Monthly Archives: November 2010

Rio de Janeiro

Greetings from Florianopolis, a charming, laid back island in the south of Brazil.  I arrived here just yesterday after spending nearly 4 weeks in Rio de Janeiro, or “a cidade maravilhosa” (“the marvelous city”) as its known here in Brazil. After living there for nearly a month, I understand how Rio earned its title.

I originally visited Rio in 2002 and have dreamed of going back ever since.  There was something about the city that captivated my imagination.  I got an itch that I knew only living there for a month or so would scratch. On this trip, my life in Rio wasn’t that of a tourist but a local. I intentionally didn’t see a single tourist attraction while I was there, unless you count Ipanema beach.  This time I didn’t want to just see the city, I wanted to feel it.

I typical day for me in Rio consisted of sleeping late, enjoying a midday acai, going for a run by the beach, eating a lunch of arroz, fejao, and picanha (rice, black beans, and steak), taking a nap, and then meeting some friends out for dinner and drinks. I made an effort to meet as many Brazilians as possible, although I often found myself spending more time with the foreigners that I met at the shared Ipanema apartment that I rented.

Me and my flatmates in Ipanema

When the wind was cooperative I’d take a kitesurfing lesson in Barra, a suburban beach neighborhood.

For those who haven’t visited Rio I’ll try to put it into words, but to paraphrase Elvis Costello, writing about a city’s vibe is like dancing about architecture.

Aesthetically, Rio is as beautiful as the people who inhabit it.  I would argue there’s no major city in the world situated in as beautiful a location.  The city is wrapped around several beaches, the most famous of which is Copacabana, a 4km crescent-shaped stretch of sand that symbolizes the city.   Behind the city lies several jagged, uninhabitable green mountains.  Because it’s so beautiful and has such scarce inhabitable land, real estate in Rio is the most expensive in South America.

Rio as seen from the corcovado

But that’s just aesthetics.  What really drew me back to Rio is the city’s vibe.  Cariocas, or Rio residents, really know how to live.  They look for any excuse to eat, drink, socialize, and have a good time.  They don’t just go to the beach, they worship it.

Cariocas on the beach

I’ve visited over 40 countries and hundred cities, and I’d have to say that cariocas are the warmest and most affectionate people I’ve ever encountered. You see it a thousand different ways, from how a total stranger will gently squeeze your hand to get your attention, to how closely cariocas stand when they talk to each other, to how every email is signed either beijos (kisses) or abraços (hugs).  Even the guy I bought an electronic accessory from on MercadoLivre, their eBay, sent me a hug.

Another charming quirk of Rio is how the city is fueled by sunshine.  Last Thursday was the first sunny day all week, so even though it was a weekday the beach was packed.  The city shuts down when it rains. People don’t even know what to do…  everyone just wanders around in a confused stupor, seriously.  But when the sun shines again the city jumps back to life.  Surfers once again carry their boards through the streets, joggers run by the beach, and sunbathers dot the sand once more (or rather, scarce spots of open sand dot the spaces between them.)

They have a free outdoor gym in Ipanema called Muscle Beach, modeled after the one in Venice Beach, California.  Although the one in California is dominated by body builders, the one in Rio is just full of regular tan Brazilians wearing just enough active wear to cover what’s legally required.  There are also several “jungle gyms for adults” up and down the beach where one can do pull-ups, push-ups, and dips.  As you can imagine, the carioca body is a fit one.

Guys practicing capoira in the street

Rio is like Los Angeles, California, in the sense that it’s all about the beach, sunshine, and living for the moment.  The carioca would much rather sit at a beachside bar drinking a suco (fresh fruit juice) or caipirinha (cocktail made with cachaça, sugar and lime) than see an opera.  It’s fair to say that they aren’t the most cultured people in the world, but cariocas are amongst the happiest.

Despite its many charms, Rio is far from a paradise.  The city is burdened with some serious social problems. The gap between rich and poor in Rio is staggering, and the latter out-number the former by a very wide margin.  Many of Rio’s lower class life in the favelas, or shanty towns, that dot the green hills overlooking Rio’s famous beaches.  Ironically, the favela dwellers enjoy the best views in the city.

In poor neighborhoods in the US, law enforcement may be stretched thin.  In the favelas, law enforcement literally doesn’t even exist.  The government offers no public services in the favelas, although this is just now starting to change.  There is no police presence save for a few corrupt cops in the pockets of the drug lords.  There are no hospitals, no mail service, no fire stations… nothing. These entire massive neighborhoods are essentially just written-off by the rest of Rio’s society, which is astonishing considering that only a few meters separate Rio’s poorest favelas from its richest neighborhoods.  The streets in the favelas don’t even show up on maps.

Google Map screenshot of Copacabana, Ipanena, and favelas (in green)

I visited a favela one afternoon with a Brazilian friend and it was an eye-opening experience.  What struck me wasn’t the poverty as much as the anarchy. A mess of poorly cables strung cables bring illegal electricity and cable TV to homes, which range from a dirt-floor-and-tin-roof-huts to comfortable two-bedroom concrete apartments.  The only restaurants are small open areas at the bottom of someone’s home with a few plastic tables and chairs.  Name brand stores don’t exist. Sixteen-year-old boys working for the drug lords ride around on old Honda motorcycles with assault rifles strapped across their backs.  Most adult men carry a handgun.  Unfortunately I don’t have any photos from the favela because I was strongly advised to leave my camera, and wallet, at home.

Without any real government, the power vacuum in the favelas is filled by the drug lords, who act as tax collector, police, judge, jury, executioner, and occasional benefactor.  There is a continual tension between the drug lords and the police, or at least those cops who aren’t paid off by them.  The tensions reached a high point toward my last week in Rio, evidenced by a wave of violence that was pretty bad even by Rio’s standards.  The media called it guerra civil, or civil war, which I think was a bit of an exaggeration.  That said, dozens of cars and buses were burnt in the street, several dozen innocents were killed, and there was a palpable sense of fear in the city.

If you talk with a carioca they will readily admit that their city has many problems, but if you ask them if they’d live anywhere else they look at you like you’re crazy.  By the way, ask a Brazilian if they know how to samba and they’ll give you a similar look… as if you’d asked them if they knew how to walk.

Rio’s charms far outweigh its problems though, and no matter where the rest of my travels take me, I know that I’ll always feel a degree of saudade, or deep longing, for a cidade maravilhosa.

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First week in Peru

I landed in Lima, Peru last Saturday and have been pleasantly surprised everywhere I go. I stayed in the neighborhood of Miraflores in Lima and enjoyed walking around town on my own, watching surfers and paragliders along the beach, participating in the nightlife, and trying my first Pisco Sour (grape brandy known as Pisco, lime juice, sugar syrup, and egg whites). I was told by everyone to just past through Lima, but I am so glad I didn’t listen because it turned out to be a wonderful 3 days. I met some nice travelers at my hostel and 4 of us decided to travel together to the next city.

Miraflores, Lima, Peru

From Lima, we took a 5 hour bus ride south to the city of Ica. There is a small town called Huacachina which is a 5 minute taxi ride from Ica which used to be a getaway for the Peruvian elite. Now this town caters to backpackers. This small town is an oasis in the middle of the desert and surrounds a lagoon. We stayed for 2 nights to enjoy some much needed relaxation at the pool, sand-boarding down the incredible desert dunes, and winery and Pisco winery tours. Everything is very reasonable if you are traveling on the US dollar, New Zealand dollar, and Euro. Average cost for a nice meal is 15 Peruvian Soles which is about U.S. $5.35 although I was finding pretty good meals for only 10 Soles. All of the tours cost around U.S. $10 and an average accommodation is U.S. $10 a night.

Huacachina

Sandboarding in the desert

My friends and I went in different directions from Ica. I took an overnight bus to Arequipa where I will be a volunteer teaching in a kindergarten class for the next 4 weeks. Arequipa is Peru’s 2nd largest city which lies at the base of El Misti and experiences earthquakes often (I was told they felt one last weekend). There is the saying here, “When the moon separated from the earth, it forgot to take Arequipa” referencing the city’s colonial buildings built from an off-white volcanic rock called sillar that shines in the sun. The weather here is consistently sunny and warm during the day and cool at night. I will be taking Spanish language one-on-one tutoring beginning Monday for an entire week so I will be ready to help at the school the following week. I will also be living with a host family here in Arequipa which I will get to meet tomorrow afternoon. So far I have enjoyed everywhere I have been in Peru and would recommend it to any travelers (especially when on a tight budget). I plan to do a 3 day trek in the Colca Canyon (more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon) and visit Chile and Lake Titicaca on the weekends. I will make my way to Machu Picchu via Cuzco once I am done with my volunteer program in Arequipa.

The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa with La Catedral in the background

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Crossing the Pond in Style

We recently completed a 16-day transatlantic cruise that began in Rome, Italy, and terminated in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA.  We never really intended to take a cruise on the Chasing Summer adventure, but it turned out to be a pleasant and surprisingly affordable way to move from Europe back to the Americas.

From Greece we wanted to cross the Atlantic westward for South America, so started researching plane fares on www.kayak.com.  On a whim we also visited www.LastMinuteCruises.com to see whether travel by ship might be an alternative possibility.  On the latter website we found an amazing last minute deal on a Holland America “repositioning” cruise that would get us as far as Ft. Lauderdale, and on the former website found some equally amazing plane fares from Ft. Lauderdale to Lima, Peru, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  The all-inclusive cruise was about $60 per person-day, and the flights from Ft. Lauderdale to South America less than $400 each.  Not bad!

RTW travelers don’t often consider cruises for long distance movements, but they really should.  As we learned aboard, the major cruise lines must reposition their ships twice annually across the Atlantic in response to seasonal demand (i.e., in the summer there’s more demand for cruises in the Mediterranean and in the winter there’s more demand in the Caribbean.)

Luckily for us, there is not a lot of demand for repositioning cruises since not many folks can spend 16 days on a vacation, half of which just to cross the ocean! Literally about 95% of the passengers were elder retirees.  The nightlife wasn’t much to speak of.

Though we did miss social interaction with people born after the 1930’s, the service and luxury aboard more than compensated.  For two weary travelers accustomed to living out of a backpack, it was nice to settle into a private stateroom with twice daily cleaning service and free 24-hour room service.

We won’t write a full glowing review of our ship, the ms Noordam, even though it deserves one. You can easily find that with a Google search.  We will say that the food and service were impeccable and the ship was comfortable and well-appointed. We ate more king crab legs, filet mignon, lobster tail and foie gras in those 16 days than the previous 16 years, and it was all of exceptional quality.  Going back to the “real world” where we’re not fed like royalty and waited upon hand and foot was a shocking readjustment.

We also won’t comment on our ports-of-call because we only spent a day at each one, which isn’t nearly enough to get the flavor of a city.  It is enough time to site-see though and you’ll see some photos from each port in our video though.  Here was our itinerary:

Oct 18 – CIVITAVECCHIA (ROME), ITALY
Oct 19 – LIVORNO (FLORENCE/PISA), ITALY
Oct 20 – MONTE CARLO, MONACO
Oct 21 – BARCELONA, SPAIN
Oct 22 – CARTAGENA, SPAIN
Oct 23 – MALAGA, SPAIN
Oct 24 – CADIZ (SEVILLE), SPAIN
Oct 25 – At Sea
Oct 26 – FUNCHAL (MADEIRA), PORTUGAL
Oct 27 – At Sea
Oct 28 – At Sea
Oct 29 – At Sea
Oct 30 – At Sea
Oct 31 – At Sea
Nov 1 –  At Sea
Nov 2 –  At Sea
Nov 3 –  FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA, US

Most of the other guests we met aboard the ship were experienced cruisers.  One couple was on their 28th cruise!  There is an addictive quality to cruise vacationing and we came to understand why.  Here’s our theory:

The Ease – Those 16 days were the lowest-stress of our travels because there were no decisions to make.  The itinerary was already planned, the transportation already arranged, and the meal plan already made.  We didn’t have to decide where to eat each night or which hotel to book at the next destination.  In fact, if felt more like the destinations were coming to us.

The Value – I don’t know the full economics of the cruise ship business, but somehow they manage to provide a luxurious guest experience for much less than a similar experience would cost on land.   Had we arranged a similar itinerary with similar food and drink traveling by land, I’m sure it would have cost at least 3x as much.

The Comfort – It’s nice waking up each day to find a 5 star breakfast waiting for you in restaurant, returning to your room to find it already cleaned by the room steward, then lounging by the pool all morning as the French Riviera floats past.  On a cruise ship your every need is catered to and you needn’t even break out your credit card until the end.

The Efficiency – If you want to see a lot of cities in a short amount of time, a cruise is for you.  In the first week aboard we saw 2 cities in Italy, 4 in Spain, and Monte Carlo.  There was no wasted time on buses, planes, or trains – while we were eating dinner or sleeping, the ship was making headway to the next port.

Despite its many advantages, there was one major disadvantage of traveling by cruise vs. by land… we never got to really know any place, just see them.  At most ports the ship was only docked from around 8AM to 4PM.  Several hours in a city is enough to see the major tourist attractions, but isn’t nearly enough to get the true flavor a place.  Of course there’s nothing wrong with ordering a sample platter as long as you know what you’re getting.

In the end it was a great experience and a pleasant, if temporary, upgrade from backpacker-style travel (well, backpacker “plus” style.)  Check out the video below to get a flavor of life aboard the ship and see some of our ports-of-call.

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Money and RTW Travel

Greetings from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  In the next few days you can expect an update on our transatlantic cruise from Europe back to the Americas, but first let’s take a pause from our regularly scheduled programming to address an important topic:  Money and RTW Travel.

This blog post is inspired by some of the comments on CNN.com in reaction to last Tuesday’s article ‘Summer chasers’ keep sun in their sights which features our Chasing Summer adventure along with a couple others.   The article was a huge success, drawing close to 200,000 readers from around the world and over 150 website comments.  It also drew over 8,000 new visitors to this blog.  Thanks CNN!

Reading through the comments on the CNN website, I noticed that a lot of readers were skeptical about whether “regular folks” can afford to travel around the world like we’re doing.  There seems to be a common misconception, at least in the United States, that international travel is a luxury that only the rich can afford.  I’d like to put that misconception to rest.

Let me start by dispelling the myth that “only trust fund babies can travel the world.”  The style of travel that Lauren and I have chosen certainly requires some cash in the bank, though it’s probably not as much as you think, and if either of us have trust funds nobody has told us about them yet!

As the CNN.com article mentioned, our trip is financed by cash I’ve saved up over the years, mostly profits from my company, Infosurv.  I started Infosurv in college with no outside capital and spent the last 12 years working hard to grow it, with the help of course of dozens of incredibly dedicated and talented employees.

We realize how fortunate we are to be able to travel in the style that we’ve chosen.  That said, I believe strongly that anyone can travel internationally if they have an able body and the discipline to work within a budget that suits them. It all comes down to the style of travel that they choose.

To illustrate, here are a few anonymous profiles of other travelers that I’ve met along the way:

The French Migrant Worker

On a bus to Arlie Beach, Australia, I met a pretty French girl who told me that she’s traveling though Australia and New Zealand as a migrant worker.  She picks fruits and berries on organic farms, alongside other migrant workers from Thailand and Indonesia (she admitted they are far more productive than she is.)   She enjoys working the fields and meeting other travelers along the way.  She saves up money as she goes, taking a few weeks off here and there to sightsee or chill at a hostel by the beach.  I’m guessing that she started her trip with just enough money for a cheap flight from France to Australia.

The British Retailer

At a hostel in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I met a 23-year old British girl who was traveling though Australia, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and South America for 10 months.  After graduating from university she worked for 6 months as a front-line employee at an H&M clothing store in Liverpool, living inexpensively at her parents’ house to save up as much money as possible.  Her self-funded trip cost around £8,000 pounds (or about $16,000.)

The Australian Software Engineer

At a bar in Thailand I met an Aussie software engineer who funds his travels as he goes by working on software projects remotely for clients back home.  Since the cost of living in Thailand is just a fraction of that in Australia, he doesn’t need to work on nearly as many projects to support himself as he did at home.  This leaves him lots of extra time and money for sightseeing, transportation and recreation.

You may notice that none of the people profiled above would be considered ‘wealthy’ by Western standards. Yet, they’ve all found a way travel internationally for extensive periods of time.

You may also notice that none of the people that I profiled are American… I hate to admit this, but Americans are vastly under-represented amongst RTW travelers.  For every 1 fellow American that I’ve met traveling aboard, I’ve met 10 Australians, 8 Brits, and 3 Canadians.  Since our population is more than 10x each of theirs, this is a shameful state of affairs.

Admittedly, there are plenty of real-world constraints that make extensive travel more difficult.  For example, those with physical disabilities will find that other countries don’t typically have the same accessibility infrastructure that we enjoy in the States (although low-cost international cruise ships usually do.)

Those traveling with small children will find it more challenging than traveling alone, with older children or other adults, but it can be done.  Most of the people I’ve met traveling with children are living abroad more so than just traveling abroad, usually renting a house in a foreign country for several months or a year.  Though this kind of traveler isn’t quite as mobile as the single young backpacker, they still enjoy a similar sense of freedom, adventure, and cultural immersion.

For Americans, the most commonly cited impediment to long-term travel is our jobs  — or more specifically, the country’s relatively tight vacation policies.   In Europe, it’s not uncommon for employees to enjoy 6-8 weeks of paid vacation each year.  In the US, many employees get only 2 weeks.  This is a cultural problem, and unfortunately not much can be done about it at this point short of government intervention, as any American company that offers more paid vacation than its peers would find itself at a competitive disadvantage.

However, even the most workaholic American will find himself between jobs from time to time, especially in today’s economic environment, and these career breaks are the perfect time to knock the dust off one’s passport.

I believe that many of the reasons Americans cite for not traveling are intellectual covers for what’s really a cultural hesitancy.  The United States is very isolated by world standards.  We’re physically isolated by two vast oceans, politically isolated by the strongest military in the world, financially isolated by economic self-sufficiency (oil excepted), and culturally isolated as the world’s best exporter and worst importer of music, film, and media.  Americans have grown so accustomed to the bubble in which we live that most of us don’t even realize how much exists beyond it.  What little we do know about the outside world often comes from our sensationalizing media, thus giving us fears of other countries in vast disproportion to the dangers that actually exist there.

In the end, I believe than all Americans should travel the world, and than almost all of us can afford to if we have the courage, the desire, and the discipline to make it happen.

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