Saturday, March 21, 2015

Rio Carnaval and How I Thought I Was Going To Die

You know, I do promise myself to write more often. I used to write like, twice a week back in the day. But it was Carnaval in Rio and you gotta be here to understand! CARNAVAL IN RIO! Sounds positively fabulous, and frankly, it IS. Carnaval itself has a few days of shows at the Sambadrome (yup, they have a stadium made especially for Carnaval, that’s how big it is), where various samba schools will put on a massive show and slowly parade in front of the spectators. Depending on which day you go, you can see the B-list or the A-listers. Usually, folks go on one of the two nights the A-list schools parade – the shows are on TV as well and run all night. One school parade would take up to one hour and 20 mins (anything more, and the school gets point subtracted from its overall score) to parade down the 700 meters of the Sambadrome, and there are 7 schools per night. The shows start at 9ish and as you can figure yourselves if you do the math, that means that the night is over at about 7 am.

Part of the Swiss themed school:
Alien was designed by a Swiss guy. Who knew?!
Each school would have hundreds of people in it, a bunch of floats and a theme. The themes can be creative or, frankly, puzzling. For example, one school’s theme was Switzerland and so each group of dancers and floats represented various aspects of Swiss life. Yup, Switzerland. Because if there is anything that screams Carnaval in Rio it is that rowdy country of Switzerland. Another school’s theme was the End of the World. I must say it was rather entertaining – with the message, “if tomorrow were the end of the world, what would you do?” Each group of dancers (there are about 50, I think in each marching group) kept marching with messages like, “Did you eat enough?” “Did you stay stuck in traffic?” “Did you see the world?” and yes, as you can imagine, also “Did you have sex enough?” This last one came on an actual float (there are usually about 5-6 large floats in each school), which had several nice, residential house doors, painted in bright colors, from which suddenly about 50 butt-naked people jumped out and started making out right in front of us.
A Spectacular Float

To be honest though, a large part of the performers in Carnaval don’t exactly come with much on anyway – pasties and glitter is considered a fairly decent outfit there. So yeah, it is entertaining all right.
Various costumes, all part of one a school - a float in the back
The Diplomat and I had bought some pricey tickets for the first night which allowed us to be at the ground level, right next to the marching schools, and could touch and yell delightedly at everyone. Also, apparently our box was right underneath the box for the judges, which meant that each school would stop right in front of us and perform their numbers (rather than just walk). Which would explain why the whole naked scene unfolded uncannily smack dab in front of our eyes. The night did not start well –as we were leaving home, it began to pour and continued to do for the next 4 hours. It does not rain like this in Rio. Ever. Undaunted, we got there and bought the thinnest, most inefficient and cheap plastic raincoats possible. While trying to adjust it over my head, I ripped it on the neck, which meant that for the next 3 hours, I had water slither down my back. So fun. But the show must go on and the samba schools paraded with smiles so big you’d think it was raining gold.

We were lucky to go with a bunch of good friends, including a good buddy of mine from my A100 class who serves in neighboring Ecuador and got enticed to come and see this fabled Carnaval business. We had a blast but due to general fatigue had to leave around 4 am. Apparently, I had so much fun that, in a fit of suicidal enthusiasm, I decided that it would be a phenomenal idea to go and watch the second night of the parade and that time, folks, I was determined to make it all the way till the end! We had some fabulous friends visiting us from Jamaica who had left too early the previous night and were game to go with me as well. The Diplomat stayed back to babysit. And sleep. We managed to score some tickets online, but sadly, those were in nosebleeds and let me tell you – it was not the same. True, you can see the action sort of as a big picture, but the excitement and hysteria of the nearness to the sweaty costumed screaming, dancing and singing bodies was not there. We did make it to the end, though! We managed to get back home by 7.30 am, where I greeted the wide-eyed and Diplomat and Son who were just sitting down to breakfast, and passed out till 2 pm. Verdict – Carnaval was awesome and everything they say it is!

The very next weekend I had to fly back to the U.S. for 3 days for a doctor’s appointment and that is when I thought my time to die had come. After my appointment, I ran to Costco, that Mecca of consumerism where I bought everything I could possibly need in the next 34 years, and then some more that I positively did not. Thankfully, all flights from and to Brazil allow you two suitcases 70 lbs each! Then I rushed to Marshalls and bought shoes for the men (things like that are beastly expensive in Brazil), and then off to the malls for some more useless stuff. I have to be honest, it was great to be back home! Fantastic service, any possible cuisine that you might desire, big portions, and most of all – cheap! Exhausted but excited to get back to the boys back in Rio, around 9 pm on Sunday, I checked in my giant suitcases and boarded the short 40 min flight from Orlando to Miami, from where I was going to catch the 11 pm to Rio. Once we took off, and after the pilot announced that due to the shortness of the flight there would be no service (LAZY!), I tiredly ruminated whether it was worth falling asleep or should I just read my book. As I was cracking my book open, suddenly the plane shook with a massive thump. Then 10 seconds later, again. And again. And again. At which point I noticed that the left engine was engulfed in flames. Bright, happy, yellow flames. The engine kept thumping for what seemed like forever, and then I noticed that no one but me seemed to be noticing the situation. All I wanted to do was scream – “THE PLANE IS ON F-ING FIRE!!!!” But I didn’t, I am not that kind of a gal. I am cool and composed, and very, very calm. So, instead, I burst out in tears. Finally, people started talking loudly and stewardesses and some dudes that looked like pilots (which made my wonder who the hell is flying the plane) started running frantically about the aisles.

It did occur to me much later that most people had no idea the engine was on fire since they were sitting away from it. I, on the other hand, had the fantastic privilege to be sitting right in the line of sight, where I could see it bright and engulfing like 4th of July fireworks. Then finally the flames were out (later on I learned that there is a way to extinguish the fire internally). Eventually, the captain decided to say something, and told us that we seem to be having a bit of a mechanical issue, no big deal really, practically routine and the plane seems to be flying just fine. JUST FINE??????
After prattling cheerfully about it for a minute or so (while we were plummeting to our death as it seemed to me), he said that he is thinking of turning around to go back to Orlando to check it out. You know, no big deal or anything! By then, I was NOT the only one crying in shock. So was the 22 year old Brazilian dude next to me with biceps so big, he could probably fly on his own had he decided to try it. His dad was between us and was calming both of us down. A stewardess came and told us all how normal it all was and how it was just a precautionary measure. 

At which point, the captain suddenly spoke again, this time sort of yelling at everyone to stop talking, hunker down in our seats, shove everything underneath and prepare for emergency landing. I am no expert on human emotion, but folks, that dude sounded petrified! Which, naturally, did wonders for our mood in the back, and now half of the plane was filled with the howling of hysterical middle-aged women, myself proudly included. The plane made a sharp turn (and so did the insides of my stomach along with it), and began a sharp descent with the cabin in full darkness. It was all very sinister and pretty much everyone was freaking out  and praying. All I could think about were all those recent plane crashes and how I really, really did not want to die. Truly inopportunely, right at that moment, all the TVs on the plane lit up and a perky blond stewardess began to thank us profusely for flying American Airlines. The pilot swiftly turned it off, but then it obstinately re-appeared again, this time emphasizing what a pleasure it is for them to have us onboard. Finally, someone had the brains to turn them all off. We landed in 10 minutes and they were some of the longest in my life. We were whisked off the plane and then stood there, wondering what in the hell to do with ourselves. If you’d think that anyone from the airline came to say – “hey, we are sorry this happened, is everyone OK?” – then you are a naïve fool. As a matter of fact, as we were standing there, asking the lady at the desk what to do next, she yelled at us not to crowd her. Good job, American Airlines, you are SUCH a star airline!

It took over 4 hours to be re-booked on the same flight the next day, and by 1 am, I was beyond exhausted. I returned to Brazil the next day without incident. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

India (briefly) and the beginning of Carnaval 2015

Well, by now enough time has passed that so many interesting things are happening in RIO that I’d rather talk about that than the India trip. Which is a shame. Hm, ok, a couple of paragraphs on India!

We spent the first three days in Varanasi – a one of the oldest cities in the world, and the religious capital of all Hindus . It sprawls on the banks of the Ganga river and every devout Hindu wants to go there to bathe in the river before they die.  Another goal is to actually die there because apparently that will ensure eternal peace of the soul (called moksha) and no more irksome reincarnation. Thus, quite a few people who feel it is their time to die soon, say their goodbyes to the world and move to Varanasi to stay in a “liberation house” and wait to die. Sometimes they come with family, often – alone. When they die, they get burned on a funeral pyre on the banks of the river and that is that.
As you can imagine, all that means that Varanasi is quite the unique city. The access to the river is through the so-called “ghats” or piers, of which there are about 100, all built next to each other by various former rulers, politicians and other VIPs. Almost all are “bathing” ghats, where Hindus go at daybreak to bathe ritualistically and pray before they start their day. On the same ghats, at sunset, they come to perform or to listen to the night prayer as well. There are many priests who perform the ornate prayer ceremonies, but some of the ghats feature especially spectacular night prayer (the night aarati, also known as the light ceremony). Only 2 of the ghats, Raja Harishchandra Ghat and the Manikarnika Ghat, are authorized to have funeral pyres, and the fancier of the two, Manikarnika, is controlled by the wealthy Dom family. The Doms belong to the lowest of the Hindu casts, the “untouchables,” and they perform the cremations and care for the grim business of dying on the banks of the Ganga. The current head of the Dom family, the “Dom Raja” is a multimillionaire because it seems that his family charges quite a pretty penny to have you burned at their ghat. In exchange, he will provide you with the 5 starter logs of mango tree to start the pyre that will grant the soul of the departed the coveted moksha. The ghat is indeed a grisly sight. During a lovely leisurely walk along the river, watching the sunset, being watched by the local peddlers, the Diplomat, Mom and I stumbled upon the Harishchandra Ghat quite unexpectedly. So much so that I practically stepped on the listless, rather dead arm of a burning body on a pyre. You see, I always thought that the whole funeral pyre thing was supposed to be this elevated, beautiful, ethereal affair. Rather, the dead body is brought on a bamboo stretcher, put on the ground on the bank of the river, a bunch of wood logs are stacked on top and lit on fire. For some reason the pyre does not include the protruding limbs and head, which are later on pushed under the smoldering body. There are anywhere from 10 to 25 pyres on each ghat at any given time of the day. There is nothing elevated or ethereal about it. It just is.

The next morning, desirous to observe the sacred bathing rituals at dawn, Mom and I rented a rowboat for what turned out to be an excruciating 2-hour slow, breezy float up and down the river at 5 am, at 5 degrees Celsius (40 Fahrenheit), while wearing a t-shirt and a sweater for me, and a light jacket for her. It was still pitch black outside, the ghats were completely deserted save for the occasional local bather (see, December isn’t exactly the tourist bathing season in Varanasi given the intense cold) and, to enhance the effect, there was thick fog spreading over the river. It was absolutely fantastic, despite the fact that my fingers got frostbite and Mom slipped on the ghat steps when we were leaving the boat since her legs were so stiff from the cold that she was unable to lift them up the stairs of the ghat. We still managed to see quite a few devotees bathing gamely in the freezing waters, dipping fully inside and then brushing their teeth with Colgate toothpaste, all with river water. I was impressed – just looking at them made me feel even colder.

From freezing Varanasi, we went back to freezing Delhi where we took Mom to the spice market and Karim’s for lunch, while Son was terrorizing the InLaws in the hotel. We also managed to squeeze in the Diplomat’s 20th college reunion which fortuitously was happening right when we were in Delhi, and a brief wedding reception hosted by a couple of our best friends from Dhaka for a family member, again fortuitously happening while we were visiting.

From the freezing north, we finally flew into the enveloping warmth of the gorgeous Kerala state. While the InLaws went straight back to Chennai, the Diplomat, Mom, Son and I spent three wonderfully warm days in Kochi and its surroundings. One of the things to do there is to spend the night on a houseboat, and I was hell bent on doing just that. It all sounded just so romantic – to sail on a regal-looking houseboat through the peaceful, verdant tributaries of the Kerala backwaters, having food cooked fresh on the boat, and then sleeping to the sound of splashing waves. My ever obliging Father-in-Law promptly arranged a boat for us, and so on the morning of our second to last day in Kerala, all four of us piled up on the lovely boat, and soon were gently rolling through the backwaters. So were 93 other boathouses as well. Turns out, there are about 3000 such boats in the backwaters, and they all take more or less the same route. At the same time. The net result is that wherever you turn your head as you lazily stretch on the rattan sofa on the front veranda of the boat, there inevitably will be another boat with another tourist lazily spread on just the same rattan sofa, staring all the same at you.  Determined to keep the romance of the situation alive, Mom and I succumbed to the upselling of the boat captain, and stopped to take a one-hour canoe ride on a side tributary. The canoe guy mist have been about 112 years old, and rowed like his life depended on it. It was actually delightful to be able to explore life on the small river, and to glimpse into the simple, rural life in the houses strung along the river banks.

Another upsell included a one-hour Ayurveda massage at a different stop for only $25. I can always stop for a good massage so we agreed. Apparently, so had the customers of another 35 boats. What was supposed to be an idyllic, holistic massage in a small village (a business apparently owned by the brother of the boat captain), turned out to be a regular tourist circus. It was in a village alright, and the massage parlor premises were in a small, one-story building. Business wasn’t apparently too good since the building wasn’t even painted. In the somewhat dingy inside, several Indian ladies of respectable age were sitting on cement benches, probably waiting for their turn. Outside, a posse of urgent-looking middle-aged men was standing around the front door seemingly without any particular function save for staring at the waiting women. Right next to the parlor was a rabbit coup with several cute bunnies. Which, while very cute, also smelled a bit. After a brief family discussion, we politely but firmly declined the massages. In the evening, the captain moored the boat for the night right next to the village mosque, and the imam entertained us with his evening call to prayer at 7 and 9, and then at 4.30 am as well. The food on the boat was delicious indeed, and included fish with every meal, appropriately spiced. We were sent to bed at 10 pm. Overall, I would recommend the boat ride but the overnight part is perhaps overrated.

From Kochi, we flew to our final destination Chennai to spend a few days with the Diplomat’s family. I have always loved his Uncle’s family and we had a blast there as usual. It also happened that we were going to spend the New Year’s Eve in Chennai as well and so the Diplomat and I decided to leave parents and child behind and spend the festive night at a good party in a fancy hotel. After some perfunctory research, we chose the Taj Vivanta Connemara where we were promised a banging party by the pool. We were by the pool alright, except that the party was inside and if we heard a song we wanted to dance to, we had to ditch everything and run inside to catch its last few tunes. I was the only white person there, and every time I made an appearance on the dance floor, I was closely monitored by a large gaggle of teenagers who erupted in unbridled laughter whenever I tried to bust a Bollywood move. Needless to say, I was discouraged. I was even more so discouraged when the party ended at 12.30 am. Apparently, no establishment in the city can party (officially) after that. Happy New Year, party poopers! I flew back to Brazil the following day by myself (the Diplomat and Son stayed an extra week and Mom went back to Bulgaria) and spent a week doing a juice cleanse and binge watching Downton Abbey. A week later, a very jet-legged Diplomat and Son returned and life was soon back to normal. Another epic Indian journey was over.

I am happy to report that social life in Rio has actually picked up palpably. These past few weeks have been a considerable madness. Among the more exciting events were the opening of a new burger restaurant in Leblon, the OMG Burger Lounge by a fellow Indian American (spectacular burgers, home-brewed beer(!)); a fabulous  at-home “surprise” dinner cooked by a gourmet Canadian chef (the idea is that you go to his house and he cooks a surprise 5-course meal for a group of 6, we were happy to be some of the chef’s test bunnies as he works on the concept); an incredible rooftop party for some of the sponsors of the Olympic Games; a goodbye dinner at our house for a departing colleague (homemade mushroom soup, made from scratch pappardelle with lamb ragu, decadent homemade tiramisu – yup, I can cook too!); an all-night Carnaval dress rehearsal for a Samba school with a bunch of colleagues; a classy reception by the British Consulate and an afternoon BBQ on yet another rooftop terrace. In the midst of all this it turned out that I had managed to pick up a parasite who lived happily in my belly for some time, causing me to eat massive quantities of food and no little amount of pain. So, for about a week, I survived on anti-nausea pills and parasite medication. My spirits, however, were not dampened!

As of this past week, we are officially in Carnaval mode, which means countless organized street parties, aka blocos, festive mood and, of course, Carnaval itself. A bloco is in essence an organized street madness with a defined route of 3-4 streets, a medium-sized float made up of a truck and a bunch of VERY happy people on top of it, a theme and booming music from the top of the float, anywhere from 10,000 to 200,000 people following the float drunkenly around the streets (median age is 23), and a lot of foul-smelling Port-a-Potties. The level of excitement is incredible and the point of the bloco seems to be to drink for the sake of, well, drinking, hanging out with friends,and possibly even listening to the music. Some of the blocos are famous (for example, today we have the Sgt. Pepper-themed bloco featuring Beatles’ songs) and are attended by hundreds of thousands of people who drink, sing, dance and are generally super merry. Almost everyone is in costume of some sort and about 98% of all men are shirtless. It is common practice for a guy to suddenly grab a girl (randomly met in the crowd) and French-kiss her while his buddies are screamingly delightedly “beijo, beijo, beijo!!” (which means “kiss” in case that wasn’t obvious). Yup, there is a lot of love in a bloco. There is also an extraordinary amount of beer.

I have been incredibly impressed with the city of Rio, who obviously have this Carnaval/bloco thing down to a science. As you can imagine, the amount of trash generated by such happy party-goers is staggering. Completely undaunted, the city has trash trucks and a small army of street cleaners following the end of each bloco, and most of the time, a mere hour after it is over, there isn’t a trace of it on the streets save for the streamers up in the tree tops. 

I will tell you one thing though - it has been an interesting experience going to work in this environment. All the blocos mean that half of the city streets are closed off, and my uusal 40 min commute to and back from work turns into a 2-hour one. Woo-hoo! But Carnaval or not, folks want their visas and so work we must!
Tonight, however, off to the Sambodromo for night 1 of Rio Carnaval 2015! 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Our Big Fat Indian Family Vacation - Part 1

So, we were due for our annual Rest and Recuperation vacation and decided to go to India. Now, you would probably think that typically people who serve in India would go rest and recuperate in Rio de Janeiro. Not us. We are not that kind of people, thank you very much. That is not how WE rest. Indeed, we scoff at rest (no, we don't). Actually, the reason for the trip was that the Diplomat’s mom was not well and we decided to go visit her en masse and raise her spirits. To add to the fun, my own Mom decided that it was high time she visited India and the InLaws – we have been planning this trip ever since we got married 11 years ago. The logistics were daunting:

1.       Mom flies to Mumbai to stay a week with InLaws before we arrive.
2.       We fly to meet Mom and InLaws in Varanasi, using a Rio-London-Delhi-Varansi route = 3 flights.
3.       After 3 days in Varanasi, we, Mom and InLaws fly back to Delhi for a 3-day stint = 1 flight.
4.       InLaws fly to Chennai to wait for us, while we and Mom fly to Kerala for another 3-day tourist stint = 1 flight.
5.       Mom and we then fly to Chennai to be with InLaws and selected other relatives = 1 flight.
6.       Mom and I return to Bulgaria and Rio respectively. I fly Chennai-Delhi-London-Rio = 3 flights.
7.       The Diplomat and Son stayed for an extra week in Chennai, and then came back.

So, if you counted, that is 9 flights per person to India, which was enormous fun. I found particularly fun the satisfying succession of a 9.5-hour flight to London and a 12-hour flight to Delhi, followed by a rapid and hair raising cab ride from the international to the domestic terminal there (a mere 7 km) in order to catch a fairly close domestic flight to Varanasi. I am flied out.

Folks, air travel is not as much fun as it used to be. I know this is a truism, but I still need to say it. It is NOT fun. For one thing, pre-boarding has turned into a farce! “Welcome to flight 666 to London. At this moment, we would like to invite the Queen of England to board. Then we would like to invite our diamond members. Now we invite ruby and sapphire members. Then the platinum ones. Then our gold, silver, copper, nickel and dime ones. Then the peeps with kids. Then those with cats. Then those with really large carryon bags so that they can take up the entire overhead storage bins quickly. Then we invite those of you who appear important. Then those who are really, really hot. Is there anyone else left? Oh, yes, and now the remaining 4 people lurking about the gate hopelessly can finally board. We sincerely hope that we have managed to show you just how unimportant you really are. If not, we will demonstrate that to you on board plenty when we repeatedly ignore your requests for water or the non-vegetarian meal option.”  

Once you are on board, you begin to ponder the 12-hour flight in front of you as the plane begins to taxi off. 12 hours! That is LOT of time to kill. You start by reading the magazine you smartly brought with you while simultaneously trying to convince your child that it is time to sleep for the next 12 hours. After some mutual unpleasantries, that works and Son is soon deeply asleep, freely prostrated across your lap. Clearly, this is very comfortable and adds to your amazing flying experience. That takes you through take-off until you reach the coveted “cruising altitude.” Then they activate the movie screens and you begin to frantically shuffle through the “Latest Releases” selection in hope to catch up on all those Golden Globes and Oscar winners you’d missed while you were busy working and all that. You’d think that the selection of movies in a 12 hour flight would be at least decent. Sadly, you discover that half of the movies are action thrillers of the Spiderman variety, and the other ones you have never, ever heard of in your life. Not to mention that they have been released at least 10 years ago. Almost none of them appear to be romantic comedies unfortunately.  Finally, you find a movie that sounds at least remotely familiar and resolve to watch it. This is when you find out that your headphones don’t work. Also, the child sleeping in your lap has wedged his head against the arm rest, thus making it impossible to open your tiny table tray to eat your tiny airplane dinner. You wiggle creatively for some time until you manage to somehow bend over without squishing your prodigy, and grab his headphones. Which also do not work in the left ear. You press the airhostess button to ask for new headphones. Naturally, she does not come. Your husband is next to you, pretending to be asleep. You try to read a bit more of the magazine with dark resolve. Finally, the drinks cart has come and you immediately order 2 scotches. Since this is British Airways, they happen to be Glenlivet. Your whole perspective changes suddenly. Also, the stewardess (are we still allowed to call them that??) finally brings you new headphones with a frown, and they actually work. Well, you hear much better in the left side, but who’s checking – you can now watch a movie!

We are blessed since Son tends to sleep like a log on planes and usually our long-haul flights are not that painful for both us and him. The Diplomat – not so much. Me – after 4 small bottles of Glenlivet, one unidentified piece of meat on top of pasta and two hours of Hugh Grant on a tiny screen, I fell sleep for solid 5 hours. Once in London, we were facing a 9 hour layover, which I thought we can use wisely by going downtown and meeting two very close friends. Two hours later, and we were still in the line for immigration check at the airport. I began to question the whole venture. Finally, we were free to roam the British land and we hurried to store our hand luggage and find the fastest way into London.

And then it hit me that in London, it was winter. Like, REAL winter, not winter Rio style. That was a small element that I had overlooked, and for which was woefully unprepared. Actually, I had taken a sweater and coat for Son, and a sweater for the Diplomat, but nothing except a long-sleeved summer dress and a woolen scarf for me. Not to mention that I was wearing sandals. So, we were quite the sight when we presented ourselves at Piccadilly Circus where it was 6 degrees Celsius and people were wrapped up in woolen coats and scarves and boots like it was the end of the world. We scoffed at it, and braved the cold to marvel the cuteness of pre-Christmas London. The Diplomat, who had never been to London before, was enthralled. I was not bothered by the cold anymore since 80 seconds after coming out of the Tube, I lost all sensation in my extremities. All this lasted a solid 4 wonderful minutes until Son, still sleepy from his 45 minute nap on the way from the airport on the tube, began to whine that he was cold and resolutely refused to walk just about anywhere where it was not inside. So, we picked the first pub that crossed out path and bravely walked in to dine on fish and chips, burgers and excellent local brew. Everything was exactly as I remembered it from 15 years ago when I spent a year studying in London. Except that now I actually could afford to be INSIDE the pub, and not staring at them mournfully from the outside, on my way back from school. I was a rather penniless student at the time.

After an hour and half in the warm, enveloping insides of St. James Tavern, we hurried back to the airport to catch the next 12- hour flight to India. All went well, and exactly 35 hours and two days after we left, we landed in Delhi, India. Where it was cold. AGAIN! For the love of Pete! You’d think this would be the end of our trip, but why should things be that simple? We landed at about 10.30 am on Saturday, and had a local flight to the old sacred city of Varanasi in about 3 hours. I those 3 hours, we had to collect our voluminous luggage, hop into a cab so that we can get to the domestic terminal of the airport (which happens to be 7 km away??), check in again and make it to the flight. Well, we made it. In Varanasi, we were greeted by the team of grandparents who were ecstatic to see us (well, mostly Son really) and we were all whisked away in a couple of Innova minivans to the stately Taj Varanasi, courtesy of my fantastic Father-in-Law.

Next installment will give you some details from the next 2 weeks of frenetic travel and sightseeing – I promise to spare you all the gritty details and only regale you with the more “fun” parts. Among those – a 5 am, 4 degree Celsius loooooooooooooooooooooooooong boat ride on the Ganges, a 20-year college reunion, an overnight trip on a houseboat in Kerala, along with a sumptuous cockroach and the call of the muezzin at 4 am; a peculiar New Year’s Party in Chennai and how to leave your mother alone in the middle of the night in an largely unknown large Indian city in the hands of a savage looking cab driver who has no idea where he is going.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Chile in 5 days

Our wanderlust will bankrupt us. Honestly, I think we spend more money traveling than eating (which is curious, given that I continue to gain weight – I think I manage to gain weight simply by looking and thinking about food, frankly). Our frequent travels also raise suspicions among our non-State Department friends and other colleagues from different sections about how much we really work. Rest assured, taxpayers of America – we work. We work plenty when we are at work. We have simply chosen to go places every time there is a 3 or 4-day weekend, to which we tack another 2 or 3 vacation days, depending on where we want to go, which results in a nice, quick getaway.

So, we recently went to Chile. For one, they are the 9th largest wine-producing country in the world; for another, it was a $240 4-hour round-trip; and for thirds – there was a 4-day weekend which we simply could not let go. This was my first time using AirBnB and honestly, apart from the annoying service fee it charges, I was impressed. I found a lovely and rather cheap apartment smack in the middle of the city, the owner was responsive to my endless inane inquires and the apartment was exactly what it said it would be. This time around we decided to take an early morning flight on Saturday, which worked out well as we slept most of the night. Well, sort of. The previous night we went to a fabulous private rooftop party in Ipanema, where the hosts had built two massive brick ovens – one for grilling meat and one – for pizza. Naturally – why would you bother having just ONE measly oven when you can have two! The rooftop also had a swimming pool (of course), and a chic bar from which even chic-er drinks were flowing. With tears in my eyes, we left at 10 pm, since we had to get up at 4 am to get to the airport.

It was a mere 4 hours flight but for some reason it seemed like forever! Son woke up briefly as I carried him from his bed into the taxi to the airport, then perked up unnecessarily inside the airport, and 3 minutes after he sat in the plane and serenely buckled himself up, he was snoring again to wake up 10 minutes before we landed, fresh as a cucumber. The child was BORN to travel!

Santiago is a nice, modern city with a couple of older neighborhoods. There are several areas with excellent restaurants where the cuisine is innovative and frankly, delicious, especially when washed down with copious amount of pisco sour and ruby Carmenere. Our favorite was Barrio Lastarria, which is literally stuffed with amazing restaurants. I especially recommend Mulato, which is in the middle of a tiny square favored by street musicians. Thus, you also get excellent entertainment. Close to it, there is the so-called Paseo Barrio Lastaria, which is literally a massive courtyard in the open air housing a whole bunch of fabulous eateries. Each one has something different to offer and features cuisine from all over Latin America. Patio Bellavista in Barrio Bellavista is yet another massive congregation of various restaurants with a bit more modern feel.

Santiago has a lovely park in the middle of the city, which has a funky old “funicular” – an old tram that goes virtually vertically up the slope into the Parque Metropolitano with fantastic views of the entire city. The parque is actually quite huge, and has even a wine-tasting panoramic restaurant, which however is about a 20 min hike up and down and there wasn’t enough wine in the world to entice us to do that in the heat of the day.

This was the first time in my life when I actually decided to take organized tours in and around the city using the hop-on, hop-off bus company, which in Chile is called the rather non-inventive Turistik. Since we were going to be there for such a short period of time, and city is a bit spread out, we decided to live it up for about $38 or so per person and see the city in style, on the top of a double decker. We bought our vouchers excitedly, and the next day, armbands in hand, cameras and water bottles ready, we went to one of the bus stops that was closest to our apartment and began to wait for the big red shiny bus. Except that right at that moment about 300 people ran like mad people through the street and we realized that it was the day of the Santiago marathon (can someone explain to me why people run marathons???). Which, of course, meant that the street on which we were standing haplessly awaiting the damn bus was dutifully closed. As buses pass every 30 mins or so, we did not want to wait too much to get on one, and so decided to run for the initial stop of the bus, which wasn’t that far away. We figured that at least Stop 1 should be in operation. Except that it wasn’t – in fact, it was the starting and looping point for the stupid marathon. The Turistik office was nearby and soon after, I flew inside, all touristic rage and indignation, demanding my rights to get on board of the so-far unseen bus. The Diplomat and Son dejectedly were dragging themselves behind me, Son particularly unimpressed and bored with the whole adventure. I irritably lectured the calm clerk who sold us the tickets the previous day, telling him the stops were closed off, which he surely must have known yesterday and yet somehow omitted telling us. He feigned total ignorance and suggested we make a run for stop #3 on the itinerary, which was supposedly a mere 10 min walk from there (but the bus should be reaching there in 5). We ran faster than the marathon people, leaving many of them ashamed in our dust. We finally caught the elusive bus and embarked on a lovely tour of the city. 

The one advantage of this bus is that it will take you to the farther district of Sanhattan – yup, the name is a mix of Santiago and Manhattan, and the housing is more like fancy Arlington, but nevertheless, rather fancy. Through its midst runs the wide Vitacura avenue, which is filled with lovely restaurants.

The next two days we went to three more of Turistik’s trips, all with mixed results. We split a day between the beautiful Undurraga winery, where we were introduced to the intricacies of making Carmenere (and treated to yet another winery tour) and a trip to a ski resort high up in the Andes, where we saw several condors, the largest flying birds in the world. Both the Carmenere and the condors were spectacular. Then the following day we set out to what promised to be an exciting tour of Vaparaiso, Chile’s famed seaside city. Built on the 45 hills surrounding the ocean, Valparaiso boasts also 15 functioning funiculars (well, actually only 5 after the recent massive earthquake of 2010) and fabulous colorful houses alongside it capriciously meandering cobble-stoned streets. I was super excited to spend a day there as I love this style of architecture.

Now, you must know that each bus of Turistik comes with a tour guide, who seems to think that a minute of silence on the bus is a minute lost in our lives. On a 45 min ride to the Andes, that is OK. On a 2 hour ride to the coast, with a piercing high pitched female voice speaking bad English, it is not. On top of this, each guide wants to speak Portanol (as the majority of tourists are Brazilian), which is a terrible mixture of both Spanish and Portuguese expressed in repeating everything in both languages in rapid succession. Since we understand Portuguese and Spanish (by virtue of Portuguese), hearing the same info twice, and then one more time in terrible yet patronizing English was excruciating. On top of this, it turned out that we were going to stop at Viño del Mar, another smaller coastal town where apparently we were also going to have lunch. The guide strongly suggested we eat at the buffet at the local casino, and pretty much for the next one hour all she could talk about was how we were going to eat till we drop dead at the casino (her words, not mine). Call me fastidious, but we seceded from the group and had lunch at a nice tapas place. Overall, Viño del Mar did not excite us too much and we were impatient to get to Valparaiso. Off we went finally.
The bus began to climb up to the top of the hills and did a big loop around the neighborhoods. Then he stopped and to my utter horror, it turned out that we were going to go around in a group with Ms. Piercing Bad English as our guide. I pointedly asked whether we could meet the bus in an hour and was dismissed immediately like a naughty student asking to pee too many times in class. Then she yelled at me for walking on the street (vs. the sidewalk) – I had sinned in my desire to take a better photo of the fabulous colorful buildings. Then she took us to a funicular and ordered us to all cram inside, go down and stay frozen and wait for her (her words again) as we had to go down in batches. God forbid she left us 2 mins to enjoy the scenery from above the city. Once down, she gave us generous 10 minutes to walk around and be back or else…Valparaiso is beautiful and reminded me a lot of Marseille but with more color. Too bad we did not have a chance to really explore it better.

Overall, Chile was a lovely experience. The country is modern and well organized, and has fantastic wine and food. Naturally, we bought again 24 bottles of rather inexpensive Carmenere to continue our expanding wine store collection.

In other news, I bought a bike! People, where have I been all these years??? Last time I rode a bike was when I was 12. It is amazing, I can’t get enough. If I could, I’d go to the bathroom using my bike. For now, I just invent various unnecessary tasks for myself in order to go by bike. Except that I don’t have a bell, so errr, I am a bit of a menace on the road. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Magic of Mendoza – Argentina Part II

Mendoza is not an easy place to taste wine. Extensive research revealed that there are 3 main wine regions around it, with wineries clustered in each of them – Valle de Uco, Luján de Cuyo and Maipû. The last two are about 45 min drive from Mendoza city, and Uco is more like 1.5 hrs, and most wineries are kind of spread out. You can’t just walk into a tasting room and demand to taste some of their delectable wines. You need to call at least 24 hrs in advance and book a tour – apparently, winemakers of Mendoza consider it a crime to want to just try wine and not take an extensive tour of their indisputably unique winery and cellar. Frankly, after you tour two of them, whether in Mendoza or elsewhere in the world, as we had, you get tired of looking at giant steel vats or admiring French oak barrels (medium toast!), and walking through old basements being told how wine is made pretty quickly. I know how it is made. I know because the three other wineries I visited this very day each explained it to me in minute detail in excruciating Portanõl. Not to mention the three I saw yesterday. Just give me the damned wine!

Extensive research also revealed that we should either hire an expensive cab driver to ferry us around, or book an organized tour (about $300 per day) but we should NOT, under ANY circumstances, rent a car and drive ourselves around as the roads are poorly marked and the wineries tricky to find. So, we went out and rented a car. In our defense, the other options were just so unnecessarily expensive and inflexible that we figured that renting a GPS will do the trick. Clearly, we also rented from the cheapest place possible, and as a result the Diplomat spent the next 4 days driving a tiny car with no power steering through some very, very dusty unpaved roads. But we had a GPS and got lost, like, six times only! It took some time to get the whole operation organized since we also were a little late to the whole “booking a visit” party. Finally, I figured that if we were going to stay in a nice hotel (the Sheraton), we might as well use their concierge to do our job. I dumped a list of my desired wineries to a very perky youngish thing at the desk and asked her to work her magic. Then the Diplomat, Son and I set out to the only winery in the whole region that would see us without an appointment – Familia Zuccardi

One hot wine tour later, and our Mendoza adventure had begun. On the way back, the Diplomat found the local golf course and much to my chagrin, went and hit the driving range with Son while I sat down and read a magazine on the grass. Well, in all honesty, it was mostly him trying to convince Son to hit the balls with the stick (did you know that a golf stick in Portuguese is called a "taco"??) instead of kicking them around like a football. But still golf was played. I watched for some time and I have to tell you – I just don’t get golf. It is literally a bunch of guys, all lined up in a row, whacking a ball with a stick and trying to see how far it can go, all the while wearing silly checkered pants and squatting like ducks with osteoporosis. Ball after ball after ball. Whack! After a while I got so bored I watched a couple of stones grow for a change.

Finally, we went back to the hotel and the whipper-snapper gal at concierge proudly handed me our wine-tasting schedule for the next two days, including a wine-tasting lunch at one of the wineries. She did good. The next day, a Thursday, I believe, was spent in blissful tastings in Cuyo. We started at Bodega Luigi Bosca (only the name is left of the original founder – after he started the winery, he sort of disappeared from the picture and 100 or years later, it still has the name but the Bosca family gets squat from the place). At Luigi Bosca, we stumbled upon a group of carousing neurosurgeons who apparently were in Mendoza for a conference, but the pull of the wineries proved to be stronger than the riveting presentations of their learned peers. Then we felt hungry and decided to find a place to eat. The nerve we had! You try finding a working restaurant in the dead of siesta hour, in the middle of nowhere, Mendoza valley. This is when one begins to appreciate little miracles in life. We did, in fact, stumble upon a most peculiar establishment, a working restaurant that resembled a farm house of sorts, with many little dining rooms and twisting and turning staircases up and down a largely misshapen house, that has been built on each side and on top so many times that the builders must have lost track of what made sense in the end. We were offered a sprawling old wooden table somewhere deep in the basement, laid with dozens of little salads, cured meats, cheeses, olives, vegetables, fruits, breads and a never ending supply of home-made Malbec. Friends and family! I have never experienced anything like this in my life. It was almost like out of a story of 1001 Nights – honestly, if suddenly a couple of odalisques had shown up, scantily clad, with large horns on wine on their heads, ready to pour us when needed, I would not have been that shocked. And all of that for the grand price of $20.

Mightily fortified, we soldiered on to Bodega Chandon – an old love affairs of ours, ever since the Diplomat and I “discovered” Chandon back in Napa Valley during our very first wine-tasting tour together when we were merely dating. I think Chandon was the very first winery I had ever visited in my entire life, and I fell in life forever in the enchanting surroundings and its crispy, delicious sparkling wines. Later on we learned that Chandon is indeed owned by the Evil Empire, also known as Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, and that they owned a sister winery in Mendoza valley. Well, it felt like going back home. I should add here that because Argentina and Brazil are in an economic commonwealth of sorts called Mercosur, one can bring alcohol from one country to another in much larger quantities than is usual between countries, namely 12 bottles per adult (or was it 12 liters?). Thusly, we were on a mission to purchase 24 exceptional wines and were acquiring bottles at each winery at an astonishing speed. At Chandon alone, we bought 6 bottles of fabulous sparkling wine, all methode champenoise, nothing less! and they are currently resting happily in our apartment. I don’t remember much after Domaine Chandon, to be honest. I do think we went back home and slept all the wine off. Including Son.

You might, indeed, wonder what the indomitable child did do during all this wine-related gallivanting around the countryside. He did what Son does best – run around uninhibited all over the vineyard, and then hide around the wine barrels (French Oak, heavy toast, 500 euros each), jumping out in the darkness at the unsuspecting neurosurgeons and scare the crap out of them. He also acquired an extensive collection of pebble stones, which I continue to find hidden in the various pockets of his shorts. Everyone noted how exceptionally well behaved he was. Um, ok, sure!

The next day, Firday, started SO well. We went to the farthest wine region of them all, Vale de Uco, with first stop the new and eclectic Atamsique winery. In fact, it was so now and eclectic, that we missed it a few times until we finally stumbled upon a dusty suggestion of a road, which we bravely took and finally found the famed place. We were taken on yet another SUPER interesting wine tour (“ooh, look, we have CONCRETE vats, we are such pioneers!”) which culminated in a rather substantial wine tasting. So substantial, in fact, that as we moved on towards the next winery and faced the necessity to gas up our antique vehicle, I generously offered to the Diplomat to stay back in the car while I get out and fill it up. Men around the world should know that if a woman offers such a sacrifice, then she must be either about to ask you for some money later on or that she is more or less drunk. Let’s say that I did not need money. Instead, I happily got out of the car and started pouring what I thought was the cheapest gas. At 20 liters I decided to cap it, which was lucky because, as the gas clerk (who had just arrived running from the office afraid that we were going to drive away without paying) pointed out to me, apparently I had just poured in 20 liters of diesel fuel into a car that only takes regular gasoline. I did not see what the big deal was. After all, I was born in a country where in the past people habitually stole gasoline late at night from other people’s cars by siphoning it out of their reservoirs using the simple but effective combination of a plastic tubing, their mouth and gravity. No one seemed to agree with me though, and, highly concerned about the gringa and her stranded family, four burly men from the gas station pushed the car gently 20 meters down to the mechanic’s garage. Yey, how lucky, no? No, because the damned mechanic did not show up until an hour later, thus causing us to miss our next appointment at the famed Salenstein winery. Finally, 2 hours later, after the mechanic and his 2 buddies meticulously wiped every last drop of diesel from the car, we were ready to move. Except that the mechanic now wanted to socialize. He took us into his office and for the next 30 minutes proceeded to show us his album of newspaper clippings about his fledgling career as an amateur race car driver, pictures of his four children, his military cap from the Falklands War (I still think he was a bit too young to have been in that war, but perhaps it was lost in translation or Malbec) and some other military and car paraphernalia. In the end, he ran out of things to show us and we were free to go. Just in time to catch our next appointment – a wine pairing lunch at the spectacular Andeluna Cellars.  

The lunch was the cherry on the top of our trip. The setting itself was amazing, in a large room with an open kitchen, overlooking the vast vineyard, cozy and elegant. The food was interesting and delicious and wines, of course, amazing. Except that they keep bringing in more wine and it all just sounded like SUCH a good idea at the time. The poor Diplomat, who was driving, just stood there watching me “taste” more and more wine, rolling his eyes. After we left, he apparently drove us to the golf course, where I rested gently under the deep shade of a tree and the two men went to hit some more aimless balls towards the nothingness in the driving range, along with a posse of similarly-minded, very interesting older men. Whack!

Mendoza overall is a lovely town with a bustling street life and about a zillion trillion cafes. We completed our wine purchases in the famed Vinoteca Sol y Vino, who packaged our precious cargo of 24 bottles of exquisite Malbec and 6 Chandons. We capped the trip with one last dinner of parilla (or Argentinean BBQ) at the elegant Ocho Cepas and went off to bed happy. The next day we successfully transported ourselves, a sleepy Son and our 24 bottles back to Brazil, and on Monday morning, all reported back to work and school. One thing is for sure – I love Malbec. Oh, and another is for sure – we are going back!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Buenos, Buenos, Buenos Aires!
We have just returned from a satiating 10 day trip to Argentina where we ate and drank our weight in steak and wine. The trip did not begin auspiciously at all. In fact, it started so badly that I thought for some time that it was a sign that we should not get on that plane to eat and drink and be merry in sunny Argentina.

Our flight was scheduled for 10 pm and I personally thought that we had all the time in the world to make it. It takes on average 45 mins from our apartment in Leblon to the Galeao international airport with a little traffic here and there. Since it was Friday night, I assumed a little heavier traffic. The website for the wonderful TAM airlines told me that boarding begins 2 hefty hours before the flight (?), so we had to be there in time to drop off luggage and clear security and passport control by 8 pm. Which meant we had to leave home by 7 sharp. We got home from work around 5.45 pm, then I had to finish packing, and the Diplomat for some reason made dinner. I kept thinking how much time we have. At 7, I was yelling at both men to put on their shoes. At 7.15pm, I was sweating that the cab wasn’t coming. At 7.22pm, we were finally on our way. 3 minutes later, and we dove into one of the thickest traffics I had ever seen in my life. Pure parking lot. I began to freak out gradually. The driver kept chattering in southern-Brazilian Portuguese to me, which meant I understood one in 25 words, and those were mostly connectors. He continued waving his arms around which I took to be a calming sign. The Diplomat also was going on and on about unimportant matters, ostensibly to keep my mind away from worrying. I just wanted to scream at everyone to start moving. Then the cabbie decided to take some crazy side road, which he claimed will help us move faster to the airport highway. Speechless and frankly, optionless, I agreed. I was following the route on my smartphone and I noticed that what he did was pretty much the equivalent of going from London to Dublin via Reykjavik. Thankfully, when I wasn’t fainting in the back seat, I was noticing through the cross streets that we were moving while the rest of the city was stuck, which was encouraging. At that moment I did not care anymore in which direction it was that we were moving. It was the fact of the motion that mattered mostly.

And then, miracle of miracles – we were on the highway to the airport, which was more or less smooth sailing.  By then it was already solid 8 pm and I kept telling myself that the 8 pm boarding time was excessive and perhaps a mistake. Plus, we were already checked in online so they should know we are coming. I could see the lights of the airport, I could practically smell the diesel fuel. Another 7 minutes according to the GPS and we would be there. Except that we weren’t - a mere one mile from the airport, traffic simply stopped. No one knew why. Taxis had pulled off the road, people were leaving their cars, meandering through the road. I was getting apoplectic. I had been waiting for this vacation for a long time and I was NOT going to miss it. The Diplomat was asking about the flight on the following day – if looks could burn, the man would have been incinerated by the deathly stare I gave him. It was pushing 8.30 pm. We were moving three inches an hour. And then, miracle of miracles, we slowly moved on and finally got deposited in front of the airport doors. I ran madly inside with Son while the Diplomat was unloading the luggage and fought with a smartly-looking printing machine to get the boarding passes. Then yelled at the line to drop your luggage that we were going to miss our plane, and were directed to an open desk, thus cutting the line. We were assured we had time – they were aware of the traffic and so were waiting a bit but we were cutting it very close. Breathing a nice sigh of relief, clutching the boarding passes, we ran for our lives towards the security area where we encountered a line with 4000 people waiting to pass their belongings through the X-ray machines. It was 9.15 by then and so both the Diplomat and I tried to tell some official looking people that we have a flight that we are about to miss. We got scolded for leaving the line. We decided to be patient and pray that all will be fine in the end.  Not that there was much else we could do anyway. Slowly but surely it was our turn, and we finally passed through the security check.
Then off to passport control, which is where we encountered another massive line. The time – 9.30 pm. I think it was at that point that my nerves gave up and I went into full hysterics/giddy mode – I found everything around me funny and went into maniacal laughter for no reason at all. It wasn’t helping that on the board showing departures our flight was alternatively showing as “Last Call” or “Ready to Board!” If you think there was anyone we could have told that we are currently in the process of missing our plane, you are a fool. The only option was to blatantly cut the line and hope not to get clubbed by a mob of irritated passengers. Which we did not, fearing aforementioned clubbing.

At some point, we noticed a tall, uniformed gay, who was calling any last people for a Delta flight (we were on TAM, the Brazilian airline). All he would do was go around an mutter, “delta? Delta? Delta?” I figured it was the line manager and several times eagerly tried to explain to him our predicament. And every time he would quizzically look back at me and say softly, “Delta??” It sounded like a Monthy Python movie, frankly. In the end, 15 mins before the damn flight, I went back to the guy in Delta trance and loudly explained what was going on. And then he responded, “Why are you telling ME this? I work for Delta!” Which made sense, especially given his massive Delta lanyard and his immense dedication to the Delta cause. Still, it proved to be useful, since he simply pointed out that we should get out of the line without paying attention to the rest of the people in it and get through passport control, and then run for the flight. Which we did. When we got to the gate with 5 minutes to departure, calm and happiness reigned. No one seemed to care that we were massively late. We boarded a bus to the plane, which then went in the wrong direction and for some time drove around the runways looking for the plane. Believe it or not, all was fine in the end and we landed in Buenos Aires around 1.30 am.

This is when Chapter 2 of the unnecessarily protracted trip occurred. You see, prior to leaving, we had procured diplomatic courtesy visas from the Argentinean consulate in Rio de Janeiro, which saved us a solid $160*3. The problem with that was that the courtesy visas are simply a stamp in your passport with handwritten info on them. Every time you show up to the border with those, the border officers gawk and stare at them and wonder what to do with them since they have never seen one like it. At 1.30 am, this exercise was not fun. It took 3 officers 20 minutes to figure out how to process us and let us in the lovely land of Argentina.  Finally, by 3 am, we were safely tucked in our beds in the lovely Sheraton Buenos Aires.

Stunning architecture
Friends! Let me tell you about Argentina! It is a wonderful land of beautiful architecture, nice people, fabulous food and unbelievable wine. All at minimal cost as the local peso is steadily devaluing against the dollar. Buenos Aires reminded me of old Europe. Intricate building facades, streetside cafes, eclectic neighborhoods, steak and Malbec. People – how did I live before (re)discovering Malbec? I know, I know, EVERYONE knows about Malbec but let me tell you – that wine has never tasted the way it does in Argentina. We drank a lot of wine during this trip.

The nuisance and Casa Rosada
Since we could not find a babysitter till our last night in Buenos Aires, we took Son with us to dinner everywhere and the honest child would watch a movie during dinner, and then announce he was sleepy and curl up on a chair next to me. I fondly remember doing the same as a child myself – babysitters did not exactly exist as a concept in 1980s Bulgaria. During the day, we would walk for hours exploring the beautiful city, with Son bored to tears and trying to find himself various entertainment along the way. After all, you can keep a child’s interest in ornate architecture only so much – rather, he’d run around the main square around said architecture, chasing the flocks of tame pigeons used to pottering around the hapless tourists. Or, try to block you from taking a picture by being a nuisance.

The Colors of El Caminito
Among the highlights of BA were Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada, or the Presidential Palace from whose balcony Juan Peron, Evita, Maradona and a smorgasbord of presidents have addressed the adoring crowds. The Palace is indeed pink, a color achieved by the intriguing method of mixing lime with ox blood. The second day we decided to visit the colorful La Boca since all online research said it was really pretty, fun and dangerous as it is full of robbers. It was logical then that we would choose to go. It was Sunday, and the streets of BA were filled with street fairs. La Boca, a small neighborhood in the farther south of BA, is a working class area, ostensibly avoided by middle-class porteños (porteño means Buenos-aireans, btw!).  The colorful El Caminito Lane runs through the beginning of La Boca and frankly, there is nothing scary or dangerous about it, especially on a sunny Sunday morning. El Caminito area is famous for its corrugated zinc walls and roofs, all painted in playful and loud blues, reds, yellows, greens, purples, pinks. Naturally, one needs to be smart about visiting La Boca and keep to the main tourist area because yes, just like Copacabana beach after dark, even the friendliest place turns into a heaven for robbers and the like.

From there, we crossed over to San Telmo, a delightful older neighborhood, home to the lively and elegant Plaza Dorrego, filled with cafes, restaurants, musicians, peddlers and everything else. Since it was Sunday, of course there was an antiques and leather fair. 
One of many bands in the San Telmo street fair

Plaza Dorrego and its crowded cafes
As a result, the streets were packed with people, but that still did not make it fill crowded or unpleasant. Even after we almost got pick pocketed. I carry my camera in sort of a special camera backpack, which is very convenient as it does not dangle from my side when I make pictures. I also use it to put my money and other interesting and useful things. In the throngs of San Telmo, hanging there from my back, it must have been an irresistible target. Imagine then my shock when, as we were walking slowly around the neighborhood, enjoying the colors and the noise, I turned back my head to take a look at something and noticed a pleasant-looking older lady with immaculately coiffed white hair and a cute plastic bag in her hand gently trying to unzip my backpack (little did she know that all my cash was in a secret pocket inside to which she wouldn't even know how to get). She immediately withdrew her hand, and, holding a nice elderly gentlemen under the arm, they quickly began devoting an excessive amount of time to what appeared to be a rather revolting collection of pink statues for sale while hastily moving further away from us in a side street. The Diplomat and I began pointed towards them as we wondered what to do, and noticed that they were frantically gesticulating to someone else. Soon, a group of about 5 younger people gathered around them, and all of them beat a hasty retreat in the side streets. So, if you think you are only going to be robbed at a knife or gunpoint by a group of young punks, think again – grandma had it DOWN and could run circles around Fagin and the Artful Dodger.

Undaunted, we continued our stroll in search of the elusive Parrilla de Freddy (parrilla basically means grill as well as a steakhouse), which was supposed to be a hole in the wall grill spot which amazing food. Problem was, I forgot exactly where it was located and had no ways to checking the internet to dig out the location. So, we just aimlessly roamed the streets until we literally passed by the place!
Bar El Federal - nuts and coffee cake on the house
 It was too early for lunch, so we sat down for coffee and wine at the classic Bar El Federal, which has been there since 1864 and still going strong. Slightly tipsy after a massive glass of Malbec, we went back to Freddy’s and consumed huge quantities of choripán (chorizo sausage sandwich), washed down with some home-made Malbec in a jar. It was time to go back to the hotel and sleep it all off.
Freddy himself at the grill
 The next couple of days were spent exploring Palermo and Palermo Soho, drinking more wine and eating our hearts out. Day 5, at the ungodly hour of 7 am, we boarded a plane to magical Mendoza.

Since this is turning into a kilometrical post, I will save Mendoza for my next post.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Tenure, a birthday and expat cravings

Yes, I am aware that it has been well over a month since I have last written here. I have not given up. There were several contributing factors, some of them good and some – not so much. To begin with, I recently learned that I did not receive tenure. Now, for those of you uninitiated folks, tenure in the Foreign Service means that, unless you manage to offend the local government to the point of destroying our diplomatic relations with your host country and they refuse to visit the U.S. even for cheap shopping and to visit Disney, you cannot be fired. Just like in an academic setting. One becomes eligible for tenure on the third anniversary of entering the Foreign Service. There are tenuring boards, comprised of senior FS folks, who convene a couple of times during the year in some deep secret place, armed with stacks of entry level officers’ annual evaluations, coffee and stale donuts, and a week or so later re-emerge with decisions who gets tenured that time around. An officer gets 3 bites at the apple – each on the consecutive anniversaries of her entry to the Foreign Service. If you do not get tenured on the 3rd time (i.e., your 6th year as a FSO), as Heidi Klum would say, “you are out!” and your blissful FS career is over. Rumor has it that only about 5% of tenure-hopefuls do not end up getting it and as a result are back on the hopeless, barren non-governmental job streets.  For more on that, read the State Department’s own missive about this wholesome process.

Public FS lore indicates that typically about 40-60% of a given A100 class will get tenure during their very first review. The Diplomat’s class was a glorious testament to that.  It became a complete mystery then as to what exactly happened to my class as we learned that only about 20% or so of us got tenured last month. Granted, the folks who did get it were stars and did some pretty amazing things as first-tour officers. I didn’t. I did some fantastic things. I came up with awesome innovations, made things more efficient, outreached to anyone who’d listen in Bangladesh, networked like a banshee and spread the good American word. But I did not save people from burning buildings or serve as the acting Ambassador in my second month or bust a drug ring or TDY (temporary duty) to Kamchatka. I guess that’s what it takes.  So, I have been busy being amazing these days.

Lovely life in Brazil continues. I must say that Cariocas are probably the most relaxed, casual people I have seen in my life. Everyone feels amazingly free in their own skin and clothes (or lack thereof). It is an enviable attitude to life, I admit. And speaking of clothing, animal print is all the rage in Rio right now. Cheetah print is especially cherished. I have seen cheetah pants, cheetah shorts, cheetah tanktops, cheetah dresses, cheetah running shorts, cheetah running leggings and cheetah compression socks for the gym, cheetah skinny shorts, cheetah bags, cheetah bathing suits, cheetah skirts, scarves, cheetah jewelry, all spiced up by a sprinkle of snake skin overalls and shirts! It is the jungle out here in Rio and people relate to it naturally! The day I see a man wearing animal print, I promise to give up and buy my own leopard skinny pants.

Last week we also celebrated Son’s 6th birthday! And to think that I started this blog when he was about 6 months old. That is a LOT of time spent writing rather than doing something more productive, say – play with Son. At any rate, I decided to defy the Brazilian way and to actually host his birthday party in our home. Celebrating kid birthdays is an industry in Brazil, and folks go out of their way to throw their precious prodigy lavish and entertaining birthday parties. They rent big kid party rooms with all kinds of cool entertainment, hire magicians, clowns, what have you. Ever the dissenter (and being cheap), I decided that we were going to have Son’s birthday “American style.” Which meant at home, with me cooking and decorating and preparing party favors. In lieu of a clown, I offered Fat Cat. Sadly, one of Son’s little lady friends was a bit scared of the portly and reluctant entertainment so we locked him to away to his immense relief. Fat Cat does NOT enjoy children very much. I decided to make cupcakes instead of a big cake, something I have never baked in my life before. The thing is, it is one thing to choose to make red velvet cupcakes according to Martha Stewart and actually having the ingredients to do so. Like, for example, red food dye. You’d think that food dye is all the rage in Brazil, but shockingly –no. So, I sent the Diplomat on a wild goose chase on his bike in the heat of a Saturday afternoon to procure the dye. And procure he did, in a small cake shop in Copacabana. Mission accomplished – and the birthday and the resplendent cupcakes were a resounding success.

Which brings me to another philosophical point about living this nomadic, international life – no matter what, one naturally leans towards things known and comfortable and this is particularly true about food and cooking. I am so used to just going to the store and getting ready-made pie crusts, food dye, pickles (why are there no pickles in Brazil??), sour cream, mascarpone cheese, an olive bar, peaches, feta cheese, to just name a few. Well, here (and in many places in the world) you can find some of these things only in specialty stores at exorbitant prices, or not at all, frankly. At the same time, you can buy mangos and lychees for pennies, drink fresh coconut juice every day, eat cheeses you have never even heard about before and wear string bikinis on the beach (or anywhere for that matter) without a care in the world about your personal cellulite. I guess the only way to survive the constant culture shocks and clashes is to embrace your new environment immediately, try to understand it, use it in everyday life and end up ordering a lot of things from (God bless the diplomatic pouch!).  

Sadly and inexplicably, I continue to gain weight in Rio. I have now began running alongside the beach once or twice a week (read – I ran twice last week for the first time, and almost passed out the second time when I increased my running path to a whooping 2 miles). I have also adopted other, non-traditional exercise methods at work to help me in my quest for a late modeling career. For example, at least once a day, I climb up and down (admittedly, at the pace of a snail) the stairs of the Consulate all the way up to the 12th floor in my 5-inch high heels. It serves a dual purpose really – besides working out, I also warm up since our Consulate maintains a comfortable -23C degrees inside and after sitting down for 15 minutes, I can’t feel my frozen fingers clanking on the keyboard of the computer and fear that if I type faster, they’ll just break like icicles. There are several structural reasons why the damned building is maintained so cold, but I don’t care. I am tired of walking around wrapped in massive colorful woolen scarves like an eccentric Buddhist monk. Climbing stairs warms me up and the people from the building across get a kick out of watching me stretch every 3 floors.

Another tough aspect of living overseas is not getting the TV channels you are used to and getting a bunch of new ones in a foreign language that you just learned. No matter how well you learned it in the past 6 months, and how strong your resolve to watching the news in the native language is, you are still barely understanding a small fraction of whatever the pretty lady is prattling about on TV or the gorgeous made-up creature is crying and hurling herself about in the soap opera. You will sit there, in your first days, still dedicated, straining your neck to hear better in the hopes of understanding better. You will not. You will give up. Unless you are the Press Officer at post, in which case you must.

And so you begin craving and missing your U.S. channels and all the good shows you were into and all the stupid ones you were REALLY into even though you never told anyone you watch them. The only channel that appears to be universally available anywhere in the world is actually CNN and so we end up watching a ton of it anywhere we go. At least we are always in the know.
But the world has moved much technologically in the last few years and now, thanks to a combination of wires, lack of wires, some pluggy thingamajigies, some random stuff that I honestly do not understand, some stuff that hides where my computer is and many more machinations, we are able to watch most U.S. TV shows. Yup, including the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Even the Kardashians show (did you know there was more than one??). Not that I do watch them. But I could if I felt the sudden urge to dumb myself down. So, life has definitely improved for the poor expat. And speaking of shows, I am hooked on a new one, called Married at First Sight, the premise of which is that a bunch of singles leave themselves in the hands of 4 experts with perfectly coiffed hair and eclectic tie choices to choose them a spouse and meet that spouse for the first time at the altar. Then they marry them sight unseen and get shipped off to a honeymoon and then back for a month of marital bliss. I freely admit to spending 4 straight hours on Saturday night and another 3 on Sunday and another 2 on Monday morning watching the whole shebang on It is a good show, people!

What else is going on? Ah, yes. I finally managed to attend a real reception with some fancy schmancy people hosted by our own Consul General where I met some really cool people. Then I got inspired and organized a reception for our own consular section and consular contacts in one of the swankiest hotels in Copacabana where I met even more cool people. Life is looking up, folks!