The long-awaited trip to Brazil finally came. I taught a class in Tropical Ecology last semester that culminated in this study abroad in Rio de Janeiro. In the morning I picked up my students Aury and Liz and made an uneventful drive to St. Louis. We met the others in our group, including four additional students, the other instructor, Dr. Megan Boccardi, an alum (Tom), and the retired Dr. Attai and his wife Nayeh. We cleared security and flew to Atlanta, where our layover was so short they were already boarding our next flight, the red-eye to Rio. I watched a documentary on extreme sports, had a decent chicken dinner, and got some uncomfortable sleep.
We were awakened at what my biological clock said was 2:00 a.m. (6 local time) for breakfast. We landed in Rio, cleared customs, met our guide-for-the-day, Eduardo, took a bus to the hotel, dropped off our luggage, and took a bus tour of the city, periodically getting out to look around. I was still dressed for winter in the Midwest, with long sleeves and long pants, my summer wear remaining in my bag at the hotel. Worse yet was that my hat and sunglasses were also there. So it was a bit uncomfortable seeing the sights, though they were generally interesting. The big pyramidal Catholic church, the tiled stair case (see my photos to appreciate), the opera house, and the avenue where they have the samba competition during Carnaval every year.
We had lunch at an outdoor diner. I ate a roast beef sandwich, which was really good. We had a bit of time to look through a nearby craft market, but I didn't buy anything. I didn't even have any Brazillian reais (currency) yet. We went back to the hotel, and met our guide for the rest of the trip, Luana. We got into our rooms and showered. My room, and the hotel in general, were very nice (Golden Tulip Continental, Leme). We were one block from Leme beach, which becomes Copacabana beach to the south, and around a rocky headland becomes the famous Ipanema, then Leblon. Tom and I walked the area around the hotel, found a bank and got some cash. We saw another craft market, but again I got nothing. We had dinner at an Italian restaurant, where I got chicken that was quite good. We hit the local grocery store and I picked up some bottled water and a chocolate bar of a local variety. We went back to the hotel and crashed.
I was awake at 6:30 local time, and had the hotel breakfast with all its wonderful local fruits. Eventually, I tried passion fruit, which is so strongly tart it's almost inedible, and other fruit that I still cannot identify. The coffee was strong and served in small quantities like espresso. At 8 we were in the bus and on the road to Corcovado, a mountain that translates as "hunchback." We got on a cogwheel train to the top of the mountain, where the trademark Christ the Redeemer statue is located. It's about 100 feet tall, and looked smaller in person than when I've seen it on TV. When we arrived, it was shrouded in misty clouds. Fortunately, it cleared after a bit for great view of the surrounding landscapes of the city, beaches and other mountains. I did see some insects, including a green sphinx moth, a leaflike katydid, and many alate ants.
We took the train back down and the bus to a buffet for lunch. It was the first time I ever had bacalhau (salt cod), a Portuguese staple I had heard about ever since childhood. I also had some tasty grilled beef and boiled quail eggs, a first. Beef in Brazil is abundant, relatively cheap and delicious. I took advantage at every opportunity.
We returned to the hotel, where I learned our hotel had bikes for rent . We had the afternoon free, and I rented a bike, a three speed with basically a girls frame. It was adequate to the task, as the bike lane that runs along all the beaches is fairly flat. First I road to the sea wall at the north end of Leme, then back south through Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. People watching was great, as there were bodybuilders, musicians, and surfers. Thong bikinis are still in style, even for people who should really not wear them. Heightened awareness was mandatory, as people frequently wandered into the bike path without looking. There are also frequent crosswalks for the pedestrians crossing the adjacent roadway. I almost hit an ice man. As there is no parking next to the beach, goods are often delivered on special cargo bikes. Some of these sell ice to the little bars and cafes on the beach. I think some of them may carry over 200 pounds of ice at a time. One guy had his cargo bike parked in the left lane and lifted a bag out and walked into the right lane, where I was approaching quickly. I locked up the brakes, lifting the rear wheel off the ground a bit, but I stopped before I would have hit him.
I inspected the rocky places on the beaches, hoping for the kind of diversity one sees at tide pools, but all I saw was short algae and barnacles. The wave action is very heavy on this shoreline, and warning signs against swimming are everywhere. Most of the surfing and swimming is done in the lee of the rocky headlands, where there is some protection from the long fetch of the Atlantic.
Back at the hotel, I took a little rest and we had a buffet dinner there. Beef again! I went back to the beach with my students, Ari and Aury (whose names provide endless confusion). At the sea wall, which is designed for fishermen, we actually saw a guy catch a fish. It was a long, skinny thing with sharp teeth. He called it "espada," which means sword, though it was definitely not a swordfish.
Tom and I took a bike ride along almost the same route I had taken the day before, about 12 miles. We went a little farther south than I had, and saw some neat graffiti on a wall. It had a Back to the Future movie theme. Rio is filled with graffiti, much of it worthless crap, but some places hold lovely works of art. Again, I almost hit someone, this time a young man who just wasn't paying attention. I had a quick brunch composed of bananas from the little market across the street and spicy beef thing folded up in a triangular fried dough. Hard to explain, but it was yummy.
We took the bus to the Carnaval Experience. We saw the group practicing outside, observed their floats under construction, and learned how Carnaval works. It's an annual competition between samba schools. It's kind of like the NFL having just the Superbowl, with no season leading up to it. We learned the barebones history of the samba and got to try on some old costumes. We learned to dance the basic samba step and danced with the children's group. I couldn't keep up with the dancing, as my legs were kind of shot after bike rides two days in a row. We got to practice drumming with three percussionists with the team. I got a big bass drum. It was a lot of fun. We took the tram up to the Favelas, which provided a nice view, but we did not get out and tour the community.
Once back at the hotel, Megan and I walked down to the nearby craft market, but I didn't see anything I liked. I was pretty tired by then. We had an excellent beef dinner at Fogo do Chao.
I have to admit that my Portuguese was pretty rusty. I'd had almost no practice since 1990 when I took the class. Back then, I felt pretty fluent. But the Brazil/Rio accent and my decreasingly sensitive hearing made it difficult to understand people. Typically, I could formulate a reasonable opening sentence, but then I couldn't understand the response and had to revert to English. I picked up vocabulary every day, and I think I could be reasonably fluent in a few weeks if I stayed there.
We took a long bus ride to Itacuruca, a seaside resort. Along the way, we saw a lot of land area that had been cleared of forest long ago and converted to rangeland occupied by many cows. I saw a number of birds, most of which I could not identify, but two cara caras were an easy call. We even passed a capybara crossing. I would have loved to have seen a capybara, and kept my eyes out in all the marshy areas to no avail. At a rest stop I saw a lizard that looked like a Sceloporus with a neck ring. Upon arriving we got on a sizable boat with a capacity of 120, though we were the only passengers, other than the crew. We anchored in calm water a short distance off an island. Most of the students chose to swim, but Aury, Ari and I went snorkeling. I was far down the shore when I realized I had jumped in with my wallet and swiss army knife in my pocket. I swam back to the boat and returned them, and went back to the snorkeling. We saw barnacles, limpets, and little mussels clinging to the rocks. It was neat to see the barnacles extending their cirripedia when the waves lapped on them. The best thing there though was a large ctenophore (comb jelly). This marked the first time I'd ever seen (or held) a living member of this Phylum. We also saw some puffers, a crab, and some other small fish.
We boated to another island and docked for lunch. We had fruit, really good fish and rice pudding. The boys and I took a short hike around the lodge, noting many interesting birds and butterflies. I must say I was impressed with the butterflies everywhere we went. We snorkeled down the rocky coastline, seeing colonial cnidarians in green and orange, big sea urchins in purple and green, and other cnidarian polyps. Both the guys had never been snorkeling before, and agreed that it was about the best thing ever. We also saw a couple of sea stars, sea lettuce, and pennate algae. The high point came when Ari spotted an actual sea horse, amazing considering how it blended in with the algae, Aury got cramps in his legs and ended up walking a trail back to the lodge. The other students had been swimming there and reported seeing sea turtles, which we also observed there. We took the boat back to the harbor, and the bus back to Rio without anything remarkable happening.
We took a pair of jeeps up to the forest, which lies in city limits. It is restored coffee plantation, replanted by slaves under the royalty of the time. We stopped first at Chinese Vista, which provided a nice view over the city, and some swifts flying around. We proceeded up the mountain, which is a popular bike path, to the site where Pedro II declared independence from Portugal, which was still ruled by his father. Again, there were many butterflies, but they didn't allow me to get any pics. There was a troop of brown capuchin monkeys that allowed us to get very close. Some people tried to bait them with bananas, but they never took them. I even got some decent video of them. We proceeded up to a waterfall, which was very nice, and went on a short hike. We didn't see many birds, perhaps because it was too late in the morning. We descended the mountain directly to the hang gliding site.
We filled out our insurance forms and paid our money. All the students but one were going to hang glide, plus Megan and me. Actually, Megan and Ari went parasailing instead on hang gliding. Both would be tandem flights, where an experience pilot manages the aircraft while the passenger just hangs there and tries not to screw anything up. There weren't enough cars available to take us all up the mountain to the launch site, and I was left behind. I wasn't too happy about it, but I did get to see some of our students land. Finally, my pilot (Ricardo Nogeira) landed and we were introduced. He was about my age, and had spent 6 months in Los Angeles. Hence, his English was fairly good, and we had something in common. His roughnecks (or assistants) packed up his hang glider and affixed it to the roof rack. I got in the car and looked for the seat belt, but the female end was buried. He drove up the mountain at a breakneck pace. Never in my life did I want a seatbelt more than during that drive. I felt safer later while in the air. Though I was now at the launch site, it wasn't yet my turn, as my pilot had another guy to take down first. I watched other people launch, and talked to Megan and Elizabeth, who hadn't taken off yet, I saw one parasailor have a bad take-off. He started out a bit sideways and decided not to launch, bailing into the grassy hillside. It turns out he was something of a beginner. Not long afterward I heard a collective gasp, and everyone ran to the edge of the launch ramp. A student hang glider had crashed into the trees. One guy ran over with a rope and a machete, which is apparently the standard rescue kit for such situations. Finally, my guide came back and it was my turn. I put on the gear and got the short lesson, mostly about take-off. We practiced the short run. You are supposed to run off the end of the ramp without stopping. I had watched enough people launch by then that I had a pretty good idea. We approached the ramp and practiced hanging from the kite and stuff. I felt like I needed about another hour to mentally prepare, but I only had a minute. Before you know it, we were running off the ramp. That was about the pants-shittingest moment of my life, but once we caught some lift and the glider started flying, it was pure bliss. We sailed over the mountain forest and out toward the ocean. Once we met the cliff face there was a big updraft and we got some good lift. For a long time we just went back and forth between land and sea, working that wind. The land below us was mostly luxury homes with pools. We were flying at the same altitude as the birds, and the pilot made a dive at a black vulture and then a frigate bird. The vulture was not amused. Ricardo was rather garrulous, and entertained with his constant banter. He let me fly the glider for awhile, and I was able to make the turns from land to sea and back. He took back the controls before the landing. He performed some dives and wheels to position us for the landing, and I enjoyed that like a good roller coaster ride. He put it into a little stall before we landed on the beach and I ran as soon as my feet touched. We stopped after just a few steps. There were two GoPros running on the glider, so I've got plenty of video and stills of the event. It will take some editing before I make it available.
That evening we went on a "Samba Night" at a nightclub. Dinner was good (beef again!). There were two band venues. I saw three bands and they were all really good. One was an accordion band with a triangle to keep the beat and a bass for funky flavor. The last had four percussionists, and a guy who played sax, clarinet and flute all in the same song.
We took the bus to Maracana stadium, where the world cup final match was played and some of the upcoming Olympic soccer games will be played. Security was tighter so we didn't get to see much of the stadium, but we did have the opportunity to take a 360 degree photo, which I did. See it here:
We had some time to spare and returned to the Escadaria Selarón steps decorated in tiles in one of the neighborhoods. It is really quite a work of art, reminiscent of Gaudi, and apparently much more popular now that the artist is dead. We went to a cooking class hosted by the vivacious Simone at Cookin Rio. I cut up and fried some onions, which did make my eyes water. I learned to make the capirinha, the national alcoholic beverage. By that time, most of us were big fans of the drink. The main course was fish, and we got to eat everything when we were done cooking it.
We bussed back to the hotel and I took a taxi by myself to the Botanic Gardens. It's a big place. First I enjoyed the specialty gardens: cacti, bromeliads and orchids. I continued down a path where I met up with a large troop of brown capuchin monkeys. Many of them were females with a baby on their back. They crossed the path to the little concrete canal where they got drinks of water. On the other side of the gardens I saw some common marmosets eating some bananas on a tree. I'd never seen wild marmosets before. They're mighty cute. Not long afterward I spotted a monitor lizard walking through some open space. I got a little video of him too. I spent much of the rest of the time chasing some toucans around trying to get decent photos. I took a taxi back to Copacabana beach, where I bought some gifts at a craft market. Unfortunately, I had spent all my cash and could not get a taxi back to the hotel. I walked the two or three miles along the beach, which provided a lot of sights. That made up in part the pain of carrying my heavy photo backpack all that way. We had pizza and beer for dinner.
After breakfast I walked down the street to find a shop we had visited earlier in the week. It was closed, but I got the sandals I wanted at a different store. I rested the remainder of the morning, as I knew I had a big day ahead. At noon we had lunch at a nearby place (beef, of course), then took the bus to Sugarloaf Mountain. We took the tram up to the first stop, Morro Urca, and explored the grounds. There were nice views all the way around; ocean, beaches, and city. We took the second tram up to the top, where the views were even better. We saw some monitor lizards hanging about. Aury and I walked down some trails and he spotted a common marmoset. There were several, including a small juvenile. We got very close to them and took many photos. We took the tram back down to Morro Urca, where Megan, Tom and I took a short helicopter ride. It provided great views of the beaches. I took some video and many stills. Editing will be required again.
We took the bus to have dinner at a Manekineko sushi place. Their logo features a cat, and I remembered that neko means cat in Japanese. I didn't see cat on the menu, but it was good sushi. We left for the airport, where we had to wait in a loooong line to check in. There was a problem with one of the students, who did not have a ticket from Atlanta to St. Louis. This was the fault of the tour operator. Fortunately, we all made it to the gate on time. I slept fitfully on the plane. We landed in Atlanta without much time to spare. We cleared passport control, picked up our bags and rechecked them. I got hung up in security while they scanned my camera bag twice. I walked right onto the plane and was almost the last to board. We made it to St. Louis, picked up the car from long term parking and drove back to Canton. Home at last.