Recent Posts

Saturday

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.

Friday

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

Wednesday

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.

 

Saturday

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.

Wednesday

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?'

*silence*

'No.' 

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...

Monday

Hidden talents

Day 17:  Itecare

The weather finally cleared up yesterday morning and so I decided to take advantage of this and booked my first ever surfing lesson.  This coastal town is largely popular because of its ideal location with numerous palm tree lined beaches, with waves of varying strengths.

My instructor is called Wolf.  He was born here in Itecare, moved to Rio de Janeiro for four years and returned back, with a new appreciation for his home town and all that it offers.

'Rio drove me crazy.  Expensive expensive, and it took me two hours on the bus just to get to the beach.  F*ck that!' Wolf enthusiastically exclaimed.

I took to the waves in the late afternoon my first two hour session.  I mastered the technique of climbing onto the surf board, paddling, sitting up and turning around in the water.  Wolf was amazed at the speed with which I picked up all these methods.  Apparently I am a natural at surfing.  I'm sure his hefty hourly rates for lessons went some way in him dishing out these compliments so freely.

However, last night I was literally persecuted by mosquitos as a tossed and turned, trying to use my paper thin blanket to shield myself away from their bites.  No doubt they were in a jealous rage at my new found surfing ability.

This morning I wake up, eagerly looking forward to my second lesson at surf school, but also feeling extremely sore.  It is a good feeling though, like the first few days of exercise after a long period of absence, and I am sure with more regular surfing, the body soreness will slowly ebb away.

Tuesday

Toilet humour

Day 16:  Itecare

There are many things I love about Brazil.  For instance, the diversity, both of people and places.  The uninhibited, loud nature of its citizens being another.  I would fall over in shock if I saw a granny flap, bounce and sag her way along London's busy Oxford Street for her daily exercise ritual in a crack-caressing bikini.  Yet in Rio, it seemed like the city's nursing homes were playing 'shock the tourist' day as all shapes, sizes and colours paraded down the beach road in nothing more than a thong.

However, there are one or two things that I wouldn't go as far as to lightly dismiss as an 'exotic' quirk of this place.

Take the toilet situation for example.  Decades ago, when the plumbing works were being laid down all over the South American continent, the engineers of those days - in their ingenuity - installed pipes that were too small and narrow to accommodate toilet paper.

So as a workaround, every toilet here has a large dustbin placed next to it.  You wipe, floor the foot pedal, and dump your toilet paper inside.

Coming from a place where you wouldn't even think of throwing your stained toilet paper into a dustbin, rather than the actual toilet, this came as a small shock.

I remember once - at a time when I hadn't been told about the Brazilian toilet situation - opening the bin, curious to know why they had placed such a ridiculously huge dustbin next to a toilet.  I immediately shut it hastily as soon as I took in the mass of white paper, tinged in various shades and consistencies of brown.  Let's just say you don't want to peek in there, unless you want to know what Manuel's digestive system made of his hot chili con carne the night before.

'Yeah, it's revolting,' said one backpacker in disgust as we all discussed it, one night at the hostel bar.
'I always keep forgetting and absent mindedly drop paper into the toilet before realising what I'm doing and thinking, "oh shit!  What have I done?!"' another traveller exclaimed.

All I can say is I genuinely feel for the person whose job it is to clean out those bins.

Saturday

The lone wanderer


Day 15: Itecare

The rain was beating down heavily as the five of us checked into our new hostel in Itecare.  Yes.  Five, not four.  The previous night, as we queued up to board our long distance bus from Salvador, a short, glasses-wearing guy from Switzerland who appeared to be around the age of twenty five overheard us chatting loudly in English and jumped from his seat to introduce himself.

He too, was making his way to Itecare, after spending a few weeks in Salvador learning how to speak the local lingo and how to perfect his surfing skills.  Bernard asked if he could join us and we had another addition to our crew.

Although I had spent less than an hour in Itecare - and with it being only eight in the morning, everything was shut - I could tell I already liked the place.  It was a tiny village by the Atlantic coast, with a single high street that could be covered on foot in less than five minutes.  The road was mainly roughly covered with brickwork, and partially sandy in some stretches.  It was definitely a tourist town, with shops selling all sorts of novelty items, from arts and crafts to massages and zip lining sessions.

I looked through my travel guide, only to discover that Itecare hadn't even been worthy of a mention.  Other guides like the Lonely Planet barely made a passing reference to this town.  Evidently we were well off the beaten track.

As we hauled our backpacks up the stairs and into the dorm room, the ruckus woke up someone sleeping on one of the bunk beds.  He introduced himself as Neil.  We all quickly filled him in on our previous destinations and journey so far.  While Odette, Ivan and Walter were desperate for some shut-eye, I on the other hand, was desperate for something to eat.  Neil and Bernard decided to accompany me for breakfast.

The three of us walked a few steps down the high street and into a small cafe for breakfast.  While we ate, I probed Neil's adventures even further.  He had been in Brazil for eight months already and told his mother back home he did not have any plans to return to New Zealand.

I wondered what it was like living in Brazil as supposed to being just a short-term tourist.

'The novelty wears off after a while,' he said as he fingered the slice of toast on his plate.  'People always try and take advantage of you because they think you have loads of money.'

'So what's the plan after Itecare?' I asked.

'Just take my car and keep on driving!' he replied with a small laugh.

He was referring to the second-hand banger he bought for dirt cheap upon arrival in Brazil.  Apparently he filled it with petrol every day, got in the car and just kept on driving and driving, only stopping when he had run out of fuel.  His tank of empty petrol had landed him in Itecare.

'So you want to live here full-time?' I asked, still confused about his plans and trying to work out why he had left New Zealand so suddenly.

'Well, my visa runs out in a month, but I don't want to go back home ever again.  I might just stay and hope they never catch me.'

'My father passed away suddenly,' he added, as if reading my thoughts.  'I just wanted to get away from New Zealand.'

As we finished up breakfast and settled the bill, the weather outside was still wet, so the three of us jumped in Neil's car and went for a leisurely cruise around the village.  We drove to the various beaches, the zip lining trails and other tourist attractions before returning through the high street to our hostel.

Neil was thinking of driving to some waterfalls and natural pools a couple hours away.

'Are you sure you don't want to come?  I could do with the company.  You guys seem pretty cool and it's nice to be able to talk to people without a language barrier,' he almost pleaded.

But neither Bernard nor I were up for it.  Having spent the previous nine hours cooped up on an uncomfortable overnight bus trip, the idea of bundling ourselves into a car for yet another journey didn't appeal.

'Oh well,' Neil shrugged, his nonchalance failing to hide the disappointment in his voice.  'I might be coming back to the hostel afterwards, so maybe I'll see you guys later today.'

We watched as Neil hauled his battered suitcase into the boot, slid into the car and slowly drove off.

We never saw him again.

Friday

An unforseen diversion

Day 14: Salvador

My eyes involuntarily flicked away from the computer screen, as two objects moved into the background.

I instantly recognised them.  They were the couple that I had seen checking in in the late hours of the previous night, while the small group of us hostel guests made idle chatter in the dimly lit lounge adjacent to the hostel's reception room.

'Hi,' I automatically spoke up.  They returned the greeting.  We exchange the usual traveller pleasantries.  Namely, where are you from, where have you been, and where are you heading.

She was Dutch.  He was an Argentine.  Both in their mid twenties.  They had flown up to Salvador from Buenos Aires the night before, and were due to spend a very loosely planned month up here in the northern Brazilian state of Bahia.

I filled them in on my week in Rio, and joked about wishing I was still back there and not here, in the manner of a person who is trying to make light of what they feel is a very serious situation.

'So what are you doing now?' Odette, the Dutch girl asked curiously.

'Oh, just trying to figure out where to go next.  Salvador is just too quiet for me.  Maybe somewhere up north?'

'You must go up to Recife and Olinda, it is beautiful up there,' she enthused.

'Anyway,' her boyfriend spoke up.  'We are just going outside to buy something, we'll be back in a second.'  And with that I said good bye, and returned to my web browsing.

Less than two minutes later, the silence was broken by the hostel door bell ringing, and in stepped the same couple once again.  They made a beeline for my direction and stopped in front of the computer.

'Would you like to come to Itecare with us?' they asked suddenly.

'To where?' I asked in surprise.  Evidently my Brazilian geography skills were lacking.

'Itecare,' Odette explained.  'Me and Ivan were about to go buy tickets to get there and just thought of asking if you would want to travel with us!'

The incredulity and astonishment must have registered all over my face, because she hastily added, 'only if you want to of course.  It's nine hours away by bus.'

'Err...' my mouth gaped open as I searched for words and also rapidly mentally scanned my options.

Let's see.  I had already spent several days in Salvador.  The hostel was as lively as a funeral parlour and the other guests had personalities to match one.  While I had told Odette I was on the internet, looking at ways of venturing up to the north, this was in fact, a lie.  Instead, the real reason was I was quite seriously close to plonking down several hundred reals on an air ticket so I could fly down to Buenos Aires and join my friends from Rio.  But what if I just teamed up with these guys instead?  They were practically offering me a lifeline out of this solitary travel!

'Err...' I continued to stammer uncharacteristically.

But jeez.  I barely knew these two.  I had only spoken to them for less than ten minutes at best.  What if they were complete maniacs?  I'm sure they weren't, but then again, I don't think serial murderers go around sweetly introducing themselves as axe murderers when trying to ramp up their kill score.

'Err.....'

I really needed to make a decision.  Their looks were expectant, yet my mouth was still unable to form any coherent words.

What if Itecare was worse than Salvador?  What if, somehow, we didn't get along on the way?  Would it just result in awkward silences and forced, polite conversation?  Should I just not bother?  Was it worth taking the risk?

'I'm coming!'  I announced, almost shouting it, before my mind could force me to choose logic over impulse.

'Yay!' the Dutch girl clapped.  I could already see she was the more energetic of the two.  'Let's go buy these tickets.'

'If you don't mind, I might wanna join you guys too,' a hesitant, drawling voice spoke, seemingly out of nowhere.

I swivelled round in my chair and my face came within inches from a pair of white socked feet in old, heavily used trainers standing on the staircase.

It was Walter, the older American guy in my dorm room.  The rest of him came into view as he walked down and came to a stop at the foot of the staircase.

'Oh. Er,' Odette faltered slightly, before picking up again.  'Yes, sure you can come with us too!'

As the four of us walked out of the hostel, up and down several hilly cobblestone streets and towards a travel agent, I wondered how Itecare was going to pan out.  A quick, conversational chat while sitting on the hostel PC had let to an invite to some small surfing town a full overnight bus journey away, and an eavesdropping backpacker had secured himself a place in this impromptu travelling crew.

While coughing up the 100 Reals for the one way ticket, I wondered if the combo of Brazilian sun, sand and sea had caused a damaging effect on my regard for personal safety.  I barely knew these people, and had never even heard of the place I was now destined to go to.  Perhaps it was better not to think about it. 

Later that evening, as we packed our backpacks, a new couple strolled into our dorm room.  Much younger, they were around my age and I introduced myself instantly.  They had just come through Colombia, entered Brazil through the Amazon, several river boats and buses later, arrived in Salvador.

'How is it here?'  the girl asked.  She was born in Brazil, and moved to the US before she could even crawl.  A Californian through and through, later on Camila would go on to pepper her sentences with 'like' and 'oh my God'.

'It hasn't been very lively,' I carefully phrased.

She picked up my subtle disappointment with Salvador.  'Oh?  Where are you guys going then?'

'Itecare.  Join us!' I half-seriously joked.  More out of concern that I was bundling into a bus with perfect strangers, and so this was my effort of recruiting more people into our crew as a safety mechanism.

After a late dinner at a nearby restaurant, the Dutch girl, her Argentine boyfriend, the American traveller and I shoved ourselves and our belongings into a taxi and made our way to the Salvador Bus Terminal for our 11:30pm departure.

I had no idea what to expect, and had no idea of what was to happen in Itecare.  But that is the nature of backpacking.  And with that in mind, I settled back into my seat in the taxi, and watched the world go past as we sped along to the bus station.

The Motley Crew to Itecare

Saturday

Sleepy Salvador

Day 13: Salvador

I was startled to discover the meaning of the word Pelourinho.

My hostel is in the historical district of the city, or Pelourinho, as it is locally known. 

Which is Portuguese for 'whipping post'.  Several hundred years ago, during a more brutal part of Brazil's past, millions of Africans were transported to this country against their will.  When the ships docked, the pelourinho was used to cruelly lash each new arrival, before they were dispatched to labour in fields all over parts of the new country.

It felt odd how such an innocent-sounding word masked such a vicious reminder of Brazil's brutal beginnings as a nation.


Despite the colourful houses, musicians merrily playing tunes on every corner, and the ambient feel of a tourist village, there is a heaviness to the whole area that can literally be felt on your back.  You look around and the place is steeped in history.  Every building tells a story.  Every building had a function in the olden days.  Such a contrast to Copacobana and Ipanema of Rio, which are largely modern creations sprung up from the last fifty years or so.

I went into two shops that sell paintings.  They looked so ridiculously good it was unbelievable.  Authentic.  They tell a story.  Now I get why some people go crazy over artwork.  I found the craftsmanship almost addictive as I stared in fascination, seemingly mesmerised.

My hostel is quiet. Almost too quiet. It's almost a bit eerie in this strange way.  These are my sins for travelling in low season.  On my very first night, I was the only guest at the place.  I hit an all-time low on the second night, when I realised I only had the hostel owner's two dogs to make conversation with.  To make matters worse, both were revoltingly hideous.  Each time I reached over to pat the big dog, I would hastily retrieve my hand when its startlingly red eyes rolled over to my direction.

The thing resembled a demon.

The hostel owner is polite, helpful, and has a strange habit of staring at people, as if scrutinising them, before responding to their question.  Case in point:

Me:  Do you know what time it is?
He stares at me unblinkingly for a few seconds.
Him (without looking at his watch): I believe it is 3:47pm.

A curious mix of part English, part Danish parents who immigrated to Mozambique, where he was born, he then had a recent spell in England before selling up and setting up shop in Brazil permanently.

I wanted to ask what brought him to Brazil but didn't feel like subjecting myself to the stare.

On day three in Salvador, I could have practically jumped for joy and ran to hug the three new people I saw checking in.  But I stopped myself just in time as that would have been bizarre.

One was an American solo traveller, and the other two, a Welsh/Scottish couple. The couple seemed nice enough but much older than me and we didn't really click I suppose. Not that they weren't friendly.   They were, but I probably wouldn't be facebooking them any time soon.

The American guy was put into my room.  He had been on the road for eight months so far and had a month or two left.  I asked him about the most interesting places he had been to.  He reeled them off with the enthusiasm of a five year old reading out their list of chores.  Walter lacked the energy and excitement that other backpackers I met possessed.  I wondered to myself whether he was really enjoying his trip, or if he was just going through the motions and working through a ticklist of sights and attractions that were supposed to be seen.

He sat down on his bed, rummaged through his backpack and pulled out a large laptop and several heavy duty speakers.  It was though Walter had come to this hostel to settle indefinitely, rather than someone who was on the go.  I half expected him to extract and unfold a large desk and chair from his bag, with which to put his laptop on top.

I found myself wistfully wondering if I should have written off the money wasted from not using the Rio-Salvador bus ticket and gone to Florianopolis with my friends.  Salvador is nice, the hostel is nice, but what use is having a swimming pool if there weren't people to chill out with?  Should I just fly down and reunite with them?  Is that ridiculous?  Surely I need to give this place a bit more time?  I just couldn't get over how quiet everything was.

These are my sins for travelling in low season.

Friday

Salvador

Day 10: Salvador

I made it to Salvador.

Finally.

When booking the bus tickets the day before the journey, by my crude estimations, I thought it would 'only' take seventeen or so hours to make it up from Rio.

How wrong I was.

It took thirty hours.  When we reached the twenty hour mark, and seemed to be nowhere near a city that I could maybe identify as being Salvador, I began to despair and genuinely thought I had accidentally clambered on board a bus destined for Mexico.

To make it worse, in an act of monumental stupidity, I had packed my trusty pocket-sized English/Portuguese translation guide in my backpack, which was in the luggage hold underneath us.  So I couldn't even tap a fellow passenger on the shoulder to ask how long we had left (and also, to check that I was on the right bus to begin with).

We finally arrived at around three in the afternoon, and I was full of relief that I had made it to the correct destination.  My next mission was working out how to transport myself from the city's main bus station to area my hostel was situated.

Grasping my translation guide as if it were the Holy Bible, I purposefully strode up to the information desk where, in slow yet determined Portuguese, I enquired how to make my way to the Historical Centre.

The lady behind the counter stared at me in silence, absolutely bewildered.

"Historical Centre?" I asked again in Portuguese.  I repeated the words several times, each time with more and more uncertainty, hoping she might clue in to what I was asking for.

She still looked completely mystified.  Spotting a pen on the counter top, I grabbed it and jotted down the name of the area I was after on a piece of scrap paper.  Comprehension suddenly dawned on her, and a torrent of words flew out of her mouth as she began describing the directions in rapid fire Portuguese.

Pausing mid sentence, no doubt when registering the blank look on my face, she then grabbed the pen from my hand and wrote down a number on the slip of paper.  From what I could gather, I was to take the bus bearing this number to where I wanted to go, and my hostel (hopefully) wouldn't be too far from the stop.

I got on the bus, which rumbled along the road towards the central area of the city.  Yet I had absolutely no idea where I was going, and no idea what I was supposed to be looking for.  So I hopped off and jumped into a taxi, giving the driver the street address of my hostel.  The sun would be setting in another hour and I wasn't keen on wandering around Salvador in the dead of night, hopelessly lost and confused.

The taxi dropped me outside a busy road, and I couldn't spot anything that looked remotely like a hostel.  The driver vaguely pointed to a narrow, dirty pathway in between two shops leading upwards to a hill.  It looked deserted and pretty unappealing, but seeing as I had no clue where I was anyway, I decided to just go for it, and prayed this wasn't a setup where hapless backpackers are set upon all at once.

At the top of this narrow pathway, I emerged into a scene that completely took me by surprise.  Cobblestone streets, small houses and buildings painted in an array of colours, and tourists milling about, taking photos and exploring the area.

I made it to the Historical Centre after all, and found my hostel shortly after.

Rio feels like another world away and I miss the buzz. This small, well-thought out hostel, voted best in the world in 2008 (apparently) comes with free Internet, a noticeboard updated daily highlighting interesting events in the area, and a small swimming pool.  It is deadly quiet and I have only seen one or two people who I am assuming are guests. Apart from my backpack lying across the floor, my dorm room was completely empty.  A huge contrast to the five-floor, fully booked party hostel in Rio that was essentially my home for a week.

After dinner in a restaurant nearby, I called it an early night and collapsed onto my bed with exhaustion.

Tuesday

The day after favela fun

Day 9: Rio de Janeiro

The morning after the night at the favela party, we had breakfast while recollecting and laughing over the antics of the night before.  Afterwards, I went round the corner and down the street to a travel agent to arrange a way of journeying up to the city of Salvador on the north east Brazilian coast.  The travel agents were English speaking, which was just as well, as I did not want to accidentally book myself a one way ticket to El Salvador due to an inability to get people to understand my basic Portuguese.

Ten minutes later, I strolled back to the hostel and settled once again at the breakfast table occupied by the rest of my friends.

"Mate," began Carl.  "Come travelling with us to Florianopolis and Argentina?"

I couldn't have looked more crestfallen if I tried.  "But," I stammered.  "I literally just bought my ticket to Salvador!"

Salvador was in the complete opposite direction to Florianopolis in the south, which ruled out the idea of maybe going to Salvador first, and then onwards to Floripa to rejoin them.  At nearly 260 Brazilian Reals (£110/$150) for the ticket, it wasn't the kind of money I could just forfeit and forget about either.  Would they even still be in Argentina by the time I planned to arrive there, or would they have made their way up to somewhere far off like Columbia by then?

"Argh!" I practically wailed in frustration.  "Why didn't you guys ask me this ten minutes ago?!"

Oh well.  We put it down to 'one of those things that's just not meant to be', which I personally didn't buy into, but there was nothing that could be done about it.  The non-refundable tickets in my hands had me departing from Rio the very next morning, and my friends were leaving for Florianopolis the day after, so we made the most of the time we had before we set off on our different itineraries.

With breakfast out of the way, it was a toss up between bussing over to either Cristo Redentor (The Christ Statue) or Pao de Acucar (Sugar Loaf mountain) for some sightseeing.  All things equal, I would have favoured the seeing the statue, but seeing as it was surrounded by unattractive scaffolding for some routine maintenance, we opted for Sugar Loaf instead.

Sugar Loaf
We rode two cable cars up to the top of the mountain, where there was an outdoor cafe, restaurant, and most bizarrely, a full-fledged high-end boutique jewellery shop selling pretty pricey diamonds.  How many people venture all the way up here for the scenic views of the city, and then spontaneously plop down several thousand grand for some gems on an impulse purchase?  I mean, really?

You can only really appreciate how beautiful Rio is when looking down on the city from a good vantage point.  It's actually quite weird how a sprawling metropolis as large as this managed to flourish in such an awkward, cramped strip of coastline, trapped by numerous mountains on one side, and flanked by the Southern Atlantic Ocean on the other.  It definitely lends to its natural beauty.
 
Looking down towards Rio

The Statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooks the city (in the background, to the left on top of the mountain)

Later that day, in the evening, we headed over to an English pub close to our hostel, not out of a yearning for the familiar, but for a two for one offer on drinks we'd heard about on the hostel rumourville.

It's funny.  Just a few days ago, after saying farewell to my Sao Paulo friends, one of my top worries was travelling in alone and not meeting people on my own wavelength.  It didn't help that virtually all of my travel buddies from my first week had been on the tail end of their journeys and had left to head back home, one by one.

I could never have foreseen randomly striking up a friendship with perfect strangers in a hostel common room while I was reading a book on a rainy Sunday evening, being asked to join them to a party in the favelas, and then touring the sights together the whole of the next day. 

It showed me that there really wasn't any point in worrying about the future - especially when travelling - as so much is out of my control.  I've had an indescribably amazing time in Rio, but now it is time to move on.

Honestly speaking?  My only hope is to meet even more chilled out people in Salvador and beyond.

All of us on top of Sugar Loaf

Saturday

An unexpected golden shower

(continuation from previous post)

I spread all over a bean bag chair in the pretty sparsely furnished common room of my hostel when another traveller walked in and made his way towards one of the other bean bags.

The title of the book he was holding signalled that we shared a common language.

"Where are you from?" I asked in curiosity.

Turns out he was from near London, along with the other three people he was travelling with.  One of his friends - Hanna - joined us in the common room and we all talked for well over an hour.  It was strange, but I chatted with them as if I'd known them for years and years, freely discussing all kinds of things without the tiniest bit of reservation or inhibition.  And this went both ways.  It was amazing yet felt so normal too.

We nearly fell off our chairs in shock upon finding out we all took the same flight on the same day from London to Rio barely a week ago - myself in Row 16, and they, just ten rows behind me.  Whereas I had spent the first week in this city, they had transferred to an island nearby called Ilha Grande for the first few nights, before coming up to Rio just a day or two ago.  A week before, they were perfect strangers to me, and now we were striking up conversation like long-lost friends reunited.  What a small world.

"What are you up to tonight then?" my new friends asked.

I paused for a second.  "To be honest, I was just going to call it an early night," I replied.

"Come to the favela party with us!"

I had had such a great time in Rio, but to be honest, as I intended to leave for my next destination in the next day or two, my mind had already said good bye to the place, particularly after my Sao Paulo friends had left earlier that day.

Should I just stay in on this dreary Sunday, as originally envisioned?  Or should I just spontaneously go to this party?

"F*ck it.  I'm going upstairs to get changed, be back in a second!"

A quick word on what a favela is.  It is basically a run down shanty town hugging the mountains bordering the city.  Some of the worst ones have limited access to clean water and electricity.  From what I've heard, many are controlled by drug lords.  Most favela residents bus themselves into the wealthier confines of Rio to work, and head back up to the favelas at the end of the working day.

Another interesting fact I discovered was that up until the late 1980s, the government refused to recognise favelas, so they were represented by blank space on official maps.  Also, because technically these places did not "exist" in the eyes of lawmakers, the poor did not have the right to vote or have their say in local government matters.  I guess you could say they were disenfranchised in a sense.

Now, some tour operators offer favela day tours to tourists.  I really was in two minds about whether to go on such a tour or not.  It felt like handing over cash to some rich businessperson just to have them whisk me up the mountains to these places so I could gawk at poor people, cast one or two of them looks of well-meaning sympathy, before being brought back down to the safe and affluent confines of leafy Ipanema. 

After discussing it at length with some fellow travellers, I learned about some companies that do it a lot more respectfully than others.  So instead of transporting you in a bullet-proof Lincoln Navigator 4x4 complete with rocket propelled grenades and a helicopter hovering over the scene in case some 'funny business' goes down, one of the tour companies rides you up in a motorcycle to a well-known favela called Rocinha, you get to actually meet local residents and chat with them, can look at some of the artwork the local men and women have designed and buy it directly from them, and then you slowly wander down the favela with the guides, stopping every now and then to take in places of interest.

I still wasn't sure if felt right to go on this favela tour, even if the tour operator mentioned above actually pledge part of their earnings towards supporting the favela directly.  There was something weirdly voyeuristic about being charged a fee to peruse the neighbourhood of Rio's disadvantaged.  I mean, can you imagine someone offering to take you on a tour of Tower Hamlets or the Bronx for a hefty surcharge?  You would probably slap them with the subway ticket you'd then use to go look around those areas yourself.  For free.

Now, another way to experience a favela is to go to a party there at night time.  This didn't raise such an ethical dilemma.

I quickly got dressed, and headed to the hostel bar downstairs with my new friends to booze up for our night out.  Sometime around midnight, the company organising the transportation to this favela party picked a big group of us from our hostel, stopped at a few more places nearby to pick up more travellers, and after a quick thirty minute journey, we arrived at our destination.

"Remember, when the time is five a.m. please come back to this exact spot so we can take you back to the hostel," boomed the female company rep.  "Otherwise you will be stuck here and must find your own way back!  Oh and to all the guys.  If you meet any.... 'special' girls, don't forget to check the goods in the pants first or you might have a very big surprise!" she added with a beaming wink.

My friends and I stared at each other, completely speechless and incredibly disturbed.

The favela party was housed in what seemed to be a massive warehouse.  The place was packed full of people, and Brazilian funk music blasted from the loudspeakers strategically dotted all over.  Us backpackers were given special wristbands that allowed us to the 'VIP area'.  Which basically allowed entry to an above-ground level overlooking the entire place, along with a dedicated bar.  I guess they did it to give us backpackers a 'safe' place to mingle.  Personally, it felt a bit neo-imperialist.

So after getting a few drinks, a small group of us decided to head downstairs together to check out the rest of the action.  As we slowly made our way through the crowd, I noticed what seemed to be water all over the bare, concrete floor.  I didn't think much of it until a few seconds later, when we could sniff the pungent aroma of stale and freshly released urine.

It then dawned on us that our feet were wading through the piss of several hundred drunk people.

I looked down at my flip flops, which, by now, were soaked.  I shrugged.  The damage had already been done, and the only other alternative would have been to go barefoot, which wasn't much of an option at all. After carefully rolling my jeans up to as close to my knees as possible, we then continued with our wander through the crowd.

And then it happened.  We were standing close to the stage area when I felt a warm, steady splatter down my leg.  I looked to my right to see some guy just standing with his knob out, pissing in our general direction, seemingly without a care - or more accurately, any sense of shame - in the world.

I was stunned.  My friend stared, first at me, then at our legs, then at the absolute stranger, then back to me.  Never in my life had I taken part in a golden shower without consent.

My first immediate thought was "wtf?  Is this what people do in favelas?!"  As foolish as it sounds now, the next image on my mind was of me having a go at this guy, only for him to draw out a knife and nonchalantly stab us ("psssh, these dumb tourists") for daring to disturb him while he unleashed a stream of piss onto a small group of innocent bystanders.

After scraping our jaws from the floor, we decided to enjoy the rest of the night and just dunk our legs in the shower once we got back to the hostel.

Except, when we returned, incredibly drunk and fatigued, for the first time - "in months", stated a member of staff adamantly - our hostel had run out of water...

No tap water.  No toilet flush.  No shower.

We resignedly passed out in our beds, allowing the dried urine of a hundred human souls to mixinto our sheets overnight, before rising, bleary-eyed a few hours later, to stumble down towards the beach and shake our dirty legs in the Atlantic.

Only in Rio.

Tuesday

A rude awakening, and a day trip to Petropolis

Day 7: Rio de Janeiro


I sat and stared at the computer screen, completely stunned.  Unable to believe the figure in front of me, I blinked hard and looked again, secretly hoping that maybe my contact lenses were playing games with me.

They weren't.

"Shit!" I exclaimed to no one in particular.  "What's the matter?" the Israeli girl idly surfing Facebook on the PC to my right turned to see what had prompted my outburst.  She studied the online banking account balances summary on my screen for a few seconds.

"Ahh," she nodded with knowing sympathy.  "Expensive Rio, huh?"

Just a week in Rio and I had been subject to financial rape.  I had no idea how I'd manage to spend so much money.  Even worse, I had absolutely nothing to show for it.  No souvenirs for friends and family, no cool t-shirts.  Just a throbbing hangover-induced headache from last night's clubbing in Lapa.

Before setting off on my trip, I had vaguely read about how expensive Rio had become recently.  I dismissed it as rubbish.  "C'mon,' I reasoned with myself.  "It's South America.  I live in Europe.  How expensive can it really be?"

Rio was effectively just as expensive as - if not more than - London.  A bit alarmed now, I decided it was time to start thinking of leaving for less wallet-draining destinations in the country.  I had ideas of places I wanted to go to, but deliberately decided not to plot and plan a dedicated itinerary, so I could have the freedom to just go with the flow.  Besides, life in the UK tends to be so hideously organised, so regimented, so full of regulation requiring you to buy insurance to practically breathe, that I found it refreshing to have absolutely nothing planned.  Either way,  I decided I would leave Rio by Tuesday at the very latest, leaving me with today and the day after to decide on my next port of call.

I logged off online banking, left the computer room and surveyed the Sunday morning weather outside one of the hostel windows.  The ominous looking clouds I had seen earlier in the day, hugging the mountains surrounding Rio, had slowly rolled across the city, and now there was a torrential downpour.  The beach was off limits, and I was hit with the realisation that without good weather, there wasn't much else to do here.

And so I decided to go on a quick day trip to a small town up in the mountains called Petropolis.  My guide book informed me that it was a charming, mountain top retreat, popular with those from Rio de Janeiro.  Besides, it would be nice to go somewhere a bit different for a change.  I got a public bus to the Rio Bus Terminal (Novo Rio Rodoviaria), and once there, switched to a comfy, long distance coach with reclining seats, for the one and a half hour journey snaking up the mountains to Petropolis.

After pulling into Petropolis Bus Station, which was located on the outskirts of the town, I took a small local bus, which unceremoniously dumped me outside a massive park, after much gesturing and pointing at the tourist information office sign in my guide book's map to the bus driver.  The weather in Petropolis was even wetter than Rio.  This, I hadn't prepared for.  Clutching my guide book underneath my thin t-shirt, I started sprinting towards the tourist office kiosk in the middle of the park.  I was forced to slow my determined sprint into a brisk walk/jog combo when I realised the backs of my flip flops were flicking mud onto the rear of my jeans and white t-shirt.

I arrived into the tourist office panting and drenched, while the amused lady behind the desk waited for me to catch my breath.  I was the only person there.  Evidently, no one else was foolish enough to want to take in the sights and attractions of Petropolis in the midst of a tropical downpour.

After handing me a map and a bunch of detailed, verbal directions, the tour guide sent me on my way.  I darted down a mile-long street, with cars zipping past and the occasional horse-drawn carriage trotting along, turned left at the end of it, crossed the road, and took shelter underneath the entrance to an impressive cathedral.

A bit about Petropolis.  In the mid to late 1800s, the son of Emperor Dom Pedro built a palace, cathedral, and several mansions, then immigrants mainly from Germany followed in his footsteps and settled in the region.  Today, the place is home to 300,000 inhabitants.  You can definitely see the Germanic influence.  Whether it is the architecture, the canals, or the pedestrian-friendly design.  Some of it, I felt was a little over the top.  Like the European-style carriages drawn by horses that are no doubt a hit with tourists and possibly, even Brazilians from other parts of the country who may find it a bit of a novelty.
German-influenced architecture

My guide book nominated the cathedral in front of me as a top attraction.  Catedral de São Pedro de Alcântara houses the tomb of Dom Pedro and his family.  As luck would have it (or as common sense should have informed me, it being a Sunday) a service was taking place inside, which meant I couldn't wonder inside, decked in t-shirt, jeans and flip flops.


Cathedral of St. Peter


Looking at the map given to me earlier, I picked my next stop.  It was the emperor's former residence, and had been converted into a museum to preserve and showcase his and his family's life.  The rain had eased, so I spotted my window of opportunity and set off for this place.

I arrived at Museu Imperial, paid the entrance fee - more out of relief that I was now finally indoors and sheltered from the crap weather outside than a burning desire to see the layout of the emperor's reception room - stretched out as much time as possible exploring this former palatial home.

After an hour I had had enough, and jogged back to the tourist information office.  The torrential rain had subsided, replaced by a steady drizzle.

The lady I met earlier had evidently finished her shift.  There was now a guy in her place.  Late twenties, with frameless glasses, he looked like he might be a university grad that was possibly doing this as a part-time job to earn some extra cash.

"So, I've just been to the Cathedral and the Imperial Museum," I began.  "Is there anything really interesting that I could go to?"

"Well," he replied, "those are two of our biggest attractions.  You could go to Casa de Santos Dumont, which isn't too far from here".

"Is it interesting?"

"Well, it's the former house of the Brazilian inventor, Santos Dumont.  Unless you are interested in his personal belongings, it could be underwhelming".

"I see," pausing, as I studied him for a second.  "Do you like Petropolis?" I asked.

"Oh, I love Petropolis!" he replied.

I looked at him earnestly, expecting him to punctuate the end of his declaration with a sarcastic snort.

It never came.  I then realised he was being serious.  And that in the silence that engulfed us, it now looked like I was just staring.

"Yeah, it is quite nice I suppose," I hastily and insincerely offered.  "Erm, so how can I get back to the bus station?"

As the coach meandered its way back down to Rio, I thumbed through my guide book, stopping at the entry for Petropolis.  It spoke of a 'charming' hill-top city, gushed over the horses trotting around the cobblestone streets, and raved about the tree-lined canals.  

Personally, I felt the travel writer was afflicted with a serious fetish for all things German.  Don't get me wrong, it was a nice enough place, but I definitely didn't feel as though, when I arrived, that I'd stepped off the coach and had been transported into some mystic, German winter wonderland.  I could see the Germanic influences, but it felt like a Brazilian town with a German theme, rather than a model Bavarian outpost smack in the middle of tropical South America.

Still, it was nice to go somewhere a bit different, even if it was a let down.  The ride itself up there was worth it alone.  The coach wound its way through roads snaking up higher and higher in altitude.  Many times, just metres from the coach was a sheer drop that seemed to plunge downwards for as far as the eyes could see.

Scenery on the way up to Petropolis

My friends from Sao Paulo had left much earlier in the day, so after a late dinner back at the hostel, I looked outside at the dismal weather, picked up a book from my backpack, and went to sit in the common room.  I figured I would just while away time for the rest of the evening, call it an early night, and leave for Salvador some time tomorrow.  Hopefully there, I would stop haemorrhaging cash.

Sunday

A dose of familiarity...

Day 6: Rio de Janeiro


At some point in the last couple of days, it suddenly dawned on me that if something horrifying were to happen, like being abruptly struck down by one of the city busses hurtling around the place like an over-speeding projectile of terror as I casually strolled down a zebra crossing, my nearest immediate family member was about eleven thousand kilometres away.  The closest relative? Six thousand kilometres.

And just like that, in that moment, the enormity of the trip I have embarked on and the ramifications of backpacking solo in such a distant corner of the world hit me like a ton of bricks.

So I was pleased, as well as secretly relieved, when my friend from home, Anders came up from Sao Paulo on Thursday (a few days ago) to visit me for a couple days with two of his friends.  Just so I could recognise a familiar face that already knew me, and inject some measure of familiarity into this surreal experience so far.

I wanted them to come with me to Sugar Loaf mountain, and also a day trip up to Petropolis.  But they had very different ideas.  After spending months cooped up in urban, chaotic, land-locked Sao Paulo, attending hours of university classes every day, they didn't want to do anything other than lounge on the beach.  Whereas I had spent the past week more or less breathing, eating, and drinking the beach, so I was, to be honest, completely sick of the sight of sand.  I put aside my slight disappointment, reasoning that it would be unfair to ditch them and go to these places, since they had come to Rio specifically to see me.  Plus, even if they hadn't come up here, I would have had to go without them anyway.   So once again I lolled about on the beach.  Which, to be fair, isn't a bad thing at all.



Something interesting I noticed about the beaches here.  A lot of Cariocas here like playing beach sports, like volleyball.  And they take it very seriously.  Far too seriously.  I once saw a middle aged guy literally persecute his team mate after he missed the ball when it came his way.  The guy's gonna die from a heart attack induced by stress from volley ball if he doesn't watch out.  Of all the things you could die from.  Told you the people here are quite passionate.


Anyway, the hostel I've been staying at is nice enough.  Spanning five floors, with about three dorm rooms per floor, and the bar/chillout area on the ground floor, with a TV.  Major points for being less than a block from the beach.  Huge points for having a promo on for USD5 a night (!).  The bar gives it a real party atmosphere and you are constantly meeting people.  Apparently this is low season, meaning the hostel isn't too full. Also, at least 80% of the guests at the hostel are Scandinavian for some unusual reason - 'an invasion', as one of the Norwegian girls put it.  Everyone is quite laid back but I must admit, now that the three Norwegian girls and two Danish guys I've been chilling with since I arrived have now left to fly back home, I haven't met others that I click with to the same, comfortable degree.

Me with the two Danish guys and four Norwegian girls, chilling at a beach side cafe

There are one or two oddballs.  Like the 60-something year old Australian traveller that has a daily ritual of having breakfast at half nine, climbing back up the stairs to get his laptop from his room, only to head back down, settle on one of the sofas, and fiercely scowl at anyone who happens to even blink in his direction, interspersed with a few moments of web browsing.  He did this every day without fail for the whole week I stayed at that hostel.  And from what I heard, he's not the best conversationalist.  He also wears the exact same bright Hawaiian shirt and beige cargo shorts.  Every time you see him, it's like deja vu all over again.

After beaching it with Anders and friends all day till sunset, I went back to my hostel to change clothes, then headed to their hostel in an area called Copacobana to reunite with them for dinner.  Copacobana was the place to be seen in the 90s, and now it has passed that crown to Ipanema and Leblon.  It's not a bad area by any standards, but does look a little shabby in some parts, compared to its leafy neighbour to the south, Ipanema.  While I waited in the reception/lounge area for them to change upstairs in their room, the hostel owner seemingly appeared out to nowhere to introduce herself.

An Australian woman from Sydney, she's been living in Rio for about six months and has no plans to leave.  And so she opened a hostel.  Definitely a independent, hippie type, as the numerous bangles and chains on her body informed me, Fi had also spent time living in Asia and had no intention of ever going back to Oz ("such a boring, bland country").

While we were chatting and getting acquainted, her pet dog bounded out of one of the doors leading out of this reception area.  It was one of those miniature breeds, with black and tan fur.  Being a canine lover, I reached out to pet the dog, commenting 'he's pretty friendly isn't he?'

'Oh yes he is, such a darling!' Fi practically cooed in delight.  'Do be careful when you pet him though, as he does tend to nip people and draw blood.'

I stared at her.  Fi beamed back at me.  She had said it so sweetly and with such a cheery tone to her voice, I thought maybe I misheard her.  I wasn't taking any chances.  I abruptly got up and moved away from the pet, pretending to take a sudden, yet keen interest in the rows of books across the room on the shelves.  I didn't come to South America only to potentially have my hand chewed off by some woman's pet dog.  Once my friends came down from their room and as we sat on the sofas discussing what to do later in the evening, I brought up the topic of the owner's dog.

'Yeah that thing is a beast,' my friend muttered in disgust.  'It keeps going after our fingers.'
'What?! And she just lets it loose, just like that?' I replied in astonishment.
'Yeah...well, she's a bit crazy herself to be honest,' another friend said quietly.

A few minutes later, the little puppy turned up again, seemingly attracted by the scents radiating from my friends.  It took an interest in Jay for some reason, and before we knew it, tried to nip a chunk out of his leg.  He yelled in shock, jumped up on to the sofa, and started shouting all kinds of profanities in English, Dutch, and a bit of Portuguese.  This excited the dog and it started barking, hopping excitedly from one person to the next.  The hostel owner, no doubt hearing all the commotion, ran into the reception to see four fully grown guys jumping up and down on sofas, flapping arms in the air wildly, shouting and swearing in about four different languages, with a tiny little puppy bouncing around in the middle of the fracas.  After managing to extract her pet from the scene, she promised to lock the dog away.  By then we had had enough of her canine Antichrist, and hurried out of the hostel onto the streets of Copacobana for something to eat. 

There is a really cool concept here called kilo restaurants.  They are buffets, but once you've filled your plate with food, you then go to the person behind the counter, put your plate on a scale, have it weighed, and you get charged according to how many grams (or kilos) of food you've heaped onto your plate.  You can have as many plates as you like until you literally feel like you're about to burst (as I did).  I've never come across it before.  Pretty cool concept and a cheap way of eating.  We went to one for dinner and after stuffing our mouths, headed to the bar at my hostel for pre drinks, then on to Lapa to go clubbing.

I had gone clubbing pretty much every single night since arriving in Rio, but I stuck to various places in Ipanema and Leblon.  This was the first time I'd be going to Lapa.  Now, the story goes that up until five years ago, the area used to be quite run-down and crime-ridden.  Suddenly, it become popular with trendy, bohemian and artistic types as a place to go for a night out.  The local government sat up, poured millions into regenerating the area, and it's now become a pretty funky place to hang out for everyone, not just for the type claiming to be 'hip'.

There are two ways of enjoying Lapa.  You can either head into one of many clubs dotted all over the place, or you can literally party on the streets.  There is music playing out in the open, and business-minded men and women set up little stalls selling alcohol.  If you get the munchies, there are kiosks offering very very tasty meat on skewers.

We decided to go into one of the clubs that is world-renowned (well, apparently).  Rio Scenarium is laid out over three massive floors and once inside, does not feel like a club at all.  It felt like we were partying in some royal's huge mansion, with hundreds of antiques (even a real Model T Ford) peppered around, and different music playing in each room.  The crowd was varied, but well up for dancing.  It was a complete contrast to the clubs I went to Ipanema and Leblon.  The music here felt much more authentic and Brazilian-influenced.  Basically, here, I knew I was in Brazil, whereas in the other clubs, I could have been anywhere in the world to be honest.

As much as Lapa has become a tourist magnet, it still is dangerous and lots of people warned me not to take my camera in case someone made a grab for it.  You can see that despite the fun atmosphere, there is still a seedy layer to the place.  Whether, it's the dilapated buildings, the graffiti, or even the transsexual prostitutes dotted on the street corners vying for business.  I literally did a double take when I saw this particular flavour of ladies of the night.
Still, if you're in Rio, you should definitely check out Lapa.

Here are some pics of Rio Scenarium:




Friday

A damn payphone

Day 5

I have to say, Brazilians are pretty interesting.  To be more accurate, Cariocas (residents of Rio) are interesting people.  I have to say I am left with the impression that they seem to be pretty uninhibited.

I decided to take a walk down the beach road at around 10am.  As I strolled down the pavement, I noticed Cariocas of every shape, size and colour jogging past me.  What really took me by surprise was the fact that many wore clothing that left very little to the imagination.  Even the grannies that whizzed past me every now and then.  People that would be termed 'obese' ambled along with just a pair of speedos or bikini bottoms, their body parts flapping about, seeming not to have a care in the world.  And no one bats an eyelid.  Apart from me, it seems.  Got to say, I had to admire them for their...bravery.  I was too shocked to take a proper photo at the time, but later, I managed to sneak one in while trying to be discreet.  If you look at the pic below, well this scene is a lot more erm..conservative, but have a look at the older guy towards the right of the shot sporting nothing more than a speedo, and you have an idea of what I mean.



Of course I'm having a great time, not to say of course that there aren't minor hiccups every now and then, the most obvious one being the language barrier.  The only Spanish or Portuguese I know are phrases from my travel guide, and a couple of words I wrote down that I figured might come in useful some time.

Still, seemingly trivial things that can cause a lot of frustration.  I'm backpacking completely on my own - partly because none of my friends could be bothered to sort themselves out and book flights, and mostly because I wanted to go solo -  but one of my friends from home has been in Sao Paulo for the past five months, on a university exchange programme for one semester.  Of course, when he heard I was making my way to this continent, we made plans to meet up, and in the process he gave me his Brazilian mobile number.  Now I haven't got a phone here, so I figured the easiest way to get in touch would be to call him using one of the numerous payphones that are dotted around the city.  Shouldn't be a problem right?  Except for the fact that everything is in Portuguese.

I spoke to the lady at the hostel check-in counter about how I could go about getting a calling card.  'Oh, that's simple, just walk to the nearest shop, ask for an 'Oi' card, go to the pay phone, put in the card and then dial the code, followed by your friend's number,' she casually instructed.

Sounded easy enough right?  I went to the nearest shop, made my way to the payphone nearest to my hostel, put the card in the slot, dialled my friend's number, and heard a tone that I was pretty sure meant that the call wasn't going through.

So I went back to the hostel lady with the news that it didn't work.  'But, all you have to put the card in and dial the number...?'  She said it as though using a payphone should surely be one of the easiest things the world, even easier than a newborn learning to walk for the first time.

Wondering if maybe I had forgotten some important step the last time, I returned to the payphone to try it again.  Still nothing.  Once again, I went back to the hostel and had her walk me through every single step.  She generally had an aloof, carefree manner, and judging by the way she s l o w l y went through this lecture on 'How to Use a Brazilian Payphone',  I felt as though I was severely mentally retarded.

So I went back to the payphone.  And dialled my friend's number.  And redialled.  And redialled.  And redialled.  Still nothing.  I checked the time.  I'd spent the better part of the last hour trying to get through to my friend.  And I wasn't any closer to reaching him.  I literally felt like a dumbass.  How could I not understand how to use this payphone?  The mid-day sun was beating down on me pretty furiously, so my t-shirt at this point was drenched with sweat.  The few passers-by that I had stopped appeared not to know how to use the payphone, which both bewildered and infuriated me.  'How can they not know how to use a payphone in their own city?' I muttered to myself under my breath.  After unsuccessfully trying to reach through to my friend for what felt like the thousandth time, I put the phone back on the receiver, stared at the number I scribbled in my journal, surveyed my sweat-drenched shirt, and I then glared at the payphone with 100% fury.

Of course, that achieved absolutely zero, so after scowling at the stupid payphone with one last look of contempt, I shuffled off back to my hostel, muttering a host of profanities.  How the hell could I not work a damn payphone? It's a PAYPHONE!  At that point, I swore to NEVER NEVER use a payphone in this country ever again, unless the goal was to give myself hypertension.  I logged on to Facebook, messaged my friend who was already on the way from Sao Paulo to visit me, and told him if he wanted to find me he can come look for me on the beach.
 
Fortunately, we did manage to meet up in the end, and now I can look back on the payphone incident and laugh.  But oh wow, that thing really ruined my mood that morning.

Anyway, a day or two later, I realised that the specific payphone I kept going back to was actually faulty and I wasn't the one making a mistake.  As luck would have it, that was the only one that I tried at the time.  Ha..

I've had a lot of fun in Rio, it is definitely the kind of place I could stay for a while, but I want to see other places around the country and so in the next few days I plan to head to my next destination.  Stay tuned for the next update.