As I was in search of a place to have a few drinks last night, I applied the Irish Principle, that I had found very useful in places as diverse as Dubai or Riga: "If in doubt, head for the Irish pub." So I went to a place called Killkenny. It did serve the beer of the same name, as well as a few others, it was packed and it had live music. Good choice. Trust the Irish. Everywhere you can have pubs, there will be at least one Irish pub.
Friday, 29 October 2004
Buenos Aires had a fantastic view of the lunar eclipse that was visible all over the American continent last night. With a sky completely free of clouds, it was an amazing spectacle. At the strongest of the eclipse, around 23:30 here, the moon was a very dark brown, nearly chocolate brown. It's a shame I didn't have the proper kit to take pictures.
Thursday, 28 October 2004
After eating yet another great piece of grilled meat last night, I have been comparing the Argentines to another people known for their skills in cooking meat over an open fire, the Australians. To fully understand the similarities and differences, you have to go back to the colonisation of the two countries by the Spanish and the English respectively.
When the Spanish first settled Argentina and the English Australia, they were under similar circumstances. Both had this big empty territory, very sparsely populated, with wonderful natural resources. The indigenous tribes were significantly less technologically advanced, could be abused and their needs ignored. Now, the colonisation method of both countries was slightly different.
The Spanish way. The Spanish basically told their people that there was this huge territory that belonged to the crown, where they could claim whatever land they were able to cultivate. This was a godsend for the second sons of rich Spanish families, who would not have inherited much but now had this opportunity to go to this strange and faraway place and make a name for themselves out there. So they did.
The English way. The English had a prison problem when they discovered Australia and thought that this big empty territory full of strange creature and people would be the ideal prison. The offenders would have no way to escape and would no longer be part of the British society, being half a world away. So they sent all their convicts to a huge, empty, sunny island, with guards, while the "decent" people stayed on the rainy overcrowded British Isles.
Interestingly enough, in terms of food and drink, cultures in both countries evolved to become quite similar and both countries now produce very nice wine and beer and the best gilled meat on the planet, in the form of parrilla and asado in Argentina and barbecue in Australia. However, the way they go about it differs slightly.
The Argentinean way. The parrilla or asado has to be done the right way so that the meat is cooked just right. In the case of the asado, it can involve a whole cow on a spit over an open fire. Ideally, you would drink a fine Mendoza wine with your meal. Argentines are quite fashion aware so they will be dressed accordingly. After the meal, you go out for a few drinks before going dancing. Some tango will usually be involved at some point.
The Australian way. You bring the barbecue to the beach, with adequate supply of beer. Of course you're in your shorts and flip flops because you're on the beach. You slap some pieces of meat on the barbecue, eat lots and drink lots of beer. Afterwards, you drink more beer.
Having gone this far, I tried to find names of famous people from both countries. So, here are the first 3 off the top of my head. Famous Argentines: Diego Maradona, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Famous Australians: Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Lleyton Hewitt.
I think we can conclude that Argentines are like Australians, except that they've got class.
Tuesday, 26 October 2004
Monday, 25 October 2004
The flight to Buenos Aires was a breeze although I had the feeling the pilot wanted to see how high his Boeing 737 could go as I had never been that high up for a 1:30 hour domestic flight. One thing that was also striking is the perfect organisation of Aerolineas Argentinas: all passengers were on board 10 minutes before scheduled time and the plane actually pulled out 5 minutes early. On arrival at Aeroparque, the domestic airport in Buenos Aires, we got our luggage virtually as soon as we got off the plane. Then the minibus to the centre was spot on time. I had been told the Argentineans were the Swiss of South America and I started to believe it. I had to reconsider when I went out of the hotel for a walk: Buenos Aires is way too friendly and attractive to be Swiss. The cafes, bars, restaurants, shops of all descriptions that make the centre feel more like a mix of France and Italy. I was told it was the most European of South American cities and I am convinced it is now. I think I am going to enjoy my stay here. This is good because the hotel I found via hotels.com is not very good and the description on the web site is a bit misleading.
Since I arrived earlier today, I discovered some of the wonders of this city, starting with the gelaterias, ice-cream shops. You choose the size of cone you want and the flavours you want on top (that's the difficult part, there are lots); then watch the guy pile up an amount of ice-cream on your small cone you never thought could fit; and finally enjoy it thoroughly because this is the type of ice-cream that would make the Italians jealous. If this applies to you, make sure your Weight Watchers point calculation table is nowhere to be found. Then I tried another of Buenos Aires delights, the media luna, a small croissant eaten at tea time or breakfast or whenever you feel like it. This is real full fat butter croissant that would make a Frenchman proud. All this should keep me going until dinner time, i.e. 10pm or so, at which time I might have an Argentinean steak, the size of which is at least 500 grams. Smaller sizes are on the child menu. Then around midnight, it should be time to have a few beers and go out. There might be some Argentinean wine involved as well. Ok, I haven't done all of this yet, some of it is speculation, speaking from my 2 day experience in Puerto Iguazú.
I think I really like this place already. Why was it I had to go back to London on Saturday again?
This is typical. I arrived at Foz do Iguaçu Friday afternoon. The weather was great. Saturday and Sunday while I was at the falls, it was raining or it was overcast. Now, we are on Monday, I am leaving Puerto Iguazú for Buenos Aires in a couple of hours and the weather is great again. Maybe I have really brought the British weather with me or it is a ploy to re-aclimate me to said weather before I go back at the end of the week.
Wow! Wow! Wow!
I can´t find any other word to describe the last two days. Part of the border between Brazil and Argentina is the river Iguassu (Iguaçu in Portuguese, Iguazú in Spanish). The word means Big Water in the indigenous Guarani language. Not because the river itself is wide but because, just before flowing into the river Paraná, it drops 82 metres to produce one of the biggest waterfalls in the world. Or rather waterfalls because the drop is in a loop of the river which means that the water falls over a very wide area thus creating no less than 275 individual falls, the biggest one of them being called Gargata del Diablo, Throat of the Devil.
Yesterday, I was on the Brazillian side of the falls. Because the Brazillian side is the inside of the loop formed by the river, it is smaller and takes only an hour or so to visit. It is still very, very impressive, especially when you get to the last part in the middle of the Florianopolis fall, next to the Garganta do Diabo. So I had the time to do a boat trip and get close to the action. On top of all this, it was raining so it ended up being very wet. It didn't prevent me from taking pictures and my camera did very considering how wet it got. I had to dry it out a few times. The icing on the cake was a helicopter tour to see the falls from above. In fact, it is the only way to really get an overall idea of the whole fall system because it is so huge. Incidentally, with the window open, it is also a very good way to dry up.
Today, I did the Argentinian side. It took the whole experience to yet another level. First, the Argentinian side being the outside of the loop, there is much more to see. You can also get much closer to the falls without having to resort to a boat. So I took my camera and did every single walking trail, getting wet yet again in the process. It was overcast but dry today though so it was easier to dry up. The whole tour took me about 5 hours. The best part was overlooking the Garganta del Diablo from a few metres away. Looking down, you understand why the native tribes would have thought this was the entrance to the devil's lair. The mist generated by the fall makes it look like a gigantic boiling cauldron. After that, I did the ecological thing: a boat tour on the upper part of the river, before the fall, where we managed to spot lots of birds and a couple of yacaré (a sort of small caiman). I didn't see any jaguar or snake but there are some in the park. I saw lots of butterflies though. I never thought butterflies could be a nuisance until I had several hundred of them flying around.
As a last impression of Brazil and a first impression of Argentina, I couldn't have chosen a better place to cross the border. I'll say it one more time: wow!
Thursday, 21 October 2004
My legs hurt. I spent the day yesterday walking around Belo Horizonte to do different things. As I'm sure I mentionned before, Belo Horizonte is not flat, and it was hot: more than 30 Celsius. I needed a bus ticket to Ouro Prêto, so I went to the bus station. Twice, because the first time I apparently failed to mention I needed the ticket for today. I went to the Mineralogy Museum and saw lots of pretty stones. I bought my first souvenir, a culinary one: a bottle of cachaça, 6 years old. I'll need a 3 year old one to do caipirinha as well but I can find that in any airport, no need to walk all around town to find a specialist shop. I then failed to buy any other souvenir. I wanted something to put on the shelves at home but all I found was either too large, too heavy or really ugly. I'm trying to learn from my previous mistakes and buy stuff I can actually carry around the rest of my journey. Now, that means I'm doing forward planning! Surely not!?
After all this, I compounded the problem today by going to Ouro Prêto. Ouro Prêto, which means Black Gold in Portuguese, is in the mountains of Minas Gerais and used to be the state capital before it was moved to Belo Horizonte. Being in the mountains, there is not a single flat bit to the town. Some of the streets are virtually vertical, or they feel like it when you walk up them, especially considering it's all cobbles. It must be murder when it rains. Why would you ever build a town there? For gold: it has a huge amount of it. In fact, I think it has (or had) the largest deposits of gold in all of South America. It also has an inordinate amount of churches, in which a lot of the gold ended up and is still visible today. In practice, I've had to work very hard to take pictures without a church in them. Not that there are no other things to photograph, Ouro Prêto is also very famous for its colonial architecture and is a UNESCO World Heritage site so you won't see a single modern building there. Old buildings have to be restored in the colonial style and new ones have to be built in the same style. It is all very picturesque but very hard work. Once again, I failed to buy a souvenir there because most of the local handicraft is carved stone: beautiful but heavy and fragile.
Tuesday, 19 October 2004
I was reminded last night that Brazillians are not rich in quite an unexpected way. It can be very easy to forget you are in a country with a huge number of poor people here. Everything is clean and works well. For instance, all the places I have been to have streets cleaner than London and generally in as good a state of repair; cars are relatively new; etc. Even the favelas, the shanty towns, are not significantly worse than some parts of London or Manchester and definitely luxurious compared to South African or Indian shanty towns. All in all, you'd be forgiven to sometimes forget you are in a country that doesn't have the same standard of living as Europe. So, last night, I was having a nice meal at the terrace of a small restaurant that involved some very nice pieces of beef at the usual cheap price by European standards. That restaurant was also doing take away and three girls walked in to order some food. They got their food and left but on the way out they walked past my table and made a comment that I did not understand. Seeing my blank look, one of them insisted and I eventually understood that she had said something about how nice the meat I had looked and how she'd like to be able to afford meat. She then asked if she could have a piece because I had a lot of it. Indeed, it was one of those meals that I ended up being unable to finish so I gave her some. The look on her face when she ran away with it was quite telling!
After a few beers to wash the meal down, I went for a walk and ended up finding a night club, one that I remembered was mentionned in the Belo Horizonte guide in the hotel. I went in; and realised it was one of those places where the customers are all male and you can buy your date for the night. This wasn't what I was looking for so I made a quick exit after a couple of (expensive) beers. However, it was quite interesting to see the other side of the wealth coin: well off local lads and foreigners in the process of spending a few hundred pounds on drinks and girls. Back at the hotel, I did check that the place I had just been to was indeed mentionned in the "night club" list. And then, I read the small print that said that "night clubs" as described in the guide were places where the girls were professionals but you had other alternative, see "live music" and "places to dance" sections. That will teach me: when in a foreign country, never assume a word you use at home will have the same meaning, especially when used in translated text.
I went local last night for food and drink. I found this small restaurant at the top of a flight of stairs where I got a very nice meal that I could not finish for less than 9 reais, that is about GBP 1.80, drinks included. After that I went to a local bar, but not for very long. To put it mildly, it was not the best frequented place I've ever been to. It appears my hotel is in a slightly sleazy neighbourhood.
Now, I can hear people ask: "but why don't you look in your travel guide to find nice places to go to?" Well, I'd like to ask the same from Lonely Planet. Their section on Belo Horizonte in their Brazil guide is abysmal. Granted, it is not a typical tourist destination, compared to other cities in Brazil but it is still the 3rd or 4th largest city in the country. More than 3 or 4 pages would be nice and a map where streets are missing is definitely out of order. Fair enough, they're not big streets but they have some nice restaurants and bars that, as a result, are also missing. They also managed to miss some of the most amazing neo-gothic churches and colonial buildings I've ever seen. I am atheist but some of the churches here are amongst the best examples of places of worship that are so atmospheric they would inspire awe and respect in anybody, whatever their faith. Missing them in a travel guide is gross negligence. Ok, I'll stop ranting now and do what I've been doing for 3 days: build my own guide to Belo Horizonte using local resources and experimenting. If I'm in a good mood when I come back, I might send it to Lonely Planet.
Monday, 18 October 2004
Last night wasn't as good as expected because I made a stupid mistake. I decided to have a quick drink in the hotel's bar before going out to the Lourdes neighbourhood for a meal and more drinks and possibly some disco. Now, some people will immediately understand the trap in the words "a quick drink". I got to the hotel's bar, on the 25th floor, with fantastic views on the nightly lit town and I was the only customer there for a good 10 minutes. So I got the full attention of the waiters and got a caipirinha. Then I started chatting with said waiters and the one caipirinha ended up being 3. Now, it was the real stuff with really good cachaça so it was strong. I still managed to leave the bar and find my way to Lourdes. I had a great meal, as usual here, but after that the caipirinhas caught up with me and I went back without even checking out the local bars. I know, terrible. But the worst in all this is that, today, while looking for something completely unrelated, I ventured in a street I hadn't been to before, 2 blocks away from my hotel to discover there was a big shopping centre, a few restaurants and bars just there! Typical, you try all the stuff that is supposed to be good the other side of town and only then do you realise there are some places just a minute away. So I'll check those out tonight.
Sunday, 17 October 2004
I knew my Portuguese was not up to scratch. This fair I was mentioning yesterday is an art and craft fair that is held every Sunday. They actually close the whole of Avenida Alfonso Pena for 4 blocks and put lots of tents in the middle. They reckon they now have about 3000 stalls split into 17 types of products sold. In practice, it all started as a small fair on Praça da Liberdade and eventually overflowed the square so they had to find something bigger. It is absolutely huge now! Something like this held in London would require something like closing Piccadilly all the way between Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park Corner. So I spent some time there this morning. I went to Praça da Liberdade afterwards where they had a brass band competition. Now that it's not used for the fair anymore, they've got to do something I suppose. However, finding yourself halfway between two brass bands playing music at full volume can be a distressing experience, even when they're good.
Saturday, 16 October 2004
As I was saying yesterday, I went out last night. I had my first local food from Minas Gerais. As usual in Brazil, it was completely unfit for a vegetarian. Good thing it's not my case so I enjoyed it thoroughly. After that, I went in search of a place to have a few drinks. It wasn't too difficult considering I was in the Savassi neighbourhood of Belo Horizonte and I ended up in the 3 Coraçãons cafeteria, that had a nice terrace outside. The beer was the standard chopp and went down quite well. However, the local fauna was interesting and totally unexpected. The square was full of goth, rasta, hippie, punk, you name it. I thought I was back in Camden Town for a second. Then I realised it was way too warm for it to be London and most of the crowd were way too young and probably guilty of underage drinking. I had discovered what rebellious Belo Horizonte teenagers get up to on a Friday night! Surprisingly, they were very well behaved even if some of them did try to put on a show. I found it very amusing and so did the other customers of the cafeteria. Apparently, this is what happens on Praça Savassi on a Friday night. I then went in search of somewhere more like a night club or a live music bar... and failed. I blame the way Belo Horizonte is designed with large straight avenues built for cars. As a result, there is no area of the town which favour pedestrians and would be a natural point of focus for outdoor night life, the way the Pelourinho is in Salvador. Tonight, I will try another area of town called Lourdes and see if I fare better. An interesting thing I noticed last night though is that quite a few bars officially advertise their closing time as "when the last customer leaves". I wish they'd do that in London!
Today I met with a friend and she took me to a few places out of town, including a lake, a zoo and a natural reserve. We started at the lake of Pampulha. It is quite nice and boasts a quadruple water spray feature at one end, better than the one in Geneva. It also has the Igreja de São Francisco de Assis on its bank, a church with the most unusual architecture. Unfortunately, it was undergoing repairs so we could only see the back of it, by the road, which shows an amazing azulejo (the Portuguese white and blue tiles, see an example taken in Lisbon). The zoo is like most other zoos except that I was able to see more of the local fauna there. They do have some weird animals in Brazil. Then we went to the Mangabeiras park just outside of town, in the Serra do Curral. Very nice but very tiring (Serra is a mountain range in Portuguese, same as Sierra in Spanish). We got a fantastic view of the town though!
Apparently, tomorrow, there is a fair just outside where my hotel is. If I understood well (my Portuguese is getting better but I still struggle a lot), they basically close the two internal lanes on each side of the central reservation in Avenida Alfonso Pena and put up lots of tents in the middle were they sell lots of things. That still leaves the Avenida 3 lanes each way so the interaction between drivers and fair should be interesting.
Great! I just found a map of Belo Horizonte so you can admire the beautiful grid design. My hotel is between dots 8 and 16.
Friday, 15 October 2004
While in Macaé, I went to Búzios, which is the "Brighton" of Brazil. Luckily, because it's still spring here, rather than summer, it wasn't too busy. The other good thing is that, due to the geography of the peninsula, you have lots of beaches while the amount of hotels you can build is limited so you would never have the stupid amount of people you would have in places like Brighton or St Tropez. However, you might meet Brigitte Bardot there, on the grounds that she is the celebrity who put Búzios on the map in the first place, by staying there a few years ago. To the point that you have streets and restaurants named after variations on Brigitte and Bardot.
I'm now in Belo Horizonte, the capital city of the state of Minas Gerais, so called because this state has a soil that is very rich in all sorts of minerals, including gold, and counts something like 2000 mines that originally made it the economic centre of Brazil. Belo Horizonte itself is a large modern city with wide avenues designed in a grid pattern. In fact, 2 grids on top of one another at 45 degrees. It looks fantastic on a map but is a nightmare on the ground because you end up with lots of intersecting streets and quite a few junctions with 6 or 8 streets. The result is not pedestrian friendly at all. To make the life of pedestrians even worse, the place is not flat, far from it. On the other hand, in a 30 Celsius heat, walking around town is good exercise. And there's quite a big park if you want to get away from the traffic. Also, Belo Horizonte is supposed to have the best night life in Brazil so I will check this out over the week-end. Then next week, the plan is to go for day trips to the different small towns around here that are supposed to be quite scenic.
Today, I also bought the remaining plane tickets for the last two legs of my journey. So it's now all set: after Belo Horizonte, I go to Foz do Iguaçu then cross into Argentina and fly from Puerto Iguazu to Buenos Aires. It was quite fun to explain all this in Portuguese to the travel agent. The difficult part was to convince her that I would manage on my own between Foz do Iguaçu, which is the town on the Brazilian side of the Iguaçu falls, and Puerto Iguazu, which is the town on the Argentinean side of the falls. There is about the same distance between the two than there is between Luxembourg and Trier or Mulhouse and Basel but they both have their own airport and it is much more simple to cross the border by bus than by plane: the plane journey would be Foz do Iguaçu - São Paulo - Buenos Aires - Puerto Iguazu and cost a fortune whereas the bus should take no more than 1 hour and cost a few reais. The travel agent was also quite amused to discover that Iguaçu is spelt Iguazu in Spanish. Ah well, it was an experience and it certainly made me practice my Portuguese.
Tuesday, 12 October 2004
After Rio, I am in Macaé, staying with a friend. Macaé used to be a small provincial town. Now that it is the base for 80% of the Brazillian oil production, its has grown 10 times and has lots of foreign companies willing to provide Brazil with the best drilling technology. It seems to work because, according to predictions, Brazil should be able to produce enough oil for its internal consumption by 2005 and should become a net exporter by 2006. The good thing is that because all the drilling is quite a long way offshore, still within Brazillian waters but only just, the sea front has a nice, clean beach and the presence of the oil industry is only visible through the names of the companies that have an address here.
Monday, 11 October 2004
This morning I had a good look at some of the postcards of Rio I bought yesterday, you know the sort of things you send via snail-mail. Why would I send postcards would you ask? Well, my grand-mother doesn't use email. So coming back to the postcard, it had the Christ Redeemer and the Sugar Loaf on it, the obvious stuff you have on a postcard of Rio and a view you can only snap from a helicopter. I realised it was a shameless montage! The Christ statue is looking the wrong way! I'll have to scan it when I am back and upload it. One more reason to take your own pictures, you can't even trust the postcards nowadays.
After Salvador, I am now in Rio, "a cidade meravilhosa" or something like this. The hotel I am staying in is in the Copacabana district. So I've done all the standard touristy things: walk on what is arguably the most famous beach in the world, go up the Corcavado to see the Christ Redemptor and go up the Sugar Loaf just in time for sunset. I even managed to get to the coach station to buy tickets for my next two stops, Macae and Belo Horizonte. All in one day! And all on public transport. It was quite fun experimenting with Rio's buses. The only problem is you've got to now where things are in Rio to use the buses. Good thing my Lonely Planet has good maps. It didn't prevent me from taking the wrong bus at one point though. Luckily it was when going to Corcovado so it became very obvious very quickly that we were not going in the direction I wanted: if the big hill (700 odd metre high) with a big statue on top that you want to go to doesn't get closer, get off the bus.
Apart from that, Rio is supposed to have fantastic night life but the Copacabana sea front is a tourist drag with large expensive restaurants and mega-clubs where everything is on sale: at 10pm on via Atlantica, you can buy a painting by a local artist or a date for the night as easily as you can buy a beer. I miss Salvador and its simple nightlife where you just sit at the terrace of a cafe for a drink, chat to the people around you and end up a few hours later in a place with live music being cheered by the locals who are trying to teach you how to dance samba.
Nervermind, Rio is definitely worth seeing but for a good party, Salvador wins.
Friday, 8 October 2004
I tried to report on the Bahia x Avai football (or rather futebol) match I went to on Tuesday but blogger.com crashed on me when I did that on Wednesday. So I'll summarise the summary: it was a huge party!! Bahia won 1-0 with an unconventional goal 10 minutes before the end. The technique used consists in having a scramble near the opposite goal and have one of the players trip on the ball and fall into the goal taking the ball with him. Not in any football manuals but it worked. And the stadium went wild, Brazillian style: drums, fireworks, flares, etc.
Since then, I've been visiting the historic centre of Salvador, including the Pelourinho which is the area where all the action is in the centre. It involved a lot of caipirinha, some of the best beef steaks I've ever had and some samba practice. Brazil is definitely not a vegetarian friendly country but as a carnivore, I'm having some of the best food ever! And when it comes to partying, nobody can beat the Brazillians! I'm still recovering from last night and I have another party planned in 2 hours time. But then it's my birthday and my last night in Salvador before flying to Rio tomorrow. Time to get a guarana drink I reckon.
Tuesday, 5 October 2004
London, Paris, São Paulo, Salvador da Bahia: 3, planes, 2 airlines, 18 hours. It was painful but it was worth it! I've been in Salvador since Sunday morning and I'm having a fantastic time! The beaches are great, the water is warm, the people are just fantastic. The only downside is blogger.com being a bit temperamental from here. Nevermind, I finally managed to get into my account to post.
I thought Brazil would be great but I didn't realise how great. It's really nice to be away from the rain of London and be able to drink a beer on the beach for the extortionate sum of 50 pence. I'll be in Salvador until the week-end. I still need to go and see Pelourinho, the historic centre so I'll make sure I do before I go. Then, off to Rio de Janeiro followed by Belo Horizonte (and Ouro Preto), Sao Paulo, Foz do Iguaçu; then cross into Argentina and down to Buenos Aires.
In the meantime, I'm spending my mornings in a local language school learning Portuguese which, if I were to unfairly summarise it in one sentence is Spanish grammar with French pronounciation. Luckily, the Brazilian version is much simpler than the original from Portugal. At least they don't swallow half the words all the time here. On the other hand, they're laid back enough to take their time when speaking. This is good for a beginner.
Speaking of culture, I'm going to a football match tonight between Bahia, the local team, and another team I can't remember the name of. When it comes to football here (soccer for the Americains), culture is not a strong enough word. Religion is more like it. It should be fun.
Time for a caipirinha, I'll be back soon.