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South America on Azamara Journey
Day 1: Pre-Trip Thoughts
Day 2: Arrival in Buenos Aires
Day 3: Setting Sail
Day 4: Punta del Este, Uruguay
Day 5: Two Sea Days and Santos, Brazil
Day 6: Arrival and First Day in Rio
Day 7: Carnaval in Rio!
Day 8: From Rio to Montevideo
Day 9: Disembarkation in Buenos Aires
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Day 6: Friday, Arrival and First Day in Rio
Arrival and First Day in RioFew destinations in our hemisphere generate the romance, mystique and intrigue as does Rio de Janeiro. It has been the subject of innumerable movies and songs, as well as a top destination for jetsetters worldwide. Its physical setting is one of the most spectacular on earth, with its seven major hills, lush and green as the Amazon Rainforest, hemming in the city. These hills are a natural harbor that separate Guanabara Bay from the blue water and golden sand beaches of its trendy Atlantic coast. Its main postcard images -- Sugar Loaf and the statue of "Christ the Redeemer" -- are among the most recognizable on the planet. So is the music and dance -- samba, Bossa Nova and Lambada -- whose rhythms and chord progressions evoke thoughts of Rio in most North Americans, even though their provenance belongs to Brazil rather than this city specifically.

Cariocas (as Rio's residents are called) are known for their big hearts and tiny bikinis, for sensuality and carefree attitudes, especially during Carnaval -- this festival is arguably, the most enduring image associated with Rio for the majority of North Americans.

Life is not carefree for all Cariocas. There is a wide a disparity between rich and poor, and a small middle class, in Brazil. Mere blocks away from the veneer of privilege and affluence along Rio's waterfront are the favelas, or shantytowns, pockets of almost inconceivable poverty.

Our entry into this gem of a harbor was marred not by rain -- hallelujah! -- but by a dense, low-lying fog and haze, which cut off the tops of the hills from view. It was impossible for first time visitors like me to distinguish one peak from the next. When I thought I was catching a brief glimpse of the statue of Christ peaking through the fog, it turned out to be, instead, a cell phone and microwave tower!

About noontime, the fog burned off, and I decided to pay a visit to the trendy Atlantic coast. I took a taxi to Copacabana Beach and had the driver drop me at the historic Copacabana Palace hotel. I had lunch in their glassed-in terrace, then went for a walk along the strand. To me, Copacabana seems like New York's Park Avenue, the French Riviera and Miami Beach all rolled into one. On the trio of upscale Atlantic beaches (Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana), beautiful, wide mosaic sidewalks of the broad, graceful, well-maintained Av. Atlanticas separate the avenue's ranks of high-rise hotels and apartment buildings from the beach. Though the sun had only been out in force for a couple of hours -- because it was Saturday and especially because it was the start of Carnaval -- the beach was crowded with hundreds of attractive Cariocas. It might have been possible to construct a single quilt from their swimsuits' aggregate amount of fabric.

Today was the first day of Carnaval, and during the daylight hours, there was only indirect evidence of the festivities to come. Parked along side streets and covered with tarps were some of the floats that would later appear in parades. On the sidewalk outside the cruise terminal, a young woman in spike heels and short miniskirt walked purposefully with a feathered headdress tucked under her arm.

The annual Carnaval celebration is the last big blowout before Lent, a period when Catholics are required to give up various things for a period of 40 days. Since one of the things that was traditional to forego during Lent was meat, the Venetians -- early celebrators of Carnaval -- referred to the day before Lent as "Carne Vale," which translated to "meat gone" or "no more meat." In Brazil, 3 of the 26 states officially celebrate Carnaval. One manifestation of these celebrations is impromptu street parties (called blocos) and parades. But the Carnaval that most people associate with Rio is the commercialized, organized competition in music, dance, costumes and floats in competing parades conducted by "Samba Schools."

Each samba school represents literally thousands of people (sometimes as many as 6,000) who work all year on their floats, costumes and dance routines. These are more social groups than schools. Each night of Carnaval, several of these samba schools parade and are judged on the quality of their parades. Originally, the parades followed city streets (as do parades in New Orleans' Mardi Gras), but as the popularity of Carnaval grew, architect Oscar Niemeyer (who also created the capital city of Brasilia) was commissioned to build a permanent Sambodromo (Sambadrome) in 1983 for logistical, commercial and safety reasons. This is precisely where I would be going tomorrow night.

But my plans for tonight are to continue my Carnivore's Quest by dining at one of Rio's top churrascarias. Rafael, a Brazilian who works at the guest relations desk onboard Azamara Journey, was kind enough to book me a reservation at Porcao, a famous churrascaria in Ipanema. With the assistance of Adriana, a Brazilian on the shore excursion staff, I secured a taxi bound for the restaurant. I had allowed 30 minutes to make the eight-mile trip, but I hadn't considered the possibility of encountering blocos on our way, and we encountered two. The first, near the port, we skirted, but the second was at an intersection in Ipanema which we had to cross in order to reach Porcao. It took 15 minutes to traverse those final two blocks, and right at the intersection before the restaurant, the taxi was thronged by celebrants. The driver locked all the doors as a precaution, and the taxi rocked on its springs from the press of the crowds but not from any intentional action on their parts.

I arrived at the restaurant and was pleased to find that a number of workers spoke English. (I am not an English-only traveler; I speak French fairly fluently and can limp along with one- or two-word sentences in Spanish, but Portuguese is, for me, a total mystery). The language of food, however, is universal, and inside, we all spoke churrascarias. I started with the incredible salad bar, which included a tremendous seafood selection of sushi and sashimi, ceviche, and deviled crab stuffed in clam shells. Then, as I've described in previous dispatches, came the parade of waiters with their sword-like skewers. With two caiparinhas (a traditional Brazilian drink made with sugar cane distilled spirits, lemon and herbs) and tip, the whole dinner came to about $50.

After having dined in two churrascarias in Brazil, my assessment is interesting. So far, on my Carnivore's Quest, I have found the steaks served in Buenos Aires' parillas to be superior to most steaks I've had in the U.S.A. and equal to the best dry aged beef I've had. I have found -- in some ways to my delight -- that the quality of meat served in our best churrascarias back home is every bit as good as the best churrascarias in Brazil. Chalk one up for the home team! Still, the experience here was decidedly local.

The doorman at Porcao very efficiently snagged me a taxi, and I was promptly returned to the port. Tomorrow, I have an early tour, "Rio Off-Road Adventure," which includes both four-wheel Jeep transport and a rainforest hike. But as I walked up the gangway, there was a bright flash of lightning followed by a loud thunderclap, and big raindrops began to fall. But this weather did not inhibit me from hitting the sack early.

Hopefully these flashes and raindrops would not portend another meteorological assault.
Day 5: Two Sea Days and Santos, Brazil red arrow Day 7: Carnaval in Rio!

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