Doing it properly

Sunday 3 July to Saturday 23 July 2011

Sun, sea and sand calls for one thing, a Brazilian, well maybe two things, a Brazilian and liposuction. Judging by the constant sight of tanned strutter’s in their three tiny triangles tied together with dental floss, I guessed Brazilian woman like to partake fully. Fair play. My moto in life is that if you’re going to do anything, do it properly (or don’t do it at all). Don’t ever offer me three quarters of a cup of tea, even if it’s Yorkshire tea. I will not be a happy bunny. My failure to sort out a Brazilian meant that I wouldn’t be bagging myself a Brazilian though my experience of Lapa in Rio put me right off.

I’d always planned to finish my travels in Brazil though I had my reservations. My love for mountains were long gone after departing The Andes weeks ago, the cost of travelling in Brazil would be equal to any Western European city, I’d have to bare the flesh (this would have been bad enough at the start of my trip but carrying around an extra stone of blubber wasn’t going to be a pretty sight), I like beaches but only if I can break up tanning sessions with some culture and the fact that Brazilian’s speak a different language would plummet me into the category of an ‘ignorant Brit abroad’. I’d purposely chosen not to have Portuguese lessons so that it would be easier to carry on learning Spanish upon my return to Blighty and I didn’t want to confuse the two languages. I hoped that if I just spoke Spanish slow enough then I’d get by. Judging from my experience so far in Brazil the latter may be harder than I thought. The locals had a funny way of putting on a constipated face whenever I tried to talk to them in Spanish and upon asking ‘Voce fala espanol?’ (Do you speak Spanish?) they always replied with ‘Nao’ (No) even though most did actually understand me if I spoke slowly as the languages are so similar.

Aside from these reasons of course there were many positives as to why I should have been excited about the Brazilian coast. Boasting some of the most stunning beaches in the world and often being compared to those in Thailand, I was keen to see if my vote would be added to the opinion polls of Rio being one of the most desirable places to live on the planet. After following the winter for most of my travels, I would get the chance to obtain some colour so it appeared as though I’d been away or friends might think that I’d spend the last nine months in Wales. The Brazilian’s know how to party but most importantly, I would get the chance to sample a proper caipirinha.

My consumption of caipirinhas came close to treble figures during my final two and a half weeks. They were the perfect drink in the heat and I’d hoped that my bitter blood would ward off the mosquitoes but this didn’t seem to work. I managed to singe my organs from the amount of limes and cachaca I drank. For those of you who don’t know, a caipirinha is made of cachaca with sugar, lime and ice. The mixer is basically the ice. If you’re going to do something, do it Brazilian style – properly.

Although drinks were pretty much limited to the one variety, in Brazil I required more than one hand to count the different cuisine options. I wasn’t really sure how to cope with this. I wonder just how much time I’d save over the past eight months by just eating the chicken and rice that was put before me.

Sao Paulo didn’t have much to offer but being home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, we sampled an amazing Japanese brothy noodle dish whilst huddled amongst Japanese locals. The award winning dish of bacalhau, (salted dried codfish coated in breadcrumbs and then fried) famous in Sao Paulo, was also a highlight. We also had the freshest traditional Brazilian fish stew on the beach on the island of Ilha Grande, succulent sushi in Rio, went to a rodizo (all you can eat) meat restaurant, also in Rio, where the waiters only stopped serving me when I was about to regurgitate my food back up and ate at por kilo places which is basically like a giant buffet though you can avoid eating lard and actually eat green coloured food and dishes are charged by the weight. Por kilo places are really popular in Brazil so the standard of the food is usually quite high. Back at home the thought of a buffet makes me feel queasy. I’d much prefer a tiny amount of quality tasty food than mounds of bad food. Since when did I become such a food snob?

The tasty food made up for the tinned slimy mushrooms smothered over my fish (five-a-day that day, -1) on the island of Ilhabela, disintegrated vegetables swimming in a yellowy lukewarm liquid (popularly know as boiled vegetables in the UK) at a restaurant in Sao Paulo but what the hell was going on with the breakfasts in Brazil? Not only did the hotel in Sao Paulo serve breakfast from 6-8am (travellers don’t rise until 10am at the earliest), on offer were sliced frankfurters in a sort of tomato sauce soup like carroty thing, the plastic cutlery there was so small and flimsy that my knife kept snapping as I tried to scoop out my minuscule ration of lard onto my roll and the fruit salad looked as though someone had scooped out the previous nights vomit from a toilet bowl. And this was a hotel. The hostels weren’t much better. The Brazilians love a sweet breakfast. I can understand a pastry with jam but biscuits, chocolate cake, smarties and other sweets?

An English breakfast may be a slightly full on way to start the day but at least it tastes bloody good. I got interrogated several times about the English’s strange eating habits. ‘No I don’t eat a full fried breakfast every day, followed by a roast dinner for lunch and then fish and chips in the evening, and there’s no need to frown when I tell you that flat warm beer is nice. It’s better than this watery cats piss that you try and palm off as beer.’

I happily left the hustle and bustle of Sao Paulo where reals slipped through my fingers on nothing particularly interesting to the parallel universe of Ilhabela. Sao Paulo had been a strange time. It’s huge so you really need at least a week to get to know it and we only had a few days there. I’d arrived knackered from no sleep as my flight was at 6am but I kindly let the girl who I was with sleep for a couple of hours while I guarded her bags. So upon meeting my friend Suj who’d flown out for a holiday, I was a complete zombie. It was nice to see a familiar face though and not just real off the ‘Where are you from… how long have you…’ travellers speak. We met up with a guy that I’d met in Florianopolis and he showed us around some bars in the evenings meaning that we hung out with the kids in Sao Paulo because he was about 15.

Locals on the captivating ferry ride over to Ilhabela, Brazil

Praia do Jabaquara, well worth the hike, Ilhabela, Brazil

Praia do Jabaquara, Ilhabela, Brazil

The beautiful remote island of Ilhabela offered activities included sailing around the island, shipwreck dives, hikes in the mountains/small hills, jeep tours (gah – I hate the word ‘tour’), horse-riding along beautiful beaches… in the summer. On arrival to the island by ferry we admired the lovely view of grey clouds and dodged puddles en route to the hostel. There are some benefits about travelling out of season. After my three hour walk (Suj thought I was mad and did the jeep tour) to a gorgeous beach I pretty much had it all to myself. Luckily the weather had picked up. For me, this is what makes travelling special. If I can do anything independently then I will. Later I met Suj in the town where she got to sample the South American culinary delights of chicken, rice and beans, a dish that Suj proudly said that she could eat every day. After ploughing through the mountain of carbs, Suj stated that she would not be eating chicken, rice and beans again while she was away. Welcome to my world. This is where I had the delightful tinned limp mushroom dish served with a variety of carbs.

Ilhabela was so chilled out compared to crazy Sao Paulo and we had another three days of relaxing further up the coast on the tiny island of Ilha Grande with beaches often compared to Thailand proportions. However, when we got the packed catamaran over it was like being on a boat party. Hundreds of locals boarded with ghetto-blasters and stacks of liqour who sang and drank on the ride over. We figured that Ilha Grande would not be the tranquil island that we thought it would be. It turns out that there was a music festival going on on the beach. Could be interesting.

Praia Lopez Mendez, Ilha Grande, Brazil

Praia Lopez Mendez when everyone had buggered off, Ilha Grande, Brazil

One boat broke down, the other saved us, Ilha Gande, Brazil

I bypassed the biscuits and sweets at breakfast and picked up my war time ration of transparent wafer thin ham, slither of cheese and rock roll with which I assembled together for my lunch. Together with my choking hazard I left Suj in the hammock and set off on a two and a half hour hike to the most famous beach on the Island, Praia de Lopez Mendez passing four other beaches on the way. Reaching the 3km white sand beach with turquoise water, I witness a stunning beach framed with luscious green mountains, there were a few surfers in the distance, but what was this other strange vision? Loads of people, that’s what. Had they all really trekked all this way? The only people I passed along the way were gringos in Havaianas and skimpy shorts. A little later I found out that you can actually get a boat to the beach, I planned to take this back to allow my choking hazard to digest.

I scarped past the tanned toned Brazilians, the girls in their tiny bikinis, cheese wire up their asses (I have issues with G-string bikini bottoms, tiny bikini covering ‘some’ ass, fine, but there is something so wrong about showing a ‘whole’ ass) complete with their Brazilians. The boys were sporting Speedos, also so wrong. I found a spot which was at least five metres away from everyone else and bared the flesh. I waited until everyone had left the beach so I could enjoy it to myself and bumped into a couple of guys that I passed on the way who had stopped at an earlier beach and decided to run to Lopez Mendes (as boys do – usually for a laugh) to check it out. Good timing as it was deserted. I then headed back to the next beach to get the boat.

The sunset was amazing on the way back though my camera battery ran out, sods law. While everyone was enjoying the sunset the crew started having a flap as thick black smoke started billowing out of the engine. The boat stopped. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. We were still about 10 minutes away from shore. As everyone started to share out the remnants of lunch, cereal bars and cigarettes I tried to work out who would provide the tastiest feast if we threw them on the burning engine. The fat American kid defo. But then his mum made us sandwiches with ham, cheese and bread (so much better than my lunch) so I gave up on that idea. The sun disappeared and the temperature dropped. Us gringos in our beach gear had to huddle together under a single sarong, not for long though as the other boat came to save us.

Main beach on Ilha Grande, Brazil

Praia de las Palmas on the way to Lopez Mendez, Ilha Grande, Brazil

Praia Abraozinho that I had all to myself for a good hour, Ilha Grande, Brazil

We met the guys later to check out the music festival and interesting it was. It’s certainly like no other music festival that I’ve been to and I can’t say that bands were very good but it was still fun. The next morning we nursed our caipirinha heads. I went on another hike two hour hike to a nearer beach and chilled out there for the day. I was too scared to get the boat back so I walked. The following morning I checked out a row of five beaches that sat side by side which were all lovely. I got there that early that I had the beach to myself (Suj refused to come with me) for a good two hours. It was so nice to finally do some chilling out, reading whilst catching a few rays. I’d not seen much sun for quite a while but saying that my tan was pretty much none existent when I came to leave Brazil.

The next stop was Rio which I was really looking forward to. Beaches, mountains though smallish, sun but also a manageable sized small city with some really interesting sights to check out. We arrived quite late and headed out for a few beers with a guy from Sao Paulo who was staying at the same hostel. I had a slight panic when we were out as I’d come on my period and needed to get to a chemist fast. Amazingly there was a 24 hour chemist open on the plaza nearby, however, it worked in the same way that a petrol station does after a certain time in the evening – venerable man checking you out behind a plane of glass. I had no idea how to ask for tampons and sanitary towels in Portuguese. In Spanish I didn’t either but I was at the level that I could have made my request clear in possibly the most disgusting way. I ended up having to ask the guy that we’d met to assist me. I’d only known the poor guy for about 10 minutes. ‘Hello, my name’s Claire. Please will you buy me some tampons, thank you please’. It was highly embarrassing as he kept relaying back questions in English, ‘What size tampon do you need?’, then bending down to reply into the microphone, ‘How many packs do you want?, What you need sanitary towels as well?’ ‘Extra large please’. He gave me a funny look and then handed me my goods as though I had some sort of disease as the now humongous queue craned their necks to see what the hold up was.

First sighting of a favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Selaron's steps, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A tile 'From Mexico for Selaron', Selaron's steps, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Selaron's steps, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Cheeky pussy on Selaron's steps, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The rickety bonde, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Nova Cathedral, ugly on the outside but beautiful on the inside, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

With 10 nights in Rio it meant we could explore ir properly and still chill out a bit. Petty crime is really common and with reportedly over 900 favelas and widespread poverty, you have to watch your back all the time. It’s advised to avoid carrying anything valuable around with you at all times. I had a hairy moment when I went exploring into the unknown on my own during my first day there. I ended up walking up to a favela where the locals seemed really friendly. The area just below the favelas appeared to be quite wealthy and locals assured me that it was fine to go up there to get some good views of the city. I walked down a different route, mainly because I was running away from a dodgy looking character who was dragging his leg behind him. I ended up in the weirdest little area only full of locals where people were just getting on with their daily grind. It wasn’t a favela but it didn’t feel safe. I jumped on a bus to the more touristy part called Lapa. This really wasn’t much better. Nearby was the touristy site of Selarons steps. They were great but I was the only tourist walking around on my own although occasional bus loads of gringos hopped out to get their picture taken before piling back on the bus to their next destination. I walked around Lapa and it’s just seemed really desolate and a bit dodgy with a scattering of workers in suits. I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting but it all just felt a bit strange. I didn’t stay for long.

Going back to these places in the evening was a completely different experience. We met a French girl at the hostel and decided to check out Lapa on a Friday night, it’s just the thing to do. The cute Brazilian working at the hostel couldn’t recommend a specific bar; I would later understand why. It was crazy. Thousands of people lined the streets, music was blaring, different cachachas were flying out of the bars, people were dancing samba in the street, there were stalls selling beer and food and even portaloos. The only thing I can describe it as it like Notting Hill Carnival but 10 times more mental. There were a few gringos around but this was essentially where the locals hung out. One of the best sights was of a tranny in a netted (very large holes) red dress, black bra and G-string highly visible, huge heels and tits and arse big enough that you could easily balance a pint on each protruding bump. What a vision, I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. If there is one place where locals wouldn’t even bat an eyelid, it’s Rio. They do things properly here. I can’t even begin to imagine what Carnival is like in Rio. It was really strange the way Lapa came alive in the evening but was almost a ghost town during a normal working day.

The Maze (in a favela) where Pharrel and Snoop Dogg filmed a music video, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Tavares Bastos Favela party, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Popcorn with pork scratchings, Brazilian styleee, favela grub, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Sampling the national dish of feijoada in Tavares Bastos Favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The guys in Lapa were seriously sleazy. The rest of South America was nothing compared to Lapa and I know you’ve had to put up with my moaning about them. This is one thing that Brazilian men seriously ‘do properly’. Towards about 6am we were trying to squeeze through the crowds to escape the chaos, I got accosted by about eight guys in a matter of minutes. After shrugging off one sleeze, another sleazebag grabbed me and tried to make samba happen, saw that this would never work so would give up before allowing the next sniffer to partake. It was an interesting night to say the least.?The following night we ended up being invited to a party in a favela by some Frenchies who’d befriended the guy who owned the Cultural Centre there. One girl assured us that it was really safe up in this favela which was one of the few actually run by the police and not the drug lords. It only turned out to be the Catete favela which I had stumbled across on my first day. We received our own private tour and headed to the hostel up there called The Maze with stunning views which was part of the setting for Snoop Dogg and Pharrel´s music video Beautiful. After a tour around the Cultural Centre aimed at giving the local kids from the favela multiple opportunities, we joined the party. It wasn’t quite Lapa but it was fun meeting the locals and supporting them by partaking in drinking their dirty concoction of caipirinhas and sampling some street food. There was an amazing community spirit and everyone seemed to know each other. We even got invited back to the favela where a tiny restaurant promised to prepare us the national dish of feijoada especially for us (stewed pork with beans in a rich sauce).

Later that evening we headed back into Lapa again which was crazy but no where as mental as the previous night. The owner of the Cultural Centre showed us where we could see authentic samba, a brightly lit cafe with plastic chairs plastered with beer sponsors (similar to a greasy cafe back home) where the band were squeezed in the corner and locals were sexy dancing in front of them. It was raw, passionate and what samba is all about. However some of the other guys we were with went to a samba club night where a band were performing so I went to check out that after. This was a completely different experience in more ways than one.  It wasn’t cheap to get in, everyone had to set up a tab, it was European, dark, dingy and expensive, a band were performing on stage and gringos were trying to shake their booty. Authentic it certainly wasn’t.

Cristo Redentor and some scaffolding, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

View from Cristo Redentor, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Pao de Azucar (Sugar Loaf Mountain) in the distance, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Waiting for the cable car up to Pao de Azucar, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

View from Pao de Azucar, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Although most nights did consist of going out in Lapa, the day activities were slightly more varied. The Cristo Redentor (Christ statue) at sunset was amazing, offering stunning views over the city but the millions of gringos thing got to me. I preferred Pao de Azucar (Sugar Loaf) mainly because I got to hike up the first hump. 98% of visitors take the cable car. It was an easy walk where I passed loads of monkeys scurrying around along the way but best of all I would only pay half the price and it was a rip off to get the cable car four times. I got there just after midday and went to the ticket office only to find that it was closed until 1pm for lunch. Whhhaaa, this is one of the most touristy attractions in Rio and the ticket office was closed for lunch? Ludicrous. Still the views weren’t bad at the half way point. Finally at the top I met some really sweet locals who complimented me on my Portuguese, ‘No, please don’t think I’m speaking really bad Portuguese, I’m actually speaking Spanish with a few Portuguese words thrown in’.

I went to see what the hype was about with the beautiful city beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema by going on a four hour hike. I wasn’t a massive fan as the area was so much more built up, it was where the gringos hung out and was peppered with trendy bars, little boutique shops, travel agencies and money exchange places. I could completely see why tourists stayed around the area though. You get to stay next to the beaches and bars and it’s generally a safer area. One thing that you can’t avoid noticing in Rio are the tanned lean bodies. You especially get a good eyeful on Copacabana and Ipanema. Fitness is a really big issues and with outdoor mini gyms in parks, plazas and on the beaches, it’s accessible to everyone, not just drunk gringos who think it’s funny and would only pluck up the courage to use the equipment after several caipirinhas. The stretches of beaches are littered with volleyball courts and scantily clad toned players. It’s just part of the culture. Perhaps as a nation we need to take some tips from the Brazilian’s.

The five stories permitted inside the Vila Canoas favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Inside Vila Canoas favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

View from the shop in Vila Canoas Favela, Rio de Janiero, Brazil

The largest favela in Rio, Rochina, Brazil

We went on an organised favela tour and specifically chose one where some of the money goes towards community projects. The projects took place at Vila Canoas, a small, safe favela run by the police. After we were driven to the largest and probably the most dangerous favela, Rocinha, home to 100,000 residents where the drug lords dictate how the favela is run. We weren’t permitted to take photos there as the drug lords didn’t want the risk of being identified and arrested. The city within a city was huge and had everything from banks to schools and butchers to McDonald’s. Less than a kilometer away lies a beautiful stretch of beach, a luscious green golf course and 5 star hotels at eye popping prices.? It was crazy to see different levels of society literally living side by side. Back home any home on a hillside generally represents wealth but it the opposite in Rio. All the favelas, (or shanty towns) are built on the hillside but they do boast amazing views.

We were really eager to try and see a Brazilian league football game and while we were there the game happened to be between two of the top four sides but the agencies reported that it was too dangerous to take us. We figured that the game was probably the equivalent of United versus Arsenal. We did however, manage a night out to the enormous jockey club, so big that you can probably see it from space. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing but luckily I asked a guy from Spain who explaned everything to us. Suj won on just about every race but I was playing a riskier game so only won once. It made a change to going out in Lapa.  The guys at the hostel were not able to give us any information about it as it wasn’t on the list of things to do for travellers.

We managed to accomplish just about everything in our 10 days in Rio. It’s definitely a cool city but I wouldn’t want to live there. I couldn’t quite believe that my nine months on the road were coming to an end. It felt quite strange to be going back home but I was ready for some home comforts.

Cultural centre in Recife which was formerly a prison, Brazil

When checking in for my three flights home, gah, with a six hour wait in Recife in the north of Brazil, the guy who checked me in was really sweet and ended up giving me a seat right by the emergency exit so I got more leg room. Learning the language and fluttering my lashes has definitely paid off. It was so worth it as the local flight was equivalent to a Squeezy Jet flight. I met a couple of other travellers who were also on their way home which softened the blow of returning home and made the six hour transfer bearable. I suggested heading in Recife where we went for something to eat and sank beers and even squeezed in a visit to the museum/shopping/cultural centre housed in a former prison.

My next flight (Recife to Frankfurt) was so budget that there weren’t even any screens but I was incredibly thankful to a couple who gave me a copy of Anchor Man which got me through the flight. I was literally pissing myself laughing and I kept getting funny looks from others. The final leg was from Frankfurt to Manchester… completely knackered I returned back to Blighty.

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