Monday, July 30, 2007

Knock knock to brazil

We made it into venezuala two days ago and the change has been big. Different landscape, different attitudes, perfect roads and cheap gas!

It is amazing what 10 cents per gallon for 95 octane unleaded plus some twisty curves can do for ones inner motorcycling psyche.

We are in BOLIVAR about to take a 3 day trek to Angel Falls the biggest (by height) waterfall in the world. Named for johnny angel the american gold prospector who got his plane stuck on the top of the tepuis there.

Definitely a second rate police state here with checkpoints all over checking our passports, and even having to give our passport number to buy a $5 lunch with cash.

Did I mention the ten cent per gallon gas????
Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Back to the north

We passed the meridian yesterday stopping for a photo. The first time our bikes had been north of the equator in many months.
It was a day of firsts. First sloth we saw on the road, first time we saw five people on a 125 motorcycle (twice!), and in Boa Vista first time I saw a woman walking around naked from the waist down in public.
The highway was so bad with potholes that they dislodged by backpack and handlebars. My bars kept getting closer and closer to the ground until I finally had to start humming the War song "lowrider" to myself and hoping the bars wouldn't loosen to the point of flapping freely. I would have fixed them but the mounting bolts are a reverse six sided star bolt, the only ones on the bike and I knew I didn't have the socket.
An extremely friendly crew at the honda shop not only straightened me out, but found us a discounted hotel as well!

On to vevezuela today, hoping to run into boston city councilor felix arroyo who spends more time there than he does chairing his own committees.
Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Friday, July 27, 2007

Miles and milestones.

Today was another milestone day for us as we broke our previous one-day record and rode over 480 miles to get from Manaus to Boa Vista.

The plan had been to break this ride up into two days, starting yesterday, but yesterday didn't go quite as planned. You see, after taking care of some business in the morning and having a hearty luncha, we left Manaus ready to drive some 150 miles or so to the edge of a Waimiri indian reserve that can only be crossed between 6am and 6pm. We would get there and camp out near by, wake up early and ride the rest of the way to Boa Vista.

But, unbeknownst to us we failed to make a crucial (and unmarked) left turn right as we left the city limits of Manaus and as a result we ended up driving about 100 miles west, when we were supposed to have been heading north. We only realized our mistake when we stopped at a gas station in a nowhere tiny town and the attendant, a woman in her sixties dressed in a full skirt and blouse with a face lined and wrinkled like a tree bark, one line for every day of hard work she has endured. She took one look at us and decided we must be lost because we just looked so out of place and travelers like us just don't happen to visit this part of the world. So she asked us where we were headed, I said Boa Vista thinking that she would tell us that we were not far, but instead she said, "ah si, va par la" pointing in the same direction we had just come from. When I told Kevin what the wise lady had said, he said "no, she that's not right" and he turned to her, pointed to the same road (going in the opposite direction) and said "Boa Vista?!" as if to correct her or change her mind, and she looked right back at him and said "NO, Boa Vista va par la" and with that she made her point. We had no option other than to turn our dazed and confused selves around and retrace our ride on the road back to Manaus, and to make matters worse we were now in a race against the sunset!

We rode fast and furious for a couple of hours until it finally got dark. Then we slowed down the pace considerably for the sake of safety. We finally made it back to Manaus around 7:30pm. The only hotel visible for miles was a sexy time motel so we elected to stay there. We went to have dinner at a churrasqueria near by, wanting to have a delicious steak dinner but alas, the churrasqueria had no steak so we ate the local specialty: "franginho de leite", a deliciously roasted whole young chicken. After dinner we went back to our motel and turned in for the evening wanting to erase this wasted riding day from our memories and knowing that the next day would be a challenging and long one.

Today's milestone ride called to mind other milestones that have occurred in recent weeks. First, I have stopped wearing my thick leather riding pants every day. Because I have not fallen or dropped my bike the whole time we've been in Brazil, I made the executive decision to either wear or not wear my pants according to the weather and the ride for the day. Kevin protested at first, saying that if anything happens to me he will be held responsible by my mother (and he's right), but he agreed that my riding has improved greatly and therefore I should be able to make this decision. In fact, I do feel that my riding has improved quite a bit. I no longer fear making u-turns, I can comfortably start and stop from inclines, my heart doesn't race when I see a dirt road or a road full of pot-holes, and as I mentioned before, I have not dropped my bike in over two months. I am getting more and more pure joy out of getting on my bike each day and riding as I feel that my bike and I are finally becoming partners instead of adversaries.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

6 Days on the Amazon River

(Note: There are a bunch more pictures of the Amazon below this article, so please scroll down!)

We left Belem on the Rondonia, a 200 or so foot steel catamaran in pretty blue and white. We splurged on a private cabin, as it was only about 50 dollars more apiece than a hammock on the lower deck, open to the air with public bath. It proved to be the right choice, as long hours watching movies, reading and working on the computer in the cooler climes of the double bed gave ample empirical evidence of a wise decision.

We were joined on the boat by our American friend Dave who has been traveling solo 2.5 years south of the border on his Suzuki V-Strom who also opted for a cabin, even negotiating a better rate than we did. Another advantage of the cabins is a private dining room serving slightly better fare, for example fresh fruit in the morning as opposed to a piece of bread and coffee for the hoi polloi.

Our last day in Belem was spent doing typical Brazilian things. We showed up at 9 a.m. as instructed, to put our motos on the boat for the 6 p.m. launch. We waited around 3 hours, anxiously looking at our watches as we were due at our friends house for a 12:30 goodbye luch. Our local friend showed up and greased the way with a $10 dollar bribe of the man in charge of loading our boat, and we rode them up and in to the hold, to the anointed place. The ramp was made of a beautiful piece of wood worth a couple hundred dollars at least in the USA. It was hardwood, perhaps mahogany, about 20 feet long, 2 inches thick and about 14 inches wide with nary a knot in sight on either of the two twin boards. Our boarding was followed by a mammoth longshoreman of girth to rival the largest of the Amazon trees driving a mini car up the same ramps. At the precipice the front wheels dangled over the front lip of the board while the car got caught up with the angle and weight of the human cannonball. The engine was gunned, a push was given and the car lurched forward and as the rear wheels left the ramp the bumper caught the wood and a loud crunch was heard, plastic pieces split in various directions, and the gazes of the boat workers did the same all pretending not to have seen anything.
What we saw convinced us not to let others load, move or touch our bikes any more than possible.

We headed off to a fantastic home cooked lunch, where we were joined by our hosts, their grandson who is in medical school and Dave. Discussions of medical treatments in England, USA and Brazil prevailed, along with discussions with the problems and advantagages of our host country. After receiving presents of Caipirinha glasses and decks of cards for the journey, we set off back towards the boat, enjoying a street side ice cream cone to offset the heavy heat.

We stopped at the Theatro de Paz, the “Theater of Peace” built in the 1880’s after the conclusion of the war with Paraguay and which had recently undergone a gorgeous, respectful renovation. It was a large Opera house, with 4 balcony tiers, gorgeous paintings on the ceilings and walls, in an oval shape. The building had huge anterooms outside on both side for smoking. They were rectangularly shaped, covered as inside the footprint of the building with 25 foot marble columns supporting the roof structure. However, the most magnificent part of the gorgeous building was the ballroom between the front balcony overlooking the adjoining park and the main theater floor. The ballroom was the width of the building and about 40 feet deep with 3 story ceilings halved by a continuous balcony overlooking the dancing floor. And what a floor it was! Divided into three sections all of native hardwoods, separated by unique inlaid borders. The middle of the floors obtained a three dimensional affect of overlapping squares by using dark and light woods, angles and a lighter shaded brown wood that have the affect of a shadow where two squares would overlap. Magnificent thought and workmanship! The two side floors alternated dark and light boards in angled striped patterns that mirrored each other, appropriately reflected in gilded French mirrors of height and width appropriate to such a room on each of the walls not divided by glass doors leading in or out of the building. The front deck was large and sunsplashed, lit in the evenings by corner statues of the female personifications of the sun and the moon holding appropriate torches. This was all overseen by the busts 15 feet up the main wall of the buildings of the four Gods of Theater: Tragedy, Comedy, Music and Poetry.

All and all, it was one of the most beautiful buildings, and certainly had the most beautiful floors, of the entire trip so far. One is often tempted to say in such instances that “they don’t build them like this anymore” or that “no one can afford to build like this anymore” but it simply isn’t true. This building was a poignant reminder of what peoples and societies can do when they are not at war. In this case as soon as the War with Paraguay was over they had the money to build this beautiful building. What could the USA or the world build, if it wasn’t spending a billion dollars a day in Iraq? It is a question that haunts this trip as the low value of the US dollar is a constant reminder that the world does not have much confidence monetarily in a country that gets involved in foreign wars financed by debt for unspoken reasons and more dubious benefit.

We walked back to the boat, bought some $1 DVD’s and last minute provisions to make it to the boat by the 6 pm scheduled launch time. We discovered the lounge area infested with a swarm of African Bees who had been housed in a speaker. They used the same tactic was had learned in Panama of turning off the lights to calm them. An hour or so later the beekeepers arrived with full suits, flaming torches and spray killer. Thousands died in a matter of minutes, and just like that the crisis was over, the music and beer again started flowing. The finish to our Brazilian day of delay, bribery, hospitality, splendor, bees and heat was sitting around for hours waiting for the boat to leave. The Captain told us that he was waiting for the tide to be high enough but this seemed to be the typical white lie told to overly inquisitive tourists, when after loading the products of the last truck onto the ferry, we set off at 11 pm despite the lowest waters of the day.

The next morning we woke, refreshed and ready for what would be our standard fare of watermelon and papaya or pineapple, with bread, cheese and meat product one is best not to inspect too closely. Later in the morning we got our first glimpse of Amazon life and custom. Children as young as 4 or 5 up to teenagers, sometimes with their mothers, would row out to our ferry in dilapidated canoes of dugout tree trunks and the passengers would throw them gifts wrapped in plastic supermarket bags. Food, toys and clothes were thrown down to waving hands; the givers and receivers knowing nothing of each other, never to meet, just a show of generosity of those better off to those not as fortunate with no contact with the outside world other than these passing mammoth ships and an occasional provision boat. What is amazing is that a citizen of the G-8 would never guess after looking upon those in the lower decks, who seem to have their life possessions in 3 or 4 boxes, as the type to think ahead to buy things for strangers. But such is the way of life in Brazil where kindness to ones fellow man is a way of life.

This went on for a couple hours at least as we wound through the narrow channels that would lead to the main Amazon River. Narrow is really not a correct adjective, as the river was around a quarter mile wide during this part of the journey, but it paled to the miles wide river upstream. There was a kid of about 6 with his dog, expertly rowing; pairs of sisters rowing and bailing to get close to the ship; or teams of 4, mother with small child waving and using the cute factor while two older siblings would propel and expel all working together in hope of some unknown goodie. The most adventurous boys would row right up to the boat and with an ingenious but simple metal hook with rope through it would attach to the tires on the side of the boat and surf along for fun in our wake. Some wouldn’t quite make it and would miss the boat and even capsize behind us, never to their peril, just the wet consequence of not completing the task. Later down the river vendors would use this same hook and rope tactic to sell fish, limes, and other things such as aripa a grainy, thick Brazilian drink made from a local fruit.

We fell into the routine over the next several days. Breakfast at 7:30, sleeping, reading and lounging till lunch which is the main meal of the day, made up of rice, beans, and usually a meat dish occasionally with salad which was repeated at dinner around 6 pm. The food was reasonable if not original. In the afternoon we would sit on the deck for awhile observing the muddy Amazon and the trees and flora on either side passing by around 6 mph. The boat would usually stay closer to one side or the other as the roiling current is strongest in the middle, often just 100 yards away which would afford a good opportunity to view the unending jungle.

Every so often a house on stilts would appear made of simple wooden planks just onshore, or perhaps on a bay or “igaripe” which are the streams that cut through the land. It seemed about half were occupied and as many more abandoned. The people lived from the river and the fruits of the forest. We would see them in their leaky canoes, checking lines or putting out nets for the daily catch.

What was most surprising about our trip was the lack of traffic on the river. We would go long stretches without seeing another vessel, even tiny fishing skiffs. We would only pass a few barges with containers a day, and a handful of smaller passenger vessels. This is truly an untapped part of the world, incredible for the potential of the area and its natural resources.

We stopped in a few nondescript ports such as Santarem and Pintiras. We would just get off long enough to buy some ice cream and snacks, if anything, as the heat and unimpressive buildings would diminish hopes for more thorough exploration. The time would be passed by reading, movies, limited time sunning or exercising on the upper deck where the heat and sun were delightful but strong. I learned and played dominoes with the local men and boys, and a quick game of chess was a one-timer after the best of the locals was destroyed in the first match. Of the foreigners on the trip, I was the only one who really spent the time to talk and play with the locals. As always, barriors are broken without words, smiles abound and bonds are made between people, countries and cultures. Amazing what a simple game of dominoes can do! The children are so inquisitive when hearing me speak in English, and often get a look of wonder on their face before asking me questions in Portuguese! They kept asking me to play with them, and how could I refuse? The crew was very friendly, getting us a bucket of ice after dinner so we could stir up some home made Caipirinha’s….Delicious!

We spent some time with some English backpackers on their way to Columbia, trading stories and MP3 music collections with a Texas hold’em tournament on the final night. Yours truly won the tournament played with the high stakes of match sticks and bon bons. Afternoons and evenings in the open air lounge were filled with Brazilian music either from cd, dvd or with a live singer on keyboard. They were all equal parts loud and bad, and served to limit ones time in the public spaces.

I took the time to read a book, Voyage Up the River Amazon, written in 1846 by an American Naturalist from New York, W.H. Edwards. I was struck by how little had changed in 150 years, other than the increase of people in the cities and the addition of motorized river traffic. In fact it almost seems as if the number of farms and sitio’s has decreased on the river as he describes it. Most interesting is his synopsis of what is keeping the Amazon from becoming the economic powerhouse it should be: wrong taxation especially import and export fees and weak government. Those issues are still at the forefront today, as Brazil can be very expensive despite abundance of materials and labor. Things should be cheap but people use the opportunity of foreign travel or travelers to buy them basics such as tennis shoes. Why start an orange or banana plantation here, despite the cheap land and cheap labor, and be taxed to the point where your product is as expensive as something grown on the coast of Central America or California?

In a couple of the ports, around sunset, we were lucky enough to catch fresh water porpoises frolicking about, chasing fish, swimming upside down and generally seeming to enjoy life to the fullest. Most of the wildlife we observed was birds of all feathers, from Kingfisher nests on the side of red cliffs, hawks riding the warm winds, to tiny multi colored birds skimming the water for food in swirling flocks. Almost all of the trees are green, without flowers, with the occasional dead tree or the stark species that drops all its leaves and leaves behind its drooping red fruit for the birds and insects.

We are now almost to Manaus where the dark Rio Negro meets the muddy Rio Solimoes
to form the Amazon. The two rivers run side by side in the same channel for 6 miles, the waters not mixing until further down the confluence. Manaus is the city that was the Paris of the Amazon in the 1880’s during the rubber boom, with one of the most beautiful Opera Houses in the world. Today it is a worn down city of over a million people, home to manufacturing everything from soap to Honda’s, brought here by tax incentives to try and provide some economic spark. Our ferry is almost a day behind schedule at this point, and we are packed up and anxious for land. It has been a calm and tranquil passing, very relaxing with chance to catch up on sleep, reading and writing, and to get a sense of the immensity of the Amazon, truly the lungs of the world, slowly, steadily calmly roiling its way to the ocean.

Amazon Pictures, continued....

Here are pictures with the Captain, Kevin with an Amazon Butterfly his new special friend, scenery, and of course the beekeepers with the flames to wipe out the African bees!

More Amazon Pictures

We have here a picture of Kevin demonstrating how to protect your face and run when being attacked by killer bees, loading our Austrian friend Alberto's bike onto a ferry on the way to French Guyana, Kevin and Clara on the top deck, and some Amazon kids in their tree trunk canoe latching onto the ferry for a joyride!

In the middle of the Amazon

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

On the good ship Rondovia!

We are onboard the large catamaran Rondovia for our 5 day trip to Manaus. As we wait for the tide to come in so we can leave, we are waiting in the covered bar watching a thunderstorm roll up the river. The music is cranking local tunes but no one is on that side of the ship.

Why you ask?

Abeyha Africanos. That's right, our friends the killer bees seem to have made a home inside one of the speakers and by the looks of the way they are swarming they don't like the music any more than I do. The crew is battling them with hundreds of casualties on the dance floor, and two swirling around me now.

For those of you wondering of our travels and if we are alive: yes. Although we were in Sao Paulo flying on monday, and we were on the same type of Tam jet flying into Sao Paulo last week we weren't on THAT jet. The air system here really is messed up but no one complains and everyone is friendly.

We are joined on the boat by our american friend Dave who is on a Vstrom. He has had 4 dates with 3 girls in 24 hours (scoring twice) and hasn't slept in 36. His advice to single guys in Brazil is to kiss the girls within 5 to 10 minutes of meeting them. Before someone else does!

We got up early to get to the docks at 9. At 12:30 our local friend Alfredo bribed the longshoremen $10 to let us ride our bikes up the plank so that he could get us to his house for a delicious meal. As he said "that is Brazil!"

Things are slow and tranquillo, with everyone only too happy to take a break and enjoy a cerveza or a caipirinha.

I will try to get pictures of clara steering the 200 foot boat up the river tomorrow as she has already charmed the Captain.

Land Ho!
Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Amazon adventure awaiting...

Today we booked and paid for our boat trip up the Amazon river to the city of Manaus. We will be loading our bikes on the ship tomorrow at 9am sharp. We got lucky and were actually able to get tickets for one of the better ships on the Amazon, and Kevin splurged on a private bunk cabin for us - with AC!!
The "Amazon cruise" will last five days and will hopefully provide an opportunity to see unusual flora and fauna, although from what we hear, all you really get to see is lots of water. We did stock up on some goodies and books, but we did not end up getting Pringles because, much to my surprise and chagrin, they cost about $8(US) here and even I cannot justify paying that much for delicious junk food.
We know it has been a while since we´ve posted pics, but I think this up-river trip will help us end the dry spell...
We´ll see.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

We reached Belem!

We have reached Belem, a city of 2 million at he mouth of the Amazon River. We are staying with the amazing Alex who has a bike shop and is the friendliest and nicest guy in town. We have met a bunch of his biker friends who have treated us to dinner, shown us around town, held a wine tasting and disco DVD watching party, and helped us to do maintenance on the bikes.

Changed the oil again. We are getting ready to find a boat to take us 5 to 7 days up the Amazon River to the City of Manaus where we will head north through the Amazon jungle.

It is hot, sticky and the poverty and disorganization of the north is very different from the south. We really enjoyed the Beach at Sau Louis, and the music of Salvador. We raced at 80 mph without stopping through a notorious 200 miles stretch of road through scrub desert that is known for highway robberies. One brazilian guy we met got shot in the foot for not giving his motorcycle up to a gang of thieves. An American we met got held up by revolver in Sao Louis (you shouldn't be walking the streets at night a 4:30!) but we have not had any problems of the kind, but there are some incredibly decrepit areas of these cities, where you see preganant women begging on the streets, young children without shoes asking for food, etc.

We are looking forward to the boat trip, stocking up on books and pringles, we'll see how it goes!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Happy july 4!

We are in the tiny town of Capanema, about 100 miles from Belem, our port destination on the Amazon. It feels really good to be almost there. We have traveled about 2500 miles in 9 days from Rio (including a record of more than 400 yesterday because we couldn't find a hotel for 90 miles!)

Brazil is Big! Friendly, Green and hot!

We enjoyed a day on the beach in Sao Loius, and 2 days in Salvador listening to the music and seeing the old churches.

Although we are really looking forward to the Amazon (and I am thinking of trying to slide into Guyana for a time) it feels as if our long journey through South America is nearing its end. It seems odd to say that because we will be here probably another month, but once we get on the boat and start chugging up the Amazon there will be no turning back.

To our US friends, enjoy the 4th and remember those most important of words "we hold these truths to be self evident, that All men are created equal"

By the way, it appears as if clara's one woman quest to fill a trophy case of south american animals now includes a large Anaconda. Of course, I let her know that my anaconda don't want none unless its got buns hun!
Sent via BlackBerry from Cingular Wireless