Traci and I went on an Afro-Brazilian Cultural Tour with listeners and personalities from our local R&B radio station, WDAS FM. This was a combined trip with listeners from the Washington, DC station, WHUR FM, and listeners from WBLS FM in New York City. In all, there were around 180 of us. The trip itinerary called for three days in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and four days in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil.
Traci, and I heard about this trip on a local R&B radio station, WDAS FM. We checked out the WDAS web site to get some details and then called the phone number provided by the site. The travel agency coordinating the trip was Trendsetter Travel. I spoke with Gerry Pitchford to get all the particulars on what we needed to do to be a part of the Brazil trip. This was an Afro-Brazilian cultural tour of Brazil. The trip involved listeners from three R&B radio stations: WHUR FM in Washington, DC; WBLS FM in New York City, and WDAS FM in Philadelphia. In all, there were around 180 travelers on this tour. To go on the trip, we would need to fill out the registration forms, make sure we had a valid passport, and get a visa to visit the country.
The first thing we had to do is to decide what package we wanted. Trendsetters was offering a 3-star, 4-star, or 5-star package, where 3-star package meant basic accomodations and 5-star meant luxurious accomodations, the 4-star package was somewhere in between. I spoke to Gerry when trying to decide on the package. He told me my wife would probably kill me if I chose the 3-star. He also told me that the 4-star hotel in Bahia was in walking distance from stores; whereas, the 5-star hotel was beautiful but not close to anything. Therefore, Traci and I decided to select the 4-star package.
The last bit of business we needed to take care of before we could enter the country was to get a visa. This could be obtained by visiting the Brazilian consulate in New York or Washington, DC, or by having a carrier make the run for you. Trendsetters told us about a carrier in our area called Visa Vite that would take our info to the consulate in New York and get the visa for $114 per person. We decided to use the carrier option. It was a little unnerving that we had to leave our original birth certificates and passports in the carrier's mail slot at Mailboxes, Etc.. Nonetheless, we received our documents and visa stamp in the mail within two weeks.
With the registration and citizenship details taken care of, the only thing left to do was to prepare for vacation. I picked up a Berlitz guide of the Portugese language from a bookstore. It came with a CD that would help you say common phrases and questions. I listened to the CD at work for 2 weeks hoping to learn the key phrases by osmosis or something. However, I found out that if you don't make a real effort at memorizing the phrases you probably are not going to get very far.
Finally, our departure day had arrived. We were to meet at a shopping center near the radio station so that we could board the bus that took us to JFK Airport in New York. The bus ride was pretty relaxing. We watched a movie on the way up.
We met up with the travelers from the NY and DC radio stations at the airport. While waiting in the check-in line we met some of the other travelers. There was excitement in the air. Everyone seemed to be smiling and having a good time.
Our original flight plan had us scheduled for a 2 hour layover in São Paulo, Brazil before arriving in Rio de Janeiro. However, since Rio was the final destination for all of us on the plane, the pilot announced that we would be flying directly to Rio de Janeiro and bypassing São Paulo altogether. This was good news.
We landed in Rio around 5:30 a.m.. The pilot landed the plane so gently that I never even felt the wheels touch the ground. After, making it through baggage claim and customs. We were greeted by our tour guides. The guides grouped us by our hotel destination (3-star, 4-star, or 5-star). The destination for Traci and me was the 4-star hotel, Leme Othon Palace Hotel. After a half hour or so, our bus arrived. We boarded and were on our way.
Now here is where things started to go down hill. Our tour guide stood before us on the bus, whipped out a piece of paper, and began to try to welcome us to Rio de Janeiro in English. The minute she opened her mouth, it became apparent she spoke very little English. She was trying to sound out the words that were written on the page. It reminded me of the first time I had to read aloud in elementary school. Traci was steaming. We had paid all this money for English speaking tour guides and no one could understand our guide nor could she understand us. Nobody asked any questions about what we were seeing en route to the hotel. At one point, our guide came through the bus collecting plane tickets for our flight to Salvador da Bahia. I think she said something about she was going to call and confirm our flights. However, we were having a difficult time communicating with her. I, along with several other people on the bus, opted to hold onto our tickets until we could get a clear explanation of why we were being asked to give them up.
The bus pulled up around the corner from our hotel. We sat on the bus for about 30 minutes, apparently because our rooms weren't ready yet. The bus driver finally let us off in front of the hotel. Let the chaos begin! There were two tour guides in the lobby (from the two buses that were carrying our group) and about 80 of us. They sent us up to the registration desk so that we could check in. The hotel staff were totally overwhelmed. This process took over two hours. To my surprise, the hotel staff spoke English very well - much better than our tour guides, who offered little assistance in this chaotic situation.
While we were standing in line (I guess you could call it a line) at the registration desk, some of the people who had already received their room keys had come back to the lobby complaining that their room was a dump and definitely wasn't their idea of 4-stars. We ended up meeting several other people in our group that had complaints about their rooms, lost luggage, and the tour guides. There were people trying to call Trendsetters for some guidance and in some cases to give them a piece of their mind. This was a bad scene.
Traci and I eventually received our room key. Our room was not quite what we expected. It kind of reminded me of a room you would get at a no frills beach motel - complete with ocean smell. Traci suggested we ask for another room. I wasn't looking forward to standing in that line again but I did. I approached the lady at the front desk with a "let's work together to solve this" attitude. She was very nice and ended up giving us a key to check out a suite. Cool! Well, not so cool. Although the suite was bigger than the first room, it turned out to be worst. It had a very bad mildew smell. So, we went back down to the front desk to let the lady know we decided to keep our original room.
Now that we had settled on a room, it was time to wash up and get changed since we had been traveling all night. The first thing we noticed is that there were no wash clothes. Apparently, they don't provide them in Brazilian hotels. We just had to get used to using our hands. The second problem we had was that we didn't have and iron and the hotel didn't provide them. We solved this problem by borrowing one from our fellow travelers across the hall.
While in our room, I went to the balcony to see what type of view we had. Well, as soon as I stepped out on the balcony. I looked down and saw two policeman shoving a guy and then taking him away in handcuffs. I'm not sure what he had done, but he had saliva hanging out of his mouth as he was coughing and gasping for air. This wasn't the view I expected to see.
Leme Othon Palace Hotel
Despite my initial impression, the Leme Othon Palace does have some positives - the most important of these being its location. It is located at the end of the main strip (Avenida Atlantica) and is across the street from Copacabana Beach. This end of the strip is relatively quiet, yet in short walking distance of shops, restaurants and bars. My guess is that this location made the hotel a 4-star property even though the accommodations are basic.
We had a few hours to kill before we had to meet the bus at the hotel for our first tour. Traci and I decided to go looking for a good currency exchange rate and to buy some bottled water since It was not recommended that we drink the tap water in Rio. Heading out of the hotel, we were urged to drop off our room key at the front desk. This is to minimize the chances of the key being lost or stolen. There was a steep fee for room key replacement. We didn't find any banks during our stroll so we ended up changing money at our hotel, which had a reasonable exchange rate. We walked a few blocks and found a small grocery store where we were able to buy some bottled water and some snacks.
By this time, I had put all of the disappointments we experienced that morning behind me. The excitement I felt when preparing for the trip was starting to resurface. It was my first time in a foreign country, on another continent, and in a city where people have a different culture and language than mine. To me, this was exciting.
It was 4:30 p.m. and time to board the buses that would take us to Corcovada Mountain. Corcovada is famous for the 100-foot statue of Christ overlooking the city with His arms stretched out. We were scheduled to take the train to the top of the mountain to get a close-up view of the statue. There were two buses in front of our hotel. The tour guide with whom we had difficulty communicating was assigned to the first bus. Traci and I noticed the tour guide assigned to the second bus was a little more fluent in English and could hold a conversation with members of her group. Therefore, we asked her to add our names to her tour group. After she verified there were enough seats on the bus, she let us board.
Our guide gave us some commentary of what we were seeing on the way to the mountain as well as the history of the Christ The Redeemer statue. As I was looking out of the window, I was blown away by how aggressive the drivers were. It was like a street full of New York cab drivers.
We arrived at Corcovada Mountain and were joined shortly by the rest of the group that was staying at the other hotels. Here is where I really have to give the tour company credit for scheduling our Corcovada visit during off-peak hours. There were well over 100 of us, but it seemed like we had the whole train and mountain to ourselves. There were other tourists visiting the statue but they were few in number.
We were given tickets for the train ride up the steep mountain. The ride up the 2300-foot mountain took about 20 minutes. Along the way we passed through what appeared to be a rain forest. Then, occasionally, we would see houses or maybe someone just hanging out along the tracks. While on the train, we struck up conversations with some of the other people in our group. It turned out that there were several in the group that had attended Hampton University around the same time as Traci and I did. So, of course we tried to figure out if we knew any of the same people. I can't remember if we did. It was just nice to be in the company of friendly people and to have the chance to visit such a famous landmark.
When we arrived at the drop off point, there were a good number of steps to walk up in order to get to the statue area. Unfortunately, there was some restoration work going on while we were there, so the statue was surrounded by scaffolding. Traci and I took some picture in front of the statue anyway. The view from the top of the mountain was absolutely spectacular. You could see the city, the ocean, a forested area, the beach, and so much more. The sun was going down and little by little you could see the city lights starting to illuminate. The Christ The Redeemer statue was awesome - all 100 feet of it. It gave me an appreciation for how much work must have gone into building a statue that big on top of a mountain this tall. The statue as completed in 1931 after 5 years of construction.
"Christ The Redeemer" Statue under restoration
There is a souvenir shop just down the steps from the statue. We stopped in to have a look around. The prices seemed to be in line with the prices of souvenirs we were seeing in the shops around the hotel. After leaving the souvenir shop, we headed back to the train stop for our trip back down the mountain.
Our first dinner in Brazil was at a churrascaria restaurant called Carretão. Churrascaria is a Brazilian word for barbeque. We saw a buffet table full of salads when we entered the resturant. I was a little dismayed at first because I don't like any kind of salad. I thought I was going to have to find something to eat later when we got back to the hotel. However, after everyone got their salads and took their seats (all 180 of us), the real feast began. The waiters came out carrying cooked meats on long metal rods. There were rods with chicken, some with beef, and some with pork. The waiters would come to you and cut a piece of meat onto your plate or simply slide the meat off the rod in cases where they had chicken or sausages. Each time, the food seemed to have been prepared differently (i.e., different seasonings, different cut of the beef or pork, etc.). It didn't take long for me to become full after tasting all those meats. The waiters would just keep coming until you put up your hand and waved them off. They were very efficient. Overall, the food tasted okay; however, the presentation was fabulous. I found this to be the case with all of the meals I had while I was in Brazil. The food was nothing to write home about but the presentation was always nice.
churrascaria meal at Carretão
Many of the meals we had on this trip were included in the cost of the trip package; however, drinks were not. Traci and I ordered soft drinks with our meal at Carretão. The sodas I saw the most while in Brazil was Coke, 7-Up, Fanta Orange, and a Brazilian soda called Guaraná. Guaraná sort of tastes like a mixture of apple juice and ginger ale. It was pretty good. The funny thing about the sodas in Brazil is that they all seemed to have a hint of Guaraná in them - especially the Coke.
After dinner, we were taken back to the hotel. Traci and I took a little stroll up the main strip, Avenida Atlantica, to walk off the meal we just had. One thing to note about the hotels in the beach area is that you are required to drop your room key off at the front desk any time you leave the hotel. This is to minimize the chances of the key being lost or stolen. There was a steep fee for room key replacement. continue...