Cuban Doctors save U.S. College Students from Alcohol Poisoning – 5 Images Show Improved Relations between the U.S. and Cuba

Last week, we saw bit of encouragement in U.S.-Cuban relations.  Here are five pictures in the week that was for U.S. and Cuba.  The handshake between Obama and Raul Castro was under the international spotlight, but the other four images went largely unnoticed.  

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Barack Obama and Raul Castro embrace at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela

 

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Student ball players greet a U.S. People-to-People Tour bus.  The Cuban Interests Section in Washington announced that it would return to issuing visas to licensed U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba, after a weeklong scare just before the high season.

 

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For the first time since 2004, 500 U.S. university students make a port call in Havana, as part of their Semester at Sea experience.  Two nights of partying and crashing a rural baseball game led to just a few incidents and hospitalizations. According to a Cuban guide and friend, just two students had to get their stomachs pumped (Two out of 500 isn’t bad for a college trip!).  The program was frustrated that their insurance didn’t cover irresponsible drinking, and the students had to pay 50 dollars each.

 

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The Cuban government removes anti-U.S. propaganda billboards at the entrance to the Havana International Airport.  The billboard below replaced a longstanding billboard which equated U.S. foreign policy to “genocide.”

The billboard below (photo taken in 2006, just outside the U.S. Interests Section in Havana), shows how heated the propaganda was during the Bush era.

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The author gets invited to a hip-hop party in the edgy neighborhood of Lawton, Havana.  Cubans honor the Bronx, playing N.Y. style hip-hop all night.  The other  takes one for the team, and teaches them how to Dougie.

 

 

 

Amateurism Still Hangs On in the Cuban Ring

I couldn’t miss this one…

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Long-time political allies took to the ring on Friday night as Cuba’s top five boxers competed against its Russian rivals.  It was set as part of the World Series of Boxing, a round-robin format, in which brackets of four countries square off over the course of the year, with the top two advancing to the playoff rounds.  It was Russia’s turn to visit Cuba and there was a noticeable buzz in the air among sports fans in Havana.  I had the night off so I hopped in a collective taxi and headed to Ciudad Deportiva, Havana’s version of Madison Square Garden, to check out the action.

Ciudad Deportiva, or “Sport City,” looks as worn down as the surrounding houses in Cerro Municipality.  But the place was packed.  The “cola,” or line to purchase tickets, stretched for several dark blocks, and there were rumors that the tickets had sold out.  Desperate, I began my search for scalpers.  Selling tickets on the side is illegal and punishable in Cuba, so there were no overt vendors in the crowd.  One just had to ask around.  In fact the first guy I asked had tickets on hand to sell at 20 pesos cubanos, or 80 U.S. cents, a markup of seven times the original ticket price.  I looked at the long line, and decided the extra 65 cents was worth it.  Another Cuban noticed he was selling and yelled to his friend, “Oye! Él tiene tickets!”  The vendor, obviously annoyed by his indiscretion, yelled back a series of hostile expletives that only a Cuban could understand.

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As I walked into the stadium, I realized that I was unique in the crowd.  Among the 15,000 in attendance I think I was the only foreigner.  The Cuban population is about 40% Caucasian, yet I could count on my hand the number of white faces in the crowd.  Unlike in the U.S., where prohibitively expensive tickets entice mostly white fans, here the fan base is black, and they come in from the poorer sections of the capital, such as Cerro and Central Havana.

I had walked in during the second match, and apparently the workers were more interested in spectating than collecting my ticket.  I could have saved 80 cents after all!  The place was packed, but because it was general seating, I secured a vacated seat on the floor, just forty feet from the ring.  I arrived just in time to see the Cuban lightweight Lázaro Alvárez giving a bloody beatdown of his Russian opponent, as if his anger stemmed from their political breakup years ago.

When Lázaro was just a few months old the Soviet Union disintegrated, and overnight Cuba lost its longtime political and economic big brother, along with 80% of its imports.  Instantly Cuba was challenged with food shortages and constant blackouts, and the 1990’s (dubbed the “Special Period” by Castro) would prove to be the revolution’s greatest challenge.  During this time, the average Cuban shed enough pounds to drop a full level in a boxing weight class.  Fortunately for Lázaro and his cohorts, boxing classes were free, and in place of returning home hungry after school they could spar in the local gymnasium until the streets darkened and it was time to go home.

The current Cuban team of five are all very young, and for good reason.  Amateurism is the only way to athletic stardom in Socialist Cuba, and since the athletes are technically state employees, they make a typical salary of about 15 dollars a month.  It’s no surprise that the entire Olympic Boxing squad from 2012 has defected.  Most are in the U.S., training with the hopes of million-dollar prize fights in Las Vegas.  And so another round of high-school graduates stepped in to the ring to take their place.

Amateurism did not always have a shelf life for Cuba’s best athletes however.  Two of Cuba’s greatest boxers, Teófilo Stevenson and Félix Savón, pursued exhaustive amateur careers, winning three consecutive Olympic gold medals each.  Only one other boxer in the world (Lázló Papp of Hungary) has achieved this feat…ever.  Stevenson probably would have won a fourth if Cuba had not joined the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.  In response to a five million-dollar offer to fight Mohammed Ali, he refused, “What is a million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”

Upon his retirement, Castro gifted Stevenson a mansion in an up-scale Havana neighborhood.  Savón extended Stevenson’s amateur legacy into 2000, but it wouldn’t be long before most Cubans would fall to the prospects of making “real money” outside of Cuba.

As the matches progressed on Friday, fans realized that Cuba could be up for a clean sweep of their Russian counterparts.  The young Cuban boxers were giving the Russians a heck of a beating.  Even after winning the first three matches, the crowd remained fierce, as if they too wanted revenge for political abandonment by the Russians.  Middleweight World Champion Julio César la Cruz put on a clinic during the final fight, and sealed the sweep for the Cubans.  As the packed crowd cheered the results, I raced out the door to beat the mop to the collective taxis.

I soon found out that I wasn’t racing against anyone.  My taxi was going to Vedado, a wealthier Havana neighborhood, and I had the car to myself.  Even so, most of the other spectators held out for the bus.  The bus costs a few pennies, whereas the taxis cost forty cents, a difference well worth the wait for the common Cuban.

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As is the case for most live Cuban entertainment, it’s not the price of the ticket that is prohibitive, but the cost of getting there.  It’s either too expensive or inconvenient, or both.  Those seeking the bus probably had to wait an hour or so, but if they were lucky they could score a seat next to one of the boxers from that very evening.  Even the performers would have to improvise a ride home, probably to the same worn-down neighborhoods where the fans live.  Such is the life of an amateur world champion.

Travels across the Guianas

There exist Guyana, Ghana, and French Guiana, and only one of them exists in Africa.  The other two, Guyana and French Guiana are separated by Suriname, and together they comprise the least visited and most poorly understood area of South America.

Traveling across these three countries, collectively known as the Guianas, was in my game plan, and like most anyone in South America I had little idea what I’d find inside.  I had no map, guidebook, reservations, or agenda, nor had I ever met someone who had traveled these countries.  I was unsure of the spoken languages, the border crossings, and transportation.  But what I lacked in local knowledge, I made up for in improvisation skills, and I looked forward to this next challenge.

Leaving my beloved Macapa, in the remote northeastern corner of Brazil, I boarded an overnight bus for the border with French Guiana.  What was supposed to be a twelve-hour journey ended up being twenty.  A blown tire left us sitting in the jungle for eight hours, and I spent the night sleeping on the cool pavement outside.  The next day we met a blockade of buses stuck in a muddy hill slope and that didn’t help our timeliness either.  With a fair bit of haste, I found the Oiapogue immigration office before closing time, and after paying my fine for overstaying my Brazilian visa, I hopped on the first motor canoe for French Guiana.

All of Guianas are politically divided by rivers.  That means that after stamping out of the country, you have to find a local boat to take you for a duty-free ride to the other side.  There, with a little bit of luck you will find another immigration outpost, and a little more luck will mean that the office is open and that you don’t have to spend an illegal night at the border town.  That was the case for me as I entered French Guiana.

FRENCH GUIANA

School Children in the main plaza of Cayenne

Securing transportation was another story.  French Guiana is actually an extension of France, and their currency is the euro.  This means that things are expensive, damn expensive.  With no long-distance public transportation, you have to hire out a driver.  I got a ride with a Brazilian woman to the capital city of Cayenna.  Four of us piled into her truck and we had to pay forty bucks each for the 3-hour drive.  I wasn’t happy; forty bucks could get me half way down Central America with an ordinary bus tariff.

Hotels weren’t any cheaper.  The cheapest I found was a $60 plain single, about triple the rate I paid for my most expensive room in the past.  And this one came with the rudest receptionist, perhaps person, I had ever met.  As I browsed the nearby food joints, which was mostly greasy Chinese restaurants, I made the decision that the prospect of French croissants in the morning just wasn’t worth the price.   I would leave French Guiana as soon as I could manage.

I got word that I needed a visa to Suriname, so I showed up to the consulate first thing in the morning.  Because I’m a Statesan, I was not eligible for a transit visa and instead had to purchase a $130, 5-year travel visa (Since our government screws travelers, half of the countries in South America gets revenge on us, aka “reciprocity”).  The visa fortunately took just five hours to process, and by 3 pm, I was in a private van, bound for Suriname.  In just 26 meal-less hours in French Guiana, I had spent three-hundred dollars, the equivalent of two weeks travel in Bolivia.

The megaport of Cayenne

In my van journey to Suriname, I was accompanied by four Surinamese men and a baby, all of whom were visiting home from Holland, their present country.  They had not known each other prior to arriving at the Cayenne airport, but had teamed up in their overland travel to their homeland to cut costs.  Like their Dutch colleagues, they were fluent in English and took me onto their team, eager to show me the ropes in their home country.

SURINAME

Crossing the river border into Suriname

After a quick stamp of my passport, we negotiated a boat taxi across the border, and in a 10-minute journey we had crossed from the European Union back to South America.  Happy to be back, we secured a two-hour road taxi at normal South American rates, along with a stopover at customs.

Our driver pointed me toward the immigration office, a residential balcony, with a sign that read “Korps Militaire Polite.”  This couldn’t be right.  There, five men sat out front, bare-chested, drinking beer, and watching football.  I asked for immigration, and I was surprised to hear them respond, “He’s taking a shower and will back in ten minutes.”  Still perplexed, I went for a walk to make sense of this casual border.

I found a building that displayed “National Police” out front, and asked the guard how I could get an entrance stamp.

“You’re too late,” he responded. “The office closes at six.  Plus you came in the wrong way.  You’re supposed to land here at our dock.  You are now illegal.  I’d like to help you get in but you’re illegal and you have to return to French Guiana.”

Apparently my Guyanese friends had requested our boat driver to take the “back door” to avoid the hassle of immigration.  Good for them, bad for me.

Whatever.  I was not about to hire another boat back across the border, and certainly not going to spend another night in a euro-priced hotel.  I returned to the pseudo-immigration house to see if the shower-guy had returned.  He had.  As an official gesture, he put on his soccer jersey and left to retrieve his stamper.

Without any questions, computers, or documents, shower-guy stamped my passport and bid me a happy stay in Suriname.  Sketchy.  My biggest surprise was that he didn’t ask for a bribe.  As we pulled out, I wondered if my my pseudo-stamp would give me problems at the western border, at the other side of the country.  My new friends handed me a beer, and as we cruised through the curvy forested roads of Suriname, I worried less about my illegal entry.

Traveling with the Surinamese was quite a linguistic experience.  Most people could speak English, but the national language was Dutch, and the street language is a creole, Sranon Tongo.  On top of that over 40% of the population descends from Javanese and East Indian contract workers, who also carry with them their mother tongues, while another 15% are native and stick with local languages of their own.  Despite being in South America, nowhere in Suriname will you find Spanish, because its three neighboring countries speak French, English, and Portuguese.  To little surprise, Suriname is struggling with its national language identity.

The "Wooden City" of Paramaribo...There's not too much architecture like this in South America

The capital of Suriname, Paramaribo, was pleasantly different from Cayenne.  Good vibes were felt all around in the “wooden city,” which has recently been declared a UNESCO Heritage Site.  Delish Indonesian street food, cheaper accommodation, and decent access to the rainforest made me wish I had more time here.  It’s a place that few travelers get to and based on the convenience factor, I sadly don’t think I’ll ever be back.

GUYANA

Enthusiastic cricket fans cheering on the local squad at the Twenty-20 World Cup

Another river crossing, this time in a heavy-duty ferry left me in Guyana, and for the first time in 15 months of travel, I was welcomed in English at the border.  In the cheapest duty-free liquor store I had ever seen, I met up with Lania.  She and her partner, Sal, ran a tour bus, and they basically road trip all over Northern South America in their 15 passenger van, picking up paying tourists and locals along the way.  They had been doing this for years, car camping, living on the road, and actually making a profit out of it.  It was a no-brainer that I would hitch a ride with them to Georgetown, sharing stories along the way.

What Georgetown lacked in aesthetic appeal, it made up for in unique surprises.  On my first evening in the capital city, I checked out the local East Indian Cultural Festival.  Because of the post-slavery arrival of indentured servants, Indians, with over 40% of the population, represent the largest ethnic subgroup Guyana.  Their cultural heritage will not be forgotten here.

After several acts of Indian performances, the host called up their president to the stage for a presentation.  A man casually dressed, who was sitting right next to me walked to the stage.  I soon realized that this man wasn’t the president of the Indian Heritage Society.  He was the president of the whole freaking country.  Recently awarded with the U.N. environmental distinction “Champion of the Earth,” he received a normal ovation before he took his seat beside me again.  In a country of less than 800,000 people, there was no pressing need for high-tech secret service agents.  He had the same jurisdiction as the mayor of Albany, and despite being a PRESIDENT, he was treated just the same.

Sri Lanka versus Zimbabwe

With just two days in Georgetown, I spent my second day watching a West Indies upset of England in the Cricket World Cup.  Yes, cricket had arrived to town, and despite having never seen a match in my life, I was intent on scalping a ticket outside the local stadium.  After finally understanding the rules, I am convinced that cricket is a better spectator sport than baseball, which outside of Yankee Stadium, doesn’t really say that muchJ

10 Experiences that make me want to go back to Brazil – ASAP

1. The Hospitality from the Meija family. Wow. My friend Julia really hooked me up with some wonderful people. Never mind the fact that I met Julia only twice before, she and her family took me in like I was a lifelong friend. They fed me and provided me with places to stay in Sao Paulo, La Costa Verde, and El Salvador. They have left me with a wonderful impression of the people and communities of Brazil.

2. Dancing Forro in El Clube dos Democraticos. El Clube dos Democraticos, located in the Lapa District of Rio is a music hall institution. Founded in 1867, it upkeeps its old school dance hall atmosphere, akin to the swing halls of New York. Big bands play here from Thursday to Sunday, and feature some of the greatest forro music in the country. There’s no elitist Tango-snobs here either; and the attitude of the place is that you can ask anyone to dance. After indulging in the Friday night Lapa street party I came inside for a look at 11 pm. I met wonderful people willing to show me some forro basic steps, was mesmerized by the band, and five hours blew by fast in this historic joint.

Jim at his best

3. Jim displaying his game at a chic Sao Paulo club. I was reunited with my childhood friend and he took me out to the swankiest club I had ever been to. Does the photo need any more description?

4. Swaying in a hammock on an Amazonian Riverboat. Traveling via a Brazilian riverboat is so much better than sitting through a bus. The food is decent, the scenery is great, and the family atmosphere can’t be beat. Having now traversed the mouth of the Amazon, I think the next venture would be a six day float down the Amazon connecting Colombia to Santarem, Brazil. Any takers?

See my blog entry for more details

5. Drinking flojes along the Amazon waterfront in Macapa. The main riverfront avenue of Macapa is a great place for hanging out at night. People come down to sit, take in the Amazon breeze, people watch, and indulge in the local favorite drink, the floje. A floje consists of blended ice, milk, sugar, passion fruit (or any other local variety), and cachaca (the cane-based national liquor of choice). Served in a mug, it looks more like a milkshake than an alcoholic beverage, and at a dollar a pop, they go down fast! With chairs and tables accompanying each floje stand, I soon found a favorite and the vendors became my first good friends from Macapa.

The Best Dance Club I've ever been to (after the late great Platinum in Corvallis of course)

6. Forro in Alphorria, El Salvador. El Salvador runs at a different pace than do the cities to the south, and its music is no exception. I went to check out some live forro bands in one of the “edgier” neighborhoods of the city at a small brick-basement club called Alphorria. Both the music and the dancers were the best I have seen in all of Brazil, and the ambiance was better than any club I have ever been to. It is so good there, that by itself it’s a compelling reason to visit Salvador.

7. Taking a motor boat into Iguazu falls. Touristy and expensive, but well worth it. The falls of Iguazu are magnificent and the motor boats that take you to their base get a lot closer than I had I imagined. The driver literally butts you into the base of these falls, and the spray is so powerful that it hurts to open your eyes.

My Macapa family... This crew could dance!

8. Kid’s Samba Party in Macapa. My new friend Any invited me to her family’s home in a small neighborhood in Macapa. It was there that I finally found the pumping, rhythmic streets of Brazil, where children would let loose in the street and dance around. I brought pizza for all of Any’s nieces and nephews, and they provided the entertainment. It was an all out toddler-dance party. We finished the gala at midnight. I was exhauseted, but even though the kids had to get up at six for school, they wanted to keep going.

9. Attending a football match in Maracana. Not only is it the largest soccer stadium in the world, but it’s probably the international center of the sport. Here Pele wowed 200,000 spectators in his last game in 1970 and in four years it will host yet another World Cup championship. I had the lucky chance of being in town for a classico, a rival game between two Rio teams, Botofogo and Fluminesce. The cheap admission was worth just the chance to get a glimpse inside the stadium, where Olympic champions are soon to be crowned.

Rio!!!

10. First View of Rio. I am convinced that Rio is the most beautiful city in the world (although I am told that I need to see Cape Town before making that assertion), and my first jog down Copacabana Beach was just a shocker. As an outdoor lover, it has everything you could possibly want, merged into one magnificent city. I’m still in awe.

Brazilian Waxing 101

“I have to go make my legs look pretty,” my friend said as she turned toward the avenue with the salon.  “I need to go get them waxed.”  Oh yes, the notorious waxes of Brazil, I thought, and I chuckled at the thought of me going to have one myself.  When people think of waxing, they think of the infamous “Brazilian Wax Job,” but in reality many women here go to salons to get their legs waxed in lieu of shaving them.  It results in much smoother cut, and akin to de-rooting a weed instead of trimming it, a wax promotes much slower after-growth of body hair.

I can’t say I’m the best-kept traveler.  To preserve space in my backpack, I carry just one small bar of soap saved from the last hotel I stayed at.  I use that for shaving, shampoo, and laundry.  I try to shower everyday but in these tropical areas, my clothes are always a bit mildewy.  It was time to change my ways, time to make up for my slothfulness, and what better way than a “dipulacion completa” or full brazilian wax job.  I didn’t just want to get the legs, I wanted to do the whole shebang, one step closer to being like a Brazilian stud from Copacabana.  Being in the waxing capital of the world, I figured bring it on! Carpe diem!

So here I am in Macapa, probably the last city in my travels that would do a waxing.  Embarrassment and faulty Portuguese had stood in my way from getting one so far, but I knew it was now or never.  I approached the receptionist at my hotel and in Portuguese I asked her something that sounded like this:  “Wax legs, body, everything….where can I?”

She giggled.  “You want to wax your legs?”

“I want everything!  Legs, chest, face…I want the full experience.”

“No…what pain!!!!  NOOOO!”  This was not the response I was anticipating.  I guess this sounded a bit crazy, even for a Brazilian.  By this point it didn’t matter.  Getting a wax was all I wanted, it had become an obsession, and if I left the Brazilian border without a waxing experience I would look back on my trip as a failure.

I convinced her to at least give me directions, and I promised that if the workers at the salon discouraged it, then I would retire to the hotel for the evening.  Armed with a map and address, I zigzagged around puddles for eleven dark blocks, until I found what I was looking for.  I looked in to the salon’s window to see what I was up against.  No wax in sight, just a bunch of women getting their hair done and feet pedicure.  I knocked on the locked door, and they let in the wet, desperate gringo.

“So do you give waxes here?”  I asked the man who looked like was in charge.

“We sure do.  What would you like?”

“I want it all.”

Silence filled the room, scissors stopped trimming, and clients turned their heads to see this burly, pain-tolerant man in their presence.

“Wow. Yes, we can do that.”  Looking around this chic establishment, I for the first time realized that this probably wasn’t going to be cheap.  I asked how much, and he showed me a number that converted to well over a hundred dollars!  No, I screamed inside my brain.  Suddenly I felt that I would never achieve my dream.  I had to compromise.

“Ok, how about just the chest?”  And within minutes a cauldron of wax was heating up in the back.

I walked into the back room to meet my “waxing technician,” a native of Macapa, who greeted me with a smile and a setup that ironically looked more like a massage table than the torture chamber that I was anticipating.

“First time?” she asked.  Apparently my smile and discomfort with the whole situation revealed my naiveté in the world of Brazilian salons.  I ripped off my shirt, displayed my soon-not-to-be hairy chest, and lied down on the table.  She pulled out a giant chop stick and dipped it into the fiery cauldron of wax.  I closed my eyes; I hadn’t felt so much tension in my body since a session of colonic hydrotherapy.

Despite her innocent smile, Jessica loved to put me through pain

1-2-3…She laid on the hot wax in a strip across my left sternum.  Ah…ah…ah…wait, that wasn’t bad at all, a pain no worse than submersing one’s chest in a hot tub.  I laughed at all my friends who told that a chest wax would be too much agony.  She layered another strip on my other side.  I laughed again at the sight of two brown strips across my chest; they looked exactly like the dried banana strips I used to buy at Trader Joe’s.

She quickly pulled off the first strip. “F_$#@!$*!”  An unexpected bullet of pain shook my body.  What the hell was this?  I thought a wax meant that they put wax on you, and they slowly scrape it off your bare chest.  This was more like the duct tape scene from Forty Year Old Virgin.  She just ripped it off like it was child’s play, and revealed a whole mess of chest hair.  That really hurt, and the fact that it was just one of a whole lot more to come didn’t make things easier.

Evidence of the damage done

The agony continued.  The first round of waxing is the worst because that’s when the biggest quantities are pulled off – we’re talking 16 years of hair growth here.  I needed a distraction.  “So what’s your name?” I asked her.

“Jessica.”

“No way!  That’s the name of my high school girlfriend.”  Apparently there was some miscommunication, because Jessica immediately flashed her wedding ring, and told me that she wasn’t interested.  I didn’t want a girlfriend.  I just wanted someone to hold my hand through this process, and in an instant I lost my only ally in the room.  “Be gentle,” I pled as she ripped off another wax strip off of my nipple.

As she finished the first round of waxes, I knew I was home free.  The rest was just waxing the little hairs that were missed in the initial treatment.  Furthermore my entire chest and stomach had earned a state of numbness that would tolerate a slap from Queen Latifah.  Nothing would stop me now.

As Jessica pulled away the last strip, I put my hand on my chest, which was bare for the first time in 16 years.  What a weird sensation.  It was like licking your front teeth after having your braces off, or stroking your cheek after shaving for the first time in months.

My sensitive red chest is telling me Never Again!

I stood up and looked in the mirror at this new man and his numb chest, lobster-red from all the wax removals.  Proud to have persisted through this experience, I also had a feeling of “what the hell am I doing here?” as I looked at the stylish environment around me.  I thought of all my friends back in the States and all the harassment I will receive when I get home for doing this.  And then I thought, screw that, I’m going to go out and lie beneath the sun.  I’m in Brazil after all.

Riverboating Across the Amazon

Dusk on the mouth of the Amazon River

For a variety of reasons (mostly economic) I had to get to The Guianas, just north of Brazil.  I wasn’t complaining.  Cheap airfare out of Georgetown, Guyana coupled with the challenge of traveling across the Amazon Basin was just too enticing. The only true concern was that Brazil is a big country, half the total size of South America, and I wasn’t finding any last-minute deals on flights to the cities up north.

Epic bus rides were on my horizon, and although I had done them before, I promised myself that next time I’m in Brazil I’ll research domestic flights beforehand.  Brazilian buses just plain out suck for the following reasons:

  1. They are expensive for what you get.  Brazilian bus tickets are the most expensive overland fares in all of South America.  In Argentina, you pay 2/3 of the price and you get a seat that reclines into a bed, ongoing movies, an attendant in a bow tie, and full meals followed with champagne (no lie).  In Brazil, the only love you get on a bus is the blubber from the overweight woman sitting next to you, which rubs into your space because the seats are too small.
  1. They stop for breaks every three hours so they take 20% longer than they should.
  1. They break down.  In the northern Amazon basin, I was on a 12-hour bus that blew out a tire three hours into the journey.  They couldn’t get the jack to work, so the driver hitched a ride all the way back to the city to get help.  The bus was just too hot to bear so I spent the next seven hours sleeping on asphalt before the driver returned.
  1. There is always one guy on the bus who thinks he’s Eddie Murphy, and tries to keep the bus entertained for 24 hours at a time, yelling and cracking obscene jokes.  Always.  One particular Eddie, aided by a little pre-dawn vodka, did a stand-up routine at six in the morning.  He must have assumed that everyone on the bus would prefer to hear his rampage instead of sleep.  No one complained.  No one ever does.  And I’m sure Eddy’s legacy will live on through all the future overnight buses of Brazil.

Kids are the only source of enjoyment on a Brazilian bus

Excuse my digressive venting about buses.  I just had to get it out.  Perhaps I am the one who should change my attitude, maybe even sneak a few shots of Smirnoff’s the next time I’m on board myself. Let me steer back to the focus of this blog entry.  It isn’t meant to be about traveling by buses, it’s meant to describe traveling across places where buses can’t venture, like the delta of the Amazon.

Thirty-seven hours of travel from El Salvador north across the horn of Brazil left me at a run-in with the Amazon River.  The Amazon, as many of you know, is the world’s largest river by volume, comprising one-fifth of the Earth’s total river flow.  And with little relief between the Eastern edge of the Andes and the Atlantic Ocean, the Amazon flows ever so slowly to the East, picking up the flow of hundreds of tributaries on the way.  Its slow velocity and high volume make the river spectacularly wide (up to 120 miles!) and because there are no major cities to the north, there is no budget to construct Amazonian bridges.  Right now the only way to cross the river or access many of the small towns up-basin is by boat, and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon.

It was April 21st when I arrived in Belem, a major port city that sits beside the Para River, the southern arm of the mouth of the Amazon.  Here, at the mouth, convoluted channels connect the Para with the main branch of the Amazon.  In between the two rivers sits Marajo, a river island the size of Switzerland. A passenger river boat takes 24 hours to complete the voyage across the 210 mile-wide outlet to the sea, and I soon realized that this too would be my means to connect to the North.  I’ve often fantasized about traveling the Amazon by riverboat, and suddenly I had an immediate reason.

Leaving the Port City of Belem

Sick of big cities, I wasted no time in Belem, and found a passenger boat leaving the same morning I arrived.  I checked my bags, went for a jog to see the river market, bought a hammock, and arrived back at the docks at 10 am, sweaty, and anxious to get on board.  Hammock space on the deck went for a surprisingly steep seventy bucks, hard on my wallet, and I’m sure quite difficult for many of the migrant workers who were also boarding that day.

As 200 passengers boarded the boat, there was a mad dash to claim hammock space.  Hammocks were erected faster than the eye could see.  In the end, it really didn’t matter, because we were clustered like farm animals; some passengers had hammocks to their left, right, above, and below.  I was pushed to the periphery of the deck, which was fine by me.  I had lots of people on one side, and the Amazon breeze on the other.  Within fifteen minutes of our arrival, the upper deck of the boat looked more like a hammock stall of an outdoor market than it did a river vessel.

Hammock space was a little cramped

What to do with my pack was another question.  Everyone placed their luggage beneath their hammocks and left it unsupervised for the entirety of the trip.  I am always paranoid about robbery (I sleep on buses with my bag tied to me), and I was initially uneasy about this.  I soon came to realize that my trip would be miserable if` I didn’t just release my anxiety, so I soon gave in, and threw my bag, including some cash, a laptop, and cameras, in the nearest pile.

As we motored away from Belem, an unappealing blemish to the Amazon coastline, I made my way around the boat to explore our accommodations.  It included six bathrooms with showerheads installed above the toilets, an outdoor deck with a snack and beer bar, viewing space on the bough, and a small space for munching on the crew-prepared meals.  There was more space than I anticipated, and I no longer feared that 24 hours on board would impose the same claustrophobia I experienced on other vessels.

I walked out to the bough to enjoy the breeze and the views of the delta.  There I met Augusto, who was on his tenth voyage across the Amazon.  He and his 70-year-old mother were making the 3-day trek to Cayenna, French Guiana to see his brother.  French Guiana, technically part of France, uses the euro so many Brazilians migrate there in search of a better salary.  Several other passengers on board, primarily men, were doing the same, while other workers were returning to Macapa, the only Brazilian city north of the Amazon, after visiting family in Belem.

Augusto had a passion for the open water.  I think he spent 20 of the 24 hours onboard, standing at the bough, admiring the river views.  I wondered if for many of the passengers, this was their only time all year to relax and appreciate their landscape.  Augusto was excited to show me all of the towns that we passed by, their history, and the various channels that we encountered.  Whenever I was utterly clueless as to where we were on my pathetic 5 x 7 inch map, I would just have to walk forward and consult my trusty friend stationed at the bough.

The towns we passed were impressive.  They were accessible only by boat, and because the coastline is so wet, there were no trails or roads that connected the houses, only footbridges.  Sadly we passed them so fast, and our only interaction was a brief wave with the children playing on the docks.  I thought of waterproofing my backpack and jumping overboard.  I’m sure I could find a place to stay with these lovely people.  It was just a matter of securing a boat to set on my way once more.  Maybe one day when I have more time, I will do just that.

A town connected by footbridges

As the evening sky turned a pale blue that connected without interruption to the wake behind us, it became social time on the river.  Dusk marked the hour when children, occasionally accompanied by their families, paddled their wooden dug-out canoes into the evening waters.  There they would stroll to meet up with friends and watch the riverboats flow by.  Many of the children paddled anxiously to our rear, in an attempt to catch some surf action in our wake.  One ambitious duo paddled out so quickly that our alarmed captain steered the boat away from them.  When they arrived to the stern, the paddler up front leapt from his canoe, rope in hand, and tried to attach his craft to our riverboat.  The speed of our boat was just too much; he lost his grip and his free ride.  Frustrated, he screamed and splashed water at his friend in the canoe.

A young canoeist playing in our wake

A healthy plate of beans, rice, beef, and salad filled my stomach, and I joined the rest of the passengers on the deck above.  Darkness had turned the deck into a disco, led by loud Brega music playing on the video screen next to the bar.  I chatted with Nelsis, who was in transit to the border town of Oiapoque for an “unknown” amount of time.  It was her first time making the journey, and I think she was heading north to take a shot at prostitution.

After two cans of Guarana, the local Amazonian berry soda, I found myself back in my swaying hammock.  Despite the cramped quarters, nine hours of breezy darkness gave me the most peaceful sleep of my entire journey through Brazil.  I and 200 other hammock sleepers awoke to first light and watched the sun rise above the remote channels behind us.  Families beside me greeted me with warm smiles.

I slept so well on my hammock

I looked to my right to see my bags still there.  This riverboat, in just a matter of one day, became a trusting community, where people looked out for each other.  In no place in my travels would I have left my bags unattended, but here I felt quite comfortable.  The riverboat was everyone’s home, and for 24 hours we lived together as if we were lifelong neighbors.  I don’t think that my experience was unique; I think that typically communities naturally grow on any boat trip through the Amazon.

Morning light on the coast

The hours passed quickly in the quiet morning, and the rising temperatures soon reminded me of where I was.  A few more turns in the river channel and a couple of small villages later, we arrived in Porto Santana, our last stop.  For the first time in my trip I was sad to leave my vehicle of travel.  I hugged my neighbors, retrieved my pack, and took the first bus out to Macapa.

I was now in the state of Amapa, a smaller Brazilian state of just 500,000 people.  Sitting alongside the Amazon, its capital Macapa had been a destination I had in mind for a long time.  As a small, isolated and unspoiled city with no tourists, I figured Macapa had the recipe for good, friendly people, so I found myself a modest hotel room and settled in for a week.

Water Buffalo near Macapa

My expectations were soon confirmed by the locals.  Macapa is full of warm and curious people.  Corruption and delinquency that seemed so rampant in Belem and El Salvador had failed to cross the vast Amazon River mouth.  Macapa is isolated by ocean to the east, jungle to the north and west, and the endless Amazonian waters to the south.  The only way for its people to leave is by expensive flights or by reversing the epic journey I had just taken.  It is no surprise that when you ask most people from Macapa where they have traveled to, they only mention neighboring towns in the jungle.

Northern Hemisphere on the right...Southern on the left. Macapa is the only Brazilian city that coincides with the equator.

In Macapa, I could walk the streets by myself in the wee hours of the morning, strike up a conversation with just about any local, and get myself invited into a family’s home for dinner.  At night I would walk to the riverfront, where dozens of vendors sold mixed drinks, coconut milk, and churrasco.  I made good friends with a family of vendors, and returned to visit them each night of my stay.  Macapa had the Brazil that I was looking for.  Kids danced samba in the streets, old happy men walked bare-chested along the Amazon, and the locals seemed darn well content with where they were.  It’s a random place to visit, and I’m not sure if I will budget the time to return there once again, but it will be hard to forget the warm friends I met in this remote Amazonian city.

My crew in Macapa

Rio!!!

Remnant waves from a massive surge on Copacabana Beach

Remnant waves from a surge on Copacapana Beach

This place is ridiculous. I have been here for just three days, and it’s so good that I have to leave.  If I don’t leave now, I might not ever part with Rio de Janeiro.  I fear that I’ve found paradise, perhaps my future home, and I’m too scared of the “S” word right now.  Settling.

My first morning in Rio, I went for a run down the infamous Copacabana Beach.  I was welcomed with 15-foot waves that pounded into Avenida Atlantica.  In some parts of the road the waves deposited sand up to 3 feet deep, and sections of this four-lane highway were closed for the entire workday.  I forded through 100-foot-wide sections of beach that were completely inundated.

A confused Carioca on a flooded Copacapa Beach

All week there had been record amounts of rain, flooding streets and wrecking havoc throughout Rio.  Landslides swept through steep-sided “favelas” (urban slums), causing more than 200 deaths and the burial of more than sixty houses.  During these rains I was on the coast just south of Rio, sleeping in a small “pousada” (Brazilian bed and breakfast), snoozing beneath a leaky roof.  For the first time in my travels, I was carrying an umbrella and a backpack lined with waterproof plastic bags.  To get to the grocery store, I had to ford through knee-deep puddles.  Schools were closed and bus trips were canceled.  My voyage to Rio was actually delayed because of the risk of landslides on the route.  Between these rains and the surging seas, it was all so obvious…extraordinary things are happening in Rio.

I ran to end of Copacabana beach where I slowed to a walk so I could more properly appreciate my surroundings.  I stepped to the edge of a flooded walkway.  In the distance I saw big-wave surfers.  On my left was a granite rock tower 400 feet high, and sure enough there were several bolted climbing routes to the top.  Behind the high-rise hotels of Copacabana, favelas descended to the sea.  It is here where some of the world’s greatest music was born.  I ran back along the beach, and considered that surely on this street, six years from now, the world’s greatest runners will be running the world’s greatest race, the Olympic Marathon.

The random placement of favelas throughout the city defies urban geographic models. Instead of solely being on the outskirts of the city, these slums are also scattered on hill slopes throughout the city center, constantly displaying a sobering contrast between the rich and the poor.

The next day, I would run in a national park just a 20-minute jog from my hostel.  As I gazed at massive granite climbing walls in the distance, I was certain of one thing.  Rio is the greatest city in the world for outdoor enthusiasts.  With world-class running, competitive beach sports, 15-pitch rock climbs scattered along its coast, accessible diving, sailing, and surfing, this is the city that my climbing friends and I have always dreamed of.  And unlike the outdoor capitals of the U.S. like Boulder, Bellingham, Santa Cruz, and Jackson, there is some real music and diverse culture going on here.

That night I went to Lapa, the old social center of Rio.  I was greeted by masses of Cariocas (Rio locals) in the street, playing drums in samba circles, and drinking cheap beer from street vendors.  Hours flew by as I partook in the revelry, and at around midnight I joined the parade of those who had a little bit of extra cash to cover the door charge at the plethora of local clubs.  I chose Clube Dos Democraticos, a dance hall founded in 1867 (see site), purchased a caipirinha and integrated myself into a table of dancers from Recife.  Four hours of live music later, and I was in a dollar-fifty collectivo back to my bed.  Public transportation is so easy here.  I just had a great night out, some nine hours of fun, all for under twenty bucks.

Botafogo promenade with Pao de Azucar on the left

Rio is without doubt, the most beautiful city I have ever seen.  Imagine a combination of Yosemite, Hawaii, and New York, congregated in the tropics.  With a booming economy, arguably the world’s greatest Carnaval, and a host to the upcoming World Cup and Olympics, it’s time for the giant cities of the west to admit their inferiority.  Rio de Janeiro is the new capital of the world.

A rivaly match at Maracana, the largest

A rivalry match at Maracana. Having hosted 200,000 fans in Pele´s last game, it is the largest soccer stadium in the world. Surely the World Cup finals and the Olympic Track events will be held here.