Sunday, 13 March 2016

The end of the road

I've now been home from South America for 2 weeks. I can't really believe it's been that long already but at the same time it almost doesn't feel real that I was ever there. But before I get into that, I've got my last week and a half in Brazil to talk about- I wrote half this post while I was still there so forgive the mixing of tenses...

Please excuse me for using a Boyz II Men song as the title for the post- it was stuck in my head from the taxi I was in earlier. I'm currently on the way to São Paulo; Sod's law that my final bus of the trip is one of the only ones that has had working wifi. I'm flying home tomorrow, or rather I'm flying to Casablanca, hanging around for 6 hours and then I'm flying home. But first I've got to write a bit about my time in Salvador!
The day after Jack left I caught a flight to Salvador, about 2 hours north from Rio. If you ask most other travellers the first thing they'll say is that Salvador is cool but feels pretty sketchy. The lonely planet actually says 'if you're going to be mugged in Brazil, it'll happen in Salvador'. You can imagine my delight then when the taxi driver clearly didn't have a clue where my hostel was and just stopped on a road somewhere in the area and told me to get out. Luckily I found it after 5 minutes of wandering. 
Salvador has a different feel to the rest of the places I've been in Brazil. The history of the city isn't the best; it used to be the biggest port in the Americas for importing slaves and pretty much all of the buildings in the old town area were built by slaves. Nowadays the demographic is 90% African descendants, however my walking tour guide told me that unfortunately there still a lot of racism present in the city today.

The old town, Pelourinho, is where most tourists tend to stick to and the buildings are all very colourful and beautiful. Unfortunately the many shops in the area all sell the exact same overpriced souvenirs and paintings which was a bit disappointing. However a few days into my stay in Salvador I went on a free walking tour called Rebel Salvador, run by a guy named Pedro. While I found him to be a little dramatic at times, the tour was very good at getting out of the tourist bubble and seeing some places you'd never go alone. He also told us a lot about the current problems within the city- despite it holding a UNESCO world heritage site title, which should protect it from development, the government are tearing down buildings they shouldn't be and proposing to evict families who have lived in one street for generations in order to create boutique hotels. A group of locals are appealing to UNESCO and are raising money to help these families but the situation isn't looking good so far. It's a shame because I think Salvador has a lot of potential; if only the government could spend money where it's actually needed.

I also visited the Basilica do Senhor do Bonfim, which is a pretty famous church in the city. The railings surrounding the church are covered in wish ribbons, in about 10 different colours, all tied on by people who have prayed for their loved ones inside the church. I won't lie, I have no religious beliefs myself but it was still very impressive.

There's even a room inside the church with photos of people who have been 'blessed' all over the walls, and there are also lots of replica plastic body parts hanging from the ceiling which are meant to represent things people have prayed for there. Plastic hearts, hips, arms, heads, name it, it'll be there. It was a bit creepy to be honest!

I bought my own wish ribbon outside the church; you're supposed to make three wishes, tie the ribbon around your wrist with three knots and when it falls off your wishes come true. We'll see; if I ever end up living in a penthouse apartment in New York with a very rich husband, you'll know why...
I also had a popcorn blessing outside the church. Yes, a popcorn blessing. A woman in traditional dress came up, put some sort of oil on my forehead with her thumb and proceeded to say some things I didn't understand in portugeuse to me while throwing popcorn/corn kernels over my head. I have no idea why, I wish I could tell you! I just hope it actually was a blessing and not some sort of curse.

Overall I did enjoy Salvador, despite being very aware that by this point I was running out of steam a bit. My hostel also had a free caipirinha hour every night too which never hurts! Though I dread to think of the damage that almost 2 months of daily caipirinhas did to my poor teeth. I left Salvador on the Tuesday of my final week, which is a bit of a shame as apparently that's the day when all the fun happens! After that I went back to Rio for 2 more nights in Books hostel, where I honestly did nothing of interest. I felt I'd already done a lot in Rio and as I said, I was feeling pretty exhausted by this point. On Thursday I spent the day on the bus back to Sao Paulo where we got caught up in one of the worst thunder storms I've ever seen.

My flight from Sao Paulo to Casablanca was probably the scariest I've ever done. For one thing, it was the oldest plane ever. Secondly, even though the plane was already delayed, when we finally did board we were sat for about an hour waiting to set off. I was starting to get annoyed and try find out what was happening when all of a sudden 6 policemen boarded the plane, went over to a passenger on my row and asked for his boarding pass. Next thing he was being escorted off the plane and the cabin crew were searching all the overhead bins and pulling his seat apart. I have no idea what they were searching for but the guy never got back on the plane. Needless to say I was feeling pretty nervous after that and couldn't really relax for the first few hours of the flight. Much to my delight we landed in Casablanca safe and well, and after a few hours waiting around it was time to board my flight to Heathrow. A few episodes of Sex & the City later and I'd arrived back on British soil, exactly 7 months after I left it. After the standard long wait to get through passport control, I went to pick up my rucksack for the last time, expecting my bad luck to have kicked in and it to have gone missing. Luckily it hadn't and I was free to go meet my parents, where they were eagerly awaiting my arrival with a 'welcome home Hannah' sign and bovril sandwich in tow. We headed back to my sisters house for my requested indian takeaway and I slept in a room by myself for the first time in 7 months. I can't describe how well I slept that night.

As I said, it's now been two weeks since I got back to good old Yorkshire. It's been a lovely (but horribly cold) two weeks- I've been lucky enough to see almost all of my friends in that time and catch up with everyone. It's strange because everything is so familiar and most people say it feels like I never went away. It even feels like that to me sometimes. But at least I know that I have the added bonus of so many wonderful memories with some great new friends to help me through the next few weeks of job hunting, as well as the first tan of my life to serve as a reminder.

To anyone whose been following this blog throughout my little adventure, thank you and I hope you've enjoyed reading! Although I've been quite lazy and some of my blog posts are definitely the result of multiple text reminders from my parents, I'm really glad that I've tried to document my trip and I know I can look back in years to come and be amazed by how brave I was when I was 22. I'm hoping to do a few more posts on things that may interest anyone who is planning their own trip to South America- which I hope will be all of you reading this! For now, I'm happy to be home. I was ready to relax, recharge and eat good cheese again. But I know I'll be back- I definitely haven't got rid of my travel bug just yet...

Monday, 22 February 2016

Christ and carnival

Rio de Janeiro is one of those places on my trip that I was really excited to finally get to. Everybody knows Rio, everyone has seen the photos of Christ the redeemer looking out over the city and pretty much everyone you meet on tour way tells you how much they love it there. Now I'm just another one of those people! Warning- this post is pretty picture heavy as I finally stopped being lazy with my camera.
When we first got to Rio we stayed in a hostel in an area called Leme, an old favela close to Copacabana beach. The area has been regenerated and feels nothing like a favela these days and seems very safe. I think one of the great things about Rio in general is the diversity of the city and the people living there- it's a lot harder to tell who is a local and who is a tourist and there seems to be less judgement of the poorer people living on the streets. We decided to head to Rio a few days before carnival started in order to get a lot of the touristy stuff out of the way before the madness of all day street parties kicked off. Our first tourist destination to tick off was sugarloaf mountain. Jack, Andrew, his friend Nick and myself all set off on a boiling hot day to go find the cable cars to take us to the top. There are two cable cars and I've heard that you can walk for the second one but I've no idea how/who would be daft enough to do so! The views at the top are pretty great with all the beaches and Christ peeking over the clouds in the distance. 

However this view paled, in my opinion, in comparison to what we did the next day. A few friends who had recently been to Rio recommended that we go do the two brothers mountain at the end of Ipanema beach. I was told it was a half hour hour walk up so you can imagine the shock and horror on my face when we got close to it and I was faced with these monsters (this photo taken later on in the day at sunset). 

So, the way to do the two brothers is to go to the bottom of the Vidigal favela. From there you get a motorbike taxi about 2/3 of the way up the mountain- which was pretty terrifying, those motorbike drivers are even crazier than normal taxi drivers! Then you're dropped off near some football courts, you go behind them and start hiking. I think everyone reading this by now has read enough tales of me hiking to know I probably didn't love this part- bear in mind it was about 35 degrees and humid as hell. On the way up you pass lookout points where you look down into the favela below, which is so far down at this point that it looks like it's made of lego.

After a bit more walking, about 45 minutes in total (probably faster without me holding you back), you get to the top and the view is incredible. Unlike at sugarloaf there's hardly anybody else up there and there are no railings so you're free to get as close to get edge as you like! I may have moaned the whole way up (seriously don't do anything that involved uphill walking with me if you have no patience) but it was so worth it and is probably one of the best things I did in my time in Rio. It's also really cool to see the favela on the way up and down the mountain- it's amazing how they managed to build whole towns on the side of a mountain and when you're looking over the whole of Rio it's very easy to spot them dotted all over the city. You can do favela tours but we decided against doing one as we weren't sure how much they benefit the people who live in them and in a way reduces them to being a tourist attraction which I'm not sure I feel comfortable with. 

The next day, feeling like very good travellers for being so productive, the four of us decided it was finally time to go see the big guy. Again, you can walk up the road leading to Christ the Redeemer but we decided that we weren't feeling quite that unhinged and instead went to go get the shuttle bus up there. Much like when I got to Machu Picchu, I find it pretty hard to describe what it's like when you're actually there staring up at the huge statue, apart from the obvious that it's really impressive! The only problem is just the amount of other tourists up there- it takes so long to try get 'that' photo without other people or their selfie sticks invading it. By the end Jack and I were just trying to get in as many other people's photos as possible- spiteful maybe but entertaining all the same. 

We didn't do too much on the nights for our first few days apart from venturing a couple of blocks down to Copacabana beach to sit and drink a few beers. However the next day we moved to our hostel in Botafogo which we were using as a base for Carnival. We also met back up with Neil there who we spent Christmas and New Years with so it was lovely to see him again! 
Carnival is basically constant street parties known as 'blocos'- it's impossible to keep track of them yourself but luckily our hostel had a list of them all on the wall, as well as highlighting the ones they recommended for each day, which helped us out no end. The festivities started on Friday the 5th, so that morning we all headed into town to pick up some costume items. We'd heard that people go all out dressing up for the parties so we all grabbed a strange and wonderful mix of things, plus a lot of glitter, and went back to the hostel to get dressed. That night we decided to head to a bloco on Copacabana beach where we watched a big parade and then just continued the night amongst the crowds, drinking and having fun spotting all the other costumes out there. 

One of the real highlights of carnival was the sambadrome on Sunday night. We decided to get tickets pretty last minute and in true traveller style got the cheapest ones possible, meaning we were in the final block where the parade finishes. I had no idea what to expect of the sambadrome but we had so much fun! The parade starts at 9pm and there are 6 different samba schools competing, then another 6 the next night. Each school has a different theme and each parade lasts at least an hour, meaning it ends up being a pretty late night! The floats and costumes were incredible to see and absolutely huge- being at the end of the sambadrome meant that we got a good view of the cranes at the end that were used to get the dancers down from the floats, so that gives you an idea of how big they were! All the locals in the crowd are singing and dancing along giving a really fun atmosphere, despite none of us having a clue what any of the words to the songs were. As the night went on I started feeling pretty sick so a few of us left at about 4am but I don't think it ended properly until at least an hour after. All my photos are taken with my iPhone so excuse the quality- unfortunately you hear a lot of stories of people being mugged on their way to the sambadrome so I decided not to take my proper camera.

The next morning I was feeling better, very luckily, as we were heading off to the bloco that we were most excited about; Sargento Pimenta, which was described as 'The Beatles to a samba rhythm'. I know, doesn't that sound like so much fun? Off we went at 10am, armed with some cans of Skol Beats (sort of like Smirnoff ice but stronger) to the park where it was being held which was absolutely packed and boiling hot. As soon as the band kicked off we knew we were in for a good time- they started with a medley of a few different songs, which ended in one of my favourites, twist and shout. They went on over the next three and a half hours to play pretty much every Beatles song I know, including a lot of the less well-known songs. The surprising thing was that so many of the locals around us knew every word just as well as Jack and I did! I think this bloco actually beats the sambadrome as my favourite part of carnival- I think there are a few videos of them on YouTube if you're interested, but if you ever happen to be at Rio Carnival in the future please go to see them!

Over the days we went to various parties across the city, but the other bloco we were really excited for was a Super Mario themed bloco up in Santa Teresa. We went up there at the right time and found various Marios and Luigis up there but unfortunately the bloco never really kicked off. However the organisers had hung a few pixelated coins from the trees- Jack and his stepbrother managed to get one down so we could at least entertain ourselves by putting it over the heads of the disappointed dressed up Marios. I was also given a costume that someone had taken from the sambadrome to wear for a bit which I appreciated as most of my costume items had been lost or discarded over the course of Carnival. 

Needless to say, the few days after carnival were pretty uneventful. A lot of Netflix was watched and a lot of sleeping was done. Jack and I also went to go see The Revenant at the cinema as it turns out most foreign films are shown in the original language in Brazil. It felt strange to be doing something so normal in Rio! On the Friday we then moved to our final hostel in Rio which was in an area called Lapa, which is where a lot of travellers stay but is maybe a little less safe than other areas we stayed in. Our hostel there, called Books, was really cool though and was a good place to spend a few days before Jack finished his trip and flew home. We went to see the famous Lapa stairs nearby, which were really impressive. Jorge Selaron, a Chilean artist, started working on the stairs in 1990. He wanted to cover the stairs in mosaic-style tiles, originally only using the colours of the Brazilian flag, but eventually using many others and actually asking people from all over the world to send tiles from where they lived to use on the stairs. Because of this there are so many different tiles- I spotted some religious ones, one with the Simpsons on, ones with musicians on and many many more. 

Another day we also went to the maracana football stadium. I wasn't that bothered about going but it was Jacks last full day in South America so I decided to be nice and go with him! I think we'd both agree that the tour itself wasn't the best but at least now I've seen where some of the 2016 Olympics will be held! 

Last Tuesday Jack flew home after 5 months out in South America and about 4 months since I first met him in Cusco! It's very strange to be completely by myself again but I've been in Salvador the last few days- I'll leave that, and my last few days in South America, for yet another update coming soon. 

I really did have such a great time in Rio and Carnival was such a cool time to be there- if you can ever make it there you 100% should go!