“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Chasing Ghengis Khan: Mongolia and Beijng

One theme that is common throughout most of my travels is ancient hisotry and archaeology.  I can't pinpoint what the allure is, but I as a kid who dreamed of seeing the world, Marco Polo had fascinated me.  Namely his encounters with the Mongols.  A very proud, strong horse-driven culture that conquered most of Asia.  Their relentless pursuit of territorial domination had led the Chinese build the Great Wall.  And this is where our journey begins, on either side of the Wall.

I've spent over a year researching assorted tour companies that operate groups our of Ulanbaatar, Mongolia's capital.  Spend a week in Mongolia treking, a day of horseback riding in this traditional horse-dependent nomadic land (if you don't like horses, you can hike that part), treking to a waterfall, visiting the ancient Mongol capital of Kharakorum, visiting with nomads and experiencing their daily life, and spending some evenings in traditional Mongolian gers, along with some sightseeing in the capital.  We could opt to spend a couple extra days in Ulanbaatar after the tour, and nearby in the national park riding horses, exploring the hills, streams, and wildlife. This weeklong tour in Mongolia includes hotels, get lodging, transfers, meals, transportation, and admission. 

Then we return to Beijing to unwind. Visit the Great Wall, Forbidden City, shopping, eating, and exploring for a few more days.  Or you could head back to the US sooner if you like.  In all, I figure this will be about 14-16 days away.  Costs in Beijing are on our own. I figure with the Mongolia tour group, airfare, insurance, visas, and lodging in Beijing may be about $3500/pp.  I'm flying there on frequent flyer miles (70k-92k-110k r/t depending on class) so if you can swing that, it'll knock about $1500 off for the plane ticket.

For the Mongolian tour, if we have at least 3 people on board, we could either join a scheduled group, or have our own private group.  With 8 people, the tour price drops.  This is the group and tour under consideration, affordable, a good length (but not too long), and a good selection of Mongolian sites:

Timing is about August 2014.  I can't get away from work before then, but it's still nice weather in Mongolia.  If we had enough people for a private tour we could go in September, but keep in mind it can get really cold in Mongolia at night during that month.

Chicago to Beijing r/t: ~$1500
Beijing to Ulanbaatar r/t: ~$550
Mongolia tour: $990 general group (3-7 ppl private: $1100, 8+ ppl private: $950
Chinese visa: $140 (no Mongolian visa needed)
Trip insurance: ~$100 (strongly advised)
Beijing lodging: TBD - I like to stay in little B&Bs like a traditional Chinese hutong, so looking to keep costs low here.
Beijing sightseeing: TBD for Great Wall and Forbidden City

I have airfare alerts set up for Beijing, so hopefully some fares will drop.
Nearly 3 years ago Carrie and I spent 16 days in South America for $2000 each, inclusive.  It was absolutely an amazing experience. Once again I want to have another adventure, and would love to have company!

Since I will be flying on FF miles, I need to fly when the free seats are available, so I will be booking my ticket just after the new year.  You can fly with me, or we can meet up in Beijing if you findf fares on better dates.  Let's keep talking...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

How to Get Additional Legroom in Economy for Free

Economy Plus, Main Cabin Extra, Economy Comfort, each airline calls it something different, but for all intents and purposes, it's Economy/Coach, with a little extra legroom.  These are usually the first few rows of the coach cabin.  The quickest way to secure these seats is to book your economy ticket, and while selecting a seat, an additional fee is added if you want one of these rows.

I try not to pay extra for these seats and will pick a center seat if it means I don't have to pay extra.  But a few times I have been able to be placed in these extra legroom rows without paying extra for them.  A few factors have to perfectly fall into place, but if you keep your eyes open between booking and wheels up, you, too, can find a little extra space for no cost.

When booking your ticket, the only available seats may be in these rows that cost extra.  If that's the case, do not select a seat at booking!  Proceed with an "unassigned" seat and purchase your ticket.  When you check in for your flight, if doing it online, sometimes the system will ask if you want to select a seat.  Look at the seating chart again.  If the only available seats are in this "extra" section and the system is still noting that they'll charge for them, then forego the seat selection.  Just check in and the airline will assign you a seat.  Chances are it'll assign you to the only open seats left: those in the extra legroom section... and won't charge you.

However, if during check-in you notice that there are other available seats besides the extra legroom ones, seats that have no additional charge, then you'll likely be placed in the regular seat if you let the airline system select for you.  Just keep an eye on the inventory and you may just luck out.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Local Travel: A Day in Cook County Criminal Court, aka "26th & Cal."

My company gives everyone the opportunity to take one day off a year for "Experience Day.” Sky-dive, ride the entire El system, get a tattoo, go kayaking, fly a plane.  My first idea was to spend the day inside O'Hare's air traffic control tower.  I spent 2 months to try to find a way in by means of a few phone calls. Long story short, they called me back and said they were too busy of a tower to be able to accommodate a day of job shadowing. Fair enough, they are one of the busiest airports in the world. So Plan B was to spend the day at 26th and California. Home of the infamous Cook County Criminal Court and jail. I heard it was a very interesting place to go, quite an experience.  Sounded perfect for Experience Day.

I knew phones weren't allowed inside, so I left the iPhone and iPad at home, grabbed the work Blackberry and a notebook, hid the Blackberry under the front seat of the car, and stepped inside.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I wanted to take notes.  I have only been in court once, and that was a civil matter.  This was a different ball game.  I walked around a bit to get a lay of the first floor, observed the flow of people, read the signs on the doors, checked out the posted court schedules.  Finally I walked up to the woman at the information desk and asked her the "rules."  Did a sign "Court In Session" mean I couldn't go in? Where was I allowed to go? Where was everything?  She said that the courts are open to the public and I can walk in and out at any time.  The big courtrooms were on the 4th-7th floors, with the wooden benches.  The 2nd and 3rd floors were smaller courtrooms with the seating in back behind a glass partition with speakers.  There was a jury selection currently going on in court 500 that I might be able to check out, if the judge allowed the public in for those.  She said it might be interesting to watch, so that's where I started.  Behold, the courtroom door was locked, so I guess the judge wanted jury selection to be private. 

I walked across the hall to another court instead. Inside there were a few people in the audience, seated on the wooden benches, like church pews.  Some lawyers were up front, but I didn't see a judge.  Were they on lunch break? One man caught the attention of one of the lawyers and asked a question in Spanish. I realized that perhaps being bilingual when working with the Chicago public is a really good idea.  After a half hour of me observing and trying to determine who was who - state's attorney, public defender, clerk, etc - I skipped out to find more action.  I peeked into a few other courts but no judges.  On the 7th floor I found a room with a lot of people outside, obviously lawyers talking to their clients. I figured there may be some activity going on here, so I slipped inside and sat down.  There was a judge, the lawyers, clerks, and definitely something happening.  

Finally court was in session! In the audience, a man looked like he was accompanied by his mom.  A few other people were in the audience.  I figured out that the state's attorney (SA) was seated opposite the judge's bench, that the public defenders (PD) were to the left, the clerk beside the judge, stenographer down front.  Bailiff. But I couldn't figure out who the woman was in front of the judge, standing at a table with a cart full of files.  Came to figure out later that I think she was part of the SA's paperwork team.  The clerk called each case, and each time a dependent would meet their lawyer in front of the bench.  I noticed that every single dependent, when approaching the bench, kept his or her hands clasped behind their backs.  They weren't cuffed.  Was this protocol?  Were they supposed to do this?  Dunno.  Some defendants were seated in the audience.  Some defendants, in DOC uniforms, were escorted into the room by the sheriff.  

At one point the judge started yelling at a defendant, "Use the thing that's between your two ears!" I think he didn't report to someone, his parole officer perhaps, and was now in trouble for it because the judge yelled to him to "Go report!" then slammed the docket onto the bench.  Another case was called.  But there were suddenly more players in the room.  There was a different buzz of activity than earlier.  I looked around and I was alone.  I was the lone observer, this was the last case of the day.  T defender walked in and was seated at the PD's table, with the sheriff seated behind him.  A cop walks in from a side entrance and takes the witness stand.  Oooohhhh.... I get to watch a real trial!!  Yay!

He was sworn in ad the PD began interrogation of the witness.  Then the young assistant SA cross-examined. The the PD.  Then the SA. Objections were heard and over-ruled.  The SA started asking the same questions again but slightly twisted.  The judge got frustrated and told her that he can hear and that he listens and she doesn't need to waste the court's time repeating questions.  She was clearly shake up and stopped questioning. She sat with her older colleague who sounded like he was giving her advice. I realized that most of these lawyers were probably 7-10 years younger than I.  

In short, the charge was unlawful possession of a controlled substance.  The defense's argument was that it was a 4th Amendement case and asked for a dismissal.  As the lawyers were asking the young Officer R, the arresting officer, the witness, questions, I can see how a witness would get flustered, how a memory could be distorted by questioning under stress.  On May 26th at 951 N. Lawler the officer arrested the defendant for possession.  But the search and seizure argument was coming into place because the defense claimed that the officer didn't know nor could see exactly what the defendant had in his hand when he saw him, therefore why stop him and question him?  The cop suspected a drug deal was being conducted based on the history of the neighborhood and the suspect handling something in his hand in front of other men gathered around him, and the defendant then tried to throw away what was in his hand when the officer approached him.  He kicked it under the squad car but the cop was able to reach it (turns out, later lab tests would reveal it was herion).

The judge determined there was sufficient grounds for a search, and therefore the subsequent arrest (backing up the charge was the lab results). But I could see the case for the 4th amendment argument. The only testimony was that of the cop.  No other witnesses.  This was one man's word against another.  There were no other cops or people present at the time of the arrest.  No one else to confirm why the cop searched him. Is this a case of the ends justifying the means? The judge ruled there were sufficient grounds.

At this time, the PD was explaining the defendant's rights to him.  The SA then spoke to the PD, then the judge, and they all disappeared to the judge's chambers.  I asked another PD what was happening, and she explained that the State had made a plea offer and they were going offline to discuss it together, along with the defendant's background and history of the case.  When they returned to the courtroom a few minutes later, the defendant and PD took their places in front of the bench, while the SAs stood at the side counter. The State explained that due to the defendant having six prior felonies, they asked for 5 years prison. The defendant then pleaded guilty and the judge explained that by entering his plea, he waived the right to a trial by jury, or a bench trial, and he had 39 days to appeal (as I understood it).  The judge then sentenced him to 2 years with one year probation.

During one of the recesses, the PD was complaining how court costs were unconstitutional, and one of the SA file clerks said how she doesn't talk about those at work since its a sensitive topic.  After the sentencing, I caught up with the PD in the elevator and asked her what she meant about unconstitutional court costs, because I had overheard the judge tell the defendant what his additional fines and court costs were.  But how to the defendants ever pay them if they're locked away for years?

She explained that often the court costs are more of a debt that just go on record. Some defendants can pay them, and some cannot.  But what had her worked up was that the costs then fund the Public Defender's office, but some of those funds are also allocated to the State's Attorney office. Wait a  minute... So in essence, the criminals are funding the people who are prosecuting them.  I began thinking, is this a 5th amendment case as well?  Suspects have the right to remain silent and not incriminate themselves.  But by participating in the legal system and paying fees, is that working against them?  Is that a form of self-incrimination?

Later that evening this thought also struck me... It was that man's seventh felony.  He's back in prison for 2 years.  Six prior felonies and prison time didn't deter him.  So I wondered, here was a career criminal, and was he in this lifestyle because he had no other options?  Not a legit job prospect with that history.  With no money comes no means to support oneself legally.  Perhaps prison was more like a guaranteed home for him, where he could get 3 hots and a cot every night without living on the streets.  Illegal activity was a way to support himself.  Granted, that is public money that's going to support his lifestyle, but is it the lesser of another evil, of having him on the streets dealing drugs, propping up the gangs, fueling the cartels?  What is our end goal, to keep violence and drugs off the street?  Then in this case, jail and our tax dollars is the better deal.  The only other option is a program to give the man a means of legal support, perhaps expunging his record, or finding in meaningful employment. Teach a man to fish... But our system isn't set up that way.  From streets to jail without any chance for reform before jail.  Because as I'm seeing this, either way, the public will fund these criminals. If we accept the inevitable, then perhaps the real question we should me asking ourselves is, "What is the best use of public money, the best sustaining, with the best outcome?"

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Fly for Free! Airline Vouchers: Earning, Processing, and Redeeming

Fly to Mexico City for $35?  To the East Coast from Chicago for nothing?  And accumulate frequent flyer miles at the same time?  It's possible.  And if you allow flexibility in your travel schedule, you, too, can fly for free - or discount - on airfare vouchers.  I'm writing about vouchers on American Airlines, so if you have experience with vouchers on other airlines, I'd love your feedback and will incorporate it here (with proper credit).  But first, a quick background, then some tips about how to utilize these vouchers.  And what are they?

A voucher is a "coupon" of sorts from an airline with a pre-printed value on it in your name only.  It allows you to redeem the voucher for the face value and applied toward a future fare.  If you receive a $300 voucher, then later redeem it against a $350 fare, then you only pay $50 for your ticket.  You pay the difference.  I have yet to experiment with cashing in a voucher that is more than the published fare.  If you have experienced this, let me know.  When I have encountered a fare that's lower than my voucher, I select add-ons to raise the fare, such as Choice Select (Group 1 boarding, 50% miles bonus, premium drink, same-day no-charge flight changes, etc).

If you unfortunately get involuntarily bumped from a flight, chances are you will receive a voucher.  But airlines desperately try to coax volunteers to give up their seats first before bumping anyone from a flight.  In some instances, I've heard the offer for vouchers go as high as $600.  So these days I tend to build time into my schedules so if a bump opportunity arises, I can take it and claim the voucher and get to my destination a little later.

Earlier this year I was en route to Rio de Janeiro with a connection at JFK.  The layover was 5 hours so I was planning on having dinner with my parents who live near the airport.  The flight from ORD to JFK was over-booked so they asked for volunteers to give up their seats.  I knew this meant a voucher was in order, but I passed on the chance since I had dinner plans in NY.  Then I was paged by the gate agent.  Since I was 1) traveling alone, 2) had no checked baggage, and 3) my final destination was Rio, not New York, they asked me to connect in MIA or DFW instead.  I understood their position, but I said that I was looking forward to dinner with my parents.  After the agent explained why I was chosen to re-route, I did feel sympathetic, and besides, they have tough jobs, I wasn't going to pick a battle and put up a stink.  The agent  rebooked me to DFW, and as a thank you, she still gave me a $300 voucher.  Being nice and patient and cooperative can work in your favor sometimes!  I didn't expect the voucher, although I did try for an upgrade.

One month later I was in Vegas for work.  On the way back to Chicago, I stopped at the gate desk to inquire if the flight was full, meaning I wanted to try for an upgrade into 1st class.  The agent said yes, it was full, and would I like to volunteer to give up my seat?  He hadn't even announced it to the passengers yet, but he said he needed more space.  There was another flight back to Chicago 3 hours later, so I agreed.  It turned out that he only needed 1 seat, so after they boarded the flight, he rebooked me, and gave me a $300 voucher and a meal ticket.  I bid my co-workers farewell and that I'd see them the next day at the office, as they were all on the earlier flight.

Now in my hands I had two $300 vouchers!  When I saw Mexico City airfare drop to $379 (usually around $600), I went to aa.com to hold my flight.  Then I called the booking phone number on my voucher to book my ticket.  I gave them the record locator number and they booked my ticket.  My next voucher I used to visit family over the July 4th weekend.

Note that the below process applies to PAPER vouchers.  I have not yet received an e-voucher so I can't speak to how those are redeemed or if the process is different.  Let me know if you have.

  1. Go online to find your fare, and put your ticket on 24 hour HOLD
  2. Book at least 3 weeks in advance to give the voucher time to process (see below)
  3. Call airline to book the fare and redeem the voucher
  4. If there's a fare difference, have a credit card handy.  Your card will not be charged the difference until your voucher is processed and your ticket status changes.
  5. AA will give you an address to which you have to mail in the voucher.  Make a copy of your voucher before mailing it!  If it gets lost, call AA and have the copy handy.
  6. Your ticket online will be listed as TICKET PENDING until the voucher is fully processed (or UNKNOWN if viewing from a mobile device).
  7. AA can take up to 2 weeks to process the voucher.  They process them in order of departure date.  So people sending in vouchers with departures sooner than yours will get processed first.  My first voucher took 2 weeks to process, my second voucher took 3 weeks because my departure date was more than a month away.
  8. Once your voucher is processed, AA will email you your confirmed e-ticket, and your ticket status will change from TICKET PENDING to TICKETED and your credit card will be charged for any fare difference.  One voucher I used, the fare dropped, and my card ended up being charged less than what I expected.
  9. And yes, you still earn frequent flyer miles that apply to elite status!
American Airlines Voucher Redemption Address:

American Airlines
6570 Caroline Street
Suite B, Dept 109
Milton, FL  32570

Below your return address in upper-left corner:

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Weekend in Mexico City

Mexico City has been on my radar for a number of years. It's a brief flight from Chicago, the fares can often drop to attractive prices, and the street food is supposed to be famous. I have kept an airfare alert for Mexico City for a few years.  On my trip to Rio a few months ago, I was bumped from a connecting flight and the agent was kind enough to give me a flight voucher for my trouble. As luck would have it, my airfare alert went off when the fare to Mexico City dropped to nearly the same price as my voucher, and during Memorial Day weekend, no less.  Fortunately I have some dear friends who patiently tolerate my travel bug, and Nette agreed to join me south of the border for the weekend.  I have Friday and Monday off from work, so a quick jaunt was in order.

For safety's sake, I wanted to find accommodations off the tourist path.  No hotels, nothing that might appear to make us a target, be followed, or be taken advantage of as vacationers.  And I've learned the joys of staying at local B&Bs where we can get personalized service and advice from the staff.  There were a few options in the neighborhood of Condessa.  We came to find out that this is known as the restaurant district, and it certainly wasn't short of options of all international sorts.

Friday was an extremely early flight but it got us into Mexico City by lunchtime, when we dropped our luggage off and wandered out for a bite. We didn't drift far since we were just starting to get to know the area.  A quick post-lunch nap and we headed out again for dinner. We found a place called Bacán which served Mediterranean fare.  It reminded me of a French bistro, with tables outside, dark awnings, and serious yet friendly servers.  The weather was warm and we sat outside at a sidewalk table and ordered wine and some light snacks and soup.  A perfect topping to a long day.  The crowd as attractive and quite international.  

Who knows what we did to deserve the way we felt the next morning, as we commented we may as well be senior citizens since we were dragging the next day and felt a little sore.  Maybe the result of dragging luggage around  and the early hour we woke up.  At any rate, our plan for the day was to visit  Chapultepec Park in the center of the city.  At breakfast met a couple from Tucson who said they were taking the subway there.  It was such a nice day that we decided to walk the mile and a half. So many of the streets we wandered down had wide pedestrian medians in the middle, lined with palm trees and other greenery and occasional flowers.  We took a small detour through Parque Mexico in the center of Condessa with a lovely fountain.  Every few blocks were bicycle rental stalls.  Apparently with Mexico City's notorious pollution, they recently started taking steps to improve the air quality, which includes the bike initiatives and low-emission bus service.

Chapultepec Park was a beauty.  Wide avenues for running, biking, and walking.  Fountains, botanic gardens, a lake for paddle-boating, a castle, and more museums than you can shake a stick at.  The day was sunny, the park air was cool and clean, and lots of families were out for a stroll and enjoying the amusements, food, and vendors that lined the park avenues.  We made a pit stop under some trees for some deliciously simple tacos then made our way to the biggest attraction on the list, the National Museum of Anthropology.

I have heard that this is one of the great museums of the world, and possibly the only reason to visit Mexico City if you don't do anything else.  I wanted to find out what the hype was, and for a mere $4 entry fee we were on our way.  It did not disappoint.  Not only the contents of the museum, but the architectural design of the building was stunning. It was a museum in its own right, a tribute to modern, yet understated design.  For any architecture buffs, this is not to be missed.  I have never seen a finer museum.  Granted, the Louvre is spectacular on so many different levels, but it's a palace of a different sort.  The museum had a massive inner courtyard that was open to the elements and partially covered by a roof suspended by only a single column.  Galleries opened to the courtyard, as well as opened on the back side to more gardens with winding paths to explore transplanted Mayan temples that were relocated to the museum grounds.  Mexico should be proud of the collection, to have the majority of their rich history displayed with the respect it deserves.  I was in awe throughout the visit.

On our way out we walked back east down the Paseo de la Reforma, which is known as the Champs d'Elysees of Mexico.  It wound through the park, a wide boulevard with large statues in the medians.  At one section we found ourselves in the middle of an international food festival.  I was itching to stop at nearly every booth, but the crowds were thick for the weekend and we though we would be heading back this way the next day to explore the Reforma on Sunday when they close it to traffic.  So we ducked into a side street when Nette spied an Italian restaurant.  A small, imitate place, it looked ideal to escape the crowds.  We sat on the upper floor next to a window and looked out over the Reforma.  She ordered spaghetti with red sauce and I a carbonara that knocked my socks off (I'm a sucker for carbonara so I may be easy to please with this dish).  We joked that when we woke up that morning we were senior citizens and maybe we should hit the early bird special at 4pm for dinner.  Sure enough, it was 4pm when we sat down for our late lunch.  

Our walk back took us through Zona Rosa, and it drizzled a bit, but we still enjoyed the warm temperature.  Back at the B&B we loaded a movie on the iPad and relaxed.  A few hours later we decided we were too tired to venture out for dinner and it was still raining, so we ordered Domino's.  A tasty 4-cheese pizza and a couple sodas hit the spot as we hunkered down for the next day.  Did you know that pizza in Mexico comes with a side of ketchup and picante sauce?

The plan for Sunday was to visit the historic center, do some shopping, and walk down the Reforma.  Since the historic center was much further away than the park, we decided to navigate the subway instead of waste our energy on walking... We'd be doing a lot more of that later.  And how could we resiste the subway?  It was only 3 pesos, or about $0.25!  We asked around a bit first to see how safe it was, and the vote was 3-1.  Subway it is.  It was pretty clean, trains came very quickly, and since we carried a subway map, we found our way around very easily.  

We started out in the zócalo, which is the third largest public plaza in the world behind Tienamen and Red Square.  It was bordered by the Palacio Nacional and a massive baroque church. The palace was free to enter, but somehow we just didn't have the bug to go in.  Maybe on my next trip.  I hear it had some phenomenal Diego Rivera murals inside.  As we took in the main square, we detoured down a side street that turns out was an entirely pedestrian way full of shops on each side.  We popped in and out of various jewelry stores.  I had heard that silver was very inexpensive here, but I just didn't find anything I liked.  Then we spotted Zara.  Now, we have a Zara in Chicago.  But almost the moment I walked in, I had at least a dozen garments in my arms.  I was pulling things off the racks left and right. The selection was so much better than in Chicago, and the prices were nearly half the price.  I believe we spent nearly an hour in there trying things on.  I left with a dress, pants, shirt, and a fantastic necklace that could double as a weapon.  Nette secured a fabulous trench coat.  For as much as we purchased, it was a fraction of what we would have spent back home.  Score.  

The shopping left us hungry, and we realized we were near El Cardenal. Now let me back up here.  My cab driver in Chicago had recommended this restaurant.  When we arrived at the B&B, the guy there also mentioned it.  I also spotted it in my guidebook, and saw it listed as the #1 restaurant in Mexico City on TripAdvisor.  This had to be a sign.  When we were out shopping, we spotted the awning.  So after Zara, we put our names down for a 15 minute wait (not bad) and were seated right on time.  The building and staff reminded me of a classic French bistro, once again.  We were seated on the second level, our napkins placed in our laps, our bags hung up (on these small stands that every restaurant seems to have table side), and were offered hand sanitizer.  We were presented with a lovely selection of breads, as well as a green salsa with avocado slices, queso fresco, and warm corn tortillas.  Followed up by a delicious lunch of pollo con mole negro, it was very satisfying and recommended.

We continued shopping along the pedestrian avenue when drizzle set in.  Nette took advantage of the opportunistic entrepreneurs selling umbrellas and we made our way back toward the B&B. I did want to stop at a shop called Desigual and also an artisan market, but with the rain and a chill setting into the air, a nap sounded far better.  Besides, we had just about exhausted ourselves with shopping. We took the subway back and I made some mental notes along the way.  When an elderly gentleman stepped on to the train, Nette got up to give him her seat.  A younger man stood up, motioned for Nette to sit back down, then gave his seat to the old man.  I often don't see that on public transit in Chicago.  We also noticed a few people on the train with large backpacks with speakers in them. They would play music from an attached CD player and selling the music for a few pesos.  The city was full of such entrepreneurs selling anything from trinkets to gum.  It is a bit annoying to be sitting at a sidewalk cafe having lunch and someone approaches you to try to sell you something, but a simple "no gracias" seems to do the trick.

Upon arrival in Mexico City days earlier, we learned that Sunday night would be the final game of the Mexican national soccer league, and the two teams facing each other were both from the city.  People were out in droves on Sunday wearing their favorite team jersey in anticatipation of the game.  So after camping out a bit in our room, we dolled up a bit and headed up to a local pub for some drinks and to watch the game with the locals.  We were rooting for the team with the sponsor Corona on their jerseys.  The bartender Oscar was kind enough to enlighten us on the finer points of how the game was played, and just exactly how much time was remaining.  Afterward we walked home in a light drizzle in the warm evening air.  

I feel as though this was a good primer for Mexico City.  There is so much more I want to see and do there, such as visiting the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, cruising the canals of Xochimilco, see Diego Rivera's murals in the Palacio Nacional, visit the Frida Khalo museum, walk down the Reforma in a Sunday afternoon, and seriously shop for silver jewelry.  There was no way we would have time to accomplish all that in a single weekend, so this warrants another visit.  I was also pleased that my Spanish has really developed since the last visit south of the border.  I can't say I'm fluent yet, but definitely conversational and learned a handful of new words over the weekend.  I want to continue traveling south so my language skills can improve.  Immersion is key.

I was pleased. Mexico City is a vibrant, cosmopolitan international city.  It was well worth the visit to break down any stereotypes or impressions, to bring back stories that this is a spectacular city to visit, so much more beautiful and rich than I had ever imagined.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Unexpected Day 7: Making the Best of It

During the two-hour delay on the Tarmac, I watched out my window as maintenance workers brought over crates of landing gear brake drums, remove the tires, and hoist the drums onto a lift and attempt to install the new brakes. That was two hours and one brake. They hadn't gotten to the other side yet. The airline handed out granola bars and water and started a movie, but by seeing a small army of people and crew on the Tarmac, I saw a bus show up just as it was announced that the flight was cancelled until the next afternoon. Anyone who had a place to stay in Rio should do so, and the rest of the nearly 300 passengers would be transported by bus to a hotel and given dinner and breakfast.

American handed us these transit ticket cards that will help us through re-booking and passport control, and we took a bus to a gorgeous hotel west of Ipanema in the Barra de Tejuca district (I may have spelled this incorrectly). It was a long half hour drive but it had the space for everyone. The dining room was open when we arrived at 2:30am and we had a hot buffet meal. AA was quick and efficient in getting us situated and also kind. Luckily as I mentioned earlier I had checked no luggage, so all my clothes were with me, including plenty of clean stuff (one time I'm glad I over-packed, even with just a carry-on). It was also my first time in a hotel in a week. Now I love a nice hotel, but not for $450 a night with my own cash which is one of the reasons I opted for the B&B, as well as the personal service. But I did appreciated a hotel. Huge shower, no mosquitoes, CNN, air conditioning, and fluffy towels. I took a marvelous long hot shower before bed and felt like a new person.

A wake-up call came at 8:20am that check out was at 9 and the bus to the airport would arrive at 10. I got a head start, packed and checked out, and went for breakfast. I sat in the lobby afterward when the first bus arrived at 9:35 and I caught that one. It was nice to be first, seeing as last night I got the very last hotel and meal voucher. The ride back to the airport was through suburbs, favelas, car dealerships, high-rises, and mostly residential neighborhoods. There was an amusement park, carnival, new gondolas that transport people up into the favelas quickly (a new project Rio is working on), and low clouds clinging to green mountains.

Standing in line to check in at the airport again I was talking to an older male couple from Provincetown who built a summer home in northern Brazil. I let them use my phone to contact relatives that were supposed to pick them up in Boston. Two men in business class behind us were bitching about the entire process and how slow it was. Dudes, it could be worse. Sorry you weren't accommodated within 10 minutes and you had to stand in line with the rif-raf. I will miss my connection to Chicago tonight, but will spend the night in New York with dad and Mary, so this all works out well. I could be much worse, at least I have all my things, transportation, and a home to sleep in tonight. When I get into New York I will then make my onward arrangements for Chicago. They already have me on one flight but I want to try to improve the situation a bit better to build in some breathing room in case of further issues.

It will be nice to be state-side again. And to do laundry. I miss my electric toothbrush.

However, I do have an addendum to my report about Rio's airport. The airline had also given is a lunch voucher valid at one of the vendors. Once I ventured down a couple levels of the airport, I found a more extensive food court and one more less-crowded souvenir shop. This was outside of security, so be sure to leave plenty of time to dine first and then get through the lines. And if you need a charging station in the international boarding area, there is one immediately behind passport control. You could completely miss it if you head straight to your gate without looking behind he pillars. I was the only person using an 8-port station. Gate 38 also has an outlet near the ground facing the windows, with seating nearby. The little power outlets in that airport are devils to find since a lot of them have been removed for some odd reason. But bring an European adapter, since some ports are 220v round. And I write all this assuming someone will read the blog that is looking for Rio travel advice. I know this blog sees visitors from around the world, so welcome!

Upon arrival in New York, when we stepped off the plane, American had an envelope for each passenger lined up on a windowsill. I found mine, and inside was my new boarding pass for my connection tomorrow, a hotel voucher, and breakfast voucher. Wow! I thought I was going to have to wait in line for 45 minutes to rebook, and they already had it done before I landed! I cleared customs and passport control in minutes, where were all fully-staffed and ready for us. I was off the plane and at passenger pickup within 20 minutes. My biggest props to AA for the way they handled this entire situation. Too often we hear of nightmare airline stories, and this one was a gem. I'll write them when I get home, and I took some time to thank the crew tonight, as well. They really did a stellar job.

Dad and Mary were at dinner with friends, so dad left to pick me up and we returned to the restaurant to have a nightcap together. One drink turned into two, and we were having so much fun socializing, and me relaxing, that I stepped outside the bar to call the airline. They let me change my flight from 7:45 the next morning to 1pm instead. Thank god. It's now 3am and instead of going to bed in yet another hotel, I'm in my day's house in a familiar and cozy place. I'll sleep in a little then we'll have bagels for breakfast, and off I go to Chicago. It was nice to make a stop here instead of routing through Miami or DFW. It was like having my own welcoming committee, and so nice to come home stateside to family and friends to talk to. I love going home, but there's no one to greet me at the airport or at home. There won't be in Chicago tomorrow, but at least my welcome home was a day early in New York. My first and second home.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Day 6: Boa Viagem... and the Plane Breaks Down

Last day in Rio. Or so I believe. I am on the plane right now sitting on the Tarmac for an hour because there's an issue with the brakes. No idea when it will be fixed. Will we lift off tonight? Will we spend the night here? I care not to think about it. So in the meantime I queued up Les Mis on my iPad for the 5th and final time. Yeah, it took me five times to get through it. I still don't get it. I can't get past Russell Crowe singing. It's distracting and he's not very good. I can't handle all the singing. It bores me stiff, and watching it is like walking knee-high through mud. Why all the British accents? It's a movie about France. I saw the play once, I forgot what it was about. Some people love the movie. If you're one of those people, please help me understand why. I mean no offense, it's just not for me. I have Argo and Zero Dark Thirty left on the iPad to watch. That's more my speed.

So this morning after breakfast I finished packing up and left my bags in the foyer for the day. I didn't have to be at the airport until 7. This time I headed the other direction on the metro, north, into Centro which is the downtown business district. There is a collection of colonial-era buildings so some photography and exploration was in order. I was warned that Centro has some rough spots and not to sport my camera, so I scaled back my adventure just a bit.

After a tasty lunch of yakisoba at a sidewalk cafe (I believe the first one I stopped at for kibe on my first day) I went first to the Teatro Municipal which I discovered had a guided tour starting in less than a half hour. I inquired about a tour in English, but the ticket agent didn't speak English and pointed something about "one". One what? At one o'clock? Today? Or yesterday? Or only one guide? Whatever, I figured I'd wing it and follow everyone else at for the 2pm tour even if it was in Portuguese. I can still catch a few words and I just wanted to get inside for pictures. But the guide asked if anyone spoke English, a few of us raised our hands, and the separated us and gave us an English-speaking guide. Nice.

It was a beautiful building, modeled after the Paris Opera House. It recently underwent a renovation and it glistens in gold and red in the interior, with marvelous stained-glass windows representing the Muses of music, poetry, and dance. The lower level is based on Persian design, to my surprise, as I haven't seen this motif in many western buildings. For only $5 it was a good way to spend an hour on a rainy day. Afterward I walked across to the National Library that had a stunning multi-level interior, but my motivation for more exploration was starting to wane. I walked around downtown a bit more, stumbled upon the US consulate, but as the rain came down harder, it was time to head back to the B&B.

My driver was waiting for me when I returned. I learned a few days ago that his motto is that if he's not early, then he is late. So he is always early. By at least and hour this time! Washing my face and hands was a priority, then changing clothes for the plane, packing away my day bag, some re-arranging, then we were on our way to the airport 20 minutes ahead of schedule. We passed the Sambadromo again and I managed a couple pictures through the rain-dotted car window. Then past the national soccer stadium amidst some rather congested traffic. It took us nearly 80 minutes to go a few miles so I'm very glad we were both early so I could arrive at the airport on time. Through a spattering of Portuguese and Spanish, my driver Hector and I exchanged names, talked about our jobs, some of the neighborhoods we passed through, and other chit-chat.

Rico's international airport terminal is by no means my favorite in the world. For its sake I really hope it's under construction, as there were only 2 very slow snack bar with not enough tables, one souvenir shop, one duty free shop, one restroom (no kidding, and my bags didn't fit in the stall with me so I had to pick and end stall and leave them outside my door, gah!), not enough seating for everyone, no official airline desks, not staffed, and not enough trash bins, so trays from the snack bar were everywhere. They removed most of the wall outlets so there was only one charging station that was kept busy as we piled on top of each other. One dude with a southern accent plugged in his iPhone then walked away to the snack bar. Someone should teach him a lesson and moved it. He also assumed everyone spoke English. We then boarded a bus which took us to our plane (typical for international airports), but it was raining and we had to climb wet shaky steps with our bags. I felt badly for the elderly passengers that didn't have a ramp or other means to get onto the plane.

And that brings us to now, 2 hours sitting on the Tarmac while I see one of our landing gear tires on the ground. The new brakes have arrived in wooden crates, so now I know what airplane brakes look like. Lots of staff and technicians I spy out my window. It's going to be a least another hour delay, and we'll get into New York by 10am if we're lucky. At least dad doesn't have to get up at the ass crack of dawn to pick me up. Bright sides: I have enough Xanax to put me out so I'll have no idea how much time passes; I didn't check luggage if we get moved around; I have an 11 hour (now 8 hour) layover in New York until my Chicago flight, so plenty of time; and if I miss that, flights between Chicago and New York are every hour on the hour, if not from JFK, then from LGA, which dad can drive me to. And I still have Sunday to get home if I get stranded here or in New York. Allison had keys to my place so she or Dennis can check on Jude, or the pet sitter. An my visa is multi-entry for 10 years so if I'm here another night, perhaps passport control won't be a big deal. I've slept in plenty of airports and I have a pillow, and plenty of clean knickers. So it could be worse. I tend to pack for the worst-case scenario.

Update: Can't fix plane tonight. Sent us to gorgeous hotel on the beach. Hot shower, no mosquitoes, buffet dinner at 2:30am, great staff, and all the bonuses I mentioned above turns out I actually need. Flight scheduled for 1pm, in JFK at 9pm. Will miss 5pm flight to Chicago so I don't yet know how or when I'll get home, or how frequent Internet access will be. Texting is expensive. My sister can post my updates or FB IM her for details. Got a hold of pet sitter and she's checking on Jude another day. At least I have another day to work with! Now can squeeze in an hour at the beach before the bus comes to bring us back to the airport? More details to come, but AA has been efficient and fantastic.

Day 7 post to come... Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Day 5: The Girl from Ipanema

The title writes itself. It was an overcast day but I'll be damned if I wasn't going to fit in one more day at the beach before I left, and clouds weren't going to stop me. Turns out, when you're this close to the equator, clouds are insignificant. My sunburn is lovely but will turn a lovely toasty color in a few hours. I had to visit Rio's two famous beaches, and Ipanema was next on the list.

The waves were epic. We could stand at the waterfront, but any further beyond our waist and the lifeguards would signal people to get back. Definitely too dangerous to swim. Since part of the subway line to Ipanema is closed for construction, there was a subway-to-bus transfer, so I checked first to figure out how to ask for a dual ticket. I noticed that each beach has its own tiled pattern walkway: Copacabana looks like waves, and Ipanema looks Iike bubbles. I camped out between posts 8 and 9, near a less-crowded section of beach near a Rastafarian kiosk. I waved off the vendor that asked if I wanted a chair or umbrella, since I just wanted to spread out my sarong a lay on the ground. I bought a coke and a kibe from a few vendors and passed a couple hours watching the waves,

I really had no more plans for the day, so I picked up to wander the shopping district in Ipanema, full of some great little stores and restaurants. I found Beach Sucos, which is a juice and lunch bar I had read about in The Frugal Traveler. This place had menus in English if requested, and I pointed out a grilled cheese and asked for guava juice, then had a seat at a sidewalk table and relaxed. Afterward I managed to find the express bus back to Copacabana and wandered around a bit longer in and out of some shops, finding a lovely cheap summer dress with a rainforest pattern. Upon returning to Botafogo, when I emerged at street level from the subway, I noticed more street vendors, namely one selling açai. I hadn't tried it yet and have heard so much about it. The B&B owners highly recommended it a few times, and told me about the different way it is served up. I figured this was my last chance to try it before leaving Brazil, so I ordered the smallest size. It's a dark purple-brown color with the consistency of a Frosty or a McDonald's shake that you eat with a spoon. Often it is served with granola on top, but I opted without. I was a cold delicious treat, and I wandered the streets toward home while licking my spoon.

I have less than 24 hours left in Rio. I have to be out of my room by noon, which isn't a problem. Will pack and leave my suitcase in the foyer, and perhaps wander down to Centro for some sightseeing and photography, and a long lunch. When I return by 6 I will just freshen up before my car comes. It's a late flight to New York, overnight, where hopefully they'll keep my itinerary as planned and I'll spend my layover in Saturday with Dad and Mary, to return to Chicago Saturday night. I've had a relaxing week, with some challenges (not too crazy), am proud of myself for accomplishing as much as I did (I was much lazier last time I traveled solo), but also missed a few things that I wanted to see. I wanted to take in some nightlife, late drinks at a boteca, and some samba, but I also didn't want to be out late alone. This was my only hindrance.

I definitely have grown older and wiser since the Dubai trip, by leaps and bounds. Compared to some friends, I'm still a novice traveler, but I believe I may have graduated through a few ranks. Fears have been faced this week, not without a little anxiety, but I've enjoyed the challenge of battling myself and finding out what I really am made of. It would have been nice to have a travel companion here (I get tired of thinking for myself and making decisions), someone to talk to and socialize with, to collaborate with and share the adventure and wonderment, but I also think I needed to do this alone, at least once every few years, to test the soul.

Day 4: Jardim Botanico and the Brazilian Life

I write this so late because Richard (one of the B&B owners) and I were sitting out by the pool talking about Rio culture, life, politics, crime, economy, language, and about some of the guests that have passed through these gates. For three hours we chatted as time flew by and we swapped stories.

Brazil is really coming into its own. One can clearly see around the city the improvements they are making to plan for the near- and long-term. The power had gone out for an hour this evening but it was still dusk so we had some light. I picked up some fruit for dinner and sat outside eating when Richard walked by to turn the lights back on after the power came back. He explained that the city is upgraded its electrical infrastructure ahead of all the major events it will be hosting in coming years. So every so often a neighborhood will go through a a blackout while the city is making repairs and upgrading. Growing pains. This is also why I travel with a flashlight. The newly-arrived Canadian bird-watching couple seemed perturbed and asked me what was going on. I said to give it time, as the lights also flickered off the other night, too. Richard said he could tell this couple might be a handful because they demanded to switch rooms to the only room that had a safe. This is their home, their housekeepers have all been here at least 10 years. If you can't trust one another, you shouldn't be staying at B&Bs. Richard went on to tell stories about other difficult guests. And how you can always spot an American tourist. And other helpful hints he's provided to other guests to keep them safe from harm or incident.

We also went on to talk about crime. Listen, if you can live smart in Chicago or New York, you have the street sense to visit here. I mean, extra street smarts. I know people back home who are very diligent and play safe in Chicago, and I know some people that aren't quite as aware of their surroundings, but have fared well. Blending in and making it difficult to be a target has kept me safe here. But really, it isn't any different than how I live in Chicago. This city is 4x bigger than Chicago, but operates by some of the same rules. Actually, maybe a bit friendlier.

I learned a few lessons this week and from our conversation. The Brazilian Way is to take along only what you need, and pick up the rest later. Pack lightly, if going on vacation or just to the beach. The world will provide.

I also learned about the far corners of this country and how diverse it is. As I sit in this city of 12 million people, I can hardly believe that elsewhere north of here, in the same country, are tribes that have never had contact with modern civilization. Brazil is striving to preserve that culture and respect the native way of life and their surroundings. From recycling, to conservation, to preserving and appreciating the most precious real estate in the world, the Amazon, this country has both surprised me and amazed me.

I visited the botanic gardens this morning. This is a fantastic climate for some amazing greenery to thrive, including a section devoted to preserving rare species of plants. There was giant bamboo, palm trees, lily ponds, Japanese gardens, tropical flowers, stunning Amazonian trees with rock-hard and smooth trunks, willows, vines, and a plethora of other greenery that I can't possibly remember. It was a gorgeous few hours in the quite tranquil of a park situated at the base of a mountain, in the only neighborhood that doesn't have a favela sneaking up the sides of the cliffs.

I took another bus there this morning, and I knew that somewhere at the end of the line was a connection to another bus that looped back through Ipanema. But since I wasn't familiar with the bus terminal and these buses didn't all announce their stops, I wasn't about to press my luck in an unfamiliar neighborhood. So I headed back to Botafogo and picked up a street snack. I didn't have much of an appetite and was exhausted from the day at the gardens, so later I stopped in a grocery story to pick up some mangos and grapefruit for dinner. Also at 1am last night my delicious fried dinner didn't agree with me and made an uncomfortable exit. I've been eating so much fruit and juice and healthy food for days that I think I shocked my g/i system. I also didn't feel like the hassle of a restaurant again, nor climbing those 174 steps... Twice. To waste a little time I stopped in a shopping mall that I heard had an 8th floor veranda with a great view of Praia Botafogo, and it didn't disappoint. On the way back down I spotted exercise equipment in a nearby park. I was color-coded according to age and ability. I saw some older people on some equipment doing some gentle exercise. I've seen this in quite a few places, gyms in parks and along the beaches. I asked Richard about this, and he said that yes, this is a health-conscious city, and the government helps promote it by making workout equipment available and free. Insert your own comparisons here with American culture. Would we work out more if we had chance encounters and opportunities to do so, for free?

What I do appreciate about the public transit system here is that it is also undergoing some renovations to improve it for the World Cup and the Olympics. Where there is construction and re-routing, transit employees with bright yellow shirts and with words "I can help" written on the front hand out flyers, give directions, and have megaphones telling people where to go. When the Blue Line shuts down in Chicago (it always seems to be the blue line) and there are shuttle buses instead, could you imagine the CTA doing this? Their employees hardly know their own names.

This city and economy is growing, and there's also a conscious social effort to make sure that everyone feels it. They don't want to leave the poor behind. They want to bring millions more out of poverty, and have successfully done so with 28 million in this country in the past 10 years. They want progress to happen together. You can also see this happening in the favelas as the cops take the neighborhoods back from the gang leaders.

This city certainly has its growing pains, but it's also thinking ahead. Mandarin may be the latest hot language to learn, but Portuguese may be next.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Day 3: Corcovado and Rio Cultural Thoughts

I knew this adventure could take up at least half my day, and with all the walking I've done, I wasn't about to crowd the day with more activities. Corcovado is the mountain on which the Cristo Redentor statue sits. A couple here at the B&B from England said they went yesterday and their guide had never seen it so crowded. I was the first one at breakfast promptly at 8 with plans to get up there early. When Rob (owner/guide) told me at 8:45 that I best get going to avoid the crowds, I hustled. Again I decided to walk since the B&B is situated near it, and was there in less than a half hour, wandering up and down hills, in and out of neighborhoods. I also discovered that Google Maps works even when I didn't have the cell, data, or wifi on.

When I arrived at the train station at the bottom of the mountain it was already swarming with tour groups and cruise passengers. I heard nightmares about arriving and the next available train being 4 hours later. When I bought my ticket was told the next available train was an hour away, I was delighted. An hour I can handle. So I sat in a park nearby on a swing set, when a kid of about 10 came over to talk to me. I pretended not to understand and told him I didn't speak Portuguese, but I could clearly understand that he was asking me for money to get up Corcovado.

This was also my first interaction with tourists since I arrived. Khakis, t-shirts, sneakers or socks with sandals, cameras around the neck, and fanny packs. English, American, German, you can spot them all. I also spied a fellow female solo traveler. I guess we're easy to spot, too, because most people travel in pairs. The train ride was uneventful, and about halfway up it stopped and a little samba band got on and performed. I recognized one of the songs. In another song, the locals on the train sang along. Although this was planned, I have noticed some spontaneous music breaking out around the city, and people are quick to participate.

At the top of the mountain, at the base of the statue, people were posing in the typical arms-out fashion, which also blocked the stairs to get from one viewing area to the next. My impatience broke out when I decided to ramble through people's photos. Okay, call it photo-bombing. The view from Corcovado was spectacular, and although slightly hazy, all points of Rio could be seen. For as high up as it was, it wasn't any cooler, maybe because it's closer to the sun?? I stayed maybe 20 minutes up there, then went down a level to grab a snack, Coke, and water for the walk back. I found a little cafe on a side street and popped in for a light lunch, then came back to the B&B to relax.

As I stepped inside, a brief rain fell. I've just sat here for the day in the hammock, exploring options for tomorrow, letting yesterday's sunburn fade, and think about dinner. It's overcast now and the temp is fantastic. Although after two days, I've learned my lesson and have to put on bug spray if I'm going to sit outside. If I could charge Mosquitos for what they're feasting on me, I could afford a return trip. Now I'm hearing thunder, so I'm considering heading down the hill for a comfortable dinner and a drink, and call it an early night. I'm not certain what tomorrow will bring. It's supposed to storm. Richard (other owner) suggested I explore Centro, which is the business and historic district. He gave me a map and marked off some interesting sights. I may also opt to visit the botanical garden where I hear there are toucans and parrots and sloths. And here comes the rain. Good thing I brought an umbrella if I venture out.


A few hours have passed, and now two storms. The first was epic. Wind, rain, amazing lightening. After a bit it passed and as soon as it trickled to a drizzle, I headed out for dinner. My biggest barrier here is language. I asked for a menu in English or Spanish, and they brought me an English one with no prices. After a cross-check, I ordered chicken, Cuban style. I figured hey, I like chicken, I like Cuban food. And a caipirinha. Oh, that was so good. So much lime, sugar, and alcohol goodness. The air was fresh from the rain, a cool breeze was blowing, and the drink was cold as I sat at the sidewalk table. When my dinner arrived, it was a chicken pounded flag like a cutlet, breaded, and fried. It was huge. A separate platter was heaped with peas, onion, shredded ham, crispy onion, a hard-boiled egg breaded and fried, a plantain breaded and fried (!), and a heart of palm... You guessed it... Breaded and fried. It was good. I may not have ordered it knowing it was all fried, but it wasn't heavy. And this was my first seated meal in days. I devoured it. Nearly to the end of my chicken, I discovered a round breaded and fried disc on the far end of the platter. I bit into it. Pineapple! This made my night. Chicken, ham, and pineapple. On any normal day, I hate pineapple. But stick it in salsa, or grill it, or in this case, fry it, and I love it. I just can't eat it raw.

Belly full and brain slightly buzzed from the caipirinha, I wanted a second one but didn't dare since I had to keep my wits about me to walk back up the hill. The night started to heat up again, but as I made it back home, the retired couple from England just returned with their guide from an excursion in the jungle. Later they'll fly to Iguaçu Falls, then into the Amazon for 2 weeks. Where do they get the means to do this?

Rio Observations

On the way down the hill, instead of taking the switchback road, there's a stairwell that cuts through the houses that cling to the hill. At the top of the stairs, across the street, is a wide patch of sidewalk with vegetation hanging over it. There are a few plastic chairs, a shelf hammered to the cement retaining wall, and a small tv on a crate. This is the neighborhood "living room." Many a time I've witnessed entire families out there, and women calling from their windows over to the men across the street on the sidewalk. They sit and watch soccer, smoke, and watch the goings-on in the hood. The stairwell winds like an outdoor hallway through the neighborhood. I walk past a door, and 2 feet inside is someone on a sofa watching TV, or cooking dinner, or hanging out. I literally feel like I'm walking through their home. Like walking through many homes. Stairs and halls intersect with other halls. This is also how the favelas are built, but these aren't quite as poor as the favelas. But some certainly do appear makeshift.

A very visible note about Brazilian life is the recycling effort. First I heard some statistic about Brazil being the #1 producer of ethanol and user of clean fuel. Next I watched the documentary Waste Land about a garbage dump on the outskirts of Rio, and how the people that scavenge it for recyclables keep tons of garbage out of the landfill every day. Without the garbage pickers, Rio would be overwhelmed. I highly recommend it. Anyway, there are notices about recycling everywhere. Separate bins for plastic, metal, paper, and regular trash. I feel nearly paranoid about throwing a can in the wrong bin. It feels like so much a part of the culture. Recycling? Clean fuel? Ethanol? Water conservation? Where the hell is the US in this system? Why isn't our culture more attuned to this? Why doesn't our public government push these efforts with PR? No wonder Brazil is one of the four big developing economies. They are clearly thinking way ahead of us for a sustainable and adaptable future.

I like Rio. It's hot. There's a beach. Could I live here? I don't know. I might have the largest bug zapper that would brighten the skyline. But it's a nice city. Old. Modern. Cosmopolitan. Fast. I like.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Day 2: Copacabana Beach and Sugarloaf

Also, thoughts on traveling alone, fruit juices, fresh markets, and the bus system.

I have been looking forward to taking this trip alone because I wanted to see what I was made of. How much have I grown since my last solo trip abroad 4 years ago? Am I older and wiser? Dubai was a cinch. I pretty much just laid around the pool with maybe two excursions by taxi, and mostly around English-speaking westerners. This time, Rio is a whole new ball game. And when I stopped to think about it, this is easy. There is no fear. A little hesitation, but I wait out any doubts by getting comfortable in my surroundings. So often to I do my own sightseeing and run errands alone in Chicago that in used to being alone navigating a city. This feels like much of the same. I've taken the subway, ordered food, finally took the bus (more on that later), held my own at the beach, gone shopping, and found my way back "home."

All the while speaking something that can only be called Enspanguese. My Spanish is definitely helping here, and I only know a few Portuguese words, but sometimes they come out with Spanish pronunciations. And when I'm stuck, I pepper a sentence with English. Maybe I can start my own commune down here and we can make it our official language. Half the time I just point and nod, and that seems to be working.

Over breakfast this morning I met another couple staying here who are also from Chicago. I swears we're all over the world! Always a Chicago connection somewhere. They have a couple more days here so maybe I will ask them to have a drink down the hill before they go. Afterward I headed out to Copacabana beach. Bathing suit on, cover-up, flip flops, and my small bag. On the way to the metro I passed a side street with a farmer's market selling everything from fruits and veggies to fresh meat and fish. Locals would bring their little carts down and do their entire day's shopping. I spotted some strawberries and bought them to bring to be beach. They were delicious! I couldn't tell you what half the other fruits were since many were Amazonian. Next I stopped at a newsstand and picked up 2 bottles of water and was on my way.

Rules of the beach: don't bring anything you don't NEED. I didn't need credit cards or all my cash. I didn't need my good camera, the point-and-shoot was just fine. Do NOT bring a beach towel. You will be marked as a tourist. Do not bring food; the beach provideth. Vendors walk the beach endlessly selling water, soda, caipirinhas, hot food (more kibbe!), sandwiches, bathing suits, sarongs (buy or bring a sarong and use it like a beach towel), sunscreen, hats, jewelry, and the list goes on. I walked up to a beach kiosk and they set up my chair and umbrella. The beach gopher boys will keep patrons in their area stocked with water, beer, and soda in coozies, then settle the tab at the end of the day. The beach is like a social club or a bar. Every few dozen feet are kiosks that monitor their little patch of sand. I spent a good three hours there doing nothing. Twice in the water, and the rest of the time just people-watching. When I got hungry, I flagged down what I successfully guessed to be a food vendor. Near the end of the day I haggled with a vendor for a sarong that looks like the Brazilian flag. After a decent layer of sunburn (not bad, I still used sunblock), I showered off the sand and headed out for some light shopping. Since I was sopping wet I just wrapped my sarong around me and floated in and out of stores.

This is a beach culture. Wearing half-dressed beachwear in public is no big deal. And I appreciate that body image is quite different here than in the US. People seem to embrace who they are and wear it just fine. I feel better here, whereas I'd be so self-conscious at home. This was also true in Peru, so I'm thinking its a South America thing. I found a bin full of bathing suits a some inexpensive clothing store and picked up an obligatory suit, probably only suitable for my pool and maybe the beach at my house if I'm brave. But I AM brave, dammit, I'll just pretend I'm in Rio instead of Chicago. America can take its body image issues and shove it.

Back at the B&B I rested a bit, then decided I should probably head to Sugarloaf if I were to catch it at sunset, which I heard was the best time. I'm not made of money, so I researched the bus system online, read my guidebook, and talked to Patty the house manager. When I was walking back from the beach I noticed a bus heading to Urca, and I knew that's where Sugarloaf was located. Okay, so maybe I can take the bus and save a few bucks. It adds up. First I made a pit stop at my bank (yay, a branch here!) and got a rock star exchange rate, so good, I'm stocked up for the week. I found a bus stop and stood there observing how people flagged down buses, what they did when they got on, how they paid, etc. When my 107 bus to Urca/Pão de Açucar showed up, someone flagged it, I followed him on, watched how people paid, and I did the same. There's a cashier that sits near the door, then you go through a narrow turnstile. I like. No freeloaders like in Chicago (there are also bus passes). I found a seat, then wondered how in the world to get OFF the bus and signal it to stop. There were no ropes to pull or buttons to press. At some point I noticed a lot of people get off at one stop. I stayed seated and pulled out my iPad and checked the map. I passed the stop by a block, so I stood up and went to the exit door. The bus stopped Let some guy off ahead of me and I followed. 1 block later I was at Sugarloaf. Okay, success. I'll worry about how to get home later.

I reached Sugarloaf after sunset, but there was still a hint of color in the sky. I managed a few great pictures from the peaks that I can't wait to post later. This wasn't an excursion I was planning on, but one of the owners said it was definitely worth it at dusk. It was really neat to see the city at night with Cristo Redentor lit up in white seemingly hovering over the city. Copacabana beach was awash in light. The moon was full and reflected off the ocean. The city lights glistened under the hot night air. Yes, beautiful. And I got to test the new camera at work at night and it seemed to perform like a dream in low light.

On the way back down the cable car I was contemplating taking a taxi. But that, plus the cost of dinner I wasn't prepared to cough up just yet. I had to be back by 10 when the B&B locks up and I didn't want to press my luck being out that late. I figured if the bus brought me here, it had to bring me back. I waited with some others at a bus stop and had a few coins ready. When the 107 showed up (buses operate so frequently!) I asked the driver "Ir Praia Botafogo?" Spanguese. Yes, he confirmed (because the bus sign only read Centro, which I knew was past my neighborhood). Okay, so now that is was on the bus, at night, how would I know exactly where to get off? And HOW to alert the driver to stop?? This sits where a few things came in handy: before ever leaving, I studied the maps of my neighborhood and the one I was visiting, and the route between. I kept my sense of direction, and noticed street signs as we passed. Yesterday and today I made note of landmarks and stores. So when the bus went up, around, down and did a loopy, I knew where I was. When I thought I was in the right place, I stood up and walked to the exit door and saw a button on a pole. I figured if it worked that by in Chicago, maybe it worked like that here. I pressed the button, saw a bus stop ahead, the drive slowed and pulled over, the light over the exit door went on and the doors opened! I jumped out, looked around, realized I was in the exact right place, and was so excited that I pumped my fist and yelled Yes! This was the first time I ever took a bus in a foreign country and its not as easy to navigate as a subway. I may do this again!

Since it was already 8:30, I spotted a stand-up burger bar on the corner and stopped in for a cheeseburger. Cheap and quick as I wanted to be back by 9. I could still walk back to the B&B. I made it safely, as this is an upscale residential neighborhood and known to be safe. Still, I'm going to ensure I'm back by 8 on further nights, if I'm even out. I have nowhere else on my list to be or see that is at sunset, so this should work.

Since the forecast for tomorrow is just as pleasant, I plan on going up to Corcovado before the your buses get there. Maybe Ipanema beach later on. And take it easy.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Day 1: En Route, er, RE-Route to Rio

The day began simple enough. Caught 2 buses and the el with no waiting time, and arrived at O'Hare with plenty of time to spare. This was planned because I knew I'd likely run into an issue with my passport. I never updated my passport after my divorce so my last name is still different on it than what is on my license... And notably, than the name on my FF account with the airline. Long story short, it was never an issue flying internationally before because I haven't flown overseas yet on American, where my FF account is. Until today. First they couldn't locate my reservation based on my passport, but could under my locator number. I brought along my birth certificate, old wedding license, and copy of divorce decree just in case. The counter agent understood, as she also went through a name change, so we had a good laugh. My visa was already in order, which needed to be checked for Brazil PRIOR to boarding, so I received my boarding passes and was on my way. A strange slight delay and double-looks at me in the security line, but they let me thorough. The security check station said to manually recheck my pass. Odd, but they waved me through.

I hit up Starbucks as usual and waited for my flight to JFK. I purposefully chose to connect there since Dad and Mary live right by the airport, so they were going to pick me up and we'd have dinner during my layover. Suddenly, I was paged by the gate agent. Huh? This never happened. I overheard that the flight into JFK was over-booked, but I wasn't about to volunteer to change flights.

I went to the desk to find out what they wanted from me. Since not enough people volunteered to give up their seats, and since I was connecting to Rio and checked no luggage, I was the easiest person to move off the flight. I explained that I preferred not to since I was meeting my parents for dinner, but the gate agent pleaded. I relented, and she went to work finding me a new configuration. Through Miami? Dear lord, that place can be a nightmare for international connections. How about Dallas? A little better. What's the weather like? Don't send me anywhere where there might be delays. Secondly, my driver is supposed to meet me tomorrow morning. At least routing through Dallas would get me into Rio 20 minutes before my original schedule. Better than a little later than the Miami connection. I was also trying to get an upgrade in the process on the overnight leg, but seeing as she wasn't pushing to put me in business class, we gave me a few options with some space. Apparently she could put me in a center seat and block out the seats around me so I could lie down, but I didn't want to chance that if she could do that, maybe someone could over-ride her. So I went for the exit row window seat. More room and a place to rest my head while I sleep. Nicely done. As she was handing me my new tickets, she said she would also be give a $300 voucher for my trouble. Score! Sadly I wouldn't have dinner with Dad and Mary, but I connect in New York on the way back so we'll get together then.

Once landing in DFW, it occurred to me that this is the home of some quality BBQ. As attractive as a nearby wine bar appeared, I needed smoked brisket if I was to spend a couple hours here. Delicious. This isn't long enough of a connection for me to leave and have a meal with my cousins who live nearby, and with the anomaly in my passport I don't want to risk leaving and being delayed. So here I sit for a couple hours, charging the electronics and sipping on sweet tea. Thank goodness for the SeatGuru app because I learned that my window exit seat would be narrower than most. I asked to switch and they put me in the last available window seat: last row in front of the bathroom. You know what? The seat still reclines, and no one will kick my seat. After boarding was completed, seems no one else wanted to sit in front of the bathroom, so the seat next to me remained empty. Score again. Then I could stretch out and sleep and lean against the window after dinner. The flight is practically full and I have space to myself and don't have to climb over anyone if I want to get up. Then it turns out that my original flight out of New York was delayed 3 hours, and I get to leave Dallas on time. My own row, on time departure, and a flight voucher. I better not jinx things.

So far I have had a little practice with Portuguese. I've been learning on an iPad app, and in the airport and on the plane I can understand a little. We'll see how it goes when I get there. I love immersing in a local language so I'm happy to have an entire week to adjust and learn. In Europe last year I never spent more than 3 days in any country so I'm glad to have more immersion time this week.

I slept a light 4 hours on the plane but at least it was something. Arrival in Brazil was a breeze. Cleared passport control with no issues. My driver was already there to meet me and our conversation on the way was a hybrid of Portuguese, Spanish, and English. We passed the infamous Sambradromo where the Carnival parade was held just a couple weeks ago (its massive!). After resting for a bit and freshening up, It was after noon and I was getting hungry. The house mom gave me a detailed map of how to get back down the hill via shortcut stairs instead of the road switchbacks, then I was on my way. The tiny stairwells were difficult to find if you didn't have directions, and they wound down through people's courtyards and front doors. I felt Iike I was trespassing.

At the bottom in Botafogo, I headed toward the nearest waterfront overlooking Sugarloaf Mountain. Nearby I spotted a juice bar and popped in for some fresh-squeezed guava and a croissant. Walking further through the neighborhood, I found another sidewalk cafe that featured kibbe (and yakisoba), so I sat down with that and a Coke. Eventually I found my way to the metro station and decided to give it a run and I headed to Copacabana Beach. I hadn't worn a bathing suit or brought a sarong to lie on, but I did have a bathing suit top on underneath (as is my custom, if you me), kicked off my sandals, and walked down to the water. The beach was packed!! I do believe I figured out the system how to rent chairs, umbrellas, and get food. Not sure yet if I'm going to the beach tomorrow or Tuesday, but I do plan on spending a day, buying capraihinas, and whatever food comes along. I also tested out the vendors selling sarongs to get an initial price with which to haggle later (and priced against the shops, too). After an obligatory photo opp in front of Copacabana Palace Hotel, I was tired at this point.

I had considering going to the top of Sugarloaf at sunset, but my dogs were barking and I was begging for air conditioning by the time I found a shopping mall. I spotted a Havaianas store and picked up a cute pair, then headed back to the B&B. I promptly changed into a bathing suit and dipped into the little pool to cool off, but at this time the Mosquitos noticed I checked in and their dinner started. Do turtles eat Mosquitos? Because there's a pet turtle here. Maybe he can help a girl out.

About Rio, it's green. And hot. And everyone is dressed like they're going to or coming from the beach. Body image is a second thought and everyone wears the itsy bitsy bikinis. I'm no sure yet if tomorrow I'll go to the beach first, or to Corcovado. I'm exhausted, but tomorrow is supposed to be the best day of the week. How do I use that? I could see Corcovado from a few vantage points, and besides the beautiful day, it still saw a few clouds. I also haven't had dinner so I can't decide if I should walk down the hill for something (so tired!), ask the house mom to make me a sandwich, or order in. Likely one of the latter. The uneasy 4 hours of sleep on the plane is catching up with me and my body clock thinks its time for an afternoon nap.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Planning for Rio: Brimming with Ideas

Rio has been on my hit list for a while.  I've been watching the fare for at least 3 years.  The stars aligned this month when I saw the fare drop to a modern all-time low from Chicago on American, and I scored AA gift card at the same time.  I wasn't about to let that ship sail, so within a week I booked my ticket.  Forecast is 88 degrees and sunny.  Chicago winter can bite me, I'm heading to the beach!  I'm not sure yet if I'll have a travel companion, so at this point I'm running on the assumption that I'm flying solo.  This is fine.  I fared just fine on my own in Dubai 5 years ago, and I have better language skills in South America.

The more I read about Rio and the surrounding area, the more I'm getting excited... and brimming with ideas!  I'll be there for 5 full days, and I arrive in the morning on the first day and depart at night on the last, so I have almost 7 productive days there.  My original plan was to be a beach bum.  And I will, for no less than 2 days.  But I also don't want to cram too much in and need a vacation after my vacation.

I heard Cariocas love their juice bars for breakfast before hitting the beach.  Then it dawned on me that I adore fresh-squeezed guava juice.  I fell in love with it on Easter Island and haven't had it since.  I can't find it.  No surprise, fresh guavas are difficult to locate in North America.  A little research and I discovered that guavas are a staple at Rio juice bars.  Starting every day with a fresh goiaba juice is going to make me incredibly happy... especially since I really don't like fruit in general (save berries).  Beach Sucos is a juice bar that has 2 locations in Ipanema, so it's a start to visit that one, as well as spending an obligatory day on Copacabana Beach.  Plus they have cheap eats.

At least one day will be devoted to Crocovado, which I learned is best visited first thing in the morning and on a weekday when the crowds are fewer.  If the ticket office opens at 8am, I'll show up at 7am.  Get the touristy stuff out of the way early then nap on the beach the rest of the day.  Sugarloaf mountain?  Maybe.  Corcovado might be enough to get a good view of the city, do I really need to see the view from that high again, just a different vantage point?  I never went up the Eiffel Tower because, well, you can't see the Eiffel Tower from the top of it.  Kind of ruins the view of Paris if you ask me.  But Sugarloaf is next to the Urca neighborhood, and there's a particular post-beach spot I want to hit for a beer and a snack.  Although, one can choose to hike up Sugarloaf.  Hmmm...

One idea that just hit me like a ton of bricks is horseback riding in the jungle.  I need to look into this.  See monkeys, sloths, tropical birds... I love riding horses.  I should do it more often.  This would be a beautiful opportunity.  This might be my second-best idea yet (the beach always wins).

I'm also on the hunt for a gastro-tour.  We took a Kebab Krawl in Istanbul which was one of the highlights of the trip.  So I contacted the tour organizer to see if they had counterpart in Rio.  No (although they're planning one!), but they hooked me up with the Frugal Traveler who may have some insider tips.  I reached out to him on Twitter and am awaiting a response.  He lived in Rio for years and specializes in traveling on a budget.  Right up my alley.

Meanwhile, I've fallen in love with his FT blog.  As I'm discovering while trying to find accommodations, Rio is expensive.  I am not paying $200/night (even $350 as I'm commonly finding) as a solo traveler for a hotel.  Besides, if I'm indeed going to be solo, hotels are impersonal and not the best way to meet fellow travelers.  I prefer B&Bs (always has great success w/ these in foreign countries), and even a hostel, if I can find a vacancy at one with a private en suite room.  No luck yet.  But that blog turned me on to pousadas, so my lodging search will take a tangent and explore this idea.

As for eating, I love me some street meat.  This will be easy.  Food stalls.  Caipirhinas on the beach.  And explore the neighborhood of Santa Teresa for at least one afternoon for some more interesting photography. (This will also give me an opportunity to break in the new camera since my last one broke in Istanbul).  I hear there are some hopping bossanova and samba bars up here, but not sure how I'll wing this at night and solo.  Some logistics issues here.  Do I stay in Santa Teresa and be close to "home" after I go out and not have to venture far?  Or do I stay down near the beach in my plan to be a bum?  It's more expensive by the beaches... and staying at a B&B or hostel up near Santa Teresa may hook me up with other travelers or people that can direct me to some horseback activities or a small group to venture out with for drinks.

I'm not about to make any decisions before reading my Rough Guide, which has promptly been ordered, of course!  However, if you're reading this and have visited Rio, I welcome your hints, tips, and advice... and I know, I know, Rio can be... well, I have to play it safe and be smart.  But safety tips and neighborhood avoidance tips are helpful.  No, I do not plan on doing any favela tours.  I don't believe in using poverty as voyeurism.  In the meantime, my other goal is to squeeze into a bathing suit in 4 weeks.  Travel always seems to motivate me.  If that isn't motivation, I don't know what is.  Now to brush up on my Portuguese.