at the copa...copacabaaaana
28.02.2014 - 13.03.2014
Entering Brazil was so exciting, I didn’t realise before this how much I was looking forward to it. Especially when the bus stopped at buffets along the way where you pay for food by the kilo and the main food is RICE and BEANS! My favourite, woohoo. And I think I got back at all those travelling families mentioned in the previous email. When we finally arrived at our apartment – 150m from Copacabana Beach – J, our agent from the rental company, checked us in and offered a very good personal service giving us his work email for any problems and his personal email to keep up to date with parties etc. The apartment was really nice and we still pat ourselves on the back for the bargain we got in comparison to what people paid for hostels during Carnaval. We celebrated with some bottles of bubbly and face masks. I won’t say I was not singing Barry Manilow ‘Copacabana’ and Peter Allen ‘I go to Rio’ so much that by the time we left, the man in the apartment next to us was walking around whistling the tunes.
Copacabana Beach is everything you imagine. Long and lined with palm trees, kiosks selling cocktails and seafood and people with their souvenirs for sale sprawled along Copacabana’s famous wave pattern promenade. The ultimate people-watching place. There is the gay section, attractive section, family section etc. We actually felt self conscious on the beach wearing full coverage bikini bottoms, this is how we could spot the (surprisingly) few foreigners. There is really no age or size limit to the G-banger bikini; from 5 to 75 those cheeks are bared! We went shopping one day and all wanted new bikinis but couldn’t find anything apart from the G’s and I think that would take a lifetime of tanning if we wanted to avoid blinding anyone. But enough about butts…
Lying on the beach, with Jesus watching over from Corcovado peak, people walk along selling skewers of prawns, bikinis and sarongs hanging from umbrellas being toted around and delicious cocktails delivered right to you on your towel (or your new Rio sarong)! As the beach is so wide, there are hoses spraying out water all along the sand and guys practically yell at you to walk along the wet trail to save your feet from the scorching sand. I really think it is one of those ‘anything you want, I can find and bring it to you’ kinds of places.
Brazilian Portuguese … oh man. I didn’t even try to improve to be honest. After trying for the first day when I thought there was hope I’d pick up the basics I soon realized it would be impossible. Everyone seems to pronounce the same word differently, and nothing is as it is written…or I just had terrible pronunciation when trying to read out from my phrasebook and not many people ever responded to me. So we were the terrible tourists who got through 2 weeks in Brazil with ‘Hello’ (which is the same as in Spanish so no achievement there) and ‘thank you’. We didn’t think it would be a problem as being Carnaval had heard that Copacabana would be full of tourists and the locals would probably avoid the area but nope, in the end we were desperately searching for other gringos, spotting the backpackers beards and stalking whenever we could.
Our first night out was at a bar J suggested and we met him in line, all kisses hello and everything and chatted to him for about 10 minutes, entered together and he pushed me past the line to the front of the bar ... and then the real J turned up and said hi, haha apparently we didn’t know him well enough to recognize from a stranger yet. The club was great, a mix of Latin, Brazilian and western music but the practice of having to buy drink tickets before going to the bar kept getting us. The Brazilian boys were quick to inform us that their girlfriends always give them Carnaval time ‘off’ from the relationship, a ‘free pass’. Hmmm, ok. Sunrise from Copacabana beach was beautiful. We always planned another one, but that's the reason when travelling you just gotta do it now...you may never get back there.
Our habit of sleeping in, waking for a few hours on the beach in the afternoon (generally too hot for any longer) and going out until the weeee hours began. We met up with Q, a guy we met in Buenos Aires, and his Argentinian friend A who had come with litres of pre-prepared caipirinhas, bags of ice and a hammer to go to Ipanema and see the Ipanema Street Band perform. This was so much fun as you are encouraged to join in with the parade surrounding the band on the back of a truck and end up just drinking and dancing through the streets to this rhythmic music. You even get given hats to support the band you are dancing with. Luckily Q, dressed in a shiny silver outfit and hat for the entire Carnaval week, and A, dressed as Zorro, are two of the tallest people in the world so this really helped us if we ever got separated on any of these nights out. The street parties and band parades are the way to do Carnaval. Clubs were expensive for drinks but here you either take whatever you want from home or buy them on the streets for a few dollars. Some people stand along the street and just hand out cans of beer for free in the spirit of Carnaval. Once again, as in Asia, Subway was what broke my so called 'stomach of steel'. It's always worth it.
The entire city is absolutely crazy! Public buses fly by, overcrowded with people dressed up – there is never a theme – and hanging out the window singing and chanting. The subway station is like a big party, a whale might enter the train or someone else in a particularly amusing outfit and the whole train will start chanting and cheering for them. Someone will come up to you and try to start dancing with you on the train or you may be chanted at until you do a little dance by yourself…yep, this happened to me. It is madness and impossible not to be swept up in the excitement. We went to a really nice shopping centre for party outfits and even here people are dressed up. I wore my best rainbow flowered lei for the occasion of course. A family of Where’s Wally or bumble bees walk by, dogs even look happy to be dressed up for once and if you decide 10 minutes before heading out you need a wig, that’s ok, just walk 10 metres from the apartment and someone will have a stall or a blanket laid out with every colour and style you can imagine. Dogs are really pampered in Copacabana. One rainy day we saw one go by with little boots and a raincoat. Another man we saw getting saturated by the rain but he was bending down to hold his umbrella over his dog haha.
Picking up our tickets for Sunday nights’ Sambadrome Parade was soooo exciting. The major groups supposedly performed on the Sunday and Monday nights before the final a week later. We were supposed to meet the boys at a train station near the Sambadrome but as usual what seemed like an easy plan wasn’t for us as we were on the wrong train line. Brazilians are REALLY friendly and helpful. So helpful! On the train a man told his wife to tell us to really hide our tickets and then later in the trip when we probably started looking a little confused at each stop they asked where we needed to get to. When we told them and they realized we were on the wrong line, they found a couple of older ladies standing nearby with their families and asked where they were going. It turned out they were going to a stop that we could get to where we needed to be from and they walked us out, found someone who spoke English to explain the way and this English speaking lady was even going to pay to go out and reenter the station again to take us there! This way was scenic anyway as we passed the backstreet where all of the floats were having finishing touches added. Spectacular! Turning off from here towards the Sambadrome turned out to be quite the ghetto and just by absolute chance we walked by a shop the boys were in after waiting for us for a long time at the proper meeting spot. They said even with our masks on they could see the panic in our eyes before we spotted them. This area is Centro and is basically the remnants of what were once nice buildings, long since forgotten by the government in favour of areas like Copa and Ipanema. You can see why there are issues regarding this. The street cleaners were on strike during Carnaval, very noticeable after the parades…
The Sambadrome, 700m long, seats over 90,000 people on a mixture of concrete steps and some VIP seating areas. On entering we were handed a bunch of pamphlets about the parade and schools and several condoms each. I became paranoid about my choice of outfit when I was given 9 instead of the 3 they gave everyone else. Then the parade lane became visible and my heart fluttered with excitement! We got a great spot and the French/Colombian man next to us was HILARIOUS and kept us very entertained throughout the night, not that we needed it. There were 6 schools parading this night, about 3,000 people in each. There were only breaks of 20 minutes between each and still the parade started at 9pm and finished at 6am! Talk about value for money. I was absolutely entertained the entire time, it never gets boring as the floats as truly spectacular, the outfits of each and every person dancing are so elaborate and the songs are so catchy. So much work must have gone into each float and so many rehearsals for the people involved so I can understand why there were several VERY heavily pregnant women dancing on floats. After all that work you would not want to miss out. A pirate was SHOT OUT OF A CANON! There was a water fountain on top of another float! Sorry Sydney Mardi Gras but there is some work to do. There is a queen of each school who dances at the front of each group in a FABULOUS outfit and pumps up the crowd. The groups who obviously manage to collect the most donations hand out flags and banners to the crowd to show support. You worry when bartenders at a 90,000 people venue soon know you.
Attending a Sambadrome parade should be on everyone’s bucket list. Absolutely amazing and surreal to be there, H and I grabbed each other and screamed so many times throughout the night, trying to believe we were actually experiencing this. We all Samba’d the night away (to the best of our abilities) watching all of the amazing performances and left on such a high when the crowds cleared and the sun rose, the night had flown by. The streets were already littered with the parade costumes by the time we made it out – a great souvenir if you had the space – so much work just dumped in gutters. The rubbish was by now piled metres high due to the strike, and later in the week on the way to the bus station there were these amazing floats literally dumped on sidewalks and medium strips. All through the week of Carnaval, there was an indescribable atmosphere and energy throughout all of Rio, all day every day. We didn’t even bother to wash the glitter off from one day to the next. I found a speckle of glitter on my eyebrow a week after Carnaval was over.
For the final night we met a new Brazilian friend in Ipanema where there was meant to be a big street party. He left early on and for the first time it was just us 3 girls to fend for ourselves. We managed for about an hour before we got ourselves into trouble. Well, it turned out to be a gay street party and usually I would be in my element except this meant boys AND girls trying to lunge at our faces because ‘during Carnaval everyone kisses everyone’, so we tried to escape and find a gringo bar, got caught up in a huge packed crowd and – this is where we missed the 2 tall boys and shiny hats – I turned around for one second and H who had been behind me was gone. Long story short, her phone she uses as camera which she brought out for first time ever and all money was gone, she is the shortest person in the world so we all spent a couple of hours searching, I was pulled aside and had a guy make his friend perform a wedding ceremony so I would kiss him - did not work, we went to the apartment in case she came home, called tourist police and told to wait until morning, she made it back at 8am as we were leaving to go to the police - H luckily found some people to help her, we made future emergency separation plans (had not updated since Santiago).
A week into our 10 day stay and we still had not done any sightseeing and wanted a few days on top of that to work on our tans, so we extended to 2 weeks. We did a day trip to the islands of Angra dos Reis and Ilha Grande a few hours away and then on a boat which reminded me just a bit of an asylum seeker boat, not the yacht we saw in photos. It was a bit rainy but our guide Tanya was great, very ‘fabulous’, she had the personality and energy of a drag queen and pumped everyone up all day, singing, chanting and talking crap. Only problem was passing the band on the boat to get to the bar and being forced to samba or salsa or whatever dance – I can’t do any of them – in front of the entire boat and see how ‘low can you go’...not very low, thanks Tanya. We stopped at a few islands to swim, or just off the side of the boat with noodles, had seafood for lunch, met a really nice Argentinian family who adopted us and had a really fun day.
Then, as we like to speed sightsee, we had a full day city tour the next day which would take us to all of the major attractions that alone would probably take US hopeless lot a few days to manage. We started driving through the favela (what the many slums of Rio de Janerio are called) which was used in Fast and the Furious 5 – a completely different world to that we were living it up in Copacabana. One third of people in Rio live in favelas which is quite shocking. Then we drove up through Tijuca Forest – the largest urban forest in the world – to Corcovado (hunchback) peak which looms over Rio to see the iconic Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue, one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. The views from up there over the city and the coastline we awesome and it sunk in that we were in RIO DE JANEIRO! #715 of 1000 things to do to make the most of your time on earth ‘Show no restraint in Rio’ DONE. Next on the tour we passed by Maracanã Stadium (football fans will know), Catedral San Sebastian which was beautiful inside with it’s dome shape stained glass walls and then a drive by the Sambadrome. Police wouldn’t let the bus stop to let us out for the tour which was fine with us because they added a new destination not usually included – the Escadaria Selarón. This staircase in the very edgy Santa Teresa area of the city is the legacy of Chilean artist Selarón who tiled the 250 steps using 2000 tiles from 120 countries – people would send them to him and yes Australia has a couple. He worked on this from 1990 until allegedly dousing himself and setting himself on fire here under ‘mysterious’ circumstances in 2012. I could have spent hours here looking at all the individual tiles, some quotes he had written and listening to the street performers here. Such intricate details – fact : used in U2’s Walk On clip as well as ones by Alicia Keys and Snoop Dogg. Last stop of the tour was Pão de Açúcar, Sugarloaf Mountain which will be featured in any image of Rio or Copa or Ipanema. We reached the top by cable car where you can walk around and see views of all sides of the city and coastline. Sightseeing – check.
We ended up in a favela one day when we tried to get to the main bus terminal. So there is another bus terminal, which looks nothing like the main one but we panicked when we saw the name and jumped off the bus. Woh, G.H.E.T.T.O! Typical us. Our final days were spent on the beach, sipping caipirinhas (sounds idyllic but only one of these, not a fan) and indulging in my sarong and Havaiana addiction. Last morning breakfast was at a beachside restaurant where we could watch the prostitutes and leftover partiers from the previous night ‘romance’ (even the menu mentions this and apologises for the ‘shady characters’ which are out of their control) and play ‘spot the pimp, our new game. We then had 3 full days and nights of travel ahead of us to reach La Paz.