Rio de Janiero

So the last update I posted I was sleeping in Coco (my VW bus) in Copacabana Beach….I woke up the next morning with the sun, drowning in the tropical heat of the car (this uncomfortable stifling heat has become my alarm clock once I continued traveling north in the car).  I got out of the bus to have a stroll around Copacabana to stretch my legs and see what was hidden in darkness when I arrived the night before.

What I saw was a true beach culture,  walking down the street the smell of suntan oil is everywhere, coming from the half naked bodies who stroll around as if it were perfectly normal to walk down the street barefoot in a speedo or string bikini.  Copacabana is crowded and somewhat chaotic, it’s the beach for the masses.  For me it was my introduction to Rio de Janeiro, one of the most dynamic and marvelous metropolis’ I have ever seen, a city that I am now comfortable in

There is certainly no other place like it in the world. The city (of 14,000,000 people) is surrounded by and peppered with tropical rainforests complete with toucans and monkeys.  Huge jagged cliffs with bits of lush greenery clinging to their sides jolt skyward from oceans and random neighborhoods as if the city was built amongst gigantic stalagmites, miniature mountains, and lofty hills.  Nowhere is flat, except for the blue ocean and beaches which are as much a part of the city as the buildings, roads, and people.  It truly is a beach city.  Life revolves and happens around sand and sea.

Ipanema Beach
Ipanema Beach

So luckily I was saved from sleeping in Coco in a big crazy city by couchsurfers Flavia and Russo.  They lived in a great neighborhood called Botafogo in a beautiful apartment just a few hundred yards from Botafogo Beach (Unfortunately one of the many beaches in Rio where the water is too polluted to swim…but a beautiful view nonetheless).  Flavia and Russo had never hosted anyone before but as usual I was impressed and inspired by the generosity and hospitality that couchsurfers are capable of.  Flavia is studying Social Science and Russo is a musician.  I spent three nights with them, taking night walks to nearby beaches drinking beers and eating soggy french fries together in Lapa (A hip area with lots of nightlife), sharing meals together, and talking about all the things that make Rio such an interesting place.

Russo and Flavia in their apartment

After a couple days in Rio I was joined by a dear friend of mine from Holland named Safira who planned to travel with me for a couple weeks.  She would be my cohort and copilot for the next leg of the trip.

Safira and me overlooking Zona Sur

After Safira arrived we met another couchsurfer,Vanessa, who was like an angel to us.  spiritually healthy, aware, and beaming with positive energy, Vanessa’s kindness and presence during our stay definitely played a part in the general positive feelings we took away with us from our time in Rio.  She had just moved out of her apartment in Ipanema to another neighborhood and since the apartment was empty she let us stay there for a week!  Almost all my memories of Rio will be linked to this apartment which became like a second home to us. (not to make Coco jealous).

Vanessa with Safira being a guest in my home for a change

For me one of the most interesting things about Rio was the diversity.  Racial Diversity, economic diversity, and cultural diversity.  You see every type of person from rich to poor and of every possible race and color.  That is not to say that they all live together in harmony, quite the contrary.  Most of the poor population live in one of the many slums in Rio which are called Favelas. To me the existence of these favelas and the culture behind them was one of the most fascinating things about the city, but no matter how much info I gleaned from couchsurfers, the internet, and personal experience (We visited one), I still feel like I don’t quite understand it all, and neither do the people from Rio… as they were quick to admit that it’s a difficult subject to explain clearly.

But basically all over the city, in almost any direction you look, you will see a favela built up onto a hillside.  Almost always on the hillsides with crumbling little buildings build precariously onto very steep terrain (Many with stunning views of the ocean that ironically none of the millionaire houses have).  There are usually no roads in the favelas, you can only access them on foot.   Their locations and proximity to “nice” neighborhoods is one of the most mind-boggling things.  For instance, in Ipanema beach you can have an apartment where the rent is a couple thousand dollars a month…walk out the front door of your flashy building and walk 40 meters across the street and there is a huge elevator that you can ride up to a favela.

The city will say the elevator was built to serve the folks who live in the favelas but work in Ipanema (As maids, dishwashers, etc.).   But others will say that it was built to hide the Favela from the eyes of the tourists (Which incidentally it does do quite well).  This idea of “hiding” favelas is talked about alot with the upcoming summer games in Rio and the world cup the city is trying to clean up its image.

Narrow “street” in the Favela Morro do Cant

To clean up this image of out of control drug lord-run favelas the police are waging a serious war against the cri in the favelas.  People die literally everyday, sometimes by the dozens in shootouts with the police.  There are some Favelas that the drug lords “own”, meaning they are so well entrenched and armed that the police don’t even dare to enter because they know they would be killed.  There are other Favelas where the police are trying to win the battle.  If they “win”, the favela becomes known as “pacified”.  Right now, of the over 200 favelas in Rio, only 5 are considered pacified (the ones closest to the touristy areas).  Anyways, I could talk forever about this subject as it was so complex and interesting but….moving on…..

Favela Morro do Cantaga

To try and experience Samba we made a mission to go to one of the “Samba Schools” in Rio, of which there are 19.  They aren’t really schools but are more like clubs. These are the driving forces behind the famous Rio Carnival parade.  Most of their members and fans are people who live in favelas and they are almost all named after the favelas they represent.  In the months leading up to Carnival they have “rehearsals” every Saturday that are open to the public and are really just huge samba parties that the whole favela participates in.

So Safira and I set out one Saturday night to see the Manguera Samba School which was formed in 1928 and is one of the most famous.  A long bus ride from Ipanema dropped us off in a dodgy neighborhood at the edge of the Manguera Favela at about midnight.  After a hasty walk we found the party in full swing.  The music, people, and mass of energy was thick and in your face in a ghetto sort of way and that was just the scene outside of the huge warehouse that houses the samba party.   I was standing in line to buy our tickets when I turned and looked at Safira – the look of apprehension on her face said it all…so I escorted her to the bus back to Ipanema and made my way solo back through the crowds of people to buy my ticket.

Inside was much louder, more crowded and twice as much energy but with a surprisingly safe and family like general atmosphere.  About 60 percussionists pounded on drums of all sorts while a whole warehouse of people danced the samba, which i discovered is basically a form of who can vibrate and shake their body the fastest and most sexiest way possible, but with some good funny theatrics to go with it.  I finally left the party (It was still in full swing) around 5am and miraculously caught the bus back to Ipanema only to wake up the next morning with a hangover that only the beach could cure.

Rio was also my first real taste of the African Culture that makes Brazil so exotic and unique.  African slaves brought with them their own voodoo religion which mixed with Christianity and to this day is still practiced alongside of Christian rituals.  A huge percentage of the population belives in black magic and voodoo but its not practiced in the open although sometimes you see signs of it…

A dead chicken made as an offering possibly to cast a hex on someone…you see things like this from time to time on sidewalks or under trees

Other memories of Rio are:  The beginning of an addiction to coconut water (cold coconuts are sold EVERYWHERE and are chopped open with a machete and poked with a drinking straw), a visit to a little artists neighborhood called Santa Luiza that we fell in love with, taking a hike through Parque Nacional Tijuca (A beautiful national parque in the middle of Rio complete with rainforest and waterfalls), Fruits (Had the best mango in my entire life in Rio, Sucos (fruit juices from all types of normal and exotic fruits…they make them everywhere), and Açaí (An Amazonian fruit that is served frozen with granola and/or many other toppings and tastes amazing and gives you tons of natural energy), oh, and I fell in love with this old 1940’s Disney Cartoon about Brazil and Samba…a great one from the archives…if you have the time watch it….

Well, that’s about it for now.  This should have been posted on January 19th when we left Rio to begin the road trip up north.  The road trip has been one of the most amazing adventures of my life and I’ll be reporting more on that later but its not in the slightest conducive to keeping up with a blog since I rarely have internet access for more than short periods of time.  But I promise to get something up soon.  Until next time, Tchau!



Sao Paulo, New Years, and Ca-Dee Coco’s Maiden Voyage

With Christmas done and gone, memories of the party…travelers, beers, dancing, and drunken Christmas morning sunrises are all in the past.  All that is left, like scraps of wrapping paper under the Christmas tree, is a hangover and the need for a plan for New Years day which is quickly approaching.  Fortunately I had hopes to spend New Years in the company of old friends, Moose (AKA Jr.), and Porco (AKA Henrique).  My old roommates and partners in crime, I had lived with these two Brazilian cohorts for some time back in California in an old house in Hollywood.  A time that is lit with memories of house parties, hiking trips, Brazilian barbeques, wine on the roof, road trips to Las Vegas, and general merrymaking.  Four years had passed since they had left The States to return to Brazil and since I had promised I would visit them soon.  Better late than never, I alerted them of my presence in Brazil.  I can’t describe how great it was to be reunited with them, it reminded me of the joys of long overdue reunions, of the importance of friends and in keeping them in your life even if distances between you are great.  So Jr. and his girlfriend Vanessa, who he met when he was living with me in Hollywood and who I also knew from those bygone times, received me with welcome arms in their apartment in Sao Paulo (SP).  Henrique lived in a neighboring city an hour away and promised to drive down every chance he got.  And like this my adventures in Brazil began to take shape.

Reunited. Jr., Vanessa, Henrique, and me playing Pass the Pigs. Soooiiiiiieeeee!!!

So after the excitement of seeing each other again had wound down and we had sufficiently caught up over some nice dinners shared in their apartment with wine and candles we set off making plans for New Years.  No one wanted to stay in SP for this occasion so the next logical option was the beach.  Phone calls were made and research was done to reveal that of course there was no available places to stay in any of the beaches within two hours of Sao Paulo which sits about 50 miles (80k) inland. Hotels and hostels had all been booked months in advance.  I was about to feel dejected when Jr., always a sharp thinker, pointed out that Hotels are only good for sleeping in and besides that they cost money, why spent money on a hotel when we could just skip the sleeping part and spend the cash on Caiparihnas (kai-pur-EEN-ya)  purchased on the beach amongst the 1000’s of other revelers?  (A Caiparihna is kindof the national cocktail of Brazil, a mix of cachaça [Ka-SHA-sa…the national alcohol, a potent firewater made from sugar cane], a ton of lime, sugar, and ice.  Best drank in multitude and on a sandy hot beach.)

This ingenious plan was quickly adopted and put into action and Me, Jr., Henrique, Vanessa, and her Sister Bianca piled into the car and drove to Guarujá beach where all went as planned.  Thousands of people dressed in white (a Brazilian New Years tradition that symbolizes the purity of the year to come) filled a beach several miles long, fireworks and cachaça were abundant and kept us fueled until the sun rose straight out of the ocean, a site that outdid all the fireworks that preceded this grand finale and which was our cue to run like the drunken fools we were into the ocean to jump seven waves (another Brazilian new year’s tradition for good luck).  Swimming in the warm Atlantic waters, my brain contentedly bobbing inside my head, surrounded by an orange sunrise on New Year’s day, I realized that in all my travels around the world this was the first time I had ever swam in the Atlantic Ocean.  A fitting new adventure to start a new year.

Dinner before the fesitvities
Dinner before the festivities
The Scene on the Beach
The Scene on the Beach, the beach was 2 kilometers long and full of people and fireworks all night.
Abandoned corn vendor. Sunrise, just after a swim in the ocean.

Speaking of new adventures, one day the idea occurred to me that it might be fun to buy a car and drive it to Colombia…save on bus fare, pick up passengers along the way to add to the fun, and something I could sleep in to save money on hostels.  I brought the idea up with Jr. who was quick to point out that it isn’t possible to get a car across the Amazon River and who had his doubts whether a gringo could legally own a car in Brazil.  I had just assumed there had to be some sort of bridge or something but research confirmed that indeed, you could not drive along the Brazilian coastline and cross from one side of the Amazon Delta to the other in a car but that it was possible to legally buy a car if you were willing to brave some rather turbid beaurocratic waters.  Rather than give up on the idea I just decided that I could sell the car once I reached the Amazon and Jr. promised to help me navigate the seas of bureaucracy.  And so another harebrained scheme was put into effect.  Jr. went WAY above and beyond all normal duties of a friend in his dedication to helping me make this idea a reality and Henrique chipped in when he wasn’t stuck in the office in his neighboring city.  Ill spare you all the painful details of beaurocratic nightmares and hours spent looking for cars online and driving around Sao Paulo in the rain to check out the promising ones (Drove two hours one day to a dealer to see a car that was supposed to have 93,000 kilometers on it only to discover once I was behind the wheel test-driving it that there was a “1” in front of the 93,000….an observation that the car dealer claimed to have missed himself until I pointed it out to him), but I will say that it took more than a week, pretty much 6-8 hours a day dedicated to the cause, before I had the reins in my hands.  So without further adieu…allow me to introduce my travel companion.  Senora Ca-Dee Coco…

Zen And The Art of Driving Through Tropical Countries Without Air Conditioning

I bought it from a really cool guy who ran a paragliding school, hence the decals which translate into CLOUD-INVADORS.COM.BR,  SCHOOL OF FREE FLIGHT.  She has no stereo, no air conditioning, no power locks, doors, steering…well not much power in the engine either.  But she is the most roadworthy and reliable travel companion a vagabond could ask for.

So before I take you for a ride in the VW bus, let me speak a little of Sao Paulo.  After all, I did end up spending almost 3 weeks there including my 31st birthday (spent in the Chinatown district of SP at an all you can eat sushi place).  So how to describe it… Its big (seventh largest city in the world), there is lots of traffic, and it rains a lot, like every day and not just rain but proper storms complete with lighting and thunder that will shake the gringo right out of you and remind you that you are not in Kansas anymore.  The flora of the city is very tropical and green but it’s not hot, actually kind of cool at nights.  We did get one nice day in where the sun was out and we weren’t chasing cars and we spent it picnicking in the huge central park where monkeys swing wild from tree to tree and swans chase children across the grass.  The city is not so impressive compared to other metropolises but like any city it has its cool parts.  It was actually nicer than I expected it would be, I guess I expected to see more poverty.  That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of it, but the central part of the city, which is huge, is all pretty nice and safe.  The poverty is far away in the surrounding favelas, a stark contrast to its sister city Rio de Janiero (more on that later).  I was actually surprised to read that SP is one of the richest cities in the world…I certainly felt like I needed to be rich to stay there.  I was shocked how expensive things were, a ride on a city bus was about $1.75 compared to the 35 cents I was used to in Buenos Aires, the two nights that I slept in a hostel before I met up with Jr. set me back almost $40.  Basically the prices are about the same as things in the US or Europe.  One day, just a couple days before I was planning to drive to Rio in the bus, we sat and watched the news as the rains pounded outside and the reports came in of devastation and death caused by unusually powerful storms in the states of Sao Paulo and Rio De Janiero.  When the rains let up and the damage was assessed we were all shocked to learn that over 600 people had died, the worst natural disaster in Brazil’s history.

This taken from one of the tallest building in SP. I could only get the photostich program to stich 2 of the 4 photos i took, otherwise this would have been double the size. What you see here is only about 1/8 of a full panoramic view.

It was on the heels of this brutal storm that I finally set sail for Rio; I posted a message on the SP Couchsurfing group to see if anyone wanted to join me, that’s how I met Dave, an Irish lass who would be my crew on this maiden voyage.  So the plan was to drive to a small colonial town on the coast between SP and Rio De Janiero called Paraty (pronounced Par-ah-chee), spend the night there and the next morning exploring the nearby beaches and waterfalls, then finish the drive to Rio.  So I picked Dave up from his hostel, we shook hands for the first time and set off into the rainy Sao Paulo night with our trusty GPS nicknamed Ecowapi (Means “where is it” in Swahili, a remnant from my days spent wandering the mountains and deserts of Africa many moons ago) guiding us to our destination.  After a hectic escape from the rain and traffic of SP, Coco purred like a drunken kitten as we careened down the highway leaving me confident that I had chosen a good vehicle to deliver me to Amazonia.  After about 2 hours on the main highway Ecowapi had led us onto a small winding>>  highway that was to take us directly to the coast and to Paraty.  Winding and deserted as it was it wasn’t until it turned into a dirt road that we began to double check Ecowapi’s route.  But sure enough we were on our way. We could see ourselves on the map moving in the right direction and only about 25 kilometers from our destination.  Then the road became more difficult, heavy rains had carved holes and crevasses two feet deep into the red mud road and left giant rocks exposed, the kind that could shipwreck a VW bus if not navigated properly, oh, and did I forget to mention that the road was also steep?  Not just steep but roller coaster steep and we were pointed downhill (A good thing?).  By one AM, after about an hour and a half on this treacherous mud road we had gone about 8 kilometers (5 miles), we hadn’t seen another car in over two hours, and on at least three occasions had had to disembark the bus to find one wheel a half foot off the muddy ground.  On these occasions we would have to stick rocks under the tires or Dave would have to stand on the bumper and bounce up and down so the tires would get traction while I gunned the engine.  So there we were with windows down, dim headlights struggling to illuminate the road ahead, bumping along at about 2 miles an hour surrounded by jungle and jungle sounds and jungle smells.  And so sometime after one in the morning we decided to call it quits for then night.  There were certainly no other idiots on this road other than ourselves so without worrying of blocking the road we put the car in park, turned off the engine and stepped out into the tropical night to breath in the reality and adventure of it all before we crawled in the back of the bus cursing ourselves that neither of us had a drop of cachaça to share with the other and fell asleep.

Parked for the night

We woke up with the sun and shoved off without ceremony.  45 minutes and 3 kilometers later a car appeared in the rear view mirror, another idiot!!! We were shocked and overjoyed to see that this car, a 1970’s Volkswagen beetle was gaining on us.  We slowed to a stop to let him pass us, our mouths agape at the lighting speed of 3 miles per hour at which he passed us.  With confidence renewed we followed our Volkswagen brethren down the road, now amazed to see the stunning beauty and breathtaking scenes of cliffs, jagged mountains, waterfalls and dense jungle that had been hiding from us the night before.  As for the road it got no better or easier to navigate.  We still got stuck frequently and constantly had to get out to asses which of the less treacherous gaps to tackle.  Then, all of a sudden, with about 12 kilometers to go on the GPS, we turned a corner and found the road paved. We were saved.

There was a beautiful waterfall just to the left of the picture, and precarious cliff off to the right.
Our Volkswagen Friend

And in 5 minutes we went what would have taken us over two hours and we were in Paraty!  So we stop at a hostel to ask some touristy questions and in passing Dave mentions that we had just arrived by car from Sao Paulo.  “Oh from Sao Paulo huh?, beautiful drive along the coast isn’t it”?  Says the man.  The look on our faces would have sufficed to tell the tale but I managed to say “Uhhh, we didn’t take the coast” this reply brought a knowing grin across the man’s face proceeded by a chuckle and his reply…. “GPS right?”, “Yea” we answer, waiting for his punchline which comes…  ” ‘Shortest route possible’ “?

So after we laughed off our near disastrous adventure we set off to explore our new paradise.  The town was picturesque and colonial, just as described in Dave’s guidebook.  Narrow cobblestone streets that flood when it rains leaving a glassy river of water have earned it the name “The Venice of Brazil”.  The town was great for photographs and a nice walkthrough but we were eager to find a beach worthy of drinking a beer on so we piled back into Coco, picked up provisions at a local market and headed to some tiny beach where we passed some time swimming with the locals and hanging out on the beach.  From there we made several other detours off the main road to other smaller more deserted beaches and one beautiful waterfall that was a short drive off the main road and about a 1 kilometer hike through a jungle trail.  We were the only people there and I thought to myself….This is why I bought a car…total freedom!

One of 4 beaches we stopped at along the way
Only a small part of the waterfall, there was much more above and below this.

We finished the day driving the rest of the way to Rio, arriving just in time for the evening rain flurry and rush hour traffic but Ecowapi guided us well through the outskirts of the city and into Copacabana beach where Dave had booked a bed at a hostel.  I thought I had a couch lined up for my first days in Rio but when I checked my email at Dave’s hostel I found that my host hadn’t gotten back to me with an address.  It was Friday night and Dave’s hostel was booked and i really didnt want to sleep in the bus in such a big city.  There are dozens of hostels in Copacabana I thought; surely one will have a bed.  I probably covered 20 blocks and hit 10 hostels, all full.  At almost 2am I found a newspaper in the street, taped it to Coco’s windows (I still hadn’t put up the curtains I had made) and spent my first night in Rio sleeping in the bus.  I awoke the next morning to the bustle of Rio De Janiero where I have spent the last 10 days comfortably forming the opinion that it is one of the most dynamic and interesting cities in the world.  But alas, I leave you there, on the streets of Copacabana in the early morning tropical heat, Ate em breve,

PROLOGUE:  I arrived Copacabana on January 14th…as you can see Im a bit behind in my blogging.  I’m currently in Salvador, Bahia.  I hope to get another blog post out this week.  To see more pictures from this post click here: