April 28, 2009

Telling the time and eating food

To top off our epic journey from Florianopolis to Cordoba, it turns out that Cordoba was a bit of a dud. We got out of there after two nights – really pretty town, but boring.

That's not to say that our visit to Cordoba was entirely uneventful. For starters, it will always be remembered as the place that I found my Winner. Sick to death of having to constantly ask Craig for the time – and being interrogated as to why I wanted to know every time I asked – it was high time I scored a watch of my own. For a mere 8 pesos ($3.05), I became the proud owner of a second-hand digital watch – brand: Winner.

It's ugly but reliable, cheap but priceless – and it's all mine!

The second momentous occasion served up by Cordoba was an all-you-can-eat buffet. It's the biggest buffet in Argentina, and, for 26 pesos ($AUD9.90) it didn't disappoint. There's a parilla (barbecue) where they serve up freshly-grilled steaks and ribs, a pasta counter where they cook your choice of pasta and sauce on the spot, Asian dishes and salads galore and desserts ranging from cakes to ice-cream to pancakes.

NOTE: The following sentence is proudly brought to you by Captain Obvious...

We totally smashed the buffet.

April 26, 2009

When bad things happen to good people

They say that fortune favours the brave, but sometimes fortune just leaves you stuck on a metal bench in the middle of nowhere...

After the success of our impromptu journey from Ilha Grande to Florianopolis, I was convinced that I was now a hard·core traveller extraordinaire – Rick Steves, eat your heart out! No journey was too difficult, no backpack was too heavy, no delicacy was inedible and no bargain was unhaggle·able. So when we were told that the bus fare from Florianopolis to Rosario was gonna set us back a whopping 250 reais each, I laughed in the face of the ticket office lady (er, not literally) and set about finding a cheaper way to get to the Argentinian town.

I came up with the following genius plan: Catch a bus to the border town of Uruguaiana for 100 reais each, somehow get across to the Argentinian town of Paso dos de Libres (to get across the border with our normal ticket was going to cost an extra 40 reais each), then, once we were in Argentina, where the buses are cheaper, catch a bus to Rosario. Savvy, huh?

We arrived in Uruguaiana without a hitch at 3am in the morning and managed to convince our driver to take us to the border crossing for free. We got stamped out of Brazil and into Argentina, and then, after waiting at the border crossing until daylight, we caught a taxi to the bus terminal.

With my evil plan almost fulfilled, we set about getting the best price to Rosario. The first company didn't have any seats left, bummer. Oh, and neither did the second, or the third. Turns out, it was Easter bloody Monday, and everyone in Argentina seemed to be making their way to Rosario. By now, it was 6am and we had been on the move for 23 hours. We were tired, we were grumpy and we just wanted to get to Rosario, dammit!

OK, so Rosario was out of the picture. Where exactly could we go? There was one bus heading to Cordoba (which was actually on our original itinerary) with three seats left, but it wasn't leaving intil 11pm that night. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren't gonna go to Rosario, and that the dingy, dusty bus station in Paso dos de Libres was to be our home for the next 18 hours.

Friends and long·time readers will remember that we crashed our van in France and lived in a carpark for five days... this was worse. We took it in turns sleeping on a hard metal bench while the other kept an eye on our backpacks, we only had 10 measly pesos on us, and survived by sharing one bowl of pasta for the entire day and night. We entertained ourselves with a game of scrabble (a la the van) and by sitting and staring, followed by more sitting and staring.

Eventually, 50 hours after we left the pousada in Florianopolis, we made it to Cordoba – and an actual bed – and decided that next time, instead of trying to be all tricky and cool, we'd just pay the bloody 250 reais!

April 22, 2009

The 'Sliding Doors' effect

You're no doubt familiar with the 1998 hit movie Sliding Doors – if not for the thought-provoking storyline, then for Gwyneth's much-coveted short, blonde crop (you know you wanted it!). For the pop-culture retarded among you: Girl misses train, gets mugged and lives a miserable existence with her cheating boyfriend, but if she makes the train, she gets home in time to catch out said cheater, gets a fab break-up 'do and falls in love.

When it comes to travelling, Craig and I like to play it on the safe side, leaving as little to chance as possible – our bus tickets are bought in advance and our hostels are always booked for arrival. But for our journey from Ilha Grande to Florianopolis, we took a deep breath and decided to wing it – this was partly an act of bravery and partly because we didn't want to give the rude bitch at the Ilha Grande bus ticket office our business.

Our journey began with a 90-minute ferry ride to the mainland town of Angra doe Reis, which was refreshingly uneventful. However, once we arrived in Angra, we realised we hadn't done any research as to where the hell the bus terminal was (I stupidly assumed we'd step off the ferry and it'd be across the road or something). So we lugged our backpacks around town, asking someone every couple of blocks where the Terminal de Omnibus was, we didn't understand anything they said, but kept walking in the direction they pointed. Lucky for us we ran across a random who spoke English, we ended up jumping in the random's car (not something we'd ever normally do, but we were hot, tired and totally lost), and it's lucky that we did – the bus terminal was at least a half-hour walk away.

Then, in true Amazing Race style, we ran into the bus terminal and got the ticket guy to run out and hold the already-late 12 0'clock bus for us – who's 'too hot to handle' now, Charla and Mirna?*

Nine hours later we arrived in Sao Paulo and booked our bus to Florianopolis later that night – so far so good. Once our bus parked at the terminal at Florianopolis 12 hours later, there were still two local bus journeys to go until we reached our final destination – Barra da Logoa. There was another backpack-hauling couple on our second bus, and once we got to our destination, I asked them if they were heading to the Backpackers Share House, too?

'Nah, it's heaps expensive. But it's over there,' replied female Aussie. 'Yeah, it's ridiculous,' chimed in male Aussie.

They were right, at $38 reais each for a dorm bed, it was set to be our most costly accom for the trip. We were going there purely off a recommendation from a fellow traveller in Rio. As we headed towards the hostel, we started to question our decision... 'Yes, it is insanely expensive. Let's go see if we can find something cheaper.'

Check this – the first place we walked into was a small pousada about 20 meters back from the beach, they offered us a double room with our own private bathroom for $20 reais each (half that for a dorm in the hostel) and after we'd dusted ourselves off from falling over in shock, we turned around to discover that the Aussie couple were in the room next to us.

The next five days were filled with beach and buffet by day – for $12 reais each, Craig and I would stuff ourselves silly with lasagnas, meatballs, crumbed chicken and salads – and then drinking and talking shit with Alex and Geoff by night.

As if the deal wasn't sweet enough, the owners of the pousada then invited us to a barbecue on Easter Saturday – this was done by them pointing at us, and then them miming eating. Huge racks of ribs were covered in salt and slow-cooked in the courtyard for over eight hours, and Craig hadn't been this excited since he had a super steak land on his plate in Buenos Aires. We now have half a memory card filled with ribs from the side, ribs from above, Craig smiling with ribs, Craig pretending to cook ribs, Craig with ribs and man who actually cooked ribs...

That night, after we salivated all day, we feasted on nothing but meat and bread. The meat was juicy, the meat was salty, the meat had succulent little fat pieces on it, the meat was awesome! And even though we spoke no Portugese (well our entire repertoire consists of 'hello' and 'thank you') and they no English, we all shared a common bond – a love of salt-covered, slow-cooked ribs... and we were all wearing Havaianas.

Now, you may recall a few paragraphs ago I was going on about some old Gwyneth Paltrow movie – clever writing technique, you see, I'll now make it relevant to our story and tie it all together like this: If we hadn't met the random chick who drove us to the bus terminal, and if we hadn't ended up catching the exact same local bus as Geoff and Alex, then we would've ended up at Backpackers Share House, and we never would've met Alex and Geoff, and we never would have had the awesome experience of being invited to a Brazilian family barbecue... makes your head hurt just thinking about it.

* Craig has kindly pointed out that not everyone is an Amazing Race fanatic like myself. How it is possible that the entire world population doesn't religiously follow and then discuss the ins and outs of each series is completely beyond me. But, for those of you who have yet to discover the joys of Roadblocks, Detours and and Fast Forwards, Charla and Mirna were a team from Season Five, comprising of an attorney (Mirna) and her dwarf cousin (Charla), they provided many entertaining moments during the season, and wore matching T-shirts that read, 'Too hot to handle'.

Another day in paradise

Slop on some sunscreen and grab ya boardies, 'cause we're taking you to paradise.

While saying goodbye to Rio was a tough gig, arriving at Ilha Grande sure sweetened the deal. A couple of hours south of Brazil's most famous city, this island is everything Rio is not – quiet, unassuming and untouched. Leave your driver's licence and ATM card at home – they're both useless here – and be prepared for your wallet to take a serious hit – cheap is not the name of the game on Ilha Grande.

The highlight of our four-day stay was a day spent at Lopez Mendez beach, a 45-minute boat ride followed by a half-hour hike from the island's town. The sun was a-shinin', the waves were a-crashin' and the sand was, er... sandy. As far as beaches go, this is easily the most beautiful we've ever been to. Sure, it lacks the glamour of Bondi and the showiness of Copacabana, but the water was clearer than the rock on Eva Longoria's finger and there wasn't a McDonald's (or anything else for that matter) in sight.

Swim, sunbathe, sleep and repeat – a simple recipe for an awesome day.

April 15, 2009

Rockin' it in Rio

'OK, let's go get stabbed,' said Craig as we pulled out of the bus terminal at Puerto Iguazu, Argentina. With our arrival in Rio de Janeiro just 22 hours away, Craig's worrying/whinging about our safety in Rio had gone into overdrive.

For months leading up to our South American trip, Craig had been banging on about how we were going to get stabbed/mugged/shot in the notorious Brazilian city, and for months I had been trying to convince him that I was sure that, since we would be taking every safety precaution possible, we would be fine. But for every reassurance I offered, there was Lonely Planet telling us to go there with the expectation that we would get mugged, news reports of hostels being ransacked during Carnaval and friends telling him via Facebook that he was going to get kidnapped (yes, Nathan Ball, I'm talking about you).

Truth be told, our reason for visiting Rio was that of pure obligation – how could we come all the way to South America and not visit the city that you go to when your baby smiles at you, where the girl from Ipanema goes walking and where music and passion were always the fashion (at the Copa... Copacabana)?

But then, by miracle, Craig fell in love with Rio, and it soon soared to number one on our list of favourite South American destinations.

It's tough to pinpoint exactly what is so great about Rio, or why we had such a blast there, Craig describes it as having a certain 'edge' about it, and by the end of our stay he proclaimed that the element of danger added that extra something to the city. Go figure.

One huge reason we loved Rio so much was our hostel, Walk on the Beach. The bathrooms were spacious and clean, the breakfast – consisting of bread rolls, ham, cheese, jam, coffee, juice and fruit – was the best we've encountered to date, the kitchen was well-equipped and the staff were bend-over-backwards helpful – unlike most other places we've stayed, how dare we interrupt their eight-hour MSN Messenger session to ask where the supermarket is! Staying in a 12-bed dorm didn't bother us one iota, which is really saying something!

Then, of course, there was the beach. Swimming at Copacabana, while the Brazilians strut their stuff and flaunt their toned bodies on the beach-volleyball courts is really something. Copacabana becomes something of a sports field on the weekends, with bats, balls, footballs and volleyballs flying left, right and centre.

But it's not all bikinis and voluptuous bottoms, and while it's easy to forget while strolling along Ipanema beach, you only have to look up to the hills to be reminded Rio's dangerous side. There are over 700 favelas (slums) scattered throughout the city, places where streets have no names, there are no building codes and crime is the name of the game. To get a feel for the less-glamorous side of Rio, we did a tour of one of the city's most famous favelas, Rocinha, which makes over $US4 million in drugs and weapon sales per month. Motorbikes whizzed us up to the top, and we made our way down through the makeshift suburb. The police were in the favela during our visit, machine guns pointed. Firecrackers were being let off left, right and centre – residents warning each other that the cops were on their turf. At one point we walked past a gun-wielding, bullet-proof-vest wearing drug dealer, and then took two steps and tasted some of the most delicious caramel and chocolate-filled donuts in the local bakery. The quality of life for these people is extremely low and depressing, and the whole experience was definitely an eye opener.

Aside from gawking at the city's poor, we also visited the iconic Christ the Redeemer. It wasn't the clearest of days when we went, but sometimes it's so foggy you can't even see the statue when you are standing at the base of it, so we counted ourselves lucky. We also visited the tiled steps in Lapa (made famous by Snoop Dogg's Beautiful video), made by an eccentric old Chilean man (who we got to meet), which feature tiles from all over the world.

On the food front, it was sucos (fresh fruit juices) and black beans galore. There was a 43-year-old Australian staying at our hostel who had been there a few weeks, we dubbed him 'The Godfather', 'cause if you ever had any questions on where to go or what to do, he's been there, done it and bought the T-shirt. One afternoon he took Craig and I to a place where you could get a massive plate of rice, black beans and meat (Craig and I went for beef schnitzel) for just $5.50 Reais ($AU3.46).

Rio is one of those places people just seem to get stuck in, there was a group of English people (two guys, one girl), who would wake up every morning with the intention of going to the bus terminal and thought 'stuff it, let's just stay one more day', it took them over a week to leave. We easily could have spent a few weeks in Rio, spending lazy days sipping sucos on the beach, but time and budget (Brazil is the most expensive South American country we will visit) simply weren't on our side.

As we drove out of Rio, I had just one thing to say to Craig – a big, fat 'I told you so!'.

April 02, 2009

Rainbows, waterfalls and butterflies...

...all we need now is Funshine Bear and we have the perfect setting for a sequel to 1987's The Care Bears Adventure in Wonderland.

For a 5 peso bus ride and a 60 peso admission charge (only 7 pesos if you are from Argentina or a neighbouring country!), we got to spend a day in Argentina's own slice of paradise – Iguazu National Park.

Located on the border of Argentina and Brazil, the Iguazu Falls are currently on their way to nabbing a spot on the New7Wonders of Nature list. And hiking through the jungle, stopping to take in the spectacular views, and taking a dip to escape the extreme humidity is a whole lot more fun than going to work, that's for sure!

The falls themselves were pretty damn amazing. The biggest, Devil's Throat, is loud, angry and powerful – and there are so many tourists around, we did well to get a couple of pics without random elbows, hats and bum bags protruding into our shot. It was also the site of my dramatic bee sting (because I have the uncanny ability to make the smallest events dramatic), which left me with a swollen leg and a wound that was leaking fluid for days (I exaggerate not).

The rest of the park is full of pretty-yet-less-impressive falls, butterflys galore and overpriced kiosks (20 pesos for a salad roll – tell him he's dreamin'!).

A day spent chasing waterfalls... TLC will not be impressed!

The glamorous – the flossy, flossy

Fergie may be sipping champagne up in the sky, but we've been sipping Coke and watching DVDs down on the road.

Introducing ' super cama', the first class of the Argentinian long-haul buses. Seats convert into flat beds, meals and drinks are served and DVDs are played. It's so much fun, we didn't want to get off after our 18-hour trip from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu. Best of all, it's only marginally dearer than a normal, run-of-the-mill coach, meaning we can squeeze a little luxury into our hostel-dwelling, backpack-hauling, bread-eating existence.

Fergie, eat your heart out!