From Rio to Barcelona: The Further Travel Adventures of One Federal Retiree

What will you do when you retire? Here is a column from a retired federal employee who has opted to spend some of his time and money traveling around the world.

I’m not sure if it was the note from Ralph Smith indicating that some readers (at least two) were wondering if they had missed the second part of my Rio to Barcelona article (they hadn’t) or the 18 inches of snow that have already fallen in Denver over these two days in October, and the contrasting recollection of the warm sand on Copacabana beach, but something inspired me to finally provide the rest of the story.

In part one, I wrote about our adventures in Barcelona, which was the last stop on our vacation. In this one, I’ll actually begin at the beginning of the trip, which was on March 25, when we flew out of Denver less than 24 hours ahead of a paralyzing spring snowstorm.
After changing aircraft in Atlanta, we had 4,742 miles to go before landing in Rio de Janeiro. For that long a trip, cramming my elongated torso into a coach seat which had obviously been designed with preschoolers in mind was a form of torture that should have been outlawed under the Geneva Conventions. If I needed a reminder of why we generally don’t book air travel as part of a cruise, and why we typically focus on one airline and its partners – primarily to obtain upgrades for long flights – this was it.
When we finally landed, and the circulation had been restored to my legs, we were pleased to find that we could use credit cards to pay for the taxi to our hotel. Rush-hour traffic in Denver is no picnic, and we’ve traveled to a lot of places in and outside of the U.S. which are far worse, but the Rio metro area has a population of at least 11 million and it seemed as if most of the Cariocas, as local residents call themselves, were on the road with us. Our hotel, the JW Marriott, is architecturally striking, but the size of the rooms reminded me a bit of the coach seats on Delta. The hotel’s location couldn’t be much better – it is just across the street from the justly famed Copacabana beach, which h is wide, sandy and picturesque. As we had been “warned,” a number of the women we encountered during our stroll on the beach were scantily clad. The same may have been true of the men, but, frankly, I never noticed.
One thing that all of us did notice was the sand castles.   A number of them were astonishingly large and elaborate – I’m not sure our house was built any better than some of these sand castles. The “architects” charged us tourists a token fee to take pictures of these masterpieces, and it was well worth the price.
We only had a day and a half in Rio, so, other than the views from our taxis coming and going and our walk along Copacabana Beach, we didn’t get to see much of one of the world’s great cities, an exciting place known for blending a wide variety of ethnic groups, and for such cultural contributions as Carnaval and Brazilian music and dance. Examples of the latter would include the samba, the bossa nova, and singer/actress Carmen Miranda, she of the huge straw hats with an assortment of fruit dangling from them (you had to be there). Rio recently became the first South American city ever to be chosen to host an Olympics, the Summer Games in 2016, which should be quite a party.
From in and around our hotel we could see several of Rio’s icons, including the huge (38 meters tall) Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue high on Corcovado Hill. This symbol of Rio de Janeiro is one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.” We could also see Sugarloaf Mountain, which can be reached by cable car, although acrophobics might pass on the opportunity. There is obviously great wealth in Rio, but the rich are vastly outnumbered by the poor. As the guidebooks indicate, Rio is unusual in that many of its slums and shantytowns, called “favelas,” lie in very close proximity to the wealthiest areas of the city. Standing on the roof of our hotel, next to the swimming pool, we could see crumbling buildings which were obviously occupied – with laundry hanging in the humid air – just a few blocks away.
On the day that our cruise was to begin, a very pleasant taxi driver took us to the cruise ship port, but only after a little mix-up between him and the concierge at the Marriott. The driver thought we were going to the airport, and we were making great time as we whizzed right by the cruise port, where we could see our ship anchored.  We thought that he might have had to go a bit farther before he could turn into the cruise port, but when we saw a sign for the airport, our friend John asked the driver, who spoke just a smidgen of English, if he knew we were going to the cruise port. .He looked stunned for a second, then promptly spun the taxi around in the direction from which we had come and initiated a lively conversation in Portuguese with someone – perhaps the concierge at the Marriott – over his radio. There had been little traffic on our way out, but now we were bumper-to-bumper as we started back into town, and our estimated 25-minute taxi ride took more than an hour and a half.  John and I were nervous – not because we were in danger of having the ship leave without us, but because we thought we might miss lunch. Fortunately, that concern proved unfounded.We waited in line with our passports and visas for no more than a few minutes before boarding the Oceania Insignia.  The so-called penthouse suites were pretty much as we remembered them from our cruises of French Polynesia in 2000 and 2001 when the ships were brand-new and owned by Renaissance Cruise Line.  They were beautiful ships then and have been extremely well maintained.  The suites were large, well-designed and comfortable, and the decks were teakwood and easily accommodated two lounge chairs and a table.

After boarding, we learned that the flight we were originally supposed to have been on, from Houston to Rio that day, had been delayed for so long due to mechanical problems that the ship had to spend an extra two hours in port waiting for the passengers on that flight to arrive. We were also told that 26 other people were on another flight that ran so late that its passengers missed the Insignia’s departure and had to catch up with the ship two days later at the first port call in Salvador. 

How to avoid the possibility of missing your ship: Booking your flight(s) through the cruise line insures that the company will do everything possible to get you to your ship on time, but, as those 26 people found out, it does not guarantee that the ship won’t have to leave before you are able to board. It does mean that the cruise line will pick up your expenses, such as accommodations, and will get you to the ship as quickly as possible, but how fast that may be depends on the ship’s itinerary. In any event, it is a lousy way to start a cruise vacation.
Based on a few close calls, my advice would be to arrive in your embarkation port a day in advance. If you book your flight(s) through the cruise line, you can generally choose to do a pre-cruise accommodation package or to do what they call an “air deviation,” which essentially means that you can – for an additional fee, of course – take a flight that will get you into the departure port at least a day in advance. In this case, we booked our flights through the cruise line – not our usual practice – and took an air deviation. It costs a little more, including the “change” fee and the expenses one incurs for overnight accommodations, meals, etc., but we have found that the peace of mind of being in the departure port a day in advance is worth it.
While I had planned to wrap up my travelogue with this article, I have too much material left about the actual cruise to do so. Accordingly, I’m going to develop a third, and final (I promise!), article, which will include our crossing of the Atlantic and the final leg home from Barcelona to Denver.


About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.