Monthly Archives: August 2012

Funny Flights and Amusing Airlines

In my last post, I lamented our transition from land to air as a means of travel – if you haven’t read it you can find it here:

I was sorry to be saying goodbye to the constant transition that land based travel offers – new people and new scenery, and I was worried that hopping on a plane at one airport and getting off at another would be the same as the world over.

Like so much else in Brazil, things panned out entirely differently from what was expected.

Planes here (particularly the low cost option preferred by us) operate incredibly similarly to buses. Our flight from Salvador to Belem is a prime example. The route is little over 1,500 miles, less as the crow flies, and could be achieved by plane in roughly 2.5 hours. However this would be too straight forward for Brazilians, and nowhere near as much fun. After 90 minutes our plane landed in Fortaleza, about 500 miles up the coast, we then flew to Sao Luis, roughly speaking another 500 miles, this time in just over an hour. From there we flew the remaining distance to Belem in 45 minutes, where we left the plane to fly on to Santarem and then Manaus, a route we’ll be taking in a couple of days time.

At each airport we were on the ground for just shy of an hour, making a 2.5 hour flight last nearer 6.

That said, it had its charm. Each time you land, you flew low over the landscape to study the change in scenery. People got off and new people got on. It made for great people watching and allowed for the connection with the country to be maintained – not to the same extent, but still more so than a standard A-B flight.

Don’t misunderstand me, having had 1 hours sleep the previous night, being on day two of what was shaping up to be a three day hangover and with the pilots making their Ryan Air counterparts look like they handle planes like Ming vases, I would have given my right arm not to be on that plane. But such are the woes of the international jet setter.

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A Change In Travels

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!

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Beeping Brazilians

On a recent medium length bus journey (12 hours)we took the opportunity to study the tooting habits of the Brazilian driver. The results of the study are thus:

Typically, honks can be categorised into one of 3 categories:

1)      Hello – this is solely the preserve of bus drivers and can only be done by one to another. It consists of one, short, friendly honk, followed by a wave/salute which is unnervingly like a Nazi salute.

2)      Thanks/You’re Welcome – this is reserved for other heavy goods vehicles, bus and lorries drivers. When needing to overtake or being overtaken, you signal your gratitude of your receipt of someone else’s gratitude with 2 honks.

3)      I’m Here/Watch Out – this is without doubt the most complicated of all Brazilian horn signals. There are several variables in play here.

  1. What kind of vehicle are we talking about? If it is motorised, two honks should suffice. If not, there are further dependencies.
  2. Pedestrians – male or female?

If male, what age? Under 30 or over 70 demand 2 honks. Between 30 and 70? No honks – you are expendable.

If female, again age comes into play. If the female is a minor or more than 15 year the bus driver’s senior, 3 honks. If over the age of consent and less than 15 years older than the bus driver, 4-5 honks (at the driver’s discretion). If the woman is attractive, add a honk. If she is wearing something skimpy, add a honk. And if she pays the driver the slightest bit of attention, add another 2 honks.

For all of the above, consider the following; if a bicycle is involved, add 2 honks. If a horse/donkey and cart are involved, reduce to minimal honking.

All of this would undoubtedly make for noisy driving, until you consider the size of the country. Brazil is big enough to absorb all of Europe and still have over 2 million square miles to play with. Ultimately, the number of other road users you come across is limited, and you welcome the break in the monotony.

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Miserable in Maceio

The guidebook describes Maceio as “… friendly, safe and good value”, going on to say “… its old buildings are particularly interesting…”

This is utter bullshit. The place is a dump. The people are miserable and won’t even think to tell you that you’ve clearly boarded the wrong bus. As for the ‘interesting old buildings’, the only interesting thing about them is being able to see the process of degradation in stages as you drive through the town.

Our charming Pousada that was “highly recommended” on HostelWorld fit the town perfectly. The street it was on matched almost exactly the main street in the Favela that we had visited in Rio. Inside, it had the look of a motel you see in a Hollywood blockbuster, when the FBI raid the place to find the hooker’s body in the bath-tub, asphyxiated with her own stockings.

I know what you’re thinking, it cant possible be that bad, perhaps you were unlucky in your accommodation choice and the area?…

No! When taking a local bus to the bus station (in order to book the next available inter-city bus out of here) we were treated to a good portion of the town. Open sewers, slums that made a Favela look 5*, and a town that looked like its glory days were 150 years ago if they ever existed.

On the way back from the bus station, we took the ‘Circular 2’ bus (as recommend in the guidebook) and saw the remainder of the town. Children playing on railway tracks, roads closed by police and people discarding waste by the side of the street. The rivers ran a grey mix of effluence and chemical output and the constant drizzle only added to the overall air of melancholy. (Incidentally, the bus was neither circular, nor where we needed to go)


All in all, this only servers to highlight how unreliable guidebooks can be. For some, the Benidorm style beach fronts and 1960’s high-rises would make for a lovely break. For others who wish to stray off the main road, the town can be little more that a cruel depiction of Purgatory.

As if to reinforce everything we felt, as we sat on the bus south, to civilization, we were delayed by the police, who futilely had tried to screen off the body of a man who had just been shot. Hey lay there, between the two police cars, his shirt raised over his lifeless torso while onlookers rushed to take souvenir photos.

The guidebooks itself, incidentally, was Footprint South America Handbook 2012, by Ben Box.

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