Brazil 2011

Brazil 2011 journal
Stefanie Weisman

Sunday, May 8:
Flew from LaGuardia to Charlotte, N.C., then caught the flight to Rio at night. There’s a lot of paperwork involved in going to Brazil. The US Airways flight to Rio was terrible. The interior of the plane hadn’t been refurbished since the 80s or 90s, and the pitch of the seats left us barely any room to move. When the person in front of me reclined his seat I couldn’t even lean forward to rest my head on the tray, which is how I sleep. We couldn’t reach our bags beneath our seats without serious effort. The food was disgusting, and they played movies all night long on one screen in the front of the plane. I could hear the sound through people’s headsets. We got barely any sleep, and just as we did fall asleep they woke us up about 2 hours before landing to give us “breakfast” (coffee-cake).

Monday, May 9:
The airport in Rio is one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen. It looks like it’s from the 60s or 70s. There weren’t any ATMs in the main hall so we asked at the information desk, where only one guy kind of spoke English. The ATMs were very far out of the way and we had to go up several flights of stairs. There we had to try 7 or 8 different ATMs before we found one that recognized our cards! We were shocked that so few Brazilian banks accept American ATM cards. I think the only one that worked was Bradesco.

We got some money and went outside and found the waiting area for the hotel bus, which goes down Avenida Atlantica and passes the major hotels. The people in charge spoke almost no English. Throughout the trip, we were surprised at how hard it was to communicate even with people in the tourist industry. We waited for the bus for a long time. The bus is poorly designed and can fit only 5 or 6 pieces of luggage in the bottom. The rest we had to take up with us. It cost 9 reais and was moderately comfortable. The roads are very bad though and we were jostled pretty violently. Rob and I were exhausted since we had gotten almost no sleep on the plane, so we kept falling asleep and being jerked awake by the bumpy road. I caught my first view of Sugarloaf Mountain, which is breathtaking.

When Rob woke up as we entered Copacabana he realized his camera was missing. I didn’t even know he had taken it out, but he said he had put it on his lap or by his leg to take pictures. We assumed it must have fallen and searched all over the bus for it. The guys behind us tried to help us out. As we searched for it the bus passed the street that went up to our hotel and didn’t stop. I didn’t realize you had to call out to make the bus stop, and we were kind of panicking because we still couldn’t find the camera. We got our luggage and Rob made one final search, but still no luck. We were in a really bad state because we were so sleep deprived and confused and disoriented. Rob realized that he was missing his sunglasses, too. Up to this point we thought the camera had just fallen, but now we realized he had probably been robbed. He wasn’t sure if they had taken the sunglasses off his head or if he had put them near his camera. We think that the people behind us must have reached between the window and the seat and taken the things. That’s why they were pretending to be so helpful.

We walked a few blocks to the Apa Hotel in a state of shock. We had gotten robbed within an hour of landing in Rio. We were afraid of everybody, thinking they might be thieves or kidnappers or something. We couldn’t even enjoy being on Copacabana Beach. Apa Hotel is a few blocks off the beach, and when we got to the front desk they told us we couldn’t check in until 2 pm, which was 2 hours away. We were too scared and confused to want to leave our luggage there and head back out, so we just sat in the lobby and used the hotel computer to send emails to our mothers. My mom was pretty calm about it, but Rob’s mom sent back emails that really scared us.

Finally they let us check in. The room hadn’t been renovated in years, but it was spacious and relatively clean and comfortable. We locked all the doors and fell asleep for several hours. We felt much better when we got up, though we were still pretty scared. It was wintertime so it was already dark when we got up (it got dark around 5 pm). Rob did some research on where to eat, and we took a cab to a seafood restaurant in Ipanema. This neighborhood felt okay to us. The restaurant prices were so high that we had to leave after we had already been seated. Looking back on it, though, I’m not sure if the prices were for one person or two people. The food prices in Rio in general are surprisingly high.

We wandered around a bit and saw a few nice restaurants. The area along the beach is well-maintained and full of joggers, rollerbladers, etc., so we felt safe. We walked away from the beach a few blocks and settled on a relatively inexpensive chicken restaurant with outdoor seating called Galitos Grill. We got a chicken in mild spicy sauce and a rice dish with eggs and potato chips. The food here was delicious. Rob got a caipirinha, which he liked but which I thought was disgusting, and a Guarana soda. Rob was still hungry afterwards so he got a farofa dish, even though he didn’t know what it was. I thought it was okay though I couldn’t eat much of it, and Rob thought it was too dry. We took a cab back to our hotel. Since we were too afraid to walk or take public transportation here (all our guide books said to avoid taking the buses, especially at night), we ran up a fortune in taxi cab bills over the course of our trip. Rio is a very expensive city for tourists. We couldn’t figure out how most residents could afford to live here, either. When we got back to our hotel we asked them to register us for the Favela Tour – the one associated with Marcelo Armstrong – which we had heard was safe and well-organized, though of course we had our doubts.

Tuesday, May 10:
I had a good breakfast at the hotel. Unlike in Europe, where the eggs are usually runny, salty and undercooked, they do eggs right in Brazil. They were buttery and unsalted. The buffet also had fresh fruit, cakes, liquid yogurt, cereal, bread, and some interesting Brazilian treats.

The Favela Tour guide picked us up at our hotel in a van in the morning. Her name was Marina or something like that. Her English was very good and we felt we could trust her. There were about 10 other people on the tour, all English speakers, most of them from the UK. One girl was wearing some flashy jewelry, which struck me as a bad idea. The van driver lived in a favela (Vila Canoas). The tour guide spoke favorably of the people in the favela, explaining that they were “nice, good people,” and did a good job of describing what life was like there and what the government was doing to improve things for them.

We drove to the enormous favela of Rocinha. The tour guide said that we were safe there because we were considered guests of the favela, and it’s expressly forbidden to hurt guests. Also the rich people who live in expensive mansions right next to the favela are safe because they are neighbors, and it’s forbidden to hurt neighbors. One of the best, most expensive schools in Rio, the American School, is right next to the favela. It’s a very strange situation.

The guide told us not to take pictures of people here, because the drug dealers don’t want their pictures taken. She took us into a building with a balcony that had a magnificent view of the mountains and the entire favela. It’s hard to conceive how large it is; it just goes on and on.

View of Rocinha favela


The alleys are extremely steep and narrow, and the more desirable homes are closer to the base of the mountain. The government has added some infrastructure, public housing, sports facilities, etc., to this favela recently. The guide said that some residents are middle class, but they don’t leave because all their family is here. The favela reminded Rob and me of a medieval Italian town. Everything was built ad hoc and without planning or building codes. I kept thinking how this area would be devastated by earthquakes, landslides, etc. We saw one man with a gun under his shirt, and Rob said he saw another with a gun out in plain sight. The van stopped near some craft stalls with really nice merchandise: handbags, shell jewelry, and paintings. I asked a woman how much one painting was, and she said 70 reais. That was too expensive for me, so I walked away. Before we got into the van, she came back to me and said 60. I went down to 50, and she checked with the artist – a young man who was sitting nearby – and said okay. So I made my first purchase. She rolled it up and I took it into the van.

We felt very safe in the favela with our guide. Nobody harassed us, and some people were actually friendly. We walked through the commercial area, where there were all kinds of shops. I was surprised by how normal life seemed here. There were a lot of shops selling live poultry, groceries, fruits, construction materials, etc. Lots of motorcyclists provide transportation and many of them serve the drug trade. This was the one place in Rio where food was actually cheap. There were huge bundles of cables crisscrossing the streets for electricity, cable TV, etc. All of the houses have blue water towers on top.

After this we got back in the van and drove to a much nicer, smaller favela called Vila Canoas. This favela has been “pacified” by the police, and we went to a school (Para Ti) that is partially funded by the tour company. I think they said that most students attend public school for only half a day. This school gives them something to do in their free time. We went to a computer lab, some classrooms, saw some art they had made out of plastic bottles, etc. Also went into a gift shop with local crafts.

Then we walked through some of the alleyways, which are incredibly narrow and hard to navigate. The alleys here actually have names and, unlike Rocinha, they can get mail here. We saw a small playground. It’s incredible how jumbled up everything is. It reminded me of an M.C. Escher painting.

Favela alleyway

They have bars with pool tables and lots of restaurants with delicious-smelling food. We came back to the main road and Rob met a friendly stray dog.

The tour took about three hours and was the highlight of my trip. Afterwards we had the van drop us off near the Botanical Gardens. I was only wearing flip flops and had to buy some band-aids because I was getting some very painful blisters. This area wasn’t pretty but it was busy enough, so we felt safe. The Botanical Gardens were pleasant but not nearly as interesting or well-kept as gardens I’ve been to in America. Walked through a rainforest, palm tree colonnades and bamboo forests, saw carnivorous plants, ponds, etc. Saw an egret, some far-off toucans, a hummingbird, etc. It was very calm and peaceful here.

We went back to the Copacabana area and stopped at one of the many sucos-and-sandwich shops they have on almost every corner. We didn’t know what was in the sandwiches but we ordered two that had ham and cheese, and I got an acai na tigela, which is basically frozen acai. It was very, very good.

acai na tigela

Then we went down to the beach and strolled along the Portuguese pavement. Saw some nice sandcastles and the Copacabana Palace Hotel. They installed lights here a few years ago and it feels very safe now. We window-shopped in some jewelry stores and someone who worked at Amsterdam Sauer saw us and invited us in. He thought I was Brazilian. A very nice salesman inside showed us a small museum with Brazilian gems, and when I said I liked opal he showed me some very expensive pieces. We told him we weren’t looking to buy, but he didn’t seem to mind showing us. For dinner we went to a Brazilian per-kilo buffet place since we weren’t very hungry. I got a small piece of chicken but it was still pretty expensive. You get a card where they mark off everything you’ve eaten, and you pay at the end. Later on Rob got a conde fruit suco, which is a kind of tropical fruit we had never seen before. The man showed us what it was and it looked like an artichoke. I really enjoyed the sucos throughout our trip.

Wednesday, May 11:
The next day I forced Rob to walk down to Copacabana beach with me so I could see it in the daylight. The water was too violent and cold to swim in, and there were very few people on the beach or in the water. Plus it’s so hard to swim here because anything you leave on the beach is likely to get stolen. Rob and I aren’t beach people, anyway. The beach is very beautiful, though, surrounded by green cliffs and mountains. We thought Rio was one of the most naturally beautiful places we had ever seen.

Copacabana beach


After this we set out for Corcovado/ Cristo Redentor. This turned into a nightmare. We had a guide book that was 2 or 3 years old that said it costs about 10 reais to get to the mountain by taxi, and another 5 reais to walk the rest of the way to the statue. The cog train, on the other hand, costs 36 reais, so we thought we’d do it the “cheap” way and take the taxi. First, however, we took the metro to Cosme Velho, then cabbed it to the place where the cog train departs from. There was a line of taxis by the cog train, so we got into the first one and told him we wanted to go to Cristo Redentor. He had no idea what we were saying, even when we spoke to him in Spanish. We kept saying statue, statua, Cristo Redentor, Corcovado, but he didn’t get it. He asked us for the address, which we thought was ridiculous – just go up to the big statue! It seemed like he had never been up to the top before. He called over his supervisor who spoke a little English, and the cab driver said he could do it but first asked his supervisor for directions.

So finally he went on his way up the mountain, which was very curvy. Then he made a wrong turn and went to the helipad instead of the statue. I don’t know where he got that idea from. Rob and I told him again where we wanted to go and he seemed to get it, and finally he got us to the parking lot for the statue. Here he wanted to wait for us until we got back. Our tour books and internet sites had warned us against accepting this offer, so we told him we didn’t want him to wait. We asked the people at the entrance whether we could take any cab down, and they said yes, he didn’t have to wait. At this point he got very upset and practically refused to leave. He tried to charge us 40 reais (the meter said 16 reais) and seemed so upset that I was inclined to give in, but Rob gave him 16 and not a penny more. Finally he went away. It was a very stressful experience. At the park entrance we were in for another shock – our tour book had said it cost 5 reais to walk to the statue, but now it was 18 reais whether you walked or took the vans they had lined up by the entrance. We were very upset and almost didn’t want to go the rest of the way, but eventually we paid. Rob wanted to walk up the road to blow off some steam. We didn’t know where to go, but eventually found a man who spoke Spanish who directed us and said it was about 2 km. It was actually a very nice walk through the Tijuca rainforest, and we saw a lot of lush vegetation and butterflies. We were the only ones walking up or down, however. Luckily it was wintertime and the weather was quite nice.

After about a 15 minute walk we got to the statue. The views were incredible, and the statue was impressive. We were above the vultures and hawks and even the airplanes that were landing at the airport. It was a little hazy but not too bad.

Me at Cristo Redentor


We were desperate to avoid taking a taxi back down, so we were relieved to find that we could buy a 1-way ticket back down on the cog train. It cost 18 reais for each of us. If we had known how complicated it was, we would have just taken the cog train in the first place. The trip down was uneventful. They were playing samba music in the car in front of us.

When we got back down the mountain, we had a cab take us to Catete Palace. The drivers don’t seem to understand where you want to go unless you say it in perfect Portuguese. We showed him the spelling in our guide book. Before going in we had a sandwich and a pizza and an acai drink at a sucos bar. The people here weren’t very friendly, and this area of the city has nice architecture but isn’t kept up well. We went into the palace with eagles on top. It was free to get in that day but we had to pay for the audio guide because none of the signs were in English. It’s a pretty impressive palace, but all of the pieces are copies of European originals. We saw the room where President Vargas committed suicide, including the pajama shirt he had on when he shot himself. The guards kept telling us where to go in Portuguese and couldn’t speak a word of English. We asked them where the bathrooms were – I called them banheiros, as my guide book told me to. The guards seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. We kept getting directed to different places. Finally someone mentioned the word toileta, or something like that, and pointed out a room with no sign. The men’s and women’s toilets happened to be in the same room.

Afterwards we started to walk to the Centro area to see the cathedral. The architecture here is gorgeous, but the area has become a slum. We saw a lot of poor people selling random items on mats – I told Rob to keep an eye out for his camera. Eventually we walked into such a bad area that we had to hail a cab. We saw the Arcs of Lapa from the taxi.

We were shocked by how ugly the cathedral was. We both agreed it was the ugliest building we had ever seen. It was also extremely dark and depressing inside. Rob said it reminded him of the Star Wars tube auditorium thing. We walked around the Centro for a bit, where all the businesspeople were getting out of work. The office buildings are also extremely ugly and have no personality. We decided to take the bonde up to the Santa Teresa neighborhood, though it took us a while to find the bonde station. It’s .60 reais for a seat, and it’s free if you hang on to the outside. It was a little like riding the trolley in New Orleans. We went over the Arcs of Lapa, but you can’t see them from the bonde itself. Most of the riders were tourists and it was a pretty fun ride with a great view, though very bumpy. People kept jumping on and holding on to the sides. Santa Teresa is a nice neighborhood with a lot of art galleries, craft shops, and cozy restaurants. It seemed like it only had one main street, although I can’t be sure because it was night. We had dinner at a really cute restaurant and got fried goat cheese and sun-dried beef with yam fries, rice and black beans. The beef was too salty and overdone, but everything else was good. On the way back Rob decided to hang on to the side of the bonde, which he really enjoyed. Afterwards we took the Metro back to Copacabana. The Metro, by the way, is extremely clean and seems pretty safe, though it doesn’t run to too many places. At certain hours they have train cars expressly for women.

Thursday, May 12:
We had booked a tour of Petropolis (110 reais per person with ViaCopa tours) through our hotel and the van picked us up in the morning. There were about 8 other people on the tour with us, English and Portuguese speakers. The tour guide’s English was terrible. At one point in the tour, she pronounced the word abandoned as “a-bahn-dohn-ed.” Her descriptions were very unsatisfying and uninformative. However, the tour got us to Petropolis and back in one piece, and it would have been a nightmare getting there on our own. The tour guide was surprised I wasn’t Brazilian. I was getting kind of annoyed that everyone thought I was Brazilian and expected me to speak Portuguese.

The van ride to Petropolis was the most exciting part of the trip. We had to go way up in the mountains on a very curvy, bumpy road, and the driver – like most Brazilians – drove very fast. It was a little scary. We drove through rainforests and had some really beautiful views. I wish the van had stopped at one of the viewpoints so we could take it all in.

Petropolis is a pretty little European-style town in the middle of a rainforest. It’s much safer than Rio. The tour guide said that it’s the flower capital of Brazil, but I didn’t see too many flowers. We first stopped outside a German chateau-style condo that used to be a casino frequented by Hollywood stars. Then we went to a shop that sold chocolates and other touristy stuff. I got some very good biscuits. Next we drove to the Imperial Palace, which is pretty plain and modest for a palace. It was the summer home for the 19th-century emperors of Brazil. The staff made us put huge sandals over our shoes so we wouldn’t damage the floor, and I spent the whole time skating around the palace. The rooms were pretty and well-maintained. We saw the crowns and the golden pen Queen Isabel used to abolish slavery. I liked that one of the emperor’s coronation robes had orange toucan feathers on it. The tour guide gave us a bare-bones explanation of what we were seeing.

After this the guide went to have a very long lunch and most of the people on our tour joined her. Rob and I didn’t feel like spending a lot of time and money on lunch, so we walked around the town. We stopped at a playground that was a throwback to the 80s and had lots of “dangerous” equipment they don’t allow in American playgrounds anymore. We went on the seesaw, the wooden swings, etc. Then we walked towards the pretty cathedral in the center of town. There were some lovely mansions done in tropical Neoclassical and Victorian styles.

Cathedral in Petropolis


We had to wait around for a while until the rest of the group finished lunch and came to the cathedral in the van. While we waited we got a sandwich and some cake. The food prices are much more reasonable here than in Rio. After walking around the cathedral we drove to the House of the Seven Mistakes, which looks like a haunted house and has seven architectural oddities. Nearby is a cute restaurant built in the former stables, where they have tables inside what used to be horse pens. Then we drove to the Crystal Palace, which is another imperial remnant. All in all it’s a nice, pretty city, but not terribly exciting. The ride back was bumpy but uneventful. The highway outside of Rio, by the way, is in a terrible state, and it passes through an endless stretch of favelas. We were shocked by the extent of the poverty.

When we got back to Copacabana we decided to go to an Italian restaurant called La Trattoria, which has been there since 1976. It was very busy but we got seated right away and got risotto with mushrooms and gnocchi with chicken in a marsala sauce. Both were very good.

I should mention that all of the apartments and homes in Rio are surrounded by huge gates as a constant reminder of how much crime there is here.

Friday, May 13:
Getting to the airport from our hotel was a pain. We wanted to take the hotel bus but it only comes every 40 minutes (we heard) and you have to flag it down; there’s no designated stop. Rio has terrible infrastructure and services for tourists. We waited for 30 minutes but it didn’t come. A local man looked at us and shook his head, as if we were idiots for wanting to take the bus in the first place.

Finally a taxi driver stopped and offered to take us for 30 reais, which was a pretty good deal. We flew from Rio to the Sao Paulo airport on a TAM flight that was going on to Caracas. The Sao Paulo airport is slightly nicer than Rio’s. [We were going to Sorocaba, a town outside of Sao Paulo, for a wedding.]

A driver hired by the bride’s family met us at the airport and drove us to Sorocaba. It took about an hour and a half. He dropped us off at the Dan Hotel, formerly the Shelton Inn. Our room looked pretty nice – it was much more modern than the Apa Hotel – but it was actually less functional. The water pressure wasn’t as good, the safe didn’t work, the AC didn’t work, and the wi-fi was very weak. Also room service didn’t come at all the next day. And the front desk didn’t have a map of Sorocaba. And there were Catholic crosses and statues in the lobby. The breakfast was very nice, though, and larger than in Rio. The hotel had a pool on the roof, though it was too cold to use. The groom had told us it would be $50 a night, but it was actually closer to $70.

We went into the Sorocaba Shopping center right next to our hotel with ___, where we had some micro-waved cheese bread. The stores here are cheaper versions of what you would find in any mall in America. Then we went back to the hotel and met some other Americans who were staying at the hotel for the wedding, and walked with them to the commercial district. Sorocaba is safer than Rio but it’s pretty ugly and there’s not much going on there. We did find an indoor market, though, and Rob got his hair cut in a barber shop inside the market. The other guys got a pack of beer at the supermarket next door; that was their priority. Sorocaba is not a pedestrian-friendly city. Some streets were extremely difficult to cross on foot, and we almost got run over a few times. At this point we were pretty sick of Brazil.

We rested a bit at the hotel and then got driven over to a rodizio-style pizza restaurant on a block owned by __’s father for the pre-wedding dinner. They kept bringing out different pizza pies and beers until we couldn’t eat anymore.

Saturday, May 14:
Rob and I walked around Sorocaba. The shops in the pedestrian-only area are low quality, and the architecture is nice but not taken care of. Everything seemed so poor. There must be some serious money in Sorocaba, but it didn’t show in the downtown commercial area. We got some very good fruity milkshakes at a shop run by a Japanese-Brazilian couple, who were friendly but didn’t understand a word of English. I could understand enough Portuguese to make out that the man was telling us not to walk down the street we were on because it was dangerous, so we went back the way we came. Everything was closing early anyway.

We got ready for the wedding and were driven to the Cathedral, which is a beautiful Neoclassical building. The wedding ceremony was incredibly dramatic, with trumpeters and a drumroll leading up to the bride walking down the aisle, live singers and speakers placed throughout the church….

After the barbecue a van took us and some of the other Americans to the Sao Paulo airport. The flight back was uneventful and we were happy to be going home. Before coming to Brazil, I had thought the things I read about crime here were exaggerations, but now I don’t think they are. Rio has a lot of work to do before the World Cup and the Olympics in 2016.

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