Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Cataratas do Iguasu, and Day 1 in Argentina

Foz do Iguasu - our last stop in Brasil. It made us a little sad to be ending the first month of our travel and leaving Brasil where we had been treated to so many good things. We were sad to be leaving the food and great company of Sao Paulo, the lush sights and sounds of Salvador, the vast expanses of Amazonia and Lencois Maranhenses and the history and sadness of Ouro Preto. But all the same we were more than excited about the famed falls and our upcoming Argentine sojourn. We left Salvador on the same taxi as a German couple ending a ten month trip to Latin America and flew to Foz.

We stayed at the neat, clean (although our room was tiny) Hostel Bambu. We were led to it by a Brasilian tourist from Recife who was just returning from a visit Europe and oddly enough got cheap tickets in and out of Foz. Previously having lived around the area for a number of years, oddly enough he had not seen the falls. He informed us that in a one month trip to Europe he had taken nine thousand photos (oddly enough - thought we because we conservatively calculated that he took a photo every 3 minutes assuming he slept for 7 hours a day and showered/ate for an hour a day.) For the purposes of this blog we name him - Oddly Enough. But he led us the right way and we plonked ourselves down in the Hostel and had a terrible pizza for lunch which quickly made us run to the supermercado for supplies for dinner.

At our dinner cookout, we made the acquaintance of a number of engaging travellers. A. an Italian girl living in London, S. an Australian of Italian origin and J. a Kiwi working in Canada for a couple of months. We even bumped into S. again later in our journey. Of course we were kept oddly entertained by Oddly Enough.

The following day was reserved for two things - the Brasilian side of the falls and a bird park just outside the national park. We didn't intend to be at the bird park for long but it was engaging and held us there for the entire morning. Hard to see in the wild unless you have plenty of time - they had a number of birds from around Latin America including toucans, macaws, parrots, cranes, geese and flamingoes among others. They have recreated a number of environments found around the continent - rainforests, wetlands, savanna - and visitors can walk through a variety of them and see the birds up close. At the end of course, you can get a picture with a macaw on your arm!

The afternoon was spent at the main event - the falls themselves. Needless to say they are stunning. As any guidebook will tell you, the Brasilian side gives you a good overview of the falls while the Argentine side lets you get up close and intimate. Vast torrents of water gush down the numerous falls. We walked down a trail and a series of pasarelas (walkways) - past the initial section of the falls from where we could see the Argentine side and the initial section of the falls, past a small island (Isla San Martin) in the middle of the river, watched a speedboat from the Argentine side ferry thrill-seekers to be almost under some of the falls and finally reached the roaring savagery of the Garganta do Diabo (The Devil's Throat.) Probably the most famous section of the falls, this spectacle is not even visible from a distance since it is hidden behind a layer of spray and mist, one can only hear an awesome roar. The Brasilian side has a walkway constructed right to the edge of the Garganta which goes past a huge sheet of a fall and leaves you near the middle of the Garganta. Wet and cold, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and were suitably awestruck and amazed. We spent hours staring at the falls from all sorts of angles and places and just couldn't get enough. To be cliched but right, words certainly cannot do justice to the falls and they have to be experienced. There's not much we can write to describe the waterfall with the second highest flow rate in the world plunging down a peak height of 82 m split into 275 different cataracts. We hope some of our pictures will entice you enough to go yourself.

Our last half day in Brasil was spent at the massive (second largest in the world) Itaipu dam - a joint project of Paraguay and Brasil. We took a brief tour around the outside of the dam and the magnitude is striking. The project is second only to China's Three Gorges Dam and it has a maximum generation capability of 14 GW. The energy generated is split evenly to Brasil and Paraguay although Paraguay then sells most of what it receives back to Brasil. Itaipu supplies about 25% of Brasil's energy needs and about 80% of Paraguay's. It is one of the most efficient power generators in terms of MW/sq km flooded area. It has a flooded area of 1350 sq km (220 m deep) and swallowed up a set of waterfalls called the Sete Quedas - apparently even more spectacular than Iguasu. Whichever side you fall on in the mega-dam debate, Itaipu is impressive. Finally, back in Foz, we boarded a bus for Puerto Iguazu and made our way out of Brasil.

The entry into Argentina was smooth, although we had to wait a while for another bus from the same company to show up and take us from the Argentine check-point into town. The hostel we'd originally emailed wasn't that great, so we took a dorm in the Peter Pan Hostel and shared our room with 4 Spaniards, one of whom (J.) we bumped into again in Bariloche and El Calafate and expect to meet again in BA!

On the first night itself we found that just across the border, in Argentina, things seemed different. There was a more laid-back feel to the place instead of a great crush of people and things seemed like they'd been around for a while where in Brasil much of the construction and development feels and is new. Argentina feels old money. Maybe it was more than a little psychological but it felt safer too. The fruit and vegetables were immediately more expensive and much less in variety. The wine was cheaper though and there was a wide range of pasta and pizza available everywhere. Our first breakfast of toast, jam, caramel (dulce de leche - ubiquitous everywhere in Argentina) and a bad glazed croissant was disappointing after the big spreads in Brasil. Fruits were not as easily available even though Foz is less than an hour away. No more mangoes *sniff*

The first night we cooked again and at that time, made the acquaintance of three Argentine amigos - L., M. and G. who were having an asado (barbeque) in the hostel's grill by the kitchen. They cooked up an extremely impressive quantity of meat and consumed most of it with bread and cheese. There was not a vegetable or fruit in sight. We struck up a lively albeit somewhat one-sided (from both sides) conversation since only one of them (G.) spoke limited English and our Spanish is certainly nothing to write home about. They were from near Mar Del Plata and were driving around Argentina racing their restored old car. M. was an agricultural engineer, G. worked on automotive electrical stuff and L. was an entrepreneur who had a company which dug ground water wells. They offered us and it was the first time we tried Fernet (with Coca-Cola) and Gancia (with Sprite), two drinks which are very popular around the country - we like Fernet! L. also gave MF Tree a gift - a bright and shiny "tree-of-life" which is made of semi-precious stones. We've been toting it around all over! All in all it was a fun night.

They next day was devoted to the Argentine side of the falls. On this side you can get really up close to the falls. You walk over, under and next to a number of the falls and you can even stand right on top of the Garganta del Diabo and see its roaring torrent below you. We started off on the Sendero Macuco - a nature trail leading to a small waterfall where you can bathe, but got a little bored with the walk so headed back and towards the main falls. We probably took pictures about every five feet along the walkways and got a thorough fill of the falls.

The Quest for a Limpo

We first noticed one in Cafe Alquimia where we had a drink before Bale Folclorico and then we saw one in our hostel and then we saw more all around the city. Floating, dreamy characters carrying the world in a bucket or a paintbrush or flowers. Many walls in Salvador carry the mark of the graffiti artist known as Limpo and we were quite taken with his work.

We decided to try and see if we could get a piece. We trudged around a number of galleries asking if anyone knew about an available Limpo which was small enough for us to carry. It seemed no one had any, since he's on the rise in the art market and lives in Europe. But we asked and asked till we found one gallery which had a small enough piece and for a small enough price. After much mulling and about 2 hours before we left Salvador we decided that we wanted it! But alas, the owner was (slightly) clueless about how we could take it with us and did not possess a box or case in which to carry it. She initially offered to roll up the painting (oil on canvas!) and send it with us, but we insisted on a hard shell case to carry it and in the course of trying to find one we fortunately we spoke to another gallery owner who immediately said NO - that rolling it would damage the painting. Unfortunately then, with only a couple of hours left there was no way we could get a box and in any case it would be a headache to lug it around with us for a month in Argentina.

But we do have the gallery's email address and may still get it shipped. So if you visit us, you might get to see a Limpo in India!

An Amusing Cast of Characters

Through our trip we've met plenty of interesting, warm and friendly people. Some local residents, some international travellers like ourselves and some domestic travellers who have been charming and helpful. But we have had our share of oddballs too. Two of them stick out.

When we were staying in Amazonia, our very helpful Pousada-owner introduced us to a Catholic, priest, yoga teacher and spiritual-guide of Indian (i.e. from our homeland!) origin so that he could help communicate with us in English since she spoke none at all. Well we did get that, but oh so much more! We had gone there after a trip to the airport chasing our delayed bags and were encountered with a wall of Portuguese so we were not sure the bags were really there. He assured us that our bags had arrived and were with the airline and then invited us to have some coffee before we left on our way to Alter do Chao. From the discussion, we gleaned that he had arrived here quite a few years ago, sent by the church to study and work in Brasil and now functioned as a spiritual advisor, free psychological counselor - by his own account, much in need since Brasil is a country of loose morals and sexual values hence there are many "problems." When he learned we were not married he nodded sagely and said "Ah yes, nowadays in India also they have that, boyfriend-girlfriend." Again by his own description, he also acts as a general administrator working with the government who knew everyone there is to be known including Lula himself! ("He is known to us" is a phrase we won't forget in a hurry.) What was his means of sustenance - he, erm, "collaborated" with the people of the town and had formed an "association." The "association" was so fond of him, it didn't even go on holidays without letting him be in peace and "forced" him to come along. To be fair, he kindly took us on a quick tour of Santarem around the docks at which point he was called by a friend and "association" member who called us over for some juice at her house. Since a good suco is not to be turned down, we went along and were treated to fresh orange juice and a delectable creme de maracuja! His friend turned out to be the wife of a big-shot doctor in Santarem and lived in a huge, secure house with a splendidly laid out garden. It turned out to be an unintentionally amusing afternoon and we even forgot about our baggage delay for a while.

An even stranger incident occurred at the Santarem airport where we spent most of the night before our flight to Sao Luis. I had gone to the information desk to inquire about whether there was Wi-Fi available at the airport and was greeted and answered by a wiry young man who said that we'd have to pay to get access. I said thanks and started to walk away when he engaged me in a brief discussion. He started off by asking me where I was from, which I politely answered but then he quickly moved on to whether I knew about Jesus Christ. I said well, what's there to know? But he insisted so I obliged and said he's supposed to be the son of God and apparently the product of the immaculate conception of Mary. Strangely - for an airport information desk employee - he asked whether I believed that was true and whether I believed in the Lord. A little bit puzzled and annoyed I said no, I don't particularly believe in any Lord of any sort to deflect any further line of attack. But undeterred he marched on and informed me that at some point I would come around and believe and in fact that happened to everyone, everyone eventually comes to believe. All of this, by the way, in perfect English. I thanked him for the information and made my getaway. We've chalked down Santarem as being a bit on the nutty side!

A Long Bus Ride

From Sao Luis, we decided to take our first really long bus-ride to get to Salvador. It was going to be more than 24 hours. We even tried to plan breaking our trip by first going east to Recife and then continuing down south to Salvador, but on further inquiry, we found out that it wouldn't make a difference. Both towns - Recife and Salvador - were about the same distance from Sao Luis so we would in fact be lengthening the journey.

We made inquiries at the bus station and our so-far favourite bus-station attendant (in the Itapemerim booth in Sao Luis) informed us with a finger-wagging, head-nodding sing-song that there was a bus to Feira-de-Santana, which was about an hour from Salvador but not to all the way to Salvador. That bus actually continued a further day, going all the way to Rio. We decided to take the plunge and go 27 hours to Salvador, there didn't seem to be much that was attractive along the way. In the usual course of things it wouldn't really be much of an issue - we have both been on plenty of long train journeys, say, in India - but for the fact that we were not sure we would have an vegetarian food available at the stops the bus stopped at.

After much fretting we decided to carry all our food with us. We made a whole bunch of jam sandwiches, bought a load of snacks and fruit and were on our way. Finally rid of the decidedly un-lordly Lord Hotel. The landscape was beautiful and the trip mainly uneventful and we even found some food along the way - rice and beans at a per-kilo, self-serve place and some really bad pao de queijo. We made our way first through verdant coastal vegetation of palms and looked like sugarcane country and then wound through the dry interior - the parched and harsh sertao, full of scrub and a few cacti - to finally reach Feira de Santana. Here we hurriedly scrambled into a second bus to Salvador and we were there! We survived!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

To Chopp or not to Chopp?

In Brasil, there is bottled beer and then there is chopp. Chopp is the Brasilian term for draught beer. It´s found all over and restaurants often advertise themselves as being chopperias as well. It´s served chilled and is great on a hot summer day - well timed Brasil-travel for us I say! We had a few varieties of chopp on our travels - Itaipava (a Rio based brewer), Antarctica and Brahma (two kinds - a clear, pale pilsener and a darker porter-ish one.) MFTree goes for the Itaipava, while I´ll take the Brahma(s).

Bottled beer in Brasil is served cold and I mean brain-freezing, tongue-numbingly cold. It´s also served in an insulating jacket which does it´s best not to let the warmth creep. The bottled beers are all pilseners and the dominant brands remain the same as chopp, with a couple of additions. Brahma, Bohemia, Antarctica and the weak-ish Skol (in order of my preference) are the biggest sellers. We noticed the similarity in style and flavours and discovered that all are actually owned by AmBev!

However, to answer the titular question - chopp!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Nordeste Brasil - Salvador da Bahia

Salvador is a true gem. It is the African soul of Brasil, where the slaves and their descendants maintained their customs, religions, culture, food, and way of life more than anywhere else in the New World. A cascade of emotions washes through the streets, people and performances - from the joyous celebrations of life, to the anger and sadness unavoidable in a place central to the horror of slavery in the New World. In order to make their religions more acceptable to their owners, the slaves renamed their gods and goddesses with more Christian sounding saintly names. Today, there are two main Afro-Brasilian religions practised - Candomblé and Umbanda.

The historic centre is called the Pelourinho - literally, the whipping post where the slaves were displayed and sold. Today, the Pelo is a vibrant artsy tourist hotspot. Imagine well- preserved colonial buildings and churches, the ever present sounds of drums, constant parades on the streets showcasing different dance groups, and artists working in their studios open to the public.

Salvador is home to world-class dance and music performers. We attended an excellent performance called Balé Folclorico da Bahia where we sat enthralled by the grace and energy of the dancers as they did maculelé (a fast and aggressive dance to celebrate the sugarcane harvest, and to display aggression towards the slave owners) and and capoeira (a mock fighting-sparring dance that showcases the athleticism of the performers). The performance also included samba de roda and dances of the orixas (the Candomblé gods and goddesses). This dance performance is the highlight of my stay in Brasil. I highly recommend it!

The City sits in a stunning location on a beautiful bay with white sand. We spent an afternoon at the sculpture garden of the Museu de Arte Moderna. The pieces are all housed outdoors along a wooden deck facing the gorgeous ocean view. The Mercado Modelo is an artesan market where we purchased a capoeira tote bag, still high on the excitement from the previous day´s performance.
Another must-see is the Afro-Brasilian museum, a joint project between various governments in Africa and the Culture department of Brasil. Here are housed the splendid wooden murals of all the orixas by Carybé.
In Salvador is yet another gold church, Igreja do Sao Francisco, the opulence of which will open even the most gold-church-weary eyes. But really, this one is excellently maintained and looks as elegant as a church entirely done in gold (on the inside) and dead saints can.

In Salvador we could finally sample local vegetarian cuisine at Ramma, where they make fresh and innovative food from local Brasilian and Bahian ingredients - highly recommended (albeit expensive, so we only went once.) Also of note is the artisanal ice-cream shop - Le Glacier Laporte - which had flavours of local (even non-Amazonian) fruit and interesting others like a mixed-spice flavoured one which was surprisingly good. Lastly we would also like to recommend Bar Zulu which also had some great vegetarian options like Thai Curry and Alu Gobi, but we tried the Morrocan Lentil stew which held its own against anything we´ve eaten on the trip. The rest of our outside meals were cheap pizzas at a quiet corner bakery washed down with fresh pineapple juice.

And finally, a huge thanks and a big nod to the excellent hostel we stayed at, called Nega Maluca (which means crazy black woman). The staff goes above and beyond the call of duty towards their guests (for instance, when our flight out of Salvador was inexplicably cancelled, Nega staff dealt with the airline and got us on the very next flight out with no extra charge), the breakfasts are sumptuous (with eggs made fresh the way you want them), and the rooms excellent. There are many other nice touches such as the provision of tote bags for its guests to not have to use plastic at the market. Instead of going the regular dorm route, we treated ourselves to a suite with our own bathroom, kitchen and balcony (with hammocks!).

Nordeste Brasil - Sao Luis

Sao Luis is the first town we went to that I do not wish to see again. It is old, decaying, and sleepy, with nothing to do. Alright, I am a little biased by the rats that scurried by us on the streets and the general maladorous nature of the historic centre. This was also exacerbated by the on-going renovation of the Casa do Maranhao (a museum showcasing Maranhao life and history) which rendered it closed to visitors. So, we essentially spent two days walking around old and pretty colonial buildings, many of them in disrepair. Note that the pictures uploaded here are the nice ones.
We really enjoyed the day we left the historic centre and went to the modern city, and hung out at the beach where all the non-tourists go. FFos went all-in and spent plenty of time in the water riding the waves and watching the kite-surfers. MFTree did what she always does at the beach - sleep.

The only saving grace of Sao Luis is a delicious pizzeria called La Pizzeria. If you ever find yourself stuck in this town, I recommend you spend all your time here.
FFos insists we mention the fact that we stayed at the surprisingly decrepit and misleadingly named LORD Hotel. Please avoid it if you can.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Photo albums

We have uploaded several photos here, do check them out!

Rio de Janeiro

Sao Paulo

Ouro Preto 

More photos of our trip coming up shortly...

Friday, October 29, 2010

An Expanse of Dunes - Lencois Maranhenses

From Santarem, we caught a thankfully uneventful flight to Sao Luis with a brief halt in Belem, where we had some delicious graviola (a type of custard-apple) ice-cream. We also tried the not so delicious muruci (translation unknown, it tasted salty, sweet, and buttery; altogether too rich) and had quick naps on the cold steel benches at the airport, made somewhat comfortable by the use of our sleeping bag. We had also spent the entire night at Santarem airport, since our flight was too early for the bus from Alter do Chao and we didn't feel like splurging on a taxi. So, we caught the bus the previous night. It was slightly uncomfortable but manageable and MF Tree rewarded herself with a tapioquini with butter at the airport's 24-hour cafe.

Baggage and us arrived all together in Sao Luis in the blazing hot afternoon and soon found out that the bus to Barreirinhas - the gateway town to Parque Nacional Lencois Maranhenses (the point of us coming to Barreirinhas)- was leaving very very soon, i.e. in the next 30 minutes from the rodoviaria which was a 15 minute drive away. We dashed to the rodoviaria, bought tickets from some grumpy, slow, and unhelpful bus company employees (try to avoid Cisne Branco buses), one of us used a rather dirty paid bathroom and we boarded the bus. A brief scare occured when a woman was sitting in one of our seats but was quickly resolved when she saw that she had a different seat number. Next stop Barreirinhas and our first encounter with aggressive tour-company employees.

We were accosted by them as soon as we disembarked from the bus since Barreirinhas in recent times has become a popular destination with domestic and some international tourists due to its proximity to the spectacular Lencois Maranhenses. Fortunately we dealt with them fine and were guided by one of them to an inexpensive river-side pousada with a decent bathroom and a working fan. Unfortunately, what we didn't know was that it was next to a restaurant-cum-local-party-wedding-venue which blared music late into the night and started early in the morning. It wasn't very good music either - the first night it was locals singing accompanied by a religious sermon for what seemed to be someone's 40th birthday and the following morning it was loud and bad pop-music which no one was really listening to, just that the stereo was on and blowing into the river.Oh well, so it goes. The FFos was determined to not give this restaurant "any of his patronage" and cracked himself up everytime he said it (i.e. everytime we passed by it).

We did manage to accomplish two things that night - book our spots on a tour to Parque Nacional Lencois Maranhenses for the very next day and get dinner at a river-side spot called Restaurante Barlavento which had surprisingly good pizza and a mouth-melting maracuja suco com leite (passion-fruit juice with milk - essentially a passion-fruit milkshake.)

The next morning was a lazy one, spent dawdling at breakfast by the riverside and writing journals and blog posts and downloading photographs. We spent a while remembering our last three weeks (it's only been that long! But then again, we're now through 30% of our trip!) and relaxing after a long couple of travel days from Alter do Chao. We had a rushed lunch thanks to the laid-back service at Barlavento again and made our way to the tour.

Our route to Parque Nacional Lencois Maranhenses was by jeep and a short river-crossing by barge. A jeep full of Brasilian tourists and our genuinely friendly guide Jadson, who thankfully spoke English so we understood his instructions and informational tidbits. It's a bumpy ride from Barreirinhas, since it's a dirt-and-sand-through-some-water-bodies road which goes to the park, although it is extremely pretty and a big change from Amazonia since it passes through palm and shrub vegetation due to the dry and sandy soil. The park itself, left us speechless. A jaw-dropping expanse of rolling white sand-dunes and depressions filled with water in the rainy season. Most of the lakes were dry when we went because it was towards the end of the year (rainy season starts around January) but the landscape was no less stunning. Dotted with a few specks of green grasses and tree-stumps, wherever we looked was a desert like multitude of whitish-yellowish-brownish dunes.

Our short hike led us through 3 dry lake-beds and ended at the still water-filled Lago do Peixe (Fish Lake) where everyone enjoyed a refreshing dip in the water. We did hold everyone up a little throughout our trip because we went a little camera-crazy and clicked a ton of pictures while most the others in our little group were more interested in getting to the lake and taking a dip and then heading back. Our group included a Brasilian software professional living in Belgium (who was planning to move back to Brasil by the end of the year), his girlfriend who he had not met in a year, and a rather talkative corpulent old chap from Sao Paulo who did not pause his chatter to all and sundry throughout the tour. He was well meaning though.

We ended our Barreirinhas stay with another meal of pizza topped off with yet another maracuja suco com leite and a perfect-for-summer, chilled Brahma pilsener. The second bus to Sao Luis was at 9 am the next day and even with our notoriously lax timing we managed to make it with ease, albeit with a little fretting.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Alter do Chao sits on the banks of the Rio Tapajos, just before it joins the Rio Amazonas. The place where the rivers meet is in the neighbouring larger city called Santarem (of the-airport-where- we-lost-our-baggage-fame). The town really is sleepy, and everything closes in the middle of the day when the sun is at its hottest, and opens again in the evenings. Things are generally open until late at night. It is not uncommon to be able to buy your groceries or stroll over to the riverside to eat some sorvete (icecream) after dinner around 10 pm.

The first day we spent at Alter do Chao was Sunday, and the riverside beach was extremely crowded, with tourists and locals from nearby towns. The next few days we saw very few people and we had the beach almost to ourselves. The Tapajos forms a bay at Alter do Chao; the sand is clean and white, and the water is calm and blue-green. The word picturesque sums it up perfectly. Various riverside restaurants have their tables and chairs in the water itself - it is extremely comfortable and pleasant to sit with your feet in the cool river water while the afternoon sun blazes overhead.

Alter do Chao is not a common tourist destination (the gateway city of Manaus, or the port city of Belem are more popular with international tourists) but it is the spring-board to visit Floresta Nacional (FLONA) do Tapajos, a 6500 sq km primary rainforest reserve. Our day-trip started off with an hour-long boat ride on the river to the Maguary community. The boat was tiny, light, and could seat 4 people. Maguary is south of Alter do Chao, and the people earn their living by working rubber. There were many seringa (rubber) trees all around. The Maguary community doesn't actually collect the rubber (surrounding communities do that and sell the unprocessed rubber to them), they make products out of it. We saw the painstaking ways in which rubber sheets, bags, slippers, and other products were made. Everything is done by hand, there are very few tools, and it takes a long time. We should not neglect to mention that everytime one needs to enter or leave the community, one needs to wade through an ankle-deep bog.

We then took a 20-minute boat ride further south to get to the Jamaraqua community, whose forest we hiked into. We were accompanied by a guide from the community (this is a requirement of the Brasilian government). Unfortunately, the guide spoke no English (except for the word "Bambi" when he was trying to explain that there were deer tracks), and our limited Portuguese greatly restricted the benefit we got from his knowledge of the forest. Nonetheless, we were awed by the forest itself, and our guide's observation skills. For instance, he suddenly stopped while we were hiking through the forest, pointed to the ground and said aranha. We froze in our steps and waited quietly as he moved a few leaves and suddenly there emerged a tarantula! It was amazing and enormous. Or another time, he suddenly pointed into the dense foliage and said cobra verde (cobra is the Portuguese word for snake). We started off on a torrent of onde? onde? (where? where?) and finally noticed it lying peacefully amidst the leaves. We saw giant trees, enormous creepers entwined on trees, brilliantly coloured butterflies, and monkeys leaping across branches. We heard many birds. It was truly a magical experience.

Our trip ended with a canoe ride through extremely clear waters with strange and wondrous plants growing under it and schools of fish swimming through including some small, harmless varieties of piranha. One did not need to snorkel to see the plants or fish. The water was so clear that the plants photosynthesize until several feet underwater and extend their tendrils up to the surface for air. The green and red plants, with large mossy tendril like things underwater, and had big leaves that floated to the top and formed a carpet of leaves on the surface. There was also a plethora of river-birds - egrets and herons were the ones we recognized, the rest were mostly just called passarinha (small bird!) by our guide.

Lunch was in the home of a local family who made a huge effort to prepare vegetarian food for us. It was a delicious spread - made even better by the tiredness of the long day - of spaghetti, rice, beans, salad, egg and soy. The sun was setting and the moon rising as we were getting into our boat to get back to Alter do Chao. The river was pitch dark, there were storm-clouds and lightning bolts on the horizon and our ride was guided by moonlight shimmering off the river.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Baggagem perdida!

A long and roundabout flight with many connections dropped us off at the Santarem airport, from where we were to take two buses to Alter do Chao, a sleepy riverside town in the heart of the Amazon. We waited at the baggage collection area in the Santarem airport sleepily at 5:30 am, and were jolted awake when the carousel stopped and our bags had not arrived. Frantic thumbing through our phrase book brought us to the "baggage lost" page, and we explained to the staff waiting around that we didn't see our bags. Our confidence levels did not rise when everyone looked panicked and ran to the flight we were just on, waiting on the tarmac to take off to its next stop. Unfortunately, our bags were not found by the staff quickly rummaging through the plane's baggage compartment, and we found ourselves filling out an airline form with the help of two staff persons who spoke some English. I have to say that the airline (TAM) and airport security staff was extremely helpful, and we filled out the Portuguese form and made our way to the bus stop to take our bus to Alter do Chao.
Despite our grim situation (no change of clothes, no underwear except what we were wearing, no spectacles/contact lens solution, no medicines, no soap) the bus ride to Alter do Chau cheered us up immensely as we drove through the rainforest, and the cool breeze whipped through the windows bringing respite from the sweltering heat of the Amazon. A treat awaited us when we reached the pousada we were to spend the next indefinite period of time (until our bags reached) - for very little money we were given a palatial room in a charming garden setting (an arara (macaw) serenaded us from the neighbour's trees), with a sumptuous breakfast every morning, and best of all, the nicest and kindest owner! After feasting on a huge breakfast we made our way into the praca (which is about 3 blocks long) to purchase some underwear, clothes meant for this weather, soap, and contact lens solution. After a few tries, we managed to get all! In fact, it felt kind of good to have so few things to take care of. We enjoyed this simple living for the next two days while our baggage remained missing, taking turns to mope and be cheerful. More than the loss of the baggage, it was the indefinite stalling of the rest of our trip through Brasil that we were ruing.

Luckily, our baggage reached us in a couple of days, and we enjoyed our stay in Alter do Chao (and our visit to the Amazon rainforest) tremendously.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

An Unusual Species

Everywhere we go in Brasil, we are an unusual species since Indian tourists are few and far between here. The typical international tourist here is European/US American*.
However, due to the unbridled success of the soap opera (Caminho das Índias) based on Indians that aired until a few months ago, everyone welcomes us with open arms and treats us like celebrities. We are loving it! We intend to watch a few episodes on Youtube when we get back home.

*We are in the midst of reading Open Veins of Latin America, by Eduardo Galeano and have been sensitized to not calling US Americans Americans, since Latin Americans also have a claim to that name.

Indian Food Extravaganza

With all the glorious food that we were devouring in Sao Paulo, we decided to cook up a minor feast (by our standards) of Indian food at home, for our hosts. Of course, neither of us had cooked up all that many minor feasts before so if anything a minor adventure was to be had.

At least we easily settled on a menu - it was to be a full spread. Starting off with either Papdi chaat or Bhel depending on the ingredients available, followed by stir-fried Okra with potatoes, Chhole, Carrot salad, Rice and finished up with Gazar Halwa.

We found all ingredients necessary at an extremely well stocked supermarket called Pao de Acucar, but didn't quite estimate the time well. We had dawdled in Parque do Ibirapuera and the Bienal exhibition a little too long and so by the time P. and M. returned, we were still cooking! Fortunately though, our first-time attempts, with modifications for ingredients (and time!) not available, at tamarind chutney and gazar halwa turned out perfectly fine. The substitute for papdi that we picked up at the supermarket held up well under yogurt and the late addition of jeera (cumin) and bay-leaves to the rice didn't go south either. All in all, the food was good and the cooking and eating of it was fun! Even though, ahem, we say this ourselves. The food was also bolstered by the very solid bottles of wine - Brasilian ones - that P fished out.

To P. and M. - this was just a teaser, there's more awaiting on your future trip to India!

P.S. Erm, late revelation, but the carrot salad was a late addition because we had too much carrot for the halwa!

Sao Paulo, an Ode to Food

We had to devote an entire post to Sampa's food and drink, it was marvellous. We started each day with a sumptuous breakfasts at P. and M's home, where we were treated to excellent coffee, assorted breads, heavenly bolo de fuba (cake of cornmeal) with erva doce (aniseed), requeijao (Brasilian cream cheese), homemade blackberry jam, pao de quiejo (refer our Ouro Preto post), and fruit.

The city has many Italian and Japanese immigrants. In fact, Sampa has the world's largest Italian population outside Italy. It is no surprise therefore, that pizzerias and sushi places abound. Paulistanas claim that Sampa's pizza is the best in the world, and I would have to agree! I have never eaten better pizza! I suppose I will need to confirm this after our trip to Naples (not yet scheduled). We went to one of Sao Paulo's oldest and most traditional pizzerias in the Italian neighbourhood of Bixiga, where the Famiglia Tarallo has been serving excellent pizzas since 1958. They have up on their walls some kind of certificate from Italy about their margherita pizza vouching for its authenticity.

We also ate excellent Japanese food at the Mercado Municipal. Mercado Municipal is an enormous colonial building built in 1928 that houses a varied selection of fresh produce, spices, wines, prepared foods, and eateries, and basically anything food related. We were introduced to the extremely simple, elegant, yet divine Brasilian dessert - salada de frutas com leite condensado (fruit salad with condensed milk!), for which we made the trip back to Mercado Municipal a second day! At Mercado, we were also introduced to Pasteis, a delicious Brasilian snack/meal made of fried flour and stuffing (either cheese, fish, meat, vegetables, or sweet things like chocolate or guava). We have become great fans of pasteis (what's not to like in fried flour and cheese?!) and keep an eye out for them on our travels.

Thanks to P.'s friend who suggested a vegetarian restaurant close to Ave. Paulista, we got to eat at Vegethus. It's a pay-by-weight/all-you-can-eat-buffet with a huge variety of delicious solely vegan food and desserts. We sampled their vegan pizza, pasta, rice, beans, croquettes, salads, goiaba (guava) flan, maracuja (passionfruit) cake, and other assorted desserts. TFFos took the all-you-can-eat quite literally and was therefore stuffed to the gills for the rest of the day, and could not even eat dinner. Close to P. and M.'s house is a Sampa institution Rancho do Empada, which serves a variety of Lanchonettes (hot snacks!). Here we ate empadas, a baked good that looks like a muffin from the outside, but is actually a cover of dough, with various savoury and sweet stuffings to choose from. Empadas are widely available everywhere we go, as Brasilieros seem fond of their snacks.

Edicificio Italia not only provides a splendid view of Sao Paulo, it also hosts great wine and finger foods. We were introduced to the Brasilian wine Talento, a blend of Cabernet, Merlot, and Tannat (an Uruguayan grape high in tannins). We also ate excellent rucula and brie croquettes - fried appetizers.

P. and M. took us to sample Sao Paulo's best caipirinhas at Veloso and its sister establishment next door. Being Brasil's national cocktail, our expectations were high and we were not disappointed. The traditional caipirinha is made with cachaca (extremely sweet sugarcane liquour), lime, and sugar. Today, caipirinhas come in varied forms - with fruits, or made of vodka, or sake. TFFos's favourite was the traditional, while mine was the one with caju (the red cashew fruit, not to be confused with the nut). Here we also tried the Brasilian staple - mantioca. As an appetizer, it's served fried, like french fries. As a vegetable it's often stewed and eaten with rice. For our South Indian readership, it tastes quite like aritikai, or raw plantain.

A few of our meals were prepared by the wonderful D., including pancakes filled with cheese and vegetables, and a superbly sauce-y lasagna with zucchini. A word on the Brasilian zucchini- it is quite different from the type you get in California, and is extremely flavourful and crunchy, and not watery at all. I am a huge fan!

We will end our food post with a nod to Brigadeiro, Brasil's favourite dessert, usually made for children's birthday parties! It's surprisingly easy to make, but we intend to keep the recipe a secret so that we can dazzle our non Brasilian friends at our dinner parties. :) Let's just say that it is delightfully sweet and chocolatey.

Days and Nights in Sao Paulo

Lonely Planet calls Sao Paulo a "monster. The gastronomic, fashion and finance capital of Latin America ... home to 19 million people and more skyscrapers than could ever possibly be counted." (MF Tree, of course, tried and stopped at about 200) I'd call it more of a tsunami. While Rio's pleasures were more drawn out, lackadaisical and a little sleepy, Sampa came at us in a splendid sensory gush. We were hosted by the fantastic P. and M., who love food as much as we do. We should also mention their wonderful little dog, T. and the uber-helpful and lovely D. We were blown away by their warmth and hospitality, and aspire to be as good hosts to our friends, and friends of friends ourselves. There may be no better city in Brasil - Latin America or the world, if you ask Paulistas - as far as food is concerned. The same also goes for museums, cultural happenings and the mad rush of people. As passionate city-slickers, we absolutely loved it.

Everything that we saw was a highlight. Avenida Paulista - where the beautiful and wealthy of Sao Paulo can be found on weekdays. Also home to the high-calibre Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo (MASP) and FIESP (can't remember the translation. Also MF Tree corrects me - it's FIESP SESI SP!) We caught an excellent (mostly) photographic exhibit at FIESP chronicling Brasilia* through the years. From the days of its rapid construction under the eagle eye of Niemeyer, to visions of a utopian land in the middle of the country, to modern installations showing its present day condition in literal and metaphorical forms. The photographers included Marcel Gautherot, Peter Scheier and Thomaz Farkas. At MASP we were treated to modern German paintings, the progress of Romanticism through the ages and an exhibit capturing portrait painting at different points in history. All well-curated and displayed, although the English translations were a wee bit odd. Also on Avenida Paulista is the beautiful Livraria Cultural - a bookstore par excellence where we spent yet another lazy afternoon after a mouth-watering lunch (more on that later.)

Another lazy day was spent strolling through Parque do Ibirapuera and visiting the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM) and the Bienal - a twice yearly exhibit of current international art. Also littering the Ibirapuera landscape are Niemeyer buildings (TFF gushes.) A verdant patch with varied play spaces for children in the middle of concrete Sampa, Ibirapuera is also an art oasis. Two of the spaces we mentioned already, but it also holds a museum of Afro-Brasilian art and a performance space for theater and music designed by Niemeyer. We're saving those for our next time.

Sao Paulo's Centro is studded with Colonial style gems. In our roamings around we saw the massive Catedral da Se, the ornate and peaceful Sao Bento - which also has a super bakery! producing some rather 'divine' bread and cookies - the Estacao Luz, the Pinacoteca, Praca da Luz and the truly awesome Mercado Municipal (reserved for our food post.) The Pinacoteca is our favourite museum in SP. Home to some fine Brasilian art, we were especially taken with the contemporary Brasilian sculpture and paintings. It also has some great rotating exhibits, our favourite from the current stock was one on photographs from the 1910-1950s by the Vargas brothers, a pair of Peruvian brothers from Arequipa.

Lastly, we had a revelatory look at the Sao Paulo night panorama from the Edificio Italia, which has the Terraco Italia - a trendy restaurant and bar at the top. Of course, we won't forget this in our food post!

More on food next! We take our leave for now, thinking about the lilting sounds of Chico Buarque, a Brasilan singer-songwriter - part of the MPB (Musica Populares Brasil) movement, introduced to us by M.

*Constructred in 3 years, Brasil's capital was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, with the ideas of the school of modernist architecture in mind, which exposed and presented solutions through urban planning for the most serious problems presented by the industrial revolution - mass migration to cities, bad housing, reduction of green areas, excessive pollution and noise, improper transport leading to long commutes. The solutions included zone planning, with each zone being a self contained unit with space to work, play and live. Brasilia today though, likely thanks to its isolated location in the bare center of the country, is not the vibrant city that its creators imagined and remains only the seat of government.

A Big, Huge, Wide THANKS! all around

- To F. for introducing us to P. and M.

- To P. and M. for being such generous, wonderful and warm hosts in Sao Paulo. We loved Sao Paulo and had a great time.

- To Senhora Heloisa of the Pousada Tupaiulandia in Alter Do Chao in Amazonia, for all her help with our baggage delay (Yes, our baggage was delayed and potentially lost!). We highly recommend staying at this pousada if you ever find yourself in Amazonia.

- To Jorge of Mae Natureza for help translating things into English! And for the tour into Floresta Nacional do Tapajos, where we hiked through the Amazon rainforest.

Radio Silence

After a stupendous stay in Sao Paulo, we had limited and slow internet access in Amazonia, at a small town called Alter Do Chao which is on the banks of the Rio Tapajos. We have some more stories written up and they will be posted soon. Postings will remain intermittent because we will be on the move, quite a bit, for the next few days in Northeast Brasil. Thank you for your patience. Please hold.