We Interrupt the Europe Travel posts for a trip to Brazil

29 May

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Some friends of ours got married on the beach in Buzios Brazil. An excuse to go to Brazil. Why on earth WOULDN’T we go? Unlike our grand tour of Europe I didn’t actually do much of the planning for this trip. In fact, I did none of the planning for this trip. That doesn’t mean we didn’t learn anything.

The first thing I learned was that you need a visa to enter Brazil.  You can get a visa at one of 8 consulate locations in major cities across the United States.  Technically a tourist visa is free to American citizens… but you are charged a $160 “Processing fee.” This is (Quite by coincidence, I’m sure) the same amount that the U.S. charges Brazilian citizens to enter the country.  You can find the paperwork online, but it must be presented in person at one of the consulates, and it must be picked up there as well. You can’t just walk into the consulate either, you have to make an appointment.

If you’re not interested in taking a few days off to drive to L.A., or Boston, or Miami, or wherever, you can send your paperwork off to a company that will turn it in for you.  We used BrazilVisaCenter.com. They charge $49.00 for standard service. The consulate charges another $20 for any application not presented in person, so that all came to $230 each.  A visa allows you entry for 90 days out of a year for the next 10 years.

You definitely want to get the visa sorted well ahead of time, since the process can take a couple of weeks. While the consulate website says they do not offer same day or expedited service, the expediting company does offer a “Platinum Service” inclusive of the consulate fees for $489 that is advertised as only taking 2-3 days.  I turned ours in a month ahead of our departure because we’re paranoid.

As I said, we didn’t book our own flights. Our friend got a group together and put us on United from Vegas to Houston and then a redeye from Houston to Rio. I’m 6’2” and 250 pounds, so all flights are pretty miserable. United’s in-flight movie selection was pretty good and the meal was passable. I slept a little on the plane, due largely to the Tylenol PM, sleeping mask, and ear plugs (You do always travel with ear plugs, right?).

We landed the next morning at the Galeão International Airport in Rio de Janeiro. copy2GIG was built in 1977 and last renovated in the early 90’s, so it is a little like stepping back in time. The baggage claim area is small and crowded with only a handful of carousels. I would contrast this unfavorably to other more modern airports but for the fact that you can cover the baggage claim area end to end in about 20 seconds and we got our bags in a reasonable amount of time.  We’d left Las Vegas via the new Terminal 3 the day before, where the baggage claim area is easily a city block long (In fact the entire place seems to have been constructed in anticipation of the human race evolving to the stature of the Na’vi sometime in the immediate future) and the doors leading to Ground Transportation are just out of view due to the curvature of the Earth. Bigger isn’t always better. We joined a very long and intimidating line and then walked directly through Customs at speed without ever talking to a single soul.

Ok, I take that back. Before we joined the line I made my way into the men’s restroom. I was ready for this. I’d been warned by the Bride in an e-mail and this particular factoid was mentioned in several travel guides. While dated, the plumbing arrangement in the restroom was exactly like the toilets, urinals, and sinks you find in any public building in the United States and Europe. A bathroom stall is a bathroom stall, it’s hard to get terribly imaginative in this realm.  But there next to the toilet was a small silver trash can. This is because you cannot flush toilet paper down the toilet in Brazil. Anywhere. This means you. The place didn’t smell of roses, but wasn’t as bad as you’d expect owing (I’m pretty sure) to the very busy bathroom attendant. My wife’s comment after our first experience with the loo was “Did the Olympic Committee know about the toilet paper thing?”

We met our friends just outside passport control, and from there they took over our travel experience completely. We boarded a small private bus for our ride to Buzios.  On the way out of the city we got a small taste of the traffic and how the locals cope with it.  Passive-aggressive resignation describes it quite nicely. You also have local entrepreneurs walking along the shoulder selling various snacks and knickknacks to the folks stopped in traffic. Even on the interstate.

'Cause you'll need that umbrella later. Or an electric bug killer. Or some popcorn...

‘Cause you’ll need that umbrella later. Or an electric bug killer. Or some popcorn…

We crossed Gunabara Bay on the 8 mile Rio-Niteroi Bridge and headed east. The incredibly dense city gives way rather quickly to lush rolling hills and farmland. Much of the population of Brazil is still concentrated in coastal cities. Granted, I only saw the area along a single highway, but the land we traveled through seemed very thinly populated.

About 2 ½ hours later we arrived in Geriba, a small beach community in Armação dos Búzios.  The family was staying at Espelho das Águas, a villa on the beach where the wedding would take place. The Groom was from Cabo Frio nearby and his family had already fired up the grill! The villa would be our base of operations for the entire stay. It was built around a central courtyard with several bedrooms in the east building, a roofed barbecue to the north, the kitchen, pantry, and a restroom in the west building, and a sitting room to the south.  Adjacent to the sitting room was a long covered patio with a small billiards table. This area looked out onto the pool, a stand of palms, and finally the beach. A deck ran the length of the property down to the wall separating the beach from the yard and there was a shower just inside the gate. You can see several dynamic 360º views here.

copy6We were housed at the Pousada Alforria (Pronounced “Alfo-he-ah,” as apparently an H sound replaces the R in most Portugese words) just down the Avenida Geriba. Cute little place that I would classify as a motel. Small rooms on 2 floors surrounding a courtyard full of tropical plants and the smallest in-ground pool I have ever seen in my life. Our room was small but comfortable with a fridge and a window unit air conditioner.

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The bathroom had a few surprises. Small compared to an American hotel but palatial by London standards, the bath had a sink, toilet, and a shower all in a row. Tile throughout and no divider between the bathroom floor and the shower. First thing I noticed was the hose next to the toilet. You know the old fashion kitchen sink hose with the pistol-grip nozzle on the end and the thumb button you rinsed dishes with when you were a kid? Ok…. one of those on the end of a five foot flexible hose. Yup, you guessed it. THAT is meant to do the lion’s share of the work that we would normally leave to toilet paper.  I can see where this arrangement would go a long way toward keeping down the smell, but it certainly takes some practice. The villa down the street had one bathroom with an actual bidet, but all the rest of the bathrooms had these.

Moving on.  There were three controls in the shower. The first one was a silver knob in the center of the wall. On and off. Pretty straightforward. High on the wall on the right side was another silver knob that I took at first to be temperature control but in fact did nothing I could discern. Then we had the shower head itself. This is where things got interesting.

The shower head was at the end of a length of ¾ inch PVC that came out of the wall at a right angle. The head itself was kind of absurdly huge and had a twist ring control of the kind that in my experience normally controls the rate and type of water flow (Shower vs Massage, etc.) but in this instance controlled the temperature. It had three settings, cold… hot… and really hot. It wasn’t until the second morning when I took a look at the point where the PVC pipe met the wall and was alarmed to see electrical wires running onto it that I finally realized that the shower head was absurdly huge because it housed an on-demand water heater. My history with on-demand heaters is concentrated in my travels in the UK in the late 80’s and most of my experiences in this arena were bad. The specimen in our motel room in Brazil was not of the scald-you-dead variety favored by the English, but it could have done with a little more subtlety in its temperature range. We survived.

We spent several days lounging in the villa, drinking, and sunning ourselves on the beach. I know I normally try to dole out helpful advice on navigating far off places in your travels but in this instance the best advice I can offer is to have a friend who takes care of everything for you.  Nothing was required of me or my wife on this trip apart from our presence. We got up each morning and had breakfast at our pousada. Ham & cheese sandwiches appear to be the national breakfast in Brazil. We found this to be offered universally. Other things you might encounter at breakfast; fruit of various types and cake. Yes… cake. Yellow cake with various topping options. I opted for honey and granola. I was wary of juice and coffee because of warnings about drinking the water until I discovered NOBODY drinks the tap water, including the locals. Everything for consumption comes from bottles.

After breakfast we’d walk to the villa to see what our fellow travelers had going and have a drink or three. Our host and his wife have both worked as bartenders, along with at least four of the other guests. It’s a good environment to find oneself in. After that we would walk down to the beach.

The beach at Geriba is a white sand beach facing almost due south. It’s a long crescent with rocky points on either end.  copy5While we were slightly closer to the Equator than you’d be in the Florida Keys, I found the water a little chilly. Of course… it is the South Atlantic, and April is mid-Autumn in Brazil.  While obviously a popular tourist spot, it wasn’t insanely crowded.  The beach-goers were almost exclusively Brazilians with a handful of Europeans thrown in.  While we encountered a few groups of Americans in Buzios (It is a stopover for cruise ships) we didn’t see or speak with anyone in Geriba we could identify as being from the States.

You can buy just about anything on the beach.  Quite apart from the table setups where you can buy a hot lunch up to and including lobster and of course any kind of drink you’d care to name, we noted people walking about selling hats, jewelry, ice cream, oysters, steak, wraps (The kind you eat and the kind you wear), shirts, flip flops, roast corn, and bikinis, in addition to fixed locations where you could rent kayaks and surf boards.copy7

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Mobile clothing store

A lot of these folks were Brazilian, but even more of them are Argentinians who don’t speak Portuguese, but Castilian Spanish.  Not that this was a greater than usual impediment as I don’t speak either language. The easiest route was to simply point at the corresponding picture on the menu.  We exchanged a small amount of dollars for Reais (Brazilian currency, the Real), but with only a very few exceptions the majority of vendors take credit cards. Remember that Capitol One Mastercard I told you about last year when I started on this travel blog jag? Yup, still using it for no fee overseas transactions.  Everyone was personable and helpful. Some of our group got up a soccer game with the waiters from the beach café immediately in front of the villa one afternoon.

Travel magazines and the newspaper have given people the idea that travel in Brazil is dangerous.  I cannot speak for larger urban areas like Rio, as we spent practically no time there. We did spend 6 days on the beach in Geriba and in & around the central square in Buzios.  At no point did I feel threatened or as though I had to be any more on my guard than I would walking on the street in Las Vegas, or Glendale, or Louisville for that matter.  I wouldn’t leave my wallet laying on a table on the beach in Geriba, but then again I wouldn’t do that in Virginia Beach either. We wandered about the tourist areas of Buzios at night and while I am certain that there must be pickpockets and the occasional mugger about, it is nowhere near the lawless land of roving bandits that our press makes out. As with anyplace you travel, use your head and trust your instincts.

Another idea that comes from the popular press, and one that one that many of the male members of our party were sad to learn isn’t strictly true, is that all the women on the beaches of Brazil wear tiny thong bikinis and look like Emanuella de Paula.  The part about the thongs is true, all the women wear them. What you need to understand is that all the women wear them.  Among the folks we encountered in Brazil we found a pretty fabulous lack of self-consciousness about their bodies.  So for every bronzed super-body in a teeny thong right out of the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, there were maybe fifty or so who wandered out of Better Homes & Gardens. Yup. If you lived in Brazil your mom would be out on the beach in a thong. Most likely you grandmother as well. I’m sure the Copacabana in Rio has a more favorable ratio guys.  If you are only interested in Pro-Level Bikini Watching, maybe you’d better stick to the big cities. You’re welcome to it, that just means more rum & cigars for me out in the provinces.

Actually, this is one of the few areas where a glaring disparity seems to run in favor of the ladies.  Brazilian men appear to embrace this mindset as well, and while there were unabashed beer guts aplenty all but obscuring black Speedos, beefcake was far thicker on the ground than on any other beach I’ve ever encountered.  The percentage of fit male bodies on display was pretty high (Maybe because they play soccer and not baseball?)  I don’t know the true name for the sort of loose-in-front boy-short bottoms the guys were wearing… I just know the ladies in our group took to calling them “Bananna Hammocks” and they left nothing at all to the imagination.

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All week long!

Around midday someone from the villa would call down to us that lunch was on. The entire time we were there our hosts manned the grill. In Brazil this is an art form known as Churrasco.  This means long skewers over a glowing bed of coals loaded with picanha (The “Rump cover” cut of beef with the thick layer of fat left on), chicken hearts, sausages, and chicken wings that are simply piled up or passed around as they become done. There were plates of rice, vegetables, fruit, fish, pasta, and of course ground yucca with bacon to sprinkle over everything. Oh and more drinks.  Following an afternoon on the beach we’d come back up to supper for more, then drink/dance/hang out until wandering back to our pousada down the street in the wee hours.

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Our visit included a wedding on the beachcopy12 (This was the entire purpose of our trip as a matter of fact) followed by a party that lasted about 8 hours.  The majority of Brazilians are Roman Catholic but the service was a non-denominational affair. The night of the weeding our hosts had brought in a Samba band and later in the evening a Carnival dancer. Apparently the rules are that you have to do whatever she says. She led individual partygoers and groups in various dances and let me tell you…. They have it aaaaaaaaall over the Chicken Dance.

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The “Hokey Pokey” gets replaced with the “Bottle Dance.” Yeah.

On at least two evenings we made our way into Centro de Buzios.  copy13There is a heavy concentration of restaurants and tourist shops along the Avenida José Bento Ribeiro Dantas, more commonly known as Rua das Pedras (Literally “The Street of Stones”).

There were countless bars with tables out in the streets,copy17 street vendors selling ice cream and bitter chocolate, and performers of various kinds. In the square we even saw a group doing capoeira, a Brazilian dance/martial art. Oh and we saw these….copy14

Weird huh? The payphone has all but disappeared from the streets of America so it seems odd to see so many.

Last day of our trip we went back to Rio on the same little bus. As with everything else our hosts had it all sorted ahead of time. We made our way on a second bus (The first one being too small to make the turns) up to an overlook affording some pretty amazing views of the city.copy18 From there is was a short ride to yet a third bus that took us up to Corcovado and the statue of Christ the Redeemer… which was completely obscured by clouds. My understanding is that the views of the city from the base of the statue are quite breathtaking, and the statue is a stunning Art Deco masterpiece. However, we were lucky to get a glimpse of it even standing at its base. The statue was constructed in the late 1920’s and is nearly 100 feet tall.copy19 It is quite a climb even after the van ride up the mountain, but there are elevators for those unable to handle steps.

copy20From there was made our way back down to an intermediate bus that returned us to the one with our luggage on it. We drove through the city to Sugarloaf Mountain.  Sugarloaf is a massive monolith sitting just on the edge of Guanabara Bay. We took a cable car ride first to Morro da Urca, a lower peak with a large surface area that houses static displays of the older model cable cars, shops, and a restaurant & bar. There is a short nature walk, and the peak is inhabited by grey and white Marmosets.copy21 A second cable car carries you to the peak of Sugarloaf, 1,299’ above the sea. The view from the peak is pretty amazing. Almost all of the city is visible, including the long arc of the Copacabana off to the southwest. You can look down on jetliners taking off from Santos Dumont Airport on the bay.

From there it was back to the bus, back to the airport, and back to the U. S. of A. We landed in Houston at 5:30 in the morning and honestly, had I known no one was even going to be there to look at my bag I would have purchased a lot more Cuban cigars.

Take good care.

© 2013 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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