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 to those leaving the truck.

We did summon up the energy to head out of 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 streets, 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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Bite Christmas

WATER, water everywhere and seemingly not a drop to wash away the mosquitoes.

Our final couple of days in Argentina and our opening week in Brazil have been dominated by water and insects which appear to have the ability to seek out any inch of your body not drenched in repellent, regardless of whether it is covered by clothing.

At least for those of us who appear as prime cuts on any buzzy a la carte menu.

Our Christmas retreat in the Pantanal has taken mosquitoes to a whole new level with even those who bragged about not being bitten falling victim, finally enduring what us mere mortals have to suffer on a regular basis.

All of whom are trumped spectacularly by those of us at the top of the mosquito food chain.

Hopefully, the mossies are sheltering from the Christmas afternoon downpour like those of us in the increasingly small area near the bar, surrounded by increasingly bedraggled statues of the local wildlife sporting our spare Santa hats.

Even the macaws appear to be dodging the sudden downpour which has broken up a few days of extreme heat that has seen us making the most of our rooms to enjoy the air conditioning and hide from the mossies. 

Apart from when we were out on safaris providing a festive feast for the insects. Or at the bar.

It is the latest moment when water has taken centre stage in the last 10 days or so, be it more spectacular downpours, pools, waterfalls or rivers to be snorkelled or tubed down.

Probably while pursued by insects.

We could have done with some water as we rolled out of Buenos Aires with the temperature continuing to rise, a long drive day in the hands of our temporary second driver Nick ending on the banks of the Rio Uruguay with our first sight of Brazil across the water.

More of the same followed the next day ,which meant the discovery of a pool at our home for the night was met with a race to get in and the start of a torrential downpour which barely let up before we were finally out of Argentina.

A brief break in the rain enabled us to get out for one final spectacular steak and a couple of beers before crossing the border, but there was little option other than to get wet on our final day in the country.

In fairness, we would have got drenched regardless at Iguazu Falls and even donning all our wet weather gear failed to dampen spirits at one of those special places which pop up from tine to time.

The falls which form a natural border between Argentina and Brazil are, put simply, stunning.

They have been named as one of the seven modern natural wonders and you will not get too many arguments from here – the top end of my best waterfalls chart has been rewritten. Sorry Victoria Falls.

Starting up close to the violence of the Devil’s Throat cascade, the Argentinian side of the falls is formed by trails which meander through the jungle and pop out at a series of viewpoints over selections of more than 270 waterfalls which form the natural wonder.

And it comes with the added advantage of wildlife from toucan and an array of bird life, cayman and the coatis which wander across the paths and carry warnings not to eat food near them.

Those warnings also cover the local monkeys and maybe a couple of us should have paid a bit more attention, although still refuse to accept one climbing Lisa’s poncho to get at her empanada was somehow my fault.

Was too busy hurriedly finishing mine to do anything about it.

With the rain relenting, we regrouped full of smiles for the brief border crossing and a sad farewell to the delights of Argentina but excitement at what lies ahead during our lengthy stay in Brazil – starting with getting to grips with caipirinhas at the hotel bar to settle in.

Which all aided the decision to stay behind and take it easy the next day rather than head to Paraguay in search of another passport stamp, cheap electronics and several hours in a traffic jam.

If we did nothing that day – bar an evening check on the quality of Brazilian steak – we made up for it the next morning as we headed for the other side of the falls.

While most of the group queued for ages to get in, a smaller selection took the direct route with a helicopter ride over the falls which was spectacular – although one look at some of the faces confirmed it was not just me screaming inside at some of the banking.

Back on solid ground, we wandered around the neighbouring bird park and, the queues having subsided, headed to the falls and got some more astonishing views of what we had seen two days earlier from a different angle.

Our day to remember ended with an evening at the local shopping mall and a midnight screening of the new Star Wars film which ensured there was plenty of sleeping on the next day’s lengthy drive day after an early start.

We had been expecting a bush camp at the end of the drive, but not like the one we got – a family’s well-kept garden which they allow overlanders to use, complete with toilets in an annexe and covered area which was better furnished and equipped than many official places we have stayed.

Which acted as a handy launchpad to get us to Bonito, our home for three days during which we explored the town’s bars (including one where we served ourselves) and restaurants. Once we had dragged ourselves away from the pool.

But we also took the opportunity to get wet in more original ways.

First up was a trip to Rio do Prata and snorkelling down a clear river.

Managing to be rather more graceful without flippers, we basically floated down the river with the current, getting up close to huge numbers of fish and the springs which bubble up along the route.

Another one of those things which might have been avoided in the past, it would have been a shame to miss out on such an experience.

The same could be said the next day when we headed down another river close to town on tubes with the added obstacle of a few waterfalls to negotiate on the way down – although the biggest danger came from Danny – before relaxing in and around a lake.

There has been plenty more relaxing throughout our festive stay in the wildlife haven in the Pantanal, albeit interrupted by those pesky mosquitoes which even has the locals pointing out the marks on my legs.

They have not seen my back.

Amid the bites, we have tried our hand at piranha fishing (most bites were on us), horse riding (well, others did) and walking and jeep safaris through the insects.

And we have celebrated Christmas with a massive spread on Christmas Eve and a relaxed big day itself, punctuated by various leftover cuts of meat and a Secret Santa delayed due to people needing their beds earlier than planned the night before.

Which has us all trying to work out who bought and wrapped up a dildo.

And why somebody else is so keen to swap it with the present she ended up with.

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Big Decision

“Decisions are made by those who show up”

THERE is some dispute about who came up with that phrase.

It has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin and Woody Allen, among others, but more recently was uttered by President Jed Bartlett in The West Wing. Just before he was shot.

Sorry to say, have spent more time watching The West Wing in the past week than showing up to the big decisions as missed a fourth UK General Election in a row due to being out of the country (and not being organised enough to sort out a proxy or postal vote).

Nine years ago, watched the results which formed the coalition government on a cruise ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, while in 2015 was in Zimbabwe where political discourse and debate is rather less open and fraught with danger than back home.

For Theresa May’s snap election of 2017, was on a historic bar crawl in Boston engaged in a lengthy debate with a Trump-loving car parts salesman from Dubuque, Iowa, and an actor from LA with a rather different point of view.

This time around, was able to block out much of what was happening back home by getting immersed in the considerable delights of Buenos Aires, one of those cities which instantly has you planning a return visit to soak up rather more of its charms.

Argentina – which we left for the final time yesterday – has been truly memorable over the past few weeks, be it the extraordinary scenery of Patagonia, the remarkable steaks and the free-flowing (and very reasonably priced) wine which has finally seen me converted from white to red.

And its capital, our home for four nights, lived up to the rest of the country (as did our remaining stop before crossing into Brazil, but we will get there next time) with enough to keep us occupied and entertained for considerably longer.

It also provided an interesting backdrop to events back home.

Four years ago, wrote about watching complaints about “Broken Britain” and the fallout from that election while in Zimbabwe – a country where people could not openly express any negative views without fear of reprisal.

This time round, election day had me watching some remarkable women who have spent more than four decades protesting and remembering loved ones in a dignified, determined and very moving fashion.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have been walking round the square outside the presidential palace since the 1970s, originally in defiance of laws against mass assembly under the military dictatorship.

They are the mothers of the disappeared, people who vanished under the harsh regime – some of whom themselves went missing.

There are few of the original mothers left, but those who continue the tradition support human rights and the campaign to find babies taken from their mothers and givien to members of the military to raise as their own.

For all there is to get angry and complain about back home, maybe we are not quite as broken as we might think.

That was a sobering, fascinating insight into the country’s trouble past and we wandered into the heart of its current political system as we arrived smack in the middle of the inauguration of a new Peronist president which had the street outside our hostel closed and crowds on the streets.

Reunited with our travelling companions who had flown to the capital a few days earlier, we stayed out of the way of the crowds in the hostel bar for happy hour – just happy enough to convince some of us to take part in a free tango lessons before heading out in search of another steak.

Discovering the hostel bar transformed into a club led to a later than planned finish, but not late enough to stop us emerging into the searing heat of the next morning for a walking tour of the La Boca neighbourhood.

Chunks of the former docks area have been transformed into a colourful, artistic community which makes for a fascinating few hours wandering around, capped off with a visit to the place which has made the region famous – the home of Boca Juniors football club.

While that was a largely unplanned trip, the evening was pencilled in and looked forward to since booking this South American adventure – a journey to the Palermo area of the city for a reunion with an old friend.

Last saw Ale when we bade farewell in Cairo at the end of 40 weeks travelling together around Africa and we jumped at the opportunity to meet up in the city she now calls home.

It was, as Lisa who came along for the evening and a few beers said, like we had never been apart, catching up, reliving memories and spending a great night back together for the first time in more than four years.

So much so, we did it again the next night – after another walking tour through the political heart of the city, complete with a house designed around Dante’s Comedy of Errors and watching the weekly protest from the Mothers – as Ale was reintroduced to life in a truck group at an impromptu party.

Sadly, this one was to bid farewell to Cam who has swanned, smiled and extended her way around South America in her unique style. The tears were flowing almost as much as the wine by the end of the evening.

As she headed home, we set out for one final exploration of Buenos Aires and one final evening as proper tourists at a tango show.

Sadly, a few of us were unable to put our new-found skills to the test at another lesson as we were sent back to change from flip-flops to shoes.

Quite why we needed trainers to sit eating a three-course dinner, drinking as much of the unlimited wine we could get the waiting staff to deliver to the table – once we convinced them they could leave the bottle of white as it would not be there long enough to get warm – and watching a show which was surprising enjoyable.

That really should have been that, but the lure of the late-night club at the hostel proved a little too tempting, despite the looming spectre of another early start.

But then not all decisions made by those who show up are good ones.

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Our Lips Are Sealed

IS it possible to be a fish out of water while actually in water?

It would certainly appear so, given my flailing around off the Argentinian coast in a wetsuit, flippers and snorkel.

Graceful was not exactly the word to describe my time in the water, unlike the local inhabitants we had come to see.

To walking with lions, being charged in a bar by an elephant, a cheetah eating my flip-flop and being knocked over by a gorilla, you can add another thrilling personal wildlife experience -snorkelling with sea lions.

If, by snorkelling, you mean floating about with very little control over which way you were moving or even which way up you were.

That would be me, not the sea lions. They are rather more agile in the water. It is closer on dry land.

Being in the water, let alone so close to such remarkable creatures, would have been pretty much unthinkable in the deep south of Argentina at Ushuaia, even with the help of a couple of wet suits.

But the weather improved as the miles rattled up on the long journey north, the warm clothes we have been wrapped up in for the past few weeks gradually disappearing to see out the rest of the trip in the depths of our locker as shorts, T-shorts and flip-flops again took over as the truck uniform.

Not that we could discard them immediately as we began the journey north in a truck newly festooned with Christmas decorations.

Our departure from the world’s most southerly city coincided with an abrupt end to the remarkably friendly weather we were served up in Patagonia.

It was cold at times – particularly one or two evenings under canvas – with the odd downpour, but none of the horror tales of gales and four seasons in one day we had been served up in the build-up to the southern leg our South American odyssey.

Right up until we left Ushuaia.

By the time we reached the day’s first intended border crossing – there is no way back to mainland Argentina via road without heading in and out of Chile – the wind was howling but with little sign of the problems it was about to create.

For the final time we went through the Chilean custom of unloading, scanning and reloading our bags – including those belong to the people missing in Antarctica, Buenos Aires and wherever else they might be across the continent, which at least provided plenty of room on board through several long drive days – and headed for the day’s other major hurdle.

Crossing a narrow strait of water had been fairly straightforward on the way down, but that wind was about to make the return journey a whole lot more troublesome.

By the time we arrived at the Bahia Azul ferry crossing at 2.30pm, a line of traffic was forming and the ferries could be seen anchored offshore, going nowhere as conditions had been judged too rough just half an hour earlier.

And so we waited. And waited. All the time, watching the clock with the day’s second border crossing – about an hour’s drive away – due to close at 10pm.

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At which point, we were watching cars being loaded on to the first ferry to dock when conditions were judged good enough to sail again.

The intervening eight hours had seen us do… well, not a lot really. There was not a lot we could do, bar sit it out and occasionally brave the gale to visit the nearby cafe to use the facilities and search in vain for hot food.

We did convince them to reheat our big pot of chicken soup which we scoffed down on the truck as hope rose of our vigil finally coming to an end.

When it did, it was still not plain sailing – the 20 minute crossing taking twice as long as we watched the ferry and the surrounding waves from some very strange angles.

With the border closed until morning, we had little choice other than to park up amid the trucks waiting to cross and set up our own refugee camp for the night, bar those who opted for the safety of a night on the truck.

Our early-morning border crossing was smooth enough, although our mood was not eased by a sign declaring it would be open 24 hours just two days later.

A quick stop for cook group shopping and we were heading north again, eating up the largely featureless miles as the temperature began to rise.

It was mainly long trousers and hoodies for our bush camp on a rocky beach, but by the time we rolled into the Welsh village of Gaiman for tea, cakes, ice cream and reliving my years on the western side of the Severn Bridge, we were into what could only be described as a glorious summer day back in Wales.

And it was distinctly beach weather as we hit Puerto Madryn – where the first Welsh settlers arrived, on the cliff by our campsite in 1865 – which was pretty handy, considering we were at a beach and signing up to take the offshore plunge.

Which was how a group of us were up bright and early – very early for those of us on cook group duty – to splash around with the pups of a seal lion colony.

Having never snorkelled properly, nor worn flippers before, perhaps my less than graceful performance was to be expected.

Who knew it could be that difficult to keep your feet underwater?

But my struggles aside, it was a truly magical 45 minutes or so as the curious pups swam and played around us, letting us stroke them as they nibbled at our flippers and wetsuits.

And when they opted for dry land, we were able to bob (or thrash around in my case) just off the beach where the giant bull kept rivals and youngsters in check and the colony went about its morning routine.

Which largely consisted of lying around, occasionally making the odd strange grunt.

A lot like a long drive day on the truck.

  • Next time: When overland trips collide, sweating it out in Buenos Aires and a little bit of politics. Just in case you hadn’t had enough.
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