Trip to Brazil - March 2003

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     Our adventure begins with a severe frisking by the SFO airport gestapo, an unfortunate cancelled United flight and a subsequent stay in a 3rd-world motel (Travel Inn) in Miami. We actually lose a day in Rio and a lot of sleep due to this. The cancelled flight makes us miss the Rio connection in Sao Paulo, so we stay at the Mariott (Nice!) in Sao Paulo for about 4 hours (including some drinking and a quick little hack to make their Internet computer actually boot and bypass the payment system so that everyone there can use it) before we have to catch the 5am flight to Rio de Janeiro. After major airport meet-up confusion, we finally find Muru at the hotel in Niteroi and sleep until about 2pm.
Mariliza and Muru.
     Niteroi is a city across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. It is the Oakland to our San Francisco. Our hotel (Tower Icarai II) was very nice and close to the beach, but unfortunately all of the beaches near Rio smell like sewage, so you can't swim at them. Lars and I grabbed some dinner (I had fried chicken and fried heart of palm) at the hotel restaurant and waited for Muru and Mariliza to get back from Copacabana. Once we're all together, we take a ferry across the bay to Rio, grab a taxi, and get a run-down on the clubs in the Copacabana area. The "Scala" club is recommended to us and even our books say it's the place to be during Carnaval, so we purchase tickets at R70 each (US $20!) and hang out at a small bar until midnight. The small bar had an interesting location in that a decent-sized Carnaval street party formed just outside. At the bar someone told us that the Scala was now more of a gay club.
Rio At Night from Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf) Mountain.

     Scala turned out to be a pretty big disappointment. The large, live band was full of energy, but they were only playing this year's samba school songs over and over again. The place was full of gay guys or guys checking out the hired female dancers. The only women in the club were for hire, already hired by really old men, or were actually men in drag. We stayed until 4am when Mariliza and Muru started to lose their steam.

     We slept until noon and then had lunch at Churrascaria Porcao which is an all-you-can-eat meat place. The service was fantastic and the food was amazing. Lots and lots of meat delivered to your table. The salad bar was interesting with heart of palm, sushi, etc. This meal turned out to be R50 (US $15) per person which is by far the most expensive we had the whole trip, but is still a great deal. Note to self, next time leave room for the amazing desserts.
     We took a taxi to the base of the Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) which is the large Jesus statue presiding at 2330 ft over all of Rio. It's lit up at night too. At the base, you get cog train tickets to go to the top and wait in line. At the top, the view is amazing. You can see all of extended Rio. After that we taxied over to the Pao de Acucar tram and jumped right on - no lines that evening. The first tram gets you to a mountain top and then another tram takes you to the neighboring mountain top. The night views were excellent (see photo above) and we saw a thunderstorm forming in the distance.
Cristo Redentor statue high above Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro from Corcovado Mountain.
     After a shower at the hotel, we head to the Carnaval parade with the tickets that Muru bought for us from someone on the street for US $40 each. Our taxi driver didn't know where our section was, and so we ended up walking completely around the whole parade route once or twice trying to find our way. There were masses of people doing all sorts of things. Some were partying, some were selling Skol beer and other refreshments, and other partyers were so tired that they were sleeping on the street while people stepped over them. Police presence was at a minimum for the hundreds of thousands of people here. I was amazed that this many people from all social classes could be partying civilly. In the US, there would be riot police dispatched which would then cause a riot.

Rio has built the Sambodrome, an entire complex just for this parade every year. I estimate the parade route to be about 3/4 mile long. Inside the massive stadium seating is room for the samba schools to conduct classes during the rest of the year. Each night for five nights, six or so samba schools conduct their parades from 9pm to 7am. The schools are different each night and at the end, the 5 best schools give away all of their costumes and floats to the audience since everything has to be created again next year. Some of the floats have social or political messages. One float had a dummy convict in an electric chair violently jerking around as it was fantastically electrocuted. This is a competition and there are judges scattered along the parade route, so in front of each judging location the parade will hesitate and perform their hardest. Each school's parade lasts 1 to 1.5 hours and consists of thousands of people including 200-400 drummers. Each school has somewhere around 10 floats and in between the floats are 150 to 300 people dancing as closely as their costume widths will allow. This is by far the most amazing parade festival on the planet. I wish I had taken the risk of bringing my camera because the parade is so full of vibrant colors. Blimps and helicopters are hovering over the parade route shooting video. Fireworks start off the beginning of each school's march.

Cristo Redentor lit up at night (pic from Sugarloaf Mtn)

     Brazil invests so much time and money into their parties. Many people blow all of their savings each year for Carnaval.

We leave from the parade at 5am even though it still shows no signs of slowing down. We're tired for some reason. Sleep until noon and catch some food to go (Bauru = steak, egg, cheese sandwich) from the hotel restaurant and grab a taxi to Buzios. During all of our taxi rides around town, Muru and Mariliza had been querying the drivers about how much it would cost to drive us to Buzios which is about 2.5 hours away. The Brazilian countryside and towns look just like rural mid-west USA.

     We get to Buzios Palace Hotel and relax for a moment. It's an ok hotel (no hot water in shower?) with a small amount of beach exposure. It also has a pool and restaurant. Buzios is a vacation town for Brazilians. It's very surfer friendly and similar to Santa Cruz, California on a smaller scale. There are lots of young people here getting away from crazy Rio for Carnaval which is a national holiday. Buzios has their own small parade/street dance party that goes all night.
Buzios downtown in early night.
     After a dinner of seafood stew that left a little to be desired, we find this cool little crepes bar called Chez Michou. So many women here.. tables of them looking bored because no one is hitting on them. A big difference from the Silicon Valley. They had great music that wasn't so loud that you couldn't talk to your friends and the bar staff was really friendly. Mariliza starts up a conversation with this girl named Christina and she and Lars start talking. Christina speaks English pretty well from being in a foreign exchange program in Virginia for a few months. So while Lars is talking with Christina, Christina's friend Fernanda is looking really bored. So I run interference to try to help Lars out. Fernanda doesn't speak any English, so I have to really struggle to converse with her in Portuguese. She's not in the mood for foreign relations and so after a very rough patch of Spanish, Portuguese, and English translation, I get about 15-20 minutes out of her before she can come up with an excuse to leave. But Christina stays and chats with Lars while the rest of us head back to the hotel at about 4am.

Me, Fernanda, Christina, and Lars at Chez Michou, Buzios.
     Two hours later at about 6am I get up to photograph the sunrise at the beach which just happens to be the time that Lars comes back to the hotel. I snap some photos and head back to bed. At about 1pm, I wake up and spend some time at the beach outside. It's entertaining to be a ghostly white guy on a beach of dark-skinned people. Lots of stares, but they were pretty good about not laughing so loud or pointing. Someone said "hello" and I talked with some people from Rio for a while. Two of them had a little English in school and one knew some Spanish, so communication worked out pretty well. They offered me some beer and took their photos with the gringo. They were surprised to hear that Northern California beaches aren't as nice or warm as Brazilian beaches. Many Brazilians are very keen on practicing their English skills.

     At about 4pm, we head back to downtown Buzios and visit the more popular beach there. The beach is packed with people and every 50 yards or so is a bar blasting a different type of music. This is the first place I saw in Brazil playing rap from the USA. We meet up with Christina and Fernanda again and after some time on the beach, we eat pizza downtown. We have to skip town at 3am, so we kill some more time downtown in Buzios and then jump in a taxi for Rio. Our taxi driver was amazing, he stayed in Buzios while we were there and slept in his car. We woke him up to drive us to Rio and I was impressed that he could stay awake the whole way. Taxi drivers have a rough life in Brazil.

Sunrise on a Buzios beach.

Popular beach in Buzios.
     After a delayed flight, we get to Manaus. Manaus is the only city that is a good staging place for tours of the Amazon. It is situated at the meeting of the Rio Negro and Rio Solimoes. Our travel books describe Manaus as a sh*t hole. We're expecting very bad conditions, but are completely surprised to see that its airport is nicer than Rio's domestic airport. There are not the slums in Manaus like you see them piled 3 high in Rio. Recently, parts of Manaus have been declared to be a free trade zone and so the economy has really prospered. We saw barges full of semi-trucks coming up the river. We saw new Dodge and Chevy pickup trucks. Everyone seemed to be employed and had a busy day ahead of them. We find a nice hotel (Best Western) after inspecting the rooms of another and discovering the true price of a couple others. A guy had approached us in the airport trying to get us onto his Amazon tour ("Amazon Lillies"), but we were very hesitant since we didn't initiate the deal. At the hotel we asked for tour information and two women came to the hotel to talk to us about what tours they offered. We ended up with the "Malocas Jungle Lodge" tour for US $240 per person. (They wouldn't accept credit card)

Swimming with Piranhas in the Rio Preto.

Malocas Jungle Lodge camp on the Rio Preto.
     The next morning we were picked up and driven to a dock in Manaus. We took a speed boat to the "meeting of the rivers." This is where the Rio Negro and Rio Solimoes merge. It's a crazy sight, but the waters don't actually mix. There is a distinct black and brown line in the water for several miles as the PH and water temperatures equalize and then finally mix together. We could dip our hands in the water and feel the temperature difference. It was fascinating. We also saw fresh water dolphins jumping around while we were out there. Then we went back to the dock and loaded up into a van which drove us about one hour north/west of Manaus to a small town on the Rio Preto where we launched a speed boat to get to Malocas Jungle Lodge. The lodge is supposedly about 30 hours from Manaus by boat.

Rain clouds reflect in the river.
     We were pleasantly surprised at the quality of lodging at Malocas. We had no idea what to expect.. we could be sleeping in hammocks under the trees for 3 nights for all we knew. It turned out that the Malocas lodge had a large hut for dining/entertaining and then another large round structure with 12 rooms, each with a bathroom with running water. The water was pumped up from the river every morning into storage tanks. The food was much better than we expected. It was usually a rice, beans, pasta meal with fish, chicken, or once we had bull beef. It was all quite good and prepared cleanly for the weak gringo stomachs by a family that lived at the camp. We were 2 degrees south of the equator at this point during the summertime and still the weather wasn't very bad. The daily rains cooled things down so that the temperature never really got above 90 degrees. Now it was about 100% humidity, so it's the worst kind of heat, but still it wasn't as bad as Kansas in the summer. This may be a good time to note that we really didn't see many mosquitos or flies in all of Brazil. The water of the Rio Negro is actually acidic enough that mosquitos cannot breed like they can in other tropical environments.

Can you see the forest for the trees?
     Our first day there we took an evening canoe trip. Muru saw an iguana sunning itself, but it jumped into the water before I could snap a picture. We swam in the river and fished for Piranhas, but only got nibbles (big Jaws-style bites out of our meat we used for bait). That evening it rains, we eat fish for dinner and then we play cards and chat before going to bed among the crazy sounds of the rain forest. One bird sounds like a cell phone ringing. Now note that at some point during our stay here, we realize that our guide, Pepe, is making up a large amount of the things he says. His English is marginal; consisting of a few key forest words and a lot of irrelevant sound effects. So when he proclaims that "the wood of this tree is very hard; it's so hard that Volkswagen uses it for parts in their cars", that's the time when you say "sure they do Pepe, sure they do." The iguana was the only animal we saw and Muru found it! Pepe never found anything, as you'll read...

Pepe (our "guide") and Muru.
     The next morning we're up and eating eggs, fruit, bread, and cheese. After a short canoe ride, we're doing a jungle hike with the two Italian blokes that are at the lodge for the night. (We just missed three Swedes that had stayed for 3 nights) The guide for the Italians spotted a poisonous snake just before stepping on it with his bare feet. He also showed us 6 foot rubbery plant-vine-type thing. When he shook it violently, out popped a huge palm branch. Supposedly it's used in traditional native dances. We hike for a bit and get pseudo-English descriptions of various trees and bugs (Muru had to translate a lot for Pepe). Then we hiked down to a waterfall and cool off.

Back to the canoe and lodge for a lunch of catfish. After lunch and a nap, we go visit the local "native" which is supposed to be a medicine man of the area. He has his family (wife and 6 or 7 kids) there and a garden full of all sorts of fruits, herbs, and other plants with medicinal qualities. He grinds and ferments fruits to make alcohol. Pepe tells some story about a Canadian entrepreneur offering the medicine man R 120,000 to build a hotel on the bank of the river. The medicine man starts to build it, but blows the R 5000 up-front money on alcohol and the Canadian ends up backing out of the deal. There's even some property down the river with the beginnings of a settlement, but all of this is probably a story fed to Pepe in a bar after Pepe brags about the 6-foot fish he caught with one arm tied behind his back. Anyway, back to fishing for Piranha, but nothing caught. Back to the lodge to eat one huge fish prepared by staff.

Muru and Mariliza playing in the waterfall.
     After dinner is alligator hunting... Pepe is nervous. We take the canoe out after dark armed only with a flashlight. This is a spooky experience. You're in your canoe among flooded trees with rain water and who-knows-what falling out of them when the canoe bumps into them. The flashlight beam is your only focus as Pepe searches for eyeballs to reflect the light back. We're very quiet. The only sounds coming from the critters in the rain forest as we slide silently through the water. We see a pair of eyes on the river bank, but Pepe claims that they belong to a frog. I dunno, they looked a bit wide to be a measly frog. Maybe it's an Amazon frog on crack. Or maybe Pepe's a chicken. Pepe doesn't find any alligators to catch in spite of putting on a good hunt.

A raining sunset in the Amazon.
     We got a good night's sleep after a long day and eat a tasty jungle version of an Egg McMuffin for breakfast. Passion fruit consists of funky, crunchy seeds and tastes great. Fried banana is always good, too. We head out on an early morning 3-hour jungle walk near camp to a waterfall. We see a tree chock-full of termites. We have to walk very quickly over a highway of very excited ants to get to the waterfall and carefully pick off the hitch hikers before they bite. The waterfall dumps into a small pond and then the water flows back behind the waterfall and exits the rock face near a cave of bats. On the hike back, it's definitely warm and muggy, but can't be more than 90 degrees F.

Lars approaching the waterfall.
     Lunch consisted of bull beef which is a bit tough, but a nice change from fish. We nap for a while and then pack up for our night of camping in the forest next to the first waterfall we saw the previous day. We canoed and hiked all the supplies in, which didn't amount to much. A pot, some plates, a tupperware container of salted meat in marinade, some rice, a couple gallons of water, Cachaca for making caipirinhas (a great Brazilian drink), some rain coats, candles, flashlights, and hammocks. (After crossing the waterfall barefoot, I lost the trail for a few moments and was walking barefoot through the rain forest. Amazingly no gringos were harmed in the making of this vacation.) Pepe built a campfire and used a local tree resin as a terrific fire-starter. He cooked us a great meal of rice, chicken and beef on the campfire. The kabob rods were just cut out of branches using a machete. The waterfall was very loud, but probably drowned out some of the scarier jungle sounds. Pepe woke up occasionally to keep the fire and some candles lit. Lars didn't sleep a wink since his hammock was so close to the waterfall that the mist kept him wet and cold. There were fireflies in the forest (I miss those from Kansas) and the sky is clear. Luckily no rain that night.

View of the river from the lodge.
     Up in the morning we hike and canoe back to the lodge. Breakfast is McMuffins again and the others take a nap. I had some pretty good sleep the night before, so I try to chat with a young boy that lives with the family at the lodge. Lunch is fried fish and then a long boat ride and drive back to Manaus. On the drive back, we actually see three Malocas monkeys running across the road. Couldn't see any chickens or reason why the monkeys might be crossing the road. We had heard this type of monkey, but never could spot one in the forest.

Ready for a hot shower.
     Back at the hotel we get the best hot shower ever and eat some Italian food. We try to get a bit of sleep before our 3am flight to Rio, but the heat, a dance club down the block, and some snoring keep me from getting much quality sleep. Up at 1:30am we begin our flight schedule from hell. Back at Rio for a few hours, we hook up with our friend Christina and she shows us a much nicer side of Rio including a terrific mall that is nicer than Valley Fair. I eat steak with a honey mustard sauce which is OK, but the dessert containing homemade honey ice cream was excellent. Christina also shows us this beautiful beach that is top secret so that tourists can't find it. It was definitely the nicest beach we saw in Rio. Here's a good place to note that Brazilians are crazy drivers. Lanes are simply suggestions and after dark, red lights don't mean anything because if you stop, you can get car-jacked. Driving in Brazil and especially in Rio is a survival sport. Christina was in amazing control of her car at all times, whipping in and out of the smallest of spots in traffic. I was impressed.

Christina and Lars.

Beautiful beach in Rio.
     Back at the Rio domestic airport, every TAM Airline representative has a different story about how our transition from the Sao Paulo domestic to international airports by bus is going to happen in under 3 hours. Some say that the luggage transfer and bus will be provided, others say that everything is our responsibility. The Rio and Sao Paulo domestic airports are much older and difficult to manage when you're not so great at Portuguese. When we arrived in Sao Paulo, it turns out that Lars' suitcase was sent on a previous TAM Airlines flight, so we lost time and I practiced my language skills trying to track that down. Once we found that, we had to wait about 20 minutes for the next bus to the international airport, and we did indeed have to purchase tickets for it. Good thing they take credit cards because my cash reserves were getting low with anticipation of leaving the country and not wanting to convert back to US dollars. Lars points out that in Norwegian, "tam" means "limp". At any rate, we made it to the international airport in time and barely squeaked through the visa checkpoint in time to catch the flight. The visa checks were taking a really long time and our flight got held up trying to expedite passengers through the process. I think we ended up leaving without 40 or so people.

     All in all, a great break from the Silicon Valley. The Brazilians really know how to party and the Amazon is a truly unique place. I'm glad I got to see both Carnaval and the Amazon before either are further commercialized by Nike and Coca Cola.

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