Friday, July 23, 2010

My last bus ride on the Latin American expedition was already the beginning of a return to familiar locations. I was back in Rio for four more days of fun in the sun (and in its absence). I’m not sure if it was the beginning of high season or Brazil is just busier in the winter months than many of its neighbours but I had to resort to booking a hostel online – and most of them were full including the hostel I had stayed at last time. So I wound up at Karisma hostel, which had mediocre reviews on Hostelworld but aside from an initially rough greeting involving wanting to hold my passport ransom in some safe it was fine. The security situation seemed pretty solid, with safety boxes inside the traditional wooden lockers and a night guard on duty, and the location three blocks off Ipanema beach didn’t seem to warrant that at all. Additionally, the hostel is at the end of a whole alley of hostels including the well-loved Lighthouse, Girl from Ipanema, and several others. So the atmosphere of the neighbourhood was definitely appropriate for nightlife lovers although the noise from the street seeped into the room. This was compensated for by the fact that the dorm and in fact the hostel only had one other inhabitant, an English girl. We went out for dinner nearby and I was quite ready to ship her back in a tea crate by the time it was finished. She was not only more boring than me (impossible!) but rude to anybody that didn’t speak fluent English. Really rude. That was not how I wanted to spend my last days. I decided to check out of there the next morning and make my way to the Misti hostel in Copacabana as Botafogo was still booked up and headed over there.

This was a wise decision. I had no sooner arrived than I was greeted by a beautiful and friendly girl from Entre Rios, Argentina at reception and she got me sorted out pretty quickly. She recommended me a good place nearby to get lunch by the kilo and I wasn’t disappointed. Then, with the sky slightly clearing in the afternoon, I headed downtown to catch the 60 centavo tram up to Santa Theresa. The tram heads high over the centre on a viaduct and up into the historic hilltop neighbourhood with beautiful views in all directions on the way. But better than the neighbourhood or the views is the tram itself, full of locals and tourists alike to the point that they are literally hanging off the edges which is exactly where I was for this interesting ride. Going over the viaduct it’s a good five storey drop if you were to slip, lose your footing, or let go and many times you had to turn your feet sideways along the running board as we came near to scraping cars and walls along the way. I watched the sunset and walked back down part of the way until I started to feel uncomfortable and then tagged along with a couple guys heading in the same direction to get back into Lapa proper. This isn’t the safest area to be, apparently, after dark much less with a camera but I didn’t feel particularly uneasy and took the opportunity to do a bit of night photography of the beautiful municipal theatre and other old buildings before catching a subway back to Copacabana and my hostel.

Towards the end of the trip – aside from Cheymus – I haven't met many Canadians and a few people have also commented that you don’t see many Canadians down in this part of the world. I hadn’t felt this way and then started recollecting that, aside from Leanne and Janet I really hadn’t encountered many since Ecuador but my theory has been all along that it is a seasonal thing. In the heat of July, nobody is particularly interested in leaving a beautiful Saskatchewan summer, for example. October through March, however, is prime Canadian-spotting season and matches up with my experience. Now, towards the end of July, it was becoming English. My hostel was full of groups of English students fresh from university on their summer break; the difficulty here is that groups are tough to crack sometimes, but I didn’t mind as I had a headache and really hadn’t just had a good read in quite a while (I often write when most people are reading). However, an English girl named Alex arrived on her own and saw me reading Charles Dickens (I’m still plugging away at a Tale of Two Cities) and that started our conversation. As happens more and more here, people seem to think I’m from Brazil or Argentina so seeing me with an English book in my hands helped break the ice. I chatted with her a bit and then we met a group of really friendly English guys fresh off the plane and spent the rest of the night visiting with them and trying to give them ideas on things they could do in Rio and introducing them to caipirinhas.

The next day, they all set off on my guided tour where I finally donned my sandals, grabbed a chilled coconut, and walked all the way along Copacabana beach to Ipanema where I set up shop. Towel, book, beachfront views, and Brazilian girls passing around a soccer ball in bikinis plus, at last, a beaming and burning sun. I enjoyed the day thoroughly. I met back up with the group at our hostel to take them on the evening section of the tour: a walk up to Sugarloaf to catch the sunset. My plan had been to walk to the top of Urca and then cable car the rest of the way up but on the walk up I decided I wanted to do something a bit more adventurous for my last days in Rio so I strolled up to the helicopter stand. It turned out they had two people wanting to go and were in need of a third and although I initially walked away I decided that the time was perfect and I would definitely have an unforgettable sunset so I went back, paid, and the next thing I know, I was being whisked down to the helipad with a local and his son and we were off the ground. The helicopter ride came so fast I didn’t have a chance to get excited or barely even get my camera ready but as we came around Christ the Redeemer glowing pink in the sun’s final rays and He stood with Sugarloaf and Rio spread before him I was definitely getting there. I was gushing and babbling about it for a long time when we got on the ground, and this was before seeing my photos even. The sun had set by the time we landed, with views of Copacabana as a bonus on the way back and I had another reason to get excited.

The dusk light was even more beautiful than the last time I’d been up here with Cheymus and I took full advantage of the beauty, my camera, and my tripod. Every once in awhile I realize how much better my new camera is and two months later, this was one of those moments. It colours it captured looked surprisingly good and I was once again very excited. We hung around on the lounge chairs and watched dusk turn to night and the city lights come on, then headed back down to the base. From there, still in tour guide mode, I took the group to the little Chinese-run shop down the street from my old hostel for the cheapest dinner in town: two shredded chicken and cheese/pudding salgados with a Coca-Cola for four reals. Then we got back on the subway, headed home, and called it an early evening. My last full day was upon me and I’d need rest. I’d planned to get up for sunrise and head to the beach but ruled that out with a press of my thumb and headed out around 8:00 for some early-morning photos instead. Along the beach were sand sculptures of buildings, monuments in Rio, and my personal favourite: women in thongs lounging on the beach. I didn’t get back in time for breakfast which worked out alright in the end because I had run out of dinner times to visit a Churrascaria. That night, we all had plans to visit a soccer match at the famed Maracana stadium, home of the Flamengo team, and the next night I would be en route to the airport around dinner time.

But you’re surely asking was a Churrascaria is, and it’s time I explained. Basically, they throw a bunch of fine cuts of meat (filet mignon, for example) on a skewer and slow roast it on coals. Some of the meats are layered with a cheese that melts and infuses in but my preference was for the pure meat. Then you grab a plate, load a few sides – say sushi, salad, lots of olives, and some oysters – and sit down. Within a minute one of the servers will pass with a skewer of some meat or another and ask if you would like him to shave a piece for you. You DID leave room after the buffet visit, right? And as you’re nibbling on this, someone with some sausage or fried cheese or roast pork or ribeye will inevitably come by and offer you some right until you flip over a little pog that is red or green to indicate your willingness for more. The price for this incredible feast was 34 reals ($20) and well worth it once on your visit. The problem arose that I simply ate too much. I probably ate $10 worth of olives alone, not to mention 15 pieces of sushi and sashimi, lots of clams and mussels, and countless meat portions. I was ridiculously stuffed and it actually wrecked my day in that I waddled home and slept like a whale.

We all left for the game at 6:30 PM and were picked up by Danielle, our very friendly Flamengo-fan/guide. It was pure laziness that we went on a tour as I was pretty sure that the game wouldn’t be sold out and we could get there with one bus or another. But it was my last night and why not? We wouldn’t have known where to sit which, I have to admit, our guide did, and we were right in the middle of some of the craziest soccer fans on the planet. But you could definitely do it cheaper (less than half the 85 real cost) if you wanted to. The singing started 20 minutes before the game and didn’t stop until we got back on the shuttle bus that took us there. As well, they were armed with drums, flags, and countless other instruments of fandom. The stadium was once capable of holding 200,000 people until seats were installed and fire regulations enforced, and so it now holds 90,000. That day, the game was not against a particularly good team and there were 15,000 in the stands and I can only shudder to imagine the sound of 6x that many fans in one place. Around the stadium were lots of little activities and things to bring the crowd in earlier (or spread arrival times) and keep them entertained not to mention traditional pre-match necessities. My favourite example of this was a bust of Mame Garrincha put prominently in the front entrance when he played for Flamenco. But he betrayed fans and team alike by switching to their rivals some time ago and it is now tradition that you smack the statue upside the back of his head for this treachery.

The game itself was decent until Flamengo scored their first goal and became complacent and devolved quickly from that. Even a tying goal by Avai didn’t get the level of play up to standards. In the second half, only a series of bad calls and rough conduct could energize the teams into trying to win a decisive victory and break the tie. The last 15 minutes were intense, but in the end it was the crowd and fervor more than football that were the drawing card. It being my last night, we returned to the hostel and hung out with some of the other travellers with caipirinhas, games of spoons, and a few beer warming up. We (well, I) wanted to go out for Samba but that was not meant to be on a Wednesday night so we went nearby to a so-called salsa club (which was actually just a hostel bar) and hung out there for a while before coming home. It wasn’t a wild or incredible last night, but I suppose after so many great things in this city, it didn’t have to be. Plus, my last day would prove to be packed full of activity. The first stop was a trip into one of the favellas (basically, ghetto/slum) with a volunteer named Vanessa from an NGO. I paid 65 to go, which was the same price as one of the tours, but with the advantage that the money was going right to the community instead of a tour company and that I wouldn’t feel like I was a clueless tourist in a human zoo. I gathered that they didn’t do this often as the president of the NGO (or ONG here) came and met me personally at the hostel before Vanessa showed up.

Like most of the poor areas in Latin America, the favella was in a beautiful section of Rio, crawling up from a beachfront looking out toward Ipanema up into the hills overlooking most of Rio. They are unplanned, unengineered, and suffer many problems with rainfall and even simple navigation. Sometimes you have to cross through three homes to get to yours from the road, for example. If you heard about the recent flood-related deaths in Brazil they were from these hillside favellas not diverting rainfall properly and their poorly engineered non-foundationed structures collapsing and sliding down the hillside. We got there by a mini-van to a certain part and then motorcycles up the hills and narrow streets into the heart of the favella where the NGO is based. They seem to do a lot for the people, or at least they are trying to – it turns out the organization is quite young but from the sounds of it they are already making a difference. I met some of the students and then a protégé of Vanessa’s that she is trying to groom to take over the ‘tour’ part of the NGO. The girl was very nice but far too shy for this occupation, I fear, but perhaps this is exactly what will bring her out of that shell. The girl (I’m sorry I can’t remember her name) had an interesting story, though. She grew up in the favella and was one of the first the NGO helped get grants to study in university. As for the walk around, the favella was actually in pretty good condition compared to other places I have seen and the people had enough pride to clean up their garbage and everything. We talked to a few people but Vanessa would go into Portugese and I would stand around wondering what to pretend to be doing and would barely get a translation although sometimes this was because she just wound up chatting with someone. In any case, it was good to go and see firsthand.

I managed to whip off a quick burst of souvenir shopping that afternoon and a few hours on the beach as well. I felt sad to turn my back on the beach and walk back to the hostel and I wondered if I should be living somewhere else. But of course the grass is always greener and I doubt I’d be at the beach all that often anyway if I actually lived here though who knows. I definitely was feeling the end-of-trip pressures that day. Back at the hostel I changed and started my packing then came back to the beach with the English boys to get the sunset at Ipanema. It was absolutely beautiful – this seems to be the city of sunsets and none have failed to astound me on this trip. Suddenly it was 5:45 and I needed to be packed and ready to get my taxi at 6:30 at the hostel so I started making my way back only to discover the traffic was really heavy. I found a quieter road and a taxi to rush me back to the hostel and got back with only a few minutes before 6:30 and threw everything into my backpack. The man we’d arranged a cab with never showed up so at 6:50 I took another cab that seemed trusty with the English couple that was leaving that same evening and we were at the airport about an hour later. There were no problems checking in and only a slight hiccup when the immigration officer couldn’t find a place to put the exit stamp of my passport but I was prepared for this. Then, one expensive pack of M&Ms later, I was on a 9:55 flight heading for Houston.

I hadn’t eaten all day aside from a quick corn-on-the-cob while rushing back to the hostel from the beach and a chicken burger of questionable value at the airport and had some pains in my stomach as well as a fever to contend with on the flight. And seats that pretty much didn’t recline. I woke up at one point so sure I was going to be sick that I carefully vaulted over the friendly lady beside me (she was asleep) and headed to the washroom where I sweated a lot and not much else. So it wasn’t a great flight but on the other hand I happened to be awake as we crossed over the Guyanas and Venezuela leaving the South American continent and watching the moon glisten over the open water which felt like a symbolic moment in the adventure. I’m hoping it wasn’t symbolic that as I neared the Gulf of Mexico there was lightning everywhere (tropical storm Bonnie, I later discovered) and the water didn’t seem to be as shining. For some reason I had to clear customs in Houston in spite of the fact that I was not actually entering their country but I was out and back on a plane for Vancouver in 2.5 hours. In Vancouver, the customs officer was really friendly. I’d brought back some peppers for my mom and she said they were fine and then the other guy that decides if you’re being searched or continuing was really friendly and finished our conversation with “great to have you back” and a friendly slap on the shoulder as I thanked him and walked back into Canada.

The final leg of the journey was after a few hours layover in Vancouver’s VIP/American Express lounge where I ate a nice free lunch, sipped some gingerale for my stomach, and used the wifi while I worked on my blog and waited for my plane to pull up. Then it was off to Fort St John in northern BC, along the Alaska highway and the furthest north I have ever been in Canada – and interesting contrast to being almost as far south as I have ever been on this earth. It was a bit disorienting, actually, to suddenly have the sun high in the sky, sunsets after 10, and no garbage bin in the toilet – what about the plumbing?! I landed and got off the little plane and then made my way into the airport where I sat, worked on the blog, and helped a lady unload alcohol from her truck. I guess it really didn’t feel like I was at home, this was just another leg on the trip and it was a strange feeling when my dad’s truck finally pulled up an hour and a half later (they had just made the drive from Saskatoon) and I was hugging my dad, Mariah, my cousin Jonathan, and my uncle George. Then we were off to the hotel where I would see more family I hadn’t seen in an even longer time and go for my first real meal back in Canada – lamb chops and Greek salad. As I listened to my dad and uncles talking in Greek at one end of the table while I joked with my sister and cousin and ate, I decided that it was really great to be home again. I hope that I will continue to have things to write about while I’m here and time to do so, but if you’re not subscribed have a peek at that or if you have a Google/Yahoo/Twitter/AIM/OpenID account you can also “Follow” this by clicking on the button in the bottom left. In any case, thank you for following along on my latest adventure and I hope to have many more to share in the future.



Unknown said...

Hi Dean,

Just wanted to say I have really enjoyed following along with you on your latest long trip. I feel rather melancholy now that it's all over. Your photos are just amazing and I love your writing style. Also, I like the way you frankly describe the troubles you encounter along the way, in addition to all the good stuff -- it's hard to find better truly-authentic, real-world travel blogging.

I hope you will let us share another of your adventures soon -- big or small.


Dean said...

Thanks John, I hope to have many more adventures to share with you and the world not too far in the future...