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 Did we rely on our out-of-date, printed travel guides like Lonely Planet?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.

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