Saturday, 29 March 2014

Human trafficked into a World of Wonders

I can’t believe we have now entered our last country on this trip, how the time is now flying by! Still, there is no need to fret at just this moment as we have dedicated 3 whole months to Bolivia and even then we will still have a final week on the beach in Brazil for the World Cup before we do finally leave the continent and head back to England.
So this post is dedicated solely to our brief but enjoyable 3 week stint in Brazil, a very special country, home to so many special things both human and natural based and summed up by the fact that they officially have both a man-made and natural Wonder of World.
It is amazing that by the time we leave we will have spent a total of 11 months exploring South America but only 4 weeks will have been traveling in Brazil. The craziest thing about this is that Brazil covers more than 60% of the entire continent, so when I say that it has taken us 10 months to visit all of the other countries (except the north-east corner) then you can get some sort of idea how vast this one country is.
Therefore, Brazil needs to be a trip all of its own and this one is just a taster. Also, you need some serious cash to visit this place, it is ridiculously expensive and you can understand why most Brazilians are feeling very alienated about the money being spent on both the World Cup and the Olympics, which in turn is increasing the costs of day to day things.
We will return to some of this later in the post.

So leaving Paraguay and entering Brazil.
It was so easy that before we knew it we had entered Brazil on the public bus and were now illegal aliens! We couldn’t believe it. We were sat on the bus expecting to stop at the border but the bus just kept on going out of Paraguay and even at the Brazilian border post all that happened was a customs officer stepped onto the bus, checked our bags to ensure we weren’t carrying any contraband and then waved the bus on.
This was not good. Not only would we now never have technically left Paraguay (and we still haven’t) we were sitting in Brazil with no legal right to be there!!
In reality we weren’t too fussed as we just expected to either find a place in town to resolve this issue or we would just return to the border the next day and get ourselves stamped in. As long as it has only been one day most countries aren’t too bothered about this.
Anyway, when we got to our hostel the owner Luis’ first question was to knowingly ask us if we were stamped in. To our response of “No!” he shook his head saying that it happens all of the time and that he would sort it out for us; and so came a first for both of us, we would be human trafficked over a completely different international border. (It isn’t as spy like as I have just made it sound or wished it was in reality)

Our current location was the tropical outpost of Foz Do Iguacu, located in the south-west of Brazil on a triangular point where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay all meet and we were here to visit one of the natural wonders of the world, The Iguazu Falls – a chain of waterfalls that separates Brazil from Argentina in the most dramatic fashion possible.
In order to get the most out of the falls it is imperative that you must visit both sides ie. the Argentinian and Brazilian sides. Getting back into Argentina was no hassle but the much quicker and simpler way was to take the transport offered by the hostel and being completely unmotivated in the 100% humidity to sort it out ourselves we took up Luis’ offer. Actually we had no choice; it was the best way for us to get back into Brazil and legally be here!
So with that sorted we sat down in the outside hostel bar and sampled our first but not last tasty Brazilian speciality – a Caipirinha. A Caipirinha which translates as ‘country bumpkin’ is a cocktail made from sugarcane rum, lime and sugar and is very strong.
We were sat with 2 other backpackers, Anouk from Holland and Netta from Israel. Anouk was cool and would travel with us over the next couple of days around the falls and we would see her again in Sao Paulo but Netta was really annoying. She was very forthright and I can’t stand being told what to do and that I am wrong when I know that I am right, especially by a 22 year old! Enough said.

Early the next morning 7 of us boarded the minibus headed for Argentina, 5 of us were legal, 2 of us were illegal immigrants – it was time to be trafficked.
The great thing about Foz Do Iguacu and this border crossing is that hundreds of tourists cross over in both directions every day and only for the day to see the waterfalls, therefore the process is a little slack. It was easy as this:
At the border the driver collected all of our passports and filled out a sheet declaring his passengers and he alone would present them to immigration. We didn’t even need to show our faces.
However it was still a bit dodgy as we weren’t listed on the sheet and our passports were left behind in the van, so as far as everybody was concerned we weren’t there and we didn’t exist.
Crossing in to no-man’s land we now needed the Argies to be as slack as the Brazilians and not to check for an exit stamp from Brazil because if they did then I am not sure what the deal would be?
Also there was an extra twist as far as Arancha was concerned. The driver would present her Spanish passport to get into Argentina but once we left Argentina at the end of the day the driver would then swap over her passport in no-man’s land and present her Australian one as we entered Brazil for our ‘first time’ due to relations between Spain and Brazil not being great and she would need to provide evidence of our plans to leave within 3 months which we of course didn’t have. What a palaver! Again we would need for them not to check for an exit stamp from Argentina that day as it would not be there – it was in the other passport.
The fact that I am writing this post now means that all went well and we passed over into Argentina at least now knowing we would be stamped out and had a way to get back into Brazil.
In fact, over those 2 days we made it through a total of 6 international immigration posts with me passing over 3 of them illegally and Arancha passing over 4!  You have to love travel!!

On to The Iguazu Falls. No doubt about it, this place truly takes your breath away and is one of those places where the pictures do it no justice. You need to see it to believe it and take it all in.
Many people say that the Argentine side is the best as you get to view the falls up close and personal and along with Anouk we easily passed away 8 hours in the national park until our ride back into Brazil at 5pm that evening.
Here are some facts about The Iguazu Falls that will hopefully get across how impressive this place and how awesome nature is:
·         The waterfall system is made up of 275 falls along 2.7kms of the Iguazu River
·         The falls reach up to 269 feet in height
·         During rainy season the amount of water flowing over the falls can reach 450,000 cubic feet PER SECOND

The sheer scale of the falls were indescribable and when we first laid eyes on them as they stretched away into the distance dropping off the cliff edges surrounded by thick pristine jungle I had to bite my lip to stop a tear escaping. This was the stuff of fantasy and the perfect sort of place where a lost city of gold or hidden temple of an ancient civilisation should have rested – it had Indiana Jones written all over it and the numerous monkeys, parrots in the trees and caiman hanging about in the calm waters only attested this.
Actually it was probably better that there were no traces of humans here because nothing apart from the raw elements and the roar of the water crashing onto the rocks below was required to make this one of the most special places I have ever laid eyes upon.
We did our utmost to ignore all of the tourists and we did a pretty good job of it but at times it was hopeless but what could you do. We knew that it would be busy and in places it was full of stupid old people and their slow walking!
Iguazu is also home to a whole population of coati, an animal similar to racoon and they gave a great lesson in how stupid some tourists can be. At one of the restaurant areas we watched as packs of the coati would gather around a table and walk about patiently waiting for their moment to pounce, then all at once they would leap up onto a table and take what they wanted as a random little girl would run away screaming. It was really funny.
We attempted to eat lunch but gave up quite quickly and ate our food standing up inside as to try and enjoy it peacefully with these badboys around was a fruitless task. Over the next hour we then sat and watched tourist after tourist think they were better than the pack to then sit there angry at not having any more lunch.

We made sure to visit every conceivable viewpoint at the falls and even took a boat over to San Martin Island so that we could get a little closer to some of the big ones but the best part of the day was taking the ‘Adventurer’s Cruise’, a boat trip right into the heart of the falls.
Before boarding we were warned to put every valuable in the provided waterproof bags as we would be getting wet, but that didn’t quite cover it – we were literally drowned.
The boat made its way along the river and essentially went headfirst into the resulting chaos caused by 2 particular waterfalls. The best way that I can describe how the power of the water felt was to let you know how my body reacted – it went into shock! It was so weird that as we were hit by the force of the water both of my arms ceased to work and began to fold in on themselves, as did my hands. I had no control over my body whatsoever and I am not taking the p*ss but I looked like I had Cerebral Palsy, that’s how explosive the water was to me!
Apart from the obvious ‘shock’ of it all it was brilliant and I had to laugh at how Arancha found it especially funny that I was struggling and so started destroying me for being ‘weak’.
It was definitely a trip to remember, even if it was only 12 minutes long!

We saved the best for last that day by visiting Gargantua Del Diablo / The Devil’s Throat late in the afternoon hoping that most of the crowds had dispersed. The Devil’s Throat is the big one and it was so strange walking 1km over the calm waters that feed the fall to then coming face to face with the amount of water then thundering over the sides of this 270 degree bowl to the river below was truly mind-boggling and left all 3 of us awestruck.
Very tired but completely satisfied we left Iguazu that day knowing that once we got back into Brazil, legally, we would get to see it all again but from an entirely different viewpoint the very next day.
By the way the ‘official’ line was that if we were asked by Brazilian immigration what the deal was I was to explain that this was my first trip to Brazil and that I negotiated with the driver to give us a lift over. I hoped that it wouldn’t come to that as I am not sure he would buy into the fact that we were entering a new country in just a pair of shorts and a vest with no luggage!!
That night we ventured out into the unexpected Turkish quarter of the town to sit outside and eat kebabs and drink beer as well as watch some football – what a day!

 
 
 
 
 



















Before re-entering the Brazilian side of the Parque Nacional Iguacu (different spelling as different country and language) we decided to visit what I would say is one of the best bird parks in the world (although I haven’t been to many).
This park housed over 800 different species of bird but what was best about it was that they had huge walk-through aviaries which meant that you could get really close to the birds and in particular the very cheeky Toucans who were displaying some high levels of intelligence by stealing from the tourists as well as waiting by the doors to try and leave with you.
The butterfly and hummingbird house was also a highlight.




Back to the falls and although a much smaller area to explore than the Argentine side, the Brazilian side of the Iguacu Falls was actually our favourite because you got to stand back and look out over the falls in all of their majesty. It was only from this side that you could really get an idea of how vast these falls are and why they are deservedly on the list of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.
 
 
 

With a massive tick on the South American bucket list achieved it was time to move on and you couldn’t really get a much more different place; from the personification of natural beauty to the largest city in the southern hemisphere, Sao Paulo.  
To say that Sao Paulo is big is an understatement; its population is now estimated to be 19 million people! London is a big city but it only has about 8 million people and Australia, well it is a bloody continent with an entire population circa 27 million people. It is big, alright!
As a whole it is a daunting place but broken down into chunks and neighbourhoods Sao Paulo is manageable and we really found ourselves liking it.
When you think of Brazil you automatically think of the beauty of Rio De Janeiro but it is Sao Paulo that is the real beating heart of the country. Our Brazilian friends (who we met up with in Rio) summed it up very well when they compared to Sao Paulo and Rio to Sydney and Melbourne – Sydney and Rio have the eye-catching beauty but Sao Paulo and Melbourne are the cities with the character and are the much more liveable ones.
As big as it was we really liked Sao Paulo, maybe more so than Rio, which I never thought we would’ve said before we visited them both.

We found ourselves staying in a residential neighbourhood about 3 metro stops from the historic centre in a brilliant little hostel that was so good there were a number of full-time backpackers living there whilst they sorted out more permanent accommodation, hence it was more like a little community.
In fact there were so many long term residents that it had all started to get a little messy and there was some trouble in the pipeline; and so I introduce you to Stefan.
Stefan was a weird fellow. We didn’t meet him until our third day in Sao Paulo and if it wasn’t for the fact that we had to move quite abruptly from the hostel after 5 days he might have still been tagging along with us now – he was your typical hanger-on who didn’t get the subtle hint.
Stefan is from Canada, has serious mummy issues (he told me this and as a result of his upbringing and her hatred of men he is now scared of women) and he voluntarily spent 2 years living under a bridge because he didn’t agree with the idea of paying taxes or rent. He had a little Hitler moustache, liked to walk around the city with no shirt on (he wasn’t thin) and was an alcoholic who enjoyed a bottle of wine for breakfast. The reason he was in South America was because he had set up his own language exchange website and he was now traveling around to meet all his ‘followers’. So far every ‘follower’ he had turned up to meet had ditched him – you may feel sorry for him, as we did at first, but after 3 days in his company you can understand why this happened.
Anyway, the reason that trouble was brewing was because Stefan was convinced that he was about to get it on with a girl at the hostel after previous failed attempts with 2 others and it was all going swimmingly until another guy at the hostel got in there and scared her off as he had done with the other 2. This sent Stefan into a rage but the problem was that apparently businesses in Brazil must pay protection money to the local mafia and this ‘other guy’ was the ‘live-in’ mafia representative.
How delightfully messy.
We have no idea how it all ended but as much as we felt for Stefan on the bird front there was no way we could put up with him for his proposed road trip along the Brazilian coastline to Rio. Seriously, he told me about how he plays drinking games with just himself!!

So as for the rest of Sao Paulo this is how it went:
·         It was Arancha’s birthday on our second day there so I spent the first running around the posh shopping area trying to find a present. Fortunately Arancha’s favourite shoe company is from Sao Paulo so I went to their flagship store and purchased a pair to ensure that I was ‘best boyfriend’ on her special day
·         Arancha’s birthday – after the joy of getting a present she actually wanted she insisted that she also visit the flagship store / gallery to have a look around. The result was that she bought herself a birthday present (more shoes) and is now carrying around 7 pairs in her backpack! We then went for a birthday lunch to buy the world’s most expensive burger before venturing up to the top of the Edificio Italia, the tallest building in the city to look out over the heaving metropolis.
From here we walked around the historic centre famed not for its buildings but for the masses of hookers and crack heads wondering around like a scene from a zombie movie.
Incidentally we also saw a busker doing football tricks with various sized balls and I cannot explain the skill involved to actually complete a routine doing kick-ups with a marble and a ball-bearing – skillz!
To round off the birthday we went to a traditional Brazilian restaurant known as a Rodizio. The way it works is that there is an all you can eat buffet containing everything you would ever want and then every 5 minutes the servers come up to your table with different types of freshly cooked meat on skewers and slice off whatever you want. There must’ve been 8 varieties and each one was delicious and so I have no idea how we then went for ice-cream afterwards but it was Arancha’s birthday and she was the boss.



 

















·       We met up with Anouk for her last day in Brazil and went for lunch in the leafy touristy area of Villa Madelena
·        We visited Liberdade for dinner, an area of the city containing the largest concentration of Japanese people outside of Japan
·         If you are going to wear flip-flops then they have to be Havaianas and like Melissa Shoes (see AJ’s b’day) they are made here. Unfortunately the flagship store was closed for renovations but there were numerous other stores around the city selling every variety of Havaiana imaginable and for the ladies there was even the opportunity to personalise and bedazzle them. I too am now carrying too much footwear but given that a pair of Havaianas lasts me 2 years of constant wear I now have 8 years worth of flip-flop!

 
·       Carnival – for some unknown reason we ended up in Brazil right in the middle of Carnival. Whereas we didn’t think we could afford Rio (in hindsight we could’ve given how much we did spend) we decided that Sao Paulo would be the best place to avoid it. We were a little na├»ve in thinking that Carnival was just in Rio, it is celebrated all over the country and stretches out for 5 days meaning that whatever we were going to do we were financially f*cked.
On the Saturday we were fortunate enough to meet Gustavo at our hostel, a Rio native who was in Sao Paulo to meet up with some friends and he invited us along with Stefan to celebrate Carnival.
It was a messy affair which began at 3pm with beer and shots and ended for me and Stefan at 7am taking the first tube home. Apart from the parade that you see on TV the Carnival is mainly about ‘block’ parties. Various city blocks will have their own party and the idea is that you along with thousands of others will head to one block to then follow a truck usually carrying a Samba band through the streets to the next designated block where it all begins again. It was all great fun but I definitely paid for it the next day
 
 
 














That was about it for Sao Paulo and the only other thing to mention are the hotels. They are nearly all available by the hour and it is very rare to stay for an entire night – as we wanted to do after we needed to leave the hostel. Essentially they are available by the hour because they work primarily as sex or drug hotels and not only were there sexy saunas available, the TV’s had a free porn channel and there was a room service menu available which listed big black dildos rather than big fat burgers!

Still trying to avoid Rio we decided to spend a few days traveling along the coast (minus Stefan) and it was during this time that we really got to see what Brazil is about. The coastline is beautifully dramatic made up of pristine jungle that clings to the cone shaped mountains that they themselves end abruptly when they meet the deserted beaches and blue ocean. You then look out to sea over the numerous islands also mountainous and covered in luscious forest – it really is a stunning setting and one of the best places I have ever seen.

We stopped off at Ubatuba for a couple of days and as well as having to celebrate Carnival yet again with another block party and a huge concert in the middle of the town right next to the ocean we also caught a local bus a few kilometres out of town to one of the best beaches that I have been to. Essentially I have described it above, jungle, sand and warm ocean and we had to do it as the state of Ubatuba is famous for having 90 beaches, some of which are the best in the world.
From here we made a stopover at the Unesco World Heritage town of Paraty – an oldy-worldy colonial settlement located smack-bang between the jungle and the ocean and a very nice place indeed to wonder around the cobble-stoned streets and drink coffee as we enjoyed a stint of people watching.


















Still, you haven’t people watched until you have done it on either Copacabana or Ipanema beach in Rio De Janeiro and that was where we were heading next.
Rio De Janeiro – you can’t deny it, it must be the most beautiful city on the world, but at the same time there are some very dark underlying social issues that can’t be avoided.
Before we get into our time here I must just talk about the negatives.
Brazil is spending billions of dollars on the World Cup (this June) and the Olympic Games (2016) and as a result of the mis-spending and alleged Government corruption there has been a lot of social unrest which culminated in the riots at least year’s Confederations Cup. Of the Brazilians that we did speak to they had no desire at all to see the World Cup in their country and the pure wastage of money is demonstrated by the fact that one of the stadiums has been built at a cost of more than $1bn to host only 3 games!! $1 billion!
Even worse, once the tournament is finished the stadium will not even be used by the local professional football team as they are in the 4th division and only receive an average attendance of 600 people which isn’t exactly suitable for a 65,000 all-seater stadium.
Now the waste of tax dollars is one thing but the real sickening thing that smacks you right in the face as you wonder around this great city is the amount of human suffering that goes completely ignored by the Government. They might be happy to spending billions on the World Cup and the Olympics and getting fat from the financial kick-backs but there are literally thousands of people here living and sleeping on the streets with absolutely nothing to live for. We are talking about people that are so far down and close to the end that all they could manage to do was pull down their trousers and roll onto their sides to avoid pissing on themselves, which invariably they did anyway. There were men, women, children and grandparents all wondering the streets covered in filth and muck and when it was too hot they would hide under an umbrella for shade.
We aren’t talking about India here, we are talking about Brazil, a country determined to be one of the next super-powers and a country that as far as I’m concerned is unjustly the most expensive that I have been to in the word. If it is too expensive for us then what hope have the normal Brazilians got?
So, with the negatives over we can focus on our time in Rio which with all the issues I just mentioned is a f*cking cool place.
·         We first stayed in the Copacabana area of the city, cue the incessant Barry Manilow classic which along with ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ still haven’t left our heads. However, for $60 per night I don’t expect to be sleeping is something akin to a prison cell and I definitely don’t want to be told when I can turn the air conditioning on!
·         After 1 night we moved to the more central area of Botafogo and from our sexy new hostel we could see the infamous Christ the Redeemer looking down on us
·         We took a cable car up to the pinnacle of the famous Sugarloaf Mountain and from here we were afforded the most magnificent views of Rio, out across the beaches, the harbour, the city, big JC standing aloft Hunchback Hill and the jagged mountains dotted with the numerous favelas



 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
·         An afternoon was spent on Copacabana beach and I got to watch some real beach football

 












·         One of the days was a complete wash out so we used this to go and see some of the historic buildings including the Metropolitan Cathedral, known for its pyramid shape. We also stumbled upon the Carnival float graveyard and it was quite sad to see these retired floats that only a few days ago we had seen dazzling in the Sambodrome on the TV

 
















·         We were introduced to various typical foods our favourite being the Acai berry – a superfood which the Brazilians drink as a slush puppy and it is delicious
·         The thing with South America is that there is always a party or a procession going on, honestly it is nearly every weekend and in Rio there was yet another block party only a few days after the end of the official Carnival
·         We made the pilgrimage up to Christ the Redeemer. Obviously this was no religious pilgrimage, JC is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and along with the 1 Ancient Wonder Arancha can now proudly boast that she has completed all 7 and the honorary 8th.
I have 1 New Wonder left and the 1 Ancient but they will be completed. If you are wondering these are the Wonders:
1)      Great Wall of China (Erm, China)
2)      Taj Mahal (India)
3)      Machu Picchu (Preu)
4)      Christ The Redeemer (Brazil)
5)      Colosseum (Italy)
6)      Petra (Jordan) – To do
7)      Chichen Itza (Mexico)
8)      Honarary Ancient Wonder – Great Pyramid of Giza (Egypt) – To do

As much as it was a great to get up and close with a World
Wonder, as well as see the damage caused by the recent lightning strike and of course enjoy the magnificent views the sheer amount of people crowding around trying to get a decent picture was horrible. In the end we just enjoyed it for what it was and took a series of Where’s Wally style pictures. Can you see us?


The stairway to heaven?



 












·       Spent a couple of days lounging around and people watching at Ipanema beach. The beaches in Brazil are split by numbers so you choose the area of the beach most suited to you ie. between 8 and 9 was the gay section where you could sit by and watch these muscle clad guys snogging each other with no issues, which is how it should be, and between 9 and 10 was the beautiful section, which is where we were of course!
The best thing about the beaches here, apart from all the arses, is that you could turn up with absolutely nothing and buy it all when you are here from the hundreds of touts walking along the beach selling everything from swimwear, food, booze, drinks etc



 












·      We met up with a Brazilian-French couple that we had met 8 months before on a tiny island in Belize. It was really great to catch up and listen to how they are striving to make travel their future way of life. In fact when we met they had just signed a contract with a Brazilian TV channel to make and host a new travel programme!
·      We took ourselves on a tour of the Santa Marta Favela. The Favela’s in Brazil are shanty towns where the poor live and are well known for being very dangerous places where gangs and drugs rule. The Favela’s are characterised by their network of maze-like structures that climb the sides of the mountains and it would be suicidal to visit some of them on your own. Fortunately in the 1990’s a number of the favela’s were ‘pacified’ which meant that the cops came in, killed all the bad guys and then maintained control and Santa Marta was the first of these. It also happened to be the location for Michael Jackson to film the video to ‘They Don’t Care About Us’. Of course we went to see the statue and some of the scenes for the video. Even better was that we were the only white people there so it felt as if we were doing something that we shouldn’t be, but it was all good and the locals were very friendly.
















And so 6 days in Rio came to an end but before we departed we headed to the Rodrigo De Freitas Lake to watch a beautiful sunset over the lake and the mountains with a nice cold can of Brahma beer – it was the perfect ending to our stay here.

It was now time for us to get the hell out of Brazil. We had seen what we wanted to see and completed our short foray into this giant of a country which really needs a few months of dedicated travel all of its own, but that will be impossible until we win the lottery.
The fact that we had to pay a supplement to the taxi driver just because we had backpacks says it all.

Due to its vast size we chose to fly to the border city of Corumba and when it is a case of 4 hrs vs over 24 hrs on a bus there is no contest and also by flying to Corumba we were got the added bonus of being able to look out of the window as we flew over the Pantanal, one of the world’s largest tropical wetlands, estimated to cover between 140,000 and 195,000 square kilometres.
Corumba is situated right on the western edge of the Pantanal with the alluring fingers of the Amazon Basin just creeping in from the north and we spent one night here in the Brazilian tropics as we watched a magical sunset occur over the land that stretched on literally forever.

The next morning we were at the Bolivian border ready to enter our 18th and final country and our home for the next 3 months and so far so good, Bolivia has lived up and exceeded all expectations – what a country and what a continent.