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 the continent itself.

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 as 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 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 mysterious 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 apparently, considering how quiet much of the next day was, although a lot 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 morning 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 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 – 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 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 have 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 Brazil’s giant Bahia province.

Jumping in the water – not always as cold as you would like – has been a very popular pastime . 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 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 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 minor inconveniences like someone actually sitting in the seat they wanted.

But 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 one is for another post.

Remarkably, my phone appears to be working (touching all available wood as that is written), rather unlike one 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 route out 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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Filthy and Fried

THINGS we have learned in Brazil.

  • Restaurants have invented a variety of ways for you to serve yourself or to pretty much stuff your face with as much as you can manage (especially if you are Croatian).
  • Service stations, on the other hand, like you to be served by as many people as possible before you are allowed out.
  • When you do order something off a menu, food is likely to appear at different times, in an erratic order and after lengthy waits.
  • It is hot.
  • Ordering a caipirinha is something of a lottery concerning what size and strength you are going to get. It is worth trying your luck.
  • Sit around on a beach and somebody will bring you a drink. 
  • Chunks of cheese held over a pot of charcoal and dunked in oregano are remarkably tasty.
  • It is really hot.
  • Taking a picture of someone holding a gun in a favela does not go down too well.
  • Brazilians like to party loud. All night.
  • Sitting among a group of men under rainbow flags is not enough to tip some people off they are in a gay bar.
  • Walking on cobbles in flip-flops is uncomfortable.
  • It is really, really hot.

The quest for shade from that heat – not easy on a truck day, even with the windows all open to get some air flow – and investigation of self-service meal and caipirinha varieties have taken up much of our time since finally escaping Copacabana beach in the early hours of the new year.

Not that we have left the sand totally behind – a lot of it is in our beds and tents for starters – as having headed into the hills for a few days, we have returned to the coast for what has become known as beach week.

Which lasts about 10 days.

After the chaos of New Year’s Eve, our remaining time in Rio was relatively quiet, a couple of trips to Ipanema beach and a rather quieter post-party Copacabana mixed in with regular trips to our favourite kilo restaurant and a lengthy wait for a table which delayed a farewell meal for those leaving the truck.

We did summon up the energy to head out on a tour of the giant Rochino favela, led down the slopes and through the narrow streets by our knowledgable guide.

The locals certainly seemed to know and trust him, which came in handy when he was called back to sort out a delicate situation when one of our group took a picture in an area policed by young gang members touting guns nearly as big as them.

Having all got out in one piece, it was time to bid farewell to Rio – a point of the trip which seemed so far off in the early days – as we welcomed new passengers on board and headed to the hills.

What greeted us in Teresopolis was heat, a pool, wine and cheese, a couple of prolonged downpours and the neighbours having what sounded like a massive party until most of us were already up for breakfast.

Well, most of us. Lack of sleep from a combination of noise, a deflating mattress and a dodgy stomach kept me in bed for most of the morning and out of the trek through the nearby national park.

Those who did trek at least got back before the heavens opened again.

Thankfully, the rain stayed away from our second mountain retreat at the old mining town of Ouro Preto.

Draped pretty much across the top of a hill, walking its sloping, cobbled streets is not the easiest task but one certainly worth taking on around its pretty squares, churches and markets.

Not to mention plenty of places willing to serve you cheesy chips (with bacon), ice cream, liquid chocolate in a mug and – to top it off – an all you can eat pizza buffet with unlimited caipirinhas, all for about £7.

More than one person struggled back up the hill to the hostel.

Thankfully, we had a long – if very hot – day on the truck to recover which ended at a basic campsite which came complete with a very welcome watering hole to cool off in.

And, one cook group shopping session apart, it was time to head for the beach.

The dunes of Itaunas were our first stop, a lazy day on the sand mixed in with the continued exploration of different styles of caipirinhas – passion fruit before the more traditional lemon.

May need to do some more studying on that subject.

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In The Shadow of Christ

That’s me, 902,471st from the left

Let’s see where the next 12 months take us.

CONSIDERING that sentence was written in my flat in Gloucester last New Year’s Day and this one is being tapped out in a Rio de Janeiro hotel room, the past year has clearly taken us a long way.

That was the sign off to last year’s Travel Marmot new year post – a tradition started in a Ghanaian beach bar five years ago and, in every year bar one since, has failed to see the intended light of day on January 1.

Good to get 2020 off to a customary start.

So how far exactly did 2019 take us?

In no particular order, it saw me lose more weight (which may have stalled a bit in the last couple of months), get fit (well, fitter), lose another good friend far too young, quit my job, move out of my flat and embark on another bout of overland travelling on a big yellow truck – Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and now Brazil taking my country count up to 64.

Rio offers a chance to draw breath (barely) and marks a farewell to several travelling companions, hello to a few new faces when we roll out in a couple of days and the halfway point of our 31-week adventure.

There’s plenty of Brazil, Suriname, French Guiana, Guyana, more Brazil, Colombia and a return to Ecuador to come before mid-April with a return to the real world and attention finally turning to answering all those “what are you going to do after the trip?” questions.

So having reached halfway, how are things?

Physically, pretty good. The weight loss and time in the gym had me in much better shape than my Trans Africa trip five years ago and that has allowed me to do things which would probably have been avoided in the past.

The toughest of them, the Inca Trail, was the most feared part of the whole itinerary, but conquering three and a bit days on the trail to Machu Picchu proved a few things to myself and have done several activities which would have been shunned beforehand.

They have still not managed to get me on a horse though.

Not that it has been plain sailing physically. The first week or so was dogged by persistent, ahem, digestive issues and the heat on a couple of long truck days had me crawling to bed as soon as possible at the end of them. And let’s not get started on my left knee.

And, as is customary, any insect which can bite me has done exactly that, leading to a few days when parts of my body looked like they had been mauled by wild animals a bit bigger.

But after the swollen hand in Cafayate – brought down by a single injection – and a slightly swollen face which may have been down to bites earlier in the week (and was quickly treated), it has not been a lingering issue.

Mosquito bites – like the ones which covered my back in the Pantanal when everything else was covered in repellent – come up and vanish in a couple of days, some other insect leaving more lingering marks on my legs down to my reaction to them.

The Pantanal was a bit of an insect paradise over Christmas, meaning even the lure of air conditioned rooms and a bar was not enough to stop us being glad to get back on the road on Boxing Day.

That feeling maybe did not last too long as the hours rolled by and the heat rose and rose on the back of the truck – was not the only one wilting by the time we got into bush camp that night.

The next day proved just as hot and even longer as we opted to press on around Sao Paulo and well into the, thankfully cooler, night on the road to the seaside town of Paraty.

Our efforts were rewarded with an early arrival and plenty of time to explore the old town with its cobbled, car-free streets which are, in parts, washed clean by high tides.

All very pleasant and enough to lure us back to the town square after our second truck trivia quiz – and a second come from behind victory – for an evening of checking out the caipirinhas and the impromptu dance floor well into the night.

Certainly far enough into the night to make getting up early for a day’s trip on a boat rather difficult for some, but the effort was well worth it and we spent the day relaxing and splashing about on a series of stops at beaches and little bays ripe for snorkelling.

The evening was rather quieter – a fine Thai meal for many of us apart – as we did our best to ignore the noises in and around camp to catch up on sleep before hitting the road to Rio.

What awaited us ensured most people were up and packed away well before our early departure time which got us in too early to check in at our hotel, but provided ample opportunity to sort out preparations for New Year’s Eve ahead of our discovery of the Brazilian tradition of the kilo restaurant – a buffet which charges by the weight of what you choose.

We may have been back a few times.

Before we could turn our attention to New Year’s Eve celebrations, we headed out on a tour of the city’s greatest hits which was hugely illuminating, enjoyable, frustrating and very, very hot.

With all due respect to the cathedral, the arty steps and the neighbourhood we walked through for no apparent reason – bar the guide taking a random picture of us at a bus stop – the highlights were Sugar Loaf Mountain and the statue of Christ the Redeemer.

Which each come with crowds and resultant queues – thankfully not as long as the previous day or we may not have made it to the beach for midnight.

The views from the top of Sugar Loaf are stunning and make you realise just how blessed Rio is in a geographical sense. It is a city studded with beautiful spots.

Christ the Redeemer is certainly one of them, but that is only part of the story.

It is, once you have got through the crowds and made the final climb to find Christ, equal parts absolutely remarkable (in terms of the statue and the views) and sheer hell with the number of people battling in the heat to capture the perfect picture.

May well have been the least popular person on Instagram, given the number of painstaking poses which were shoved out of the way or photo bombed.

It was too hot to hang around waiting for them to complete the full range of poses.

Back at base, we just had time to weigh another meal, grab a shower, don the traditional white and grab the supplies from the fridge before heading down to join an estimated 2.9 million others on the beach at Copacabana to see in the new year.

With the group brought together by a system of meeting times and people fighting to keep our spot from much earlier, we staked out our patch and did our best to keep going (some did better than others) and avoid using the neighbour’s makeshift facilities (crawl under a covered table and cover your tracks with sand) unless strictly necessary.

But still pretty much in one piece, we raised our glasses (or doctored bottles of Cokes) to the new year as the Brazilian national debt was placed on full display with a spectacular firework display.

Not a massive fireworks fan and always think that sort of money could be better spent elsewhere, but there is no denying it was an extraordinary sight, running the full length of the beach and lasting 15 minutes.

And so 2020 is with us in explosive style and that’s where the last 12 months have got us.

Or is it?

One major change it might be time to reveal.

The big change heading into 2020 was that I was not seeing in the new year alone. This trip has brought rather more than great sights, experiences and new countries – it has left me no longer single.

Anyone paying attention to recent posts may have seen the odd clue, but Lisa – the one who blames me for not protecting her from a monkey stealing her empanada – was not stood next to me at the time by chance.

Let’s see where the next few months take us.

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