My strongest impression during my Brazil trip was that no matter the colour of your skin or your body shape, you can enjoy being who you are. In Brazil, the people speak freely about what they call, “The mix”. The country is a melting pot of so many nationalities, religions and cultures. A typical Brazilian could be a mix of two or more nationalities. They are the most accommodating, unselfconscious people I’ve met in my travels.
At the insanely hot time of the year when I visited, the prevailing fashion for ladies, was a bikini top and loose fitting blouse. The blouse was fastened by a single button at the back of the neck, leaving the back bare. This was paired with bum shorts and flip flops. For guys, beach shorts and no shirt. A t-shirt might be tucked in the waistband of shorts for when one needs to walk into an establishment. A gorgeous tattoo on one bicep was also quite common, or for ladies, one on the ankle. Everyone looked like they were just returning from the beach (which they probably were), and I mean everyone – young, old, fat, slim, foreign or local.
But before I delve into my time in the city of Rio, how exactly did I get there?
A couple of years ago I decided to visit one or two new countries every year, starting with a country on each continent. I had visited Europe, North America and Asia, so this year it was either Australia or South America. I chose South America and eventually Brazil, primarily because Carnaval was coming up. Applying for the visa was pretty straightforward – Brazil requires the same documents as every other embassy in Nigeria. Getting the visa was another matter entirely. Apparently it had to be approved in Brazil first before it was issued in Nigeria. This took 6 weeks! I finally got my passport back with the visa and the next step was to plan how to fly there.
My travel agent suggested Iberia Airlines (via Madrid) and so began another application, this time for a transit visa through Spain. I applied and 4 days later my application was denied with an accompanying letter in Spanish! Needless to say, I was quite pissed as I had only applied for a visa to pass through the airport, not to go into the country. I promptly attributed it to the Mutallab Syndrome and proceeded to renew my US Visa, with a view to hopefully transit through the US. After standing in line at an ungodly hour in the morning, and producing a lot of stomach acid due to nervousness, I heard the magic words, “Your visa will be issued. Pick up your passport in 2 days”, at which point I muttered, “Up yours, Spanish Embassy”!
Back to visa applications
Two days later, I ate humble pie after realizing it would cost me 2x more to go through the US than Spain. I promptly reapplied to the Spanish Embassy with a ton of documentation. (The letter in Spanish mentioned, “Incomplete documentation”.) My transit visa was finally issued four days later, just a working day before my Brazil trip. (I had already bought the ticket as it was required for my visa application.) Phew!
Hotels & bookings
Booking a hotel for my Brazil Trip was another issue entirely! During Carnaval, all hotels must be pre-booked. The amount is deducted from your credit card immediately and there are no refunds. Making inquiries is a nightmare if you don’t speak Portuguese! I finally found a quaint B & B through Trip Advisor, where the owner spoke English and was a licensed tour guide. He would assist me during my stay and buy me tickets in advance, to see the grand Carnival parade at the Sambadrome. But, the B&B didn’t accept credit cards and insisted on payment through Paypal. At the time, Paypal didn’t allow payments from Nigeria. I had to call a friend in the US to make the payment for me. By this time, as you can imagine, I had a persistent headache.
Finally, my hotel was booked, my visas were in place and I left for the airport.
I don’t know how to say this delicately, so I’ll just say it. Unless it’s an emergency (or in my case, you’re trying to be cheap), please DO NOT fly Iberia! I don’t know if it was a coincidence, but that night, a good chunk of my fellow passengers looked like pimps and ladies of the night. Nigerian home videos were being hastily repacked because someone’s hand luggage was overweight. Someone kept swearing at the ground crew, “F…ing this and F…ing that.” Someone else unwrapped Suya during the flight. The onboard service couldn’t even really be described as service.
Anyway, we finally got to Madrid where I had a 7 hr. layover. I now understand how Mutallab got past security. You see, when you arrive at a country at an ungodly hour in the morning, there are usually only two or three passport control officials who are so sleepy, they barely glance at your passport. None of our hand luggage was scanned before we boarded our connecting flight. You could pick up a “package” from duty free and no one would know.
Anyway, the flight to Rio was 10 hrs. long. I met my B&B host, Richard at the airport, and we set out for Botafogo, a charming beachside town in Rio that’s supposedly safe. The house was way up a hill and we kept going and going up a winding road made of cobblestones.
Brazil Trip Continues
The next morning, I ventured off to explore the city with directions from Rob (my co-host). To get to the bus-stop, I climbed down the hill via two flights of dangerous looking stairs. I got lost in the city once or twice and that’s when I discovered the language barrier. Very few people spoke English so communication was primarily via sign language and key words. But, the people were friendly and someone went out of her way to walk me to the bus-stop.
The best way to get around the city was by bus. They have screens below the windshield that indicate the destinations. But when you get in, you hand the money over and tell the driver exactly where you’re going. As a tourist, you sit in front and gesture that he should tell you when the bus gets to your stop, as there are no announcements or further screens inside the bus. A word though – the drivers are worse than danfo guys, so hang on tight!
Many places are safe in Rio. But if traveling alone, you’re advised not to carry a bag or sling a camera over your shoulder, especially at night, as muggings do happen. However, the major tourist spots were relatively safe, as they required an admission fee so were populated mainly by foreigners.
I have often wondered why tourist attractions look better in pictures and on TV, than in real life. Maybe it’s because there’s a bit of fantasy to the imagination. I kind of felt that way about Brazil. The Christ Statue, Botanical Gardens and Sugarloaf Mountain are must-sees, and can all be visited in a day, in that order. At the major sites, I noticed Asians always had the most sophisticated cameras:)
The Botanical Gardens had an aura of peacefulness and contemplation. They reminded me that sometimes it’s fun to travel with someone else. It was the kind of place that lovers go to have quiet conversations and plan their future.
In all my trips, I’ve discovered that the best way to get a feel of a city (particularly if you’re traveling alone) is to book a half- or full-day city tour. Search for a reputable tour company online (although sometimes your hotel can suggest one). Select one where you go in a group. That way, you also meet new people. After you’re done with the city tour, you’ll have a sense of the city and can then strike out on your own. You’d be amazed the tour packages you can find online, including activities like rock climbing, snorkeling, parties and club jaunts.
For shopping, the Law of Malls prevails – Things get cheaper the higher up you go. (The top floors.) On an interesting note, I found that when you’re served beer at the street-side cafes in Brazil, the bottle is placed in an ice cooler, just like champagne:)
The highpoint of my Brazil trip, was the main Carnaval Parade at the Sambadrome. Read about it in Part 2 here.In Brazil, no matter the colour of your skin or your body type, you can be who you are. The country is a melting pot of so many nationalities, religions and cultures. Click To Tweet