My strongest impression of Brazil thus far is that no matter the colour of your skin, your body shape or size, you can enjoy being who you are. In Brazil, the people speak freely about what they call “the mix”. The country is a melting pot of so many nationalities, religions and cultures. A typical Brazilian is actually a mix of 2 or more nationalities. They are the most accommodating, unselfconscious people i know.
At this insanely hot time of the year, the fashion for ladies is to wear a bikini top and a loose fitting blouse fastened by a single button at the back of the neck, leaving the back bare. This is paired with bum shorts and flip flops. For guys, beach shorts and no shirt. A t-shirt may be tucked in the back of your shorts for when you need to walk into an establishment that requires a shirt. And a gorgeous tatoo on one bicep is quite common, or for ladies on an ankle. Everyone looks like they’re just returning from the beach (which they probably are) and i mean everyone: young, old, fat, slim, foreign or local.
But before i describe my time in the city of Rio, how exactly did i get here?
Well, a couple of years ago i decided to visit one or two new countries every year, starting with a country on each continent. I had visited Europe, N.America and Asia, so this year it was either Australia or S.America. I chose S.America and eventually Brazil, primarily because Carnaval was coming up and they had an embassy in Nigeria. Applying for the visa was pretty straightforward – they require the same documents as every other embassy in Nigeria. Getting the visa was another matter entirely. Apparently it has to be approved in Brazil first before it’s issued in Nigeria. This took 6 weeks! I finally got my passport back with the visa and the next step was to decide how to get there.
My travel agent suggested Iberia Airlines (via Madrid) and so began another application, this time for a transit visa. I applied and 4 days later my application was denied with an accompanying letter in Spanish! Needless to say, i was quite pissed as i had applied for a visa to pass through the airport not go into the country. I promptly attributed it to the Mutallab Syndrome and proceeded to apply for a renewal for my US Visa, with a view to transiting through the US. After standing in line at an ungodly hour in the morning and producing much stomach acid due to nervousness, i heard the magic words: “Your visa will be issued. Pick up your passport in 2 days”, at which point i muttered: “Up yours, Spanish Embassy”!
2 days later i ate humble pie after realising it would cost me twice as much to go through the US. I reapplied to the Spanish Embassy with a ton of documentation (The letter in Spanish mentioned “incomplete documentation”). My transit visa was issued 4 days later, just 1 working day before my trip (I had already bought the ticket as it was required for my visa application). Phew!
Meanwhile, booking a hotel was another drama entirely! During Carnaval, all hotels must be pre-booked, the amount is deducted immediately from your credit card and there are no refunds. Making inquiries is a nightmare if you don’t speak Portuguese! I finally found a quaint B & B through Trip Advisor where the owner spoke English and was a licensed tour guide so he would assist me during my stay and buy me tickets in advance to see the grand parade at the Sambadrome. But, the B&B didn’t accept credit cards and insisted on payment through Paypal. Now as we all know, Paypal doesn’t allow payments from Nigeria, so i had to call a friend in the US to make the payment for me. By this time, as you can imagine i had a persistent headache.
Finally, my hotel was booked, my visas were in place and i left for the airport. Now, i don’t know how to say this delicately so i’ll just say it. Unless it’s an emergency or as in my case you’re a cheapskate, please DO NOT fly Iberia! I don’t know if it was a coincidence but that night it seemed like a good chunk of my fellow passengers looked like pimps, hos and drug pushers. Nigerian home videos were being repacked cause someone’s hand luggage was overweight. Someone kept swearing at the ground crew, F…ing this and F…ing that. Someone else unwrapped Suya during the flight…and the onboard service can’t really be described as service.
Anyway, we finally got to Madrid where i had a 7 hr layover. I now understand how Mutallab got past security. You see when you get into a country at an ungodly hour of the morning, there are only 2 or 3 passport control guys and they are so sleepy, they barely glance at your passport. Also none of your hand luggage (or your person) is scanned before you board your connecting flight, so you can pick a “package” up from duty free and no one would know.
The flight to Rio was 10 hrs long. I met up with Richard at the airport, one of the hosts at the B&B where i would be staying and we were off to Botafogo, a charming beach side town in Rio that’s supposed to be one of the safest. The house is way up a hill and we kept going up a winding road made of cobblestones.
The next morning i ventured off to explore the city with directions from Rob (another host). To get to the bus-stop, i had to climb down the hill via 2 flights of dangerous looking stairs. Once or twice i got lost and that’s when i discovered the language barrier. Very few people speak a smattering of English so communication is primarily via sign language and key words. But the people are friendly and someone actually went out of her way to walk me to the bus-stop to get the right bus to my destination. The best way to get around is by bus. The buses have screens below the windshield that tell you their destinations and when you get in you hand the money over and tell the conductor exactly where you’re going. You sit in front and gesture that he should tell you when the bus gets to your stop as there are no announcements or screens inside the bus. A word though – the drivers are worse than Molue drivers so hang on very tight!
A security warning: Many places are safe in Rio, but if your traveling alone you’re advised not to carry a bag or sling a camera over your shoulder, especially at night, as muggings do sometimes happen. However, the major tourist spots are safe as they require an admission fee and are populated by mainly foreigners. I’ve wondered why tourist attractions always look better in pictures and on TV than in real life. Maybe it’s because one’s expectations are so high. The Christ Statue, The Botanical Gardens and Sugarloaf Mountain are must-sees and can be taken in, in a day in that order. At the major attractions, i noticed that the Asians always have the most sophisticated cameras:)
The botanical gardens have an overarching aura of peacefulness and contemplation. It reminded me that sometimes it’s fun to travel with someone. It’s the kind of place that lovers go to, to have quiet conversations and plan their future.
In all my trips, i’ve found that the best way to get a feel of a city (particularly if you’re traveling alone) is to book a half or full day city tour for the day after you arrive (if you arrive late, that is, as most tours begin in the morning). Search for a reputable tour company online (although sometimes your hotel may be able to suggest one). Select one where you go with other people as that way you also meet new people who are tourists. After you’ve done the city tour, you’ll get a sense of the city and the tour guide can either recommend other activities or you can strike off on your own. You’d be amazed the tour packages you can find online including outdoor activities like rock climbing and snorkeling or parties and club jaunts.
For shopping, the Law of Shopping Malls prevails: Things get cheaper the higher up the floors you go:) On an interesting note i found that when you’re served beer at the street-side cafes, the bottle is placed in an ice cooler, like champagne:)
I’ll be attending the main Carnaval Parade tonight at the Sambadrome. Will post pictures when i return. Bye for now.