Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Free Love

It was a heck of a first day in Brazil. I honestly had nothing to complain about. I saw what might have been the most beautiful scenery ever, ate good food, and learned that Venezuelans have access to ridiculously cheap gasoline (A couple from Venezuela was on the tour with us.).

Nighttime was kind of different than the daytime, not because Rio doesn't boast good times at night, but because I wouldn't be there. Like I said, I had to get to Brasilia to start my job on the twentieth. I asked the dude behind the counter at BambooRio if he would help me out with getting a bus. He did, of course, and, after I gathered my stuff, he was nice enough to accompany me and two Israelis in a cab to the bus station. I got my 149 reais ticket to Brasilia (Yeah, that’s right, a mere 57 reais more for an eighteen hour bus ride than a fifteen minute cab ride from the airport. thieves.), and the dude eventually left me there. He told me not to talk to anyone (including the guy who, he said, had been staring at us talking) and guard my bags (all three of them, including my computer bag. I should have just held up a sign that said, “You ought to steal from me.”

One thing I, and many others, noticed upon arrival at the bus station, was an unpleasant altercation between a man and a woman outside by the road. The man started whaling on the woman, punching her violently. Nobody did anything about it. They eventually stopped, and they just kept hanging out together by the bus stop like nothing happened. Many found it more humorous than offensive. The dude from the hostel even laughed it off, carrying an attitude that seemed to say, “Oh, those guys, they’re so crazy.” I didn’t have the same reaction.

I eventually boarded the bus, and we were off. I got an elevated view of the city, which, like all new, exciting places, captivated me the whole way through. I was especially intrigued by the poorer neighborhoods, in and out of town, making me wonder what they were up to that time of night. Particularly, when I looked at these very dark, isolated homes in the mountainous countryside, places and lifestyles very different from mine, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What are they up to? Are they chilling out, under the one street light, drinking beers and talking? Do they hit the sack early?” Things like that.

The bus was pretty much empty. I nearly had the entire back half to myself. I’m sure the people sitting ahead of me were wondering why I was switching sides, back and forth, constantly through the night. I was just so stimulated by the view. I couldn’t see a whole lot in the dark, but it was really something to gaze at the mountains and these little towns on a nearly empty bus by myself. Yeah, we passed over some mountains, more than I expected, at an efficient speed, making going to the bathroom a little more difficult.

Okay, so one aspect of the Brazilian countryside has less to do with the scenery…or…Well, I guess it’s scenic…maybe. There are a lot of motels in between cities. A lot of them. You know where I’m going with this. I find these kinds of establishments are quite prevalent in the Catholic-dominated societies of Latin America. Sure, the United States has several sleazy joints, but I feel the out-of-town motel is particularly common south of the border. I think the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality prevails here. Also, this was explained to me by a gentleman in Mexico. The folks in Latin America aren’t as quick to divorce as they are in the United States, which is a good, essentially. However, it’s more likely one person (Particularly the man, I’m guessing.) will hit up one of these places out of town if he chooses to be unfaithful. In Mexico, there are even places with curtains blocking sight to the parking lot. And they make no mistake about it here, either. These motels advertise exactly what the patron is looking for. They’re huge, and several of them will advertise the cost of three hours in big neon lighting. One place in particular that I remember was called “Free Love.” Not exactly hiding it, are they? And these places are out there. Someone must really want sex if he’s willing to go that far. It didn’t appeal to me…or did it?...No, really, it didn’t.

The ride was not short. I eventually dozed off to sleep for a little while and was awakened by the bus pulling in somewhere. “Somewhere” might not be accurate. Actually, we were nowhere. I assumed we were taking a break from the road, but I was also so disoriented that I didn’t know what to do. I stumbled outside, gazing at the blackness around me, wondering, “Where in tarnation are we?”

Some people were getting food inside, and I was starving myself. A common way of restaurant eating in Brazil is the self service buffet, not all-you-can-eat, but pay for as much as your plate weighs. It’s convenient, but I was unfamiliar with the process at the time. I was hungry enough not to care, and I went through the line and figured it out. We then got back on the bus and kept going to wherever.

We made several of these stops on the way, just to stretch our legs. It was eventually light outside. I actually slept quite well on the bus, a lot better than on the plane. A feature of the Brazilian landscape that probably doesn’t cross people’s minds, including my own, is that much of it is quite stark and dry. I felt like I was riding through west Texas. I also noticed a lot of steep little dirt mounds out in the fields, probably ant or termite hills. This scenery lasted until we finally arrived in Brasilia. What was I going to do once I got there? I really didn’t know.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

First Night and Day

I had to put the price of the cab behind me and remember what I was getting into. This was one of the coolest cities on earth, so I relaxed and enjoyed the ride. After seeing the city at night and then in the sunshine the next day, it occurred to me that Rio de Janeiro is one place during the day and another in the dark.

As you're cruising down the highway, peering out the window, looking for landmarks of the "Cidade Maravilhosa," you realize that, above all it's hype, it's a big city, much like any other city. With the window down, that smell soon hit me. Many have smelled this before. It's the aroma that would strike you in several other places, like Mexico City or Beijing, not that I've been to Beijing. I'm just guessing.

The slums also caught my eye. Rio's famous for these "favelas." In fact, the movie The Incredible Hulk opens in one of these neighborhoods. Francisco, one of my supervisors here at IPC, told me not to arrive in the city at night, and if I did, I should stay near the airport. I didn't, and he later told me that I passed the most dangerous area in Latin America.

It's weird when you're cruising through a mysterious place, and you're at the mercy of the cab driver. For all you know, he might be leading you to a dark alley where he and his cronies can rob you. We've all heard of this. However, seeing as his steep fare was a robbery in itself, I figured that wasn't going to happen. We eventually arrived where I'd be staying that night, Bamboo Rio, a nice place I recommend. En route, I never caught a glimpse of the Christ or Sugar Loaf or any of those things Rio's known for. I just saw a big city, which Rio is.

I checked into the place and put my stuff away. As you can imagine, I was tired but still happy to be there. I knew there was a store around the corner, and I needed some toothpaste (of all things), so I asked the fellow working there if it was cool for me to walk around alone at night. He told me yeah, that I looked Brazilian, and as long as I didn't broadcast myself as an unfamiliar outsider (which included not wearing my watch), I'd be okay. I was flattered? I look Brazilian? His other recommendations made sense, but he was the first of a few to tell me I look Brazilian. In my life, nobody has told me I look anything besides American...like...really American.

I also humbly asked this gentleman for some assistance booking a bus to Brasilia. There was still a leg of my trip that wasn't completed. He said somebody would do that for me when I needed it. I also looked on the wall to see advertisements for a couple tours, which looked fun. It was the night of the seventeenth at this point, and I needed to be at work the morning of the twentieth, with a long bus ride I had to take in between. I slept on it.

I woke the next day and asked a different guy working at the desk if he could book a bus for me. He told me I'd have a place on one that was leaving at 8:30 that night, giving me time to spend the day in town. A tour all over the city was leaving at 9:00, and I decided to pay up and go. The tour bus soon arrived, and I grabbed some breakfast and went off.

After picking up passengers at some others places, we were taken to Corcovado Mountain, where O Cristo Redentor sits at the top. This marvelous statue is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It makes sense when you see it. It's huge, almost forty meters tall, and beautiful. Corcovado is also about seven hundred meters high, with a spectacular view of the city, in particular, Sugarloaf Mountain and the very nice beaches. This was the Rio I was thinking of. Also, on your way up the mountain, you pass through Tijuca, the world's largest urban forest, containing hundreds of plant and wildlife species.

Anyway, we left the mountain and headed to Maracanã neighborhood, which contains the famous stadium of the same name. Maracanã can hold about 95,000 spectators, about 100,000 less that it was able to hold years ago. Perhaps it's a safety regulation, but it's still the thirteenth largest stadium in the world. We didn't get to actually go in the stadium, but I did see Pelé's footprint. I've also heard it's awesome to go to one of Flamengo's soccer games.

After that, we went to the Samba Museum, a small display of samba regalia, right next to the bleachers where Carnaval festivities take place.

We then had lunch, which was welcomed and very good. Then we headed to another staple of Rio, Pão de Açúcar, or Sugar Loaf Mountain. You've likely seen this in pictures as well. It's a high, smooth mountain rising above the water, with cable cars leading up to it. We got into the cable cars and quickly mounted the first peak (The car goes pretty fast.), Babilônia, saw a ridiculous view, then the second peak, Urca, and saw another ridiculous view. Then we headed down and headed out. That completed the tour, a damn good first day in the country. The bus ride that night was a different story.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The 1950's Terminal, And More!

Ever notice how when certain products are advertised, there's often that added tag, "and more!" What exactly is the "more?" For instance, if you see an advertisement for, say, a set of fancy pens, you may hear the ad-person say, "For $19.95, you'll receive six pens, a set of stationery, and more!" More? More what? What if all I want are the pens and paper, and I'm just paying extra for an unnecessary ad-on? Okay, this has nothing to do with what I was meaning to write.

So we landed in Rio de Janeiro. Everyone that's heard about this city has preconceived notions of what it's like: Glamorous, beautiful, beautiful people, big, perhaps violent. I pictured it as beautiful beaches and people, with big rocks and the Christ statue. In fact, I was planning on feeling pretty out of place.

Upon landing, I put on my bug repellent. I make a point to be as nerdy as possible sometimes. Whatever the case, it felt good to finally be there. I stood up and grabbed my two backpacks and computer case, checked for the millionth time to make sure my passport was in my purse-esque wallet thing strapped across my chest, and walked into the terminal and eventually to customs and immigration. I took in my surroundings. So far, nothing looked flashy and glamorous. It just looked old, like, 1950's old. That's not a bad thing; it just showed that this particular place had some years behind it. Getting through all the entry stuff was easy. You have to apply for a visa at the Consulate General in the States before coming to Brazil, so they didn't ask any questions or anything, just stamped and let me move on. I was in Brazil officially. I arrived at night, which Francisco (The Brazilian gentleman with whom I'd be working and with whom I'd been communicating for a while) told me not to do here. In my defense, I was originally scheduled to arrive in the morning. You know the story.

So I walked to the exit area of the airport. I didn't really know what to do at this juncture. A fellow at the hostel where I'd be staying told me I could get there by taking a bus from the airport, but seeing as it was dark and it would be more difficult to see where we were going, I figured a taxi would be the better option. There was also nobody to ask. There was no tourist kiosk or anything like that, although I was in the most touristy place in the country. I also had almost no cash, so, with bags in hand and on back, I staggered to and fro, across and back on this floor of the airport, trying to at least find a cash machine. I found nothing, so I finally talked to a random cab driver standing by the door who spoke a little English. This might have been my first mistake. I literally told him I would take a cab, but I had "no money." He kindly took me to the third floor, where the ATM's were conveniently located. After trying two machines with no success, I believe the third was a charm. Little did I know, however, that the cab ride from the airport to Copacabana was going to cost me ninety-two reais. Now, I wasn't, and am still not, an expert on the Brazilian currency, but I did know that that was a ridiculous gringo ripoff. I accepted it anyway and hopped in his buddy's cab. At least I was going somewhere.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I can feel it, coming in the air (sweet Phil Collins)

Okay, so it's been a few days since I wrote my last (or should I say first?) entry. I figure if I'm going to write a true blog, I should write more than one. It would also be a good idea, I suppose, to actually write a thing or two about where I'm going. That was the idea from the beginning, and so far, I've only written about pre-departure. Okay, here goes.

Where did I leave off? Oh, right, Mom taking me to the airport. Things went well at this point. I was feeling better after a little rest. I got my boarding passes, one from San Antonio to Atlanta and one from Atlanta to Rio, with no problems and got through security with less trouble than I expected, although I did have to give up my only toothpaste and a small Swiss Army knife that was included in a "Survivor Kit" given to me by a friend. I didn't know it was part of the kit, though I probably wouldn't have known any better anyway.

I got to Atlanta fine. Nothing happened, and I had plenty of time to waste in Atlanta before my next, longer flight. So I walked around and just coasted through the time, waiting to board my next plane. Before I knew it, I had a missed call from Mom. I called her, and she told me she was called by Delta because my flight was delayed. I was unaware, since I'd been walking around, and the other folks waiting to board the same plane were still sitting there like nothing was going on. ANYWHO, I got off the phone with Mom and asked a gentleman if our flight had been delayed. He told me something along the lines of the plane not being suitable for flight and that they ('they?' Who's 'they?' I'm really not sure. I guess the people who fix planes.) were going to need to fix the plane. He said we were scheduled to leave around midnight, as opposed to eight thirty, the original scheduled time.

Anyway, I'm not sure why I'm going into such detail with this aspect of the trip. To make a long story short, we had to change gates and wait a little longer before they told us our flight was cancelled altogether. Great. Then we waited at a service area to receive a hotel and meal vouchers. I eventually received these things and waited in the crazy 'shuttle area' for the Red Roof Inn shuttle. That's right, Red Roof Inn. I can't complain, though. It could've been worse, like the Milner in Detroit (no offense, Milner.). It wasn't a bad night, not at all.

I got to the airport at about seven the next morning for my nine o'clock departure to Rio. Yea. I got through security with nothing confiscated. Double yea. Then I got an amazing Steak, Egg, and Cheese Bagel at McDonald's and soon boarded the plane. It felt good to finally be on a plane headed out of the country.

The ride felt longer than it actually was. Fortunately, I sat next to a nice girl from Holland who was pleasant company, and I was able to watch The Bucket List with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman...for free! Sweeet! That's what happens when you're a...well...high roller.

The rest of my time on the plane consisted of me struggling to sleep and getting pains in my neck. Oh well, guess that's flying for you. It was cool to look at the monitor tracking our progress. I must say it's wild to look out the window and notice you're flying over the northern coast of Venezuela. I mean, for the most part, it just looks like normal...um...land. Part of you thinks these exciting new places you're flying over will look more exotic or something. That might just be me, though. It was also kind of weird flying over what was supposed to be my final destination: Brasilia. I mean, we went RIGHT over it. The Dutch girl and I agreed that it might've been a good idea to request a drop off, perhaps a parachute.

So we descended into Rio, the city featured on E!’s ‘Wild On’ with Brooke Burke that looks especially large at night. You can't see much of what Rio's known for (except for crime, perhaps, although I didn't see that, either.) when it's dark. A feeling of excitement and nervousness, along with the urge to put on bug repellent, to protect myself from dengue (Yeah, I'm a tool.) took over. I knew where I had a reservation for the night, although I didn't know how I was going to get there. I had no transportation reserved to get me to Brasilia. Basically, I was running on the assumption that things would work out. Would they?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Before Everything

Hello, welcome to my ''blog.'' Now, ''blog,'' that's no word anyone would self-apply where I come from, but I guess the world's changing, and, in order to adapt, I suppose I'll have to throw a few words every now and then into this thing or, at least, write a little something when interesting things happen. I hope I don't insult anybody or any culture, although your greatest risk of reading this blog will be boredom. The entries could very well be long and uninteresting. If, at any point, you lose interest, just click ''back'' and return to YouTube, CollegeHumor, or any other websites of a more inappropriate nature. You could also try reading a book or going outside.

Last spring (That's American spring, not South American spring, which is...some other time.), I took a job and received the funding for an internship at the International Poverty Centre in Brasilia, Brazil. Never mind what I'm doing at ''IPC.'' The name of the place implies nifty anti-poverty stuff, to which I'll hopefully make a good contribution. From the time I got the job, I was totally psyched about flying down to the Southern Hemisphere where I'd surely have South America in the palm of my hand in no time. Whether or not that's happened yet...well...I'll get to that later. How long I'll actually end up staying in South America and what countries I'll visit are up in the air.

I made minimal preparations for this trip. At the beginning of the school year, I cracked away at a ''Teach Yourself Portuguese'' book every day for...a few days. I haven't looked at that book in...well...a few months. It wasn't until shortly before my departure date that I nonchalantly mentioned to my mom, ''Um, Mom, you think I should maybe, uh, get some immunizations or malaria pills or something before I leave?'' Fortunately, we were able to schedule an appointment at the travel clinic in Austin, where I was prescribed ninety days' worth of those pills that hopefully won't make me crazy (although seeing Cindy Crawford in my dreams wouldn't be SO bad), some antibiotics (for when the diarrhea gets a little chronic), and I received vaccinations for yellow fever and typhoid, which gave me yellow fever and typhoid-like symptoms that same night, right before I was about to leave for another trip up north with Shep and Harcourt (my homeboys from college). I was also told that, in order to avoid health risks in South America, I shouldn't...um...do anything. We'll see how that pans out.

I still went on that trip. It was worth it. We tackled five cities in eight days, including Detroit and Milwaukee. Why'd we go there? Because they're awesome. AND, I came home...sick...again. Great. I was determined to go anyway, even with a 100.6 fever, and, yes, I did go. I packed up my two backpacks, weighing, in all, about three thousand pounds, completed the Peace Corps medical forms I should have completed about a decade ago, sent them off, and Mom drove me to San Antonio, where the first leg of my flight to Rio de Janeiro would begin. What happened after that will wait until next time.

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