February 28, 2012

Brazil Recap

We can hardly believe it, but we have already been traveling for a month and have officially moved on from our first country. It’s difficult to formulate an opinion on Brazil because we have nothing else to compare it to! Here are some parting thoughts on our time there...

Unlike the U.S. where cars pass buses, here, the buses blow past the cars…even on hills. A local once told us that any of these bus drivers could easily win a Formula 1 race, and yep, that seems about right.

On women’s bathing suits: they are as small as you would expect. Whether or not the women deserve to be wearing something that small needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis. It is tolerable to be seen in a fuller bottomed bikini, although you’ll immediately be pegged as a tourist. A one-piece bathing suit is unacceptable.

Brazilians love their Carnival! Two wonderful examples of this…
Outside of the Sambadrome in Rio, there are vendors selling jerseys for each samba school – much like you would buy a jersey for your favorite football or baseball team in the US.

And when we were in Salvador on Ash Wednesday, we watched the results for the Rio samba school competition being announced on TV. It was very reminiscent of the judging for gymnastics or figure skating at the Olympics. 13 schools, 10 categories and 4 judges per category are announced. When a school gets awarded a perfect 10, everyone goes nuts.

Our diet has mainly consisted of rice, beans, meat and fruit. We haven’t seen a vegetable in 3 weeks. Here are some of the different kinds of foods that we’ve encountered:

Feijoada – a bean and meat stew traditionally eaten on Saturdays. It's always accompanied by white rice, stringy lettuce, a powdery cornmeal and orange slices.

Pasteis Feijao – feijoada stuffed into fried ravioli-shaped pastries. We tried these at a little restaurant called Bar do Mineiro in the Santa Teresa neighborhood of Rio. People travel from all over to eat these bite sized morsels at this local’s gathering spot.

Moqueca – a bubbling seafood dish served at the table along with rice, beans, yellow cornmeal powder and shrimp paste.

Acaraje – a traditional dish in Salvador that was popular with slaves. It’s essentially a hush puppy cut in half and stuffed with shrimp paste and a tomato tapenade.

Tambaqui – a white fish from the Amazon region. When we ordered it, it was served with glazed pineapple and herbs.

Picanha – a particular cut of beef served on a skillet at your table, usually shared. Side note, Brazilians seem to call all cuts of beef “filet mignon”. Do not be fooled.

Rodizio – all you can eat. There are several different kinds, but our favorite (of course!) was pizza. We really enjoyed our rodizio pizza night in Santa Teresa while watching a soccer game on TV.

Churrasco – a rodizio restaurant where the waiters carry around different cuts of meat on huge skewers and you choose what you want at your table.

Corazcao – heart. We were cozied up at a fun pizza place watching a soccer game in Iguazu Falls. We thought we had ordered a chicken pizza, but we clearly didn’t understand the language and we ended up with chicken heart pizza. Steve gave it a small attempt. Katie was too disappointed to even try.

Salgados – in Portuguese it simply means “salties”, or in other words, anything that is “not sweet”. These are inexpensive pastries found on nearly every street corner. They are filled with various things – ground beef, ham and cheese, or chicken are the most common. We loved them!

Tapioca – this is not like the pudding in the US. It’s a white powder that is heated up and shaped into a sweet treat. We tried it two different ways. One time it resembled what a coconut rice-krispie treat would look like if such a thing existed. The taste was indescribable but somewhat reminiscent of sweet rice and was served with condensed milk sprinkled on top…yummm!!! The other time the tapioca was heated on a flat outdoor grill, a dulce de leche carmel sauce was spread in the middle, and then it was folded and served like a crepe.

Cocada – a very sugary, no-bake sort of cookie that was prevalent in Salvador. There are many different flavors and colors, but we tried the white kind – “Cocada Blanca”.

Fruits – we tried so many different kinds of fruit, that we lost track of all their names. We do remember eating a lot of banana, mango, pineapple and guava. With so much fruit in abundance, we happened across a mutant pineapple and banana.

Sucos – fruit juices served at breakfast and on almost every street corner in Rio. We tried Umbu, Cupuacu, Acerola, and Cashew. For the record, the Cashew suco was tangy and not Katie’s favorite.

Acai – we were already connoisseurs of acai in San Diego, but it was even more fun eating it in the homeland. It is much sweeter and darker in Brazil. We tried acai several different ways – the more traditional sorbet with granola in a cup, as a chutney, and out of a frozen can made into a smoothie. Katie also bought a necklace made out of dried and dyed acai berries.

Ice Cream – we sampled several flavors. The Mint Chocolate Chip was so minty that it tasted like we were eating toothpaste. Condensed Milk was pretty good, but our favorite flavor was Chantilly. Regardless, when in Brazil, it's probably better to stick with what they do best: sucos and acai.

Beach Treats – roasted corn on the cob, popcorn, sugarcane juice, and “cocos” – green coconuts with a straw to enjoy the cold coconut water inside. After you're done drinking, you break it open so that you can eat the coconut pulp. Breaking open the coco is a funny art-form that we saw accomplished with either a machete or just banging it against the ground until it opens up.

Caipirinha – Brazil’s quintessential drink. It’s made with a sugarcane rum called cachaca. We visited a cachaca tasting room while we were in Paraty. It goes down about as smoothly as drinking any other hard alcohol would. We tried chaiparinas of many different varieties – lime, pineapple, and kiwi.

Cerveja – beer! Brazilians love beer. The most common brands are Antartica, Skol, Brahma, Ipatiava and Schin. They are all very similar to a Coors Light. On a hot day, you can’t beat it!

One last impression about Brazilians and their food is that they struggle with portion control just as much as Americans. Most restaurants categorize their menus by food for 1 person or 2 people. We started out ordering for 2 and quickly learned this was a mistake.

Besides all of the animals that we saw at Iguacu National Park, we also had several encounters with…

Monkeys, about the size of squirrels. Spotted in trees and running along telephone wires.

Lots of mysterious bugs. Standard mosquitoes loved Katie. Unidentifiable Brazilian bugs, who leave behind bruises and blood blisters, loved Steve.

15 or so cockroaches and 1 dead rat.

Our first week in Rio, we “splurged” on a private room with a shared bathroom. It was a smart decision to ease ourselves into our new lifestyle, but lately we've been trying dorms. In South America, breakfast is included in the nightly rate for most hostels. Less than half of the showers have had warm water, but it’s been so blazing hot that taking cold showers has actually felt good. It’s all relative – let’s not forget that these are hostels – but our favorites so far have been The Mango Tree (Rio, Impanema) and Biergarten Hostel (Ilhe Grande).

-          -  Basing ourselves out of Ipanema while in Rio
-          -  Being on top of Sugarloaf Mountain at sunset
-          -  Meeting the artist himself, Jorge Selaron, at the Santa Teresa Steps in Rio
-          -  Eating authentic Brazilian acai
-          -  The Sambadrome
-          -  Running along the Copacabana boardwalk at dusk
-          -  Our samba lesson
   -  Watching samba musicians at Bip Bip in Copacabana
-          -  Paraty’s beautiful and romantic cobblestone streets
-          -  Ilhe Grande
-          -  Our new Carnival abadas and the camarote in Salvador
-          -  Dancing and singing with friends at the Daniela Mercury bloco at Carnival
-          -  Making wishes at the Bonfim church in Salvador
-          -  Escaping the crowds at Iguacu to enjoy the waterfalls and rainbows by ourselves
-          -  Cold beers on hot Brazilian days

We would have loved to see a soccer game in Rio, but unfortunately the schedule of the games never matched up with our social calendar!

We had the option of going on a tour to the Rochina favela with their former HOA president. It would have been more authentic (with less annoying tourists around us), but perhaps more unsafe…who knows. We choose what we thought would be the safer option, but we still wonder about that one.

We should have gone to Christ the Redeemer on a weekday. We went on a Sunday and it was just packed with people. Oddly enough, we headed straight to Sugarloaf after that and it wasn’t as crowded.

When we returned to Rio from Costa Verde, we moved neighborhoods from Ipanema to Santa Teresa. Santa Teresa is known as an artistic and charming area of the city with hilly roads and an antique yellow tram. In 2011, however, the tram derailed killing 5 people, and it hasn’t been in operation since. While still an interesting neighborhood, it was hard work walking the hills without the tram in the summer heat. A day trip to that section of the city would probably have been better than basing ourselves there.

Carnival: Rio or Salvador??? We have asked ourselves this question many times. It just depends on what kind of experience you’re after. We would have liked to see parts of Salvador when Carnival was not in full swing. Katie also loves anything and everything that sparkles, so perhaps Rio would have been more logical. Even so, we heard that Ipanema – the beach that we so loved during our time in Rio – became quite unsanitary during Carnival week. It’s a toss-up. We chose Salvador and we had fun. If we had to do it over again, we would consider going to Rio the week after Carnival instead of the week beforeskipping the dress rehearsal in favor of the Champions Parade at the Sambadrome.

We would have swapped out Trindade for more days on Ilhe Grande. One day in Paraty is all you need.

We would have done a better job of tucan-spotting at Iguacu. Bird watching was never really our thing anyway.

A common theme you’ll probably keep hearing from us is that we only wish we had more time! There are so many amazing places to visit, but we just couldn’t hit them all. If we had more time in Brazil, we would have liked to visit: Floronopolis (beach), Ouro Preto (history), Manaus (Amazon).
We have come a long way in 4 weeks! Every day is different, but when it comes to packing up our backpacks, showering or finding directions, we have a routine down.

We were excited to arrive in Argentina, but a piece of us was also sad to leave Brazil. We knew zero Portuguese when we arrived there, and we spent 3 weeks trying really hard to learn the language and the customs. Now that we’re into Spanish-speaking territory, it will be more comfortable for us, but dang…we were just getting the hang of it!

Katie has only gone on 3 runs since we left the US, but she doesn’t really miss it. We walk so much every day that we’re exhausted by the time we get home. Steve has already lost about 15 pounds.

We have been working really hard on our tans. It’s been tough work, but it’s starting to pay off. Katie has been asked if she’s Argentinean or Chilean on multiple occasions. In combination with his new sleeveless shirts and budding language skills, Steve was looking and feeling more Brazilian every day…just in time to leave!

Iguacu Falls

From Salvador, we caught a flight towards the center of South America to visit Iguacu National Park. Straight out of a storybook, this is the land of waterfalls, rainbows and butterflies.

The park straddles Brazil and Argentina – the main attraction being a canyon of 250 waterfalls with the river below acting as the international border. The canyon culminates in the largest and most famous waterfall, Garganta del Diablo or “Devil’s Throat”. The majority of the falls are in Argentina, offering very different experiences on both sides.

We started on the Brazilian side, where we were able to get a full view and appreciation of the falls complex.

A progression of viewing platforms along the canyon concludes with a walk out to the peak of the falls.

We visited during high season when the water is at its highest. A huge thank you goes out to Mother Nature for giving us a sunny day and the most perfect rainbow we’ve ever seen.

The next day we said goodbye to Brazil, crossed the border into Argentina, and didn’t look back! The Argentinean side of the park has a much more extensive trail system that winds you in and out of the waterfalls in a more personal way.

The first highlight of our day was taking a ferry to a small island in the middle of the canyon called San Martin. From here we did a short hike up to a stunning viewpoint – more rainbows and beautiful stair-step cascades.

The second highlight of our day was taking a train to the viewing platform at the top of Devil’s Throat. The force in which the water was cresting over the falls was somewhat fear-inducing. The crashed mist was shooting into the sky twice as high as the falls themselves. No man-made picture or video could ever do it justice.

We ended our day with a remote waterfall hike that less than 1% of park goers visit. This meant that the rainforest animals, including this one that I spotted, were in their comfort zones.

 We really enjoyed the wild animals of Iguacu, including: armadillos, boars, birds, monkeys and millipedes.

A more common sighting was the “quatis”, a type of raccoon that is very common on both sides of the border. They have become way too comfortable around humans.

Throughout the park we also saw catfish, ants, spiders and colorful butterflies at least 3 times bigger than we had ever seen before. The butterflies of Iguacu loved people. They would latch themselves onto your shirt or shoe and hitch a ride to wherever you were headed.

February 24, 2012

Salvador of Bahia

Salvador lies in the Brazilian state of Bahia, along the coast and north of Rio. In the 16th century, Portuguese settlers established the city, and it quickly became an important center for the sugar industry and slave trade. That legacy remains today, making Salvador the center of Afro-Brazilian culture. This resulting culture, in many ways, outshines the rest of Brazil in terms of music, literature, etc.

Salvador is known as Brazil’s capital of happiness, and the people of Bahia are known to be some of the friendliest on the planet. We experienced this first hand when friends of friends – Lazaro and Alice – picked us up from the airport, waited in long lines with us while we bought our abadas for Carnival, brought us into their home, took us sightseeing, and hosted us at their favorite restaurant on multiple occasions.

This easy-going friendliness also means that they are very laid back people. So when they say they’ll pick you up at 8:00, it often times meant 9:45…or not even at all. We went with the flow of “Brazilian time” and are leaving Salvador very grateful for all that they did for us.

Even with Carnival going on, we still tried to get out and see as many of the Salvador sites as possible. This proved to be complicated because Carnival shuts down some pretty major roads, so the bus lines don’t run like normal and traffic is horrible. Add to that the fact that people here seem to give very vague directions, and plans can quickly go sour. One day, a bus ride to the historical center that should have only taken 30 minutes, turned into a 4.5 hour nightmare.

Salvador has a very beautiful historic center called Pelourinho, with brightly colored facades and at least 7 humongous churches crammed into a compact set of cobblestone streets. One of the three Carnival circuits (a more family friendly version) parades through Pelourinho. Unfortunately, this meant that much of its pure beauty was peppered with scaffolding, barriers, portable restrooms, stages and lots and lots of people. It was fun to see all of the decorations and costumes, but we would have loved to visit Pelourinho during a non-Carnival time period.

One of the highlights of our time in Pelouinho was getting to see a demonstration of Capoeira – a mix of dance and martial art of Afro-Brazilian origin.

Another nice site we visited was a church called Igreja do Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. It’s somewhat small comparatively, but one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in all of Brazil. We visited it on a Sunday morning during a church service. Off to one side of the church is the Salon of Miracles – a room where people pay homage to medical prayers that have been answered by hanging plastic body parts from the ceiling and posting their stories with (sometimes too graphic) pictures on the walls.

Colorful ribbons are an easily recognizable symbol of the Igreja Bonfim church that are tied all around the perimeter and seen worn on wrists or shirts throughout the city. Three knots are tied, and with each knot, you say a prayer. We each tied one ribbon on the church’s gate and one ribbon on our backpacks.

We rounded out our time in Salvador with trips to the northern beaches of Piata and 
Praia do Forte. 

February 23, 2012

Carnival Part 2: Salvador

For the last week, we’ve been celebrating Carnival in Salvador – Brazil’s 3rd largest city about a 2.5 hour flight north of Rio. Carnival is celebrated all over the world, and every town in Brazil – from the largest to the smallest – seems to have some sort of celebration going on. Even though Rio de Janeiro is the most well-known internationally, if you ask a Brazilian, they’ll tell you that you must come to Salvador!

Salvador’s Carnival is a completely different version from Rio’s. In simple terms…
Rio is a parade of costumes, dancers and floats. Salvador is “the world’s largest street party”. In Rio, you are a spectator of the parade. In Salvador, you are the parade. In Rio, the festivities last 3 days. In Salvador, they last 7. In Rio, the parades are confined to the Sambadrome. In Salvador, 3 separate parade circuits nearly shut the city down.

The heart of Salvador’s Carnival is the “trio electrios”. These are big trucks, driven very slowly, loaded with thousands of watts of sound equipment, with a band playing on the top. Many of Brazil’s most famous musicians hail from Salvador, so very popular performers are in abundance. Every day, about 20 trucks parade down a circuit that’s approximately 2 miles long, from 2:30 in the afternoon until 5:00 the following morning.

There are 3 ways to participate in Salvador’s Carnival:

Camarote – VIP boxes that are built up on each side of the road along the entire circuit, allowing you to see the bands at eye-level. Normally at music festivals, spectators have to move among stages to see different performers. Here, the performers come to you. They parade right in front of you – in essence giving you front row seats to 20 different concerts. Most camarotes are all-inclusive so that you can eat and drink all day and night without having to leave. The only way into a camarote is to buy an “abada”, a specially-designed shirt that is your ticket in.

Bloco – a large area surrounding the trio electrio truck on the street-level that is contained by a rope being carried by hundreds of security guards. This allows you to follow one particular performer down the entire circuit, which takes about 5 hours. Inside the ropes, the security and the situation are reasonably organized. Like the camarotes, your ticket inside the rope is your bloco’s unique shirt.

Pipoca – the Portuguese word for “popcorn” because you get bounced around. These are the people who want to follow along with a particular performer, but they don’t want to pay to be inside the bloco ropes. They get tossed around in the small space between the bloco ropes and the camarote walls. A free-for-all in every essence of the phrase.

We wanted to experiment with all three options, so we blew our budget and bought some camarote and bloco shirts. Picking up the shirts at the mall was an adventure in itself. For being an international event, everything was incredibly overcomplicated, unorganized, and not a single person spoke a language other than Portuguese. Based on this experience, we left the mall feeling that Brazil has a long way to go before the World Cup and Olympics.

These shirts cost as much as gold, yet they have no male/female designation and they only come in one size: manly. To fix this, most girls spend even more money and take their shirts to a seamstress. Luckily one of our new friend’s next door neighbors is an abada seamstress. In a matter of minutes, she fixed both of my shirts right up for a total cost of $10.

So Steve finally got some sleeveless shirts, and I got these 2 cute little numbers…

Both good and bad, Carnival was certainly an experience. If I had to sum up Salvador’s Carnival in one word, it would be “uncivilized”. There are no trash cans and very few restrooms. Beer is cheaper than water and it’s ever present – you can find it for $0.50 per can right along the parade route. It is not pleasant to see the destruction that mankind does to this city for one week out of the year. But, I suppose it’s to be expected for a party of this size, and boy did we have fun! We owe many of our best memories to the friends that we made...

Tais & Fernanda are two Brazilian girls that we met at Camarote Oceania on Friday. They spoke perfect English and helped explain a lot of what we were seeing and hearing. We arrived at the camarote right when it opened at 2:00pm, took our position along the front row, and didn’t move until 2:00am. We got to see some of Brazil’s most popular singers very close up, including Chiclete, Timbalada, Claudia Leitte, Daniela Mercury and Netinho. It was nice to be up off the craziness of the street, just enjoying the music and drinking our caipirinhas.

Another one of our friends, Mauricio, is originally from Salvador and has been living in Los Angeles for the past 7 years. We met him at our hostel in Rio and reconnected for our Daniela Mercury bloco on Monday night. Along with his American friends Taylor and Ricky, and our new Australian friend Bella, we had an absolute blast. The six of us stayed toward the front of the ropes, giving us a little more breathing room to dance, sing, drink and samba our way down the circuit for 5 amazing hours. Wow, what a seriously good time!

All-in-all, we made it out of Carnival with a much better appreciation for this annual celebration, new friends, only $10 pick-pocketed, and some pretty incredible memories.
Viva Carnival!