Friday, April 20, 2012


We rushed back from the airport to the Shearton Rio Hotel because time was a-wasting. It was after 10 P.M. on the eve of Fat Tuesday, and the Sambathon Parade was already in progress. We didn't realize there was no hurry. We quickly freshened up to catch the 10:30 shuttle from the hotel to the festivities. By the time we got there, through the traffic, it was approaching midnight. We had missed the first two Samba schools in the parade. We needn't have worried.

This thing goes on all night until daybreak. The Sambathon was a sensory over load we have never experienced before. It was N'awlins Mardi Gras on steroids! The parade consists of seven Samba schools performing. Each performance (parade) is alloted an hour and 20 minutes. For 9 hours total, the samba music blasting at about 115 decibels was loud enough to be heard in Sao Paulo. Each performer in the parade and much of the enthusiastic crowd sang along. The stadium lights were as bright as day. Between performances there is a 5-10 minute break, punctuated by fireworks, for people to go to the refreshment stands. Much of it is sponsored by Devassa, a Brazilian beer company.

The Brazilians built a permanent facility called the Sambadrome (officially Darcy Ribiero Avenue) with grandstands flanking both sides of the Avenida Marquis de Sapucai for almost a mile. We paid extra for a 6 person box with plastic chairs. A capacity crowd of 72,500 people were in attendance, and probably another 50,000 or so who couldn't afford grandstand seats were milling around outside the fenced in grandstand area. If you suffer from agoraphobia, you should probably avoid the place. We had been warned not to wear jewelry or carry valuables, but we found security there to be good. We sat with our Australian friends Lach and Regitze as well as our Long Island friends Mike and Dorothy. The latter had to leave early (3 A.M.) to catch a flight to Machu Picchu in the morning.

We hung around until about 4:30 A.M. The shuttle buses back to the hotel will only pick you up between parades, so we had to time it so we didn't leave at the start of an 80 minute performance. The Australians stayed to the bitter end after 5 A.M. Even at that time there were probably 70,000 men, women and children still in the area. These Brazilians never sleep--but they really know how to party! Some of the neighborhoods put on their own Carnaval parades. On the bus ride back to our hotel, we encountered crowds of revelers in the streets in Ipanema and Copacabana, miles from the main parade. Even little kids were still in the streets in the wee hours.

Outside the parade, the big news in town was the nearby police shootout with a drug gang which left 1 person dead, 4 wounded and a squad car in flames.

As far as I could tell, they hold the festivities at night for two reasons: (1) it's too hot in the daytime, and (2) most people have day jobs. They have held the competition since 1932, so they have a pretty good idea what works.

Each Samba school performance has a thousand or more custumed performers, many of whom live in the teeming favelas. In addition, each has perhaps 10 elaborately constructed floats, lavishly decorated. Each performer's costume can cost $1000 or more. No expense is spared in this parade. Brazil is famous for its beautiful, often multi-racial women, and I was not disappointed to see many gorgeous young ladies in revealing clothing, both as performers and in the audience.

The hillside favelas which often lack running water, sewers and electricity are home to many of the performers, many of whom are of African descent. These folks may be poor, but this is their opportunity to shine, and they exhibit their unmatched creativity in their colorful displays and costumes.

Each Carnaval parade tells a story. Unfortunately for me, the story is in Portuguese. We watched and enjoyed it, mostly for its unbounded energy. Later I read the parade guide and learned a little about the significance of each display. For example, the Unidos de Tijuca, the area where the massive Christ the Redeemer statue is located, paid homage to Luis Gonzaga, a singer and songwriter (king of ballads) for the 100th anniversary of his birth. As it turned out, the winner of the competition was Tijuca, so all those musical instruments they constructed on their floats impressed the judges, who are probably all deaf by now. ______________________________________________________________________________________ It was approaching 5 A.M. when we staggered out of the Sambadrome and waited for the shuttle. We met people from the States and even Europe who attend Carnaval annually. The shuttle stopped at several hotels to drop off people, and we get back to the Shearton around 6 A.M., just in time for our 7 A.M. tour of the city. No point in going to bed--we'd never wake up in time. So we went for breakfast in the hotel. ______________________________________________________________________________________ The tour bus arrived promptly and we headed for Rio's most iconic site-the Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado Mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park. This art deco treasure was built in 1931. The statue is 130 feet high and one can see it from anywhere in the city. They light it up at night with giant floodlights. The mountain towers 2300 feet above the city, and you go to the top on a tram. It gets you most of the way up, and you take an elevator to the top. Inside the statue is a small chapel. The Brazilians don't have the concerns of church vs. state as they do in the U.S.--about 80% of Rio is Catholic, and they are very proud of the statue. _______________________________________________________________________________________ The other major attraction in Rio is the famous beaches--Copacabana and Ipanema. Many high rise hotels and condominiums line the promenade in Copacabana. The magnificent Copacabana Palace Hotel is across the promenade from the beach. _______________________________________________________________________________________ Ipanema is more artsy. The word Ipanema comes from the Tupi language and means "stinky lake". I guess times have changed. The Travel Channel lists Ipanema as the sexiest beach in the world. It got its reputation when celebrities were photographed there, male and female, wearing thongs. Ipanema is known for its art galleries, theaters and cafes, and especially the sounds of the bossa nova played by the tanned and callipygous cariocas, as the natives of Rio are called. It is the second most expensive neighborhood in Rio, next to nearby LeBlon where our hotel is located. ________________________________________________________________________________________ To me, a beach is a beach. I grew up near Rainbow Beach in Chicago and spent almost every summer day there. I thought that one was the sexiest beach in the world, but I was much younger then. Rainbow Beach has a different meaning nowadays, and in fact, at Ipanema, I saw several rainbow color flags flying. Tourists flocked to both Rio beaches, renting colorful umbrellas. Beach volleyball is a popular sport on the Rio beaches. The most popular sport at Rainbow Beach when I was there was poker. Things change... ________________________________________________________________________________________ We had one other attraction on our bucket list, and that was the Carmen Miranda Museum. This is one of the lesser known sites in town. It was our third day in Rio, and Dianne had broken her glasses in a fall, and we needed to find an optician. The hotel found us one and gave us a driver to take us there. The optician wanted 1800 reals ($1000 U.S.) for a new frame and promised it would be ready in 3 weeks. Not good! We decided to forego the glasses. We instead conned the driver to take us across town to the Carmen Miranda Museum. We didn't get our Miranda warning, however, and wouldn't you know it--it was closed for the Ash Wednesday holiday. I got out of the car and walked around the somewhat shabby round building and took a few pictures. _________________________________________________________________________________________ The thing with Carmen Miranda is that most Americans don't remember who she is. I had mentioned her name in a speech I gave before the Bar Association and got very little reaction. Afterwards, I asked several lawyers if they knew who she was, and they didn't. ___________________________________________________________________________________________ For those who don't know her, she was a Portuguese born Brazilian samba singer and dancer who made 14 Hollywood films between 1940 and 1953 and was known as the Brazilian Bombshell. She was a Hollywood icon best known for wearing towering hats made of fruit salad. In 1946, she was Hollywood's highest paid entertainer and was the top female taxpayer in the U.S. She suffered a fatal heart attack on the live NBC Jimmy Durante Show on Auguat 4, 1955. After falling to her knees, she finished the show and died later that evening at her home. Her body was flown back to Rio de Janiero where the government declared a period of national mourning. More than 500,000 Brazilians attended her funeral ceremonies. _________________________________________________________________________________________ On our way back to the hotel, our driver took us back to Ipanema and Copacabana. The thermometer on the sign read 42 degrees which is somewhere North of 100F. We got back to our air conditioned hotel for much needed rest for our evening plane ride back to the states.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Our cruise ended in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, but we booked a 3 day excursion touring Rio and flying to Iguazu Falls, probably a thousand miles away. The falls on the mighty Parana River are a virtual Niagara. They are not well known in the U.S. but they are certainly spectacular--275 separate falls along a 2 mile rim, plunging over a 250 foot cliff into the maelstrom below. They are bisected by the Argentina-Brazil border.

We began the day in steamy Rio de Janiero with a tram ride to Sugar Loaf Mountain, overlooking the harbor. From our vantage point more than 1000 feet above Rio, we could see the famous beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema. Rio is a beautiful and vibrant city, feverishly preparing for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. One thing that surprised me about Brazil was that most people, it seemed, did not understand Spanish. I can appreciate that they wouldn't understand English, but when I attempted to speak to them in Spanish, they didn't understand that either. I don't speak any Portuguese. I learned to just point at things.

We booked a flight on an obscure Brazilian low cost airline, Web Jet, flying out of Santos-Dumont Airport (SDU), the small harbor front airport near downtown Rio. The 8year old airline bought some used Boeing 727-300's which are cramped and uncomfortable. The seating was first come, first served, all economy seats. We couldn't take off until the plane was full. I sat with my knees up to my chin. It was hot and we were thirsty. The flight attendant sold water for 2 bucks a bottle--no U.S. dollars, no credit cards, just Brazilian reals. Needless to say, the airline did nothing to endear us, or want to join their frequent flyer program.

Fortunately, the short hop to Sao Paulo was only an hour. However, at Sao Paolo, Brazil's largest city, we had to change planes. Instead of entering the air conditioned airport and walking to a different gate, we marched across the tarmac, following the blue line, in the brutal 100 degree heat with the sun beating down, to the next plane. I had never walked across the tarmac before. The airplane's engines were off, so there was no air conditioning until the place could get started. We had another short hop of less than an hour to Cataratas International airport in Foz do Iguazu, the Brazilian city close to the falls.

The falls are in Argentina also, as well as Paraguay. This area is known as the Triple Frontier. We didn't go into Paraguay. We were told that this area, especially in Paraguay, has been known as a "Wild West of lawlessness, drug trafficking and organized crime". It is believed to be a haven for Al Queda, Hezbollah and Hamas operatives. Aside from that, it's a nice place.

Our hotel, the Hotel das Cataratas (the Portuguese word for "cataract" or waterfall) is a first class hotel on the Brazilian side. It is the only hotel inside Iguazu National Park. It was constructed in the Portuguese Colonial style with 193 rooms. It has a large swimming pool surrounded by palm trees and tropical plant life. Our room was spacious although the view was that of the tile roof. Other rooms had views of the falls, which are about a quarter mile away across the road. We arrived in the late afternoon and walked over for a view of the falls.

The walkway area is carved out of the jungle--er--rain forest, and is teeming with native animals. The ubiquitous coati is an animal about the size of a raccoon with a pointy nose. We were warned not to feed a coati because if it got too close, it could bite off your hand. The coati has no fear of humans, but we did our best to avoid it. We also saw monkeys and colorful birds in the trees. South American monkeys can swing by their tails, while African monkeys cannot.

After a fine Brazilian buffet meal and a good night's rest, we boarded a motor coach early to cross the border into Argentina for a better look at the falls. It was important to get to the border early because it can take awhile for the authorities to look over everyone's passports. It took a half hour for us to clear customs. On our way back later that afternoon, we saw a mile long line of cars waiting to cross the border.

The other reason to go early in the day is that Iguazu Falls is a major tourist attraction and we had to stay ahead of the throngs of tourists. The Argentines constructed a narrow gauge railway which winds through the jungle about a mile from the parking lot to the falls. The train cars are open air, about 4 people to each bench seat, and the whole train can carry hundreds of people. We disembarked and walked onto a metal catwalk extending about 3/4 mile over the river to the main attraction--Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat).

The sheer power of millions of gallons of water plunging over the cliff into the steaming abyss below boggles the mind. The loud roar of the falls is heard everywhere. It never stops. Unlike Niagara, the river never freezes, even in winter. We visited on a Summer afternoon--it was 107F with humidity approaching 100%. The swirling maelstrom (I like that word) of water creates mist and vapor which often obscures the view.

From the catwalk, we could see large catfish swimming around (downstream of the falls). It is a National Park and no fishing is allowed. Large Cayman lizards lounge on rocks. Colorful toucans with their large beaks are common in the trees as are monkeys and giant butterflies.

As I mentioned earlier, there are 275 separate falls, each with a separate name like Salto San Martin, Salto Dos Hermanas and Salto Bossetti. They are split into 2 major parts by San Martin Island, but further separated by large rock formations and small islands with tall grasses and shrubs clinging to existence between the rushing channels of water.

We ate a buffet lunch in the Argentine park at El Selva (the jungle) Restaurant, located in an outdoor shopping mall with gift shops, travel agencies and other sundry stores. One thing I couldn't find anywhere was cold medicine (e.g. Contac). I came down with a cold, and I searched the airports, the hotel and everywhere else, and nobody carried cold medicine. Ultimately the heat and humidity defeated my cold.

After lunch we got back on our bus and crossed back into Brazil for our boat ride. We jumped into rubber inflatable motorized rafts, each carrying about 30 people for our one mile trip to the falls--we were downriver, below the falls. We were warned not to take our cameras because we and the cameras would be soaked. They were right. We headed through the white water rapids directly toward the falls. Dianne and I were sitting in the front seat. We were pummeled by the water. I've never been water boarded, but it would be something like this. The water was pouring over my head in sheets, and it was hard to catch my breath.

According to the Park Ranger, nobody has ever attempted to go over Iguazu Falls in a barrel. Maybe the South Americans are more sensible than Americans in that respect.

For 110 bucks or so, you can take a 30 minute helicopter ride above the falls. Our friends on the tour did so and had a wonderful ride. Maybe next time!

On getaway day, we spent most of the day at Cataratas International, the small provincial airport serving the falls, waiting for our nonstop flight back to Rio. The plane was delayed, and we were getting upset because we had invested serious money in tickets for Sambathon, the huge Carnaval parade in Rio. We didn't want to miss it.

Eventually, we arrived after dark at Rio's Galeao-Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport (GIG). The interesting thing about the Rio airport is that it was named after Tom Jobim, as he was called, who was a composer and arranger and considered the father of bossa nova music. He made 3 albums with Frank Sinatra, but his signature song was Girl from Ipanema performed by Stan Getz and Astrid Gilberto. Within Brazil, the name of the airport is controversial, as many Brazilians wondered why they would name the largest airport in Brazil after him, not that he was a bad guy or anything. Personally, I think that's better than naming it after a politician. We never did see any signs inside the airport with his name on it. In any event, as far as I know, no airports are named after Frank Sinatra, although other airports are named after entertainers like Bob Hope (Burbank), John Wayne (Santa Ana), Will Rogers (Oklahoma City) and even John Lennon (Liverpool) and Louis Armstrong (New Orleans). No time to think about that--we had to get to Carnaval.

NEXT: Touring Rio, Carnaval Parade and No Carmen Miranda Warning.