I started my world cup trip flying from Santiago to Sao Paulo on June 14th. I planned to see some friends and then fly onto Recife, then take a bus up to Natal to arrive in time for the USA game on the 16th, but as I got off the plane in Sao Paulo, I realized I didn’t feel well. After the hour trip to the hotel, I was really feeling it and decided to take a nap. I woke up an hour later with the chills in my 75 degree hotel room. I pumped the heat up to 90 and proceeded to not leave my hotel room for the next day and a half. I really thought I wasn’t going to be able to make it to the USA/Ghana game, but thought to myself, there’s only a world cup once every four years, you have to go.
I pumped myself full of aspirin and water and left the hotel at 130am to fly to Recife. Luckily the medicine started to kick in and I slept the entire flight. I arrived in Recife at 6am, feeling a bit better, but still very weak. I needed to get from the airport to the bus station to get one of the three busses that would take me to Natal in time to meet my friends before the USA game.
The fan assistance staff told me to take the metro, but as soon as I walked over the 90% completed new bridge that was “open in test mode” and saw a packed metro, I decided I was going to take a taxi. Luckily I negotiated a price beforehand instead of going by the meter, as there was massive traffic. Recife, Brazil’s 5th largest city, with a population of about 5m in the metro area, has an amazing coast line, but the interior of the city is very poor.
I immediately could see why Brazilians had been protesting the world cup. There’s no highway that goes across the city. The roads are pocked with pot holes that are big enough to eat your car. There’s a decent homeless population living in the streets. And you can tell people are struggling to get by.
Because traffic was so bad, the taxi driver asked me if we could take an alternate route. I agreed and we went through neighborhoods instead of the main road. I saw feral pigs eating trash, kids wearing shorts and nothing else, dilapidated houses and people with just their basic needs being met.
Recife’s new stadium, located in the middle of nowhere, about 15km outside of the city, cost taxpayers $250m and probably another $100m on infrastructure to get people there. With the conditions away from the rich areas, it’s easy to see why people are mad.
730am. I finally got to the bus station and got in line for a bus ticket. I had tried to buy my ticket online at least 10 times, plus asked Brazilian friends to buy for me, but nobody succeeded. I was greeted by a 25 person line, but wasn’t worried because I was only a “3 hour bus ride” from Natal and the game started at 7pm. The line barley moved. Two of the three people who were working, decided they didn’t want to work anymore and left their posts, so the line moved even slower.
When I finally got to the front of the line, the clerk told me all the tickets were sold out for the 830, 9 and 1030 busses. The only one available was at 330. Which would mean that if there were any delays, I’d miss the game. There were hundreds of other people in the same situation as I was. Except almost none of them spoke Portuguese or spanish. None of the workers spoke English.
My new friends and I started planning the hour long taxi ride back to the airport and then renting a car, or taking a taxi the three and a half hours up to Natal, but just as we were about go back to the airport, a family behind me in line told me they had an extra ticket for the bus at 9am. I was the only one traveling alone, so I was saved! Or so I thought.
I asked the bus company if I could use the ticket and they said no. Apparently there’s a Brazilian law that says the name on the ticket needs to match your id. Great. I decided to try to get on the bus anyway. I had to “tip” the id checker, but I got past the first obstacle. He warned me that if the police stopped the bus for an “ID control,” and my name didn’t match the ticket, I’d be taken to jail (or have to pay a big “tip”). It was worth the risk. I didn’t want to miss the game. To be extra safe, I gave my passport and my ids to another guy from the US and planned to tell the police that someone had stolen my ID.
330pm. The three hour bus ride turned into a 6 hour bus ride. All the people who’d taken later busses would miss the game. I finally got to the bus terminal and took a taxi to our apartment and finally, after almost 15 hours of traveling, I met up with my friends. A guy offered us a ride to the stadium, but the traffic was so bad we had to get out and walk. The stadium is right in the middle of the city, but the city just isn’t made for lots of traffic. Our driver told us that the city’s traffic is “chaos” normally, but on gameday it was insane. It was 15 minutes before the game and we decided to make a run for it. We arrived just as the national anthem was starting.
There’s nothing like singing your country’s national anthem at the first game of the world cup. And the US had at least 20,000 fans belting it out. Thirty seconds later, Clint Dempsey beat a Ghana defender and scores a goal. The crowd erupts. A few minutes later, Jozy Altidore’s world cups ends and you can see Jurgen Klinsmann say “shit” on the big screen. The next 80 minutes the US is handing on for dear life and finally Ghana equalizes. We were devastated. Five minutes later, John Brooks scores and the party is on. This was probably my favorite game of the tournament for the US.
We stayed the next three day on the beach in Ponta Negra, playing soccer on the beach and relaxing. The beach was an all day party of music, soccer, beach food, beers and caipirinhas. In Natal you don’t need to go to a bar or a restaurant, you can just wait for the vendors to come by and sell you food. Crabs, lobsters, shrimp, skewered meat, fruit, whatever you want. At night, the beach promenade turned into a party, as guys pushed “mobile juke boxes” around playing whatever songs you wanted for a bit of money.
I was still really sick, so I went to a pharmacy to buy some drugs. I quickly realized that you can get pretty much any drug in Brazil without a prescription. I got a super strong inhaler and some other drugs to help me get better and within 2 days I was pretty much back to normal! It was clear that Natal was just getting to be a tourist destination, as many of the hotels and attractions were pretty new. It didn’t make much sense as a world cup city, but I would go back to the beaches!
On our 4th day in Natal we spent the morning at the beach, then made the trek across town again to the stadium to see Japan take on Greece. Although it ended 0-0, the game was highly entertaining. The greeks got a red card in the first half and the Japanese pushed forward to try to get a goal the rest of the game. We were in the middle of the Japanese supporters section, which was a real treat. The fans stood the entire game, chanting, singing and waving their blue plastic bags. After the game, many of the fans used the blue plastic bags to clean up the stadium.
I had a great time in Natal, but was ready to move onto Recife and Costa Rica Italy the next day!