Saturday, January 31, 2009

¡Bienvenido en Buenos Aires!

Having been awakened pre-dawn to the onboard breakfast, we eventually rolled into Retiro, BA's central bus station. It's big, probably at least as big as Sao Paulo's, and fairly manic. We had to get across this, then past the train station (also called Retiro) to reach the subte (underground) station, which would send us in the direction of our hostel. Unfortunately, on the way we were hit by one of the more famous of the scams perpetrated in BA - some of the less-pleasant locals squirted us with some kind of mixture (in the guidebooks, they mention it's often mustard or some kind of white liquid designed to look like bird-shit, though this looked a bit more like vomit). Knowing about this, I told Ross to ignore the gentlemen gathered around us wafting their noses and pointing at our bags and keep moving - it's all designed to make you stop to try and clean up, or better yet take your bags off, at which point they either grab the bags or an accomplice goes for your pockets while you're distracted. So we made it onto the subte ok, but with this horrible mixture down our sides and on our bags. Lovely welcome to the city.

Still, the subway was clean, fast and easy to navigate (and cheap - less than 25p for a single), and got us easily to the Avenida de Mayo stop. This lies at the junction of the Avenida de Mayo (May Avenue) and the Avenida Nueve de Julio (9th July Avenue), which commemorate (I think) the May Revolution that started independence from Spain, and the date on which that independence was recognised - I'm more sure on the former than the latter of those. The Avenida de Mayo runs from the Casa Rosada and the Plaza de Mayo in front of it to the Congreso. The Pink House, as it is universally known, is the residence of the President of the Republic, and the Congress is the seat of the legislature - it always makes me faintly amused that one of the most macho of the Latino cultures has its President living in the Pink House. The Avenida de 9 Julio, on the other hand, runs at right angles to this across the western side of the city centre, and is often reckoned to be the widest street in the world - there's something like 3 lanes in each direction down the central Avenida itself, and another couple on either side of this, separated by flanking grass reservations, each of them a one-way street. A few blocks north of this intersection, 9 de Julio intersects with a couple of other major roads at the Plaza de Republica, which is centred on the giant Obelisco which was erected to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the city.

Why the geography lesson, you may ask? Well, it's one of the ways to try and convey the feeling of the city. By contrast with Rio, which is squeezed between Guanabara Bay and the Atlantic and surrounding hills, and Sao Paulo which, as far as I could gather from my brief transit, basically just sprawls, Buenos Aires is more laid out, classically designed, and done so on a grand scale. Those who call it the Paris of Latin America are not too far off the mark, though at times it also reminds me of both Berlin and Barcelona. The more southerly clime also means that the temperature is closer to northern European comfort levels (the lowest it's been since I've been here was about 15 degrees at night, up to about 30 during the day), the humidity's relatively low, and the daylight hours in late summer last until easily after 8pm. In short, the city is attractive, has a lovely climate, and is better set up for the traveller than almost anywhere in South America. Yes, I think I'm in love.

At any rate, appreciation of many of the finer points of this were not immediately obvious when I trudged up to the door of the Milhouse hostel that Saturday morning, travel-stained and something-else-stained as well. The Milhouse is just around the corner from the subte stop, and has built up a reputation as one of the loudest of the "party hostels" on the BA scene. Having had the place recommended by people along the way, I'd decided to try giving one of the party hostels a go, as I'd largely been staying in more chilled-out places. Check-in passed relatively painlessly, though unsurprisingly there weren't any beds free to check in to yet - this would have to wait until around 2pm. It was not yet 9am. It turned out that Ross had actually booked nto Milhouse's newer sister hostel, the Milhouse Avenue, which is up on Ave de Mayo itself, so this is where we parted ways. I headed downstairs to the bathrooms, where I proceeded to start cleaning my city welcome from my clothing and pack. Whilst it looks like it's coming out of the former relatively easily, I was most annoyed that my assailant had managed to get the stuff all over the flag patches on my pack, and the China one is still slightly icky now, days later, so I spent probably the better part of an hour blearily wiping down my bag.

After this, I went to go and check my e-mails and see if I had heard yet from Ana, my Argentine friend from my stay in Floripa. This turned out to be slightly easier said than done. Argentine hostels generally allow free internet access to guests, but the flip-side of this is that the machines are normally pretty slow and not very numerous, and don't generally have things like CD or DVD drives or Skype headphones or anything. In Milhouse's case, this amounted to 3 nigh-on prehistoric computers to serve the whole hostel, so queues and frustration were often the order of the day when checking mails in-house. Still, it was whilst checking mails that I ended chatting with Aina, a Danish girl staying at the hostel, sparked by her asking for help finding a question mark on the keyboard.

This is not actually as silly as it sounds. South American computers generally have Spanish-language (or Portuguese in Brasil, but the principle's the same) keyboards on which quite a few of the key functions are changed around or moved. What made it confusing here is that Milhouse's machines have Spanish keyboards but are set up as English-language machines, so the computer recognises the keyboards as English, meaning the keys do what they would in English, and not what they are labelled as. So if you know our keyboard layout and can type without looking at the keys, you can use them fine, but if you have to look for anything, it almost certainly won't be where it looks like it should be. And if you're used to, say, a Danish language keyboard then you can probably see how this gets more confusing still.

At any rate, this fortuitous exchange led to the two of us heading off in the afternoon to look around La Boca. This is one of the old harbourside districts of BA, the name literally meaning "the mouth", and has historically been a working-class district that often played home to immigrant communities, most noticeably that of the Italians who arrived during the 19th Century. It is, however, famous these days largely for two things - the brightly painted street of Caminito, which verges on being an outdoor art show, and its football team, Boca Juniors, the alma mater of Diego Armando Maradona and "Argentina's favourite sporting bad-boys". Our interest was in the former, it not being football season here yet, and this necessitated getting a bus to the centre of La Boca, the outlying areas being firmly in the "not safe to walk alone" category - indeed, even in Caminito most guides recommend having someone else with you, and this had prompted Aina's enquiry whether I wished to go along with her. Getting a bus involved rather more of a challenge, though, as this requires having change.

Particularly since the economic crisis of the early 2000s, change is a rare commodity in Argentina. The persistent rumours are that people are actually melting it down to get the base metals, which are regarded as a safer investment in case the economy goes bang again. Be that as it may, getting anything smaller than a 2-peso note (ie coins) can be tricky. Even shops and supermarkets and the like regularly say "no tenemos cambio", and certainly you won't get any without buying something. Unfortunately, the buses, due to the machines used to pay for tickets, can only be paid for with coins. This is due to change soon, with the introduction of a payment card system, but until then, everyone hoards what change they have in case they need to take a bus. At any rate, once we got on the trusty number 64 bus, it was dead easy to get to La Boca, as all we had to do was stay on to the last stop.

Once there, we headed over towards Caminito, trying to avoid the throngs of touts for the restaurants in the area. It should be noted that these were active slightly mroe than usual as it was the weekend, and many of the restaurants had free Tango demonstrations for dinners. However, given that neither of us was that hungry as yet, and that these places were obviously set up to separate tourists from dollars as efficiently as possible, we decided to pass on by and just keep exploring the surrounding streets. These yielded up photo opportunities aplenty, due to the brightly coloured wood and corrugated iron housing, with blue and yellow (Boca Juniors' colours) particularly prominent, but also scarlets, greens, purples, oranges and more. When the hunger pangs finally struck, we found a nice little shady cafe right at the edge of the tourist area and just watched the street-life for a bit.

That evening we went in search of that Argentine staple, a steak dinner. The receptionist at the hostel had recommended a place called El Desnivel. I've since found that just about every person and guidebook going recommends this as the budget choice in this part of town. What our receptionist was unaware, though, was that it was temporarily closed for refurbishment. So we wandered around a little and eventually went back to a little place around the corner called La Casa, where we indulged in a bit of steak and wine. Now, as those who've had the (mis)fortune of drinking with me may recall, I'm not generally a fan of red wine, however, I am growing to like the stuff over here. Unlike, say, Australia, Argentina doesn't seem to feel the need to oak its wine like crazy to build up strong "peppery" tastes, being quite happy to have quite smooth, easy-drinking reds. That evening, we had a bottle of Vasco Viejo, which literally translates as "old cow" I think. I doubt it wins any awards, but was quite pleasant accompanying our steaks, and at less than 3 quid a bottle in a restaurant, you can't really argue too much. 4 quid for a big steak dinner is not bad either, and both of us went away pretty pleased with our dining.

The only downside was that we had to hurry a bit, as I had arranged to meet Kita and Catriona, two friends from Ilha Grande, at about 8:30, and it was already almost that time when we finished eating, and we had to skedaddle across town. Luckily, this being Argentina, they weren't in that much of a hurry anyway, so we met up, had a drink at a roadside cafe/restaurant, then ended up going up to their hostel, which rather nicely has a roof terrace. This quick drink turned into a few more (though we did avoid joining the group from their hostel who were off to try and participate in "drunken archery" at a bar, which sounds to me like A Bad Idea...), with the participation of several more Aussies and a pair of Canadians called John Patrick and Sean Patrick (who were delighted to have another Patrick around as well, even if my middle name isn't John) and in the end Aina and I rocked back to the Milhouse around 2ish, at which point she went to bed and I had one more beer and ended up in an extended discussion on Scottish history. As you do.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Pinch me...

You know how sometimes you wake up and wonder if you're still dreaming? Well, try and imagine my surprise upon awakening in my dorm to find that, unbeknownst to me, it was now inhabited largely by Scandinavian girls, who were walking around in their towels. Having pinched myself to be ultra-sure I wasn't still dozing, I headed off for another minimalist breakfast, where I had a nice chat with Christina and Saara, who it turned out are from Finland (though Christina is actually half-Chilean, which is an interesting mix). Ross, who was staying in the other dorm, walked in, looked suspiciously at me, and asked me where I'd suddenly conjured up all these girls from, and I had to answer truthfully that it was none of my doing.

On checking out, I was wondering what I would do to amuse myself until our 1430 bus, when an answer came to me in the form of the laces on my shoes (which had finally come out of storage briefly - I've been in sandals pretty much the whole time here), which inconveniently broke, meaning that my list of tasks accomplished in Spanish now also includes getting replacement shoelaces. I also found, completely by accident, an Argentine flag patch for my pack (and quietly cursed not having found it before my sewing session the previous night), before getting in some more internet time, including booking my flight down from Buenos Aires to El Calafate in Patagonia (next Thursday, before anyone asks).

Then it was off to the bus station, where I decided to grab some lunch before the bus, and ordered a Parilla, a traditional Argentine mixed grill, which turned out to consist of a large chunk of beef rib, a reasonable-sized steak, about a quarter of a chicken, a sausage, a blood sausage and some salsa, accompanied by a bowl of lettuce and tomato salad, another bowl of carrot and egg salad, some fried chunks of plantain or something and the obligatory basket of bread. It beat me. I just couldn't fit it all in. My first defeat by a meal on this trip. It doesn't bode well to have one of them already.

As I mentioned previously, we'd decided to go for the most luxurious class of bus we could get, which with this company (Crucero del Norte) equated to Cama Suite. We thus got on the bus intrigued as to what we would find - the answer turned out to be quite impressive. On a double-decker coach there were less than 30 berths. Each one had a fully reclining seat unit, with a foot rest that could be rotated up to extend the seat and form a fully-flat platform just over 6' long. Width-wise, there were only 3 across the breadth of the coach, so again plenty of room. Add in individual video screens, and you start getting the idea. I promptly christened our trusty steed the Uber-Bus in my head, and wondered whether I would ever be able to take one of the battered fleet of Megabus in the UK ever again.

This added comfort extended to a meal and drinks service onboard - the latter consisting of soft drinks (principally Pepsi), wine with the meal, sparkling wine after the meal, and juice or coffee with breakfast. Unfortunately, the food didn't quite impress as much as this. A very basic ham and cheese sandwich as an afternoon snack (cue Pat gingerly pulling cheese slices out of sandwich), a dinner consisting largely of what I think was supposed to be a spinach omelette but which I refuse to believe belonged to any recognised food group, and a breakfast whose centrepiece was a ham and cheese croissant (cue Pat gingerly scraping cheese out of a croissant). The Argentine obsession with ham and cheese is, in my eyes, one of their less-appealing characteristics. Still, this made my earlier splurge on a Parilla at lunchtime look more like prescience and less like pure gluttony.

The onboard movie choice can similarly best be described as "eclectic". Starting off in early afternoon with a firmly 18-rated action film, Face/Off (seen it before, but old movies beats no movies), then moving onto a serious drama (Michelle Pfeiffer in The Deep End of the Ocean, if I remember the title right), before ending up with a Hollywood/Bollywood crossover entitled Marigold. So at 3pm there's bullets, explosions and gore aplenty, whereas at 11pm there's mass-choreographed song and dance numbers. Weird. Still, all contributed to a decent atmosphere in which I at least managed to get some sleep rather than practically none.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The other side of the Falls

Time to go and see the falls from the other side. Unfortunately it's overcast, which promises to make the photos rather less stunning than they might be. Ah well. Second minor disappointment of the morning is the breakfast - having got used to the generally fantastic brekkies in Brasilian hostels, it was a bit of a shock to be confronted with an Argentine breakfast consisting of cornflakes (with a choice, bizarrely, of cold yoghurt or hot milk to go on them - obviously I had a bit of both, just to be different) and small chunks of bread or rolls with butter and Dolce de Leche (ultra-sweet, milk-based brown spread that the Argentines are mad for). Where is my pineapple? Where is my unidentifiable tropical fruit juice slushie? Where is my cake? Still, life is full of these little disappointments, and we move on.

Getting to the Falls was pretty straightforward, just a case of hopping on the bus round the corner from the hostel and going. However, our trip out was enlivened somewhat when our bus came across another one which had broken down by the side of the road, and whose passengers were thus in need of a rescue. Said passengers amusingly included Stephen and Tricia, from the crossing the previous day - the habit of bumping into some of the same people over and over again is alive and well in South America. So, after a rather more crowded ride than had been expected, we got to the entrance to Parque Nacional Iguazu. Here, we found that this is one of the relatively few things which is more expensive in Argentina, being 60 pesos (about 12 quid), compared to 20 Reais (about 6 quid).

Disdaining the miniature train which is there for those who really don't want to walk when they can avoid it, we took a little trail through the forest, where we encountered Coatis. This pleased Ross no end, as he'd been quite disappointed not to have seen any of the little racoon-like creatures whilst we were on the Brasilian side. We also got a demonstration of why you are advised to keep any food out of sight in backpacks and the like - the lady walking in front of us had a whicker bag, which the Coatis zero'd in on and started trying to scrabble their way into. They apparently do this all the time to plastic or paper bags, as they've learnt that these often have food in. Given that Coatis, despite their cuteness, are potential rabies carriers, and can bite, we stayed mostly clear, with the closest contact being when they swarmed past our legs headed for the large group of tourists behind us.

Once into the park, there are 3 main things to do - the Paseo Superior (Upper Trail) takes you up along by the tops of some of the waterfalls, while the Paseo Inferior (Lower Trail) takes you face-to-face with the lower sections, usually from a fair way distant, but sometimes within a few feet of the water. The Lower Trail also gives access to the Aventura Nautica, a boat trip that Ross and I had decided to do. This consists of around 12-15 minutes in a Zodiac-type inflatable boat, taking in the views of the falls from river level and going in close to some of them. Very close. We went into the spray at the base of the Salto San Martin (which I think is the second largest flow after the Garganta), and actually dipped under one of the lesser falls round the far side of the Isla San Martin. Total soaking - thank heavens for dry bags - but quite an experience!

After our dousing, we climbed back up to by the rim, and grabbed some lunch, bumping into Stephen and Tricia again along the way. To top off his cold, Ross also had a bit of an upset stomach at this point (well, he'd had it since Floripa, but it was bothering him again), and the sun had come out, so we stopped in the restaurant and had a proper sit-down meal in the cool indoors. After that, it was onto the miniature train at last for the connection over to the final pass, out to the Garganta del Diablo. This actually takes you out over the river above the falls, so is mostly over-water boardwalks, giving opportunities for spotting Caimans (small, much less aggressive cousins of alligators) and the like. With the sun shining, the views out over the cauldron of foam and mist that is the Garganta were stunning. It was then a case of back to the bus, back to town, and back to the hostel. Ross and I clubbed together to get some pasta and sauce, and cooked ourselves some food that evening (the only time I've done so so far this trip). I spent a couple of hours downloading, sorting and backing up my photos so far to DVD, and then fixed a couple of the flags on my pack that were coming loose, as well as adding the Brasilian flag to my collection. And then it was time, once again, to crash out.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Who needs immigration officers anyway?

Arose to the familiar routine of packing up and checking out. Life on the road being what it is, you spend quite a bit of time packing and unpacking, but that doesn't actually make it any more fun. At least in this case, I was only hopping over the river, so corners could be cut as long as everything fits in the packs. Before going to Argentina (across the Rio Iguacu), however, I was crossing the Rio Parana into Paraguay. The reasoning behind this is pretty simple - I like being able to say I've been to countries, I hadn't been to Paraguay before, it was as easy as hopping on a bus, so why not?

Well, it turns out that, although it's easy to get to Paraguay, it's not necessarily quick. The bus dawdled along at only slightly over walking pace, attempting to pick up every possible passenger on the way to the border, regardless whether or not they were at a bus stop or showing any interest in the bus. The border formalities were non-existent - Ciudad del Este is a duty-free city, so Brasilians pretty much come and go as they please, and the same applies to foreigners coming from Brasil, as long as they're only coming for the day (presumably, they take a bit more notice if you have a big bag...?).

It also turns out that Ciudad del Este is a bit of a hole. Actually, it's quite a lot of a hole. Existing as a support town for the Itaipu hydroelectric dam and a duty-free stopover for Brasilians hunting for bargains, it has evolved into something akin to a cross between Khao San Road in Bangkok and Nathan Road in Hong Kong, but expanded out to the size of a small city, with everyone speaking Spanish. On a hot, sticky day, I have to admit that my contribution to the Paraguayan economy consisted of the cost of a can of beer - I'd been thinking of getting a cheap watch or something, but the total absence of any printed prices in most places and the fact that I'm not even that great a haggler in English, let alone Spanish, put me off.

The bus ride back, once across the Friendship Bridge (which is a nice little traffic jam suspended above the Rio Parana), was at least swifter than that over to Paraguay, and back at the hostel I met back up with Ross, the English guy who had become my partner in crime (disclaimer: no laws were knowingly broken in the authoring of this blog) at this point. We were on the verge of going off to have a bite to eat and a drink before getting the bus to the border when the staff advised us that they had an Irish couple (the lovely Stephen and Tricia) waiting to cross for whom they'd ordered a shuttle minibus which, for a few Reais extra, would get you straight through, as they have some kind of a fast-track system. Sounded dodgy, but was totally legitimate, and amusingly meant that I crossed from Brasil to Paraguay to Brasil to Argentina in the course of a day, and didn't even see an immigration officer (the formalities of the stamps at the Brasil-Argentina crossing were done by the minibus driver on our behalf!).

Once in Puerto Iguazu, Ross and I checked into our hostel there, Timbo Pousada, and went off to hunt bus tickets. We had decided that, given the difference in cost between the cheapest bus and the most expensive was only about 10 quid, we were going for the most luxurious class of service we could get. At this point, we found that it was a good thing we had acted to book ahead, as one company's "full bed" service for the Friday was already totally full - luckily, our backup choice still had seats, so we nabbed those, and then headed off for our first meal in Argentina. No, it wasn't a steak, we were both still fairly stuffed with meat from the Rodizio the previous night, it was pasta. To be precise, Gnocchi in a Bolognese sauce, and very nice it was too. Happy side-effect of all the Italian immigrants to Argentina. After this it was a case of vegging out for a bit. I decided to make use of the hostel's pool (yes, both my hostels up near Iguazu had pools, though both were small), at which point the weather shifted, there being a sudden cooling in the air and it started to rain. Typical.

Still, this didn't totally finish off the day, Ross and I ended up heading over to another hostel to meet up with Paola, my Italian friend whom we had seen a couple of evenings earlier in Foz. Along with a French lad from her hostel, called Pierre-Jean, we headed off for some dinner. And yes, I had steak, though it was a small cut with pepper and vegetables rather than one of the slabs that normally comes to mind when dealing with Argentine beef. After that, Ross went back to fight off the cold he had unnacountably developed (I blame the aircon in the Foz hostel...), PJ went back to the other hostel, Paola went to see a man about a pumpkin lamp (seriously, this wasn't a Hallowe'en thing, it was being carved to give as a present!), I watched a wee bit of a football game on the TV (they´re in a pre-season friendly tournament at the moment), managed to wangle a few minutes on the hostel internet computer (Argentine hostels work mostly on the basis of free internet access, but with not many machines and not a great connection - fine if you just want to check if anything's come in, but not much use for anything else, when you still have to search out an internet cafe) and then crashed out.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Last (Brasilian) Post

Today was a busy day. After a hostel breakfast that was somewhat below the lofty standards most Brasilian hostels have set, Ross and I headed for the bus stop and got the local bus out to the Visitor Centre of the Cataratas do Iguacu, otherwise known as the Iguacu Falls, one of the largest and most spectacular of nature´s wonders on this planet. Well, we went to the Brasilian side today, anyway. They lie on the border of Argentina and Brasil, very close to their mutual borders with Paraguay, and I´ll leave the introduction to Eleanor Roosevelt, who is reported to have remarked on seeing them "Poor Niagara!". The actual mechanics of going to see them involve buying a ticket and getting on another bus that takes you the best part of 9km through the National Park to where the trail to the Falls themselves starts. This is at the Hotel Las Cataratas, the only hotel inside the National Park on the Brasilian side, and somewhere I was intrigued to see given how many times I, via suggestions from consultants at Journey Latin America, had sent people here whilst working at Trailfinders. To be honest, my first and overriding impression is "Pink".

The trail itself wound down, through the sweltering heat, towards the falls, taking in views across to various of the "lesser" falls on the Argentine side of the border. Numerous Kodak moments, quite large crowds, plenty of sweating to be done. Hot, hot day. And then, finally, we get to the money shot: the first views of the Garganta del Diablo, the "Devil´s Throat" which forms the heart of the falls, and is the source of the majority of photos. It is stunning. A trail takes us out, close to the base of the Floriano Falls, to a point where we can get clear shots (well, clear apart from the omnipresent spray) of the Throat. It is simply stunning. I could try all I like to describe it, but my words will not do it justice. Once I can, I will put photos up, but still, the only way to properly appreciate this wonder of the world is to go and see it. And this was only the Brasilian view, which is apparently good for the far-away pictures but you get closer to much more of the falls on the Argentine side, where I should be tomorrow.

After this natural majesty, Ross and I took a breather, had a (fast-food) bite to eat, and headed back to the Park entrance, and thence across the road into the Parque das Aves, a bird park which Caio, one of the owners of Tucano House, had strongly recommended I should see. And he was right. An extraordinary collection of birdlife, some of it in large cages and other enclosures, but the more spectacular parts in walk-through aviaries. So today I have been nearly hit in the face by both Tucans and Macaws flying at me, had my picture taken with one of the latter perched on my shoulder (and made several amateur attempts to appear in photos with the former, some rather more successful than others!), and seen more birds than I could shake an exceedingly big stick at, some of them critically endangered to the point where captive breeding grounds like this are one of the few hopes to save the species. Oh, and I saw a bunch of flamingoes happily clustering around mirrors - apparently the appearance of more birds, hence a larger flock, makes them feel more secure, and thus more likely to breed. A mirror as an aphrodisiac, who´da thunk it...

This evening, after a last visit to, and occasional disagreement with, a Brasilian ATM, Ross and I headed off to a loacl Churrascaria for another of those All-You-Can-Eat BBQs I had sampled in Rio. Suffice to say, what with that and the caipirinha I felt compelled to have to stave off the heat when we got back, I am currently one very fat, happy Pat.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Knowing your limits is A Good Thing

Arrived in Foz, which is more agricultural and city-like and rather less jungly than I might have expected. Remind myself this is a city the size of Bristol, servicing one of the world´s biggest hydroelectric plants (Itaipu, owned jointly with Paraguay), so never really likely to be a little backwater in the rainforest. Ross and I managed to successfully navigate yet another local city bus system, and made our way to our home here in Foz, Hostel Bambu. This is new enough not to be in most guidebooks, but is quite nicely set up, and has the addedd bonuses of air-con in the dorms and a small pool out the back, which have both been absolute bliss given the high temperature and humidity here. I also took advantage of some anti-itching (possibly anti-hystamine or something) cream Ross had got, which appears to have finally drawn the itchy sting of the bites I got early in Floripa (which my memories of Africa are now informing me are probably sandfly bites) - as a result, I have forgiven him for any possible stalking and we´ve ended up hanging around the last couple of days.

Despite a brief consideration of going to see the Itaipu dam (I know, but we´re both sar Engineering types, so it´s kind of expected) we decided the effects of the heat, the tiredness from the long-distance bus journey and the fact it had somehow got to half past three without us noticing rendered this Not A Good Plan. So hammock time was very much the order of the day. In the evening, admittedly somewhat later than planned, we met up with Paola, my Italian friend from Ilha Grande, who was also in town, and went for a nice little dinner. In true Brasilian style, we ordered one main meal, which was designed to feed two and happily fed three of us, especially together with the (massive) plate of olives I ordered - for someone who was never that fond of things, I seem to be developing something of a fixation.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Enough of this Bus thing already

Another one of those days largely filed under "Bus". Got up, had brekkie, checked my stuff out of my dorm at Tucano, lounged around, chatted with people a bit, lounged around, went on the internet, popped into the village for a spot of lunch, grabbed my pack, went to the local bus stop. Waited a bit for a bus. And a bit more. One finally arrived, so headed off across the island to the Rodoviaria, thankful that I´d been prepared enough to leave time for this (easy to do when your coach only leaves at 1800). Waited around a bit more at the Rodoviaria once I had collected my ticket. Bumped into Ross, who I´d met on the journey from Parati to Floripa, and who was also on my bus again. Found out we would also be at the same hostel (which I´d recommended before) in Foz. Started to wonder if I am being stalked. Was re-assured that this is not the case.

Loooooong bus ride. 15 hours, with a large, middle-aged Brasilian lady with quite active elbows in the seat next to me and a small child with a propensity for kicking me in the back behind me. With the addition of a screaming baby and a broken-down air-con unit, this would have been a strong contender for Hell in bus form. As it was, merely Purgatory.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The joys of the Sorveteria

Another pretty chilled-out day. I went over to the centre of town with Ana and the Brasilian girls, where we had a look around the Mercado Principal (central market) and then over to a 350-year-old tree in a square, where there was a capoeira class/demonstration on. For those not aware, capoeira is something of a cross between a martial art and a dance, which was developed by the slaves in Brasil as a way to practice defending themselves without arousing the suspicion of their masters. If you ever get a chance to watch a demonstration, do! After this, we headed over to a mall, to grab some lunch, where I have to admit to giving in to a craving and getting some Chinese food from a buffet place.

Got the bus back over to our side of the island in the afternoon, mucked around for a bit longer, and then ended up popping into town with Ana, who has a craving for icecream at least as potent as Marija's for coffee was - ice-cream places here (Sorveterias) are largely self-service and priced by weight, so Ana had basically filled up about a pint of various kinds of chocolate ice-cream, which I was then obliged to help her eat. After that, we bumped into Alicia, along with her fellow exchange students Dan and Felicity, and had some dinner in town. I half-drowned a chicken sandwich in Tabasco sauce, which was heavenly, and accompanied it with a very nice Pale Ale from a company called Eisenbahn, based in Blumenau, which is one of the towns up the coast that was originally colonised by Germans.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Notes From A Sunny Island

After the usual hearty Brasilian hostel breakfast, I headed off to be a bit more active for the day, in the company of one of my breakfast companions, another Ana, this one from Buenos Aires. We had decided to do the Caminha do Costa, which runs along the western side of the Lagoa da Conceicao (literally "Lagoon of the Conception"), near which Tucano House sits, to the village of Costa da Lagoa - this is only accessible via this trail, or by the regular boats which run along the lagoon. Despite the assertions from Leleia, one of the lovely hostel owners, that it would only take an hour and a half or two hours, it was more like two and a half to three before we got there, but we did take quite a few photos along the way (Ana is a keen photographer as well as a med student and working for an IT company - busy girl...) and managed to miss the turning for the waterfall we were hoping to see. That said, it meant we carried on nearly to the end of the lake, taking in some views that we wouldn't have had otherwise.

The waterfall itself was nice without being spectacular - the pool at the bottom was a wee bit muddy, but it was really refreshing to sit under the edge for a bit and chill off under the spray. However, I was rather more careful coming down from the face of the falls after the Brasilian girl next to me slid off her perch, bounced down part of the falls, ping-ponged off a rock and landed in a lower pool - she assured everyone she was fine, but it looked a wee bit painful to me! After mucking about at the falls for a bit, we headed back down to a little restaurant at the lakeshore, where we settled down for a gorgeous dinner of grilled fish - as is customary in many restaurants in Brasil, the standard portion is for 2 people, and could probably feed 3 or 4 at a pinch. After the exertions of hiking along the lagoon, this bit of relaxation felt like proper chilled-out holiday time.

We caught the boat back to town, where both of us decided to decline the evening communal meal as we were still stuffed from our late lunch. Much of the evening was then spent chilling out with a couple of drinks while a guy called Justin played guitar and we had a bit of a sing-along. A lot of the guys from the hostel were then heading on to a local bar/club called the Confraria des Artes (Brotherhood of the Arts), but given that it was apparently going to largely feature hip-hop, and that it would follow the unfortunate Brasilian practice whereby girls get in free and guys can be charged anywhere from about 40 to maybe 120 Reais (that's about 12 up to maybe 35 or 40 quid just for entry!), I decided once again to give it a miss and just chill out a bit longer at the hostel, where I ended up chatting for a while with an English lass called Alicia, who's studying on an exchange year in Santiago, Chile, and is over here in Brasil on summer holidays.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Welcome to Floripa

Arrived in Florianopolis (Floripa) after 10 hours or so on the coach, overjoyed to find the sun shining, the temperature warm without being melting and the humidity much lower. Managed to navigate the local bus system across the Ilha de Santa Catarina on which the city sits to the satellite town of Centro da Lagoa, where Tucano House, my current abode, is.

After surviving my first long-distance bus journey, I savoured the delights of a nice por quilo lunch and an internet cafe with a half-decent Skype connection - this allowed me to finally ring up Expedia and get my "onward travel" flight out of Brasil cancelled - this I had bought so that if there was any problem either with Brasilian immigration or with TAP when I came to check-in with a 6-month ticket, then I could show onward travel. Sounds a bit overkill? Well, this is the kind of thing I had to advise people to do whilst happily beavering away at Trailfinders, in order to cover the company's collective derriere in the event of someone being refused boarding. In this case, proved to be utter hogwash - nobody batted an eyelid at either the airline or immigration - so I've submitted the ticket for a refund.

Got my stuff checked in, hopped on a local bus to Praia do Mole (the most popular local beach), where I got repeatedly slapped around by the waves, having a whale of a time, and managed to finish my latest cheap and tacky thriller from the book exchanges whilst sheltering happily in my chair under my parasol. No sunburn, a fair bit of time in the sea, and a bit of chill-out time. Bliss.

Back at the hostel that evening, there was a big communal meal - for most people this was Lasagne, but thanks to my cheese aversion, I got mountains of chicken risotto instead, which went down very nicely with the usual beers and caipirinhas (incidentally, if you come to Brasil don't drink the Nova Schin beer - it's really rather bad), and I got chatting with various of my companions, notably a couple of French lads (Vincent and Romain) and a group of Brasilian girls (Ana, Mariana, Manuela and Biatriz) as well as the usual hordes of Aussies. Various of the group headed for a rumoured beach party over at Praia Joaquina, but I have to admit I just headed for my bed.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Delights of Sao Paulo Rodoviaria

Day back on the buses - spent some of the morning hanging around with my Danish friends at the hostel and in town, then got on the 1340 to Sao Paulo. 6 hours later, arrived at the biggest bus station in Brasil, and successfully managed to get myself a ticket on the "Executivo" level (mid-level) coach to Florianopolis that night - I decided to get the slightly more expensive bus in an attempt to beat my usual record of total inability to sleep on overnight buses. This one, it has to be said, was very comfortable, with majorly reclining seats and leg supports, and I'd managed to get a spot such that I had a double seat to myself. Had it not been for the pesky armrest in the middle, I'd have probably slept ok, as it was I had to content myself with at least having slept a bit. Before getting the bus, ended up chatting with another English lad, called Ross, who was headed in the same direction, whilst partaking of the quality food offered by the wonderfully-named establishment "Mr Sheikh".

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It's a raining Men, Women, Cats, Dogs and the odd Capybara

Slightly less chilled day. Spent the first part of it trying to get sorted on a tour to go see various waterfalls in the area, eventually ended up on a tour which took in some of what I wanted, along with going out to an island and visiting a cachaca distillery - pineapple cachaca anyone? It was ok without being anything that special, although I did have fun getting French practice with a couple on the trip, whose first comment on hearing me go all Francophone was "You are an Englishman who speaks French? You are a secret agent!" Which is something I haven't been called before, but could obviously be worse.

The latter parts of the afternoon were largely ruled by the intense cloudbursts which hit town, putting large parts of the road network underwater and led to me eventually wading across town to send my previous e-mail - the end of the road our hostel was on was probably the worst underwater bit, but the old town, with its cobble-stoned streets, can get quite risky when it's wet underfoot. I had more of the comida por quilo for dinner (basically a self-service buffet where you pay by weight of what you eat - salads are thus A Good Thing both in terms of health and budget!) and then adjourned to a little internet place, where I stayed until the nice lady running the place kicked those of us in there out at 9pm.

Later in the evening, I ended up being persuaded (ok, it didn't take that much arm-twisting) to go into town for some caipirinhas with Nanna and her sister, whose name I keep having trouble getting right but I think it was Mette. We actually ended up back in the bar I'd been at a couple of nights earlier, inside this time, and watching a really good music DVD called (I think) "Ciudade de Samba", which is a kind of "Samba All Stars' Performance". We were met there by Nico, the Argentine lad from staff at the hostel, and thanks to his friendship with the barman, we actually got invited to a lock-in, but were all quite tired (and a wee bit drunk) and ended up declining the kind offer.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I am Sailing...

Awoke to the rather unwelcome sight of continued overcast. Not good, as I was hoping to do the sailing trip myself that day. However, luck was with me, and as I sat around munching my way through the usual hostel breakfast, the sun broke through the clouds, persuading me that it would indeed be a good day to be out on the water. Better yet, the name of my transport for the day was the Sir Francis Drake - a name to inspire any true Englishman. Thus, I made my way across town to the quay, set myself up with a nice shady patch under the awning for the day, and thanked whichever deities might be watching that I was on one of the lighter-laden boats and not one of those groaning at the seams. A pleasant day ensued, taking in 4 or 5 beach or swimming stops, some nice fresh fruit, and generally grat weather. In fact, my only case of sunburn so far came courtesy of this, but even that was fairly mild and consisted mostly of a couple of patches around my shoulder-blades that I hadn't been able to reach properly.

On getting back to town, I headed over to the Rodoviaria to try and sort my bus ticket out of town. Annoyingly, even though the company involved apparently had buses all the way through to Florianopolis (known to most Brasilians as Floripa), there was a case of "Computer says No" and I had to content myself with the ticket through to Sao Paulo, where I would have to buy my onward ticket. I then took an hour or two to catch up on some net time and sort out my finances, before heading back to the hostel. There I found that just about everywhere serving food our side of the river was closed, but eventually managed to get some Peixe Brasileira (the imaginatively named "Brasilian Fish") for dinner. I then meandered back into town, but didn't see any familiar faces, and decided I wasn't in the mood for a drink after all, so I got an ice-cream and headed back to the hostel, where I vegged out and swapped travellers' tales with a Norwegian girl called Victoria and a Danish girl called Nanna until it was time to crash out.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

You are now entering Springfield, Brasil...

Farewell to Ilha Grande, and on to Paraty (also sometimes Parati, so excuse me if my spelling drifts...). A fond farewell to Angi, Cami, Kita (Aussie) and Catriona (Irish) at the hostel, a rather more hurried farewell to Marija at the docks, and I was headed back to Angra on the mainland, sweltering once again despite the previous night's rain. Once there, I hung around for a while before getting the local bus along the coast to Paraty, which slightly surreally stopped in the little artificial satellite towns built by Eletronuclear to service the plant near Angra - yes, it did feel a bit like a Brasilian setting for the Simpsons.

On arrival, I borrowed a Lonely Planet from what turned out to be a group of German dentists (my trusty Footprint does not have a map of the town), before slumping through the heat across town and over the river to my hostel. I then had to head back into town to get more cash, at which point I checked my mail and got some food, from which I was startled by the beginning of a cloudburst, which left parts of the historic cobbled centre of the town underwater, and me wondering just what on Earth I'd let myself in for. This luckily subsided somewhat, and I ended up going into town that evening with a bunch of other travellers from the hostel - they were due to meet up with a German lass who had been on their schooner sailing trip earlier that day, but she never turned up in the end.

This didn't really matter, though, as there were 8 of us quite happily sampling some of the local wares - I have found my first truly tasty (rather than merely refreshing-when-drunk-cold-on-
a-hot-day) beer in Brasil - it's from the Devassa brwery, and is called Riuva, and is styled as a Tropical Ale. Yum. This was had at the Che Bar (I don't know why, given I'm not sure he ever even came to the country, but Cuba's favourite adopted Argentinean son appears just as popular here), but given that this was very much priced for Gringo tourists, we soon adjourned a couple of doors down to a little cafe on the square, which was doing special offers on Caipirinhas - always works for me! Only downside is I'm having to fanatically brush my teeth with the amount of sugar that's usually in the things, but I'm definitely not coming down with scurvy any time soon...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Life's a Beach (again)

A relatively similar day to the one before, breakfast enlivened by check-in-related chaos (the hostel had somehow managed to overbook, so the nice Spanish couple in my room were being moved on, to be replaced by a trio of Israelis - this was at least better than the any of the horde of very loud Yanks who had also descended on the place). I lounged around for a bit, Paula being off looking for another hostel and Marija having headed into town to feed her insatiable appetite for coffee, before deciding I really needed to do something with the day, getting my things together and heading off to Praia Lopes Mendes. In this, I was guided by Paula's assertion the previous day that the walk to Lopes Mendes beach had been easier than the one we did to the falls.
Well, by the time I eventually reached the top of the first ridgeline, it certainly didn't feel like it. When my infamous knee from my adventures in China gave a twinge partway down the hill, I had reached the point where I was running out of curse-words. Luckily, stopping for a bit and giving the offending area a quick massage got the knee back in line, and I made it safely down to the first beach stop, where I wasted no time in starting on the next trail, over the next ridge, to the next beach, reasoning better to get it all out of the way. And on this part of the trip, my salvation arrived, in the form of a group of young Brasilians, also doing the trek, and some of whom were suffering about as much as me. Bolstered by company and moral support, I made it down ok to the second beach, where I promptly threw myself in the sea to cool down.
After assuring my new-found friends that I was not actually crazy (and reassuring them by applying sunscreen to my now-even-more-obviously-really-pale skin), we headed on, over the last and lowest of the hills to get to Lopes Mendes beach. Which is, it has to be said, really rather beautiful. Nearest comparisons I can think of in terms of places I've been would be a less-developed version of Oarsman's Bay on Nacula in Fiji, or a slightly less groomed version of Whitehaven in the Whitsundays in Australia. It's white-powder sand, clear blue sea, and trees backing down pretty close to it. It's also rather busy with Brasilian families on their summer holidays (or it was when I was there). And no, they hadn't all done the hike, most of them got the boat-taxi service to the previous beach and then just did the last bit of the walk. Sensible buggers.
After a thoroughly pleasant couple of hours on the beach, enlivened by a brief, light rainstorm (look out to sea and it's clear blue skies except maybe the odd fluffy cloud, and suddenly there's this rumble of thunder and a black cloud floats menacingly over the island...), it was back to the previous beach, onto a boat and back to Abraao. My final evening there was spent partly escorting the girls around shopping at the markets again (no, I don't know how I ended up doing it, either) and then sitting around at the bar at another of the hostels, listening to Reggae, drinking caipirinhas, and marvelling as more rain finally arrived.

Friday, January 16, 2009

But WHY won't the beer boat let us hitch a ride...?

A nice, welcoming start to my non-totally-zonked time on Ilha Grande - breakfast at Overnativa being the usual Brasilian combination of rolls, ham and cheese, cereals, fruits, coffee, tea, juice (and many places also have cake...). After feeding myself up, I joined p with Paula and Marija for the walk we had decided on the previous night - we were going north out of Abraao town, up to the Cachoeira de Fetceira, a waterfall in the hills outside town, and then on to some of the beaches furthere north from there, where we would catch a boat back to town. And that's largely how it all worked out - we grabbed some supplies from the little supermarket in town, and headed out, past the beaches of town and on into the hills (for Ilha Grande is nothing if not hilly). Having made the amusing discovery that Marija hates going downhill about as much as I hate going uphill, we first hiked, then scrambled up to the brink of the waterfall. And it was pretty, albeit perhaps after all the effort to get there I was left with the treacherous thought that perhaps it could have been a teeny bit prettier. After a bit of a swim to cool off, and a quick semblance of a back-rub from the waters, and a brief goggle at the intrepid souls abseiling down the face of the cachoeira, we headed back off, down the hill towards the beaches.
We had a gloriously chilled out hour or so mucking about on the beach, before deciding to walk on to the small village of Saco do Ceu, at theend of a long bay on the north side of the island. Only when we got there, and Paual got involved haggling with the local boat captains, did we realise our error, as this is not on the usual boat routes so anybody taking us back from there would be going out of their way and would charge accordingly. So we trudged back a couple of beaches (and half an hour or so) to Praia Defora, where we unfortunately failed to hitch passage on the boat delivering beer to all the settlements on the island (I was deeply distressed at this) but Paula did manage to get us on another little boat which was heading back to Abraao, at a cost of the princely sum of 10 Reais each (about 3 quid).
That evening, we availed ourselves once again of Christina's home cooking at the hostel, I watched part of Troy (which was surprisingly good, although taking rather a lot of liberties with the timeline of the original Homer...), then we headed out so that Paula could get some braidwork done in her hair and the other girls could browse the souvenir shops by the pier (the downside of hanging around with a group consisting very heavily of girls...), made a brief detour into a bar that had a band playing some live samba music, and ended up back at the hostel, where Paula, Angela, Camila, the nightwatchman and I ended up watching Mamma Mia (also better than I had expected it to be...).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Off to the Big Island

Time to leave Rio. Made the last of my farewells and headed for the bus-stop. At this point, I made one of my occasional miscalculations, and got on the first bus headed for the Rodoviaria (the long-distance bus terminal the other side of town) - this turned out to stop all over the place, plough through the Rio traffic, and got me there 5 minutes after the bus I´d wanted to catch had left. I made it onto the next one, but with the sinking feeling I was not going to make my ferry. I was headed for Ilha Grande (translated literally as Big Island), and what the guidebooks all describe as the only scheduled daily ferry to the island would have left by the time I got to the port of Angra dos Reis.

Luckily, the alternative transport options have moved on from the "possible to maybe go over on local fishing boats" of the books, and there are both a small catamaran service (which I also missed...) and a bunch of local schooners, the last of which I was able to catch, in the company of an Aussie called Steve and his Brasilian mate Anderson, who I´d got chatting to on the coach. This meant I got to the island a couple of hours later than I´d planned, but this had the unplanned bonus that it wasn´t quite so stinking hot when we arrived, so I didn´t melt quite so much whilst lugging my packs from the quay in Abraao to my hostel.

The scene at Overnativa when I arrived was what I would learn was typical of the place - Christina, the "mama" of the place was cooking the dinner and simultaneously covering front desk. I was told to just get my stuff settled in my room and we could deal with the paperwork later (this was eventually done at checkout!). After a shower, I tucked into the home-cooked dinner, and struck up conversation with what would become my regular circle of companions on the island, an Italian girl called Paula, two Colombian cousins (Angela and Camilla, the latter about 4´6" or so) and a Zurich-based Croat doctor called Marija, who must be one of the few people I´ve met who probably has a faster metabolism than my brother Alex. Either that, or she´s got a tapeworm. She´s thin as a reed and could eat for her country, and possibly one or two others as well.

Still, it´d been a long (and sometimes stressful) day, so I managed one beer, sat around watching people play pool for a while, then crashed out.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Copacabana Ate My Bandana!

One very chilled-out day. Popped over to the Rio Sul (South Rio) shopping centre, to buy some swimming shorts (yes, I managed to go to Brasil and forget to pack my swimming gear, I´m a muppet, I know...) and then headed for Copacabana beach in the afternoon for some beach time. Sadly, whilst enjoying the really quite large waves which run into the beach, I got wiped out by a couple of unexpectedly large ones close to the shore, and surfaced to find my much-abused black bandana had disappeared in the swell. It had come a long way with me since Broome in 2005, but now our paths diverged.... My time on the beach with 3 English lads and Linda, the hostel´s resident irrepressible Norwegian, did however yield the amusing concept of the "Man-zilian" - John had noticed a guy who had shaved off all of his chest hair apart from a very long "landing strip" running straight down the middle. Very bizarre.
In the evening, we checked out the tourist night-market down by the beach (95% identical rubbish, the vast majority of it probably made in China...), then I headed over for a brief look around the bars in Ipanema, which concluded after I ended up in an "Irish" bar listening to a Brasilian group play Blues music (in English) and it started to rain. Back at the hostel, my companions were chatting with some of the Brasilians staying there, which helped pass a wee bit more time (assisted by a few caipiroskas - the bar had run out of cachaca again...) before bed (I had by this point finished being moved around between rooms, and was firmly and happily ensconced in a bottom bunk in one of the upstairs dorms).

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Into the Favela

The day started with a slightly unwelcome surprise when, for possibly the first time ever, a Brasilian tour was early. Most of the time, things here seem to run somewhere between "manana manana" and Fiji-time, but our Favela tour, led by the marvellously irrepressible Luis, turned up early, so I was still brushing my teeth when one of the guys banged on the bathroom door to say they were about to leave! After a few pick-ups around Copacabana (and one or two in Ipanema) our minibus was full and headed off to Sao Conrado - this is the "regular" district which perches between the ocean and the favela of Rocinha, our destination. The minibus doesn´t go on into the favela, so we were out of the vehicle and loaded onto motorbike taxis. I love motos and, having not been on one since leaving Hanoi a couple of years back, was grinning like an idiot as we wound our way up the main road which cuts through the favela up to the top of the hill.
It´s a peculiarity of Rio that the hillsides, in many cities some of the most desirable property, are the location for the slums, the favelas. Our trip for the morning would take us right the way back down the hillside to where we entered by Sao Conrado. Along the way, at various points we were asked to put our cameras away and avoid taking photos for a while. This is not so much to spare the feelings of the inhabitants as it is a reflection that it is inadvisable to take photos of young men with machine-guns, who can be found in some areas near the access points. Before seeing them, you generally see the lookouts with walkie-talkies, who spread the word if police or rival gangs are approaching, an event signalled by fireworks - when this happens, it is wise to make oneself scarce very quickly. Luckily, no November 5th display for us that day.
The favelas are these days part of a semi-legal set-up - some of them have electricity meters and the like, though there are still all manner of spaghetti-like illegal connections jumping from the cables in the district. The inhabitants also don´t pay tax on their homes, as their ownership is not strictly recognised. The sewerage system is mostly of the "open drain" variety. However, there are now bus routes into the districts, and they provide an important source of affordable housing for those working in the more upmarket suburbs, so there are no attempts to remove them. Our trip took in visits to a local art project, as well as the school that is supported by the company organising the tours - the government´s grudging acceptance of the favelas´ existence means they get little or no support, so much of what is accomplished is done by charities, foundations set up by former inhabitants (e.g. some footballers and musicians) and volunteers.
Having made it safely through the favela, we headed back to our beachside suburbs, where I grabbed some lunch, in the process making the acquaintance of the prato freido, a set-meal type affair which meant that I got a bit of chicken, accompanied by rice, beans, salad, chips and an egg (spread over 2 plates...) for less than 3 quid. Given how expensive many of Rio´s restaurants are, this crossover to something more like what the cariocas eat was somewhat overdue.
After feeding, I headed off to the bus-stop again, this time headed for the neighbourhood of Cosme Velho, which is the lower terminus of the Trem do Corcovado, the funicular railway which runs up to the statue of Christ the Redeemer on the hill known as Corcovado, the bunchback. This is another of the undeniably touristy, and hence slightly overpriced, but must-do things in Rio. From a vantage point high, high up above the city (over 700m higher than the docks, at least 300m higher than Sugarloaf), you get spectacular views of the city itself, Guanabara Bay, and the beachside suburbs beyond the Rodrigo Freitas lagoon.
That evening was a relatively subdued affair, out with several other Brits from the hostel and a couple of frankly crazy Swedes. We had what was effectively another wild goose chase (again involving a cabbie trying to overcharge people amongst other things) off in search of an area reputed to have a bunch of bars to explore. Once this became a bit of a damp squib, the Swedes wanted to carry on and find a club somewhere, leaving me in the unfamiliar position of being the voice of reason arguing for going home and calling it an early night.

More tales of Rio

Hi guys,

Yes, I'm back slaving over a hot (and it really is bloody warm here - mid 30s again today) keyboard again.

Contrary to what I wrote last time, I didn't actually go up Sugarloaf on Sunday afternoon, largely because I got slightly lost trying to find the appropriate bus down the far end of Copacabana. So instead I took the Metro into the centre of town and then got the historic bondinho (translates as something like "little tram") up into the district of Santa Teresa. This is what was once one of the nicer districts of Rio but is now a little more run-down around the edges, and has become home to a population of artists and bohemians and the like. The tram itself is an open-sided little gem from about the 1920s, which rattles over a hair-raising viaduct over the central district of Lapa before clunking its way up into the bairro district of Santa Teresa itself. On the way it passes houses both run-down and beautiffuly looked after, little shops and bars, and various other road-users which, in true Rio style, get greeted with loud ringings of the bell to encourage them to get out of the way. Although actually, thinking about it, this isn't that typical - most Carioca drivers don't bother with the horn, they just change lanes and zoom through anyway. At any rate, the district itself was quite picturesque to wander around for a bit, but the main experience was the tram itself, which, in stark contrast to many of Rio's other attractions (I'm looking at YOU, Sugarloaf and Cristo Redentor!) is remarkably cheap - about 20p each way.

On returning to the hostel, I got chatting with a mixed bunch of fellow travellers and ended up going along to what was described repeatedly as a "meat feast" - the technical term was actually a rodizio, and it was bascally an All-You-Can-Eat BBQ, with the food served on skewers direct to your table (a quick nod to indicate "yes, I'll have some of that" serves nicely to cross language barriers). This was glorious, if not brilliant for my stated aim of trying to lose a wee bit of weight whilst on the road - my personal favourite had to be the garlic steak, which was just mouth-watering. I did admittedly wimp out from having the chicken hearts, though. After this we went back to the hostel's bar for the familiar dosing of caipirinhas, accompanied by a certain amount of card games (not, for once, Ring of Fire, which would be a very bad thing to play on the caipirinhas here! - the alcohol content of one of them is probably enough to make me a binge drinker by our government's estimations...). There was a bit of a diversion later on in the night, when we made the interesting decision of following some Colombians from the hostel off in search of a bar they'd heard about in the area, involving flagging down a whole heap of taxis and trying to mime "follow that cab!" so that we didn't lose track of the people who supposedly knew where we were going. And then it turned out to be closed. So we had to get more cabs to get us back, and ours decided he didn't want to use the meter and was trying to scalp us, until he was routed by a five-foot-nothing little Colombian lass who told him where he could stick his claims. Very funny.

Unsurprisingly after all this excitement, I slept in late yesterday, and then headed off in the afternoon to make my delayed trip to Sugarloaf. This time I had no trouble finding my bus, and made it remarkably easily to the famous mountain. Although I should add at this point that Brasilian buses have a system whereby you pay a conductor behind the driver your fare as you get on and then have to push through a turnstile. And it can get a wee bit tight. Luckily it's a flat fare on each bus, which is shown in the front window, so there's no confusion from having to comprehend numbers or anything. The cable-car ride up to Sugarloaf is spectacular - it's done in two parts, the first up to Morro do Urca, and then a second one up to the top of Pao de Acucar itself. At the middle level, there are the usual facilities - cafe, toilets, etc - but also a little move theatre which tells you the story of the cable car (with helpful English subtitles), amusingly including the cable car's brief role in the Bond film Moonraker, where Bond fights it out with Jaws on there, and also a landing pad for helicopter tours. The day was gorgeous (bright sunshine and clear skies to start with, although it clouded over a little bit later), and it was all good fun.

After getting down from the mountain, I hung on the bus back a little longer and went on to the next beach over, at Ipanema, where I watched a beautiful sunset. Ipanema is a thinner beach than Copacabana, without all the volleyball and football courts of the latter, and comes right up to the promenade, so it feels a bit closer in. I had a nice couple of Brasilian dark beers from the Brahma brewing company (yes, I'm trying new beers as usual...) and a Brasilian meal called a Pocadinho Carioca (I think), which involved beef in a red wine sauce, rice, farofa (which is a kind of ground manioc flour, seasoned in this case with garlic) and, for some reason, deep-fried bananas. Reminded me a bit of Cape Curry in that fashion, but all very nice. Having showed my pictures from the sunset to some of the guys here at the hostel, they've headed over there this evening.

I haven't, as I've spent the day doing a favela tour around the district of Rocinha and then making my way up to the statue of Cristo Redentor, Christ the Redeemer, up on the Corcovado hill this afternoon. But my hour's about up, so that will have to wait for later.

Take care and have fun,


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hola de Brasil!


Right, just a quick update at the moment, as it´s hot and sunny outside and it´d be a waste to spend too much of the day indoors on the internet!

Made it to Brasil fairly uneventfully, decent enough flights with TAP although Lisbon airport isn´t the most fun to transit though as they shuttle you everywhere in buses rather than use jetways, and seem quite happy to leave you on said buses for ages. Spent quite a bit of the Lisbon-Rio flight (which is longer than I thought, about 10 hours or so) playing puzzle games, and much of the rest frantically mugging up on Portuguese. Needless to say, mine is still hopeless, but I seem to get kudos for at least making an effort. I have Yes, No, Please, Thankyou, Where are the toilets? and Can I have a beer/caipirinha? down already.

First impressions of Rio (once my pickup for the hostel arrived and found me at Rio Internacional airport) were the smell coming over the bay - I think some of the areas we went through were favelas, and the sanitation didn´t seem brilliant - and the sheer lunacy of Brasilian traffic. A taxi ride in Rio has got to rank right up there with a moto ride in Saigon as one of those experiences where public transport verges on an extreme sport. Numerous lanes, everyone drifting in and out of them overtaking on the inside and outside at will, indicator light use strictly optional and separation that could be measured in feet even when doing over 100 km/h, all done over a landscape of urban motorways and tunnels as you cross the city. If there isn´t a computer driving game out there based around surviving Rio, someone´s missing an opportunity!

On arrival at the hostel, immediate reaction is that it´s busy, it´s loud and fairly casual. Pretty indicative of Rio as a whole. They seem to go in for triple-decker bunks in a big way here, which isn´t great (as the last one into my dorm, I understandably got one of the top ones and crashed my head a couple of times on the ceiling!), but the free breakfast this morning out on the veranda/patio area was pretty nice. I got moved to a different dorm today, which actually has more people but seems rather airier, and I´m now in a middle bunk, which is an improvement. Also, the barmaid there makes a pretty mean caipirinha (though these changed to caipiroskas part way through the evening, as the hostel had drunk the entire supply of cachaca so she had to switch to using vodka...). A lot of people were heading out on the town for a big Saturday night (most headed to the district of Lapa), but I had a quiet one in after a seriously long day, and just hung around chatting and having a few drinks.

Anyways, this morning I´ve been for a wander along the beach here at Copacabana. Or rather, I´ve been along the section of the promenade next to it, as I didn´t feel like braving the crossing of the futebol and volleyball courts to get to the area where people were clustered in their deckchairs and the like in masses. It´s really busy, so much so that they close off the seaward side of the Avenida Atlantica, the main road by the beach, on a Sunday for people to walk, skate, or cycle along. And everyone is at the beach. I mean everyone. This is where the Brasilian beach stereotypes start to break down as, whilst those on the sports courts are in pretty good shape, many of those along the promenade are not the kind of people you want to see in their swimwear (especially given the Brasilian fashion trends when it comes to these things - yes, the budgie-smugglers are alive and well in Rio). I´m no artwork myself, but then again I´m not wandering along in my speedos...

Think I may head off and try and make my way over to Sugarloaf Mtn as it´s a gorgeous day and hopefully would be a good view.

Take care and have fun,