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Published: December 25th 2017
Geo: -21.1264, -56.4774
Brazil 23 September - 2nd October
Putting Astrid, our motorhome, into store was traumatic. It was always going to be a challenge to collect all our belongings together in order to pack as it meant storing them in Astrid during this process where space is meticulously measured and already allocated. Two extra large bags meant we were bursting at the seams. We had 2 major tasks, re-sort all our possessions in order to pack and then prepare Astrid for store, emptying all her tanks after rinsing and sterilising them, disconnecting the gas cylinder, cleaning the outside, wiping every surface internally with antibacterial cleaner, emptying the fridge, taking down and packing curtains, then finally removing cushions to store at Anna's. I had a plan that made it seem manageable. Put a large tarpaulin on the ground, move everything onto this so I could gather items for packing and fill the bags. Then put everything else on the tarpaulin so I could clean inside the empty vehicle. Simple really! Except the weather scuppered that plan. It poured with rain non-stop for the two critical days. The result was a high degree of chaos and extra hard work but we finished eventually and
took her to her resting place for the next 6 months, feeling rather bereft as we were driven to the bus stop to catch a bus back to Anna's and leaving her behind.
Then a couple of days later we were off to Heathrow to catch our flight to Sao Paulo. Reaching the airport was easy. A taxi door to door cost approximately £10 more than public transport. That was no contest so we reached the airport relaxed and in comfort by taxi. Once inside we ate our sandwiches and than slowly wandered through check in and security.
We were through to departures with plenty of time to spare so I decided to charge my iPad. We had settled ourselves in seats before I realised that all the nearby charging points were in use. I told Jim I would walk around and find a free one and come back when I was finished. I walked to the furthest seating area where there were only a couple of people around and found a post to plug in. I stood charging the iPad and doing a Sudoku. Eventually after about 10 minutes I realised that a case was stored under a seat nearby
with a leather computer bag on top of the seat and that no-one had been near whilst I had been standing there. Of course every 5 minutes they were announcing that any unattended luggage would be removed by security staff and destroyed.
What to do? I waited another 5 minutes and rather than making a fuss decided I might continue to wait. Then I thought, what exactly am I waiting for? There were only 2 possibilities, either someone could come and claim it or it might explode. Suddenly waiting any longer did not seem logical! No-one was within forty feet of the case so I went across and explained to a member of the Airport staff. She walked over close enough to see the cases and said tersely, "I need to call Security", and marched away. I had moved away trying to work out what would be a safe distance (not something I have a clue about) and as I did I passed a Middle Eastern looking man who looked at me with a strange expression. Something in his glance prompted me to point at the bags and ask if they were his. He spoke English and said ,'yes'. I raced
after the young woman and called her back explaining that someone had claimed them. We returned and he was still in the same place, nowhere near the bags. She looked at him and the luggage and asked him the same question. When he said yes, she really let go. She was furious and told him that he should be arrested and have his luggage destroyed for creating a threat. Eventually she calmed down, told him to stay next to the luggage in future and left. I think her reaction reflected her fear. As far as the man was concerned, what possessed him to move so far away is beyond me. He was sitting about 50 feet from the luggage, in a separate block of seats and facing in the opposite direction away from them so they were not in his vision. As they say in the States, 'Go figure!' I can't.
The flight itself was very comfortable and passed quickly, as did our entry to Brazil. Sao Paulo was only a stopping off place to recover before we flew inland to Campo Grande which is an access point to the Pantanal. It gave the opportunity to buy a couple of toiletries
and find the 'right' Santander ATM which provided cash without any bank charges. They are few and far between but worth finding. Interestingly, Sao Paulo is the only non European city to be a capital of a European country. It happened in 1807 when the Prince Regent transferred his court to Sao Paulo as Napoleon marched on Lisbon. He returned to Portugal in 1821. The city has over 19 million inhabitants, is the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere and is reputed to produce the best pizzas in the world, Italy included.
As promised, Gil, our tour organiser, was there to meet us at the airport at 5pm and whisked us to his hotel, which as he explained, is basic but clean and safe. He was right, we have stayed in much worse! Gil is an interesting character, ex professional soccer player in Canada, (hence his excellent English), retired wildlife guide, entrepreneur, family man and musician. He explained that the wife (number 6 or 7, he couldn't remember which) of his business partner was having a low key birthday outing to a restaurant and would we like to join them? We did, luckily with another guest who arrived a couple of
hours later. Marta is an Italian medical student on placement for a short time in Brazil. Thankfully she speaks English and Portuguese so she did a lot of translating for us. Apart from Gil and Marta no-one spoke English. It was a pleasant evening with live music and Gil joined in on the tambourine. It is his favourite restaurant because it serves food from his home area of Corumba. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming, despite our lack of Portuguese and the special Corumban dish of liver and kidney finely chopped to almost a soup was delicious.
Gil was a great storyteller with plenty of anecdotes, one of which in particular intrigued me. He told us of a young German psychologist who arrived for a tour about 17 years ago when there was no infrastructure and Gil took people off by boat to camp by the river. He asked her what she was particularly interested in to help plan her trip. She said, "Gil (pronounced Sjeel), I will be honest with you, I have come with one purpose and that is to become pregnant." So, determined not to be thrown by a client's request Gil called his staff team together and
she chose a likely candidate! It worked, she had a little boy, and at this point in the story Gil took out his mini iPad and like a proud grandfather, showed us a picture of a very handsome 16 year old with his mother. A year after her visit the father moved to England, married and had another son so now the half brothers see each other regularly. We also saw a picture of the two teenagers together looking very happy.
The next day we were driven for four hours to Lontra Lodge in the Pantanal and not far from the Bolivian border. The Pantanal is not a swamp but a freshwater wetland. At this time of year the water is low as it is at the end of the dry season but the Miranda and Red Rivers which we explored a few times flow very fast. As is the norm here everything is inclusive at the Lodge (there is nowhere else to go for food or drink) including activities. It is excellent value. We paid £250 each which included 5 nights accommodation, all meals and activities, and 2 transfers totalling 6 hours travel time.
Our days were filled with truck
'safaris' and walks, boat rides up and down the rivers, fishing for Piranha, and horseriding. We could also have canoed but declined because of Jim's knees, as we did the 'Flotation' session. Flotation means holding on to a 'noodle' float and being carried down river. We avoided this along with everyone in our group because the water is not welcoming - impenetrable like thick coffee with only a splash of milk so you can see nothing and it is full of Piranhas. It did not seem like a good idea. The only people who did try it later were a group of Japanese young people and I don't think they understood the word 'Piranha'! However, Joseph,who organised everything, assured us it was safe. Jim had read an article about an area where local people had swum in the Piranha infested river since anyone could remember without a problem, Then suddenly it changed. The Piranhas attacked and swimmers lost fingers and other appendages.
Surprisingly, I really enjoyed fishing for Piranha, perhaps because I was the first to land one. But my little catch was eventually overshadowed by Jim's monster (for a Piranha) offering. A young woman in the group screamed as she
jerked her catch out of the water and slightly panicky said, 'Joseph, I've caught something but it definitely isn't a Piranha!' It was a poisonous Catfish. Did someone mention swimming?
Another day we went by boat to the 'Hill', the only raised land for miles around. Joseph was concerned about us and suggested we stay in the boat as the Hill was 'a difficult walk'. However, he also said he would leave someone with us if we wanted to walk and then we could go at our own pace and turn back if we wished. We were not daunted by the thought of a walk but as soon as we disembarked we realised it was not a walk but a very difficult climb. The first 15 minutes was scrambling up a very steep path and then it became almost vertical. Ropes had been (rather riskily) tied so that you could pull yourself up. This stage was killing as all your weight was on your arms and the dry and crumbly slope surface disintegrated under your feet. We did manage to get 90% of the way and decided to stop when it worsened yet again. We had done well and did not
want to push our luck especially as Jim did not know how his knees would take the descent. At least we reached the point of getting a view across the Pantanal which is vast and flat, approximately 4 times the size of Wales. The next day my thighs were grateful that we stopped when we did, they were very painful but only for 2 days, then back to normal. Jim was fine.
The birds here are truly amazing, probably the best area we have visited with over 600 species present. The mammals are more difficult to glimpse. The star of the region is the elusive Jaguar which we have not spotted so far although we did come across some tracks on a walk. Capybara are common and one group marched through the Lodge grounds. We were lucky to spot a family of Giant Otters playing at the side of the river. They can weigh up to 60 kilos. Unfortunately the combination of dusk and a rotating boat (trying to stay in one place in the fast flowing river) defeated our attempts at photography with Jim producing the 'best' shot of one disappearing up the bank. We shall persevere and see if
we can find more elsewhere.
Reluctantly we had to leave Lontro Lodge and had our transfer to Bonito. It was here we realised how well organised Gil's tour had been. Suddenly we were on our own coming up against what we found to be an impenetrable Brazilian culture. I am sure it is different in large tourist areas but here (as where we stayed in Sao Paulo) very few people speak English. In the Hostel there is a travel desk where they arrange the excursions and onward travel. That sounds easy but believe me it isn't. We started by trying to book our onward bus ticket. No-one was answering the phone at the bus station. No problem, the young lady said, we can try again tomorrow. Then we asked about the excursions. I won't go into lengthy details (that makes a change I can hear you say) but just say it took 2 days, 7 visits into the office, 3 staff and 5 price recalculations all for a one day outing.There are only 3 trip options available so it was nothing out of the ordinary. The 'next day' the bus station was closed as it was a local holiday. Then we
were told that there is no bus to Corumba on a Sunday anyway, so we had to book another night in Bonito and we are still waiting to book a bus ticket.
Everyone is very pleasant and helpful but it feels as if we have tumbled down the hole after the White Rabbit - nothing makes sense. To give one example, I asked if transport was included in the price of our day trip as there is a notice outside the office saying it was not included. We had been given a price of 302 Reales (pronounced Hay -ice). The young lady said it wasn't so I asked her to give me the total price including transport, she did a lengthy calculation and said finally 302 Reales.
Another puzzler was the next Hostel we tried to book. It came up on Booking.com as being in Corumba where we want to be, but the map showed it in a town 200 miles away. We had to persevere as it was one of only 2 in Corumba and the other was very expensive. After lengthy investigation we discovered the Hostel has changed it's name AND address but is actually in Corumba and the
helpful travel person managed to get their phone number so we could speak to them and all is booked. But like everything else here it is like walking through treacle 4 feet deep, however at least people are willing to walk companionably beside you through the gunge.
Tomorrow we go on our excursion so we are keeping our fingers crossed.
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Great shot ... ....