Published: March 13th 2011March 13th 2011
Greetings all… I have been so swept away by Carneval and all my adventures of late I have been somewhat lax and not given you an update for some time. Im sure you keen to know how the last 6 weeks have passed! From my shenanigans in The Pantanal (fishing for piranhas, swimming with caimens) to my sojourn in the colonial town of Paraty and all day caiprinha fest amidst the islands of the Costa Verde to encounters with Brazilian black magic and of course the 4 days of Carneval where the city of Rio erupts into a Bacchanalian frenzy of dance, music and drinking.
I am still in Brazil but have now departed the eclectic, vibrant city leaving behind some very special friends and taking with me some wonderful memories which this blog will be about. However, quick update as to the current situation…..I am now officially back ‘on the road’ travelling North on an organised Overlanding Trip with Tucan Travel (strap line: the experience of a lifetime ;-)). This trip…Amazonia http://www.tucantravel.com/tour/overview/amazonia/zrc takes me along the East Coast of Brazil to the very north of the country, hooking inland at Belem to travel westwards up the Amazon for 5 days to Manaus and then on into the jungle, through into Venezuela, Columbia and finishing in Ecuador in mid May.
Its 70 days of ongoing truck travel with a hefty dose of camping and to be honest I felt very reticent when joining the trip. Fearing, I would be thrown in with a load of 20 something feral Australians ( who seem attracted to adventure travel with Toucan) I am quite relieved to join a truck which has a healthy cross section of people. Average age is definitely well into the mid-late 30’s with a roughly 50/50 male/female ratio and a decent combo of singles and couples. However, it’s a big group….there are 30 of us. Ouch. With such a large number, I think it will take time to get to really know people but even in the 48 hours we have been on the road, friendships are already forming and personalities coming through.
I was terribly sad to leave Rio…. The hospitality and friendship there (as with Pepe in BA) ran deep and without Cris, I couldn’t have stayed as long as I have. Being with her, meeting her Carioca friends has given me a totally different experience of the ‘marvellous city’ as it is known…far removed from the Lonely Planet clutching backpacker or gringo Overlander (which I have now become by default). It is a complex city where the desperately poor live in favelas adjacent to neighbourhoods where flats sell for £10million a pop. On the beaches, the brown and the beautiful offer their perfect bodies to the sun whilst black beach workers toil around them selling ice cream, snacks, bikinis/sarongs and collecting cans for money.
Yet, although the gap between the rich and poor is vast, I was struck by the decent infrastructures of the favelas and the facilities within them. I was keen to see this side of the community and so Mark (Cris’s friend who came out from London for Carneval) and I arranged to do a favela tour. As with my African encounters in the tougher parts of towns, I was torn between the emotions evoked visiting these places. On the one hand there is the guilt that you are simply gawking at poverty and voyeuristically being led on a human safari. On the other hand, there is the desire in me to learn about the communities that exist there as they are as much as part of the country and culture of Rio as the upper class cariocas and of course driven by capturing the atmosphere of the favela through my photography. Hence, we chose carefully and booked a ‘tour’ with a recommended company who donate half the monies earned to an educational project in the favela…this assuages the gringo guilt that little bit more as well!
It was a fascinating couple of hours where we were taking high into the steep slopes of Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela with over 200,000 inhabitants and then Vila Canoas, a much smaller settlement where banks, shops and markets bustle with people and running water, electricity even the internet are available for all.
Compared to the townships of Cape Town or the slums of Nairobi, these neighbourhoods though still claustrophobic with TB inducing dwellings, where garbage is piled high on the streets filling the air with the smell of rotting food were actually far more habitable than their African equivalents. Drugs, gang warfare and aids is still a sad reality but far less so nowadays and I came away from the experience thinking how much life and soul is in the favelas. When people have less, cultural values seem stronger… a sense of family and community, a cooperative resorcefulness and of surviving in the face of adversity, relishing happiness wherever possible. I sound like im romanticizing the lives of the favela dwellers when in fact the reality is far from romantic but somehow, the place buzzed with an animated energy which permeated the streets, the buildings and the whole community. Clinging to the sides of Rio’s hills with their distinctive building style the shanty towns at night glisten and sparkle like diamonds. Purely to do with the level of humidity in the air and the effects of the Rio smog but their importance in carioca life is not to be dismissed.
There was no energy, just disappointment and a total anti climax when Mark and I finally made it to the top of Corcovado the day before Carneval officially started. The 30m art deco statue of Christ the Redeemer is the iconic image of Rio. Perched atop the 700m+ hill it stands, arms outstretched towards the south (the richer part of the city) gathering Rio in its embrace. On a clear day, the views are meant to be superb and although we set off on the Trem de Corcovado with blue skies above us, by the time we had ascended to the top, thick cloud cover had descended shrouding the top of the mountain and the 1000 metric ton statue in its embrace. We couldn’t see a thing! I mean literally…..not a thing. Not even the top of Cristo Redentor himself. Consoling ourselves with a beer we sat and watched the frustrated faces of fellow tourists as they attempted to take photos in the ethereal gloom. The mist swirled around the café area like something out of Lord of the Rings and not one glimpse did we get of the city, of Pao de Acucar (Sugar Loaf mountain), of the beaches of Ipanema, Copacabana or the blue Atlantic ocean. Bah!
Corcovado may have been a bit of a let down but Carneval was truly spectacular. The biggest party in the world, 4 days of unbridled hedonism and I was lucky enough not just to be in Rio but with cariocas who know and love the city that is their home. Carneval is the city’s most important celebration and an opportunity for people to let loose and express themselves (accentuated by lots of Antarctica beer) through music and song. Many people head for the Sambodrome but the real Carnival happens on the streets of Rio…far away from the parading floats and feather clad rhinestone gstrings. That said, the Sambadrome is an experience but I saw it only from a television. In the care of Cris and Guilherme (one of Cris’s closest friends) I was treated to a Carneval at local level. From the blocas or bandas (street processions) all over the city we joined in with to ending up on Avenida Presidente Vargas where samba schools that didn’t make the Carneval divisions parade their costumes and skills and the floats of the top schools queue up to enter the 1.7km long, 90,000 capacity Sambadrome.
Im not a fan of crowds so approached the blocas with a degree of trepidation but the local one in the square close to Cris’s flat was a family affair and an atmosphere of genuine celebration. Plus, it was easy to pop upstairs for a pee! Although temporary toilets pop up all over Rio during Carneval, demand greatly outstrips supply and the pavements are covered in piss and the gutters run with stale urine. The whole place takes on the rank smell of an overused urinal combined with the fetid decay of rubbish which builds up on the streets. Its truly hideous.
On one day of Carneval, Guilherme and I vaulted the gates of the closed Botanical Gardens to escape the jumping procession with its incessant samba drumming and escaped into the tranquil bliss of pristine Atlantic forest with over five thousand pant species including an impressive orchid house. Rio’s Botanical Gardens shoot into the top 3 of botanical gardens ive visited… up there with Kew and Kirstenbosch in Cape Town. Beautiful place.
Having already seen many species on my jaunt down the Costa Verde it was satisfying to put names to many. Just before Carneval the atmosphere in Rio was feverish with Cariocas ready to party and not quite feeling the spirit I escaped the city to head down the coast to the town of Paraty – a town of picturesque Portuguese colonial architecture and a staging post for the 18th century trade in Brazilian gold. It was a last minute decision to go and having booked my bed for two nights, the following morning I negotiated the complex Rio bus system to get up to the seedy rodoviaria and catch a coach 5 hours southwards. I had literally been in the cobbled streets for no more than 5 minutes when I spotted a group from the Dragoman Truck I had befriended in Bonito. Paraty was the last stop for all the overlanding trucks heading towards Rio and about 8 had converged on this beachside haven. However, for 2 solid days the heavens opened and the skies remained a leaden grey emptying centimetres of water into the ancient streets so exploring the historical centre was a wet affair as water sloshed around my flip flops and I surrendered to the inevitable soakings.
The Drago gang were a fab bunch and invited me to join them on their boat cruise around the islands. Actually it was more of a booze cruise if truth be told as unlimited caiprinhas were on offer all day. From 11am we downed cups of fiery cachaca tempered with sugar and limes. The boat rocked to the beat of the DJ and the on deck dancing, stopping in islets for us to dive off the mast and swim in the grey waters as the rain beat the surface. It was a hilarious day and im surprised nobody drowned considering the lethal combination of 38% proof and an ocean of water! I passed out back in my hostal at 630pm and slept solidly for 14 hours. The following day, the rain was still pounding down but not to be deterred I got chatting to an Israeli couple and the three of us caught a taxi out into the mountains to the tiny settlement of Penha to slide our way down a natural toboggan waterfall. In retrospect (and no cachaca was involved), it was pretty dangerous…. We hiked up to the top of the falls and gingerly crossed the river to the vantage point whereby we could lower ourselves into the flow and scoot off down the 45 degree rockface , hurtling into the white whirlpool at the base of the flow. Fun and exhilarating but potentially deadly. Hehehe.
I only had a couple of days in Paraty but it was much needed to escape the madness of Rio and mentally gird my loins for Carneval. After 4 days of celebration where the streets from Lapa,to Leblon and Leme throbbed with percussion and dancing, the time had come to pack up my gear and leave Cris et al to meet my new travelling buddies.
Departing Rio at 7am on the 9th March we drove 8 hours to Ouro Preto in the adjacent state of Minas Gerais and explored its vertiginous streets and colonial churches in a dusky afternoon. The rain has not ceased...humidity is on a par with Ecuadorian rainforest and returning to camping is a bit of a jolt to the system. I have got used to taking 3 showers a day in Rio but now back on the road, one just has to accept the menopausal like sweats that pass over your body. The truck isn’t airconditioned (ha!) and with 31 bodies on board, it’s a question of patience, tolerance and acceptance…. Overlanding is tough work but im certain that the adventure that lies before me will carry on dazzlling and amazing me. Im continuing to have a life changing trip which with every change in pace brings new challenges and experiences. I really think travelling should be mandatory!
So, armed with my new netbook…I am on the move , on the go and ready for whatever the rest of South America will throw my way.
Hope you enjoy the latest pictures and all is well back in Blighty. Im sure you may be colder than I am at the moment but most certainly drier……