Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sayonara Suckahs

Time to dust off the passport again. In less than a month I'm heading off to Japan. Having just spent the last two weeks packing, moving, packing again, moving again, and then unpacking into my new apt, I've done very little planning. Should make for an interesting excursion. English and credit cards are rarely used outside of Tokyo. Or so I'm told. The only Japanese I know was used above.

Time for some fun!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Let's Cross Another Border

After a day of meeting everyone around the world during a soccer game and many post-drinks, it was time to move on to my fifth country on the road: Argentina - via the Iguazu Falls border. I woke up at 7am and ran to the shower (after packing everything I had with a headlamp). Shower, dress, breakfast. Most of it in the dark because I didn't want to wake my still slumbering (probably still drunk) roommates in the dorm room.

The hostel's tour bus (with wooden park benches for seats) to the Argentine side was packed. I quickly made friends with a foursome of Australians in the back who were the only other people on the bus planning to stay in Argentina. Our bus driver was a clever one: making jokes about the guys all getting off to do passport duty while he stayed on with "our" women. This joke was repeated no less than a dozen times as we made our way to the border.

When we did arrive at the border, he insisted we hand over or passports and he would handle the bureaucratic business that was about to ensue. The entire bus reluctantly handed over the official documents that would get us from country to country. An hour later, he returned with our passports and we all crossed without leaving the comfort of the vehicle. Bless him.

The falls on the Argentine side were a little more personable than they were on the Brazilian side. Trails took people down into the falls, to boats that took people deep into the falls, to food stands. I spent hours with the Australians, without them, exploring all this side had to offer (having money this time). The Australians were a funky bunch. When I did lose them, I took pictures and ate pizza. When I found them, I took pictures with them and listen to them praise the glory that is Australian pop culture. It was a full day - and a wet one; having initially taken a boat out under the falls, our clothes were soaked much of the rest of the day.

The bus driver asked where he could drop the five of us off on his way back to the Brazilian hostel. I offered that I wanted to be in the center of town - in the morning I needed to get to the airport to fly to Buenos Aires. The four Australians agreed and we were dropped in front of a hostel I found in my guide book. It was full. We slugged our bags up the street to a different hostel. It was full too. Two blocks over we found two more hostels that were full. We split up - me and one of the guys, the two gals and the other guy - and went looking for any available room as we cursed the weight of our backpacks. Everything was booked solid. This was one of those times I should have called ahead. The Australian and I found a hotel near the main road with an available double for around $80. We took it immediately, hoping the others had some luck. The hotel was luxury - at least compared to the kind of places I had been staying in.

We happily dropped our bags and went looking for the others. They had found a newly opened room for four in a hostel up the street. The Australian dude decided he wanted a bit of luxury and said he was going to stay in the hotel. After much needed showers and clean clothes, we all headed out in search of food. My first Argentine steak? No. My first Argentine glass of wine? Yes. We ordered large pizzas on the outdoor patio seating and listened to the traditional live band playing. My cohorts turned out to be much younger than I thought: 22. I turned out to be much older than they thought. But it didn't stop us from enjoying our first night in Argentina.

We attempted to do drinks afterwards at their hostel bar, but I couldn't keep my eyes open. The three hours of sleep from the previous night had caught up with me. And so, at 11pm, I excused myself and promised to meet up with them all in Buenos Aires - then headed back to the hotel. I was out immediately. In 12 hours I would be in Buenos Aires...

To see pics of my time at Iguazu, follow this link:

Meeting of the UN

OK, back to the four month trip through South America. Sorry for the month long delay.

At the border of Brazil and Argentina, after my long nap at the resort-like hostel, I decided to spend the remainder of the day checking out the Brazilian side of the falls at Iguazu. The people at the hostel's front desk pointed out a bus stop in front of the building where I could pick up transportation to the main road and to the bus going to the falls. The bus was two dollars. No mistakes this time.

When I arrived at the Brazilian side of the falls, I found a large complex with thousands of people roaming the grounds. I immediately went looking for the ATM the hostel employees told me would be here. There was one there. But it wouldn't accept my card. Brazil was really starting to annoy me. I had $10, enough to get me in to see the falls, but not enough to get me back to the hostel. What to do? Chance it.

After I paid my way in, I went looking for the buses to the falls. On board the only open seat was next to an Israeli named Yonatan, traveling through South America after fulfilling his conscription duties. He had found a map of the area and thus had me following him around the park the rest of the afternoon. The Brazilian side of the falls offers the "grand overview" (where the Argentine side allows you to see the falls up close). It didn't take very long to see everything there was to see. Thankfully because with the humidity here it felt like Savannah, GA, in June. Yonatan and I snapped pictures and dodged the throngs of tourists there. You know all the white trash that clutter most theme parks? That is not a U.S. phenomenon. Theme parks in Brazil bring the scaries out too.

The Falls were pretty amazing. And at one part of the trail, the path went right out over the water to get a close up view of one of the many falls. The water spray was a source of excitement and refreshment for everyone looking to cool down a bit. After taking it all in, Yonatan and I made our way back to the bus stop. The Israeli had flown in on his way to Rio and had a layover for a few hours - deciding to make the most of it by seeing the falls. I told him my predicament about no bus fare and he told me the airport had several ATMs. He gave me two dollars to get to the airport and there I found six ATMs, only one of which would accept my card. What is it with Brazilian ATMs?? With money to pay for the hostel and my fare back, I thanked Yonatan and went back to catch the bus.

It was 5pm when I arrived at the hostel. The "community" dinner I signed up for wouldn't be served until 8pm. So I hit the bar by the pool. Here I met everyone. It started with two French-Canadians. Then an Brit and his Venezuelan girlfriend (gf for the time they were at the hostel). Then a Mexican, followed by three guys from Norway juggling a soccer ball between themselves. It was that trio that started the World Cup game in the hostel's large, lighted soccer field. They recruited as many of us at the pool as they could. Soon 19 of us were walking out onto the field to start a game. After two people were deemed captains, players were picked from a line up. Amazingly I wasn't picked last. If only they knew how well I played.

The game was fun, fast paced, and exhausting. As the only U.S. citizen on the field, I wish I could say I represented us well. I wish I could say that I brought us honor and praise. I wish I could have run for longer than a few minutes at a time without falling back on defense to catch my breath. I gave it my all - about 20% of what everyone else seemed to have. And I played for a solid hour and a half. Then the teams started to fall apart (thankfully) and people left for dinner. Suddenly our team had three more layers than the other team and I used this as my excuse to sit out and watch. And hyperventilate.

I cheered from the sidelines - until two Australians walked into the game. Then I was suddenly needed again. I stood up, stretched, did a half turn, and walked to dinner. Go Team U.S.A.

That night went well beyond dinner as people ultimately shuffled back out to the pool bar. The soccer players were all there, as were several of the "fans". I found a table with some of the original peeps I met when I first came to the bar. We chatted for hours - A Portuguese guy, the two French Canadians, the Mexican, the Brit, and Japanese gal. Round after round of drinks arrived at our table seemingly without request. When I was sufficiently intoxicated, around 4am, someone reminded me that the tour of the Argentine side of the falls left at 8am. This meeting of world partners was done. It was time for 3 hours of sleep - packing would wait until the morning.

To see pics of my time at Iguazu, follow this link:

Monday, March 31, 2008

Making My Way Back To Spanish

Crossing back into the land of Spanish speakers required an all-night bus to the border of Brazil and Argentina. When I returned to Campo Grande after my four days in the Pantanal, I immediately trotted over to the office where I signed up for my tour. I was hoping to leave my pack there for an hour or so while I bought a bus ticket and checked my email. I looked through the glass door and saw the same girl who sold me the trek google chatting with friends. I asked her if I could leave my bag. She sighed and said the office closed an hour ago and she was just chatting with friends.

I mentioned the many power outages that happened back at the camp and said I wanted a $100 refund. That got her attention. I told her I was only kidding, but I don't think she fully believed me. Suddenly she was offering to escort me to a ticket counter and be my translator to buy my ticket to Iguazu - my next destination.

Once I had my ticket in hand, the tour gal asked if I wanted to get some dinner - her treat. I agreed to dinner, but knowing she was a single mom I said I would pay. She took me to a grill out in front of the bus station where a guy was cooking up strips of beef and chicken. Five bucks bought us a few strips of beef on sticks and a Fanta each. She asked if I wanted to stick around for the night and go out clubbing - saying she wanted to make up for the power outages by showing me a real Brazilian night out. My bus was leaving in 20 mins so I told her I would take a rain check. I was behind by several days and needed to get to Buenos Aires - so I gave her a hug and thanked her for the efforts. Twenty five minutes later I was onboard the bus, fully reclined, and watching Little Man in Portuguese.

When I woke up 7 hours later I was in a small city about an hour from Iguazu. The bus driver motioned (he only spoke Portuguese) that I was to get off here and wait two hours for a bus to Iguazu. First order of business? Find a bathroom and brush my teeth. I forgot I was still in Brazil as the area seemed a bit more upscale. When the Jehovah's Witnesses approached me and asked if I had found Jesus in Portuguese, I quickly remembered where I was. I watched the custodians sweep the same floor three times before, at 6am, I was on another bus to Iguazu.

I woke up about an hour later in Iguazu - on the Brazilian side. My guidebook suggested I take the city bus to the main bus terminal in the center of town. That would cost a dollar where a cab would cost around $10. I was all for saving money. Except I had no idea how the buses worked. I paid my fare when I boarded but got into an argument 10 minutes later when the fare collector suggested I go past his gate and sit down and then asked for the fare again. Not knowing any Portuguese, and he, not knowing any Spanish or English, we argued in our separate languages for a few minutes until he got frustrated and just ignored me. And then I pleaded in broken Spanish that he let me know when we hit the bus station. He chuckled and ignored me again. Fortunately bus stations are pretty obvious. Unfortunately my bag was still sitting at his feet.

After pleading with the fare guy for several minutes he tossed my bag out of the bus. I gathered it and went looking for a cab. I found the cab from "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air". Seriously, it had dice in the mirror. If anything, I would say this cab was rare, but I thought nothing of it and said "yo home to....um, my hostel".

He wanted to practice his Spanish and English. I tried. It was good to hear Spanish again. Despite what he told me, his Spanish was really good. I couldn't keep up. And so I told him for the rest of the cab ride I would teach him English.

I arrived at my hostel a few minutes later. It was a resort. There was a pool with a full bar. Ping pong and fooseball tables. A garden with hammocks and lawn chairs. And a soccer field and basket ball court with lighting. To bring me back in they showed me to my dorm bed. I dropped my stuff, took a shower, signed up for a tour of the falls and took a long nap. A looong nap.

There was still much to be done that day....

To see pics of my time at Iguazu, follow this link:

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Quiet Time in the Pantanal

My time on the farm in the Pantanal was a bit lonely. After the first night with the Australians, Germans, and Mario, the traveling hippie Brazilian, I was the sole guest at the farm. When I woke up on the first morning I was told the Australians had already left. Mario and the Germans were going on a horse ride before their departure at 11am. Since the horse ride was the only activity that morning I joined them.

I've only ridden a horse once before - when I was 14. I wasn't exactly thrilled with jumping on one that morning but what else was I going to do? Fortunately it was a small horse and seemingly calm. As we rode into the tall grass my horse was determined to stay behind the other horses. I would tap him occasionally to get him to catch up with the others, which he did, only to fall behind again a few minutes later. It wasn't until an hour later, when we were out of the tall grass and on a dirt path, that he decided we wanted to lead the pack.

Along with the Germans there were two girls from Smith College in Massachusetts, both clearly had experience with horses. As we hit the dirt trail they broke into a gallop ahead of the rest of us. It was at this point that my horse decided to test my meddle. He (maybe she?) broke into a quick gallop after the two horses the Americans were riding, with me holding on with all the energy I could muster at nine in the morning. It was thrilling - considering the one time I had ridden a horse before I did nothing more than walk it a few paces. It was also very scary. I had no idea how to get him to slow down. I pulled back on the reigns and that slowed him down a bit. But as soon as I released them he galloped off again after the two lead horses, with me bouncing hard on the saddle. I regretted wearing the thin pants I had put on that morning instead of my jeans (variety in travel attire is over-rated). He kept me in the lead for the rest of our ride, never letting another horse pass without a race ensuing.

When we returned to the farm - and my feet to solid ground - I headed to the shower, gingerly washing my newly chafed legs. The Germans, Mario, and the Smith girls hopped into the big truck to head back to the bus stop. Suddenly it was just me as the sole guest on the farm. I talked to the guide about what activities he had planned for the next three days and also asked if any other guests were coming. A few might be coming in tomorrow, he said.

They never came. For the next three days it was just me on the farm. The family (owners) didn't speak English, and only a little Spanish, so they pretty much left me alone, having nothing to say to me. The cook would ask me questions as she served me my meals. But I had no idea what she was saying and would just smile and nod or shrug my shoulders and mutter something in Spanish. I looked forward to each day's activities just so I could converse with someone; even if guide's English left much to be desired, it was better than not talking at all. That afternoon after everyone left I hung out in the hammocks until the guide took me out to the river for my first solo activity: piranha fishing.

I was really excited about this; the one thing I wanted to do in the Pantanal was catch a piranha. Even when I turned to find my guide shoulder deep in the same river we were going to fish for the piranhas, my excitement only paused for a minute. When he assured me the piranhas would only bite if I was bleeding, I reluctantly and cautiously made my way towards the center of the river. I caught six piranhas - two of which my guide deemed large enough to keep for dinner that night. The other four he took off my hook (I refused to put my fingers anywhere near them) and casually tossed them in the water in front of me. I cringed each time he did this, waiting for a now agitated monster fish to start gnawing at my mid section.

My piranha dinner that night - two fried fish and a soup - didn't quite live up to the hype. But it was a welcome change to the constant rice and beans. After dinner I played a quiet game of ping pong with the owner's son - neither of us able to say anything to the other. And then to bed early.

The next day it was pouring when I woke up. But that didn't keep my guide from taking me on my morning's activity: a walk into the jungle. With the rain we didn't see much. There were a few monkeys and raccoon-like animals. But mostly I swatted at the ridiculous number of mosquitoes and tried to keep my camera dry. It was cool to watch my jungle guide swinging his machete back and forth at branches and low hanging vines.

For the rest of the time on the farm I did a small boat ride down the river, looking for more animals and then a "safari" ride at dawn down a dirt road. The upside is this time I was able to take pictures of all the animals I saw during my trip to Costa Rica a few years ago, when my camera broke and had to rely on my friends photos. But it was mostly just a chance for me to relax for a few days on a farm in Brazil - something to do as I crossed from Bolivia to Argentina. It wasn't until about an hour before I was to leave that the guide and his English speaking wife sat down with me and chatted me up; my first full conversation since I had been in Brazil.

That afternoon of my fourth day on the farm I was driven back to the mosquito-infested bus stop, on the way passing a truck full of guests on their way to the farm. All of them were apparently from Australia and England - and didn't speak a word of Portuguese.

To see pics of my time in Brazil, follow this link:

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Figuring Out How Things Work (in English)

I was feeling a little lost when I arrived at the farm in the middle of the Pantanal. So far I wasn't hearing much English, and very little Spanish either. Granted I was in a Portuguese speaking country, but I had hoped some one would speak some English. And then I met Mario. Mario was in my dorm room when I walked in to drop off my bag. He introduced himself right away in perfect English and I knew we would be great friends. Turns out he was a Brazilian on a quest to see as much of his country as possible. A bit of an aged hippie, Mario was traveling with a German family who, I believe, was footing the bill.

But he was a very nice guy, offering to give me a quick tour of the place (in English) and how everything worked. The place was set up for travelers - it had several dorm rooms, a fairly large dining hall/lounge with a bar(ish), a rec room, and a pool. But it was empty. As Mario informed me, all the guests were out doing activities with the two (English speaking) guides. English speaking guides? Awesome.

He suggested we grab two beers from the bar and hangout by the hammocks. I thought that was a fine idea. And so there is where I was filled in on what I could expect here at the farm. Meals were included as part of the package, but drinks were not. Beads were offered for "purchasing" drinks other than tea and water. I was handed a bead necklace worth about $40 and immediately took off the appropriate number of beads to buy a grande beer. At the end of my stay I turned in what was remaining of my beads to see what I owed in cash. I went through two necklaces.

Mario told me the main guide was another Brazilian who spoke OK English and his wife, who was from Australia, spoke much better English but wasn't as knowledgeable. The main guide took the guests out twice a day to do various activities. If there were several people at the farm, like there were that day, his wife would take another group on a different activity.

As he was explaining all this the two groups returned; the German family from a horse ride and the large group of young Australians from a piranha fishing trip. I was excited to see so many people there that could speak English, and when dinner was served I made a point of talking to as many of the Australians as possible. As the night rolled on I generally became a part of the Australian group - a group of about fourteen kids between the ages of nineteen and twenty eight who had signed up for a six week tour of South America. They were staying in each country for about a week. *whew* Tomorrow was their final day in the Pantanal before leaving for Rio. We downed CaprihiƱas and chatted until their overland guide informed them they would be waking at 6am for a horse ride before leaving for Rio at 9am. And that killed the party.

I finished my night out amongst the hammocks with Mario and his German friends. They had obtained one of the farm's guitars and a music book and were singing songs ranging from "Imagine" to "The Girl From Impanema". The main guide was with them and this is where I found out what I would be doing the next day: a horse ride into the tall grassfields at 9am. Everyone else would be leaving before lunch, leaving me as the sole guest on the farm. Fortunately I now knew how everything worked. No English required.

To see pics of my time in Brazil, follow this link:

Okay, Who's Taking Me Where? - Going to the Pantanal

I had set my watch alarm for 7am on Sunday morning so I could pack up my bags and get to the trekker's office by 8. It seemed that each week my bag managed to get bigger even tough I was constantly throwing stuff out. Instead of checking out immediately, I left my bag behind in the room and walked across the street to the bus station where the trekking office was. Still closed. Friggin' Latino time.

The manager I met the night before in the cyber cafe eventually came jogging around the corner towards me. There was a change of plans. I seemed like a nice guy who was looking for something special, he said. He informed me that the tour was still on for that day if I wanted to go. But I would be staying at a farm he has recently decided to stop using for his customers because of the eco damage they do. Also, the group going was 16 people big and a "party group" that just got in that morning. Again, if this was my bag, I could get on the bus at 10am.

But he felt I wanted something a little more relaxed, a bit more focused. He offered to take me to another, rival company in the bus station that used a different farm - one that he wanted to start using in the future. He had spent some time in the U.S. and had a special love for the people from there. And he wanted to make sure I would be happy with my trip. Even if it meant handing me off to another company.

I didn't know what to make of the situation so I just agreed to meet with the other company. Apparently the rival company didn't know what to make of the situation either. They looked a bit skeptical when he ushered me into their office and explained what he was doing. They thanked him, as did I, as he turned to go - and he said, again, he wanted to make sure I was happy with my experience and that he just didn't think his trip was going to be perfect enough. Not now. Okay.

So I talked with the woman in the new office. She was still a little weirded out by this rival company bringing her business and said so. But she set up a trip for me at the same cost. After explaining the difference between the two farms I did feel better about where I was going. And so I paid her and she walked me upstairs to buy the bus tickets. Seems I would be taking a regular bus out into the Pantanal and someone would pick me up at a stop and drive me the rest of the way in. Whatever.

This bus didn't leave until 1pm so I had the rest of the morning to kill. I went back to check out of my hostel and brought my bag back to the new company's office. With four hours to go, I decided to walk to the city center and see what else Campo Grande had to offer. If was like any mid-sized city. But most everything was closed this time on a Sunday morning. So I just strolled. I checked out the parks & plazas. I also tried to use an ATM other than the one by the bus station that was charging me $4 fees with each pop, with no luck. Seemed no bank ATM would accept my card. I noticed a McDonalds and was surprised to see that, unlike every other city I had been in, this McDonalds was completely empty. But one street up I found where all the city's inhabitants go on Sunday morning: a huge indoor market full of vendors. I killed an hour and a half checking out the various stalls and what they had to offer; smiling and saying non each time someone said something to me in Portuguese.

At 12:30 I was back at the bus station collecting my bags and being shoved towards the buses by the woman who sold me my trip. Apparently buses in Brazil leave on time here. Another thing about the buses here: they were immaculate, with large reclining seats. I was going to enjoy this four hour ride. I turned my iPod on and wrote in my journal until I nodded off for the last three hours.

I woke a few minutes before the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere and the driver came back and shouted at me that we were at my stop. Glad some one knew. I grabbed my bag and hurried off. It was drizzling. And I really was in the middle of nowhere. There were two small shacks with wall to wall screening. I lugged my pack up to a porch and waited for my ride. Then I realized why the shacks were lined with screening: mosquitoes covered me. As I smacked them away, I dug around in my pack for my DEET. I poured it over every inch of exposed skin. It helped a little. I wondered how long it was going to take for my ride to arrive.

A truck pulled up 15 minutes and 150 bites later. I ran towards it and threw my bag (and the 50 mosquitoes still attached to it) into the back seat before jumping in myself. There was a man of about 40 with his two young daughters up front. He said something in Portuguese, I shrugged my shoulders. He said what I think was the name of the farm, I said "sim" (the third word I learned in Portuguese). He said something else and off we went; the four of us smacking different areas of the cab killing each of the mosquitoes I let in.

The trip to the farm was down a very bumpy dirt road. It took an hour to get there and on the way I learned the man spoke a little Spanish. I tried to start a conversation in Spanish but it didn't go very far. Mostly we just rode in silence.

When we arrived, the older of the little girls showed me towards the main building. I met the man's wife and fortunately she spoke a bit more Spanish. At least enough to tell me where I was sleeping and how to ask for a beer. I dropped of my bags and asked for that beer and met one of the guests at the farm: Mario - a Brazilian who spoke fluent English. Mario would be my savior for the rest of the evening.

To see pics of my time in Brazil, follow this link:

This Is Harder Than I Thought - Entering Brazil

Brazil is a huge country; about the size of the U.S. To try and see it all in a couple of weeks is ridiculous. So I decided to save Brazil for another time - when it could be a trip in itself. But I needed to get from Bolivia to Argentina, and going through Brazil's Pantanal - the large grassy wetlands teaming with wildlife in the country's south - to get there seemed to be the easiest route. Besides, it would give me the opportunity to go fishing for piranha. And who would pass that up?

Going through customs at Campo Grande's airport in Brazil reminded me that I was entering the only country of my trip where Spanish was not the first language. I tried using some Spanish with the guy going through my bag. He replied in Portuguese and then in English that I was in Brazil now and people wouldn't understand Spanish.

Maybe if I slurred it a bit?

I tried that approach with the taxi waiting just outside the airport. He just stared at me. I pointed to the hostel listing in my good book. He nodded and started driving. The ride was quiet - clearly he didn't speak English either. When we arrived at the hostel I was thankful there was a meter in the car. I fished through my pockets for a few of the Brazilian Reals I had just withdrawn from the ATM in the airport and thanked the driver with a "gracias". He tapped my arm and said "obrigado".

Now I knew two words in Portuguese.

Fortunately the young guy behind the desk in the hostel spoke fluent English (and Spanish) and directed me to a private room with its own bathroom. I was exhausted. I needed to set up a tour into the Pantanal - the main reason I was in Brazil - but first I needed a nap.

When I woke up three hours later I took a shower (showerhead just to the left of my toilet - no curtain) and decided to search for something to eat before looking for my tour. I had sent an email to a trekking outfit that was supposedly located in the bus station across the street. So I popped into a diner next to the station. I just pointed to what I wanted and also said the word Fanta. The food I had here pretty much set the bar for all the food I had in Brazil. It was terrible. Now don't get me wrong. I'm sure Brazilian food in general is delicious. Just not in the Pantanal. No matter where I went in the Pantanal the food was awful. But it filled me up. And so, after finishing my reheated whatever they were, and watching a dubbed Britney Spears movie on the TV everyone's eyes were fixed on, I went looking for the trekking company in the bus station. It was closed. With no hours posted.

There is nothing to do in Campo Grande. At least not where I was staying in Campo Grande. It's not really known as a tourist destination. Just a city where one can find tours into the Pantanal. Seemed like the perfect time to catch up on blog stories. I bought a Fanta and a candy bar (the best thing I had to eat in Brazil) and hit the cyber cafe by the hostel. First I sent an email to the closed trekking company saying I was in town and hoping to do a four day tour soon. Then I worked on uploading pics and blog stories for the next several hours.

In that time I got an email back from the trekking company asking where I was staying and that they could get me a tour for the next day. I offered that I was at a cyber cafe next to my hostel. An hour later a man walked into the cyber cafe and asked if I was Dan. He explained he was the manager of the trekking company and had been at the hospital all day with his mother in law. He asked that I meet him the next morning at 8am to get everything worked out and that I could be on a bus by 10am. I said obrigado and finished up my blogs entries. It was 10pm and with nothing to do I decided to get some sleep. The next day I would be hitting the Pantanal.

To see pics of my time in Brazil, follow this link:

Monday, March 17, 2008

Last Chance Bolivia

On my last day in Bolivia I mingled with the rich, the foreign, the exotic. What better way to spend my last day in the South American continent's poorest country? After one last family meal with my coworker's cousin's family - with more delicious food on sushi place mats - I headed out to the Guembe Orchid and Butterfly Bio-Center, a resort like private park that houses (supposedly) the world's largest butterfly farm as well as several pools. The cousin told me about the butterfly farm on my first day as a suggestion for something to do. And, when I didn't bite, mentioned all the pools there. Jackpot.

The private park seemed to be a destination for the rich; the $10 entrance fee being steep enough to keep most locals out. But it was set up as a reserve to preserve the flora and fauna of the region. Although most of the locals can't afford to come in, they are offered jobs within the park - the park claiming this as one of the ways they give back to the community. Whatever the goal of the park, it provided me with something to do for my last day. We walked to the butterfly farm. Interesting enough. And yes, quite big. After chasing around a large, bright blue butterfly for 15 minutes trying to get a decent picture, we gave up and headed for the pools. The pools were what I had been dreaming about since I arrived in Santa Cruz: a shelter from the heat of the tropics. When we arrived at the pools we found a bar. That was the other part of my dreams and I lived those dreams when I ordered a rum & coke and then dove into the pool.

We killed several hours at the multiple level pools; gliding down the water slides, making trips to the bar, and avoiding the never ending gathering of bees around the edges of the pools. It was the first time I felt completely comfortable in Santa Cruz. All it took was a pool of cool water. The pools weren't terribly crowded. But the people sun bathing beside them and wading within them were certainly better off than the most of the city's inhabitants. Most a good deal whiter too. I heard several languages being spoken, most notably Germanic and French. We largely ignored our pool mates and enjoyed the empty spaces available.

My flight to Brazil didn't leave Santa Cruz until 4am, leaving plenty of time for a big dinner. And so we headed to one of Santa Cruz's premier places for Bolivian and Argentine beef & wine, as well as live traditional music and dancing performances: La Casa del Camba. I ordered the biggest cut of steak available. And I even tried the cow tongue dish my host ordered. The dancing was another Bolivian experience my coworker's cousin was eager for me to see and it was entertaining. Right up until the clouds opened up and rain swamped the open-air seating that was the majority of the restaurant. We quickly moved to a table under shelter and finished our meal with a torta tres leches. Then I noticed patrons could sign the wall of the restaurant. Signatures went back years. The servers couldn't produce a pen (I think the tradition is no longer encouraged) so we found our own and I signed the wall with a shout out to "autonomia", lest I have the cambas thinking I wasn't down with their cause.

Dinner ended late, with just enough time to go back to my hotel, pack up, and hunt down a taxi. The ride to the airport included windows down to keep the sweating at bay. There was a long line to the counter of my airline and it was here, while waiting patiently, I discovered my xerox of my now missing yellow fever card was not sufficient to get me onto the plane to cross the border. One of the requirements to enter Brazil, aside from a visa, is an official yellow card stamped to prove one has had the yellow fever vaccine. I was told to find the airline manager on duty to argue my case - the attendant manning the line was not going to let me through without the original card. The manager wasn't budging on the rules. Brazil would not let me into the country without it, and thus they would not let me on the plane without it. I had torn my bag apart earlier looking for it - now knowing it was not in there. My only option was to reschedule my ticket and apply for a new card. Defeated, I looked in my smaller bag for my spanish phrase book. I was looking for a phrase to convey the helplessness I felt. And there, on page 65, I found my yellow card.

An hour later I was on my flight bound for Campo Grande, Brazil. I slept the entire way, the air vent aimed directly at my chest. When we arrived in Brazil two and a half hours later, the third of the passengers not continuing on to Sao Paulo deboarded and headed into customs. I had no idea what the women in customs asked me. And when I asked her, in Spanish, to repeat what she said, she responded in English by asking if I knew any Portuguese. I did not.

And thus began my adventure into a country where the only word I knew was "non".

For pics of my time in Santa Cruz, follow the link below:

What Is There To Do in Santa Cruz?

I ended up spending about three days in Santa Cruz before heading off to Brazil; mainly because I discovered the train was always full (I couldn't buy a ticket in advance) and I had no desire to spend 26 hours on another bumpy bus for $65. So I was looking for other ways to get to Campo Grande, Brazil. I checked with a few travel agencies and discovered there were flights but nothing under $175 - and that was if I bought a round trip ticket with a fee for not returning.

And so I debated what to do. My coworker's cousin offered lunches at her grandmother's house while I was in town. Having had brilliant luck with family-oriented lunches to this point in Bolivia, I happily accepted the invitation. For the next two days I cabbed out to the neighborhood where the family lived where I was presented with multiple course meals - all traditional and delicious. It was odd to see these traditional Bolivian meals served on place mats with sushi prints. Especially with full Spanish conversations going on. But I paid little attention and dug in.

My second afternoon in Santa Cruz I walked around the city to see what there was. The people of the city think themselves more Brazilian than Bolivian; especially with Evo Morales as their new president. There is a lot of resentment against him and the city of La Paz. So much so, I was told, that it is not uncommon for fights to break out between locals and people visiting from La Paz. Just hearing the difference in accents is enough to set some people off. Being no fan of Evo's after having to buy a visa to get in to Bolivia, I was ready to declare my allegiance to the residents adorning themselves with "autonomia" stickers and badges. Santa Cruz is trying, unsuccessfully so far, to win autonomy from La Paz. And hey, if that makes them happy - I'm behind them. Just don't hurt me.

The city's main plaza is in its historic center. Colonial buildings occupied each street and I enjoyed taking it all in - buying water from the people selling bottles from coolers on the corners (two extra Bolivianos for bottles from the cooler!). I ducked inside one of the food markets and found several stands selling the cold fresh fruit drinks with milk at less than 50¢ for a small pitcher. I ordered two - one made from fresh peaches and one from strawberries. The sweating stopped. Until I walked back outside.

Before it got dark I decided I should get back to the travel agency and buy that plane ticket. It occurred to me that I could pay cash for the ticket and they would have no way of tracking me down if I didn't do the return flight. And so I reserved the flight to Brazil for 4am the following night. I made the false reservation to fly back four days later and walked out with my tickets and my receipt for the cash purchase - how brilliant am I?

That night I met the cousin of my coworker's cousin at a bar just down the street from the main plaza. The walk there was enough to have me soaked by the time I arrived, and it took three beers just to cool me down again. That's when everyone decided to call it a night. And so I sweated back to my hotel again where I tried to cool down again under my over-head fan. Tomorrow there were promises of pools...

To see pics from my time in Santa Cruz, follow this link: