Tuesday, April 29, 2008

parapente and no tango

There was not that much wind today, but enough to get green light for our hoped-for activity: Paragliding! We met up with pilots Ernesto and Federico and drove up to Cerro Otto. The takeoff spot is right below the top station of the ski gondola, but for some reason we did not take the gondola. We drove up there and hiked the rest of the way, eventually culminating in a harrowing little climb.

The takeoff ramp.

The takeoff took a while as there was not much wind so we had to wait for a good gust to come along. Once airborn the experience is absolutely wonderful and exhilerating. I tried taking pictures during the flight, but unfortunately it had just run out of battery power. Due to the relative lack of wind the flight was unfortunately short, lasting maybe 20 minutes to descend 600 vertical meters (2000 ft).

Awesome! Again again!

In the evening we attempted once again to go see a tango show as advertised in the newspapers. And, once again, we got thwarted. Contrary to the information in the newspaper there would be no show tonight, but tomorrow the Bariloche Tango Festival will start and then there will be tango shows. That´s what they told us yesterday and two days ago as well. Alas, we´ll have to miss it. We´re going to Chile tomorrow!

By popular request, the ever entertaining 4 potato croquettes juggle.


The actual goal of the São Paulo - Buenos Aires manoever was to get to Patagonia. In particular the hub of adventure activity in Argentine Patagonia: San Carlos de Bariloche. Its architecture is straight from the Swiss Alps (or the Canadian Rockies if you prefer). In the summer there are countless opportunities for rafting, kayaking, trekking, mountain biking, and so on. In the winter there is excellent skiing.

Bariloche is also known for chocolate for some reason. Possibly because of its Swiss connection. Coming from the near insufferable heat of Salvador the climate of Bariloche is a bit of a transition. Item 1 on the agenda was thus the purchase of a ski jacket. I had not brought a jacket with me on this trip, not wanting to lug with me it all over South America. The Onassis strategy, buying whatever you need when you get there, worked much better in this case, since I have been needing a new ski jacket for quite a while anyway.

The Swiss connection of Bariloche is further illustrated by my buying the jacket at Fritz and subsequently having dinner at Familie Weiss.

Look, Carlos!

Right now it is fall. The rafting and kayaking season is over, what with the water being too low, and the ski season has not started up yet. But we arranged for a dynamite activity. One that we missed out on in Rio de Janeiro because we got thwarted by the weather. Hopefully the weather will cooperate this time. Stay tuned!

mappa mundi

Many years ago I had a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle of an old world map. I´ve been looking for a print of that map ever since, to decorate my apartment. I have never ever been able to find that exact image anywhere, ever.

So it was much to my astonishment that I came across that exact print in a little painting shop in Rio de Janeiro airport, of all places. I negotiated with the shop keeper that I would get a discount if I could successfully guess her nationality. It was much to her astonishment that I subsequently correctly guessed Ukrainian. Bingo!

The print was too large for me to carry in my luggage, but they could mail it to me. I was still pondering which size to get, and pondering whether the discount I received was really good enough, having learned that in South America the price drops as one waits and walks along. So I left and had a drink somewhere, during which I decided that I did want it. After all, I´ve been searching for this exact thing for many years. Also I decided what size I needed.

Returning to the store and greeting the shopkeeper in perfect Ukrainian, it would transpire that the aforementioned discount had evaporated because I had gone and had a drink. Such cold saleswomanship was not to be rewarded with a transaction. I departed forthwith, sans Mappa Mundi.

Sucks, though. This was the one time in many years that I´ve seen this thing anywhere. I wanted to take a picture of it so that I at least have an example of it, but the shopkeeper had tucked it away. So I didn´t even get that.

A few days later we´re in Bariloche, Argentina. Walking down the street we somehow enter a music store on a whim, looking for a particular samba CD. Bit of a long shot finding that in Argentina, but who knows what one might find?

Well, one might find a jigsaw puzzle of my historical world map. The actual exact jigsaw puzzle that I had many years ago and that I had only seen once in two decades. Can you believe this? Here´s a photo of it. Can anyone sell me this exact map print?

Mappa Mundi, complete with lightning striking a second time

Buenos Aires

Rather than get up excruciatingly early for a flight from São Paulo to Buenos Aires in order to catch the connecting flight to Bariloche, we took the flight to Buenos Aires the evening before. That way we didn´t have to get up early or worry about the layover being too short or too long.

So that gave us an evening in Buenos Aires. Upon arrival we went to a random hotel picked from a list of downtown hotels. It turned out that it was a one star hotel located in a dark back alley. The quality of a one star hotel can be summed up by the observation that there is no such thing as a no star hotel. By the bus driver´s recommendation we hurried over to a much better hotel, where we got a vertical room.

Our friends Mario and Marie from the Cusco mountain bike tour live in Buenos Aires and had invited us to get together. They gave us a short (it was already quite late) tour of the city, culminating in a visit to the Plaza de Mayo, the absolute centre of BA. It is the location of the Casa Rosada, the Pink House of the federal government, and is the focal point of demonstrations and protests. It was there that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo marched around the obelisk in an appeal against the forced disappearances during the military dictatorship. They congregated around the obelisk but because the police kept telling them to move along they ended up marching endlessly around the monument. Today there still is a permanent demonstration going on to raise awareness for the veterans of the Falklands/Malvinas war of 1982.

During all of this I was of course wearing my Rio de Janeiro T-shirt that Carlos had given me on the condition that I wear it in Argentina.

Look, Carlos!

Next, it was time for part 2 of the important match Brazil vs. Argentina steak houses. We sampled a variety of cuts of meat as well as sausage and sweetbread (the thymus gland, which is zwezerik in ´t Nederlands, pap). Upon my unbiased shoulders now falls the monumental task of deciding the outcome of this match, even though locals of both places assured me afterwards that that was not the best place after all.

I´m going to have to have a deeeep think about that one. If anyone from Brazil or Argentina thinks they´re going to sway my opinion with bribes, they are totally right.

São Paulo

Rather than get up excruciatingly early for a flight from Salvador to São Paulo in order to catch the connecting flight to Buenos Aires, we took the flight to São Paulo the evening before. That way we didn´t have to get up early or worry about the layover being too short or too long.

So that gave us an evening in São Paulo. SP is in the south of Brazil. It´s a very modern and industrialized city, quite different from Manaus or Salvador. Also, mercifully, it has no mosquitos or offensive heat. Quite refreshing! One of the things that SP is is known for is having reputedly the best pizza in the world. (Do you hear that, Rome?)

On the way to the pizza place I got to experience driving in Brazilian traffic myself. Having paid attention during previous cab and car rides I knew that lane markers are just a suggestion, and that a red traffic light means "stop -- unless there´s no cross traffic, or you don´t feel safe from robbers, or you simply don´t feel like it".

The elected pizza place had the best authentic pizza according to local observers. I regret now to report that the pizza was pretty good but not particularly fantastic. Local observers afterwards told us that that was not the best pizza place after all.

From there we went to a samba dancing club. There was one club that sounded like it might have samba music, being that the name of the place is Samba. And indeed, the music that was playing there was quite similar to my favourite samba, the Maracanã drums. Sempre Assim!

At the Samba club Club Samba. Too bad the samba babes in the backbround came out a little dark.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

forró, baianos, surfing

The typical Baiano life style is mostly characterized by slogans such as "work is sacred, so admire it from afar" and "never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow". With so much sun and heat one simply cannot be too energetic or rushed. We thus spent a slow day at the beach at a site where a small river runs into the ocean, lending the perfect combination of warm ocean surf along with warm fresh water to rinse off the salt.


Wanting to soak up some more Bahia culture we attempted to find out about samba or other music shows during the car ride back from the beach. We had quite a lot of time to do this as the traffic entering Salvador had ground to a complete standstill. We spent two hours covering about half a km. Nobody seemed too bothered by it. Meanwhile our phone calls to various information phone lines were wholly unsuccessful as we couldn't get anything more helpful than "dunno" out of the ones that took the trouble to answer the phone. In summary, everything was moving very slowly or not working at all. I decided that this, in itself, was an excellent immersion in the Baiano spirit.

Later that evening we did actually make it to a Forró party. Forró (pronounced "foh-HOH" in Portuguese) is a genre of music related to Samba. The accompanying dance is related to Samba too; the main difference being the distance between the dance partners, which is at most zero in forró. Being in Bahia one ought not to miss out on the fun of a forró party. Personally I still prefer the non-stop samba drums at Maracanã, but being packed together with hundreds of Brazilians doing their forró dancing is quite the experience. Especially in this heat!

Live music and dancing on stage at the forró party.

Having a few hours to spend before our flight out of Salvador I figured that it would be inexcusable for a Californian in Bahia to miss out on what must surely be the second most popular activity in both places: surfing. I've never done any surfing in my life -- which is all the more reason to try it. Unfortunately we wasted an hour and a half driving around trying to find a place that (1) had surf boards, (2) rented -- not sold -- them, and (3) was not closed for no apparent reason. Sounds easy enough, what with surfing being so wildly popular here... but then again, this is Bahia.

Eventually I did track down a tiny beach hut that had a few boards for rent. The owner was on holiday, but his friend was looking after the hut while also being a waiter at the bar next to it. He let me rent a long board (an excellent choice to saddle a first time beginner with), gave me a 15 second lesson in the basic theory of surfing, and then let me go at it by myself. Oh well, how difficult can it possibly be? In between waitering he ran into the water a few times to give me the same tip every time: take it easy, more flash which translated to go slower and faster.

Me very clearly riding some surf.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


Carlos and Elaine had offered to give us a ride to the airport. On the boat to the mainland I was presented with a gift: A Cristo Redentor T-shirt, to make up for his not having been at home when we visited him. The condition is that I am to wear this T-shirt when I'm in Buenos Aires.

Carlos then treated us to a thrill ride back to the airport, during which I came to understand what circumstances nurtured the talents of Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet. For instance, lanes are mostly ignored by everyone; drivers simply zig or zag to wherever a space opens up. Despite getting lost three times Carlos still made it to the airport an hour faster than the bus. Incidentally, many Brazilian cars run on alcohol which is derived from sugarcane. It has been around for decades here.

On to Salvador!

Salvador, in the Brazilian state of Bahia, was once the capitol of Brazil. Having been the center of slave trade, Salvador still maintains very much an African flavour in its population, its food, and its music. It also very much maintains an African climate, as we quickly found out that it is at least as hot as Manaus -- unbearably hot in fact, and that's in the middle of the winter. Mosquitos are a constant plague so heavy duty DEET is a must.

We had a place to stay in Salvador with relatives, namely Flavio and Milene. They took us to a little square with a bunch of outdoors food stands with reputedly one of the best Acarajé places. Acarajé is typical Bahia food. It is mostly deep fried (of course) dough forming a sandwich which is then filled with shrimp or vatapá (shrimp paste), and some sort of salad consisting of little cubes. Acarajé can be ordered in various levels of spiciness. Having heard what some of the ingredients are I was rather sceptical. Soon I had to go back for seconds, as Acarajé graduated to the position of my favourite Brazilian food. They used to sell 20 million of them per month in Salvador. Now that I've tried them they're selling 20 million and 100 of them per month.

Acarajé and Guaraná -- a total Brazilian.

Surrounded by downtown Salvador's architecture one is transplanted back into colonial days. The only thing ruining the illusion is the constant pushiness of trinkets sellers and "tour guides". One sight to behold is the São Francisco church with a sequence of murals depicting moral and virtue. The murals kept going on forever as it would transpire that the artist had no less than 40 guidelines in store. In fact it looked like there were even more on the second floor, but it was closed to visitors. Amusingly the Brazilians have not seemed to progress very far along the sequence themselves, judging from the fact that guideline #1 is "Silence is Golden", a motto wholly lost on Brazilians at large.

Upon exiting the church we were then accosted by the caretaker of the church next door (I kid you not) who, in keeping with the general experience of pushiness, assured us that her church was much different and better. We were invited to come to a candomblé session, which is a spiritual séance.

A church seems like a funny place to hold a séance. It was not the only example of pagan superstitions inherited from the slave days. There is an annual ritual where people come and clean the steps of the Nosso Senhor do Bonfim church, to appease, mind you, the gods of the sea. At a church. I find that hilariously ironic, as the catholic church itself had a successful tradition of assimilating pagan rituals by covering them in a catholic sauce rather than trying to abolish them.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ilha Grande: diving

Ilha Grande sports one PADI diving resort, the Elite Diving Center run by Daniel Gouvêa. If ever you´re in the area I wholeheartedly recommend going for a dive with him. Friendly, professional, knowledgeable -- and quite easy going: Hours after returning from the dive we realized that we hadn´t actually paid him yet. But Daniel wasn´t worried. This is the way things go on an island paradise.

The first dive went down to the Pinguino ship wreck. Very cool as we actually got to enter and swim through the wreck in various places, which was a first for me. During the second dive I got my picture taken holding a very cute puffer fish.

There were about 12 other people on the dive as well. One couple that we got to talk to was Carlos and Elaine from Rio de Janeiro, who offered to give us a ride back to Rio tomorrow when we have to somehow get to the airport in time for our flight to Salvador. Excellent! Brazilians are very friendly and helpful people.

where´s the Rio?

By the way, Porcão means Big Pig, and yes the steak house is so called because it is all the meat you can eat. As it turned out afterwards the desserts were not included in the price of the buffets, which proved to be my undoing as those of you who know my dessert reputation are no doubt able to imagine.

I wonder in fact how it can possibly be that Brazilians are not all overweight. All their foods seem to contain sweets or cheese, or both, wrapped in pastry dough or deep fried. Or both.

During my climb up the Pão de Açucar I learned the etymology of Rio de Janeiro. I had indeed been wondering where that rio (river) is anyway. Well: When the Portuguese explorers first arrived the tide was just going out, causing a very strong current out of the bay; so strong that it prevented the Portuguese from entering the bay. They thought the current was a river. This happened during the month of January, hence Rio de Janeiro, the January River.

Leaving Rio, the next destination was Ilha Grande, a beautiful island just off the coast about 3 hours south of Rio by bus. There are only two ferries each day, one at 8:00 and one at 15:30. Due to a cascade of connection problems with subways and buses we were way too late to catch that ferry, but decided to head on down to Angra dos Reis (the ferry terminal) anyway. Upon arrival, more than an hour after the ferry had already left, we found out that there was a small boat leaving at 5 o´clock. We jumped in a taxi and chased another group of backpackers who were pulling the same manoever. The boat was fairly small and filled with nothing but backpackers. Much much more fun than just taking the ferry!

Ilha Grande is a small island paradise. It has no roads, only one village, many hiking trails, secluded beaches, excellent scuba diving, and other assorted activities. A true backpacker´s destination. The village is tiny, has no hotels or banks, yet it does somehow have 118 hostels crammed together. (I didn´t make that up. That´s the actual number). While shopping around for the best hostel deal we happened across a Capoeira practice session. Capoeira is a mix of martial art and dance, originated when African slaves in Brazil wanted to practice fighting skills without arousing suspicion from their owners, by disguising their fighting as a dance.

On the agenda for tomorrow: Scuba diving!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Rio 4: swimming, futebol, beef

The most famous beach in the world is of course Copacabana. It is shaped like an arc about 5 km long, between the Forte de Copacabana and Forte do Leme fortresses. Each year there is a swim race, the Travessia dos Fortes, which is a 3800 m swim between the two fortresses. This happens to be the exact distance of an Ironman triathlon swim too. I really wanted to do that swim.

Since I had no pilot boat I had to stay close to the shore, rather than swimming the straight line distance. (Besides, I am notoriously bad at swimming in a straight line). The surf was fairly big that day, but there were no warning signs posted. Not until after I started my swim, anyway. But all went well and I swam the 5ish km in 1 hour and 19 minutes.

The sea was angry that day, my friend.

Finish, coming back inside the surf.

What could possibly have gone wrong?

The main event of the day was in fact the very reason why the visit to Rio had to be planned around Sunday April 20 in the first place. It was the day of the final of the Taça Rio at Macaranã stadium; Botafogo vs. Fluminense. I wanted to make sure I was in the section with the supporters of the winning team, so applying all my wisdom I chose to side with Botafogo. That wisdom was partly based on Botafogo having a microscopic edge at the bookmakers, and mainly on Botafogo being the team of one of my all-time favourite players: Garrincha. (He wasn´t playing today, what with having died 25 years ago).

Listen to the samba drums! They went on for the full 90 minutes. The guy pacing in the foreground also went on for the full 90 minutes, shouting directions to the players and praying to the gods. Literally.

Throughout the first half time Botafogo had a slight edge. They certainly had a very solid defense and more control of the midfield. Fluminense did not really get any chances -- well, except for that penalty kick they got. I captured the moment on video in the hopes of seeing the Botafogo fans erupt in case the penalty was missed (about a 20% chance in soccer). Pandemonium duly ensued as the kicker hit the post! Half time score 0-0.

More controversy with the referee in the 2nd half time as he awarded a second yellow card to one of the Botafogo players for a barely detectable foul. However, despite being a man down, Botafogo heroically scrambled in a goal 5 minutes before time, again captured on video by yours truly. The fans made Maracanã tremble on its foundations.

Botafogo campeão 2008!

To celebrate our glorious victory we went our to a churrascaria, which is a steak house. We went to reputedly the best on in Rio, and as it turned out (good grief!) certainly the most expensive one: Porcão Rio. It's a rodizio, meaning that it's buffet style where waiters continuously come round to your table with big skewers of various cuts of meat. This is part 1 of a 2-part experiment of comparing steak houses in Brazil versus Argentina. After the Porcão Rio I know which of the two my money is on.

Rio 3: favelas, climbing, samba

Day 3 in Rio, and the weather thwarted some of the dynamite activities on the itinerary. We then opted to go on a tour of the favelas in Rio. Favelas are the shantytowns that grew all over the hills of Rio. It is estimated that some 25% of the population of Rio live in them, though the exact numbers are not known. The name favela comes from the plants that are grown in the hills, which were mostly used as goat food. (The plants that is). The reason for the location of the favelas is that it sucks so nobody else wanted to live there. Brazilian law states that one cannot legally be ejected from a dwelling after living there for five years, and the government was not really interested in removing people from the hills.

The favelas grew haphazardly and did not have basic amenities. The streets were not paved, so every time it rained the streets turned into rivers of mud and it became near impossible to reach the houses. In the 1990s the government started projects that provided paved streets and stairs -- in the favelas everything is stairs up, stairs down -- as well as water and electricity. True life in the favelas is nowhere close to the reputations of abject poverty and violent crime. Living conditions are certainly very basic and cheap, but the favelas have everything ranging from grocery stores to a few banks, post offices, and even internet cafes. Most people have normal day jobs in the city. The police maintains a token presence; actual rule is in the hands of armed drugs dealers. But those drug dealers do a better job of guarding the safety of the people -- especially the visitors and tourists -- simply because they don´t want the police to enter the favela with the excuse of investigating a robbery.

The electrical wiring system is astonishing.

In the afternoon the weather had cleared up, giving the green light to an activity I had been particularly looking forward to. The world famous Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf) rock is one of the most recognizable images of Rio. It draws countless tourists who take the cable car ride up to the top.

Which is, of course, the wussy way up. The Pão de Açucar is also one of the largest and best urban rock climbing areas in the world. I hired a guide named Eduardo to guide me up to the top. It´s about a 400m/1300ft climb. The view from the top of Sugarloaf is many times better if you´ve earned it.

On the way back we took the cable car to Morro da Urca, the peak next to it which is about half as high. The cable car continues to ground level from there, but we hiked down from Urca while it was getting dark. All in all a fantastic experience and a proud achievement for such a beginner climber as myself.

View from about ¾ of the way up. Copacabana beach is in the background.

View from the top of Morro da Urca.

No visit to Rio, of Brazil at large, is compelete without going out to a real samba house. Not the touristy Plataforma 1, but the real thing. We went to a place called Scenarium which has three storeys of good food, good caipirinhas, and above all, samba! Too bad I didn´t have my camera with me, for safety reasons. Some of the areas turn fairly shady at night, and indeed on the way back our cab driver kept running red lights because it is too dangerous to stop.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Rio 2: tickets, copacabana

As part of our continued efforts to obtain tickets for Sunday´s championship game we went back to the Maracanã again. Arriving there we spotted a long queue. We feared that we´d be spending hours there. But lo, they had 9 ticket boots open and it was a breeze. We have tickets!

Next we made some arrangements for absolutely dynamite activities in the next few days. The day thus having been proclaimed fruitful we went and spent the afternoon on the most famous beach in the world: Copacabana beach, just 4 blocks away from the place we´re staying. There was some good surf and I almost swam into a fishing line that turned out to lead to one mr. José on the shore. José has lived in Rio for 70 years and comes to the beach to fish every day. He is the Mexican Fisherman in Rio. José says Rio is not nearly as dangerous as its reputation is. If you stay away from the beach and from shady areas at night, and if you just look simple rather than flashing bling bling and expensive cameras, then you´ll be OK. Indeed we haven´t really felt unsafe.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Rio 1: tickets, Cristo

What with Brazil having a certain association with futebol, one of the most important items on the agend in Rio de Janeiro is a visit to the world famous Maracanã temple of football. Sunday April 20 is the day of the final of the Taça Rio, the championship of the state Rio de Janeiro, to be contested between finalists Fluminense and Botafogo.

Tickets for this game only went on sale 6 days before the match, right after the conclusion of the semifinals. Our attempts to secure tickets led to my being introduced to the mutual repuations of Paulistas (people from São Paulo) and Cariocas (people from Rio). Oohh those Cariocas! Long story short: A Carioca friend who was supposed to get tickets for us is majorly flaking out on us, and a bunch of scalpers tried to push overpriced and most probably counterfeit tickets on us. Rumour has it that the box office will have more (real) tickets for sale tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Next we paid a visit to the even more world famous Cristo Redentor, the giant iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer doubling as air traffic control. Ascending Morro Dona Marta, the hill next to the Corcovaro (the Cristo mountain) we got a phenomenal panoramic view of all of Rio, including the entire Cristo mountain -- with the exception of Cristo himself, who was shrouded in clouds.

Flying oil tanker ship as seen from Morro Dona Marta.

Arriving at the statue itself we were greeted by dense fog and howling wind. We could barely see the statue even when actually touching it. Well no matter; it´s a unique experience. Anyone can see the Cristo on a clear day, after all.

Rio de Janeiro

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

monkeys and dolphins

Situated some 60 km upstream from Manaus along the Rio Negro is the jungle resort Ariau Towers. We went on a day trip there to take a walk along their jungle canopy catwalks and to swim with the boto, the pink river dolpin.

The resort also plays host to many macacque monkeys that seem to know exactly when you have a cashew nut in your hand and when you don´t. If you have a bag of nuts, or indeed anything resembling a bag of anything, they´ll attempt to grab it or open it. One guy whom we came to refer to as the monkey guy went over to the store several times to buy a new bag of cashews. Each time he came back he got swarmed by the monkeys.

Hanging on to my phone because those little rascals will pickpocket anything from you.

The monkey man bringing a new bag of cashews.

We boarded a motorized canoe to go to the spot where you can swim with the pink river dolphins. You can´t do that just anywhere, because there are alligators and piranhas in those waters. But nothing could possibly go wrong at the dolpin swimming site because the dolphins hang out there, knowing that they´ll be fed, and they scare away the piranhas because they feed on those too. The logic seemed ironclad to me, though I missed the part where it explained exactly how the alligators were kept away.

The monkey man and his wife came along on the dolphin tour too. They live in Florianapolis in the south of Brazil, but had previously spent 13 (thirteen!) years travelling the world on a boat. Very inspirational, and clearly the kind of people who embrace new experiences. All the other visitors stayed safely behind at the resort.

Having successfully avoided sunburns for the entire trip so far, the 10 unprotected minutes during the dolpin swim amost did me in with a mild sunstroke. Fortunately I caught the symptoms in time. Now back at Joelson and Sandra´s place we´re all packed and ready to go to the airport to board a flight to Rio de Janeiro at the preposterous time of 2:30AM.

But what could possibly go wrong if you just put your finger in there?

Hot pink Jambo trees everywhere.

Vultures gathering as I´m near succumbing to a sunstroke.