We have arrived safely in New Zealand after an interesting four days in Rio de Janeiro. We had a good overall experience, but I have mixed emotions about the place and I will say that I am not yet sold on Brazil. I did like the food; I did like the geography, the city landscape and scenery; and I did like the energy and pride of the people. But I did not like being accosted every fifty feet as we walked down the street near our hotel; I did not like being scammed by taxi drivers claiming their meters were broken; and I did not like being hustled or sold services that were under-delivered. Having said all of this, it is a place that grows on you. And regarding my opinion, I was in the minority. Cheryl loved Rio, and Lauren was moving solidly in that direction as well by the time we left.
We flew from Lima to Rio on January 10 via Varig Airlines, a Brazilian carrier. Our tickets suggested the flight was direct to Rio, but at check-in we learned that it actually stops in Sao Paolo for an “equipment change,” which means you change planes. We left Lima at 1:30pm got into Rio around midnight. I made sure to declare nothing in customs and all went smoothly - they did not open our bags.
After we got through customs, the first order of business was to get some local cash from an ATM. I found a place to sit and watch the bags while Cheryl and the girls headed off to find a machine. It took a while. Eventually they found one that was operating and got some Brazilian Reais. Cheryl reported that, in Brazil, 24-hour ATMs actually close at 10pm.
Cheryl read in one the travel books that it was a good idea to pay for a taxi in advance at one of the counters in the airport terminal instead of dealing with a driver outside. So, we paid 60 Reais (about $20) and got a ticket which we were to give to the driver.
When we got outside, there were six or seven drivers from that taxi company standing there. When they saw us, they all rushed toward us. The first one who got to me spoke some English and asked for the ticket, so I gave it to him. I thought they wanted to help get us to the first taxi in line, but that was not the case. It seems they were competing with one another and started taking our bags in different directions. There was some confusion and they began to argue loudly among themselves (in Portuguese), apparently over who would take us. I didn’t know if the whole thing was staged, but they settled things after a minute or so and indicated we should use the one at the front of the line.
They helped load our bags, but the car was too small and the luggage would not all fit into the tiny trunk. Several of them tried to get all the bags in including jamming one behind the back seat up against the rear window, but that did not work either. Eventually, they insisted I sit in front with a bag on my lap. Cheryl didn’t like the idea, but we were all tired; I was frustrated over the delay and just wanted get out of there, so I agreed. While getting in, one of the other drivers had the nerve to ask for a tip. I just closed the door. Once inside, our driver asked for the ticket, but I had already given it to the first man who approached us. We told him this, and even pointed to the man standing on the curb, but he insisted that he have it and did not seem interested in getting the ticket from the other man. That’s when Cheryl and I had enough – we set aside our smiles and our phrasebooks and started yelling at him in English. That worked because the driver backed down and we headed to our hotel without incident.
After forty minutes we arrived at the Windsor Hotel, about a block from Copacabana Beach. The front desk staff was pleasant and spoke English. At check-in we learned they expected only three in our party, not four. The room they had was quite small - and with a rollaway bed and it was even smaller, but we didn’t care at that point. They promised to get us a larger room or second room if it became available. Once in the room, we turned on the wall air conditioner right away as it was hot; Cheryl made up a bed for Katie on the floor using extra bedding and we all went to sleep. The hotel never did not find us a larger room or a second room. And although it was small, that tiny space became our oasis during our time in Rio.
The next day, our first full day in Rio, we slept late. It was cloudy and humid and we finally ventured out in the early afternoon. Copacabana looks a lot like Waikiki, but much more third-world and has a mild stench. The beach itself is beautiful – perhaps 100 yards wide and three miles long. Unfortunately, the water is so polluted that few people actually go swimming. The avenue along the beach has wide sidewalks on either side, with restaurants and cafés spilling out. Because of the cloudy weather that day, the beach itself was virtually empty. Cheryl read in the guidebook that residents of Rio (also known as Cariocas) fill beaches on sunny days, but when it’s cloudy, they stay home and complain about broken love relationships. On our walk, we were approached by countless vendors of hats, drinks, handicrafts, trinkets, and tours. I called it “The Gauntlet” and after an hour I was exhausted. I just wanted to go back to the hotel. I was ready to give up on Rio.
But Cheryl wasn’t ready to give up. Instead of going back to the hotel, she suggested we get a taxi and go to another part of town that was not so touristy. So, we did. She had read about an area called Santa Teresa that sits on a hillside, has some interesting architecture, great views of the city, a trolley, and an art museum. Santa Teresa had all of these things, although the museum was closed, and we had a good time walking around. We even rode the trolley which took us to the central business district – El Centro. In El Centro we enjoyed looking in shops and sidewalk stalls. I had fun trying to decipher Portuguese, which has a similar spelling as Spanish, but is pronounced very differently. We walked into a McDonalds that had “McInternet” access. We had to take a picture of that one.
After a while we started thinking about dinner. It was after 6pm and there were lots of restaurants around us, but which one to choose? We decided that we would eat at a place that looked busy. Our rationale was that if it was busy, it was likely to be a popular place with the locals since we were not in a tourist area, and more people would keep us from standing out as foreigners. We ended up at one of those indoor-outdoor restaurants with a big awning. Our waiter spoke no English, but we got along using hand signals and a phrasebook. I guess we didn’t appear to be getting along very well because a man at a neighboring table leaned over and offered to translate. We said sure, why not. We got talking and learned he was from New York City and had been living in Rio for 10 years. He suggested we have the house specialty. So he told our waiter who was pleased over this new avenue of communication. We talked some more, the food came, and there was a lot of it. The meat itself consisted of beef, chicken and pork – it was barbequed on a long skewer shaped like a sword. Then they brought on the side dishes – mostly rice and beans – not a lot of veggies in this meal. And it was all delicious. We washed it down with beer and soft drinks. Cheryl tried a Caipirinha, the national drink of Brazil, which tastes a lot like the Pisco Sour from Peru.
As we sat there eating, the wind picked up and it began to rain. We were dry under the restaurant awning while we watched people scurry for cover out on the street. Within a few minutes it was a tropical downpour. We were unable to finish all the food and lingered in the restaurant waiting for the rain to stop. It did let up some, but since it was getting late, decided we’d better get back to the hotel. So, we pulled out our phrasebook and looked up the Portuguese for “May I have the check please” and “It was delicious.” We also looked in the guidebook to see if tipping was a custom in Brazil (10% is usual if it is not already added to the bill). After paying for the meal and a round of obrigados (thank yous) to our waiter and staff, we smiled, and nodded our way out into the rain. We caught a taxi within a couple minutes and made it back to the hotel. It was good first day.
The next day we again decided to get out of Copacabana. Cheryl read that the National Museum was worth a visit and we wanted to try out the subway. There was a Metro station six blocks from the hotel and we headed out again under cloudy skies. When we got to the station, they had escalators going down and they worked. I approached the ticket booth, but had forgotten to look up the Portuguese for “round trip.” No problem there - the seller knew that much English - a few more obrigados and we were on our way. The subway was clean, efficient and cheap. It cost two Reais each to get across town and back (about 70 cents).
Museu Nacional – The National Museum is in old building that served as residence for the Portuguese Royal family and for the Brazilian Imperial family until the late 1800s. They had on display dusty and aging exhibits covering anthropology, botany, geology, entomology, and invertebrates and vertebrates, but the most interesting were the mummies. They had five, all from Egypt. There were three humans, one cat and a small alligator. Lauren and Katie were fascinated by the cat mummy – the ears were wrapped upright – the girls took note of that. I couldn’t believe that the Egyptians let these treasures out, but apparently Emperor Dom Pedro I bought them from a trader almost two hundred years ago. He never actually visited Egypt. Aside from the mummies, the interesting thing about the museum was the building itself. It was beautiful and stately, but had not been taken care of and needed a lot of work. By the time we left, Cheryl had already worked out a fundraising strategy to get the place looking like Buckingham Palace.
That is all we did that day. Earlier, not long after we left the hotel, Katie told us she had a stomach ache. By the time we got through the museum, she was complaining enough that we decided to get back to the hotel. We were a bit concerned, since the rest of us felt fine. We got back in the late afternoon and had her lay down. We were tired and decided to take it easy and not go out again. Also, Cheryl had left her rain jacket on a bench near the museum and when we returned to retrieve it, it was gone. It wasn’t a big deal, but Cheryl thought I was angry with her over it. So, we had one of those miscommunications that happen in relationships. Whatever Katie had with her stomach, it passed. We ordered room service for dinner and went to bed.
Sugarloaf Mountain and the Christ Statue of Corcovado are two of Rio’s most distinctive features and we wanted to visit both before we left. But the weather was still cloudy and we had just two days left. Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar) is a massive rock 1200 feet high, situated in the middle of the city along the waterfront. There is a two-stage cable car that takes you up to the top and the views of the city are amazing. The Christ Statue of Corcovado (Cristo Redentor) is a 100 foot tall statue of Christ with his hands outstretched. And it stands on Corcovado Mountain which is 2300 feet in elevation. The views from there are better than Sugarloaf, although sometimes it is in clouds. We decided to do Sugarloaf the next day and the Christ Statue on our last day. That night we booked a city tour on Grey Line for the next afternoon (which included Sugarloaf). The front desk staff at the hotel said that sunny weather was on its way.
The next day the sun was shining when we woke up - we finally got our sunshine. After a lazy morning, Cheryl and the girls went shopping while I found a business center to get the Peru photos and journal up to the website. The website and email have presented some challenges during our trip. I have been unable to publish to the website via dial-up connection (I get an error), but can do it at business centers and Internet cafés that allow laptops. Also, we have been able to receive email via dial-up, but have not been able to send email (I get another error). At least part of the problem is that many email servers in the US automatically reject messages from overseas as an anti-spam measure. So, some go through and some don’t. We have had to resort to using the more cumbersome web-based email service offered by our Internet Service Provider in Kona which does work. I am working on these computer issues on the side and trying not to let it interfere with our otherwise enjoyable travels.
After taking care of the computer stuff, we met back at the hotel at 2pm and the tour bus picked us up shortly after that. We then spent the next 45 minutes picking up more passengers at hotels along Copacabana. At 3pm we finally started the “Rio City Tour” which consisted of our guide pointing out buildings and parks, speaking alternately in Spanish and broken English. It was not well done at all and we were disappointed. Cheryl’s noticed that our guide would speak for a minute in Spanish, and then the English was just one sentence. And we were behind schedule so we did not slow down. We made a quick stop at the Catholic Church in El Centro. When we got to Sugarloaf, he told us we had to be back to the bus in 45 minutes. With the cable car round trip, that would give us just 10 minutes at the top. We were not happy at this at all since Sugarloaf was the reason we signed up for the tour. That’s when we decided to ditch the tour and stay up there. And that is what we did. We stayed on Sugarloaf for almost three hours and watched the sunset.
For dinner Cheryl read about a good Japanese restaurant in the Botafogo district, less than 10 minutes away, that had good views of the water. We got a taxi at the bottom of the mountain and told the driver where we wanted to go. I didn’t notice it at first, but I soon realized that he had not turned on the meter. I pointed to it and asked him why it was not on. He said something in Portuguese and I heard the English word “repair.” Okay, so maybe it’s broken, I thought, but I really knew he was trying to rip us off. It was just like the taxi drivers in Korea. When we got to the restaurant, I asked how much and he said 15 Reais, but we knew it should be more like 9 or 10. So, Cheryl gave him 10, but he wanted more. Things were very tense at that moment and she said no, but then changed her mind and gave him 2 more. At that point he backed down. It didn’t ruin my day, but I didn’t like it at all.
The Japanese food was good. Maybe I was stressed from the taxi ride because I ordered a large bottle of sake and drank most of it. It turns out that sushi, sashimi, tempura, rice and miso soup are “comfort foods” for us because of our exposure to Japanese culture. After dinner, we took the subway back to the hotel since there was a station nearby and we were not eager to take another taxi that day.
On our last day in Rio, Cheryl and Lauren wanted to go shopping. But Katie, Pueo and I wanted to go to Corcovado and see the Christ Statue. So we split up and agreed to meet back at the hotel at 4pm. Our flight to New Zealand was a night flight leaving at 7:30pm. Katie and I hopped in a taxi, I made sure he turned on the meter, and we headed to the little station where we boarded the tram that took us up the mountain. The Christ Statue was impressive, but the views were even more so. Unfortunately, it was crowded up there and we had to jostle for space along the rail to look out over the city. After an hour, we had enough. At the bottom of the mountain the venders were thick. We ran the gauntlet and looked for a taxi – and there were plenty sitting there - but they asked where we were going and wanted to negotiate. I told the first one that I wanted to go to Copacabana and he said it would cost 30 Reais. But we paid just 17 to get there, so I shook my head, grabbed Katie’s hand and walked down the street. We got a taxi 50 feet away and it cost us 18 Reais on the meter to get back to the hotel.
We met Cheryl and Lauren at the hotel at 4pm. After some repacking of our bags, I told the front desk that we wanted a taxi to the airport. What happened next was not good. Fifteen minutes later, a beat up car, which was not a taxi, pulled up in front of the hotel. The engine didn’t sound very good and it had a cooling system leak because we could see a small amount of steam coming from under the hood. The driver was an old man, perhaps in his 70s. One of the bellman said this was our ride, but Cheryl objected. They insisted that it was fine and even started loading our luggage. In a lapse of judgment, perhaps because of time pressure, I told them it was fine and we got in the car. Cheryl tells the whole story in her journal, but bottom line: we almost missed our flight.
I cannot speak for Brazil as a country, but Rio de Janeiro is a crazy place. It is bold, brash, and unashamed. I found it to be unfriendly to foreigners, yet I understand its appeal. It has the sultry tropical climate of Manila and the attitude of New York City. It’s an “in your face” kind of place. I would consider going back only if I learned conversational Portuguese or visited with someone who did. And I would not bring the children. Rio has an edge to it that keeps you on your guard because anything could happen there. The rules are different.