Monthly Archives: April 2007

Relaxing in Santa Cruz

April 26-29, 2007
Day 575-578

I had been doing a lot of traveling lately, so I decided to relax for a few days once I got to Santa Cruz. The city really brings back memories from when I was here last year. There's the fried chicken restaurant where a Japanese guy tried selling me blinking frogs, the crooked money-changing men in the central plaza, the pretty women selling phone cards one block away, the chola women selling fresh squeezed orange juice all over the place for a quarter a cup, the large amount of SUVs that are way too expensive to be owned by Bolivians, and the delicious vegetarian restaurant that has the Ten Commandments prominently painted on the walls.

While in Santa Cruz, I did a lot of boring but necessary tasks: I got permission to stay in Bolivia for ninety days from the immigration office, bought some cold weather clothes for when I go to the mountains, got my hiking boots (which were falling apart) fixed, got my clothes machine washed for the first time in months, and relaxed and got re-energized for the next segment of my trip.

The Death Train Needs a New Name

April 24-25, 2007
Day 573-574

Confusion was the theme of the day. The guy who was supposed to give me my train ticket didn't show up on time. I somewhat expected this, so I walked around looking for a supermarket to buy some snacks for the train ride. When I got back to the hotel, the ticket guy's friend was there with my ticket. He wondered if I had gotten my exit stamp yet. I told him no because I had to make sure I got my train ticket first. Immigration was about to close, though, so I had to run to the bus station to get my stamp. This all could have been avoided if I had just gone to the bus station in the first place because the train ticket guy's office was located there. Of course he never told me this last night. The guy's friend said he had too many girls on his mind, and they were clogging up his brain. Figures.

With my train ticket and exit stamp, all I had to do was cross the border and find the train. That was easier said than done, too, because the city bus that goes to the border had just left. I had to wait forty-five minutes in the stifling mid-afternoon heat for the next bus to come. Luckily I left extra early because everyone I asked told me the train left at different times. On top of that, I still wasn't even sure there would be a train today because of the strike.

Getting into Bolivia was easy enough. I only got thirty days in the country, as is Bolivia's usual custom, but at least I didn't need to buy a visa. I heard rumors that Bolivia was going to require visas for Americans starting in March, but I guess they still haven't gotten around to it. It now seems like the requirement might be put off until June, but one can never be sure. The only thing I am sure of is that I could still enter the country for free for now.

Once across the border, I shared a cab to the train station with two Israelis. We had agreed on a price beforehand, but then the driver looked at our train tickets and told us we had to go to the second train station. None of us was even aware that there was a second station, but we had no way of knowing what was right at that point. The driver wanted to charge us double because the second station was 27 K's away. We talked him down a lot, but still had to pay more than our first price. The actual distance was more like 10 K's, so we already felt cheated.

When we got to the second station, it was almost empty. The train employees said that this was because the train wasn't coming for a couple more hours, but we could go back to the first station if we wanted to board it right away. So of course the taxi driver lied to us and already was long gone. We only lost about eighty cents each, though, so if that's the worst thing that happens to me in Bolivia I guess I'm doing alright.

In the station, little kids were walking around selling lemonade to support their families, not just for economic education. Independent workers were busy carrying peoples' luggage onto the train for tip money. Women walked around selling empanadas for twelve cents. Even just across the Brazilian border, it was obvious that I was back in Bolivia.

When the train finally did show up, it was much nicer than I had expected. The cars were set up like buses, with two seats on each side and an isle down the middle. The two TVs in my car were used to play some stupid movie with no dialog, nonstop screaming, and three songs constantly being played at once. Nobody on the train seemed bothered by this horrible noise.

The Death Train got its nickname because 100 years ago, a lot of people died on the train when it broke down in the sweltering heat with no access to water. My book says that it's a lot safer now, but you should still bring insect repellent because of the "zillions" of mosquitoes that make their way onto the train during the constant unexplained stops. However, the only time we stopped was at small towns to pick up new passengers, and there weren't any mosquitoes in site because of the sealed, air-conditioned cabins. The Death Train was a little bumpy, but not nearly as deadly as its nickname would suggest. The only problem was that it went at night, so I missed out on seeing the scenery of Bolivia's pantanal.

One More Brazilian Bus Ride

April 23, 2007
Day 572

I got another bus that took most of the day to Corumba. The bus took me right through the vast wetland area known as the Pantanal. It was a beautiful ride being in the middle of nowhere after spending the last few weeks in the city, and it was capped off by a spectacular sunset.

Corumba is on the Rio Paraguai, which borders Bolivia. The best way to get into Bolivia from here is the "Death Train," which goes to Santa Cruz. As soon as I got to town I found out that in typical Bolivian fashion the Death Train employees have been on strike, and the train has been canceled the last few days. Supposedly the train will go tomorrow, but after that it looks like it might be halted for a few more days.

The main way to get tickets for the Death Train is to cross the border to Bolivia in the morning, buy a ticket for the afternoon train, then come back to Brazil before heading out for good. However, because of the strikes, that would mean getting up at 5:00 AM, waiting in line for hours, and then maybe getting a ticket if I got lucky and it wasn't sold out yet.

I decided to opt for a somewhat safer route. A guy at one of the travel agencies in town will do all of the dirty work for me and claims that the train company guarantees him a certain amount of seats, so I should get to go tomorrow for sure. His commission is steep, but I'm more concerned that he's going to take off with my money and that of the other unsuspecting backpackers and hide out in Bolivia a la Butch Cassidy. I feel like I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place, but I'll just have to wait until tomorrow to see what happens.

Long Bus to Campo Grande

April 22, 2007
Day 571

I rode a bus all night and most of the day to Campo Grande, a small city in Brazil's interior. I wanted to continue to my next destination right away, but the bus ride was too exhausting, so I stayed overnight one night.

Hanging out in Sao Paulo

April 20-21, 2007
Day 569-570

I spent a couple more days in Sao Paulo, mainly meeting people at my hostel, getting another traditional Paulista lunch with Vivi and Silvia, and going to the MASP, which is a museum containing the biggest collection of western art in South America. There's not a lot of touristy stuff to do in the city, but I enjoyed spending some time here. It's huge, but the area I stayed in was pretty clean, safe, and quiet. The city also has a different vibe to it than Rio. Cariocas love their beaches, but it's business as usual for Paulistas.


April 19, 2007
Day 568

I met Silvia at her office today. She's a biologist, so I got to see the labs she works in. It was quite interesting for me to see rat hearts being embedded in wax, sliced up, and analyzed for diabetes research.

Later I went to a big park with many exhibition halls. One of the halls had an exhibit called “Bodies." I think it's pretty famous in the US now too. The exhibit was full of preserved human corpses showing various anatomical regions of organs, tissues, and bones. Some of them were done quite creatively like the guy holding his own flowing guts in his folded arms like it was a Thanksgiving cornucopia. At first I didn't think I could handle it because these were real dead people on display, but eventually I got used to it and it became...uh...educational.

One Massive City

April 18, 2007
Day 567

Picture of Sao Paulo.

Central Sao Paulo.

I took the bus into downtown Sao Paulo today. I thought Rio de Janeiro was a huge city but Sao Paulo is twice as big. Everywhere I walked, there were masses of people hurrying to get somewhere. Unlike Rio, Sao Paulo doesn't have any mountains, oceanfront, or forests within the city, so it's just a huge mass of city that never seems to end. Just to see how big the city really was, I went to the Banesco building, a thirty-five story office tower in the middle of the city that has an observation deck at the top. From there I could see buildings all the way to the horizon. There were no huge skyscrapers in the center like there are in big American cities, but nevertheless the tall buildings never seemed to end.

Tonight I met up with Vivi and her friend Silvia to watch some soccer on TV. One of the teams from Sao Paulo is in the South American championships and was playing a huge game in Peru. However, the crowd at the stadium was pretty sparse. I guess Brazil is just too good for any other fans to pay much attention to their own teams. Sao Paulo ended up crushing the other team, 1-0.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Brazilian Sushi

April 17, 2007
Day 566

Today I took the bus to Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America. A bus leaves from Rio to Sao Paulo every fifteen minutes, so it was pretty easy to find one. The drive was mostly populated with small cities constantly dotting the landscape. However, there were a few small pockets of Atlantic rain forest that haven't been cut down yet.

When I got to the main bus terminal, I was delighted to find out that it connected directly to the metro. I jumped on a train and was in the center of the city a few minutes later. I found a hostel made out of an old mansion near Avenida Paulista, the most famous street in the city. The area was surprisingly quiet, despite being in the middle of a huge city.

Tonight I met Vivi, of friend of Francisco's from Sao Paulo. I had heard that the best thing to do in the city was eat, and tonight I wasn't disappointed. Vivi took me to a sushi restaurant in an area with lots of descendants of Japanese immigrants. The food was delicious and a nice change from the beans and rice I had been eating so much of lately. When the restaurant was going to close, the waitress apologized excessively for making us leave in true Japanese cultural form. It was an interesting evening.

Hanging out in Rio

April 15-16, 2007
Day 564-565

I spent my last days in Rio on the beaches of Leblon and Ipanema. Francisco has many friends and family members in Rio, so he introduced me to a bunch of them. He was a gracious host and I appreciate him letting me stay at his plays while I visited the Cidade Marvelosa.

Downtown Rio

April 14, 2007
Day 563

The subway in Rio is meant to be a great way to get around, but the problem is that it only covers a small portion of the city. Leblon is far away from where the subway line ends, so until today I had never gotten a chance to use it. However, today I wanted to see the center of the city, so I decided to give it a try. Even though there isn't a subway line in Leblon, there is a convenient "Metro Bus" that takes passengers directly to the station and includes a ticket to ride the train. It turned out to be much faster than taking the bus. I made it to the downtown area in only about half an hour, whereas it may have taken two hours in a bus last night.

Downtown is where all of the major business happens in Rio. However, because it was Saturday, it was almost deserted. Lots of guys were selling bootleg CDs and DVDs and lots of other junk in the streets, but the office buildings were all closed. The place seemed very dirty to me, but that's probably just because a cleanup crew was uprooting all of the garbage that had been discarded during the week. On Mondays, I bet the area is bustling and clean.

One thing that was open was the naval museum. It had a small free section where I could take pictures of the busts and paintings of old naval leaders, but to see the rest of it I had to pay and leave my camera behind. The pay section of the museum was large and interesting with models of Brazilian ships that have been used from the 1600's till today. Everything was written in Portuguese, though, so I had to settle for visual stimulation and save the intellectual stuff for later.

The photo album for this entry is here.