Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

4 weeks in Argentina

Check out pics in the photo album

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Pantanal

I recently had a weeks holiday. The first half was spent in the Pantanal, a large wetland shared by Brasil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. It is a region known for a high concentration of wildlife. I spent my time there doing sort of wildlife safaris on foot, by jeep, boat, and on horseback. While there I saw literally hundreds of caimans, birds, hawks and eagles. The highlights, however, included seeing an anaconda while trekking through a swampy region; a pair of false-water cobras intertwined together; a river otter, howler monkeys that are not much to look at, but the incredibly loud sound that they make sounds as if it is the forest itself that is alive (as we approached the monkeys and got closer to the sound it felt as though we were getting closer to the heart of the forest); and by far the most interesting was a seeing a giant anteater.

The second half was spent in a place near to the Pantanal called Bonito. There are many waterfalls, rivers, and caves in the area and I spent some time checking them out. There is a river there called "Rio da Prata" where the waters are quite clear. You can put on a wetsuit, get a mask and snorkel, and float downstream with the current. The most interesting part was getting to see a spring. The water comes into the river from underground in an area where the bottom is sandy. It looks almost like a continuous volcanic eruption as the water continues to come forth.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

My 6 weeks off

These 6 weeks happened in 3 chunks:

Check out the Photo Albums for the respective photos.

Part I
Vanessa and I spent a couple days in Chicago and two weeks in Canada, visiting Waterloo, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Niagara Falls, and a ton of people. It was great to see everyone! (or as close to everyone as was possible) And it was fun to show Vanessa a little piece of Canada and Canadian life.

Part II
I met up with my bro Dave in Yellowstone National Park and we spent a week driving around and hiking in the park. The park really is as spectacular as everyone says. Dave joked after our first day that "We've been here a day and already seen all four seasons"; It was hot as summer when the sun was out and shining in full force, but then the clouds would roll in and it would pour rain for about 5 min and then turn into hail; on the same day we did a hike into the mountains and into snow. During our week in the park we saw bison, deer, elk, pronghorn, a moose, bighorn sheep, a yellow-bellied marmot, a total of 10 bears (including a mother and 2 cubs as well as 2 grizzlies), and a bald eagle!!

Part III
I spent my last two weeks travelling the south of Brasil. This is an area where Italians, Germans, Swiss, Poles, and other eastern europeans settled. It is the more developed part of Brasil. There are many more well-constructed cities and infrastructures to support them. I spent a little time in various places checking out the cities, but as always still preferred to find the hills, valleys, and waterfalls in the regions.
Something quite different in the south is a tea-like drink called chimarrão. It is made of a dried leaf called erva mate, but unlike tea, you fill your cup (actually they use gourds) with the leaf and then add water. You drink the tea through what is called a bomba. A bomba is straw-like but is closed off at the bottom; instead of an opening at the bottom there are little holes in the bottom of the "straw" that allow the water to pass through but not the leaves. I ended up spending an evening hanging out with some guys drinking chimarrão. It is tradition to pass the gourd around like a pipe all night long and just keep refilling it with hot water.
Some people refer to Brasil as many countries in one; In particular, this is a comparison of the north and south of the country -the geography, climate, and people. It was definitely interesting to see the "other Brasil".

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Last two months

Not a whole lot has happened in the last two months that is really worthy of conveying, but as enough time has passed since the last post, here goes:
(Also, I don't have a whole lot of pictures from these events, put I'll post some in the albums)

I climbed a mountain -Pico da Bandeira again- with Vanessa, this time. It is an 18km trek and an elevation gain of over 1km; probably not the best choice for a girl's first mountain experience, but it went well and she did fine.

A little river on the mountain.

We also spent a long weekend in a quaint little coastal town called Buzios, a few hours north of Rio; Nice, fancy (Brasilians love to use the word "chique"), colonial town. Hung out there for a few days -going on boat rides, snorkelling, swimming, and just relaxing.

On the opposite side of the scale, I spent another long weekend riding my bicycle with Ted. We rode near Diamantina and it is probably the toughest riding that I've done. There were no flat parts at all. It was just up and down, up and down, up get the idea.
One neat thing was the pension house (like a bed-and-breakfast) that we stayed at in a town in the middle of nowhere (can't even remember the name). I absolutely loved the woman who owned and operated the place, and she showed me around her garden, showing off her different plants, telling stories about her family; really great.

Just a few days ago I went to my first soccer game here. The stadium is called Minerão, a good-sized stadium with a capacity of 70 to 80 thousand, depending on who you ask. It was ok, but these Brasilians really are crazy about their soccer. They really get into it in a way that I'll never understand, and they yell, scream, sing, curse -before, during, and after the game. I learned more profanity in Portuguese in that day alone than I have in my time in Brasil.
Two intersting things happened as we were driving home:
First: We saw a bunch of young guys riding on top of a city bus, jumping up and down, singing, yelling and so on as the bus was driving along. I can imagine the poor bus driver, scared out of his mind in case one of those guys fell off and was run over by the sea of traffic, but also too scared of the guys to tell them to get off.
Second: As we were driving along a police officer ran out in front of our car, gun drawn, yelling at some dude to stop and lay down on the ground with his hands behind his head. We waited and watched as the guy started doing so and as the cop slowly walked towards him, gun in hand, ready to pump him full of lead. As soon as the cop was out of our way, we got the hell outta there.

One final piece of news that's significant to me, but probably to no one else:
This weekend I feel I reached a milestone with my Portuguese. Hanging out with some friends who speak no English, we had a real conversation about politics (the little that I know), health care, corruption, taxes, and the like.

I have another month of work, during which I'll likely be too busy to do anything fun, but after that I've got a few weeks off, and am considering various possibilities.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Carnaval in Rio

Carnaval: Brasil's biggest festival. Major cities of Brasil, including Belo Horizonte, become ghost towns with the mass exodus to the Carnaval hotspots: Rio, Salvador, beach towns, and colonial cities in the interior. In Brasil, it seems that nobody asks you if you have plans for Carnaval; rather they ask you what are your plans...
Carnaval in different parts of Brasil is as different as Brasil itself. Though some (not any guys that I've spoken to) may disagree, the common thread linking the Carnavals is booze and debauchery.

I spent my Carnaval in Rio, where the festival is all about Samba. The main event is the desfile (parade).

With a little help from photoshop:

All places to stay are ridiculously pricey during the festival, but I went with Vanessa and we stayed with her brother (a Major in the army) on a military compound -that was kinda neat.

During the days we went to beaches -the main ones, as well as some private and open only to the military and their families. During the evenings we went out on the town.

One neat thing was seeing hang gliders land on the beach at São Conrado. Looks like good fun!

There isn't much more to say about Carnaval. Check out my pics in the album. I do fear the wrath of my mother and, thus, photos of nudes have been mostly left out.

Monday, January 26, 2009

9000km and back again

4000 by plane; 1500 by boat; 3500 by bus. Brasil's a big bloody place; but a great place for adventure!

I flew into the middle of the amazon, found a group of dudes and a guide named Osmar and headed into the jungle for a few days. This wasn't as crazy or wild as you may expect, but I did start what I hope to be a long-standing tradition of sleeping in a hammock. We did see tons of birds, eagles, and alligators, some monkeys and a sloth. I fished for and caught many (red) piranha (in the same waters I had been swimming in a few minutes earlier) -they were too small to eat, but we did eat some catfish that we caught. Two of the highlights of the jungle experience:
(i) Falling asleep in my hammock, listening to the sounds of the jungle, and the rain. In those moments, the power of this magical place really hit home.
(ii) Listening to the story of our guide Osmar: He is a 38 year old native of the area. Until the age of 15 he had never left the jungle, had never seen a city, a car, never spoken a language other than his native dialect. At the age of 15 his father took him to the city and enrolled him in boarding school. The first 6 months were terrible for him -he'd never felt so alone: didn't speak Portuguese, didn't know anyone, didn't know how to live in the city with all their strange customs. He managed to persevere, completed school, and got a job as a tour guide. His employer encouraged him to learn english, which he did. In the following years he travelled a few times to Europe and lived in various countries there for a total of 3 years learning languages. Now he speaks Portuguese, English, French, Spanish, Italian, and a little Japanese. He can't tell anyone in his tribe (those who still live in the jungle) about his trips to Europe because they simply won't believe him; they'll think he's making it up. The only ones who know are his mother and brother.
Other neat parts of the jungle experience included visiting native families and collecting latex from trees and making rubber.

I returned to the city (Manaus) and bought a ticket down the amazon river -5 days by boat to the coast (city of Belém) with a two-day stop-over in a place called Santarém. 5 days on this boat was one of the highlights of my 4 weeks: truly an experience. The boat from Manaus to Santarém held a little more than 800 passengers (of those, 3 were foreigners, the rest were locals mostly travelling to visit family for the Christmas holidays) although by North American standards it is maybe a 200 passenger boat. Everyone sleeps/lives in hammocks for the duration of the journey. In the Amazon there is a real hammock culture (that, unfortunately, is starting to die with “modernization”) that I really love –there are people (maybe not in the big city) that sleep in hammocks even in their homes.

There was nothing to do on the boat but meet and talk to people. It was a really fantastic time; getting to talk, really talk to the local people –regular, normal Brasilians of the north. I have a super-patriotic Canadian friend, Collette, who had given me a bunch of Canada stickers to hand out on my voyage. On the boat I met a couple of little girls who I made friends with, gave them some stickers and the word spread fast: by the end of the day I knew nearly every child on the boat (Collette had given me a lot of stickers). One of the highlights of the boat experience was one evening on the top deck of the boat: I was playing the count-to-20 game with some children and a few adults. A crowd grew and more and more people wanted the opportunity to try to beat me. The crowd grew to 40 people eagerly awaiting their turn, plus others surrounding just to watch. After playing this game, another friend I had made, a guy from São Paulo had another great game that we played. It was really a great evening: people of ages 6 up to ages 60 all playing together and having a blast.
Nearly everyone hates the boat –locals and foreigners alike. Locals take the boat out of necessity (the cost of air-tickets puts flights way out of reach for a lot of these people), as do travelers that are on tighter budgets; A few foreigners take it for the experience, but the majority feel like they’ve experienced it after one or two days. I know that it’s unlikely that I will because there is too much “new” out there, but I would do it again…

I stopped in Santarém for 2 days with four friends that I had made on the boat. There is a beach on the river called Alter do Chão. It was a nice place to relax for 2 days.

Reaching the coast of Brasil, I hung out in Belém for a day and then began making my way along the coast. I took a few buses to a place called Lençois Maranhenses, allegedly the only desert in Brasil. They are dunes of really white, fine sand that stretch on for miles. Pools of rainwater collect in the valleys forming little lakes. It is a really beautiful area. I spent new-years-eve in the town bordering the desert called Barrerinhas. At the time I was travelling with an Israeli and an Australian. We walked the town in the evening checking to see where the action was. There was nobody to be seen anywhere! Eventually we did hear some commotion and followed the noise…right into a church. This is where everyone was hanging. We walked a little further and found another packed church, and another. We hung out in one of the churches for a bit: everyone there really seemed to be having a good time. (Note that, while there are a ton of churches in Brasil, I don’t think that this is representative of a Brasilian new-years-eve)

One of the cities I stopped in for a day –enroute to Lençois Maranhenses- is called São Luis. My well-travelled Israeli companion remarked that the architecture of São Luis was very similar to that of Lisbon, Portugal.

I moved on to another old Colonial town called Olinda, bordering the big city of Recife. It was a nice little place, dead quiet in the day, but lively at night. Coincidently, I happened to be there for a little mini-carnaval called frevo. The tiny streets were jam-packed with people drinking and beating drums. At around 11:30 in the evening, the party ended in a big riot in the main square. I never really figured out why or how it got started (a rumor was circulating that two rival gangs started it) but it got nasty pretty freakin quickly: people beating on each other, throwing bear bottles at each other, at cars, buildings. The police were on the scene super-fast and started their own beat-down, dragging people off. It was over in probably 20min, but it killed the party. Some Brasilians were so funny: they were apologizing to the foreign tourists in the area for the behavior of their countrymen; so profusely as though they had been the ones to initiate the fight.

Leaving Olinda I headed to a nearby beach called Porto de Galinhas; hung out there for two days, trying to surf, exploring some mangroves, and just relaxing.
Next stop was Salvador. This is a really happening city: Lots of live music in the evening, people playing Capoeira all day long, little food stalls on every corner, and little bars everywhere. I was travelling with an American dude and a Russian girl that I had met and one evening we were waiting at the bus stop to take the bus back from the beach to the town centre. A cabbie pulls up and says he’ll give us a ride for a few cents more than we would pay for the bus. We get in. The cabbie did go directly to the centre of town, but he stopped at other bus stops on the way to see if anyone else wanted a ride –until the cab was full: 7 people. It was hilarious. Some old lady was sitting on my lap talking about if her husband could see her now sitting on the lap of some young guy she didn’t know…

One afternoon, my companions and I left the super-touristed town centre to try to find a place to eat. A 5min walk from all the action, we found a little restaurant and sat down. It was exactly what we were looking for: super-basic, cheap, of course there was a tv in the corner with music videos playing, and we were the only foreigners there. As we were eating, one of the other patrons, I guess, really liked the song that was playing and began to belt it out at full volume. Imagine this in a restaurant in Canada :) Well this is Salvador: another dude from across the restaurant joined in; and then another. They stood up, started dancing, pointing at each other, and singing away. At the end of the song they returned to their seats and continued eating only to get up again a few minutes later to another well-liked song.

While in Salvador I saw a show that included music, dance, and capoeira. It was really something else. I paid money to see what was considered to be one of the better shows, and everything was top-notch.

After Salvador I went to a national park called Chapada Diamantina. This is a spectacular place; really stunning. There are hills and valleys and plateaus, waterfalls, rivers and streams. Despite being a well-touristed area, the people in the area have managed to preserve its tranquility.

Note that while I say simply that after x I did y…in reality all of these were separated by 12hr, 18hr, or 24 hr bus rides.

Having covered a ton of ground in a short 3-and-a-half weeks, I met up with Vanessa and spent the last half-week of my time off in a little colonial town (one of the originals in Brasil) called Diamantina. A quaint place with not much to do, it was just what I needed to unwind. There is a little main market in the centre of town and there was a band playing on Saturday morning. One dude, I think over 80 years old, was dancing up a storm with every girl in the joint. He would walk through the crowd and if he found a girl on her own he would whisk her away; if he found a girl with some other dude, he would ask him permission to take the girl and then would whirl away on the dance floor, return the girl and say thanks.

9000km and 4 weeks later I was back home.