Saturday, August 22, 2009
South America trip – July 30 to August 11, 2009
7/30 – Excitement at the airport on our way out – the NTSB agents stopped Richard’s backpack and called someone over to inspect it, as we’re both wondering what’s going on. They pull out the big jar of peanut butter we were bringing to my niece Hannah and tell us that it’s a paste, you can’t carry more than 3 oz of any given paste. Or put it in checked luggage, except we’re traveling with only carryon luggage. So the agents confiscate the peanut butter. I couldn’t even convince them to give the PB to the xray guy (a former student of mine) – they had to throw it away, the big jar of crunchy PB.
Yup, that’s right, they busted the peanut butter.
7/31 – Long overnight flight, arrived in Rio about 6 AM, managed to get through Customs okay and Richard went out for a smoke while I arranged a taxi at the stand – and the very nice lady assisting me poured me a tiny cup of her very sweet and very strong coffee – a nice gesture, I guess I looked kind of groggy.
It was a grey and soggy morning in Rio, grey and drizzly. Our driver gave us an overview of Rio as we drove through, with huge solid rock hills surrounding the city and jutting up at crazy angles, and tunnels blasted through the center. Sad sad slums/shanties (called favelahs in Portuguese) apparently run by the local drug lords. Turns out Rio has a major economic problem, with very little social welfare assistance, poor people living on the streets, tons of homeless kids whose families have sent them out (too many kids at home?), and a very fatalistic attitude from the people who are well off. We kept asking people (hotel and restaurant staff, our friends, tour guide, etc) why no one was helping these desperately poor or homeless people, and the responses were almost like the caste system of India – karma, their choice, etc. Just depressing for us, especially when hanging out in the two most pricey sections of Rio: Copacabana and Ipanema.
Anyhow, we got to our hotel in Copacabana (bordering on a slum, our friend told us to not go more than two or three blocks up the street – maybe why we saw so many people begging or sleeping on the street) – hotel was very nice considering how affordable it was. We were early, so we left our luggage and went out for a walk and some breakfast.
The beach boardwalk, sidewalks, and boulevard dividers all were fabulous stone mosaics in black, white, and brick red – natural stone cut into cubes and arranged in undulating intersecting waves, geometric patterns and designs like the artist Miro. Very cool. We later found out that Ipanema has a different design, another one in Leblon (neighborhood to the north) – and that it’s essentially one long continuous mosaic, making it probably the largest (longest) continuous mosaic in the world!!! Of course I took tons of photos of the mosaics – also mosaic benches. Just wonderful.
The beach has golden sand, a little coarse compared to our powdery white Caribbean sand, but still a beautiful beach with huge crashing waves (and crazy surfers in the cold grey rain).
We wandered along Avenida Copacabana, got some café con leche and a bit of breakfast (neither of us knew what we were ordering, and what we got wasn’t great).
Eventually our room was ready, we settled in, and called our friend Aviva who used to live in St. Thomas but now is in Rio, where much of her extended family lives. We met up, hung out, and ended up having Sabbath dinner with her and the family – about 25 people, four generations, from her much older brother to the great grandson who is maybe 2 yrs old. Conversation was in Hebrew, Portuguese, English, and French (Aviva’s mother was French) – food was a mix of kosher dairy, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, and Brazilian – and Richard and I both felt like part of the family. There’s something about being in a crowd with similar songs and prayers and blessings over the food, in familiar language, with everyone talking at once and laughing and eating nonstop, that is just so familiar and part of the extended family events we grew up with – so crazy as it was, it was also wonderful.
8/1 – Started our day with a long walk along the boardwalk and beach of Copacabana, still huge crashing waves and blue green grey water, warming sun but high clouds and a light blue sky – Winter in Rio. Wonderful sand castles sprayed with some fixative so they last from day to day – incredible sculptures created with more patience than I would have. We browsed a vendor’s market, eyed the military police complete with dogs and Kevlar vests, and pretended we could speak Spanish or Portuguese. We even saw two “macacas” – tiny squirrel-sized monkeys up in a tree – or maybe some animal halfway between a monkey and a lemur – hard to say, but tiny with little scrunched up humanoid faces, huge eyes, and long striped tails. Just too cute!
Lunch with Aviva, a little free time, then dinner with only 15 people at Aviva’s niece & nephew’s house – Rina and Ely – both of whom I’d met before in Israel. Richard and I left early (9:30 PM) to go to a café with a Beatles tribute band, which turned out to be so-so, but it was nice to hear old favorites – until they started with a Herman’s Hermits tune (how many of you remember them???) and we left – by then it was midnight, which seemed like a good time to return to our hotel.
8/2 – We walked in the opposite direction, to Ipanema and along the boardwalk there (with a different design in the mosaic sidewalk), to a weekly arts fair (referred to as the “Hippie Fair”). We browsed arts and crafts, and for a change Richard did the buying and I bought just one shirt. Amazing. There were some beautiful things, and we had a great time talking to the vendors – I think our favorite couple was the man whose mother was Italian and father was Angolan (so I gave him my few phrases of Italian) who had served with the UN peacekeeping forces in Gaza (so Richard chatted with him in Hebrew) who is married to a Brazilian Jewish woman. Just interesting people.
We found a little Italian café, where I had an amazing sandwich – ciabatta bread with melted brie, apricot jam, and almonds – OMG, what a taste sensation in my mouth! Incredible! (Richard had gelato, since they were a “gelateria” – what a great kind of a business!) We sauntered back to Copacabana, watching people and the water and more sandcastles. And we had my pre-birthday dinner at a local Italian place, which was having a porcini mushroom festival – so I had fabulous shrimp and porcini in a black truffle sauce over spaghetti – amazing!!!!!
8/3 – Had a relaxing birthday morning, then went on a JeepTour (not really a Jeep, it was an open-air taxi pickup Chrysler) of old Rio, and we were the only tourists so we had this huge vehicle to ourselves and the guide and the driver – we went to the old palace and various municipal buildings and chatted with our tour guide, a German man who married a Brazilian and lived in Rio. We learned about the history of Brazil and the various buildings and neighborhoods we visited, as I admired the sculpture, architecture, and tiles – and of course took lots of photos. Then we drove through Santa Teresa, the fancy pricey neighborhood on a hill overlooking the city, with huge mansions and monkeys running through the forest on top (I saw some jumping from branch to branch, too far away to see what kind other than they were little guys, maybe macacas, maybe capuchins – yeah, like I know my monkeys!).
Aviva made arrangements for us to go to the Plataforma, a Carnival and capoeira and samba show – it told the history of Brazil in dance, with costumes that, well, were basically thong bikinis with glitter and feathers (just like Carnival here in St. Thomas). My favorite part was the capoeira – it was originally an African-Brazilian martial art developed by slaves of African descent, which became a fast-paced dance with alternating kicks and punches (to keep it secret from the slave owners) – and seems to be very much the basis of breakdancing. Very muscular guys doing flips and kicks and spinning on the floor – how can that be bad? All the while with drums and music in the background. We had a great time – Richard wanted to adopt a few of the young women dancers – and I want to come back in a future life and be a Brazilian dancer. (There was also flamenco-style tap stomp dancing, and an adorable young guy doing this thing with bolos and gaucho boots stomping in rhythm – absolutely incredible.)
8/4 – We took the subway to the Cultural Center of the Banco de Brasil – easy subway trip, with two great painted tile murals in our nearby subway station. The Cultural Center had an exhibit of Russian paintings circa 1900-1930 – some very interesting, some very depressing (very Siberian!), some by artists we’d never heard of, some by Chagall or Kandinsky. There were a few very powerful pieces – “German War” rivaled Picasso’s “Guernica” in showing the horrors of war – and there were a few we just stood in front of and took it all in.
We walked crosstown to the Maritime Center (literally the Museum of the Marina) and the docks, relaxed and wandered around a bit. We walked by the National History Museum, which had a beautiful display of the development of the flags of Brazil. Eventually got back to our hotel (after taking 45 minutes to find the subway stop near where we were – took forever to find it!) – and took a taxi out to Leblon, where we had dinner at a fabulous little restaurant, Zuka – I had duck in a honey thyme sauce, and Richard had his third burger of the day. (The hotel, which includes breakfast, has burgers as a meat at the breakfast buffet each day. Yup, scrambled eggs, bacon, tropical fruit, and burgers. I avoided both the burgers and the mango, and focused on the papaya and croissants.)
8/5 – Aviva and Ely, her nephew, picked us up and toured us around the outskirts of Rio – we took a 14 km bridge across the bay to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which looks like a flying saucer sitting on a pedestal, and has great views looking back to the city (as well as some wonderful and some weird modern Brazilian art). Headed further south to quaint fishing villages (one has a tuna cannery) and way south to a fort, which is still a military installation but also has great views from the cliffs (and a lovely garden). We headed inland and skirted around the bay and the city, into the hills – and eventually hit Rio Brasa, the churrascaria, for lunch. If you haven’t had churrasco – it’s the meat grilled on swords, which the waiters carry around and slice chunks onto your plate. There are also tables and tables of salads, breads, cheese, as well as side dishes brought to the table, and piles of shrimp – but most people go for the beef and lamb (which were wonderful) and sausage (I skipped that) and chicken (I was stuffed by now) and pork (skipped that too). You get little coasters to put next to your plate – green for “yes more meat” and red for “no, stop, I’m stuffed!” – although even with the red side up, waiters wanted to give me more and more and more. I’ve developed a very Latin wave of “no” from this experience. It was sort of like a beef Thanksgiving – way too much food, but totally wonderful.
We waddled out after coffee (and strawberries for me, and brownies for Richard), and drove north to a park outside the city, again with great panoramic views over the hills and beaches. Clouds were rolling in over the hills, rain was coming, it was getting chilly. We drove along the coastal road and eventually made it back to our hotel, with a few stops along the way.
8/6 – We flew from Rio to Montevideo, Uruguay and then to Santiago – on Pluna Airlines, which we never heard of but turned out to be a nice airline. Modern planes with a very cool tessellated bird design on the tail of the planes, not too full so Richard and I were able to each get two seats so we could spread out a bit. No free drinks or anything, but a menu with not too bad prices, considering. We arrived in Santiago at 9:30 PM, got a taxi which eventually found our hotel (I could see why it was hard to find, located on a street tucked behind a park, almost more of an alley than a street. Turned out the hotel never received our online reservation, and didn’t have a single free room – so after about an hour, the night manager called around and made arrangements for us to stay at an apartment/hotel that they are affiliated with. He gave the directions to the taxi driver, we got over there about midnight – and couldn’t figure out how to get the heat turned on. We also only had single beds. So Richard and I each snuggled under a pile of blankets, with our clothes on, and tried not to freeze in what felt like sub-zero weather.
It was quite a night.
8/7 – We found a taxi and went back to the hotel from the night before for breakfast, settled our bill, chatted with the main manager, Mauricio, who was very nice and apologetic about all the confusion of the night before. We were okay with it, things happen when you travel – it’s part of the adventure. We found another taxi who drove us through Santiago, seeing the snow-capped Andes in the distance, and all sorts of gorgeous old buildings along the way – We eventually got to the bus terminal and paid for tickets to Valparaiso, getting the seats the agent described as “panoramica” – front row seats with a great view. (We were on the Condor busline! Cool! They even had blankets on the bus, so I bundled up in one – it was sunny but about 40 degrees in there!)
We had a lovely drive across the country – mountains, hills, tunnels through a bunch of the hills, vineyards, flowering trees, then the ocean and Valparaiso.
My niece Hannah met us at the bus station in Valpo, big hugs all around, and walked us to our hotel where we dropped our stuff. The people in her house (the Heart's Home volunteers) had planned a lunch for us, so she took us there, showed us around, introduced us to everyone. They're a group of volunteers, young and earnest and fresh-faced (the way we used to be) and just delightful! The conversation ended up being an odd mix of Spanish, French, and English (the volunteers were from Argentina, France, Colombia, with one staff member also from Argentina) with everyone translating for each other - and Hannah, who is now very fluent in Spanish, would turn to me to say something and end up saying it in Spanish, which was very funny! They're a wonderful group of people, very caring, and of course wanted to hear about my time in the Peace Corps and Richard's time in Israel, and we felt like the old people encouraging all of them to try various things in life before settling down. Richard and I really enjoyed the wonderful welcome we received from this great group!
The three of us left mid-afternoon, and Hannah showed us around Valparaiso - some of the wonderful views (the downtown city area is a flat crescent ringing the bay, and people live on the hills surrounding the downtown, with houses built on crazy angles looking ready to tumble or slide down - and it seems as if almost everyone must have a view). We took a bus to town, wandered a bit, took an ascensor (funny little single-car tram up a steep single rail, so you don't have to walk up and down the hills - but for those of us who don't like heights or get vertigo, a bit scary because it's almost like going straight UP in a tiny glass elevator) and walked some more - lots of views, lots of pictures, and lots of arts and crafts markets (the alpaca scarves and sweaters were sooooooo soft and sooooo cheap, but who needs that in the VI?).
We eventually went somewhere for dinner, and again, we talked and talked. It was great just getting to know this niece who I don't know as well as the others, who was always the little shy contemplative one - Richard and I just enjoyed it a lot.
We went back to our hotel and just hung out for a while, then Richard walked Hannah down to the place where she caught a taxi back to their house.
Oh – one thing I forgot – there’s a huge dog population in Valpo, both owned and stray. Dogs just seem to lounge around everywhere, and people just walk or drive around them. The dogs seem friendly, and they only bark at cops on motorcycles – but Hannah said there’s a huge flea problem. I just hope we don’t collect any!
8/8 – The next morning, we met and walked down to the dock area, and saw a man with an adorable baby llama all washed and brushed and so cute and sweet and huggable! Richard and I off course had to pet it, and the man offered us the opportunity to take our photo with little baby llama – we declined, even though he was so cute it just seems so exploitive. But he had these huge dark eyes and long eyelashes and was soooooo soft!
We then made a spur-of-the-moment decision to take a boat ride around the harbor. (It was all of $30 for the three of us.) We clambered into this strange boat, the three of us in the back and a "guide" in with us, and the old captain in the cabin driving the boat. The guide went to take a photo of us just at the moment I saw a big seal sitting on a buoy - so we have a great picture of me pointing, Richard hiding behind his life vest, and Hannah just laughiing at the two of us. We puttered around the harbor, Hannah telling us about the fabulous fireworks for New Year's Eve, the guide telling us the history of the city and facts and figures - it was a gorgeous sunny day (though cold!) so we could see the bright colors of the houses, the blue blue water, two more seals sunning on a boat, the foothills and Andes in the distance - just amazing to be there! The boat ride was over too soon, and we climbed out, paid, thanked everyone, and went walking to the market.
This was the mercado, the public food market - not a supermarket, but the farmer's market and fish market - and we walked probably a mile or two to get there, wandered a bit, then went to a restaurant Hannah knew upstairs. We found a table, ordered, and relaxed over a meal. Hannah and I both had big bowls of what was called shrimp chowder - basically, tons of shrimp baked in a clay pot filled with a sauce of bread crumbs, broth, and cheese - so good, so filling, so wonderful on a cold afternoon. (Richard had a steak, what else.) Hannah chatted in Spanish with the little boy next to our table (who eventually came over and hid from his parents under our table, Hannah and I were just cracking up) - and Richard found a cat he wanted us to take home. It was a fun and a little crazy meal.
We walked back to our hotel, and Richard went to take a nap. Hannah and I took an ascensor to another part of town and wandered through more arts/crafts markets, shops, looked at murals, talked about everything from wishes and hopes to life in general. We eventually got back to our hotel - and hung out, chatting, until we decided on a place for dinner. Another walk, another ascensor, and we had a lovely meal in a little bistro overlooking the city and the rising moon. Just beautiful.
We again walked "home", and Richard took Hannah to catch her taxi.
8/9 – Hannah came over the next morning and we had breakfast - she and I were both half awake, while Richard was his usual morning self (wide awake) - she stayed with us while we finished packing, checked out, we all went to the bus terminal, and she made sure we got on the bus before she left.
We had an uneventful ride back across the country (well, half the country) to Santiago, got off at the bus terminal and found a bus to the airport, which dropped us right next to our hotel. We checked in and mostly just relaxed, napped – it had been a crazy ten days, and we were just tired. I also took photos of the Andes from our hotel – cool!!
8/10 – Early morning flight from Santiago to Montevideo to Rio (with a ton of photos flying over the Andes!). Then lots of lines at the airport to check our luggage, get our boarding passes, get on the plane – and another overnight flight back to Miami, Customs, and finally our flight back to St. Thomas – so we arrived 8/11, after about 32 hours of traveling. Tired!!!!!!!!!
So that was the trip. Very cool to be on both the east and west coasts of a new continent! It was fun, exciting, and busy, though not the adventure of last year’s trip to Costa Rica. But a wonderful vacation that, as always, was over way too soon.