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Seven waves to sea in the New Year

IMGP1090I have wanted to see New Years Eve or ‘Reveillon’ in Copacabana since before my first trip to Brazil in 2005. That first time, I changed my plans at the last minute and missed out on the Carioca revelry that year, so this year nothing was going to stop me… the wait was over.

I had bought a cheap air ticket online, and made my way to the airport in São Paulo. It was an odd setup, as it appeared that everyone had the same gate as me. There werecrowds of people gathered around, all seemingly assigned the same gate. But after the computer, or clerical error was discovered, one helpful guy came down to scream out where flights were leaving from… every few minutes. It seemed like every flight had a gate change, frustrating even the locals, prompting one woman to get up and yell out, “Meu Deus, imagina A Copa” (My God, just imagine the World Cup).

This was the first, but not the last time I heard this current saying around Brazil. Anytime a system was slightly broken anywhere, the humorous Brazilians would just laugh it off and imagine the anticipated chaos of The Cup.

Then it was time for my gate to change, and I was jetting off to Rio. Choosing airports close to the city can be gold for domestic travelers. Congonhas in São Paulo, or Santos Dumont in Rio, can shave your taxi fare or travel time in half, so choose wisely, and don’t. just go with the main international airports you might have heard of. Santos Dumont is an airport pretty bang in the centre of the city, and it’s a beautiful way to get into Rio.

When I lived in Ipanema for a few months in 2005, I fell in love with the place, so there was no question of where I was going to stay this time around. I’m an Ipanema boy through and through…

Both Ipanema and Copacabana are some pretty impressive stretches of beach in Rio de Janeiro. There is always a bit of rivalry between Copacabana and Ipanema as to which beach is better… but for Reveillon, ‘Copa’ wins hands down. I headed down to the beach for the last rays of sun from 2013, before heading across to Copacabana, all within walking distance from Ipanema.

Transport shut down pretty early, so you had to give yourself time to walk to your desired location. Copacabana beach is the place to be and usually the best action happens in front of the Copacabana Palace, in terms of free shows and crowds. Usually they score some pretty big acts, and it’s worth checking who might be performing at one of the three or so stages constructed on the beach.

I like the equality of New Years in Rio. In Sydney, the fireworks are amazing, but everyone seems to be fighting for the best positions to view them. I remember sometimes starting at 10 in the morning to make a day of it in Sydney just to reserve a good spot, and slowly watch it erode throughout the day as the crowd presses closer. In Rio, anyone who makes it to the four kilometre stretch of beach has a commanding view.

I celebrated New Years at a friends place in Copacabana over a sumptuous dinner with amazing Brazilian dishes, (thanks Marcos and Felipe) and with fifteen minutes to go before 2014, we walked the 2 streets down to the beach, and made our way to the shoreline, champagne in hand. (Brazil’s lack of laws regarding alcohol in the street or anywhere are a real boon – and rampant alcoholism doesn’t seem to abound.)

Midnight struck, and the sky grew red with fire as the fireworks got underway. It was 17 minutes of sheer beauty, with a scope of view to rival any IMAX screen or tennis match, but at least the champagne dulled any neck aches.

As with any Brazilian festival there seem to be a few traditions that are worth getting into. For New Years, you wear predominantly white, with splashes of to their colours that signify what you hope for in the year ahead. Red for love. Yellow for money. Blue for peace. Green for hope. Just to name a few… And then there is the presenting of offerings to Iemanjá, an Orixa from the Candomble religion, and the goddess of the sea.

After midnight, scores of people head to the sea to offer their gifts of flowers or other presents for Iemanjá into the sea. I’ve heard that it’s good if your offerings are taken out into the sea, as if they return back to shore it’s not a great omen for the year ahead.

Then you just have to jump seven waves in a row, and your luck is all sorted for the year ahead. No one seems to know exactly where this tradition came from, but it likely relates to Iemanjá, who is the mother of all the other orixas, a spirit of water – her favourite number is seven after all.

So regardless of whether you put your luck in destiny, or your destiny with the gods, add New Years at Copa to your bucket list… it will be a worthy addition.

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Squeezin’ in a little pre-Carnival action

If you are ever in Rio and it’s the month before Carnival, then you’re in for an added bonus. You can have a mini Carnival experience by heading to any of the street parties or ‘blocos’ that happen in the weeks leading up to the main event.

What’s a bloco? Well, it’s best experienced, but in its simplest form, it’s a group of people getting together in the street. There’s music, usually a band, or a large group of drums & percussion, plenty of drinking and even more dancing. Bring costumes, smiles and a sense of fun and you’ll fit right in.

(The picture above is from my 2005 trip but it will give you the idea…)

Ask around when in Rio, the locals tend to have a pretty good idea of where and when the street parties are happening… The most famous one, and possibly the most debaucherous, is the ‘Banda de Ipanema’ which starts at the General Osorio park and then take over the streets of Ipanema.

Start drinking early, but pace yourself, as the truck with the huge speakers pumping out the tunes goes pretty slowly around the streets for four hours or more. First hour – drinking/dancing. Second hour – drinking/dancing. Third hour – flirting/drinking/dancing. And the fourth hour? Well it’s is best viewed in person…

Everyone wears a costume or ‘fantasia’ and you can buy pretty much anything you’d need on the streets, so take just some cash and not much else for a worry-free Carnival experience.

This time, I was wearing some shorts which were hanging quite loose on me, so I was glad for the belt I had on to keep them up. That was until I went to the bathroom and the belt buckle broke! (Of all the days…) So I raced around to all the shops in Ipanema, which were rapidly closing their doors before the street filled will revelers. I found myself a new belt, and was back on track for a pants-on bloco experience. 🙂 

Banda de Ipanema usually happens each Saturday in the month leading up to Carnival and starts around 4 or 5pm in the afternoon at the General Osorio park, just next to the metro stop. Follow the drum beat if you get lost or turn up late…

 

Sweet ‘dis position – Pão de Açúcar

The first time I visited Rio, I was living there for 3 months, so there was no rush to do all the touristy things. So out of a little bit of laziness and perhaps a smidgeon of procrastination, I missed out on going to see the view from the Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf).

If I’d have known how spectacular the view is, I would have probably gone there a dozen times in those three months. This time I was sure to have it on my to-see list, and it didn’t let me down.

After catching the first cablecar to the first of its two peaks, the vista was spectacular already with sweeping views of all the key places in Rio – Centro, Copacabana, Ipanema, Niteroi, Guanabara and Botafogo.

But the view is gobsmacking when you catch the second cablecar to the peak. Despite the crowds – the feeling was transcendent.

My tips on best time to go… At least an hour before sunset, so you can get a view of Rio by day and by night. Make sure you get up to the top just before sunset so you can enjoy the best view.

Cost is about 40 Reais and cablecars travel every 20 minutes. Each car carries only 60 people so make sure you get in the line early or you might wait and miss out!

Rocking The Rio Beach Life

Brazilians are really into their black and white rocks… Many of the cities have ornate sidewalks which must take days to create out of small pieces of colored rock.

In Rio, two designs in particular mark the calçadãoes (sidewalk promenades) of its most famous beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema. The designs have been adopted with a sense of pride and place by its inhabitants, and have come to symbolize the spirit of the beachside communities.

For Rio, beach life is kind of like Australia’s cafes… People meet here to chat, drink and share lifes moments together.

It’s sometimes hard to know where to meet amongst the crowds, but everyones so easygoing that it doesnt matter if you don’t end up finding them!

My advice for a great day on the beach in Rio…
– Choose a ‘barraca’ or serviced tent and grab a chair and umbrella. It’s a good idea if you plan to stay there a while.
– Tents are the best way to find someone as well. Let your friends know which tent you plan on staying in front of and it makes it a little easier to find you.
– Take only what you need for a great day at the beach. Sunscreen, sarong, some money, a book. Everything else you can get there and ask someone to mind your stuff while you take a dip. It’s common practice…
– Forget the boardshorts. The speedo or square ‘sunga’ is the way to go here…
– Try the foods on offer. Queijo coalho (haloumi like cheese) and açai are my favorites. Oh and agua de coco, the coconut water!
– You can almost buy ANYTHING on the beach in Rio. I’ve seen people selling carpet, no joke…

Reconnecting with Rio

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Rio has changed so much in the past six years since I was the Boy from Ipanema… And it’s a change for the better!

The city is far safer (in most of the tourist spots) than it was during my last visit. Which means that all there is for you to do is enjoy the marvelous life that the ‘cidade maravilhoso’ has to offer.

My first day I spent connecting with all the places I had missed so much… Ipanema, my old apartment, my favorite cafe, and of course having an açai with banana by the beach!

No matter how prepared you are, the first time you go to the beaches here, you always feel like a complete foreigner… But the feeling passes overnight and then you can just relax and enjoy this stretch of paradise.

Cariocas, Rio’s locals, can be profoundly annoying to tie down to times, as a general rule, but once you accept this and move on, you’ll find the other Carioca characteristics that make them so charming. Wide smiles, good humoured, friendly and always with their finely tuned bodies on display, the Cariocas are excellent at making tourists feel welcome.

Rio’s Carnival Up In Flames

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Tragedy hit preparations for Carnival in Rio de Janeiro as the City of Samba, where all floats and costumes are housed, went up in flames. More than 120 firefighters raced to the scene, and were able to save 70% of the complex. Three of the ‘schools of samba’ lost their floats and many of their costumes. Portela, União da Ilha and Grande Rio are some of the largest and respected schools of samba. With less than a month to go until the Carnival parade gets underway, this is a significant setback for the three schools. But despite the sadness, all three schools will do what they can to still take part. Many people are donating money to help those affected most. Coming for Carnival? Never fear, the party will still be on, and I’m sure that the three entries from the affected schools will be an emotional thing to witness.

Then Mugged Again…

Happier times at my apartment - Danny's birthday!

Happier times at my apartment – Danny’s birthday!

And just when you think that nothing else can go wrong I get mugged again. This time it was only for money in the street no drugs or chewing gums. But it was more of the timing that was annoying. I was still waiting for my replacement Visa card from the last robbery, leaving my apartment the next day, and down to my last $150 in cash. I had transferred some money through to my emergency card but it takes up to 72 hours to arrive here in Brazil.

The irony was that I was walking down the street at night to give away my pillows and sheets and sleeping mat to the people who were living on the street. For some reason, there were none to be found and I had to walk to the next suburb to finally relieve myself of all of the bedding. On the way back, someone else kindly relieved me of my last $150. I had been careless and in a rush to get my apartment cleaned up and I hadn’t thought about how much money I had in my pockets before I left.

I was due to go to Miracema the next day. Miracema is like the outback of the state of Rio de Janeiro and it was going to cost around $35 for the bus. I also needed to catch a taxi to the bus station which was going to cost between $10-18. Having had my last money stolen and only having $9 in notes I was feeling a little worried. Then I remembered my coin collection I had counted it earlier and it had come to $42. Picture granny at the bank counting out 1,000 five-cent coins and you might get a better idea of what I was working with.

I didn’t sleep very well that night, being financially unsure about everything that was to happen the next day, and I only had a packet of biscuits to eat which left me pretty hungry. It really made me stop and think what it must be like to be down to your last dollar and have no option of a place to go but the street. At least I had options of friends that I could stay with if it came to the worst.

But the next morning I signed out of the apartment, went to the bank and found that my transferred money had come through just in time to help me keep me off the streets.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking, Get out of that country you crazy traveller you! Not a chance. I wouldn’t swap the experiences I’ve had for anything. Overcoming our problems makes us stronger and wiser. I also don’t want to put you off coming to Brazil. The two bad people I met in Rio are nothing in comparison to the hundreds and thousands of other friendly, genuine people I met here.

Drugged and Mugged

At the Botanic Gardens in Rio

At the Botanic Gardens in Rio

I had been thinking that it was good fortune I hadn’t been robbed in Rio for three months, but that has now changed and in a big way!

I met another Brazilian traveller in the street one afternoon, started talking with him and ended up having lunch and talking about the different things in Rio that were interesting to see. After this we were walking and he bought a packet of chewing gum and offered me one. Having seen him buy the gum I didn´t think much of it at the time. But now I am pretty sure that he swapped it for a pre-prepared gum in his pocket before giving it to me.

After some time I began to feel dizzy. I don´t remember much more after this, only waking up the next day in hospital. Scary!

I had two friends arriving that same day to stay with me. They rang the bell at my apartment and no one answered the door. They returned a few times and still no one was there. There´s a youth hostel two doors down from my apartment so they slept there for the night.

Danny returned to my apartment the next morning and rang the bell. I don’t remember waking or really talking with him, but I remember hearing his voice and somehow opening the door (this took me about 15 minutes). He saw I was not myself and got me to hospital and contacted the tourist police. I was vomiting a lot and was drifting in and out of consciousness.

However I don’t remember a thing about it all. The drug I had been given was powerful and is called a ‘Good Night Cinderella’ here in Rio.

After being released from hospital, slowly my head started to clear and I began to store memories again. Friends from Rio were there to help me and I returned to the apartment to find that most of my things had been stolen. My computer, camera, phone, some money and clothes had been taken.

It was weird to think that someone had been in my apartment for a considerable amount of time and could have done anything that they wanted to do. I don’t remember anything and it scares me even now to think what could have happened.

I know that God and my friends were looking after me. At the hospital I happened to see a workmate of one of my friends in Rio. He phoned her and she and her boyfriend came to help me at the hospital and at my apartment. I don’t know that many people in Rio so for me to just come across someone in the hospital like that is extremely lucky, or at the very least a miracle.

Now I am okay. I am not afraid to go out on the streets and continue my life as I was before. But I keep on seeing people who look a little bit like him every now and then and it gives me a little chill.

I still need some time to process everything that has happened. But I know that I have some great friends here in Rio looking after me. Also the stories of the different people praying for me back in Australia was very touching. Thank you for your prayers. I know they have helped me.

Well I hope I haven’t scared you off travelling for life… because I know that I will continue to travel and live my life to the full as it was intended to be. Never let moments like this discourage you. Take every opportunity to make something out of everything that happens. Only a fool hides behind his fear.

One amusing thing about my ordeal was that I forgot the English language temporarily when I was rousing from my drugged slumber. Danny, my Australian friend who was visiting me, had a little trouble understanding what had happened when I explained everything to him only using Portuguese. (Rafa, you must be proud of me as your Portuguese student forgetting my native tongue and picking up the local language)

After this I spent some time relaxing on the beach and keeping everything pretty low key. Danny and Aija stayed around in Rio longer than they planned just to keep an eye on me and for their presence I am really grateful.

The Boy from Ipanema

Everyone claps on the beach immediately after each glorious sunset

Everyone claps on the beach immediately after each glorious sunset

“Young and tanned and toned and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking. And when she passes, each one she passes goes Ahhhh.”

If you don’t know the song ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ then you obviously haven’t spent enough time listening to music in elevators. This song was composed by Tom Jobim in a bar in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro, which is now named after his famous tune. However the food there is a little expensive and nothing inspirational for future musicians so I only recommend a moments thoughtful reflection at the entrance….

I may not make everyone go, “Ahhh”, when I walk past, but I have become something of a boy from Ipanema, by moving into an apartment there a few weeks ago. Originally I had another apartment lined up with someone for Carnaval, but at the last moment, she changed her mind and backed out of the deal. Finding a new apartment took a lot of time, and I ended up having to wait out my time in a dodgy hotel… complete with questionable sheets and a perilous staircase of death.

Big thanks have to go to my friends Fernando and Ricardo for helping me to find the new apartment!

Travelers Tips:

Stay at the ‘Adventure Hostel’ in Ipanema. It’s close to the beach, to transport and in a safe location two doors down from where I was robbed (hehehe). The staff are great and the included breakfast isn’t half bad either!

Carnaval!

Just one of the myriad of floats appearing at Carnaval 2005!

Just one of the myriad of floats appearing at Carnaval 2005!

The number of foreigners exponentially exploded and the streets were overflowing with tourist shirts, cameras and different languages.

The frocks were out and about in the streets at the annual ‘Banda de Ipanema’.

Basically the idea is everyone gets behind a giant truck with speakers and dances around the streets for about 5 hours. It’s a great day out as everyone goes crazy with the costumes and is happy to enjoy themselves for the day.

The street parties or ‘Blocos’ each have a different flavour in the different suburbs around Rio. There’s always something happening somewhere so you can never be bored or sit still in this town during Carnaval!

I don’t know if you have ever seen pictures of the giant Carnaval parade, or Desfiles de Escolas de Sambas in Rio. All I can say is wow! Danny, Aija and I jumped onto a train on Monday night and walked down to the Sambodromo, the purpose-built Samba stadium designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

We had to hang out and look for scalpers on the night as we hadn’t bought tickets beforehand. Eventually we came across one that we felt might not be ripping us off by much and went to meet a friend of a friend with a suitcase full of tickets. But the uneasy feeling passed when the magnetic strip worked and we made it through the gates.

The parade begins at 9.00pm and usually finishes around 7.00 the next morning. Each group or ‘school’ of samba takes an hour and a quarter to get through and can have up to 8 floats of gigantic proportions and thousands of people in costume to dance and parade. There were 14 samba schools in the main parade over two nights. The floats were amazing, the dancing was intense and the atmosphere was juicy.

On the train ride home all I could think about was all the costume shops in Brazil, bereft of anything glittery or sparkly for the next three months!

Carnaval isn’t just a huge party. The Government in Rio use it to promote community spirit. Communities will decide to pay to set up a school of samba, and then pay to create floats and costumes and write a new song to march to. The Carnaval parade has a number of judges that look at things like harmony and quality of the dancing, the roles of the different people, the floats and a whole host of other aspects.

The winner of the parade gains a large sum of money from the Government to put towards their local community. This year saw the Beija-Flor school of samba win again. They’ve now won three years in a row.