Thursday, 24 July 2008

Switzerland - but not as you know it


Chocolate, watches and snow-capped mountains are not the first things that spring to mind when you think of Uruguay, but it`s apparently known as the `Switzerland` of South America. Having spent a week there, I`m still not entirely sure where the comparison came from. It`s got good cheese and wine and even true French bread. And it`s quite expensive in parts. But I think it`s suffered some kind of economic meltdown since the comparisons with Europe`s money-laundering capital were first drawn.
We arrived there after a 10 hour bus ride from Brazil and foolishly asked to be dropped in Punta del Este - a seaside resort well-known for its Yacht Club set, usually found strutting along the esplanade in their Gucci sunglasses. But there was not a Prada shoe in sight. Like the Swiss Alps in summertime, we`d clearly arrived in the wrong season.
Two very expensive orange juices and a ´croque monsieur´ later, we decided to pull stumps and head straight to Montevideo - just two hours away. Or so we thought. We jumped on a bus and within 10 minutes were cruising along the coast to the capital. Now, we`d been told there was little or no wildlife in Uruguay, so imagine ouir surprise when we looked out of the window to see a whale. Yes, just 30 yards off the shore, this black hump, which we had merely assumed to be a rock formation, suddenly squirted a fountain of water into the sky, before rolling over to display its fin. It was incredible. In fact, we were so engrossed that we hardly noticed when our wheel trim careered across the road in front of us and the bus came to a grinding halt with a burst tyre. As everyone filed off, we continued to stare at the whale and by the time we realised what was happening, we`d missed our replacement service into Montevideo. Still, we`d seen a whale!

Anyway, we did finally arrive a couple of hours later than expected and checked into our hostel - complete with bar, table tennis and pool table. Not bad. And Montevideo turned out to be an absolute gem. I expect it`s not top of most travellers` must-visit destinations but it was one of the most laid-back cities I have ever been to. It sits on the banks of the Rio del Plato (River Plate), which separates Uruguay and Argentina and is the second widest river in the world after the Amazon. Beautiful colonial buildings lined every cobbled street and there was a real sense of history and pride to this little country, with its Spanish and Portuguese roots. Everywhere there were statues of a man called Artigas - credited for bringing about Uruguay`s independence - and his ashes even remained in the city in a spooky mausoleum in the main square. They also laid claim to South America`s tallest building - at least when it was built - which stood just 26 storeys high and was beautifully decorated.
But it was the football that had instilled the real sense of pride in the Uruguayans we met. To have won the World Cup twice - in the first year of the competition in 1930 and beating their giant neighbours Brazil in 1950 - was such a triumph for such a small country. Andy was in his element when we were taken to a student party one night to find a room full of people who knew almost as much about football as he did.

We left Montevideo after two days, but vowed to return, and headed on to Colonia, where we were plagued by mosquitoes for two days. A cute little town, with a wonderful ruin of a bullring that we cyclked to nearby, but I think we could have done it in two hours and been out of there and on our way to Argentina. Next time we`ll definitely spend our time in Montevideo. It`s not Geneva, but maybe that`s just part of it`s charm.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

¨Shark attack¨


If my sister can do it, I can. Or at least, that´s what I thought. It turns out I´m wrong. I desperately wanted to be a surf chick. In fact, it was for this reason only that we jumped on a bus from Sao Paulo and travelled 10 hours overnight to a place called Florianopolis. OK. It wasn´t just to surf. It was mainly because a lovely girl that I worked with had told me how great it was. But we´d chosen our hostel on the island purely on the basis that they gave out free surfboards and kayaks. I was determined that by the end of the week, I´d be hanging out in my boardies and flippers and riding the waves, or whatever it is they do.

But I just couldn´t do it. I´d had no problem standing up on a sandboard on the first day, flying down the dunes and running back up again. Even in a kayak, I´d managed to hold my own in the waves while Andy went flying overboard the minute he stepped in it. But surfing was a different story altogether. In fact, I was so crap, I managed to break one of the surfboards. I was paddling out to sea for the one millionth time, getting throroughly churned up by the waves yet again, before I´d even got out to the bit where I presumed you were supposed to catch one, when the end snapped off my board. I tried to claim it was a shark attack, but no one believed me. After three days, I finally gave up and tried bodyboarding instead, but I was even rubbish at that. At one point I ended up stuck under a huge wave with the cord wrapped around my neck, thinking I was about to die, much to the amusement of everyone. The worst thing about it all was that the place was teeming with Aussies, who may as well have been born in Billabong shorts on boards for all the trouble they had mastering the waves.
So, that´s the end of my surfing career. At least until I return to England when I´m hoping Mel might be kind enough to teach me how to do it.

Staying with strangers

Couchsurfing. I told you I´d do it and you all looked at me in horror. I don´t think anyone could get their heads round how I could walk into the house of a complete stranger and set myself up for the night on their couch. Even if I did have Andy there to ¨protect me¨. But we´ve done it, and I can´t imagine how people make their way round the big cities of the world without it now.
So, it´s true that I didn´t exactly choose my first couchsurfing ¨host¨ as carefully as I should. ¨Has couch¨ was all I needed and I fired an email to a guy named Bebeto asking if we could stay and if he could show us round his city. Two days later, we turned up on his doorstep in the nicest area of Sao Paulo, backpacks on and ready to stay the night. It turned out he hated football, hated sitting drinking in pubs and had no interest in films. It looked like a recipe for disaster. But an hour later we were sitting down to a traditional Brazilian lunch with him and his girlfriend, the same afternoon we were getting a guided tour of the whole city and in the evening we were drinking beers in one of the newest bars in Sao Paulo with around 10 other couchsurfers. And by the time the weekend ended, we´d met a dozen of his friends, eaten sushi in Japan Town, gone clubbing in Vila Madalena, in which every street was decorated with fairy lights, and watched Sao Paulo in a football match in their home stadium with a Paulista and a Dutch guy. And we´d made a whole host of new friends. I think if we´d not met Bebeto and his lovely girlfriend, Raquel, we´d still be sitting in our hostel in some quiet suburb, playing cards and wondering whether it was safe to get on the tube. Believe me, in a city of 20 million people, with 60,000 tower blocks, it´s pretty hard to know where to go. But thanks to Bebeto, we ended up loving the city and the people in it. As a tourist in Rio, you feel like a target for everyone _ muggers, beggars, taxi drivers, restauranteurs... _ but in Sao Paulo we never once felt threatened.
If you´d asked me two years ago what I thought of making friends over the internet, I too would have looked at you in horror. In fact, that´s exactly what I did to Andy when he started playing video games with a bunch of people he´d met online. But now I´d thoroughly recommend it and hope that if I ever do find a house and a couch, it will be ¨surfed¨ many times on my return to England.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

No room at the inn...

That bloody Lonely Planet. I've cursed it on nearly every leg of our journey so far. I don't even mind the fact that we've had to take the price of everything it lists and double it before we get somewhere approaching the actual amount for a bus journey or a hostel room. Or even that it only provides one paragraph on some of Brazil's most important historical sights. Even when we arrived on Ilha Grande with no cash because it had singularly failed to tell us there were no cash machines on the island, I forgave it. But when the authors just decided to omit the presence of a festival that attracts 70,000 from all over the world, I really lost my rag with it. OK, so it's not Mardi Gras, but the Festa Literaria Internacional de Parati or FLIP as it's known, is bigger than Carneval or New Year to this small town on the coast between Rio and Sao Paulo. And we had no idea about it.
By this time, we'd hooked up with six other people - Jake, Gemma, the three girls and a lad from Newcastle called Martin, who we'd picked up at the bus stop - and there wasn't a single hostel room in the whole place. I was just getting out my matches to perform a ceremonial burning of 'South America on a Shoestring' when a local travel rep pulled up beside us in his jeep and said he'd found us a house. He showed us to a rambling old farmhouse surrounded by fields just five minutes from the cobbled streets of the old town of Parati. And not only did it have six double bedrooms, it had a full size swimming pool and was available for us to take over for three nights. I don't think I've ever been so excited. It was just like having our own holiday home in Tuscany.
So, for the next three days, we made the place our own, cooking dinner for each other, drinking and playing cards. During the day, we swam in the pool, wandered to the beach and even braved the local fish market to create a culinary masterpiece wrapped in banana leaves, complete with shrimps and rice. But it was the festival itself which really brought the place to life. It was apparently started six years ago by an English woman who wanted to create a literary festival to rival Hay-on-Wye, Toronto and Adelaide. Since then, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Attwood have appeared and even Tom Cruise has been spotted there. This year, both Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and Zoe Heller (Notes on a Scandal) were guest speakers. Coloured flags were strung up across the beautiful cobbled streets, lined with brightly painted shops and houses. On every corner, stalls were laid out, filled with homemade cakes, ice creams, clothes and jewellery and artists stood at eisels painting scenes of beaches and waterfalls. And the thousands of people who arrived throughout the week created a wonderful atmosphere quite unlike anywhere I'd been before. We left after three days with heavy hearts - another group were moving into 'our' house - but I'm sure we will return. And I've forgiven the Lonely Planet - perhaps it's better that the hoards of British backpackers like us who treat the guide like their Bible don't know about it yet. It can be our little secret.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

New friends


It doesn´t matter where you go in the world - it´s always the people who make a place. Even the most beautiful place in the world will seem dull if there´s no one to share it with. So this week has been better than we could ever have imagined - mainly because of the people we´ve met. We started in Ilha Grande - an island filled with tropical rainforest and white sand beaches just two hours south of Rio. And we´d only just stepped on the boat when three English girls stumbled on board, crippled by the weight of their enormous rucksacks. Pippa, Kate and Lucy immediately reminded me of my uni girls and within minutes, I hoped we´d be able to spend some time with them on the island. As it happened, we ended up in a room next door to them in a hostel with waves lapping just below our balcony. It was the perfect start. Not long after, we bumped into Jake and Gemma, who we´d met a week earlier and thrown a party with to celebrate Jake´s birthday. We were just walking along the beach when they leapt up and started waving - no doubt spotting our pale English skin a mile off among the bronzed Brazilians who always look immaculate on the beach in minute bikinis and Speedos.
So, our few days on the island were just fantastic. And to top it all, I found the most beautiful beach I´ve ever seen. It was a two and half hour walk away on an island with no cars. And we managed to get lost on the way. But when we arrived, we found a mile of silk-soft sand, turquoise water with perfect little surfing waves and nothing but rainforest filled with monkeys behind. In England, a beach this good would be packed with people and bars, but there was barely more than 50 people there and nothing more than a couple of ice cream sellers with cool boxes and a man with four surfboards for hire.
Lopez Mendes has gone on my list of top ten beaches - in at Number One - and it will take a lot to knock it off. I even managed to fit in a quick run along the beach - something I´ve barely done since arriving in Brazil - and we made it back in time to watch the Euro 2008 final, which kept Andy more than happy.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

City of God


There are 752 favelas in Rio de Janeiro, precariously perched on the hills above the most expensive and beautiful areas of the city. Some one million people live in these slum areas, many of them known as ´gatos´ or ´cats´ because they don´t pay taxes and steal all their services from the city. The City of God or ´Cidade do Deus´ is just one of these areas, made famous - or infamous - by the eponymous film of 2002. But it´s a side of the city more and more tourists are starting to see.
After much debate about the morality of going on a favela tour, we met our guide, Alfredo, outside the Copacabana Palace Hotel - its five-star luxury seeming incongruous with what we were about to see. But as Alfredo explained, the favela tours help some of the tourist millions reach those who need it most.
You´d think with all the poverty and all the scare stories surrounding Rio, that entering an area of such poverty might be dangerous. But according to Alfredo, no tourist has ever been robbed in a favela. The drug lords make sure that no one causes any trouble for fear it might attract the attention of the police.
After visiting a line of stalls selling jewellery, paintings and bags to tourists, we reached the heart of Rio´s largest favela - Rocinha - which is now a district in its own right. Shops, banks and restaurants lined the streets, which were filled with motorbike taxis waiting to take people from one end of the ´town´ to the other. And people were so friendly. They were proud of where they lived.

After Rocinha, we visited a smaller favela - 2,500 residents compared to around 60,000 - where we were taken to a school set up using money from the favela tours. Kids sat around on computers, using Facebook and playing games, and danced with the teacher outside. There was even a little stall of gifts made by the children and their parents to help raise funds. It was an incredible experience which highlighted all the efforts being made to bring the residents out of poverty.
Surrounding the school, we were taken through a labyrinthine network of tiny streets, with houses almost falling into each other and dangerous-looking electricity cables hanging from every wall where these kids lived. This really was the other side to picture postcard Rio.

Standing on the Sugar Loaf Mountain that night, watching the lights go on across the city, we were back in the postcard. But the favelas were now unmistakable - clinging to the hillsides over Ipanema and Copacabana and spreading out across the bay. The government has spent millions to help the people in favelas, but they will always be there. And Rio would not be the same without them. But that was exactly the point of the tour. It showed how the favelas and their residents contributed to the soul of the city, the spirit of ´Carnival´ and makes it such a big attraction for people from all over the world.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Will it all be a disappointment after this?


I´m sure we weren´t supposed to see our most spectacular view and stay in the best hostel at the beginning of our trip. But it seems that´s exactly what we´ve done. Waking up the morning after the Brazil Argentina game with hangovers the size of the the Corcovado, we decided to head out of Rio and explore a bit further. Sitting at breakfast, a French Candian girl staying in our hostel handed us a leaflet for a hostel called Villas Boas in a little beach resort called Arraial do Cabo - three hours north of Rio. So, we decided to jump on a bus and check it out. As soon as we arrived, we knew we´d made the right decision. Out of season, there was hardly anyone on the beach, yet it was still 28°c. And the hostel was out of this world. From the front, it was just another door in a quiet residential street. But inside it was a hotch potch of stairs, corridors and rooms all overlooking a pool. For around nine pounds each, we had a double room with breakfast in the morning, a bar, tv room, free internet and barbeques and music most nights. Our original plan to stay for just two nights was thrown out of the window in minutes.

Our first day here, we spent on a beautiful and almost deserted beach across the other side of the town. We then headed across to the busier surfing beach to watch the surfers and footballers at sunset. Yesterday, we took a boat trip to a nearby island where we drank caipirinhas and swam with tiny shoals of fish. On our boat was a group of typical Brazilian ´beautiful´ people, who spent their time posing for the cameras and soaking up the rays in their tiny bikinis and shorts. I(n Brazil, beauty is everything and everywhere you look there are well-stacked men and scantily-clad women. It´s enough to make anyone feel paranoid.

Today, the rain has finally returned but it just gives us a chance to chill out and prepare for tonight´s party - we´re celebrating the birthday of an English guy staying in our hostel. It should be excellent. Surely after this place, everything will pale into comparison.