Author Archives: John Gunther

Ethiopia 1981

This is a reminiscence of a trip to Egypt in Ethiopia taken with my friend, Wendy Erb, in approximately December 1981. This text deals only with the Ethiopia portion of the trip. It’s not meant to be an absorbing narrative, but to preserve fading memories of a 40-year old adventure. Unfortunately, I have no surviving photographs so I’ve included a few internet-scavenged modern ones.

The year before, Wendy had visited me in Alaska, where I worked out an itinerary of wilderness and road excursions. Now, Wendy had managed to get travel agent credentials (she was actually an investment banker) and completely planned this trip. When we stayed in international hotel chains, we were paying only about half the normal rate. That may have applied to airfare, too.

Ethiopia has a long, storied, and often violent history. Its rugged terrain, fierce tribesmen, and periodic famines exempted it from the European colonization that overtook the rest of Africa. There is evidence of human and earlier hominid residence going back over 4 million years. We visited during the period of Communist dictatorship. In fact Ethiopia had just reopened to tourism when we arrived.

We fly from Cairo, Egypt to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and transfer to the Sheraton hotel. After settling in our room, we return to the lobby and are approached by a young man speaking passable English who says he had earlier helped us with our bags and offers to take us on a tour of the city. Naively, we believe him and set out in a taxi he procures. I don’t remember how good the tour was, but we end up in front of a jewelry store. Looking at the prices we’re being quoted in Ethiopian currency, I suddenly realize they’re attempting to rip us off royally. Our tour guide is obviously in cahoots with the merchant and is scamming us — indeed, he probably just targeted us in the lobby and lied about carrying our bags. At that point, despite not knowing where we are in the city, we abruptly end the tour. To escape, we have to pay an extortionate taxi fare. Now we’re on foot, unaccompanied, unable to speak with anyone, and lost in a strange city. Fortunately, we can see the high rise portion of Addis Ababa and it’s a fairly easy walk downhill to the hotel. Chastened by our naïveté, we resolve to be much more skeptical of strangers.

Wendy, in her inimitable way, had made acquaintance with an Ethiopian in New York City. I think he worked at the United Nations. Somehow, she had arranged for us to meet with him in Addis Ababa. He was very urbane and educated and treats us to dinner at a restaurant. At that time, Ethiopian food was virtually unknown in the US and we have a delightful meal, during which he tells us a lot about Ethiopia. At the end of the dinner, as we part company in our hotel, he tells us, “Because you are foreigners, I had them cook the meat.” Realizing that the local cuisine often involves raw meat is quite a shock to us. Nowadays, many Americans are familiar with Ethiopian restaurants.

Our first tourist excursion is a road trip to the Dire Dawa region to see wildlife. I only have a few memories of that. One is being aware that this was one of the rebellious regions, but our guide assuring us it’s currently safe. Another is seeing the train between Ethiopia and Djibouti passing by teeming with passengers on the roofs of freight cars and hanging on to the passenger coaches. I don’t remember which way it was going.

Wendy has booked a loop tour around the country with three stops. Because of the rugged terrain and 3 ongoing civil wars, long distance road travel was not customary, so each leg is done on the government carrier, Ethiopian Airlines. We had entered the country on one of their routes, which was a modern jet and a typical international flight.

Internal flights turn out to be another matter. Because of the rebellions, security is very tight, and after going through multiple searches, all the passengers end up sitting in an unadorned, spare waiting room with no plane in sight. We’re eventually told our plane has been diverted to fly a football team to their match and we have to wait some hours for another one. More disconcerting, our plane is an old, unpressurized DC3 tail dragger and we have no idea if the safety standards for internal flights at all match those of the airline’s international operation.

Boarding the plane is not the typical flying experience, even for an Alaskan. Instead of conventional seats, there are two long benches facing each other, in the style of a military troop transport.

We each take a seat along the fuselage and buckle in. We’re the only foreigners on the flight and most of the others appear to be rural Ethiopians. For the young man to my right, this seems his first flying experience. Seeing others fastening their seat belts, he grabs a belt from his left and from his right but can’t figure out how to buckle them together. Why? Because he has two male ends, one of them mine. Puzzled, he starts to tie the two straps into a knot. I gently halt what he’s doing, hand him the correct end, and pantomime the proper buckling technique. Because a DC3 sits on the ground with the fuselage slanted downward from nose to tail, we’re all uncomfortably sitting canted about 15 degrees to the right on the canvas benches and the plane shows no sign of leaving the apron. Now the luggage is being loaded and, because the DC3 has no separate compartment, the handler is piling it all at the back of our cabin, opposite the door. Once loaded, he hooks a cargo net to the fuselage and squeezes all the bags and boxes behind it. It’s not a very secure way to protect us from the heavy objects in flight.

Finally, the door is closed, the two propeller engines are started and we taxi and take off. Since Addis Ababa is quite high at 7,600 ft and there are mountains between us and our destination, the unpressurized plane ascends to abut 10,000 feet. The passenger compartment definitely gets chilly but breathing is not noticeably impaired. Shortly after take off an old woman wearing a colorful , sari-like garment sitting across from us shows obvious signs of distress — she’s getting airsick. Strapped in on a full plane, there’s nothing she can do but progress to nausea. Just before she throws up, the man next to her pulls her shawl down over her head to give her at least a shred of dignity and privacy.

The engines are noisy and the aluminum skin vibrates loudly as well. Part way into the 200 mile flight, the cockpit door unlatches and I laughingly tell Wendy that meal service is about to begin. I mean this as a joke since the DC3 is small and consists of only the cockpit and passenger cabin. There’s no bathroom and no galley. The joke is on me as a uniformed stewardess emerges from the cockpit carrying a tray of drinks in paper cups. She works her way unsteadily down the aisle and we each grab what turns out to be something like Kool-Aid. She disappears back into the cockpit and shortly re-emerges, this time carrying a tray of simple sandwiches. Wendy and I are both amazed that there really is “meal” service. Fortunately, there is no turbulence en route. If there were, I’m sure the plane would turn into a vomit comet.

The late departure causes us to arrive way behind schedule at our first stop, Bahir Dar, a town is on the shore of Lake Tana, the 44th largest lake in the world. An attraction here is the papyrus boats used by the locals. We see some coming in laden with firewood from many miles away — a sign of the region’s extreme poverty. Although these boats are pitched to tourists as quaint and traditional, I quickly see how inadequate they are. Basically, the dry boat is put in the water and the occupant paddles like crazy to reach their destination before the papyrus becomes waterlogged and the craft sinks. It looks like a very risky mode of transportation.

I also remember feeling terrible that we’re being shuttled around in a Land Rover passing by people who are clearly economically destitute. Although we didn’t know it then, our visit fell between the 1977-78 so-called “Red Terror”, where 500,000 people died through government action. and the 1983-85 famine that killed one million Ethiopians.

We’re offered tej, a simple, homebrewed mead-like wine made from honey and a medicinal shrub. I don’t think it tasted very good to us.

Our main Bahir Dar excursion is to the Blue Nile Falls. We’re driven as far as possible and then walk across an ancient stone bridge (1626), where an ancient Ethiopian in some sort of uniform stands guard with an equally ancient rifle.

After tipping the guard to proceed, a further bit of walking brings us to a viewpoint across from the falls. They’re quite impressive, looking like a scaled down Brasil/Argentina Iguassu Falls. Since our visit, a new hydroelectric project has diverted much of the natural flow away from the falls.

The next morning we’re hustled back to the nearby airport for our flight to our next stop, Gondar. The airport terminal is a small, basically one-room, building facing a small apron connected to a grass airstrip. We’re checked in through the front door, then shooed about 15 feet through a one-table security station, out the back door to the building’s back porch. It’s crowded back there, so I descend the few steps to the ground to walk around a bit and am immediately confronted by an armed soldier who makes it non-verbally clear that I’m not allowed to leave the porch. I’m also not allowed back inside the building. Since there are about 27 passengers crowded onto the small porch, we get to know each other as time passes and no plane appears.

The bulk of the travelers are a West German tour group. My childhood German had recently been tuned up by having a girlfriend in Munich, so I get into quite a conversation with them. Over a period of 30 minutes or so, they teach me a number of East German jokes, a popular genre in the then-divided nation. The only one I remember is about East German Chancellor Walter Ulbricht making a radio speech to the nation. He says, translated, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is we’ve learned how to make butter out of shit. The bad news is that while we have the texture perfect, the taste isn’t right yet.” This referred to chronic shortages of staples and the frequent use of terrible substitutes in East Germany.

Eventually, we hear a plane approaching, but the sound soon fades again. Shortly, an airline employee comes out on the porch to tell us that the flight has been ordered to bypass us and another one will land shortly. After another 2 hours of waiting we all hear plane noise again. This time it’s for real because the cows grazing at one end of the runway are shooed to the side and the football game in progress in the middle is temporarily adjourned.

Another antique aircraft glides in, bounces onto the grass, and taxies up to the terminal. The loading process proceeds and eventually the planes engines rev up for departure — and rev and rev and rev. Finally, they’re shut down and we’re all shooed off the plane back to the porch. Some time later, a maintenance worker appears with a step ladder, climbs up to one of the engines, removes its cowling and peers inside. After 10 minutes of inspection, he climbs down, leaves, and eventually returns with a large container of liquid — engine oil, hydraulic fluid? We’re told nothing. He adds fluid to the engine, buttons everything up, climbs down, and disappears with his ladder. This little drama does not instill confidence in us. The passengers reboard the plane and we’re off to Gondar. By now we’ve lost two half days of tour activities due to flight delays but I’m appreciating that any successful flight is something to appreciate.

On arrival, we’re transferred to our hotel. After dinner, our guide herds us into an event room with promises of a folklore show. About two hours pass and still no performers arrive. The whole group is restless and annoyed. Wendy and I decide to walk around Gondar at night to get a feel for the town. Our guide urgently takes us aside and tries to convince us to stay. Seeing we’re determined,he takes us into his confidence. The mayor has told the guide to keep us inside for the night. Remember, we’re in a Communist dictatorship with civil wars in progress. As we speak privately, he decides to give us some background. Ethiopia has a Jewish population dating back to about 300 AD. The current regime is hostile to those Jews and has been, essentially, secretly ransoming them to Israel, which is flying them out, one planeload at a time. The mayor doesn’t want tourists wandering around and gathering information about this scheme.

After giving us this explanation, the guide tells us we’re free to leave the hotel for a walk but not to make contact with anyone, to which we readily agree. I don’t think the folklore show happened at all that night. The next day was spent touring Gondar. Writing this narrative, I’ve researched the city and read that it was an imperial capital for centuries and its attractions are very old castles and an Italian architecture dating from the brief occupation in the 1930s. However, 40 years after the fact, I can’t recall anything we did or saw there that next day. I know we flew on to our third destination, but I can’t remember anything about that, either.

The Nile River region, including Ethiopia has had a strong Christian tradition, the Coptic Church, since the beginnings of the religion. In most of that area it was sidelined and persecuted as Islam came to dominate. The Copts are still the largest religion in Ethiopia, though, and since they have long been separated from other branches of Christianity, they have evolved different traditions and observances. In Lalibela, a number of ornate churches were, long ago, carved monolithically out of the sandstone terrain. It’s these that we came to see. Of course, I have almost no interest in religious sites but this is one of the marquee attractions in the country, so Wendy put it on our schedule.

On arrival in Lalibela, we’re lodged in a motel- or bungalow-like hotel with accommodations surrounded by gardens and paths. In the evening, I go walking and exploring the grounds and say hello to a young couple sitting in the gardens. They turned out to be East Germans. Though neither of them spoke English, I spoke German so we began a conversation.

They are both doctors, sent to Ethiopia as part of an aid project from one Communist regime to another. We start to get acquainted and they tell me how lucky they are to be chosen for an overseas job. Within minutes, though, the wife excuses herself and leaves. She is concerned that associating with an American could jeopardize their posting. The husband, Gerd, and I continue speaking for quite a while in the gathering dark about East Germany, his experience in Ethiopia, and my German background and experiences. I resist the strong temptation to recite my recently acquired East German jokes to him. By some quirk of memory, I can still remember his full name, 40 years later, despite the brevity and casualness of our encounter.

The next day is a blur of walkthroughs of what, in retrospect, seem like a dozen massive, rock hewn Coptic churches. My main memory is that they were all red, being carved out of the sandstone bedrock. I see a lot of Christian symbols that seem different from the ones that permeate the west. My impression is clearly of a religion that has lost contact with its foundings and has evolved into a “dialect” of Christianity.

Our final Ethiopian experience is another DC3 flight back to Addis Ababa, where I have a complaint to lodge. The monopoly tourist agency is the only place to buy in-country tours, most of which depend on flights by the monopoly air carrier. Due to the capricious operation of Ethiopian Airlines, where it seems government functionaries often disrupt scheduled flights and arbitrarily divert them for other purposes, we and other tourists missed out on a substantial fraction of our tour activities, spending our time instead sitting in airport waiting rooms and planes on the ground. Although both airline and agency are part of the government, the agency has taken no responsibility for our abbreviated tour schedules, saying they have no responsibility for airline delays.

On our last day, I hoof my way over to the agency headquarters and discuss the problem with the manager. I point out how bad it is for the agency and airline to get a reputation for failing to deliver on their commitments. I’m sure my complaints will fall on deaf ears, but the manager relents and gives me a modest rebate on our tour fees. Shortly after, we head for the airport and catch our jet back to Cairo.

Road Trip – 20/08/10 A Series of Unfortunate Events

Having gone stir crazy stuck at home for 5 months, I embarked on a solo cross country road trip to meet, for the first time, my now 6-month old grandson, Felix. Safety precautions included almost complete isolation during the journey — sleeping in the van, no indoor exposure, one drive-thru meal per day. Not exactly a fun itinerary.

On my second day, I had a minor adventure. Driving I-80 near Joliet IL in dense, high speed traffic, the sky got very dark and my phone blared out an emergency Tornado Warning. Within minutes, I was in heavy wind and rain. Fearing damaging hail or even an active twister, I pulled onto the breakdown lane to shelter under an overpass. My van filled the space between the guard rail and travel lane, so heavy trucks were flying by within a few inches of my face.

Precarious parking

The storm got furious, with hurricane force wind gusts so strong that the car was rocking and road gravel was flying through the air and banging into it. After 15 minutes or so the worst was over so I turned the key to get moving again. NOTHING! The electrical system, which had been working perfectly, chose that moment to die. Parked in a dangerous spot, I waited for a few seconds of traffic lull, then quick like a bunny hopped out the driver side, slammed the door, and ran for the safety of the sloped abutment on the other side of the bridge columns.

Having no other options, I pulled out my phone to order some expensive “we got you, suckah” road service, only to find the phone had no signal, which made no sense based on my location. Half expecting any moment to see some hurtling semi-truck clip the van and send it flying down the roadway, I quickly grabbed my long jumper cables out of the back, returned to the safe side of the guard rail, and held out the cables fetchingly to approaching vehicles, hoping against hope that someone would stop to help. Of course, with the rain, the traffic density, and the dangerous location, no one even gave me a glance. After a half hour of this, I thought of pulling up my pants leg and trying a little cheesecake but instead gave up and put down the cables.

Returning to my phone, I eventually tried restarting it. Probably by coincidence, that resulted in some signal so I called 911 and told them that I just needed a jump but was stalled in a dangerous location. The dispatcher said she’d send the police and, after another 30 minutes, an Illinois state trooper pulled up and turned on his lights.

Most police would have stayed comfortably in their cars and radioed for a $150 tow truck, but this gentleman was much more helpful. He offered to jump my car from his and pulled onto the narrow shoulder ahead of the Toyota. Even with my long cables, he didn’t want to back up off the road far enough for them to reach, so he got out and together we pushed the van forward about 10 feet so they could be hooked up. The engine was quickly restarted and I was on my way thanks to his generosity.

Since I didn’t know what part of the electrical system was at issue, I drove another few hours to charge the battery and then parked at a rest area where I could easily get another jump if needed. I turned off the ignition and again couldn’t crank the engine. This pretty much proved battery failure so the next morning, I drove across all of Iowa looking for a Walmart Auto Center that hadn’t closed due to the pandemic, I finally found one in Omaha and in short order my problem was solved.

By the way, I determined that my inability to call was due to cellular network problems caused by the storm. The hurricane force winds continued west and became very destructive, flattening homes and agriculture over a large area. By one account, the storm, known as a derecho, destroyed 40% of the Iowa soybean crop. Get ready for expensive beef!

Felix and me — first encounter.

Is the Tik Tok app a Spyware Time Bomb?

Clients have been asking if Tik Tok, a video app popular with adults and very much so with young users, is a danger. There are two separate issues here:

  1. Tik Tok is owned by a Chinese company. China’s National Intelligence Law, effective July 2017, creates the “obligation of Chinese citizens to support national intelligence work”. This means companies, even honest ones, can be required to turn over data to the government — without regard to any privacy commitments they have made to you. Most online companies already take great liberties with your personal data. Remember: on the internet, if you’re getting something for free, you’re not the customer — you’re the product! Under this law, however, the Chinese government has your data just for the asking, and from a foreign viewpoint there are no effective limits on how it can be used. For this reason, some individuals, companies, and agencies do not allow use of the Tik Tok app, among other Chinese products, even though there is no evidence that it collects any more data from you than dozens of other phone apps.
  2. The second issue is downright dangerous. The Tik Tok Pro app is a fraud. Designed to look just like the real Tik Tok, it takes over your entire phone. You definitely don’t want to install this! When downloading Tik Tok, do it only from a reliable source such as Google Play or the Apple Store AND be sure the publisher is “Tik Tok Inc.”, nothing else.

South America by Subaru 20/02/13 – Car trouble!

[NOTE: To enlarge any image, right click it and choose “View image” or similar. Use the Back button to return to the post.]

Prior post:

After a moderate breakfast, I enjoy my beachfront balcony room until checkout time.

Oceanfront hotel room in Farol de São Thomé
Oceanfront hotel room in Farol de São Thomé

Then I head inland on what I quickly see is the main road, im much better condition than the way I entered yesterday. Just out of town, I pass the airport and have yesterday’s conjecture regarding offshore oil confirmed. The airport is primarily a large helicopter base owned by Petrobras, the national oil company. The gate is crowded with workers lined up to enter and on the other side of the chain link fence, several large passenger helicopters are loading and then taking off oceanward headed for drilling platforms.

Petrobras workers at heliport.
Petrobras workers at heliport.
Petrobras offshore rig helicopters
Petrobras offshore rig helicopters

On my first visit to Brasil in 1984, the nation had microscopic oil reserves. The military government had messed up the economy, inflation was rampant, and Brasil had no foreign exchange for imports. As a result, everything was home grown. Volkswagen was building Beetles domestically and in lieu of gasoline, everything was fueled with ethanol, which was produced from Brasil’s plentiful sugar cane crop. This forced self reliance seemed to have some positive effect, preventing the excesses of consumerism being encouraged elsewhere by rising imports from Asia. Of course, the populace wasn’t happy with enforced economic constraints. After decades of military dictatorship, the generals were now so tired of being blamed for the economy they were taking the drastic step of handing the government back to civilians. Imagine how bad things were if the dictators said, “I want out.”

I think it’s fair to say plentiful oil almost ruined Brasil. Petrobras was formed back in 1953 as the sovereign oil company but they had little to work with until offshore oil was discovered in 1974. Even then, financing and technology limitations, and the extraordinary ocean depths where the oil was found kept offshore development at a slow pace. It took over 30 years, but finally in 2006, Brasil reached oil self-sufficiency and Petrobras started being flush with cash. That’s when corruption started going wild. Politicians and Petrobras officials received ever increasing bribes from contractors for accepting overpriced bids and embezzled even more from the company. By the time serious investigations got underway in 2013, the total looting was estimated as high as US$13 billion. Three presidents and countless other politicians have been ensnared. Complicating things are plausible accusations that the crusading investigative judge who dug into the case was politically biased and used the prosecution to fulfill his aims. He is now the Brasilian Minister of Justice. The pervasive corruption that came to light eventually put Jair Bolsonaro, known derisively by his many non-supporters as “Trump of the Tropics”, into the presidency.

I’m heading for the next Brasilian state north up the coast, Espiritu Santu. I have invitations from two Couchsurfing hosts, one in the capital, Vitoria, and one in a beach town on the way there, Guaraparí. I’ve told the latter one, Micaela, that I’ll be there today. My plan is to continue trundling slowly up the coast on small, possibly impassable, roads and arrive by evening.

That plan is about to change. Shortly after the airport, as I accelerate to pass a large truck, I notice the tachometer needle acting strangely. A few tests yield a disturbing result: when I press hard on the gas pedal, the engine races even though the speed of the car is unchanged. This is proof positive that the clutch is slipping and will shortly fail. When it does, I’ll be stranded on the road, unable to move.

I don’t know how the Subaru was treated for its first 100,000 miles, but I do know the 50,000 I’ve put on it so far have been hard ones. At least half of those have been on mud, gravel, sand, snow, and mountain roads, not to mention the tens of thousands of speed bumps, nicknamed “donkey backs” or similar, used throughout South America in lieu of police speed enforcement. While I appreciate not having to keep my eyes constantly peeled for speed traps, every single hump requires a downshift, braking to near zero speed, two big bounces, and then an acceleration through the gears again on the other side. In addition to the other road stresses, this amounts to a lot of brake, suspension, and transmission wear.

My point is that it’s entirely reasonable that the clutch needs replacement. This doesn’t make it any less of a problem. In Chile, where I bought the car. Subarus are quite common, mechanics are used to them, and parts are usually available. Argentina and Uruguay have no Subaru presence at all. To allay this problem, I’ve carried brake shoes and oil filters with me. When I did something stupid in Argentina a few months ago it required 3-days and a 16 hour round trip to Chile to fetch the needed part. So I’ve been thankful that the Subaru has been so reliable and there haven’t been any further parts crises.

Brasil, by contrast, has Subaru dealers, so I thought getting parts would be easier. To my dismay, though, I haven’t noticed one other Subaru on the roads here in almost 3 months. I don’t know who’s buying them in Brasil but they’re keeping them pretty well hidden. When I stopped at a dealer in Rio de Janeiro to buy one non-critical part, it took an hour of searching to find out they didn’t have it — but they said if I hung around for two weeks, they could get it from Japan.

Now I’m concerned. Finding a replacement clutch disk could be a big problem. My tests show the clutch only slips noticeably if I step fairly hard on the gas, so with conservative driving, it could last for weeks before complete failure. Since this approach means no back roads, no steep mountains… no fun, I want to handle the repair quickly. The ride to Guaraparí is now constrained to the main toll highway.

I arrive in the evening to be welcomed by Micaela, husband Fabricio, little son Henrique, and Micaela’s mother. There’s also another Couchsurfer from remote western Brasil staying in their big house. Everyone’s very friendly, but the dinner table conversation is in rapid fire Portuguese, leaving me behind a lot of the time. In this case, that’s not as frustrating as usual because I’m pondering how to proceed on the repair. Tomorrow is Friday, and after that everything grinds to a halt for the weekend, so I need to work fast.

I retire early to my room and text my next host in the capital to ask if he knows any competent mechanics. He suggests a shop where he has his repairs done. Given the potential parts difficulties, I decide to forego custom and leave in the morning after just one night. This carries the danger of looking like a freeloader rather than a sincere guest, but I feel compelled to risk it.

South America by Subaru 20/02/12 – I see rare golden lion tamarins!

[NOTE: To enlarge any image, right click it and choose “View image” or similar. Use the Back button to return to the post.]

I’m up early at Fazenda dos Cordeiros because this morning I’m going into the field to see the golden lion tamarin (mico leão dourado). I’m packed and out of my room in plenty of time, walk the few steps to the main house, and find a sumptuous breakfast awaiting — almost everything homemade or homegrown.

Breakfast at Fazenda dos Cordeiros
Breakfast at Fazenda dos Cordeiros

After a leisurely meal with Ana Beatriz and her family, I make the 10 minute drive back down the road to the Golden Lion Tamarin Association’s (AMLD) private reserve. Already gearing up as I arrive are several AMLD staff members and a two-person Swedish news crew. They are the reason today’s excursion is open to me. Normally a group less than four is charged a substantial minimum fee. I don’t know if AMLD waived the fee for the Swedes or if their network anted up, but I’m only paying the normal per person charge.

Swedish news crew
Swedish news crew

We set off into the woods and fields with a staff member leading the way holding a radio tracking antenna.

Tracking collared tamarins
Tracking collared tamarins

AMLD has collared at least one member of each family group so they can be more easily monitored. After a fruitless initial steep and slippery climb through the forest, we turn back and head for other wooded areas across a very wet former pasture.

Slogging through soggy ex-pasture.

At the far end of the property one or two tamarins (micos) appear. Another staff member places a bunch of bananas in the crotch of a tree and within ten minutes, we are surrounded by dozens of bright orange micos, opening bananas, staring down at us, and lolling on branches just above our heads. It’s an incredibly intimate encounter and all three of the guests are awestruck by their beauty and behavior. The Swedish producer and cameraperson stick with their work, filming the micos constantly. I discover to my dismay that something is wrong with my camera, probably some errant setting, that is putting a bluish cast over every photo and preventing proper focus. Because of intermittent rain (I have the camera protected with a plastic bag) and the short time we have with the micos, I decide not to start a research project on the failures. Instead I shoot the best I can with both camera and phone. After all, seeing the micos is the unique adventure. Even without many photographs, I’m still having the experience.

Golden lion tamarin
Golden lion tamarin
Golden lion tamarin
Tamarin banana frenzy

After a half hour or so, we leave the micos to their meal and the Swedes film some interviews with the staff. Then we all go sloshing back across the soggy fields to the road. The producer tells me the two of them, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, cover South America for Sweden’s main evening news program and that this day’s work will probably be presented as a 3 minute story. By 11 AM or so, we’re all taking off in different directions, mission accomplished.

Still awestruck from seeing such unique animals up close, it takes an effort of will to focus on my driving. My tentative goal for today is a hostel in a coastal town, but thanks to today’s early start and the muddy roads keeping me on the toll highways, I get there much too early in the day to consider stopping yet. Just beyond the town is Jurubatiba, a coastal national park that, on the map at least, looks like an interesting area with a remote beach road. There’s one park entrance near me, but it turns out to be a stub road used only for local beach access. The map shows a few routes to the longer through road along the beach, so I work my way around to the first of these. Leaving the highway on small, sand roads, I know the chances of having to turn back are substantial. Sure enough, the muddy stretches get worse until I face one that I don’t want to risk and pull one of my “am I going to make it” U-turns and blast my way uphill back to the highway. The second access still beckons so I try that one. Less mud this time, but I’m clearly going through ranch property.

The shortcuts are too risky in the rain.

After dodging farm equipment on the one lane road, I reach, about 3 miles in, a locked ranch gate. Another backtrack to the highway and when I pass the third mapped access, I don’t even try it. The car, as usual on days like this, is completely covered in dried mud and looks like something out of a trans-Africa road rally.

I progress up the coast on slightly more reliable roads until it gets to the hour where I want to stop for the day. My route goes through a small beach strip town, were I’m confident I’ll find affordable lodging. Shortly before I arrive, my vaguely paved route turns into a sand dune and a detour sign forces me inland on an obviously provisional road. Apparently an ocean storm destroyed a long stretch of the original highway. The detour is really primitive and finally deposits me in a substantial community arrayed along the beach. Clearly, the way I entered cannot be the main access to a town of this size.

I find another amazingly good value, US$16 for a big, modern room with air conditioning and a large balcony overlooking the ocean beach.

Great hotel value in Farol do São Thomé
Great hotel value in Farol do São Thomé

I go back out to sightsee and notice a fleet of fishing boats, quite large. Rather than being docked in a harbor, they’re all beached high up on the sand. By their haphazard arrangement, I conclude that each must have been hauled out of the surf by heavy equipment.

Farol do São Thomé boat "harbpr".
Farol do São Thomé boat “harbor”.
Farol do São Thomé boat "harbpr".
Farol do São Thomé boat “harbpr”.

Getting them into the water again must be quite an operation as there seems no option but to shove them with brute force back down the steep sandy beach into a substantial breaking surf. This seems like it would be a technique of last resort. I’ve seen beach based fishing elsewhere, but only with smaller boats that can be muscled around with 2-6 people. That technique won’t work here.

Along the beachfront road, fisherman are processing their day’s catch in what look like simple cooperative facilities, little more than shade, work table, and running water. The men and women are gutting, filleting, and packing in ice.

Fish processing at Farol do São Thomé
Fish processing at Farol do São Thom

Anywhere where there’s commercial fishing, ice vending is a major occupation and I see signs advertising “gelo” all over town. As the afternoon latens, large passenger helicopters start coming in from the ocean. At first I think “military” but it dawns on me that this is the region where oil was discovered in the 1990s so there must be offshore rigs over the horizon.

Offshore oil rig commuting
Offshore oil rig commuting

I walk around town looking for decent food but it’s afternoon so most restaurants are closed. If I’m going to eat something other than Brasilian pizza, Brasilian hamburger, or Brasilian pastry, I have to wait several hours. I go back to the room, crank up the air conditioner, and attempt to read. As always, I’m out in ten minutes and the next time I wake, it’s midnight and all the restaurants are closed. Well, breakfast will be available downstairs soon enough.

Next post:

South America by Subaru 20/02/11 – Monkey shines

[NOTE: To enlarge any image, right click it and choose “View image” or similar. Use the Back button to return to the post.]

Prior post:

My hotel last night was very cheap but attractive and comfortable.

For US$15 a night, I hardly expected a functioning swimming pool. Pousada Sol Nascenete, Guapimirim, Brasil
For US$15 a night, I hardly expected a functioning swimming pool. Pousada Sol Nascente, Guapimirim, Brasil

For that price, though, the breakfast buffet can hardly be anything more than Brasilian basic, but it punches above its weight and I have no trouble stoking up for a day of driving. A particularly nice amenity is plentiful cold milk and chocolate powder. That alone makes it a treat. Unfortunately, in Brasil, virtually all milk sold in stores is processed at ultra high temperature (UHT) so it doesn’t need refrigeration, which gives it, to me, an unpleasant cooked taste. Oh, how I have to suffer. The refrigerated dairy drink distribution system here only extends to yogurt.

Breakfast at Pousada Sol Nascente.
Breakfast at Pousada Sol Nascente.

I’ve been communicating with a non-profit group whose mission is to advance the conservation status of the golden lion tamarin. I saw one of these in the wild on my first Brasilian visit in 1984 — at least I think I did. None of the research I’ve done recently confirms that they ever existed in the place where I saw them despite my vivid memory of trekking out there specifically for that purpose. It wouldn’t be the first time I remember something that turns out not to have happened. Memories, despite being fundamental to how we manage our lives, are a neurological phenomenon — not necessarily an accurate representation of reality.

Getting back to the tamarins, this species only exists in the wild in Brasil and at one point was down to just a few hundred individuals. The Golden Lion Tamarin Association (AMLD in Portuguese) was formed at this low point in 1992 to try to save them from extinction. Through their efforts, the population is up to several thousand and I’m interested in getting another (?) look at these unique creatures.

There are two government reserves containing tamarins but they’re open only to researchers. AMLD is creating private reserves to increase the habitat and encourage more genetic diversity. On one of these, they offer guided public access to allow observation. They told me last week that it would be possible to visit on February 12. At the time, coinciding with Susan’s flight home and the onset of my solo journey, I thought I would be long past the area of the reserves, but it hasn’t worked out that way.

Yesterday, I received a confirmation from AMLD that the Wednesday viewing would happen if I confirmed today but included something new — a strict requirement that all visitors show proof of vaccination against yellow fever. I was vaccinated in 1984 before my first Brasilian visit but the documentation is long gone. Susan and I both got the shot in Bolivia, which is the only South American country to still require it, about a year ago on our prior road trip but I forgot to bring my proof with me on this one. I immediately emailed AMLD assuring them that I am vaccinated and asking if they will accept my word for it, It would be unfortunate if leaving the card home prevented me from seeing tamarins.

As of this morning, I’ve heard no word on whether or not I can actually go tomorrow. Since the AMLD office is only 2 hours away and on my route out of the area, I decide to drive over there and see if I can clarify the situation face to face. It’s still the rainy season, but with eternal optimism, I plan a back road route to reach there. Each of my “shortcuts” turns out to be dicey due to extensive mud holes. During the dry season, I rarely give up on a rough road, but faced with a severe risk of getting mired, it only makes sense to turn back, although the required U-turns are themselves often difficult on muddy, one lane ranch roads hemmed in with fences on both shoulders.

Today, I backtrack to the paved highway three different times so my route ends up being the exact long, boring way I was trying to avoid.

To my surprise, rather than a dingy office, I find a modern, rural facility set back from the highway near one of the public reserves.

The Golden Lion Tamarin Association
The Golden Lion Tamarin Association

I walk in and explain that I had emailed and heard no response as yet. As usual, the answer is a torrent of Portuguese that exceeds my auditory decoding ability. It’s very frustrating to both be able to express myself and read Portuguese reasonably well but still have a terrible time understanding the spoken language at normal conversational speed. I meet many people who have learned a language primarily by listening to music or watching television. It makes me crazy jealous but I just don’t have that talent or brain wiring. I need to see the words or mentally visualize them in writing and that really slows up my ability to comprehend conversation. I’ve had many great exchanges in Portuguese about politics, society, travel, etc with people on a one-to-one basis as long as they are speaking directly to me and understand that they need to restrain their normal speed and keep the vocabulary simple and/or rephrase things when my eyes start to cross. Ambient noise level is also important as music, multiple voices, or traffic noise makes it much harder to decode the spoken word. This is extraordinarily frustrating at parties and group dinners to which I’m periodically invited.

Seeing my quizzical looks and repeated questions covering the same territory they’ve just explained, two staff member ask me to wait and in a few minutes the association’s executive secretary, Luis Paulo, comes out and we end up spending over an hour in his office as he explains what the association is doing — in English. He says their internet connection fails frequently during the rainy season and that my latest inquiry wasn’t received for that reason.

I tell him about my recent vaccination and fortunately he accepts my word, so I’m go for the tamarin walk tomorrow. AMLD’s efforts are inspiring. Operating with no government money, they are working on the future of the tamarins and, by extension, the Atlantic Forest biome on many fronts. They’ve bought farmland needed to connect fragmented habitats (sometimes through consistent, nagging pressure), they’ve replanted native trees with great success, they collar individual tamarins so they can monitor the location and condition of groups. they raise money by allowing people to see the tamarins in the restricted areas, they’re trying to build a tamarin-based tourism economy to encourage locals to support conservation, and many more. They’ve successfully pressured highway builders to install a major tamarin trailway over an expressway (many roads in Brasil are government concessions to private companies). The contractor doesn’t want to publicize their effort, presumably because similar amenities could be demanded in many other places along their roads. Luis Paulo says the AMLD will trumpet the overpass far and wide as soon as it’s put into service. By the time our conversation ends, I’m so impressed by the selfless, difficult work of these volunteers that I donate substantially more than the excursion fee they charge.

Elaborate overpass being built, grudgingly, to connect two tamarin habitats
Elaborate overpass being built, grudgingly, to connect two tamarin habitat

Why the strict yellow fever vaccination requirement? He tells me primates, along with humans are susceptible to yellow fever, which is often fatal. In the past 3 years, the golden lion tamarins have been hit hard by an epizootic (that’s an epidemic among non-humans). Just when they were doing quite well, 30% have now been killed off by the disease. AMLD is trying to develop a vaccination program to alleviate the danger, but capturing each animal to vaccinate it is going to be very expensive, if their is even a safe and effective vaccine for that species.

Unfortunately, private conservation efforts often depend on “marquee species”, particularly cute or striking animals, to attract substantial funds from the public. The golden lion tamarin (mico leão dourado in Portuguese) is certainly one of those “awwww, cute” generators but the proceeds of that feeling are benefiting Brasil’s Atlantic Forest and everything that lives in it. That forest used to blanket all of eastern Brasil, an area larger than Alaska, but has steadily been cut down and fragmented until now there is only about 12% left. Since it was never extensively studied, just exploited, we’ll never know how many Mata Atlantica species have already gone extinct. Even in it’s vastly reduced state, it’s still a reservoir of biodiversity.

The private land I’ll be visiting tomorrow is 20 miles back the way I came and the area has few hotels, so Luis Paulo gives me the name of a cooperating ranch nearby that can offer me lodging. I make my way back there and pull into Fazenda dos Cordeiros (Lamb Ranch), a big active place with the guesthouse in the family residence in a quiet uphill spot.

The owner, Ana Beatriz, welcomes me into the house, surrounded by jungle-like woods. The price she quotes, US$50, is higher than I’d like but I quickly succumb to her friendliness, the inclusion of both dinner and breakfast, the overall family vibe, and the paucity of other nearby choices.

Fazenda do Cordeiros B&B
Fazenda do Cordeiros B&B

As soon as I accept,she offers me “coffee” which turns out to be, essentially, lunch, with homemade bread, local cheese, and a variety of fresh fruit and preserves. She describes how sustainable they are, harvesting most of the fruit and vegetables they eat from the trees and garden. The fazenda is totally organic and she seems quite knowledgeable about farming practices, recent developments, and marketing of unfamiliar fruits. She frequently refers to agricultural and culinary reference books during our discussion, which is smooth and rapid due to her fluent English.

I spend the afternoon and evening sitting outdoors in the shade with the computer, amidst the beautifully landscaped surroundings, replete with various orchids, which the fazenda also raises for sale.

Outdoor seating at Fazenda do Cordeiros, Silva Jardim, Brasil
Outdoor seating at Fazenda do Cordeiros, Silva Jardim, Brasil
Orchids at Fazenda dos Cordeiros
Orchids at Fazenda dos Cordeiros

I take advantage of the covered parking to reorganize the car without standing in the hot sun. At 8:30, dinner is called. The selection of dishes is ample and I have no trouble eating my fill. Ana Beatriz’s husband and mother-in-law have come home and we have a lively discussion, more in Portuguese than English this time, eased along with Ana’s translating help. After dinner, it’s time to hit the hay as I have to load up, have breakfast and drive down the road to the rendezvous site by 8 AM.

Next post:

South America by Subaru 20/02/10 – Solo hiking

[NOTE: To enlarge any image, right click it and choose “View image” or similar. Use the Back button to return to the post.]

Prior post:

After 3 welcoming and restful nights with Servas host Déo in Rio de Janeiro, it’s time to move on toward Brasil’s Northeast. Since I’m still waffling whether to wait around until Wednesday for the opportunity to see golden lion tamarins, I decide to spend today in nearby Serra dos Orgãos National Park. The mountains are named after formations that struck someone as resembling organ pipes.

The jewel attraction is a 20 mile traverse of the entire park, which tempts me briefly, but it’s clearly not practical. It’s a three day trip with a severe ascent, hiring a guide is both mandatory and advisable, and the gear I have is suitable for car camping but quite heavy to haul into the back country. Reluctantly, I let the idea go.

Research indicates the park opens at 8 AM and has 3 widely separated accesses, so I plot a course that hits each one. I’m sure the entrance fee is only good for the day and, of course, I want to get my money’s worth. I set off early, before Déo and Gilberto are stirring. This is not very polite and not my normal style, but Déo is a late riser so I leave a note and slip out.

Northbound out of Rio, I decide to take the toll road to save time and encounter one of the strangest divided highways I’ve ever seen. It starts out very typically, and I cruise along at 75-80 mph, but right after the toll booth, the road divides. Directly ahead, oncoming traffic is moving toward me on a flat road at high speed but my direction veers off on a completely different track along a steep upgrade. Although it remains one way traffic, the route twists, turns, and climbs like a typical, slow mountain road. More curious, there are quite a few homes and businesses along the roadside. They can only be approached from one direction and exited in the other, so moving even a hundred feet backwards would entail driving against traffic on the busy road.

Northbound and southbound lanes of Route BR-040 are miles apart.
Northbound and southbound lanes of Route BR-040 are miles apart.

It dawns on me that this used to be the regular two lane highway (maybe the segments of poorly painted out double yellow line were my clue) and the residents were really screwed when it went one way only. To go south, anywhere south, they have a 10-20 mile loop to the north and back. Apparently, the government built a new, more modern road on a completely different route across the mountains, miles from the road I’m on, but never finished the northbound lanes.

Thus, the old highway became the “temporary” northbound lanes. This is confirmed later when the road ducks under a modern underpass, one side of which ends in midair with no indication of current construction. Although the Brasilian federal highway system is generally excellent, this project seems to have gone terribly wrong for who knows how many years.

I later find out this route, the Washington Luiz highway (named after the president who ordered it built, declaring “government means opening roads”) was the first paved road in Brasil, opened to traffic in 1928, when there were only about 130,000 vehicles in the entire nation. 1,783 of them traveled the road on its first day.

Entire village with awkward one way access aong Route BR-040
Entire mountainside village with awkward one way access along Route BR-040

I was hoping to get to the first park entrance right at opening time, but I’m not going to make it. From the highway, Google Maps routes me along a terribly pot-holed, one lane road toward Petrópolis. There’s enough oncoming traffic that I frequently have to squeeze onto the non-existent shoulder to let a taxi, truck, or school bus slip past. Part of the road, still in very poor condition, runs through a mountainside subdivision full of expensive homes, complete with guards at both ends and frequent monitoring cameras. I guess because I’m on a public road the guards don’t actually stop me but they carefully eye each entering vehicle.

I don’t tarry in Petrópolis although it’s interesting due to it’s having been the de facto summer capital of the Brasilian Empire in the 1820s… because the emperor liked the upland climate much better than down in hot, swampy Rio de Janeiro. As Mel Brooks said, “It’s good to be the king.”

Once in Petrópolis, the way toward the national park is clearly marked — for a while. As the road gets narrower and rougher again, one last sign says “Park entrance 1.5 miles. No parking on site.” A few additional signs would have been helpful since the road devolves into a series of dead end tracks. Worse yet, Google Maps depicts the entrance on what turns out to be the wrong dead end. Workmen I ask along the way seem oblivious even to the existence of a nearby national park until I come across a tourist jeep excursion whose driver gives me detailed and comprehensible directions to the correct branch. One more serious ascent in low gear and I reach a small entrance complex. I’m the only visitor in sight. Confirming that I’m welcome and that there’s no parking area, indeed almost no room to reverse direction, I jockey the Subaru around in the narrow space and go downhill about 200 yards where an enterprising landowner has posted a crude sign announcing parking. There’s no room to negotiate the 315 degree uphill turn into his steep, bedrock driveway, so I have to go further down the road to a slightly wider spot where I can pull a tortuous multi-step K turn and surge back up the steep grade into a small parking area.

Paying my fee to the owner, I stash safety gear and supplies in my pack and slog back up to the entrance, where more money is collected and I’m given a small trail map.

The trail is a spur that runs over two miles up valley along a rushing stream, past half a dozen named pools. The first quarter mile is lined with barbed wire fence and I can see banana trees and other crops on the uphill side. Above, on both sides, very steep rock walls covered with epiphytic bromeliads form the valley. I wasn’t expecting to see such rugged terrain. I haven’t been much above sea level for weeks so this pseudo-alpine terrain is a nice change. The vegetation is still the jungle-like Atlantic Forest but at this altitude it’s more of a cloud forest, frequently awash in mist and fog. The trail is steadily and often steeply uphill, quite wet, and by turns rocky and muddy. I make the short detours to the various pools. They’re boulder filled and pleasant, but not overly impressive.

Pool along trail, Serra dos Orgãos N P
Pool along trail, Serra dos Orgãos N P

As I continue up the valley, alternately leaving and rejoining the stream, the uphill effort gets quite noticeable. Behind me, there are periodic long views down the canyon’s impressively severe topography toward the distant settlement miles below.

View down valley from trail, Serra dos Orgãos N P
View down valley from trail, Serra dos Orgãos N P

As I walk the final half mile or so, the 20-mile traverse trail branches off, clearly marked “permit required”. At this point, I’m tired enough by the uphill slog that I give it only a quick, envious glance as I continue past. The final attraction is Bridal Veil Falls (how many of those are there in the world?), but reaching it requires three traverses of the rushing stream, none with bridges or even a prepared crossing path. I have to hop from rock to rock and enter the water to get across, The first crossing is at the very brink of a substantial waterfall requiring some cautious stepping in order to cross without serious mishap.

Stream crossing at lip of waterfall, Serra dos Orgãos N P
Stream crossing at lip of waterfall, Serra dos Orgãos N P. “Watch your step, ladies and gentlemen.”

The trail ends at Bridal Veil Falls, a respectable 4600 feet elevation and they are indeed rewarding. I’m grateful that after seeing thousands of waterfalls, each new one is still interesting, even delightful. I don’t now why they never get boring, but I’m glad. Perhaps there’s some genetically preserved reaction triggered each time I see one.

Bridal Veil Falls, Serra dos Orgãos N P
Bridal Veil Falls, Serra dos Orgãos N P

The trip back to the entrance requires less energy for being downhill but at least as much caution to avoid losing footing and taking a humiliating or even injurious fall on the slippery mud, exposed tree roots, and uneven rocks.

For decades, I’ve reminded people that doing things solo is inherently more dangerous than with even one companion. Mishaps that are trivial if there’s someone else around can be serious, even fatal, by yourself. A twisted ankle, the beginnings of hypothermia, a slip off a narrow trail, or anything else can ruin a solo hike — or a solo life. In my long gone Alaska days, where I often took novices into the wilderness, including a week or two of ocean kayaking, I always had redundant plans for contingencies — storms, bears, snow, loss of gear, etc. Although nature in Alaska is always trying to kill you, I had an unblemished record, no deaths or maiming injuries. Of course, a few people did disappear, but my policy is if the body isn’t found, it doesn’t count.

Here, I am hiking a moderately difficult trail by myself, so you can be sure I’m super cautious. Of course, almost every time there are no mishaps, including today, which is lucky since except for passing one group of 4 hikers as I near the car, I have the whole trail to myself.

Delicate fungus along trail, Serra dos Orgãos N P
Delicate fungus along trail, Serra dos Orgãos N P
Lizard posing for me along trail, Serra dos Orgãos N P
Lizard posing for me along trail, Serra dos Orgãos N P

I’m back to the car by 12:30 and immediately creep back to the main road and head for the second park access over an hour away.

Som of the namesake organ pipe formations of Serra dos Orgãos N P
Some of the namesake organ pipe formations of Serra dos Orgãos N P

On arrival there, I check out the posted trail map and decide on a route up to what’s labeled as “the post card view”. This area is more developed than the last, with a small visitor center, winding paved road with parking areas near various trailheads. I pass a camping area that looks like it may no longer be functional and a pousada (lodge) that is definitely defunct. There’s thunder sounding in the distance and the clouds look like they may be closing in to obscure distant views but I set off anyway, humping my way up the steep trail over an endless series of uncomfortably high steps leading uphill. Alas, after a half mile or so of effort, I hear heavy rain approaching and barely have time to don my rain jacket and hat before the deluge. I retrace my steps downward in a deluge, and my shoes and legs are thoroughly soaked when I reach the car.

As I’m backtracking the cobblestone road to the park entrance, the roadway is blocked by a fallen tree, just toppled from the muddy bank during the current rainstorm. One car is already stopped and its driver is pulling on the tree in a futile effort to move it out of the way. With the addition of my effort, we get it moved just enough to slip the cars between tree and the steep downhill bank. A couple of park employees are looking on but apparently think that dealing with a blocked road and stranded motorists is not in their job description.

I’ve hiked less than six miles today but I’m very fatigued. As I drive out of the mountains, I’m trying to figure out why. I can only think of three possibilities:

  1. I’m out of shape after 4 months of sitting behind the steering wheel, OR
  2. Hiking solo is much less fun than having companionship and my brain is saying, “I’m not going along with this foolishness,” OR
  3. Perhaps, just perhaps, it has something to do with my recent 70th birthday. Nah, no chance it’s that.

It’s too late in the day and too rainy to bother with the third area of the national park, so I locate suitable lodging online and let Google Maps show me how to get there as quickly as possible. When I turn off the highway, though, something is not right. The turns I’m being instructed to make aren’t quite in the right place, although I find similar ones a bit offset from what the map shows. Shortly, I’m descending a steep, rough one lane road out of the mountains. Although it’s only 4 PM, between the afternoon hour, thick clouds, heavy rain, and tree cover, it’s almost dark where I’m driving. I have my high beams on, concentrating on the steep turns and slopes in front of me. As I glance down at the map on my phone, I see the location arrow has diverged from the road on the map, meaning Google thinks there’s no road where I am — not a good sign since this road has clearly never been rebuilt here from a different alignment. I keep descending for a couple of miles until suddenly, on a particularly steep and narrow stretch, the road ends at a couple of closed driveway gates. Great, a dead end with barely any room to turn the car. I manage to get it pointed uphill and have to retrace my route back up the rough mountain road through the runoff. Considering Google has mapped basically every road in the world, it’s amazing how rarely they get them wrong. Tonight, though, I’m a victim of bad data.

Back at altitude on the main road, I realize that the only way to my chosen lodging is now a long drive. I search for something more convenient to my new situation, find it, and head directly there. I’ve gotten lucky. The pousada I’ve chosen, suspiciously cheap at $18, is surprisingly nice. A big room, pleasant grounds, swimming pool, and decent internet (far from assured in Brasil). Worn out from hiking and fighting with Google Maps, I’m asleep in record time despite the early hour.

Cheap but very nice digs in Guapimirim, Brasil
Cheap but very nice digs in Guapimirim, Brasil

Next post:

Neighborhood pre-Carnival parade in Laranjeiras, Rio de Janeiro

South America by Subaru 20/02/08 – A taste of Carnival in Rio

[NOTE: To enlarge any image, right click it and choose “View image” or similar. Use the Back button to return to the post.]

Prior post:

I wake up refreshed here at my host’s home in the Laranjeiras district of Rio de Janeiro. I have no great ambitions for today, just take it easy after an intese two day round trip drive. The internet went down overnight so I have no access until the router is rebooted and I’m not nervy enough to wander around the house on my own to find it. When Déo arises, I tell her what’s needed and ten minutes later I’m online again. The first thing I check is email and WhatsApp and, as expected, I see the news from Berkeley that Helene has successfully given birth to Felix the Child overnight — she and James have launched a successful Silicon Valley startup. Now, I can finally stop being considered a defective human being all across South America. Everyone you meet down here asks, “Do you have children?” and when the answer is yes the next question is “Grandchildren?” When I say no, their pity and sadness for me is palpable. Today, that ends, I am now a grandfather. No more, “Tão triste…” (“So sad”).

Son-in-law James, daughter Helene, and grandson Felix.
Son-in-law James, daughter Helene, and grandson Felix.

Déo and Gilberto and I talk quite a bit through the morning. The topics of Trump and Bolsonaro come up prominently, of course, and our views on them are closely aligned.

Déo has had an interesting life to date. She alludes to multiple marriages, a long time reluctance (now abandoned) to get involved with Brasilian men, international travel, and a general need to follow her own path through life rather than just “fit in”. Her brother, sister-in-law, and young nephew pop in to discuss family matters. Déo is leaving shortly for Florida to accompany the latter two to Disneyworld.

Brasilians have been fascinated by Disneyworld since it opened. I’m sure it’s the single most popular destination for Brasilian international travel. On my first journey here in 1984, I went to a comedy club in São Paulo (I understood a lot more Portuguese thn than now) to see João Soares, known as O Gordo (The Fat Guy). Brasil, at the time was in the throes of rampant inflation, there was no foreign exchange so very little was imported, oil was years from being discovered so engines ran on domestically produced ethanol, and the military dictatorship was so eager to escape blame for the problems that they were handing the government over to civilians. O Gordo’s solution was to emulate The Mouse That Roared: Brasil should declare war on the United States, attack the country, be defeated, and get tons of foreign aid from us. And, he said, we don’t even have to send an army to invade — we already have one at Disneyworld!

Since Déo can only stand a limited amount of theme park, she’s thinking of going off alone for a portion of the trip to visit Miami. I try my best to dissuade her from wasting precious days of her life in Florida. She’s already been to New York City and, in any case, the winter temperatures are a significant barrier. I suggest New Orleans as a unique experience and she’s receptive to that. By coincidence, the sister-in-law has visited there and adds encouragement. I might have done my good deed for the day. Sorry, Miami… not!

After lunch, I go out to photograph the neighborhood in daylight.

Alley where Déo's house is situated
Alley where Déo’s house is situated.

Déo tells me the arrangement of attached houses on a dead end alley is rare in modern day Brasil but traditional in Portugal. The name for it there doesn’t translate descriptively into other languages, including Brasilian Portuguese, so Déo has a hard time describing it to others. Does anyone have an English (or for that matter any other language) name that conveys the concept?

Entrance to Déo's alley.
Entrance to Déo’s alley.

There’s a lot of music and rhythm emanating from the next street and Déo tells me this is a local celebration, Carnaval de Rúa (Carnival of the Street). Although the climax of the season is over two weeks away, such neighborhood parades are happening all through February.

You’re probably aware that Carnaval (what we call Mardi Gras in the US) is an enormous event in Rio and other large Brasilian cities. The obsession, expense, and intensity put other famous Carnival venues, like New Orleans and Port of Spain in Trinidad, to shame.

The local parade today is just a small event in Rio terms but the dense crowd throbs to the music and singing emanating from a full size bus inching it’s way down the street. People are dressed in outrageous costumes: women in the near-naked beachwear that is normally taboo once you step off the sand, men in tutus and other female costumes. Face and body paint, and glitter is de rigueur. The atmosphere is very infectious and it’s easy to see how a lot of crazy stuff happens. Although I arrived after Carnaval in 1984, I remember posters still tacked on utility poles warning, “DON’T have a Carnaval baby!”

Right behind the tail of the crowd comes a garbage truck and crew of street cleaners, some of whom are also dancing to the music as they scoop up parade trash.

Susan and I are planning to come to Rio specifically for next year’s Carnaval and, after today’s experience, I can hardly wait. As I head northeast up the coast, I’m sure I’ll see more parades and music before it all ends on February 25 and Brasil returns to its perpetual football (soccer) obsession.

The remainder of the day is spent indoors. The architecture of the house is interesting, three floors surrounding an open atrium – very airy and light and filled woth Déo’s paintings and other art.

Déo's living room
Déo’s living room
Déo's living room
Déo’s living room
A 20 story high rise looms over Déo's and Gilberto's atrium. If you don't look up, it's not there.
A 20 story high rise looms over Déo’s and Gilberto’s atrium. If you don’t look up, it’s not there. If you don’t look up, it’s not there.

It isn’t air conditioned, though, so sitting in front of the ventilating fan is essential to my survival. As the creation of three blog entries demonstrates, I spend my time writing.

Next post:

South America by Subaru 20/02/07 – First Day Traveling Solo

[NOTE: To enlarge any image, right click it and choose “View image” or similar. Use the Back button to return to the post.]

Prior post:

I wake up this morning without Susan and the impact of traveling without her strikes me immediately. In addition, I have a message from daughter Helene in Berkeley, California that her labor has started, which means I am on the verge of being a first time grandfather. I wander downstairs and find Francisco preparing breakfast for us.

I’m not seeing much of Jairo because he is studying continuously. He’s on his way to becoming a judge which, in Brasil, means he must first become a lawyer. He’s been in law school and the day after tomorrow must take a make-or-break test. It’s similar to our bar exam but doesn’t immediately allow you to practice law. It’s very difficult, requiring memorization of tons of detail, and you only get to take it 3 times. If you fail the third time, all your law school effort goes into the trash. Jairo is determined to pass the first time and studying has consumed him.

Since Francisco is working and Jairo locked away, I decide to move on today so as not to be in the way. I start doing research on where to go next and it turns out to be more time consuming than I thought. There’s a private nature reserve I’d like to visit, one of the few places where the endangered golden lion tamarin, a small monkey, is thriving, but it takes hours to find out that the next opportunity is 5 days from now — longer than I planned to stay in this part of Brasil. I decide to hedge my bets by trying to stay with a host in the Rio de Janeiro area, even though we just spent 9 days there, and see how I feel about waiting around for the reserve visit. I contact a Servas host in Rio who had invited us to stay with her 3 days ago and ask if I’m welcome solo.

I start the same long drive back eastward that I just did yesterday, not sure where I’ll end up tonight. By 2 PM, I get a “welcome” email from the host, Déo, and plot a route to her address in Laranjeiras, a Rio neighborhood we hadn’t visited earlier. Six hours of hard driving, interrupted only for a 30 minute nap, refueling, and 2 tiny cups of cafezinho — the ubiquitous Brasilian expresso offered as a courtesy in many gas stations and stores, or at a minimal price in every restaurant. I roll in to my destination after dark at 8 PM. It’s a street that dead ends against a rock wall at least 200 feet high — only in Rio are the residences immediately adjacent to precipitous, wooded mountains all through the city.

One of Rio's mountains looms over the street
One of Rio’s mountains looms over the street

The short street is populated by six residential towers of about 20 stories each and an equal number of seven story edifices.

20 story high rise rssidential tower
One of the 20 story residential towers

I park the car and search out the exact address on foot. To my surprise, Déo’s address isn’t one of the high rises, but a tiny, gated, perpendicular, dead end alleyway lined both sides with small attached homes.

The quaint alley that incudes Déo's house.
The quaint alley that incudes Déo’s house.

It’s like something out of a Sherlock Holmes setting. I find my way to the correct house, knock on the door, and am assured I have reached the right place. After carefully squeezing the Subaru into a parallel parking space in the narrow alley, I’m welcomed into the house by Déo and Gilberto.

Déo's house, the orange one.
Déo’s house, the orange one.

Déo had warned me in advance that the house was messy and now I see it’s because it’s under major remodel, with construction supplies and displaced furniture piled haphazardly in much of the open space. Nonetheless, the alley is a charming anachronism in an otherwise tower-dominated residential street.

Although Gilberto speaks no English, Déo is fluent so my initial use of Portuguese quickly changes to English to enable more efficient communication. I’m wiped, so after a couple of hours of get-acquainted conversation (during which I’m watching my phone for further updates from Helene — there are none), I go to my assigned room and drop off immediately.

Next post:

"Silver bird, take me home, to the place I want to be."a

South America by Subaru 20/02/06 – Susan heads home

[NOTE: To enlarge any image, right click it and choose “View image” or similar. Use the Back button to return to the post.]

Prior post:

This morning, after nine days in Rio de Janeiro, we undertake the six hour drive to São Paulo International Airport. After almost 4 months on the road in our Subaru, Susan is flying home to her nest in the Catskills. We drag all our stuff down from the eleventh floor of the Casa Nova Hotel in the active but not very touristy Lapa neighborhood. the long drive is to give Susan the convenience of a non-stop flight to Newark instead of flying out of Rio and changing planes in São Paulo.

Susan's final hotel checkout in Brasil
Susan’s final hotel checkout in Brasil
Goodbye, fancy hotels
Goodbye, fancy hotels

On the way out of town we detour to Ipanema to drop off the last of Susan’s books for Raphael, our new friend who has invited us to return next year for Carnival, promising to hook us up to the cool parties and events.

Dropping off a book in a high security environment
Dropping off a book in a high security environment

Our route out of town takes us past many iconic Rio de Janeiro sights, including Corcovado:

Susan's final hotel checkout in Brasil
Last view of Coecovado

Expensive beachfront residences:

Copacabana beachfront luxury high rises
Copacabana beachfront luxury high rises

Tunnels that are vital links between neighborhoods:

One of Rio's many tunnels that connect the mountain-separated neighborhoods.
One of Rio’s many tunnels that connect the various mountain-separated neighborhoods.

And street murals:

Mural in the rain
Mural in the rain

It’s almost noon by the time we head out on the highway toward São Paulo. Susan’s flight departs at 9:30 PM so we have plenty of time as long as we make steady progress. In a departure from our usual style, we’ve chosen the main highway — high speed (except for traffic jams) and frequent toll booths.

The outskirts of Rio aren’t particularly attractive and Susan assumes her standard cruising posture.

Susan's favorite riding position
Susan’s favorite riding position

We’re soon ascending through the mountains to the northwest. It’s the rainy season and everything is lush in varying shades of green.

For some reason, gasoline in Rio de Janeiro state is about 25% more expensive than in neighboring São Paulo state. I’ve been tanking up on costly fuel in Rio for the past two weeks so I’m trying to drive economically to reach a particularly cheap station I encountered previously along our route. Alas, the long uphill climbs and the air conditioner mean I can’t quite make it, so I stop on the Rio side of the border to get a small refill.

Another 60 miles brings us to the desired gas station where I fill up and we check out the fairly elegant looking restaurant next door, curiously from a US viewpoint, named Wimpy, The House of Cod. A look at the menu surprises us with prices double or more the usual range. At $35 a plate and up, Susan decides to wait for something more modest that she likes. She’s had breakfast and will be getting dinner on the plane in about 7 hours, so all she needs is something to tide her over.

Shortly afterward, we reach the town of Aparecida and exit to look for more restaurants. We’re turned off by the aggressive touts, standing on front of the moving car in an attempt to force us into their restaurant. What astounds us though is the religious theme of the town. It contains a giant cathedral, many religious artifact stores, and a skywalk (Stairway to Heaven?) .

Cathedral skywalk, Aparecida, Brasil
Cathedral skywalk, Aparecida, Brasil

Also above our heads is a cable car from the church grounds to an adjacent hilltop cross monument. Incongruously, there’s an amusement park next door. Roller Coaster to Christ?

Cathedral and adjacent amusement park, Aparecida, Brasil
Cathedral and adjacent amusement park, Aparecida, Brasil

The remaining two hours of driving is uneventful: superhighway, toll stops, and intermittent heavy rain. Near the airport we insert ourselves into a traffic jam looking for a hamburger restaurant which seems to have disappeared, at least its mapped location is now occupied by a traveling circus. The airport is identical to virtually every other one in the world. We’re pleasantly surprised, though, that luggage carts are free and United Airlines has a Special Assistance queue, allowing people over 60 and with children to jump the line to the ticket counter. Are you listening Port Authority of NY/NJ?? Equally surprising: the United employees at the line entrances speak no English, although the ones at the counter do — fortunate because the queue guards won’t let me accompany Susan there because I’m not flying.

Susan still hasn’t eaten, so after check in we opt for the Pizza Hut on the concourse. In the US, I wouldn’t even consider eating their vile food. Many years ago, I stopped at one on a business trip because it advertised all you could eat pizza. I am a lifelong all-you-can-eat customer and restaurants break even — if they’re lucky — on my meals there, but I couldn’t even come close to eating my fill of their crap. In Brasil , though, (with abject apologies to all the millions of Brasilian pizza lovers) even a good pizza is mediocre by my standards, so how much worse could Brasilian Pizza Hut be? The restaurant advertises a suspiciously cheap $5 lunch that includes one slice of pizza, a side dish, a tiny espresso, and unlimited salad. I understand the strategy when I pay the bill and find that a standard fountain soft drink costs (price not posted) as much as the lunch itself.

I escort Susan to the security portal, we say our good byes, and she is vacuumed around the corner on an inexorable path to takeoff.

"Silver bird, take me home, to the place I want to be."
“Silver bird, take me home, to the place I want to be.”

I race back to the car because the exorbitant parking fee is accruing rapidly.

Now, I’m on my own. As I’ve often acknowledged, I can’t remember a single time in my life when I’ve said to myself, “I wish I could be alone.” I’ve been made to realize over the years that this is very odd among homo sapiens. I can be solitary, of course, but I prefer companionship. Two’s company, three’s a crowd, and eight’s a PARTY. I think the longest I’ve ever traveled alone is about two weeks and now I’m either facing an aborted trip with a long drive back to Chile to sell the car or a sustained solo journey north along the Atlantic coast to Belém on the shores of the mouth of the Amazon River, before an even longer return to Santiago. We’ll see if I stick with it.

With Susan gone, the loneliness will be offset by some practical changes: staying with more hosts, cheap hostel beds instead of hotel rooms with private bathrooms, economical all you-can-eat lunches of standard Brasilian fare, and more camping and hiking. Driving, sleeping, and eating by myself will be a fundamental change. Susan’s and my strongest point is that, even after 10 years together, we never run out of things to talk about. That’s tough to replace during long days on the road and long nights in hotel rooms.

Once in the car, I contact our friends Francisco and Jairo to see if they’d like a last minute visit from me (our third on this trip) and head for a nearby hostel as a backup. Just as I arrive there, they send me a message welcoming me to stay with them, so I point the car toward the highway for the 75 minute backtrack to their comfortable house.

In the familiar surroundings, Francisco and I spend the evening talking. I describe some of the cool places we’ve been in the last 2 months and he talks about his job and what they’ve been doing with their new car over the same period. I eventually hit the hay after the long day of driving.

Francisco and Jairo
Francisco and Jairo

Next post: