Nine days of Rio de Janeiro

Bem-vindo ao Rio de Janeiro! (pronounced hee-oh de ja-nay-roo)

The only word I can use to describe Rio de Janeiro is intoxicating. I feel like that word best fits the tropical seduction that is A Cidade Maravilhosa, the Marvelous City. I’ve been in this city for over a week now, and it has quickly become one of my favorites. From its impossibly steep hills, to the sidewalks and everything in between (mostly the women), Rio makes you want to quit your job as a guide and live here permanently. Arriving to the city for the first time was a dream come true. I had wanted to see Brasil and Rio since watching Ronaldinho play in the 2006 World Cup. And man, it did not disappoint. I have finished my training, where Kris and I followed another CEO from Santa Cruz, Bolivia all the way to Rio with a group of 12 amazing passengers. We took long train, bus, plane, and van rides, fished for piranhas, rode horses through caiman infested waters, snorkeled in a crystal clear river, marveled at Iguassu Falls, went sailing in colonial Paraty, surfed at Ilha Grande, and drank plenty of caipirinhas along the 16 day journey. Then, after arriving in Rio de Janeiro last Sunday, I had over a week free before my first solo trip starts. What to do…what to do.

Rio de Janeiro means January River in Portuguese. This is only because when the Portuguese first arrived here, the captain thought the massive bay around the city was the mouth of a river (it’s not), thus since they had arrived in the month of January, Rio de Janeiro was born. Today, the city is the epicenter-to-be of the world over the next few years, hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. For that, there has been a huge makeover going on in order to prepare for the massive influx of business and tourism the city will see. For example, para-militarized policeman with large machine guns standing around in the touristy areas of Copacobana and Ipanema is all too normal. Many of the slums, or favelas, that sprawl up the hills around the city are currently under the process of “pacification”, in order to combat the organized criminals that run them. Today, you can follow a guide for a once and a lifetime tour through a favela, which is what we got to do our first day in the city.

Rocinho favela

The Rocihno Faleva is the largest in the city with over 90,000 inhabitants living in compact, brick houses that are stacked one on top of the other. Fire codes are non existant and building restrictions are anything goes. When we arrived near the top of Rocinho, we got out of the van and headed down a narrow “street” on foot. Our guide would tell us when we can and cannot take pictures, to not stray from the path, and to NEVER take pictures of people unless he says it’s ok. Hearing this, I only got more excited to walk into the urban maze that was the Rocinho favela. The stench of piss and dog feces quickly filled my nose as we made our way in. Tiny brick houses quickly consumed any sense of direction. There are no street names. At times, the paths were so narrow, you could touch either side with your elbows. The only space between buildings would be trash and the occasional stairway, steep enough to be more like a ladder, and would lead to a different maze of brick and tin buildings. Scenes from City of God played out in my head. What we found comical was that among all the houses, there would be grocery stores, barbershops, and other commercial offices serving the residents. The lovely cake shop next to the pile of ruble that was once a home was an interesting juxtaposition. Our guide let us into a building where we could view the favela from the roof. The view was eyeopening. We were at the top of the hill, which is where the more “expensive” real estate in the favelas are (less trash from rain and a good lookout for drug lords). Rocinho could be seen in its entirety as a sea of tightly packed buildings with tin roofes. Each one had a blue water tank that could be opened to collect rain water. Kites of various colors flew high in the air, something that used to be how kids would signal to druglords if the police were coming (as in City of God). Today, it’s just for fun. As we continued down the favela, we saw marks of the recent “pacification” that took place between police and the druglords only a year and a half ago. Bullet holes were on the walls of buildings, some in alarming quantity. When we had finally gotten out of the sea of brick and tin, the view opened up to a major city highway. Across the highway were a dozen or so massive high rise apartments that crowded the beach on the western end of the city. If you could describe Rio in one glance, this was it. On one side of the highway was the Rocinho favela reaching up the impossibly slopes around the city. On the other were some of the most expensive apartments Rio had to offer. The favela tour was truly an eye opener…

Christ Redeemer Statue. You can see it just about anywhere in the city and beyond.

And then it was back to the tropical seduction that are the beaches of Copacobana and Ipanema. What makes these places so incredible is that if you are not on the beach, you feel like you are in the middle of a city. It is a perfect combination of cosmopolitan city life with chill beach town. High rise apartments and other buildings tower above you. Business men and woman rush to work and suicidal cab drivers yell at you when you clearly have the right of way to cross the street. And then you see a guy in a wet suit and a surf board in his arm walking to the subway station. Walk one block down and the buildings open up to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world surrounded by lush jungle (and beautiful women). On Ipanema beach, you can spend a whole day sitting in a cadeira, rentable chair, and watch surfers (and beautiful women) shred massive waves (apply sunscreen), while drinking cans of Cerveja Brahma, which is what I did on the 4th of July for the entire day. If at any point you are hungry or thirsty, nearly every corner in Rio has a walk up juice bar which provides hamburgers for about $3, coconut water (from a coconut), and my new favorite food, Açaí. Açaí is a berry that can be found in the Amazon that is supposed to be a superfood rich in all that healthy stuff. You order an “açaí na copa” açaí in a cup, and you get a frozen purple açaí pulp with bananas, granola, and honey on top if your feeling awesome. Have a big cup of açaí and a coconut for breakfast and you are instantly recovered from any whacky night A Cidade Maravilosa will provide for you. Nine days free in this place can turn anyone’s world upside down.

Training in Buenos Aires and the Ghosts of Milhouse Hostel

(View of sunny Santa Cruz, Bolivia)
Greetings from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Population 12 million residents (it’s pretty big). After the long overnight trip to get down here, I encountered yet another issue that threatened my time down here. I groggily de-boarded the plane and waited in the line at immigration. Making sure I had all my documents in order, I opened my wallet where I had kept my plane ticket. After removing my ticket I noticed a particularly bare area where my debit, credit, and health insurance cards usually go. My heart sank into my stomach. I had left them in Colorado when making photocopies of them at my parents house, I had some cash on me, but I couldn’t stay afloat for long. Being thousands of miles from home with no source of money can make you feel a little naked. So yet again, as soon as I arrived at Hotel Plaza San Martin right in the heart of BA (that’s what the cool kids call it), I was on Skype phoning home. Luckily, the cards were right where I had left them on the scanner and thanks to the glorious delivery system of FedEx International, I had all three cards in my possession a few days later. Phew!
Training with G Adventures in Buenos Aires was absolutely incredible. When the front desk at the hotel gave me the key to room Ph4, I was a little confused as to why they have such odd room names here. Turns out Ph means Penthouse, and I was staying in their best on the top floor. Being first to arrive, I took the master bedroom, naturally, which had its own wrap-around porch and a Jacuzzi that we could fill up. Needless to say, we were all a little blown away with our accommodation. “The Playboy Mansion” became an instant legend. There were nine of us training in the Southern Cone: Four Argentines, one Chilean, a Peruvian, an Aussie/Salvadorian, and two Americans, me and a guy Kris from New York. Our ages range from 35 to 22, and I do receive constant crap for being the youngest and a gringo at that. But overall, it’s an incredible group of people to be doing this with. The training, although fun, was very information intense and tiring. We learned all about the company, situations we’ll encounter, and how to deal with just about everything. After the week of information madness was over, we all had our last group dinner: a big-ass steak, and lots of wine, a classic Argentine staple. Then it was off to Kika Club in Palermo, where I’m convinced the music doesn’t stop. Ever. Bring your sunglasses for the morning cab ride home!
And then we were on our own. We had a week in Buenos Aires before our respective training trips, or “shadow training” starts. Me and Kris were to go with another CEO on a 14 day trip from Bolivia and ending in Rio de Janeiro. Kris had worked in a hostel right in the city called Milhouse a few years ago, so we stayed there for our free week in BA. The week included: sprinting around the city trying to collect all the documents necessary to acquire a Brazilian visa, getting denied initially by the Brazilian consulate for lack of said documents, African-style warehouse drum parties, attempting to jog in the city whilst avoiding homicidal bus drivers, dancing, drinking mate, and the Sunday market in San Telmo, where they sell everything from hand made crafts to 16th century muskets with helmut included. I could go on about how the city is a perfect combination of European sophistication with Latin flavor, but what I would like to write about was my ghostly encounter at Milhouse.
 I present to you: The Ghosts of Milhouse Hostel.
You can’t really spot Milhouse Hostel from the street outside, unless you know exactly where you’re going. Just one block off the 300yd wide 9 de Julio, basically the Broadway of BA, Milhouse is marked by a large wooden door in an unassuming building. A tiny sign will tell you that you have arrived to the right place. Once inside, however, you will find that it is a 5-story building with a large spiral marble staircase that leads up to the dorms. The “lobby” consists of a bar with tables, a grungy pool table in the corner, and a large projector screen that plays the daily football match. The dorm rooms upstairs wrap around a tiny common courtyard, where everyone meets to discuss last nights debauchery and plans for round two (or three, or four). Kris and I settled in and laid around for a little bit. I sat in the courtyard outside my room to get a better signal to Skype my parents and tell them about my week so far. That’s when I began to hear strange noises echoing off the concrete walls. They were very faint, almost unhearable, then they would disappear. I thought nothing of it initially. 
Earlythat night, as we were getting ready to go out, I stood in the courtyard again. “Oooooo…” “aaahhhhhh….” There they were again, this time however a bit louder. I looked around to see if anyone above the courtyard was making these eery noises. They almost sounded like crying. Nothing. This must be an old building. Could it be that we have some paranormal activity going on? Other backpackers grew curious off the noises as well, and we started to compare theories.
I encountered the “ghosts” later that evening. We had gotten back from a friends’ birthday party in Palermo at about five, and I reeeally had to pee. Again in the courtyard, the noises arose. This time they sounded like a woman screaming…and they were coming from the bathrooms. As I walked down the dark corridor leading to the bathrooms the noises became more decipherable…
 “Aaaaaaaa!…… Aaaaaaa-oooooo! Oooooooh!….OOOOOH YAAAAA! THAT’S IT!”
 By now I’m sure you know what the ghosts of Milhouse are. Someone “was up all night to get lucky” as the new Daft Punk song goes. Still, this was different. Once in the bathroom, whoever this girl was is absolutely going crazy, and whoever this guy is makes love like a stallion. And all day long? This couple should both be relationship counselors. They were so loud; I was convinced they were on another bathroom right next to mine. After I got out of my bathroom, however, I found that I was the only one there, yet the noises persisted. I opened a nearby window and poked my head out. “OOOOOHH MY GOD!” The sounds were deafening, and coming from the neighboring building. This wasn’t just any couple, these were the people that get paid to do this sort of thing. And that building is where creepy men (and women?) pay to watch it all unfold on the big screen. Milhouse hostel shared a wall with El Teatro Pornográfico, aka the porn theater. For the next week, at sometimes disturbing times of the day (like 8 in the morning), you could hear the nastiest of funny business echoing from the bathrooms. The Ghosts of Milhouse Hostel became a lovely ice breaker when meeting people throughout the week in BA, although I am glad to be out of there and on the road. I can now poop in peace.
Time of writing: I am currently in the small town of Bonito, Brazil, waiting for the overnight bus to Foz do Iguacu. I am in the middle of my “shadow training” and it is going incredible. Next stop, Rio de Janeiro!

The Job and travel troubles

I’ve been in Buenos Aires for a week now, and I am still in total shock that I’m really here. Maybe it’ll hit me sometime. Maybe not. As the final college semester starts to come to a close, us graduates get the same question over and over again. “So, what are you going to do now?” And we’ll more or less all give you the same answer: We want to travel. The nearly two decades of the same nine months on/three months off routine has come to a close. We want to have fun and see the world. Traveling requires a lot of money even if you are that grungy dread-locked backpacker just “living off the laaaand”. It can take months to years even just to save for a month long trip to anywhere. As the excitement/fear of graduating came near and underemployment was imminent, I decided that maybe landing a job that pays you to travel would be the ideal choice. After a bit of networking and email-forwarding, I landed a job with G Adventures (formerly known as GAP Adventures). I am a CEO, which most would identify with being a tour leader, but my job entails much more. A CEO, or Chief Experience Officer, has the responsibility to ensure optimal life changing experiences. Without getting too cultish about it, I am basically everyone’s best friend. We specialize in small group adventure travel, which we say is for people who don’t like the “all inclusive resort” style of travel, but also don’t want to do the dirty backpacker hostel route either. It’s that nice in between, or, dare I say “GAP” in travel. That’s where we come in.

 G has adventures all over the world. My region is called the Southern Cone. We cover tours in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, and Uruguay. When I got the job, my manager Julio informed me that training was to start on June 3rd…in Buenos Aires. My last two months in the US were pretty busy, having to finish college, work, move, and prepare my life for 18 months in South America. I hung out with as many friends and family as I could in a such a short time and then suddenly I was off to DIA with my life packed into a backpack and duffle bag. The drive to the airport gave me extreme deja vú. Almost exactly a year ago I was off to study abroad in Nicaragua for five months. This was going to be a different animal entirely, however. As soon as my dad dropped me off at DIA, however, I almost blew this amazing opportunity. Forty minutes before my connecting flight to Dallas was to take off, American Airlines nearly didn’t let me leave the country. This was because I had no documents to prove to them that I would not be in Argentina longer than 90 days and therefore did not need to buy a different visa. I was about to freak out in a place where they don’t like that so much. Luckily, my new rockstar manager, Julio, was on working on a Saturday and was on Skype. Having emailed me a fake trip itinerary that would put me in Ecuador the following week, I lied to the lovely American Airlines staff and swore on my life I would be in Quito in a few days, showing them my “tour”. Luckily the  receptionist bought it, printed out my boarding passes, and let me go. What now, American Airlines!

After two flights, an hour of sleep, and still buzzing hard on a Lunesta pill, I lifted the blind to see us flying over sprawling Buenos Aires. I remember flying into Managua, Nicaragua and being able to see the entire city end to end. Buenos Aires is the complete opposite. I have to learn my way around this place as if I were a porteño (from Buenos Aires)? This was going to be absolutely insane.