Brazil


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Published: June 14th 2006EDIT THIS ENTRY

We arrived in Rio on April 9th pretty late and, getting a bus because the airport taxis were very overpriced, it seemed really exciting, a new country, a new language, arriving in the middle of the night. We’d booked ourselves a nice hotel online. $100 for the room was well over budget but nice for the first few days in a place like Rio, and only a block from the famous Copacabana beach. For the next three days we walked around the beachside neighbourhood, sitting on the beach in the day, and checking out the stalls selling gear to tourists and the restaurants at night, drinking beer and watching prostitutes flirt with potential customers.
We both liked Rio from the start, and it felt exciting, even if we were only there a few days. I’d heard it mentioned somewhere through a film or TV that Rio was in a beautiful natural setting and it really is, with the hills and the beaches and the offshore islands.
On April 13th we caught a flight to Manaus, a city on the Amazon, near where another river, the Rio Negro, joins it. Surprisingly for a town so far from anywhere, it has over 2 million inhabitants, as the city enjoys some sort of low tax status, and so is the centre of much manufacturing in Brazil. On arrival at the airport a tour operator got us talking, and as they seemed pretty reasonable, we agreed to go on a tour with them, keen to organise something as it was the beginning of Easter weekend so much of Manaus would be closed in the coming few days. The next day we got picked up from our hotel to begin our ‘jungle tour’, staying in a floating lodge up the Rio Negro, but on the way we went down river a bit to see the famous ‘meeting of the waters’, where the dirty, muddy, brown of the Rio Solimoes, meets the dark, clearer water of the Rio Negro, becoming the Rio Amazonas. Lots of jungle lodges operate on the Rio Negro, because there are few mosquitoes on it, due to the relatively acidic quality of the water, which is obviously popular. There is a trade off for the comfort though, because the mosquito ridden Rio Solimoes has more abundant wildlife apparently.
We stayed on the lodge for 3 nights, in the day going on various activities, like piranha fishing from a canoe, which I enjoyed a lot because of the setting, in a canoe in amongst trees which went straight into the water. It was very peaceful sitting there with a bamboo fishing rod, in a boat under the canopy of trees. It was the end of the wet season and so the water was high, the high season mark being around 11 metres higher than the lowest water mark! Quite a staggering amount of extra water, an indication of how much land drains to this river. Over the days the setting of the activities was the most impressive aspect of the tour. There were a few nice birds, the odd sighting of river dolphins, but the wildlife had been much more impressive in Venezuela. What was really striking here was the scenery. The jungle lodge was pretty fun, being quite rustic, without electricity, and so very dark after an early evening, and the shower a dribble coming from the bucket of river water on the roof, so like the guides we soon found the best way to wash was by jumping in the river. Most of the meals involved fish, which I actually quite enjoyed, them being fresh, barbecued and with only a light taste. Also enjoyable were the walks through jungle, where the guides pointed out all the ways different trees and plants were used by those who live there. A bit frightening was the sack of what looked like spit on a tree or under a leaf. These were apparently the eggs of little worms, and if you touched it some would work their way in, suck your blood, and then lay eggs, making the situation even worse. On our fourth night we decided to camp in the jungle, and we went with Jay and Kuman, from England on a three week holiday. Jay had already had one of the worms found in his toe, but they had got it out early and fingers crossed it didn’t lay any eggs. We had quite a long ride in a canoe, and then walked an hour or so to our camp for the night. It was by a small waterfall and as it was really hot it was great to rinse off in the cold fresh water. There were a few mosquitoes around, being on land, and there wasn’t a lot to do but watch the chicken cook on the fire and swat mosquitoes away. After a lunch of tasty chicken and rice off a leaf we went for a jungle walk. There were so many things to be wary of, particularly spider webs running across the ‘trail’ we were on. The guide marked the trees with his machete so we didn’t get lost and could always find our way back. Past other trees we had to be careful not to irritate the bees, and further on there was a highway of ants that were better left ignorant of our presence. We wanted to see a sloth which we still haven’t seen yet but unfortunately didn’t this time either, and it was so hot, that it was nice to get back to the clearing to sit and hopefully stop sweating. Living in the jungle full time would be really difficult. It seemed more like hell than any paradise, with all the bugs and heat, and it seemed mad that some humans still lived in such an environment. We had another chicken cooked over the fire for dinner, and then chatted as the light faded and there was only the sound of the jungle insects, the crackling fire, and the water fall in the background. In the hammock it felt comfortable, enclosed in a net, pretty safe from the bugs, so we all soon fell asleep, enjoying the moment, but at the same time looking forward to returning to Manaus with a proper shower and electricity.
On the 18th April we returned to Manaus and after a good meal with Jay and Kuman, and a good night sleep, we spent a day checking out Manaus, it’s market, and most famous building the Teatro Amazonas, it’s Opera house, built in the hey day of the rubber boom, the late 1800s, when the city was really rich.
On 20th April we caught a flight to Sao Luis, instead of getting the river boat as planned, saving us practically a week. Sao Luis was the so-called ‘reggae capital’ of Brazil, but unfortunately we didn’t hear that much of it. We did stay in the old town, which was really laid back and atmospheric, cobbled streets, old colonial buildings with shutters half falling off, and most of the other tourists Brazilian. We really liked it, although a few days there was plenty. It was a pretty poor place, receiving less tourism, government aid or business than places in southern Brazil, and was pretty humid. Our room wasn’t brilliant, but only being there a few days it wasn’t worth hunting around for somewhere better. On 22nd we got a bus in the afternoon to Fortaleza, 18 hours away, which was okay, though the toilet smelt and there were some mosquitoes on board which took some of our blood. We had another late night meal at a roadside diner where the bus stops. During the morning we got pulled over at a police check point and everyone had their hand luggage briefly searched. After half an hour he politely apologised for the delay and thanked God he had not found any drugs. At 9.30 a.m. on 23rd we got a taxi from the bus station to a hostel by the beach in Forteleza, but couldn’t find it, so seeing lots of other hotels we just got out the cab and walked around till we found one that looked pretty nice. Forteleza wasn’t really anything special, it was just a city that was an easy destination by bus, and on route as we had to work our way down back to Rio. There were meant to be some pretty nice beaches north and south of Forteleza which were amazing, but we knew we would only really have enough time to find one place off the main track and relax on our journey back to Rio, so we just stayed in our nice hotel with a pool, by the city beach for a couple of days. We went to the central market, and bought ourselves some Brazilian flip flops which were not only cheap and comfortable, but apparently fashionable as well! I definitely feel a bit more hip in my new flip flops than in my old reef sandals. I don’t know when we got so fussy but we were appreciating being in a nice hotel again, with a clean bed and powerful shower.
On 26th we got a bus to Natal, and arriving in the evening just got a room in a hotel in the centre. It was just another city on the coast again, with the better, less developed beaches being further away and harder to reach. In the centre we wandered around trying to find a restaurant, but the whole place was dead, and we only saw a preacher in a back lane cafe blaring out praises to Jesus through a speaker system in Portuguese, to the delight of the few who were listening. Giving up we got the hotel desk clerk to order us a pizza delivery.
The next day after walking around some of the shops in the centre of town we went to Ponta Negra, a beach not far from Natal which was meant to be pretty nice. We knew it was going to still be pretty developed, being so close to the city, but it was really overpriced and over developed. Direct flights from Europe are now also cheap to Natal, so there were loads of Europeans, radios, beers, prostitutes, some families, piled in together at one end of the beach. Fortunately our hotel was at the other end, and was really nice, but after only a night, on 28th April, we got a bus to Olinda, a destination for tourists because of its colonial buildings rather than any beaches. We stayed in a nice Pousada in the old part of town, though Ruth had to run around looking at about four places till she found where we stayed, as all the others were really overpriced. We got a guide the next day, a street kid who has become a guide, and who apparently gives a significant portion of his payment from us back into the pot of the organisation that got him off the streets. The idea is that instead of robbing you, they show you around which seems to work well. Being well on the tourist map Olinda has received more money than places like Sao Luis, and many of the old colonial buildings have been restored. Naturally there is quite a lot of foreign investment in Olinda, and it seemed quite a few of the pousadas or restaurants were foreign owned. It was a really nice place to relax, the pousada was an old house expanded and turned into a homely hotel, and we spoilt ourselves once again, with the best room, the owners (which he lets out when he’s not there), which had a large rooftop balcony and bathroom. The guide was also informative, though naturally what we thought was a generous payment was apparently not enough, and naturally not knowing if perhaps I was not being particularly generous, or he was just trying to get as much as possible, I gave some more. The old part of Olinda was on a hillside, and full of churches, cobbled streets, and parks. In the evening there were lots of stalls on the streets selling food mostly to locals, and some nice restaurants as well. We also met a nice couple from a Swedish island in The Baltic Sea, and I needed the world maps of Ruth’s diary to comprehend where that was, which was a little embarrassing.
After Olinda we went to Salvidor, another town with colonial ruins that is a popular destination for tourists. It was really nice, and like most places we’d now been, there was often the sound of drums coming from somewhere. The sound of drums rolling across the suburban hillside is definitely a classic memory of Brazil. There was also the heat, and a pretty old town with lots of nice churches, a square, and down by the harbour, a market which used to be a slave house. After staying a couple of days in Salvidor, we caught the bus to Illeus, and then Porto Seguro, from where we got a ferry across a river, and a bus to Trancoso, where after a bit of walking we came across a lovely hotel on the hill above the coast run by a slightly eccentric English lady whose been out here for the best part of thirty years. It was interesting hearing some of her stories, about how the place had changed. It was a lovely bit of coast that had become in recent years popular with not only some backpackers but rich Brazilians who have homes here and fly in on helicopters sometimes. Catering to the rich local crowd in this peaceful and low key coastal village there were lots of really expensive boutiques, small shops full of jewellery, statues and summer dresses, many imported from other developing countries, but all really expensive.
Our hotel room had a verandha with a hammock and a view down the hill to the coast. It wasn’t the perfect place we’d been looking for, our room wasn’t on the beach after all but a 15 minute walk away, however we both realised it was fantastic enough for us and we spent the next five days relaxing and reading, and I tried to organise our photos of the trip so far on my laptop. 5 days was probably the longest we’d stayed anywhere in a while, and it was nice to unpack properly, but the days went by really quickly, and before we knew it we were on the bus again heading back to Rio, our South American trip nearly over. The bus journey to Rio was another 18hr or so, after which we checked into the same hotel we had started at. We had two nights in Rio, and so this time we managed to do a tour which included going up to see the famous statue of Christ on the hill, as well as Brazil’s largest football stadium, (including walking out on to the pitch through the entrance tunnel, something which was very exciting for a couple of British lads on the tour with us), and a strange modern style cathedral in the centre. We also managed to make it to a free tour of H. Stern headquarters, the large jewellery seller, where we saw how they got and crafted the gems into fashionable items. Ruth naturally loved it but even I found it pretty interesting. She had also been thinking of buying herself a nice ring here, spending the money she’d been given for her birthday when we left home. We had to return to the jewellers the next day briefly to finalise the decision which in the end was for aquamarine.
When we left Rio we flew to Santiago, and we left there at 11.00 p.m. on the 13th, arriving in Auckland at about 3.00 a.m. on 15th. It took a while to figure out the flight time, getting a little confused at first about the technicalities of flying over the date line, but in the end it all made sense!
We really enjoyed Brazil but never really spending much time in one place did find it difficult to feel much integration. All the locals we met were very friendly, some genuinely trying to help or just interested in chatting, some obviously trying to get business, but our interactions with them were usually pretty brief. Saying this however I am mostly talking for myself, as Ruth, with her much better understanding of the language, often had someone by her side, keenly sharing a summary of their life, which they did eagerly as soon as they discovered she understood and spoke some Portuguese.

One thing I’ve definitely been considering was how fast we had to go through some countries. The earlier countries weren’t too bad, but Bolivia and Argentina seemed rushed, and many including Chile we didn’t see at all (having previously not planned to go to Argentina). Obviously we spent longer in most countries than many we met on a holiday so it’s all good, and when we booked the ticket we were aware how we could have spent a whole year in South America, or in one country, and therefore been able to get a deeper involvement and understanding of wherever. If we had been able to get a round the world ticket beyond a year it would have been better, so we could have had a few more months in South America. With Brazil it definitely felt like we only got a tantalising glimpse in just over a month, and it would have been great to spend a few months just going down the coast. At the same time however I did feel a certain impetus to leave South America, that it would be nice to arrive somewhere totally new, refreshing to feel a new culture. To be honest I’ve been looking forward to China and Japan the most, and it seems a shame that we might be there for too short a time. In hindsight we could have made this journey two trips, one to South America, and another to East Asia, but it would have cost a lot more money and of course time.


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