Saturday, 30 March 2013

Summary of Brazil

Brazil is a vibrant country which invites you in with open arms. Despite us knowing close to zero Portugese we were able to get around ok and in fact, our vulnerability opened us to a lot of kindness. Such kindness we don't regularly experience in Sydney because everything is so comfortable and familiar, you don't need help. The highlight of our three weeks in Brazil was experiencing the relaxed nature of the Brazilian people and the worst part was the significant amount of time we spent just getting to places. Here is a list of the most pertinent points.

I love good food and sadly this was lacking in Brazil. It´s such a large country yet there is little variety in the foods. Meals often involve a dry piece of meat, rice, beans and a dry sawdust like powder called farofa. It's not cheap with meals for two averaging around $30 for the both us, sometimes even $50 which never was good value. One thing that we found tolerable was the 'per kilo' buffet places they have everywhere where you pile your plate with food and then weigh it.

Instead of McDonald's, their favourite fast food chain is 'Bobs Burgers' which is actually even worse than McDonalds and you're looking at around $6 a burger which ain't cheap. I tried the popular Acai which comes in a sorbet like form. It's a superfruit that tatses very sweet, nice to try but I didn't repeat the experience. My favourite thing was the abundance of fuit. Our free hostel breakfasts always had a array of delicious fruits and I had a fruit shake at least once every day. We were wary about tap water so we only bought bottled water.
Brazil is a BIG country (in fact larger than Australia) and since we were movig cities every 2-3 days this meant that 30% of our time there was spent on a bus or plane. Transportation is not cheap and since it is impossible to book anything online this was a big hassle for us to get to places in an affordable way. The biggest cost in Brazil was transportation and amounted to $2100. I found that the long haul buses were safe and comfortable but even so, by the end of a 12 hour bus trip you just wanted to get off. 

The currency is Real and 1 Australian dollar bought 2 reals. We found our Australian mastercard only worked on Banco de Brasil and HSBC ATMs but these were widely available. All bus companies and some restaurants took credit cards without a fee but most of our hostels did charge a fee so we paid those in cash. The rate we got from a local ATM was higher than back in Australia. Brazil is the most expensive of the South American countries and we spent a whopping $5800 so it's a good thing we started off here as it can only get better for our budget. 

We started off in Rio de Janeiro and found that the people were so comfortable and relaxed in themselves and what they were doing. No one got irate at each other or really cared what other poeple were doing and everyone was just very cool. I loved that there was really large women with heaps of cellulite walking around in tiny bikinis with an air of confidence - that's how people should be living.

No one here could possibly be called efficient. You just have to wait in line at the supermarket to see just how relaxed the people are here. Folks just do things on their own time and you can stand there and get frustrated or just go with the flow. It's the Brazilian way.

Brazil is an outdoors kind of country. The cities are cool in their own way but the best parts are the beaches and natural attractions like Iguassu falls. Salvador was my favourite city with the strong Afro-brazil presence adding an extra spark of personality and colour. Praia do Forte was my favourite beach with the water being the perfect temperature and clear and the waves managable compared to Ipanema or Cococabana beach.

Toilets are clean and well supplied with toilet paper. And you can find them easily as well. Only downside is that  you can't flush toilet paper down, you have to put it in bins next to the toilet otherwise you're likely to block it. Barring Ouro Preto, most of the hostels we stayed at were clean and well maintained. 

You hear stories about people being mugged and pickpocketed, and we were particularly worried about walking around Salvador with our camera but once you get used to a place and know where the main, busy streets are you can relax a bit but we always maintained a degree of caution and never put valuables in our pockets. Overall our trip in Brazil was quite safe.

The seasons correlate with Australian seasons so in March it was the beginning of Autumn. However the whole country is very humid and we got mostly sunshine during the day with the occasional thunderstorm at night. Only in the moutainous town of Ouro Preto were we able to walk around with breaking out in a sweat in the first five minutes. The high humidity really limited how much walking around (especially with a heavy backpack) I was able to do.

Are you happy?

Happiness for me is such a variable. When I was younger happiness involved having money and acquring things. As I became wiser these things no longer give me any joy. Instead of looking outwards for happiness I started to look inwards and found that I was happiest when I was growing. I moved out of home, started a more rewarding job, developed new skills- all these things gave me joy and kept me going.

But repitition and boredom starts to numb you to these pleasures and so you push your boundaries a bit further. This gave birth for our plans to quit our jobs and travel. Of course, if I was unhappy then simply relocating myself to South America wasn't the answer. 

But the key I realised to being happy is freedom.  I was sick of not being able to read a really interesting book all night long because I had to go to work or have a nap in the middle of the afternoon because I was actually at work (though sometimes I still took that nap). The bonds of my responsibilities were too tight and I felt suffocated. So I put my foot down and boarded a plane to freedom, however temporary.

However, I did bring my siginicant other with me and since Kevin has been the one responsible for planning to the trip and keeping the wheels in motion I was beginning to worry about how the stresses were impacting him. I asked him last week the very same question - are you happy? And he replied "This is your dream, if you're happy then I'm happy". 

I am happy.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

How to buy money on the black market in Argentina

When we were in Brazil we were on a tour with a pair of Argentinian girls who had to buy souvenirs for their friends back home but needed a place that would take credit cards. In my ignorance I asked them why they didn't just take money out from an ATM as we were at a market and cash would be a lot easier to manage. They told me that due the economic crisis in Argentina (which started in 1999) it was very hard for Argentinian people to buy foreign currency. If you were to go on a holiday elsewhere and needed some of their currency you would have to lodge a form that would give you a certain amount. Even paying by credit card overseas is an instant 15% fee. It sounded like a really frustrating process for Argentinans.

Before we arrived in Brazil, there was a lot of talk at our hostel about the best way to obtain Argentinian Pesos. If you get it from outside the country or even inside at an ATM or a regular exchange office you will get the official rate whch is US$1:AR$5(ish). You shouldn't do this.

Rather, we followed the advice of a lot of other travellers and got Brazilian reals from an ATM, took it to a local exchange office or 'cambio' and swapped it for US dollars. Now the exhange rate was lower than what we get normally in Australia but even with this loss it was still worth it. 

Once you're in Argetina you sell your US dollars on the black (or blue) market. This is a lot easier than it sounds, you just find a guy who would be calling out "Cambio, cambio, cambio" and ask him what his rate is. The best rate we got was US$1:AR$8.25 which if you exchange $800 is a significant increase in your spending money compared to the official rate. He then takes you to a random building, up three flights of stairs into a tiny booth where someone else does the exchange.

It sounds a bit dodge (and it is!) but everyone does it and in downtown Buenos Aires on Florida Street (heaps of people, very safe) you will find that you can't walk two metres without someone calling out to you "Cambio, cambio, cambio, I give you a good rate! More so for us because we stick out like sore thumbs everywhere we go in South America.

Just make sure that you just start off with small amount of money to check that everything is ok and check the notes for a watermark so you don't get stuck with counterfeit money. The next time bring a larger amount of money like $500 and you will get a better rate. The first time we did it we got 8 pesos per dollar but the second time we got 8.25, and after negotiating with at least a dozen guys this was the highest it ever got.

So now I can exchange money like a pro and we are living the high life in Buenos Aires.Considering food here has been pretty cheap and the metro is 30c per ride,  our budget is looking a lot better than it did in Brazil. I think as head financial officer, my brain will explode once we reach Boliva where you get can meals for $1 or less.

All this deliciousness for $5.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Nature at its best - Iguassu Falls and the Pantanal

So after our relaxing time in Salvador (which at one point involved way too many free caprinhnas) we flew to Cuiaba in which our two day tour in the Pantanal began. Four hours later including half road half dirt roads and a boat trip were at our lodge in the middle of the Pantanal. 

The Pantanal is a very large wetlands area like the Everglades and is rich with plant, animal and birdlife. We were hoping to see Jaguars, monkeys, tapirs, anteaters and giant otters. However in the two days there we only saw a group of capochine monkeys, capybaras and caimans though there was a great variety of birds, the most impressive being the gigantic jabiru stork which is nearly as tall as me. It was a nice experience but I would recommend anyone going to go in the dry season where water is more scarce and hence animals concentrate in smaller areas making them easier to spot. We went in the height of the wet season where high waters made animals hard to find and limited the walking treks. Overall a bit dissapointing considering how obsecenely expensive the tour was - AU$2200 for 2 nights and $1000 to fly to and from Cuiaba. Next time we will definitely do more research when doing these eco trips.

What certainly was not a dissapointment was our next stop - Iguassu Falls. Twice as wide as Niagra and taller, these falls are the second largest in the world. There is the Brazilian side and the Argentinian side so it takes two days to cover them both. The Brazilian side only takes 2-3 hours and there you get a scope of just how wide they are with a trek taking at least half hour to see the whole thing. Then you stand on a platform overlooking the ledge and the deafening noise of the falls gives you an indication of just how powerful they are. If you  were to stand under one you surely would be pulverised to smithereens.

We took an organised tour to the Argentian side for AU$100 each  which means they organise going through customs for you. The Argentinian side has a lot of different views including one that is spectacularly close to the 'devils throat'. I'm pretty sure I saw Katrina Roundtree and her camera crew there as well. On this side we were also able to do a boat road which took us so close to the falls that everyone on the boat in excitement (and fear) and we all got soaked. So much fun! One guy had his glasses knocked right off his head.

We took a luxurious bus out of Brazil into Argentina. This bus included almost fully reclining seats, full meals and champagne. However I couldn't really enjoy any of this as I was really nauseous and eventually threw up in the bathroom and fell asleep. In the meantime Kevin was happily chugging down free whiskey and watching Taken 2 in  Spanish. Oh woe is me! More next on Buenos Aires.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Changing sceneries - Ouro Preto and Salvador

The last week or so has been full of contrasts. A twelve hour night bus from Sao Paulo took us to the historic city of Ouro Preto. A very old town filled with cobble stone streets and beautiful churches perched along steep hillsides. Our calves were crying out on day two of walking on these steep hillsides so we took a bus 25km away from the town centre to the miniature musueum where replicas of important buildings in Brazil were on display. Here our lack of portugese became glaringly apparent today. After waiting 40 minutes for a bus to the Amaratina that never came we finally started asking around. We were on the wrong side of the bus station. Then after sitting on the bus for 30 minutes we asked the ticket man on the bus. He shuffled us off that bus onto another bus and shout something in portugese to our new bus driver. He then proceeded to take us back the way we came. After another 20 minutes we were then shuffled onto yet another bus going back up the original way we came. So because we are completely lost tourists who don't speak the language a trip that is normally 20 minutes probably took us a solid two hours to get to. By the time we got the museum we were too exhausted to care. So that was Ouro Preto. Beautiful yet I will remember it for its bumpy bus rides. At least the air was cool which was a nice change from the humidity of Rio and Sao Paulo.

Then we caught a flight all the way up to Salvador, a coastal town heavily influenced by Afro-Brazil culture. Another very historic town full of beautiful old churches however I found this place a lot more personality than Ouro Preto. The streets were lined with African women in voluminous skirts and colourful head scarves. We tried the local dish which is sort of like a burger, a grainy bread like outside filled with prawns a salsa. It was pretty good but I still would prefer a pork roll from Cabramatta anyday. We were terrified of getting mugged as petty robbery is rife in Salvador but that afternoon we went on a walking tour and after getting a bit more familiar with the town we felt more comfortable. An interesting mode of transport to get around town is a lift that connects the richer area on the hill to the market and portside by the sea. It costs 7c to use the lift and its run efficiently. 

The lift is in the background. 
Elaborately carved church in the town centre.

Kevin doing his thang.

Collect call from a coconut.

From Salvador we took a two hour bus ride further up north to the beach towns of Ibassai and Praia Do Forte. After overshooting our stop and getting dropped of a few kilometres from the town in the middle of the hot highway we were getting that all too familiar feeling of being lost. Luckily we were with a lovely German girl who spoke Portugese and was in the same predicament as us. We caught a minibus back to the town and eventually found our way again. 

Praia De Forte was beautiful and we spent the day looking at gigantic turtles in the turtle conseravation park and lounging around on the beach buying coconuts from a nearby stand. The water was clear and a perfect  refreshing temperature. It was a Monday and I remember lying on my back in the ocean, eyes closed, glorifying in the perfect freedom of spending a Monday however I wished. It was luxury. We are heading to the Pantanal tomorrow which is supposed to be better than the Amazon and hopefully sighting some cool animals. And the scenery changes yet again.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Chance meetings at Sala Sao Paulo

There's a scene in the movie 'The curious case of Bejamin Button' where a series of apparently random events culminate to something momentous. If this didn't happen, that lead to this that lead to that that ultimately leads to Cate Blanchett getting hit by a car and ruining her ballet career.  I had that feeling of serpendipity four days ago in Sao Paulo.

Kevin and I had planned to go the municipal markets and then head to a free 11am concert at Sala Sao Paulo, a world famous music hall. We were running late after breakfast however and Kevin noticed on the way there that it was already 10.15am. Quick change of plan, music hall first. Simultaneously my future friend Aline Vianna waited at the music hall for her boyfriend Marcelo who didn't end up coming because he had gone to bed very late the night before. 

So naturally we got lost on the way to the concert hall and had to ask for directions. We waited in line to get in but noticed that people were holding tickets. Shit, I thought this was a free concert. I left Kevin to wait in line whilst I scanned the perimeter looking for a box office and found nothing. I had a bad feeling this was going to end up being another fail. We're getting a few hit and misses on this holiday. It happen when you're foreign. Suddenly in the line across us we hear "Do you need tickets?" in perfect English. Score. We were kindly and luckily given two tickets that were in the second rowfrom the front. Aline had gotten them the Monday before. Double score! We sat next to our new friends and were introduced. Aline is an english teach for children and a Sao Paulo local.

The symphomy orchestra was beautiful, the building amazing and I was overjoyed that we were able to make it. After the concert I asked Aline if she knew the directions to the Municipal market and she offered to take us and meet her now awake boyfriend for lunch there. Lunch with locals AND awesome seats to the concert? Our luck was shining that day.

On a Sunday all the shops were closed so that part of town was very quiet and a bit dodgy so it was great to have locals with us that could ask for directions. Even Paulistas who have lived there their whole lives need to ask for directions because it's such a big city. We were taken to a popular restaurant in the markets where we ordered the specialty - codfish pastry and were taught to order our own fruit juices. Even though we were mocked by the waiter for our poor Portugese it was still an accomplishment in my eyes. 

So a seemingly average day around town turned into something more, something a bit special and a day to remember because of the wonderful people we met along the way and their willingness to help complete strangers. I hope one day I can do the same for them in return.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Realities of Backpacking

So traveling is fantastic, you get to be in a new city and try new things and life is exciting. But making it last for as long as possible means you have to be prepared to make some sacrifices. 

- Living cheaply in hostels in a third world country means sometimes the electricity or water cuts. Don`t do a number 2 after the water cuts out thinking the water in the toilet tank will be enough. It never is.

- Sharing rooms with 8 other people is great fun as you get to meet heaps of different people from around the world. That is until they stumble in drunk at 3am in the morning and make a shitload of noise. 

- In Brazil, if it`s not raining then it`s really hot and carrying around a large backpack around in it is not fun. Keep well hydrated and don`t try to see too much of a new city until you`re rested from the bus/plane trip. And wear deodorant - duh!

-Breakfast is usually included in hostel stays. They are decent so fill up as much as possible because sometimes cheap and good food places aren't that easy to find. We are just now also starting to cook in the hostel kitchens. This was after we spent $50 on a single dinner (yes, this is obscenely expensive for us).

- Traveling with someone you love is great because he helps holds heavy things for you but sometimes you're tired and cranky and he wants to walk around the town square in 35 degree heat instead of just lying at the beach. Compromise - we did a bit of both.

- Basic things can be made difficult like washing your clothes We were in dire straits 2 days ago and had to dip into our dirty laundry bag as well as wash some things in the shower. It was surprisingly difficult for us to find a laundromat. Small things like wearing freshly washed clothes become precious to you. 

Waiting at the laundromat.

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Dogs of Brazil

Brazil is a very dog friendly country and we have seen many lovely specimens in Ipanema. Lots of golden retrievers, staffies, boston terriers and little fluffies. We were staying in a nice area so all the dogs are very well looked after (though noticeably undedsexed, makes my hands tingle for a scalpel blade). Plus they all walked with leashes - tick of approval from me. Yesterday we travelled 4 hours south of Rio to the town of Paraty. A touristy, sleepy beach town that is world heritage listed and the centre of the town is filled with cobble stone streets and colourful buildings. Cars aren't permitted to preserve its heritage but we did see a horse and cart. 

The other thing about Paraty is that there are a lot of dogs just hanging about. They lie on the street. They follow you occasionally and are always keen for a pat. A pack of 10 or so also hang out at the beach, ready to sit next to you at breakfast but they aren't pushy. They just lie next to you and fall asleep. To cool down they also like to dig holes in the sand to lie in. That's pretty impressive. But sometimes they just jump into the water to cool down. Which is pretty much all I did all day as well today, lie under umbrella, occasionally go in the water (which is almost as warm as bath water) and order a coconut from my lovely waiter.