transportation

17 Surprising Things About Brazil

From the bizarre beach culture of Rio to the urban sprawl of Sao Paulo, here’s a list of things that will shock you about Brazil travel.

The girl (and boys) from Ipanema Beach in Rio

The girl (and boys) from Ipanema Beach in Rio

“What drew you to Brazil?” I asked first off. I’m always interested in knowing what draws people to destinations. The exoticism of Southeast Asia and Morocco appeal to Duke and me, but we have yet to visit South America together.

“Cheap airfare,” my friend Ben replied without a moment’s hesitation. He and his boyfriend Derrick subscribe to Scott’s Cheap Flights, a mailing list that informs you of airline deals. It’s well worth paying $30 a year for the premium version.

(I signed us up, and we’ve already received a few emails that have inspired us try to figure out a creative way to use a long weekend.)

Derrick and Ben share their experience of traveling to Brazil

Derrick and Ben share their experience of traveling to Brazil

Brazil is a study in extreme contrasts. You have poverty and wealth, beauty and squalor, all of these opposing forces, in a very small space.

Ben pointed out that within 24 hours of booking, airlines are required by law to refund your money, unless it’s within seven days of the flight. So you call jump on a good price — and back out the next day if you’d like.

“We booked three trips almost immediately: Japan, Brazil and Spain,” he said, “And it all cost less than our trip to Australia the year before.” The trip to Brazil ran them only about $400.

The botanical gardens in Rio felt like you’re on the grounds of an abandoned plantation

The botanical gardens in Rio felt like you’re on the grounds of an abandoned plantation

Neither of them had been to South America before, and “another upside was that it was their summer and our winter,” Derrick said.

The fellas stayed about five days in Rio and two and a half in São Paulo.

The Selaron Steps in Rio de Janeiro, where Michael Jackson danced in a music video

The Selaron Steps in Rio de Janeiro, where Michael Jackson danced in a music video

They chose a different neighborhood each day, deciding upon a site or two to see — like the steps where Michael Jackson danced in the controversial “They Don’t Care About Us” music video, directed by Spike Lee, for instance — and then wandered around.

Here are their observations about Brazil, a country they found to be more complicated than they ever imagined.

 

1. Rio has a huge beach culture — but hardly anyone lays out or goes swimming.

People flock to the beaches in Rio, where they engage in athletic activities: volleyball, soccer or paddleball.

“But almost nobody goes in the water,” Derrick said. “It’s not the thing to do.”

“People aren’t laying down,” Ben added. “They’re all standing, and maybe sitting a little bit.”

The beaches are very large, but after you walk about five minutes, you’ve got the gist, because it repeats itself, Derrick said.

There’s a pretty black and white tiled path that runs the entire length of the seaside. And all along it, you have different restaurants and vendors, where you can get, say, a 5-pound coconut.

The waterfront is divided into different sectors, called postos. Each is known for different things, Ben says: One might be where the models hang out, one’s where the gay guys are, and another’s for families.

Cachaça vendors can whip you up a caipirinha to go for a few bucks

Cachaça vendors can whip you up a caipirinha to go for a few bucks

2. It’s super cheap to drink in Rio.

By the sidewalk are the officially sanctioned snack kiosks, but as you go 100 yards or so onto the sand, you get unofficial tents setups, or guys with insulated backpacks peddling fried cheese, beer and drugs. A lot of people had caipirinha-making kits, and you could buy a drink from them for $3.

A bottle of cachaça, a distilled spirit made from fermented sugarcane juice that’s the national drink of Brazil, could be bought at a store for $2.

Christ the Redeemer towers above Rio. Sometimes he looks like he’s in Heaven

Christ the Redeemer towers above Rio. Sometimes he looks like he’s in Heaven

3. Christ the Redeemer could be lost in the clouds.

When Ben and Derrick went, the 125-foot-tall statue of Jesus that overlooks Rio atop Mount Corcovado was shrouded in fog the entire time they were there. Be sure you take advantage of a clear day and see the sites that are on the 1,000-foot-high rocky outcroppings above the city.

The 125-foot-tall statue stands atop the massive granite dome of Corcovado hill and, since its erection in 1931 has become one of the most famous landmarks in the world.

You take an incline railway up Corcovado. “As we were going up, we were like, still nice, still nice — and then, bam! Fog,” Ben says.

It killed them a bit that they couldn’t get the iconic money shot — but to make themselves feel better, they joked that it was like “seeing Jesus in Heaven.”

The Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts is a gorgeous locale in Rio

The Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts is a gorgeous locale in Rio

4. Brazilians are beautiful — and parade around in next to nothing.

They’ll go from the beach to a food stall, wearing a speedo, shoulder shawl and flip-flops. They all wear Havaianas, the super-trendy, colorful plastic flip-flops created by a Scotsman in 1962.

 

5. But the people aren’t all that friendly.

For a city with a reputation as a party city, Ben and Derrick didn’t find the locals to be that outgoing.

“I’d always been under the impression that Brazilians were super nice, super willing to engage in conversation, that if they recognize an outsider, they’ll talk to them, but that wasn’t the case,” Ben says.

The fellas felt pretty safe wandering around Santa Teresa during the day — but you should always be on your guard with valuables in Rio

The fellas felt pretty safe wandering around Santa Teresa during the day — but you should always be on your guard with valuables in Rio

6. The crime is, unfortunately, as bad as advertised.

When they got to their hotel, they were given cards with the hotel’s contact info and were told to leave their wallet and everything else locked in the room’s safe when they left the premises. “Carry this card and a copy of your passport, and that’s it,” Derrick advised.

They took what money they felt they needed and kept it in their front pockets. “Don’t take out more than you can afford to lose,” Ben said.

“It was a bummer,” he continued, “because I love taking pictures, and my go-to mode is walking around with my camera. Everything I read said, take a photo and then put your camera away immediately in a nondescript bag.

“One afternoon we went out, and within five minutes of leaving the hotel, this guy tapped me on the shoulder and told me, ‘You need to put that away. Don’t have it out,’” Ben said.

He did feel fine using a cellphone as a camera, though. Just don’t draw too much attention to yourself, he added. Expert tip: Use your work phones — just in case they do get stolen, heh heh.

A lot of banks don’t even let you access their interior ATMs after 8 p.m. because of the fear that people will force you to withdraw money, Ben said.

Derrick moved the money he planned to spend on the trip from his checking account into a savings account.

“There’s definitely a feeling of crime,” Derrick says. Someone told them not to have bags facing the streets because bikers could ride by and swipe them.

Kids beg for money, and it’s the second-highest country in terms of child prostitution, next to Thailand, Ben informed me. (He does his research.)

Both of their Kindles got stolen out of their hotel room — the one thing they didn’t put in the safe.

 

7. Brazil is an extremely sexual country.

Prostitutes are everywhere, especially in São Paulo. “You get propositioned all the time,” Derrick says.

There are bathhouses for days, along with love hotels, similar to those found in Japan.

Take a sky tram up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Helicopter tours are available from here, from which you can see gorgeous views of the entire city

Take a sky tram up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Helicopter tours are available from here, from which you can see gorgeous views of the entire city

8. Rio didn’t get rid of its favelas (the slums built into the hillsides) for the Olympics.

Instead, they’ve had the police go in and take control, Ben said. “It’s like going into a war zone,” he added: police in body armor, SWAT vehicles, guns. They’re trying to drive out the drug dealers and crime lords.

Thousands upon thousands of people live in these communities, and they don’t have running water all the time or reliable electricity.

“They’re very vibrant communities, but are riddled with crime and corruption,” Ben said. The pieced-together shacks are, ironically, very brightly colored and pretty.

“Brazil is a study in extreme contrasts,” Ben said. “You can see the favela as you pass the Maserati dealership. You have poverty and wealth, beauty and squalor, all of these opposing forces, in a very small space.”

Ben and Derrick recommend using a wireless hotspot and rideshare apps to visit spots like Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts

Ben and Derrick recommend using a wireless hotspot and rideshare apps to visit spots like Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts

9. Rideshare companies like Lyft are a convenient way to get around.

Ben and Derrick have found rideshare apps to be a better option in many parts of the world than taxis — some of which can be corrupt. This way, you’re going through an app, your route is mapped out, and no money exchanges hands.

“Brazil is a country where you definitely don’t want to rent a car,” Ben advised. “They have one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities.” (I told you he does his research.)

“Stop signs are suggestions,” Derrick added. “And so are stoplights.”

“There’s a lot of honking and screaming,” Ben said.

The Lapa neighborhood is known for its aqueduct — and boho vibe

The Lapa neighborhood is known for its aqueduct — and boho vibe

10. There are some neighborhoods in Rio you can explore during the day — that turn into wild parties at night.

One day, the boys wandered through Lapa — a neighborhood in central Rio that’s easily identifiable by the aqueduct. Then they took the historic tram up the hill to Santa Teresa, a charming artists’ community. There’s an old mansion that burned down that’s now an art event space.  

Santa Teresa, an arts district in Rio

Santa Teresa, an arts district in Rio

They also checked out Lapa at night, and saw about 300 people hanging out in the Shell gas station parking lot. This is known as the bohemian and samba district. “People are dancing right in the streets. It’s mayhem,” Ben said.

Lapa is directly downhill from a favela, and there’s a lot of pickpocketing on weekends.

A local girl told them that she survived Carnaval without getting anything stolen cuz she had a fanny pack that she wore under her clothes.

“While I’m sure that tourists are more targeted, it also happens to Brazilians,” Ben said.

Marmosets crawl along power lines all over the city

Marmosets crawl along power lines all over the city

11. You’ll see monkeys running around everywhere in Rio.

They’re marmosets and they’re cute and like to scamper over power lines. From Ben and Derrick’s experience, they’re didn’t seem dangerous.

Aside from good restaurants and a cool museum, São Paulo doesn’t have a whole lot to offer

Aside from good restaurants and a cool museum, São Paulo doesn’t have a whole lot to offer

12. There’s not a lot to do in São Paulo.

Despite being the most populous and geographically largest city in all of South America, São Paulo doesn’t offer much for the tourist, according to Ben and Derrick.

“Unless you want to eat really good food and drink really well, there’s not a lot to do during the day,” Ben explained.

Of course, they did find a couple of cool museums to explore: MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand) and Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo.

Altarpiece No. 1-3  by Hilma af Klint at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo

Altarpiece No. 1-3 by Hilma af Klint at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo

13. São Paulo is like the gritty parts of New York — but without the visual appeal.

It’s one rundown, dirty storefront after another, Ben said. Mile after mile of urban sprawl.

They would be walking around and feel safe, and then turn onto a street that felt super sketchy. It was block-by-block.

 

14. There’s a shoe shine scam to watch out for.

In a scam that’s even used here in Chicago, a man will approach you, squat down and smear something all over your shoes. “It looked like a brown sugar mixture,” Ben said.

Then the man will make a big deal about the mess will start to clean it up — wanting, of course, to be paid about $30 for his trouble.

When this happened to the fellas and they declined, the man stood there, cursing them out.

What’s for dinner? Lots of meat — but hopefully not a capybara

What’s for dinner? Lots of meat — but hopefully not a capybara

15. The cuisine consists of lots of meat and lots of beans.

Beef, cow, goat and seafood are omnipresent. Vegetables? Not so much.

You might want to try a dish Brazil is famous for: feijoada, a stew loaded with different types of slowly braised meat that takes five days to make.

The urban sprawl of São Paulo

The urban sprawl of São Paulo

16. Distances can be deceptive in São Paulo.

You can look at a map and think, That’s not too far away — and it’ll end up being an hour Lyft ride, Derrick explained.

Ben’s friend told him that it takes about three hours to drive from one end of the city to the other.

The Luz Railway Station in São Paulo

The Luz Railway Station in São Paulo

17. Overall, Brazil is a difficult country to navigate.

Ben and Derrick have traveled all over the world — and they found Brazil to be one of the more confusing countries. “If you don’t know somebody, if you’re not part of a tour group, if you don’t travel a lot, or if you’re not street smart, it definitely requires a higher level of awareness,” according to Ben.

“In a lot of ways, our trip to Brazil was unremarkable. Brazil is really about being in the moment, taking advantage of what’s there,” Ben said.

“Yah, if you’re a person who likes to go go go, or go out at a reasonable hour, Brazil’s not the place for you,” Derrick concluded. –Wally

9 Tuk Tuk Tips

What is a tuk-tuk taxi? And what do you need to know about this mode of Thai transportation so you don’t get taken for a ride?

The only good part of getting scammed is that we got some funny pics of Wally driving a tuk-tuk — much to Duke’s dismay

The only good part of getting scammed is that we got some funny pics of Wally driving a tuk-tuk — much to Duke’s dismay

Most of the time during your stay in Chiang Mai, you’ll be traveling around in the cute contraptions with the adorable name: tuk-tuks. These three-wheeled vehicles are like teeny-tiny open-air motorbike chariots. The ones in Chiang Mai really only fit two passengers comfortably, though three could probably squeeze in.

If you’re in the Old City, or anywhere nearby, you should be able to flag one down and go anywhere you want for an affordable price. Here are nine tips to follow when hiring a tuk-tuk:

He stopped outside the gate and kicked us to the curb. So much for good karma.

1. Negotiate your price before getting in the tuk-tuk.

You’re exhausted from walking all day. It can be tempting to hop into the tuk-tuk and then talk prices. Resist.

In Chiang Mai, you should be able to go short distances for 100 baht. Let the driver quote a price first. If it's less than 100, score! If it's not, and you’re traveling within or just outside the Old City, try insisting upon 100‎฿.

Walk away if they won't come down in price. They'll cave — most of the time. (We didn’t have much luck playing hardball during a crowded event, like the Saturday Walking Market, for instance.) But if they don't accept your price, you should be able to find another tuk-tuk right away.

 

2. Know exactly where you’re going.

You don’t have to know the route — just the address of your destination. Most addresses in Chiang Mai will be four or five lines long and seem to include streets, districts, subdistricts and even the nearest gate in the ancient walled city.

Have your destination address ready to go on your phone to show the driver.

 

3. BYOM: Bring your own map.

Some drivers have their own maps, but play it safe and bring your own. It's easier to point on a map than to show English addresses. So just whip out your copy of Nancy Chandler’s map of Chiang Mai (it seems as if everyone’s got one). Before you head somewhere, try to find where you are currently and where you’d like to go.

A couple of fellow travelers told us about a great resource: the app Maps.me, where you can download a comprehensive map of the city that you can access offline.

Drivers like to orient themselves by gates. Look at the closest one to your destination and point to it on the map.

 

4. They treat two lanes like three.

This can be a bit nerve-racking if you focus on it too much. Granted, tuk-tuks are pretty small and two of them can almost fit abreast in a lane of traffic. But they weave in and out of traffic — some of it oncoming — so the best thing to do is just put your trust in your driver and try to enjoy the ride. And hang on tight.

 

5. They lay off the horn.

It's the polar opposite of India, where drivers never stop honking. Perhaps it's their quiet Buddhist nature. But I sure ain’t complaining.

 

6. Watch for the fake-out tuk-tuks.

When you really just want to find some nice open-air transport back to your hotel, standing on the side of the road in the blazing heat, you’ll inevitably get your hopes dashed by vehicles that look a lot like tuk-tuks but aren’t. They have a motorbike with a sidecar sort of thing, usually used to carry food.

 

7. When desperate, flag down a red taxi (song thaew).

If you go to a more remote locale (like the mostly abandoned JJ home décor market Duke wanted to try out), you might not find a tuk-tuk. In these instances, you’ll have to flag down a song thaew (literally “two rows), so named for the seating in the back of these modified trucks. They’re covered and can get quite hot inside.

You'll have to share these with other riders most of the time, and they make various stops as they go along. It’s best to know what your destination looks like, since it’s not as easy to converse with the driver as it is in a tuk-tuk.

The good thing is that these are quite cheap. It says all rides are 30฿ on the side of the vehicle — but we always paid a bit more and didn’t argue.  

 

8. If you want to go farther afield, hire a driver for the day or half-day.

We had a fantastic experience with Tommy (you can email him at t.tommy2556@gmail.com). His price was competitive — in fact, I think the drivers must all decide on a price, and everyone sticks to it. Tommy speaks fluent English and has a penchant for love songs from the ’70s. We enjoyed his company so much, we hired him three of the days we spent in Chiang Mai.

 

9. Avoid this tuk-tuk scam.

Yes, Duke and I still manage to get swindled now and then.

On our first day in Chiang Mai, we saw a tuk-tuk driver at the first temple we visited, then again later in the day. He offered to take us on a tour of the Old City as well as a handicraft market for 150‎฿. He told us his name is Chi, the first three letters of our hometown Chicago, so I felt it must be kismet. You pronounce his name “Shy,” though he's anything but.

Our “tour” turned out to be a total crock. Chi took us to tourist trap shops outside the Old City, where everything is overpriced and the desperate salespeople cling to you. We cruised through them, though, in solidarity to Chi, after he explained that he gets a stamp from each place (and one imagines some sort of commission).

After five of those shops, Chi said he'll take us to the Old City. Instead, he stopped outside Tha Phae Gate and essentially kicked us to the curb, waving across the street and dismissing us. So much for good karma.

If you see Chi (heck, he might even have a picture of me and Duke to help lure you in), don’t fall for his scam. –Wally

Getting From Malaga to Morocco Is a Total Pain in the Ass

One of the gates that leads into the medina in Fès, Morocco — not a place you want to be, clueless, in the middle of the night

Should you leave from Algeciras or Tarifa, Spain to catch the ferry to Tangiers? Our hellish day can teach you 24 valuable lessons.

 

Part of me was excited by the romance of taking a ferry from Europe to Africa, crossing the Strait of Gibraltar.

And part of me knew getting from Málaga to Fès in one day was, perhaps, overly ambitious. I worried that things wouldn’t quite work out for us.

My exhausted brain kept thinking, “Well, this is it. We’re gonna get knifed in some dark alley.”

Well, that’s an understatement.

We can only hope that our extremely hellacious day can provide some valuable advice to those of you undergoing similar jaunts.

And when travel plans get particularly harried, I like to remember that we’ve got it pretty darn good in the modern age. Imagine how long it would have taken Mark Twain to undergo the same journey.

Here’s what we learned (the hard way):

 

1. It’s difficult to find anything online.

In this day and age, you kind of figure that everything’s on the internet, right? But local bus schedules, train timetables — it’s all difficult to find. While surfing around at our friends’ place in Málaga, the only information we could unearth came from other travelers as confused as we were — and even that was hopelessly outdated.

 

2. There isn’t a magical yellow bus.

One of the guys at the hostel across the street told us there was an Amarillo bus. We didn’t know if that was the company’s name or if it was literally a yellow bus. Or both.

He sounded so certain. It was an express bus, or directo, he told us, and it runs from Málaga to Tarifa nonstop. He even knew what time it leaves: 7:30 a.m.

Of course we couldn’t find anything online.

But I wanted to believe him. After all, he must have plenty of travelers who want to go to Morocco.

It almost sounded too good to be true.

Turns out it was.

We caught a crack-of-dawn taxi to the bus station, where we found the window for the Amarillo bus line (not just the color but the company name as well). The sign, though, informed us they wouldn’t have anyone working there till later. And the schedule showed nothing about a directo. Which was OK since we had already bought our tickets at the Portillo window, the only one open that early.

 

3. The buses themselves are quite nice and seemed to run on time.

Note: There aren’t any bathrooms on the buses, and there might be an unforeseen layover. When we got to Algeciras, we were told we had to get off the bus for half an hour and then reboard for the final leg of the trip to Tarifa.

 

4. The ferry from Tarifa is better.

It lets you out in the Tangier city center, whereas the one from Algeciras, an industrial port, drops you off farther away.

 

5. …Unless the entire port is closed for high winds.

It was so windy that it was a bit of a struggle at times even walking the 10 minutes to the port terminal.

The man at the bus station kept saying “cerrada” and mimicking two doors closing. But we decided our best bet was to get to the port and see exactly what the deal was.

 

6. If you get stuck in Tarifa, our friends recommend you stay at Hostal Africa.

I’m hoping hostal in this case doesn’t mean sharing a room and bathroom with 10 or so other people.

Jo and Jose say Tarifa is a cute little surfer town, and the winds mean good kite surfing — you’ll see signs touting this pastime all over.

You enter the old part of town through an arch, and it did seem laid-back, with white buildings and winding streets.

We passed Hostal Africa, and it’s very close to the tourism office, which is at one end of the paseo, where you can find some cafés and old folks chatting on benches.

A nice fellow helped guide us through the twisting lanes to the port.

That’s where a maritime policeman informed us the port was closed for the entire day.

 

7. You might have to backtrack to Algeciras.

That’s what we had to do. It’s frustrating — you wish someone could have told you the port was closed for the day.

At any rate, we hopped into a cab outside the ferry station, and after a 35€ ride, we were back in Algeciras, the previous stop on our bus ride.

 

8. The ferry ticket seller might fib.

There are lines of ticket windows touting ferry service. Look for the next time to Tangier. The man behind the glass at the window we approached said the ferry left at 14:00 (2 p.m.), but the printout he gave us read, 14:30.

 

9. Have a beer while you wait.

I know for me, it helped take the edge off a stressful day. I thought today would be an adventure like on The Amazing Race. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that’s not really a good thing. You’ve got to be creative and courageous and run around like crazy — only we didn’t have the chance of winning $1 million.

 

10. Don’t get sucked into bad Spanish dating shows.

The TV in the cafeteria was blasting a terrible low-rent Bachelor/Bachelorette-type show called Mujeres y Hombres y Viceversa.

It was like watching a train wreck, as we say in the States (though that’s probably an expression I should avoid while traveling).

Eventually we ripped ourselves away half an hour before we were supposed to board.

 

11. You’ll still need to get a boarding pass.

We tried to board with the paper printout the ticket seller gave us, but no go. We were told we had to go back downstairs (past the door reading, “Point of No Return,” past Customs, past the security X-ray machine).

One of the workers was telling the woman in ticket booth to hurry up, which made me wonder if the gates were closing. Which certainly didn’t help my stress level.

I needn’t have worried.

 

12. The departure time on your ticket might actually be the boarding time.

Not a huge deal, but it would play a factor if there’s a particular train connection in Tangier you’re hoping to make.

 

13. Once aboard the ferry, get right in line to get your passport stamped.

It took us over 20 minutes to get through the line. The boat hadn’t left by then.

 

14. We suspect that the times the ticket sellers tout are really just staggered boarding times for the same ferry.

It was 16:00 and we still hadn’t left. Duke and I had already had a café au lait and briefly had to put up with an annoying couple in obnoxious matching blue jumpsuits that read, “I Feel the Need…the Need for Sleep” on the backs blasting some pop song on their cell phone. 

 

15. Pack snacks.

There are places you can buy sandwiches, potato chips and the like. But, boy, were we glad to have ham and cheese croissants, fresh figs and empanadas with us.

By the time we thought we might want “une sandwish” (that’s not proper French, by the way) on the ferry, they were completely sold out.

 

16. They’ll let you out in the hold with all the big trucks.

No one really directed us, and we thought for sure we had done something wrong. A group of us strangers were walking back and forth, aimlessly, until a crewmember nodded and pointed us in the direction we had come.

We went back to stand between two large idling semis.

 

17. Other cultures think nothing of cutting in line.

That includes a Dutch family and Moroccans alike. People just oozed around us and ended up standing in front of us, acting as if it was the most normal thing in the world. And maybe it is.

I don’t think of Americans as the masters of politesse — but we do hold waiting in line without cutting to be a sacred duty.

 

18. Then it’s a stampede off the ferry and onto a shuttle bus.

The door-cum-ramp creaked open, accompanied by a horrific high-pitched shrieking noise.

The minute it touched down, it was a mad dash. We didn’t know what we were doing. We just went with the flow.

Eventually we found ourselves packed onto a bus and overheard someone say we were being shuttled to Customs.

We went through metal detectors and I set off the alarm (perhaps it was my metal-studded belt?). But no one was paying attention.

 

19. You’ll have to haggle over a taxi into Tangier Ville, as they call the downtown area.

Our driver was OK with 20€ until another man upped the charge and he suddenly wanted 25€.

He only got 20, as I was counting out centimes to even get that much. He was not amused but decided to let it go.

 

20. Sometimes your train leaves at an ungodly hour.

Yes, I’m glad there was still one running. But I do wish the guy who sold us the ticket had informed us that we’d have to transfer. (We figured that out on our own when we didn’t see Fès on the list of stops).

 

21. Morocco is one hour behind Spain.

We ate dinner at the mall across the street and settled back in at the gare (French for train station).

Then Duke noticed the clock. Instead of having an hour before our train left, we had two.

 

22. Borrow the wifi and get a drink at a nearby hotel.

We spotted the Ibis hotel and headed over there to grab a couple of beers in the dark bar, which reeked of cigarette smoke and had the entire clientele glued to a football (soccer to you Americans) match.

In fact, a waiter taking a break yelled at me as I waited at the bar to order our drinks. Turns out I had the nerve to stand in his line of vision of the big-screen TV.

Leaving Fès was sad — but a heck of a lot easier than getting there

23. Once you get to Fès in the middle of the night, be wary of taxi drivers randomly calling out your riad.

For some reason, our train was an hour early, so we worried if there’d be someone to meet us. Boy, were we relieved when a man called out the name of our riad. Turns out he wasn’t affiliated with Riad Dar Bensouda at all. It seems some of them just call out the more popular riads and lure you in that way.

We didn’t know this, though — we were just relieved to have what we thought was a pre-arranged trip to our riad.

 

24. We can’t recommend just walking away, telling the driver if he wants to get paid he’ll have to do so at the riad.

But of course, tired and grumpy, not wanting to get taken advantage of, that’s what we did. I just started wheeling my suitcase through the gate into the medina, telling Duke to follow me. We didn’t have a single dirham to our names.

The taxi driver threatened to get the police…but eventually ended up trailing after us.

We had no idea where we were going. It was 2:45 a.m. Ahead of us was a dimly lit maze. Turns out our driver didn’t know where he was going, either.

Eventually, he enlisted the help of a boy, who led us through the winding warren. My exhausted brain kept thinking, “Well, this is it. We’re gonna get knifed in some dark alley.”

And then, suddenly, we stopped in front of a rather nondescript door. We had arrived.

 

Final Advice

After our ordeal, we’re thinking it might be worthwhile to hire a tour company to arrange the trip from Spain to Morocco.

There are probably some things they can’t control, but it’d be nice to cede responsibility to more capable hands.

Or, it might be better to fly — even if that means going out of your way.

We found flights that went up to Barcelona and then to Fès. We thought it was silly to fly north to then fly south. But that actually might be less of a hassle.

Anyway you slice it, though, getting from Málaga to Fès is a challenge. Hopefully our experience makes your journey a bit easier — or at least lets you know what to expect (and what not to do).  –Wally

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The Worst Chauffeur in India

We wouldn't have been surprised to find our car up in a tree, like this one you pass on the way to the Mews at Udai Bilas Palace

We wouldn't have been surprised to find our car up in a tree, like this one you pass on the way to the Mews at Udai Bilas Palace

When we tried to leave Dungarpur, our driver was nowhere to be found. What ensued has become a story we can laugh about…now.

 

We had heard that you should expect the unexpected in India — especially when it comes to travel plans. We hadn’t experienced anything too egregious, our two-hour wait for a driver to Dungarpur aside.

Well, that was nothing compared to what happened when we tried to leave Dungarpur.

George recognized the word “police.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” he said.

The day started off pleasantly enough. After breakfast, we explored a temple complex not far from our heritage hotel, Udai Bilas Palace, where a brahmin greeted and welcomed us. The complex has several lingams (a phallic representation of the Hindu god Shiva) and a shrine to Krishna.

A lingam, which is really just a stylized penis meant to represent the god Shiva

A lingam, which is really just a stylized penis meant to represent the god Shiva

“This Car Is Going Nowhere”

When we checked out at noon, we learned that our driver was unable to meet us, but that it he would be no more than an hour.

In the interim, we went and sat beside the pool and ordered some snacks to nibble on before our return trip to Baroda.

At one point, a supervisor stopped by our table and asked if we would be amenable to him contacting our driver to see what the situation was.

As the man was speaking on his mobile phone, George recognized the word “police.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” George said.

The supervisor hung up the phone and told us that our driver had had an accident but was OK. Except that he was currently being held at the police station.

It became clear that we wouldn’t be leaving any time soon.

This prompted George to contact the company we had hired the driver through, TaxiForSure. They had a completely different account of the unfolding events: It was an accident. The car just had to be fixed, but we can leave soon. Maybe today. Tomorrow at the latest. Two days tops.

I was worried about getting back to Baroda in time for our flight the next morning. Wally, on the other hand, was enjoying himself, lounging in the sun and telling me repeatedly that there are worse ways to spend a day.

The supervisor left for the local police station with a promise to update us on the situation. When he returned, he showed us pictures of the badly damaged sedan. The driver’s side was crushed in, both windows smashed.

“This car is going nowhere,” he said.

 

We Get the Real Story

Turns out our driver was in jail, waiting for the commissioner, who would or would not show up within the next several hours. We learned that our driver, probably excited to be on his own with a vehicle, had left the complex and gone for a joyride. We’re not sure he was drinking — but it wouldn’t surprise us if he was eager to get some booze in his system, living as he does in Gujarat, a dry state (something to do with Gandhi being from there, George explained).

The car had gone off the road into a ditch and flipped over. Fortunately he was fine, but unfortunately for us, we no longer had transport back to Vadodara.

Thankfully, the hotel made arrangements for a new driver. Our driver took the state highway and we were back in Baroda within a few hours.

The ride was cheaper (and much more pleasant) than our trip to Dungarpur, and our driver was courteous, so we tipped him extravagantly. It wasn’t that much money to us — equal to a taxi ride across Chicago, say — but the man acted like he had just won the lottery. He thanked us profusely and offered us all bidis, tiny cigarettes hand-rolled in leaves. –Duke

The Unpleasant Experience of Hiring a Driver in India

Darkness turned to daylight as we awaited our driver. At least we had stray dogs to keep us company

Darkness turned to daylight as we awaited our driver. At least we had stray dogs to keep us company

Our road trip from Baroda to Dungarpur taught us not to expect your driver to speak English, show up on time or care about your sanity.

We weren't having any luck finding a driver who spoke English. (Prakash informed us that people who spoke English got the good jobs, and apparently “chauffeur” doesn’t fit into that category.)

An online search revealed a company called TaxiForSure. It seemed professional. It was also pretty much our only option. So we arranged transport to Dungapur. We requested a pick-up of 5 a.m. According to Google Maps, it’s a pretty straightforward four-hour drive from Baroda.

A sullen, if handsome, 20-something driver showed up, playing what seemed to be techno versions of Bollywood music blared at full volume.

At 5 the next morning, our friend and host George got a confirmation text from TaxiForSure, which provided the driver’s name, license plate number and estimated arrival time.

A few minutes later, he received a call from someone at TaxiForSure, who regretted to inform us that our original driver would not be coming — his car broke down.

I’d like to point out that no matter how much you try to plan, things can change unexpectedly (and inevitably, it seems), for India moves in its own unpredictable way.

We were waiting outside in front of George’s apartment building (he calls it his “tenement”). George saves his kitchen scraps to leave outside for the cows. As he was tossing a bag onto the heap, a neighbor who was up early yelled at him, telling him not to just throw it there — that there’s an actual place to leave food scraps down the street near the ashram. The neighbor was just doing his part to attempt to reduce the ridiculous amount of garbage strewn about. Indeed, everywhere you go, you see cans, paper and plastic bags picked at and chewed on by rats, jackdaw birds, stray dogs and cows.

 

How “OK, OK” Can Mean Anything But

We waited. George called back after a half-hour had passed, and then again every 15 minutes. The conversations went something like this:

“The driver is in the area.”

“The driver is very close.”

“The driver is 3 to 5 minutes away.”

“The driver is 2 to 3 minutes away.”

George hung up in a huff. “Indians will always tell you, ‘OK, OK,’” he said. “But that doesn’t mean anything. It can mean he’s hours away, or he could be here in 5 minutes. I’ve learned they tell you what you want to hear — even if it’s not the truth.”

Two hours in total had passed before George received another text from TaxiForSure.

Your taxi has arrived.

It was now 7 a.m.

Beep! Beep! A sullen, if handsome, 20-something driver named Pankach, who only spoke Gujarati showed up, playing what seemed to be techno versions of Bollywood music blared at full volume, which we endured the entire trip.

Before we left Baroda, he pulled the car over, and a man approached and gave him a bag full of clothes. Then our road trip was in full swing.

 

Road Trippin'

Once we were outside the city limits, the scenery changed, and we began to pass rural homes, which were transformed into hand-painted advertisements for the sturdy but humble materials cement and brick.

Many of the signs touted Ambuja Cement. The company's logo is a comically proportioned man with a tiny head and a ginormous right bicep embracing a pair of buildings.

Elaborate conical Hindu temples dotted the landscape, confections in bubblegum pink, white, mint and lemon yellow. Cloth flags atop spires fluttered in the breeze.

We weren't sure we were ever going to make it. But we were finally en route to Dungapur, otherwise known as the City of Hills, located at the southernmost Aravalli mountains of Rajasthan.

We almost got used to the Bollywood Molly dance party in the car. Almost. –Duke

RELATED: 3 Tips for Hiring a Driver in India

No matter how much you try to plan, things can change unexpectedly (and inevitably, it seems), for India moves in its own unpredictable way.