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February 19, 2005

Arrival in Brasil: Rio

This post is going to be kind of long, sorry. It covers my 4 days in Rio.

The trip from SFO to Rio de Janeiro, via Washington D.C. and Sao Paulo took me about 20 sleepless hours. I landed in mid afternoon on Thursday, February 10th. I was quite happy to arrive at my hostel in the picturesque Botafogo neighborhood after an easy $R5 bus ride from the international airport, in fact I was unexpectedly stunned by the landscape. I had seen plenty of photos and even video of Rio de Janeiro, but it was something else altogether to be in the midst of it.

I wasn't sure how long I would stay in Rio, as my plans were open ended. I only knew that I wanted to investigate Barra de Tijunca, a strip of beach on the far south western edge of city that is separated from the mainland by a lagoon. This is where my cousin Daniel had been living, although he was off traveling in northern Brazil at the time. We had talked about maybe getting a place together once he got back.

Praia Botafogo Panoramic

Botafogo is located between the bay, the famous statue of christ, downtown, and Copacabana. It is not touristy like Copacabana and Ipanema, which I liked.

The view from my hostel balcony

Since I immediately fell asleep once I was showered, I woke up after dark and flipped through my guidebook's Rio de Janeiro section on nightlife. I found a nightclub called Casa da Matriz that was located in Botafogo and decided to try finding it. The bartender at the hostel drew me a map in between making Caipirinhas for the usual hostel crowd of drunken Europeans and Australians.

Praia Botafogo

The map turned out to be off by a few streets, so I got a chance to use my limited Portuguese to ask for directions from a few different people. Luckily I had just reached the lessons in my Pimsleur Brazilian Portuguese audio course that dealt with directions, so I managed this with relative ease. In all the traveling I've done in non-english speaking countries, I almost always try to learn some of the local language, at least for simple pleasantries and numbers, but I don't feel I have ever been so well prepared. Even when using french (in Tahiti and Morocco) I wasn't able to communicate so easily, despite having taken five years of french lessons in high school and university (it's mostly all forgotten now). Don't get me wrong, I'm sure my Portuguese is atrocious to anyone unlucky enough to have to attempt comprehension of it, but it is working at least.

Casa da Matriz was a nice enough club, but was hidden away down a few sketchy streets where I encountered cardboard box inhabitants and inexplicably a black and white TV sitting on a crate on the sidewalk, getting power from makeshift wiring apparently being stolen from a utility box and playing an early Hollywood era flick to a wholly deserted street. I was introduced to the drink card system commonly used in Brazil. You get a card listing drinks and the bartender just checks things off throughout the night. You pay the final tally before leaving and hand the receipt to the door person as you leave. At first I thought this was brilliant, until I got in line to pay around 3AM with half of the club already in front of me. At least the 45 minute queue was made entertaining by the two attractive women in line directly in front of me who passed the time making out with each other :)

I ended up sleeping away most of Friday's daylight as well, but managed to take the subway to Copacabana right before sundown. I was underwhelmed to be honest, but I guess I'm just not really a beach person and it is basically just a huge beach. I'm much more interested in the waves than the beach, and Copacabana had no waves.

Friday night around midnight I headed to a downtown nightclub to see Kruder (of Kruder and Dorfmeister) perform. I liked the club, an old theater with a huge stage and 4 levels of wrap-around balconies looking down on the main floor. The stairwells were wrought iron and complex lending a certain charm to moving about between the different levels and rooms. Eventually just about everyone from my hostel showed up and we all gathered on the roof which had a nice view of downtown accompanied by a drum-n-bass DJ. I lost everyone as we descended to the main floor to see Kruder start around 2AM but after an hour or so of trying to dance on the insanely crowded stage at the front of the theater I gave up because I just wasn't feeling the music. One of the rooms on the 3rd floor was playing some kind of american top 40 crap [shudder]. I guess I really only like psy-trance and break beats these days. Having decided that the drum-n-bass was the best of the lot, I went back up on the roof which was now being flooded by a downpour. Since it was warm, and I was in freakin' Rio de Janeiro, the rain didn't bother me and I spent another hour or more splash-dancing along with 3 other like-minded souls as about 40 people huddled tightly together under the DJ's tent probably thinking we were insane.

Saturday afternoon I took a taxi to Barra de Tijunca (R$20 one way). It had been described to me by a number of sources as more like southern California than Rio: shopping malls, residential/resort buildings, auto-centric suburbia-like. I actually didn't find it so offensive, walking around. It is a long strip of beach though, and I only explored the very tip, closest to Rio. There was a room for rent on an island in the lagoon behind the beaches that I wanted to check out. I found the island easily enough, a stone's throw across the water, but with no bridge access. It looked like a nice place to live, but I never did find the ferry access point. On the beach side, kite surfing seemed to be a popular sport. There was a school for it near the road, something I might check out if given the opportunity again. Disappointingly, the ocean water seemed rather cold! And there were no waves whatsoever.

I wanted to take photos, especially of the little river island community, but my camera battery died after one shot of some graffiti. I saw some fantastic graffiti all over town, but usually from a car window or when I didn't have my camera, so I only got a few shots. I'm collecting all of my Brasilian graffiti pics into a Flickr set.

When I got back to the hostel, I was able to find out that Rio rarely has surfable waves until March. Since that was still three weeks away, I decided to book my ticket to Florianopolis immediately as Floripa has waves all year 'round. With a ticket reserved on Gol airlines (means Gooooooal!) for Sunday afternoon, I started packing up my belongings.

That night (Saturday) I went with my dormitory-mate Peter to see the Carnaval Victory Parade. The top six samba schools in the main Carnaval competition are presented one more time to the adoration of the crowds. Since I (purposely) had missed Carnaval, it was a nice one night summation of it for me. On the way to the especially-built Carnaval stadium, we met some costumed performers on the Metro who were dressed as ovens (hot, hot, hot). As the train cars emptied out at the station, we found ourselves surrounded by Egyptian kings, cave men, wizards and roman gladiators. We followed the crowds to the stadium as fireworks exploded in the air and music blared from blocks away. As we approached the stadium dozens of searchlights lit up the sky while helicopters buzzed the parade route. It was quite visceral.

We found that the show was sold out and were told we'd have to buy tickets from scalpers or the black market. We wandered the streets looking for tickets until eventually Peter asked a police officer who pointed at a man standing a couple of paces away. The man wanted $R30 for the sector 6 tickets, which were plastic cards that Peter thought looked authentic but we were a bit worried. The ticket seller told Peter (who speaks fluent Spanish which gets you by OK in Brazil) "hey, I'm legit, there's a cop right there who'd bust me otherwise!" To which the cop responded by throwing up his hands, backing away and saying "hey keep me out of it." Which we thought was pretty funny since he pointed us to the guy in the first place. We ended up chancing it anyhow as we didn't have a lot of other options.

The tickets were valid for entry, but we later figured out that they were free complimentary passes that said "not for sale" on them. Oh well, I still consider it a win-win transaction.

We pushed through the crowds in Sector 6, which is apparently the cheap-seat section and got a spot on the rail next too a talkative well-lubricated (drunk) woman who shared her beer, food and binoculars with us. The binoculars helped since we were pretty far from the action, which also made taking still photographs next to impossible in the low lighting with a vibrating stadium. I ended up taking videos instead since almost all the photographs were coming out blurry. I'm working on getting the videos online somewhere, I'll update when they are available. In the meantime, here is one that gives a bit of the feel: Carnaval Victor's Parade 9 (6MB download).

The woman had a cool orange lid for her beer cans that let her jump around wildly without sloshing out her ale. I was pretty impressed by the contraption, so she ended up giving it to me. Nice lady!

Brasilian Beer Cap Caplady_1

She told me that after the victory parade, you can go to the street where it all terminates and get the used costumes for free. I really wanted to go grab some to use as Burning Man costumes, but I didn't have time since I had to get to sleep in order to wake up in time for my noon flight out of Rio the next day (I had yet to wake up before mid-afternoon and didn't have an alarm clock). So we left around midnight and got some late dinner at a stand near the hostel where I found the banana and grilled cheese with cinnamon sandwiches Elida had told me about. DELICIOUS. The sandwich was so I good I had it again for breakfast :) They also make a mean fruit shake there that rivals the ones I had in Thailand.

I had mostly packed up the night before leaving, so on Sunday I grabbed my bags from the dark dorm room without turning on the light because of the Slovenian dude sleeping in the top bunk who had stumbled in around 7AM (I had not met the guy yet, but Peter had told me that minutes after checking in Saturday evening, he had started smoking marijuana in our room and was caught by management and bitched out thoroughly. Wasn't too smart as our room was right next to the front desk). Well, it turned out to be quite a mistake that I didn't turn on the light for a proper look around. I had forgotten that I had hung up the clothes I had been wearing when dancing in the rain Friday night on the towel rack behind the door to dry, along with my towel which had been a present from Mie. So I lost the towel, my only pair of jeans and one of my favorite shirts I had bought in Thailand, only discovering this after landing in Florianopolis. Doh.

08:38 AM in Travel | Permalink

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