Bloca, beaches and Bardot.

19 02 2009

Arriving in Santa Cruz in the early hours, we got ourselves in the queue to buy our train tickets… Some say its called the Death Train because of the amount of people who died whilst building the line, others say its because locals hitch rides on the roof and fall asleep and drop off to their untimely demise… the most credible explanation though is because early on in the last century, when the region of Santa Cruz was suffering an epidemic of yellow fever, this train line was the line used to transport the dead bodies out of Santa Cruz and into quarantine areas. Hence the Death Train.

The train runs from Santa Cruz to the border town of Puerto Quijarro. There are three different train running – Regional, Expreso Oriental and Ferrobus. I would not recommend the Regional, as you there is the strong chance of you actually dying – either of boredom or being eaten alive by mosquitos. The Expreso Oriental though is half the price of the Ferrobus, and only 2 hours slower. We opted for Super Pullman seats (cheaper again) and were not disappointed. Our carriage was air conditioned, the seats were ample sized and comfortable. (more info can be found on www.ferroviariaoriental.com/ and www.chiquitania.com/pantanal_and_brazil.html)

The journey was great; watched our last few films in Spanish and got bombarded at every stop by hordes of children selling every type of meat imaginable, more often than not by dangling it inches from our sleeping faces to try and entice us… There were also a number of passengers dressed in traditional clothing, speaking in a Germanic dialect, with a word of two of Spanish in between. We found out that they were Menonites; (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mennonite) a group of Christian Anabaptist denominations named after Menno Simons, some of whom settled in the Bolivian Savannah in the 19th Century.

After a while, the gentle rocking of the train lulled us into a deep sleep, that no amount of charcoaled meat was going to wake us from. When we woke up it was daylight and we were approaching the last stop. A short taxi ride from the train station and we found ourselves at the border crossing into Brazil! A stamp in the passport later and we were through. We now needed to catch a taxi over the Rio Paraguary to the town of Corumbá, where we could catch a bus to the city of Sao Paulo. Fortunately we found a taxi to share, as they can be quite expensive, and we didn’t fancy taking our chances on the back of a moped!

The change in Brazil was multifaceted: firstly we once again felt like incompetent tourists as our grasp of Portuguese left a lot to be desired, we had to resort again to elaborate charades and slowly spoken Spanish. Secondly; everybody was very helpful and didn’t expect cash for their services. Lastly, however, it was much more expensive than any of the countries we had visited so far!

Fortunately for us, we met a local lad named Bruno who was on the way home to Sao Paulo after 6 months travelling. He very kindly arranged the most economic bus for us to take, and offered to teach us a bit of Portuguese and a bit about Brazilian culture and his home city on the journey.

Our hostel, O de Casa, was handily right near Bruno’s flat, so he helped us negotiate the subway and walked us to the door before saying his farewells. The hostel itself was very chilled, and had a homely atmosphere with a nice garden and large living room. Upon arriving we met two more local guys – Thiago and Leandro. They had just set up a new enterprise, to show visitors, the real sights and sounds of Sao Paulo. (http://www.soulsampa.com/sao_paulo/index.php) We booked ourselves a spot the next day.

The mid nineteenth century expansion of coffee plantations from Rio de Janeiro saw Sao Paulo’s fortunes start to rise. The region’s rich soil was perfect for coffee cultivation, and from around 1870, the city went under a massive transformation into a bustling business centre. As the local population could not meet the demands for workers for the ever increasing factories, the ‘coffee barons’ began to turn their attention to immigrants.

Sao Paulo is a city built by immigrants, whose arrival is largely responsible for making it the second largest city in the country. Conditions were initially appalling for the immigrants, with many dying of yellow fever or malaria whilst waiting in the port before being transferred. In response to the criticisms, the government opened the Hospedaria dos Imigrantes. Here vast dormitories, designed to hold around 4,000, were home to an estimated 10,000, crammed in together like cattle.

The population kept on rising, and the city is now home to around 12 million, and has a thriving cultural scene, as a result of its multicultural community. The food is fantastic too!

First stop on our tour was the city centre, where we visited the Praca da Se. The square is dominated by the Catedral Metropolitana. From here we headed up towards the Teatro Municipal, then on towards the Praca de Republica and the Triangulo. This is the business hub of the city, and home to one of the most important landmarks – the edificio Martinelli, which was built in 1928 and was modelled on the Empire State Building. We also took a tour of some of the street art, and visited some vintage record shops, where we learnt about some of Brazil’s musical greats, and the different styles of music inherent to Brazil and Sao Paulo. After which it was time for lunch – we were treated to some traditional brazilian food – I tucked in to a bowl of Feijoada; which is a stew of beans with beef and pork meats. As to which bits of pork and beef – its best not to ask! It tastes fantastic regardless!

It was Carnival time in Brazil, and sadly due to lack of funds we were unable to spend in the motherland of carnival – Rio de Janeiro. However, all was not lost in Sao Paulo. After lunch we headed out on the subway to one of the suburbs to a large community centre. Here there a large family event, with local samba bands and people of all ages dancing away and enjoying the mix of traditional and modern tunes. It was great fun, and a real chance to enjoy something away from the usual tourist trail.

The party continued into the evening, after heading back for a quick rest and some beers and pizza, we were back out on the streets for the local Bloca. Basically a street party and procession, which follows a selection of floats and bands through the streets: dancing, singing and drinking the night away. We stumbled into bed around 4am, our feet sore, but more than worth it!

The next day, after a considerable lie in, we headed down a great antiques market, just one block away from the hostel. We spent hours perusing the items for sale, wishing we had more money and a place of our own to put on the cool things we wanted to buy. On returning to the hostel, we came across Beth, an aussie girl who we had met in Mancora. That evening, we headed out once more, with a large group from the hostel, to a slightly salubrious end of town on recommendation from another local staying with us. A crazy night ensued… many caipiranhas were consumed! The Caipiranha is the traditional Braziliain cocktail – similar to a Pisco sour, yet much more sweet. It is made with lime and plenty of cachaça, a sugar can rum. More sugar is then added!

We decided it was time to head on, as we only had around two weeks left. We had planned on going to Ilha do Mel, but after checking the weather and seeing heavy rain forecast, we decided to head north towards the sunshine, and settled on Buzios. As the bus wasn’t until the evening, we spent the day in the park. Having decided to walk there with a picnic, we took a slight detour and turned up with a rather wilted lunch, and in desperate need for an ice cream. However with an ice lolly in hand, we spent the rest of our time in Sao Paulo relaxing by the lake, before heading to the bus terminal.

Arriving in Buzios, we checked into the Yellow Stripe Hostel. From first appearance, it looked like the most clean and stylish hostel we had stayed in during our time in South America. First impressions were not wrong; not only that, but it was owned by a great couple and had fantastic facilities. Our dorm overlooked the swimming pool. They also had a large living room, complete with Wii and the largest film collection to date, plus a great kitchen, BBQ and free beach equipment!

Buzios, once a quiet fishing town, was made popular by none other than Bridgette Bardot, who stumbled upon in whilst touring the area in 1964. As a result during the peak seasons, it can get very busy; however with 27 beaches, all within walking distance, or minibus service, you can be sure to find a suitable to relax on the beautiful white sand, or cool off or snorkel in the crystal clear waters.

Another thing we had to start doing now in Brazil was to cook for ourselves again. As with Argentina it is far cheaper to buy food and cook for yourself, and most hostels will have good kitchen facilities. It was great though to experience once again the social side to cooking in hostels – everyone sharing tips and compliments, and eating together. Another pointer as well for Brazil is the problem with the ATMs – only certain banks seem to accept foreign cards and also at certain times of the day.

Our week in Buzios absolutely flew by: we met a fantastic group of people, including Jane, a lovely Canadian girl. We went on a boat cruise, ate chocolate pizza, drank cocktails at sunset, feed the fish, drank out of a coconut, got attacked by giant moths, had fantastic crepes and beer, went to the most expensive club and regretted it, had the best BBQ since Argentina and got seriously addicted to Guarana.

It is the second soft drink brand most sold in Brazil, behind only Coca-Cola. Currently, it is ranked among the 15 brands most sold in the world! It tastes so good! We also had our first bowl of Acai – another Brazilian phenomenon. Blended with ice and served with Granola, it had become a staple diet for every Brazilian and backpacker alike… I however was not a fan.

Our week in the sun though had to come to an end eventually… and so we boarded a bus, with Jane in tow, to our final stop on our Escape to South America: Rio de Janeiro.

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