...and we're off!

taking a year of pretirement to travel the world

on may 23, 2013, we quit our jobs and began our year of "pretirement." these are some of our adventures around the world.

the inca trail & machu picchu

This is one of those bucket list items that are just made for something like pretirement. Tucked deep in the Andes, it is not easily visited on a standard vacation. The altitude can be nauseating without a few days to acclimate. We knew that if we did not make it to Macu Picchu on this trip, we may never see it.

Before we knew what we were in for

All of that said, it is possible to hop on a train from Cusco and pop up in Machu Picchu a few hours later. We felt that would be a little anticlimactic, so instead we embarked on a grueling march over four days and three nights that led us to the famous historical site. Was it worth it? Surprisingly, yes! Was it the most difficult physical thing I've made myself do? Yeah, that too. Climbing up and down mountains hour after hour for four days does take a toll. We slept as soon as we hit the pillow each night, no matter how freezing cold it was (and how many centipedes were tattooing semi-permanent patterns onto Carla's body), and we marched again immediately after breakfast each morning.

Although the hike was difficult, it was like nothing we've ever seen. We both enjoy the outdoors and have been on many day hikes in beautiful places, but the sheer scale of the mountains here along with our remoteness made this experience unique. Not only were the sights beautiful, but the road itself is a marvel. Laid down over 500 years ago, it is made of large, rough stones and it was the main way for the Inca scholars and religious leaders to approach the ancient city. The same stones are the ones you walk on today. When the light faded, and the skies turned a frosty blue before being engulfed by stars, we felt like we had slipped back in time. 

Our professional guide giving us one of many history lessons

All of this was made possible by our outstanding tour company (contact us if you want the details) who set us up with a professional guide, designated camp sites and meal sites, and most amazing of all, the porters. The porters! They are Peruvian mountain men with superhuman capabilities. More likely to wear sandals than hiking boots, they would fold up the tents in the morning, make breakfast, clean up after breakfast, pass us on the trail, do the same for lunch, pass us again, and have the tents set up and a delicious smelling dinner ready by the time we got to the next camp. I'm almost disgusted with myself for admitting how exhausted I was each day, while these guys had done the same walk plus a full day's work, with far more weight on their backs. Their calves were head-sized. I have pictures.

Well worth the journey

The fourth day began at 4am, still dark, freezing cold, and inside an endless rain cloud. We started walking. Much later than expected, the darkness faded to a gloomy grey and under our rain ponchos we could see the trail under our feet but not much else. Then, at the end of our arduous journey, we were on top of Machu Picchu at the Gate of the Sun. Behold:  nothing. It was like looking at a whitewashed wall framed by trees. After standing around a while hoping for the clouds to clear we decided to just walk down into the ancient city. Filthy, wet, hungry and dejected, we stepped back into a world that now felt foreign to us. Americans wandered around with clean hair and cups of takeout coffee. Buses were parked nearby. The experience for us was totally different than it was for the people just off the bus. When the clouds cleared and revealed the majestic ruins, the sight was that much more moving.


Between an overnight bus ride from Lake Titicaca and the 4 day Inca Trail hike, we spent a few days relaxing in Cuzco. Unfortunately for us, the bus ride wasn't completely "overnight," arriving at about 4am (well before our hotel was open). This left us homeless for a few hours, so what else to do but get bundled up and play Settlers of Catan under the street lamps in an historic square? Alex's victory was that much sweeter with the sun rising over the Andes and the hotel's doors-- finally-- opening up for us.

Sunlight over the city as the storm rolled in

With over 400,000 people, this is a real mountain city in addition to being the highly touristy jumping off point for Machu Picchu. We (unexpectedly) had some great Indian food, but also learned from an old local how to properly chew Coca leaves for the right effect. Hint:  find lipta. We bought a big enough sack to attract DEA attention for about 50 cents at the local farmer's market. It works. 

We did take a steep walk up the valley's wall to a point overlooking the city just as a rainstorm was coming in. The altitude combined with the brisk climb left Carla with some real altitude sickness but the view was stunning.

la paz & lake titicaca

After finally learning that the strike was over and we were free to leave Uyuni (we were stuck there for an extra 36 hours because some miners had blocked the only road), we jumped at the chance to make our way to La Paz. Problem is, the only way was a night bus. And not a very good one. And the strike wasn't as over as we thought. The freeways in this part of Bolivia are essentially gravel roads, and the bus must have been built in the 1970s, with all original suspension. After a couple hours, the bus suddenly came to a stop, and there we sat. We eventually learned that some miners had rolled some big boulders into the road and people were still working to clear them away. Hours passed. Late at night, we started crawling forward again... and we were free! Never was I so happy to try and get a full night's sleep on a 13 hour bus ride while the bus consistently tried to buck my head into the ceiling.

The La Paz skyline

Ok, so Bolivia is not the most organized place on Earth. But it's worth it. After the surreal and gorgeous landscapes of Uyuni, we felt like La Paz and Titicaca would have to be let downs. This was not the case. La Paz is like no other city I've ever seen-- and perhaps no other city on earth. The elevation of the airport is equivalent to many of the very highest peaks of the Rocky mountains. If Denver is the mile high city, La Paz is the 2.5 mile high city. It is built into the steep valleys under a vast plateau, and property prices increase as altitude decreases. The hillside neighborhoods look like orange waves cresting over cliff edges, and from these homes you can look down on the high rises at the valley's bottom.

We have to give a very special thanks to Sandra, Eduardo and Nicola for taking us in. These amazing La Paz locals are the family of one of our friends in New York, and they volunteered to not only let us stay in their home, but to drive us around and show us the city from a local's point of view. They also taught us about saltenyas-- the most beautiful thing that has barely made it outside of Bolivia. Think Argentine empanadas but bigger and with a sweet / savory, almost stew-like filling.

A stunning island in the middle of Lake Titicaca

After a couple days of wandering the fascinating streets of La Paz, we made our way to Lake Titicaca. This mountain lake is surrounded by ancient layered farms on steep hillsides with stunning snowcaps in the background. We took a boat to a small, sparsely inhabited island in the middle of the lake. It may be the most relaxing place on earth. Here, you are off the grid. But there are fresh lake fish. And there is beer. And, wow, are there sunsets. 

Just go to Bolivia. I don't want to hear it. Go to Bolivia.

uyuni (bolivia)

This place. We've never seen anything like it. 15,000 feet of altitude at the bottom of the mountains, red sand deserts and a pristine salt flat as disorienting as it is gorgeous. We did 3 days and 2 nights on the road, and took about a thousand pics. Just look.


Santiago. Parks. Markets. Ridiculous hot dog burgers. Valparaiso. Street art. Alex's pics from Chile!


Wine. Bikes. Mountains. Steak. Amazing hotel. Alex's pics! 

buenos aires

Hey everybody! Yes, I mean the hundreds, if not thousands of you who have been religiously checking our blog twice a day for the past 600+ days waiting for the latest entry. Your perseverance is being rewarded. Upon moving to London and starting new jobs it seemed we had excuse after excuse to cruelly ignore the blog, allowing it to die a slow death. But the more time that stretches out between now and summer 2014, the more we realize how unique of a time our pretirement was and how important finishing the chronicle is to us. The below entry was actually written in summer 2014, so I’m not reaching as far back in to history as you might think, but to our surprise we still do remember the vivid detail of many days in 2014. This is one of the most surprising and wonderful things about the year of pretirement. We never had a day that was forgotten in a standard workday routine or nondescript Saturday around the house—we built years’ worth of meaningful memories in the span of just 13 months. Anyway, I digress. Buenos Aires:

As anyone following this blog can tell, our top goal during our year of travel was to see as many different places as possible. That meant every few days we would pack everything up, hop on a boat, train, bus or plane, and set our sights on a new destination. While this allowed us to visit a very long list of places and taught us about very different parts of the world, it also meant we never got to soak up a city’s way of life like you can in a long, leisurely visit. Having a full year off of work gave us a rare chance to do just that.

The enchanting tree-lined streets around our apartment

We ultimately chose Buenos Aires for our only longer-term stay for a few reasons. First and foremost, we had been there together before and had fallen in love with the city. The beautiful streets, laid-back but complex culture, cosmopolitan feel, and mysterious charm of a great city past its prime had been calling to us ever since our first visit four years earlier. Throw in the outstanding food, delicious local wine and gorgeous fall weather… we were sold. And that doesn’t even take into account the plunging peso, which allowed us to live life to its absolute fullest for three blissful weeks.

We arrived from Rio de Janeiro on a Tuesday night short on sleep and with long-term hangovers. We were ready for some serious relaxation, which is exactly what we got. Wandering the dark blocks of Palermo Soho late on a weeknight, in search of our Airbnb apartment, we were unable to get any kind of feel for our new neighborhood. What we found was a very friendly host and a nice comfortable bed. When we finally got up the next morning it felt like we had landed in an urban paradise. Despite our budget (about $45 per night) we found ourselves in the trendiest part of Buenos Aires, packed with quirky coffee shops, delicious restaurants, lively bars and a thriving street scene full of locals and visitors alike.

Urban decay slowly becomes art in Palermo

Given the amount of time we spent in Palermo, and our lack of desire to do much of anything “touristy,” the three weeks kind of blended together. In some ways it feels like we were there for months, and in others it went by in a flash. We never fully settled into a routine, but there were certain things that happened enough times to feel normal. Making giant salads with a dozen fresh ingredients, laughing when I paid less than $5 for a drinkable bottle of wine (or less than $15 for an awesome one), running the same route to the pond in Plaza Holanda park, where we knew exactly how far 3, 4 or 5 miles was, decimating the South American cattle population one filet mignon at a time, the list goes on.

A few events over the three weeks stand out. Carla’s diligence uncovered an absolute gem:  the Electric Tango Orchestra. While traditional tango seems to be declining in popularity (among non-tourists), this group pulls it by the hair into the 21st century. Imagine a smoky stage and light show, with a pair of electric accordion players (one with dreads), a group of electric violinists, and a few other stringed instruments going absolutely nuts through the amps, all with the tango’s hard-edged bursts and turns. And this was nothing next to the lead singer. Tall and slightly dark, with black hair to her lower back and a deep voice reminiscent of Fiona Apple’s, she ripped through the syllables of Spanish blues like she was living the songs right there on stage. I have no idea what she said, which made it that much better. A diverse group of locals aged 20s through 60s (and almost no tourists) turned out for this performance, and it ended in a standing ovation.

Another musical event found by Carla was the much larger La Bomba de Tiempo (The Time Bomb) show. This took place in an abandoned factory and drew a younger crowd. La Bomba de Tiempo is a percussion group with a couple dozen members, set up on stage like an orchestra. Imagine the best people you’ve seen playing a flipped-over bucket in the NYC subway, but even better (and that’s saying something if you haven’t seen it), except in a huge group with real instruments and a conductor. The show was impressive—I’m not sure I would have really believed something like this existed before spending time in South America. But then, I never knew how important percussion is to Argentines. After this show, I started to notice pick-up groups in parks jamming on drums or bongos, holding a steady rhythm with occasional shifts and riffs for long stretches of time. While this type of music is can be found in other countries, it seems to be very mainstream in Buenos Aires.

There was some seriously creative architecture around our neighborhood-- we found some great sights just wandering the streets on lazy afternoons.

On calmer days, Carla and I could mostly be found at local coffee shops for hours at a time. Most had outdoor seating and the weather was mostly gorgeous, so we were able to soak up the street scene while occupying ourselves with books and blogging while the rest of the world worked. I was particularly determined to finish War and Peace (an accomplishment I will brag about, because the 1,270 dense pages felt like 2,540 and were as rewarding as 5,080). I also wasted a full day doing my US taxes in a Buenos Aires coffee shop, but it was a better backdrop than my desk at home. Not surprisingly, several delicious Cuban cigars were smoked at the outdoor tables while Carla tried to sit upwind.

There were a couple of important things that happened while we were down in Buenos Aires. Shortly after we arrived, I verbally accepted an offer from my old company for a position in London. This was a development that was hard for both of us to get our heads around, as we went very quickly from being people with no income, no obligations and a completely open future to people with less than four months of pure freedom remaining but a promise that we wouldn’t go broke. There was some awkward Skyping with the old office (my long hair induced much laughter) but well before leaving Buenos Aires I had a job waiting for me.

Not too long after, I made a call to Carla’s parents. I knew I wanted to propose soon after we finished traveling, and Buenos Aires was the only place where I could be sure to have good phone access and even a couple spare minutes without her in earshot for at least a month. Also, I wanted to get the ball rolling a couple months in advance so we could have both of our families gather in New York to surprise her. The phone call went well, leading to secret email accounts, secret flight bookings, and secret plans, all of which Carla knew nothing about.

A beautiful woman in the beautiful Bosques de Palermo, a quick walk from our temporary home

What Carla does know about is leather goods, and she has that in common with the Argentines. Our impending employment got her thinking about leather jackets, which in most countries cost some multiple of what they cost in Argentina. She left Buenos Aires with a fatter backpack for it. Argentina’s cheapness was apparent almost everywhere, from the steaks to the avocados to the leather products. The country defaulted on its debt again in July, and the currency was already far weaker when we were in town. Because the government attempts to artificially prop up the peso’s value against the dollar, there is a better black market exchange rate that is available through sketchy characters. Our sketchy character was the loving, devoutly religious 80+ year old godmother of a friend who will remain anonymous. I will only say that walking into her old-time Buenos Aires apartment and having long conversations in broken Spanish over tea was one of the highlights of our time there. Oh, and I sat in the chair where the future pope had sat at her dining room table.

The best way to put black market money to use in Argentina is by heading directly to the steakhouse. In our case, that meant grabbing at table at Don Julio, which was a five-minute walk from our apartment. Lucky for us, it might be the best steakhouse in town. In New York, the best steak will set you back over fifty bucks for the meat itself (before tax, tip, etc.). Here in Argentina-- $14. And the filet mignon stacks up perfectly next to anything New York has to offer. No fewer than five times did Carla and I stumble home like zombies in a half-drunk food coma from Don Julio or another place like it.

Argentina’s other outstanding food item is the ubiquitous empanada. Stuffed with anything from seasoned ground beef to onions, spinach and cheese, these little baked goods might be the tastiest simple snacks in the world. I’ve loved them since we went to Argentina in 2010 and I was in heaven this time around, scooping up whole batches of them for about a buck apiece. What was more surprising is how the food scene has recently become more international. It’s not all steak sandwiches, empanadas and ham and cheese. If you want sushi, Thai food, vegan restaurants or a bowl of ramen, that can all be found in Palermo. One pan-southeast Asian restaurant in particular really blew us away and could have easily held its own in lower Manhattan.

The only thing that really seems to be holding Buenos Aires back is the political system. I had a few conversations with some locals around my age, both professional and in the service sector, and the overwhelming feeling seems to be disappointment. How could a country that once rivaled the United States in terms of wealth, with beautiful tree-lined streets and opulent architecture, be reduced to an economy about half the size of Mexico? The young people I spoke with feel like the government is hopelessly corrupt and all the politicians are pretty much interchangeable. Seeing a government that “disappeared” over 20,000 thousand people in the 1970s and to this day hasn’t atoned for its crimes, it’s hard not to agree. In theory, the strong populist streak in Argentina’s history should at least keep inequality in check, but unfortunately the opposite is true. While our neighborhood and the surrounding north side was very safe, with police visible on foot every other block, the majority of the city is suffering from an explosion of violent crime. Seemingly every day there were new stories of brazen robberies and murders with crime rates increasing, not decreasing. As the economy continues to suffer and the political system remains the same, it’s hard to imagine things getting much better in the near future.

Our time in Buenos Aires was a great chance to get a peek at what it might be like to live in a country that is wholly different from the United States. We couldn’t believe how warm and welcoming most of the people were, and just about all of them were happy to have a chat through my broken Spanish. Perhaps my favorite memories are the hours spent just walking through the neighborhoods, taking in the century-old architecture and towering trees on both sides with nothing but a lazy afternoon at the coffee shop ahead of us.

rio de janiero

rio de janiero. home to awesome beaches, stuff-yourself steakhouses, and arguably the biggest party in the world…carnaval. we couldn’t believe we were kicking off our second-to-last chapter of pretirement with such a bang. not only that, we were going to experience carnaval the way locals do. nate’s friend vitor was gracious enough to let us join him and his brazilian crew for the celebration! and judging from their impeccably formatted emails and impressive spreadsheet of 400+ blocos (block parties), this definitely wasn’t their first rodeo.

so there we were, not so fresh off an overnight bus from sao paulo and ready to get the party started. we immediately hailed a taxi and went straight to vitor’s sister’s place to get ready. as soon as we arrived, vitor was there to greet us with breakfast on the table and costumes in hand. mind you, it was 6:30am – otherwise known as party time! alex and i changed into french men costumes and nate put on a shiny pair of muay thai boxing shorts. we headed over to another friend’s house, where we completed our looks with awesome mustaches and a beautifully done, authentic-looking black eye for nate. the best part was the handmade beer holder that doubled as a necklace, which we each wore. these guys were so prepared!

eventually the rest of the group arrived in the day’s costume theme – old people. everyone looked very much looked the part, down to the perfectly drawn wrinkles, granny stockings, and bent-over shuffle-walk. their costumes were a hit at the first bloco we went to, which eventually turned into a crazy parade. instead of an organized event with floats and people cheering from behind the barricades, imagine tens of thousands of people in ridiculous costumes, singing and dancing as they follow the live band down the avenue. try to picture various objects of varying sizes being carried along the way, from giant inflatable dolphins and metal bathtubs to a guy on a surfboard actually surfing the crowd. and of course, every hand to be seen doubled as a beer-holder. talk about getting a bit claustrophic! it was insane, but insanely fun.

it was also easy to get lost in this crazy sea of people, but thankfully vitor was carrying the “o balaco do baco” signpost high above everyone’s heads so people knew where the group was. it was also outfitted with a gopro to capture all the shenanigans. drinking beer continuously - while wonderful – also led to another party challenge, which was trying not to pee. trust me, this was one of those things you tried very hard to avoid, at least in the middle of the parties. one look or sniff around those port-o-potties had me dry-heaving in no time. over the course of two days, we made partying our full-time job. we went to five different blocos, ran into brazilians dressed as cheeseheads (i couldn’t believe it!), donned norwegian curling team costumes and sang the national anthem with actual norwegian tourists, snapped a pic with “michael jackson”, visited the famous colorful steps of escadaria selarón, and enjoyed a deliciously authentic brazilian meal at nova capela in lapa, a neighborhood known for its vibrant bohemian culture.

although we americans are infamously known to sprint when it comes to drinking, i’m proud to say we went in knowing that carnaval would be more like a marathon. what an unforgettably good time! there was, however, one moment that was hard to forget for other reasons. our last night in rio, we found ourselves in a particularly sketchy situation. nate, alex, and i decided to check out the scene at ipanema beach. we took a few beers and wandered over to people-watch and mingle with everyone, which turned out to be a large group of locals from the favelas (slums). this didn’t really deter us because it was ultimately a rather relaxed and fun crowd, and everyone was just having a good time. half an hour later though, as we were enjoying our drinks, i saw nate’s eyes go wide and heard him say, “run.” suddenly we were sprinting down the beach, following the locals who seemed just as terrified as i was. poor nate had a hurt knee, but even he was limping as fast as he could. while we can’t say for sure what happened, this type of scare isn’t as uncommon as one would hope. apparently, thieves sometimes work together to encircle an unsuspecting group of people, then pull out weapons and steal from the crowd. whatever it was, it was pretty unnerving, and afterwards we decided we’d had our fair share of beach gatherings and spent the rest of the evening down the road at a decidedly less scary street party.

when the sun rose on tuesday morning, alex and i were definitely ready to trade beer and hangovers for wine and a more laidback vibe in buenos aires. we were excited to “move” into our little apartment there for three weeks and immerse ourselves in the argentine city life. it would be the longest amount of time we’d have spent in any one place, and we were really looking forward to it!

// south america trip to date: 1 country, 2 cities, 2 flights, 1 bus

a 360-view of the insanity that is carnaval.

sao paulo

After a solid three weeks of sleeping in a different New Zealand location every single night, Carla and I were looking forward to our longest break yet in New York. We had planned on a full ten days of relaxation before beginning the longest chapter of our pretirement in South America. Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. The last leg of our trip home was cancelled, giving us an unexpected Valentine’s Day getaway in (where else?) San Francisco. Just like we had done only two months earlier, we walked through the San Francisco airport wondering how much unexpected time we would be spending there. 

Julia and Dave's paella feast

With no open seats to New York in sight for a couple days, we were determined to enjoy the weekend. That meant renting a car and doing our best to spoil Valentine’s Day for our friends Julia and Dave. Despite our best efforts, we failed to ruin it. They had a dinner party planned and were cooking enough paella to satisfy a small Catalonian village. Dave’s legendary cellar provided the proper amount of delicious red wine to accompany such a feast (that is, nine bottles for six people). While our memories might be a little fuzzy, I’d imagine we were very glad to be “stuck” in San Francisco at the end of this Friday night.

We spent the next day hanging around the city with Julia, Dave and his kids Cole and Sam. Their new puppy Daisy kept us entertained, even when last night’s wine didn’t want us to get up and play with her. That night we met up with one of Dave’s friends for a drink at an awesome little bike / beer / coffee shop on Divisadero that confirmed, again, how much I like San Francisco. Before we knew it Sunday rolled around and we were airborne again.

Our week in New York was packed with dinners, drinking and reunions with friends we hadn’t seen for months. Downtime was spent hanging around coffee shops and maybe even working on the blog a little bit. My sister Rachel (and her roommates Leah and Nicole) were kind enough to let us crash at their apartment in Williamsburg for the first few days, then we moved over to our friends BJ and Susan’s apartment in Prospect Heights for the last couple nights. The biggest surprise of 2014 came this week as well. I had breakfast with my boss from my last job and was unexpectedly offered a job back with the company. Not only that, but the position was in London. I walked all the way from Midtown to the Village that snowy morning in a state of shock… I hadn’t thought about working in so long that I didn’t know what to think. It was certainly nice to know that I had the option to be employed again without going through the long and difficult hedge fund interview process. I was also very happy at my old job, so it was great knowing that they wanted me back. On the other hand, Carla and I had both rediscovered our love for New York during our nine months of travel and were very much looking forward to living there when our travels were done. I will always remember wandering through a snow-covered Bryant Park that Wednesday morning, looking up at the skyscrapers and knowing London was calling from across the Atlantic.

We were very excited when the time came to start our journey to South America. Carla’s friend Yoni, who works for United, came through in a big way to help us get buddy passes for the flight to Sao Paulo. Not only did we save money, but we landed a spot in business class for the 10 hour flight. After a few glasses of wine and a comfortable sleep, we arrived in Brazil in style.

My friend Nathan moved down to Brazil a couple years ago and has an awesome apartment with a private roof deck in the heart of Sao Paulo’s nicest area. We stayed with him during our four days there and he introduced us to his local group of friends, which made the visit that much more interesting and enjoyable. Our first night in town we got together with his friends and spent the evening the Brazilian way—sitting outside with icy buckets of beer and small appetizers. Despite being a wine producing country, locals enjoy nothing more than a few ice cold beers on hot, humid nights (the bar refrigerators all have big signs saying something like -3 degrees Celsius to prove the beer is colder than frozen water). Bars look more like big beer gardens than cozy pubs and groups of people gather around large tables to socialize in the open air. Cheaper local places look more like indoor / outdoor diners where families and friends stake out a table for a long night of relaxation. Much like you’ll find in New York, Nathan’s friends were from all around Brazil and other parts of South America but had come to Sao Paulo for work. That Wednesday night dinner was a great crash course in Brazilian culture as we mostly tried and failed to get more calories from food than alcohol.

As for the food, what most people eat on a daily basis was a little disappointing. The deep-fryer gets a lot of use, and a very common snack is pastel de queijo, which consists of crispy fried dough filled with cheese and sometimes meat. Sao Paulo being a pretty international city, everything from burgers to pasta to sushi is available, but the rich local food is still number one. One of the most popular fast(ish) food restaurants is a place called Baked Potato and they specialize in (you guessed it) baked potatoes smothered in a creamy sauce and/or sour cream. Another common item I hadn’t seen before was shrimp in a very rich, creamy sauce over rice. That one tasted pretty good but I don’t know if I could make it a daily routine.

Just one more...

Of course, one of the culinary highlights of Brazil is the famous Brazilian steakhouse. One night Nathan and his friend Thelita took us to one of their favorites for dinner, but we soon learned that real Brazilians will usually only show up at these places for Sunday lunches that last all afternoon. The waiters come by every few minutes with a different kind of meat that you can either accept or reject, and they don’t stop until you can’t eat another bite. The cuts were all delicious, and ranged from standard cuts of steak to things like lamb or chicken hearts. There is also an all-you-can-eat salad / appetizer bar that would make an excellent meal in itself. One thing that Brazil does very well is dessert. When you think you’re finally done eating at the steakhouse, the waiter shows up with a cart full of the most decadent cakes you’ll ever see. While intentional or not, it’s probably good news on the public health front that these do cost extra. We found a little room to split a couple pieces and did not regret it. That night the restaurant was mostly filled with other Americans disgusting enough (in Brazilians’ eyes) to eat that kind of a feast before bed, but that didn’t stop us from waddling out stuffed and satisfied. 

Another night Nathan and Thelita made some delicious pasta from scratch and we dined al fresco on his beautiful roof deck. Complete with a small pool, little white lights and views of the city all around, we quickly fell in love with Nathan’s outdoor space. Many hours that week were spent lounging on his couch or hammock while sipping beer, smoking Cubans and catching up.

The murals of Vila Madalena

During the days while Nathan was in the office, we took his recommendations for neighborhoods to check out. We quickly learned that there really aren’t a lot of touristy sights in Sao Paulo, which has exploded in size over the last fifty years (the population now stands at over 20 million) and is more focused on keeping up with growth than catering to tourists. However, there are some very interesting neighborhoods if you know where to look. The first one was Vila Madalena, which has a tropical Bohemian vibe and is home to some of the best street art in the world. These murals (it would be insulting to call it graffiti) are truly outstanding and walking the streets is like being in an open-air museum. The photos below are just the tip of the iceberg. We walked around several other areas that showed fascinating clashes between traditional Brazilian housing, shops and restaurants and more high-end international establishments that wealthy locals love. 

Another aspect of Sao Paulo that was interesting to see up close was the Brazilian way of dealing with the (sometimes) fast-growing economy and the (always) fast-growing cities. A currency that is much stronger than the economy, along with high taxes, means everything is relatively expensive in a country where the vast majority of people are still relatively poor. Nathan’s neighborhood of Itaim Bibi is full of non-Brazilian restaurants, US chains and American-style malls, but prices are easily higher than you would find in New York. Most stores in the mall are brands we would all recognize, but the majority of people (who wouldn’t spend $1,000 on a bag) go there to be in a nice, air-conditioned place and swarm the Baked Potato and the rest of the food court at lunch time. However, people who can afford it seem happy to pay up for goods that can differentiate them from the average citizen. Unfortunately, from what I hear Brazil still lags behind more developed countries in terms of economic and social mobility. Many of the developments in neighborhoods like Itaim Bibi are just there for an entrenched upper class while other parts of the cities (such as Sao Paulo’s still sketchy Centro) are left behind. The public transportation system is just OK and there are few green spaces for people to relax in poorer areas. This is balanced out by rigid populist politics that help out the lower classes but hinder the country’s growth. Like everyone saw with preparations for the World Cup, Brazilians tend to “figure it out” when they need to, and the country keeps growing in fits and starts.

We spent our fourth night in Sao Paulo getting physically and mentally prepared for something we’d been waiting for all year—Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. We planned for a six hour overnight bus between the two cities, and the festivities would begin immediately when we arrived in Rio at 6:30am. The Sao Paulo bus station was packed with people, many of them waiting to take the same trip as us. In a country with so many people and so few passenger trains, the Sao Paulo bus station is like the city’s Grand Central. Thankfully the bus ride was as calm as the station was hectic and we caught a few hours of sleep before testing our bodies with an internationally renowned 52-hour party.