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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 over  (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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My time in Foz de Iguazu, Brazil

February 2, 2009 6 comments

This post documents my time in Foz de Iguacu, home of the famous Iguacu Falls near the southernmost tip of Brazil, right next to the border with Argentina and Paraguay. If you aren’t familiar with this series of posts about Brazil (Yes, I dare call a set of 2 posts a series; call my lawyer if you have a problem w/ that), skip this post and get caught up.

So, here you go:

———————————————

As I try to fall asleep in my inebriated haze at The Maksoud Plaza Hotel at 4ish in the morning, I hear Kevin Rudolf’s “I See Your Dirty Face” accompanied by the sounds of a man dancing frantically to the terrible tune. This is no boozy drug-addled hallucination; yes, I’m in Sao Paulo, Brazil and my friend Praz is effervescent. I’m laughing helplessly at his antics while secretly considering strangling him to obtain some much-needed sleep.

You see, we’re all kind of wasted but mildly cognizant of the fact that a flight awaits us in a couple of hours. Since our planning skills are worse than pre-Katrina FEMA, we’ve decided on the spur of the moment to fly to Foz de Iguacu, a few hundred miles south of Sao Paulo. We’ve grudgingly handed over 500 dollars (yes, that’s greenbacks) to a fucking travel agency creatively named C-V-C. In return, we’ve received a ticket and a hotel room

that puts us in Foz for a mere 30 hours before we hopscotch over to Brazil’s crown jewel, Rio de Janeiro. Oh yeah, and we’ve also managed to score a free “gift” in the form of a travel bag that can fit a large rodent and not much else. The hideous gift will be a symbol of the gringos paying through the nose for the rest of the trip.

As we hurtle along the main highway to the airport, I’m riding shotgun and marveling at the fact that Brazil’s infrastructure is a valiant attempt at masking the poverty and squalor that lurks everywhere, just beyond our peripheral vision. The sky is a somber palette of pinks and grays, and in the quiet of the morning we stay away from the pre-pubescent humor that we love so dearly.

Then we arrive at Sao Paulo domestic airport – the wonderful-sounding “Congonhas!” – and the cycle begins all over again. As is the case everywhere in Brazil, the lines are long, snaking and a picture of chaos. You’d think a country with a population of 200 million would be able to better manage a line; hell, at least us Indians have the whole reproductive fecundity thing as an excuse.

Praz, of course, walks up to one of the few bored-looking airline clerks milling about and asks for an “upgrade”. I wasn’t there to witness it, but I imagine that he declares – “El Upgrade-o” as a sign of his seriousness of purpose. As expected, he get turned away because in order to be “preferencial”, one must be old, pregnant or at least attempt to not butcher Portuguese with happy disdain. We fail on all counts but rejoice in the knowledge of this beautiful new word that becomes yet another running joke. Try saying it – and make sure to roll your Rs. Then agree with me that the word makes you smile. Is it just me?

See a beautiful Brazilian girl? “That’s so preferencial“. Angry at the cabdriver for making you supremely uncomfortable? “That’s so not preferencial.”

We make our way down to the boarding gate and scope out a snack bar. This is as good a time as any to discuss the Brazilian obsession with cheese balls. Or cheese bread. Or bread with melted cheese inside. You see, they’re all the same product but faithful gastronomic chronicling is not my strong suit. In Portuguese, these little objects are called “Pao de Queijo” and the Brazilian people have taken their obsession to a whole new level. I mean, there’s a whole chain of stores named “Pao de Queijo”, complete with an airport wireless networked named “Pao de Queijo”. I make a mental note to make less fun of

Pão de queijo with coffee and a small cachaça ...
Image via Wikipedia

Starbucks upon my return to the US; at least they know better than to name themselves “Cheese Balls”. And before I let this rant go too far, let me outline the kicker: pao de queijo tastes like, well, nothing. Not spicy, not tart, not flavorful in any real sense of the term.

The flight itself is uneventful and everyone collapses in a nap, dreaming of all the voluptuous Brazilian women that are undoubtedly going to greet us by, around and under the giant waterfalls at Iguacu. Or maybe it was just me. In either case, the plane comes to a screeching halt and there we are.

Iguacu isn’t inside a tropical rainforest (in fact, we’re farther from the Amazon rainforest than ever before) but the environs feel like it just the same. There’s no concrete jungle or bustle of cars here. The roads are single lane and the trees stand sentry right at the very edge of the street. We’re about to walk out of the tiny airport as we see a strange, creepy family reunion scene. We’d like to walk right past but just like a car crash, we’re powerless in our ability to restrict rubbernecking.

Two Brazilian girls are holding a “Welcome Home, Mom” banner for a heavyset woman with a round face a few paces right behind us. In and of itself, this scene would inspire no attention. So to take it a step further, the women are dressed in clown costumes. Mind you, these are not the kind of half-assed clown costumes you’d see at a Halloween party. These are…PERFECT. Down to the disproportionately giant clown shoes, the clown hair (easy, sure), the makeup on the faces, you name it. If in good conscience I could have taken a photo, I would have.

Now, as stupid Americans we’re standing expecting mirth and merriment, maybe a little bit of Bozo the clown. Not so much. The older woman, carrying two suitcases both considerably larger than herself bursts into tears that could rival the falls in drop size and force. I get it. She’s happy to see the girls but it strikes me as a bit odd that they continue to wave the banner in their giant clown costumes as the woman wails tears of joy. P and V tear me away as I continue to gawk.

Our cab brings us to The Nadai Confort Hotel at the edge of the downtown “district” (if one is permitted to play fast and loose with the word). If we’re expecting a welcome relief from the Brazilian preference for colors that clash worse than Britney and K-Fed, well, we’re mistaken. The Nadai Confort – I think that means “Comfort” in English but I can’t say for sure – is Exhibit B in color palettes gone bad. Purple, white, green and a few other colors that I don’t have the ability to name all adorn the exterior of the building in overly bold wide stripes.

We drop our stuff and jump back into the cab to head to the falls.

Our cabdriver, Celio, is an older gentleman with a battered face, thick glasses and a genuine, beatific smile. Like a lot of Brazilians, he looks poor, relaxed and content. While Foz is a tourist center, it is nowhere as popular as Rio or Sao Paulo with tourists of businesspeople. I register major surprise, then, when I realize that he speaks some of the best English we’ve heard in days. I pause for a moment when he tells me that he’s been driving dumb tourists around for 40 years. When I ask him about Rio de Janeiro, he plainly states that he’s never been to either Rio or Sao Paulo. Both cities are too far and he’s never had the money to visit. As with all such moments, I say a silent prayer of thanks for my comparatively easy trajectory into adulthood.

Deprived of my morning coffee, I walk around the ticket window looking for the required jolt to my pathetic bloodstream. P and V throw their customary tantrum given that I’m holding them up like a damn old grandma. I flip them off and repair to a coffee station; I can already feel their snide remarks coming on. When I ask the local southern Brazilian woman for coffee to go, she stares at me like I’ve just asked her to take her clothes off. While she’s got a great smile on her face as she rattles off some incomprehensible Portugues, I suspect she’s telling the gringo to beat it. We eventually come to an agreement and she pours the strong liquid into a flimsy little corrugated plastic cup. I wistfully long for the American ingenuity that contrived the mundane plastic lid with a hole of just the right size. I shake myself out of my reverie before the Starbucks dream recurs and pound the coffee like a shot of Jack Daniels.

The next few hours are touristy, beautiful and uneventful. They are spent in the company of tourists from other parts of Brazil and Uruguay, with an old

Foz!

American couple from Arizona thrown in as the token white people. We take a speedboat right into the heart of falls and get sprayed as the boat driver gets us as close as humanly possible to a small section of the falls. P makes an R. Kelly peeing joke as the water is drenching us on all sides (“What if a guy were at the top of the falls taking a leak?”). V and I deride his perverse imagination. We dry off and proceed to view the panorama around the falls from viewing

decks. We then proceed to a highly questionable fast food meal – Brazilians really don’t know the first thing about making hamburgers and fries.

We trudge back to the hotel at 5pm; P and V collapse in heaps in the hotel room while I switch clothing and saunter out into the main strip in Foz and spend a few hours darting in and out of stores where the sales girls speak no English.

Dinner is awful. We muddle through a chicken lasagna that’s frozen in certain parts of the casserole while other parts are piping hot. I make a mental note to Google whether Brazilians are into frozen foods (Indos are most definitely not; I’m not sorry to say that I escaped soul-crushing TV dinners in my childhood). The only redeeming factor is the exhilarating variety of fruit juices on the buffet. Say what you will about Brazilian food, but these fools know how to juice the hell out of fruits. More on that as we make our way to Rio.

All in all, Foz de Iguacu reminds me of Wichita, Kansas + gorgeous falls. Nothing – and I mean nothing – ever happens here. The 2 Sleeping Beasts in our little entourage are zonked out and snoring by 11pm. My poor lonesome self spends the next hour plowing through Bill Bryson’s “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”. Pure coincidence, of course.

I can’t wait to get the hell out of Foz and over to Rio de Janeiro – home of Copacabana, Ipanema, the giant Christ statue that presents so many douchebag tourist opportunities and a giant hilltop poorly named “SugarLoaf” that showcases Rio as one of the most gorgeous cities in the world.

Over to the next chapter.

My time in Sao Paulo, Brazil

January 12, 2009 8 comments

This is a personal account of my time spent in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I’d been saving it for a Brazil travelogue that I of course want to write and publish for a small amount of money; but then I realized that my writing skills are subpar, my work takes up a lot of time and in general I’m too ADD-riddled to write anything long form. So here you are:

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We almost didn’t make it. Sitting in Los Angeles airport at the American Airlines “rebooking” counter at 1am on December 22nd, I wondered aloud how our magical trip had gotten fucked so quickly out of the gate. We’d missed our connection from LA to San Juan (yes, I’m well aware that that’s actually in Puerto Rico but it was a leg of our trip on the way to Brazil) and were trying to make sense of our impending nightmare.

As a longshot, we asked the nice feisty black lady with the extra-long pink fingernails and ginormous Starbucks cup if we could simply skip our San Juan leg and fly straight to Sao Paulo. Coz, you know, when you pay 2000 dollars for a ticket, you want to visit *fewer* places than originally intended. She agreed, but this is what our flights looked like:

San Francisco –> Los Angeles (overnight layover) + Los Angeles –> San Diego + San Diego –> Dallas + Dallas –> Sao Paulo.

Foto Noturna Edificio Tim - São Paulo - Brasil
Image by Julio Mejías via Flickr

Without going into the particulars, let’s just suffice it to say that 35+ hours spent in airports, airplanes and motels is a royal pain in the ass. So we get off in Sao Paulo on December 23rd at 1pm and walked into an industrial-looking, busy airport. The first thing that strikes you when you walk around normal Brazilians is their (by alternate turns) funny and sexy Portuguese – just ask a Brazilian woman to pronounce “Rio de Janeiro” and you’ll find it incredibly sexy. Then ask her to go off on a random rant and you’ll want to jump off a bridge.

We walk out of the airport into the sweltering heat – its summer, bitches! I notice that even a concrete second world jungle like Sao Paulo is incredibly green; if you’ve ever stepped into the shithole environs around Bombay International airport, you’ll find Sao Paulo a welcome relief. After a few minutes of trying to find the airport shuttle, we’re approached by a cabbie who senses dumb fuck Americans ambling about and wants to close in before the other vultures get a fair crack. Since the cab cost is 90 reais and the same we’d pay for the airport shuttle, we relent and pile our shit into the Peugeot. I ride shotgun with my cheapo Exilim pointed out the window.

It’s only been about two minutes in the car until Edouardo Souza yells out “Pirikeeeeta”, a Portuguese word that we’re unfamiliar with. When we display our stupidity, he lets go of the steering wheel for five terrifying seconds and gesticulates that he’s referring to, ahem, female anatomical parts. A nervous laugh issues from the back of the car as P and V grasp the particulars of the situation. I mean, we’ve all been to Vegas and what not but we’re just getting used to the idea of lewd behavior from a cabbie we don’t quite understand.

Edouardo takes the laugh as a sign of approval and explains to us in broken English that “pirikeeeeta” is faaar more important to him than water and air. My nerdy Stanford friend in the back isn’t horrified but mildly asks the motorista if he is married, what with the cheesy wedding band prominently displayed on a meaty digit. “Sim, Sim”, he asserts (yes, yes). He then stares at the woman in the next car over and compliments her “melancia” (melons). I’m not uncomfortable yet but am slowly getting there.

Sensing that this vein of jokes while delightful has played itself out, Edouardo asks us where we’re from. I proffer “San Francisco” and he tries to assess whether I’m straight or gay (a frequent occurrence in Brazil) simply because I live 2 miles from the Castro district. His pea-sized brain suddenly tired of this line of inquiry, he brightly exclaims:

“MADONNA!”

Madonna on the festival in Coachella in 2006
Image via Wikipedia

And now in a quasi-Italian singsong manner: “Madonna the best! The best!”

Not wanting to burst the man’s bubble by discussing the finer nuances of shitty American pop, we murmur a gentle assent. He then quizzically throws out the words “New Jersey” to see what reaction we have. Since I don’t know how to say “Armpit of America” in Portuguese, I simply repeat after him, “Yes, yes, New Jersey!”.

Greatly encouraged by my unalloyed willingness to just roll over, Edourdo now loudly yells “Bon Jovi! Bon Jovi the best!”

This may have been the point when I simply tuned out and rode in silence until we got to Avenida Paulista and our hotel – Maksoud Plaza. As we pulled up, Edouardo Souza’s inner Italian proclaimed – “Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Bon Jovi, Maksoud Plaza, the best!”

I should have known better than to take his word for it.

I wasn’t alive during the seventies, but in 1979 Maksoud Plaza was possibly an interesting hotel to spend a night. Now its just a way to remind yourself how depressing the 70s must have been. The inside of the hotel is a garish, screaming collision of every color known to mankind. There’s a buffet/cafe/bakery that sits off to one side in the lobby. It is buffeted by a small pool which for some reason sits in front of a giant LCD screen playing Brazilian soaps. For good measure, the hotel staff threw in a horrendously colorful Christmas tree with creepy ornaments on one side.

As if making a silent excuse for its obvious lack of good taste, a scale model of the Maksoud Plaza sits towards the center of the expansive lobby. The slowly yellowing label reads “Maksoud Plaza, 1979” so we can be assured that this particular eyesore was built by another generation of Brazilians.

My friend V asks the concierge about a good “churrascaria“. With the knowing look of someone about to score a commission, she busts out a flyer for “Vente Harregano”, which we are informed is “the best!”. I am really getting sick of Brazilians’ callous use of superlatives at this point, but I relent when she mentions that the restaurant sends a van to the hotel to pick up guests.

Nice! I’m thinking of a classy evening spent in style as the restaurant sends over a masculine town car. We can smoke cigars after dinner and go to The Skye Bar for a beautiful rooftop view of town, I think to myself.

Count me dismayed, then, when at 830pm I step outside to see a large airport shuttle-like van, painted in a particularly nasty gold color with a giant “Vente Harregano” logo on the sides. The meat van has arrived to pick up the fat Americans. I’m just glad I didn’t have a big fucking camera slung around my neck – I’d be forever destined to tourist hell.

So we pile in like the good sports we are and arrive at Vente Harregano.

A churrascaria – if you’ve never been to one – is explicitly designed to make vegetarians throw up out of disgust and serious carnivores salivate out of visceral anticipation. You make a great pretense of munching on the salad bar’s offerings and then graduate onto the meat, which is brought around on skewers by waiters who are more persuasive than insurance agents. Hell, the table you sit on usually has a diagram of a cow with all the different parts marked on it – rumpsteak being the one that inspires the most jokes. Personally, I had a quiet Crayola moment and wished I could paint the cow’s ass in brown and its shoulders bright purple.

Two hours and several caipirinhas later, we’re stuffed to the gills and completely hammered. I start making noises about Skye Bar in the posh Unique hotel and how we’re really too drunk to hail a cab. Praz quips like the hustler he thinks he is, “Why not just take the van?”

And so it came to pass that at 1130pm, as fashionable Paulistas stand in line outside the elevator that took them to the Skye Bar at the Unique Hotel, three drunk gringos pull up in a giant Vente Harregano meat van. The moment is soured further by the fact that the driver of the van puts out a two step red staircase to allow the gringos to get out of the van. Simply hopping out would be slightly masculine, so we pass in favor of stepping out daintily like a bunch of parlor ladies.

Praz, in his drunken exuberance yells, “Well, this looks badass!!”, drawing looks of extreme disgust from the Paulistas ahead of us in line.

A few minutes later, we we’re ushered into the Skye Bar.

Alisson at Skye Bar
Image by heather via Flickr

The Skye is a beautiful space packed with gorgeous Brazilians. The open air roof is filled with cool, dark corners exclusively reserved for makeout action and manly umbrellas with stylish red lighting. Since it’s our first night out, we’re a bit shy about approaching strangers and are content to make the following observations about Brazilian nightlife:

  • Brazen making out is highly encouraged and nothing to bat eyebrows about. Americans look prudish in comparison.
  • Brazilians smoke a hell of a lot more than their American counterparts and nobody gives a rat’s ass about secondhand smoke in bars.
  • As is well known about Latin America, the men can be aggressive and the women can be strangely receptive to aggression.

As the reader can tell by this neat bulleted list, the gringos are not the life of the party that night. But the vino does flow freely until 330am and we stumble into the hotel room at 4am. Part of me wants to bum rush the ugly Christmas tree and watch it totter and fall with a deafening crash.

We now recollect that we have a flight to catch at 6am and juvenile Praz insists on ordering room service while playing “I See Your Dirty Face” at the loudest possible decibel level.

Sigh.

The trip has only just begun and I’m already tired. On to Foz de Iguacu! That, however, will be the topic of a different post.

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My Brazil Itinerary

January 3, 2009 5 comments

Here is my Brazil itinerary. I am posting it because when we were planning our trip a lack of good, simple, one-weekish itineraries was hard to find. You can thank me later 🙂

Background: This itinerary is most suitable for those who have less than 10 days to spend in Brazil. Ideally, you should enjoy the club/bar scene inordinately more so than other cultural pursuits (museum visits, theatrical performances, etc.) to derive max value out of this list:

Day One, 1pm: Land in Sao Paulo Airport. 

Day One, 230pm: Check into Maksoud Plaza Hotel on Avenue Paulista in Sao Paulo. I honestly CANNOT recommend it unless you have a weird fondness for the 70s. 

Day One, 7pm: Dinner at Vente Harregano Churrascaria. The food is fantastic and costs 80 reais. We got carried away with the drinks and ended up dropping 75 dollars US (yikes!) on dinner each. The funniest thing is that the restaurant will send a van to your hotel to chauffeur you to dinner. So basically even though you drop 80 dollars, you can’t be a high roller whilst stepping out of a meat van with a giant logo on the side. LOL. 

Day One, 11pm: Headed to the Skye Bar at the Unique Hotel in Jardim Paulista. I picked it because it came highly recommended by the NYTimes Travel section. The Skye bar is FANTASTIC! The views of the city are pretty damn nice and the weather was wonderful. We ordered expensive-ish drinks (10 dollars US each). Our entry into the bar/hotel was less than suave, given that we got there by convincing the meat van to drop us off. Great story, though. 

Day Two, 7am: Fly to Foz de Iguacu, home of the wonderful Iguacu waterfalls. Waking up at 5am to catch the flight was a royal bitch, of course. 

Day Two, 9am: Get on a flight to Foz de Iguacu, home of the Iguacu waterfalls. 

Day Two, 1pm: Visit the falls and realize that there are very few (or nearly none, actually) American tourists at the falls. The 500 dollar plane ticket starts to not look like the smartest idea. 

Day Three, 10am: Get back on a flight to Rio

Day Three, 2pm: Check into Copacabana Premier hotel in Rio in the Copacabana district. The hotel concierges speak English which is a joy and a relief. 

Day Three: Realize that nobody is around on Christmas day. Spend the afternoon drinking caipirinhas. 

Day Four, 10am: Do a full day city tour of Rio. Visit Christo Redentor, the famous chapel and Pao de Acucar. 

Day Four, 11pm: Head to Club 00 in Leblon. Pay 20 dollars US as cover and remark once again that Brazil is NOT cheap at all. Not at all, even if you are used to San Francisco prices. 

Day Five, 6am: Return home from Club 00. A long night filled with booze and cigars and great hip hop top 40 shit courtesy of the DJ. 

Day Five, 11am: Pack up and get ready for a trip to Buzios. 

Day Five, 1pm: End up at Rio airport to rent a car since all other rental shops were sold out. The lack of planning is evident once again. 

Day Five, 2pm: Head out for Buzios. We don’t speak the language and have never driven in Rio, so this is a bit foolhardy to be kind. Hell, we don’t even have cellphones or a calling card. 

Day Five, 6pm: Get to Buzios after getting lost a couple of times courtesy of shitty GPS directions. 

Day Five, 7pm; Check into Bon Bini resort at Buzios, drink a coffee and head out for dinner. 

Day Five, 8pm: Walk in Rua das Pedras. This street is highly upscale and is bursting at the seams with extremely attractive Brazilian people. Think Santa Monica, I guess, for lack of a better comparison. 

Day Five 830pm: Walk into Patio Havana. Fantastic food, good mojitos and Cuban cigars to boot. The bill is 400 reais at the end of the night – fuck. 

Day Five 11pm: Bribe our way into Anexo Lounge. 

Day Five 1am: Be a little bit miffed that even kids our age who went to private schools speak zero English. What the fuck? Some of these guys claimed to have flown in from Brasilia on a chartered jet. 

Day Five, 4am: Head back to the hotel.

Day Six, noon: Head to Geriba Beach. Fantastic beach, very clean, lots of attractive people and the weather was nice.

Day Six, 3pm: Leave for Rio. Back in Rio by 530pm this time given the lack of mishaps.

Day Six: 6pm: Check back into Copacabana Premier.

Day Six: Roll into Mud Bug, a local watering hole in Copa. Also try Shenanigans, a popular tourist bar (Irish, of course) and change our minds given that it was dead.

Day Seven: A day finally spent in Rio hanging out and just taking in the city. The weather is nice and the beach is packed. Head to the beach and visit Barra da Tijuca and Ipanema beaches. Make headway through the beach reads.

Day Seven evening: Watch a Bossa Nova show in Vinicius bar in Ipanema. Excellent music.

Day Eight: Try to take a chopper ride up to Christo Redentor. Fail miserably on account of logistical mishaps. Take a bus to the Christo train base and find that the place has turned into a COMPLETE TOURIST ZOO. We abandon the idea and cab it back to the hotel.

Day Eight, 10pm: Head to Baronnetti in Ipanema. The club is jumping but unfortunately plays techno which I’m not a big fan of. My fedora is a HUGE HIT, much to my pleasure.

Day Nine, 5am: Find a cab and head back to Copacabana. Eventful, fun night, nuff said.

Day Nine, 11am: Wake up, shower, pack a bit, head to the beach and hang on Copa beach for a few hours. Beers on the beach along with a bunch of other tourists.

Day Nine: 6pm: Pick up last set of Cuban cigars. My friend P haggles and we pay 40 reais a pop. Our most expensive acquisition but these are Cohibas after all.

Day Nine, 9pm: Start drinking at the hotel bar. 2 rounds of Caipivodkas get the night going.

Day Nine, 1030pm: Pick up 3 champagne bottles and head over to the beach. Copa is a ZOO at this point and everybody is dressed in white.

Day Nine, 11pm: We pop our champagne bottles and start drinking out of each, no glass. Ghetto but fun.

Day Nine, 1115pm: Run into a couple of American girls on the beach. They’re cool and we spend the rest of the night with them at the beach.

Day Ten, 330am: Happy new year! The place is still jumping but we’re dead tired. Head back to the hotel room.

Day Ten, 2pm: Get on a flight to Sao Paulo, followed by a flight to JFK, followed by a flight to SFO (don’t ask).

Day Eleven, 2pm (PST): Get home!!!

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OMG. Horrendous search results from Live.com

December 18, 2008 Leave a comment

I just couldn’t resist posting these results even though I understand that this may strike you as rather obvious. 

Query: “Brazil nightclub dress code” (don’t worry, I’m not weird, just heading to Brasil)

Results: PATHETIC

I mean, Good Grief, better to give me a blank page. 

http://search.live.com/results.aspx?q=brazil+night+club+dress+code&go=&form=QBLH&qs=AS

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