5 August 2007, Still homeward boound . . .

Written 5 August 2007

Carlos. . . but in the meantime, footloose and fancy-free in Rio! This morning, we slept in even later—easier to do, because our hotel room turns out to be windowless. I had noticed, from the routine evacuation map on the back of the door, that its window ought to look into the restaurant's kitchen, so I was curious to see what lay behind that wall of curtains. The answer was, nothing! A blank wall. So when the lights were off, it was really dark.

We did get up in time to spend one of our meal vouchers on the hotel's buffet breakfast. Not as elaborate as the one in Recife, but entirely satisfactory. Having thought a little about what we might do with a day in Rio, we consulted the front desk staff, who arranged for a tour guide, who would pick us up at the reception desk at 1 p.m. Then David, whose feet hurt from the previous day's airport-terminal peregrinations, settled in to write a letter he'd been meaning to send while I set off to explore the airport's shopping mall. As I walked by it, the little airport chapel between the hotel and the shopping area was standing-room-only, and someone was playing guitar and singing up front, but I didn't shoulder my way in through the crowd to investigate further. 'Fraid I didn't find anything in the mall that I couldn't live without, though I was amused to find many sorts of chickens from Porto de Galinhas even there. On the way back, as prearranged, I picked up another round of empanadas and folheados for lunch—this time ham-and-cheese (excellent) and spinach and ricotta. We polished those off, then hatted, coated, sunscreened, and bedecked with cameras and binoculars, we adjourned to the lobby to meet Carlos, our guide for the day.

Rio topographyRio topographyHe was a really nice guy. We started by talking a little about how much time we had and what we hoped to see for our 320 reais (ca. $160). Then he took us out to the curb where his vehicle was waiting—a cushy 16-passenger van, with AC and surround-sound—and we set off to see the sights. Rio is very dense, full of high-rise buildings, where there are buildings at all, but as these shots taken later in the day show, the pockets of buildings are tucked between, around, among, and sometimes up the sides of huge (and I mean huge) solid-stone outcrops. We thought Villefranche was steep, and it is, but Rio is steeper, and on a scale five times as large—it was a cloudy day, and many of the peaks disappeared into the clouds. Different parts of town are connected by long tunnels (some over 3 km long) right through some of the mountains, and to reduce congestion and speed travel, two routes, the red and the yellow, marked with pavement stripes of the appropriate color, are designated high-speed through routes from one side of town to the other. The red route starts at the airport, north of the city, so we followed it initially.

SwitchbacksKapok?Our first destination was the "Cristo Redentor," Christ the Redeemer, the huge (and I mean huge) statue of Jesus Christ perched on the tip of the highest stone crag (the Corcovado) overlooking the city, built between the two world wars. It's apparently been voted one of the 7 modern wonders of the world, and it is documentably the largest Art Deco sculpture in the world (at 39.6 m tall). The route there lead through a neighborhood called "Laranjeiras," which I was proud to deduce (I always pick up the food and botany vocabulary first) meant "Orange Trees." Carlos pointed the van uphill and start toward it, through innumerable steep switchbacks, first over bone-shaking cobbles past the cog-railway station and villas covered in bougainvillea, bauhinia, and chickens; then over ordinary pavement striped with old trolley tracks through forests of jack fruit (introduced but now ubiquitous in the region), and finally over newer pavement through the national park surrounding the statue. It got steeper with every stage (I took this photo of some of the final switchbacks from the top), and I was astonished when Carlos explained to us that the park is on land that had been small farms before the statue was built. What could they possibly have grown on fields tilted at 60 degrees?! Vegetables for the city, it seems. I was also puzzled by the fluffy white trees interspersed through the forest, until a black seed drifted by, encased in a fist-sized puff of downy fluff—they must be kapok! When I was a child, my family slept on kapok-filled pillows, but you never hear about it any more. I guess the synthetics crowded it out of the market. Epiphytes were everywhere—especially bromeliads, ferns, and cacti—I assume they must have included orchids as well, but I didn't see any that I could be sure of.

Cristo Redentor parkingCristo RedentorFinally, we arrived at a smallish parking lot, next to the upper end of the cog railway, where I assumed we would have to get out and walk, but Carlos showed his credentials to the police guarding the upper exit, and they waved him through, so the van kept on climbing! After negotiating many more switchbacks, and passing dozens of people hiking up the road from the railway, we arrived at another, much smaller parking lot occupied only by police cars and a few taxis. You can see Carlos's van in the top left corner of it. He waited for us there while we took a glass-walled elevator up about three flights (alongside a very tall tree—something in the Moraceae, I think—that reminded me of the Swiss Family Robinson tree at Disney World, only this one was real), then two escalators further still, to the belvedere at the actual foot of the statue.

Cristo RedentorThe 360-degree views of Rio were spectacular, but alas, it was a very cloudy, misty day—on a sunny one, they must absolutely take the breath away. The belvedere was crowded with tourists, many of them taking trick photos of the statue: lining up shots that showed a friend holding it in his hand, standing in front of it and mimicking its pose, pretending to lean on it—you know the kind of thing. All the usual sort of thing that gets perched on top of high crags had been banished to a neighboring mountaintop, where I counted at least 20 assorted phone, radio, TV, and radar towers.

Cristo Redentor chapelInside the base of the statue is a tiny chapel. No one was allowed in while we were there, but it was well lit, and you could take pictures through the bars of the gate. As at Vimy Ridge, we were apparently lucky in our choice of date to visit; the statue just underwent a thorough renovation and cleaning a couple of years ago.

We spent about half an hour studying the various views and taking hazy photos of them. Large orientation panels bore photos of the views, with all the landmarks labeled, so that you could figure out what you were seeing. Other panels listed the common birds, insects, plants, animals, etc. of the surrounding forest. It was a lot to take in, so I just photographed many of the panels (I love digital cameras!) for later comparison with our photos and so that I can look the plants and animals up later.

Beach viewThis view, toward the lagoon (the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas), the famous beaches (Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon—according to friends in Recife, down-, mid-, and upscale, respectively—Ipanema is the one between the lagoon and the ocean), and the Atlantic gives an idea of the viewing conditions. The huge track is on the grounds of the Jockey Club, in a neighborhood appropriately called "Joquei."

We could have spent much longer, but we only had one afternoon and more stops to make, so we soon rejoined Carlos for the dizzying trip back down all those switchbacks and the trip across town to the famous "Sugarloaf," a steep conical outcrop that guards one side of the harbor. On the way, we drove by the Jockey Club's track, and I was able to get this shot of a row of jack-fruit trees, with foot-ball-sized fruit hanging right out of the trunks, just inside their perimeter fence.Jack fruit

After that, we followed the line of the famous beaches, zigzagging somewhat, because on Sundays, along each stretch of beach, one or the other lane of the broad, divided beach-front boulevard was closed to traffic and open only to pedestrians. We were northbound, so we would parallel the beach for a distance, while pedestrians strolled the southbound lane, then we would be diverted inland a block or two to travel the stretches where the northbound lane was closed, then back to the beach for the next stretch, and so on. Among many other beachfront hotels, we got to see the famous Copacabana Palace (which Carlos described as the original beachfront hotel); aging, but still pretty imposing.

In addition to all kinds of street vendors, markets, and whatnot, we saw boys, maybe 10 or 12 years old, juggling for tips. Each one would wait until a traffic light stopped the cars, then push a bright-orange wheeled trash container (a little smaller than our rolling recycle bins) into the middle of the street (in a crosswalk or just on the line between lanes), jump up on top, and juggle tennis balls or something. Just before the lights changed, he would jump down, wheel his trashbin back to the curb, and wait for another cycle. Probably no more dangerous, and much less annoying, than squeegee-craft. At one point, we passed over this canal. That's the Cristo Redentor in the background, way up on its rock.Canal view

Our next destination was the Pão de Açúcar, the Sugarloaf, probably Rio's second tourist destination, after the Cristo Redentor. Again, Carlos drove us to the jumping-off parking lot and waited while we visited. To get to the top, you take a two-stage cablecar ride. On slow days, the cablecars run on a schedule, but at busier times, like the day we were there, they run whenever they fill up, which is about every 10 minutes. In the photo to the right, you can see how the first stage runs to the peak in the upper left, then the second stage runs to the most distant peak toward the lower right, which is also actually higher than the first, although it doesn't look it in this picture.Cablecar route

Each car holds about 25 people, all standing up (although a few little kids always moved to the very front and sat on the floor, for the best view). The cars tended to rock forward and back during departure and arrival, much to the kids' delight.Cablecar

The views from the cablecars and from the top of the Sugarloaf were magnificent. Unlike Recife, Rio boasted many recreational sailboats, including little flocks of four or five being towed back to harbor by powered skiffs, presumably after an afternoon's sailing instruction. (Also unlike Recife, it had a few large terns and some flocks of frigatebirds; still no gulls, though.) We could look down on the many black vultures riding the surrounding thermals. At the halfway station, we had to stroll a couple hundred yards to catch the second cablecar. On the way, we passed the helipad, where sight-seeing helicopters were taking off and landing—hope they're really, really careful about staying away from the cable-car cables! We also passed a sort of indoor arena where maybe a hundred guys in loose white trousers and white t-shirts reading (in Portuguese) "International Festival of Capoeira" were having some sort of exhibition/competition. As I stepped in the door, following the sound of music, I caught a glimpse of about three seconds of what could have been either fighting or dancing—in fact, a later Google of "capoeira" revealed that it's a choreographed dance intended to mimic fighting—but by the time I got my camera out, they'd stopped. We hung around for a few minutes, hoping they'd start again, but instead, the MC held forth at length, introducing the musicians and the other participants and holding up the various prizes, so we gave up and went on. (On our way back by on the way down, we again heard the music, but it stopped three seconds before we reached the door. We never did see any more fighting/dancing.)Dancers

View from cablecar Shortly before arriving at the upper cablecar station, we got a good view of people actually scaling the pretty-sheer but not-quite-vertical face of the Sugarloaf, with ropes and pitons—some commented that they looked like ants; I thought they looked like lunatics.

From the top, we could see Carlos's van far below and, through binoculars (I always travel with binoculars), Carlos himself, conversing with another van driver. We also saw, of all things, small stunted mulberry trees, in fruit, growing near the belvedere. In a tree overhead, a single bird, with a bright yellow breast and black eyestripe, was holding forth in a manner that I would have expected from a myna, but it didn't look like any myna I've ever seen a picture of. Anybody care to hazard a guess? Most amazing, though, were the marmosets. A busy flock (herd? band?) of them were running around in the thick jungly vegetation of a park behind the belvedere. Each was only about the size of a large squirrel and sported bright white ear tufts and a ringed tail. I tried several times but never got a decent photo of one. Just Google-Image "common marmoset" or "tuft eared marmoset" to see what they look like. Cute as all get-out.

Gem-stone birds On the belvedere at the top were a snack bar, a standard tourist giftshop, and a very upscale shop featuring more or less life-sized tropical birds carved out of what looked like quartz and semi-precious stones. I have no idea whether any of it was synthetic; they were certainly priced pretty steeply.

By the time we came back down from the Sugarloaf, it was time to be headed back toward the airport, so Carlos drove us back north along the coast, still zigzagging back and forth between beach and city streets. We would definitely recommend Carlos (we never learned his last name—even his business card just said "Carlos"); you can e-mail him at executivosprintertur@gmail.com or phone him at 2717-0887, 9408-9403, or 7816-1536 (fax 2622-3965). He's accredited (ID no. 55-24-18325), the card says he speaks German and Spanish in addition to Portuguese and English, and he pointed out that his services are quite economical for groups—we paid more because there were only two of us sharing the fare.

We got back to the hotel in time to spend our other meal voucher for a very nice dinner, ad TAM did it right—none of this "$10 voucher toward dinner" business; it was "order what you like, and it's on us." David ordered "filet mignon," which turned out not to be the vertical-grained disk of meat you get in the U.S. but a sideways log of meat, grilled churrasco style. I ordered the picanha and was debating whether to order the appetizer buffet as well, when the waiter explained that the picanha came with the buffet (not at all clear from the menu). That was a very good deal. I helped myself to several kinds of cold salad, olives, and boiled eggs with that ubiquitous pink ketchup-and-cream sauce, then the waiter brought David's filet and a sizzling skillet with two slices of picanha for me. I swapped a slice for a chunk of David's filet, which turned out to be excellent, but the picanha was tough as leather! David said his piece wasn't bad, but I didn't think much of it. A few minutes later, though, here came the waiter again with another sizzling skillet, and this time, the picanha was outstanding—tender, juicy, and flavorful. A very good deal for $16.

DessertFor dessert, I had the buffet again and chose a slice of flan (with a little dulce de leche on the side), some white cheese with guava paste, and a stewed green fig with cream. Yum.

Then, alas, it was time to pack up, check out, and trundle our bags back to the airport proper. We arrived at check-in a good two hours early, so we were rather surprised to find ourselves at the end of a very long line! A few minutes' conversation with the guy next to us in line explained all, however—all those folks were the traveling squad of the Lexington Singers, a community chorus from Lexington, Kentucky (65 strong, plus spouses and hangers on), and our neighbor, last in line, was the director, Jeff Johnson, also a music faculty member at the University of Kentucky. "Well," I said immediately, "if you're in music at UK, then you must know my uncle, Hubert Henderson; he used to be the dean." The reply was "You know Hugh Henderson? He's your uncle?! Well, his son David . . ." ( "Yes, my youngest cousin," I put in ) . . . "is my recording engineer!" Clearly, the world gets smaller every day.

It took a while, but eventually we got to the front of the line and passed through security, where they didn't care whether we took off our shoes but where they confiscated my water bottle, even though it was empty. Nothing for it then but to sit listening to the airport announcements, which I got a big kick out of. They were clearly computer generated, assembled from prerecorded words and phrases, some in a man's voice and some in a woman's, but they were uniformly hilarious—in both Portuguese and English, they were the most seductive announcements I've ever heard! Imagine Marilyn Monroe half-whispering "Continental flight—two—oh—five—is now ready for (softly erotic groan) immediate boarding," in her most breathily sultry tone. Over and over, no matter what the announcement. It had to be heard to be believed.

While we waited, I plugged in my computer for the last time in Brazil and realized that during the whole trip, we never needed our electrical-plug adapters. Although, nominally, Brazil still uses both American-style plugs and the French-style two-round-prong type, we never encountered a plug that wasn't just like the ones we have in the U.S.

This time, we actually boarded the flight, and it actually took off on time. We had better seats and a window this time, though it was cloudy for most of the flight. Toward the end, though, I got a lovely view of Grand Bahama all lit up in the night. We arrived in Atlanta to find that our flight to Tallahassee was oversold by four and that we were among the oversellees, without assigned seats. One seat was available, and since I was the one entirely out of leave time, we agreed that I should take it if no one else volunteered to be bumped. It was 7:30 a.m., but we were told the next actual vacant seat to Tallahassee wasn't until 8 p.m.! Fortunately, though, enough people volunteered that we both got on the flight and made it back to Tallahassee only 24 hours late.

An adventurous summer altogether, but now it's back to the grind in time for fall semester (and to start planning next year's trip) . . . .

previous entry      List of Entries