Recent Posts


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.


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.


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:


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.


Settling into the Backpacking Life

Day 2
There is something about travelling that makes you ridiculously spontaneous. Take yesterday for example - my first full day in Rio. I woke up early in the morning and I was desperate to start exploring. I headed back to the backpacker hostel early in the afternoon after browsing through the streets of Ipanema - my local area. When I came back, none of my fellow travellers were around the hostel. They were all out doing some exploring. So I decided to have a quick walk down the beach. I sat down at a little cafe by the beach road. Now this was only my first day, and I was loving it of course, but I soon found I was craving the ability to speak to someone in English, the ability to speak to someone without resorting to wild hand gestures and evoking looks of pure mystery and confusion. So when I saw the couple at the table next to me reading a Lonely Planet Brazil travel guide I KNEW they were tourists - and most importantly, could speak English - and so I literally pounced on them. One thing led to another, we met another fellow tourist and we hung out together for the rest of the day and later that evening.
So far I am really settling in. One thing about backpacker hostels is that it is very transient - people are constantly on the move as part of their travels so one day you might see someone, and the next day you are saying goodbye as they make their way to their next port of call.

I have only really just been to the beach and combed through the local area. Today I will venture out to Copacobana (another touristy area that is part of this Zona Sul region) and explore there. I am completely living day by day and my plans are very open ended. I will probably stay in Rio for a week and then see where I like the look of next.


Ground Zero: Touchdown in Rio


I made it! I'm in Rio de Janeiro!!!
I had a direct, twelve hour flight from London Heathrow with a plane half-filled, mainly with what appeared to be leisure passengers. After a quick take-off, the pilot banked to the right and set a south-westerly course. We overflew Spain, Portugal, trailed along the western coast of the African continent, before making our way over the southern part of the Atlantic ocean. By the time we made landfall at a point near the city of Salvador on the north east coast of Brazil, the stunning sunset I witnessed from my window seat gave way to a beautiful night time sky pierced with loads and loads of stars. I eagerly peered out of the window to get my first look at the continent that was essentially going to become my home for the next two months. Since it was so dark, I couldn't really see anything, and didn't until we made our approach into Rio de Janeiro International airport several hours later.

All the travel guides I read in the lead up to my departure from London mentioned that almost no one speaks English in Brazil and they weren't exaggerating. Upon arrival at the airport, on the way through to the formalities, I don't know if subconsciously expected the passport control officer to greet me with a crisp "and how do you do today, sir?" but I didn't expect her to know absolutely no English at all.

I stepped up to her desk, handed her my passport and filled-in landing card with a 'hello', and I think she replied back with a hello. She asked a question in Portuguese (have no idea what it could have been) but I smiled and nodded vaguely, then she stamped my passport and handed it back, saying something that I could only presume to be 'goodbye'! At this point I realised I would seriously have to start brushing up on my Portuguese and Spanish language skills.

They say that South Americans can create chaos out of the most ordinary things and I had a preview of that on the flight into Rio. Before we began our descent, the BA cabin crew started handing out landing cards (for non-Brazilian nationals) and customs forms. The problem is that all of it was in Portuguese! So while I could decipher some of the questions ('nom' was likely asking for my name) some of the other questions left me, and everyone else completely mystified. Even upon landing, instead of well-placed airport signs directing people where to go, airport personnel stood in strategic locations waving people to where they were supposed to go. I tried asking one of them what some of the questions on the forms meant, but all that got was a "no English" followed by a shrug. So I just guessed what the questions meant and hoped for the best.

It felt surreal getting in the taxi at the arrivals concourse of the international airport at nine o'clock in the evening, throttling our way through various roads and tunnels to my hostel in the Zona Sul (Southern Zone), pulling up to the check-in counter next to the busy bar packed with backpackers chilling out, checking in, getting my keys, walking into the lift all the way up to room 32, and unceremoniously dumping my belongings (a middle-sized, fifty litre backpack) on to the bed.

In the taxi enroute to Ipanema, I was practically giddy with the thought that this was all for real. All those ideas brainstorming in my head over the past year, months of planning what I'd like to do in my gap year, weeks of launching awareness roadshows all around the UK to promote various charities in an effort to bump up my cash reserves, all paid off and I was in f***ing South America, in f***ing Rio de Janeiro. WOW!

The taxi driver had the appearance of a composed, wise man, yet hurtled around corners like a demonic maniac. At one point I seriously thought of clutching my travel insurance papers in my tightly-clenched fist. That way, if the worst were to happen, any compensation payments for my parents would be efficiently processed.

'S' (name changed to respect privacy) was the very first fellow traveller I talked to. She was in one of the beds in my twelve bed dorm room. Norwegian, 20ish, on the last leg of her adventure. She was reading a book and very friendly. We talked about where she and her other three friends had been and what they had planned for their last week before they return home. Soon enough, some Dutch guy came in, who made his way to one of the other bunks. Solo traveller. Seemed polite but you could tell he was reserved in that awkward European way. I was so jumped up with excitement I could have chatted non-stop for hours with my toothbrush if I had to.

By this time it was nearly eleven pm local time and I was starving. After asking for some directions from the hostel staff, I walked out, strolled down the street, rounded the corner and after very quick deliberation, ordered a nice, simple, plain, conventional cheeseburger from a small cafe.  Did not feel keen on embarking on a gastronomic adventure and unwittingly ending up with something truly exotic yet horrific on my plate, like slow-roasted python head wrapped in toad skin.


It's My Turn Now

In the beginning of 2010, I decided to put into action my plan to go travelling around South America for an extended period of time. I have always been interested in going to Brazil and Argentina in particular.

This blog will document my travelling journey - the sights I saw, the people I met...everything. I want to provide an insight into what backpacking across the South American continent is like.

And hopefully inspire you to pack only life's bare essentials into a medium sized 50litre backpack, pick a spot on the globe, and just turn up without a plan for where you're headed.

Stay tuned.