Beach at night with a camera like mine.

Copacabana Beach at Night

Copacabana at Night

We also drove around Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a good-sized lake in the middle of Rio with a brightly lit Christmas tree floating in the middle. Kind of cool, but apparently the locals hate it because people slowing down to look causes a lot of traffic.

Christmas in Rio

Tati took to one of her local Monday night hangouts, an intersection in Leme where bars overflowed and Brazilians drinking beer filled the streets. Although there were lots of people there, Tati said it was surprisingly dead and wasn’t sure why.

Tati & Me

She took us to a few other spots around town, but there wasn’t much going on. Giving up, she dropped us off at our apartment. Doug and I rallied and ventured out on our own but couldn’t find anything except the sweet smell of bacon lingering at one particular intersection near our apartment. A relatively early night for our first in Rio.

Still no sign of our bags. The American Airlines web site says they will be delivered to our apartment tomorrow. Fingers crossed.

Ving Rhames and Mean ATMs

December 28, 2009 - 7:15 pm No Comments

As we descended over Rio, the clouds broke and revealed huge expanses of mostly tiny buildings surrounding green mountains all around the city. I was snapping pictures out the window when a Brazilian guy leaned across the aisle and said, “Be careful in the street with your camera.”

Green Hills Around Rio

Apparently, Ving Rhames was on our flight. He walked right by us and zipped through the much shorter crewmember line in customs. Doug spotted another familiar face, Chris Ferguson, who is apparently a big time poker player.

We walked to baggage claim and waited. And waited. No bags. The guy at the service counter confirmed that Doug’s bag was still in Miami, but he had no record of my bag. Hmm. He told us that our bags would be delivered tomorrow and gave us each a US$25 credit to use for toiletries.

Lost Baggage: Annoying

Before we did anything, we’d need some local currency. My usual routine of hitting an ATM and withdrawing cash (you seem to get pretty fair exchange rates in other countries) was thwarted by ATMs not recognizing my bank card. As we were walking over to get ripped off by a currency exchange booth, one of the guys standing with the taxi drivers offered to change my money at a much better rate. Sketchy, but it worked.

The arrivals terminal was filled with taxi drivers and non-taxi drivers who wanted to take you places. They were willing to match the standard rate of R$80 offered by the sanctioned taxi cab services, but one of the drivers finally offered to give us a “discount” and take us for R$69.

We hopped in and headed to Ipanema. The scenery around Rio is magical. Lush vegetation lines the highway, and green, jagged mountains define the hazy skyline. Christ the Redeemer, one of Rio’s most famous landmarks, is visible in the distance.

We pulled up to our apartment building and met Laura. Friendly and helpful, she showed us in and answered all of our questions. Turns out Laura’s been renting property in the area for 21 years. When we asked her about safety in the area, she told us that only a couple of months ago, police swept through Ipanema and Copacabana and, through a well-organized series of violent attacks, cleared out a lot of the crime. According to her, the neighborhood was now “very safe.” Maybe Rio is starting to clean itself up a bit for the upcoming Olympics.

Our studio apartment is small but comfortable and safe. There is a security guard at the front, and it takes two keys to get in. Doug has graciously offered to let me have the twin bed while he takes the cushion thing that opens up into a bed. The little air conditioner has to work pretty hard to keep the room cool, but the Internet connection is great. A novelty broom closet elevator takes us up and down from the third floor.

We still owed Laura some money, so we walked around to a few banks, but again, we had a hard time finding friendly ATMs. After making arrangements to meet up with Laura again tomorrow, Doug and I stopped for lunch and split a platter of steak, chicken, sausage, and pork. Then found a drug store where Doug and I discussed our preference of solid stick vs. roll-on deodorant. After finding some “Happy Time” hand lotion, we were ready to go.

Happy Time Lotion

I’m getting a pretty good vibe form this place. It’s not nearly as scary as I was expecting it to be. Locals and tourists all seem happy, and there seems to be police everywhere. I’m going to continue to be cautious, but I think I might be able to get a few pictures out of this place.

We came back to the apartment for a few minutes and were just about to venture out to explore the Ipanema Beach, but thunderclouds just rolled in and it’s now pouring rain. Since we’re wearing the only clothes that we have and will have to keep wearing them until tomorrow at least, we’ve decided to stay in and chill out in our air-conditioned room for a while before heading out to dinner tonight with Tati.

Off to Rio!

December 28, 2009 - 10:08 am No Comments

For me, stress levels go up exponentially the days before a trip. The last few days are a mad rush of finishing up work projects, trip bookings, and packing. I ended up packing for this trip in about 45 minutes.

Doug's Sushi Dinner at National Airport

Hard at Work

Our flight to Miami was late. We had to sprint through Terminal D to make our connection. Fortunately, airplane maintenance meant that the flight to Rio was late as well, so we were able to make it. The guy at the counter assured us that our bags would NOT make the flight and that they would have to be delivered to us in Rio. Wonderful.

Before going to sleep, I set my watch ahead three hours (never realized Rio was so far east), filled out my customs forms, and had a meal of relative delicious airplane lasagna. The maintenance was obviously for something other than the air conditioning, which has been blasting all flight and making the cabin downright frigid.

Thanks to Brazilians behind me swinging on my chair like angry gorillas, I never achieved REM sleep. Waking up was just a matter of opening my eyes. Doug, who took some sleeping pills a few hours ago, is sleeping like a baby.

Peeking out the window, I see a big-ass wing and a blanket of white cloud. Brazil’s under all that, I think. We should be in Rio in less than an hour!

The Shortest Day

December 21, 2009 - 3:31 pm No Comments

The last couple of weeks have been a flurry of research and bookings and stress. Preparing to go on such a big trip is a lot of work, and since we’ve waited so long to finalize our schedule, book our flights, and organize or tour packages, our options were starting to become limited and prices were starting to skyrocket. This trip was twice as aggravating as Thailand was.

Accommodation was particularly frustrating. Between hotel web sites, hotel booking engines, tour packages including hotels, and local Craigslist listings, the options are overwhelming. Especially when there are no pictures or reviews. Just like it was for Thailand, TripAdvisor ended up being a great help. It’s the closest thing there is to a central database with availability, prices, and (supposedly) objective reviews from travelers, and it’s what I’ve been consulting for all of my bookings in Brazil and Argentina. I love that site. How did we ever find hotels before? Did we rely on our out-of-date, printed travel guides like Lonely Planet? Or did we just not care and find a place when we showed up?

By all accounts, Ipanema is the nicest and safest area in Rio. Unfortunately, Ipanema hotels were mostly sold out around New Year’s, so we ended up booking an apartment for a few days.

I sent a US$730 deposit with Western Union to a woman named “Laura” for the apartment. Cash in her pocket. She can walk away. It’s a bit scary booking some of this stuff, since it’s often through shoddy web sites and English-not-so-good e-mails that you plan everything. Who wouldn’t feel a certain about of nervousness about using Western Union with a woman named Laura or sending thousands of dollars with your credit card to a guy named Fred for an organized tour in Patagonia? Scary. But what can you do? You can’t really do a background check on a lot of these small companies and independent operators, so it all takes a certain amount of faith.

The accommodation and tour packages we booked in Rio, Salvador, and Iguazu Falls ended up being pretty damn expensive. The flights, in particular, were borderline ridiculous, presumably due to the limited capacity of the small planes servicing the airports inside Brazil. Our internal flights cost A LOT more than our international round trip ticket from Washington, DC. But it’s all done. Now, it’s time to relax and enjoy. This is what it’s all about.

The stories about muggings and violent crime in Brazil are still rolling in. One guy got stabbed in the liver when he resisted a mugging. Another was held up at gunpoint. A guy I work with was driven around Copacabana but a taxi driver who was snorting coke. A friend’s friend got mugged twice in one night. A photographer was telling me about his buddy who had all of his photo gear stolen twice. And another buddy of mine knows of a newly married couple who moved to Rio and were murdered within a year.

Found this on the web:

At night, especially after traffic has died-down you may hear what sounds like fireworks and explosions. This is not as menacing as it sounds, though it is still indicative of somebody up to no good. These are often firecrackers set-off as signals in the favelas. It might mean that a drug shipment has arrived and is in-transit, or that the police are making a raid into the favela. It is a signal to gang operatives who act as lookouts and surrogate police to be extra-vigilant. However, real shoot-outs may occur, especially on weekends. If you are on the street and you hear a shooting, find shelter in the nearest shop or restaurant.

This one was my favorite:

The tourist will be approached by a shoeshiner and to his astonishment discover a large, dirty blot on his shoes (which is actually shoe polish or mustard, but looks like quite something else). The tourist is typically shown to a chair and has his shoes or sandals cleaned in the best manner. Only after this service is rendered, the outrageous price of somewhere around R$1000 or more is revealed. At this point, muscular friends of the shoeshiner typically appear to “oversee” the completion of the transaction. If you are approached by a shoe shiner, you should shout or state loudly “NO” and walk quickly past. Swearing in your native tongue could also act as a deterrent. Should you be so unlucky as to have been put in a position where you cannot prevent having your shoes cleaned, it will be of some relief to you that the price can often be haggled down to a level suited to the size of your wallet.

And I’m not even sure the police are going to be much help:

Policemen can usually be trusted, but corruption in Brazil is still rampant and a few officers may try to extort you or demanding a little bribe.

There was even an article about how to get mugged “properly” (go limp, let them go through your pockets, and look down so that they don’t think you are trying to see what they look like). It’s also helpful to always keep a little money in your pockets, so the thieves have SOMETHING to take from you and don’t beat you up for wasting their time.

I think I’m ready. I’ve learned where to go and where not to go, how to carry my stuff and how to carry myself. And I’ve learned a few tricks for avoiding trouble. I won’t revel them now for fear that there are enterprising criminals using stolen laptops and wifi to read my blog. 🙂

For peace of mind, I’ve purchased a renter’s insurance policy to cover all of my stuff, with an all-risk rider for my expensive photo gear. If anything happens to my stuff, it will be covered. It’s amazingly affordable, and I strongly recommend it for anyone traveling with valuable equipment.

And to top things off, my buddy has a girlfriend who will be visiting family in Rio while we’re there, and Tatiana has graciously offered to show us around. Doug and I will feel a lot more comfortable hanging with a local.

With the trip only a few days away, fear is starting to give way to excitement. It’s strange to think that a week from today, the shortest day of the year up here in the northern hemisphere, I’ll be sitting under a blazing sun on the beach in Rio.