Monthly Archives: March 2007

A CouchSurfing Reunion in Olinda

March 9, 2007
Day 527

Picture of church.

A church in Olinda.

I took another "short" bus ride to Recife, yet another big city on the coast, this afternoon. This time, finding my way around was easy. There was a tourism information center right at the bus station with people who spoke English and were eager to help me to get where I wanted to go. They gave me directions to Olinda, a smaller city next to Recife, and I was on my way.

There was a metro station attached to the bus terminal, so I boarded a train and started to ride to the center of town. On the way, I passed multiple favelas (slums) with the worst living standards I've ever seen. It was truly horrific seeing how the people living right next to the train tracks lived. When I got to the last stop in the center of Recife, I found a bus right away to take me over to Olinda. I decided to go there because it was smaller and I heard it had a better atmosphere than Recife.

Tonight I met a girl named Barbara from Couchsurfing, and we went to a small party with some people from Spain who were living in Olinda for a few months. There were a bunch of people who were passing through the area and were members of Couchsurfing. It was a fun evening.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Frustrating Joao Pessoa

March 8, 2007
Day 526

I had a quick two-hour bus ride to the small city of Joao Pessoa, with a population of just over half a million, this afternoon. I was supposed to meet with someone from Couchsurfing, but my plans started falling apart immediately. Once again, the only map I had was of the very center of the city, but the bus station was in the outskirts. In the center of the map was the "lagoa," a big lagoon, and that's where all the hotels were supposed to be. That seemed like an easy enough reference point, but when I asked how to get there, all I got were long, drawn out responses spoken in rapid Portuguese. While standing near several buses, I asked one guy who seemed to know what he was talking about, but kept mentioning specific street names and neighboorhoods that I had never heard of. Finally, I went to a binary strategy: "Does this bus go to the lagoon?" "How about this one?" The answer was always "no" so I went to a different part of the terminal to search some more.

Right away, I saw a bus with "Lagoa" listed as its primary location and jumped aboard. I rode the bus for a long time looking for the lagoon but never saw it. I eventually did see a lot of tall buildings and figured it must be the center of town. Just after the buildings, there was an unlit area and I thought it must be the lagoon. I got off the bus and asked some people where the lagoon was, and one lady pointed back to the area with the big buildings. I waited forever for another bus to come and went back to that area once again.

I walked around for awhile but saw no hotels, so I decided that I still needed to go to the lagoon. I asked the checkout girl at a supermarket how to get there and she said "Oh, you need to go to the center of the city." But I was in the area with all the big buildings, the big plaza, and the busy palm-lined main street! How could that not be the center? She told me to take bus 15 or 11 (as I understood her). At least I had a specific bus number.

While waiting for the bus once again, a lot of other buses passed me. The peculiar thing I noticed about them was that all of them claimed to go to the lagoon! I couldn't believe how crazy this system was. Eventually a bus labeled 1500 came. I hadn't seen a bus numbered in the thousands until then. I thought maybe the girl actually said "1511," not "15 or 11," or maybe the local slang for 1500 is "15." I didn't want to take any chances, so I boarded the bus and asked the attendant. Nope, it was the wrong bus, but it was too late for me because the bus was already moving. The bus dropped me off at another stop and the guy told me that 1511 would pass there for sure.

At this point, I was beyond frustrated. All I wanted to do was get to the center of the city, but that didn't seem possible. I had spent over two hours carrying a heavy backpack on crowded buses that always took me to the wrong place, it was getting late, and I was in a city that I knew nothing about. Sure, waiting for a ride all day in the Guianas was also frustrating, but at least I knew that once I got a ride, it would take me where I wanted to go.

Bus 1511 finally showed up and took me far, far away to a run-down area with lots of dark alleys and one small lagoon. For the first time all night, I saw a hotel and promptly checked in. By that time it was already 10:00, I wasn't in the mood to go out anymore, and I didn't even have the Couchsurfing guy's number because it was in an email and all the Internet cafes were already closed for the night. On top of that, I already had plans to meet someone else in Olinda tomorrow, so Joao Pessoa turned out to be a complete waste of time for me.

A Five-Star Ride to Ponta Negra

March 7, 2007
Day 525

Picture of houses.

Houses at Ponta Negra.

I got on a local bus this morning to go to Ponta Negra, which is a newer part of Natal that is quickly developing with resorts. On the way there, I passed hotel after five-star hotel along the coast. Each of the hotels had their own private beach, security, restaurants, and bars so the people staying there would never have to leave. No wonder Natal is becoming so popular among the European jet set crowd.

The main beach on Ponta Negra had a huge sand dune called Morro da Careca. There were signs all around it in multiple languages warning all visitors that the dune is under constant surveillance by undercover police officers, and if they attempt to climb the dune, they will end up in jail. Supposedly this protection is in place because the dune is slowly decaying, as is the nature of sand dunes, but I found it strange that so much attention was being given to it while nothing was being done about the muggings and car jackings I constantly heard about. I wondered how many foreigners Brazil has driven insane with these ridiculous policies that lack any logic whatsoever.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Another Brazilian Fortress

March 6, 2007
Day 524

I got into Natal early this morning tired and frustrated that all I had was a terribly-drawn Lonely Planet map of the very center of the city. The bus stations in Brazil are inevitably located outside the downtown area, and although Brazilians try as much as they can to help, they usually have no idea how to deal with a tourist who doesn't speak much of their language. For example, when I ask how to get downtown they'll start talking about landmarks that I've never heard of. I have to explain that while they have lived here all their lives, I've only been here for five minutes. Eventually, they always start asking me the same questions: Where are you from? First time in Brazil? How long are you here for? Are you traveling alone?, etc. I don't normally mind this type of small talk, but when it's 5:30 AM and I barely slept last night and I'm in a strange city carrying a fifty-five-pound backpack with everything I own in it and have no idea where I'm going or where I'm going to stay or what I'm going to do when I get there, I just want some good, simple directions.

After much confusion, I hopped on a bus, still not quite sure where it would take me. I when I saw the ocean thirty minutes later, I figured I'd had enough and got off. I walked around a bit more and discovered that I had landed more or less where I wanted to, found a cheap hotel right next to the ocean, and rewarded myself with a nice, long nap.
Later in the day I discovered that the city's main attraction (besides its beaches) was the old fort. Construction began on the Forte dos Reis Magos on January 6, 1598, the "Day of the Three Wise Men," which is how the fort got its name. It was built on top of the reefs, which meant that construction could only take place at low tide. For this reason, the fortress took thirty years to build. It's main purpose was to keep out invaders, but this failed miserably in 1633 when the Dutch took over. A few decades later the Portuguese took it back for good.

Bus after bus full of tourists passed me as I walked to the fortress, which was a lot further away than it looked due to its large size. The surrounding beach was quite nice, the fortress was sturdy as I expected it to be, and the lady outside even sold me a bottle of water for the normal price after attempting the traditional tourist markup of about 50%. Ah yes, my first day in Natal was a success.

Questions Answered Part VI

Thanks James and Michele for your questions. I'll answer them as best I can.

1. Where are you heading to after South America?

Here are my plans for the near future, in brief:
After Brazil, I plan to ride the "death train" across the pantanal and into Santa Cruz, Bolivia. I know I've been to Bolivia multiple times already, but there's still some more adventurous stuff I want to do there. Yes, Bolivia is that great of a place to visit.

When I'm done with Bolivia, I'll head past Lake Titicaca and into Peru for the fourth time (Peru is another great country to visit). There's a couple highlights there that I still haven't gotten a chance to do (most notably the Huayhuash Circuit).

Next, I'll go north to Ecuador, where I only spent a week last time around. During my time there, I plan to go to the Galapagos Islands. When I get back to the mainland, I'll cross through Colombia and Venezuela and go all the way down to Angel Falls, which will complete a near circle of most of the continent that I started when I went to Roraima in Venezuela last November.

After that I will probably jump over to Cartagena, Colombia and get a boat around the Darien Gap and into Panama. From there, I'm just a hop, skip, and a jump (through eight countries) from the US!
I don't really know how long all of this will take, but I almost certainly won't be back in the US until 2008. Of course, these are just plans. Who knows, maybe I'll end up on a yacht to some remote Pacific island. After this trip, I don't have any major plans other than to get a job and start saving money again.

2. I'm very interested in traveling and want to do pretty much exactly what your doing. How do you even start about doing this?

For starters you need money. I'm sure you're quite young since you're in high school, which is a good thing in this case because you have lots of time. I know it sounds way too simple, but the key to saving money is to spend less than you make. When I graduated from college I had almost nothing, but soon I got a job that paid good money. Saving was no problem for me because my lifestyle was simple so I didn't spend much. When I thought I had enough money to take a few years off, I quit.

If you want to go to college, you'll probably have to put off traveling for awhile (unless you study abroad - an excellent option), but you should be rewarded when you graduate with a higher-paying job than you would have had if you didn't go. Either way, eventually you'll have a job and will be able to start saving.

Your friends will be in the same situation as you, but they'll probably start buying big houses, fancy cars, expensive clothing, etc, but if long-term travel is really your goal, you shouldn't do any of this (one possible exception is buying a house - maybe). Don't go into debt, start putting aside whatever money you can, and eventually you'll have enough to go. While you're doing this, doing some research will help keep you motivated to save.

3. Did you just buy a ticket, fly down there, and that was that?

Pretty much, yes. But looking back, I wish I would've done a little more research on some specific destinations. For the most part, I got my timing right by hitting Patagonia in the summer, but since then I've done some major backtracking that has cost me time and money. The reason I didn't do any research was because I wanted to be spontaneous, but I guess there has to be a balance between spontaneity and knowing where you're going. You should at least try to get to your destinations at the right seasons.

The good thing is that if you don't know much about where you're going until you get there, you'll probably meet a lot of people who will give you good info once you get started. Everywhere I go, the locals and other backpackers tell me where they've been and what's good to see and do there. This is a better source of knowledge than any book can give you.

4. I'm very interested in Africa-do you suggest that to be a good place to travel around?

I think anywhere is a good place to travel around. I haven't been to Africa, but I've met a lot of people who have gone there and enjoyed it. Many people rave about countries like South Africa, Madagascar, Kenya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt just to name a few. I recently met a guy from Gabon and his surfing photos looked amazing. It will be a good idea to learn some French if you want to go there. French is widely spoken in 29 countries in Africa.

A lot of people will tell you that Africa is too dangerous, and of course there are some countries that are so war-torn you definitely shouldn't visit them (Sudan, for example). The problem I have with taking other peoples' advice about visiting another country is that in most cases, that person has never actually been there. Almost everyone at home told me South America was dangerous, yet most of those people have never even left the US. Most of the places I've visited have been very safe, and even the more dangerous ones can be safe as long as you use your head. To figure out where exactly you want to go in Africa (after all, the continent has over fifty countries), I'd start reading travel books and web sites based on African travel.

Another option if you really want to go to Africa but don't have money is to join the Peace Corps. It's a big commitment, but I've met many workers who have enjoyed it. And after all, Africa probably needs more help than any other region of the world.

Email me if you have more questions. Considering the amount of time I've spent traveling, I obviously think it's a good thing, and am willing to help you reach your travel goals as well.

Sunrise in Canoa Quebrada

March 5, 2007
Day 523

Picture of boat.

A fishing boat.

Somehow I managed to drag myself out of bed for sunrise this morning. I guess I just convinced myself that I'd be able to sleep all day when it was too hot to go outside anyway. The sun came up early though: 5:30 AM. There's no daylight savings in this part of the country, and it is almost as far east as you can go in South America (this part of Brazil is actually closer to Africa than the other side of the country), so the sun rises and sets early year-round here. I passed a few of the partygoers from last night on their way back to their hotels after being scared by the glow of dawn. Too bad for them because they missed a spectacular sunrise.

I had to spend most of my afternoon sleeping/waiting because the bus didn't leave for natal until 11:00 PM. The bus there takes six hours, which is about the worst amount of time possible because it's too long for me to want to do in the day but too short to get enough sleep at night. On top of that, I had to wait an extra 2.5 hours because the last van to Aracati, the small town next to Canoa Quebrada, left at 8:30. By the time the bus showed up, I was already totally exhausted.

A Brazilian Luau

March 4, 2007
Day 522

Picture of guy.

A guy looking at the Canoa Quebrada beach.

I went down to the beach early today before it got too hot to set foot outside. The coastline was seemingly endless with perfect blue waters and almost no people enjoying it. The moon-and-star symbol of Canoa Quebrada had been etched into the cliffs along the shore in many places. It may sound sac-religious, but I actually think it was a more beautiful beach than Jericoacoara.

I watched the sunset this afternoon at 5:30 (it just keeps getting earlier), but it wasn't so spectacular because it set behind the town as is normal in Brazil. I also wanted to watch the full moon coming up but my rudimentary calculation I made a few days ago of "The moon is almost full, I bet in a few days I'll be able to see the full moon coming up at sunsets" must have been slightly off because I didn't see it until a few hours later. And I thought I had the lunar cycle figured out from being outside so much.

I found out from a vacationing guy from Sao Paulo in my hotel that there would be a luau on the beach tonight, so I decided to check it out. It wasn't very Hawaiian, but there were a bunch of people drinking and dancing on the sand. I spent the rest of the night laying in the sand, watching the moon pass overhead, and watching the tide come in (another cycle I'm busily trying to figure out).

The photo album for this entry is here.

On to Canoa Quebrada

March 3, 2007
Day 521

Marcelo, Marina, and I went to a small town near Fortaleza this morning. Marcelo used to go there on the weekends, and he reminisced about how he used to drive his jeep over the dunes with his friends. We visited a lake which a lot of people used to visit, but now prices have gotten so far out of hand, almost nobody will go there anymore. For example, renting a jetski for ten minutes costs $30. If you wanted to rent it for the day, you might as well buy a new one!

Before I left Fortaleza, I had lunch at Marcelo's. We had feshuada, a black bean sauce mixed with pork that's popular in this region, along with a delicious beef platter. Marcelo's chef has been working for the family since before he was born, so she really knows how to cook.

After saying goodbye to Marcelo and Marina, I took a bus a few hours south to Aracati, then went in a van to a small beach town called Canoa Quebrada. A room in a nice hotel cost the same amount as camping in Jericoacoara, and the town seemed quite prosperous with a pedestrian walkway in the center that was full of restaurants and bars.

One Last Night out in Fortaleza

March 2, 2007
Day 520

Picture of people.

Me, Marcelo, and Daniela.

Most of my day today was spent cleaning my tent, mattress, and clothes, and putting together the hundreds of pictures and dozens of blog entries I had fallen so far behind on writing.

I went out one last time tonight with Daniela, Marcelo, and Marina. We had a great time once again and they really made my stay in Fortaleza worthwhile.