A Travellerspoint blog

Go without the Flow

Money troubles and street parties in Northeastern Brasil

semi-overcast 29 °C
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Friday 27.07.07

Out on the gaming table of life where fortunes can be made and lost, a flip of a card could change a life. In my corner, I had been quietly playing my own game, trying not to get too distracted by the bright lights or sleazy people. I was counting the cards, and I was sure by coming to northeastern Brasil I'd backed a winner. Oblivious of the hand the dealer had ready to play, and a little ignorant of the stakes involved, I played on. It was to be my downfall.

The first sign was the loss of my wallet during the trip to Ponta Negra the night before. Instead of worrying, I bluffed, wearing a poker face good enough to fool a pro, and made arrangements to get my bank card cancelled and replaced. In the morning at our hotel, things began to slide in a downward direction. Me and the Canadian girls had been put into a different room than the one we had negotiated for the night before, and now the owner of the flat we stayed in demanded a payment of double our agreed rate. They tried all kinds of dirty tricks to win, from telling lies, feigning ignorance and wearing sunglasses, but Kelly from the Dominican Republic (whom we had adopted the night before) spoke so fluently in Portuguese, they weren't able to cheat outright. We played our final hand, broke even against the odds, and got told to leave the hotel.

Out the front of our new place in Vila, a poorer area of Ponta Negra, a three-night street festival was just warming up in the early evening, and before long the place was crowded with locals. Eager to cater for their needs, all kinds of mobile shops were set up, selling pastries, corn or kebab skewers, or cut-price beer and cane spirit cachaça out of polystyrene coolers. As the festa wore on, it grew stranger and stranger, incorporating a June Festival hoe-down of sorts and several dance routines from local groups. My attempts to dance the Samba and Forro once again were far more amusing than precise, but being one of the only tourists, I still garnered plenty of attention.

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Walking through a post-festa Vila at probably 4.30am, Latin America seemed at its most distant, its most inaccessible. Gone were the crowds of people, drinking, dancing and living their lives by the street. Far away from the flashing lights of the festival in the back blocks of Ponta Negra, the cobble-stoned streets were now the realm of cats and dogs, a monochrome world polarised by orange streetlights and dark shadows. Latin America, at this place and time was sleeping, and I, walking through this bairro on the way back to a secure hotel unit, was similarly polarised. A white person in a dark neighbourhood, awake while others sleep, so close geographically and so distant in mindset; unified only in one thing: Silence.

Saturday I held my cards with an iron grip, determined not to let the game slip. The odds though, were as long as a Shetland's in a steeplechase and soon to get even worse. On the beachfront promenade I bumped into Carlo, an Italian guy we had met through Kelly. He had been staying in Ponta Negra for several months already, doing research on the area for a university in Venice. Getting money from my credit card failed utterly, and while I was waiting outside the bank for him I was approached by a bohemian-looking (and very attractive) Brasilian girl. After what seemed like fifteen seconds of small talk, we were kissing on the lips - the second time this random type of encounter was occurring during my stay in Brasil. Tenderly, we parted after a minute or so, and with a look back over her shoulder, she was gone. Carlo had seen the whole thing from inside, and was quick to point out his suspicions that she was a 'Street Beautician' - in his words, a professional...

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I had no other option but to place my chips on getting emergency cash wired to Banco do Brasil. After playing every one of my trump cards through numerous frustrations to get back in the black, I finally got the cash secured for Monday. Or so i thought. Later in the evening, Carlo took me out to meet up with some friends living in Ponta Negra, and we hit the local bars. Years ago, I had vowed never to enter a club named Matrix but here we were with free passes to Matrix Disco Pub, featuring big fluorescent polystyrene balls stuck to the walls and music that I would have liked if only I was Hello Kitty on a disco biscuit. Needless to say, I lasted about the length it took me to throw back a couple of beers before heading back to the street party and respectability.

My travelling buddies Tamara and Melissa were leaving for São Paulo, and after our farewell dinner on Sunday night I met up with Carlo again on the way to the Vila festival, now cartwheeling into night three. Out the back of the festa, past the stage and the typically South American church centrepiece, we found a children's fairground. Included were such death-defying rides as a pirate ship only twice the size of a garden swing, squeaking rusted teacups and a carousel of little race cars bumping over a rutted wooden track. Amidst a crowd of eager kids, we fired air rifles at candy, handing out our edible prizes in all directions like a couple of Caucasian piñatas. The music was even more frantic than Friday's offerings, featuring some hyper-speed Forro mixed with electronic music; and naturally the 1940's polka antics were in full swing, this time with the country folk replaced by cross-dressers. But all too soon, the festival finished, and people returned to their lives, leaving nothing but their giant piles of rubbish behind.

Posted by Jeremy T 04:03 Archived in Brazil Tagged events Comments (0)

Watery Depths

Delving into some of Salvador's Dark Secrets....

sunny 33 °C
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Monday 23.07.07

Amazingly, i got up for my second free breakfast in a row! For all you people back home, that means getting up before.....yawn.....the ungodly hour of 10am. With some hours to kill before getting our evening bus to Natal, we took a walk to the historical centre of Salvador. The city's historical centre is divided into Cidades Alta e Baixa (upper and lower towns), joined by a beautiful art deco elevator 72m high. Mercardo Modelo occupies a building in the centre of Cidade Baixa, once the customs house of the port serving the city. The market's bright, busy energy gives no indication of its musty, humid basement, and the terrible atrocities that must have gone on down there many years ago. In this dark, flooded place, African slaves fresh off the boat were stored here awaiting auction. These days, a concrete causeway keeps visitors feet out of the shallow water, and similarly, light brightens the place up, but it is doubtful the slaves would have enjoyed either luxury. It may come as no surprise that there have been reports of unexplainable phenomena during closing hours by the night guards.

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A 20-hour bus ride was in store for us come evening, past cities built not so much on 'Rock and Roll', but of unfinished bricks and mortar. The landscape varied little, just a blur of tropical trees and tended fields, of multitudes of greens and browns. As night fell, along the unknown miles and miles of highway, outside the one-street towns and their few flickering lights, was nothing but silhouette against sky, a vast expanse of black on black, a nothing yet everything at once.

I awoke in daylight, as we pulled into yet another diner. Every two hours for the entire trip we stopped at either a diner or a bus station, in places too numerous and nondescript to mention. We disembarked a little before Natal to visit one of the area's most popular beaches, Pipa.

On both Wednesday and Thursday, we walked north to Baia dos Golfinhos along the beach, picking our way around and over iron-rich volcanic rocks. They lie haphazardly in piles at the foot of huge sandstone cliffs, which are hued in creams, pinks, reds and purples, topped by overhanging greenery. As the name suggests in Portuguese, the bay is frequented by groups of dolphins, and over these two days we swum around, while circled and observed by the curious creatures. At one stage I saw one aggressively pursue a fish, snapping around in tight circles while the fish desperately attempted escape. The dolphin soon was winning the bout, flipping the fish skyward in the final moments into its mouth, and moments later it paraded it triumphantly through the water, much like a dog that had just fetched a stick. We left late afternoon for the city of Natal, about 90km north, to stay in the bairro Ponta Negra for the next few days.

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Posted by Jeremy T 16:28 Archived in Brazil Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Making Clay while the Sun Shines

sunny 33 °C
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Thursday 19.07.07

Salvador from the air was a lot bigger than i expected, and it was still dark when we touched down. With a little perseverance, and absolutely no help from the taxi drivers crowding the exit doors, i managed to get a cheap bus which took me all the way along a beautiful urban coastline into the centre of town while the sun rose outside. Upon reaching the end of the line, i was directed down an elevator into the Cidade Baixa (lower city) to get to the boat docks. I met up with the two Canadian girls i had previously met in Rio, and we boarded a catamaran bound for Morro de São Paulo, part of an island to the south of Salvador.

The boat took a couple of hours to reach its destination, giving us plenty of time to get a little burnt. The first indication that the place was more than a little touristy was the 'Rich Gringo' tax to enter the island, a scam I've been subjected to on previous excursions in Latin America. The only traffic the sandy streets of Morro see are people and wheelbarrows, the latter employed to haul the former's belongings between the dock and the multitude of pousadas situated along the three main beaches. Ours was just off the biggest beach, lagoon-fronted Praia 2. The sun was powerful here like I hadn't encountered on this venture, and we soon got acquainted with island life. Every tourist whim was pandered for, from sun lounges, food ordered and delivered on the beach, to massages and souvenirs. The seedy side of tourism was present too, with illegal substances offered here and there amongst constant harassment from vendors and restaurant staff.

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One of the most delicious things for sale was ice-cold Açai, served for breakfast, topped with banana pieces, muesli and honey. Every evening, stalls were set up all over the place with huge fruit displays, ready to be blended with ice and vodka into drinks. Friday night was a big party night on the island, with Forro music the speciality, and it was a good chance to dance the night away in a fruit + vodka charged haze with locals, spilling out onto the beach before sunrise. Unable to sleep but unable to move, i lay on a deckchair as the sun rose and stayed until mid morning. Despite rain and cloud for most of that time and surely protected by the umbrella I was under, I got burned once again.

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We were met Sunday morning by a local of African descent, Robson at about 9am to take us to the other side of the island. Passing into steamy jungle vegetation once the dwellings had thinned out, the island showed us a more native side. We soon were clambering up clay embankments and down gullies criss-crossed with roots. Another result of tourism, a hastily constructed neighbourhood for the influx of workers sprawled in a nearby valley, apparently rampant with crime.

Soon the track dropped into a verdant grotto, where a little waterfall sacred to the locals filled a pool in the shade of moss-covered rocks. From there, we walked to Gamboa, on the other coast of the island, a sleepy place with a long beach. Local kids were everywhere, playing beach football and scrambling onto and off an anchored fishing boat. After lunch, we walked back to Morro by way of the coast, passing a pastel-hued cliff, famous for its medicinal clay. Not content to just rub it on their skin, the girls instigated a vicious and one-sided mud fight that lasted for about 15 minutes before we washed it off and left for the town.

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We were disappointed to find out our catamaran ride back to Salvador became a 3.5 hour boat-bus-boat combination, and by the time we were back in the city, we had missed our connecting bus to Natal by just minutes. Disappointed, we caught a taxi to a seaside suburb, Barra to stay the night.

Posted by Jeremy T 16:05 Archived in Brazil Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Hands, Shoulders, Wheels and Toes

storm 27 °C
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Sunday 15.07.07

I hurried down to Copacabana beach early in the morning to watch the Men's Triathlon, an event in the Pan American games being held in Rio. The triathlon for these games involves a swimming leg of 1.5km, cycle 40km and the competitors finish with a 10km run. At 8am, the beach was already full of people, from the morning joggers to the bike boys and girls in lycra, the blue-rinse brigade and the shirtless throngs in thongs (of all kinds). One eccentric old woman even brought her rooster on a tiny leash, both sporting the Brasilian flag on their backs for the show.

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The athletes emerged dripping from the water, and in a matter of moments, changed swimming cap for riding gear, hopping on their bikes for the cycle leg up and back along the beachfront esplanade. After the final running leg, a man from the USA finished first, followed by a Canadian, and to the biggest applause of the day, a Brasilian.

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Almost all of my clothes were at the laundry the following night, so when it began pouring with rain, i was a little afraid i wouldn't have enough dry clothing for the Handball match i was to attend later in the evening. Stashing my shirt in my pocket, i ran back to the hostel, from awning to awning, as street turned to stream, flip flops became flippers, and wet suits became wetsuits. Now with protective clothing and umbrella in hand, we caught the Metro Barra bus all the way (90 minutes) west to the end past a giant mall, complete with an imitation Statue of Liberty beckoning people to come out of the rain and spend their hard-earned money. Our second bus started its journey with a complete loop of the Barra de Tijuca area, passing again in both directions a visibly smirking Statue of Liberty before heading north and inland to the games venues. We cruised down kilometre after kilometre of great sweeping highways, past shopping plazas and condominium complexes standing amongst fountains and artificial lakes. The bus seemed to take such an indirect route, that if it were skywriting, it would have recited Pi across the sky to 5 or 6 decimal places. We finally made it to the stadium after two and a half hours, just before half time of the first match.

Team Handball is best described as water polo without the water or swimming caps. It's amazingly fast. Players hurl a mini soccer ball, usually when airborne, at a set of goals, whilst the goalies pull out all kinds of neat acrobatics to try to block it, often completely ineffectually. The game has two 30 minute periods and is played on a court measuring 20 x 40m. Cuba were far superior (not to mention taller and faster) than Chile in the first match, and although the Chileno goal keeper never flagged in his enthusiasm, the Cubans quite literally flew over the top of their hapless counterparts. Skilfully, the second match between Argentina and Uruguay was a more even spectacle, with the majority of Brasilians in the crowd nyelling and screaming for the Argentineans to lose. Things quietened down in the bleachers as the Argentine team took control of the match later in the game, despite the Uruguayan team sporting such obviously household names such as Poggio and Spangenburg. We passed a now fist-waving (and possibly cursing) Statue of Liberty twice more on the long road back to Copacabana.

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I had been asked on the spur of the moment by a couple of Canadian girls, Tamara and Melissa if I wanted to meet them up in Salvador. I had been trying to leave Rio for a few weeks, and I took the opportunity without thinking twice. My last days in Rio were spent shopping and trying to find a aeroplane ticket north, made difficult because of a horrific crash off the end of a runway in São Paulo the night before. Finally, on Wednesday night, i was departing Rio de Janeiro after 8 weeks, the longest time i have spent in any place aside from Melbourne. It really had become my second home, and sentimentality hit as I was walking toward the beach to catch the airport bus.

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Along with every other one in the country, your flight to Salvador is delayed, but of course it takes a great deal of questions in broken Portuguese to finally figure this out. A bizarre kinship emerges at 2.30am in the departure lounge with your fellow would-be plane-mates. You exchange little smiles or looks of quiet desperation while the climate-controlled air chills you to the core. You feel like writing, so you write; later you read a book until your eyes get sore, and you get frustrated because you checked in the Soduku book in with your warmer clothes. You try to sleep, but the seat back is too low, so you break an armrest off in order to recline a little. To warm up, you take a brisk walk and ride the moving walkways up and back for a bit, finding to your amusement other people doing the same thing. Finally the flight is called, and with a shower of relief washing over your body, you walk down the aerobridge into a metal tube bound for the sky.

Posted by Jeremy T 13:15 Archived in Brazil Tagged events Comments (0)

Step to this!

semi-overcast 25 °C
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Sunday 08/07/07

The day after Live Earth, i had to work for 10 hours straight from 8am. When I finally finished, we hit Lapa for pizza, and then went searching for more fun. On a street corner up a hill, almost in the shadow of the Arcos, we found a place overflowing with locals and live samba. Drinking, dancing and the odd beer or two spilled out all over the place, yielding to nothing but the occasional taxi or police call filled with M16-wielding cops. After midnight, we browsed the district for an open venue, and during the course of not finding one, encountered a brood of penis-flashing shemales walking the streets. This not being the type of entertainment we were looking for, we left them to their own devices for Copacabana Beach for more liquor and laughs.

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The Brasilian health system is itself a little ill, with the cost of seeing a doctor prohibitively expensive for most. Those that can afford private health insurance can even expect to be misdiagnosed or sometimes have needless tests performed such as MRI's. There is widespread corruption amongst doctors in this regard, and now insurance companies have leagues of doctors employed to investigate misdiagnosis issues, sending the private health insurance premiums to somewhere past the moon. This has resulted in many little clinics, called Centros de Saúde, springing up to offer advice and recommend medication cheaply for sick people.

Our destination on Thursday was the world-famous Selaron Stairway, possibly the biggest sculpture in the world made by a single individual. 215 tiled steps stretch skyward, the result of 17 years hard work and over 2000 different tiles, many from other parts of the world. The dedication Selaron has put into his masterpiece earned him world-wide respect, and his work features in commercials, magazines and the music videos of U2 and Snoop Dogg. Later that night, we headed to Fosfobox, a club in Copacabana. The speakers blasted an organ-rearranging mix of acid and electro, and equally damaging were the cocktails, containing Cognac, Whiskey, Vodka, Contreau and passion fruit juice. Now arms begin waving in the air, dancing becomes a blur dispersed amongst crazy photo shoots and other mad events and the night closes with the eventual (and almost unrecallable) stumbling home at a time unknown.

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Posted by Jeremy T 13:04 Archived in Brazil Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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