Wednesday, 17 November 2010

One Final Top Day in Rio

Iconic, wonderful and turbulent. Rio is a healthy mess where life still spills onto the street. Outside our door an old man strolls past wearing nothing but a speedo and flip flops. Bom dia, this must be Rio – and more specifically the city-beach culture of Ipanema.

My top day in Rio begins with a simple goal: Cafezhino from the nearest corner Lancheonette which will be a strong dose for 1 only real. Brilliant. And the best complements to this are some more of those cheesy dough balls, Pão de Queijo. To complete a Brazilian breakfast the next stop is for a glass of fresh squeezed graviola or an Acai shake with granola and banana from a juice bar.

Steph would join me at one of the many juice stands on almost every corner in Rio, providing sucos - a liquidized fruit with sugar and ice that is blended into the creamiest and most refreshing morning drink you may have ever had. These weird and wonderful juice drinks were also called a 'vitamina' when made with milk rather than water. In fact there were about 30 to 40 varieties listedon the wall , while the juice man and his workstation were hidden under a mountain of fruits. I was a bit lost and then, unsurprisingly, a friendly office worker on his break helped guide me to his favourite concoction while welcoming us to his city. Prices are usually 4-6 reals.

Between the lancheonettes and juice bars on each corner you pass gym after gym, and soon you notice that more people are going about their morning fitness constitution than those who are in a hurry to get somewhere. If you want to join them I would venture for a jog or cycle around the lake path to the botanical gardens. And if this is your first time in Rio you may want to go for the obligitory cable car view from sugarloaf mountain or the statue of christ.

Not bothered, I would head on the metro up into the old town for a stoll around colonial Rio, starting with another pastry and coffee at the grandest of south american settings - the Confeiteria Colombo – or if you prefer to soak up the sun at one of the outside cafes on rua do Ouvridor. Before hopping on the metro back south, I might opt for lunch at Bar Luiz's honest, time-honored beer and traditional food.

Remember not to put your bag on the floor in the cafesand restaurants of Brazil. It's rude. And definitely do not use your finger to point. Also on offer are “Kilogramas” and who knew canteen food could be so swanky? We stumbled on a few of these vast, lavish buffets where we were extremely careful with what heavy or light food items were added to the plate. It was funny to see elegant business diners also trying their best to conform to the game, or surrender and pay extra for the all you can eat set fee. My advice is stick to some lovely salads (a treat for backpackers) and go easy on heavy meats and pasta.

Finally it's time to discover Rio's true cultural spots which lie not in churches or museums but on the magnificent beaches. Start with a taster at Copacabana for people watching and a stroll down the boardwalk with an Acai shake from a local juice shop. Perhaps I would seek out a little souvenier shopping here by first droping by the Havaianas shop to custom build a new pair of the world's most iconic flip flops. You could then pop in to Modern Sound's record shop for some Bossa Nova CD souviniers, and maybe even catch some live music at their cafe.

Perhaps the best place to be immersed is here on the beach where people watching can entertain you for hours. Even in Brazil's so-called winter, you can soak up this beach life, mountains, forests and party spirit of the self-styled Marvellous City in pleasingly balmy temperatures. Then there's the glitz and glam, with helicopters twirling off from rooftop pools up the beach.

To end a perfect Rio day I would continue on south back to Ipanema beach on the metro – saving the best for last! As you pass a few glamorous 60s apartment buildings on your approach to witness the culture that is beach life in Rio. Picturesque peaks line the ends of these stunning beaches that will take your breath away while asking – how on earth can this place be in a city?! Past the sea of joggers, past the sit up benches and the pull-up bars - all taken – it becomes apparent this serves as the city's playground, gym, soccer fields, volleyball courts, swimming hole, surfing, fishing, and of course, place of sun worship. Everyone is equal in this beach society (and equally 98% naked). We wound up in the gay section. Today was a weekday and Ipanema is only mildly packed. Don't these people have jobs anyway?!

Spandex, speedos and string bikinis are the only uniforms here on the bustling beaches and the catwalk sidewalks. OK, I get the obsession to perfect and bronze one's body. But I don't quite understand the blinding neon look that only Brazilian women pull off. I found another export that won't make it overseas - the t-shirt and speedo combo for men, all legs. Not a good look.

At sunset it's time to take a few last looks at the beach in all it's majesty and head for a caipirinhia at the world famous Garota de Ipanema cafe where the “Girl from Ipanema” song was penned by two locals who paid close attention to the same woman who passed by each day. I couldn't help feeling nostalgic of our exhaustive year long adventure that somehow ended at this iconic cafe. The waiter bought us two perfect Caipirinha's, and sticking out like sore thumbs, he brought us a copy of the sheet music from the song which was a very nice gesture (and free souvenier!).

The Girl from Ipanema - The most classic bossa nova song born in the 1960s when two young regulars at the Velosa bar.

To make dinner plans in Rio, I would absolutly schedule a mouth-watering, pan-fried garlic steak at Cafe Llamas. Next time I would see where the music takes you through the world's most vibrant samba scene in the district of Lapa. Samba was born in the suburbs of Rio. You could venture closer by to the Bar do Amido at 8pm for some atmospheric samba on the decks of the Yacht Club at Botafogo.

Perhaps next time I would suggest a football match at the Marecana stadium or museum like the MAC, Oscar Nemeyer's spaceship creation. Either way be sure to pass up the tourist traps like favala tours (unless your friend is showing you around) and favor what the locals are always doing, busy worshiping their physique and tan. This city has a real quality of life different to any other. It has a unique beauty and magnatism for which the world is jealous, and embraces Rio with all the warmth that Cariocas welcome you with

> Where to stay? Let's suppose your pockets don't have thousands of Reals to stay in the Copacabana Palace Hotel. Ipanema seems a perfect base anyway since it is safer than Copacabana but not quite as ritzy as Leblon. There is a small alley known as the 'backpacker village' that has half a dozen options bundled together – the best being Harmony and The Lighthouse (book ahead). Here you are only three blocks from both Ipanema beach and the lake. Around the corner is a supermarket and the brand new metro station that connects you with the train up through Copacabana, Lapa and the historic center.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Ilha Grande

Chris > Approaching Ilha Grande on the ferry crossing we quickly realized how lucky we were to come here. The wooden boats came into view under the lush, tropical island with no roads and only a small human footprint in the form of a village. The stunning beaches and rainforest trails later solidified this island as one of the most perfect places we have seen on the planet.

Chris and I had been soooo looking forward to coming here to Ilha Grande - we'd heard so much about the island's fabulous beaches and couldn't wait to sample some after our dreary, dull week at the beach in Northern Peru.

On the bus from Paraty we'd met two back-packing teachers my age, one of whom works just across the hills from me at a high school over in Rochdale. It was fun to chat with them about the traveling they'd already managed in their summer holidays and was nice, as ever, to have some additional company for this journey by bus then ferry. We arranged to eat with them one night during our stay on the island.

It is worth mentioning that by this stage of our travels, our bags were packed to capacity and our backs were on the brink of breaking. Any souvenirs we had been able to leave in Lima previously (while we journeyed around Bolivia) we were now carting around with us in addition to the new souvenirs we'd picked up along the way: Chris' cactus bin from the salt flats; my huge leather satchel from La Paz; seven alpacas worth of wool for mum's knitting addiction; books I'd read on my journey and couldn't bare to part with; ten tonnes of dvds from Bolivia; various bottles of booze we wanted to bring home; hiking boots; clothes and all the rest of it. It was ridiculous. To add to this sea of souvenirs and luggage, Chris had insisted on buying two crates of bear from the mainland 'in case it's not available on the island'. For god's sake. How on earth we carried all of this remains a mystery to this day!

View from our dorm room at Che Legarto - I definitely recommend this place.

The room we had in Paraty had barely been big enough for the two of us but when we'd brought our luggage in there had been no floor space left whatsoever. We had decided to head for the trusty Che Lagarto hostel in Ilha Grande which, luckily had large dorm rooms with a lot more floor space for all our stuff. Unluckily, it was a fifteen minute walk along the beach (including two mini river crossings!) from the jetty we'd been dropped at. It was more than our backs could take and it took us so long to make it to the hostel. We arrived there to find the hostel in pitch darkness in the middle of a day-long power cut that was apparently island-wide. All we wanted at this stage was a warm bath to soothe our broken backs, a cold beer and a lot of meat. The lady at reception warned us to only eat in a restaurant that had a generator because otherwise the meat would have been warmed all day - good advice which we took. After sharing a caipirihna or two with our new teacher friends Danielle and Jess, we headed to an all-you-can-eat meat bbq. Amazing. We certainly needed that long walk back along the beach to walk it off.

The next day we headed out on a boat to one of the island's more popular beaches. It was a nice walk to and from the beach through the jungle. That night there was a great live band playing at the jetty by our hostel so it was our first proper Brazilian night out (well, a night out in Brazil with non-Brazilians I suppose) and the effects were quite messy as we danced the night away with Danielle and Jess and copious amounts of cachaca! The following day we were certainly worse for ware and it was lucky that the hostel has an amazing veranda because we spent much of the day there before heading to our famous all you can eat meat bbq again with the girls. We had lots of fun in Ilha Grande and, if Brazil weren't so costly and our time weren't about to run out in just a few days, we could have stayed a looooong time there relaxing.

Chris > It kind of brings back the adventurous kid in you, and for good reason. Ilha Grande was once the place of natives, smugglers and pirates, while today only the monkey residents cause trouble on the jungle island.

I'll never forget the palava we had trying to get back to the mainland in order to make our way up to our final destination - Rio. Of course there weren't enough spaces in the mini-bus and what ensued was a typical Latin American drama which involved trying to fit us all in with our many bags on top of us before tying everything to the roof... gosh - too much drama to really explain but such a typical example of the disorganisation involved sometimes with arranging transfers to and from places. We got there in the end though - and so followed the very last chapter of our adventure.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Caipirinha

One of Brazil's greatest gifts to the world is the Caipirinhia, along with passionate music and football magic.

What could be simpler than the Caipirinhia? Cachaça, lime, sugar and ice. The combination is nothing but delicious. It's also available everywhere in Brazil. However due to the divine smooth taste, there is a risk of loosing count how many you have had. The other problem is that most places use the cheapest brands of cachaca that can hit you hard the next day when all you want to do is enjoy a day in the sun out on the beach.

From here on the deck hammock overlooking the beach, feet in the air, and probably as good a place appreciate the Caipirinha. Few beach drinks go down sweeter. - Photo courtesy of Flickr

Cachaça means firewater in Portuguese and fuels passion in Brazil. It is distilled after being extracted from crushed sugarcane. The harvesting of sugarcane originated from when the colonial Portuguese put the local slaves to work. The whiskey-sipping middle and upper classes have long looked down on cachaça as a drink for the poor. Accordingly, the name Caipirinha means poor little peasant girl.

A Caipirinha recipe from Brazil's Beaches

- Cachaca

- Limes

- 1 1/2 Tbsp Sugar

- Crushed Ice

> Quarter the limes into small triangular wedges. Mash them together with a wooden pestle in the serving glass, then fill it with crushed ice to the brim. Add the cachaca and shake or stir vigoruosly.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

An unhealthy amount of Brazilian feasts

Time was short to try all Brazil had to offer us on our plate. Luckily it was not hard to find the foods on my hitlist.

Haddock Lobo serving up Pao de Queijo - often rated the best in Sao Paulo and all of Brazil.

With Feijão out of the way in Sao Paulo, the country's food mecca, we could explore beyond ethnic cuisine and boiled black beans with pork. Steph and I proceeded swiftly to the Churrascaria where charcoal grilled meats come in endless varieties.

Picanha – Lumps of sirloin steak covered in rock salt and cooked high over a barbecue to perfection. They were brought out on huge spits to our table, even during the multiple power outages.

The Churrascaria - I had learned that the picanha cut of beef is the most celebrated in the land – homework pays off sometime. The carne do sol was equally tasty with it's surface covered in flavoured salt. The table is covered in side dishes. The grillmasters return as soon as there is space on your plate to offer sausages, steak, chicken until you are almost dizzy with delight. Some good advice I was also given from a friend was to refuse the early cuts of beef until they bring the good stuff. Dan also advised to go either late for lunch or early for dinner, so as to avoid being knocked out into bed by a beef-enduced coma.

Like in Argentina, the grillmasters here have their techniques down to a science.

Chips? Obvious. Rice, potatoes? Pass. I was saving most of my room for gloreous meat not sides. However there was one curiousity. Then there was Farofa. The owner told me it is a kind of 'stuffing' that's more used as a topping or garnish from what I could see. It's an undoubtably tasty breadcrumb-like topping mixture of corn flour, bits of bacon and onion.


Acai – This fruit is special. Elsewhere in the world açaí (a berry-like fruit) is criminally expensive and normally exists as a powder mix or concentrate. In Brazil, it can be found on every corner, available as an ice cream snack (or juice and smoothie).

Topped with a dizzying aray of sweet brown sugary garnishes. Brazillians put sugar on everything, and sometimes use a liquid sweetner that comes in what looks like a dish liquid bottle on the coffee counter.

One new-best-friend Brazillian man at the corner juice shop advised me to try the smoothie version the way he liked it best (blended up with granola, bananas and crushed ice). It was equally delicious, filling and maybe even healthy? Depends how much sugar they put in, I suppose.

Pao de Queijo - famous cheese bread and the classic accompaniment to the famously Cafezinho puro – hot and strong coffee by the glass. These two just go so well together as a pit stop on any street. I can't honestly say where the bread ends and the cheese begins in these beautiful little savory morcels.

Pastéis - While waiting at bus stops and the like I tried the pastels (battered and fried pastries) with meat, cheese or shredded chicken filling (which sometimes seems to be the only method of serving chicken here).

Empenadas – Finally I must meniton the very unhealhily fried Brazillian version of the Empenada. They can be bought on the street dirt cheap but can also be bought in restaurants. We've tried beef, veg, etc elsewhere. In Paraty I found them especially good with catupiry (a Brazillian cream cheese), which is sealed inside the coxinha next to the potato. Our extreemely tourist-patient driver from Isla Grande encouraged me to try one at a pit stop along the side of the road. It was salty and delicious as the greasy texture promised. One of these is enough to keep hunger at bay for a few hours from the service station all the way up to Rio.

Monday, 4 October 2010



Chris and I had known to expect huge expense when we arrived in Brazil - in fact, this had been one of the main reasons we had cut our time here short; our remaining budget just wouldn't have carried us through a month here. However, despite so many travellers having warned us of the excessive costs we could expect, it didn't stop our shock at just how much we were spending on mediocre accommodation. The trusty website "" that we had used throughout our trip revealed still more expensive prices in the cities of Sao Paulo and Rio when we planned our stay.

We had hoped that such costs would be reduced when outside these world famous, exciting cities and that we would have a greater chance on our mission for cheap accommodation in the cobble-streeted town of Paraty around three - five hours drive away from Sao Paulo: our journey inevitably fell into the longer, five hour category. Following two unnecessary half hour stops a Brazilian passenger on our bus became very ill so we had an additional emergency stop in the middle of the rainforest at a tiny hospital - crazy!

Imagine our surprise when we realised our arrival in Paraty had coincided with their annual international literary festival which was in its seventh succesful year. For a book geek like me, this was just too exciting. Especially when we saw the programme of speakers was full of huge names like Salmon Rushdie, Isabel Allende and Terry Eagleton. Wow. While this obviously didn't help our chances of finding budget accommodation (in fact, this whole town had been booked out months, if not a whole year, in advance) we were both excited to be here during such an important festival. Luckily for us a couple of German girls had converted an old farm into a hostel very cheaply - it was around a 20 minute walk from the town centre and only offered triple-decker bunk beds but suited us just fine on our budget.

Chris: Paraty was once squarely on the gold rush route as the main port where the gold was then shipped off to Portugal in the 18th century. It was also the main hub of the cachaca trail into the jungle from here. When these two booms were to Rio and elsewhere then began it's deep freeze in time. Today it is preserved as wholely colonial, cobbled and entirely stuck in time.

The town was alive and buzzing with literary types. Something of a shock to the system for those of us who had been backpacking for the last 352 days. The cobbled streets and old, colonial buildings would have taken us right back to Colonia de Sacremento in Uruguay except for the fact that there was so much atmosphere here we could never have mistaken this town for it's silent and sleepy sister across the border. After dumping our bags in the tiny room that was supposed to have enough space for six backpackers and their stuff yet whose floorspace wasn't even large enough for our bags alone, we headed into this wonderful town and immediately checked out the schedule. As luck would have it, Isabel Allende was speaking at that very moment and we were able to sit and watch her on the big screens as she was interviewed. What an atmosphere. Everywhere we walked there was some kind of stall with a different kind of bookish theme:

There were children's books hanging from trees the next day outside the children's reading tent...

After wandering around the huge book shop which sold mainly books and novels written by those authors and critics attending the conference, Chris and I headed for our first caipirinha of the night outside one of the many bars whose tables spilled out onto the cobbled street so we could all listen to the music being played by the barber shop band. (It was then that Chris revealed he'd always thought my dad had been in a barber shop band and was convinced that I or someone else had told him this years ago - the image of this kept me giggling all night!). Strolling around through throngs of middle-aged people who were here for the festival as well as the teenagers of the town excited that their town was on the world map (in the literary world at least), we of course had one of our typical hour-long moments of being unable to decide on a place to eat. This time however, it didn't really matter. There was such a great atmosphere and we could easily procrastinate our decision making by going for caipirinha after caipirinha!

Chris: With 65 islands and 300+ beaches at your doorstep, what a laid back contrast this was to the big city.

The following day, I strolled into town to catch Salmon Rushdie speak - unfortunately for me, his interview shown on the big screens was dubbed in Portuguese. It's fair enough, really, just a little disappointing for the anglophones like me. I rushed back so Chris and I could take a bus out to Trinidad beach which we both agreed deserves a place on our 'Top Ten Beaches of the trip" list. Sipping yet another caipirinha in the dazzling sunlight we just couldn't believe we'd be back home in Europe in just one week.

We really wished our budget (both time and money-wise) could have stretched far enough to spend more time in this town so we could have explored more of it's nearby beaches. What luck though to have stumbled upon an international literary festival!

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Work, Shop, and Food-a-holic Sao Paulo

The very first morning in Brazil was like most mornings in life. For Steph it meant sleep and for me it meant coffee. She went for a nap and I went straight to the local diner on the corner for a cafezinho which was to become one of my favorite rituals in this country.

Before industrialisation, it was coffee that built this city into the magalopolis it is today. And what could be easier than sliding up at the lancheonette on every corner right next to the humongous metal coffee tank. Before you can even try to ask properly, a steaming hot glass of coffee is supplied with several sweetening options on the side – Brazillians seem to love their sugar. I decided to do a little research from the counter with our two guidebooks. Their would be little time to mess around in the mere week we left ourselves to see one of the world's largest and most diverse country.

What I had read was a little intimidating. An introduction to Sao Paulo read like a list rattling-off records that the mammoth city has eclipsed. Firstly, the 29 million people who live here are only overshadowed by Tokyo. You name it and the Paulistanos probably have the most of them in Sao Paulo. The city is also defined by it's physical size - three times bigger than Paris and growing every day. Everything is enormous.

I'm willing to bet that your first impression will be none too charming on the way into town. You might be met with the world's longest stretches of snarled-up traffic (São Paulo redefines rush hour). Otherwise you will soon be greeted by the endless forest of grey tower blocks across the Blade Runner city-centre. I had read that this may be the ugliest, most dangerous city I'll ever love. What Sao Paulo lacked in physical charm, it was about to make up in flair.

The Mercado downtown - We were staying out in Vila Madelena the city's arty quarter, which is both a bit more leafy and completely safe to walk around. São Paulo does have its share of crime, but unlike Rio the worst of it takes place far out from the centre of town.

There were many reasons for our short stay but I won't go into those now. Steph also had a reason to be tired since our 1am departure to Brazil was delayed until 3am giving us a lot of terminal time in the small hours of the night. When she returned to the world of the living, we headed directly downtown on the metro for a bite to eat at the Mercado Municipal before walking around the old city centre. I asked a man on the platform if we were taking the right connecting train. We then got not only his help, his life story, but also an insistance that if we ever needed any help in Brazil, to call him. This experience (in our first Brazilian hour on the street) was not a one-off at all. It was to happen regularly during a week of warmth and incredible friendliness.

Sao Paulo turned out to be a city is filled with energy and sophistication. The Mercado Municipal blew my expectations away. This was no grimy street market or crumbling market hall. It was a pristine, clean and grand old Victorian building filled with Italian wine, meat and cheese shops. We were here in search of one thing only - Sao Paolo's famous mortadella sandwich! This towering masterpiece of hot meat is the official sandwich of the city. And the terrace of Hocca Bar overlooking the market hall was the perfect place to begin our whirlwind tour of this country. The sandwich melted in our mouths almost as fast as it arrived. Some waitors reckon this cafe constructs up to 1500 of them each Saturday.

Bellissima - piled high with sun-dried tomatoes, oregano, sweet peppers marinated in garlic, and provolone melted between meat layers. The Italians emigrated to Brazil to follow work in the coffee trade. It turns out the Japanese also came in large numbers. After a special arrangement between the two governments, there came to be more Japanese here in Sao Paulo than anywhere outside Japan.

We went to walk off our snack around the Luz quarter to the north. This was once the grandest of all neighborhoods in Sao Paulo. The dual railway stations around a pristine park square then slipped into a red light slum. Today it is just now beginning to regain it's elegance.

Play me, I'm yours” - The old Luz Train Station greeted us with the sounds of it's centrepiece - a public grand piano that invites anyone to play.

Next we popped into Bar Leo where I heard we could learn how a Brazillian will masterfully pour a chopp glass of beer (pronounced shopee). The objective is to create as much moose (foam) as possible in the glass - a concept that is pretty much opposite to what Americans and English strive for.

Another cafe to try a chopp was the institution that is the Bar Brahma. As everyone will tell you, this is where Caetano Veloso's soulful song “Sampa” starts out. Legend has it that he wrote it from the huge corner terrace outside. We sat inside for warmth to get our first dose of dark Brazilian beer and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira - literally, Brazilian Popular Music).

The next day again started out with advice from our hostel owner and a true gentleman giving us directions when we were totally lost. Both people were so friendly that I think it would be considered stalkerish anywhere else. I had been told about people's passion to be friendly, and that in Sao Paulo this is even more true since it is such a large city that attracts relatively low number of tourists, compared to say Rio.

Now let me then tell you about my favourite place to visit in Sao Paulo. I can only describe The Museu do Futebol as the louvre of sport, built only last year inside the municipal stadium. Whoever dreamt up this interactive shrine to the beautiful game was an absolute genius. It's design led you through the legends of Brazilian football, who are projected in holograms like Greek gods, through chambers underneath the cement stands of the stadio that echoed with chants from the crowd. World Cup history is documented meticulously year by year as well as visual displays of every aspect of how the game is played. There was even a penalty simulator that also measured the strength in mph of your shot - I got up to 97 kph while Steph peaked at 68.

Brazilian football is the best reminder of why this is known as the beautiful game. I didn't realize that soccer legend Pele was also Brazil’s first black government minister.

We now had to rush off to meet, Vinicius, a Brazilian I had met in a hostel in Argentina, who wanted to take us to lunch. True to form – we got lost again and showed up late. Brazilians do talk about “pontualidade britânica” (British punctuality), but luckily for us turning up 20min late is the norm and traffic is usually the excuse. Vinicius had just arrived to pick us up anyway (due to legitimate traffic) and drove us to lunch to introduce his country famous beans. Now I vividly remembered how passionate Vinicius was about Feijoada and would not stop talking about them a few months ago in Argentina. Any beans that could arise this amount of enthusiasm had to be tried. It was great to know a local friend and fellow traveller. But here Vinicious was in his element as a true Paulistano ambassador who took great pride in entertaining us as his guests.

Feijoada - pork stew served with rice and beans. The national dish is served buffet style on Wednesdays across the city while Brazilian families also cook it up at home or their Saturday lunch.

Then came an afternoon of very successful shopping in Jardins (the Avenue Montaigne or 5th Avenue of Brazil). The neighborhood is not afraid to show of it's bling as the rich and beautiful strut their stuff. Some boutiques are so exclusive that customers even arrive by helicopter. Steph picked up a knockout dress and I opened the floodgates to buying flip flops from the Havaianas shop, I've heard their third quarter earnings were some kind of record).

Custom build your own flip flops in this brand new 3000 square meter headquarters for Brazil's rags-to-riches sandal.

This city reminds me only of New York when it comes to the pace of museums-dining-shopping. No sooner than we could catch our breaths back at the hostel were we due at one of the best pizza restaurants in town. Finding a good restaurant by the way is like finding hay in a haystack or sand at the breach. Tonight we were to meet our friends Kirsten and Dan who incidentally just moved to Sao Paulo to teach at the international school. We learned that their expat arrangement came with incredible benefits, notably a highrise apartment with a pool terrace. Dinner was a chess match trying to extract one another's exciting stories. It was so wonderful to see them.

Let me also tell you something about the pizza in Sao Paolo. Forget the national bean dish. This is by far the favorite food in the city, and it is taken extremely seriously. Apparently there are 6,000 pizzerias that combine to make over 1 million pizzas each and every day. Our restaurant, Braz, is responsible for up to 800 each Sunday night, not to mention the 1000+ that they deliver. I know this is one of the biggest cities in the world, and there is the largest Italian population in South America, but how could they possibly eat that much daily? When I put this question to Vinicius at lunch, he simply shrugged and professed his love for a food that he does indeed eat almost every day.

Today was a sneak peak of what how this was not going to be a cheap place, but the quality would be outstanding. I desperately wanted to stay another day in Sao Paulo but my conscience told me to give the rest of the country a chance. Next time we will take a spin around the Interlagos F1 track (when we can afford it). We still must see the city from the top of the Edifício Itália‎ and the green masse that is Ibirapuera park, Oscar Niemeyer's modernist answer to central park. We return with enough time to hit the nearby Bonete beach - one of Brazil's finest. And I just know we will be back to take another heavy dose of what Sao Paulo does best: museums/shopping/pizzeria/chopp.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Souveniers from Peru

Some tastes to take away and souveniers to remember Peru by.

Our friend Yen was far more adventurous than we were by the looks of some of her photos.

Charqui > If you like beef jerky in the states (or peperami* in England) then you are in for a treat in the Andes. It was the foodtech-savvy Incans who actually invented "charqui" which is what we now know as beef jerky and the word jerky is a derivative of this Quechua word for dried meat. It was typically made of dried alpaca or lama meat back then. Today various forms and preparations of charqui exist in the Andes with the meat of animals such as cows, pigs, and horses.

*Peperami was a “charqui” dried spiced sausage originally manufactured by Unilever for the German market. When the company accidentally sent a shipload to England that was mis-labeled pate, they tried to sell off the shipment by branding it “peperami” which turned into an accidental success.

Coca Tea > The coca leaf helped us in the more strenuous high and low altitudes of the Tren del Sierra and the trek in the Colca Canyon by calming the stomach and alleviating headaches and nausea. A box of coca tea costs next to nothing. However I'm not sure how legal it is to bring too much of this out of the country since coca leaves are what cocaine is made from. Apparently traces of the drug are detectable in your system for two weeks after drinking the tea too.

Also available to take home in your suitcase is a packaged version of Chicha, as previously mentioned in the food blog. Or you could do worse than to part with Inca Cola – a toxic-neon coloured soda that tastes like sweet pineapple.

Alpaca and Llama Wool > We had our own mission. Some of the finest wool in the world can be found in both Peru and Bolivia. Steph was on a hunt to find her Mum some Alpaca wool to knit with. We didn't have many leads to go on in Lima during our last few days. After asking maybe a dozen people around town, we finally made it to where the locals buy their wool, as well as hang out to knit and compare notes. Mission accomplished.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Land of a Thousand Marvels

The sounds of Peru > Ducking out into the city street I would always first hear the rumbling of semi-broken down collectivos. Then came the street vendors, several mumbled “Dollars-Euros” others often blared “Mandarinas!” into a megaphone. Oddly, shops would sometimes have an English Language learning tape broadcasting on a stereo system into the street for reasons I have yet to understand. The city markets had more sights and smells than sounds. It was surprising to hear Quechua, the ancient language of the Incas, when one stall owner would translate our garlic request to another who didn't speak Spanish.

To sum up Peru is like trying to explain your first thoughts approaching Machu Picchu – a little overwhelming to say the least. This country showed us it's rich history, friendly people, tasty and elaborate food, and the enormous blessing of natural beauty from mountains down to sweeping shorelines. On top of all this it was not too expensive, not preventing one from visiting as much of Peru as you want. This country just seemed to tick all the boxes for adventurous travellers.

Machu Picchu and Cusco enchanted us so much that I wrote down a lot of those impressions there and then in the moleskine and online.

One mistake we made was defaulting to the tourist catered Cruz del Sur bus company which charged double price for similar service to that of the dozen or so competitors.

We took some amazing overland journeys by bus in Peru and Bolivia. Often these were the times when we saw the most – both outside and inside the bus. The Inka Express in particular saw us through the sacred valley and all the way to Lake Tikaka, which at 4321 meters looked more like a sea to me. Amazingly, a guide was included on that particular bus and also in almost all of the museums and sights we visited. Sometimes they were state employees. Other times the most they would encourage was a small tip. Each guide was extremely helpful and friendly as we visited places that were steeped in history.

There were two tiny regrets I can think of (very rare in Peru). One was spending time in Ica desert and the other was running out of time to see Nazca. The journey along the desert coast itself was more inspiring than the tourist trap at the Huacachina oasis. Darwin didn't particularly like it (rare) and nor did I. Yes it is a unique place but maybe it just paled in comparison to more inspirational parts of India that we had already seen. Unfortunately we later had to make a tough decision about seeing these mystical lines of Nazca. Apparently the flights overhead are unreliable due to weather and we couldn't afford to gamble our remaining days away. The closest we got to them was when our night bus bisected the monkey's tail on the Panamerican highway late into the night and without us even noticing.

One benefit from visiting Ica was a chat we had with an old man on a bench in the town square. He warned us that Peru was full of mystery, from the lines of Nazca and well beyond. This was true. We did indeed tour the country with many questions unanswered. Like why the heck do electronics stores have motorbikes as their centrepiece with a guy in a panda bear costume dancing to techno blasting on huge speakers? Why did women offer cell phone calls from a dozen mobiles chained to their belts, just standing there waiting for customers outside train stations etc? This gave new meaning to pay-as-you-go. Women who did have their own cell phones also seemed to yell down them as loud as possible as if to speak more clearly and audibly. This was odd. Yet it was nice to see a record amount of women police officers enforcing the law on the streets. I don't understand why, but I rarely ever saw policemen.

These chats were too infrequent with Peruvians. I wish on our entire trip I had had the chance to put all these questions and observations to the people – the greatest source of amazement of all.

Central to a kitchen was the large brick oven, underneath this sometimes were the dens for Cui who, along with chickens often roamed around the kitchen floor freely. Here a guide shows us how Cui have lived in the kitchen since Pre-Incan times.

I've learned here that just like New York City, Lima is completely unrepresentative of the rest of the country. The gap between the country’s rich and poor remains very clear when you travel around. Three out of 10 Peruvians live in poverty as a whole. But in the potato farming terraces of the Andes that number jumps to 7 out of 10. The economic divide is one challenge. What to do with the country’s vast store of mineral resources is another. The mines are polluting the rivers, mountains and jungles thus causing, to me, what seems like a natural contradiction to the Andean respect for mother earth that runs so deep into the culture. Yet Peru is experiencing booming growth, as much as Brazil, while grabbing far fewer headlines and with that comes prosperity, and a rapidly emerging lower middle class. Peru is now the world’s leading producer of silver, and among the top-five producers of gold, zinc and copper. Meanwhile the large ethnic population continues to grow too. When hunting in Chinatown for wool we relied on the helpfullness of many Peruvians from other ethnicities. Today the country prides itself on a rich multi-ethnic population. Peruvians cheerfully greet friends with racial nicknames like negro or chino (not always accurately). Even the former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, who was of Japanese descent, was known as 'El Chino'.

The Sights of Peru > Most towns we visited would have Spanish colonial architecture towards the center and Plaza de Armas. Looking down these streets one can often admire the dark wooden bay windows jutting out. Approaching the market, miracle doctors would entertain me with their tonics. I also enjoyed guessing whether the brightly coloured blanket sacks on women's backs contained potatoes from the market, corn or their little child.

The festive Peruvian people were my favourite to observe in the markets, towns and mountain roadsides. One image really stuck in my mind on a bus journey when I saw a smartly dressed band playing outside a bright blue village church, with smiles on their faces almost as big as their sombreros. In the blink of an eye they were gone.

We did capture many other images on film. The town of Chupaca (as well as Cabanaconde) provided some of the most 'authentic' explorations. This market day was one of those truly local explorations that had Steph and I feeling like we were REALLY travelling. The university parade the next day was one of the 400 festivals that the people from Huancayo put on each year. Steph has already described how in awe we were at moments like these. This particular festival had each of the college professions marching (doctors, lawyers, nurses) while the other half of the town residents watched. Perhaps the handful of festivals we stumbled upon were what really summed up Peru for me. They say that in Peru you don't have to go looking for adventure, it will come to find you. And I don't think you can capture it on film or even in stories. You must go visit Peru for yourself.