Guest column: American in Brazil: Road to the Olympics
August 15, 2016
Days south of the equator: six.
Location: twin bed, Flamengo neighborhood, Rio de Janeiro.
Feeling: exhausted, excited.
My family and I spent the past several days exploring Peru and the amazing civilizations left behind by various indigenous people. Overall we had a wonderful time, but now, seven flights and two disasters into my trip, I am already exhausted, and we just arrived in Rio this morning.
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Disaster No. 1: Machu Picchu
We traveled to Peru with a small contingent of the same group going to the Olympics, a pre-trip trip, if you will. While Lima and all of Cusco were great, the gem and purpose of most trips to Peru is Machu Picchu. Traveling with a group of about 25 people, we were up at 4:45 a.m. to grab breakfast and get to the train station for the first ride to Aguas Caliente at 6:40 a.m. After an easy — albeit long (about 3.5 hours) and early — train ride, we arrived to find the most epic line of all time to catch the bus up to the site. When I say "epic," I mean twice the size of the longest line I've ever waited in, which was at the Vatican to see to the Sistine Chapel. Having paid a significant amount of money for the whole trip, everyone started panicking and demanding to be moved to the front of the line, which was mostly Peruvians on what turned out to be a school holiday and travelers who, having waited out a two-day bus strike, all decided to make good on their tickets that day. After several failed attempts at negotiating to get on an earlier bus, we ended up waiting in line for three hours. With that wait, a 25-minute bus ride to the top and a ticket-check point, we ended up with 45 minutes in Machu Picchu. It was not enough time. It was devastating. It was majestic for however long it lasted.
Disaster No. 2: Hotels
After the Machu Picchu disaster, we explored the Sacred Valley, which was nearly as great and had no lines. Then the next day, after a Cusco city tour, we all got on the bus for the final push to Rio. Leaving our hotel at 2:30 in the afternoon, we knew we would be traveling until 4 a.m. the following day. Besides the smelly and loud Finnish man sitting next to me, travel was smooth. Arrival and customs were smooth. Then we pulled up in front of our hotel (booked by our tour group two years ago, but they recently switched us into this option since our first choice had been filled), and immediately we were in a state of shock. The hotel facade was tiny, the lobby was tiny, and the receptionist was incompetent. Since we arrived so early, we were promised a smooth check-in so we could grab some Z's and have a full day in Rio. What we found (given I do have higher standards than backpackers on spring break) was the stuff of nightmares. The rooms were so small with no closet, maybe 10 by 10 feet with a bed in the middle that was covered with, I assume, unwashed sheets. Now, it being 6 in the morning and we being without sleep, we had no choice but to pass out for sanity and then reassess in the morning. My brother actually put the shirt he'd been wearing all day over his pillowcase, since that seemed like the more sanitary option. I lay there for a few hours in sheer panic over the blanket touching my face or the sheets giving me hives. I created a new mantra: It will be OK; everything will be fine; you can do this. When I woke, the state of affairs was not eased by some rest and a short-lived new mantra. At noon we got keys for new, "better" rooms from the manager. My father took one look at my brother and my open-concept (as in no door) shower-toilet-sink combo and then called the director of our tour to find a solution. As sheer luck would have it, there were two rooms available, due to something I didn't pay attention to, at the hotel we originally wanted, also where our family friends are staying. If we had gone to the new hotel first, it would have been OK — a simple place, clean with room to unpack, but after eight hours of gut-wrenching anxiety about staying in the Bates Motel, it felt like a St. Regis.
I like to think of myself as easygoing, but the reality is that I am only easygoing when things are going my way. This trip has been so amazing and so hard at the same time, bringing me to tears of joy seeing Machu Picchu with my own eyes and tears of relief when we found out we didn't have to stay in a disgusting hotel. I will take our lodging miracle as a way to start making up for the loss of time at Machu Picchu.
Having unpacked, walked to the beach and glimpsed Christ the Redeemer through misty skies, I am ready for the next 11 days of cheering on athletes from all over the world and exploring Rio. Now that things are settled, the new mantra is: Relax and enjoy — nothing else can go wrong, right?
First thoughts: Rio de Janeiro
Landing in Rio at 4 a.m., after more than 12 hours of travel from Cusco, I was in a state of exhaustion. Having endured a marathon pre-trip to Peru, I was like a ghost floating above my body as I sauntered down the freshly painted walls of the Rio Galeao International Airport. All passengers were beyond friendly conversation, so we walked in silence, observing the pristine airport with new bathrooms and new murals of Usain Bolt's Nissan campaign. The hallways seemed never-ending, but we eventually made it to customs, where we were fingerprinted and moved along. At that hour, the only other people we saw were the duty-free workers still there hoping to catch a few more purchases as the way out snaked through a Costco-size series of shops and the two police officers with machine guns watching over us as we exited the airport. Only understanding today that the airport is on an island, I was confused as we drove over water with only a few cars accompanying us. As we got into the city, not a single discarded bottle could be seen from our bus. Graffiti was still all over the walls but was clearly just washed. Granted, most everyone was slumbering, so there was not yet a chance to litter or loiter, but it being 5 a.m. now, I was impressed by the gleaming, fresh city. Maybe I was delusional, and time will tell, but it is proof that this city can be cleaned up, at least on the surface, for a few weeks.
Amy Laha, advertising and marketing specialist for The Aspen Times, is in South America with her family for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She emailed this update last week and plans to send another update as soon as she can.