We had the best of intentions to update the blog every day of the trip. However, a busy scheduled combined with some slow internet connections made that a difficult reality. So, as I'm writing this I am sitting in the airport in Rio de Janeiro waiting for our flight back to the states. It will be hard to put the last few days into words, but I will do my best!
FRIDAY:Day 5 was our first day with no volleyball. After an early wake up call, we boarded the bus for the five hour drive to Rio. Fortunately, there was beautiful scenery most of the way. We crossed over a small mountain range that had beautiful vistas that words and pictures can't really describe adequately, unfortunately.
The drive was way worth it when we arrived in Rio and went straight to Sugarloaf, where we boarded a 40 passenger gondola to the top. It was a hazy day, so the very top was actually in the clouds. Every few minutes, the clouds would clear a little, and we could see breathtaking views of the coast (including Copacabana Beach) and the city. One of the really fascinating facts was that the gondola system to the top was built in the early 1900's. Fortunately, it has been updated since then!
After we left Sugarloaf, we headed to check into our hotel which sits directly on Copacabana Beach. The serpentine patterned black and white tile sidewalks stretch the length of the beach, and we walked several miles of them over the course of the last few days. After throwing our bags in our rooms, we headed to a long overdue lunch/dinner at a local buffet including some great flan for dessert. On the way back from dinner, we learned the hard way to wait for the green walk signals at intersections, as a handful of us came way too close for comfort to a local bus and taxi speeding down Copacabana Avenue! Let's just say that cars are not as pedestrian conscious in Brazil as they are in the states! After a few hours to settle in and look around the beach (my family had the chance to watch a high level beach soccer game, including a bicycle kick for a goal), we met back up to head to a small open air market which was our first souvenir shopping opportunity. We found some local art, some tourist junk, and a variety of t-shirts and knock off soccer jerseys. Then we headed for an evening snack which consisted of our leader's favorite, an Ovaltine milkshake from Bob's Burger.
We didn't think the trip could get better, but Saturday was a day that we will all remember for a long time. After some time at the beach in the morning (including playing in the massive waves), we met at 11:00 to head to the Marina Barra Clube for an incredible experience. When we arrived, we were met by our hosts, the Ripper family, who came bearing gifts of shirts and water bottles. Ju Ripper played volleyball at USF in Tampa, and her entire family is involved in helping area players have opportunities to play at the next level. They arranged a tournament for us to play the Marina Barra team as well as the Flamengo team. The men's and women's teams played on side by side courts in their beautiful facility. Before play began, we found a family of capybaras just hanging out behind the gym. They resemble a giant guinea pig, and they were very patient with our paparazzi style photo taking! Our time hanging out with them was cut short by needing to lineup for our opening ceremonies. All six teams marched in and stood while one of our players sang the Star Spangled Banner and they played the Brazilian national anthem. Then it was time for volleyball. We ended the day with a win and took second place for the day. The tournament concluded with a medal presentation to each of the teams as well as a short collaborative dance demonstration with anyone game enough to get up in front of the group. To say it was entertaining would be an understatement. We waited for the Marina Barra players to shower and then took some of them on the bus with us where we met up with all of the teams at a local pizzeria. The party continued there as we swapped language lessons, jerseys, dance moves, and laughs with our new friends. It truly was a once in a lifetime experience for all of us!
Just as Saturday was an unforgettable experience from the relationship and volleyball side of things, Sunday proved to be just as unforgettable from a sightseeing perspective. Caitlyn and some others started the day by being on the beach to catch the sun rise over Sugarloaf. Then several of us made a quick trip to a local grocery store to pick up Brazilian coffee and chocolate to take home. On the way back, we took a slight detour through the local farmers market which was full of fresh seafood and beautiful produce. Then, it was finally time to get on the bus to go see the Christ the Redeemer statue! In order to get up to the statue, you have to ride a train up the mountain (with breathtaking views along the way as well as locals selling bottled water at random stops along the way) and then walk up close to 10 stories of steps. The time and the climb was well worth it! Since it was Sunday, there was a small mass taking place at the base of the statue, and there was a huge crowd. It was a bit of a challenge to make your way through the crowd to get pictures without inadvertent photobombers, but we all managed to walk away with some great shots.
Once we came down from the mountain, we boarded the bus for a short ride to the international market which is an open air market that takes up a city block. After doing some shopping there, some of us walked the three miles back following Ipanema and Copacabana Beaches and others rode the subway back to Copacabana where they played some beach volleyball (thanks to a local family who was kind enough to lend them a ball). Then we all met up again and walked to dinner at a local Brazillian steakhouse. The waiters made their way around to each of our tables with a variety of meat that they would slice directly onto our plates. One of the local specialities was chicken hearts. Hannah Kate captured my first taste of one on video, in case you doubt that I actually tried one. If you can get past the look of it and the texture of it, it's not too bad. I'm not sure I appreciate it as a delicacy like my Brazilian friends do, but I was able to eat a couple of them. The final course was a grilled pineapple, and I will happily recreate that back in the states! Speaking of pineapple, we had a great selection of fruit at every meal here. I will definitely miss that!
After seeing everyone's sunrise pictures, my family and several others decided to head to the beach for sunrise today. It was really windy and we got a little sandblasted, but it was totally worth the 5:45 am alarm to see that beautiful sunrise. After the sun came up, the kids played in the surf for a bit while I soaked up a few last minutes of beach time. Then it was time to shower to head to Centro (via the subway, which is a very nice one) to finish our souvenir shopping at the market area known for name brand knockoffs. It was a unique shopping experience, and everyone came away satisfied with lower cost items including popular soccer jerseys, handbags, etc. Once we headed back to the hotel and emerged from the subway, we were met with our first bad weather of the trip. It rained the rest of our day, but we didn't let it keep us from a couple more adventures.
After yet another great meal, where we were able to celebrate Caitlyn's birthday with some cake, and a final team meeting with our entire travel party that included a drawing for a variety of goodies that Ron had collected over the week, we loaded our bags on the bus and headed for one last tour en route to the airport. Our Brazilian guide Leo (pronounce Lay-o), who is an all around great guy with one of the best smiles I've ever seen and is currently an assistant coach for a professional men's basketball team in southern Brazil, had arranged for us to get a tour of the club where he grew up playing basketball, Clube de Regatas do Flamengo. It also happens to be one of the most popular sports clubs in Brazil and will be hosting our U.S. Olympic teams in 2016. The Flamengo property sits right on the lake in the middle of Rio, and the first part of the property we toured was their boathouse and crew training facility. We then continued in the rain to see all of the facilities our Olympians will use for practice next year. It was well worth looking like a drowned rat to get the opportunity to see behind the scenes at such an exclusive place.
As this trip comes to an end, I find myself reflecting on a few things. The hospitality of the Brazilian people was overwhelming. Our poor attempts to speak Portuguese were always met with smiles and appreciation. This sport that we love served as a common language all week, despite being in a different hemisphere and speaking different languages. The opportunities that sports provide for our athletes as well as the young athletes all over the world really are incredible. The group of 34 people who came to Brazil this week to represent the USA and DIII volleyball are leaving as friends, despite having never met before last week or even having been on competing teams in the past. I am incredibly proud of how these players embraced this opportunity and treated everyone we met with respect and generosity. Finally, I think I can speak for all of us when I say we are coming home with a strong connection with a country that opened her arms wide to us this week and tremendous gratitude for Ron Smith and all of "his people" who made this trip possible for us. Until next time Brasil, tchau!