Bee Says: Venezuela > Brazil was to be our first of many border crossings, and the first I’ve ever done on land. Border crossings have a reputation for being tricky, so it was with slight trepidation that I packed my backpack up and headed to a Por Puesta taxi that would take us from Santa Elena across the border and on to Boa Vista, Brazil. The taxis wait for a group of 5 before setting off, so being typically British we rocked up at 8am raring to get going. At 9.30am we finally rolled out of town, complete with a boot full of frozen meat that our driver stopped to pick up en route! We had barely left Santa Elena before our taxi was pulled over by a heavily armed policeman who leant his massive gun and pointy finger into the passenger window and shouted (in Spanish) GERMAN? GERMAN? at us. My sweaty brow creased at his angry red face but between the driver and my limited vocab we realised he wanted to see our passports and then wanted to know what country we were from. His guesses went from German to North American, before he understood we were British. He then went very quiet. TOO quiet. He studied our passports for a painfully long time… before reaching his hand out with a huge grin and saying in perfect English, “Nice to meet you.” It turns out he just wanted to shake hands with a rare Brit couple and show off his language skills! I was so relieved I waved to him until he was a tiny ant-man in the distance and we had no more drama until the border crossing. The taxi driver isn’t used to taking foreigners (who have a different crossing process to locals) so forgot to stop us for a Venezuelan exit stamp. As we declared ourselves at the Brazilian border, the policia informed us that without an exit stamp we won’t be able to go back to Venezuela using these passports. Luckily our itinerary doesn’t take us back there… but still, we felt like we’d done something wrong and shuffled around sheepishly as we were reprimanded. Everything seemed to take excruciatingly long and even though I knew we were going to be fine, every question made me feel guilty and uncertain and I was very relieved when we finally got the holy second-country stamp and were off to Brazil! Not so fast… we were singing along to Brazilian radio for about five minutes before we were pulled over by armed police again, with the same cross faces and pointy fingers (and guns, I can’t get used to the weapons), and had our bags searched. Thankfully all they seemed to take a close look at was Nick’s dirty underwear (!) and finally we were on our way, hurtling along the baking hot road to Boa Vista where the road is so scorching that an optical illusion makes it look permanently wet. I felt the closest I’ll probably get to a mirage in the jungle, surrounded by palm trees and arid terrain. By this stage our bumbling border experience had captured the heart of a young Brazilian woman, Joelma, sat up front. I chatted to her in Spanish and we realised that she was also heading directly to Manaus from Boa Vista, and so would be a useful aid in navigating buses etc. She grabbed Nick’s Lonely Planet, found the Portuguese dictionary section and spent the next two hours underlining what she felt were the most important phrases in biro – mostly revolving around food and personal safety!
We stopped for comida in a small road side settlement but at this stage neither of us had any Brazilian currency so we skulked around awkwardly eating the remains of some crisps from Nick’s bag. It must have been nearly 40 degrees in the sun, and we were wilting at the thought of another hours driving when Joelma came over with two frosty Coca-colas for us. it was so generous and just what we needed at that moment. A new friend and a refreshing drink! She also introduced us to her favourite Brazilian food – salgado. A fried ball of chicken, olives & veg that she proceeded to eat covering EVERY mouthful in pimenta (hot sauce). My jaw dropped. This is how I eat my food at home – smothered in so much hot sauce that you can barely recognise the dish below. I suddenly knew that Brazil would have a very special place in my heart (and tummy)!
Nick Says: The road (the only road) continued south into Brazil for hundreds of miles, past palm trees and scrubland until finally we reached the outskirts of the first major city in the north of Brazil – Boa Vista. However, while it seemed the journey was almost done, it was about to take a darker turn. Waiting in traffic, a guy was gesturing at the car. Getting out, we noticed that something on the bottom of the car had come loose and was dragging along the ground. I’m in no way mechanical, but it seemed like something we needed. A random piece of rope was procured, and the bit of metal was re-attached. We set off again, but only for a few hundred metres. Joelma turned round and said, ‘accident’. It was a bad one. Two guys had come off a bike and were now lying prone on the road. No helmets, and from the angle of their bodies, as well as some more grisly details, I could tell they would not be walking away from the crash. A crowd had gathered, and attempts were made to cover them with cardboard. I felt sick as we passed by. I never knew these two Brazilian men, and they never knew me, but I was now intrinsically linked to their deaths, and the final actions will affect me for the rest of this trip. It was only after we passed that Bee mentioned we may have been caught up in the crash if it wasn’t for our car breaking. Strange to think of that.
We soon rolled into Boa Vista station, where we jumped out a little shell-shocked. But there was no time to reflect as our bossy Brazilian friend marched us to the cash-point (which thankfully worked) and then led us into the ticket office. Through a combo of Bee’s Spanish and Joelma’s Portuguese the two were somehow able to forge a quick friendship – one I was shoved to the side of uncermoniously. Joelma would take Bee out to the station to parade her round and role-play Portuguese phrases in shops, before re-appearing with some sort of treat for us, including ice-cream which she managed to drop all over the floor (funny in any language) and bars of chocolate. She made sure we got the same bus as her (and in adjacent seats) and then it was off on another night-bus to Manaus.
Ah Manaus, the city in the middle of the Amazon. Built up in the late 19th Century by rubber barons, it is the major port of the Amazon and a mish-mash of colonial buildings, brand new developments, and favelas. It’s a fascinating place, and by all accounts one of the safest and friendliest in Brazil. It will also play host to several World Cup games next year, and we drove past the stadium on our way in. Considering it’s meant to be staging games in matter of months, I’d say it’s got a fair way to go until it’s ready… We had a few days before the boat sailed, so it was time to enjoy hostel life and see some sights – first of which was the Teatro Amazonas, the opera house built in 1896 in the middle of what was then pretty much jungle. Taking a tour to this amazing building was brilliant, as it’s been fully restored and retains much of its original features. However, my lasting memory of the place won’t be the ballroom or auditorium, it will be the fact the building attacked me. Waiting outside and putting on sun-cream, a storm suddenly rolled in. With it came a powerful gusting wind, which slammed against the building and shattered the plate glass windows. One came crashing down next to me not more than 50cm from my head. Leaping back I marvelled at how close it had been. What I should have done is sprinted away as quickly and as far as possible like Bee. As seconds later another gust of wind blew out another window, causing a shard of glass to deeply slice my back up. OUCH. Luckily we had some tape int he medical pack meaning I avoided stitches, and could stick the wound together until it healed – not easy in the humidity! I’ll add it to my long list of injuries sustained on the road, which will be the subject of a future blog post!
Bee Says: Ah the life of a hostel hopping backpacker. After spending the last week or so on our own, rattling round hostels with no fellow backpackers, it was a shock to the system to arrive at Hostel Manaus and find there were no private rooms available. We sloped up bleary eyed to a dorm, where we crashed out on our bunks. Being in a dorm actually worked out well, as we instantly befriended our roomies and I remembered this is what I love about hostel life. It is like a current in the ocean, you can just float along with the flow and you know there’ll always be a gang of people doing something you can go tag along to. This happened instantly for us, as a guy from Rio tipped us off about a concert taking place that night at the Teatre Amazones… so a few hours later we headed out. Myself, 2 Brazilian guys, a Dutch guy and an Italian guy (and Nick)… me and my 5 dates to the opera! We opted for slightly pricier tickets, so had wonderful seats high in the beautiful circle, with a perfect view of the stage. The concert was a traditional classical group from the amazon, who made their instruments from local resources and had tons of amazing percussions bits and bobs – including one that was just a coconut shell floating about in water that got tapped with a stick. I think even I could play that one. The night consisted of classical pieces, a famous local opera singer, a man in a shiny suit who sang Time to Say Goodbye in Portuguese, poetry and everything inbetween. The performance lasted hours and was electric, with the audience roaring and clapping in time and swaying to the beats. A truly pinch-yourself experience to be watching this and knowing you are sat in the middle of the jungle!
From one type of music to another, we were led by our new tour guides to a streetside bar where we drank litres of beer (it’s so cheap here and so refreshing, as it’s served still partially in chunks of ice), ate fish dumplings and listened to a samba band whip everyone into a frenzy and turning the pavement into a dance floor. We sat for hours soaking up this taste of Brazil and both knew that there was something special in the air that would definitely be hard to beat. Marvellous Manaus has been a wonderful place to spend a few days pre-boat experience. We’ve had the time and freedom to find favourite local places, such as the Budega 101 where you load up your plate from a vast buffet of food choices and then your plate is weighed and charged by the kilo! It was here I discovered banana fritter, a popular sweet treat. We also spent alot of time in Skina dos Suco, a juice bar that looks like something from Grease; with high stools and long tables forcing you to squeeze in with the locals as you slurp the most incredible juices. Nick sampled Acai (palm berries – that look like eyeballs – and tapioca) which tasted horrible but he said has made his insides feel cleansed and happy after a few too many salgados. We also found his dream milkshake – Ovaltine biscuits and Ovaltine ice cream. I know my mum will understand just how happy this would make him!
We have lurked around the port, checked out the markets and today we went to the Bosque de Ciencia (Science Park). A sticky bus journey 30 minutes through more and less desirable sections of Manaus bought us to the 130sq km jungle that houses squirrel monkeys (the most exciting wildlife spot I’ve had so far!), manatee, GIANT otters, crocodiles, sloth and electric eels amongst other beasties.
Finally, we bought our hammocks (mine is leopard print… obv!) and tomorrow we set sail on our Amazon boat which will take us four days and nights through Brazil to Porto Velho and one step closer to our next stop. Bolivia!
(PS. I still haven’t received an answer for my number one Brazil question, and the title of this blog post. I haven’t seen any evidence of them around that’s for sure. Socorro?)