Monday, December 31, 2012

Brazil Day 11: Spunky Rio giveth and taketh on New Years Eve

**There will not be many photos from today as I somehow "misplaced" my camera just as the New Years festivities were kicking into high gear. You're missing out on a very suave photo of me in my all-white New Year outfit drinking a white fruit juice**

Brazil has some of the most interesting New Years traditions we have encountered on our travels. We prepared by packing an all-white outfit, which will bring good fortune. The color of your underwear also determines your destiny for the upcoming year, so I went with red-white-blue boxer shorts to cover all bases while showing American patriotism. Concessionaires have got into the game by selling cotton candy in luck-infused colors as well. Olga describes this really well in her blog post.

Queuing up Copacabana the beach for festivities

We had reserved a bike tour online, and although we were charged and received a receipt and a booking code and a survey, we didn't get a reconfirmation email. Apparently this is because the tourguide wasn't able (or didn't bother to) head to the city for today's tour. No matter, we were there at Copacabana beach in the afternoon, right where we planned to be again for New Years Eve festivities, so we made our own walking tour of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon beach areas.

It turned out to be way too hot for a bike tour anyway, so we ducked into a fruit juice bar where we had a really wonderful fresh Soursop juice, and then Devassa brewpub in Ipanema. Devassa had two beers that looked interesting: Negra, which was nothing special compared to the other mass-produced Brazilian Negras (hints of dish soap and burnt marshmallows with an aftertaste of Kvas) -- and the Sarara Hefeweizen, the first locally-brewed one we've had in Brazil. The Hef was quite good, lemony, effervescent, with what Olga described as tastes of "bread, pollen, and apricot". Brazil can make a good Hefeweizen! If you make it, will they come?


Around 8pm we started getting hungry for dinner, and noticed that all of the restaurants around Copacabana were closed or had switched to serving alcohol-only. After a bit of searching, we managed to find a nice little pub and ordered some Brazilian bar food: Fried cod fillet, pastel de queijo (cheese empanadas) hard boiled quail eggs, and a Cervejaria Petrópolis Petra Escura Premium. I think we've definitely already tried the best dark beers in Brazil. The best mass-produced Brazilian dark beer is probably Bohemia Cerveja Extra Escura, which we had in SobreNatural in Rio. The highlight of the meal wasn't the food or the drink, it was the slightly toasted Angolan man who set at the next table over and wouldn't stop talking to us. At one point, when the food arrived and we had to focus on eating and making a plan for the evening, I turned my back on him because I couldn't find any other way to stop this gabbing in mixed French, Portuguese, and broken English. No matter, it didn't seem to phase him at all, because moments later he tapped me on the back repeatedly and started jabbering again. In fact maybe he liked that I was ignoring him, because when he check arrived, he snatched it from the hands of the waiter and insisted on paying for our meal!! Nothing I said could dissuade him. The waiter made of gesture with his hands indicating that our hands are clean - I even looked over to the bar owner with a shrug and he looked back nodding that yes this is legitimate and I should accept it. If this keeps up, we're going to have a lot of Brazilian Reale bills left over at the end of the trip! :)

We got to the beach around 9pm, it was a very chill scene considering 2 million people were expected. Copacabana is a long-enough beach that people aren't packed in too tightly. Compared to Times Square NYE, which has 'only' 1 million participants, prohibits alcohol, and locks people into a pen for about 6 hours during which time you can't leave or even move, Rio's scene is absolutely relaxed, with people selling reasonably-priced drinks on the beach. In fact we didn't see any violence or drunken behaviour. It's a model for other cities to investigate!

After-party in Ipabema. Look at all the people in white!

We relaxed, made phone calls, waded in the water, and bought drinks until the magic hour when all 2 million people (or at least the 1.3 million Portuguese-speaking locals) counted down from dez to um and the fireworks started. Actually it sounded to me that the counting wasn't even, it had more of a samba beat to it, like DEZ---NOVE---OITO-SETE-SEIS---CINCO---QUATRO---TRES-DOIS-UM---ZERO-FELIZ ANO NOVO!!! We happened to be right in the middle of what looked like 5 side-by-side choreographed firework displays completely in sync with each other. It wasn't the highest but it was the wide/longest fireworks display we have ever seen!

Sunrise, back in our flat, ready for bed.

The next place to be, according to those in the know, was a beach between Copacabana and Ipanema. We walked about an hour to get there (the beaches are very long and a little far apart) and enjoy the scene of mostly 30-somethings chillaxing, dipping in the ocean, and listening to samba and other local music. We left there about 4:30am, and by the time we got back to our flat, the sun was already well into rising. It just dawned on us that we should expect no jetlag upon returning to SF. Going to bed at 6am in Rio is midnight Pacific time. Pretty perfect transition!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Brazil Day 10: Rio can be so generous!

We walked passed what is possibly the first Churrascaria (Brazilian Steakhouse) we've seen on this trip. Maybe it's because we weren't hunting them out (I don't eat meat - and we rather have many little many than one big one). Maybe it's because we've been spending almost all of our time in "neighborhoody" neighborhoods rather than tourist-oriented ones. In fact, now that I write this post, I see that the Churrascaria we saw is actually owned by an American Private Equity firm. I guess the Churrascaria has taken on a life of its own in America - here in Rio it doesn't seem so pronounced. I would call an Acai shop or Lanchonete (both of which we ended up at again today) way more common Brazilian restaurant than a Churrascaria.

Is McDonald's giving away
free ice cream or something??
Olga posing with Sugarloaf
Everybody ready to climb?
another Acai slushie!
Hopefully not the last!

After visiting the Museu da República - which I found mostly skippable except for its nice garden and unintentionally creepy "caves" - we made our way to Sugarloaf Mountain. When people come to visit Rio, there are two main sites that stick out -- literally: Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado mountain.

View of Rio from Sugarloaf
(by night)
View of Rio from Sugarloaf
(by day)
Heading up the final stage
from Mt Urca or Mt Sugarloaf

Having limited time, we decided to visit Sugarloaf because a very cute neighborhood Urca is at the base. More on that later. It's incredible how quickly the Sugarloaf cable car system was originally built. Imagined in 1907 during Rio's World Expo, planning started in 1910, it was completely built and running by 1912. This is especially incredible when you consider it took almost that long for us to ascend and descend ;) With the New Years crowds in full force, we spent about 15 minutes looking at the view and 3+ hours waiting in 5 separate lines for tickets and for the two sections of cable cars to take us up and down Urca and then Sugarloaf mountains. We were there so long that that the sun completely set and we got to see the views in day and night versions - pretty cool!

One pizza: half tuna and onion,
half banana and cinnamon.
All delicious!
Churrascaria and gas station
Maria and Osman,
thanks for dinner!!!

Finally back at the base, we explored Urca neighborhood and found the hotspot Garota da Urca. They have a few other locations, including Garota da Copacabana (Girl from Copacabana), and one can assume they might have a location in Ipanema as well (all of these are neighboring beaches). The restaurant was really happening, yet the Maître d' was able to find us a table very quickly. Shortly, an elderly couple wandered by and asked in perfect English if we were coming or going (the table was still messy from the previous guests). I explained the situation, they asked if they could sit, and pretty soon we ended up having a lovely dinner together. They live next door and come to the restaurant for beer, an appetizer, and ice cream every Sunday. Before I knew it, Maria and Osman, an adorable couple married for 59 years and counting, had bought us dinner!

Olga adds a lot more insight into the museum, mountain view, our dinner - do yourself a favor and check out her blog!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Brazil Day 9: Rio has something for everyone!

Often when traveling, you don't end up doing the things you spent the morning planning. In our case, there's a museum Oi Futura dedicated to old telephones and futuristic technology. Unfortunately all the technology from the future couldn't keep this museum from being closed until the morning after we fly out. This just meant we had a chance to head to the Jardim Botânico instead!

A snack at the traditional 135-year-old Brazilian restaurant Lamas
The truffle was AMAZING and the other little guy looks like a snail

We alternated between confused and amused (let's call it confamused) by the map of the garden, which seemed to have no resemblance to time and space. It's a bit like the London Tube map which functions great as for pointing how to get from station to station underground, but when you're trying to walk around on the surface of the earth, you kind of really need to know distances and scale. After not finding much of anything we were looking for (breadfruit tree, chocolate tree, cacti) we decided maybe we could recognize something in the Amazon. When we finally found that section, it was closed because the bridge seemed to be wiped out due to high water. Such is tourism in Brazil :) One nice thing is that they keep the garden open well after closing time, so people can wander around for hours after that stop allowing new people in. Perhaps this is because visitors get so terribly lost, they need to be given a chance to find their way out :)

REALLY tall and straight palm trees at Jardim Botanico

To lift our spirits, we walked over to the wonderful cafe directly behind the garden, La Bicyclette. I'm not sure what my favorite part of this cafe was. The electric toasters on every table (and corresponding electric outlets embedded in the sidewalk)? The chocolate croissant? The ice coffee that is made with shaved frozen coffee? They were exactly what was needed so we could brave another museum...

Olga reaching for fruit
at Jardim Botanico

Dave still hasn't seen
any monkeys on this trip!

We know a handful of people in Rio de Janeiro. We probably know about 6 of the 6 million residents, and perhaps 8 of the 8 million living or visiting here. We ran into two people we know at the Instituto Moreira Salles which is a small but very interesting museum that Olga blogs about. What are the chances of running into them? Apparently about one in a million, give or take.

La Bicyclette has everything you could possibly want...

From the museum, we walked over to the Leblon and Ipanema neighborhoods. Olga tripped over a curb and blew out her flip-flops Jimmy Buffet style. Now for a segment we'll call "Purchased for Amazon Jungle, but used only in urban jungle": Bactine, Neosporin, Band-aids, Pepto, battery to charge USB devices. It turns out the jungle is safer than the city! The lodge where we stayed in the Amazon even had a "jungle doctor" (also known as the chef) on staff, with an expertise in bending back fingers and toes that are bent out of place. The only injuries we saw in the jungle were 1 girl who twisted her ankle playing soccer and a tour guide who had a urinary infection. There's probably a jungle herbal concoction could've helped him, but he seemed to greatly prefer antibiotics.

It seems The Blue Man Group is huge here!

Saturday night's festivities ended in Lapa, the district of music, dance, and drink. Vaca Atolada was the destination, known for the excellent samba bands who play there. The band was great, sitting in a circle around a table, riffing off each other. It just so happened that a club directly above had a Beatles cover band playing, so as long as we sat outside, we could hear Beatles Made Out
while the samba band was on break.

Samba band at Vaca Atolada

the Lapa hoards...

My only advice is to not order escura (dark) beer at Vaca Atolada. They don't have any, and instead brought Brahma Malzbier. It is super sweet and tastes like kvas with molasses and malt. Not cool. Walking back to our flat, we passed a ton of crazy drunk people hanging outside dance clubs. There was also a bit of a fun street music scene too. Lapa has something for everyone!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Brazil Day 8: Americans are welcome!

The whole fuss about not getting a night dive was all very silly. In Brazil, you have to go with the flow and enjoy the journey. Part of the charm of Arraial do Cabo is that fact that so few English-speaking tourists visits. To most locals, spotting an American is a novelty that would surely wear off if we were to show up, loudly, en masse, demanding Venti Skinny Soy Macchiato. In the meantime, so many people we met seemed at the same time surprised and genuinely excited to have a true English-speaking American in their presence. When I boarded the dive boat, the first thing a staff member said was "where are you from?" and then immediately "why are you here?" This is the 3rd time we have visited a beach town that is completely off the American tourist map, starting with San Vincenzo in northwest Italy and more recently Cefalù Italy in Sicily. Going to a town that's a little outside your comfort zone is what travel is all about.


Porcupinefish (type of Blowfish)

The dive with By Fish was wonderful, they are very attentive, made sure I understood everything, provided lots of snacks, and I made new friends on the dive boat. On Ilha dos Porcos (Island of Pigs), I held a Miriquites Eel (it slipped through my fingers actually), spotted a Porcupinefish that I showed to the dive group, a smooth puffer, and a Falso Voador (seems to translate as Fake Flier) which looked like it had hands that were scooping sand, then it would take a look and see if it found any buried treasure; disappointed it would move on and try again.

Great first dive,
ready for another!

With dive buddy Thiago
The water is sooo beautiful

 At the second site, Saco do Anequim in Ilha de Cabo Frio, I was paired up with a buddy Thiago who got his Advanced diving certification on a liveaboard in Cairns Australia where I did my first post-certification dive. Maybe we'll go back for the advanced certification :) We saw Flounder that lay horizontally on the bottom of the sea and completely blended into the seabed. In fact, two flounders seemed to be fighting with each other, which was the only way I could actually see them. Also a beautiful blue-green Angelfish swam right by my head, studying me as much as I was studying it. We also saw a spotted moray eel. It was a great set of dives, now it's time to think about the next adventure!

In Arraial, bicyclists carry
propane tanks, sinks. You name
it, they bike transport it. And
wearing just a helmet and a Speedo!

Olga, on the bus, very content
with Brazilian cheese on a stick

The bus ride (a traffic-free 3 hours) back to the Rio bus depot was easy - but the ride from there to our flat in Gloria was INSANE. I've never seen a driver accelerate so quickly and brake so abruptly. It was like a rollercoaster, I could almost feel my brain being squished into my skull. Dinner was at SobreNatural in Santa Teresa, a seafood-oriented all-natural restaurant with live acoustic Brazilian music. They recommended the Eel, but it was a bit too soon after having held one in admiration this morning. We got the Wreckfish, which was amazing, and I discovered at long last a Brazilian beer I like: Bohemia Escura (dark). I also tried another dark beer: Black Princess Escura, which wasn't nearly as good. Now every time we see a beer menu, I head straight for the Escura!

No idea what this was - we
passed a huge protest in
the crazy Rio bus.

SobreNatural Wreckfish
com Bohemia Escura!

A shout-out to the travel guide for Gringos visiting Rio who provided insight on getting to and around Arraial do Cabo that I couldn't find anywhere else!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Brazil Days 6-7: Living like a Brazilian

Lapa Viaduct that brought
water to Rio in the 1700s
Living like a Brazilian takes some getting used to. You might have prepared all the best research, asked everyone you know for advice, made multiple reservations in advance, but none of this will prepare you for that restaurant out of business, band wrapping up early, 3-hour bus ride taking 6 hours, scuba diving company disinterested in piloting their boats.

Olga hitching up to a pizza
cart on Praia Grande in Arraial
You have to take these things in stride like a Brazilian. So maybe you did email several dive companies in English and Portuguese weeks in advance (many of which received no reply and required a follow-up email), called to reconfirm, and bought bus tickets to travel hours to a tiny Brazilian town so you could get there in time for a night dive.

Dave enjoying an Acai
in Arraial do Cabo
Being a Brazilian means knowing it will all work out in the end. You find the bus trip to be long but relaxing, with time to read, eat, and nap. The bus is full of people like you - middle-class young couples and families trying to get away for an early weekend - not the experience you've been warned about with thieves trying to steal your bags while you sleep or head to the bathroom.  When you get to town, you might walk around and ask 8 different dive companies if they offer night dives, all with different explanations for why I don't qualify for one tonight.

Cheese on a stick! You're
supposed to bbq it, but
let's try Polly-O style.
The town of Arraial do Cabo is charming, and besides, you can always just dive in the morning. You may discover a spectacular restaurant near Praia Grande inside the Pousada Caminho do Sol -- serving "Brazilian lobster" Pumpkin Risotto -- and Cod with bananas and raisins cooked in a banana leaf. The extra time in town will afford you a chance to discover a town favorite: Acai drinks - essentially a slushie infused with local Acai fruit juice and topped with anything from ground peanut dust to chocolate jimmies. They are so popular, we saw more Acai stands in this small town than there are Starbucks in Seattle!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Brazil Days 2-5: Amazon Jungle Experience (part 2)

This is a follow-up to my first piece about our stay in the Amazon:

Some stand-out experiences from the Amazon region:

- Fishing for and eating piranha. It certainly wasn't a profitable venture, more raw meat was expended as a lure than what we caught. Still, it's quite an experience to catch something like that and eat it for lunch!

- Swimming in the Amazon right by where pink and grey dolphins were breaching, a very short distance from where we caught piranhas. Later in the day and the rest of the week, we repeatedly saw large Caiman (crocodiles) circling that exact swimming spot looking for lunch. A little bit later, a local girl was dangling her feet into the water - her foot and was bitten by a piranha!

- It rained every single day we were in the jungle, for minutes or hours at a time. You learn how to plan your activities - and whether it's a good time to put on a half-wet or a half-dry article of clothing...

- There is a concept of high/low water season, as well as the concept of wet/dry season - these two kinds of seasons do not exactly match up. When it is very rainy, it is wet season. When the river level is high from flow from up north, it is high season. During high season, the river level can increase by 2-3 meters, which is a huge amount when you consider what the human and animal kingdoms do to adjust.

- Every day as we made our way up and down the river, flying fish called Arowana (also known as Monkey Fish) were continuously jumping in the air as we boated by. They are an ancient species, with both gills and lungs. During high water season, they are known to jump and grab bugs, fruits, and even small birds from low tree branches! They are also pretty tasty :)

- There is no postal service, cell phone service, or internet service in the Amazon jungle. To pay your power bill, villagers have to travel 1 full day by boat every month to get to the payment office! Perhaps they take turns or combine multiple errands into one big trip...

- Now that they have electricity, what do they do with it? Refrigeration is great, but they seem to use it mostly for keeping their beer cold. Also we saw a few satellite dishes and giant speaker systems, with the same 5 songs playing day after day. This one is still stuck in my head:

- This section of the Amazon does a significant amount of cattle farming. The cows seem to be free to roam through swamps, along riverbanks, and across the river - but watch out for Caiman!

- The sky never gets completely dark - and we never saw any stars - even though we're about as far from electric light as anyone could be. Is it because it's so humid that the cloud cover never dissipates?

A few more photos...

Cows meandering up, down,
and through the river

Dolphins!! Right where
we were swimming :)

Practicing samba during
the Christmas party

Very special birthday party

Farewell photo of our group at the
gigantic and ancient Samauma tree

Dave swinging from a vine while...

...our boat drifted away! Luis and
Fabian had to strip down and rescue it!

Family of turtles at the
bottom of the tree trunk

Spending a little downtime
at the floating jungle bar

Annual holiday performance in
Manaus on Christmas night...
hundreds of thousands of residents!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Brazil Days 2-5: Amazon Jungle Experience (part 1)

Olga and I lived on the Amazon river, sought shelter under the canopy of its rainforest, survived on its abundant fruits, nuts, fish (and beer). Now emerging from this rich wildlife, I find I have trepidation about reconnecting with the outside (online and offline) world. What world/family/work events have transpired since I left? What is waiting for me to handle? Have the arrangements for the second leg of our trip been confirmed while we were immersed in the first leg? It turns out all of these concerns are mere distractions, the Earth has revolved and rotated for millions of years without me and will hopefully continue to do so (until they find the correct interpretation of the Mayan calendar).

What experiences stood out from our trip with Amazon Gero Tours, you ask. Here are a few takeaways:

There are three main employment opportunities for adults living in this region: farming, fishing, and tourism. Right now many changes are occurring that will affect future generations, particularly the building of schools in the villages (many of our guides, who grew up in this region, did not attend any school until they were about 14 years old) and the distribution of electricity (there is a major project to run power lines to all of Amazonas - the community where we stayed received theirs about 8 months ago). Our guides, in their late 20s and early 30s, had an opportunity to work steering sightseeing boats when they were in the early teens, then if they were self-starters and learned English on the job, could work their way up to guide. One guide I spoke with, currently 27 years old, is hoping to graduate from high school this coming year and start studying biology in university next year. Tourism is one path for these young men to get an education and leave the village, if they desire. Otherwise, it seems there are very few opportunities to live anything differently from how your parents and grandparents did.

The Amazonas we met were very warm and thoughtful. We were invited to their Feliz Natal (Christmas) party, which was also the birthday party for one of their oldest-ever residents, a 66 year-old great-grandmother. They shared beer with us and we danced until the wee hours. We made friends with many we would see farming, repairing motorboat engines, relaxing at the floating bar/market.

Here's the first set of photos from the Amazon:

"Meeting of the waters" where
Rio Negro and Rio Solimões
meet to form the Amazon River
Our guide Luis fearlessly picking up
a tarantula while I took a step back

Fishing for Piranha in the rain!

Dave Piranha fishing
Village gets electricity
and the first thing they buy...
a satellite dish!
Luis explaining how Manioc
is grown and processed from
a poison into a major staple

A young family we brought presents for
Piranha for lunch - fruits of our labor!

Olga swimming laps in the Amazon
What is Dave doing in the
Amazon?? The backstroke!

I'll post more experiences and thoughts in the next couple of days, stay tuned!

Olga blogs about her insights on our Amazon immersion: