At the end of last year, after doing some data collection on my thesis, I checked around for conferences to submit preliminary results to. The first one that popped up, was the premier www conference. It always attracts great speakers, great research and great people. This year, it was hosted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Another fantastic reason to try! So I did, and got a poster accepted with my supervisor, Kobus!
I was both nervous and excited about the trip. Apprehensive and amped! Although I’ve been to several countries, it was my first time solo travelling to another country. Adding to the ‘firsts’, I also opted for trying new things such as trying Airbnb. So here’s what went down:
Friday, 10 May.
Leave early early morning with a lift from my brother. Flight was CPT-JHB-Sao Paulo-Rio. Pretty chill flight. I arrive in Sao Paulo, and have to check my bags in again for the domestic flight to Rio. I walk through… and forget my poster tube at the baggage reclaim. Epic fail. So there I was running through Sao Paulo airport trying to figure out how to get back in and get it. Luckily, I found the SAA lost luggage office. The man there was extremely helpful and managed to call a guy working at the baggage reclaim to find it. Luckily it was still standing there. Phew. Successfully retrieved!
I arrive at night in Rio. I opted to try Airbnb and stay in this little place. After getting lost in the building, I found the place. The caretaker of the apartment was a woman living next door… She only spoke Portugese. But I manage to do just fine. Sleep.
Saturday, 11 May.
(view from airbnb apartment)
An acquaintance, Pri, was going to show me around the city. Unfortunately, family issues arose and she couldn’t anymore. I’m still really grateful for her open-ness and willingness to show a gringo around!
Went to see Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer. Amazing views! The tram ride to the top of Christo Redentor is pretty interesting as you slalom through forests and buildings. The combination of navigating a foreign city in a warm summer’s day and lack of human communication left me exhausted. Crashed.
Sunday, 12 May.
Woke up and missioned to Copacabana. Walked along the beach and had a beer and lunch.
Became a bit overwhelmed by all of it: solo travel, can’t talk, foreign city, random apartment (with no hotel creature comforts). Felt anxious and exhausted (also somehow developed complete lack of appetite). Wanted to just get a blanket and crawl under it, which I did.
Monday, 13 May.
Conference time! :D
After struggling to speak with the caretaker and difficulty hailing a taxi, I managed to arrive at the Windsor Barra (a bit outside the main city).
Amazing venue! Attended some talks. And then checked in at 12. Some time before the conference, I checked the #www2013 hashtag on Twitter and saw that a guy (Ted Benson) was looking for a roommate. I thought why not. Cheaper bill, meet cool people!
Also met Ulrich, another South African, currently at Xbox. Was great to also be able to speak Afrikaans. Went to grab dinner and caipirinhas!
Tuesday, 14 May.
Attended early morning session with Bert Bos (one of the creators of CSS), talking about CSS3. Quite interesting. Although… some new features of CSS3 seem really arb, such as the plethora of gradient tools. Gradients feel very 90’s… Attended linked data workshop and REST workshop (this was quite cool). The night, there was a party hosted by Facebook (recruiters + employees). Don’t really know how they choose to invite people (feels a bit like high school, vying to be ‘popular’), but got in as a +1 with Ted. Met cool people, had free beer and snacks.
Wednesday, 15 May.
Conference only started at 1pm today, so went for a morning run along the beach. Took a swim. Leisurely breakfast and lunch and then attended first keynoye from Luis von Ahn (recaptcha and duolingo).
Great talk. Afterwards attended an entrepreneur focused Q&A with Luis. Was great to hear his advice! Attended a session on web economics and monetization and a Q&A with Tim Berners-Lee. DRM and copyright was a hot topic. Someone even asked timbl about Bitcoin! The night was poster reception time. There was more caipirinhas. Had a few interested people stop by! I’m just surprised there were actually other people doing research about lists on Twitter!
Thursday. 16 May.
Same as yesterday. Walk along the beach. Go to breakfast, and see that Max (a friend I met earlier) was sitting there. Fun guy. More people joined, included Tim Berners-Lee that sat next to me. For academics in the web circuit it might have been normal, but for me it was pretty surreal. The topic somehow went from weather to gulf streams and South Africa. Great to have met him!
Day went from surreal to mind-blowing as Dr. Miguel Nicolelis spoke about brain-to-machine interfaces. From monkey’s brains being able to develop virtual limbs to control, to mice’s brains being connected (as one) across time and space. Bizarre, sci-fi-ish! See this TED talk about it. (very similar talk). What was awesome: this tech is planned to be used at the Brazil 2014 world cup opening. A paraplegic person, connected to a robotic exoskeleton will stand up and kick a ball. Spectacle! FUTURE.
Afterwards there was net neutrality panel discussion (more DRM + copyright talk). Attended a session on social network analysis.
Then, one of the best moments of the trip: the gala dinner. After a lengthy bus trip, we arrived at the venue. Samba band was playing, caipirinhas was had. Fun. Then the meat extravaganza! So. Much. Meat. Then everyone headed back out for what was one the coolest live gigs I’ve seen. A Beatles cover band adding a samba twist. The people in the group were all young. I was so envious, as the cool guys and cute girls jammed it out. It seemed like a such fun thing to do. They handed out masks, confetti, hats and bowties, and the party kicked off.
There was plenty of conga-lines (at one stage I somehow led one). And at the end, a rather punky version of Yellow Submarine led to a mosh pit. The “It’s Saturday night at the indie stage at a music festival. It’s 9pm, everyone’s a bit drunk” kind of mosh pit. The fun kind! Perfect way to end it.
Friday, 17 May.
Due to my flight leaving early, I couldn’t attend Friday’s sessions. I left on the first rainy day I saw (luckily). All in all. Great fun.
Overall. It was what I expected. It was going to be a whirlwind of experiences! And boy was that the case. The conference itself was amazing. Loved every minute of it. Met incredible people and saw fascinating research! Rio de Janeiro is a picturesque city. In some ways, it reminds me of South Africa. Incredible natural beauty. But poor people live right next to rich people. The brazilian people I met were all really friendly, even though I couldn’t speak Portugese. Would I try Airbnb again? Yes. But for specific reasons. One thing you kinda forget, is that hotels include stuff like breakfast. Being in a foreign city, finding great breakfast is a mission. Foursquare helped a bit, but I still had to try and order with broken Portugese. So it depends. Airbnb would be a perfect fit for a group of people, and when you are sure you know more about the area (like finding convenience stores to buy breakfast cereal or eggs to make).
Overall, unforgettable experiences. And on that note, would just like to express gratitude towards my lab (MIH Media Lab) that offer these travel opportunities to us. I don’t know how to say thank-you enough!
Upwards and onwards.