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Morning in Morro

continuation from previous post

After a quick shower in the ensuite bathroom - where I tried to make as much noise as possible to annoy my new bed buddies - I stepped out of our mini bungalow and into the hostel courtyard area.

The sky was grey and the clouds above looked ominous.  The grass and mud squelched underneath my feet as I walked towards the kitchen for some breakfast.

I peered inside to see dozens of used pots, pans and plates stacked high in almost every usable space.  A few flies buzzed around lazily, probably morbidly obese from the scraps they had gleaned off the used tableware.  I'm sure if I looked closely enough, I probably would have seen entirely new lifeforms evolving off these plates.

At this point, a woman appeared in one of the doorways leading into another small room off the kitchen.

'Breakfast?' I enquired hopefully in Portuguese.

She bounded towards one of the stacks of kitchenware, lifted a few pots and plates, and wordlessly scurried back into the room she'd come from, taking them with her.

I went to sit at the outdoor table while I waited for breakfast.  It was still very early in the morning, but the hostel owner was awake.

'Goooooooood MORNING!!!!' he practically beamed at me, his larger-than-life greeting slightly rattling my sleep deprived brain.

'And how was your night?' Aaron continued.  'I hope you slept well, yes?!'

I stared at him blankly.  Was he serious?  Where should I begin?  The loud music blaring outside the door that kept me up till nearly 2am?  The air-conditioning unit that could only manage two settings (Arctic Circle subzero or nothing)? The mosquitoes that literally hounded me for some blood all night?  The weirdly built bathroom with exterior walls that only went three quarters of the way up?  The fact that I didn't have my own bed?  The fact that all the girl who shacked up with us did little else other than snore and gently dribble onto my pillow every now and then?

All I could do was sigh.

'Yeah,' I replied flatly.  'It went well.'

By this time, breakfast had arrived.  It consisted of a small portion of very runny scrambled eggs, a slice of soggy toast and plastic cup half-filled with watered down orange juice that was probably re-watered down.  Twice.  The woman from the kitchen plopped all of this down in front of me unceremoniously and disappeared again.

I looked down at the plate, and then at Aaron carefully to check for a response.  He seemed quite unconcerned.  I reluctantly tucked into the food and made idle conversation with him.

Aaron was Israeli.  Probably mid thirties.  I could definitely picture him and his blond, bushy dreadlocks sat on a beach somewhere in Goa, swaying to New Age music while smoking some weed, and gushingly declaring to anyone who'd listen that he had finally 'discovered' himself.

He talked and talked about his life story.  Which was just as well, as I was in no such mood to engage in two-way conversation.  Before Brazil, he'd lived in California and ran a business, before selling up and somehow landed up in Morro de Sao Paulo, where he set up the hostel I had the pleasure of spending a night in.

Soon, the three Brits who I had travelled with up to Morro from Salvador woke up and joined me at the table for some watery eggs and mouldy toast.

Aaron tore away from the table for a second to answer a phone call, finally giving me the chance to speak to them in private.

'So, guys,' I began with feigned casualness.  'How did you find last night?'

They didn't beat around the bush.

'It was fucking awful,' replied Neil promptly.  'Aaron wouldn't give me my own room even though there's three of us, so he gave me a mattress to put on the floor!'

'We have to leave,' stated Debs rather dramatically.

I let out a sigh of relief, being glad I wasn't the only one who suffered through the night, and began relaying the story of the previous night's events.

We finished breakfast quickly, and once the rain died down, set off to look at the other hostels on the island.  We found one on the next beach.  It was a small, family-run affair.  A little basic, but  comfortable enough.

'Will I have to share a bed with someone?' was my one and only question.

'No...?' the hostel receptionist looked at me, slightly confused.

'I'll take it.'

The four of us quickly returned to our old hostel to get our belongings and move out.  When Aaron heard that we were checking out, he promptly threw his hands up in the air and wailed.

'But whyyyyy?!' he drew out his words.  'What is the problem?  Please stay!  Please!  Business is not good.  You stay six days I give you one day free.  OK?  Stay!'

At this point his was flailing his arms in the air in desperation.

'You didn't sleep last night?' he continued.  'Was it the bed?  You want new sheets?  You don't like the sheets? Why do people leave like this so much?!'

I stared at him dumbfounded.  Could he really be this clueless? Did he really have no idea?

I decided to just keep my mouth shut, smile painfully and nod my head wordlessly until we were out of the textbook example of how not to run a hostel and on our way to our new place.

Once we checked in, I, the only occupant in my new room, sank into my new king-sized bed and fell asleep.


An unforgettable introduction to Morro de Sao Paulo

Day 21: Morro de Sao Paulo

My first night in Morro de Sao Paulo was hell.

We left Itecare the day before, in the afternoon.  Our bags were more or less packed, and the seven of us were lazily lounging on the hostel sofas, passing the time until our coach was due to leave Itecare.

It was the perfect day to leave.  The various people staying in the hostel were all leaving on the same day to their next destinations.  I was travelling with the three Israeli guys, as well as three Brits I'd had a drunken conversation with the night before.

For some reason that only she can explain, Debs, one of the Brits, impulsively double checked the list of coach departure times posted on the wall behind the check-in desk.  Even though we had already poured over the list many times that day.  And that's when she realised we had misread the information and our bus was leaving in fifteen minutes, not fifty.

A mad scramble began as we hoisted the backpacks onto our backs and ran for the bus station.  We got there with only minutes to spare before departure and settled in for the two hour coach journey to Valencia.

It was nightfall by the time we arrived in Valencia, and the last scheduled boat transfer from this little coastal town to the island of Morro de Sao Paulo had already departed.

Valencia is a tiny, decrepit industrial town without a single hostel and nothing at all by way of tourist attractions.  The guy manning the boat transfer office by the pier generously offered to transport us to Morro as long as we were each willing to pay five times the going rate.

Seeing as we had no choice but to be extorted, we coughed up the cash.  As he counted the wad of bills, he casually asked if we were also interested in buying some crack cocaine.  He quickly shut up when he registered the looks on our faces.

The boat journey to the island took two hours.  The night sky was virtually pitch black, unspoilt by urban light pollution, and there were hundreds of stars everywhere you looked.

We arrived at Morro's docks, trekked up a steep, sandy path, and emerged into a big courtyard-type area, flanked with trees and open-air restaurants along the sides.

At this point, we had been travelling for nearly four hours and so gratefully sank into the comfortable wooden chairs of one of the restaurants for something to fill up our stomachs.

None of us had booked accommodation in advance, preferring to turn up and see what's on offer.  The problem with this plan was that the time was nearing eleven at night, there wasn't anything in sight that looked remotely like a backpacker's hostels and everything else was shutting up shop for the night.

As we dined, a woman sitting at a nearby table came over and introduced herself.  Evidently she had overheard us talking about how we were going to sort out where to sleep for the night.

'My friend has a place!  I will call her here now and she will show you!' she chattered excitedly and swayed animatedly.  The glass of red wine in her hand had clearly gone to her head.

We waited patiently for her friend, who turned up, more subdued but equally wobbly.  Me and one of the other Israelis followed her to scout out the place, the other two Israelis went to check out another place, and the Brits went to see a place one of the waitresses had recommended.

It wasn't a hostel.  More of a large house surrounded by thick bush and tall trees and in need of renovation.  And lighting.  And pest control.  The room fan creaked for a few seconds as the lady switched it on, before juddering to a halt.

She looked at it uncertainly, before purposefully striding towards the window and flinging it open.

'See? You can let the air in through the window.  It's safe!' she beamed.

Not completely sold on the place, we navigated through the hilly, sandy streets and side streets back to the restaurant.  It wasn't looking good.  It was nearly midnight and our accommodation options were bleak.

We decided to trek around the island to a hostel we had heard about.  At worst, if it was a complete dive, we would stay put for the night, and reconsider our options the next morning.

The hostel was inconspicuously tucked behind a beach-side restaurant.  Loud, pumping music blasted out of speakers haphazardly tied onto metal poles on the patchily-grassed lawn.  The rooms surrounded this area in an L-shape, like little bungalows.  There were about ten or so guests sitting down further down the lawn, drinking and chatting loudly.  Not that I could see them.  The hostel owner - in his infinite wisdom - elected not to fix up any lights, so I could only hear these people and vaguely make out the outlines of their shadows.

Aaron, the hostel owner, was lively.  Loud and social.  We were exhausted and desperate for some shut-eye.  I scribbled my details on the handwritten check-in form, using the candle on one of the white plastic tables to see what I was doing. 

For reasons I'll never know, Aaron decided to fit each room in the hostel with one king sized bed.  The problem was we were six guys and one girl.  We only discovered this interesting setup after handing over the money for the first night's stay and after switching the lights on in the room.  Apparently I was supposed to share the bed with Tobi, one of the Israelis.

Now, even though I'd only known the Israelis for no more than a few days, it felt like we'd been best friends for years.  But I wasn't counting on sharing a small bed with another guy, no matter how well I got along with him.  Then again, I didn't have a choice.

I was shattered, but Tobi wanted to head out to the hostel courtyard and meet the other backpackers chilling there.  After unpacking his bags, he left and I crashed into the bed.

I inadvertently found myself curled up in the fetal position against the wall.  It was as if my body was subconsciously protecting me from rolling over in my sleep and waking up later in the night to find myself staring deep into the flared nostrils of my snoring friend.

The mosquitoes chose that night to persecute me.  Every now and then, they would let out a high-pitched whine as they flew past my ear.  It was maddening.  The fan didn't work, and the wall-mounted air conditioning unit only had two settings - full blast or nothing.  The bedsheets were paper thin and the duvet wasn't much better.  The loudspeakers outside continued to blare loud, heavy music.
After what seemed like an eternity of tossing and turning, I was finally drifting off into that semi-conscious state when I heard the sound of someone turning a key in the lock.  Tobi stumbled in while whispering, apparently drunk.  Suddenly,  I heard a second pair of feet trotting on the ceramic tiles.

There was some muffled conversation, followed by the sound of a girl suppressing a giggle.

By now I was fully wide awake, although I pretended to be sound asleep.  What was going on?  Is this for real? Were they actually going to have sex with me lying next to them? I wondered in disbelief.  Did they forget I was here?  Should I snore loudly to remind them?  What if they get carried away in the throes of passion and I get... splattered?

They continued to talk in hushed tones for a few minutes, before I heard one of them patter into the ensuite bathroom.

Now in a stroke of sheer engineering genius, the walls surrounding the bathroom were built only three fourths of the way up to the ceiling.  Meaning, if you somehow locked yourself in there, you could get on top of the toilet, clamber over the wall and jump down to freedom.

So even though the occupant shut the bathroom door, I could still clearly hear the force of the stream of piss hit the ceramic toilet bowl.  Once finished, whoever it was came out of the bathroom and before I knew it, I felt two more bodies ambling into my bed to give me company under the duvet covers.

I wasn't sure if I should continue to lie still and feign sleep, or if I should pretend the stirring had woken me up, go stand outside and then give fifteen minutes to finish up?

They made whispered conversation and then I heard the sound of lips smooching.  I lay silently, half expecting them to start passionately thrusting me against the wall.

The girl, who was sandwiched between me and Tobi, suddenly appeared to pass out instead.

It was well into the early hours of the morning and I had no hope in hell of being able to sleep.  My new bed buddies liberally spread themselves across the bed.  No matter how much of the duvet I grabbed, with every toss and turn, they generously inched more and more of it away from me.

By the time daylight started making its way across the sky, I sat up in bed to see them happily still in dreamland, both snoring open-mouthed at me with a conceited satisfaction.

With a resigned sigh, I hauled myself out of and wearily made my way to the bathroom.

To be continued


Itecare - The End

Day 20: Itecare

I only intended on staying in Itecare for at most two or three days, and ended up staying for nearly two weeks.

In that space of time, the hostel swelled full of people and it felt like one big family.  Cam and Sam had joined us from Salvador.  Then three of the Israelis decided to check into my hostel to be closer to all the fun.  Cyril, a French student doing a university year abroad in Rio de Janeiro came up for two weeks.  Then there was Meg, the Aussie in her mid twenties volunteering at the local primary school.

'The first time I came here, I only planned to visit for ten days.  I stayed for one month,' said Cyril.  'Itecare is the kind of place where you always stay for longer than you planned,' he continued.

I could see what he meant.  There was an easy-going nature about the place.  As a tourist, you didn't get hassled by street hawkers trying to flog their goods.  People smiled at you as you walked past on the street.  The occasional person would wave in friendly greeting as they drove past.  Even the dogs trotted along the streets sedately.  Everyone was so laid back they were practically falling backwards.

A big group of us were drinking at one of the open air bars in the evening after a hectic day of lazing on the beach, interspersed with the occasional walk up to the beach bar to grab some snacks.

'Come to Morro de Sao Paulo with us,' one of the Israelis asked suddenly while we were discussing our travel plans.

I smiled a little.  This situation reminded me of a time just a few weeks ago in Rio, when my travelling buddies at the time suddenly asked me to travel with them to Argentina.  I turned them down, not out of choice, but because I had just bought my ticket up to Salvador.  It was a decision I deeply regretted for some time.

Although everything had worked out well in the end and I was now having the time of my life up in Itecare, the first few days up in Salvador immediately after Rio were lonely, and I was all set to fly down to Buenos Aires on an expensive one-way flight to join them, when I randomly got invited by a couple to Itecare.

I deliberately didn't have a specific travel itinerary, instead preferring to be completely spontaneous.  Logically, Morro de Sao Paulo logically would be my next destination anyway, so why not travel there with these crazy Israelis?

'OK,' I paused, pretending to deeply think about the matter.  'I'll come with you guys.'

They high-fived each other, thumped the table and ordered more drinks.



Surprise encounter

Day 19: Itecare

I stopped in my tracks when someone yelled out my name.  I turned towards the direction I thought the sound had come from.  To my left was an outdoor bar, complete with tall palm trees, soft mood lighting, and gentle music playing.  There were dozens of people crowded around the numerous wooden tables under the cosy night sky, but I couldn't spot anyone recognisable.

They called out my name again.  This time I saw them.  A group of three guys and three girls sitting at a small table next to the live band.  I had no idea who they were, or how they knew my name, but I walked over to them.

'Do you remember me?'

I looked at the guy.  Although he was seated, I could tell he was probably my height.  Dark hair, olive complexion, with an accent that I couldn't completely place.  Definitely not North American or British sounding, it could have been Middle Eastern possibly.

I glanced at the others at the table.  I still had no idea who they were.

'Er,' I began.

'We stayed in the same hostel together!  In Rio!' he interrupted excitedly.

Apparently I had even stayed in the same dorm room with them while there.  I left to come directly to Salvador, while this group of Israelis spent a few more days in places of interest surrounding Rio, before coming up north.

The truth is, I still couldn't remember them, and only vaguely remembered one or two of the people in the group.  And that was probably because I was willing myself to remember.

I had been walking down the high street and back to my hostel when they had spotted me.  Earlier that day, I graduated from surf school, and so spent most of the evening downing a few beers with some surf and hostel buddies at a bar just further up the street.

The plan was to call it a quiet night and get up early the next day to do some more surfing.  But after this surprise encounter, I decided to sit down and have a couple more drinks with them.

Plus it would be rude not to, after they had made the effort to yell out my name when they saw me.

I soon discovered the Israelis were loud, animated and gulped down booze like water.  A few casual drinks turned into rounds, the solid wood table before me started to sway, and the gentle, soothing tunes of the live band contorted into a cacophony of noise pollution.

Realising that I'd downed one drink too many and was way past the point of no return, I stumbled to my feet, staggered back to my hostel, and swayed onto my bed in a drunken daze.

Caipirinhas.  So sweet tasting, yet so lethal.


It's a blur

Day 18: Itecare

My Portuguese speaking skills are slowly coming along.  I've mastered a few key phrases like 'uma ovo mishido por favor' ('scrambled eggs, please') which gets me by.  

'Is today Wednesday?'

'No... it's Tuesday I think.  No wait a sec, I remember it being Monday just a day or two ago.'

'Are you sure?'



I listened to Camila and Sam's conversation with amusement.  I had lost all awareness of time or date so couldn't help them.  It was mostly unintentional.  Life just seemed to blur into one carefree day after another.  The last time I saw them was in my Salvador hostel barely a week ago, as I was packing my bags on the way out to Itecare.  I had jokingly invited them to come to Itecare, and less than a few days later, walked into my dorm room after a shower, only to find them unpacking their bags onto the remaining two beds.

'Salvador was cool, but it was so quiet it was a little depressing.  So we thought we'd come and join you guys!' Camila explained, a little shyly, as if worried she and Sam had come across as stalkers.

I was happy they turned up, as personally, the more people in my travelling crew, the better.

'Do you want to head to the beach?' is the first question we'd ask each other in the morning.  And from there, we then spontaneously decide what we want to do.  Nowadays the most important decision in my life is deciding whether I want to go to the beach first, or have breakfast before the beach, or if I want to lie in a hammock before breakfast, or....

As Cam, Sam and I lazed on the beach, coconut juice in hand and nothing but the sound of palm trees swaying and the waves breaking to disturb us, I thought back to how much my life had changed in just the space of a year.

Barely over a year ago, I graduated from the comfortable bubble of university life and into the uncertain world of the worst recession in decades.  'Class of 2009 is the lost generation', one newspaper would scream.

'Job prospects at all time low' mourned another woefully, dampening my spirits as I frantically searched for a graduate job.

In order to give myself something to fill up both my free time and the CV,  I did some bartending in Canary Wharf - London's financial district.  While the country's bankers and financial types were widely berated for bringing the British economy to its knees, ballooning the national debt and crippling graduate job prospects, here it was surreal to see these same people recklessly pissing away thousands of pounds at a time on expensive wines and champagnes, seemingly without a care in the world.  And there I was, serving them as they wined and dined, and firing off job apps once home with fevered desperation.

Most couldn't even be bothered to tip.  It was demoralising.

The time I spent going through the painstakingly drawn out dance that is the corporate recruitment process felt endless. Completing psychometric tests, wooing interviewers with my work experience, and articulating with passion my desire to dedicate the next few decades of my life to client meetings, deadlines and PowerPoint presentations.

There were one or two moments where I despaired over how brutally selective graduate recruitent had become.  At the final stage of one well-known company's recruitment process, the assessor sat us candidates down in a room and handed out multiple-choice answer sheets, along with an abstract reasoning question booklet.  For this psychometric test, I was supposed to analyse the sequences of five shapes and predict what the sixth shape should be.  Although I followed - but didn't personally agree with - the rationale behind these psychometric tests, I knew that essentially, it was just another hurdle employed by these firms to whittle down their pool of candidates further.

A few days later, the company phoned me up to tell me the outcome of my performance.  My feedback was outstanding ('we've never had a candidate perform so well across all key areas') in all eight parts of the assessment process apart from one.

The abstract reasoning test.

And that - informed the HR lady with barely concealed glee - was enough to cost me an offer.

A bunch of squares, triangles and circles on a sheet of paper.

A test that - for numerous very suspicious reasons - I was sure I hadn't failed.

But how could I prove this without looking like just another disgruntled, unsuccessful candidate?

'Of course, you are welcome to reapply to us in six months' time,' she cattily purred down the phone.

I felt fury.

Two months later, I finally saw light at the end of the tunnel when I was made a few job offers.  After signing the preferred contract, I quit my bartending job, flopped onto my bed and literally slept for two days straight.  My body practically collapsed from the stress of the past few months and suddenly developed a cold, headache and a lot of lethargy.  I was physically and mentally shattered. 

Looking back, that period of my life was plagued with uncertainty.  For the first time that I could ever remember, I couldn't reasonably see where I would be in the future.  I didn't know if I would ever find a graduate job, or how long I would spend bartending to fill up the time.  I didn't know if I would do a postgrad, or just fritter away aimlessly in a jobless limbo.

With a year left to go before my grad job started, I inadvertently had the gap year I had always secretly wanted.  And so once I recovered my mental energy from the gruelling recruitment process, I set about planning my travels for my final year of unrestricted freedom...