Thursday, February 23, 2006

insert expletive here

Salvador, Brazil

The OC got robbed... again. At this point, it's getting kind of tiresome.

It had been such a lovely day, too. I had met two Belgian girls (Joanna and Anne) in Capoeira class, and they happily accompanied us to the beach, where we spent the day eating fried cheese, swimming, and building sand castles. We capped it off with some dinner and dancing within the nighttime confines of Pelourinho, Salvador's well-policed tourist district. There was beer, caipirinhas, french fries, whitebait (Mike's favorite), humorous street kids, impulsive Carnaval purchases, sweaty reggae dancing, and more beer. All of the ingredients of a perfect night were there, and everything was right with the world.
When the reggae club closed down around 1am, we had a brief pow-wow to decide on our next destination. We made the wrong choice.
Some guy who was coming out of the club saw our initial confusion and helpfully pointed us in the direction of another reggae club that was still open. Given our previous experiences with some of the lowlifes of Brazil, I wasn't really inclined to listen to or trust the guy. But, the club he was pointing to was less than a block away, and still inside of that magic white line that separates Pelourinho from the rest of Salvador (They literally have tourist police on every street corner, making sure nobody messes with the gringos or their money). So, we merrily skipped our way to the new club, and mounted the steps leading to another teefing.
The inside of the club, which was on the second floor of a crumbling stone building, wasn't very attractive. It was relatively bare, decorated only with peeling paint and graffiti. The music was blasting in the front room, and in the back, they had a bunch of the ever-ubiquitous plastic chairs and tables, along with some faded pool tables. It wasn't the nicest bar I had ever been to, but it definitely wasn't the worst.
After getting over some initial nervousness, we gladly fell into the rhythm of the joint, and had ourselves a grand ol' time. We played some pool, drank some beers, and had some more sweaty dancing. It was fun.

In the middle of getting jiggy with it, I felt a tug in my left pocket. I always keep my camera in there, folded up in a carrying case, attached via a metal chain to my belt buckle. Occasionally, the chain gets caught on stuff, so I absentmindedly reached down to make sure I hadn't snagged somebody. And I felt someone's hand.
I looked up to see three dudes crowded around my left side (It's hard to give an exact number, because the place had gotten pretty crowded, but three is a nice number, so I'm sticking with it). My camera chain was stretched taut, disappearing into the midst of their hands. There was another sharp tug, and the chain snapped. They immediately split up and tried to disappear into the crowd with their ill-gotten gains.
I chased after one and spun him around, but he innocently shrugged at me, and I could see that he didn't have the camera. I quickly switched targets and tracked down yet another thief with empty hands. I continued to fruitlessly search through the dance floor for about a minute before I gave up. I could barely remember their faces, and they had surely passed the camera on to some other accomplice. One more camera down the drain.
That was pretty much the end of the night. We left shortly thereafter, and briefly flirted with the idea of finding another place to go. It's probably better that we decided to just call it a night, because I was not in the mood for any more partying. Or stealing, for that matter. We walked the girls home, and then went to bed.

At this point, I'm done with Brazil. Were going to Carnaval because we've already paid for everything, and it would be stupid to miss the biggest party in the world. But, once that's done, I'll be happy to leave. There are a lot of cool things about Brazil, and maybe, in time, I'll remember it fondly. But, right now, all of the soul and beauty of Brazil is being eclipsed by a huge, larcenous scab.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Good Day In Salvador

Salvador, Brazil

Karen? Yes. Karen.

Jason met a pair of Belgian girls (Anna and Joanna) at capoeira class and sweet-talked them into joining us at the beach. They were also traveling around the world, but in something of a different style than ourselves. Where we budgeted some 60+ thousand dollars for our journey, they were looking to spend a comparatively paltry 9k euros (about $11,000). I was not surprised when they suggested that we take the bus rather than fork our 20 reais (less than $10 US) for a cab. You gotta be thrifty to get around the globe on their kind of money.

The OC's relative largesse at first made me feel old and lazy, but ultimately I decided that there is no need to suffer in order to travel. I earned my money fair and square and if I want to spend it on 2nd class over 3rd and the occasional fancy hotel tea, then so be it. No backpacker is going to make me feel bad about being a white collar wanderer. I had plenty of time to work this out on the bus. It took the better part of an hour to reach the playa.

All Saints Bay and the Atlantic ocean border Salvador at a place called Barra. It was not far from here that we laid our towels on a rocky little point with easy access to beer, sand, clear water, and warm tidal pools. I get bored quickly just laying about in the sand, so it was not long before I was at the water's edge starting on the first of a few sand castles. There was a ready supply of rocks small and large that provided a welcome variety of material both for structure and decor. I was very pleased that some local kids helped out. Even though we could not communicate very well, our efforts were well-coordinated. One notable little man would wander over and utter a few words of English, then run off, evidently quite pleased with himself, only to return five minutes later to try out another phrase.

A neighborhood of castles completed, attention turned to tailoring. My Carnival costume (more on this later) required an orange cape. I was unable to locate a shop that sold cloth, but I did get my hands on one of those elasticated undersheets in the right shade. There was not enough room at the pousada to work comfortably, so I brought my materials along to the beach to serve first as sitting platform and second as grist for the cape-forging mill. I used four rocks to hold the corners in place, Jason's towel as a straight edge, our DVD pen for marking, and borrowed scissors to make the necessary incisions. Three quick cuts and I had myself a crude but functional cape with which to amuse the onlooking locals. A few runs across the sand resulted in a satisfactory level of cape flapping and smiling from nearby bikini girls.

I rewarded my success with a meaty kebab direct from the grill and a cold beer straight from the cooler. Then it was time for a swim. The water was clear and warm and only a little wavy. I got a bit spooked by the amount of plastic trash floating around, so I moved over to the shallow bit over the rocks. It filtered the refuse and housed some pretty blue fish to chase around. When tired of watching sea life, I had myself a good float and tried not to be too obvious about watching the smooching couples around. Brazilians are champion snoggers. One couple stayed in continuous and aggressive lip lock for no less than 7 minutes. They must have gills or something.

About the time I got out of the sea was also about the time to go. Jason used the old "we are going to be late for flippy dance school" line in combination with the "it will be my treat" tactic to get the Belgians into a cab. It was a quick hop back to the old town where we parted company. I had a refreshing shower and spent a few hours drinking beer and hanging out in the doorway of the pousada. The place is located on a busy cobblestone road and could hardly offer better scenery and people watching. Some time later, a band kicked off on the church steps next door and the pousada staff opened up their caiparhina stand. As it turns out, kiwi-based drinks agree quite well with my palette. I blew away a another hour drinking and chatting with an Italian guy with a shared interest in The Pixies and Sonic Youth. It was time pleasantly passed.

The OC rejoined forces with the Belgians around 21:30 to get some eats. We ended up dining al fresco at a grimy (but characteristically Brazilian) joint at a fork in the road. Service was slow and we were constantly harassed by vendors, begging kids, and parading bands. We fought back with high-volume conversation, numerous thumb wrestling battles, and a continuous stream of super-sized bottles of beer. The street was all full of heat and noise and life and I was abuzz with the effects of drink and good company.

Next up, we dove into a reggae club and took over the dance floor. I challenged the local boogie champ to a break-dance style battle. He was very friendly about making me look stupid. I licked my wounds while shaking it down with a series of heavy-sweaty African ladies. The club closed up around 01:00. Outside, a wrestling match broke out and Anna and I ended up both soaked in cheap beer. Stinking like 'ell, we moved a little down the road to a crumbling shack of a place replete with billiards, dodgy geezers, and even more heavy-sweaty African ladies. I reckon that big mamas are not really my type, but they can move like nobody's business. Sex partners and dance partners do not have to be overlapping sets. All of a sudden, the decision was made to leave. I learned outside that Jason's camera had been stolen. I will leave the details for him to tell, but suffice to say it was a fairly brazen theft.

About this time, we started to lose steam. Joanna decided to hit the sack, so Jason was dispatched along as escort. Anna and I hung out on a street corner like eurotrash hobos sipping beer and smoking terrible cigarettes. Jason returned a bit later, but himself retired after only a short time. This left Anna and I sitting in a doorway like vagrants laughing and generally doing not much of anything. The allure of homelessness is only slight, so it wasn't long before I was walking Anna uphill to her happy Salvador home.

The road to Anna's hostel was long and dark, so we had to stop here and there to rest in a doorway, chat, have a cigarette, or wrestle. We arrived without incident and spent another fair bit of time talking. Only the arrival of the sun broke up the party and I sadly bid farewell to my Flemish comrade. I like people that like to play, and she was a fine playmate. I set out for the OC's Salvador HQ at a speed somewhere between "stagger" and "stumble". I am not completely sure, but I may have fallen asleep in a doorway for a bit. I did not get robbed or murdered or accosted in any way. I believe the odor of stale beer must have kept the banditos at bay.

The next day I woke up safe and sound with only a mild hangover. It had been awhile since I had such a complete and enjoyable day. The loss of the camera is a bummer, but somehow seems like part of the place. Even the best experiences in Salvador are colored by crime or the fear of it, so am not letting a little bit of theft get me down. The only lasting negative from the evening is that we will likely not see the Belgians again. They are spending Carnaval in Salvador, while we are presently waiting for our plane to Rio. I left an open invitation to come visit in London and I hope that it is taken up. One of the hardest parts of this kind of travel is the number of times you have to say goodbye before you really finished saying hello.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

I Was Robbed

Salvador, Brazil

First off, Jason and I are both completely fine. This was not one of those "getting stabbed in a dark alley" kind of muggings. I got robbed by two apparently unarmed assailants in broad (very broad, in fact) daylight. I'll get to that part momentarily.

Lonely Planet Brazil is full of warnings about street crime in Salvador. They strongly recommend leaving cameras and backpacks at home, avoiding the steep streets between the high city and the port, and staying out of the barrios on the east side of town. Partly due to guidebook-induced paranoia, I had as yet shot no video of Salvador. The bright sunshine was providing perfect conditions for getting some footage of this extremely picturesque city. Emboldened by several days of crime-free living in the well-policed city center, we struck out with camera in backpack to see the sights and photograph them thoroughly.

We crossed the center without incident and decided to head town to the tourist market by way of a steep street between the high city and the port. Some minutes were passed there perusing piles of yellow and green t-shirts and a capoeira school in action before heading back up by way of another steep street. This time we managed to hitch a ride on the back of a construction truck without really asking. We just sort of jumped on. It got us up the hill but not exactly where we wanted to be. After a few twists and turns, we were walking through the barrios on the east side of town.

If I were going to make a film about two American backpackers getting robbed in Brazil, I might choose this exact setting. The narrow streets were flanked by crumbling colonial buildings in advanced states of disrepair. The ground floor of every third building hosted a makeshift bar, each with the same plastic chairs and tables, and each housing a similar group of outwardly staring locals. Uniformly shirtless kids too young or too poor for beer, were gathered around in bored groups. There was a lot of piled up and it was hot as hell.

As perfectly suited as our environs were for a mugging, I was not feeling particularly scared or cautious. In the last eight months we have walked through a lot of seedy streets in a lot of seedy places and come through with nothing worse than a shit-covered shoe. Earlier in the day, I had pointed out to Jason that we were blithely ignoring the Lonely Planet's advice. He thought it unlikely that we would be accosted in the middle of the day in an active city street. I replied that "stranger things have happened", but was myself quite convinced that no highwayman might be so bold.

The funny thing is, we were very nearly back in the city center - an area crawling with tourist-protecting military police - when the banditos struck. A twitchy fellow got my attention and pointed to something to my right. I turned my head to check things out when his accomplice dove fingers-first into my left front pocket. My hand dove in immediately after and I found myself in the awkward situation of trying to keep another man's hand in my pants because his hand was clasped securely around maybe 25 US dollars of my money. I could not see the second man at all. In my head he was imagined as an AIDS-infected, knife-wielding, leviathan crack addict, so I released by grip and sat down on the street, preferring to lose a bit of money to dying at the hands of an HIV-ridden basehead.

Said basehead wasted no time in making his getaway at speed. Oddly, the other guy paused for a moment, said something, kind of half-grinned, and then trotted off as well. His parting words were unfortunately lost in translation. I considered chasing after to ask him to repeat himself, but only very briefly. The whole episode took less than 5 seconds. The robbers made off with a bit of cash and my street crime virginity, but failed to grab the much more valuable video camera in my backpack, and left Jason completely unmolested. I guess they were in a big rush because we were on a busy street in the middle of the day and very near to a group of 3 rifle-toting coppers. The temerity of Bahian thieves is not to be underestimated, but they ain't stupid. A block earlier, things could have been a bit worse.

The experience of getting robbed was more immasculating than scary. I realize there is no shame in being surprised by professional thieves and preferring the loss of a small amount of money to possible death, but I can not help but feel like a massive wimp for not putting up some kind of a fight. The intersection of rationality and honor can be an ugly meeting indeed. The longer-term lesson of this incident (and the loss of Jason's iPod onboard the HMS Stinky Boredom) is that the OC needs to be a bit more careful. Travel longevity apparently does not grant crime immunity.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Video Gallery: Brazilian Jumping Bean

The only cute thing about the boat ride up the Rio Madeira was the jumping baby. He was also an excellent dancer.

Video Gallery: Howler Monkeys

They're hairy, they're scary, and they sound like they're larry. Ooo-aah.

Photo Album: Wild Brazil

We took two trips into the dark heart of Brazil. During these trips, pictures were taken.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Ho Da Jo

Salvador, Brazil


There is a certain pattern to the OC's arrival in a new town. Once the bureaucracy (sometimes as complicated as international customs, sometimes as easy as stepping off the bus) is concluded, we crack open The Lonely Planet and look for somewhere to sleep that is a healthy and delicious casserole of location, price, and amenities. And so it was with Salvador. I happened to be the chairman of the housing committee this time around and deemed it best to stay in the historic city center in a particularly well-regarded hostel. A half hour and 50 reais later we were standing at the right spot, but the place was either closed or full or just not accepting guests of our stature.

Two gentlemen approached with offers of assistance. One was a toothless vagrant with a wandering eye and an odor that could only be described as super unleaded.
The other was either a policeman or one of the village people. Despite a strong sense of fear and revulsion, we went with the copper. He lead us down a hill and to the entrance of the Pousada Da Jo, a small hotel in a restored mansion house. It did not take long to have a look around and negotiate a price. They cut us a slight deal on a double room as we were taking it for 7 nights. Our quarters were not quite ready, so we were ushered upstairs to have a bit of a late breakfast.

It was then that we met Jo. At first, I thought she was some sort of oversexed cleaning lady with a feeding fetish, but it turns out that she was just the oversexed owner with a strong sense of hospitality. Between shoulder rubs, ass grabs, and suggestive glances, she stuffed us full of pancakes, coffee, fruit, and cane liquor. It did not end with this enthusiastic greeting. Jo never let up one bit during our stay. On one memorable occasion, I was woken up for breakfast by the leaping arrival of Jo and an avalanche of kisses. You had to mind your butt, as a pinch was never far at hand. She was like Charlie - you never saw it coming.

Jo was only one of a cast of characters that inhabited and operated the Pousada. Her trusty gay lieutenant and pet Willy was in charge of cooking and a bit of washing. He and Jo shared a room (the notorious Cuarto 7, think House of The rising Sun) - Willy apparently sleeping curled up on her feet. Always present at the front desk was one or both of "the gorillas" - two hefty fellas of 17 and 18 years named Edge and Davidson that provided the triple service of security, handymen, and comic relief. They had an intensely sophomoric interest in making Jason say dirty things in Portuguese. Davidson nicknamed me Jack Bauer (of 24 fame) for reasons that are not clear. Our relationship was based almost entirely on discussions about terrorist activity in and around Salvador. There were a few other minor characters like the grumpy laundry lady, the serious younger girl that handled the money, some skinny gay guy whit a nice smile and a strong handshake, and Andre 3000 - a smiley man not directly connected with the pousada, but a frequent beer-swilling occupant of its doorway. Altogether, it was quite a cast.

Our hostess did an excellent job of keeping us well fed and watered. A hearty breakfast was served every day complete with sweet and savoury foods, piles of fruit, and bottomless coffee. I rarely felt the need for lunch. If Jo was not personally accompanying us to dinner, she was telling us just where to go to get the best grub. Usually around 6, you could score a few free cocktails if you were willing to put in some time on the chopping and squashing necessary to prepare a caipahrina (sp?). Bottles of beer were always going around in the early evening and just about every night a crew was assembled to hit one of the number of parties going on in the lead up to Carnaval proper. She even took us shopping and treated us to a snack at McDonald's.

There were only a few negatives to life at Jo's. Most evident was the lack of air conditioning. I woke up every day already getting my sweat on. It would have been nice to have a few perspiration free moments each day, as Salvador is a damp brow kind of hood. Space was tight and largely communal, so one was forced to converse with the constant stream of folks coming and going. This might be considered a bonus, but at this late stage of the OC I am getting tired of explaining our route and getting harangued over the antics of the Bush administration. The biggest annoyance, though, was intimately tied to the charm of the place. The sitcom-esque hijinks of the staff were always good for a laugh, but you just could not escape them. You had to leave in order to find a quiet spot to read or write without being interrupted by a discussion about a possible bomb and the urgent need for Mr. Bauer's assistance.

You take the good, you take the bad, you taken 'em both, and there you have, the Pousada Da Jo. It was a good place to relax for a bit before the Carnaval madness and a most welcome change from the air-conditioned but anonymous hotels and mosquito-filled huts we frequented in Brazil's interior.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Best. Cabbie. Ever.

Manaus, Brazil

When we left the jungle camp, our guide, Frank, told us that we would be met at the bus station in Manaus by Manuel - a man who would be readily identified by his large hat. Sure enough, when we stepped off the bus, there was a smiling older gentleman in a cowboy-ish chapeau there to receive us. We hopped in his surprisingly nice car and headed into town to the tour agency office where our bags were stored. Along the way we treated us to a bit of Julio Eglesias on tape.

The plan was to stop at the agency so Jason and I could repack our bags and have a shower before going to the airport. Manuel was not keen to wait around while we got our shit in order. He suggested that we stop instead at his house (apparently on the way to the airport) to shower. Suarez (sp? - the tour agency boss) agreed that this was a good idea, so we went along quietly.

Ten minutes later we were driving through a minor ghetto and I was beginning to have second thoughts. Although Manuel did not seem the type, he could have driven us just about anywhere, ditched his ungainly extra cargo of two gringoes, and taken off with our cash and equipments. In retrospect, this idea seems very silly. And it was. We parked outside of Manuel's suburban home some minutes later and popped in baggage in hand.

We proceeded to make a mess of the living room with the disgorged contents of our stinky backpacker bags while Manuel set about prepping the household. Shirt dispensed with, he quickly handed over a clean towel and got Momma hopping in the kitchen on an as yet unnamed project. It was not long before we were clean, happy, and tucking into the first home-cooked meal in recent OC memory. Manuel did not join in the feast - preferring instead to slap his full belly, ask questions here and there, and generally be one jolly mofo. The level of joy kicked up to 11 when Manuel's granddaughter arrived and he switched gears from happy host to doting grandfather.

We ate everything on offer and then prepared to leave. Just before departure, Manuel lined up his wife and teenaged daughter so that they could wish us bonne voyage and shake our hands. It was only another 15 minutes or so on to the airport. I tipped the man something like five dollars on a 25 dollar fare. It seemed that the gratitude would runneth over. Manuel called down the blessings of God and good luck on our travels and parted our company with another round of firm, friendly handshakes.

I do not know about you, but I have never had a cabbie invite me over to his house to wash and have a free meal. In the past, taxi drivers have been particularly prone to scamola, so both Jason and I were on guard for the other shoe, but it remained securely fastened in the pre-drop position. We must have accumulated some good karma somewhere.

Welcome To The Jungle

Urubu River, Brazil

Manaus is the capital of rainforest tourism in Brazil, so there are a lot of agencies fighting for the tourist dollar. We set out on the town with the intent of shopping for the best trekking package. I figured good deals were still to be had in the lead up to the post-Carnival mini high season. Our first stop was a company some 50 yards from the hotel called Indian Amazonas Tours. We were ushered up the stairs by a friendly Indian guy and into the waiting arms of Suarez (correctly spelling and last name unknown), an older gentleman who runs the show. He explained to us in patient English our options and was not shy to go over details or costs. Something about his calming manor, collection of creepy jarred jungle bugs, and low-low prices sold me right off. I soon forgot any notion of comparison shopping and we signed on the dotted line for 3 nights and 4 days in the shit.

The Indian at the door turned out to be Frank, the guide for the trip. He spent the better part of the afternoon helping us find a few things (e.g. new shoes for Jason) and navigating the surprisingly difficult process of paying for airline tickets with a credit card at a travel agent. (An aside - the communication infrastructure in Brazil is all kinds of screwed up. If you care for a rant, ask Jason about making an international call in Manaus.) Chores completed, we agreed to meet Frank at the very early hour of 05:30 the next morning to start our journey out of town. We spent the rest of the day eating, relaxing, and taking a touristy walk around town video camera securely in hand. Manaus was built during Brazil's short-lived rubber boom and has a faded Baroque glory unlike anything I have seen elsewhere. There really is no reason why there should be an opera house in the middle of the deep jungle.

We took a car out of town to the bus terminal where we joined up with Frank and two Spaniards - Joan and Javier (I think there should be some accent marks in there somewhere) that were joining the trek. It was a sleepy and cold couple of hours before we hopped off at one of the many little villages that hug the main roads. Like all the others, this one was a collection of rickety wooden houses, stray dogs, idle children, and far too many bars featuring lilliputian outdoor billiards tables. They seem like such depressing places, but everyone smiles back and gives the Brazilian thumbs-up when you make eye contact. We trotted down a path to the river and hooped into a speed canoe for the hour trip on the River Urubu (a tributary of the Amazon) to the main camp.

Camp kind of reminded me of Gilligan's Island. There were a couple of wooden buildings made with tree trunks, roofed with palm fronds, and floored with wide planks. Only one was fully enclosed but it was hardly a mighty barrier to rain or wind. Toilets were of the outhouse variety, the kitchen just another hut over a brick stove, and the bedrooms an orderly line of hammocks. Distilled water was available for drinking. Agua for all other purposes came straight from the river. The place had room for maybe 16, but there was only an English couple and another guide around when we arrived.

We took a quick breakfast on arrival and then jumped into a wooden canoe for a paddle up the river shore. Seasonal variation in water level in the Urubu is large and we were there somewhere in the middle of the cycle. Our little boat glided quietly past the middle of taller trees and over the tops of smaller ones. Frank assured us that full submersion in the brown water does not mean death for a plant. Weird. A few strokes later we were back at camp for a bit of a rest and a hot lunch. Unsurprisingly, it was rice, pasta, salad, and some chicken. Afterwards, there was a bit of unpleasantness.

When we first booked the jungle trip, the plan was to spend three nights out in the jungle. I had my fill of "camp" activites (e.g. piranha fishing) in the Pantanal and was more interested in getting deep in the trees and testing myself against the conditions of the jungle. With the addition of two more, things had become more complicated since we all had to stick together. The new plan was to spend one night in camp and then two nights in the jungle. Some residual stink from India has left me in with a deep dislike of getting screwed over. I had a one-sided confrontation with Frank before giving in to the new plan. There was no way I could force our new friends to sleep in the jungle on their first day if they didn't want to. More debate was not leading anywhere. It was not much of a debate anyway. The issue settled, we took off for our first walk in the woods and were back with enough time to bathe in the river before supper.

Immediately after breakfast on day two we struck out. The heaviest thing in my pack was a cloth hammock. Frank carried the bulk of the food with Jason taking the spillover in an ad-hoc sling made from my blanket. We carried only enough water for the 3 hours it took to get to our destination. The jungle camp was more Survivor than Gilligan. The only building was a two-side lean-to made from logs and palm fronds. It was right next to a stream and small waterfall that provided a refreshing shower, pleasant background noise, and drinking water. I was a bit dubious at first about drinking straight from a jungle stream, but I have not experienced the least negative effect. Cholera? Schmolera.

In-jungle meals were cooked in two pots over a small campfire. We had a bit of chicken the first night, but thereafter there was only egg and rice with mixed veg. We sometimes snacked on coffee with salty crackers and there was a good supply of oranges and bananas. Frank did all the cooking and made sure that it was heavy on bulk and salt to make up for the lack of variety and the volume of sweat.

We spent almost all of day two and three trekking. The ground where we were walking was not entirely level. Small rises are broken up by steep sections that lead down to narrow brown streams. Our path was mostly confined to decent trails and with good reason. The pace would have seldom risen above crawl had we had to hack our way through the vegetation. The first couple of meters from the dirt are packed thick with ferns, vines, and bushes. Everything grows on top of everything else in a mad dash to the sun. Woody trees are the foundation for the whole structure and vary from numerous and fairly small (less than one foot in diameter) to very large and fairly uncommon (more than 4 feet in diameter). One one of them crashes down from the weight of rain and hangers-on, it creates an empty space that little green things quickly fill in and restart the process.

The jungle floor was of particular note for me. The only thing that overpowers the feeling of life and vitality you get from the abundance and variety of living green plants is the sense of decay that you get from the piles of rotting plant that they build on. The soil is covered almost everywhere with dark and damp autumn-red leaves. No log can be trusted as a step as it is more than likely to collapse under your weight due to the action of water and termite. In places, the ground is noticeably springy. Anything that can be covered in mossy lichen stuff is. The bottom of the jungle is stinking wet and quickly starts eating anything that comes to rest on it.

For me, walking in this environment had a hypnotic effect. At the start, I tended to concentrate on the ground as there were a lot of things around to trip over or slip on. Once I got my jungle legs, I could look up and take in more of the scenery. We often kept a good pace, so the world was going by at a fair clip and there was no shortage of things to look at. Giant ferns, brightly colored fruits, intricately veined leaves, and Martian trees all competed for my attention. Despite the scenery, wave after wave of biting insect, furious perspiration, and minor cardiovascular stress, my mind would soon wander off somewhere. In this manner, an hour could collapse into minutes and thoughts would fail to become memories.

A sudden stop of our single file often snapped me out of it. Frank was always in the lead and would halt if it was time to rest, explain the use of a plant (e.g. rubber or medicine), or (fingers crossed) point out some wildlife. We were pretty lucky in the animal department. Notable finds included two very big tarantulas, at least two species of small monkeys, three good-sized turtles, and wild pigs. Birds were hard to spot but we heard the calls of tucans and blue macaws among the symphony of jungle sounds. There was no luck in the big cat department, but there seldom is.

On the morning of the fourth day, we rose at 06:00, struck camp immediately, and head out on empty stomachs. It took us maybe 2 hours to reach the main camp where hot coffee and pancakes awaited. We spent a bit of time watching Frank make Indian blowguns and did some speed canoeing across the river to score a few well-earned cold beers. The speed boat came for Jason and I at 16:00 and we were back in the center of Manaus by 20:00 via reverse course from the way in. In the end, our trek was not really the man-against-nature outing that I had hoped for, but that is OK. Everything I own is damp and stinking. It is damn hot out there and they are not kidding about the rain part of rainforest. It frickin' poured like an idiot.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Guest Blog from Special K

My Darlin' King Mikey.

Yeah, thats right. Its me. Karen. That girl that Mike keeps referring to. I really like it though :-)

Buenos Aires was somewhat like New York City, but filled with Argentineans, where the women would be dressed in an ensemble of gipsy attire with leather flat thongs and draped beaded jewelry. The one thing I could not miss purchasing in Argentina is the infamous teeny-weeny bikini, it's a shopper's paradise and I was in heaven! But enough about clothes, off with them all!! This is one place every man has to visit in his lifetime. A majority of the women (quoted from Erik and his bro) are attractive, not outstandingly gorgeous (in the eyes of the beholder), but attractive. I must admit, with their petite sun-kissed bodies and blue/green eyes, there is a sense of natural beauty that is refreshing to think that men appreciate a woman's natural beauty more so than augmented beauty. Another thing I noticed was that the women didn't seem to "try to hard" to impress, which even made it more appealing, more attractive, and more natural. Therefore, everyone seemed more approachable, happy to talk to you, and would have this happy-go-lucky attitude-it was great energy. Such great energy, when I stepped foot back on US soil, my head started hurting. I miss the Estancia. So peaceful, no traffic, clean refreshing air, great red wine, good company, no worries. There is a sense of untouched beauty about the countryside. From this trip I have grown to appreciate spending time away from the big cities. I also feel privileged to have spent time with my loving fiance and his awesome brother, their amazing father and Jason's best friend in the whole world, Mike :-) all the while being in another part of the world. Lets do it all over again!

Boo-Ya Boo-Ya all over the OC-Ya

McLean, Virginia

My name is Erik. I'm 30. And I'm addicted to the OC.

Traveling with the OC was truly an event of a lifetime. Just the fact that I could join up with my father and brother was pretty cool. But throw in my fiance, Mike, a large foreign city, horses, beef, wine and a favorable exchange rate, you've got yourself the right ingredients for a good time.

Needless to say, everyone agrees that Argentina, and more specifically Buenos Aires, is the biz-omb. Karen and I both consider it a city worth setting up a second home. However, I am not going to spend much time talking about BA as it has been duly covered by Mike and Jason. Their posts range from sore-ass remarks to the consistency of gastronomically homogenized shinola.

While Karen and I were a little nervous about sidling up with the OC for a week, our worries were quickly dissolved by the relative calm and experienced handling of the OC operators; Jason and Mike. The 10.5 hour direct flight from Dulles Airport was the best flight available, but was nonetheless extremely tiring. For long flights, we highly recommend even the smallest of upgrades (super -economy). The extra 2 inches goes a long way ($75 per seat). After we landed, we were expertly lifted from the airport in the outskirts of the city and gently placed into our hotel. After a bite to eat, we were right in schedule with the rest of the city with our afternoon siesta.

This trip gave me an insight to the OC that one can only experience first hand. The following are things I learned.

- They have become as close to professional nomads as a person can possibly get. They make traveling look easy.
- I think that Mike picked up more Spanish in the last few months than I could remember from my 8 years of Spanish classes. It was almost embarrassing.
- They have achieved the second level of nomadic evolution: specialization. Each had become responsible for various tasks. While each has the capability to do it all, it is quite remarkable to witness their divide and conquer tactics.
- The OC is a well-oiled machine. One would think that with three years of planning, the whole trip would be mapped out in detail. But no. The plan was to figure it out as they go. The adventure is such an amorphous event. It contains no structure, but maintains form. There is method to the madness. Walking into their hotel room kind of reminds me of a mobile college dorm room.
- The blurry pictures aren't a filtered effect! They really are a reflection of drunken behavior and I can testify to that.
- They really are human.

For all those who are a considering joining the OC, lay your reservations and doubts aside. The OC is a once in a lifetime opportunity that is magnified because of the two lads that you can share it with. Experiencing the OC was everything it was cracked up to be. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Teef'd: An Update

Manaus, Brazil

I spent all day yesterday running around Manaus, trying to get a call out to the US so I could cancel all of my various credit and check cards that had been nicked two days prior. Throughout the rest of South America, finding a place to make an international call was easy. It seemed like there was a locutorio on every block. Tell the guy where you're calling, get in the booth, make the call, and pay when you're finished. Simple.
Not in Manaus.
The only "call center" around was 2 klicks from where we were staying. But, it was closed. The police had it locked up, and there were a bunch of notices plastered all over it, but I can't read no portuguese. So, I had to try all other available means. I spent a good six hours flailing around the city like an idiot, doing everything I could to place an outgoing call. I bought 100 reais ($45) worth of calling time, and tried like ten different phones. At one point, I had four locals simultaneously trying to help me navigate the complex web of Brazil's international dialing system. I even went to the Holiday Inn Taj Mahal and had them make the call for me at some ridiculously expensive rate. Nuthin'. At one point, I was actually able to contact a US number for about a minute before I got cut off, but I was never able to repeat that particular occurrence. And no-one had any answers for me. The three most common explanations for this lack of connection were:
  • The system is down. Just wait for 30 minutes and try again.
  • This number you're using is incorrect. Try a real one.
  • *shrug*

By the time I made it back to our hotel room around 8pm, I was in a pretty bad mood. Someone had made off with a bunch of my cards, one of which had direct access to my bank account, and there was nothing I could do about it. I didn't even have the means to cancel the fucking things. I was going to try again tomorrow, but I was running out of ideas.
Then, Mike asked me if I had the permanent marker, because he was burning some DVDs and needed to label them. I quickly dove into my bag, eager to find at least one thing that wasn't stolen. I opened the top section of my backpack, and there they were.
My wallet.
My japanese change purse.
My cell phone.
I have no idea why I never bothered to check up there before, but there they were. My iPod was still gone, but that was just some trinket. The real problem, the major pain in my ass that had been torturing me for three days, had just been solved in three seconds.

At this point, I don't know what to feel. On the one hand, I'm ecstatic and relieved to have that anchor off my back. On the other hand, I feel like an absolute moron for letting such a stupid mistake take up almost three days of my life.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Video Gallery: Fishing For Piranha

In the pantanal, The OC put their wing-wangs in a lake and went fishing for biters.

Photo Album: Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls were the first waterfalls that I ever visited on purpose. They were well worth it.

Photo Album: Buenos Aires

I really enjoyed Buenos Aires. I'm sure I'll be back.

Throw Another Sheep on the Barbie


Dearest Karen,

On reaching Argentina, I was afraid that the monotonous gastronomic tune set by Peru and Chile was about to continue on for a few more baars. This fear proved to be well founded. Some of the notes sang a bit brighter and the melody warmed a bit, but the overall composition remained more same-same than different-different.

Detail-oriented readers of my occasional OC food rants (cuisine-obsessed perverts that you clearly must be) will recall that lunch is king in many South American countries. His reign extends into the Grand Duchy of Argentina. Other familiar traditions that carry across into Patagonia and regions north include the very light breakfast of coffee, bread, and jam and an extremely late supper. An evening meal before 10 is unpatriotic, before 11 simply gauche, before midnight unfashionable, and before 1 merely the subject of hipster ridicule. Diners linger over meals and a check is rarely (if ever) delivered unasked for.

King Lunch prefers to attend meals in the company of the Queen of Grilled Meat. Carnivorosity is taken to Jurassic proportions in Argentina. Every menu features numerous varieties of beef and only grudgingly gives up space for chicken, seafood, pasta, and salad. All of those are relegated to the back of the book and appear lurid and out of place like those ads for gay escorts in the final pages of The Economist.

The emphasis of red meat is not without reason In my experience, only Kobe beef outshines that of the Argentine pampas. But what would these hunks of quality raw meat be without out an artist to sculpt them? Tar tar - a meal fit only for the French (sorry Jean Xavier) and other weirdos (sorry Al). A top steak requires a barbecue ace and Argentina trains and reveres such artistes. In some restaurants, the grill man lives in a glass-walled Zen barbecue chamber with a small window from which he dispenses the tasty products of his burning altar. It's kind of like the little bullet-proof outhouse the Pope trucks around in but larger and with a huge grill in it.

All of the meat and heavy wine (see below) has predictable effects on digestion. The transition to an Argentine diet has a way of deregularizing one's reading sessions if you know what I mean. Erik posits that the unique design of plumbing in Buenos Aires may be a result of eating habits. The flushing action of a BA toilet is best described as powerful and continuous. Along the same lines, Jason theorized that the Argentine penchant for coffee and cigarettes (both literacy advocates if you know what I mean) could be inspired by the same dietary side effects.

A few other things of particular note:

Beer - Quilmes is the most popular beer in Argentina. Budweiser is the most popular beer in the US. They have more in common than just high sales.

Parilla - In this style of dining, you order a heap of meat for the table that is served on a little metal table heated by some enclosed coals. This way, your filet does not get cold while you are gorging on ribs. It is nice to have a bit of meat sizzling away nearby. The constant odor helps keep up the appetite for what can be a hard slog. There is one drawback to the parilla. Hidden among the pile of otherwise normal animal parts, there were always a few unidentifiable pieces or pieces that were best left unidentified. I like the occasional bit of liver or blood sausage but kidney, stomach, and thymus just ain't my thang. Fortunately, the mere presence of ofal is not enough to ruin an otherwise tasty (and cleverly presented) meal.

Soup - I can not recall ever seeing soup on a menu. I missed it. This is one department where Chile and Argentina could take a lesson from Peru. Incas make those Campbell's mofos look like a bunch of schmucks.

Salad - The crunchy offerings in Argentina are a bit more evolved than in Chile or Peru, but the still fall pretty short of gringo expectations. Some thought has been put into the vegetable pairings and sometimes an effort is even made to mix the ingredients together, but the cause of inter-species plant harmony is not quite won.

Sides - You say papa, I say frita. Although they are available mashed, boiled, and scalloped, you almost always see 'em fried. No rice. Forget about beans. A request for broccoli is likely to result in a kick-o in the crotch-o. I did once manage to get my hands on some creamed spinach. It was very heavy on the creamed.

Empanadas - I just can not get enough of these little bastards. The best ones are meat with egg and olive cooked inside of a savory pastry shell. The remind me of a Cornish pasty with some New World flair. You can also get 'em with chicken or cheese or bacon or sweets or whatever else they got lying around. They are good for a snack, fit on your back, log, log, log. I think they are tops. Arguments to the contrary will solicit only my most hateful invective and the ceremonial chucking forth of the gauntlet. Considered yourself forewarned.

Bread - It comes with every meal and they keep it coming. I note this mainly because I do not remember the same being true of Peru or Chile and what bread we did have on the west coast was of middling quality.

Wine - In the immortal words of Erik Briceno - boo-ya, boo-ya! Gutsy bottles of Malbec shiver my timbers to the bone. Argentinian wine is a perfect complement for Argentinian beef. Furthermore, it is well cheap. What more could you desire from a tipple? That was a rhetorical question.

Lamb - We had one particular parilla meal that stood out among the others. It featured no guts, only well-salted and extremely tasty chunks of lamb. We scarfed it down alongside a crunchy salad and a bottle of nice wine in good company. Delicious.

We'll All Float On

Rio Madeira, Brazil

The OC has a strong preference for surface travel. The cliche wisdom that "getting there is half the fun" may be sometimes true, but the related corollary that "paying through the nose to be stuffed in a hate-amplification tube and tossed through the air for a few hours really sucks" is almost always spot on. Brazil presents a severe challenge to our anti-flight stance. it is a big country and much of the interior can not be reached by road at all. The jungle has a way of swallowing transport projects. We met a mixed English/American couple in Argentina that live in Rio. They were of the opinion that the only way to get into the Amazon basin is by plane.

It turns out they were not correct. Where roads fail, rivers succeed. The paved highways coming from the south end in a town called Port Velho. It is a crummy little place famous mostly for drug running across the nearby Bolivian border. We stayed there just long enough to deal with Jason's little foot problem before boarding a boat for the 3 night journey down the Rio Madeira to Manaus - capital of the Amazonas province and the largest city in the area (1.67 million people) by far. The only place can go by bus to or from Manhaus is Venezuela. Roads to the south, east, and west are all impassable except to the hardiest of land vehicles.

It was not hard to get tickets for the trip. As soon as I showed my gringo face down by the docks, I was approached by an enthusiastic and helpful young man that spoke some English. He took me on a tour of the vessel and explained the schedule. It was Sunday. The boat departed on Tuesday. Surprisingly, we were welcome to stay aboard during the intervening two nights, but there was no food service aboard. Back in the "office" (most of a concrete building with most of a roof), he quoted me a price and made out a ticket. I am always a bit wary of laying out cash, but the sudden arrival of Jose (a Peruvian acquaintance from the bus from Porto Velho) and a reassuring flurry of Spanglish put my fears to rest.

We opted to stay in a hotel rather than start slumming it aboard ship. Our boat was laid out over three decks. The bottom was exclusively for cargo - in this case, lots of potatoes. The top was a mostly roofless space with a small bar, a TV and DVD player, and some plastic chairs. Passengers slept in the middle in self-supplied hammocks. Cargo space was limited to a row of slightly raised platforms that kept your baggage just above any water than may blow in from the open sides. It was all pretty basic and with limited security. We were not that anxious to give up our air conditioned beds and locked door for humid hammocks and chained bags before necessary.

Necessity struck on schedule on Tuesday afternoon. We lugged all our worldly goods aboard and tucked into a cheap lunch from a dockside restaurant. We made friends fast by handing out a few beers and showing off Jason's iPod. Things were looking pretty good until an hour or so before departure. What was a fairly crowded space suddenly became slave ship business class. Creative hammock hanging ruled the day as last minute passengers moved in. Both Jason and I ended up with neighbors close enough to sweat on. In addition to the bulging of the crowd, we were also treated to the first part of our soon to be daily dose of high-volume Brazilian pop music blaring from the ship's sound system. We got under way to the strained notes of Bahia's answer to Britney and with just enough extra space for one more bag of potatoes.

The cruise routine was pretty routine. Meals were served at 8, noon, and 6 or so. We ate family style in makeshift shifts at a small cafeteria. The food was filling, salty, and familiar. Coffee and bread made breakfast. Beans, rice, pasta, and some kind of meat made lunch or dinner. Time between meals was sent sitting around on deck watching the jungle slip by or napping in hammocks. Beer drinking increased throughout the day but never approached anything above "family barbecue" on the Boozing Scale. The toilets were predictably stinky but certainly not horrible and there was a shower available but I never made use of it. I figured that a bit of stink may help secure extra room for sleeping.

That strategy did not work. No odor of mine could overpower the death stench of the grim old lady directly forward of my berth. Once in your bunk, you could not move without kicking somebody. Since nobody can stay still all night, there was a fair bit of foot to head contact. A swift blow on one end of the ship could ripple along the length of the ship as each swinging hammock knocked into the next in a human-scale simulation of one of those executive toys with the iron balls that tap back and forth. It was also windy. And cold. And a bit wet. And sometimes the boat stopped in a port in the middle of the night and all the lights came on. I did not sleep well at all.

On day two an already slightly sour voyage passed far beyond its use by date when Jason's Pod and wallet went missing. The disappearance coincided with the departure of one funny-eyed passenger, so he rocketed to the top of the suspect list. Since we were far from land before the theft was identified, there was really nothing to do but stew with anger and feel stupid for not watching our things more closely. In this case, the Lonely Planet's paranoia was spot on.

On the last night, there was a post-dinner barbecue doled out in bite-size pieces and a bit of dancing. It wan not much of a party and far from enough to turn the voyage from a 3 into an 8. We retired early in anticipation of an early arrival in Manaus. One more restless snooze later, we pulled into our final port and walked into the grayest city in OC memory since Vladivostok. Our original plan called for leaving Manaus the same way we arrived destined for Belem at the mouth of the Amazon - a voyage of some 3.5 days. The discomfort and boredom of our first river leg was more than enough to overcome our distaste for (and relative expense of) air travel. We secured two one-way tickets to Salvador before heading off into the jungle. Sometimes getting there can half your fun.


Manaus, Brazil

... By a man wit' no teef.

We took a three-day boat ride from Porto Velho to Manaus along a 600-km stretch of the Rio Madeira. On the second night, while we were at the port of Manicore, somebody ran off with a bunch of my shit.

And by somebody, I mean that cock-eyed, gap-toothed asshole.

I knew there was something suspicious about that guy the moment I saw him setting up his hammock next to mine. He had some kind of lazy-eye problem so he was always looking in two directions at once, kind of like a cartoon weasel after he's been beaned in the head with a frying pan. He also had a horrid set of choppers, with gaps everywhere and slivers of brown, decaying teeth pointing in strange directions. He had an annoying habit of slurring at me in rapid-fire portuguese. He would rattle off a string of sentences, and then stare in some indeterminate direction. By the time I figured out he was talking to me, I would slowly tell him in my shitty portuguese for the eighth time that I didn't understand what he was saying and maybe he could speak a little slower. Then he would smile his poisonous smile, giggle to himself, and slump back into his hammock.

Mike bought a bottle of sugar-cane liquor for us to sip on during the trip, and, trying to be a good neighbor, I shared some with a few folk around us during our first night on the boat. It was only a few shots, so most of the bottle was intact when I fell asleep. The next day, Senhor Cock-eye dragged one of his friends down to my hammock at nine in the morning and "asked" me for more liquor for him and his buddy. I suspected that if I hadn't been there, he just would have taken it, but I don't like to assume the worst in people, so I didn't say anything. Later that afternoon, I noticed that over half of the bottle had been drunk, despite the fact that Mike and I hadn't had a drop. Homeboy had probably been sipping from the bottle all day. I would have gladly given him that much if he had asked, but he didn't. He just took. At this point, I should have realized that my stuff was in danger, but I just didn't make the connection. Mike and I spent the rest of the evening finishing off the bottle ourselves.

That night, as the boat was pulling into the little port of Manicore, I felt the urge to listen to some rock and/or roll music, so I went back down to the hammock level to grab my iPod. It wasn't there. I always keep that thing in the same perfectly-sized side pocket in my backpack, but that side-pocket was flat and empty. I searched through my backpack to no avail. That piece of electronics was gone. And as I was searching, I noticed a few more things had mysteriously gone missing. My wallet, my japanese change purse, and my cell phone were also disappeared. I rifled through my backpack three or four more times, shaking my head and getting more aggravated with each iteration. Then, Toothless came shuffling onto the deck and started quickly and quietly packing up his bags.
Normally, he can't stop talking and joking around with the people next to him, but this time, he was completely silent. He was just bent over his bag, quickly shoving all of his stuff into it, and not looking at anyone. I stepped over to him and asked him where he was going. No response. He didn't even look up at me. I tapped him on his shoulder and asked him again, and he mumbled something unintelligible without looking up. Then, I noticed that the two folks on the other side of Toothless were talking to each other animatedly, so I slid over their way and asked them what was going on. Apparently, Thiago, the kid in the hammock right next to Toothless', had also just been robbed. Somebody had grabbed his wallet, which had all his money and his government documents in it. That was it. I turned around to grab the googly-eyed man, but he was gone. And the boat was pulling away from port.

I'm positive that he was the guy who stole all of our stuff. Normally, I'm not really a violent person. I've never taken a swing at anyone in my life. But thinking about everything I'm going to have to do to deal with these missing cards really makes me want to find that fucker and knock out his last good tooth.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Nasty Feets, Part II

Porto Velho, Brazil

The next morning, I woke up, and my feet weren't any better. They weren't any worse, but they weren't any better. Shits. So, it was another five hour wait before we would arrive in Porto Velho and I could get a professional to look at my feets. I spent that time finishing up some photo album stuff and watching the scenery fly by. I felt a lot better than I did the night before, but I was still a bit worried.
Finally, we arrived, said farewell to Felipe, and ran off to yet another hotel room (Hotel Yarra). We got there, dropped off our stuff, and immediately hoofed it for the hospital. It was a surprisingly nice place. I was expecting it to be a little more rustic given that we were in kind of an out-of-the-way town in the Amazon basin. But, it was clean and cool, with plenty of helpful nurses and prompt service. In about fifteen minutes, despite my difficulties with portuguese, I was able to get into an exam room with a cheerful spanish-speaking doctor.
After I explained my symptoms, he did all the normal doctor stuff; checked my breathing, my pulse, looked at my throat, etc. He quizzed me about what I had been eating and drinking, how often had I been urinating, and if I had had a fever. All the good stuff. The whole time he was talking to me, nurses kept coming into the room and sitting down in chairs, or leaning against the doorframe. They would occasionally giggle and talk to each other. By the time he finished the exam, there were five nurses in the room smiling at me and clucking their tongues at my big clown feet.
Finally, the doctor pronounced that I was having some combination of an allergic reaction and water retention. (And now that I think about it, I think he was right. In the 48 hours that passed between the Pantanal and Porto Velho, I only peed twice and I never pooped (thanks to the Imodium). So, basically, everything that should have left my body ended up in my ankles. Awesome.) The solution was to take an antihistamine and something to make me pee out all the bad stuff. This meant I needed to get three shots (antihistamine, pee-thinger, and a blood test, just to be sure).
Normally, I hate shots. Then, reading through all these travel books, they're always on you about the dangers of needles while traveling because they might be infected with all kinds of nasty things like AIDS, so make sure they always use a fresh one. I was not look forward to getting three. The nurse who was in charge of administering these lovely little pokes was very nice though, and gave me an understanding motherly smile the whole time. Even when I had to undue my belt and drop trou so she could give me one in the ass. That hurt. I had never had a buttshot before, I had only seen them in the movies and on TV. And everyone always reacts the same way, with a squinty jolt and a sharp intake of breath. I freely admit that I did that too, but only because I always do what TV tells me.
Anyway, after all that, I was released from the hospital with instructions to return at 5pm for my blood test results. Mike and I made our way back to the hotel. The anti-histamine shot had some sort of sleeping agent in it, so I fell asleep as soon as I hit the bed and didn't wake up for a good three hours. When I finally did fade back in, my feet were reduced to a less comedic size, and I was feeling alright. I went back to the hospital for the final answer, and the Doc gave me the thumbs up. My blood tests were fine, and my feet were returning to normalcy. He gave me a prescription for some anti-inflammatories and some more anti-histamines and sent me on my way.

Now, I'm sitting in my room in the hotel having just enjoyed a nice streetside "hot dog" while watching The Scorpion King dubbed in portuguese. Tomorrow, The OC takes a boat ride up a tributary of the Amazon and the only part of me that's sore or swollen is my butt.

ps... Here's a side-by-side comparison of the normal feet and the clown feet. This picture is to be used for educational purposes only.

Hearts of Darkness

Porto Velho, Brazil

Tomorrow evening, The OC is starting a 3 day boat trip through the Amazon basin to Manaus. We will be too busy fighting alligators, playing cards, drinking cane liquor, and swinging in hammocks to update the site. The next post will come on Friday at the earliest, but more likely sometime during the weekend.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Nasty Feets, Part I

Porto Velho, Brazil

We were in the pantanal (the world's largest inland swamp, natch) for two days before I first noticed the swelling. There were a bunch of moscos and other nasty biters along with a lot of trekking, so my legs were always kind of sore and scratchy. But, on this particular day, I noticed that my left ankle was especially bothersome. I took a closer look and saw that it was a bit swollen. Meh. On a trip like this, especially in the jungle, you occasionally get bouts of tenderness and/or swelling from twists, insect bites, overheating, over-walking, blah, blah, blah. So, I was intrigued, but not really worried. I forgot about it.
Two days later, we were bouncing our way back out of the swamp to the relative civility of Campo Grande, when I got a sudden attack of the devil shits. I had to poop like nobody's business, and we were being kicked and battered about in the back of that truck like a soccer ball. It was rough. Luckily we managed to stop just enough times for me to avoid any really embarrassing situations. Actually, one of those times, I found out too late that there wasn't any toilet paper, so I had to use some crumpled up pieces of paper from the little mini-journal that I always keep with me... but I digress. The point is, somewhere in there, I took an Imodium, so I wouldn't be in serious trouble on the long-ass busride we were about to take. That was a mistake.
The next day, around noon, The OC was on said long-distance bus, 13 hours into a 36-hour trip across the jungles of Brazil when I noticed that both of my feet were still sore. I had just been sitting and sleeping for a while, and we had ridden horses across the pantanal a few days before, so I figured I was just the normal type of old-man soreness. But, I took a closer look, just to be safe.

Fucking gross.

Both of my feet were swollen like two bags of water. And not just my ankles, either. The tops of my feet and the sides were bulging out, too. And they were red and kind of warm to the touch. Not exactly what you want to see when you are 24 hours away from a hospital. The only "good" news was that they weren't really painful. They were sore, but not painful. I could still walk on them without issue. Also, I still had all the feeling and a full range of motion, so I figured it couldn't be anything too bad.
I decided to wait until we arrived in Porto Velho before doing anything about it. We probably could have gotten the bus to stop, but I had no idea where we were, or how close the nearest hospital was, or how we would even get to that hospital once we convinced the bus driver to stop. So, I played the waiting game.
I spent the next half-day on the bus playing around with these two Brazilian kids (Felipe and Gabriel), speaking with them in a broken spanish-portuguese hybrid and showing them how to play DOOM on my laptop, all the while trying to put the swollen feet out of my mind. As the day wore on and night fell, though, I started imagining all kinds of horrible things...

What if I have foot parasites, or gangrene? Is it possible they'll want to amputate because I waited too long? Could this be diabetes? Maybe I've got the gout.

As I was trying to fall asleep, This old man behind us was having a "conversation" with the people on our right. And by conversation, I mean a ten minute monologue. He was droning on and on about some unrecognizable topic, occasionally pausing for a moment to let his point sink in or to take a heavy breath. The thing is, with his drawled portuguese, it sounded like he was chanting. Add to that the slow, rhythmic swaying of the bus on the road, and the freaky partial-illumination provided by the weak ceiling lights, and you can get a better picture of the mood I was in. I felt like I was in some horrible voodoo slasher movie, with the tribals humming around me, making my legs swell more and more, until snakes burst out of them.

It was not so easy getting to sleep that night.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Burnt Down and Fell Over Into a Swamp

Campo Grande, Brazil

Dear Karen,

Just a quickie...

Brazil is not all that scary after all. Portugese is sufficiently similar to Spanish that we can get all the important things without too much struggle. The people are friendly and the food is good. The weather is rough (very hot, very muggy), but I am at this point very experienced at living in the sweat-drenched state, so it is not that much of a thang. We are just back from 3 nights in the world's largest swamp without access to the Internets and tonight we board a 36 hour bus to the Amazon basin. The next update will probably come on Sunday from Porto Velho.

It's a Swamp Thing

The Pantanal, Brazil

Beloved Karen,

The OC arrived in Campo Grande via overnight bus. As is usual, we were tired, sore, stinky, and a bit grumpy to boot. We had taken not 3 steps into the muggy Brazilian morning before becoming the object of much attention. Campo Grande is one of three jumping-off points for tours in The Pantanal - an area half the size of France that is the world's largest swamp, an area of particularly high and accessible biodiversity, and therefore a major attraction for foreign tourists. Numerous suitors at the bus station were all trying to woo us in the direction of their particular tour company.

One gentleman stood out in the crowd. On first sight, I was convinced that we was going to give me a big hug, but I had to settle for a firm handshake, a warm smile, and greetings in pleasantly accented English. He helped us sort out some irregularities with our bags, provided a free breakfast, and led us to warm showers. Other operators that could get a word in edgewise advised that we "shop around", but I saw little reason to be disloyal to the new friend who had so quickly converted us from starving, bus-stinking, refugees back into the well fed and groomed gentlemen that we are. After a brief sales pitch, money hit the barrelhead and we were committed to three nights in the wilderness.

It was a long bus ride out to the camp. The first half was on paved roads in a comfortable bus. The only hitch was the regular bouts of puking by the somewhat motion sick and very unhappy little girl sitting next to me. Maybe three hours in, we switched from paved to dirt and from bus to 4x4 truck. The latter half of the drive was bumpy and dusty but very scenic. We passed some houses here and there, but the landscape was mostly wild. Only 20 minutes from the paved road we were already seeing capybaras (rodents of unusual size), alligators, and all manner of birds.

We arrived in the camp about 7 o'clock. Accommodations were basic. Roofs were just enough to keep out water and walls just enough to keep out bugs. We slept in hammocks in a bunk house with maybe 25 other folks. There were showers and flush toilets. Nobody missed hot water. It is permanently steamy in The Pantanal - not that you would expect any different from the world's largest swamp. We took our meals in a little cafeteria or outside at a long table. The food was tasty and abundant if a bit repetitive. Beans, rice, pasta, and crunchy salads kept hunger well at bay.

Days started early to take advantage of the relative cool. We were out of bed by 6, having coffee and bread by 6:30 and out in the bush by 7. We returned for an early lunch and spent the hot middle of the day taking a siesta or otherwise minimizing activity. We would head out again around half three and be back in time for a shower and a beer or two before dinner at 9. It was an active but pleasing rhythm of life.

Most people came to the camp for 3 nights and could be broken into classes much like an American high school. New freshman arrived each night. People in their first full day were sophomores, those in their second juniors, and those preparing to leave after lunch on their last day were seniors. Each class had a guide that saw them through the curriculum and onward to graduation. Our guide was an English-speaking Indian who went by the name of Joni. In our class was a young woman from Iceland (quickly nicknamed "Ice"), an Italian gentleman of about OC age called Michaele (sp?), and a family of four Swedes who seemed willing enough to adopt us for a short while. We were later joined by an Italian couple after our Nordic friends got caught smoking pot behind the gym and were tossed out of school.

The first day was taken up by two long walks and some swampy swims. We spotted all manner of wildlife including monkeys, an armadillo, toucans, and blue macaws. The hottest hours were spent making bone jewelry. I am now sporting a very Crocodile Dundee necklace. Day two was more adventurous. In the morning, we fished (successfully) for pirana. At first it feels a bit strange standing waist-deep in pirana and crocodile infested waters with a fishing rod, but you soon get used to it. The guide repeatedly assured us of the rarity of attacks on humans. The afternoon was taking up by an exhausting trek on horseback. I more than quadrupled my lifetime horse experience in one thigh-blistering, back-aggravating outing.

A makeshift bar was the focal point of the pre and post dinner hours. It was fully stocked with cold beer, soda, water, and the makings of deadly strong caiparinhas. Our junior year was an especially busy night due to the arrival of an unusually large freshman class. We spent the evening chatting with a mixed group of mostly Europeans near a campfire built more for light than heat with a background of distant lightening. Once the generator and the fire had died, a full boat of stars were to be enjoyed in the moonless sky. It was a memorable scene.

Graduation came as expected and we were back on the truck having our horse-sore asses further ravaged by the rustic road. We got stuck in deep mud along the way and had to lever the truck up with fence posts in order to dislodge it. The rest of the journey was enjoyable by uneventful and we arrived back in Campo Grande just before sunset - leaving enough time to shower and eat before boarding another bus for the 36 hour journey to Campo Velho. Brazil is a big country. There ain't no time for sitting around if we intend to see a lot of it.