Lodgey and Life on the Road. Stories from South America.

23 February 2010

Hang-gliding, Carnaval and the Amazon!

22 February – Day five on the boat - get me off!

By now the music and food on the boat is just about driving us to despair. Breakfast has got progressively more stale and if I smell or see another toasted ham and cheese sandwich I’m likely to heave. We can’t wait to get off. I’ve seen enough jungle, enough river and had enough of the strange people on the boat.

Yesterday the boat docked and we decided to get off for a wander. We umm-ed and ahh-ed about it – not sure whether to leave our bags on board. But we’d had enough of just sitting on our bunks so we decided to go for a walk.

Went for a sugary, revolting coffee, had a look around – dirt road one way, dirt road the other way – so went back to the boat... only the boat was being guarded by men carrying hefty looking revolvers and they wouldn’t let us back on until they decided it was time. So we had to sit at the dock for hours waiting and worrying about whether our bags were being rifled through. I even tried walking over to the guard, sticking my gut out as far as I could and saying in Spanish... ‘I’m pregnant, need to go back on boat”. The response I got was “NO!” I walked off muttering ‘les miserable’ and sat back down.

Eventually we got back on and we were off again. At the next port an ambulance met the boat and a pregnant woman who we’d seen wandering the boat got into the ambulance followed by a doctor carrying a very tiny, very new baby. She must have been having her baby on board during the night.

Yesterday we discovered that there are great big showers at the back of the boat and they turn them on for two hours every day. We were sitting right underneath them when we were politely tapped on the shoulder and told that if we didn’t move we would get very wet. So we pulled our chairs back, grabbed a couple of beers and sat and watched all the children on the boat have an absolute ball as these massive showers came on. The boat soon turned into a swimming pool and everyone was loving it. We got our togs on and joined in.

The locals keep telling us – only two more hours, two more hours till Manaus. That was about 12 hours ago and there is no sign of the town. Am looking forward to terra firma.. which hopefully is only two hours away!

20 February - Cruising down the Amazon 

Belem – a town of about 1.5 million people in the north of Brazil. How can I politely describe Belem? Well the food is cheap. The plan is to catch a five day slow boat down the Amazon River to Manaus via Santarem. After first telling us they have no idea about boats to Manaus, we eventually speak to the owner of our dodgy hostel who happily books us tickets for the boat. After three days of wandering around the dock in stifling heat trying to find a travel agency who doesn’t seem to be ripping us off, we are a bit miffed at the pain they could have saved us if they’d told us that in the first place.
There are two options on the boat - hammock or cabin. Our romantic notion of floating down the Amazon swinging in a hammock is dispelled when we realise that it means swinging in an enclosed deck with no lockers. We opt for the privacy and security of a cabin that opens outwards so that we have a view from our bunks of the Amazon jungle.

We walk to the dock with our packs in, what must be 40 degrees, with food for five days and gallons of water. Arriving at the dock sweating profusely, we feel quite pleased with ourselves when we see what we would have been sleeping in had we opted for the hammocks. Down in the bowels of the boat are hundreds of locals swinging in hammocks in a smelly, hot enclosed area barely big enough to swing a cat, let alone a hammock.

The hostess of the boat, an old Portuguese hag, spends five days irritating the hell out of us and takes great delight in banging on the door when I’m on the john to fix the damn tiles in the rudimentary bathroom. Geezer gets his own back when he bolts to the toilet after a bout of bad fish and she reefs open the door, catching him mid-wipe. They both screamed.

At least we have air conditioning - except that when we are shown to our cabin the air conditioner falls off the wall and clonks the old hag on the head. We try very hard to hide our amusement.

Still – the boat ride itself is pretty cool. We often see dolphins in the muddy brown Amazon River. Young locals paddle out to the boat as it passes, waving, smiling and some even latching their canoes onto the boat to sell fruit and meals of meat, spaghetti and vegetables. Feeling brave, we sample local cuisine and it is delicious. Most of the fruit is cacao, which is used to make chocolate. I dive over to buy some but it tastes more like a lychee than chocolate and is a bit weird. Geezer is not impressed and turfs it over the side of the boat!

We are blasted with Shania Twain and Celine Dion’s ‘Titanic’ theme song from 7am (not really the song I want to hear on a boat) which later switches to hideous Brazilian folk music that gets progressively louder as the day goes on. By night time we are both glad to shut the cabin door to block out some of the racket.

The boat stops regularly at various ports loading and unloading supplies. When we boarded the boat in Belem a handful of men unloaded six road trains full of sacks of ground corn, rice and frozen chickens in just a few hours. I am told by a local that the people here are mentally and physically tough. You have to be to survive – and even tougher to survive listening to Shania Twain all day.

But it has forced us to relax... and it is certainly relaxing watching the landscape change from thick jungle to wetlands as we sail deeper into the Amazon. And the sunsets have been pretty good.

16 February 2010 - Getting wet

The joys of backpacking. A few days ago we discovered that our flight from Rio had an earlier departure time. It had been changed from 930am to 6am. We had planned to go straight to the airport after the Carnaval, which finishes at about 6am, so we thought we’d have plenty of time to get to the airport. And as is the South American way, the airline didn’t give two hoots about stuffing up our plans.

So with no sleep we went straight from the Sambadrome to the airport via our hotel to pick up the bags missing the final two parades.

Arriving in Belem deliriously tired and without much energy to find our accommodation, we dumped our bags and attempted to find our way to the river so that we could book our Amazon five day slow boat. We got horrendously lost in 40 degree heat and then the heavens opened – tropical style.

Soaked to the skin and looking pruney, we found ourselves in an area that I’m sure no gringo has dared to set foot. A $30 cab ride later we were back at our dodgy** hostel minus boat tickets.

Eventually we found where to go but we after several run-ins with conmen we decided to return to the hostel and google the company.

Went to use the shower... no hot water. So am telling myself to ‘suck it up princess’ and I lather up with shampoo and soap, and prepare to dive into the cold shower at which point the water stops completely. I’m standing in a shower cubicle barely bigger than the soap container, lathered to the nines and muttering some choice words, when the water comes back on. Perhaps they do this to make you feel grateful for any water and less likely to complain about no hot water.

I’m learning to love cold showers and tropical rain. But it might be a different story when I’m in cold weather.

** dodgy refers to a hostel that has scary looking beds, bugs that have incited several screams (both male and female), ants, internet that doesn’t work and clumps of hair in the shower big enough to make you think there’s a person under it – and this is meant to be the best accommodation in town.

15 February 2010 - Big samba smiles!

My desire to return to Rio to get a decent seat at the Sambadrome for Carnaval paid off. We were rewarded with fantastic front row seats and a spectacular display of some serious samba, fabulous costumes that leave little to the imagination and big Brazilian smiles.

The floats that show off the theme of each samba school were nothing short of magnificent. Every dancer wore plumes and plumes of feathers making you wonder if there were any birds left in Brazil.

Each samba school has between 65 and 82 minutes to get from end of the Sambadrome to the other. They have to be completely out of the stadium otherwise they get points deducted from their score. 12 samba schools perform over two nights with the winner being announced the following week. ‘Tijuca’, the third school we saw, is tipped to be the favourite. Every year the samba schools reveal their theme and song before the Carnaval but Tijuca always keeps theirs a secret. This year it seemed to have paid off. The theme was ‘magic’ and they had magicians who pulled a massive cloth over a group of scantily clad dancers, quickly whipping it off to reveal a costume change.

We picked the official night of the parade which is meant to be the best... better samba and more skin. The performers ham it up for the cameras so it seems impossible to take a bad picture. Our photos say it all...

13 February 2010 - Rio’s latest student hang-glider pilots

Woke up early yesterday to officially become another one of Rio’s cadet hang-gliders. There’s something about riding in the back of a jeep that makes you feel as if you are off on an adventure. Climbing up into the mountains with Geezer, Kara and Dave, we were asked to watch a ten minute ‘safety’ DVD (of which 99% is watching someone hang-glide not safety). We were harnessed up and stood in line waiting our turn with our instructor, watching others in front run off the platform that has a 500m sheer drop below.

The only closed toe shoes (a requirement for hang-gliding) that Dave had brought were expensive Italian dress shoes so he wore those with black socks pulled up and board shorts. There was much hilarity at the thought of him clip-clopping off the platform in his Italian shoes.

I wasn’t nervous until I was standing on the platform and saw the drop below. The instructor says run and you bloody run. Apparently I ‘forgot’ to run (which the DVD shows otherwise) and Marceio, my instructor, told me he felt like he was dragging a dead weight.

We jumped. I shrieked. Everyone on the platform freaked. It was a few minutes into the ride when Marceio said relax and I realised I was squeezing my butt cheeks together like a vice. He also had my finger nails in his arm.

We soared and soared... past the big JC, over the mountains and wealthy Rio houses, out over the ocean for about 15 minutes.

Coming in to land was scary. We swooped past an apartment block to land on the beach. Magic.

12 February 2010 - At the Copa.... Copacabana!!

We’ve had some amazing views from hotels but Rio takes the cake - one of the big JC and a million dollar view of Copacabana beach.

We were a bit disappointed with Copacabana beach but did a token swim there anyway. The water wasn’t clean and the beach was pretty much deserted. But 500m from our hotel was Ipanema Beach, which has the mountains and jungle as a backdrop, and is absolutely stunning.

Madonna, Alicia Keys and Beyonce were staying in hotel across the road from Ipanema Beach and the security around the place was impressive.

We did a day tour of the big JC, Sugar Loaf Mountain, the ‘Girl from Ipanema’ cafe and Rio city. On my first trip to Rio I didn’t see Sugar Loaf or the city so it was nice to return.

It’s Carnaval time though and, no matter where you are, every few hours you will hear distant drums and a crowd. Everyone grabs a beer quick and follows the music to dance and cheer. Rio is one big party!

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