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Crossing the Andes ... to the Brazilian beaches Nine months through Ecuador, Peru, Chile, bolivia, Argentina and Brazil


BRAZIL | Monday, 12 March 2007 | Views [1233]


We arrive in Brazil with the tired eyes of soldiers returning from war.  Our transit stop in Corumba gives us time to scrub the thick layers of Bolivia off our skin and reintroduce our bodies to vitamins and minerals before continuing on to the Pantanal, Brazil´s wetlands.  Our lodge is surrounded by green save for the crystal reflections on the river running past our porch.  Very pretty.  The morning starts with fishing for piranha.  Equipped with a wooden rod speared through an unidentifiable piece of flesh, I sit atop an old boat moored against the banks.  One eye is on the calm waters and another on the alligator bathing in the shallows.  Half an hour passes and nothing.  My bait has been cooked by the heat of the river and the sun is baking me under cotton layers of mosquito defence.  I`m starting to feel a wave of restlessness.  I accept defeat early and go play with a tame baby capyvara. 
Time to explore the real Pantanal.  A jeep and boat safari.   I am wearing karki and ready to go.  The guide seems to know the area like he was raised in the swamp and spots life no matter how cunningly nature has camouflaged it.  I fill my camera with Maribou Stork, Toucans, Blue Macaws, Kingfishers, Howler monkeys and a fresh water stingray.  Soon enough we´re out of the vehicle and wading waist high through long grasses growing in the hot waters now covering most of the land.  I´m contemplating how to best describe this experience in my CV for Mr Attenborough as we come to shallower waters and run into a sleeping alligator.  Not peturbed, the guide stops us and indicates for us to circle behind it.  Then he demonstrates man´s apparent superiority by lifting the tail of the alligator out of the waters.  In my imagination the alligator snapped around and swallowed the little guide whole.  In reality he splashed about a bit and swam off.  Still, Mr Attenborough doesn´t need to know that.
Having concluded 4 legs good, 2 legs bad, I explore a little further with a horse as my guide.  And a cowboy.  Which is useful when we find ourselves amongst a migration of cattle - over a thousand  cows being transfered to fertile land.  They´ve been on the move for 4 days and are now walking skeletons.  Some have even given birth during the pilgrimage and are closely followed by calves still bearing the umbilical cord.  The heavens open and the rains come down as we gallop back to ranch.

Sao Paulo

We hire Nurit´s friends as our escorts for a few days in the big city and whizz through the highlights, inlcuding a stop for lunch in the best vegetarian restaurant in the world (not yet accredited by Michelin, but I may take him).  We stumble across an all-female percussion group and svelte dancers of African heritage rehearsing for carnival.  Nurit and I quickly pick up the routine and dance our hearts out with the only other people who seem to have loosened up for carnival, the neighbourhood bums.  We later head down to the carnaval stage to watch the samba schools rehearsing and are handed red and yellow balloons and invited to join.  Time to learn samba then.  Fast.  Two hours later we reach the end of the stadium with tired feet, soaked through by the rain, with the one repeated samba song still playing in our heads.

Salvador - Carnival

I arrive in Salvador in the midst of Carnival preparations with camarotes being erected along the streets, intersperced with police stands from where the city will attempt to make carnival safe.  Parties have already started to enable to organisers to test the sound systems and businesses are hastily scrubbing out outdated information, introducing specially quadrupled prices for the festival period.  Rob has found us a smart apartment in a top location close to the action and still far enough away to be able to escape the chaos.  And right on the beach.  With Air conditioning.  And a washing machine.  After 3 months of roughing it, this is ultimate luxury.
We don our best drag and join the beautiful homosexuals in the Os Masquerados bloco, following Margareth Menezes for a 6 hour dance-a-thon along Avenida Oceanica from Barra to Olinda.  In the rain.  The carnival spirit is amazing and everyone is ultra friendly.  Our next bloco is the infamously popular Camaleo, starring the aging popstar Chiclete con banana (lots of the media lovelies are older and rougher around the edges than I was expecting).  The crowd is completely insane.  Squeeze in as many young affluent Brazilians as possible.  And a few more.  Add Skol and loud, repetitive cheesy music.  Bake in the sun.  Shake around vigorously.  The result is mental.  I follow Rob under the ropes to grab a stick of meat and take a break from the mobile disco, but outside of the protection of the ropes, Campo Grande is a pretty intimidating place to be.  There´s a clear separation of wealth and race.  Given that it costs $400 to be inside the bloco, many of the young, black Salvadorians watch from the roadside or follow as pipoca (popcorn), dancing as though inspired inside a boxing ring  I am pickpocketed.  For a crappy flyer.  We duck under the cordao and go back to the pushing and shoving inside.  After 5 hours of listening to the same songs over and over we try to make our escape and slip down a side road.  We speak to a security guard behind the gates of a big house and spend 5 minutes trying to decifer the direction of home from his whispering before concluding from his uncomfortable, shifting eyes and the people watching us from the opposite side that it´s best not to attempt to break away.  We run uphill back to the safety of our BPM prison and await release after nightfall.  I miss the gays.
In addition to the blocos, there is something going on in every street (prostitution, drug-dealing...).  In Porto do Barra, dense crowds are packed into all the streets.  I have now developed a bronze camouflage and am hoping it will make me less of a tourist target.  But it seems the robbers don´t discriminate as an opportunist tries to rip my watch from my wrist.  He tries, but the cheap plastic watch is made of tougher stuff and I find myself face to face with the guy.  I guess he decided from my piercing scream that he was no match for me and disappears into the crowd empty-handed.  We visit the old town where a Japanese percussion group is making a trail through the cobbled streets and processions appear out of nowhere only to disappear again into the dark.  We dance samba reggae in a cute little square with a rasta man and a little old lady who seems to have lived carnival all her life.  Nurit and Javier arrive as our house guests and join us for some caiparinha on the beach as the Fat Boy Slim bloco passes and strobe lights illuminate the revellers urinating against the sea wall.
Outside of the city, carnival is far more tranquil.  We take a minibus to Praia do Forte, a northern beach town, where we are introduced to the practice of squashing as many people into one vehicle as possible.  A basketball player nonchalently sits on my knee when the driver indicates for him to squeeze in next to me.  When we arrive, we reshape ourselves and stroll down to the beach to visit the turtle sanctuary and watch the local carnival effort – kids dressed as Exu (a 2-horned African god) competing for the chance to win a mountain bike.  All very quaint.  Our second escape is to the island of Morro do Sao Paulo where we simply lie on the beach.  It´s gorgeous and we vow to return. 
And once Carnival is officially over and we´ve had to say our goodbyes to Rob, we´re back on that boat with Posso Ayudar´s handing out a continuous supply of sick bags.  After spending 3 hours searching for a place we can afford to sleep (carnival peak season has arrived here too now), we take a walk in the rain into the lush green centre of the island.  Nurit and I entertain ourselves by adorning ourselves with flowers and doing a pretty good job of making Javi look like a fairy.  For 3 more days we stay on the island, lying on the beach all day and occasionally rousing ourselves to eat acai, take a dip in the luke warm sea or watch an impromptu capoeira session.  At night we eat chocolate banana pastries and drink daiquiris made at the fruit bars on the beach.  Amazing.  The carnival music has crossed the short stretch of water and we dance to the same music over and over, with the same enthusiasm every time.  Even in the nightly downpours.  And amongst all that I even manage to squeeze in a couple of tranquil yoga sessions. 
Our last 24 hours are not so idealic.  Nurit loses our key and after searching the beach for an hour we resign to sleeping on the floor of a friend´s place, with his cousin unconscious from drink and retching in the room next door.  The next day we hijack the deck chairs in one of the posh hotels on the front and catch up on lost sleep.  A last game of pool volleyball with Javi before we leave and I crash down on the edge of the pool and feel my rib crumble underneath me.


My first stop is the local hospital which I stumble into when it reopens from siesta at 2pm.  I guess there´s nothing so urgent to justify denying the doctors a long lunch and quick nap.  The doc presses a stethoscope against my ribs and writes me a prescription for muscle damage, concluding that nothing is broken.  From the x-ray I insist upon, I can make out some bones and the silouette of my breasts.  There´s no evidence I have ribs so nothing to worry about.  A weeks rest it is.
For a few days I wander around the town.  A crazy Australian traveller confidently leads me to the Serrano where there is a small waterfall and deep pools in the riverbed which locals visit for a hydro massage.  Heading back, he makes a detour and suddenly we´re lost in a maze of giant rocks where armies of biting ants carpet the floor and a suspiciously evil-looking toad the size of a dinner plate sits inconspicuously.    I later befriend a local trekking guide and follow him to Ribeirao do Meio, a river on the other side of town which has also been harnessed by locals for their pleasure, this time a giant, natural waterpark slide.  I help him to wash his dog in one of the pools and then attempt to wash l`eau de wet dog from my skin before stretching out to dry.  Much easier than scrambling through the undergrowth in a desperate attempt to find our way home before dark.  I vouch to only trust surfers on a beach.  And maybe not even.
The area is surrounded by thousands of waterfalls, including one of the tallest in Brazil, the Cachoeira da fumaca.  The bus drops me as close as I can get on 4 wheels and I follow a guide whose sense of humour developed around the same era as the mountains we´re climbing.  At the top, I peek over the cliff edge and look down on the cascada, feeling the wet spray rising to moisten my face.  It`s very beautiful but staring down 300ft has a dizzying effect.  Another short tour takes me to a couple of intriguing caves, poco encantando and poco azul, which hide magical bright-blue lakes up to 40m deep and contain blind fish.  In the second we´re able to swim in the tranquil waters (I put aside images of crippled fish).  A Japanese guy gets a little too close to the edges and swims back in blind panic, desperately trying to brush a disturbed bat from his hair.  He reminds me of Data when the goonies first encounter Sloth and the Fratellis and I laugh like a weeble in my life jacket.  On our drive back to the town, we encounter an overturned lorry.  And then another.  I realise it´s a common occurrence with well-known handsignals for drivers to warn oncoming vehicles (other popular ones include `cows in the road` and `police ahead`).

Salvador ... again

I arrive at the bus station in the early hours and bypass the city, catching a speedboat to the island of Itaparica.  I take a combi to a little beach fron hotel, opting for the front seat to avoid the cosiness of the back, and instead spend the journey being chatted up by the fare collector.  I fully take the piss out of him when he flatters me on my perfume – a mixture of Nivea Factor 15 and 95% deet repellent.  At Porta de Araia beach I´m the only human being.  And save for a few fishermen on the beach in Cacha Prego, it´s the same story there.  My thoughts echo in my head like tinnitus as I drag my feet through the lapping waves, amongst washed up urchins, carcasses of fish and other flotage.  The sun is hot but the strong winds that are pebbledashing my skin promise a storm ahead.  I pop home, avoiding the mangos that are being blown from the branches and are plummetting to earth like meteorites.  I turn on the TV and flick through the options – Big Brother seems to have missed the point, filling the house with beautiful people, the news is full of stories of violence (largely provoked by Bush´s visit), and there are 3 channels devoted to football.  I settle on trying to follow the hammy acting in one of the TV novelas.
Back in Salvador, I doss down with Serena and Daniel, a fun young Canadian couple living spitting distance from the beach.  While they´re working, I work on my tan.  I´m pretty dark now, and guess I could pass as a Brazilian to the untrained eye, but still I´m surprised when the middle-aged Essex man sat to my side assumes I have no grasp of the English language and comments loudly to hs friend about my ass.  I`m even looking him in the eye as he says `with these glasses I can stare at er ass and pretend I`m talkin to you`.  A confirmation that the FHM man really exists.  Before leaving I make sure the wind is blowing in the right directionas I shake the sand from my towel.  And let him know I´m English.
I check out a Capoeira show at Mestre Bimba (http://www.capoeiranyc.com/bimba.html).  The speed at which they flip like gymnasts from one side of the circle to the other, avoiding oncoming kicks from their opponent, is pretty impressive.  Part way through, I´m ´volunteered´ to go up and fight.  My 6´3” opponent shows me a few attack and defense moves then claps my hand to start.  I forget my self-diagnosed cracked rib for the moment and clumsily cartwheel in reflection to him.
For my temporary farewell to Brazil, the three of us head to Itapua to check out what is supposedly one of the nicest beaches in the city.  We almost get there.  Dan is robbed.  Mugged at penpoint.  By a man holding a biro to his head.  A very aggressive man with 2 lookout friends.  In broad daylight, on the main street.  It seems rediculous how easy it was for the guy, but there was no way we were going to argue.  And if he is really that desperate, he can now put up with the broken mobile that receives spam texts every 10 minute.  Anyway, bye for now Brazil!

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