Journey’s end at the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro

The Museum of Tomorrow

The Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro is not a collection of old things, but a cutting-edge collection of scientific ideas and information about where we as a species came from and where we might be heading. I found the most striking aspect, though, was how so many visitors ignored the exhibits in favour of their phones, checking messages, updating their Facebook profiles and posing for selfies. People’s inability to interact with the present and what’s in front of them strikes me as just as alarming as what the future of the planet might have in store for us. Technology has allowed us to capture and record images like never before, but somewhere along the way we seem to be becoming less capable of really looking and seeing.

The Museum with Niteroi Bridge in the distance

My three month tour around Chile, Bolivia and Brazil came to an end yesterday and a visit to the brand new Museum of Tomorrow (O Museu do Amanhã) in Rio de Janeiro seemed like an appropriate way to finish. It opened just six months ago and is part of the port revitalisation project. The design by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and the setting on the waterfront with a view of the Niterói bridge are simply stunning. 

Inside you find a sequence of rooms about the cosmos, our planet, our effect on it and the possible futures that might unfold. There are a lot of statistics and information to take in, but inevitably it’s the more interactive displays that get the most attention. I went on a Tuesday which is free, but packed, so it’s not the best day if you want to go and contemplate the future of our planet in peace and quiet.

Ipanema beach – one of the best views in one of my favourite cities in the world

As for my future, I’m heading back to São Paulo later today to pack up my things after six years living there before returning to the UK for a month. Then in August I’ll be off again on my travels, this time to India for 5 months. 

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A strike, a chicken and an unlikely drag show on my last Bolivian bus journey, from Guayaramerin to Cobija

Ferry across the Rio Madre de Dios

I knew that my final bus journey through the Bolivian Amazon from Riberalta to Cobija was going to be an adventure, as it involves two river crossings, but the onboard drag show came as quite a surprise. I had arrived in Guayaramerin after 5 blissful days on a cargo boat from Trinidad only to find myself in the middle of an all out stoppage. 

Boat repairs at the port in Riberalta

I had planned to cross the river to the twin Brazilian town of Guajara-Mirim, but a local strike protesting against the high energy costs in the region meant that everything was at a standstill. And I mean everything. Ferries, buses, immigration control, even shops and restaurants, everything was shut. It had been going on for five days, and I was dreading being stranded there indefinitely, but luckily at lunchtime the strike was lifted and I was able to cross for the day to visit Brazil to have an açaí na tigela, one of my favourite fruits. 

By this time, though, I had also discovered that there were no direct buses to Rio Branco in Brazil, so I decided to return to Bolivia and head west to Cobija and cross into Brazil from there. In fact, it would be a shorter and more interesting (and, as it turned out, rather surprising) journey. My full return to Brazil would have to wait a few more days.

Street in Riberalta

The following morning I caught a bus to Riberalta, a hot, humid and dusty riverside town. In the wilting afternoon heat I had just enough energy to get my laundry done at an open air place in a field, where many women were washing by hand in sinks. It reminded me of the dhobi ghats in India. Fermina did a great job and my clothes were ready in a few hours. 

Evening paseo in the town square in Riberalta

I had dinner in the main square and watched the locals doing laps around the plaza which is apparently the thing to do here. Years ago people would have been just strolling in a paseo, but nowadays it’s clearly necessary to display one’s wealth and show you own a motorbike or large car. It seemed like a colossal waste of petrol and money to me, especially offensive when there are barefoot children in rags begging at tables. 

Ferry across the Rio Beni, although a bridge is being built

The most recent editions of guidebooks warn that the journey from Riberalta to Cobija in Pando province can take over 12 hours, so I was pleased to discover that we would do it in 9. It proved to be a memorable trip. The Amazon scenery was impressive and we had to cross two rivers by ferry, the Beni and the Madre de Dios. 

Ferry across the Rio Madre de Dios

The bus was more decrepit than any so far, but I’ve learned one thing about bus travel in Bolivia. The seats may be broken, the curtains ripped, the windows filthy, the air conditioning non-functioning, but one thing will always be in perfect working order: the radio, blasting out at full volume some usually really awful music. But I didn’t care, because the journey was so fascinating. Among the passengers was a boy clutching a live chicken, whether a pet or lunch I never got to discover.


On every bus in Bolivia somebody will get on and try and sell you something. It’s how they make a living. I’m not just talking about food vendors, but people selling sweets, cosmetics and jewellery. Two hours outside Cobija in Pando Department in the middle of nowhere a guy in half drag got on and did a cabaret act and magic tricks as a prelude to selling some chocolate cakes. In a remote part of the Amazon on a dusty, red dirt, unpaved road it was one of the most incongruous sights I’ve ever seen. A kind of Priscilla, Queen of the Amazon. 

Arriving in Pando Department

In Cobija I took my last moto taxi in Bolivia to the border with Brazil where you can cross to the remote town of Brasileia. I completed exit formalities at Bolivian immigration, then started to cross the bridge. There’s something quite fascinating about walking across borders on foot, since for a short while you’re effectively in no man’s land. I began to reflect on the amazing seven weeks I’d spent in Bolivia and the extraordinary diversity of the landscape, from the high altiplano of the Andes to the sweltering heat of the Amazon. But the bridge was short and in no time at all, I was in Brazil.

Five days by cargo boat down the Rio Mamore, from Trinidad to Guayaramerin in the Bolivian Amazon

Dawn on the Rio Mamore

It began badly. I missed the boat. In 6 weeks of travelling by bus in Bolivia I had never left on time, but last Saturday I was left stranded at the port. The epic boat trip down the Rio Mamore was something I’d been looking forward to for weeks and I’d planned part of my trip around it. From the destination port of Guayaramerin I could cross into Brazil and from there fly back to São Paulo, but now it all looked in jeopardy. 

Another dawn

I had arrived in Trinidad late Thursday night after another long bus journey from Santa Cruz and the following morning I jumped on a moto taxi to Puerto Almacen to try and organise the trip. There are no passenger boats, you have to speak directly to the Capitanía in the port and find out what boats are leaving. I was in luck. The Boldito was scheduled to head downriver the next day. 

The Boldito

I spoke to captain Alfredo who told me I would even have a small cabin. I just needed to buy a mosquito net and some provisions. It would cost only £30 for four nights, including all meals, so I knew it would be extremely basic, but that was fine, I was going for the scenery not on board entertainment. Alfredo told me they were still loading up the cargo, 35,000 litres of diesel, but they would be setting off the following day, so I should arrive at 1pm.

Yet another dawn

The rest of the day and Saturday morning were spent buying the net and extra food and water and exploring the laid-back town of Trinidad. After an early lunch on Saturday I arrived at the port at 12.45 only to discover the Boldito had finished loading early and so had already departed. But I had one last chance. The lorry drivers at the port told me the boat would be passing Loma Suarez, another port further north, just after 2pm, so if I caught another taxi I might just make it. Someone rang the captain telling him I was on my way and I rushed off in a cab. Well, actually, it was a flatbed truck pulled by a motorbike, a kind of rickshaw, but it got me there in time. 

Taking it easy

On the banks of the Rio Ibare I waited and waited. After about two hours sitting in sweltering heat I was ready to give up, but then the Boldito appeared round the bend in the river. However, it was clear it wasn’t going to stop. They sent a crew member to the shore in a small motor boat to pick me up. Finally, I was on board and I met my two fellow passengers, Johanna and Peter from Germany. My cabin was in fact being used as a store room, but it was fine. Just after dusk on the first day we finally entered the Rio Mamore and began the long journey north.

Birds on the Rio Mamore

It’s surprising how quickly the days passed, doing very little apart from reading and watching the river banks glide past. We saw many white herons, a caiman and some tantalising glimpses of the noses of pink dolphins. Sunrises and sunsets were particularly beautiful, when the colours changed dramatically, the temperatures were lower and flocks of birds swooped low over the water or high above the trees on their way to and from their nests.

Puerto Siles

We made only one stop, at a tiny port, called Puerto Siles, for Alfredo to complete some paperwork. The captain, who has been doing this run for 10 years, told me all the diesel was bound for Riberalta and Cobija further west. Close to another village a local boat pulled up alongside and the crew delivered some sacks of rice and at some point we took delivery of a pig.

Sunset on the Rio Mamore

Johanna and Peter practised their juggling skills. My party trick was banging my head on door lintels, rusting pipes and overhead steel vents, something I did at least a dozen times a day. Whenever I go on boats, I’m somehow always surprised that they are never built with someone over six feet tall in mind. Conditions and food were basic, but it was incredibly relaxing and I was quite sad when on day five, Wednesday morning, we pulled into the port at Guayaramerin. 

Another sunset

But I was now excited to get back to Brazil which I could see across the river. Unfortunately, Guayaramerin was hit by a strike and as we got off the boat we soon realised that none of us were going anywhere. All ferries and buses were suspended. Five wonderful days to get to Brazil by boat and there it was. So tantalisingly close and yet so far.

An ending and a new adventure

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Pico do Papagaio, Vale do Matutu

Tomorrow everything changes. I’ll have no job and nowhere to live. But I am lucky. Because I planned this. I’ve been planning it for months. I’m giving up my life here in Brazil after six years, leaving the house I’ve stayed in for the last 18 months, saying goodbye to friends and setting off on the biggest adventure of my life. I plan to travel for as long as I can – or until the money runs out. It’s exciting, and terrifying.  But it’s just what I need.

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The concrete jungle of São Paulo

What have I learned about living in a foreign country for so long? The main thing is that living and working in a city is totally different from visiting as a tourist. The same things that got me down in London (the journey to work, overcrowded trains, a dull routine) also started to affect me in São Paulo. After years living here I also learned to see what ordinary Brazilians have to put up with, things you don’t see when you’re just passing through. Like the frustrating bureaucracy, the non-existent customer service, a surprising lack of respect and the appalling way that many employers still treat their employees.

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As Ilhas, along the Paulista coast

But there’s so much I’ll miss about this country: the friendly people, the vibrant, spontaneous culture, the music, Carnival, the national parks and the glorious beaches. And I don’t yet know if I’ll be able to survive without my fix of açai na tigela – a frozen pulp of an Amazonian berry with granola and other fresh fruit sliced on top. Luckily, caipirinha can be found most places around the world these days.

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Prainha Branca, just a few hours from São Paulo

I plan to visit India and Bangladesh later this year and go trekking in the Himalayas, but my first trip takes me to Chile and Bolivia and then the Brazilian Amazon before flying back to the UK in June. I’ll be arriving in Santiago and then making my way northwards, zigzagging between coast and mountains, before crossing over the Andes into Bolivia and La Paz. I’ll be heading into the jungle from there and exploring as much of the country as I can. I then plan to take a boat from Trinidad down the Rio Mamoré to Guayamerin from where I’ll be able to cross the border into Brazil and visit two remote states I have never been to before – Acre and Rondônia.

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Rio Carnival

Brazil is going through tough times right now, with the recession biting and more and more corruption scandals surrounding politicians and Petrobras coming to light every day. But things will improve and it’s a place I’ll want to keep coming back to for the rest of my life. Right now, though, the rest of the world beckons.

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I’ll really miss Rio …

 

 

Carnival in Brazil

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São Paulo Sambódromo

It’s Carnival time again and in Brazil it’s the biggest event in the calendar. Samba schools have been painstakingly building their floats and dancers and musicians have been practising for months. Carnival is the highlight of the year for many people and it starts this weekend and lasts until Ash Wednesday. I live in Bixiga, São Paulo, near the Vai Vai samba school and pretty much every Sunday during the year you can hear them rehearsing. I have got used to falling asleep to the distant sound of beating drums.

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Rio Sambódromo
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Rio Sambódromo

Both Rio and São Paulo have huge parade grounds, called sambódromos, where the schools compete and a winner is crowned. The scale of the floats is astonishing and the competition intense. Big names are contracted to design the floats and costumes according to sometimes surreal and grandiose themes. Tickets to the sambódromos are not cheap, but it’s worth going once just to savour the atmosphere.

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Rio Sambódromo

The sambódromo parades happen over just two days in each city, but the rest of the time you can join a bloco (or street parade) for free and dance or follow the crowd. These are often local community groups and have a great atmosphere.

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Local bloco in São Paulo
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Carnival in Pelourinho, Salvador

Salvador has probably the biggest and wildest Carnival of all. Here the parades make their way right through the city streets on two established circuits, one near Campo Grande and the other in the beachside neighbourhood of Barra. Giant trucks with amplified sound called trios elétricos move slowly through the streets pumping out the local music called axé which is very different from the samba of Rio.

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Trio elétrico in Salvador

You have several choices of how to participate in Carnival in Salvador. The most expensive but safest way is to buy a seat in a camarote (or private box) and watch from above the street. Another way is to buy an abadá (or a kit comprising of a t-shirt or vest) which allows you inside the roped-off section which follows each trio. Another way (free and therefore my favourite) is to follow the trios and dance pipoca style (which means popcorn). You’ll be jumping up and down with all the locals and things can get very crushed.

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Filhos de Gandhi, Salvador

Wherever you go during Carnival, leave all your valuables at home. Pickpocketing is quite blatant, particularly in Salvador, so do as the locals do and stuff a few notes in your shoe or down your bra – just enough to buy some beers and a caipirinha. It’s not cheap visiting Brazil during Carnival as most hotels will demand a five night package with rates that work out 3 or 4 times the usual amount. However, it is one of the best parties on the planet and not to be missed.

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Rio Sambódromo

 

Rio de Janeiro – a new view

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Ipanema Beach with the Morro Dois Irmãos in the distance on the left

What makes a city one of the great cities of the world? For me, it’s a place that, no matter how many times you have been, no matter how well you think you know it, each visit provides a surprise, a new insight or a different perspective. Standing on top of the Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers’ Hill) 533 metres above Rio de Janeiro on Christmas Eve, I was struck yet again by the beauty of this incredible city.

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View from the top of Morro Dois Irmãos

Rio de Janeiro has a spectacular natural setting and even the manmade structures seem to blend and harmonise with the surroundings from this height. Higher than Sugar Loaf, the Morro Dois Irmãos  offers a view that’s hard to beat; Ipanema and Leblon Beaches, Guanabara Bay, the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer are all visible on a cloudless sunny day.

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Me on the top of Morro Dois Irmãos

The hill is situated at the end of Leblon Beach and is also home to Vidigal favela. You need to go with a guide and so I booked with http://trilhadoisirmaos.com.br/site/, a well-established company set up by Ana Lima who was born in Vidigal. For only R$59 (£10) I joined a group of interntional and Brazilian trekkers and we were led by Ana Lima herself and an English-speaking guide.

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View of Praia de São Conrado and the Pedra da Gávea

We drove up through Vidigal to the start of the trail. The trek is short (about 1.5 km), but it’s uphill all the way and on a hot day can be tiring. The arrival at the top makes it all worthwhile though and the exhilarating sight in front of you causes you to forget instantly any aching limbs and parched throat.

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Graffiti in Vidigal

The return journey is also interesting, since at the foot of the trail you are guided back down on foot through the favela itself, which gives you a fascinating insight into the lives of the locals. The views are spectacular, but the signs advising people where to gather in case of flash floods makes you realise that life is not easy here. But the residents we passed were friendly and welcoming and it’s now perfectly safe to walk through if accompanied by a guide.

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The view from Vidigal

It may seem hard to drag yourself away from the beach on a lovely sunny day, but make an effort and climb this hill. Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer are mobbed with tourists, but the Morro Dois Irmãos offers a much less touristy and, in my opinion, better experience.

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Vidigal stairs

 

 

 

Exploring Brazil – Part 2 – Iguassu Falls and Salvador

Iguassu Falls
Iguassu Falls

Brazil is a vast country and there is an astonishing range of landscapes, cities and cultures. There are no real mountains to speak of, but there is the mighty Amazon, arid savannas in the interior, beaches backed by red stone cliffs and – in the far south, bordering Argentina – the fabulous Iguassu Falls.

Iguassu Falls
Iguassu Falls

The town of Foz serves as a good gateway and you can easily cross the border to visit the Argentine side for a day. In fact the two sides offer different perspectives: the Brazilian side offers long views good for photography, while on the Argentine side there are many walkways which pass very close to the falls themselves, allowing you to get up close and personal with the cascading water. There is also a very good bird park, various boat trips to be made where you will probably get wet and a breathtaking helicopter ride over the falls.

Art shop in Pelourinho, Salvador
Art shop in Pelourinho, Salvador

The Northeast is one of my favourite parts of Brazil. It’s much more laidback than the big cities of the south like São Paulo and Rio and it’s almost like a different country. It’s also a lot hotter and drier during the summer season, while in the south the summer often brings torrential rain at the end of the day. There are thousands of kilometers of coast here and you can find built-up resorts as well as deserted stretches where it’s possible to walk for hours.

Pelourinho, Salvador
Pelourinho, Salvador

The most interesting city here is Salvador which has its own unique flavour and vibe and a setting on the Bahia de Todos os Santos (All Saints Bay) which rivals that of Rio. Founded in 1549 in the state of Bahia, it’s one of the oldest cities in the Americas and was the first capital of Brazil until 1763. As a major centre of the slave trade, it’s ancestry heritage remains today predominantly African. Its music and cuisine are influenced very much by this, and the old centre (Pelourhino) has some superb examples of colonial architecture.

Carnival in Salvador
Carnival in Salvador

It’s also home to the biggest carnival in the world and totally different to that of Rio where samba and costumes predominate. In Salvador huge trucks with enormous speakers (trios elétricos) take to the streets on set circuits playing axé music to a wild crowd. It’s an incredible experience of five days of solid partying and best savoured with a few caipirinhas. Don’t take valuables with you! I once made the mistake of going out with my fairly expensive camera as things were quiet, but then it got very busy. However, a local woman came to my rescue, called over the polícia militar, and I was given an escort safely back to my hotel. I don’t think that’s a service you can rely on, though.

Carnival in Pelourinho
Carnival in Pelourinho

Apart from Salvador, the best things in the Northeast are the beaches. The ocean stretches for miles right from the city centre, but it’s not always good for swimming. Just north of Salvador, though, lies the small town of Praia do Forte which is quite chic, but has some good beaches. In the far south of Bahia state is another upmarket little place called Trancoso. The beaches here are stunning, particularly Praia do Espelho, one of the best in Brazil.

Praia do Forte
Praia do Forte

Brazil is often overlooked by visitors to South America in favour of the Andean countries, but I think this is a mistake. There is so much to do and so much variety. But make the effort to see more than Rio de Janeiro. Once you do, you’ll find far fewer tourists and you’ll get to know the real Brazil. You’ll probably need to learn a few words of Portuguese, since English is surprisingly not widely spoken.

Praia do Espelho
Praia do Espelho