Monthly Archives: July 2012

City under siege

As I lie on the bench in the bus station I can hear the explosions going off over head. If I were to stand up and walk to the window, I’d be able to look through the bars and across the river to the opposite side, to see men loading further munitions into their mortar tubes. There are drivers screeching round the cobbled streets on motorbikes and pickup trucks with propaganda messages blaring out the back.

The explosives detonate harmlessly overhead, as is more often than not the case with fireworks, although the phosphorescent colours that one normally associates with them can’t be detected in the harsh midday sun. The drivers with there propaganda messages pass by with big grins, amused by their own catchy jingle, extolling the virtues of their preferred mayoral candidate.

This is the face of democracy in Brazil, and is a scene repeated across the country in the weeks running up to the mayoral elections that each village, town and city will face in the coming months.

It all makes an amusing spectacle for the indifferent outsider, though if truth be told, judging by the responsiveness of the townspeople, they are as indifferent as we are. Alas, the world over, the messages and the method of delivery may change, but political apathy in Brazil is no different to the UK.

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Parque Nacional Chapada Diamantina

We have just spent the week in the Chapada Diamantina national park, a stunning national park about 400km inland from Salvador.

The park is famed for its cave systems, some of which run for miles underneath the park proper and the surrounding ecological reserve. Many of the caves have river systems running through them, some a deep red colour from the mineral tannin that is to be found in them, others run crystal clear and support numerous strange fish, including a translucent albino fish that is blind.

Some of the rivers and pools that can be found both underground and above also seem blue when hit by the sun’s rays. In my opinion these are the most spectacular!

In addition to the rivers and caves, there are some picturesque mountain ranges that resemble Utah’s Monument Valley but without the the red colouring and with significantly more greenery.

The whole of the Chapada and everything that we have seen and done in the Bahia state in the north east has certainly restored our faith in Brazil. It seems the further we travel into the Brazilian hinterland, the nicer the people are and the more beautiful the towns and scenery.

From here, it is further north again, to the Amazon and all the scenery that that offers. Can’t wait…

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The Grotto Lapa

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The Poco Encantado (The Enchanted Pool)

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A shaft of light can be seen underwater in the Poco Azul (Blue Cave)

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The view from the top of Pai Ignacu

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Four nights and 3 days in Salvador

As I sit and write this, it’s mid evening in Centro Historico in Salvador De Bahia. The square, more of a triangle, which I overlook is teaming with activity, couples out for a few drinks and some acaraje sold from the countless street vendors in their traditional Bahian dress. Parties of people looking for a good time in one of the many street bars and the general sightseers, all mix with the locals for a vibrant atmosphere!

This is all set to the soundtrack of pumping drums, banged on mass and to the rhythm of some mixture of African and European, occasionally punctuated by a lone trumpet.

All this feeds in to the feeling I can’t shake that this could quite easily be the set of a Bond film or a John Le Carre novel, and I, the protagonist.

I watch an outrageously beautiful couple walk down arm in arm, past a street vendor whom they briefly talk with. There it was, the dead drop, a manila envelope passed between the two. A motorbike zooms passed, the rider’s face disguised by his helmet – counter surveillance? The drumming seems to grow louder and faster, building to a crescendo. The sniper in the top floor window waiting for the perfect moment to strike, the drum beats drowning out the shot. But he’s too late and an anonymous third party intercepts the couple, their state secrets gone forever, doubtlessly to Cuba and then on to Moscow!

A mosquito bite in my ankle wakes me from my day dream and, after a futile slap of my leg, I return to gazing out over the ‘square’.

For me this was the exotic adventure I had been waiting for, the side of Brazil I had, to date failed to see. Above all, even with the shabby 18th Century buildings and flaking paint, it was somehow impossibly glamourous!

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Is it just me, or is everyone staring?

There is a common cliche in Western films, where the protagonist walks into the saloon through the swing doors and everyone stops what they are doing and silently stares at them.

The feeling that the hero of many a Western must have felt is now something that I can acutely relate to.
We’ve been spending a couple of days in the mountain town of Ouro Preto. Unlike Petropolis, this is a town which all the guidebooks can’t do enough to recommend, and so we were only too happy to make the 8 hour bus journey from Rio to get here.

Initially it’s not hard to see why everyone raves about Ouro Preto! It’s everything that Petropolis is not – there isn’t a 1960’s building in site, almost everything seems to date from the 18th Century if earlier and in every direction you look, there is one of the 14 churches that seem to crown the old town, watching over it.

However, as we sit on the doorstep of our hostel, waiting for it to open (it’s only 6:30am as the bus was early), we can’t shake off the feeling that everyone is staring at us. There is no denying that we stand out, clearly the only two Gringos in the village, but surely the sight if two backpackers waiting outside a hostel on a town renowned for its tourist charms shouldn’t be that shocking?

We get into the hostel and the hostess couldn’t be more friendly, jabbering away to us in Portuguese despite our protestations that we neither speak or understand the language.

Later, as we walk around town the feeling of being eyed up continues. But it’s more than that, people genuinely seem to be harbouring a hostile feeling towards us. They can’t possibly know where we’re from, save that we are not the same as them, therefore it seems that this in itself is enough for them distrust and dislike us.

These feelings are all compounded as our two days continue. The odd few friendly people we meet are more than offset by people at best apathetic to our presence. Nowhere is this more obvious than when we try to go out for a drink in the evening, walking into bars and restaurants where people are literally staring at us and can make no room for us to sit down. Eventually, we find a deserted bar near the edge if town, where the landlady just seems glad of paying customers, even if they aren’t local!

Aside all if this, the architecture and natural beauty of the town and surroundings are noteworthy. The churches are fantastic and the cobbled streets charming. On our second day, it was the feast day of one of the churches’ patron saints and the bells rang out all day… or were they simply ringing to warn the locals that there were foreign devils in their midst!

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Head on the clouds in Petropolis

On Friday, we decided we would take a day to travel north of Rio to the Imperial town of Petropolis, not just because it was the town responsible for brewing one of Rio de Janeiro’s cheapest beers, but also because it is formally the summer capital of Brazil and prior to this, the summer seat of the Brazilian Imperial Family.

The bus from Rio finally brought to me my long envisaged ideal of traveling around South America, steep mountain roads with hairpin bends and lush (Atlantic) rainforest dotted with low lying clouds. This culminated with the sight of a petrol tanker, whose driver had clearly misjudged the bend, hanging half on, half off the road. The driver looking on helplessly from the opposite side of the road!

Petropolis itself sadly didn’t hold the wonders of South American travel that the drive had promised and it was hard to feel even remotely like Hiram Bingham or a Spanish or Portuguese conquistador when faced with more remnants if 1960’s brutalist architecture. Sadly, the low lying cloud had evaporated leaving a grotty town in view.

There were some beautiful buildings to be found, none more so the Imperial Palace which had been well restored. As we moved around the rooms learning about Brazil’s Imperial past and the lifestyle they gave themselves. There was an air of the surreal as everybody in the Palace was wearing specially designed slippers to conserve the flooring. The sight of a museum full of people sliding around like ducks ice skating was enough to cheer anyone’s heart and made the trip worthwhile on its own.

After the Palace we wondered along a canal that at one stage must have made a gracefully walkway but now served as an open sewer, to the city’s cathedral, again a testimony to the town’s opulent and imperial past.

All in all it was a mixed day. If I could get that drive on the way to Buckingham Palace and be guaranteed a sight of the Royal Family sliding around on slippers the I probably wouldn’t bother with Petropolis, but as things stand, it was a nice day trip.

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Poverty Tourism or Helping the Needy?

So the other day we went on a Favela tour in Rio, something the guidebooks claim you have to do before you can say you have truly experienced the city.

We did some research online as to which company to go with, wanting to make sure that the money we paid would actually be pumped back in to the Favela, rather than some seedy Brazilian tycoon living in a penthouse in Ipenema.

We settled on a company whose bold claim was that between 60 and 70% of the money we paid would be put into one if their charity projects in the Favela itself.

For us, if not the rest of the people on our tour, this was important as the idea of simply walking around an area where people live in some of the poorest conditions in the country, simply to snap photos if their poverty didn’t sit well.

And so we set off to visit the Rocinha Favela, a “town” within a city, numbering about 300,000 people. This is by no means the largest in Rio or indeed Brazil, where nearly 40 million people live in these kind of conditions.

We toured through the narrow streets, first ridding pillion on the back of a motorbike taxi, then on foot. We visited an art gallery, where graffiti artists were teaching their craft to kids only once they could prove they were regularly attending school. We saw a “typical” dwelling and learned the “rules” of where and how to build in a Favela.

We went into shops that enterprising residents had set up, tasting local food and drink (cachaca flavoured with a crab and sugar cain). Whether that later was genuinely something drunk in the Favela or merely a trick played on gullible Gringos I am still unsure.

Finally we saw a day care centre that our tour company had set up, looking after kids whose parents worked all day. It was great to see the children laughing and playing as well as some if the older ones being thought English, a skill that is typically lacking in Brazil but I believe will only help them in the future.

All in all I found the experience a really positive one. Although seeing the conditions that people were living in was disheartening, and hearing how in the 80 years if the Favela’s existence, it’s only in the last 2 years that the Federal Brazilian Government has invested in the area, and only then as part of their FIFA World Cup and IOC Olympic commitments.

But at no stage did we feel threatened and the people were all incredibly friendly and genuinely seemed to be making the most if the situation.

If this is a genuine picture of life in a Favela then it’s great to have been able to see it. If its a picture being put on for the foreigners then that is a shame, but I’m still glad I did it.

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Return to Rio

In my mind, Rio de Janeiro is an impossibly glamourously destination. I can’t quite put my finger on why I feel this way, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with seeing James Bond films as a child, vintage photos if Concord flying past Sugar Loaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer and possibly simply the exotic sounding location.

However, as is suggested by the term impossibly glamourous, it is impossible for Rio to live up to this hype. When Roger Moore fought Jaws on the cable car up to Sugar Loaf in the 1970’s, much of the architecture on Copacabana beach was cutting edge. Today the buildings of the city can generally be put into one of two categories, attractive period buildings, left by the Portuguese, or architectural mistakes thrown up in the ’60’s and ’70’s.

Rio also suffers from the problems that affect most big cities, over crowding, homelessness, crime, graffiti and general grime. Walking around the city, your left with the feeling that if you took away the natural wonders of mountains and beaches, and the sky was a typical English grey, you’d be left with a city similar to Birmingham – a few nice period buildings but more often than not pretty grubby 1960’s throw backs.

Brazilians say that God created the Earth in 6 days and on the 7th he created Rio, which is a shame, because if He had hired a town planner, things may have panned out differently.

Still, as I sit here high on a hill in Santa Therese, watching the sun come up over the city below, I can’t quite shake off the feeling that I am somewhere glamourous. After all, it does have the mountains, beaches and weather. And when all is said and done, Rio de Janeiro is just a nicer name than Birmingham!

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The last bus to Trinidade

Straight up I have to confess that this wasn’t the first time I’d taken the bus over to Trinidade, 25k south of Paraty. We’d done the the 40 minute journey during the day to drop off bags and check out the hostel, so to that extent, we knew what to expect.

But there is something different about a journey when it’s pitch black outside and most of the people on the bus are merry after a night out on the town.

It was the combination of sharp bends, steep (1 in 3) includes and sheer drops to the side of the road that made it, during daylight a stubbing journey. In the dark, an unexpected twist in the road followed by a sharp downhill turn, coupled with the fact that the driver had turned every light on the bus out to make sure he had half a chance of seeing the single track road made it justify the £1 fare. The finale to this journey was turning a corner to see the giant waves breaking in the moonlight onto a deserted beach, while the road itself temporarily turns into raw bedrock and a river rushes across it. As the bus splashes through, the lights turn on and you know you’ve made it. I was glad expecting to see a stall by the dude of the road selling photographs of the passengers petrified faces!

I remember when I was a kid at Disney World in Florida riding Space Mountain and being convinced I was going to fall out and die. If Disney can make a roller coaster like this, they’re on to a sure thing!

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If you visit only one colonial town in Brazil…

Some towns have picturesque historic centres, others have a scenic river front. Some have a stunning mountain backdrop, others beautiful beaches. Others have a great nightlife or a charming literary festival. Paraty has it all.

It’s probably no bad thing that Paraty is so perfect, after a boat, two taxis and 3 busses, it’s not been the easiest to get to (albeit most places aren’t when your starting point is a remote island).

To arrive at the town after 24 hours if traveling and find us so picture perfect with South America’s biggest literary festival on is both a blessing and a curse. The town is packed with artists, street performers and the bars full of revellers. On the downside… The town (and corresponding hostels) are packed! After sometime searching online, we stumble in to a hostel that can take us for only one night – about 4 less than we were hoping for – bit it’s clean, that landlady is friendly and doesn’t seem interested in fleecing us. Tomorrow night we can take care of later.

Exploring the “cobbled” – read boulders strewn – streets simply reveal more and more delightful scenes – every picture looking like a shot from Conde Nast Traveller. E take a seat in a bar and take our first sip of a genuine Brazilian Caipirinha and listen to an acoustic rendition of The Girl From Ipanema, a privilege we later realise we must pay for, we plan our stay. Moving on to the beach we are once again confronted with natures simple perfection – the beer helps too.

The next day we explore the festival, a must for those scholars of Portuguese or Brazilian literature, some if which is even translated into English. More climbing over the cobbled streets and then to the bus station.

Back to the lives of commuters as our next hostel is 25k out of town – damn these tourists clogging up these picture postcard towns!

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Water, water everywhere…

So, since my last posting, we’ve visited Iguassu Falls, one of the most spectacular water falls in South America – when visited by Eleanor Roosevelt, she is supposed to have remarked “poor Niagara”. Having now seen both, I have to agree. You were of course to be treated to the obligatory Hipsamatic photo of these natural wonders, however on the night bus leaving Iguassu, my iPod Touch was stolen from my buttoned up pocket without me noticing (impressive if not irritating) so you’ll have to make do with this:

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After leaving Iguassu, we travelled by bus to Curitiba and then by train to Paranagua, one if the most spectacular train journeys in South America. Photos were taken a plenty and when a proper computer is to be found, I shall upload one.

As I write, I’m sat on the beach of a tropical island – Ilha do Mel (Honey Island). An idyllic island with no roads or cars, just a few paths through the interior if Atlantic Rainforest and boats that take you from the two main villages. If you’re looking to travel any faster than walking pace, there are bikes to be rented.

Now, if I can just manage to string up my mosquito net properly it will be true paradise!

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