28 February 2010

Ilha Grande

We left Rio on Sunday, amidst confusion of clocks and buses. You see, every single worker at our hostel neglected to tell us that daylight savings time changed. Additionally, when asking for directions to the bus station, they failed to tell us that there were multiple bus terminals in Rio. Our first surprise was arriving at super sketchy bus station with only local buses. Nobody spoke Spanish, let alone English, German or Russian. Somehow, we found a caring bus driver who put us on his bus and then took us straight-away to the central station, even though I don't think it was on his route. A little travel magic, if you please.

Upon arrival at the correct bus station (also super sketchy) we met our second surprise: our watches were an hour off. Somehow we still made our bus. Hours later and with a few minutes to spare, we barely made our ferry to Ilha Grande. Each day brings its own surprises.

Ilha Grande (pronounced Eelya Granje) is an island that is world-renown for it's beaches and wilderness. Two thoughts went through my head as we started the long boat ride. First, my brother Chris advised us to visit this island, but also warned of trouble with bus and ferry connections. I laughed inside that we too scrambled to make that connection, despite having heard his tale of woe.

Second, I felt an odd connection on the ferry, knowing that that my brother had taken that exact ferry many years before. While it isn't the most remote place in the world, I still found it deeply special that I was sharing this same experience. Here I am, years later and in a much different life and under different conditions, but doing the same thing he did.

Our first camping experience in the main port-town was rather horrible in the sense that we had hoped to camp in the park, which is not allowed. Then we hoped at least for some natural foliage. I don't know why, but all the camping in town was on hard dirt with few trees around and lots of concrete walls. Through exhaustive research, I found one campground that was an hour's hike away and was supposed to be more natural. Our information was not certain though, as we had also been told it was a two-hour hike, it didn't have lights, and it was twice as expensive. We went for it anyways.

Not only was it right on the beach and covered by trees, but we were the only ones camped there!! I guess the hour-hike put people off? It was one of the best "organized" campsite experiences I've had. So serene, peaceful, beautiful and quiet.

Now, about the island itself. Most of it is protected as national park. Sometime in the mid-90's, it was decided that no new buildings would be constructed. So, while there are buildings and houses and small towns on most of the beaches, it's still relatively untrammeled. We camped, hiked, swam, read and watched monkeys playing in the trees. Overall, we had an excellent time.

Though this island is touted as a pristine paradise, I do have some beef about accuracy of tourism advertisements. The tourist bureau likes to brag that there are few buildings, no roads and it's a pristine natural environment. This is a flat-out lie. There are numerous roads in the port town. There is a 9km road leading across the island to another town, which is home to a partially-destroyed prison. Along the road there is a trash dump. There are houses at every beach. There are dozens of cars, motorbikes, ATVs and decrepit old trucks and they are ALL used regularly. Additionally, while hiking trails cover most of the island, most travelers prefer to hire out a motor boat to whisk them away to these "pristine" beaches rather than exert oneself on the trails. Instead of roads, the waterways are directly polluted. Perhaps worst of all is that guide books and travel writes relay this myth of a perfect, roadless paradise. They should have more integrity than that. The island is protected and still worth visiting, but don't lie to tourists. Most of us are smart enough to see through it. Still, you can see from the photos that the trip was well worth-it.

The island's main town, Abraoa. The peak in the background is a hair under 1000 meters.

Coming back from a swim, we found this "guard" dog protecting our stuff. We overheard another traveler proclaim that this beach is one of the ten best beaches in the world. How do you prove that? I didn't know that there is a rating system for beaches!

The decaying facade of the century-old prison that was decommissioned in 1994. The prison might not have been dreamy, but the location couldn't be any better.

Another lovely beach, another great day.

27 February 2010

No Earthquake Here

Hey Everybody - we are in Sao Paulo, safely on the other side of the continent from Chile. Thank you for your concern voiced via Facebook and emails. We do have several friends from Chile though, so please keep them in your thoughts. We are still waiting to hear from them all. It seems that Facebook has become the best way to communicate en masse.

I still owe you a post about Ilha Grande and another about Paraty, both to be accompanied by more envy-invoking photos. I apologize in advance.

25 February 2010

Rio Time

As soon as we got to Rio, our internal clocks adjusted to the, well, lack of clock. We didn't have a plan or a schedule and yet things worked out for the week. We hung out at the beach quite a lot. We partied at Carnaval and then again at a post-carnaval party. We hiked through Tijuca forest, "climbed" Sugarloaf, rode the train to Santa Teresa, and saw the many diverse churches of Rio. Despite having done so much, it all seemed very relaxed and easy. And then when we tried to leave, Rio's clocks didn't align with ours but we couldn't figure out why.

It turns out that Saturday night was the end of day-light savings time and nobody told us. Luckily we arrived at the bus station in time to catch our ride to our next destination - Ilha Grande. More about that later.

We were sad to say goodbye to Rio as we really enjoyed our time here, particularly when staying with my friend Gabe in Ipanema. Rio is a huge city and really is quite different depending on the barrio (neighborhood) that you are in. Ipa, as the locals call it, is relaxed. The streets are full of trees, a 8km lagoon lies behind it, the botanical gardens are within biking distance, and their are smoothie stands everywhere. It truly is a beach culture full of young, healthy, active people.

Staying with Gabe gave us a good inside into the local culture. Moreover, it was good to see this dear friend again. The last time we hung out was his surprise visit to Davis in March of 2008. During our time in Rio, we were also joined by another Davisite, our friend Nihan. This was quite a reunion, which seems to be an often reoccurring theme of our travels: friends, mountains and food. Thank you Gabe, Philipe and Mickael for hosting us and being so wonderful!

Getting swamped by the waves at Copacabana beach.

Friends united from all over the world.

From Rio de Janeiro
Wherever we travel, we try to find the local farmers markets. One morning, after a run, we came upon this on in Ipanema. We splurged on some exotic fruits from the Amazon. They were strange but delicious and fun to eat!

A unusually bright interior to one of the many, many churches in Rio.

An even more unusual (read: bizarre) church in Rio's center. This open-aired concrete behemoth was unique in every aspect. The stained-glass windows are 70meters tall.

A splurge on our last day in Rio - taking the tram up Sugarloaf Mountain.

View from Sugarloaf as sun sets behind the clouds, yet Christ the Redeemer stands tall over the city.

21 February 2010


We have been in Rio for the last 9 days and have mostly loved our stay here. However, it is time to move on. A few hours west of here is the island "Ilha Grande" which is supposed to have great camping and hiking and not much infrastructure. I have heard about this place for years and am excited to finally see it. After that, we'll stop for a day in Paraty, an old colonial town. Then on to Sao Paulo for a few days in one of the top-five biggest cities in the world. That'll be interesting :)

Sorry for the lack of blogs this last week. What can I say? We were having too much fun.

16 February 2010

Carnaval Video

Imagine this elaborate parade and intense energy lasts until 7am, only to start up again the next day. There are over 50,000 performers, 90,000 people in the stands and millions in the streets.

15 February 2010

Carnaval in Rio

I have to admit that my prior knowledge of Carnaval was extremely limited and, for the most part, incorrect. I thought it would be a wilder, crazier Mardi Gras. To be blunt, I thought there would be a lot more nudity and drunkenness...

 It seems that any US story about Carnaval is accompanied by photos of a scantily-clad female with elaborate jewelry, head dress and shoes, but not much more clothing. This type of dancer does exist and they know how to grab your attention. However, for every one of these dancers, there are probably 300 fully-dressed  dancers. Additionally, if you saw what people wear at the beach here, you'd actually think that the flashy dancing girls were actually more modest than the beach goers. (As a side note, while most girls where thongs to the beach here, it is actually against the law to go topless on the beach.)

At it's heart, Carnaval is about celebrating life through dance and music. Communities bond through their schools, which work for an entire year to prepare for their performances. The entire nation is on official holiday for the week, yet half of the population is working hard to make Carnaval the most glorious party in the world. Samba is not just a party, but it's a serious year-round industry.

Payam summed it up nicely when he was here a few years ago and told me that there are three ways to enjoy Carnaval: Going to the official samba competition,  watching it on TV, or enjoying the street parades that happen throughout the week. In addition to the official competitions (see shocking facts below), there are over 200 street parades/block parties in Rio alone. The parades are led by a community band and are very informal but tons of fun (if you don't mind getting squished). It would be like having a Dixie band on acid leading San Francisco's Bay to Breakers.

We've been able to take advantage of all three. Gabe's friend was able to get us tickets to the Samadrome to see the official all-night competitions. This was the most amazing spectacle that we've ever witnessed. Thank you Mickael! We've experienced the block parties every day, just by chance. It's hard to just watch, in the sense that you eventually get engulfed by the mass of people and become part of the parade itself. And tonight we're taking it easy at home with the TV programmed for the only show that's on.

To be sure, Carnaval is a week-long, nation-wide party that attracts millions of tourists. There is a lot of drinking and partying to go around. A good number of people are inebriated at the block parties and even more party hardy through the night. There are not a lot of clothes, for males or females. It's fairly common to kiss people you just met. But in the end,  Brazilians view our Mardi Gras as drunken binge-fest.

In a country with widely disparate income levels, Carnaval is a time for all classes to come together and celebrate their commonness. You can't imagine how much energy is packed into one stadium, one city, one country. At the Sambadrome, people stand all night and sing and dance. Carnavla surprised me and yet far surpassed any of my expectations. I can think of nothing in the US that comes within 1/10 of Carnaval.

Fun Facts About the Craziest Festival in the World:

  • It takes places in the Sambadrome - specifically built for Carnaval. It is one mile long and (officially) holds 90,000 people.
  • Each Samba school has 5,000 performers.
  • There are different leagues. The B League performs in Sao Paulo on Saturday and Sunday, while the A League competes in Rio on Sunday and Monday. The finalists compete for the championship on the following Saturday. Each night, the competition starts at 9pm and ends at 6am, with 5-6 schools performing for about 90 minutes each. I think they do have it at night because it would be deathly hot during the day.
  • Each school chooses a theme for their parade. Examples that we saw were: Don Quixote, Religions of Brazil, Mysteries of the World.
  • Performances are judged on timing, theme, costume, participation, and more. It is through this rating system that schools can move between leagues.
  • A new song is written for each samba school's parade. The songs are released before Christmas, so everybody knows the lyrics by the time Carnaval arrives.
  • Performances last about 90 minutes, during which time the song is repeated ad nasium. All performers must dance and sing during this entire time.
  • Schools get multi-million dollar sponsorships.
  • Other Brazilian cities have their own spin on how they celebrate Carnaval. Several cities in other South American countries are known for their own Carnaval traditions.
  • The Brazilian government distributed 55 MILLION free condoms this week.

Now, for a few photos of the floats at the Sambadrome. Realize that each samba school had at least a dozen of these floats.

For reference sake, the floats are about 15 meters high. The crowd is not on the ground, they are in the stands.

From Don Quixote.

Amazonian spiritual leaders.

The Lost City of Atlantis

The floats were so tall that cranes were used to offload the performers.

13 February 2010

Iguazu Falls Videos

Two panoramic videos of Iguazu Falls

Iguazu from the top of the Argentinian side. We're standing above the Devil's Throat (Garaganta del Diablo), which is about 2.5km from the start of the falls.

The Brazilian side has fewer hikes and falls, but it does allow for a better overview. We are standing mid-level, below some falls and directly above others. The Devil's Throat is not visible due to mist.

12 February 2010

Still Gross

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Two weeks after my accident, I awoke with my blood blister having turned into a blood bath. The toenail is still attached but I can push it around a lot with my finger, like its on a bed of jello. Yum.

11 February 2010

Big Water Falling

Iguazu Falls is said to be one of, if not the, greatest set of waterfalls in the world. From what I've seen so far, I'd have to agree.

The falls form a border between Argentina and Brasil. We first visited the Argentinian side. It has many kilometers of trails through the jungle. Hiking allowed us to see the falls from the top, from below, and from a few look-out points that jetted out into the middle of the falls. Each view gave a different appreciation.

Yesterday we got our visa to Brasil which took only a few hours and need no additional supporting documents. It would have taken up to 6 days in Buenos Aires, plus we would have needed to provide proof of onward travel, copies of our student cards, credit cards, credit card statements, and so on. The easy border crossing here was one of the reasons we changed our route. You know my history with border crossings.

Today we strolled through the Brasilian side of the park. There was much less walking, it was all on paved trails, but the view was spectacular and the trip was well worth it.

It was interesting to compare the two sides. Both parks had a large infrastructure, obvious heavy environmental impact, and little in the way of environmental education. The parks are no wilderness parks, but more like a tourist-attraction based around a natural phenomena. Trecia prepared me for this by warning me it has a Disney-like atmosphere. At least the falls are protected and people spend their time, money and energy to see this natural wonder.

While not mentioned at either park is that a few kilometers upstream is the Itaipu Dam, which was for a long time the largest dam in the world. Not surprisingly, it also devastated the surrounding people and pristine wilderness and is considered one of the worst human-made disasters. How clean is this renewable energy source? As a bonus, you can tour the dam for $10-20.

Anyways, here are a few photos. I apologize if the pictures all look the same. I remember thinking the same thing when my dad visited the falls several years ago and showed me his photos. I assure you that the photos are of different falls and that there really are that many waterfalls. It is 3 kilometers from one end to the other, after all. The caoti photo, above, is for you Hillary.

Taken from the bridge across this deep chasm, this is the bridge's shadow disappearing into the waterfall below.

Swifts utilized the updrafts to help them circle the waters.

Getting up close and personal with the Argentinian side. 

After a 4km walk, we arrived on top of the falls, right at the edge of the Devil's Throat.

Enjoying the vast views from Brasil. 

I'm pretty sure I could huck off one of these in a kayak.

Looking over the edge in Brasil.

Trying to protect ourselves from the pounding water caused by the force of the falls.

09 February 2010

Iguazu Falls - Argentinian Side

Just a preview of what we're doing now.
Oh, and I love my wife. 

A Day in Paraguay

Actually, only a few hours. For about a buck, we took the bus from Argentina to Paraguay through Brasil. Yes, a tri-country international bus for the cost of a candy bar.
We arrived at Ciudad del Este (City of the East), which is known as the supermarket of South America. I'm not sure how this city became a clearing house for imported goods, but obviously the proximity to Brazil and Argentina was a defining factor. It reminds me of certain streets in SF or NY, where you walk by one store that is jam-packed with electronic goods, the next store has perfumes, the next has toys, and the next has electronic goods. Now, multiply this by about a billion and you have Ciudad del Este.

Well, god must have been looking out for our health, for as soon as we arrive, a torrential downpour ensued. Street-side stalls closed up and shoppers to refuge in the proper stores. We couldn't wait out the rain and so returned to Argentina within a short time. We did witness streets getting flooded and massive amounts of trash being carried away. It was an experience to say the least.
The wheel of this motorcycle filters the runoff and ensnares street trash. 

Friendship Bridge, linking Brasil and Paraguay. I wouldn't feel so safe on those motorcycles.

07 February 2010

Culture Week Continues

Our week in Cordoba was like a crash course in Argentina, even though we  already been here for a month.
Among the things we did to round out our week:

Yerba Mate - Argentina's national drink. Some say it tastes like grass. It definitely has an earthy taste to it. Fill the mate (cup) with yerba (herbs), add hot water, and drink throught the metal straw which has a filter at the bottom. Drink the few sips of mate, then refill with water and pass to the next person. EVERYBODY here drinks yerba mate.

Music - We listened to Carmela's dad play piano and accordion, our new friend Flores serenaded us with acoustic guitar and a very fine singing voice, and Carmela went through her CDs to play a variety of quintessential songs from various Argentine styles.

Nightlife - Carmela tried her best to show us Cordoba's nightlife. This included drinking Tremont, a bitter alcohol, originally from Italy, that is added to coke. It tastes like I look.

History - Again, Carmela and Flores are experts in this field. We visited many historical sites in Cordoba, including this cathedral where we crashed a wedding, and the church below. Both are located in the center of the city.

Tango - We didn't get a chance to take a lesson, but we did sit for hours in the central plaza and watch. Every Saturday night, someone sets up a small sound system and plays old tango songs, while locals come and dance through the night. Young guns and old cats alike partake in this fun gathering.

Thanks Carmela for everything! We're now going on a 22 hour bus ride that will take us to Iguazu Falls.

06 February 2010

I ate a cow. Or three.

I had written a really witty, detailed blog on vegetarianism, complete with examples, definitions (like lacto-ova-pesca vegetarians), Davis, and the relative impossibility of being a vegetarian in South America. Truly, that blog was a masterpiece. However, if you are reading this, you already know something about me and Kristin and our feelings about meat. I don't need to repeat all of that. And you also already know that this is not friendly territory for veggie lovers like us.
 However,in Argentina the beef comes from free-range, grass-fed, mate-drinking happy cows. As such, I have enjoyed several non-vegetarian meals in Argentina. Here in Cordoba, Carmela's dad made a traditional parrilla (bbq) with several cuts of beef and pork. Tonight we had Lomo, which is like gourmet version of a Philly cheese steak. We've tried various meat-filled empanadas, which are similar to slavic pirogi or chinese potstickers, though empanadas are usually baked or fried.  

I also ate beef at the guacho festival. Just ordering the food was an experience on it's own. People had been waiting in line for an hour when finally two-foot by four-foot metal sheet was brought over by four guys. The metal was carrying at least half a cow. Two men used machetes to cut the meat. A younger gaucho helped take the money while el jefe weighed the meat, as people bought it by the kilo. It was, as Carmela says, "so typically Argentinian."

I remember when my friend Payam came back from his backpacking trip to Argentina and Brasil a few years ago. He told me all he ate was steak. It was delicious at first but eventually he was pining for something different, even just a sauce like A1. Well, I've eaten some meat but not enough to get bored. I'm glad that we gave Argentinian food a fair shot. 

For vegan and vegetarian travelers out there, we have found the site happycow.com quite useful in finding meatless restaurants. Kristin does a fantastic job doing the food research when we arrive in new towns.  It's been really great learning about traditional foods, and at the same time, how we can stick to a mostly-vegetarian diet despite these local fare :) 

On an entirely different subject, my toe is still ugly and puffy and black, but my toenail hasn't fallen off and I'm not in any more pain. I would love to share more pictures but I'm afraid to upset any more stomachs. Tomorrow we take a 22-hour bus ride to Iguazu Falls. We'll camp and hike for a few days before taking another painfully long bus ride to Rio. Just in time for Carnaval! 

04 February 2010

Jesuits, Gauchos and Che, Oh My!

In our first two days in Córdoba, we wasted no time in seeing the sights. Carmela met us at the bus station after our over-night bus ride from Mendoza, which was 1.5 hours late. It was our third over-night bus ride in a row. Yah, what fun.

Anyways, after a quick stopover at her house, we were whisked away to the nearby town of Alta Gracia. We exlored a 17th Century Jesuit cathedral and estancia (another of many UNESCO World Heritage sites that we've visited so far. There are five giant estancia's that circle Córdoba which provided food and supplies to the central religious infrastructure back in the day. Apparently the Jesuits got too powerful and were expelled from the country. The buildings still remain.

A kilometer up the road, yet a world away, is Ernesto "Che" Guevara's childhood home. This inconspicuos home is tucked away in a quiet little neighborhood. There are photos, letters and family artifacts. Fidel Castro and Jugo Chavez were present at the grand opening several years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed the museum/house, though it did present Che in an entirely positive perspective (if I get time, I'll write more about this later).

That night Carmela's dad, Raul, played the tango on his piano and then his accordian. 

The next day we drove through the surrounding hills, enjoying some fantastic chocolate fig ice cream along the way. Eventually we found the middle of nowhere, which has a small white church and a couple of dilapitated old buildings. The locals were celebrating their church's saint day. While we missed the holy activities (darn!), we were in time for a chaos-filled meat bonanza called lunch. We hung around for a few hours, chatting with people, picking Carmela's brain about all the places she's travelled, and even taking a short siesta underneath a big tree. Finally, around four o'clock, the highly-anticipated event began - gaucho competitions. Gauchos are the Argentinian equivalent of our wild west cowboys. And just like our cowboys, the present state of affairs seem to be composed of equal parts legend and tourism. However, in some secret enclaves (both in the US and Argentina) there is a population who still live this way.

Carmela had found out where these people live. There were no advertisements, public announcments or marketing effot. There was no entrance fee. No planning committee. Heck, there was almost no planning. It's as if the local citizens know that after the church procession, there would be a giant bbq,  and that people would bring their horses to enjoy some friendly competition. A competition in which there is no material prize.

(Remember this face: it's the Michael Jordan slam-dunk look of the gaucho world)

The gauchos dressed how they really dress. They meandered to the open field at about 4pm and made a semi-circle on one side. Towards the other side was a pole with two arms, each holding a red ribbon. Gauchos raced down the field in pairs, trying to nab the red ribbon in their "lane." The ribbon had a hole that was maybe as big as my thumb and the used small sticks to pierce through that tiny hole. It was apparently very hard to do but was great fun to watch.

(This guy was my favorite. After he raced, he pulled his little daughter onto the horse and they rode around, looking at things in the trees and such. Plus, you can't beat his killer 'stach)

So, within two days of arriving, we have bee treating to more culture than we have seen in the last month. We have more plans for this week in Córdoba - touring the downtown sights, shopping, tango, and the famous Argentinian parrilla (bbq).

02 February 2010

Not For General Viewing

Thanks everyone for the wishes of a return to good health. I am able to walk mostly ok, but should be elevating my foot more often. We've had a wonderful two days in Cordoba. I'll post about that later.

It does seem like I'm trying to investigate various health-care systems, but I swear that's not the case. This was an accident. Anyways, without further ado, here are the disgusting pictures of my toe after four days.

Like my brother Chris, my big toe is not actually the longest toe. You can see that my index toe is much longer. Maybe that's why it hit the steel spike. I just hope I don't lose my toenail. I'm glad everyone is digging the yellow imitation crocs. You'd think that they're bright enough that the steel spike would have gotten out of the way. Maybe it was blinded by the vibrant yellowness.