A Travellerspoint blog

Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil


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foz do iguacu is one of those places that words are inadequate for. we spent two days there, one day on the brazilian side, and one on the argentinian side. the falls themselves are stunning -- it's amazing to see what appears to be a rather docile river change to such brute force so quickly -- and the surrounding parks, covered in lush forest, only add to the wonder of this place. here is a case where a picture really is worth a thousand words (seeing the thing in person is priceless), so i will defer to the following photos.

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Posted by jtwires 05:20 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

São Paulo, Brazil


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after extended stays in salvador and rio, we have picked up the pace a bit, spending only two days in sao paulo on our way to foz do iguacu. sao paulo is one of the ten largest cities in the world, with the city and its surroundings providing homes to approximately nineteen million paulistas. for most of its history, the city has been relatively small, but in the last one hundred years it has become the industrial center of south america. the sprawling geography and immense population present serious challenges to visitors, so we dodged the issue by limiting ourselves to a very short stay.

we arrived by bus around five in the afternoon on sunday, which gave us time to check into our hostel and prepare for a night out. sao paulo is known to have a bustling nightlife, but sundays and mondays are pretty slow in most cities. we were lucky to find a very cool spot in vila madalena, and after struggling to squeeze our way through the packed dance floor into the bar, we bumped into a few english-speaking locals and had quite a nice night. the following morning we managed to wake up in time for a free breakfast and hit the streets early. we had a quick stroll along avenida paulista, the 'main drag' of the city, which we found to be quite western. we saw a myriad of office workers dressed quite formally (a change from the previous places we've been) pacing between the large office buildings during lunch break. afterwards, we fought through a bustling street mall (apparently paulistos love to shop) to the mercado municipal, wherein could be found every variety of meat, cheese, fruit, and vegetable imaginable. after a heaping mortadella sandwich (about half of all paulistas can claim italian heritage), i sampled an unfamiliar vermilion fruit which turned out to be excessively detoxifying.

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on tuesday we checked out the impressive museu de arte de sao paulo, which boasted a very well-organized and -documented presentation of the last 100 years of the evolution of western art, as well as a stunning exhibition of what the chinese vanguard is up to these days. after that, it was time to haul our bags to the rodoviaria to catch a 17-hour bus to foz do iguacu.

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Posted by jtwires 13:08 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


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a good day in rio consists of a cultural activity in the morning -- such as visiting the museu da republica (which, in the well-preserved bedroom where the self-inflicted shot was fired, one can find the gun, bullet, and last testimony of the beloved dictator/president vargas); copacabana; sugar loaf mountain (offering a very nice hike through forest vegetation and a stunning view of the city); the museu nacional de belas artes (containing a decent collection of contemporary brazilian art); ipanema; santa teresa (a colorful quiet neighborhood in the hills); leblon; christ the redeemer (exuding a somewhat disney-esque touristy aura); the niteroi contemporary art museum (designed by oscar niemeyer, the vision behind futuristic brasilia); etc. -- and then spending the afternoon at the beach, where one can rinse off the sweat produced during the strenuous morning hours (and there was plenty -- i'd guess the average temperature during our stay was a humid 34 degrees).

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the highlight of the city is the zona sul, in which are located the excellent beaches. we've been told that copacabana attracts the tourists and prostitutes, while ipanema and leblon draw a more local crowd -- but either way, the crowds do swarm, and every day each beach presents a panorama of red and yellow parasols providing umbrage for innumerable patrons. one rents an umbrella (especially important if one is a pasty gringo) for a few reals, and then one sits back and relaxes. the beach becomes a mall of sorts, with many hard-working vendors toiling under the sun, burdened with all varieties of food, drink, clothing, sunscreen, sunglasses, and other useful commodities. one can easily spend the entire day ensconced in a comfortable chair, stirring only periodically to jump in the ocean, which, when not flecked with refuse, is clear and inviting. (pollution is a bit of a problem in rio, and the situation is not helped by the shamelessness with which locals discard their garbage by simply tossing at their feet). the waves at copacabana are excellent, with crests up to six feet crashing consistently onto the shore, offering sublime opportunities for body surfing and extreme wipeouts. after a day at copacabana, i close my eyes and see giant waves rolling endlessly. there are so many people at the beach that within just a 10 meter radius there is enough going on to keep one well interested -- and then one takes a step back, meanders along the shore for a while, and realizes that the same bustle extends as far as the eye can see up and down the coast, which leads to an awe-inspiring sense of insignificance, much like when one ponders the vast scope of the universe. many were the hours i spent simply watching the people enjoy themselves, lost in the philosophic quandary of brazilian bathing suits: how skimpy can a thong be while still exhibiting (among other things) the essential qualities of a bikini? methinks plato would find the question quite stimulating.

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many of our nights were spent in lapa, the hotspot for clubs and bars. friday and saturday nights are particularly big here, when cariocas from all over the city convene in the street to quaff beer and grab a snack before heading into one of the crowded discotheques. we were told that our first friday in lapa was the first of the season not dampened by rain, which helped explain the particularly large and exuberant crowd we encountered. that night, accompanied by a few girls from new york, we met some exceedingly friendly locals who showed us how to enjoy a live show without paying cover and then introduced us to the very cool club democratico, even managing to haggle the entrance fee down by half on account of the fact that it was already close to four when we arrived. another club worth mentioning is casa da matriz in botafogo, which draws a different crowd: a large constituency of young 'emo' kids who gather in the multi-floored club to get down to 80's american pop rock -- 'wedding music', as one regular aptly described it. somewhere between the clubbing and beach-bumming, amar tired of dealing with his hair -- washing, drying, arranging, etc. -- so he shaved it all off, and i, in need of a haircut myself and faced with the grim alternative of trying to explain the subtleties of my desired style in portuguese, followed suit.

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it was with ambivalence that we decided to tour the favela rocinha: there's something upsetting about the notion of making a spectacle of poverty, which is what we worried the tour might do. it didn't take long, however, to realize that we were the real spectacle, as we paraded our way single-file down one of the main streets under the gaze of many slightly bemused locals (the street used to be wide enough to provide passage for cars, but the ever-encroaching development of homes has restricted the one-time thoroughfare to strictly pedestrian access now). like all things touristic, there was a tinge of inauthenticity to our afternoon in the favela -- we passed by five or six establishments providing everything from pastries to bracelets to paintings, all of which was obviously offered exclusively for our benefit -- but there was nothing inauthentic about the harrowing ride to the top of the mountain on the back of a 'speed moto' motorcycle taxi, piloted by a half-daring, half-reckless youth with a dangerous predilection for acrobatic maneuvering, which he employed to pass every other bike and bus on the crowded, laneless road -- potholes, oil slicks, oncoming traffic, and blind turns be damned.

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of the of the seven million inhabitants of rio proper, about 20 percent live in favelas; the one we visited was home to 200,000 people. the favelas are run by drug lords, whose henchmen patrol the streets with guns, radios, and fireworks, used as an alarm to signal the approach of a police raid. inside the favelas one will find shops, cafes, bars, etc. -- the communities are typically quite self-sustaining, and some favela inhabitants rarely interact with the so-called outside world. the majority (around 55%), however, have jobs in the richer areas of rio, and make their way in and out of the claustrophobic accretions every day. the conditions are not as dire as one might imagine, but the atmosphere in the favela is not particularly pleasant, with sewage problems, a lack of running water in some buildings, and a general dearth of natural light and fresh air among the overcrowded alleys contributing to a less-than-healthy environment. nevertheless, a great many lives are lead in these neighborhoods, and the best thing about the tour (aside from the economic stimulation it provides the community) is the humanizing effect it has, populating the mind's abstract notion of the favela with faces and personalities and reaffirming the basic bonds we all share.

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Posted by jtwires 05:12 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Salvador, Brazil


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after nearly thirty hours in transit, we arrived in salvador, a city of roughly 2 million people in the north east of brazil, at about 9 o'clock christmas day. after unpacking at the hostel we went for a stroll along the beach and nabbed a quick snack of kibe and a refreshing caipirinha, brazil's national drink, consisting of cachaca, lime, sugar, and ice. the first tenant we encountered at the hostel mentioned he had just been mugged the night before, which only added to the many stories and warnings we had heard about salvador, but that didn't stop us from strolling the strip along the beach, which was well-lit and patrolled by police, whom we soon found to have a large presence throughout the city, in both their military and civilian varieties.

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in salvador the wealthy and impoverished coexist in close proximity, which inevitably redounds to a number of schemes for relieving the fortunate of their more superfluous possessions. one of the most enterprising schemes we noticed revolved around providing a mafia-like protection to parked cars: rather than dropping coins in meters, motorists are encouraged to give their change to one of innumerable self-designated parking attendants, industrious street-dwellers who claim a strip of curb as their own and levy small fees to ensure nothing untoward befalls any of the cars parked under their watch, the implicit motivation being that the attendants themselves are the biggest potential threat to unprotected cars. it's a bit devious, but nobody grumbles too much.

after sleeping off our flight well into the following day, we got our first glimpse of barra as it should be seen: in broad daylight, from the beach. we stopped at a restaurant for lunch, where we blindly chose one of the house specialities, which turned out to be feijoada, brazil's national meal, a stew of black beans, pork, sausage, and beef, served with rice and salad. that's right: after four years of vegetarianism, i'm on a hiatus for this trip, because i want to taste the full flavor of south america -- and the feijoada was a brilliant start. our bellies full, we jumped in the warm atlantic ocean and whiled away the afternoon before meeting up with some of the few english-speakers at our hostel to grab some dinner and a few drinks. the night ended around 4 in the morning when we stumbled out of a discotheque and made one of many late-night and foolhardy jaunts along the beach to our hostel.

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the following few days were spent lounging at the beach, while at night we visited a few different establishments, including boca de rosalia, a very cool low-key restaurant with live music hidden inside an intimidating neighborhood (door-to-door taxi service definitely recommended); a trip to the mercado do pesca in rio vermelho to drink as the locals do -- in plastic chairs on makeshift patios which spill onto parking lots, sipping cold beer from small cups and nodding our heads and other body parts to the live music; and a long taxi ride to pimentinha, a dark bar festooned with very odd memorabilia and presided over by its owner, who blesses entering patrons with a splash of water in the face.

on the 30th, it was time to move to a new hostel in the city's historical center pelourinho, since the prices along the beach skyrocket right around the new year. the timing worked out well for us, because tuesday nights in pelourinho are particularly festive: the party starts around dusk, when numerous drum corps begin marching through the narrow, stone-paved streets banging out hip-shaking rhythms and collecting growing coteries of dancing spectators. a large stone stairwell is converted into an amphitheater as people poor in to enjoy a free jazz/funk/samba concert, while beer and churrascaria vendors ensure nobody goes thirsty or hungry. if you're staying in pelourinho, don't expect to get much sleep before three or four in the morning, unless you're impervious to lively music and cathartic dancing.

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salvador is an epicenter for two important holidays: new years, and carnaval. on new years, everybody heads to the beaches of barra, where, in addition to a few large center stages with professionally produced shows, smaller bands can be found on every block, jamming out in courtyards and balconies of the many small hostels and bars that line the street. the place was packed with dancers losing themselves in the music. more than once the human tide surged so powerfully that i nearly lost my footing, and (what a surprise) it was at these exact moments that i noticed the hands of neighboring party-goers wandering into my pockets; luckily, they always came out empty. right around the changing of the calendar we met a group of english-speaking brazilians visiting from farther north; we enjoyed the fireworks together and availed ourselves of some gratis samba lessons until the sun came up.

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the last few days in salvador were spent primarily at the beach, or running a few errands, or whiling away the evenings at some of the many makeshift bars littered throughout the city. our last night culminated at a local party on a large balcony overlooking the ocean, dancing to house music with our friends from new years. and then: an epic 25-hour bus ride to rio which ended up taking closer to 31 hours. the bus was surprisingly comfortable and the verdure, dotted here and there with cows or tiny villages that seemed only a small step up from campsites (one wonders what life would be like in such an isolated setting) provided a mesmerizing background while i caught up on some reading and amused myself attempting to force a foreign language on my tongue.

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Posted by jtwires 13:16 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

the coldest year of the century

time to head south

bbc says 2008 may be the coldest year of the century, but somebody a bit more fanciful might choose to believe the snowfall we're enjoying now signifies nothing less than that the weather gods of vancouver have rolled out the white carpet in honor of my departure to warmer climes.

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one week from today i'll board a plane and hunker down for a twenty-two hour jaunt from san francisco to salvador, brazil, and thus will begin my six month journey through south america. i don't know what i'll encounter along the way, but in the end i'll have the satisfaction of saying, along with walt whitman, that i am the man -- i suffered -- i was there.

Posted by jtwires 14:40 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

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