Archives

All posts by Jim St. George

Mark on our balcony before breakfast with the morning sun hitting Mantiqueira Mountains behind him

This was the end. After over 2,000 days of traveling the world, our last stop would be at a glorious resort 4,000 feet above sea level in Brazil’s Mantiqueira Mountains. But first a little note about this post.

We were here the end of December 2018, though I write it in mid-April 2019. After over five-and-a-half years of traveling and editing pictures and writing, we were ready to move to New York, find a place to live, and settle down. And then there was that whole pulmonary embolism thing where I could well have died in Rio, meaning I had to find a doctor quickly to see what had happened and whether the doctors in Rio had treated me properly. (Spoiler alert: they did. And I survived.) So when we got to New York the morning of January 2 I had other things on my mind and somehow just never got around to finishing this final post.

Fast forward to April and we’re in London, our first overseas trip since Brazil. We’ve been enjoying New York and found an amazing loft in New York; we closed on it the day before leaving. It will be a total gut rehab, so there will be many months of work before we can move in. In the meantime we’ve decided to post here occasionally, whether on a trip like this (London for a few days and then two weeks in Italy) or just about fun things to do in New York. And I’m sure the good, the bad, and the ugly about a big renovation project in Manhattan. To write those things, though, we first need to finish off Brazil, so here we are.

Every morning after breakfast I’d come out to this comfy lawn chair to read. For a couple hours I would be the only one there. Nothing not to love about that experience.

For our last and final stop on this fantastic adventure we stayed at the Botanique Hotel & Spa, up in the mountains outside of São Paolo. It is really a special place, isolated, beautiful, peaceful. They grow a lot of their own produce and so the food there was special. I suspect that there might have been some great hiking in the area but, as I was recovering from that pulmonary embolism and was under doctor’s orders to not exert myself, I was remarkably inactive. Up early, read on our balcony, breakfast, read out on the back lawn, lunch, nap, read, dinner … you get the idea.  At one point, after a couple days of inactivity, I tried to go on a little hike up into the hills with Mark. I got a little way up the hill and just had to turn back; Mark finished the loop above and around the resort but it was just too much for me.

Mark took this photo on his hike above and around the resort. Almost the definition of serenity.

And so it was decided: I would finish our epic adventure sitting around doing pretty much nothing. The weather was beautiful, pleasantly warm but high enough in altitude that it wasn’t at all too hot. The sort of place I would probably love even more if I’d had the opportunity and ability to have been more active, but a perfect place to be inactive.

Fireworks

And suddenly it was New Year’s Eve. The resort, in the middle of nowhere, had its own fireworks, with champagne, of course. The next morning, New Years Day, we were up and eventually headed to the airport in São Paolo for an overnight flight to New York and the start of our new life. Just like that, a new adventure begins.

All around the property there were these raised beds where they grew both decorative flowers and lots and lots of produce for our meals. It doesn’t get more local than that.

Another favorite reading spot. Imagine lounging here in the late afternoon sun reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Pretty nice, huh?

A view of the lodge from below. That top balcony was ours.

Breakfast was typically served right here with sweeping views of the mountains

There I am, waiting for breakfast

For the Holidays the resort had hundreds – literally hundreds – of these yellow plastic balls just rolling around everywhere. Festive and cute.

Did I mention that I enjoyed my reading time here?

Relaxing at lunch, reasonably happy that I hadn’t died in Rio

And yes, I know it’s horribly blurry. But what could be a better finale to this amazing journey than champagne and New Year’s Eve fireworks. Late the next morning we were off to the airport and a new life.

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.