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.

Getting mugged in São Paulo

I’m generally quite a negative person, but when it comes to going on some little adventure somewhere, I’m the eternal optimist! It’s always a case of, “It can’t possibly be as bad as they say… They must be exaggerating” and “I’ll be fine… I can do it. Nothing will happen to me”. It’s this attitude combined with a little naivety that makes me think having a holiday in Caracas is a good idea; I can walk around downtown São Paulo at 1.30 am completely drunk while using my mobile phone and nothing will happen… But perhaps the craziest and most naive idea I had was that I would come to Brazil and do Bikram Yoga. In the biggest city in the Americas??? Home of the caipirinha??? I never stood a chance.
The reality of travelling to Venezuela is slowly starting to sink in: hyperinflation, a currency devaluing by the second, high crime rates, no food and NO CASH! I’m not worried about the food so much. If I lose a few kilos, I’ll be happy. The cash situation has me more concerned. The latest news is that Liza seems to think some banks have a special debit card kinda thing that they give out to tourists… That would be good so fingers crossed. If I can do it all above board, it’ll save me a couple of golden handshakes. Anyway, all will be revealed tomorrow so stay tuned.

The part about me not doing Bikram yoga and walking around downtown São Paulo at 1.30 am kind of go hand in hand so let me start at the beginning. I will say first though, in my defence, that initially the problem was simply jet lag. After that, however, other factors may have played a part.

During my time here in São Paulo, I’m renting a room from a guy called Marcio. After the disaster in Hong Kong renting a room from that Italian psychopath, I swore I would never share again… But since I don’t speak any Portuguese and this is a big city, I thought it might be a good idea to have an English speaking local. And basically, it has been a good idea. My radar for ferreting out freaks and weirdos has improved dramatically since Hong Kong. Marcio has been incredibly nice…. The perfect host! When I arrived on the first night, he opened the door with eyes half closed and the apartment smelling of incense … I had that one worked out in a second! Yes, that’s right… It seems that there has been a resurgence of potheads in my life. I will say though that living with a pothead is far easier than working with one. He’s very laid back, which is what you want a flatmate to be.

The next night, we went out to a little bar called Igrejinha (little church) complete with a neon crucifix hung over the counter. You just know that a bar that takes it’s imagery from the Catholic church is going to be nothing but a hotbed of sins… And I was right! I started off the night at 10 pm with a mojito, and made it back to the apartment around 7 am…. And well, I’ll let you fill in the blanks. But no, pedophilia was not involved. The great thing about travelling in non-Australian countries is that drinks are the real deal: highball glass filled mostly with alcohol and just a little splash of mixer to give it colour.  


Predictably, Friday was a complete write off.

Saturday was a good day. I started off the day with a little smidge of sightseeing in the morning. São Paulo is not exactly the kind of place for leisurely sightseeing strolls. Nonetheless, I power strolled down to Liberdade, São Paulo’s Japanese neighbourhood. You know the kind… The one with Korean sushi shops and Korean grocery stores! I didn’t hang around too long. It looks just like the rest of São Paulo, except with a few lantern-style street lights hanging over the roads. On the way back, I stopped for a while in Praça da Se, considered to be the central point of São Paulo. It’s an attractive and leafy place. While I was there, there was a little “tribe” of dancers out the front of the cathedral who were “dancing for Jesus”. At the end of the performance, one of the dancers came and handed me a post-it note and invited me to write down my sins and hang it on the cross. I admired his optimism, that all my sins could be written on one post-it note. A whole pad of post-it notes would have been optimistic… But one??


Next on the agenda was lunch with the lovely Gabriela Rocha. It’s always an amazing thing to be in another part of the world and see a familiar face. For lunch it was a truly delicious family sized mouceca and family sized caipirinhas. I’m blaming the jet lag here because usually I’m stronger than this but I had one caipirinha and I was wiped out. Mind you, one drink here is equivalent to about 17 Australian drinks.


I was in no shape to go clubbing on that night (jet lag and caipirinhas) but the good thing in São Paulo is that you can go to bed on a Saturday night, wake up on Sunday morning at 5 am, have a caipirinha for breakfast and still go out! Something I had never done before, but it was good!

Let’s cut this long story short… I was mugged. Not satisfied with spending 14 hours in this club, once it closed I thought I’d move on to the “after-the-after-party” party. I knew the next club was near my place, somewhere on the other side of the Praça da Republica but I didn’t know exactly where. So at 1.30 am, while completely drunk, I thought it would be a REALLY good idea to ask the taxi driver to drop me off in a dark plaza in downtown São Paulo, alone, connect to the Wi-Fi and take out my mobile phone and check Google maps. The muggers must have been rolling on the floor laughing when they saw me. The most stupid thing is that once I did that, I decided I didn’t want to go the club after all and I would just go home. I live very close to the praça but the problem with São Paulo is that absolutely every corner and every block of road looks exactly the same, especially in the dark when you’re drunk. So, it was a little difficult to orientate myself and work out on which side of the praça was my street. Suddenly out of the darkness a guy appears and offers to help with directions. And guess what?? I told him the street I was looking for!! I walked right into that one, didn’t I?!! I knew it was trouble straight away though, so I started walking really fast… He kept saying “why are you walking so fast?” But the faster I walked, he just kept up with me. Anyway, wham, bam, thank you ma’am, next thing I’m down a dark street and another guy shows up… Guy number 1 puts his arm around me and hugs me really hard. I straight away gave him my cash and the other guy asked for my phone. I handed it over no questions asked and thank God they ran away after that. I had a credit card and passport as well.

I know you all just read that and are thinking “You f***ing idiot”. And I am, because I’m smarter than that. I don’t care about the phone or cash, I’m just angry with myself that I was so stupid and walked into that easily avoidable trap. You just don’t do that in Latin American cities. It makes me realise I really need to lift my game if I’m to survive Venezuela.

Dusting off the blog again

Good morning São Paulo!!
The view from my room…

And here I go again, off on another adventure!!!!

So far everything has gone very smoothly… It was my first time flying on LATAM and first time flying on a Dreamliner. Somehow every time I think of Dreamliner, I get that Mariah Carey song “Dream Lover” stuck in my head. But other than that, it’s been a smooth ride and a surprisingly nice experience starting from check-in through to arrival. I did think for a moment though at the check-in counter in Sydney that there needs to be a mandatory IQ test or some kind of travel quiz for anyone buying a ticket on a plane and one of the questions needs to be:

Which of these is NOT an acceptable form of container for your checked luggage?

A. Hard suitcase

B. Soft suitcase

C. Duffel Bag

D. GLAD garbage bag.

Yes, that’s right…Abuelita rocked up to the counter and had decided that putting all her belongings in a garbage bag was a far better idea than putting them in a suitcase. It slowed things down considerably… If it was all Aussies, they would’ve just told her to “Get f***ed” and pushed her aside but since most of the passengers were Latinos, the other passengers at the other two check-in counters had to stop and help her repack her stuff.

My travel arrangements had all been moving along nicely in the weeks preceding my departure but then hit a couple of speed bumps just recently. The first speed bump was trying to book internal flights in Venezuela. At first glance it seemed that it would be the same as booking flights on any other airline. However, even though the various web pages are in different languages, they’re set up in such a way that they only accept Venezuelan credit cards, ID numbers and phone numbers. So now the challenge was trying to find someone to buy me a ticket.

I’m renting an apartment in Caracas from a lady named Liza Lopez and she put me on to her travel agent Francoise to help me book the ticket. Of course, Francoise just had to be French didn’t she. As well as being French, Francoise writes all her e-mails in capital letters. What sort of normal adult person does that? I mean, it’s like the net equivalent of shouting. Anyway, the short story is that she agreed to book me a return ticket from Caracas to Porlamar and asked me to transfer her US$28 to the company bank account. After I transferred the money at a cost of $30, she tells me she can’t accept US dollars after all and the bank is sending me the money back, again at another cost to me of $30. Now, could I please just pay her in person when I arrive in Caracas. Of course I not-so-delicately pointed out that it was her mistake and would not be paying her again since I had lost all the money. Eventually though I relented because I thought I may need her help again in the future. It seems though that the damage has already been done because when I asked her to book me another ticket she flat out said, “NO”!! She’s probably gone and cancelled the ticket to Porlamar just to spite me.

The second speed bump is the money situation. I’ve basically been banking on having a “black market” holiday for the five weeks in Venezuela. Hence my underpants are stuffed to the brim with greenbacks. Again, this part of the plan had been going OK until recently. One US dollar on the black market was fetching a thousand Bolivars. The biggest banknote in circulation is only 100 bolivars. Even still, I wasn’t going to let that be a deterrent. I’d just be like a “trummerfrau” I thought, risen from the ashes of the Weimar Republic, wheeling my barrow of cash round the streets of Caracas. Then suddenly about two weeks ago the bottom fell out of the Bolivar and is currently at 2400 to the dollar. Because the country has run out of cash, the government has placed a cap on cash withdrawals and the daily limit is now 10 000 bolivars. This basically means, I’m screwed.

There is always the government and the “official” exchange rate, but that will easily quadruple my travel costs. So now, I’ve been fishing around madly looking for options. I have one contact who works in customs at the Simon Bolivar airport and whose name is Libya Gomez… I wonder what inspired her parents to name her “Libya”. Anyway, she claims to have enough banknotes to do the exchange in cash. Another guy I’ve tracked down by the name of “Charly” claims he can open up a Venezuelan bank account for me and do the exchange via transfer and I’ll be able to pay for everything by card (no need to channel my inner trummerfrau and get a wheelbarrow). Another two people have offered to lend me their bank accounts and IDs for the time I’m in Venezuela. Apparently not having a picture that looks like you on your ID in Venezuela would only be a very minor problem. Hmmmmm… I know what you’re all thinking!

Anyway, I’ll cross all of those bridges next week when I come to them. Hopefully everything will work out fine. And now off to explore São Paulo… I’m still determined to Bikram tonight! Fingers crossed!