Saturday, January 22, 2011

It was the best of times, it was the worst of time...BRAZIL

Here it is, finally! So the background info. Ryan served his mission in the Brazil Santa Maria mission from 2000-2002. It's located in the Rio Grande do Sul state which is the very most southern region of Brazil. He always wanted to go back and then when we got married we started talking about it and had the whole trip planned and paid for to go over Christmas in 2006. About a week before I ended up with an abdominal surgery but the surgeon said we could still go. Unfortunately, a few days later I ended up back in surgery and this time we knew we couldn't go. It was heartbreaking to be stuck in the hospital and listen to Ryan cancel all of our reservations. Anyway...we always meant to re plan it but didn't get to it until this year but better late than never right?! (Just a heads up, I'm including lots of details and pictures for memory sake so I'm sorry if it gets boring to read. Guarentee this is the world's longest blog post so feel free to skim through as needed!)

Day 1, 12/28/10
We finished packing and my younger brother Tyler who came out to dog/house sit drove us to the airport. Checked bags, got through security, got the gate just in time...or so we thought. The flight was an hour late leaving which left me a wreck because we only had a 45 minute layover in Dallas to make the Rio flight. We told 2 people before we got on the plane and 2 more once we entered the plane and they all brushed us off. So when we landed we hurried as fast as we could to get off the plane then BOOKED it to the next gate only to find that it had left...without US! I seriously couldn't believe it. That plane didn't wait 5 minutes, 5 MINUTES, that's all we needed! And no one called ahead to the gate, no one helped us get off the plane, no helped at all. The plane was still taxiing on the runway when we got to the gate. "We'll rebook you on the next flight" was the response we got. Problem being, it only leaves once a day and we had reservations waiting for us. Of course there "was nothing they could do" and no apologies or compensation offered except to get a "distressed passenger" rate at a hotel which means we still paid for it, just got a discount. So we left the airport fuming and crying and spent the night in Dallas trying to figure out how we could make up the time we were losing. All in all, we lost our car rental reservation, paid for a night in a hotel we didn't stay in, lost a flight we needed to make once we got to Rio, and lost a much needed travel day in Brazil. American Airlines, you can look forward to a letter and receipts from us shortly :)

Day 2, 12/29
Went back to the airport and after another delay, flew to Miami. You'll love this. As we got to the gate we were getting our stuff together when the flight attendant asked everyone to step back in so they could get a lady off the plane to make her flight to South America...oh were we mad! Ryan even stopped and asked the flight attendant if that is their policy and if so, where were they yesterday?! We so could have made our flight if they had helped us like they did her. Anyway, spent a few hours killing time in Miami including being entertained by this Brazilian gate agent who all the sudden put on Christmas lights and sang jingle bells... then after another delay, finally got on the flight to Rio. It was a late evening flight but they still fed us dinner and played a movie that I only saw about 5 minutes of before falling asleep. It was a 9 hour flight and thankfully we slept for 6-7 hours of it which I'm so glad cuz I was anxious about getting restless. Our seats were the first row of coach behind business class which looked SO nice! Their chairs turned into beds and they had removable TV screens and everything! Oh well, we were just glad to make it.

Day 3, 12/30
Finally made it to Rio but unfortunately since we left late we ended up behind a whole Air France flight in customs. After an hour or so in line we made it through, found some food, and took in the warm but cloudy Rio weather. We hung out at the airport for our next flight which of course was late just like the rest of them. Finally the plane arrived and we were on our way to Porto Alegre. We had 3 domestic flights within Brazil with TAM airlines and they fed us a full meal for each 2 hour flight, cool huh?
{porto alegre in sight!}
{Welcome back to the South "Elder West"} By the time we landed and waited in line for our rental car (that we paid way too much for thanks to a last minute reservation courtesy of American Airlines) it was about 8pm. To make up time and not miss any other reservations we had to drive until about tired! We stopped at a bus stop for dinner as NOTHING in Brazil is open after about 6pm. It's okay cuz the bus stops have good food. That was where I first learned that you don't put toilet paper in the toilet and sometimes have to pay 25 cents just to get some toilet paper.
After a quick bite we got back in the car. Poor Ryan couldn't figure out how to get it in reverse and we spent about 5 minutes inching forward then rolling back then doing it again. He finally figured it out and off we went. After a full night of driving we arrived in Santana do Livramento around 3am and checked into the Jandia Hotel and crashed for a few hours.

Day 4, 12/31
Morning came too quick but we got ready, checked out, then headed out to see the downtown area.
{first view of the South out our hotel window} This city is on the border of Uruguay and there is an international park there where you can stand in both countries. We were taking pictures when this little boy came up to Ryan and sold him a pair of socks. It was cute to see how pushy the boy was and Ryan wasn't going to buy them but I made him :)
We did some more walking around which brought back memories for Ryan then stopped at a roadside cart for lunch. He remembered eating there and got us a Xis and my first Suco de Abakashi. A xis is a flat bread sandwich that has corn, ham, lettuce, other stuff I can't remember and a creamy sauce. Abakashi is pineapple and it comes like a smoothie that was SO yummy! I think I had at least 5 while we were there :)
After lunch we drove out of the downtown area and out to the area where Ryan served. This was my first look at how they really live and wow, they really do live in shacks or very minimal concrete/brick homes. Another observation that would be true of the rest of the south is the amount of cachorro's (dogs, pronounced cashoho). They don't belong to anyone and they just wander around. The ratio of chachorro to human must be 3:1. Also, there were cows and horses all over the place. Most of them are owned but they don't have pastures. You might see them in the person's front yard or even in the grassy median of a busy road! Anyway, we stopped at the little white house Ryan lived in, the house they used as a church, the cemetery, the two ward buildings, a school they taught a class at, and the grocery store for our first of many package of cookies. Ryan told me about the milk that is sold on the shelf and isn't refrigerated and sure enough, there it was. We also bought dog treats but none of the dogs would take them, they acted like I was giving them poison!
As far as transportation there, many people have motorbikes, a few have cars, but most walk, take the bus or have a horse pulled cart which was odd to see. It was fun to see the different homes and their bright colors. I liked this one cuz it's like Barbie's dream house with chickens next door!
After we finished up in Livramento we started the drive to Santa Maria. It was a beautiful drive. The southern region of Brazil is not rainforest but more countryside. Lots of green fields and pastures. After a 3 hour drive and only getting mildly lost (thank goodness we rented a GPS) we checked into the Morotin Park Hotel and took a nap as it was New Year's Eve and figured we would head downtown and see what everyone was doing at midnight. Bad idea. We headed downtown around 10 and found NO ONE and NOTHING open. And I mean nothing but a few gas stations. So it was back to the bus stop for dinner :) Good thing Ryan remembered where they were. We enjoyed pastel's and soda for our New Year's Eve dinner. Pastel's are great! They are fried and have hamburger or chicken and cheese inside. I probably had 5 of those also :) We counted down the new year in our hotel room with out pastel's watching some John Travolta movie and listening to the neighborhood fireworks. Not exactly what we planned but okay.

Day 5, 1/1/11
Got ready, enjoyed breakfast at the hotel then explored Santa Maria.
We stopped at one the ward buildings first and luckily found people in the back. {notice the shack's out front? yeah, families actually live in them!} (All the church's have gates around them but thankfully this one was unlocked). Some of the members at the church directed us to Mauro's house. Mauro is a member who Ryan remembered fondly who was always good to the missionaries. He lives with his parents, 4 cachorro's, 5 gatto's (cats), and 2 birds. He wasn't expecting us so you can imagine his surprise to see Ryan but it was fun to sit and listen to them visit. Maudo took out his scrapbook and sure enough, there was a picture of Ryan when he was a missionary! Mauro's mom fed us tuna sandwiches, jello with milk, and guarana (Ryan's favorite soda ever). I felt bad taking it because I know they don't have much but he said that's just how the people are there. They all feed you whether they have food to share or not. After visiting for awhile, Mauro came with us and took us to a few other member's homes. They all remembered Ryan and it was fun to sit back and listen to them talk about the past. They of course were all speaking Portuguese so I understood almost nothing but that was part of the fun, to pick out words I did know and to listen to Ryan become fluent again.
We stopped at one home where they brought us in and showed us their cachorros. O.M.G. They were SO cute!! This is a baby St. Bernard "Bella" and her daddy "Beethoven." I so would have smuggled her home! After visiting, we said goodbye which was sad because I could tell Mauro didn't want Ryan to go but we had to. We did a quick drive past another house Ryan lived in and found a few more cachorro's to pet :)
After leaving Santa Maria, we were off to find Santiago. I should stop and stay that I spent a lot of time before the trip map questing directions and had a whole binder full of our agenda but it's a dang good thing we rented the GPS cuz my directions wouldn't have cut it! I have always been pro-map and anti-gps but I may have had a change of heart :)
On the way to Santiago we drove through an area called Jaguar. It was set in the mountains and was so lush and had beautiful views.
There were vineyards and hydrangea bushes everywhere.
We made it to Santiago And just in time too to get gas where we paid $5/gallon! Their gas stations are old fashioned where you pay someone to pump your gas for you. The highways in Brazil were very well maintained and paved but the cities have hand laid cobblestone streets which makes driving slow and bumpy.
{classic Brazilian road}
We were able to find the church building then after some hunting Ryan was able to find the house he lived in. {they lived in a little home behind the yellow one} Unfortunately, none of the homes still belong to the church so we couldn't go in them but they still fun to see and sure brought back memories for him. This city seems a bit wealthier than the others so the homes were more modern.
After another attempt to find real food we found nothing but closed signs. Thankfully we did find one corner cafe for Xis and Coke.
After saying goodbye to Santiago we started out for Santano Antonio das Missoes or as the missionaries called it "the hole". Unfortunately, Ryan circled the wrong city when I was printing directions so I didn't prepare any to this city and it's so small it wasn't on the GPS but he thought he remembered where it was. We ended up finding a sign that pointed toward the city so having no other directions, we followed it. It was a dirt road that turned into a horribly rocky dirt road (think off roading in a jeep...minus the jeep). It was all pretty and fun at first but then we realized it was basically a farm road and no one else was on it.
{funny story, we stopped to take pictures and this whole herd of cattle came up to see us, I felt horrible that I didn't have a treat for them} It would be dark soon and there were no signs telling us where we were so we had no choice but to keep going. Unfortunately it ended up being about 40km before we had a chance to get off of it. The car was filthy with red dirt and I'm shocked we didn't lose a tire in the process!
What a long drive but thankfully it put us right into Santo Antonio (aka "the hole"). Apparently this city got it's nickname because of it's size, remoteness, and lack of members. We found the home Ryan lived in which also acted as their church. He remembered having sacrament meeting in the garage. We drove though some of the city which included the park where Ryan remembered putting on an Easter program that no one came to :) The homes here and in every city had such fun colors! It was pretty special to be with "Elder West" as he walked those streets once again. This time with his eternal companion :) We stopped for yet another Guanana and caught a great sunset on our way out of "the hole."
Then we were on our way to the Wilson Parque Hotel in Sao Miguel das Missoes for the night.
{check out this cool monument at the entrance/exit to Sao Miguel} This hotel was kind of cool. It was set back on a beautiful piece of property and looked like a castle on the inside. The pool out back was very picturesque, I wish we had had time to use it. After a quick dinner we crashed for a few quick hours of sleep.

Day 6, 1/2
We had to get up early, get ready, and enjoy a quick breakfast at the hotel then make the 3 hour drive to church in Cruz Alta.
After racing to make it to church on time, Ryan realized we were at the wrong building so he got directions and we found the right one. The missionaries showed us into sunday school that was about over. It sure was different to listen to a lesson and have no idea what they were talking about. After the meeting, people started to recognize Ryan and an older man came up to him and you would have thought Ryan was his long lost son! They hugged and talked and reminisced. His name is Odilon and he was the branch president when Ryan served there. (talk about growth, this area went from 1 branch when Ryan was there to 4 wards 10 years later!) Besides Odilon, several other member's recognized Ryan and even called him by name! That's pretty good to remember "Elder West" after 10 years. We stayed for sacrament meeting which lucky for us was testimony meeting. What a spiritual and emotional experience to hear almost every member that bore their testimony talk about Elder West. Ryan got up and spoke to them as well. It was fun to try and sing the hymns with him.
After the meeting, Odilon invited us back to his home for lunch with his family. Once again, they took out their photo's and there was Ryan as a missionary! That's pretty cool to see pictures of him in their home 10 years later. {I was admiring the sweet dog house Odilon built and their green backyard}
They made a great lunch for us and made sure we were stuffed full! Then Odilon took us to a few of the member's homes. We were able to visit with an elderly man that Ryan baptized. They also had a picture of Ryan displayed in their living room.
Sadly, it came time to say goodbye to Odilon and it almost brought me to tears because he was SO happy to have Ryan back, even for just a few hours. Ryan told me later that Odilon told people several times while we were visiting, "All the missionaries, they all say they will come back but Elder West did, he came back" and "you see, the Lord does love us and bless us because Elder West came back and brought his beautiful wife" What special people these Brazilians are!!
Before leaving Cruz Alta, we miraculously found the home lived in.
{sad to think that a whole family lives in this little green shack next to the "nice" missionary home}
I loved the random horses at the bus station :)
We tried to find a few more members but no one was home so made our next trek back to Porto Alegre. It was a long drive (6 hours) but another pretty one. There were more giant hydrangeas and deep valley's with clouds settled in.
We stopped at a Churrascaria (think Brazilian buffet). It had a beautiful view but the food wasn't very good.
We got into Porto Alegre late but stopped at the temple. Ryan was there for the dedication 10 years ago. He said he remembered hearing President Hinkley speak and President Faust speak in Portuguese (he served his mission there and may have been one of the first in the area). It was a beautiful setting on a great big hill and had gorgeous landscaping just like the other temples. It made me feel good to see the care the church puts into their buildings; even in the poorest cities the church's were all very well taken care of. Ryan said people used to call our church "the rich church" because of the contrast between the buildings and the homes. After a few pictures we checked into the Mercure Beverly Hills for a short night.

Day 7, 1/3
After only 4 hours of sleep we were up and on our way back to the airport in Porto Alegre. There was a huge line once we got there but thankfully Ryan worked his Portuguese magic and got us bumped up as to avoid missing another flight. We stopped for a super quick picture by this wall that Ryan took a picture by when he was headed home from the mission. We took a bus to our propeller plane that we walked onto and enjoyed another meal en route to Foz do Iguacu where the Iguacu Falls are. Little did we know we were headed for more drama...After arriving and getting our bags we looked for our ride that had been prearranged that of course wasn't there. I spoke to the hotel about this a month prior and set it all up. While Ryan went to call them I thought I would get some cash from the ATM. Unfortunately, I don't speak Portuguese and am not patient enough to wait for him so I put my card in a machine that only takes their cards. Yeah, it took my card and never gave it back! I couldn't believe it, Ryan even called them and they said they never retrieve them, we were just out of luck. Ughh, I was sure this trip was cursed after he told me that the hotel claimed to not know about our pre-arranged transportation they were supposed to be providing but said they would send someone. Once we got to the place (Charm Iguassu Suites) they said that "sometimes they don't get the emails" even though someone from their hotel corresponded with me! The lady got the "manager" who spoke English who may have been the rudest person I have ever spoken to. I told him I was frustrated since this was all set up and I had it in writing and that I would appreciate transportation back to the airport the next day. He said "you got here didn't you?" and "so you were 30 minutes delayed, so what?" and "NO, I will NOT do that for you, you're just trying to take advantage of me!" He ended up storming off and I told him I give honest hotel reviews to which he stated "I don't care." What kind of a business owner doesn't care what their customers think of them?! I was so angry but we had already paid for the place so had to just leave our bags and go to the waterfalls.

The falls are split between Brazil and Argentina but we went to the Brazilian side since we only had 1 day.
Needless to say, the falls were amazing and well worth the trip!
For those of you who have watched the "double rainbow" you-tube video, listen to this clip courtesy of Ryan :)
The Iguacu Falls are the biggest waterfalls in the world and when Elanor Roosevelt visited she is quoted as saying "Oh poor Niagara" :)
Of course we were happy to hear that the park was full of wildlife and we were able to spot a few. Our favorite though were these little furry guys called coati's that look like half raccoon/half anteater. They just wander around and look for food from tourists but they tell you not to feed them because they can get aggressive. So of course Ryan tried to pet one that came up to us...I wanted to also but I wasn't about to get rabies in Brazil! They said there were also jaguars and pumas in the park but we didn't see any :(

There were a lot of people there which made picture taking hard but the falls were quite the sight! It's crazy that that much water flows all the time and has since God placed it there.
We had lunch (including Abakashi) overlooking the water then headed back to the hotel where not surprisingly it took them 10 minutes to find our room key because they most likely gave our room to someone else. It was awful, our room was down a flight of stairs with no elevator and basically in a driveway. It was in no way a "suite" but very basic and oh so noisy. Nothing like waking up to your upstairs neighbor urinating as if they were standing right next to you... :(
We took a nap then found an outdoor bar that was open for dinner. I had a super yummy virgin strawberry daiquiri to go with our plethora of food. We found a little cachorro on the way back and he followed us. He was so cute and playful and even let me pet him and yes, I did pet the stray dogs who would let me, they need love too!
We went to bed for a few more quick hours of sleep and looked forward to getting out of there and on to Rio!

Day 8, 1/4
Woke up early once again, packed, and took a taxi to the airport. Ryan loved making conversation with our taxi drivers :)
{here is a decent clip of Ryan speaking, I thought you would enjoy it}
We walked into another huge line at the airport behind a pushy European tour group. Finally Ryan worked that portugese again and we got bumped up and through the easy peasy Brazilian security only to find that our flight was delayed. Suprised right? Me either. It was kind of funny though, the reason for delay was weather related but translates to mean "meteor delay." Can't say I've ever had a flight delayed due to meteors :)
So we spent our morning reading, baking in the sun of the blue patio, and drinking yet another Guarana. Finally after 3 hours, we walked onto our plane,enjoyed another meal, and made it to Rio de Janeiro! We got our bags, found a taxi, and made it to the Rio Othon Palace where we would be staying. It is the tallest hotel on Copacobanna beach and right across the street from the water. I can't even being to praise this hotel enough. I booked a junior suite and knew going in that none of those rooms had been renovated but asked anyway. The super nice lady who helped us apologized that they didn't have any but said that they would be upgrading us to an executive suite. She told us it wasn't renovated but I didn't care. O.M.G. The suite was AMAZING! It was on the 19th floor (1912 to be exact) and not only did it have the bedroom/bathroom/corner balcony room that I expected in the junior suite... it had a second bathroom, bar, living room with another balcony, and dressing room! This really did so much to make up for the crap we had dealt with already. We checked out the 30th floor rooftop pool then went down to the beach. The water was cold but it didn't matter. We found a corner bakery for dinner then went back to the hotel for a good night's sleep.

Day 9, 1/5
We enjoyed a delicious buffet breakfast at the hotel then attempted to find the Christ the Redeemer sculpture. It didn't go so well. We saved money and took the bus and got so lost! It ended up taking us 2 hours to get where we needed to be. I had wanted to take the train that circles the mountain to the top where the statue is but it was 3 hours behind so we just took a van up. Waited in a super long line then finally got to the top where we climbed a million stairs up to the sculpture. It is very impressive and should be since it is one of the 7 wonders of the world! Crazy to think they got it up there in pieces by train and assembled in on top of the mountain. Of course there were a zillion people there so we didn't stay long but got a few pictures, enjoyed the view from one of the highest points in Rio, then headed back down.
{check out these tree trunks we spotted!} We took the bus back to the hotel and drove past a "cat park." Seriously, there were dozen of cats just lying all around this city park! Also eventfull, our bus driver stopped and got out to yell at someone who parked too close to him...yikes. After our eventfull bus ride back we suited up for some beach time. It was so nice to have it accross the street! I ventured into the water hoping to swim but the waves were too big and I ended up getting knocked down a few times and scared so I stuck to keeping my toes wet. It was so nice to sit in the sun and read and just enjoy the setting.
We took a stroll down Atlantica Avenue (the street that lines Copacobana beach) where we spotted this guy bicycling with his white poodle riding on his back complete with dog sunglasses! Oh how I wish we had snapped the picture fast enough!
We caught the sun setting on our way back.
We checked out the beach shops and grabbed another bakery dinner then enjoyed the fantastic view from our balcony.
{This would be the exact reason I picked the Rio Othon Palace!}

Day 10, 1/6
Nothing beats waking up to the sound of the ocean, an amazing view, then a delicious breakfast to start your day.
That is exactly how we started our day then had a much better bus ride to Sugar Loaf. Sugar loaf is a mountain in Rio that offers amazing 360 degree views of the city and beaches. We were lucky to beat the crowd and walked right in to the tram station. You have to take theses Italian trams up to the first peak that has nice views then a second tram up to Sugar Loaf that had spectacular views! {copacabana}
{downtown Rio}
{looking toward the Christ the Redeemer sculpture}
There were a lot less people here and way better views than the day before so we much prefer Sugar Loaf to the Christ sculpture. We also found this rainforest area at the top that had cool trails winding through it. We ran into a few lizards that scared the begizis out of me but we sure enjoyed the lushness of the area.
Before leaving Sugar Loaf we found the biggest bench ever!
{Ryan contemplating a monkey capture for his Grandpa's orchard work}
After our tram rides down,
we walked over to a cool monument {that is Sugar Loaf in the backround} {looking back at Christ the Redeemer}
then to Vermelha Beach. {picturesque isn't it?}
Then we took a taxi back to the hotel and packed up for a walk to Impanema. This beach isn't as big as Copa but it's beautiful and different so we had to check it out. We got beach chairs and an umbrella which was a necessity since the sun was in full force. That was so relaxing to sit in our own little cabanna and enjoy our books and the view.
{enjoying the water}
{beach bums}
After several hours at the beach and a nap we headed out for dinner at a real churrascaria. Ryan was so excited and loved it! I thought there was way too much meat but had a very yummy strawberries and whipped cream dessert. We ended the night with a bit more shopping then sadly returned to sleep our last night in Rio :(

Day 11, 1/7
{Last sunrise in Brazil}
Started our last day with another great breakfast then some endless walking to find the perfect cookies to bring home. We spent the afternoon back at Copacabana on the beach.
We were relaxing under our umbrella when all the sudden a red helicopter came over us and they did a water resuce RIGHT in front of us!
{looking for the victim}
{divers got them in the net/basket}
{dropped them off on the shore then flew away} That was way cool to watch. There was a point in the water where the big waves would always hit. If you could get past that point you could swim without problem but it seemed like people had real trouble getting back in so we watched the lifeguards go in a few more times and then another helicopter resuce once we were back in our room! I thought of you Sis and Fritz :)

Sadly, after another few precious hours at the beach and a stop at the rooftop pool we had to pack up and check out.
{SO hard to leave this balcony!}
We had another bakery lunch, stolled through the shops one last time, and waited for our cab to the airport. We had a late flight and the traffic was AWFUL on the way to the airport but 45 minutes later we were there. It was sad to leave Brazil and the hotel that spoiled us when we felt like we just got there but all good things must come to end right? The flight went well, we were able to stretch our legs a bit more and slept another 8 hours on the 10 hour flight.

Day 12, 1/8
Arrived back to Dallas in the morning then hung out and talked with our BYU friend we met on the plane from Rio (small world). On the flight home Ryan "tried" to sleep while I read his mission journal which turned out to be a very emotional and spiritual experience and really reinforced to me the special place that Brazil and the gospel holds for him and now me.
Finally got back to Detroit where Tyler was waiting. It was strange to go from summer to winter in 12 hours!
{Thanks Ty! We couldn't have done it without you!} We also have to give a BIG thank you to President Zobrist who was Ryan's mission president. Besides playing an important part in Ryan's life, he was our go-to guy for hotel info!

Here's some trip numbers to wrap it all up...
8 flights/14,000+ miles,
25+ hours of driving/1000+ miles,
8 different hotels, 11 nights, and 12 cities!

The title of this post is very appropriate for our trip. It was the best trip I've ever been on but at the same time, I've never had so many things go wrong on a trip. All in all, I'm so grateful that we were able to finally go and meet/reunite with the people and places of Brazil. They were so kind and they are so humble to live with what they have and not complain. I have a new appreciation for America and for the freedoms we enjoy. It was such a blessing to see Ryan back in his element, to hear him speak without difficulty (most of the time) and be back in that Brazilian culture. I really hope we can go back again someday. Until then, Obrigada Brazil!!