You know you're on a bus in Brazil when ...
1. Your bus arrives at the station 45 minutes late and is considered to be "on time" or "ahead of schedule".
2. Your bus, which just arrived 45 minutes late, takes 30 minutes at the station to unload/reload passengers and their amazing volume of baggage, and then stops just 30 meters outside the station and takes another 20 minutes to load up more passengers who were waiting there (like, couldn't these people have just walked to the bus station while they waited?).
3. Your bus has 3 mechanical breakdowns and takes 4 hours to go a total of 87 kilometers.
4. Your bus driver has a full box of tools, uses them at least once per trip, and is also fully adept at making bus repairs using items borrowed from passengers.
5. Your bus has at least one window and possibly other body and/or mechanical parts held together by massive amounts of plastic and tape.
6. Your bus has a washroom, but the toilet doesn't work, and even the bus driver can't fix it!
7. Traveling "only an inch on the map" can take anywhere from 8 hours to 3 days.
8. You're gazing out the window at the countryside, can't see a house, camp, person, horse, dog, chicken, cactus or ANYTHING anywhere in sight ... nor have you seen anything for at least the past 20 miles ... and then someone on the bus rings the bell because they want to get off (like WHERE could they possibly be going?).
9. Your bus has to regularly weave from side to side of the road, often into oncoming traffic, to avoid hitting the BIGGER potholes.
10. Your bus driver occasionally slows down to go over speed bumps which for some inconceivable reason are on all the roads going through even the smallest of towns and villages (must be to slow down the donkey carts cause there ain't much else in some of these villages ... and besides, aren't the mammoth sized potholes enough to slow traffic down?).
11. Your bus has two temperature settings: (1) "cremate hot" with no air conditioning during the day, and (2) "meat-locker cold" with full AC at night (do you think perhaps something's mixed up here?).
12. You're traveling at night trying to sleep (as if!), and the bus regularly hits sections of highway where the asphalt disappears and the road turns into a lumpy bumpy mess of gravel and dirt (incidentally, this would be the main highway between Brasilia and Salvador).
13. Your bus goes screaming through red lights at full speed, causing oncoming cars to skid to a halt, other drivers to honk their horns profusely and make rude hand gestures, and pedestrians to scramble out of the way like the parting of the Red Sea ... and then a few blocks later this same bus comes to a screeching halt to avoid hitting a chicken crossing the road.
14. Even though you're standing at the bus stop (if there is such a thing where you are), you have to jump out into the middle of the road in front of the oncoming speeding bus and wave madly in order to get the bus to stop (which the driver may or may not do, depending on his mood!).
15. You have to go through turn-stills to get on and off the buses that are so stiff most people can't move them unless their name is Hercules, and so narrow it's practically impossible to squeeze through while naked and slathered in baby oil let alone while fully clothed and carrying a large backpack (note to self: after repeatedly maneuvering through Brazilian turn-stills with large backpack in tow, consider a new career as a contortionist with Cirque du Soleil).
Okay, so you probably think I'm joking regarding the above list, don't you? Well, guess again mis amigos, these are honest-to-goodness, real life experiences from the life and times of JP and Connie as we traveled on buses in Brazil, and believe me this list could have been at least 5 times longer! In the four weeks that JP and I traveled together we took 24 different national buses, spent a total of 81 hours traveling on the darn things, and probably accumulated another 20-30 hours waiting in stations for bus connections. We had, after all, wanted to see the "real Brazil" - rural settings, local people and all that - what better way than by traveling with the locals. In hindsight, however, maybe a few flights to cover some of the longer distances would have been a good idea...
Anyway, to start at the beginning, I flew into Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of October expecting, as one does when visiting Rio, to be mugged at gunpoint, raped and/or murdered within seconds of exiting the aircraft. It was early evening, already after dark when I arrived. I could've, and probably should've considering the time, taken a taxi from the airport to the part of town where I was to meet JP. But nooooooo, for some reason I decided to take the cheaper shuttle bus service into town. Only problem was, there were lots of shuttle buses going to lots of areas in the city, and without understanding Portuguese I couldn't decipher what the girl selling tickets was trying to tell me.
That's when I experienced my first random act of kindness in Brazil. Seeing my communication difficulties, an English-speaking Brazilian in the queue stepped up to offer his assistance. Within minutes I was engulfed not within a gang of murdering thieves, but within a circle of kind people trying to figure out which bus I should take, where I should get off, and exactly where my hotel was from there. Once on the correct bus, people were giving me maps of Rio, making suggestions for places to visit, etc. What a wonderfully warm reception, and a total contrast to what I had expected from Rio de Janeiro.
However, all that being said, once off the bus I still got my gear together in record time and practically sprinted to the hotel! And shortly thereafter I was once again in the company of my travel buddy JP, reminiscing about adventures we shared last year in Southeast Asia, and plotting a course for our upcoming travels together through Brazil. But first we had Rio to explore.
With a population of over 7 million, Rio de Janeiro is Brazil's second largest city (São Paulo beats all with >23 million) and was the former capital of Brazil until Brasilia stole that designation in 1960. It's home of the world-famous Carnaval and the world-famous Copacabana Beach, and is said to occupy "one of the most spectacular settings on the planet".
Notwithstanding the crowds of tourists, long queues and extortion rate admission fees, JP and I visited a couple of the viewpoints to see if we agreed with this spectacular setting designation. We took the slow and scenic cog train up the 710-meter summit of Corcovado where the huge "Christ the Redeemer" statue overlooks Rio with outstretched arms. Despite our train being in a little fender-bender with another train enroute we really enjoyed the ride, and the view from up top was spectacular. We also took two accident-free cable cars to the top of "Sugar Loaf", the 400-meter peak that springs up from Rio's beachline, and from there enjoyed more stunning views of the city.
We strolled among the sun worshippers on Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. JP was particularly interested in the selection of women's swimsuits crafted from tiny strings of dental floss or some other barely-there fabric and design. But the street vendors were quite relentless, theft on the beach is prevalent, and quite honestly we've seen more pristine and beautiful beaches on islands in the Caribbean ... so we looked (a lot) but didn't linger.
At a glance, Rio is a city with postcard-perfect scenery and beautiful beaches. Luxury highrises and resorts line the beaches. Popular tourist areas are filled with expensive shops, bars, clubs and restaurants. But if you look a little closer you can easily see its less-than-attractive underbelly, which of course every city possesses. The streets and beaches are full of homeless and beggars. The air is hazy with smog. The water lapping those beautiful beaches is polluted. Bordering the ritzy areas and spreading up the hills are vast "favelas", or ghettos, where a large percentage of Rio's population lives in terrible squalor with inadequate housing and non-existent sanitation. Taxi drivers won't even take you to these areas, no matter how much money you offer, because they're considered too dangerous for locals let alone tourists. So, after only one very long and busy day of sightseeing, we were happy to leave the big city behind and head out into rural Brazil.
Our eventual destination was Jericoacoara, a remote village on the northeast coast of Brazil, and home of Les & Vera, friends of JP. So with that in mind, we plotted a course that would see us zigzagging into the central interior of Brazil and back out again to the coast while generally heading in a northerly direction.
We started our journey in Minas Gerais, a region littered with lovely old colonial towns, beautiful architecture and tales from the past. We spent a few days in Ouro Prêto, a town founded in 1711 amidst the western hemisphere's richest gold deposits. By the mid 18th century half the gold production in the world was being mined at Ouro Prêto. We visited "Minas de Ouro", a former gold mine where we took a rickety old tramcar operated by an ancient steam engine down into the mine pit (the brief tram ride itself was more interesting than the actual tour!). We also visited Diamantina, a boomtown in 1720 when diamonds were discovered. Both towns were fun to explore as they have well-preserved colonial architecture, cute little artesan shops, fabulous restaurants, and very steep cobbled streets which were lovely to look at but a killer to climb without coughing up a lung and/or deadly to walk down when it rained which was often.
Now, you'd be mistaken if you think the Portuguese actually got their own hands dirty in the mines of Brazil. So, in my quest to provide everyone with a little education about the places I visit, I'm going to pause for a moment to give a quick history lesson on Brazil.
In the beginning there was Brazil, a country inhabited by various tribes of Indians. Along came the Portuguese in the 1500's to claim the land as their own. The Portuguese started exporting brazilwood to Europe (the tree from which the country gets its name, but not from which the brazil nut comes) and the Indians provided the manpower, first voluntarily and then as slaves. With the discovery of sugarcane came the need for more workers. Which meant more Indians were hunted and enslaved. Rebellions broke out, the Indians won/lost a few, but eventually more Indians were captured, forced into slave labor, and cruelly treated. Then gold, diamonds and other precious gems/metals were discovered and exported back to Mother Portugal, and still more manpower was needed. That's when the Africans entered the picture. Slave trading became Brazil's second largest industry. Approximately 3.5 million African slaves were shipped to Brazil between the 16-19th centuries. Being stronger and more resilient to those nasty European diseases, Africans eventually replaced Indians as workers on plantations and in the mines. Finally, to wrap this up, over the next hundred or so years mining production tapered off, coffee replaced sugar as Brazil's primary export, Brazil gained independence from Portugal, and slavery was abolished. And this in a nutshell is the history of Brazil and basically an explanation of why the people of Brazil have such an interesting blend of Caucasian, Negro and Indian skin/hair color and physical features.
Our next stop was Porto Seguro, a resort town further north on the coast. Disregarding the advice of bus companies who would have taken us on what we thought was an inefficient travel route we decided, in our infinite wisdom, to take a "shortcut". It meant traveling on some minor roads through some smaller towns, but we figured it was a more direct route and would save some time. Well, as you probably guessed, that little shortcut cost us about 3 extra days of travel as we hit an endless supply of bad roads, bad buses, and bad bus connections.
We ended up in places where I'll bet we were the first foreign tourists in town. We had lots of little misadventures, mostly just stuff we laughed about later, and we kept reminding ourselves that we had, after all, wanted to experience the "real Brazil". Anyway, strangely enough we had what was probably one of our best meals in Brazil in one of these one-horse towns - a reward for our struggles. The restaurant was actually in the parking lot of a petrol station, the tables were right beside the pumps, and there was a sweet smell of gasoline in the air as we ate, but the food was fantastic!
Porto Seguro was a great place to recover from our days of hard travel. Its claim to fame is being the place where the Portuguese first touched down in Brazil. It has a beautiful palm tree lined beach, a great selection of fresh fish and seafood restaurants, tons of shops, bars and nightclubs for those so inclined, and a lovely historical old town area perched on the cliff overlooking the modern new town area below. And best of all, it's where I caught my first glimpse of the "capoeira", Brazil's ancient form of martial art that has evolved into a very skillful dance. Woohoo, let me tell you, the guys who perform the capoeira are young, bare-chested, extremely buff, MAJOR eye-candy! Oh, and the dance was pretty good too!
Our next major bus journey was to Lençóis, due west of Salvador in the Parque Chapada Diamantina, known as one of the most beautiful interior parks in Brazil. Unfortunately we didn't have enough time for one of the multi-day treks that promised great exercise and adventure, but we did a few day trips where we snooped through huge caves filled with clearwater lakes and stalagmite/stalactite formations, hiked to waterfalls, and climbed to the top of flat-topped hills that were somewhat reminiscent of the scenery in the old Disney roadrunner/coyote cartoons, and from which we saw spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding area.
Leaving Lençóis, we made a brief overnight stop in Salvador da Bahia, where we almost died laughing when we realized we had checked into a hotel that normally "charges by the hour", realizing this only when we saw the large round bed and the "interesting" selection of minibar items. The next day we continued on to Praia do Forte, a tiny eco-tourism village just north of Salvador with white sandy beaches, one small street with a few hotels, shops and fresh fish restaurants, and "Projecto Tamar", a sea turtle sanctuary with conservation/education programs. It was hot and sunny and definitely a cute little place to chill for a few days.
We blasted fairly quickly through the next series of seaside places - Maceió, Recife, João Pessoa - places that had been recommended to us but none that we found particularly interesting. The only noteworthy point is that at João Pessoa we visited the "Ponta de Seixas", the eastern-most tip of South America.
Finally we arrived in Fortaleza, a modern city somewhat reminiscent of Miami with tall highrises lining the beach, where we met up with Les and Vera. After a few days of wining, dining and shopping, we packed up Les' 4WD truck and headed to Jericoacoara.
"Jeri", as it's called in Brazil (probably because nobody can properly pronounce the entire name), has tons of beach and tons of wind ... a perfect combination for windsurfing and kiteflying, both of which are sports that JP and his buddy Les are passionate about. It sits in the middle of a national sand dune park so when the wind blows, the sand flies ... lots of it. And since the wind blows strong everyday in Jeri, it seems that sand is constantly getting into everything and everywhere!
A former tiny fishing village until a few years ago, Jeri started to develop as a tourist destination once the surfers and kiters discovered the beach and wind. It's still a quaint little place, but now has a good selection of restaurants and beach bars to satisfy the surfers and a number of windsurfing and kiteflying schools.
Jeri is a place where beach buggies (pronounced "boogies" here) and 4WD vehicles rule. The streets of Jeri are made of sand. To reach Jeri you have to drive through the sand dunes or along the beach. Behind windsurfing and kiteflying, the most popular form of recreation is hopping in a buggy and heading out into the dunes, which we did a number of times. Let me tell you, after a few day trips in the dunes on the back of a buggy, I really know what the term "sandblasted" means!!
We spent a fun-filled week of R&R in Jeri, visiting with Les & Vera and playing in the big sandbox. But after that it was time for me to say goodbye to my buddy JP who was staying in Jeri for one more week before heading home. And it was time for me to head back to Fortaleza (via a monster-tire 4WD night bus that went through the dunes) and catch a flight to Manaus to start my adventures alone in the Amazon.
Exchange rate: 1USD = 2.9 Reais