Sunday, March 20, 2011

The End

We spent one more day in Cincinnati in the company of Libby and Bill. This lovely couple gave us a driving tour of the city and took us to an exhibition of the newly discovered artefacts that Cleopatra herself has touched.
Early next morning Bill kindly dropped us off at a rest area on the north side of town. There, we had a long wait. Once again we were sticking the thumb out in the brisk morning air. People smiled, some shook their heads as if to say “No, no, no, are you crazy? I _never_ pick up hitch-hikers”. It was entertaining to watch people’s reactions when they saw us. Many people had the “Krasivo sleva” (Russian for “something beautiful on the left”) syndrome, as we have named it. Here’s how it happens:
Once a driver sees us, he starts checking his blind spot, trying to avoid eye contact with us. Even if there is nothing there, he still repeatedly checks his rear-view mirror or just appears to be very interested by the scenery to his left. He starts looking straight as soon as he passed us. “What hitchhikers? I did not see anybody!”
After three hours of observing the syndrome play out in a million different variations, we finally flagged down a ride. Two elderly sisters coming home from a family reunion in Tennessee were going to Michigan. All their thoughts were about family. There was nothing more they ever talked about.
“Where are you coming from?” they asked us.
“A two-year trip around South America”
“Ah, how interesting... You know, I have two grand-sons, one is three and the other is seven. My sister here has two daughters and one has two kids and the other has three...”
A few hours later, the lady asked us:
“So, how was it, South America? You must have been in Georgia or Louisiana or something?”
She thought we have been travelling in the south of USA!!!
The two sisters dropped us off at a rest-area south of Toledo. We waited until the evening there before a man drove us to another rest-area just north of town. It was actually a Michigan Welcome Centre. It was getting late, so we went a little ways into a thin forest that was just wide enough to block the view of a sub-division from the highway. It took some imagination to pitch a tent as invisibly as possible there. Luckily, some fallen pines made a perfect hiding spot for us. We rolled out our sleeping bags, put on all our warm clothing and crawled in.
In the morning we got a ride pretty quick. A man was on his way to a Detroit Casino. He introduced himself as JJ.
“I’ve spent ten and a half years in jail,” he told us, “that’s where I learned to play cards. I’m on parole now; I’m not allowed to leave the state of Ohio. But fuck it, I really wanna play in this tournament that is happening in Detroit.”
“Cops don`t get along with me and I don`t get along with them” he added.
He drove fast but good, keeping his black sporty car cruising at 80 mph, zigzagging between the slow mini vans and the big trucks that crowded the highway. We arrived to Detroit in half an hour.
“Have a good day!” said JJ and sped off, leaving us under an enormous bridge that span the Detroit river. The structure looked unassailable: vehicles rolled up to the toll booths and effortlessly continued on. We couldn’t do that – no pedestrians were allowed on the bridge. There was another alternative – the Tunnel in the center of the city. We reached it on foot, passing by the early morning empty old industrial buildings of red brick. The sidewalks were so clean even there...
No pedestrians were allowed in the tunnel either. We had to take a $4 bus for the whole minute it took to drive under the river, a sort of a Central American way of taxing the border crossers. A minute spent answering the silly questions of the border guard (“how can you afford to travel for two years?”) and we were on Canadian soil. It was cold. The cold wind got under our sweaters and we shivered.
Windsor is a big place. It took us two hours to locate the library, find on Google Maps where it is we needed to go and then go there.
A take off spot in Windsor is an excellent one. The highway 401 starts there, the speed limit is only 80 and the shoulder is wide. We installed ourselves off the pavement and lifted the thumb for the last time on this trip. Many vehicles did not stop (even though they were all Canadians in there!) but one did. Mark, the Lutheran pastor from Denver, was on his way to check up on a few churches in Toronto. He drove a rental and was happy for the company for the boring drive to “the Big Smoke”. Unlike our previous encounters with religious people, Mark did not try to convert us right away, under the fear of eternal torture and suffering. Instead, we had a very pleasant conversation all the way to Toronto.
“I have nothing to do tonight,” said Mark, “so if you want I can drive you to your parents’ place in Brampton.”
As we were approaching the house, we invited Mark in for a cup of tea. We did not realise it but we must have overstressed the importance of drinking black tea in Russian culture. We talked at length about how important is the “ancient custom” of drinking black tea, with sugar and lemon. We described the simple procedure and Mark nodded:
“Ok, I think I can do this.”
Half an hour later, Mark looked perplexed and confused when George’s mother said,
“and this is the lemon”, offering the plate of lemon slices to him. Mark took one and started squeezing it out with his fingers into the cup.
“Am I doing this right?” asked Mark as lemon juice flowed down his fingers. Everybody laughed and the conversation flowed, the cultural exchange going on full throttle.
Mark had to leave soon and we chatted some more with George’s parents. It was past 11pm when we went to sleep. Inside, out of the frigid spring air, we were warm, sleepy, tired and happy.
Technically, our journey is not over just yet. We still have 600 kms to go to Montreal, but we will not blog about this. Friends to meet in Toronto still, the “normal life” things to figure out, like a place to stay and a job, to mention a few, will take some time.
Well guys, gals, ladies and gentlemen, chicos y chicas, locos y fritas, señoras y señores, thank you for following and supporting us on our journey; thank you for stopping and picking us up on the road; for the kind words and encouragements in moments of doubt and despair; for the wise advises you gave us when we did not know what to do; for travelling and living in the moment alongside us; for telling your story; for sharing food, drink and shelter; for inviting us to your home and sharing a part of your life; we are grateful to all of you.
Best of luck,
Anastasia and George

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Miami – Cincinnati

The airport awoke early, around 5, and we had to cut our sleep short. We waited until the daylight and ventured out. It was chilly. We took a bus downtown, in hopes of getting online in the public library. We got off at the central station and walked one block to the library doors. It was a scary walk. All kinds of crazy people were hanging out at that hour in downtown Miami. Black homeless old men, preachers on the empty street corners, grim-looking white men with tattoos on their faces… As we were walking by a white guy sitting in the flower bed, he got up and took of his shirt. His whole upper body was blue with gangster style tattoos. We looked straight and walked.
The library was not open yet, so we sat outside, watching a peculiar crowd gathering around us, waiting for the doors to open. Bob Dylan songs came to mind. There was a group of men near us and it sounded like they met here every morning, for a long time.
“So, you got a job yet, Bill?”
“No, nothing. I’ll check my facebook now though, you never know, maybe something came up there…”
“Yeah, you never know”
We were experiencing a strong cultural shock – everything was so clean, so perfect, the air was fresh, we understood the locals perfectly… It was a very strange Saturday morning for us.
Finally, the library opened and everybody went in. Many people headed straight for the couches, lied down and fell asleep. We followed the majority to the internet station. Unfortunately, as guests, we were only allowed 15 minutes each. After we explained our nature to the librarians, they probably thought we were just as crazy as most of the visitors at that hour.
“You are gonna do what? Hitchhike to Canada? Oh my God, you are going to die. Do you realize that it is very cold up there? Do you really need to go there?!”
We briefly told them about out trip up to date. Their disbelief quickly changed into a strong desire to help.
Julio the librarian opened Google maps on his computer and plotted a public transit system route to a truckstop outside of Miami. He did a good job and we followed the directions. It was a shock to us that you could do that.
“Do you guys need Internet time?” he asked, “here is an hour, if it is not enough, tell me”.
It looked like it was going to be a busy day: we had to get to the truckstop before sunset, buy food and eat and also buy some warm clothing and rubber boots for the cold temperatures up north.
It was 8 pm when we got off at the end of the line of the seventh public transit bus we took that day. We were loaded with two new sweaters from Goodwill each, and a shiny new pair of rubber boots was attached to each backpack. We had bread and peanut butter for food and we were exhausted. The truck stop was still 5 miles away (about 9 kms). We started walking in its direction when suddenly an ideal camping spot looked straight at us. We waited for cars to pass, then quickly rushed into the bushes and set up our tent not 5 meters away from the road. After a couple of gulps of mediocre Venezuelan rum we fell asleep fast and woke up with the birds chirping in the fresh morning air of North America.
When we approached the truck stop we saw a lot of motorcycles parked at it. It was a weekend motorbike show, and tough looking white men and women were sitting around. Most wore black leather and Confederation flags could be seen in many places. People sipped Coca-Cola and discussed biker stuff. We did not hang around too long there, eager to hitchhike north.
After only 15 minutes, a van pulled over. The passenger window was open and we could see three Hispanic physiognomies smiling at us.
“A donde vas?” (where are you going?)
We got a ride with an illegal bus line servicing illegal immigrants in the US of A. The driver had no license and was living out of his van for the last three years. People would call him and he would drive wherever his customers wanted to go. After we got in, we headed to a trailer park to pick some people up who were headed to Atlanta. 6 short, stubby Guatemalans got in. It took them a while to load their belongings in the back. After a while they succeeded though and we were off.
We dropped off and picked up more people as we zig-zagged around Fort Myers.
The guys were very careful not to attract any attention to themselves. The driver drove 5 miles under the speed limit and when we stopped to refuel people got in and out as fast as they could, always closing the door behind them.
When the night fell, the driver asked us if we can drive.
“I haven’t slept for three nights, I am really tired” he said.
Of course, the least thing we could do to help him was to take over the wheel. We dropped the passengers off at a lonely cabin in the woods of Southern Georgia and then continued empty onto Atlanta. The driver happily snored in the back seat while we took turns driving on the wide and straight highway 75.
As the light drove away the night, our driver woke up and took the wheel. He dropped us off on the outskirts of Atlanta and was off to Colorado to pick up his next clients.
“Thank you so much for driving,” he said,”you have really helped me out. I think I would have crushed tonight if it wasn’t for you”
We took busses across Atlanta pretty much in the same way we did in Miami: bus to library, plot the route, follow directions, walk to the on ramp.
As we were walking, an SUV slowed down and opened a window.
“Heading north?”
“Get in!”
Craig was cool. He was only heading a few miles up the highway, but he invited us into his home to watch some TV. We accepted and watched a documentary on cocaine trafficking and M-19 in Columbia on the Marijuana Channel. Unfortunately, as the story came to the culminating point, Craig had to go, so we had to leave. He was very kind to give us a lift a few exits further up the highway. He dropped us off at a nice forested off-ramp.
It was already late and we did not feel like traveling any further that day. We were falling asleep on our feet.
We walked a little ways away from the highway, climbed a small wooded hill and pitched our camp just behind the top of it. The forest was absolutely beautiful. Pines, oaks and beeches stood silently and the floor was entirely covered by leaves shed the previous autumn. We laid down on the soft blanket of dry rustling leaves and took in the beauty of these stately black trunks. Not a banana palm to be seen.
It rained heavy at night but as it usually happens, as soon as we woke up and we ready to get out of the tent, the rain stopped. We had breakfast and hot Venezuelan coffee in the cold wet misty morning. We put on our new rubber boots and walked to the on-ramp.
Three hours have passed before we got a short ride to a rest area not 10 miles ahead. There, only 30 minutes of waiting before Libby picked us up. She and her husband (in another vehicle) were coming home to Cincinnati from their winter holiday in Mexico. Libby invited us to stay with them for a day, an invitation we surely accepted. So here we are now, sitting in a condominium downtown Cincinnati, typing up the blog. It is cold and rainy outside, but all our things are freshly washed and dryed, we have just had a delicious American breakfast and we are full of eagerness to reach just one more border, into Canada, this time!

Saturday, March 12, 2011


So, the boat to Trinidad did not work out. The carnival was approaching, the festivities were due to start the next day. People told us that Guiria’s carnival is considered one of the best on the whole coast. We had our reservations, though. We had no desire to stay any longer in Guiria to see the carnival. True, we had a good place to stay, but we had absolutely nothing to do in town. We had no access to the house’s bathroom, so performing our daily functions became a real task. We had to plan in advance or wait until the nightfall to… you know. The idle sitting around our tent all day long got very old by day 6, so we made up our minds to move. The most agreeable option, we reasoned, was to fly from Caracas to Miami.
When we told our host Kira that we were leaving, she broke into tears. She really did not want us to leave! She hugged us, we exchanged emails and she hopped on her motorbike and was off.
We started walking to the highway and as we were passing an idling truck we asked the driver if he could give us a lift out of town. He said:
“Sure! Jesus loves you! He is in your heart!”
The day being Sunday, the local Evangelical group was getting together to go to church. We drove around town picking up the believers and then headed out. We were dropped off at a turnoff and quickly flagged down the next ride. A few more quick and short rides got us deposited near a police check point.
For the carnival time the “security” on the roads was increased. In reality, it meant groups of casually dressed men carrying shotguns standing in the middle of the road. Some wore bullet-proof vests while others had nothing but a radio or a pistol. Their main task was to question the passing vehicles:
“Where are you going?”
“Guiria” or “Carupano”, depending on the direction
“Ok, you may pass”
We baked in the hot sun just past the check point and wandered how the men did not get heat strokes: none of them wore a hat!
Soon enough a car stopped with a family inside. An elderly man was behind the wheel and his beautiful young wife (she looked 25 years younger at least) held a year old baby on her knees. The family gave an impression of being well off.
The conversation flowed and soon we learned that Argenis worked for PDVSA (the national oil company that was expropriated by the “revolutionary” government some years ago). He was an important man in the company: the whole Paria peninsula PDVSA operations were under his control.
“I am on duty this weekend, supervising the Guiria division” he shared with us, “that’s why my wife and I here decided to go to Carupano to pick up my mother-in-law. It is nicer to spend the carnival with your family.”
That was an interesting logical connection but we agreed that it was indeed a good idea to spend carnival with the family.
Soon enough, Argenis steered the conversation to politics:
“Do you think it’s a dictatorship here in Venezuela?” he asked straight.
Without pausing for a second for us to reply, he continued:
“No, it is a lie. What is a dictatorship? A dictatorship is when people are killed, when they are treated badly, when there are soldiers on the streets… None of this happens in Venezuela, right?”
We had no desire to argue with such delusions so we agreed, of course, none of these things happen in Venezuela...
“In any case”, Argenis continued, “if it is a dictatorship, I like it. I am a Chavista, you know. I am with the revolution! You see my cap? It is red! That is the color of the revolution…”
We have heard similar words before, if you remember, but in a different setting.
“I always pick up people,” carried on Argenis, “you know why? Because this car that I drive (he lightly tapped the steering wheel of his brand new Toyota sedan) is not really mine! It belongs to the people of Venezuela! So why not share?”
This phrase was spoken as we sped through a very poor village. Hens and people scrambled out of our way. Apparently, the shocking contrast between his shiny ride and the mud walls and tin roofs of the village huts escaped our driver.“And look at the roads here in Venezuela” Argentis was going full throttle by now, “look how many pot holes there are! It’s going to wreck my car! There is so much oil in our country, so much asphalt, but the roads are still as bad as they were before. Why?”
“Obviously, the abundance of the resources is not the problem here…” George carefully suggested.
“Of course not, but I can see no other obstacles to improve the roads!”
“Eeeh… Corrupt… I mean, I have no idea either.”
We drove in silence for some time, each pondering the mystery of bad roads. A cell phone rang. The young wife pulled out three different Blackberries to see which one was ringing.
“Oh, hi mom. Yeah, we are getting close, we’ll see you soon!”
Argenis had just enough time to drop us off on the other side of town. We wished him to spend a pleasant carnival and watched him speed away to pick up his mother-in-law.
By the end of that day we have arrived to Cumana, a good sized city. It was the carnival night and the downtown was blocked off for traffic. Multitudes of people were already gathering along the carnival route and the drinking has begun. The night was falling but we still had no place to sleep. We aimlessly walked through empty city streets when we came up to a fire station.
“Firemen, may be we can camp at a fire station tonight?”
The firemen were friendly but it was “prohibited to camp” on the station territory. Instead, they suggested that we go to the military post and ask there. So we did. A young military commander came to greet us. He said he was really sorry, but the law “prohibits anybody camping on the military territory”. He then suggested we try our luck with the police office further down the road.
“Yeah, right” we thought.
Unexpectedly, the police chief was young, slim and quick. He instantly grasped what it was that we wanted and invited us to camp inside the police station!
Having set up the tent, we went across the street to witness the so-much-talked-about carnival. It was a sad scene. The music was blaring hard, but few people seemed to enjoy their time. The carnival participants dragged by without smiles as if they were out to pick up some groceries. The costumes were a poor imitation of the Brazilian ones. Some were impressive feathery constructions, but more than a half of participants wore every-day t-shirts and shorts. They marched by us, talking on their cell phones and waiting for the whole thing to be over. Having observed the procession for some time, we went to sleep. Or, rather, tried to sleep. As soon as the procession ended, the music got turned up a notch, people kept on drinking and some started to dance. The party lasted until 4 in the morning.
A few quick rides the next day and a long wait before our last ride in South America came about. It was around sunset when Felix and Deborah pulled over for us. A young couple, they were on their way from a beach to Caracas. We enjoyed each others company and the three-hour drive to Caracas went by quickly. Once in the metropolis, they dropped us off at a hotel and we agreed to meet for a beer the next day.
In the morning, a quick visit to an Internet café revealed that one out of our 5 CS requests was accepted by Laura and Luis. We went over to their place and showed up just in time for lunch:)
Laura and Luis are practicing psychologists and are a very cool couple. They fully entrusted us their house from the start: we had the keys, we were free to move around and we could eat as many mangos as fell from the mango tree in the back yard. Luis is a painter as well as a psychologist, and the house is full of his paintings, interesting design ideas and books. We were very happy just to stay inside for the whole time, playing with the dog, reading and just enjoying not moving anywhere.On our last night at their place, Laura gave us a quick talk about one of their projects. Laura and Luis have developed a system called Neurocodex. Laura briefly explained it to us and taught us a few techniques to “get the problems out of your head”. Empowered by this new way of seeing things, we went to sleep.
24 hours later we stepped on the American soil. The airport was quiet – it was 1 in the morning. We pulled out our sleeping bags and slept the rest of the night on the comfortable couches they have all around the Miami International Airport.

Friday, March 4, 2011


On the first night we got into the shady port town of Guiria, we asked a lady named Kira if we could camp in her backyard. She was the second person we approached with the request. The first one was a lazy fat policeman on duty at the town regiment of… police, I guess. He grinned evilly at our cause and suggested that we go camp at a beach, a notoriously dangerous part of town. Kira, on the contrary, invited us in and we´ve slept in her backyard every night since. Kira is a very generous person. She let`s us take a shower once in a while and generally makes us feel at home (but still in the garden:)There are plenty more people living in the house. Three of Kira`s sisters with their families. The sisters were not as friendly as Kira at the beginning, but they warmed up after two or three days and now we are getting along fine. We have spent a week here already but no ride to Trinidad yet but we made a lot of friends, people recognize us on the street and ask how is our search going.
About every other person we talked to so far asked us:
¨And why don´t you take the ferry?¨
Indeed, why?
There is a ferry, it runs every Wednesday. The problem is that it is the only one, and the monopoly it enjoys allows the ferry company to fix the price as high as they like. When we inquired at their office, a fat man (most population in Guiria is fat or very fat, men and women, including most children, but excluding teenagers for some reason) behind the desk smiled and said:
¨1700 bolivares each, please.¨
If you pay cash, it is 170 dollars, at black market course of $1:10. If you have no cash, the official exchange rate of $1:4 applies, and the amount grows to over $400. That´s over $800 for the two of us. The only good thing is that a return ticket is included in the price, because without a return ticket the Trinidad Immigration will not let you step on the island. Our humble protests to the fact that we plan on leaving by other means were met with a smile.
¨You still have to buy the return ticket,¨ said the pleasant fat man.
So, we kept looking for other options.
A few mornings ago we almost got on this super sketchy cocaine-carrying motor-boat going to Trinidad. This was the boat we were waiting for the first three days here in Guiria. The boss of the fisherman fleet of motorboats kept saying to us that there is a boat about to leave any day now, it is completely legal and he knew the people who are taking it well. We had nothing better to do than to trust him and sit by the fishing dock, all day, waiting for the ¨people from Caracas¨ to arrive. We saw the morning routine of the dock people, we saw the afternoon fishing boats arrive and the excitement over the catch of the day, its weighting and selling. We got to know the routine pretty well by the end of the third day. We made friends, and almost everybody wanted to buy us something to eat or to drink. Chicha (sweet rice porridge with LOTS of condensed milk), coffee, cookies and crackers, we did not refuse any offers.
One afternoon we were walking home from the fishing dock. We were passing by some boats that were pulled up on the beach for repairs. A group of men sat in one of them.
¨Hey gringos! Beer?¨
We changed our course and approached a group of boat painters who have just finished their workday and were now working their way through a case of beer. They had a bucket of ice and were pulling out the ¨cold ones¨ one by one. About the only beer you can get here is called ¨Polar Light¨. It is very light and comes in miniscule 200 ml bottles. A picture was out of a commercial of ¨Corona¨: beach, palm trees, sunset, muscular black men in work clothes, barefoot, having beers among brightly painted beached boats… We could not refuse.
After the initial ¨Where are you from?...¨ the conversation soon turned to politics. The tall black man would yell out:
His smaller friend would lift his cap and yell in response:
¨Chavez! Rojo! Trabajadores!!! Yeah! You see the color of my hat, you see? It is RED! That´s because I am with CHAVEZ! REVOLUTION!¨
The third companion would put in:
¨Chavez! Ick. Revolution! Chavez con nosotros! Ick. Chavez...¨
We enjoyed their company but did not share in on their enthusiasm. We sipped on the cold beer and were just taking in the whole scene. We had to leave when it got dark and the boys got too drunk.
On the fourth day, the ¨people from Caracas¨ finally arrived. We were called over to the beach from where the boat was to leave. The captain wanted lots of money for our passage. He was asking for 100 dollars a person. We brought him down to 80 total (that was ALL we had at the moment) when suddenly the skipper came up and asked if we were going to contribute to the ¨Trinidad Entry Tax¨, another 80 dollars. We kind of ignored him and kept waiting for the captain. While we were sitting in the shade of the palm trees, we got talking to the man ¨from Caracas¨ who ordered the boat to take his ¨cargo¨ across. He was a Trinitarian and spoke English. We asked him straight:
¨Are you transporting any drugs?¨
He looked straight at us, swallowed and got into a lengthy explanation as to why it was not worth the risk for him to traffic cocaine over. About five minutes into the conversation, he bent over, reached into his bag and pulled out… a fighting cock.
¨Poor bird,¨ he said,¨suffering so much. But wait, when you get to Trinidad, you will make me lots of money, hahaha.¨
After all this, we were not so cool on giving the captain the money OR our passports. We waited some more when all of a sudden, the captain announced that the boat was ready. We all went over to the boat, but our passports were still not stamped out.
We asked the captain:
¨So are you taking us or not? What about the stamp out?¨
The captain did not answer but instead started the engine. The guy with the fighting cock yelled to us:
¨Don´t talk! Jump in!¨
¨Eeee… No-no-no. Have a good trip!¨
We stood on the peer, watching the boat turn around in the harbour and take a course to Trinidad. We did not know if should we thank gods from keeping us taking this ride or should we wave them back and agree to pay whatever they want.
Adrenalin had rushed through our veins a few times that day :)
When we aimlessly wandered the streets later on, people called us over from the sidewalks, cafes and stores. They were all characters we met earlier in the port, and they all asked us:
¨Have you found anything yet? No? Wait, I´ll talk to my brother/sister/friend, he is going to Trinidad on Friday...¨
The same evening we were walking past a bar when some people inside waved to us.
¨Hey, gringos! Wanna beer?¨
That was the crew of a fishing boat we talked to earlier that day. There were three of them: El Gordo, El Chico and El Flaco (Fat, Small and Skinny). El Gordo was the captain of the ship. El Chico was first mate. He was dark black, short and fatter than El Gordo. He talked non-stop, smiled constantly and only stopped his avalanche of jokes when a pretty girl passed by. He would stop mid-sentence, turn around and start flirting. He was hilarious. El Flako was timid and did not speak much, but smiled and noded his head. The trinity was very friendly and full of eagerness to help us.
¨Look,¨ said El Gordo,¨we are going to La Union. We have no problem taking you, we just need to ask the boat owner´s permission.¨
¨Wow,¨our adrenalin levels rose for the tenth time that day,¨that would be… awesome! And where is this La Union? What country is it?¨
¨La Union, you know,¨was the answer,¨they speak French there. It´s an island.¨
¨Aaaa… an island…¨
We spent some more time in the bar with them, being treated to the Ice Light beers by El Chico.
El Chico invited us over to have breakfast on their boat in the morning and we went to our back yard in high hopes.
Early next morning we were at the boat, 7 am, as told. There was no movement on board. We waited for some time before we saw sleepy El Chico poking his head out of a door.
¨Damn my head hurts!¨ He exclaimed, ¨We got SO drunk last night! We got back at like 3 in the morning! And now my head hurts!¨
Soon the other crew members woke up. The cook headed to the kitchen and started by making some coffee. He then made arepas, traditional Venezuelan pancakes of corn flour. El Chico took over after to fry some fish. Half an hour later, we were chewing on one of the most delicious breakfasts in our trip: Arepas with fried fish, aboard a fishing vessel that is about to sail to La Union (which is in Grenada, we found out).
El Chico sat down beside us and quietly said:
¨Sorry guys, but unfortunately we cannot take you. The boss does not allow us. Sorry.¨
¨Oh, don´t worry about it, don´t be sorry, it´s ok…¨ we answered, trying not to show our disappointment.
So we were on land again, with no ride to Trinidad.
Two more days has passed since. Two more leads failed. Everybody is telling us that Trinidad Immigration will not let us through without an ¨onward passage¨. We do not have one, nor do we want buy one, for obvious reasons. Without it, no captain will give us a ride to Trinidad. The circle is closed.
The carnival is approaching. The festivities are due to start this evening. We think we will stop actively looking for the boat now, but still keep our ears open. We will enjoy the carnival in Kira´s company and if nothing comes up, we will leave Guiria by the road we arrived by.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


When we were approaching Venezuela, every person we met thought it was his duty to tell us that Venezuela is very, very dangerous. Bad, bad people live there, and their only goal in life was to rob us, kidnap us or do some other undescribable thing to us.
We decided to press on anyway to see with our own eyes if it was really that bad. Juan Villarino must have heard tales ten times worse when he was planning his trip across Iraq and Afghanistan... What he found was the incredible hospitality of the people instead.
So we, keeping his example in mind, got our passports stamped at the border and stuck our thumbs out just past the military post. 5 minutes later,an owner of a cyber cafe gave us a lift into Sta. Elena. We changed our reales into bolivares on the street (the black market in Venezuela gives you twice the exchange rate than the official banks) and headed to the exit of town. On our way out we passed a gas station. An old pump was standing in the middle of a dirt field, a line of cars waiting to be filled up. We glanced at the display on the pump and then looked again with eyes wide open: 0.048 bolivares a litre? That`s 200 liters for a dollar! Gas is practically free... An image of smiling Chavez looked at us from every wall and lamppost we passed. ¨Until the victory!¨ said the signs below. ¨Build socialism or die!¨ proclaimed a brush-painted slogan on the block walls of a police station.
The weather was unstable as we moved out to our spot. The sun would poke out and hide again behind heavy rolling thunderstorms. It would rain hard for 20 minutes and then the sun would shine again and dry out the ground. Half an hour more,and another rain would pour down. The Gran Savana gave us its usual welcome of heavy mists, rain and shine, all at once.
The first day was a failure. Nobody stopped, and when we went to camp that night, the heaviest rain poured down on us. We woke up a little wet but determined to hitch out today. Indeed, we did hitch a ride. It was not a very long one but still a ride. When Mishico pulled over, she was out for her 4:20pm ride out in the savanna. She invited us to come along, offering to drop us off at the military check point some 20 kms further on. While we were driving, we saw this cool ant-eater on the side of the road. We got out and approached it.The funny mammal would get up on its hind legs and spread out its ¨arms¨ in a defending posture. Very cute. It was obviously a young puppy because we were told that an adult ant-eater can reach a size of a big dog. The one in front of us barely reached 1 foot when it stood on its hind legs. It fell over a few times, loosing its balance. We were lucky its mamma was not around! We observed it for a while and then let it continue on its route. It started raining heavily at that point and Mishico said: ¨why don´t you come back to Sta Elena with me tonight? You can stay at my house a night or two, rest from the road.¨ Well, the offer was generous and we happily accepted. Mishico turned around and we drove back to town. At the entrance, not far from the place where we tried hitching the day before, Mishico pulled into a driveway.¨This is the bar I ran for 7 months¨ she said, ¨but I had no permission to run it, so they finally closed me down a month ago. Damn. I´m in the process of getting all this official crap sorted out.¨ We walked into the empty bar. The clock, strangely enough, showed 4:20 (again!) and we sat behind the empty bar table, listened to loud Bob Dylan records and watched the street traffic. Mishico, it seemed, knew everybody in town. Many a passer-by would stop and ask her ¨so, when do you finally open up?¨
Later on Mishico took us to her place and showed us our room. The next two days we spent in her company, touring the houses of her friends and going for walks.
One of the friends that we visited impressed us deeply, although we are still not sure what was stronger: the personality of Margarita or the crazy view that opened up from her window openings. You see, Margarita was building a huge house on top of the hill. She was working alone and without a slightest idea about what she was doing. Margarita went crazy sometime during the construction, or was it before...? She spoke non-stop for 8 hours about all sort of her construction decisions, workers she hired and neighbours, on whoom she was stealthily advancing her property lines. She chain-smoked and lively gesticulated with a beer can, letting beer fly in all directions.
While Margarita was buzzing in the background, an icredible view opened up to us from her second storey. You had to walk on a plank thrown over some twisty joists and look out of a window opening holding on not to fall, and this is what you could see: Mount Roraima peeked out of the clouds just as the sun was setting. It was far away but still very clear, we could even see the waterfall rushing from the top of the plateau. We took this photo on another day and from a different pointNext morning, we said good-byes to Mishico and her family and went back to the road. This time we advanced a little further, to the bus station that was curiously located welloutside of town. We picked a spot just past it and observed a steady flow of taxis (80% of Sta. Elena vehicles are taxis) drop off passengers there, or just coming by for a ride, looking for customers. So we spent the next 3 days, looking for a truck or a car without the small yellow ¨taxi¨ sticker on the windshield. When the nights fell, we seeked shelter under a traditional palm roof of Señor Castro´s closed down restaurant.On the third day we struck gold. Rafael was taking an empty truck to Caracas. He was in no hurry and had a pleasant disposition. We stopped frequently to drink from the jungle streams, to take a cup of coffe or just to stretch our legs. At the end of the day, Rafael deposited us at a tollbooth outside of Puerto Ordaz. There was a truckstop nearby, with an ample roofed space for the truckers to hang their hammocks! We camped there and hitched a ride to Carupano next morning. This ride was silent, we barely exchanged 10 words with the trucker in the first 3 hours. Then, Anastasia asked: ¨by the way, we never asked what is your name?¨ and instantly, Jose smiled and started chatting. He dropped us off at a small village 20 minutes before Carupano. It was getting late so we decided to camp there. We began going from house to house, asking if we could camp in the backyard. None of the five women we asked said no, but instead said ¨why don´t you ask the next house over? They have a back yard.¨ After a fifth such reply, we went to the gas station with the same question. The owner looked as if he never heard such a request before and offered us to camp right in front of the pumps. ¨There¨ he said,¨you can put your tent there.¨ 10 more minutes were required to carefully explain to him why we do not like to camp out in the open at night, but instead would prefer a more out-of-the-way spot, like around that corner, for example. Eventualy, we reached a consensus with the man and pitched a tent behind a parked truck.
In the morning the ride did not come easy. We were only a short distance away from town, but nobody would stop. Eventually,a man gave us a short lift to the center of the village from where we took a luxurious taxi ride all the way to Carupano. The beaten-up 70s model Caprice Classic took in 5 passengers and there was still room for more. We cruised in comfort, riding with 3 other local people who were taking their usual taxi ride to work in the morning.
Carupano was our first town on the Caribbean coast since a long while and its chaos made us recall Central America. Lots of people on the streets, yelling, selling and buying all sorts of things. We maneuvered our way to the central plaza and sat down to think. We did not know how to get out of town, nor did we see anybody trustworthy whom we could ask for directions. A plaza full of people but no one to ask! Finally,a young mother with a child in her arms sat on the bench near us. She was friendly and explained to us which bus we should get on to get to the exit of town. Half an hour later we were already hitch-hikng on the narrow highway 10, headed for Guiria.
A few more rides took us there. The first one bought us a much-needed beer and the other was a ¨rural transport¨ truck. ¨Gratis, gracias a Chavez!¨ (Free thanks to Chavez) yelled out the driver and we hopped into the back of the revolutionary socialist transport.
When we got to Guiria, it was getting dark. We walked a few blocks and asked at the first house that we liked: ¨could we please camp in your backyard for the night?¨ The lady agreed and even let us stay for as long as we need! Now we are set up with a place to stay and our next task rises tall in front of us: get to Trinidad. It is easier said than done, this is sure. The fact that a carnival is approaching (the festivities commence Monday), does not make our task any easier. We are getting a lot of conflicting information about boats that go there and prices they charge, but one bit is certain: the ferry that leaves once a week charges 120 dollars for the 5 hour traverse, and they would only sell us a two-way ticket. That´s to comply with Trinidad´s immigration request of an onward passage for every foreigner who comes to the island. We are in the process of seeing what other solution can be found, wish us luck!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Amazon

Early next morning we moved out to the direction of the port. Not the container port, which was surrounded by a three meter wire fence (with electric wire to boot), the entrance guarded by grim men in uniform, but to the ¨public¨ port. The piers stretched out for some 10 kilometers along the shoreline, and there was plenty of boats moored up. Some were unloading lumber, some were loading rice and beer to take upstream, but most of them were not going anywhere anytime soon. We asked a few captains of the typical three deck passenger/cargo vessels like this one where they were heading, but the furthest port of call was Macapa, 100 kms away, and in the wrong direction. After going up and down the port for half a day, amidst slums, open-ditch sewages and never-ending piers, we came up to Porto Marcus Pinto. ¨Santarem¨, a beten-up three deck diesel boat was due to depart today, and the last of the cargo was being loaded into the vessel. Most of the passengers were already on board, having hung their hammocks in the best spots. They were idly waiting, observing the labourers work. The cargo deck was being filled with bags of onions and crates of tomatoes. We found the captain and inquired about the price of passage up to Manaus. ¨180!¨ was his firm word, but after some pleading, going away and coming back game, it was lowered to 150 ($75), and to that we agreed. We were actually quite happy with the arrangement, having by that time abandoned the hope of hitching out of Belem.
So we went back to the hostel, got our bags, bought some snacks for the 5 day ¨cruise¨ and came onboard.
When we showed up, the official passenger-holding capacity of the ship must have been trippled. Hammocks and travel bags took up most of the space on passenger deck and there was no space left to even sit down, let alone hang a hammock. Children were running underfoot and it was a difficult task to move along the passages: one had to step over, crowl under and generally avoid collision with the human bodies crammed into their hammocks all over. When we were leaving the hostel, the reception girl presented us with a hammock that one of the travellers left behind, so we were proud owners of a good, brand-new hammock, but without a place to hang it.
In despair, we went to the least crowded area of the ship - the cargo deck. We sat down on the hold hatch and watched the men load up the last of tomatoes. The crates were piled up to the ceiling on three sides of the hatch, and the forth side was a passage along the board. A crew member came up to us and said: ¨it is prohibited to sit where you are sitting. Go to the passenger deck.¨
¨Show us where we can go there and we will!¨ we answered.
He said nothing more and went away.
We looked around. The hatch was pretty big, and there were metal pipes running along the ceiling that we could possibly attach our hammock to... 10 minutes later we have occupied what proved to be the best spot on the whole ship (except for the air-conditionned cabins, of course). We had a cabin with a view. There were no neighbours, only green tomatoes peeped out from their card-board homes all around. True, we were a little close to the engine room, and on some nights it got pretty hot, but overall we were happy. Compare yourself:
As we were settling in for the night, we spotted a bag of pasta packages in the garbage bin next to us! What the hell? Somebody threw out 5 kilos of pasta? We promptly dumpster-dived the treasure and hid it in our bags. Half an hour later a crew member came by. He looked into the garbage bin, turned over some trash in there, obviously looking for something. Not having found what he was looking for, he went away and returned with a flashlight. He made a careful search of the area, even lifting up some tomatoes to see if the big bag of pasta accidentaly got buried in there. When we asked him if he was looking for something, he grumpily said he wasn´t. For the rest of the trip we saw him now and then sadly looking in the garbage bin, perhaps hoping that the pasta would somehow reappear. We nicknamed him ¨Matros Lapshov¨ to avoid pronouncing such words as ¨macaroni¨, ¨pasta¨ and ¨spaghetti¨ all words understood in Brazil. We guessed that he stole the bag from an even biger bag of pasta when it was loaded on the ship. He then stashed his booty the garbage bin, hoping to retrieve it under the cover of darkness. We beat him to it, and were not at all sorry. As most of the other tourists onboard, we thought that at least some of the meals would be included in the price of the passage. We were wrong. A sad looking plate of rice, beans and some meat varied in price between 6 and 10 reais ($3-5), depending on your skin colour and appearance. The whiter you are - the more expensive it is!
The pasta, therefore, was our main dish for the next 5 days, along with 2 kilos of peanuts and a kilo of raisins. Towards the end of the trip the tomatoes began to get red around us and we snacked on them now and again.
The first day of the route passed through the narrow channels of the amazonian delta. We often got close to the banks and the wall of greenery was sliding along us. We could imagine pumas, capibaras and anacondas looking at us from the cover of the forest. We saw no animals, but we saw lots of people. There were a lot of shacks built at the swampy shores of the river. The construction was dubious and the huts lacked window panes, but almost every one was equipped with a satellite dish, pointing straight up in the sky.As our ship would appear around the bend, people who lived in those huts would jump in their canoes and paddle out to the center. They would wait for the ship to get close and then the children in the canoes would start waving their hands up and down. The passengers onboard would get very excited and throw plastic bags full of stuff to the canoes. The local would then pick up the bags and paddle back home. The woman who stood near us watching the ¨donation¨ explained to us that these people were very poor and lacked essential things. People who could afford it donated what they needed most: clothes. It may be true, but many bags contained things other than clothes. We noticed potato chips bag showing through the plastic in one of the bags that floated on the water. What surprised us was that the locals never said ¨thank you¨ or some how acknowledged the gifts. They picked up the floating bags with the same face expressions as if they were pulling out a fish net.
The second day we got out into the main channel and the banks diminished to a thin line of green on the horizon. The captain steered the boat along one shore or the other to avoid the strong current in the middle, and he would switch sides often. When we passed a small village, a motorboat or two would catch up to us, tie up alongside and sell cheese, banana chips, salted shrimps and frozen fruit juice.
The third, fourth and fifth day of the cruise were hard to tell apart. We slept in the hammock, coocked pasta and generally hanged out on ¨our¨ hatch. Some passengers would occasionally come down, look at our royal arrangemnts and without saying a word, go back to their hammock. We guess that they were envious of our spot, which only encouraged us to never leave it for the fear of loosing it to some industrious local family of seven.
We read books and played chess to pass the time. The game aroused immense interest among the passengers. The men would gather in circle, observe us moving the pieces for some time and then ask if we were playing checkers. ¨No, it is chess¨ we would say. ¨Ahh, I only know to play checkers...¨ yet another man would say and walk off. We tried to teach some, but people lost interest about 5 minutes into explanation, asking if we knew how to play checkers instead.
An impressive sunset near Santarem
We arrived in Manaus on the sixth night, 3 in the morning. To our surprise, most of the passengers, rolled up their hammocks and walked off. We stayed onboard untill the morning to venture out into the port city.
No CS luck in Manaus either, so after a quick Internet session we headed for the take-off spot. In half an hour, already 4 cars have stopped for us, offering rides of 8 to 10 kilometers. We politely refused such offers, but were pleasantly surprised at the friendliness of the population. The fith car that stopped was driven by a math teacher. He gave us a 100 km ride to Presidente Figuereiro, talking all the way. He told us about the cruel history of the road we were travelling.
In the 70s, the last military dictator of Brazil (Figueredo) decided to build a road from Manaus to Boa Vista. The task was difficult because of the terrain to be traversed and also because of the hostile indigenous peoples to be encountered on the way. The Waimiri-Atroari people fought against the road builders, protecting their area. The army was called in to make the construction progress. The natives were mowed down with machine-gun fire, dynamited and blown up with grenades. The indians fought back with poisoned arrows. We were to pass throught the 200 kms of Waimiri-Atroari Indigenous Reserve further up the road. The traffic is only allowed during day time, and stopping is expressly prohibited within the reserve.
We bid farewell to the talkative fellow at the turn off to his town and walked a little ways up the road. We came up to a tiny truck stop and seeked shelter for the night in an empty trailer. When we first asked the driver if we could camp in his trailer he totally did not understand what it is that we want, but after some 5 minutes of careful explanation in Portuñol, he got the idea and warmed up to us. We spent the night peacefully, enjoying sound sleep on the cool metal of the trailer floor.
In the morning, an early breakfast of bread, cheese and water, and we are back on the road. A quick succesion of three short rides placed us at the last settlement before the reserve. There, we cooked in the hot sun for sometime before the air brakes hissed behind us and we jumped into a truck carrying jet-fuel up to the airport in Boa Vista. Joao-Carlos was a sublime truck driver. He was talkative, inteligent and generally an interesting person, an uncommon collection of traits of Brazilian truck drivers. In the first five minutes of the conversation he said: ¨Once I saw a program on National Gegraphic about a French guy hitch-hiking around Brazil. I thought, wow, what a cool story, I would like to meet such a fellow, and then I see you two on the side of the road, so I stopped...¨ Joao-Carlos was interested in many things: he was intrigued by the mistery of the Incas and was planning a trip to Cusco; he collected wild orchids, for which purpose he bought some hectares of virgin forest in the Amazon; he painted with oil ¨to relax from the road¨, in his own words. Because he was transporting dangerous cargo, his speed was limited to 78km/h, and 60 on wet surface. He could not drive in the dark and was also obliged to stop frequently to rest (1:15 for lunch, for example). We did not object to such a relaxed schedule, still having our sleepless 16 hour ride fresh in the memory.
Joao-Carlos took it as his mission to show us the lands we were passing through. He would tell us local legends about pink dolphins and panthers; pirranhas that are only dangerous if you have an open wound on your body; dangerous fish cantiroo that lives in the local waters: if a swimmer urinates in the water, the tiny fish smells out the urine and quickly goes up the uretra. Once inside, it opens up its spiky fins and can only be extracted surgically. He told us about the giant anacondas (sukuri) that swallow up men and cows in one piece and pointed out tuyouyou birds, sort of like giant heron with a head of a pelican. Once we saw a herd of capibaras chilling in a roadside pool. Joao-Carlos screeched to a halt and backed up for 200 m so we could take a photo of them. He said:¨ whenever there are capibaras, there are panthers around.¨Our driver also possesed a wealth of information about the flora of the jungle and he would point out some of the species on the side of the road and talk about it.
An important part of getting to know the lands you are passing through is the food, and Joao-Carlos stopped at all his favourite road side stands to treat us to fresh fruit juice, an especially tasty dish of fried fish, fresh fruit... and, of course, a few cans of beer after a long day.
We are in Boa Vista now, heading to Venezuela in a few hours.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A lack of sleep and too much trucking brings us to Belem

The truck stop that we found ourselves on in Anapolis was not in a perfect spot: it was before the highway turned off toward Belem and a lot of trucks going to Brasilia stopped there and almost no Belem-bound driver thought it comfortable enough to spend the night on the dusty parking lot of Posto Presidente. An intoxicated trucker invited us to camp inside his empty soya trailer that night.
Next morning we went to town, the day being Sunday. On Sunday trucks travel much less than on other days in Brazil, you know. Most truckers we spoke to on the morning of that day were `taking a day off`, sipping on their morning coffee and relaxing in their folding chairs in front of their trucks. We made a tour of the city (on a public bus) and came to a conclusion that it is very similiar to the towns of the same size in Peru. Street vendors, noise and smog.
We came back to our truck stop in the evening and found shelter in the familiar trailer. The next morning was pretty bleak. Same idle waiting, nothing to do. After about two hours of sitting, we decided to explore other truck stops in town.
`Posto Brasil is where you need to go,` informed us the trucker in whose trailer we crushed. `It is on the route 153, but on the other side of town. It is just as big as this one here. You´ll have much better luck there than here.`
`OK,`we thought,`let´s go there then.` Two hours later we hopped out of a municipal bus in front of a God-forgotten Posto Brasil. It was dead. There was one truck parked near the pumps, not looking like it is going to move any time soon. The parking lot was empty except for a couple of local pick-ups. Their drivers were sipping beers in the half-open restaurant on premises.
`@#$%!` we thought, `what was the guy thinking!?` We walked back to the bus stop and took another tour, this time of the countryside around Anapolis, before coming back to the central bus station, again. There, we asked a sympathetic-looking elderly bus driver about what bus we should take to reach such and such a truck stop. `Are you guys hitch-hiking to Belem? You need to go to a different truck-stop!!! The one you need is called Posto San Jose. All trucks stop there!` He then lead us to the bus we needed to take and instructed the driver to let us off at the right place. We felt at ease: finally, a sensible man. We thought these relaxing thoughts for about half an hour, just as long as it took the bus to reach Posto San Jose. `It´s just over there, one block away!` said the driver when he let us off. We walked in the direction indicated. `@#$%!!!!!!!!` The gas station was under damn construction!!! The brick layers stopped their labours for a few minutes to watch two back-packers cross the road, survey the half build lot and walk off. We were so depressed. The bus left, and we had no desire of waiting for the next one in the sketchy suburbian neighbourhood. We were on the edge of breaking down and crying. What we had in front of us was a 15 km walk back to Posto Fucking Presidente, in the scorching sun, against the desirable traffic direction.
We walked for a few kilometers, up the hill, when we came to a speed bump, in the middle of an abandoned highway-improving construction project. We decided to try our good old way of hitching there, with the outstreched arm, smiles and waves... Ten minutes passed and a miracle happened!!! Hitch-hiking in Brasil actually WORKS!!! A trucker made a welcoming gesture and pulled over. We picked up our bags with an almost-forgotten swing of the hand and were underway all the way to the turn-off to Palmas. The driver was super cool. He was from Santa Catarina, he was a surfer and listened to reggae music. He was genuinely interested in our story and we chatted almost all the time. Like most other truckers in Brazil, Giovanni Coelho Pacifico, such was his name, travelled in pair with another trucker, an old road-dog Cuco. When it came time for them to stop for the night, they pulled out a bottle of cashasa (a vodka-like sugar cane liquor) and tought us the traditional way of drinking it. After a few rounds, we were like a family gathered around a kitchen fire.We parted as good friends at the turn-off to Palmas. There, we walked to yet another speed-bump (the further north we go, the more of them seem to appear and we welcome this fact) and hitched yet another 500 km ride in under 15 minutes. Ho-ho, the curse of Foz do Iguacu has lost its power, ha!
This driver did not look over 18, although he claimed to be 25. He consulted our road atlas several times, inspite of him reassuring us that he has been doing this run for three years now. Whatever, man, as long as we are heading the same direction, it´s all good...
The kid dropped us off in a small town the next day. There, kids stopped their games in the mud and watched us go by. Their grandmothers, who were selling cocos and corn, watched us silently as we walked. No smile, no handwave of ours could invite a response. After the fifth non-responsive grandma we changed the game a little. We opened our mounths just a bit and looked back at them, raising one eye-brow. No change of face, no response, we could just as well be making grimases at the brick walls behind them.
An expected speed-bump at the end of this village, complimented by an improvized labirinth of orange cones that the nearby police stastion has mastefully aranged to make traffic go even more slower. On top of that, a bushy tree gave plenty of shade where we installed ourselves. That was an ideal hitching spot, and we were not going to leave it for anything less then Belem, 1200 kms away.30 minutes of waiting yielded just the ride we were waiting for - straight to Belem. A truck pulled over and when we ran up to it, the driver poked out of his window and asked us in pure English: `Do you speak any English?`
`Eh, yes, we do. Sir.`
`Ok, let´s go`
Luciano spent some years as an illegal worker in England before he was found out and deported by the Immigration Police. He learnt English while he was working there, and he had a dream of going back one day. In the meanwhile, he was trucking. When he picked us up, he already spent 60 hours driving, no sleep. His eyes had dark circles around them. He had trouble concentrating on the conversation, he was so tired. `I´m a damn good driver` he told us, `you´ll see`. And he was good. In the next 16 hours that we spent with him, he drove with supreme accuracy. He avoided ALL the pot-holes on the Transbrasiliana, and some of them were mean. He drove through the night rain, remembering every speed-bump, sharp turn and the pot-hole to come. We were impressed. He kept saying:`I am so so tired.` Like many drivers, he took pills. Normally, one Amphetamine pill staves off sleep for about 8 hours. For Luciano, it only lasted 3. `That´s because I eat them all the time, hahaha!` He said. He chain-smoked, stopped to drink strong coffee on almost every gas station and just kept driving. We had trouble staying awake, but he would storm hill after hill, looking straight. About 4 am, a battery belt broke. We had to pull over and replace it. The operation took more than an hour. `Now I am really really really tired` said Luciano when he pluncked back into his seat and released the parking brake. Two hours later we parted with him outside of Belem Cargo Terminal. He was going to unload, sleep for 2 hours and then head straight back to Sao Paulo!!! Crazy.
On our part, we had yet another cup of coffeeeeee and went to town. Out of our 5 CS requests none were unswered. Hm, in the atmosphere that we felt in Belem, we had no desire to camp somewhere in the bushes. We caught lots of `interested` looks on our bags when we walked on the streets. So, we found a hostel ($7 a head), for the first time since... Bolivia, actually! An early night tonight, kids!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Interesting points of Brasilian Portuguese

By and by we are slowly picking up the local lengua. When some people speak to us, we understand almost everything, while the speach of others sounds totally foreign to us (like Luis the trucker). We suspect that the accents vary greatly from one state to another, the most clear sounding (to us) are the accents of the southern states. These are the few points we managed to figure out from chatting with drivers and reading road signs:
D is pronounced as G, as in `edad` (age), pronounced `edaJ` and `onde` (where), pronounced as `onJe`
L is pronounced as O, as in `Natal` (a city on the coast), pronounced `NataO`
T is pronounced as CH, as in `Internet`, pronounced as `InterneCH` - that´s why the girls at the gas station in Rio Preto were so confused when we asked for an InterneT place nearby.
M is pronounced as N, as in an article `com` (with), pronounced as `coN`

Our waiting time on the service center outside of Sao Jose do Rio Preto has significantly improved compared to the 3 day wait in Foz do Iguacu. Here, we spent only 2 full days. The scenario was very similar: we picked a strategic spot near the gas pumps, from where we could see both the trucks pulling up to pick up fuel and also those pulling up to the restaurant/washrooms. As soon as we spotted movement, one of us would get up and stroll over to the truck.
`Hi, would you be heading north by any chance?`
`I said, North? Goiania? Anapolis? BELEM?` also pointing north with a finger
`Aaa, no.`
`Thank you, have a good trip, then`
The dialog has repeated itself for over 60 times , varying only slightly. Sometimes we would approach a friendlier-than-others truckers. They would ask where we were from, and when they found out we were Russian, they would offer us shower coupons, snacks and lots of bad advices on how to hitch hike. The winner in this category is: `If you have no luck here today, you should walk to the next truck stop, it is like 10 kms down the road... or may be 50.`
Inspired by Juan Villarino, we made a similiar sign in hopes of starting conversations with people: The message reads: `Two russian hitch-hiking around Latin America`. But, alas, it did not help much. Some truckers stopped and read the message, by syllables. They briefly scanned the map, obviously not connecting the image with anything they were familiar with. One trucker came up, looked at it and pointed to Brasil: `And this is the United States, right?` Hm.
By the end of the first day we met Aparecido, a super-friendly trucker. He was waiting for a load for the fifth day in a row! He asked us if we ate, and when we said no, he got excited and busy. He said:`I do not have much, but I would like to offer you a traditional Brasilian dish - arroefejao` (rice and beans). He pulled out the pots and the stove from his kitchen box on the side of the trailer and reheated his left over rice and beans for us. We were not particularly hungry but we could not turn down such an open-hearted offer. We ate and constantly complimented the cheff on the good taste of the meal, to an obvious satisfaction of the host. `This is the best dish in Brasil!` he said proudly, `Arroz e Feijao.`
After we washed the dishes and installed ourselves on our spot again, Aparecido (his name means `the one who appeared` by the way) appeared from around the corner. He pulled out his cell phone and put on some simple melody. It sounded like a hymn, and he was humming some words in tune with it. After we listened to some three compositions, Aparecido said: `this is holy music. It praises the Lord. We play this music in our church, the Congregation of Christ in Brasil.` Just so it happened that there was a service at the local chapter that evening and Aparecido invited us to come. We were so bored at the gas station that a visit to a `New Religion Church` sounded like an entertainment worth exploring. So we agreed.
At 6 pm Aparecido appeared again. He was dressed in a suit and looking sharp, eyes glowing with excitement. `Come, my friends, come, the service will start soon!`
We loaded into his truck and drove to the church. The interior of the church looked more like an office space rather than a place of worship: white walls and strong white light. No cross, no icons, no decoration. There was no altar, but instead of it, a white space with two white columns on the sides, supporting the golden letters: `IN THE NAME OF JESUS`. A woman sitting next to Anastasia, said: `Today you will meet the lord (senhor).` Anastasia thought that the woman was referring to the pastor, so she answered: `Oh, I already met him. In the corridor outside.` The woman looked at her, hesitated for a moment and then said: `No, the OTHER lord, JESUS`.
The service consisted of singing hymns (the males in the audience could yell out any number from 1 to 450, and the congregation would leaf through their singing books, find the right page and sing the appropriate 3 verse hymn) and praying (again, the males would come up to the front pedestal and pray very loudly to the Lord. The congregation was free to yell `Great God!`, `Thank God!` or `Halleluya!!!` whenever they thought appropriate). It all lasted two hours. When it was over, people started shaking hands and kissing each other on the cheek. Everybody wanted to meet the Russians, of course... We were quite tired of the strong illumination, loud singing and attention when we went out. Tears were running down Aparecido´s cheeks when we were driving back. `I am so happy, so happy for you. It was your first time today! It is the happiest day of my life, I will never forget it. I will pray that you will get a ride tomorrow`, he said.
The next day we spent just like the day before. It was not as boring as waiting for a ride near Bajo Caracoles back in Argentinian Patagonia but still, we were thoroughly bored.
In the morning of Day 3, we finally asked the right person - he agreed to take us to Goiania! Whoo-hooooo!
We were moving again! That was good. The driver said not a word during the 5 hour drive. That was not so good, but we could live with it, as long as we were moving! Silent Andres dropped us off at yet another truck stop in Goiania. 5 minutes of asking for rides there (Anastasia scores!)and we were underway to Anapolis with a brand new (2011 model) Scania. The music worked, the driver was interesting and talkative (only two years trucking...) and the landscape finally changed from never ending fields of soja, corn and sugar cane to rolling hills covered with forests and bamboo groves on the sides of the road. We fell asleep on the truck stop in Anapolis, 600 kms closer to Belem, 2000 more to go.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A new hitchhiking strategy in Brasil

It has been over a year since we had to learn a new language, but here we had to start over again. Portuguese is not very different from Spanish. The difference is something like between Ukranian and Russian. A lot of the words are similiar, but pronounced with a different accent. If both people talk slowly and listen, a dialogue can be maintained.
So, we entered Brasil. As soon as we crossed the border, we flagged down a pick up. The Argentinian couple (biologists running a private nature reserve)inside gave us a ride to the outskirts of Foz do Iguacu, a much bigger town than its couterpart on the Argentinian side. That was a good start. We walked to a suitable take off spot and let the thumb fly. 1 hour, nothing. 2, 3, 4 hours... People were going by not even turning their heads, looking straight. No smiles, no waves. We were invisible. It was getting depressing. When you get depressed while hitch-hiking, walking takes off your mind from the bad vibe and situation soon gets fixed. You arrive somewhere or you get picked up, which ever comes first. After 2 hours of walking in the hotest sun ever, we arrived at the biggest truck stop we have ever seen. There must have been over 150 trucks parked in the immense field around the gas station. There was a restaurant with good food (a plate with enough food for two - R7, around US 3.50) and free showers.
We have arrived late in the day, so all we did that night was ask the permission to camp, put up our tent where we were told, and went to sleep.
The next morning, we made a tour of the parking lot, asking truckers if they were heading our direction, Sao Paulo. No dice there. Men turned their eyes away and came up with all sorts of reasons for not taking us. Going the other way, not moving at all at the moment and no permission to take passengers were the most common. We had nothing else to do, but to sit on our bags in the shade of the huge roof, near the bathroom door. We had a sign propped up against our legs, `Sao Paulo`. We read our books (one by Lecompte de Nouy `Human Destiny` and the other `Viaje a Rio de la Plata` by Ulrico Shmitdl), played chess and observed the workings of a big truckstop.
By the end of day 1, we briefly chatted with three truckers. The last one gave us a very good advice: `You guys look Argentinian. Here nobody likes Argentinians because they are all worthless thiefs and robbers. You should write on your sign that you are Russian.`
We did so and wow! what a change! The truckers who the day before walked past us as if they did not see us, said hi and some of them even smiled! During day 2 we had about 4 conversations, all stemming from the little line on our sign: `two russians to... Sao Paulo`. On day 3, we began receiving offers. Luis, a black Brasilian from the state of Bahia, offered to take us to Sao Jose do Rio Preto. It was a very good offer because it would stear us clear from Sao Paulo, a big city that we would have to take a bus to get out of. Furthermore, Rio Preto was on our chosen route, BR 153, also known as Transbrasiliana. Luis was waiting for his partner to be loaded and than they would leave, any moment now... Another offer came from Allan, a co-worker of the fat Elder who gave us a lift in Argentina a few weeks before! Allan had a very concerned look on his face, he inquired if our papers were in order, if we carry any drugs on us, if we have enough money to eat... After some chatting, he warmed up to us and invited us to stay in house for three days until he had a load going to Sao Paulo. Unfortunately, we could not accept his kind invitation because we were already waiting for Luis, seldomly taking eyes off his white truck. `Is he moving yet?`
Luis´ partner, Fren, finally got his load ready and tied down in the afternoon of the next day, and we left our by-then-beloved spot near the bathroom door, after 4 days of sitting there.
Luis was not a talkative person. Moreover, he did not like to explain. He had a heavy accent from his state Bahia, making him ever harder to understand. He spoke no word of Spanish, of course. He spoke with us with frases whose translation in English would be something like that:
`Ain´t this babe hot, I`m tellin ya`
`Where youall headin`, anyway?`
`Get down, there are cops up ahead`
Most of our two-day ride with this stern but kind man was spent in silence, which was only interrupted by the static of his CB radio. Luis would mummble something into the mic, and listen to the reply, which sounded little diffrent from the static. After the reply was over, Luis would errupt in laughter, and chat excitingly into the mic again, hitting the driving wheel with his powerful hand. We were understanding nothing.
Luis´ partner Fren was more understanding, more curious and more talkative. Every few hours, the pair would stop, either to refill up some 50 liters of burnt diesel, to have a snack, to eat or just to rest. In these frequent periods of rest we were actually learning Portuguese from Fren.
At the end of the second day, Luis and Fren dropped us off at a spectacular truck stop a little outside of Rio Preto. They shook our hands and hugged us. Then they each popped a no-sleep pill and rolled off into the night. We camped on the cobbled (!!!) parking lot and walked into town in the morning in search of the long needed coonection with the WWW.

Buenos Aires - Iguazu Falls

It was raining hard when we left Buenos Aires. We decided to take a train out to the nearest town - Zarate, and hitch from there. The train was unlike the flashy, new, air-conditioned ones going between Villa Ballester and Retiro - this one had old, dirty cars, with seats ripped out and broken windows. There was a policeman patrolling the train. On the way out of the capital, we rolled slowly by the most poor slums we have seen yet. Houses built of plastic sheets and sticks, children going through garbage on the huge mountains of garbage, dirt roads and horse-drawn carts...
When we got to Zarate, it was already getting late. We walked to a super-modern YPF gas station on the highway. A friendly attendant showed us a lawn where, he said, ´we always let people camp`. So we did, too. We took a free shower and retired for the night. In the morning we walked to the near-by toll booth and were underway with a truck in about 10 minutes. That day we got 3 rides in total, all trucks. The last one was a Brasilian who spoke no Spanish, our first encounter of such kind. He was speaking slowly and listened hard, so we understood each other pretty well, although we spoke different languages. He dropped us off near Paso de Los Libres. There, we went over to a group of truckers. They were sitting in a circle around a gas burner with a teapot on it, passing mate around. We approached them without doubt, knowing perfectly what we should say and how will things go. After 5 minutes of talking, we have already joined the circle and were offered the mate. 5 minutes more, and we had our camping spot picked out - in an empty dump box of one of the trucks. It was perfect because we wanted to camp out of sight for obviuos reasons, and what better place could there be? Unfortunately, the truckers were not long howlers - they were working on the road construction project and their daily route was only 20 kms long.
In the morning we had to wait for some few hours before we got a ride. A local tree farm worker Luis gave us a ride to his home town La Cruz. We got stuck there. The sun was so hot that we had to take refuge in the shade for some hours, a siesta. When the sun went down a bit, we walked back to the spot. Half an hour later, we were riding with a fat and cheerful Brasilian trucker. He had an unusual name - Elder, but he liked to be called Gino. He dropped us off 40 kms outside of Posadas, at a truck stop with free showers, again!
Posadas in the capital of Misiones, and it is very difficult to hitch-hiker there, especially in the tourist season. We happened to be passing through precisely at the busiest part of the year. Cars were going by full with vacationing families, and the locals, it seemed, had no custom of picking up hitch-hikers. Although there was a heavy traffic and our position was ideal, we waited for over 8 hours before a truck stopped.
The trucker Daniel was the king of the road. He was happy on the road. He drove fast, took chances and bossed the small cars around. He had no load, and sometimes we were roaring at 120 km/h. It was 1 in the morning when we camped at a gas station (free showers, once again), 40 kms from the Falls of Iguazu. By this time we have been on the road for four days, and we were taking a shower every night! In Brasil, they say, ALL the truck stops have free showers, hmmm...
We were unable to hitch the last 40 kms to the town of Puerto Iguazu. We were on the road by 6am, and at 8, when the sun has gained strength, we gave up and flagged down a local bus.
Puerto Iguazu is a typical `tourist trap` type of town. Lots of hotels, souvenir shops, a busy bus station, and not much else. The park (the falls are surrounded by a National Park), is 17 kms out of town, and there are no campgrounds, in fact it is prohibited to camp within the limits of the park. Well, we were not deterrred, we knew that there MUST be a camping spot in the forest:) We stocked up on provision in town, took a bus to the border fo the park and started walking. The skies opened up and got us drenched in an intense tropical shower 20 minutes after we started out, but it was actually a pleasant refreshement. We did not mind getting wet when it was +35 C.
We walked for about 6 kms when a perfect camping spot revealed itself to us. A trail was leading off into the jungle, and to the side of it, there was a sign. `NO TRESPASSING`, in Spanish and English, and a rough image of a park ranger, with his palm of a hand streched towards us, prohibiting entry. 100 m behind the sign, there was an abandoned parking lot! The lush vegetation creeped up on the pavement from all sides, leaving only an area for our tent!!! A forest stream flooded some of the area, and we had a shower with the stagnant (but still very clean) water.We pitched our tent and watched yet another thunderstorm approach. It started to rain again and we slipped into our leaky tent. The twilight fell, and with it, the miriad of the forest creatured started their concert. Our camp was on the edge of a swamp, and all sorts of frogs and toads, aided by the giant cicadas, grasshoppers and we don´t know what else, emitted all sorts of sounds. We laid on our backs for half an hour, listening to the powerful cacaphony.
In the morning we folded up our camp, stashed our bags deep in the jungle and walked to the Fee Collection Booth.
`You haven´t camped somewhere in the forest, did you?` sternly asked us the park worker when he saw us appear on foot from around the bend, first visitors of the day.
`No sir, of course not, it is prohibited, you know.`
`So where did you sleep?`
`We... ehhh... we camped on the camping ground in town, and walked all night to see the falls!`
`Yeah, right...`
By the time the park opened, at 8, there were already 200 people in line for the tickets. The park stuff was sitting around, chatting and sipping on terere. Terere is the same as mate, only it is drunk cold. You can use ice-cold water or any fruit juice you like - it is very refreshing in the humid heat.
The guard looked at the clock, 7:48, and flung the gate open. We were second in line and followed the first couple, who looked like they knew where they were going. The park that we were going through looked more like a shopping center or may be a Disneyland. Lots of concreted plazoletas, sidewalks and lawn, lawn, lawn. There is even a little train that you have to take to get to the falls.

The falls were, of course, impressive, but the highlight of the day for us was the small secluded falls at the end of Macuco trail. After having viewed the main falls, alongside with the multinational tourist crowd, Macuco was a relief.It was actually a place straight from a fairytale, or even from heaven. A small cool stream weaved its way through the thick bush before it fell off of a 40 m cliff, hitting the black rocks below. The water broke into millions of streams in the air and filled the air with freshness. A small lagoon has formed at the base of the fall. May be a dozen people were there besides us. You could swim up to the falls (or walk to them, the lagoon was only waist-deep) , stand under the strong massaging shower, and swim back to your chilling place, letting the next person to enjoy the shower. We stayed there until the sun hid behind the trees and shadow fell. Rainbows and butterflies disappeared and we went back to our camp. We camped in the same place the second night and walked over into Brasil the next day.