Date of trip: June 10, 2016 - June 19, 2016
It would be a ridiculous attempt–perhaps insane–to try and summarize all that we experienced in our trip to Rio de Janeiro, a city of more than 6 million people. I thought just maybe I could get it all down before we left–the stories, history lessons, and the politics–all the good with the bad. But there’s no fucking way. Rio de Janeiro is a beast as the 7th largest city in the Americas, and it’s a big, sticky, hot mess. And as much as my heart wants to share every bit of it here, I will resort to advising you to visit your local library, or consider experiencing it yourself. As for here and now, I’ll do my best. Because despite the ugly truths of the city, it’s a tropical and urban wonderland that is impossible not to love.
Rio is a land of beaches, mountains, beautiful sunsets, football, volleyball, steak, dried meats, pastels (deep fried pastries filled will meat and cheese) and Coxinha (doughy, fried meat pockets), seafood, starch (batatas fritas, potato chips, yucas, tapioca, farofa, rice–yea), açaí, passion fruit, small delicious bananas, orange cakes, and every other imaginable kind of cake. It’s a land of ginormous butterflies, fishermen, policemen in small cars, noisy motor taxis, fast drivers on narrow roads, stray cats and dogs, caipirinhas, palm and capirona trees, portuguese tiled sidewalks, and street art known as Pichação meaning “wall writings.” Oh, and don’t forget all the sugar, cold beer, favelas, Brazilian bikinis and sungas, sarongs and havaianas, samba, carnival, dancing, small bars with tables spilling out onto sidewalks to accommodate the whole neighborhood at 4:00am.
São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro is a land of millions of gorgeous people, called cariocas. They speak Portuguese, which doesn’t sound like Spanish though we hear it’s quite similar. Carioca people look nothing alike. Some are velvety dark with African or Middle Eastern decent, while others are lighter skinned, freckled and blonde. And those in between are dark skinned with silvery eyes, and the most beautiful people we have ever seen. It was difficult to know who was Brazilian and who wasn’t, not only because the carioca ethnic origins are so vast but also because we couldn’t differentiate the languages being heard. Despite the language barrier, which definitely took its toll on us, we picked up the common phrases such as yes (sim, pronounced seeng), thank you (obrigado/a, pronounced oh-brig-ado), and bill (a conta, pronounced Ah-kon-tah). I’m embarrassed to say that is all we attempted. We happily used gestures over taking out our travel books. Some people laughed with us as we twisted our tongues in foreign ways, but many stared blankly and unamused.
The scope of our lens narrowed, on the other side of the divide, we saw the gritty, the dire, the real Rio. And not all of it by any means, but enough to see and acknowledge the “intergalactic chasm” (I’m quoting Anthony Bourdain) between the rich and the poor. Rio has one of the worst income inequalities of the world’s 20 largest economies according to the Gini Coefficient, the most commonly used measure of inequality. “Your city has many walls,” I said to our tour guide after climbing Morros Dois Irmaos, a mountain overlooking different parts of the city. “We call it the city of walls,” he replied, looking out over the Rocinha favela and the mansions beyond it. Property management? Safety? Political reasons? Surely there are more reasons. Contributing to the divide, poor public transportation leads to long travel times and costs that add up, hindering many living in poorer neighborhoods from jobs and resources necessary for moving up the social ladder.
And as for the Olympics affecting Rio de Janeiro, many are concerned about public money being spent on Olympic venues, ones that will likely go unused like those from events such as the 2007 Pan American Games and the 2014 World Cup. Those living in favelas near the Olympic building sites are either being paid off to leave so their homes can be destroyed for construction or they are remaining in order to protest against the city for using the Olympics to cater to the wealthy, as it’s historically been. And though the city anticipated establishing its public transportation system to accommodate the crowds, (both subway and train), much of these systems are still well under construction–only a month before the games begin.
From what I’ve read, the Olympics will be happening in Rio, whether the city is ready or not, and whether it is up to the standards of the International Olympic Committee–oh, and the expectations of the rest of the world and it’s athletes. If you’re interested in reading more about how the soon approaching Olympic games are affecting Rio and it’s most vulnerable populations, this article provides a great explanation.
But alas, as the conversation about the state of Rio is long and complicated, I already said I wouldn’t bother delving into uncharted territory. What I do know, and Chris as well, is that we fell in love with an energetic, vibrant, and most definitely resilient city. We cannot wait to share it with you. May the storytelling unfold…
- Day 1: Madison, Wisconsin 🙁
- Day 2: Flight to Rio, Parque das Ruínas/Santa Teresa, Botanical Gardens, Parque Lage, Lagoon Rodrigo de Freitas, ate at Bar do Mineiro
- Day 3: Largo do Boticário, Christ the Redeemer, walk along Ipanema Beach, Jockey Club Brasileiro, ate at Espírito Santo
- Day 4: Buzios
Looking for tips? Check out our 13 tips for traveling to Rio de Janeiro.
Our hopes were so high. That’s the only way I can start this story. Even I, Ali Leis, was excited and wasn’t afraid to show it. We happily boarded the light rail as we always do, getting to the airport early to avoid the lines. We went right through security and sat happily, dining at our own Minneapolis French Meadow Bakery. We skipped (not really) to our gate, looking outside as we took the moving walkway. “I hope we leave before the storm hits.” Chris of course had looked at the weather. But from what I could see out the windows nothing was the matter. The sky was dreary but definitely not ominous. We giggled as we ate our candy, purchased from the airport vending machines, and waited for barely 20 minutes before boarding.
Our small connecting plane had only two seats on each side of the aisle, and the ceiling was just inches above my head. How are the tall people fitting through here? The pilot came through to announce our short flight from Minneapolis to Madison, Wisconsin was to take just 35 minutes. The story of our debacle started at the point when the pilot returned to the intercom to announce lightning had been spotted, and we’d need to wait to hear back for clearance. How long could that take? Before I could become worried, the pilot said, “Well, that was fast. We’re good to go.” The passengers around us lightly cheered and collectively returned to reading their magazines and waiting.
The pilot’s voice again announced that due to weather and the delays involved, we would need to wait for take off. After we pulled away from the gate, he then said we would need to circumvent the storm, heading south to Dubuque, Iowa, and back north towards Madison. In order to do so, we would need to refuel. But in order to do that, we would have to wait for the plane that had pulled in after us to board, or find another gate to refuel at. The pilot continued to return to the intercom, giving us updates on the myriad of complications. Eventually, we were able to pull into the gate and get refueled. In this time, Chris watched on his Delta App as our Madison, WI to Atlanta, GA flight started to board. Our flight and layover were only to have taken a little over an hour. Instead of keeping to time, we were already about an hour and half behind, and knew even before take off that we wouldn’t make our next flight. A child behind us was screaming to be allowed to take her shoes off, the man next to us was visibly angry about the wait, and we just sat there watching our Delta app as our supposed-to-be next flight to Atlanta went from “boarding” to “in-flight”.
The pilot came on to give his final report that our reroute to Debuque would not be taking 35 minutes, but instead an hour and a half. I hated every second of that flight, feeling the angst of the man next to me, and looking at the Delta route maps in the seat back pockets in front of me. Madison, WI was barely on the map. Why the heck were we connecting in Madison, anyways?? And worst of all, Atlanta was the only place flying to Rio de Janeiro. The stress of knowing we wouldn’t be making our flights and potentially missing hours if not a whole day of our trip made my flight anxiety even worse.
When we finally arrived, we were two hours late into Madison. Chris reminded me, “Expect the worst, but hope for the best.” Getting off the plane felt like an eternity. All I wanted was to see if any other flights were leaving for Atlanta that night. Standing in front of the screen of departures, we saw nothing. I stood in line for customer service, while Chris phoned a Delta representative to re-book our flight to Atlanta.
For better or worse, we weren’t the only ones in a pickle. Because our flight had been delayed, flights returning to Minneapolis and other connections were also delayed. As I stood in line trying to cope with the idea of needing to stay in Madison for much longer than expected, Chris mouthed to me from his phone, “24 hours”. The next plane leaving for Atlanta was the next day at noon. We were fucked.
The next 30 minutes taught us something certainly valuable. As we watched the small woman behind the Delta kiosk try holding off a verbally irate businessman flanked by three other men, we watched in awe. And we softened. The anger I felt for our unexpected changes came out of the man’s mouth and flew in the face of the woman. It was one of those moments where you come to terms and are able to articulate a lesson learned: sometimes when you observe others act poorly, you learn what not to do. We looked at each other and knew we would behave.
When the man was done trying to get more than a “sorry” from the woman, she kindly asked how she could help us. We calmly explained our flight had left without us. We confirmed we had two seats on the next day’s flight thanks to the Delta representative we phoned. We just wanted to ask her for hotel recommendations. And….we were sorry for the man’s behavior.
“That’s okay,” she said, “It’s been a hard day.” She said it tiredly as she typed on her computer, trying to find us our tickets to print. Her name tag read “Phen”. I told Phen it was poor of the man to take his anger out on her, despite understanding his frustration. Phen was sorry we had missed our flight, and helped us until we had our baggage back, a Comfort Inn to call, and boarding tickets for the next day. When we parted, she said she would see us the next day (it’s a very small airport), and we were her “new best friends”.
We ended up getting a cheap room at the Comfort Inn thanks to a Delta “distressed traveler” discount. The hotel was even able to shuttle us to and from the airport. The shuttle driver arrived promptly after we called, and we were on our way. Our driver, a middle-aged man with peppered hair and a heavy accent apologized for our situation. His voice was deep, cheery, and sincere. “Welcome to Wisconsin!” During the ten minute ride to the hotel, we learned our driver was from Yugoslavia and had come to Wisconsin 20 years prior to avoid the war. He liked living in Wisconsin, preferring the space over a crowded city.
That night we found ourselves sitting across the street from Comfort Inn at the bar of TGIF, sipping on hard alcohol and slightly laughing at the irony of our situation. We traded a Brazilian Boteco with caipirinhas for a chain restaurant in Wisconsin. It grew even more ironic as the storm that had originally stalled our trip blew over the restaurant. And again when my best friend messaged me from a Brazilian steakhouse back in Minneapolis. We drank fast. Despite our hiccups, we were grateful to have a comfortable room near the airport.
In the morning we were able to take our time and walk to a breakfast joint called Perkins. Thankfully, the rest of the day went smoothly. We boarded in Madison on time and Phen was there to send us down the jetway. We got to Atlanta in no time and ate Qdoba. We waited around at the gate for four hours, trying to ignore the TVs blaring CNN and scrolling on our phones. We boarded our plane on time, got comfortable, watched a movie, ate dinner, and slept almost the whole way there.
When the morning came and with one hour to go, the cabin crew served us breakfast as we excitedly looked down over Brazil. From high above, the earth looked bumpy all over, with scattered towns. As we got closer to Rio de Janeiro, the mountains grew larger, greener, and the city came into view. The plane lowered to the city, landing on an island that houses the airport. Our seven day adventure in Rio was finally beginning. LET’S GO!
At the doors stood our taxi driver, Marco, with a sign saying “Chris Chapman,” a favor provided by our gracious AirBnB host. We smiled and waved, he shook our hands and gave us a warm welcome. As we drove off, he asked about our Portuguese. “We think we know how to say thank you.” And that’s all. He tried giving us some pointers, explaining that if we knew some Spanish, we’d get by. On our way to the Santa Teresa neighborhood, I sat in the backseat hearing the mumbles of the men and watching out the window. It was our first view of South America. It was precisely as we had imagined. Or was it? What the fuck did we know? We just knew it was beautiful.
Marco drove us past the carnival stadium seats, conspicuously sitting in the middle of the city and gated off. The car jumped and rumbled as we started up the cobblestone hills of the Santa Teresa neighborhood. Surely Marco would slow down now that we were inches from the tiny sidewalks, parked cars, and other drivers. But our small car sped up the windy roads, narrowly avoiding side swiping cars and people. This wasn’t Minneapolis anymore. And he wasn’t slowing down. After the 30 minute drive, we pulled up to a big home with a brick wall and a wrought iron gate. A petite woman stood behind the gate smiling at us. Jennifer welcomed us as we got out, gave Marco our thanks and pay. She showed us around our living space, an open, airy level underneath her family’s home. We had big windows overlooking a patio, garden, and the city below. A hammock stretched across the middle of the room underneath the windows. We had a sitting area with books about Rio and a kitchenette area for making coffee and tea.
Jennifer excused herself after giving us tips about the city, how to get around and where to go. We were thankful for her help, but couldn’t wait to lay down and just sleep. After resting, we set out to explore some of the nearest city. On our way through the home’s street gate, I heard the sounds of children playing coming from inside the family’s home. With their front door wide open, we could see their bright, spacious home and their children playing on the wooden floors in the living space. Jennifer’s husband, Helcio, greeted us asking us where we were off to. We took his advice and headed down a block to the Parque das Ruínas, a public park that houses an old mansion once owned by a socialite. The ruins are now utilized as an art gallery and cultural center for community events and overlooks Guanabara Bay.
Grabbing a coffee and snack at the cafe on site proved a bit challenging, and our first of many exchanges made difficult by our lack of Portuguese. I ignorantly assumed there would be at least some English posted under under the Portuguese words. But there wasn’t. At least not here. We pointed and shrugged as we tried to communicate. We sat overlooking part of the city, and a petite cat meowed at our feet as we ate our coxinha. A sign had said not to feed the cats because they might bite, so I ate quickly and danced around her, anxious for being so cruel to ignore her little hungry cries but also in fear that she may bite me (a family cat has ruined it all for me, and you know who you are, cat….you know).
We left and wandered around the neighborhood of Santa Teresa. In the wise words of Anthony Bourdain, it is “the most magical neighborhood up the mountain. Climbing cobblestone streets, the charming artfully shabby, architecturally fascinating, cool part of town…(with) fantastical edifices that look down on the city below from a collection of mad spires and cupolas…100 years ago it was Rio’s Beverly Hills. Today it’s Bohemian, recovering from decades of neglect.” Thank you, Mr. Bourdain, for your words. I quote him from his No Reservations, Rio De Janeiro episode of course.
We followed the narrow, crumbling sidewalks, passing grand mansions that had sunken and blackened with time. We tripped on the cobblestone as we walked with our chins up looking at the details of the homes. Graffiti was everywhere–the homes, cement walls, and utility posts. We went in and out of artisan stores, passing children playing hide and seek on the sidewalks and behind parked cars.
Realizing we had plenty of time to soak up the intricacies of this place another day, we took an Uber to the other side of the city to see the Botanical Gardens and Parque Lage, two tropical, dreamy parks with dinosaur trees, toucan Sams, and everything that is green and beautiful in this world.
An Uber? Yes. We were regretfully bashful and unsure of how to travel around the city, though we knew Rio had a useful underground and taxi system. We opted for Uber our first day, promising ourselves that on day two or three we wouldn’t be weary of the Portuguese subway signs.
After walking around the parks and then Lagoon Rodrigo de Freitas, we sat on the steps of a church and called an Uber. My feet hurt from the miles and it was dark at this point. Even so, the church doors were open for those who wanted to enter and pray. We hadn’t yet figured out how to type in our address into the Uber app, as it didn’t seem to be registering our address. Instead, Chris typed in a common square in our neighborhood that we could walk home from.
Eventually, our uber driver arrived. An older woman sat in his front seat. Mom’s along for the ride? Okay. It felt good to sit in the Uber and watch the city lights stream past our windows. Eventually the older woman left the car, and it dawned on us he was doubling up on riders, which saved him time and us money. He then picked up a younger woman and started up the hill towards Santa Teresa. After a while it seemed he was going to drop her off first, and when he stopped and spoke, as if we were to get out, we knew there was a misunderstanding. We tried explaining that this wasn’t the address we wanted. We tried pointing to our book and our phones, showing him the spot we wanted. He drove around back and forth, with us in the back seat unsure of how to help or what to say. Luckily, the young woman in front was able to tell us that his phone wasn’t registering the square. When we suggested just walking, she said to stay in the car as it wasn’t safe to get out. But we just saw women and children coming out for the evening and greeting others. How was it unsafe? We surely trusted her but were now questioning our judgment.
We sat there, unsure of what to say, what to do, how to help, and getting increasingly anxious. The driver drove back and forth, fumbling with his phone, speaking with the woman, and sighing deeply. We felt terrible. Eventually, Chris figured out how to type in our address–Uber doesn’t register “street” in Portuguese, which is “Rua”. But it does register “R.”. At this point, however, our drivers internet wasn’t working so the woman suggested again we order another Uber, and then she would drop us off somewhere “safe”. After dropping us off, our new uber driver was able to take us straight to our front door. WHAT?! It was such an unnecessary debacle, of which was no one’s fault. I bit all my nails during that taxi ride. We were spent, and so happy to have had the help of the woman and the patience of the driver. Lessons learned? Be gracious and be kind when others cannot speak your language. It’s more frightening for them than it is annoying for you.
We capped off our evening with a late dinner–8:00pm is late for us, not Brazilians–at the famous Bar do Mineiro in Santa Teresa to enjoy for our first time feijoada, a traditional Brazilian black bean, pork, and beef stew served with rice, greens, and farofa. We drank passion fruit batidas based on our server’s suggestion, and though we didn’t prefer the fruit bits and seeds in our drink, we didn’t want to be the tourists who hold their nose and push their drink away. We gulped down as much fruit pulp as possible, and likely looked just as silly getting seeds lodged in our straws. Despite the days hiccups, our bellies were full of contentment and appreciation. And delicious Brazilian cuisine. And fruit pulp.
The next morning, our second day in Rio, we were bent on making a plan. Which sounds typical Ali and Chris, right? True. But because our trip came after such a busy time in our lives, we hadn’t done much forethought. We had enjoyed punting the day previous, but were set on being deliberate and avoiding any more transportation debacles. “We underestimated the size of this place,” Chris said. “We should have learned more Portuguese,” I said.
We sat at the kitchen table and planned our day. When we left, Helcio and his two curly haired children were leaving the house. He walked with us, the children on scooters, down the hill to the square. He was pleased with the plans we had made and was excited for us to see more of the city. He asked us how we were getting around. After sharing our Uber story–of the first man who got lost many times on the way to the gardens and the second who couldn’t find the square–he said their Uber drivers typically do not know the city streets as well as experienced taxi drivers. But taking a taxi meant we had to verbalize to the driver where we were going! So we developed a plan to write down the names of places we were going and showing the drivers. It worked and we had no problem getting to the tram station to visit Christ the Redeemer.
Before taking the tram up the Corcovado mountain to see Christ the Redeemer, we sought out some history. A short walking distance away from the tram station was to be an old square, Largo do Boticário, according to my handy travel book (of which I am not ashamed of unless I’m actually seen with it). Within the square sit brightly painted, intricately tiled, Portuguese colonial houses that date back to early 19th century, one of which housed an apothecary (boticário) to the royal family. We entered a narrow and quiet alley and saw no one–was this it?
The alley crossed over the Rio Carioca (Carioca River). We peered down over the shallow, polluted river and saw steps made of stone jutting out from the top of the river wall to the bottom. In front of us was the prettiest façade we had ever seen with white and blue tiles, and colorful paint, faded and peeling. There were intricate wooden shutters, clay tile roofs, and galleries. Moss and other vegetation hung from the doorways. The weeds weaved within the wrought iron railings and grew out of the windows and doors as if growing through the foundation itself–“This looks straight out of Jumanji”, said Chris. A disco ball hung still in the second floor middle window, and bed sheets draped over the window’s balcony. Next to the building and behind a big metal gate, an empty pool sat in an overgrown garden, a forest of trees just beyond it. A cop car sat quietly with it’s red lights flashing in the corner of the plaza. We wanted to spend more time there, getting closer to the details of the buildings, but the cop continued to sit and watch us. We hesitantly left, turning around to see a woman in a far left window, her forearms resting on the window sill as she looked out over the plaza. As we turned the corner out of the alley into the light, the sounds of the city came back to us.
Then we did a very touristy thing. We stood in line for the Trem do Corcovado (railway) to take us to the top of the Corcovado mountain in the Tijuca Forest to see Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). The statue itself was completed in the 30’s when a group of Catholics felt the city needed more Jesus. It’s true! So Catholics donated and here we are with one of the new/modern Seven Wonders of the World.
The tram ride took us through the forest, at times giving us views across the city. When we arrived, a wild monkey greeted us at the platform as it swung across the canopy. It was lunch time and we were hungry, so we opted to find a table with a view and tour the statue after lunch. We sat overlooking the beaches, cityscape, and mountains as we ate tiny finger bananas and açaí juice. After eating, we joined the masses, squeezing ourselves into small spaces to get good views of the city and the statue. One woman kneeled at the base on the statue, praying with one hand on the stone and another open to the sky. Everyone else was taking selfies.
When we soaked up enough of the sun and the truly panoramic views, we took the tram down the mountain and then a taxi to Ipanema beach. This is where one of our tips may come in handy: do not take a taxi in which the meter is turned off. Often times in touristy areas, taxi drivers will stand outside their cars and ask you if you need a ride. We suggest walking further away and hailing a different taxi. If you accept the offer from the bidding taxi driver, make sure he or she turns on their taximeter. We were way over charged for our 2 mile drive because his meter was never turned on, making it easy for him to upcharge. Once at the beach, we expected to see somewhat of a party. But it was lonely. The weather had turned and it was cloudy and windy. We walked a bit along the stone boardwalk and then entered the Ipanema neighborhood to find me a sweater. We ate cake along the way, because duh.
Earlier in the day, we had planned to stay in the area and then head to, obviously, the horse racing tracks (Jockey Club Brasileiro). Chris had read about the track and wanted badly to see what it was about. So we walked REALLY far to the Gávea neighborhood and eventually found the grand, colonial entrance to the tracks. It was fairly quiet with few people around. Was it open? As we approached, we saw a man dressed in a suit and tie sitting at a table at the end of a red carpet leading into the building. He motioned for us to enter through a side gate towards the stands. Where were the people? More importantly, where were the bathrooms? We walked through a short tunnel to face the tracks and turned to see the grandstands. There were only a few men sitting high up in the stands, quietly talking to one another. The track was empty. There was no music and no active monitors. I sat on the first bench I could find, happy to rest my feet. Chris sat next to me. In silence we looked out over the empty track. A cat nibbled on the grass around the track, and in the distance we could see the Christ the Redeemer (as we could from almost anywhere in the city) and Dois Irmãos (Two Brother Hills).
Where’s the booze? We found a little derby bar under the stadium with a few garden level windows looking out onto the track. It was a den of a bar with a tv in the corner, with dark wooden tables and a dark wooden bar. A few old men sat drinking beers out of tiny glasses, but like the rest of the place it was mostly empty. I was the only woman. We took a table in the corner near the window and ordered caprivodkas and cheesy bread, because if Brazil knows how to do anything, it’s how to make a strong drink and greasy, cheesy bread. We drank. Ali got drunk off of two drinks. Chris found the racecard to look over the stats. Little by little we saw the horse track come to life. The men in the bar doubled, and they yelled and cheered together at the corner TV as races started and ended. We stayed for about three races, to which Chris bet and lost, though he enjoyed the opportunity of trying to win back some money for that overpriced taxi ride. He said he wanted to keep things simple for the mutuel clerk and picked just one horse to win for each race–again–lots of gestures and really, you can’t go wrong with numbers and fingers. “4? Winner? (Nod) (thumbs up)”.
After the races, we took to the dark cobblestone streets in Santa Teresa to search of food.
Now, we like to think that we are spontaneous travelers, and while that may be true to a fine degree, I prefer to be deliberate–especially when it comes to my food. Based on reviews, we sought out a restaurant called Espírito Santo, finding a seat on the small terrace overlooking the backyards of Santa Teresa’s old mansions. I ordered my first caipirinha (because I’ve been waiting to have one ever since I saw Anthony Bourdain consume 50 in Salvador) and Chris accidentally ordered the same drink as the night before with all the seeds and pulp. All the guy wanted was some gin. Now we knew, avoid the passion fruit…
A British couple sat down at the table next to us, and it was relieving in a startling way to hear English being spoken. They laughed at me, overhearing me say something about embarrassingly butchering the beautiful Portuguese language. They could relate. I was juiced up on my drink so I asked them about their travels, and found out they had been traveling for not a week or two, but SIX months. I likely cursed in front of them in my shock and jealousy. They had been all over South America, volunteering and staying with grandmas in Paraguay, catching frogs for research, and shooing bugs, rats, and snacks away from their beds before sleeping at night (not jealous). They went further to explain what tarantula wasps are (WTF). I will spare everyone reading this. Google it if you enjoy devastatingly large bugs and all that is terrifying. Back to pleasantries, this was their last night in South America, returning to England in the morning. I was bummed they were leaving. I wanted to make friends and sightsee together. Another day.
We ate the most delicious meal of fish, tropical vegetables, grilled plantains and desert before saying farewell to our dinner mates. We walked home reflecting on how NOT hardcore we were compared to them. We had work to do….
That night we prepped ourselves and our bags. For tomorrow we were headed out of the city to explore Buzios, a seaside resort town east of the city.
Do we have everything? What are we forgetting? Don’t forget the keys and chargers. The sunscreen! We were ready for Buzios. We would only be gone for two days before returning to Rio. The morning was bright and clear as it had been, and we walked to the square and found our Uber. It was a sweet surprise when we heard our driver greet us in English. We talked the whole way to the bus station, telling him how lonely we were not speaking to others, what sights we had seen, how he learned to speak English, and then, about Buzios. All was well until we started talking about Buzios. “Aw, friends, Buzios is not good in the winter. No one is doing anything because the water is cold. Things will be closed and you won’t have anything to do.”
Chris looked back at me from the front seat. We had a brief, silent conversation using solely facial expressions. “WTF, should we stay in Rio? He’s a local, why would he be wrong? We need to hurry and decide what to do. We’re here.” We played it off like our heads weren’t spinning, and thanked the driver for his conversation and his advice as we got out of the car. We sat at the station in the dining area, drinking coffee and eating pastels. The young women at the food counter had been the first to graciously smile WITH us as we tried figuring out how to order. They even giggled at their coworker who was brave enough to try saying, “Is this to go?” She sheepishly smiled and hung her head in embarrassment, nudging her friend with her elbow. “You said it right,” I whispered to her. Maybe she knew what I meant.
Before buying bus tickets, we tried calmly listing pros and cons based on the perspective of our Uber driver. We decided to get more objective and message Jennifer, our host. On our first day she had asked that we use WhatsApp to ask her any questions at any time. The app allows for texting via the internet, allowing you to communicate with anyone in the world with the same app. Dear AT&T, Bye Felicia. As we sat there, leaning heavily on playing it safe and just staying in this massive city with promised things to see, Jennifer sent a voice message back to us essentially saying GO TO BUZIO’s. It’s worth it.
And that was that. We bought our bus tickets at the counter and waited the 45 minutes until we boarded. The ride out of town was bogged with traffic and construction. From out my window, I saw the biggest container cranes the size of skyscrapers (I swear!). Eventually, the sights of the city dissipated, and there it was–the countryside. It’s hills and mountains were dotted with cattle, horse, sheep, old homes and churches in ruins. Along the main road, towns and villages passed by with tiny huts for homes, clothes hanging to dry in the hot sun, people walking and biking on gravel roads and eating at open aired corner stores. There were countless automobile repair shops with empty hangers or overheads, whose purpose I’m still unsure of. We passed roadside stands with bananas and coconuts and ceramic shops with rows of red clay pots stacked up high on top of the red dirt of which they came. All of this and more made the trip out to Buzios worth it, even if we would arrive and want to turn around. As we neared closer, we saw more homes, more walls and neighborhoods. Eventually the villas and hotels passed by, and then the ocean. Wall after wall, villa after villa, the huge bus slowly rounded a square with a statue in the middle, dirt roads branching off in different directions, and people walking around everywhere. Eventually, we made it to where there were no more dirt roads. After about three and a half hours, the bus dropped us off, we bought our returning ticket for the next day’s evening and we set off on foot to find our hotel.
As we walked, the paved streets turned into cobblestone and the stores went from selling light bulbs and household necessities to swimsuits, flip flops, and pizza. We must be getting close, we thought. We rounded a corner and found ourselves in an open square with trees and benches. Following the map on our phone, we rounded another cobblestone street and saw the water and the palm trees a block away.
Chris, of course ahead of me, turned around with big eyes. We sped up and when we reached the light, we were standing in front of a pier at the edge of a boardwalk. The blue water sparkled from the sun, and past the floating boats in the bay were islands dotting the horizon. “Yea, this sucks,” I said. “Glad we stayed home,” Chris said.
We took the boardwalk, a stonewalk if you will, along the water’s edge. On the other side were grand hotels and restaurants nestled into a green hill with palm trees. Yes, it was touristy. But it was so naturally beautiful. We could barely stand it.
After walking no more than 10 minutes, we found our hotel with a beautiful room, dropped our things and hurried back to the water.
Up to this point in the day we had eaten two granola bars, some almonds, and a few pastels. I wasn’t sure how I was still standing. We stopped at what seemed to be a fisherman’s kitchen and bar right next the water.
Two men were repairing a brick structure and another was painting the side of the kitchen. We ordered batatas fritas (french fries) and two caipirinhas. My eyes crossed after three sips. We were the happiest of campers as we sat in between greens hills and the blue water. We kept repeating to ourselves how bad we had it. “Muy mal. Muy mal.”
After filling up on happiness, we walked along the water. Between looking out over the boats, I saw a little blowfish in the shallows! I stood and watched it as it fluttered back and forth with the waves and plucked with its tiny mouth bits from the sand. Chris eventually moved us along. We entered the heart of the shopping area, Rua das Pedras where shit gets REAL swanky and touristy. For some reason I went in and out of a couple bikini shops, because buying bikinis in America is really easy so it must be easier in a foreign country. Clearly, I bought nothing. We found a counter bar nestled in between some shops overlooking the beach. We ordered more Brazilian cocktails and listened to the grooviest playlist sporting The Temptations and Michael Jackson. We zonked out, watching the orange sun slowly set behind the silhouette of a mountain and the boats in the bay. Three men standing below us in the shallows, straggling their paddle boards and smoking something interesting. The sun eventually set, and we retrieved our sweaters and returned to the bar for one more drink.
We looked for a churrasco barbecue joint but instead opted for (again) a place Ali had heard was delicious, Taverne 67. We ate risotto and mucaka (fish stew), and giggled with our waitress when we both tried speaking the other’s language. “Mucaka means stew!” she said. We drank cold beer with dinner, and though we had intentions of going out to experience the nightlife of Buzios, Chris appeased me when I suggested we slowly walk towards home. He obliged.
We walked the length of boardwalk and sat on a bench outside of an open air restaurant with live music. A woman and a man with an acoustic guitar sat on stools and sang some American song from the 80’s. Chris started stargazing, wondering about the constellations in this sky, commenting on a shooting star. We sat there being lulled by the music and the waves underneath us. A wooden fisherman’s boat rocked in and out with the waves, it’s bamboo poles rolling around inside. Barnacles clung to the boat’s underbelly and sides.
Chris took the wooden steps down to the sand and water. He stood there looking at the dark ocean, still able to see the black shapes of the anchored boats from the glow of a distant northern city. When I could no longer keep my eyes open and keep my body upright, we walked back to our room. I imagine we slept with images of dirt roads, batatas fritas, and waves in our dreams.
Read more about our ocean excursion in Buzios, our hike through the urban Tijuca forest, and our independent tour through the Vidigal neighborhood and favela in our last 4 days of the trip, which can be viewed in “Part 2”, here.
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