Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Wrath of Christ and Iguazu Falls: Jan 18-25

Andy and Wendy were delayed and arrived a day late in Rio, so we only had one day to tour the city with them before our first excursion. We took them around downtown for a couple hours before taking a train up to the top of Corcovado, the mountain home to Cristo Redentor, the 110 ft statue of JC. While 110 feet of Jesus is very impressive, the real treat is the gorgeous views of Rio, Bahia Guanabara and Niteroi across the water. We could see the rich neighborhoods of Copacobana and Ipanema that are bordered by the ocean, lakes, mountains and favelas. From such a high point, I could barely make out the end of the bay with more mountains beyond. Unfortunately, our lovely date with Cristo was cut short by a storm that reaked havoc on us. We took cover under a tent outside as it started to rain like I have never seen before. Stairs turned into rushing waterfalls and I stood in a few inches standing water under the tent. Gale force winds came out of nowhere snapping table umbrellas and tossing chairs around on an outdoor patio, and we had to take cover in a restaurant 30 feet away with a hundred other people. 30 feet was far enough that by the time I got inside I was soaked through and through. After the winds and rain let up an hour later, we tried to catch a train back down but the train was not running because trees were lying across the tracks. Taxis don't go to the top of the mountain (because it's such a long drive) unless you pay them to take you up and wait to take you back down while you get your pictures and souvenirs. We ended up paying a taxi driver to leave his group he was waiting for and take us down and then return for his group. The drive down showed the real destruction of the storm, with trees and branches everywhere that the taxi could barely squeeze through. The many tourist vans and buses didn't have a chance of getting down, and I have no idea how long it took for the hundreds of other people stranded up top. The taxi dropped us off at Angela Evancie's apartment, a friend from Middlebury living in Rio for two weeks. It was great to trade stories while we calmed down and grabbed dinner nearby.

The next day we went to Ilha Grande, a beautiful island a few hours south or Rio. The island is almost entirely undeveloped and cars are not allowed, as such to reach most of the beaches you have to take a boat or hike through the jungle. The downside was that it rained most of the time and we never saw any sun. Despite the weather, we still hiked through the jungle for three hours to the island's most famous beach for some body surfing and wine (Wendy insisted on it and Andy carried it). After two nights, we returned to Rio for an evening at a Samba club in Lapa (Rio's party neighborhood) and caught a flight to Foz do Iguacu, the Brazilian city nearby Iguazu Falls. Iguazu Falls is the largest waterfall system in the world with an average of 275 waterfalls where the Rio Parana splits into many sections and falls several hundred feet. The falls lie right on the border of Argentina and Brazil (Paraguay isn't far away), and you can only see one side a day. We spent our first day on the Brazil side, which has the better views of all the falls, and our second day on the Argentina side, where you get a lot closer to the falls. The falls are beyond words or pictures, but I will say they are something to be reckoned with. The sheer volume and roar of falling water is awesome, especially when you take a boat up to the foot of some of the waterfalls to get soaked. During our time at the falls, we also went to a cool bird park nearby where we held parrots and saw a lot of toucans, as well as ventured to Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, which lies a friendship bridge away from Brazil. A while back, Brazil and Paraguay decided to build this "Friendship Bridge" where you can cross back and forth between the countries without the hassle of customs or immigration (sadly this means no passport stamp as proof of my visit to Paraguay). Word has it that the bridge has made drug trafficking a lot easier. The only reasons to go to Ciudad del Este are to see a poor city lacking any type of organization or urban planning, to buy cheap stuff and to get Chinese Food. The Chinese restaurant was one of the only places that looked edible, and while no Panda Express, it far surpassed my expectations for Paraguayan Chinese food and the shrimp-filled wantons stayed down.

It was a great week traveling with Andy and Wendy, and they were both incredibly nice and generous, and great traveling companions. Seeing Iguazu Falls was a dream come true, and Lizz and I relished a week of nice hotels and delicious meals.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Rio and the Northeast or Brazil: Jan 1-17

I realize I am writing about this a little bit after that fact, but I just finally got my blog up and running, so I´ll try and recap my experiences as best I can.

I left Portland, OR in the morning on New Years Eve, and after my most mellow and quiet New Years to date, arrived in Rio de Janeiro at eight in the morning on New Years Day. It was another thirty minutes to Lizz´s house in Niteroi, the city across the bay from Rio where she had been studying for the last semester. The taxi ride from the airport is not the best introduction to Brazil as you pass through some of the worst sections of the city, but it served as a reminder that I would not just be seeing beautiful women and beaches. The next five days Lizz and I spent in Rio and Niteroi where I really enjoyed meeting some of her friends and seeing where she had been living for the last six months. We toured it's historic center, browsed through enormous markets, walked through it's bohemian neighborhood and soaked up some vitamin d on it's sandy waterfronts. Rio is the most visually stunning city I´ve been to, as it´s nestled in and around enormous mountains, beaches, an enormous bay that goes inland for miles with a 10 mile bridge crossing it, and of course lots of beautiful women. To top it off, over 100 feet of Jesus looks over the city day and night from the dramatic mountain Corcovado.

Not all of Rio is beautiful and glorious though. Rio´s slums (favelas) are not technically a part of the city. Someone sees an undeveloped hill, builds a shantyhouse, and everyone else follows. Pretty soon, the houses are stacked on top of each other. This means of course most favelas do not have electricity, water and the worst, sewage disposal. Given that 40-60% of Rio´s population lives in favelas, you can only imagine where the shit goes. Rio's largest favela Rosinha has a population of about 150,000 people. It's a city within a city. While some of Rio's favelas are just poor slums, others are controlled by drug lords who provide security for the residents of the favela. One of Lizz's friends Celhao, who lived in a favela for a couple years of his life, described how the drug dealers have a agreements with the police where the police don't enter the favelas. At night, there are vendors on the street with a menu of drugs for sale.

After a good five days in the city and a night out in Lapa, one of Rio´s biggest night spots, Lizz and I caught a thirty-hour bus ride north to the colonial city of Salvador on the coast. Although Salvador is a large city of a couple million, it has a fairly compact historical center. Brazil has a lot more blacks than most other Latin American countries, as about 70% of all slaves that came to the western hemisphere came to Brazil to work it's vast plantations. Back in the day, Salvador was Brazil´s capital, most important city (it still has one of the largest harbors in the world) and the center of it´s slave trade. As a result, it is a very black city with a rich African heritage. In Salvador, we found a cheap inn on the edge of the historical center called the Pelourinho (Portuguese for whipping post) where we spent the next three days walking the streets lined with shops, cafes, bars, churches and museums. There´s also rarely a moment where you don´t either music and drums echoing through the streets. One of Salvador´s most impressive sights is the Igreja de Sao Francisco, a church with an interior coated with about a ton of gold leaf. The inside glows with gold and elaborate woodwork.

One of our nights in Salvador, we went to a Candomble ceremony. Candomble is a religion that is a fusion of Catholicism, as well as African and indigenous spiritualities that was practiced by slaves and is still very important today in the area. The ceremony took place at a small house on the edge of the city, and Lizz and I were in a room with about twenty other people. In the center of the room a circle of people danced around singing chants while others played drums. It's a very casual ceremony as people will smile, laugh and talk to each other at times, but at any moment a person in the room becomes possessed by an African or Indian spirit or god. As they convulse around with eyes rolled back, others rush to their side to keep them from falling and lead them to another room. The person later comes back dressed in the clothing of the spirit or god that has possessed them. Still possessed, they puff on a cigar and continue to participate in the ceremony. It was a very strange but fascinating ritual, but after a couple of hours of standing in the smoky room, we were ready to leave along with the other three in our group. Our guide said that the rituals would continue for several more hours.

On a slightly different note, I also tried out my new sunga (speedo), which are the thing to wear to the beaches in Brazil. Although great for beach activities like soccer or volleyball, it's not so great for Vermont winter thighs. Despite my rigorous application and reapplication or sunscreen, my thighs were a crimson red that night with a wicked burn line. The pain was so great I was not able to bring my sunga to the beach again for a while.

After Salvador, we caught a 12-hour bus ride north to Maceio, an uninteresting city with some of Brazil's best beaches. There's not much to do in the city, but we divided our time between the beaches in the city and a beach next to a coconut plantation outside the city that was incredible (board shorts for me this week). At our hostel in Maceio, we met some great people from Brazil, Buenos Aires and Sweden. After a few days in Maceio, we continued north to the twin coastal cities or Recife and Olinda with our new friends from Buenos Aires Maia and Lucy. The city of Recife was okay with some nice historical streets, but it was pretty dirty and a few hours was enough for me. Olinda on the other hand is Brazil's largest preserved historical city full with 35 churches and a lot more artists. We spent a day and a half walking through an infinite number of art galleries and along the cafe and mural lined streets. A day and a half was not enough for me here, but we had a flight to catch from Salvador to Rio, so we hopped on a 18 hour overnight bus to Salvador. We had another day in Salvador before we got back to Rio to meet up with Lizz's Dad Andy and his fiance Wendy who were flying in for a weeklong visit.

It was a great two weeks on the road and covered a lot of distance. Always on top of the details, Lizz calculated that we spent 60 hours on buses. While the bus rides were very tolerable, I was still grateful for a two hour flight back to Rio from Salvador as opposed to 30 hours on the bus. While Brazil had previously been the country that burned rainforests and cited as one of the world's top emerging economies, I was gaining a better perspective of just how large (larger than the 48 states) and diverse Brazil is.