Thursday, August 25, 2011

Paradise City... Rio de Janeiro !

The land of Jesus, beaches and more capirinhas. For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to visit the Rio and see what all the hype is about. It's not carnivale time here, but the week I've spent in Rio has been so so fantastic.

We arrived in Rio on a sunny Sunday afternoon and after a quick drop off of our bags at the hostel, we headed back out to the Ipanema square and the hippie market. We wandered around the markets for a bit and took a walk down by Ipanema beach which is where our hostel was located. We were located right next door to the restaurant Garota de Ipanema which is where the song was written.

After an early night, we woke up dark clouds and a very foggy day in Rio (we later found out that two of Rio's main airports were closed so we were lucky we had arrived the previous day). Being a fairly crappy day to go sight-seeing at any of the main attractions, we instead met up with our friend and colleague from the IBM Rio offices, Marcel. He suggested some things to do and places to go to.. so we decided to go to the really really local markets to buy some much needed stuff. We hopped on a train, and spent all of the day shopping before we headed back to the beach and Arpoador Rocks (which separates the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches). Unfortunately, when we got there, the fog still hadn't lifted and infact it was worse, so we had no sunset that day.

The next day, being another gloomy day, we decided to book a Favela tour for the morning. We were picked up by the tour company and driven to one of the largest Favelas in Rio - Rocina. We got some insight into the Favelas and the people who live there. There was a time when most of the Favelas in Rio were controlled by the drug lords and these places were unsafe and no one would visit them. Now, the government is trying to take back control by installing a military presence in these Favelas to keep them safe. When they government takes back the control, they call this "pacifying". Rocina is not a pacified favela and in this Favela alone, there are about 85,000 people living (I think that's the number I heard) and only 1% of that population is actually involved in drugs. When we got in to Rocina, we were told that we could only take photos of the views and not of the people there because they are still controlled by the drug lords and had been asked not to. They were expecting a government take over and we actually saw kids with guns standing around "watching" the activity of us tourists and the locals. After a brief but interesting visit and taking in the views, we went to the next favela which was Vila Canoas. This one is a pacified favela and we could take pictures of anything and everything. We took a walk through the favela and its narrow lanes and got to see some interesting architecture and people. We also visited one of the local day care centres where some of the money from the tours gets donated to.

That afternoon, we made a quick visit to Santa Teresa which we heard so much about. We got into the city and from there took a tram across the bridge to the beautiful little suburb. There wasn't much going on there as it was the middle of the week.. but Santa Teresa is apparently a really cool bohemic place. So, I guess I'll just have to visit there again the next time I'm in Rio :)

On Wednesday, I had booked in for a Brazilian cooking class. The day and the timing was perfect because it was another gloomy day in Rio and it was pouring down with rain. Our class was in the afternoon and it was just perfect. We started the class with .. Batida de Coco (coconut drink with cachasa) and from there made some Aipim Frito (fried manioc chips). Our teacher, Simone was amazing. It was a very hands on class and she gave us lots of tips about different cooking techniques and also some of her secret (not so secret now) recipes. While we were tasting the Aipim Frito, we started the second round of drinks which was Passionfruit capirinhas -- these were just as awesome and the class got even more interesting -- you can see why Simone has such good reviews about her cooking classes .. its because we enjoy the drinks so much ! Next on the menu was the main .. which was Moqueca ! A-M-A-Z-I-N-G ! It's a fish/ seafood stew that is very traditional in the north of Brazil. We also made some rice and farofa with banana to go along with the Moqueca. This cooking class was definitely one of the highlights of my trip to Rio.. and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who goes to visit Rio.

Thursday we woke up and we FINALLY had the sun back and no fog in sight. We made a few quick calls and booked a hang-gliding trip. We got picked up and driven to Sao Conrado beach where we got our hang-gliding "license" and were then taken to the top of Sao Conrado mountain where the ramp is located. After a quick 30 second lesson on how to run in tandem off the ramp (which I thought I needed more practice of), I was strapped in and awayyyyy I went ! This was the second highlight of my trip ... the video below is really long.. so just watch the start where I run off the ramp (funny!) and then skip to 5 minutes where I'm in cloud 9 (literally!) and then to the end where I land on the beach.

Friday morning and the skies were still clear and it was the perfect day to go up to the top of Cristo Redentor and to Pao de Acucar. So, off we set early in the morning to go visit Jesus.. or at least what we thought was early. When we got there, we ended up having to stand in line for 45 minutes to get a ticket and then another half an hour for the train to take us up. But it was completely worth it when you get to the top ! The size of the monument and the views of the city were so amazing. We spent a good 2 hours at the top elbowing people out of the way so we could have some photos and then we headed all the way across to Pao de Acucar. We thought we had already seen it all from Cristo, but the views from Sugarloaf were even better we had a 360 degree view of Rio and we also got to watch the sunset from here.

In the night, the lovely Evelyn (another colleague from IBM Rio) organised for a night out in Lapa with some folk from the local offices and their friends. We went to some place that promised Samba but started off with Metallica instead. I have a feeling Evelyn gave them a few threats before they started to play some Samba music for us ... it ended up being a fantastic night of samba music and dancing with good friends in the party capital of the world ! ;)

Saturday was my last day in Rio and my masterplan was to bum on the beaches and eat ! And that's what I did ... I took a walk down to Copacabana and lay in the sun (coz I'm still working on my tan) and people watched and ate plenty of fried cheese on a stick and corn. The evening was spent with some friends I made at the hostel .. we walked back down to Copa to the markets, bought some last minute souvenirs and were then picked up by the lovely Evelyn and Ilan for some more drinks on my last night there. We went down by the lake to this really cool bar/ restaurant where we tried some more authentic food and interesting capirinhas !

And with this, I ended my six week Brazilian adventure... and what a fantastic six weeks it was ! I made so many new friends, tried so many different foods, learnt to Samba, learnt to cook, took a trip into the clouds, met Big Jesus and had the BEST time ever. Like I've said so many times, this was my first time in Brazil, but it certainly isn't my last... I will be back.. and next time for longer.
ps- Evelyn, I think we need to start working on that exchange :)

Next Stop >> Buenos Aires, Argentina !

Friday, August 19, 2011

When I grow old and its time to retire, this is where you'll find me ... Salvador, Bahia !

After an all night party and a 6am departure from Porto Alegre, I was finally on holiday and ready to start the second part of my travels in South America.

If I could retire now, this is where I would live! From the minute I arrived, I fell in love with the place. It definitely helped that the sun was down on me and that was a welcome change from the rain and the cold of Porto Alegre. Being too tired, sleepy and hot to find the bus from the airport.. I ended up taking a taxi to the Galeria 13 hostel located in the historic centre of Pelourinho. I got there in the afternoon and promptly fell asleep in the Moroccan themed chill out room while I waited for my travel buddy- Jasmine to arrive.

We went for a stroll around Pelourinho in the evening and I was in love! Every street you turn down, there is different live music playing, kids doing capoeira and vibrant, rich colour and the wafting smells of chili and acaraje. The historic centre has such a good vibe to it with all of these elements. But, being too tired from our travels and the heat of Salvador, we had an early dinner and an early night and fell asleep to the distant sounds of Samba in the square which continued into the night.

Being on holiday and not wanting to be on a schedule as I usually am, I slept in the next morning and decided to spend the exploring the historic centre some more. We walked around the different Plazas in the vicinity, drank lots of coconut water, checked out the Sao Fancisco De Assiss Church and the balcony where Michael Jackon once stood when he filmed his "They don't really care about us" video. I ended up buying a rubbish magnet from the store where the balcony is located just so I could take a picture there.

In the afternoon, we took the Lacerda Elevador - ie, the Elevator that connects the top city to the bottom city - yes they have an elevator to connect the cities!  - to go the Mercado Modelo where I added to my earring collection.

With Jana's arrival in the afternoon the next day, we had strict instructions from her, that we were to go to the beach so that she could work on her tan (yes, I needed to work on my tan too!). Soon as she was in, we made our way to the infamous Barra beach where I had a cold cerveza and I ate one of everything that came my way.

We had booked in for a Candomble ceremony that evening. We had a guide come pick us up and take us to the Favelas where there was a ceremony being held that evening. The evening started off pretty easy where the head of the ceremony gave us some background, told us that we were not to cross our bodies and then the chanting and dancing began. Jana, Jas and myself all had the evil spirits yanked out of us by one of the ladies involved in the ceremony. Jana was the first one to go through this and the image of this happening still makes me giggle a little a little bit. Our experience lasted three hours and was still going on when our guide said it was time for us to leave. Before we left the ceremony hall, the exit had to be cleared of all of the evil spirits. This time, I was the lucky first to go out the door and I had the head of the ceremony yell in my ears and vigorously spin me around 5 times before I was pushed towards the door. Amusing as it was, the ceremony itself was quite interesting and well worth a watch if you ever decided to visit Salvador.

The following day, we decided to make our way to the Bomfin Church where we spent some time taking photos of the Church Fences that were covered in the Bomfin ribbons. One of the first things we noticed when approaching the church were hundreds of colorful ribbons tied to the wrought-iron railings enclosing the structure, blowing in the wind. Senhor do Bonfim wrist ribbons, known as fitas, are an institution in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. Senhor do Bonfim means Our Lord of a Good End, which is one way that Bahianas refer to Jesus. The ribbons found on the streets of Salvador have "Lembrança do Senhor do Bonfim da Bahia" printed on them. Translated from Portuguese, the phrase roughly means In Remembrance of the Savior of Bahia or Souvenir from the God of Bahia—or something along those lines. The belief is when you have to tie the ribbon with three knots and each knot represents a wish.. when the ribbon falls off, it means your wishes have come true. I'm still waiting for my wishes to come true as I still have the fita on my wrist that was given to me by a vendor in Salvador.

After our visit to the Bomfin Church, we had a leisurely stroll down by the beach and took the ferry across to an island that I can't remember the name of to sample what is to be known as the best Moqueca in the Salvador at Boca de Galleta. Unfortunately, when we got there, we found out that the restaurant is only open on weekends and not during the week. It wasn't a completely wasted trip as we wouldn't have had a chance to see that side of Salvador otherwise and on our way back to the city, we stopped at Mercado Modelo and had what is perhaps the second best Moqueca in all of Salvador anyway.

Tuesday evening in Pelourinho was the whole reason I was in Salvador in the first place. After hearing so much about the Tuesday night Street Party , I was up and ready to go at 7pm. We made our way down to the "steps" where there was a concert going on and from there we walked the streets and came upon the Swing de Pelo drum band that was getting the party started. These guys are awesome ... watch the video to get a feel for what a Tuesday night in Pelo is like .. and why I travelled half way around the world to experience this.

After the all night street party in Pelo, we spent the next day showing Jana around the Historic centre (coz after 3 days there, Jas and myself were also experienced guides), shopping and visiting the markets and the other Sao Francisco Church... this one was even more spectacular than the last one.. It is one of the most spectacular churches in the world, and is richly adorned inside with gold, silver and precious stones and has ceiling art that has been compared to that of the Sistine Chapel. In the night, Jas and myself went for an Afro- Brazilian music show which was fantastic.

The next day was Jana's last day in Rio and in Brazil before she headed home... so of course, we had to go to the beach for some more sun and sand in the morning. In the afternoon, Jas and myself walked around the historic centre some more (clearly I did not want to leave the place!) and visited some of the museums.

Friday... well Friday and our trip to Pituacu National Park deserves a dedicated post. This will be updated in a few weeks once I get back home-- so watch this space!

And Saturday was my last day in Salvador. Jas and myself spent the morning relaxing, befriended fellow travellers from France, Germany and England and went to the Museum de Arte Mordena by the sea for Jazz in the evening. Here we spent the evening listening to Brazilian Jazz and again.. eating one of everything that I saw at the fiesta stalls.

It is with a heavy heart that I left Salvador, but like I've been saying for the past few weeks.. I'll be back !

Next stop >> RIO Baby !