Monday, December 31, 2012

Making friends in Rio

Rio de Janeiro is laid out similarly to San Francisco in neighborhoods sandwiched between high hills, except everything in Rio is on a grander scale. The hills are higher, the neighborhoods are more spread out, there are more people everywhere, the extremes between poverty and wealth seem more pronounced. Going from one neighborhood to another takes longer, and what we should've figured out our first day here, but didn't catch on until the third, is that the best way to tour the city is by picking a neighborhood and sticking to it.

Another way to think about Rio is as a movable feast, the party crawls each night of the week from one neighborhood to another. Marcelle and Davog lent us a couple of guidebooks, and one of them--a guidebook for party-goers--has very specific suggestions on where to go each night of the week for music, dancing, or chilling out, and each location is rated based on whether it's favored by singles or couples and how easy it is to hook up there. We've spent two nights in Lapa, once on a happening but fairly low-key Wednesday night, and the second time on the full-on Saturday night. At midnight things were just starting to heat up, people were streaming in, the clubs packed and long lines of people waiting to get in. Davog had recommended a dive bar with great samba just off the main strip, and it just so happened that there was a Beatles-themed club next door, with a Brazilian cover band working through Abbey Road. We hung out at the samba bar and listened, and then danced a little bit with the crowd, but also each of us alternated in running upstairs to the Beatles club to get snippets of "Something" and the medley. Around one thirty in the morning, we decided to start making our way toward the apartment, but walking out onto the main strip got sucked into the crowd of happy drunks. Bands played on every other corner, and New Orleans-style, the party extended up from the street to the second-floor balconies and windows full of half naked men and women drinking and dancing. My feet were troubling me but no matter--we danced, rather than walked, on our way toward our neighborhood, Gloria.

Yesterday, we dedicated ourselves to hitting some of the main tourist attractions in the city. We visited Museu da República, a 19th Century palace that was used as a seat of Brazil's government during the short-lived republican period, and where much beloved president Getúlio Vargas committed suicide in 1954 shortly before the control of the country was taken over by the military. The room where he slept and where he'd killed himself is perfectly preserved and on display on the third floor of the museum, and is quite interesting, but most of the exposition is signed only in Portuguese.

After briefly touring the museum, Dave and I settled on a park bench outside and read a few Wikipedia articles on Brazil's history. Brazil's transition from colony to independence seems to have been without a precedent, with Portuguese court escaping for a while from Portugal, running from Napoleon all the way to Rio, which afforded the colony an unprecedented status of becoming the imperial center for a while. We read until our eyes started to get heavy from history overload and, meantime, the park bench where we had sat down was all but requisitioned by a small crowd of the local elderly who were gathering for some sort of a concert or a game event. We left as people were arriving and bringing more chairs and benches that they set up right in front of the bench where we had unwittingly sat down.

Our next destination was one of the most touristy places in the book, the Sugarloaf mountain. There are two popular mountains in Rio that all the guidebooks recommend to visit, the Corcovado with the statue of Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf, without the statue but with a cool cable car ride to get to the top. The cable car station was within reasonable walking distance from where we were. It was six p.m. when we got there, and it was nine-thirty p.m by the time when we finally got down from it. In the middle, there were about three and a quarter hours of standing in lines and fifteen minutes of sightseeing and taking photographs. The views from the top were undoubtedly cool, but maybe even cooler was the sight of helicopters taking off from a pad halfway up the mountain, and also seeing the airplanes turn around and go in for landing at the domestic airport located on the other side of a long beach from the mountain. It's rare to have an opportunity to see an airplane from the top down.

After we finally were released from the mountain, we found a lovely dinner spot in a nearby neighborhood called Urca. The restaurant, Garota Urca ("an Urca girl"), was packed, with younger people hanging out outside drinking beer, and older and hungrier people eating inside. After a short wait, we got a table, and then saw a couple in their eighties looking for a seat. Dave wanted to give them our seats, and we ended up sharing a table with them and chatting away all night. Maria and Osman spoke English far better than we could pronounce the few Portuguese words we'd picked up. They had traveled to fifty countries around the world in their fifty-nine years of marriage. They had three kids, one of whom was a conductor of an orchestra in Recife, and another managed the local yacht club. Maria was a pianist herself--retired, but playing the piano at the local church on Sundays, and Osman was a doctor, a nutritionist--which was undoubtedly why they were at this restaurant on a warm Sunday night eating chocolate ice cream. They wanted no other food or drink, they said (although Maria ended up drinking beer and snacking on shrimp dumplings), but chocolate ice cream. The craziest part of this lovely experience was that Maria and Osman insisted on paying our bill at the end of the meal (Dave and I shared a half tuna and onion, half banana, cheese, and cinnamon pizza). They wouldn't take no for an answer, and we had no choice but to concede. We did ask them for their mailing address so that we know where to send souvenirs back from San Francisco.

On our way home to Marcelle and Davog's it started to rain--our first rain outside of the Amazon. We went to the bus stop, but ended up getting a cab. This we also figured out by day three--cabs are relatively inexpensive and much faster than any other means of transportation in Rio.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

On the importance of proper footwear

Yesterday was our first full day in Rio and altogether we did about five or six hours of walking. Some of this was at a super slow pace, like when we visited Instituto Moreira Salles and the Botanical Gardens, at other times we walked rather briskly, like the one time we had to run for the bus, or when we rushed to get to the Gardens an hour before they closed. Later, we walked from the Botanical Gardens neighborhood to Leblon, then crossed into Ipanema, then took the metro back to the Center and partied in Lapa. For no explicable reason, yesterday was also the day when I decided to skip socks and to try wearing my flats barefoot. Within a couple of hours, I got blisters all around the rim of the shoe, and by the time we were leaving the Botanical Garden, I could hardly walk. Fortunately, every convenience store in Rio seems to sell flip-flops (especially Havaianas, the popular local brand), and so I ended up buying my second pair of flip-flops on this trip.

I lack the proper savvy when it comes to wearing flip-flops. The trick seems no less difficult to pull off than wearing high heels. The native Californians seem to have it down and could probably upstage Brazilians in a flip flop wearing contest--I've seen people in San Francisco wear flip flops through near-freezing rain and on hikes in the mountains. That's just not me. Until Rio, one pair lasted me for about eight years--the only place I usually wear flip flops is in hotel bathrooms. Within an hour, somewhere between Leblon and Ipanema, I slipped and stabbed my big toe with what seemed to be a piece of my own toe nail. With some surprise, Dave and I watched as blood pooled all over my brand new snowy white (!!) flip flop. Luckily, Rio seems to be as well supplied with drugstores as it is with flip flop shops (and actually sometimes these are one and the same store--which makes sense, seeing just how precarious of a proposition this footwear is). All we had to do was to cross the street and walk into the nearest drugstore, where we were immediately provided with antiseptic and band aids, and even a sink to wash off the blood. The whole transaction cost us four reals, or about two dollars--the cheapest thing we've bought in Rio yet.

Instituto Moreira Salles, by the way, was a very cool museum. It was founded by Walter Moreira Salles, a wealthy Brazilian banker who died in 2001, and is presently managed by one of his sons and other members of the family. Apparently, branches of this institution are located in several Brazilian cities. The one we visited yesterday housed an exhibit of drawings, sculpture, and films by a prominent South African artist, William Kentridge. The exhibit was very well translated to English, and as I started reading descriptions of some of his artworks, I quickly realized that a lot of them are owned by the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. In fact, Kentridge had a show there as recently as 2009--but of course we had to come to Rio to see it. Much of his art comments on Apartheid and the work of the Truth Commission; he also seems to reflect more generally on the issues of the environment, loss, change, and the task of art itself. In his animation videos, he quite deftly manages to combine drama with humor, and so his art seemed very accessible and thought-provoking. My guess is that Salvador Dali was one of his major inspirations, and also possibly Soviet animation techniques--at least, there are definitely interesting overlaps between his animations and some older, hand-drawn Soviet cartoons.

For more details on what we're doing in Rio, check out Dave's blog.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Arraial do Cabo

Arraial do Cabo is a beach-side municipality about one hundred seventy kilometers east of Rio, still a part of the State of Rio de Janeiro, or RJ, a place where the big city folk go away for the holidays, the New Years and the Carnival, surrendering Rio's beaches to people coming from far and away. ("Arraial," by the way, in Portuguese sounds something like "Ah-high-ahl," the two "rr"s giving a sound that has absolutely no roll in it.) It's located on a picturesque arrow-shaped peninsula, sandwiched between two long beaches on either side. The point of the arrow is a mountain, and there are more beaches located around the point of the arrow, some of these accessible only by boat. Several competing companies in town provide boat beach tours. The boat drops you off on each beach for about thirty minutes, then picks you up and takes right to the next beach.

(On Wikipedia, Arraial has a stub page in Volapük, not to speak of an extensive article in Portuguese, but the English page is there merely to inform us that the town's population was 26,390 in 2005 and that "n 1960 a documentary film was made directed by Mário Carneiro and Paulo Cesar Saraceni about the local fishing industry.")

We came to Arraial by bus, normally a three and a half hour ride that turned into six hours for us due to heavy traffic--all the people clearing out of Rio for the holidays. It was a pleasant enough ride in a comfortable, air-conditioned bus that made enough stops for us to replenish our fruit, nut, and cookie supplies. Otherwise, we alternated between napping, blogging, and reading. The first thing I did when we got off the bus was to buy flip flops (I'd been getting away walking around in my tennis shoes, but here that wouldn't be right). Then we bought ourselves a tapioca-coconut treat drenched in sweetened condensed milk and marched to drop off bags at our hotel. It was hot but felt fresher than in Rio. The town's two big beaches were visible from a high spot in front of our hotel, and they beckoned to us with their fine white sand.

Dave had made arrangements with a diving company for the morning dives, but the night dive was proving tricky to arrange. He'd hoped to finalize it in person, but the six hour ride complicated matters. For one reason or another, all the dive shops in town (and we saw many), refused to take him on a night dive. Some claimed that he didn't have the right certification, others said that they only offered a night dive as a part of a training course, and one said something that google translated as "our captain is very strict." So, no night dive, but a lovely walk on the beach, watching the sun descend and night spill into fog, and the moon come out, full and bright, between the clouds. We dipped our toes into the water: it was cold. Not freezing, like in the Pacific Ocean around San Francisco, but cold enough for us to turn us off on swimming that night, no matter how hot we'd been by day. Anyway, the air had cooled significantly, and walking around in not much more than my bathing suit and my new flip flops I felt almost, if not quite, ready to shiver.

We had dinner at the hotel restaurant and in the morning the breakfast spread was so good that I took note of the name of the chef--Marcelo Poppe. Apparently, he'd studied with the chef at a restaurant in Hotel Copacabana, and his specialty seems to be cakes. The breakfast featured no less than eight or nine different varieties of cakes, including a savory meat pie. There were mini donuts and other types of pastries, including pão de queijo that I'm growing to love. There was fruit and fruit juices, and more kept coming throughout the morning. After I dropped Dave off at the dive shop, I briefly walked through the town and returned to the breakfast table. The way the cakes were laid out on the center table seemed like an expression of somebody's childhood fantasy. I tore myself away from it when the time was nearing check out, and I still wanted to swim in the Atlantic.

I didn't linger on the beach. I went into the ocean, allowed myself to be bounced around by the waves (the waves were towering over my head and the undercurrent was quite strong), and then returned to the hotel to take a shower and check out. I whiled away the rest of the morning and early afternoon in the hotel bar, writing, planning out a couple of stories I want to write when I get back to San Francisco. The hotel bar stayed closed until 2 pm or so, when the first weekend customer asked for a shot of rum and a couple of bottles of beer. The hotel staff spent a couple of hours working, on and off, on building a giant tent that would shade all of the bar area. It was a Friday, and that night every room in this hotel was booked. The staff was clearly preparing for a giant party that would last through the weekend and then on until the New Year's day.

We're readying to celebrate New Year's, too, but in Rio. After Dave came back from his diving excursion (he'll post pictures and stories on his blog here), we returned to the bus station and three and a half hours later disembarked back in Rio. It was still sweltering hot here, but not as hot as the day before. On the bus ride back we passed a huge crowd somewhere in the vicinity of downtown--something that looked like a festival or a giant demonstration. No idea what that was, but we're starting to picture what New Years might be like.

Friday, December 28, 2012

First day in Rio

Two days ago when we arrived to Rio the weather was sweltering hot. It was at least ten degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the jungle, and almost as humid. Typically, Dave revels in hot weather while I become sluggish and moody, but after the Amazon it seems like we can be Okay anywhere. (I know that this feeling might be short-lived, but I'm riding it while it lasts.) We met our lovely Airbnb hosts Marcelle and Davog, and after some puttering about their apartment went out and spent the second half of the day exploring Rio on foot. We didn't have much luck that day finding anything our guidebook and our friends recommended, and everything we did find was already closed. No matter--getting lost is quickly becoming an art in today's world where google maps chart every major metropolis the world over. We enjoyed meandering about the downtown neighborhoods of Rio, some in greater states of disrepair than others, occasionally stopping to replenish our energy with traditional pão de queijo--a cheese pie, some dried banana, cookies, and nuts. When we reached the top of the hill of Santa Teresa neighborhood, Dave took a power nap on a bench that stood there seemingly for that exact purpose. Little did he know that a few hours later we'd be climbing back to the top of this same hill, lost again on our way home.

We wanted to find the music scene we'd heard about and also a nice place for dinner, but as it turns out, Rio is a huge city (yes, yes, this should've been clear before we set out) and google is not an entirely reliable source of information in Rio (especially since we can hardly read Portuguese). Eventually we had some pizza--but it was a sardine pizza, quite good!--and a couple of drinks in a random place in Lapa. There was music there, but the band stopped playing five minutes after we ordered. It was simply that kind of night. So we occupied ourselves with people watching and making more plans, none of which came to transpire because shortly after leaving the bar, we made another wrong turn and found ourselves hiking up the same mountain we came down a few hours before. And did I mention that Rio was sweltering hot?

Finally, we made it back to Marcelle and Davog's place, took showers, and fell asleep. I woke up around 5 am from the heat. Our hosts have a hammock on the balcony next to our room, and I stepped out there to see if being outside made any difference. It didn't. Air-conditioning isn't very common in average houses in Brazil, and the overhead fan wasn't doing much damage. Dave blissfully slept. I washed my face and lay down again--to read on my Kindle. Eventually, I dozed off and slept on-and-off until 7 am. When we met our hosts for breakfast, they'd already picked up the morning paper with the weather report: apparently, Dave slept through the hottest recorded night in Rio. The temperature reached at 42 Celsius or 107.6 Fahrenheit. It felt like an achievement to not only experience this but to do so with pleasure. And we did--we are--having fun with it all.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

O Rio, Rio

Thanks to two early Soviet authors, Ilyia Ilf and Evgenij Petrov, probably every Russian over thirty years old has dreamed of setting foot in Rio de Janeiro. The dream is not a particularly specific one--to a Russian raised behind the Iron Curtain, Rio stood for everything exciting and beautiful that existed in the world completely inaccessible to Soviet citizens. The plot of Ilf and Petrov's great satirical novel, The Twelve Chairs (1927), is predicated on the main character's dream to escape USSR for Rio. Here's a clip from 1976 Soviet movie where great Andrei Mironov terribly overacts and sings an ode to Rio: "O Rio, Rio, there's sun and music all around--there's everything one needs for happiness, except... me--I'm not there."

In the 1920s, when Ilf and Petrov's character Ostap Bender dreamed of going there, Rio was a rapidly expanding city - then still the capital of Brazil. The swamps were drained, the population increasing rapidly, great theatres, hippodromes, and hotels were built--the famous Hotel Copacabana opened in 1923. Advertisements for the city must have circulated in all the European newspapers and made it all the way to Soviet Russia--"perhaps I trusted the brochures and pamphlets too much," sings Mironov, impersonating Bender. The lyrics are from the 1970s, but the 1920s novel is the close source material. Rio was the ultimate destination, a combination of a Wild West spirit and Euro-style luxury. Ostap, a Quixotic character of sorts, never got to Rio. Today we are a million miles removed from the era of the Iron Curtain. None of this is at all relevant to our contemporary experience of Rio, and yet I find that it still needs to be mentioned and remembered. The Ostap Bender Rio connection.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Four days on the Amazon

After a night in Manaus, Dave and I spent four days and three nights in the Amazon. Dave did a lot of research ahead of time to find the right tour company to take us into the jungle. Many of the companies seemed to offer very similar packages, and Dave was frustrated trying to differentiate between them. Finally, he settled on Gero Amazon Tours because our guidebook credited Gero for giving back to the community and for being very conscientious about the environment. When we got to Manaus, one of the guides picked us up from the airport and drove us to our hotel--we were booked to spend one night in town before heading out into the jungle. One of the first things we learned about the operation was the Gero was a man, the owner of the business, and that currently he was away from the area, visiting his parents. Later, it came out that he went to visit his mother in another part of the Amazon--in the process of getting his business off the ground, he hadn't seen his mother in over twelve years.

In the morning of our first jungle day, we got picked up at the hotel and driven to the port of Manaus on the Rio Negro. From there, we took a boat to the "meeting of the waters," the place where two great rivers, one that originates in the mountains of Peru and another that originates in Columbia, come together to form one great Amazon. The rivers are so different in their current, depth, temperature, and consistency that they flow side by side for six kilometers before the waters mix together. The line in the water is very clear, it's like stepping from a shaded area--the dark Rio Negro--into the light, the mud-colored Solimões river. Solimões carries more sediment than Rio Negro, and therefore supports more biodiversity within its waters and in the surrounding jungle. From this cross-over point, the boat took us upstream on the Solimões, to a small village of about hundred familes. There we boarded a bus, and our guides drove us for about an hour down a paved two-lane road--an Amazon highway--before at some point turning onto a dirt road for another twenty or so minutes. The dirt of the dirt road was of bright red color--thick clay, and the scenery was mostly family houses surrounded by plantations and farms (not at all the jungle the way we'd imagined it). Most of the houses in this area stood on stilts because in the high season the river rises about 12-14 feet. In the river itself we also saw houseboats--houses built on top of giant logs. These logs, we learned, are quite expensive and anyhow, cutting down big trees in the Amazon can now lead to very large fines and/or jail sentences. The farms that we passed varied from multi-hectar banana plantations to cattle farms to patches of land with overgrown fruit trees. The level of income seemed to vary significantly. On the way, our guides delivered passengers they had picked up in the village--a woman with kids and groceries, another single woman, coming back from work in the village or on the plantation.

At the end of the long bus ride we reached another river port, this one even smaller than the one before--it took us a few days to realize that it was a different river that, perhaps, connects to the greater Amazon in high season, but not necessarily. From that point on, another twenty-minute speedboat ride deposited us at the lodge at the end of what the guides called "a lake," but to us looked like a thin water channel hidden in the grass. There are two seasons in the Amazon, the wet and the dry. It started to rain bigtime on the day of our arrival, but the water had been rising steadily for a few weeks already. It reaches the high point at the end of June and beginning of July. Then it slowly starts to dry up, and in October-November, the guides told us that they had to walk for about a mile down the clay path at the bottom of the lake to get to the lodge.

Altogether our trip to the lodge took about four hours (no walking required). We were about 100 kilometers south of Manaus. We arrived to the lodge two days before Christmas. Gero was away--for the first time since the lodge had been built--and everything the guides did had a slightly improvised quality to it. Not because they didn't know what they were doing--all of them grew up on the Amazon, and some even came from this very same lakeside community--but because they regarded Christmas as their biggest holiday of the year and were preparing to party. Gero's absence clearly shook them out of their routine and added looseness to everyone's mood. Christmas was the guides' favorite holiday of the year, and they were ready to party.

It took us a few trips up and down the river to understand something about the spirit of this lakeside community. At first, focused on trying to spot all the toucans, hawks, vultures, and colibri flying around, caimans hiding in the grass, and in the muddy water dolphins, piranhas, and flying fish, we hardly even paid attention to the houses that stood high up on the shores, each on stilts, each with a motor boat or two pushed into the mud at the makeshift dock down below. Returning after an evening dolphin-spotting trip, we noticed that some of the houses had Christmas lights lit up. A few months before, the government had connected this community to the power grid by running a line from one of the central villages. Before that, some of the houses--although not all--used generators for power. They had electric light, fridges, TVs, satellite dishes, cell phones (although cell phones don't work in the jungle, but they still use them to store pictures and videos), but no computers yet because no Internet, and no power tools of any significance that we noticed. (Of course, these will come in short order).

The shores of this lake seemed to be populated by various members of the same family--or maybe a few several families. Our guide pointed out two churches standing on opposite shores, one Catholic, one Protestant, both looking quite new. There's a small school for the little kids and Gero and the guides are planning to build a bigger school for the community this year. To get to school, the bigger kids right now have to take the boat to a village about 30-40 minutes away, and they only can get there when the water's high enough (approximately January to September).

On the second day (or was it still the first day?), trying to hide from thunder and lightning that hit us in the middle of another monkey or sloth-spotting expedition, we took cover in a "jungle bar"--a floating house, whose owner runs a bar and something of a general store for the village. Our guide led us in the purchase of beer and proceeded to play a few rounds of pool with the bar owner and a couple of other guys whiling away the rainy hour. The general store carried corn chips, baby powder, deodorant, products of feminine hygiene, jars of Spam, breakfast rolls, frozen hot dogs, instant coffee, tape, raisers, band-aids, and in addition to beer also sweet wine and rum. In the corner of the room stood a TV set covered that day by a cloth, but on Christmas day--on what became an obligatory stop-over at the jungle bar for our guide--we saw it uncovered and playing a DVD track that seemed to go along with the music.

Christmas in Brazil is celebrated by a big family dinner on Christmas Eve and a public show or a party (in Rio) on Christmas day. (The Christmas Day spectacular in Manaus was, oddly enough, produced by an Orlando, FL-based entertainment company, Hardrive productions). Because the guides were partying--and our guide, the charismatic Lucivaldo, best of all--we got invited to an after-dinner Christmas Eve party at another local bar, in the middle of what is quickly becoming a new village--right next to the new school and the Catholic church. The family who runs this bar was also celebrating the birthday of their mother, grandmother, and probably a great-grandmother, who turned sixty-six. The centerpiece of the party was a giant red and white Christmas/birthday cake and crazy dancing to the music off a CD that contained about five or so tracks, repeated on a loop. An hour before midnight, the family members started to toast the matriarch, and it immediately became clear that to reach the age of sixty-six is a very significant event in this community. Lucivaldo told us that she was among the five or six oldest women here. She was crying the whole time as she was receiving congratulations, any several of her family members broke down in tears in the middle of their speeches.

It's hard to remember in retrospect what we'd expected coming to the Amazon. Probably, the endless jungle. The crazy cool and scary animals. The great river, as big as the sea. The tribal people living deep in the jungle and drinking ayahuasca. There's lots to say about all of that, and in much greater detail than I'm able to do at the moment. It's clear that the Amazon is changing rapidly and unstoppably. After leaving the jungle, in Manaus airport, we met a man who works for an American company that's drilling for oil in the Amazon. On the other hand, the guides who grew up in the area, told us that as of seven or so years ago, the new government created stricter laws targeted against people who were messing with the old growth jungle, and not only did the government establish the laws, but they also started to follow through and prosecuting people on the environmental charges. Yes, we spotted as many empty beer cans and plastic bottles on the sides of the river as caiman and sloths and monkeys put together, but Lucivaldo told us that every year in the dry season he and Gero's other guides survey the grounds and pick up all the metal and plastic that they can find. It was weird to me, by the end of the third day, how much at home I felt in the jungle--and that despite the heat and humidity, and the rain and the constantly damp clothes, and the mosquitoes, ants who found their way to pieces of candy and chocolate at the bottom of my purse, and the potentially dangerous animals. The Amazon felt not altogether different from the Russian countryside where I spent my summers growing up. But this is a topic for another time.

For Dave's experience of the Amazon and Brazil, please read his blog here: He's got more stories to tell and he's also got photos!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

From SF to Manaus

Travel day yesterday. We crossed a couple of continents and landed, after a brief stop in Panama City, in Manaus, the city that advertizes itself as--and probably is--the gateway to the Amazon. The city largely owes its existence to the rubber boom at the end of the 19th Century, when the industrialization of production of rubber created immense fortunes, and also when a lot of local population was displaced and forced to work on the plantations. We didn't know any of these things yesterday and are learning everything as we go along.

Little things strike me as we travel. The airport in Panama City resembled nothing more than a Los Angeles Grayhound station: everything about the airport, for example, the bathrooms, is similar to a US airport (all the toilets and the sinks, for example, are likely made by same company), but slightly shabbier. In front of the gate, we were surrounded by families with dozens of children, all munching homemade snacks and sipping soda. Possibly because most of our travel is to Europe, we expect the foreignness (in practical terms) to start right away as soon as we cross the border; here, even if the announcements were made in Spanish first and English second, the sense of being abroad was for me largely lacking. We didn't leave the airport in Panama City, of course.

The airport in Manaus is more like a giant warehouse (and still nicer than Pulkovo, that cramped and smoked through gateway to St. Petersburg)--not particularly fancy, but functional. It took us less than fifteen minutes to get our passports stamped and receive our luggage. Then we battled with the ATM machine to receive local currency in the amount that we need (more than it was willing to give us). A guide from the company that will take us to the Amazon today met us at the airport and delivered to the hotel--an unexpected and lovely bonus.

As soon as we got to the hotel, and after spending another half hour checking email, we went out. It had gotten dark early, but it was still balmy. The presence of the forest is felt everywhere in the city. We walked the straightest way possible through downtown to Teatro Amazonas--the main attraction, a salmon pink neo-baroque theatre built by the rubber barons. There was a show in progress on the theatre's magnificent staircase--a rehearsal of a Christmas spectacular. A bunch of bored kids in angel wings danced to the right and to the left, and wiped off sweat from their foreheads after every move. We satisfied ourselves with enough feelings of strangeness and foreignness for one day by getting funky-flavored ice creams (acai was one flavor I tried) and returned to the hotel.