From a tiny movement to one giant leap

For those of you who’ve been following this sporadic and semi-shambolic attempt at regular blogging, you might have noticed a fairly large gap between the last entry about thugs and aliens in Venezuela and my current location of Paraguay.   The truth of it is that I’ve been enjoying myself far too much to spend too much time stooped over a computer and as such, the blog has fallen by the way side.

That said, I really want to make this is to something interesting and useful for those of you floating around interenet land and will be doing my best to climb back on the wagon.  I’ll be picking-up the narrative thread again from my recent travels through Bolivia, but also plan to throw back to some of my adventures from Colombia, Ecuador and Peru if i can manage it.  I’m also going to start throwing up some hostel reviews and a few other travel tips for those of you gearing up for your own South American adventures.

Thanks for dropping by!

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Fear, loathing and aliens in Venezuela

Our dinner reservation was for 7.30pm.  In Venezuelan cities you don’t make reservations because the restaurant is likely to be full, you do it so that they’ll open their doors.  Like residents, barmen and shop keepers, they fear the world outside their door and lock themselves away after dark.

Our pousada was a five minte walk from the restaurant.  At 7.25pm we tried to walk out the door.  The receptionist lost the plot.

‘What????? You can’t go out now, it’s far too late!’.  Her eyes were wide as saucepans.

We protested that it was only 7.30, that we were just around the corner and had promised to meet a friend there.

‘It doesn’t matter, five hundred metres is five hundred metres too far.’
Her face went white as she recounted a story about one of her guests who’d had their face slashed on the plaza the previous week

We asked if she could call us a taxi.

‘No one will come for you now… it’s far too late!’  She made it sound like we were requesting a 3am pick up in Baghdad.

‘Is there any way we can get there safely?’ we asked.  We were both feeling prettty rattled at this point.

She thought for a moment, racking her brain for options.  ‘I can pray for you.’ she offered.   ‘God’s protection is the strongest you can get.’

It was a generous offer but in the heat of the moment I felt decidedly unconsoled.

In the end we decided to brave the five minute walk.  The steam from the  lone arepa vender’s cart rose on the otherwise empty street.  We crossed the plaza under the stern gaze of Simon Bolivar’s sideburned statue, scanning the shadows for a menace that wasn’t there.  We made it to the restaurant without incident where the owner let us in, bolting the door behind us and ushering us out of sight to his upstairs terrace

‘It’s the way of things around here’ he said with a shrug. ‘The police work office hours and people are afraid to be outside after dark’.  From the terrace we had a lovely view over the city, the quiet suggesting a peace that most city dwellers yearn for.  I struggled to fit this into my schema ‘dangerous’, in most dangerous places I’d visited you got a sense of what you should be scared of, here it was all imagined which perhaps made it worse.

We ordered our mains and talked about the increasing levels of violence in the nation.  It was something we’d heard a lot about but nothing we’d actually seen… in countries like Brazil and Colombia foreigners worry for their safety but by and large the locals are out and about night and day, on the streets and going about their business.  In Venezuela the tourists still exchange stories about the murder rate in Caracas (apparently 25 murders a weekend), but it was the locals who seemed genuinely concerned.  For Venezuela’s middle-class it seemed to be the major issue for the upcoming October election.

The owner returned with our dishes, placed them in front of us and then took the conversation in an entirely different direction.

‘On December 21st hundreds of UFO’s will land on the earth’.  He dropped this casually, the way you’d expect someone to deliver tomorrow’s weather forecast.

‘Yes?’  I offered.  I didn’t quite know how else to respond.

‘Yes!’ he beamed.  ‘On December 21 all of the planets will come into alignment and the aliens will come.  I’ve been watching them for a long time now.’  He then proceeded to list all of the strange sightings he’d witnessed over the years, including a recent sighting in Ecuador.

It always surprises me when someone  starts talking about aliens, especially when they are running a business that relies on people trusting their capacity to make rational decisions.  But he had warmed up and wasn’t going to stop.  He offered us a list of websites that he checked on a daily basis and suggested we should monitor the situation for ourselves.  He also brought us our dessert.

At the end of the night he drove us back to our pousada to ensure we got home safely.  He waited for the owner to let us in and smiled and waved as we were locked up in our cage for the night.  A nice guy.  Who knows, perhaps the aliens will come on December 21.  With luck they’ll clean up the streets and make Venezuelans feel safe to be outside at night (or during the day for that matter).  I really hope so, the situation has worsened significantly over the past few years and the residents of Venezuelan cities have spent far too long living in fear of the darkness.

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Into the Jungle

After Machu Pichu, tripping into the Amazon Rainforest is amongst the most frequently ticked boxes on a backpacker’s South American ‘to do’ list.  Stretching out over five and a half million square kilometres across nine different countries, there’s no shortage of locations for visitors to get up and intimate with ‘the Jungle’.  Whether plucking piranhas out of the murky water, posing for photos with tarantulas or risking malaria, the Amazon provides one of the most tangible ‘I did this’ moments on the continent (with photos and stories to match) and it attracts people in droves.

More than anything you’ll encounter in the wild, the most difficult step of the jungle tour is finding yourself a decent and scrupulous operator.  Manaus is seedy at the best of times and while we researched the trip we heard numerous stories about dodgy companies tying animals to trees to make them more ‘spotable’, drunken guides leading boatloads of tourists on crocodile hunts without life jackets and various other horror story scenarios.  In the end we settled on the universally praised Gero Tours, perhaps the soft and gentrified option, but better reputed and better value than any other operator we came across.

We set out early the next morning for a varied commute that took us from Manaus’ surreal urban jungle to an actual one, where blaring car horns and exhaust fumes were nothing but a distant memory.  We escaped the city via speed boat and were then thrown into a jeep that took us through the flooded plains south of the Amazonian capital.  Theoretically the area we passed through was farmland, but the paddocks on both sides of the road were entirely submerged in water.  Enormous water lilies stretched across the flooded expanse while stranded fish lay gasping on the ashphalt.  Arriving at a second dock ninety minutes later,  we were hustled into another waiting speedboat for the final 45-minute ride to Gero’s Jungle Lodge.  The transfers had the efficacy of a well-planned drug run and despite four changes of vehicles and the rough and flooded roads, the journey was smooth from start to finish.

The lodge was more upscale than I’d expected, but still rustic enough to give the impression of being remote and jungley.  As we arrived a group of capuccino monkeys swung overhead, cackling at us from the nearby trees. Dumping our stuff, we left them to their fruit and mirth and jumped into a canoe to explore the flooded forests.  We came into the Amazon at the end of May, a time that corresponds with the region’s highest water levels.  For animal spotting this is a good thing.  The boat is much closer to tree top level providing a closer view of life in the foliage, and lacking dry alternatives, the animals are concentrated into a much smaller area.  The flip side of the coin however, is that our visit also corresponded with the worst ever flooding on record in Brazil, an event that caused mass displacement and widespread disease throughout the region.  But that’s a tale for another time.

The jungle enveloped us as we drifted through the narrow canals and hanging limbs.  A cacophony of birds burst into song as they flew overhead, only to disappear as suddenly as they arrived.  Spotting something of interest, our guide Mateus would cut the engine and a complete silence would fall upon the canoe.  It was a beautiful silence, full of suspense and wonder as we raked our eyes over the surrounding to see what had caught Mateus’ attention.  Sometimes he would point out a static object, a medicinal plant or blooming flower, but he mostly used these silences to highlight the numerous creatures surrounding us.   With a single word and a straightened finger he would draw our attention to ‘Hawk’, ‘Dolphin’, ‘Sloth’, ‘Caiman’ and a variety of other birds, while using the same gentle tone to emphasise  ‘Sunset’ as the sky flamed orange and then went pink around us.

On day two we got up early and headed into much denser vegetation to explore the jungle on foot.  It was a different type of jungle to the flooded forest, more closed and menacing.  We were only fifty metres from our boat when the thick overhead canopy blocked out the sun entirely and the air closed in around us.  It created an eerie environment and each croak, buzz and rustle made us turn.  A jaguar roared somewhere nearby and the group fell to a hush.  I briefly wondered what I’d do if it rushed at us, looked for a potential tree to climb and came up short of options.  It was a pointless exercise, jaguars associate groups of humans with hunting trips (as opposed to fresh off the boat mosquito-mauled foreigners) and the mysterious cat quickly distanced itself from us.

We continued on our way for another hour or so, but between the dense canopy and thick mists there was little to see.  Somewhere close A toucan sung forlornly but remained out of sight.  A vine snake slithered off the path the second it heard us coming.  By contrast, an enormous toad leapt unabashed in front of us, but failed to win any love from the group despite its forwardness.  We returned to base camp impressed by the density and immensity of the jungle but disappointed not to see many animals.

After lunch we had our piranha fishing session, one of the most spruiked aspects of the tour.   I was surprised that we were instructed to wear open-toed sandals given we were supposed to drop the little buggers at our feet (our guide had a permanent scar where one had savaged his finger), but like a good boy I did as I was told.  We found the piranha pool, tied some raw chicken onto our hooks, cast the rods and waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Despite its extreme sounding name, piranha fishing is pretty much identical to normal fishing.  Nothing much happens.  Between six of us, we caught three fish in as many hours, a poor return by anyone’s standards.  Apparently the high water levels make it much harder to catch the fish, but perhaps our guide simply said this to console us.  Either way I was happy to have plucked one of the three fish out of the water.  It was no bigger than my little finger, had silver scales, pointy teeth and evil eyes.  It was too small to eat so I threw it back, but it bled from its hook wound and would likely have been ripped to shreds by its brothers.  The circle of life can be cruel in this neck of the woods.

That night we went caiman (crocodile) spotting, one of those counter-intuitive activities that you’d never do in your own spare time at home…  Again our crew of six poured into the boat and with flashlights roaming, puttered into the nearby reeds.  The guides (two are required when crocs are involved) scanned the surrounds and searched for the reflection of the caiman’s eyes on the surface of the water.  Seeing two gleaming red dots near the bow of the boat, the guide lunged and we suddenly had a squirming 20cm long caiman aboard with us.  Pinning its neck and holding it by the torso, the guide gave us a rundown on its biology and then passed it around so we could all have a hold.  Believe it or not, it was my first time holding a crocodile and it made me pretty nervous.  It was cold, wet, slimy and hard, and did its best to wriggle from my grip the moment it was in my hands.  Apparently their mouths are full of bacteria and even small bites cause serious infections.  I passed it on before I thought too much about the consequences of dropping it.

The final major activity of the trip was the jungle camp out, another highly spruiked aspect of the tour that most tourists have a naively romantic notion of.  In the perfect world it would be an experience in a remote part of the forest where all kinds of rare and exotic animals parade past your hammock and in the morning you are woken by a spectacular sunrise and a symphonious bird song.  Yet by doing the trip with a responsible and well-run tour company, you are never going to camp as ‘out there’ as you’d like… there’s too much potential for things to go wrong (i.e getting lost or eaten).  We set up camp in a clearing far enough from base camp to give the impression of remoteness, but close enough to keep things relatively comfortable.

It wasn’t quite enough for me… despite beeing out in the jungle, the only difference between this and our nights in the lodge was the sheer number of mosquitos.  From dusk on they attacked us relentlessly, lapping up our DEET repellent as if it were lolly-water.  Swatting them away didn’t help much either, the little bastards penetrated every article of clothing, drank their fill and then made way for their buddies to have a turn.  We retreated to our hammocks and mosquito nets as soon as dinner was done, slapping wildly at the rogue insects inside our nets and battling with the hammock to find a comfortable position.  Dawn came slow.

Until the final morning of the trip every activity had run according to plan.  We’d start on time, nobody would get eaten and at the end of it all we’d return to the lodge safe, sound and home in time for dinner.  As much as I admired the guides ability to stick to the plan, it all felt a little bit too neat for my liking.  The final day’s canoe trip however was the exception.  It was a spontaneous trip and Mateus took us much deeper into the flooded forest than before, forcing a new route for the canoe by smashing through the branches in front of the boat.  We landed deep in spider territory and found fist-sized tarantulas crawling all over the embankments.  For the first time on the trip it felt like we were deviating from the script.

The major deviation came however when we tried to return to the lodge.   The path we’d beaten through the reeds had closed behind us and the guide struggled to get his barings.  We tried to make a new path through the branches but only managed to get our canoe edged and were unable to move backward or forward.  It was stinking hot and we had no drinking water, we couldn’t move and a swarm of bullet ants crawled aboard and rushed all over our seats.  Torn between boyish excitement and mild unease, it was the Indiana Jones moment I’d been chasing.  Sure enough we dislodged ourselves and everything worked out fine.  Things usually do.

It’s probably ridiculous for a city-boy to crave too much authenticity from a trip into the Amazonian jungle.  Given my nerves in the controlled situations, I’d probably be utterly useless were I exposed to much more than I saw.  That’s exactly why the tour is worth experiencing.  We don’t belong in the jungle, plain and simple.  Yet by taking yourself out of your comfort zone and realising how vulnerable we are, you can gain perspective that’s seldom on offer in the daily grind.  More than photos and tall tales of pirahnas and snakes, perspective is the major thing we should be taking from the Amazon.  As cheesy as it sounds, we’re smaller than we think we are.

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If you are reading this entry because you are looking for a Jungle Tour operator in Manaus, I would highly recommend Gero Tours. You can check out their website here

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Adventures aboard the Amazon Star

Looking down into this great and noble river, the face of which was capable of such extraordinary changes of expression all in the space of a few moments, we both experienced that feeling which comes so rarely to human beings of wishing that the moment in which we living might be infinitely prolonged.

– Eric Newby, Slowly Down the Ganges

Travelling on the Amazon River should be a profound thing.  It’s the world’s biggest river and one of the few that people can name beyond the boundaries of their own country.  From the moment I knew we’d be heading upstream from Belem my mind filled with literary images and pretensions… I’d be Huckleberry Finn aboard a Brazilian raft or journeying through a Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness like dreamscape of ‘utter savagery’.   I was chasing that profound experience you hope to find when you are beyond your comfort zone and at the mercy of the elements surrounding you.

Pretensions are exactly that.  Travelling on the Amazon is nothing like motoring into deepest darkest Africa.  It’s a commuting route travelled daily by hundreds of people and like many commutes, is full of inconveniences and unexpected delays.  It’s an active choice to take the slow road (when most locals would much rather fly if they could), to put your life on hold for three, five or even fifteen days depending on your luck and your destination.  The old cliché about it being the journey not the destination is apt here – the destination remains an abstract concept until you arrive.

We spent our first ninety minutes at the docks baking outside in the midday sun, wondering why they’d locked us out.  From a position of shade and relative comfort within, officials assured us that this was but a temporary delay and that it would be business as usual shortly.  In these parts ‘business as usual’ is one of many euphemisms for queueing.  Without any explanation for the delay the steel doors opened and we were ushered into the dusty boatshed so our waiting could begin in earnest.

In the dim light two queues shot off in opposite directions.  Neither was moving and without any method to the madness we simply decided to join the longer one (lets call it queue A) and hope for the best.   We reached the counter an hour later so official #2 (supervised by official #3) could stamp the back of a our tickets and grunt at our passports.  We were then free to join the glacially-paced queue B so that officials #4 and #5 could hand-copy our names onto a passenger list and decorate our tickets with additional stamps.  This done, we could finally join the static and snaking queue C to get on board the boat, by which time I had lost all track of time and space.  I reached the front of queue C only to be rejected by official #7, who shook his head and asked me to re-join queue B.  Apparently official #4 had forgotten one of the stamps I required. It was the glazed cherry atop an afternoon of tedium.

In contrast to the four hours of aimless queueing the final push onto the boat felt urgent.  Horror stories of stinky toilets, noisy restaurants and extreme overcrowding in the hammock bays are the stuff of legend.  In Rio I’d met a traveller who’d had five hammocks swinging over him, his memories of the Amazon seven days of claustrophobia with other people’s sweat dripping over him and a variety of arse cheeks hanging in his face.  I was determined to avoid his fate.  We carefully staked out territory only to realise that we had no idea how to string up our hammocks – eight years of scouting useless when it really counted.  Fortunately an elderly man came to our rescue and we were bunkered down in our securely fastened hammocks before the masses boarded the boat.

The hammock bay was twenty metres long and five metres wide.  It felt dull and hollow on arrival but within minutes a technicoloured explosion of hammocks and string had transformed the space into something of a circus tent.  Everyone was equal in this environment and cheap camouflaged nylon hammocks swung next to king-size chequered deluxe models as the space around us shrank.  The numbers seemed less sardine-esque than we’d feared though a solid swing would have seen us collide with our neighbours like the magnetic balls on an office desk.  The sky turned magenta over the river mouth, a horn sounded, the motor rumbled into life and we were off, Belem fading from view with the last of the daylight.

Setting off on a journey is usually accompanied by a rush of exhilaration, the take off of the plane or the rattle of the train as it picks up speed.  It’s still present on a ferry as the shore grows distant, but the thrill fades faster.  Our boat’s maximum speed (still a gentle chug) was achieved within minutes yet with nothing to see outside but the faint silhouette of the riverbank, our sense of being underway was minimal.  Growing tired of looking at nothing in particular our attention quickly turned to the internal space that would be our home for the next couple of days.

The Amazon Star was split into two passenger levels and an out-of-bounds cargo deck.  Our hammock bay was a subterranean white-walled cave with pungent toilets and a pokey restaurant joining the circus tent we’d created.  Life jackets were stuffed into gaps in the ceiling and spiders commuted beneath fluorescent lights via a sophisticated network of cobwebs.  Upstairs there were a few stuffy cabins for privacy-craving passengers and the bar, the central meeting point of the boat.  I briefly imagined five days of serenely drifting upstream, sitting at the bar with a cold beer in hand, but this and my ear drums were blown away by the enormous amps positioned right and left of the counter.  Vomiting the worst of Brazilian pop from 9am until 11pm, the music shattered the peace inside and outside the boat as well as my opinion of contemporary Brazilian music.

Although there were a few other travellers on board, 98% of the passengers were local, the boat their main means of transport between home and the rest of the world.  Having made the trip countless times the commuters were completely unimpressed by the mighty Amazon.  They either stayed in their hammocks or at the bar for the duration, playing dominoes, drinking themselves into oblivion and hurling their empty beer cans into the water.  Between games they’d ask us where we were from and wonder aloud why we’d take this route by choice.  With no interest in drinking or sitting still, their children ran loose exploring every nook and cranny.  Occasionally they’d entertain themselves, but they got their biggest kick following the gringos around and rarely gave us a moment’s peace.  A friend playing on his laptop regularly attracted a crowd of five or six kids (plus a couple of curious adults) while others snuck up behind me to stroke my beard or stare at Lysette’s blue eyes.

The bar and its surrounding tables and chairs quickly became the communal space where everyone shared everything with everyone else.  Brazilians shared beer with foreigners, strangers set up card games with other strangers, gypsies shared cachasa (a cheap sugar cane spirit) and music with everyone.  By the time we stumbled back downstairs and collapsed into our hammocks we were in a pleasant state of fuzz.

The sun rose and light crept into the world drifting past my hammock.  The river, sometimes too wide to see from one bank to the other, ran between two walls of deep impenetrable forest.  It seemed unending, the same scene repeating itself over and over again with only the slightest of variations.  Dense, tropic and secretive, I tried to imagine what lay beyond the closest trees but could only conjure up more of the same.  Dwellings and churches occasionally broke up the massive tangle of foliage, the churches by far the most colourful and sturdy of the buildings.  The tiny corrugated iron huts often housed more than ten people and hinted at a life so removed from my own that I struggled to conceive of it.  Cut off from the rest of the world and wedged between an inhospitable forest and river, I wondered how they lived, what they lived off, who they fell in love with, whether they considered themselves blessed or cursed to live in such isolation (or whether they thought of this at all), how they viewed themselves, whether they saw the river, forest and God as friends or enemies.  My mind spun at the possibilities.

Although there was a lack of specific things to ‘do’ on board, life quickly settled into a gentle routine, stops and unexpected events breaking up the six-day meditation.  A couple of boys paddled a canoe alongside our ferry, lashed themselves to it and tried selling fruit through the windows.  Having sold a couple of bananas and been towed twenty minutes upstream, they cut the rope and drifted back towards their huts and out of sight.  It was as if they’d never existed in the first place.

Schools of dolphins chased the boat at several points, the greys small, leaping and joyful, the pinks rising slowly to the surface like crocs larger, much more menacing than a dolphin should be. The dolphins, stumbling drunks and meal announcements managed to turn heads, but otherwise passengers remained lost in their own thoughts as they swung gently in the breeze.

Religion was a common theme on board the boat.  Although one man told me that Jesus was the cause of all of Brazil’s problems (they’re waiting for someone else to save them he explained) a majority of passengers carried a copy of the Bible around with them at all times.  Many swung with the good book in their hammocks, concentrating on highlighted paragraphs and mouthing the words to themselves as they read.  One evening they even held a ceremony in the hammock bay and forty-odd passengers gathered in a circle to sing hymns by candlelight.  The songs had the uplifting melodies of the evangelical movement, but in the candle-lit cavern it created quite an eerie effect. Christianity has been a constant presence during my travels through Brazil, but here, more than anywhere, people lived and breathed God’s law.

Arriving in Manaus at the end of the trip was something of an anti-climax.  The forest gave way to the grotty outer reaches of suburbia and before long the hawkers were swooping on the docks.  Manaus is a city that shouldn’t be, and is the polar opposite to everything you’d expect from a city located in the middle of the world’s largest jungle.  Home to two million people, log-jammed with traffic, it’s polluted and seedy and the sight of it has broken the heart of many an ideological soul.  It lacked the grace and tranquility of all that had gone before it, but so it goes.  For six days and nights I enjoyed the disconnect from the ‘real’ world, chatting with strangers, jamming with Argentinians, drinking cachasa beneath dry lightning storms, losing myself somewhere between rambling thoughts, bad pop music and the engine’s constant roar.  Perhaps we got lucky with the weather above and the toilets below, the people we met and the lower (but not low) number of passengers on board.  If we’d left a day later this might have been a completely different story.  As it was I easily could have continued on board for another couple of weeks, swinging in a hammock as the engine chugged endlessly towards another horizon.

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Jericoacoara

There are some places where the telling of them seems more like an unadulterated brag than anything else. Enthusiasm gets the better of you and before you know it you are launching into a tirade of ‘you had to be there’ stories that bore the pants off anyone listening and utterly fail to capture the place you’re trying to describe. Eventually shaking your head, you’ll mutter something along the lines of ‘you have to go there’ and wonder how you can possibly express your love of the place and describe it without succumbing to every cliché in the book.

Jericoacoara is where you’d hope to wash ashore if your boat sank in unchartered waters.  A place where you can feel alone in the universe and enjoy the sensation.  A tiny coastal town surrounded by palm trees and mountainous sand dunes, Jeri lies smack bang in the middle of a national park and is only accessible by buggies or four-wheel drive. It’s not a place for a cultural or educational experiences, the six sandy streets offer little more than a couple of surf shops, restaurants and the occasional squashed frog.  Rather it’s a place where you can enjoy the experience of living without anything else getting in the way.

This relaxed approach to life is most embodied by the daily pilgrimage to the top of a large sand dune on the edge of town where everyone sits and nurses a sandy beer or capirinha while they watch the sun set over the ocean. If it happens to be a good one, the sun recieves a round of applause for its troubles. As the final rays of light disappear from the horizon and the crowd stumbles back down the dune, capoeira groups play on the sand below, a final blur of motion and sound before night time arrives.

Most of my Jeri memories aren’t related to specific events, more to a series of images, sounds and smells. Swinging in a hammock with a good book, being whipped by the sand as you climb a dune, squeezing lime over a grilled fish plucked fresh from the ocean, waking to the sound of mangoes falling on the roof and feeling pleasantly alone in the universe.  Strongest of all is the image of myself sitting beneath a velvet sky full of stars, cold beer in hand while a score of men played an acoustic samba concert. It remains the most blissful moment of my trip so far.

Sometimes the telling of a place seems more like an unadulterated brag than anything else.  A thousand clichés bundled together into a few small paragraphs.  But whether this captures the scent of a fallen mango or the sizzle of a grilling fish is almost besides the point.  Your memories of Jeri may be of the howling wind or the blaze of a shooting star.  Whatever they might be, you have to go there and experience them for yourself…

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Salvador – City of slaves, sin and song

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If you’re going to get mugged in one city in Brazil, it will most likely be Salvador’ Lonely Planet (2007)

‘There is no sin below the equator’ Chico Buarque

‘You think Rio’s bad? Wait til you get to Salvador…’ is something of a common line on the backpacker trail. Long before we arrived to the Bahian capital we’d encountered plentiful stories of knives and menace, even meeting one Australian who’d been mugged four times in the space of a month, finally deciding to leave after being dragged into a dark alley and relieved of his shoes. In Salvadore’s defence, the muggings were his only complaint about his time there. Despite the scare stories, most contained the same basic ingredients, drunken foreigners walking somewhere they shouldn’t at stupid o’clock in the morning, typically with an iPhone or wallet in their hand. There’s no doubt that some tourists get unlucky but by and large Darwinism determines the city’s victims amongst the international tourists (check here for our hostel’s list of do’s and do nots).

We stayed in the Pelourinho, the old town, named after the whipping post where errant slaves were publically punished. It’s a reminder that three times as many slaves were shipped to Brazil from Africa than the USA. Having destroyed a large percentage of the enslaved indigenous population, the Portuguese developed a pang of conscience and decided that shipping in more durable Africans from across the seas would be a more righteous action. For most of the slaves Salvador was their gateway into Brazil and it remains the city with the highest African-originating population anywhere outside of Africa. Although the social inequalities of the past are still evident, Salvadore also higlights many of Brazil’s cultural and gastronomical features, the lion’s share of which originated on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

African influence runs through every aspect of Bahian life, most notably in religion, music and cuisine. When the slave’s religions were banished by their Portuguese masters, the slaves played ball and transplanted Christian names onto their deities. Jesus became Oxolá and so on. Although we missed out on the Candomble ceremony where screaming believers are exorcised of their sins, we managed to head to the equally interesting church of Bonfim, famous for its miraculous healings. Believers flock to the church every Friday to pray for their sick loved ones, leaving behind replicas of the infected body part that they hope will be cured. Walking through the rooms full of hanging wax legs, heads, hearts, breasts, penises and sometimes even a full baby replica, was both surreal and quite sad. The front fence was also alive with multicoloured ribbons blowing in the wind, each one containing a wish for the happy healthy future for a loved one.

Yet for all the churches and ceremonies, music is the single most dominant feature of the city. Coffee vendors blast tunes from tinny speakers installed in their stands, capoiera groups beat drums and twang berimbaus in the squares while free outdoor concerts crop up around town on an almost nightly basis (we managed five gigs over ten days). It gets to the point where you feels like individual songs are chasing you round the city, first leaping at you from someone’s personal stereo and then chasing you through a supermarket. Just when you think you’ve escaped it, someone walking past will whistle the tune into your ear ensuring it remains stuck in your head for another couple of hours.

Of all the concerts we saw the stand out weekly street party in which the Pelourinho transforms into a riot of caprinhas and colour. The stairs next to our hostel became a stage and stand, gathering a mass of smiling faces to sing, drink and smoke contently while a band (the same one every week) work their way through a string of pop and reggae tunes. On the street below venders grill unidentifiable meats and offer 3 x 2 ice cold beer before being swept away by a drum procession that consumes the city. Carrying steel and conga like drums, local batucada groups beat tribal rhythms as they snake through the narrow streets and lead the crowd in a series of dance moves. Giving up on trying to keep in time with the rhythmic Brazilians, I focussed on not falling over on the cobble stones whilst dodging the whirling capoeira players in their series of jumps and kicks.

Perhaps what makes the celebration so amazing is that it is almost identical week from week, the same bands, the same food, the same people, and yet everyone throws themselves with abandon into the celebration as if they were experiencing it for the first time. It’s a joyous aspect of the city and perhaps the one that leaves the strongest impression. Long after our overnight bus set out, the tunes of Bahia were ringing in our ears.

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City of the Future – Brasilia

You can tell Brasilia is different the moment you step off the bus.  Bus stations are typically dark fumey caverns on a city’s fringe, a place to escape as soon as possible.  By contrast Brasilia’s effort felt like a new international airport.  Luminous and air-conditioned, the space seemed designed to give visitors a strong first impression of the city.  In Brasilia first impressions are important.  The second you start thinking beyond how things look to how they actually work,  the city begins to come unstuck.

Designed and constructed in little over five years at the end of the 1950’s, Brasilia was an architect’s wet dream.  The ‘aeroplane’ design  (see pic below) split the city into two wings running north-south from the ‘body’ of government buildings in the city centre.  No building could stand taller than the National Congress, while idealists imagined ‘generals and foot soldiers’ living happily together in large apartment blocks.  Such a utopia was never going to fly with those at the top of the food chain, and the typical city class divisions quickly fell into place.  The finite limits of the ‘wings’ left no place for the poor, forcing them into satellite towns that sprung up all around the perimeter.

Although it’s the political/bureaucratic capital, Brasilia tends to be looked down on by the rest of the country.  Clean, organised and slightly dated, it’s a 1960’s vision of the future populated by people who weren’t born there.  It’s well-off, white and scarily like Canberra.  It has also been one of my favourite stops on the trip so far and again I have Couchsurfing to thank.

This time our host was Gustavo, Brasilia’s Batman.  A sharp-suited lawyer by day and pyjama-panted samba guitarist by night, he even kept a costume in his car (a Borat man-kini) in case he got invited to an impromptu fancy dress party.  Picking us up at 8am, he was instantly in tour guide mode, pointing out everything of interest as we drove towards his office.  Despite the overnight bus trip his enthusiasm was contagious.

He dropped us in the ‘plaza of three powers’ and left us to our own devices.  With a 10-year out of date Lonely Planet in hand we ambled into the National Congress (see pic below), expecting a panoramic rooftop view of the city.  A secretary checked our passports, took our photo and waved us through security.  There were no signs for the lookout so we jumped in an elevator and headed up.  On the top floor office staff scurried about like ants, ignoring the sweaty gringos wandering freely through their Kafka-like labyrinth of dingey corridors.  It was all quite surreal.

Eventually we found the rooftop terrace, locked and barred from the inside.  A bemused guard informed us that it had been closed to tourists for years due to an excessive number of suicides.  Seeing our disappointed non-suicidal faces, he took pity on us and allowed us a five-minute viewing.  It was the best view in town.  From above on high the architect’s meticulous planning of roads and landmarks became apparent, as did the complete lack of spark and tumble that makes a city interesting in the first place.  It was a bit too neat for its own good.

The flip side to the bureaucratic nature of the Federal State is that it is also home to a large number of cults.  In 1883 a prophet predicted that Jesus would return at the beginning of the third millennium, providing co-ordinates and a description of a city that roughly matched Brasilia.  Believers and weirdos of all varieties have since moved into the surrounding area, the most impressive involve mad costumes and UFO landing sites some 50km outside of the capital.  If you are uncertain about what to wear when Jesus returns, google search for pictures of ‘Vale do Amanhecer’ and get all the fashion inspiration you could possibly need.

The most well-known of the cults is the Temple of Good Will, a large pyramid adorned with the world’s largest raw crystal.  Entering the temple you walk bare-footed, following a black spiralling path into the centre of a big circle in the middle of the temple.  There, directly beneath the crystal, the path turns to white and you become cleansed as you follow it back out to the foot of the altar.  Even for a self-confessed cynic it was an interesting meditational process, though I did have to smile at the guy texting furiously behind me as he walked the path to a cleaner soul.  Once cleansed, you are free to explore Egyptian tombs, an underground crypt and pay tribute to visionaries varying from John Lennon and Martin Luther King to one-time Brazilian dictator Getulio Vargas.  They also have free wifi.

Gustavo guided us perfectly through each of the city’s personalities.  Each morning he’d drive us to a gallery/museum/monument on his way to work, pick us up for lunch in a ‘pay per kilo’ restaurant and then drop us somewhere else for the afternoon.  Wherever we went, he was always interested in our impressions of the place, smiling when we had enjoyed something and sharing his own thoughts and experiences of the same places.

Yet for each tourist attraction we visited, there was a samba night or beer-making course to match.  Gustavo’s 20-piece band attracted five hundred smiling dancing Brasilians to a shed in the middle of nowhere, nubile bodies flinging in all directions.  Another night we joined thousands to see Naçao Zumbi play a free concert (celebrating International Water Day) in front of the TV tower.  Fusing traditional instruments from the north-east with afro-blues beats and Rage Against the Machine activism, the band performed a blistering set and had the crowd bouncing and singing as one.

In a place like Brasilia you can see why Couchsurfing is so important, perhaps even more so for locals than travellers.  Most people head to the capital for work and struggle to find life beyond their office.  Tapping into a group of open-minded people organising parties, barbeques and weekend trips on a regular basis helps you to forge a home away from home.  This might sound as cultish as the third millennium groups I mentioned earlier, but in a place where people lack emotional ties to the city, the local Couchsurfing group provides a much-needed human touch.

Brasilia’s not the first place I’d go back to in Brazil, but it’s the place I feel I could most easily establish myself.  A couple of weeks around Gustavo and his extended network is enough to have friends for life.

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