After a brief respite, I feel rested and ready to resume the telling of my tale. Now where to begin again? Since I have spent the majority of the past three weeks in Rio de Janeiro, I think that place deserves a spot in my story. This is the problem: I am lazy.

I have been telling myself I will write a blog post about Rio de Janeiro for the past three weeks. In my defense, it was an action-packed period of time and I did not really have any time alone. So I shirked my self-imposed writing duties to frolic around the city instead. Now that I have left and am in a new spot with an opportunity to slow down and get back to my writing, I feel overwhelmed: how do I begin to explain all that I experienced during my time in the city? There is so much written about the famous “Rio” already, that anything I will say is bound to be a repeat of someone else´s account of the place. But anyway, I will try to do it some justice. So without further ado, I shall now present my personal account of the place. Here goes:

First of all, geography. It is the most visually-stunning urban landscape I have ever seen. Everyone knows the famous panoramic view of the mountains with Christ the Redeemer towering over the white sand beaches and the ocean. Flying into the center of the city, looking out over all of this from my seat in the plane truly took my breath away. I sat there gaping out the plane window not only because it is one of the most photographed, most famous sights in all the world, but because it is truly incredible. These amazing chunks of rounded-off rock jut up basically straight from the sea and everything in between is forest and beach and sprawling buildings. The city streets and buildings of Rio de Janeiro are in and around and inseparable from the natural landscape. The fact that all of these different components (beach and sea, forest and mountain, concrete and asphalt) coexist together in one huge juxtaposing conglomerate still blows my mind: vast, sweeping nature intertwined with a web of city streets and boroughs. Maybe the city´s radical physical contradictions lead to its radical ideological contradictions…

Rio de Janeiro is infamous for being a city where extreme wealth and extreme poverty come face to face. I have read all too many essays on the issue, but a person that I met while I was there explained it to me in new and memorable way that I feel compelled to share. We were standing on the balcony of her family´s house in the favela looking out over the skyline (side note: one of the benefits of living in a favela = amazing view of the scenery below) and talking about the differences between how a tourist sees the city and how a local in her position sees it: “What you guys see when you go to Copacabana or go to the top of the Corcovado, that is the `Rio´ that everyone talks about. Where we are here is the `de Janeiro.´” What she was referring to was the contrast between the glitz and glamour of an internationally famous travel destination against the realities of everyday life in a poor part of the city. I got to see a little of both, and although the great divide between the so-called “haves” and “have nots” does exist, it is an oversimplified view of an immensely multilayered city.

The favelas are such a highly publicized aspect of the city that I was expecting to be shocked by the scene there, but I honestly found them to be quite similar to a lot of the places that I was traveling around Brazil before I got to Rio de Janeiro: they are humble neighborhoods with real people going about their daily life: working, stopping at a market or café, walking home from school. They are undoubtedly poor neighborhoods with all the problems that come with poverty, but poor neighborhoods exist everywhere. I imagine that the reason why favelas get so much international attention when similarly impoverished areas exist in all cities  is because a.) they climb the hillsides, giving them a particularly recognizable and interesting aesthetic and b.) because they exist next to the beauty of “Rio” which goes back to the whole juxtaposition concept. Anyway, I am no expert, and my understanding of the workings of the favelas is limited, because I spent the vast majority of my time in more elegant areas.

My temporary home in Rio, where I stayed with Marcus and Agatha (my Couchsurfing hosts) was situated in the Lagoa neighborhood of Rio. The house was incredible: a large, multistoried, single-family home at the base of the Corcovado with incredible views of the surrounding hills and the lake below. I slept in the terrace room for a majority of my time there and woke every morning to sunlight streaming through the multitude of windows and a large, stone Christ watching over me. Pretty nice digs, especially when you consider the fact that I stayed there for ten days for free… Oh, and we had an incredible view of the favela from the terrace, by the way. So I spent a week there before my family came. Then we were 18, in all our glory.

My trip changed immensely and immediately when I met up with my family. No more planning bus trips and seeking out cheap hostels, no more eating street food and taking the bus everywhere. With Grandma in charge, it was a fancy hotel on Copacabana beach, nice restaurants with sprawling buffets and tours organized for the entire group. A big change in style of travel, indeed. So we spent Christmas at Copacabana beach with the thousands of other tourists and experienced the Rio side of things: we watched Stevie Wonder and Gilberto Gil play to a crowd of some 300,000 on the beach, took many, many pictures at the top of various tourist landmarks, and ate a lot of food. We went for a few days to Iguaçu and then the family left to go back home, and I stayed in Rio.

I went back to Marcus´ house and spent the most memorable and incredible New Years. I met my friend Fanny at Copacabana and we joined the throngs of white-clad revelers on the beach where there were multiple stages with free live concerts. We drank a couple caipirhinas and then stripped down to our underwear just before midnight to jump in the ocean. Then we stood, dripping with sea water on the beach and watched the fireworks which were an absolutely breathtaking sight to behold. It was a beautiful atmosphere, joyous I might say. We went back to the house where we spent the rest of the night swimming in the pool, getting haircuts from an only slightly inebriated hairstylist friend and finally watching the sun come up from our amazing spot on the terrace. This is the beautiful life.

So in between the privileged vacation I lived there and the unpretentious life of some locals that I got to glimpse, in between the nature and the city streets, in between the Rio and the de Janeiro, I got to experience a lot of Rio de Janeiro: I climbed the Sugar Loaf with James which was an incredible way to see the city from yet another perspective: hanging off the side of a mountain that overlooks the entire panorama. We got to the top with dozens of tourists (a few of whom were taking our pictures) and then rode the cable car, barefoot, back down to the bottom to retrieve our packs. The next day, I went to into the favela with a French girl, who was also staying at Marcus´ house, to attend a capoeira class. The next few days I hobbled around the city. After the seven pitches scaling the Pão de Acuçar followed by a night of high kicks and ducking down to avoid taking my partner´s high kicks in the face, my aching muscles were struggling to carry around my own body weight, but I still managed to get around a bit. I saw the botanic garden area, went to a rendition of “A Midsummer Night´s Dream” in an awesome little theater, hit up the nightlife in Lapa, and people-watched on the famous Rio beaches.

So in conclusion, Rio de Janeiro is so much. It is nature mixed with city, wealth mixed with poverty, mountain mixed with sea. For me, it was a wonderful time with my beautiful family and also a time to make new friends. It was a time for activity, discovery of a huge and varied city (which after spending over two weeks in, I still feel like I barely know.) It was endless sights, crazy holiday hubbub, noise and heat, tourists and cariocas… incredible.

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After five days staying in Olinda with my new Brazilian friends, Milena, Martha and Ale, it is time again for me to carry on. Although I am a bit sad to be leaving what has been my home away from home, the road calls, and I am ready to be on the move again. Five days is the longest amount of time I have spent in one place so far along this trip, and today when I packed my backpack and put it on to head out the door, I felt the rush of excitement that comes with moving on to a new and different location.
This trip has reinforced what I already knew about myself – that movement is so central in my life. Whether this is just a restless phase or I truly have a wanderer´s soul, I´m not sure, but I do know that the rush I get from being on the go is undeniable. I love the sense of freedom that comes with moving. For example, when I am running or on a plane or bus ride I get a surge of emotion that makes me feel alive – I don´t necessarily always know where I am going or what I will do when I get there only that it will be something new and different. This idea of uncharted territory combined with the physical high I get from motion has been a constant component in my life for the past month that I have been traveling, and I have been missing it since I have been here in Olinda. Although I have been trying to leave this town for the past couple days so I could continue on my journey, some invisible force apparently wanted me to slow down for a couple days. So I did.
This is what the past few days have looked like for me: I have been staying in the house of the three Brasileras that I mentioned above. I ended up with them in a spontaneous turn of events: I was waiting at the bus stop after staying one night at the youth hostel in Olinda. My plan at that point was to move to another hostel in neighboring Recife when they passed me on the street. I apparently looked like I needed help because after warning me in passing to be careful for thieves, they doubled back and asked me if I was lost and if I wanted a place to stay. Although I wasn´t exactly lost, I didn´t have a certain destination in mind, so I went with them to their house.
They welcomed me with abundant hospitality which has proven to be the norm in this country. On the way to their house, we stopped at a store to pick up some food and they insisted on buying me a pair of Havaianas when they found out I didn´t own a pair. (For those of you who don´t know, Havaianas are the trademark brand of sandals in Brazil. Every person in Brazil, rich or poor, old or young, wears them. Up until that point, I think I was the one single person in the country without.) We arrived at their house, new Havaianas in hand, and they insisted that I shower and eat. Then Martha did my hair before we went out for the night.
The next two days we spent with their friends. We went to a club that first night and danced the night away, and then to the marina the next day where their friend owned a jetski. So we beached the day away and then went to a samba club that night where the dancing resumed. The following two days we rested. We cooked a big lunch and walked around the streets of Olinda the next night to listen to the carnaval bands that parade through the streets every Sunday night. And yesterday I wandered the town looking for options for a bus out of town which I finally procured.
So now I am here at the bus station, waiting for my bus to leave for Feira de Santana and reflecting on the past few days. My first thought is that I am glad that circumstances forced me to stop for a few days. If I would have gotten my way and found a ticket to get out of town on Sunday, I would have missed what turned out to be a great couple of days. I got to know the city of Olinda which really is a spectacular place. I had the opportunity to rest and cook and do laundry and read and nap – all of which evade a person who is living life constantly on the go. And most importantly, I got to know some great people. The girls came to be friends of mine and living with them for a few days provided me with the opportunity to experience their day to day life. My Portuguese is much improved after five days of constant practice (and a good deal of entertainment for them, I must add.) And now I am rested and ready to continue my journey. What awaits me, I´m not sure, and oh what an exciting feeling that is.

São Luis: a city of contradictions.

The sleepy side – Upon first arriving in the city center, there was a palpable dormant quality to the town. The cobbled streets were lined with rows and rows of closed doors and shuttered windows. Walking along, we passed very few other people. Were all the people inside? Hard to tell. There were no sounds of individuals conversing, dishes clinking or televisions buzzing. A few of the streets showed no signs of inhabitants.

The lively side – Once the lights went down in the city, the whole place came alive. There was music outside of many of the central restaurants and in a few of the tucked-away back alleys. Drums were set in front of streetside fires to loosen the heads before being pounded upon with soulful exuberance. Women were stamping and spinning around the drummers, their skirts swirling around them in a kaleidoscope of flowing fabric. Broad staircases were lined with people conversing, sharing beers at the plastic tables, dancing and swaying to reggae beats.

The European side – The entire city center was a postcard-worthy image of cobblestone streets, terra cotta roofs and colonial architecture. Every few blocks there was a central square or plaza shaded by mango and palm trees. The grand whitewashed buildings were stark under the midday sun and then lit at night with green, blue, red lights. Many rock walls and structures had plants dripping off the sides. The Portuguese influence was apparent in the tiled walls and colorful colonial buildings in bright oranges and greens, pale yellows and blues.

The eclectic Brazilian side – There was a uniquely African feel to the city in the soulful drumming and dancing. A certain sector was greatly influenced by reggae culture: dreadlocks, rasta caps and lions of Zion. There was a big skater community that hung around the front of one of the cathedrals and a vibrant LGBT scene. It was a beautiful myriad of people blending together. So many different colors of skin, hair and eyes…

 

 

Jericoacoara: a tourist trap or seventh heaven?

               I could not (and still can´t) make up my mind how I feel about Jeri. When we first found a jeep to take us over the sand dunes to the little beach town, I was skeptical. It was the first time on this trip that I felt targeted as a tourist as we were picked out of the crowd in the central market and asked if we needed a ride to Jeri.

                The ride there was very interesting. Our large 4×4 had all our bags piled on top and roped down somewhat haphazardly (mine was on the edge, of course.) About ten of us were crammed into the back with sweaty arms and legs rubbing against one another. Two more stood on the back bumper. Two ferries that were nothing more than shabby wooden-planked floating platforms with men with long wooden poles served as the motor to carry us across impassable streams. After drifting over dunes and past the ocean for about an hour in the jeep, we arrived in Jeri.

                From first sight, it was apparent that it was a tourist town. There was more English being spoken than Portuguese and upscale shops and restaurants lining the streets. Besides the obvious tourist influence, there were the surfers. Kitesurfers, windsurfers, regular surfers… All kinds of bronzed, sun bleached, swimsuit wearing people were walking the streets with their respective boards of choice in hand. I immediately felt like I was in southern California.

                So I was unhappy when I first arrived. Up until that point we had met few gringos and I didn´t want to spend time in a Brazilian town where there were more Europeans than Brazilians. Then after the first night there, the place started to grow on me.

                We found a really cool place to stay which was just barely outside of the town and perched on a hill overlooking the beach. It had guestrooms in the front and then a large courtyard in the back with huge cashew trees shading the area. James and I strung up our hammocks and slept in this courtyard for the next two nights. The place doubled as a capoeira center so all day instructors and students alike were coming and going. We got to watch some lessons and the sounds of berimbaus reverberating through the trees was a constant. I used the small guest kitchen to cook one night which was a nice break from going out to eat in restaurants.

                I spent one day walking out to the natural stone arch that was down the beach from the town. James and I found a spot for bouldering along the way, and although the arch itself was ok, but the scenery along the way made the hike worthwhile- dunes, lizards, cacti and awesome quartz stone formations, waves crashing in the ocean below. The second day I spent at the beach and then took a sunset run and watched the full moon come up over a huge dune. At night the crowd migrated to caipirhinia row where fifteen or twenty stands were lined up mixing the drinks on the spot. Delicious drinks and new friends before strolling down the moonlit beach made for two quite enjoyable nights.

                So I found some good in the place. It was undeniably geared toward foreign tourists (myself included) and that always spoils a place for me, but the town itself had a certain charm. It had a laid back, happy atmosphere that is hard to dislike, and there turned out to be a cool sector of local people there between the surfers and the capoeiras from our pousada who I got to know a bit. Anyway, each different location has something unique to show, and Jericoacoara turned out to be much more complex than I though upon first judgement.

 

All in all, two very different locales, both multi-layered. Out of all the different places I have seen thus far, these two have both left distinct impressions. The first I loved and was enamored with almost immediately. The second I have mixed feelings about. So although this is just a small sample of what I have been seeing along the way, I hope that the description of these two towns shows the enormous amount of variety in this country. The diverse and vibrant nature of Brazil has been endlessly fascinating and inspiring for me.

An idea that has been running through my head with certain regularity is that it’s amazing the adventures that you can find if you maintain an open schedule and an open mind while traveling. As I pondered this concept, I realized that all my adventures of the past couple weeks haven’t exactly been encounters that I have sought out and then consequently found. In my experience thus far, my adventures have found me.

 Although my intention for this trip in general is to quest for adventure, the specific encounters in which I have found myself are not scenarios that I dreamt up and then went looking for. This is why the open schedule/open mind piece is of such importance. Sure it’s possible to have exciting and wonderful excursions while sticking to an itinerary, and a more tightly planned trip removes some of the unexpected delays that can be quite frustrating. Despite this truth, for me the thrill of the unexpected and the wonderment of scenarios that I never knew existed far outweigh the benefits of following a schedule. With that said, I now present the most thrilling of the recent adventures that have found me:

 

James and I found ourselves more or less trapped in the Amazon after our plans to head to Belem last week were hindered by a confusing and infrequent schedule of boat trips heading east down the river. We decided to make the most of it and so went to a town called Alenquer where we rented a moto and headed for Vale do Paraiso. A vague description in the guidebook described Vale do Paraiso as a small community nestled in the forest with a charming guesthouse for visitors. Based on that description, I imagined a small town with a few friendly families and maybe a little restaurant based out of somebody’s home. It turns out that the guidebook’s descriptions and my perception of reality are often not aligned because what we found when we got there was entirely different:

After roaming around the rural countryside outside of Alenquer, pulling up to bewildered farmers to ask for directions in mangled Portuguese, we finally parked our bike at the entrance to the place. A narrow path shaded by palms descended a way until we reached the top of a staircase. At this point we caught a glimpse of a pool of water in the bottom of a rocky basin and heard the chorus of dozens of birds chattering amongst themselves. We went down the  steps and found ourselves walking through a large kitchen and dining area of what appeared to be some sort of commune. We passed trash cans  filled with cans and bottles, a pile of laundry heaped on one of the tables and condiments placed on the tables – all sings that there had been people occupying the space not too long before that point but there seemed to be no one around. We called out, but got no response and so we figured that the owners of the place must have gone to town to  purchase supplies. Anyway, it was a very interesting place so we decided to explore a bit before heading out.

A narrow, wooden bridge crossed over the stone slabs of the dry riverbed, so we followed it accross to the other side where there was a wooden cabana and five or six brightly-colored guesthouses. Adorning the entire compund were odd antique decorations: dozens of old sewing machine stands used as tables, planters made of hollowed out logs, cabinets and dressers and mirrors scattered around the cabana. It all created a very mystical, enchanted atmosphere.

The door  to one of the guesthouses was wide open and the beds had ruffled sheets on them. Every odd little detail of the place made for such an eerie atmosphere and the entire scene was shrouded in mystery. What creatures were watching us from their hiding places among the jungle trees? Would the owners return to catch us occupying the place in their absence? And what the heck goes on in this strange location? Cult practices? I was partly scared but more intrigued so we poked around a bit and then set down our daypacks to go walk down the riverbed. 

This led to a trail through the surrounding forest and in the middle of wandering down the path, the rain began. What a mighty storm that turned out to be! Huge raindrops quickly turned the dry river into a flowing one, and the trail was soaked. By the time we made it back to the compound of Vale do Paraiso, we were both completely drenched and figured there was no way  to leave the place on a motorbike through what would have been sloppy, muddy roads. Luckily, we had our hammocks and so we hung them up and I changed out of my sopping clothing into the only other garnments I had brought: my swimsuit. And so we spent the rest of the evening huddled under the wooden bungalow in our swimgear, sitting in our hammocks and listening to the pouring rain that persisted for the rest of the evening.

It was dark after about an hour so we read in the light of our headlamps and then decided to brave the darkness to explore around the deserted kitchen. On the way accross the bridge, a  cat came up to us howling through the night which we both found to be very creepy. We saw a hen huddled on a shelf in the dining area which was equally as strange as the cat encounter. The haunted kitchen was slightly terrifying so we retreated to the safety of our hammocks with a couple candles that we found, our new cat friend tagging along. The rest of the evening was spent writing by candle light with the cat curled up in my lap. I gradually got tired and spent a restless night trying to sleep while listening to the millions of tiny creatures screeching, chirping, humming and groaning in the night. I could not shake the idea that our situation made for the perfect start to a horror movie. 

By the light of day, the place felt less frightening and the beauty of the natural surroundings was apparent, so we lingered the next morning. I practiced some yoga on the rocky ledge overlooking the compound which was quite incredible with the sun coming up over a wide panorama of the forest valley. And then we left the place just as we had found it: deserted and ready for the next confounded visitor to stumble upon. So this is the story of how I became an unintentional squatter in the most bizarre of circumstances. Like I said, not an event I could have planned, not even invented in my imagination. It was more like an odd dream realized and by far the most unique adventure of my life so far

A book that I was reading prior to leaving the States used the metaphor of crossing over a threshold to describe the departure of a trip. Crossing a threshold signifies movement from one space into the next, leaving one area in order to enter another, passing from inside to the outside. And as it was described, so it has been. The moment that I sat down on my seat in the airplane and felt that inevitable rush as we left the ground for the air, there was a change in my mentality. The months of planning, preparing, studying and stressing were suddenly a thing of the past. The time had finally come to leave all that to rest and instead open my mind to all the newness that comes with a trip abroad.

That was Monday, and now here I am only a week later, in an entirely different realm. When I think of what I was doing a week ago, it blows my mind. I have traded errands, phone calls, driving, and routines for beaches, backpacks, boat rides, and Brazilian. It’s as if I have entered a new world. And what a world this is! Each day walking through the streets I feel like a child. Everything is new and different. I feel a general sense of wonder with each new encounter. New friends drift in and out of my life on a daily basis, and I never know what a new day will bring. It’s wonderfully refreshing.

Right now I am sitting in the town square of Alter do Chao listening to the chatter of Portuguese all around me, children running around and the local artisans selling their jewelry. We have spent the last two days and nights in this utopian town. The fact that a place like this even exists amazes me. Imagine a quaint town located on the bank of an Amazonian tributary, white beach lining the entire length of the town and jungle in every direction stretching as far as one’s mind could dream. (No, that doesn’t do it justice… No words could. But you can still try to imagine anyway.)

Our hostel is lovely: a large, sliding door leads into the compound and then wooden plankways zigzag to the different rooms. Everything is open air and the plants, birds, us all share the same space. The people are lovely: we were invited to dine in the house of a man who we asked for directions when we first got to town. We saw him sitting at a streetside table with a friend as we entered town last night and he offered to take us to his house for a barbecue. We accepted, and he proceeded to buy pounds of meat, bottles of beer, a variety of vegetables (solely because he knew I was vegetarian) and invited a few friends to what turned out to be a great dinner. The beach is lovely: fine, white sand, unfathomably warm water (maybe a little too warm), tables placed in the water for beachgoers to dip their feet as they drink their beer. The food is lovely: fresh mangoes, pineapples, bananas, melons every day. How many times am I allowed to say “lovely” in one paragraph? Whatever it is, I think I’ve exceeded it… Anyway, you get the picture. Our experience here has been quite… lovely.

We came here on a barge down the Amazon River from Manaus, which was a great event in and of itself. James and I were pretty much the only gringos on board with a literal boatload of Brazilians. The ride took about 36 hours, 26 of which we were subjected to deafening Portuguese music that drove us half crazy. It was turned on with the first light of the morning sun and went until well past dark when the last few passengers were bedding down for the night. And always at a ridiculously unreasonable volume. It would have been fine had it been turned down, but that seemed not to be an option… Anyway, the music is only one detail of what was a truly authentic affair. We slept in hammocks at night, and all three decks were a sea of the brightly colored slings hanging from all corners. We ate the food that was prepared on board: noodles, rice, pinto beans, chicken and mixed salad. We showered on board, James in the open air shower on the top deck, and me in the slightly smelly private shower below. There was not a lot to do during the day, so we read and wrote, napped and drank some beers with our instant friends Maicol and Alberto (from Porto Alegre and Cordoba, respectively.) Maicol was this crazy guy: a super animated talker who wore a black and white plaid bucket hat and pronounced James’ name in two syllables, Jay-mez. He kept us entertained. The whole experience was really a great study in culture. To be in that close of proximity with the same people for two days straight provided an opportunity to see how people here eat, bathe, take care of their children, interact. It was a great way to start off the trip. And now we are in the paradise of the Amazon. A great first week, I’d say.

This is our last night in Alter do Chao and then we are taking the short bus ride to Santrem tomorrow morning to carry on. I’m a little hesitant to leave this place after only a couple days, but that is how it goes with a trip like this, I suppose: always saying hello and then goodbye shortly after. There are so many places to see, many of which I will fall in love with I’m sure. So, I’m going now to cook a delightful vegan dinner with James for our friends at the hostel and then maybe down for a night swim at the beach. It should be a great way to spend the last night here.