We awoke on the bus with the end of our 18hour bus ride in sight. We met two (maybe gay?) Irish guys on the bus and were talking about our various travels so far and future plans (Kevin & Garvin). We arrived around midday at the bus station, unsuccessfully searched for the Costa Verde office to buy tickets out of Rio and in an effort to break a R$50 note for change, got ripped off by a cafeteria who doubled the price of a bottle of drink. When we questioned the check out woman, she waved her finger at us and shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “what do you expect Gringos?” We had been in Rio maybe 15mins and already we had been ripped off. Skeptical and wary now we haggled with 4 separate taxi drivers/services for a decent fare to our hostel, but frustrated, we rolled the dice on the public buses, notorious for robberies. We got on the wrong bus, then we were kindly advised of our mistake and transferred free to the correct bus. Things were improving, albeit only slightly as we arrived at our hostel without incident.
We checked in, got a very late lunch from the local at the corner and went for a walk along the impressive stretch of the Ipanema and Leblon beach (7km return), stopping occasionally to watch bodyboarders enjoying the shorebreak and some surfers at the point break at the Leblon end. Though the buildings were south-facing, we were astonished at the lack of restaurants and/or bars along the beach-front boulevard. Back in Australia, this would not stand. The beach-front buildings were 85% high-rise apartments and 15% hotels so there was very little street presence in an urban sense. Despite this, infrequent kiosks were set up on the beach side of the road which did go some way to providing an amenity other than the beach itself. Nearing dusk, we ventured in to the streets and walked along the shopping strip back to the hostel, dreading our return.
Now, a few words about our hostel (Pirates de Ipanema). It is quite amazing for a number of reasons which we'll list now: it is the dirtiest hostel we've ever stayed in (imagine all the dirt and conveniences of camping without the open spaces and fresh air), it is the cheapest (that we know of) in Rio at R$20(A$14) per night and it's the 'best' hostel in Rio because of the cheap tours and great atmosphere created by the staff and visitors.
Here's some examples of the trials of this place. We're sleeping in a 26 bed dorm - this is actually the best choice because it's the airiest, most high-ceilinged and least crowded dorm in the hostel. The other dorms with less beds are cramped and smelly. The kitchen is disgusting - it seems that around 30% of people wash their dishes and the kitchen gets cleaned (by staff) maybe once a week. You don't want to put your stuff down on the floor or carpet because of how dirty it will get. In the guys showers, one out of three is hot and when I mean hot I mean close to scalding. If you want a hot shower, this is your option. The other two showers are cold, one is a cut off pipe, the other shower head is old school but turned upside-down because it seems to work better that way. Everything looks like it's in a state of decay, because it is.
Now here’s the good part: The staff are extremely helpful, friendly and knowledgeable. They can organise any number of tours for you - for which they do not take a commission. On a R$50(A$35) tour this saves you about R$25(A$17.50). You can hike/rock-climb up the 301m high Pao de Azucar (Sugar loaf) in the middle of Rio with your own guide for R$50(A$35). To take the cable car (the only other option apart from a helicopter) costs R$44(A$30.80). You can also hang-glide over the city for R$200(A$140). Language classes, Caiparinha (Cane spirit, sugar syrup, lime juice) mixing classes for R$5(A$3.50) drinks included!, hiking through local national parks R$50(A$35) - you're getting the picture. We’re planning ahead for a few things and may need to stay an extra day to see a soccer match at Marcana stadium between the two most bitter rivals in Rio. They're also in one of the best spots to stay in Rio - between Ipanema (surf beach, newer, gliztier, best nightlife and safer neighbourhood) and Copacabana (good for beach and history but not much else).
A couple (Simon from England & Hanna from Sweden) saw us getting our stuff read for bed and muttering about how dirty the place was. Simon came over and said that this was the second time they had been here and this time, they had left their cleaner hostel close by in preference for this one because of the better people and the better prices for the tours they offered. He definitely made us feel happier about the dive we were in and after unsuccessfully attempting to buy St Patrick’s day green beer from a busy and stupid Irish pub close-by we slept soundly, with our ear plugs in and our eye-masks on.
Wed 18.03.09 - Lagoa and City Tour
Not the most interesting day today. Short on real exercise recently and following my Achilles sprain in London, I was ready to run some and Kate needed no encouragement. We ran around the Lagoa, a salt water lagoon connected to the sea via a short canal which separates Ipanema from Leblon. It’s a big circuit at around 8km, especially on a hot sunny late morning (31deg) for someone who had not run for around 2 weeks. It was a nice trail, but footsore and sweltering, I threw in the towel after around 5kms and we walked the remaining circuit and back to the hostel, perhaps 12km overall.
The day was sunny a that time, despite forecasts of rain, so we decided to go ahead with the ‘city tour’, by mini-bus with a guide to see Maracana, the Sambadrome (kind of stadium for Carnivale), the Metropolitan Cathedral and Christ the Redeemer statue – the most weather dependent item on the list (the mountain really needs to be clear to get the most benefit). We paid R$40 (A$28) for the tour, easily covering what the transportation and independent admission would cost. After being picked up from the hostel, first stop was Maracana, built for the 1950(ish) world cup and held over 200,000 for the final. The capacity is now around 134K due to seats and boxes being installed. We saw the foot imprints in concrete of current and past Brazilian football superstars and walked in their footsteps, so to speak. I stood in Pele’s whereas, picturing Napolean Dynamite, Kate liked Roberto Dinamite (Roberto Carlos Oliviera) and stood we he stood. Expecting to come back there on Sunday, we quickly moved on.
Next was the Sambodrome, the focus of Rio’s Carnivale. It’s exists entirely for carnivale and nothing else in order to ease the yearly financial burden on the city in setting up temporary facilities and stands. Designed and built in only 90 days prior to a carnivale around 35 years ago, it is a long, straight road, lined either side with spectator stands, culminating in (and I love this) a stage whose back-drop is a huge rounded white concrete ‘M’, (like the Macdonalds’ golden arches with the middle filled in) inspired by the shape a g-string makes between a woman’s bum. Most empty stadiums are fine, but this one is a bizarre sight without people. It’s the kind of scene where you half-expect to see zombies emerging from the shadows between and underneath the empty stands begging for brains. It was a bit weird during the day but at night-time it would be so spooky.
Next stop was the Metropolitan Cathedral. I liked this building, because it’s modern and impressive. However there’s no hiding it’s ugliness. It looks more like a Mayan Temple than a cathedral. It’s best features are: it holds 20,000 people and that it’s naturally ventilated (important in the tropics). That being said, I like the fact that in a city where the gap between rich and poor is palpable, the catholic church/architect produced a building which looks accessible to all people.
Next was Chisto Redentor. Watching the clouds hovering over the mountains, we were hoping for some providence, however as we climbed up through Santa Teresa (beautiful old neighbourhood) it seemed more and more unlikely. When we arrived it was completely shrouded in cloud so much so that we could barely see the arms of the statue, when standing at its foot. The otherwise stunning view of Rio from its highest point may well have been at Christmas in Glasgow or dead-winter in Stockholm. Dejected we were taken to a lower hill, still quite high where under the cloud we could still get a great view of Rio. Looking up towards the statue, the curtain of cloud opened for not more than 20 seconds filling us with jealousy towards those fortunate enough to have been we stood waiting for that view 10 minutes before-hand. We were returned to the hostel unfulfilled, cooked dinner, caught up on things and went to bed.
Beach at Ipanema and Climb up Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf)
Determined to make the most of the good weather while it was here, we headed to the beach following a surprisingly satisfying and cheap breakfast of acai – an Amazonian berry which they freeze, crush, sweeten and serve with granola as a breakfast/dessert/snack. We originally were going to do the centro walking tour, but after dropping off our laundry, we decided we didn’t have enough time walked back to the hostel along the Copacabana. The waves were good – 1.5-2.5m shorebreaks. I had borrowed a shitty and old bodyboard from the hostel and did not have any fins, but I was happy to be amongst the waves with a board anyway. Kate was happy to be just getting some sun on the beach. Hungry, we bought some lunch and ate it quickly before getting ready to go climbing.
We were to hike/rock-climb up the 301m high Pao de Acucar (Sugar loaf) in the middle of Rio – a stunning landmark for the city and a view only rivaled by the Christ Statue. We left with two other Brazilian girls who arrived at our hostel wearing trainers and pink leotards (seriously) who were friends of our guide, Victor a Chilean guy who stays at the hostel. Both from Brazilia, one girl turned out to be the Victor’s girlfriend (“sometimes”) and the other just annoying. She was frustratingly slow on the hike and rock climb and during the cab ride to the climb she could not stop either talking on the phone or texting. I felt certain that Kate was going to kill her at some point on the hike but to her credit she restrained herself. We paid R$50(A$35) for the climb when to take the cable car (the only other option to get there apart from a helicopter) costs R$44(A$30.80). So for an extra R$6 we got a much better experience and some great exercise.
We started hiking at around 4pm, walking through rainforest then trekking up granite faces on hand and feet before rock climbing with ropes up a 30m stretch. The remainder was a steep hike through scrub and forest before arriving at the summit at sunset (6pm) to view the city from the ideal vantage point. The cool thing was that the ride down the cable car after 7pm is free - all you have to do is tell that you climbed up!
Having earned an appetite, we decided to treat ourselves with dinner at a restaurant and armed with the Wallpaper guide, we chose Devassa mostly because it was raining and it was the closest to the hostel. Home-brewed beers, good food and atmosphere meant we were satisfied and the rain had stopped so we went home to bed.
Centro walking tour
Was largely as per Lonely Planet’s recommendations – nothing amazing but a few good things such as: Confieitaria Colombo a beautiful arte-nouveau building sporting seriously good (looking) cakes & tarts, Rio Scenarium – an old antique store turned live music venue, a beautiful old reading room and Travessa do Comercio (the original business street in Rio) which is now a series of narrow, cobble stone streets lined with bars and literally bursting at the seams with tables and people enjoying a Friday night after-work drink.
The favela party
We’ll try to describe what happened that night (Saturday morning 21/03/09) since it is the only method of recording what happened and its hard to imagine we’ll ever see something quite like it again. We could have done a favela tour during the day which we understand was to be largely educational and focused on dispelling some of the urban myths surrounding the favela but did not go. Favelas are like shanty towns or slums, where there is not necessarily access to electricity, water, sewerage or an address. They grow like vines up steep hillsides inhabiting places where no title exists, no services exist or no others fear to tread. Mostly they are poor places, communities existing outside the law and run by gangs paying lip service to the country outside of their own tight-nit ‘community’. What we know of country, community and law does not necessarily hold there. You would see some crazy things on that tour, but this took things to a whole new level.
We were going to a street party, a weekly fixture in the favela where local DJs play a funk/hip-hop/samba fusion called balé funk. We were instructed by our hostel owner that part of the agreement in entering the favela at that time was that photos were absolutely not permitted due to the sensitive identities of the drug dealers and gang members present.
The party was in Vidigal, a favela housing approximately 80,000 people at the west end of Impanema/Leblon beach. It’s a relatively small one by Rio’s standards and run by a gang called (I think) Amigos dos Amigos, ADA (Friends of Friends). The largest, favela called Rocinha holds around 300K people. After Kate’s disco nap and an otherwise easy night, we took off in a mini van (the driver lives in Vidigal) at around 2.30am with 10-12 other hostel mates. Outside the entry to the favela was a police car, and at the ‘entry’ was a crowd of motorbikes and two guys in flak jackets, holding M16s, checking to see whether our driver was recognizable. Approved, we were waved through and headed up the steep, walled, footpath-less streets of the favela – straight up the steep hill. All the while, guys on motor bikes with their girls hanging on flew past us in both directions without any headlights. Another guy with an assault rifle flagged us down, instructing the driver to park the van. We walked up the hill with other locals. We could here the music clearly then and wondered how much further we had to trek, but it wasn’t far.
Rounding the corner around 75m from the bus, we could see the epicenter of the party was focused on a Y-shaped junction of narrow streets 40m from the corner. The junction created a clear space of about 8m wide, walled on one side by the hill and the opposite built up with 2 storey shops and houses. There was easily 1000 people there, maybe more like 1500 throbbing around the junction and spreading off to the distance up and down the hill. At the ‘bottom’ of the Y were the DJs. On the shop-side was the bar, open to the street and on the hill-side was the ‘wall’ of speakers.
The speaker ‘wall’ was a sight to behold. Stacked around 4m high by 25m long along one side of the junction, the sound was intense. The speaker wall faced the open bar the and space in-between was like some sort of sound-battlefield. It was so loud that:
You could feel it with your skin, the beats moved the hairs on your arms and legs, created concentric rings on the top of your drink (think Jurassic Park with the T-Rex approaching), it disrupted your breathing and it rattled your voice-box. This wasn’t the only thing it was rattling as we both separately observed the bolt on the toilet door un-locking itself from the vibrations that battered the toilet door in the bar. The music was so loud that we chewed the toilet paper we brought for our own use and stuffed it into our ears to preserve our hearing. Though undoubtedly crude, it definitely saved our hearing.
The crowd was large and filled the streets. Men, women and children as young as 7 were all reveling, punctuated by the odd guard nursing an assault rifle and occasional conga lines of men hoisting their own armory of rifles snaking through the crowd. We were warned that there would be many guns present but despite our preparations the quantity and frequency was arresting. We later found out that it wasn’t normally this ‘protected’ but because Rio’s ‘second most wanted’ man was attending the party, extra ‘body guards’ were present. There was a lot of guns – and by guns I mean serious killing machinery.
We’ll try to name what we saw for those interested, but since we’re not experts, some of this maybe wrong: Un-numerable handguns of all sorts, AK-47s, ME-15s, M-16s, MP-5s, SLRs, other un-identified assault rifles, a sniper rifle and a hand-held grenade launcher (M-65?). Many of the guys were wearing bullet-proof vests. At one point a mate said “check-out the laser show”. Following the laser back to the source, it was clear it was from the guy’s laser sight on his rifle. An Israeli guy who was a former commando (very uncomfortable on that night) from the hostel saw the guy with the M-65 (rocket propelled) grenade launcher who had a selection of grenades to choose from his ‘belt’ – regular, tear gas and anti-tank. All the bar staff carried weapons – one guy had two pistols and four knives (all on show around his waist).
The bar was giving away beer – you grabbed a plastic cup and they filled it up until their was a mouthful or two left in the bottle then they finished it off themselves. This was great except for how loud it was in there. In the street you could buy beer, alcho-pops or cocktails from various tables/eskies set-up on the road. All were cheap and away from the loudest part of the street so we found a spot there.
Drug use was overt and also easy to come by. A small, conspicuous table was set up next to a different bar down the road with essentially, pick & mix drugs - like you might find mixed lollies or cakes at a street stall. There were different sized bags of coke, hash, coke with hash and acid most of them cheaper than a beer. Behind the table was the dealer and behind him, another guy with a rifle. Then there were the guys (some with guns) who were lazing around their motor bikes down the street, rattling a small bottle and sucking on some other sort of drug. We hoped that this was not crystal meth, but we don’t know.
The makeshift bars disappeared and the crowd thinned as the sky grew light and the stars faded. The music was still as load as ever. Our mini-bus was organized to leave at 6:00am but all had had enough and we left at around 5:45.The mini-bus dropped us off at the hostel just past 6, and most of us were still excited and liked the prospect of watching the sunrise at the beach. Some jumped in for a swim, me just in my jocks and body surfed the nice Ipanema shore-beak before getting cold and tired and returning for shower and sleep.
These parties occur every weekend, organized by the gang and patronized by the favela people. This is their ‘norm’. This is their local. For us it was a once in a lifetime experience, something we’re glad to have seen and probably more thankful to have survived and be able to write about it now.
Needless to say that nothing much occurred on (the rest of ) Saturday morning. We woke up well into the afternoon and took the opportunity to send some emails and sort ourselves out before taking on anything else for the day. We devised a healthy menu for dinner and prior to indulging, as penance for the previous night’s sins we forced ourselves to run down the Copacabana beach and back – a task of around 6.5kms. Feeling much better about our day we returned to internet and TV before bed.
We began this morning with the search for coffee, which so far had been wholeheartedly disappointing in Brazil. Following our Wallpaper guide to a recommended place, we walked (through the drizzle mind you) all the way to Leblon (3.5km) to find this breakfast place with good coffee. It was closed – on Sunday. What breakfast place worth their salt is closed on Sunday? Crushed and increasingly desperate, we pressed on further to the main shopping strip of Leblon. Soon after we found a gem of a place which was a café/deli/bakery/restaurant. The coffee’s we spied from the customer’s outside looked good so we ventured in and were not disappointed. After a bit of a ‘lost in translation’ moment where we ordered cappuccinos (closet thing on the menu to latte) but got chai lattes, Kate was trying her hardest not to have nervous breakdown. We complained and a sympathetic waitress made sure we got the coffee we were after without extra charge. Knowing that this was the best bakery that we were likely to come across in Brazil, before leaving we bought up on as many rolls and breads as we could carry and feasibly eat before getting on the next bus to Ilha Grande.
The bakery’s many pleasure’s had made us late and we missed the ‘hippy market’ nearby our hostel, rushing back to make the bus for the afternoon’s football game. We threw together and inhaled a makeshift but tasty lunch (thanks to the bakery) and sat, frustrated waiting on Brazilian time for our promised bus to the game. Of course it came, full of backpackers from other hostels and we stood the whole way in Rio football traffic. As we neared the stadium we could feel the eyes of fans wrapped in their teams colours, on foot on the gridlocked motorway chanting and staring into our bus trying to discern our allegiance to either side and making gestures like semaphore to get a response. Thank god we were on a tour because the excitement and confusion outside the stadium would have swept us up to who knows where. We sat more-or less between the Flamengo and Vasco fans, but clearly in a Vasco section. All fans are segregated here according to allegiance to remove potential violence, even though alcohol was banned at the ground a long time ago. Apparently, following the failure of his team to reach the Cup finals, a drunk fanatic threw himself over the railing to his death, being the last nail in the coffin for alcohol at the games. The place looked close to capacity and the atmosphere was electric. Though the game was slow with scoring for the first half, 5 red cards between arch rivals made quite a spectacle. It bucketed down at half time sending all but the most devout back under the cover of the upper stands. The half time entertainment was lean, but quite impressive all the same where and old man (must have been at least 70) juggled a football with his feet without a mistake from end to end for the entire half time of 10 mins.
Vasco scored two in the second half and being in their company, we basked in the collective glory for the remainder of the game. Mindful of the commencement of Dad’s funeral back home without us, we were watching the clock on the way back. We were starving too and had a snack enough to satisfy our desperate cravings before arriving on the beach at Ipanema just in time for when everyone met at the roadblock in Marysville for dad’s funeral (literally, 10 seconds beforehand). We sat on rock wall and took a few silent moments away from the madness of the hostel and the day thus far. Kate prayed for me and the rest of the family at the funeral as I didn’t feel I could manage it at the time. I could manage a prayer after that, as there was much I needed to say despite my emotional paralysis earlier. We had a (very late) dinner and bottle of Chillean red wine to settle down. Hanna, our friendly English/Swedish travel mate in Rio kept us company and just may have done the trick to stop us from descending into some sort of private melancholy. We would be off to new places tomorrow.
Having enjoyed bodysurfing at Ipanema during the week so much and with Kate hell-bent on getting one more run and some more bread and coffee, we dragged ourselves out of bed early at 7am. The surf was small but fun and the bakery kept Kate in a good mood for half the day. We rushed our breakfast and in the rush to catch a taxi from the hostel to the bus station, Kate left her reading glasses at the hostel – a minor disaster. We didn’t have the hostel’s number, access to the internet and had to jump on a bus right away, so we had to deal with it later, some-how.
4 hours later in Angra dos Reis we caught a schooner to the island. If you get a chance to go there, take the schooner instead of the ferry - it’s open to the sky and is much faster for a tiny but extra. There are heaps of small islands in that area, many of them private with a house, sprawling lawns and outdoor sun decks and entertainment areas in the middle of the blue bay. Like anywhere in Brazil, this kind of wealth is in such close proximity to the poverty. The scenery is beautiful though, steep granite hills covered in rainforest rising straight out the clear deep water – the odd beach and house breaking the otherwise natural scene.
Arriving at the docks of Arbraao, the only real town on the island, we checked out one of the hostels close to the water. Nice spot, but seemed overpriced after having briefly chatted with an Australian women who owned a hostel offering the best breakfast in Brazil for the same price. We decided we wanted to stay there, the only problem being that we didn’t know where her hostel was, what the name of it was or even her name. All we knew was that she was an Australian. This was a small town on a remote island in Brazil, surely everyone would know the Australian woman who has set up a B&B! Kate looked after the bags in an internet café whilst I did some asking around and would meet back in 15mins. 45 minutes and a very long storey later (consisting of some good detective work, luck and frustration) I returned to Kate, who by sitting on her bag outside the internet café had managed to find out everything I had in just 15 minutes through people asking her questions! Lesson learned – If you want to find a place to stay, sit on your bags in a busy place, wait and ‘let the mountain dome to mohammed’.
Tired after all this, bed came early.