I’ll Bet You Haven’t Visited This Country

DSC04965Do you count countries visited? There’s a club, The Travelers Century Club, for people who have visited 100 or more countries.

We were once forced to stay the night in Ethiopia when our ongoing flight to Cape Town on Ethiopia Air had mechanical problems. Because we were accommodated in a dangerous area, we were asked not to leave the security of the hotel grounds until our flight the next day. One night in Ethiopia, where we only saw the airport and the hotel, would count as a country visited for a travel club member.

The private swimming hole at Ilheu da Pontinha.
The private swimming hole at Ilheu da Pontinha.

We, on the other hand, don’t count countries. We like to stay in one location for a month or more to allow the country’s culture and traditions to wash over us. We love to interact with locals and learn how they are different, or the same.

Our travel style is very different from those who travel for limited times every year, and maybe collect countries like merit badges. Sometimes, when someone mentions how many countries they’ve racked up, and we’re feeling a little cheeky, we ask them if they’ve visited the Principality of Ilheu da Pontinha. Because we have!

The gate to a micro-nation.
The gate to a micro-nation.

This tiny micro-nation is little more than a big rock in the port of Funchal on the island of Madeira. It was once the majestic Fort of São José, but in 1903 the Portuguese government needed money to finish building the harbor, so they sold the island to a British family that made wine in Madeira.

In 2000, the family, disinterested in the atoll, sold the land to a young Madeiran art teacher. It was discovered that the original warrant says the government sold the “possessions and the dominions” of the island. Since it’s not under any dominion, the new owner proclaimed the island to be an independent nation.

Pincipado Ilheu da Pontinha
Pincipado Ilheu da Pontinha

Never mind that a good chunk of the fort was cut down to build the harbor road and wall. Never mind that the island supports the harbor bridge. The rock island is still, at least in theory, a nation that answers to no king but its own.

Most people arriving in Madeira on a cruise ship take a shuttle bus or tour right past this speck of wonder. Others just walk by it on their way in and out of the port.

The Principality of Ilheu da Pontinha
The Principality of Ilheu da Pontinha

The ruler of this Liliputian nation, Prince Renato Barros, has a great sense of humor. He has made up an official flag, a crown and composed a national anthem. He has even declared a national dish – “takeout”!

The Principality of Ilheu da Pontinha has its own passport stamp. So when people tell us how many countries they’ve visited, we proudly present our passports and ask “You don’t have one of these, do you?”DSC08352


How to Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Rio

New Year’s Eve on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro is HUGE. How huge? Maybe 1-2 million people descend on the area. The streets on the beach and leading up to it are  closed to vehicle traffic, and it was really nice to see police presence everywhere.

I was somewhat disappointed by the shift away from the evening’s original afro-spiritual roots. Last time I was in Rio, New Year’s eve was the time that those of African derived religions (usually mashups with Christian beliefs) made offerings to Iemanja, the goddess of the oceans. They brought flowers, candles, small boats with fruit and cachaça (rum) to the edge of the ocean. Originally, the poor prayed for Iemanja to yield up her fish so they could eat.

IMG_20151231_201127That tradition spread so that everyone, even if they were not in one of those religions, brought the Goddess gifts and prayed for health, prosperity, love or whatever they thought they needed. Everyone at the beach wore all white as far as the eye could see. It was an emotional and moving event that inspired me to write a poem about it.

Things change. It’s become just another New Year’s gathering. So few people wear white that a news photographer on the beach stopped Deena and I and asked to take our picture. We think we were the only two people he could find wearing all white!

In spite of losing its spiritual roots, Copacabana still remains one of the most special and unique New Year’s Eve experiences in the world. The city sets up three huge stages with big name entertainment that runs from sunset until the wee hours of the morning, all free.

DSC07027The first trick, especially for those of us spending leveraged money (the US dollar is 4-to-1 now), is to buy a spot in a barraca (pronounced ba-ha-ka). During the day, these concessionaires on the beach sell everything from drinks to food, and rent umbrellas and chairs. On New Year’s Eve, they are allowed to rope off a section of beach around their licensed stand. Buying a place inside keeps you from getting crushed by the millions.

Because we reserved early and didn’t bother to negotiate, we surely paid more than most. No matter. We had comfy beach chairs facing the main stage under a pop-up shelter in case of rain. We also had our own waiter and, for the price, drank caipirinhas all night while they kept our bottles of champagne on ice. We even had our own body guard who escorted us to the road through the crowds when we left. Sometimes, it’s good to be king!

The entertainment all night was fabulous. There was a special show on to commemorate 100 years of Samba. The headliner on the main stage was Jorge Ben Jor leading up to midnight. After the twenty minutes of fireworks, yes 20 minutes of fireworks!, there was more great music from Zeca Pagadinho.

Here’s the next tip and perhaps the most important: Plan your journey to and from the beach in advance. We went to the beach early and had no problem getting an Uber. Coming home, though, was another story entirely. Apparently, Uber’s servers were so overloaded that the application didn’t work after midnight. Getting a regular cab was impossible. All the cab drivers were negotiating prices. We lived too close for them to even talk to us. We couldn’t use the metro because our regular metro card didn’t work. We didn’t realize that we had to buy a “special” card for New Year’s Eve. It would have been smart to pre-hire a driver to pick us up. Lesson learned. We’ll  do that for Carnival.

Enjoy our view of the fireworks with Hayden’s Music for the Royal Fireworks Overture:

New Year 2016 Fireworks in Rio de Janeiro.


São Tome and Principe

Photo gallery: Our cruise (May 2015) up the west coast of Africa stopped in São Tome for one day. (Click on any picture for full size.)



To All Our Friends, Happy New Year

Rio de Janeiro floats a beautiful Christmas tree on Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. Below is a very short video we took one night.

You will no doubt recognize the background music, but perhaps you didn’t know that composer Vince Guaraldi became famous because of the B-side of a single that was inspired by the Academy Award-winning film Orpheu Negro, or Black Orpheus. The film was a retelling of a Greek tale that director Marcel Camus set in Rio’s famous Carnival week. Inspired by the film, Guaraldi wrote a bossa nova single. As luck would have it, the B-side of that single won him a Grammy and the chance to compose music for Charlie Brown. We think Vince would’ve appreciated the connection from our images of Rio.

We wish you a peaceful, healthy and prosperous year.
Peace and Love,
Deena and Ivan

December 2015 Newsletter

Interacting with street art in the Santa Teresa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro.
Interacting with street art in the Santa Teresa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro.

We’re in Rio but not the real Rio. Sure, there’s pao de queijo, pasteis and brazil nuts (with amazing health benefits). There’s lots of city noise and beautiful beaches full of futebolers, bathers and surfers. There are busy barracas selling their own brand of caipirinas but there probably won’t be much crime here. The people, shops and restaurants in Leblon are affluent with police and security everywhere. Our protected haven doesn’t reflect the excitement nor danger of the Rio that fills the news headlines. That’s just fine with us.

Christmas is ramping up in Leblon with opulent nativity scenes, dress shops featuring all white for the White New Year’s Eve celebration so famous in Brazil and the bustling restaurants are spilling their customers out onto the streets and sidewalks.

Confeiteria Colombo, Rio de Janeiro
Confeiteria Colombo, Rio de Janeiro

We did one touristy thing in Rio. We ate at Confeiteria Colombo, a coffee and pastry cafe over 120 years old. The interior is still kind of elaborate. The original stained glass in the ceiling is replaced with painted plastic. The coffee and cake were what we expected from a tourist spot that draws long lines of shoppers, almost as long as the queues we’ve seen for lottery tickets.

We did see the “other” Rio when we went downtown to buy Carnaval tickets. At least it was daytime and kind of safe. We had a slightly more risky night out when we went to “Rat Alley” – a bar in the Lapa district called Beco do Rato. The Lapa district is the new Bohemian section of Rio, which means music and nightlife;  and also “iffy” streets. We carried nothing, loaded up the “decoy” wallets and took off the jewelry. We passed the working girls and a few sleeping bums on the way.

At the bar, we sat near 8 to 10 guys jamming samba music. No one spoke English but that didn’t prevent us from making friends with a number of people and exchanging contact information for their promise of showing us the “real Rio”. The drinks were strong;  the food good, and the music was great.

We are trying to find a samba school with a costume that we’ll be happy to flaunt when we dance with them in the Carnaval parades in February. We love to see and share the lives of the locals as much as they seem eager to show us their beloved city.

Bar Beco do Rato
Bar Beco do Rato is in the Lapa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. The place is funky with street art walls and funky kitsch. Tuesday night is samba jamming night.


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