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.