Monday, February 26, 2007

How to arrive in Rio

For anyone traveling to Brazil, my advice is this: you’ll probably fly into Sao Paulo’s international airport. Stay two or three days in Sao Paulo, and then fly to Rio. If you fly directly to Rio, or if you transfer from Sao Paulo’s international airport to Rio, you’ll end up flying into Galeao airport, north of the city. However, if you go from Congonhas, Sao Paulo’s domestic airport, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most spectacular flight descents in the world. The ascent from Sao Paulo isn’t bad either - you get to see just how vast the city really is. The only drawback is that Congonas doesn't have the greatest safety record.

Sao Paulo-Rio is the second-most traveled flight pattern in the world (Madrid-Barcelona is number one). Don’t worry about reservations - flights leave at least once an hour, and are usually more like once every half-hour. There’s even a dedicated ticket desk for “buy & fly” purchases -which shouldn’t cost you more than $100 US.

Now, don’t get on the next plane - at least not if you can’t get a window (that’s the whole point). Wait until the one after- you should pretty much have your pick of seats. Although both sides actually have great views, my advice is to sit on the left-hand side window. Rio’s domestic airport (Santos Dumont) is a little two-runway job right next to downtown. This isn’t the difference between flying into JFK and LaGuardia - flying into Santos Dumont is basically the equivalent of flying into the Wall Street Heliport.

Not only are the views astounding (and way better than my disposable-camera picture above), but you can grab your stuff and walk right into the middle of Rio. The subway - which will take you as far south as Copacabana - is only about a 15 minute walk through downtown.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

I ♥ Brazil

Whenever people tell me they’re taking a trip South America, I always give them the same advice - spend the entire time in Brazil.

I spent a blisteringly cold day in New York upon my return from Europe - completely justifying to myself my choice to spend the winter elsewhere. After taking care of various errands, I was on an Aero Mexico flight to Sao Paulo.

Never fly Aero Mexico. Upon arrival at the airport I was informed that they had lost my luggage, which they didn’t manage to find for a week. Plus it immediately started to rain nonstop about 2 hours after my arrival, putting the kibosh on my plans to visit abandoned mansions with a local architecture/exploration group there.

Plans ruined, wet clothes, and not even a pair of dry socks to change into. I couldn’t have been happier. I was in Brazil. I don’t know what it is about the country, but it never fails to put me in good mood. Despite its social problems (which are bad, but maybe not quite as bad as is commonly thought in the U.S.), people are generally just very friendly, relaxed, affectionate, and in a good mood. It’s infectious - the general positive vibe is just in the air. Even in a town like Sao Paulo, which is known among Brazilians for being somewhat harried and business-like, this atmosphere can still work magic on your average New Yorker.

The next day I went shopping for some clothes to tide me over. Now, I do have one small complaint about the country. Brazilians do not believe in Boxer Shorts. Or Boxer Briefs. Or, apparently, any type of underwear that wouldn’t be worn by your average 14-year old girl in the United States. But it’s a small complaint - not nearly as bad as my complaint against Aero Mexico: arriving in a foreign country for three months with what you’ve got on your back. A pair of shorts, a set of flips-flops, a decent shirt, three pairs of socks, and a three-pack of the tightest underwear I’ve ever worn later, I was good to go. Not even having to wear bikini briefs could bother me. I was in Brazil.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Axis to Allies

We left Berlin and headed on our flight to London. We were pretty exited - we had plans to hook up with some locals, and spend 4 or 5 days really getting to know the town. I love the feeling of London in the winter - my father says it’s the kind of atmosphere where you “turn up your collar, light a cigarette, and walk away.”

I had been to London before, but it was my first time in Berlin. Although I only spent about a day and a half there, it was enough to get a certain feel for the city. It actually reminded me a lot of New York, as much as any other city I´ve been to except perhaps Sao Paulo. The kicker was the subway - not only is it one of the largest systems in the world, it pulled something straight out the NYC Transit book - changing lines due to construction in the middle of the trip. And while not quite 24/7 like the NYC Subway, I think it´s the closest any other system comes: all night on weekends and only closed for about three hours at night on weekdays. When Berlin was divided, the subway would run through several ghost stations, complete with armed guards, in the eastern section before returning to the west.

Today, you can hardly notice that Berlin ever was divided. For someone like me, who tends to anthropomorphize cities to a great degree, this isn´t very surprising. The idea of completely cutting a city in half (and not even along a natural boundary, such as a river) is almost unimaginable. Something as complicated as a world city, with subways, sewers, electric grids, water pipes, not to mention the natural economic and social flows of its citizens, can only be cut in half and stitched up on either side with crippling results. While I never got to see Berlin heal itself after the wall came down in 1989, I imagine it was quick, painless, and completely natural. Even after 28 years of separation, a city will fall into its natural state seamlessly, the way the body heals itself after a wound.

London didn´t start off too well. Instead of adventures in drains and rooftops, we had adventures in hospitals and airports. Steve ended up laid up in the “Lord Wigram Ward” of the Chelsea and Westminster hospital, and had to take an early fight back home. Due to e-mail miscommunication I missed a chance to head into some drains and underground rivers (one of which, I am told, goes right underneath Buckingham Palace), and a friend I was going to see ended up being horribly ill for some of my stay, and in Liverpool for the rest.

Four days in and I hadn’t really done a lot. I’d walked around a bit, and seen a few museums (almost all of which are free in London), including getting to ride the 5-story slide that’s a temporary exhibition at the Tate Modern. But I certainly hadn’t done anything interesting or fun. The highlight of my trip so far was meeting up with a friend in South London at, by far, the worst nightclub I had ever been to. Imagine a bunch of drunk Brits trying to dance to “Living on a Prayer.”

By the time I had planned to leave, I was pretty frustrated with my time in England. That frustration, however, would change in a big way.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

7 Days, 6, Cities, 5 Countries, 4 Languages - Third Man, Second Cousin, First Time Everywhere

I blitzed Central Europe. Heading by overnight train out of Rome, we stopped for the afternoon in Venice, before continuing on to Vienna. Arriving at night, we spent the next 36 hours there before heading by bus to Prague. Two nights in Prague, and it’s on to Berlin. One night in Berlin, and it’s a van for two hours to Sczcecin, Poland. Count it up - it works.

General impressions are here, with more specifics to follow.

Rome: Rome reminded me a lot of Washington, D.C. Government and Tourism are pretty much the whole economy, and everything touristy is mainly concentrated in a small section in the middle of the city. I liked the city, and it was fun to visit, but I didn’t really feel it.

Venice: Venice is tourism - at least if you don’t have a boat and can visit the outlying islands. We couldn’t get away from it - overpriced cafes and tzotzcke shops everywhere. We did managed to find a couple of somewhat out-of-the way corners, but probably only because it was a nasty day in the off-season. I didn’t quite get the appeal of Venice, I have to say.

Vienna: We were in Vienna for one reason: to go visit the underground river that was used in Orsen Welles’ “The Third Man.” The trip was kind of fun, if simple (and full of spiders) - peep the Cave Clan tag we found in there!The third man is basically a movie about Vienna - kind of the same way that “On the Town” is a movie about New York. The only other thing of note that we did was head up the spire of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the middle of town, where the views were awful. Probably the worst observation deck I’ve been on. I didn’t much like Vienna as a whole.

Prague: Prague is small, beautiful, cheap for Europe, and extremely touristy. I get the feeling there’s another layer of the city, probably pretty interesting, but one which foreigners will never know. Prague is not really a migrant city, and the population seems to pretty much consist of people there for a couple days and people there for life. Language is also a factor. There’s plenty of people who speak English, French, Spanish, even Portuguese and Italian as second languages. Nobody speaks Czech as a second language - not unless they marry a Czech person and move there. These two factors, at least to me, seem to indicate a city for tourists, a city for locals, and never the twain shall meet.

Berlin: I actually really liked Berlin, which I was not expecting. In fact, even though I didn’t even spend 24 contiguous hours there, I think it deserves it’s own post. More to come.

Sczcecin: Szczecin is not really on the typical European tour list. It’s not even one of those “off the beaten path” kind of cities, and visiting certainly never would have crossed my mind if I hadn’t had relatives there. Still, it was fairly interesting. A German city called Stettin until the end of WWII (today it’s right across the border, and most people visiting by air will fly into Berlin), it has Poland’s second-largest port, next to Gdansk, or Danzig. Architecture is one of three things: the old German City, Soviet era (basically concrete blocks), and post-Soviet era (basically the same concrete blocks, but sometimes with balconies, and painted purple or green). I was only there to visit my second cousin (well, first cousin twice removed, but second cousin fits in with the title better).

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Vaccines, and how to get them for free

So I sliced myself open trampsing around Brooklyn Census Tract 77, which reminded me I needed to get a tetanus shot, which reminded me to post my best advice about getting vaccinated if you're going traveling. And my best advice involves how to not pay for anything.

There is really no reason you should shell out any dough for travel vaccines unless you're getting something exotic, which pretty much means Rabies or Typhoid. There's some other exotic vaccines (did you know there's a vaccine for the Plague?), but they're generally needed only in very specific circumstances, or are considered ineffective for adults. I paid for Typhoid, but I wasn't working with wild animals , so I passed on Rabies.

Now, it might be that this is what my 3.2% NYC income tax buys, and the idea of getting free vaccines elsewhere is a dream. But if you live in New York, there's no reason to pay the 3.2% income tax and your doctor a few hundred bucks more because your insurance (if you've even got it) doesn't cover vaccinations. For all routine jabs, skip your doctor and hit your local health clinic. In New York, there's actually one in every borough except Staten Island and Manhattan, open from 8:30 - 2:30 Monday through Thursday. I actually can't speak for other places, as I always went to the one on 28th and 9th in Manhattan that's closed now, but it was great. I went a half dozen times, never waited more than about an hour and a half, never had any hassle and never had to pay a dime. Get a DtaP (Tetanus, Diptheria, and Pertussis) and/or an MMR (Measles, Mumps, and Rubella) if you need it, and begin a three-shot series of Hep B at least 6 months before you leave. If you're leaving next week, get the first one or two anyway and the remainder when you get back - that should be sufficient to immunize you for the length of your trip.

You can also get a Hep A, Meningococcal, Chickenpox, HPV, and/or Pneumococcal vaccine, which are supposed to only be given out to certain demographics they consider "at-risk." Meningococcal and Pneumococal I didn't think I needed, I've had the Chicken Pox, and the HPV vaccine is only for women, but I wanted Hep A. I was prepared to be an "at-risk" group if they asked me, but they never did. The first few times they said they were out, and the third time they sent me upstairs for the vaccine without asking me anything. Get there early and you've got a better chance. Hep A won't kill you, but it'll ruin your vacation. Hep A is a two-shot series - same advice as Hep B applies. I'm guessing this same general "don't ask, don't tell, smoke em' if you've got em' " deal applies to other vaccines also. It's not like the "at-risk" categories are super-narrow groupings where the clinic will require some kind of proof or documentation. For instance, just being a smoker puts you in the "at-risk" group for Pneumococcal, and being a gay male puts you in the at-risk group for Hep A.

Another one you might need is Yellow Fever, depending on what country you're going to (Yellow Fever is endemic to Tropical South America and Africa). This actually has it's own certificate, and is a required vaccination in some circumstances. The thing is, countries that require Yellow Fever vaccination only require it if you're coming from an at-risk country. And the United States is not an at-risk country. So head over to your first destination, and get a Yellow Fever vaccine there. In all probability it'll be free. I can only vouch for this method in Argentina, where it was as simple as going to the tourist booth and asking where I could get a Yellow Fever vaccine.

For more vaccine info, see the NYC Dept. of Health's Bureau of Immunization, the Center for Diesese Control's Vaccinations page, and the UK-based The Site.

Hanging With the Pope

We headed out of Naples for Rome. Our stated mission was to break into the oldest sewer in the world. But there was other stuff to see along the way. You don’t go to Rome without planning some appreciation for the two great historical institutions that have had their headquarters there: the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.

The first Catholic site I went to was St. Peter’s Basilica . In addition to being a historic, artistic, and architectural marvel, St. Peter’s actually has a remarkable amount of public access. In fact, you can see five different levels at one point. After checking out the interior, I headed up to the top.

I took the stairs the whole way. After a few hundred steps, you’re out on a balcony on the inside overlooking the alter.From there, you head out to the lower roof.

Then a few hundred more steps and you’re rewarded with great views of Rome from the viewing terrace on top of the dome, which was designed by Michelangelo as one of his last works.

he walk up itself was actually pretty fun. There’s about a dozen different types of staircases along the way, and at one point you actually have to learn about 20 degrees to the right while walking, to adjust for the slope of the dome.

The other two levels are below. Underneath the alter is the tomb of the past popes, which is publicly accessible whenever the Basilica is open. And underneath that level is a fascinating archeological site. Tours are given semi-regularly, and we were lucky enough to catch one in English.

Before there was a St. Peter’s Basilica - in fact before there was a St. Peter - the area west of the Tiber river was mainly a burial place. Underneath the Vatican is an entire “City of the Dead” - catacombs filled with Christian, Jewish, and Pagan burial sites. Over the years it’s been excavated, and now has periodic tours where you can also see the burial place of St. Peter. Our guide told us the long twisted take of discovering St. Peter’s remains - basically, since the Vatican’s nightmare was to not find St. Peter’s remains below the alter where they were supposed to be, excavation was held up for centuries. Eventually, remains were found matching the age, sex, and expiration date of the Basilica’s namesake. The final kicker that led the Vatican to declare they were St. Peter’s remains? Despite an abundance of hand and finger bones, there were no foot bones found. Legend has it that St. Peter was crucified upside-down. The easiest way to take a dead body off an upside-down cross? Chop off his feet at the ankles.

A lot of people mistakenly think that St. Peter’s Basilica is the seat of the Bishop of Rome - A.K.A. the Pope. Actually, that honor is held by St. John Lateran - or “The Cathedral Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Lateran.” Cathedral because it contains a Cathedra, or seat of a Bishop. Archbasilica because as the seat of the Pope, it’s considered above all other basilicas. Most Holy Savior because all Patriarchal Basilicas consider Jesus to be the primary patron, with whoever they are named after (Paul, Peter, the Johns, and the Virgin Mary), as secondary patrons. Saint John the Baptist and the Evanglalist because it was actually dedicated twice, and they decided to keep them both. And in the Lateran, because the location is the site of the former palace of the Laterani family.

I decided to head to St. John’s right after my visit to St. Peter’s. And after that, I decided to try and make a Grand Slam of the four Major Basilicas. I headed to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls next (which is supposedly above the burial place of St. Paul). St. Paul’s is most noteworthy for having a portrait of every Pope in history. When there’s no more room for another Pope, it signals (obviously) the end of the world. There’s eight spots left. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church would not let any Non-Catholic Churches in the city of Rome. The name of the first one, an English language Anglican church? Why “St. Paul’s Inside the Walls” of course. I finished off the Grand Slam with a visit to St. Mary Maggiore, about a half-hour before it closed.

The next day we went to see the Vatican Museum (best known for the Sistine Chapel with the famous ceiling by Michelangelo). The scene in the Chapel is half funny, half pitiful. It’s unbelievably crowded, and despite the prominently displayed “flashbulb with a slash through it” signs, you keep hearing is the guards saying “no flash, no flash” in a resigned voice about every 10 seconds.

In addition to the Vatican Museum, we also saw the Pope. It wasn’t too tough - you head to St. Peter’s on Tuesday, the Swiss Guards give you tickets (free of charge), and you show up the next day.

The whole thing was hilarious. The Pope reads a short statement in about a dozen different languages. Then after each time he reads it, he basically gives a shout-out to whoever happens to be there that speaks that language. If a group from a church in Uruguay is visiting (which they were), he’ll say something like “and I wish to welcome the congregation of St. Mary’s from Montevideo, Uruguay” after he’s done reading the statement in Spanish, and the aforementioned congregation will stands up and cheer and wave Uruguayan flags. Repeat for everyone else that’s there. At one point, I kid you not, a Marching Band stood up and played a few songs after their organization had been given a shout-out. Then after all of that the Pope blesses everything in the room, and that’s a wrap. It’s basically the same as going to a rap concert, but instead of “Is Brooklyn in the House?” it’s “is St. Stephen’s Church of Bratislava, Slovakia in the house?” And as said by Pope Benedict XVI instead of the Method Man.