Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Days #31 & 32. Jericoacoara, Brazil.

My alarm didn’t go off on day #31, which meant I woke up exactly 2 minutes before my 8 am flight out of Floripa to Fortaleza. Which meant I didn’t make that flight and instead left at 7 pm with a 2-hour layover in Rio before catching a midnight flight up North. A truck picked me up at 2 am from the Fortaleza Airport. I asked the driver how many hours drive to Jericoacoara… dois horas?? Two hours? I asked. And his eyes got big, “Nooo! Quatro!!” he said. Not sure how I missed that memo. Oy vey. Why do I suck so bad at travelling?! Wasn’t so bad though. I stretched out in the backseat of the truck and slept for 3 of the 4 hours. Until we got to the dirt road. Then it was too bumpy and I kept hitting my head on the door. So I groggily sat up and tried to watch the countryside go by in the early morning light. The dirt road seemed endless and there wasn’t a whole lot going on in terms of a village or anything. I started to wonder if he was even taking me to the right place. Around 6 am, we finally turned off the dirt “road” onto the sand. And I found myself at the world famous kite-surfing spot, Praia do Prea or Prea Beach.

I booked 6 nights at a place recommended by a kite-surfing friend back home called “Vila Prea”. It’s a little community of eco beach bungalows tucked away behind palm trees and separated by a raised wooden walkway. Compared to hostel life, this is a sharp 360. I have my own bungalow with a thatched roof, porch, hammock, and outdoor shower. There’s not just one bed, but two! And a mini fridge filled with soft drinks, water bottles, and snacks (chocolate bars!!!). This is absolute heaven to me after a month on bunk beds in noisy dorm rooms. It’s so dark and quiet in my room at night, plus there’s a fan. So I’ve been sleeping like a baby. I’m still pinching myself over this…. making sure it’s not a dream. Missy and Megan – it’s exactly like Flowerbud Cottages in Balangan, Bali. So you know how amazing it is! In the morning I walk to the dining area for breakfast. It’s a large open-air veranda with an ocean view, lined with hammocks and dotted by wooden tables draped in white embroidered cloths. The details have been exquisitely conducted at the Vila.

Breakfast. Aaaaahhh... I will gain 10 pounds here. They serve a buffet of 5 different kinds of tropical fruits: mango, papaya, pineapple, and 2 melons. There is granola, homemade yogurt, little chewy cheese puff things that have the consistency of mochi, cupcakes, bread fresh out of the oven, and 3 different jams. They put out a pitcher of juice made from oranges they squeezed that morning. As if that wasn’t enough, they then offer made-to-order items including scrambled eggs, omelets, crepes filled with flambéed banana and nutella, French toast, and many other things. I want to eat it alllll!!!! This morning I literally had to force myself not to order the banana/nutella crepe. I was starting to feel self-conscious because people started to look at me funny yesterday when I had a plate full of fruit, yogurt, and granola… and a cupcake and cheese puff. Then the crepe came. Then the scrambled eggs came. I could hardly waddle down the steps of the dining hall, and I had a kite surfing lesson to get ready for too!

The first day I took a long nap in the morning after I got there. Then I laid around feeling a bit jet lagged, reading and chatting with the other people staying at the Vila. They are all here to kite surf. It’s a different crowd then I’m used to at the hostels. Instead of late teens and kids in their 20’s-early 30’s, it’s now middle-aged and older professionals. It’s a nice break, to be honest. I’m so enjoying getting to know these talented, interesting people. I’ve mostly been hanging out with a couple from Germany – Yanneke and Karsten – both endoscopy doctors who left their 2 young boys at home. The boys aren’t happy about being at home, as they both are avid kite-surfers. But the parents wanted their own little holiday. They are such a cool couple! Both of them were in rock bands when they were younger. They played me some of their stuff last night and it was actually surprisingly really good. Everyone in a band thinks they’re good, but usually only 10% actually are. Karsten’s sound was definitely grungy, head banging rock; whereas Yanneke’s sounded kind of like The Doors. She was the organ player. There are only a few other people staying here right now as it’s end of season for kiting. I’ve also been talking quite a bit with 2 older guys – Jonas from Lithuania and Christian from Canada. They looooove to tell stories about kite surfing and compare techniques. Obsessed, actually. Is this how I am going to be?? J We shall see!

Later in the afternoon I met with my instructor, Marko, a very tanned and athletic looking guy with eyes the color of the ocean. He was one of the first Germans to start kite surfing in the 90’s when it first became a thing, and even helped invent some of the safety features we now have along with a couple other veterans back in the day. I was told that he is one of the best teachers around, and also reasonably priced. He was 2 hours late to our “appointment”, which apparently in Jeri is a loosely used term. “Brazilian time”, Ricardo, the front desk receptionist, clarified. When I was e-mailing back and forth with Ricardo the weeks leading up to my trip, I imagined him to be a tanned Brazilian boy with dark hair and eyes. Actually, Ricardo is a pale, blonde Dutch man who has baby blue eyes and a Brazilian wife. He is the single most helpful person around. He can do, arrange, book, reserve anything! At any rate, Marko told me our first lesson would be the next day at noon. I was so excited!! Watching everyone else from the Vila out on the water all day was getting me pumped.

That first evening, I convinced the German couple and the 2 older guys to rent a beach buggy with me and go to Jeri for the evening. It’s a 30-minute ride to town. The town of Jeri is very small and completely built on dirt. It’s super cute, though. We made it there before sunset and walked along the famous sand dunes, watching kids slide down the sides of it. A nearby lake showcased some of the local kiting talent. Young ripped Brazilians tore around the ultra shallow water, getting big air and doing cool tricks. Pretty awesome to watch! Then we met up with Marko who took us to his friend’s restaurant for dinner, which was excellent. Everyone but me got the mango shrimp. I opted for their veggie special which was housemade pasta mixed with sautéed eggplant, hearts of palm, and tangy sundried tomatoes. We sat upstairs on a porch, overlooking the street below. Afterward, Marko insisted we all had to try a dessert made next door. It was kind of like a flourless chocolate cake served warm with vanilla ice cream. Then we took the buggy back to our Vila and crashed. It was a long day!

So far I’ve had 2 kite surfing lessons. The first day we talked about wind, safety, gear, and all the basics before taking a trainer kite out for some practice on the beach. Then today I actually got in the water and did tons of body dragging and kite maneuvers. I lost my sunnies and probably swallowed a gallon of salt water. The superwoman drag was the one that got me. Waves kept hitting me in the face and I was taking in water like the Titanic, all the while trying to keep my swimming trunks on and also lookout for the kite which is hard to do when spray is constantly in your eyes. But these minor issues are nothing compared to the feeling you have when your body is being lifted and dragged by that kite…. Wow! It’s amazing! Like you weigh absolutely nothing. I loved weaving the kite back and forth from 12 to 2, 10 to 12, and 10 to 2… over and over again… like on a clock. Just weaving figure eights in the sky and feeling light as a feather in the water. After a few over-zealous turns of the kite and some body slams, I gained a very healthy respect for the power of the wind. The key is to make small movements and think ahead. The kite is on a lag, so you have to already be making the next move before the first one is finished. It requires coordination and finesse, but mostly, feeling. It’s something that will come with time, I think, as you become one with your kite and the wind. Someday, I won’t even have to look at my kite. I’ll just know. 

Tomorrow… I get to try the board!!! Can’t. Freaking. Wait.

Days #19-30. Florianopolis, Brazil.

Where to even begin??? I have 12 glorious days to attempt to recap. Sometimes when you travel, you stumble upon a place that is….. magic. Pure magic. Unadulterated (my mom’s favorite word). Florianopolis put a spell on me. A spell so strong that I couldn’t tear myself away from the moment for even an hour to write about what I was experiencing. I was afraid I would miss out on something.

Now that I am up North in Jericoacoara, time has slowed down and I am able to catch my breath. As I talked with the people at my vila last night, I was astonished that no one knew of or had heard about this island – affectionately called “Floripa” by the people who love it most. I first heard of it from my old roommate in Oakland, a schoolteacher with a shy sweet smile and knack for crafting named Adam. Adam spent a summer bartending in Buenos Aires several years ago. After wearing himself down to a thread from a sleepless diet of vodka and cigarettes, he finally collapsed on this magical island to recover. That’s how I heard about it. He said I absolutely, positively had to go. And for at least a week, more if I could swing it. Well, I only booked 5 days because I am crunched for time. But on day #4, I cancelled all my future flights and hostels and decided to stay another week in Floripa. It was an easy decision.

I’m a little overwhelmed on how to write all the things I want to write. But let’s go for it. This will be a loooooooooong one!

Barra Beach Club Hostel. Adam wrote me a list of things to do on the island, and he said definitely stay at this hostel and book in advance, which I did. Barra Beach Club is rated 2nd in all of South America, and it’s only 2nd place because the 1st place hostel is a brand new swanky one with a club. It’s located centrally on the island in the town of Barra da Lagoa, which is bordered by a big lake on one side and a few beaches on the other. The man who built the hostel is an American-born, Hawaiian-raised expat surfer named Jim. Many years ago he tried to build some more rooms up on the hill and the city told him he couldn’t make them into rooms, so he created an open air dining area and bar instead. Looking back, this is the best thing that could have ever happened to him, he said. Because now, this deck has one of the best views in town, the sparkling little beach called Prainha do Leste. And us hostel kids are the ones enjoying it. To the sweet tune of $30/night. An Italian chef named Laura and her Japanese/Brazilian boyfriend run the kitchen downstairs, creating tantalizing dishes every evening for us at a really decent price. There were always 2 plates to choose from plus a veggie option: BBQ’d ribs and homemade potato salad, spinach ravioli and cream sauce, fresh caught grilled fish with almond sauce, mango and smoked salmon salad with avocado and chili lime yogurt, ceviche, yakisoba, and the list goes on and on. The food was phenomenal. Of course the bar always had a pretty girl behind it: an Argentinian, a Brazilian, and an American. From 7-7:30 free caipirinhas were served. Other popular drinks included coke with rum and lots of lime – a “Cuba Libre” – and daiquiris made with fresh fruits cut right there in front of you.

I met a lot of awesome people during my time there at the hostel, and I now realize that it would be very hard for me to work in that kind of an environment. It’s way too easy to get attached, and then they leave. It was heartbreaking when they left. Especially the adorable feisty little Bolivian girl with the pixy cut, Melisa, who reminded me of my sister Melissa. “I make my boobs” she said to me one day, smiling proudly. I had to laugh a little over that adorable translation, and I assured her that her boobs were perfect J. More people came and went, and I missed them too. There was the house music loving, toe-headed, blue-eyed British couple, Lauren and Jonny. And the 4 American boys who kept me laughing non-stop over their ridiculous comments and banter. And Nina, the Swedish MD who had a cute habit of over-exaggerating – “It is so hot out, I am going to die”… “I can't paddle anymore, I think my arms will fall off”. There was a Brazilian man going through divorce and a sort of mid-life crisis with an 8-year-old daughter at home, and he could whip up the most incredible chocolate pudding. I watched him trying to piece his life back together, admired his strength, and wondered how he came to this island? But it was hard to talk with him because he didn't know any English and I didn’t know any Portuguese. So we simply shared chocolate pudding and just smiled over the intermittent flow of “mmmm’s” and “aahhhh’s” between bites.

Barra da Lagoa. Or as I called it, “the big beach”. It’s across the bridge from “the little beach”, the gem in front of our hostel known as Prainha do Leste. Getting across the bridge can be a process, even though the bridge itself is really short. I have never in my life encountered people who walk so slow. And they don’t move over either. They take their sweet time, walking 4 wide, so there is no space for you to get by. If you are coming in the opposite direction, they make no attempt to create an opening for you, so you are standing on your tippy toes squeezing against the side. People stop and pose for pictures constantly, blocking the way. It’s just something you have to accept – that it will take anywhere from 5-10 min to cross it sometimes. But once across, there is the cutest little town bustling with energy, and the biggest beach. The big beach stretches endlessly – I never walked the entire length of it. It’s a pretty popular surf spot too, especially for beginners. I surfed there twice. Once with my Brazilian friend Ale (“Ah-lee”) but it was kinda big for me that day, and then another time on my own. Ale liked to walk realllllly far down to surf, where it’s less crowded and the waves are better. When I surfed on my own, I stayed more in the middle of the beach, which was a stupid thing to do. People in the water just didn't get it. The surf instructors would be yelling at them constantly to get out of the way, and they would just stare back. Every time I would paddle to an area with no one in my path, a few minutes later, 5+ beach goers would be splashing around right in my way. Then when I would catch a wave, they would stand there screaming as if I was purposely trying to hit them. Super annoying!!! So after an hour and one painful jellyfish sting, I gave up. On the big beach are a few drink carts that rotate around. Tanned boys push the carts up and down the beach all day, blaring music loudly and making the most delicious cocktails and fruit juices in their hand-powered blenders. Of course tons of food, swimsuit, and jewelry vendors wander through the densely packed crowds. I caved and bought a handmade t-shirt with a dia de los muertos skull colorfully printed on it, and also a short little gypsy skirt made from different patterned fabrics sewn together. I also bought more corn on the cob. It’s so waxy but I love it!

Prainha do Leste. The little beach in front of our hostel. There are rocks and steep banks on either side of this tiny beach, and stairs leading up to the trail that runs in front of the hostel. The trail leads to a rocky swimming hole if you take a left, and to the bridge and town and big beach if you take a right. There is also a trail you can take to a cross up on a big rock that has a gorgeous view of everything.

Praia Joaquina. This is another super popular beach and beginner surf spot that is only a 30-minute bus ride away. Melisa and I went here together and had the best time, except Melisa got us on the wrong bus and it took over an hour to get to there. A sweet local lady helped us find our way, and the 3 of us hung out all afternoon. It’s much smaller then the beach at Barra da Lagoa, but more beautiful I think. Melisa told me stories about her family. How her dad built a soy fortune out of nothing. How in love her parents still are after all this time. How her oldest brother struggled with depression, despite having everything… because he had everything. How heart shattering that was. Looking back on my own life, I am so grateful for my family. They have given me endless things that money could never, ever buy.

Hike to the naked beach & Praia Mole. There is a narrow and steep trail by the hostel that winds through the river village and up over a mountain. It is supposed to take an hour, but because of my frequent water breaks and photo stops it was more like a buck 30 for me. The trail dumps you at the naked beach. It has a name, but I don’t remember it. I was so hot and exhausted by the time I made it to the bottom, but as I walked onto the hot sand, there were the 4 American boys! Rob, Corey, Jordan, and Bryce – all of them freshly graduated from college. It was such a nice surprise to see them! The beach was incredibly vast and beautiful in an untouched, rugged kind of way. There was a scattering of mostly naked men. Jordan was the only one in our group to strip down, but the others said this is not the first time he’s done that. He got banned from a water park once for taking his trunks off on a slide, Rob explained. We ordered ice cold freshly blended fruit juices: pineapple, kiwi, strawberry. Some of the guys walked over these huge rock formations, but quickly came back as they said there were some “suspicious” activities going on over there. We hiked down the beach, crossed another pile of rocks, and found ourselves on Praia Mole. This is an ultra popular beach for younger people and a more advanced surf break. I liked this spot so much I went back a 2nd time with my friend Nina and the blonde British couple.

South Island tour. The hostel arranged a day for us in the south part of the island. We explored 3 different beaches. The first one was the prettiest. The American boys brought a soccer ball and a group of us tried to play the game where you pass the ball around in a circle, but we could never make it past 3. Ale brought his surfboard and a few of us took turns paddling out. We ate lunch at a cool place where the walls and ceilings were covered with white napkins and papers that people had written on. They fluttered in the breeze as we dined on fried fish, rice, salad, and a nasty thick and gooey tomato/seafood puree that the locals seemed to be crazy over but we all hardly touched. The last thing we did was hike to a “waterfall”, which was barely a trickle of water and mostly some awesome swimming holes. Something I’ve learned about Brazilians: they always have a cooler of beer, no matter what. And they take this beer everywhere. There was a group of 3 Brazilian couples at the hostel who came on the South island tour. They lugged a giant cooler of beer to all 3 of the beaches, which didn’t surprise me, but I couldn’t believe it when they actually carried it all the way up to the waterfall!!! I mean, this trail was steep and you had to climb over trees and rocks. I was walking behind them and realized this was somewhat dangerous… twice they slipped and fell, the cooler spilling open and half the beers rolling down the trail. They managed to rescue every single one though. Such talent!

Kayaking the Canal da Barra da Lagoa. Ale took Nina and I kayaking one morning on the canal. It was against the current so we really had our workout. I loved it! Nina thought it was ok, but wished we were going with the current. Ale assured us it would be easier on the way back. His two adorable dogs, Picollino and Ledy, swam in the water after us for a while but quickly gave up. I’ve never been to Venice, but I can imagine that this is the South American version of that. We paddled for 2 hours until we got to a big lake, all the while passing faded and weathered little cottages on the water. It was really picturesque and idyllic. Ale turned around half way to the lake and said he “forgot something”, leaving Nina and I to navigate the rest of the way by ourselves. On the way back, it seemed the current was even stronger against us. I think the little brat realized he messed up on the currents and left us to struggle on our own! Nina was not happy about this. I didn’t mind the exercise – I’m always in need of an upper body workout.

Campeche Islands. I barely made the cut on this trip as it gets booked really fast in the summer. So if you ever do this, book it a few days ahead! Someone didn’t show up so they gave me their spot. Such a cool trip. First you take a 2-hour boat ride in a rickety old fishing boat, passing the scenic nude beach, Praia Mole, Joaquina, and many others. The bronzed and wiry men who run the boat hooked it up for me (one of the many perks of being a blonde girl in Brazil ;) – they sat me up in the very front of the boat on the wooden piece that juts out with nets on either side. I sat perched up there above everyone else with a panoramic view – best seat in the house!!! The boat rocked and swayed with the waves and sprayed salt water up over the sides. A really sweet and pretty Swedish girl named Ellie I had met in Punta del Diablo was on the boat! The randomness of traveling still astounds me sometimes. The poor girl was having a tough time of it though, as every boy in her hostel was flocking around her in droves, vying for her attention with such adamant fervor that it left her completely overwhelmed. I watched in partial amusement at the ridiculousness of it. “You need to make boundaries,” I told her. The island was absolutely breathtaking, a vision of sparkling crystal clear water that morphed into pools of bright turquoise. Several boats were moored offshore and hoards of people played on the beach. We spent about 5 hours here, playing volleyball and swimming in the beautiful ocean. There were a few hikes around the island too, but the sun was so hot no one wanted to do them. Ellie continued to be followed around by her barrage of male suitors, but I managed to get her away for some girl time. We reminisced on the good life in Punta del Diablo and caught up on everything in between. On the boat ride back to town, we feasted on watermelon.

Sports. There were a few volleyball nets set up by the beach and people of all skill levels came to play. Groups of 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s played every evening from 5 pm until as late as 9 pm. Also, 2 slack-lining ropes seemed to be popular with the teenagers. Of course, there was always a soccer game in progress on an actual fenced in sand field. One of the coolest things of all, though, was a beach jazzercise class. Absolutely brilliant!! It involved a woman on a stage dressed in leotard and sneakers with a microphone headset, leading 30+ bikini clad ladies and a few brave men in choreographed dances on the sand. I specifically remember them dancing to “Talk Dirty to Me” and doing jumping jacks… sooo funny. I would have joined in but it was way too hot.

Nightlife. For being such a little town, Barra da Lagoa actually has quite a flourishing and colorful nightlife. A lot of the kids at my hostel were disappointed – it was “too quiet” they said. Most of them took buses to other parts of the island to visit the ultra famous clubs and enjoy almost nightly beach parties. But for me, life across the bridge was more then perfect. Every night there would be some sort of awesomeness taking place. There was usually a sand soccer game going down on one side. Next to the soccer field was a mechanical bull you could ride for around $2 and they gave you 2 rides. A few of my friends and I had a competition to see who could stay on the longest. I’ll give you a hint who won: first name starts with “H” and last name starts with “B” hehe J. Lining the street were vendors mixing caipirinhas in 10 seconds and filling piping hot churros with caramel and chocolate. There was always some sort of live music, drumming, or dance. One night it was samba. Another night it was a large group of young Argentinian gypsies who played all sorts of instruments and sang loudly with fantastic energy. It made me a little envious. I’ve always wanted to travel in a band, living off coins tossed into a hat and having the best time ever! My last night, a local group played Brazilian music on the sidewalk. They were just lovely.

The bank. The nearest ATM was a 30-minute bus ride into another town. But this was totally ok, as the town was actually pretty neat to visit. The shopping there was awesome – I may have added a couple more bikinis to the collection! Also, there were good places to re-stock on essentials like lotion, sunscreen, toothpaste, and shampoo. Can’t believe I already ran out of that stuff. Oh, and there were so many ice cream shops too. There was one on every corner, seriously! If you’ve never tried acai sorbet and vanilla soft serve swirled together, you haven’t lived.

Last night in Barra da Lagoa. This was a bittersweet night… I didn’t want to leave! L The good news, though, is that I will most positively definitely be back!!! The friends I made there are beautiful, passionate, generous people who left an imprint in my life that I will feel forever. I became especially close to a girl named Sophie, originally from New Hampshire, the state where I was born. My last night in Floripa was Sophie's birthday, so that was pretty special to celebrate with her. She came to Floripa 4 years ago, stayed for 6 months, went back to the states because of Visa restrictions, then snuck back into Brazil 2 months later in a bus across the Uruguayan border. She’s lived there ever since, working odd jobs of cooking, house cleaning, bar tending, and chasing her little black dog Frango (Chicken, in Portuguese) around town. But ultimately, living in paradise. She is surrounded by her “family”, a diverse mix of incredibly talented people from all parts of the world who have escaped “normal” life and instead choose to pave their way on this gorgeous island. Like I said, the vibe is incredible. It’s magic here. Jonathan, a blue-eyed blonde Aussie born to German-Brazilian parents, has bought land up on the hill. He’s been building his house all summer, lugging the materials up and doing most of the work all by himself. Jonathan is a source of constant energy, doing never-ending yard work around the hostel, and is the self-titled “limbo champion” of Barra Beach Club. After he has a couple Cuba Libres, the limbo stick comes out and he dazzles the crowd with his flexibility! I am still sore from the last limbo competition. Ale, a Brazilian boy raised in a favela by a single mother of 2, found himself selling drugs and being involved in gangs at a young age. The island saved him. Now he surfs every morning, works the front desk of the hostel every evening, and in between runs around with 2 of the cutest dogs you’ve ever seen. He lives in a tiny little house no bigger than a studio apartment, with a teeny kitchen and a big window that overlooks the ocean. And he loves to cook. The boy can cook the most delicious things! And so generous too, giving most of it away to hungry kids in the hostel. Toward the end of my stay there, I promised him I would make him my favorite go-to dish, inspired by Southern California cuisine: fish tacos. I couldn’t believe that no one at the hostel had ever even heard of one, let alone taste one. So I went into town and bought all of the ingredients, most importantly, fresh white fish with the skin still on it. I marinated the fish in garlic, lime, olive oil, and basil (usually cilantro but they didn’t have any at the markets). Then I thinly sliced the cabbage. A pico de galo was created out of finally diced plum tomatoes, bell pepper, onion, lime, basil, and the biggest, ripest avocado chopped into it. And finally, best of all… the white sauce!! Usually I use half mayo/half sour cream as a base, but they don’t have sour cream on the island. So I used Greek yogurt instead. And I crushed a clove of garlic into the sauce and the juice of a lime. For the taco, I melted cheese onto flour tortillas, topped with the cabbage and sautéed fish, finishing with pico de gallo and white sauce. Everyone went crazy over it! Ale was surprised how good it was – he would have never have thought of putting all these ingredients together. Sophie said she was going to start making them at the restaurant. I’m telling you, I’ve never met a person who didn’t like a fish taco (unless they are vegetarian). There were others I became close to also. There was Maru, the sweetest girl from Argentina. We went to a beach party together and within an hour wanted to get out of there! The music was terrible. So we walked 30 minutes together in the dark to a bus stop and hitch-hiked a ride back to the hostel. We bonded that evening, talking about love and loss and how do you ever really know if you made the right decisions? As we walked up the path at 3 am, I told her I was starving, so she bought me the most delicious mousse I’ve ever tasted. It was passion fruit on top and chocolate on the bottom. You could taste the sweetened condensed milk so distinctly, a nostalgic flavor for me since my dad poured it over my cheerios as a little girl. Maru has been living on Floripa for 3 years now, first moving there with her boyfriend and now on her own. She’s a quiet girl who exudes so much inner strength and outer beauty that she seems completely oblivious to, which makes her even more beautiful. And finally, there is Nico, an Argentinian boy with a scintillating smile and long curly hair who used to work at the hostel but now is a bartender on the beach. He puts in long hours to provide his baby daughter Maya the best life possible. He is a special person, there is no doubt. Oozing creativity, his psychedelic art decorates the hostel walls. He has 2 tattoos – one on each shoulder – that he designed. One is a sort of star with an “M” in the middle for his daughter, the other looks like the crazy bubbly inside of a lava lamp. He is a brilliant musician who loves Jimi Hendrix and The Black Keys, playing in 3 rock bands during any free time. But on a quiet evening when he picks original acoustic ballads and sings in his soft, raspy voice, it casts a spell on anyone listening. This handful of people gave without reserve, inspired me daily, and became not only friends, but family. When I left, I didn’t say goodbye. I said “See you later.”

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Day #18. 3rd day Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Today I wanted to do absolutely nothing. And that is exactly what I did. This super cool, bleach-blonde Aussie girl named Alana and I spent the entire day lounging around at Ipanema beach, which was conveniently located one block from our hostel. The demographics of the beach crowd varies depending on the lifeguard tower number. We went to tower #9, which Alana says is where all the hippies, artists, and young people are. It was more like families actually, but whatever. I didn’t care. I was at a gorgeous beach without anyplace to go!! We rented chairs and an umbrella, sipped on ice cold Coke, talked about everything and nothing, and sampled the always constant stream of beach snacks. Every food imaginable is available to you via locals carrying coolers, buckets, wheelbarrows, etc. We had frozen acai topped with granola; sandwiches filled with grilled veggies, chimichurri, and sliced steak; corn on the cob that had been rolled in butter and a generous helping of salt; roasted cashews; and the most delicious cheese on a stick that they toast right in front of you in a tiny little tin oven. There were a lot of other things I didn’t try, like bags of airy wafers, hot dogs, and iced tea that they lug around in a keg hanging from their shoulder. Everything was delicious, especially that acai!

I took a walk down the beach and saw that lifeguard tower #8 seemed to be hopping. A lot more people in their 20’s were hanging out, and tons of kids were playing some sort of game where they stand in circles and pass a soccer ball around with every body part except their upper extremities. Went back to our post and poor Alana was burnt to a crisp, so we packed up and headed to Arpoador Rock for sunset. The rock was already crowded with people. We sat and waited. Finally... it happened. We watched the distant mountains swallow the sun whole as the sky faded blazing into shadows. Once the sun started sinking, it went down like a bowling ball. We sat in awe. Everyone clapped. It’s tradition, Alana said.

There was a beautiful young couple standing on the rock in front of us, so I offered to take a picture for them. “Um beijo! A kiss!” I said, but they just giggled. “Um beijo!! Um beijo” I continued to coax, but still nothing! Then the girl said in halting English, “We never kiss before.” Ohhhh! It all made sense. Just then, the boy laid one on her. A ravenous, passionate kiss that would make any girl swoon. Alana and I watched in surprised silence as we witnessed their young love evolve before our very eyes. I almost forgot to take the picture!! But somehow, I snapped out of it and managed to capture this moment for them. If they get married one day, that photo better make the slide show. I handed the beaming couple their iPhone and off they went, hand in hand, laughing blissfully over the rocks. But not before one more kiss!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Day #17. 2nd day Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Every country has their obsession. For Argentina, it’s platform shoes and cigarettes.  In Uruguay, it’s crocs and mate. And in Rio, it’s Havaianas and…….. I’ll tell you in a second, but first, let me take a selfie! Yes, selfies. OBSESSED.

I did an incredible tour of the city today. For only $72, a mini van and a tri-lingual guide took 8 of us tourists around to the top attractions from 12 noon to 7 pm. Earlier that morning I had been dealing with money issues. Every single bank had rejected my debit card, so I had to skype call Bank of America which was a huge pain. I had a bad feeling that maybe I had been scammed or something… People have been telling me how easy it is for that to happen. I guess old men will loiter around ATM’s in airports with these card readers in their pockets that pick up your card info if they get close enough to you. And also they will put scimmers over ATM’s on the street or in grocery stores. That’s why it’s always best to use ATM’s that are actually inside reputable banks, preferably with a security guard standing at the door. But BOA assured me nothing looked suspicious, re-set my card, and 30 min later I was finally able to withdraw cash. Being in a big city with no money is not a good feeling.

But I digress. Back to the city tour and selfies. We went to 5 of the absolutely positively “must see” attractions in Rio: Christ the Redeemer statute, Santa Teresa, Lapa steps, the Cathedral, and finally the ultra-famous Sugarloaf Mountain.

Cristo Redentor, or Christ the Redeemer statute. It was even more magnificent and humongous then I imagined. How they were able to build that at the top of a mountain, I’ll never understand! Hoards of tourists – both foreign and local – swarmed the base of the Christ. It was a mad house. The favorite pose was to stand and stretch both arms out, just like the statute. Instagram must blow up every day with hundreds of these #cristoredentor pictures. This is where I first started to notice the selfie obsession. I guess for me, I’ve always just asked people to take a picture of me or of my group. But no one… NO ONE… does this here. They only take selfies. They even have these special poles that they can attach their phones to so they can squeeze the whole crew in. The girls will stand there smiling and posing, batting their eyelashes, repositioning their hair, applying lip gloss, pulling their shirt down just a little lower, adjusting the camera and turning in all angles for 10+ minutes to get the perfect shot. It’s pretty amusing, actually. The background itself doesn’t seem to be a priority. At any rate, standing underneath the Christ in all its grandeur made me feel really, really small. On the way back down the mountain, our guide pointed out a huge Favela village in the distance. Favelas – unfinished houses on a hill – are where the poor people of Brazil live. They used to be horrible, known for drug trafficking and crime, but now are much better thanks to a stronger police presence. The quality of life seems to be improving, since increasing numbers of the poor are now working while simultaneously not paying taxes or rent. It’s still not great, our tour guide explained, but it’s slowly getting better. He said many of them actually drive nicer cars and wear better clothes than him. The Christ stands guard over this Favela, watching over it.

Santa Teresa was just adorable. We didn’t stay long, but it’s a place I’d like to visit again. It’s got a nice artsy, eclectic, boho vibe going for it. The narrow cobblestone streets are lined with little art and craft stores and cafes. Many of them serve a popular dish here – feijoada – which is a hearty black bean and pork stew. An old lady carrying a styrofoam cooler sold the most delicious homemade popsicles in a bag: strawberry, mango, and passion fruit. I tried the latter… aaaah heaven! We stopped to check out another woman’s beautiful necklaces made from buttons and shells. Her smile was so white and pretty… I put my bag down for a moment to take a picture. My guide jumped all over me. “Never ever put your bag down!!!” he warned. I became so used to being in Uruguay which is much safer compared to Rio. Forgot that teenage boys in certain parts of Brazil are notorious for snatching bags, even cutting them off unsuspecting tourists as they run by. I’ll have to be much more on guard now.

The Lapa steps, or Escadaria Selarón. This extra long staircase is covered from top to bottom in mosaics. Back in the day (1990 to be exact), an artist from Chile (Selarón) decided that he wanted to beautify this area, and he spent many many years working on the stairs. They’re like a giant patchwork quilt – every color and design imaginable jumping out at you. Especially pregnant woman. He was obsessed with this population, painting 25,000 of them on his mosaic murals. The stairs also happen to be right at the bottom of a large Favela. Despite being a popular tourist destination and heavily patrolled by police, poor people still loiter around looking for opportunities to rob. When we arrived to the stairs, I saw 5 policemen: 2 special tourist ones with bright yellow jerseys on bikes (I heard they are useless), 1 frisking someone halfway up the stairs, 1 standing at the bottom of the stairs with a machine gun (a machine gun???!), and 1 up in the bushes looking for something. The stairs were breathtaking and I highly recommend them to everyone, but I held onto my bag and camera with a death grip.

The Cathedral, or Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião. This oddly shaped building rises like a pyramid into the sky. I walked inside and felt the breath immediately got sucked out of me. The ceiling opened into a cross made of clear glass, which allowed light to stream down the center of the cathedral. The 4 corners of the wall were made entirely of stained glass, like gleaming mosaic carpets streaming down. It was massive and glorious!!! I was the last person from my tour group to leave. I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed by its beauty.

Sugarloaf Mountain, or Pao da Acucar. You take a tram from the base to the 1st mountain, and then another tram from there to the 2nd mountain. The views from the top are insane. Rio is beyond gorgeous! But many people seemed oblivious to this beauty around them. They were too busy snapping selfies. Even on the tram, everyone had their phones out, capturing the perfect face shot with the awesome background of cloudy glass and iron bars. I saw a girl flipping through the pictures on her phone, but they all looked the same to me. They were all of her face. Sugarloaf was our last stop, and although it was amazing up there, I was completely exhausted from our 7-hour tour of Rio and ready to rest.

I made it to Ipanema just after dark and checked into Mango Hostel. This is in the best location possible – 1 block from the beach! Was starving so started walking to find a place to eat. On the way, I watched 4 chiseled guys doing capoeira in the street. One of them could back flip over a dangerously high rope. Pretty cray!! Found a nice little restaurant with an English-speaking waiter called “Crusto”, which the waiter proudly informed me was voted 3rd best bar in the city this year. I savored every drop of the chilled gazpacho. There were little pepper jelly balls in it that reminded me of tapioca, and the most delicately toasted croutons. Then I had potatoes au gratin, served in stacks – crispy on the outside, creamy and cheesy on the inside – topped with thyme and tomato relish. And of course, a caipirinha! The passion fruit swirled in thick globs, like mounds of tadpoles. I slurped the delicious fruit through my wide straw. Then I went back and slept like a baby.