Friday, February 29, 2008

The Dot Was Not What I Thought

My brief stay in Artigas is over and I'm heading into the interior of Uruguay. I need cash, but the bank doesn't open until 1:00 P.M. for some reason, so I watch a movie in my hotel room to burn time. After getting some cash, I head to the bus station and get a ticket for Biassini. Back at the hotel, I chill for a couple hours, then check out at around 4:00 P.M. I was supposed to be out of my room by 10:00 A.M., according to the attendant, so she charges me an extra fifty pesos—about two-and-a-half dollars.

My true destination is Tacuarembó, but I don't want to be a tourist, I want to be a traveler, so I pick a spot in the middle of the route and decide to stay a night there. I don't know what's in Biassini, but I'm pretty sure it's not a major tourist destination. It's not on a main highway, just a back road, and the dot on the map is pretty small.

Every so often, the bus stops in the middle of nowhere and someone gets on or off. At one stop, a young man wearing tennis shoes and jeans and carrying a backpack exits the bus and begins to walk down a dirt road. The road goes into the distance for miles. I don't see any house or building. At another stop, a motorcycle is waiting for the passenger. At yet another stop, a horse is the ride.

At this moment, I am struck with a brilliant idea. After spending the night in Biassini, I'll head out tomorrow for Tacuarembó, but instead of riding straight through, when the bus stops at some random remote location to pick up or drop off a passenger, I'll ask the people exiting the bus if there's a hotel there. If I hear a "sí," I'll grab my stuff, stay in a quaint little town in the outback of Uruguay and see what this place is all about. Maybe I'll even meet a gaucho and get to ride a horse. I'm pretty fired up about this idea. No tourism for me.

After a few hours of travel on rough roads through beautiful, rolling countryside, the bus pulls off the road and the bus driver opens the door which separates his cabin from the passenger compartment. He looks at me and asks "Biassini?" along with a few other words I don't understand. I ask "¿Estamos en Biassini?" More words I don't understand along with "Biassini" again. I grab my camera bag, stand up, and walk forward.

As I look out the door into the toasty Uruguayan air, I notice a small building—more like a shack, really. I don't see much else. At this point, I ask if there is a hotel here. The bus driver says all kinds of things I don't understand. I look at him with a blank look on my face. More stuff I don't understand. I tell him that I need a hotel. Apparently, it doesn't occur to him that, when the tourist—er, traveler—doesn't understand what he is saying, he might speak more slowly and use smaller words, as he just keeps saying a bunch of stuff that merely serves to confuse me slightly. The blank look on my face remains.

Eventually, I come to the conclusion that Biassini is Podunk. The bus driver corrects me. "Biassini is the freaking capitol of Podunk." I get the picture. No hotel here. I'll have to take the bus to the end of its route—Salto. Salto is the second largest city in Uruguay, next to Montevideo, with a population of just under 100,000. I'll spend two nights there and take the next bus to Tacuarembó, which departs on Wednesday.

The moral of the story is this: just because there is a dot on the map doesn't mean there is something there. The only reason there is a dot on my map with the word Biassini next to it is because that's the place where two roads intersect. From here on out, no assumptions about dots on maps.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Important Information

When you're traveling in Uruguay and need a place to spend the night, make sure to ask for a Hotel. If you ask for a Motel, they will probably wonder where your female companion is. The length of time one stays in a Motel is typically measured in hours. If you don't know what I'm talking about yet, it probably doesn't matter.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Beginning of the (Rough) Road

  • Get up at 8:00.
  • Go into bathroom to take shower.
  • Observe droplets of water trickling out of showerhead.
  • Decide to use the faucet situated on the wall next to the sink—the sink has good pressure, so I figure the faucet might, too. Kneel, put head under faucet, shampoo, rinse.
  • Wash face in sink.
  • Good to go.
  • Exit room and notice tables set up in reception area.
  • Ask if they serve breakfast.
  • José says yes, takes some items off a table, pulls it out from the wall, moves the seats with it, and I have a seat.
  • José moves slowly at all times and whistles. Nice guy.
  • A moment later, he brings out a table cloth, says "excuse me" and spreads the table cloth on my table.
  • I get a breakfast of crackers, with a blob each of a caramel spread and butter on a saucer.
  • He brings out a coffee. I tell him I don't drink coffee. Tea? No. He thinks to himself "what kind of idiot doesn't drink coffee or tea?"
  • I ask for juice. No.
  • I ask for milk or water. He asks if I want the milk cold or hot. I say cold. He brings me a warm glass of milk and a bottle of water.
  • I walk over to the bus station to get a ticket to Artigas. They tell me I have to take a taxi to Uruguaiana and get a bus from there.
  • The taxi driver is great. He drives me the one-hundred meters back to the hotel and tells me he's a friend of the the guy that works there. They go fishing together.
  • After we arrive at the Argentine side of the border, he walks me through immigration. No problem. Exit stamp from Argentina and entrance stamp back into Brazil. We drive to the bus terminal in Uruguaiana.
  • I ask for a bus ticket to Artigas, Uruguay. No bus to Artigas...only to Quaraí. Then I'll just walk across the border into Uruguay. Okay.
  • Get bus ticket and wait for almost three hours for bus to leave. Perfect chance to polish off Eric Haney's Inside Delta Force, the book upon which the TV series The Unit is based. Excellent read. Done. Wait some more for bus.
  • Take bus to Quaraí.
  • Exit bus and ask how to get to Artigas and if I can buy a Coke here. The bus attendant gives me directions to Artigas and points to the guy with the little cart—basically a Styrofoam container with wheels. I look over my options and point at the orange beverage in lieu of a Coke. It turns out to be a reused pop bottle filled with cold, fresh squeezed orange juice. Rock on!
  • Throw on my pack and grab my camera bag. Right turn...right turn...right turn. There's the bridge.
  • There's a little guard building near the bridge. People and cars are crossing without stopping. Should I stop? Probably.
  • The guy in the station says it's not an "official" border crossing and he can't stamp my passport. Bummer.
  • After some thought, he says he can simply take my papers, call them in to immigration and then Brazil's computer system will have me as exiting the country today. Cool. I give him the paper I was given a few hours earlier when coming into Brazil.
  • Cross bridge.
  • Realize I forgot my travel towel back at the hotel in Paso de los Libres.
  • Cuss several times.
  • Reach other side in about fifteen minutes.
  • Meet four cops/immigration guys on the other side.
  • They will stamp my passport but the main guy says I'll probably run into trouble later because I don't have a corresponding exit stamp from Brazil.
  • One of them suggests that we simply call George Bush and have him bomb Brazil.
  • We all have a good laugh.
  • Although I get the gist of what he's saying, I ask him to speak more slowly so I can pick up the details. He continues at full speed. I tell him he's still speaking too fast and the other guards laugh. One of them says that he's nervous and that's why he keeps speaking so fast.
  • Long story short, I decide to cross back over, get a bus to another city on the Brazilian side so as to avoid a headache later on. The larger city has an official immigration crossing.
  • The Uruguayan guards ask a motorist (Luis) to give me a ride so I don't have to carry my fifty-pound-plus load back across the bridge. Luis agrees and I tell him I'll pay him for his trouble.
  • We stop at the guard building so I can get my paper back.
  • The Brazilian border attendant calls immigration and they assure him that the important thing is the computer system, not the stamp.
  • Luis and I head back over the bridge, much to the surprise of the Uruguayan border guards.
  • I explain the deal and the immigration dude fills out the paperwork, gives me a copy, and stamps my passport.
  • I explain that I want to go to a hostel, a place where travelers like me sleep. One of them knows the only hostel in town. I'll write down the name, address and phone number next time.
  • We first go to an ATM so I can get some cash. First one doesn't work. We go to the bus terminal. ATM doesn't work. We go to a gas station so I can put some gas in Luis's car...we're running on fumes. I buy us a couple pops, too. The gas station changes forty bucks for me. Sweet.
  • Luis and I drive to the hostel. It looks like no hostel I've ever seen and the guy there calls it a "club." He doesn't speak English. What kind of hostel doesn't have an English speaker?
  • I tell Luis that if I had a computer, I could figure out the correct place.
  • No cyber cafe in Artigas.
  • We go back to Quaraí, where he takes me to a cyber cafe.
  • I find the hostel. It's the place we were just at.
  • Back across the border.
  • The Uruguayan border guard calls the hostel and finds out it's full.
  • We go to a hotel. The door is locked. Luis rings the bell. The attendant comes over a little speaker next to the door, so quietly, we can hardly hear. Then he pops his head out over a second-story balcony. No rooms
  • He says the nearest hotel is a block that-a-way.
  • We turn around and see a hotel across the street...they're full, too.
  • We drive to another hotel...they have a vacancy.
  • Perfect...three-hundred-fifty pesos...about seventeen bucks. AC and a shower in the room. I check the shower and plenty of water comes out.
  • I give the attendant a five-hundred-peso bill...around twenty-five bucks. They don't have change. No change for a twenty. What the heck? I'm learning that many places in Latin America can't change anything bigger than around a ten-dollar-bill (equivalent).
  • I take the room.
  • Neither Luis nor the attendant has any brilliant ideas about what direction I should head on Monday. Maybe I'll just head South and step out of the bus when I get to a town that looks interesting.
  • Work on this blog and watch Bandidas.
  • Go down the street two blocks and have a sausage and two steaks cooked for me. Those and a Coke cost me about seven bucks.
  • Everything would be easier if my Spanish were better.
  • Vamos a ver.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

End of the Road

This morning, I got up at around 7:45, showered, and ate my last breakfast at Hostel Inn, Iguazu Falls, Argentina. I sat with Kjell, of Belgium fame (we traveled together from Rio). We ate breakfast while taking care of personal business, Kjell on his SmartPhone and I on my laptop. After breakfast, he took off for the bus station to get a ticket to Buenos Aires and then on to visit the dam on the Iguazu River, while I went downstairs to finish packing my bags and check out.

After buttoning things up and bringing my bags upstairs—I stayed in a room below the main floor of the main building—I saw Lena and Stena, of Norwegian fame, eating breakfast, so I joined them for a chat before leaving. It's easy to become friends with people when you travel with them and spend time around town together, so it was with a little sadness that I gave them a hug goodbye and headed out to the curb to wait for the bus. There will no doubt be countless other goodbyes in the coming months.

Although the information desk at Hostel Inn was quite unimpressive—they didn't know too much about the helicopter tour over the falls, for example—they were right when they told me that a bus leaves the main bus station every hour for Posadas, the next decent size town South of Iguazu Falls. I got to the station at 10:30, bought my ticket for forty pesos (about thirteen bucks), waited for about twenty minutes and boarded a small bus just before 11:00.

At about 4:00 PM, we arrived in Posadas, although there had been a time change. It was now 5:00 PM. I think there are time changes between cities in South America. There had been a change within Rio regarding Daylight Savings Time, I think, and my clocks have been out of whack ever since.

At the bus station in Posadas, I told them I wanted to get to Uruguaina, and ultimately Artigas, Uruguay, but they informed me that I would need to go to Paso de los Libres first, as Uruguaina is in Brazil. I paid the forty-six pesos for the ticket, grabbed a hamburger and pop, then went to the platform and waited for the bus.

During the entire day's travel, as I looked out the window of the bus, I saw a hundred great photos, both as we passed through small towns, and in rural areas. Unfortunately, the bus didn't stop for me.

At 11:15, I arrived in Paso de los Libres, the end of the road for me in Argentina, for the time being. As we pulled into the station, I saw a hotel located conveniently within a hundred meters of the bus station, exactly what I was hoping for. As I threw on my pack, grabbed my camera bag, and headed out of the bus station's parking lot, I felt a little bit lost. I'm in a podunk town, my Spanish bites, and what if the hotel has no rooms available, or some other problem arises? I don't feel equipped.

I was worried for no reason. I walk into the hotel, they have a room, and it's forty pesos. That's no more than I've been paying for hostels, but I have my own room, with my own shower, and two beds—nice to spread my stuff out on. The walls are concrete, painted white, but quite dirty, the bathroom a single coherent area of tiles, with the sink in one spot, the toilet on the opposite wall nearby, and a drain just past that for the shower. Light in the bathroom is provided by a single bare bulb screwed into a fixture which is barely hanging on the wall. Water for the shower is heated in typical South American Style—there are electrical wires running to the shower head to heat the water on demand. To say it's simple and a bit run down might be an understatement, but it'll work just fine. Rock on.

When I get up in the morning, I'll grab some breakfast—I saw a diner on the corner—walk over to the bus station, and figure out how to make my way to Artigas, Uruguay. Tomorrow will be the start of a trek across the second smallest Latin American country. With almost half the population located in the greater metropolitan area of Montevideo, I should be off to a good start with my goal of staying off the beaten path. This may be the end of one road, but it's just the beginning of another.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Onward and, Downward

I left Rio on Tuesday along with a Belgian, two Swedes, and a mid-westerner. We took a bus from Rio to Iguazu Falls—it was about a twenty-four-hour trip, but the bus was very comfortable.

The five of us—plus two Norwegians—went to the falls yesterday. We took a boat ride on the Lower Iguazu—that's the river after the falls—and actually drove (does one drive a boat?) under the falls. It was very hot out, so that cooled us off nicely—and pummeled our faces with stinging high-speed droplets of water.

The falls are expansive and amazing. The volume of water dropping over the edge is staggering, as we witnessed after walking to the part of the falls known as the Devil's Throat.

We were there during the middle of the day and there are constraints on where you can walk, besides the crowds everywhere, so the pictures I got are underwhelming, but a bit of fun. I took advantage of the underwater case for my Panasonic TZ-3. It worked nicely.

A Bit of Carioca Culture

I won't pretend to be an astute observer of cultural intricacies and I most certainly am not a connoisseur of fine—or other—foods. I will, however, throw out a list of my experiences and hopefully-interesting facts about what I have seen and otherwise taken in while here in Rio de Janeiro.

  • There are some fruits that you'll find in Rio that you'll never see in America. I had Goiabeira, or apple guava, in Santa Teresa. Someone I was with just shook it down off of a tree in a Santa Teresa resident's front yard.
  • Bought a small basket—which was then dumped into a bag—of a small orange fruit called seriguela, I think. There was a street vendor, most of which apparently come into the city from the favelas, who set up shop each day close to the hostel. He sold fruit exclusively. This fruit is mostly pit. You pop it in your mouth, bite down to get the meat off, then spit out the pit. It's a citrus fruit, but I'm not sure how else to describe it. You'll just have to go to Rio and try some.
  • I went to a buteco, a small storefront restaurant, about a three-minute walk from the hostel. I went there several times, as the food was good and the price was right. I would have two small items—pastel de carne (a meat sandwich), and pastel de frango, the same thing but with chicken. After a few visits, they knew me and would pull out my two sandwiches automatically.
  • In Rio, buffets are popular. You pay by the kilo. The method of paying is similar to the way you pay for other things in Rio, too, such as going to a Salsa club. You get a piece of paper when you enter. Each time you buy something, they put a mark on this paper. When you leave, they tally the marks and you pay the total, including entry to the club or dance, if that's where you are.
  • I didn't find the food drastically different than what you might find in the States. Beans and rice are common, but so are the typical meats, besides salad and potatoes. And by the way, you can have meat or chicken or fish or pork. In Brazil—and apparently Argentina—beef is meat, but chicken, pork, fish, etc., are not. Go figure.
  • I was warned countless times about crime in Rio, but experienced none. I am missing my brand new—and somewhat expensive—pocket knife, however. I think it disappeared at the hostel...not sure. I guess that could count as crime.
  • The napkins you find in restaurants are plastic-like, not exactly what I would describe as absorbent.
  • Toilet paper isn't comparable to Charmin. It falls to pieces when it gets wet. And you can't flush it down the toilet. Apparently, the plumbing system down here doesn't support light paper that falls to pieces when wet. Strange. I'm getting used to it, though.
  • Rio is a vast city. I could photograph ten hours a day for a year and still have more to shoot. Downtown is modern, but even that has a raw feeling to it. The streets are always busy, any time of day or night. Nothing like Tacoma. No matter where you go, there are street vendors. Both the metro (sub-way) and buses are a great way to travel. Of course, however, I had been warned that the buses are dangerous. I had no problems.

Here's a shot of the Goiabeira I ate, fresh off the tree:

Language in Rio

  • In Brazil, the main language is Portuguese, others being the languages spoken by the native tribes out in the boondocks.
  • At least in Rio, the Portuguese is different than that spoken in Portugal.
  • Some people speak English, but certainly not many.
  • Some of the words in Portuguese are very difficult for an American—or probably any foreigner—to pronounce. Some have a combination of an "h" sound in combination with a nasal sound. Very different than anything I've ever tried to say.
  • An "r" at the beginning of a word and an "rr" in the middle of a word sounds like "h"—so, the dance style called forro is pronounced fo-ho. The favela called Rocinha is pronounced ho-seen-ya, as an "ha" sounds like "yuh." The plural of the local currency, reais, is pronounced hey-ice.
  • If you're having trouble communicating, try Spanish, as some people there know some Spanish. If anyone tells you that Spanish and Portuguese are almost the same and that if you know Spanish, you can go to Brazil and be just fine, they don't know what they're talking about. It can help, but the two languages are very different.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Life is Tough

  • Got up at 8:00 and had breakfast.
  • Fiddled on the laptop for a while.
  • Went to the beach (Praia Vermelha right next to Sugarloaf) at about 11:00 and went swimming—mostly floated on my back in the ocean with my arms spread out like Cristo Redentor—trying to darken my white armpits.
  • Walked back to the hostel and showered.
  • Took small load of laundry to laundromat—they'll deliver it here by 7:00.
  • Walked a short distance to my favorite hole-in-the-wall diner. She just gave me a thumbs up and I nodded. She dished up my usual and I grabbed a Coke out of the cooler. I already had my five-reais-bill (pronounced hey-ice) out. Good deal, good meal.
  • Got back to hostel, fiddled on laptop, then crawled into hammock in the hostel patio.
  • Read chapter from Licensed to Kill, then took nap.
  • Still in hammock typing this blog entry (5:30 PM), and listening to the thunder for the past hour or so.
  • Will leave Rio on Monday, at the latest—I've had about as much of this as I can take.
  • Will probably take bus straight to Iguazu Falls—just over a twenty-hour ride. Can't wait for an entire day of air conditioning. Cool air has this great property of not holding much moisture.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Audio Clips

I brought along an M-Audio Micro Track II portable audio recorder to record conversations for reference in my blogging and to capture environmental sounds. The sound quality is quite good, considering the cheap stereo mic that comes with the Micro Track II ($20 for a replacement). The recorder can be configured for auto-limiting, but I've been using manual levels. You can also save the audio in various formats. I'm using 160kbps MP3. I can get about fifty-five hours on a 4GB CF card at that quality setting. The battery life is a bit of a disappointment, at around five hours. A portable USB batter pack can fix that, but I chose not to bring one as I'm already carrying over fifty pounds and I can recharge the audio recorder from the wall or from my laptop.

  • Bloco in Botafogo —  This was a bloco (street party with lots of locals singing and dancing, a drum band, and a big truck pretty much made of speakers with an MC/announcer and some other people on top) in the neighborhood where I'm staying. It started in Botafogo and, over the course of three hours, inched its way to Copacabana. It took about three days for my hearing to return to near-normal in my left ear, which was near the drummers.
  • Bloco in Santa Teresa — This was a much smaller bloco which played in place—i.e., no marching. It had just a director and drummers, with locals standing around dancing, watching, and listening. This is my favorite clip. If you can, use good headphones or a good stereo to listen. You'll want the bass drums to come through.
  • Sambodromo — This is some audio from one of the parades in the Sambodromo.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Blown Away

It's Sunday and Fabio and I are thinking about going to Sugarloaf Mountain. Sugarloaf is a thirteen-hundred-foot-tall morro (Portuguese for mountain) of quartz and granite that dominates Rio's shoreline.

We're playing it by ear as there is stormy weather forecast. Throughout the day, Fabio and I touch base via IM to see how the weather looks, before deciding whether or not to go. The initial idea was to hike it, but we decide against that as it would be slippery if the predicted rain comes—besides, it's hot and humid and I'm lazy. The cable car would save me some trouble and would actually be fun.

The skies are mostly clear, so we decide to go for it. It doesn't make sense for me not to go because of the chance of rain. There's also the possibility the weather could be fine, and I don't want to miss the chance for the view, especially if worse weather is expected for the week. This could be my only shot on this trip.

Sunset is scheduled for 7:35 tonight. Fabio picks me up at 5:20. That should be plenty of time for us to drive the short distance from Botafogo to Sugarloaf, park, buy tickets, get to the top, and get set up for shooting the sunset overlooking Rio.

Some members of the local photo club have hiked up the first mountain and we see them there. One cable car takes visitors from sea level to the top of one morro, a second car to the top of Sugarloaf. Fabio and I take a few shots from the first mountain, but we don't stay long, as we want to get to the top well before sunset.

On the way up, I see a girl I recognize from the hostel in Botafogo. Her name is Hannah and she is Finnish, but is living in Spain. Her English is near perfect. I also hear her rattle off some Spanish, which is also excellent. Then there's me and my English, ten words in Portuguese and twenty in Spanish. Most people I'm meeting are multilingual.

When we arrive at the top, Hannah asks me to take a few photos of her with her camera, which is on the fritz. I try to help tweak the settings on her camera and she tries to figure out why it's misbehaving. I patiently snap a few shots, anxious to get my gear unpacked and start shooting with a real camera.

After finishing with the portrait session, I take out my camera and walk around to the other side of the visitor's center to check out the view.

As I peer to the North, the sky is dark. A storm is coming. I extend the legs on my tripod, attach the Arca Swiss quick release plate to my D3, and mount the camera on the tripod. Fabio expresses frustration that he forgot his cable release, which simply serves to remind me that I forgot mine, too. As it turns out, it won't make any difference—a cable release doesn't buy you anything in gale force winds.

Fabio doesn't bother to set up his tripod. He just tells me that if the weather is bad enough, they will shut down the cable car. Visitors can be stranded here all night long. It couldn't be any worse than a noisy youth hostel, right? Hanging out with interesting people from around the world in an interesting place is okay with me.

Shortly, Fabio says "The storm is coming. Let's go." I respond, "I'll see you later." His slightly sarcastic reply—which I appreciate—is, "You do realize there's a storm coming, don't you?" I say, merely, "Yes."

After Fabio's departure, I move to the corner of the platform for the best view over all of Rio. I can see from the North and even across the bay on the right all the way to Copacabana on the left, Cristo straight ahead on the mountaintop overlooking the city.

As the wind speeds increase, the platform becomes roomier as a packed cable car descends—apparently not everyone likes spending the night on top of a mountain. Those of us who remain experience winds that almost blow us off the mountaintop and into the Atlantic. I firmly hold my camera and tripod, teetering on the edge of this steep rock. For a split second, there's a pocket in the wind. It feels like the mountain is falling over forward. Then, my support, the wind, returns to hold me up. A Dutchman next to me leans forward into the wind. People all around are tugging on their shirts as the wind tries to remove them. Hey everyone, look at my gut! It feels as though the wind is trying to tear my eyelids off. I hope that my LASIK surgery doesn't get undone. Please hang on, corneae!

We see a plane coming South, hugging the mountains before turning left one-hundred-eighty degrees, flying over the bay, and lining up for final. The winds are out of the West and are strong. He overshoots base to final by a mile. He doesn't even get close to the airport before aborting and calling for a missed approach. We don't see him again.

Those of us who have remained are having the time of our lives. I'm not the only one who would say this is the best experience of my trip. There is lightning all over the horizon and it's getting closer. Not having a special sensor that detects lightning and automatically trips the shutter, I use the longest shutter speed possible and just hold down the shutter, firing off dozens—nay, hundreds—of frames, hoping I'll get lucky. Someone remarks that it would be something if I got a photo of lightning striking Cristo. I agree and forget, knowing that would be almost an impossibility, verifying my camera settings, checking my histogram and shutter speed. The aperture is shut down tight—f/22 on this lens, my Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8. My shutter speed is one second. I throw on a neutral density filter and increase the shutter speed to six seconds. This will make it easier to capture lighting.

Occasionally, there is a massive lightning bolt that lights up the ever darkening sky with fifty-thousand degrees of electrically-generated heat. We all yell with glee, competing with the roaring wind. This is the show of a lifetime.

As the storm moves South over the mountains and closer to us, I adjust my camera to take in the scene where I think the highest likelihood of lightning is—the place where the sky is darkest and rainfall is heaviest. I continue holding the shutter down almost constantly. Then it comes. One massive lightning strike to the left of Cristo, one to the right, then one in the mellon. Cristo just took one monster lightning strike on the head! And I got it on film! Everyone partakes of my joy.

Before long, the wind dies down and then comes the rain. We take cover under the overhang of the small restaurant. I take this brief respite from shooting to grab a Coke. It neither rains heavily nor does it last long. Within five minutes, a gal from Russia is back out with her Canon 5D and 16-35 wide angle lens—her primary lens, a 24-70, was broken earlier on her trip. Oh, the agony of it all. I can't image life without my 24-70. I follow shortly behind her and begin shooting again. Now, the sun is gone and the city and clouds are illuminated by millions of burning hot slivers of tungsten. The scene is serene and beautiful. The air is fresh and the stormy weather has mostly passed. What a wonderful evening.

It's almost 9:00 PM. The last ride down will be leaving soon. We pack up our equipment and just look out over the city for a few minutes. As the Russian commented, we photographers sometimes don't see the beautiful scene until we get home. It's worth the little extra effort and time to enjoy it in person—without the viewfinder blocking the way.

Having had enough excitement for the day, I get a taxi back to the hostel—less than a five-minute drive. Had I left earlier to avoid the storm, I would have missed the most exciting moment of my trip so far, and possibly a big money-maker and several gorgeous images of Rio.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Dancing the Night Away

In reality, that sounds much more impressive than it actually was.

About a year-and-a-half ago, I began taking Salsa lessons along with my roommates. I danced and took lessons for probably eight months and then petered out. I got pretty decent while I was going. So now it's been quite a while since I've set foot on the hardwood and I definitely can't shimmy like before. I've forgotten most of the moves I learned and what little self-confidence I had is shot.

Shortly after I arrived here in Rio, I went to Fabio's dance school where I watched their Samba and Salsa classes. In my head, I went over the few moves I remembered and watched my Salsa Crazy DVDs that I brought. I was thinking about trying the class, but they were way better than I currently am, so that would've simply been an embarrassment. Also, I had left my dance shoes—which I had just bought at Dance Collection, in Tacoma—back at the hostel and Fabio's extra pair was way too big for me—no surprise there.

So, determined to get back my dance chops, Fabio and I went to a local restaurant/bar which has a live Salsa band every Thursday night. A couple girls Fabio knows from the dance school were supposed to show up. Long story short, I danced one dance with one of the girls Fabio knows. I sucked. I think that particular song was about twenty minutes long and I danced the same move about three thousand times. That was it. Gotta start somewhere, right? The folks dancing at this club were really good dancers. I felt very intimidated, but it was fun to watch and the band was good.

The next night, we went to Fabio's dance school where there's a dance every Friday night from 10:00 to midnight, after classes finish. They dance Samba, Salsa, Forro, and maybe other styles—don't know. I ended up dancing several dances (including learning the basic few steps of Forro—pronounced foho), practiced a few of my long lost Salsa moves—which didn't go so well—and began to get the feel back. I also learned that I dance a style of Salsa (Los Angeles) that is different than what they dance here (Cuban).

Hopefully, by the time I get back to Washington, I'll be able to kick it. If I can just manage to keep up my nerve and get out on the dance floor, I should get there.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


  • Monday, just past noon, I'm in the sitting area—a common area with a couple sofas, beanbag chairs, and a coffee table—outside my room, listening to a Turkish girl, a German guy, a Canadian guy, and two Norwegian guys talk about the relationship of Germans and Turks, and the perception people have of Germans living in different places around the world, and people's perception of other nationalities. Also, one of the girls is trying to convince the other backpackers to visit Istanbul...a good place for backpacking, apparently.
  • Sunday night, I left the hostel at 5:30 and returned at 6:30 Monday morning after shooting about 3,000 photos of the parades at the Sambodromo. It was incredible. Each of six groups takes eighty minutes to strut their stuff. This happens four nights in a row. The costumes and floats were ridiculous. I filled up both of my 16 GB memory cards part way through the last group.
  • Friday night, Håkon, a Swede, Jesper, a Dane, and I sat in this same common area outside our room (my office) and talked until 4:30 in the morning comparing and contrasting the social systems of our three countries, and discussing the War on Terror, and various and sundry other subjects of interest. They are both bright and very nice. I was surprised to find out that Håkon is only 18 years old.
  • Saturday afternoon, I went to a bloco, or street party, at 3:30. It started at 4:30 and ended around 7:30. There are many of these all over Rio every day of Carnaval. They consist of a giant truck which is full of speakers (picture a Budweiser commercial) with an MC and a few other people on top, a group of drummers which precedes the truck, and big crowd of revelers both in front of and behind the music. Two days later, I still haven't regained all of my hearing in my left ear. It was the loudest three hours of my life, and it was fun. This one started in Botafogo, where I'm staying, and ended at Copacabana.
  • Ola, one of the three Norwegians in my room, has been going to Lapa at night recently to different parties. Last night he was robbed three times in twenty minutes...a total of around thirty bucks. Also, at the dance, he witnessed multiple fights, including one where a girl tripped and fell against a guy's leg who then started punching her and then went and got a board and started hitting her. She escaped. Too much fun for my blood. He just fell asleep (at around 9:00 AM) with his PDA in his hand and stylus in his mouth. I removed them both and set them on the floor on some of his clothes.
  • I met a new hostel dweller named Lin. He's a counselor/teacher from Taiwan. He's not interested in people—he doesn't ask their name or where they're from. He just watches them to see what they do. That, he says, is what's important. He would rather see nature than people. He's traveling for several months, like many others I've met. He doesn't think Brazilian women are attractive.
  • Stay tuned for audio clips of both the bloco I went to and Sunday night's Sambodromo performances.

My Summer Home

Yesterday, I packed my bags and caught a bus which took me to the main bus station in downtown Rio. During part of the trip, we traveled through the outskirts of a favela. I was hoping the bus driver wouldn't kick me out there. With fifty pounds of expensive gear, I would be somewhat uncomfortable with that. Thankfully, we kept plugging along until arriving at a safer place—the terminal.

After arriving at the main station, I bought two tickets for São Pedro da Aldeia, one for me and the other my pack. The town resides on a large lake—Lagoa de Araruama—and is about two hours East of Rio de Janeiro. Fabio's family owns a lovely home there. They have graciously invited me to spend a few days there, as they are there during their time off for Carnaval—people usually take the whole week off—and to celebrate Fabio's younger brother's birthday.

Last night, we went to Cabo Frao, another town on the lake, saw some sights, and tried to make our way through a very thick crowd along the beach where a bloco was moving along at a snail's pace.

Today, Fabio and I are sitting at the dining room table, doors of the room wide open, as we peer outside at the rain. I'm catching up on some blogging and loads of photo editing—almost 4,000 shots between the blocos and Sambodromo—and Fabio is going through some mail and other paperwork and reading some photo articles from the Digital PhotoPro Web site.

If the weather clears, we'll head out for some photography. Otherwise, we'll just relax around here. I'll work on the laptop and read a book—I'm going through Robert Young Pelton's Licensed to Kill—Hired Guns in the War on Terror—and maybe watch a movie later. Last night, I got the best sleep I've had in a week—i.e., since leaving home. Deep barely begins to describe it.

A humming bird just flew into the house through the open doors, hovered for a second, then went zipping back outside.

Fabio and I will travel the two hours back to Rio tomorrow, although it could take significantly longer if we stop for some photography along the way. There are many good photographic opportunities between here and there, including favelas. We'll see if the precipitation is still precipitating then.

Back to the photos!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Hittin' the Street

I can't count the times I've been warned not to take expensive camera gear on my trip. And Rio is the worst. Even after arriving, one of my hostel roommates told me about another traveler who took his camera to the beach only days earlier and had to give it up at gunpoint.

I was thinking about hiring a cop to walk with me. I figured he would be a good deterrent and I know he could use the extra money. But I would have to track one down who would be willing and it can be a nuisance having someone with me when I'm wandering around shooting. I'm not sure what I'm going to do, but there has to be some way to take a photo in Rio without getting mugged.

0730. My alarm goes off. I lie in bed a little while, thinking, wondering, strategizing. I get up and grab a shower. I can't figure out how to get hot water, so I wash as quickly as practicable, gasping for air as I rinse the soap out of my hair. Back into the room, organize my stuff a bit, put my expensive camera gear that I won't be taking and my laptop in my large backpack, then install the pacsafe 85 around it and lock it to the bed to keep common thieves out and to encourage them to walk off with someone else's stuff instead.

I grab some breakfast downstairs, a ham and cheese sandwich and a few slices of watermelon. I eat outside in the narrow corridor leading into the hostel from the street, sitting on a bench next to another traveler. We eat in silence. I don't know what she's thinking, but I'm still pondering my move.

Back upstairs, I keep looking out the window, still fearing this immense city. I take a few pictures out the window, stalling. Do I just take my point and shoot camera? Would a crook not be interested in that? Maybe not, but then I wouldn't get the shots I want. I own an high-end camera for a reason. If I do my part, it always gets the shot.

To heck with it. I put some SPF50 on and throw my sling pack over my shoulder. It contains my Nikon D3 and has the Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 lens attached to it—a general purpose combo that can shoot anything this world can throw at it, in any environment. The trick is to arrive back at the hostel later in the day with everything I'm leaving with—including my life. I head out.

A sling pack is the perfect pack for this kind of shooting. It rides on your back, like any pack, but you give it a tug and it slides around front. You remove your camera, shoot, put the camera back, and slide it back around to the rear. I can accomplish this sequence in probably less than 15 seconds, at least if I don't dawdle while shooting. That's the plan. Run 'n' gun. Get the shot and put the camera away. Give the bad guys as little time as possible to see the goods.

As I leave the hostel, I pull out my map to get my bearings and decide which direction I'm going to head. I'll take two quick rights out of the hostel and then head West on Rua Voluntarios De Patria. When that tees into Rua Humaita, I'll veer left. When I run into Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a big lake inland from the major beaches, I'll amber along its eastern shore, then cut over to Ipanema beach, and take that back towards Botafogo, the area where I'm staying.

I head out of the hostel into the city. The density of people in Rio seems high and there's a corresponding level of activity. There are always people on the street—loads of vendors, approximately three trillion storefronts (I'm not exaggerating), mothers carrying babies, pushing strollers, and leading children by the hand, businessmen going to work, and blue collar workers pushing and pulling steel carts down the road.

The pushing and pulling of carts in the streets is significant because the traffic here is fast and heavy. Many small cars are constantly zipping by with seemingly little regard for pedestrians. Likewise, pedestrians cross at crosswalks—and anywhere else they please—in between oncoming traffic. It appears rather dangerous, but autos and pedestrians seem to weave through each other with deft and precision, all participants coming out unscathed. I dig it and try it myself a few times. I enjoy the precision of the intertwining objects, like the cogs of many meshing gears.

As I begin my walk, I start scanning for interesting photographic opportunities. They begin to appear immediately. I decide to pass one up, figuring I'll get it later. There's the fear people have been foisting on me. I go back, swing my pack around, unzip the pouch, pull the heavy camera and lens from the bag, point, shoot, replace the camera, zip up the pocket, and swing the pack back around onto my back. I'll repeat this procedure almost two-hundred times over the next eight hours.

I see many people hurrying to their destination, while others casually sit at an open storefront sipping a coffee or drinking a fruit juice. Others are shopping or working.

I see a bum—er, homeless man—who looks very interesting. He is wearing what looks like a skirt with slits running almost the entire length. His hair is in dreadlocks and he is clearly a descendent of the myriad African slaves who were brought across the Atlantic centuries ago to this brave new world. Brazil has the second largest population of blacks in the world, second only to Nigeria. I want to get a photo of him, but the opportunity doesn't present itself.

He and I are both strolling in the same direction. Every so often, I stop to snap a photo. He's behind me now. I wonder if he's following me. I regularly check my back for anyone who looks suspicious. Someone who might have seen my camera and is biding their time, waiting for a spot with fewer people so they can pull a knife or gun and demand my bag. So far, so good. No one tailing me, except for the bum—er, homeless man.

I pick up the pace, hoping to lose him, or that he'll turn onto some other street, or find a good spot at which to beg. I must be busy shooting because he catches up with me. I let him pass me so I can keep and eye on him. Surprisingly, he stops, sits down on the curb, and makes himself comfortable. He's drinking a cup of coffee—perhaps a kind gesture from someone more fortunate than he.

In an instant, I see it. The perfect shot. Within a couple seconds, I have the camera out and to my eye. I kneel and peer through the D3's big, bright viewfinder. I wait a second, then snap. Got it. Stand up, camera back in the bag, move on.

I come to the first tee and am not certain if I'm in the right place, as the intersection is somewhat complex. I pull out my map of Rio and get my bearings. This is it. I turn toward Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. I continue my trek and arrive at the lake before long.

What a beautiful sight. Behind me is a mountain of rock, Morro de Formiga, perhaps, the mountain on which was built the famous and rather enormous statue Christo Redentor, its top currently obscured by the late morning clouds. I'm learning that you can get an idea where you are within the city by looking for a big rock whose shape you can identify. Across the lake are more hills and to my left, south of my location, is a particularly large rock, which sits between the lake and Ipanema.

There are many cyclists and joggers exercising here, using the lake as a big track, as there is a concrete path circumscribing it. I amble along its East side, shooting some scenics across it toward Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil. Most of the favela is not visible from this side of the hill, but some houses spill over the peak in my direction, a welcome addition to the photo. The bulk of this giant slum is located on the West side of the hill. Any place where the hills are not too steep, people from the outlying areas have moved in to get closer to the city, building illegal cities with great views of Rio and the Atlantic ocean.

By now, it's a bit hot and humid, at least more so than the previous day, which was mostly cloudy. I could use a drink. Thankfully, there are street vendors all over the place with a cooler full of coconuts. You pay them about a buck-fifty, they pull out the coconut, and start swinging at it with a cleaver using very aggressive blows. I wouldn't dare try it, lest I come home with fewer digits than I was born with. He chops off one end which will form a stable base on which the coconut will stand, then does the same to the other, before cutting a hole for the straw with three quick strikes.

The juice is cold and refreshing. I sit and watch cyclists and runners stay—or get—in shape. I'm in the shade and am enjoying the peace and serenity of the lake. After I finish the juice, I hand the coconut back to the street vendor and he splits the shell into three pieces. One will act as a bowl for the meat. He takes the meat from the other two pieces and places it in the newly created container. Neither the juice nor the meat is particularly tasty, but I appreciate the juice in particular because it is cool.

At one point as I'm sitting in one of several white plastic chairs, then vendor walks over to me, picks up my camera bag off the ground, places it in the chair next to me, and turns that chair to face me. I had taken a photo of him as he prepared my coconut meat and he must be concerned for the safety of my bag. Definitely a kind and considerate fellow.

From here I make my way South toward Ipanema. I'm not sure how to break through to the beach. There's a mountain in the way—Morro de Cantagalo. I decide to go the longer route. I stay on the lake perimeter a bit longer, then find the first crosswalk. There I head toward the beach through several busy city blocks. On the way, I pass the restaurant made famous by the song Girl from Ipanema—Veloso, now renamed Garota de Ipanema.

The day is nice, and, although it's a weekday during business hours, there's a surprising number of people at the beach, crowded in places, and sparser in others. As I head East toward Copacabana, I continue my routine. Look for a good shot, pull out the camera, snap, put the camera away. The beaches here are enormously wide—a few hundred yards, I would say.

Between Ipanema and Copacabana is a large rock peninsula. I walk out onto it and take in a great view overlooking both beaches. Suddenly, out of nowhere, comes in a chopper, low and fast. It banks steeply around the peninsula and comes pretty close. Probably a tour flight. Very cool.

After heading back to the main drag, I continue on down to Copacabana. There is a wider and nicer walkway along this beach. It's one I've seen in photos and have looked forward to photographing, myself. Partway down this beach, I realize I'm hungry and decide to pull into the first beachfront restaurant I see. I ask the Carioca that greets me what she would recommend. She points at the Caipirinha and Parisian Salad and Italian Shrimp.

As I sit and enjoy my meal while looking out over the beach—and relaxing in the shade—two gals sit down at the table next to me, staring blankly at their menus. After a while, the waitress brings out another set of menus and the two girls breathe a collective sigh of relief. The new menus are in English. Lisa is from Canada and Carina Australia. We have a very pleasant chat, then go our separate ways.

I polish off Copacabana fairly quickly, then turn towards Botafogo, where I'm staying. I notice my calves are hurting, not from walking, but because I failed to grease them up with sunscreen before I left the hostel. I also missed the sides of my neck, the backs of my arms, and my upper chest. Could've been much worse. At least I got most key areas.

I'm hoping to pass by a cemetery I passed on the way to the hostel from the airport, but I can't find it. I'll ask its location when I get back to the hostel and go there another day. I'm a little lost, but don't mind asking directions. The only problem is that I don't speak Portuguese and many Brazilians don't speak English. Eventually, I find the neighborhood where the hostel is located. I circle the block once, honing in on the proper street.

After getting back, I can't help but brag to a few other travelers that I still have my camera gear. It wasn't so bad. I watched my back and kept the camera exposed as little as possible.

One challenge down, a hundred to go.

For more photos of Rio, go here. A lot more will be coming.