Sunday, June 8, 2014

Tourism, Culture and Bars

The past four weeks have been busy. My Mom arrived to spend a precious month with us, babysitting and cooking for us while taking in the Marvelous City. We used the occasion of her arrival and ditched the boys to go to the incredible Iguacu Falls – one of the three most spectacular falls in the world. The falls span across the Brazilian and Argentinean borders (separated by the Iguazu river) and one gets a different view of the falls depending on the side one is. Usually, one spends a day exploring the views from the Brazilian side, and another hiking to see to falls from the Argentinean banks.

The trip started very well. It turned out that several of my colleagues from the Consulate would be going to Iguacu (it was a long weekend) and we planned and planned out awesome weekend together. I dreamed of bonding and fitting in. It was going to be glorious. Mom and I arrived on Friday night in Iguacu city in Brazil. Given the incredible popularity of this tourist attraction, I knew that the town would be cute and filled with many lovely little restaurants and could not wait to spend a night eating Brazilian BBQ and drinking caipirinhas with Mom. Folks, I have rarely seen a less lively place in my life. After walking for an hour in the desolate landscape of the sleepy little town of Iguacu we returned to have dinner in the overly priced cavernous and practically empty restaurant right next to our hotel. It was not cute. Or quaint. Or good food.

The next day we had a hearty breakfast at the hotel and headed over the falls on the Brazilian side. It was cold, so I put on pretty much all of the clothes I had brought with myself. Since the bulk of our luggage has yet to be delivered to us (welcome to Foreign Service life), I own a total of 2 light sweaters and a pair of jeans to for cold weather. So, I put them all on. We decided to do this trip on the cheap and so rather than renting an expensive car with a driver, or signing up for an organized tour or some other such capitalist contraption, we took the public bus 104 which took us directly to the park in no time (well, SOME time, like 30 mins) from downtown. Then I got a text from my colleagues that they had just set out to explore and so Mom and I hurried to catch up with them. At that point, my colleagues texted to say that the views from Argentina were gorgeous, which was all very nice except that we were on the exactly opposite side of the river. We resolved to wave to each other and continued on our merry ways. Soon we had our first sighting of the Iguacu Falls, which was unforgettable. Frankly, I cannot even begin to describe them, so let’s not go there. Let’s just call them stunning and their power breathtaking and leave it at that. As you draw closer to the biggest two falls in the middle of the others, you need to buy yourself a nice, plastic raincoat (or, in the case of Mom, prudently save and bring the one you bought in Niagara Falls) and don it as it practically rains as you stand close to the falling tons of water. The Brazilians have built a nice long terrace in the middle of the river, right under the falling waters, which allows the eager revelers to stand in rapture and be whipped by cascades of frothing waters while trying to take pictures with their overly expensive cameras. And if you happen to be wearing glasses (like me, for example) you pretty much see nothing as the glasses are completely covered with rain drops. Still, awesome!

We woke up the next day to a nice, steady rain. Determined to make this trip work, Mom and I ate another hearty breakfast at the hotel, put on our plastic raincoats and braved the naughty weather. We wanted to take another public bus, which would take us over the border to Argentina, and from there we would take yet another public Argentinean bus to the park itself. Given that it was Sunday (read, buses frequency goes to one per hour), and the crappy weather, it was a miracle we caught one in less than half an hour. It was filled with suspicious looking local characters and several bearded Euro backpackers. It got a bit dicey at the border as I presented proudly my courtesy Argentinean visa to the border officer. All Americans need a visa to visit Argentina, and I had just gotten mine a week before with the help of our consulate in Rio. I was very excited. The border patrol officer was not. He stared blankly at it for some time and then asked me something in a language that I can only guess was Spanish. I said in my best Portuguese that yes, this was a visa, yes, issued to me by the Argentinean consulate in Rio de Janeiro. He then said a lot more in incomprehensible Spanish (you’d think that I would understand at least SOMETHING using my Portuguese; I did not). What was more worrisome was that a) he seemed unhappy, and b) all the backpackers on the bus and Mom breezed through the border check with their EU passport and the bus did not appear to be where I had left it in front of the border patrol office. Mom gesticulated at me wildly that they are waiting for me but that I should hurry. By then, all seven border passport officers were gazing at my (clearly suspicious) visa. In all honesty, what the visa was in fact a poorly made blue stamp, on the lines of which someone had scribbled that it was valid for a year. Son could have made that visa with his toy stamp kit. I began to sweat. I now understand what my applicants go through. And then all of them began speaking to me, waving my passport around. I understood nothing. Finally, they gave up, stamped it and gave it back to me with an air of disgust. People, I have rarely been so relieved. I ran and caught the bus, which was waiting for me while all the crust backpackers kept giving me dirty looks.

While on the Argentinean side, we got steadily rained on, which for a long time did not dampen our spirits (yes, pun intended!). We walked about and stared for some time at the falls from that side and then ended up at the infamous Devil’s throat, the most impressive fall of the group. It was unimaginable. Thanks for a balcony built in by the Argentineans right next to the Throat, one could get as close as a few meters from the cascading tons of frothing, gurgling water falling the long distance to the bottom. Heavy mist bordering on torrential rain rises in waves in the air, making it foggy and very warm. The noise is deafening and the sheer power of nature forces you to forget everything else that could have possibly entered your mind thus subjugating your senses and your mind to the reigning wonder of nature. I was rendered speechless for a while, standing there, under the pouring combination of heavy mist and medium rain, tucked in my flimsy white raincoat. It was humbling.

Up to that point, all was going according to plan until we decided to explore the lower trail of the falls, which would take us to the bottom part of the falls where they break into the water. The rain, light and tolerable until then, all of a sudden woke up and decided that we should never see the lower trail and began pouring down on us full force. I gave up when my sneakers got so full of water that every time I made a step, some of it poured out happily from there. I was done with the damned falls. I was fall-ed out. It was nice while it lasted. And good thing too – turned out that by the time we got to the bus station to take the bus back to Brazil, there was only one last bus going there. If has stayed long enough to see the lower trail, we would have had to find a place to stay in Argentina. We jumped in that old creaky public bus, filled with yet more Euro backpackers with ginormous backpacks on their backs and smaller ones hanging on their fronts like some particularly ungainly kangaroos. Because of the rain, the inside of the bus smelled like wet socks and dirty dogs. I sat next to another thoroughly wet tourist who did not bat an eyelash when I took off each of my sneakers to line them with wads of paper towels which Mom had just stolen from the bathroom at the bus station. I felt better and warmer. Back in Brazil, on our way back to the hotel, I spotted a lively Lebanese joint which had two churning shawarma grills, glinting happily in the rainy night. It was exactly what we needed. A mere 20 minutes later, we were contentedly sitting in our hotel, eating smelly chicken kabobs and drying our clothes and shoes with a hairdryer. All in all, the trip was a success and one to remember.
At the same time, do you feel bad for the Diplomat for being sad and lonely back in Rio. While we were out admiring the nature, he went to a fancy party to which were had been invited the previous week. He was apparently having such a nice little time there, that he decided to text me around 12 am, saying, “This party is awesome, wish you were here with me!” Sweet, no? Except that he somehow managed to send the text message not to me, but to our 24 year old babysitter who was watching over Son in the meantime. Awkward…

Another highlight of the last month was out visit to the ballet. For those who do not know, I am big opera and ballet lover, and have spent the past ten years of my marriage torturing the Diplomat by dragging him to various such festive musical events. He once even endured a 5-hour grim production of the Queen of Spades, in Russian, with minimal décor and confusing plot, only because I wanted to hear Placido Domingo in the Metropolitan Opera in New York. That is why it took me by surprise that he decided to come with Mom and Son to see the ballet Bayadere at Theatro Muncipial in Rio as participation in this family event was purely voluntary (well, for him; not so much for Son whom I decided needed to learn about the ballet). It was a lovely production, with some beautiful work by talented Brazilian ballet dancers. The décor was opulent, which is not small praise for this production which depicts lavish Indian scenes. And most importantly, Son loved it. Which means more ballet for the Diplomat (you can just imagine his excitement)!
The Diplomat and I decided to utilize our free babysitting and started going out more these days. This past weekend, we went out on Friday night with some lovely colleagues from the Consulate to what turned out to be a great restaurant concept. It was a large restaurant complex, with seating on a large terrace where you can order food from several different restaurants. This concept happily avoids those typical spousal moments where one of you is decidedly in the mood for some good, solid steak, while the other would rather eat sushi, and in the end you end up going for sushi while the other spouse quietly resents you and forces you to go have steak the very next time you agree to go out with that pesky person again. At the Lagoon at Lagoa, all of you jokers can sit together, looking out to the beautiful lake vista, and order whatever your soul desires. No, it does not have Thai food. Or Chinese. Or Indian. You know what – you are damn picky! Go cook yourself at home!

When we were done, we decided that we had not drunk enough and transferred the party to the local drinking joint. I have to admit, there are several such joints dangerously close to our apartment, and we do tend to find excuses to frequent them. We made it home at 1.30 am. The next day, we went to a BBQ hosted by the Consul General, where we feasted on burgers and about 34 types of pasta salad courtesy of our colleagues (we were all asked to bring a side dish and what better one than a pasta salad).  That night, we were invited by some awesome Brazilian friends to a birthday party in the trendy part of town called Barra de Tijuca. This is a somewhat newer part of Rio, which has plenty of shopping U.S-style. To our utter astonishment, as we were driving past the large Barra Shopping mall on the way to the party, we spotted a giant and distressingly realistic Statue of Liberty adorning its doors. It was a good birthday party, with a live band and decent caipirinhas and an oversized cake, covered with red and blue stars (the birthday boy had lived in the U.S. for some time, a period of his life he remembers fondly). In other words, we felt quite at home.

We are about to careen into the organized chaos also known as World Cup 2014. We are already feeling the effects as the Dutch team has invaded our sports club to practice, which has in turn brought quite a few pesky journalists loitering outside and masses of police on each and every corner. The Dutch are staying in a hotel not far from our apartment and one can observe the daily circus of the footballers trying to leave the hotel and stopping to pose for pictures with beautiful Brazilian ladies, hug some babies and to generally look very important and celebrity-ish. The Cup opens on Thursday. The worst is yet to come.