Discovering Fortaleza: The Nagoya of Brazil

After spending one week in Belem do Para, my next stop on the Brazil trip was Fortaleza, the capital of the state of Ceara.  My reason for choosing Fortaleza was simply that I wanted to stay in the north of the country, on account of the warmer weather, and I wanted somewhere that had inexpensive-ish direct flights from Belem and to Brasilia at a reasonable hour.  It came down to either Fortaleza, Recife or Salvador.  Fortaleza won in the price category, and so my decision was made.  In retrospect, there’s probably a reason that tickets to Fortaleza are cheaper than the other two cities.  I knew very little about Fortaleza, other than it’s a beachy touristy kind of place.  According to the Ministry of Tourism, “In 2016 the city reached the mark of second most desired destination of Brazil and fourth among Brazilian cities in tourists received” … Seriously, Ministry of Tourism?

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Fortaleza is a nice place.  It’s sunny and warm and has a very laid back, uncomplicated vibe to it.  Pretty much the entire length of the city is fringed with beaches, and as far as city beaches go, they’re decent enough.  The avenue running alongside the beach is lined with reasonably attractive high-rise apartment blocks, one of which I’m staying in. There’s really nothing to dislike here.  At the same time though, there’s nothing really to get too excited about either.  It’s like if you were travelling in Australia and you went from Sydney, to Alice Springs, Fraser Island and then your next stop was Wollongong.  Or if you were in Japan an went to see Tokyo, Kyoto, Hokkaido and then your next stop was Nagoya.  What would you think?  What would you write in your blog?  If you know, let me know.  Maybe I’ll just plagiarize your blog and substitute the word Fortaleza for Nagoya… For me, Fortaleza is the Nagoya of Brazil, albeit a tropical Nagoya.  I will say though, that it’s one of the more attractive cities in Brazil with wide avenues and colourful buildings, and not too dirty or run down… But hey what does that even mean?  It’s like saying Katherine Kelly Lang is the best actress on the Bold and the Beautiful.  You don’t have to jump high to get over that bar.

The view from my maximum security Airbnb, complete with partially built, abandoned aquarium…

Immersing yourself in a foreign language, especially one that you don’t even speak, is a big challenge.  I’ve enjoyed the challenge for the most part, but after a month of trying to speak and understand Brazilian Portuguese, I feel myself running out of steam a little bit.  Hence, this post is a little whingey.  Mind you, I’m quite proud how well I’ve done considering I’ve never studied or self-studied any Portuguese.  I can now fend for myself in most situations, albeit with high level retardation.  And of course, I’ve relied heavily on Google translate.  Some of the time, I just type in single words, and other times I use the speak function and say entire phrases or sentences.  I find that if I have a good signal, speak clearly with no background noise and keep the sentences short, I have about an 80 – 90 % success rate of being understood by Google. If the sentences are too long however, or there is background noise or a weak signal, the success rates just about halves.  This got me wondering about the speaking section in PTE.  I wonder how accurately the test-takers are being recorded?

The Cathedral of Fortaleza…

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Although I’ve been mostly able to fend for myself, I have had some epic communication fails.  The first one occurred at Belem airport on the way to Fortaleza.  I was hungry and went into a little restaurant and ordered, or at least tried to order, a cheese potato bread.  I admit my Brazilian pronunciation isn’t great, but I think I was well and truly in the ballpark. “Eu quero um pao de batata e queijo, por favor”.  Immediately a red flag was raised when she replied by asking me if I wanted a large on or a small one, because I didn’t see two sizes of potato cheese bread there.  But anyway, I just replied “large” and then she indicated that I should sit down, and she would bring it to me.   A few minutes later, she brings me a large cappuccino.  Really?  Cappuccino?  Even in the worst possible mumble, the words “cheese, potato and bread” sound nothing like “coffee, milk or cappuccino”.  The second communication fail happened here in Fortaleza.  I was struck down with a case of diarrhoea on the first day I arrived, so I went to a nearby pharmacy to try and get some over-the-counter remedy.  I entered the pharmacy and with my best Brazilian pronunciation, I confidently announced to the man behind the counter, “Eu tenho diarreia”.  I have diarrhoea.  You would think you couldn’t too wrong with that;  three words straight and to the point with no other words to distract from the message.  After I made my announcement, he replied with, “Eu tenho generico”.  I have generic.  Again, a slight red flag was raised because it’s not really the most logical response.  I have diarrhoea… I have generic?   But anyway, I’m like, “Yeah, sure, generic is fine” and he brings me a generic package with the drug tadalafila.  I’m looking at this name, tadalafila and trying to get an antibiotic or an Imodium kind of vibe from it.  I’m looking at the packet and scratching my head because it just didn’t sound like an anti-diarrhea kind of thing to me. So then he pulls me over to his computer and shows me on the screen that it’s like a kind of generic Viagra.  Thank God I sorted that one out before I started popping three of those a day!  The third communication fail was a minor one, but involved me blurting out retardedly to someone that I don’t like acai, when the question was, “Do you want to go out?  In my defence, the way Brazilians pronounce “sair” (go out) does sound a bit similar to acai.  The letter “r” here is either pronounced as an “h” or not at all.

Continuing on the whinge theme, let’s address the elephant in room… Vegetarian travel in Brazil sucks the big one.  I mean, it really, really sucks.  It’s a meat country.  At the very minimum, everything has ham in it.  In Sao Paulo and Rio, there are vegetarian places if you’re prepared to look, and to Belem’s credit it has Govindas, but on a general everyday level, you’re pretty much restricted to pastel de queijo and eating the side dishes in buffet restaurants.  Some buffet restaurants are better than others, but they’re basically geared towards meat eaters and so the side dishes are very simple and basic.  For example, there’ll be a bowl of sweet corn, a bowl of canned peas, some pickled vegetables, a bowl of rice and beans, invariably with ham in it.  I think it was eating at all the buffet restaurants that gave me the diarrhoea.

It’s been nice here in Fortaleza having an apartment with a full kitchen and well stocked grocery store within walking distance.  I even managed to find plantains!!

Just some random snaps …

Fortaleza has been OK but now now it’s off to Brasilia my final stop on the Brazil tour.  Everyone I’ve encountered along the way has been absolutely savaged Brasilia.  The general vibe has been take photos of the Oscar Niemeyer building and then get out.  Let’s see.

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Booming and Busting in Belem

After the week in Rio, I flew 3.5 hours north to Belem in the state of Para.  Belem which means “Bethlehem” in Portuguese, sits on the Para river in the Amazon delta, about 100 kilometres upstream from the Atlantic.  It was the first European colony on the Amazon, founded by the Kingdom of Portugal in 1616 but only incorporated into Brazil in 1775.  It is the second largest city on the Amazon after Manaus.  Back in the day, Belem’s economy rose from the sugar industry.   The boom in Belem continued with cattle and then coffee, rice and cotton.  Once Southern Brazil was settled however, these crops could be produced more efficiently there and so Belem’s economy declined.  The city rose once again on the back of the rubber boom.  In 1876 however, a conniving English bio-pirate by the name of Henry Wickham smuggled out a about 70,000 rubber tree seeds back to England, and the British determined they could grow rubber plantations more efficiently in the former colonies of Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Africa.  And so, that was the end of that for Belem and the Amazon. Belem went bust again.  It was during the boom period that much of the impressive colonial architecture was built but walking around the city it seems that the “bust” period has had the greater impact.

Arriving in Belem and looking out the window of the taxi, the first impression I got was that this is very obviously a poor city.   I admit, I had a minor freak out.  It was not what I expected.  If you’ve ever been to Manila… Well, it reminded me of that: very run down and dirty, with lots of trash in streets.  Admittedly, I arrived at midnight which didn’t do anything to lessen the creepiness of that first impression.    I took an Uber to my Airbnb in the old town, Cidade Velha.  Usually, in my experience, the old towns and “centros historicos” of cities are restored and well maintained.  The government pumps a bit of money into them because that’s what brings in the tourist bucks.  I was thinking along the lines of Old Havana, Vecriga, The Rocks, something like that.  Well, Belem’s Old Town is a little different.  It’s old in the sense that it’s the historical part of the city, but also old in the sense that it’s a f***ing run-down dump…  And a dangerous dump at that, apparently.  Later however, when I saw other parts of the city, I realised I wasn’t doing too badly by staying there.  It gets a whole lot worse.  My disclaimer to anyone that I’ve just offended: The enjoyment of a city is not dependent it’s economic success.  For me, it’s all about the people and the experiences you have, and in that respect, Belem was up there with the best of them.  Although I knew that the north was poorer, somehow, I wasn’t quite expecting it.  It was a  shock.  After an adjustment period of a day or so, while I changed gears, it was smooth sailing.

Apparently, Belem is dangerous.  I’ve travelled a bit in Latin America now, and maybe I’ve gotten used to it, but it didn’t strike me as that bad. At least, during the day it didn’t seem that bad.  At night it looked a little bit sketchier.  I was standing outside my maximum-security Airbnb waiting for my Uber one day when a car pulled up and told me that I need to be more careful and should get back behind the iron gate or put my phone away.

Another night I was trying to call an Uber in another part of town, sketchier than Cidade Velha and was told by some people that the Uber wouldn’t come to this part of town.  That was a bit of a worry.

As I said, I took a day or two to change down gears and then everything was fine.  I spent the first couple of days seeing what sights there were.  Here are a few random snapettes from around Cidade Velha, just so you can get an idea.  There are a lot of Portuguese style houses, just very run down.

The Cathedral of Se is there, which is well maintained however.

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And some snapettes from the adjacent bairros, again just to give an idea:

By the docks:

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I went to the Ver-O-Peso market, which is by the docks and touted as one of the main attractions in the city.  It’s an interesting insight into the local culture, and if you’re into open-air produce markets then it’s an amazing experience.  Students often tell me that they went to the fish market in Sydney, and I think to myself, “what the hell for?  Are you really into fish?” But here I was doing the same.  There are lots of chickens, ducks and rabbits crowded into small cages in 35 + degree heat.  I realise that veganism and vegetarianism is a luxury that we in more affluent societies can afford.  Other people simply have to make do with what they can get. Nonetheless, I found it extremely depressing.

Being surrounded by so much water, fish and prawns are one of the mainstays of the city.  At the market, there are tables upon tables upon tables of raw prawns and dried fish, and again out in the open in 35+ degree heat.  It’s fine if you’re a dozen blind lesbians walking through, but it was a bit much for me. I took some snaps and quickly got the hell out.

Estacao das Docas is next to the market.  It’s part of the old docks that have been renovated and now turned into upmarket restaurants and bars, mainly aimed mainly for tourists.  Think Darling Harbour.

I took a power walk into the bairro, Nazare, which is one of the more well-to do neighbourhoods of Belem.  By the way, if you do visit Belem, then that’s the place to stay.  It’s more attractive and less run-down. The main cathedral of the city, the Basilica of Nazare is located there.  I over-estimated my ability to power walk in intense sun, heat and humidity.  I made it to the cathedral but didn’t quite make it back.  I over-estimated my ability to power walk in tropical midday sun.  I ended up sitting through the mass because it was the only place with air-con where I could cool down.  I cooled down and then called an Uber and went back home.

The next day I took a boat ride to Ilha da Combu, which is an island in the river, just a short 15 minute boat ride away from the docks of Belem proper.  It was a nice day out… You just sit yourself in a resto-bar drinking cachaca and then you jump in the river.

Mangal das Garcas, a kind of mini botanical garden is another attraction in the city.  The main point of interest is the tower where you can get a good view of the city.

That was about it for my sightseeing.  The tropical heat and humidity didn’t really lend itself well to hardcore sightseeing or maybe I’m just getting soft.  I retreated back to my maximum security Airbnb and decided the only sightseeing I would do from then on would be nocturnal.  Then I stumbled across a club called Malice.  Yes, the club is called Malice, so you can fill in the blanks.

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And then suddenly it was Tuesday.  Time to leave.

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Rio Reflections

I’ve been in Rio for one week now and haven’t had much of a vibe to write anything.  I woke up this morning and realized I’m flying to Belem in a couple of hours so I’m desperately trying to cobble together a few words before I whisk myself up north.  And wouldn’t you know it, just when I’m in a hurry I had a Microsoft password disaster and have been battling with that for the last hour.  What was I thinking when I agreed to a two-step verification process in the event of forgetting my password?  Two step verification in a foreign country is virtually impossible!!!  So, I ended up having to open a new Microsoft account and repurchase Office.  Arrggh!!!  How annoying… And, that would be my second repurchase of the trip.

I had planned to fly from Sao Paulo to Rio (rather than taking a bus) and purchased a ticket with Avianca Brasil.  The ticket price to Rio from Sao Paulo was about the same across all the airlines but I was familiar with Avianca so I decided to choose them.  I had flown with them a few times in Colombia and was really impressed with the service and I also liked the red colour scheme they used for both the aircraft and the uniforms.  I purchased my ticket without any problem.  Some weeks later I happened to be googling Avianca Brasil.  You know how it is… It’s midnight and you really need to be sleeping, but then you realize you won’t be able to sleep unless you google the fleet size of some random airline.  So, as I was googling Avianca’s fleet size, I chanced upon some current news stories about the airline…  In short, Avianca Brasil had gone bankrupt.  Most of their planes had been repossessed and their routes had been cancelled. However, they had continued selling tickets for about the last six months on aircraft and routes that didn’t exist!!  What’s more, Avianca Brasil had no connection with Avianca Colombia.  It was just some dodgy low-cost carrier that had  leased the name and re branded itself.  That was extremely annoying but there was nothing that could be done.  So, I had to buy another ticket, this time with LATAM.

As much as I like Sao Paulo and its inhabitants, I was a little bit relieved to leave the city this time.  The combination of jetlag and being stuck in that prison cell of a room with anti-social flatmates took its toll.  And, I was hoping I’d enjoy the nightlife more than I did… It just didn’t do it for me this time unfortunately… In retrospect, I think if Sao Paulo is your first stop after a long haul flight, it’s better to splurge the money and get a really nice room.  Chances are that you might end up spending a lot of time in it, as I did.

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Arriving in Rio almost felt like arriving in a different country after Sao Paulo.  In place of Sao Paulo’s oppressive endless wall of beige are lush, green tropical tree lined streets filled with stunning examples of Neoclassical, Neogothic, Art Deco and Modernist architecture.  It’s kind of like a tropical Lisbon, but on a much grander scale.  It’s quite simply stunning!

To be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect coming to Rio.  My image of the city had been largely formed on what I’d seen on the internet and from Brazilian people I’d met in Sydney. And yes, if you know me, Brazilian people  that I’ve met in Sydney, particularly the women in recent months, have not been in my top ten list of favourite people.  I was a little bit reluctant to come… To be brutally honest, I thought the city would just be full of pretentious passive-aggressive, entitled people strolling around in bikinis, snorting cocaine, air kissing and telling each other how much they love them, while at the same time dodging bullets from rival drug gangs.

I couldn’t have been more wrong!!!  The people here, at least the ones I’ve encountered in this last week, have been some of the most courteous, well-mannered kind, friendly and down to earth people I’ve ever met in my life. Brazilian people here are INCREDIBLY NICE. The hosts in my Airbnb are incredibly warm and hospitable and let me treat their house as if it were mine.

To the Brazilian woman in Sydney to whom some months ago I suggested that rudeness might have been a Brazilian cultural thing (in an attempt to try and explain and justify your rudeness towards me) I have to apologise.  I apologise for suggesting that rudeness is a cultural thing.  It’s not… It’s just you.  You are a rude and entitled woman.  Brazilian people are extremely nice.

As for safety, while I realise there are unsafe areas in Rio like favelas, for the most part everywhere that I’ve been has felt extremely safe, almost disappointingly so.  I like a bit of edgy travel but it really feels very safe to walk around anytime of the day.

The most famous areas of Rio, Copacabana and Ipanema for me were the lowlight of the week.  Ipanema is just Bondi but with a kind of Paddington vibe, and Copacabana is Bondi but with more of Darling Harbour and Kings Cross kind of vibe. And with so many Brazilian people living in Bondi, all you would need to do is put a few shanty towns around it and you honestly wouldn’t know the difference.

I bet every fat girl of Ipanema just wants to punch the writer of that song!

The star of the week has been the Centro and the other parts of the city with it’s stunning architecture.

Teatro Municipal:

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Escadaria Selaron:

Museum of Modern Art in Niteroi:

Museum of Tomorrow:

A street scene in Lapa:

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Presbyterian church:

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Parque Lage and Jardim Botanico with Christ the Redeemer in the background:

Sugarloaf:

Some other random scenes:

And now it’s time to go and pack my extremely inappropriate, “just in case” clothing… It’s already 30 degrees and I have tow winter jacket, a cardigan, woollen socks and three pairs of jeans.

Cheers!

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Dealing with jet-lag in Sao Paulo

I’ve been in Sao Paulo for one week.

Today is my last day before I fly to Rio.  I’m still suffering jet-lag… But, I thought I’d better get in a quick blog post before I leave.  I’ve been struck down with the most diabolical jet lag for the entire week. The timing of South American flights from Sydney couldn’t possibly be any worse.  You leave at midday. Then you travel for about 18 hours and arrive at 4.30 pm on the same day, having slept and completely reversed the day and night.

The flight over from Sydney to Sao Paulo was fine.  I flew Air New Zealand to Buenos Aires and then Qatar Airways to Sao Paulo.  Sydney to Auckland was great.  The flight attendants were super happy and friendly. I’m sure it’s because they’re all thinking “We’ve only got two and a half hours of this shit and then we’re out of here, at home, jet lag free!” … On the Buenos Aires leg however, you could see that the flight attendants were struggling to maintain a smile.  Stepping onto Qatar Airways at Buenos Aires was a very noticeable step up in standards from Air New Zealand.  The aeroplane is polished and in mint condition and the flight attendants look like they’ve all just come back from their modelling jobs.  Quite a pleasant relief after the fuglies of Air NZ.  There is also a noticeable attention to detail.  Qatar Airways is the only airline that I’ve experienced that actually serve the special meals at the same time as the regular meals.  Every other airline serves the special meal about three hours before everyone else.  I mean, how difficult is it?

After arriving in Buenos Aires, the week got off to a bit of a bumpy start.  I blame it all on my cost cutting measures.  After all, you get what you pay for.  I first thought I would save time and more importantly money, by not going into BA “Federal Capital” for my stopover, but instead staying close to Ezeiza airport, in a town called El Jaguel.  El Jaguel is closer than Buenos Aires, but still, it isn’t THAT close.  By the time you exit the airport and go through slip roads, loop roads, spaghetti junctions, motorways and side streets, it took about half an hour.  Another 20 minutes in a taxi, and I would have been in the Federal Capital.  I also could have found an equally cheap room and I would have been in civilisation.  But hey, you live and learn all the time.  At least I thought I could spend the day, strolling in the fresh air and quiet provincial streets.  I didn’t factor in of course that I was directly under the flight path.  El Jaguel is to Ezeiza what Marrickville is to Mascot. And at times like this, Murphy’s law invariably kicks in.  From the moment I stepped off the plane until 27 hours later when I stepped back on, it rained literally non-stop and extremely heavily.  In El Jaguel, there is literally nothing… Not a thing… You have to walk to the next ‘burb called Monte Grande to find anything.  Did I have an umbrella? No.  Could I call an Uber? No.  All I could find in the house to eat for 27 hours was 2 dulce de leche biscuits and a carton of expired sugary processed milk.  Yep, fun times.

The choice of flight to Sao Paulo was also driven price.  It was the cheapest.  The flight actually goes from Buenos Aires to Doha, via Sao Paulo.  I guess that most people travel from Sao Paulo so they sell the BA to SP leg very cheaply.  Sao Paulo being a stopover also meant that we arrived in the middle of the night.  Arriving in any foreign airport, unless it’s a major transit hub, is pretty creepy.  Guarulhos is no exception.  I think my flight was the only one that came in at that time.  Everything was closed including the casa de cambio.  The airport was pretty empty.  Two ATMs that I tried had no money.  Luckily the third ATM I tried had cash.  I inserted my card and pressed on the button that said I wanted to withdraw 2200 reals.  You know, just before it’s about to dispense the money, the ATM tells you the transaction fee and then asks if you want to continue?  It tells me that the transaction fee is going to be 240 reals!!!!!  I quickly clicked onto my XE currency converter app and it tells me that 240 reals converts to AUD 90!!!!!  WTF!!!  Desperation of course forced me to click the “yes” button.  I had no choice but I felt like they should change the “yes” button to “who cares” and the “no” button to “fuck you, I’m desperate”.

The next challenge was getting from Guarulhos to Vila Buarque, where I’ve been staying.  There didn’t appear to be a whole lot of taxis floating around and I hadn’t been able to reactivate my Uber account. In order to reactivate it, they need to send a security code, and they send it to my Australian number which I was unable to access.  As luck would have it though, some kind of renegade Uber driver approached me mumbling quietly “Uber,  Uber” and offered to take me for the same price as a real Uber.  I broke the number one rule of travelling in security challenged countries: Never get into an unregistered taxi.  It was 3 am… What was I to do? Fortunately though, he was a decent guy and didn’t kidnap me.  We get to Vila Buarque safely. The one bonus of arriving in the middle of the night is that there is no traffic.  We got to my place in 20 minutes.

I had another minor Airbnb fail here in Sao Paulo.  Again, I rented the cheapest room.  The apartment itself is fine and the location is OK, but the room itself is a stuffy, windowless inside room with the most uncomfortable bed imaginable.  That would be fine, because the owner is quite friendly, sociable and chatty and I felt comfortable coming about of my cell. That would have been fine, but the very next day he went on holiday and rented his room out someone else.  I wasn’t introduced to this person and I’ve been getting very strange vibes all week.  Not that I need to socialise with him or anything, but I’ve never been in a share living situation where people completely pretend like the other person is invisible.  I did the usual, “Oi, tudo bem?” one night and he just grunted “boa noite” and got up, marched into his room and closed the door.  Brazilian people in my experience are usually very open and friendly.  Trust my luck that out of a population of 200 odd million, I’m living with the one freak in the country.

Brazilian people are extremely warm and friendly.  I’m really surprised how friendly, kind  and laid back people are here in Sao Paulo considering what a mother of a city it is.  People have been extremely nice to me and have gone out of their way to help.

People aside though, Sao Paulo really is a mother of a city.  Even though I’ve been here before, for the first few days I felt very overwhelmed.  Slowly I’ve been getting my bearings though and relaxing into it.  Sao Paulo is like Tokyo in so much as every inch of space is filled up.  There are no empty lots or spaces between buildings.  The streets run very organically, not in any kind of grid pattern and with the exception of the downtown area which has a few more identifiable buildings and landmarks, everywhere looks essentially the same.  All the buildings are in varying shades of beige or creamy yellow.  The shops, houses, walls and fences all line up to the same point on the side walk.  So as you walk along the sidewalk, you are just walking through this endless wall of creamy yellowy beige.  Thank God I got a local SIM card and have been able to use Google maps to guide me as I walk.  Otherwise I’d be house bound in my cell.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I’ve been suffering the most diabolical jetlag with no signs that it’s going to improve.  I eventually reached the point of “If you can’t beat it, just go with it”.  So, I’ve been sleeping all through the day, waking up in the evening and going to bars and clubs at night.  That’s something I haven’t done since my twenties..  I guess I had very high expectations of Sao Paulo nightlife.  And while the bars and clubs are certainly very good, they’re pretty standard, like what you would find anywhere else in the world (with the exception of Sydney of course).  The only thing that separates Sao Paulo nightclubs from others that I’ve been to, is the aggressiveness of the security check.  The “pat down” is quite something else.  Entering a club, I got the full “Banged Up Abroad” experience.  The guy who did me, shouted at me and patted me down so hard that I was virtually bruised by the end of it.  He patted down literally EVERY part of my body, punched my shoes several times, made me take them off and then inspected them closely.  I was not required however to empty out my bulging pockets and neither was anyone else.  Interesting.

Bye for now.  it’s time to pack.

Time to say goodbye, Taipei… I’ll miss you!

It’s 10 pm.  I should be sleeping because I have to catch a taxi for the airport at 4 am.  In a moment of complete insanity, I booked a flight departing at 7.40 am.  And now, I am severely regretting the stupidity of this decision as 4 am looms.  The other flight to Sydney was at 11.55 pm but it would have meant booking the hotel for another night and only using it for half a day, so I decided to save the money.

Anyway, it’s my last day in Taipei and feeling a tad sad that I have to leave.  I wasn’t sold on Taipei at first.  It seemed like just a mini dirty Tokyo, but over the days I discovered many more layers to the city and really came to like it.  It’s a bit Japanese and a bit Chinese but still has very much it’s own unique special flavour.  The people are without a doubt some of the nicest I’ve ever encountered on my travels.  And there’s a real unpretentious, easy-breezy vibe to the place.  It is what it is and the people aren’t wannabes like those other people up the Han Peninsula.

On my second last night, I decided to ignore all the nay sayers on Trip Advisor and went to visit Raohe night market.  Night markets are a huge part of Taiwanese life.  They have unbelievable selection of foods.  I wish I ate meat… I could have gone to town on offal: pig’s fallopian tubes, tripe and chicken feet!

I had my Lucy Jordan moment… Not quite Paris in a sports car and not quite 37 either… But I got a ride to the night market through the streets of Taipei on the back of a scooter..

And today, on my last day… It finally stopped raining!!  The temperature maxed out at 29 degrees so I hot footed it down to Taipei 101 to check out the city view.  It’s funny… The Taiwanese appear to be really theoretical with their dress.  It was 29 degrees but because it’s still winter, they were all out in their hooded down puffer jackets.  Meanwhile, I was in shorts and a T-shirt.

Taipei 101 is a very nice building and definitely looks much better in real life than in pictures.  It was at one time the tallest building in the world but already in 2019, it has dropped to 10th place.  And next year when Jeddah Tower opens, it will drop another place.

Some random stupid Mainlander staging a one man protest against the Fallun Gong protest that was going on outside the building…

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The lift whisks you up to the observation deck on level 89 in a matter of seconds.  Level 89 is a windowed observation deck.  But then you go up 2 flights of stairs and you have the open observation deck.  When I got to level 89 and looked out the window, my first reaction was, “Why the f*** did they use smoked glass for the windows?” … But then a short while later, I went up to the non-windowed observation deck and noticed that the view looked exactly the same.  Of course the glass wasn’t smoky.  It was crystal clear.  It was just the blanket of smog hovering over the city.

Level 89…

Level 91…

Time for bed now… 4 am is certainly not going to be pretty.  And to add insult to injury, there is track work on my line when I get back to Sydney!!

And so my lovelies… That’s it ‘till the next trip!  I wish you all a wonderful 2019 filled with amazing adventures!

New Year in Taipei

It’s day 14 out of a 15 day trip to Taipei, and for 12 of those 14 days it has rained…  Not just a one hour monsoon shower in the afternoon, but it has pretty much rained for the entire day every day.  As such, I haven’t been on as many day excursions as I had anticipated… Well, the rain is part of the problem at least.  The other part of the problem is that the drinks here are really cheap and really strong and I have been indulging a little bit more than I should.  So, I haven’t been springing out of bed at 5 am like a Sealy Posturepedic model like I usually do.  My day excursions have been mainly limited to various restaurants and bars, with the odd museum thrown in for good measure.  But hey… It’s an urban vacation in an East Asian city in winter.

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I finally got to go to one of the restaurants that I’ve been wanting to try for a long time: The Modern Toilet Restaurant in Ximen. It’s a completely toilet themed restaurant.  The interior is set up like a bathroom with exposed plumbing and everyone sits on a toilet to eat their meal.  The food is served in toilet bowls and bed pans and the drinks are served in small urinals.  The menu features such treats as “Poop stuffed pancakes”, “Diarrhoea Cocoa” and “Taiwanese Urine Beer”.  It’s a restaurant that you go to purely for the gimmick of it, and as such, there were no locals there, only tourists.  Having said that though, the food wasn’t too bad.  I had a vegetarian hot pot served with rice and tea served in a small urinal.  The service is a bit slow… The problem is that the restaurant is on two levels and the wait staff have to lug these huge toilet bowls up and down the stairs… It’s not like you can stack a few plates on your arms and do it quickly.  They can only do one toilet at a time.

I was in Taipei for New Year’s Eve and went out to partake in the celebrations.  I have always maintained that going out partying on new year’s eve is just for amateurs and bogans.  It’s their one big night of the year.  The cool people stay at home on New Year’s Eve… But somehow, this year I managed to get caught up in the hype of it all.  New Year’s Eve parties always have such a build-up, but ultimately are a huge letdown.  This year was no exception.

The big ticket attraction for new year’s eve in Taipei is to gather around Taipei 101 and watch the fireworks.  Since it was raining quite heavily though, I opted to go to a night club and watch the fireworks on a screen there, rather than stand outside in the rain getting wet.  The word on the street was that this club “Cercle” would be fun… I contacted them via Facebook messenger and got a good vibe.  600 TWD for all you can drink all night and a screen showing the fireworks… Woohoo!!  This night would go off I thought.  You could reserve a table but I figured that wasn’t necessary.

It was a small club, about the size of two large classrooms.  As far as nightclubs go, it looked pretty cool and was set up very nicely with lockers, tables and lounges.  They had digital lava light type projections on the wall and the DJ was playing house remixes of 70’s, 80’s and 90’s songs.  Some of the songs and mixes were pretty cool, but you know, on New Year’s Eve in 2019, can we really not do any better than Sade’s “Smooth Operator” or The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby”?  Nice for nostalgia, but come on…

We rocked up at the club at about 10.30 pm.  I realize it’s very early to go to a night club at that time, but since the point of it was to do the countdown and watch the fireworks, I figured it would be ok.  When we arrived, there were only four other people there.  Thank God for the staff, because at least they boosted numbers and the club didn’t look quite so empty.  Up until the time we left at 12.30, maybe another 20 or 30 people arrived.   There were about 20 or so tables there and about 15 of them had reserved signs, but most of them remained empty for the whole time we were there.  No-one danced at all… All the Taiwanese people sat at their tables playing games and complaining that the music was too loud.  At about 11.10 pm, they stopped the lava light show and started to project a stop-watch on the wall in order to do the countdown.  It was a bit foolish to start the countdown already from 50 minutes I thought, because it just emphasized how boring the night was.    We all just stood there watching the clock for 50 minutes: tick, tock, tick, tock.

So anyway, the clock is ticking away… It gets to 11.52 pm and suddenly the clock freaks out an starts showing the wrong time.  It showed that it was 12.52 am rather than 11.52 pm.  Next thing, a skinny Taiwanese guy, one of the staff, flurries onto the stage, has a panic attack and screams, what I assumed to be the Chinese for, “Faaaaaark!!!  Has anybody got a watch?” He grabs a watch from a customer and starts doing the countdown.  At midnight he screeches, “Happy new year”, throws a bit of confetti in the air and then the other staff promptly race in with brooms.  Woohoo!!!

After that, we went to sit down at one of the unreserved tables… Not that it would have mattered if we had sat at a reserved table because there was barely anyone in the club and what’s more, the reserved tables were mostly empty … About 15 minutes later, the aforementioned skinny guy sashays up to our table and says, “This table is reserved”.  I didn’t need to sit down anyway, so we got up but I proceeded to point out to him in a less than diplomatic tone, that most of the reserved tales were still empty anyway.  10 minutes later, skinny guy comes back and says, “Oh sorry, it’s not reserved after all.  You can sit there”.  I’m trying hard not to react to people or situations these days… Clearly I need to try harder, because suddenly, my mood plummeted faster than a fat kid on a see-saw… I put my face into his face and pointed out to him in a less-than-kind tone of voice, that this was the worst club in not only Taiwan, but the whole entire world.  He apologized.  We left.

By this stage, I had drunk quite a bit, so we headed to the Ximen pedestrian area to eat some street food.  Ximen was buzzing … I ate lots of stinky tofu… It’s amazing what you’ll eat when you’re drunk.  Clearly however, the food vendors didn’t have licences because the police kept driving through with sirens chasing the vendors away.  The vendors merely parked in another spot and the customers followed.  After three plates of stinky tofu, and being quite wet, we called it a night and I went home.

The days since new year’s eve have just been spent eating more food!  I have branched out and tried some other vegetarian places.  Thankfully, there are a lot of nice vegetarian restaurants in Taipei. New Year’s Day, I had fake beef and real broccoli, fried noodles and dumplings at Xin Hong in Ximen.

And… on the day after, on January the 2nd, I tried a vegan burger at Ooh Cha Cha.

In between eating and drinking, I did manage to make it to the National Palace Museum.  It has an extremely impressive collection of Chinese Imperial artifacts and artworks collected by China’s emperors.  When the civil war broke out between the communists and the nationalists, Chiang Kai Shek decided to move the collection to Taiwan.  They only managed to get about 22% of the collection before the communists stopped them, but they did manage at least to get the best pieces.  And so, the National Palace Museum is one of the most impressive of its kind in the world.  As with any large museum, my approach is just to get a quick overview of the whole place and then just focus on one area.  I focused on the pottery, which was truly stunning.  The funniest thing though in the museum was watching all the (who I presumed to be) Mainlanders, hell-bent on cataloging the entire collection, not looking at anything, just going click-move-click-move-click-move-click-move-click-move-click-move….

And some leek filled pancakes to finish off the day…

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It’s all about the moments…

I have a little confession to make… I’m not really getting the high pitched buzz out of Taipei that I thought I would.  I keep walking around and comparing everything here to everywhere else I have traveled and feeling generally very underwhelmed.  It’s kind of odd because when the students complain to me that Sydney isn’t good because, for example, you can’t just stay in your room and buy and pay for everything through WeChat… you actually have to leave your room, or that curries here aren’t good because they’re not spicy enough.  I’m always telling them, “It’s not bad, it’s just different and that’s OK”.   Travel is about experiencing life and seeing how people live in other parts of the world.  I really need to remind myself of this.  I’ve been feeling just a tad let down. *hashtag first world problem* … Taipei is not an obvious city like Tokyo or Bangkok, but that’s OK!  The magic lies in the moments.  And the great thing is that you can get on a train or bus for 30 minutes and be in the country side soaking in a hot spring.

So far, I’ve made two trips to the Beitou Hot Springs.  Beitou is the closest and most convenient to Taipei City.  It’s only about 20 or 30 minutes on the MRT red line.  It was also the first hot spring area to be developed in Taiwan. The first hot spring spa there was actually opened by a German, but it was the Japanese that really developed the area and the whole “onsen” culture.  They needed somewhere to relax and unwind after a hard day of raping and pillaging the land.  You can certainly feel the Japanese influence in the area.

On the first trip to Beitou, I went to Kawayu onsen.  It’s located a bit further up the mountain so I took the MRT to Xin Beitou and then cabbed it from the station.  It calls itself by the Japanese pronunciation of the characters for “River Spring”  (Kawa + Yu) but of course all the cab drivers only know it by the Chinese pronunciation.  Fortunately the kanji for “river” is pretty easy and I could half remember the kanji for “spring”, so I drew them in the air with my finger.  The cab driver eventually worked out my air kanji and whisked me off to Kawayu.

It was raining that day, as it has been pretty much every other day, so it was difficult to take many pictures and you can’t take any pictures inside anyway…  The few snaps that I have don’t really do it justice.

The onsen was great and felt very Japanese, although it was a little more “rustic” than you would find in Japan.  There were no cabs to take me back so I bussed it to Shipai MRT station.

For the second trip to Beitou, I couldn’t be f***ed drawing air kanji and dealing with cab drivers again so I just went to Beitou Hot Spring Resort, two minutes’ walk from the station.  The resort itself was of a much higher standard, but of course you didn’t get the mountain view.

The other bonus of going to this resort was that “Thermal Valley”, a river of steaming spring water, was just up the road.

Yesterday, I went to visit Shen Keng “Old Street” which is a rural township in southern New Taipei City and is famous for its tofu dishes because apparently the best tofu is made here and the restaurants here use a distinctive cooking method.  There’s A LOT of tofu!  Pretty much everything is tofu… All different kinds like regular tofu, stinky tofu, dessert tofu, fried stinky tofu, BBQ stinky tofu, tofu cheese, tofu cake, sweet tofu drink, dried tofu, and tofu ice cream. As well as the tofu, they have a lot of sweet snacks and candies. I wasn’t too hungry so I only tried the tofu in spicy soup and deep fried stinky tofu.  Apparently people like stinky tofu.  Personally, I don’t get it.  It smells like rotting garbage… It’s like “Let’s take a perfectly good food and make it smell and taste bad just for the hell of it.”  I had to soak the deep fried stinky stuff in the spicy soup in order to mask the smell and taste.  And when you walk past a stinky tofu restaurant, it’s like walking through an open sewer.

I had a “temple” day.  I walked around the city and checked out a few of the Buddhist temples:  Longshan, Dalongdong Baoan, Confucius and Tian Hou.  As is the case with cathedrals in Europe, unless you are a worshiper of that religion or have a particular interest in the history of the structure, they all tend to blur into one after a while, especially Buddhist temples which are mostly built on a standard design.  The beauty of these temples lies in the small details: the colours, the flowers, the incense, and the intricacies of the design.  The structures themselves are all relatively modern as the original structures were destroyed one way or another.

I discovered this too on my temple walk: Toffee cherry tomatoes on a stick which were surprisingly good!

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I witnessed this mother/child bonding moment on the MRT the other day:

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Recently at work, there has been a lot of discussion about the issue of smartphone usage, in particular internet and smartphone addiction.  While this may have been an isolated incident and probably not the norm, it does make you wonder about the future generation.

And on that note..

I’m off to have dinner in Taipei’s Modern Toilet restaurant.   It’s completely toilet themed… Right up my alley… You can get such delights as “Modern toilet turd sub sandwich”, “Poop stuffed pancakes” and “Urine beer”.  Yummy, yummy… can’t wait!

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Flying to Taipei and first impressions

I really wanted to get away for the Christmas and New Year break.  Work had been getting me down and so I felt like I needed a bit of pick-me-up treat.  Not being a huge fan of beaches, I opted for a two week Asian urban adventure.  Taipei seemed like a good idea… It’s not too far away and I like travelling in ugly cities.  People are generally nicer in ugly cities, with the exception of Seoul of course.  It’s like they feel that they have to try harder to compensate.  But now, sitting in my room on the third day of rain, I’m thinking maybe I could have gritted my teeth and put up with a bit of sand and sun.

I booked a ticket to Taipei on China Airlines.  The main reason for this decision was that it’s the only airline offering non-stop flights between Sydney and Taipei… And of course, the price was very competitive!  If you Google “Airlines + most fatalities + last 30 years” China Airlines comes in at the number 1 spot, beating out Korean Airlines at number 2 by about 200 people.  Mind you, for “most fatalities of all time”, Aeroflot is the hands down winner there! China Airlines was founded by an ex-air force pilot and throughout the 90s, they mainly recruited ex-ROC Air Force pilots.  It took them about 8 crashes and 700 odd fatalities, to work out that this practice wasn’t working for them.  For about the last 15 years though, they’ve been cleaning up their act. They recruit university graduates and put them through a pilot training program and have also overhauled their maintenance programme.

Anyway, today’s China Airlines is not too shabby… Now, on the Sydney – Taipei route, they fly brand new Airbus A350s. The A350 is like the Dreamliner… It has higher ceilings, bigger windows, variable mood lighting and a higher cabin pressure so you don’t feel so disgusting when you arrive.  The economy baggage allowance is 30 kg, which is perfect for “just-in-case” travelers like me.  I packed 25 kgs for two weeks, including jeans that I never wear.  That’s the heaviest outbound luggage I’ve ever had and for the shortest trip. For the interior, they’re going for a kind of zen bamboo forest thing and have done the walls in a sort of wood grain finish and an angular pattern on the carpet.  I’m not a big fan of Chinese aesthetic. For me personally, I don’t get “bamboo forest”.  I just all feels a bit chintzy.  Anyway, at the end of the day, economy is economy and we were all crammed in like cattle on a live export to Asia.

I’ve been here for four days now, and my impression of Taipei is that it’s a pretty nice place.  Visually, it’s no show-stopper… It certainly ticks the ugly box, that’s for sure… Kind of a dirty mini-Tokyo… But… It proves my  theory of “ugly city, nice people”.  People here seem very polite, kind and friendly and the language barrier doesn’t seem to cause too much awkwardness.  Overall, the city has a relaxed, unpretentious vibe to it.  It was part of the Empire of Japan for 50 years so culturally it feels like a Chinese/Japanese hybrid.  The Japanese influence can be felt most noticeably in their manners, and of course the Japanese style hot springs and Japanese food chains.  Announcements on trains are made in Mandarin, English and Japanese.

Perhaps in part due to the Japanese influence, I’ve been having flashbacks and have been reliving my time in Japan… Going into supermarkets and restaurants and not being able to read the labels and not knowing what’s in the food, and having to rely on people to always translate everything.  And then there’s the whole “gaijin” scene (whatever the Taiwanese equivalent of “gaijin” is) … Going into bars and witnessing the “zero to hero” phenomenon or the foreigners who are trapped in a bubble one way or another… And then there’s the whole who’s into rice versus potatoes versus sticky rice.  While I still do use the terminology myself, it’s always with tongue planted firmly in cheek.  I’m so glad I can just observe it now and walk away.

On the other hand, one positive flashback is the relaxed attitude towards alcohol and drinking in Asian countries… Being able to buy alcohol in the convenience store and just walk down the street drinking… Here, not only do you have the choice of the usual stuff, but you can buy shots!  It’s one of those bucket list items to walk down a city street doing shots you bought in a convenience store.  I started with Pussycat, moved on to Buttery Nipple and ended on Porn Star!

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The food here is INCREDIBLE!!!  Perhaps in part due to there being a lot of elderly Buddhists living here, there are quite a number of amazing vegetarian restaurants.  So far, I’ve checked out “Three to Vegetarian”, “Minder Vegetarian” and “Rice Revolution”.  I thought the name Rice Revolution was pretty cool.  It sounds like an Asian protest rally… But the other two names?  Not sure what the idea there was.  The first two restaurants are buffet restaurants.  They each have about thirty or forty dishes.  You help yourself and then they weigh it at check-out.  Although Rice Revolution sounded cool, it was quite small and they had a very limited menu.  However, outside of designated vegetarian restaurants, it’s pretty much a porkfest everywhere else.

Other than eating and walking down streets drinking, I’ve done the usual kind of tourist stuff and checked out the main sights.  I even did a Bikram Yoga class.  If you’ve ever wondered how you Bikram Yoga could be more challenging and unpleasant… Try doing it in Chinese!  That takes it to a whole new level!

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Here are some random scenes around Taipei…

Taipei 101 viewed from Elephant Mountain…

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Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall…

One final thought…

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Scenes from Jerusalem

Jerusalem has a vibe and an atmosphere than cannot be put into words… So, I’m not going to try.  Here are some very random and very spontaneous snaps from my walks around this incredible city.

Scenes from around the Damascus Gate in the Old City:

The souvenir and gift shop that is the Via Dolorosa:

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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City:

Scenes from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City:

Leaving the Old City …

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Jaffa Road and the Mahane Yehuda market in West Jerusalem

Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre:

Being Latvian, we always get a bit excited when Latvia pops up somewhere, or gets a mention… Umm, maybe not this time…

The Mount of Olives:

…And the view from the top:

 

That’s Ramallah, baby!

If it’s Thursday, it must be Ramallah.  Another day, another Arab city… Not that there’s anything wrong with Arab cities.

So, I went to Ramallah, the de facto capital, political, economic, and cultural heart of Palestine; religiously relaxed, bars with beer flowing freely and… the epicentre of Palestinian feminist activity.  Of course you wouldn’t know all of this popping in quickly for the day as I did.  Arriving in downtown, the first impression of Ramallah is that it’s a dirty, congested dump with wall-to-wall hijabs and no scent of any alcohol anywhere. Quick disclaimer:  Obviously there are huge extenuating circumstances.  Ramallah is a city that you need to spend either a couple of hours or a couple of months in.  It’s the kind of place where you need spend time and really get under the skin of the city and you would be rewarded.  Otherwise, it’s not a pretty place so just do your business and get out.

The trip to Ramallah, like the other West Bank cities, starts at the bus station at the Damascus Gate; Bus 218 or 219.  Again, as with going anywhere in the West Bank, it requires going through military checkpoints.  For Ramallah, you go through checkpoint Qalandia, just on the border of the two cities.  While the other checkpoints obviously, are not great, they didn’t seem too bad.  Qalandia, on the other hand, is a bleak and depressing place with a very cold war-like feel to it.  Although the distance between the two city centres is only 16 kms, with all the traffic and checkpoints, it ends up taking a very long time.

Once you pass through the checkpoint, you’re on Ramallah Road, a long road that snakes all the way to the centre.  Think Parramatta Road in peak hour, but in Ramallah it’s peak hour all the time.  Then eventually you arrive at the centre of Ramallah, which is just a traffic roundabout with six rubbish-strewn roads feeding into it!  And yes… It’s as bad as it sounds!

Just in case you’re not sure which is the main street of Ramallah…

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Some random street scenes…

My reason for visiting Ramallah was to visit the Yasser Arafat Museum.  Unlike my impression of downtown, the museum didn’t disappoint.  It was amazing!  The museum is on three floors and gives and incredibly comprehensive account of Yasser’s life, the Fatah movement and the whole Arab-Israeli conflict.  In other part of the museum, are the rooms where he spent the last years of his life while under siege.  Next to the museum is his tomb, made of Jerusalem stone.

Once I was finished at the museum, I wasn’t keen to stick around, so it was back on the 218 bound for the Damascus Gate.

Going back to Jerusalem required going through Qalandia again. On the way in, the military don’t check anything but on the way back, it’s a very thorough check.  I don’t understand how the system works.  At the checkpoint on the way back Jerusalem from Bethlehem, the Palestinians had to get off bus whereas the tourists could stay on.  To my surprise, the opposite was the case at Qalandia.  I was beginning to feel like a special little butterfly everywhere I went, but this time the two soldiers got on the bus, checked all the Palestinians and told me to get off and walk through the metal detector to the other side.  And the bus didn’t even wait for me!!  The guy who checked me at the gate was a vile Nazi pig.  The metal detector was going off but I was just waiting for him to wish me well and wave me through.  This one was gesturing and calling out to me… Of course I couldn’t hear him through all the bullet-proof glass, plus I’m a bit slow on the uptake… He wanted me to take off my belt, my shoes etc… Meanwhile, I’m just jumping backwards and forwards through the metal detector, still waiting for the smile and “Have a nice day”.  Finally I removed my shoes and belt and emptied my pockets, and got through the metal detector without it buzzing.  He studied my visa for about ten minutes.  I think he was new on the job. Then I waited for another bus and made my way back to Jerusalem.  It was bad enough going through it one time, but for many people, this is their daily life.