All posts by Jim St. George

Up at the rooftop pool at the Emiliano Hotel on Copacabana

What can you say about Rio de Janeiro? It’s truly one of the great cities in the world: beautiful coastal location, fantastic beaches, great climate, good food. It has everything you could ever want in a city. Unfortunately our experiences here haven’t always been so ideal. We were here the first time in 2005 and on our first day we were robbed at gunpoint. Kind of colors your memories. And makes you a little paranoid on your return visit.

This time, though, we were determined to have a better experience. We flew down from the city of Maceio, a little under three hours so no big deal. I was hampered our entire five-day stay, though, with a bum leg; I didn’t know what happened but my left calf was so sore and swollen I could hardly walk at all. And on top of that a mild cold I’d had turned seriously nasty – eventually coughing up blood and with sharp chest pains one night.

There are only a few great cities in the world that have great beaches. Along with Barcelona and Sydney, Rio is at the top of the list.

I had the sense that I should see a doctor but how are you going to arrange that the weekend before Christmas, which in Rio is also the start of summer? So I soldiered on, having meals in or right near the restaurant, limping over to the beach just across the street. Not ideal but not horrible either.

After five days we hired a car to take us down the beach a few hours to Angra dos Reis where we’d reserved a beautiful room for four days over Christmas. On arriving there I asked while checking in if they had access to a doctor, as my leg was causing real problems. To their enormous credit they came through, with their house doctor coming to our room (they’d upgraded us to a stunning suite, one of the most beautiful rooms we’ve ever stayed it). She poked around a bit, asked a few questions and got very serious. She was quite certain I had developed deep vein thrombosis, essentially blood clots in my leg, and the chest issues I was experiencing was a pulmonary embolism, part of the clot moving up to my lung.

We weren’t in Agra dos Reis long enough to get good pictures and this doesn’t begin to do justice to how beautiful it was, or at least how beautiful our room was. It was Christmas Eve, and as the doctor had forbidden me to walk the hotel served a beautiful dinner on our balcony. Fortunately she had not forbidden alcohol so dinner included an amazing Negroni. OK, two Negronis.

She explained that the condition was very serious and that I was not to set foot on that leg at all. It was too late that night to go back to Rio but they arranged for a car the next morning to take us back directly to the emergency room of a private hospital.

So that’s where I spent the next three days in Rio, one day in the ER, one day in the ICU, and one final day in a private room where they could monitor my progress. The first two days were bad; CT scans and echocardiograms and blood tests and EKGs and doctors and nurses and technicians and god only knows what. And no standing at all, not even to go to the bathroom. Just lying there with nothing to do except wait for the next person to come in and push and prod and poke.

I can’t believe how old and frail I look in this picture. I’m attributing it to the hospital gown and wheel chair, not my actual age.

In the scheme of things I was pretty lucky. They found not just one but two embolisms – large embolisms, the doctor assured me – in my lungs but they had passed through without damaging my heart. And the best part? The whole thing, all the care and three days in the hospital and all the tests and everything came to under $2,300. I’ll bet that in the States it would have literally been 10 times that amount or more.

And the rest of the good news is that I seem to be fully on the mend. I’ll be on blood thinners for months and am banned from exercising for a few weeks at least. Given mortality rate of pulmonary embolisms, though, I’m feeling pretty lucky.

While I was still modestly mobile we discovered El Born, a great tapas bar with good cocktails and good wine.

Other than that? I wish I could have enjoyed Rio. Our hotel during the first stay was on Copacabana and we enjoyed parts of a few days on the beach. There was some big event during the weekend that made it all more crowded and just difficult than it would normally be, but again, how bad can Copacabana be? Part of what I love about Rio, and I remember it from our first visit years ago, is that you see a little bit of everything on the beach. There are all the beautiful bodies that inspired The Girl from Ipanema (the next beach up the coast), but plenty of old sagging bodies, too. Black, white, brown, old, young, gay, straight. Amputees even. You name it, it’s on the beach here.

On our return visit we stayed – Mark stayed, that is; I had less attractive accommodations – at a hotel right on Ipanema where he could walk up and down the beach when he wasn’t schlepping over to the hospital to see me or filling my prescriptions or going to a bookstore to get me something to read. We thought it was strange that in the ICU they banned electronics of all sorts: no phone, no iPad, not even a Kindle. We pushed back on the iPhone since that was the only way Mark and I could communicate about where they were moving me, how I was doing, when he was coming to visit, whatever. And it turned out I needed the Google Translator app on my phone since while the doctors all spoke English reasonably well essentially none of the nurses did. The doctor eventually caved and let me keep my phone but it seems as though the issue isn’t one of perhaps the electronic fields would interfere with something in the hospital. It seems the issue is that too many patients complained that their phones were stolen while they weren’t paying attention so the solution was just to ban them all. He said I could keep my phone as long as I took complete responsibility for securing it. I did and I did.

Mark enjoying a little free time in Rio when they closed off visiting hours

And speaking of great service. The hotel we’d reserved in Agra dos Reis, a Fasano hotel, had a branch in Rio and they just effectively transferred the reservation up there. They certainly could have charged us for the room we’d reserved for four nights and then charged us again in Rio but to their credit were really great about helping us. When all was said and done the money we saved on the hotel practically paid for my hospitalization!

We’ve been to Rio twice now. The first time we were robbed and the second time I ended up in the hospital for three days. I’d like to try this one more time but I’ll admit to being a little gun shy. Meanwhile we have one more stop in Brazil as we head up into the mountains of Saô Paulo state for New Year’s Eve. Then it’s on to New York and our next great adventure.

Mark enjoyed walks along the beach when he was free of hospital duty

Christ the Redeemer reigning high over Rio. When we were here in 2005 we went up there but this time we had to enjoy it from afar

A little Christmas cheer

Porto de Galinhas, certainly one of the best beaches in all of Brazil

From what was supposed to have been a three-night stay in Olinda we had planned on traveling a little over an hour-and-a-half south to spend four nights in the beach town Porto de Galinhas. But since we too quickly got bored with Olinda we spent six days on the beach instead. All in all, not bad.

According to Wikipedia Porto de Galinhas has been voted Best Brazilian Beach for eight consecutive years. We thought it was a really good beach, but I’m not sure why it would consistently be voted the best beach along the many thousands of miles of Brazilian coast.

Out for a walk on the beach

We had a reservation at one nice resort for our planned four-night stay, but as there were no rooms available for the first/extra two nights we stayed at a neighboring resort (Summerville, which made us just a little nostalgic for our old office in Somerville, MA) for two nights. They were both nice, with good access to the beach, with one exception: the food was pretty awful.

Both places, you see, served meals buffet-style. In other words, large quantities, low quality. We thought it was strange, especially as our second resort, Nannai, was a pretty high-end operation. Everything about it was beautiful except the food was just bad.

Who could complain about a resort like this, right? OK, I can.

I think it can be explained by something we’ve observed and later documented to some degree. We’ve been surprised during our travels in Brazil at how little English is spoken here. Everywhere we go, the hotels and restaurants, everyone is speaking Portuguese. As we travel the world – with only China as a notable exception – you can always find people who speak English, especially in restaurants and hotels. Not so in Brazil; we’re regularly finding ourselves struggling to understand Portuguese. I get that it’s a big country and thus can be more inward-facing than many countries, but still it’s been surprising.

Then Mark came across some article in the British press about how Brazil has one of the lowest rates of foreign tourism in the world. Other countries with extremely low rates of foreign tourism – think the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, and Algeria – make sense. But Brazil? Fabulous beaches, great food, Rio, the Amazon? For whatever reason (the insane crime rate could have something to do with it), Brazil doesn’t emphasize foreign tourism and so it’s pretty much just well off Brazilians we see at these resorts.

One day we walked a half our up the beach to this lunch place overlooking the coast. Good food, great scenery.

My guess, then, is that for whatever strange reason the Brazilians who come to these resorts in Porto de Galinhas just love all-you-can-eat slop troughs. Strange.

Fortunately, we discovered one good – really good – restaurant in town, maybe a 20-minute taxi ride away. It was called Barcelona Tapas and, to our surprise, it was genuine, authentic Barcelona tapas. We met the owner/chef and indeed he was a native of Barcelona, married to a Brazilian woman. It was far enough away and the menu for carb-conscious people like us was limited enough that we only went a couple times but it was such a respite from the buffet tables!

Barcelona Tapas!

The good news is that two weeks into our Brazilian trip now we still haven’t been robbed. That counts as a victory, right? Unfortunately, though, someone appears to have made an attempt to steal our credit card information. The credit card company caught it, notified us, and we easily confirmed that no, we had not tried to purchase some $29 worth of masonry services. So far so good except that then of course they cancel the card meaning for us endless hassle as we have to order new cards, figure out where to have them sent, and change all sorts of automatic charges. Annoying but I suppose not as bad as getting robbed at gunpoint, right?

Wildlife in our bathroom

And in our little garden, eating some fruit that had been left out. We don’t actually know what these were, but they were cute.

Another shot of the cute feller

When we left the resort we could eventually find some good food

Even good coffee

Meanwhile, the hotel itself was beautiful

Sometimes really beautiful

The beach right below our hotel had a massive natural barrier out a ways so especially at high tide it was more like a calm lagoon than the ocean.

One of many historic churches in Olinda

We were supposed to love Olinda. While most of our Brazilian stops are all about beach resorts, Olinda is one of Brazil’s best-preserved colonial cities. Out on that northeastern point of Brazil jutting out toward Africa, just north of Recife, Olinda is chock-full of old churches, winding streets, and old colonial mansions. The historic downtown area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it must be good, right?

Sadly we just weren’t that impressed. I was expecting to be charmed as we had been in San Miguel de Allende or San Cristobal in Mexico, which we’d really loved. Or maybe Santa Cruz in Bolivia. Instead we were pretty … what’s the word? … bored? We didn’t like our hotel at all, we didn’t like the restaurant options, and after 20 minutes walking around the old town we were pretty much done.

Usually we love little towns with street art like this

I mean, it was pretty enough. But for us at least there was none of that historic charm mixed with modern tourist infrastructure that can make an old town almost magical. So here’s the question: was it Olinda? Or was it Mark & Jim?

Here’s the thing: it’s been almost three years since we were in San Cristóbal and over two-and-a-half years since we were in Bolivia. Is it just that we’ve seen enough of those old Latin American colonial towns that we don’t get impressed anymore? When we’re in Europe and we go to a new cathedral I often observe that it takes a lot to impress us these days (though I still do get impressed sometimes). Is it just time for us to quit this endless roaming around the earth?

Carnival is a big deal in Brazil, and Olinda has one of the biggest celebrations in the country. We’re still a couple months away but it seems as though they’re getting ready already.

Of course, we have sort of answered that last question; in two weeks we fly to New York to start house hunting. That doesn’t quite answer the question, though, of whether Olinda was kind of boring or if we’re just bored. Either way, we decided to leave early. Instead of the three nights we’d expected to stay we canceled our last two nights and drove down to a beach maybe four hours south of Olinda. Not a lot to say about Olinda then.

Looking over the town towards the ocean

And then off toward Recife back in the distance

Another church

And still another

The local university

The little pool at our unimpressive hotel

Mark took all the other pictures on this post but I managed this shot of a tiny little kitten up in a tree. When I walked back past maybe 45 minutes later someone was trying to urge her down with the promise of food. I’m going to assume it worked eventually.