Friday, February 26, 2010

Montevideo….a city definitely unto its own. A small big city in a small country. A lot of old with a splash of new.

My impression of Montevideo is that the people are very friendly, life is a bit slower, and there I just enough to satisfy everyone without having too much.

Prior to arriving in Montevideo, I had contacted Rotaractors and Rotarians there to arrange a homestay. I began emailing with Gerardo, a Rotarian on one of Montevideo’s Rotary clubs. Via email, Gerardo assured me in advance that his club would host me and show me around Montevideo.

Well, Gerardo and his club were genuinely great hosts! At the airport, I was greeted by Gerardo’s son and daughter, Gonzalo and Veronica, 20 & 23, and got to know them over the next three days as we spoke spanglish together.

Gerardo owns a machine shop, and I even found it pretty interesting as I went to his machine shop about 3 times during my stay there. He owns the most awesome 1970ish Peugot wagon, which nobody would blink an eye at in a city like Montevideo, when mixed amongst much newer cars, even much more older, and horse drawn carriages owned by the poorer people of the city.

It’s difficult to describe, but I was bounced around for 3 days between different Rotarians and Rotaractors, taken to different places around Montevideo, ate lunch with different families and people, and generally got to know a lot of different people in a short amount of time.

For example, on my first day, Gonzalo took me around to a few tourist sights. We drove up to the cerro in Montevideo, of course an old fort overlooking the river to guard the city, with amazing views of Montevideo. Then we walked around the center, before proceeding to the congress palace. It was about 6pm, and the palace closed at around 4pm. Of course, I was just following Gonzalo around, and somehow we ended up inside the palace despite the closure, with all the lights off, wandering the halls! I don’t know for sure we definitely were not supposed to be there, but it was both of our first times there. We left the palace to a torrential downpour, which caused massive floods in Uruguay & Buenos Aires. Yikes.

Mate….I really didn’t expect it to be as much a part of the culture in Uruguay as it is. People drink mate at work, in the car, on the beach, and at all times of the day. Mate is a drink derived from the yerba plant, an herb, and tastes like really bitter tea. The mate cup is usually a wooden bowl hollowed out from a small pumpkinlike plant, then filled with yerba herb, and sipped on with a bombilla, a metallic straw with holes at the bottom to filter out the yerba plant. The Uruguayans don’t go anywhere without their thermos, to hold piping hot water and refill the mate cup. Literally, I think they are crazy for this stuff. Needless to say, I was able to enjoy this with my various hosts over a few lazy afternoons. Dont mind if I do....

The country is not rich, there is a large amount of poor people, but they get by better than poor people in the US due to the fact that most of them actually have jobs and health care access. It is readily evident because many of them use horse drawn carriages for transport.

Montevideo=great little city. The end. Stay tuned. –From Colonia, Uruguay.

Neighborhood near Gonzalo's & Gerardo's house:

From the Cerro in Montevideo:

With Gonza in the palace after hours, just before getting drenched by the torrent:

The fun downpour:

Mate one afternoon with Gerardo. Sipping the bombilla, thermos absent, ha:

Asado in Mercado Puerto with Mario. We had chorizo, morcilla (blood chorizo), some intestine stuff, and some random cuts of meat). Friggin delicious:

Above La Rambla, Uruguays version of Chicago's lake shore drive:

Gerardo & family, including the dog!:

Mate, Bombilla, Thermos!


Sunday, February 21, 2010

In a contrast to Rio, Sao Paulo seems to be one booming metropolis of concrete and traffic. I’ve been told anywhere between 10 and 12 million people live here. It does not have the natural beauty of Rio, nor the endless tourist attractions.

My, host, Thiago, whom I met when he was working in Chicago, and his family have been great. They are of course very welcoming. By American standard, it is a pretty tiny home, there is enough space and it is a pretty middle class neighborhood; I share a room with Thiago. I’m having a pretty difficult time talking to his mother and aunt when Thiago is not around. More head nodding or saying I don’t understand when spoken to in Portuguese. As usual, I can speak to them in Spanish and be understood, but tis a one way street for the most part.

The taxis here are ridiculously expensive, and there are too many cars. The downtown is huge. Paulista avenue is nice. There isn’t much greenery, a few parks here and there. Honestly, I can’t really figure this city out. The nightlife is supposed to be impressive, which I’d expect for a city bigger than New York.

I have had some interesting experiences with the neighborhood people while Thiago is at work. Bruno, one of Thiagos friends in the neighborhood, walks from house to house and knows and introduces me to everyone (he is that guy in the neighborhood). Of course, they are all very hospitable, and one Thursday evening, I was brought to a house with about 10 people hanging out on the porch at about 11pm. They fed me some of their hot dogs (topped with ketchup, French fries, mayo, potatoes, onions, and god knows what else), gave me some soda & cerveja, and treated me as one of the neighbors, even though communication was pretty much nil. Somehow though, I manage to communicate with Bruno. We walk through stores and compare American and Sao Paulo things and prices, compare music, and so on and so forth. He loves to talk about Brazilian women, which is entertaining for awhile, then after the nth hour is like beating a dead horse(‘did you really need to point her out? You just pointed out the last 100 Brazilian women with stereotypical big butts’. One random note is that electronics are ridiculously expensive in Brazil. For example, my $300 netbook costs $900-$1500 here, a TV that is $1500 in the US costs at least $3,000, and so on and so forth. If it makes up for it, food is really cheap.

I suppose the best thing about Sao Paulo then is the people. The endless concrete and traffic just aren’t my cup of tea.

Favorite new/popular expression from non-English speakers: The Books on the Table!

Paulista Avenue:

A small part of downtown Sao Paulo:

The street I stay on. Thiago's house is on the left:

More downtown:

Largest Japantown outside of Japan:

Jaca (jackfruit) in Thiagos front yard:

The dogs:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shopping in Sao Paulo

Well, this blog is about travelling and new experiences, and boy did I have an interesting travel experience the other night, not necessarily a great one, but certainly very funny and interesting in retrospect.

So, on Thursday night, my host Thiago had to work for about 5 hours, so he had his friend Bruno, from the neighborhood, who speaks no english, take care of me. He told me that I'd stay with Bruno for a few hours then meet up with another of his friends from the neighborhood, and this girl speaks English.

Well, Bruno brought me to his place. Nice guy, I spoke to him in Spanish, he spoke back in Porguese. Basically, he understood me, and I understood about 10% of what he said back. Fantastic combination for understanding each other and having intelligent conversation.

After watching a bit of soccer at his families place, we go out in his car. I figure we're just killing time and he is showing me around. He tells me we are going shopping. Great, I can understand that, not how I would kill time, but hey, I was just following along.

Well, shopping has now brought a new definition to my dictionary. We pulled into a house driveway, and I figured we were stopping at Thiago's friends house who spoke english. Well, a bouncerlike guy opens the door, and a few words are muttered, then kinda of here, 'American' haha. So we enter. It is somewhat dimly lit and I am confronted by 7 or 8 women lying, scantily clad, on couches, chairs, and watching TV. Well, this was not what I expected 5 minutes ago from 'shopping'.

Bruno essentially started asking me in Portuguese, of course which is mostly impossible for me to comprehend, if I'd like and of them that he would pay. So, over the course of the next 45 minutes, we had a few beers at the bar, and I had to discuss, in Spanish, how and why I do not want to be here, don't want to pay for this, and how this is not part of American culture. I endured the next 45 minutes, laughing internally to myself about how ridiculous the whole scenario was. He finally go the point, and we left.

After that, the evening got much better. We really did go shopping, at a real shopping mall. Imagine that. However, I was glad to have 'Shopping para mujeres' as Bruno calls it, over.


Friday, February 19, 2010

The sound of Sao Paulo

So, I am staying with my friend Thiago at his families home in a neighborhood called Freguesia do Ó. Seems like a typical neighborhood, not rich, not poor.

My first night, I got to sleep in the front room next to the street, which proved to be much more of an adventure than even sleeping near the a window in Lima.

Went to bed the first night at about midnight. At about 430am, for about half an hour, I start to hear all these children gathered outside. Not sure if they had just been dropped off by a bus or just began to congregate for school, but nonetheless, the chatter of the 20 or 30 kids went on for maybe half an hour. Then, silence finally ensued.

Then, the two dogs that live in the front yard began their morning noises. One sounded like a coyote with its 10-20 second howls, they other rapid firing barks, this being right outside the window of the room Thiago and I are sleeping in.

Then, from two houses down, some crazy sort of Chinese mountain music starts playing, and this goes on and off for several . The weirdest thing ever. It kind of fades in and out. No, I was not dreaming or on drugs. Finally, traffic starts to pick up on the street, with the occasional truck rumbling by or guy pumping some music .

A hilarious night indeed, though not necessarily full of sleep. The funny part is, Thiago snored through it all. Maybe by night 4, I can sleep through it and throw in an earthquake and meteor strike at the same time. Muito bon. Ciao.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Well, I made it to Sao Paulo without having my bags end up in Lima, hooray.

A few months ago I booked a roundtrip flight from Lima to Rio de Janeiro, stopping in Sao Paulo. The intention was on the return flight to just hop off in Sao Paulo, and say to heck with the ticket to Lima. It was significantly cheaper (as in many hundreds) than two separate one way flights, Lima-Rio, Rio-Sao Paulo. Grand total of $300 round trip sounded good to me. So, when I got to the airport in Rio to check in for my ‘return’ flight to Lima via Sao Paulo, I was of course worried about my bag. I’ve had to check it every time so far, and I did NOT want to check it through to Lima when I was getting off in Sao Paulo. Airlines are really strict about these things, and my bag is borderline too big….in San Francisco, they wouldn’t let me bring it on the plane.

I asked if it was OK at the ticket counter in Rio, and miraculously they said no problem, even after I saw the shoebox sized ‘acceptable bag should fit in here’ thing they have at airports. I proceeded to security, and they had no problems at all. A big relief! The catch, however, being that as I was checked all the way to Lima, they took my immigration card and stamped me through to Lima. I couldn’t really get out of that one, and didn’t really want to tell them I was hopping off in Sao Paulo, or they might say something. Luckily, when I got to Sao Paulo, I was able to go through an immigration line. They didn’t want to stamp my passport , though. I had to explain the situation, the border official went back and brought me to the manager, I explained that I was going to be in Sao Paulo until Monday and was coming from Rio and needed a new entry stamp. Reluctantly, they gave me one, so hopefully no problems when I fly to Montevideo on Monday. Moral of the story: Flying protocol blows.

Random Rio Pics:

Telephone booth!:

View from the Christo:

Christ the Redeemer:

Crazy Rio Hot Dog with like 20 things on it:

Some Brazilian Fruit:

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

More from Rio

A few days ago, we went to a real typical bloco one afternoon. One with a giant dumptruck style truck with a band pumping music from the top, that drives slowly and people follow and dance around. At this bloco, I was suprised that it was all types of people, young and old, despite the massive crowds. We made our way to the front of the truck, and walked and danced with it for about an hour until it was finally over. Of course, the beer & water vendors fill their shopping cards and join the bloco to make sure that nobody goes thirsty during bloco. At the end of the bloco, everyone disperses and the streets are full.

View from bloco:

Video of a Bloco:

The next day, Brian & I tried to go to the Christo (Christ the Redeemer) that you see picures of. We got there at about 10am, and the line was at least 2 hours to get tickets! Mostly in part to Carnival and swarms of people. So, we took a taxi to Sugarloaf, the famous tall rock formation in Rio. All the tour buses go from Christo in the morning to Sugarloaf in the afternoon, so we didn't have to wait. Of course, I wouldn't have known that if I had been on my own...

A view from Sugarloaf:

Having baby coconut at the beach near Sugarloaf:

We took a tram up to the first mountain, took in some amazing views of all of Rio, then took the next tram up all the way to the top. Lets just say the pictures of Rio certainly show the realy beauty, because it is a pretty intense coastline, with mountains in the background, tall islands, great beaches, and multiple bays.

Yesterday was my first real Brazilian steakhouse! What a food coma! They do the same as in the states, bringing cut after cut after cut of piping hot meat out on skewers. The oddest thing they brought out was chicken hearts. They way the barbecued them they tasted pretty good. Maybe it says something about the food culture in South America when I never ate a heart in my life, then within 8 days, had cow and chicken hearts in 2 different countries. Phew.

Chicken hearts at steakhouse:

Another hilarious thing is my conversations with Brians Dad. At first he only would say 'Chicago Bulls', but slowly, there are more words, such as 'Cincinatti Ohio' 'Five' and 'Daytona', and today 'Golden Gate'. Also when I should eat more, he points to my muscles and says 'Piramides Egyptian'. Its hilarious and fun trying to communicate with hand signals. Of course, I know like 10 words of Portuguese now, so we'ere on the same level.

Here is a video from the Sambodromo:

Video of Vasco v. Fluminese Futbol game:

Monday, February 15, 2010

Carnival in the Sambodromo

So, as I said earlier, one of the first things my host family did when I got here, was within 10 minutes ask if I wanted to dance with a Samba school in the Sambodromo. I was stunned, and of course I said heck yeah!! Once in a lifetme opportunity.

The sambodromo is where they built a stadium for samba schools just for Carnival in Rio. There are maybe 10 or 20 samba schools in Rio, and each spends all year putting together a 40 minute routine for the parade Sambodromo. They each might have 10 different costumes and 5 floats, or more, and hundreds of people walking with the floats. It is a competition and whichever school puts together the best show wins. Some can spend up to a million dollars on everything.

So after a soccer game on Saturday, Brian and I went to the Samba school building in the neighborhood Rocinha, where they train all year and prepare for the event, and we picked up 6 costumes. The name of the school is Academicos da Rocinha. The costumes are huge, with big masks, shoes, arm, wrist, and leg peices, and a giant waist dress peice.

At about 10pm or so, 6 of us headed out to the subway with our costumes in bags, on our way to the Sambodromo. Our school didn't go on until 4am or 5am, so we went there early to watch a few schools and be spectators. We basically had premium passes in the Sambodromo, a box seat in the middle of the stadium, as close as it gets! Wow! I had looked up ticket prices a few months ago, and for really crappy seats, they were like minimum $150!

So we were literally like 5 feet away from the main drag in the Sambodromo, and watched a few schools go by for several hours. We were even close enough to make eyecontact with some of the dancers. The music that you dance to is incredibly vibrant and rich... At some point, maybe 1am or 2am, not too sure because I've basically stopped carrying a watch here and just do as told, we left the box seats to go get our costumes on and get in line in the staging area. We winded our way through indoor and outdoor coridoors in the backstage Sambrodromo area, and finally found the staging area.

Let me just say, those costumes are NOT easy to put on. Each of the peices needs to have a shoe lace threaded through to secure it. Sifting through all the pieces and trying to figure out what goes where was yet another chore. At this point, it was a bit stressfull because we took a good hour to get our costumes on and wanted to make sure we were in line and in the right place at the right time. Of course, the elaborate waist peice didnt fit me at all, so I at first I tucked it in a bit. Well, since this is searious business and a competition, when one of the guys from the Samba School saw me lined up ready to go, and glanced at my costume, he said no go! He tried to tighten it, but it was impossible. He finally decided to tell me to just dance the whole time with my hands on my waist so it would look like it fit perfectly! If it fell down, that would be really bad for the Samba school.

A pain in the ass, but I could care less at this point, I was walking through the biggest, most famous part of Carnival in the biggest Carnival in the world. We formed organized lines of 7, and made our way past the staging area to the entry of the stadium. I tried to get a place in the middle because I definitely can not Samba dance! There were some frog costumes behind us, and some other angel type costumed people in front of us. The school officials told me to just dance, smile, have fun, and pretend that I knew the lyrics & sing all the songs, haha!

So we all danced our way through the sambodromo. I kept a hand on a hip at all times and was able to wave and use my other hand to dance. I couldnt take photos though. In fact, I had to shove my camera into my underwear and roll my shorts up high enough so they could not be seen by the spectators under my costume! It took a good 40 minutes to make it through the stadium, stopping every 30 seconds to dance in place, then walking at a slow pace, then stopping, walking, stopping, walking... I definitely got tired of dancing and was sweaty from the weight of the wings and the giant mask.

We finally made our way to the finish line, where everyone promptly dropped their costumes. I could have kept the whole costume, but alas, I don't have room for the amazing mask.


Youtube videos in progress...

Picking up 6 costumes for the Sambodromo and trying to fit into a subcompact=not easy.

Our samba school, Academicos da Rocinha.

Taking the subway with our costumes to the Sambodromo for the Parade

A random float:

Box Seats Sambodromo!

Costumes of another Samba School:


Dressed up and Ready to go!

Random Carnival Picture:

Mama and Papa Soares dressed up:

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bloco's, Vasco da Gama Seminfinals

Not sure how to put it more simply, but the last few days have been UNBELIEVABLE. If I was a regular tourist in a hotel/hostel, even couchsurfing, none of the stuff I've done so far in Rio would have happened. But I have have a pretty incredible host here Rio, Brian from a Rotaract club & his family.

The first few days we went to some Blocos... Carnival parties... Basically, they are mostly gigantic street parties in different parts of Rio (there are thousands over 4 or 5 days), there is samba dancing, music, drumming, and generally just thousands of people in the streets in different parts of Rio having a good time. There is always hundreds of beer vendors carrying their beer on wooden slabs with wheels. Brian took me out to several Blocos the first few days, and I met plenty of his friends, most of which speak some English, cause I know like 5 words now in Portuguese. Actually, reading is ok, hearing is impossible. A few of his friends even tried to teach me to Samba dance, haha. Bloco highlight: Leaving a club at 4:15am after meeting Camila up, another Rotaractor, and, while standing outside confronted by a packed street, a guy jumps from the vaulted 2nd story and fall 1 foot away from me... bouncers tug his ear and tell him to get lost for being an idiot. In summary, Carnival is ridiculous.

On Saturday, we went to a futbol game & the Sambodromo. The futbol game was probably the craziest sporting event I have been to. We took the train there. With Carnvial & a futbol game going on, the trains were absolutely mobbed, I was squished and had my face in armpits in various directions, a refreshing experience... All the while people banging the car ceiling ceiling and chanting. Phew.

So we got the the stadium pretty early so I could check it out when it wasn't full. Marcana holds something like 90,000 fans, one of the biggest in the world. The next world cup will be played here. This match was Vasco da Gama vs Fluminse, two of the big teams in Rio. We sat in the section for Vasco fans. Fans of each team always sit together on different sides of the stadium, then there is a neutral zone. The tourists get tickets close to the field (a worse view actually) in the first deck, and not in a team section, so I'm glad I was with Brian to get the real scoop.

Fans filtered in, bringing in tons of various team flags with them. Soon before kickoff, the stadium was pretty full (not 100% being Carnival & all) and 3 or 4 massive sections of Vasco fans wre chanting various songs, waving flags, and trying to get everyone excited. The one cool thing about they stadium is they sell no alcohol in or within 2km of stadium, so most of the fans are totally crazy but not drunk crazy, so everything is under control. Genuine fans.

This was a pretty important match, being a semifinal match for the Rio championship. It went by pretty quick, and after 90 minutes, it was still 0-0, so it went into penalty shots. Each team got their 5 shots apiece, and they still both made all thir shots! Finally, on the 6th shot, Vasco made one and Fluminese missed one, and the Vasco sections went NUTS. We stayed in the seats for a good 20 minutes after the game while they all chanted different club songs and waved flags. I, on the other hand, was totally lost in the chants, and just pretended to look like I knew what I was saying, haha.

Stay tuned for the update on me being in the official Carnival. Ta ta.

Carnival Ad:

On the Rio subway going to a Bloco with Brian:

At a bloco with Brian & friends:

Beer (Cerveja) vendors:

The crowd in just one small part of this Bloco in the neighborhood Lapa:

Outside Marcana statdium for the futbol game. We met this guy (err Brian did), at the train station. He was on vacation with his family from northern Brazil for Carnival & a big Vasco fan.

View of part of the stadium:

Before the game:

Vasco fans starting to get pumped up:

Fans really going crazy now, lighting fireworks:

Lined up for Penalty kicks:

Vasco wins, fans go crazy, good thing were in the Vasco Section!

Video of my first bloco, a smaller one, showing the drummers:

Here is a video from a Bloco, starring Brian & Company: