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Monday, December 30, 2013

Jardim Botanico

We asked friends for recommendations on things to do in Rio before we left, and one item kept coming up that I didn't expect - visit the Botanical Gardens. We have been in Buenos Aires for over four years and have not yet been the Botanical Gardens here so this was not immediately on the top of our list - but the day was cloudy and we had a brunch recommendation to add to the morning, so the day was ripe for a garden trip!

We went on a Sunday, which is when Escola do Pao offers brunch. Our hotel front desk made us a 9:00am reservation and we took the under 10 minute cab ride to be some of the first ones there. This family owned restaurant is known for its bread and pastries, and their brunch spotlights these items. The restaurant is a quaint place with some interesting kitchen items and pastries on sale. There are two floors of dining space with a third floor dedicated to bathrooms (which we visited three times with our little miss). 
They have an a la carte menu, but we ordered the complete brunch for Jon and I - and Gretchen ate off our plates for no additional cost. I will say that the brunch was tasty and we left full, but the meal was very bread and cheese heavy and I don't remember a single protein on the table.

In true Brazilian style, they had lots of juices; orange juice, strawberry smoothie, and papaya pulp. Along with lots of cheesy bread, jams, creamy pudding items and some sort of tapioca pudding item at the end that came in coconut, raspberry or vanilla flavors.

 After brunch we walked on over to the Jardim Botanico, which is only 3 blocks down on the same street as Escola do Pao. I couldn't get a true answer as to where the gardens entrance was - but you walk out of the restaurant, take a right, walk three blocks and the entrance is on the left.

Alex was beyond excited about visiting the gardens.
Happiest. Child. Ever.
The gardens were fantastic! A beautiful respite in the middle of city life, and the tallest palm trees I have ever seen.

Gretchen was not thrilled about walking around the gardens until we learned that there was a playground somewhere in the gardens. After that, she was all smiles. This made for some of the best pictures we've gotten together in a very long time!

I can't believe what a big girl she has become!
The playground was pretty great! There is a little food court along with bathrooms for adults, and one specifically designated for kids. There is even a guard to make sure that kids don't get to rough, big kids don't play on the little kid equipment and that no one feeds the animals. The equipment was clean, in good repair, and it was a great oasis for a little girl that didn't want to walk around anymore.

 Once we made it to the playground, we were visited by some special guests that clearly take advantage of those willing to break the rules and feed them some extras.

There were lots of little monkeys running around in the trees above, waiting for food from the little ones below.

Just when I thought the monkey viewing was the wildlife highlight of the day - out came the toucans! Colorful, beautiful, and flying around the treetops like we were in the middle of the jungle. Which, I guess, was not far from the truth.

And then, of course, is the best little monkey of all.  She ran around the playground, sliding, climbing and horsing around until it was time to get back to the hotel for a little snooze. Not bad for a cloudy day in paradise.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Christ the Redeemer

Our second day in Rio was reserved for the most popular tourist attraction in the city, Christ the Redeemer. We had hoped for a nice, clear day, but clear weather wasn't in the cards for us so we decided to go ahead with the plan. We looked into a number of tour options to visit the statue, but each of them were either too expensive, too long, or not what we were looking for. Thank goodness for that since going on our own was easy, fast and much cheaper than any other option. Our hotel front desk staff were very helpful, we told them where we wanted to go and they hailed a taxi and told them where to take us. To visit the Christ, you can either drive to the top or go to the base station and take the train (Trem do Corcovado) to the top. If you have a chance, look at the google maps directions from Ipanema to the Redeemer statue, which confirmed our choice to take the train. The cab ride from our hotel to the base station of the Trem do Corcovado was less than $30 reais, and once we were there, everyone at the station ticket desk spoke either English or Spanish so we were golden.

Tickets to the top were $46 reais per adult, with kids under 6 free. On this particular day, they warned us that visibility was zero. They said it when we got in line, they told us again when we purchased our tickets. Then they printed it on the tickets themselves, just to be sure. There was no mistaking it, we were not going to have a great view - but we were already there with the kids, so we ignored these warnings and continued to the top.

There were not many people in line for tickets when we arrived - possibly due to the ZERO visibility warnings - but the earliest available train was 40 minutes from the purchase of our tickets, so there is probably some sense in buying your tickets ahead of time online.

To pass the time before boarding, there is a little park across the street with a playground and a retired train car on display. The train was inaugurated way back in 1884, though it had been running for a few years before that to help bring pieces of the monument to the top. It started as a steam train, but was renovated in 1910 to become an electric train, the first of its kind in Brazil. The ride to the top takes around 20 minutes and covers approximately 2.5 miles, 2,300 feet in altitude from the base station to the statue.

The wall that divides the train station from the street has a really interesting set of murals, some religious, some cultural, but they all make for a cool entryway to the station.

If you went inside the station, there are a number of things to keep you occupied before the train ride. There was this strange, smaller, metal version of the Redeemer strung up with Christmas lights, which lots of folks were talking photos in front of. There were some food stations and souvenir shops and a juice bar. While we waited, a marching band complete with gymnastics dancers and a Santa Clause marched in to play Christmas tunes and popular Coldplay songs. The station was in full party mode with the big Birth Day coming up (we visited on December 21). Before we knew it, it was our turn to board the train and go.

There are no assigned seats on the train, so it is a bit of a mad rush to get on board. Seats face forward and backward, which is odd because it's really difficult to stay in your seat facing backward going up such a steep hill. The train itself is pretty hot and humid, but gets a good breeze while in motion. There are a few stops along the way, I couldn't say why, but each stop seemed like an eternity in the close confines of the train. It was really only a few minutes each time.

Once at the top, the view is spectacular, even on a zero visibility day. You can see Rio city from one side and the beach towns from the other, both are really cool to see from above.

And then there's the main attraction, the Christ. Or as Gretchen liked to call it "baby Jesus's daddy". It is enormous. The statue itself is almost 100 feet tall with an additional 25 feet or so of base hight. The day we visited, clouds gave it a bit of a haunting or menacing feel, especially when the sun would peek out ever so slightly.

Trying to get a photo of anyone that included the Christ was an interesting task. This one just barely has Gretchen and I included and Jon was literally laying on the ground trying to get all of us in.

He wasn't the only ground-layer. Pretty much every group of people visiting the statue had some designated photographer laying on the ground looking up.

The clouds were blowing in the wind, every once in awhile we got a good clearing to see the city below. It really is a beautiful place - green forest, blue water and really cool landscape.

And other times, the clouds made you forget that you were standing so high up on the mountain. Zero visibility was not an exaggeration at times. 

I like this shot, even if it seems a bit menacing. Cloudy, blurred Christ in the background with Gretchen and Daddy in front.

There were elevators and escalators to help you get to the statue, though the elevators have a long line if you're not elderly or traveling with children. The down escalator was out of service so we ended up walking down a few flights of stairs - not a problem for us, but we were glad to be traveling without a stroller. Luckily, Alex is a champ at just riding along in the Ergo baby carrier - and it's great from a comfort standpoint for the parent. We got our money's worth out of that little device.

Christ the Redeemer was a really interesting way to spend a morning. We laughed at the fact that all sightseeing with children is on fast forward (we probably spent 30 minutes at the top - and noticed that other folks on our return train had arrived multiple hours before us). Jon and I certainly don't mind. We went, we took some pictures and we were back at the hotel by naptime followed by juicetime. A job well done.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

This Christmas season we decided to add another country to our passport stamp collection and visit Brazil. We have been to the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls both times that we visited that incredible piece of the planet, but as most Brazilians will quickly inform you, "that is not really Brazil...". We have been talking about Brazil since we came to Argentina and there was never the right time. Until now. As long as we exit the country before Christmas Day when the prices triple - and it's not like they're all that low to begin with.

I always chuckle a little when people say that they love to travel. No one loves to travel. Everyone that says that really just means that they love to be in another place. The traveling part is no fun. With the exception of my brother Christ, no one loves the airport. No one loves lines or delays or taxiing on the runway, at least no one I've ever met. We are no exception, we dislike transit and love arrival. This is especially true in Argentina where it is a running joke that if you book through the national airline, Aerolineas Argentinas, you are gambling with your whole trip. Of the five Christmases that we've lived in Argentina, at least three of them have included some sort of strike in the airport sector. This year, we hit the travel jackpot and flew out of Aeroparque on the day of the air traffic controller strike, a group that can seriously muck up anyone's travel plans. We sat in an unbelievable line for a long time, mysteriously, flights were called at random and told to come to the front of the line. Our flight was called. We checked in. We were one step closer to Brazil. Once inside the terminal there was a mix of emotions - our luggage was gone, a good thing (right?), but our flight was still listed as on time even though it was 90 past our take of time. Peculiar. Then our flight disappeared from the departure board. Then a woman came through the terminal trying to stage a protest of passengers - we were supposed to all go to passport control in 5 minutes and start clapping - and then our flight was called. We were almost 4 hours delayed, though thankful that we somehow still got out that day. We were also hopeful that at least one person was working the air traffic control tower.
Luckily, the kids were great with the wait. As my dad put it, it looks like the best day of Alex's life:

Gretchen was just happy to have her "tickergiraffe". She was making friends withe everyone in line and being a little charmer while we waited.

And once we finally were on our way to Rio, Alex was a fantastic little flier. His first flight, beating his sister by a handful of days, one day before he turned 3-months old.

We arrived at our hotel in Ipanema late, tired and hungry. The hotel itself was great, the Promenade Visconti which has options for a 1 or 2 room suite with a mini-kitchen – perfect for keeping leftovers or warming up a bottle. Beyond the rooms, the location of the Visconti was ideal. One block from the beach, one block from the best juice bar in town (according to their signs and other people we talked to) pretty much everything we needed was within a two block radius.

Our first 24-hours in Brazil was a learning curve. We ate at the hotel restaurant (a poor choice considering the other amazing places close by), we got hustled by the beach equipment rental guys (most expensive French fries in town, supposedly) and we didn’t use enough sunscreen because it was a big cloudy (it’s true what they say, the sun is somehow actually stronger in Brazil). After that, I can proudly say that we figured things out.

The Beach:
I don’t know that there is an ugly beach in Brazil. We stayed in Ipanema because it was recommended as safer, more family friendly and less crowded. The sand is white, the water is clear and warm (-ish, it still takes a little getting used to…) and the beach was never very crowded. There are supplies for rent, umbrellas, chairs, etc – though the enterprising men who run these huts told us prices anywhere from $5 - $15 reais for each item.  Negotiate, offer less and be sure to always know the price of something before buying it – like French fries.

The water was rougher than I had expected. We were able to run in and out of the waves on shore, and Jon took a few opportunities to get all the way in the water, but neither of us were willing to let Gretchen in beyond her knees. The undertow was strong and the waves hit unexpectedly hard more than once.

Our little girl is loving the beach
While sitting on the beach, there are folks walking around selling anything you can imagine. Lemonade. Beer. Cheese. Kiddie swimming pools. Toys. Henna tattoos. Massages. Not to mention the cover-ups, bikinis and sarongs that you’ll find just about anywhere. Many of them accept credit cards. All prices are negotiable.

Hat & umbrella were no match for the Brazilian sun
We spent a few hours on the beach our first morning in Brazil, it was pretty overcast that day so we weren’t as diligent as necessary with the sunscreen and hats, and everyone (including little Alex) got a little toasted by the sun. Live and learn.

The afternoon retreat to our hotel for naptime began a great routine for the remainder of the trip. Kids nap, parents read/workout/shop, then we all go out for juice.

I don't know what it is, I don't know how to say it, but I love it
Juice bars are a signature of Brazil, there were at least 10 to choose from in Ipanema alone. We were a block away from Polis Sucos Ipanema, which was amazing and boasted as the best in the city – and therefore – the only one we tried. Combine that with another Brazilian signature, the açai berry, and you have my 4:00pm snack every day on our vacation. The açai is some sort of superfood native to Central and South America. Depending on which website you refer to, it is either a zillion calories or a weight-loss miracle. All I know is that it is delicious, especially when mixed with granola - my preferred method of consumption.

We ended the day at Zaza, which was one of the best meals I've had. The place had a cool, bohemian feel and though they were booked for reservations, they save some tables for walk ins each day. We went right at 7:30pm when they open for dinner, and we were (of course) one of the first tables there. They had a multi-page drink menu complete with fantastic caipirinhas, and the food was incredible - including the fish and potatoes that they prepared for Gretchen in lieu of a children's menu.

Great day in Rio, a bit more difficult to get by with Spanish than we had anticipated, but by 9:00pm we were all ready for a good night's sleep.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Expat Entrepreneurs

After lots of visits to different salons for nail, face, hair and body services, I have concluded that the best places to look for these treatments are from the entrepreneurial expats I've met along the way. Before I'm regarded as someone who doesn't think outside the box, or isn't trying to assimilate - consider this: some of the styles and expectations you have when getting some sort of service done are just different in other countries. I learned this (unfortunately) after being given a mullet-esk haircut, being dyed platinum blond through a highlight cap (have you ever used one of these??  They are dreadfully painful), getting multiple pedicures that involved neither water nor massage (admittedly, the two main reasons that I pay for a pedicure), and getting a massage that involved keeping on all clothing and not laying down. I've had lots of beauty appointments here. I'm sticking with the foreigners!

That's not to say there aren't good services in town. For my first Mother's Day, Jon gave me a massage and facial at the Four Seasons - both were amazing - and both would drain our bank account if done more than once in a blue moon. Value and quality both considered, here are my recommendations.

HAIR: Terrie Orr, BA Hairdresser
Terrie Orr is a delightful woman from Ireland, which makes her even more delightful for the great accent she possesses. She speaks English (goes without saying), her Spanish is quite good and she is a great hairdresser. I have gone to her exclusively for cuts and highlights since my last hairdresser (who lived just a few blocks away) permanently left the country. Making things even better, Terrie has recently moved from Belgrano to Palermo, much closer to my place - always a bonus. You can email her for an appointment, she is very responsive.  Watch out near holiday/travel times, the other expats all want to get their haircut pre-trip too so she books up early at these times. As of 2013 a haircut and color was ~AR$450.  A steal compared to US prices.

BODY: Jennifer Klueppel, Masseuse 
As for body treatments, this is limited to massage for me. For a great massage, I go to Jennifer Klueppel. Jenn is a Canadian that has moved to Argentina "permanently" (as nothing is really permanent in Argentina, just say that she has no immediate plans to leave). She had a place called the Buenos Aires Life Centre that offered massage, yoga and other various services, but then she went and had a baby (a really precious little boy!) and the Life Centre broke up. Jenn will return to massage again after spending time with her newborn and I will be tops on the list of people waiting for her triumphant return. As of 2013 a 1 hour massage was ~AR$300. Compare to the Four Seasons AR$800.

NAILS: Cassandra Wootton, Esthetician
Happy girlie girl
Cassandra is new in town, from chilly Canada and has arrived just in time for hotter-than-anything Argentina. She's just getting started so she is offering some services now with more to come soon. I have had a manicure, pedicure, shellac manicure (this is oh the rage in the north, has yet to appear in mainstream Argentina) and brow waxing. Let me digress by saying that many salons advertise facial waxing (depilacion) yet I have not encountered a single place that actually offers this service. When I've gone to have my eyebrows waxed, depilacion de cejas, I have sat while someone goes to town on my face with a tweezers. Ouch. Back to Cassandra: She's fantastic. Great products, great massage for both manicure and pedicure and all around nice to chat with. Her prices are more than fair, and on one occasion she even made the trek out to my house so that I didn't have to leave the kiddos (obviously, I paid her transportation). On this same occasion, my daughter woke up early and saw the end of my manicure - she was jealous to say the least. Cassandra, without hesitation, painted my 2-year-old's nails alternating shades of green and pink. She has made insta-friends with Gretchen, and ranks pretty highly in my book as well. As of 2013 a regular manicure & pedicure were ~AR$350.

So contact them, book with them, and enjoy the wonder of finding hidden gems within a world of bad highlights and water-less pedicures. You're welcome in advance :)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Alexander the Great

In true second-child fashion, Alex has not gotten the plethora of focused, individual attention that his sister had at this age. This is normal (I'm told) and it is exacerbated by the fact that he is an amazingly calm, happy and patient little baby. I am not exaggerating when I say that there are times when we momentarily forget that he's in the room.

Now that we have had 2.5 months to get to know our little boy, we are more in love than ever. He makes it pretty easy to fawn over him, parade him around to our friends and brag about his good-naturedness. For those that dislike parents bragging about how great their babies are - stop reading here, this post will make you angry.

Our little escape artist
Right around 3 weeks, Alex started sleeping through the night. For us, this meant that he slept between 6-7 hours at a stretch, then woke up and ate, and went back to sleep for a few more hours. I attribute much of this to his good naturedness, but we also give him a bottle of pumped milk each night before bed (the last feeding of the day, somewhere in the 8:30 - 9:30pm range). We started this on day two home from the hospital. The theory is that by giving him a bottle, Jon can participate in feedings, I could go to sleep early and get additional uninterrupted sleep, Alex learns to take a bottle (in the chance that I am unable to feed him for whatever reason), and we know how much he is eating before bed. Eating more = Sleeping more, and sleep in our house is pretty precious stuff. So, he's a great sleeper, and has since extended his nighttime snooze to a solid 8 - 10 hours. We also strongly endorse the Miracle Blanket, which we used way beyond it's recommended age range with Gretchen and have had additional success with Alex. Jon is the posterman for this product, proudly wrapping our children in what we call the "torture blanket" each night before their big snooze. Alex happens to be a bit stronger than Gretchen was at his age, so he generally wakes in the morning with at least one limb out of the blanket.

He is a content and happy baby, and around 6 weeks he began rewarding us with big, genuine smiles like these:

What a happy guy! 
The admiration begins...
Most parents of more than one child talk about how the younger one looks up to their sibling at an incredibly young age. I've noticed this happening already, if you can believe it. Alex perks up when he hears his sister's voice, stares at her when she's in the room and reacts when she is active in his presence. I am so excited to see how this relationship develops, because now that we seem to be passed the "what-on-earth-are-you-doing-with-another-child" phase with Gretchen, I think they will be fast friends.

This path goes both ways, Gretchen has started asking things like, "where is my brother??" or "what is my brother doing?". She certainly pays more attention now as to what Alex is up to, which is a relief for us as parents.

Alex has been an ideal 2nd child, adaptable, content and ready for anything during the day. In the morning when I'm getting his sister ready for school, it's not unusual for him to just fall asleep while waiting patiently for his turn to eat.

I don't know if it's due to his personality or due to the fact that he was born 3.5 weeks after Gretchen, but he has not had any issues with day/night confusion or needing to be rocked to sleep. Facts that both of his parents are thrilled about.

Lovin on my little guy
We have really enjoyed our first few weeks as parents of two, the transition has been easier than we anticipated. Obviously, we have less down time and there are moments when we are juggling the needs of two little ones, but these moments have been few and far between. These two are keepers!