Getting out of the airport at Foz do Iguacu, I notice a few things. First, it’s raining at a clip I haven’t really seen since Bocas del Toro. Second, of course, is the mild cultural shock of being in a non-Spanish speaking country for the first time since February (unless you count Chile, which I kind of do). Finally, and most unexpectedly, there’s a bittersweet combination of emotions — the most exciting part of my trip is just ahead of me — but so is my flight home. I’m in the last country I will visit before returning to the US.
Well, sort of. Iguazu Falls (I’ll stick with the Spanish spelling, since it’s more common here) lies on the border of Brazil and Argentina, and if I make it to the Argentine side, it will be the eleventh time I’ve crossed the Argentine border in the past two months.
Brazil comes with all kinds of logistical annoyances, the first of which is finding an ATM where I can get some money out. A few guys from the hostel join me on a trip to the commercial district a few blocks away to try to get cash. In one store, there’s no less than 6 ATMs, and I’m the only one who is able to get any cash out at night, and that’s after failing with 2 different cards on 5 of the machines.
The town really exists only to serve as a tourist base for the falls, so there’s not much else to do except get some food and beers, and then head back to the hostel to wait for our van to the falls the next day.
I visited Niagara Falls as a very young child and barely remember it, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen anything comparable to Iguazu. Normally, Iguazu’s flow rate is actually a bit lower than Niagara’s (but Iguazu is quite a bit taller). In the days prior to my visit, however, the Parana watershed that feeds the falls has been receiving torrential rains, and the flow rate is 25 times higher than its average, and five times higher than Niagara’s highest ever.
The next day we are planning to see the Argentine side of the falls, but it’s not to be. The flooding has increased, and the Argentine side is closed. We don’t know this for sure until we reach the border crossing. Since there’s no point going through customs, we turn around and head back to Brazil. My passport doesn’t show it, but I know I cross the Argentine border for my eleventh time, on the day that Iguazu Falls recorded its heaviest flow rate ever.
It’s disappointing to be in this remote place and miss out on this opportunity, but I focus on the positive of seeing the falls from at least one side. Visitors who would come three days later would not be so lucky, the flooding intensified and shut down the Brazilian side as well.
I have an early afternoon flight to Sao Paulo via Curitiba, so I head to the airport.
(My Sao Paulo photos were mostly taken on iPhone, so they’ll be smaller and crappier than usual).
I arrive in Sao Paulo as a solo traveler, but I’ll be leaving with three friends, as my buddies fly down from Chicago to tool around Brazil watching World Cup matches over the next few weeks.
They’re not here yet though, and for a few days I am on my own.
The city is a vast sprawl. I post up in a hostel in the Vila Mariana neighborhood for a few days until my friends start showing up. I really don’t know what to do with myself — there’s no must-see attraction here, and in a city of neighborhoods, it’s hard to know where to start. Sitting at the hostel, I fire up Tinder in hopes of a local guide. Tinder has been a fairly disappointing app while traveling to this point. Outside of major cities, it wasn’t even worth opening up. In Panama City and Buenos Aires I had a few matches, but when they found out I was traveling, and not an ex-pat, they lost interest. In Santiago I matched with what I am fairly confident was a non-catfish girl on the Chilean national ski team, but by the time the match registers, I was already over the Andes in Mendoza, so our relationship was limited to discussion of Rocky Mountain ski resorts. So I do not have a lot of hope about Tinder in Sao Paulo when I arrive.
In 24 hours I have at least 100 matches. Far from being annoyed at tourist presence, the ones I talk to seem generally excited that I am there for the World Cup.
Eventually I get into a conversation with one girl, who has a good command not only of English but also of emojis. It also helps that she is stunningly attractive. She tells me she’s going to check out an exhibit at a modern art museum with a friend later that night, and do I want to join? It would be a no-brainer even if I wasn’t bored and the museum wasn’t in walking distance.
The only wrinkle is that I’m on wifi here, and to get in touch once I’m out of the hostel, I’ll need What’sApp, and that means I need a Brazilian SIM card so I can have a functional phone number to sign up for What’sApp, and of course for network coverage. No problem right? SIMs are sold in every magazine kiosk. The problem is activating it without a CPF – Brazil’s equivalent of a social security number. When I ask a few Brazilians how I can get a CPF number, they tell me it’s impossible.
When it comes to government bureaucracies, I don’t believe anything is impossible, but I assume it’s very difficult. After some significant research into the issue online, I feel like I might be able to get a temporary CPF, but it’s going to take some leg-work, especially if my adventures in Brazilian visa acquisition back in BA are any indication. My first stop is a government office a few metro stops away from the hostel…or at least, where the office used to be. Google Maps hasn’t been updated, and the office is closed permanently. I try a second office a few more stops away, and after some waiting I’m told they don’t handle this sort of thing, but that there is another office that does, which turns out to be a few blocks from the first place I had attempted. When I get there, of course, they don’t know anything about it — and so far all of this has been done in some very butchered Portuguese with a little English mixed in. But eventually I get the desk clerk to ask around, and lo and behold, the one person in this office who speaks English quite well also happens to be the person who knows how to issue a temporary CPF.
Except of course I don’t quite have all the paperwork I need – the form I downloaded online of course isn’t the form they want, and I need some information that I can look up on the internet (something like the phone number of the hostel I’m at so they can verify me staying there), if I can get on wi-fi. But the office, several floors up in a shopping mall, doesn’t have it, and time is running out. I’m wandering the streets desperately looking for a signal and it’s not going well. Finally I get a slow unsecured network (there’s always one out there) and look up what I need, run back to the office, and am able to walk out with a temporary CPF card.
After this, the marginal difficulties I have getting my SIM card to actually work seemed fairly minor. I got it all together just in time to meet up with the girl, who we’ll call Eliana, at the museum. It’s modern art, so my best move is to just make fun of it, and Eliana’s English is good enough to catch my sarcasm. Afterwards we head to Vila Madalena, which is the major party area and is getting crazier by the day as World Cup fans flood in.
I have been partial to caipirinhas ever since my first real adult trip overseas with my friend Bubbles, where we went to Colombia and didn’t realize that when it said 3-for-1 caipirinhas at happy hour, and you ordered three, that meant they would bring you nine, anyway — I like caipirinhas. And Aspicuelta, the street I’m on is apparently well known for the drink. Not just standard lime caipirinhas, but strawberry, and raspberry, and pretty much any configuration of fruits you can name. And the best part is the bars stick a popsicle in the drink as well.
I have met a Brazilian girl, and I am drinking a fruity cocktail with a popsicle thrown into it. This is really all I ever wanted out of the World Cup and perhaps life itself.
You can’t say very much about the architecture, and there’s no natural features to distinguish the city. What Sao Paulo does have is an undeniable cosmopolitan energy, and the food especially is fantastic. I think Americans often think of South Americans as being from one of two descents: the Iberian peninsula, or indigenous peoples. And for many parts of the continent it is true. But Sao Paulo is truly an immigrant city, and that means all kinds of outstanding food. Italian restaurants are everywhere. I haven’t had decent Italian food since I left the states. (I’m sure it could have been had in Buenos Aires, but I didn’t have any there). My first night in town, I scarf down a massive plate of chicken parm at a corner restaurant right by my hostel. Another day, I hear about a great nearby lunch sushi place. I make my way over and, with the help of another friendly expat who happened to be sitting next to me, order up some fantastic salmon skin rolls. The place is so good that when the other guys show up I make them go there with me. For the record it’s called Uo Katsu and it’s all good but the salmon skin is killer.
The next night I’m out again with Eliana in Via Madalena again, and by the time my friend Eric’s flight lands the next day, I’m still in a hurry trying to check out of my hostel instead of having a drink waiting for him as I promised.
With a friend in town, my solo hostel days are over. We check into a hotel near the FIFA Fan Fest and head out to watch the opening match, which pits the host country against would-be patsy Croatia. The Fan Fest is lively and fun. This is the best time to be at the World Cup. No games have been played and nobody has any reason to be sad yet. Within a week, England, Italy, and Spain will all be eliminated, but for now, spirits are uniformly high.
With Eliana as our guide we hit up a club called the Kia Ora where a fantastic cover band called More Cowbell is playing a set. The lead singer can nail the Killers, U2, Journey and Queen.
On the way home, we stop at a gas station convenience store to pick up some bottled water and snacks, and have one of our first strange Brazilian gas station drinking experiences – it seems that some people just hang out in gas stations as though they were bars to watch games. Better than some of our cab drivers, who have small TVs next to their GPS screens and are watching games as they drive.
It’s not all caipirinhas and sushi in Sao Paulo. We do try to get a little culture by hitting up MASP, the non-modern art museum in downtown Sao Paulo, but I couldn’t tell you anything I saw there. So it’s mostly caiprinhas and sushi.