Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Arraial D'Ajuda, Bahia, Brazil

Somewhere on the Atlantic coast of Bahia lies the old Portuguese port of Porto Seguro. Across a tidal river, round and up a hill sits Arraial D'Ajuda (or “Ahhayal D'Ajewduh” as the locals seem to pronounce it). At its core, a couple of squares surrounded by brightly coloured buildings with terracotta tiled roofs. In land it breaks up into, scrub-land hallowed with the odd goal-post or horse shading under a lonely tree and then forest and field. Towards the sea it sweeps down a windy road lined with more recent developments – bar after, restaurant, after chic shop after bar – all surprisingly tasteful.
To see why everyone is here all you have to do is walk across the oldest square, past the quintessential Latin American whitewashed church and stop and stare. At the edge of a fast falling hill, a remarkable panoramic opens up before you. Lush greenery flows forward until it meets palm-fringed golden beaches and, of course, the bright blue of the Atlantic. Quite a place to spend a few days.

Praia after Praia
From where you wander on to the hot sand from the village, stunning oceanic beaches stretch for mile after mile after mile. We know this first hand as on one day we walked south for 15 km or so until we reached the uber-fashionable but somehow still tranquil village of Trancoso.
The beach is pretty damn nice near Arraial, but after a few kms it really comes into its own. Taipe is the crowning glory. A wide sweeping cove, deep expanses of soft sand sculpted by crashing waves and tide, and, best of all, backed by sandstone cliffs of red, yellow, white and purple. I should not forget the palm trees and at the far southern end, a mini peninsular of forest jutting out into the sea. Birds of prey skirt the cliff thermals.Peace and quiet – only one bar on the beach and I think we were the first customers of the day.
Some people die for the careful lapping waves of the Med or Caribbean, but I will always be drawn to oceanic waves. Those that don't crash into reefs off shore come rolling in one after another. There is nothing like sitting there with your chilled Brazilian beer – beer on a beach is a national obsession here – and listening to the crashing and drawing of the water.

While inevitably getting loads of things wrong, most countries get some things very right. My stay here has convinced me that Brazilians get the beach better than anyone else (at least that I've met). OK, it helps if you have thousands of kms of beautiful beaches, but credit where credits due, they make beach time an art. From the already mentioned beer, via fresh tropical juice at every shack, fried cheese on a stick with oregano, a constant string of ingenious locals carrying half a shop of bikinis or hats on their person and, of course, many a form of football or footie-volley (football volleyball).
Most importantly there is a constant undercurrent of friendly laid-back'ness. When you say no thanks to a hawker he doesn't look annoyed or pester, he shakes your hand with a smile and wanders off. People have time for a chat and chill. No hassle. Just fun, great views and slowly cooking bodies.
Christina was aghast with joy – a sea-faring ice-cream trolley...

Boa Noite
Only at night does the village of Arraial really make sense. As the heat falls and light fades, people come out from whatever shade or bit of beach they were hiding on and the place comes alive. Vibe and beats on every corner. Guitarists, drums, singers, ghetto-blasters. Hymns in the guttural Portuguese of the region pouring forth from the odd church. Stores stocking stuff I actually want to buy (havaianas and hammocks) and people watching people sipping a beer or fresh cocktail from the ladies with their portable bars. At this time of year, a census of the village would find many a laid back local, dozens of hippy-types selling hand-crafted braids and jewelery and a pretty cool crowd of sun-seekers. People congregate at the many bars and restaurants and there is an air of content.Christina and I sipped our exquisite caiparinhas, fell into the rhythms of live music and realised we had fallen for Brazil.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Salvador and Morro de Sao Paulo

Chris and I made one of those snap decisions which make traveling such a pleasure and bought a flight to Salvador, the African heart of Brazil.
From the formation of the country, Salvador has more often than not been the capital, but at some point in the early 19th century the economic centre moved south to Rio and the hinterland of Minas Gerais. Salvador has been left as merely the capital of Bahia, a state blessed with mile upon mile of stunning beaches, vibe and, recently, a bit of a boom time.
I'll throw my cards on the table and relay that Salvador is one of the most impressive cities I've wandered. As the poster-board says, it is blessed with more impressive historical buildings than any other city in the Southern Hemisphere. Such accolades do not though do it justice. It is the combination of slightly decaying historical splendour and a people full of rhythm and warmth.
We were fortunate enough to have the lovely Stefanie as a guide – a German lass I introduced to cricket in India – and we spent a day rambling up, around and across the old town. Modern Salvador hugs the opening rim of a large bay and the old town is perched atop a ridge linked to the sea and old port by a series of nearly vertical trams. Once you have got through the not very attractive hustle and bustle of the “modernised” bit, you walk through one plaza after another richly adorned with seventeenth century mansions, government buildings and churches. Each is impressive in its own right, but the combination knocks you back.
The gold dripping interior of one church gave a sobering reminder that much of Salvador's wealth was built on the slave trade. Apparently slave workers carved the immaculate interior and, if you look carefully, you can see hidden signs of rebellion in the hideous faces of many of the angelic figures and the odd bit of genitalia. Today most of Salvador's population are the descendants of the millions of slaves transported from West Africa and from the pervading musical beats to the art work Africa feels close at hand. Salvador, and indeed Brazil, is though much more than the sum of a number of people who moved or were moved to the New World. It is the melting pot of cultures that has given birth to a fresh culture so openly full of life and energy. It is addictive.

Back to our walks. From the squares, streets lined with countless more beautiful buildings drop away to more squares, streets and hills. Each corner gives a fresh view of vibrancy. The old with the new. Bright colours and crumbling facades. I just loved the place.

Barra and Praias (beaches)

We were staying in Barra, a beach suburb at the bottom of the hill from the old town, at the corner point of the bay. New high rises and the odd colonial relic lead down to golden beaches divided by whitewashed Portuguese fortifications.
These castles add a real texture to beaches full of locals with their oh-too-tight speedos, tiny-tiny bikini's, beer in hand and, more often then not, smiles. It is such a pleasant relieve to return to a place where people seem in love with life. None of this living to work, depressed, cold, wet Northern European shit. That does my head in. Why when we only have a few short years on this earth should we spent it perpetually unhappy. Each to their own I suppose...

Morro do Sao Paulo

On the theme of not leading too depressing a life, after a few days in Salvador we jumped on a few hour choppy ferry to the island of Morro do Sao Paulo. A lush tropical island complete with small colonial town, beach side bars, hammocks, many a palm tree and less and less hassle as you walk along its miles of beaches. A bit like one or other of the many Thai Islands, but without the slightly nasty Thai mafia undertones (as far as I could tell).
My stay can mostly be summed up by a hammock and the Count of Monte Cristo. A flu bug reduced me to that still pretty cool situation.
On the last couple of days I did manage a couple of long walks, some nice chow on the beach, some time staring at the embarrassingly impressive footie-volley (the video doesn't even show the start of it) and even a beer or two.

From those walks I can confirm Christina's reports of a turquoise sea and stunning beaches backed by palm forests complete with the odd miniature monkey, crawled over by crabs and passed over by many chirpy birds. Oh and laid back, friendly locals.

And even the odd very wrong Santa Claus...
We, in are own ways, had found our beach time. Chris looked browner by the day and I kicked that little bug for six while questioning the morality of revenge - nothing like a fever to intensify thoughts induced by a great book.
Back on a boat, an overnight bus and to more Bahain beaches. Fuck winter!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Iguazu Falls

Quite simply and unashamably one of the wonders of the world.

In my travels I have never come across a sight that exceeds that of Iguazu falls in majesty or power.
Marking the border between Argentina and Brazil, the watefalls are the result of a differential in rock causing the Rio Iguazu to gather and plummet. For over 2km, this mighty river falls in curtains of frothing water, one level after another, until it reaches the Devil's Throat. This is the gargantuan epi-centre of the waterfall, where the river falls in on itself from three sides and pulverises. Clouds of mist rise and fall. Rainbows abound.
As if more were needed of this place, it keeps on providing. The setting for Iguazu is a tropical rainforest and as we wandered in and around the numerous paths we caught a glimpse of the creatures it contains. No, unsurprisingly we did not see the illusive jaguar or puma, but we did see plenty of inquisitive coati's (a sort of South American rainforest racoon), large lizards, small lizards (including the odd forked tailed one photographed), a plethora of different birds and butterflies. Christina took a particular liking the butterflies. So many varieties of fluttering things and at one point literally hundreds. For me, nothing beat the swifts. They nest behind the mightiest of the falls and like an adrenaline junky on speed, swoop in and out of certain death.

A place to which I return after a four year absence (http://walter82.blogspot.com/2006/02/spellbinding-iguazu.html).
One of those places to which I can not imagine but returning and recommend to all.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Colonia to Cascadas

Colonia del Sacramento lies about an hour by boat adjacent to Buenos Aires on the Rio de la Plata. Founded by the Portuguese over three hundred odd years as an annoyance and vanguard against the Spanish empire across the water. It grew rich on contraband trade by-passing the tariffs of Buenos Aires and this wealth can bee seen in its ensemble of beautiful colonial buildings.
Christina and I arrived late at night on election night. The streets were vibrant with celebration. Mujica had won. The youth were out on the street with flags and banners. Bangers burst and chants echoed round. Once seen by many as a terrorist and considerably on the left of the political scale (hence Che Guevara et al were hogging the celebratory flags), Mujica is a candidate who invokes passion and hope in his supporters as much as he provokes concern in others. From what I have been lead to believe, a supporter of and supported by the Chavez/Morales side of South American politics. I just hope he does not fall into the same traps as, in particular, the former of those two men. Dealing with social concerns is of paramount importance in this part of the world where there is such heightened inequality, but to follow a popularlist line to the blight of the economy is a too often seen occurrence here. Either way, for now, the people seemed happy.
Back to Colonia... The celebrations died away with the night and we awoke to a delightful morning wandering the little streets of this historical relic. Like many a preserved gem (another example being Bruges), a fall in its star has been its main keeper. Once the Portuguese and the Spanish had come to an agreement over the trade in the region, its raison d'etre – contraband trade – largely fell away leaving it as it was. Leading away from the dirt red Rio de la Plata and a picturesque little port are some of the oldest streets in Uruguay. These cobble their way up to two plazas, each surrounded by beautiful old buildings and with more quiet streets snaking off at each corner.
Pictorial highlights include whitewashed centuries old churches and the lighthouse rising out of the ruins of a ruined castle. A sleepy sort of place with the odd non-moving dog. Enchanting, especially in the mesmerising heat of the day.

To the Capital

A few hours across more flat grazing country took us to the the big town of Uruguay, Montevideo. This country is dwarfed by its neighbours in size and population. What are their three or so million against the masses of Argentina and, especially, Brazil. Well the answer seems to be they do pretty well (their proudest moment being recalled by Rodney at La Sirena – they beet Brazil in the 1950 world cup final in Rio). Montevideo has something like half the population of Uruguay and has a proud character for the little boy in town.
The old city lies on a ridge that juts out into the Southern Atlantic. This contains the old port and a rather crumbling colonial city that reminded me somewhat of Havana. This is where we stayed in a fantastic little poussada, complete with panoramic views of the city and ocean. While you can see the old town is slowly being done up and has an energetic artsy scene, it is rising from a low base. A man in a horse-cart still passed every day to pick up any rubbish of value and shady characters abound.On one particular walk on my own, an unexplainable sense of danger raised my heckles and reminded me of past jaunts in various cities of Andean South America – think Bogata, La Paz and Quito. One of those times when you know some of the dodgy folk around you need little excuse to fuck you up. A time to put on the “nothing fazes me” look (even though it does) and get out of there.
For the Greeks....I chose not to enter Casa Malaka...
As you go inland, the city quickly smartens up and the centre is full of hustle and bustle. Grand plazas are lined with restaurants and fashionable shops. Wide streets full of slightly tatty shopping centres and men in suits. From there the city spreads out for miles along some quite funky looking inner city beaches. I am afraid to say a lack of time and an interceding bug of Christina's hindered our further sightseeing of the city, but we left it thinking it did not necessitate too much more time. Some interesting parts, but as a mate of mine would say – another city.

After much deliberation we jumped on a plane for a place with every charm that cities don't have – Iguasu – the world's most majestic waterfalls. Our excursion into Uruguay had been quite unexpectedly brilliant, but I for one was itching to get to BRAZIL!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Playing Gaucho´s in Uruguay

An hour across the wide, red Rio de la Plata from BA lies the charming old town of Colonia. Three and a bit hours north by bus past open lush countryside lies the town of Mercedes. A taxi ride from there into the countryside lies what was our home for four days. Estancia La Sirena (Mermaid Ranch).

Before I go into details I wish to give a hint that coming here was probably the best decision we (or in this case Christina) made on this whole trip...


We spent an afternoon and a night in this quiet country city. Not a tourist in sight. Not a word of English within earshot. A comparatively prosperous country town by the banks of the Rio Negro and surrounded by cow country. Some lovely old buildings, one of the earliest churches in Uruguay (1690), pretty grid-lined streets and a grand central plaza formed the backdrop for our strolls. Added interest came in the form of the flooding of the Rio Negro. The water level had risen by something like 8 meters, covering up beaches, parks and some parts of the streets close to the over-flow. A disaster for much of the local population no doubt, but it was entertaining to watch the kids playing in their new water-park.
A circa 30km ride through the countryside, by-passing the normal now underwater road took us to the gates of...

Estancia La Sirena

Rolling hills intermittently covered in scrub-land, woods, wheat and barley are interceded by the wide flow of the Rio Negro - at least doubled by an inundation of flood water pouring down from southern Brazil. From the river, via its ups and downs the land slowly rises to a hill. From this vantage point you can see for miles around. Some two hundred years ago, in a time of significant turmoil, this natural attribute of the hill – that you can see people approach for miles around – lead to a wealthy man building what is now La Sirena on its summit.Half country mansion, half small castle. The estancia has on one side of its character thick, high walls, a watch-tower, a well at its core and under ground store rooms in case of attack, and on the other side, graceful verandas, grand rooms with high ceilings and outer white-washed walls. A beautiful yet imposing building.
From the second we arrived we were welcomed into the family. Sometimes you meet people who immediately put you at your ease and Lucia and Rodney are such people. First things first, Rodney took us on a tour of the old house and grounds, relating the history of the place and explaining his passion for the ranch and the flora and fauna it contains. We came to share some of this passion.
Swallows swerve and loop from from the rafters. Two widower ducks dawdle around giving guests a fright as they tap on unsuspecting windows and the Energetic muts (Felippe and Taboo) are constantly investigating, adding energy to even the height of the day and a fright to the odd chicken, while two widower ducks dawdle around giving guests a fright as they tap on unsuspecting windows... they freaked the hell out of me...Bonita Vistas...

To the north, jacaranda trees in bright purple blossom shade the lawn as the land drops from the house, past the old stables, to a herd of horses in the field beyond. The land then stretches in green and gold of crops to the forested banks of the overflowing Rio Negro.

To the west, as the day ends, we sit with refreshment and good company. Tall eucalyptus tower over us and are home to dozens of noisy green parrots who share their experiences of the day with many a squawk before one by one hopping into the large nest of entangled twigs to see away the night. These trees frame another field for the horses, before the land falls towards, far in the distance, Mercedes and the river. The crowning spectacle is the setting of the sun. Each day different, but no less spectacular. On one day a golden ball falling from a clear sky of fading blue and red ember. On another, an angry sky of multiple storms, lifting up in swirls of black and chucking deluge from within. Remarkably the sun has a clear, narrow path in which to dip and simultaneously to its majestic fall we witness the repeated discharge of forked lightening. Unbelievably, these powerful images are within a whisker of each other on the horizon. Once the sun is gone, each set of clouds turns a different shade of red and orange, some acting as barriers, protecting the lasts blue of open sky behind.

I apologise if this all sounds a bit verbose and over the top, but, for me, there is very little to compare in grandeur or to be so deserved of superlatives then a sunset. No doubt living in a place when I see them rarely heightens the sensation, but rarely have I seen such impressive ones as from La Sirena. I could not take my eyes away.

A day in the life of a wannabe Gaucho...
Each day the same. Wake up, set off western saddle for a few hours around the ranch, eat, sleep, another long ride, eat, sleep. A nice way to spend some time. During the eating parts, we were lucky enough to have great company in Rodney and Lucia and the varying guests who were staying. On our first night the place is full – which means a dozen people – with friends of the family from Montevideo and Argentina. A great event, with wine flowing, a big barbecue and Lucia playing local songs on the guitar with singing accompaniment from various corners. On another night there are just three of us. A really nice mixture..
It is so interesting listening to Lucia and Rodney, because of their experiences and attitude. She a former Davis Cup tennis player, energetic, full of talent and friendliness. He a former football and polo-player of some merit, who has spent most his life on different estancia and has an invigorating, optimistic and adventurous spirit. In particular his strong pro-environmental thoughts struck a chord with me – a theme of this trip it seems.
They are both from old Uruguayan families and gave us some very interesting perspective on the country, particularly pertinent when a potentially seismic election was coming on the Sunday. Joining many other parts of South America, Uruguay is swinging to the left.
It is though the long rides which will stick in my memory longest. Neither Christina nor I have ever spent such a prolonged period on the saddle – in Christina's case in her whole life put together. It was a great sensation to feel more and more comfortable at the controls of these stocky work-horses. As we always rode the same horses, you could feel an affinity slowly grow and by the end of our time I felt more at home on a horse than I have ever done.
From the saddle we saw so much nature. A multitude of different birds, interesting trees, large lizards and, of course, the ever-nervous cattle. Some paths took us through patchy grass-land, filled with strange prickly weeds that climb to almost head height. Others took us through close-knit woodland, where ducking and diving from branches was a quickly learned skill. All our journeys took us to marvelous view points and eventually the momentarily glutinous Rio Negro.
I really fell for the place. On the surface, this countryside does not promise much, but as we witnessed over the the hours in the saddle, and as Rodney showed us, the glory is in the detail (much like British countryside, where at a brief glance you would not guess at all the fascinating creatures lurking in every hedge-row). Taking part in some minor gaucho duties, like checking the fences and searching for vaco's, enhanced the experience.
Needless to say we were very sad to leave. It seemed fitting that another ground-trembling storm came from the West as we were to leave. We said our goodbyes and gave our humblest thanks and rode off in a torrential rain-storm from the Estancia that had touched us so much....