Archive for January 2010

The Brazilian Side

January 6, 2010 - 3:09 pm 2 Comments

Another coach with a guide who spoke mostly Spanish. After a painless border crossing back into Brazil and a short drive, we were at the falls.

The Brazilian side offers panoramic views of the falls on the other side of the Iguassu River. The views are partly obscured by foliage, and the experience isn’t quite as immersive as it is on the Argentina side, but the falls from any vantage point are impressive.

Rainbow at Iguazu

Rainbow on the Iguassu River

The walkway furthest upstream takes you out into the middle of the river near the base of the falls. It was really hot, and the windy mist felt amazing.

Walkway at Salto Floriano

Salto Floriano

Mist at Salto Floriano

Rainbow at Salto Floriano

Gog and I agree that Iguazu Falls is the highlight of our trip so far. Do both sides for the complete experience. Apparently, there is a local campaign to vote for Iguazu Falls as one of the new seven wonders of nature. It definitely deserves a vote.

The rest of the day consisted of a meat-filled buffet lunch and a stop at a place that advertised itself as the best duty-free shop in the world. It was definitely big, but there were certainly no deals to be had on electronics or clothes or alcohol. A waste of time.

Want Some Meat?

In a few minutes, we’re off to the airport to catch a flight down to Buenos Aires. After a week of sweltering heat in Brazil and Iguazu Falls, Gog and I are looking forward to some relaxation, finding some nightlife, and meeting people who speak English.

Magnificent Iguazu Falls

January 6, 2010 - 2:16 am No Comments

Iguazu Falls lives up to the hype. It is an amazing place.

Oscar was our guide for the day. He spoke mostly Spanish but was able to give us basic direction in English. Our booking included an “English-speaking guide,” but apparently, the phrase means different things to different people.

On the coach were mostly older couples and some kids. The only English speakers were a couple of South Korean girls who were in school in Philadelphia.

Walking along the trails through subtropical rainforest, butterflies are everywhere. They land on your hands and clothes and big-ass cameras. Friendly coatis walk the trails looking for food, and big-ass spiders sit in webs in the branches above.

South American Coati

Our first stop was Devil’s Throat, which offered a pretty good view of Iguazu’s largest falls. The volume of water going over is unbelievable, and a tremendous amount of mist bursts up from the middle. Taking photos was difficult.

Devil's Throat

A train took us to our next stop, a short walk that offered a series of magnificent panoramas, each more spectacular than the last. With misty falls pouring out of thick, green rainforest all around you, it feels like a scene out of a fairy tale. I hope my photos capture at least some of the beauty of this place.

Iguazu Falls from the Upper Circuit

Over the Edge of Salto Bossetti

It was hot. The heat and humidity were taking their toll, so the boat ride at the end of the day was perfectly timed. The boat took us along the river to the base of the falls and even went UNDER them for a moment. A refreshing and amazing experience, and we’ve got video to prove it.

Salto San Martin

Salto San Martin

Rainbow at Salto Bossetti

Gog and I got fried today. Gog’s neckline and raccoon eyes are pretty sweet. It looks like he’s wearing a red ski mask. My beard experiment kept most of my face protected, but my arms are medium-rare and my feet have sweet sunburn lines from my Chaco’s.

A bit tired of meat, Gog and I stopped at a pizzeria with wifi called Naé. While at the table trying to catch up on my blogging, I received a frantic e-mail from Gog’s iPhone:

Door handle in bathroom broke. Cannot get out. Not kidding. Can you come push on the door?

Like a true friend, I rescued him. And took a picture of him.

Gog Emerges from the Bathroom

Tomorrow, we have a quick tour on the Brazil side of Iguazu Falls and an evening flight to Buenos Aires.

The Sleepy Town of Puerto Iguazu

January 4, 2010 - 11:38 pm No Comments

After landing in Foz do Iguacu, ferocious storm clouds rolled over the airport. Sure enough, after collecting our bags, the monsoon-like rains came, but only for a few minutes.


How to Avoid Getting Mugged/Pickpocketed/Robbed/Beaten/Molested/Kidnapped/Murdered in Brazil

January 4, 2010 - 4:15 pm No Comments

Now that we’ve left Brazil and headed to what should be safer places, I’ll share some of the things that Gog and I did to stay safe during our time in Brazil:

a) Register your name and trip details with your home country’s government. For Canada, there was an easy online form for me to do this. Also, find out where your embassies are in the cities that you are visiting. Hopefully, you won’t need them.

b) Before you go, do some research about where you’re going and the specific neighborhoods you’ll be in. Read travel guides, Internet message boards, anything. Be prepared for the worst. It’s better to be a little overcautious.

c) Consider staying in private hostel rooms or hotels or apartments rather than shared dorms in hostels. The more people you share a room with, the more likely someone will want to go through your stuff. Of course, the trade-off is that private rooms will be much more expensive.

d) Travel guides can get out-of-date. Internet research can be incredibly useful but also misleading. So after you arrive, get info from locals that you trust, whether it’s friends or hotel receptionists. They know what’s currently safe and what’s not safe. Review a map of the area with them if you can.

e) Look confident and look like you know where you’re going. Of course, if you’ve done your research and actually know where you’re going, this will come naturally.

f) Keep some small change in your pocket to give to muggers if you do in fact get mugged. Might save you a beating or a more aggressive strip search that might result from telling them you have no money.

g) Use a money belt. Gog had one that wrapped tightly around his waist, while I had one that dangled down between my legs. Not a problem, but when it started to fill up with stuff, I had to wedge it into my scrotum in such a way to prevent it from awkwardly bulging out. Not entirely comfortable, especially in a swimsuit.

h) Don’t take your passport anywhere. You probably won’t need to show it to anyone, but if you do a photocopy should suffice.

i) Make sure your stuff is safe in your hotel. We had an apartment in Rio and a private room right by the reception desk in Salvador, so we always felt that our stuff was safe and didn’t stress about it when we were out and about.

j) Learn how to get mugged properly. If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having a knife, broken bottle, or gun pointed at you, let them take whatever they want. I’ve heard too many stories of people who resisted and were seriously injured.

For photographers, these extra tips may help:

k) Get renter’s insurance, which will cover your stuff even if you travel with it to other countries. It’s amazingly cheap. You can even spend a little bit more to get an all-risk rider that covers your stuff even if you drop it or throw it into the ocean.

l) Get the most childish, conspicuous diaper bag you can find and use that for your photo gear. I successfully deployed a lime green Winnie the Pooh diaper bag in Rio and Salvador. It surely made me look like a homosexual, but I didn’t look like I was carrying big-ass camera. (Thanks for the tip, Yonas!)

m) Copy all your photos from your camera to your laptop or onto DVDs each night. You don’t want a memory card with pictures from your entire vacation on it stolen from you with your camera.

n) Something else you can do is take the memory card out of your camera and keep it tucked away in your pocket between shots. That way, if your camera IS taken from you, you still have your pictures. Of course, fumbling to get the memory card in and out of your camera means that your camera is exposed for a few extra seconds every time you want to take a picture, so I’m not completely convinced this is a good strategy. I kept my card in my camera.

o) Something else you can try is wrapping your camera in black tape or masking tape to hide brand names and make your camera look like a broken piece of crap. A crappy camera will be less of a target than a shiny new Nikon or Canon. I didn’t bother with this.

But, like I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Gog and I never had any serious issues in Brazil. Maybe it’s because we took these safety measures. Maybe it’s because they are cleaning up the country for the upcoming 2016 Olympics. Maybe it’s because we had a local showing us around most of the time. Maybe we just got lucky.

Stacked and Jacked: Portrait of a Brazilian

January 4, 2010 - 2:20 pm 3 Comments

Brazilians are a unique bunch, with a unique look, sense of style, attitude, and language that sets them apart from the rest of South American.

Brazilians come in all shapes and sizes and colors: tall and short, skinny and fat, light and dark. Some look Mexican, some look Indian, some look African, some look German. But everyone seems to accept everyone else with very little racism or segregation.

From the moment we landed, Gog and I noticed that all Brazilian women had big breasts, without the usual consequence of soft bodies. It really is quite amazing. Whether we were walking on the street or laying on the beach or eating in a churrascaria or sitting in an airport, we would always be surrounded by big boobs. Tati had mentioned that plastic surgery is quite prevalent in Brazil, so that might account for some of it.

And they flirt. I can’t count the number of times a girl made and SUSTAINED eye contact with me in a restaurant or walking down the street. And it doesn’t matter if the girl has a boyfriend, she’ll still sustain the eye contact and give you a little smile for as long as they can. Back at home, sustained eye contact with random girls rarely occurs because guys consider it an invitation for further interaction, something that girls simply don’t need. Here, there are flirts everywhere.

Why is it that way? How have Brazilian women not suffered the same fate as American women, ruined by self-consciousness and low self-esteem and eating disorders? Is it because they are have not been objectified as sexual objects since birth in Brazil? Is it because the guys are not aggressive enough? Are Brazilian girls open and friendly and making an effort to invite that kind of interaction because they have to in order to meet guys?

Not everyone is a stunner, but in general, I’d have to say that Brazil has the most beautiful and exciting women of any country I’ve been to.

Guys physiques are similarly impressive. Walking Ipanema Beach, Gog and I felt like we needed to spend the next six months in the gym. These guys are jacked, especially on Ipanema’s gay beach #8. Either they somehow avoid eating meat and have cut all fat from their diet, or they are fitness fanatics, or they are all on steroids, or there is something genetic going on here. It’s ridiculous.

And even the young ones… Girls and guys alike seem to bloom at a young age. Young girls with inappropriately large boobs and young boys with chiseled bodies are everywhere.

As far as fashion goes, the men wear colors and cuts that are out of style or gay at home. Teal and pink sleeveless t-shirts and capris are everywhere. Girls can get away with anything, just like they do at home.

Portuguese has a lot in common with Spanish but is in fact a different language with different grammar, spelling, and accents. When spoken by the locals, it seems to have the same airy, romantic swings that Italian has. People from the south roll their R’s and use lots of S’s, so it sounds even more Italian, while the people in Rio use more guttural sounds that almost make it sound like Hebrew. Like in Israel, a lot of young girls seem to have raspy voices.

Everyone we’ve encountered seems tolerant of our English, even almost happy to engage in conversation with us. We picked up a few Portuguese words and expressions that made interactions with the locals easy and fun:

tah-BON : General expression that means “How are you?” or “Things are good.”

OY-to-the-BON (that’s just how it sounds) : “Hi, how are you?”

oh-bree-GAH-doh : “Thank you.”

bree-GAH-doh : “Thank you.” (How it really sounds when a local says it.)

mwee-toh bree-GAH-doh : “Thank you very much.”

jis-COOP-uh : sorry

hee-ya-TAR-day : retarded

mwee-toh goos-TAW-zah : very delicious

Gog and I enjoyed the language, becoming especially fond of the handy -eria or -aria suffix. Like in Spanish, a X-aria or X-eria denotes a place where there is a lot of X or where X happens. A churrascaria is where there is lots of BBQ meat, a borracharia is where drunkenness happens. There are sandwicherias, perfumerias, hostelerias, cervecerias, mueblerias, confiterias. Menus occasionally have some humorous translations and spellings, but not nearly as much as we saw in southeast Asia. I still don’t quite understand why the locals call their local currency “reais” while English speakers call it “reals.”

Brazilians love the “thumbs up” gesture. Used by young and old, male and female, the gesture is used as if to ask “Are you OK?” or to answer “I am OK!” or for acknowledgment or as a sign of general approval.

I like Brazilians.

Flying to Iguazu

January 4, 2010 - 1:42 pm No Comments

While waiting to check our bags at Salvador’s Deputado Luís Eduardo Magalhães International Airport, a young guy walked up to his luggage cart by the door, looked up, and screamed at the top of his lungs. The bustling airport went silent. He then held up his right arm and flipped off the entire airport, turning 360 degrees to make sure he didn’t miss anyone. After swinging his luggage cart around, one of his bags flew off, so he started kicking it to teach it a lesson. What’s his deal?

We had a quick layover in Curitiba. Our landing would have been a bit smoother if our pilot had used the landing gear. Brazilians were up out of their seats and collecting their bags before the plane even stopped. People crowd and push to get off the plane first. If you hesitate to post yourself in the aisle, everybody behind you will rush past. Annoying. Gog and I can’t comprehend this basic selfishness that seems to be the standard here.

Right now, we’re on the plane to the Iguazu airport on the Brazilian side of the falls. This one-way ticket was really expensive, almost half the price of our round-trip flight to and from South America, but the Iguazu Falls package I booked online with a guy named Pablo seems like a really good deal, so I guess it all evens out.

The woman sitting next to me hasn’t taken her eyes of my screen for the whole flight. Not sure if she understands English. I looked up at her a moment ago, and she pulled the move where she pretended she was looking out the window the whole time.

Morro de São Paulo: Salvador’s Island Paradise

January 4, 2010 - 12:47 am 1 Comment

The catamaran trip over to Morro de São Paulo ended up taking almost three hours, more than an hour over the advertised time. Upon arrival, everyone (mostly South American tourists) crowded the doors to be the first ones off. I just don’t understand this. Everyone on the boat knows that everyone on the boat wants to get off the boat. Why push and shove? The dock wasn’t much better. Filled with pushy backpackers and tourists, the dock simply didn’t have enough room for everyone. Kids hauled luggage everywhere with their wheelbarrow “taxis,” making creative horn sounds with their mouths to make their way through the crowds. What a cluster.

The island of Morro de São Paulo turned out to be pretty nice. From the moment I got off the boat, it reminded me a lot of Thailand’s Koh Phangan, with its backpackers and little shops and beaches lined with bars and restaurants. Turns out they have Full Moon parties as well, although they don’t seem to bother lining them up with actual full moons.

The first beach was pretty amazing. Exposed coral created a lagoon with lots of tiny pools for people to lie in.

Lagoon at Morro de Sa?o Paulo

Walking in, the water was uncomfortably hot by the shore but cooled off as it got deeper. We waded through the lagoon and climbed the coral for some views back to the beach. Walking over slippery coral in waist-deep water with my laptop and all of my photo gear was probably the dumbest thing I’ve done on this trip.

In the Lagoon

After walking around a bit, we stopped for a delicious lunch of shrimp, really awesome fried potatoes, and piña coladas. As we ate, the tide came in, replacing the lagoon with more normal-looking ocean.

Reflecting Umbrellas

Doug = Hot Dog

Heading back to Salvador, the catamaran was much quicker. We got back to our room, cleaned up, and headed out for some souvenir-shopping, dinner, and live music in Pelourinho. We happened to catch a performance from an apparently famous local percussion band called Olodum (oh-loh-DOOM) and had a meal of meat and French fries.

Jeff & Gog

After that show, we headed to J&K Restaurant for some more music. The girl next to me was so impressed with the R$2 bill that I folded into a t-shirt for the waitress that I made one for her, too.

Band at J & K Restaurant

Sticking to the touristy areas with police on every corner, we felt safe. In fact, a boy (whose name sounded like “Allison”) walked over to us while we were listening to music and pointed to Gog’s camera, motioning for him to put it into his pocket. I rewarded the boy’s selflessness (or was it?) with some change. Except for that issue with the guy who wanted a sandwich and a few sketchy looking locals scoping things out, we didn’t have any safety issues in Brazil at all.

Cross in Pelourinho Square

Tonight is our last night in Brazil. We’re sad to be leaving, but we know that we will be seeing and doing some amazing things in Argentina. Tomorrow, we head to Iguazu Falls!

Salvador and the Bouncy Catamaran

January 3, 2010 - 9:20 am No Comments

Had a great night’s sleep in our very well air-conditioned room. Breakfast was served right on schedule. The tomato and basil omelet was delicious, but the strawberry yogurt tasted like Pepto Bismol.

Ronaldo picked us up for our Salvador city tour. He was young and friendly, and his English was adequate. We got into his car and he took us for a drive through the city and to Barra (which I think is pronounced by the locals as “bah”), where an old lighthouse fort sits on the tip of the peninsula.

Two Guys in Salvador

We drove around the city a bit more, past the local fútbol stadium and some poor neighborhoods. The graffiti here is (and in Rio, too) is pretty impressive. It’s a shame that the rest of the city doesn’t have the charm of Pelourinho, but at the same time, there is a beautiful simplicity to poverty that is interesting in its own way. I’d love to hop around some of these neighborhoods and take photos, but that’s just not possible for the average tourist.

Then back into Pelourinho for a walking tour. It was very warm and humid, so we were sweating lots. Ronaldo knew EVERYONE. He’d stop on the street to say hello to friends and pop into every other shop to have a quick conversation.

Colors of Pelourinho

Painting Canvas in Pelourinho

Capoeira in Pelourinho

We went inside the rather plain-looking Igreja de Sa?o Francisco and found the inside to be magnificent, with ornate, gold-covered trim everywhere and high, painted ceilings. Definitely a hidden gem.

Inside Igreja de Sa?o Francisco

After saying goodbye to Ronaldo, we stopped for yet another all-you can-eat meat feast for lunch, and I had a refreshing truly delicious caipirinha de kiwi.

For the rest of the afternoon, Gog and I explored Pelourinho and the immediate area ourselves.

Zumbi Dos Palmares

We took Salvador’s famous elevator from Pelourinho down to the “Lower Town” and visited the Mercado Modelo, a huge structure built to house locals selling the same crappy canvas paintings, t-shirts, and hats.

Salvador's Lower Town

Bustling Inside Mercado Modelo

At the marina, kids dove into the water, each trying to outdo the last, stopping for a moment to ask us for money.

Backflip into the Marina

Sunset at Salvador Marina

The sun was setting, so we stuck around for a few minutes but then got the fuck out of there and returned to the safety of Pelourinho before it got dark.

Sunset at Salvador Marina

Lower Town Sculpture & Elevador Lacerda

Dusk in Pelorinho

Seeking dinner and nightlife, we followed Marco’s recommendation and went to an area in the city called Jardim Brasil. The one place that seemed to be hopping was Bohemia Club. Music was blaring, but the windows were tinted so we couldn’t really see inside.

In swimsuits, stinky t-shirts, and sandals, Gog and I went inside. There were no other tourists in there, just locals who were pretty dressed up. We got some looks of curiosity, but Gog and I did our best to blend in and enjoyed a beer.

From there, we took a taxi to Barra and explored the area on our own. The busiest bars were gay bars, so we kept walking (we are not gay) and didn’t find many other places with people in them. The crowd thinned out even more when it started to rain. Overall, I’m a little disappointed with the nightlife in a city this big.

Right now, we’re on our way to Morro de São Paulo, an island paradise near Salvador recommended to us by all of our drivers and guides. We’re in a high-speed catamaran, bouncing over the body of water between Salvador and Morro, the Bay of All Saints. We’re just going for the day.

The tomato and basil omelet in my stomach is considering a revolt, so it’s time to put away the laptop.

A Guy with a Knife

January 2, 2010 - 2:14 am No Comments

Lazaro, a huge and imposing black man, was holding a sign with my name at the airport in Salvador. As part of the package I booked, he was our airport transfer to our hotel in Pelourinho, the historical and touristy center of Salvador.

His English was excellent, his voice smooth like the host of a late night jazz radio show. He told us all about the Salvador, about how the rich and the poor coexist in close proximity, about the African slave history, about how the city now has a population of over three million. Salvador might be the biggest city I’d never heard of.

As we approached Pelourinho, we drove through the scariest area I have ever seen. Dimly lit cobblestone alleys were almost completely empty, except for a few who were obviously on drugs, should be on drugs, or selling drugs. Every window had bars, every door was locked, every driveway had its metal door closed and padlocked. This, according to Lazaro, was the unrestored part of Pelourinho, and it wasn’t safe for us. No shit.

The car stopped in what seemed to be a slightly more friendly and touristed square. Lazaro led us into our hotel, called Solar dos Deuses. Marco, a toothy and friendly (are toothy people ever not friendly?) Swedish guy, welcomed us at the front desk and led us to our room. Wooden floors, two fluffy and heavily pillowed beds, flat-screen TV, wifi Internet, beautiful antique furniture, air conditioning that really kicks, and fresh fruit juice and cookies waiting for us on the table. One of the nicest rooms I’ve ever stayed in. And the location is perfect, right in the middle of Pelourinho, with live music just outside. When you open the windows, music fills the room.

We asked Marco about walking around and finding dinner, and he said that the immediate area is reasonably safe, as long as we don’t venture off into the nearby unrestored area. Sure enough, we found heavily armed police everywhere. Plopping down at a nearby restaurant called Odoyá, our dinner of coconut shrimp was delicious.

We wandered around a bit, paying close attention to our map. The restored area of Pelourinho is undeniably charming, with well-lit cobblestone alleys and old-looking, colorful buildings. Police officers with big guns are everywhere. Live music fills the air, spilling out of bars and restaurants on every other corner. Locals sell miniature paintings on canvas. One of the artisans came over to talk to us. I introduced myself, but he had trouble with Doug’s name. “Dog? Hahahah. Woof, woof.” Once again, Doug felt humiliated.

Pelourinho is not perfect. If you turn the wrong corner, you’ll run into portable toilets that smell like rancid ass. Gog estimates that they have not been cleaned in six months. Stray dogs and cats with large nipples scavenge for food, while beggars with normal-sized nipples ask for money. As much as I wanted to take my camera for some night shots of Pelourinho, I decided that it wasn’t a good idea and left it at the hotel.

A fidgety, nervous-looking beggar approached Gog and me as we walked. He asked us to stop, shook our hands, and tried to persuade us that he was NOT dangerous just because he was speaking to us in English. He said he had AIDS and that he was very hungry. He desperately wanted R$6 for a sandwich, pointing to a nearby food cart while pleading his case, but Gog and I wouldn’t budge. He was persistent, though. I finally offered him a R$1 coin hoping it would get him to stop pestering us, but it didn’t. He gave the coin back to me and said he needed the full R$6 for a sandwich.

Gog and I were not carrying much of value, so I wasn’t too worried that he would become a threat. But then he looked around, leaned in, lifted up his shirt, and mumbled something like “I have knife.” I turned to face him, angrily and loudly questioning what he had just said. Probably not the appropriate response, but he backed away.

I’m not sure what he was trying to do. Maybe he was trying to work the pity angle by telling us that he had been stabbed, or maybe he was telling me that he would use his knife to split his sandwich with me. In any case, we never saw a knife, and I don’t think he was truly threatening us. He turned his attention to other tourists who were walking by and disappeared into the night.

In terms of safety, when approached by a sketchy character in a sketchy area, is it safer to give them a little change in the hopes that it will prevent a potential mugging? Or is it safer to avoid showing evidence of any money at all and hope that you don’t get mugged for the money he knows you are hiding from him?

Gog and I found a live band playing at J&K Restaurant right by our hotel, so we sat down at a table right in front and chilled out with a cheap beer. Good stuff.

Tomorrow we have a Salvador city tour and walking tour around Pelourinho booked with a guy named Ronald. I’m a bit scared about dragging my photo gear around Salvador, but we’ll be with a guide, so I’m going to give it a shot.

Moon Over Salvador

January 1, 2010 - 7:45 pm No Comments

When I first told people about this trip down to Brazil, people who had been here recommended that we go to Salvador (pronounced sal-vah-DOR). Even Tati and other locals in Brazil say it’s amazing. Now we’re on our way, and I’m pretty excited about it.

But my research suggests that the poverty of Salvador makes it even more dangerous than Rio, and that the local government isn’t doing anything to help:

The city has become a huge and ugly slum, with a homicide rate that has more than tripled in the last 3 years, mainly due to corrupt local politicians and an almost useless civil police force.

The local police will never release any statistics showing how many foreign tourists are victimized; moreover, they claim that their role is NOT to fight crime nor to provide you with safety. Forget about seeking help from the local police, unless you have the bad luck to get involved in a homicide (although only 1 out of 10 homicides get investigated/solved), or need a police report for insurance purposes; you will waste hours waiting in line and they will either mock at you, or make you feel guilty for being a victim and won’t take any action. For instance, a teenager girl who was raped in Barra neighborhood by 5 men during carnival was told by the police that she was guilty for her rape incident because she was urinating in the grass.

As you may have already guessed, even if there’s a police officer standing less than 3 meters away from a thief who is caught in the act, the officer will do nothing to arrest him, let alone to discourage a beggar from begging.

Even the supposedly honest and objective Lonely Planet claims crime is worse than in Rio, and Tati and the other locals we’ve met have been saying the same thing. We’ll be careful.

On this flight, I have a window seat next to two older but youthful Brazilian woman who talk loudly, laugh loudly, cough loudly, listen to their iPod loudly, and dance in their seats loudly. We just started our descent into Salvador. It’s dark out, and a huge full (or almost full) moon is hovering over the city lights.