When I started to piece together my itinerary for these nine months of travelling I had to carefully consider where to fit Brazil along the route.
Either I could experience the thrills and frills of the Rio Carnival in March, or I could soak up the action and passion of the #1 sport in the country with the Fifa World Cup. Being a big football fan and considering:
a) the Carnival is an annual event and,
b) A World Cup hosted by Brazil happens roughly every 60 years, it was a no brainer for me. Things of course would have been even more straightforward had Ireland qualified for the tournament (let’s hope Martin O’Neill can bring back the glory years!).
My return flight back to Ireland on June 19th would give me a solid week of experiencing ‘The Beautiful Game’ with the most passionate supporters in the world.
Crossing the Uruguayan border at Chui into Brazil, I had hoped to go straight to the college beach town of Florianopolis (or Floripa as the locals calls it) but buses were fully booked. Clearly the other tourists had heard the same rumour that the most beautiful women in Brazil were based there! Instead I had to settle for Porto Alegre, literally translated as Happy Harbour, which was six hours away, a lively modern port with a vibrant arts and music scene according to Lonely Planet. This was also one of twelve cities chosen to host matches and it was interesting to spend the day exploring the city just prior to the grand opening in Sao Paulo some 800 km away.
The first game to be played in Porto Alegre would be France vs Honduras which was still a week away. The crowds hadn’t descended on the city yet and there was still a lot of work ongoing in putting up banners and making the city more colourful. I hadn’t expected it to be as cold as it was – around 13 degrees and a biting cold wind coming in off the ocean making it feel colder. I knew that I was entering Brazil during winter time, but I had expected their winter to be something close to an Irish Summer – 20 degrees plus. But what I hadn’t really considered was the fact that it is a HUGE continent with temperatures ranging widely. As I get closer to Rio de Janeiro, a fat thumbs distance away from Florianopolis on my travel guidebook, I expect to be entering much more pleasant weather.
I had the chance to speak with a local Brazilian in the Porto Alegre bus station. His English was very good having spent a decade in Europe back in the ’80s. In his opinion a lot of the Brazilian people simply weren’t particularly interested in the tournament, and saw it as more of an unwelcome distraction. The protests and demonstrations which have been a common theme in the weeks leading up to the tournament echo the sentiment of a large portion of the community. He for one, would try not to tune in but there was simply no escaping it with news channels and media reporting in a frenzy on every little injury niggle, and constantly gauging the reaction of the man on the street.
Brazil is expensive enough at other times of the year but with the tournament here, prices skyrocket. I am fortunate enough to know a few Brazilians in Dublin through my ex-girlfriend, and using that network I’ve been able to find welcoming locals that can lend me a bed or couch for the night. For example, in Rio it is not uncommon to pay somewhere in the region of $100+ per night for a dorm share of eight persons. The truth is that a lot of these options, even at such a high cost have already been snapped up by eager fans months in advance. Couchsurfing is another option a lot of people are using in a last ditch effort to find good digs. Thanks to the generosity of some new friends, I’ve been able to avoid these money traps. This is my second time in Brazil and I’m constantly surprised by the charitable, kind and friendly nature of the people.
For the past three days I’ve been staying with friends of friends in Florianopolis which is a stunning place. Although it is Winter here and the beaches are empty, the sheer beauty of this charming town and its people has compelled me to come back in warmer climes.
For the opening game we reserved a spot in a lively bar in the city centre. It was on one of the main streets but as soon as the evergreen J.Lo, Pitbull and national icon Claudia Leitte had done their thing in the pre-match ceremony, and the teams began their warm-ups, the streets quickly emptied of traffic and it became a ghost town which was surreal. I was the only foreign national in the bar and it was fun to experience the highs and lows during the match, as well as try some Caipirinhas which I have now fallen in love with. Footage would switch back and forth to the Fifa Fanfests during half time. These footballing zones for supporters are placed in the major cities hosting the games and allowed fans to enjoy the Games on a huge screen and mingle with other nationalities. I’m really looking forward to experiencing Sao Paulo and Rio in the coming days because it looks like a lot of fun.
There is a genuine belief here that Brazil can go on to win the tournament after their failures to reach the final stages in the last two tournaments. The poster boy Neymar Jr. has lived up to his billing with two goals in the first match and supporters are now expecting an easy passage into the knockout stages. Of course, they have to be one of the favourites as the team are playing on home soil, but there is a belief here that if they come up against one of the top attacking sides like Spain, the defensive frailties that they have shown at times could be fully exploited. It will be interesting to see how they fare in the latter stages if they qualify.
Getting around the country and securing accommodation are the major challenges especially for budget travellers. Being a neutral fan (actually that´s not true. I’m rooting for anyone BUT England!) I don’t need to be anywhere at a certain time which makes it much more enjoyable and stress-free to watch whatever matches are shown in whichever city is showing them. Not such a bad thing to avoid the hordes of people in any case.
Only five days left but excited to be entering the cauldron of excitement that is Sao Paulo. Tonight!