The beginning: Rio de Janeiro

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Flag of Brazil  , State of Rio de Janeiro,
Wednesday, November 16, 2011

While in Rio, I made it a point to see most of the major tourist attractions (Sugar loaf, escadaria Selaron, Lapa, Santa Teresa, and Christ the redeemer). All of these things were remarkable, and I am very glad to have had the opportunity to experience them.  However, nobody wants to read about some gringo visiting a bunch of tourist sites, so I'm not going to discuss those things.  Instead, I will share some stories relating to the people, nightlife, and culture of Rio de Janeiro (the PG Version, my mom reads this). 

Thanks for reading.

  After spending four months back home in St. Louis, I decided to leave my job, sell my car, and buy a one way ticket to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.  This time around, I have no job lined up, zero knowledge of the Portuguese language, and not a single connection in South America.  The uncertainty of not knowing what’s next can work as a double edged sword for me.  At times I am driven crazy by it.  Other times it is what gets me out of bed in the morning.
After 5 beers, 3 movies, a couple shitty TV dinners, and not a second of sleep, I arrived in Rio de Janeiro.  Amid the lack of sleep, dehydration, and time change, I vacated the plane in a daze comparable to that experienced after waking up from a night on Hong Tong (Thai-Whiskey).  Matters didn’t get much better when the airline lost my luggage.  "It go to Rio Ocean hotel" The man said in broken English.  I had to remind him that I was staying at a hostel called Ocean Inn Rio.  Eventually, I just wrote down the name and left with hopes that I would see my luggage again.  As I stumbled through the airport, I realized that I had forgotten to withdraw cash before I left, so I needed to hit an ATM to pay for the taxi.  There were about ten ATM’s in the airport and nine of them didn’t accept my card.  I quickly began to imagine myself on the streets of Rio holding a sign, panhandling for change to pay for my taxi.  Great start! I eventually found an ATM that would accept my card, and paid the $15 withdraw fee it charged.
 I was told that a taxi to my hostel would cost about 49 Reals (about $30 US).  After such a rough start, I was beyond ready to get to my hostel, so I agreed to pay the hefty cab fare.  Within 15 minutes, it became apparent to me that the driver had no idea where he was going.  We did not speak a common language, so I had to attempt to communicate with him through charades (A game that I am custom to playing with 6 year old Thai students).  After several failed attempts, and loss of my dignity, I decided to write down the name of the hostel, and hope for the best.  In the end, the ride took 2 hours and cost me 94 Reals ($60 US).  I got out of the cab and handed the man a fat wad of my hard earned money.  He grinned and muttered in Portuguese (probably something along the lines of I got you good dumb ass). 

At first glance, my hostel looked warm and welcoming.  It was situated in a neighborhood next to the infamous Leblon, Ipanema, and Copocabana beaches, and across from one of Rio’s many favelas (Brazilian slum).  I chose it because it was cheap…this was stupid.  Upon arrival, I decided to take a “short” nap.  I was recovering from an epic last night out in the states, and was still feeling the vile effects of it.  This “short” nap turned into a 6 hour slumber, and by the time I awoke, my luggage was next to me.  It was still light out, so I decided to take a walk on the beach.  Alas, my day started to look up, and the mental high-five’s had began.  I walked around for a few hours before returning to my hostel at sundown.

I decided to hit the town for the night.  The owner of the hostel was a 32 year old Cariocan (Rio native) named Eduardo.  You could tell Eduardo was the type of person who “lived hard”.  His last night out in Rio left him with a broken hand and two black eyes (he claimed he got into a fight over a girl he was with).  He would definitely live up to this reputation.  Eduardo and I began our night out at 2 AM.  Apparently this is very common in Rio.  If you go to a club at midnight, you will probably be the only person there.  I don’t really understand this idea, because the next day always turns into a waste (for me at least).  But being in Rio, I forced myself to adapt my sleeping schedule.  The night life scene in Rio was great, exceeding my expectations.  The club we went to featured a fire show, shitty karaoke, ridiculously overpriced drinks, and lots of beautiful people. 

The following day, I decided to head to the infamous Copocabana beach.  The walk from my hostel took me about three hours, and had me crossing the entirety of Leblon and Ipanema.  I decided to stop at the northern most point of Copocabana, rent a chair, grab a brew, and prepare for the show that is Copocabana.  After about 10 minutes I started wondering what the hell was going on.  Looking around, all I could see were flocks of hippo sized men.  “This sucks” I thought.  If I wanted to see this sort of thing, all I would have to do is go to the local hot shots sports bar and grill in St. Louis.  I picked up my stuff and moved to another location down the beach, where there was a small surf contest going on.  I sat and watched for a couple hours, trying to remove the horrifying images from my head.  Upon returning to my hostel, I told Eduardo about this stretch of beach which I initially settled down at.  A stupid grin quickly came across his face, “you went to the gay section of Copocabana mate”. 

That night, there was a festival going on at the base of the favela I was staying across from.  I have seen the film City of God, so I knew going up into a favela on my own after dark was not the greatest idea.  Eduardo told me that the majority of crime that takes place in favelas occurs towards the top (this particular favela had only one road to the top, which wound its way up a hill overlooking the entire Rio skyline).  I walked into a grocery store at the base, bought a couple beers, and then started mingling amongst the people.  The majority of the people there spoke no English, which complicated things a bit for me.   Eventually, I ran into a young Brazilian named Jose who said he was currently living in the same town as my family (Elizabeth, New Jersey).  He told me that he was visiting his relatives who had been living in this particular favela for over 50 years.  He eventually invited me to a house party a few meters up the road.  After a few beers, this sounded like a great idea, I was in.  After a 20 minute walk, we came to a small house bumping with music and full to the brim with locals.  $10 Reals ($6 US) got you in the door and all you could drink.  Jose introduced me to several of his friends, and eventually word of a new American at a favela party started to spread like wildfire.  I quickly found myself being bombarded by people wanting to meet me.  The man working the bar even made it a point to fix me my own cooler full with ice and a dozen beers.  I ended up staying until sunrise.  The view from this favela was spectacular, rivaling the view from the infamous sugar loaf. 

Ever since arriving in Brazil, I have started to form an obsession with favela life.  When you arrive in Rio, one of the first things you notice are these little communities built amongst the hillsides.  Locals tell stories of famous drug lords running these little districts with iron fists.  It makes you curious as to what exactly goes on up in these hills.   Rio is a unique city in the sense that there is such an immense contrast amongst the rich and poor, I have never seen anything like it during my travels. 

A buddy and I had heard about another favela that offered a great view of the western part of Rio.  We were told that we could pay a motorbike taxi about 2 Reals to take us to the top.  That was all we needed to hear.  Once we got to the base of this particular favela, there were a half dozen motorbikes waiting.  My buddy spoke a bit of Portugeese, and arranged for two taxis to take up up the hillside.  After living in Thailand for a year, I am use to ridiculous driving on motorbikes.  This took the cake.  We flew up the hill, dodging dogs and even catching air on a couple speed bumps.  I don’t know how I made it up alive, but somehow I did.  Just before we could catch our breath, the drivers left, stranding us at the top of a favala at 2 AM.  Our only option was to take the 3 hour hike back down to the bottom.  The walk down went surprisingly smooth, with the exception of being chased by a pack of stray dogs.  No more favelas for me. 

             After Rio, I will head south to a city in the Santa Caterina district called Florianopolis.  Florianopolis is famous amongst Brazilians and Argentineans because it comprises of 42 of Brazil’s best surf beaches.  I heard of Florianopolis (also called Floripa by locals) through my Brazilian sister in law (who has family in Floripa).  Once I there, I will begin the job hunt. 

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