Brazil 2014: Rio de Janeiro

In this episode, we almost don’t make it to the final.


After a short flight on Azul, Brazil’s version of JetBlue, in which I finally got to see how Spongebob sounds in Portuguese (answer: just like English), we landed in Rio and immediately made the first of many miscalculations in this final leg of our trip. I paid for a reserved taxi, then, thinking the signs for “special taxi” meant town cars and such, followed the signs for “regular taxi” and got in a line the length of Connecticut. One hour later, we reached the head of the line to learn that no, the special taxi was what I’d already paid for, and we would need to go stand in another line. Fortunately, that one wasn’t as long, but it still meant we were late enough arriving to our rental cottage that our hosts were worried we’d gotten lost.

When you think of Rio de Janeiro, you think Ipanema, Copacabana, the big high rise towers in front of the beach, with the favelas cut into the hillside behind them. You probably don’t think of the rainforest, but there’s a whole other section of the city that’s in the forest, and that’s where we were to stay. While not as remote as it sounds, it’s still a little ways out from the tourist centers of the city, and we picked the neighborhood deliberately. The thought had crossed my mind that a favela stay might be neat, in one of the places they advertise on AirBnB with the slogan “We’re the first place the cops ran tanks through!,” but it also occurred to me that we’d be visiting Rio as the last stop on a month-long cross-country tour, and by that point we might not have as much patience for “local color” and “accessible only by 100 meter narrow staircase” and “turn right where the dealers used to be” as we would have several weeks earlier.

Plus, all the obvious hot spots wanted upwards of US $400 a night for a shoebox.

Instead, we went out west to Itanhangá, in one of the guest houses on the property of two fellows named Andre and Caio, and their dogs. Carved into a lush forest, with a pool, outdoor grill, and pond, the guesthouse itself was larger than my own apartment at home in Cambridge. Toucans nested above and every evening columns of leaf cutter ants hauled their cargo through the driveway. We knew at this point in the trip, we’d want someplace we could relax in private and really go “home” after a day of touristy things, and that’s what we got, at a terrific nightly rate to boot. We just got there much later than I wanted to on Thursday night.

Which is why the next day ended up being more of a recovery day than I’d expected; instead of heading towards Ipanema or Copacabana, we walked around Barra de Tijuca, which is the “barra” in Gracie Barra if you’re familiar with jiujitsu, the part of town where the TV networks (and therefore the FIFA media center) are based, and where a lot of the Olympics will be set up in 2016. Unfortunately, it was kind of grey and cool, only about 70, so we couldn’t really take advantage of the quiet and gorgeous Tijuca beach. Instead, we ate at a restaurant advertising traditional Rio style food, i.e. all of it served on a stick, and watched a colony of trap/neuter/release feral cats panhandle for fish on a seawall.

Mike had some freelance writing he needed to do, so after a stroll through an outdoor mall where an egret decided it, too, wanted to go shopping, we picked up some groceries in order to take advantage of the grill back at the house. We also picked up some fancy beer for Mike, who hadn’t been able to sample much of the local craft offerings, as those were harder to come by than the cheap brews available pretty much for free on every corner.


1. Devassa
2. Brahma
3. Skol
4. Itaipava
5. Antarctica

Since he was excited to try the couple of bottles he bought, we promptly dropped them in the driveway as we walked up to the house.

Our attempts at cooking dinner weren’t much more successful. We let Andre know about the broken glass in the driveway, as we wanted to help clean up so the dogs wouldn’t get hurt, and asked for help setting up the grill. 30 minutes of burnt newspaper and uncooperative charcoal later, the rain picked up and we abandoned the idea, resorting to the kitchenette back in the guesthouse. At least Mike would be able to get some writing done, we thought, and then the internet connection crashed for the night.

Saturday was our only remaining non-gameday in Rio, so we had one priority: Head up to the Christ the Redeemer statue because Brazilian customs police don’t let you out of the airport without proof you went. We started walking into Barra, because I had this weird idea it would be easier to get to the statue by going into and around town via the coast, i.e. I had completely neglected to study a map and notice it would have been faster to go up and over through the forest. Mike kept suggesting we take a taxi and go through the forest, but I was sure we were on the right path.

And to be fair, the bus ride along the coast, via the seaside cliffs and the beach tourist hotspots, was a nice tour route. It just let us off in a completely inconvenient section of downtown, because we waited too long to pick a stop. We finally did pick up a cab and headed for the tram station at the base of the mountain. Not too many people were in line at the ticket window, so I walked up, ready to reserve a spot on the tram that would take us up Corcovado.

The tram was broken; the car that had just left would be the last one of the day.

There are minibuses, the clerks said; just walk around the corner a ways and you’ll find the ticket office and stop. Great, we said, and headed up the hill for a few blocks.

“How long’s the wait for the bus,” I asked the clerk at the bus stop.
“Three hours.”

On its World Cup match broadcasts, Globo, Brazil’s main TV network, would announce a team’s goal by playing a brief clip of that country’s national anthem. For Brazil, however, they played a musical sting that can only be described as “laser sparkle,” ending with a triumphant, rolling “Brrasiiiil!” It was this chime we heard in our heads every time something happened that would be considered unconscionably inefficient or inconvenient in the US, but in Brazil was just something you took at face value. Like the transit systems to a hugely popular national landmark breaking down on a weekend when all of South America is in town for a visit.

Now, of course, nobody could possibly have predicted such a crowd on such a weekend, especially not two American dipshits who should’ve paid attention to the guidebooks and left at 7 that morning, but that’s what happened, and we had to make peace with it.

“How long’s the walk?” Mike asked.
“About an hour and a half, two hours.”
He turned to me. “Screw it, let’s go.” We bought some bottled water and started walking.

On the way up, we encountered a couple of Scottish guys who had paid a local about twenty bucks to take them up the hill, only his car had broken down, so they were hitchhiking. They eventually found a willing driver. We also saw some joggers, but mostly it was just us hoofing it up the switchbacks, pausing every few hundred meters for another chance to take photos of the stunning view of the national park below. In a sour mood at the bus station, we quickly gave in to the endorphins from the hike, feeling much better as we climbed the steep, narrow road.

We reached the end of the van route, a lookout point and rest area where we would not be able to walk the rest of the way and would have to pay admission for a separate van ride to the statue itself, about another mile. There was a long line for this, and we briefly entertained the idea of scrapping the whole thing and returning to town. As the day was already one giant exercise in learning the true meaning of “sunk cost,” we purchased our tickets and joined the queue, which moved a bit faster than we expected. We boarded a van full of guys from Belfast and hung on for the zero to carsick in ten seconds shuttle to the top.

After all of that, we were expecting the statue itself to be a bit of a letdown, just another tourist attraction you do to say you did and never have to do again. Nope. Even with the entire population of South America climbing over each other for the exact same forced perspective photos on the viewing platform, Giant Jesus is every bit as impressive as billed. I didn’t even know there’s a heart carved into the statue until I saw it in person, never mind the tiny chapel under its feet you can rent out for weddings and baptisms as well as catching an everyday Mass. It had been a cloudy day up to that point, and the ticket booth at the rest area had large signs warning the view was poor and there would be no refunds. When we reached the base of the statue, the sky cleared, allowing an incredible panorama of the city below.

We took the van back to the rest area, and realized we hadn’t really planned how to get down the mountain. Even downhill, a second hike wasn’t appealing, and the minibuses required both a second ticket purchase and a long line. Then we spotted a line of cabs just short of the exit, and a driver motioned us over. He asked where we were headed and quickly discussed a route with a man in an unmarked and unmetered car. “$R70, is that okay?”

I’m guessing all the guidebooks I didn’t read don’t recommend “walk up, then take a gypsy cab back into town” as the best means of visiting Corcovado, but hey, could be worse, we could be the guy we passed on the way down who was pushing a city share bike up to the top.

We had the driver drop us off in Lapa, because a friend had recommended a restaurant and music club in the area. Unfortunately, it didn’t open for another few hours, and, because the Brazil-Holland third place game was in progress, there was nothing else to do besides find yet another absurd place to watch a Brazil game. This time, we stood on the sidewalk outside a bar and followed what we could, although for some reason, people didn’t seem quite as invested in the outcome of this match as they did the others.

When the restaurant opened, we got in line and debated about whether or not we really wanted to wait in line. No, no, this place comes highly recommended by a buddy who used to live in Rio, I said. It’ll be great. Then we got to the head of the line and discovered that in all the recommendations and guides, I had skipped the part about the R$40/person cover charge. We paid it and went in, not having learned our lesson about sunk cost, and, while the music was great, the vibe and food just weren’t what we were in the mood for that night. We settled the tab and got a bite at one of Lapa’s many food on a stick carts, then called it a night.

Sunday, July 13, and it was the day we’d all been waiting for. All that work, all that planning, and now it was time to get ready and head for the final match. When we originally received our tickets, we’d agreed that if the final had been two teams we didn’t care for, we’d flip the tickets and cash out instead. Turns out everyone we really hate got sent home first round, so off we went to the Maracanã, but not before stopping at Ipanema beach to say we’d been there. We passed one guy passed out on the sand and thought he was homeless, then noticed he was sleeping on a camping backpack with the flight check tags still on it. Dude had gotten in from Johannesburg the previous day.

We made a leisurely approach to the stadium, taking in all the gameday atmosphere. All the Bavarians in full lederhosen, all the delegates from countries who didn’t come within two years of qualifying for the tournament but who cares, you have tickets and you’re gonna fly that Uzbek/Samoan/Canadian/Vietnamese/Kenyan flag and jersey. As we were making the rounds, we spotted a Mexican TV crew filming with a bunch of folks in Mexico and US jerseys, and I suggested Mike put on his eagle mask and join in. Meanwhile, a representative from the local tourism board approached me to take a survey on our time in Brazil. A few minutes later, Mike left the scrum.

“My ticket just got stolen.”


What could we do? We alerted a volunteer and raced over to one of the entrances, but we could not get Mike past security now, since he was no longer in possession of a ticket. The volunteer and I went in, and she flagged down another volunteer whose badge had an “I speak English” sticker visible. He quickly took me to the police trailer, where I reported the theft. The police directed me to a match official trailer next door, where a FIFA rep canceled the ticket so nobody could use it.

“Where do I get the ticket reprinted?,” I asked.
“We cannot do that. Security.”

I had every piece of evidence possible, short of the original credit card statement, linking that ticket account to my name. There was no way I was asking for a fraudulent ticket. This was, in my mind, no different from the ticket being reprinted in Natal for a nonexistent seat. I bought the ticket, they have this on record, so what was the problem with reprinting it?


I ran back to Mike, and started sobbing before I could even get out the words “we’re fucked.”

I circled the perimeter, desperately trying to find anyone with a media credential representing the US, figuring they might know someone who knew anyone. Mike tried to hop on an overloaded wifi network and sent out some pleading tweets to people we knew were present–journalists, friends, even that guy what runs US Soccer itself. No luck. We begged the cops to let us through the “no ticket” corridor to get to the ticket printing office, where a crowd of people who were in a similar pickle had formed, all being shushed by FIFA representatives who would not break policy to reprint tickets for people who had proof they had just been robbed.

And here’s where the panic attack came in.

It had been a long time since I had a real live panic attack; usually I stick to the less physically demanding but more publicly embarrassing anxiety attacks, like the ones in Germany in ‘06 or Frisco in ‘05. This, though, this was panic, as I felt my arms and legs go numb and my chest begin to tighten. The FIFA rep minding the line finally relented and let Mike and me through the gate into the ticket office, as I was clearly in medical distress.

Once inside, another volunteer came to assess the situation and give me a bottle of water to wash down the Ativan I have for just such an occasion. Away from the crowd and out of the sun, the panic was starting to subside, enough for me to explain that I knew what was going on, that I was not in any physical danger, that I did not need an ambulance, and that I really did not need to have that conversation with my health insurance back home. It had been a while since I’d had a panic attack, but I knew enough about them to know how to recover. Get me indoors, to a quiet room, and let me sit down long enough to let things pass.

The match was starting in a few minutes. What were we going to do? I decided even though the worst had passed, I was in no condition to enjoy the match. Mike would take my ticket, and I would stay in the office, or be moved to a first aid tent, to recuperate, and then we would meet at the statue in front of the stadium after the game. I foolishly did not write down the seating assignment before sending Mike off to the stands.

A few minutes after Mike left, a gent in a Mexico jersey and US flag sat down beside me. His name was Fabian, he was from LA, and he was in the same predicament, with the same stiffarm treatment from the officials. He talked me down a bit, saying that hey, while I might not be able to see the game, I still got here, I still spent a month here, and there’s a lotta people who never get that chance. If we’re not going to get into the game, he said, let’s hang out and be miserable together.

Just as he said that and we resigned ourselves to our fate, another man approached us. He swore us to secrecy, so call him A Mão de Deus, or O Senhor do Bonfim, but he was really just some anonymous FIFA guy neither of us had seen before, couldn’t even see the name on his credential. “You did not get these from me,” he said, and handed us two tickets.

Fabian and I sprinted up the ramps to the seats, just missing the disallowed goal. We made it. A little late, but we made it. We even figured that the game going into overtime made up for the 15 or so minutes we’d missed. We got our 90 minutes, just not necessarily in a row. And then Gotze scored and the fireworks went up and the confetti rained down, and that was that. The trophy lifting, the I Wanna Be Your Jogi Löw, the shirtless Özil, the Sad Messi in Snow, the Sepp Blatter and Dilma Rouseff “who can get booed louder” contest, the medals passed out by Emirates flight attendants who’d been cryogenically frozen since the last Robert Palmer video, we saw the whole thing.

We left the stadium and headed for the designated meeting point; Mike was already there. He’d left at the final whistle, unable to stomach the thought of watching the celebrations while his wife was alone outside. “Hell of a punchline,” I said, and hugged him. The three of us set out for Leblon, where we enjoyed some really excellent celebratory pizza, toasting the evening’s improbable happy ending over brigadeiros.

Now, go back and read Mike’s version, which got a few reactions that I’d like to address.

This was, indeed, the biggest oversight. We had unlocked phones with us the whole time, but since we spent the first two weeks of the trip out in the sticks, we never had the chance to go get Brazilian SIM cards. By the time we got to Salvador, we were halfway through the trip and no longer with a group of friends who needed to arrange meetings and whatnot, so we figured we could go without. Which we could, to the point that I stopped carrying my phone and did not have it on me that day. Even if we did have phones, there’s no guarantee we would have had service at the game, as anyone who’s ever tried to send a text in a packed stadium could tell you. 75,000 people competing for the same signal isn’t a good time.

Second biggest oversight. I really should have. Turns out we were seated in opposite corners of the same end of the stadium.

My dad

You read and commented on it, pal. Yes, having a ticket to an expensive sports event stolen is a first world problem. That doesn’t make it suck any less when it happens to you.

That might not have been a guarantee, either–Mike talked to some journalists whose credentials were swiped right off their necks, and another person whose ticket was so tightly guarded that pickpockets were able to make off with his camera instead.

Hey, fuck you, Brazil is awesome. Go to an event with that many people in that small a space, anywhere in the world, and you’re gonna find pickpockets. That’s just how it is. Could’ve happened to us in Berlin or Johannesburg too. Happened to friends of mine in Paris. Nature of the beast wherever these things are hosted.

Yes? At the time of the story, I’m 37 years old. I’m his wife, not his toddler. I had a panic attack, not a stroke. I knew what was going on and knew what I needed was a quiet room, which the Maracanã is not. The place was surrounded by heavily armed military police; I was not in any physical danger.

Here on the planet “Not a Fucking Sitcom,” husbands and wives are capable of trusting one another and being honest about what they need in a crisis. Seriously, Mike and I have been together since 1996; if one of us isn’t okay with something, the other damn sure knows about it.

Thank you for the first genuinely clever joke I’ve heard about my name since 1976.

Yes. It wasn’t just the ticket; it was the theft, the lack of help from officials, the crowd, the fact it was the last day of a 30 day vacation abroad. If, like Mike, you wouldn’t have a panic attack in that situation, you’re of sterner stuff than me. But I did, and if you think that’s stupid or weak, you don’t get how this whole “panic” thing works.

You don’t get this whole “World Cup” deal, either. Even when your team’s sent home, even if your team never gets invited, you still wear the shirt, especially to the final, because you’re there to make friends and show off where you’re from.

Yes, we are, but yes, they do. American soccer’s a small world. Make an ass of yourself at enough games and you’re on a first name basis with all these people in short order. Would anyone have helped if we’d gotten through in time? I don’t know, but we already weren’t being helped, might as well go for broke.

We finished the meal, got a few for the road at a nearby convenience store, and bid Fabian até logo, heading back to Itanhangá to pack for the next morning. After maybe three hours of sleep, we lit out for the airport, ready to close out the vacation of a lifetime. We were off to Boston.

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