Manaus: The Heart of the Amazon

We arrived in Manaus in the early afternoon and decided to team up with Hilary and Diane to find a good hostel. After walking through the port, we met Thomas: a charismatic native of Manaus with a great sense of humour.  Thomas recruits and refers tourists to his hostel and organizes their stay. Tours, places to eat, things to see, you name it, Thomas will help you organize it and then introduce you to 5 other people who have already done it. His grasp of the English language is impeccable, and he is exactly the kind of person we all wanted to meet upon arrival. Strangely enough, having recruiters swarm you at bus stations and ports is something I kind of miss from Asia, and it’s infinitely easier than walking around the city from hostel to hostel with a 15kg backpack on!

 

So just like that, we had a cozy place to stay, with a room just for the 4 of us, and were sitting down organizing tours within the hour. Sadly, Adam and I had only one full day to spend in Manaus, so we booked a day tour for the Friday and hoped to see as much of the city as possible! 
After we were hooked up with a cheap seafood dinner of local Amazonian fish, we were offered a free, private walking tour of the city from Thomas’ brother (or sister as he jokingly referred to him as).

 

The markets in Manaus are incredible. The less impressive fruit market was quite a sight to behold.  Truckloads of fruits and vegetables collected from the jungle, lay over huge wooden palates waiting to be bought.  A massive variety of tropical fruits and vegetables to choose from and a stack of bananas larger than I’ve ever witnessed!  Afterwards we walked over to the fish market.  The market was slowing down by the time we arrived in the evening, but at 5am, Manaus’ fish market explodes with people trying to get a deal on fish for the day. There are apparently over 2000 different species of fish to be found in Manaus, and the fish market is where you can get most of them.  Row upon row of stalls where fisherman slice up their catch and prepare the food for buyers.  Anyone can buy fish at the market, but it is particularly popular with restaurant owners buying their daily specials at the crack of dawn.

After the markets, we walked through the city checking out it’s main sights: the opera house, the university and the many beautiful plazas that are scattered throughout. I was amazed at how industrial and beautiful Manaus really is. It is a booming city with a very strong economy and is WAY larger than I would have imagined from a city in the middle of the jungle. There are over 400 factories in Manaus, many of them big name car companies and appliances. It’s even one of the largest microwave distributors in the world. Random. Manaus is a city where people from all over Brazil come to get work. It has such a huge workforce that there are always places to find a job. Before Southeast Asia began its rubber production, Manaus was the largest rubber exporter in the world. The rubber production made for an extremely wealthy economy. The place was so rich, that the women would have all their clothes shipped to Europe to get them CLEANED instead of doing it themselves, and the men would smoke cigarettes through dollar bills.  If only I could afford these luxuries!

 

When we arrived back at the hostel, Thomas had pitchers of caipirinhas waiting for us. It wasn’t long before we met a bunch of Colombians, Swedes and Spanish guys outside and joined them for drinks. We sat in patio furniture on the street and attempted to understand our trilingual conversations. We drank and sang Spanish songs like “La Bamba,” with the accompaniment of Juan-Carlos’ guitar, for what seemed like hours. Then we all headed out on the town till the wee hours of the morning!

 

When Adam’s alarm went off at 7:30am I was a zombie. We had a maximum of 3 hours of sleep, although no one really checked the time we finally fell asleep, so it could have been less. So excited for an 8 hour day tour of Manaus…
 not!  Turns out it was just Adam and I on the tour with a man that didn’t speak English. Not sure how we always end up on private tours, but it seems to be a trend for us in Brazil! I was in no condition to translate Portuguese, but our tour was amazing nonetheless!

 

We took a boat out to the meeting of the rivers to start. This is where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes converge to make the Amazon. Because of the amount of acid in the water, the Rio Negro is a very dark, almost black colour. Contrastingly, the Solimoes is a light brown, muddled hue. The acidity and temperature differences between the two rivers keeps them separated, and thus there is a very defined line where the waters meet that stretches for about 6km! We could actually feel the temperature differences as we traveled between the two on our boat.

As we were boating to our next destination, we FINALLY saw the elusive pink river dolphins! Adam has been talking about these pink dolphins since day 1 of our trip. They were on his trip’s bucket list before anything else in fact! So it was very exciting to see them in the wild. They are the only fresh water dolphins in the world and no one quite knows how they ended up in the Amazon. It is believed that perhaps they migrated into the river up to 15 million years ago! Their brains are 40% larger than a human’s and they are unique in that their neck bone is not fused with their spine, giving them a lot of mobility in their heads. The dolphins are a light grey colour with pink around their heads. A number of strange local legends surround the animals; it is said that the dolphins shift shapes in the night to impregnate women on land! We did spot a couple in the distance when we were on our 6-day trip, but seeing them up close was very cool!

 

When the dolphins swam out of view, we boated through a floating village that both survived and made a living off the river. Local fisherman caught pirarucu fish from the river and kept them in large tanks to sell them at a later date. The fish are massive!! They can get up to 180kilos and small ones are still a whopping 90kg. One of the fishermen tied small fish to a wooden pole and let us try to fish for them in the tank. They snapped at the fish, literally jumping out of the water to grab the food, but it was practically impossible to reel them in with the weight of them; however, for lunch afterwards, we got to eat the fish as part of our buffet. Which was fun, even though we didn’t catch one ourselves.

From there, we walked through the ecological park to the giant lily pads! Seems that everything is a little larger in the Amazon, and these lily pads were no exception. They got up to a couple diameters each, and were a beautiful display among the calm lake. 
 I couldn’t take enough photos of them if I’d tried!

Once we’d explored the park, and had some lunch, we visited one of the floating homes and met up with two children: a young boy about 10 and a girl no older than 5. The little girl clung onto a baby caiman, with it’s mouth tied shut, like it was her own little stuffed animal. She dragged it around without even thinking twice that she had a tiny dangerous animal swinging from her hands! Next to her, the young boy was bear hugging a sloth! The two hopped in our boat and offered us the animals to hold. Adam and I were ecstatic! The sloth was one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen. I’ve only ever spotted the animals in trees, moving around slowly and clinging to a branch for dear life. But up close, they have the most ADORABLE faces.  They have big black eyes on top of a long face and a neck that turns around almost a full 360 degrees. And they are so light! I was expecting the sloth to be much heavier than it was, but it couldn’t have been more than a couple pounds. It’s long claws wrapped around me in a huge sloth hug and then the animal seemed content to just hang out in my lap. So cool! After Adam and I played with the sloth for quite some time, we checked out the caiman. It was so little (no longer than a foot and a half from head to tail) and had huge green eyes that stuck out of its head. It felt just like a snake, but looked a little more ferocious with its teeth sticking out under its tied jaw. It was surprisingly calm however, and allowed the little girl to grab a hold of it as if it was her childhood blanket. We paid the kids a couple Reais for their time before continuing on with the tour.

Our guide then took us on a boat ride THROUGH the jungle. Because of the flooded waters, the forest was no longer walkable; instead, we cruised through the tall trees and thick forest with unbelievable dexterity in our giant boat. I have NO idea how this man maneuvered through the trees that were at points no wider than a half inch on either side of the boat, but he did it! It was a beautiful trip and a very unique way of trekking through the area!
  Photos did NOT do this part of the trip justice.

 

Finally, we ended our trip with more piraña fishing! Although these pirañas were much less voracious than the ones in the Pantanal, we still managed to catch 7 of them and take them back to our guide’s friend for his dinner.  
By the time we arrived back at the hostel we were exhausted! Out for an early pizza dinner in front of the opera house, then off to bed… for a nap. We only got to sleep for another 3 hours before we were up at 1am to head to the airport! Another long night with no sleep ahead of us… Great!

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Cruising down the Amazon River

We arrived at the docks at 7:30am. Our boat was scheduled to leave at noon, but the guidebook insisted we arrive a few hours early to claim the best spot on the boat: i.e. as far away from the engine and the bathrooms as possible. 
  Apart from two other Canadian girls that arrived at the same time as us, there were 4 people on the boat when we got there. Definitely could have slept in. Nonetheless, we set up our hammocks, got some breakfast and were overly enthusiastic to start lounging in out hammocks.

Meeting Hilary and Diane (the two Canadian girls) was great because it allowed us to switch off watching bags to get breakfast, shower, walk around etc for the next few days. The four of us got a prime location on the top deck and were ready to set sail by 8:15AM!
  By noon I had already made it through a good chunk of my book. The hammock was still comfortable, and we were anticipating leaving very shortly. Huge cargo trucks full of vegetables were unloading their goods on to the boat to distribute to settlements along the river as we went. We watched them pack on the boxes with surprising speed until at last the two trucks were empty. Then another two arrived.  When they had finished unloading, two more showed up; and after that, another… By five o’clock that evening they were still loading up their 7000th box of green tomatoes! I honestly have no idea how all that food fit onto our ship. We finally pulled away from the dock at 5:34PM.

 

Time in the hammock: 9hrs 19minutes

 

Time left to Manaus: 6 days!

Before the boat even left I was already starting my second book. I started reading Shantaram, which is a long, but an INCREDIBLE story – Nikki, thank you for the suggestion, I don’t know how I could have survived the trip without this book!  
Food was sold on the boat for a very reasonable price! However, the selection was the exact same every day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Scrambled eggs in a bun for breakfast, and a rice, spaghetti, salad and steak plate or steak soup for lunch and dinner (In all fairness, they did offer the same meal with a chicken option for two of the nights… LUCKY!). I can’t believe I still enjoyed the food by the last day, although I was thrilled to switch up the meal when we hit Manaus.

Other than eating at designated mealtimes downstairs, there was very little else to do on the boat. Showers were small and just straight, cold, river water. They had two, long, uncomfortable wooden benches, a few scattered plastic chairs and a rooftop with a steel seating area. Thus, we spent a ridiculous amount of time in our hammocks. 
When I first imagined our river trip, all I could picture was “hot” and “mosquitoes“. I had looked up the temperature in January before I left and it was 44 degrees Celcius with 95% humidity… Oh my God. I pictured us sweating under a mosquito net, trying not to cover up skin, but avoiding malaria at the same time! In reality, it was the complete opposite. The movement of the boat kept all but the strongest mosquitoes away: that, and the fact that I have been taking my malaria pills, I have three types of bug spray, a mosquito net, long sleeves and pants (that are NOT black) and I have been taking propolis extract.  Propolis is a liquid that you drop into your water a few days before a mosquito zone, which you later sweat out and mosquitoes leave you alone – recommended to me by locals. I was set! I was amazed, as someone who draws mosquitoes to her anywhere within a 5km radius, that one, or a combination of these methods worked!  In fact, I managed to come out almost completely unscathed! I had a few bites that were only itchy for an hour and then gone! Hallelujah!

 

As well, it wasn’t hot! Actually, with the wind from the boat moving, and the cool air from each night’s thunderstorms, it was FREEZING! I wore pretty much everything I own AND wrapped myself in my hammock and still shivered through the night!! (Caitlin, it was very reminiscent of when you woke up at Oktoberfest and found me wearing 18 layers of clothing and huddled in my sleeping bag that was good to +10 degrees Celcius [ironically the same temperature that human skin is good to]).  Depressingly, each night on the boat seemed to be colder than the last. Adam even has a picture of me on the last morning, so bundled up in stuff, that only my nose was visible from under all the layers. I wore pants the ENTIRE trip, and long sleeves shirts went on as soon as the sun set (Yes, I do mean shirts, plural). I couldn’t believe it! We were only a couple hundred kilometers from the EQUATOR!! I don’t know what the temperature actually was, but I know we haven’t acclimatized that much!

By day 2 and a half on the boat I couldn’t feel my lower back. Having spent the better part of two days SOLELY in a hammock, it became an excruciating task just leaning over to pick things up off the ground. No position, sitting or lying down, was comfortable! I found myself doing stretches and yoga at least three times a day just to have a reasonably content two hours sitting back in my hammock! I flipped and flopped during the day: sitting up to read, crossing my legs, and then using a rolled up jacket as lumbar support.  In the night I rolled myself into a thousand different positions, trying desperately to forget the pain and cold and get some shuteye before the loudspeakers blared Brazilian dance remixes of American country songs and Michel Telo’s ever-popular “Nossa, Nossa” at 8AM.  By day 6 I think we were all thrilled to pack up our things and get into a real bed. Adam timed every second he was in his hammock and managed an impressive 89 hours 11 mins 7seconds out of a possible 126 hours. We figured I was about 15 hours more than that… Which is disgusting, and NOT recommended whatsoever!

However, apart from sleeping and eating, the river trip was WONDERFUL! We traveled through areas where the river was just a little wider than the boat we were in. The surrounding jungle was THICK! So much so I can’t imagine ever being able to explore it for the first time! There is thick, green foliage in every spare inch of the jungle, right up into the water. The plant life was unique, and varied and very, very green. The thing I found most fascinating, however, was the people that LIVE right on the river’s edge! Old wooden shacks are scattered along the length of the river where families survive off the land. They travel extensively by canoes that they paddle up and down the river, fishing for food. Little kids would paddle up along side our boat, tie themselves to the back, and climb aboard our ship. They ran around playing games, selling food and begging for food and gifts. I gave a couple of the little girls the Canadian pencils that I’d been carrying around for that exact purpose. One little girl looked LESS than enthused when I gave her a pencil instead of money and stared at me with a blank expression for over a minute. I finally took out my eyeliner sharpener and sharpened it for her, then scribbled in my book and gave it back. Her expression didn’t change a bit, so I waved her away. HOWEVER, when we were at lunch a little later, we saw her clutching the pencil like it was the winning prize at a fair. When we got back upstairs Diane had said that she and other kids came back asking for more pencils to have. So I guess they were happy with them in the end!

At other parts of the trip, you could hardly see the other side of the river it was so wide! We even came across a huge cruise ship that did a two-week circuit from the Dominican, down the length of the Amazon to Manaus. It shocked me that such a large ship could even fit through the channels, it obviously had to have taken another route. But wide or narrow, the river was beautiful. I couldn’t get over the fact that we were actually ON the Amazon River, and floating up the entire length of it! On the second day, after watching all the native kids row around on the river from their little huts, I turned to Adam and exclaimed that this was one of the coolest things I’ve done in all my travels! Just seeing how life works in the jungle is eye opening and surreal! On some flatter parts of the jungle, a few families had even made small farms, with goats and cows and horses all penned up along the river edge. The houses were all on stilts, which would be necessary when the river floods in the rainy season, and people moved around on makeshift walkways in the air that connected houses to sheds and docks. Our boat stopped in several small settlements along the way to unload goods from Belem. Some of them very small, others, like Santarem, we’re surprisingly developed for such a remote place in the middle of the jungle. None of them were as advanced as Manaus however. Our final destination was a huge city, right in the middle of absolutely nowhere! Manaus has become the hub of the Amazon jungle, and I think we were all shocked at how developed it was when we pulled up in our boat six days after leaving our port in Belem!

Belem: Detox Days

Adam is pumped to finally be at the Amazon River

To be honest, we did nothing in Belem. We desperately needed to sleep and detox after Carnaval, and quickly got comfortable lounging around our hostel.  Soon, even the most menial tasks were overwhelming. Originally, we were supposed to spend 24 hours in the city.  It was going to be a quick stopover before we booked hammock space on a cargo boat and cruised the length of the Amazon River from Belem to Manaus.  When we arrived, however, we found out that a brand new boat was sailing for Manaus this upcoming Saturday.  The lady ensured us it would be very nice and, not being in much of a hurry, we decided to hang around for 4 days.

 

Each day we came up with a task to complete. Groceries. Laundry. Buy hammock. After we completed one task, we felt accomplished and could spend the morning and the evening catching up on reading.  So that’s what we did. 
Our mornings were filled with LOTS of coffee drinking and writing; then, each afternoon we spent a little time at the market.

Belem’s market is THE largest open aired market in all of South America! It runs along the riverfront and holds just about everything you can imagine.  To begin with, there are rows upon rows of clothing: sweatshirts, t-shirts, football jerseys, bathing suits and the such.  Then Hammocks.  Hammocks are a very popular commodity in Brazil is seems, and Belem’s market had colourful, hand-woven hammocks strung up all throughout the stands. After that there were crafts, and trinkets, and carvings, and toys.  Then finally the food began!  Hundreds of cheap eateries all packed together in one area.  Each sold a version of fish and meat with the usual rice, spaghetti, beans and salad.  They had wooden stools to sit on, and one, very reasonable, price for everything (we paid a little less than $3US for a massive plate of food that neither of us could finish).  After the eateries were vegetable markets. Huge pallets of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and MANY things I’d never even seen before.  I’m assuming these were local to the area, and, with one of the most diverse ecosystem’s on Earth at your fingertips, I’m sure there were an endless number of unique foods sold there. After the fruits and vegetables, venders sold hundreds of little vials of liquids all labeled in Portuguese. It wasn’t until I looked in our guidebook later that we realized they were extracts from plants found in the Amazon jungle. They were natural healing remedies that the locals used, apparently, quite frequently! Bottles of coconut milk were sold, then the meat: live chickens, ducks, rabbits etc were in cages all waiting to be freshly picked for eating. Finally came the fish. The smell was horrid, as to be expected in an outdoor fish market, but the selection was incredible. Every day the fishermen go out early in the morning to fish, by 5am they are all back at port and selling their goods to the venders. It’s a hectic scene as people shout prices and throw around fish, trying to get the best deals (as we saw on our last morning when we passed on the bus early in the morning).

At the more “affluent” end of the market – which was enclosed and air-conditioned – there were loads of expensive buffets, small restaurants and a brewery. We found and acai berry shop and sat down for prawns and acai on our first day in Belem. We ended up sitting with a couple from California that we had literally met only 20 seconds earlier. They heard us speaking English, asked us where we were from, and we asked them to join us for lunch. Afterwards, we remarked how different things can be when you travel. I HIGHLY doubt I would invite a random couple for lunch on the sole fact that they speak the same language as me back in Vancouver! But it’s such a normal thing to befriend someone instantly when you are in a different country.

 

 

We all loved the acai. It is actually everywhere you turn in Brazil, so I’m amazed it took us this long to try it. At this place they sold it in litres; it comes out in a thick dark purple liquid that has a similar consistency to yogurt. It has a fairly bitter taste alone, and will stain your teeth purple in an instant, but, after adding a little sugar and tapioca, the stuff was delicious! Not to mention, it’s considered the super berry of the world with all the supposed health benefits it provides. We’ve had it several times since in Brazil, and I’ll be on the look out in Vancouver when I’m back!

 

Our lazy few days were easily pushed along by the weather. Although it was hot and muggy during the afternoon, by about 5 o’clock everyday the rains came in. I suppose that’s why the Amazon is considered a rainforest.  But these were not just normal rains; these were torrential thunderstorms that boomed across the city for a few hours each evening.  I have never heard thunder this loud before. The rain bucketed down in waterfalls all across the city and even within our hostel walls I jumped with every clash of thunder. The storm lasted just a few hours, then calmed down around 9 or 10. So we spent that time watching movies and playing cards: a far better alternative to bearing the storm outdoors!

 

When Saturday arrived it was time for the boat! We were up at a ridiculous hour of the morning (first from a man wailing in the halls of the hostel at 3am, and then from our alarm a couple hours later) to set up our spot on the boat and trek up the entire length of the Amazon proper!

Salvador: Carnaval Part 2

The next day we had plans to meet up with Katelynn and Scott, the Canadian couple I had met on the Sugar Loaf tour in Rio. They had rented an apartment in the Barra district for 10 days and invited us to dinner and pre-drinks at their place before the parade. We were in charge of caipirinhas and beer while they provided the dinner (although we definitely got the better end of the deal considering booze was cheap and the meal they made us was out of this WORLD).

 

Google map said it was 5.2 km from our place to theirs. 1 hour 6 min walk, or a 20ish min cab ride. So we grabbed a cab at 6:30, and figured we’d be early for our 7:00 meet time.  Then we hit Carnaval traffic… An HOUR and TEN minutes later we were dropped off on a street NEAR their place. It then took us a lot longer to find their unlabelled “Palmieras” street, which made us over an hour late to their place.  Fail.

 

Their apartment was wonderful: a big kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms and an adorable living room. Music was already on, hor’deurves of meat and smoked cheeses were on the table, food was in the oven and icy beers were cracked. 
We caught up on our trips and adventures and made the most wonderful caipirinhas throughout the evening (To see how to make perfect Caipirinha’s, check out Scott and Caitlin’s “how to” video blog).  For dinner they had made an extravagant Brazilian meal: marinated beef with lots of vegetables, fried potato wedges (actually some special Brazilian potato that I can’t remember the name of), cooked beats, and a homemade salad with loads of cilantro. It was UNREAL. Scott is an excellent cook, and he and Katelynn obviously love to entertain. Which worked perfectly, because Adam and I loved every bit of it!

 

Once dinner was over, it was time for the parade!

 Carnaval Salvador is very different from Rio. Rio is about the spectacle, the performance, the elaborate outfits and lavish floats. Salvador is about the dancing, the music and the party. Where in Rio people party in the blocos or pay money to sit in the Sambadrome, in Salvador the party IS the parade. It’s the “crazy” Carnaval, as people here have been referring to it. It’s considered THE largest street party ON EARTH, and even after Stampede in Calgary, Full Moon in Thailand, Oktoberfest in Munich, Guinness’s 250’s Birthday in Dublin and every other crazy festival I’ve been to over the years, I wasn’t prepared for Salvador.  Yet, it lived up to every one of my expectations!

 

There are approximately 5 million partying for Carnaval in the city. That is twice the size of Salvador’s usual 2.5 million people. The Barra district holds the larger of the two parades in the city. It starts from the lighthouse and stretches for kilometers along the main drag right along the water.  The four of us
 came around the corner from the apartment and faced MAYHEM. Millions of people, in a crowd tighter than the craziest moshpit, filled the street and sidewalk; bodies took up every inch of space.  Massive trucks with bands playing on top of them and people dancing, slowly inched down the road in procession. Speakers on all sides of the trucks were massive 10ft amps or sub woofers that blasted deafening music out to the crowd.

 

Each float had a specific t-shirt that you could buy and subsequently be allowed within the roped off section. Around each float they had probably 50 or 60 people who’s job was to hold a rope to section off a “safer” place to dance. 
The four of us were not, by any means, limiting ourselves to a single float. We danced along with the crowds, imitating their moves, or making up our own, until we got bored, then we ran ahead to the next float and started again. Let me tell you, Brazilians can DANCE! Even the performers had dancers that could shake their ass for hours without tiring. At one point we even grabbed two random girls and made them teach us how to dance like the locals. I’m not sure we got it in the end, but they laughed and gave us the thumbs up that we were making progress. 
As Katelynn pointed out, it takes a lot of practice to dance AND move forward at the same time; of course, she is a dancer and got it perfectly, but for us more challenged folk, it took a lot of focus and a lot more beers to get the rhythm.

 

We moved along through the floats all through the night dancing to music. On one side of the street there were stands high above the ground. These were boxes for the VIP’s that paid money to drink for free and watch the performers from eye-level. We made it our mission to be at eye-level as well, so on one of the floats, Scott bribed a security guard with a beer who then let me climb up the ladder on the side of the truck. I got to the top of the float and overlooked the hoards of people below. Millions stretched for as far as you could see. I danced up a storm with some random girl next to me then eventually turned and saw another security guard with his arms crossed, shaking his head at me.  Busted.  I laughed sheepishly and he smiled before taking me down the stairs and booting me out of the side of the float. I didn’t care: MISSION COMPLETE! I partied on top of a float at Carnival! Bucket list, check!  And we all cheered about it before running down to the next float.

 

The place was madness. Men and women held large Styrofoam coolers full of beer: 3 or 4 beers for 5reais ($2.50). Street meat was sold for pennies, and food was everywhere you turned. Shaking empty beer cans with the tabs rattling inside meant beer girls were near to sell Skol, Brahma or Shin. People, men mostly, avoided the wretched port-o-potties and peed in the streets. The place was smelly, overwhelming, crazy and wonderful all at the same time! There’s really no other way to describe it.

When we finally got tired, we realized we had danced the entire length of the parade. We fought back against the crowd for about an hour before reaching the apartment. It was 6AM. Oh my God! The party outside was still in full force and it was 6AM! Adam and I crashed at the apartment, not having the strength to make it home, and I didn’t move until 10:00AM when I was woken by a party upstairs.  

By 1:00 that afternoon we were ready to face the world again. We decided to head to the beach and check out the surf; a quiet activity for the daytime.  However, when we got down to the main road by the beach, what did we find? The parade!!! It absolutely NEVER stops! I had heard that the parade went from 5pm to 5am (which is crazy enough), but no! It goes from 5pm to 5am then continues from 5am to 5pm again: 24 hours a day, for the entire week. And people were dancing, and drinking and crowded together, singing to the music just like the night before. So we joined them…

 

At one point we walked by a float that was so loud I thought my head was going to explode. The bass was beyond anything I’ve ever witnessed. My chest was vibrating so much I could hardly breathe. Adam held up his water bottle and it was like the scene in Jurrasic Park where the water vibrated on the dashboard… Except to the equivalent of 100 T-Rex’s.
  I don’t know how people don’t go deaf during this week long event!

 

We kept walking until we found the beginning of the parade at Campo Grande. The people were in full party mode, and we joined them with eager enthusiasm. We stood on the sidewalk and danced with the performers as the parade crawled along. Then it began to rain, and the people embraced it. We all danced harder as the rain poured down and soaked us all. It cooled everyone off from the heat of the day and refreshed our tired bodies. We danced in the raid with 10s of thousands of people until all of a sudden it was 6:30 again. We all hit a wall at the same time. Standing alone was an impossible task.  We walked back to the apartment and then Adam and I cabbed back to our favela. Definitely called it an early night.

 

Monday was our last day in Salvador. Not quite sure how four days had passed so quickly, but there we were. We decided to take it easy; we flew out at half past midnight and had already arranged for transportation that evening. We agreed that our last day we would take some photos, as we hadn’t dared take our cameras with us any other day (sorry about the lack of photo evidence from this part of the trip), spend some time at our favourite Internet cafe and then end our trip with a fancy seafood dinner: the prawns in Salvador are supposed to be second to none. And we did do that… for a while.

 

We walked the Pelo district for a while and checked out a wonderful craft market at the bottom of the elevator.  We took a mid afternoon break and shared a snack and beer on the patio of a restaurant overlooking the ocean, and then set up camp in an Internet cafe. We both sipped on coffee; Adam wrote emails and caught up on the financial news in the world while I discovered my newfound love for the game “Animals vs. Zombies” on my iPod.

But then, the parade went by.  That irresistible samba music and rhythmic drumming floated past us: the dancing and singing throng of people that you can’t help but join. We grabbed a beer each and watched. Then we started dancing on the spot. Then we saw a truck that played music we liked and chased it down.
  Before we knew it, it was dinner time and we were 4kms from our restaurant. We had bought one too many Brahmas, and Adam had been propositioned by several too many cross-dressing men. All in all, it was time to go.  We pushed through the crowds, dancing all the while, and made it back the Pelorinho in record time.

 

From the doorway of the internet cafe

The Pelo district, mid afternoon on the final day of Carnaval

We then sat down to the best seafood dinner I have had in a long time! Yes, this is another lengthy description of delicious food. We started with a baguette of garlic bread and a surprisingly tasty Chardonnay. We then ordered the “tropical style” prawns, which were prawns cooked in a pineapple cream sauce, inside a hollowed out pineapple half. A delicious white cheese was broiled on top, and then sliced tomatoes on top of that. It was served with a side of yellow curried rice with chunks of pineapple in it. It was absolutely to die for! Afterwards, we had a light chocolate mousse and little coconut cakes for dessert. I promise you we don’t spoil ourselves often with dinners out (I have 400 stale/eaten sandwiches that can attest to that) but when we do, it’s awesome!

After dinner we rounded up, caught our flight and got into Salvador at 2am local time (3am ours). We had finally made it to the mouth of the mighty Amazon!!!

Me, trying to find a comfortable way to sleep on a plane…

Again I am unsuccessful… at least Adam finds my misery entertaining!

Salvador: Carnaval Part 1

Our first day in Salvador was the exact opposite to what I had imagined. First of all, our bus was on time; actually, it was 3 and a half minutes early; neither of us could believe it. By the time we figured out the bus system, it was after 6pm and we were in full-fledged Carnaval traffic. An hour and a half later – with the help of a woman who literally chased down the bus when we missed our stop and told the driver that “the stupid gringos didn’t know where to get off” – we made it to the edge of the Pelorinho.

As we stepped off the bus, we were faced with was a giant outdoor elevator that rose above the city. The woman motioned for us to get on.  We were unsure what was happening, but had little other ideas of our own, so we followed her lead. Up we went, about 30 stories above ground, and the doors opened out, miraculously, onto the Centro.  It was madness. People were everywhere! Dressed up in strange costumes, men in drag, people selling beers, necklaces, street food, you name it. The noise was insane, drums and samba music blared through the streets; the place was lively and fun and people of all ages danced uninhibitedly through the crowds. This was the Placa de Se: a large plaza in the Pelo district that the buses no longer run to because of Carnaval.

Looking down at the elevator from the Placa del Se

Our directions to the hostel were simple:  “bus to the Placa de Se, then from there take a taxi to the hostel”. The problem was, the entire Pelo district was closed to vehicles for the parade. Additionally, the Lonely Planet map ONLY showed the Pelo, and our hostel was off the map by just a few blocks. What I remember from looking at the map when I booked in OCTOBER (5 months earlier) was that we were North. That is all: just North. So we headed in that direction, backpacks and all, through the throngs of people. We stopped at a random hotel to see if they knew directions. They had never heard of it, tried calling with no answer, but let us use the wifi so I could track where we were on my IPod. According to my GPS, we were 6 blocks from the hostel; so we began walking.

Now let me tell you how I booked this hostel. In the beginning of October, I started looking up places to stay. Almost EVERYWHERE required 7 nights minimum at about $100US a night: even just to sleep in a hammock on the roof was $95/night and you had to bring your own hammock. I managed to find the Hostel Barroco for $67/night with NO minimum stay! What a deal! The only downside I could see was that it was a 5 minute walk from the Pelo, but, anything that wasn’t directly on the parade route seemed like a bonus to me, and the photos looked lovely, so I booked it! What could go wrong…

We walked to the edge of the Pelo and all the crowds stopped. We were only 3 blocks away and found ourselves standing at the foot of a hill, with a military police station across the street, staring up into the alleyway of a favela. There were no lights and no cars, just some shady looking characters sitting in the shadows drinking and smoking. We both looked at each other and shook our heads.  Nope, not walking up there.  Luckily, a cab drove by and we hailed it down. We passed him the address and he shook his head.  So I showed him on my GPS where it was. He pointed up the hill and we nodded.

“No” he said.

“It’s just a couple blocks,” we said, “can you take us?”

“No. Walk, or find another taxi” and he kicked us out.  So there we were, just standing there with all our backpacker getup and not knowing what to do.

For those of you that haven’t been watching the news in Salvador, you should note that 2/3 of the police force has been on strike since January 31st. By February 10th, only 11 days later, there were already over 150 murders in the city of Salvador alone.  The police never came back for Carnaval; however, the government did bring in the military to oversee events, and their presence was everywhere along parade routes. Not that ANY of these murders were random acts of violence on tourists, but these current events were in the back of our minds while we were standing there.

After much debate, and seeing no other route on the map, we decided to chance the walk. 3 blocks. That’s all we had to go. Before we even made it a block an a half a young man was calling at us.

“Gringos!”

We ignored him.

“Gringos, go back to the Pelorinho, it’s dangerous here.”

We kept walking…

Then he got up and ran towards us, “Amigos, please, go get a pousada in the Pelo!”

“We already have a pousada,” I explain, “and it’s up here!” Adam handed him the address; he looked at it strangely.

“Bob!” he yelled down the street “Bobby, come here!” another young guy came towards us. They chat about the address then stop a third man walking down the street. After a little more confusion the third man looks at us

“The German!” he exclaims

“Yes!” I say, ” the owner is from Germany”
 Ahh yes, they know it. So the first guy motions for us to follow him and Bob.

“I’ll show you there” he says.

We hesitated.

We have no idea if they are taking us in the right direction, but we also figure going alone might be worse. So, reluctantly, we follow these two guys into the favela. 
The first guy introduces himself to Adam,

“I’m Anton, This is Bob. You know, like Bob Marley?” They both giggle, and Bob kind of does look like a young Bob Marley but with shorter hair. The two guys are probably in their mid to late 20s, with jet black skin and glowing white smiles. Anton is tall and slender, Bob is about 5’8″ and has a stockier frame.
  “It is dangerous here in the favela” Anton says “there is another route on the other side, go that way when you go back to the Pelo”

(As a side note, I’d like to mention that neither Anton, nor Bob, nor anyone we’ve met so far in this story speak a SINGLE word of English. I jumped from knowing “hello” and “thank you” in Portuguese, to being a full-fledged translator for Adam in about 12 hours. Not sure how.)

Anyways, sure enough, 3 blocks later we are led right to our hostel! Thank God! We thank the guys, and head to reception. We are shown our room, and ask where we can get some dinner. The receptionist points down the street, then leaves. So after washing up, we head out in search of food.

Not two blocks down the road we hear “Amigos!” It’s Anton. He is body painting some local women for Carnaval (which we later find out is his job). He introduces us to the owner of the cafe he is at, who goes out of his way to make us whatever food he can find. Anton joins us for a bit and asks us if we are going dancing in the parade tonight. We say yes and he offers to take us down to the Pelo. So after dinner, he and Bob take us back through the favela. On the way down they explain some of the “history”.

“You see this house?” we looked up at a dilapidated and gutted old concrete building with a 7ft hole in the side of it. “That was a drug house. You know, crack, cocaine, crystal meth? Ya, it exploded just a couple months ago.” Hmmm, safe neighborhood.

Then we all stopped at Anton’s house. It was a single room with a bed, a tv, and a makeshift kitchen. He introduced us to his mother, his neighbour and even his little puppy dog. From that point on, we were introduced to nearly EVERY person in the favela. Shop owners, people walking down the street, friends of theirs hanging out on the side of the road. “These are my amigos from Canada!” everyone was incredibly friendly and interested in us. We smiled, shook hands, “nice to meet yous” all around. They would chime in with the occasional English word and look pretty proud that they got to use it. Anton explained that favelas were dangerous places for outsiders. At any time, someone could easily rob us, or pull a gun on us; however, the favela works as a community. Everyone knows everyone else’s families and friends, and they look out for each other. Anton had lived in the favela since he was a little boy, people knew and trusted him. Because he had just introduced us to everyone as his friends, we were now part of the community, and no one would harm us: and we found, for the next three days, that we were met with many smiles and “Bom Dia’s” from the people.

So Anton and Bob took us down to the Pelo and began to give us the most amazing tour of Salvador. We met all the shop owners and artists, and saw beautiful old churches on off-beaten tracks. They explained the history while I translated as best I could to Adam. Occasionally they would ask what the English translation for a word was and it usually ended in laughter at how crazy the word sounded in our language: “eat,” “cheers,” “walk” and “thief” were not only particularly hard to pronounce, but also giggle worthy in their minds.

Anton explained how the Pelo district is the historical center where slave ships from Africa first stopped. Right in the middle of the Placa de Se, where people danced and sang for Carnaval, was where church officials ordered hundreds of black slaves hung, or their heads stomped to death on the sidewalk. They pointed out the traditional African garb that still influences Bahian dress, and how the drum beats in the parade music differ from the South of Brazil. Salvador, and the whole Bahian province, is clearly defined by its African heritage: dark skin, varied music, dress, spices in food, culture, everything.

During the tour they asked if we liked Reggae music. We both nodded and were led down a back street towards a bar. The scene was straight out of a movie. The doorman shook hands with bob and Anton who signaled that we were with them: and we all walked in. The bar was full of black-skinned Rastafarians, fully stereotyped with the long dreads; the colourful knit hats and the Bob Marley-esque tie-dye clothing. The place reeked of pot and people were doing lines of cocaine right off the tables. Slow reggae music pulsed in the background and EVERYONE stopped what they were doing to look at Adam and I: probably the only white-skinned, blue-eyed people to ever step foot through the front doors.  Anton pushed us through the crowd and introduced us to the owner. He asked him to watch out for us if we ever came in here again without him. The owner nodded and then Anton turned to us and in a very strict voice said “Don’t you EVER come back in this place alone! It’s dangerous!” and with that he dragged us right back out of the bar. Which we were more than happy about, feeling just a little out of place in there.

“Okay, should we dance?” Anton asked.

“Yes, let’s see the parade!”

So after grabbing a drink at his cousin’s kiosk and stopping to body paint his two little nieces, we trekked to the parade route. I’m not exaggerating when I say there were probably a million people dancing in the street that night. Music blared, people danced and sang along to songs I’d never heard of before as their favourite bands moved slowly along in large floats. Sorry, I’m not going to fully describe the parade until we get to the next day’s events.  We did follow some trucks for a while, pushed through the hoards of people, nearly got tear gassed trying to get through an alley and eventually walked home.

By 3AM my head was spinning with English, Portuguese and Spanish all at once. I could no longer understand simple phrases and was incapable of translating to Adam anymore. We’d been up for 21 hours on little sleep, and the craziness of the unexpected night was overwhelming. We called it a night early, according to Carnaval standards, and went to bed.

Olivenca: A Neverending Journey to the Middle of Nowhere

Olivenca is a tiny beach town about 14km outside of Ilheus on the East coast of Brazil. We spent a night there as a quiet stopover on the way up to Carnaval in Salvador. We figured it would be a good way to split up the bus ride: pick a place on the coast half way up, spend a day, and then continue north!  The bus to get to Ilheus was only 16 hours, which was nothing compared to previous bus times. It was still quite a haul, but Adam chimed in with “nothing will beat the 22 hour one we were on before!” True…


Just to GET to the rodovaria (bus terminal) took 2 hours. We managed to perfectly time our trip to coincide with Rio rush hour and crawled through the city on the sweltering bus. Might I mention that this bus did NOT like the idea of first gear. Every time we slowed to a stop and then started up again the bus would lurch forward and literally send people bouncing out of their seats. Real fun.  By the time we got to our long distance bus, I was already over the idea of sitting down; nonetheless, we loaded up and set out.

The lonely planet guide told us the trip should be 15 hours, but the sign at the front of the bus said “Ilheus 12:30,” which gave us about 16 and a half hours: probably a more realistic end time considering South America’s strict policies on “being on time”.  It was 9am when the bus stopped for breakfast. Neither Adam nor I ate anything substantial because we were scheduled to arrive in a couple hours. We had a fruit cup and a mini sandwich in our bags and figured we’d grab a big lunch when we arrived. 
After killing 4 hours of reading and chatting, we started getting peckish. It was 1:00pm so we had to be arriving soon… Not the case.

At 3:00 we stopped again and both of us rushed off the bus to eat any food possible at the bus station. There was no sign in the place that indicated where the hell we were, and any road signs on the hwy kept pointing towards Salvador.  Guess there’s nothing else to do but wait.

At 5:00pm I had a moment where I couldn’t actually remember any part of my life where I HADN’T been on a bus. It’s one thing to be told you have a 20-hour bus ride ahead of you. You prepare, mentally or otherwise, you aren’t worried about where you are or why you haven’t stopped yet. HOWEVER, when the sign says 12:30, and it’s now 5:00 you start to go very loopy. Adam was nearly convinced we were going to Salvador instead of Ilheus. Then we got very concerned that perhaps the sign meant 12:30AM and we had to spend another 7 hours on the bus!
  I remember looking out the window and feeling my sanity slip. The scenery was becoming denser, the jungle more tropical, and the whole thing felt like a series on “Planet Earth”. All of my thoughts were strange narrations in a David Attenborough voice. “On the surface, the Amazon Rainforest is peaceful, but under the canopy of leaves there are species unimaginable to the human mind; flora and fauna are in abundance in this vastly diverse ecosystem…” For the next 45 minutes every word that came out of my mouth was in a soft, manly, British accent… I need more sleep.



2 and a half hours later I turn to Adam. “guess your theory on ‘nothing can beat our 22 hour bus ride’ was wrong”. We had been on the bus for 23 hours. It’s dark. Our hopes of lying on the beach all afternoon were shattered.

Finally our bus pulls in to the Ilheus station and I almost cry.  Screw getting on a city bus to Olivenca, we’re taking a cab. 
We DO manage to book a bus to Salvador (thank God), and a $40 cab ride later we pull up to a large bungalow on a few acres of land that will be our home for the next 36 hours. 
The couple who check us in don’t speak a WORD of English, and look a little put off that neither Adam and I “fala Portuguese”, but they are sweet, show us to our room, give us a key and indicate they are going to bed. We head into town to grab dinner and call it a night by 11:00. Not exactly how I anticipated my day going.

The next morning we woke up and realized we were the only people staying at this giant hostel. The lady who ran it woke up bright and early and had a buffet breakfast made for us in the dining hall. Because this was our lazy day, we just sat there, ate food, drank a whole thermos of coffee and chatted for hours about nothing. Then down to the beach! We found this big area right on the beach that had tables and umbrellas all the way down to the water; people were everywhere, even in such a small town, and they had a large group of young girls performing traditional Brazilian dances on stage. So we set up camp, had a caipirinha and watched the performances.

After a couple hours and some lunch we walked back through town. The whole thing was very quaint, with cobble stone streets, little restaurants on either side and only a couple blocks squared to make up the whole town. 
We stopped in at an Internet cafe to check emails, and sadly heard some bad news. Adam’s grandfather, at age 90, had passed away peacefully the day before. Although this wasn’t sudden news, it made for a sad afternoon for both of us. So my condolences to the Klauwers’ family; I wish you all the best during this hard time. 
From that point on, we didn’t feel like doing anything. We went back to our pousada, listened to some music, played a couple games of pool and reminisced about our grandparents. It turned into an unexpectedly nice afternoon. We played pool all through the afternoon, and then again at the restaurant for dinner. Finally it was off to bed early, so we could be up for the bus at 7am and head towards Carnaval!

Valentines Day in Rio

I had the most wonderful Valentine’s Day: Adam, not so much. After two delayed days, our city tour finally took us up Sugarloaf Mountain.  The day was beautiful and cloudless! When Andre arrived he said our tour would be going on a little later than planned, but that we would be having a fabulous buffet churrasco after the mountain and that it would be a great time. I was excited, but unfortunately, Adam already had a date at 12:30, that was much more important than hanging out with me. So, we went our separate ways and I left for the tour while Adam stayed behind. The tour was supposed to end about 1:00, so we agreed to meet back at the hostel sometime around there, although I had no problem waiting if Adam was a little behind.

So off I went in the van to Sugarloaf! In total there were 7 of us, 4 Brazilians, 2 other Canadians and myself. I was thrilled that there were other English speakers on the trip, since I was dreading another tour entirely in Portuguese. Katelynn and Scott, are both from Toronto and they are the most wonderful couple we’ve met on the trip so far! (If you guys read this, it’s true, we are so glad to have met you! Hopefully our paths will cross again!). So naturally, I clung to my fellow Canadians throughout the afternoon. I don’t remember any of the stats about Sugar Loaf Mountain, except that it took 3 minutes on the gondola to reach the top (and even then I’m not sure If that was for the first peak, or the second). But I do know it was STUNNING! The view of the city was gorgeous. It looks down over Copacabana, and across to the Christ the Redeemer statue. Another beautiful 360 degree view of Rio checked off my list!

I knew I would get along with Katelynn and Scott immediately when a quarter of the way through the trip they suggested grabbing a beer from the concession before going further: so we did. Immediate best friends.  Then we caught up on each other’s travels, and took touristy photos from every angle possible.  It was a wonderful time!

After Sugarloaf it was time for the Churrasco (Brazilian BBQ).  This was the most elaborate buffet I have been to yet! A plethora of barbequed meats, salads, starches, seafood, fruit platters, sushi, desserts, It was all available.  So, I crashed Katelynn and Scott’s romantic lunch, and was third wheel to a couple I met only hours earlier on Valentines Day.  Impressive, I know.

Once the BBQ was finished, I was dropped back off at the hostel. It was about quarter after 3 and I felt bad that Adam was probably waiting for the better part of 2 hours for me; however,  when I walked through the front door, the receptionist handed me a note: “Hey Hil, still out, be back as soon as I can”  Uhoh!



So Adam’s Valentines Day plans actually started a day earlier. We were running errands after the Favela tour – i.e. I needed to get 4000 types of mosquito repellant so I don’t get eaten alive in the Amazon. While we were at the pharmacy, Adam figured he would pick up Malaria pills that he didn’t get in Canada before he left. No big deal, I did this is Bangkok and saved myself hundreds of dollars! What we then found out, unfortunately, was that Brazil and Thailand have different laws on prescription medicine. In Thailand you can probably get heroin handed to you over the counter for $1, in Brazil, prescriptions are needed for everything, or so we thought, just like in Canada.

So the pharmacist sent us to the hospital a few blocks up to speak to a doctor. Ya, like our Portuguese is good enough to figure this out at a hospital! Nonetheless, off we went.  We knew we were in trouble when even the receptionist didn’t know what we meant when we handed her a piece of paper with “I need a prescription for Doxicycline” translated into Portuguese. Luckily, a random man nearby spoke English well enough to help us out. Turns out, we were in the wrong place.  “You need to go to emergency,” he said. “No, no” we explain, “Adam doesn’t HAVE malaria, we just need a prescription”. Still, need to go to emergency. So we walk over to emergency and can’t even figure out how to grab a number to wait in line! We’re never going to make it. Then all of a sudden the man from earlier comes in and wants to make sure we’re all right.  Everyone in Brazil is SO nice. He helps us through the whole process, and we sit and wait to be called.

Once we get into the room, the doctor has to go get a translator who can help us out. We explain our situation and the doctor shakes her head. “No, we only TREAT malaria, not write prescriptions. If yo need one you have to go to the free clinic a few blocks away; unfortunately, it closes at 4:00 which is three minutes ago.” Luckily, she tears up Adam’s form, so he doesn’t need to pay $280 just to SEE the doctor!

So thus begins Adam’s Valentines Day. He got up early to be at the free clinic by 8:30. No one could write a prescription there until the doctor arrived, so he makes an appointment for the only available time 12:30 – thus his previous engagement as mentioned earlier. By 3:15, when I got back from my awesome day of touring and eating, Adam was STILL waiting at the clinic. I went down to meet him, and we crossed paths a couple blocks from the hostel. I look inquisitive; Adam shakes his head. “No prescription”.  Apparently, he had spent the better part of the day staring at a white wall, watching patients go in and out of rooms, until finally he asked about his doctor. “Nope, she’d left the hospital to work at her other job across town”. Fabulous. We then heard there was a malaria injection that was quick and easy. We asked about that, and “yes!” they could do it. So Adam gave his passport and information, we waited a couple minutes, then the nurse turned to us “sorry, we ran out for the day. We have yellow fever shots only now. Come back tomorrow”. Unfortunately, we had a 15-hour bus ride to be on in a couple hours, so we’d have to try in Salvador: we left defeated. Productive day. We spent the remaining hours of Valentines Day stuck on a bus, headed to God knows where, 15 hours north of Rio.

In the end, it turns out you can “trick” pharmacists, when you drop the word prescription from your note, and translate Doxycycline to the Portuguese equivalent “Doxicilin”.  Then, they will freely hand over the drug! We later bought the pharmacy in Olivenca out of drugs. The rest were easily obtained in Salvador. Thank goodness!

Rocinha Favela

On Monday morning, Adam and I set out for a tour of the largest favela in Brazil (population wise). I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that favelas are areas where the very poor live, for cheap, and that the living standards are exceedingly sub-par. But to be honest, I had little other expectations. Turns out, I found this to be the MOST eye-opening and interesting tour I’ve been on yet.

There are over 1300 favelas in Brazil, and a total of 59 million people exist within their borders. In Rio alone, a little over 10% of the population lives in a favela. Rocinha Favela has a total of 300 000 people, and is considered the largest in all of Brazil as far as numbers… and we were about to explore it.

Our tour bus dropped us off at the military base that was stationed at the foot of Rocinha. Our guide told us we would be taking moto-taxis to the top, then slowly walk our way down as a group. Now… for anyone who knows my history with motorcycles, you would understand that this was already a terrifying experience for me. Why I choose to only ride sketchy motorcycles in countries that have zero traffic laws is beyond me; but here I was, on the back of a motorcycle, with a random local, speeding through the windy streets, barely avoiding buses and pedestrians, taking me deeper into the most dangerous neighborhood in the city. 
The streets were overcrowded and the shops were simple and cheap, yet I found it very interesting watching the bustling life as it went by. When we arrived at the top, I assumed we would take the same route down and learn the history of the area along the way. Yes, the place was clearly an over-crowded, dodgy neighborhood, and yes I was still excited to hear about the tour, but, I had no idea what I was in for.

Our guide congratulated us all for not dying on the motorcycles on the way up.  Hooray!  Then she told us we were not, by any means, allowed to take our cameras out for the first part of the tour. Once we got IN to the favela we were free to do as we pleased, but the people here wished to remain anonymous; if their photos were taken at an entrance or an exit to a favela path, it would make it easier for the military to track them down. First of all, I already thought we WERE in the favela. Secondly, the reason no one wanted to be identified, was that the majority of favela folk are either drug dealers, or into some kind of illegal activity; and so, our guide also warned us not to take any photos of people with guns, or bombs that we saw along the way. Well this sounds safe!

Apparently, the section of road that we drove through was considered the VIP area of the favela. The fact that there was a ROAD, with CARS on it was a major hint. This area has cheap restaurants, some stores, and even a fast food chain called “Bob’s Burgers”. So we walked about a half block down the street, before we turned down a side street and ended up on our first path. This was no street really; it was hardly a sidewalk if you really think about it.  It was a path, partially paved (and those parts were NEVER even) just a few feet wide, that led us deep into the neighborhood.

Now, I know I will never be able to give the place justice as far as a description, because the place is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, but I’ll try. The path wound its way between large concrete structures that are considered “homes”. The families that live there normally build these homes by hand. The problem with Rochina is that it is sandwiched between a giant mountain and the Tijuca forest; and so, there is no more room to expand outwards. Thus, the place has begun to work its way upward. For example, the higher your property, the better your position in the favela. Rent at the base of the hill (the entire favela is positioned on a hill) goes for about 100 reais/month ($60). At the top, the same building is 700+ reais/month.  For some perspective, the average family income is 900 reais/month: HOWEVER, if you can find a place to build your own home, you are free do to so, since the land is centered on a first come, first serve basis. Thus, someone will build a home, then, they will sell their roof to another man, and he will build his home on top of the first, then that second man will sell his roof to another man, and so on, until the building has 4 or 5 levels of families living in it. Utter chaos! And these homes are made of anything!! Concrete, tin, cardboard, you name it, it’s probably fashioned into a wall somewhere in Rocinha!

In addition, no family pays for any kind of cable, Internet, or electricity. They do their own wiring of the house and street, and manage to rig the power meter to say zero. The government has given up on taxing them, and has consequently raised the rest of the population’s taxes to make up for the billions and billions of lost dollars.

Another thing you should know about favelas is the families. On average, there are 7 or 8 children per household. Then, each of those children, start having their own kids at 12, 13, or 14 years old.  We met a man there who was 28 years old and already had 2 grandchildren!  Each of the children grow up with dreams of becoming famous movie stars, or dancers, but in reality, 9 out of 10 will remain jobless and living in favelas their entire lives.
  A very sad reality check…

Anyways, we began to walk along the narrow path of the favela. The sidewalk wass covered with thick bundles of low hanging, rigged electricity wires; the houses looked outrageously unstable as they teetered on makeshift stilts and were plastered together with uneven, and clearly homemade, concrete jobs. The piercing sound of 6 or 7 babies screaming was so constant I didn’t even notice it by the time we reached the bottom 2 1/2 hours later. The smells changed every two steps. First, it was baked goods from a random 20ft squared bakery that sat along the side of the path. Then, it was the overwhelming reek of urine. Then it was the smell of garbage, which filled the lower areas, sometimes a couple feet deep, with trash. The sewage and the water systems were mediocre at best, but mostly, all the sewage runs through the streets to the bottom: thus why the lower homes are so much more affordable!

The path wound up and down, with mud, garbage, and cracked concrete for what seemed like kilometers. Hundreds, if not thousands of paths led off from the “main route” that we walked. Some paths led to homes directly, others were stairs that continued into deeper crevices of the favela.  The place was amaze: nothing was in order, nothing was labeled.  It would literally take the knowledge of someone who lived and breathed the favela from birth to understand the complex routes of Rocinha.  Yet, almost surprisingly, the people were friendly. Obviously they knew our guide very well, and we were there during the middle of the day, but everyone was just as curious as we were! The kids were happy that random gringos wanted to see their homes. The women making beads to sell on the beach loved to banter and flirt with the white men on the tour, and the bakers on our path were happy to sell us their fresh goods and make a few dollars.

Obviously, I would not recommend exploring a favela alone based on how nice the people we met were. Without a guide, and during the night, a favela would be a very dangerous place. Drug dealers, the very poor, and the people who live day to day in a corrupted community, are the reasons favelas and police are so closely linked. Rio’s police force has been diligently working to clear out drugs and weapons from each of the favelas, one at a time. But having a full-fledged weapons war is a sketchy operation in a tight knit society where only the residents know the roads, and where weapons are around every corner. However, for the upcoming Olympics and World Cup, Rio is trying to clean up its act. The police announce on television, a week before a raid, exactly where and when they will be entering a favela. That gives time for the drug dealers to leave, and avoid any conflicts. Whether this tactic works is hard to judge, but propaganda says it has been beneficial thus far. Either way, it looks like favelas are in for the long haul in Brazil. Their way of life is so integrated into society, it would be close to impossible to change their ways.

Rio De Janeiro

Rio is, for lack of a better word, dramatic. The city is defined by its sweeping expanses of white sand beaches, looming mountains, colourful neighborhoods and crowded favelas. It is 1/3 the size of Sao Paulo, with a measly 7 million people, yet easily has 3 times the character.
  We stayed in the Copacabana district of Rio, just a short couple blocks from one of the most famous beaches on Earth. The neighborhood is crowded with Barzinos, cheap juice bars and a boardwalk lined with street venders and thrifty places to enjoy caipirinhas!

On our first evening, we decided to enjoy the boardwalk nightlife. We walked a good stretch of the Copacabana surf before stopping in at a lively bar full of people playing drums and dancing on the sidewalk. We ordered a caipirinha each and a coconut (which was incredibly refreshing) and watched the locals dance through the night. 
Dancing appears to be a huge part of Brazilian culture. People have no problem stopping in the middle of their walk to drop some sweet dance moves for 5 minutes and then continue on their way. No dance floor needed; couples and or singles will dance in the sidewalk, next to their tables, out in the sand, or wherever they feel! But why not when every person in the country could kick ass in a “So You Think You Can Dance Canada” episode. I guess we’ll see how Adam and I fair in a dance off as Carnaval countdown begins!

The next morning, we had a full day of touring. With only three days to see the city, we felt the need to pack our days full. We booked a city tour through the hostel and ended up getting an amazing private tour of Rio from our guide Andre. The three of us hopped in a taxi and spent the morning hitting the sites! 
We started off at the Sambodrome, the giant Carnaval parade route where people sit in the stands and watch the samba schools go by. The stands have several levels of VIP. The lowest ticket prices are around 80-100 Reais per day, and the more affluent box seats will sell for up to 100 000 Reais ($70 000ish) per evening! We visited the Sambodrome 3 days before Carnaval started, and crews were working round the clock to set up the area.

After the Sambodrome, we went to the big futbol stadium. The Maracana futbol stadium used to be the largest stadium in the world, holding up to 200 000 fans in its bleachers. Right now, the stadium is closed for repairs as crews renovate the stadium for both the 2014 world cup, and the 2016 summer Olympics. Construction crews are keeping the shape and structure of the stadium, but changing the capacity a much more manageable 55 000: all with proper seats (unlike my earlier description of the Boca stadium in Buenos Aires). Although we were unable to actually go IN to the Maracana stadium, the layout is so open, that you are able to see into the center from the road, having mainly large gates and no walls as the outside structure.

After the stadium, we quickly stopped by the centro of Rio to see the city’s largest church. It is a huge conical shape right in the heart of the business district and seems very out of place. The building is quite unique, with massive stained glass motifs stretching towards the ceiling. The church holds a total of 20 000 people, making it by far the largest (I think in the country). We just happened to arrive during Sunday mass, which was very neat; however, even though Brazil has the largest catholic population in the world, the place was not close to being full.

From the church we drove over to the Lapa district to see the Santa Teresa steps. This was definitely one of the highlights of the day. At the top of a couple hundred steps, there is a convent where women spend their entire lives cloistered, making shoes for the poor and praying all day long. The story goes, that you could hear the women, through the window, praying for the souls of the less fortunate. So, in order to bring some cheer to the neighborhood, and to the women who spent their lives dedicated to prayer, an artist decided to tile the steps and 
make them beautiful. He collected tiles from all over the world, and in one amazing mosaic collection, he created the now famous Santa Theresa steps. The artist still works there during the week, constantly adding to the collection. We walked the steps and found tiles from every country imaginable. Our guide told us that people now send him unique tiles from their home so they can be included. The mosaic really is breathtaking, and there was even a couple that was having their wedding photos taken on the steps when we arrived!

Once we took about a thousand photos of the steps, we made our ascent up to the Christ the Redeemer statue. I have seen this statue in countless numbers of films and TV shows and have ALWAYS wanted to see it for myself. It’s such a beautiful idea to have a statue, of which you can see almost anywhere in the city, as a welcome, literally with open arms, to the immigrants and visitors of Brazil. The statue is 28m from hand to hand and 38m from top to bottom. It is one of the wonders of the world, and, once again, another bucket list checked off!  
We had to drive up most of the mountain, take a bus from there, then an elevator, and finally, climb stairs to reach the top… But the resulting view was spectacular! With a completely unmarred, 360-degree view of Rio, the mountain is PERFECT for photographing the city. The beaches, the mountains, the centro, all the things we had just explored in the city were there. However, viewpoints are viewpoints, and even after taking a shot of the beautiful Copacabana or Sugar Loaf Mountain, when you turn around and are faced with this unreal, larger than life statue, it is… Unexplainable. It is awful, in the sense of the word that it “fills one with awe”. It is moving and exciting and I couldn’t get over the fact I was standing right under it and looking up. After seeing so many world wonders in the past few years, you would expect them to be less wonderful. But I’m amazed, every time, how incredible and unique each one is. Once again, I recommend Rio’s Christ the Redeemer!

After this, our tour ended. We were forced to postpone our tour of Sugar Loaf Mountain for a couple days due to Carnaval rehearsals, and so, we were dropped off at the hostel early. This didn’t phase us in the slightest, as we grabbed some beers and checked out the beach for some afternoon rays! (Or at least Adam did, since I am still required to sit in the shade).  
After dinner we explored the beach nightlife again, this time waking in the other direction, and enjoying the music of a solo guitarist playing at one of the local restaurants. We had planned on going out on the town to a funk party, but after dressing up, found we didn’t have the energy to party until sunrise, only to be at our favela tour for 9am the next morning.

 

Ilhabela Part 2 – Anna Arrives

We were quietly reading at the end of the dock (I was in the shade of course) when Anna spotted us; “Hilaryyyyyyyyyyyyyy!” she yelled as she, Stefano and Julia came towards us. Hugs and intros were made, then immediately to business! A round of strawberry/lime caipirinhas were ordered and a giant fish dinner was going to be prepared! (side note: strawberry/lime is my new favourite).  We all went for a swim, sipped on drinks, caught up on stories and celebrated our reunion in Brazil!! A fantastic afternoon if I say so myself.

Before dinner was up, Anna invited us to come check out the new home her family was building. Although her grandparents already own a large home on the hillside, this new place is where they’ve always envisioned their dream home; and oh my god a dream home it is! This is a place for family and friends to gather, just minutes up the hill from the hotel, and it has a breathtaking view of the ocean and island. Although still in construction, they are hoping for the house to be livable by Carnaval (less than a week away). But even unfinished, you can see how perfect this place is going to be.  There’s a beautiful wood entrance with a walkway over a fishpond to start.  You can see right through the house to the view from the other side. Giant peaked ceilings make up the common room that is big enough for a great party! It will be fully equipped with a billiards table and an area for people to congregate. Then there’s the state-of-the-art kitchen, the giant bar with a beautifully tiled floor, and the lavish infinity pool that looks out over the edge of the mountain towards the sea. The pool had just been filled that afternoon so we took advantage and were the first people to swim in it! It was incredible!

Then, every family member has his or her own bedroom, each with an en-suite bathroom and a gorgeous wooden porch with a view! As well, there are several equally equipped guest rooms, one of which is 100% wheelchair accessible just in case (Foresight from Anna’s sister who is a geriatrics doctor). Even the maid’s quarters were spectacular with a quaint little “American” kitchen and lovely bedroom. Her parents have the best room (obviously), which is on the top floor and overlooks the pool. They have a private hot tub area as well as a bathroom that shames the one we have in our hotel suite! Their walk-in closet is about the same size as my bedroom at home, and the peaked ceilings with wooden beams gives the place a modern looking log cabin feel – with the most unreal view of a tropical island. All in all, the place has 12 bathrooms and, to be honest, I lost track of the number of rooms. But I would KILL for a house like this! As her father puts it, “it’s Anna’s mother’s dream house and his nightmare house” as I’m sure the cost of the place is out of this world – but worth every penny.  Congrats Anna on the wonderful place, I promise I will be back to visit when it’s all completed!!

After checking out the house, we got a call that dinner was ready down at the hotel bar. A wonderful meal of fish and rice and salad, the 6 of us (Anna, Stefano, Julia, Anna’s mother, and Adam and I) sat in the bar, stuffed our faces and told stories as the sun went down over the water. We stayed well into the night drinking beers and cosmopolitans and, we had so much fun that Adam and I were easily convinced to stay another night. Rio can wait one more day for us!

So the next day, we got up early and headed out to the dock to go boating. Anna and Stefano already had everything organized for the trip; the boat was filled with gas, the cooler was filled with drinks and the wake boards were loaded up!
  The 5 of us jumped on, and headed on our way. We were off to the opposite side of the island (about an hour and a half speedboat ride away), which is, essentially, a deserted expanse of white sand beaches and bright green water. Apart from the occasional tiny home for fishermen, and a restaurant managed by the owner of the Ilhabela yacht club, the place is empty. It is only accessible by boat, or by a couple hours of extreme 4X4ing through dense jungle – which is what makes it such an idyllic paradise.

So we sped through the water towards our destination, blasted some tunes and enjoyed the sunshine. The trip was gorgeous. Dozens of small, uninhabited islands were scattered around the inlet. Thick, leafy jungle sprawled across the landscape, and misty clouds hung around the peaks of the hills. Large birds circled overhead, and once again I felt like I was an extra in a Jurassic Park movie.

When we arrived on the other side of the island, we pulled up to the restaurant and Anna asked the two men working there to make us some lunch. They had already heard we were coming and were preparing a big feast for us all!  Apparently this restaurant serves the BEST and freshest fish in the whole of the Ilhabela, so we were excited to try it out. As we waited for lunch, we opened up a few bottles of champagne to celebrate and went for a swim. Within no time, a man in a dingy came out to our boat to bring us ashore for food. The place smelled delicious! There was rice, beans and salad, with my new favourite palmito on it, then roasted potatoes with rosemary and a huge fillet of fresh fish for us all. The guys brought out cervejas and we ate until we could hardly move (or I did at least).

After lunch, it was time to wakeboard! Anna and Stefano were clearly pros and showed off all their tricks. Adam was a rockstar, obviously, and figured it out first try.  Showoff.  He even had an amazing moment where he jumped a wave, got some pretty good air and then, with all limbs in different directions, crashed into the ocean sideways. Haha! I, on the other hand, am about as good at wake boarding as I am at charades! On the first try alone I sliced a finger on my left hand open and bruised three other knuckles. Great start!  By the third try, I almost had it! Then the fourth try I smashed my right hand, thought my left middle finger was broken and had to go back to the boat to ice it. (Even 4 days later I have a good chunk missing from my left hand, my middle finger is twice as wide as the others, and every muscle in my back feels whip lashed).  Not that I’m complaining! I had a wonderful time taking photos and one day I will defeat the waves!

After we all had our turns we headed back to the Hotel Mercedes exhausted. Up to the room for naps and quiet time before dinner. Sadly, this was our last evening on the island. This was by far the longest stop we’ve had in one place, and it was wonderful!

 

Stefano, Me, Adam, Anna, Julia

If anyone would like to see more photos of the hotel we were at, you can check out the website at www.hotelmercedes.com.br (under accommodations you can click “suite VIP” for pictures of our room).