Friday, 25 February 2011

Brazil: nuts.

Brazil: land of samba, football, caipirinhas and crime. What a way to start my Samerican voyage...

First stop was Rio de Janeiro. For those of you who don't know, Rio is Brazil's second largest city (population: over 6 million) and former capital. It is also arguably Brazil's most exciting city, and after long and extensive research which included going to one other Brazilian city at least - and indeed at most - I've decided to agree.

Rio is a natural marvel. The tatty-looking tower blocks are superbly juxtaposed with the very impressive surrounding mountains and other natural features. Despite its glamorous reputation, Rio is very obviously poverty-stricken and run-down in a lot of places. Every street has its own little family of homeless people going through the bins for cans they can sell on for the tiniest amount. Sewage seems to be a major issue as well, with some roads smelling like a festival toilet after 3 weeks of continuous use. This is an issue only exacerbated by the intense heat. The average daily in Rio was easily over 30 degrees centigrade, peaking at 40 during my time there.

The Rio de Janeirians/ites/istas/arians (delete as appropriate) are, as a whole, very pleasant and welcoming. There seems to be a general feeling of settling for their lot in life: yes, there's plenty of crime and the police are useless; yes, they are impoverished even by our lowest standards; yes, they have to deal with millions of gringos (as backpackers are known around the continent); and yes, there's the intense heat to deal with. The reputation of crime in Rio is not the best in the world, and it's such a shame for the honest, friendly and hospitable residents of Rio that this reputation is due only to a small minority of scallywags and drug lords.

Why not eliminate these scallywags and drug lords? I'll tell you why: the police in Rio are about as much use as Anne Frank's drum kit. Sure, they seem to be better equipped than the British Army, but the sheer amount of danger they encounter every day at work is similar to that of a ginger desert tour guide: any day could be their last. It wasn't surprising to see, therefore, that they treated every situation with the utmost vigilance. During one particular incident, the tamest of scuffles outside a bar/club/furniture shop (more on this later), the nearby police did nothing to intervene until their patrol car was bumped into by the combatants. At this point, a burly-looking policeman walked over to the action and drew his gun. He had his thumb on the hammer and finger on the trigger the whole time.

This wasn't the only instance of what I perceived to be heavy-handed policing. Earlier on on the same evening, some friends and I were urinating against a wall (there was a street party and no toilets: we've all been there) when a police officer spotted us and started walking over, truncheon drawn and ready for action. Naturally - and in our slightly inebriated state - we ran finished, ran off and lost him in the crowd.

Now of course the police can be forgiven for overreacting in these cases. They do an incredibly dangerous job in Rio (2 police are killed every week on average in the city), yet earn on average just under £6000 a year, compared to £23,000 for a constable in the UK (yes, I did some research for this). This low pay means most have other jobs at night working for private security firms, and thus, you will find that most police officers in Rio get only 3 hours' sleep a night. No wonder they looked so grumpy when they saw some Americans and a Brit relieving themselves on Rio...

None of the above facts prepared me for what I saw on my 2nd night in Rio. My new friends and I had decided to go to Lapa, a popular nightspot where people drank and danced on the streets and where much fun was had by all. At the time of the incident, we were dancing and chatting outside a furniture shop where the owner had decided to set up a DJ with speakers, along with a fridge full of drinks for sale. We saw an old-looking homeless man collapse and start fitting on the road just outside the furniture shop, right next to some police. Instead of helping, the police ordered the man's friends to carry him off the road as he was blocking traffic flow. The man was brought over to a tree near us, against which he was leant and where he proceeded to have one final, big seizure. When an ambulance did finally arrive, the man had already died. Whether he could have been saved by police intervention or how often this happens is unknown to me, but it was a very shocking episode nevertheless.

We nearly joined the homeless fellow on a ride on one of Rio's plentiful public buses. This particular bus seemed to have been driven by Rubens Barrichello (a Brazilian Formula 1 driver for those of you who are less familiar with Bernie Ecclestone's life work) and with standing room only, I became very well acquainted with the chap next to me.

Despite all this, I would thoroughly recommend going to Rio: the stereotypical and slightly overused description of the people of Rio always dancing and being generally up for a good time is actually very accurate. Before the incident with the homeless chap, we witnessed an escalating argument between two local youths. We all thought this might get out of hand when one of them moved aside and the other started break-dancing. Yes, that's right, they had a dance-off to resolve an argument. As much as I condone this in Rio, I fear a similar attempt at conflict resolution in the UK would involve two fat blokes falling over a lot and altogether causing far more damage and injury than any brawl would have done.

The beaches were beautiful and the sea even more so. The weather was hot to say the least. Rio also has a fantastic method of transportation called the 'collectivo'. This is basically a minibus with a fat guy hanging out the window shouting at anyone who looks like they might need to go somewhere. These collectivos drive along set routes and can pick up and drop you off wherever you like along these routes, all for less than the price of a bus ticket.

I made some great friends in Rio, and even though one may have tried to sexually assault a German and masturbated when others were in the room, I would happily go back for more.

Next up was Sao Paulo. This followed a 6 hour bus ride (very short by South American standards) on a coach which was more comfortable than every plane on which I've ever travelled. Sao Paulo is the 4th biggest city in the world and the biggest in Brazil and South America. Despite this, it has relatively little in terms of excitement. Sure, it has a great nightlife with every type of club imaginable represented, but there are no landmarks, no unique architecture and no unique atmosphere like there was in Rio. Maybe this is because Sao Paulo is more developed than Rio and seems to have less poverty and crime than Rio, resembling a kind of much bigger and less practical Berlin, with its uniformly 60s tower blocks. Luckily I'm leaving here tomorrow morning and will be going on to Montevideo, the little-known capital of Uruguay.

At least now I can say I've been to both South Africa and Brazil and didn't get kidnapped, robbed or murdered once.

Love and hugz,

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Ex and 'why?'

It's not every day people decide to go to South America - there's usually some sort of hilarious and heart-warming story behind each twist and turn in the build-up to any trip like this one.

Now of course this particular trip is no different... other than in almost every way. There was no real hilarity in the planning of my jaunt to Samerica*, and you're unlikely to need those Rennie tablets you have on standby: there is little or no heart-warming to be found. That said, and if you're still reading, then you obviously either have some sort of mild interest in what I'm doing or literally nothing else to do...

So why am I doing this? Why Samerica? Why now and not 5 years ago, before I'd spent twenty-odd grand on university? All of these questions will be answered, some satisfactorily, most of them less so. In fact, the short answer to all of the above questions is simply "why not?". Of course, that answer would lead you to believe that I am a massive, annoying douche. You'd be right...

With graduation looming, I had applied for jobs left, right and indeed centre, with little tangible success (how 'tangible' can an interview be?). Now apart from being quite disheartening and bloody annoying, it left me with no idea of what I wanted to do career-wise and a year of my life to fill while I sorted out some sort of future. At the time, I was in a relatively serious relationship and she was keen to have a post-degree gap year and see a bit of the world. Seeing as I had sweet Fanny Adams else to do, I thought "Oh go on then, I'll tag along." There were several obvious upsides to this: she could do all the planning and decide on the routes/attractions/accommodation and everything else, leaving me the simple yet painful task of finding some money and handing it over in one handily-sized, tree pulp-based payment vehicle (I believe the layperson calls them 'cheques').

By November 2010, things were progressing nicely: I had a job working in a local excuse for a restaurant and the money was coming in, various trip options were being researched and discussed and I was generally contented. Then along came a large, dump-shaped (make of that what you will) spanner that inserted itself into the proverbial works.  I was given a relationship P45, I became a citizen of Dumpsville, I would henceforth be flying solo. I suppose the key point of that particular sentence would be that I broke up with the girlfriend.

Obviously this was irritating and immensely upsetting for me, so I had a good mope for a month or so. I carried on working and decided to press ahead with a trip somewhere. The next issue was choosing which continent to visit. I opted for South America.

Why there? It was the perfect balance of being neither too dissimilar to cultures to which I'm used nor too similar. I decided travelling around entirely foreign (if you'll pardon the pun) places alone might be ill-advised and take me way out of my - admittedly narrow - comfort zone. Romance languages being spoken would help as well... Africa? Too different and also a bit obvious. North America? Too similar. Asia? Too different. Oceania? Too expensive, too similar: too bad. Surely Europe then? I've already done most of western Europe and the eastern part just doesn't interest me. South America? Let's see: huge European influence, check. Mixed with indigenous cultures, check. Romance languages spoken, check. After literally minutes of consideration, I had decided Samerica was the destination for me.

Where in Samerica? It's a big place. I solved this problem by taking inspiration from the world of animation. I first drew a big circle, covering all but 2 countries. This circle, or my route, as it evolved into, was refined constantly by people's advice and recommendations. It turns out everyone either knows someone who's been, or has been themselves. This ranged from my corporate banker friend from the gym (his name conveniently being 'Jim'), who had been to Brazil and Argentina a few times to do some banking, to Lorna (not that one), one of the cashiers at my bank, who proceeded to try and sell me the HSBC Super Premier Platinum Advanced Plus Gold account in between regaling me with tales of how her brother was mugged in Venezuela.

It wasn't just bankers either: friends' housemates had their experiences to share, from a hostel recommendation for Germanophiles in Buenos Aires, to brief guides to the best museums in Bogota. Suddenly, Samerica no longer seemed 'original' and 'cool' and 'different'. However, I had booked my flights by this point, so there was no turning back.

Whenever I tell people about my trip, the most common reaction is jealousy. Some are jealous just of the fact that I'm leaving the UK for an extended period, others are jealous of specific aspects of the trip. I have one  friend who had in fact spent a considerable amount of time in Samerica himself and to whom I am very grateful for providing endless tips and advice. When he was shown a copy of my itinerary, he became slightly geographically confused and informed me of his jealousy concerning my planned visits to what he called 'The Guineas'. He obviously meant 'The Guyanas', a region with which very few seem to be familiar. Suriname was especially difficult to organise, but that's a story for a future 'blog'.

If you're reading this and becoming jealous, then you're one of many and this makes me immensely pleased. In fact, the five and a half grand this expedition will cost me overall will have been very well spent if I invoke envy from just one person...

But for now, there's packing to be done, affairs to be arranged, things which need to be attended to and indeed other engagements to be carried out, so I shall endeavour to update everyone as often as possible on how it's all going.

Hugs 'n' kisses,

* 'Samerica is clearly short for 'South America'. If you hadn't figured that one out, then hang your head in shame.