Saturday, September 10, 2011

Heading to Brazil: 8/24 - Wednesday
Our vacation starts a little tenuously as I am working until the last minute, the taxi is 25 minutes late, Saritha is upset since I renege on my promise to make dinner at home and of course the plane is delayed by almost an hour making our connection in Charlotte very tight. I am trying to take a philosophical view que sera sera, so no point in worrying...and doing a reasonable job at it. We get to Charlotte 30 minutes ahead of our Rio connection and hustle to the gate to be told the plane has been delayed by an hour. Having been in the customer service business for a while now and particularly in a role that helps companies fashion their customer service solutions, I must admit I am now convinced that airlines have no motivation to provide any customer service given it is such a commodity product that consumers are purely driven by price to make a similar to Walmart, what if I don’t smile, tell you to go fly a kite while your plane is delayed, cancelled or something in between as long as it is the cheapest to your destination....people will still buy! So the point of the short rant is that US Airways does not apologize for the delay nor do they attempt to make it up in say a free cocktail, we are in the air about 90 minutes after. Not to help matters Hurricane Irene is in our way and so they have to fly around it costing another hour resulting in our vacation starting many hours later....but still we are in Rio and Copacabana beckons :~).
Rio de Janeiro (pics): 8/25 - Thursday
We land about 3 hours after schedule but immigration, baggage claim and customs is a breeze and our guide is front and center to receive us and begin our tour. Rio International is a cosy airport outside Rio on  Governador Island. We are on Atlantic time so not much of change in time from eastern for us. We drive in to town towards Santa Teresa, an old neighborhood that can be accessed by tram car built in the late 1800's. Our driver/guide Marcello is very enthusiastic about his city and eloquently speaks in his heavy Portuguese laced accent. He is sharing the food, culture and customs of Brazil at length and what brings to my mind is that as we travel around the world and experience the different cultures...the more assumed differences the more alike everything really is. Downtown Rio has wide streets and a generally easy mood about it. It is a real melting pot with different colors, sizes and looks of people....I could not describe a typical Brazilian...except that they are friendly (little early to say given this is about 4 hours in to the country....but I am encouraged). I am of course very interested in what they drink and Marcello says amongst other things Caipirinha is popular drink that is sort of the Brazilian version of a Rum cocktail. Apparently Gringo's who drink 1 of them is relaxed; 2 of them makes them dance Samba and well the 3rd one gets them to speak Portuguese fluently. Marcelo tells us that much of the houses we see dotting hill sides are called Favela (shanty towns) inhabited by poor people, but what is interesting is that the government has a program that has these areas embedded by cops so as to keep it safe from the drug dealers and apparently it is working. We park in a secure location given we have our bags with us still and then start trudging towards the tram station where we find that due to repairs that tram station is closed and so we have to head to the next train station. Marcello is not built to walk and so it is funny to see him drag himself along but still with a good attitude. We pass through an area called Lapa by the 18th century aqua duct. Lapa apparently is a hub of night activity and is now on our agenda to visit though unlikely given bed time is before 10pm these days. We get to the tram walking through the foot of Santa Teresa. It is an open tram with kids hanging out on the handle bars and having a good time. The tram travels up the hill at no more than 10 miles per hour giving us views of real life in Rio, the 17th century homes who are well preserved given the government rebates on taxes for those who do. Shops and restaurants are quaint with tiled facades. The total round trip is no more than 45 minutes and is very interesting and away from tourist beaten path and worth the R0.60 to travel through the past. We stop at a local lunch place that is frequented by the office working class in downtown Rio. I understand this typical lunch fare with a menu buffet of salads, rice, beans and various meats (grilled, curried and fried). I get my 1st Brazilian beer: BRAHMA (The irony is not lost me that one of Brazil's most popular bears is named after the Creator in Hinduism's trinity) and the food is good. We are driven to our hotel that is opposite the famous Copacabana beach with a room that faces the is good.
cambio, I had no local Real....& so we asked our guide to pick up the lunch tab and that we would pay him back. So when I am ready to pay him back, we ask him how much and true to character he had included his tab + makes me wonder if he thinks he could get rich by ripping us of by a few bucks. Invariably guides worldover have this poor ethic and it is sad.
We then wander on Copacabana beach and I can not get Barry Manilow out of my head as we take in the sights and while they are not what one sees on Brazilian beaches on TV, it does offer its fair share of dental floss bikinis, 6 pack young bucks playing foot-volley ball and the regular vendors of all things unnecessary. We head to the Copacabana Palace where celebrities and world leaders tend to stay though not our President Obama given there is a JW Marriott down the road. The hotel was the 1st 5star built on the beach and looks distinguished, though unfortunately we could not get to experience high tea there as the only seating available was facing the pool and we wanted the beach...oh well we will try tomorrow if time permits. Dinner is at a Churascaria and it is very different from what we experience in the US....perhaps this restaurant can take a page from fogo de chão....not impressed with it. A Samba show is next hosted by the Platforma group and while we are waiting the performers with incredible long legs are busy being photographed with the audience....mostly asians and I am blissfully passing comments about certain Japanese men only to have our neighbour correct me that they were Vietnamese.....boy was I embarrassed for being caught making derogatory comments but also to get the wrong nationality! Saritha thankfully gets in the middle and recounts for this group her stay in Vietnam a couple of years ago on work and how wonderful it was working with the world bank since this group is on a World Bank anycase the show we find is generally entertaining. The costumes, the music and the general cheer of the performers is pleasantly infectious. I can only imagine how the Carnival must be. Its been a long day and tomorrow may be longer.
As we drive back to the hotel it strikes me that Brazil is quite is Russia, India and China (though not as expensive). BRIC nations that are supposedly the next set of super powers of whatever it will be defined in the future all suffer from severe inflation, despite their government figures....the gap between the haves and have nots continues to increase, while there is national pride there is also significant frustration amongst the people I have spoken to in all these countries. There governments are corrupt, there is significant trust deficit amongst the people and the vision of the future does not exist. While it has become fashionable to talk about the end of America, my view is that it is not anywhere close to that, but more that other countries are improving. But for any of them to overtake America with their constraints is at best a pipe dream...& I say this wishing them all the best as we continue to partner to a better world.

I rise early to catch the rising sun on the Atlantic outside our window...always magnificent watching the sun come up...what could go wrong! Breakfast overlooking the Copacabana and Atlantic before we catch our day tour of the city. The city tour begins and we quickly learn that their is not a whole lot to see except may be 3 spots including the Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado. On the way to the 1st stop we pass by the Fogabato stadium that has a lovely club house but our guide is more focused on the Maracanã the soccer ....I mean football stadium that used to hold 200,000 people before FIFA got involved and spewed stuff like security etc that had them reduce capacity to 86,000 spectators. Along the way there is a lot of viewing of the Favelas'. We head towards the Sambodrome that is used during the Carnival for Samba schools to parade competitively. It is drizzling at this time and I am beginning to wonder how the day would turn despite the wonderful sun rise viewing but before long the showers pass and the day looks gorgeous as we get on the cable car to Orca, a stop with views before we get to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain. It is a deluge of photographs as we allow the wonderful panoramic views of Rio to sink in while capturing them for posterity. Particularly striking are the Christ on Corcovado that I capture with my zoom and is good under the sun shine and views to cherish. Saritha ofcourse catches a jewellery store ....whats with you ladies and jewellers even when the sights of the world beckon! Next stop is lunch and its Brazil and so its a Churascaria (Carteria) that serves some seriously deliciously Chicken, CherizoCorcovoda mountain in the Tijuca national park. I have been grabbing pictures of Christ from all over the city and is a sight I have been looking forward to for a long time. We drive through Ipanema which seems to have all the action this afternoon....hmmmm Christ or the beach? Saritha mentions something about a number called "Girl from Ipanema" which is apparently very famous that I obviously never heard. We get to the foot of Corcovado where we have to catch a tram to the top of the mountain that is a 20min ride. I am holding the breath as I did waiting to see the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the other wonders. About 3rd of the way I feel a fog passing over us and I wait for the tram to climb through it.....but 5 more minutes and the tram jerks to a stop and we are still in the fog and the temperature has dropped to about 55F and a wind has picked up and I am beginning to form that sweat one gets as they are scared.....I am scared that the view to the statue would not be clear afterall. We catch the elevators for another 50 meters to the back of the statue and as the elevators open one typically can site the Christ.....but all we see is just fog to the tip of my fingers and beyond...NOOOO. This can not be happening!!! Well I understand you can't curse in the presence of holy but that does not matter, this is not good. We take an escalator to the last 20 meters to the statue and on the last rung miraculously the fog lifts for enough time for me to catch the back of the redeemer. As we turn the corner the fog is back and for the next couple of minutes the fog plays peekaboo with us. I capture a couple of clear shots of the statue before the fog is back on. The tourists with us hoop and holler at every possible chance of the fog lifting. I do not move from my spot for the next 15 minutes praying and hoping and wishing that the fog such luck but do manage a couple of spooky pictures (check these out) of the statue. The ride down is crowded, raining, cold and just overall not fun but still some satisfaction that we got to see the redeemer even briefly. Back on the hotel's rooftop lounge we down a couple of Caipirinhas before heading out to dinner. We find another buffet restaurant that has a decent fare and so a simple meal and we call it a night.

Iguazu in Brazil (pics): 8/27 - Saturday
We get a ride to the airport early for a 10am plane to Foz De Iguazu (Iguazu Falls) on TAM. TAM now officially is my favorite airline and here is why...plenty of leg room, they serve a snack on a 30min plane ride, serve beer for free and the flight attendants are well put is amazing how they can do this while United, US, Delta charge you for every thing and  yet deliver the worst quality of service; surely a case study. We arrive on schedule and George (of the jungle) receives us and drives us straight to the falls on the Brazilian side. Some facts; Iguazu Falls are the widest falls in the world and are made up of 275 cascades over 2 miles on the Iguazu river and falls 70-90meters at the rate of 1.7millions of gallons/second that flows east to west from close to the Atlantic and becomes the river Parana in Argentina. The perfect falls would likely be the width of Iguazu, the height of Victoria and the volume of Niagara (some 7Million gallons/sec). At Iguazu we are at the confluence of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay but folks here like to think of them more as part of the native Guarani nation rather. We walk opposite the falls which is in Argentina and find some extraordinary views, amazing how a calmly flowing river can fall and cause the force of sound and flow of these falls. I find it hard to describe the beauty and power we are able to experience as we trek through the trail without being too verbose, but suffice to say that the views are something worth cherishing. The piece the resistance is the Garganta del Diablo or the Devil's Throat. This falls is one where 14 different falls combine together to drop some 90 meters causing a crescendo of sound, rainbows and a spray that probably goes up in the air about 100 meters. The Brazilians have done an excellent job of building exquisite vista points for the best viewing and securing them as well. We walk along a catwalk to within 50 meters of the Devil's Throat and are completely drenched and then are also afforded another view with in a meter where the river actually can not get any closer to the falls without actually being in it. The water is brown and the reason I read is because of deforestation in the catchment area which has loosened the soil and so come rainy season or floods, it drags it all with it. Though there is a dam that helps with sedimentation upstream it seems to not have done much. Not only do the falls looks dirty but more importantly it is the making of an ecological disaster as the fishes can not see which way to swim or can not court each other to procreate causing a lot of loss in marine life amongst others. The temperature is in the high 80's towards the end of winter here in the southern hemisphere but obviously the temperature is not considering this and certainly helps us dry up quickly. We drive to our resort hotel which has some very interesting grounds including a little zoo with Peacocks, Ostrich, Tortoise, Parakeets and Toucans and Parrots and all kinds of other birds. A little more of a walk and we get to their garden that has all sorts of  vegetables and fruits. We see oranges, bananas, guava's, lemons, rosemary, mint, squash, jack fruit and more and it is all lush and beautiful...we are told the kitchens in the hotel use this produce in their cooking. We lounge in the pool area with what has now become Saritha's favorite drink...the quintessential Brazilian Caipirinha (1part Cachaca...a sugarcane based rum and lots of lemon juice and ice) and beers, the Italian restaurant serves us pasta and pizza with more drinks and life is still good!!!

Today we plan to drive across the border to Argentina and pretend like Jesus and walk on the water. George is on schedule and we are joined by 2 Brazilian couples, with a 3month old baby and 3 year old daughter...extraordinary courage to do this. In any case these perfect strangers through the day teach me multiple lessons of true kindness...I am liking Brazilians more and more....not just for the long legs but because of their character. Crossing the border is easy given there is not much traffic and the relationship between Argentina and Brazil is friendly. George very kindly fills all the forms and gets our passports stamped. We stop on the bridge that connects the 2 nations called Tancredo Neves bridge and halfway through the dark green/yellow of Brazil is replaced with the light Blue and White on the bridge walls. Also from here about a mile and half away we are shown the Paraguayan territory. We enter the park and start our trek through the 2 trails...the lower and the upper. My opinion of the views from the Argentina side is more about checking a box of having been there and seen that, given the grand view of the falls are frontal not so much from the side or on top as it is here in Argentina. We do catch a lot of fauna on this side from ....looking for food, to birds of all colors including a Toucan, butterflies and more. Saritha is loving getting sprayed on by the falls and so that is a highlight for her. After the trek we catch a train to get to the very end where there is another half mile trek to the Devils Throat....however due to the floods of 2 weeks ago the bridge to the last 75 Meters has been washed away as have been a couple of other bridges in that area, one in 82 and another in 96....I think we should split before we get caught in it! The temperature is hovering in the high 80's and I am getting a bit of a heat stroke at this time but come lunch time, I keep my brains aside and get a large Cerveza Quilmes with our barbecue lunch that guarantees my heat stroke to get worse. Our Brazilian partners bid farewell at the duty free on the border which is their highlight, especially for the fashionista in that group who shops in Milan, Rome and New York...she wore 2 inch heels through our trek in the morning and not once missed a step...kindness and fashion in 1 pack like Lady Di (RIP).
When we get back to our resort I try to sleep of my giant headache from the heat stroke. 3 hours of shut eye and hot shower and I am ready to par...teyyyy...yeah not really, just a couple of drinks in the lobby restaurant and a sandwich while I update this blog and chat with Saritha. We should be heading up since our plane to the Amazon is at 6am tomorrow, which means waking up at 4am.....& I thought this was a vacation.

Awake at 3.30am but at least I don't have to work this Monday.....George is on schedule again to give us a ride to the airport. George apparently was kidnapped a while ago by the cartel as a result of missing identity...or so he claims, good guy with an interesting story. We are heading to Manaus in Amazonia via Sao Paolo which I am to understand is the 3rd largest city by population at 17million only being surpassed by Mexico City and Tokyo. The ride from Igauzu to Sao Paolo is uneventful in that TAM has been on schedule so far and I am continuing to love TAM as they put us on an Airbus 320 for the 3.5 hour flight with leg room to dance, food and beer, individual TV screens and wonderfully friendly flight attendants (Talking to you United!). When we get to Manaus the gateway to the Amazon, I notice my bag has a meter long rip and that can not be good given we are heading in to the Amazon. We are received by our guide in Manaus who is totally lost and after some fuss about some other tourists who don't arrive we are driven to Tropical Manaus, one of the finest establishments in town we are told and we will be staying a night on our way out of the region, but today we are headed to the middle of the Amazon to experience the rain forest in the jungle lodge there.  While we are waiting for our boat to take us 90 minutes on the Amazon we entertain ourselves to the zoo at the hotel....apparently mini zoo's are the in thing with large hotels in Brazil. We see a Jaguar and it is magnificent....what a pity to cage it, then we see a leopard, monkeys, macaws and a host of other smelly creatures. The boat ride to the jungle lodge is nothing short of torture and worse I am paying for this. Consider this...100F heat, 75% humidity and no breeze even on the water....What am I doing here? Aside from that momentary lapse of reason or is it at moment of reason I stare at the vastness of the Amazon...the worlds largest river by volumes and longest at certain times of year. There are times I only see the horizon on the width of the river.....we ought to have a different category for this body of water. The Ariau jungle lodge is on the Rio Negro; the Amazon is made of the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoles and Manaus is where they meet and becomes the mighty Amazon. The lodge complex is built completely on stilts on the river and lodges are either on trees and or in towers....we elect the tower...don't think I am ready to be Tarzan all the way yet. Despite being in the middle of nowhere the lodge has a jewellery, souvenir and convenience almost wont miss anything for a price, capitalism in remote corners of the world is working just fine. I take a gander on the stilted walkways and run in to squirrel monkeys and an Orangutan I think, birds of all sorts and just the Amazon. One thing that catches me surprised pleasantly is the incessant aroma of Jasmine....did not expect that here, then again why not since it is tropical. As the evening melts in to the night, the insects are on the attack and we are hoping "OFF" will protect us. Dinner is a variety of Amazonian fish, stew of some sort and salads.....all very tasty given how hard these folks went to put it all together.  Apparently there are over 2000 species of fish here in the Amazon. Mike our guide informs us that we are heading out at 5.30am for a sun rise excursion.....someone say this was a vacation!!! So hoping to get some shut eye in this noisy jungle and some adventure in the morning.

We are awake by 5.00am to go meet with Mike our guide, who has an interesting history, born in Guyana of Indian origin spent some 8 years with different tribes in the Amazon feels very strongly about this area, people, missionaries and culture. Our 1st excursion is a trip to the middle of the Rio Negro to watch the sun rise which is spectacular.....there is something about sitting in a canoe in the middle of the largest river or 2nd largest since we are technically on Rio Negro, not the Amazon, bobbing up & down at the crack of dawn to see the sun rise. While the feeling can be laced with many superlative adjectives.....all I can truly say is wish you were here. After breakfast which is a spread that is completely made locally at the lodge including the bread, the jams, cassava powder called Farina and more we head out to hike the Amazonas.
The hike is interesting in that we are introduced to a tree that provided Bengay its core ingredient, a tree that provides the resins that helps Wrigley's with their chewing gum, another that provides milk of magnesia and host of others with medicinal powers. It is a wonder then how all this power did not save the locals. Mike goes on a tirade about how the disease of "modernity" is destroying the Amazon yet on the other he is ok with the notion of eat or be eaten. I bite my tongue so as to not to educate him on the reality of Darwanism since he could very easily "lose" me in the jungle!...especially given his track record of only 5% loss on treks. There is not any wild life except for the Tencredo ants that are large and very irritable. Apparently the natives are aggresive hnuters and have chased away the wild life....clearly no thought for us tourists!  The boat ride to the hike is exactly what we had imagined....a canoe meandering through narrow canals with tree canopy no higher than 15-20 feet with sun struggling to get to the water. It is peaceful and if the weather here is not hotter than hell and humid as $%@&@, there is no reason to go home. We learnt a few things about the jungle which is typical of any jungle, they have their rules. Mike was dramatic about "dont sit on the ground or touch anything in the jungle without checking with me" and while we tried to adher to it, we realized that it was more to protect the jungle than to protect us.  As we rode back on the boat for about 40 minutes, we passed by many native families going about their business in their homes along the banks of the river. We did not see any of them prancing around with a fig leave or a nail through their nose as pictures would have us believe....they looked mordern enough with electricity and regular houses on stilts. There are some 26 isolated tribes in the depths of the Amazon that the government has been protecting and letting them remain isolated I am told. After lunch and seista (I have mine on a hamock with a chilled beer...if not for the insects it would have been perfect) which is critical to make it through the day that is so hot and muggy we head out to meet a local native family. Apparently squatting is allowed here in the Amazon where someone can get on your land and make something of it and then go to the authorities and make an appeal to keep the land. This particular family did that some 25-30 years ago and have a significant plot of land on the banks of the river. It is an extended family with over 25 members, including the patriach Francisco, who has is rumored to be about 62 but looks 30ish and has fathered 15 kids. Mike says he has known Francisco for over 20 years but has never seen him wear a shirt. While we hang out here we are treated to some Brazil nuts that are freshly chopped and then shown how they make Cassava pancakes from the pluck to the pan. There are multiple types of Cassava's but the one that this family grows is bitter and yields some 4 times more than the regular Cassava but has Cyanide in it. Once they dug it out, they peeled and crushed it, then squeezed the juice and dried it on a giant the process they make us pancakes that is delicious. The left over juice is made in to some pepper sauce that I could not care for. The family bathes in the river and live in houses built on stilts and live a very hard life.....makes me feel particularly blessed. After dinner at about 8pm we head out to catch a Caiman (a member of the crocodilian family). While we are riding on the boat in the dark, the equatorial sky is extraordinary and surreal. After about 15 - 20 minutes of wandering the waters we catch a Caiman that we are led to understand is about 3 years old and is followed by with a lecture on the Caiman. Once done we let her back in to the river and then it is darkness to enjoy the incredible sky again. We spend some time out in the open before we retire for the night given it will be another early morning.....still wondering if this is a vacation.

The day begins early at 5.30am as we head out to catch Piranha's. There are apparently over 2000 different species of fish in the Amazon and about a dozen different Piranha species. Our 1st spot is not as generous as the 2nd for the fishes to bite. We use beef heart as bait on a bamboo fishing rod and it appears to be very effective as Saritha & I catch about a dozen Piranha's between us, all of which will be cooked for lunch this afternoon, that we will miss. We head out of our jungle accommodations about 8am for our boat ride to Manaus and it passes by uneventfully. Once we reach Manaus we check in to the city's apparently best hotel called Tropical Manaus that is built in the traditional Portuguese fashion and decorated similarly inside.....the service on the other hand will inspire another rant another day. We then head on what is called the "Meeting of the rivers" where the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões meet to form the mighty Amazon. The meeting is about 8 miles west of Manaus and we have our own boat which makes this even more comfortable though the boat does not make more than 4 nautical miles per hour. Along the way we see a new bridge that is being constructed to connect the Manaus city side to the ecological parks on the other side of the river, that is currently serviced by ferry's only. The bridge while still un-named has already taken the city's icon status but has run in to standard government contract challenges....over run budget and timelines. We also pass by...or more like get passed by local boats that take people between towns. People actually rent and hang hammocks on the various decks of these boats and that becomes their spot for the rest of the journey....a very interesting way to travel. As we begun to approach the meeting of the rivers, the 1st impression I have is that there is perhaps a cloud cover given the contract in the colors of the water...Rio Negro is black and Solimões is yellow. The rivers though become Amazon at this point they travel side by side without mixing for 12 miles east due to the difference in the water temperatures, density and speeds. It is simply an extraordinary phenomenon and on the few spots they begin to mix it is quite like coffee with milk. Next stop on the boat ride is Lago Do Janauari, a lake that is currently accessed on the Amazon but come the dry season in the next several week, it will have to accessed by water and land as the water levels in both the Amazon and the lake drop, cutting of the lake. Lunch is on a floating restaurant with what I am recognizing the usual Amazonian fare of fish, fish and more fish with some rice and black beans and all with some really chilled Brazilian beer makes the afternoon perfect despite the heat and humidity. The back of the restaurant has another lake and we accessed it by a bridge the restaurant folks built and this lake has water Giant Water Lily's with giant leaf's that could grow to be 3 meters in perimeter.
I have seen pictures of baby's being laid on these leaf's and it appears possible but certainly not recommended. A canoe ride seems apt to enjoy the post lunch dullness in the heat and get to watch a variety of birds including the Tiger Crown Heron, Straited Herons, King Fisher's, Capped Heron's and lots of Egrets (Flora and Fauna of Brazil...check these pictures). On the ride back to the hotel we get to see a pink dolphin where the lake meets Amazon, it was a brief sighting for us to truly appreciate it, but could now check the box for seeing a pink Dolphin I guess. The hotel is hosting some conference and so has a look of complete chaos, so we decide to get some room service and get some sleep.

Manaus (pics): 9/1 - Thursday
At breakfast at a normal hour this morning we get to drink Guarana juice which is simply delicious. Apparently they add Guarana fruit powder to freshly squeezed orange juice and that is refreshing as it can be. We check out and head for a tour of Manaus city and our 1st stop is the Custom house and harbor from where the locals take boats to various points on the Amazon, traveling by hammock as I mentioned from yesterday. The custom house is classic Portuguese and appealing to the eye while the harbor just a modern structure. From here we catch a short ride to the local market and take a gander in there. It is typical of any non western country market, a combination of filth, interesting looking vegetables & fruits and a lot of bargaining. The vegetable and fruit market is incredible in its variety followed by the fish market that has some of the largest and cheapest fish I have seen. While we have found Brazil ridiculously expensive until this moment when some 20 Piranha's are sold for R$5 or $3.50 which makes me wonder about the mark up at the retail distributions. Given Manaus is on a river the fish are all river fish with barely any sea water catch. We find the local folks eating here, a meal composed of fish, some dried cassava powder and some Feijdo (black beans)....though it is only Thursday and it is 11am, I see a lot of folks drinking beer with their meals. Brazil sure knows how to live the life. Saritha decides to taste the Guarana soda that apparently has Coke on the run and very quickly decides that Guarana soda is certainly a local fare. Adjourning from our Mercado adventure we head to a local landmark; Opera House. This is really the main attraction given it was one of the 1st buildings in the city that the elite built to entertain themselves with the monies they made with rubber exports of the day. The insides are cosy and well decorated for the time it was built and still well maintained. From the Opera house we head to the airport to catch a plane to Salvador. Airport security is a farce in Brazil as you send you bags through Xray and walk through the metal detectors without having to remove shoes, or laptop or even water sometimes with no one really looking. As we recognize 10years of 9/11....Brazil is naively ignoring it all. Our flight path is through Brasilia, the capital but we don't have to change planes.
We land in Salvador about 9.30pm and Rodrigo collects us. He is full of energy at this late hour and passionate about his city and as we are beginning to appreciate that enthusiasm....BOOM! he starts selling touristic nonsense and that is the end of him for me.

While Salvador was the 1st capital of Brazil during the colonial times and retains some of that old world charms through its architecture, I would not call this city anymore than a stop over. Salvador is the third most populous Brazilian city, after São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. There are some lovely beaches in the vicinity that have resorts on the beaches, it is not for us. Rodrigo is on schedule to get us for our sight seeing but is noticeably withdrawn...I am sure he has realized that we are too cheap for but I know I am too smart for him! Along the way we see the 1st light house of the city Farol da Barra close to our hotel. Then we drive in historic town that is divided in to the "upper city" & "lower city". Before we go in to Pelourinho we take in the City Hall or the old Governor's mansion, the elevator to the lower city and the wonderful Atlantic ocean. Pelourinho is in the upper city is made of cobbled streets, cathedrals, colorful and colonial Portuguese architecture and is a world heritage site. The weather is perfect, high 70's, beautiful sun shine, low humidity and a nice breeze. We wander through Pelorinho and enter St. Francisco's church which has a grand baroque style and lovely courtyard. More wandering around and admiring the lovely colors and the architecture gets us to lunch time. We have Rodrigo drive us to the Mercado in the lower city where we plan to do some souvenir shopping and have lunch. Lunch is in one of the 2 restaurants at the top of the Mercado overlooking the Atlantic. Its time to taste the local cuisine moqueca (moo-KEH-ka), a stew cooked and served in a large clay bowl and consisting principally of some kind of seafood (or combination thereof), dendé and coconut milk. This is served with rice and cassava powder, some feijdo. The cold large beer makes it taste better than I believe it is....interestingly our shake of the head indicating a NO, seemed to translate in to a nod to our lovely matronly waitress and I end up getting another larger beer....hmmmmm not really complaining am I. After lunch we decide to go back and wander more through Pelourinho, so we catch the 90 second elevator ride from lower city to the upper city. The elevator is very convenient and charges only R0.15 each....if only public transport was really that inexpensive all over.
In the afternoon the colors of Pelourinho's buildings are even more striking and we get an opportunity to collection to our pictures.

Then we grab a cab back to the hotel and realize that we got by without language challenges. We are tired from all the vacationing and decide to call room service and pack it in early. The Pizza that we ordered was with out crust or was it....I just could not find it in the pile of cheese it came with.....don't order for pizza in Salvador :)

Heading to Ouro Preto 9/3 - Saturday
It finally feels like vacation as we wake late to a cloudy morning and the waves on the Atlantic high. Its an easy breakfast despite the complicated explanation to the lady at the omelet station that we wanted egg whites only or translate the many different tea's as the Atlantic view is special. We get to watch some TV and CNN continues to spell the doom and gloom of our whats new? When we check out and decide to stroll by the water by the hotel, the bell boy comes running to warn us that it could be dangerous and I thought we were in the best areas of town....looks like the bandits know that too. Our ride to the airport is on time and we are checked in with plenty of time to grab some of local pies/pastels. TAM is on time again, incredible efficiency and they are not a communist nation. Its a 2 hour journey to Belo Horizonte the capital of Minas Gerais where much of Brazil's gold and diamond mines were 1st discovered. Lu collects us to drive us to Ouro Preto, another 2 hours away. As she educates us about the region she happens to mention that Homerly our drive is of Italian kidding given he drives like them as I have my heart in my mouth! We check in to Pousada do Mondego, an inn that is 260 years old and just lovely place to stay in a town like Ouro Preto. Dinner is at another quaint restaurant across from the pousada (Po-Za-Da) that I cant remember anymore but we had the most delightful dinner of this trip so far. The night is really cold, about 45F I suspect as we walk to the town square (Tiradentes Plaza) behind our pousada where a classical concert is playing with a fairly talented female tenor/contralto. Lovely evening with the music, weather and overall Ouro Preto beauty. More tomorrow.

Ouro Preto (pics): 9/4 - Sunday
Its a cold morning as I come out to the courtyard of the Pousada at about 7am with a cuppa to what can only be described as a serene panorama of Oura words unfortunately can not describe the soul healing and hearth warming this led to....again I will say wish you were here. After breakfast we head over with Lu who takes us through one of 13 churches in Ouro Preto before we drive to Mariana about 25 mins away to do much of the same. More churches, lovely cobbled streets, colonial architecture and generally cute setting with wonderful weather. What we also find is that Brazil as a nation is extraordinarily clean....almost like China, something we can learn from. We drive back in the afternoon to Ouro Preto stopping by to capture some enticing views of the landscape and the town. Lunch is a buffet with food from Minas Gerais that includes salads of beets, beans, some local vegetables, chicken with okra (yummy) and chicken with blood was funny to see how the blood from Saritha's face drained half way through her bite of this chicken when she found out why the sauce was brown...hilarious! After lunch and fighting the funk of a beautiful sun on our backs, lovely breeze and full tummies we go on to see the Museu da Inconfidência....whose idea was that?

The museum makes one end of Tiradentes plaza, the town square. We also visit the Mineral musem across the square to see some very interesting and colorful stones....some very valuable like the diamonds, rubies and topaz, others not so much that I don't recall what they were called. Towards the end of the day we go and visit St. Francis of Assisi church which is next door to our Pousada. The church was designed and parts of it carved by Aleijadinho. When we return to our Pousada, I partake in another cuppa on the courtyard looking over the town, but also see a thick plume of smoke in the distance from a forest fire. Minas Gerais has not seen rain in 3 months, it is dry and is constantly experiencing forest fires. I pray they get some rain.....infact take some form us really, we got more than we need right now. Dinner is sandwich at a local diner where some more kindly Brazilian help us with our order. I am beginning to suffer the blues now as we have just another day of our vacation.....Saritha is talking about the next one already!

Last Day in Brazil (pics): 9/5 - Monday
We start the day very relaxed, long cuppa on the courtyard, a walk through Ouro Preto and a longer breakfast and we drag as we pack one last time. We head out about 3pm from Ouro Preto to catch a plane to Rio, where we will bid to lovely TAM service and go back to the curse of US Air. So we wander through Ouro Preto to spend the hours and literally walk some street twice since the town is so small. Saritha ducks in to the Nossa Senhora do Carmo while I get some pictures of beautiful Ouro Preto, wondering when I can do this again.We do some souvenir shopping, taste and buy some cachaca and then finally its a long lunch in the tradition of the Brazilians. Lu is on time and of we go driving back to Belo Horizonte and Homerly shows more of his Italian colors....there must be law against letting people like him drive. What is even more surprising is that Lu who is sitting next to him is calmly eating an apple and reading the newspaper...what gives? There is another forest fire, but good ol' Homely zips through it. Oh well we do make it to the airport in one piece. For once TAM check in is a little messed up and then they are delayed by 20 mins....hmmmm. We have plenty of time when we get to Rio to check in with US and go through the much time that Saritha wanders of shopping.

The red eye is typical with US Air service or lack of it and a 2 year old screaming her head off 1 row behind does not help. We are in Charlotte on schedule and the ICE agent gives us the Welcome Home and I am thrilled to be talking English again. Couple more hours and we are home in Virginia and it was a delightful vacation.

The Brazilians are I really believe the friendliest and kindest people I have come across. Through the 2 weeks we spent in their enchanting country and my penchant to be critical of most other countries....I am drawing a blank here. Yes it is expensive, Yes Portuguese is difficult and Yes we are tired but it was 2 weeks of refreshing. From the Urbanity of Rio to the Jungles of the Amazon to the rurals of Ouro Preto, we found beauty, kindness and spirituality and leave with a heavy heart and wish the Brazilians the very best.