Tuesday, August 31, 2010

We are failures

A three-hour drive from Kourou, where the road ends, sits the beachside Awala Yalimopo nature reserve.  The town itself isn’t much to look at: a restaurant that never opened, a local museum, and unimpressive surf the color of olives sitting out in the sun too long.  Yet, every April to June, giant leatherback turtles that can grow up to 600kg, come here to lay their eggs.   From June to September, the eggs hatch and the newborns struggle out to sea.  When we arrived, we saw plenty of rubbery, white shells resembling broken ping pong balls scattered all over the beach and we planned to spend the whole afternoon watching and waiting to catch a glimpse of the cute little buggers.  And wait we did.  Six hours later the sun had set and mosquitoes were making Tia’s neck look like a dartboard so we decided to give up and head back to our car.

We did, however, make another little friend on the beach.  A puppy, apparently the offspring of one of the numerous strays we passed, came crawling out of the brush toward us, tripped, and nearly collapsed onto the sand.  His eyes were impossibly forlorn and he couldn’t even muster the energy to approach us in search of food.  On the one hand, we wondered what to do, where to take him, whether we should worry about scabies (Claudia!), and how to explain him to anyone in a language where we could barely order food.  On the other hand, here was a puppy who was clearly weak and clearly didn’t have anyone looking after him.  We were torn.  We fed him cashews and water, wandered up and down the beach, and eventually came up with a plan to take him to the auberge we were staying at where the owner (a.k.a. Tarzan) was known for taking care of abused, exotic animals.  By the time we went to fetch him, though, it was dark and there was no sign of him anywhere.  We searched around the nearby area but he had disappeared completely.

We slept restlessly that night and both admitted to thinking of him in silence for the first hour after we awoke.  We kicked ourselves for missing our chance to help and now Bernard (Tia had named him sometime during the course of the day) was gone with little chance of surviving on his own.  We resolved to drive the bumpy two hours back to Awala Yalimopo.  We picked up dog food and a box to hold him in on our way there, confident we would find him now that it was day again.

We wish we could tell you that we had, that Bernard is living happily among the other animals at Tarzan’s auberge…  An entire afternoon of combing up and down the beach, Tia calling his name plaintively while I whistled, yielded no sign of him.  In a strange twist of fate, our exhaustive search for Bernard actually led us to two baby turtles struggling to free themselves from their sandy nests.  They both had a long way to go – one of them was near dead – and we were able to put them into the ocean and watch them swim away. 

Seeing baby turtles hatch in the wild has been on our wish list for quite some time, but seeing them without finding Bernard made for a bittersweet day.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Kourou, we have a problem

Juan might have you believe he was “cool” back in the day, but he probably hasn’t told you that he also played Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars role-playing games until high school.  So, take it from me, Juan fit right in at the Kourou space center.  He posed like a five-year old opening presents in front of the countdown clock, understood references to Star Trek, even in French, and laughed along with everyone else when our guide alluded to the French cartoon, Asterix.   The entire 3 ½ hour tour was conducted in French and even Juan’s enthusiasm couldn’t compensate for the fact that we understood next to nothing.  Two-thirds of the world’s commercial satellites are launched from Kourou, so we sort of expected a futuristic metropolis made of some indefinable, faintly luminescent material put together into structures that defied the laws of physics.  Instead, we were met by corrugated metal, vinyl, and concrete blocks with mustard yellow and fire engine red trim that looked like they were built in the Soviet Union in the early 80s.  We probably should have skipped the tour and just settled for visiting the space museum…

Lucky for us, Kourou is also the jumping off point for visits to Ile du Salut, a group of three islands where prisoners were sent from the French mainland from 1852 to 1947.  We took a catamaran to and from the island, stayed in old guard’s quarters, visited the children’s cemetery (where do they bury the adults??), and ate prison food (okay, it was a real restaurant but the food tasted a bit like it would have been suitable for prisoners).  There isn’t much swimming – the shark-infested waters are partly what made it such an attractive setting for a prison – so we got a bit bored in the two days we were there.  Still, ironic that a site of such suffering is now a place that people wish to escape to.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mais si, your rooster is tres handsome

After six weeks in Brazil, we finally got another stamp in our passports: French Guiana.  We flew into Cayenne on a Saturday and pretty much everything was closed.  Somehow it is our luck to always land in former French colonies on holidays when nothing is open (ask us sometime about Christmas at McDonalds in New Caledonia).  We meandered listlessly until we found an open Asian grocery (no surprise there) and survived on cheese and crackers until some intrepid Guyanese opened their restaurants for dinner.

The next day we went to the Surinamese embassy to sort out visas and wandered around the city.  Seeing little more than a small metal rooster on an obelisk we wisely decided to hit the road and explore the rest of the country.  After 96 hours on buses in Brazil, it was incredibly exciting to learn that renting a car was a necessity in French Guiana.   We drove southwest in our trusty Panda to the Laotian village, Cacao (1986 Panda Fiats are not equipped to handle Juan’s driving on potholed, jungle roads, by the way).  Right off the main road, our lodge, Quimbe Koe, offered hammock spaces for €12 a pop and served a delicious meal of spring rolls and Asian spiced chicken with rice.  Yum!

We slept in open air hammocks cocooned with mosquito nets and actually found it more pleasant than most of the indoor beds where we ended up bitten much more.  The next morning, we ventured into the French Amazon for a 3-hour hike (there was no way the entire 18km walk was happening with 50 lb. backpacks).  The rainforest was full of brilliant, fist-sized, blue butterflies, neon-colored geckos and enormous bee/horsefly monstrosities that could bite through clothes.  Sadly, we also came across a butterfly hunter seeking once-living trinkets to sell to tourists.  Camera and first-world indignance in hand, we briefly considered turning him into the authorities before we decided it probably isn’t illegal (oh, and he had a machete).

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Um, officer, your buffalo is breathing on me...

Our last stop in Brazil was the Ilha do Marajό, a four hour boat ride from Belem.  The Pousada Ventania where we stayed was right on a hill overlooking the beach with hammock hooks everywhere.  We went on a canoe tour down a local river where we saw lots of golden-pawed monkeys, huge blue butterflies and a sloth languorously sliding down a tree.  It was like watching a normal animal move in slow motion.  Fittingly, I was at the top of my game during these last days in Brazil, managing to hold an entire conversation (albeit with plenty of gestures) with João, our guide, in Portuguese.  Trying to convey that Tia was “stubborn” I explained the concept to him and the closest equivalent he could come up with was “mandona”, which is probably more like “princess in charge”.  Ah well, still a keeper in my book.

We saw lots of water buffalo but, unfortunately, weren’t lucky enough to see the buffalo-mounted police.  Yes, you read correctly.  We doubted whether we’d feel appropriately cowed if stopped by a policeman atop a walking hamburger, but when we saw them charging rather quickly down the beach we decided it might actually be intimidating. Respect.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hunting for rubber barons

Twenty-seven long hours after leaving Fortaleza, we arrived in Belem, the largest city on the banks of the Amazon.  We were smart on the bus this time (fleece jackets, pants, socks and a sleeping bag as a blanket), so we arrived in Belem rather refreshed and quite excited.  The root of our excitement:  our reservation at the Hotel le Massilia right off the Plaza Republica with a French restaurant.  After five weeks of rice and beans with salt and oil, the filet Roquefort and a bottle of Bordeaux was a little slice of heaven.

We spent a morning exploring the Ver o Peso, the bustling street market that smelled strongly of freshly caught fish, and the palacios of the old rubber barons.  “Palace” must mean something different in Portuguese because they looked more like manor houses you’d find in the South.  One palacio in particular was meant to have an impressive local museum with free entry.  Unfortunately, the museum was under renovation and they apparently asked the local kindergarten class for replacement art.  Best part: the kids were clearly given pre-cut pieces of paper and paste to form the Brazilian flag and let’s just say the variety of different “flags” was quite impressive…

Spot the Tranny

Only a city at 3 degrees latitude can produce the fierce sort of early morning heat that greeted us in Fortaleza.  Ironically, the overnight bus was freezing and, in our Xanax induced haze, we couldn’t figure out how to shut off the vents.   In his shorts and flip-flops, it was inevitable that Juan got sick.  When we arrived at our hostel, Juan promptly fell back asleep for another five hours and I took advantage of a fast internet connection to plan more of our trip, work on our photo album and download Lie to Me episodes to watch on future long journeys (great recommendation, Pete and Amy).  We went to dinner that evening at Cemoara, another Lonely Planet pick.  The food was delicious, the wine not so much, and the waiter was the sort that mulishly refused to understand a foreigner’s attempt to speak in his language.  We ended up walking back to our hostel along the yellow-lit streets dotted with nightclubs, hookers, and trannies.  Evidently, the city is waging a (losing) war against its reputation as the sex trade capital of Brazil.fn

One evening of playing Spot the Tranny being enough, we took advice from Danielle and others who insisted that the 14 hours of travel time to get to and from Jericoacoara would be worth it even for a single day.  “Jeri” is a small town reached by crossing through a national park of sand dunes and palm trees on a cramped open-sided bus that might have been a cattle truck in a previous life.  We arrived around sunset and it was immediately apparent why it came so highly recommended.  Jericoacoara is a lazy beach town with a distinctly international feel and streets of sand where people spend their days kitesurfing, lounging, and drinking caipirinhas on the beach.  It’s lucky that we’d already booked a bus to Belem the next day otherwise chances are good we’d still be there, among the beautiful people, drunk as fish.  We only had time for a quick horse ride to Pedra Furada – a natural rock arch just outside of town described as emblematic of Jeri.  It was a lovely ride (although we don’t recommend riding horses in bathing suits and flip-flops…) but the arch itself was a tad underwhelming, especially when compared to Utah’s arches.

Hindsight is always 20/20 but we can say with certainty that spending only 20 hours in Jericoacoara was a mistake.  So was spending any time in Fortaleza…

More pictures here:

Fn.  Juan might have made that up.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Con emocão!

Believe it or not, we took the first real beach day of our trip in Natal, a coastal town in northeastern Brazil.  You can rent an umbrella for the day for R$10 (about US$5) and carts selling all sorts of food and drinks roll by constantly.  The espetinhos were our favorite – shrimp, beef or cheese skewers grilled right on the beach in metal carts.  The crepes were also surprisingly delicious.  The weather was quite fickle (blistering sun to pouring rain and back again) but we found if we just stayed under our umbrella we were safe from just about every element.  That evening we went to dinner at Camaroes (it still makes us laugh that Brazilians name many of their restaurants after the foods they serve) and had one of our favorite dishes in Brazil – shrimp with grilled pineapple, cashews and some sort of Thai flavored soy sauce.  It was delicious!  We can’t say the same of the cheese plate, which was probably the worst we’ve ever had.

The next day we started off early for a day of buggy riding.  Our companions for the day were:  Moal, a grizzled, leathery, old Brazilian who was our driver; Orun, a Canadian with a Turkish background; and Matt, a rugby player from Nottingham straight out of high school.  You can ask for your buggy ride “con emocão” (with excitement) or play it safe.  The former involves speeding across sand dunes like a skateboarder on half pipes, turning the buggy nearly vertical as we held on for dear life in the back – there is no doubt we would have flown out of the buggy if we didn’t hold on tight enough.  The dunes went on forever and were reminiscent of a picturesque version of an old man’s smooth, bald scalp (Hans Moleman anyone?).  We stopped for lunch at a lagoon restaurant where your feet were submerged in water and it didn’t take long to discover that little fish were nibbling our feet.  We tried to convince ourselves we were having one of those fancy pedicures where fish eat your dead skin, but we’re pretty sure they only liked the fresh stuff.  We also took a break to try our hand at sandboarding -- pretty much what it sounds like.  Juan was a natural (despite what the picture of his sand-covered face says to the contrary), no one else was.    

That night our hostel hosted a BBQ with lots of meats, including chicken hearts which the owner made us try.  Despite his proclamation that the third one was the charm, we still didn’t care for them much.  We met a bunch of American girls just starting their study abroad in Brazil and an Australian who confidently asserted he was the oldest person at the hostel.  When we told him our ages, he averted his eyes and walked away. Ha. We may be getting too old for this…

We also learned a valuable lesson: if you decide to have a secret room in your house, make sure that there are no natural light sources in it!  We spent the first night of our hostel assuming we were meant to use the bathroom just outside our room in the hall.  The next morning, we saw light peeking through the armoire and sure enough when we opened the door it revealed a very good-sized bathroom.  
More pictures here:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

No means no, maybe means no and even yes often means no

Salvador both disappointed us and exceeded our expectations. 

We found a cute B&B through one of our new favorite websites: www.airbnb.com.  The place itself was what we expected: a 5 minute walk from the beach in Barra (remembering that the “rr” is pronounced as an “h” would have been helpful before we tried to get there on a bus from the airport), a balcony with views of the ocean in every direction and a bathroom with separate hot and cold water faucets.  What we weren’t expecting, however, was how much we’d like our host and his friends.  Neil is an expat Welshman who has been living in Salvador for two years and Claudia is an English teacher from Ouro Preto with a love of Wilson Philips.  Neil made us feel instantly at home and Claudia was invaluable in providing us with suggestions for things to do during our stay.  

Salvador is considered Brazil’s capital of African culture.  From what we’d read, we expected the plazas to be full of impromptu capoeira  performances, Candomble dances, Olodum drummers, and other live music.  When we first ventured into the Pelourinho, the reputed center of it all, our expectations were high.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be quite tame…  The cobbled streets were pretty empty, with no sign of colorful characters and music oozing from the windowsills.  Luckily, we had Neil and Claudia with us, and they led us through some back streets to a free concert that included a line of wild haired women drummers.  
We originally planned to stay in Salvador only three days, but extended our trip when we were told we needed to see a folklorico show and witness Salvador on a Tuesday evening.   The former almost didn’t happen since despite being told on the phone that we couldn’t reserve tickets ahead of time and the show was already sold out when we arrived.  We decided to wait it out and watch the remaining tickets like hawks.  Two separate groups arrived to “claim” tickets by having lengthy discussions with the vendor and then handing over some money only to have new tickets miraculously appear from under the counter (in fairness, one of the groups was led by a nun so it may have been a miracle).  Each time he would look nervously at us and tell us there were no more and to leave.  Eventually, we harassed him enough that he relented and let us through the back entrance to stand and watch the show.  It was worth the wait.  We finally saw good capoeira, heard music from an old instrument that looked like a bow, saw women dance in hoop skirt costumes and saw a man walk through a bowl of flaming coals (his feet stayed on fire for a few seconds after and any remaining sparks he quickly picked up and ate).  
Neil went out with us on Tuesday night and once again proved invaluable.  He adeptly led us to all the best places attended by local Brazilians and we heard lots of good live music.

Apart from that we took our first (and probably last) tourist sightseeing bus, tried biri-biri sorbet from a famous sorveteria, went to a modern art museum that is reportedly haunted (no sightings by us, unfortunately), and felt more like a part of a city than we had in awhile.

Oh, and if any of you ever decides to cover your body in tattoos (esp. butterflies) or gets a big beer belly and becomes allergic to shirts, Salvador is the place for you.

More pictures here:

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Macaws and Caimans and Pumas, Oh My!

We like birds.  No, seriously, we do.  We fully expect to end up as one of those wrinkly, old Audobon couples dressed in full safari gear, binoculars in hand, following reports of a buff-breasted sandpiper sighting in the brush behind the local Walmart.  Anyway, that's what made us decide to visit the wetlands in south western Brazil known as the Pantanal.  It is the world's largest contiguous wetland (20 times the size of the Everglades) and has better wildlife viewing than the Amazon since the animals have no dense foliage to hide in.  The Pantanal supports approximately 650 bird species, somewhere between 10 and 35 million caimans (a type of alligator), 300 fish species... You get the picture.

The trip would have been perfect if it hadn't been for the "tour" we booked. We settled on Modus Vivendi, a tour company run by an American that claimed to live in the Pantanal (last time we checked Cincinnati is not in the Pantanal).  We were lured in by persuasive arguments in perfect English as to why Modus Vivendi was better than other tour operators.  Unfortunately, his argument that other companies "sometimes function in less than professional ways and in some cases as outright scams" turned out only to apply to them.  Instead of being provided with an English-speaking guide for our 5-day tour, we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere, without a car, and left to negotiate with the "hotel" staff using our rudimentary Portuguese.

Despite this, however, we managed to see some amazing wildlife.  Capivaras (think groundhogs on steroids) trotted past alligators sunning themselves with mouths agape.  Monkeys frolicked in trees filled with great egrets and swatted insects with more skill than Juan in his underwear with a headlamp (no surprise).  And, obviously, we saw lots and lots of cool birds.  Surprisingly, all of the animals seemed to live happily together in a Disneyesque utopia. 

Best part: On our boat tour down one of the many rivers, our guide taunted a caiman onto land with a dead piranha (which he killed by biting) and then fed him directly before trying to pet him.

More pictures here: