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.”
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.
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
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
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.