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Saturday, October 4, 2014

AirBnB, Uber, the "Sharing Economy," and US!

Recently, Uber, the pseudo-taxi ride-sharing service that allows any licensed driver to use their personal vehicle as a money-making pseudo-taxi, has been in the headlines a lot here in Chicago. It started in late 2012:

Chicago accuses cab dispatch company of violating city ordinances

Alleged infractions include adding mandatory 20% gratuity; citations accompany separate lawsuits from taxi companies, riders

An alderman on Thursday called out a new taxi dispatch company that allows people to hail cabs using their smartphones and has run into problems with city regulators.

The city cited Uber Technologies Inc. this month with a variety of ordinance violations, including allegedly charging riders a mandatory 20 percent gratuity. The citations came at the same time that Chicago-based taxi and livery companies and passengers filed separate lawsuits against the company, alleging that Uber violated multiple Chicago and Illinois laws and engaged in false price advertising, among other violations.

This is not the first time Uber has found itself in hot water. Traditional cabbie companies, who are subject to strict regulation in many locales, have cried foul. For the moment, Uber and its rival, Lyft, seem to have won the day, at least in Chicago, and Illinois more generally, as Governor Quinn recently vetoed a bill that would have regulated Uber like a taxi company.

While I almost never pay for taxis nor Uber, by extension, my lovely wife and I are intimately familiar with Uber's close cousin in what is now being called the "sharing economy," AirBnB.com. If you're unfamiliar, AirBnB is a space-sharing, pseudo-hotel service where average folks with spare rooms, spare couches, or an alternative place to stay, can post spaces in their homes for rent, to tourists passing through. You can think of these stays as "very short term sub-leases" or "very short-term roommates." Relatively cheaply, compared to hotels, travelers can get a comfortable room, bathroom, and often kitchen and living room amenities. Some AirBnB hosts - like us, on occasion - even rent out their entire apartments for certain lengths of time, when they're on vacation or otherwise elsewhere for awhile.

The Flower of my life and I have been doing AirBnB both as hosts, and as tourists, since around the December of 2012. I can honestly say that AirBnB has changed our lives. This is our story.

~

New York City for the Holidays

Like most couples, I imagine, my wife really is the smart one in the family.

She came across AirBnB, as I recall, looking for relatively inexpensive places to stay during our trip to New York City over the Holiday Break of 2012. I'm a schoolteacher by trade, and she works as an office administrator AND is putting herself through school; so when we travel, we do it cheaply or not at all. To save money both on lodging and on food, she rented us a-few-night stays at both a Lower Manhattan apartment, and a Brooklyn apartment, so we could see different areas of the city. We saved on food because instead of eating out constantly, we did some shopping at nearby grocery stores, and generally cooked our dinners at least a few times during the week, while packing lunches for daytime excursions.

Kind of on a lark, we decided we'd post our place up too, for the time we were gone. We got a booking request shortly after we left for the road trip, though, so we weren't able to make our own booking pan out. But no matter. And why not?

Because once we got to New York City, it was awesome. The Lower Manhattan apartment was small but funky. Yes it was kind of weird that there was a dude apparently tent-camping in the living room - another short-term guest, we supposed - but everything basically worked, and hey, we didn't come all the way to NYC to hang around in an apartment, right? We crashed there when it was bedtime, cooked a couple of meals and mostly hit the town. In the mornings, we threw together some lunch and/or breakfast, then split. We're the sort of people who generally roll pretty well with, "a little weird," and after all, we didn't really interact with the guy living-room camping, nor the other roommate, very much. It all worked out just fine.

The Brooklyn place in the Williamsburg was even better. The roommates there were full-time, so we got to hang out a little with some local folks, and the neighborhood was a funky joy to walk around. For just a few days, we were living like real Brooklynites, and the glorious Tip Top Bar and Grill was just down the street. We really felt like we won New York. The trip was a total joy.

Yet our lodging, for 8-9 nights in New York City, was less than $500. And in fact we DID stay in a relatively nicer hotel for one night, just to class things up a little, which comprised more than a third of that $500, for just the one night. To say we were thrilled with AirBnB at the time is quite an understatement.

~

The Betrothal

Fast forward a couple of months, and the two fiancés are planning their wedding for April 5th, 2013. Like everyone, we wanted our wedding to be something special. As rock-solid agnostics, we didn't want to get married in a church, but the costs of doing it at the event spaces we were looking at - by no means the most grandiose venues, by the way - were discouraging. Again, the schoolteacher and the office girl/student dilemma reared its head. It was either do it outdoors at a local park, with the weather and all, or start off our life together deeply in debt.

Enter AirBnB. Instead of spending $2-3k renting out a banquet hall or art gallery or what have you, why not just rent a bougie loft for a night or two? Instead of charging headlong into a huge credit card bill, we spent $250 on a classy West Loop loft for 24 hours; a place larger and more elegant than our modest apartment. To my joy, we were married in the living room, in front of about 60 friends and family. Our wedding was a do-it-yourself affair, and it cost us around $1200 total to pull off. It was a lovely, intimate evening, and it didn't cost us a fortune. Our reception was immediately after the wedding, and our modest party raged well past midnight. Luckily the neighbors didn't complain much, because the whole thing was relatively low-key. So there wasn't any real blowback to the party, for us, nor for the host. Now I ain't braggin', but I gotta say we felt pretty smart.

~

Big Plans, Big Bills, and Elevated Living

Fast forward another couple of months. The newlyweds are loving life together, and making some BIG PLANS, dealing with the usual and some unusual big bills. And how are the schoolteacher and the office girl affording all these big plans and big bills? Well, we started booking our place out on AirBnb.

You see, the Flower and I were (and are) in somewhat unique circumstances. Chicago is a "destination," so people are always looking to come here and stay cheaply. We lived pretty close to the nearest El stop, so we were easy to get to. Our apartment was pretty modest, but we always kept the place clean, and we found that we could start making some decent money just vacating for the tourists on a couple-of-nights-a-week basis. Compounding the uniqueness of our situation, my mother-in-law lives close to us, and has an extra bedroom herself. She is also one of the coolest people in the world. So she didn't mind when we'd skip out on our place for a few nights, renting things out for our guests.

And it's pretty ridiculously easy with AirBnB. You just post a few pictures up, pick a price you think you can get, do a write-up for your place, and wait for the contacts to start. You DON'T have to worry about money or hassling the guests for their payments. AirBnB takes care of the whole process. The booking isn't finalized until your guests' credit or debit card swipes. Then, they sit on the money for 24 hours, to make sure there's no cancellations or complaints from the guest. Then the money hits your bank account automatically, minus $10 for the company, for their trouble. We were starting to see some real money come in.

Meanwhile, our plans kept getting bigger and bigger . . . and some of our bills. Our honeymoon plans went from "two weeks in Rio" to "we'll spend the entire summer of 2014 traveling all over Brazil." We had some extra-large bills that hit us too - car troubles, veterinary emergencies, and the like; things that many couples of modest means would have had to put directly on a credit card. But not us. We paid for everything through AirBnB bookings. "Well, we'll just take another couple of bookings," kind of became our motto around the spring of 2013. And we were doing well. We ALWAYS had money in our savings, a completely new thing, to me. We found ways to pay for life's little emergencies. We were getting more ahead.

My lovely Flower of a wife, by the way, a.k.a. Sra Inteligente pretty much managed all the incoming guests perfectly, kept the coffee and the breakfast cereal handy for them, and communicated with them and made them feel at home. She managed our account while I more or less just did he grunt work of moving stuff from place to place, when we "moved out," for a few days.

Anyway, before what turned into a grandiose moonshot of a honeymoon, I had the opportunity to visit my brother during the summer of 2013, while he was a visiting post-doc in Glasgow, Scotland . . .

~

The UK Swing

My twin brother had been working, meanwhile, as a post-doc researcher and adjunct professor at the University of Glasgow. But he was returning to the States soon, and the window to find a way to make it over there for a visit was closing rapidly. So, how does the schoolteacher afford an overseas vacation?

I suppose the answer is obvious, by now. While I ultimately paid for the whole trip out of my own pocket, in the short run, a few AirBnB bookings helped me put together the cash to make it happen.

And that's not all. Once over there, I booked a couple of different stays on AirBnB, to go beyond hanging around Glasgow. My brother, god bless him, was still working, and didn't really have the time to be a full-time tour guide, although he did an admirable job on a part-time basis. So I booked an AirBnB in Belfast, and took a side trip for a few nights. My host there had a spare bedroom, just a twenty minute walk or so from downtown.

The place wasn't glamorous, I don't guess, but it was comfortable, clean, affordable and very private, and again I was able to save money on food by doing some of my own cooking, instead of eating out constantly. My host Steven even turned into "my guy in Belfast," in a way. He directed me to what must be one of the coolest little bar and venues in town, and we hung out for awhile having drinks and checking out the local arthouse music scene. I had a phenomenal time.

Steven was a lifelong Belfastite who had bought a home, with an extra bedroom, but had had some rough luck with full-time roommates, or so I gathered. It was he who told me in a classic brogue: "AirBnB changed my life." What AirBnB had allowed HIM to do, was keep paying the mortgage, without the inherent commitment of having a full-time roommate. Like us, he had ALSO had some experience traveling on the cheap with AirBnB, to Moscow and Germany, as I recall.

AirBnB is world-wide, no doubt.

I booked another place for just a couple of nights in London's West End so I could do the town there for a bit, before I came back to Chicago. Staying in the West End was Just. So. Cool. Like Brooklyn, for a couple of nights I got the experience of feeling like, "a real Londoner," and although I did go check out some of the touristy stuff during my stay, strolling around the West End during the daytime was a joy. When you stay with AirBnB, you tend to find yourself in more authentic locales, in my opinion, as opposed to those more specifically designated as tourist areas. I had halal at a Middle Eastern place, walked about a small local park, and yes, definitely enjoyed some British hospitality at local watering holes. Staying at an apartment in the West End was a great way to see London, even if briefly.

~

When Problems Arise

After I returned from the UK, as summer turned into fall, I became a self-professed "New Jesus For AirBnB." Our big bills, both expected and unexpected, got paid off pretty well, by our bookings. Our plans for the "Big Brazil Trip" kept getting bigger and bigger. To be honest, we were spending A LOT of time at my mother-in-law's place, and yes she was getting a piece of the action too. Which was fine; there was plenty of "love" to spread around to all!

It was around last fall that some of the difficulties of elevated living via AirBnB became clear. To be honest, we hadn't exactly been disclosing to our landlord how much, and how often, we were having guests over. We kinda figured, well, don't bring it up unless he raises a concern. Our rent was paid, our place was kept spotlessly clean, and to this day, NOT ONE of our AirBnB guests has EVER created a problem for our landlords, or other tenants in our buildings. There have been zero complaints from our neighbors about our guests, nor their behavior, while they were there. Not one.

But our landlord was no dummy, and in the process of doing some work around the building . . . he was around quite often . . . he'd seen some of our guests coming in and out, and started to wonder what was us up.

This is EXACTLY the territory in which AirBnB hosts had found themselves some trouble in New York City.

While we never experienced any concerns during our stay in NYC during the Holiday break of 2013, city officials, landlords, and (especially) moneyed, lawyered-up hotel groups, have found themselves up in arms over AirBnB's alleged skirting of rent regulations, and heavily-taxed and regulated hotel operations. Basically, hotels want AirBnB to be regulated like hotels, and landlords - understandably, I guess - have concerns about strangers in their buildings.

It was early fall of 2013, I think, that I had to have "the talk," with my landlord, about our using the place as sort of a de facto hotel, or pseudo-hotel. He wasn't to pleased with the idea at first, although, he DID later tell me that as long as we kept the place clean, and paid the rent on time, it was fine to have our guests. We did all three, and we continued to make money off of AirBnB, with our landlord's explicit consent, for another couple of months.

It was a wonderful time. Our honeymoon just kept expanding and expanding. What had once been a two-week plan to visit some relatives in Brazil, turned into the All-out Extravaganza of Awesome that WAS our Summer of 2014: Nove semanas no Brasil!. We were living up extremely well. Our guests came from all over the United States, and the world: North Carolina, Montreal, Moscow, Costa Rica, Brazil, California, Texas, Turkey and France. We generally gave them privacy and didn't try to "be there best friends," or anything. We stayed at my mother-in-law's and let them have the run of our place, our on-line reviews were about 95% positive, with only a few little minor bumps in the road. We learned about what types of guest to avoid - particularly brand-newbies to the service and those who, from their profiles, appeared to expect some kind of bougie uber-condo like the one we got married in. Our pitch was basically: "cheap, clean, and easy-access."

~

When Problems Arise, Part II

Then, all of a sudden, one day in the middle of fall, my landlord completely changed his mind. The earlier comments about having tourists stay "as long as we kept the place clean, and paid our rent on time," went completely forgotten.

"No more guests," he told me, no uncertain terms. And as a landlord, he was completely within his rights. It was no more guests.

What changed? He told me my neighbor . . . let's call her Sharon . . . had complained about my guests. Here is what gets me: it's not that they were too loud. It's not that they were partying loud and late, or cooking crystal meth, or having orgies, or anything . . . though to be fair, like any service whose reach extends to over 15 million people, there have been some horror stories.

Nope. Like I stated, we've had ZERO complaints from neighbors about any of our guests behaviors. Sharon just didn't like seein' 'em there and around, at all. No parties. No meth labs. No orgies. She just didn't like seeing strangers in the building. I don't know how you get to be 55 years old, living in Chicago your entire life, but somehow being afraid of strangers coming and going from an apartment, in your building, but it was what it was.

And that's really what ended our run with AirBnB. My landlord invoked his prerogatives, and changed his mind, and there was to be no further discussion. We were through.

~

When Problems Arise, Part III

We were in a bind. Although our ever-expanding Summer in Brazil was mostly paid for, several critical items still remained. And although we'd built up quite a bit of savings, we had really come to a point, during the past six months, where we rather counted on that money, to come in and help make things work for us, especially for the trip.

We made a decision: we wanted AirBnB more than we wanted to stay in that apartment, and quickly found a two bedroom place - instead of a one-bedroom - so that we could continue to build up our trip. We encountered a decent two-flat with a friendly landlord, who made a point to tell us that what we did with our home and our extra bedroom was our business. That did it. We moved in the fall of 2013, primarily so that we could continue to build our Big Brazil Trip.

And build we did, using our extra bedroom, primarily, as a way to make our Brazil dreams come true.

~

Nove semanas no Brasil!

It all worked out. We put together a fabulous trip across Brazil, which lasted my entire summer break, from teaching school. When it came time to sub-lease our place while we were gone, guess what we did? We found a sub-lessor through AirBnB. Rent was of course our biggest bill to pay, and while we were in Brazil, we wouldn't have to worry about it. Our new landlord was very cool about us sub-leasing the place. The two met early on, and the situation was fabulous.

And do they have AirBnB in Brazil? Why yes they do.

So what do you think we did? When we weren't staying with family down there, we just stayed with AirBnB hosts! In Curitiba, where we spent nearly a week, and saw two World Cup games, our hosts were an extremely friendly elderly couple, who served us bread, cheese, coffee and cake every morning! A full-on continental breakfast that would rival ANY hotel you'd go to, was served each day in their darling apartment, right in the heart of the city! We were less than a block from the historic square, and had a great time chatting it up with a woman we came to call Tia Marta (Aunt Marta) about the city, her life (she, like me, was a schoolteacher), and the glorious Paris of Paraná, Curitiba.

In Brasília, our hosts let us use their bikes. Their BIKES for gods' sake. And when we tried to offer them extra for rental fees, they refused. We must have biked 70 kilometers around Brasília during our stay there. It was GLORIOUS.

Our host in Rio de Janeiro had us living just three blocks from Copacobana Beach, overlooking a metro station and a small public square. Our place in São Paulo was within walking distance from Avenida Paulista, and both of these were just delightful places to stay in, as travelers; less touristy, more "real," and just way . . . WAY cheaper, as a way to travel, than paying for a hotel. And of course, lest we forget, you travel more cheaply when you're not eating out 100% of the time. It was perfect.

It's worth noting here, again, that there is no way in a million years that this fabulous moon-shot of a honeymoon could have taken place, without the money we made, booking our extra room, and our apartment in some cases, through AirBnB. And the money we saved on hotels while traveling was nothing to sneeze at either, probably in the thousands of dollars, since we first started in New York City in 2012. The service has, quite single-handedly, elevated our standard of living, very noticeably. Thus, does a "two weeks in Rio" honeymoon morph into nine weeks all over Brazil.

~

THE ISSUES

We came home with a plan of allowing some guests for a little while this fall, before taking a break for awhile this winter. The urgency of the coming trip has gone, and we feel more comfortable having a lot fewer houseguests in general, from here on out.

The recent Uber controversy has got me thinking a lot about the sharing economy, it's impact on my life, and the lives of others around me.

I understand why heavily-regulated taxi companies don't like the threat posed by Uber, Lyft, and other like services. Similarly, I understand why landlords, hotels, and some neighbors dislike AirBnB. Obviously the horror stories are cautionary, although I feel less charitable to neighbors who "just don't like seein' them strangers around," like Sharon.

Landlords are a bit of a different species, from hotel groups, of course. They are well within their rights to make the rules in their own buildings with regards to strangers. It's quite likely that AirBnB hosts are more upstanding rent-payers, but if landlords don't want strangers around, that's their prerogative. The "nightmare scenario" with poorly-behaved guests are clearly an issue, and in fact AirBnB is insures up to $1,000,000 for each booking, in case someone DOES open a meth lab, kill somebody, or what have you.

But the publicly-available guest profiles are for all of the 15 million+ users to see, and I think this DOES help police bad behaviors. If you mess up someone's apartment for it, you can certainly believe that you're going to be publicly shamed on your profile. And as for outright thieves . . . again not saying it couldn't happen, it can and it obviously has . . . but when you pay for AirBnB you put in all of your bank details, social security, name and address info. AirBnB has verifiable user-submitted information on all lessors, unless all of that is stolen first, which granted, is of course possible in all situations. For my part, I think the horror stories are few and far between, and reasonable checks on bad behavior are there. Like I said, we've had no serious problems with any guests. The worst that happened was that we had one somewhat less-than-enthused review, and one angry cancellation.

The landlords are within their rights to set their own rules, and the neighbors MIGHT be given cause for concerns, depending on the situation, with AirBnB. But the hotel groups?-the traditional taxi companies in Uber's version of the equation? I don't feel the least bit bad for them at all. People are flocking to AirBnB because hotels aren't able to provide the same kind of experience that AirBnB can offer. You can save money cooking in a standard kitchen. You get to live in a "real local neighborhood;" you might even make friends with your host, as I did in Belfast! What hotel is going to offer you a couple of extra bikes so you can pedal around town? At no cost? NONE. That's which one.

With Uber and Lyft coming around, taxi companies are in the same situation. It took Uber to widely distribute a smart phone application that got you a taxi. Why in God's name couldn't a traditional taxi service come up with that first? Who knows? But they didn't. Uber did. End of story, and end of the line. And Uber offers people, who wouldn't OTHERWISE see their car payments as an investment in extra income, a way to make some extra cash, under the fairly simple and widely-understood concepts that:

1) It's their car.

and

2) They can do what they want with it.

We don't take cabs very often, but can definitely attest that finding a cab in certain neighborhoods here in Chicago can be a major pain . . . and sometimes when you call one, they simply don't show up! Uber fills a niche by giving users a user-friendly interface, and while the practice of adding 20% tip is certainly questionable, if they made it clear before-hand that the tip was included, then I don't see how any customer could complain

AirBnB is operating on a similar principle: "it's my place, I can do what I want with it." It's true that landlords have the ultimate say-so in their own building, but in my opinion, traditional taxi companies and hotel operations are in the same unpleasant place to be - they're getting beaten at their own game to micro-operations that can offer something they've not been able to.

I really doubt attempts to force Uber drivers or AirBnB hosts into regulatory compliance with taxi companies, and hotels, are likely to be a winning strategy, in the long run. Now that the cat is out of the bag, even if they could shut down AirBnB and/or Uber tomorrow, some other enterprising gray market "sharing economy" entrepreneur will pop up with the next iteration. These groups should either learn to compete, or prepare to lose market share to savvy individuals that are offering a superior product.

The sharing economy, specifically AirBnB, has indeed changed our life. We are more economically independent, and we've been able to pursue dreams that would have seemed impossible just a few short years ago. No amount of corporate bloviating about the need for strict adherence to outdated models of regulation is going to stop us, and others like us, from continuing to push the envelope.

Traditional corporate models, and the regulations that govern them, have benefited a tiny percentage of our population, and preyed upon the great majority for far too long. I have personally seen the transformative power of folks' taking their economic destinies more into their own hands, and I firmly that It Is Good. my own life would be about 30% less fabulous, and 30% more boring and/or debt-ridden, if it weren't for AirBnB.com, and the magic of the "sharing economy." So far be it from me to quibble with Uber-drivers or my fellow hosts on AirBnB. I saw Godspeed and Safe Travels, everyone!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Nove semanas no Brasil!

Nine weeks in Brazil!

Ha ha, I feel like Anchower from The Onion. I'm all "Ola amigos. I know it's been a long time since I rapped at ya . . . " :-\

I have a good excuse though. This past summer I took the single biggest adventure I've ever experienced.

Dani and I were lucky enough to be able to spend all of nine weeks in Brasil. Nine weeks!

We, a schoolteacher and an office admin/college student, are not necessarily Richie Rich world travelers. We don't believe in running up a lot of credit card debt either. So the sacrifices we made in putting together this grandiose moon-shot of a honeymoon, were considerable. It took 18 months of scrimping, planning, and large-scale lifestyle changes to make it happen. We faced at least one nightmare scenario, last spring, when we were quite certain the whole thing was cancelado. But that's a story for another time . . .

Today, let's focus on the fun stuff. So much fun stuff. My goodness, there was fun-stuff. (I've put together this handy-dandy Brazil versus US head-to-head guide here.) Feel free to peruse and enjoy.

Mid-June: Santa Catarina

The first week or so was spent in the medium-sized town of Brusque, in Dani's home state of Santa Catarina, in the South of Brazil. The states of Paraná, Rio Grande do Sul, and Santa Catarina make up a southern region roughly akin to the U.S.'s Midwest and/or Rust Belt. The south of Brazil is culturally more conservative, but also more middle-class. It is generally more well-off than the big central cities, or the Northeast, the Amazon, or the sparsely-peopled West and interior. The South has been referred to as "The Brazil that Worked." Incidentally, the people there are of typically-European descent, as opposed to the more mixed-race central cities, and northern area. The South has its own history, including failed moves to become its own nation. By the way, Brazilian history is fascinating. Sério. Look it up.

Brusque is a booming little town of over 100,000, and the hospitality of my brother-in-law Adriano, and his fiancé, Bea, was wonderful. We also got to check out the very-German Blumenau, and Balneário Camboriú. Highlights included:

* A failed landing attempt during the flight down to Navegantes . . . the plane was about 100 feet above the runway when it sped up and ascended again. Ha ha. . . overshot the runway, ha ha, oopsie.

* A pizza server who was excited to meet (a very tired and bleary) American on his first night in Brasil, and who wanted us to know, in no uncertain terms, that he was from São Paulo. Ha ha ". . . Sou Paulista! Sou Paulista!" he kept repeating. . . . He was rather pleased with himself, for having met an American. The kid was about 16, I think . . . he could be forgiven.

* Festa Juninha is theoretically the Day of St. John, but it actuality it's just kind of a day for people to dress up like rednecks, and make the kids do old-timey, old world, dancing. We had a blast going to the festivities at a local high school.

* We got righteously turnt up with with some of Dani's oldest friends, Victor and Thiago, as well as Ronie, at a Saturday night at Adriano's place. Ha ha, there's no social lubricant like old friends! Oh and cachaça.

* Our first Monday was a walk around the town zoo. For some reason it wasn't nearly as depressing as the Lincoln Park Zoo. :-\

* Balneário Camboriú is kind of a mini-Miami on the coast. It's a pretty bougie area, but we had a really nice time, and were treated to what amounts to the most fabulous seafood meal I've ever encountered, courtesy of the lovely Nuss family. I love saltwater seafood, and this was the top shelf. You're just not going to do much better than Lago da Sereia . . . só fantastico!

* At the night spot in Blumenau, I was the only one who clapped for the guitarist/singer of covers, who was working hard on stage. Adriano's friends looked at me like I was weird. I passed the sad-sack troubador on the way to the bathroom, and he looked sincerely appreciative of the applause.

Mid-late June: Curitiba and the World Cup

Curitiba is a kind of funky, very Old-World-ish city in the state of Paraná, just north of Santa Catarina. The metro area boasts 3.2 million people, which is good for eighth-largest in Brazil. Curitiba was our conscious choice of venue, due to its proximity to our Brusque home base, and because we thought that seeing the Copa do Mundo in one of the smaller locales, as opposed to São Paulo or Rio, would be less hectic and insane. We made the right move, obviously, because we enjoyed the high-holy hell out of Curitiba!

The politics and Big Money around the hosting of a World Cup are extremely problematic, to say the least. I won't deny that we felt some reticence to support the whole thing. The notion that money I worked hard-for would go to the slimy bastards running the FIFA shit-show, still rankles me. Let's be honest: the whole things is as corrupt as anything on this planet. But FIFA acts like it's practically religion, and maybe it is. The displays of high-holy reverence?- the waving of the FIFA flag with its own, righteous-sounding theme music?- the hushed awe we're all supposed to feel, I suppose, when they breathlessly propagandize about their worshipful football and tolerance-building exercises around the globe? Beyond. Frickin. Laughable. . . . at least to me. It's like, sério?!?!? The next two World Cups are going to be in Russia and Qatar. Effing Qatar!

Who do they think they're kidding with all this weepy, self-righteous reverence for the glory of the Beautiful Game or whatever??

Bribery. Match fixing. Outrageous stadium costs that countries really SHOULDN'T be trying to afford. Modern-day slavery. Construction death counts. I mean where do you even begin? Since it refuses to do the honorable thing, and commit organizational hari-kiri, disbanding itself and leaving behind a shell to be inhabited by a totally new international footballing authority, I think FIFA ought to save its money, and forget the reverent propaganda. Trust me guys . . . NO ONE buys that shit.

Ahem. /soapbox. :-\

As for Fun Stuff, in spite of the our reticence, we DID of course have a blast in Curitiba, and yes, at the matches themselves. Despite all my polemicizing above, I have to admit, even though none of the four teams we saw advanced to the knockout round, the two World Cup matches we saw were loads of awesome. And Curitiba is just a delightful city. We had ever-so-much fun there, we decided that if we ever move to Brazil; it's probably near the top of the list. A few highlights include:

* We were at the center of the world for the Ecuador/Honduras match, won quite-convincingly by Ecuador. The energy of the stadium was phenomenal, and even though we were in the corner, we felt like our seats were fantastic. We were so close to the action. Considering all we'd been through to make this trip happen, just being there was a dream come true for us! Afterward, it was out for great burgers and drinks with Adriano and Bea. It was just a magical night.

* The second match we saw was Spain versus Australia, which Spain won quite handily, trying to recover some level of dignity after the 2010 champions' embarrassing losses in their first two matches. The Australians really were the home team at this match, however. A bellowing Aussie next to me had obviously "pre-partied . . . ." heavily. He was screaming "Aussie Aussie Aussie Aussie" the whole game. Dani said she thought Jose was probably on the Spanish team.

* The Australian team looked just awful, but I have to say, the sheer un-sinkableness of the heavily pro-Australia crowd was amusing, if confusing at the same time, considering how badly the team was getting de-pantsed on the pitch. Even as they marched out of the stadium following their complete squashing, the fans were chanting, "We are Aussie over here!" again, and again. I came to think of it as endless repetitions of: "We are losing over here!" :-\

* The street festival on Sunday morning in the Historic District of Curitiba was just glorious - beyond fun. Row upon row of artsy/craftsy stuff, food, culture, samba groups just popping up on the corner, a little jazzy/performance arty band at the unique little outdoor bandshell. Just a lovely day.

* Speaking of lovely days, we got to meander the high-holy crap out of The Oscar Niemeyer Museum. Niemeyer's iconic architectural work is all over Brazil, and especially Brasília. But he's a native of Paraná, so the museum in his honor would have to be in Curitiba. A picture:

* Our charming grandmother of a hostess via AirBnB had a cute apartment. There was a certain, very European je ne sais quoi about the place. She served us coffee and a continental breakfast every day, and talked to us about this and that. We started calling her Tia Marta.

* Curitiba's bus system really is quite unique, with lots of totally tubular bus stops, long buses, and dedicated lanes.

* The Botanical Gardens are one of Curitiba's biggest claims to fame. I'm spoiled with the Garfield Conservatory, but generally it was a very nice place to go.

* We watched the unfortunate USA versus Portugal result with Marcel and his fiancé, Bianca. These two were friends of our friend C-Kurt, who agreed to meet up with us and show us around Curitiba a little, like the true genta-fina they are. Ha ha, the Portuguese team tied up the match in the last ten seconds of injury time, while Team USA had a momentary defensive lapse . . . the so-called "Mexican restaurant," on the other hand, served food like that every night, so I guess they were worse off for the wear. I prefer America's bastardized version of Mexican food to Brazil's . . . . a lot.

* In keeping with my long standing tradition, we had a cold one at the oldest bar in Curitiba, Bar Stuart. Ha ha Dani was the only female there.

Late June: The Friendliest City on Earth

After Curitiba we took a very comfortable bus to Florianópolis, a.k.a Floripa, a.k.a. The Friendliest City on Earth. Riding buses in Brazil is an excellent way to travel, really a whole 'nother ballgame from buses in the USofA. More on that is found in my head-to-head guide, found here.

* We caught Floripa on a rainy weekend, and our hostess Nayara, one of Dani's old basketball friends, was extremely accomodating.. We pre-partied at a gas station, as Brazilians typically do, and then went to a nightclub. (I dare you to look at the hyperlinked picture, and then tell me my wife isn't gorgeous . . . I am such a lucky boy.) The music was whack as all anything, but we laughed it off and had a great time. THAT was a long night!

* The following day, we caught the Brazil v. Costa Rica game at Botenquim Floripa. This was an absolutely glorious day. In addition to a thrilling game, won by Brazil on penalty kicks, we ate great feijoada, al fresco, even though it was pissing down rain. The enclosed awning kept us dry, the food, atmosphere, and drinks were great, I witnessed my strictly-vegetarian wife eating pork or the very first time, and a sambinha band even kept our spirits up before the game, and during half-time. What a great day!

* Thanks to Nayara, we got to spend some time in Meia Praia, north of Floripa. Watching the local fishermen drag in tainha on the beach, in giant nets, was quite a site to behold. It was just, really cool.

Early July: Back to Brusque

In the middle of summer we had a couple/few weeks where we had Brusque and its environs as our oyster. In this time, we did virtually everything there is to do in Brusque and the surrounding hill-towns, as well as hitting up Balneário Camboriú. The highlights:

* Nova Trento is the childhood home of Brazil's only native-born saint, Santa Madre Paulina. There's a glorious and grandiose modern-art church there, celebrating the woman, only slightly sullied by the row upon of row of religious-themed chotchkies for sale at the bottom of the hill. And we got to ride a cable car! Man cable cars are just everywhere in Brazil.

* We watched the unfortunate 7-1 Germany v. Brazil result at a rented kiosk at the sporting club where Dani used to play basketball as a child. The barbecue was great, but chilling with the obnoxious Germany fans was only so-so. Ha ha, just our luck! Santa Catarina is a heavily German-descended area, and many locals were pulling for the German team . . . annoyingly so, during that game. At least I can say I watched a "historic game."

* We got to catch our own dinner at a little fishery/restaurant in the hills, courtesy of Adriano and his future father-in-law, Sergio Nuss. Although pulling fish out of a holding tank ain't really fishing, they sure tasted delicious.

* On the same day, we visited Bar e Lanchonette Figueira, likely the oldest bar in the little town of Guabiruba. This wasn't a road house, it was a road shack. Joints at this mostly just do cachaça, so when we ordered beer, the owner/bartender said he'd have to see if he had any. It's a different world!

* Brusque, as a town, had kind of a "thing" for marble sculpture, and as a result, boasts a sculpture garden that would make any much-larger city proud. We walked down on a cloudy day to check it out. The first one pictured below is an Oscar Niemeyer, in little ol' Brusque! Here are a few of my favorites:

You play that crazy sky accordion!

* I got to play bingo not once, but twice, with some of Dani's older aunts, who allowed a male into the circle for the first time in quite awhile, I imagine. Thanks to Tia Bébe, Tia Maura, Tia Judy, and all the rest of the aunts and great-aunts who played host, and served us up to so well!

* German heritage, like I've said, is strong in the south of Brazil, and one weekend there was an entire festival, at the local convention hall (which had German-styled architecture), dedicated to cuca. This is a sweet-bread my own German-descended relatives have made for me here in America, but we call it kugel. Festa de Cuca was another glorious day of eating. And the cooking contest was pretty cool to watch . . . kind of a throwback to an earlier time, in some weird way. A couple of pics:

DELISH!

* Brazilians love sushi, and we had some excellent sushi at a local place Adriano and Bea knew. Our server delighted us with some origami; he'd recognized Dani and I because although he was serving at the sushi place, he actually OWNED the coffee shop we'd been going to quite regularly for internet.

* Kind of as an excuse to have people over, Dani and I hosted Café Méxicana at Casa de Adriano. Nothin' says love from America like a good ol' fashioned, home-cooked Mexican feast. And trust me, good Mexican food is hard to come by south of the border. . . well, this far south of the border.

* Ice cream sundaes sold by the kilogram. Why can't I get this in America?

* They had an interesting collection of Americana at the Museo de Aldo Krueger, a local classical musician who had become Brazil's most internationally-reknown conductor.

* We had a pretty rip-roaringly fun night playing cards and having cachaça with our friend Ronie, who gave us a great tour of his family's estate, and the distillery there. What a night!

* A long stroll up to Aracambuje, a historic church at the center of Brusque's development, was really interesting. The museum there was cheap and quite cool, and the view from atop the hill, which was accessed by a walk through the history of Jesus, was very interesting. There was even a "holy water spring," at the bottom. Tasted all right by me!

* The second trip to Balneário Camboriú was off-the-charts. Dani's Tio Binho, one of the leading architects in the south of Brazil, has a fabulous home overlooking the city, and we ate giant pistolão until we were absolutely stuffed, and couldn't eat anymore.

* We stayed up until past midnight listening to Tia Maura's outrageous stories. Indeed, I was impressed by how the elder generation kinda out-partied the younger set. (My favorite story of Tia Maura involved her few regrets over the course of her 80+ years of life and 60+ years of marriage: never smoking marijuana, and marrying as a virgin.) It was an unbelievable feast with the true genta-fina of Dani's large extended family. A night to remember.

* On the following day we did a bunch of the touristy stuff in Balneário Camboriú, with our excellent hosts and tour guides, Adriano and Bea. This included another trip on a cable car, a zip line down the hillside, and floating seafood restaurant. Ha ha, food tastes better when you're floating. :-\ Another epic winner of a day.

* That night we ALSO ate like kings, this time at Tio Rui's also swanked-out apartment near the beach. Again, more meat than you'd know what to do with, eating for hours, and lots of good folks and family. By the time we were done there, we were both a little sick of eating . . .

* . . . which didn't prevent us from eating an awful lot of seafood AGAIN with Bea's family the next day, AGAIN at Lago da Sereia. When we left there, I think we had lost the joy of eating for a little while, which can happen when you stuff yourself silly for days at a time. But oh well, it was worth it, in the long run. Uma problema boa!

* Dani and I hit the night life a little in downtown Balneário, including a mini-caipirinha crawl, with some of the best caipirinha's we had all trip at Chaplin 1500. Just another night of awesome.

* Yet another ridiculously good meal at an Argentinian/Uruguayan restaurant, Temprano, in Brusque, courtesy of the tour-guiding of Adriano and Bea. Definitely a righteous burger! So many of my Brazil 2014 memories are going to be food-related!

* In general, I was lucky to meet and be hosted by a ton of family during our time in the south. I have married into an exceptionally large clan, and meeting everyone, including Tia Lydia and that side of the family, was really fun.

* We can't say for sure if it was the oldest bar in Brusque, but Bar Central is in a location that Dani's Tia Maura, and her family, have owned for over forty years, and it's been operating more or less continuously as a series of bars for the whole time. We called it close enough.

* On our last day in Brusque, we made our dream come true, and got tattoos to commemorate the trip. Dani got a pinão, the traditional stewed nut food native ONLY to the south of Brazil, on her arm. I got Sonhos se realizam, Portuguese for "Dreams come true." (Yes I know it's cheesy. No I don't care.) :-\

Mid-late July: Brasília

After spending the first more-than-half of the trip in the South, surrounded by Dani's family, and taking in everything we could in Santa Catarina and Curitiba, it was time for us to hit the road, and do some of the more in-earnest traveling around Brasil. Many of these first few legs of our trip were to places Dani had never been, Brasília, Fernando de Noronha, and Salvador.

My lovely wife Dani is a better photographer than I am, and her shots of Brasília can be found here.

The hospitality shown to us by Dani's family, particularly Adriano and Bea, as well as Bea's family, was absolutely out of this world. That said, we were excited to be on our own, feeling a bit more like we're on our honeymoon, during the second less-than-half of the summer, as we traipsed all over Brazil, just the two of us! The highlight reel:

* I just enjoy boarding planes by going out onto the tarmac. Unlike in the USofA, they do that all over the place in Brazil, even at big airports like São Paulo's Guarulhos. We did that several times during our trips around the country. On this particular day, we were exhausted from an early-morning trip to the airport, but so excited to be headed out to Brasília that day. Can you tell?

* This is what welcomed me to Brasília's super-mod airport. Oh, that and a bus-driver strike. So we had too take a cab to our AirBnB.

* Of course Brasília is famous for its modern architecture. We checked out some the first night, at the University of Brasília.

* Reason #6667 I love traveling with AirBnB.com as opposed to hotels. It's a beautiful day in a beautiful city, but everything is really spread out, so walking is time-consuming, a segment of the bus drivers are on strike, and of course taking taxis everywhere is super-costy. If you're lucky, your AirBnB hosts MIGHT just let you borrow their bikes so you can explore the town pedaling all day, and pretty well into the evening. Which hotel will hook that up for you? NONE! Biking around Brasília was just awesome!

* Ha ha, however, on the way home the first night, we definitely learned which roads NOT to take home, as we laboriously weaved through pedestrians and street traffic alike, along a series of roads that were SERIOUSLY NOT bike-friendly. Tsokay though, we learned up for the next couple of days.

* There's a reason only one modern-day city on Earth is on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites. Having a PLAN from day one, and then constructing a city around it, has huge advantages. There is just nothing quite like Brasília, on earth. Although it's a very large city, it feels more like a suburb, for the most part - spread out, spacious, and roomy. All of the apartment buildings are in the north and south wings, and on the north side, at least, the first floor is always open-air, so you can see in many cases, for hundreds of meters in a given direction. It's hard to explain what that does to your perspective of a city. And there is just. Green space. EVERYWHERE! Even the Mêtro stations seemed roomy and outdoorsy! A few pics:

One of the more memorial experiences we had in Brasília was at the place below.

So, Tancredo Nieves was a popular politician who died right after he was elected President, but before he could take office, after Brazil's first democratic elections in 20+ years, which went down in the mid-80's. This was after a long period of military dictatorship, so Nieves went out incredibly popular. His memorial is called the Pyre of Liberty, and there's an eternal flame on the site.

Ironically, it was here whereat, purely out of chance, we came across the most obvious act of government oppression I have ever personally witnessed. The Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, was in town for a state visit, to the point that a Chinese flag was even hung in front of the Congress building. Some Brazilian-Chinese, mostly nationals of Brazil, I'm sure, had decided to protest the coming of the Premier. I believe they were Falun Gong members, as it said something like that on their yellow t-shirts. The protestors hadn't even gotten as far as the Congress building, when, to our surprise, they were waylaid by plain-clothes-wearing, Chinese-government agents, who confronted them at the Pyre of Fucking Liberty in Brasília, and it devolved into a bit of a fracas, in which about twenty people participated. And it all enfolded quite unexpectedly before our very eyes, while we were on our way somewhere else.

First, the Chinese government thugs blocked the way, so the brasilieros couldn't get to the Congress building. We're talking about able-bodied men physically pushing and blocking little old Chinese/Brazilian ladies, and stopping them from progressing. As the Falun Gong folks tried to push their way through, these Chinese government agents actually grabbed their vinyl signs, which weren't even displayed, but were rather rolled-up, as they were on their way to the Congress building.

I personally witnessed a Chinese guy grabbing a rolled-up vinyl banner out of a brasiliero's arms, and running off with it, a couple of times!

Dani reported overhearing this scene in Portuguese (more or less):

LITTLE OLD PROTESTOR LADY: You can't do this to us here, this isn't China! We're Brazilian citizens!

CHINESE THUG WITH BAD PORTUGUESE: It's the same thing.

Not that I was some huge fan of the Chinese government before, but my level of disgust with that entity found new depths, when I personally witnessed white-shirted thugs, suppressing the nationals of a FOREIGN FUCKING COUNTRY, and stopping them from expressing their right to free speech, across the god-damned globe from China. Despicable! We reported what we saw to the Brazilian Military police-man we saw nearby, shortly afterward.

* The Cultural Center was a bit of a long pedal to get to, but it was pretty cool overall. We got to do some fun wall poetry. I was pretty proud of my little poem in Portuguese!

* Al fresco dining and drinking was at the heart of our Brasília experience. We must have eaten or had drinks outdoors at nine or ten different places in our five days there. It was magical, and the weather was always perfect!

* We pedaled around Kubitschenko park, and found a very idyllic little place to have coconut water. It was beautiful.

* Brasília is home to a very large man-made lake, and we got to spend on a day on the water, kayaking, swimming and just generally soaking up the sun. There was a large deck, more of a boardwalk, really, instead of a beach. Very neato, even if the bike I was on caught a flat on the way home. We were lucky; our hosts, who had lent us the bikes, were extremely cool about it.

* Brasília is such a young city that looking for the oldest bar in town seemed a little pointless. That said, we had a very nice couple of beers outdoors at the Bar Bacana, a lovely spot on the south wing, in kind of a restaurant district.

* Our "nice meal out" in Brasília was especially magical, at Bistro Nossa Cozinha. We were served outdoors, naturally, and the food was just to die for!

It was a thoroughly marvelous night.

Late July: Fernando de Noronha - Paradise

Again, Dani's photos are well-worth a special look. Go here.

If you're reading this, first of all, wow, thank you! I'm really surprised anyone is reading this at all, and especially thank you for reading this far! Secondly, you are probably American, so you have very likely never heard of Fernando de Noronha, which is really too bad, because it's the most beautiful place on Earth.

Fernando de Noronha was always going to be the cherry on top of our trip, the environmental and ecological national park, where the whole setup is designed to be eco-friendly and protective of the natural habitat. There are only a certain number of people even ALLOWED to be on the island at once, and you have to pay a special environmental protection fee just to be allowed beyond the airport's doors.

* At the Bar do Cachorro (which means dog), there was one decorative plastic dog sitting behind the bar, and about a half-a-dozen CATS all over the place, hanging around, and hunting the crabs that wandered into the open-air eatery. Marvelous!

* Fernando de Norohnha is probably the most photogenic place on the frickin' planet. It is certainly the most beautiful little hunk of dirt I've ever been to. With just 3,100 people on a small island, the airport runway is the biggest thing on the map! A few pics:

* There's a reason Dani reported hearing three different people, each of whom lived live on the island, describe this place as paraíso a.k.a. paradise.

* Our host family at the hostel also rented out their catamaran for morning trips to see the dolphins do their run. We had a great time snorkeling, watching thousands of dolphins on their migration to another part of the island, speed snorkeling while being pulled from behind a boat (which I learned is a thing), listening to old reggae jams, and talking to our captain, who was extremely entertaining, even with my busted-ass Portuguese! What a treat!

* This beach at Baia Porcos was absolutely magical. Even though the surf was heavy, the rocks were many, and the so-called beach mostly disappeared at any time other than low-tide, it was still clearly marked on the map, although you had to scramble over a rocky hillside of a barrier to get there. The difference between Fernando de Noronha and any beach in the USofA, is that in Brazil, you're not forbidden to do the somewhat dangerous stuff. There were no lifeguards, even though, quite honestly, if you weren't careful here, you could have probably really hurt yourself, or drifted out to a watery grave. In Brazil, they tell you where it is, suggest you be careful, and then let you have at it. Freedom!

* This little fort from God-knows-when wasn't even on the map . . . And there was more of it left than some of the forts that were. One of the things that amazed me about FdN was all the opportunities for what Dani Se and I came to call "adventuring." Literally every day, we were presented with questions of, "Ok, how far am I willing to continue along this path?" and "Can I do this without getting hurt?" All I had to do to get to this fort was go over some rocks beyond the beach, and the kind of half-climb, half-scramble up about 20 feet of rocks. We tended to err on the side of cautiously going for it.

* Speaking of danger, Praia do Sancho, described as the most iconic beach on Fernando de Noronha in some of their literature, required one to climb down a cave-ladder to get there.

* ^^^ Definitely my favorite shot from Fernando de Noronha, and incidentally my favorite caipirinha for the whole trip.

* Fernando de Noronha was drenched in glory, joy, love, fun, beauty, and topped off with happy-magic. The pictures are nice but they almost don't do it justice. Go here!

* This one kinda made me think. (Fernando de Norohna had a lot of military forts.) The cast iron cannon, and the three others like it, probably took a large number of dudes a very long-ass time, and considerable effort and ingenuity (if you could call it that) to drag up the hillside, and haul into place, to deter foreign navies, which, from what I understand, never came. All that misguided time and effort; yet I doubt they were ever fired in combat, even once. Now, a couple/few hundred years later, give or take, they rot away to nothing, and the fort that housed them isn't even in existence. Meanwhile the hills, the sea, and the glorious nature around these long-busted war machines continues to flourish, utterly unconcerned.

* Dinner at Café Flamboyant was simply amazing, fresh fish wrapped in palm leaves!

* Praia Americano was yet another beach that was only reachable by scrambling over some rocks. We came across some sun-worshippers in the buff. Like most of the beaches on Fernando de Noronha, this one was pretty empty; we gave the nudists some pretty good and distant privacy. This is where Dani got knocked heels-over-head by the strong currents, which seemed to be almost everywhere, while we were on the island. She was fine, but in the five seconds after it happened, I was like: "Please come up above water. Oh god please come up."

* The natural beauty of Fernando de Noronha has to be seen to be believed. The afternoon at the tip of the island, near the shark museum and the rest, was amazing.

* Fernando de Noronha was probably the single most magical part of the trip. Go there, my friends. Go there.

July 26-28th: Salvador, Part One

Gritty, hardscrabble, ancient, sprawling, and bursting-with-culture, are just some of the words that come to mind when we visited Brazil's first capital, Salvador; also older than dirt. This town just oozes history, and with its tiny streets, impossible-to-navigate thoroughfares, and poverty, you know that you're not in the South anymore, as soon as you get into the town.

My wife's pictures are definitely worth a look-see!

Still, the culture of Salvador seems to be its main selling point. Music was just everywhere! And art, and architecture, and food, and awesome costumes. The rundown:

* We stayed at a little ghetto hotel outside of the city, close to airport,on our first night. The room was nothing special . . . at all . . . but the internet worked, and I was able to procure some cheap beers at an open-air market on the square just around the corner from the hotel.

* The Elevador Lacerda was kind of a novel concept, a huge public elevator to bring people from the upper part of the city, down to the lower-level, by the waterfront.

* The streets of Salvador were just cute as all hell, even if they were very old, too small for cars, and didn't particularly reek of money.

* We caught an AMAZING concert on Saturday night, for free, and open to the public, right outside our hotel in the Pelourinho historic district. There was great, free music on Friday night too. Like I said, culture everywhere!

* The hotel overlooked the historic district, and had continental breakfast out on a 10th floor veranda, overlooking the city - muito bacana!

* The very next night, a Sunday, a rap show kept us up until past 1:00 A.M., again, on a SUNDAY NIGHT. This was also right in the middle of the public square outside our hotel. The party just doesn't stop here.

* Overall, we loved Salvador, as a place to visit. Not sure we'd want to live there until they sort out the transit, and grubby panhandling problems, but it sure as hell is a fantastic place to spend a few days, even if the grinding poverty is very palpable throughout the city. There's a reason Dani, who is not from around Salvador or Bahia at all, referred to this town as "the real Brazil." It was definitely VERY real!

End of July: Chapada da Diamantina

The remainder of our trip had three main components: Parque Nacional Chapada da Diamantina in the dusty interior of Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, and finally São Paulo a.k.a. Sampa, before we came back to the states. We also took a quick, last, little side-trip to the outskirts of Salvador, before we left Fernando de Noronha, Bahia, and the northeast generally, for the central cities of Rio and São Paulo.

Dani's got all sorts of great pics of the Chapada da Diamantina part of the trip here.

* The trip to Chapada da Diamantina was our road trip! We rented the car at the Salvador airport, and drove it out to Chapada da Diamantina, the most famous national park in Brazil, in Bahia's interior.

* The bus ride from downtown out to the airport was interesting, just like the reverse trip, on the way in. This fun art was spotted along the way. The bus meandered through a variety of tiny streets, including the more upscale downtown sector, a skirting of the many slums and favelas, and a university village dotting the old city, as well as the tony beachfront areas.

* Trying to get on the ride road out of Salvador was infuriating. It took us several tries, reversals, reroutes, and a mountain of patience before we were "on our way."

* This glorious double-rainbow was definitely the high-light of the wonderful five-hour drive.

* Santo Estêvão, on the other hand, was far from glorious. This place probably gives just about anywhere in Brasil a run for its money as the "Shittiest Dump in the Country." The whole main drag of the town (the highway) looked like a run-down truck stop where they stopped enforcing prostitution and child labor laws. I don't know what happened to Santo Estêvão, or in Santo Estêvão. I don't want to know. I can guess that it is something very bad. There are towns with deep, dark secrets, and then there are towns that are deep and dark, but not secretive. Santo Estêvão is the latter. There was an overpass that looked like it had been under construction for 20 years, but wasn't finished, and was never going to be finished. We didn't stop. :-\

* The dusty, arid scrub-brush-land of o sertão was very different from the other parts of Brazil we'd seen.

* We got into the little tourist town of Lençóis with some bewilderment. Our directions to the hostel had been somewhat sketchy, cell phone reception was for shit, and street signs, with street names, don't exist in this part of the country.

* After several false starts, misdirections, and turns up and down roads not really intended for our little rent-a-Fiat, we finally found the hostel, after driving across some boulders. I'm not kidding, the street was partially huge boulder-sides, that had been paved around.

* We came into the hostel we were staying at late, once we finally found it. The accommodations were very nice. But the desk clerk was an annoyingly self-righteous hippie lady. You know the type. I'm not kidding, she was playing that god-awful Peruvian pan-flute music, which everybody hates, in the lobby, when we came in.

* There is some kind of tour-guide mafia running the little tourist town of Lençóis. Why do I say that? Well, the self-righteous hippie lady couldn't mask her irritation with us, when she noted that we hadn't booked a tour guide during our stay. (Most of the trips, it turned out, were for 3-5 day hikes, and we were only there for three days and four nights. Also, the tour guides, as you may have guessed, were pretty expensive.) Our plan had been to "do the park" on our own, and the hippie lady snidely let us know that: "Well, it's more fun if you have a guide." She didn't care to mention that it was a lot more expensive that way, too. The hostel, by the way, had some sort of deal with a tour guide company, so they were getting a cut too, natch. Another sign the tour guide mafia runs the place? No maps available. We learned in Lençóis that the tour guides don't make good money in selling maps. In fact, the fewer maps, the better. When we asked the hippie lady where we could get one, she hemmed and hawed, "Well, I guess you can find one somewhere." Whatevs, we figured it out and had a blast all on our own. Ha ha. We beat the system. :-\

* Okay, back to being nice. I will say this, after we got through the first irritating conversation, the Hostel Dois Duendes was quite nice. It was a very pleasant little setting, and the breakfast was probably the best continental breakfast we had during our trip.

* Our first adventure in Chapada da Diamantina was to Poço Azul. Talk about a great way to forget about the tour guide mafia! This place is about the most magical place on earth. It's a cave, with a swimming hole, with crystal clear water, so you can see all the way to bottom of the cave floor.

It was a long drive to get there. Well, it's a long drive to get ANYWHERE in Chapada Diamantina, but it was well worth it. This place must be seen to be believed.

* After the drive back, and a little nature walk, we had dinner at a charming, cheap little spot in Lençóis, Sucão Lanches E Restaurante. One woman, both server and cook. The tapioca sandwiches were muito gostozo!

* In general, Lençóis was just cute as a kitten on a baby button. The town has grown up with the relatively new national park, and the people there are an odd mixture of native Brazilian end-of-the-earthers, and hippie eco tourists who may or may not ask random people at gas stations for rides to and from the park . . . so it was kinda like Gerlach, Nevada, outside of Black Rock City. The natives' families have been scratching out a living from the bare rocks of the sertão for millenia, probably, mostly in ranching and growing manioc (yucca), while the hippie newbies mostly started as tourists, but then stayed. It's an interesting mixture, to be sure.

* Our next adventure was to Poço Encantado, another subterranean pond. Dani's really got the pictures for this one. Just. Super. Cool. Só. Muito. Bacana.

* There was a lot of driving to do at Diamantina, and often we'd just kind of see something on the map we'd finally found, and stop off along the roadside to check it out. The roads were often terrrible, way beyond what our little rent-a-Fiat should've been handling, really. In one memorable episode, we were kind of off-roading it along a little trackway during our trip back from Poço Encantado. We came across a sandy embankment along the river, and my more-intelligent wife's comment was: "I don't think we should go any further. We'll get stuck." I was much more sanguine about our prospects, entirely sure we could make it. So I stepped on the gas. We got about 15 feet before the tires started spinning, and sure enough we were stuck. We were worried - about four miles from ANYWHERE, with no cell reception, out in the sertão, stuck in loose sand. Well, luckily Dani and I are from Chicago, and we know a thing or two about un-stucking a car. It was really very little different from getting a car out of a snow bank. We scooped out sand near the tires, gave ourselves a little runway, and were up and going again in about five minutes! Ha ha, the screeching of the back tires didn't stop until much later though, when the last pebble finally fell out from the the undercarriage, near the back tire!

* One thing I will never forget about Chapada Diamantina is the mud huts. Folks really are still living like that, out there on the sertão. A lot of them looked pretty effin ramshackle, but some of 'em were really in pretty good shape! Like this one:

* We upscaled it (a little) for a glorious pizza dinner al fresco on the city square, during our last night. It was another beautiful evening.

* A few favorite shots from the park:

* Ha ha, were pretty relieved when our rent-a-Fiat "passed inspection" back in Salvador, at the rental place. We did things to that car that were not intended to be done!!

August 1st: Salvador, Part Two

The second stopover in Salvador was never supposed to be more than a quick breather before Rio, and it wasn't. We looked up the cheapest possible hotel on Booking.com, in the vicinity of the airport. What we got was really more of an AirBnB booking, and a pretty shitty one at that.

At the end of a dusty alley, leading to the scrub-brush beach, we asked the criminals who were likely going to try and rob us later for directions to the Hotel. They had never heard of it, and now we'd alerted them to our presence. It was a pretty good indicator of how things were going to go with "the hotel," when we finally found the place, looking like any other residence, except for a small placard reading "Hotel Le Colibre" above the address, less than a block from where the robbers had told us they'd never heard of it.

The place was supposed to be just six kilometers or something from the airport, which may have been technically true, as the crow flies. But the roads in Salvador are an enigma from 1600. The drive was a lot longer, and the cab was more expensive, than our first trip to the city.

Our host will be called The Dude, since he looked a lot like Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. Scruffy, goateed, and mid-fortyish, he opened the door to "the hotel," which was actually his house, and led our apprehensive asses us down to the dank, fetid basement where he had a couple of extra bedrooms, that were more or less clean and well-lit. He did not assault us, I'll give him that. Don't get me wrong, I don't blame The Dude for trying to make some extra money on the extra rooms in his basement. But don't go calling it a hotel on Booking.com, when you're just booking out rooms in your basement. It's called AirBnB Dude, look it up. I will give The Dude this though, the internet worked just fine

After settling down in the basement, our late lunch was at a restaurant and buffet run out of a Masonic lodge. Go figure. The all-you-can-eat buffet was about R$8. To be clear, that's about $3.50 in U.S. dollars. For all you can eat. :-\ Well, we got what we paid for. The leathery pork chop I had required about fifteen minutes of chewing. It's a month and a half later now, and I'm pretty sure some of it is still stuck behind my molars. I should probably see a dentist.

Once we chowed and choked down on the local flavor, we took a walk along the beach. It looked like storms were coming in, and the murderous surf would probably have knocked us unconscious, and swept us half-way to Angola in fifteen-twenty minutes. We would not be going to the beach that day, which was fine, because shortly after we got back, it started raining buckets, and continued for most of the evening. On the way back to "the hotel," we passed through a scrubby no-man's-land whereat I'm quite sure at least some of Salvador's many bodies are buried. Lovely.

Back in the basement, we killed some time checking emails, Facebooking, etc. The internet worked well. Later on, we got hungry for some dinner. Since I'd seen a pizza delivery joint close by, we called 'em up and ordered a pizza. Sortofa rainy night pizza-and-movies thing, right?

Well, needless to say, a solid hour later, our pizza hadn't shown up, even though the place was only about 50 meters away, and an errant pizza might have arrived by accident. So Dani called 'em, and of course they swore up and down that they had attempted a delivery and tried to call; yet oddly there were no missed calls in her phone. Ha ha, Brazilian quote "service" unquote.

Once the pizza did come, the supposed bacon on it was tougher than a pigskin football. Some of it remains between my back teeth. I really need to see a dentist about that. And Dani had asked for half of the pizza to be meat free: sem carne. Exactly one slice of the pizza had no bacon, almost as if they had been deliberately messing with our order, and had accidentally left one piece of pizza sem carne. They couldn't even fuck with our order right. :-\

On the way up to "lobby" (living room) to fetch our pizza, we saw a very young woman chilling out, watching TV on the sofa. She had on an ultra-tight, wife-beater top, and daisy dukes which, had they been any higher up, would have qualified as a maxi-pad. Now I'm not saying she was a prostitute, but she was not his daughter. The Dude looked European (Dani later confirmed that he was actually a Frenchman, quite possibly living in Brazil without papers); the girl, though, was a very dark-skinned black/native mix. She looked about 15. We didn't talk.

We watched movies on-line that night, and made the best of it. The internet worked fine.

The next morning, we got some coffee, did some laundry, and then paid The Dude R$25 to drive us to the airport in his tiny little shitbox of a car, which only barely held us and our baggage. I shouldn't give The Dude a hard time, he was actually pretty nice. But it's not cool to rent out your basement on Booking.com like it's a hotel, and Dude, you shouldn't be bringing suspected prostitutes around your place while you have guests. Even on AirBnB, that's not likely to garner a lot of positive reviews. If that was indeed his girlfriend, and not a hooker, well, that's just skeezy, anyway. It was not his daughter.

So that was Salvador, Part Two. It was just supposed to be a toss-off and I guess it was. There's a reason no one would ever call Salvador, "The Brazil That Works." Eff it though, we managed to make the best of it. The movie was pretty good, I've got dental coverage, and hey, the internet worked.

Early August: A Cidade Maravilhosa

Ahhh Rio. There's a reason they call it The Marvelous City, and make kids' movies with birds in them about the place. Rio is just fantastic. Overall. Period. Again, my wife's pictures are well worth a look. The highlights:

* Our first night we had a so-so dinner, but enjoyed drinks al fresco at a little place not far from the AirBnB, which, by the way, but probably the nicest one we had during the whole trip - a FAR CRY from the basement in Salvador. It was a nice night.

* We spent Saturday at the famous Copacobana Beach. Simply glorious. I hope I never forget all the vendors selling shrimp, sandwiches, beer, pop, blankets, wraps, I mean you name it. Virtually everything was there! We didn't even NEED to go shopping at a store!

* The next day we had intended to rent some bikes and pedal up to Feira Hippie, a hippie-ish street market that's been running in Rio forever. The bike-stand near us was out of bikes, but that didn't matter, because the metro worked out just fine for us. Subway stations in Brasil, generally, are light years ahead of what we've got in Chicago.

* The Feira Hippie wasn't really all that hippie, per se, but the artsy/craftsy stuff was cool, overall. Street markets in Brazil are just much cooler, and more common. Every city has one, and street vendors are generally everywhere, too.

* On Sunday we had better luck with the bikes, and enjoyed pedaling along the beaches of Rio. We landed up at Ipanema, and had a blast walking around, people watching, and generally checking things out. The people watching, especially, was fun! This guy was hilarious. So was she. A few pics from out and about that day:

* Rio threw us for a couple of loops . . . we had spent some time researching nightclubs, because the Rio nightclub experience was one we wanted to check out. We found a place that looked super-cool, right in the neighborhood!- then showed up at the front door to find a few somewhat aged-out lookin' would-be clients hanging around in front. It was 11:30 - surely the place would be open soon! Ultimately, we figured out that the place had closed. We ended up just having a few drinks at the the little bar across the street. The waiter told us the club had been shut down for code violations the NIGHT BEFORE we tried to go there. Ha ha, go figure. It was okay though, the little Bar Informal was pretty good, and we enjoyed the calamari.

* Speaking of loops being thrown, our attempt to watch a soccer match in Rio also ended up being abortive. We left a bit later than we wanted to, but ended up really getting screwed by some fine print we failed to read on how transfers worked on Rio's metro system. (Basically we were waiting around for 25 minutes for a train that was never coming to the station we were waiting at, at least not on Sunday evening.) We got to Maracaña, the glamorous ginormo-stadium that hosted many World Cup matches, a solid 20 minutes after opening kick. Just our luck, we had to walk ENTIRELY AROUND THE STADIUM to get to the ticketing booth. Just our luck, the only tickets left, by the time we got there, were the super-expensive ones, and it was already half-time. Bargle, we ended up just turning around to go back to the neighborhood.

* One the upside, little bar/restaurant stands along the beachfront are everywhere. We caught a couple of places that had live music too! Live music is just kinda everywhere in Brasil! It's awesome!

* We decided to do all the touristy stuff in one day. The Corcovado is the famous hill up to the Christ the Redeemer statue. You take a little train up to the top, and if you're lucky, there's even a little sambinha band playing on the way up! Honestly, this hill is more about the view of the city, than the statue itself, although the Jesus is quite impressive. A few pics from the top:

* We stopped off at a chocolate store for coffee and sweets between touristy stuff, in the Botafogo neighborhood. Nothin' earth-shattering, but it was cool!

* The cable car ride up and down Pao de Açucar, the Sugar Loaf mountain, was joyous. So flippin cool - why can't we have more cable cars in the US? I managed to get some pretty cool video of the sun setting over the city, on the way down.

* The drink at the little bar on the smaller hill, sort of stopover on the way up to the Pao de Açucar was glorious, although we saw a bit of drama. Some asshole had walked out on their tab, and the garçon was pissed. Beyond that, it was a beautiful evening, the sun was setting, the city glittered in the distance, and it was fun watching the planes take off and land at Santos Dumont - there were even some monkeys!

Usually my pictures come out stupid, but I got some good ones at Pao de Açucar:

* This place got me thinking. In 1993, some rogue police came this church, outside of which was a makeshift home for street kids, late at night. They proceeded to open fire on the entire group of street kids, killing eight, and wounding many more. "Street cleaning." There is no memorial here, although the Candelaria massacre is well-known throughout Brazil and Rio particularly. In my opinion, the fact there is no memorial indicates that the cover-up continues. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candelária_massacre.

* You don't much hear about it in the US, but there is also a pretty big saltwater lake in Rio. We had a blast biking around it, seeing the sites, etc. And afterward, we stopped off at a pretty decent American-style restaurant: Rota 66.

* The oldest bar in Rio, Bar Luiz, is also the known as oldest bar in Brazil. It was nothing fancy, honestly, but we stopped off for some apps and a cold one or two, which turned out pretty well.

* This cathedral was cool!

* The Escadaria Selarón is really cool art project done by one man over the course of many, many years. He tiled a long public stairwell that runs up an entire city block! Super neato!

* We took a quick trip to the Sambadrôme, where the big samba competition takes place for Carnival. It was totally cool! There was also some nice street art nearby!

Ha ha, I think this last one is called Germany 7 - Brazil 1:

* The Rio Scenarium was a little pricey, but all the cool shit all over the place, and the live music, made it worth the while.

* Man Rio is just glorious. We kinda wanted to stay there forever.

Early-to-Mid August: Sampa!

São Paulo was our last stop, the thrumming, sprawling nerve center of Brazil. This place is the single largest metro area in the the Americas, AND in the southern hemisphere - even the suburbs are enormous! Getting around Sampa (as they call it) is a bit tricky. There's a metro system that works great, but often the stops are not particularly close to the sites you want to see, and it is hard to get a feel for what's where. Paulistas have never even heard of parallel streets, there aren't a lot of big skyscrapers so you don't have any landmarks, and all the near-vertical hills it's built into make it hard to navigate, too. Rio is definitely much more touristy than Sampa, which is has much more "average João from Brazil" feel to it.

As usual, my wife got the best shots.

One thing São Paulo will never let you forget is just. How. Enormous. The Place is. Every single metro station was the size of around 10 el stops in Chicago, and they were ALWAYS JAM-PACKED FULL. I'm used the big city, but this was just cray-cray!!

* We spent a Friday evening rip-roarin it up at a small, divey kind of nightclub with some Paulista burners, who were there for a meet'n'greet. The Club Flamengo was little and low-key, but we had fun talking about Burning Man with some very excited folks.

* One little sector kinda became our night-time home in Sampa, the Avenida Augusta, just off São Paulo's version of Michigan Avenue - Avenida Paulista. We hit up a couple of restaurants and bars in that little section of town over the course of our stay.

* I can't forget the little street vendors selling beer and booze on the sidewalk. One kid - he looked about 16 - even had a little credit card swiping device operating outthere off his cooler.

* One thing about Sampa, is that restaurants ACTUALLY HAVE GOOD SERVICE. This was quite a different animal from the rest of Brazil, even Rio, which you would expect to be better.

* Probably our favorite joint in São Paulo was called Spot, just off Avenida Paulista. The place was super-mod. We returned for dinner later, but the well-dressed mixologists clearly new what they were doing. Ha ha, Dani thought one of the mixologists looked like Keanu Reeves, and she told him so. I think she had a crush on him:

* One of my favorite spots in Sampa was Beco de Batman, a little thoroughfare that the city and its residents have basically given over to street art. Then they let the artists go nuts!

* Parts of São Paulo are older than dirt. The Patio Colégio is really where the city got its start, with a Jesuit school, way back in the 1500's. Mais velho de bairro!

* The Jardem de Luz, the Portuguese Language Museum, and the iconic, well-known Estaçao Luz, and the Museo Pinacotéca were a neat little sector of town, although it took us two trips to get there properly, because the museums were both closed on Monday. When we went back to the Museums, we found two pretty cool ones, although the Pinacotéca had some insultingly eye-rolling "modern art," of the type where some well-known artist claims that a couple of penciled lines on a page are art, and the rest of us yokels are supposed to be idiots if we don't "get it." There was some cool stuff too, but definitely some Fail mixed in.

* We also checked out the Museo d'Art de São Paulo, which had a lot of modern stuff, as well as some more classic stuff. This one I liked, but dang! It was getting cold outside on the day we went there!

* This wasn't the oldest bar in town, but Salve Jorge did have a very old feel, there in the financial district.

*

This joint, Bar Leo, was the oldest bar in Sampa. The heritage here is German, and the old guy who's been running it for years was still doddering around, helping run the place!! It was low-key, but fun!

* Okay, granted, we knew we were way under-dressed when went into Bar do Terraço Italia, a top-floor, swanky bar and restaurant, above one of Sampa's oldest skyscrapers. I was wearing cutoff jeans, for example, but it was kind of a spur of the moment thing, and we'd heard the view was awesome. They did let us into the bar at least, which is possibly more than they should have done, because once we sat down, the wait staff treated us like dirt. They could have turned us away, and I wouldn't have been offended, but once you seat us, sorry, we're the customers now. Ha ha, we did all we could to enjoy the view, and sat there, taking up a table, and not running up much of tab, for a good long time . . . ha ha . . . suckaz.

* Sampa has a huge pedestrian-only walking sector, with all sorts of shops and things. Most of them were closed on the Sunday morning we walked around, but the street market was super-cool. And I got to eat this!

* Getting to Parque da Independência wasn't exactly easy, as far as the train system goes, but once there, it was like a walk down history lane - super cool!

* At Paulista Burger, back on Avendia Augusta, we not only had the best burger we'd had all summer, but I got to hear an American speaking MUCH worse Portuguese than my own. It's petty, I'll admit it, but I found it very gratifying!

* Most of the stuff at the Memorial da América Latina was closed on the day we got there, but some of the public art was cool. AND, in S.P., they have streetlights that mimic the local sites in the area! How cool is that?

* The street above took us up to the cool architecture of Sampa's version of Wall Street. After that, we walked down to yet another public square, where we just sat and watched people going by for quite awhile. The little street kids were running after the garbage trucks, and taking rides on the back bumper!

* Our last day, we walked about in Sampa's Little Japan neighborhood - there are more people of Japanese descent living in São Paulo than ANYWHERE outside Japan.

* Pay-what-you-can book vending machines. São Paulo's got 'em . . . your town doesn't. And neither does mine.

* A few final odds and ends from around S.P

Le sigh. Well, we couldn't stay in Brasil forever. This is us as we are about to leave for our long trek home!

So there it is . . . all of it. Dani asked me what I thought of Brazil on the plane, on the way home. We've been back for more than three weeks now, and I'm still not sure I really have an answer to that, certainly not one that I could sum up briefly. For right now, I'm just basking in all the memories, and so grateful to have a darling wife, who could show me an entire, huge country! Maybe I'll have some final thoughts, pulling it all together, later. But that's a blog-post for another time.

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