Brazil 2014: Recife

In this episode, we’re either at the beach or in traffic.


On the last leg of our five stop flight to Recife, the plane filled with Germans, many of whom not only looked like they were the road crew from the Wacken Open Air festival, at least one was wearing a t-shirt insisting he was part of the crew. A group from the DFB, the German soccer federation, in charge of fan relations, sat in the row behind us and insisted that there was no way Jogi Löw would leave Klinsmann behind in the group stage.

“Fan relations, eh? I trust I’ll see y’all next year in Canada?” I asked.
“Uh, no, because, uh, well, the women’s tournament…” said one of the DFB women, with a knowing sigh.

Upon landing in Recife, which I should stress is not pronounced “re-see-FAY” but “heh-SEE-fee,” because Brazilian Portuguese phonics are whimsical like that, hosts at the baggage claim desk handed us a Coke, a capirinha, and a Bud. Now that’s a welcome! We stuck around the airport for a bit to catch up on wifi and grab a lunch before an hour long cab ride down to Serrambi.

Instead of getting our own place, we went in on our friend Kaela’s group rental of a large beach house. Sixteen people, with space for more, an indoor kitchen, an outdoor kitchen, a pool, a patio, multiple lounge areas, and a foosball table. Oh, and the ocean coming directly up to the back stairs at high tide. Not a bad place to spend a few days chilling out.

Or recuperating from a cold, which is what I had to spend the first two days doing, having caught the bug that invariably spreads when you have thousands of people traveling together with poor sleeping and eating habits. Mike got the same bug, but it stuck with him until well after we returned to Boston, which I understand happened to several others on their own tours.

The other ailment that hit us in Serrambi was cabin fever. We were near Porto de Galinhas, but not a walkable distance, and, unable to rent a car of our own (not in budget), we’d have to rely on the folks in the house with cars to get into town. However, the folks in question were much more into taking full advantage of being able to sit in a swimming pool, watch World Cup games, and drink beer simultaneously than going on a road trip to see the tidepools. Which is cool; everybody travels their own way. And here’s where the biggest regret of the trip comes in: I wish Mike and I had just taken it into our own hands and gotten a cab to do the tourist stuff rather than relying on the hope other buddies might be able to take pity on us. Next time, I guess?

Not that watching games, like Brazil-Cameroon, while lounging in a pool didn’t have its charms. Or hanging out in a hammock and watching fruit bats dive bomb and hover over banana flowers like hummingbirds. Or staring at the ocean as it changed from blue to grey with the rising tide and currents. Or chowing down on Kaela’s fantastic veggie curry while catching up on important bull sessions with buddies I last saw in Johannesburg. Or watching kids from Des Moines play a heated foosball game with kids from Serrambi, no common language required. Or walking out as far as you could when the tide was out. Or watching the housekeeper place tape over the glass door because these idiot gringos kept walking into it. Or being a huge nerdy ass and showing pals how to use the Brazilian flag as a star map. Or trying to convince the housemates that “tubarão” was a musical instrument. So, y’know, there were worse places to be homebound for a few days.

The weather in Serrambi was beautiful, with rains rolling in at night and clearing up during the day. Except for the one day that it rained for about 24 hours, causing intense flooding throughout Pernambuco. That would be the day of the US-Germany game. We’d arranged an 8:30am van pickup for a 1pm kickoff, figuring that would give us plenty of time to get us to the stadium in Recife. We seemed to be making good time until a little ways outside of Porto de Galinhas, where the combination of flooding and road capacity turned into a five hour traffic jam. In the US, a lot of long haul heavy trucking is run overnight, to keep big rigs away from rush hour and to keep commuters out of the way of professional drivers. Not so in Brazil, apparently, where large trucks were jockeying for washed-out lanes alongside carloads of stadium-bound fans and everyday drivers. Brazil also follows the Massachusetts rule of there always being at least one more lane than is marked on the road; we got to see lots of “if I can get through it, it’s a lane.” That our driver took several wrong turns en route to the arena, requiring detours through flooded city streets, while listening to a top-40 station that played “Let it Go” no less than once an hour, did not help much. By the time we reached the van disembarkation point, the game had started ten minutes earlier, and there wasn’t much for us to do but sprint down the hill to the stadium to see the rest of the game.

1. Horses as vehicles, not cargo
2. Motorbikes deciding the hell with all of you
3. Enough Bible verses on the backs of cars to spell out half a testament
4. Enterprising locals selling snacks and drinks

While not the draw every German fan we’d met had promised us, the 1-0 loss was good enough to skate into the second round. I don’t know what it was, but that game seemed like it was over faster than any of the other games we saw that ended in regulation time. Well, sure, I did come in at the 15th minute, but even the second half seemed over in the blink of an eye. After all of that, plus one German fan who kept yelling for Jermaine Jones to “go back to your ghetto,” (I yelled at the guy but wasn’t in the mood to get in a fistfight over it, sorry JJ) we were in to the knockout stage and our route was set.

I went up to a German fan afterwards to celebrate our mutual success. “I didn’t want you to go through!” he shouted. “You were the worst team here, except for maybe Greece!” Not my problem, pal; not my fault you didn’t see Wilson Palacios slam Honduras into a wall before the first half of their first game ended. (Mike thinks he was referring to teams that advanced, in which case gee I dunno we didn’t pin our hopes on Bitey McRedcard like some teams I could mention.) Don’t care, I got plane tickets to book.

After another five hour traffic jam, that is. By the time we reached the turnoff from the highway to Porto de Galinhas, where we stopped at a convenience store filled with fellow travelers on the Recife Death March, it was 10pm and we were so famished that we figured any product with Neymar’s picture on it constituted dinner. Seriously, dude’s photo was on everything. I think he’s the President of Brazil.

At dinner the first night in Serrambi, I announced that if the US were to advance to the second round, I would go skinny dipping after the game, and encouraged everyone else to go in on the pact. Boy, those were some loud crickets. Anyway, I kept my word, heading for the ocean after I’d taken a few minutes to cancel the Porto Alegre-Rio-Belo Horizonte route bookings and get as many plane tickets for the next destinations as I could before American Express cut me off for suspected fraud. Didn’t even take off my makeup, just ran down the beach and into the water, Mike following, because when the hell else am I ever going to get that chance?

We spent the next morning assuring Amex that yes, that was me booking multiple Brazilian domestic flights at midnight and getting things repacked and ready for the second half of the trip. This included giving the housekeepers the host gifts I’d brought. Normally, when I travel and stay at people’s homes, I bring Taza Chocolate bars, made right down the road from my house. However, since Brazil is a chocolate producing nation and the weather would be hot, it seemed a bit stupid to bring blocks of melting chocolate with me. Instead, I went for something that was Massachusetts made, but also not widely known outside North America: little bottles of maple syrup from a sugar house in the western part of the state. Just one problem–I found myself having to explain in fluent Portuñol what it was.

“Es… doce da árvore? Uh, xarope para bolos, sorvetes, sobremesas…es posible usar com carnes?”

That night, everyone in the house finally did head up to Porto de Galinhas to grab dinner and hang out with Brock and friends. Unfortunately, the restaurant chosen for the night was strictly churrascaria, and I wasn’t in the mood to eat a side dish only meal. “No problem,” said Brock, directing Mike and me to a pizzeria he’d found. “Go down this alley past the point where you’re wondering if you’re in the wrong neighborhood, and you can’t miss it.”

He was right. Down an alley past the point where it’s mostly locals, we found Moises’s Pizza, owned by a guy who I guess was on one season of the local version of Big Brother. The man himself came out to welcome us warmly, then served us the freshest pizza I think I’ve ever had, with basil and tomatoes that were picked on the spot from planters at the front door. We did a bit of souvenir shopping, got some ice cream, and then rejoined the rest of the gang for a nightcap at Brock’s house before heading back to Serrambi.

Saturday morning, we carpooled with our pals Tai and Jason back to the Recife airport, a few hours early for our flight, but just in time to watch Brazil-Chile in a packed terminal. For most of the first half, we watched one hapless technician try desperately to get the Budweiser-sponsored video wall to work, which is much funnier when you are traveling with someone whose day job is audiovisual events management. Eventually, the screens came online, and just as the match reached its deciding penalty shootout, we had to board our flight.

As did most of the other people in the lounge. When the whistle blew to end extra time, everyone jumped up and sprinted for the gates, with the security agents opening extra screening lanes to hustle everyone to the departure area before the game resumed. Our gate area did not have a tv equipped to show the game, so everyone crowded around some dude’s phone to watch the shootout. At last, Brazil won, on the back of some guy who, at the time, was officially playing for an MLS team, and our plane could board. (Of course they held the plane until the shootout was complete). We were off to Salvador.

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