Thursday, 2 September 2010

Trip Down the Amazon: Manaus to Santarem

Once we got to the heart of the Amazon rainforest and discovered that it was one big duty free shop devoid of mosquitoes and rain we had to tackle the next problem. And that was getting out of the city that was surrounded by thousands of miles of jungle.

Manaus is in my top five strangest places I've visited. It promises so much and delivers so little. I wonder if Timbuktu is the same. Romance and reality like an unwanted pregnancy collide. I thought I was going to get a settlement on the muddy banks of the world’s most vital river with dignified shacks heroically wrestling to keep the forest at bay. A town with monkeys and parakeets festooning roof tops, with the constant patter of rain. And with the charm of indigenous people trotting past covering up their nakedness with a stick skewered through their penis. Instead we got crumbling colonial facades, miles of street stalls selling trainers and electrical equipment. We got a big port where people sat all day drinking cold draft beer. We got a small zoo with one manatee and one monkey. And we got a rash of rich Japanese tourists and over-priced tour companies flirting with each other. The best thing that happened to us in Manaus was meeting a middle aged professor with a smooth bald head and dandy moustache who made the worst joints I’ve ever tried to suck on and who spoke at length about one, global warming being a fiction; two, indigenous people being immune to money and the work ethic; and three, how nature's resources were not there to be exploited by this generation but to be preserved for future generations. Once his first joint fell apart and I could repackage it into one of my trademark rolls his tales fascinated my wife and I. We both sensed something contradictory in what he said and something manic about the little bloke with a fine moustache but sitting on the roof looking out over the city it all made for the perfection of the moment.

I was a little disturbed, however, when in the men's dorm that night he approached me in the grey darkness in his underpants and knelt down beside my bunk and waited for me to open my eyes. What the? He wanted cigarettes. Always willing to oblige a smoker who had done me a good turn, I got up and gave him a couple of fags.

The next morning we packed to leave and before checking out the professor gave us his address and a small nugget of compressed weed.

We had carefully prepared for the journey down the river from Manaus to Santarem. The book said it should take between 30 and 36 hours to do the journey. Other travellers explained that you strung up a hammock on the deck so you needed to get there early to get a hammock spot.

For months I knew this was coming. I had imagined it would be like some floating refugee camp and that we would be squeezed into some filthy corner next to a family of twenty, doggedly guarding our bags and praying for disembarkation.

We had bought our tickets the day before despite people telling us that we should rock up at the last moment and negotiate with the captain to get discounted tickets. We opted to ignore this advice because we wanted to get a good spot and when we went down to the port the previous day we saw a ticket barrier stopping people entering the loading areas, and what is more, we couldn't find any gathering of wily captains sipping cognac and wearing misshaped naval caps.

Early on the day of departure, we walked with a massive burden of packs, hammocks, food and water to the port, squeezing past school kids and street hawkers and finally found our boat. It wasn't as massive as I imagined and it wasn't a floating oil stained barge. It had a bottom loading area, a middle area for hammocks and a top deck with a bar. The hammock area was filling up but there was still plenty of space. There were three metal poles running down the length of the boat from which people slung their hammocks. We padlocked our bags to a nearby post and put up our hammocks. My wife did the classic slapstick. She got in her hammock and the knot slipped and she sunk to the ground with a bang. She retied and plopped back on the hammock and the rope unraveled again. A couple of our fellow passengers were smiling with mirth. A man in bright beach shorts and an impressive belly peeking out from a stretched T-shirt took the rope from my wife and tied a firm knot in 10 seconds. 

All settled in with book, fags, water and baggage secure we watched as more and more people squeezed their hammocks on the middle deck.

We left 30 minutes late and went down the river for only 10 minutes before a police boat pulled up next to our boat. I had the professor's weed on me. I popped it in my mouth and waited. The boat was loaded with bananas, duty free plunder and swinging people. To go through everything would take a week. It took an hour and a half. The police never came up to the middle deck. They must have dallied to tut over the bananas and drive up their bribe. Whatever the reason, when we started again I was glad to be finally on the mighty Amazon chugging low in the water, heading for the Atlantic coast. Being in a hammock, drifting down the river with nothing to do but relax and occasionally stare at the dark brown river was not half as bad as I thought it was going to be. Something about being hidden away in the folds of a hammock with dozens around you gives you a certain type of anonymity. The bloke next door fondly took out the power drill he had bought in Manaus, the mother on the other side of me studied a Christian pamphlet and two blokes just a few meters away shouted and sloshed back and forth a bottle of cane spirits. Normally such happy drunken morons would find me out as surely as a smoker would find that last fag in the packet. But no, ensconced in tough woven material I was somehow beyond their ken. 

The river was as wide as several football pitches and mostly just impenetrable jungle on both banks interrupted every hour or so by a few rickety wooden piers and shacks leaning over the muddy bank. And of course a few makeshift football pitches. We saw nothing but the odd bird and butterfly. Not even a mosquito made it out to the center of the oceanic river. Where were the anacondas so big they could swallow Jennifer Lopez's arse in one half-bite? Where were the pink dolphins sporting in nature's greatest reserve? Where were the pigmy rainforest people in their dugout canoes? Where were the other passenger boats? In fact where was anything?

As night approached we got bored of nibbling on biscuits and sipping warm water and decided to investigate the dining options. It turned out that a woman had a small kitchen by the toilets and you could buy tokens from her for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We spent seven Reals each for a plate piled with the standard delicious Brazilian carb fest of rice and beans and chicken with manioc powder and two strands of lettuce. We ate at a collapsible table two meters from out hammocks. It folded up from the side railings. So we gazed at the blackness. The families around us were busy concluding their showers, changing into sleeping clothes, brushing their teeth and just generally being very at home. By eight-ish as we squeezed the last plastic spoonful of rice and beans into our mouths it was already lights out. Young and old in a suspended squash swung gently and dozed.

The two men nearby who were boozing out of a bottle had been politely shooed away.

I pulled out the mad professor's gear and made a two skin number hidden in the depths of my hammock. Once done Mrs. and I went onto the top deck.

There was a roof which stretched over the bar and a small seating area. The top deck was about 10 or 15 meters across and about 30 meters long. At the back near the cabins (for the rich folk) and the stairs was a little bar selling cold beer and sodas with a TV on the bar. The TV was hooked up to a crackling speaker and blared out Brazilian pop. Sure enough the drunken brothers had passed the test of the bottle and now were pushing and pishing on with the canned brews. I grabbed 2 drinks and got change in the form of tokens (that anything-above-$5-is-impossible-to-give-change thing). We gave the Marx brothers a wide berth and found a windy spot at the front of the boat. We sparked the spliff and watched the moon over the jungle.

Seconds later I was in love with the Amazon, Brazil and possibly the world.

Nobody bothered us.

Everything and nothing trickled across my mental radar.

We enjoyed the cool breeze

Stoned on a boat going down the Amazon.

After a couple of joints and a couple more beers we decided to move to the tables at the bar. And sure enough Abbot and Costello were keen to communicate. They offered us drinks (which we refused) and asked us a barrage of questions in Portuguese. A gawky 12 year old stood by the table in the half shadow and silently watched the meeting of cultures. I tried my best to guess their meaning and reply with a few keywords in Spanish. Just the smallest success at communication is fatal when dealing with happy drunkards. Like a bull forever lunging at the elusive red sheet they stumbled over the same shared words and never really got across the point which was inflaming their enthusiasm. They could have been trying to tell me the location of the lost treasure of the Inca Kings. Or perhaps not. We made our apologies and escaped after one drink.

Early next morning we woke up dehydrated. I had a piss and some water and went back to sleep. I vaguely noticed everyone get up, have a shower, put on fresh shorts and T-shirt and tuck into bread and fruit as I drifted in and out of sleep.

After pleasantly dozing for a couple of hours we got up and performed minimal ablutions. I washed my face and arm pits in the sink by the toilets and changed my T-shirt. Breakfast was fruit, biscuits and water. Mrs. TT had somehow befriended a shy teenage girl and was being introduced to her baby sister and chubby mum. I read my book.

The day passed like the previous day: staring at the river, stopping at the occasional small town on the way and eating unfeasibly stodgy and good food. The only difference about this day was that my astute traveller's brain was telling me that 30 hours meant only one night and not two. Surely it was a late landing at Santarem? Maybe they had conscientiously managed to make up time via nautical mastery and full throttle.

The half a dozen neighbours I had, told me that Santarem was tomorrow and not to worry. Since there were no attendants in nappy little skirt suits and dinky little caps to confer with, no handsome crew to be spotted in uniform at the bar, it was to my neighbours and the woman in the kitchen next to the toilets that I turned to for información. Tomorrow it was with a blitheness that was breezy and Brazilian. Not to worry; we still had a couple of mad professors left of green and I still had some tokens in my pocket from last night which were fully exchangeable for cold canned beer.

Late afternoon we got up on deck for the sunset. Moments like this it should be gobsmacking. It was a dull blur. The mist and humidity generally did a good job of spoiling the sunset. It momentarily cleared and the black river sparkled. Then it went dark.

The next morning I woke up and poked my head over the hammock. Shit we've stopped and lots of hammocks are missing. We hurriedly packed up our stuff. Everyone else just unhurriedly carried on sleeping or packing up. It was 6am.

At 6.30am we were standing outside the port. I knew it wasn't the centre. I was vaguely convinced after studying the LP that we could walk to a bus stop to get us to the beach, Alter do Chao. We seemed to be the only foreigners on the boat and now we were the only people attempting to walk somewhere. The streets were empty except for the odd jogger and homeless dude. Worse was the fact that the streets stretched on and on in the 100% humidity. My wife was beginning to hate me.

After forty minutes lugging our packs we got to a small fishing port just up or down the river (I wasn’t sure) and I got out a pen and paper to get really serious with the communication attempt. Dripping sweat, I smoked a fag as I crossed a road to a kiosk made of weathered wood. The chubby kiosk lady was nice as pie and seemed to get my gist about the bus to Alter do Chao. She consulted with her only costumer and they agreed I should take the road behind the kiosk heading up a hill away from the water. It made sense to me. We started up the road and didn’t spot a bus stop but did spot an open supermarket. Toilet, food, ciggies, cold drink: all essentials for the demands of the moment and good for the morale.

Refreshed and newly enlightened from a taxi driver's directions we set off further up the hill. The ailing wife spotted a fellow that looked Japanese and asked him something out of the phrase book we had been given in Bolivia that she hoped was Portuguese. He was pointing back down the hill. No, no, no. I took the leader's prerogative of ignoring this information and heading into a shop on the corner at the brow of the hill. It took the till bloke 5 minutes to check out 3 items and sort the change out. He then gave me his attention. He pointed to the road that crossed the road we were just on. He seemed certain. My wife wasn't; the face was creeping on. I boldly rallied the troops and we set off on a new course. Sure enough we got to a bus stop. It was an underwhelming experience since there was no timetable or fellow-in-waiting to confirm that this was the bus stop we needed. At least we had come to shade and a stop.

Twenty minutes later a newish bus bounced over the potholes and stopped for us. It was the bus to Alter do Chao. Result. Of course we struggled to get through the turnstile with our packs. But it was only 2.3 real each. That’s less than a dollar. To my mind that made it all worthwhile.
And when later that day when we came out of our little Posada in Alter do Chao and strolled down to the river and paid 3 real for a boat to ferry us across to an idyllic sand bank 30 meters away it seemed even more worthwhile.

The small island or sand bank had a beach on both sides and a line of restaurants. It was Sunday so everyone was out, enjoying the sun. We looked for a quiet spot and soon ran into a group of artisanas or hippies. They spoke a bit of English and got us stoned.

The usual edge of paranoia crept into the proceedings when I had to pay the money up front for some cousin to go off and score. They seemed cool and 50 Reals was not too painful an amount to lose.

As we waited I went for a swim in the warm river water. On the town side the bottom was muddy and unpleasant. On the other side of the sand bank it looked like an ocean, the river disappeared into the horizon with no evidence of a distant bank. The river bottom was also sandier.

All was well with the world. The gear came. I walked 500 meters up the beach with the young cousin who looked somehow like he had a job. When the beach was empty he handed over a brick of sticky weed. We made a couple of joints and walked back.


We hung with our new found friends, most of whom lived on the beach, for another hour or so and then made our excuses and left.

Back in the air-con room, with fridge, shower/toilet and view of badly made wall we recalled with a laugh that just a few hours ago we were losing heart under the Amazonian sun.
After a long stoned sleep we got up and splurged on a fish dinner in a restaurant on the main plaza. Now we were best of friends again and in mutual agreement that this beach was‘something special’. A term we reserved for only a handful of the many beaches we had visited over the years.

I loaded up with cane spirits and guarano pop at the small shop on the other side of the plaza and we went back to our room.

The beach, the hot weather, the luxury room and non-luxury view and the happiness of getting a new brick of weed made it one of the best days of the trip.

This was more like the heart of the Amazon.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Photos From Ecuador

Here are a few photos of our time spent in Ecuador. Not the most exciting country in South America, but far from it's worse. As you travel up the west coast of the continent from Argentina north you can't help but notice that Ecuador marks not only the equator but the start of Caribbean America. Suddenly it gets hot and humid, suddenly people are no longer white or indigenous but sporting the rich hues of Africa. Jungle covers the interior and the sea is a bit warmer to swim in. This was particularly noticeable to us because we travelled through the southern winter months.

The famous tourist beach of Ecuador is Montanita. It was cheap and backpacker friendly. The surfing waves were great and if you looked carefully you could spot the small hippy weed smoking community. We did a great day excursion to hump back whales from Montanita.

After Montanita we spent a few days travelling up the coast on buses. One journey involved changing buses in the middle of the jungle. On that particular journey a passenger put his baby pig in the luggage hold of the bus. The little critter shat on my wife's backpack.

Sua and Canoa were average beaches. It was the weekend and people poured into the seaside towns at night to dance to loud salsa music and get pissed. A big bottle of beer was only $1. And I mean literally $1 since Ecuador uses American money. I can't decide if this is a good thing for their economy or not.

In Quito we heard numerous stories about the murder rate in the city. It did seem to have its problems - we saw kids jacking up on the street - but perhaps no more than any other big city in South America.

My wife collapsed while we were walking around Quito taking in the colonial sights. A kind taxi driver drove us to a private hospital who were very efficient and also had English speaking doctors. It turned out she was just hyper-ventilating. But the good thing was that they found numerous parasites living in her stomach left over from food poisoning in Bolivia and Peru. Getting the right antibiotics to treat the problem was definitely worth the $50 odd dollars that it finally cost us.

From Quito we caught buses over the border and into Colombia. After a few days in Colombia I realized just how average Ecuador is.


Isla de La Plata




Monday, 7 June 2010

The Journey to the Heart of the Amazon

For years I've been in love with atlases. I find it exciting to pour over the pages, my nose close to the book reading the names of remote and exotic locations. I try to memorize the beautiful names of far away spots – Raratonga, Timbuktu, Palau, Ulan Bator, Tashkent, Turfan, Srebrenica, Livingstone, Srinagar, Xanadu, Ushuaia. Just the euphony of the words transports me away to far flung beaches, deserts, frontier towns, isolated mountain communities, jungle settlements and islands far from anywhere. The words are pregnant with the possibility of adventure. The syllables contain the potential of journeys fraught with challenge. While killing time in class I sometimes look out the window at the distant mountains and I imagine riding a horse on the frozen plains of Patagonia, of taking a boat into the heart of Congo's darkness, of trekking in the mountains to get to a village without road access. As more and more of the world falls victim to the malignant virus of globalization I have a growing desire to breathe the rarefied air of climes uncontaminated with ‘backpacker hostels’, menus in English and tourist class buses. Booking ahead, travelling in comfort, having it all explained in a guide book, encountering English speakers, and worst of all finding Starbucks and McDonalds just convinces me that a world without petrol might not be a bad thing. Convenience and familiarity is the false coin by which the exotic is being debased. Travel is big business and big business is only bringing the world together in the sense that everyone now knows the value of a dollar and putting 10 bunk beds in a room and charging laptop carrying twats $20 dollars a night for shared accommodation.

Enough of the rant. This piece is about how I managed to get to one of those remote spots on the map that I had dreamed of. That place is Manaus in Brazil. If you look at the map you will see that it is slap bang in the middle of the Amazon Rain forest. Two obstinate syllables holding out against the unquantifiable might of the mightiest forest. A place surrounded by one of the last refuges from the twenty first century. The Amazon is about the continuity with a dying past and simultaneously about the future. Amongst the centurion trees new species of flora and fauna are being discovered all the time. Many believe that the remedy to every disease and every cancer is to be found in the biosphere of the forest. There are tribes with little or no contact with the outside world, tribes who have been spared the ‘word’, who have escaped the trivia of ‘career’, ‘cash’, ‘play station’ and mobile phones. People who are blessed with nothing but the need to hunt food, make music, procreate and dabble in the planet's biggest pharmaceutical treasure trove. No police, no politicians, no lawyers, no taxes, no plastic. No buy one get one free. Man remembering that he is an animal who has guile and language on his side; not man with his head up his arse carrying round trinkets like iphones and car keys incapable of action unmediated by technology. The Amazon is one of the last places where ‘fast food’ refers to a flighty creature not a carcinogenic burger or a tortured chicken product.

There is only one road into Manaus and that is from Venezuela. That was a fun journey. We travelled through the night from Ciudad Bolivar down to the border. At the empty bus station at Santa Elena de Uairen we grabbed a couple of empanadas and sodas and negotiated with a wizened old man who owned the only taxi in sight. He drove through rolling green pasture land to the border. We strolled up a hill in the blazing sun past a load of impounded cars (anyone caught trying to smuggle more than a tank load of Chavez's oil out of the newly dubbed Bolivar Republic of Venezuela forfeits their car) to a small road side booth where they made us fill out forms about avian flu. We showed them our immunization cards proving that we had had the tamiflu injection. The fat woman in charge was irritated with this breach of protocol. She just wanted us to fill in the questionnaire and be on our way. Then we walked over the road to immigration. There were no other people crossing the border. There were no police to be seen. It would have been an easy feat to enter Brazil illegally. In the immigration office two huge smiling black mamas looked at our passports. They wore African headscarves and jangling bracelets. We had gone to a lot of trouble getting yellow fever certificates because the Crowded Planet and the Brazilian government website bang on about the need for the document. The mamas deliberately ignored our yellow fever certificates. My wife, who is Japanese, had bought a visa in Lima, Peru for Brazil. She handed over her passport with it open at the page of the visa stamp. The mama who took the passport instantly turned the page to find an empty spot to stamp. It seemed the whole place was on some type of industrial action where they would not only work slowly but incompetently. We both got 60 days. My wife's visa wasn't stamped. We both could have been carrying bird flu, swine fever, yellow fever and foot and mouth over the border and nobody would have moved a muscle to stop us. The only thing of interest seemed to be Venezuela's nationalized oil.

The first Brazilian town was about one kilometer down the road. Like many border towns the main money spinner seemed to be selling ‘duty free’ this and that. I went into a shop and with my shambolic Spanish managed to change the last of our Bolivar Fuerte (strong Bolivars – that’s a laugh) into outrageously strong Reals. We were in need of a much bigger injection of local currency to take us down the solitary jungle road to the heart of the Amazon, to the remote city of Manaus. My wife queued at the only bank for 30 minutes only to be told that they didn’t deal in any form of foreign currency exchange. The delightful lack of facility didn't strike us as so quaint at the time. We had been travelling for over twelve hours and had eaten only empanadas and cake the entire time. Warm water and ciggies had been keeping us going.

When faced with an obstacle it is often the case that the only thing to do is to carry on regardless. So we asked where the ‘terminal’ was and headed out of the one horse town down a concrete road shimmering in the heat. The bus terminal was one small office, a bench and a restaurant. As is so often the case, a money changer appeared out of nowhere. He had one of those odd hairstyles where it is greased flat at an angle across the forehead, like a footballer. He was the stereotypical entrepreneur who had long ago sold his grandmother because the margin was juicy. I had a vague notion about how much my dollar should get. After the usual to and fro with the calculator I changed a $50 bill. His best rate still seemed bad to me. He vanished in a blink of an eye. 

We then approached the small bus company office and waited for the bloke to come back from lunch. When he did, we were struck by two things: firstly, how friendly he was and  secondly, how beyond our budget bus journeys were in Brazil. We only had enough to get us to Boa Vista, about a quarter of the way. He helpfully suggested I put it on my credit card. This was not a bad idea because I had got hold of my first ever credit card just months before just for such an eventuality. My pin number didn't work. Oh well. We bought tickets to Boa Vista anyway. Let the future take care of itself. We went next door to the restaurant and enjoyed our first proper meal since we left Angel Falls. Chavez's socialist utopia is so ridden with crime that nobody ventures out at night in Ciudad Bolivar and through some genius stroke of town planning the town has not one place to buy food, not one supermarket or vegetable market anywhere in the town centre; only shoe shops. The markets are on the outskirts of town, past muggers’ paradise. Mr. For-The-People Chavez has wisely given all the police guns and green uniforms and told them to prepare for the imminent invasion of America. So despite the cost we filled our bellies with our first plate of Brazilian food. And the good thing about Brazilian food is that it not only fills your belly, it stretches it to the limits of endurance – rice, beans, pork, manioc and the smallest amount of salad washed down with some mysterious fruit juice.

While sitting on the only bench another bus arrived and one of the passengers to get off was a Japanese 40 something wearing one of those fisherman's jackets with dozens of pockets and a big camera strapped around his neck. Like so many of his compatriots he was in an unfeasible hurry. In his case, the rush was to get to Venezuela and see the Angel Falls and then fly back to Japan before his boss noticed he was missing from his desk. He spoke neither English nor Portuguese. His Spanish was no better. He stopped for five minutes to chat with my wife and get his bearings before taking off down the road looking like a fisherman who had lost his river.

The bus was late in arriving. Nobody seemed surprised about that. When it did make an appearance it looked reassuringly better than a Bolivian conveyance. It had a huge green parrot logo emblazoned across its side. We got on with a couple of other people who were obviously only going a few clicks down the road. It mercifully had air-con.

The road was a bit bumpy but in amazingly good nick considering that it ploughed a lonely furrow through the mighty Amazon. We passed small towns carved out of the tree line and farms sucking the goodness from the soil. The bus driver stopped a couple of times at shacks by the side of the road to drink a leisurely soda. Here was a man with a healthy disregard for time.

In the late afternoon we made it to Boa Vista. It was a big open town with empty wide avenues and tropical trees festooning the roadside. I was vaguely considering staying the night and spending the following day looking for a cambio or bank interested in traveller's cheques. Mrs. Trippy Traveller wasn’t so keen to break the journey merely because of a lack of funds. I agreed that it didn’t make much sense so we did a check of the bus companies just to confirm that we didn’t have the cash to get to Manaus. We searched the high ceilinged terminal for a change place. Nothing. But we did find a small glass office with a sign promising “Tourist Information”. A brown man (everyone was some shade of African) in shorts was watching the TV; not exactly burdened with his duties. We entered his air-con office and he was most solicitous. He didn't know a word of English but he was quite prepared to be patient with my random keywords in Spanish. “Quiero cambio. Hablo dollars Americano. Donde esta banco?”

And then he did the last thing I would ever have expected. He looked in the newspaper for the official exchange rate. Until that point I had never seen anyone in South America pay any attention to what the official rate should be. They had always inflated the strength of the local currency like true patriots. Our nice Tourist Info man then made a couple of calls on his mobile phone. Perhaps he was checking with the central bank of Boa Vista to see if they had the funds to change $100. No, he was actually talking to a shop owner 10 meters away. I know this because he took us there. The shop sold sodas, sandwiches and dusty souvenirs. The chubby girl behind the counter opened the till and emptied it. The entire contents came to $100 exactly. We were very grateful to her and the tourist info bloke. All we could do was to keep on saying “obrigado”. We had only been a few hours in Brazil but I was already liking the place much better than paranoid Venezuela. Nobody was that interested in our presence in this bus terminal and they certainly weren't interested in trying to rip us off. Rather it felt like it was only good manners in Brazil to aid the occasional foreigner that strayed onto their radar.

As we waited for our night bus we spent a few valuable Reals on a strange sweet green soda made of guarana berries to stave off dehydration. We sat on hard benches and watched a young man with a tray of watches accost random Brazilians and persuade them that they needed a watch. Looking back on the experience I have to laugh since where ever we went in northern Brazil the time varied from clock to clock and watch to watch by as much as ten minutes, and nobody seemed to notice. Was this healthy disregard of exact time partly fostered by the man standing before me flogging dodgy no doubt made in China timepieces partly to blame? I kind of hope so.

The bus might have arrived late or it might have arrived on time. It depended on whose watch you consulted. Yet again a random Brazilian approached us as we milled around the bays where the buses parked and asked in broken English where we were going. The young man just wanted to make sure we got on our bus.

The bus was more crowded and slightly better than the last one we had boarded. It had free bottles of water on board which was a definite boon when travelling in the Amazon.

The bus made a stop an hour or so into the journey at a restaurant that reminded me of Thailand. The place was just a corrugated steel roof and concrete floor. No need for walls in the 100% humidity of the jungle. My wife and I studied the system. It seemed to be a buffet whereby you could fill a 12 inch place with a mountain of meat and carbs for a fixed price. We bought one plate and shared it. Other passengers were doing the same so we didn't feel bad about it. I didn't know it at the time but this was par for the course in Brazil. There is a huge disparity in the country between the price for things and what the average person can actually afford. For example, I'm sure the price of a bus ticket from Boa Vista to Manaus would represent nearly a month's wages for an average Brazilian. I guess like so many of the world's population not blessed with an American, European, Japanese or Australian passport they had learnt to survive on virtually zero money. What distinguishes the Brazilians is that they achieve this feat with a smile.

We got back on the bus and with our bellies full again we fell asleep on the dark bus slowly bumping its way through the jungle.

We arrived early the next morning. We had spent the last two nights on buses and felt the dirt and tiredness to our very bones. It is at such points that relationships become strained and the desire to just chuck money at the situation becomes tempting. Only we didn't have any money to get off so lightly.

Our packs were thrown on the concrete and a vulture taxi driver appeared out of nowhere. I tersely refused his offer and located our bags and dragged them off to the side. We had a fag and considered our next move. The CP mentioned that the terminal was miles from the centre. I had got the name of a hostel from a fellow traveller and had found it on a map. It was just a matter of doing the local transport to get there. With my fast wilting wife we hauled our packs onto our backs and headed for a bridge spanning the busy highway next to the bus stop. I was too tired to notice that I had made it to one of my dream destinations. It just felt like the outskirts to any big chaotic third world city.

We had no one to follow so I was thrown on my own resources. I got out my compass and considered which direction was mostly likely going towards the centre. I then checked at a gas station at a corner junction. The gas pump guy struggled to understand my latinate gibberish but eventually seemed to twig and pointed to a stop 50 metres down the busy road.

My wife was on the verge of hating me for subjecting her to this final round of endurance. We smoked and waited in silence. A bus pulled up after ten minutes. Getting on the bus was a challenge. Passengers entered from the back of the bus and had to go through a turnstile after paying the bus fare. Naturally our bulky packs wouldn't fit through the narrow turnstile. As the bus lurched around corners we passed the packs to each other over the metal railing while at the same time searching for change to give to the huge African ticket lady.

Another obstacle overcome. Plenty more on the way. My brain rose to the next challenge: where to get off? I studied the Lonely Planet map and the names of the streets whizzing past. Luckily, colonialism has made it easy to spot a centre. The grand buildings built by raping the land and exploiting African labour (the locals fucked off into the jungle rather than become the Portuguese lackeys) suddenly hit the cityscape. I judged we had arrived at a key bus stop and roused my half dead wife to action.

Luck was on our side. We were on the map and soon were dodging our way down the busy street to our intended hostel. Beat up cars filled the roads, vendors pedaled snack foods from small wooden booths; office workers, school kids, rich and poor packed the sidewalks. White, brown and black skins sweated in the heat. Suits, Bermuda shorts and football jerseys provided the colour to the city. It was a thriving city devoid of parrots, insects, birds of paradise, monkeys, indigenous people, exotic flowers and creeping vines. The only noises were from gas belching cars and buses and from the hubbub of the denizens. Not a trace of the Amazon forest was to be seen or heard.

As we negotiated the crowds through the heart of the city near the port we spotted a place that had a painted window announcing money changing services. Just when we weren't looking for what we were in desperate need of, we found it. How like life – contingency provides what determination failed to deliver.

As we approached Hostel Manaus the crowds thinned and we soon made it to a goal. Just one more hazard to negotiate. Did they have dorm beds for us? Yes, they did but we had to pay in advance. Typical - there but not there. So we waited in the lounge smelling of two days of sweat for nine o'clock when the change place would open. They wouldn't let us have a shower or eat breakfast or check our email. We just sat in a semi-delirious state smoking the last of a ciggies praying that the place around the corner would change traveller's cheques.

When nine-ish arrived we headed out again and found the place we had spotted earlier. They changed traveller's cheques at the official rate but charged a flat $5 fee per cheque. Fair enough. We changed one $500 cheque, found a supermarket nearby and bought water, fags and some food. And then like pilgrims on the last stage of the journey we found new strength to walk smartly back to the hostel and finally get a bed each.

Monday, 22 March 2010

There Must Be an Angel Playing with my Heart – a tale from San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia

I finally broke into the prison,
I found my place in the chain.
Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows
Leonard Cohen 'The Old Revolution'

I love prison literature. I think I've read nearly all the great tales of incarceration: Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead, The Damage Done by Warren Fellows, Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, Papillion by Henri Charriere, and of course Marching Powder by Rusty Young. There is no better way to understand freedom than to have it taken away from you. Prisons produce existential accounts par excellence. And all my reading of tales of horror in prisons has convinced me of one thing; convinced me utterly and profoundly that I never want to go to prison either as an inmate or a visitor.

It was thus with no small amount of interest that I sat on the roof of Cordoba backpackers in Argentina and smoked joints with a Canadian in his late twenties and listened to him tell his story of how he had bribed his way into La Paz's San Pedro Prison in Bolivia.

For all of you not familiar with Rusty Young's book Marching Powder, San Pedro Prison is a prison that was run like no other in the world. Inmates were allowed to live with their family. They had to earn a living because nothing was free in the prison. Cells could be bought and rented. If you wanted to eat you went to one of the many restaurants in the prison or you purchased food at one of several grocery stores dotted around the house of correction. Money could buy you not only a cell with amenities but also I whole slew of other privileges including nights outside the prison. It was all based on the pandemic corruption that existed in the prison from the governor down; they nearly all took bribes and let the prisoners run the prison like a mini barter town. It had several cocaine labs. San Pedro was where the cheapest and purest cocaine came from.  And enter Thomas McFadden from the UK who was caught trying to smuggle heroin out of Bolivia. Stuck with no money and no Spanish he had to quickly adapt to his new surroundings. After many trying times he eventually learned Spanish, got an Israeli girlfriend, opened a restaurant in the prison and started a lucrative business showing backpackers around San Pedro and finishing each tour by treating the voyeuristic tourists to a cocaine binge. The tour was so famous that it made the Lonely Planet.

That was before. Before the BBC snuck cameras into the prison and exposed the corruption of the authorities and before Brad Pitt decided to make a movie about McFadden's life. That shamed the Bolivian authorities into draconian measures. The guards are regularly replaced, the infamous side door where tourists used to enter has been shut, the cocaine labs have been closed down and now inmates are no longer allowed to cohabit with their families.

For the Canadian who I had just met this was a real shame. He was on his grand tour - Central and Southern America overland through ten countries to the bottom, to Argentina. We had run into him at the end of his adventure. And of all the things he had most wanted to see and do on his journey it was to do the tour of La Paz prison. He was another chap who had the aura of indestructibility about him - the charming naiveté of youth.

And so here is his tale. Maybe his tale is one of the final traveller's tales about San Pedro. He was in La Paz, Bolivia. He had tried the two bars where you could openly consume coke. The one night the one place whose name I won’t mention was raided by the police. As is so often the case, a brief hullabaloo started seconds prior to the police arrival. Our Canadian hero, Greg, sat calmly at his table. A table of Swedes wearing superman outfits, panicked and fled into the kitchens. The police soon rounded up all the foreigners and started extracting bribes from them. 20 minutes into this procedure one of the Swedes bursts from the fridge in the bar, a frozen super hero. He just couldn’t handle the cold any longer.

Greg and the others got off lightly: just a few dollars extra down for the night. He should have heeded the warning but instead he actively pursued his dream to enter San Pedro. He eventually got hold of the telephone number of a man called ‘Angel’ who could facilitate his desire to experience the inside of a Bolivian prison. He phoned Angel and a meeting was set for 3pm the following day in a park outside the prison.

Greg arrived a bit late and desperately scoured the park to find his contact. He said he felt really ridiculous going up to several Bolivians asking them if they were called ‘Angel’. He approached one shady local who wasn’t Angel but was willing to sell Greg some coke. Greg enquired about the price out of interest. It was cheap; only 70 Bolivianos ($5). Greg was not, however, to be so easily distracted from his main purpose. He had picked up a fair amount of Spanish on his journey and proceeded to explain that though the coke offer was tempting it was an entrée into the prison that loomed up within eyesight from where they were standing that he was really wanting. The Bolivian who wasn’t Angel said he could arrange it. They haggled and agreed a price of $20 per person. A meeting was set for the next day at 4pm.

That night Greg confided in other backpackers in the hostel about his day’s triumph. Greg was a charming man whose confidence was infectious and it didn’t really surprise me that he got four other backpackers interested in doing the tour – two fellow North Americans and two Europeans.

So the fateful afternoon arrived when Greg hoped to fulfill his ambition of seeing the inside of a Bolivian prison. They found the man who wasn’t Angel and after a bit of to and fro agreed to pay him his fee in halves - half then and half when they safely exited the house of correction. No Angel reluctantly agreed. He took the money and set off. They followed him. He stopped by the main entrance and told them to wait. He then vanished around the corner. The gang of jail breakers lost heart. Where was No Angel? As they debated whether they had been fleeced, Greg spotted a prison guard and a group of civilians making their way towards the entrance of the prison. In a flash of inspiration he shuffled over and joined the back of the group. The others followed Greg. Before they knew it the prison doors had shut behind them and they were in. They could see the famous courtyard where Thomas had spent his first night shivering in the cold. They could see inmates lolling around enjoying the last of the afternoon sun and they could see a big Bolivian guard blocking their way. They were ordered into a side room next to the door keepers’ quarters and told to wait. No Angel was nowhere to be seen and it was agonizingly obvious to Greg and his followers that their money hadn’t bought them anything. They were in prison in the poorest country in South America and a tour was looking very unlikely.

They stewed in their own stupidity for thirty minutes before they were marched into the office of a more senior policeman. He soon discovered that Greg was the only gringo with Espanol.

“What are you doing in San Pedro Prison?”
“We wanted to see the prison, senor.”
“Do you want to buy marijuana?”
“No senor. We just wanted to do a sightseeing tour.”
“Do you want to buy cocaine?”
“No senor. Only the tour.”

With that the interview was over and they were led back to their previous holding pen. Another thirty minutes elapsed before a guard took them to a bigger, plusher office. They were introduced to the governor of the prison. Again it went:

“Why are you in San Pedro Prison?”
“We wanted to do a tour of the prison, senor. We paid a man to get us in.”
“Do you want to buy marijuana?”
“No senor.”
“No senor.”

Just then two prison guards dragged a very shifty looking No Angel into the room. The guards had him cuffed. They said a few words to the governor and put a small plastic bag of powder on the table. No one needed three guesses as to what it might have been.

No Angel didn’t hesitate in putting forward his side of the story. He quickly fired off his Spanish at the governor. Greg caught the gist of it. No Angel was claiming that the gringos had given him money to score some coke for them, the coke that was presently on the gov's hardwood desk. Greg responded like his life depended on it and in some ways it probably did. He protested vociferously that No Angel was lying. The money had been for a tour of the prison, not to buy drugs.

The boss man considered the group of frightened tourists and considered No Angel. He then demanded to see the foreigners' passports. Greg explained that they had left their passports in the hostel because who would be foolish enough to bring anything valuable into a prison full of...

That last thought lingered in the air unspoken. Who would be foolish enough to want to visit a prison full of murderers and rapists, innocent and guilty, the condemned, the bottom of the slag heap?

No Angel was taken away cursing Greg. The gringos were taken away to their makeshift prison near the gate. The governor deliberated.

It took an hour or so before it was explained to Greg and the four others who were in a state of severe fear for their future liberty that they would be allowed to go. The only condition was that they would be escorted back to their hostel where they must present their passports to their police escort.

No doubt with much adrenalin charged relief the five rash gringos were lead out of the prison. They got to the hostel and made photocopies of their passports. The policeman took the copies and demanded a bribe. Greg refused and wasn't stopped from re-entering the gated hostel. The five of them watched from a window as the policeman lingered outside. He eventually gave up and drifted off.

That night they were on the news. 5 foreigners had been arrested trying to break into San Pedro Prison. I could see that Greg loved telling the tale, and that he had already told it several times. I was less certain as to whether he had drawn any lessons from his tale of near incarceration. I mentioned this and he said that if he had been sent down he would have taken over as the head gringo and tour master.  

Monday, 8 March 2010

Humpback Whales in Ecuador

This was one of the highlights of our trip. Something about seeing big animals up close that is truly inspiring. The video clip below was taken in the Manchalilla National Park in Ecuador, which is sometimes called "the poor man's Galapagos'.

After doing a few such excursions, treks and trips you come to realize that much of the time the animals aren't willing to co-operate. You might get a glimpse of them, but it is so fleeting that it is unsatisfying. These monster humpback whales in Ecuador surprised us by being so unconcerned about our little tour boat trundling along parallel to them. They seemed so joyously wrapped up in being whales in the mating season - splashing and diving and lifting their huge tail fins. Brilliant. 

The whole trip including lunch and a walking tour of a bird colony only came to about $30. It was worth it. Obviously not as animal-tastic as going to the Galapagos islands; but still full on. Besides, as I've mentioned before, there is an irritating smug factor about going to the Galapagos islands that puts me off wasting the thousands of dollars. People confuse going to special places with them being special people. Charles Darwin managed both - bless that long bearded Victorian that American God-lovers have come to despise.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

5 'Must Visit' Places in Argentina

Argentina is the second biggest country in South America and is blessed with a great diversity of lanscapes and cultures. In the north are the surreal moonscapes of the Andes with a strong element of indigenous cultures. In the east there are steamy tropical jungles. In the West there are mountains, lakes and the best wine growing areas. In the South is Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego - vast open spaces and habitats for a huge selection of flora and fauna.

It was a hard job but I've narrowed down all the great destinations in Argentina to my own personal top 5. They are not in any order of preference.

1) No list about Argentina would be complete without mention of Buenos Aires. It is a perfect city for a backpacker because there is plenty of cheap accommodation available. The city is safe to walk around during the day. There is a plethora of interesting places to visit and things to do. See the dog walkers in the rich areas of recoleta, visit the necropolis where Evita is entombed, see the freaky indigenous art on the top floor of the Belle Artes Museum, check out one of the energetic protests forever happening on the streets, admire the beautiful colonial architecture. And there's more: visit the funky coloured Boca area, see street tango, and party hard at night in one of BA's many nightspots. At the weekends bars and clubs are bursting full of the young and beautiful until the late hours of Sunday morning. Buenos Aires is not just one of the most interesting cities in South America it is one of the coolest cities in the world.



2) Amaicha del Valle is in the north of Argentina, high up in the Andes in the Calchaqui Valley. It is a small town with a remarkable 350 sunny days a year. It is said to have the purest Indigenous population in Argentina. There is a mother earth or Pachamama festival every February. But what really makes Amaicha special is the Quilmes Ruins a few kilometers out of town. The Quilmes people resisted the Spanish for 130 years. Their main city was near Amaicha. It is a place of special energy. The terracing is spectacularly constructed in a giant wedge in a mountain. The history and culture of the Quilmes people is fraught with injustice. The Spanish shipped them out of the area and sold their sacred city to a business man who built a hotel on the spot. It wasn't until the 1970s that they got their holy site back. Even wikipedia keeps quiet on Spain's great shame.

3) No list about Argentina would be complete without mention of the incredible Iguazu Falls near Puerto Iguazu. The Iguazu Falls form part of the border between Brazil and Argentina. They can be viewed from both sides. Indeed from Puerto Iguazu it possible to do day trips to two other countries - Brazil and Paraguay. In Brazil there is Foz do Iguacu and in Paraguay there's Ciudad del Este which is near the world's second biggest dam, Itaipu dam. But the main event is definitely the Iguazu Falls on the Argentine side. They are in a big national park. The various falls can be seen from a network of catwalks or pasarelas. The most spectacular of which is the one above the falls that ends in the famous viewing point above the Devil's Throat, Garganta del Diablo. There is a wealth of flora and fauna in the park. There are over 2,000 plant species, 400 bird species, jaguars, caimans, monkeys and cute coatis (see picture below). The park offers great trekking opportunities as well as a variety of boat trips. In the Guarani language 'Iguazu' means 'Great Waters'. Indeed they are.


4) Patagonia is a vastness of open spaces the likes of which I've only seen in Tibet. It is also the home to the first Welsh settlers in Argentina. Our guide to the Valdes Peninsula told us an amusing story about Princess Diana's visit to the nearby town of Trelew. She wanted to visit a tea shop to show her appreciation of all things Welsh (after all at the time she was married to the Prince of Wales). Her handlers got it very wrong because she ended up visiting a tea shop run by Italians. You have to admire the Royal Family's incompetence.

That aside, the Valdes Peninsula near Puerto Madryn is a very special place. As you drive around the windswept roads you see horses and guanacos (a relative of the llama) and if you are lucky you can spot rheas and armadillos. The real treat, however, is the coast line which is littered with elephant seals lounging around in the sun. You will also see sea lions and hundreds of Megellanic penguins and on rare occasion a pod of orcas looking to snack on a seal. Most tours of the Valdes Peninsula also include a trip to Puerto Piramide where you can catch a boat to view southern right whales who sometimes seem almost playful.

5) Last but far from least there is the Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate. It is one of only two advancing glaciers in all of South America. You can get close to the epic glacier and spend many an enthralling minute watching huge chunks of ice falling from the 5 km-wide glacier and making a terrific booming noise across Lago Argentino. For the more adventurous types there are trekking trips available onto the ice using clampons. Nearby is Bahia Redonda, where you can see black-necked swans and flamingos. El Calafate is also a great stop on the way down to Tierra del Fuego and the End of the World.

These are my 5 'must see' places in Argentina, but to be fair there is just so much more. More mountains, more lakes and lagoons, more wildlife, more architecture and more nightlife to experience and enjoy in a country whose economic woes have suddenly made it a lot more affordable to backpackers and travellers.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Brazil-istics Part Two

The other half of the South American continent, Brazil, feels like a continent in itself. Despite many similarities with their Spanish speaking brothers and sisters to the South, West and North, Brazilians are different. The heart of this difference lies in the smallest details. I started listing those details in Brazil-istics Part One. Below are my concluding observations about what makes Brazil so Brazilian.

1) Something that is so obvious but it is still worth mentioning is music. Whereas, the rest of South America is going crazy to salsa music every weekend, the Brazilians love samba, reggae, bossa nova, maracatu and afoxe. Music seems a lot less clichéd and more surprising in Brazil. It is not just about losing yourself and getting laid (although it’s that as well); it’s about finding your roots. The African influence in afoxe, maracatu and the drumming of Salvador are evident in the hypnotic rhythms and the trance dancing and the euphoria and the spirituality which connects the musicians to the audience. I remember waiting in Belem bus terminal for three hours and watching a band bang out tune after tune of maracatu. They had their own dancers but other waiting passengers frequently joined in the elaborate man and woman dance pairings. And the strangest thing was that despite the frenzied and erotic dancing on display nobody was getting drunk. It seemed the music was doing that for them.

2)    Brazil could have the highest concentration of surfers per capita outside of Hawaii. Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador are big cities with access to surf beaches. On any given weekend at any beach with surf you will see 100s of young people twisting and turning in the waves, displaying awesome board skills. They often dispense with wetsuits and cords on their ankles: just a board and bright beach wear is all you need for hours of fun in the surf. From the head of the Amazon River in the north all the way down to Porto Seguro is one great long beach with barrels and breaks and pipes for those in the know.

3)    The cold drinks seem colder in Brazil than in other South American countries. Even those countries in the north blessed with equatorial sunshine couldn’t, if my memory serves me right, produce a beer or a coke that spins you out with its dangerous but refreshing iciness.

4)    Brazilians are the fondest in South America of the football top. Football is a South American religion and in Brazil they wear their religion on their back. The most popular tops are the yellow of the national team, Adriano and Ronaldinho. Surprisingly we spotted a Tevez in Manuas and a Messi in Trancoso. 

5) Something that you can’t fail to notice about Brazil, especially northern Brazil is how racially mixed up the people are. Nearly everyone is a shade of brown or black. It is the white people who stand out, but somehow they don’t stand out because they fit in. As you get to meet people and their families you notice that blood crosses the racial divide. In fact perhaps for many there is no real racial divide. You fancy who you fancy and skin colour is probably no more important than the colour of the iris. What separates people is not colour but money. Brazil for me felt like the future – when racial prejudice has gone what remains will bear an uncanny resemblance to Brazil.

6)  No list about what makes Brazil stand out would sadly be complete without mention of armed robbery and serious crime. The day we arrived in Rio a helicopter was shot out of the sky by a gang with machine guns. And that felt like a typical news item. Every time we saw the news on TV there was always a section where they displayed for the cameras all the guns and drugs the police had managed to uncover. It is perhaps the saddest irony of Brazil that for a country where 99% of the people are friendly and honest no one has been left untouched by the violence. Everyone has experienced a gun or knife pointed at them by a crazed and desperate youth demanding money. Everyone advises you to just pay because the desperation of your assailant will not make them think twice about killing you. We heard stories from travellers and locals about armed robbery, rape and cons that I don’t want to even start to relate. The locals warn you, the guide books warn you, the movie City of God shows you – violence is rife; night time is a time for caution. Just to put this in perspective – in 2002 a study was carried out by the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute. The unpublished results found that homicide was the leading cheap cause of death for persons aged 15 to 44. 

7)     My last observation will go some way to counterpointing the grim reality I have just stated. And this observation is that Brazilians are some of the most helpful people you could hope to meet. From our first day in Brazil we experienced kindness that surprised us. From the start we were caught off guard by how expensive the buses were. From the Venezuelan border we could only afford a bus to Boa Vista. In Boa Vista bus station we looked to change some dollars at a fair rate (obviously that’s not going to happen at the border). We walked into the tourist information in the bus station and the man struggled to comprehend my grating Spanish, but once he did he found a newspaper, discovered the official rate of exchange, made a phone call and within 5 minutes we had exchanged at a small shop in the terminal – we pretty much emptied the woman’s till, but she smiled and said you’re welcome. And that set the tone for much of the rest of Brazil (except for Salvador where people cuss you out, beg and try to short change you). Locals were forever guiding us on to the right bus, helping us reach our destination, running off to get ice, ready to go that extra mile to show genuine hospitality. A hospitality that is not to do with politeness and formal manners but rather indicative of a practical mind that knows how to apply help and is willing to do so for nothing more than a thank you.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Brazil-istics Part One

“We can never judge the lives of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation. It's one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it's another to think that yours is the only path.” Paulo Coelho

I have my share of pain and renunciation I guess, all neatly held back by denial; but, putting that aside, I was impressed with the path that was revealed to me in Brazil, and I crave your indulgence to allow me to expand on some of my observations about Brazil. I apologize in advance for any judgments – they are just my projections, my daydreams for how life should be. Finally, before I begin, I would like to point out that the ordering has no hidden agenda to it. That is just the way the thoughts fell out onto my notebook.

1) In the bus stations, airports and hotel lobbies the clocks show slightly different times. There is a nebulous 5 or 6 minutes-ish about all pretensions to an exact, official time. This seems to be especially true for departures. A bus scheduled to leave at 16.00 that leaves at 16.06 is most definitely leaving on time. This Brazilian generosity over time, this indifference to living your life at the mercy of the clock is slightly different to the famous Peruvian 20 minutes. In Peru when you arrange to meet, a person often responds by claiming that they will be over in “20 minutes”. This can lead to some infuriating waits until you realize that a Peruvian 20 minutes is somewhere between 40 minutes and 2 hours.

2) Northern Brazilians in particular are some of the most casually dressed people you are ever likely to encounter. They all appear as if they are heading out for a day on the beach. They wear beach shorts with bold splashes of colour, havaiana flip flops and football tops. Or they dispense with the tops and just let it all hang out. Women, especially bigger ones, will squeeze into tight leggings or hot pants and colourful blouses that show a generous portion of spare-tire midriff and overflowing cleavage.

3) Following on from number two, women seem unashamed of their body shape and their extra weight. The average over-weight woman has no problem grabbing the affections of a young slim chap. At the beach they wear the tiniest bikinis that reveal a wealth of stretch marks, cellulose and big wobbly behinds. This fulsome package turns the heads of the young men.

4) Brazilian men of the north who are permanently attired in beach shorts seem to forever be grabbing their nuts and scratching them in public. That is what men do.

5) Brazilians, as everyone will tell you, are the happiest folks you will encounter in South America. They are forever smiling and love nothing better than to meet a foreigner and give them the thumbs up. This thumbs up business is a core characteristic of communication. Life is a continual round of thumbs up. I never encountered a thumb down when I was there. Apparently, Brazilians have an alter-ego to their sunny dispositions called saude. It is claimed that saude is untranslatable. It is a type of philosophical melancholy which will periodically wipe the smile from their faces and cast a shadow on their hearts. There's something beautiful and human in that as well.

6) The stereotypes of normal folk struggling to survive in developing countries are nearly always wrong. Yes, the majority of Brazilians are not wealthy and matters are not helped by the high prices in Brazil to buy food, bus tickets and other everyday stuff. Yet, I saw so many people use credit cards to make purchases. I guess they have tiny overdraft facilities. It also makes sense when you consider how rampant armed robbery sadly is in Brazil.

7) Brazil seems to have the highest percentage per capita in South America of hippy folk who live on beaches and at the edge of towns and villages. They are allowed to put up tents, erect make-shift accommodation and sling up their hammocks. Perhaps the country is so big and nature still, despite the inroads made by loggers and farmers, so pervasive that they can afford to be more relaxed about the laws of land ownership and allow land squatters. These colourful folk aren't usually your average beggars. Instead they cultivate talents for juggling, diablo sticks and making jewellery and manage to get by that way. There is always fishing and selling the odd bit of weed to keep things ticking over and hold back hunger. With the weather always hot and a place to stay free, they seem to get by.

8) Brazil is less overrun with backpackers than other South American countries. The masses are drawn to Machu Picchu in Peru and the high Andes in Bolivia. Concomitant to this, there are fewer hostels. Instead you find yourself staying in bed and breakfasts called pousadas. They cost more than your average hostel but the breakfast (café da manha) is much better than the poxy coffee and croissant that passes for a breakfast in much of the rest of South America. To save money camping is a good option.

9) There is a logical explanation for the huge ladies. Brazil serves the biggest plates of food I've ever encountered. They have this amazing thing called prato feito, universally known as ‘PF’, which consists of rice, beans, some type of meat and manioc powder. It is a mountain of food with only the smallest amount of vegetables. It is amazing everyone doesn't die of scurvy.

That is it for part one of Brazil-istics. Just writing this has filled me with joy; it has thrown me back to all those idyllic days spent getting high and lying in a hammock; and it has left just a trace of sadness on my soul when I consider where I am now – in Japan where all the clocks are synchronized.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

A Day out cycling in the Quebrada de Cafayate

We rented out mountain bikes for 35 pesos per bike from the the Rusty-k Hostel where we were staying. The man preparing the bikes gave us a quick lecture as he handed us a puncture repair kit and pump each. The gist of the talk was that we should only ride on the road and push the bikes on the gravel. We cycled off to the bus stop with a Swiss woman, Sonia, who intended to do the excursion with us. At 9.30 am we had put the bikes into the luggage hold of the El Indio bus and paid the 17 pesos each for the bus fare. Luckily the Swiss woman spoke good Spanish so she explained to the driver where we wanted to be dropped off.

The bus travelled up winding mountain roads for an hour before we finally disembarked. We unloaded the bikes and re-attached the front wheels. Then we locked them up and went to see the first sight on the tour, the famous Garganta del Diablo (the throat of the devil). It was an impressive gorge in the mountain side that started as a narrow gap and then opened up to a circular amphitheatre. The mountain face was various stripes of pink.

At the entrance to the natural rock phenomenon there were various hippy looking young people selling trinkets and snacks.

We spent 40 minutes clambering around the devil’s throat before pushing the bikes back to the road and heading off back to Cafayate. Before we started off we stopped to chat to another tourist who was struggling to replace the inner tube on his front tire. He had obviously not heeded the advice given to him when he hired the bike, or perhaps, he had not been fortunate enough to get the pre-departure lecture.

Ten minutes down the road we came to the next natural attraction called el Aphitheatro. It was similar to the previous place but opened up into a bigger amphitheatre with a sand floor. A hippy played guitar and sang. Her voice echoed eerily off the walls. By this point I wanted to buy a cold drink to quench my thirst. We had some water but I really fancied a cold coke to hit the spot. Bizarrely enough we could buy all manner of hand -made jewellery but not a drink.

We had 50 kms back to town so we didn’t linger too long at the amphitheatre. The road was all up and down and twisting. The wind blew viciously into our faces making the going slow.

Just past the rock that looked like a frog (el Sapho) we happed upon the young German who had been changing his inner tube. He was one lucky bugger. A van had stopped and the owner was helping him load his bike into the back. His wheel had never been right again and he had decided to hitch back into town. He told me all of this quickly as he squeezed in the van with his naff mountain bike and sped off. I was quite envious because the riding was hard going and our water was running low.

Not to be unduly disheartened, the three of us continued to ride the mountain road. Sonia was loving it. She brought up the rear of our little posse. She wanted to see everything. She had a guide book with her and notes from a local about all the sights along the way. At one point we left the bikes to trek through some scrub to a river. On the other side of the river was a rock decorated with lots of white pebbles. The scenery was stunning – vast and unforgiving under a bright blue sky, with no signs of human habitation for miles. The mountains were multi hued and oddly shaped by the fierce blasts of the wind. It was easy to imagine I was tripping because I could make out all kinds of figures in the lumpy mountain sides.

About half way into the ride we came across a shack selling pottery. I went to inquire about cold drinks. No they only sold vases and cups. Oh my kingdom for a coke. Sonia wanted to go off on a trek at this point to view another odd rock formation she had been told about. Bugger that I thought, I want a drink and I want to be back in the hostel. So we parted company: Sonia plodded off up a mountain path, and my wife and I got back on the bikes.

From there on the fun bike ride stopped being fun. It just goes to show it is all to do with your state of mind, and your supply of fluids. By the side of the road were signs every 5kms telling us how far we had left to Cafayate. At every marker I stopped and waited for my wife to catch up. Each time we had a fag and a sip of water and headed off again. I no longer took much notice of the scenery. My biggest thrill at this point was reaching another marker.

The final few kilometers of the road were flat. On our left were vineyards. We passed the occasional local on his horse.

As soon as we reached the 0km marker and the edge of town we spied a kiosk. With joy in my heart I finally got to buy the coke I was fantasizing about. My wife had a mineral water.

At 4pm we rolled into the hostel and gave back the bikes. I headed straight for the kitchen where I had put a bottle of black beer in the fridge. To my chagrin it was gone. That was the down side of hostel kitchens with communal fridges. I cussed bitterly and decided to seek my own justice. I grabbed 8 empty bottles from under the sink and marched wearily to the corner shop where I managed to exchange the empties for 2 full bottles. I was soon back in the courtyard quaffing on my cold beer when I ran into an Argentine hippy I had previously befriended. He owned up to stealing my beer. I had doubled my beer stash for no extra money so I didn’t vent my wrath on him. He was a nice lad with a beautiful girlfriend. Instead we chatted in the late afternoon sun.

That evening he scored a lump of grass and got us stoned so he more than made up for his transgression. As we smoked up in his room and laughed about this and that I looked back on the day and decided it wasn’t so bad after all.

The next morning I had not only the devils throat but the devils head to deal with, not to mention aching muscles.