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Tour Day, Rio de Janeiro

March 30, 2009 2 comments

I wake up less hazy and far less hungover than before in our sparely appointed Rio quarters. The last night was spent at Club Help, a slow night filled with cheap local draft beer. The watered-down booze has been kinder to the constitution than the previous few nights of hard drinking and no sleep.

It is 7:30 in the morning and today’s express goal is to surrender to our inner touristy douchebag. Today, we go on a guided tour of Rio and turn ourselves into the camera-toting, emblem-wearing, loud, ugly Americans despised the world overĀ  (and at home, in San Francisco’s Union Square). Fuck sticker shock, we’re ready to surrender 180 reais (90 US) for the privilege of being shuttled around in a stubby ugly minivan. P, V and myself stumble forth to the concierge desk and tell them we’re headed to look for an ATM.

I’ve alluded in the past to the concierges with wrinkly shirts who’d rather have been in shorts and flip flops. Not the guy manning the desk. Oh No. A portly gentleman in his forties, the fella is crisply dressed. The shirt looks like its been washed and pressed, which under the circumstances counts for brownie points.

Then we start a conversation with him and realize he is Queer Eye and we’re the worst stereotype of Straight Guy. Well…I guess that explains the dapper style. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We ask him to stall while we look for an ATM.

Like ATMs the world over, the situation is no different. They’re everywhere but there’s never one nearby when you need one. Certainly there’s none to be found that isn’t willing to charge you to get at your own money. We walk several blocks before finding one that will take good ol American plastic and spit Brazilian currency in return.

Upon our return, we find Portly with his hands on his hips, looking at us like a disappointed mother hen. “Where were you?! The tour almost left!”

We’re introduced to our tour guide – also a portly, friendly gentleman – who speaks excellent English; he tells me he’s spent five years in New Jersey (again with Jersey; as if the Bon Jovi thing weren’t bad enough) as we wedge our sorry asses into the van.

First useful stop: Christo Redentor. Like the Taj, like the Empire State, like the Golden Gate, Christo is the most prized structure in its hometown, and deservedly so. I’ve been to all the monuments listed here and can say with certainty that Christo can hang with the best of them. It is breathtaking, in good part because the mountain upon which it is built – Corcovado – is one of the highest peaks in hilly Rio. The Redeemer looks over a steep, densely forested valley which eventually falls away to reveal the Rio cityscape far below.

As with all objects of intense beauty, Christo is surrounded by stupid tourists from the world over. The standard douche-y thing to do at Christo is to procure a snapshot with arms outstretched right underneath the statue while some poor sap contorts himself to cover the angles.

As with all such displays of shameless attention-seeking behavior, I’m first in line. Poor V indulges me for five minutes as my outstretched arms are constantly superseded by other damn tourists outstretching their own grubby paws.

P, in a rare show of maturity, stands arms folded as the obligatory photo is snapped. We mingle for a few more minutes and head back to the hulking van.

By this time introductions have been made within our little van group. There’s a Mexican family of seven – grandma, nanny, 3 rowdy kiddies between the ages of 3-7 and the (un)lucky couple themselves. Between their familial prattle and our juvenile conversations, the intellectual weight of van conversation is ultralight.

After hurtling through the rainforest valley for a bit, we arrive at the favelas at the foot of the hill.

Favela

A favela is a Brazilian slum. I know what you’re thinking – “WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLONARE!? [SIC]”.

No.

Since this is before Slumdog Millionaire became part of the cultural consciousness, the tour guide intones matter-of-factly – “And now wee geeeve you a thour of the favyela, the slum”. As someone who grew up with slums in the metaphorical backyard, this strikes me as a bit weird, a bit pornographic. I then find out that Mumbai is organizing slum tours to ride the, ahem, Slumdog wave. Everything has its price, no?

Mercifully, the tour is a non-tour. The guide babbles along for a bit while I stare into the middle distance; P and V look perilously close to falling into their mid-morning siesta. Goddamn children. In the meanwhile, the real toddlers are in the back of the van screaming like they’re at a frigging Mexican futbol game.

Speaking of which, very soon I find myself outside, stretching my legs in the parking lot of The Maracana soccer stadium, a certifiable Rio sight. Is there a more worthless sight for the average American? I mean, seriously. Its not as if there’s cheerleaders in sparkling outfits. Its not as if there’s a real match on. Just an empty-ass stadium with 10 out-of-shape bumbling tourists gingerly stepping out of a van. As the tour guide gets warmed up, really gets the pipes going and the arms waving about why the stadium is painted blue and white (Argentina’s flag’s colors, the result of an ill- placed bet with that country over a soccer game), I mutter to V – who, by the way, is refreshed from his nap and looks like he just snorted a line – “Dude, who gives a shit, its soccer.”

V, who prides himself on his uniquely American ability to sit his ass on the couch and watch SportsCenter 4 hours of the day chides me. “Man the fuck up, you sissy. This is *sports* we’re talking about.” He’s acting offended enough like I made a slur about his grandma for Chrissakes. He proceeds to make the tour guide snap 4-5 incredibly lame photos of him posing in front of an empty block of concrete. Nice.

But soon, it is all good. We leave the stadium and wind up at Rio’s other crown jewel. Pao de Acucar. Translated simply as “Sugar Loaf” for you non-preferencial English speakers.

Pao de Acucar is, much like Christo, a tourist sight that stands sentry over the city, visible from several parts of town. Its the Yin to Christo’s Yang, a towering beast of quartz and granite countering the painstakingly contrived religious monument.

Standing around the parking lot of the tourist area down below, however, mere mortals mingle. P, for example, grins like he’s about to reveal an important observation. “Umm. Has anybody noticed that this thing looks nothing like a loaf of sugar? And who buys sugar by the loaf *anyways*?”

Seinfeldian observation this ain’t, not by a long shot, but the boy does have a point. If it were up to me, the place would be renamed to “Sugar Sack”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the same ring and sounds like a bad Hollywood concoction.

I am now convinced beyond reasonable doubt that if you want to produce a lucrative tourist magnet, all you need to do is find a way to put in a cable car. It doesn’t matter if all you’ve got to work is a 30 foot statue of Paul Bunyan (there is actually a town in Minnesota whose only claim to fame is a large Paul Bunyan statue; don’t ask me why I know this); just find a way to string a cable car from point A to point B and watch tourists get worked up like dogs in heat.

In similar fashion, I watch myself and the rest of our crew bemusedly as we have a Pavlovian reaction to the Sugar Loaf cable car. We stand outside the van, stretching for the cable car journey like we’re about to embark on a jog. We point at the thing sailing across the slate sky and wonder how many people it can fit. Like cattle, we wait to be herded into the little glass car and jockey for position. P and V, amazingly enough, are content to stand in the middle as opposed to pressing their noses against the glass wall. Myself, on the other hand, I hold no pretensions of maturity and put that nose to good use.

Sugar Loaf, which sits at a lower altitude than Christo, offers a far more palpable view of the Rio landscape to the naked eye. Here, for example, is yours truly overlooking one of the southern districts of Rio (maybe Copa). Tiny sailboats drift aimlessly through the water below as our tour guide points out more topological features of the city.

Tour day abruptly comes to an end after Sugar Loaf. Even the Mexican kids look a bit saddened as we get back to the hotel.

The evening is spent hunting for good Thai food, P and V having declared mutiny against Brazilian mystery meats for the evening. This is as good a time as any to meditate upon the fact that Brazilian cuisine is – let’s be honest here – crap.

They’ve got feijoada, the national dish, which is a bean and meat stew that includes “salted pork trimmings (ears, tail, feet)”. Umm, appetizing! They’ve got the meats at churrascaria, which admittedly are great but only diehard carnivores can stand that 24/7. There’s pao de queijo, which we’ve already discussed.

If there was something else, I clearly missed it over a 10 day period.

But the Thai food is beyond excellent. It may have been the best Thai food I’ve ever had, and I live in San Francisco. Life’s a trip. We then proceed to a swanky Rio nightclub called Club 00 in Leblon. I grunt as I hand the smiling girl 40 hard-earned reais as cover charge.

The Brazilian club scene is Bizarro in many ways. Their DJ plays better hip hop than most places in San Francisco and has impressive depth and diversity in his picks. People smoke willy-nilly all over the place, including the dance floor. The woman in charge of carrying the tray of shiny trinkets and cigarettes to drunken customers is over 40 years old. Surprisingly enough, she doesn’t look unhappy in the least.

I chomp down on my Dominican cigar and walk up to a group of Brazilians for a light. One of the girls turns to me and says, “Anything for an American!”. Only she’s affecting a melodious Texas drawl. Americans! We haven’t come across Americans in days! I set aside my pretensions of cultural sensitivity and talk shit with the Texans.

Club 00 is a blast, we close the place down. Which, by the way, happens to be at around 6am. We’re supposed to head to Buzios in a few hours. Buzios is a coastal getaway for rich Brazilians 3 hours northeast of Rio. Only we don’t know how exactly to make our way there. But we’re going to “sort shit out” according to P. Not like I’ve heard that one before.

On to Day Five.

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Rio de Janeiro, Day One

March 1, 2009 5 comments

As the airhostess’ singsong voice crackles over the PA and announces our impending arrival in Rio, a single line from my travel guide flashes through my sleep-derived brain: “Few cities enjoy as dramatic a setting as Rio de Janeiro.” Feeling an urge to get in on the drama ASAP, I crane a touristy neck through the viewport hoping for an aerial look at the statue of Christo Redentor. P and V are slouched all over each other, fast asleep, not unlike a couple of house cats on siesta. Much like toddlers, the two of them need to “be put down” for their mid-morning and late afternoon naps. We’ve taken an early morning flight from Foz de Iguacu and intend to spend most of the next week in Rio, capped by a supposedly incredible New Year’s Eve party at Copacabana beach.

Even in the age of Brazil’s industrial and economic rise, Rio is unquestionably its crown jewel, its capital of booze, beaches, festivity and fun. After two days in which we’ve taken in some sights but are inadequately inebriated by Brazilian standards – we’re ready to unleash our spoiled, sedentary, soft-living selves onto the city.

The first thing I notice about Rio airport is the fact that it looks dilapidated in comparison to Sao Paulo. The baggage carousel looks forty years old and feeble enough to fall over while carrying a kitten. As I make mental notes of my observations, P and V, now awakened and energetic, take turns at wheeling each other around on the baggage carts and making whooping noises. There is a good reason why Americans are hated worldwide.

We make our way to the airport exits. I say a silent prayer, hoping that our cabbie isn’t in any way related to Edourdo Souza (if you haven’t read my Sao Paulo post yet, do so now). Thankfully enough, this one doesn’t even speak enough English to gesticulate female body parts successfully. I thank my stars and hop in the front of the cab.

While riding shotgun confers an obvious advantage in terms of taking photos, it also makes one the default point of interaction with Brazilian cabbies who’re gleeful to have a couple of gringos in the petri dish. The taxi drivers here aren’t like cabbies in New York. They look well fed, well rested and probably get laid enough to be as relaxed as possible. I never feared for my life or worried about angry expectorate landing on my face. This conviviality also has an unfortunate side effect: they won’t ride in silence for God’s sake. They *must* give you the tour, painful language barriers be damned.

As I try hard to look away and play whirr-click-whirr with my Casio Exilim, it starts innocously enough. He extends his arm across my torso and points out the famous Maracana football stadium. “Maracana”, “Maracana”, I hear him implore as I right the device and snap the inevitable photo. Thus engaged, the inevitable Klingon-Martian language boxing match begins, much to the delight of the snickering children in the back seat.

“Where from?”, he demands. As soon as the words “San Francisco” drip out of my mumbling mouth, I anticipate a gay slur that’ll make me cringe. He snickers and rapid fire Portugues issues from his mouth. P and V think I’m taking conversation requests like a damn DJ at a bar mitzvah. They want me to ask him about his views on moral relativism. As good old fashioned American oaths are barbed their way, the cabbie, relentless, wants to play tour guide. Maybe he feels like we should get our money’s worth but every topographical and touristy city feature is pointed out and explained in Portugues. Since I can do little beyond nodding vigorously, snapping photos and commending his good work with well-placed oohs and aahs, P and V can barely control themselves.

Regardless, the cab ride is wonderful. Rio is buffeted by hills on one side and ocean on the other. Verdant greenery jostles for space with the artifacts of modern civilization. The sky is grimly overcast as we fly through tunnels (there are a lot of them in the city because of all the hills around which the city is built) and head towards the southern tip of town. We’re staying at the Premier Copacabana, about two blocks from one of the most famous beaches in the world. Well, we think we are. We don’t have a reservation, of course, so things are a bit dicey in the car.

Luckily, no one gives a rat’s ass about Rio until the 28th of December when a flood of humanity from across the globe shows up to get wasted and get laid. On Christmas Day (Feliz Natal!) hotel rooms are dime a dozen.

The Premier Copacabana is a small hotel wedged between two other nondescript buildings on Rua de

Tonalero. Like many hotels in the heart of large, old cities, there are no manicured lawns, no thick fences. Just a glass door and a doorman who is quite obviously bored. We stride through and demand accommodation.

After three days of hotel concierges who don’t speak a lick of American, the two fellas at the Premier are a benediction. I love their cheap suits, the wrinkly white shirts underneath, the hurriedly knotted ties. You can tell that they’d work a four star hotel desk in shorts and flip flops if they could get away with it.

We throw our stuff into the room and change into shorts. Daytime in Rio is not a place that takes kindly to jeans and shoes. Overcast or not, the beach is calling us. As we walk down the mostly empty Sequeira Campos on the way to the beach, our decision to show up on Christmas Day seems like yet another douchebag move. Apart from panhandlers and riff raff, Copa is dead.

As the beach is sighted, P and V’s anticipation grows. Its as if they’re going to run into the filming of Brazilian Baywatch on Day One. Alas! The thing you must realize about Rio and Brazil is that this ain’t Manhattan Beach in LA. Girls in “dental floss thongs” hang alongside thick mommas in their forties. Leering Carioca men walk while young boys play volleyball. In short, the beach is a pulsing, throbbing ebb and flow of humanity of all sorts. Our superficial selves are so far underwhelmed.

And then it starts to drizzle. Fuck. Baywatch is a scam, the dream must be put on hold.

So we hoof it to the edge of the beach, cross the Avenida Atlantica and end up at a little beach restaurant called “Rondellas”. Outdoor seats are procured under the open air tent and caipirinhas (obviously, the lessons of the Sao Paulo churrascaria have been forgotten by now) are ordered. I sense the oncoming of another disaster.

In the meanwhile, it has really started to come down. All normal people have gotten off the street, leaving only the crazies behind. Let the crazy games begin!

A rather giant black gentleman stands immediately outside our tent on Atlantica. He’s got the accoutrements and accessories of a street cleaner: fluorescent jacket, hat, garbage bag like raincoat, giant broom, trash and slop bucket, dangling keys, the works. He’s making a valiant attempt to sweep the leaves. And the water. Yes, in the midst of pouring rain, he’s trying to sweep away the dirty water. Unmindful of the futility of the task, he’s singing aloud like he’s auditioning for Brazilian Idol. In a deep, throaty, ugly baritone, we’re regaled and serenaded until the alcohol isn’t enough to blunt the pain. I cringe as Praz falls over the chair in pure delight at the scene. Since I’m now the “language expert”, I’m being asked to go over to him and convince him to give it a rest. I politely decline and swig the rest of my caipirinha.

The janitor slowly moves on to other parts of the street. But we ain’t done. What’s Christmas afternoon without a crazy-ass street drunk?!! On the other side of the tent, abutting the sidewalk, a thin drunken man holds on to a streetlight for dear life. It is 2pm in the afternoon and the guy is absolutely plowed. He gawks at the pretty girls drying themselves off under the trees on the sidewalk and catcalls them. Jealous of how sober we are, the drinks start to flow at the gringo table.

As with all afternoon drunkenness, the crash comes in the form of a sudden need to head back to the hotel and nap it off. We pay off the rather large bill – have I mentioned that Rio is hellishly expensive – and trundle back to the hotel.

So here’s the deal: as Night One is upon us, its obvious to our little party that the traditional clubs will not be packed. So we decide to make this shits-and-giggles night and head to the one place we *know* will be packed: CLUB HELP.

If you’ve been to Rio, you’re laughing a knowing laugh and appreciating the humor at many levels. If you haven’t, you’re marveling at the sheer inanity of the name of the club.

Ya see, Club Help is a well known tourist haunt for one solid reason: hookers. Hell, even my mostly staid Rio guidebook warned against Club Help with the following line (approximation): “If you’re wondering why you’re getting along so well with that young beautiful Carioca woman, you’re probably at Club Help.”

Club Help

Club Help

Except that there isn’t even a shred of doubt as to the nature of the activity as soon as you stop by Help. The club is right on Avenida Atlantica a mile down from us and we get there in the middle of the humid night. In sharp relief from the Christmas-induced emptiness everywhere, the big tent outside Club Help is packed. The large tent is filled with over a 100 men. And somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 women. All hookers.

I quietly marvel at the ultimately base nature of the human condition. So this is what legalized prostitution looks like. 10 Brazilian women cavorting amidst tables filled with groups of 3-4-5 guys drinking, smoking and bargaining.

We decide to indulge our anthropological instincts and grab a table in the back of the tent. Chopp is ordered and the people watching commences. As with all hookers, these women are loud and fearless in the company of men twice their size. They’re jumping from table to table shopping for dudes as surely as the dudes shopping for women. One of them is especially brazen as she walks from table to table – she’s olive skinned, sporting a ridiculously good looking body and has made the unfortunate apparel choice of being dressed in a full camouflage outfit (Praz nicknames her Camo). She makes her way 2 tables from us and shakes hands with one of the fellas – obviously American in his proud white tee, tilted baseball hat and Eminem vibe – before asking him what he thinks of her butt. The man, powerless, proclaims it to be “awesome”. Shakespearean romance this ain’t. The negotiation breaks down somewhere in the middle and Camo whispers a sweet goodbye in Eminem’s ear. Poor Eminem.

The table next to us is drunker than Lindsay Lohan on a tour of wine country. One large black guy – Tupac memoriam tee, gold bling, giant watch, the works – is exuberant and flits between this table and another one down the tent with more friends. The other guy is wasted and teetering on the edge. It would be truly comic if he passes out in the company of the young hooker who sits next to him. As far as the girl, she’s a loud, young white Brazilian in a short blue dress with tall, tall heels. All of this fits the hooker bill. The rather prominent braces on her teeth DO NOT. For fuck’s sake, its like Ugly Betty meets Heidi Fleiss.

Let’s take a minute to appreciate this. There are a LOT of good looking Brazilian girls with braces. Disproportionately so. Its like running into Botox in Palm Beach, only a bit more weird. I’m genuinely surprised that the trend has carried over to hookers. You’d think they’d know better.

Blue stands up, walks to the sidewalk and twirls around to show the boys the wares. She tops it off with a metallic smile, the coup de grace. I realize that she ain’t the only one rockin metal. So is Camo! And the hooker in the two-toned highlighted hair with the grandma glasses to the left of us. I give up and order more chopp.

We continue the people watching for another few rounds of chopp. All of a sudden, the needy American emerges. In our slightly buzzed state we realize that we’ve been at this fetid swamp for over two hours and – GASP!!! – haven’t been approached by a single hooker. If attention from hookers is a measure of trip success, we’ve just scored a giant F. It turns out that we’re invisble because we’re drinking local draft beer.

Every single table swarming with hookers is proudly showcasing a bottle of Absolut vodka. Yup, that Absolut, the ones with the highly overplayed ads. The same shit you thought was top shelf over Popov in college, before you discovered Goose and Ketel. Yup, Absolut. Who knew that Absolut was a chick magnet?

I love Rio. Already.

There is no climax to this story. The gringos eventually get sick of the esteemed company and decide to head back to the hotel. We need to be ready for a tour of Rio which starts at 830am sharp.

See you tomorrow.

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