Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The final post

I was in Pamplona for the San Fermin festival last weekend, after being hounded by D to show up. Considering my jobless and broke situation, he offered to pay for everything and made it an easy decision. Took the overnight train to Irun, and then switched trains to reach Pamplona around noon. The San Fermin festival is a big affair, with the running of the bulls as the main event, followed by bull fighting and all night partying on the streets.

I carried my tent and sleeping bag with me, and though I was there for barely a day and a half, it was an intense experience. We started drinking immediately after I reached, passed out in a park to take a siesta, headed out to watch a bullfight with a raucous crowd, and then partied on the streets till late. D had spent the previous night on the grass, so in a drunk state he guided me to a place where we camped, and woke up next to homeless people, who didn't seem like they were there for the fiesta. The music continued all night, but I slept soundly.

It was weird to wake up in a tent in a public park, pack up and then head through the city centre to find a good spot to go running with the bulls. The streets were full of people wearing the same outfit (white clothes and a red scarf), and most of them had been partying all night and looked ready to pass out. The ones who retained some sobriety got ready to go running at 8am. I chickened out but D had been waiting for this moment for years, so he went for a warmup run, scoped out the best spot and then finally lived out his childhood fantasy of running with the bulls.

The festival is surprisingly not very touristy. We heard Spanish almost everywhere, and it was more common to see families celebrating, rather than just backpackers. Most of the locals were very warm and friendly, and even though we could barely communicate, they shared their food and drink with us very easily. The most touching moment was when two old women on a balcony, thrilled that D took their pictures with his fancy camera, lowered us two bottles of beer from their balcony with a piece of rope and a plastic bag.

Somewhere in the middle of all this madness, I went off to check my email, and saw an offer from here. Suddenly, a lot of my problems were solved, and partying on the streets of Pamplona knowing that I won't have to live like a bum much longer made it an amazing trip.

Another month from now, I was supposed to leave Paris, and after getting turned down by every academic job I'd applied for, I'd started to prepare for non-academic jobs. The plan was to head to London around mid-August, sleep on a friend's couch and look for work. But after living out of a backpack for so long, I'd begun to feel very tired and disoriented, and sleeping in a friend's living room with no money and no work permit, looking for a job didn't sound too enticing, especially with an ultra long distance relationship. I was also tired of travelling, and was hoping something would materialise out of nowhere. It did.

So now I'm going to leave Paris a bit earlier, sometime in early August, fly back to Delhi for 2 weeks, apply for a new visa, celebrate my twin's birthday, and then fly out to New York and start my position in Ithaca almost immediately afterwards. A few months later, The Girl from Lapa will visit, and I'll go back to Rio for the winter break.

In about 6-7 weeks, I'll reach the end of a journey which will have spanned 16 months, 4 continents and about 120,000 km. It started sometime in May last year, when I submitted my thesis from a hotel in Las Vegas on the last possible day after a nerve-racking end to my Phd, and then bought a oneway ticket to India with no concrete plans. The rough idea was to spend 2 months in India, find a short term visiting position in Europe and save some money, and then spend 4-6 months watching the world cup in the Caribbean and travelling in South America, and hopefully find a long term job by August 2007. Somehow, it all worked out though almost each time things worked out at the last minute when there didn't seem to be too many options.

The backpack will be retired along with some of the things which have sustained me for all this time. I'll keep uploading pictures and videos (for Pamplona click here.), but I'm done with blogging now. I'll revert to less public ways of keeping in touch now that I'm going to lead a more settled life. Hopefully, I'll see a lot of you soon.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A break from blogging

It's been more than a year of blogging, which also means more than a year of living out of my backpack, travelling and moving around. Blogging was easy as a result and the idea was to maintain some kind of a travel diary, and keep some friends updated about which part of the world I'm in and what I'm up to.

I'm back in Paris for 2 months, and don't have any major travel plans for the future (except a short trip to Spain in 2 weeks, and possibly a few days in London next month). I'm not sure what's next after Paris, but hopefully something will work out before I have to leave.

So, I'm taking a break from this blog for a while. I'll update it once I figure out some slightly more long term plans. I'm in Paris till the middle of August, so if anyone's interested in visiting let me know.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Summer in Paris

So I finally moved into my new studio, and after more than a year, I have a bank account (this time with money in it), address and office in the same city. I also have internet at home, a landline, a cellphone and clothes in a closet and not a backpack, so I feel like I've returned to civilisation. It's only for 2 months though, and sometime in mid-August I'll be back on the road again.

It's officially summer now, and on June 21st each year there's a huge celebration all over Paris. Musicians and bands are allowed to perform on the streets and in parks. I went out yesterday with some friends, and I've never seen Paris so crowded. Getting around on the subway was impossible and more than half the time, we had to keep tabs on who to meet, where to go and what to listen to. After a few hours of all this, we'd probably listened to about 5 minutes of a performance. The solution was easy - head to a bar and drink a beer.

It was funny to observe Paris yesterday. When I was here last time, it was winter, so there wasn't too much happening on the streets. Yesterday, the streets were packed and a lot of food and alcohol was being sold outdoors. Seeing people lose their inhibitions and celebrate all over the city was nice. The streets and sidewalks were filthy as a result, and there was a big police presence everywhere. It almost felt like Lapa.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Back in Paris

Got back after a long flight and had to change 3 trains from the airport to get to B&M's flat. They're away for the weekend, so I have their flat to myself and after a long time being able to watch TV, surf, eat and drink at the same time felt like heaven.

Was very knocked out after the journey and crashed out on their couch around 5 in the evening and woke up expecting it to be pitch dark. Didn't realise that at this time of the year it's daylight till well past 10pm. Felt like an insomniac for the first 24 hours of getting back. It is nice to be in Paris for the summer though. Everything looks nice and cheerful.

Went househunting this weekend, and will move into my place in the 19th arrondissment on Monday, and hopefully get into some kind of routine. Have to start looking seriously for a real job now, so blogging will be a bit slow.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Leaving Buenos Aires

Every traveller I´d met in South America has always raved about Buenos Aires. I´d decided to keep it for the end of my South America trip, and I wasn´t disappointed. The bus journey was pretty short (14 hrs) compared to some of the others I´ve done over the last few months, so I reached BA quite refreshed. I´d found the flyer of a hostel in Mendoza and showed up at the place. Since it´s low season, the hostel was almost empty and I had a whole dorm room to myself for the 5 days I was there. It was basically an old mansion converted into a hostel, and since it was located in San Telmo (the historic part) it had a nice homely feel to it, unlike most hostels.

As cities go, Buenos Aires was the other extreme of Rio. My first impression of BA was that I was back in Paris. The centre of the city feels just like a big European city, and it´s littered with cafes and bookshops. It was a bit gloomy and cold for the last few days out here, so browsing bookshops and sitting in cafes was a nice way to spend time. Outside the centre of the city, BA felt like Paris littered with graffitti. It was quite a shock initially, but after a few days the grunginess of the other neighbourhoods, the graffitti and the gloomy weather seemed to fit quite well.

Culturally, Brazil and Argentina seem to be so far apart. Argentinians are quite notorious in South America for being snooty, and while I didn´t find them snooty, it did feel much closer to Europe than South America. Buenos Aires is full of all kinds of bookshops (unlike most places I´ve been to in this continent), cafes which could have been taken out of Europe, and people who seem very conscious about dressing reasonably formally.

After a couple of days of walking around aimlessly, and just sightseeing, I ran out of steam. It helped that in the hostel I came across an interesting bunch of people. They weren´t the typical backpackers I´ve been meeting regularly. There were 4 of us, and all of us had some non-travelling reason to be in South America and it was interesting hanging out with them. A Turkish psychology professor in Sao Paolo, a Canadian musician who´d spent 2 months in Olinda learning percussion and an Australian film-maker looking for work in Buenos Aires. None of us was interested in any more sightseeing. The Aussie film-maker had spent a year in BA, so he knew a lot about things going on. According to him, Buenos Aires is one of the most avant garde places for film and theatre these days. Ended up going to some very interesting places - a small art gallery opening, a latin jazz concert and an alternative tango club set up in an abandoned garage. There was no real agenda and we were all keen on exploring the cultural side of Buenos Aires. 5 days felt like we´d just scratched the surface.

So finally, after more than 3 months I'm leaving South America. I'm flying straight to Paris, and should be there for 2-3 months. Am at the airport right now, waiting to catch the flight.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Mendoza's known as the land of sun and wine. It's also at the base of the Andes, which makes it a great place for a tourist who wants to go hiking, do adventure sports and drink wine. It's low season, so all the hostels are almost empty, and all the trekking agencies littered around the centre of the town have a few bored people sitting around.

I spent about 5 days and it was quite blissful. Spend one day driving up to the Andes, come back, drink wine and sleep. Spend the next day lazing around in the cafes and parks, and plan another trip. Wake up the next day and go rappeling, trekking and find a small village with cheap wine. Spend the next day reading and catching up on email and news. Wake up the next day, rent bikes and join 45- other people biking through the wineries and getting drunk slowly. Come back, get on the night bus to Buenos Aires and sleep easily thanks to all the wine.

Mendoza's a great place to visit. It's beautiful, cheap and has lots of stuff to do. The net connection here is too slow to upload pictures onto blogger. Click here for all of them. And click here for some videos (more to be uploaded once I've got a faster web connection).

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A minor crisis

The bus journey wasn't too bad even though it was 36 hours. I'd charged my ipod with some new music, found a nice book and watching movies on board with the Argentinian countryside unfold with nice music was quite blissful. I found a nice hostel very easily, and they organised all kinds of outdoor activities as well. Decided to share a small van with some other people, and we spent the day driving past wineries, up the Andes, past Aconcagua (the highest peak in South America) and up to the Chilean border. It was quite cold, so when we got back it seemed a perfect time to open a bottle of local wine, and chat with the other people next to a fireplace in the wine room of the hostel.

Checked my email and noticed an email from my bank account in Boston. Turned out that someone in Rio had stolen my debit card information, and withdrawn some money. I didn't have much money left in that account, and in spite of travelling for so many months had stayed within my budget. I have money in my Paris account, but can't use it till I'm there physically, but I'd calculated that I had enough to last me till I catch my flight from Buenos Aires to Paris next week. Whoever stole money from account, left me with 25$ - which is not enough for a week even though Argentina is quite cheap.

I realised the only option was to call the bank, but that meant heading out in the cold, buying a phone card and then using the phone in the main reception area. It wasn't the ideal place to call from, as it was quite noisy. I had to talk very loudly, and my voice carried through the wineroom where everyone was sitting. I was put on hold a couple of times, but finally shouted that this is an emergency - being stuck in a small town in Argentina with 25$ in my account - and got some attention.

They decided the best thing to do was to cancel the card and mail me a new card to where I was. That wasn't the best thing as I'm travelling and don't have an address, and somehow don't trust them to send me a card within a few days all the way to this part of Argentina. They asked about a mailing address in the US, and when I would be back, and I paused. I don't have an address anywhere right now, and have no plans of returning to the US. My brother's address was the obvious choice, but he moved recently and I couldn't find his address, so I decided the best thing was to call them tomorrow with all the details. They went ahead and cancelled the card anyway to make sure whoever stole the information can't use it again.

So, I'm stuck in Argentina, with almost no money, and no debit card. In situations like this, there are solutions - Western Union. Since London is 5 hours ahead, I emailed a friend in London and realised he'd get my email first thing in the morning. I realised that he'd be the first to read my email (people from India can't send money via Western Union outside India). Sure enough, I woke up this morning and he'd sent the money instantly. Picked it up from the Western Union outlet and suddenly felt rich.

Shit happens to me all the time, and somehow this one didn't leave me too worried. I know the money will get credited (it's not a huge amount anyway). Anyway, after all my shouting on the phone last night, I realised there wasn't much else I could do except wait so I just returned to the group, picked up my glass of wine and started chatting with them. They looked more stressed than me, and this morning kept asking me if things had worked out.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


I ended up missing the bus from Rio to Foz Iguazu, and spent an extra day in Rio. There´s a long story behind it, but I spent some time the next day in a mental health institute in Rio. It was a bizarre experience (I didn´t go for treatment), but the last week had been quite crazy, so being surrounded by lunatics was quite fitting.

The bus to Iguazu took about 24 hours, and after 3 months of travelling in South America, it felt normal. The roads are well paved, the buses have a lot of leg room, and I enjoyed the scenery. Met a couple of other backpackers on the bus and shared a taxi with them to a hostel. The hostel was cheap, but resembled a resort and was almost completely empty. It´s low season right now in this part of Brazil (and Argentina), so I spent the rest of the day lazing around in the hostel. The hostel had a mini-van which took people to the waterfalls, and I signed up for it. The better of the falls are on the Argentinian side, and I realised that I was on a single entry visa. My Brazil visa was going to expire in another 2 days, so I decided to enter Argentina through the national park.

It turned out be very painless. The van driver took care of all the passport stamps for the group, so I entered Argentina without encountering a single immigration official. Spent the rest of the day at the national park around the waterfalls. The falls separate Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay and are very, very impressive. There are quite a few trails (completely paved), and since it´s low season, things were very quiet. Took a lot of pictures, but they didn´t do justice to the falls due to the scale. It was quite mesmerising to watch the volume of water falling, and the vapours rising.

Will upload pictures once I reach Mendoza. Am near the bus terminal right now, waiting for the bus. It´s going to the longest bus ride I´ve done - 36 hours. But from what I´ve heard, buses in Argentina are very comfortable and almost luxurious. More once I reach Mendoza.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Last week in Rio

After giving my final lecture last week, and working out my visas I'd planned to do a few things in Rio since it was going to be my last week. Climb up a small peak with a professor, go for a football match in Maracana and check out a couple of small islands near Rio. Basically, some things which I felt I should do before leaving Rio.

I ended up doing none of those but instead had some great moments. I found a great club close to my apartment, where there're no chairs or space to sit in, no cover charge, no clapping and no food. People sit or stand on the sidewalk and you basically open a fridge with some beer and show it to the owner who keeps count. The club is called Bipbip, and the owner and his wife became very fond of me over the last week. Being Indian makes me very exotic out here, and I've enjoyed the attention and hospitality.

Also got in touch with some friends of friends, who took me out almost every night over the last week with their friends. Discovered some spots in Rio with small beaches, great views and cheap beer. I ended up making some close friends over the last seven days, with people who wouldn't ever want to leave Rio. All this happened the day I bought a ticket back to Paris, and if I hadn't finalised plans for the next few months, I would have been tempted to stay on here for longer. I'll be back soon.

I've uploaded some more pictures of Rio here. One last picture of Rio before I leave.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Visa power

The last 2-3 days were a bit hectic due to the visas I needed - for Argentina and France.

My Brazillian visa expires in about 2 weeks, and my plan had been to leave Rio on May 31st, travel in Argentina for 2 weeks, and then fly out to Paris on June 15th. Last week, the Argentinian consulate said that it takes a week for the visa to be processed, which meant I would get it today (May 24th), and I guessed that the French visa would take a week at least. Things were touch and go, and over the weekend I was a bit nervous because I hadn't received the documents from Paris with which I could apply for a French visa. If it didn't arrive by this week, I would have had to make alternate plans - stay on in Argentina or fly to London instead of Paris, and work out things from London. Finally got the letter from Paris 2 days ago and breathed a sigh of relief. I called the Argentinian consulate on Tuesday, and the officer said everything was fine and I could pick it up on Thursday (today).

Yesterday afternoon, just before I was heading for lunch, I got a phone call from the admin office in the institute to come by to the office. I thought it must be some paperwork, but it turned out the Argentinian consulate had called. Thankfully, for this month I have a home and an office (very useful while applying for visas), and I'd given the instt phone no as my contact number. Called the Arg consulate back, and there was a problem. Since I was planning to cross into Argentina by land, the Rio office couldn't issue me a visa. I would have to apply for a visa at the border (the Iguazu waterfalls), which would presumably take another week. I didn't have time for that, especially as I had to apply for a French visa immediately. The officer remembered me, and said that the only way they could give me a visa was if I was flying from Brazil to Argentina, and said that a faxed copy of a ticket would work. He said he would need it in a few hours, if I wanted the visa by Thursday.

When it comes to buying airline tickets, I've worked out a couple of ways to *buy* tickets (I'll refrain from being too public about it), so I went down to the computer lab and printed out a ticket from Rio to Buenos Aires. It was lunch time, and the admin office was closed, so I pottered around, and prepared for a lecture I had to give in a few hours. Went back up to the admin office around 1 and faxed it, but the visa officer was away for lunch till 2. Headed back to my office and hoped that the fax I'd sent would suffice, as I had to give a lecture in about an hour, and it would get over around 5 pm - when everything would be shut. Called up around 2, and he said everything was fine, and I should come by tomorrow. I don't know if he knew that I still planned to go across by land and not take a flight, but it's not really his problem.

After my lecture, I printed out and completed the French visa form, made photocopies of all my documents (some of which a friend had faxed from London), and realised the French visa application was going to span 4 continents. A passport issued in Delhi, a bank statement from Boston, a letter of invitation from Paris and a current address in Rio. I was braced for a tough interview and spent the rest of the evening brushing up on my French.

Headed out this morning and went straight to the Argentinian consulate at 930. It opened at 10 and got my passport by 1020. The French consulate was a bit further away in the downtown area, but I'm familiar with Rio so I took a bus and got there by 11. Walked up to the visa section and saw that it was quite empty. Brazillians don't need visas to travel in Europe, so there were just 2 other people. Waited patiently and went through all my documents and realised I'd goofed up. I'd forgotten to bring 2 photographs. The visa section closed at 12 or 1230 so I had less than an hour to get a photo taken. Since it was the main commercial area of Rio, I figured there had to be a photo studio close by.

Went down and asked the security guy and he said there was one next door. Walked across and they said their computer system wasn't working, but there were a couple along a street further down. I had to do it quickly because tomorrow is some kind of a holiday for some of the consulates. It had started raining by now, and I didn't want my papers to get wet so I ran. Running in downtown Rio in the middle of the day, clutching my bag tightly and desperately looking for a studio must have made me look suspicious, but I didn't care. Asked around and was told there was one next to the post office a few blocks away, so I sprinted. Got there short of breath, had my picture taken quickly and ran back to the consulate. Still had about 30 mins before they went for lunch and hadn't even had a chance to talk to the visa officer.

On the way up on the elevator, I practiced my lines expecting her to kick up a fuss. Reached the visa section and waited for a bit for some other people to get their paperwork done. Obviously, the officer didn't speak any English. I gave her all my papers and waited for some problem to arise. She went through them slowly, and after every page she turned I realised my chances were higher. This was my 10th visa application in the last 12 months, and in almost every one of them, there's been a problem regarding my non-residency. An Indian applying for a French visa in Brazil was going to be a problem for sure.

After 5 minutes of looking through the papers, she turned away and filled out some stuff on her computer. Still no questions, and I was quite puzzled. She printed out something, tore off a portion and gave it to me without saying anything. It was the receipt and said 60 Euros. I'd expected the visa fee to be about 30 Euros and wasn't carrying enough cash, so I asked her about how to pay. She smiled and pointed at the slip, which said "GRATIS" and said the pickup date was May 31st. For a few seconds I was a bit shocked, and then asked her if that was all. She still didn't say a single word, smiled and waved and called the next person in line.

So that was it. No questions, no fee, no problems. It worked out and I'll get it in time to spend 2 weeks in Argentina. I got 2 visas approved in one day, without paying a penny.

PS Did you know that one can go to more than 50 countries with an Indian passport and get a visa on arrival? Check out this link.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The music scene

For the last 4 nights, I've been heading out to a few music clubs each night. It's a bit addictive, and I've ended up making a few friends as well.

The first night I went to a place which was around the corner from where I live. The problem with Copacabana is that it's a fairly upscale neighbuorhood, with either retired people or rich tourists staying in the hotels or apartment buildings. And the club was full of those people. The music was mostly light jazz, and after an hour of sitting around, I went back home.

The next day, I asked around about some cheaper but more authentic places. Lapa and Santa Teresa were the obvious places to explore, and one of the students at the institute used to go a lot to some of the clubs till a year ago (These days he's desperately trying to finish his thesis). He told me about a couple of his favourite places and I went. I wasn't disappointed at all. The previous weekend I'd ended up hanging out only on the streets in Lapa, taken aback by how much was going on.

This time I was indoors mainly but it was as much fun. The 2-3 places I was recommended have live music every night. On the weekends there's a cover charge, but it's not too expensive. The music is mainly Samba or some variation, and the atmosphere is really relaxed. The audience is generally quite mixed in terms of age. It's not uncommon to see an old couple dancing in the middle surrounded by middle-aged and young people. There's no real dress code and some people came in shorts, and didn't look out of place. Typically, the first set is played with people sitting or standing around, but by the time the second set starts (around midnight) nobody's sitting. Even the waiters jig a bit while serving drinks, and the owner (I've gone to the same club 3 times now) joins in later on. I'm too tone deaf to understand the variations, but the owner's tried to explain some of the basic stuff a few times. If anyone's curious this is the place.

At one of the clubs, I ended up making friends with the people sitting next to me, and hung out with them the next day as well. Unfortunately, language is a big barrier, and we never get past basic conversations. I hooked up with some of the students one day as well and after barely 3 weeks in Rio, I feel like I have a social life. I'm sharing my office with another postdoc from Portugal who's on her 5th visit to Rio, and she smiled. She said she has a more active life here than in Porto.

It's sad that Rio's reputation is tarnished by the crime reports. 3 weeks here and I've found it to be quite safe, clean, friendly and a lot of fun.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Visa update

Looks like my Argentinian visa has worked out. I went today with the letter from the Indian consulate, and the visa official had no problems. Due to an agreement between Argentina and India, I didn't even have to pay a visa fee. The only question he asked me was "What does Shanti mean?". He's heard the term "Om Shanti" a lot, so he was curious about Shanti. He spoke English so for a while we were just chatting about Brazil and India - football vs cricket, Amazonas vs Himalayas. It'll take a week for it to get processed, but hopefully there won't be any problems - they'll call if they want something else.

After this, I have to deal with the French consulate. I've decided to head back to Paris after Argentina. I'm running out of money, and also feel that Buenos Aires will be a nice place to finish my South America trip. Chile and Patagonia are places I would love to explore, but it's the wrong time of the year and I don't think have the money or the energy to travel more. I still have 2 months left on the grant/contract I had in Paris, so I've decided to use it for the rest of the summer. I should be back in Paris, hopefully, by mid-June.

Still haven't received my documents from Paris to apply for a new French visa. It's going to be touch and go again.

Monday, May 14, 2007


Ipanema and Copacabana are great places for beach activities, and both neighbourhoods are quite safe and clean. But after 2 weeks of being in Rio, I found them a bit sterile and late at night they seemed a bit dead - except the Mayday concert that I saw. I asked around in the institute about neighbourhoods which have good music and nightlife, and was pointed towards Lapa.

It's not too far from Copacabana, about 30 minutes by public transport, so I headed out there on Friday night. I went after 10, aware that the nightlife in Rio doesn't start till around midnight, but wanted to get there a bit early to explore the area. I took the metro, and got off at the right stop but ended up taking the wrong exit. I walked around for about 20 minutes, and couldn't see any signs of activity. A few homeless people, some people hissing at me (drug dealers maybe?) and very rundown and shady bars. I have a horrible sense of direction (I often get lost in new places), so I knew I must have walked in the wrong direction. Decided to retrace my steps and after getting back to the metro station, walked in the other direction.

Within 10 minutes, I knew this was the right area. I could see a lot of small groups of friends walking, and some music throbbing from not too far away. Following the crowd in such situations is generally a good idea, and 10 minutes later I was next to the Arcos de Lapa. It was still early by Rio standards (almost 11 pm), and I got the feeling that the party was just starting.

What surprised me was the amount of stuff happening on the streets. The bars and clubs were getting full, but the streets had even more people, and a lot of stuff going on. Food stalls, alcohol vendors and small bands filled the streets, as did a large police presence. There were queues outside some of the clubs, but a lot of people were happy standing out on the streets and the sidewalks. And it wasn't just one or two streets, but pretty much the whole neighbourhood.

The alcohol and food were cheap, and one could even buy some cocktails from enterprising vendors who walked around carrying trays with a few bottles and created their concoctions quickly. After a couple of hours, the streets were as full as a crowded nighclub with different bands playing in different corners. It didn't feel too safe, and unlike Ipanema and Copacabana, the whole area was quite dirty and rundown but it was great fun. I stayed there till late, and getting back was easy because of the frequent nightbuses.

I went back to the same area the next afternoon to explore Santa Teresa. The favelas in Rio are spread out among the hills, but Santa Teresa is one of the few hilltop neighbourhoods which isn't a favela. It's a short walk up from the Lapa arches, and during the day Lapa has a completely different feel. Santa Teresa is known as the more bohemian part of Rio, with a few small art galleries, cafes and small music clubs. I spent most of the afternoon exploring Santa Teresa, and though it wasn't as funky as Olinda, it gave off the impression of being quite laidback. There weren't too many people, and along 2 or 3 streets there were a bunch of cafes with some musicians. It didn't have the intensity of Lapa the previous night, but I came across a few art galleries, a group of actors rehearsing a play, a couple practising some dance moves and some nice street art.

Lapa and Santa Teresa are definitely worth exploring more on the weekends. Here're a few pictures. I've uploaded more pictures here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The outdoors city

I don't think I've ever seen a city which has been built around so much natural beauty. If one was to take away all the manmade structures from Rio, it would have been a beautiful spot to come for a hike. It could so easily have been designated a national park. Somehow, the urban planners have crammed in a huge city of 6 million (about 12 including the suburbs), and it's got a very unique character.

The city's very naturally divided along 2 zones - north and south - by the mountains. The 2 major zones have 2-3 neighbourhoods each, which are again naturally divided by the beaches, the forest and a huge lake. It's very green and surprisingly fairly clean for a city of its size and density. The weather's mild throughout, so if you enjoy the outdoors it's possibly the most amazing big city to live in.

The instt has arranged a nice flat for me in Copacabana, which is 2 minutes from the beach. The 2 major beaches - Copacabana and Ipanema - are next to each other and are always busy. They're public beaches, but I've found them to be pretty clean and safe. Copacabana beach is full of small football and volleyball courts, so there are dozens of games going on all day. Some of the games are played pretty seriously with teams wearing uniforms, a referee and the evening games are played with lights on. Both beaches are connected with a wide running/biking trail, streetside cafes and streetvendors. I'd expected the night time to be a bit shady, but in the evening there are a lot of people running, walking and biking, so I've had a nice time heading to the beach after *work*.

In the morning, while a lot of people in my neighbourhood head for work, a large number of people head to the beach dressed in their swimming costumes, carrying a surfboard. The beaches are reasonably busy early in the morning, and since the cafes and vendors seem to be pretty busy, it's probably a big part of the economy. Since I never lived in a city with beaches, I was never a beach person. But over the last 2-3 months, it's become such a big part of my day, that if I end up not going for a run or a walk or a beer along the beach, I feel as if my day was a bit empty. A few professors in IMPA actually spend their morning on the beach, before heading to the instt.

What makes Rio so unique to me, is how it seems like a huge number of people enjoy the outdoors. Last weekend, I went on a hike with a professor from the instt up to Corcovado (which has the huge statue of Christ) and even though it's a steep climb, there were quite a few people hiking up. The professor I went with studied in IMPA as well, and said a major chunk of his student life was spent hiking and climbing the various peaks and cliffs in Rio. Apparently there are a few books about the hiking and climbing spots in Rio. The instt is next to a rainforest, where no construction is allowed. That means it's a lovely spot to go for a walk. After lunch, or late in the afternoon if I'm a bit sluggish it's a nice way to get some fresh air. Then, of course, there's the beach in the evening.

Here are a couple of pictures I took from Corcovado. I'll try taking more while I'm here, but it's nice to explore the city without carrying anything valuable on me.

Copacaba beach is the one on the right in the first picture, and in the second picture, the instt is on the hill overlooking the huge lake in the centre. A few more can be found here.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Argentinian bureaucracy

After my stint in Rio, I want to head down to Argentina. Since I need a visa I looked up the Argentinian embasys and, thankfully, they have a consulate in Rio. Went across to the consulate armed with various documents (some legal and original, some not).

It's an imposing building and part of the Argentinian cultural centre as well. It's got a nice view of the bay and is in a busy commercial area. Got a bit lost walking around the building and finally found the visa section after about 20 minutes. It was empty and there were 4 visa officers just chatting with each other. When they saw me, they pointed me over to the youngest one.

Showed him my passport and when I asked for a visa form, he gave me a list of required documents. Most of them were standard requirements - valid Brazillian visa, bank statement, flight ticket, hotel reservation, valid visa for the next country (Still not too sure where I'm headed after Argentina). Surprisingly, he didn't have a problem with my residency and showed me a line which said this:

For Non-Brazillian residents, an application for a visa must be accompanied by a letter from your embassy or consulate, stating your name and passport number.

I asked him if that letter needed anything else, but he said no. Just a letter with your name and passport number. I showed him my passport and said both were on the front page. He just shook his head, and refused to give me the application form till I get that letter.

It's so stupid. A letter from your consulate stating your name and passport number. The Indian consulate is in Sao Paolo, so the visa officer agreed that a fax will suffice. Let's see what problems the Indian consulate will have with sending a fax like that.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Some videos

A few videos that I made over the last 2 months.

1) Hitching a ride with 2 friends on the back of a truck to get to a trailhead, from where we hiked to some hot springs. This was in Merida, in the Venezuelan Andes.

2) On a canoe along the Rio Solimoes in the Amazon rainforests. The guy at the back of the canoe was my guide for the 5 day trip.

3) Ever wondered why Brazillians are so good at football? This was at Copacabana beach. I caught them halfway, and will try shooting a few videos of them playing volleyball without using their hands.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Mayday in Rio

So, yesterday was my first day at IMPA, and after 2 months of bumming around, I was keen to get to the instt and sit in an office and pretend to work. 2 mins away from my flat, there was a direct bus and I got here in less than 30 minutes. I thought all the stories about buses being very slow in Rio were exaggerated. Showed up here before 9, and then hung around the campus for about 30 mins. Soon, I realised there was nobody around except a few security guards. Since it's a research institute, with no undergrads, I figured people showed up late or whenever it suited them.

The campus is beautiful, and though it doesn't overlook the beach, it's surrounded by a forest. It's green, quiet and the main building is bright and airy. Had a nice time walking around and finally bumped into a professor. He told me it was Mayday, and everything in Rio was closed. This was the third time in succession in the last 8 months that I'd showed up in my new department on the wrong day. In R'burg, it was Unification day weekend, in Paris it was the Christmas/New Year break, and here it was May day.

Anyway, I managed to plug in my laptop and surf for a few hours and then decided to head back as it was so quiet. On the map, Ipanema beach looked very close, but it turned out to be much further. Took me almost an hour to walk there, and lugging a laptop and not wearing anything remotely resembling beachwear, I looked like a real misfit on the beach. Since it's a big holiday, it looked like half of Rio was hanging out on the beach.

Thankfully, my flat wasn't too far so I headed back, changed and went back to the beach. Walked all the way up from Copacabana back to Ipanema, and realised there was a big concert going on. As it was a holiday, it was packed and there were lots of vendors selling alcohol and food. It was loud, crowded, colourful and very lively. It went on forever I think, but I headed back to my flat around midnight and could hear the music even as I went to sleep. As a first day in Rio, it was a nice introduction.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Reached Rio

Finally, I made it! After almost 10,000 km of travelling by bus, boat, car and foot (at the Brazillian border) from Caracas, I'm in Rio. The Instt has booked me into a great flat which is 5 minutes from Copacabana, and the instt itself isn't far from Ipanema. After 2 months of staying in cheap hostels and posadas, long bus rides and searching for cyber cafes, it felt great to wake up in a flat, get to an office and use the internet without looking at the time elapsed.

Anyway, I've finally managed to upload all my pictures (and a few videos), so here are some of the nicer ones. Click here for all the pictures.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


Salvador´s turned out to be a bit disappointing. It´s the 3rd largest city in Brazil, and is known for its strong African roots. I´d heard a lot about the music scene, Capoeria (a Brazillian martial art) and the beaches.

The historic centre was nice, but after Sao Luis and Olinda, it didn´t seem like much. It was also very touristy, and by the evening it seemed a bit unsafe. I´m staying in a nice hostel next to the beach, but even the beach is a bit small and overcrowded. I guess I could have tried to go out a bit at night, but after a series of long bus rides to get here, I just didn´t have the energy. Somehow, I haven´t taken to the city at all, and I spent most of the 3 days here lying on a hammock on the hostel porch and reading.

Leaving for Rio tomorrow and I´ll have a flat and an office for a month. My flat´s 2 minutes from Copacabana beach, and my office is on a hill overlooking Ipanema beach.

That´s it. Nothing too exciting or interesting happened over the last 3-4 days. Next post should be from Rio.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


I´d heard about Olinda from another traveller I met on the way to Sao Luis. She´s from Berlin and we´d spent quite a bit of time talking about Berlin. It was a city which really stunned me, and I was telling her that I want to go back to explore the cultural side of Berlin. Since it´s cheap a lot of young, creative people have moved there making it very hip in Europe. She told me that I should definitely go to Olinda because it´s got a great history of being an artist city.

Olinda´s on the northeast coast of Brazil and it was about 24 hrs on a direct bus. It´s essentially a suburb of the big city of Recife, so it took a while to get here. At the tourist office in Recife, I asked about a cheap hostel to stay in Olinda and was told to go to a place called Casa du Hilton. It´s my first time in staying at a place called the Hilton! It´s an interesting place though. It´s run by 2 young Brazillians, and is very basic but clean. Most of the other people staying here are Brazillian, except for 2 Germans (they´re everywhere) so it´s a nice change from some of the other hostels/posadas I´ve been staying in.

After the long bus ride, I was quite tired so I took a short nap. Spent the next half of the day, walking around aimlessly and was surprised by Olinda. I was a bit wary of coming here and expected to see a few art galleries geared for tourists and tonnes of foreigners. It´s quite unlike what I expected. There aren´t too many tourists (local or foreign) and the town is teeming with small art galleries. Most of the galleries are old houses where the artists are either working inside or sitting on porch staring at the passersby. It was easy to walk into any one and just try chatting with the owners, who don´t seem too desperate for you to buy their stuff. They seemed happy just living here.

The whole town is built around a small hill and feels like a big art exhibition. A lot of art on the walls, brightly coloured houses next to each other, a spectacular view from the top of the hill and quite a few old, rundown but comfortable cafes. It´s not too expensive either, and it´s very common to see a lot of old and young people just hanging around. Late in the evening, one of the cafes had a small band playing and it looked like it was a regular feature. The food and beer were cheap, and most of the people seemed to know each other. The whole place has a very authentic feel of being an artist colony. I spent 3 days here, doing nothing apart from wandering aimlessly through the streets, stumbling into small ateleries and enjoying the views. Since it´s the low season, there aren´t many tourists around, so I´ve been lucky to enjoy Olinda without any crowds. Even the hostel I´m staying in is full of Brazilians, and going out with them at night has been fun.

I´d spent 3 months living in Montmartre just before heading out to South America, and Montmartre has a history of being an artist enclave. Unfortunately, it´s become very gentrified and expensive and it´s driven away a lot of creative people. In cities like New York, London and Paris it seems almost impossible for someone to survive now as an artist, unless you move off to a cheaper suburb. How much longer, I wonder, before Olinda gets taken over by developers and yuppies?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Beach Bum in Brazil

After getting off at Sao Luis, I realised my Japanese friend wanted to go to a place called Barreirinhas. I´ve been travelling without a travel book, and have been relying only on recommendations from fellow travellers and locals, so I decided to follow him. He told me that a friend of his had told him to definitely go there because of the sand dunes and lakes.

Got there around noon, and after 5 days on a boat, a 12 hr overnight bus ride and a 4 hr ride, I was exhausted. I also had a slight cold and fever, probably due to all the travelling for the last 3 weeks, so I took it easy for the next 3 days. The only thing I did, apart from lying on a hammock and reading, was go with some other people on a trip to the sand dunes and swim in the lakes.

Barreirinhas is a bit of a resort town, but it´s low season right now, and it was quite deserted. There were a bunch of cheap posadas waiting to let out rooms at low rates, and we picked a nice one on the waterfront. It had hammocks dangling along the river, and only 3 other occupants in the entire hotel. All of us were solo travellers, who´d been travelling for at least 6 months each.

The Japanese guy opened up a bit finally and told us how he started in Mexico city, went all the way down to Argentina, took a cruise to Antarctica, came back up to Venezuela and is now heading down to Chile. In the next week, he plans to do 2 long bus rides of 48 hrs each. He barely speaks Spanish and Portugese and is probably the quietest, loneliest traveller I´ve come across. It´s his 4th trip of about a year in a different continent so he seems pretty comfortable travelling his own way. I asked him considering the Japanese work so hard and travel very little, why he travelled so much. He said - I don´t like working.

One of the other travellers is an American, who´s on a 5-6 year trip around the world on his motorcycle. He started 2 years ago from Colorado, went up to Alaska, then all the way down to Argentina and is now back up north. He´s had more problems with visas and permits because of his motorcycle, and was telling me about how he´d sneaked across various borders to avoid getting his motorbike impounded for lack of registration or insurance. Unfortunately, he´s heading further north and not south, otherwise I could have dumped some of my luggage and gotten a ride with him down to Rio. Another time. This is the link to his website.

The other two travellers are more normal...just backpacking around Brazil for about 6 months. There were headed to Sao Luis, so I shared a car ride with them. Sao Luis is a beautiful city. It´s a world heritage site with lovely colonial architecture, friendly people, great nightlife, nice beaches and .... not much else.

Will head out of here tomorrow to Olinda, spend a few days there, go down to Salvador, spend a few days there, then reach Rio by May 1st. If you look at a map, you´ll understand the title.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The boat ride

Just reached Belem after a 5 day boat ride. Yes, 5 days. Till now, I´d never been on a boat for than a few hours. Exactly a year ago, I ran the Boston marathon. After this boat ride, I feel like I just finished another marathon.

The 2 Australians I´d met last month had told me that they really enjoyed the boat ride. Since there were 2 of them, they shared a cabin, which wasn´t too much more than going hammock class. When I reached Manaus, I expected to bump into some other backpackers, who´d be willing to share a cabin. It´s the low season right now in the rainforests, so I couldn´t see any other tourists. After the jungle trip, I went straight with E to the docks, bought a hammock, a ticket for hammock class and some water.

The first day was the hardest. It was hot and humid, and the boat was packed. The big boat (which I was taking) goes from Manaus to Belem only twice a week, so it´s both a cargo and passenger boat. I managed to push my way through the crowds, picked out a nice spot for my hammock and tied it up. There was a deck upstairs with a small bar and music played non-stop, so I decided to head up there. Took out the most essential items into the top of my big packpack (which doubles up as a big pouch) and headed upstairs. If someone wanted to steal something from my bags, then they would have to wade through some smelly clothes.

The Manaus port is a big hub of activity. The crowds, noise and chaos resembled a major train station in India and till the last minute, there were a lot of people jumping onto the boat to sell stuff. The boat left about 2 hours late, so I just sat upstairs, bought a bottle of beer and listened to some Samba. Went down later at night, and had a very uncomfortable first night. An elderly lady´s hammock had torn its rope, so she´d tied it to mine and was directly underneath me as a result. I couldn´t understand what she was saying so I didn´t object. I could make out she was grateful for me not complaining. It was weird sleeping on a hammock on a boat as it kept swaying gently. While it helped to put everyone to sleep, there were times when the boat got unsteady and everyone´s hammocks swung like pendulums and bumped into each other. Somehow pulled through the first night.

The next 4 days went by slowly, but I got used to the pace. Wake up at 6 for a basic breakfast of bread and coffee. Read a book till 11 and then have lunch. Take a short nap, walk up to the deck, have a coke, listen to music, watch the rainforests and wait till dinner. Dinner would be at 5 and after 530, it got a bit hard to kill time, especially if it rained. Nobody on board spoke any English, and after 2 days I noticed a Japanese backpacker who spoke some. It was hard to communicate, so the 5 days went by in a state of silence.

I guess the main benefits of taking such a long boat ride are the small things one notices. The thick jungle, the rundown huts and villages, the kids riding out on their canoes to catch a glimpse of the big boat and the small docks which were waiting eagerly for the cargo in the boat. Rivers are like highways in the rainforests as there are no roads. So the arrival of the boat is a big event in the small towns.

The most endearing moment was seeing a few kids paddle up very close to the boat, throw a hook onto the side and then climb on to the boat to sell some fruits. Thankfully, the crew helped them latch onto the boat and everyone the boat bought the fruits, bringing a big smile to the kids´ faces.

Anyway, I reached Belem this morning and from what I can make out it´s not a very pleasant place to stay in. The Japanese traveller is heading to Sao Luis, a small town on the coast and I´m heading there with him. Will probably spend a few days there before making my way down to Rio. It´ll take a while to get there. I didn´t realise how big Brazil is.

PS comments are open again, but please, don´t get too serious or personal :-)

Friday, April 13, 2007

The jungle

This was my first experience of a real jungle trip, though for an experienced jungle person it was probably scratching the surface. It lasted for 5 days, and though I´d like to do a longer one sometime, I´m happy I chose to go for just 5 days.

The beginning was a bit ominous. I woke up early and it was raining heavily. Left my backpack with the hotel and went to meet the trip organizer. The guide, E, showed up late. I asked about the other 3 Canadians who were supposed to come with me, but apparently one of them was sick and they´d backed out. So it was going to be just me and the guide for the next 5 days. Considering it was my first trip to a jungle, and I didn´t speak a word of Portugese (E was fluent in 5 languages though) I considered backing out. But decided to go ahead anyway.

We took a taxi down to the port, bought some food and then hopped on to a speed boat. Halfway across the river, we stopped, and E told me this was the meeting point of two rivers (Negro and Solimoes). It´s unlike the meeting point of two rivers. Rio Negro is black and fast, and Solimoes is brown and slow. So the two meet, but don´t merge and travel side by side for about 7km. It´s quite amazing to see and the boat switched between both rivers to show the difference in speeds. Got off at another point and then E took his own canoe with an engine and we headed off to the jungle lodge. It took about 2 hours to get there, and it rained off and on. It´s the winter here and so it rains a lot. It´s also the low season for tourists, so by the time I reached the lodge I was the only occupant. It was pretty basic, with a few rooms and one bathroom. Had lunch and since it was raining decided to take a nap on the hammock stretched out on the porch.

The rest of day followed a clear plan. Canoeing for a few hours through some creek, Piranha fishing, dolphin watching and alligator catching. Piranha fishing turned out to be deceptively easy, and I managed to catch about 7 of them. The first time I caught one, I got so excited and scared seeing it dangling in front of my eyes that the canoe almost capsized. E decided to refer to me as jungle boy after that, clearly laughing at my ineptness. Went alligator catching at night, and E is quite a daredevil. He´s lived in the jungle all his life and spent a couple of years in the army engaged in jungle warfares. He´s got a reputation of being the toughest and craziest guide around, and loves to show off. Watching him catch an alligator with his bare hands, play with it like a puppy an disdainfully throw it back was entertaining.

The first day had been a bit hectic so I told him at the end of the day that since I was the only one on the trip, I did´t mind skipping out on a few touristy things, but preferred to spend more time just doing a couple of things. They could be touristy or not, but I told him to pick out things he enjoyed. His eyes lit up at the prospect and his attitude towards me changed. We spent the next day canoeing down the river to a small village. He pointed a small piece of land which he´d bought a year ago and plans to build a small lodge of his own. It´s pretty far from Manaus and is a great point for catching both sunrise and sunset. In the distance is a small island which is a meeting point for two species of birds, and his neighbour is a herbal doctor. Also, with a glint in his eyes, not too far away was the house of the woman of his dreams. He showed me the plan, and we spent a while walking around the area where he plans to build it.

Spent the rest of day with his friends, and though I couldn´t understand a word of what was being spoken, had a nice time playing soccer with a few kids. E went out soon, caught a small pig with his barehands, and in front of me, cleaned it and then barbecued it. It was grotesque to watch but great to taste. While it was cooking, we headed out on the canoe in the dark to a few friends of his and drank caipirinhas till late. Thankfully, one of his cousins decided to ride the canoe with us, as he knew E was known to be quite reckless. It was quite eery though, canoeing back in the dark with E pointing out things in his semi-drunken state. Feasted on the pig and then passed out on a hammock in the porch with a mosquito net over me.

Woke up the next day with a bad case of diahorrea. It was bound to happen at some point and I felt foolish not carrying any antibiotics. E´s neighbour went out to some tree, tore off the bark, scraped it on something (the dried tongue of a fish), mixed it with water and gave it to me. It tasted horrible, but in an hour I was fine. I was given a bottle full of it, and am carrying it with me in case of an emergency.

Spent the next 2 days on a trek through the jungle. Since it was just the two of us, E took us to a fairly remote part along the river, through some crazy creeks and we got off. It was part of some forest reserve, and it was thick, dense forest. Just like I´d imagined it to be. The trek was completely different from anything I´d ever done. Instead of a tent and sleeping bag, we each carried a hammock and mosquito net, bugspray, a machete and some food. It was broad daylight, but deep inside the jungle it could have been evening. The light filters through, but to take any pictures I had to use a flash. Even when it rained heavily, I could hear it but not feel too much of it. Felt more like a drizzle. Walking through the jungle wasn´t easy and we had to use the machetes a lot to clear the way. Throughout, E told me about all kinds of plants and trees that we spotted, animal sounds in the distance and about his experiences fighting the Colombian guerrillas. It was a bit like being inside a National Geographic documentary.

Camped at a clearing somewhere, and had to chop some wood to set up the hammocks and plastic sheet for cover. It took a while for the food to cook, and E decided to teach me some Portugese. He dropped out of school at a young age, but has worked as a guide for almost 10 years and has picked up a lot of languages because of all the tourists he deals with. He did a great imitation of some Japanese tourists, who always said - Interesting, very nice. That became our motto for the rest of the trip, and each time he pointed out something, I would bow and say - Interesting, very nice.

The night of the trek was a bit scary though. After being harassed by bugs, I´d decided to sleep early and E also crashed out early. I was sleeping with my bug spray but somehow the jungle sounds kept me awake. After about an hour, I could hear E snoring quietly, and heard something which scared me a bit.

I could hear footsteps in the distance. First, I thought it was some other sound. After 2 minutes, it was clearly some animal as I could hear its breathing as well. There were obviously no humans around for miles, so I called across to E. He woke up, heard the same sound and hissed - stay quiet and don´t make any noise. The next 10 minutes passed very, very slowly. What added to the uneasiness was the fact that I was suspended in mid-air armed with nothing but bug spray. After 10 minutes, E said - Relax, it´s an amadillo. I relaxed, and then asked a minute later - What´s an amadillo? He laughed, and then told me it comes out a night to go hunting for bugs and insects along the river. I guess the amadillo was cruising the jungle.

Woke up next day, and got badly bitten by ants while eating breakfast. Went on the canoe up to another point and for a longer hike. By the later afternoon I was a bit tired with the bugs. Asked E about the boat from Manaus to Belem, and he said there was one on Friday and the next one left on Wednesday. I had no intention of staying in Manaus for 5 days, and the boat takes 4 days, so I decided to take it on Friday. That meant we didn´t camp in the jungle that night, but headed back to the lodge. It took a while, but after being attacked by bugs for 2 days, I was happy to be back in a clean bed.

Woke up on Friday, and headed back to Manaus. Bought a hammock for the ride (the private cabins were too expensive) and am heading off now in a couple of hours to Belem. Should get there sometime on Tuesday.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Reaching Manaus

Finally managed to get to Manaus, but it turned out to be trickier than I expected.

After writing my last post, I bumped into two Australian girls at the internet cafe. They´d both just come up from Rio to Venezuela, so I started asking them about the trip since my plan is to get to Rio at the end of this month. They told me there were two problems I was going to face - a return ticket and yellow fever vaccination.
The return ticket was something I knew I could manage. But the yellow fever vaccine was going to be a big pain.

The main problem was that I needed a certificate of the vaccine. If I didn´t have one, then apparently the immigration officials were very strict about it. Two British guys overheard us talking about it and said one of them had a hard time. He was refused entry till he got the proper vaccine. I asked if it was possible to get a vaccine at the border, and they said yes, but that´s not enough. The vaccine takes 10 days to set in, so one has to wait for 10 days after that. I asked the hotel manager about it, and he suggested that I go to the local hospital, get a vaccine and bribe them a bit to get it predated. There was no way I´d be let in without the certificate, he said.

I went off to the hospital, and they said they didn´t give the injection at the hospital. They did it at the border only. It was also Easter weekend, so my chances of finding anything open weren´t too good. I decided the only thing to do was to just head to the border and see what happens. Packed my bags, told the hotel guy that I might be back and took a shared taxi.

I went in to the immigration office, and saw two offices - one for passport control and the other for the yellow fever vaccination. Venezuelans and Brazillians don´t need visas to travel between the border, and a national ID card is enough. I managed to get my passport stamped and then walked to the vaccination office. There was a problem though.

The vaccination office refused to predate the certificate, and I realised that trying to bribe them in front of about 50 other people waiting in line would probably land me in jail. So I decided to not get the injection which led to a problem. Since my passport had the exit stamp, I had to leave, but with no vaccination certificate, the Brazillian immigration guys wouldnt let me in. I was sort of in no man´s land. I decided to just walk across the border and see if I could somehow work my way around it.

Walked for about 5 minutes along the highway connecting the two border points with my backpack, and get kept trying to come up with some excuse. Thought about lying and saying that I got it in Paris for the visa interview but lost my certificate while travelling. But I didn´t think it would work. Anyway, I walked slowly and tried to see if I could just keep walking without getting stopped. Realised that nobody really cared, but I also knew that without an entry stamp, I was going to risk deportation if I was asked for my passport sometime later.

Went to the immigration office, filled out the form, and after a couple of questions, they stamped my passport. Somehow they didn´t ask for the certificate. But I´d been told that the certificate is normally asked for by the customs people. The customs office was a bit further down the road, and I knew I had to somehow bypass that place.

In the road between the immigration and customs offices, there were a bunch of shops and a few taxis. Saw a family of three talking to a taxi driver, and went closer. Realised they weren´t speaking Spanish, so they had to be Brazillians. I knew that for a shared taxi, the driver always looks for 4 people to fill up the car and so the family was probably looking for a 4th person. I noticed that taxis weren´t stopped by the customs officials as they were carrying people with minimal luggage. It was the buses and private cars which were getting stopped. I also realised that Brazillian citizens shouldn´t need a certificate, so my best bet was to get in with them, and hope that the customs guys would think I was Brazillian.

There is only one road from the border all the way to Manaus, so I told the taxi driver to take me to Boa Vista, which is the first major town along the way. I hopped into the taxi, and kept both backpacks in the trunk so that I didn´t look like a tourist. The taxi went past the customs guy, slowed down for a few seconds and then got waved on.

I was still a bit paranoid that there would be another stop, but there were none. The taxi went straight through and 3 hours later I reached Boa Vista, bought a ticket for the overnight bus to Manaus and reached here in the morning. The two Australians had given me a lot of tips for Manaus, so I managed to find a nice, cheap hotel and will head off on a trip to the rainforests soon.

One more victory for me against immigration officials. Am heading out tomorrow for a 5 day jungle trip.

Friday, April 06, 2007


Just got back after a 3 day trek to Chirikayen. Chirikayen is one of the many tepuis (flat top mountains) in this region. I didn't know much about this part of Venezuela and only read about it 2 days before coming. Venezuela's amazingly blessed with natural beauty, but the Gran Sabana region with its tepuis is its most unique feature.

Roraima is the mountain which everyone normally tries to hike to, but when I got to Santa Elena, I realised it was completely booked. I've never been a big fan of going on a trek which is so popular, so I wasn't too unhappy about it. But one of the trekking agencies told us about an alternative, Chirikayen. The 2 Germans I met on the bus were keen on going, and we ended up meeting another British couple who joined us. Permits are required and the trek is through parts of the rainforests, so we decided to go with an agency, which provided us with a guide and a porter.

The trek wasn't too strenuous and it was only 3 days. The weather was awful and I was relieved that I didn't go on the 6 day Roraima trek. It rained a lot, but thankfully on the day that we reached the top, it was clear and gave some spectacular views of the Sabana and the rainforests. Having a guide was useful, as he told us a lot about the uniqueness of the region and the species which are found only on the top of the Tepuis. Having done most of my hiking in moutains, it was a new experience - camping on a flat top mountain, hiking through the jungle and seeing plants which are only found here.

Anyway, I'm back in Santa Elena now. It's a sleepy small town, but has a certain charm to it. I'm a bit tired after all the travelling and hiking, so I'm going to chill out here for a couple of days before making my way down to Brazil. Next post should hopefully be from Manaus.

Been trying to upload pictures to this blog, but it's taking too long. Soon, hopefully.

Monday, April 02, 2007

A day on the road

Wake up at 7am. Where am I? The sound of the surf. OK, I´m still at the beach. The World Cup was just a dream, or was it? Got a long journey ahead. Kiwis wake up, and in 10 minutes everyone´s ready. On the road again, Kiwi 1 mumbles. We´re all half asleep.

Walk 10 minutes through dirty streets to the Terminal. Buses don´t run for another 2 hours. Haggle with a taxi driver to take us three to Puerto La Cruz. Drive through winding roads, crowded beaches and islands on the horizon. Touts accost us at La Cruz. Ciudad Bolivar for me, and Caracas for the Kiwis. Quick handshakes, email addresses exchanged and we all head off. Me towards Brazil, them towards Columbia. Probably never see each other again.

The bus isn´t crowded. It´s Easter week and everyone´s headed to the beach. I´m going the other way, so it´s quiet for a while. Then, the music is turned on and Salsa blares loudly, drowning out my Ipod. I doze on and off. The countryside is pretty barren. Feels dry and arid. I know it´s blazing hot outside, but the aircon inside makes it freezing. I´m prepared with my sweater and jacket though after many overnight bus journies in this country.

Stop after a few hours at a dusty roadside stop. Greasy Arepas and fresh juice is my first meal of the day. Not entirely healthy but there´s no choice. A potbellied guy with gelled hair starts talking to me. Speak slowly, I say. He realises I´m an outsider and starts talking about his life. Hates America, lived there illegally for 7 years. Paid to get married to a Gringo to get a Green Card, but got deported. Works as a tourist guide now. Venezuela is 85% national parks and 70% of the population is women, he says. I nod and see him eyeing every girl who walks by. Girls half my age have makeup and flimsy clothes and clearly enjoy the attention from him. One girl walks up and sits next to him. His daughter, I think. No, his woman. Go hiking in the Roraim area he says. It´ll be like nothing you´ve seen. I make a note of what he suggests. Get back on the bus and a bunch of people get on trying to sell drinks and food. No Gracias.

Reach Cuidad Bolivar at 3pm. It´s hot and dry. Get a ticket for Santa Elena for 8pm. 5 hours to kill. Leave my backpack with the bus agency. Walk out to a cyber cafe and it´s closed. Where else? Guy shrugs. It´s a Sunday. Everything´s closed. Anywhere in the main city? He motions towards a general direction. Very far, he says. No option but to go. 5 hours in the bus terminal will be boring as hell. Keep walking in the heat. A starbucks cafe, with comfy chairs, a cool latte and wifi would be perfect. Not in this bustling, dirty city though. The heat is getting to me now. Wait, is that an oasis? A 24 hour cybercafe. It´s open. It´s airconditioned. It´s got some drinks as well, and the connections are fast. Perfect place to kill 3 hours and catch up on what´s happening in the world cup.

Head back to the terminal and pick up my backpack and board the bus. Take out my sleeping bag as it´s a long overnight ride. 12 hours to Santa Elena, the border town. Doze off and wake up to see a Hugh Grant movie in Spanish. He sounds as stupid.

Reach Santa Elena at 8 in the morning. See 2 other backpackers in the distance and walk up. German, British or Australian? German. Thankfully, not from where I was a few months ago. Know a cheap place to stay? Ja, Ja. The bible is opened and it points us to a place. Want to share to make things cheaper? Ja, Ja. Heading to Brazil? Ja, Ja. Reach the hotel and look at the rooms. Another dingy room. A table fan, pink walls, 3 separate beds, and a private bathroom. The shower is a tap about 6 feet high. Good enough for a night? Ja, Ja. Should we get something to eat? Ja, Ja. How many months of travelling now? 3 months, they say. 11 months, I say. Want to go on a trek through the Gran Sabana tomorrow? Yes, I say. Got my own tent and sleeping bag so all I need is a stove and food. We get a guide, rent a stove, share a jeep and head off to the Gran Sabana for 3 days.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Santa Fe

Reaching Venezuela wasn´t too hard. Took a ferry from Tobago to Trinidad, stayed overnight at Port of Spain, and then headed to the docks in the morning to catch the ferry back to Venezuela. It left a bit late, so had to hang around the docks for a long time.

It was far more crowded this time and I met 2 backpackers from New Zealand who were in the Caribbean for the World Cup. They also found it a bit too expensive to stay for the whole thing, so were heading off to Colombia via Venezuela. One of them was on his first overseas trip, while the other had travelled all over the place, so it was funny to see the two of them. The novice studied his Lonely Planet like his bible, while the other guy just asked a few other people about how to get to Columbia, and what was interesting along the way. Since it´s cheaper to travel in a group, the three of us decided to head out from Guiria together, after a long customs check. Hopped on a bus to Cumana and stayed there for the night.

Cumana is the oldest existing town in South America, and also the hometown of a close friend. But it´s hot, and had nothing too interesting. Most of it was destroyed in a couple of earthquakes, so it seemed quite drab architecturally. I emailed my friend, and he couldn´t think of too many things to do, apart from heading to the beaches. So that´s what we did.

Ended up in Santa Fe, which is a sleepy fishing village about an hour outside Cumana. Unlike Tobago, the beaches weren´t as pristine and the accomodation wasn´t as luxurious, but it was cheap and right on the beach. There were also hardly any tourists around, so it was a nice place to spend 3 days doing pretty much nothing. Have been carrying only one book with me (apart from the Spanish phrasebook), so I managed to finally get around to reading it in peace. The only internet cafe in the village was very, very slow - a lot like the pace of life here - so all I did was sit in a cheap cafe, drinking some lovely fruit juices, eat fresh fish, and read.

Anyway, after almost 3 weeks of beaches (and some cricket), I´m a bit beached out, so will head off towards the south in the direction of Brazil. The two Kiwis are off towards Columbia, so we´ll split ways tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


After spending 10 days watching the Indian team get thrashed, I desperately needed some cheering up. I had no intention of staying on in Trinidad, hoping against hope that Bermuda would pull of a miracle, so I headed off to Tobago.

Getting there was easy. There are 2-3 ferries each day, and take just over 2 hours. The docks were a short walk from my room, so I just walked. The only problem was that I missed the morning ferry, which meant that I would get there only by the evening. The wedding was in the evening, so I had no chance of making it. It was at the other end of the island, and for a while I thought about showing up in their hotel (I just knew the name), but decided I didn't want to show up and find out they'd all gone partying somewhere else.

Reached Tobago around 7pm with no hotel bookings. The previous day I'd met some other travellers who'd just returned from Tobago. They gave me the number of a cheap hotel, so I called it up. Turned out they were full, but they give me 2-3 other numbers to call. Finally got through to the 4th one, and they had a room available. Shared a taxi with some other rich tourists who were heading to the hotel (they let me tag along for free and seemed more concerned than me about not having a hotel booking).

The guest house I showed up at was amazing. It was about a 5 min walk from the beach, and my room was a self contained apartment, with a full kitchen, living room, etc. I checked again about the price, and the owner was sweet enough to lower it as she realised that it would be easier to convince me to stay on.

Woke up the next morning and headed straight to the beach. It was a Sunday, so quite busy and I noticed a bunch of kids playing cricket. This was something I had to join in, so I just ran up and joined them. I was suprised at how badly they all played though. None of them could bowl. They threw more like a pitcher, and their batting was just a baseball style swing. The wicket was an old tyre, so it resembled a strike zone in baseball. Anyway, I adapted and had a great time. There were no rules, no match going on and no competition. Anyone could bat, anyone could bowl and it was amazing to see a lot of women join in as well. People fielded in the water and each time someone hit a big one, they'd swim out to get it. I got a lot of sympathy after India's early exit, and at the risk of sounding immodest, was technically the best bowler and batsmen there. One guy shouted "Next world cup, he gonna be da captain!"

The last 2 days, I indulged in something I'd never done before - snorkelling. I'd been told about how snorkelling was easy, cheap and great fun. Even for a weak swimmer like me, it was supposed to be not too hard. And it wasn't. The first day, I joined a boat tour, where a guy gave me the mask and told me a few basic things. I swam close to the boat but it was quite mindblowing. Seeing those coral reefs, underwater plants and schools of fish, was beyond what I'd imagined it to be. Since it was a semi-guided tour, I couldn't do it for too long, so the next day, I rented a snorkel and ventured out on my own. It was great and had I decided to stay on in Tobago for longer, I would have done it each day. It started to get a bit expensive for me though.

I made a snap decision to come back to Trinidad today, and will head back to Venezuela tomorrow (hopefully I'll wake up in time for the ferry tomorrow). Living out of a backpack makes it easy to do something like this. I first went to the airport (I actually walked from the beach to the airport) to see if there were any direct flights to the eastern part of Venezuela. Realised the only way was to fly through Trinidad and then Caracas, which was too expensive. Went back to the docks to take the evening ferry back here and will hopefully be in Cumana by tomorrow evening.

Anyway, here are the links to my

Tobago pictures

Cricket articles

Friday, March 23, 2007


India's out of the World Cup, and so am I. Looks like my career as a cricket writer has come to a quick end. All I can say is that I'm happy that I didn't buy any flight tickets, make hotel bookings or buy too many tickets for the matches. All I'm going to lose is 50$ for the Bangladesh-Ireland match.

Will head to the docks tomorrow to catch the ferry to Tobago, and lime out there for about a week or so. After that, I'll have to figure out what to do. I'd planned to stay in the Caribbean for the next month, but there's no point hanging out here for too long. It's a bit too expensive for a cheap backpacker like me.

In about 10 days, I might head back to Venezuela for a bit and then spend some more time in the Amazon rainforests, before heading for Rio. Suggestions?

Anyone interested in buying the Bangladesh-Ireland ticket?

Thursday, March 22, 2007


There's a word in Trinidad which means just hanging out, chilling and doing nothing in particular - Liming. That's exactly what I've been up to. The beaches in the north coast are perfect for that, and I've spent a large amount of time out there.

The other thing I've been up to is living out my childhood fantasy as a cricket writer. I've attended nets practice a couple of times, and by now most of the reporters know me. It's suprising how tired and cynical most of them are during the press conferences. I stand right in front, listening to every word, (I even asked a question once) and taking pictures. What is interesting though, is listening to the gossip when they head out for lunch, their relationship with different players, their impressions of the coach, etc. I'm going to write a piece on that for the website I'm writing for and post a link soon.

A funny thing happened the other day, on the way to the beach. There are shared vans which go from the downtown area so I hopped onto one. I was sitting next to an American couple who were headed there and we were generally chatting. They asked me if I was here for the World Cup. I was surprised they even knew about it, and said yes. They replied, so were they. For a while I thought they might be part of some TV company, doing some backup work. Turned out they were actually in Trinidad as fans watching cricket, and were headed to Guyana for some more matches.

I was very curious at this point, so they told me they'd travelled in India for about 6-7 months about 7 years ago, and being sports fans, started to watch cricket. They realised watching the cricket world cup as neutral fans, was a nice way to travel and have something to do, so they went all the way to South Africa 4 years ago for about a month, and are now in the Caribbean for 2-3 weeks. They plan to go Australia for the Ashes in about 4 years as well as India again for the next world cup.

We've become good friends over the last 4 days, and today I took them to nets practice and they were overawed at the chance to see both the Sri Lankan and Indian teams so close. 3 other friends of theirs are flying in from California for tomorrow's match (they're trying to convert them into cricket fans), and 2 of them are getting married in Tobago on Saturday. I'm headed to Tobago as well on Saturday, so I might show up for it if it's closeby.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

From Sabina Park to the Queen's Park Oval

5 years ago we met had and a nice chat and it brought a smile to both our faces.

Today, I met him again, and even though he was in a rush we both smiled again.

I also met these guys today. They didn't remember me, but were happy to oblige with pics. Somehow, coming here was worth it, in spite of the horrible performance by India yesterday.

More can be found here.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Cricket update

India's campaign starts tomorrow, and I've managed to get tickets for the India-Bangladesh match in the Trini-Posse party stand. That's the fun stand with a live band, drinks and crazy people. Also managed to get tickets for India-Bermuda and

INDIA-PAKISTAN on Apr 15th at Barbados.


Turns out that barring major upsets the schedule for the next round (super 8s) is predetermined based on the seedings a year ago. So India-Pakistan is conveniently scheduled for a Sunday, and I will definitely be there. Have to see if there are any boats from here or Tobago till Barbados, otherwise will have to take a flight.

I'm also going to keep a World Cup diary for this website. Anyone can log in and write articles on sports, and they get edited by a team. I'd started a cricket blog for a few months, and the people on this site noticed it and told me to start writing for them. I've written a few already. 5 years ago, I went to Jamaica to watch India-West Indies and wrote an article here, and decided that since I'm here for the whole world cup, I'll see what it's like to be a cricket writer.

Still have to get tickets for India-Sri Lanka as it was sold out, but there were lots of people selling tickets outside the stadium illegally. They weren't too expensive, so hopefully I should be able to watch all of India's matches in the first round.

If you're watching the cricket match tomorrow, I'll be in the party stand, wearing an official Indian team shirt with a blue floppy hat.

Finally, I've also uploaded my pictures of the Venezuela trip. Click here for the pictures of Merida, Caracas and Venezuela-Trinidad.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Getting to Trinidad

Getting here wasn't easy. In fact, there was a lot of uncertainty about the whole trip from Caracas to Port of Spain, so when I finally woke up this morning it felt like a bit of an accomplishment.

There were two main problems with coming here from Caracas. One, I had no bookings for any hotels or guest houses. Whatever I found on the internet was too expensive or too vague. Two, the ferry from Venezuela had no internet presence, and nobody in Venezuela that I talked to knew about it. In a Lonely Planet guide I'd read last month, it said the ferry runs once a week on Wednesdays. I wasn't too sure about the price, and I didn't have too much Venezuelan currency left either.

I spent the last day in Caracas (Monday) looking for some travel guides. Since all my travelling for the last 10 months has been a bit unpredictable, I've resisted from buying any travel guides which I'd have to lug around. Caracas isn't a very tourist friendly place so in spite of going to all the main bookstores I couldn't any information or book about Guiria (where the ferry runs from) or Trinidad. Finally decided that the best thing to do was to leave for Guiria that night so that I could hope to get to Guiria by Tuesday afternoon, find out about the ferry and in case it didn't run, head back to Caracas and take a flight.

There was no direct bus to Guiria, so I took an overnight bus to Cumana and reached at about 6 in the morning. The bus terminal was pretty small and decrepit, and at that time in the morning the main ticket office was shut. Went into a grotty waiting room and hung around for an hour. Finally went in to the ticket office after it opened, and realised that the first bus to Guiria was at 2 in the afternoon. That meant reaching Guiria at 6 in the evening, which was too late. Found out after a lot of gesturing and consulting my bible (the Spanish for travellers book) that one could share taxis till Curapao and then another shared taxi to Guiria.

Ended up in a very old run down Ford, which was probably from the 70s considering the design. Dozed through most of the ride and reached Curapao at around 9 and then found another shared taxi for Guiria. These taxis don't leave till they're full, so had to wait till we could find 4 more people heading there. The drive was beautiful though. All along the coast, with the brilliant blue waters sparking and thick jungle on the the other side of the road. Reached Guiria around noon.

As small towns go, Guiria is possibly the most decrepit, rundown, dirty and shady place I've ever encountered. It's the last town one can drive to on the Northeast coast of Venezuela, and exists only because of the docks and the Coast Guard presence. I'd heard about the beaches in the area and had pictured a pretty, small town close to nice beaches where I'd spend the day loitering around. The beach was pathetic and the whole town looked like it was in serious decay. There were two posadas (motels) in town. I took the one where the room had airconditioning as it was blisteringly hot, esp after a week in the Andes.

Asked around about the ferry and found the office after a bit of walking around. The ferry was running as scheduled on each Wednesday, but I had to pay about 70$ in cash. Since I didn't have much currency left, I went to the only ATM in town, but realised that international cards don't work. 3 days earlier I'd overheard a conversation about this, and 2 Germans had mentioned the way to withdraw cash was to go to a big bank in the morning before noon, with your passport and other details. Since it was 3 the bank was shut, so I had to wait till the next morning. I had barely enough money to eat one meal, and the few euros and pounds that I was carrying had no value. Only US dollars I was told. Found a dirty, roadside Arepa place and munched on a couple of Arepas before heading back to my room and sleeping early as there was nothing else to do.

Woke up early, and went straight to the bank and managed to withdraw some cash with the help of a teller. Then went to the Ferry agency, but they refused to let me buy a one-way ticket. Since I wasn't sure of when I plan to leave the Caribbean, they wanted proof of return. It was time to head to the only internet cafe in town and make another booking on AA.

The internet cafe had really old computers, but like idiots they'd installed an illegal copy of Windows Vista. That meant the computer hung about 3 times, before I managed to make a booking. Turned out the printer was connected to the main computer and they weren't networked. The only way to print it out would be to save it as a text file and then transfer it. Thankfully, I had my ipod with me and managed to transfer it onto that, plug it into the main computer and print out a very shady looking ticket itinerary. It was almost 11, so headed straight to the Ferry agency and then managed to get the ticket. Was told to report to the docks at 2, and the ferry would leave at around 4. Bumped into a French couple and we agreed to share a taxi as the docks area looked really shady.

Reached the docks, and after a long and thorough check of everyone's bags and a long wait, managed to leave the docks around 430. I was really tired by now and wondered if I would have been better of taking a flight from Caracas (it would have cost about the same). But within 20 minutes of leaving, it was worth it. The water was incredibly clear, with great views of the Venezuelan peninsula and loud calypso music on the deck. Suddenly, the world cup looked much closer.

While sitting on the deck, I ended up talking to a Venezuelan who now lives in Trinidad. I asked him about Port of Spain, and he was shocked that I had no bookings at all. Since we were going to reach around 8pm, with a long customs check, he said I had no chance of reaching Port of Spain before 930pm, and doubted if there would be any buses to take from the docks. The French couple decided to help me out and gave me their Lonely Planet guide and helped me write down the names and addresses of some cheap hotels. Then Mr Venezuela, gave me some Trinidadian cash (there was no money changer at the docks), his phone number and as soon was we were within range of his cellphone coverage, let me make phone calls to the hotels on the Lonely Planet guide.

After calling 3 places, I managed to find a very affordable place close to the stadium which had one single room left. Mr Venezuela was even nicer, and gave me a ride all the way to the Guest house, waited till I'd found the room and headed off. He told me to call him sometime, and explain cricke to him. Considering all that he did for a stranger, I'd be happy to oblige him for more.

Did I ever mention, I love all Venezuelan people?