Niteroi, Brazil

August 14th, 2015

So this is a first for me… I have no idea how to start a travel blog. Maybe it’s because I am so tired I cannot force my fingers to move to type. Or maybe it is because the assault on my senses levied by Rio de Janeiro in my first 48 hours in Brazil has left my speechless. I honestly have no idea how to explain the things I’ve already experienced here, and this blog will never do it justice. I guess I’ll start this one where all of my blogs inevitably start… Holy shit I am hungover! Where am I?? What are all those noises. *checks watch* 8 am… Give me coffee!!

The first part of this journey started as any other… a boring layover flight to Miami. I had two hours to catch my connecting flight. No biggie. Except I had never been to that airport and could not figure out how to get out of the domestic terminal. I ran around like a lunatic until I found my departing plane and hobbled on sweating and out of breath. That’s when I realized something… I was finally flying on one of those huge, two-lane, double decker planes! I was flying on TAM airlines, a Brazilian company, and it was the most lavish plane I have ever seen. Every seat was plush leather with 17-inch HD touch screens with unlimited movies, TV and music for free. Each seat also had a pillow, blanket, and a little gift-wrapped bag. Inside was a comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a pair of knee-high socks.

Before takeoff they came around with a tray of warm cinnamon buns. I thought it couldn’t get any better… until dinner! They served a huge plate of steak, jasmine rice, Caesar salad, crackers with soft French cheese, a slice of cheesecake, and unlimited wine! Seriously! I put down like six glasses and each time the stewardess came back and filled it up without me even asking! After eating, I tried to get some sleep… I think I may have gotten 20 minutes total, and actually dreamt about the plane crashing into the amazon. Whatever. I have tackled new continents on zero sleep before. They served me an egg sandwich with orange juice and croissants for breakfast. Best flight ever!

We landed and I stumbled out into the Rio airport. Finally here! First priorities… brush my teeth, find an ATM, and get a gallon of coffee. I headed out to find a bus to take into the city. My couchsurfing host works in the centro part of Rio, which is about 90 minutes away from the airport. I climbed onto a bus, handed the driver Brazilian reals until he was content (I still haven’t figured out how to ask how much things cost… I just say “quando” and then hand them a 50 and pray they aren’t trying to rip off a gringo), and took my seat at the back.

Two things I quickly learned about Brazil… The buses are terrifying. They drive like 70 mph on super narrow highways with motorcycles bombing around with cars swerving with absolutely no semblance of laws. Absolutely white-knuckle fear! The other thing that I immediately noticed was the sheer number of favelas in the city. They are everywhere. Nothing can prepare you for the sight of them. It is unbelievable to see how dense these neighborhoods are, and how poorly they are constructed. They look like they are about to collapse in on themselves. I later found out that Rio has more than 400 individual favelas, many of them still completely lawless and run by drug lords.

I disembarked the bus in a very gritty and busy neighborhood. This was the beginning of the assault on my senses. I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep, or the sheer number of people, but downtown Rio is absolutely insane. Loud! People and people and more people. One minute you smell the most amazing churros being cooked, and the next human urine. You walk down the road and see millionaires buying Louis Vuiton bags while a half-naked homeless man picks through the trash outside eating whatever he can find. The sounds are a mixture of deafening construction everywhere you look (getting ready for the Olympics), samba music, preachers blaring on megaphones, and thousands of taxis slamming on their horns. It was overwhelming. I had to stop and walk into a cafe and pound more coffee.

I finally arrived at my host’s work. Samuel is an environmental engineer and he works for the Brazilian government on water conservation. His girlfriend Dani is a PharmD studying estrogen in the water supply in Rio. They allowed me to crash with them for the night in Niteroi, a suburb of Rio that is across the bay. However, I had to find Samuel first. The receptionist wouldn’t let me into his building because I was wearing khaki shorts, and being a government building, they require pants! Once they called Samuel down, I changed my pants and he introduced me to his colleagues. I put my travel pack in his office and set about exploring the Northern parts of Rio on my own.

Centro is crazy. It is a super dense jungle of sky scrapers on par with NYC. I walked around checking out all the 16th century churches, popped into the world-famous Colombo bakery for breakfast and more coffee (see a trend here?), and then into some street markets. I broke my aviators on the flight so I had to haggle with some Brazilian for pair of fake Ray-bans. He wouldn’t budge from 20 reals, but when I remembered that’s like $6, I happily paid since I am blind during the day without sunglasses.

I continued on, and wherever I saw a bar, I descended with a vengeance. It was 10 am and it was definitely time to start drinking. I am absolutely loving the conversion here! $1 USA is worth around 3.50 reals, so a huge 9 real beer is only like $2.50! I could already tell this was going to be a very intoxicating backpacking trip.

I continued heading south until I arrived at the Arcos de Lapa, a neighborhood known for its crazy nightlife. However, it was completely dead during the day and downright seedy.

I started to climb the steep streets to the bohemian district of Santa Theresa and was rewarded with some of the most amazing views of the city thus far. Santa Theresa is gorgeous; it reminds me a lot of San Francisco. Beautiful tree-lined hills with ageing mansions everywhere. I headed for the Parque Das Ruinas, a public park that had a large mansion in the middle that burned down long ago. You can enter the gutted building and head to the attic for absolutely breath-taking panoramic views of the northern parts of the city.

I was loving the respite of the mass of humanity and loud noises here; however, I realized I was supposed to meet Samuel at the National Historical Museum in an hour and it was roughly four miles away by the port. Time to hustle! But not before ascending the unbelievably stunning Escardaria Selaron, the artwork steps designed and built by the eponymous artist. So fucking cool. I grabbed a bunch of pictures, played with a stray cat, and headed for the museum.

I beat Samuel to the museum so I crushed two beers in the attached restaurant. Once he arrived, we worked our way through the awesome exhibits. They detailed the entire history of Brazil, from the indigenous Indians through Portuguese colonization up to modern times.

After a few hours, Samuel had to head back to work for a while, so he led me to another museum that had a bunch of Picassos on display. I was promptly yelled at when I took a picture of the first painting. Oops. I loved this exhibit though, and really enjoyed learning about how Picasso used the bombing and destruction of the Spanish city of Guernsey for his inspiration for so many of his horrifying depictions of death and genocide.

Samuel met back up and we caught the metro to the Botofago neighborhood. He had diving practice at the Flumenense club facility, so I took the opportunity to join some older gentlemen playing card games and pound more delicious Brazilian lagers.

After Samuel’s practice, we had to catch the bus back to his apartment in Niteroi, which was over an hour away. This gave us plenty of time to chat and get to know each other, and I really enjoyed talking with him. He shares my passion of travel and meeting new people, and has a wonderful outlook on foreign cultures. I asked him what most Brazilians think about Americans, and not surprisingly, his answer was almost verbatim what I’ve heard from countless other travelers around the world: Americans are almost always loud, brash, over-confident, and indifferent to other cultures. But all of these people always end this statement with “but it is very nice to meet an American who is not like that and who genuinely tries to understand other cultures and world views.” I appreciated the sentiment.

We finally arrived at his apartment and I got to meet Dani, his bubbly and sweet girlfriend. I was starting to wane at this point; I had probably walked close to 20 miles that day. But Samuel busted out a bottle of Cachaça and we started pounding shots. Surprise surprise, it made me feel a lot better.

We headed out for this awesome plaza in downtown Niteroi where all of the students party outside of the bars and restaurants every Thursday night. Tonight was especially crazy because the professors at the University were on strike and none of the students had to attend classes this week. We grabbed a table and set about getting wasted. I have no idea how many beers or shots were consumed, but I know at one point some old Brazilian lady was giving me a back massage and I was eating meat off a stick while taking a puff on a positively horrible all-natural Brazilian cigarette wrapped in a corn husk (I thought it was weed… it was way worse than that)

We stumbled back to their apartment and I was out like a rock on the inflatable mattress in the living room within five minutes. My first sleep in 48 hours. It was glorious… until 7 am when Niteroi came alive with sounds and noises loud enough to wake the dead. Apparently, you do not sleep in while in Brazil. COFFEE. NOW!

Samuel had to work all day, but Dani had off of school because of the aforementioned strike. I had planned to head to Leblon today to check into my hostel and hit the beaches, but she told me about a place called Itacoatiara, an impossibly hard-to-pronounce beach an hour outside of Niteroi. This beach is a hidden gem that only Niteroi residents frequent; no one from Rio makes the effort to come here, and certainly no tourists ever find this place. We grabbed beers and boarded the bus.

On the way, more Brazilian life unfolded in front of me. We drove through incredibly wealthy neighborhoods with million-dollar condos built directly next to massive and sprawling favelas. The contrast of the lifestyles within literal meters of each other is astounding. Also, while on the drive, I saw a field of people making teepees and tents out of plastic trash bags. I asked Dani what this was all about, and she tried to explain it to me (although I think some of it was lost in translation because I still do not fully understand the situation). Apparently in some other place in Brazil, there was a conflict for land and these people lost. They had their lands stolen, so the government allows them to build shanty towns in these fields. But these people have literally nothing, so they ultimately build houses out of trash. I couldn’t comprehend this situation; how could the Brazilian government allow entire communities to be robbed of their homes and lands? Nevertheless, I felt profoundly sorry for these people. They are even less fortunate than the countless masses in the decaying and dangerous favelas.

Dani and I arrived at the beach and I was speechless. Enormous mountains plunged directly into blue oceans, coddling a crescent-shaped beach full of gorgeous Brazilians. To walk down to the beach, you had to climb down this sketchy ass path surrounding by cactuses (wtf is the plural of cactus again? cacti?) I thought this was really funny, however I wouldn’t be laughing later when I was drunk and fell into the aforementioned cactus which promptly tore my arm open.

We headed down to the water and set about reserving some beach chairs and umbrellas. Dani talked to the umbrella man, and he turned to me, and asked “American?” WTF! I hadn’t said a word! How did he assume I was American?? Dani laughed her ass off and said I had a very American face. What the fuck does that mean?! My pre-trip suspicions were confirmed; this gringo sticks out like a sore thumb here.

We set up on the beach, started pounding beers ironically called “Antarctica” and took in all the stunning sights. There were guys everywhere playing soccer and paddle ball, and girls in bikinis that would all be super models in the states. And let’s just go ahead and get this discussion over now, since I know this will come up a million times from some of you… The contest is over. No question. The Brazilian women are hands down the most beautiful on the planet. Like it’s not even close. The gene pool down here is absolutely mind-bending.

After several hours of way too many beers, freezing my ass off in the frigid waters while dodging the massive swells (easily eight-foot waves) and exploring some of the mountains, we headed off to grab lunch. I ordered a “natural sandwich” which basically means they pile every ingredient in the kitchen onto a roll.

After lunch, we stumbled into a Japanese restaurant for shots of sake while Dani laughed at my cactus wounds on my arm.

We grabbed the bus back to Niteroi, but decided to get off early and walk around the entire city to explore. We went through beautiful parks, passed the bustling centro, and headed down to Niteroi beach on the bay. The view of Rio in its entirety from Niteroi is unreal. We grabbed a bunch of pictures, more beers (obviously), and headed home.

I needed to grab the ferry to Rio so I could check into my hostel, but Dani convinced me to stay a little longer so I could say goodbye to Samuel after he got home from work. I obliged, and when he arrived, he informed me that the Friday night traffic was gridlocked. There was no way I was getting to Rio anytime soon. So, he proposed grabbing a beer at a bar; I agreed but stated “just one beer guys, and then I seriously have to go!” One beer turned to two, and two turned to 20. Then the shots. So many Brazilian liquors I’ve never heard of. I was wasted again! Damn it! I looked at my watch and was horrified to see it was 9 pm! My hostel reception closed at 10! Dani yelled at me “FUCK YOUR HOSTEL! You stay and party with us! Niteroi is neverland, you are Peter Pan, and you can never leave!” I had no idea what she was talking about, but she was strangely convincing. Fuck it. Another night in Niteroi with my amazing couch surfing hosts. We partied until we were all out of money, and headed home to crash.

They woke me at 6 am this morning because they are leaving town. I was absolutely exhausted, but happily hugged them goodbye at my bus stop. Thank you guys so much for hosting me and teaching me so many things about Brazil. You are both so sweet and accommodating! We must meet up again somewhere around the world to party again!

So, I have finally arrived in the gorgeous neighborhood of Leblon and checked into my hostel, Lemon Spirit. I cannot express how excited I am to be here. If you have ever stayed at a super social, big time party hostel, you know the energy and excitement these places have. I can’t believe it’s been five years since I’ve stayed at one, but I am currently sitting on the patio in a hammock, crushing beers with a bunch of hilarious British guys while I write this. I am getting ready to hit all the beaches today, and maybe catch sunset on Sugarloaf mountain!




The Globe-Trotting Scientist

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