September 10, 2008

Por Fim

OK, for all two of you who have been coming to this site wondering "Where's Pedro?", I am finally getting around to an update after a ridiculously long absence. After wandering around Mexico for almost two years (perhaps I will some day get around to posting some of the highlights of that journey), I have taken the leap and flown to Brazil for a lap around South America. I've been here since the first of August and all I can say is Wow!!! I can't believe it's taken me so long to get down here. I've only really been to two places so far and I've already fallen in love with Brazil. It's such an amazing place.

I flew into Manaus, which is a city of 2 million people in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. It's a bit overwhelming at first. From the center of the city, you'd never know you're in the middle of a rainforest. It is crowded, lots of traffic, polluted, everything that comes with a big city. A 10 minute walk, however, brings you to the port, which is like the main highway through the Amazon. It is also where the city's main market is located. So it's obviously quite busy there but you start to get a sense of the vast jungle and immense waterway that surrounds the city.

I have been travelling off and on with Mali, the Mexican woman that rented me the last apartment I stayed in Mexico and ran the hostel that was attached to it. It's been kind of a mixed blessing. She's the one that got me to come to Brazil in the first place, for which I am ever grateful. She mentioned that she was planning to come to Brazil and invited me along. I said that I've always wanted to come to Brazil and figured it would be great to have a travelling companion. Unfortunately, our compatibility has proven to be less than ideal since then, to the point where she actually kicked me out of her place when my rent was up a week before we left for Brazil. We have made peace somewhat since then but our differences flare up again every so often. It's kind of like being in a relationship without many of the benefits. She is an amazing person and a very talented artist (which she is trying to use to help fund her travels through Brazil) and I wish her the best of luck but we were obviously not made to travel together. Fortunately, it seems like it should be easy to pick up travel companions whenever I want along the way.

One of the big shocks of coming to Brazil has been how expensive it is here. I kind of assumed it would be relatively on par with Mexico, maybe a little more expensive. But it is somewhere on the magnitude of 2 to 3 times more expensive. Even shopping in the supermarket does not necessarily save money. Fortunately, I have saved up a fair amount for travelling and Chase Manhattan Bank has unwittingly contributed to the cause as well. Nevertheless, to see all that I want to see in Brazil is going to put a much bigger dent into those savings than I had originally planned on but I'm pretty certain that it will be well worth it. I can always try and settle down somewhere and try to get some more work to replenish the savings again but a potential wrinkle in that plan is that technically I can only stay for a maximum of 6 months on my tourist visa here in Brazil. So perhaps I will try to cover as much as possible of Brazil in those 6 months and then try to some work in a neighboring country that will hopefully be a bit easier on the pocketbook and have more flexible visa regulations.

Another fairly major concern is the level of crime. My computer and all of the associated gadgetry I have adds quite a bit of bulk to my luggage and I am wary it makes me an easy target for theft. I have already heard many stories of people getting robbed. Thus far it has been fairly carefree but I think that once I get to the coast it will be another story. I already talked to someone that was robbed in the market in the next city I am heading to - Belem. It was early in the morning and she said she should have known better but someone just walked up to her and flashed her a machete and she handed over her purse - just like that. It seems that they can smell when a tourist is where they shouldn't be. Obviously I'm going to avoid walking around with my valuables as much as possible but I still need to get from one place to the other. I have been thinking that perhaps I will try and choose some home bases to use to stash my computer and stuff and then travel back and forth from those bases. One thing that should be helpful in accomplishing that strategy is my use of the CouchSurfing and HospitalityClub websites. These are websites where people post their profile and offer to put travellers up free of charge in their homes. I have already used these sites to hook up with other travellers in Mexico and back in the United States and have met quite a few really nice people that way. Hopefully I might be able to stash things with kind souls from those sites along the way. Another thing I have considered is sending my valuables ahead using the mail or some sort of messenger service but I am not so sure how well this strategy will work as I'm a bit skeptical about the cost and reliability of doing this. Obviously I'd prefer to send as much of my heavier belongings as possible this way but that will undoubtedly drive up the price as well. Still it's worth checking into.

So I haven't really gotten into what's enamored me of this country yet. One thing that really helped to open my eyes to the beauty here is the Ayahuasca ceremonies I have participated in here in a place called Alter do Chao. It is a small town 32 kilometers from a port town that is kind of a pit stop for riverboat journeys from Manaus to the coast. The riverboat journeys are quite an experience on their own. They last for several days cruising down the Amazon River and everyone sleeps jammed together ridiculously close in their hammocks, sometimes one on top of another. I came with a few guys that I met at the hostel in Manaus and stayed for one night in Alter do Chao. It was really nice and tranquil and relaxing but the Aussie guy I was with was ready to move on after just a day so I figured I'd join him. But then on the bus back to Santarem I overheard a Brazilian guy talking with another tourist and mention Couchsurfing. So I went to the internet in Santarem and looked him up. Sure enough, there he was, a guy called Indios, and he was part of this message group called Ayahuasca. I dug a bit further and discovered that they did these ceremonies every weekend in Alter do Chao. My curiousity was piqued so I decided to turn around and head back to Alter do Chao to check it out.

Ayahuasca is a strong hallucinogenic tea brewed from two different plants that grow in the Amazon. There is a long history of shamen in the Amazon river basin using the tea for spiritual and religious ceremonies. The place here in Alter do Chao that does it is called ComunIndios and kind of sees itself as an alternative living community. They do the ceremonies every Saturday. The tea that they make there is actually more like a syrup, slightly bitter tasting, but not all that bad. Unfortunately, the bodies of most people do not exactly agree and it causes nausea and many people vomit. Once the effects kick in, however, the side effects are largely forgotten by most. The effects vary greatly depending on the person and some people do not feel anything at all the first time. For me, however, the effects started within half an hour and included seeing swirling colors, a feeling of lightness, and just feeling very connected, both with the people around as well as with the nature. My thoughts wandered greatly from my relationships with people to all the travels and adventures I've had so far. But through it all was a feeling of lightness and I was actually laughing like a madman for most of the time.

The participants were generally about a 50/50 mix of tourists and Brazilians and that was also very nice. Although there still remains a large language barrier for me, it was nice to participate with the locals, and one way or another we managed to communicate, and everyone seemed to be supernice and remarkable in their own ways. One other thing that really blew me away was the music - throughout the experience they had music playing over the soundsystem. At first, I was a bit wary about that, because it seemed to be a bit new agey and I'm very particular about my music especially in circumstances like that. But once I got into it, the music was really beautiful. And then later on, the guy Indios and several others started playing along on drums and various instruments. One was like a clay vase that made amazing sounds like water dropping. Another was a little mouth harp kind of instrument, similar to a jew's harp but just one straight piece of metal. The sounds that he could make come out of it were just mind-blowing, though. I've never seen anything like it. I later found out that much of the music being played was actually created by the family that runs the community and I purchased several of their CDs afterwards.

That's another thing that's blown me away so far, the music. I knew that the music here would be great and was one of the main motivating factors for me to come but to actually experience the depth and breadth of the amazing music here is another story entirely. It seems that for many of the people here, the music is just in their blood and almost taken for granted. When I asked one guy playing drums how long he's been playing for, he just shrugged as if duh, all of his life, of course. And everyone seems to know lots of songs that they all sing along with. And of course, the language itself is almost like a song, the way they speak.

The amazing part, too, is that there's so many places I look forward to going to. After speaking with other travellers and the Brazilians themselves, it seems like there's so many incredible places to visit, each one more amazing. So I've got lots to look forward to. I'll do my best to keep y'all posted but it's very difficult to convey in words or even pictures the beauty of this place. I'll do my best to keep it going, though. Stay tuned.

Posted by Pedro at September 10, 2008 04:39 AM | TrackBack