Venezuela, Brazil and… home.
When last I wrote I was temporarily stranded in Santa Marta, Colombia, awaiting the reopening of the Venezuelan border. I was able to pass through the following day, but only on a small, rickety collectivo, and only after hanging around for hours at the border whilst the military police held up the traffic for a reason only they knew. After finally being allowed to pass just after sunset, the collectivo I was on broke down and so I had to jump on another one and spent the next few hours crouched next to a door that refused to shut in a torrential downpour. After taking a total of four buses I eventually arrived in Merida in the early hours of the following day.
Merida, set in the northern Andes and on a platform between two rivers, is a beautiful little city. The morning I arrived I took the worlds largest cable car up to around 4000m and took in some stunning scenery.
Adventure sports are popular in this neck of the woods and so a bunch of us decided to try our hands at a spot of canyoning. Canyoning involves abseiling, rappelling, cliff jumping and any other crazy deft-defying activity that the guide can come up with. I mentioned that I had done some rappelling a year or so ago in Vietnam and was (wrongly) dubbed by some of the others as the ´expert´ of the group. They didnt seem to realise that I was shitting myself just as much as they were.
I took a long bus journey up to the Carribbean coast and spent a few days on the beach of Puerto Colombia. I had hoped that the hurricanes in the Carribbean would still be kicking up enough swell to do a spot of surfing, but a bit of body-surfing was all I managed.
Next stop; Caracas. I´d heard bad reports of this place, but although I admit it is quite a dangerous city it wasn´t all bad. Good nightlife and good shopping were the main attractions along with an attractive Plaza Bolivar – every town and city in Andean South American seems to have a Plaza Bolivar!
Venezuelas number one selling point is the worlds largest waterfall; The Angel Falls. The falls themselves were spectacular enough, but it was the scenery I passed as we wound our way along the narrow river leading to the falls that impressed me most.
Shortly after the Angel Falls it was time to head south and leave Venezuela and Spanish-speaking South America. As soon as I crossed into Brazil I felt a strange burst of excitement. I felt that something quite different awaited me. I did, however, quickly become annoyed that my Spanish that I had been working on for the past 6 months or so had now been rendered useless in this Portuguese-speaking country. I almost resented the place for not speaking the same language as the rest of the continent! Spanish and Portuguese are fairly similar languages though and so I seem to survive by kind of mumbling simple spanish phrases in the hope it might sound vaguely Portuguese.
My first stop in Brazil was Manaus, a city of around 2 million people slap bang in the centre of the Amazon jungle. It seemed strange to me that a) there is a huge city of 2 million people in the middle of the jungle, and b) that until I came to South America I had never even heard of the place! As a child I always stared at the big green area covering half of South America and assumed that there was nothing but a few indigenous villages in there. How wrong can you be.
Manaus is not an attractive city, but pretty streets lined with old colonial buildings was not my reason for visiting this area. I booked myself on a 4 day trip into the jungle. I have to say I was a little disappointed. Perhaps my expectations were a bit too high, but I had images of hacking through the undergrowth with machetes, catching anacondas etc etc, but it wasn´t like that at all. There were some good activities though – spear fishing at night was great fun, although very difficult! We also went hunting for alligators – we´d flash our light at the banks and see bright red eyes staring back at us. The guide would then direct our boat toward the bank and snatch them out of the water.
The night I returned from the jungle I caught a flight out of Manaus. I was pleased to not only be leaving Manaus, but also to be going in a place that I had always wanted to see, Rio de Janeiro.
Rio de Janeiro has lived up to my expectations in every way. Copacabana and Ipanema beaches are both fantastic. The districts themselves are also very pleasant. I walked along the beach searching for the world famous beautiful girls and beach football games and it wasn´t long before I saw both.
During my stay I took the cable car up to sugar loaf mountain and the train up to Corcovado and the huge statue of Cristo Redentor. The views from both were incredible despite it being a rather cloudy day.
Sunday afternoon gave me my last taste of South American football. The match pitted fierce local Rio rivals Vasco and Flamengo against each other. The venue was the huge Maracana stadium which contained the usual fanatical fans complete with fireworks. It was a good game of football, Vasco winning 1-0 with a goal in the second half.
One of the surprising highlights of Rio was a tour around Rocinha, Latin Americas largest favella. The favellas of Rio are not without their negative aspects of crime and violence, but the thing that struck me most was the sense of community they have there. The majority of the people we met were friendly and the kindergarten and cultural centre which have recently been built gave me an impression of a positive people. Of course drugs and gun crime are still prevalent in the favellas – Rocinha was recently taken over by the drug group ADA (Amigos do Amigos) from the Red Command in a turf war about 6 months ago. As our guide continually stressed to us: this is the favella and anything can happen, any time.
That brings me to today. I had started to wonder whether this time would ever come, but finally it has. Rio de Janeiro, sadly, marks the end of my journey. 1 year, 7 months and 12 days has seen me travel from Bangkok to Rio de Janeiro across 3 continents and through 17 countries. It has been a journey I will never forget. I still clearly remember my first night in Bangkok (although it feels like a decade ago) fresh from Europe. Since that first night it has been a fascinating experience and I have learned a lot. I have seen some wonderful places, but most important to me are the amazing people I have met in that time. If you are receiving this email it means I would like to stay in touch with you and I will try my best to do so! And hopefully I will see many of you again in the near future.
At the slight risk of soundy cheesy I will leave you with a quote shown to me by a girl (Hi Andrea!) I travelled with through part of Vietnam and Cambodia:
“If one advances in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common ways. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.“
Henry David Thoreau
See you on the road again sometime.