Monday, 31 October 2011

A brief stop in a Megacity and one of the Modern Wonders of the World.

We were heading to Foz do Iguassu but had to change buses in Sao Paulo, Brazils biggest, most frightening, industrial, economic and political centre that boasts a population of around 20million people. The term Megacity had never seemed so real and well deserved as it did when we set off from the bus station in search of the Municipal Market at rush hour. The train passed through what seemed to be a never ending sprawl, none of it particularly aesthetic, at one point passing over an 11 lane motorway which was at a complete standstill in both directions. I don't even know how that would work. After a short journey we alighted and made slow progress towards the market where we had been advised to try a Mortadella sandwich. Something that is apparently a Sao Paulo delicacy, but not something designed to be the introductory meal of the day. I tell you what though, it was absolutely delicious. Here's a photo and if anything, ours was much bigger than this one.


I'm not ashamed to say that we both had real difficulties finishing them and got the helpful staff to wrap the remaining two thirds that we hadn't physically been able to fit in our stomachs to eat later on for lunch AND dinner. The market was pretty good all in all, fresh fruit, juices, and countless eateries made for a a few hours of bloated wandering before we had to make our way back to the bus station, which was the size of an international airport, for our connection to Foz do Iguassu.

It was a short overnight hop on the bus rendered even shorter by the fact that the driver had clearly taken on a bit of a sideline as a delivery driver. We stopped at a small town in the middle of the night and watched in bafflement as the driver and a couple of other guys took half an hour to load what looked like medical supplies alongside our various rucksacks and suitcases stowed beneath the bus. After this point, I swear the bus didn't drop to below 65mph, a full 10mph faster than was required by Dennis Hopper in Speed. This resulted in us arriving at 4am (our scheduled arrival was 6.30am) and being uncerimoniously deposited outside a locked bus station before our bus driver could fishtail out of the car park, wheels spinning to deliver his cash cargo of  surgical scalpels or whatever it was. Its not a good feeling when you know you've got 2 hours to wait until the station itself opens and 3 until you can get a bus to somewhere semi close to your hostel is, on top of having had next to no sleep the previous night. We settled down to wait and eventually, after what I remember as a blur we ended up outside our hostel and was being let in by the cleaning lady who had poked us awake with her open toed sandle. The next day we were up and at 'em bright and early to hop on a bus and hit the falls.

We'd heard good things about the falls and weren't sure whether we would bother going over to view them from the Argentinian side the next day but as soon as we arrived on the scene our mind was made up. And this was why

The Brazilian side is all about the panoramas with breathtaking views from viewing platforms at varying levels set into the cliffs, but on the Argentinian side, you enter right into the heart of the waterfall on raised walkways with views over the top of the waterfall watching the tonnes of water drop over the edge of a 50 metere cliff face. The raw power is unbelievable and the noise is overwhelming, just a tiny insight into the potential power of our mother earth.

So after 2 days and one border crossing, we had been blown away by what surely must be one of the New 7 Wonders of the World which you can actually still vote for until the 11th of November by clicking on the link. I haven't because it reminds me a little of a worthwhile X-Factor and the dichotomy is too much for my tiny mind. It should be noted that the wildlife in and around the falls is almost as impressive, with Turtles, various Lizards and huge numbers of green and yellow butterflies standing around in clumps pretending to be flowers.

We were in Argentina now, and finally, after 3 weeks in a country where I could not speak one word of the Portuguese required in order to make myself understood, it was finally time to put my very, very poor Spanish, learnt 13 years previously at High School to the test.
Buenos Aires Here we come.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The first bit of sunshine in Brazil. - Paraty

A 5 hour bus journey was all it took to shake off the 'I'm definitely getting robbed' paranoia that had been hanging over us like a nosey aunty for the duration of our stay in Rio. As it turned out, I think the threat of robbery is made far too much of in Rio and in South America in general. We met a resident of Rio who had never had any trouble in Rio for 24 years only to be robbed when she visited Edinburgh for three weeks during the festival. To be fair, Edinburgh's the only place I've ever been robbed and I'm more than happy to wander around with a camera, I-pod and wallet full of money hanging half out of my back pocket whenever I'm there so it just goes to show how shreekingly hysterical the  Lonely Planet can be and also how the fear of the unknown can manifest itself. Our arrival in Paraty was uneventful. It's a small town with the roughest cobbling I've ever experienced. There is honestly a very real chance that you could break your leg just walking on its quaint, Portuguese colonial avenues. Many of which have remained unchanged for over 250 years.

Paraty itself, unless you are WELL into Portuguese colonial architecture, can be walked around in about 45 minutes but the real draw, for us at least was the incredible excess of natural beauty that surrounds it. Islands just off the Costa Verde (Green Coast) poke out of the Emerald sea like rotten teeth and, when it stopped raining, the temperature  rose to a very pleasant 28-29C, with sea being maybe 6 or 7 degrees below that. Something we learnt the day after our arrival when we went out for a day on a boat stopping at various islands, beaches and snorkelling spots.

Spare a thought for a moment for poor Hernan and the captain of the boat who have to endure this almost every day of their lives. Moving sedately from white sandy beach to white sandy beach, snorkelling amongst the seahorses and brightly coloured fish and, on top of all this, generally being two of the handsomest men I've ever seen. They were literally swatting two of the ozzy girls we were sharing the boat with away like persistent flies for the duration of the trip. To the visible dismay of the guys they were with. We moved across the bay, stopping from time to time to dive off the boat or swim onto a postcard style beach like this one.

It was our first bit of total relaxation since we'd left, I was heard to remark on at least 3 or 4 occasions that 'this is what travelling is all about' after a while Emma began to point at me and snore every time it looked like I was shaping up to say it. But in my defence it really is. So, after a day of really having a lovely time of it we returned to the hostel and had a significant number of beers to celebrate. We had heard reports of a natural waterslide as well as a rope swing hidden deep under the jungle canopy a little outside Paraty town and were determined to check it out the next day.

I had visions of one largeish boulder smooth enough to slide down into a small pool of water. As it turned out that couldn't have been further from the truth, the photo here will give you an idea of the scale. The area you have to aim for at the bottom is a little small for completely reckless abandon like head first dives, unless you don't particularly value your skull, but we did hear reports of locals sliding down in a standing position. Which by all accounts is pretty impressive to watch!

The waterfall was fun, but all it did was whet our appetites for some ropeswinging. We set out, badly prepared, with no water and a map drawn in crayon to find it. We walked for some 6km all the while becoming more and more disillusioned, until finally, just in the nick of time we came across a promising looking turn off. We took it and marched a further 2km into the jungle following a well worn path until we arrived to the end of the path where the canopy opened up a little and presented a pool that belonged in Jurassic Park. Vines hung down as thick as cables and the noise of birds and insects was nearl deafening. Streams of sunlight broke unevenly through the trees in an uneven light show, dappling the pool and making it look even more appealing than it aleady was after a 3 hour trek. We didn't need to be told twice. We swang and leapt and sent the birds scattering out of the trees overhead with whoops of pure fun.

I was again heard to exclaim what was rapidly becoming a mantra for me here in Paraty 'this is what travelling is all about'. What a couple of good sets of funs we had. Everyone was grinning from ear to ear as we set off to try and flag one of the sporadic buses to Paraty town.

There was some drinking after that, due to alcohol being freely available but that doesn't make for such a good story unless something really awful happens, which is exactly what happened to one of the guys we were with during the day. A few beers down and he told us all about the time in Sheffield when he was visiting his friends. There had been an ongoing feud with a couple of locals in the area and the house he was at was egged. Being more than a little absolutely reeking on strong spirits he thought it would be a good idea to go out with his friends air rifle and scream threats at the now long gone assailants waving what to all intents and purposes looked like a real gun. He awoke a little later staring down the barrels of Armed Response's not insignificant arsenal and hauled off to jail. The thing that stopped him getting a 5 year mandatory sentence? The fact that the gun was springloaded and not air loaded. He was spared jail, but due to a strict policy of no fire arms offences among teachers he can no longer follow his chosen career path. Perhaps the most surprising and ironic facet of his punishment is that he can no longer legally enter the US! You may feel sorry for this gent, apparently the victim of his own drunkenness, but I don't think being drunk is necessarily what the made the difference. A couple of weeks later we saw him in a club in Bolivia and by way of a greeting he whipped his trousers down to reveal his newly pierced scrotum. Make your own minds up.

Next stop, one of the modern wonders of the world Iguassu Falls that straddles the border between Argentina and Brazil quite beautifully.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Sambadromo Party

In Rio, they have dedicated about three city blocks to an ominous looking structure known locally as the Samb√≥dromo - the 'Samba Drome'. It is a huge, roofless, stadium sized building about a mile in length that all the Samba Schools, parade down come Carnavale. Emma had procured tickets to the grand final, the champions parade. The week before had seen various heats, the winners of which would get a final chance to impress the judges and hopefully clinch victory for their particular Samba school.

Built in one of Rios less upmarket neighbourhoods, it didn't look particularly inviting the couple of times we'd passed previously but with sheer mass of people going to enjoy the final parade of Carnavale the atmosphere was electric.
The underground to get there was packed with performers in costume banging drums and blowing whistles and practicing their Samba for what is, for many, the most important day of the year. The floats had been under construction since last years parade and despite a fire that had destroyed several schools efforts, the turnout was truly spectacular. We had bought our own beers in a rucksack like true Brits abroad, as the talk was of a horrendously overpriced tourist trap on arrival. To be fair, the beers were fine and if there was anywhere worth paying the extra it was here. We arrived in our seats in between schools and we neared the end of the first Brahma there was still no sign. This was due to the fact that each school has between 5 and 10 thousand people in it with anywhere between 10 and 25 floats. When they did arrive it was worth the wait.

Unfortunately, we were still far too para about Rio to take our own camera out so I've dipped into Google to help us out, I will eventually go back to using our photos just as soon as I've covered the stuff we got up to here. These are just to give you an idea.

We stayed in the Sambadrome until long after we'd finished our beers as the flow of Samba schools doesn't let up until 3 or 4 in the morning. We have no idea who won and have no idea of the criteria for deciding what's a 9 out of 10 and what's an 8 but the sheer scale of them and the effort put in by every beautiful, semi-nude woman and every perfect male specimen dancing, girating and doing god knows what else in the thronging mass below us. The amount of energy in that place is on a par with the game of football we'd seen a day or two before. After about 5 hours we left, a little tipsy and absolutely blown away by the sheer scale of what we had witnessed. On our trip back to the underground, which luckily for us runs 24hrs a day during Carnavale, I felt a tug on the now empty rucksack we had used to transport our beer and turned round to face a less than perfect specimen of manhood behind me having a little rummage inside. I pulled the bag away and pushed him back, he was less than apologetic, leering at me and grabbing for the bag again. The guy must have been about 70 years old but he wouldn't have made it to the final audition for a Werthers Original ad let me tell you. Toothless and leering he turned away with a horrible cackle and disappeared into the crowd as we made our way home a little bemused but delighted with what has to be one of the best shows on earth.