January 30, 2007

Road Trip to Rio
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

In Brazil I will stay, thanks in part to the three Swedish fellows who agreed to let me ride with them to Rio.

A Car With A Drinking Problem

The Swedes told me they've been running their vehicle on alcohol to save money—leaving me a little baffled. Being the alternative fuel unconscious American that I am, I'd never heard of such a thing. I'm not completely ignorant on the subject—corn oil, solar, electric hybrid, and natural gas varieties I've heard of or ridden in, but never alcohol. And that you use the same fuel tank—even mixing the two if pleased—surprised me quite a bit.

Alcohol fuel

The trio told me the downside with using alcohol as fuel is that its performance is 20% that of gasoline, but since the price of gasoline is 60% higher than that of alcohol, it was still a savings over the alternative.

I didn't expend much mental energy crunching numbers before agreeing to ride with the Swedes; splitting fuel costs between four guys had to be much less than the US$75–80 bus ticket I was looking at to bus to Rio. So I didn't hesitate too much on the financials, and didn't bother asking much about the cost of fuel and the vehicle’s average rate of consumption.

Our home for 20+ hours or so would be the black VW Polo they had rented. I was very much unfamiliar with the Polo—looking like a smaller version of the VW Golf—but am told it's a popular model over in Europe. Somehow we managed to cram four backpacks into the hatchback's trunk.

Since Timo was completely out of commission from the attack earlier that morning, he wouldn't be driving (and spent the totality of the trip dozing with pain medication in his system). As much as I wanted to drive (it's been a over a year since I've been behind the wheel), I didn't feel comfortable driving someone else's rental, or doing so without knowing the driving license laws of the country (spending money on police bribes isn't in the budget). This left only Jan (pronounced like the word yawn) and Henrik to split the driving time.

I'm a damn fine map reader—thanks for the skills, dad—and navigator in general, so my place was in the shotgun position for the entire ride. One Swede would be driving while the other slept, with Jan doing the bulk of the driving (Henrik didn't have much sleep because he was involved in the same drama as Timo).

Corn, Cows, and Cities

In an attempt to stay on the more developed highways, our trip took us along BR277 from Iguaçu to Curitiba, and then along BR116 through São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. We hit the road at 1:00 in the afternoon.

The southern countryside of Brazil is green, though not with jungle—it's agriculture and some forest as far as the eye can see. Lots of corn, cows, and oddly shaped trees.

Every now and again along BR277 we'd hit a zone where the traffic was only allowed to move along a stretch of two-lane highway in one direction, controlled by flaggers that looked like they were part of a construction crew.

As the cars queued along the highway women and children would come up to the vehicles, selling handicrafts or begging for money. Strange thing was, for as many times as we stopped, I don't remember a single occurrence of any road construction actually taking place. I'm sure it's my imagination though.

It gets dark late in this hemisphere (at this time of year), but we still hit Curitiba after nightfall. I was searching for any signage that would lead take us north onto BR116, but didn't see any. The boys had picked up a thin booklet showing the major roadways in the country, but it completely lacked any enlargement for the cities.

We were clearly approaching downtown when the highway dumped us into the middle of a massive sea of suburbs and skyscrapers. Little did I know this would just be a warm-up compared to what was to come in São Paulo.

The crew was beyond hungry, and I was doing my best trying to decipher the directions the gas attendant was giving me in Portuguese. We found the onramp for BR116, but it was going in the wrong direction with no alternative (something we only knew because I had my compass out). We jumped on anyway, drove for a bit, and then busted a U-turn.

The Swedes told me that inexpensive, all you can eat buffets are commonplace along the highways, and we were looking for anything that was open—and given the late hour, it was next to nothing. With Curitiba some miles behind us we finally found sustenance for US$4.75 at a buffet that didn't impress, but was more than I expected for such a place. Henrik took the wheel after, and we proceeded onto the most trying section of highway on the trip.

Jan and Timo were passed out in the back, and Henrik was not enjoying driving in the rain at night, on the poorly marked and maintained highway. He was fatigued, and after less than an hour in the mountains, surrounded by drunken truck drivers, on a potholed road with next to no visibility, he could take it no longer.

He said that he was calling it quits until daylight (many hours away), unless Jan could to take over. Personally, I think I could have driven without too much stress, but Jan was good enough to wake up and step in (so that I didn't have to chance their rental).

The wipers on the Polo were shit, simply smearing the rain away. The windshield looked like it had a thin coating of Vaseline on it. Glare from the oncoming traffic blurred vision significantly.

Even though the rain was hardly what I'd call sprinkling—more of a light drizzle—the Swedes felt the need to run the wipers at full speed (giving the windshield a constant blur).

Now, I'm not going to sit there and tell them how to drive, but after spending enough years in the rainy Pacific Northwest of the United States, I feel like I should be able to teach a course in night rain driving. Wiper management would be a big section—and annoys me to no end when wipers run unnecessarily or when they're used in a manner that obstructs vision, instead of clears.

Half the problem was that Henrik had was that he wanted to drive behind the trucks for safety (follow the slow truck and life is easier), but they would kick up so much dirty water it looked like it was raining (when in fact, there was hardly anything coming down).

For some time now I've wanted to be one of those guys in a Subaru off-road rally, racing through Austrailia—at least experiencing it once. I'm not sure I have the reaction time to be the driver, but I'd still enjoy the navigator position.

It was about four o'clock in the morning when we hit São Paulo, Jan still behind the wheel. He was hanging in there, but fading fast—clearly in a command-react mode—no big decision making.

The highway we were entering town on, BR116, is the same we were taking to Rio—it was my hope that it would simple take us though town and we'd glide on towards our destination. This warm, fuzzy dream was far from what happened.

The situation we were constantly faced with—well, I was faced with, as I was suppose to be doing the direction giving—was a roadway that split into two directions, neither of which containing signage that had words or phrases that meant anything to us. No highway numbers, no signs for Rio de Janeiro, nothing. Zero. So what can I do but say left, right, stay straight and cross my fingers as I look at the compass and hope we don't end up in a favela (shanty town) at 4am.

A lot of good that did—the last decision I made landed us in downtown São Paulo, way off the highway and on the city streets. We drove past a nightclub, and I tried to get directions from a waiting taxi driver who spoke 95% Portuguese gibberish to me. We drove on.

Winding through the empty city streets is not where you want to be in São Paulo at that hour of the morning. I read or heard that Rio recently changed their red traffic light policy to be treated like a flashing yellow—as so many cars were getting windows shattered and a pistol shoved in the driver's face while waiting for the light to change at an intersection—I figured the law or custom was the same in this city when no car was stopping either.

This type of driving went against everything Jan, in his early 30s, was taught (and since he was now operating at a very basic level, I felt like I had to bark too much at him to keep us from idling at an empty intersection). I found it rather odd that the Swedes aren't even allowed to turn onto a one-way road if they have a red light back home—and are very law abiding people it would seem (as driving violations carry heavy consequences).

So we're zipping around the empty city, and the boys are using the word lost—no, no, no, not lost, just a little off the path. Lost… it would take a lot for me to say I was lost. If I know what direction I'm headed in, that's far from it.

We try another parked taxi driver, but it's generally useless. I get the idea to offer him some cash to take us to the proper location, but wants an outrageous amount to do so.

We're really in the middle of downtown now, driving by cathedrals and other fancy buildings that tourists would be snapping dozens of photos of during the day. Moving in the right direction, we try another cab.

Language wise things were going well with this fellow—yes, back to that big street, take the fifth stoplight, turn right, then…—then it all turns to gibberish as the man starts rambling off city street names and lord knows what else. I have him write down the name of the sign we're looking for—DUTRA.

Keeping on Jan to run the red lights so we don't get held up, we make our way to a large avenue that eventually has a sign for Dutra, and with it a small BR116 highway logo. Amazing.

A little McDonalds for the boys before getting on the highway, a driver change, and we're on our way to Rio.

Unlike the others, I'd been up for well over 20 hours now, and I was starting to get tired. With little rain hitting the car and a straight path ahead, Henrik let me nod off for a few minutes before waking back up and returning to my duties of keeping the driver awake with conversation and the such.

I'm still absolutely amazed with the lack of signs on such a traveled highway—nothing indicating the path to Rio, or even how to stay on the highway for that matter.

With two navigation strikes behind me we entered Rio during the morning rush. Off the highway we went with a sign pointing towards Copacabana, but that was the last we'd be seeing of anything useful for some time to come.

Jan and Henrik loved remarking how Rio looked even worse than the Paraguayan hole that borders Iguaçu, and it didn't get any better as I tried to navigate us through the city. We were in the innards of the town near the center, surrounded by the types I'd rather not be in a rental car filled with white boys (one of whom we started calling Rocky).

With a path reminiscent of a Family Circus cartoon, we finally arrived at the hostel I'd made a reservation for in Copacabana. I had made this several days before though, and the Swedes didn't make any arrangements in town. With no available space in my hostel I looked at another with the two (Timo couldn't walk and stayed in the car), but Mellow Yellow looked horrible, and would never suggest anyone stay there—triple-level bunk beds (cramming in 110 travelers) and outrageously strict rules with Gestapo-like enforcement being just reasons two that come to mind.

We returned to my hostel, and the last I saw of the Swedes they were headed off to find a hotel (not a hostel) to recover in.

Time and Money

The trip took us about 20 hours, including time lost at rest stops and wandering around the inner-city streets of large cities.

Early on in the trip I figured we be averaging 80–85 kilometers per hour (about 50mph). There was so much truck traffic on the road that it was keeping us from maintaining a faster speed during the day, and as night started to fall, so did the rain.

There's no way a traveler on anything less than a large budget could afford to drive in this country alone. Driving costs were almost two and a half times as much as an overpriced bus ticket. Factor in the price of the rental car, and we're talking some serious money.

I had forgotten about the highway transit taxes some countries charge to move along popular roads, and Brazil has some frequent and expensive tariffs in place—reinforcing my opinion of an absence of middle-class in Brazil (either you've got money, or you don't).

Highway toll fees from Foz do Iguaçu to Curitiba were about US$25. Highway transit was free on the crappy road from Curitiba to São Paulo, but cost another US$15 in tolls from São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. It cost BR$85 in all, or about US$40.

Fuel costs were impressively high. We were paying, on average, about BR$1.60 per liter of alcohol—that's US$2.80 per gallon. But that's cheap compared to the price of gasoline, which was running at around BR$2.60/liter—that's US$4.50 per gallon! …A far cry from Venezuela's rumored US$0.12/gallon.

I forgot to look at the odometer before I left the car for the last time, but kilometers traveled from Iguaçu to Rio were somewhere between 1,500–1,600. The total spent on fuel (alcohol) for the car was a bit more than US$130.

We all think the Polo had something funky going on with the engine, because we were consuming fuel at an unusually high rate—somewhere in the nature of US$0.14 per mile (double that of the car I drove back in the United States, with only slightly cheaper fuel prices). The Polo was less than a year old (we found the purchase invoice for US$17,500).

Divided between us, the US$170 in travel costs were manageable (and far less than the bus). Besides, I would much rather spend a little more than US$40 on a unique car ride, than double that on another forgettable bus experience.


Erik Heinz

February 1st, 2007

Hey Craig. What exactly am I missing about Mellow Yellow? I'm not seeing terribly strict rules. The triple bunk beds don't appear in every room, and even so, that's not a huge issue. You get used to that when using overnight train couchettes. And they offer a better than average breakfast for a hostel (at least compared to those in both west and east Europe I've used), as well as classes in Portuguese.w


Craig | travelvice.com

February 1st, 2007

Howdy Erik,

It's a big problem for me when my home becomes an episode of Big Brother, or when the staff assumes traveler is there just to do debauchery. It's flat out an unfriendly living environment, compared to the hundreds of others that I've stayed in.

Entry into the reception of Mellow Yellow is controlled by subway turnstile, otherwise you're buzzed in by the management (not uncommon). There are rules posted everywhere, detailing how you can get expelled from the hostel or arrested by the off duty police officers that work there as security. No visitors allowed, unless it's the designated drinking hour, at which point they may enter the bar of the hostel for BR$10 (about US$5). Signs everywhere, noting that "you are being monitored at all times."

The place is cramped, hot, and messy. They took a perfectly interesting living space and created an environment where they can cram as many backpackers into a five story building as possible.

All this, for US$15+ per night.

…pass. :)

Beach Bum

March 7th, 2008

So you might see me commenting a lot now, sorry :)
Since I'm reading it from the old posts to now — I apologize if you already know some of this information by now!

Alcohol is a fuel source in Brazil that's been around since the late 70's, that started after the oil crisis, and Brazil didn't want to be dependent on oil. It was supposed to be a lot cheaper than oil (since it's made from sugarcane), but the oil companies did not allow the price to go down too low to take them off the market. Gas and alcohol are not interchangeable — in the last 5 or so years, hybrid cars being built, and those can take either fuel (so if there's ever a crisis in one, you won't be screwed), but most cars, and all older cars, are either fueled by alcohol or gas. Growing up, my parents used to have one of each.

Also, regarding middle class, Brazil is known for having a HUGE middle class, bigger than a lot of countries. Though there are the very poor and the very rich, most of us are middle class. Growing up, we were probably towards the average, now my parents are probably upper middle class.

Note: Comments are open to everyone. To reduce spam and reward regular contributors, only submissions from first-time commenters and/or those containing hyperlinks are moderated, and will appear after approval. Hateful or off-topic remarks are subject to pruning. Your e-mail address will never be publicly disclosed or abused.