Sunday, 26 June 2011

A Month Of Sundays

Clearly it's exceptionally difficult to find time during any given Sunday to blog merrily away. It hasn't quite been a month, but three weeks isn't that far off, and at just over a quarter of the way through our little trip, it seems I ought to improve my writings' timings if there's to be any record of our travels at all. Perhaps not wholly true - Pete has uploaded a fair few photos, and all of our select F'ook friends can bear witness to the gradual convergence of Ben's hair and beard length. Besides that extraordinary visual pleasure, there are also waterfalls, pretty churches, drinks and views. Alongside which, I can be seen sporting an almost identical wardrobe to that which went to Jerusalem with me, thereby giving the impression that, on Facebook at least, the Holy City is somewhere east of Rio de Janeiro.

I mustn't get ahead of myself, on this blog at least. Sitting on a coach as I am, typing away after only the first hour of this nigh-on-twenty-four-hour-long journey east to Campo Grande, I would very much like to be ahead of myself, by almost a day. But not to complain. We have become quite inured to long journeys, and odd ones at that. From San Ignacio, we went north to Iguazu, and its cascades, as the Spanish would have it. From the quiet Jesuit ruins of San Ignacio, where the exhibits preached of cultural tolerance and peaceful coexistence, the Jesuit missionaries and local tribesmen having led by example hundreds d years ago, we left for the waterfalls.

In their tourist-proof setting reminiscent of a theme park, the falls themselves are a bizarre mix of stunning natural scenery and the best mankind has to offer in taming it. Paved paths, liberal splashings of concrete with dashes of railings, and a buffet restaurant. When Eleanor Roosevelt saw the falls, she remarked, 'Poor Niagara'. I think now she'd say 'Poor Iguazu'. I shouldn't complain - it was a brilliant day, even with an early start to avoid the midday coachloads. Our attempt that evening to make it into Brazil was less straightforwardly impressive. Two bus tickets had us paying in dollars and using up our last pesos. Led to a blacked-out car, driven across the border and the the stretch of no-man's-land between the countries, passports stamped at either end, and then abandoned at a bus station somewhere on the Brazilian side of the water. Two hours later a coach arrived that would take us, overnight to Curitiba.

We had barely survived the mysterious car journey, only just the seemingly interminable wait in a terminal full tired language that was far too different from Spanish for our liking, and then the coach trip itself. Cold, wrapped in sleeping bags, contorted up against the front window upstairs and waking every few hours with cramped knees in pain. The armed customs officials who peered into our bags and took away a woman for ten mins of questioning did little to reassure our spasming joints, and by no means ourselves, though Pete has by this point given up and aimed instead for some shut-eye. We can only assume the other passengers were smuggling blankets, because that's all they seemed to carry on board with them. Understandable, considering the damp chilly Curitiba we turned up in at some grey hour early the next morn.

The city was quite like a pretty girl with a hangover. General reception upon meeting her a tad frosty, didn't look great at the time but you imagine would under better circumstances, some of it shone through a little later in the day, and then only in the evening do you realise that if you want the best tankard of German beer and plate of sauerkraut this side of the Atlantic than she's the one to go with. So Curitiba was something like that. Some half-guessed Portuguese and embarrassed sign language later, we had a ticket to São Paulo. Spirits were high; a few emails exchanged that morning had found us the generosity of two charming Paulistas. And that was how we ended up driving down a dirt track  to the lake in the dark with a woman I met over the internet.

I mustn't get ahead of myself, I shouldn't complain or jest either in the case, because between them Aurelia and Lodovico, as I like to call them, ensured we had a brilliant time in São Paulo. As soon as we arrived, the ever-smiling driver Lukas whisked us off, still smiling over the top of the language barrier, to an apartment belonging to Lodovico, where we'd stay the next Monday to Wednesday. That evening however we were whisked once more, this time by Aurelia, and to her place by the lake, a gorgeous house where we passed almost two days' worth of very happy hours, enjoying the (Brazilian winter) sun by the water's edge, eating wonderful food and sipping caipirinhas and a chilled beer or two in the entertaining company of Aurelia and friends. Thank you for such a far cry from the cold showers in Curitiba.

Have come to the conclusion that if hell exists, it must be an eternal cold shower in the knowledge that hot water and even baths do exist, just somewhere you're not. Maybe heaven. Perhaps. Nature of an afterlife aside, Many thanks to Lodovico for lending us the keys to his apartment - it made exploring São Paulo far more civilised than it might been otherwise, gargantuan as the place is. Ranking alongside megacities Mexico City and Tokyo, Sampo is vast. We explored the galleries, the restaurants and the plazas and yet I'm sure there's always more. To leave the metropolis to a small tropical island then was a contrasting wonder. Ilhabela - beautiful island - gave us two days of sun, beach, bars, sunny beach bars and swimming in waterfalls' pools.

Striding up a dirt track for a few km, we finally found the place that had looked so obvious on the map. The man behind the counter didn't seem very impressed by our  Portuguese (not so much broken as never put together), so naturally he switched to French to explain where we could swim and that we should cover ourselves in his waxy gloop of an insect repellent. Oui, monsieur, dredging up my GCSE vocab. And if that weren't enough in addition to the freezing wonderful water and the inevitable still-itching insect bites, the half a dozen shots of the local firewater, brewed right there and then, did nothing to worsen our mood after a nice early afternoon freshwater dip. The next morning we set off early to make our bus back on mainland to Rio. A ferry in the morning sun was nothing against our previous journey to a bus station - three (rush)hours on São Paulo public transport was rather painfully tedious.

As Ladly Planet puts it, 'Rio usually digs its paradisiacal claws into most tourists', and it's easy to see why. The people views are why people started needing thesauruses. And then dictionaries to check how to pluralise 'thesaurus' when they saw how many they'd need. Again, we enjoyed the generosity of a local, the gregarious Henri. Sharing an apartment with him, we made it all over, starting with Ipanema, where there's another word that needs to be - the song should be about more than just one girl. You want to write songs about all of them, and all of each one. Our first evening, after a few beers and a glass of champagne, we made it to Rio Scenario, a samba club in Lapa that makes Tokyo's Womb look mundane. Surreal backdrops, live music, beautiful people and all after a glass of champagne. I lost Pete, and was reduced to embarrassing the locals with my gringo moves, but fun was had by all methinks.

Looking back over our time in Rio, I don't think of the half-naked men foaming at the mouth who came bursting out of a favela to try to rob us of all our earthly possessions. Even the open-sided tram into Santa Teresa or the samba-filled cog train up to Christ the Redeemer or the stunning cable-car across to the Sugar Loaf pale in comparison to where they took you and what you saw there. The city is beautiful. The mountains rise out of the city like vast elephantine ghosts, unconquered above the busy beaches that look out over a bay that stretches round against a coast full of joie de vivre. Brazil's great cities have indeed been paradisiacal (and not that predatory) and I do feel like Williams' Blanche, relying on the kindness of strangers such as we have. Much better than the streetcar we saw in Curitiba, a streetcar named Solitude.

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