One More City, One More S.A. Travel Blog, and Highlights


Intro video for my column with Forget the Box back in November. Wow, how things have changed in 4 months!

When I set off on this South American tour four months ago I promised that I would meet amazing people. You know where I have met the most amazing people? Transportation ie. the bus! The first time was on my first flight to Peru, unfortunately the woman got arrested before she could help me. Then, on a tumultuous first journey from Lima, Peru, to La Paz, Bolivia I met a wonderful Peruvian woman who helped me get to La Paz and across the Bolivian border without speaking a word of English. Later, I met Bruno on a bus in Florianopolis, Brazil, which meant that I could make my Carnaval video, take some photos of Brazil because he leant me his camera, go directly to Morro de Sao Paulo and survive the scrupulous Portuguese accent on many occasions.

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…

The two wonderful Uruguyans that saved my computer said they feel rejected by Bahian Brazilians in Salvador. They have been condescended and called gringos even though they aren’t gringos.

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.

20120415-DSC01684

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.

20120416-DSC01701

The only tourist site I saw was the Sé Cathedral, a massive twentieth century cathedral.

20120415-DSC01686

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.

20120415-DSC01690

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.

winter 2013

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.

Here are some of the highlights.

Best photo: La Paz at night HDR – End of the World. Tough one because I feel like I captured so many magnificent things on this trip, but this photo taken on one of my first days in Bolivia is one that I am most proud of. It was featured across two pages in the issue of the Bolivian Express that I wrote for.  

20121117-La Paz HDR-Joel copy

Best city: Rio de JaneiroThis city is absolutely as it sounds, beach, beauty, kindness, culture, fun. One day I will return, I have to!

Best tour: Pampas tour in the Bolivian Amazon. Puma, our tour guide, was part man, part eagle, part dolphin and part puma. An unbelievable experience that put my sheltered western life into question.

me and puma

Best spontaneous decision: Playa de los Hippies in Cordoba, Argentina. Without any idea where I was going, I found myself on a crystal clear river beach surrounded by mountains in the company of great people.

20130117-IMG_8342

Best blog/article: Celebrating the end of the world on Lake Titicaca” for Vice. The article as well as the circumstances in which I wrote my first ever published freelance article made it something I can be extremely proud of.

20121220-Vice4 Cholita IMG_7393

Best purchase: My Michael Jackson towel from the Feria de El Alto, of course!

20120104-SAM_0236 Best party (other than Carnaval): Tarija, Bolivia. Singani, Fernet and beer and good friends led to a wild night off the gringo trail with the gang from the Bolivian Express.

Best meal: La Comédie, La Paz Bolivia. This French meal with fresh local lamb and French cheeses was spectacular! And it was on the BX’s tab :P.

Best street food: Saltena, Bolivia. This delicious empanada meat pastry is a perfect breakfast, but only if you make it there before it closes at 11am.

——————–

Worst sickness: Salar de Uyuni. Altitude sickness is no joke – I felt like death. I recommend coca leaves!

Worst meal: Bull soup in Bolivia. Bull looks like a sliced orange, but it is white and gelatinous. It is a combination of touch cartilage and fatty gelatin. Absolutely horrific.

Worst bus ride: Tarija to La Paz: 27 hours. Despite taking a bus for 32 hours in Brazil, this horrific bus ride featured blaring music, off-roading, painful seats and nearly 0 stops.

Worst crisis: Purchased non-functional iPod in Bolivia and returned it. I have never complained and screamed like I did to fight to return something, but this time fortunately it worked!

It’s been fun and very worthwhile writing these posts. Now I have a record of what happened and you have been able to join in on the stories.

Keep up with this blog, as more stories will be coming soon!

Mind Blown by Brazil: Part 5 – Bahia

20130226-DSCN9587

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.

praia do forte
Praia do Forte, but not my paradise beach

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.

Paradise.

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.

praia walk

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.

tiny turtle

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.

big turtle

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.

20130117-IMG_8414

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.

pelourinho
Pelourinho. Google Images

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).

mj pelourinho
Google Images

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!

20130226-DSCN9583
Ginga to the sunset

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!

If you haven’t read this yet please do yourself a favour and read the incredible story on Forget the Box about how my laptop was stolen and rescued by a Uruguayan couple:Faith in humanity restored: how an outstanding couple saved my computer.

happy

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!

chapada 1
http://conferenciadecultura.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/chapada-diamantina-21.jpg

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.

20130309-DSC_0054

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!

20130309-DSC_0070

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!

Final travel blog coming up next…

Mind Blown by Brazil: Part 4 – Ilha Grande & Morro de Sao Paulo Vacaciones

20120104-SAM_0201

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.

20130218-DSCN9515
Ferry to Ilha Grande was like refugee ship carrying gringos in search of a vacation

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.

lopez mendes
Lopez Mendes beach, Ilha Grande – Google Images

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.

20120104-SAM_0046
Wet night ferry to Morro

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

20130223-DSCN9529

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!

20130223-DSCN9548

20130224-DSCN9559

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…

20130224-DSCN9566

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.

20120104-SAM_0217

But you can always count on the Brazilian beaches for their wonderful bikini attire.

20120104-SAM_0209

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!?

20120104-SAM_0204

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.

20120104-SAM_0146

Israelis even brought their own cuisine, but I opted for a local dish called moqueca:

20120104-SAM_0139It 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.

20130223-DSCN9545

The next day, I went back to Salvador and Bruno puked on the ferry.

20130226-DSCN9571

Up next: Salvador, Lencois and Chapada Diamantina

Mind Blown by Brazil: Part 3 – CARNAVAL

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.


20130208-DSCN9130

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!

20130211-DSCN9364

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!

20130211-DSCN9362

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.

20130209-DSCN9243
Tequila shot anyone?

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!

20130206-DSCN1768
Lapa at night

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.

20130211-DSCN9301

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.

20130212-DSCN9366

“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.

20130209-DSCN9234
Met a group of friendly Brazilians on the beach. We were chained in love baha

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!

20130208-DSCN9170

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.

20130208-DSCN9209
Bruno and I ran into a group of cross dressers and had a hilarious time partying in the street.

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! ☺

20130210-IMG_4503
Photo by Vincent Twint because I didn’t go. One day…

There was the Sambadrome, but I couldn’t afford it and didn’t wanna take time away from street conversations.

20130209-DSCN9222
Carnaval was so awesome I got sad about everything after

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.

20130216-DSCN9391
Getting my ass kicked in football on Ipanema beach by Brazilians made me want to get super fit!

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.

20130216-DSCN9413I 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.

A la prochaine Rio!

20130217-DSCN9510
At Botafogo v. Flamengo

Mind Blown by Brazil: Part 2 – Rio de Janeiro Tourism

20130207-DSCN9045

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.

20130206-DSCN9024

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.

20130205-IMG_4291

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.

20130207-DSCN9000

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.

20130207-DSCN8998

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.

20130207-DSCN9024

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.

20130207-DSCN9031

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.

20130208-DSCN9124

 

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:

 

Sunshine, Happiness and Hippies: Home in Argentina

foot sandOh, 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.

art of travel

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.

playa hippies 2

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 :).

church sky cordoba

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.

Playa sign

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.

playa hippies 3

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!?

natalia playa
Beautiful Argentinian who came from the north for this magical beach

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!

it is what it is
“It is what it is” – our lowly tent at Playa de los Hippies

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!

playa hippies 1

That night, I headed to Buenos Aires, the nation’s capital – where I am writing to you right now.

ba me

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);

Jew Graff
Jews immigrated to Argentina following World War 2. So did a bunch of Nazis.

 

there are an infinite amount of awesome parks, graffiti looks incredible, Argentinians care about paint (unlike Juliaca, Peru);

ba train

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.

damian and i
My Couch Surfing host Damian and I at an outdoor hipster party

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!

Licking salt off the shoulder of an employee before I take a shot of tequila at Club 69 in one of the wildest clubs I've ever been to!
Licking salt off the shoulder of an employee before I take a shot of tequila at Club 69 in one of the wildest clubs I’ve ever been to!

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!

Rollerskates. Hipster.
Rollerskates. Hipster.

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.

ba river 1

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.

Can’t wait!

Salar de Uyuni Tour – Sick Like Hell

20130111-Sunset Shadows HDR-2

I can’t believe after just a few days everything is back to normal and I have no ill effects from one of the worst illness of my life and one of the most difficult things I have had to overcome. It just had to happen before I left Bolivia, clearly.

Back track a bit. After my trip to Cusco, Peru, I returned to La Paz to complete the tedious process of acquiring a visa to get into Brazil. You need to fill out a bunch of information online, print out your financial statements from the last three months and a bunch of other things in addition to paying 65$ and leaving your passport for at least 2 business days at the Brazilian embassy. The visa is new for Canadians. Since Stephen Harper started charging Brazilians to come into Canada they started to charge us AND make us go through the stupid process (so I heard). Thanks Harper. Americans just need to pay $160 at the border.

I was now looking at La Paz in a different light. I knew where everything was and I felt at home. I partied with some of my Bolivian Express friends and got to stay in the apartment of the editors. Then, as everything was going great, things got better. My long awaited story about the End of the World on Isla Del Sol for Vice got published – with zero edits and all my photos. I was so proud of myself. More to come folks!

I was on top of the world. However, on the night I was to party my Vice accomplishment I went out for the editor’s birthday party at a fancy Thai restaurant. Sure, the food was good, but it’s a lot worse when its stained with tobacco. I literally couldn’t breathe. Everyone was smoking and blowing it into my face. I was trapped in a long bench against the wall so I couldn’t get out. Hell.

Then, we went to a club and it was even worse. Now I was expected to dance in this cloud of smoke?

I know its alienating (I don’t care anymore), but FUCK YOU SMOKERS! It appears that Canadians (except Quebec) and most of America are the only ones to have realized that smoking is a stupid ancient invention. It is one thing to ruin yourself for no reason, but to smoke in my face cause you are weak and need to cope and to ruin my lungs is unacceptable. I am so thankful that Ottawa has the strict anti-smoking laws it does (no smoking indoors, in parks or on balconies). It’s time we get rid of the stupid shit. End rant.

The next day I had to leave the apartment I was staying at because they were moving, so I went to Loki La Paz. It was in a magnificent colonial mansion, but it was much shittier than Cusco in every way. A lot of my Cusco friends had come for a while, but it wasn’t the same. I took a large group of them on a tour of Feria El Alto, but was met with a bunch of complaining and whining about the area and the weather. I was trying to show these gringos that there is more to travel than morning Loki Blood Bombs. The parties weren’t even great and I was happy to leave and say some real goodbyes.

As some more friends arrived I stayed committed to the fact that it was time to leave these people and La Paz, so I got into a 14 hours bus to Tupiza to see Salar de Uyuni (the Salt Flats). On the bus, I had major bodyaches, painful headaches and I couldn’t sleep. What do I want for 100 Bolivianos (14$)?

Tupiza is a small southern town with no wifi. A lot of the town is in construction in anticipation for more tourists. I had heard that heading to the Salt Flats tour was much better than Uyuni because not as many tourists were around and you got to see more stuff. However, it is almost twice the price.

I shopped around for a tour and decided to take the original tour company Tupiza Tours because everyone’s price was the same, a German told me it was the best and my group was set to be 3 guys from France, so I could practice my French. Yet, as I spoke French to them my Spanish went out the window. Only so much room in my head I guess.

20130112-IMG_8305

We drove nearly all day in our Toyota jeep with our tourguide Fredi and our cool Ema whom we called Mama. As we drove we stopped a couple times to take photos of rocks, but that was pretty much it. During the trip I started to get a bad headache and body pains similar to the problems I had on the bus from La Paz and to what I felt for a few hours during my stay in Tupiza.

I took an ibuprofen, but it got worse. As we escalated elevation and it got colder I started to shake uncontrollably like I was naked in a Canadian winter, but there were heat packs under my skin. When we got to the hostel in a small town I tried to go to bed early, but it was not easy. The chills got worse. I had a dry cough and swollen glands. It was hard to breathe and it took me nearly 10 minutes to get up and go to the bathroom. My toes, fingers and nose were all ice cold and went numb sporadically. I took a lot of pain killers and they eased the pain a little bit, but it wore off after 4 hours exactly.

As my eyes were closed and I tried to sleep my mind wandered to weird and bizarre places where people weren’t people, men weren’t men and women weren’t women. Everything was mixed up.

I did manage to get a few hours sleep, but in the morning it had not improved. My head was down on the breakfast table the whole morning and I hurt, bad. I was so scared. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, I was far from home on a so-far shitty trip with people that didn’t speak my language and there was no Internet (WebMD) to diagnose me.

Let me take a second for another quick rant. Just a week into my trip I made a Facebook post complaining that I wish I had Internet. I was met with a comment from a former classmate who ripped me saying why don’t I just enjoy my travels. Subsequently, about 10 other friends liked the post. To put it bluntly: you have no fucking clue!

As I respectfully responded (less respectful now), Internet is an absolute travel necessity. Whether it means booking hostels, flights, buses or planning where to go, or whether it means connecting with other travelers, or finding travel warnings, or doing research for stories (my job), or connecting with parents or diagnosing why the fuck your head is ripping out of your skull, Internet is an absolute necessity. Not all the time, but I’d say 5 days is the maximum before you are royally fucked without world connection depending on whether you are in an emergency or not. It’s all well and good to smell the flowers on vacation at the cottage or camping where you know your safe (or maybe you are not cough* Into the Wild cough*), but for backpacking Internet is crucial. The sooner society and tourism gets this the better. End rant.

Fredi the tourguide took me to a local doctor who diagnosed that I was in fact suffering from altitude sickness. Impossible, I thought. Altitude sickness is for silly gringos who complain of a headache, stomach ache or loss of breath. I played soccer my first day in La Paz. I played soccer for G-d’s sake!

The doctor gave me ibuprofen and some really weak altitude pills for 13 Bolivianos. I took a few pills before I realized that they were 10mg and I already had pills that were 250mg from Canada. The doctor also said I had to go down and couldn’t drink cold water, only hot.

The guide asked if I wanted to go down now and head directly to Uyuni therefore skipping most of the trip. Let me tell you a little something about myself. In elementary school, let’s say I broke my arm playing soccer (I didn’t, but I still got pretty hurt). I would drag my bleeding carcass off the field before delaying the game and ruining it for everyone else. I was not going to be the one to cost the trip for the rest of the people in my car. Thus, on we go. And, that day happened to be the highest day. Oh joy.

On the bumpy road we escalated higher and higher. Through snow and on top of mountains. We stopped at a lagoon to see flamingos, but I couldn’t focus. I was in absolute pain and stuck in my head. I couldn’t eat. The 5000m volcano summit lay ahead and although I wanted so bad not to go, I didn’t want to ruin it for everyone.

As the rest of the group played in a magnificent geiser and on the edge of a gaping volcano I absolutely had to lie down in the back– clutching my exploding head and smashing my head on the metal seat bar.

After that hell was the descent and I couldn’t be happier. I think that joy started to get me to feel better along with a mouthful of coca and a stomach full of ibuprofen. We passed by another group from Tupiza Tours pretty much for the first time and it happened to be a group of four French girls. When the guide told them that we were going to a lower altitude so that I could get better I was immediately chastised by the French guys for ruining their chance at girls. Obviously that would happen. They couldn’t understand the pain I was going though. Look at that pussy Canadian grunt in so-called pain. What a pussy. The magic of a group of 4 dudes.

The pain again got worse. As we arrived at the lower camp I had a whole new set of problems. My body knew we were down, so now it was time to change my body pressure back. Dizziness, cold sweats, runny nose, dry mouth (no water remember), sore throat. I tried to sleep, but I woke up exactly every hour mostly due to fucked up dreams where a group of forest people tried to keep me with them in their spinning forest, but some people were lying to me and were not even real according to other forest people. As I woke up for the fourth time I realized that fuck it, I’m gonna’ drink some water. Then, I understood why I can’t. In one way out the other, uncontrollably. The sickness that just keeps on giving.

At 6 am I couldn’t do it anymore so I walked around the town. It was beautiful.

20130110-IMG_8006

I chewed more coca and I was starting to get better. We went to see some volcanic rocks and although difficult, I made my way up to the top. I had beat this thing! Altitude sickness is not a joke people!

20130110-IMG_8056

For lunch we sat by a beautiful lagoon and I took some awesome HDR photos.

20130111-Laguna HDR-2

20130111-Volcan Rock HDR-2

In just a few hours we had made it to Uyuni and looked at the tourist attraction of the train cemetery. Apparently, the old junk was donated just for tourists. How authentic.

Uyuni is really a garbage town as labeled. You literally drive by a river of garbage as you enter, but at least we could have a shower and be with the girls. We bought some booze for super cheap Bolivian prices and proceeded to drink. The first thing one of the French girls tells me was that I was mocking her accent simply by speaking – she didn’t believe that that’s how I speak. Then, she thinks I shat myself when I was sick and everyone laughs at me. For the record, I never shat myself, I had many other problems though. What a bitchy Parisien.

Shortly after dinner all the other groups went to bed (because the bitchy one was tired so the others HAD to go too), so we were left us four boys again. Drunk, we decided to go out on the town. The first bar we found was a small Bolivian bar where a group of about eight (four guys, four girls) were on the dance floor dancing salsa. One Bolivian invites Jeremie, one of the Frenchmen from our group to dance with his woman. Jeremie takes the opportunity and spins the girl around. I jump in with the next girl and the other two guys starting randomly grinding on girls, jumping around and taking their shirt off.

The music changes to club music. We start to limbo, get a breakdance circle going (some random Bolivian breakdancer where an Adidas jump suit comes up) and other people start to join in the fun. No one could stop laughing. We LORDED the club for those who know what I mean.

As I have said before, nothing can shock me more than club antics. It can be absolutely random and crazy and insane – this time it definitely was.

We had to be up at 4:45am, so we went back and got two hours of sleep.

I felt fine the next morning, but the other guys were really hungover so we just barely made it for sunrise. This was the best part of the trip for me. The sunrise was absolutely unreal and my photos look incredible.

20130111-IMG_8162

For breakfast we ate the Hotel de Sal then took the loco photos.

20130111-IMG_8240

Final verdict – Tupiza Salt Flat Tours, not worth it. We were in the car almost the entire time and didn’t see anything that spectacular until the Salt Flats. Save the $200, go one or two days from Uyuni and you are set. Uyuni is too touristy you say? Tourists can be good! I was stuck with the same five people for four days. I wanted to kill them after. It’s good to talk to someone else for a change.

As soon as I got to Tupiza (feeling better mind you), I attempted to organize my escape. I was soo done with fucking mountains, shit food and poverty. I booked my bus to Salta in the morning and left twenty minutes later.

The bus stopped in Villazon, the border town of Bolivia and Argentina and I was amazed. The weather was warm, the tucumanehs the best I’ve ever had, even the vendors smiled and looked happy – the polar opposite of La Paz. It wasn’t “here take it,” it was “here you go!”

I had three hours to get through the border before my next bus so I wasted a little time walking around and using the rest of my Bolivianos. In line for my stamp out of Bolivia I met a Canadian guy who was reading the Alchemist. We started talking and I showed him a copy of the Bolivian Express. Amazingly, he had read it in La Paz and really liked it. He said he studied my centre-fold photo for like five minutes. That’s what journalism is all about folks J.

As we confidently approached the Argentinian side, after making fun of my English, the officer said we could not enter – we had to pay a new $75 Reciprocity Fee to get into the country. I knew about this fee, I had researched it before, but it said it was only applicable at the airport NOT everywhere. I guess on January 1st in changed. Crap!

So, we turned around and went back into Bolivia without a visa and walked 20 minutes before finding an Internet Café. There, we navigated through the snail-Internet and printed our forms after about 30 minutes.

We hustled back, not knowing that Argentina was an hour ahead so our busses were about to leave, and skipped the line to get our stamp.

Matt, the Canadian was really greatful that we had met saying that it was fate that we got together and helped eachother out. Maybe our paths will cross again one day if I move to Vancouver.

Just in the nick of time, we made it to our buses and I got to Salta after watching two really stupid movies “My Name is Khan,” soooo cliché, and “Real Steel,” Hugh Jackman plays a real douche in it.

Salta is absolutely stunning. I sit writing this blog now leaning against a tall palm trip under a blue sky at the city’s centre square with the sounds of a fountain and the sights of sexy Latinas tickling my senses. It’s just like Europe in the summer, I can imagine.

I was going to skip Buenos Aires due to lack of time and money, but after doing the math, it only is one hour more of bus travel (69 compared to 68) if I don’t do Buenos Aires. Now I am doing Salta – Cordoba – B.A. – Florianopolis – Rio de Janeiro for February 7th. For about $277.

So here my European (Argentina/Brazil) adventure begins. I know it will be very very different from the first half of my trip, but I am ready for it. I am ready for the beach and I am ready to party.

Vivo la vida Loca! haha

Peru: Machu Picchu, Blood Bombs and German Fun

20121228-IMG_7875

I left Bolivia, and fuck was I ready to leave. I finished my internship with the Bolivian Express (See final product here this week), and headed to Cusco, Peru to catch up with the gringo trail and see the iconic Machu Picchu (see above).

Merely hours inside Peru I realized that maybe I was a little too harsh on Bolivia. Service, food, danger of theft and disorganization are pretty much the same in Cusco, except things are A LOT more expensive (at least in the touristic areas). At 7 Bolivianos to the Dollar compared with 2.5 Soles to the Dollar, getting screwed not only hurt the spirit, but also the wallet. In fact, I immediately wanted to return to the land of the saltena and stupidly cheap markets.

The major problems I have, I suspect, are common travel problems that most backpackers face. So, when someone tells me they want to travel in the futue I will immediately tell them that they should expect to lose everything and go through daily “ups, downs and crap.” A friend of mine has travelled to 54 countries and not lost or had a single thing stolen. And he spent time in Bolivia and Peru. Freak!

Most of the time I lost stuff it occured when I was rushing or was stressed about something else. I expect that now that I have become a more experienced traveler and am travelling on my own I’ll lose less. I really do feel more confident around the bus stations, restaurants etc, mostly thanks to my vastly improved Spanish skills, but we’ll see.

Another major reason that I didn’t like Bolivia, and I didn’t want to mention it before, is quite frankly because some of the people I was with. When you travel you meet so many people each day. Sometimes you click, sometimes you don’t. No offense, but we didn’t click and I was very glad to move on. ‘Nuff said.

My last hurrah in Bolivia was a trip to Lake Titicaca on the Isla del Sol for the End of the World / End of Capitalism celebration hosted by the Bolivian government. I went through the slow hectic process of getting accredited as a journalist in Bolivia and got a handy press pass for the event. Evidently, I survived the End of the World, but just barely. I spent 12:01 am of December 21st puking my brains out outside of a tent filled with 32 international journalists. Read the story that I pitched to Vice in the next couple days if they decide to take it, if not I’ll post it here or on Forgetthebox.net.

Vice1 Lake IMG_7190I immediately was impressed by the bus in Peru compared to my horrific Bolivian bus experience. Bus employees were courteous and the ride was a comfortable 12 hours overnight to Cusco, Peru. When I arrived I checked in at Loki Hostel, the notoriously dubbed party hoste. There I spent a few days, including Christmas, before I headed to Machu Picchu on Boxing Day.

Loki is a well-oiled gringo-churning machine. There are five Loki hostels and counting… 3 in Peru (Lima, Mancora, Cusco), La Paz (Bolivia), and Salta (Argentina). They all exist as a sort of backpacking cult – when you go to one, most people visit another. I plan to go to the La Paz and Salta Lokis. And they deserve the business in my opinion. Delicious food, clean rooms, lots of clean bathrooms, soap and toilet paper (huge deal and very rare), and a legendary party atmosphere. One of the main attractions is Loki’s own drink the Blood Bomb. Always trying to beat the record for most Blood Bombs at one time, owners and volunteer bartenders working in exchange for discounted food and board line up glasses of Red bull topped with shots of vodka and grenadine. The shots are then lit on fire and toppled over like dominoes into the glasses of Redbull to the chagrin of the Loki-party goers.

20121223-IMG_7516The thing about Loki is that you get trapped there. With all the comforts of the West for such a cheap price many find themselves stuck in the hostel for days on end. Drunk nights turn into hangovers, which turn into hangover food, which turn into sweatpant Skyping, which turn into more Blood Bombs and then another night.

20121225-20121225-IMG_7546-2

Sure, judge me because I wasn’t cowering the city for Peruvian contact, but I learned a lot from the people at Loki and for me that’s part of the experience. That being said, I did walk around the city a bunch, got in conversations with taxi drivers, servers and market cooks, tried the local street food that gave me the shits (a common theme for all backpackers in South America). But, I spent far more time with the Europeans, Canadians and Australians I met at Loki. Australians are EVERYWHERE by the way. They are by far the travellers I’ve seen the most of. They are so much like Canadians it’s scary. I’d probably move there if it wasn’t so isolated.

20121223-IMG_7459

At Loki I had a delicious Christmas dinner filled with fresh bread and cheeses, turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes before I left the next morning on my Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu.

20121225-20121225-IMG_7566-2

The Jungle Trek is basically for people that didn’t have the foresight to book the Inca Trail six months in advance and who don’t feel like doing the 5 day Salkantay trek where you sleep in tents and walk 89 km.

The Jungle trek started with a mountain bike ride down a couple massive mountains, but was not nearly as fun or reliable as my Death Road tour (+1 for Bolivia). Our guide Abraham spoke fluent English and was pretty cool, but no Puma (Pampas Tour) or even Rylan (Death Road). He’d been a guide for 7 years and you get the feeling that he knows what he is doing and it’s all part of the plan. For the four-day trek, answering our bitching complaints and questions, and for making sure everything was on schedule and secure. Apparently Abraham only makes about $100 for the whole thing and that doesn’t go as far as you think in the relatively expensive Peru. What a shame.

20121228-IMG_7853-2

Our group, suitably dubbed the “Gringo Elite,” by one of the Australians was compiled of two Germans, two Dutchies, three Australians, two Canadians, two South Koreans and one Russian. For many of our photos, we did a thumbs up and didn’t smile in honour of “German Fun,” because Germans have no fun :P.

The trek through the mountains and along the historic Inca trail invented by the ancient conquerers to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu was pretty incredible. I especially liked the raging rapids of the Sacred River that run all the way into the Amazon river and into the Atlantic ocean.

20121226-DSC_0912

Unlike Salkantay or the Inca Trail we stayed in comfortable beds in either rural homes or in hostels. There, we had an opportunity to eat together, get to know each other and of course drink. I can’t believe that I am saying this, but the highlight of the whole trek (including seeing Machu Picchu), was the night we got absolutely hammered playing Kings on a sidewalk in a small town. The game got pretty out of hand and even our guide got hammered. What ensued was a hilarious gringo experience drinking with local old Peruvian men at a bar then taking over the dance floor of a nearby club. Definitely the Gringo Elite we all know and hate haha.

The next day we went zip lining and had fun, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the zip lining I did in Quebec.

20121228-IMG_4753

Finally, after a relatively leisurely three days we arrived in a beautiful town just below Machu Picchu mountain. We rested there that night in our chill hostel rooms with Seinfeld and Greece on TV. At 4 am we woke up and began our mission up the mountain. I was at the front of the pack when the gates opened at 5 am for the hike straight up to Machu Picchu. The rain was coming down and this part of the trek was far from easy. Thousands of rock steps winded up the mountain and with the high altitude you were bound to sweat, a lot.

20121229-DSC_1352

Many people chose the more chicken route of taking a bus up, but it costs 9$ and takes away from the experience in my opinion. Walking up kind of felt like the Spartan Race and I was pretty pumped when I got to the top in just about 50 minutes.

However, instead of catching the sun rise, we were met with rain, rain and more rain. Cold, chilled and wet Abraham led our tour of Machu Picchu for two hours, but I honestly couldn’t appreciate it as much due to the fact that I was getting soaked. My trusty Gore-Tex rain jacket couldn’t even hold up and the papers that I thought would be safe in those pockets got wet – including my visa and passport.

<photo>

For the entire four day trek I lugged my tripod for the sole purpose of taking an HDR (High Dynamic Range photo where three photos at different exposures are merged on Photoshop) of Machu Picchu, but the clouds blocked my way. Finally, by about 2:30pm, 6.5 hours in the sun stated to break the clouds and I got a chance to get my HDR photo and a couple stupid gringo elite shots as well.

Machu Picchu HDRWe spent the rest of the night in town until our 9:30pm train (delayed to 11pm because a few Americans were sold tickets for a different date and had their seats given away). Along the way the two Germans and one of the Dutchies and I played a card game called Yanif on the table in the train. The Israeli-invented game is actually one of the best card games out there and I quickly became obsessed. While we played, everyone on the bus slept and we didn’t arrive in Cusco until 4am.

20121230-DSC_1423

Then, I checked into MilHouse hostel for a change from Loki (I ended up spending my days at Loki as my friends were there and it was an all-round better vibe).

After my 24 hour day, I had a recovery day, which meant uploading and editing my photos and making the switch from iPhoto to Adobe Lightroom. I can’t state any more strongly how much of a revolutionary switch this was. I put everything on my External Harddrive as I cleaned up all the remnants and hard-drive sucking originals of iPhoto. I spent all day and into the night deleting photos and making some fun edits in Lightroom as you can see from my photos

The next day was New Years Eve and I was feeling on top of the world. I made plans to go out for dinner then to party with my Loki friends and Gringo Elite in Loki, then go to the massive New Years Eve celebration in Cusco. I got to talking to a couple cute Argentinian girls in Spanish and they wanted to see my photos, particularly the HDR one, so I pulled out my computer and plugged in my harddrive…and I waited…and nothing. It wouldn’t appear! The harddrive with my entire journalism portfolio of videos, articles and resumes. The hard drive with all my photos including important family photos. The hard drive with movies, audio books and TV shows… WOULD NOT TURN ON! My happiness came crashing down in an instant. I’d rather lose my computer or my camera and get it insured than to lose all my important information. Information is so finite.

I went out that night really pissed off and decided to drink a lot because I was angry., which is really unlike me.

We had dinner and went to Milhouse to play Kings, but even that pissed me off. These people kept “vetoing” the good rules in favour of stupidly judgemental ones and one guy even yelled at me for playing the Sevens rule like it is supposed to be played – with fuck yous and reversals, not Happy New Year and continuing). Obviously, this is super arbitrary and shouldn’t have pissed me off, but these United Kingdom/Australian cocky bros got to me.

I retreated to Loki where the party was raging and had a couple Blood Bombs before departing to the main square. Cusco is a popular New Year destination because thousands of people wearing yellow and throwing yellow confetti circle the main square at midnight to bring a prosperous and successful New Year. It was chaos! Everyone was hammered, drinking beers on the street and shooting fireworks, one of which hit me right in the chin. After one lap around the square the mood changed. Three girls had lost their camera or their phone or both. The tears flowed and I tried to help them search through the rubble, but just like Simba running against the oncoming stampede, there was no hope.

I helped my Canadian friend into a cab home and returned to the street for a weird meat, egg, French fry and lettuce burger. Wasn’t bad actually. Next thing I know I’m back at Loki drinking more and “Thrift Shop” comes on. Macklemore is officially HUGE (42 million+ YouTube views, Ellen, Jimmy Fallon, #1 in Australia, played in Loki Peru etc.)

Partying was fun, but I was still so angry about my hard drive situation and sad for the girls who lost stuff.

The next morning I got up early to try and fix the hard drive. I looked online for options, but everything online was either defeatist or said they’d charge me $100 just for the program to try and save some of the content. I suppose it was the stress that I put on it after transferring so many photos to it. A couple hours of stressful searching then BAM! – the hard drive reappeared and it’s all-good. Suddenly the sun was out and I was happy. Its amazing how u can be so down in the dumps then it works out. I felt so silly for being so upset, but I guess it’s natural.

Now I am back in La Paz in my ‘hood of Sopacachi. I sorted out my Brazil visa after a long process and $65 and am officially hitting up Carnaval 2013!

A couple Loki/Gringo Elite friends will be here in La Paz in a couple days and we will meet up this weekend for a couple birthdays. Monday I’m off to the Salt Flats, then to Argentina for a completely different experience.

Finally a happy post eh! Feelin good!

Happy New Year!

Ups, Downs and Crap: Travelling Struggles and Resolutions in Bolivia

La Paz  from above with a long exposure. Kinda like fire and brimstone.
La Paz from above taken with a long exposure. Sometimes I feel like this city is Hell.

Caution: this post may stress you out and give you an ulcer, but it sorta works out in the end so read on.

“Life has it’s ups and downs,” right? “Take everything with a grain of salt,” they say. “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” The list of coping mantras goes on. When you are travelling, expect to repeat these proverbs more than ever – over and over again.

Was it really just two weeks ago that I was having the time of my life in the Amazon basin with the coolest, most badass indigenous tour guide known to man (See my article on Forget the Box)?

Me and Puma Alligator

I didn’t even mind the scorching tropical wet-heat in Rurrenabaque (the city of entry to the Amazon from Bolivia). To get a refresher, all you need to do is pluck a mango or star fruit off a tree, head to the cheap market for a cup of fresh orange juice or take a dip in the pool (20bs/$3 a day).

American Rurrenabaque resident used a huge stick to hit a mango tree and gets dozens of fruit - The life for me.
American Rurrenabaque resident used a huge stick to hit a mango tree and gets dozens of fruit – The life for me.

What is glaringly obvious as soon as you enter Rurrenabaque is the presence of motorbikes instead of cars. Right out of the airport, a few of my Bolivian Express colleagues and I hopped right on the back of a motorcycle into town. I decided then and there that motorcycles are the coolest way to get around.

Bike Rurre

The exhilaration of the bike taxi wasn’t enough. We wanted to drive the bikes ourselves. With the help of some friendly citizens including an awesome Parisien Baker, we found a few taxi drivers willing to let us drive their bikes for a small sum of (20bs.).

IMG_6685
Probably the best Omelette I’ve ever had. Warm bread, cheese and wine? Maybe France is the place for me.

Out on the open road with the Amazon forest as my backdrop, I rode my bike off into the direction of…anywhere! Shift. Up a gear. Shift. Up another. Wind blowing in my hair I was purely enjoying the moment…STOP. Where are my friends!?

I looked forward and saw only open road. I looked back and saw my Bolivian host grinning. I looked down and saw my expensive Canon DSLR at my waist – ready and exposed for the taking. Crap!

The driver and I drove back to the start and saw no one around, so we drove back to where we started in downtown Rurrenabaque. Within 20 minutes my friends arrived and that crisis was averted.

The next day, we took our Pampas tour and it was more incredible than I could have ever imagined.

On the bumpy three-hour ride to the Beni river, our rough trufi van only stopped four times. Once, so our guide Puma, a native from the Rurrenabaque region, could chase after a baby anaconda that slithered across the road. The second, to look at a koala up close – one that Puma spotted from about a kilometer away. The third and fourth were food and chill breaks.

Koala
Sloth

At the river point I saw a group of gringos – more tourists than I’d seen the entire trip. One girl looked familiar. Wow, I thought, white people do all look the same. Except, the girl stared at me back, so I thought I’d go for an approach.

Turns out, not only do I know this girl from Montreal, but she helped to inspire my trip to South America. We had met in March at a Political Science Student’s Association Wine and Cheese and got to talking about the future. She said that in the summer she planned to go cherry picking out West and then head for a long trip to South America. Sounded perfect to me! I did the research and got a job cherry picking, but decided to be a waiter at home instead and make more money. And here she was staring at me in the face. Small world!

I could go on forever with what happened on the Pampas tour, but essentially I swam with dolphins, fished for piranhas and touched alligators, monkeys, deadly caimans and poisonous snakes. Our guide was a jungle animal, the food was good and I bonded with some different people in hammocks listening to Jack Johnson and Brett Dennen. What more can a guy ask for? Once again, check my article on Forget the Box about it. Oh, I also fell in love, but that’s what I do.

Puma Cobra

Exhilarated and hung over from our last night partying in Rurrenabaque, I guess my debit card slipped out of my money pouch when I was taking out my passport a million times and I lost it. With the good comes the bad. Crap!

In case you don’t know, Bolivia has no postal service and it sucks. As was evident with its dysfunctional national census (see: my post on Forget the Box). So, getting a card would be nearly impossible. Fortunately, I have a credit card, which works essentially the same at the Interac, so I cancelled my debit card and moved on with life in La Paz.

Oh La Paz. Remember how I didn’t care about the altitude? Now I do. I haven’t been terribly sick like many others have, but the fatigue, sun burns (El Alto is really close to the sun), cold nights, rain, diarrhea, and daily hikes up the mountain to my hostel are starting to frustrate me. In addition, now that I am living in a hostel and no longer in an apartment I can’t cook for myself, which means I have to eat often-crappy Bolivian food. I have been able to avoid the suspect street burgers, but I eat a lot of saltenas and empanadas (fried bread with either cheese or meat inside them), which aren’t exactly healthy or nutritious. My contentment with the hostel also tends to waver when I am locked out in the pouring rain at 1:30 am for 20 minutes. Good thing my friend from Canada visiting La Paz heard the repetitive doorbell and decided to let us in. Thanks Charles!

mmm Bolivian street food. NOT!
Mmm Bolivian street food. NOT!

But, life back in La Paz means that I need to fulfill my duties for my internship with the Bolivian Express and get cracking on my articles. On the Thursday following Rurrenabaque we went to Feria de El Alto – one of South America’s largest markets at 25km2 and by far the craziest market I’ve ever been to.

IMG_6795

There, they sell everything! From snakes to donkey milk to 80’s retro American Football jackets to Royal Bank of Canada hats (really random) to Cholita skirts. Essentially, it’s hipster heaven and it’s not even in the West. I bought a lot of cool stuff for next to nothing, including a grandpa sweater, a tooth necklace, socks, a water bottle, a bright Michael Jackson beach towel and a couple shirts.

At the Feria I tried some donkey milk fresh from the donkey's teet. It was warm and rather mild. Apparently it's good for pneumonia!
At the Feria I tried some donkey milk fresh from the donkey’s teet. It was warm and rather mild. Apparently it’s good for pneumonia!

On my second visit to the market, it was way more packed. As I hustled to catch up with my friends I held on tight to my camera around my neck, leaving my iPod touch open to pick pocketers and I was jacked. My donation to El Alto. Crap!

Again, I followed all the coping motivations as listed above and I decided that the iPod was old and it would be ok to get a new one.

Pendulum shifts again.

On Tuesday night in the push for the first draft of our articles to be completed, another intern hooked up an interview with a Bolivian street racing team. They agreed to let us interview and photograph them high above the Bolivian streets. Supped up car after car rolled up to meet us, reving their engines and ushering girls into the back seat.

IMG_6940

After a long wait, the eight drivers invited us to hop in their cars and see what they were made of. Now, this was definitely like something out of Fast and the Furious. The pistons shot, the engine roared and the music blared out the ridiculous back subwoofer. Totally ridiculous, yet totally awesome.

IMG_6946

On the bridge the designer and lead photographer of the magazine told the drivers to line the cars up side by side in front of the La Paz city backdrop and he would photograph it. What he didn’t foresee was that the street was narrow and nearly impossible to get all the cars in one even with his wide-angle lens.

On the other side of the street was a wall that incased a construction yard. Too bad we can’t get over… Screw that! I put my hands over the door and pulled myself up to the yard and opened the door for the photographer.

As the photo shoot was going well and I was feeling great about my Spiderman skills a neighbour came up to us and told us to get out. Not because we were trespassing, but because there

was a deadly dog that guarded the yard. Crap!

I guess the dog was sleeping, so we weren’t bothered in our two-hour long shoot.

I absolutely loved it! The power that the photographer has over his subjects is amazing. I could tell that the shots weren’t as good as they could be, but he didn’t show it. Mucho respecto Gato!

IMG_6958

For one of my own stories for the magazine, I went to go meet an architect at the MegaCentre for an interview and thought I’d get an iPod at the same time. Turns out that the mall is huge, but completely crappy and useless and didn’t have any iPods.

I trust Apple, I really do. I’ve have two MacBooks, an iPod Touch, an iPhone and bought iPods as gifts. And every product has had problems. The first Mac peeled, the iPhone came cracked, and my Earbuds only worked in one ear. Every single time I have brought the product into an Apple Store they graciously handed me a new one. Even though their products can come broken, especially for me, I trust them because of their no-questions asked customer service.

I was 110% sure that I would buy a real Apple product to replace my 2007 iPod Touch. So, I went to the one street in town known for selling real electronics – Eloy Salmon.

Eloy Salmon is a few city blocks jam-packed with cell phones, kitchen appliances, sound and photo equipment. It is on all sides surrounded by traditional Cholita markets, which sell fruits, vegetables, meat and fresh fish sitting out headless and bleeding on the vendors’ table. Eloy Salmon is absolutely fascinating.

Even though most places on Eloy Salmon sold iPods, their prices varied drastically and you could haggle unlike in the West. I decided to grab the cheapest iPod I could find and that was an iPod Shuffle for $70 USD. Not cheap, but worth it incase I get caught on another 20 hour bus ride.

As I was paying for the Shuffle, I asked the vendor for a receipt incase it didn’t work. Nope, no receipt, but she did give me a business card, whatever that does…

Giddy after feeding my technology fix, I headed back to my hostel where I went on the Internet.

I surfed for about an hour trying to ignore the fact that iTunes wouldn’t start when I plugged in the Shuffle… Finally I couldn’t wait to have it charged, so I tried it in another computer in the hostel, and another. Nope, didn’t work at all. Crap!

I started to panic. 500 bolivianos down the drain when I felt that I took every precaution I could to get a quality product. I think I have the worst luck with Apple of anyone in the world.

Upset and determined, I packed my computer and found a taxi back to Eloy Salmon. “You don’t mind if I stop for a few minutes and get some gas?” asked the taxi driver as he pulled into a gas station. Perfect timing sir.

Anyways, 15 bs. ($2) later I walked up to the vendor unsure if I should force some tears or to come in yelling.

I did a combination of both.

“Please!” I plead with the vendor in Spanish. “It doesn’t work, can you please change it?” “No,” she said. “Here’s a number for Apple, you send it back.” But, there’s no postal service in Bolivia! I protested louder than I ever have in my entire life, but nothing. Crap!

I then pulled out my computer and showed her that it wasn’t working. She didn’t get it, it’s not like she was a tech-savvy Apple “Genius.” Fortunately, another vendor was in the shop and offered to try it on one of his computers.

So, I waited.

10 minutes passed and I sat hunched and upset. I really couldn’t afford to just throw away that kind of money…

Finally the other vendor came back and admitted the iPod was broken. Seconds later the vendor gave up and pulled out a new iPod! We tried it in my computer and success! Before he could eject it I stuffed the box and put it’s contents into my pocket and ran outta’ there. Crisis averted!

“I hate the way/ I think that I’m okay/ when I’m really angry at everything” – The Sun Parade.

This verse has been my anthem so far in Bolivia. Generally, I keep a positive attitude and take things one day at a time, but when crisis hits, I feel that my passive bliss is a guise for an undercurrent of frustration. While this blog makes it seem like I am having a bad time I really am not, I just enjoy writing my complaints out.

I do, though, think that in general La Paz is not for me. I have had great times, but many more frustrating times. I can’t wait to get out.

I’m spending my last week in La Paz then on Wednesday I’ll be off to Lake Titicaca and Cusco, Peru for Christmas, to hike Machu Picchu and New Years. Instead of leaning on the Bolivian Express, I’ll be all alone. Can’t wait!

I do not doubt that there will be more “crap” situations, but I really hope with all my soul that they will be limited and less frequent. My heart can’t take this shit anymore!

Make sure to check out www.bolivianexpress.org in a week to read the latest issue in production at this very moment. I’ll be a big part of it’s production.

War on the Photojournalist

You hold a precious gem that could solve the world’s dependency on oil. You know the secret of what happens after death, but you won’t share it. Simply a picture of these items might change the mindset of the entire globe and you refuse to allow the public into your life.

All of these are hypothetical situations, of course, but why not open yourself up to the world?

Why am I saying all this? Because I am absolutely fed up with privacy! Ya, you don’t hear that too often. And don’t worry I’ll walk the walk; I am completely open and willing to allow everyone access to my life, especially if I have valuable information to share like that guy who recorded 1 second of each day for a year.

I believe that all knowledge should be accessible to the public. I’m a journalist, I have to believe that. So when people refuse to answer my questions, or refuse to have their picture taken it absolutely grinds my gears!

My frustration with this began when professors refused to answer questions from us student journalists on a deadline. All of those years of education, reading and writing books, for what? So they can keep it to themselves and their colleagues in the academia bubble?

On the other hand, some journalists like my former profs Bruce Hicks and Elias Makos can’t get enough of the media. They appear consistently on CTV Montreal for everything to do with media and technology, but why so few?

Perhaps “experts’” refusal to speak is good considering the media relies too heavily on those with university degrees and not enough on those with real experience. See: Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model or…

So, lets talk to the people! Ya, we’ll get real stories by asking various groups of people…wait. They won’t talk to the media, won’t give their name or won’t let you take their photo? Politics aside, because it is a journalists’ ethical role to protect their interview subjects and if they are talking about something controversial that could cause people to discriminate or persecute them, it irks me when people won’t talk about a noncontroversial subject.

That brings me to my current situation, cause you’re probably reading this for my travel blog right?

The most fascinating thing/things I have seen so far in Bolivia have been the wonderfully beautiful Cholitas. These majestic old women (not always old, but the young ones tend not to roam the streets) with their gleaming colourful skirts, tops and stylish bowler hats they are absolutely stunning. Their traditional cultural clothing clashes with the Western attire that every man and non-Cholita woman wear.

Their customs are fascinating:

i) Some wear their hat to a certain side to show their marital status.

ii) Their skirts puff out to ridiculous proportions to show their wealth/beauty – the opposite of the tight jeans/spandex, which is the uniform of many girls in the West.

iii) The colours of the robes can depend on occasion.

iv) Their gold teeth implants can cost hundreds of Bolivianos and can come in porcelain, acrylic, cold, silver and even in heart shapes.

v) Their bags cost at least 600 bs. (about $90 USD). Their hats at least 500 bs (about $75 USD).

vi) Their whole outfit can potentially cost more than a month of their husband’s wage.

vii) They have a weekly staged wrestling league.

viii) Some young Cholita rebels have performed in Cholita pornography.

I want to know more! I need to know more! The Cholitas are a perfect video documentary pitch, a perfect feature or a perfect radio documentary. A story about Cholitas can be astonishing in any medium, particularly visually, AND I CAN’T DO IT!

One other tidbit about Cholitas is that they believe that if a photo is taken of them they will lose a piece of their soul. It’s tradition, they say, and I wholeheartedly respect that. I can imagine that their colonial oppressors weren’t that nice when taking photos of them years ago causing them to develop this anti-photography tradition. It’s just disappointing because I know they have such a beautiful and interesting tradition to share.

Photojournalism ethics tells me that I must ask permission before I take a photo of him or her and I have done that. And in absolutely every instance, Bolivians have rejected me. Even after schmoozing for a while, men, women, Cholitas, non-Cholitas, young and old have rejected my requests and gotten either mad or extremely cold after I requested to take a photo of them.

The problem is, photos of indigenous people exist and I expect that at least one of them said yes. One of my favourite films of all time, Samsara (and its predecessor Baraka) feature people from dozens of cultures around the world spanning the globe and staring into the massive 35mm/70mm video lens of Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson without blinking. They don’t seem to mind. Not to mention National Geographic…

While I have sympathy for Bolivians and the indigenous in particular, I have no sympathy for people who don’t want their picture taken because they think they’ll look bad in a photo or on video. Like come on.

Perhaps it’s a question of access. When watching video journalism today all I can think about is how did they get those people to agree to be filmed? I watch incredible Vice documentaries where a silly gringo protagonist interviews tranny models or clueless Communist North Koreans. How were they not spat on in the face or arrested in the North Korean case?

Perhaps it’s a question of approach. Maybe it’s just like telemarketing – don’t give the people a no-gateway out. If every journalist ran away from every vague no, we’d have no stories. And I’m not willing to give up!

I’ll leave you with a story.

Yesterday we were walking through one of South America’s largest markets – Ferio El Alto and encountered a perfect subject for my colleagues stories. The man was a public speaker selling a supposedly magical sap and he was going it with some serious swag. I then proceeded to take photos and even a video of the street performer – some of which were absolutely incredible if I say so myself :P. Then, when my colleague approached the man to ask for his number to speak on a different occasion he was chewed out and told to fuck off.

Maybe it’s just like George said to Jerry “a few bad strangers ruined it for the rest of us.” Damn you sleezy journalists for giving journalism a bad rap!

What is a curious journalist to do?! Comments welcome!

I purposely included no photos in this blog despite having taken about 2000 so far. Take that photography hobby/career!