For us, Brazil conjured images of fanatic football, famous beaches, festive Carnivals and forlorn Favelas. Favalas being the ramshackle communities running up the ravines outside the city of Rio. It’s also the fifth largest country in the world - taking up almost half of the South American continent. And the only country out of fourteen where Portugese is the national language! Just as we’d gotten comfortable with Spanish, gracias was out and abrigado was in! It was fascinating to learn how the small kingdom of Portugal came to rule over this land mass from the 16th to the early 19th century, as well as their own homeland 7,000 miles away from a fledgling seaport called Rio de Janeiro.
Now it was our turn to explore. But first, we had to get to our Airbnb in Rio. In the last blog I shared the sometimes difficult task of finding transportation from the Airport to our new home. And once again, here we were without SIM cards so we prepared for the challenge, especially in Rio where we heard taxi drivers are notorious for taking advantage of tourists, and we weren’t sure Uber was an option. But it was - in spades!
Michael gets great satisfaction knowing his Uber app works seamlessly from country to country. Uber itself, however, is all over the map - both by its acceptance in a given city, and to the quality of its cars and drivers. We’ve gone from lurking in parking lots, to walking more than half a mile to the designated pick-up area, to threats of violence against drivers, to strikes against the company … to an unheard of experience in Rio de Janeiro! There, to our surprise and delight, when we arrived at the airport we noticed arrows and signs painted on the floor from baggage claim pointing to the Uber Lounge Now that was a first for us. The “lounge” was under cover in a designated parking lot and dotted with leather benches, smooth jazz in the background, a cool breeze, and uniformed attendants to help you find and then identify your ride! It was early evening when we climbed into a very clean car and drifted toward the glittering city of Rio. Lovely.
Since we had been warned numerous times about the dangerous nature of this sprawling city we chose our Airbnb location carefully and settled on Ipanema. We found a really nice listing in a secure building two blocks from the famous beach, and on the edge of the upscale Leblon neighborhood. The apartment was well decorated and comfortable with a nice kitchen - which was great because there were two weekly markets and a big supermarket nearby.
We weren’t close the city center but could get there easily using the metro system from the Jardin de Alah station just a five minute walk from our home. The station was new and the trains were frequent, and, after a couple of kind strangers helped us figure out how to buy our passes, very easy to use. One woman who helped us reiterated not to take buses anywhere, day or night and to leave all valuables at home. All of these warnings were a bit off-putting, but we did our best to enjoy our daily lives with just a little added vigilance. We never felt threatened, but then again, we aren’t out clubbing til 4:00 am.
The only mishap we had was taking our metro line towards Uruguai with our stop being Uruguaiana - the fourth stop on the line. That’s where we should have gotten out to meet a tour, but instead we took the train 12 additional stops to the end thinking that was our destination. We couldn’t fine the tour, and Google kept telling us we were 4 miles away from the meeting point. And indeed, once we figured out our mistake that was true. I guess we got a little over confident. (If you look carefully, the names of the two stations are very similar. We didn’t.) Luckily we were able to re-book the tour of Little Africa later in the week.
We didn’t have a long list of things to see or do in Rio so our sunny apartment was a fine place to spend lazy mornings making plans for the day. It was also a fine place to recover if you were sick. Michael’s chest cold came back with a vengeance and he became very short of breath and had a deep cough. We rushed to find an English speaking doctor on the US Embassy website and found one that happened to be in the building just across the street. We found his tiny, one man practice and knocked at the door.
Dr. Enzo Duarte was a suave, 78 year-old private practitioner trained at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic, sporting a natty grey beard and round, tortoise shell glasses. He also owns a classic black leather doctors bag for making house calls, which he does most mornings. He believes that careful questioning and a thorough physical examination of a person goes a long way in his diagnosis. He was not big fan on lab work. But he was big on patient care. We sat with him for over an hour, and he acted as though we were the only patients he’d have that day even though he had someone sitting in his tiny waiting room (he peeked out the door and sent her off for coffee). After declaring Mr. Campbell had acute bronchitis, he sent us off to get antibiotics and a few over the counter medications. He called to check on us that evening and asked us to come back the next day for a check up. He seemed genuinely delighted to see us, and in fact, told us he’d never had a patient just show up in his clinic as we had. He was intrigued with our story and we really felt he took extra measures to make sure Michael got well over the next two weeks. On our last day Dr. Duarte proclaimed Michael “good to go”.
Unfortunately, a few days later when we arrived in France Mr. Campbell was hit with the same symptoms! A doctor there suggested allergies might be part of the problem since we were staying in Samois-sur-Seine, our daughter’s village set deep in the woods, and prescribed steroids for inflammation, and an antihistamine inhaler, and insisted Michael have blood tests, a chest x-ray and a CT scan. Fortunately Mary was with us to smooth the process and get him to various appointments. At one point there was concern about a pulmonary embolism, but that turned out to be negative. We are now in Albureira, Portugal and with the sunshine and sea air he is almost 100% recovered.
I am telling this long winded tale because we often get asked about health care on the road. So far we’ve spent about $800 out of pocket in 2019, most of that during these past two months. We use Insure my Trip for our travel health insurance, and there is a deductible of $1,000 on a $50,000 policy. Michael purchases the insurance every 6 months and our current policy expires in June, so even if we were to reach the deductible (hopefully not) before June15th the coverage ends and we would be starting a new policy. In the big picture, even though we are out of pocket several hundred dollars, we received excellent care from two physicians, lab work, a CT scan and several different prescription medications for the price.
All of that totaled little more than my monthly health insurance premium where I was paying $750 for my Kaiser individual health care plan with a $5000. deductible. We have dropped that policy while we are traveling this year to save money. Michael is covered by Medicare, but coverage does not apply overseas. All this is to say, when you travel you can be assured of good medical care - so don’t let a fear of getting ill or injuries stop you. There are plenty of travel insurance policies out there, and your own may cover you while you are away from home for shorter trips.
Beyond losing a couple of days to recovery, we also lost a few opportunities to explore Rio due to a huge storm that blew through. It brought a months worth of rain overnight - and we slept through it! We did hear gigantic claps of thunder, and flashes of lightning lit up the apartment, and of course we could see the heavy rain, but we just thought it was a typical tropical storm. It wasn’t until we ventured out afterward that we understood the devastation it caused. Mud and water had churned down from the Tijuca Forest and flooded the streets and tore up trees less than two miles from where we were staying.
We only really grasped the situation when we tried to visit the Botanical Gardens and they were closed. A stranger stopped to ask if he could help us and when we said we were confused by the garden closure he pulled out his phone and showed us a video of a churning river of muddy brown running right where we where standing!
Two days later we tried to take an Airbnb Experience to see the Christ the Redeemer statue and tour the Tijuca Forest but the winding hillside road to the statue was closed due to storm damage. We were able to spend several hours in the forest, and you could tell from the raging waterfalls, displaced trees and gullies filled with mud just how powerful the storm was. Our guide took us to many amazing viewpoints where we could look over the city, and we enjoyed sharing bananas with Black Capuchin monkeys and Quatis. We also spotted a Black Beak Toucan, but no sloths - even though there are many of the slow goers in the forest.
For the rest of our stay the weather was mixed as Rio returned to normal. We took a Free Walking tour of the city center and found it lacking in charm, but rich in history. We decided to find out more so we booked an Airbnb Experience called Get to Know Little Africa and it’s Heritage.
Our guide Gabi showed us parts of the city few locals even know about and we learned the dark history of slavery in Brazil. The ramifications of the sudden emancipation of hundreds of thousands of slaves in 1888 still affects Brazil today. Here’s a good article about this part of Brazilian history in The Guardian newspaper that was written in the lead up to the 2016 Olympics.
We continued to learn the history of this country and Rio in particular, and how the residents of the impoverished Favalas and the wealthier city dwellers came to live one on top of the other. As with all the South American countries we visited, the current political challenges can be traced back to their occupation by European countries, in Brazil’s case Portugal, followed by brutal wars for independence, civil unrest and corrupt dictatorships along the way. The history of the Favelas past and present was particularly interesting and, again reached all the way back to the late 19th century and the end of slavery. If you have a few minutes this link offers an insightful and hopeful look at what is happening in these communities today.
Attending a football match in this football crazy country was high on our wish list, so once again we turned to Airbnb Experiences. Michael went on his own with an Airbnb group to a Boca Juniors match in Buenos Aires and really enjoyed it - and also felt safe. In Rio we would be able to attend a very important Copa Libertadores match between the revered Flamengos and San Jose in Maracana Stadium. Tickets would have been almost impossible to get on our own, and we’d heard it was even more dangerous to attend a match here than in Buenos Aires without local knowledge so we booked the Maracana Football Experience.
Buying this Experience allowed us to work our way into the stadium through some harrowing situations that included huge, crushing crowds and three security checks. There were two guides shepherding eleven of us including an elderly couple (not us), a French family with two very jet-lagged young boys, a lone Russian man, and a cute couple from England and these Senior Nomads. One guide was about 6’3” and he held his iPhone flashlight high in the air as a beacon for us moving forward while the other guide swept up from behind. We had good seats and really enjoyed the match. But more importantly after the match, we got to our mini-bus in one piece and were delivered to our front door by our guide. I know this sounds like a never ending promo for Airbnb Experiences, but we truly believe the program offers unique and affordable opportunities to experience things from a local perspective. And you don’t have to stay in an Airbnb to book one. Or, if you have a passion or skill to share, you could become a host.
Attending Carnival whether here in Rio or anywhere else has never been a draw for us. But we found an opportunity take a backstage tour of a Samba School warehouse to see how Carnival floats and costumes are made and learn some history. We also got to dress in costumes and try a little Samba! Learning about the year long process of planning and design behind the mega-event was fascinating. I won’t do the story behind Carnival justice, so if you have four minutes watch this interesting Economist Youtube video . With our new knowledge, we might be tempted to return for the real thing.
Other days were spent walking the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. We did try and swim a few times, but the waves were too much for me and I got tumbled like a load of laundry and came out with a lot of sand in all the wrong places! There were lots of lovely places to have a drink and listen to music along the promenade, however, and plenty of window shopping in the in the side streets. And while it might not make everyone’s Rio vacation to-do list, we enjoyed watching Tiger Wood’s comeback victory at The Masters with our new VPN.
Rio was the last city on our “Whistle Stop” tour of South American. We visited the capital cities of 5 out of 14 countries: Peru, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil, and came away with a tantalizing taste of what further exploration could offer. We found the people kind, the history fascinating, the weather fabulous this time of the year, and surprisingly, the food just so-so. Altogether, this was a memorable chapter of Senior Nomad travel and we are thankful we had a chance to meet our neighbors to the south, however briefly.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads