Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Brazil is changing before my eyes

As I remember it.

My first visit to Brazil was in 1999. Luiz and I had met early in the year in San Francisco, CA and he soon thereafter began encouraging me to buy a plane ticket to Rio to join him on the beach in Copacabana on NYE for the millennial fireworks. Tempting as it was I was hesitant to lock in a plane ticket months in advance for a trip with a guy I was not sure I would still want to be spending time with. Little did I know Luiz has an instinct for these sorts of things. I’m glad I secured a seat on that plane.

Brazil has changed a lot in the past 14+ years. Some of the things that enamored me with the country at first blush have since faded into history, like the relative lawlessness in everyday life and the liberty that it provided. But also, some of the things that have begun to fade into history have been met with relief, like the relative lawlessness in everyday life that is better suited to a vacation than a daily living situation.

The town matriarch's house is closed up now.

Luiz and I spent this past long Easter weekend with friends in one of our favorite nearby mountain villages: Boa Esperança. I can’t say for sure, but I think the year-round resident population is something like a few hundred, if you also include the dogs, horses and VW Beetles. As tiny and remote as it is, Boa Esperança has certainly changed in recent years.

Dora and Sergão have upgraded their rental from a teeny tiny place to this beautiful three bedroom palace.

It’s not a big thing (well, maybe it is). Not too much has changed. But you can definitely feel change/progress/lost simplicity in the air.

The old dirt road is history.
Now the road is paved. But the air continues to be crystal clear.

Local residents are happy about the recent paving of the road up from neighboring Lumiar. The asphalt now extends all the way to the final intersection in town (although it does not branch outward onto intersecting residential roads). At least now the bus can reach its turnaround point without herniating the spinal disks of its passengers. This is a great improvement if you live there. For us occasional visitors it has removed some of the romance.

The waterfall on private land a good 1,000 meters up the mountain beyond the end of the pavement has morphed into a more developed family picnic spot. Gone are the days of calling out a hello to the owner and his wife when entering, swimming alone in the waterfall, and then being among just your friends and a few additional folks back in the picnic area. Now there is a full-on bar and luncheonette with extensive seating. The newly improved cement path that steeply descends from the access road to the property helps you not rip apart another pair of flip flops. But, unfortunately, now there is a young man sitting at a plastic patio table at the bottom ready to collect a R$3 entrance fee. I don’t blame the family for commercializing their hidden treasure. It is a good idea and it was bound to happen.

I just miss how it used to be. Sappy, I know.

Our decision to move to Brazil 6 years ago was rooted in family obligations, a desire for a lifestyle change, and plain ol’ whimsical adventurousness. The simpler nature of much of the Brazil we have chosen to surround ourselves with has been a balm on many levels. I get it that time rolls along and things progress. Far be it for me to dismiss the very real improvements in people’s lives that things like paved roads, nearby health clinics or internet access provide. I’m generally pro-development.

At least the banana trees are still giving bananas the good old fashion way.

A lot can be written about the changes I have seen these past 14 years through my significantly narrow experience since we became full time residents. Perhaps this post will elicit from me a longer essay on just that topic. At this point let it suffice to say that Luiz and I choose to surround ourselves with the better nature of rural communities, focus on our relationships with friends who share our values, and live in the present, resisting the temptation to surge ahead into a new Brazil that we fear will come to look all too much like the US we left behind.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Room available in Rio for the World Cup

Those are the magic words so many people are trying to hear. As the World Cup approaches the frenzy to tie down suitable housing arrangements all over Brazil has reached a fever pitch. Take a breath. Cool down. I've got some practical advice to help you find the room you require.

There are still great rooms available (like this one, for example). And dare I say it: there will likely still be rooms to find even after the Cup has begun. Let me lay it out.

First things first. If you are looking for that nice hotel in the popular Copacabana/Ipanema/Leblon tourist-friendly beach side zone in Rio, well then, you probably should have had your people call their people a long time ago. Reports that “all” of the hotel rooms in Rio are booked started coming out weeks ago. The easy stuff in the nice locations are gone. Period. Let it go. Just going to a hotel website and booking a room is no longer an option. You can take a little solace in knowing that the folks who got those rooms paid through the nose for them. Hotels have been shameless in their inflated pricing and minimum stay requirements. Chances are great you will ultimately wind up with a perfectly suitable place for a lot less money.

So now what? What’s a Cup fan to do? Let’s get real, practical and specific – and get off the well-worn hotel path. Luiz and I have traveled to many corners of the globe during all seasons of the year. We generally travel on a limited budget prioritizing our safety while also not being shy about staying somewhere completely unexpected. Here are several approaches that have worked for us that may well help you secure your booking.

This is cute, but it is not a good map. Get a good map.

Before we get into it- get a map. Get a good map, not a tourist map that makes Rio look like just three rich neighborhoods with beaches plus outlying areas. Open up your map and locate where you need to go while at your location, where you prefer to stay, and where you would consider staying. Then identify the bus, Metro and taxi routes that weave in and around those areas. If there is a subway system (Metro), and of course Rio has one but there may be readers looking beyond Rio, then expand your “would consider” areas to include those areas around Metro stops that are perhaps further out than you had first considered. The subway will whisk you about very quickly, so being further out is compensated for. The larger your area under consideration the larger your chances of thoughtful, realistic success.

And don’t stop at city boundaries. Places like Niterói, for example, may be a neighboring city to Rio but travel times to and from matches will actually be faster from some areas in Niterói than from some (seemingly more desirable) areas within Rio. Traffic and transportation routes can easily warp travel times. And traffic within the city proper can be nightmarish. In the case of Rio and Niterói there is a ferry service between them that often trims 20 – 30 minutes or more off taking a car, taxi or bus between the same points.

Private rentals

Utilize the websites that post private homes and rooms within homes for rent. Places like Airbnb, HomeAway, and misterbnb, to name a few, are part of a growing number of “vacation rentals” websites growing in popularity. These sites are great for connecting you directly with people who have opened up their home/apartment or a room therein in locations in and around where you want to be. (Normally I would suggest checking out the couchsurfing website for more options, but I have heard again and again in recent weeks that this option is pretty well sewn up.) The vast majority of hosts and guests that utilize these services report having a flawless experience and guests often report enjoying the accommodations better than the typical (and typically more expensive) hotel room.

This looks pretty typical for a living and kitchen space in a regular one or two bedroom apartment.

This is a little more on the higher end of things.

The prices listed by hosts at these sites during the month of the World Cup vary from the ridiculously expensive, often posted by those looking to cash in on the “screw-the-tourists” WC fever going on here, to the great value room that offers more than a hotel for less money, to the VERY cheap opportunity that is perfectly doable but may be in a location or situation you had not previously considered - and is available if you just choose to give it a go.

Be sure to expand your search criteria on these sites to include any neighboring cities you have under consideration.

The great thing about these self-hosting sites is that just as you have been procrastinating to finally nail down your housing, so have home hosts been procrastinating to finally post their unit or room for rent, so new good stuff, often in great locations, continues to appear. If you don’t find anything one day, continue to visit the site and watch for new listings. Once a first-time host books their apartment they will tell their friends and get them on board for listing theirs as well, so another great place may open up soon thereafter. Monitor these sites over time. Luiz and I have a room in our apartment that is available. Check out our listing here.

OK, so that was an obvious option. Here’s another route that produces fresh results that may be off the organized room-rental grid.

Social networking

Duh… Capitalize on the networks you have in place for work and your personal life. Utilize those online social networking sites. I am a member of several Facebook Groups in the Rio area that connect gringos, including groups related to cooking and dining, “garage sale”- stuff for sale, employment networking, bloggers, expats, etc. These groups are comprised of folks on the ground in Rio and beyond that can quickly expand your eyes and ears when searching for a place to rent. Just last week one group member mentioned that they had a couple friends from Europe looking for a place and within a few hours a half dozen group members posted that they had rooms or entire apartments for rent. Drill down into these sites. Search for relevant groups and politely post your needs. If they are closed groups see if the administrator will let you make a one-time post. Be friendly and fun – don’t be an ugly troll. Match the vibe of the group you are poking your head into. Many of these groups prohibit posting solicitations, so consider reaching out to members to make a personal connection and then make your request for local assistance in a private message.

Simple room on the higher end.

As usual, asking everyone you know to ask everyone they know will do wonders for your search.

Utilize forums on travel sites

Sites like Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor. Fodor’sTravel, VirtualTourist, etc. have forums (discussion boards) where travelers ask questions of each other and self-appointed helpful locals. The people who frequent these forums as helpers are usually very eager to offer advice to others. Locate the forums section and key into the city you are targeting (I've linked to Rio above). You can post your need for a room or an apartment to rent there. Also request any insider tips folks may have for those off-the-grid options in those cities.

Pretty typical efficiency kitchen.

Newer two or three bedroom apartments may have a kitchen like this.
I have seen multiple posts lately, at several of the forums I haunt, from World Cup visitors who have already booked space but their travel companions have bailed on them. So now they are looking to hook up with other travelers at the last minute to fill out the space and share the costs already incurred. So it is worth checking in at these sites periodically to see if fellow travelers are looking for you. If you post a request for help or reply to a comment already on the board you can have notice of subsequent comments sent to your email, so you can post requests at multiple sites and not have to circle back and check them all the time.

Consider staying in a favela community

Rio’s favelas (usually defined as poor, slum areas) get a pretty nasty rep in the international press. Heck, most of the time they get a wicked nasty rep in our local press. To the uninformed person looking from the outside in most favelas can look like pretty intimidating, nasty and dicey places. That may be, in fact,  an accurate description for many, many such areas. But there are exceptions. For good or for bad there have been municipally organized incursions into several of Rio’s favela communities by police forces to “pacify” these areas. The stated intention is to win back control of these communities for law-abiding residents and to deny that control to drug traffickers and their minions. This effort has been met with mixed reactions by residents and mixed results by police. Let’s just save that discussion for another time.

For our purposes here it is worth noting that there are indeed some areas in some favelas in Rio that offer very good and relatively safe accommodation opportunities during the Cup. Many poor neighborhoods are just neighborhoods with poor folks living there. Not much drama. And those folks often have perfectly comfortable housing which some are opening up to visitors to rent during their stay in Rio.

Check out Favela Experience’s World Cup Accommodations website for some unlikely yet terrific options. I will remind you that most of the rich folks in Rio live down by the water/beach. The poor folks live in the favelas that have been climbing up the steep hillsides for decades. That means the favela residents have all the killer views.

Book a room in a favela and prepare to have your preconceptions shattered.

Work it out on foot

Yep. That’s right. Just show up and figure it out. It can be done. It works. But it is not for everyone.

This is where I offer my pep talk about the power of personality: your self confidence that allows you to go this route; your gregariousness that enables you to speak to practically everyone you meet to ask for their help; and your gut feeling that keeps you calm and safe in situations that you may not have planned to be in. 

This fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to traveling is not new or all that rare. But it is not for everyone.

In our experience, between Luiz and I, we have found perfectly suitable and quite reasonably priced rooms upon arrival in P-Town, Massachusetts during the 4th of July weekend, in Cabo Frio, Brazil during Carnaval and in Venice, Italy the day before Carnavale. ALL of those situations are simply written off as a fool’s errand by armchair travelers who insist on booking ahead.

The thing to keep in mind is that there are most certainly more rooms available than most people know how to access. I once found a room in the Latin Quarter in Paris upon arrival and paid less than half of what I would have paid for most anything available online in advance. I had to walk down a few side streets and inquire at a number of unlikely places, but it panned out in less than a few hours.

Many, many local hotels do not have a website or are not even on consolidated business association websites. So searching for space via the internet shows only a portion of what’s out there. You need to walk up and down every street in your (prioritized) “preferred” or “would consider” neighborhoods and stop at every hotel and inquire. If they are full, ask where they might suggest you look. Just because a hotel is relatively invisible beyond its front door does not necessarily mean it is not worth staying at. Certainly preview the rooms, but keep an open mind. You may be very pleasantly surprised. The available room may have a balcony overlooking a magical hidden garden area. Many family owned hotels are just not working the business networking thing. There are scores of these types of hotels in Rio.

The trick behind making this pressured search work is: a) trust you will find a room, b) travel light so you can search without lugging around multiple pieces of luggage, c) give yourself some time to search before it gets dark. Don’t arrive at 5 p.m. and expect success before the sun goes down. d) speak to EVERYONE you come in contact with and ask for help, e) if you find a place that is fully occupied, question everyone there about their ideas for where else to look (once a clerk at a small hotel in Cusco, Peru agreed to call her brother at another hotel which lead us to a tip that paid off), f) include in your requests for help a friendly suggestion that you would pay to be a home guest at their place or the place of someone they might suggest (again, this has worked out well for us in the past), g) don’t give up easily. Enjoy the hunt. Rather than get all stressed, know that it is going to take time and effort and just pace yourself. Take in the neighborhood feel and notice the architecture around you. Stop for lunch or a coffee, etc. It’s only a fool’s errand if you give up too easily and act the fool while looking.

One of our best week long stays came about by meeting someone at an ice cream parlor who, after chatting for a bit, offered to move her and her baby out of her home and into her mother’s place to then rent us her house. She needed the money and we needed a place to stay. Win, win. Plus we had all the conveniences of home. Then there was the time in relatively rural Turkey where our inquiring around for a great place for dinner resulted in a guy giving us a ride (to and from) his brother’s restaurant a few miles away. The food was excellent. People who need the money will help you find a solution. Wear a smile and talk to everyone. And have fun with it.

If all else fails consider spending the night in one of Rio’s hundreds of “love hotels,” generally labeled motels. These establishments are in most areas and can vary from pretty fancy setups where all the magic happens to seriously funky flop houses where you should probably use your own sheets. But seriously, many of these motels can be a reasonable place to spend a night to get a fresh start on your neighborhood search in the morning.

Perhaps I digress. Admittedly most folks going to the World Cup did not pay all that money for air travel and game tickets to find themselves sleeping in a temporarily-converted children's room and doubled up with three generations of residents in a private home or in a room adjacent to a sex worker’s home base. I guess my point is to think outside the box and know that a solution is out there for those willing to put in the shoe leather to find it.

So to wrap up… 

The bad news (which you already know) is that if you have read this far you probably have plans to be in Brazil for the World Cup but you have yet to secure all the housing you need during your stay. The good news is that you still have a lot of time to sort things out. But don’t delay any further. Get to work putting some of these tips into action. People with extra cash in their possession can usually pay someone to solve their problem for them (and in the case of the World Cup they will get very expensive accommodation, for sure). The rest of us have to produce some personal magic, otherwise known as hard work.

Don’t panic. You still have time. Now get to it. Being in Brazil for the World Cup is going to be amazing and worth all your efforts. Good luck!