Today marks a noted change in our trip. Until now, we have spent the last month and a bit travelling through Brazil by land. We have spent literally days on buses, traveling thousands of miles from the south of Brazil by Iguassu Falls and the border with Argentina, to the North East and Salvador and beyond.
Overall I have enjoyed these bus journeys. They have been long and slow, typically averaging just over 30mph, a tedious speed to travel over 1000 miles in one go. They have at times made us feel unsafe, my iPod was stollen on the overnight bus to Curitiba, I’ve taken to chaining my camera bug to the chair leg in order to be able to doze. And they have at times been crowded by undesirables – thieves and crooks, large families clearly fleeing something and those who have past the time waiting for the last bus of the day in the bar, and now seem unable to hold the alcohol in on the bumpy, twisty roads.
However, despite this, it has allowed me to to feel I am seeing the country. I have enjoyed being able to stare out of the window in a half trance and watch the countryside go past, and change.
Recently in the North East, I watched from my window as the landscape seemed to change from the tropical near Salvador, to Tuscan just north, then as the rain came on, the rural west of Ireland, rolling hills, cattle and lush green grass. It then changed again to something akin to the American prairies, flat and boundless, fertile but dusty. Finally, palm trees returned, the Atlantic Ocean could be seen and we were back in the tropics.
It has also given a feeling of being one of the locals. We have rarely been on a bus with more than a couple of other travellers, with the majority of people being native. We have watched as some get off at one stop and more got on. We have woken early in the morning to find an almost entirely different group of people to those whom we fell asleep with.
But as well as all this, it had frequently felt like endurance travel. Enduring the long and slow journeys simple for the sake of saying we have done them.
Add to this, the further north we go, the worst the roads get, the slower the buses travel, and less frequently. And they become less safe. Between Salvador and Belem (our next destination) there have been recent reports of armed gangs stopping buses to rob people!
As such, we have made the decision to fly north and then along the Amazon. Stopping frequently so as to keep our route as intact as possible and also not lose the connection with the country we are traveling through.
I’m currently making my way through one if the best travel books ever written – Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express. In his 2008 foreword to the book, Theroux describes his feelings towards air travel; “I dislike planes, and when I’m on one – suffering the deafening drone and the chilly airlessness that is peculier to planes – I always suspect that the land we are overflying is rich and wonderful and that I am missing it all. Air travel is very simple and annoying and a always a cause of anxiety. It is like being at the dentist’s; even the chairs are like dentist’s chairs. Overland is slow and a great deal more trouble, but it is uncomfortable in a way that is completely human and often reassuring.”
I can only agree with him and can’t quite shake off the feeling that I am cheating somehow in flying, taking the simple option. I’m certainly no stranger to air travel, and for me, I suspect there is little difference in boarding a plane bound for Belem than one from Luton to Glasgow, Edinburgh or Shannon. There is no challenge in it and the result is there is no sense of achievement, or excitement. Theroux’s comments only compounded my feeling of failure for having cheated.
I was then pleased to read in the book proper Theroux say; “… I was homesick. Was there any point in this trip aside from the fact that I had been too restless to stay at my desk and endure another winter? I had left in fine spirits, but I was no explorer: this was supposed to be enjoyment, not a test of stamina or patience. I did not take any pleasure in suffering the torments of travel mearly so that I could dine out on them.”
His thoughts echoed mine greatly. Ultimately this trip is about enjoyment. I had distinctly felt that a number of our bus journeys were a simple act of endurance – the sheer size of Brazil ensures this. Traveling the whole country by land would have offered me little but the knowledge that I could go home and say I had done so, and at the cost of my enjoyment. Ultimately, to ruin an amazing trip with an act of endurance simply to say you had endured seemed futile, and so to the airport, to new adventures further north, and most importantly, to enjoyment!