Sunday, March 4, 2007

Is This What You've Been Waiting For?

I received a few emails lately from some friends who had been avid readers of the blog while I was away. And, they wanted to know when I would be making another posting.

OK... my first reaction? Are your lives at such a state that my trivial wanderings through South America have become important to seeing you through your week? Wow.. that's so cool.

I mean, really, I started this blog for two reasons... 1) To have a place to post my photos; and, 2) So my mother wouldn't worry. I'm thrilled that others have taken the time to read it. Really, knowing how crazy busy everyone is, I really am grateful that you would take time out of your day to follow along.

I don't know when the next trip is. I'm still researching a few things. So, to carry you over, and to express my thanks, I'm offering the following as a token of my appreciation. (And, mind you, I'm doing this knowing that I'm about to start the search for my next career move -- yet, I'm placing this photo on the web. This, Dear Blog Reader, is my gift to you.)

This photo arrived in my in-box this week. Alan was kind enough to send it along. Yup, it's me. I'm in the costume, or "Fantasia" as the Cariocas would call it, from the Carnaval Parade in the Sambadrome.

This is what I've done with my vacation. This is where I spent my time "finding myself" between jobs. This is why you haven't seen any more detailed blog entries about Carnaval.

And, I guess I got what I wished for. It's not plastic bottles as Chris wore a few years ago. It's a bit more fancy than that. In fact, it's a LOT more fancy than that. And, it involved a lot of feathers. I feel a bit like a reject from a bad Vegas show. And, as Rob pointed out, I look a bit like a deer in the headlights.

Now... imagine seven of us dressed like this... on a street corner in Ipanema... trying to hail three cabs to get us to the Metro station. The trunks of the cabs couldn't fit most of our stuff.

Then filing into the Metro, among others in various costumes, and among the citizens of Rio... some going to the parade, others just going about their day. But, everyone in the Carnaval spirit.

While we were on the train, three young guys boarded. They had just spent the day at the beach. As the train pulled from the station, the guys started drumming and singing Samba School songs. Suddenly, the entire car was singing and dancing. This continued for the 15 minutes we were on the train. When one song ended, someone else started another.

I found this energy, spirit and love of life with many of the people of Brazil during my stay. It was everywhere -- at the Sambadrome, in the streets of Ipanema, on the Metro. Imagine a subway car in New York breaking out in song. In New York, if someone were to break out in song, most people would get out at the next station and switch cars.

We made it to the Sambadrome about 30 minutes before our school marched. It took another 30 minutes to make it out of the staging area and into the main parade area. Once we were there, the energy was incredible. Fireworks going off. Crowds cheering. Drums banging. It was a moment we'll all remember for many, many years.

Afterward, we were in a cab back to the apartment. The costumes? Believe it or not most of them wind up in a pile at the end of the parade route. Thousands of hours of work, and incredible detail, and a few hundred bucks to buy them and march... all in a pile for the trash.

Clearly this part of the Carnaval parade could best be considered "cash flow" for the Samba Schools. Though the thousands of tourists dressed in these Fantasias fill out the parade, they also generate a good deal of revenue for the schools. And, if there's any question this is all geared toward getting the tourists signed up, take a look at this guy. Does he look out of place, or what?

OK... off to work on editing some more shots... to figure out where the next trip will take me... and to call a bunch of potential employers and encourage them NOT to read this blog entry.

The Mouse

So, we did Disney. I know, I know. Everyone said, "How could you possibly go to a place like Disney when you've just spent a month in South America?" It's as if we're going to see the imitation when I just had 30 days of the real thing. Well, we went for a few reasons:

1) My brother, Rick, and his family were there and we wanted to spend some time with them and the kids;

2) I had been lucky enough about a year ago to attend a reception marking the launch of the new Animal Kingdom ride, Expedition Everest and I wanted to see the ride. At the reception I met the chief "Imagineer" behind the ride and it was truly amazing to hear about all of the planning, research and effort that goes into building a ride like this.

The Disney team made multiple expeditions into the Himalayas to research the ride and the legend of the Yeti. Charles, a friend who works in Disney's Corporate Communications department, has been kind enough to keep me in the loop on the ride and other Disney events so I was anxious to see the real thing; and,

3) I genuinely like Disney World. I know what you're saying, but come on... I love a good amusement park and nobody does it like the Mouse. I have many great memories of Disney World and seeing the park through the eyes of Richard and Catherine (my niece and nephew) was a wonderful experience. And, these kids know Disney. Up early. At the park when it opens. Done with one park by mid-afternoon and on to the next one. Fastpass this ride, while we run to that one. They're good!

You can see from Rob's pictures here that we had a blast. The weather was great. The crowds were light. And, our long days went into enjoyable nights as we saw each of the three major fireworks shows in the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center and Disney/MGM Studios.

A few highlights of the trip stood out:

- We stayed at the Swan, the Westin property within the parks. I had read a lot of reviews online that said the Swan (and it's sister hotel, the Dolphin) were dated and not worth the stay. We found just the opposite. Our room and the hotel common areas were all freshly renovated. The staff was wonderful. And, the location can't be beat -- a short boat ride into Epcot and MGM; and a short walk from where Rick and Ann were staying at The Beach Club.

- The Fastpass works. I know they've been around for a while, but they're brilliant and an amazing testament the study of process management.

- The classic rides are still the classics. Though we love Tower of Terror and Rockin' Roller Coaster, Space Mountain is still a great ride. Think about it. It was built 30 years ago, but its still as thrilling as any other ride in the park. (I still remember my best friend, Teddy Councilor, coming back from a Disney vacation and bragging about riding Space Mountain.)

- But, the new rides are fun, too... including Expedition Everest. Hats off to the Imagineers and everyone behind this ride. Backwards/forwards and a face-to-face encounter with the Yeti. Great fun.

Thanks to the Fast Pass and short lines, we did the ride about three times each. Look closely in this picture and you'll see Rob -- on the right, red shirt -- hands up, of course!

All in all, we had a wonderful weekend... which was extended by a day due to the ice storms on the East coast. In fact, we had so much fun, we're headed back down to Disney in late March when the rest of the family is there for their vacation. This time we'll be checking out the water parks and heading down the road a bit to visit another classic Orlando attraction -- Sea World.

I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Journey Continues...

I took a walk through Ipanema early this morning… one last look through town. Its one of my favorite times of day in any city. Before the rush of the day sets in and the streets get crowded. It’s quiet, the sun is coming up and in any other city it would be a great time to get the camera out. (But of course, not here as I’d likely have it stolen pretty quickly.)

The residents of Ipanema are pulling themselves together after many days of celebration. Carnaval is over. Lent has begun. Today is a day of rest and recovery and most of the businesses in the city are still closed.

Residents down the street were all out washing the residue of Carnaval off of their sidewalks. It’s very symbolic of the contrast between the parties and celebrations of Carnaval and the period of Lent that follows. You can almost see it in their work… anxious to clean up their homes and move on, yet still very proud of this place and the traditions.

On TV they are showing the results of the parade from the Sambadrome. They are reading off the judges scores, one-by-one for each of the 14 schools . The scores are tallied for many categories including “presentation” and “happiness.” It’s been going on for a few hours now and the stadium is full of samba school fans cheering each score. Unfortunately, my school (Estácio de Sá) isn’t doing very well... in fact, they came in last! I don’t understand… I know I was very happy when we marched.

It’s been a wonderful month for me here and an incredible experience. I’ve met some great new friends, and got to spend a lot of time with my hosts Chris and Anderson better.

I’m not sure if I explained this early in the blog, but they met two years ago at Carnaval. Chris is from DC. Anderson is from Belem in northern Brazil. Unfortunately, due to our country’s immigration laws, Anderson is not able to visit the US though the two of them are in a two-year, committed relationship. So, Chris left his job at the company he founded to move here. They’re not sure where they will wind up, but I’m glad they’re together.

I met Anderson when I was traveling in Amsterdam in the summer of 2005. This is the first time I’ve seen the two of them together and it’s been a real treat to get to know them as a couple. I’m forever grateful to them both for opening their home and sharing their adopted city with me.

My bags are just about packed and I’m headed to the airport in a few hours for the overnight flight back to DC. (Yes, I’m wearing pants.)

On Friday, Rob and I head to Disney World to meet up w/ my brother Rick and his family for a few days of fun with the Mouse. After that its back home. I don’t know where I’ll be going next, but you can rest assured I’ll be writing about it and sharing some great pictures.

Thanks for checking in and following my journey.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bad Blogger, Bad Blogger

How in the world could I go off and enjoy Carnaval weekend and leave you all hanging like that? Bad Blogger, Bad Blogger.

Needless to say, enjoy it I have. It's been a whirlwind of fun and I'll come back with more detail, but here's a quick recap.

The real signs that Carnaval was in full swing started to show up Thursday night. The usually (and relatively) quiet side streets of Rio started filling up with crowd barriers and street vendors. And, by street vendors I mean just about anyone who could drag a cooler full of water, soda and beer down the sidewalk was a full-fledged street vendor sitting side-by-side waiting for the crowds.

The crowds started to fill the street Thursday and Friday nights. But, it was really Saturday that the craziness broke out. We had made our evening trek to the gym and were walking home along the main street in Rio, Visconde de Piraja, when we came upon the Banda de Ipanema. You'll remember that Chris and I saw the Banda practice a few Saturdays ago. Tonight they were going all-out down the main drag... and had been doing so for at least 4 hours going about a block every 30 minutes or so. No one here was in a hurry to make this parade end quickly.

We joined right in with the crowd of people in costumes, the drummers, the singers and marched right along until we reached the block party at our street. It was here where we pushed our way through the huge street party that had gathered and made our way home.

Sunday night, I marched in the Carnaval Parade at the Sambadrome. Alan and Christiane were able to get a costume for me. I don't have the pictures of us yet... they're on Alan's camera... but the costume turned out to be the very same one I placed on an earlier blog post.

You can picture me in this... it's kind of an Asian/Indian theme... big baggy pants, huge feathers off the shoulders and an enormous hat/head dress thing. The seven of us were quite a site. But, marching through the Sambadrome stadium with thousands of people dancing and singing to the hundreds of drums beating was truly an experience.

Sunday we returned to the Sambadrome... this time as spectators. We arrived around 10:30. The first parade had kicked off around 9. Before I knew it, it was 4:00 am and two more Samba Schools were left to parade. Imagine 7 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parades in a row... one after the other... for two nights. Absolutely amazing.

The good news for me is that I brought the camera out and got some really great shots. Here's a taste of what I'll finish loading up later.

Only 36 hours left in Rio. I'm headed to the beach.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


I treasure the memory of that small paradise, where I ran barefooted marveling at the humming-birds, the flamboyants and bougainvilleas… the transparent sea full of sparkling foam that seemed like blue champagne.
--- Brigitte Bardot

Though she may have discovered the place in the 60's, I'm guessing Brigitte Bardot wouldn't recognize Buzios today. While it has the feel of a small resort area, with some of the most remarkable beaches I've seen, Buzios has all the trappings of a full-fledged tourist destination... a downtown area with dozens of restaurants, souvenir and t-shirt stores everywhere as well as some very high-end stores. Even so, it has a charm and relaxed atmosphere that made it a welcome escape from Rio for a few days. (Imagine that… you know the place is low-key when people who live in a beach town – Rio – go to Buzios to relax!)

Buzios is actually a collection of a few towns on a peninsula north of Rio de Janeiro city, but still in the State of Rio de Janeiro. It is a hilly area with winding roads that take you to each of the many small beaches that hide in nooks and crannies around the coast.

Throughout the area are dozens of small hotels, or Pousadas. Ours was a series of small bungalows nestled into a hillside overlooking the ocean. It has a remarkable view, which reminded me of our stay in Vela Luka, Croatia last summer. I’ll have more about the Pousadas in a future posting.

Our primary mode of transportation while in the area was a blue “buggy” (pronounced it “boogy” not unlike the “Boogey Man”) which I assume is supposed to be a beach buggy though you’re not allowed to drive it anywhere near the beach. This thing did 30 MPH if we were going downhill; had no seat belts, power steering or any other basic safety equipment and barely fit the three of us.

I had to drive because Anderson doesn’t have a license and, at 6’7”, Chris couldn’t fit his foot between the brake and the drive shaft in order to push the gas. As it was, I could barely fit my size 11.5 feet in there either making it very difficult to go from gas to break in any meaningful time.

I did get the camera out on this trip and got some fun shots of the beach, some boats and the downtown area. Take a look.

All in all, we had a great quiet few days. Of course, it wasn’t without its excitement. At the end of our trip, with about an hour before I driver was to arrive to take us back to Rio, we decided to take the buggy out for one more trip… to see another beach we hadn’t made it to. About five miles from the hotel and the rental agency we got a flat tire. Thankfully, the folks in the local pousada were helpful and made some calls and the rental agency was there in no time to help us out.

Back in Rio now with Carnaval kicking in. Down to my final week.

Samba School

The place was discreet, though it was the best-known dive in Shiz. It hid behind a façade of paneled-up windows. A couple of Apes roamed the street in front, bouncing troublemakers ahead of time….

The door swung open, and they went down a flight of uneven brick steps. At the bottom of the flight was a dwarf in a purple burnoose. He looked at their tickets, and said, “Where are you soft things from? Out of town?”….

They danced. The crowd was the most mixed Boq had seen in some time. There were Animals, humans, dwarfs, elves and several tik-tok things of incomplete or experimental gender. A squadron of well-built blond boys circulated with tumblers of rotgut squash wine, which the friends drank because it was free.

They were swept through the oak doors and along a slightly sloping passage whose walls were padded in red and blue velvet. A merry tune was playing farther on, a dancing ragged melody.

He felt he was knowing less and less, and it was more and more beautiful to do so. Why had he been alarmed?

--- Wicked, The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

I’m not sure if it’s because I just finished reading this (slightly edited) passage in Wicked, or because I’ve been reading one too many guidebook entries about Samba, Carnaval, Favelas, etc. But, when we hopped into the cab on Saturday night to go to the Tijuca Samba School, I half-expected to arrive at a non-descript door, deep in a favela, knock a secret knock and walk in to a dark hall crowded with samba dancers.

Instead, we grabbed a cab, flew down the highway toward City Center and wound up at something more like a town fair/church festival/block party. When we arrived, the party was in full swing.

I mentioned earlier that there are roughly 14 samba schools in Rio that compete in the annual Carnaval parade. On Saturday nights, especially in the weeks leading up to Carnaval, the Samba Schools host practice parties. The parties are open to the public and as the weeks get closer and closer to Carnaval the parties get more and more crowded.

Far from being a dark, eerie hall, the Tijuca School party is held in an enormous outdoor pavilion – something you might find at a county fair back in The States. The drums were banging and the stage was full of men screaming (not singing) the school’s samba song. Everyone in the community seemed to be pitching in whether they were selling tickets, manning the bar, playing in the mob-of-a-samba-band up front or dancing in costume.

The term School is a misnomer. These are not places where you go to learn how to Samba… though Anderson did try to teach me the basics. He had as much luck as friends who have tried to teach me Two-Stepping: I understand the mechanics, but when you put it into full speed I fall apart. These are places where the community comes to celebrate their culture and prepare for Carnaval.

All night long, they sang the same songs over and over again. Mostly, they were the songs of the School... kind of like an Alma Mater. Tijuca's 2007 song can be heard if you visit their web site. It speaks of the whole world coming to see Carnival and look at the "Fantasias", or costumes. It's a catchy tune that we've been singing ever since. Check it out!

The party was so crowded and hot that we never made it to the front of the hall to see the Samba dancers. Instead, we were lucky enough that a few came out back to dance where we were. I’m assuming it was one part “show off for the tourists” and one part “there has to be some cooler air out here.”

First was a young couple – the woman dressed in a brightly colored costume, the young man in jeans and a t-shirt. Their dancing varied from a low-key tête-à-tête around each other to an all-out, frenzied rhythmic tantrum that looked as if the devil himself had possessed them both. They had clearly been dancing for hours but weren’t about to stop anytime soon.

Slowly other members of the community joined in including the shy young women who had been standing demurely at the edge of the circle and older men who looked far too old to possess the energy they demonstrated in their dancing.

Of course, it wasn’t long before they looked into the crowd for a tourist or two to join in. And, of course they went straight for me. Before I knew it, the young woman was inviting me to dance with her. It was made relatively clear by the older gentlemen that to decline would be an insult. So, into the circle I jumped and started doing the samba with her.

To say I was doing the samba “with” her isn’t quite accurate. She was going at her slower, yet wild pace. I was holding my own – but at one-tenth the speed. I felt like a Ford Fiesta pulling onto the German Autobahn and being passed by a bunch of crazed, speeding drivers in BMW’s and Mercedes Benz’.

That lasted about five minutes or so before I was able to gracefully excuse myself. A few minutes later we were back in the cab on our way home. It might not have been a real school. But, I definitely had my first, true Samba lesson.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Not That I'm Gloating, But....

It looks like a rough couple of days back home as Winter Storm Snarls Air Traffic (USA TODAY). I know the East Coast has seen some cold days in the past few weeks and my sister and her family in Holland Michigan have seen so much cold and snow that there have been weekends when they haven't even left the house. All of their Super Bowl parties were canceled. And, today my brother, Jamie< is trying to make it back to Pennsylvania from Texas. I know it's not fun.

It was bad here in Rio a few days ago. Ok... well, it was only for an hour or two. A strong storm rolled through Ipanema for a few hours. You could barely see out the window of the apartment.

Back in DC, as my friend Ben Mutzabaugh reports in the USA Today article, Washington National had to shut down early because they ran out of chemicals to fight the ice and snow. Isn't this really the first big storm of the year? And, they ran out of chemicals? Is it that bad or is this poor planning?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

On the Road Again

We're off to Buzios today until Thursday. It's a short two-hour ride north of Rio de Janeiro city.

All the guide books claim Brigitte Bardot discovered the village with her boyfriend in the 1960's. Today, it's known as Brazil's St. Tropez. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Carnaval Approaches, Part II

When I think of Carnaval in Rio, I think of Roger Moore as James Bond in Moonraker making his way through a wild parade trying to outrun Jaws, the guy with the metal teeth. The crowd is huge. People are in outlandish costumes. Moore gets jostled pushing his way past a sea of revelers in order to get down the street. Drums are beating. People are dancing. It looks like absolute bedlam.... and a heck of a lot of fun.

I understand that watching the actual Carnaval parade is only slightly more civilized than that. In 1983, Rio built a permanent home for the parade called the Sambadrome. For five nights at the end of February thousands of Carnaval partiers march through the Sambadrome as part of 14 samba schools competing against each other. There are anywhere from 200 to 400 marchers per school ranging from drummers, dancers, performers and many others (including tourists) who purchase costumes and march with the schools to round out their numbers.

The party does also spread out into the streets (a la Moonraker) as neighborhood Bandas break into their own local celebrations much like we saw last week. I understand Ipanema will be mobbed for most of the week.

Now we’ve already purchased our tickets for the Sambadrome to watch the parade. It’s going to be a noisy, raucous night. The kind of once in a lifetime thing you need to experience. I’m also being told I need to also experience the other once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of actually marching in the parade with a Samba School.

My Brazilian friends from DC, Alan and Christiane, have purchased their costumes to participate. Chris did it a few years ago when he first came to visit from DC. Tanya, a friend from Oregon who has adopted Rio as her second home and Samba as her second language tells wonderful tales of marching. So, what the heck… I’m in! Alan’s checking to see if there are any costumes left for me to join them.

The costumes are over the top. Costumes like these are on display in the local Samba/Tourist agency in Ipanema and, depending on the school, sell for roughly BR400 – BR600 (about US$200 - US$300). Though not the specific costumes Alan, Christiane and (possibly) I will be wearing, they give you a good idea of what to expect.

Chris had similar expectations when he marched. Apparently the theme of the Samba School that year was Ecological Awareness… you know, Al Gore, Greenpeace, Save-the-Whales kind of stuff. Chris arrived to find that he would be playing the role of “Trash” as a foil to the “green” costumes and core message of the Samba School. So he marched through the Sambadrome covered in plastic bottles. Not quite the picture I remember from Moonraker.

So, keep your fingers crossed that 1) there is still a costume available for me; and, 2) it doesn’t involve recyclable materials. Rest assured, that either way I’ll have plenty of pictures to share.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Lounge Act

I'm not high maintenance.

(OK, now that you've stopped laughing...) Really, I can hang with the rest of the unwashed masses. But if I can find the airport lounge, get the hotel room upgrade, sweet-talk my way into Business Class (can anybody do that these days?) well then, hey, I'm gonna do my best. Really, it's purely for professional purposes. I need to experience these things if I'm going to be successful in the Travel industry.

Which is why one of the best travel investments I made recently was to pay United Airlines at the end of 2005 to buy the last few miles I needed to qualify for Premiere Executive... which is also Star Alliance Gold. As a Gold customer you can visit an airline lounge in just about any airport in the Star Alliance system as long as you are on an international trip on an alliance carrier.

That came in very handy this summer on our way through Frankfurt to/from Croatia. Rob and I, along w/ Tanya and Dan, were able to spend some time in the Lufthansa Airlines Lounge which was just slightly more civilized than the main gate area.

So, I figured I'd use the same trick as I flew Varig on my way between Rio and Buenos Aires -- my last chance to do so as my Premiere Exec runs out at the end of February. (Far too many trips to/from DCA and LGA on Delta this year instead of trans-continental flights on UA.) What I didn't realize was that Varig left the Star Alliance in December. Neither, apparently, did the nice women at the Varig lounges who let me in.

The lounge in Rio (GIG) was actually very nice. Well maintained. Clean. Relatively new furniture. Edible sandwiches. The lounge in Buenos Aires (EZE) was a different story. It reminded me of the old LaGuardia Shuttle Terminal before we renovated it in 1999. Beat up chairs soaked in cigarette smoke. An old coffee machine. And, no Wi-Fi! I didn't stay very long.

I high-tailed it over to United. It's there that the very nice United lady told me that Varig left the Star Alliance and, apparently, took with it my privileges. But, she did point me toward the American Express lounge... which is the moral of this long-winded blog entry.

American Express has a Centurion Lounge here in the Buenos Aires (EZE) airport. Anyone with an Amex card can use the facility. As best I can tell from the site, they have a similar lounge in Sao Paulo and Mexico City. I couldn’t find any additional clubs listed on a very quick search of the site. And, while the site says Platinum card members get access, I flashed my two Gold cards and walked right in.

The EZE club is very well maintained and spacious. The staff was super friendly. There appeared to be a full bar and snacks. And, yes Wi-Fi and Web access. Finally, the annual fees and bank charges I’ve been paying American Express all these years have paid off. Of course, by the time I found the club, my flight was boarding and I could only glance around before running back out the door. Sigh.

On a Completely Unrelated Note...

Has anyone seen this Coldplay video, The Hardest Part? It’s the one with the 84 year-old woman dancing w/ the 25 year-old guy? It’s all over the TV down here. I’m wondering if it’s a local sensation or something they’re playing back in the States.

While I guess I'm inspired by the woman’s ability to dance, jump, stretch, move, etc., I am really worried that at some point they’re going to be doing this act and she’s just going to snap in half. I'm telling you its freaky. I can't watch the thing.

More power to 'em, I guess.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Don't Cry for Me...

I flew into Buenos Aires on Tuesday afternoon. It's a wonderful place with some great neighborhoods to explore, great food, friendly people and a devalued currency that makes everything cheap! What more could you want?!

My first glimpse of the city was from less than 10,000 feet when we were flying in over the very muddy bay called Rio de la Plata. As I looked off into the distance and began to see land I got a feel for just how large this city is. It's not unlike flying into LaGuardia in New York... blocks and blocks of homes inside the city. But, Buenos Aires stretches on for miles and miles more than even Queens does. The other thing that struck me is how utterly flat this part of the country is.

After a bit of a struggle through the airport (I had no cash and my card wouldn't work in the ATM machines) I found a car service that would take my Visa and made the trip in to the city. All along the ride, clean streets, wide boulevards... an impressive city.

I'm staying at the Esplendor de Buenos Aires a hotel I saw mentioned in more than one review of the city in Travel+Leisure and elsewhere. It's a new, boutique hotel in the city center. So, the room is great. The property very nice. The staff fantastic. But, the location is tough. Great for daytime as it's attached to Florida Street, and huge, pedestrian strip of shops. But, at night the area is dead. The good news is that they had excess capacity mid-week so I not only got a good rate (via my friends at Travelocity) but they threw in a dinner and Tango show. (More on that later.)

Soon after I arrived, I found myself being picked up for dinner by Emiliano, a friend of a business colleague, Martin Schaedel, whom I met at the PhoCusWright conference in Hollywood in November. Martin's a great guy... an entreprenuer and investor from Copenhagen... who has traveled the world and built a large address book full of friends. He's been terrific at introducing me to people as I travel. Emiliano is one of those folks.

Both of them are young entrepreneurs who have done very well for themselves. I think Emiliano built his first company in his teens… and more recently built and sold a much larger company focused on Internet security. All of this before his mid-30’s.

He quickly got me out of the downtown area and into one of the nicest neighborhoods in town, Palermo, a remarkable story of an area reborn in the past few years. It’s full of trendy restaurants, boutique hotels and high-end shopping. Note: This is where you find your hotel in BA.

Dinner was at Casa Cruz. When you walk up, it has these amazing 16 foot bronze doors on the front. Inside is what Time Out calls “The most daring and imaginative restaurant venue to hit the city since… well, ever.” It was hip, trendy, flashy and suave. Later we caught up w/ Emiliano’s fiancé, Pola and her friends at a local watering hole, a great way to experience my first night in BA. A great big thanks to Emiliano and Pola for making me feel so welcome.

Wednesday night I decided to taste a bit of the local culture and history. My hotel room came with a free dinner and Tango show which I had no intention of redeeming. (The rate I got for the room was cheaper with the Tango package than the rack rate offered.) But at the last minute (very last minute) I called downstairs, booked a seat, rushed through the shower and to the show at El Querandi.

Apart from sitting through a two-hour dinner by myself I did enjoy the show. I’ve got a great picture of me at the bar with the bartender (they were taking pix of the customers to sell later and I was NOT going to take mine alone), but it’s a print that I’ll have to scan to load up here later. The show was worth going to… even if to just say I did it. There’s a lot of history in this city and the tango is very much a part of that, so I enjoyed seeing the local flavor.

Wednesday was spent exploring the Recoleta neighborhood where my friend Joel lives. (Thanks for the tips, Joel!) This is high-end Buenos Aires. The regal Alvear Palace Hotel is in the neighborhood as is the Cementario de la Recoleta… the former being where wealthy and important people stay the later where they stay after they’ve passed. In fact, I heard it said that the cemetery is harder to get into than the posh flats that surround it. Perhaps the most famous resident (of the Cementario) is Maria Eva Duarte de Peron (aka Evita Peron). Like many others, I made the pilgrimage to her crypt – and I took pictures!

Yes, I took pictures. I finally dragged out the SLR and started taking pictures. And, I got to play with my new wide-angle lens. It’s the simple pleasures in life that make us most happy.

While I didn’t nearly take enough shots during the two days I was here, I was grateful to feel comfortable enough to walk around with the gear. I’m not completely shell-shocked from my experience in Rio. But, I haven’t felt great about pulling out all the equipment back there.

Thursday I went back on the road and into the Palermo neighborhood for some wandering, shopping, cafes and exploring. All-in-all a great day. I was thrilled to find myself in the Diesel store. I brought five pair of jeans to Rio (traveling with pants and in them) but I've also lost a bit of weight over the past few weeks. I've gone from a 34" waist and back to a 32" waist. Less stress? Less eating? More exercise? Who knows?! All I know is I needed a pair of jeans that didn't fall down without a belt.

Going to be up early in the morning for the flight back to Rio. A good first taste of BA. Looking forward to coming back.

Monday, February 5, 2007

OK.. I'm a Dope -- And other musings on being naive.

I had a great day today which included exploring the Leblon neighborhood which is West of Ipanema. Much more residential and less touristy than Ipanema, it was a fun change of pace.

I also went over to the Botanic Gardens -- a short cab ride away. The gardens are adjacent to the Lagoa (or lake) area all of which is very high-end and beautiful. What a peaceful, wonderful afternoon. Quiet in the middle of the city. Complete with a nice lunch in the midst of the oasis.

Unfortunately, I got a bit more sun than I bargained for. "Why didn't you put on the 30 SPF Copertone Sport Sun Screen you lugged all the way from Washington," you say. Well, because it was stolen from me on the beach yesterday... along w/ my messenger bag, my small digital camera, a new watch and a baseball cap. I'm not sure what else was in the bag, but I haven't remembered anything of irreplaceable value – yet.

I was down on the beach late in the day yesterday with some friends and we were all talking up a storm. The sun was setting in one direction, and a Police Helicopter had just hovered over the ocean in another direction -- signifying something was in the water. Everyone was looking toward the water to see if there was something to see. It was just at this point that I reached for my bag to get my small camera and a picture of the sunset... and found the bag was gone.

Now, everyone had warned me to watch my stuff on the beach. Moreover, they asked why I needed to bring a bag to the beach when all you really need is your sunglasses, some sunscreen and a kanga -- or small, sarong-like towel. Well, if you know me, you know I also need the hat, the book, the camera, the watch... you get the picture. I’m very high maintenance. (Traveling with Pants, right?) Apparently the person who took my bag also noted that I need to bring everything with me.

I'm really amazed at how quickly they were able to get it. And, I'm not entirely stupid. I had it resting against my leg. It's beyond me how they could possibly have gotten between me and the next group over to take it.

The good news is everything can be replaced. They didn't get my big camera (which I've been nervous about taking out); they didn't get any money or credit cards; there was no passport. But, they did get my AOL messenger bag with the dancing "Running Man" on the outside. Now, that can't be replaced.

I’m being entirely philosophical about the whole thing. It’s one of life’s teachable moments, right? It’s unfortunate that a beautiful place like Rio is burdened with a level of crime like this.

I’m going to do a post on the crime and my impressions of it at some point. More to come.

Tomorrow, I’m off to Buenos Aires. My friend Joel has been very kind to send a great list of things to do. And, Martin has introduced me to many people online. It should be a great week.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

First Signs of Carnaval

We were on our way to the beach Saturday when Chris remembered that this was the day that the Banda de Ipanema was to hold their first march in preparation for Carnaval. This is one of the first celebrations of Carnaval and apparently a small indication of what the actual event will be like. I'll have more on Carnaval in a future post, but I wanted to share our fun from yesterday.

From my Lonely Planet guide:

Attending a Banda is one of the best ways to celebrate Carnaval. BANDAS, also called BLOCOS, consist of a procession of drummers and singing, followed by anyone who wants to dance through the streets. To join in, all you have to do is show up.

And, this entry about Banda de Ipanema in particular:

This longstanding BANDA starts from Ipanema. It's a wild crowd, complete with drag queens and others in costumer. Don't miss it.

Well, that was an understatement. Take a look...

I'm a little disappointed that I didn't have my larger, SLR camera with me, but I have been shy about taking that out in public. So, the photos and the video below were taken with my smaller Digital Elph. Hopefully, they give you a good feel for what we experienced today.

The party in the street went on for hours, though we only stayed for a short while. The parade was a series of start/stops inching along a few feet at a time. When we returned to the neighborhood about five hours later, the party was still going strong.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Onde Esta?

I know, since arriving back in Rio on Monday I've all but disappeared from the blog. Take it as a sign that I'm relaxing and enjoying Rio.

The weather hadn't been cooperating entirely for the past few days, but that didn't stop me from heading to the beach with my book. On Wednesday I sat down on the beach at 3:00 pm with a very overcast sky and only a few dozen other hard-nosed beachgoers (read "tourist"). I used the time to finish reading Wicked. Great book. Very deep. Much darker than the Broadway show that followed.

Yesterday, the weather cooperated and the sun was shining strong throughout the day. I was in the middle of my morning routine (wake late, check the news online, hit the gym, home for lunch) when I was crossing the street in the middle of Ipanema and ran into a good friend from DC. Alan is originally from Brazil but I have known him in DC for years. He and his friend Christiane (also Brazilian) are back here visiting family and staying for Carnival. I am very excited that they're here as it adds more members to our group of friends.

A few months ago, Daily Candy had one of their regular columns on new words. One of my favorites was PUI -- planning under the influence. It describes all those great plans you make with friends usually late at night, maybe at a bar or club, after everyone's been drinking. Well, I will admit to having a caipirinha or two on the beach, and we definitely fell into PUI mode w/ Alan and Christiane. But, I'm excited that we were all making plans.

There's tons to do here in Rio and Brazil, and in my first week in town I haven't even begun to scratch the surface. All of us are ready to check out the local attractions (Cristo Redentor: the statue of Christ that overlooks the city; Sugarloaf Mountain; hang gliding) as well as heading outside the city (Buzios and Arraial do Cabo: two beach resorts about 2 hours north of Rio).

They're also talking me into marching with a Samba School in the Carnaval parades coming up at the end of my trip. I'll have more on that in another posting because it deserves much more time than I'm going to give it right now. It's 12:15, the sun is out again today and I have a very busy schedule to get to this morning. ;-)

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Rest of Sao Paulo

OK… two days later and I’m back online with an update. We arrived back in Rio late Monday night to find the Internet access out. Its back up today on this rainy Tuesday morning.

The rest of the weekend in Sao Paulo was as much fun as the first few days. We met up with more friends on Saturday night at a small cocktail party or “Chilling” as I’m told it is called. This is essentially a small party where Champagne is served while everyone gathers for the night ahead. The party was hosted at an apartment not far from our hotel in the Jardin neighborhood so we walked over.

Afterward, Elio and Daniel played tourguide and hosts for the evening and drove us to The Week, which is probably the largest night club I have ever seen. Thursday was a holiday in Sao Paulo (Sao Paulo Day) which meant many had a long weekend and the club was packed. We danced well into the night to the sounds of DJ Joao Neto -- another friend in the group (are you seeing a pattern here?)

On Sunday, Elio and Daniel again proved the gracious hosts and escorted us to brunch at the apartment of Paulo, another friend in this big group who was gracious to have us all over for a Sunday afternoon. From his rooftop, we could see much of the city of Sao Paulo... which looks like haphazard skyscrapers in every direction. We spent much of the afternoon at Paulo's eating, laughing and translating the jokes from Portuguese to English for me. It was the perfect way to finish up a great weekend. I'll say it again: there is nothing like getting to see a city through the eyes for the people who live there and I'm grateful to Elio, Danile, Paulo, Marcos, Ney and everyone else in Sao Paulo for opening their homes to me.

Monday was a lazy day for us as we packed to leave the hotel and explore the city for the last time. But, first of course, came the long lunch at a wonderful restaurant known as A Figueira Rubaiyat. This outdoor restaurant is literally built around what must be a 200 year old tree. The glass awning above and stone walls surrounding are built for the tree limbs to pass through. The setting was perfect for a lazy lunch and the meal was great (except, unfortunately, for Chris.) We finished up the trip with some shopping and a late flight back to Rio.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

City of the Night

Anderson tells me that if Rio is the “City of the Day” then Sao Paulo is the “City of the Night.” If the past 48 hours is any indication, I agree.

In Rio the activity surrounds the beach. On Thursday afternoon, the beach was packed from noon through the late afternoon. When we were out for dinner on Wednesday night, the area seemed relatively quiet with the exception of a few restaurants.

In Sao Paulo, we got a very late start in the day and we went well into the night. Dinner (a late dinner) was with friends of Chris & Anderson’s at a new pizza restaurant. Chris tells me the Brazilians claim their pizza to be the best in the world. It was delicious, but I’m not sure it beats a good late-night, greasy piece of pie at one of the ubiquitous Ray’s Pizzas in New York. Now that’s pizza.

The dinner was really great. The kind of evening that I felt like I was among friends the moment I met everyone. Thankfully (and selfishly) they all spoke English so I wasn’t out of the conversation at any point. And, in the few instances where the conversation was in Portuguese, I managed to understand the general point.

I rather like Sao Paulo. If you loosely compare Rio to Miami, you can compare Sao Paulo to New York City. Much more cosmopolitan. More exciting. (More shopping.) ;-) Rio seems much more relaxed. And, of course, that because it's very much a beach town... or at least the 5 square miles of it that I have seen so far are. Sao Paulo has the buildings, wonderful neighborhoods and lush parks. There is one down the street from our hotel that looks like a micro-rain forest. Absolutely beautiful. So, if I had to choose between the two cities to live, I might lean toward Sao Paulo.

I’m grateful that I have hosts while I’m here. For one, it certainly gets me over the language barrier. While I’ve managed to make it through many countries without knowing the language, it’s always nice to have someone who can help you. I’m impressed that Chris has learned what appears to be very fluent Portuguese in a few years time. Language hasn’t ever been my strong suit. (Poor Mrs. Moran, my high school Spanish teacher. She tried so hard to teach me.)

But, traveling with hosts also gives you an insight into the culture and community that is almost impossible to see when you’re traveling alone as a tourist. I think some of my most poignant travel experiences have been when I have known someone at my destination and learn the city from an insider’s perspective. I'm getting to see Brazil through my friends' eyes and that makes the trip even more rewarding.

And, on that note, we’re off for another night on the town with more new friends.

I'm Going to Get Hit

I’m going to get hit. I know I am. It’s just a matter of time, I fear.

Crossing the street in this city is a blood sport. Pedestrians definitely don’t have the right of way. I’ve yet to be in a cab that stops for any kind of traffic signal. And, even when you have the little green “Walking Man” sign you’re not in the clear.

Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Traveling in Pants

So, I've renamed the blog.

I'm beginning to realize that I am in a country where the culture dictates you should not rush. This worked to our favor last night as we rushed to catch our plane to Sao Paulo. And, although I probably don't want to admit it, my friend Donna London at AOL will attest to the fact that a culture that caters to the last minute and tardy is probably a good thing for me.

Chris, Anderson and I had been to the gym late in the day on Thursday. Our flight was at 9:30. We were going to leave the apartment at 7:30. I decided I needed to leave the gym at 5:30 if I was going to have enough time to shower, pack and be ready. So, off I went and left them to finish their workout.

By the time Chris and Anderson had returned to the flat, I was showered and changed... and just about packed. Ready to go. Chris looked at me with some surprise and asked why I was dressed up. (Mind you, I merely had a pair of cargo pants and a white golf shirt on. Dressed up? Hmmm..) I replied that I liked to Travel in Pants. Chris immediately suggested that be the name for my blog.

Its very apropos for me, as I do get a little uptight traveling some times. Rob will tell you I can't sit still in the gate area... pacing and repacking my carry on bags over and over. I don't take this casually.

But, I also think that people don't honor Travel today as they used to. I remember when we traveled as a young family and everyone was dressed up. Eastern Airlines. Going to Georgia to Sea Island. Everyone was dressed in coat and tie. Not any longer. Perhaps that's a good thing that it has become so common for everyone to travel. Others would tell you they miss the good old days.

Last night we were traveling more "by the seat of our pants" than "in pants." Our late start, combined with heavy traffic, got us to the airport about 30 minutes before departure. In the States, it would be "game over." In Brazil we had enough time to run from one end of the terminal to the other (couldn't find our airline's counter), check in, go through security and relax at the gate.

Security alone was so very casual. No "remove your shoes." No "remove your computer from the bag." Just take the metal out of your pockets. Surprising in this day and age, but lucky for us last night. We made our flight and made it to Sao Paulo without any other problems.

Although I may Travel in Pants... I'm going to enjoy this country where you can travel by the seat of your pants.

Go Mike, Go!

Speaking of being connected to home, I've been closely following the progress of my friend, Mike DeFlavia back in Washington. Mike is competing to win a car at the Washington Auto Show. He won some sort of drawing to be one of a dozen or so people to compete for one of three cars. All he has to do it touch the car longer than anyone else.

You can see him here at the Auto Show. He's the guy in the white shorts and dark hair all the way to the right on the white car.

Of all my friends, I think Mike is probably the only one I know who is both crazy enough to attempt something like this and persistent enough to win. My friends and I have said all he needs to do is talk to the other folks non-stop. One by one they'll likely walk away.

Good luck, Mike!

UPDATE: After surviving I think 3 or 4 days standing, sitting, sleeping next to a car Mike made it all the way. Unfortunately, so did a bunch of other competitors. From what I can tell the prize was determined by a drawing or Bingo game and Mike lost.

Forty Pounds of Connectivity

It’s amazing how attached to technology I’ve become. I’m sitting in my hotel room in Sao Paulo waiting for the Hotel Engineer to figure out why the Internet access in my room isn’t working. I haven’t been online in almost 24 hours and (aside from the hassle of not being able to update my blog) I’m suffering withdrawal. Maybe that’s a good thing.

I can’t travel these days without my laptop, my digital SLR camera, three lenses, my pocket camera, a video camera and of course all the wires, transformers, adapters and everything else that goes along with them. I have an entire 40 lbs backpack that I’m lugging around Brazil just so I can have my electronics with me. So much for hitting the open road unencumbered.

Hopefully I’ll be back online soon so I can file this blog entry. ;-)

(Apparently, I am back online as I've been able to make this post.)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The First Day in Rio

Our flight landed around 8:00 this morning after a long night. I did manage to sleep through the night and was grateful that Delta hands our eyeshades throughout the cabin. (I told the flight attendant that she made my day.) I also had a neck pillow that my colleagues at AOL gave me as a going away gift. Boy did that come in handy. And, of course, I had the Ambien that my Doctor gave me. I think that helped the most of all. ;-)

Chris was kind enough to come to the airport to meet me. While I've traveled quite frequently to foreign lands, I was a bit anxious about this particular arrival knowing I was carrying bags for a month and that Chris had recommended I not take the standard tourist cab but go up the escalator to find a city cab. Suddenly this seemed like TOO MUCH WORK. Sensing this, he met me at the airport. Thankfully, Chris stands 6'7" tall with a head of blonde hair. He stood out well from a enormous crowd of Brazlians.

After getting us back to the apartment we quickly went down the street for some food and a walk to the beach. Here I am at my first Visit to Ipanema.

And, here is Chris and me on the beach.

The rest of the day was spent getting acclimated to the new surroundings. Both Chris and Anderson take language lessons in order to better speak each other's native tounge. They're doing well -- this coming from a guy who left poor Mrs. Moran hanging in High School Spanish Class after having had at least two years in her class! Not unlike high school, while Chris and Anderson studied, I slept.

But we did make it out to the beach. Lots of customs to learn. Where to get the beach chair from. Who to order the drinks from. Where's the restroom. (Answer: too far away). But, the most important custom I learned today was how to order the Caipirihnha on the beach. These guys walk the beach with two to four coolers over their shoulders w/ all the fixings for these sweet drink and sit down right in front of you to mix them. Hmmm, tasty!

The rest of the day included the Gym, some casual Portuguese lessons for me, another nap and a late, late dinner. As I type it is 12:01am on Thursday and time for me to officially bring this day to a close.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Pack and Panic

It’s hard to believe it, but I’m sitting on a plane bound for Atlanta where I will connect with a flight to Rio de Janeiro. I have talked about this trip since early November when I first finalized plans to leave AOL. And, with very few exceptions, I sit on this plane with no other plans than to arrive in Rio tomorrow morning and depart on February 21. I don’t think I have ever been this casual about travel plans. I wonder what that says about how different this trip is for me.

I packed two suitcases… the larger with about a month’s worth of clothes. The smaller, with about a month’s worth of supplies for Chris and Anderson including protein bars, peanut butter, bed sheets and other things they can’t readily find in Rio. As for my own stuff, I just piled clothes into the suitcase until nothing else would fit and assumed I’d buy anything else I needed when I get there. As my good friend Jill reminded me, they do have stores in South America. ;-)

Rob drove me to the airport and stuck around for a bit to visit and say goodbye. It’s hard to believe we won’t see each other for a month. I don’t think I’ve been gone from home this long in one block since I lived in Rotterdam in 1996 while attending the Rotterdam School of Management. Hopefully, his studies at the University of Maryland will keep him so busy he won’t know I’m gone. ;-)

The First Leg

January 22, 2007: Time to get serious about this blogging thing. I just spent a great week in Florida starting with a visit with my parents and then a celebration of my friend’s 40th birthday.

My mother and step-dad became snowbirds last year when they purchased a condo at Jonathan’s Landing in Jupiter, Florida. It’s a great spot in a very nice golf community and I’m glad they have it. Many of their friends are in the area and they seem to enjoy their time there their days occupied with golf, shopping or work – and their evenings occupied with dinner dates. We had two very nice dinners – first with the Jeffers and then with my Uncle Jack DeKorte and his friend Cinny.

Paulette and Jack were kind enough to drag me out to the golf course – something I haven’t done with any regularity in years. And, I’m pleased to say my game wasn’t entirely unrespectable. Jack was having fun with his new oversized Driver – a present he received for Christmas. Paulette, unfortunately, was preoccupied with Franklin Lakes Borough Council business and was called to her mobile phone during the afternoon's outing.

On Friday I moved on to Fort Lauderdale where a group of us celebrated Jeff Sheweys’s 40th birthday. His partner, Ran, coordinated the weekend for about a half dozen of us at a local guesthouse where we spent much of the days relaxing and most of the evenings eating, drinking and dancing. It was a great weekend of catching up with old friends and topped off with meeting some new ones as well. I also had the pleasure of meeting up with Brenda Yester, a good friend from Carnival Cruise Lines who is always my partner in crime at the Travel Industry conferences. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and on Monday morning at 4:45am I woke to continue on to the next leg of my journey.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Oooh... I hope my Mom doesn't see that.

Sunday's New York Times Travel Section has an article about the safety of Rio de Janeiro. I have had a lot of people warn me about Rio in the past few months as I've discussed my travel plans. But, I have just as many friends who travel there often -- including my friend Chris who lives there and with whom I will be staying -- who tell me they have never felt unsafe in the city.

Frankly, as I think about it, there is enough crime in my home city of Washington that I'm probably as likely to be involved in an incident here at home as I am on the road.

Monday, January 8, 2007

The Itinerary

I found this neat tool on the blog of my friend Martin. From time to time I'll use it to plot out my 2007 travels. Here's where I plan to go in the next few months.

Jan 17 - Palm Beach
Jan 19 - Fort Lauderdale
Jan 23 - Rio de Janeiro

Maps generated by the
Great Circle Mapper -
copyright © Karl L. Swartz.