Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 1: Downpours, Diapers and Christ the Redeemer Under Repair

The rainy view from our hostel, located in the neighborhood of Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

"Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking"...check that.

"Short and pale and middle-aged and soaking, the girl from Buenos Aires goes sloshing"...note to self: before next trip, check

We arrived in sunny Rio de Janeiro in a downpour of biblical proportions, following 24 hours of non-stop torrential rain. After standing in the pouring rain for 30 minutes and soaked to the skin, we were making no progress determining which airport bus traveled to the neighborhood where our hotel was located, so we decided to splurge and take a taxi. We stayed at a lovely hostel called Bellas Artes Guest House, located in a very charming area called Santa Teresa, about 20 mins from the center of Rio. Unfortunately, the hostel sits halfway down a steep flight of stone stairs, which was like trying to make our way down Iguazu Falls with full backpacks during the storm. On top of that, the power had gone out due to damage to the above-ground electrical cables, so the doorbell wasn´t working and we had to stand in the rain yelling through the window until the door was opened. To avoid attracting thieves who might target tourists, many of the hotels in Rio don´t have signs outside, so we weren´t even sure that we were at the right place! We dried off and set off to forage for food, but the power blackout had affected the entire area and all the restaurants were either closed or had stopped serving food. We were starving, and finally, Marco, the owner of  the local jazz spot and bistro, Bar do Marco, took pity on us and grilled some fish and potatoes for us, which we ate gratefully in the dark by the romantic light of our flashlight (along with two very large caipirinhas).

 Our romantic flashlight dinner, Bar do Marco, Santa Teresa  

Luckily, the weather cleared a bit the next day and we were able to visit Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pao de Acucar), which was incredible. We first tried to visit the famous statue and symbol of Rio, Christ the Redeemer, on Corcovado Mountain, a site that normally draws 300,000 visitors a year, but it was closed due to dangerous conditions brought on by flooding and landslides (the statue was also under repair and completely covered in scaffolding, so there wasn't much to see anyway). At the entrance to the statue, Luis noticed that people kept handing over plastic bags filled with baby formula, food, diapers, etc so he asked what was happening and found out that they were local people bringing donations for the flood victims, most of whom were babies and children from the favelas (the extensive hillside slums of Brazil). Next thing I knew, Luis was making a beeline to the nearest pharmacy, I thought, to buy a bottle of water which he mentioned wanting to buy earlier. I waited outside while first one, then two, then five of the store employees appeared behind the counter, all (including Luis) gesticulating wildly and apparently trying to understand each other. Luis speaks Spanish and Brazilians speak Portuguese, but they can usually understand each other, or at least get the drift. Soon Luis was waving frantically at me to come and help. What can be so hard about explaining that you want to buy a bottle of water, I wondered?

Christ the Redeemer under repair, Corcovado Mountain

Luis: No, no, I want to buy diapers and formula!
Sim: Um, what?
Luis: For the babies...
Sim: What babies?
Luis: In the favelas!
Sim: Ooooh! (the light slowly dawning...ya gotta love him!)
Luis: Try English, they don´t understand Spanish.
Sim: "Hello. Do you have diapers and baby formula?"
Employees: blank stares.
Sim: Do you have (miming bottle feeding a baby) and (miming wrapping a diaper around first myself then Luis)?
Employees: rat poison? garden hose? incontinence aids?
Sim: No, no! "Baby", you know "baby" (miming the international symbol for "baby": arms folded in front of body and rocking back and forth). "Wah, wah,!"
Employees: Mother of God. Perhaps we should call the police or at very least, social services...crazy gringos.
Luis: This is not helping.
Sim: Ya think?
Sim and Luis together: Okay, let´s try teamwork: (me miming baby, Luis miming feeding a diapering said fantasy baby, both making "Wah!" sounds).
Employees: Seriously. Does anyone remember if we have the police on speed-dial?
Sim and Luis: (frantically pointing to a mother with a diapered baby)
Emplyees: Aha! Diapers! And Formula!

At least I think that´s what they said as they were speaking Portuguese and diapers and formula appeared on the counter. Success!!!!
Simone in sunny Santa Teresa, Rio (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Punta del Este, Uruguay: $70 Seaweed Omeletes and the Casa del Pueblo

Casapueblo, a hotel and museum built by the Uruguayan artist, Carlos Paez Vilaro (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Last week, we spent a few days in what is known as the Switzerland of South America, Punta del Este, Uruguay. Since we are living in Argentina right now, we need to keep our visas updated by leaving and re-entering the country every three months. We normally have a trip planned anyway, and in emergencies (i.e. we totally lost track of time and there is one day left to renew or be thrown into visa jail, if such a thing exists), we generally hop over to Colonia del Sacramento, an hour away by fast ferry. Except that we have been to Colonia about 76 million times, to the point of recognizing the moss patterns on the cobblestones. So this time, we decided to check out Punta del Este, since we also wanted to feel like we lived the life of the "Beautiful People", if even for a few days.

Sim trying to kick over La Mano, the big hand sculpture on the beach, just like the "Beautiful People" (photo by Luis Bastardo)

From Buenos Aires to Punta del Este, it is five hours of travel, a combination of ferry and bus. Our ferry left at 8am, so we needed to leave the house around 630am at the latest to get to the ferry terminal. We waited forever for the train, and I started to get worried. Luis was strangely unruffled though; normally when we're running late, he acts like we're one of the final three couples in the last stretch of The Amazing Race. When we arrived a few blocks from the terminal and we couldn't get a taxi, he still didn't seem panicked, but just sort of sauntered down the street admiring the trees. I kept trying to stress to him (in the sweetest possible way, of course...) that perhaps it was necessary for him to move his ass, but nothing I said could light a fire. Finally, we arrived at the terminal, with only 10 minutes to go for check in, to pass through security and immigration and to board the boat, with me stressing like I'm about to miss the last boat off a sinking island and Luis totally calm and zen-like. As we boarded the boat, it was 7:57am, three minutes to go. I turned to look at Luis who had a completely shocked look on his face: he thought the boat didn't leave for another hour...ah, that explains it!
The lighthouse at San Ignacio Beach (photo by Luis Bastardo)

When he finally talked me in from the ledge, I noticed what a lovely trip it was. The bus ride through the countryside and up the coast through Uruguay was gorgeous. It's a beautiful, diverse country with incredible beaches, rural areas, cosmopolitan cities and very friendly people. The only down side is that it is incredibly expensive, especially noticeable after living the good and cheap life in Buenos Aires. Our hotel, Salto Grande, was nice enough though: basic, but clean, quiet and central and we arrived out of season so we were able to move around fairly easily without having to wait in lines or fight the crowds. Apparently it is una locura (insane) in high season when "anyone who's anyone" descends on the city, along with the international paparazzi snapping every smile and sip of a cocktail. Luckily, we arrived in the relatively dead  low season, sans-paparazzi, the time of year when it's possible to march naked down the main street singing "There's no business like show business" without receiving as much as a second glance from passers-by. We decided to rent a car at the suggestion of the employees at Freddo (the best ice-cream place on the planet) and it was a great idea; we were able to see much more of the peninsula and the area north of the main center.

The $70 seaweed omelette and deep-fried "sea things" (photo by Simone Cannon)

When we picked up our economy car, the gas gauge was on empty, so we stopped first at the nearest gas station, foolishly defaulting to the "fill 'er up" request, only to find that a full tank of gas ran US$48 and that, unless we were planning on driving back and forth to Buenos Aires 3-4 times in the course of our tour of Uruguay, it was probably an excessive quantity of gas to have purchased. We visited Jose Ignacio, the chicest (aka the most expensive) part of the area, where property values rival Manhattan, quite literally. We stopped at a little cafe-style restaurant for a light meal and ended up paying US$70 for a two-egg omelette with seaweed (I swear I'm not making this up, as Dave Barry would say) and an appetizer size plate of unidentified fried sea "things" (cosas del mar), which was a worrying enough name, even before the check arrived. Oh, and two beers. To wash down the sea things. On the other days, we drove up to La Barra, Punto Ballena (Whale Point) and around the center, stopping to have a look around, walk on the beach, etc.

The undulating bridge at La Barra (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Due to unforeseen budget restraints, our food now consisted of whatever we could pick up in the local supermarket on sale, like delicious Uruguayan Kraft Processed Cheese Slices and scrumptious Uruguayan Oscar Mayer Bologna. And of course, we drove everywhere, just to use up the gas, damn it. Two more days of this and we would have to sell our blood. Oddly, the museums and other exhibits were free/cheap and fantastic: Casa del Pueblo is something out of a Dr. Seuss book, an adjoining museum and hotel with an amazing art collection and sea views. Museo del Mar (you can't miss it, it has a giant painted concrete shark outside baring its teeth) and the Fundacion Pablo Atchugarry art museum (a wonderful light-filled modern art space with a sculpture garden) are well worth visiting. All in all, a luxurious, albeit expensive, way to get our visas renewed and to live the glamorous life if only for a while. I wonder what the non-beautiful people are doing?

    Sim and the other tourists enjoying the sunset at Casa del Pueblo (photo by Luis Bastardo)