Our next couple of days were going to be spent in the smallest of the four North-Eastern World Cup host cities, Natal. As it was some distance from our previous location of Salvador, the initial hope was to fly straight into Natal. Unfortunately, the city being relatively small with an airport not serving that many connections, it ended up making more economic sense to fly into relatively nearby but bigger Recife, and then take the short overnight bus to Natal.
So this extended journey into Natal was just the beginning of our commuting stresses into, within, and out of Natal. Upon reaching the Natal bus-station in the morning, we were informed that the public buses were not operating, there being a Bus union strike during the World Cup. We were left with no option but to take a taxi to our accommodation on in Ponte Negra, a bit on the outskirts of Natal.
Taxi fares being relatively astronomical in Brazil, we were lucky there was another young Brazilian couple from Porto Alegre in the South of Brazil, also heading to Ponte Negra with whom we were able to split a cab, even as they helpfully translated with the driver for us despite not speaking much English themselves.
We were in Natal for the upcoming Greece-Japan game, so unsurprisingly, there were quite a few Japanese we were spotting all along. Starting from those who had spent the wee hours of the morning at the Natal Bus Station, to those in our Hostel, and finally to the droves we encountered on the beautiful Ponte Negra beach or on its lines of shacks, restaurants, and guest houses overlooking the clear blue Atlantic.
At the end of the beach there are the striking typical sand dunes Natal is naturally famous for, down which people are known to slide down boards or ride down buggies. All along the picturesque beach though were people snacking, swimming, or surfing. Most interesting though was a mini beach football tournament taking place between the Japanese and Brazilians, made most striking by the loud and passionate rendering of the respective national anthems on the music system, making it audible all over the beach.
The next day we decided to head to the FanFest located at the historical Fort area at the northern coastal tip of Natal. But getting there proved to be quite the trek, although we met a couple of Greece fans at the bus stop, happy to see us supporting the Greeks on the day. The 15 km route was probably one of the most beautiful coastal road we had seen, with the blue Atlantic waters to the right, the National Park with its sand dunes all interspersed along on the left, and not much public nor traffic around, to give it an idyllic feel.
However, it felt far from idyllic when our bus heading to the FanFest encountered the infamous Brazil World Cup protestors who had blocked the coastal highway. So we had to trek the remaining 5 kms or so until the National Park ended and we could board another bus closer to the FanFest. Once inside we met some more Greeks and together we all cheered for Colombia so that the permutations would be easier for the Hellenic team to progress from the group.
To proceed to the stadium we were banking on a FanFest-Stadium shuttle. But the tourist information cell apologetically pointed out that Taxis were going to be the only viable option, with no special bus services being able to run due to the strike. The cabs however were all lined up and ready. This time we managed to split one with an American couple who too were headed to the stadium. GPS on Google navigate also helped ensure the cab driver did not detour longer more than once.
Closer to the Arena das Dunas we looked around for a place to catch the 1st half of the England-Uruguay game. For some reason all the surrounding shops and eateries were closed, although after a brief walk we did manage to find one local eatery which had a TV and fans sat around garden chairs lined outside. At half-time with England safely losing, we made our way into the Arena for our own game.
By now much more used to finding our way around the FIFA Stadium set-up, we located our seats, this time high up in the corner in the temporarily-constructed seating area of the Arena. Atleast the bird’s eye view ensured I could see everything in clarity. Although for normally warm and humid Natal, it was getting quite chilly in the swirling wind in the corner of the stadium as the rain would come in and go every few minutes.
Returning from the stadium proved to be quite stressful. There were very limited shuttle bus services operating. Thousands were kept walking a few kilometres from the stadium to the highway leading to Ponte Negra. Then when the buses would come after a long wait, it was a free for all as to who managed to get into the bus. Luckily we are Indians and have some previous when it comes to forcing our way into packed buses and locals. Still, it was more than 2 hours after the end of the game when we managed to get off our jam-packed bus and breathe freely at our accommodation.
More chaos was to come next day at the Bus Station as we waited in line to collect the ‘Official Ticket’ of our Bus Ticket to Recife we had already booked online. Even though our Bus was to depart at 7 am, the Bus Company only opened their counter after 6 am. Having manned only 1 teller at the counter to cater to the line of almost 60 people and growing, it was proving to be a race against time for all the people there, many even on the immediate 6:30 bus.
Somehow we got the print-outs, and after running across the Terminal to the Bus Platform, had to halt the Bus that had already reversed out a few feet. Luckily it stopped and took us in. The relief was palpable as we plonked ourselves into the seats and were on our way from Natal.Published 23 Jun 2014, 00:21 IST