It has been over 2 months since we arrived in Brazil and it would be so easy to stay here for another 2 months.....but having delayed our departure date to Argentina several times already, we are definitely leaving tomorrow - it therefore seems like an opportune moment to let you know what I have been doing since the middle of January (and nothing at all to do with dark mutterings from some of you that I have not been keeping you up to date with my wanderings....).
Having spent the first week in Rio being shown around by Ben´s friends, we then flew to Fortaleza in the northeast and spent a few days living in luxury (thanks to Ben´s mother who was guest speaker at a conference there). We got a few odd looks when we arrived at our 5 star hotel complete with backpacks and not at all blending in with the usual clientele of the hotel. It was pretty much like being part of a presidential entourage during those few days, as we were chauffeured anywhere and everywhere we wanted to visit. As we had been very well looked after by Ben´s friends in Rio the week before (albeit on a less ´´grand´´ scale and perhaps in a more easygoing fashion), we started to wonder how we would cope when the ´´real´´ backpacking began!
Next stop (all on our own this time!) was Jericoacoara, a 6 hour bus journey north of Fortaleza, and the first taste of paradise in Brazil. Deserted white sand beaches, towering sand dunes (which we raced across in beach buggies and sand boarded down on boards of polished wood loaned to us by the local children) and cactus covered cliffs....Jeri is part of an environmental protection area and unlike other so-called beach paradises which we visited later on, and despite its reliance on tourism, it has managed to remain unspoilt, peaceful and so beautiful. The best part about Jeri was that we didn´t really do all that much while we were there (I think on one of the 5 days we spent there, we went out on a catamaran in the morning and visited the nearby mangrove swamps in the afternoon). The other days just seemed to slip by without us noticing.
After Jericoacoara, we started to work our way down the northeast coast of Brazil, the plan being to get back to Rio in time for Carnaval at the end of February : Natal, Recife, Olinda, Morro de Sao Paolo, Salvador de Bahia - the most charming and memorable by far being Olinda (a UNESCO world heritage site) with its winding, cobbled streets and small-town atmosphere. When we arrived in Olinda, we were brought on a guided tour of the city by a 12 year old boy called Alberto (the streets of Olinda are full of these young guides, former street children who get to keep half of what you pay them for the tour - the other half goes to a home for street children). Alberto´s historical knowledge of the city was pretty astonishing for a 12 year old, so much so that we got him to guide us again the following day. After that, he became our firm friend and we noticed that we were protected from the hustling that all the other tourists were getting (you could generally expect to be approached by a guide offering his services every 15 minutes or so). By contrast, whenever another guide would approach us, one of the other children would tell him not to bother us as we were Alberto´s friends (and as such, his territory). The highlight of our stay in Olinda was the pre-carnival on the Sunday that we were there (during the month or so running up to Carnaval time, most towns and villages have a mini carnival on Sundays). I think the Olinda pre-carnival was pretty much as good as being there for the Carnaval itself - the streets were packed with percussion groups followed by swarms of people dancing along behind them. Every so often you would see a huge papier-mache doll being paraded around, followed by a van or a car with music blaring (10 foot speakers were usually rigged up to these vehicles), and again, people dancing behind it. Street sellers lined up side by side offering caipirinhas (vodka or cahaca (rum) with ice and lime), batidas (pretty much an alcoholic smoothie made with fresh fruit and far too easy to drink!) or agua de coco (coconut juice - served by drilling a hole in the coconut and sticking a straw in it) for those who could not take any more alcohol......and all this continued until the early hours of the morning.
Salvador de Bahia was also an amazing place to visit - we stayed in the Pelhourino (the historical centre) which has been beautifully restored and is full of multicoloured houses. However it was just that bit too hectic at times - you always had to be on the lookout for pickpockets and we constantly heard stories of people being attacked and robbed at knifepoint. We lasted about 5 minutes at the Salvador pre carnival where the Bahians seemed to prefer knocking people over to dancing...we heard afterwards about one girl who had fallen while in the middle of such a crazed throng, she fell on top of somebody and he bit her leaving a massive bruise and teeth marks on her thigh!!!!!
Our first (and last for the moment) samba lesson was in Salvador - a 2 hour private lesson (well, almost private, if you don´t count the fact that every 10 minutes or so the door would open and a very amused Brazilian would watch us struggling with the moves that come so naturally to them!!).We must have provided entertainment for pretty much the whole dance school at various stages during the lesson!
After Salvador we moved inland to a small town called Lencois in the heart of the Chapada Diamantina - trekking country full of mountains, waterfalls, caves and wild animals. Here I am indebted to Markus (Renfert) for recommending Marcelo as a guide - he was definitely worth the search Markus!! Marcelo took us (myself, Ben, Becky (from San Francisco) and Suru (from Sao Paolo)) on a 5 day trek in the wilderness where we most definitely communed with nature. For a start, we carried everything on our backs - food, tent and one change of clothes (to sleep in) - none of this easy trekking to pre-organised camps with food, showers and toilets waiting. Marcelo must have been carrying about 20 kilos as he had all the cooking gear as well. The rest of us were carrying 5-10 kilos apiece, but most of the time it felt like 50. Our first lesson on survival in the wilderness was how to cope without toiletpaper (or more accurately, which leaves we could safely use as toiletpaper) - I think Marcelo´s favourite catchphrase ´´caca in the hole´´ says it all - everytime we set up camp he would stick his little orange handled trowel in the middle of the camp in case any of us felt nature´s call during the night. There was actually one type of leaf that was kind of furry that wasn´t too far removed from toiletpaper (by a very long stretch of the imagination I admit), but unfortunately these were not to be found everywhere.....
As I had never really done any proper trekking before, the Chapada Diamantina was definitely a baptism of fire. It wouldn´t have been too bad if we had simply been trekking across fairly level terrain, but Marcelo´s ´´ways´´ and ´´shortcuts´´ were anything but level! (His aim was to trek through untrekked terrain as far as I could see as we didn´t meet any other human beings until we were on our way back on the 5th day). On the second day he pointed out a mountain to us int he distance and told us that we would camp on the top that night (sounded good at the time, until we began the ascent...). We must have spent a good 2-3 hours rock climbing to the top of that mountain (Marcelo insisted that it was ´´difficult trekking´´ and not rock climbing but I call it rock climbing when you have a sheer drop below you, you are on a ledge about 10cm wide and you have to twist yourself around somehow to grab onto another rock above you and then haul yourself up onto this (WITH backpack!) but without dislodging any of the loose rocks around as otherwise you risked killing the poor unfortunate coming after you - not that that was a problem for me as I was usually last!). Having finally struggled to the top without injuring myself (but having succeeded in tearing my arms to pieces with the brambles) we had the luxury of having no water to wash in (nearest river was at the bottom of the mountain....) and gale force winds that nearly blew the tent way that night. While the views from the top of the mountain were admittedly stunning,all Becky and myself could think about was how the hell we were going to get back down the mountain the next day (knowing too well that going down is usually much harder than climbing up)! I´m sure Ben and Suru were wondering this also but they were obviously not going to share their doubts with the girls. Marcelo was probably thinking that maybe he had overestimated our adventurous spirits by bringing us to the summit of this mountain. Becky had pretty much decided that she was going to leave her backpack at the top and then pay somebody from the village to climb up and get it for her when she got back from the trek; another possibility was to throw the backpacks down ahead of us and hope to find them waiting for us at the bottom (unlikely, I know, but we were desperate); we also examined the top of the mountain for suitability for a helicopter landing (this was the following morning when we were really starting to despair when we awoke to swirling mists all around us and no visibility whatsoever of the path down.....). In the end however, Becky and I valiantly strtapped our backpacks back on and began the descent with the others as soon as the mists cleared - and we actually made it down (albeit 99% slipping and sliding on our bums) with a lot less pain and anxiety than we had anticipated. After that memorable ascent and descent, the rest of a trek seemed laughably easy (even when Marcelo managed to lose the trail about 5 times in the space of an hour when trying to lead us down (via another of his shortcuts no doubt) from another mountain we had climbed to see the Fumaca (smoke) Waterfall where the water flows back up the cliff as it is caught by gusts of wind and blown back up before it hits the bottom.....stunning.
After those 5 days in the Chapada Diamantina, I thought that this was definitely going to remain the highlight of my time in Brazil. But I had underestimated the Rio Carnaval....
Carnaval in Rio lasts for 5 days (the Friday to Tuesday before Ash Wednesday of every year). On the Sunday and the Monday nights, the 14 samba schools of Rio parade through the Sambadroma (7 on Sunday and 7 on Monday), and compete with each other for first place, an event for which they have been training all year. The Sambadroma is like a very wide corridor which is 600 metres long with terraced seating on either side holding 43,000 people in total. Each samba school has between 60 and 80 minutes to impress the judges and are penalised for exceeding the 80 minutes. Each school also has a song (a new one every year, the words to which which we had to learn - a slight problem when you speak about 3 words of Portuguese but definitely worth the effort in the end!) which is sung over and over by the paraders while parading through the Sambadroma. Each school also has an average of between 4,000 and 6,000 members, so you can imagine the sheer scale of each school´s parade, which involves lavishly decorated floats complete with scantily clothed dancers (lots of body paint and feathers but not much else), followed by the pounding bateria (percussion wing) followed by various wings (groups) each wing with a different costume.
I had thought that maybe we could get a ticket for one of the nights to watch the paraders in the Sambadroma - we did better than that. Thanks to Ben´s friends, we managed to enrol in one of the samba schools (Salgueiro) and take part in the parade itself, a truly unforgettable experience. First, I have to describe our costumes - we were dressed as court jesters and wore a red and silver headdress with masses of red and white feathers soaring about a metre into the air, we had a huge red and white ruffle neckpiece with a cloak flowing out behind it, under that a balloon sleeved top with red and white triangles and pompoms hanging from elbows and wrists, next a huge red and white waist ruffle, then seriously voluminous silver trousers, again with red and white triangles and pompoms hanging from the thighs, and below the knees, then white tight socks coming to just below the knee (where the pompoms of the trousers started) and then white satin slippers each topped with a red pompom. And I mustn´t forget the red and white ribboned baton with streamers flying out of it.
Just getting to the Sambadroma was an experience in itself. We had to take the metro as our costumes were too big to fit in taxis and we carried about half the costume in big black plastic sacks (as they were too hot to walk in) - we wore the bits of the costume that would not fit in the plastic bags - as a result I kept wallopping my headdress off the exit signs in the metro. When we got to the stop for the Sambadroma, it was pure mayhem to try to get out onto the street as we collided with hundreds of other paraders dressed or partly dressed in equally or even more voluminous costumes as our own. Once out on the street, we spent about 45 minutes in a bus shelter getting into the costumes (a feat in itself) and then struggled through the crowds (getting entangled at various points in other costumes) to our school where the rest of the court jester wing was waiting. The waiting area was a street leading to the Sambadroma which was enclosed on either side by high wire fences - only paraders got in; on the outside were the street vendors selling water and beer over the fence to the parched and sweating waiting paraders on the inside. We were due to parade at about 11pm, being the second school to parade that night (the last school woud not parade until 4am or later depending on delays - we were lucky). After about an hour of impatient waiting, we heard a huge explosion of fireworks ahead of us (that was our signal to start - we later saw on the TV that the fireworks wrote the name of the school about to parade across the sky), the motors of the floats started roaring, their lights came on, the school´s song started blaring....the atmosphere was potent. Nothing however had prepared us for the moment when we turned the corner out of the wire enclosure and saw the Sambadroma stretching out ahead of us: beams of light crisscrossed above us frrom one side of the Sambadroma to the other, the terraces were packed with people clapping, cheeping, many of them waving our school´s flag - and they were all looking at us! I have never felt such a rush. Suddenly all thoughts of the heaviness, heat and scratchiness of the costume left us - all we could think about was jumping up and down, waving our batons wildly (while avoiding walloping the jesters around you) and singing the song. Our group (the jesters) had some vaguely choreographed movements for the chorus, but the rest of the time the main thing was to be enthusiastic and smile - this was not a problem (for about three hours after the parade, I had a smile fixed to my face, impossible to wipe it!). From the time we entered the magical arena of the Sambadroma to the time we left it, at least 40 minutes must have gone by, but it felt like only 10. I remember a wave of disappointment coming over me at the moment I realised that we had come out the other side of the Sambadroma and my one thought was that I wished I could turn around and do it all again. I was exhausted but could have continued for hours. All around us as we exited the Sambadroma, I could see other groups of our school collapsed on the ground, weary smiles on their faces, headresses on the ground beside them. Some drinking welcome bottles of water, some pouring the water over their heads and down their necks. An unforgettable experience.....
Since that night, the rest of our time in Brazil has seemed almost dull by comparison! Well almost.....the Iguassu Falls (both Argentinian and brazilian sides were pretty impressive, especially the boat ride to the foot of some of the falls - needless to say we were soaked through). Following that, we spent 4 days trekking in the Pantanal, the wetlands of Brazil where there is an incredible abundance of wildlife....I have a picture with a tarantula (the non-venomous kind) on the back of my hand - however the fact that it was non-venomous did not tempt me to keep it on the back of my hand once the picture was taken!
Back in Rio now for the last time - flight to Buenos Aires leaves at 10h45 tomorrow and tango and Spanish lessons beckon....