Sunday, August 10, 2014

Brazil 2014 - Days 14 & 15 (6/26-27/2014) - Porto Alegre, then Home

It was a rainy day in Porto Alegre, which threatened to put a damper on our plans.  As Raj led us out on his planned walking tour of the city, I temporarily vetoed the idea of walking about in the rain for hours.  We stopped at a cafe for breakfast and to consider our options.  Since I couldn't come up with any better ideas (I had let Raj do most of the sightseeing planning the whole trip), and the rain had died down a bit, I yielded to his better judgment.  He suggested that we take the bus into the center of town, instead of walking there, and so we did.

When we arrived downtown, we went on a ramble to various of the sights that he had picked out from his various sources.  One notable stop was Santander Cultural, where an exhibition of Vik Muniz's work was currently showing, as well as the adjoining Praça da Alfândega.  We also entered the Meseu Militar, before finding a side bar to have lunch and watch the USA vs Germany match.  It seemed like all the bars/restuarants in that part of town offered similar "a-la-carte" menus that provided few vegetarian options, but we found one with a TV and grilled cheese sandwiches (they were actually ham and cheese tostadadas, but we ordered them without the ham).  As for the match, the US lost 1-0 but still progressed to the round of 16 since Portugal beat Ghana 2-1.

After eating we walked over to the Gasômetro, situated next to the ginormous Lagoa dos Patos.  After some searching and some asking, we found the art terrace that overlooks the north tip of the lagoon (and just the north end looks expansive by itself).  Unfortunately, the dreary weather on that day did not allow the greatest of views.  After leaving there, we took a bus down to the Fundação Iberê Camargo (Iberê Camargo Foundation).  I wasn't a huge fan of this museum, but I couldn't complain too much since it was free to enter.  And after that we returned by bus to the hotel.

We regrouped for a bit in our room before deciding to walk to a nearby Arabian restaurant named Baalbek.  It was among the classier joints that we ate at during the trip, and the food was pretty good, particularly the felafel.  We also shared some hummus (it was purely chickpeas, so I didn't enjoy it as much as the oily versions that I've come to love), a Lebanese cheese thing (which I also liked quite a bit), and a thinly-sliced fried eggplant dish.  For dessert we split a couple of baklava-type (but not quite) pastries, and took a couple of Turkish-delight-like (but not quite) treats for the road.  We returned to the hotel to rest for a couple of hours before checking out and taking a taxi to the airport around 10:30.  Note that we had book the room through the next day, but an American Airlines schedule change had moved our flight up to 12:30 in the morning (from sometime in the mid morning).

I managed to get a bit of sleep on the 9 hour flight from Porto Alegre to Miami.  We both made the mistake of eating some of the dinner that was served an hour or two into the flight, after having stuffed ourselves just a few hours prior.  When breakfast was served close to arrival, I couldn't consider partaking, but Raj was able to take it down like a champ.  We had a 4.5 hour layover in Miami, though a chunk of that was taken by going through immigration and customs.  Raj also found out that a fraudulent transaction had been attempted on his credit card in Brazil, but that it fortunately had been declined.  Unfortunately, though, this meant that his card had to be canceled.  The flight back to St. Louis was on a fairly new 737, which impressed me quite a bit (go Boeing!).  My dad (who had just got in from Kuwait a few days prior) picked us up at the airport, and the vacation came to an end.

Brazil 2014 - Day 13 (6/25/2014) - Nigeria vs Argentina

Our Ibis hotel did not provide complementary breakfast (it was extra), so there was no reason to be up at any particular time that morning.  We both woke up around 9:30 and left the hotel about an hour later.  After walking around for a while in search of a place to have breakfast, we settled on Barbarella Bakery.  We both had the mushroom quiche and also shared some kind of orange pastry.  After eating we walked to a nearby taxi stand and took a taxi to the stadium, Estádio Beira-Rio.

Argentinian supporters outnumbered Nigerians about (if I had to guess) 50 to 1, and they were by far the majority there.  In contrast, the last 2 crowds at the Nigeria games had been mostly Brazilians.  The 1:00 match was the most entertaining of the 3 that we saw, with 5 goals scored between the 2 teams, and Messi (and Musa) working his magic.  Unfortunately, Argentina came out on top 3-2, but Nigeria still qualified for the knock-out stage.  Funnily, after the game I received quite a few offers from Argentinians to trade jerseys - it must have been over 15 by the time we left the stadium and surrounding area.  I also had 3 people offer to sell me a ticket to the round of 16 game (against France) - which I couldn't go to anyway, since I was returning to the States in a couple of days.

We next walked down to the nearby mall and snacked on pao de queijo and McD's ice cream.  Then we walked through the city in the direction of the hotel, stopping at Tapas Bar in a bohemian neighborhood to watch the 5 PM Group E match between France and Ecuador and split some falafel and some other Indian-inspired tapas.  After the goalless draw, we began walking toward the hotel by Parque da Redenção.  However, a kind stranger warned us that he had just witnessed a couple of guys get robbed in a poorly lit spot in the direction that we were headed.  Freaked out a bit, we turned around and began discussing alternate ways back.  After walking a few blocks in a roundabout direction, we decided to just take a taxi back to the hotel.

One additional note - despite being overcast all day, the rain never came while we were out, save for a very light and brief sprinkle in the evening.  It apparently did come during the night, though.

Brazil 2014 - Day 12 (6/24/2014) - Corcovado, to Porto Alegre

We got a bit of a later start than desired, as we ideally wanted to be at Cosme Velho by 8:00 when the first day-of tram tickets went on sale.  We quickly ate breakfast in the apartment (our host kindly had breakfast out early, though we told her it was not necessary) and were downstairs and outside around 7:40.  We were lucky to catch the 583 bus immediately, which the girl the day before told us terminates at Cosme Velho.  We reached our destination at 8:15 and lined up for tickets.  The earliest tram we could get on was 11:20, so we bought that and then needed to kill some time.  We walked down the street and around the area for a while, before returning to the Museu Internacional de Arte Naif do Brasil next door.  We were there a few minutes before they opened at 10:00, so we bought a couple of drinks at their cafe.  I initially was not going to enter the museum at all (I was going to chill outside while Raj checked it out), but Raj found out that they were offering a 2-for-1 deal with tram tickets, so it was only R$6 each.  I'm glad I went in, as the museum turned put to be better than I expected.  Not amazing or anything, but probably worth the reduced entry fee.

After the museum, we headed next door to the tram station at 11:00, as we had been advised.  The tram ended up departing about 10 minutes late, closer to 11:30.  The ride up to the top of the Corcovado took somewhere around 25 minutes, and it was quite crowded up there (as expected).  We stayed up there around 45 minutes, taking pictures and trying to enjoy the view as much as can be allowed with so many people there.  The line for the tram down seemed lengthy, but that was only because it moves a couple hundred at a time - so we didn't wait too long.  The first leg of the ride down included some entertainment from a street band.  After leaving the tram station at Cosme Velho, we were again fortunate to almost immediately catch the 584 back toward Leblon.

We went back to the apartment to get our things and "check out" of the apartment.  Our host suggested a by-the-kg buffet called Grill Inn a few blocks away (she said only 2 blocks, but it turned out to be more like 5) for a quick lunch, so we walked there.  We hurriedly ate some of the vegetarian options that we could decipher, paid, and then caught a taxi outside the restaurant at 3:30.

The traffic getting to the airport was ridiculous.  We were basically in a parking lot for about 30 minutes.  It seemed to have to do with a bunch of different major roads merging together before the Túnel André Rebouças.  Once we got past the tunnel, things cleared up for the most part.  However, we were still cutting things super close, as we approached the airport around 4:40, about 40 minutes before our flight was to depart (5:21).  Things took a turn for the worse when out taxi driver accidentally turned into the garage parking for terminal 2, instead of heading to the departures area.  He apologized and asked us (as far as we could understand) if we wanted him to go back around or go in through the garage.  We chose to go in, as we were super late, and he dropped us off by the stairs.  We quickly paid and half ran up the stairs.  Then we found out that we were at the international arrivals area.  So we half ran over to the escalators and up two levels to domestic check-in.  We found an automatic kiosk and checked in there, indicating that we were fully qualified for the exit row seats it put us in (even though we didn't speak Portuguese) so as not to be slowed down.  By now the departures board showed our flight at final call.  Then we ran over to the security checkpoint, where luckily the line was essentially nonexistent.  We quickly went through (we had already prepped most of our gear, e.g., our belts, while in the taxi, and we thankfully didn't have to separate liquids or take off our shoes like in the U.S.) and found our gate about 3 or 4 down.  It had taken us about 8 minutes from check-in to the boarding gate, and we ended up having plenty of time to spare - there was still a line of about 20 people when we got there, and at least 20 more boarded after us.

We had a 2+ hour layover in Curitiba, where we snacked on pão de queijo in the airport.  The quick flight to Porto Alegre was bumpy, with the flight attendants even ending refreshment service early.  After arriving at the airport, we hired a taxi at the stand, and took that to our Ibis Moihnos de Vento hotel.  It was raining pretty heavily, and some of the streets were partially flooded.  We hoped that the rain wouldn't continue through the match the next day, but the forecast didn't look good.

Brazil 2014 - Day 11 (6/23/2014) - Rio

We were pleasantly surprised that our Airbnb host had put out breakfast for us - though perhaps we should have expected it after she mentioned it the day before.  She made an appearance while we were eating, and we had a discussion mostly about Brazilian politics (it seems like everyone hates the government here).  After eating Raj and I took the bus from right in front of the apartment building over to Shopping RioSul, then walked to Urca to get in line for the Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) cable car, arriving there around 9:50.  The line for tickets was really long, and it didn't help that the guided tour people were being let in at a faster rate than the "regular people".  The line eventually began moving more quickly, and we were through and into the cable car after 50 minutes or so.

The first cable car took us up to the top of Morro de Urca, where we spent some time taking pictures.  When we went to get in line for the second cable car for Sugarloaf Mountain, we were both surprised and terrified by how long it was - it seemed to wrap around the whole area.  I didn't remember the lines being even half as long when I went there 5 years earlier, but then there wasn't a massive soccer tournament going on then.  We eventually got through that line after an hour and made our way up to Sugarloaf.  After more picture taking we made our way back down to the bottom by cable car and then walked toward the nearby beach, Praia Vermelhes.  The 1:00 final group stage games were in the second half, so we stopped at the Terra Brasilis restaurant to catch the end of Netherlands vs Chile.  After a long wait to get seated, and a long wait to have our order taken, we found out that they didn't have any pizzas available (the best vegetarian options on the menu).  So we finished our drinks (by now Guaraná had become my drink of choice) and left when the game was over.

We walked back to the shopping mall and found the kiosk for the Corcovado tram.  The girl at the counter informed us that the next available tram was the next evening, after we would have left the city, but that we could show up early the next day to try to get some tickets from the 20% reserved for in-person sales.  After that we took the bus to Copacabana in search of a pizzeria that Raj had noted, but it was closed.  Instead we wandered around in search of somewhere with available seating that had TVs.  We settled on a small bar/restaurant/pizzeria called Tipicamente.  There, we shared a mushroom pizza and watched Brazil thump Cameroon 4-1 (a scoreline that Raj predicted) in the 5:00 match that the vast majority of the country cared more about.  The Brazilians went nuts whenever their team scored and at the final whistle, including setting off fireworks in the street.  After eating we walked around Copacabana for a bit before heading back to the apartment.

Brazil 2014 - Day 10 (6/22/2014) - To Rio

I was up by 3:15 to begin getting ready to head for the airport.  We left the hotel around 4:00 and took a taxi to the airport.  When checking in for our 5:30 flight, the Gol representative told us that we would have to check in again in Brasilia for our connection to Rio.  We didn't really understand why they couldn't just give us boarding passes for both legs, but we just dealt with it.  In Brasilia I had to explain our situation to another Gol representative as well as yet another on the phone (who spoke better English) in order to have to keep from going back through security.  It turned out OK in the end, and we boarded without boarding passes.

In Rio, we were met by Raj's former colleague Luiza and her boyfriend João.  They kindly picked us up from the airport and treated us to lunch at a restaurant called Alessandro E Frederico in Leblon.  They also dropped us off at the apartment building where our Airbnb lodging was arranged.  After getting into the apartment (which was quite nice) and meeting our host, we walked down to Ipanema beach, which was only a couple of blocks away (the apartment was close to the intersection of Ipanema and Copacabana).  We walked up and down the beach, then over to Forte de Copacabana.  The museum part of the fort did not appeal much to me, but the view from the top was worth the R$6 admission.

We headed back to the apartment for a quick change, then back out to find a place to watch the 7:00 USA vs Portugal match.  After passing on a place that Luisa had suggested, we ended up at the very crowded Banana Jack's, surrounded by many other Americans.  We both had the veggie burger and enjoyed the roller coaster game, which ended in a draw.  Afterward we walked back to the apartment and plotted the next day's activities.

Brazil 2014 - Day 9 (6/21/2014) - Nigeria vs Bosnia

Cuiabá is not terribly appealing from a tourist perspective, so I wasn't too sad to be spending only about 1.5 days there.  We took it super easy this morning, getting up around 9 for breakfast at the hotel (which was the weakest thus far, but not bad) before returning to the room to lie around lazily for a while.  We eventually showered and prepared to leave.

We walked down the street to Sorvetelle, a restaurant that got good ratings on Trip Advisor for its ice cream.  Raj ordered a milkshake while I made a sundae, and we watched the 1 PM match.  After the match, Raj and I decided to walk around the town for a while.  We wandered past a few spots that we had noted in tourist maps and Trip Advisor, including the supposed geodetic center of South America and Igreça Nossa Senhora do Bom Despacho.  We then tried to go to a pizzeria that Raj had read about, but it was closed.  So we instead walked back to Sorvetelle for the Germany vs Ghana match.  This time we ordered real food - a personal sized pizza for each of us.  We only stayed partway through the second half, as we wanted to get to the stadium early for our match.

There was special signage at a couple of nearby bus stops for buses going to Arena Pantanal.  We went to one of these bus stops and hopped on a bus with stadium signage (along with a few other guys who had also been at the restaurant).  The area around the stadium had been blocked off, so the stadium stop was still a ways from the stadium itself.  Things seemed fairly well organized, though, and we had no problems walking to the stadium.  We were through security much earlier than the last match, and had about 45 minutes to kill before kick-off.  The match turned out to be a nail-biter, with Nigeria obviously stalling to hold on to a slim 1-0 victory.  After the match, we couldn't quite figure out which bus would take us back toward our hotel, or where to catch it, so we instead walked all the way back.  We also stopped briefly at SESC Arsenal to check out the popular local hangout.  We made it a pretty early night, as we had a very early start the next day.

Brazil 2014 - Day 8 (6/20/2014) - São Paulo to Cuiabá

Having reached the midpoint of our trip, some laundering of clothes was in order.  Luckily, there was a cleaner just across the street from our hotel.  We went there after a relatively early breakfast to inquire about pricing (R$40 for 5 kg - we ended up paying R$49) and timing (4 hours for wash and dry).  Finding things agreeable, we returned to the room to bag up our dirty clothes and pack our bags.  After checking out and stowing our bags, we dropped off our laundry and then started walking over to the city center around 9:00.

We walked around the city center for a while, and our main (and first) stop was Edifício Altino Arantes (Altino Arantes Building), formerly known as Banespa.  After getting through a short but slow queue (they only allow up about 6 at a time) and having to provide ID and check my backpack, we we took 2 elevators and 2 flights of stairs to the 34th floor 360 degree observation walkway.  Guests only have 5 minutes at the top.  It's a fairly efficient operation, and the view is definitely worth the price of free.  We also stopped at a historic monastery that had some displays concerning the church and football.

We next walked over to the Luz metro station and took the yellow line to the green line, and took that a couple of stops down.  We got off and walked down to Beco do Batman and Beco do Aprendiz, a couple of alleys that are completely covered in street art.  It turned out to exceed my expectations, as I anticipated seeing more random graffiti than art.  The area in general also has quite a bit of street art on many walls and buildings.

After the street art, we walked over to GOA, a vegetarian restaurant.  It is set up with daily menus that give patrons a choice of appetizer (on this day a soup or a salad), a main course (veggie "hamburger", couscous, or pasta), dessert (chocolate or fruit pudding/moose) and juice (watermelon, mixes, or chá).  We actually each got both the soup and salad, while Raj got the hamburger and I the couscous.  We also split the two dessert options, and I tried the first 2 juice options.  The were pretty liberal with what they allowed you to get (a guy at a table next to us got 2 mains), which was pretty great.  The food was also pretty good for the most part, especially the mains.

Next we headed to the Museu do Futebol, which is in one of the local stadiums.  The exhibits were kind of hit or miss for me, but there were more of them than I expected.  And at R$6 I couldn't complain much about the price.  From there we walked back to the cleaner to pick up our laundry, which we then packed in our bags that we retrieved from the hotel.  It was around 6:30 at this time so after a brief sit we walked over to Praça Republica to arrange to take the express bus to the airport.  We bought tickets for the 7:20 shuttle then walked to a nearby Casa do Pao de Quiejo for a quick and light dinner of grilled cheese sandwiches (and a brownie).  The shuttle provided WiFi and streamed the World Cup game between Ecuador and Honduras.  We arrived a little early for our 9:35 flight, and had no issues getting to Cuiabá.

In Cuiabá, we took a taxi from the airport to the Abudi Hotel.  The airport taxis work on a formula-determined price that is prepaid at the taxi desk.  We checked into the hotel around midnight local time.

Brazil 2014 - Day 7 (6/19/2014) - São Paulo

Raj was in charge of the itinerary for the day, and he came up with a walking tour of some areas close to our hotel.  Before heading out, though, we had the usual breakfast at the hotel just before it closed at 9:30.  The weather was to be in the 60s (and even a bit lower) that day, so we bundled/layered up a bit more than normal.

Our first stop on the walk was Estação Pinacoteca, an extension of the Pinacoteca museum in a railway station complex.  Though it was not actually what Raj was looking for (he wanted the Pinacoteca), it had some interesting exhibits about Brazilian history, resistance, and the role of football (soccer) in politics.  We kept looking for the Pinacoteca until we found the Parque da Luz, and decided to walk through that.  We happened onto a couple who were out with their two kids and who spoke great English.  They explained that many things were closed that day for a national holiday (Corpus Christi) and advised us on what parts of town to go to instead.  They also revealed to us that the Pinacoteca was in the Parque da Luz (we had actually walked past the back of it), so we headed there next.  We spent the bulk of our time there going through the chronological history of Brazilian art on its second floor.

After leaving the museum, we hopped on the Metro and took Linha (Line) 1 to Paraíso, which is at the south end of Avenida Paulista.  We first tried to stop by a Lebanese restaurant that Raj had read about, but it was closed.  Instead we stopped at Starbucks for a warm drink (white chocolate, in my case) and snack (caramel brownie).  We then walked up Paulista and stopped by MASP (Museu de Arte São de Paulo) and Parque Tenente Siqueira Campos, before walking over to a nearby pub to try to catch the 4:00 England vs Uruguay game, but the place had a line out the door.  So we instead crossed the street and watched it at Frutaria São Paulo, which is apparently a health food restaurant.  Raj had the veggie burger and fries while I had a tostex provolone, which turned out to basically be a provolone grilled cheese sandwich - it was pretty fantastic.  Unfortunately, I also ordered a swiss lemonade, which basically turned out to be the equivalent of lemon juice.  Raj and I also shared a creme brulé.  England lost 2-1.

After leaving the restaurant, we walked over to the FIFA Fan Fest, which was taking place at Parque Anhagabaú, which wasn't too far from our hotel - I wanted to see if they were selling Nigeria scarves there (I had been unable to find one on the street or at the first game).  Unfortunately, they were not selling any merchandise at the fest.  So we just watched the rest of the first half of Japan vs Greece.  At halftime we walked back to the hotel and caught the rest of the game in our room.

Brazil 2014 - Day 6 (6/18/2014) - Itaipu

Before breakfast, Raj went down to the tourism desk at the hotel and bought two tickets for the 1:30 Special Tour at Itaipu Binacional dam.  This tour was recommended over the Panoramic Tour on Trip Advisor, as it takes you inside the dam instead of just outside and on it.  We didn't really have anything to do before the tour, so we took our time with breakfast, checking out, stowing our bags, and then slowly making our way to Itaipu.  We took the bus to the main bus terminal and then switched to the 102, which took us to the visitors center of the complex.  We were an hour early, so after exchanging our voucher for tickets (and stowing my daypack in a locker) we explored the gift shop for a while.  After that, we found that they were showing the 1:00 match between Netherlands and Australia on a big TV outside the auditorium, which we needed to be inside at 1:30.  We caught a couple of fantastic goals before starting the tour.

The tour began with a half hour informational video about the whole Itaipu project (which is apparently more than just the dam), and then we gathered for a security check (which they take pretty seriously) before boarding our small bus.  The tour was facilitated by a couple of helpful bilingual guides who initially took us by a couple of panoramic spots.  The first "stop" (we actually didn't get a chance to disembark) was in front of the dam, and provided a view of the spillway (which sadly was not open).  We next drove on top of the dam, where we were able to get off the bus and take pictures of both the downstream side and the reservoir side.  We then crossed into the Paraguay half of Itaipu and drove down and around to the back side of the power house.  We split into two groups (by language) and went into the dam, where our guide took us on a couple of different levels, including showing us one of the turbine shafts in action.  We also crossed over to the power house and saw the main control room.  It was pretty fascinating, and the sheer size of the project was very impressive.  After the tour was done, they took us back to the visitors center, where Raj and I bought a couple of small souvenirs.  We also stopped for a snack of pao de queijo (cheese bread/loaf, which we had been consuming quite frequently on the trip), while watching some of the next soccer match, in the cafe/bistro.

We were lucky to catch the 104 express bus back to the terminal, though we wasted some of that gained time by trying to take a bus back to the hotel - we could probably have walked the 8 blocks back to the hotel before the bus arrived, as it wound through downtown, and then dropped us off 2 blocks from the hotel.  In any case, we picked up our bags at the hotel and then took the same bus the other (quicker) way back to the terminal, and then the bus to the airport (which is also the same to the falls).  We were a bit on the late side for our 7:42 flight, and the plane was apparently boarding when we got through the slow security line.  We didn't actually realize this, and stopped to buy some more pao de quiejo at a cafe.  By then Raj heard the final boarding call, and hurried over to the gate to check in and let them know I was on my way.  When we eventually got to the plane, after boarding by stairway, Raj realized that he was missing his wallet, and reasoned that he must have left it at the cafe counter.  Fortunately, one of the attendants was able to go back and retrieve it for him.

We made it to São Paulo without any more issues.  After landing and disembarking, we bought tickets on the 10:40 shuttle to Praça Republica.  We had about 30 minutes to kill, so we got some gelato at a shop in the airport before heading to the platform to catch our bus.  From Republica we walked the fairly short distance to Hotel Calstar and checked in.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Brazil 2014 - Day 5 (6/17/2014) - Foz

The breakfast at Bella Italia was an improvement over the already solid buffet from Hotel Aladdin - they additionally had more warm items, and some huge wheels of cheese.  After eating we headed to the front desk to ask about getting to the falls.  We took a bus to the main bus terminal, and then switched to the Parque Nacional bus.  After the 30-ish minute ride to the park, we entered (after getting off a stop too soon - you would think that I would get it right after having been there before 5 years prior) and bought tickets.  We took the park bus to the trail that began at the first view of the falls, and then took the trail to the falls and down the Devil's Throat walkway.  This time, I was prepared with a rain jacket, rain pants, and rain cover for my backpack.  Another difference of note this time was that the water flow was higher than normal - some recent heavy rains had caused huge floods (and reached a peak flow rate 33 times higher than normal) and overflown the Devil's Throat walkway.  The flow had since reduced, but was clearly still pretty high.  One visible symptom was the greatly increased muddiness of the water.  Thankfully, pretty much all paths and walkways had been reopened by our arrival.

We next took the elevator to the panorama platform, before stopping for a snack while watching some of the first half of the 1:00 Belgium vs Algeria game.  When we got going again, Raj wanted to walk back up the trail by the falls, as we didn't really have anything else to do.  This ended up allowing for some better shots of the falls, as the clouds had dissipated a bit and the sun was in a favorable position.  After getting back to the start of the trail, we took the park bus back to the visitors center, and then caught the bus back into town.
Once in town, we got off the bus after passing by a few bars that looked to be gearing up to show the Brazil vs Mexico match.  We walked back to Jardim de Cerveja (literally, Beer Garden) and sat down to watch the match.  Even though it was a 0-0 draw, it was a more entertaining match than the Nigeria match the day before had been.  After the match, we walked back to the hotel to settle in early for the night and watch the late soccer match (Russia vs South Korea).  This turned out to be a decent idea, as it began to rain quite hard at around 8:00.  We also pondered what to do the following day, and decided on a visit to Itaipu dam.  We tried to book it ourselves, but could not complete the process on the website, so we decided to try through the hotel's tourism desk in the morning.

Brazil 2014 - Day 4 (6/16/2014) - Nigeria vs Iran

The main activity on the docket for the day was the World Cup game between Nigeria and Iran.  We got a late start because we didn't have anywhere we needed to be besides downstairs for breakfast by 10:00 and checked out by 11:00.  After checking out and stowing our big bags, we walked down to Arena da Baixada just to check out the stadium area, which turned out to be heavily secured by military police.  We then wandered around trying to find a place to watch the 1:00 game between Germany and Portugal.  The two places that Raj had read about were both closed, so we ended up going to Devassa in Patio Batel.  Along the way, we picked up three Nigerians (friends from secondary school, two being brothers) who were also looking to watch the game.  Our group, with 4 green jerseys, began to get some attention and shows of support (especially by honking/yelling drivers in the street), which was a welcome change from having seen more (though not a ton) Iranian support thus far.

At the bar, Raj and I ordered a couple more rounds of cheese pastries (which we had shared a couple of nights before) and drinks.  Our Nigerian companions invited along even more Nigerians to join our table, one of whom was bringing a ticket for one of them.  Raj and I left the bar a bit before the end of the early game, as Germany clearly had control of the game up 4-0 (which turned out to be the final score) and one man, and walked all the way over to the stadium (having to show our tickets to the military police to get past a couple of street barricades).

The line at our entrance into the stadium was pretty long, and it took us well over a a half hour to get through the line and the security checkpoint - I'm definitely glad we showed up early. Once through, we found our seats, which were literally in the last row of the upper deck.  Despite this, our view of the field was actually pretty good (though both video boards were obstructed).  The game itself was a bit of a snoozer - it ended 0-0, and the quality of play just about fit that scoreline.

After the game, we walked back to our hotel to pick up our big bags.  We then crossed back over to the Estação mall to watch the US a vs Ghana game at a pizzeria there.  We each ordered a personal pizza (they had a lot of vegetarian choices) and drinks while we watched the game.  We left to catch the shuttle to the airport just after Ghana's late equalizer, but were still walking through the mall when Brooks scored what turned out to be the late winner.

Our flight to Fox do Iguaçú was supposed to depart at 10:42, but was delayed by about 30 minutes.  There was a large group of Nigerian fans at the airport who were all apparently traveling next to Sao Paulo.  One struck up a conversation with me - he was a sporting director and football (soccer) writer, though our conversation was mostly about other topics.  After eventually boarding our plane and flying to Foz (which only took somewhere around an hour), we were a bit surprised to find a driver waiting for us at the airport (Raj forgot having arranged this).  He drove us to Bella Italia Hotel in the city, where we checked in and soon called it a late night.

Brazil 2014 - Day 3 (6/15/2014) - Curitiba

Sleeping later felt so good this morning.  We didn't get up until around 8:15, and went down for breakfast after getting ready.  It was raining when we left the hotel around 10:00.  The concierge at the front desk spoke decent English, unlike the ones we had previously seen, and suggested that we take the tourist bus (Linha Turismo) around town due to the weather.  We were already planning on doing this, but he did help out by informing us that there was a stop nearby at the Shopping Estação mall - we we're planning to walk all the way over to Praça Tiradentes to catch it at the first stop.  He also gave suggestions regarding which stops to check out - a R$29 allows you to get off and back on 4 times.

We caught the bus at the Museu Ferroviário at Shopping Estação, and took it to the Jardim Botânico.  The tourist bus gives information in Portuguese, Spanish, and English, which we found helpful.  The rain was clearing up by the time we had walked around the Botanical Garden.  We got back on the bus and took it to the Museu Oscar Niemeyer, where we spent quite a bit of time.  We left the museum around 1:30, and walked down to a nearby vegetarian buffet (Sorella) that had good ratings on Trip Advisor.  Although I didn't really know what was in half of what I ate (they had a large variety, and the labels were in Portuguese), the food was for the most part really good.

The next stop after getting back on the bus was a "free" one - the driver and cashier stopped for a few minutes to use the facilities at Bosque Alemão, and we quickly ran out to take some pictures from the top of the Philosopher's Tower.  Our next real stop was Parque Tanguá.  After checking out the top section (which provided a good view of the city to one side as well as a lush valley to another), Raj convinced me to walk down the huge hill (which turned out to be much bigger than he expected) to see the tunnel at the bottom.  The trek was probably worth it, but between the climb back up and running to catch the bus after, I was starting to sweat a bit.  The ride on the top section of the bus cooled us off pretty quickly (it remained in the 60s, Fahrenheit, during the day) and we even had to put our raincoats back on just to stay warm.  Our last sightseeing stop was the Torre Panorâmica, a telecommunications tower that provides a 360° view of the city and surroundings.

We took the bus back to Setor Histórico, and then walked over to Praça Tiradentes, where Raj thought that we could catch a bus to the FIFA fan fest (which was all the way out by one of the stops the tourist bus had gone by earlier).  We couldn't find the appropriate bus, so we walked over to another square where the fan fest bus was also supposed to stop.  Again, we couldn't find it, so we gave up (though I wasn't too sad about that).  We walked back to our hotel, which wasn't far, and asked the concierge where we might watch the game and get some food nearby.  He hesitantly suggested Estação, so we headed back there.  We found a store where I was able to purchase a prepaid local (Claro) SIM card for my phone, with the invaluable help from a woman who sensed that we were in desperate need of it.  In addition to needing a Brazilian social security (equivalent) number to do this, we were thoroughly unable to communicate with the store staff.  The woman used her SSN for us (apparently it's really only a formality, but one is still required) and communicated all our needs and questions to the store staff.  I was successfully able to activate the SIM card (R$5) and load R$30 on to it.  Calls were a bit expensive (ranging from R$0.25 to R$1.50 per minute), but data supposedly only required an access fee of R$0.60 per day (this, however, turned out to only allow a few MB of high speed data; you could refill your high speed allotment for the same price, but I didn't find this out until many days later).  This fee eventually was charged to my account later that night, and I was briefly able to get a very inconsistent Internet connection.
After getting my phone set up, we headed to a microbrewery restaurant in the mall and watched most of Argentina's victory over Bosnia.  Like the night before, we ordered drinks and split an appetizer and dessert.  When the game had concluded (around 9:00), we walked back to the hotel.

Brazil 2014 - Day 2 (6/14/2014) - Serra Verde

We had an 8:15 reservation on the Serra Verde Express, so we were downstairs for breakfast around 7:15.  Hotel Aladdin provides an included buffet breakfast with a pretty good variety of (mostly cold) options.  After eating Raj and I took off by foot for the bus station that we assumed was also the train station.  Google Maps had the Serra Verde office in the same area, but a couple of blocks down and across the street.  After asking for help a couple of times at the bus station (we were pretty well lost at this point), we found out that the train departed from an adjoining building.  We had just enough time before the train left (I, for some reason, had thought that it departed at 8, but Raj knew better) to buy a return ticket from Morretes on the Viacao Graciosa bus for 2:30 that afternoon.  We then picked up our tickets at the Serra Verde office and then boarded the train.

The train ride itself was long, as the train moves quite slowly.  The trip time was lengthened further by a 30+ minute delay due to a failed positioning/logistical system on the train.  The scenic ride through the mountains and rainforest provided some good views (the left side, where we were, is where most of the action is), though many of them were brief since the train was moving.  It was also quite foggy in the mountains that day, which ruined many of the views.  Our guide in the executive class car was trilingual (English, Portuguese, and German), and was definitely helpful in letting us know when we approached photo spots.  They also provided plenty of snacks and drinks for our consumption.

We arrived in Morretes a little before 1:00, though I think our arrival was scheduled for 11:30.  We explored the town on foot for a bit before stopping for lunch at a restaurant (Madal Ozo) that was recommended on Trip Advisor.  It turned out to be quite the experience.  While I was in the bathroom, Raj ordered the only two things that matched our diets - the vegetarian cheese "pancakes" and what he thought was seafood barreado.  The barreado turned out to be the full barreado meal (i.e., with the beef stew), which just happened to include seafood (and lots of it) in some of the courses.  Like a good sport, Raj tried most of it, and far exceeded his usual monthly seafood protein quota in one sitting.  We ate and paid quickly, but still had to hustle in order to make it to bus station by 2:30 (to which we had to ask directions for a couple of times).

The bus ride back to Curitiba was much quicker than the train.  After returning to the main station, we decided to walk to the city center for some exploration.  We ran into a woman, Betty, who had been on our flight from Miami to Curitiba, and accepted her invitation to join her on the trek around the city center that the concierge at her hotel had mapped out for her.  I let her and Raj do the navigating, and basically just tagged along.  We ended by walking her back to her hotel and exchanging some contact info, then Raj and I headed to the Patio Batel shopping center to pick up our World Cup tickets.

Batel turned out to be a pretty nice area of town, and the mall was probably the swankiest I've ever been in.  We picked up the tickets in a section of the underground parking garage that had been tented off, then headed up to a bar (Devassa) recommended by our ticket attendant to watch the match between England and Italy.  We split an appetizer and a dessert while we watched the game, as we were not too hungry after the huge lunch.  I also had a pretty amazing glass of fresh, and surprisingly frothy, lemonade of some kind.  After Italy's victory, we walked the 30 minutes or so back to our hotel, while donning the raincoats that we had packed, as it had grown chilly, even though it wasn't raining.  We then watched Ivory Coast beat Japan in our hotel room before turning in around midnight.
A couple of notes regarding Curitiba...  It seems like every sidewalk is made with cobblestone.  And there are a lot of stray dogs.

Brazil 2014 - Days 0 & 1 (6/12-13/2014) - Getting to Curitiba

This vacation started after a half (or a little more) day at work, trying to wrap up a few loose ends and hand off some work before leaving.  Claire drove me to work, and then Kevin (Whitworth, a coworker) took me to the airport.  Our flight was at 4:40, but Raj had to work at Barnes until 3.  Of course, we were originally planning on leaving on Saturday (6/14), but two American Airlines schedule changes somehow each caused us to bump up departure by a day.  In any case, I was at the airport by 2:30, and waited for Raj at the only place I could find with TVs outside the security checkpoint - The Pasta House Co.  Despite some initial resistance from a very busy waiter (who seemed to be working the whole place alone) I was eventually able to have the TVs switched to the opening game of the World Cup...about 10 minutes after the 3:00 kick-off.  I missed the shock own goal that put Croatia ahead, but was able to see Neymar's equalizer before heading out to meet Raj.

We checked in for the flight to Miami and then went through security, before camping outside the busy Chili's where we could get a view of the rest of the game on TV.  Raj also had some work to finish up by phone while we watched the game and waited for our late-departing plane.  After a fairly uneventful flight to Miami, we caught the shuttle (after a long wait) to the Days Inn Miami International (which AA had arranged for us, at our cost, when they "forced" us to spend the night in Miami).  Being a Days Inn, my expectations were pretty low for the hotel...and it met those low expectations.  But I can't complain too much, as we just needed a place to sleep.

After a pretty terrible night of sleep (probably partially to blame on not being able to sleep on my left side due to a scrape on my hip sustained during a soccer game a couple of nights prior, and partially on anxiety about waking up in time) we took the shuttle back to the airport around 8:00.  We somehow got into the TSA Pre line at the security checkpoint, which made for an easier experience getting through (e.g., no removing shoes or liquids from bags).  Our 10:30 flight departed just about on time, and the flight to Curitiba took 8 hours.  Unfortunately, our plane was a fairly old 767, so it had only common TV entertainment (on some old-school CRTs) and no WiFi.  Despite this, the flight wasn't bad.  And there were plenty of other soccer fans on board traveling to the World Cup.  Raj sat next to a very friendly guy from Sao Paulo, named Alex, who provided a bunch of helpful advice/information, and even gave us his contact info.

Once through immigration and customs at the Curitiba airport, we wandered around looking for the "executive" bus into the city.  We eventually found it with some help from a World Cup information desk.  We bought tickets (R$12, or about USD$5 per person) for the bus and then caught the 8:47 express.  We got off at the second stop, the Estação shopping mall, which was a short walk from our Hotel Aladdin.  We went inside the mall, which was quite impressive, especially in terms of the food selection.  Raj got some items from a by-the-ounce buffet, while I struggled mightily through ordering a sweet banana and cream crepe.  After eating, we walked to the hotel and checked in.  Up in our cozy room, we caught up on soccer highlights on TV (including Spain's incredible 5-1 drubbing by the Netherlands) and other activities on the complementary WiFi before turning in to prepare for another early morning.