Saturday, February 17, 2018

Rio

Rio de Janeiro is often referred to as just Rio, which means River (of January).  It recently hosted the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.  There were a lot of negative publicity about Rio leading to the summer Olympics but once it's over, it reverts back to its fame as a party city.  It is a big sprawling city of about 12 million people, with a big gap between the rich and the poor.

Its Christ the Redeemer statue on top of Corcovado (Camel's hump) and Sugar Loaf Mountain need no introduction, the former being named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.  Ipanema Beach, made famous from the song "The Girl from Ipanema", and Copacabana Beach are two of the best known beaches in the world.

I spent six nights in Rio, 5 of which with Tucan Travel.  I came a day early so that I can get adjusted to the time and city.  I am glad I did, because after a 20-hour trip, I was dead tired.  After a good night's rest, I was rest to join in the carnival spirit of the city.

Hotel Regina where I stayed, is located in an old neighborhood called Flamengo.  It's about a 20 minute walk from downtown and a 15-20 minute bus ride to Ipanema and Copacabana beaches.  As I exit the hotel, 2 blocks to the right is Flamengo Beach, not very popular but still crowded towards the late afternoon or early morning.  If I turn left and walk one block, I will come to Catete Road, or Rua do Catete.  It's a very busy street with plenty of shops and restaurants.  I ate at several of these restaurants, some of food as simple as something that is similar to an empanada or as elaborate as a buffet.  Buffets are common in Rio but instead of all-you-can-eat, you pay by weight.  I went to one and paid only about $7 for a nice plate of food.  Another more upscale one that I went to, I pay about $23 for food, drinks and dessert.  The main thing is you control how much you eat and how much you want to spend.  One drink I enjoyed is called an Açai bowl.  It comes from the Açai palm.  I usually get it without the toppings.  It taste better than it looks.  A 150ml cup costs about 15 Reals, around $4.60.  It has a very sweet and fruity flavor to it, with the consistency of yogurt.

Flamengo Beach, with Sugar Loaf Mountain in the background

Escaladria Selaron in the Lapa area

An Açaí bowl

If I walk about 15 minutes on Catete Road, I come across another neighborbood called Gloria, followed by Lapa and another 10 minutes, I am in downtown Rio.  I walked this route several times and enjoyed seeing the Rio residents all dressed in costumes at all times of the day.  Whether you are young or old, fat or skinny, white or black, almost everyone dresses up for the Carnival.  It's like Halloween on steroids, for an entire week.

We went on a city tour on Sunday.  First to see Christ the Redeemer statue on top of Corcovado (camel's hump in Portuguese) mountain.  It was a long drive up the mountain.  When we get to the station, we took another van to near the summit.  You can walk up or take an elevator for the last stage and eventually, you come to the base of the statue.  The statue is almost 100 ft tall and was built between 1922 and 1931.  It is a cultural icon for both Rio de Janeiro and Brazil, instantly recognizable by anyone seeing a picture of it.  It's listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.  It was restored in 2010.

I've been looking forward to visiting this statue for a long time.  From pictures in magazines or TV, it's hard to tell what it's like around the statue.  The most famous images are those taken behind the statue, with a view of the City of Rio in the background.  Here are some of my images.

Back of the statue, as seen as I climbed up the stairs

A frontal view of the statue, with beautiful clouds in the background

Station on top of the hill.  Vans take tourist up near the statue

Plaque explaining the history of the statue

A small chapel under the base of the statue

From the summit, looking down near the top of the statue
Our next stop is another Rio icon:  Sugarloaf Mountain.  It is named because the shape resembles what concentrated refined loaf sugar looks like.  The name was given by Portuguese during the days when sugar cable trade was big in Brazil.  To get to the top, you take two cable cars.  First, to the shorter Morro da  Urca mountain, then a second to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain.  On top of the mountain you have a 360 degree view of Rio.

Base of the cable car up Sugarloaf Mountain

A panoramic view from the top.  

Another view from the top.  You can see Copacabana beach on the left.
We also stopped at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian, an incredible triangular Cathedral with beautiful stained glass windows.  It's in the downtown area.

Outside view of the Metropolitan Cathedral

Inside view

Panoramic inside view
It was a wonderful week in Rio, especially with the Carnival going on.  You can see and feel the vibe of the Brazilian people.  They are easygoing and friendly.  Even though I was warned many times about pickpockets or robbers, even by locals, I never personally encountered any issues.  I was always on the alert and put my money and necessary credit cards in a money belt, tucked under my shorts and shirt.  Things are relatively cheap here.  The popular Brazilian restaurant is the Churrascaria, which is basically an all-you-can-eat buffet with plenty of different types of meat.

The hotel provides an excellent breakfast buffet.  My favorite part is the tropical fruits.  Every morning that's what most of my breakfast was.

Mangos, melons and papayas

Pastries for breakfast

More fruits:  grapes, guava, oranges and fruit cocktails
I will write about our visit to a favela in the next post.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Carnival in Rio

The biggest attraction for me coming to Rio is Carnaval.  The Rio Carnival has a reputation for its party atmosphere and fanciful parades.  I've seen short videos of the parade but friends who have been here said there's nothing like it anywhere else in the world.  I am combining this part of the tour with the South America Highlights tour, which leaves immediately after this is over.

The celebration starts the day after I arrived in Rio, on Friday, February 9th.  It goes on until Tuesday, February 12, with various block parties, called blocos, all around the city and the main event, the parade of the Samba Schools in the Sambadrome.  Tourists from all over the world come here to celebrate and participate in the biggest party event.

On the day after I arrived, Friday, I heard there'd be a bloco in the Carmelitas area.  My tour leader gave me directions on how to get there and I started out in the late morning.  After 15 minutes from the hotel, I came to a concrete arch structure.  This used to be an aqueduct but today there is a tram riding on top of the arches.  The parade is up the hill by the Santa Teresa church.  I followed some party-goers, dressed in costumes, up the steep streets towards the church.  I was early.  Luckily, I brought my Kindle and was able to past the time away.  Slowly, the crowd start to show up.  Before long I was surrounded by participants, fans, and vendors.  Apparently, anyone can sell drinks, including alcoholic drinks here.  A lot of them just push a cooler filled with water, soft drinks and beer.  By about 2 pm, I was surrounded completely.  At 3 pm, the siren went off, signaling the start of the parade.  To get a better view I ran up a balcony and squeeze myself between a crowd that was already lined up.  What a sight!  People were dressed in all kinds of costumes.  Music was blaring loudly from the truck.  Dancing.  Singing.  Posing.  Everyone was enjoying the moment.

The Arches at Lapa
Escaladria Selaron, colorful steps leading up to Santa Teresa

Amazing Crowd
Some "tall" participants



The next day, on Saturday, February 10th, after a city tour, is the day we were to attend the Carnival parade at the Sambadrome.  This is the highlight of the trip.  It's the Preliminary Schools Parade.  Although it's not as glamorous as the Main Schools Parades on Sunday and Monday evenings, it is still an amazing sight to see.  Each school takes about an hour to go through the length of the Sambadrome, which was built specifically for this purpose.  There are many sections to a schools' contingent.  The amount of effort each school put in to its choreography, costumes, floats, etc, is beyond comprehension.  The details are simply amazing.











Besides the parades, there are block parties (called blocos) everywhere in the city.  These are official block parties, where there are food vendors, portable toilets, band, security, cleaning crew, etc.  They are spread out all over the city and there are at least 5 or 6 listed in the official schedule everyday.  Some are at the beach, some are on a street, and some at a park.  I came across many as I walk around the city.  Some start as early as 8am and some start late in the afternoon.  Here are some pictures of the blocos:








Carnival in Rio is perhaps the biggest mass celebration I've seen anywhere.  It is part of Brazilian culture and everyone here embraces it.  You see residents dressed in costumes at all times of the day.  One thing that stands out is there is very little fightings, in spite of all the alcohol that is consumed.  I saw 1 or 2 but they were quickly snuffed out.  It's time of celebration before 40 days of Lent.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Flight to Rio de Janeiro

I left New York City on a snowy and cold Wednesday morning.  It was about 30F.  I bundled and walked to the subway station at 86th St and Broadway, near where my children live.  I took the No. 1 train to Times Square, walked through the passageway west towards the Port Authority subway station and took the E train to Jamaica Station.  Then I took the AirTrain to Terminal 8, where LATAM Airline is located.  I've never flown LATAM so I am unsure of its service.  However, I've flown many international airlines and found that they often give as good or even better service than the US airlines.  LATAM is a merger of LAN and TAM airlines, both South America based.  Nowadays, with airline alliances (OneWorld, Star Alliance, SkyTeam, etc) , I am able to credit the mileage to my American Airlines frequent flyer account.

Why fly LATAM?   After I decided on this trip, I used Google flights to check and track the price of my itinerary:  NYC to Rio, then on the return flight Lima to NYC.  Google flights:  (https://www.google.com/flights/) uses the same search engine as Kayak, which I used to use.  Or, rather, Kayak uses Google flights search engine.  The difference is that Google is a non-commercial search engine, whereas Kayak tries to sell you flights, hotels (lucrative business), and rental cars.  I like the simplicity of Google flights.  It also allows me to track the prices of flights that I am interested in.  As I got closer to my trip, I found that the best price and scheduling option was LATAM,   I paid $857 for JFK to Rio, and returning on a direct flight from Lima to JFK.

The first part of my trip is from JFK to Sao Paulo, an 8-hour flight.  It left JFK at about 6:30pm; about an hour late, probably because of the snow and rain.  It's an overnight flight and like most flights today, it's full.  It's a relatively new Boeing 767 and its entertainment system is as good as Delta, which I thought is very good.  It has some of the latest movies, a library of old movies, TV shows, music, games, flight path, etc.  Basically, it has enough things to keep you entertained throughout your flight.  Being not a movie-theater person, it gives me the opportunity to catch up on some of the latest movies.  I watched one of the new movies:  Dunkirk

Not long after our flight took off, the flight attendants served dinner.  I asked if I have to pay for a glass of wine and they said no.  I was a little surprise because on a recent British Airways flight from London to Munich, they wanted to charge me for even a glass of water!  It goes to tell you how far the traditional national airlines like British Airways, Air France, Japan Airlines, etc, have gone down financially because of the change in the airline industry.  I chose a short rib dinner, which was surprisingly good.  The quality of the meal is as good as other international flights, but still below Singapore Airlines, which I consider the gold standard.  

Unfortunately, I don't sleep easily on airplanes.  I may have dozed off for a few minutes here and there but not a long few hours of sleep.  I passed the time by listening to music and reading my Kindle.  I am currently reading a book called The Sympathizer, a book by Vietnamese-American professor named Viet Thanh Nguyen.  It won many book awards from 2015-2017; the most deserving of it the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  It gives a different perspective of the Vietnam War and from a Vietnamese perspective of the after-effects of the war.

I had to clear through Immigration and Customs in Sao Paulo.  US citizens require a Brazilian visa when entering the country.  When I was in NYC over Thanksgiving, I went to the Brazilian consulate there to apply for my visa.  The 10-year visa costs $160, payable only with Money Order.  It took me only one afternoon to get my visa.  It saved me a lot of money, not having to send it (usually by FedEx costing about $30) to a visa service agency to be processed.  That fee usually costs around $85.  I did the same thing applying for a Bolivian visa.

Normally, you'd have an airline representative to help you transfer your baggage to the next flight after you cleared customs.  In this case you have to look for the signs and ask people.  After some time going through the chaotic airport, I found where to drop off my luggage.  Since I have about another hour and a half,  I looked for the airport lounge to get some food and relax.  I have access to Priority Pass lounges through one of my credit cards.  It's a nice privilege because since I travel so much, it's nice to have a quiet place to wait for my flight instead of a food court or the airport gate.  I also took the opportunity to get some cash from one of the ATM machines.  I use a Schwab Bank debit card, which refunds me the ATM fee if I get charged one.  This is usually my process - get local currency from an ATM in the airport lobby before leaving the airport.

The flight from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro takes about an hour.  I bought a voucher from one of the official taxi stands for about 117 Reals or about $35.52.  It took about half an hour for the taxi to go from the airport to Hotel Regina, which is in the Flamengo area.  Happily, I was given a single room when I checked into the hotel.

Hotel Regina in the Flamengo area
I tried not to take a nap so that I can adjust to the local time quickly.  Rio is about 5 hours ahead of Phoenix and 3 hours ahead of NYC.  The Flamengo beach is about 2 blocks from the hotel so I took a easy walk there.  

Sugarloaf Mountain, as seen from Flamengo Beach

Flamengo Beach
That night I went to bed at 9pm, ready for an exciting week in Rio.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

South America Highlights

I've been enjoying the Phoenix weather for the last 2 months:  the comforts of my bed, riding my bike, going to the gym, seeing friends, etc.  I've also been planning my travels for 2018 and I think I have most of the year planned.  The first trip coming up for 2018 is to South America.  I've never traveled there; that's one reason why I am going there this year.

My first destination is Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  It was in the news a lot last year because of the summer Olympics.  However, I am going there at this time of the year because of Carnival.  This is celebrated in most predominantly Catholic countries but the biggest and most famous is the Rio Carnival.  I was planning to go there on my own; getting my own ticket to the parade, booking my own hotel, etc.  After looking into it, I found it's safer to go with a tour so that there are more people in the group.  Safety in numbers.  Rio itself is not the safest city.  Even Brazilians warn me about venturing into the Favelas, a kind of slum that is famous for drug traffickers and crime.  Besides Carnival, I plan to visit Sugarloaf Mountain, the beaches, and enjoying good Brazilian food in the city.  Here is the tour that I will be taking:  Rio Carnival City Experience

After Rio, I will start on the South American Tour with the same company:  South America Highlights

This is a 32-day tour that takes me to the highlights of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and ending in Peru.  It goes from the east coast to the west coast of the South American continent, with some of the most famous attractions including Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls, Amazon Jungle, salt flats in Bolivia, winery in Mendoza, etc.  To cover such a large area, we'll have 7 flights, and also travel by 4WD, Public Bus, Private vehicles and train.  Below is a map showing where I will be traveling.

South American Highlights Tour

My last stop will be Lima, Peru.  The tour will be there for only 1 day but I plan on staying in Lima for 3 extra days.  I will be staying in the city center so that I can easily visit the museums, the cathedrals, and perhaps even Chinatown.  Peru is famous for its hybrid Peruvian-Chinese food and I want to try the real thing.  When I visit my children in New York City, we often go to a very popular Peruvian Chinese restaurant called Flor de Mayo.

This is a long and exciting trip that I've been looking forward to for a long time.  Keeping checking back for updates, as I travel to some of the best-known places in South America.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Sedona - A Photography Tour

Sedona is probably the second most popular tourist destination in Arizona, after the Grand Canyon.  Over the years, as word spread about the beauty of the area, more and more tourists from all over the world come here.  When people say Sedona, it usually mean the whole area, including the Village of Oak Creek, the town of Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon.

I've been here numerous times, since the late 70s'.  The place has changed a lot, especially the last 20 years when you see more and more commercial businesses opened up to cater to the tourists.  And that's what my recent visits have been mostly - to bring out-of-town guests here.  But this trip is different.  I am here to help run a photography workshop.  The timing is not coincidental.  It's late October and the season is changing; so are the colors of the leaves.  But before I dive into the photography tour itself, I want to digress and talk briefly about the history of Sedona.

Oak Creek, which gives Oak Creek Canyon its name, flows year-round.  This attracted early indigenous people to settle in the area.  In the late 1800s', white settlers came here to farm, growing apples and pears.  Theodore Carlton (or T.C. as he was popularly known) Schnebly built Schnebly Hill road to Flagstaff so that he can bring visitors down to the area to stay at his lodge.  He opened a post office and after several rejected names by the Postmaster General, he came up with Sedona, his wife's name.  So, in 1902, the place was called Sedona and it remains as Sedona today.  In the 1920s' Sedona became a favorite shooting location for Hollywood western movies.  After World War II tourism became popular here and slowly replaced farming as the primary industry.  Artists also found the red rocks and the spectacular vistas to their liking and soon they also flocked here.  Today there are over 40 art galleries in the area.  Sedona today is a bustling area, with many subdivisions, shops, restaurants, lodgings, and TOURISTS!  You can get more information here on Sedona.

For a more complete story and photographs of Sedona, see the November 2017 issue of Arizona Highways magazine.

We had a group of 13 participants signed up for this workshop.  Including the photographer, Nathaniel, and my co-Trip Leader, Jon, and myself, there were 16 of us.  We stayed at a local 3-star hotel in west Sedona.  Normally, you'd pay less than $100 to stay at such a hotel.  But, because it's Sedona and the tourist season, our room rate was $180 a night, an exorbitant amount.  We were here for 3 nights - two and a half days of photography.  We went to places that are a little off the beaten path.  Yet, we find many people there.  One way or another, the tourists find their way to these places to take iconic pictures of Sedona.  Our morning shoots start early, way before sunrise.  We left the hotel while it's still dark so that we can avoid the crowd and shoot during the "golden hour," about 30 minutes after sunrise and before sunset.  In between we had classroom presentations, instructions and critique sessions.  At night we sat down for dinner as a group at one of the many excellent restaurants that have sprouted in Sedona over the last 20-30 years.  It was 3 days of shared passion for photography, camaraderie among new friends, excellent dining, beautiful scenery, some hiking, and of course, the take-aways - beautiful photographs of Sedona.

Slide Rock

Stream flowing through Slide Rock

Tree changing color 

Cathedral Rock
Cathedral Rock, from a different spot

Lone Tree, on the side of a cliff


West Fork Trail