I knew when Eva Cooper walked into the Low Down to Hull and Back weekly newspaper’s office in Wakefield, Qc with a notice from the OQLF, it would be a big story. I definitely can’t say I was surprised it went viral, but I’m not going to lie, it felt good to be the journalist who broke Cooper’s important story and my first national story.
ICYMI: Here are the first stories that broke the story, written by me of course.
Eva Cooper, owner of a small Chelsea boutique called Delilah in the Parc, has been served a notice from the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) ordering her to translate the posts on her business’s Facebook page into French or risk potential legal action. “I think they are opening up a can of worms,” said Cooper, who employs about 10 people in total at her stores in Chelsea and the Glebe. “If they wanna’ bring on the fight, bring it on.”
The notice obtained by the Low Down dated Feb. 7 was delivered to Cooper on Feb. 17 and gave her until Mar. 10 to respond and negotiate a timeline for corrections to be made. If she continues to object, she will be delivered a demand letter, which will carry consequences, such as a fine.
This comes just over a year after the infamous ‘pastagate’ scandal in Montreal where an Italian restaurant was notified by the OQLF – the governmental organization in charge of enforcing Bill 101 – to translate the word pasta into ‘pâtes’. Since then, the OQLF has promised to “triage” complaints and rule out allegations against businesses that are a waste of the bureau’s time. However, questionable complaints continue to make headlines across the province – there was a report made concerning a spoon with English writing on it, while another complaint was made against two hospital workers who were speaking Créole on their own time in Montreal.
CHELSEA, QUE.—The agency in charge of enforcing the primacy of the French language in Quebec apparently has a new target — social media.
Eva Cooper, the owner of a small retail boutique in Chelsea, Que., has been notified by the language agency that if she doesn’t translate the shop’s Facebook page into French, she will face an injunction that will carry consequences such as a fine.
“Ultimately, to me, Facebook has nothing to do with Quebec,” said Cooper, who uses the social media site to inform customers of new products in her boutique north of Ottawa. The shop — Delilah in the Parc —has an all-bilingual staff of fewer than 10 people.
“I’m happy to mix it up, but I’m not going to do every post half in French, half in English. I think that that defeats the whole purpose of Facebook,” said Cooper, who has requested the agency send her their demands in English.
Cooper’s case represents a new frontier for the language agency, the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF). The agency says probes of social media complaints, which started only recently, are “not frequent.”
This all comes amid election talk in the province. Diane De Courcy, Quebec minister of immigration and cultural communities, said earlier this week that if her party wins the next election, they will toughen language laws for small businesses. In particular, the Parti Québécois will crack down on bilingualism, such as the “Bonjour-Hi” greeting used in many areas, including Chelsea and Montreal.
Over the past few months I have been interning at VICE Canada in Montreal dishing out at least one story a week. This is the piece I am most proud of, so far.
When I got the assignment to visit Lac Mégantic for VICE, I was busy working in the restaurant I work at 40 hours a week to pay the bills. My editor told me a photographer was willing to drive me to Lac Mégantic as soon as possible to cover the aftermath of the biggest train disaster in Canadian history. So, after working my 10:30 am – 5:00 pm shift and then playing two back-to-back hockey games in my weekly 3 on 3 league I departed at 3 am for Lac Mégantic with local photographer Jean-Francois Hamelin. We arrived at Lac Mégantic for sunrise and felt the eeriness and sustained shock that the town of 6000 was still feeling just 3 days after the disaster. We spent the entire day running around following leads and drove back the same night. A lot of coffee and (regrettably) McDonalds meals later I produced this piece for VICE.
Photos by Jean-Francois Hamelin.
Rolling hills, clean country air, pristine streets… Lac Mégantic certainly doesn’t feel like a “war zone.” But if you take a peek past the dozens of cameras aimed at the 1km cordoned off area surrounding the centre of the blast, you’ll find absolute destruction—right here in Canada.
I visited the site of one of Quebec’s largest ever catastrophes on Tuesday, with photographer Jean-Francois Hamelin, to get an idea of how the citizens were coping.
I can’t really tell you exactly what happened during the explosion—because investigators are discovering and releasing information at a snail’s pace—but I can tell you that a runaway train carrying hundreds of tonnes of crude oil barreled downhill for 12km, away from the town of Nantes, before it derailed right in the centre of Lac Mégantic. Somehow, the train’s brakes were disabled while its conductor was away from the control panel. The mushroom cloud explosion that ensued was so insanely large it could be seen from space.
While many journalists are using the tragedy as a jump off point to discuss the deregulation of the train industry or the future of oil transport, what everybody in Lac Mégantic is talking about is a pub. Musi Café was not only where many people lost their lives in the crash and subsequent explosion, but it also left a massive void in the town culturally, as it was the go-to spot to chill.
Ask anyone in the old tourist town of 6,000 and they’ll tell you that Musi Café—right on Frontenac Street by all the boutiques, pharmacy, grocery store and historic Agnes church, named after the wife of Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald—was the only place to hang out. Before the blast, if you were 18, 30, 45 or heck, 16 (it’s Quebec after all) you could plunk your ass down at Musi Café and hear any genre of music, eat bar grub, drink from a selection of 75 different beers, or shoot the shit on the brand new terrasse. Now all that’s left of the town’s social and cultural hub is a charred pile of rubble.
Imagine being woken up in the middle of the night and being told that your city was in flames. This was the reality for Borks Obradovic, an immigrant from Yugoslavia living in Lac Mégantic whose 13 year old son came running to her around 1am screaming: “Get up Mom, the city is exploding!” Her son’s best friend lost his 35-year-old mother at Musi.
Natalie Bedard, the owner of a Dollarama store that was demolished by the explosion, said she doesn’t know what she’ll do with herself now that her business has been lost. But at least, she said, she was fortunate to have just lost her business. Natalie’s neighbour lost his wife, brother, and father.
Amidst the stories of tragedies and lost loved ones, survivors were haunted by how harrowingly close they were to being one of the missing. My day was filled with people recounting their what ifstories—like anyone who had a desk in the World Trade Centre, and was lucky enough to call in sick on September 11th, 2001.
While several of the 15 confirmed fatalities in Lac Mégantic were discovered in the charred ruins of Musi Café, local insurance broker Stephane Grenier and his drinking buddy barely made it out alive. After downing a couple of beers, Stephane called it quits at 11pm, but his friend insisted on drinking. His two children pleaded with him to come to another bar outside of town, and after a bit of an argument, he begrudgingly agreed and left. Less than an hour later, the train struck, and the bar that the two men were sitting earlier in the night was completely obliterated.
Likewise, the owner of Musi, along with his pregnant wife, survived the tragedy by leaving work less than an hour before the carnage occurred.
During the fire, evacuees were taken in by friends or family in the area—or to the pop-up Red Cross shelter, located in a nearby high school called Polyvante Montignac. Thanks to over $250,000 in generous donations from around Quebec, the high school housed as many as 160 people and also provided food and Salvation Army clothing for many more. Journalists weren’t allowed in the school, but I managed to pop in and chat with some of the displaced townsfolk.
I sparked up a conversation with an elderly man forced out of his home, but surprisingly throughout our whole conversation, there wasn’t a single iota of negativity. In fact, he was ecstatic about how he has been treated by the Red Cross and gushed about the sloppy coleslaw.
For now, the quaint village streets of Lac Mégantic are at a stand still as the town awaits some sort of normalcy to resume. On street corners, stoops, and by the gigantic metal cross that’s perched high overtop the city’s closest peak, residents were chatting. Others were playing ultimate Frisbee, hosting friends for dinner, or going to picnics.
Outside of the school, more and more of the closed off disaster zone is being opened up to residents every day. Evacuees are slowly being allowed home, and the town is gearing up to begin its recovery. For those that need to chat, Red Cross social workers are still roaming the streets talking to people and the Carrefour Youth Employment Centre has organized support groups for kids.
It’s important to realize that Lac Mégantic isn’t just the home of 6,000 people—it’s the centre of everything for 45-minutes in each direction. It’s the epicentre of Quebec’s cottage country. If you want to grab a burger, visit the pharmacy, or pick up some brews, Lac Megantic is where you’d go.
Everyone I spoke to in Lac Mégantic knows that rebuilding will take a lot of time and money. Stephane Grenier—the insurance broker I mentioned earlier who narrowly escaped death in Musi Café—would like to see the relief money come from the train company whose locomotive exploded in Lac Mégantic. The Quebec government announced on Wednesday that it had allocated $60M to a rebuilding fund.
My only beef with the way things are being handled in Lac Mégantic is that politician after politician has been allowed to view the devastation, while journalists are still limited to helicopter and mountaintop photos. In my opinion, if it’s safe enough for our leaders, it’s safe enough for a few journalists who need to help get the story out.
But regardless, it’s inspiring to see Lac Mégantic in such high spirits after a terrifying catastrophe. The people there are doing their best to live normally in the wake of the town’s destruction. And from what I saw of the disaster zone, it’s remarkable that the townspeople are so resilient, because it’s a horrifying sight. To see such a strong sense of positivity in the midst of a situation where there is obviously so much to be negative about made me optimistic, and I hope that the government, along with Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, do what’s right to get this town back on its feet.
If you would like to help make sure that the Red Cross keeps doing such a stand-up job for the people of Lac Megantic, you can donate to by telephone at 1-800-418-1111 or on their website.
3… 2… 1… 4/20! And with that, the smoke floated en masse up towards the emblematic clock tower that signifies Canadian parliament. Even though I didn’t smoke, my thick wool jacket smelled otherwise.
The approximately 10 000 people that gathered on Parliament Hill to mark 420 / 4:20 / 4/20 or simply Weed Day was the most ever in Ottawa according to organizers. The legalization of weed in small amounts last November in Colorado and Washington is mostly to thank. There, marijuana is now legal if you are over 21, smoke in private and possess less than one ounce. That is, unless the FBI comes knocking at your door because the US government has not ok’d the reform.
Meanwhile, Canada, one of the top producers of marijuana in the world, still maintains strict laws against the consumption of earth’s most popular drug. In fact, sentencing has been increased by the Federal Omnibus Bill C-10, which adds stricter six-month mandatory minimum sentences for anyone who grows six or more marijuana plants.
In an open-letter to Prime Minister Harper last year, The Global Commission on Drug Policy, one of the world leaders on the study of drug use across United Nations member countries, attacked the Canadian government’s weed crackdown. “Canada is at the threshold of continuing to repeat the same grave mistakes as other countries, moving further down a path that has proven immensely destructive and ineffective at meeting its objectives,” wrote the Brazil-based organization.
Thus, this year, more than being a day to see who can roll the fattest joint, or dawn the most outlandish weed paraphernalia (see Facebook album for victors), 4/20 on Parliament Hill was meant to be more of a political demonstration in favour of legalization.
“I am the Justin Trudeau of marijuana,” joked Precious Chong, daughter of one of the most famous pot-smokers in Canadian history, Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame. She MC’d the day’s events from a podium in front of a backdrop of neon-jacketed police officers. Like the new Liberal leader, she is following in the giant footsteps of her father. Also like Trudeau, she supports the legalization of marijuana.
While members of Trudeau’s Liberal party and the Green party did attend, they did not deliver any speeches in support. Chong, however, was joined on stage by other Canadian weed-leaders who have received a major boost to their campaign since a British Columbia $25 million lottery winner injected $1 million to the legalization movement.
“How do we get people who don’t smoke or don’t like to smoke to support legalization?” shouted a pro-legalization leader from the podium. “Get ‘em to smoke one!” responded a grey-haired woman from the crowd.
Even at the biggest celebration of weed of the year there wasn’t a unanimous decision on legalization. Three men who hid their names told the Ottawa Citizen that they don’t want to see their green legalized because new taxes would stack prices.
Despite the growing attention to legalization in Canada, it was hard to take the rally seriously when a guy dressed up as a massive bong was distributing skunk suits to rallying stoners. Still, what can you expect when most of your prospective voters are blitzed out of their minds?
While the Ottawa rally was completely peaceful and calm save for when a stampede swarmed the Trailer Park Boys as soon as they showed up (they were there despite Kathryn May reporting in the Ottawa Citizen that they weren’t), the 4/20 rally in Denver, Colorado, which was expected to be the largest in history at 80 000 smokers, was thrown into chaos shortly after 4:20pm when gunshots injured three people. All victims are expected to survive.
On the last leg of my journey, I was again helped on the bus, this time by a local Paulista (person from Sao Paulo). I simply said hello and introduced myself to the guy and 30 seconds later he offered to pay my bus fare to enter the city. On the bus he told me he worked in TV and offered me a tour of the TV station he worked at! I said ok and he organized the tour for a couple days later. Leonardo paid for my metro too then we shook hands and I was off.
It happened a couple more times in Sao Paulo where I was trying to find somewhere and the person went out of their way to help me. Since Rio I have been thinking non-stop about open vs. closed cultures and have had many conversations about this in the process. An American I met who has moved to Sao Paulo told me he agrees 100% that Brazil is a more open culture and Brazilians are generally more warm. He told me that he recognizes his closed American culture when he is being introduced to new people – and he doesn’t like it. I too feel closed on occasion and blame my English culture.
Still, Brazil is not perfect. This excellent National Geographic video on Rio during Carnaval this year shows the scams and underground criminal activity associated with Carnaval. This might explain some of the fear associated with Brazil…
I definitely did not feel this with the Bahian I stayed with in Sao Paulo. Indra, a Bahian studying in Sao Paulo, offered me her couch for my final five days. She met my brother in Palestine when they were teaching capoeira together.
The day after I arrived, Indra was speaking at the University of Sao Paulo for a conference. The thing I noticed about the campus is that is pretty much exactly like most other universities I’ve ever been to – there were cliques, people dressed the same as any young people, public hall make outs etc. Sometimes we think we are so different at a specific place or especially at a specific university. We forget that other students are doing the same thing and acting the same way at many other universities all over the world.
The only tourist site I saw was the Sé Cathedral, a massive twentieth century cathedral.
I built my own tourism by visiting TV Cultura thanks to Leonardo. His friend Vanessa showed me around the TV sets and newsroom. I also got a chance to sit in on the screening of a political talk show featuring four panelists that talked about International politics. While I understood probably 5% of the conversation because it was all in Portuguese it felt special to be in a professional studio and it re-sparked my desire to work in TV. After the show I approached the two American panelists and asked them what it takes to work in Brazil. One came here 13 years ago without any Portuguese searching for a freelance job. He found a few and then landed a two-year gig as a foreign correspondent in Brazil for the illustrious New York Times. Now he is a correspondent for Reuters. The other was a business correspondent for another major US news magazine.
At first when I told them about my desire to work in Brazil they gave me the speech about how it’s hard to get a job in journalism blah blah blah… After that, however, they said that the key to getting a job in a foreign country is speaking the language and if you open up to learning new languages and taking chances there are jobs. Enough with the fucking negativity and more with the positivity ok journalists? I’m tired of your whining about no jobs when there are so many jobs out there. I know that negativity awaits me when I return home, just look at the newspapers or online to see the daily if not weekly article about how there are no jobs for young people or journalists. Dare to challenge this negativity! I will!
On my last day before leaving Brazil I made sure to try eating at a churrascuria – a buffet where fresh meat is brought to your team, a carnivore’s delight!
And now here I am back in snowy Ottawa, Canada.
Instead of looking back at particular events, intending to blog about them, I am now looking back at my entire trip in hind site.
What an amazing trip! I did all I wanted and much, much more.
The state of Bahia in Brazil is know for its culture – the religion of Candomblé, reggae-inspired music, distinct food and for being the most relaxed and chilled-out place imaginable.
When I arrived in Salvador on a ferry from Morro de Sao Paulo Bruno and I checked into a hostel called Che Lagarto. Bruno left the next morning and for the first time in my trip, traveling alone actually affected me poorly. Mostly because the hostel I stayed in sucked! In every other hostel I have been in, I met people within a couple hours and proceeded to travel with them. In this hostel, everyone was either a couple on vacation with no desire to speak to others, old, or just not willing to communicate. The only people I did end up getting to talk to were three Argentinean girls who albeit kind were unwilling to do much of anything especially at night out of fear.
It is true that Salvador is dangerous and you must be careful especially when out at night, but there is little danger when traveling in groups. If they are going to rob you, they will do just that – rob you. It sucks, but you aren’t going to die and they won’t take much if you aren’t carrying much. Plus, what are you traveling for if you are just going to stay in the hostel the whole time? To their defense, they were on “vacation” not travelling – they only left work for 13 days with the aim to tan and enjoy the beach. So, one day I went to the beach with them.
Up the coast, 45 minutes north of Salvador we went to a popular beach town called Praia do Forte. Built around the beach was a quaint little town with restaurants, hostels and tours – kind of like Morro de Sao Paulo, but on the mainland. There, the Argentinian girls and I sat on the beach, and they tanned. I have been spoiled with great beaches, but this one really was pretty crappy mainly because the waves were so small and the water near the beach was extremely rocky and the girls knew it. They were complaining a lot about it so I suggested to them that I would go for a run up the coast to see if there were any nicer beaches.
Running in the sand with my iPod I breathed deeply, taking in the blue sky, palm trees, tiny crabs scurrying along the sand and the increasingly heavy waves. After about 30 minutes I arrived.
Allow me to explain: The white sand swept deeply up the coast and was almost completely untouched save for my footprints. The waves crashed onto the shore in a steady and powerful pace – unsafe for swimming according to a sign. The palm trees lined the coast bending towards to the awesome ocean horizon.
I stretched and pondered. I took in the cool ocean air and promised to live on this beach forever. I wanted to be there forever – sleep there, make love there, get married there, have babies there.
I guess that all the tourists stay by the town instead of coming to this because they are lazy.
Looking back it sounds funny, but there is certainly some magic to being on a beautiful beach alone. Now I saw what people were saying about the power of quiet beaches in comparison with beaches like Ipanema or Morro de Sao Paulo. The problem is that these people are not willing to walk to the quieter parts.
Speaking of people, I promised the Argentineans I would return and tell them about the beach. I did, and I regretted it. Honestly, they just didn’t care about what I wanted and I guess that’s ok – they had a mission to tan and I was some guy.
As soon as I got back one needed to eat at that very second. Not when we walked through the town, not when I was gone, NOW. So we went and she ate. Then about an hour later we headed towards paradise beach, but not without one of them whining “are we there yet” every two minutes. Because of the delay it was getting later and the tide was rising. This caused them to complain more and want to turn back.
I was committed to getting back there so we easily walked along the grass above the sand towards the beach. More complaining and 20 minutes later I just decided to say that one of the beaches was paradise beach when it wasn’t – I couldn’t deal with their whining anymore. We stopped there, took some photos and then they wanted to leave so we left. Tip: never travel with a pack of girls on “vacation,” especially pretty ones that are used to getting what they want.
On our way back we ran into a huge crowd of people – A local tortoise shelter called Projeto TAMAR was releasing newborn turtle babies into the ocean. Very cute.
We toured TAMAR and saw the biggest turtle I’ve ever seen! The species is like 15 million years old, it is a dinosaur.
With a tiny (admittedly not heartfelt) goodbye to the Argentineans I went back to Salvador.
The next day I said to myself, fuck it, might as well go alone. So I boarded the bus to go to the main historic centre Pelourinho. Being alone doesn’t mean you can’t meet people right? So, I approached two Israeli tourists who were going to Pelourinho and we decided to join forces.
My priority? Seeing stuff. Their priority: Havaiana flip flops. Ask any Israeli girl, their goal in South America is to bring as many Havaiana flip flops home as they can because they are too expensive in Israeli. Seriously, I met an Israeli who bought 11 pairs.
I waited for about a half an hour as they bought their Havaianas. Then finally we went to the local artisan market and I went crazy buying stuff because I love Brazil.
We then went up the famous elevator to the historical centre of Pelourinho, which was nothing special, just an elevator. Pelourinho was pretty awesome though. The colourful buildings are beautiful to look at and being there really feels special. Pelourinho is where Michael Jackson filmed the other half of the video “They Don’t Care About Us” (I also went to the favela in Rio where he filmed the other half).
My brother told me about a capoeira school called Filhos de Bimba in Pelourinho, so I went and signed up for a class later that day.
Two Americans and I (I had already met one in the club in Morro de Sao Paulo) took part in a capoeira class led by a cool instructor who had taught in London. He played some music and first taught us the ginga – the basis for capoeira.
My brother plays capoeira so I know how to ginga, but not much else. Our teacher then taught us a bunch of moves like queixada (roundhouse kick)and aú (cartwheel) from a ginga position. I limped away with a massive blister on both toes due to playing on the stone tile floor in bare feet, but I limped away happy. I highly recommend trying capoeira!
After a couple more low-key days in Salvador I was ready to move on to Lencois and the beautiful Chapada Diamantina, so I bought a bus ticket for 1pm on my 5th day in Salvador, but after my morning run all changed…my laptop was stolen!
It has been really flattering to see the reception I have been getting from people about this story! The post about it being lost and then the picture where it was found both have over 100 likes on Facebook and the comments are filled with people who have been inspired by the story and those that think it was good karma because I am a good person. Thanks everybody!
After hanging out with the Veronica and Nicolas and promising to see them again, I took a bus to nearby Lencois overnight and slept the entire way.
As soon as I got there this German guy named Christian and I were essentially attacked by this local tour guide who wanted us to go on his tours and stay in a hostel that he recommended. I did plan to stay in this hostel I had heard was good, but he told me it was too expensive, which it was, so I went with him to a cheaper one.
Although Jaja, our tour guide, was pushy, he had the best price for tours that I could find, so we went with him.
The first day of our trek involved a lot of hours hiking up and down mountains, which I didn’t expect because I wasn’t told much of anything about the tour before I went on it. We had to carry our own sleeping bags and also the food for the next few days, which wasn’t told to us beforehand either. I was ok with it, but there is no way someone physically unfit, old, or too fat could have done it.
Our trip included three German girls, the German I was with, as well as two guys from Sao Paulo. I am grateful and don’t take it for granted that among all the different languages, the common denominator was English. I am very fortunate to speak it!
We continued hiking, bouncing from rock to rock. It’s incredible how huge and dangerous leaps become robotic when you are hiking.
Finally we came to the main canyon that gives our tour its name: Maxilla.
This lush canyon with it’s incredible scent and strong shades of green was lined with astonishingly straight layered mountain rock. At one point, there was the choice: swim or climb. I chose to scale the mountain wall and it was amazing! I love to be challenged physically. Life just isn’t that hard, but sports and physical activity is!
A short time later we arrived at the Mecca…the Maxilla waterfall! This place is beyond words. Sights like this make you believe in G-d! Water crashed down the green-layered rock, bouncing from one to the other until it united to fall in the massive pool beneath. Next to the crashing waterfall, was another stream of water, but with slower water. I kept thinking: what is better to spend my limited time staring at? Fast or slow? Both were so insane! I stared so long that my neck hurt for days after.
I jumped off a huge rock into the water and splashed down into the cool fresh spring. Heavenly.
That night we slept on a nearly dried out river on the rocks under the stars without a tent. It was peaceful and refreshing and a little uncomfortable due to the angular nature of the rocks that caused me to keep sliding down.
I woke up near dawn and we had an incredible breakfast of milky oatmeal, scrambled eggs with veggies, fruit salad (mango, apple, melon), baguette, cheese, banana, guava jam and juice. This was the second best breakfast I’ve had in South America, the other was in Loki Hostel in Cusco, Peru.
This was a pretty good breakfast, but it’s pretty disgraceful at the same time that the breakfast I had while hiking was better than any other one I’ve had on this trip. I love South America, I really do, but the breakfasts suck from coast to coast- especially Brazil’s breakfast. It has all the sugar, none of the protein. For instance, in Che Lagarto hostel in Salvador, breakfast everyday was white bread with jam, three kinds of cakes, cookies, fruit and juice. The only protein available was the milk for your coffee (which I don’t drink)! I cannot wait for a huge breakfast when I go back to Canada (L’Avenue or Station des Sports in Montreal, Tucker’s Marketplace or Eggspectations in Ottawa)!
The next day we went on a tour to see some diverse attractions in the national park including a huge waterfall, a river with crystal clear blue water and fish, and a cave with white spikey rocks. Thanks to Chapada I want to pick up mountain climbing and scuba diving – I guess I’ll just throw it on the to do list :P.
Back in Lencois I met up with my good friend Niall who I met in Bolivia. He has been volunteering at a children’s daycare called Casa Grande in Lencois. I went to help out one day and played games like “duck, duck, goose” and “Simon says” with the kids.
While Lencois appears to be like any tourist town, the tourism is simply a mask over the poverty. Men lie drunk on the streets in the middle of the day and children run around (usually naked) without adult supervision. There is no money for toys and Niall told me that kids do whatever they can to make games – sometimes inventing games out of broken glass or flat soccer balls. Very sad.
In the morning I attended a capoeira class with Niall at 7am. The teacher, an large athletic smooth talking contra-mestre, was both kind and challenging in the class. I really enjoyed it. As I looked up at the walls of the capoeira studio I noticed a poster for a movie, “Besouro,” the capoeira movie my brother showed me 6 months ago. I looked over at the teacher, then back at the poster. Could it be?! Could this be BESOURO!?
Yes! I took a class with the actor who played the capoeira legend Besouro in the movie!
Besouro doesn’t walk, he glides and flips effortlessly. Definitely a man on par with the great Puma from earlier in my trip. I want to be them both.
That night I went to the group’s roda (capoeira circle) in the middle of the townsquare in front of the locals and tourists. The roda was mostly women and children as it was International Women’s Day, but after the women got to play, Niall and I jumped in and played. Some people go to rodas and don’t play, but where’s the fun in that!?
Afterwards some people in the group were not too pleased that gringos like Niall and I got to play, but Besouro shut them up.
I headed back to Salvador that night and said goodbye to Niall. I promised to see him again, I really hope I do.
Back in Salvador I headed straight for Nicolas and Veronica’s apartment to take them up on their invitation to stay there.
There, I spent a relaxing 4 days writing, talking, eating great food, watching movies and surfing. Surfing is obviously really tough and I want to learn to get up on my board one day…another thing for the list!
Veronica and Nicolas are truly great people and I wish them all the best!
I caught a flight from Salvador to Sao Paulo, my last stop before heading home!
The word vacation is wildly misunderstood. In Spanish, people often ask why I am in South America for 4 months. No job? I must be on vacaciones (vacation) or on holiday. I’m not on vacation, I’m travelling! The difference? Travelling is fucking hard! As my blog depicts, it’s not for the faint of heart.
Carnaval gave me a serious culture shock and I fell into a pretty deep sadness afterwards. I felt fatigued from being in a dark cloud of self-doubt, anger and sadness. It’s impossible to pinpoint what was causing me to be so down, but I am sure that the spike in endorphins and body-draining partying was a big part of it.
Unlike other bumps in the positivity path I couldn’t shake this one. I had to leave Rio, even if I didn’t really want to.
I heard Ilha Grande was a must see, so I set off from my hostel after 12 nights there and embarked on one of the most touristy excursions I could have ever imagined.
But, touristy doesn’t mean bad!
I’ve learned to hate the word touristy. People can be good! For instance, Ipanema beach – it was good because of the people watching.
Since Carnaval, I admittedly got a little testy when people were negative about Brazil. So when people said they hated places like Ipanema or Ilha Grande because they were too touristy I pried and asked why? What is wrong with people on a beach? The answer: They don’t like people walking or talking around them.
It’s not like we are at an amusement park here people, no one is that loud at the beach. And usually if you walk a little up the beach there is a quieter area. But, omg ewww walking!
At the same time, tourists can really suck and I can understand the upside of a chilled out tranquil place. I could list all the annoying tourist attributes, but that’s as easy as poking a beetle who is stuck on it’s back. Everyone travels for their own reasons. Some just want to tan on the beach for a week, some want to practice the local language and learn the culture, others want to snort coke and party. All are fine if that is what you want.
When a place is sucked of it’s culture and conforms only to what tourists want (or what they think tourists want) it is pretty sad. On the other hand it is a good short-term way for locals to profit from their astonishing natural resources.
Ilha Grande was certainly built with the tourist in mind – every building was a tour agency, hostel or restaurant and the restaurants served gringo delights like pizza and sushi for astronomical prices. But, it was actually quite a treat to be honest. The service was great, people really cater to you and you feel like you are on a magical vacation as you walk through the tiny streets, on the boardwalk, or along any of the hiking trails. If I was in a long-term relationship or on a cruise ship I would love to spend a romantic week in Ilha Grande.
Sorry no photos, DSLR malfunctioned a while ago and the digital camera Bruno gave me also stopped working…
Yet, unlike in the past when I met people instantly, I was still sad and angry at other travellers for not being as cool as the Brazilians I met on the street in Carnaval. To clear my head I went for a run, alone, in my Toms shoes for about 2 hours both ways in the blazing heat to a small waterfall on the island. On the way, I heard a steady growl along with the occasional baah! I inched closer to the sound as it continued for a solid 3 or 4 minutes, but I couldn’t reach it. I am assuming that this was a large cat like a puma or jaguar eating some mammal like a capybara (huge rat-thing), but I can’t be sure. Still, it was an amazing thing to be so close to and it motivated me on my run – kinda sadistic eh?
At night, making sure to go early as to not have to pay cover, I went out to a hostel on the beach called Aquarius for this big party I had heard about on the ferry ride there. On the boat they told me that Aquarius was a drunken gringo orgy. How could I refuse? But if not for the beautiful views and clear open sky, the club could have been like any night at home in Canada. The bar was full of gringos, mostly the partier/snorting coke ones from Australia or England. The DJ played the same standard gringo club playlist of Avicii, David Guetta etc. to which the gringos fist pumped the shit out of. I went sober cause I had given up drinking since Carnaval, which was a good thing cause the drinks were insanely overpriced.
You might say it was a bullshit touristy gringo party, but then again, you are probably a bullshit tourist gringo, just like me, so let people travel and do as they please, jerk ;).
After Aquarius, gringos would flock to the beach for a campfire where locals were playing drums and singing reggae music. As cliché as reggae under the stars in Brazil sounds, it was just awesome! But I also love clichés if you haven’t already noticed.
The next day I ran/hiked 2 hours across several beaches to the island’s most famous beach Lopez Mendes. Imagine, white sand so fine, so immaculate that when you walk on the sand it literally squeaks! There, I meditated, did yoga and cleared my mind of the negative thoughts percolating into my consciousness every few breaths.
One of the things I wanted to accomplish on this trip was to learn how to be alone without needing people. As Christopher McCandless portrayed in the must-see traveller’s movie “Into the Wild” realized, we need people to survive, but on Ilha Grande I really felt that I remedied myself without help from anyone else.
That’s a lie, the music on my iPod helped a lot! Big ups Macklemore and company!
As I returned on the boat to Rio for one night on my way to Salvador I felt rejuvenated. So, what better thing to disturb my dancing on clouds feeling than a fucking 32-hour bus.
Why Joel why!?
Sigh… I thought I could go to the airport and get a last minute flight and get a good deal, but that doesn’t work in Brazil like it does in Europe. Here, the last seat is the most expensive even if it is minutes before take off. Also, when I bought the ticket it said 26 hours, but in reality it was 32 hours. No one, ever, has gone go to Salvador from Rio in 26 hours as I found out later. There was no urgency in the driver or any of the staff to get their on time. This wouldn’t have been a problem if my Brazilian friend Bruno wasn’t waiting for me at the bus station in Salvador!
When I got there he had waited 8 hours at the bus station for me and looked like hell. What a hero! Most people would have left, but not this guy.
I felt it important to man-up and go straight to Morro de Sao Paulo as to not waste a day of his short 4 days off of work.
But, and there’s so often a but, the last ferry had already passed. So thanks to Bruno’s Portuguese ability he negotiated with a tour agency to get us there, but for twice the price of a normal trip.
Things like this are why I have no money left, but it had to be done. We made it there after a spooky 1.5 hour drive across an island in a strange car and a 10 minute ocean-soaked ferry-ride with 9 rowdy screaming Argentinians.
Morro de Sao Paulo is like the Ilha Grande of the northeast. The island is dedicated to the tourist, but it’s size makes it feel less cozy than Ilha Grande. The first sign is that there are no vehicle taxis – your luggage can be wheel barreled to your hostel for a hefty fee
The long pedestrian tourist street is populated with fancy restaurants and tourist shops. Walking till the end will bring you to a boardwalk on the beach that is lined on the sides with delicious fruit stands where they make you mixed drinks or juice with the fruit of your choosing.
I cannot stress anymore how awesome this is!
Craving an acerola (tiny sweet orange fruit)/ jack fruit (massive prickly melon) / strawberry vodka mix? Go for it! There were so many fruits that I have absolutely never heard of and couldn’t relate the names to, but that for me was the best part of Morro de Sao Paulo.
Bruno and I walked along this boardwalk, drinking juice and introducing ourselves to people, as we do best. We met this Argentinean girl Juliette and her and I hit it off, but she had a boyfriend L. I do know, though, that my future wife will look something like her…
The beaches were pretty nice, but the sand wasn’t as nice and it didn’t feel as much on an exotic holiday as I did in Ilha Grande. The water, however, was so warm it was like a Jacuzzi or piss-filled kiddy pool if you prefer. Rock formations created a natural swimming pool because the waves don’t crash into the beach.
But you can always count on the Brazilian beaches for their wonderful bikini attire.
One of the big arguments against the bikini by non-Latin Americans is that their ass isn’t good enough for the bikini.
If this woman doesn’t give a shit what are you worried about!?
When I think back to Morro de Sao Paulo, I don’t think about the beaches, I think about Israelis and Argentineans. That’s because the beach town was absolutely flooded with them! You could call Morro de Sao Paulo Little Tel Aviv or Little Buenos Aires if you like.
I was told that many Israelis “go by the book” and tend to travel to the same places in South America and Morro de Sao Paulo is one of them. It is tradition that Israelis travel after military service and many go to South America in large groups to get as fucked up as possible on whatever they can get their hands on.
In my experience, Israelis are not the most popular traveler to say the least. A fruit stand vendor asked me if I was Israeli because I look like one. When I told him I wasn’t, he began to discuss how much he hates the loud Israelis and jokingly said he wants to shoot them all. My tour guide in Bolivia for the Salt Flats tour expressed similar anti-Israeli tourist sentiments.
I know what you are thinking, but these people are not anti-Semitic. Instead, they dislike Israelis for their loud, obnoxious I don’t give a fuck style of travelling and I understand that, but there is a massive misunderstanding here. Israelis are misunderstood because their language and attitude is generally louder and more in your face than other cultures. Israelis misunderstand the locals because they think they are in danger just because they are Jews, but no one really cares about those politics here. It’s a sad situation.
Israelis even brought their own cuisine, but I opted for a local dish called moqueca:
It rained for most of the time we were in Morro de Sao Paulo, so that probably skewed how I felt about it, but I was generally unimpressed.
We did go out to a club one night to a foam party and it was surprisingly fun. I met a cool girl from America who works in New York and we had plenty to talk about. Americans get a bad wrap travelling – they aren’t as bad as Australians or English in terms of ignorant tourists.
The next day, I went back to Salvador and Bruno puked on the ferry.
Remember the craziest party you’ve ever been to? Now times that by at x500 and you can start to get an idea of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Watch my video and get an idea, then come back and read this blog.
As soon as the champagne stains the carpet on New Years, anticipation begins for Carnaval. Parties, blocos (block parties) and random acts of crazy happen everywhere that Carnaval happens. Rio de Janeiro and Salvador are undoubtedly the most famous and craziest Carnavals, but the huge party takes place all over the world.
In Bolivia, kids go around throwing water balloons in anticipation of their Carnaval (one of which hit my friend and broke his phone). Block parties like Berbigao do Boca in Florianopolis also happen, but the craziest time is definitely saved for Carnaval.
On February 8th, Carnaval finally popped off and I found myself with millions of other wild people in Rio de Janeiro. Dream come true!
The first bloco that I went to took place in a magnificent artsy neighbourhood on a mountain above the lapa steps called Santa Teresa, but blocos were happening all the time all over the city.
“The only rule at Carnaval is that you can do what you want,” some distant memory of a Brazilian told me. So incredibly true!
People dress up in ludicrous costumes including the presence of many men in mini skirts, wedding gowns and tiny dresses. Costumes need not a theme, and no one needs to defend what they are wearing like people do during Halloween back home. If your costume is an Indian/ Vampire/ Batman then all power to you!
For instance, if you are a 10 year old boy, go ahead and wear that massive fake penis!
One of my favourites was the Spartan warriors stopping traffic who you can see in my video above.
Partying and blocos literally go on all day and all night and they are scheduled to do so – in Rio there were 496 blocos registered during Carnaval and in the weeks before. Sleeping is for the weak. Beer vendors, cocktail bartenders and tequila shooter dudes are open 24 hours a day.
In the bloco on Santa Teresa they sold freezies with vodka in them called sacolé de vodka. Heavenly, especially the mango flavour. That night, we bought a bottle of vodka and took it around making mixed drinks for ourselves. I still can’t get used to the fact that you can ask for a mixed drink on the side of the road and walk around drinking it on the streets. Long live public intoxication!
If you have to pee, people were quite diligent with using the public toilets. When they didn’t kids with water pistols and buckets of water could come up and soak you for watering their city walls!
On the first night we went to Lapa – the party area with all the clubs. There, we entered an awesome club with local Forro music and viewed the incredibly co-ordinated dance mating rituals of the locals. Here’s an example:
Lapa is cool with the music and clubs and caiprinhas and street food, but I found my heaven – Ipanema beach.
All day, thousands embark to Ipanema’s shores to bask in the sun, relax under an umbrella, play volleball or footvolley (use your feet and body instead of hands), eat a delicious acai with granola and banana, paddle surf or simply people watch.
And oh, the people watching… No matter how many days I took the metro from Botafogo down to Ipanema beach, my mind was blown every single time. So much beauty, life, culture and joy!
And then there is the clothing. On the beach in Brazil, men wear tiny speedos and girls wear thong bikinis. While it is up to you what you wear, many English-speakers I spoke to completely condescended the women for wearing these clothes and would never consider wearing a bikini like that. That is because it is engrained in our society that skin = slut. The difference between a thong bikini and a normal bikini (called granny panties by a Brazilian I met) is only a few inches. I saw very obese women wearing tiny bikinis, beautiful girls (I’d say 1/3 girls at Carnaval were gorgeous), and even teens were wearing small bikinis and no one cares! People also go out in cute comfortable clothes with little makeup and look amazing.
“But Brazilians are just more beautiful,” you say! Possibly, but I think there is something else happening here… Yes, there were insanely gorgeous Brazilians, I probably fell in love every 5 seconds, but maybe is more that they are comfortable in the clothes and the skin that they are in. You can approach them and talk to them with a simple hello. In general, the way that they carry themselves is just more sexy.
I often started the day shy, and then evolved when I realized that any Brazilian I talked to would do their best to have a conversation with me! Regardless if I spoke Portuguese or not! They will ask their cousins, cousin’s dog until they find the right directions for you if you ask. I genuinely tried to speak their language, and I improved a lot, but actually many preferred when I spoke English as they were eager to practice with a real native speaker.
The amount of joy and warmth absolutely blew my mind. Everyone talked to everyone. They smiled at you, you embraced. Sometimes, you even kissed!
It first started when a Dutch guy I met in the hostel was grabbed and kissed by a Brazilian for a while, but it continued on from there. On the first day of Carnaval I went up to a very cute Brazilian who like 99% of everyone else there only spoke Portuguese. I then said the pickup line “beleza gatinha” (beautiful girl) provided to me by my Brazilian friend Bruno and 10 seconds later I was kissing her. Then, I moved on. All in good fun!
I am mentioning this because it is alarming for me that people make out with strangers in the middle of the street in the day, but that is because of the culture I come from. It is not nearly as alarming for Brazilians. Brazilians just go for it – guy or girl will aggressively pursue you and make out with you. No violence. No bro-ey showdowns. No slaps in the face. No screaming. It is just a warmer society.
All throughout Carnaval I generally removed myself from the hostel bubble where English and Australians tend to travel in packs and never speak to locals. Instead, I strictly talked to locals! Approaching them on the street, in the metro, in the hostel even. It is so fascinating to talk to someone with a completely different cultural basis, attempt to work out similarities and make a connection through a broken concoction of languages. It’s like a massive puzzle that you don’t have all the pieces for.
Recently, a group of Argentinians asked me how many kisses we give on the cheek in Canada. Haha! Fuck kisses, we don’t even touch each other!
A French friend of mine from Quebec once told me that I was the most open English person he’d ever met – other English people he has met are always more closed. I don’t know for sure, but I just feel that English culture is more closed than Spanish, Portuguse and Italian culture. Perhaps I only know Brazilians on the surface level. There is probably a lot of negative aspects to their culture that I have yet to uncover. I just know my culture, and I know how closed it can be, and it bothers me. I want to live in Rio or somewhere like it.
On the third night of Carnaval I took an Australian out of his bubble and brought him into my world of making friends on the street. He was reluctant the entire time, but he told me that he had one of the best nights of his life! Two of the many many people we talked to on Ipanema beach that night were a couple of girls who were dressed like an angel and a devil. At first, they were apprehensive with me because of my accent, but then they warmed up when they realized I could communicate with them in Portuguese. We danced, laughed and hit it off until one point when they had something to say and I didn’t understand the word. As I would do, and many people who speak another language would do, I would try a different word or explain in a different way, but they didn’t do that. They wouldn’t let this word go and finally we had to depart in frustration because of the language barrier. I wish they could have explained, but its ok – there were tons of other people to talk to.
Ipanema beach is also the gay area of Carnaval. Pride flags mark the territory where gay people can feel comfortable to party alongside straight. It was very inclusive and fun to see gay and straight people partying in a non-segregated way – even if I had to tell every second guy that I’m not gay.
Beach, music, drinks and fun = the perfect life for me and it was all free (except the drinks, of course). I know now that my favourite place to party is on the street talking to strangers. It happened in Halifax when I raged for 5 days at St. Francis Xavier Homecoming, it happened in Montreal on St. Paddy’s day, and it happens on Canada day in Ottawa. I also partied in the street when the Montreal Canadians advanced in the playoffs, when Sydney Crosby scored and Canada won the gold in the 2010 Olympics and even on the streets of the holy city of Jerusalem when I went there a couple years ago. All were fun, but the best time has been in Carnaval. Clubs and bars are often too crowded, aggressive, loud and expensive for my taste. It’s best just to party on the street! Where’s the next street party? I’ll be there! ☺
There was the Sambadrome, but I couldn’t afford it and didn’t wanna take time away from street conversations.
Following Carnaval I got pretty depressed. I still have not fully recovered as I have felt very introspective and in my head since Feb 11th. I could not believe what I saw! Millions of people having fun with eachother, with no violence or conflict to be found!
I’ve questioned my priorities, my culture, what I like/dislike and of course my future. I so badly want to find a way to continue exploring, meeting new people, speaking new languages, learning new cultures and partying in the streets when I can. I don’t see the point of going out and blowing over $100 on drinks, cover and cabfare to go out in Ottawa for two hours (bars close at 2am). Might as well save up to go to Carnaval again, or just simply to live in a new place.
I don’t understand why people don’t want to meet others and want to be isolated in the same group of people in the same town. Why not explore and put yourself out there? What are you afraid of? With that, I’ve realized that my curiousity, craving for new things and willingness to move places is why I am a journalist and it is how I want to live my life. But, it is not for everyone. Everyone has their own priorities and things that they want. I am so fortunate that I know what I want to do with my life.
With a lot of soul searching I have decided to drastically limit my drinking. To get fitter, eat healthier, improve my second, third and fourth languages and save up money to move away from Canada to continue meeting new people.
I’ve thought for a long time about making a change and getting back in control of a stricter and fitter lifestyle, but this was finally solidified after a particularly wild night on Ipanema with my friend Niall, and a few other guys. We talked to a thousand people it seemed and had plenty of tequila shots.
I realized that I didn’t need the shots and can easily just talk to people without it, so I stopped taking them.
Since February 16th, I have only been drunk twice – a vast improvement from this alcohol soaked voyage. Someone who tried to get me to drink said: “why don’t you drink? You are not on vacation!?”
I am NOT on vacation! I am travelling, it is completely different. Travelling is way harder! Look at any one of my blog posts for proof!
In a cloud of introspection I left Rio a week after Carnaval for a beach resort called Ilha Grande – a vacation from my vacation. I was extremely sad to leave Rio and all it had to offer, even after Carnaval. With it’s beautiful sights, nature, beach, good people and large city feel Rio may very well be the city I want to live in longterm. I will always think about how I can move back there.
I have always wanted to go to Brazil and specifically to Rio de Janeiro since I watched the cheesy nineties film “Only the Strong” with my brother. He got very deep into the movie’s bad guy ass-kicking Brazilian dance/fighting style called capoeira and is still into it today.
I just wanted to see what all the hype was and get a taste of the culture. So, when I decided that I wanted to travel after university, going to Rio and Carnaval was at the top of my list (and the list of places I want to see is long and getting longer…). I added Bolivia, Peru and Argentina later on just because I felt like seeing more places, and I am glad I did. But as I expected, Rio was my favourite place and a place I could now see myself living.
Evidently, a lot of other people kinda dig Rio too. During Carnaval week 98% of the hotels and hostels were booked to suit the over 1.1 million foreigners expected to siege the city streets. That could sound like A LOT of gringo tourists, and there were, but it didn’t really feel like that except when sitting on Copacabana beach.
While foreigners came aplenty, many of the nearly 200 million Brazilians go to Rio or Salvador for Carnaval, especially from nearby Sao Paulo, who’s 20 million people do not have a major Carnaval celebration to call their own.
I arrived three days before Carnaval to get settled and see some sights. First, I went to the famous Pao de Azucar (Sugar Loaf) Mountain where you can take spectacular photos of the city.
Instead of paying the 55 Reales to go on a lazy cable car, I teamed up with a Dutch guy, a Brit and a friendly Canadian couple to tackle the first mountain beside Sugar Loaf on foot. It took probably 30 minutes, which included feeding a pack of monkeys – contrary to park law (don’t tell anyone!) to walk up. The site was beautiful and I didn’t feel it necessary to pay extra.
Next on the tourist trail a look at some of the world’s most infamous slums! Weird I know!
Check out my impressions of going in to Santa Marta favela before entering:
Fortunately, my Brazilian friend that I met in Florianopolis was with us, so we were easily able to find our way without a local guide.
Bruno showed us local fruit and explained the situation going on with the favelas in Rio. In case you don’t know, I’ll bring you up to speed: Since 2008 the Brazilian government has implemented a Pacifying Police Unit in certain urban favelas as well as social programs to clean up in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
Going into a world-renowned slum was something I wanted to do, but to do it in light of these militant changes seemed very bizarre to me. As a gringo walking through this mountain village with Bruno’s camera I couldn’t help but feel that I was going to see something like the zoo – except that these people are human beings!
Gringos are encouraged to go in. In fact, you are asked to hashtag the fact that you are there.
The people in the favelas didn’t look at me with detest or anger, but rather they seemed rather welcoming. A few street children followed us around for a while, not looking for money, but simply wanting to play with us.
Up the cable car and through the windy alleys we made it to the Michael Jackson monument where he and Spike Lee filmed half of the music video “They Don’t Care About Us” – the other half in Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahia.
It was told that M.J. used the gangs as his security instead of police. A lot has changed since then. With the pacification and police presence, those gangs are disarmed and powerless.
Michael’s presence in this favela is probably one of the reasons it was pacified. Simply by going somewhere, Michael created a tourist industry and altered the lives of the locals forever. What power!
I was pretty shaken up by the whole favela experience. Not because I was felt threatened, just because it was surreal. Yes it was poor, but it also looked like a united community and a positive place to live.
Another cool tourist attraction in Rio is the Lapa steps also known as Escadaria Selaron. Created in 1990 by a Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, the steps are an incredibly tall piece of interactive artwork that has tiles from people from all over the world. On this day in Rio, it was covered with people.
Actually, Snoop Dogg filmed his video for “Beautiful” on the Lapa steps.
Tourist attractions aside, I was ready for the biggest party of my life! Up next! CARNAVAL.
Watch this 5 minute video I made for a teaser:
You know that feeling of having your mind blown? Of course you do. At least, I hope you do!
Brazil blew my mind so hard that it took me a while to recover. I don’t know if I’m even the same person I was. I doubt it. Overdramatic? Read on and see. I will attempt to backtrack and bring you up to speed on an incredible month in Brazil. It will most definitely take several parts.
Where better to begin this wild story than to start where I left off. I was living in Buenos Aires for about 10 days, feeling calm and at home. I wanted to get to Florianopolis as soon as possible for as cheap as possible, so I went shopping for bus trips at the Retiro terminal in B.A. The cheapest bus would be a 27 hour journey to Florianopolis for about $175. Yuck! Anyways I tried to use my last Argentinian Pesos and round off the 870 Peso price with my credit card, but there was a problem… My credit card wouldn’t work at the ticket office, at machines or anywhere else! I tried to call the Royal Bank of Canada and sat on the phone for 20 minutes. 12$ of phone fees later, I get no answer. Thus, I went back to Damian’s on the scorching hot city train and an hour later returned to my temporary home in BA. There, I bought Skype minutes with my credit card, which surprisingly worked and finally reached RBC. It turned out that ALL of the credit cards in Canada were down for 3 hours on the day.
As Damian, my CouchSurfing host put it: “That’s not very first world of you.” So, I bought the ticket online with my credit card which left me stuck with 700 Pesos and only a few hours the next day to use it. That’s because if you sell a Peso outside of Argentina you might get 7 for a dollar when I bought it for 5. I wasn’t in the mood to lose $40 for nothing so I went on a shopping spree, which was actually really awesome. I bought shorts, sunscreen, Che’s diary, a falafel sandwich with an extra box of hummus (which was actually good!) and much more. I felt like a baller.
The bus to Florianopolis was pretty shit, but I’m so used to it by now. They didn’t give us food and the air conditioning was freezing cold at night, but again, at least it wasn’t as bad as Bolivia. I feel like I’m gonna be saying that about a lot in life: “It’s not as bad as Bolivia.” But, as I’ve mentioned before, my experience in Bolivia was incredible and I recommend it to every traveler I met that is going in the other direction. It also helped that outside my window on the bus to Florianopolis I could see lush green hills, palm trees and quaint fishing huts. I was also impressed that I was driving on paved roads the whole time and the infrastructure looked solid. Again, much better than Bolivia!
I do miss Bolivia’s prices though! Brazil can be much more expensive than even Canada at times.
Florianopolis is known as one of Brazil’s most beautiful cities. Across a bridge from the city centre, where I stayed, the island of Florianopolis is circled by incredible beaches with high waves and amazing scenery. On the island, there are lagoons, lakes and nice restaurants, but I actually didn’t see much of that. The hostel I stayed at, near Campeche beach was in a residential area, so it was hard to get anywhere without the help of the really kind hostel staff. In addition, the hostel was clean, relaxed and had AMAZING food for us every night. The Loki effect, is what I’ll call it – a throwback to the amazing hostel I stayed in during my stay in Cusco.
For only 20 Reales ($10) each, we were treated to a massive barbecue feast one day, and an onslaught of delicious homemade Brazilian pizza the other – usually includes as many toppings as possible, I was throwing in the white towel even before 6 more pizzas came! We were also provided with one fresh homemade caipirinha – sugar, a molasses-like substance, crushed lime, ice and the nasty local liquor called cachaca filled to the top. You might notice that this drink is not mixed with anything, it is pure liquor with lime and sugar. Nuts!
Another reason why I didn’t depart on my own much from Sarau Hostel was because I didn’t yet speak Portuguese. “Everyone in Brazil speaks English,” some stupid person told me. “You can just speak Spanish and they will understand you.” WRONG! WRONG! Whoever is perpetuating these lies just needs to stop. Brazil could be as bas as America when it comes to speaking other languages. There are people who speak English and Spanish, but not a lot. If you are planning at trip to Brazil, and if not what the fuck are you doing with your life, learn Portugese or at least try to communicate. It’s easy, pick up a dictionary or phrase book and write down some words you would use. Also, write out some key verbs and their conjugations. Even if you memorize that, it will be hard because the Brazilian is so strong, but do it anyways. It’s fun! Throughout this trip I have learned how much I love languages! English, French, communicational Spanish and now a bit of Portugese. It makes the world a lot smaller to say the least.
One of the nights with the gang from Sarau Hostel, we went to our first pre-Carnaval street party in downtown Florianopolis. This would be my introduction to Brazil and once I got a taste I couldn’t get enough!
For hours, hundreds of people sang and danced to the SAME SONG and it only got better and better. Singers on top of a huge bus tirelessly repeated “Berbigao do Boca” while thousands of people including costumed dancers swung themselves below. In addition, beer, caipirinhas and double-weiner hot dogs were available every few steps along the way.
One of the hostel staff enjoyed parading me around as the gringo of the group, so I got a chance to meet some cool (and beautiful) Brazilians – like this gorgeous singer who I had the pleasure of photographing before my camera decided to stop working…
A couple days later, I got mugged and had my ass kicked, but came out laughing.
Another pre-Carnaval party meant more people, more drinking, more dancing, more music (not-repetition this time) and more experiences. As I walked down the beach road amongst thousands, I tried my camera, but it wouldn’t work. It says that the SD card is locked, when it isn’t. Conclusion: can’t use the camera until I send it back to Canon for warranty. Pretty bummed about this.
Anyways, I can explain to you what happened the old-fashioned way… After hours of partying with thousands of massively macho hammered male Brazilians (some of which were dressed in drag because that’s what you do at Carnaval) and beautiful female Brazilians it started to pour rain. Before this, it hadn’t rained in Florianopolis for exactly ONE MONTH! I haven’t gone a month in my entire life without precipitation, so that’s a pretty crazy thing to think about…
Since I had my camera and wallet I brought my trusty rain jacket and slipped my bag underneath. As I looked around the flooded streets (both with people and water) I realized that I was the only person with a rain jacket, so I basically stuck out like a super-white sore thumb.
Regardless, I was prepared and they weren’t ie. I saw a girl cry cause her phone was destroyed in the rain. Bam!
Soaking wet (with my bag still in tact :P), we decided to call it a day and head back to the car. I let the first wave of people from my hostel go, and I waited with two of the hostel’s Brazilian staff and a box of beer in a white Styrofoam container.
Just as it turned to dusk, I put my jacket and Bolivian bag (with $1000+ camera and wallet) on top of the box as I went a few steps away to pee. When I turned around, three large Brazilian men were standing in front of my friends and one had his hand on my bag. I rushed over, grabbed my bag from him and retreated back a few steps. One of the three came over to me and started wailing punches to my skull. Pushed back by the blows, I fell to the ground clutching the bag close to my chest. Another one came and started kicking me. I guess I faced about 45 seconds of punches and kicks before my Brazilian friend (and wingman) Jesse grabbed one of the attackers and threw him back. The third attacker simply jumped on the box of beer, took the beers and they all left.
Immediately after they were out of sight I jumped up with elation! “What pussies! I got hit like 20 times and I’m not even hurt!” It’s true that I was pretty drunk, but still, after this attempted mugging I left with only a bunch of bruises, two small scrapes and all my stuff. Sweet deal!
Now, I expect this will fit nicely into the stereotype that Brazil is dangerous and scary and you should never come here. What ridiculousness! In my experience so far by being out tons of times on the street with thousands of drunk people I have seen barely any acts of violence of any kind! I see wayy more fights in an average night out in Ottawa than I have in my month in Brazil where you are actually allowed to drink outside.
While some parts of this trip have made my proud to be Canadian especially in comparison with other English speakers, my realization that Canadians have an irrational fear of South America finally hit me in Brazil. Despite what I would have expected, I have barely encountered any Canadians. Meanwhile, I have probably met more Australians than South Americans and their country consists of 14 million less people…what gives!?
Canadians feel that South America is too dangerous and thus generally do not go. Instead they opt for resort trips to Central America, museum/club backpacking trips in Europe, or to South-East Asia for cheap debauchery at the Full Moon Party in Thailand etc. One Canadian couple I met in Rio de Janeiro the day before Carnaval had a flight booked to Bolivia ONE DAY before the greatest party on Earth was about to begin. Why? Fear. Someone in Canada actually told her that in Rio people come up behind you with a silencer gun, shoot you and take your stuff. It makes me laugh just thinking about this, but come on, the thieves are far far too poor to own a silencer. You may get robbed, its true, that is a reality of South America, but you won’t lose your life! I only got attacked cause I fought for my stuff, you can just give it over and you will be fine. At the same time, everyone I’ve talked to about this subject in Brazil say they feel safer here than in any other South American country.
I don’t understand it! Brazil is everything we wish we had in Canada – identity, culture, beaches, beautiful weather (what Canadian doesn’t complain about the weather), and IT ISN’T LAME! An Israeli recently told me that all she knew about Canada was that it is the lamest place on Earth. I resent that statement and strongly disagree, but at the same time it is ONE of the lamest places on Earth without a doubt. Less regulations does equal more fun. Brazilian culture is 100x more open. It is also a country made up of immigrants, but is has developed their own music, dances and unique culture unlike Canada. For example, in Brazil, I have barely heard any English music. Instead, on the radio, on the street, in the bars and in the clubs they play Brazilian music and EVERYONE knows all the words! I think every Brazilian has a catalogue over 20 000 songs in Portuguese that they know every word to. In Canada, you’d be hard-pressed to even find someone that can sing all the words to our national anthem, but I digress.
On my last day in Florianopolis I decided to take a trip alone to the beach. While there, I asked a guy on the bus where the stop was, even though I knew where it was, just to spark up a conversation with a local. Being from Argentina, the guy did not understand the few Portuguese words I was speaking that I had learned from reading the dictionary and picking out words I thought I might use. As the Argentinian bumbled and fumbled to figure out what I was saying, a Brazilian in the seat behind me interjected and answered my question in English. After that, we sparked up a conversation. It turns out he was going to the same beach, so we agreed to go together and hang out.
Bruno, the flight attendant from Porto Allegre and I got along amazingly. After just a couple hours of getting to know each other we agreed to meet in Rio de Janeiro and shoot a video! I had planned to shoot videos this whole trip, but never had someone to help me and now, in Brazil, I finally had! We ate some acai (a magical purple berry from the Amazon) with fruit and granola and promised to meet each other in a couple days in Rio de Janeiro for the first few days of Carnaval.
What ensued was a ridiculous video that you can watch in a couple days when it is ready, and one of the greatest weeks of my life!
Up next: Part 2 in Rio de Janeiro. This one will be a MUST READ!
Oh, how things have changed. I’ve stepped into a universe of calm, healthy(ier) living, sun, friendship, relaxation, and comfort. With it, I’ve pretty much lost all inspiration to write – especially freelance stories. Throughout this adventure, my blog has served as a forum for me to vent and right now I don’t feel like venting, rather, bragging about how awesome Argentina is. I am blissful here and have (almost) nothing to complain about. My altitude sickness is gone, my stomach and head feel great, I haven’t been robbed and the bad weather exists only on my Facebook News Feed where people complain about the -40 degree celsius weather in Ottawa and Montreal.
While I greatly appreciated my time in Bolivia and will never forget it, I am so happy to be in a country where my greatest worry is what club to go to at night and if I had a good enough to stay up all night – people don’t go to the club until 2 am and don’t leave till 5 am earliest!
My money is running out, fast, but I’ll deal with that later. While in Bolivia, I could travel 14 hours for 100 Bolivianos ($14) for a semi-cama (reclinable seat with leg rest), in Argentina it costs me about 100 dollars or more! But, and this is a big but, the buses are UNREAL! My semi-cama from Salta to Cordoba featured a free beer, two meals and snacks, TV (all Spanish dubbed, but still), fresh blankets still in their plastic laundry package, extremely comfortable chairs and best of all…A BATHROOM! What a polar opposite this was to the miserable Bolivian buses that had no bathrooms, (probably) flea-ridden blankets (if they had any), seats that felt like there was a metal pole in your ass and blaring music while you tried to sleep.
All is good. Unfortunately, however, I can’t help but think about what I will do when I get back even though there is still almost 2 months left of my trip. I think about it every single day, nearly every hour. It rules my thoughts. It’s terrible. I need a little Eckhart Tolle on my shoulder to tell me to live in the moment and appreciate every second because I may never return here again – not that any moment can ever be the same.
Presently I’m reading a book called “The Art of Travel” by Alain de Botton and it is helping me seen why I feel the way I do when I travel. The author explains the why by using observations from European artists like Vincent Van Gogh or Edmund Burke to explain how they saw travel, but what about the art of moving cities or countries? I am so positive that I want to leave Ottawa when I get back, but where to next? I constantly find myself asking people that I meet how their city is and if I should move there. I want to work as a journalist, not a freelancer, somewhere, pretty much anywhere. I can see myself in Montreal or Vancouver, but it depends if there are opportunities there. I’m worried.
In “The Art of Travel,” the author explains how before we travel we have an imagined picture in our heads of what the destination that we travel to will be like. We establish this picture in our heads from postcards, guidebooks, photos on the Internet and from stories we hear about the place we visit – kind of like a bird’s eye view. But, when we get there, we realize that the magic can only be viewed through our own eyes; eyes that can experience doubt, negativity, wandering thoughts about the future or past, sickness, and loneliness. These feelings undoubtedly disturb our imagined picture of the destination and for some can be so dispiriting that it discourages them from travel altogether. It’s a shame, really, that we can’t always achieve the ideal we’ve developed in our heads. However, sometimes if you go with the flow, the ideal can sneak up and surprise you.
In Cordoba, Argentina, I experienced what I figure is the imagined ideal for anyone who travels on vacation to the South. Allow me to explain:
My journey started from the hostel I was staying at, Mate. The hostel was brand new and eager for new guests and good reviews on hostelbookers.com. It was small, kind of like an apartment with five roommates, but it was kept clean and you get free eggs for breakfast :).
I had planned to CouchSurf in Cordoba, but it didn’t work out because I don’t have a phone – and meeting up without a phone is impossible, so I stayed at Mate for a couple days. I walked around the city a lot, but was generally unimpressed. Barely anyone was around except old and obese people, which was in sharp contrast to the beauties I saw in Salta. This is because Cordoba is a student city, and since all the students were on summer holidays Cordoba lacked most of its population. Also, most people in Argentina spend the hot summer at the beach, by the river or in a small town outside of the city. This is why I hesitated travelling here in the first place – no people equals no fun. But, perhaps if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. So, a Canadian from the hostel and I made a plan to go to a nearby river for the day. We packed light – a towel, bathing suit and sunscreen – and asked the hostel staff for directions to a river. She recommended Cuesta Blanco.
It wasn’t easy to get there. In Argentina, to take a city bus you need an exact amount of coins and they don’t give change. The problem is you barely ever get coins and the only money you can get on your own is 100’s from the bank machine that most vendors don’t like to take. At 5 Argentinian pesos to 1 American dollar, you go through more 100s than you ever want to. To make matters worse, you can only take out 1000 pesos from the bank at a time. For a fee of 20 pesos plus 5$ cash advance on my credit card, taking out just $200 is a rip off!
Anyways, with just enough change we caught the bus we were supposed to get and made it to a bus station outside of the city in a place called Carlos Paz. Carlos Paz looked like I would imagine Costa Rica to look like – a Westernized affluent sun-infused city. There, we caught another bus to Cuesta Blanco. What we thought would be a short trip ended up taking at least 2 hours.
When we got there, we saw a sign that led to a beach 2km Playa de los Hippies. Needless to say, our plans immediately diverted to this playa. As I walked there I tried to imagine what I would see…a nude beach? Harre Krishnas like in the Isla del Sol? A cloud of weed smoke? John Lennon still alive? After about a half an hour on a dirt road and through a winding trail up a mountain we overlooked one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen. About a hundred people frolicked by a beach in front of crystal clear water surrounded by lush mountains and a baby blue sky.
Just behind the beach, people had set up tents with the idea of staying days or even weeks by this hippie oasis. There, they would spend the days hiking, playing music, swimming, eating, drinking wine and smoking. Amazingly, after about an hour by the beach a Columbian my Canadian companion had met at Mate Hostel called over to us. He had left the hostel a day earlier with plans to stay at Playa de Los Hippies for a week and, with true South American spirit, he invited us to stay in his tent overnight. We had no long pants or sweaters, but fuck it, this is what travel is all about – spontaneous decisions to sleep on a sandy beach. Am I wrong or is that the fucking ideal!?
Overnight we chatted with Argentinians and Brazilians, drank copious amounts of wine and were provided with fresh barbeque pizza that would have been amazing if not for the insane amount of salt added by the drunk cooks. As the only two non-South Americans in our new group of beach friends, we were seen as some of the biggest entertainment. We were different like a pollo negro according to one Argentinian. According to his terrible English translation that means that I am a “fried chicken nigger.” WHAT!? I almost died! He meant no harm and obviously had no idea what he was saying, nor about any fried chicken stereotypes, but somehow the translation came out as such. Talk about communication barriers haha!
We slept four to a tiny two-person tent and froze our nuts off, but it wasn’t too too bad – not like those freezing La Paz nights. The next morning, we returned to Cordoba with huge smiles on our faces. One of the best experiences of my trip so far without a doubt!
That night, I headed to Buenos Aires, the nation’s capital – where I am writing to you right now.
Buenos Aires observations: it never rains, people are young looking, people are beautiful, people don’t say hello to you on the street, people speak English, if you try and speak English they will switch to Spanish (it’s not only Montreal where this stupid attitude exists);
there are an infinite amount of awesome parks, graffiti looks incredible, Argentinians care about paint (unlike Juliaca, Peru);
trains are slow, you can’t transfer buses, getting places takes me 3 hours (four fucking times it took me 3 hours to get somewhere because bus drivers and taxis don’t know where they are going KNOW YOUR FUCKING CITY);
people love to be outdoors, people love exercise, there are palm trees everywhere, it doesn’t get cold (at -5 in the “winter” they stay inside), museums are mostly free, there are pretty much no natives around, it appears to be a patriarchy instead of a matriarchy like in Peru/Bolivia, food is good, street food is better and clubs are shockingly incredible (at least one was…to be explained).
In all, Argentina seems like a great place to live. They provide education to everyone for free, and their universities are highly ranked. Oh ya, and if you want to immigrate here and go to school here you wouldn’t have to pay either (take that out-of-province/international fees Quebec!). They also provide free health care to anyone on their land, so foreigners can travel here, get surgery, then leave. Finally, they subsidize buses, trains and the metro making the prices very low for the wide amount of services they provide.
I have had the good fortune to be told all this, been shown all the cool places and to have stayed here for free due to the wonderful community that is Couch Surfing. How? Go online, set up a profile and send off emails to hosts. My host provided me with a room of my own in his spacious condo just outside of downtown, a kitchen to cook in, a tv to watch and daily things to do. We have essentially been roommates for a week and it has gone so well. I am so thankful for this opportunity and definitely plan to host people when I get a place of my own. I mean, if you get jacked you know who did it (Couch Surfing shows references and vouches for you if you are legit). It’s a great way to meet new people and feel like you are travelling even in your own city. Highly recommend it!
On Thursday night, my host took me to my first Argentinian nightclub experience. As normal in Buenos Aires, we arrive at 2 am and were immediately greeted by ripped dudes in spandex underwear, women in bright spandex bathing suits and a tall lanky man in a yellow spandex zebra suit. Uh oh, had my host taken me to a gay club? Nope, it was just really artsy! As the dj played some of the best electronic music I’d ever heard, these extravagantly dressed spokespeople for the club danced on moving platforms with polls and up on a huge stage in fun choreographed performances. You could even go up to one of the girls sitting on the bar, lick salt off her shoulder and take a free tequila shot. Meanwhile, behind the stage there was a whole other room with an awesome hip-hop/dancehall DJ who played “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know” by KRS-ONE (one of my faves all time). Also, at this other mini-club other performances occurred like a live rapper and a Michael Jackson impersonator who looked scarily like White Michael’s jean-jacket, curly long hair and large brimmed-hat phase. I had no idea that something this awesome was possible in a club. For performances like this back home we would have to pay top dollar – if they even thought of providing this much stimulation. I generally hate on clubbing, but this was amazing. Oh and by the way, most people (as far as I know) were NOT on drugs! Little lesson for everyone back home who feels like they need drugs to enjoy electronic music – you don’t!
Two days ago, Damian, my Couch Surfing host took me to an outdoor free concert/bar under the sun. If you are curious what the definition of hipster is (for some reason), then this is where you’d find it. I saw more ironic moustaches, circular sunglasses and high-wasted jean shorts than you can ever imagine. It was really cool though. Argentina is so trendy and fashionable and they have their own culture and style that isn’t exactly what you see in America. Great place to live if you are young.
After that, we visited the river in the middle of the city where thousands of Argentinians were running, roller blading (on rollerskates you can rent from vendors in the park), and enjoying the beautiful weather. I always though that in Montreal and Ottawa we had such great summers because thoughout the rest of the year the weather is miserable, but even in a place where the weather is great nearly all of the time they take the time to really enjoy the weather. Brings me back to the question – why does anyone ever live in cold climates – everything is better and everyone is happier in the summer.
My time in Buenos Aires has come to an end. Tomorrow morning I’ll be on a 26 hour bus to Florianopolis, Brazil. I’ve always dreamed of going to Brazil and the time has finally come.