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We wanted to celebrate our 10 year anniversary with a holiday we'd never forget - we reckon 6 months of travelling the world (from trekking on the Inca Trail and through the Amazon to riding an elephant in Thailand) should just about cover it!

Friday, 26 September 2008

Favelas and Football...

So, after plenty of partying, we decided to do some more cultural stuff and give our poor livers a holiday (well, a mini-break at least).
We decided to get outside our comfort zone and went on a tour of the favelas (shantytowns) of Rio, which are hard, lawless societies up in the hills where the sound of gunfire is an everyday occurance. The tour began by us being taken into a favela called Rocinha on the back of motorbikes driven by scary-looking male residents of the favela, which was a hair-raising experience in itself as they drove at break-neck speeds without crash helmets up the winding hills, weaving in and out of buses and other vehicles who were all driving erratically themselves. This favela is home to 300,000 occupants who all live in extremely close proximity in tiny houses that they have literally thrown together themselves. Each woman has on average 7 children, all living in one or two rooms. As the favelas are so overpopulated, people then sell their rooves for around 2000 reals (about 650 quid), and another family then build their house on top. Some of these "houses" are about 4 storeys high and it´s amazing they even stay up. We were told not to take photos as we entered the favela as there are children who sit at the entrance with walkie-talkies, keeping watch for the drug barons and reporting who enters and leaves the favela. They had guns and hand grenades and just stared at us with cold expressions as we went past. Aside from this, everyone else that we met was pretty friendly (as 60% of the tour fee goes to the residents they are generally tolerant of tourists).
There was clearly a lot of talent and creativity amongst all the poverty and filth. We watched a group of young boys playing the drums and singing and they were really skilled musicians, yet their "instruments" were just old cans, paint drums and sticks. We also saw the graffitti which covers the walls, some of which were fantastic works of art. Apparently some international footballers came from this favela.
As the police stay away from the favelas there are no laws or authorities, so hundreds of wires hang down in the narrow streets as people attach their own cables to the electricity supply and water mains, and siphon off their power for free. Some of the huts even had free Sky TV and internet!
It was an interesting and humbling day, and as there are 52 million Brazilians who live in favelas around the country it was something we wanted to see first-hand to really get a feel for how these people live. Of course there are also rich areas, but only 2% of the population account for over 90% of the country´s wealth.
Of course, Liam wouldn´t have been happy unless we saw a football match before we left Brazil, so we hooked up with a group of people we´d become friends with at our hostel in Rio and headed for a game at the Maracana stadium. It holds around 110,000 people, and although there were only 28,000 at the match we saw (Flamengoes v Impatiga (I think!)), the atmosphere was electric. We were right in the thick of it, with everyone chanting, playing the drums, waving huge flags and generally going mental!
After an action-packed week in Rio, we decided to travel to Paraty (Para-chee) to chill out for a few days before our flight to Buenos Aires. Our hostel was gorgeous (a word I never thought I´d use to describe a hostel) and right on the beach, so we could hear the ocean as we dropped off to sleep. This was a really beautiful town: quaint, with cobbled streets and great views. Locals even tied their horses to lampposts whilst they stopped for a quick cerveja in a bar.
After soaking up the sun (we are still anaemic by the way, thanks to our factor 30 emulsion and temperamental weather conditions) and relaxing, it was time for another bustling city...Buenos Aires, here we come...

Sunday, 21 September 2008

ripping up the dancefloor in Rio

We finally arrived in Rio, after a record-breaking 26hr bus journey, our longest yet! We even had to put our clocks forward when we arrived as we had crossed a time zone. We got on the bus at 4pm after a night out with a great Austrian couple we´d become friends with in Iguazu and had then spent the camping trip in the Pantanal with. We spent a gruelling journey in close proximity to the toilets and a few Brazilian guys with questionable hygiene habits, finally arriving in Rio de Janeiro at 7pm the next evening.

As you can imagine we were pretty tired so were impressed when we arrived at our hostel, Mellow Yellow, to find it had a hot tub on the roof. The excitement was short-lived however cos as well as the hot tub it was also home to a whole ecosystem of insects, all residing in our room. Liam removed a few millipedes (giant ones!) from the room and we went to bed, only to be woken up in the night with all the shouting and drunken antics going on. This hostel is huge, with 24bed dorms, and although we had our own (grotty) room it still felt like the rest of Rio was in the room too, the walls were that thin. Even the bedbugs wore earplugs.Anyway, I was actually glad to be woken up because when I opened my eyes I realised there was another party going on, namely on my stomach with a family of tics! As I yanked the little bloodsuckers off me I vowed to leave that place as soon as it got light outside.

Struggling in torrential rain, we left this bug-infested version of hell and made our way to a smaller, better (and cheaper!) hostel down the road, just near Copacabana beach, where the people were friendly and the rooms relatively bug-free (we´ve still picked up lots of suspiciously flea-like bites all over our lower bodies from here though I hasten to add).

Creepy-crawlies aside, Rio is fantastico! We arrived on Monday and are still here now, Sunday, as it is absolutely buzzing and we can´t tear ourselves away.

We have visited all the major tourist attractions, such as Sugar Loaf mountain, the Christ the Redeemer statue, Santa Theresa the artisan and hippy area (Chris you would love it there) and much more. We also spent the afternoon with an artist called Selaron, an amazing guy who has covered some steps (125 of them) with tiles from all over the world, from over 60 countries, making a colourful, mosaic-effect work of art. These steps are so famous that they have been used in a Snoop-Dogg video, in CSI, and loads of magazine shoots etc.

We have also done our share of partying - these guys don´t mess about! We went to a street party in Lapa on Friday night, which was absolutely amazing. We lubricated ourselves with several Caipirinhas ( basically sugar, lime and cachacas) at the hostel bar before a big group of us headed out to the party, where literally thousands of people filled the streets, all gyrating to the intoxicating drum beats of Samba music. The locals were only too willing to grab hold of us and attempt to teach us how to do it, but Liam and I have been dancing to house music for far too long, and couldn´t get the rhythm the same as them. They were wiggling their hips and shuffling their feet, and we were doing big box, little box instead! They didn´t seem to mind too much, and may have even picked up a few new moves from us I reckon.We finally staggered home at around 4.30am, all samba´d out.

The next day we decided to recover on Copacabana beach, although the constant prodding by beach vendors selling all sorts of stuff was pretty grating, especially when they accidently kicked sand in our faces every time they flip-flopped off.

Last night we hit it hard again with a load of people from our hostel, all about 10 years younger than us might I add. We still gave those whippersnappers a run for their money on the dancefloor though I can tell you. The only annoying thing about the clubs here is that you drink all night then pay at the end, so it can get pretty pricey, especially as those caipirinhas slide down just a little too easily...

So we´ve decided to stay here for a few more days, even though our wallets and livers are begging us to move on. We are truly enthralled by this place, and all the scary stories about how dangerous it is here seem to be far removed from the truth. We have heard some pretty awful stories, but don´t panic Mum, we´ve encountered nothing more than a few bad hangovers here!
It feels soo much safer than Sao Paulo, and much more fun too.
Let´s hope Argentina has as much to offer as Brazil, as we are flying to Buenos Aires on Wednesday. Now, shall we stay in Rio or head to Paraty and Ilhe Grande, which was the original plan? Something tells me we may be staying in Rio just a little bit longer than planned...

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Iguazu Falls and the Pantanal

After a shaky first few days in bustling, non-touristy cities where the locals stared at us like exhibits in a museum and the language barrier left us feeling a bit isolated, it was a real comfort for us to arrive at Foz do Iguacu and be welcomed into a friendl, laid-back hostel which felt more like some kind of hippy commune. Called Hostel Bambu, it was full of young travellers (who mainly spoke English - hooray!),who were gathered at the bar comparing travelling tips and downing absinthe and various other dodgy-looking spirits. Everyone left their doors unlocked, there were valuables chucked everywhere and everything operated on a trust system, whereby you write down what drinks and internet usage you owed for. This was what we had thought of when we booked the trip, and it was a relief to find this was accurate. Up until this point we had been alone and not met one single traveller,and I think we were both secretly panicking that we´d end up like those couples you see in restaurants who eat in silence.
On Monday morning a group of 11 of us from the hostel drove across the border into Argentina to see the spectacular Iguacu Falls, where 275 waterfalls collide to create the most awesome sight. The park really exceeded all our expectations,with hundreds of species of wild birds and animals. We spent a great day viewing the falls from all different angles and taking pics (beware of an invite to our slideshow night when we get back), before goingout in the evening with the group for a typical Brazilian meal, which was a barbeque and self-service affair,whereby the waiter brings the meat to your table and carves it onto your plate. I drew the line at chicken hearts when they came round, but Liam tucked in, heartily devouring 2 hearts after painstakingly removing the major valves. I was almost retching watching him eat them.
The next day we viewed the falls again, this time from the Brazilian side,where you cannot get as close,but you can see the entire view in all it´s glory. This was a flying visit though, as I´d tried to flex my Portuguese skills and asked a woman which bus to get on and she misunderstood and sent us about 30mins in the wrong direction in blistering heat. After a whistlestop tour of this,we hurried to the bus stop to catch our bus to Campo Grande, where we would get our connection to the Pantanal.
About 22 hours later, we arrived in the Pantanal, a wetland region the size of France,which is so remote that it took us 6 hours to get there from the nearest town,and we didn´t pass more than about 4 cars in that entire time. It is teeamingwith wildlife and exotic birds,more so even than the amazon.The weather here has been really changeable - 35 degrees one day and about 5 the next! This was a super-hot day and we were so happy to arrive at our camp,which was to be our home for the next 4 days. Assoon as we arrived we jumped into the (outdoor, ice cold) showers,only to be greeted by 3 frogs, who took great pleasure in scaring me by crawling around me as I dodged the freezing shards of water.
We slept in hammocks, went on jeep safaris,fished for piranhas (I caught 4, plus a couple of innocent Austrians who were with us on the boat.I kept swinging my hook around by mistake, nearly taking peoples eyes out). We also did horseriding,trekking, boat rides, jewellery making (as I type I´ve got a couple of bit of jewelleryon that I helped to make. With alligator bone round my neck,I look like a proper indigenous tribeswoman).
Our guides were amazing and by mimicking the noises the animals make can literally call them down from the trees or out of the water. Regular Dr Doolittles they were.We saw so many animals,such as alligators (there are 35million ofthem in the Pantanal and we even swam in the river with them in there!), wild boar, giant guinea pigs called capybaras which were 1m long (I loved these!), armadilloes(one ran at me and I started shrieking like a big baby), deer, raccoons, otters,vultures,toucans,anteaters and many,many,more. It was so cool to seethem all in their natural habitatand get so close to them. I felt like a proper Steve Irwin. Luckily I didn´t suffer the same fate as the lovely late Mr Irwin, and thoroughly enjoyed roughing it with nature.
I even went without make-up and had curly,wild hair. (ok so I did sneak a bit of mascara on when noone was looking..)

Next stop, Rio de Janeiro....

lots oflove

Monday, 8 September 2008

our trip begins...

So finally the big day came for our trip to begin. Within minutes of arriving at the airport diaster struck - one of the straps on my backpack snapped as I loaded it onto the check-in belt! I wouldn´t mind, but it wasn´t a Primark number or anything..that pesky pack cost me a fortune.
Anyway, as we had prebooked our seats the minute the online check-in opened, we had a wicked amount of legroom, good films to watch and the food was actually pretty edible too. Result! The luxury wasn´t to last long however...
We arrived in Sao Paulo at around 6am, and once again my pack caused me grief at the airport. I spotted my bright pink rucksack gliding around on the conveyor belt, but as I grabbed it to yank it off, I realised that one of the straps was caught under the belt. After almost going round on the conveyor belt with it, we finally managed to pull it free, moments before going back into the hatch! Luckily it escaped unscathed this time, and we caught a bus to centro Sao Paulo, where our hotel/hovel was located.
We go off at Praca de Republica, loaded ourselves up and climbed over the mountain of homeless amputees to get across the square. After dumping our stuff in the, er, dump, we proceeded to check out the neighbourhood. Then we encountered our first problem..we couldn´t speak a word of the local lingo - Portuguese. We attempted to read the menu at a restaurant, took about 20mins with our Portuguese phrasebook trying to decipher what was what, then gave up and ordered a pizza. Why? Cos the word for pizza is ...pizza.
Sao Paulo is a sprawling metropolis - huge grey buildings, skyscrapers, hotdog and fresh juice kiosks. We wandered into a few dodgy areas, and when we were called Gringoes! loudly by a scary-looking Paulisto with wild eyes we decied to turn back. Considering we had no clue about the city and had to get our Lonely Planet book out on every street corner people were pretty friendly towards us.
We spent a few days exploring - there is a building which is a replica of the empire state building from which we took some photos of the breath-taking views over Sao Paulo, we visited the Municipal Market, where people lunch on these huge ham rolls with literally half a pig inside, and some tropical parks. When we realised there was a prison a stone´s throw away from our hotel (we saw the men in boiler suits during one of their outdoor breaks, with people talking to them through the barbed wire fence), and the police started a road block outside our hostel, we decided to get out of dodge...
After a 7-hr bus journey, we were in Curitiba (pronounced cure - i -cheeba). During the journey we saw great scenery, with lush green forests, lakes and wild birds. Unfortunately Curitiba was not quite so picturesque, as it was another large city. We stayed only one night, before taking another bus, this time for 11 hours, to Foz do Iguacu. This is where we are now, and is our favourite place so far. We arrived at 9.30pm, with nowhere to stay, but managed to find accomodation at Hostel Bambu, who welcomed us in. We could only get a bunkbed in a dorm as we had not prebooked, but we didn´t care as we were exhausted and our rucksacks feel heavier by the day.
It felt a bit weird staying on a room with strangers, listening to the rise and fall of their breath, but everyone was really friendly. Did I mention that it is also absolutely freezing here?!
After 34 degrees in Sao Paulo it was a bit of a shock, and we slept in our thermals in our sleeping bags under the covers.
The following day we went to our first Brazilian party! A rave, which started at midnight and went on until 6pm! We only stayed for a few hours, during which time the weather hotted up and I felt a bit of a twat in my hiking gear, woolly hat and fleece, whilst all the Brazilian girls danced around me in their jeans and skimpy tops!
We managed to get a bit sunburnt, even through all those layers, then explored the town for a bit before going back to the hostel to book our tickets for the tour of Igacu Falls from both the Brazilian side and the Argentine side. We will visit the exotic bird park tomorrow, before heading off on a 16hr bus journey to Campo Grande, where we will visiting the Pantanal, a huge area for wildlife spotting. We will be camping for 3 days, whilst doing piranha fishing, horse riding, safari in a 4x4 to spot wild animals and birds etc.
Hope I haven´t bored you too much, please let us know what´s happening back home, and we will deliver our next installment next week...