Water, water everywhere and becoming a birthday byproxy Catholic

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August 23rd 2013
Published: August 23rd 2013
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The Iguazu falls span the Argentina and Brazil border and are every bit as impressive as people tell you they are. My initial attempt to get to the Argentinian side, where you can see the falls close up, ended up in an impromptu almost border crossing, but I found them second time. Which was good as I was still getting to grips with another currency exchange, this time accompanied by a change in language where words looked the same as in Spanish but are pronounced completely differently.

You can hear the roar as you enter the park and catch glimpses of the falls as you walk up and down the wooden steps. And then they are in front of you, with everyone stopping suddenly and piling into each other on the stairs. The falls are actually a collection of falls of different sizes and from the Argentinian side you can walk around the top of the falls and watch the water tumble over the top from close range. Unfortunately, due to the heavy rains plaguing the area at the time the largest waterfall, Gargantua de Diablo (Devils Throat) walkway was closed because of the sheer volume of water coming over the fall. You could still get close to the other large falls in a boat and for a minute everyone screeches as it looks like you are going to drive into one of the falls before the skipper veers off suddenly. After a soaking in the boat and getting a glimpse of the spray coming off the pool of Gargantua de Diablo I decided to head to the Brazilian side the next day.

To cross the border the bus uncerimoniously dumps you at the border and you have to wait for the next bus to turn up from your company. I went and strolled around a bird park opposite the Brazilian side first and, while I am not a huge fan of birds this place was impressive. Over one hundred tropical species all flapping about in bold colours. There was a large aviary you could enter with loads of parrots and macaws but it shut as I got there and I don't really trust parrots anyway (except you Laus). But they still looked pretty cool. I was in two minds on whether to pay for the Brasilian side of the falls but I figured I might as well as I was there. It was well worth it. You get to walk out on a walkway really close to the Gargantua de Diablo and get absolutely soaked by the spray. I imagine it would have been even more impressive pre hydroelectric project days, but that is all the rage in these parts now. The largest fall, Gargantua de Diablo, is approximately 80 metres high, and you feel a bit nervous as you creep down the walkway with delighted people around you getting drenched and trying to keep their cameras dry.

While I enjoyed the sun after Buenos Aires I really craved some beach time and headed to a small coastal town called Florianapolis, or Floripa to the locals. Half the town, the commercial and industrial areas are on the mainland and the prettier half is on an island. Two buses later I was at a quiet beach with only a couple of small beach bars open on it. It was lovely. I also got a visit in to one of the surfing spot beaches before the heavens opened for two days. As the living area of the hostel was outside the only thing protecting us from the elements were plastic zip up windows. I shot the breeze and had a good laugh with an old Dutch hippie with phenomonal music knowledge, an arrogant Spanish guy and a Brazilian Portuguese guy (Felipe) who was there with 4000 other people to take an exam for a public job. They pay better than private jobs in Brazil, apparently. The hostel workers took pity on us and made us a nice soup to warm us up. We did a couple of things as Felipe had a car, including going to the annual mackerel festival. This was a bizarre affair in a convention centre with some folk music and a chattering compere from the north of Brazil. Tried though he might Felipe could not explain to me and the Dutch hippie why people dressed as a bull were chasing the children around and we sat there a bit bemused before going to have a beer and listen to some music pumping out of a boat with some locals.

I decided I needed some fun and sun and tried last minute to get a flight to the far north of Brazil, Salvador for some amazing beaches. This plan was foiled by the requirement of a Brasilian ID number to book flights and travel agents being closed for the weekend. So I jumped on overnight bus no 28 or thereabouts and went to Rio de Janiero 'the marvellous city' and the world famous Copacabana beach.

As I lay on Copacabana beach after a massage in the sun with a Caiparinha, the ubiquitious Brazilian cocktail made from sugar cane (casacha) in hand, I felt rather pleased with myself. This did not last long. El Papa, the Pope Francis was coming to Rio and 2 million people, mainly large groups of Christian youths from all over the world swarmed into the city, packing the buses, selling out all the tourist sights and doubling the accommodation prices. And to top it off the rain followed. And did not stop for a week on and off. A lot of European backpackers had come to Rio at the end of their South America trip to get home and they were also determined to have some beach fun before they left so the hostel was full of disgruntled people. They were a friendly bunch though and being kept in meant we all made friends quickly and I spent the week with an American who refused to speak English most the time (his Spanish was good), two lovely Irish women a couple of years younger than me and a group of Mexicans. As usual I was grateful but embarrassed that the common language was English and that we had some Brazilian Portguese speakers amongst us. As we couldn't go out much in the day we took to going to salsa clubs at night. We also tried to see some sights, but this was a bit difficult with the swarms of Christian youth about, draped in their countries flags and yelling excitedly at each other as they wondered around the city and closed streets surrounding Copacabana. There were also riots in various parts of the city, unrest caused by the millions of reals a poor country was spending on hosting El Papa, the World Cup and the Olympics. Millions of people have no sanitation in the favelas (slums) but public money was being devoted to stadiums. The unrest said alot for a football crazy country.

We toured a favela in the pouring rain. The favelas are on the outskirts of all South American cities, each country giving them a different name, some spawling kilometres over mountains and dominating the cities. All the guidebooks say they are not safe to go into, the locals say they are fine, the hostels say register with the police first. But if you go in the day they seemed quite safe to us. We would not have got the history we got from the tour guide though, who lives in the favela we toured. The favelas have unmarked, narrow and steep streets, branching off into other unmarked and narrow streets with very little lighting and thick bands of electrical wires swooping precariously close to your head and the open sewers running underneath some of the streets. The pavements are even more of a state than the rest of the city, if they exist at all and street dogs bound around your feets or bark down at you from balconies crowded with washing.This one had its own shops where you could buy things a third of the price of the shops in Ipanema. it is nestled between two of the richest suburbs (even more expensive than Perth) where you cannot rent a place for less than $10,000 a month and every apartment is a multi million dollar one. The government pays the parents in favelas to send their kids to school to make the city look good but there are still very few opportunities for the kids when they leave school. Nearly every single favela boy dreams of becoming a football player and nearly every Brazilian football player came out of the slums. Wherever you are, beach, favela, everywhere, no matter how remote or how ramshackle the posts, they all have football pitches. The skill level of even the smallest kids is amazing. It made us uncomfortable when the kids came out, shivering in shorts and tshirts to play some local samba music on paintpots and cardboard boxes, other bigger kids trying to join in so they could get a piece of a pie, surrounded by unfinished rooms and piles of rubbish in the relentless rain.

So it is back to 'El Papa' mania, first on his public address at Copacabana beach and the second time before he held mass. The atmosphere was amazing. The roads had all been shut so we walked from Ipanema to Copacabana, adjoining suburbs through a closed road tunnels. There was the odd police car or blacked out vehicle coming through, sirens wailing and the noise echoing off the tunnel walls. As soon as the crowds heard any vehicle they started running to keep up, flags hoisted above their heads, shouting 'El Papa' at the top of their voices. The noise was deafening and we kept losing each other in the crowds. Luckily Dee, one of the Irish chicks with her long brown legs, bright pink shoes and blonde hair stood out so we all followed her like a tour guide.

Fed up with trying to squeeze throught the number of entrances to the 4km beach and the long strings of Christian youth providing their own barricades we thought we could chance it to get onto a rooftop hotel in the guise of going to a bar (or, to actually go to a bar). Following hot Kevins lead (never thought you would here those words in the same sentance did you?), we chose a hotel and walked straight past the doorman and reception and into the lift. We couldn't believe how easy it was. The view was amazing and we could see straight away why we were having such problems getting to the beach.

Both sides of the road had been blocked off seperately so the Popemobile could drive down one side and people were waiting there to see El Papa. The beach was blocked off behind this and you had to walk to the far end of the beach then all the way back up again to get to the stage. The scene was like something from an action film, large grey navy boats sitting like menacing sentries in the bay, 4 or 5 choppers flying overhead and police sirens wailing while millions of people swarmed around in groups below us like multicoloured ants. El Papa flew in on a chopper and you could hear the noise from the far end of the beach as he got closer. It was like being at the biggest concert you have ever been too, millions of people screaming his name in a audio mexican wave. It was quite something to see people so overjoyed to see someone they revered so much. And he has already done a lot of good in the world. But he is also head of a religion with grotesque wealth and that encourages the use of no contraception, even in these poor and sometimes disease ridden countries so I watched with cautious emotions. The Catholics I was with (everyone but me on this particular day) were craning to get good pics so they could send them home to their Mums and were pretty excited to be involved in such an event. We watched some of his address on the big screens and while someone translated a bit for us it went over our heads so we left.

That night we headed to a samba club in La Boca, the seedier end of town. We got dropped at the wrong address and its the first night I have not felt comfortable wondering around in a group. It was three women and Felipe, our Mexican friend in the cab and as we paced the dark streets surrounded by prostitutes and big men poor Felipe was clearly distressed at the idea of having to defend the three of us. We found the place we were trying to get to and, miraculously so did the other three taxis of people from the hostel and the girls promptly got let in for free and given free drinks in honour of my birthday at midnight. I had a great time (interspersed with 'how did I get so OLD' conversations with Ceira and Dee), dancing the night away until we all went to Christ the Redeemer on no sleep at 6 in the morning. We must have looked a sight, huge groups of Catholics praying away as the sun came up over the city and us lot wondering around bleary eyed trying to take stupid photos. I topped off my birthday the next day by seeing an El Papa drive by (in the literal sense, he did not whip a machine gun out and start wiping people out. Not the done thing for a Pope. In public). We saw him close up this time, from the road and again you got caught up in the atmosphere. We then went for a traditional all you can eat Brazilian BBQ and some red wine to top the birthday extravaganza off.

The people I was hanging around with had planes to catch and one by one they headed off and I decided to continue my quest for good weather with Ceira. While I saw Rio like many people have not I was disappointed the weather and the crowds meant I had not seen the city, or the country as I should have and think maybe I will come and see Brazil again another time. Although not in the chaos of Carnival or the World Cup.

Nic/Nics xx

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