Week 1 - Rio to Foz De Iguacu

Trip Start Sep 22, 2006
Trip End Dec 2006

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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Wow, I canīt believe I have been in Brazil for a week now. It has gone so quickly yet it feels like an age as we have already fitted so much in.

I arrived in Rio at 7pm last friday and made it from the airport to the hotel painlessly. It sounds stupid but that was the first hurdle that I was worried about, having heard some horror stories about being ripped off as soon as you step off the plane as a green gringo. I didnīt even know a single word of Portuguese so it had been daunting but hopefully by the end of my adventures simple things like that wonīt faze me in the slightest.

I met the other 12 people on the tour with me on saturday morning and they are a really good bunch. Having been worried about the taxi last night the first thing we did on day one in Rio was a tour of the Favellas. Considering that I had been nervous about safety in the city this seemed like a baptism of fire. I had been wrestling with my conscience about the Favella tour as it seemed somewhat voyeuristic but some of the money that we paid goes towards the running of a local school which we visited en route. For anyone who hasnīt heard about the favellaīs I really recomend the film "City of Gods" as a realistic portrayl of life inside their boundaries. Rio has 6 million inhabitents and a large number of the poorest people live in these slums. They are the areas of the worst housing and are usually battle grounds for the drugs gangs. Life is really tough.

The houses are built one floor at a time over the years so they are wonky hotch potches of bodged together building. The windows, if there are any tend to be about 6 inches from the neighbouring houses wall but then they donīt really miss out on much of a view. We walked through mazes of alley ways between buildings which were less than 3 feet apart with very little light making it through to the ground. You can see inside the houses which are smaller than garden sheds back home. Boy we have it good back in England.

The favellas are no go areas for tourists on their own but with the organised tours you are safer. The only real concern is that if trouble breaks out such as gun battles etc then you donīt know people to take you inside into safety. The two favellas that we visited though have only one drug lord running each one so there arenīt the open battles and though there is crime and violence related to the drug trade, there is an amazing absence of other crime and infact they were safer places to be than many areas outside their walls. There is a police station inside the favella but the police arenīt allowed outside the office and donīt do anything but watch TV. There was one branch of a bank in one of the favellas which had been robbed once - by the police! Apparently the drug lord had those responsible killed and their body parts distributed around the favella. I guess that is justice Rio style.

Yet despite all of this the overwhelming feeling was that they were actually relatively safe places. The people seemed proud, polite and the kids would smile and say hello. I have felt more vulnerable in parts of London where hoodies hang around menacingly on street corners. We met some amazing market stall holders including a charismatic and talented musician, Ivesco, whose CD I bought and canīt wait to listen to when I get home. There were artists and people who made fantastic belts out of ring pulls, hats out of woven plastic bags and handbags out of woven magazines - like South American wombles they managed to make use out of the stuff that we just throw away without a second thought!

No trip to Rio would be complete without a quick trip to Copacabana beach for some people watching and a visit to Corcorvado - Christ the Redeemer, the statue which is constantly blessing the seething city of sin below. The views from the top of the mountain were stunning as Rio is spread beneath you. It is surrounded by sea with green mountainous islands dotted in the water and of course Sugar Loaf mountain. It was somewhat surreal though as you get to the top of the mountain to find several escalators which transport the hoards of tourists up towards the clouds and Christs feet. Somewhere I imagined that I could hear distant chords of "Stairway to heaven" and expected to see some Monty Pythonesque character standing at the top of the escalator with a fake beard and clip board, checking your entry tickets as you pass through the pearly gates!

As we prepared to leave Rio we met our truck for the first time. Sheīs called Tortuga which means "turtle", sheīs huge, orange and was quite a sight in down town Rio. Sheīs a heavy duty Mama and as the name suggests she ainīt the fastest beast on the road. But sheīs comfortable, secure , carries everything we need and is home for the next few months. Wherever we go she attracts a lot of bemused stares though so far we have only been pulled over once by the police which apparently is pretty good going. One week in to the trip and so far we have stopped to have her exhaust welded back on, the gear box has had some attention, the speedo has broken, the fuel guage is never relied on as a piece of string with a nut attached apparently does a better job and the roof leaks slightly through one of the lights in heavy rain. Sheīs a real old work horse though and has been patched up and trundles onwards.

We headed off down the Emerald Coast towards Paraty which is a stunning drive. All along the way there were lush forest covered islands with white beaches, interspaced in the azur water. Paraty itself is quite a pretty town, built by the Portuguese, it has a mediteranean feel with the older whitewashed buildings and cobbled streets which demand that you look where you walk. Stumbling around the town I couldnīt help thinking that they canīt sell many stilettos in Paraty. We took a boat out for the day and sailed around the islands, pulling up on deserted beaches and swimming in beatiful coves. We also watched the barman on board and have mastered the art of making Caipirinhas which have been going down rather too well. They havenīt helped my attempts to learn how to play poker though. Thankfully we have only gambled with pasta so far.

The weather on the whole has been good with warm sunny days though there have been a couple of overnight storms and on 2 mornings I have woken up with soaking clothes and water in my tent. Once it was thanks to my fellow traveling companions removing my tent pegs and turning my fly sheet back to front. After an evening of drinking games I apparently sat outside my tent bemused for sometime trying to work out how to get in it and whether in fact it was my tent.

We had about 30 hours of driving over 3 days from Paraty to Foz De Iguacu where we are now. The landscape changed as we headed inland, going from rainforest covered mountains to rolling hills which were remeniscent of the Peak District and then later reminded me of so many of the walks around home in the Chilterns. We had our first bush camp experience en route, basicly pulling off the road where we could and camping on the edge of a forest. We pitched on a disused track - disused except for the one truck that came past at 10pm and meant we had to take the tents down so it could get past before re erecting them.

We are staying for a few days at Foz de Iguacu which is the largest waterfall in the world and is awesomely impressive. In the jungle around the falls I saw my first Toucans and some very tame and inquisitive creatures called Cuartis which look like a cross between a racoon and a badger with a long pointed nose which they have become adept at sticking in the bags of the tourists as they seek out the food inside.

Last night the thunder storms started at about 3am which was when my nights sleep stopped. My mind turned instead to the two metal poles at my head and feet and the lightening that kept flashing outside. I wondered whether my thermarest sleeping mat would offer much protection if my tent was struck or whether my rubber flip flops might be of any use.... It has been raining solidly all day now which apparently is the worst weather our driver Ben has seen in a year of traveling across South America. We are hoping it clears up soon but we are packing up in an hour or so to try and cross the border into Argentina. The border has been shut a fair bit over the last month as there have been protests about fuel prices. Hopefully the rain and the fact that today is election day in Brazil mean that any protesters will be otherwise occupied so we can cross, otherwise its a long detour through Paraguay. Its probably best to get out before the election results come out aswell, just incase they provide another reason for a protest. Tomorrow we are visiting Iguacu falls from the Argentinian side though for today I think Iīve seen enough water to last me for a while.
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