Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A well traveled candle

As we unpacked today, I got to an Amy's Ice Cream Mexican Vanilla candle that I had bought for Amy at the Austin airport the day that we left. She had lit it almost every night of the trip in our hotel room and it was one of the constants as everything around us changed.

I showed it to Amy saying, "Now this is going to blow your mind - we bought this on the day we left - doesn't it seem like we've had it forever?". She laughed and responded, "Now that is a well-traveled candle!"

A safe flight home

Yesterday we went to buy some souvenirs and then hit the H. Stearn tour as planned. They are good at what they do (selling) and it probably didn't hurt that it was the day before Valentine's Day. Somehow Amy walked out a few carats heavier than she walked in there...

The trip to the airport was eventless. The international terminal in Rio was terrible with nothing to eat but pizza or hamburgers cooked in a microwave. But finally we were sitting on Continental and being served drinks by a Houston based flight crew and it felt just a little bit like we were in the US already.

We had a 45 minute flight to Sau Paulo where we waited on the plane while they picked up a few more passengers before heading on to Houston. We ate a quick dinner once in the air and then did a good job of sleeping the rest of the way to Houston. We breezed through customs and then had to wait about an hour and a half for our connection to Austin.

We were quite surprised at how cold it was when we arrived! We quickly dug into our bags to find warm clothes to pile on while we waited for our ride. We had both cars in the shop while we were gone, and they were nice enough to pick us up at the airport which made it quite convenient. By 10:00 we were home and saying hi to Jasmine.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Its hard to believe its almost over

Its hard to believe that our trip is almost over. Tonight we go to the airport around 5pm to fly back direct to Houston. We arrive around 5:30am CST and then catch another flight to Austin that lands around 9am.

At the same time, I think we're both ready to go home. We miss our dogs and the comforts of home and are ready to get back to the real world.

Today we'll do some shopping and probably go for a tour of the H. Stearn gemstone factory.

Globo TV Studios with Dalton

Last night Dalton invited us to come see him film some scenes at the Globo TV studio where he works. It was quite a large complex with little mini cities (mostly facades) within the grounds. He was shooting an outdoor scene in front of the mansion where his character lives and with his character's beautiful 1950's Jaguar parked out front. The moustache comes with the character too ;-)

We got to meet the director and crew and watch from behind the director's chair as they filmed 2 different scenes. Often he works from 1pm to 9pm or so, but when they need to do night scenes he goes in around 8pm and works very late.

Fortunately he finished up pretty quickly and we were able to go down to Copacabana beach for some drinks and a bite to eat. We had a great evening of conversation and laughs and didn't make it back to our hotel room until about 3am.

Dalton said to remind my Mom that he's still waiting for "a piss of that donut". He also told us that to this day the best gift he has ever received in his life was thed day he left the US after living with us for a year. My mom handed him a small box which contained a key to our house and told him that he always had a home to come back to. It was quite touching.

Corcovado and Sugar Loaf

Yesterday we slept late and then walked around Ipanema to find a place for lunch. After that, we hired a car to take us to Corcovado and Sugar Loaf.

Corcovado is a massive stone statue of Jesus standing on the highest mountain that overlooks Rio. It was finished in 1931 and was funded by the Catholic church. At more than 100 feet tall, it is one of the largest statues of its kind. A train runs to the top (but we rode in a car) and it was the first electric rail train in Brazil.

If you look at the bottom of the picture you can see a tiny Amy in yellow shorts. The statue really is huge!

The weather couldn't have been better and we had an amazing view of all of Rio.

We had a clear view of Ipanema beach where we are staying - you can see our hotel in the picture below it is the tall reddish building in the center.

After Corcovado, we went to Sugar Loaf - named because when the Portugese came they thought that this tall mountain jutting up out of the ground abruptly looked like one of the sweet bread loaves they cook.

They have a cable car system first built in 1912 (but renovated since then) which takes you up from the ground to the top of the Sugar Loaf. It was the first cable car system in Brazil and one of the most famous in the world.

From the top, we had another great view of the city and could see Corcovado in the distance.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Photo shoot with Dalton

Today we got up early and went out to the photo shoot with Dalton. The car picked him up after us and then we had a 2.5 hour drive to one of the Angra Dos Reis islands, which was a great chance for us to talk and for Amy to get to know him. The island is rented out for the entire summer by Caras Celebrity Magazine for doing celebrity interviews and photo shoots. When we arrived, a quaint little boat ferried us to the island.

The island was small enough that we could walk around it in about 15 minutes but big enough to have a helipad and 5 or 6 bungalos. There was a beach, jet skis, hot tubs, exercise equipment, a bar and a nice eating area. We hung out for a bit while Dalton did his interview and photo shoot, and then ate lunch.

As lunch was starting, a deluge started. It was raining so hard we started to make plans for sleeping on the island that night. But by the end of lunch it head reduced down to a drizzle and by 5pm we hopped on the boat to head back to the mainland.

We didn't expect the traffic jam that we ran into on our way back to Rio, which turned the 2.5 hour drive into a 5 hour drive. But finally we were back at the hotel and eating room service.

Amy isn't feeling well tonight. I guess when it rains it pours! We really can't complain we have been very lucky so far on this trip. But I hate to see Amy feeling bad and not be able to do anything about it. I hope she's feeling better in the morning!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Front row seats for party!

Our hotel faces Ipanema beach and today we had front row seats (from our hotel room window) to see the parade and the party scene surrounding it. The parade itself wasn't that large - mostly dancers and drummers spanning a half mile or so. However, there was a dense crowd following them of people dancing in street and blasting music from their cars. I don't think the street was officially closed, but it was completely jammed with people. We were happy to be watching from afar and not from within the masses.

After it died down a bit, we went out to eat at a Brazilian restaurant called Porcao that was excellent. At authentic Brazilian restaurants, its like a buffet but they have numerous waiters who bring different dishes by your table. You have a small marker on the table that has a green side for "more food" and a red side for "no thank you". If you flip it over to green, each waiter stops at your table as he passes by and offers you some. Most of it is beef but there was pork, chicken and seafood as well.

It's a beautiful day!

It's a beautiful day and I think we're going to head to the beach and the pool. The time zones work out perfect for us here - its 4 hours ahead of Central time which means we can party all night and sleep until noon and still be on the same schedule we would have in Austin!

Woke up to the sunrise on the beach

Friday, February 9, 2007

Arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Tonight we arrived in Rio de Janeiro. Getting out of Iguazu in Brazil was a bit hectic and after landing, our bags took about an hour to come out because apparently the police decided to X-ray every bag when we arrived in Rio. But finally we were on our way and arrived at our hotel in Ipanema. It's right on the beach and our room looks out over the beach, the ocean, and down the strip.

This whole trip started because I wanted to come to Rio to visit my "brother" Dalton Vigh, who lived with my family in NH for a year when I was 8 years old and he was 18. After going back to Brazil, he got involved in TV soap operas (novellas) and now has a quite successful career breaking hearts just like he did in high school. Here is his IMDb page, fan page, and wikipedia entry.

I talked to him tonight (when I called he was at a party celebrating the 100th episode of the TV show he's filming now) and am very excited about seeing him and the different things he has planned. Tomorrow we're going to get dinner and then go out to a place with some Brazilian music.

Sunday, we're heading out to a small private island rented out by the magazine "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" where they will be interviewing him and doing a photo shoot. We're also going to get to visit the TV studio and see him tape an episode while we're here.

Tomorrow we are going to sleep late and then probably just try to get our bearings - maybe hang out on the beach or at the pool until we meet up with Dalton in the evening.

Danger narrowly averted - Paper airline tickets?

Every airline uses electronic tickets now right? Well, every airline except TAM in Brazil, apparently. We arrived at the airport in Iguazu, Brazil to board our flight to Rio de Janeiro, and the agent at checkin asked for our tickets or voucher. I looked at her like she was crazy and said I didn't have a ticket, this is an electronic booking. She asked for a copy of our itinerary and went into a back room for a few minutes. She returned shaking her head and asked again if we had any paper tickets or vouchers. Amy and I were looking at each other and started to feel that panic feeling again. No one mentioned anything to me about a paper ticket!

Then I remembered that I had received a thick packet of receipts for the airline tickets and even though I thought they were receipts and not actual tickets dug into my carryon bag where I had stashed them just in case (thank God I did!). Flipping through the 1 inch thick stack of tickets I see that at the back of the book is stapled one actual ticket. Looking at the details, it is the ticket for our flight from Iguazu to Rio! Then I suddenly was scared that I had only brought one of the ticket books and not both, but after another 30 seconds of digging in my bag I find Amy's book and the corresponding ticket.

The airline agent laughed as if this is a common thing she sees and sent us on our way to security.

Danger narrowly averted - Lost Passport in Santiago Customs

We passed through customs twice in Santiago - once on our arrival from Lima and again after Easter Island on our way to Iguassu. I was keeper of the passports and always put them in the same place in our travel pouches - well almost always... On the second time, we walk up the customs agent and I hand him my passport and reach into Amy's pouch for hers but its not there. There is a sudden panic as we check and recheck the pouch and the begin dumping out our pockets and carry-on bags on the floor searching for her passport. My heart was in my throat and we were both starting to get visibly agitated.

After about 5 minutes of searching, I look back in the pouch and find it sitting in the back pocket instead of the front one where I usually put it. The customs agent didn't seem to think it was a big deal and sent us on our way with a smile.

Danger narrowly averted - Customs computers breakdown in Lima, Peru

The first and worst incident that tested our travel skills was in the Lima airport, heading to Santiago. We arrived at the airport with plenty of time and sat down in the food court to eat some Papa Johns pizza (well it was called Papa John's, but didn't taste like it...) and check email before going through security and boarding the plane. Thinking we had plenty of time, we took it easy. We forgot that we had to go through customs as this was our first time leaving a country on the trip.

When we finally got up to go through security, there wasn't much of a line and only 10 or 15 people in front of us to go through customs. Just as we got to the front of the line and starting asking each other why the people directly in front of us were taking so long, Amy noticed that a small green error message had popped up on the custom agent's computer - and then we could see that the same error was on ALL of the computers!

The customs agents were all looking around at each other expecting someone else to know what to do. After 5 minutes of staring at nothing, the agent in front of us looks at the crowd in line and points back over our heads at the counter behind us. We didn't understand what he said, but we figured it out quickly enough as the entire line reversed direction. Suddenly we noticed that there were many more people in line than when we had arrived, and now we were at the back of the line instead of the front with only about 20 minutes until our plane was scheduled to depart.

Well, it wasn't really a line any more, more like a mob of about 250 Peruvians shouting in Spanish. At this point we were thoroughly confused and couldn't find anyone in customs who spoke a word of English to help us figure out what was going on or what to do. Amy was on the verge of tears and I felt like I was just turning in circles looking for some kind of signal or solution. Obviously we didn't have time to wait in the line or we would miss our flight.

Just as things seemed completely hopeless and I was accepting the idea of spending another night in Lima, the agent who had sent the crowd to the other counter waved in our direction that his computer was working again and to come back to his line. We rushed over thinking we were in the clear and handed him our passports. He stamped mine and I got about 20 feet away before I heard Amy call me back because he wouldn't let her leave. Apparently we needed another stamp from security that we didn't have and he didn't notice for me but did for Amy.

He couldn't speak any English, but pointed back to the counter that was still surrounded by a mob of 250 shouting Peruvians. We were back in the "standing there helpless" stage when I was finally about to find an airport customs agent who understood a bit of English. We explained that we were going to miss our flight and asked what to do. She indicated that we should just walk up around the crowd to the side of the desk.

This sounded great, except for a fear that the crowd wouldn't let us. But as Amy pointed out later, it was fortunate for us that Peruvians are short and dark and I didn't have a tan yet - so my pale skin and height (well, for Peru) made me stick out in the crowd and allowed me to reach over a few people's heads to try and hand the agent at the desk our passports. I stood there for about 3 minutes shouting "Por favor!" until he finally took the passports and stamped them.

Then it was back to our friend the customs agent who didn't speak any English. This time he stamped us through and we proceeded to go through the metal detectors towards our gate.

Of course, our gate was the last one at the end of the terminal, so we took off at a run. Amy shouted for me to run ahead of her and I did, figuring I could try to hold the door at the gate. Fortunately, the gate agents were Chilean and not Peruvian (much more civilized and all spoke good English) and they saw me running from a few gates away and held the door. As I arrived, the asked me why I was so late (very nicely) and I explained between gasping for air that the customs computers had broken and there were many more people coming behind me including "mi neuva". Then I saw Amy running towards and waited for her at the gate.

As we started down the jetway, Amy was still gasping for air and started to hyper-ventillate. We didn't have a bag for her to breath into or anything and fortunately she was able to just take slow deep breaths and it went away. As we boarded the plane and approached our seats, the stewardess could see that we were still hyped up from running to the gate and reassured us that everything was okay and we could relax. Sometimes its just good to hear someone else tell you everything will be alright :-)

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Second day in Iguassu - Brazil

Today we explored the Brazilian side of the falls. We hired a driver for the day and he took us through the border and helped to make everything go smoothly. First we did the standard walking tour, which is about a third the size of the tour on the Argentinian side and took about an hour. Although there are fewer falls on the Brazilian side, it actually provides a better view of the falls on the Argentinian side and has a platform that extends out into the middle of "Devil's Throat" which is the name for the biggest group of falls. From the end of the platform, you can pretty much turn around 360 degrees and see waterfalls and rainbows everywhere. Our best pictures all came from the Brazilian side.

After the walking tour, we went out on a steel platform jutting off the side of the cliff and free-rappelled down to the canyon floor. The entire platform had a steel grate as the floor so you could see straight down the entire time. The rope dangled straight down a good 10 feet from the rock wall face, so as we descended all we were touching was the rope. You didn't need to hold on that tight, but my arms were locked in a death grip on the rope. It was quite a workout on the arms to get down, and then we had to climb a steep spiral metal staircase (also with see-through steel grating as the floor) to get back up - which was a serious workout for our legs. The stairway going up was just as intense as rappelling down.

Then we ate lunch at a buffet restaurant at the top of the falls, with a nice view overlooking everything. The food was decent and there was a nice shop where we picked up some souvenirs. My arms were so tired from rappelling that it was hard to cut my food.

After lunch, we left the park and headed to the bird sanctuary. Here they had a huge variety of colorful and rare birds such as parrots and tucans and even eagles. They also had snakes, lizards, monkeys, and even a tarantula.

I swear Amy had a deep conversation with every bird in the park, telling it how pretty it was other things in birdspeak I couldn't understand. She didn't talk to the reptiles... although at the end she did hold a small boa constrictor "for Jackson".

Then we went back to the hotel for a siesta. Amy laid out by the pool to work on her tan and I went to the spa and got one of the best massages I've ever had (shiatsu and it hurt so good). I've had lots of massages, but this one was different from all others I've had. Besides squeezing all of the tension out of me, she also twisted me up like a pretzel in some good stretches as well. Side note - massages in South America are not for shy people... both in Peru and here the masseuse stands there and expects you to strip right in front of them. My modesty was sacrificed but my sore legs and arms were saved!

First day in Iguassu - Agentina side

Yesterday we toured the Argentinian side of the Iguassu falls. It falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil and each side takes a full day to explore. Iguassu is the widest waterfall in the world, and larger than Niagra Falls.

In the morning, we went on the "Grand Adventure" which starts with an open truck ride through the jungle and then goes into a speedboat ride which takes you right up to, and yes even into the waterfalls. It was quite a thrill ride and we got completed soaked.

Then we hiked the lower falls, upper falls, and the gargantuan falls (the very top). I don't think I've even seen so many rainbows!

This is the jungle so there is tons of wildlife... we've seen wild monkeys, anteaters, lizards and colorful birds. There was even a monkey climbing on the balcony of our hotel room looking for an open room to go steal some goodies!

We've been extremely lucky with the weather... its the rainy season which is good for having lots of water in the falls but usually means rain and clouds every day. But we had plenty of sunshine and no rain so it couldn't have been better.

Today is another beautiful day and we are off to explore the Brazilian side of the falls!

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Explora is da bomb!

The Explora group that ran our hotel and tour guides is really fantastic. This location is run by Eddie and Giovanna - I think they are both Chilean but the rest of the 20 staff (except one) are Rapa Nui. They are all friendly, fun, and full of life.

The MO here is a hike in the morning and a hike (expedition) in the afternoon, with chef cooked meals around and in between. Everything you could need is provided - water, snacks, a walking stck, and incredible views!

We don't see anyone else except at the major Moai sites. And then usually only one other group. While hiking, sometimes there is a path and sometimes there is not - but never any other people.

They are building a new Explora hotel with 30 rooms on the remote side of the island, so in a few years we want to come back and do all 3 Explora trips - northern Chile, Easter Island, and Patagonia.

There are advantages to being a finicky eater!

While I'm not enjoying the food nearly as much as Amy, being a finicky eater does have its advantages. After traveling for a week, I had lost 10 lbs of "love fat" that I put on since I met Amy 6 months ago. After our time on Easter Island, I gained it back but all in muscle in my legs. My pants were practically falling off during our hikes and I had to come up with creative ways to hold them up. I'm looking forward to weighing myself when I get back home!

Travel days

Yesterday we left Easter Island with a tear in our eye... it is a magical place full of incredible people and we didn't want to leave. We flew to Santiago, spent the night there and got up early to fly to Iguassu Falls (via Buenos Aires). Everything went smoothly except for a small scare when we couldn't find Amy's passport while going through customs in Buenos Aires (not a fun experience).

But by 7pm today we were at our hotel in Iguassu with a beautiful view of the falls. Tomorrow we'll be venturing out to hike around enjoying views of the waterfalls and jungle wildlife.

I hope to post more pictures tomorrow night!

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Easter Island Day 4

Today we were in need of a "no hiking day". Our feet hurt, we were sunburned, and in need of an easy day. In the morning we went to the "quarry" or "factory" where most of the Moai were carved from. Its one of the volcano craters with the right kind of soft rock. It is full of unfinished Moai at different stages - many of the largest and best preserved ones are there.

After lunch, we went to one of the events in the Partida de Rapa Nui competition. This one was like a bobsledding event, except there is no snow and they ride a banana tree husk as a sled. The Haka Pei contest is to see who can slide the farthest. Everyone gets naked (okay they do have a thong on) and paints their bodies. Of course, Amy had to get a picture with one. Eddie, who runs the Explora hotel where we are staying was the first non-Rapa Nui to compete in the event and did pretty well (he's Chilean).

Then we went to Rano Kau, the largest crater. It was quite majestic. From there you can see Motu Nui, a small island off of the main island. This is where the birdman race took place, a competition of young men to go to the Motu Nui island and retrieve a birds egg intact.

Easter Island Day 3

Day 3 we got up early to see the sunrise at Ahu Tongariki, the largest Moai site. It was magical.

Then we hiked from Ahu Te Peu 5 hours around the west and north of the island, ending at Playa de Anakena beach. Along the way we stopped and had lunch on a cattle ranch. This time it was just Yoyo, Amy and I. Betsie, Craig, and Becky left this morning.

At the end of the hike we went swimming at the beach. The water here is so nice and warm... nothing like the cold New England waters I grew up in!

Our feet were very sore by the end of the hike. We've done well keeping up with the pace here, but I think day 4 is going to need to be an easy day for some recovery!

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Easter Island Day 2

Day 2 we hiked the oldest peak on the island which is about 1200 feet above sea level. This was much steeper than yesterday and quite a workout on the buttisimo. Then we went down the other side of the mountain to end at Ahu Tongariki, the largest Moai site both in terms of size and number (15 Moai on a massive platform).

In the afternoon we were pooped and took a siesta before heading back down to the town for more of the festival. There was a lot of music this time and even though we couldn't understand the words it was still very good. One of the musicians was Enrique Icka, who has a great reggae sound. The next day his CD was playing in the van and I was able borrow it and rip it to my computer.

Friday, February 2, 2007

First day on Easter Island

Our first full day on Easter Island couldn't have been better. In the morning, we hiked to Maunga Terevaka, the highest point on the island, one of the 3 inactive volcanos (also the youngest). It is about 1500 feet above sea level. It was a pretty easy hike because even though it was high it was not very steep. Our guide that morning was Ule (sp?), the only female guide at Explora. Ule means "black" in Rapa Nui.

There were 3 other in our group - Becky quit her job as a lawyer in Georgia last summer and just started a year of travel by herself. Betsy and Craig recently retired to Sonoma, CA and are on a 2 week trip that includes Easter Island and Patagonia. They were great hiking companions!

From there, we went down the other side of the volcano toward the beach. Along the way, Ule found us some fresh grapes that were delicious. It was a beautiful hike with scenery that seemed to change every few steps. After a few hours we arrived at one of the 2 sandy beaches on the island called Playa de Anakena. There the Explora group had a nice lunch waiting and we were able to jump in the water and cool off. A van was waiting there to take us back to the hotel to rest a bit before heading out on the next hike.

Also at the beach we saw our first Moai (the big carved heads) at Ahu Nau Nau. This is also the site of the first Moai that were restored, including the only one that was restored by hand instead of with cranes. These were not very large compared to some, but were still quite impressive. Larger Moai are the ones created last. Smaller ones are not less significant just older. The Moai were carved to honor kings of the different clans. Very important Moai have red stone hats on the top. The Moai were all placed close to the water where the people lived, but facing in towards the village like they are watching over the people.

They are on large stone platforms called Ahu which are really tombs where they would bury the dead. There are places where by removing a large stone they could crawl into the platforms to place the dried remains of the deceased (similar to mumification).

After a brief rest, we set out on our second expedition to see more Moai and hike along the coast. Becky, Betsie, and Craig were our hiking companions again. The van dropped us off at Ahu Te Peu, another Moai site. Here we saw more ruins from a village and our guide Yoyo pointed out the stone foundations of houses where important people lived, greenhouses, and chicken coops.

Our new good friend Yoyo...

Then we started a hike from Ahu Te Peu along the western coast of the island towards the only town on the island called Hanga Roa. It was breathtaking as we walked along cliffs and ever changing scenery. Along the way, Yoyo pointed out 2 different caves that were created by lava tunnels and we were able to go inside and explore.

We ended the hike at Ahu Tahai, another Moai site close to the town. Here there was also an ancient boat launch where the Rapa Nui send out boats to go fishing. There were modern Rapa Nui houses on the hill above the site, and Yoyo told us that the same family that lives there has been there since the time of the Moai and has passed it down from generation to generation. Talk about prime real estate!

After that we got back in the van and went back to the hotel, where a feast was waiting for us. The food at Explora is fantastic, and from me that is saying a lot! Quality, presentation, and service were comparable to the best restaurants in NYC.

We had no idea when we scheduled our trip, but Feb 1 marks the beginning of an annual 2 weeks festival on the island called "Partida de Rapa Nui". Each year families compete to win points to select a Queen. In the evening, they had the opening ceremony which included music, dance, food, and more. Half of the island must have shown up. It was extra special to get to participate in an event that was not focused on the tourists but was for the local people.

By midnight, we were pooped and headed back to the hotel to go to bed!

I thought Machu Picchu Internet was slow...

The Internet on Easter Island is slower than a dialup modem. I'm getting 1 kb per second most of the time, 3 kb when its going well. I've switched from the wireless Internet at the hotel to using my cell phone as a modem and it seems slightly better (but not much - they only claim to provide 33kb service and its not that fast). I don't think I'll be able to upload any pictures but I will try to write some things and then upload the pictures later.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Helicopter Tour of Cuzco, Peru and the Sacred Valley of the Incas

Yesterday before leaving Cuzco, we were able to arrange a helicopter tour of the city and surrounding ruins. It was marvelous. Amy had never been in a helicopter before and I had only been once as a child. The weather was perfect - clear and calm which produced a very smooth ride with amazing views.

Suprisingly, I wasn't afraid of the heights at all (not sure why floating in a spinning contraption feels safer than clinging to the side of a mountain) although Amy didn't like it when we flew too close to the mountain sides.

Here are some of our favorite pictures. You can see all of them by clicking here