Monday, 23 June 2008

The big nipple of the Gran Sabana

A final update to update the updates so that they are currently up to date. Except for the photos, because I forgot to bring the right gear, even though the internet here is fast. Sorry.

We arrived at the border crossing between Brazil and Venezuela sometime around 1pm, checked out of Brazil, and then had to wait till siesta time was over to get into Venezuela. We also put our clocks back half an hour due to a change in January brought in by their "crazy President" Hugo Chavéz.

We checked into the hotel in Santa Elena, ate some edibles, and had a relaxing day. The next day was a full day of sight seeing around the Gran Sabana, which is in a massive national park the size of Belgium. It features rolling hills, and extremely old mountains, that are now table-topped because they have been eroded away. Most of the area is grass land, mixed in with some tropical trees. There are also many many waterfalls. Only indigenous people are allowed to live in the area, in their huts which feature roofs made out of palm leaves. The roofs are waterproof for at least seven years (which is good, considering how much it rains), and take three months to make. We visited some waterfalls, got bitten by possibly some of the most annoying bugs on earth, and marvelled at the table top mountains. There´s also one that looks like a "finger" (but it really looks like an erect nipple to be frank).

The next day, yesterday, was a chilled out day. There was the option of going on another tour with the very nice tour guide we had the day before, to see the gold and diamond mines. You can get diamonds very "cheaply" in Santa Elena - the mines are still very much being used. Around the area is also where the largest diamond in the world was found, at a mere 156 carats. I didn´t go, and just chilled instead, but apparently it was good. There wasn´t much in Santa Elena, but I had a walk around and saw what was in the town. Then last night we got on our final night bus for the trip, on Venezuelan roads. Which, in simple English, means that they have been maintained, and therefore there are no potholes.

One last thing before I tell you about what my future holds. The petrol prices here are mental. I´d heard it was cheap, and that Venezuela was oil rich, but nothing prepared me for the disbelief of seeing something so unbelievable. There were lines about 200m long outside the gas station in Santa Elena, filled with people from Brazil, trying to get some of the limited ration of petrol allowed to be dished out each day. Naïvely I thought that was strange, until I saw the price. About 0.074 Bolìvares per litre for 91 unleaded. That´s about NZ$0.03, and the Venezuelan Bolívar is quite high at the moment. Insane. It´s about the same price to fill up a small tank as it is for one litre in most places at the moment. Lots of people own big cars here.

Now I´m in Cuidade Bolívar, which is our guide´s hometown. From here, those that can afford the unmissable and expensive trip to see the Angel Falls will fly out tomorrow morning for two nights in the jungle beneath the Falls. The Angel Falls is the tallest waterfall in the world, with the water free falling from a height of 976m. It should be spectacular.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

In the jungle, the mightily diverse jungle

Getting back to jungle-mania...

We arrived in Manuas from the Amazon river boat, left our stuff in the hotel where the people who didn´t want to go into the jungle were staying, booked a trip, had breakfast, packed our stuff, emailed loved ones to tell them we were still alive and got into an old car that took us to port again so we could get on a boat to take us to our jungle-destination. All in about two hours. Busy busy, and back onto water after very little time on solid ground.

The boat first took us to where the rivers Rio Negro and Rio Sallamon (I´ll edit the spelling of that one later) mix. Or rather don´t mix. There is a clear line where the black Rio Negro hits the brown water of the other river. Quite strange looking, and it goes for a long way. It´s tanins - like in tea - that make the Rio Negro black, and it really does look black.

From there we continued up the Rio Negro to a souvenir shop, where there were also giant lily pads. They were well over a metre in diameter, and were used by bugs and birds alike as landing pads.

We then continued, stopping at animal abuse point. Three people - two of whom were children - jumped onto the boat to show the tourists their animals from the jungle. It made me very uncomfortable to see people paying them to have their photos taken with animals like that, so needless to say I didn´t participate. They had a baby anaconda, a sad looking sloth, and a baby monkey. The boy carrying the sloth bandied him about like a teddy bear, and the poor thing obviously just wanted to get back into a tree, as they are made to cling. The next worse off was the baby monkey, which was tiny and clinging to the little girl´s arm. He/she needed its mummy! The anaconda was the one I felt least bad about, as there is the possibility that they can be brought up as pets and cared for alright, given the right person. Of course it was impossible to judge whether this was the case, but it could well have suffocated it´s captor if it really wanted to. It was only eight months old, so just a baby, and obviously raised from small by humans. It was still massive though.

After that it was lunch on the boat (more boat food - yay! Though not half shabby this time) and then we made it to our floating log cabin (another night on the water). There we met our guide, and soon were out piranha fishin´.

As the river waters were quite high, we were surrounded by half-submerged trees. We had to go through these many times - difficult, and sometimes painful. Piranha fishing was no exception. The rods were made of sticks, with nylon string tied to the ends. The bait: fresh meat. We got a few bites, but nothing too exciting. It was quickly clear we wouldn´t catch enough for dinner. Our guide finally caught a baby one, but it still had very sharp teeth. We threw it back. I was the next closest to catching one, pulling one up several times. One big one I almost had, but I didn´t lift him far enough out of the water in time. Damn.

That night we went alligator hunting. Alligators, pirranhas, birds, monkeys, snakes, jaguars, panthers, so many plants. You don´t know the true meaning of biodiversity until you´ve been to the Amazon. It was astoundingly beautiful and infinitely fascinating. Anyway, baby allis. Our guide spotted one quickly in his torch light, with the charateristic red eye reflection. He jumped out of the canoe, and was back in five, holding one. It was about 30cm from head to tail. I was the only other one to hold it. Better this time as we weren´t harming it, and releasing it again once we were done. From counting the rings on its tail, Charles (the guide) determined it was 12 months old. It eats mainly insects - poisonous ones. This causes problems if it bites you. It had long been set free by its mother; left to its own devises. All the older, larger alligators aren´t around that area when we was there, so just babies. The one I held will grow to be about three metres. A lot smaller than the largest species, which only grows to eight metres.

The next day we went to a nearby village. We were greeted by a very old woman, who was the mother of pretty much the whole population. She was very nice, but spoke to us in Portuguese and expected us to know what she was saying, no matter how many times we told her otherwise.

The village was small, but full of a huge variety of plants. We saw vegetables growing that we´d never seen before, plus many old favourites like bananas (smaller than us westerners are used to), passionfruit (slightly bigger, and yellow-skinned, used mainly just for juice), avacados (massive - more than twice as big as in NZ, and delicious) and other favourites. We also saw acaí berries, which have only recently become popular all over Brazil. You can only eat the skins, as the rest is seed. The skins are boiled to make various things like ice cream, an acaí mash thing and jam. The seeds are used to make jewlery as they are very hard. Acaí berries supposedly have many health benefits. They are a deep purple, and have quite a distinctive flavour.

That afternoon we went for a paddle through the trees in our canoe. Lots of bugs, and we eventually saw monkeys! All around us, in the trees above. Scurrying around, but obviously quite curious.

In the evening we went to a native dwelling, near the village, to stay the night. There was a mother and father, with most of their nine children, plus some others, like a nephew and a granddaughter. It was a wooden building on stilts next to the water. Very basic. The family obviously had it set up so visitors could stay in hammocks. A bit of a money making venture for them. We couldn´t communicate well unfortunately though, due to the language barrier. They had chickens, dogs and cats. And a pre-emptive rooster.

Next day it was jungle trek day. And what a beautifully overcast day it was. By the time we got to the track, it was raining quite hard. And then we had to paddle up it for about 20 minutes till we reached land. It was hard rain, what with us being in a rainforest and all. Still, it was great to be walking through the Amazon, with someone cutting our path with a machete. Charles, a Native from north of Manuas, had an extensive knowledge of the plants in the jungle. Whilst we have an extensive knowledge of how to operate in our environment of cities and so on, so do Natives know how to operate in their environment. It´s astounding that their isn´t more outside interest in the huge range of plants in the Amazon, with their many uses.

Firstly, he showed us the Amazonian panadol. You make the leaves into tea, which lower fevers and reduce pain. We bit the leaves, and they numbed the tongue. He would just stop at a tree or a vine, recognise it straight away, and show it to us. There was the vine quinine, the cure for malaria (and used in some malaria medications that we´re familiar with too). There were ants that you get to climb on your hands from their nest. You can then squish them, and rub the scent all over your skin. Natural mosquito repellent. You can also make them into tea, which supposedly cures peoples´ vision problems that we generally correct with glasses and contact lenses. There was a vine that you can cut and place on insect bites, which makes them go down. You can also dry it and smoke it to "help relax". There was a tree that produced a smelly resin. When out in the jungle, hunters use it´s inflammability to light fires. They also place it around their campsite in a circle. Its unpleasant smell keeps out everything from insects to jaguars. We saw a rubber tree. The dried line of sap on the outside was far more stretchy than a rubber band. Charles coaxed a couple of tarantulas out of their holes for us to see. They were massive, and not fully grown. Frightening for some. There was a small plant whose roots are extremely toxic. You can kill someone with them, or grind them, put them into water, and kill all the fish. Easy fishing, but now highly illegal. It sucks the oxygen out of the water, so kills everything. There was a diarrhea cure as well as other things he showed us, but I think you get the idea, and I´m having trouble remembering them all. Lots of teas though.

After a freezing and extremely wet boat ride back to the lodge, we got ready to go back to Manuas. The rush was not over. We had to take a speedboat back to get there in time. Then we had an hour and a half to get ready to leave. We had another night bus, that would begin the long and massively potholed journey from Manuas to Santa Elena in Venezuela, where I currently am.

A very busy, and very exciting end to my stay in Brazil. After almost two months there, it was sad to see it go. I´ve learnt a lot about Brazilian culture, a little Portuguese, and had a great time. Bring on Venezuela and it´s confusing Spanish.

Saturday, 21 June 2008


Ah, finally back to civilisation and my beautiful blog. Here´s what I´ve been up to.

A lot.

Firstly, the night bus from Sao Luis to Belém on the mouth of the Amazon. Remember in my last post how I said the duration was dependant on the road conditions? Well, you haven´t seen potholes until you´ve been to Brazil. Potholes, swimming pools, what´s the difference? You certainly notice the difference when you´re on a bus. Anyway, they slowed the crazy driver down, and perhaps should be credited with getting us there alive.

Once we got there it was straight to the port to find out when our boat was leaving. It was a small boat - which, according to our guide, was better than a big one. It still held 150 passengers though, plus a lot of onions and beer. It turned out we had the whole day to explore Belém.

Belém is a mixed bag, like many a place in Brazil. From the private port we were at to the city we drove through slum-like areas that were literally swimming in rubbish and filth (as it was in the water all around them). Then we got to our destination, which was a very upmarket complex where an old part of the main port used to be. Very expensive and nice food. From there we walked through the town, with busy streets, old churches (half done up, half not - one literally half and half) and a market. There were places filled with rubbish, and nice parks. There were so many spices, potions and different foods at the market. We were definitely on the Amazon.

After a brilliant last meal it was on to the NM Nelio Correa, our home for the next six days. It was dark when we left, but exciting. Belém was lit up, as were the many boats that ply the Amazon.

After being told the boats go down the middle of the Amazon, I was pleasantly surprised when we got up the next day. We could see so much, and were so close to the shore. Evidently, when you go up the Amazon, you go up the edges - I think the current is weaker there. There are so many islands breaking it up you never get a sense of how massive it truly is - but you know that it is truly is massive. There were houses with people all over on the first day, and they were all out in their canoes - their main transport. People throw them clothes and other things, as they are very poor and don´t leave their areas much. Some hitch to the boat to sell things like shrimp and the berries Acaí, others hitch a ride. But mostly the children yell and wave - actually signally to get stuff thrown to them. They love riding the boat´s wake.

The atmosphere on the boat was very laid back - loads of time to kill. I didn´t envy those in hammock class, who were the vast majority of people, and they were extremely cramped. I did however feel bad that I was in a cabin, tiny as it was, as I was betraying the true backpacker and Amazonian experience. I didn´t protest however, and it turned out to be a blessing. On the third night I came down with a fever, again, followed by the shits. Luckily though it was the same thing as last time, and I knew what antibiotics to take. Someone had some extras and gave me them (thank you very much!). I was cured within twelve hours of taking them. However I missed our longest port stop in Santarem, the largest city on the way to Manuas (about 250,000). We spent the whole day there, and I spent the whole day in bed.

The Amazon was quite high when we were on it, but it didn´t rain extraordinarily much. There were always many types of clouds in the sky though, and often lightning that you could see at night. It was usually raining hard somewhere. That didn´t stop the perils of navigation in a basic boat though. On the second night, whilst I was on the top deck, we were siting and talking, feeling the boat rock back and forth as we steered through the tricky channels. All of a sudden, the boat rocked wildly from side to side, and a few people started screaming and rushed for the life jackets. Then the engines cut, but the rocking settled. Finally they went back on, and we continued merily on the way. Sandbank.

On the third night I didn´t get much sleep as I had a fever. So inevitably I was awake when it happened again. We had just left another small port, after stopping for about half an hour. We were steering back and forth - slightly more nerve-racking in a cabin after the first sandbank experience, and when you´re wired from lack of sleep. Then, the engines slowed again, as if we were coming into port. I knew something was wrong as we´d just left somewhere. We were still steering, slowing, and then the whole boat came to an abrupt stop like a car. Not a good sign. I was really wired now, and my already fast-beating heart was going crazy. I got my torch, and went outside.

It´s always a good sign when the locals aren´t panicked, and most people were just casually standing on deck bored, and tired I assume. We were definitely well beached though. I stayed out and watched as they attempted to reverse off. I was worried we were stuck for good. After maybe fifteen minutes though, we finally wiggled our way off.

There was lots of napping, some drinking, lots of reading, lots of looking at scenery and reflecting on the way things are. Not much of a party boat, but watching a DVD of people getting injured running from bulls in Spain provided an hour of entertainment for some. Meal time was exciting, but bland by the end, and potentially sickening. A good time to meditate - I very much enjoyed it. Finally we arrived in on the morning after the sixth night. Obviously there were a few delays as we were almost a day later than we expected. From there, for the game, it was straight into the jungle and out of civilisation again that morning for another two nights. Obviously I was very keen.

Sorry about the lack of pictures, but this internet connection is insanely slow. I will post them when I can. I am now in Venezuela as of yesterday - insane after almost two months in Brazil. The tour is coming to a close, but the prospects of Mexico and seeing my big sis again soon are exciting.

I will finish the run down of my time in isolation soon.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Beware of falling sloths

I am currently in São Luis, killing time before a 12 to 14 hour night bus tonight (depending on road conditions). It will take me to Belém, where I will be straight onto a boat, that will depart sometime during the day. Five nights up the Amazon to the central Amazonian city of Manaus. From there I will complete a two day expedition into the jungle. So you may not hear from me for a while.

In the meantime though, the hotel we stayed in in São Luis has a sloth! Look at her, with her three toes and slow movements. She lives in a tree in the middle of the hotel, and though she's quite high when sleeping (about 20hrs a day), she comes down very close to the third story balcony when feeding.

Yesterday though, she disappeared. Everyone was wondering where she went. A couple of the tour groupies went downstairs, and saw one of the waiters carrying her. She had fallen, near a group of French tourists (I think). She, bruised and battered, managed to get herself back up into a low palm tree. The waiter had to get her down, carry her back up to the third story, and dangle her on the end of a broom to put her back into the tree. Poor thing. Apparently it happens from time to time though, so beware. I imagine she also goes to the toilet from time to time...

São Luis is the only colonial town in Brazil with French roots, so the buildings here are all old and French looking. There is of course the new town, and slums, but where we are it's Frenchy. It's also supposed to be the Reggae capital of Brazil, but I didn't get to hear any sadly. I bought a hammock though, for the Amazon boat and beyond.

Above is where we went in Barreirinhas. Some national park whose name I can't be bothered looking up right now. It's about 30% low bush, and 70% dunes, with lagoons in between every one of them. There are about 20,000 lagoons, and the dunes stretch for about 40km from where we were on the edge of the bush to the sea, and 120km along the coast. It was very beautiful. The water was so blue. The tour guides also do camping trips in the high season, which are amazing apparently, as there are millions of stars which light up the reflecto-sand to the point where you need no lights.

The trip there and back was exciting too. We were on the back of (another) 4wd, which went through many many water crossings on the track to get there. Some were very deep, and in one we very nearly tipped. Luckily though the jesus mudflaps saved us, and we came right.

Barreirinhas was a nice town on a river. There seemed to be perpetual lightning in the distance one night, which was very beautiful, lighting the clouds in flashes. The first night we went to a bar with dancing and music. It was on the waterfront. The next night some went to a "Reggae" party, hold the Reggae. It was just a DJ playing extremely loud Brazilian hits. So no Reggae for me this time either. The best part of that night was going to and from the party on mototaxis - aka motorcycles that you pay very little to ride. A five minute experience of being in a motorcycle gang.

That's all for now - so I hope you don't miss me too much (though the poll indicates otherwise. I'll get round to updating it soon, but let's just let it sit for a little longer).

Tour pics

I do believe I haven't posted any pictures since I started the tour. I am finally able to, so here are a few.

Firstly, above, is sunset in Salvador. The building you can see is the art deco lift that goes from the old town down to the busy port. It is a steep cliff, which is why Salvador was considered such a militarily strategic asset when it was build in the 17th and 18th centuries, or thereabouts.

In the above picture is the main street in the beach town of Praia de Pipa.

Capoiera on the beach in Forteleza.

Crossing the water by barge with pole power on the way out of Jercoacoara.

Friday, 6 June 2008

The adventures of Nowherenowhereland Pt 1 - Very sick in Jeri

It's been over a week, so I guess I should update ya'll.

Next stop after my last post was Fortelezza. This involved a bus to a night bus, then a night bus. Fortelezza was a Maimi-esque city, but with a little more prostitution - unfortunately including of the child variety. It was really just a small stop so we could get our transport to the very remote Jericoacoara. The food across the street was delicious for lunch though - massive portions, supposedly for two, but really for four. Then we walked along the beach - full of sewage apparently, but nice to look at. For dinner I just had a side, still recovering from lunch. "Spanish potatos", which turned out to be a bowl of potato chips. A very expensive one too. And then, soon after, the stomach pains started, and that night I was up with a fever and aches. Could it be the Dengue...?

Next day we took a six hour bus to a small town, and from there we got on a big 4wd to go to Jeri. Still feeling unwell, it wasn't as enjoyable as it could've been. We had to drive through remote back roads for about 20 minutes, then along the beach for another 20 to get there. It's a touristy town, surrounded by sand dunes, with unpaved sand streets. It used to just be a fishing village. Now there is horse back riding, dune surfing, the beach... all of which I heard about, from the safety of my airconditioned room. I had a high fever - that was the main thing - and so stayed in all the time and rested, except for short excursions for food. I didn't think I had Dengue, which is a mosquito-borne illness with no vaccine or cure. Most people get over it, but it is really bad when you have it. I decided to take an antibiotic for a gut thing instead. And luckily started to feel better for the onward journey.

Onward it was, and a lot more exciting than the journey in. Small 4wds, which went over the beach, over dunes, and over rivers. This was the most exciting of all - we went on tiny barges - twice. There was a whole system set up to get from Jeri to the next place, including a boy who ran through the water in one part infront of the jeeps to show the driver the shallow part. Oh yeah, that's right, "driver". It just so happened our one decided to get stoned half way through the journey whilst driving. His co-driver assured us though that the weed was "muito bem, very good", thus relieving everyone of their worries.

Next stop was Parnaiba, for two nights. I went to the doctor, and got two blood test which showed I might have Dengue (though they can't actually tell, and it may have been because of the antibiotics). But to be honest I feel better because of the antibiotics methinks, and that's that really. If I had Dengue there's nothing I could do, and I would probably be feeling much worse. So I had my (probable) food poisoning for the trip. No more sickness, knock on wood, ever.

In Parnaiba we went on a boat cruise through a lagoon. We watched the fishmen and the tide go out. There were crabs, mangroves, iguanas and monkeys. And the sand had more consistancies than I thought possible - from condensed milk to concrete. It was very serene and quiet.

From their we took a "crappy public bus" to Tutoiha, a small stop off town, with about two hotels. Most people got smelly rooms with smelly beds, but luckily myself and my roomie got a room in the new part, with new beds. And we only had one frog in the bathroom in the morning. Our group were the only gringos in town, so we got many stares. Gringos don't frequent these poverty-stricken and remote parts of Brazil often. This area is pretty much just run on fishing and some farming.

This morning we left Tutoiha to Barreirinhas, on another 4wd. This time it was four hours, the longest thus far by far. It was literally driving through Nowherenowhereland, passing the odd village, full of piglets and semi-starved cows. It was very bumpy and there were lots of holes with water - which was not unknown to come inside when it was very deep. At least I wasn't crammed outside on the back...

So there's your update. We have about five nights before we get to the mouth of the Amazon, and we are getting to less remote areas now. I've learnt the meaning of being out in the middle of nowhere, but still being close to somewhere. In the Amazon that will all change. I'll try and post before then again, so talk soon.