Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Last week in Rio

After giving my final lecture last week, and working out my visas I'd planned to do a few things in Rio since it was going to be my last week. Climb up a small peak with a professor, go for a football match in Maracana and check out a couple of small islands near Rio. Basically, some things which I felt I should do before leaving Rio.

I ended up doing none of those but instead had some great moments. I found a great club close to my apartment, where there're no chairs or space to sit in, no cover charge, no clapping and no food. People sit or stand on the sidewalk and you basically open a fridge with some beer and show it to the owner who keeps count. The club is called Bipbip, and the owner and his wife became very fond of me over the last week. Being Indian makes me very exotic out here, and I've enjoyed the attention and hospitality.

Also got in touch with some friends of friends, who took me out almost every night over the last week with their friends. Discovered some spots in Rio with small beaches, great views and cheap beer. I ended up making some close friends over the last seven days, with people who wouldn't ever want to leave Rio. All this happened the day I bought a ticket back to Paris, and if I hadn't finalised plans for the next few months, I would have been tempted to stay on here for longer. I'll be back soon.

I've uploaded some more pictures of Rio here. One last picture of Rio before I leave.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Visa power

The last 2-3 days were a bit hectic due to the visas I needed - for Argentina and France.

My Brazillian visa expires in about 2 weeks, and my plan had been to leave Rio on May 31st, travel in Argentina for 2 weeks, and then fly out to Paris on June 15th. Last week, the Argentinian consulate said that it takes a week for the visa to be processed, which meant I would get it today (May 24th), and I guessed that the French visa would take a week at least. Things were touch and go, and over the weekend I was a bit nervous because I hadn't received the documents from Paris with which I could apply for a French visa. If it didn't arrive by this week, I would have had to make alternate plans - stay on in Argentina or fly to London instead of Paris, and work out things from London. Finally got the letter from Paris 2 days ago and breathed a sigh of relief. I called the Argentinian consulate on Tuesday, and the officer said everything was fine and I could pick it up on Thursday (today).

Yesterday afternoon, just before I was heading for lunch, I got a phone call from the admin office in the institute to come by to the office. I thought it must be some paperwork, but it turned out the Argentinian consulate had called. Thankfully, for this month I have a home and an office (very useful while applying for visas), and I'd given the instt phone no as my contact number. Called the Arg consulate back, and there was a problem. Since I was planning to cross into Argentina by land, the Rio office couldn't issue me a visa. I would have to apply for a visa at the border (the Iguazu waterfalls), which would presumably take another week. I didn't have time for that, especially as I had to apply for a French visa immediately. The officer remembered me, and said that the only way they could give me a visa was if I was flying from Brazil to Argentina, and said that a faxed copy of a ticket would work. He said he would need it in a few hours, if I wanted the visa by Thursday.

When it comes to buying airline tickets, I've worked out a couple of ways to *buy* tickets (I'll refrain from being too public about it), so I went down to the computer lab and printed out a ticket from Rio to Buenos Aires. It was lunch time, and the admin office was closed, so I pottered around, and prepared for a lecture I had to give in a few hours. Went back up to the admin office around 1 and faxed it, but the visa officer was away for lunch till 2. Headed back to my office and hoped that the fax I'd sent would suffice, as I had to give a lecture in about an hour, and it would get over around 5 pm - when everything would be shut. Called up around 2, and he said everything was fine, and I should come by tomorrow. I don't know if he knew that I still planned to go across by land and not take a flight, but it's not really his problem.

After my lecture, I printed out and completed the French visa form, made photocopies of all my documents (some of which a friend had faxed from London), and realised the French visa application was going to span 4 continents. A passport issued in Delhi, a bank statement from Boston, a letter of invitation from Paris and a current address in Rio. I was braced for a tough interview and spent the rest of the evening brushing up on my French.

Headed out this morning and went straight to the Argentinian consulate at 930. It opened at 10 and got my passport by 1020. The French consulate was a bit further away in the downtown area, but I'm familiar with Rio so I took a bus and got there by 11. Walked up to the visa section and saw that it was quite empty. Brazillians don't need visas to travel in Europe, so there were just 2 other people. Waited patiently and went through all my documents and realised I'd goofed up. I'd forgotten to bring 2 photographs. The visa section closed at 12 or 1230 so I had less than an hour to get a photo taken. Since it was the main commercial area of Rio, I figured there had to be a photo studio close by.

Went down and asked the security guy and he said there was one next door. Walked across and they said their computer system wasn't working, but there were a couple along a street further down. I had to do it quickly because tomorrow is some kind of a holiday for some of the consulates. It had started raining by now, and I didn't want my papers to get wet so I ran. Running in downtown Rio in the middle of the day, clutching my bag tightly and desperately looking for a studio must have made me look suspicious, but I didn't care. Asked around and was told there was one next to the post office a few blocks away, so I sprinted. Got there short of breath, had my picture taken quickly and ran back to the consulate. Still had about 30 mins before they went for lunch and hadn't even had a chance to talk to the visa officer.

On the way up on the elevator, I practiced my lines expecting her to kick up a fuss. Reached the visa section and waited for a bit for some other people to get their paperwork done. Obviously, the officer didn't speak any English. I gave her all my papers and waited for some problem to arise. She went through them slowly, and after every page she turned I realised my chances were higher. This was my 10th visa application in the last 12 months, and in almost every one of them, there's been a problem regarding my non-residency. An Indian applying for a French visa in Brazil was going to be a problem for sure.

After 5 minutes of looking through the papers, she turned away and filled out some stuff on her computer. Still no questions, and I was quite puzzled. She printed out something, tore off a portion and gave it to me without saying anything. It was the receipt and said 60 Euros. I'd expected the visa fee to be about 30 Euros and wasn't carrying enough cash, so I asked her about how to pay. She smiled and pointed at the slip, which said "GRATIS" and said the pickup date was May 31st. For a few seconds I was a bit shocked, and then asked her if that was all. She still didn't say a single word, smiled and waved and called the next person in line.

So that was it. No questions, no fee, no problems. It worked out and I'll get it in time to spend 2 weeks in Argentina. I got 2 visas approved in one day, without paying a penny.

PS Did you know that one can go to more than 50 countries with an Indian passport and get a visa on arrival? Check out this link.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The music scene

For the last 4 nights, I've been heading out to a few music clubs each night. It's a bit addictive, and I've ended up making a few friends as well.

The first night I went to a place which was around the corner from where I live. The problem with Copacabana is that it's a fairly upscale neighbuorhood, with either retired people or rich tourists staying in the hotels or apartment buildings. And the club was full of those people. The music was mostly light jazz, and after an hour of sitting around, I went back home.

The next day, I asked around about some cheaper but more authentic places. Lapa and Santa Teresa were the obvious places to explore, and one of the students at the institute used to go a lot to some of the clubs till a year ago (These days he's desperately trying to finish his thesis). He told me about a couple of his favourite places and I went. I wasn't disappointed at all. The previous weekend I'd ended up hanging out only on the streets in Lapa, taken aback by how much was going on.

This time I was indoors mainly but it was as much fun. The 2-3 places I was recommended have live music every night. On the weekends there's a cover charge, but it's not too expensive. The music is mainly Samba or some variation, and the atmosphere is really relaxed. The audience is generally quite mixed in terms of age. It's not uncommon to see an old couple dancing in the middle surrounded by middle-aged and young people. There's no real dress code and some people came in shorts, and didn't look out of place. Typically, the first set is played with people sitting or standing around, but by the time the second set starts (around midnight) nobody's sitting. Even the waiters jig a bit while serving drinks, and the owner (I've gone to the same club 3 times now) joins in later on. I'm too tone deaf to understand the variations, but the owner's tried to explain some of the basic stuff a few times. If anyone's curious this is the place.

At one of the clubs, I ended up making friends with the people sitting next to me, and hung out with them the next day as well. Unfortunately, language is a big barrier, and we never get past basic conversations. I hooked up with some of the students one day as well and after barely 3 weeks in Rio, I feel like I have a social life. I'm sharing my office with another postdoc from Portugal who's on her 5th visit to Rio, and she smiled. She said she has a more active life here than in Porto.

It's sad that Rio's reputation is tarnished by the crime reports. 3 weeks here and I've found it to be quite safe, clean, friendly and a lot of fun.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Visa update

Looks like my Argentinian visa has worked out. I went today with the letter from the Indian consulate, and the visa official had no problems. Due to an agreement between Argentina and India, I didn't even have to pay a visa fee. The only question he asked me was "What does Shanti mean?". He's heard the term "Om Shanti" a lot, so he was curious about Shanti. He spoke English so for a while we were just chatting about Brazil and India - football vs cricket, Amazonas vs Himalayas. It'll take a week for it to get processed, but hopefully there won't be any problems - they'll call if they want something else.

After this, I have to deal with the French consulate. I've decided to head back to Paris after Argentina. I'm running out of money, and also feel that Buenos Aires will be a nice place to finish my South America trip. Chile and Patagonia are places I would love to explore, but it's the wrong time of the year and I don't think have the money or the energy to travel more. I still have 2 months left on the grant/contract I had in Paris, so I've decided to use it for the rest of the summer. I should be back in Paris, hopefully, by mid-June.

Still haven't received my documents from Paris to apply for a new French visa. It's going to be touch and go again.

Monday, May 14, 2007


Ipanema and Copacabana are great places for beach activities, and both neighbourhoods are quite safe and clean. But after 2 weeks of being in Rio, I found them a bit sterile and late at night they seemed a bit dead - except the Mayday concert that I saw. I asked around in the institute about neighbourhoods which have good music and nightlife, and was pointed towards Lapa.

It's not too far from Copacabana, about 30 minutes by public transport, so I headed out there on Friday night. I went after 10, aware that the nightlife in Rio doesn't start till around midnight, but wanted to get there a bit early to explore the area. I took the metro, and got off at the right stop but ended up taking the wrong exit. I walked around for about 20 minutes, and couldn't see any signs of activity. A few homeless people, some people hissing at me (drug dealers maybe?) and very rundown and shady bars. I have a horrible sense of direction (I often get lost in new places), so I knew I must have walked in the wrong direction. Decided to retrace my steps and after getting back to the metro station, walked in the other direction.

Within 10 minutes, I knew this was the right area. I could see a lot of small groups of friends walking, and some music throbbing from not too far away. Following the crowd in such situations is generally a good idea, and 10 minutes later I was next to the Arcos de Lapa. It was still early by Rio standards (almost 11 pm), and I got the feeling that the party was just starting.

What surprised me was the amount of stuff happening on the streets. The bars and clubs were getting full, but the streets had even more people, and a lot of stuff going on. Food stalls, alcohol vendors and small bands filled the streets, as did a large police presence. There were queues outside some of the clubs, but a lot of people were happy standing out on the streets and the sidewalks. And it wasn't just one or two streets, but pretty much the whole neighbourhood.

The alcohol and food were cheap, and one could even buy some cocktails from enterprising vendors who walked around carrying trays with a few bottles and created their concoctions quickly. After a couple of hours, the streets were as full as a crowded nighclub with different bands playing in different corners. It didn't feel too safe, and unlike Ipanema and Copacabana, the whole area was quite dirty and rundown but it was great fun. I stayed there till late, and getting back was easy because of the frequent nightbuses.

I went back to the same area the next afternoon to explore Santa Teresa. The favelas in Rio are spread out among the hills, but Santa Teresa is one of the few hilltop neighbourhoods which isn't a favela. It's a short walk up from the Lapa arches, and during the day Lapa has a completely different feel. Santa Teresa is known as the more bohemian part of Rio, with a few small art galleries, cafes and small music clubs. I spent most of the afternoon exploring Santa Teresa, and though it wasn't as funky as Olinda, it gave off the impression of being quite laidback. There weren't too many people, and along 2 or 3 streets there were a bunch of cafes with some musicians. It didn't have the intensity of Lapa the previous night, but I came across a few art galleries, a group of actors rehearsing a play, a couple practising some dance moves and some nice street art.

Lapa and Santa Teresa are definitely worth exploring more on the weekends. Here're a few pictures. I've uploaded more pictures here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The outdoors city

I don't think I've ever seen a city which has been built around so much natural beauty. If one was to take away all the manmade structures from Rio, it would have been a beautiful spot to come for a hike. It could so easily have been designated a national park. Somehow, the urban planners have crammed in a huge city of 6 million (about 12 including the suburbs), and it's got a very unique character.

The city's very naturally divided along 2 zones - north and south - by the mountains. The 2 major zones have 2-3 neighbourhoods each, which are again naturally divided by the beaches, the forest and a huge lake. It's very green and surprisingly fairly clean for a city of its size and density. The weather's mild throughout, so if you enjoy the outdoors it's possibly the most amazing big city to live in.

The instt has arranged a nice flat for me in Copacabana, which is 2 minutes from the beach. The 2 major beaches - Copacabana and Ipanema - are next to each other and are always busy. They're public beaches, but I've found them to be pretty clean and safe. Copacabana beach is full of small football and volleyball courts, so there are dozens of games going on all day. Some of the games are played pretty seriously with teams wearing uniforms, a referee and the evening games are played with lights on. Both beaches are connected with a wide running/biking trail, streetside cafes and streetvendors. I'd expected the night time to be a bit shady, but in the evening there are a lot of people running, walking and biking, so I've had a nice time heading to the beach after *work*.

In the morning, while a lot of people in my neighbourhood head for work, a large number of people head to the beach dressed in their swimming costumes, carrying a surfboard. The beaches are reasonably busy early in the morning, and since the cafes and vendors seem to be pretty busy, it's probably a big part of the economy. Since I never lived in a city with beaches, I was never a beach person. But over the last 2-3 months, it's become such a big part of my day, that if I end up not going for a run or a walk or a beer along the beach, I feel as if my day was a bit empty. A few professors in IMPA actually spend their morning on the beach, before heading to the instt.

What makes Rio so unique to me, is how it seems like a huge number of people enjoy the outdoors. Last weekend, I went on a hike with a professor from the instt up to Corcovado (which has the huge statue of Christ) and even though it's a steep climb, there were quite a few people hiking up. The professor I went with studied in IMPA as well, and said a major chunk of his student life was spent hiking and climbing the various peaks and cliffs in Rio. Apparently there are a few books about the hiking and climbing spots in Rio. The instt is next to a rainforest, where no construction is allowed. That means it's a lovely spot to go for a walk. After lunch, or late in the afternoon if I'm a bit sluggish it's a nice way to get some fresh air. Then, of course, there's the beach in the evening.

Here are a couple of pictures I took from Corcovado. I'll try taking more while I'm here, but it's nice to explore the city without carrying anything valuable on me.

Copacaba beach is the one on the right in the first picture, and in the second picture, the instt is on the hill overlooking the huge lake in the centre. A few more can be found here.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Argentinian bureaucracy

After my stint in Rio, I want to head down to Argentina. Since I need a visa I looked up the Argentinian embasys and, thankfully, they have a consulate in Rio. Went across to the consulate armed with various documents (some legal and original, some not).

It's an imposing building and part of the Argentinian cultural centre as well. It's got a nice view of the bay and is in a busy commercial area. Got a bit lost walking around the building and finally found the visa section after about 20 minutes. It was empty and there were 4 visa officers just chatting with each other. When they saw me, they pointed me over to the youngest one.

Showed him my passport and when I asked for a visa form, he gave me a list of required documents. Most of them were standard requirements - valid Brazillian visa, bank statement, flight ticket, hotel reservation, valid visa for the next country (Still not too sure where I'm headed after Argentina). Surprisingly, he didn't have a problem with my residency and showed me a line which said this:

For Non-Brazillian residents, an application for a visa must be accompanied by a letter from your embassy or consulate, stating your name and passport number.

I asked him if that letter needed anything else, but he said no. Just a letter with your name and passport number. I showed him my passport and said both were on the front page. He just shook his head, and refused to give me the application form till I get that letter.

It's so stupid. A letter from your consulate stating your name and passport number. The Indian consulate is in Sao Paolo, so the visa officer agreed that a fax will suffice. Let's see what problems the Indian consulate will have with sending a fax like that.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Some videos

A few videos that I made over the last 2 months.

1) Hitching a ride with 2 friends on the back of a truck to get to a trailhead, from where we hiked to some hot springs. This was in Merida, in the Venezuelan Andes.

2) On a canoe along the Rio Solimoes in the Amazon rainforests. The guy at the back of the canoe was my guide for the 5 day trip.

3) Ever wondered why Brazillians are so good at football? This was at Copacabana beach. I caught them halfway, and will try shooting a few videos of them playing volleyball without using their hands.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Mayday in Rio

So, yesterday was my first day at IMPA, and after 2 months of bumming around, I was keen to get to the instt and sit in an office and pretend to work. 2 mins away from my flat, there was a direct bus and I got here in less than 30 minutes. I thought all the stories about buses being very slow in Rio were exaggerated. Showed up here before 9, and then hung around the campus for about 30 mins. Soon, I realised there was nobody around except a few security guards. Since it's a research institute, with no undergrads, I figured people showed up late or whenever it suited them.

The campus is beautiful, and though it doesn't overlook the beach, it's surrounded by a forest. It's green, quiet and the main building is bright and airy. Had a nice time walking around and finally bumped into a professor. He told me it was Mayday, and everything in Rio was closed. This was the third time in succession in the last 8 months that I'd showed up in my new department on the wrong day. In R'burg, it was Unification day weekend, in Paris it was the Christmas/New Year break, and here it was May day.

Anyway, I managed to plug in my laptop and surf for a few hours and then decided to head back as it was so quiet. On the map, Ipanema beach looked very close, but it turned out to be much further. Took me almost an hour to walk there, and lugging a laptop and not wearing anything remotely resembling beachwear, I looked like a real misfit on the beach. Since it's a big holiday, it looked like half of Rio was hanging out on the beach.

Thankfully, my flat wasn't too far so I headed back, changed and went back to the beach. Walked all the way up from Copacabana back to Ipanema, and realised there was a big concert going on. As it was a holiday, it was packed and there were lots of vendors selling alcohol and food. It was loud, crowded, colourful and very lively. It went on forever I think, but I headed back to my flat around midnight and could hear the music even as I went to sleep. As a first day in Rio, it was a nice introduction.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Reached Rio

Finally, I made it! After almost 10,000 km of travelling by bus, boat, car and foot (at the Brazillian border) from Caracas, I'm in Rio. The Instt has booked me into a great flat which is 5 minutes from Copacabana, and the instt itself isn't far from Ipanema. After 2 months of staying in cheap hostels and posadas, long bus rides and searching for cyber cafes, it felt great to wake up in a flat, get to an office and use the internet without looking at the time elapsed.

Anyway, I've finally managed to upload all my pictures (and a few videos), so here are some of the nicer ones. Click here for all the pictures.