My 2012 had an exciting beginning. I spent two weeks in Brazil as part of a school trip. This was an exciting trip for me for several reasons. It was going to be my first visit outside the United States since 2007. Although I live traveling and aspire to see the whole world some day, I don't get an opportunity to travel as often due to work schedules and budget constraints. Even though I've made the most of my time in the USA visiting several places like Portland, New Orleans and driving through as many states as I can, nothing beats visiting a foreign country. It was also going to be exciting because it would be my first visit to a place where I did not speak the native language nor did anyone in my group. My international travel experience has been limited to London and Canada, where English is spoken by everybody. I don't count my life in India has international experience really, it is just home, and when I traveled to Gujarat or Karnataka, I always had family members who spoke the native language.
In my two weeks in Brazil, I visited Rio de Janerio, Sao Paulo and Santos. Overall this was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my life. There is a definite thrill and excitement of experiencing a whole new language, culture and people. I enjoyed being adventurous, trying out new foods and taking new risks. While I am no travel expert or an authoritative source on Brazil, I thought I would share not only my experiences but also some travel tips.
Language is overrated: I cannot really stress the importance of trying to learn the local language and developing a basic traveler vocabulary. Our experience would have been much easier if we knew Portuguese. However, the most important thing is to have an open mind and an open heart. As Americans we were definitely apprehensive about traveling without knowing the language. We all have heard horror stories of American tourists being treated rudely or swindled abroad. The problem is not being American, but whether you have an open mind and heart. You have to realize that you are a visitor in a foreign country, so you respect and appreciate their country and their culture. You also have to realize that you are the one who does not know the language. They do not have an obligation to serve or communicate with you. A little bit of effort, humility and desire to communicate goes a long way. Whether it is wild hand gestures, writing in the sand or scribbling gibberish - there is always a way to communicate. The Brazilians are a very friendly and inviting culture, they will go out of their way to serve you.
Trust me, it makes a huge difference. Not that we did not make any cultural faus paxs or screw ups. But they are more likely to be forgiven, if you open up. The disparity in the taxi rates and other services charged to people shows the importance of willingness to communicate. As a result of our friendliness, our beach vendor wore a Mets Jersey for his new friends on our last day at the beach. I've been told this works in France, Spain or anywhere else really.
Language is underrated: For the first time in our lives we experienced what it was like to be in a foreign country and not know a language. We stood in the wrong lines at the grocery store and paying bills took an eternity. Even buying a simple burger at McDonald's was an ordeal. We spend a good long time staring blankly at the faces of our cashiers and servers looking like a bunch of foolish idiots. Despite that the people always smiled and happily wasted huge amounts of their time to help us out.
It gave us a new appreciation for immigrants who come to the States with their families to work and support their families. They do it for days, months and years and the misery of being foolish and clueless never wears them down. They persevere even when people are rude and refuse to help them. I can imagine how terrible our experience would have been if no one cared to help us. The next time anyone of us finds someone in USA who does not speak our language, you can be assured that we will be smiling and helping them.
Soccer is the Universal Language: Brazil is a Latin nation were soccer is their religion. They are passionate about soccer. If one or more members of your group play soccer, Brazilians will give you a lot more love and attention. Try joining a group of locals on a beach or get your own ball and kick it around. Welcome others, especially locals to join in and kick it around as well. If you are not good at soccer, you might just want to keep a low profile. Try and experience a local club soccer game if you can. There is nothing as awesome as seeing a live soccer game in Brazil.
The Best Airport in the World: Rio De Janerio local airport is the best airport in the world. It is just two tiny air strips with the open sea on both ends, that make takeoff and landing seem scary. Planes are arbitrarily scheduled and canceled. Yet it is the best airport in the world. It takes you back to the good old days and reminds you how flying should be - easy. Just grab your bag, put it in the scanner, pick up and go. Don't worry about your shows, electronics or how many milliliters of toothpaste you are carrying. Heck, carry a whole water bottle if you wish. And you know what, fuck terrorism, fuck security, fuck TSA, fuck everything that flying is these days - take a flight from Rio local airport.
Havanas: They are the best flip flops in the world. They are made in Brazil. There are Havana stores all over Brazil that sell Havana at bargain prices. Get yourself some.
Weird snacks: One of the best things about visiting a foreign country is savoring the local food culture. Snacks are something unique to every culture and nation. Here in the United States we have our Pringles and Doritos, pretzels and chips of all kinds, roasted nuts and condiments of all kinds. In India we had our Uncle Chips and Ruffles, our Marie and Glucose biscuits and our Maggi ketchups. In UK they have their marmite and tea time snacks. In Brazil too you have interesting snacks and condiments. Go the the grocery store and try some Bacon cheerios or Stroganoff chips or Soy Ginger potato chips. If you are even more adventurous try their sausages and snacks.
Imbibe: You are in Brazil, this is a nation of fun, frolic and partying - you have to imbibe. Hopefully, you are on vacation and can begin right away in the morning as soon as you wake up and go through the night as well. Just drink responsibly and don't show up to places hammered or misbehave in an inebriated state. If beer is your drink the best brands are Skol, Brahma or Bohemia. Itaipava is usually the cheapest beer selling for just 2 reals in some places. Of course when in Brazil you have to try the Caipirinha which is their national drink. We had 4 real Caipirinha's to 30 real ones. Try them in as many places as you can and compare. If you are daring, try the Cachaca, this palm liquor is usually served as shots in Brazil. Watch out, they are much stronger than tequila. If you don't drink alcohol there are plenty of other options, there is tender coconut water and the soda Guarana. Try the unique flavored sodas of Brazil as well.
Relax: Brazil is actually not as scary and crime ridden as they make it seem. We stopped worrying about getting robbed or mugged. Of course you want to keep an eye on your belongings, but no need to be uptight or over the top about it. The water is safe for brushing teeth and mineral water is readily available.
If you are daring like me, drink a class of tap water as soon as you arrive. I call it my self immunization. There is no immunity better than exposure. But you have to remember, I actually grew up in India. I can handle exposure better than most people.
Rio De Janerio:
- Ipanema is the more happening beach than Copacabana. The crowd at Ipanema is younger, fitter and sexier. The crowd at Copacabana is older. On the flip side Ipanema can get over crowded, while at Copacabana it is easier to get good seats with good views.
- Watch the tide, especially on Ipanema. The tide comes in quickly in the afternoon and rogue waves can creep up the sand and ruin your belongings.
- The beaches are divided into postos, and each post has its own flavor. Seven is the surfer posto, 8 is the LGBT posto, 9 is the happening posto, 10 and on are family postos.
- If you are staying on the beach the postos are a good way to direct your taxi. Just tell them which posto you want to get to.
- Try the beach food - empanadas, grilled cheese sticks, globos, boiled corn on a cob, and even the shrimp on a stick no matter what they tell you about getting sick.
- Visit Christ the Redeemer early in the morning and take the cog train. The ride on the cog train is half the experience. The first train leaves at 8:30 so get there bright and early. The later you go, the longer the wait for the next train. By the afternoon you can wait almost 4 hours for the next train slot. Go on a clear day as clouds can get low and foggy. It maybe foggy early morning, but be patient and willing to spend some time on the hill experiencing the surreal foggy views and enjoying the medley of characters from across the globe.
- Take a favela tour. You won't regret it. It probably will end up being the best part of your entire trip. The favelas are part of the culture, society and life in Brazil and a trip to Brazil is incomplete without experiencing the life of the people in these slums. Most of the money from these trips often goes to improving the favelas and educating its children. Don't view it as a tour of poverty, but take it as an opportunity to witness and experience a different kind of life. The people in the favelas want to open their world to you and show you what the other side of Brazil is like. They want to show you that they are not criminals and there is more to their life than just poverty and drug lords.
- Visit the hippie market on Saturdays
- Visit the Samba practice sessions
- Rent a surfboard and try your hand at surfing. Don't get duped with lessons, the surf shops will rent you a board. The waves are bunny, so you can try your hand at it.
- Try paddle boarding, but mind you the water by the place is a bit filthy - so try not to fall.
- Try the local beach side restaurants. You might just find a favorite like us. Our was Manoel and Joaquim and they have the best fried bananas in the whole world.
- You have to try Porcao which is an authentic Brazilian rodiozo joint. Once you have been to Poraco all the Brazilian joints in the states will pale in comparison. Their meat and produce is of superior quality and they are generous with their quantities.
- You have also got to try the Fejoida, the national dish of Brazil which is a black bean and meat stew served with rice, yucca fries, crackling, kale and toasted manioc flour. Usually it is served only on Saturday, but Casa De Fejoida in Rio serves it all the time - It is the only thing they serve. They even show you how it is traditionally served and eaten.
- Sao Paulo is a metropolitan business hub of the country. It is a lot more crowded, has a lot more traffic and has fast paced urban appeal. It is a sharp contrast to the relaxed and laid back Rio. While Rio is more fun, festive and colorful, Sao Paulo has better restaurants and night life. Allocate time to the cities based on what you like.
- The city has a great metro transit system which is easy to navigate. Most hotels will have metro maps and city maps with places of interest marked. If you get a chance grab the maps and set out on your own adventure, it is far better than paid tours. However, if you don't have the time or sense of adventure, then please do grab a downtown Sao Paulo tour. Their downtown is fabulous, historic, full of culture and distinct urban flavor.
- No visit to Sao Paulo is complete without visiting Italia or the BANESPA building. These are the two tallest skyscrapers that offer breathtaking views. Italia is the taller one, is open longer hours but has an entrance fee for the rooftop view. On the other hand BANESPA is a government building that closes at four, but going to the top is free. Sao Paulo is probably unlike any other city you have ever scene. They have the world's highest concentration of Skyscrapers, even the magnificent New York city cannot compare. This seriously is a breathtaking view, and a must see. The view from every angle is spectacular as the city stretches into infinity.
- Pacaembu stadium is the home to Sao Paulo's beloved club team Corinthians. It is the second most popular club in Brazil and Ronaldo played for them from 2009-2011. The stadium hosts home matches for the Corinthians. If you are in Sao Paulo during league season, you have to catch a Corinthians game at Pacaembu. Even if the league is done, there are also friendly games that still draw some crowds. Stop by a nearby grocery store or local bar before the game to tailgate with the locals. Find fake official merchandise outside the stadium before games. Hurry through your transactions before the cops come by. Make sure to grab a poncho of it is raining. Matches take place rain or shine.
- The traffic in Sao Paolo can be bad, especially if it rains. So plan ahead.
Santos is a port town, two hours away from Sao Paulo. It is one of the largest and busiest ports in the world, and a key port hub in Latin America. Normally, one would not count an industrial, grungy port to be the destination for a vacation. Even our trip to Santos was business oriented to visit a shipping company. However, Santos is a little treasure waiting to be discovered on the Brazilian coast. It may not have the beaches or party appeal of the coast, but Santos has its own charm. The drive to Santos is breathtaking with gorgeous views of the Atlantic forest. Wake up as soon as you start the descend down the mountains to catch the misty mountains and tropical flora.
When in Santos take a river cruise in one of the many cruise lines that dot the docks. You can have a simple sailboat or even an elaborate pirate styled ship. Visit the coffee museum and savor some coffee delights or just walk the cobblestoned quaint streets of Santos.
Hopefully, my experiences in Brazil have inspired you to visit the country or at least vicariously enjoy it through my eyes. Someday perhaps, I'll visit more countries and be able to write about them as well.