Month: July 2014

One Day I Will Have a Lake House

Life on the Amazon is lived on boats. We took a boat to get everywhere, to fish, and even just to jump off of in the middle of the river for a refreshing swim. Everyone who took us out was so skilled at navigating through the water using motors and paddles. I had forgotten how much I like being on boats like this. Not big cruise ship boats or high powered speedboats, but small motorboats.

My grandfather in Austria lived on a lake, the Woerthersee. When we used to visit every summer, we would spend a lot of our time reading on the dock or cooling off in the clear water (so much clearer than the Amazon, where I couldn’t even see my own feet let alone anything else that was in there with me).

He had a rowboat and a small motorboat. Taking the motorboat out around the lake was always something I enjoyed. We didn’t usually dock anywhere and I never did fish there, but just being out on the water was all I needed. I didn’t even realize I missed this until I spent 6 days using boats as my main form of transportation. Maybe this is why I always liked Venice so much.

So one day, when I finally decided to calm down on traveling for a bit (which is looking further and further away the longer I do this), I hope to have a house on a lake with a dock to jump off of and a small motorboat to wander around in.

What I Actually Did in the Amazon

Our 6 days/5 nights Amazon tour took us to a variety of locations: first night at the lodge, second night with a family, third and fourth nights camping in the jungle, last night at the lodge again.

The description of the tour originally had an emphasis on trekking and jungle survival. While I wouldn’t call what we did a trek – we did some good walks through the jungle but nothing near the extent we were imagining – we agreed that it was better this way. The jungle does get repetitive and the best way to see the Amazon seems to be on the water, so the mixture of activities we did resulted in two very satisfied customers who will rave about this week for a long time.

Day 1 we met our companions for part of the trip – Gwen from France and Carolina from Belgium had scheduled 4 days – and journeyed by boat over the Meeting of the Waters, then by van, and again by boat, before arriving at the lodge.

The lodge was so much better than I was picturing. It was low key, with docks to jump off into the water, hammocks outside our rooms and a big hut we ate our meals in. After lunch one of the guys who works at the lodge took us out to his family’s house, where we learned how to shoot a spear using a bow and the guys played a pretty intense game of soccer. We traveled back as the sun was setting, and ended our night on the early side with dinner and a game of hearts. We had to wake up early for sunrise.

Day 2 we went out with Nelson in the morning to see sunrise, when we saw the pink dolphins swim by, and then for a post-breakfast walk. He showed us important trees and let us play like kids, swinging on vines, climbing trees, and weaving crowns and fans out of palm fronds, as well as using them as props in some entertaining pictures.

After a swim and lunch we all participated in the Amazon tradition of reading and napping in hammocks. I was woken up by our guide, Mathias, who informed me that we would be leaving around 4. Carolina had arranged for a night with a family so we were all going to the family’s house.

It was interesting to see how a large family lives in the Amazon. Their home has one bedroom for the parents, one for all the kids (8 live there now, 6 more are in Manaus), a room that acts as a living room or a guest bedroom where we hung up our hammocks, and a kitchen/dining area. The property is large, and on it they grow mostly what they need to survive. They also have an oversized skillet in which they make their own farofa from manioc. There are ducks, cats and kittens, dogs and puppies, chickens, and so many insects all over the place.

The kids were fascinated by our cameras and by Carolina’s very long dreadlocks. I’ve read travelers stories about kids playing with cameras and felt like a stereotype when I let the kids take control of my not-so-cheap camera just because of how excited they were. But this is a common traveler story for a reason – it’s a small thing to do that brings joy to these kids, and when you can’t speak to them it’s something that you can do together.

That night we took the boat out for the first time searching for caiman. Mathias’s headlamp is pretty much a searchlight, and all we could see was the eyes of the caiman glowing red above the water. He spotted a snake from far away and took us closer to see it wrapped around a tree. As soon as it saw us it moved further up the tree, and even though this meant Mathias couldn’t catch it anymore, it was still fascinating to watch it move.

Day 3 we ate breakfast with the family before going fishing. I caught a piranha! We shared our three small piranha (Carolina, Gwen and I all caught them, Bobby was unsuccessful, but he made up for it later) and some chicken we brought with the family for lunch, who shared their fish with us from their much more successful morning. Then we set out to camp in the jungle.

Finally. I was so excited to get out into the jungle, and judging by how the last two days of the trip went I was right to be so excited. Our first evening was largely occupied with setting up camp, finding firewood, building a fire, and cooking dinner. The structure of the camp was already there, so we just had to hang our hammocks and mosquito nets and a tarp to cover them all. We talked over dinner about a wide range of topics, from political discussions to Chuck Norris jokes. It’s always interesting to hear what people from different countries want to talk about and their opinions on the subjects. After dinner we ventured out on the water again but it was short-lived; we had to race back to camp to beat the looming rain clouds. We made it back just in time – the rain came as soon as we were under our tarp.

Day 4 I woke up last (thank god for ear plugs) and breakfast and coffee were already ready. We set off on a jungle walk with Mathias to learn more survival skills, and apparently to see a ton of scary insects. We saw a tarantula, which he took out of its hole so we could all pet it, and the most poisonous spider in the jungle. Later that night we would see the scorpion spider, which has two arms just full of teeth. This is also the walk when I was stung by a wasp, mere minutes after seeing an ant whose sting is so powerful that it feels like you’ve been shot and hurts for 24 hours. Naturally I was a little worried. But I was lucky, this pain would only last for about 2 hours.

After our walk it was time for Gwen and Carolina to leave, so we all went out in the boat to say bye and so Bobby and I could take a quick swim, aka our shower. Then it was time for lunch and the customary post-lunch hammock nap before trying our luck at fishing again. We had no luck. Dinner was chicken, and this is when it all turned around. After agreeing it was the best meal in a while (I like to take credit for the idea to put the pineapple on the fire too) we set out to try our hand at spear fishing.

We all speared fish! I caught a peacock bass, which ended up being one of my favorite things I ate the whole trip. The only downside was the overwhelming number of spiders we encountered. Have I mentioned spiders are my biggest fear? Every time I went to push off on a tree there was a spider there. And I’m not talking the little guys you find in the states. The smallest spiders were maybe 3 inches. There were spiders that walked on water, ones that had huge webs our boat barely missed passing by, and ones that loomed in holes in the trees. And thanks to the even more terrifying wasps that are attracted to headlamps, we frequently had to turn our lights off and glide past our new friends in pitch black. This was easily 10 of the worst minutes of my life. But hey, we made it out alive, and with a few new fish to eat. At least now when I see a spider I don’t even react anymore. I did learn a valuable lesson: if you don’t bother them, they won’t move. That’s better than the wasps. Those things just attack.

Day 5 was the winner. After breakfast we cleaned up camp and were packing up the boat when a fishing rod that was just hanging over the edge started moving – we had a bite! Mathias rushed us into the boat and we all dropped in our lines. Then Bobby had his moment: he caught the largest piranha you can in this region, the black piranha. He then proceeded to catch 3 more piranha of different varieties.

Feeling good about today, we made our way back to the lodge and spotted all kinds of wildlife, including some howler monkeys playing in the tallest trees. Swim, lunch, hammock nap, and it was time to go on a search for sloths. Mathias took us into the middle of the lake and we slowly searched the treetops. I have no idea how he is able to spot the things he sees, but he found a sloth curled up in a tree and paddled over. He tied up the boat, climbed up the tree, and we got to meet the sloth. What we didn’t know when he went to get her was that she had a baby sloth clinging to her! So we met and held mom and baby sloth, taking so many pictures and videos. We were ridiculously giddy about this encounter.

We said bye to our new friends and went bird watching and sunset gazing before heading back to the lodge to devour our catches from spearfishing the night before and piranha fishing that morning. At night we attempted spear fishing again but the area wasn’t working. What we did find though were a couple caiman – first Mathias caught one and then Bobby grabbed one. So even with the lack of fish, this night was a success.

Day 6 started with sunrise, our last one on the Amazon, and then more wildlife watching – toucans and iguanas this time. We packed up our stuff, got a final beer for the road, and were on our way back to civilization by 9:30 am. I had to catch a flight at 3.

Rereading this post before publishing, I know I’m leaving things out. This is the shortest I could possibly describe this week. We did and saw so much on all our jungle walks and boat adventures that it’s just not possible to relay everything in a blog post; this is already too long.

So in summary, I’ll just say that the combination of activities, led by our incredibly knowledgeable guide Mathias, gave us an excellent overview of life in the Amazon. If you have ever thought about going there, go, and stay for a while; the most exciting part of our trip was the last two days in the jungle. It was hard to say goodbye to the fascinating world of the Amazon. I know this week will stick out in my memory for a long time.

 

The Majestic Jungle Sky

Every time we went out on the boat to look at the sky, one word came to mind: pure.

I’d heard at some point that the vibrant sunsets we see in the US – the reds, pinks, oranges, and purples – are actually a result of pollution. After witnessing sunset on the Amazon I believe it.

An Amazon sunset starts with the most beautiful shade of blue before morphing into pastel versions of the rainbow. It is clear, unaffected by electric lights or emitted gases. It is simultaneously peaceful and active: peaceful in the transition from hot to cool and bright sun to twilight, but active with insects and birds constantly on the move.

At night, the clarity of the sky results in a cornucopia of stars. We would go out on the boat looking for caiman and despite the excitement of following Mathias’s headlamp searching for them, I would frequently find myself just staring up at the stars and the Milky Way. I haven’t seen a sky like this since a random night drive through the middle of New Hampshire; it revived a childhood fascination with constellations.

And at sunrise, the whole process starts over again. We went out on the boat twice for sunrise: our first and last mornings. The full rainbow is on display and reflected in the calm water as the sun creeps up over the jungle.

Then within what feels like minutes it’s back to full sun, blue sky and heat.

No matter what time of day, the sky in the Amazon is memorizing. Adding to this sight is the mirror-like reflection on the water. At times it looked like there were two skies, one on each side of the shore.

Just one more reason the Amazon is majestic.

Everything You Need is in the Jungle

I was constantly amazed by our guides’ skills and knowledge. I’ve been living in a world where everything we could ever want or need can be ordered through a computer and delivered to our doorstep in just 2 days, so it was fascinating to remove myself entirely from modern conveniences and learn how to live off the jungle.

Need some water? Cut this vine and hold it up above your mouth. The water dripping out of it tastes slightly like carrots but it is still refreshing. In the mood for a cigarette? This vine can be smoked too.

Hungry? Try some larva from this large nut-looking thing from this tree. Not great to survive off of for days at a time, but it’ll keep you moving for a bit longer.

Feeling warm and need a fan? Use a section of a palm frond to weave one. The palm frond can also be a placemat for you dinner, a bed that protects you from snakes and spiders, or the roof of your shelter.

Mathias making a serving spoon out of a tree

Mathias making a serving spoon out of a tree

How about a spoon or a plate? There are trees and leaves for that too.

Need to signal your location or spend a night protected from predators? Large trees make perfect bedrooms and their sturdy but thin walls make a sound you can hear for kilometers.

Bow? No problem when you have the bark from a certain tree. Just use a machete to shred it down to the fibers and wind yourself a string. This also works to make a foot harness for climbing acai trees. Or a bracelet, like the one currently tied around my wrist that our guide Mathias made for me.

I haven’t even mentioned the menthol tree to help pain, ant nest for mosquito repellent, or the malaria medication tree.

The survival skills I was taught in the jungle are such a particular and fascinating knowledge. Part of it our guides know just from experience and part is because they had to go to guide school. All if it impressive.

With all of this though, there are still 2 essential tools that you need when venturing into the jungle: a machete and a lighter. As Mathias said, the machete is most important, but never go into the jungle without a way to make fire – that would just be stupid.

The Amazing Amazon

I don’t think there is any way I can accurately describe the wonder of the Amazon jungle. My 6 days there showed me an ecosystem the likes of which I’ve never seen. Every day we were impressed with new discoveries, culminating in the most epic 24 hours of this journey so far.

I will probably try to write a few posts describing different aspects of this trip, but who knows how many I’ll actually publish. No writing will do it justice.

So for now, here is a rambling synopsis of some of my amazing Amazon adventures.

In the past 6 days, I: felt the temperature difference of the Rio Negro and Rio Amazonas at the Meeting of the Waters; dove into and cooled off in Lago Juma, an offshoot south of the Amazonas; slept on hammocks in a variety of locations, including two nights camping in the jungle; ate the best pineapple I’ve ever had; formed an addiction to Gota Mohlo de Pimenta (their hot sauce); saw pink dolphins swim by during sunrise; learned how to shoot a bow and spear; tasted and smelled trees that contribute to everything from chewing gum to perfume to medicine; climbed an acai tree; swung on a vine like Tarzan; played Amazon-rules dominoes with a mother of 14 while her kids and all types of animals from kittens to ducks ran around us; heard a Brazilian, Frenchman, and Belgian tell Chuck Norris jokes over a campfire; chopped firewood with a machete; pet a tarantula; saw one of the deadliest spiders in the jungle; survived an Amazon wasp sting; caught a piranha and speared a peacock bass, and ate both (the bass was better); spotted caiman (smaller crocodile) eyes and an Amazon river snake in just the light of a headlamp; lived through my worst nightmare floating in pitch black through a spider-infested flooded forest; saw more birds than I could imagine, from prehistoric birds to toucans; saw and heard howler monkeys, night monkeys, and monk saki monkeys; held a crab, a shellfish, a sloth and her baby, and two small caimans; and gazed at the purest sky I’ve ever seen for sunrises, sunsets, and stargazing, complete with Mars, Saturn, the Milky Way, and numerous shooting stars.

I have no doubt that this will end up being one of the most memorable weeks of this experience. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Brazil.

Day Trips: Ilha Grande and Petrópolis

I went on two very different day trips during my stay in Rio that showed just how varied a region of Brazil can be.

Ilha Grande
The first was an all day boat trip to and around Ilha Grande. After what seemed like an eternity napping on a small bus (in reality about 3 hours), we arrived at a port and boarded our boat, the Ipanema, that would take us out for the day. The boat was equipped with a bar, an excessively loud speaker system, and clientele ranging from families to rowdy dancing Argentinians. It seems that everyone is drawn to this day on the water, and I can see why. The water is perfectly blueish green and the collection of islands looks like a dream world. It’s impossible to capture just how pretty it is in pictures.

We stopped four times throughout the day. First we had half an hour to explore a tiny island with white sand and inviting water. Second the boat simply stopped and let all of us jump off and swim with the fish. They supplied pool noodles and this seemed to make everyone think we couldn’t travel far; people looked like sitting ducks bobbing on noodles next to the boat. The water was pleasant though and watching everyone’s different jumping/diving styles was entertaining.

Third was the stop at Ilha Grande for a walk across the island. The jungle flora was cool to see, but the seemingly deserted buildings felt a lot like walking through the Lost island. Venturing from one side of the island to the other was less of a hike than we were hoping for, but it was nice to get out and move around. And then the unexpected highlight of the day happened: there seemed to be some sort of amateur photoshoot going on while we were waiting to be picked up, and everyone from our boat was mesmerized. They do say that Brazilian women have the best butts for a reason… A brave and cheeky Argentinian decided to join in on the fun, mimicking her modeling bare-assed and even swimming up to surprise the girl as she posed on a rock. He excuted this stunt perfectly and became the hero of the trip.

After all the men eventually tore themselves away from this scene and rejoined the boat, we finally had a chance to eat lunch at our last stop. Then it was back on the boat for a sunset trip back to the dock. It was a beautiful scene that was completely contradicted by the rowdy Argentinians starting a dance party to songs like Gangnam Style. I was a brief participant when I was coaxed into attempting samba-like dancing on a platform on the boat. The movements of samba dancing are hard in general for non-South Americans and even harder on a boat, but I figured eh why not? It was fun.

The whole day felt like a scene out of a movie about how to vacation with friends in South America: bucket of beers on a boat in perfect sunshine surrounded by pristine scenery. It was the type of day that made us turn to each other and say, “this is my life right now, fucking awesome.”

Petrópolis
Petrópolis was pretty much the opposite of Ilha Grande. This old German settlement is up in the mountains above Rio. The scenic drive to get there winds through lush green hillshide; and our drive was accompanied by stops for antique hunting and delicous sausage sandwiches. When we eventually arrived at Petrópolis I felt like we were driving through a small European village that had been plunked down in South America. And then I learned that I was on this adventure with the perfect tour guide.

Alfredo spent a few years of his childhood living in Petrópolis, and his family was so involved with the city and the Imperial Museum that I learned more from him than I could have hoped to learn from any guidebook. As we walked around the grounds of the museum, past ornate houses, to the cathedral, to the Crystal Palace, and ending at a very traditional Brazilian steakhouse, Alfredo told us stories about Brazilian history. I learned about the war with Paraguay, the last Emperor of Brazil, and efforts that were made to preserve important art and architecture in Petrópolis. Alfredo if you ever read this – thank you!

An unexpected part of this tour was the beer festival that was happening in and around the Crystal Palace. Of course we were there for the time the played Edelweiss; any time I’m around live German music I hear this song. It’s like they know.

Petrópolis would have been difficult to get to without having a car, so I was lucky to have hosts who offered to take me there. It was a lovely town with an interesting mixture of Europe and Brazil, and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit there.

Things I Learned in Salvador

1) Brazilians really are friendly, helpful people.

I had the impression that I liked Brazilians already, but after the numerous people who helped me in Salvador, supposedly one of the most dangerous places I was going to visit, I really do think they’re some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered.

I am determined to travel as cheaply as possible now that I’ve left Rio, so I took buses to and from the airport. Both directions people pointed out the right bus to me, made sure I got on ok with my luggage, and made sure the bus went to the right place for me. I did check with three different people that the bus I got on today in Salvador was in fact heading to the airport (it didn’t say so on the bus) and they all said yes. I put a little faith in these hopefully helpful bus drivers and it turned out all right.

Also last night when we had to find new accomodation last minute after leaving a not good first couchsurfing experience, we wandered into Hostel Patua and asked if they had any beds. They said no, but they took us next door to see if another hostel had beds. When that one didn’t answer, they took us back inside their hostel, and two people who either helped out there or had been there for a long time were offered a place to sleep at the hostel owner’s place, and they gave us their beds. We witnessed the hostel employees helping a handful of other travelers who wandered in just like we did. You won’t go bedless in Brazil.

2) Bahian food is just as good as I thought it would be.

Moqueca

Moqueca

One word: moqueca. This specialty of Salvador is one of the best things I’ve eaten on my trip so far. It’s a sort of fish stew in a spiced coconut milk broth. We got the mixed version with fish and shrimp, and it comes with vegetables (thank god veggies!), and arrives still cooking in a stone bowl. With sides of rice, farofa and some amazing pumpkin puree, we devoured this feast not caring how full we were. Just. So. Good.

Acaraje

Acaraje

The other specialty of Salvador though I can’t give the same rave review. Acaraje – a street snack made of fried beans formed into a ball and stuffed with a spicy paste and dried shrimp – was just a bit too much for me. Individually the flavors were ok, but all together it was just a lot happening. The smell is also seriously off-putting, but at least it does taste better than it smells.

 

3) Hostels are the way to go.

I tried couchsurfing for the first time. I will probably try it again at some point, most likely in Australia, but for now I’m sticking to hostels. The guy we stayed with refused to give us a key so we didn’t have access to our stuff until he got home, which he told us would be at one time and turned out to be an hour later. None of this was specified before we got there, he just sprung it on us when we arrived that we weren’t allowed in the apartment most of the day and were entirely at his mercy for when we could get back in. This is why we left to go to a hostel.

As much as it was nice to get some local knowledge from our host, the inability to control our day and access our belongings was enough to drive us out of the apartment. Arriving at a hostel was a relief; we got to meet other travelers again, we felt like our things were safe, and we got our own beds instead of sharing an air mattress on the floor. As a solo traveler I just like the community and security that comes with hostels, so I think I’ll be sticking to them for now.

4) New travel buddies are great travel buddies.

There’s something awesome about planning a trip with someone you met while on the road. Kahlia and I were in the same hostel in Sao Paulo for 3 days and both wanted to go to Salvador after Rio. We realized our timing was the same and decided to go together. It worked out really well, and confirmed another hope I had when planning this trip: that I would meet awesome people on the road and plans would evolve from there.

There’s also a great camaraderie between travelers. A lot of time is spent talking about your travels, but there’s a certain understanding that comes with hanging out with people who are doing the same thing as you. It’s hard to describe, but I am pretty sure the people who I’m talking about know what I mean. The stories shared between travelers are different – they’re comforting and just awesome – and it’s like there’s some unspoken feeling of “I get you” between people who decide to take on a life on the road.

5) I’m not nervous.

I was sitting alone on a bus with the driver and the guy who takes your money when you get on, trusting them that I was actually going to get to the airport, and thinking about the next leg of my trip. I didn’t have any headphones in or any reading material out; I just looked out the window and watched Salvador pass by. I realized that I wasn’t nervous about any of this traveling, but that it just felt like normal life. I’m happy to be back on the road and continuing on my trip, and I’m not worried about getting around by myself. This is just what I’m doing; it feels like fact. And I’m more than ok with that. I like it.

As for Salvador as a city, its colorful buildings and picturesque beach made for a great quick stop in between Rio and the Amazon. Despite all the warnings about muggings, we were fine the whole time; we made sure to not carry a lot with us and not be obvious about taking pictures. I enjoyed seeing another part of Brazil, but I think just a few days was enough. It is pretty though:

 

Goodbye Rio

I spent my last day in Rio on Ipanema beach. What better way is there to say goodbye to Rio than with this view?

IMG_0330

Last night I paid one final visit to FIFA FanFest for the final. It was packed with Argentinians who flocked here once they made the final. Some drove for two days just to be here for the game, slept in their cars last night, and drove back today. This meant that unfortunately it wasn’t a very excited crowd when Germany scored, but me and the little old German woman who was standing next to me (who came to FanFest alone, good for her) were jumping and hugging and yelling GOTT SEI DANK. Then Germany won the World Cup, and my Brazil World Cup experience was complete.

Well, almost. After I said bye to my German friend and we cleared out of FanFest, and past all the cops who were policing the riots that apparently were happening further up the beach (according to the Australians who I again ran into, the ones from my hostel in Argentina who I saw at FanFest on Tuesday – this time when I saw them they yelled “hey it’s California!” and we all hugged it was just too funny to see them again), and we got some food and had a lovely conversation with a traveling American couple, then we really got to celebrate the end of the tournament.

Juan and I spent the rest of the night walking up and down Copacabana beach, buying beers as we needed them. I really do love the lawlessness of Brazilian street drinking. We walked down to see the bears that were painted for every country and took pictures with ours – me with Germany and Austria, Juan with Panama, and both of us with USA. Then at the end of the beach we ran into the Germany celebration party. It was AWESOME. There was a big group of Germans jumping and singing and chanting on repeat, reveling in the joy of being world champions. It was exactly what I had hoped we would find without even knowing it would be there. I got to kiss a few trophies and sing a few chants before we wandered our way back up the beach, talking to people and continuing to grab beers as we went. Thanks Juan for exactly the last night in Rio and of the World Cup that I wanted.

Tonight I head to the airport to move on to another city. I still have a post about our day trips from Rio to come; maybe I’ll write it if I can’t sleep during our 5 hour layover in the Recife airport. Tomorrow morning I land in Salvador to explore a different part of this fantastic country. Rio, it’s been great, but it’s time to move on.

After spending two weeks in the same city with friends, now it feels like I’m really taking off on this journey. I’m a little nervous, but a whole lot more excited.

Tourist Days in Rio

Despite having 2 weeks here, I crammed most of the tourist experiences all into three days:
1) Mountain Day, 2) Exploring the City Day, and 3) Museum Day.

This worked for me though; I was still able to see what I wanted to see and have time for the World Cup days. And with different activity levels and companions for each, I ended up with a nice variety of experiences.

1) Mountain Day was the action-packed choice to do Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf in the same day. If you ever feel like you need to offset the unhealthy lifestyle of excessive beer drinking and late-night Brazilian meat meals, hiking Corcovado is definitely one way to do that. One intense way.

The hike up Corcovado to Christ the Redeemer was entirely vertical. It went from stairmaster level to pretty much crawling, and at one point we were just using a chain to climb up a solid rock. But it was so worth it. Seeing Christ the Redeemer is an experience in itself, but hiking up to the top made it so much more rewarding (not to brag, but we did this two and a half hour hike in an hour and 5 minutes, we were all very proud). We were lucky to pick a clear morning, so the view from the top was far reaching and beautiful, and the statute itself is impressive. It’s a bit overrun with people but for good reason; it’s definitely worth the visit. And if you feel inspired, the hike up is worth it too. Despite not wanting to hike it and being tricked into it by me and Steph (sorry I’m not sorry guys), our hiking companions Rich and Adam also agreed that this was the highlight of the day.

Sugarloaf on the otherhand was a tourist mess of lines after lines. We kept going thinking this would be worth it too, and then we got to the top and all we saw was cloud all around us. The only cloud in the sky decided it was going to get stuck at the summit at the moment we were on our way up. Once in a while there was enough of a clearing to see some of the view, I tried to get some pictures, but most of the time it was just cloud. If you removed yourself from the mindset that this was supposed to be the best view of Rio, exploring the jungle in cloud cover was kind of cool; it led to some eerie imagery. But really we were just disappointed (and starving after our hike) so Sugarloaf was fine but didn’t reach the same level of worthy tourist attraction that Christ the Redeemer did.

2) Exploring the city day was a ton of walking. First we explored Centro. We started at the Uruguaiana market, where it was just a mass of stalls selling all the same shit – from knock-off World Cup jerseys to old cell phones – except for the one thing we went looking for: a particular straw hat. Sorry we never found it Rob. Then we walked down to lunch at Confeitaria Colombo. I can see why this place was highly recommended; it was so beautiful inside with its ironwork, mirrors and intricately tiled floor. I think we probably should have skipped the lunch food and just gone straight for dessert but at this point we were happy to just get sandwiches and salads. Next time, desserts.

Then we walked down Av. Rio Branco and saw what looked like the historic core, with the Theatro Municipal, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes and Fundação Biblioteca Nacional. It’s always interesting to see historic architecture in the middle of a metropolitan area. Buildings looking so classic and stately seem like they should be celebrated alone on a plaza instead of surrounded by nondescript office buildings. As cities grow though, these new buildings get built around the old ones. At least they have been saved instead of demolished for the new towers.

After Centro we walked over to Santa Theresa and the Escadaria Selaron. This beautifully colorful staircase is the work of artist Jorge Selaron, and it was a constantly evolving work from the start in 1990 to his death in 2013. Walking up the 250 steps felt like you were inside an art piece; once you got past the bottom at least. I’ve realized I don’t have the patience for tourists who all line up to take the same picture. I understand that a picture with the title of the steps in the tiles is a great keepsake, but pictures further up are beautiful too. So I blew past this crowd at the bottom to enjoy the steps at my own pace. The staircase really is beautiful and I could have spent hours looking at each of the hand-painted tiles. We had briefly visited this at night and I would have liked to spend more time there on a more active night. It seems to be a place where people hang out and enjoy some beverages, just like any other bar or park.

One thing we noticed while on our way to and walking around Centro was how many people kept telling Rob to put his phone away. On the subway and on the street, people were very concerned for our bags and our phones. Coming from San Francisco where I’ve had more phones stolen than I would like to admit, it didn’t seem like downtown Rio was any worse than anywhere else, but the locals sure do like to warn you. I suppose I prefer that they warn you instead of stealing it, so I appreciate the gesture.

3) Museum day was my alone tourist day in Rio. I set out early and saw three museums all in one rainy day. I started with the Museu De Arte Do Rio. This was probably my favorite one. The building is a combination of two buildings: modern and historic. Its architecture has been recognized with awards, so I was familiar with it before I even got there. It is an interesting solution to join the two buildings through a new roof structure and a hanging walkway, but I think it works. Inside, the museum focuses on local artists and collections about Brazil and specifically Rio. Each floor had a different exhibit or two, and they were all very different – from the top floor exhibit on favelas that was especially informative to the bottom floor graffiti that ran rampant over the walls while classic rock played and hammocks swayed in the windows. This museum was my friend’s recommendation and I will pass it along to anyone else who visits Rio.

My other two museums were the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (MAM, the modern art museum) and Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (the fine arts museum). MAM was a disappointment. Despite being in an interesting building, they didn’t warn me when I entered that the entire top floor was closed. It was just an exhibit on food in Rio, which I would not have bothered to see.

So I went to the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (which happens to be free right now due to the museum’s 75th anniversary) and was pleasantly surprised. Even though they were installing new exhibits so it wasn’t entirely open, at least when I walked in they told me exactly what they had on display that day. MAM take note. The 19th century art is what it is, I’ve never been a fan of classic portraiture, and the sculptures all seemed to be “Anonymous based on so and so,” but the modern art was fantastic. I found a new artist whose work I loved and need to look up, Sergio Fingermann, and a sculpture by Franz Weissman that I really wish I could own; I was fascinated by it. This made me feel better about the flop of MAM.

So in three days I saw lots of tourist attractions. Each day was awesome in its own way, from outdoor activities and views to the city to art and culture. If I had to pick highlights: Christ the Redeemer, Escadario Selaron and Museu De Art Do Rio would be my recommendations.

2 Memorable Experiences at FIFA FanFest

I watched two games at FIFA FanFest: USA vs Belgium and Germany vs Brazil.

I’m sure people are more curious now about Germany vs Brazil, but I’ll start with the first game we saw there.

USA vs Belgium
The USA vs Belgium game was so fun to watch, even though it didn’t work out in our favor. It was the first day our whole Rio group was together and we went straight to Copacabana beach ready to cheer. The beach was crowded, but nothing like we’d see for the Brazil game a week later. Everyone was in good spirits and we saw USA gear all around us.

Which led to taking a lot of pictures with people decked out in American flags. I have just one, but Steph’s disposable camera has plenty more that I can’t wait to see. I never saw any other groups of fans dressed up like the Americans were. Most of the time there’s a lot of people wearing jerseys and some flags or scarves, but for USA we saw everything from American flag speedos and sequined top hats to the Statue of Liberty.

We met a ton of Americans, lots of Californians actually, and participated in a spontaneous women’s bathroom line U-S-A cheer. But the support for the US wasn’t just from other Americans. Between games there was some very strange live music, and then the FanFest sound system put on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA. It seemed like everyone was with us. Then they transitioned to EDM. We guessed this was also for the young American crowd.

FanFest itself was an ok scene. My impression of it was that it pays off to be strategic about where you stand, and if that works out then it can be really fun. We got in at the end of the first game so all the Argentina fans were clearing out as we were walking in. This worked in our favor – we got a spot right in front of a fence at the back of the main viewing section. So we were still very much there, but we were also really close to a quick exit to the bathrooms. And the best part was that instead of needing to go to the bar for more beers, we could turn around to the little beer vendor we made friends with right behind the fence and get a new one without having to move. I even watched most of the game perched on the fence so I could see over all the tall people’s heads in front of me.

So with our fantastic location picked out and our friendly Canadian neighbors cheering on our side, we were in prime spirits when we had to watch the USA get kicked out of the tournament. Such a sad moment only deserved the best send-off we could give them: copious more beers and a night swim.

Even with the exit of the US team from the tournament, this day will go down as a favorite of my time in Rio. There’s nothing quite like cheering on your country with your friends and thousands of other USA fans, especially when you’re on a beach in Brazil.

Germany vs Brazil
Since I’ve gotten this question a few times already: Yes, it was that intense. But only for about 10 minutes. As soon as everyone settled into the fact that Brazil would not have a chance, the riots let up and people got on with watching or not watching the game.

FanFest started out crazy due to the sheer number of people there and the looming storm clouds. By the time we made it to Copacabana beach the official FanFest was already full, so we joined the masses heading to a second backup screen not far away. This screen was just perched on the beach; no security to get in, no fence around it, no vendors. People were coming around selling things like they would any other day at the beach: beers, caipirinhas and snacks for R$5 (and in this case, capa de chuvas, aka ponchos – this brilliant guy made a fortune selling basically plastic bags thanks to the impending storm).

The entire tournament we’ve all been wondering why each city has only one FanFest. For Euro Cup 2008, the small city of Basel had 3 alone. Why would Rio or Sao Paulo try to fit everyone into just one? If there was a second option instead of this back-up screen maybe the mayhem could have been avoided. Or maybe nothing would help when the home team goes down 5-0 in under 30 minutes.

Before the game started everyone was so excited, singing the Brazilian national anthem loud and proud. The storm clouds couldn’t even deter us. It didn’t last.

When Germany scored the first goal, as a Germany soccer fan, I jumped up and cheered and high-fived a German nearby. For goal 2, I stayed seated and quietly clapped. By 3 I didn’t react. By 4 I turned to Steph and said I wish I’d brought my Brazil bandana; you could feel the anger in the crowd. We tried to untie hers from around her dress but then goal 5 happened, and suddenly a rush of people was coming in our direction. There had been gunshots fired and everyone was running towards the screen pushing one another, stumbling over the beach chairs they had set up (terrible idea) and generally panicking. After almost getting separated, Steph and I grabbed each other while Nick tried to calm the crowd. We ripped her Brazil bandana off and tied it around my neck. We joined some other foreigners for a minute to figure out what to do next.

They were heading closer to the ocean, thinking it was safer than the streets. We opted to stay on the beach now that things were calmer and there were riot police everywhere (and we were still hoping to find a friend who had gone to the bathroom at the most inopportune time). For the most part, it settled down after that, probably because the police were all over the place and helicopters with spotlights were circling above us the rest of the game. Apart from an almost theft right next to us leading to another almost fight, the rest of the game was more or less tame. A lot of people left.

This was one time that I was happy I was not wearing my Germany jersey. At halftime blonde-hair blue-eyed Steph and I were asked by Brazilians if we were German and adamantly replied “no we’re American!” But by the second half everyone was resigned to the loss so the intense environment died down.

Until the game was over and the gods unleashed one hell of a rainstorm on Rio. Remember that time I was the wettest I’ve ever been in Iguazu Falls? This night was number 2. We ended the night running through the streets in a torrential downpour to get to the dry subway and home.

In the end, both visits to FanFest were memorable, but for very different reasons.

I’m not sure where I’m watching the final yet, but I do know I’m happy about one thing: the only team Brazil hates more than Germany right now is Argentina, so at least the city is on my side this time.

Side note: all images were taken with my GoPro on a wrist mount. It was the most secure way I could think of to bring a camera into FanFest, which was proven right during the riot. It also meant that I didn’t have to worry about it during the night swim and running through the rain (although those pictures and videos are a little hard to see).