Friday, May 30, 2008

Chocolateless, Flirty Men in Skirts, Being Without Transportation, and Other Disasters

Since I've managed to keep everyone's attention this week with my promise of sad tales, I suppose now I can tell you all about how our trip to Espírito Santo almost didn't happen. And then how everything we planned or tried to do went wrong. You know, since people thrive off others' misery and all . . . I'll end the week with a thrill for you.

So, the trip started looking ill-fated sometime in the middle of May. I was trying to buy bus tickets for our trip there and the websites of both companies that sold tickets online were not working very well. The buses were really starting to fill up, so I knew I needed to get ours reserved right away. But the websites kept timing out on me, popping up with error messages, and all the other things that occasionally makes me want to drop-kick my computer right out our 5th story window. On May 16, I finally was able to purchase bus tickets for our Wednesday night departure on May 21. I printed out our payment confirmation and then the website messed up again before I could print out our seat confirmation. But I saw it on the screen before it disappeared.

On May 18, Eric and I went down to the train station in town to purchase our train tickets for the beautiful ride back on Sunday. (Which was, as you might recall, the whole reason for us going to Espírito Santo right now in the first place.) We were told all seats were already sold out for Thursday and Sunday. We came home and called the train station in Vitória, hoping the woman in Belo Horizonte was lying to us, but the other station confirmed everything was sold out. We were told Sunday afternoon by a friend that often times tourism companies will buy up tickets for holiday travel and then re-sell them at an inflated price, so we maintained some hope that we would still be able to get on the train.

On Wednesday afternoon (May 21), less than 8 hours before we were scheduled to leave, I jumped online to try and print out our seat confirmation in case we ran into any problems at the bus station. After entering my account info, the website told me I had no pending travel. We called the company and they confirmed they didn't have any record of us buying tickets. We were also informed that all seats were sold out now. When we explained that we had printed out our payment confirmation and gave her all the numbers off of that, and she just said, "Yeah, well, sometimes our website doesn't work. We've got people working on it, but sometimes transactions don't go through." (I later jumped on our bank's website and, sure enough, the transaction didn't go through and we were never charged.) In a bit of a panic, I started calling around to other companies and found a bus with two empty seats, which happened to be together. But, I couldn't reserve them over the phone, I would need to go to the bus station here in town right away if I wanted the tickets. Since Eric was still at work and he had the car, I would need to hop a taxi downtown. And then I realized I had R$2 in cash on me . . . so first, I needed to walk 10 minutes down to the ATM and then catch a cab, and then hope that my bus tickets weren't sold before I got there. Thankfully, it worked out. But at one point while stuck in traffic in the taxi, I started wondering if we were supposed to even go on this trip!
Once we arrived at our destination we had several other things that tried to ruin the trip for us:

- Once we were in Vila Velha Thursday morning, the taxi taking us to our pousada almost killed a man. Some guy jumped out into the middle of the street from behind a parked vehicle, and the taxi driver, along with Eric and I, nearly had a heart attack as she hit the brakes, swerved, and skidded a bit just barely missing the guy. Of course we got off pretty easy, since I am guessing the guy in the street needed to go change his britches after that!

- Thursday afternoon we decided to go over to Vitória to check out the historic part of town. We decided to use the city buses instead of dropping more cash on taxis. I have this policy about city buses: when I am riding a new bus, I always confirm with the driver that the bus is going where I need it to go. Regardless of what the side of the bus says, it is always a good idea to double check the route. My husband, who has no experience up to this point with city buses, wants us to figure it out on our own. After seeing a lot of the city, he decided to believe me about the talking thing. And then we discovered that bus drivers there aren't like the super (sometimes almost too) friendly drivers here in BH. Every time we asked a question we got this totally blank stare back from the driver. Sometimes we got a head nod or a finger pointed in one direction or the other, but nobody wanted to talk to us and help the Portuguese-fluent gringos find their way. We spent about 4 hours on the city buses for what needed to be a 15 minute in each direction trip.

- While taking the extended and unintentional tour-de-Vitória by bus Thursday evening, we ended up being in the company of a couple transvestite prostitutes at different times. Both of which, given that they never took their eyes off of him, seemed to really like my poor hubby. Remember how excited he was about the grain bins? He puts that same enthusiasm into being not excited about tall, muscular, shaved men in micro-miniskirts and wigs checking him out.

- Thursday night, about the time the train was scheduled to arrive in Vitória from Belo Horizonte, we took a bus over to the train station to see if anyone was hanging around advertising return tickets for sale on Sunday. Upon finding the station pretty much deserted and learning that the tourism companies can't buy up tickets anymore (you have to present a picture id and tickets are issued in your name at the time of purchase), we decided to go over the bus station and just buy a bus ticket home for Sunday night. Since it was dark, we decided we'd take a taxi the 1 km over to the bus station instead of walking. We hopped in a cab that was hanging around the train station and asked to go to the bus station. Once in the car, he told us it would be R$20 to go there. We told him that was ridiculous because we knew the station was only 1 km away, but he insisted, so we immediately got out of his cab. Another driver quickly offered to take us. Once inside his car, he said it would cost R$15. We argued a bit and I told him I wanted him to turn on the meter. Then it occurred to me that as insistent as these guys were about charging ridiculous prices, this guy would probably take us all over creation before going to our destination. So, after a little more arguing, we just got out of the cab and ended up spending R$3.80 for both of us to take the city bus the 800 meters to the next stop.

- We planned to go over to the big yellow Garota Chocolate Factory (see picture below) on Friday to take the factory tour and indulge in lots and lots of chocolate. While talking to the front desk at our pousada, we were informed that Friday was a city holiday in Vila Velha and everything (including the factory) would be closed, but on Saturday they would be open for the morning.

- Friday afternoon we ended up going to Convento da Penha. We got up to the top just in time to be told they were closing.

- Saturday morning, we headed over to the chocolate factory. We were met by this sign at the main entrance (which takes you to the factory or to the factory store where you can buy super fresh chocolate.):

They were closed (both factory and store) for maintenance on their electrical system which meant no chocolate for me. And in my opinion, this is much more atrocious than any flirtatious man in high heels and make-up (despite how strongly Eric disagrees with me on this one.)

- We were super excited to read that, what is considered by many to be, the best churrascaria in town only charged R$22 per person. Saturday night's adventure over to Churrascaria Gramado proved that it was, indeed, too good to be true. It was still not a bad deal and totally worth the R$40 each that we paid, but not quite the steal we were expecting.

- Sunday morning we wanted to take a bus over to Guarapari. We found out that a bus leaves on the hour all day from the Vila Velha bus station (bus stations here are called rodoviárias.) We originally planned to take a city bus over to the rodoviária , but they weren't running many buses since it was Sunday, and we got tired of waiting. So we hopped a taxi instead, and Eric told the driver we needed to go to Terminal Ibes. He had figured out during all of our city bus riding during the weekend that the Vila Velha Rodoviária was also called Terminal Ibes (or well, so he thought.) When the taxi driver went past the chocolate factory, Eric looked at me and expressed his concern that the driver was taking us to Terminal Vila Velha (the other city bus terminal in town.) He questioned the driver and shared his worries that we were heading in the opposite direction of Terminal Ibes. The driver asked, if we wanted Terminal Vila Velha Terminal Ibes. Eric confirmed Ibes, and the driver said that is where we were going. After dropping us off, Eric realized he had the two names confused. And after asking at the terminal about the bus to Guarapari, we were told we needed to catch that bus at Rodoviária Vila Velha (which is distinctly different from either terminal.) Oops.

- Since we were going to be at the beach all day before catching an overnight bus home to Belo Horizonte, we really wanted to be able to get a shower and clean up before departing Vila Velha. In the past, we've had no problem either getting a late check out or negotiating a half-day rate or something with the pousadas and hotels in Brasil. We tried to do the same thing Sunday, but we were told we would have to pay the full rate - not negotiable. They said they would be happy to watch our luggage for us though and that they had a shower in one of the restrooms in the common area of the pousada. We decided that would have to work. They had a shower alright, but there was no water heater attached. So we took very brisk, very cold showers. Have I mentioned that I really despise cold showers? It wasn't a lot of fun, and I couldn't make myself stay under the frigid water long enough to get all the salt out of my hair. So I still ended up feeling a bit grungy for the 8+ hour ride home.

- And then there was the ride home. I think we had the Mad Hatter as our bus driver. I am not sure exactly how much a bus can lean while zipping around a curve on the edge of a mountain at a high rate of speed without actually tipping over, but I am quite certain we were right there on the cusp. I had a real hard time sleeping what with being thrown out into the aisle and listening to the tires hum/scream as the weight of the bus was all on the outside edge of the tire and all. (I can say almost without a doubt that the wheels on the inside of the curve left the pavement on more than one occasion.) Every time I thought the bus was about to tip over and we would all plunge to tragic deaths, I reminded myself that vehicles rarely flip over simply by taking a curve to fast. And then my mind would take me back to November when Eric and I drove this same stretch of road ourselves and I recalled scenes like this:

And then I started wondering, hmmm, you know, if the main reason you were taking the trip (the train ride) didn't come to fruition, you almost didn't even get a bus ticket there, and nothing worked out quite as planned, maybe that was your sign you weren't supposed to go on this trip right now. Maybe we weren't even supposed to be on this bus that is about to take us all over the edge of the mountain in a fiery crash. And then I pretty much gave up on even trying to sleep.

- And then, to top it all off, the bus was over an hour late getting in to the bus station here in BH because of all the bus traffic coming back into town Monday morning. So we didn't even get the one hour of sleep in our own bed we were so looking forward to before going to work.

Luckily, we are really getting better at just rolling with the punches and taking it a day at a time. Normally, we both would have been extremely frustrated with how everything went down, but, instead, last weekend we just looked at each, laughed, and said, "seriously, we're calling this adventure the trip-where-absolutely-everything-that-could-go-wrong-did-go-wrong-and-we-had-the-most-fabulous-time." Of course, I'm chocking that one up to the cloudless blue skies, time spent napping on the beach to the sound of crashing waves, drinking fresh coconut water while my husband eats meat on a stick all the while with soft sand between our toes and a gentle salty ocean breeze cooling our suntanned bodies. Oh yeah, life ain't so bad at all really . . . even when you don't get any chocolate.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


Sunday we decided to take a bus over to Guarapari for the day and check out the beach there. It was about an hour bus ride after all the stops and we were dropped off less than a 10 minute walk away from Praia do Morro (said to be best beach in the city). Maybe we are just getting entirely too spoiled and picky, but we really weren't impressed with the beach or the city. While the water here was fabulous (clear, blue-green water with fun waves) the beach was littered with some trash and had a definitely more touristy (in a bad way) feel to it. It had a lot more beach vendors than Vila Velha, there were boats taking people on banana boat rides, and the sidewalk between the beach and the road had tons of small run-down looking kiosks.

The beach here is really wide and flat. You have to walk out pretty far to get in deep water.
The water was really beautiful and the waves quite powerful.
Adding to the "dirty" feel of the beach was this tall concrete wall painted with murals dividing the sidewalk from the beach.
The rocks along the South end of Praia do Morro made for a fun place to walk around and get some nice views.
But we didn't stick around long after we stumbled upon several other people also enjoying the view and getting h . . . well, let's just say they were in a medicinally-enhanced state. Anyway, that's just not really our scene, you know? So our time on the rocks was short-lived, that's all I'm saying really.

We read about several boat tours that operate out of Guarapari and they might be nice to take and see lots of different beaches in the area. But, generally speaking, I would recommend staying 40 km North and sticking around Vila Velha were everything has a cleaner, nicer feel to it!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


We ventured over to Vitória on Thursday afternoon to check out the historical part of town and then again on Saturday night to eat at the highly recommended Churrascaria Gramado. There are several interesting buildings, but generally we weren't overly impressed with Vitória. They have a nice 5 km of beachfront at Praia do Camburi, but, because it is a port city, all the ships make it feel rather polluted and not a place I would want to get in the water. The beach is also deserted at night (or at least is was on Saturday night). We've heard the nightlife is pretty good in the triangle area of Vitória, but we never got around to checking it out. Walking on the beach in Vila Velha in the evenings sounded more our speed for this trip!

This is Anchieta Palace which was founded in 1500's as a Jesuit College. It is now a government building.

The walk up all the stairs to the building is really pretty and landscaped nicely.
A couple other old buildings we came across (they really have a thing with yellow here).
This is the Catedral Metropolitana: an absolutely stunning building. They were having a service on Thursday for Corpus Christi when we were there. We went in for part of the service, and they have gorgeous stained glass windows. I would have liked to have gotten some pictures, but something about snapping pictures in the middle of a church service just seems wrong.
The detail work is gorgeous.
There is a series of stairs leading straight up to Catedral Metropolitana.
It's hard to see in the picture, but that is the cathedral at the very, very top. After the red stairs there are yellow stairs, and then you reach the top of the hill.

I don't know what this building is, but, if restored, I think is would be really awesome.
Besides the main big port in Vitória, there are lots of smaller ones scattered around and many are built right into the hillsides.
And then the highlight of the trip, for my husband at least, was this:
He went dashing over with the camera to take a picture, and I heard him exclaim something in excitement. I was expecting something really incredible. And then he said, "See? Grain bins!" And this, my friends, is the sort of thing you get when you marry a boy from Iowa. You take him all the way to Brasil and he gets more excited about grain bins than anything else. ;)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Vila Velha

So on to the pictures from our holiday weekend! We spent some time in Vitória, Vila Velha, and Guardapari. I will devote one entry to each area. I'll start with all the good stuff and then explain my earlier comment about the challenges we faced, cases of just plain old bad luck, total screw ups on our part, and how dadgum unhelpful some of the Capixabas (people from the area) were.
We passed the majority of our four day weekend in Vila Velha which is just South of Vitória in the state of Espírito Santo. On our last trip in November, we got a room at Hotel Hostess right on Praia da Costa which we were happy with, but it was nothing special. This time we decided to try Pousada Itatiaia which is just a short walk south on Praia de Itapoã. It was simple, but very clean, comfortable, and in a great location. And we sure couldn't beat the price at R$75 (US$45) per night for a beachfront room with a view!

The view from our room's window

There are a series of rock outcroppings along the coast here.

Me + Sand + Sun + Fresh Coconut Water = Pure Bliss

A nice perk is that the chairs and umbrellas are free on Praia de Itapoã. They are supplied by different little food stands along the sidewalk who then send boys around to bring you any food or drink that your little heart desires. It's a pretty good marketing strategy since almost everyone on the beach congregated to the area for the chairs and umbrellas; the food stands were getting tons of business! (And it is always nice not to actually have to get off your behind when you need a nice cold coconut or skewer of grilled beef! Now, if only those boys would fan me with a palm leaf and feed me some grapes . . .)
We were once again reminded of the difference in tipping customs here too. When the left the beach the first day, we handed the kid (he was maybe 14 years old) who had been waiting on us a few Reais for his service. He had set up our chairs and umbrella for us, checked back on us regularly, and brought us drinks and food as we ordered it. As Eric was trying to hand the kid the tip money, we had to explain what it was for. The boy was really confused and kept asking what we wanted. We finally got him to realize that the money was just for him to keep as we thanked him for everything. Tipping is so rarely expected here (outside of restaurants anyway, but there it is 10% and is usually included as a separate line item on the bill) that we often catch people off guard when we try to tip them! More than once we've had to run down a bellhop after he carried our bags to our room for us, and the girls who do my nails always seem surprised when I give them a tip. In the US, people tend to stand around and wait for you to tip them before they leave.

We really like the beach in Vila Velha. There is a nice wide flat area and then there is a short, steep incline down to the water.

The waves are usually pretty nice too. The picture below was taken exactly 0.78 seconds before the kid on the bottom left was completely rolled by that crashing wave.

Since we had four full days this time, we did a lot more exploring in and around the city than we did on our last quick trip there. On Friday afternoon, we went over to Convento da Penha. It is a church and convent built back in 1558 on top of a large mountain in Vila Velha.
You can drive up to the top, pay R$2 for a ride if you come there by bus, or just walk. We chose to take the walking trail. (My hubby complained that I was walking too slow up the hill, but I think the blurry picture is a good indication that I was moving along just fine. And um, HELLO, he is behind me in the picture here!)

After a brisk uphill walk, we reached the parking lot and got our first good view of the convento. It is quite literally poured over the top of the bare stone peak!

Once we arrived at the top, the views were incredible!

I was excited to watch the sunset from our peak high above the city!

But just as it was getting good, we got kicked out. They were trying to lock up.

I was able to get one more picture before we were forced to descend down into the forested walkway.

One of our favorite things about Vila Velha is how well lit the beachfront is and how the locals all hang out there after dark. There are a lot of places in this country where it is considered not-so-safe to be on the beach after dark, but here that is when everything really comes to life! We enjoyed being able to go for night time walks in the sand and sit and watch the moonrise.

Monday, May 26, 2008

After a nap I'll share the details

We arrived home from our trip at 7:00 this morning quite tired. Pretty much nothing worked out as planned for us . . . I mean almost everything that could have gone wrong did . . . and yet we had an absolutely fabulous time. The weather was exactly as pictured below the entire time. We didn't see a single cloud Thursday - Saturday. I can't wait to share our pictures and stories this week! But first I need a nap.

And a couple of random notes:

Eric came home Wednesday with a huge box of food that CNH gave to each of their employees: 5 kg (11 lbs) each of rice and sugar, along with beans, salt, oil, coffee, cookies, chocolate, and lots of other Brasilian staples. Apparently they give out these boxes twice per year to everyone. It's just one more really nice thing to add to the list of stuff that the company does for their employees here. I am really not sure the two of us can go through 22 pounds of rice in a year, but, still, a nice gesture.

While oohing and aahing over the adorable little kids on the beach last week, we thought about our two nieces (ages 2 and soon to be 4) back in Iowa and how they should be getting their little package we sent them with Brasilian bikinis and tank tops to prepare them for summertime. I had a free minute before teaching my English class this morning, and I checked my email real quick. Both Eric and I were excited to see we had an email from his sister to let us know the girls got their gift in the mail. And we were totally cracking up when she wrote that the oldest, Madison, kept saying all day, "Look Mom, they got me a bra swimming suit, do you like my bra swimming suit?" Since now his not-even-four-year-old-daughter is referring to an article of her own clothing as a bra, we fully expect some hate mail coming from our brother-in-law forbidding us from ever buying the girls clothes again. ;) And something tells me I definitely won't be allowed to take the girls swimsuit shopping after the age of 10, but seriously, how cute are these itty-bitty bikinis!?!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Exploring South America

We just finished finalizing more travel plans and now have another adventure to anticipate! After finding a really cheap flight and then doing a little more investigating and finding some great deals, we booked a little South American Getaway! Passports get ready, because you are about to get all stamped up!!!

On June 13 we will hop an overnight bus down to São Paulo (unless we find a flight on sale between now and then). June 14 we take a plane to Buenos Aires, Argentina. After spending four nights there, we fly over to Santiago, Chile (connecting through Uruguay). We will be in Santiago for five nights checking out the sights there, drinking, or um, I mean touring wine country, and skiing in the Andes. June 23 we will fly back to Buenos Aires, and June 24 we return to São Paulo. That night we go back to Belo Horizonte, and June 25 we are complete bums (I am suggesting we schedule massages after all the skiing, planes, and buses!) and recover from our trip before returning to the grind the next day.

Buenos Aires


(Pictures from Wikipedia)

We originally were told Eric wouldn't officially have any vacation time until January 2009. Vacation here is mandated by the government and gets a little tricky to figure out. But, we recently discovered he does indeed actually have some time off, so we are using some of it next month!

Our next few months should just completely fly by now! Just take a look at our schedule:

May 21-25 Vitória/Vila Velha, Espírito Santo

May 30-June 1 Carmo do Paranaíba, Minas Gerais for Softball Tournament

June 13-25 Vacation to Buenos Aires and Santiago

June 21-July 3 A college friend of Eric's will be in Brasil for work and we want to try to catch up with him at some point if we can work it out.

2 Weeks in July: A coworker of Eric's from the US (and also one of our very good friends) will be in BH for work. We plan to work some play in too while he's here.

End of August/First of September: We might have our first vacationing American visitors coming to stay with us. That is all still in the works, but we are really hoping it comes together!

As you can see, we are highly sought after people and reservations of our time are booking up. So those of you wanting to see us, well, you better start thinking about when you want to come down . . . and make your reservations soon! ;)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Reason #3129 to love Brasil: Affordable Artwork

As if I need another reason to love Brasil, I am now totally infatuated with the art here! Eric and I have been keeping an eye on all the artists' stuff down at the Alfonso Pena Feira de Artesanato in Belo Horizonte. All along one side of the feira, artists set up every Sunday morning to display and sell their work. Our biggest problem while furniture shopping (and now accessorizing) has been trying to figure out something of a theme/color scheme for our different rooms and sticking with it. We have very similar taste, but we can both go from modern to country-chic to traditional to kind of artsy. I am not nearly good enough at this to try and figure out a way to combine all the different styles, so I am just trying to keep a somewhat similar theme going in each different area at least.

On Sunday we were determined to be decisive and find a couple pieces of art for the apartment. Our adventures were quite successful, as we came home with 2 very large pieces that just barely fit in the back of the Punto with the back seats folded down! And maybe the best part of it all was how easy the trip was on our pocketbook (or um, I mean, Eric's wallet.)

I discovered that artwork is exceptionally difficult to photograph with a point and shoot, so I am not really doing this stuff much justice, but I try!

We found this really interesting piece for the dining area in the great room. We wanted something with some black and silver to pick up from the marble table and the chairs and then red seemed like a good little something to add (given my awesome red and black china I found here!)

After we got it hung up, it really highlighted the fact that the wall still needs painted...

But meanwhile, since that desperately-in-need-of-painting-wall is the first thing you see when walking in the front door, the art really helps give it some interest!

Oh, and since I was telling you how inexpensive it was, I suppose I could reveal the price to prove my point: R$220 or US$133!

Back in November, Eric and I both totally fell in love with this next artist's work. At the time, we weren't sure where we could use it in our apartment, but we did buy this painting for my parents. (My very talented brother, Justin, made the frame from a cherry tree (I think it is cherry, I am not the wood ID expert in the family) he cut down himself.) It also proves that you can take paintings home with you if you come to visit us! The artist's husband was happy to sell us the canvas only. He took it out of the frame, off the canvas frame, and rolled it so we could easily transport it back to the US. It took a little work to re-stretch it back over a canvas frame, but it is totally doable!

So we knew we wanted some of her work for ourselves and when we saw this next piece, we decided to get it for our bedroom.

And to give you an idea of just how big this sucker is, well, here is our queen bed as a scale.

We haven't found a headboard we like, and so the big empty wall behind our bed was really needing something and this was just the thing! And wow, I am just realizing that I made the bed all messy and stuff this morning . . . sorry about that. (I am going to blame it on having to teach an English class at 7:30 this morning. No time for careful bed making and the such!) Oh yeah, and so this quite large painting with a nicely constructed wooden frame: R$180 or US$109! It would be nearly impossible to frame something this size back in the US for that price, much less buy a painting too. There will be several more art excursions before we leave this place: we still have lots of empty walls.