The First 400 Pictures of You

BRAZIL provided a range of wonderful sights over our lengthy first stay in the country – almost as many as the plastic bags they insist on giving you for every item in shops.

Will end this trip with several thousand pictures, taken on my phone, camera on the occasions it is worth digging it out of my locker and the growing piles shared on the What’sApp group.

And that is before trawling through my travelling companions’ Facebook posts to plug any holes in my trip archives.

My collection would have been even larger were it not for several views being obscured by rain as we rolled north through Brazil.

It would have got totally out of control if my photo habits mirrored those who insist on running through the full range of approved Instagram poses.

Find something worth taking a picture of (and many things which are not) and you will see them lining up, getting their hair and clothes just right before chasing the perfect pose – heel raised, side on, hair flicked, peer over shoulder… you know the drill.

Then somebody else has a go, adding another pose which the initial model has to ape.

All while battling the growing queue – something Brazilians are not good at – and the others taking selfies around them, seemingly oblivious to other people and the scenery we are all there to see.

Chances are, once they have taken enough pictures, they will turn around and head off without taking too much, if any, time enjoying the view.

And when they look back at the pictures, they will have a shot of their face and maybe, just maybe, a small section of some stunning background in a corner of the screen. Next to a lot of sky.

The crowd at the foot of Christ the Redeemer in Rio was the most extreme case of seeking the perfect pose (followed closely by the walkway on the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls), regardless of how many people were trying to get past and savour what they paid to experience.

Which is why we took great delight in ruining any number of Instagram pictures rather than wait for them to run through the full checklist of poses.

Two Israeli girls joined us on a trip around the natural wonders near Lencois and barely cracked a smile all day, one doing the perfect imitation of a sulky teenager dragged out for the day by her parents.

That is until a camera appeared and all of a sudden they were all smiles, heels up, hair flicked and arms thrown out into whichever of the approved poses was appropriate for the occasion.

But they come a distant second to the Brazilian couple in front of us in the queue for the lazy river at the water park near Porto Seguro.

She started taking selfies as we joined the queue, all of which filled the screen from cleavage to the top of her head. It could just as easily have been taken at home.

Then he joined in, using the phone as a mirror before both clicked away the entire time we were in the very long queue – first individually and then a few shots as a couple. Several of which may have Lisa and myself in the background, rather ruining any Instagram post potential.

But if we thought that was it, we were sorely mistaken.

Having grabbed a figure of eight tube to drift down the ride, they sat side by side, phones in hand and proceeded to click away, right up to the point where we got fed up with them blocking the way, lost interest in ruining their pictures and basically shoved them out of the way.

Think they were too engrossed in their phones to notice.

Blocking the way is another Brazilian habit.

Not through any malice or intent, they just don’t seem to have any sense of self doubt or self awareness.

It is the same traits which have seemingly eradicated any form of body image issues, allowing them to wander around in the skimpiest of costumes – male, female, young, old, slim and not so slim – without a second thought.

My favourite is the middle-aged man rolling up the front of his T-shirt to walk around displaying his lovely paunch.

And they are the same qualities which make them oblivious to the fact the entire surrounding area does not want to listen to their pounding music all night.

We were able to tell the time at our campsite in Lencois by the 5am fireworks (although, in typical South America fashion, they were often a few minutes late) which marked the start of the morning procession through the streets by a marching band.

All that, after a full evening of religious services in which the Lord is praised at ever-rising volume before handing over to some more hedonistic musical performances, just in case you were getting a bit bored lying in bed.

Somehow we have got used to it.

Some of the time.

But you will see those traits most often in the lack of awareness of anyone around them.

Brazilians don’t seem to do single file. Why let somehow walk past you or come the other way on a narrow street when you can occupy the full width and stop every few yards for a chat?

And don’t even think about an orderly queue, they just do not exist.

The only things Brazilians appear happy to wait for is a meal. Whatever they order, whenever they order it, at least one person will wait until everyone else has almost finished before their food appears.

If it appears at all.

The only exception is a buffet when waiting is not on the agenda. Particularly on our day trip on a boat from Caravelas.

Food – breakfast, lunch and an afternoon tea – were served on a table at one end of the boat with a bench down each side.

Breakfast had been a free for all, lunch even more so, the poor chef having to make more pasta for the late arrivals who had been snorkelling after several people had gone back for multiple piles.

But afternoon tea, quite literally, took the biscuit.

Having spent much of the boat ride back sat on one of the benches, our stuff was all over it by the time the food arrived.

Briefly unattended to spread the word for those elsewhere on the boat, returned to find two Brazilian girls – one who really exemplified the lack of body image concerns when picking a swimsuit – had moved in next to (or on top of) our stuff and were intent on not moving and not letting anyone pass until they had had their fill.

Amazing the skimpy bikini bottoms survived the extra strain they were showing as she shoved past us through the queue to get off the boat.

Yet somehow, the Brazilian way has become more of an entertainment than a frustration and when in Brazil…

Well, maybe apart from the skimpy swimwear.

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Evening of Swing

HAVE been forced to acquire or relearn a range of skills during my overlanding adventures.

My cooking skills were put to the test in Africa and on the less frequent cook groups around South America, while camping – once avoided at all costs – has become second nature. Even something worth savouring.

My linguistic skills, never fluent despite a French A-Level pass which is being dragged out with differing results in French Guiana, have been put to the test in a range of languages. Normally mangled.

Must stop replying to people in the language from the previous country.

To that list of talents you can add one more – sleeping in a hammock.

Albeit with plenty of work to be done to reach anything approaching expert level

My previous approach of keeping well away was never going to work with hammocks forming our main source of accommodation on two different Amazon boat trips – one of 24 hours and another, still to come, over at least five nights.

Having taken my first tentative steps into hammock lounging during various opportunities to laze around campsites, the first real exam came on the overnight ferry from Belem to Macapa as our journey north out of Brazil towards the Guianas crossed its biggest hurdle.

The Amazon river delta.

There was no hiding place for the novice hammock user as the test was taken in the midst of a crowded deck with little room between the person on each side of you – some of whom may be even less adept at this new skill.

Home sweet home for the night. That’s my black and white hammock front left.

Lying in the hammock is not that hard – get comfortable and lie there. Been a master of that for many years.

It is the getting in and getting out which is the biggest problem, particularly given the lack of space on either side.

The first step is to decide on the height of your hammock – the higher it is, the flatter you will lie but with increased jeopardy climbing aboard or disembarking.

Greater height also comes with the added advantage that any stray elbows, feet or shoulders from anyone next to you have the opportunity to pass underneath. 

How a stray foot made it into my hammock at one point is far from clear.

Having jacked up the height of my hammock – originally slung by a ruthless advance party we managed to get in the priority boarding queue to secure a prime spot for us all – the question switches to how you climb on and off.

You have two choices, the more traditional sit on the middle of the hammock approach (not always easy to line up and avoid being perilously close to one side) and the more ungainly straddle technique – one leg either side and sit back or pull yourself up by the ropes.

Opted for a combination of the two, one to get in and the other to get out – mainly as getting my leg across after increasing the height was not an option, either for my health or those in range of a stray foot.

And so we whiled away 24 hours sleeping, listening to music, reading, drinking, playing cards, exploring the rest of the boat (which did not take long), watching the Amazon go by or just relaxing in our hammocks.

The on-board entertainment was blaring, awful music controlled by a bloke whose main contribution was playing everything at the wrong speed, ensuring Gloria Gaynor managed to sound like both Barry White and The Chipmunks. Think he thought he was mixing.

Most of us ventured into the boat’s restaurant, several of us later having to explore its other facilities more often than we would have liked.

Sleeping in a hammock needs a bit more work but it was a more comfortable evening than expected, especially in such tight confines and with many of the lights left on all night.

Not that it was the only unusual sleeping arrangement as we ended our lengthy stay in Brazil by eating up the miles heading north.

After our first day’s driving on leaving Lencois deposited us on the banks of the Rio Palmeiras for the night – which left its mark on Lisa after a slip down the truck steps – the next was interrupted by a walk to a waterfall and a swim in the bracing pool at its base with the added bonus of watching a group of monkeys feasting on fruit on the way back up the hill.

That night’s accommodation bordered on luxurious, an Air BnB in the small settlement of Taquarucu which came complete with dorms – although not enough, a few of us opting to stay under canvas on the lawn.

Told you camping had become the norm.

Alongside a pool and the standard facilities, it came with a sauna, which we could not get to work, and a kitchen which we certainly did – the cookery pupils from Salvador putting their lesson to the test and serving up moquecas.

That set us up nicely for a long, hot day on the truck until the search for a suitable bush camp.

Which is where the plan started to unravel.

Unable to reach the hoped-for spot or find something suitable nearby, we headed off on a detour to a place marked on an overlanding map.

The isolated Refugio do Raiz was a lovely spot, complete with refreshing showers, a kitchen, seating area and some shelter for those of us who grabbed a prime spot before the late-night downpour.

It was just getting there and away which proved problematic.

Turning down a wrong path in the dark needed a multiple-point turn to return to the main road which merely ground us into the sand, leading to a hot, sweaty session of digging and manoeuvring sand mats.

Refreshed by the facilities and a good night’s sleep, we started the next day in similar fashion, stuck and needing to turn in limited room – more digging, a touch of tree surgery and shifting a big pile of sand making way for the truck’s exit.

Which left the guy from the refuge scratching his head at what his unexpected visitors had done to his entrance.

There was no problem with room the next night as we pitched our tents – thankfully under cover again – in the vast empty area at the back of one of the truck stops which dot Brazil.

Surprisingly comfortable and handy, albeit limited in facilities shared with a lot of truck drivers. There was probably more scope to look after the trucks.

It was back on the road early as we headed off with a deadline to meet – arriving in Belem in time for Will and the truck to catch his slow vehicle ferry across the Amazon.

While they headed off to 36 hours afloat, we settled into our air-conditioned hotel and set about exploring the city, which mainly revolved around daily trips to a wonderful burger place in a mall and the banks of the world’s longest river as it nears the end of its journey.

It is practical rather than pretty although much of the waterfront has been turned into bars and restaurants while the old markets remain a fascinating place, although still not sure why anyone would want a bottle of spirits with a crab inside.

We jumped at the chance for beers priced around 20p at a club overlooking the river. Once we had paid a lot more to get in.

But our exploration of Belem was merely delaying the inevitable, our own ordeal by hammock.

Our destination of Macapa was hardly the most salubrious – think closed, run-down English seaside resort – but at least it came with a hotel bed.

And the final chance, for now, to sample a Brazilian caipirinha at the city’s birthday celebrations.

They always help with a good night’s sleep, hammock or no hammock.

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We Got The Beat

AMID stunning wilderness scenery, pretty towns and everything else South America has to offer, we have spent time in some of the continent’s major cities.

Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Lima and Quito all left their mark in various ways.

But after our 11-day beach week jaunt along the Bahian coast, Salvador came as something of a shock to the system.

Mind you, Salvador is likely to come as a shock to anyone’s system.

It is a heady mix of colour, rhythm, cobbled streets, church, music, tourist traps, history and the clash of South American and African cultures.

Brazil’s third biggest city – after Sao Paulo and Rio – made its name (and money) through the slave trade and attendant commercial opportunities and is billed as the biggest African city outside Africa.

Perched on the huge Baia de Todos os Santos (All Saints’ Bay), it is split in two by the cliff which initially made it so attractive with a natural defence – the Cidade Alta reached from the lower Cidade Baixa by the Elevator Lacerda lift and funicular railway.

It comes with a reputation for a unique culture and as a dangerous place to be for anyone wandering in to the wrong place or touting anything worth taking.

Which, even after one of our party found out the perils first hand on an early-morning solo explore, provides a difficult conundrum.

Leaving all but essential items behind and with as little money as necessary, particularly after dark, it leaves you with a difficult decision – leave or take your camera or phone when there is so much to capture as you wander around the upper old town.

One of many cobbled, hilly streets in the Pelourinho district of Salvador

All this had been drummed into us as we arrived, a bit frazzled in the heat after a wait to cross the bay from the ferry, and bade farewell to the truck for a few days.

But our life was made easier by a lift ride up to the higher level and a mercifully short walk to our digs in the cobbled Pelourinho district – most of us in an annexe (named the Dog House) round the corner from our hostel with its associated bar and restaurant across the road.

And life became even easier as we regrouped moments later for the hostel’s nightly happy hour of free caipirinhas.

Which we took full advantage of each night. Some almost by accident while doing laundry.

Refreshed by the caipirinhas, piles of food served up on the street pretty much outside our room, a live music show complete with extraordinary drummers and a Bez-style figure in a gimp suit, air con, a first bed for almost two weeks and an absence of sand, we were ready to explore at a fairly civilised hour the next morning.

By the time we regrouped for more free caipirinhas that evening, it was clear most of us had fallen for the charms of Salvador and, in many cases, had rather less room in our luggage with new purchases.

And that was before we took to the narrow cobbled streets and got swept up in the hypnotic drumming which took over the entire district.

The plan was simple. Find a group of drummers and follow them and the rhythm until you stumbled across another one.

Utterly joyous and captivating as the smiles when we again regrouped outside Zulu Bar would attest.

Street art, possibly. Not us after free caipirinhas

And quite tiring, considering how quiet much of the next day was, although much of that was down to the heavy rain which had us sheltering back in the bar to do our Suriname visa applications before a sedate evening.

After a few more free caipirinhas.

Refreshed, much of the group headed out on a walking tour but by the time we jumped ship after the ridiculously gold Sao Francisco church there were just a couple left.

More rain provided an excuse for a quiet afternoon while others attended a class in cooking a moqueca – a Bahian form of fish stew/curry (which they are currently trying to put into action around me) – before a final assault on the free caipirinhas and an evening at a dance show telling the story of slaves and Salvador.

Surprisingly enjoyable and athletic, even if we had no idea what was going on half of the time.

And with that, we bade farewell to Salvador and turned away from the coast which has been our companion for much of the time since leaving Ushuaia at the far south of the continent.

Our next stop in Lencois was much quieter, to the point it was easy to find which street stall people were drinking outside because there was not many streets to search.

When we found them, certainly did not expect to have our pina coladas topped up liberally by a waiter brandishing a bottle of vodka which may have been older than him.

Much of our time in Lencois was spent sheltering from the downpours, listening to the music which booms out regardless of the time and heading out on day trips around the local natural attractions.

Which, over the course of a couple of trips in differing conditions, dependent on who was feeling well enough for the first one, we headed out to explore caves, snorkel with turtles (just Lisa got lucky on that one), shelter from the rain, climb a cliff for some stunning views, ruin some Instagram pictures and swim in a river. Before it got too deep after the rain.

Rain ensured a soggy end to our next bush camp on the banks of the Rio Palmeiras – where even in the middle of nowhere, somebody was having a party until the early hours within earshot.

But after Salvador, we are up for anything.

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Best of 2019

THIS blog revels in its traditions, even it they are only a few years old.

And possibly top of that list is the New Year’s Day reflective post and its accompanying look back on the best of the previous year’s musical offerings – both of which will almost certainly not be posted until well after January 1.

Bucked that trend a little this year by publishing the new year address on the intended date, but the music one has had to wait a bit – partly down to a hectic few weeks on the road in South America, partly due to no power in the laptop and, to be honest, it is hot here and it all seemed like a lot of work.

Better late than never, here is an abridged version of the Travel Marmot Best of 2019 – let’s split the difference between the two posts and they are round about the right time.

It has all been a bit different this year, partly due to circumstances – been on the road for the last few months, so not had complete access to new releases or the traditional end-of-year trawl through the lists elsewhere.

Working on that, so the list at the end may earn a spot in the higher echelons or vanish without trace. Or get ignored once the new Drive-By Truckers album comes out.

And my music buying (well, downloading) was a bit different with a change of iPod leading to an increased used of Apple Music and the chance to fill in some older gaps in the collection.

It has also been a bit different music wise.

Last year’s list had a fair amount jingly-jangly guitars and female singer-songwriters (one of whom features again), but this year the top spots are taken by what John Peel described as “white boys with guitars”.

Or, to be more accurate, Irish boys with guitars.

Album of the Year: Dogrel – Fontaines DC

Not been this enthused by a new act for a while. Not everybody’s cup of tea – one person exposed to Hurricane Laughter on a playlist moaned about them shouting at her – but this is literate, passionate, powerful and catchy as any guitar music of the last few years.

And it’s just bloody good, Boys In The Better Land probably edging the song of the year title as well.

Don’t believe me? Six Music named it album of the year and come to trust them over the last few years.

And still jealous at someone seeing them twice in a week without me.

The Other Irish Album of the Year: When I Have Fears – The Murder Capital

Not as polished, not as convincing as their Irish counterparts, but there’s plenty of promise.

One friend who saw them at Swn Festival in Cardiff described it as being in at the start of something which feels important. He may be right.

Phoebe Bridgers Album of the Year: Better Oblivion Community Center

Two years ago it was her haunting solo debut Stranger in the Alps, last year it was her all-female supergroup Boygenius, this time Phoebe Bridgers makes the top end of the list with her side project with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst.

Dylan Thomas was close to being song of the year and is the highlight of an album which has grown on me through some long days on the back of a truck.

Worth A Listen/Still Exploring

Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest – Bill Callahan
Thrashing Through The Passion – The Hold Steady
Inferno – Robert Forster
i,i – Bon Iver
I Am Easy To Find – The National
Girl – Girl Ray
Ode To Joy – Wilco
The Talkies – Girl Band

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Wherever I Lay My Phone

FROM time to time, this blog likes to provide a few tips, probably learned the hard way, which may come in handy for anyone planning their own overland adventure.

So to that end, one piece of advice became as crystal clear as the water which helped create the problem – do not jump off the back of a boat with a phone in your short pockets.

In my defence, there were extenuating circumstances involving turtles, boobies (yes, seriously), the fact nothing is normally kept in my board short pockets and the sun. Yes, let’s blame the sun.

It has, after all, been ridiculously hot for large chunks of our 11-day ‘beach week’ along the coast of the giant Bahia province in Brazil.

Jumping in the water – not always as cold as you would like – has been a very popular pastime throughout. Just most people bothered to check they had nothing of value in their pockets.

Except me when the first real chance arrived to plunge into the sea on a boat trip during our stay in the sleepy – even outside the hours of siesta – stop of Caravelas.

Our boat, shared with Brazilians and, thankfully, one returning native based in Boston and able to translate what was actually going on to those whose Portuguese still stretches little further than ordering a beer, spent the day heading out, around and back from the islands which make up the Parque Nacional Marinho de Abrolhos.

Turtles bobbing around the boat as we pulled up to our first stop upped the excitement levels before we were ushered in small groups into a smaller boat and off for a short walk along the nearby shore.

Boobies indignant at taking any blame over my phone going for a swim

More than accustomed to the influx of visitors, the local bird life barely ruffled a feather as we wandered past just a foot or so away, grabbing the opportunity for rare close-up booby pics (stop sniggering at the back).

All good, all smiles until having used my phone to take the pictures, Lisa opted to swim back to the boat and deposited it in my pocket as we clambered back into our lift back.

Where it remained when the end of her swim was met with my less than graceful splash off the back of the boat to make the most of the glorious conditions – right up to the point, several minutes later, my phone being put in my pocket came back to me.

It remained working, right up to the point the advice to turn it off immediately became pretty unanimous and there was nothing to do other than put it somewhere safe and spend the rest of the afternoon snorkelling, splashing around (the two may appear the same in some cases) and trying to get near the food ahead of Brazilians who appear to have no concept of sharing, queueing, not sitting on your stuff or little things like someone actually sitting in the seat they wanted.

But hey, that’s for another post.

As for the phone, it was banished to the bottom of my locker in a bag of rice nicked borrowed from the truck supplies for the next few days.

Which at least kept it free of the sand which has got everywhere, but stopped my participation in the endless Instagram posing (always with one heel raised and head tilted backwards) which seems to be the Brazilian way.

Again, that’s for another post.

Remarkably, having been through all that, my phone appears to be working (touching all available wood as that is written), rather unlike one poor travelling companion who admitted his faulty phone was working fine “apart from the phone and the forward facing camera”.

Most importantly, all the pictures – boobies and otherwise, if you really want to milk that line of humour – appear to be in place and backed up.

Until my next lapse of concentration and it gets dunked in a vat of caipirinhas (highly likely, given the current consumption rate) or buried on a beach somewhere.

Phone drama apart, our stop in Caravelas was a relaxing one.

Relax was pretty much all you could do given the wait to receive your food at most restaurants – if you received anything at all, two of us at one point just being given two glasses and a plate because they seemed to think we were sharing other people’s food and drink.

The wait one night was so long, we started tucking in to the chillis in the salsa.

Not the smartest of moves.

Caravelas’ hold on us lasted a bit longer than planned as with our scheduled stop not available, we made the shortest of drives and spent the day and night on the nearest beach, complete with a spectacular rising red moon.

Less spectacular when you consider the colour probably had something to do with pollution.

Most of the truck celebrates a couple of birthdays on the beach at Trancoso, complete with the barbecued cheese bloke. Spot the secret Santa presents.

We headed further up the coast the next morning to Trancoso where the main items on the agenda were hanging around on the beach, sampling the locals bars and restaurants (mainly an Aussie-run coffee shop in our case), exploring the central Quadrado (grassy area surrounded by stalls and cafes), trying to keep the popper on my new board shorts done up, eating street food (surprisingly lovely tapioca wraps) and inadvertently adding to our truck collection of sandwich toasters.

With a joint birthday party on the beach which featured a fair bit of drama, eskie punch (some of it loaded into a water pistol) and the sad demise of several chairs and loss of our Rio gazebo.

The short drive to Porto Seguro brought us to our next stop, where the Portuguese first arrived and the African influence on the area begins to become evident.

We did explore their landing spot in the old town, collecting hammocks for what lies ahead on boats, but the highlight of our two-night stay was rather more modern – a trip to a water park to celebrate tour leader Danny’s birthday.

Which left just one more beach stop at Itacare, so brief a lot of us did not bother to make the short journey – basically walking round the fence – to the beach.

Can’t be too careful when you have a phone in your pocket.

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