Trip Start Mar 06, 2005
Trip End May 27, 2005

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Thursday, April 14, 2005

After another one of those night-long bus rides, I arrived in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Let me take a moment to explain why I chose to come to this place: First of all, I wanted to visit someplace in Brazil, but frankly, I'm afraid of the crime in the bigger cities like Rio and Sao Paulo. Porto Alegre is in the more prosperous southern part of Brazil and for that reason I figured it would be a bit safer. Furthermore, after Brazil I will be heading south to Uruguay, and Porto Alegre is within a night-bus ride of Montevideo. And finally, a friend of mine who has been to Brazil many many times over many years recommended this place.

Anyway, when I arrived at the Porto Alegre bus station, the tourist information office was right in front of me as I got off the bus. So I took that as a sign to go in and see if they could recommend a place for me to stay. (I had a couple of places picked out of my travel guidebook as usual, but I'm always open to suggestions!) The nice people at the tourist information office recommended a couple of hotels in my price range so I went out to have a look at them. It was then that I noticed that there was something different about Brazil compared to the rest of South America: On my walk away from the bus station at 9:30 in the morning, the street leading away from the station was full of very aggressive prostitutes. I managed to dodge them and make my way to the first hotel recommended by the tourist office. Again, I realized that something was strange when the walls of the hotel had mirrors on them. That, and the fact that they quoted their rates by the hour, made me suspect that this was a "love hotel". Not being in the mood for love at that time of the day and after having been on the bus all night, I moved on to the next hotel on the list, which was way out of my price range and didn't even have any rooms free. So I walked and walked and found only one other suitable hotel. But this hotel was even more out of my price range. When I explained my plight to the staff at this hotel (The TRYP Porto Alegre), they all got on the phones and started calling hotels to see if they could find something cheaper for me! That's the first time that I was helped by the staff of a hotel to find a room at a different hotel.

Unfortunately the result of their search didn't turn up anything suitable so guess where I ended up? Back at the love hotel. (I'm sure I am the only single person who has ever stayed there, but really, it's the only place that I found that was within my budget. I promise!) To save myself the embarrassment, I might just have to go out and find a girl to occupy the other half of my bed. Seriously, though, I will make a renewed effort tomorrow to find something more suitable for a man of my station in life.

After checking into the love hotel, I went back to the bus station to retrieve my bags. While there, I ran into the guy from the tourist information office (Alexander), who was on his way home after work. As it turns out, he lives very near to my hotel and he helped me to find everything I needed in the neighborhood. First he brought me to what has to have been the best restaurant of my trip: A place called Panzanella, with an absolutely delicious all-you-can-eat buffet for only 3 dollars, including drink! And the food there is wonderful. I've already eaten there twice in my two days here and plan to eat there everyday for the rest of my stay. Alexander also brought me to the barber shop and explained how I wanted my hair cut (handsome); went with me to the laundry to explain to the ladies there that I want my clothes washed only - without drying. He also went with me to the bank to help me find out about cashing travelers checks, and beyond all that even showed me around the town in his free time. He has been an amazing help to me during my stay here and has shown me a few other places that I would have NEVER found on my own.

Now for some observations about prices in Brazil compared to the rest of South America: Hotels are much more expensive here than elsewhere; internet is three times as expensive and much harder to find; the only thing cheaper (and better) here than elsewhere is the food.

Regarding the girls here: Well, for one thing they come in all shapes and sizes and colors - with an inclination towards curvy and brown. In sum, quite attractive. We'll see if they think the same about me. (I mean, whether they also find me curvy and brown!)

Saturday, 16 April

My quality of life just took a huge jump upward when I moved out of the love hotel and into an apartment! My friend Alexandre down at the tourist information office found this place for me and with a bit of negotiation, I was able to get the price down to just $30 a night - for an entire apartment! (Here is the website for the apartment building that I'm staying in: ) If you click on the "Fotos" link, and scroll down a bit, you can even see the very computer that I'm sitting in front of right now! And if you click on the link "Acomodacoes", you can see a picture of the bed that I'll sleep in tonight.

So now, for the first time on my trip, I have my own fully-equipped kitchen, in addition to the bedroom, living room and bathroom - and cable TV with 60 channels, including Fox News, Jim! There's also free internet downstairs in the lobby which is used more or less only by me as most of the other people are long-term residents and probably have internet in their apartments. The only thing that it doesn't have that the love hotel did have is the love! But hey, this is Brazil, and love is everywhere, isn't it? (One of my friends, a certain Brankica in London, went so far as to question what else I might have been up to in that love hotel. Well let me just tell you that this is a family-oriented weblog, so let's just say that I used the love hotel to catch up on my reading. Which, incidentally, is why I had to move out of that place as the light in my room was so dim that I could hardly find my - uh - book!)

Thoughts on travel health: As most of you know, I travel quite a bit. What you might not know is that I almost always get sick when I travel - either catching a cold at some point or, more often, getting diarrhea. (For example, on my recent trip to Nepal earlier this year, I was sick every single day of the twelve day trip!) Well, I'm pleased to report that on this trip I haven't really gotten sick one time (except for a very minor stomach problem in Peru just before going to Machu Picchu, which cleared up immediately). I don't know how to explain the fact that I haven't gotten sick on this trip, except perhaps that South America is perhaps generally more hygienic than most of the other places that I have travelled. Or perhaps having been born in this part of the world I'm more immune to diseases on this side of the planet? Whatever the reason, I am glad about it and I hope that my luck with regard to health continues.

Thoughts on current world events: I have been following the anti-Japan protests in China. If I were the Japanese government (which, admittedly, I'm not), I would tell the Chinese government: "When your people are free to protest against the Chinese government, then their protests against the Japanese will have some meaning. Otherwise these protests are completely meaningless as a gauge of Chinese public sentiment. In fact, these protests are most likely a reflection of the repressed desire of the Chinese people to protest about ANYTHING."

Sunday, 17 April

I was talking to one of my friends from the tourist information office and he told me some of the characteristics of Brazilians: He said that they work just enough to get by. They work in order to have enough money to do the things they enjoy - and no more. Actually I knew this already. What I would be interested in knowing is why some people develop in this way and why some develop in the other way, i.e. to become savers and planners rather than being people who live day to day, moment to moment.

When I was down at the local shopping mall today, I found a restaurant in the food court selling Asian food. I thought the owner of the place was Thai, but as it turned out he is from Burma - via London, where his family has spent many years in exile. He was on a round-the-world trip a couple of years ago and while in Brazil, he met the woman of his dreams and married her and came here to settle. As it turns out, they are going out tonight and they invited me to join them. They will be here to pick me up in a few minutes, so I'd better log off now and get ready. This will actually be my first night out on the whole trip - made possible because I have some locals to take me out and show me around and get me back home safely afterwards! I also have a nice picture to upload, but this computer doesn't have that capability so I'll have to do that later. For now I'll just say: Guys, get ready - and ladies, close your eyes!

Monday, 18 April

Had a very nice time with my new friends last night. A bit too good, perhaps - too much beer and not enough sleep. But that's one good thing about travelling: I can make up for the lack of sleep later - which I eventually did, this afternoon.

In the morning, though, I went to the bus station to buy my ticket to Montevideo, but I'll have to repeat the procedure tomorrow as I forgot to bring my passport with me. Then I went to the gym and had a very good workout. I was shocked, however, when I weighed myself and found that I have lost about 4 kilos on this trip - in spite of those frequent all-you-can-eat buffets. I guess I walk off more calories than I stuff in. And speaking of that, I had another one of those stuffer lunches - this time at a different place for a change. But it was pretty much the same procedure: Load up the plate with as much food as you can, as many times as you can, for the whopping sum of 3 dollars. I figured out how those places make money, though: It is on the sheer volume of their business. The cheap ones are open only for lunch and they draw in the crowds, enabling them to achieve economies of scale. I don't know why we don't have that sort of place in Thailand.

On another subject: My American friend who has spent a lot of time in Brazil has presented a very plausible and articulate answer to my question about why the Brazilians have the attitude they do about life, working, spending and saving money. So I will just copy his explanation from his e-mail for the enlightenment of all:

"About why some countries have citizens who work just enough to get by, I have an insight why that applies to Brazil. I would throw in a caveat, and say it applies to the lower classes. For all of the 1980's and half of the 1990's, Brazil suffered suffocating inflation. It was a terrible time for the lower classes, as every time they went to buy food, or pay rent, they always had to pay more than the last time. Contracts always had escalation clauses, e.g., for apts for rent, and the whole country's psychology was always to expect to pay more the next time a purchase was made. This didn't affect the business owners or professional class, as they were the ones who were raising the prices, and if the cost of their expenses went up, they always had the opportunity to raise THEIR prices and fees. People always wanted dollars in that time period, because dollars were hedges against the inflation. Every time you went to exchange dollars for the Brazilian currency at that time, you always got more for your dollars. This psychology is still present for those who remember it, and is passed down into the family, notwithstanding the fact that the inflation rate has been fairly stable for the past 10 years. Brazilian don't trust their politicians (who does?) , so they never neglect to think that inflation can come roaring back if and when someone in the government screws up again. The poor people always just worked just enough to get by, and then went out and had a good time. I think that this is one reason why Brazilians are so happy, and seem to enjoy life so much more than other cultures."

Thanks for that explanation, Jim!

Wednesday, 20 April

Well, things have taken a decided turn for the worse. It has nothing to do with Brazil - or even my trip. Rather, my stocks. As most of you know, I make my living (or at least I used to) from the stock market. For the past year, culminating in another plunge yesterday, I have been having a very rough time. So the truth is that things have gotten bad enough that I'm not in much of a mood to continue this trip to the end as planned. I'm looking into flying back to Bangkok in early May from Buenos Aires and abandoning plans to visit Venezuela and Colombia on this trip - in spite of the fact that I've already paid for my plane tickets to those places. (As those two countries are in the north of South America, I would be able to visit them on a future trip to the region when I visit the Central American countries that I haven't visited yet, so it wouldn't be a permanent abandonment of plans to visit Venezuela and Colombia.)

Anyway, nothing is certain yet as it depends on my ability to reschedule my flights. There is space available for me on the Amsterdam - Bangkok segment of the trip, but I have to check with a different airline for the Buenos Aires - Lima and Lima - Amsterdam segments of the trip. Tomorrow is a holiday in Brazil - and anyway I leave Brazil tomorrow for Uruguay - so I probably won't be able to do anything until I arrive in Buenos Aires in a little less than a week. (The airline with which I have to deal has its nearest office there.)

On top of that, in my rush and confusion to sell my stocks, I managed to lose the notepad that I carry (or used to carry) with me at all times. The one that contains e-mail addresses of people I met on the trip; various notes and observations; and most importantly passwords to all of my websites and files, including financial ones. Needless to say, I'm feeling a bit destabilized by this loss. (Okay, it's not as bad as losing my passport or plane tickets, but it had lots of practical - as well as sentimental value.)

In the meantime, I continue to enjoy my time in Brazil. I had lunch today at the Asian restaurant of my Burmese friend here (they even refused to take payment for the meal today, saying "Our friends eat here for free!" I know where I'm eating lunch tomorrow!), and we continued our talks about life in Brazil. This guy Aung is amazingly insightful and has taught me very much about how things work here. (Not very straightforward!) He's a very good person to know. And I hope that he and his wife Vivi can visit me in Bangkok someday, where they'll get a free meal in MY restaurant!

By the way, I haven't been able to upload any pictures lately. I'm not sure if this is due to problems with the computers at the internet cafe, or if my memory card reader is the source of the problem. (The card reader is definitely getting a little wobbly, so the problem might well lie there.) But since there is only one internet cafe that I know about in the area, I can't test it at other places in order to draw any conclusions about the source of the problems. I'll try again on Friday in Montevideo, Uruguay. Worst case scenario I won't be able to upload anymore pictures until I get home. The good news, though, as mentioned above: I might be getting home sooner than expected! We'll see how things go.
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