Northern Nuptuals

Sunday, July 25, 2010

So where was I? I believe I had landed in Fort St. John in the northern half of British Colombia for my first stop in Canada after months of traveling Latin America. I was met by my dad, sister Mariah, cousin Jonathan, and Uncle George who were all up from Saskatoon for my cousin Dean's wedding. Ringing any bells yet? We were seated with my uncle/godfather Bill, aunt/godmother Helen, and several others at the only Greek restaurant in town for dinner of lamb chops and Greek salad not to mention tiny fish and plenty more. It was, to put it mildly, nice to see everybody again. After dinner (thanks, Uncle George!) we went back to the hotel and met up with some more cousins including the groom-to-be and his brother Theo. I was fresh off my 23 hour trip from Rio that very day so I wasn't ready yet to have a big night out but that made no difference. We had some drinks (including Cpt. Morgan and Dr. Pepper, a winning combination) and met Dean's friends and the males of Jen's family before heading out into Fort St. John for a night that didn't quite rival Rio in splendour but definitely did so in company. Eventually, Jonathan and I could take no more and walked back the "three blocks" to the hotel. When I got back into the room I'd had enough to wonder who else was sleeping in the dorm before crashing like a brick on the very non-bricklike mattress.

Morning came as it always does, a couple hours before you'd like it to. We were downstairs for breakfast by 9 AM which included delicious Belgian Waffles in thick Canadian maple syrup, sausages, orange juice, and all the usual fixings that were especially delicious after two weeks straight of grilled ham and cheese sandwiches with scrambled eggs. There was a nap involved before the wedding for Jonathan, Mariah, and myself and then we headed out to the acreage where Dean and Jen were to be wed. Arriving home after a long trip is a combination of traveller's anxiety and the terminally ill's miraculous recovery. When you're traveling (or when I am) I want to see everywhere I am thoroughly because who knows when I will see it again? Take it all in, see it properly, you're rushing! It feels like a second chance and you see the world in a new way but you only feel this at home where you don't generally look at the surroundings with new eyes. You want to do it right this time, soak in every great experience there is to have and really LIVE. Forget the old routine, work 5 days, drinks on Friday night, a day of activity on Saturday, and rest on Sunday. You're going to make the most of it and that sounds to me like the recovery of someone who thought their time was up. So I was taking in the surroundings with wide eyes and thinking that it was not at all bad to be here at home and loving the countryside while finally having my family at my side too.

It helped that the place they chose for their wedding was stunning. On a high bluff overlooking an ancient river valley sat a table on a white blanket surrounded by green grass and standing with far away cliffs at its back. This was where the ceremony was to take place. I greeted more family that I hadn't yet seen and met a few new people and decided that while all the groomsmen were just standing around I'd get the hang of my camera in the northern hemisphere. We had our little photo shoot until the photographer came up to Dean and, looking at me, told him that everyone was to remain seated during the reception. Fair enough, I know how to stay out of the way of her photos but she doesn't know that and of course once one person is up and roaming more will follow. But it didn't bode well for my efforts to get some nice photos for them. Still, I tried my best from the seat and they came out alright. The minister was almost always in my way (to quote him, repeatedly, "Come on!") when the photographer wasn't and my angle meant I rarely got a look at Dean's face. But Jen's was there looking very beautiful in the afternoon sun and as they finished their hybrid Greek-Ukrainian ceremony and walked back down the aisle I was able to stand and get a photo or two as well.

Afterwards, when Dean and Jen drove off in their very nice wedding-day car, I was finally able to get a few photos that their photographer somehow neglected/ignored/forgot about of Dean helping her into it. Then we went back to the hotel as there was nothing to do in Fort St John but admire the scenery, gas up the car, and then wash it, and waited for the reception. It was set up and organized quite nicely with each table having the name of a Greek island and decorated in blue and white. I was shocked in the end to see that Dean only had two tables to Jen's many more but it was far away for most of our family to get to. I knew that would make our plans to really get the Greek music going difficult but it turned out that would not be the only factor. Dinner was incredible and I had two helpings not to mention a few Caesars (mmm, Clamato!) and wine while Dean, Jen, and others had some nice speeches and I wracked my brain for a funny anecdote. After a disorganized start and one of the worst-equipped DJs known to the industry there was a zambekiko that nobody was drunk enough for and then a Zorba remix that was faster than light. We danced so fast by the end and so soon after dinner that I had to disappear to the room after to throw up.

In the end though, we did a Tsamiko (Jonathan did not return from the room as he had been feeling as bad as me), kalamatiano, and other Greek dances which some of the largely-Ukrainian group joined in on while the others formed a circle and clapped or snapped photos. I was out of there with Mariah around midnight and probably asleep around 1. We were up again at 5 AM to get breakfast and head out of town towards Saskatoon. Little did I know, we were stopping at West Edmonton Mall en route (hence the REALLY early wake up) for some waterpark mayhem. We took Jonathan on some of the water slides for the first time in his life and it was hilarious - you should have heard him screaming coming down the Thunderbolt! In his terror, he was also leaning all the way back on the sled-skid so when it jumped off the slide and into the water all his weight resulted in a backflip which had everybody in sight roaring. I should confess that his idea of later playing in the kiddie area and using the various devices to soak people was much more fun than I gave him credit for initially.

Then, after a nice bowl of Pho, we were off again for Saskatoon. Everything is really green and colourful as though it's spring and I was loving our prairie landscapes not to mention the skies and sunset. It's something you either get or you don't but the more I'm away the more I appreciate the simple beauty of this province. The funny thing is that I still feel as though I'm on the road, traveling. Maybe I needed a plane ride into Saskatoon for closure or maybe as much as things are the same you can never go home. Certainly I'm happy to be here but as we drove up to our driveway I felt no sense of anything either positive or negative. It's as though I was away in Calgary for a week or something rather than almost a year. On the plus side I am - so far - very interested in continuing to explore the options here at home and make life a bit more interesting here in Saskatchewan while I save for the next big trip, house, move, or whatever is coming next. It will be hard when I'm going to be so busy for my first month back and on that note, I should go and plan my best friend's bachelor party coming up this weekend!

Fort Saint John Photos


Friday, July 23, 2010

My last bus ride on the Latin American expedition was already the beginning of a return to familiar locations. I was back in Rio for four more days of fun in the sun (and in its absence). I’m not sure if it was the beginning of high season or Brazil is just busier in the winter months than many of its neighbours but I had to resort to booking a hostel online – and most of them were full including the hostel I had stayed at last time. So I wound up at Karisma hostel, which had mediocre reviews on Hostelworld but aside from an initially rough greeting involving wanting to hold my passport ransom in some safe it was fine. The security situation seemed pretty solid, with safety boxes inside the traditional wooden lockers and a night guard on duty, and the location three blocks off Ipanema beach didn’t seem to warrant that at all. Additionally, the hostel is at the end of a whole alley of hostels including the well-loved Lighthouse, Girl from Ipanema, and several others. So the atmosphere of the neighbourhood was definitely appropriate for nightlife lovers although the noise from the street seeped into the room. This was compensated for by the fact that the dorm and in fact the hostel only had one other inhabitant, an English girl. We went out for dinner nearby and I was quite ready to ship her back in a tea crate by the time it was finished. She was not only more boring than me (impossible!) but rude to anybody that didn’t speak fluent English. Really rude. That was not how I wanted to spend my last days. I decided to check out of there the next morning and make my way to the Misti hostel in Copacabana as Botafogo was still booked up and headed over there.

This was a wise decision. I had no sooner arrived than I was greeted by a beautiful and friendly girl from Entre Rios, Argentina at reception and she got me sorted out pretty quickly. She recommended me a good place nearby to get lunch by the kilo and I wasn’t disappointed. Then, with the sky slightly clearing in the afternoon, I headed downtown to catch the 60 centavo tram up to Santa Theresa. The tram heads high over the centre on a viaduct and up into the historic hilltop neighbourhood with beautiful views in all directions on the way. But better than the neighbourhood or the views is the tram itself, full of locals and tourists alike to the point that they are literally hanging off the edges which is exactly where I was for this interesting ride. Going over the viaduct it’s a good five storey drop if you were to slip, lose your footing, or let go and many times you had to turn your feet sideways along the running board as we came near to scraping cars and walls along the way. I watched the sunset and walked back down part of the way until I started to feel uncomfortable and then tagged along with a couple guys heading in the same direction to get back into Lapa proper. This isn’t the safest area to be, apparently, after dark much less with a camera but I didn’t feel particularly uneasy and took the opportunity to do a bit of night photography of the beautiful municipal theatre and other old buildings before catching a subway back to Copacabana and my hostel.

Towards the end of the trip – aside from Cheymus – I haven't met many Canadians and a few people have also commented that you don’t see many Canadians down in this part of the world. I hadn’t felt this way and then started recollecting that, aside from Leanne and Janet I really hadn’t encountered many since Ecuador but my theory has been all along that it is a seasonal thing. In the heat of July, nobody is particularly interested in leaving a beautiful Saskatchewan summer, for example. October through March, however, is prime Canadian-spotting season and matches up with my experience. Now, towards the end of July, it was becoming English. My hostel was full of groups of English students fresh from university on their summer break; the difficulty here is that groups are tough to crack sometimes, but I didn’t mind as I had a headache and really hadn’t just had a good read in quite a while (I often write when most people are reading). However, an English girl named Alex arrived on her own and saw me reading Charles Dickens (I’m still plugging away at a Tale of Two Cities) and that started our conversation. As happens more and more here, people seem to think I’m from Brazil or Argentina so seeing me with an English book in my hands helped break the ice. I chatted with her a bit and then we met a group of really friendly English guys fresh off the plane and spent the rest of the night visiting with them and trying to give them ideas on things they could do in Rio and introducing them to caipirinhas.

The next day, they all set off on my guided tour where I finally donned my sandals, grabbed a chilled coconut, and walked all the way along Copacabana beach to Ipanema where I set up shop. Towel, book, beachfront views, and Brazilian girls passing around a soccer ball in bikinis plus, at last, a beaming and burning sun. I enjoyed the day thoroughly. I met back up with the group at our hostel to take them on the evening section of the tour: a walk up to Sugarloaf to catch the sunset. My plan had been to walk to the top of Urca and then cable car the rest of the way up but on the walk up I decided I wanted to do something a bit more adventurous for my last days in Rio so I strolled up to the helicopter stand. It turned out they had two people wanting to go and were in need of a third and although I initially walked away I decided that the time was perfect and I would definitely have an unforgettable sunset so I went back, paid, and the next thing I know, I was being whisked down to the helipad with a local and his son and we were off the ground. The helicopter ride came so fast I didn’t have a chance to get excited or barely even get my camera ready but as we came around Christ the Redeemer glowing pink in the sun’s final rays and He stood with Sugarloaf and Rio spread before him I was definitely getting there. I was gushing and babbling about it for a long time when we got on the ground, and this was before seeing my photos even. The sun had set by the time we landed, with views of Copacabana as a bonus on the way back and I had another reason to get excited.

The dusk light was even more beautiful than the last time I’d been up here with Cheymus and I took full advantage of the beauty, my camera, and my tripod. Every once in awhile I realize how much better my new camera is and two months later, this was one of those moments. It colours it captured looked surprisingly good and I was once again very excited. We hung around on the lounge chairs and watched dusk turn to night and the city lights come on, then headed back down to the base. From there, still in tour guide mode, I took the group to the little Chinese-run shop down the street from my old hostel for the cheapest dinner in town: two shredded chicken and cheese/pudding salgados with a Coca-Cola for four reals. Then we got back on the subway, headed home, and called it an early evening. My last full day was upon me and I’d need rest. I’d planned to get up for sunrise and head to the beach but ruled that out with a press of my thumb and headed out around 8:00 for some early-morning photos instead. Along the beach were sand sculptures of buildings, monuments in Rio, and my personal favourite: women in thongs lounging on the beach. I didn’t get back in time for breakfast which worked out alright in the end because I had run out of dinner times to visit a Churrascaria. That night, we all had plans to visit a soccer match at the famed Maracana stadium, home of the Flamengo team, and the next night I would be en route to the airport around dinner time.

But you’re surely asking was a Churrascaria is, and it’s time I explained. Basically, they throw a bunch of fine cuts of meat (filet mignon, for example) on a skewer and slow roast it on coals. Some of the meats are layered with a cheese that melts and infuses in but my preference was for the pure meat. Then you grab a plate, load a few sides – say sushi, salad, lots of olives, and some oysters – and sit down. Within a minute one of the servers will pass with a skewer of some meat or another and ask if you would like him to shave a piece for you. You DID leave room after the buffet visit, right? And as you’re nibbling on this, someone with some sausage or fried cheese or roast pork or ribeye will inevitably come by and offer you some right until you flip over a little pog that is red or green to indicate your willingness for more. The price for this incredible feast was 34 reals ($20) and well worth it once on your visit. The problem arose that I simply ate too much. I probably ate $10 worth of olives alone, not to mention 15 pieces of sushi and sashimi, lots of clams and mussels, and countless meat portions. I was ridiculously stuffed and it actually wrecked my day in that I waddled home and slept like a whale.

We all left for the game at 6:30 PM and were picked up by Danielle, our very friendly Flamengo-fan/guide. It was pure laziness that we went on a tour as I was pretty sure that the game wouldn’t be sold out and we could get there with one bus or another. But it was my last night and why not? We wouldn’t have known where to sit which, I have to admit, our guide did, and we were right in the middle of some of the craziest soccer fans on the planet. But you could definitely do it cheaper (less than half the 85 real cost) if you wanted to. The singing started 20 minutes before the game and didn’t stop until we got back on the shuttle bus that took us there. As well, they were armed with drums, flags, and countless other instruments of fandom. The stadium was once capable of holding 200,000 people until seats were installed and fire regulations enforced, and so it now holds 90,000. That day, the game was not against a particularly good team and there were 15,000 in the stands and I can only shudder to imagine the sound of 6x that many fans in one place. Around the stadium were lots of little activities and things to bring the crowd in earlier (or spread arrival times) and keep them entertained not to mention traditional pre-match necessities. My favourite example of this was a bust of Mame Garrincha put prominently in the front entrance when he played for Flamenco. But he betrayed fans and team alike by switching to their rivals some time ago and it is now tradition that you smack the statue upside the back of his head for this treachery.

The game itself was decent until Flamengo scored their first goal and became complacent and devolved quickly from that. Even a tying goal by Avai didn’t get the level of play up to standards. In the second half, only a series of bad calls and rough conduct could energize the teams into trying to win a decisive victory and break the tie. The last 15 minutes were intense, but in the end it was the crowd and fervor more than football that were the drawing card. It being my last night, we returned to the hostel and hung out with some of the other travellers with caipirinhas, games of spoons, and a few beer warming up. We (well, I) wanted to go out for Samba but that was not meant to be on a Wednesday night so we went nearby to a so-called salsa club (which was actually just a hostel bar) and hung out there for a while before coming home. It wasn’t a wild or incredible last night, but I suppose after so many great things in this city, it didn’t have to be. Plus, my last day would prove to be packed full of activity. The first stop was a trip into one of the favellas (basically, ghetto/slum) with a volunteer named Vanessa from an NGO. I paid 65 to go, which was the same price as one of the tours, but with the advantage that the money was going right to the community instead of a tour company and that I wouldn’t feel like I was a clueless tourist in a human zoo. I gathered that they didn’t do this often as the president of the NGO (or ONG here) came and met me personally at the hostel before Vanessa showed up.

Like most of the poor areas in Latin America, the favella was in a beautiful section of Rio, crawling up from a beachfront looking out toward Ipanema up into the hills overlooking most of Rio. They are unplanned, unengineered, and suffer many problems with rainfall and even simple navigation. Sometimes you have to cross through three homes to get to yours from the road, for example. If you heard about the recent flood-related deaths in Brazil they were from these hillside favellas not diverting rainfall properly and their poorly engineered non-foundationed structures collapsing and sliding down the hillside. We got there by a mini-van to a certain part and then motorcycles up the hills and narrow streets into the heart of the favella where the NGO is based. They seem to do a lot for the people, or at least they are trying to – it turns out the organization is quite young but from the sounds of it they are already making a difference. I met some of the students and then a protégé of Vanessa’s that she is trying to groom to take over the ‘tour’ part of the NGO. The girl was very nice but far too shy for this occupation, I fear, but perhaps this is exactly what will bring her out of that shell. The girl (I’m sorry I can’t remember her name) had an interesting story, though. She grew up in the favella and was one of the first the NGO helped get grants to study in university. As for the walk around, the favella was actually in pretty good condition compared to other places I have seen and the people had enough pride to clean up their garbage and everything. We talked to a few people but Vanessa would go into Portugese and I would stand around wondering what to pretend to be doing and would barely get a translation although sometimes this was because she just wound up chatting with someone. In any case, it was good to go and see firsthand.

I managed to whip off a quick burst of souvenir shopping that afternoon and a few hours on the beach as well. I felt sad to turn my back on the beach and walk back to the hostel and I wondered if I should be living somewhere else. But of course the grass is always greener and I doubt I’d be at the beach all that often anyway if I actually lived here though who knows. I definitely was feeling the end-of-trip pressures that day. Back at the hostel I changed and started my packing then came back to the beach with the English boys to get the sunset at Ipanema. It was absolutely beautiful – this seems to be the city of sunsets and none have failed to astound me on this trip. Suddenly it was 5:45 and I needed to be packed and ready to get my taxi at 6:30 at the hostel so I started making my way back only to discover the traffic was really heavy. I found a quieter road and a taxi to rush me back to the hostel and got back with only a few minutes before 6:30 and threw everything into my backpack. The man we’d arranged a cab with never showed up so at 6:50 I took another cab that seemed trusty with the English couple that was leaving that same evening and we were at the airport about an hour later. There were no problems checking in and only a slight hiccup when the immigration officer couldn’t find a place to put the exit stamp of my passport but I was prepared for this. Then, one expensive pack of M&Ms later, I was on a 9:55 flight heading for Houston.

I hadn’t eaten all day aside from a quick corn-on-the-cob while rushing back to the hostel from the beach and a chicken burger of questionable value at the airport and had some pains in my stomach as well as a fever to contend with on the flight. And seats that pretty much didn’t recline. I woke up at one point so sure I was going to be sick that I carefully vaulted over the friendly lady beside me (she was asleep) and headed to the washroom where I sweated a lot and not much else. So it wasn’t a great flight but on the other hand I happened to be awake as we crossed over the Guyanas and Venezuela leaving the South American continent and watching the moon glisten over the open water which felt like a symbolic moment in the adventure. I’m hoping it wasn’t symbolic that as I neared the Gulf of Mexico there was lightning everywhere (tropical storm Bonnie, I later discovered) and the water didn’t seem to be as shining. For some reason I had to clear customs in Houston in spite of the fact that I was not actually entering their country but I was out and back on a plane for Vancouver in 2.5 hours. In Vancouver, the customs officer was really friendly. I’d brought back some peppers for my mom and she said they were fine and then the other guy that decides if you’re being searched or continuing was really friendly and finished our conversation with “great to have you back” and a friendly slap on the shoulder as I thanked him and walked back into Canada.

The final leg of the journey was after a few hours layover in Vancouver’s VIP/American Express lounge where I ate a nice free lunch, sipped some gingerale for my stomach, and used the wifi while I worked on my blog and waited for my plane to pull up. Then it was off to Fort St John in northern BC, along the Alaska highway and the furthest north I have ever been in Canada – and interesting contrast to being almost as far south as I have ever been on this earth. It was a bit disorienting, actually, to suddenly have the sun high in the sky, sunsets after 10, and no garbage bin in the toilet – what about the plumbing?! I landed and got off the little plane and then made my way into the airport where I sat, worked on the blog, and helped a lady unload alcohol from her truck. I guess it really didn’t feel like I was at home, this was just another leg on the trip and it was a strange feeling when my dad’s truck finally pulled up an hour and a half later (they had just made the drive from Saskatoon) and I was hugging my dad, Mariah, my cousin Jonathan, and my uncle George. Then we were off to the hotel where I would see more family I hadn’t seen in an even longer time and go for my first real meal back in Canada – lamb chops and Greek salad. As I listened to my dad and uncles talking in Greek at one end of the table while I joked with my sister and cousin and ate, I decided that it was really great to be home again. I hope that I will continue to have things to write about while I’m here and time to do so, but if you’re not subscribed have a peek at that or if you have a Google/Yahoo/Twitter/AIM/OpenID account you can also “Follow” this by clicking on the button in the bottom left. In any case, thank you for following along on my latest adventure and I hope to have many more to share in the future.


Long Road to Rio

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand. This is probably the best line that Duran Duran ever wrote and it captures the feeling of Rio de Janeiro, the Marvellous City, perfectly. When I was booking my flight home, there were doubts at my wisdom in choosing Rio as my final stop on this nine month expedition from Mexico. It was an extra country on a crowded itinerary, I needed a visa, Brazil was expensive, and flights from Rio are at a premium to other cities in South America. The City of God washed these away like sins at a baptism. But it didn’t happen immediately. We were supposed to have a free transfer from the bus station to our hostel but hadn’t been told that we needed to email to ask for it and after burning through Cheymus’ phone card with El Misti hostel in Botafogo where we had reserved we were no better off. They couldn’t find our reservation and were also supposed to have emailed them to get the pickup and it was pushing on the deadline of 10 PM for pickups. A guy from Sao Paulo in the food court overheard us talking and offered us his phone to sort things out and we finally got the hostel to agree to pay 2/3 of our cab fare which was as good as we were going to do. That said, there were two of us and I think they could have paid the whole thing but that’s an aside. After the cab was sorted we arrived without further incident and the stop in Rio had begun.

In spite of this original mixup I quite liked the Botafogo Misti and the area itself. The hostel had lots of friendly people, one of the better breakfasts I’ve had included on this trip, and a good layout conducive to meeting people. After our first of such breakfasts, toasty ham and cheese sandwiches, watermelon, honeydew, eggs, cake and juice, Cheymus and I set out. It was a beautiful day and we (I) took the weather for granted somewhat after pretty much non-stop beautiful days all week. Cheymus wanted to do the beach but I wanted to get some sightseeing under my belt first so I could relax more on the beach. But what we ended up doing was basically just walking around. We walked all the way from our hostel in Botafogo to Copacabana, the world famous beach, and had sore necks by the time we left. Brazilian bikinis are a lot more provocative than elsewhere and a lot less material. The plan had been to get back to the iconic Sugar Loaf (Pao do Azucar) mountain that stands over Rio’s beachfront and to the top for sunset but we didn’t make it in time so we watched the sunset from the picturesque Urca neighbourhood below instead.

Redemption Day

The rumour on the street is that the best time to see Christ the Redeemer is early in the morning but like all advice, it is true or false depending on the person receiving it. On the one hand, a morning arrival means that His face is lit up nicely by the morning sun. But your views in the direction of Sugar Loaf and the famous harbour are obstructed by this same light. Further, I was told it was not possible to be up there for sunset, when views over the city must be the nicest anywhere in Rio, but I would later confirm that this is not the case either. Either choice still requires getting there. There are frequent busses right to the base of the statue and from there – usually – you can get on a supposedly fantastic cog rail line to the top. Be warned that lines are long. This option was closed when we got there but we met an Aussie at the base and the smart option for a group of three or more would be to get a taxi up. You can pay 45 to go up and have a cab wait to bring you back down as well from the base which would have worked out to 15/each. Then the ticket to visit Christ and the surrounding park is 26 reals (have I told you yet that their currency is actually pronounces hoy-ays?). Instead we paid 50 each for a shuttle service up and back including entrance ticket. When you get up there, aside from the impressive sight of this imposing and tall figure with arms spread to rising sun and Rio’s most famous areas, the views in all directions are spectacular and it’s not uncommon to lose an hour or two just staring. It’s only polite.

Sweet, Sweet Sugarloaf

In retrospect, much of my quite long stay in Rio was a search for yet another incredible view at this time of day or that. Looking back, I believe I have more sunset photos here than anywhere else – ever. The most iconic part of Rio’s skyline is probably Christ the Redeemer but it’s debatable heel-biting runner-up is the famous double mounds of Pão Azucar or Sugarloaf which shoot up from Rio’s harbour like an eruption of rock frozen in time. The larger of the two mounds is actually Sugarloaf and the smaller Urca. Most people – which, as you may have guessed, means not me – pay 44 reals to take the cable car to the top and back down. But it is an unadvertised fact that you can climb to the top of Urca through an unmarked but decent trail along the side for free. Unlike Christ the Redeemer, there is one best time to be here and that is at sunset. Which brings me to the next unadvertised fact: after 7:00 you can ride down on the cable car for free. So Cheymus and I headed up around 3:30 on the trail and watched a beautiful sunset unfold. We’d planned to only do half the cable car to the top of Sugarloaf (which you can’t walk up but if you’re feeling adventurous you can rock climb with a group) and back for 22 but when we got to the top of Urca, Sugarloaf was glowing in the setting sun and it seemed that we would have nice views from there. I suspect Sugarloaf would also give some beautiful views of Copacabana beach and is probably not to be missed but for the moment, we were happy to save the money after a fairly expensive day up to Christ. It got a bit chilly waiting for 7:00 to come around, so a jacket or sweater is not a bad idea if you’re thinking about doing the cheap way.

Schwaffeling Selaron

We met up with some of Cheymus’ friends in their Copacabana hostel after some bad directions and a bit of wandering but it had been a big day and we were both tired so we didn’t head out to party with them or even, for that matter, stay there with them very long. The next day we were greeted with pretty heavy rain so Cheymus went to say goodbye to his friends while I pretty much chilled out in the hostel, got some laundry done, and met a couple cool Germans and a hilarious Dutch guy who educated us on ‘schwaffel’ which apparently was the word of the year in 2008 or 2009. Its meaning is best left undefined on these pages I think. We stayed up pretty late having drinks and joking and the next day they joined us on our excursion to the centre. First we went to Cinelandia to see an absolutely beautiful theatre and then we walked to the famous Rio steps (as seen in the Snoop Dogg video, Beautiful not to mention several movies) called Escadaria Selaron or Selaron Steps. Selaron is a Chileno artist that lives in Rio and specifically on these steps that he has spent the last twenty years decorating and he was painting on the steps when we arrived. In the summer months he is known to be wearing red speedos, a large moustache, and not much else as he lounges and paints there. He also has an art gallery off the steps featuring pointy-boobed pregnant ladies, sometimes Selaron himself, and painted in blacks and reds and occasionally yellows. I set aside a piece I particularly liked but that still needed varnish and unfortunately never made it back to pick it up.

Our path took us past the viaduct upon which the tram for Santa Theresa crawls to the next stop, a very strange cathedral indeed. It is designed as a truncated cone of concrete with a glass-block cross along its flat top and a wall of stained glass radiating downward from the top. It wasn’t a beautiful place, especially with the overcast sky, but it was worth popping in to check out. From there we walked towards Uruguiana for what I had been led to believe was a crafts market where I could pick up some gifts for home, but it was mostly dodgy electronics shops. It did serve one function in our day’s plan, however, and that was to furnish us with some burgers. Having had enough, we went back to the hostel, stopping on the way to pick up supplies for the five of us to make some pasta. We all pretty much disagreed on the quantity needed of everything: Cheymus had too many onions, so we sent him back to drop one off. Rikkert, the Dutch guy, was sure that Jasmin had too much sauce, and I thought that Philipp had more meat than we needed. In the end, though, we made an excellent Bolognese pasta with some chilli peppers, cinnamon (yup, my touch), ground beef, onion, garlic, and balsamic vinegar. Cheymus did a lot of the cooking and Jasmin offered advice to him while I tinkered with the sauce. The two boys were off Skyping home so we left them to it. Afterwards, we all went out (except for Chey) and had a great time.

Paraty y Para Mi

It was now Friday morning and Cheymus and I had plans to meet up with Cristina and Bruna in a small beach town called Paraty for my final weekend in Brazil. Normally this town would get its own entry but owing to the rain I’m just appending it here. It’s a five hour bus ride from Rio and also 5 hours from Sao Paulo which itself is also five hours from Rio. Everything here is five hours away as though it were some sort of time warp. We stayed at the Misti hostel there which, true to form, didn’t bother to pick us up at the bus station but it didn’t seem to be too far a walk so we just made our way on foot. That night was a quiet night and aside from me doing a bit of walking around and shopping in the drizzling rain over the very dangerous cobbled streets (ankle support is not optional) and then Cheymus watched a movie while I crashed. We had been hoping fervently that Saturday, when the girls arrived, would offer some better weather but it did not. Normally, Paraty has plenty of hikes to beautiful beaches and fishing villages, boat excursions, SCUBA diving, and a plethora of activities. In the rain, there is little to do but eat so once they got settled in we all went out and went for a nice lunch which was followed by an afternoon of hanging out and visiting and a pizza dinner that night. I would say goodbye to all three of them as they went back to Sao Paulo the next day at the bus station because I had to return to Rio to catch my plane out. There were some problems finding accommodation but soon I was sorted out (more or less) and giving them all hugs. Back on the bus, my last for this trip, I returned to the Marvellous City once more.

Rio and Paraty Photos

Weekend Retreat

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Cheymus, a fellow Canadian from Victoria, and myself were bound for Campos do Jordao, a mountain city to which Sao Paulo’s residents flock for winter weekends. There’s no snow to be found or anything, but it’s a breath of fresh air from sandwiched Sao Paulo and there must be some Swiss or German influence as all the architecture is quite different from the typical Spanish or Portugese-colonial vintage we’d been drinking in lately. Our bus arrived an hour after it was supposed to and Bruna and Cristina were waiting at the bus station for us. It is a small but nice-feeling thing to be waited for on arrival and we walked to Cristina’s car to stow our bags and then went looking around the town. Strawberries dipped in milk chocolate on a skewer, anybody? I could have just eaten the gourmet sweets around the place but there was another treat on tap: microbrewed beer by Baden Baden. We tried four of their varieties and found each to be well-crafted and imminently drinkable. As well, we shared some tapas and watched flocks of Brazilians on their long-weekend milling around the place. The girls are such good company and time flew by very quickly before we loaded into Cristina’s car and drove 20 minutes out of town to the much more quiet San Antonio do Pinhal. It was late enough that I dozed off on the ride back and then we got to our Pousada (bed and breakfast) and crashed.

The next day the girls had all planned out for us: we were going to go fishing and eat what we caught. Then in the afternoon we’d climb a stone. This is the description from Bruna who couldn’t find the English word for what she’d wanted to say: karst. We slept in as there was no creepy Chilean dude making funny noises in the dorm and writing hate-poetry for you to find in the nights. The view out the patio of the town and valley below was nice and I definitely felt happy with my decision to be a little more vacationing and a little less touristing. So we got breakfast a bit late and enjoyed every minute of it. Three different cakes, breads, meats, cheeses, desserts, freshly squeezed orange juice and grape juices awaited. It got to be late enough that we, unfortunately, missed out on the fish part of the day and went to meet the hostel owner who was going to take us on a walk to the ‘mountain-top’ (the revised description). We were wearing jeans and t-shirts and were not dressed properly for what was to come: a hot hike/climb to the top of a huge karst upthrust overlooking the valley. The name of this, by the way, was Pedra do Baú and is worth a visit if you have time in the area. But we made due and although Bruna herself was ready to throw in the towel at several points she pressed on and our host told us we were his first group to all make it up. After about an hour hiking uphill through jungle and palms (with fresh bananas to keep us going) we got to the base of the stone and then it was climb-time. Someone had been good enough to basically drill a ladder into the stone and we climbed but it wasn’t exactly for the fearful and Cristina lost her glasses which went skidding by me faster than I could react.

From the top you could see miles in all directions and we walked to a place where the stone actually overhangs the valley floor below and took a bunch of photos there before descending again. The restaurant at the base had an all-you-can eat buffet for 17 reals that was hard to resist and we watched the sunset and ate some more Brazilian cuisine before heading back to San Antonio. A band was playing in the town below and you could hear it as though they were in the other room which saved us going out to see them, although we probably wouldn’t have anyway: they were pretty bad. We did go out and have some lasagne and invent a new way of thanking someone in Portugese: obri. Why say obrigado when the first syllable is still available as a word?? I’m trying to spread this similar to my attempts to spread “mismo mismo” through Spanish-speaking Latin America. Results have been mixed. So far. Cristina let Cheymus drive his car back which was good since we later learned that her eyesight isn’t all that great and night driving is probably not the safest thing.

And before we knew it the weekend was over. We had another great breakfast and chatted with a Brazilian couple that was also staying there and with whom we’d climbed Bao and then drove into Campos do Jordao to get our bus tickets. There were no busses to Paraty which I’d hoped would be my next destination so the options were backtrack to Sao Paulo (me? Backtrack?! Never!!) or just go to Rio and maybe do some trips out of there. Cheymus was up for it as well so the two of us said goodbye to our lovely Brazilian friends and boarded the bus. I have to admit I was surprised at how quickly I was attached to our little foursome and how sad I was to see them disappear as the bus sped off, but that is something I should be used to by now. As I ride this bus for Rio, my final stop in South America (save some day trips and expeditions to the surrounding areas) I am reminded of all the great people I’ve had the chance to get to know on this trip and in spite of knowing better from past trips, am hoping that I will at least meet up again with a few of them.

San Antonio do Pinhal Photos

Bem Vindo a Sao Paulo

Friday, July 09, 2010

It was a long bus ride from Iguazu Falls on the border of Argentina into Sao Paulo, a city of 11 million and the heart of Brazil’s economic power. I sat in the back of the bus so that my reclining seat could serve as a cabinet of sorts against the back of the bus for my backpack while I dozed. Unfortunately, there was a rather odd guy who kept moving around and for some time sat across from me in the opposite row and I didn’t trust this cabinet idea as a safety precaution so I kept the bag at my feet, looped around my legs. It didn’t help that I’d really entered Brazil, couldn’t communicate or understand the locals, and had dialled up my paranoia levels according to the amount of crime in Rio particularly. Not that Sao Paulo is exempt from this: in fact, red light robberies are apparently so common (according to fear-mongering Lonely Planet) that it is legal to only slow down at a red and proceed if the way is clear. That should be a law everywhere regardless of robberies but I digress. The bus was about 15 hours and on it I met – briefly – a fellow Canadian named Cheymus. When we arrived he was even more lost than I was as his Cuban companion was going to stay at a friend’s and he had nowhere to go. So he followed me to Vila Madalena hostel. Their website mentioned taking a bus and looking at the metro lines it seemed we’d be doing a lot of backtracking but our attempts at finding a bus to board failed miserably in Portugese-Spanish and we ended up taking the metro there.

The hostel was 12 blocks or so from the metro but thankfully most of that was downhill. The price I had gotten – a pretty fair 18 reals/night or $9 – had been a web promotion and Cheymus had to pay 35 which appears to be a standard price here in Brazil. Ouch! On the plus side, the hostel was located in a pretty safe area and aside from the trek to the metro which could be avoided with a 3 real bus was close to a number of cool sights that might not ordinarily be on the tourist trail. The breakfast was definitely worth waking up for with toast, cheese, fruits, pineapple juice not to mention tea and hot chocolate. But the best part was its quirky but very helpful owner, who was an encyclopaedia of information on things to see. Sao Paulo isn’t somewhere that a lot of tourists linger because there aren’t many ‘sights’ per se but it is a very cultured city and art galleries are everywhere not to mention a $150,000 public art display of graffiti. I had further help from Priscilla, the Brazilian girl I had watched the Argentina-Mexico game with in Buenos Aires, and it turned out that Cheymus had also made some Sao Paulo friends in Buenos Aires so after we arrived we made some calls and plans to meet up with them that evening.

Of course there was still the issue of hunger. We hadn’t eaten since lunch the previous day which was about 24 hours ago and in an effort to cut down on prices a bit we took a trip to the market and bought enough pasta, sauce, and sausage to last us for a couple lunches. I don’t cook much backpacking because I tend to visit cheap countries, travel alone (it can be just as pricey to cook for one as to go to restaurants), and mostly enjoy trying local foods and flavours. Well now there were two of us in an expensive country so we did cook. I have to say the first day was decent, but the second day I made the pasta I tinkered with the sauce by throwing in some garlic, Tabasco, and actually a bit of soy as well and it made a huge difference. We also watched the Uruguay-Holland game and I was disappointed to say the least. Uruguay fought hard to the end but just didn’t make it, which would also be the verdict for their third place battle against Germany. Then we met up with Cheymus’ friends, Christina and Bruna and the three of us waited for Priscilla to come by. The five of us headed out to one of Priscilla’s friends’ birthdays and had a great night visiting with my new friends and catching up with Priscilla.

The next day I made that legenday aforementioned pasta by myself – Cheymus was meeting up with Christina who, truth be told, was the only reason he was in Brazil at all for a day in the park. I planned to do some exploring but I had too many things hanging over my head to be taken care of so I spent the day lounging and writing emails to organize my next few weeks back home as well as catch up on emails and things I hadn’t replied to for too long. I watched the Spain-Germany game and was pleased to see that at least SOME Spanish speaking country was still in contention. It was the first time I’d watched Spain since the first round against Switzerland and I think I had commented that they had some talented players that couldn’t play together but what a difference there was now. They were a well-oiled machine. As I write this on a bus to Rio they are playing in the world cup final with Holland and if I can make a prediction I think that Spain will make history today again. We went out that night again with Bruna and Christina – Priscilla would be busy for the rest of my stay with her work. The girls actually treated us (despite protests and almost entering a wrestling match over the bill) to dinner and then we took them out for drinks. We have now been in Sao Paulo two days and spent our evenings with great locals for both with not a tourisy thing to be seen. I get an impression that Brazil will be a different experience especially coming at the end of the trip and I may even venture into vacation land and spend a few days on a beach somewhere before I come home.

The girls were off to a small town called San Antonio do Pinhal for the weekend and we had talked the night prior about possibly meeting up with them there. But they left Friday and I still had some exploring to do of the city. I went and looked around the area where our hostel was with Cheymus and came to the street where three of the top graffiti artists in the world (two of which are Brazilian) were paid $150,000 US to paint the whole alley. You remember me saying that, right? The results were impressive to say the least. Speaking of which, our hostel has a wall where various travelers can paint remembrances. Cheymus has an artistic bent and painted a guy leaning against one of the pillars silhouetted in black with a maple leaf for a head and a cut-away of a beating red Brazil where his heart is (that idea was my contribution to the project). He also painted a cat which symbolised Christina (it’s her nickname) and a clover leaf which both of them have tattooed. I thought it was actually a pretty cool piece to leave behind for future visitors to see and was glad I could offer anything to it at all. Now I’m just waiting for Lonely Planet to add it to the “must see in Brazil” highlights. Aside from this, we cruised up a restaurant street and I later went to a place which I thought was art galleries but was instead boutique shopping and bought a replacement pair of flip-flops from Havaiana HQ where they also had a cool display of the World Cup showdown with every country’s team having its own sandals. Alas, I couldn’t find Greece sandals or even Argentina ones but I did pick up Brazil’s.

It is an interesting fact that many of these cities have districts for their wares. The street we walked along, Teodoro, to get to our hostel was lined with music equipment shops (yes, I did stop and play some piano) for example. There is a street of international restaurants owing to the fact that so many businesses headquarter their South American operations here. We strolled along that but I decided to try something local instead and got a very Central American rice, beans (they were palatable!), and breaded chicken plate. The price was right. We also visited the cemetery that is at the door of our hostel and while it didn’t compare to Recoleta there were some nice pieces amidst the cookie cutter bronze statues. We met up with his Cuban friend and I wound up cooking them a teriyaki stir fry that was actually decent considering that I really hadn’t done a stir-fry before. Carmelized onions, chopped peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, beef, and linguini noodles basically, nothing too fancy but it definitely got the job done. We also bought two bottles of wine one of which was smashed on opening and then went out to Bruna’s favourite bar in her absence for a few more drinks.

We had searched the night before for accommodation in San Antonio and had come up with nothing but we decided to go and take our chances anyway. After breakfast we checked out and headed to the bus station only to find the next bus was not until 4:30. So we made lemons into lemonade, locked up our bags, and headed downtown to explore. I had heard about the famous mortadella sandwiches at the market from our hostel owner and we were both ready for lunch so we headed there first. It was as excellent as you can imagine, freshly shaved, grilled, and topped with melted cheese. I doubt it is even legal in Canada to serve such a heart-stopping sandwich but man was it good. All it lacked was a pickle. We wandered the downtown area a bit, money in the soles of our shoes for safety as d been warned about security, and found it felt as safe as anywhere else we’d been. Some dodgy people to be sure but no threats real or even perceived anywhere. I called Bruna to see if they had spotted a “Vacancy” sign or heard rumour of space in the town to find that the Pousada (bed and breakfast) owner had managed to squeeze in a spot for Cheymus and I. Spirits buoyed by the knowledge that we wouldn’t be sleeping on the streets, we headed back to the bus station and towards a resort mountain town for what would be an excellent weekend.

São Paulo Photos

Falling for Iguazu

Monday, July 05, 2010

Paraguay glowed pink out my window as the sun was setting on my stay in Argentina. I was on a bus for the final stop in the Spanish speaking countries and my final border crossing before flying home. The destination was one of the main reasons I was in South America to begin with: Iguazu Falls. They lie on the border of Argentina and Brazil, an impressive middleman between the two South American superpowers much as Niagara separates Canada and the United States in North America. But while Niagara has a reputation for a soft romantic setting, Iguazu is all Latin: dramatic, passionate, and beautiful. I’m getting ahead of myself. I arrived a little after dark in Puerto Iguazu, a surprisingly decent little town on the Argentina side of things. The surprise is because it could be so much more over-developed and ruined entirely but it remains small and easily navigable aside from a few traffic circles with three too many spurs. The Marcopolo hostel had been recommended to me, but their prices were ridiculous: 60/night! So I turned my back and walked to another Che Legarto which had the benefit of having some friends I’d met in other travels: Neil and Ruth whom I met in Panama. Although I hadn’t loved the Che Legarto in Montevideo, this one was a pleasant find, reasonably priced at 35 and best of all had excellent meals included for only 15. Or maybe the best of all was that I was in a dorm room with three friendly girls that I hung out with that night. Either way, it was a great place to stay.

Dinner that night, and I think every night at this hostel, was an altogether delicious combination of vegetables, pastas, and meats. Grilled steaks, delicious chicken, chimmichurri beef, would normally be highlights, but I was so starved for greenery that I filled up my first plate with all salads and veggies. The second plate was meats. And the third course was, actually, three bottles of wine split between myself and the girls. I left to chat with Neil and Ruth for a bit then invited them back to our table and the five of us hit the town for a pretty fun night out. The next morning came a bit early but I was on a bus with Neil and Ruth (everybody else left that day) for the Argentina side of Iguazu. Now I guess it’s finally time to get into all that flowery but inept description of Iguazu. Well, I won’t. Stunning, awesome, incredible, magnificent, jaw-dropping, unbelievable, these are all my favourite words to describe beautiful things. My Spanish vocabulary has other words, but they too are insufficient. When you enter you walk through a jungle path. Butterflies are everywhere and quite happy to land on you until the next patch of flowers comes along. Birds, perhaps as a result, are everywhere too. When I saw a toucan just walking towards the falls I knew it was going to be a good day.

But you never hear about the nature around the falls even though it is clearly an impressive and very alive ecosystem. The reason is because the falls themselves are so superlative that anything else seems pale in comparison. I suspect that if the Spanish conquistadors had found El Dorado waiting to be plundered at the foot of the falls they might have been too distracted by the beauty around them to remember it. Certainly there are hints that El Dorado could exist there, if Leprechauns are to be believed: there are rainbows everywhere. It is my belief that all the rainbows in all the world actually do end here, although I suspect there are more rainbows on display at an given moment in Iguazu than all the rest of the world put together. Another interesting tidbit that I’d like to research further is that apparently Paraguay had a waterfall that was even more impressive (I fail to imagine a way that this could be possible) than Iguazu but when they built what is now the world’s second largest dam they submerged the whole thing. Now that’s about the saddest thing I’ve heard although at least it does power all of Paraguay and 25% of Brazil. Anyway, Iguazu has not been flooded over in our search for power and in fact has been surprisingly undeveloped and left as a natural park which separates it quite nicely from Niagara falls casinos and hotels and Buffalos spoiling the view.

On the Argentina side you can walk above several of the falls, take a train to the Devil’s throat to witness the sheer volume of water and resulting mist, and also go below the falls not to mention take a boat to an island and hike to some great viewpoints. This is Disneyland for nature lovers. There are something like 270 waterfalls in this one confined area stretching in all directions and as far as (and further than) you can see all at once. They cascade along cliffs fringed in greenery halfway down, pool, and then cascade the other half just as beautifully. Rocks and tropical trees frame your view and, well, I’m gushing again, but that’s what the falls do to you: they leave you a giggling, giddy, jabbering mess, albeit one smiling and swaying as you float through the park. After the Argentina side, we came back and had another in-hostel dinner with a couple bottles of wine – my last cheap wine on this trip, I’m sure – and called it an early night. I was seriously considering staying another day in this hostel and in Argentina because of the price and that I had run myself ragged in addition to needing to get caught up on all this blog stuff and the 350 photos I had taken that day (which, to be fair, include multiple takes of 12-photo panoramas). But I didn’t stay.

Nope, the next day was a bit of a milestone. I crossed my last border on this expedition along the Pan American highway and left Spanish, which I had spent the last 8 months working on and practicing, behind. Portugese, as I recalled it from my time in Portugal some years ago, was anything but an easy language to navigate. In Portugal I’d gotten by largely on my French skills but those have waned and I was hoping it would be even easier to get by with my much better Spanish skills but this too was a lie. Certainly, what little I understand from their speech comes from my knowledge of Spanish, but speaking it is another matter altogether. The language is a mix of Spanish and French spoken with a German accent although I’m sure several ethnicities would find this description objectionable and I have not had this much of a problem with language barrier in a country since China although it’s probably accentuated by how well I was getting by in Spanish that I now can not only not have conversations with locals (unless they speak Spanish or English) but I can hardly ask the basic questions. Foz do Iguassu is the city on the Brazilian side of the falls and at 300,000 people it’s too large to have the personality of small and cute Puerto Iguazu. But you don’t really need to spend any time here, you just go in the morning, cross, spend 2-3 hours at the Brazilian side of the falls and either cross back or get a bus and continue your journey.

For those requiring a visa to enter Brazil that would rather not go through the hassle or pay the bucks ($65 for Canadians, $135 for Americans) just to see that side of the falls, at the time of writing it was quite possible though still risky to cross without ever officially ‘entering’ Brazil. On the public busses most of the people don’t even disembark to officially enter Brazil and get stamped in (you will need to for Argentina tohugh). We did so, of course, because I’m flying out of Rio, but friends of mine went in and spent the days at the falls then came back without getting stamped out of Brazil no problem. I’m not recommending it for legal reasons, but it’s quite possible from what I’ve seen. And it IS worth seeing the Brazil side, visa or no. Even though there is much less to occupy your day on the Brazil side (they should make some of the alternative paths, etc free) the views of Iguazu are more sweeping and even after a full and tiring day on the Argentina side, breath-taking. I’m often asked to choose one side and I cannot. You simply have to bite the bullet and accept that you will need two days to see the most beautiful place in the world and to pay two admissions. I would definitely do Brazil second if you can but then again I don’t know that you would be disappointed in either direction.

So, what is the Brazilian side all about? Well, in this case you ride a bus from the park entrance on a long road in where – rather disconcertingly in these countries – the driver wears a seatbelt! The most deadly roads in South America, nah, what’s the point? But here in the park where the only traffic is passing another of the shuttle busses at low speed, you must wear them. The Brazil side felt a little like a waterfall Disneyland. The bus would announce in three languages (Portugese, Spanish, English) the next stop which aside from the walk to the falls, was not included. So the Brazil side was sparse but with stations and other optional excursions that should be included but are not. Any annoyance you may feel at this – and I really didn’t – is forgotten when you first see the falls again. Aside from many sweeping views there is a platform that offers water wonderland vistas including the one that actually started me looking into South America two years ago. This was another milestone: one of the main reasons I was here was now something I would hereafter talk about in the past tense. There was a sadness to leaving the Brazil falls that didn’t just come from seeing winding down a trip: I don’t think I will see something this beautiful again in my life. But I WILL have many more adventures the first of which starts this evening as I navigate my way into the Portugese heartland and make my way by bus 18 hours to Sao Paulo.

Iguazu Falls Photos

Mission to San Ignacio

Saturday, July 03, 2010

After the painless (aside from the price of the taxi!) border crossing from Salto, Uruguay back into Argentina I guess I expected more. More than to be be dumped under an underpass with an encouraging pat on the shoulder and "good luck" at 9 at night to wait for a bus that should come through around 10:30. But that's what happened. There was a police checkstop set up there, though for what purpose I couldn't gather as they seemed to let most pass without a blink. I went and told them I was supposed to get on a Kurtz bus at 10:30 for San Ignacio and could they please stop it? A grunt that I chose to mean yes. And then I asked where I could wait, hoping to be invited in to the trailer and away from the pesky mosquitoes already buzzing around here. They pointed me instead to a patch of gravel off the shoulder 20m or so away from where they were 'working'. So I sat outside for almost two hours in the dark watching and getting up from my improvised backpack-seat on the gravel at any set of headlights that looked promising. The police had abandoned their post around 10 leaving me even more uncertain that my bus would stop. Finally I saw the bus and thought I could make out Kurtz and he was already getting ready slowing down so I had nothing to worry about but threw my backpack in the luggage compartment and hopped aboard for my overnight 9 hour trip to San Ignacio de Mini.

I arrived around 7 AM and after leaving my backpack at the friendly HI hostel here (and washing up) I went to explore the ruins of the nearby Jesuit Mission which were my reason for this stopover. I almost didn't do it but I was glad I did; I beat the crowds that stay in nearby Posada and watched the crumbling red sandstone facade glow in the morning light for a while before I remembered my camera. The whole place is laid out in a
cross pattern with the church at the top of the cross and residences, pantries, and so on on either side. I wandered the old church ruins and struggled at times to take photos around the restorative infrastructure. One guard noticed my plight and brought me into a restricted area to get what he thought was the best angle for the door (and he was right). It was a nice morning with just me and the birds chirping and the mission being slowly overgrown with trees and vines and I just wandered aimlessly around enjoying the bit of peace after the week's hectic pace until the tour groups started to pour in. That I took as my cue to exit and went to a nearby restaurant where I sat at the table beside a French couple and we had some beer, snacks, and watched the Argentina-Holland quarter-final.

It was a sad day for Argentina as Holland kept increasing their score one goal at a time and a frustrating day as the Holland players really poured on the acting skills. WHY is there not a penalty for clear fakery. My thought is that if you delay the game, you're out of the game. So feel free to lay there and pretend to be hurt until you get the call you want from the ref; you can miraculously hop back to life as soon as the judgement is made but you will hop to life on the sidelines. Better yet, I think if you fake an injury someone - preferably me - should be allowed to inflict that actual injury upon you. It really destroys what is otherwise a great sport. The first and second goals (Holland, Argentina) were both rockets from about 30m out that clocked in around 100 km/h and it seemed like it would be a good game until Argentina gave up two more goals and lost any ambition whatsoever. But there can be no controversy: Argentina lost an embarrassing defeat to the Dutch and only one team is left to represent South America... Uruguay. I got on the next bus after the game, still wearing my Messi jersey and rode the five hours to somewhere that could make the most passionate soccer fan smile on a day like this. I was heading to Iguazu falls, which really is the reason I'm here in South America at all: one friend's photo of this place inspired me to investigate this part of the world and spawned this whole trip. I can't convey my excitement to be arriving finally at this second-last milestone of my trip.


The Partial Monte Video and Salto Insanity

Friday, July 02, 2010

I was in the old district of Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital at a hostel called Che Legarto right in Independence Plaza. I had no idea what to expect of the city and somehow I had a very eastern European feeling almost immediately on the bus in that didn’t lessen with my time there. As one of the guys at the hostel spelled out my options for the evening - tango here, free; salsa there, free; great food everywhere, not so free – I began to have visions of Budapest, which longtime readers will know is one of my favourite cities in the world. Unfortunately, I had one key problem here which was that I didn’t have a very lively hostel with people interested in seeing what the city had on offer so I turned in desperation to a site of have used from time to time for some great travel experiences: Couchsurfing. I chatted with a girl named Daina but she was too tired to hit the town that night and we made plans for the next day instead if she wasn’t too busy. Then I took the hostelier’s advice and headed to Las Tres Bambalinas for a pretty reasonable cut of ribs and free live music. So alone and missing my recently departed friends or not, I had a pretty good night that first night and enjoyed just sitting back and people watching for a bit. I brought Charles Dickens with me as company but he didn’t say a word.
The next morning I set out to explore the city, or rather the old city. I didn’t manage to get to any of the other areas outside Ciudad Vieja in my stay here unfortunately. And to be honest it seemed like a city with a lot of potential that never really got there or at least was left to decay like the autumn leaves falling everywhere around me. Perhaps in the summer, when tourist season kicks in and Argentines flock to the beautiful beaches and coastline (which I would also be missing on this trip) things would be different. I wandered and watched and got some nice random shots of people and things but not much by way of landmarks or anything. I suppose that’s not such a bad thing in the end. My favourite stop for the day was the Port Market. When you enter there are wood-coal grills everywhere with various meats and things slowly cooking over a red glow. I decided that I would have to eat here and it was a good decision. They’re all more or less the same price but I decided on La Chacra de Puerto and had a delicious steak (well, three cuts) that I could barely finish nevermind the fries and bread and dips. But I finished it all anyway, it was that good. It was July 1 and I was hoping to do something interesting for Canada Day but aside from finding that somebody had put up a Canadian flag in Independence Square I had nothing to report.
The clouds were breaking up slightly and I was hoping to get some fantastic sunset photos but they didn’t clear enough to get that nice glow I was looking for. Still I set up the tripod and got some nice shots of the flag-lowering ceremony which I happened on entirely by accident and of the nearby theatre and a less nearby fountain. I chatted with Daina and also was invited to another event by a different couchsurfer – a get together/dinner at Las Tres Bambalinas, the same place I’d been last night. So I decided to go there and meet them and then meet up with Daina when their meeting was done. But I couldn’t find them through two strolls in the bar and gave up eventually to call Daina. She gave me instructions to take a bus but I waited for that bus forever and it never came. I called her back and she offered, quite nicely, to have someone come and pick me up but it was quite a distance and I not only felt bad but also was a little annoyed at myself that none of my plans had worked and thus in a bad mood on top of being tired and having to be up at 5:30 AM the next morning to head to Salto. My reason for rushing was to be somewhere before 3:30 PM when the Uruguay-Ghana quarter final game started and close to a border so I could be in Argentina the next day for their 11 AM quarter final against Holland. I could have stayed in Montevideo for the game the next day and then crossed back to Buenos Aires but the ferries are pricey and not timed well for this on top of which I wanted to see a bit more of Uruguay, however rushed. So I went to sleep without having met either of the people nice enough to try to meet up with me while I was in their town.

I was up early and got a bus at 6 AM to the bus station. I managed to take the most frustratingly slow driver in all of Latin America. He would wait 15 seconds at green lights and almost never shifted – no lie – out of second gear. He’d just lumber slowly down the street and I almost got out and walked thinking I’d be faster. Somehow I managed to arrive just in time to buy my ticket and hop on the 6:30 bus. The ride to Salto through the Uruguay countryside was uneventful. It was flat, green, and full of farms, reminding me of a scaled-down Saskatchewan in spring time. I got into Salto around 1:00 and immediately set to work sorting out a bus across the border that night into Argentina. There was a 10:30 bus from Concordia Aceso but I had to leave at 9 with a private ‘taxi’ of sorts that would take me across the border to wait. The taxi, it turned out, would cost as much as the overnight 8-hour bus and there were no options. In the end it probably would have been cheaper to stay in Montevideo and then go back to Buenos Aires and then head north but that is a side effect of going into the unknown and off the beaten track. The next operation was finding a place to watch the game: everybody told me to stay and watch in the bus station but I wasn’t having that. The tourist info guy (who must have the most boring job in the world in this place) made some phone calls and told me that everything – EVERYthing – was closed for the game. Nobody was bothering to open their businesses in the afternoon and who could blame them? There would be nobody around to buy anything. Even restaurants although he eventually found ONE that was staying open to show the game. Perfect.

I did a bit of exploring of Salto and made my way to the town centre from the bus station. There wasn’t much here to see: you could see Argentina across the river but even the park along that side was derelict and full of people confusing me for an ATM. The post office, in fact, was probably the nicest building in the city though it did have some plazas that could be beautiful with some work and a church/fountain that was nice. But I hadn’t yet discovered the best part of Salto when I decided I should get a spot at this restaurant before the game started: its people. It started when I got in: the restaurant was totally full but the waiter went out of his way to come up with an alternative and got me a stool to sit at the counter. Not much but you’d be surprised how often people just say no, sorry, we can’t help and send you on their way down here. I ordered some pasta (cheap and I only had so many Uruguay pesos to spend before I left the country that night) and a beer and settled in my stool. When the chorizo I got to start came out a table of students behind me told me I shouldn’t eat alone and invited me to sit at their great spots and watch the game with them. So we all watched a nail-biter of a game and I found myself having a Uruguay flag painted on my face which was no problem as I was cheering for them anyway. When Ghana scored to take a 1-0 lead the atmosphere cooled but nobody appeared to have given up. And when Uruguay tied 1-1, the restaurant went nuts. People standing on chairs, tables, jumping, hugging, kissing; you’d think we were in a bar. The tension was just as great with a tied game as the clock ticked down on an intense overtime and Ghana and Uruguay both had great chances.

Then came the penalty kicks which were so intense that I saw some fans with watering eyes on their knees praying and crossing fingers. Both teams scored the first two goals but Ghana missed its third which resulted in a scream so loud that I’m sure I heard a glass shatter. And when, finally, Uruguay scored that last goal which meant that Ghana couldn’t catch up, the restaurant cleared 130 dB easily. It just as quickly emptied out and by the time I’d paid my bill and headed out as well, there were already parades of cars, bikes, and flags going down the street. Soon, it was wall-wall people and impossible to move almost anywhere. Not only were the intersections packed but the whole street and several streets in various directions as well. People waving banners from atop traffic lights, jeeps, banners, beers, all screaming and honking and blowing their horns in unison made this a celebration to remember and one that topped even the Argentina ones I’d seen so far. I met some people in the streets that were likewise very friendly and could tell I was a foreigner. I suddenly felt sad to be leaving so soon, which seemed a common theme for Uruguay but I was booked and paid for so I made my way to the bus terminal and headed overnight to San Igancio de Mini where I would spend the early morning looking at Jesuit ruins. That is, after running through customs and then being dropped at an underpass in the dark with two police officers and a lot more mosquitoes to wait for over an hour, worrying that as the police had stopped halting traffic I might not be able to get my bus onwards to San Ignacio.

Montevideo and Salto Photos