Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On the beach, and Jewing it up, part deux--Natal, Pipa, Recife!

After just 32 hours on a bus, we made it from Sao Luis to Natal. Natal and the surrounding area is known for its beaches and is a big vacation destination for Brazilians and visitors alike.

We got in late and stayed in a cheap hotel near the bus station (but hey, it was clean and we had our own bathroom, so I can´t complain). The next morning, we took the city bus to Ponta Negra, the beachy part of town 12KM (45 minutes or so--slow bus) away.

It was OK, but very urban--really built-up all along the beach, very crowded, and in one part, with some water draining from town that smelled suspiciously like sewage. Despite the cool-looking giant sand dune, on which people used to sand-ski, and the cheap coconut water (75 centavos, or about 35 cents US, for a coconut), we didn´t stay long.

Instead, we took a bus to Praia de Pipa, a beach town 85 KM (and, on another very slow bus, a frustrating 2+ hours) south. It had been recommended to us by a Brazilian we met at the Lencois Maranhenses, and we are really glad we went, because it was lovely.

The town there was also rather built-up and touristy (with crazy high restaurant prices to match), but because all of that is on a cliff and the beaches are downhill from that, they are still in a very natural setting.

There were some good amenities in town, like this temple...

...and the hairdresser´s, where Andy got his second haircut of the trip (price with tip, 12 reais, or about $6 US). The hairdresser even spoke a little English!

Thanks to the slow transportation and our schedule, we had very little time in Pipa, just from 4PM one day to 8AM the next day, but we managed to explored three beaches in the area in that time.

Our best excursion involved two things I normally hate--waking up early, and hiking--but it was really worth it when we got to swim at a totally deserted beach AND see dolphins cavorting really close to the shore (which was what we had really hoped to see when we set out at 6AM to shlep there).

It is SO hard to get a picture of a dolphin out at sea, but if you look closely you can see one´s fin sticking out of the water here on the left. Andy is really proud of this picture. =)

He also took this one of a big crab on the beach.

After our best Brazilian buffet breakfast yet (another post!), we hauled butt out of Pipa on a minibus that took us (again, verrrry slowly) 25 kilometers to the town near the highway. Determined not to have to backtrack another hour to Natal, we flagged down a southward-bound bus to the nearest city, Joao Pessoa. (This is one of the crazy things you can do--flag down a fancy bus from the side of the highway, even though you don´t have a ticket. This is what slowed down many of our bus trips in the area, but we were pretty pleased at the practice when we finally needed to do it.)

We changed buses in Joao Pessoa for Recife and arrived there in the afternoon. Sadly, this only left us 2 hours or so to explore the city before we had to get on the night bus to Salvador, but we made the most of our time there.

Downtown Recife has a lot of beautiful old and colorful colonial buildings, like this one.

And many very old churches on little squares. As you can see, much of downtown was completely deserted, like a ghost town. It was Sunday afternoon, and since we always seem to be arriving in a new city on a Sunday, we have noticed that this happens in a lot of places.

Sunday is a bad day for going inside churches, but a good day to Jew it up! Recife has the archeological remains of another site that claims to be the "oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere," so of course we had to go.

Irony of ironies, it is located on a street that is now called "Street of the good Jesus." Back in the day, it was known as "Street of the Jews."

Inside was an exhibit with info about Dutch religious tolerance, the immigrant Portuguese Jewish community in the 1600s, and how the Portuguese eventually threw the Jews out. Some of them went to New York, some went around the Caribbean (like to the other first synagogue in Suriname?).

There were remains of a mikvah-like well and some other archeological findings under glass on the ground floor, and a newer synagogue on the upper floor:

After our temple visit, we got some sausage on a stick (yes, more irony), and that was about all the time we had in Recife. Next post should cover our adventures in Salvador. Keep the comments coming!

How fast can we move?

Tara alluded in her last post to the number of bus trips we have taken. As it turns out, Brazil is huge. Essentially the same size as the continental United States. I knew this, but never really processed it. So, we have been rushing down the coast of Brazil faster than we would like, but we have lots to see in the future. Here are some highlights:

As Tara mentioned, she loved Belem. I don't have great phots for this--mostly it is because a.) we had been on a boat for 2 days and she got to rest in Belem and b.) she got to see the Harry Potter movie in Belem. Amazingly, they had one subtitled show rather than being dubbed like the others. In any case, here is the picture I like best from Belem. Apparently, this sculpture on a high wall near the harbor represents Belem. After Belem, it was off to Sao Luis. Sao Luis is famous for its colonial beauty and is currently being redone in parts. The original plan was to visit for a couple hours and then go to this other city to see great sand dunes. As it turns out, we were forced to come back through Sao Luis and got stuck there. Here is a nice butterfly from there, though.
In Sao Luis, many of the buildings are tiled with Dutch tiles. This is because the city is both hot and humid, and tiles keep the buildings cool without falling apart in the humidity. I really liked that they even tiled their stoplights.
We went to Barreirenhas (which I probably spell three different ways in this blog because I can't get it right) to see what our guide book described as amazing sand dunes. Our book has often lead us astray, so we questioned it, but I really like sand dunes. As it turns out, it was completely worth the trip even though we had to go 4 hours in the wrong direction only to find out we had missed our bus by 15 minutes and had to spend yet another night in Sao Luis. Here is the truck that took us to the dunes:
In Barreirenhas, we met a tourist guy at the bus stop who spoke Spanish. As we will address in a later post, this was nice since almost no one in Northern Brazil speaks anything but Portuguese. Everyone says never to talk to such people, but we've had good luck with them. He helped us find a room (he showed us several and we decided to go cheap in the end) and helped us get a tour to the dunes. The room we took "had a television". They were true to their advertising, though you may notice that it doesn't actually even have a cord. Had we had 6 D batteries, we could have watched it:

To the dunes! To get to the dunes, I won't waste a picture, but we had to take a "ferry" that was a big wooden raft pushed by a separate little motor boat. They were beautiful and unlike any dunes I had ever visited. Massive sand dunes that fill with blue lakes during the rainy season. We swam in the lakes, I tried to slide down the sand dunes on my belly which required some flopping about like a seal, I rolled down a huge dune into the water. A great time. Here we are with one of the lakes in the background. The lakes are only there for about three months of the year.
Here's one at the edge of the dunes where shrubs begin to grow.
From there, we ended up going all the way to Natal via a 32 hour bus ride because the buses to Fortaleza were sold out. So, you won't find any commentary on Fortaleza here. Tara will take over down the coast.

Back in Brazil, by bus and boat, baby!

OK, we have been back in Brazil for about 10 days, so we should probably start blogging about it, huh?

So far the defining characteristic of our travels here have been how long the journeys are from place to place, and how expensive they are. We have been spending $20-$30 a night on hotel, and most of the time less than $10 a day on food, but the cost of transport has pushed our daily average to well over $100. And I have been on more overnight bus trips than I care to count. But we have had a lot of adventures here, which I will start to recap now!

We returned to Brazil from French Guyana via Oiapoque, a dusty border town where we got stuck for 24 hours because the overnight buses to the nearest real city were sold out the day we got in. We have no pics there, as Andy had the flu and spent most of the time asleep in our sketchy but cheap motel room, with me occasionally venturing out to get him fruit nectar (vitamin C!).

We were almost the only white people in town, and vendors constantly called out to us in French ("bonjour madame!" "tres jolie, madame!"). The only tourists they see there are those coming over from French Guyana.

One overnight bus trip later and we were in Macapa, from whence we needed to get on a riverboat to Belem. Most boats take 24 hours to cross the vast Amazon delta, and some take longer. We had read that there were faster 12- and even 8-hr boats, but upon our arrival these did not seem to be in existence. The only boat we could find leaving that day was a 40-hour boat via Breves, another Amazon city. (There is no central ticket office or anything like that; you take a bus 30 KM outside of the city to the port and walk around and talk to people on different boats in the harbor and haggle for a ticket with them. Since we speak next to no Portuguese, figuring this was really fun!)

Luckily, one of the boat ticket salesmen spoke French, so I was able to get info from him and bargain his price down a little. We then had less than an hour to race around town and procure hammocks to sleep in and provisions for our trip.

Our boat, the Oliveira Nobre:

Check out the lovely his and hers hammocks Andy scored for us: $7.50 US apiece.

As you can see, the Oliveira Nobre wasn´t very crowded and our first night was really pleasant. Sadly, in Breves, we had to switch to a much more crowded boat, the Bom Jesus (though I liked to call it the Evil Jesus). Hammocks on top of hammocks, loud, dirty bathrooms, the whole 9 yards.

Even better, our hammocks started swaying violently in the night, and everyone was crashing into each other. So I climbed down and slept for two hours on the floor.

Breves, where we changed boats, had an enormous statue of a saint dominating the harbor. This is very common in South America.

Finally, though, we arrived in Belem. It was one of my favorite cities so far, and I will give you a clue as to why...

More recaps as soon as we can!

Foods of Brazil, Part I

Let's go straight to the pictures:

Tara eating what they call a "crepe" in Belem, which is actually a stick of cheese fried in butter on a special little George Foreman grill contraption (though without the angle that would cause the fat to run off):
I have become somewhat addicted to fruit nectar in South America. It is way cheaper and more common than in the US and peach nectar especially is amazing. For those that don't know, nectar is some small percentage of the fruit juice and then tons of sugar.
They like to sell cake on the street in Brazil. Huge cakes, you walk up, and they cut you a piece. This was some kind of coconut one. They are all very moist and not bad. This one only cost about 75 cents. Tara later paid $1.50 for a cashew one that wasn't worth it.

For those that don't know Tara, she loves prunes. Yes, she is an 80 year old trapped in the body of a 29 year old. She was so happy when she found these for an almost reasonable price...

These are Brazil nuts in their shells. I couldn't get an action shot, but the way they open them is by holding the shell in one hand and whacking it with a giant machete with the other hand. Surprisingly, I didn't notice any of them missing fingers. The art is apparently to keep the nut whole when you whack it.

We bought a giant bag of Brazil nuts for about $1.50. They have tons of different grades and sizes. We went with the ones that were broken in pieces about the size of half nuts. That apparently made them cost 1/4 the cost of whole nuts.

Brazilians love meat on a stick. This is good, as I do, too. They set up small grills everywhere and sell this amazing tasting meat. The going rate is 50 cents per stick, but these were a little lower quality, so they were 3 for $1.00! Seriously, I don't understand why they cook meat so much better than Americans, but they do.

Tara loves her coconuts, and they are everywhere in South America. They chill the whole thing on ice and then crack a hole in it and put a straw in for you to drink the coconut water. We have bought them for as little as 25 cents, but most are more like 50 cents. I don't love them (despite loving coconut).

Dried shrimp is huge in Brazil. At least in Northern Brazil. They have it at all the markets and it seems cheap. Neither of us likes shrimp, but I like the picture.

Tara has been trying all kinds of yogurt flavors not available in the US. Here she is with a drinkable wheat (or maybe oatmeal) one.
Pineapple is super cheap here. We have seen whole pineapples for 50 cents. But we don't have a knife, so we were happy to find ready to eat half pineapples for 40 cents.

I had to finish off the juice after, of course.

This one is still a mystery. It was sweet and gelatinous. It was not good, but Tara forced herself to eat all of it.
Who knew that cashews actually have a huge fruit on them? They use the fruit here in a lot of things. It is rare to see the nuts still attached, but in Salvador we have seen a few places.
Some of the Salvador streetfood is African in origin. This is apparently from the west coast of Africa. A fried thing made of kidney beans filled with palm oil goo, green stuff, and other unidentifiable fishy sauces. Tara liked it.
I had my own gelatinous mistake. This one was coconut with condensed milk, but wasn't very tasty.
That's all for now!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Prison camps, space centers, and the kindness of strangers: French Guyane!

In our quest to visit every country in South America, we couldn´t leave out French Guyane (or French Guyana, as most English maps call it, or Guyane, as the French call it, or Guiane, as our book calls it...we are compromising and calling it French Guyane). Even though it isn´t even a country. (It´s an "overseas department of France," which I guess is the PC term for "colony" these days.) Even though it was rumored to be incredibly expensive (silly euro) and not at all non-French-speaker friendly. Even though public transport through the country was said to be nearly nonexistent.

All of these things turned out to be true. Nevertheless, there were a few interesting things to see and do, and we made a few really fantastic friends, without whom our whopping four days in the country would have been a lot less fun and a lot more expensive.

Guyane was originally intended to be the French Australia--i.e. a penal colony. Meaning that the most interesting tourist attractions in the country (I use this term loosely) are the former prison camps that you can tour.

In the border town of St. Laurent du Maroni, we took a 2-hour tour, in French, of the infamous Transportation Camp. I told Andy I would translate, but luckily the group we toured with had brought along their own translator, who was much, much better than I could ever have been.

Here is one of the cells at the transportation camp, containing the last original bed left in the camp. Yes, those two wooden slabs were a prisoner´s bed.
Life in this place was abysmal, with daily guillotining of prisoners that all other prisoners were forced to watch, and doubling of sentences so that prisoners shipped to Guyane had basically no chance of ever returning home to France.

The next day, we took a boat from Kourou to the Iles du Salut, three islands that were once home to notorious prison camps and are now, ironically, popular holiday destinations for locals and tourists. They have converted some of the guards houses into ridiculously overpriced hotel rooms, and Andy and I actually paid to stay in one of these, so we spent the night on Ile Royale, the largest island.

From Ile Royale, you could see Ile du Diable (Devil´s Island), which is where Alfred Dreyfuss was held for many years. Other famous political prisoners lived on that island, too.

Nowadays, though, most of the permanent residents of the islands are adorable little squirrel monkeys...

...and giant "palm rats" (which we think are the same thing as agoutis).

Back in Kourou, we visited CNES, the European space center. Here is the big globe at the entrance to the space center, lit up at night. Note the lighted rocket over French Guyane.

"Hold on," you are probably saying. "Why is the European space center located in French Guyane, of all places?" Well, as we learned from yet another 3-hour tour in French, the equatorial location, proximity to the ocean, and stable weather conditions actually make it the perfect place for rocket launches! And a rocket containing a satellite or two is launched every couple of months on the Ariane 5. In fact, one is launching in a few days, on August 21. We need to remember to look at the sky that night at 7PM to see if we can see it!

We have more pics from the space station, but we haven´t uploaded them yet. Suffice it to say that it is the dominating employer of the whole colony, with thousands of people, mostly Europeans, living there to work either directly for the center or in a related industry.

Kind strangers
The people we lucked into meeting at the prison camp in St. Laurent--the ones who had brought their own translator--were some such people. There was one American, Dan, who was in Guyane for 6 weeks preparing for a launch of his company´s satellite, and with him was an entourage of people from various countries, some visiting for this particular launch and some living in Guyane. Dan´s group had come from Kourou to tour the prison, and he graciously offered us a lift the 2.5 hours back, since that is where we were heading anyway. This surely saved us at least 50 euros in taxi fare...and that was only the beginning.

Also in his car was Manuela, who lived in Guyane and worked for a company that helped organize everything, from office supplies to tourism, for visiting Americans and their ilk who came in for launches. She is originally from Italy and her boyfriend, Max, works for the space center, so they came over 5 years ago and she learned French and has worked in tourism since. She graciously busted out her cell phone and, a couple of calls later, had arranged our trip to the Iles du Salut and determined that we were not going to find an affordable hotel room in which point she offered us a room in her apartment for the same price as the cheapest hotel in town.

The infrastructure for moving from place to place is so poor, and the tourist info so hard to find in Guyane, that without the help of Dan, Manuela, and Max, we would have been frustrated, bewildered, and broke in Kourou. Instead, we had a warm bed, stuff set up for us in French, and rides all over town. Dan insisted on taking us out to dinner that night in Kourou to a great Surinamese meat-on-a-stick place, and on two trips to Glacier des 2 Lacs, where some of the best ice cream we have ever had was served.

And Max and Manuela were completely lovely to us. We had our own room and bathroom, a set of keys, rides to and from the boat, a tour around town, breakfast, and lots of snuggle-time with their adorable chihuaha, Gaia!

We don´t have a pic of Dan, but here is one with Max, Manuela, and Gaia. Thank you all again so much for your hospitality!

After Kourou we went to the capital, Cayenne, which was boring and expensive. The next day we were off to the border and back in Brazil. The adventure continues...

P.S. There will be no "Food of French Guyane" post, because we never ate at a restaurant other than the time we went out with Dan. Too expensive. We did find baguettes for 75 euro cents, though, and packages of Danish salami for 2 euros apiece (plus I got some Laughing Cow cheese and knockoff Nutella, both delicious things that Andy won´t eat) and survived on that for four days. Could have been worse!

Foods of Suriname!

As I mentioned in my last post, the population of Suriname is a wonderful mix of African, Indonesian, East Indian, Amerindian, Chinese, Dutch, and other heritages I am surely forgetting. And what´s really cool about the country is how well all of these groups get along. Unlike in neighboring Guyana, where the two political parties are divided along racial lines (there is one black party and one Indian party, and around election time the two groups apparently really don´t get along), there are lots of parties in Suriname, and they´re preoccupied with much more important matters than race (like, for instance, justice over the military coup that destabilized the government in the 1980s...yup, still an issue today).

Anyway, at all the restaurants we went to, we saw all sorts of people enjoying each others´ foods and culture. We couldn´t help but jump in and enjoy, too. Unfortunately, we don´t have a lot of restaurant pics, because we didn´t take a camera to the fancy Chinese place we ate at, and the pictures of our delicious food from Andy´s birthday dinner at an Indonesian place are stuck on the other camera (whose memory card is apparently unreadable now by our card reader). But we had beef crusted in spicy coconut (YUM), vegetables with peanut sauce, and vegetable bami (a sort of lo mein-esque noodle dish). So, just trust me, it was delicious.

Here are the food picture we do have.

One of our first stops on crossing into the country was a gas station, where Andy was SO excited to find the "windmill cookies" of his youth. These are kind of spicy ginger cookies with pictures of windmills on them that are apparently Dutch, and therefore sold in Suriname. Very tasty.

Our default cheap meal in Paramaribo was roti aard, served mostly at Roopram Roti, a fast-food-esque chain where small armies of people make rotis (a delicate flat Indian bread) in the kitchen and serve them up with various fillings. Roti aard is the cheapest on the menu, and for less than $3 US you get a huge roti and a huge plate of curried potato filling, sometimes with green beans added too, and hot sauce if you like. You then use the bread to scoop the filling, no utensils.

Forgive my expression here, it´s no reflection on the tastiness of the roti!

Another reason Suriname is near and dear to our hearts is that they had abundant supermarkets with abundant freezer sections, meaning abundant ice cream. (We determined that the ridiculous amount of supermarkets in Suriname must be due, in part, to the fact that the whole country runs on hydropower from a huge dam created in the 1960s on the Suriname river, meaning that electricity for things like lighting and fridges and freezers is abundant and cheap...unlike in the surrounding countries, where sometimes things like gas are cheaper, but electricity isn´t so the markets are much more basic, and frozen foods much harder to come by.)

Anyway, because no birthday pie or cake was available, Andy had to buy a big tub of locally-made coconut ice cream for his birthday...

Oh yeah, and make ice cream floats with it in glasses of fruit nectar.

On our trip to Brownsberg National Park, our trip leader Irvin turned us on to these amazing garlic-flavored banana chips. We ate a LOT of those.

There were also onion-flavored cassava chips, which weren´t as amazing as the banana chips, but were still darn good.

Also, when he cooked for us, Irvin prepared prodigious amounts of rice. Check out part of the lunch he packed for us when we went on our day-trip to Bergendal for zip-lining--literally a bucket of rice.

The other thing we loved about the food in Suriname was all the vegetables. Nearly every restaurant dish we ordered came with delicious fresh vegetables, which never happens in the other we have been to (where, when you order meat, you get meat, maybe with some rice or other starch). And Irvin always included veggies in our meals on the tour (not the case on our rainforest trip in Brazil). Now that we are in Brazil, land of meat on a stick and deep-fried pasteles, we sure do miss our Suriname vegetables.