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Brazil blues

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This is a warning: when you travel to Brazil you run the risk of coming back home suffering from ... Brazil blues! You’ll still hear samba beats, say ‘bom dia!’, yearn for the peace and quiet of the jungle, look for colour where you mostly see grey concrete and red brick, and you’ll miss the lust for life of the Brazilian people.

I’m writing this being back home from my Brazilian adventure and I have to say the journey exceeded my expectations. What a diverse country! When you tell people you’re travelling to Brazil, you get different reactions. From enthousiasm to very worried responses, expecting you to get robbed for sure. Telling you to be careful (and please come back alive). While Brazil has lots to offer, many people first link the country to crime and corruption. Unfortunately the two c’s are a reality. But there is so much more to Brazil. It’s an immense country and it’s quite a challenge to work out a travel itinerary. The whole of Europe is just a tiny bit bigger than Brazil. So with 3 weeks to travel you just have to make choices.

My trip took me from Rio de Janeiro to the Iguaçu Falls at the border with Argentina, then to the Pantanal in the middle of Brazil, to the Amazon in the north and finally to Salvador, a city in the northeast. My friend and I have been on 11 flights to get out and about (not proud of my ecological footprint on this journey, but if you need to get to places fast there’s no other option than planes to cover the great distances).

We’ve experienced the hustle and bustle of the biggest cities as well as the absolute peace and quiet of nature. We stared into the Devil’s Throath and felt the force of the raging water at Iguaçu Falls, we went snorkling into crystal clear water, saw skies full of stars and a bright moon, slept in the jungle, went horseriding in the beautiful Pantanal, saw Rio in the rain, followed the beats of samba reggae in the streets of Salvador, ... and we met some fantastic people along the way.

Some Portuguese comes in handy, as not many people speak English. But even we managed. A friendly ‘obrigada!’ and ‘bom dia!’ are a good start.

Due to the big distances it was maybe one of the most intensive journeys pure travelwise. Many early mornings, long traveldays, ... but it was more than worth it. I've never ended a trip before in a taxi singing and clapping 'samba reggae' on the way to the airport :-)

Hope my blog can take you on my journey. Or even better, inspire you to discover Brazil yourself.

More travel stories and photography: check my website Just a Traveller.

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Posted by Petravs 12:12 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

“We are a little surprised!” (at midnight in Rio ...)

And so a new journey begins, from Brussels to Amsterdam to Rio. Travellers: Petra and Lesley, friends, explorers, always curious to discover new places and meet people who live very different lives. It feels a bit surreal to wait at the gate in Amsterdam and see ‘Rio de Janeiro’ displayed on the screen. It’s one of those cities that speak to the imagination. My neighbour on the plane lives close to Rio. It’s a rich Brazilian lady who just went shopping in Paris for 5 days and buys even more stuff in the dutyfree shop on board. Bracelets, perfumes, a handbag, ... money clearly needs to roll. It takes her ages to chose and pay. Her English is not so good, but she tries to make conversation, informing about the places we will visit. Everything in Brazil seems to be ‘bonito’ (beautiful), but she also mentions the word ‘cuidado’ (dangerous!) a couple of times when it comes to the cities. Mmm... not sure what to expect.

We arrive around 19.30h in Rio de Janeiro after a 12hour flight and our rich lady wishes us ‘feliz estada’, which means something like ‘have a nice stay’. The transfer from the airport to our first Brazilian address is arranged. A driver waits for us at arrivals and then we start our drive to Santa Teresa, the historical neighbourhood of Rio where Villa Laurinda is our home for three nights. It’s winter time in Brazil, so it’s dark and we can’t really make much of our new surroundings. And it’s our first experience with Brazilian driving. Let’s say it’s more chaotic and agressive than what we’re used to ☺ Driving bumper to bumper seems to be the norm, driving lanes are very flexible (never mind the white stripes) and you just honk your way through traffic if you feel the others are in your way or going too slow. Our driver is a friendly man but he hardly speaks English. “First time in Brazil? Welcome!” he smiles.

After a small half hour we reach the cobbled streets of Santa Teresa and stop in front of an iron gate. We ring the bell. No reaction. Ring again. A woman comes. Then fetches someone. A man. “Ah, guests? We are a little surprised to see you! We weren’t expecting anyone!” Not exactly the reaction you want when you arrive in Rio feeling tired and just longing for some rest. Luckily he quickly ads: “Don’t worry, we have a room for you!” It’s low season and the manager of Villa Laurinda is on holiday. There’s only a gardener, a housekeeper and the two owners: artists Mauricio Dias and Walter Riedweg. They live in a modern house next to the colonial Villa Laurinda and have their atelier here where they create video art. Luckily they are very friendly and helpful. We’re not expected, but very welcome. A room is arranged and they tell us a bit about the house. It was built in 1888, complete with a lush garden and tropical trees. This place has a character, and I like character. Not surprisingly they have many artists, curators, writers, philosophers, ... coming to Villa Laurinda. Only not this time of year. We’re all alone in the house and retreat to our high ceiling room. We hear the housedogs howl and bark and there seems to be a party somewhere in the neighbourhood.

But no party for us tonight. It’s time to unwind, and try to get some sleep in preparation of our first day in Rio!

Posted by Petravs 11:35 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

A lesson in expectation management

Blue sky, golden beaches, breathtaking views over Rio’s spectacular mountainous landscape, ... that’s what you expect when coming to this city, no? But on this first morning in Rio de Janeiro, the ‘Marvelous City’, it’s raining. Not just a little bit of rain. No, it’s raining cats and dogs. The sort of rain that promises to last a whole day. It doesn’t feel ‘marvelous’ at all. It’s a reminder that it’s winter in Rio when the weather can be good but also quite European. Breakfast is served on the roofed terrace and we see the rain falling down in the swimming pool. We’re a bit quiet, trying to think what to do in Rio with this kind of weather. It’s a lesson in expectation management and I really have to make a mental click to get myself into looking at possibilities to go out and about. It’s really the kind of weather that makes you want to snuggle up on the couch and read a book, it feels too much like home.

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We have no idea what to expect and didn’t do any proper planning for Rio prior to our trip. “Safety is a concern,” according to Mauricio. “People are generally nice, but just make sure to stay in busier areas, don’t show off with jewelry or big cameras.” The political situation in Brazil is unstable and that apparantly gives rise to more criminality. So far the introduction to Rio is a bit doubtful. But we dress for rain, leaving our bags at home and sticking to a small money belt around the waist. I tuck it a way under my shirt and look kind of pregnant (only slightly) and hope that keeps robbers away too. Surely they won’t harass a pregnant lady? ☺ I bravely install the Uber app (another advice from our hosts) on my phone as an easy way to arrange transport. We decide to head to the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil and Uber tells us that driver Rosivaldo will pick us up in 4 minutes. And indeed, in no time a small car arrives in front of the iron gate of Villa Laurinda and we hop in. It feels a bit strange at first, but it all works perfectly. You know exactly what the drive will cost, who the driver is and you never have to wait more than a few minutes. Rio seems to be full of Uber drivers and I can imagine the Taxi companies really don’t like this competition. It’s a service they can’t beat.

Rosivaldo drops us at the cultural centre. We have no idea if there’s anything interesting going on and are prepared to be surprised. Entrance is free and it seems the current exhibition is about football, Brasil’s national proud and in World Cup times very attractive ofcourse. I know nothing about football and it’s normally something I wouldn’t do, but we need a dry place to hide. The exhibition luckily is very dynamic, so even an absolute football ignorant like me gets entertained. We get to hold a competition cup and promptly a guy with a small handycam asks where we are from and if he could get a little quote for internet tv. “She speaks!” Lesley points to me and before I know it I’m saying something about this exhibition on football. Me, a quote on football?! It’s funny and gets us in a better mood about these rainy Rio conditions.

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From the Centro Cultural we head out to the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. We just don’t seem to find our way that well just yet ... It is not advised to roam the streets here with a big tourist map in your hands, so we ask for directions discretely a couple of times. We finally manage to spot the building and see a collection of classical and modern art. So not what I was expecting to do in Rio! It’s lunchtime when we leave the museum and we find a table at ‘Bar Sport’. The waiter serves us with utmost devotion and spontaneously offers to take a picture of our rainy lunch. It’s our first confrontation with poverty too as many beggars and homeless people are waiting on the square in front of the restaurants for some leftovers. I even feel somewhat uneasy when our lunch is served, a really big plate of food. We can’t eat it all and ask the waiter if he can make sure the people out there get it. That seems to be how it works over here. We spot more homeless people as we make our way to our next sight seeing stop. They lie completely covered in blankets on the pavement, sniffing something from plastic bottles. Yep, that’s Rio too.

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We reach the Escadeira Selaron after some more searching. 215 steps full of colourful tiles, a work of art from Chilean-born artist Jorge Sélaron. Needless to say it’s a tourist attraction and a popular spot for photos. We take our time to look at the tiles in more detail, there are many referrals to European countries and art as well as to the Brazilian people and culture. We’re in the more Bohemian part of town and it’s a nice walk up to Santa Teresa where ‘our’ Villa Laurinda is. Santa Teresa feels like a village within the big city, including a charming cable tram and some nice shops and restaurants.

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In the evening we decide to stay very close for dinner and head out to Bar Gomez just around the corner. It’s a place where the locals like to hang out and the waiter serves us some smaller dishes with so much care and pride. He makes us smile. The walls are covered with old pictures. This bar has been here since 1919. It’s around 10 pm when we walk back to the Villa. We feel at ease here in ‘our’ neighbourhood but just across the road the light in the cabin of the neighbourhood night watch is on. Reminding us of the fact that safety in the end is a concern. We carefully lock the garden gate behind us and the door of the Villa. And then fall asleep to the sound of Rio rain ...

Posted by Petravs 11:38 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Has anybody seen Jesus?

It rains the whole damn night and in the morning it’s still raining. Rio, why are you doing this to us? Just when we are here? But we’re not intending to back down and make up an ambitious sight seeing plan. We have to see Cristo Redentor, the big Christ, and Sugarloaf Mountain. And ofcourse Ipanema and Copacabana beach. Rain or no rain. Our host Martin says hi while we are having breakfast and looking at the rain, he gives us an extra tip: Instituto Moreiro Salles, hosting some interesting photo collections.

We order a Uber car again and after a minute a little car pulls up in front of the garden gate. The guy drops us of at the Corcovado Station where you board a little train to go all the way up to the Cristo Redentor, the iconic statue of Christ towering high above the city. It’s to Rio what the Statue of Liberty is to New York. Only, when we walk up to the ticketing office one of the staff members informs us that due to fog there’s no view today. “But surely we can see the Cristo?” I ask. The guy nods. “No, everything is covered in fog. You can see on the tv-screen.” Indeed, a webcam shows us a thick fog. Jesus Christ has disappeared. So it’s clear we can forget about Sugarloaf mountain too. We’re in Rio and will miss out on the top iconic spots of the city. Because it’s winter time. And Rio isn’t always a sunny place.

There’s nothing left to do but call another Uber guy and seek refuge in the photography museum. When we arrive there we’re half an hour early before opening time, so we patiently wait in the gardens. It seems nothing is really going as expected today. But we discover some excellent photo exhibitions inside (luckily). We particularly love Sergio Larrain’s work, black-and-white photography mostly in his homecountry Chile in the 50ies. Never thought I’d visit so many museums and exhibitions in Rio.

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We can’t leave the city without setting foot on the beach though. We head out to Ipanema beach, always known to me from the song “The girl from Ipanema”. That girl doesn’t seem to be around today though. You’d expect women in tiny bikinis and well trained men showing off sixpacks, but today we just see some pigeons strolling on the beach while dark threathening clouds hang over the big rock in the distance. It gives a dramatic edge to our stroll over the beach and luckily for a moment the rain stops so we can watch the waves coming in. Finally I experience a ‘waw, I’m in Rio!’ feeling. Ipanema is an excellent place for us to stop for lunch and then we walk to Copacabana beach, perhaps even more famous than Ipanema. It starts to rain again though. We don’t let it hold us back just yet and keep walking along the promenade while people are trying to sell us ‘I love Rio’ umbrellas’. The beach bars are empty and the caipirinha stalls aren’t selling anything. Rain means bad business for the locals here. Around 4 pm we give in and look for a cab.

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Tomorrow we leave Rio and it feels like we have just seen a tiny tiny glimpse. Miraculously there’s a rain break in the evening and we’re able to enjoy a cocktail out on a terrace in Santa Teresa. Our first caipirinha! It’s already later in the evening when we find a simple little restaurant and eat something amidst the locals. “Obrigada” (thank you) is now a standard expression for us, just as “Bom dia!” (goodday). But that’s about all the Portuguese we can manage. And very few Brazilians seem to speak English. That promises to create interesting situations as we continue our journey across this immense country ☺

Posted by Petravs 11:40 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

The Brazilian Fawlty Towers

IMG_7534.jpgIMG_7535.jpg4.15 a.m. to me is painfully early to rise. But we need to catch an early flight to our next destination all the way south, close to the border with Argentina. The next leg of the journey will bring us to Foz d’Iguaçu, known for its stunning waterfalls. I’m not thinking about the waterfalls just yet and stumble like a bit of a zombie out of bed, get dressed and collect my bag. A taxi is waiting for us on the street and host Martin makes sure we get away safely. The roads are still deserted at this time of the morning, so we reach the airport soon, especially as our cab driver loves to speed. It’s our first domestic flight with GOL and everything runs real smoothly. It’s a 2 hour flight and as we land we see a new landscape with lots of water and green. Foz d’Iguaçu is a small city and the aiport is accordingly small.

A cab drive brings us to our new home for 3 nights: Pousada Charm. Or should I say Fawlty Towers? Our receptionist Hugo seems to be a bit of a Manuel (friendly enough, but it’s all rather chaotic). There’s noise from some small building works at the reception, bits of plaster are falling down, the room isn’t ready yet and just everything we say or ask seems to be a bit unclear. But we are on holiday and have no intention at all to stress. So we install ourselves around the small swimming pool, have lunch and arrange our trip to the waterfalls for the next two days. Sitting here, we realise some rest is welcome. The jet lag is more or less over, but we have an intensive trip ahead of us so some reading and afternoon snoozing around the pool actually feels good! Temperatures around 18-20 °C, and at last sunshine! We enjoy a cocktail as apero (the bartender serves us a rather large one and I feel the alcohol rising to my head) and then head out to Vo Bertila, a family-run Italian restaurant. It’s Saturday night, so we have to queue a bit, but the pizza is great. Although pequena (small) because the language barrier causes some misunderstanding ☺ Oh well ...

A taxi brings us back to our Fawlty towers. Temperatures have dropped and we feel very cold. The room is also cold and with some effort we manage to ask for extra blankets at the reception. Tucked away under my pile of blankets I drift off into sleep, ready to see the waterfalls ...

Posted by Petravs 11:43 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

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