Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Cheek by Jowl

After a marathon bus ride from Florianopolis we are now in the spectacular city of Rio de Janeiro. After the near biblical day of rain in Florianopolis the weather came good for our last couple of days and the charm of Santa Catarina began to shine through the off-season gloom. The tennis continued to be a regular fixture as we followed a Canadian player, Peter Polansky, that we got chatting to on the first day as he made his way to the Quarter Finals only to be knocked out by the narrowest of margins. Watching these guys slug it out in the blistering heat of the midday sun was a fantastic and unexpected experience. The overnight bus trip to Rio was more comfortable than expected but it is nice to think that we only have a mere six hour ride remaining to take us from Rio back Sao Paulo next week.

Rio is without doubt one of the most visually spectacular cities in the world and quite unlike any other city we have been to on the trip so far. The city is punctuated by steep mountains that separate the regions and make it feel more compact than it actually is. The main beaches of Ipanema and Copocabana are some of the most densely populated areas in South America as the high rise apartment buildings are crammed into the few blocks between the beach and the lagoon, just a few hundred metres inland. As there are a couple of public holidays this week the beaches were packed with people enjoying the last throws of autumn. The beaches reflect the diversity of life in Rio with each section of the beach ‘claimed’ by a different group: the pensioners playing suttlecock, favella kids playing beach football, bronzed poseurs playing beach volleyball in the tightest speedos they could find and only marginally more modest than the beachwear on show in the gay section between the rainbow flags. On Sundays and public holidays they shut down an entire carriage-way of the beach road for runners, rollerbladers and promenaders. This is where people come to see and be seen. It is fair to say that Ipanema beach takes the award for the most inappropriate exercise clothing I have ever seen; who would have thought that an octagenarian would wear a pair of speedos to go running.

After Chile we thought that we had left the most expensive country on our trip but Brazil has been a real eye opener. Our room in the Mango Tree Inn is possibly the worst value for money we have had thus far at $65 US for what if effectively a damp shed with a bunk bed. The restaurants are equally extortionate with fish and meat main courses in the region of $30-35 each we are talking London prices. As we head up the coast tomorrow to Buzios for our final attempt at a sunny beach stay we are hoping for a little self-catering to ease the strain on our already hemorrhaging budget.

The strangest thing about Rio is the proximity of extreme wealth and poverty. This morning we went on an organised tour of a couple of Favellas. These areas of the city house the poorest of Rio’s inhabitants and are effectively outside of government control. The Favellas are controlled by organised crime syndicates that run drug franchises around the city and are de facto no-go areas for the police. Robberies and street crime rarely occur in the Favellas as the dealers don’t want to draw attention to the area, this is usually reserved for Ipanema and Copacabana. However, as the balance of power ebbs and flows within the gangs there are regular shoot-outs as turf wars reach their inevitable conclusion. Recent investments by NGOs and the Inter-American Development Bank have improved infrastructure in these makeshift areas bringing rudimentary healthcare and eduction to the families that desperately need it. However, what is most striking is how close the Favellas are to some of the most affluent parts of town with single roads lined with million dollar houses on one side and tenements on the other. Education is the only path the kids in the Favellas have to escape the cycle of poverty but few have access to good quality public schooling. Hopefully this will change as the government begins to provide the much needed investment that address the needs of this underclass, until then the dealers will rule and have plenty of willing recruits with a shortened life expectancy.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Off-season melancholy

There is something melancholy about beach resorts in the off season. Restaurants stand empty save for the rows of tables with seats stacked upside down, legs in the air. Shops selling flip-flops and swimwear have brown paper messages plastered on the inside of the window: ‘Stock Liquidation’; ‘Final Clearance 50% off’. Sand drifts down the street, blown on the wind along the curb until it forms into drifts against a stick lodged in front of the storm drain. On our first day on the Isla de Santa Catarina, outside the city of Florianopolis, the overcast skies brought a chill to the air and the gloom added to the off-season quiet of a town slowly dropping into hibernation. Bright flowers in the courtyard of our hostel, a warm oasis in the doleful tranquility of the resort, indicate what might have been if we had arrived a month or so ago. Bathed in sunshine and bustling with holiday makers, this town would be positively radiant, however, the weather and season conspire to suppress the joie de vivre and dampen the spirits of even the ebullient Brazilians.

We had come to Brazil with visions of white sandy beaches bathed in sunshine and ice cold caiparinhas. With two weeks remaining on the continent we were prepared to surrender to the sound of the sea lapping against the shore, read a book and mentally adjust to the prospect of a return to ‘everyday life’. Being well seasoned travelers now we have both learnt to always have a Plan B and to adjust to the situation at hand. As such, we have a second beach trip planned to Buzios after a brief trip to Rio and have stumbled across an ATP Challenger Tour tennis event just down the road; entrance is free and the standard is fantastic and with a bit of luck the next couple of days will bring more sunshine to boot.

I mentioned in my post about Buenos Aires that we were already starting to think about home and the prospect of ‘business as usual’. After several months on the road the frustrations of an itinerant life are always close to the surface: the constant packing and unpacking of bags; the limitations of restaurant food for every meal; the need to pay for activities that at home would cost nothing; and, the inability to access the everyday amenities of home. As we get closer to our return the lure of normality becomes more real and compelling. However, we are both conscious that we don’t want to suffer the inevitable feelings of anticlimax that also accompany the end of such an epic trip and the only way we know to avoid this is to begin planning new experiences. Strange as it may seem, I am really looking forward to getting back to work and all the challenges that it will bring, however, I have also missed being able to get out and ride, run and walk in the way that I can when we are at home. With that in mind I have a number of plans afoot to enter events in the summer and to set myself some longer term goals for endurance events that will test my limits and bring structure and meaning to my training. Luckily it looks like I will have someone to push me on as my good friend Simon is also looking for a challenge. We have bandied around a few ideas and will continue to do so until mid-May when we will meet in person to agree a schedule. Knowing how we are, I suspect that there will be a distinctly competitive edge to it, all the better to focus the mind.

Turning up the heat

The thunderous wall of water seems to vaporise before it hits the plunge pool 60 metres below. From the viewing platform above the Devil’s Throat the river seems sedate in its passage towards the precipice, slowly flowing around islets of vegetation, barely a few feet deep. Fish swim lazily from rock to rock seemingly oblivious to the commotion less than twenty metres downstream. As the water flows over the terminal face of the falls the light refracts through the gentle curve of the fall before it reaches the vertical and dissipates into millions of individual droplets. As they fall further they form an homogenous meld of foaming white water that crashes into the plunge pool below, frothing and seething, sending a billowing cloud of vapour high above the falls.

The Devil’s Throat is the showpiece of the Iguaçu Falls, but there are several falls that match it or surpass it in power. What makes Iguaçu unique is the breadth of the horseshoe and the panoramic sweep of the falls. From the Argentinean side it is possible to see several aspects of the falls and you get a real feel for the sheer size and majesty of the spectacle. Well marked paths cut through the jungle guiding visitor to all the best viewpoints and a small train carries passengers to the walkway at the top of the falls. The humidity and heat of the jungle hold the perfume of the jungle plants close to the ground as the oppressive heat of the midday sun smothers the low lying canopy of vegetation. Copious butterflies flit from tree to tree searching for moisture and nectar, each variety seemingly seeking to out compete the next in the colour stakes.

The fact that we got to the falls at all was an achievement in itself. A group of local residents, exasperated by the governments lack of funding for education had taken to the streets and blockaded the one arterial route that links the town to Falls and the airport. Traffic was backed up all day and the picket lines were locked down. Luckily, on our way out we had reached the picket before they had enough critical mass to stop us crossing, however, our bus was not able to cross so we resorted to a mixture of hitchhiking and walking to get to the falls. On our return the traffic tailed back several kilometres and the barricade was watertight; no amount of talking and gesticulating could get us through. As we baked under the full force of the sun the mass of pedestrians grew and the clamour to get through increased until it was decided by the protestors to open the lines to pedestrians to ease the pressure. The legacy of civil disobedience in South America is longstanding and protest is a natural extension of the process of negotiation; whether it is parents demanding better education, water taxi drivers demanding more money or farmers challenging the onerous tax burden on their produce, demonstrators remonstrate in the loudest possible terms.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Lofts, boutiques and La Boca

Buenos Aires is the beating heart of South America popular culture. A long history of European immigration has left an indelible mark of old and new Europe on this city. From the architecture of San Telmo and the Parisian flair of the Belles Artes style public buildings to the ever-present campaign posters of Berlusconi aimed at the voting power of the Italian diaspora, the links to Europe abound.

After five days of wandering around the streets of Buenos Aires it was sometimes hard to believe that we were in South America with all the street-style boutiques, couture stores and cafes bustling with cosmopolitan Porteños. However, move South of San Telmo and you quickly find yourself in La Boca, the home of Boca Juniors (the club made famous by the eponymous Diego Maradona). La Boca is the ‘other’ side of Buenos Aires; altogether grittier and more in-keeping with the Barrios of Lima and Quito. As we made our way to the La Bombonera (the Boca Stadium) we could see families seated on the steps of their tenement buildings, drinking and chatting in the warm, late summer evening. Along the streets, vendors were selling knock-off merchandise and impromptu grills were smoking with tripe and chorizos dripping fat onto the red hot coals, fanned constantly with a copy of the evening paper by the distracted owner.

Inside the stadium the atmosphere was electric. Stood behind the home team’s goal, the entire stand opposite seemed to throb to the beat of the drummers within their midst; a jumping mass of blue and yellow chanted for ninety minutes without stopping for breath. The football was mediocre at best, but the experience was unforgettable.

San Telmo used to be the home of the wealthy Portenos before they moved north to Recoleta. Now, San Telmo has become gentrified again with artists, photographers and fashionistas moving into loft apartments and a thriving market for antiques, lively bars, clubs and restaurants. A brief flick through the Buenos Aires Time Out will confirm how cutting edge BA has become with avant garde artists, musicians and designers producing work on a par with what you may see in London, New York or Milan.

Just a ten minute cab ride north takes you to Recoleta, the heart of old money Buenos Aires. High rise apartment blocks with ornate atria and twenty four hour service, tower above a grid of couture boutiques and saddlery shops frequented by the wealthy polo playing community. The buildings overlook the Cementerio de la Recoleta, the resting place of Argentina’s rich and famous (including Eva Peron - Evita); bringing back memories of the old money apartment blocks on the Upper East Side of New York, bordering Central Park. The coffee shops buzz with ‘ladies who lunch’. chain smoking and quaffing impossibly small coffees. Cars double park outside the malls, protected by their diplomatic plates and blacked out windows. Every now and then a tiny lady with totter out of the mall laden with bags from Dior, Versace et al, hand them off to a driver and jump in the back, shielded from eye contact by over-sized dark glasses.

I look forward to returning to Buenos Aires in the future with a budget to shop and party whilst staying in the Faena Hotel + Universe. After nearly four months backpacking it was great to spend time in a pseudo-European city doing all the things we would do on a European city break. We are now into the three week countdown to our return and mentally we are trying to readjust to the prospect. Our final stint in Brazil will be more like a holiday as we spend time on the beach preparing for home. We are strangely looking forward to heading back to the UK, the promise of seeing friends and family is so enticing that we are palpably excited at the thought. We are already planning the next phase of ‘life at home’ but more on that later...

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Shaded by Sycamores

Sycamore’s line the matrix of streets in Mendoza turning what should be a parched, dusty city into a grid of dappled, shady streets and avenues. The Centre of the town is dominated by the Plaza de Independencia and its four satellite squares, one at each corner. Our hostel was located on a a broad, tree lined avenues several blocks away from the centre of town where, on either side of the streets wide irrigation channels bring precious water from the nearby Andes to sustain the sycamores with their smooth, peeling bark and mottled green leaves. The wine lovers amongst you may recognise Mendoza as the heart of the Argentinian wine industry. The long, warm summers and plentiful supply of meltwater from the Andes provide ideal conditions for red wine production and this is evident in the number of vineyards and winemakers in the area.

On our second day in Mendoza we took a tour (not the best but fairly informative) of the vineyards to get an idea of how the industry works in this part of the world. We were shown around three very different winemakers: the first, a large scale commercial winemaker (Weinert) several hundred of thousand bottles a year; the second, a smaller scale commercial vineyard; and, the last was a boutique, family run affair that concentrated only on what they could make in a small barn. The Weinert winery made both red and whites but concentrated on blended reds for the mass market. Their wines were generally made in vast concrete chambers lined with epoxy paint and then aged in giant oak casks. None of the wines we tasted their were anything to shout about.

The second winery was much more interesting. It had been set up by an Italian who had tired of mass production and was aiming for quantity over quality. He made several wines including a Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec blend but focused on high quality Malbec, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. What I found particularly interesting was that they had taken white wine production techniques from Australia and New Zealand including liquid nitrogen cooling techniques and malolactic fermentation, that turns the green apple like malic acid into the softer, more buttery lactic acid.

The final vineyard we went into also played host to our buffet lunch, a collection of cold meats, juicy meat empenadas and artesenal cheeses. As it happens, the wine made on the premises was probably the best, despite the fact that it was served in bottles without labels. The lunch was delicious and quite typical of the region. The meats and cheeses were all served on platters made from the remnants of old oak wine barrels and the vegetables, roasted or pickled including beetroot and red cabbage.

In addition to the vineyards we visited a beautiful modern distillery. The building had been designed by an local architect using local materials in a very modern style blending industrial and domestic methods. The grounds had been landscaped and planted with Cypress, cacti and lavenders to take advantage of the warm weather and arid conditions. It brought home to me how much great architecture, classical and modern there is in this part of Latin America; I look forward to seeing more when we go to Brazil as I hear that Sao Paulo and Rio have some amazing new buildings.