Monday, January 31, 2011

Flying Azul

In the interest of saving money and traveling like a Brazilian, I booked a flight from Sao Paolo to Salvador on Azul which must be the Southwest of Brazil. They give free snacks on board and check an inordinate amount of bags for free.

The two hour flight pretty much took all day to negotiate - which in any case was a lot better than a 35-hour bus ride... First I walked about 10 blocks to catch a local bus which took me to the El Dorado Shopping Center. There I caught a free shuttle to Campinhas (an airport which is about 90 minutes from Sao Paolo.) It might be the equivalent of catching a shuttle from Century City to the Ontario Airport. Then I stood in a really long line to check my bag and get a boarding pass. By the time I reached the front of the line, it looked like the plane would be leaving within 10 minutes. I held my anxiety to myself and just put one foot in front of the other. Then my carry on bags were quickly screened - no need to remove shoes, pull out laptops, separate liguids, just a quick whiz of a screening and suddenly I was ushered on board Azul. All announcements were in Portuguese -- no need for translations because very few non-Portuguese discover Azul. (I'm glad I did).

The entertainment was a variety of sports, talk and travel shows and the snacks included cold drinks, chips, cookies and strong hot coffee.

Fast Food Around Sao Paolo

Very popular -- and they bring their laptops here, too!
A Brazilian Chain, but definitely a USA inspiration

Habib's is all over Brazil - cheap and (I suppose) tasty

And they love everything from the USA - especially the McDonald's Sorvetes (ice cream)

Museo of the Portuguese Language

One of my favorite activities in Sao Paolo was going to the absolutely world class museums. I was privy to amazing photography and top-notch sculpture and painting from all over the world. One of the most intriguing was the Portuguese Language Museum. Here one could consider cultural history through language. It made the use of words come alive!
He who is able to use words well is able to read the soul ...
Digram of the origins of Brazilian many influences and such a rich language.

skyscrapers of Sao Paulo

The cult of the body

Drug stores are found everywhere - inside subway stations - on nearly every street corner -- feeling better must be a national passion.
Tattoing and piercing are very big here - at least as popular as in LA...

Wig store -- with many options -- nail and hair salons abound as well

Being buff is very big here --

Luz Station in Sao Paolo

This station is the equivalent of Grand Central in NYC. Lots of connections and a bit dizzying.

Enjoying a Beer in Sao Paulo

Not by the book

Brazilian functionaries were forever bending the rules for me. When I got off the train in Sao Paulo and appeared at the station Sanitario (bathroom) with no Reales the attendant readily admitted me. At one museum I didn't have change for a full price ticket and was sold a half-price student ticket. At another museum they told me if I were 60, I could get in for free. I smiled "yes" and took a two year jump on being a Brazilian senior.

Unlike in the US where cashiers behave like mindless functionaries, here everyone is alive, engaging the moment however it appears. So refreshing!

Sao Paolo's Homeless

They sleep on streets, in parks, and relative to other parts of the world are very laid back in their begging...

Cajeros Electronicos

Once I figured out what they were called, they became my friends:)

anxiety about thievery in Sao Paulo

This poster is all over the subways - alerting riders to be conscious of the whereabouts of their purses, wallets and cell phones. In many of the downtown plazas there were mini-police brigades watching over.

Walls of Sao Paulo

These are from the downtown Se section of Sao Paulo ...

Brazilian Sunset

Shot during my 17-hour semi-cama bus ride....

The shot that woke up my camera

I thought this shot was so Sao Paolo -- busy intersection with faint pink clouds in the distance -- I wanted it so much that the energy from it (may have) caused my non-retracting lens to wake up:)

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Busses or Planes

A couple of days before I left for South America, I was told about a tourist airpass program which sounded great, but I couldn't qualify for it because I didn't then have a Brazilian Visa and I wasn't going to being flying into Brazil from the U.S. I figured I'd take busses. While the super-cama bus from Buenos Aires to Iguazu was fun, dreamy and relaxing, the semi-cama ride from Iguazu to Sao Paolo was cold and made way too many stops. I was intent upon going to Salvador, Bahia which as I gathered would be a 35 hour bus ride from Sao Paolo. Ouch! Perhaps I should change my plans and just head down to Rio and blow off the region I most wanted to see.

I poked around some U.S. based search engines and was told things like flights from Sao Paulo to Salvador are unusual destinations -- suggesting that I would have to route myself into and out of Miami. Obviously I needed some local help! Rosaly, my couchsurfing host, got on a Brazilian website and found some one-way direct flights that would take about two hours and would cost about $150. We tried countless times to book a ticket, but having a non-Brazilian credit card, the system kept rejecting my request. Finally we went out for some beer at a local cafe and figured it could be addressed manana.

In that Rosaly had students coming over (she teaches English to Brazilian professionals), she suggested I go over to Avenida Paulista -- a main street and that I'd easily find a travel agency to do the booking. It was not easy. All I could find were hair and nail salons, fashion boutiques and the ubiquitous drug stores (they are everywhere--in subway stations, shopping centers, little kiosks, etc.) At one point I saw a flag that looked like an airplane -- I got excited until I realized it was just a sign for another clothing shop. Then out of nowhere I found Tam Airways. They only book for Tam and if I wanted to fly Azul (with the cheap flight), I'd have to go across the street to a shopping complex. At the complex I found a student travel agency which only books for out of the country travel. Then down the way I found just a regular travel agency. Yes, they'd book the flight (and another one from Salvador to Rio), but due to my U.S. credit card, I'd have to pay cash. No problem I thought. I headed for the nearest cajero electronico and it would not give me the large quantity of cash I requested ($350). I headed across the street thinking "here's the business center of Sao Paolo and I can't manage to get a very reasonable amount of cash...what is going on??" Fortunately the Banco de Brasil cajero electronico complied and I was in business, too. With air tickets in hand, I felt this wave of relief - no more semi-camas - and the rest of my connections all lined up! Yeah!

Dealing with Details in Sao Paolo

I arrived in Sao Paulo a bit disheveled and my couchsurfing host, Rosaly, did much to help me straighten stuff out. First I felt messy and sweaty from the 17 hour bus ride and immediately was invited to take a shower. Then I had a suitcase full of dirty clothes which also got addressed. Her washing machine was a bit iffy so the stuff that came out spotty got taken downstairs to the very efficient Lavanderia.

The next day after sleeping off the bus ride (I vowed to if at all possible to avoid "semi-cama collectivos" especially without a blanket...) I ventured over to one of Sao Paulo's top museums, MASP (Museo del Arte de San Paolo). The art and culture scene here is fantastic. Not a tourist-oriented city -- but an absolutely sophisticated one. Being here reminds me much of Manhattan with a super-extensive subway system - and much emphasis on fashion, high culture, etc.

I tried to take a picture with my beloved 6 megapixel Canon Elph and lo and behold the lens would not extend properly. I restarted it many times to no avail. While travelling the camera is my extension of me. For it to not be working was absolutely devastating. I went searching for an electronics shop and all I could find were parking garages and eateries. There were kilo restaurants, cafes, fast food (spelled that way in English), Japanese restaurants, Starbucks (yes they're here in semi-abundance). Finally I found a small version of a Best Buy type shop and showed a salesperson my camera. They don't fix cameras -- only sell new ones. I could buy an updated version of my camera for around $800.

I figured I'd keep looking. Eventually I found my way to a camera repair shop (in the Se downtown area). It was on the 8th floor looking over downtown. I was told it would take several days to repair it -- they'd have to take it apart, etc. I was devastated. I wasn't going to wait around Sao Paulo for an iffy repair job - perhaps I should bite the bullet and just buy a new one. I'd noticed that Wallmart is in Sao Paulo and queried about their prices. No, I was told -- they're not cheap here. Eventually I wandered into a spiritualist shop and witnessed a woman who looked quite possessed as she was gathering up candles for her next ritual. I took a whiff of her energy and walked outside. I looked over a view of pinkish clouds hanging over an overpass. It was beautiful. I wanted that picture. I took out my camera and began pushing at the errant lens and suddenly it retracted properly..and then extended properly and suddenly all was okay!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Brazilian Cataratas - pt. 2

Signage was in Portuguese, English and Spanish
Views through the trees

The spume -- this to me was the best part -- to literally bask in the spray. It was so hot that no one bothered with a raincoat -- it was delicious getting super wet!

Another wide-lens shot of the huge expanse of falls...just an exquisite place.

The Brazilian Iguazu Falls Park - Part 1

Entrance to the Brazilian Park (with a brightly tiled reflecting pond)
Unlike the Argentine park, there are a series of busses that take one over to the falls. And rather than an extensive walk to see the Garganta de Diablo, after just a few steps, one sees this magnificent view--
Visitors taking in the viewSecond view of the falls -- taken with wide lens setting

Getting to Brazil

The moment I picked up my visa at the Brazilian consulate (which only took just one day to process), I went down to the bus terminal to investigate busses to Brazil. Considering my desire to see the Brazilian side of the Iguazu Falls and get deep into Brazil, I opted on an arrangement in which a driver would pick me up at my hostel, drive me across the border and on over to the Brazilian Iguazu Falls Park, pick me up several hours later and then take me to the long distance bus station and get me on an overnight bus to Sao Paulo. I sensed with limited time, I'd not be able to make such connections with public transit...and it all worked out for about $20. There was a brief moment when I was waiting for the driver to appear (with the luggage that he agreed to hold for me while I was at the park) and he hadn't yet arrived. For a moment I contemplated the thought of what if he'd absconded with my luggage, etc. Despite my fears and that one moment in which they might have been realized, being here is SO good.

Brazil has a wonderful energy. Everyone lights up when you talk to them (even if you can barely speak Portuguese). Suddenly I'm no longer a disheveled tourist, but rather an interesting person to tease and flirt with. For that alone I would move here in an instant:)

The bus ride from Iguazu to San Paolo was really long. It left Iguazu at 6 pm and arrived in San Paolo at 11 am the next morning. Unlike the Argentinian Super Cama, it made many stops. And it was only a Semi-Cama, being that the seats did not fold all the way flat and one had to bring their own pillows and blankets. I had none and just sort of toughed it out. On some of the stops there were "kilo restaurants" where there was a buffet of items and the result was weighed and then paid for. No doubt a good solution to America's obesity epidemic--if everyone who goes to Sizzler, Hometown Buffet, Fresh Choice and Souplantation had to pay by weight, they might ultimately start weighing less!

Upon arrival at the bus terminal in Sao Paolo, my confusions really began. I had my invitation letter from my couchsurfing host, Rosaly, with a series of subway directions followed by walking directions. First on my agenda was to get some Brazilian Reales (my Argentine pesos were useless here) and I kept asking for an ATM. I made no sense to anyone as if such a thing did not exist. I was astounded -- how could a major metropolitan center, NOT have them? Finally, in discussing this with some men in police-like uniforms, I found out that what I needed was a Cajero Electronico -- and yes there was an entire area devoted to different ones from different banks. Eventually one of them accepted my bank card--I withdrew 100 reales (having no idea whether that was a lot or a little) and headed to the metro.

After negotiating three trains and only one stairway (most of the stations have escalators), I got off at the "Clinicas" stop and began to walk to Rosaly's apartment. She wasn't yet home and so I went out to lunch. I picked a Kilo Restaurant in that sorting out a menu in Portuguese was a bit too overwhelming. While munching on mushroom ravioli in cream sauce, salad, tropical fruit, and broiled chicken I watched some very weird shows on Brazilian TV. There was what looked like an infomercial on non-fat beer, something on a pit bull looking dog that poached cats, and who knows what else.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Brazilian Dance Party

I leave for Brazil today, but last night my hostel sponsored a really fun dance party -- the lack of photos, reveals that most of the time I was dancing!

Friendly Baby Coati

These babies are so used to humans they've become beggars, despite all the signs around the park advising that they will bite and that human food is not a good add-on to their diets.

A bit more from Iguazu Falls

The two hermano (brother) falls
Sun through the trees and clouds

Jungle stream feeding away from the falls

Rainbow over smaller falls (one of my favorite shots)

More from Iguazu Falls

Viewing Area--some of these get super-crowded
Spume coming from the biggest waterfall

What happens when you ask a stranger to take your picture and they don't consider what else is in the frame:)

The long walkways over to the falls

The peoples train (included in the general admission ticket of $25 for foreigners much less for Argentinian nationals) offers stops at two locations in the park

Iguazu Falls

Yesterday, after my early morning consulate capers, I found my way over to the bus station and purchased a roundtrip ticket to the Cataratas (water falls) After boarding the bus I began rumaging through my knapsack only to discover that I had left my camera in my purse which was in my hostel room. I assessed the situation and determined that there was absolutely no way I'd be willing to miss this photo opportunity. Forfeiting my prepurchased ticket (about $2), I ran up to my room, found the camera and eventually boarded another bus. No big problema.

There are many ways to see the falls. I ended up doing it the peoples way with lots of walking and no splashy add-ons. In the end I wished I'd book a boat that circles the island below, but by then it was a bit late and I was really really tired.

View of the Garganta del Diablo (throat of the devil) -- the biggest and most dramatic of the falls...

From the edge of a walkway -- the walk ways are suspended steel -- above the jungle. The walk to each of the falls was quite long and wheelchair friendly.

Another view of the biggest fall

Staying at a Hostel

Back in 2001 when I left Papua New Guinea and arrived late in the evening at a Sydney Youth Hostel, I vowed to never ever stay at a such a place again. That one was teaming with young people engaged in mindless drunk conversations--my room was filled with snorers and the next morning I found myself a private room in a small hotel.

While my plan for this trip was to do a mix of couch surfing and small B&B's, Iguazu, being a mega-tourist town, does not have a couch surfing presence. I did a web search from Buenos Aires, and booked a spot in at the Chelagarto hostel. It has a swimming pool, free breakfast, free wifi, loads of friendly travellers of all ages. Last night they hosted an Asado (BBQ) with a Brazilian dance party. The toe I'd injured on the flight over was feeling much better, and so I danced. Lots of fun and the Asado was absolutely delicious.

My room has two bunk beds and each night there have been different sleepers, all who snore. Damn. I'm off to Brazil this afternoon -- and likely a night bus to San Paolo. Who knows if my fellow seat mates will be snorers....

Visas and Such

When I entered Argentina, I filled out some perfunctory form with a scratchy pen, handed over my passport and some immigration functionary scanned my credit card for the $140 entrance fee for US citizens. Not cheap, but easy.

Brazil would be a whole other story. I first found out a visa would be required to enter Brazil a couple of days before I left LA. When I contacted the Brazilian Consulate in LA I was told it would be impossible to process an application with such short notice and that I should consider postponing my trip. Then I ran some Internet searches and discovered one could get a visa in one day in Iguazu which is on the Argentina-Brazil border. That immediately became part of my itinerary (plus I certainly did want to see the amazing waterfalls).

Upon arrival in Iguazu, I discovered the consulate was closed and wouldn't open until the next morning. Yesterday morning I blasted out of bed and found my way over to the Brazilian consulate. There an elderly man, looked over my paperwork (a print out from filling out an online form) and told me I'd need a photo and 588 pesos (the exchange equivalent of $140). The one visa photo shop in Iguazu wasn't yet open--plus I didn't know where it was. Eventually I found it and the requisite number of pesos and got back to the consulate-assistant who then carefully copied my passport number onto a piece of paper which he then handed to me. He then told me my visa would be ready the next day. Life is good when the hoops one needs to get through are manageable and findable...

Leaving Buenos Aires

There was a part of me who so resonated with the Buenos Aires I saw that I imagined I could stay there a very long time. In that my return flight is from Brazil, it was time to move on. Gabriel and Celeste walked me to the subway and I caught trains up to Retiro, the central bus station. The scene there was a bit chaotic with three distinct terminals, of which my bus would be leaving from the farthest. Eventually I sorted it out and boarded my super-cama express to Iguazu. It was like a dream... I had a huge seat that folded down into a fully flat bed, dinner, breakfast, wine, after dinner whiskey, and at least three movies to watch. The most appropriate for the journey was Inception--with layers of accessing the unconscious which was appropos to my dream state. The meals were okay--the focus on sugar was a bit many ways can one be served leche de dulce?