Wednesday, September 30, 2009

South America Trip - Bonus Update (Favela da Rocinha)

I woke up today with a huge hangover. I drank seven caipirinhas last night. A big mistake with my trip to one of the hillside slums of Rio this morning. A relative of Chad's friend who is studying here for a year met us at a bar in Ipanema and took us to a club in Leblon called, "The House". They gave us a blue card when we entered to keep track of our drinks to pay for when we leave. There was a 40 Real minimum and they charge extra for any drinks after we pass 30. Pretty confusing. His Brazilian friend told us whatever we do, don't lose the card or we will be charged 300 Reals. Yikes! I ended up taking a taxi back by myself at 3:00 in the morning because I had to get up early. I was pretty drunk and barely had enough money after exiting the club to cover the ride to the hotel.

Drinking caipirinhas at a bar in Ipanema.  What's that beer doing there?
Noah at the club, The House, with his seventh caipirinha.
I got picked up by my guide to go to Favela da Rocinha. It is the largest favela in Rio with 200,000 people living on the hillside. It is on the backside of the one of the two mountains visible at the end of Ipanema Beach. (The Two Brothers) A sheer granite wall rises over one side of the favela as it curves along the mountain to the newer section under a forested peak on the opposite end. The favelas are built in the national park area of Rio so all the construction is illegal. The government is trying to build a wall around this favela to stop its growth further up into the tree line. The only public service provided is four schools and two small medical clinics.

The whole of Rocinha Favela lays below us through the rain.  The hish rise buildings outside the favela can be seen at the bottom but the ocean is hidden in the mist.
The favela climbs up the hill under the granite face of one of the Two Brothers.
I thought hanging on the outside of the electric tram yesterday was exciting, but riding up on the back of a motorcycle to the top of the favela in the rain scared the crap out of me. I had a death grip on the small handles behind me as we whipped around sharp and steep corners, dodging between oncoming cars and motorbikes. I was afraid the motorbike would slide out beneath us on the slick street. I was one of the last ones in my group to leave from the bottom, but my driver loved passing slower vehicles and we almost made it to the top first. I was still shaking five minutes after getting off. The lingering effects of the hangover did not help at all.

Water running down narrow steps within the favela.
Our guide warning us about the low hanging phone and electrical wires.
On the roof of a three story green building at the top of the hill we could see the whole favela spread out below us as well as the ocean and the richer areas at the bottom. In the narrow alleyways of the favela, we had to walk in single file to allow others to pass. There was a lot of tiny shops selling food, plumbing supplies, toiletries and clothes. Most of the buildings are built with brick and concrete with long flights of stairs between lined with power and phone lines just above my head. Every three hours, water for the residents is released down the plastic pipes in the alleys for a half hour. Our guide must have greeted and waved to every single person on the way down to the bottom. He was a cool guy. We stopped in a small bakery halfway down where I had a sweet roll and some water.

One of many shops selling a wide array of items including baked goods.
Dripping electrical wires criss-crossing in front of the multi-storied structures within the favela.
We were allowed to take pictures everywhere except at the very top and bottom and a few places where the gang who controls the favela does not want pictures taken. Rocinha is controlled by one gang called "Friends of Friends". Our guide told us that they control the drug trade, but do not allow the use of crack cocaine inside the favela because of its harmful effect on the community. Ironically, they are very strict on any stealing committed in the favela, everything must be done outside in the rest of the city. One of our last stops near the bottom was a daycare center for children in a blue building run by an Italian charity. One of the kids kept high-fiving us and another taught me a greeting and a hand sign which you tap against your chest.

A chicken foraging on a patio.
The view of the other side of the valley that the favela wraps across.  The newer section can be seen near the top.
Walking down the favela and eating lunch at Bob's Burgers afterwards with Chad finally cured my hangover. I'm glad, I did not want to fly tonight still feeling that horrible. Heh!

Enjoying some fries at Bob's.
Update 10/22/09: This past weekend, it has been big news that a gang in one of Rio's favelas shot down a police helicopter during a raid, killing several policemen. There has been increased violence since the Red Commandos gang tried to take over the Morro dos Macacos favela controlled by the Friends of Friends. Many gang members have been been arrested and killed since with at least one innocent severely wounded by a stray bullet. Our guide in Rocinha told us that one of the biggest dangers of living in a favela is getting caught in the crossfire when the police raid in the early morning. Stray bullets land in the middle when gang members shoot down from the top and the police return fire from the bottom.

Storytime on our last night in Rio de Janeiro after I've had a few drinks.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

South America Trip - Final Part (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)

Sunny skies over Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro
Girls at Ipanema Beach with the Two Brothers visible in the distance.
It was another beautiful sunny day when we left Ilha Grande in the morning and drove up the coast to Rio de Janeiro. Approaching the city, we saw the back of the 125 foot Jesus statue high above the city. Exiting a long tunnel under the Corcavado mountain, we drove past the lagoon into Copacabana. After checking into our hotel, we strolled down to Ipanema Beach along the Copacabana promenade with the Portuguese wave pattern set into the pavement. Since it was Sunday, the beaches were packed and the street closest to the sand was closed off to vehicles and filled with bikers, skaters and pedestrians. A surf contest was being held where the swells were breaking around the rocky point separating the two beaches. The waves were six to eight feet and the pros were ripping them up. Walking down towards the two mountains at the end of Ipanema, we saw a lot of the tiny Brazilian bikinis and speedos the city is famous for.

Crowded Ipanema Beach with the Christ the Redeemer statue in the distance.
A professional surfer ripping up a wave at Ipanema Beach.
For dinner we had an amazing meal at Monchique, where they served Churrasco Rodizo. The waiters came around to our table with skewers of meat and cut off slices right onto our plate. I couldn't stop asking for more because it was so good and the strong Caprihinas were only 4 Reals each. At 11:00, we were taken to a huge night club at a favela in the Jacarepagu√° district. We had access to a VIP section on the second floor, but I stayed on the first floor dancing till 2am. It was hard to dance though because the club was packed tight and we constantly had to move to let people pass by as they went for more drinks. At 3am, sparklers rained down on the crowd and there was a dance contest. It was mostly to find out who was the most talented at ass shaking at various speeds and levels of intensity. :) We left at 4am when the club closed, but we couldn´t find Matt who was missing and Johnny had to be carried between two people because he was so wasted. The square outside was still crowded when we left without Matt, but he turned up safe and sound in the morning after meeting a local girl. I think my hearing has been seriously degraded.

Fireworks going off on stage at Castelo das Pedras in Rio.
Johnny needing some help after leaving a Rio nightclub.
On Monday after only a few hours sleep, we went to swim and relax in the sun on Copacabana beach. The size of the crowd was only a fraction of the day before but the sun was out and the water was warm. The clouds began to roll in in the afternoon when we went to the top of the Corcavado to see the "Christ the Redeemer" statue close up and look down on the city. We could see a long distance in all directions, but it was hot and steamy and there was a layer of haze. I never realized the Jesus statue had nail holes in its hands. We stopped at the colorful mosaic tile stairs in Lapa on the way to Sugar Loaf Mountain. Taking the two cable cars up, we arrived a hour before sunset. The view was not as impressive as from the top of Corcavado, but I think it is more beautiful. We stayed two hours in the cool breeze watching the sun set over the city and the lights come on as the darkness grew. We went and had dinner in Ipanema. The food was good, but they tried to include a 50 Reals music charge on the bill because people were singing karaoke at the back. What?! Heh!

The view of Copacabana Beach from Sugerloaf Mountain in Rio.
The city lights of Rio de Janeiro at twilight.  The lit statue of Jesus looks like a star above the city.
Today, we took the Bondi tram from Downtown Rio up into the hills in Santa Teresa. The open-sided electric tram is bumpy and crosses over a white 18th century aqueduct after it leaves the station. Hanging out from the side of the bright yellow tram, I could see it was a steep drop to the streets below. Yesterday, I saw little kids hanging off the sides, jumping on and off at each stop. (Sometimes before it had come to a complete halt.) It was fun hanging one-handed to a wooden handle as the tram whipped around corners. I had to be careful of oncoming cars zipping by though. Tonight we are going back for more Churrasco Rodizo and then going out in Ipanema.

The electric tram in hilly Santa Teresa of Rio de Janeiro.
Noah hanging off the side of the electric tram crossing over the tall aqueduct in Rio.
It has been raining off and on today and is supposed to continue until tomorrow so I will not get to hanglide over Rio like I planned. Instead, I am taking a walking tour through a hillside favela in the morning before Chad and I fly home at 10pm. It has been a great trip, but I always look forward to coming home to San Diego.

Woman in red dress on mosiac tile stairs in Lapa.
p.s. I've eaten countless fried meat pastries here in South America, especially in Brazil. The most interesting was a tear-drop shaped lump of fried mashed potatos wrapped around some type of ground meat that I ate late at night in a bus stop cafeteria. It turned out to be pretty good.

Wandering toward a favela at the top of the Santa Teresa tram line.
p.s.s. At the end of the electric tram line, we got off thinking we would explore. The conductor shook his head and said something to us, but we were not paying much attention as we wandered down the road toward a favela. After the tram went about twenty feet it halted again and the conductor shouted out after us again. Thinking twice about where we might be heading, we jogged back and jumped on the tram and headed back down the hill. Halfway down, he gave us a smile and indicated a tram stop where we could get off and walk around Santa Teresa. I still don't know if we were accidently heading into a dangerous area or if he was just letting us know that there was nothing interesting to see at the top. Later, he gave us a wave as his trolly passed while we walked down the hill looking at all the cool buildings.

Chad high above Ipanema Beach at the top of the Corcavado.
p.s.s.s. We keep seeing Different Strokes on Brazilian TV in the evening. Hearing the high-pitched squeeky voice dubbed in for Arnold is very weird. "What you talkin bout, Willis?"

p.s.s.s.s. "Give me a moment. I need to go change my pants," I said as I walked out of the room to get dressed for dinner. Several members of my group broke out into wide grins and chuckles as I disappeared around the corner. Realizing too late what pants meant to the majority of them, I quickly stuck my head back around the corner. "I meant pants in American, my jeans. Not my underwear."

Christ the Redeemer
Update 10/2/09: Rio de Janeiro won the right to host the 2016 Olympics today. I wish could have stayed in the city for two extra days so I could have witnessed the celebrations. There were signs all over the city promoting the city's Olympic bid. I saw a woman kiss the banner hanging around the base of the Christ Redeemer statue.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

South America Trip - Part 4 (Paraty & Ilha Grande)

I woke up with my first hangover of the trip. The Caipirinhas at our BBQ were very, very strong. After midnight, I stripped down and jumped into the pool with several others for a freezing swim. The sausages we had were the best things I have tasted all trip so far. Wow! We ended up skipping the dam and going to the Bird Park near the falls instead. It was cool to walking among all the South American birds inside the large aviaries, but I was more excited seeing a pair of wild Toucans in a tree on Sunday.

A drunk Noah preparing for the freezing pool.
A wild Toucan we spotted in a tree at Iguassu Falls.
Most of the 24 hour bus ride to Paraty on the coast of Brazil was brutal. I had absolutely no leg room all night. We arrived in the huge city of Sao Paulo in pouring rain where we were stuck in traffic for two hours. The city seemed pretty gray and uninteresting, but that might just be from the section we drove through. It was unusual seeing a small beach party hanging out along a concrete water channel in their bathing suits. Leaving Sao Paulo, the scenery really improved as we drove up into the mountainous coastline.

Cobblestone streets of Paraty at twilight.
Mossy tree in front of church in Paraty.
Paraty is very beautiful. The old section of the city is full of white buildings with colorful doors and eaves. The cobblestone streets were constructed with the ballast stones left behind from Portuguese sailing ships after they reached the New World. We had a really good Thai meal for dinner. The green curry was perfectly spicy. Around town, they have these blue carts that sell pieces of cake for 2.50 Reals each. So delicious! The weather has been cloudy here, but watching the tendrils of white mist cresting over the surrounding lush green hills all day is very cool.

Noah on the rocks at Trindade Beach
Playing soccer on the wide sandy beach of Trindade.
On Wednesday, we went to the beaches in nearby Trindade. I went surfing but the small waves were not very good. We played soccer and threw the Frisbee before hiking to a natural cove to snorkel and clamber over the huge boulders. After lunch, we went up to some waterfalls in the mountains. Jumping off a high rock into the pool below, three of us hit a submerged rock. It was slimy and set at a steep angle so none of us were hurt, but it was unsettling glancing off it after hitting the water. The lower falls had a natural rock waterslide that was very fun. A couple of us went down, sans shorts, at the very end. We learned it is much faster that way and I caught crazy air into the water. I don't know which was worse, the friction burn or the slap from hitting the water at the bottom.

Noah jumping off rock into pool below in Paraty.
Jake going down the waterfall slide in Paraty.
We are spending three nights on Ilha Grande, a large island a few hours south of Rio. It was raining when we arrived here by boat in the afternoon, so we only took a short hike to the ruins of an old prison built in the 1800s. It used to house Brazil's most dangerous criminals before it was abandoned. A cool-looking aqueduct, constructed of stones and whale oil to supply water for the prison, was nearby. Chad and others ordered the Brazilian fish stew, Moqueca, for dinner. I tried a taste after I ate my meal and now I regret not ordering it for myself.

Noah in the ruins of a prison cell on Ilha Grande.
The old stone aqueduct on Ilha Grande
Yesterday, the rain stopped but the sun was still hidden by the clouds. After a hour and half hike to a small beach along the coast with a big group, I decided to hike on with Jake to Lopes Mendes Beach located on the other side of the island. It was a beautiful two hour hike over three steep hills with a great view of the island from the highest one. We passed three quiet beaches along the trail where we saw some sea turtles before reaching Lopes Mendes. Facing the open Atlantic, the waves were huge and the white sand squeaked. The only problem is we missed the last water taxi back to the main village and had to hike back. We went as fast we could to get back before the sun set, but the last half hour we were in the dark. Good thing I had my flashlight in my bag. It was tough but it gave us the opportunity to see fireflies all around us.

The large waves at Lopes Mendes Beach, considered one of the most beautiful in the world.
At the summit of the final hill as darkness falls on our hike.
Today, our last full day on the island, the sun finally arrived and we took a boat around the island to snorkel at the Green and Blue Lagoons. It was nice to see the island in sunny weather, but I am glad it was cloudy during our six hour hike yesterday. It would have been way too hot. Tomorrow we leave for Rio. We are going to a night club in a favela our first night in the city.

The Sun finally arrives Saturday morning as we head out on a boat trip.
Merman Chad sunning himself on a rock at the Green Lagoon on Ilha Grande
p.s. We played a couple card games of PIG on this trip. It always ended with the last two people having to race to finish a beer or a sandwich for the win. Always hilarious!

Matt laughing as Adam chokes on his sandwich racing to finish first.
p.s.s. Driving down the steep road to Trindade Beach, we saw a woman get her wheel stuck in a ditch trying to go around a bus. Luckily, there was eight guys in our van to help lift her car back onto the road and send her on her way.

A marmoset up in a tree during our hike on Ilha Grande.
p.s.s.s. Getting in late to our tiny hotel in Paraty, I found the door already locked. A woman opened up the door for me after one quick knock, but just as I was closing my eyes to sleep I heard a loud knock downstairs. After a pause, the pounding on the door came again and again and again. Thinking it was probably Chad and Matt coming back from the bar after me and since nobody was opening the door, I decided to go downstairs and let them in. It turned out to be Martin, our guide, and a Brazilian woman leading the other tour staying at the hotel. (She kept apologizing the next morning during breakfast, but it was no problem.) I groaned when I heard another knock at the door just as I got back into bed, but this time the door was opened before I had a chance to go down again. It turned out to be Chad who came into the room several moments later.

The shaggy dog who followed us on our island hike.
p.s.s.s.s. We have spotted several marmosets, a relative of the monkey, up in the trees here on the island.

Our Beagle companion on the long hike back to Abraao village.
p.s.s.s.s. There's lot of roaming dogs here in South America. On Ilha Grande, Johnny tossed some food to a white shaggy dog with prominent ribs who proceeded to follow us on our first hike looking for more food the entire way. We ended up taking him back with us on the water taxi instead of leaving him behind. When Jake and I missed our water taxi back from Lopes Mendes, a cute little Beagle followed us all the way back. She was a nice companion on the long hike and wasn't motivated by a handout either.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

South America Trip - Part 3 (Iguassu Falls)

The view of Iguassu Falls from the Brazil side.
The Devil's Throat at Iguassu Falls.
I have just spent two days at the Iguassu Falls. I knew the falls were supposed to be impressive, but when we went to check them out from the Brazil side I was prepared to be underwhelmed. That thought vanished as soon as the first section of the falls came into view. They were spectacular. As we walked down the trail, more sections of the falls were revealed as the mist grew heavier. At the end of the trail, we went out on a walkway into the middle of the two-tiered falls. We got soaked as the water crashed down above us, flowed underneath and cascaded down to the bottom level. The water level is four times higher than it normally is at this time of year.

Chad getting soaked under the Iguassu Falls.
Looking down the Iguassu Falls from the spray covered walkway.
Today, we went to the Argentinian side of the falls, where 75% of it is located. We started out at the very top, looking down into the thunderous Devil's Throat. It was freaky standing right at the edge as the water pounded down, the bottom hidden by a huge cloud of mist. Going down river, we rode a speed boat right up to the base of the falls. It was fun being blinded and drenched by the spray, but it was over way to quickly. My favorite part, was at the very end of the day as we hiked along the Circuit Superior at 5pm. This was the most beautiful section of the falls. It looked unreal, like a scene from a fantasy film complete with rainbows. The light was perfect as the long ridge of countless falls spread out before us as we walked along it's rim. So many great pictures and videos.

Chad and Noah getting ready to go under the Iguassu Falls.
A girl sticking out her tongue between Chad and I as we get soaked under the falls.
It took two long buses to reach here from Uruguay. On Thursday, we took a seven hour bus ride from Montevideo to Salto on the border of Argentina. We arrived in Salto during a lightening storm with pouring rain. A close strike knocked out the power to half our hotel, but the lights came on pretty quickly. The rainstorm was over by the morning, so we took a city bus out to the thermal baths in Dayman. It was windy and cold all day, so we kept running from pool to pool to stay warm. It was the complete opposite of the clear blue skies we have had here at Iguassu.

Noah in front of the Iguassu Falls on the upper trail of the Argentinian side.
Lizards on the tree along the Iguassu Falls.
Friday night, we took a night bus north to the border of Brazil. We passed the time juggling a soccer ball in the bus terminal until it arrived an hour late. I got hit in the face with the ball before we were asked to stop playing on the loudspeaker. The thirteen hour ride was not bad with food served by a stewardess and movies. Chad and I had the front seats at the top of the doubledecker bus with a huge window in front of us. When I woke up at two in the morning, the flat landscape was pitch black on either side of the road, like driving between two dark oceans. It felt like I had a first class ticket to observe my own death though, every time we passed a slower truck on the road.

A kid juggling a ball with us at the bus terminal in Argentina.
Argentina road at 2 AM.
We started our last night in Montevideo in a tiny hotel room playing drinking games. At 11:30 we went down to a bar in the Ciudad Vieja called, El Pony Pisador. There was two live bands with lots of song requests and dancing till late in the night. The Caprioska's were very good. Walking back to our hotel late, several of us tried running up a sharply slanted marble wall to touch the top edge. Kept missing it by mere inches.

Playing PIG in a hotel room before going out in Montevideo.
The band at El Pony Pisador
Tonight, we are going to have BBQ by the pool. Sundays are pretty dead here. Last night, we went out and had Feijoada, the national Brazilian dish, a thick stew with beef, pork and black beans. It came with a big spread of bacon, collard greens, cassava flour, bananas and oranges. The liberally applied pepper sauce was strong but good.

Waiting for our Feijoada at the restaurant.
American Graffiti
Tomorrow we might go out to Itaipu, the second most powerful dam in the world that is on the river between Brazil and Paraguay. Monday night, we have another long night bus to take before we arrive on the coast of Brazil in Paraty.

Juggler at the intersection.
p.s. Jugglers trying to earn money at traffic intersections here in South America are interesting to watch.

p.s.s. It seems very religious here in Brazil. We walked by a boisterous prayer service in the park and a nearby church always has people going in and out all weekend long.

p.s.s.s. At a bus stop in Salto, a local man saw us trying to figure out which city bus to take to the thermal baths. He stuck his cell phone up to my ear where I found myself talking in English to a young woman back in Florida. Once he knew where we were headed, he was super helpful by pointing us to the correct bus and making sure we got off at the right spot.