A Travellerspoint blog

Bright Lights and City Heights

Buenos Aires...the jewel of Argentina!

Time for a period of relative settlement. Time for carniverous consumption and top quality vino tinto supping. Time for dancing, strolling and lazing in the sunshine. Time for Buenos Aires! I was excited and expectant of what to discover in this hugely popular city. Friends we had met in India had ingrained the high opinion that they held of the place in my mind. I couldn´t wait to experience the city for myself. We arrived on a Monday lunchtime and emerged from the bus station armed with a map and the motivation for showering and food! We tramped through the organised and easily understandable metro system and onto the modern streets of Central, shaded by the towering buildings looming over in a stoic, business-like manner. Akin to weird snails from out-of-town, we bumbled through the crowds of diligent worker ants whilst they streamed around us, keenly and busily missioning to their destinations with an urgent air. Not to say the worker ants didn´t care for their foreign snail comrades. The friendliness of the city exuded immediately, with one dashing young Argentinian interrupting our baffled state, as we walked round in small circles, truly bemused by the network of grids that make up BA, and said to us: ´Can I help you? I am here to serve...´ (yes, he actually said that). I could get used to this!

The rumours were true. BA was everything I´d expected and more. An electric city with oodles of character, buzzing night life, feasts of fodder at hungry fingertips, accessible transport, fashionable and arguably haughty porteños (BA locals), a vibrant art and music scene and European architecture stylishly blanketing the city but with an omniscient and disctinctive Argentinian flare. The majority of porteños have European origins, with Italian and Spanish descent being the most common, from the Calabrian, Ligurian, Piedmont, Lombardy and Neapolitan regions of Italy and from the Galician, Asturian, and Basque regions of Spain. As a result the social heritage of Buenos Aires, or the city of fair winds or good air is heavily European, most definitely another reason why I found the city so accessible. A strong undercurrent of protest and anarchy surges under the city streets, bubbling to the surface on a regular basis like a lava stream of fiery discontent. The vexation of porteños arises from the actions of the government and their history of violence in Argentina during the 1970s and 1980s. Amnesty International reported in 1979 that 15,000 disappeared (literally people who disappeared) had been abducted, tortured and possibly killed during the period of the Dirty War in which the military dictatorship repressed opposers to their rule. The Mothers March in Plaza de Mayo, the focal point of political life in Buenos Aires and in Argentina as a whole, is one example of the demonstrations that occur and undeniably, one of the most resonant, relentess, perserverant, longstanding and heartwrenching protests. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, is a unique organization of Argentine women who have become human rights activists in order to achieve a common goal. For over three decades, the Mothers have fought for the right to re-unite with their abducted children, who were some of the disappeared during the Dirty War. They began marching because they were desperate and didn´t know what else to do and now, still no answers have been provided. The Mothers continue to press the new government to help find answers to the kidnappings that took place in the Dirty War years and in the process have become a powerful political force. An inspiring yet incredibly saddening spectacle to see: the Mothers, now much older and debilitated as they totter round the Plaza, still adamantly and hopelessly searching for their lost children.
For our first week Sal and I stayed in Central, or City Center, together. We were a stones throw from the iconic and famously phallic Obelisco and right bang smack in the midst of the city action. I had planned to work in BA, try and save and make some money and keep myself out of mischief. I successfully found a job at a very popular hostel called Milhouse, also in Central, but had a week of freedom before they needed me to start. Sally and I invested in some all-important Spanish lessons which at the time helped my confidence, but I needed more, which I didn´t get. Ten hours were simply not enough! We linked up with the girls we had met in Paraty, Steph and Tess, who were staying in an idyllic little area called San Telmo. San Telmo is the oldest barrio of Buenos Aires. It is a well-preserved hub within the Argentine metropolis and is characterized by its colonial buildings. Cafes, tango parlors and antique shops line the cobblestone streets, which are often filled with artists and dancers. Sally eventually stayed in the area with Steph and Tess when I started my job as bus station pouncer for Milhouse, and so we spent many a day and evening soaking up the unique atmosphere of the place, wandering round the extensive Sunday market, and gorging on the world famous Chocolate Volcano pudding at Viva Viva (well, they were world famous in our eyes, and mouths!). We journeyed to La Boca a few times during our stay in BA, the distinctively colourful, vibrant and European-tasting barrio of BA. La Boca means mouth in Spanish and aptly sits at the mouth of the Riachuelo river. Many Italian and Spanish immigrants settled here, working at the docks and decorating the neighbourhood with bright paint left over from their spruce of the port. As a result, the buildings in and around La Boca are vividly coloured, often corrugated iron structures, plying an undeniable energy to the streets. Adding yet more energy to the area, La Boca is also home to the Boca Juniors, the home team of the nations´ most revered footballer, Diego Maradona. Surrounding La Bombonera stadium are walls, buildings and streets painted the team colours, blue and yellow. Mas color! The tango dancers lining the street of Caminito add another element of Argentinian flare to the atmosphere in La Boca. Stages were erected outside restaurants and cafes to accommodate the dramatic tango performances that occur every half an hour for the punters eyes. Tango is thought to have originated in Buenos Aires in the 1880s. The legions of European immigrants who missed their homelands and the women they left behind sought outcafes and bordellos to ease the loneliness. There the men mingled and danced with waitresses and prostitutes. It was a strong blend of machismo, passion and longing, with an almost fighting edge to it. Sharp pauses and abrupt directional changes punctuate the dance, high kicks add flair, and excitement and slow sweeps of the legs and pregnant gazes create an aura of longing, deprived love and heartache. The lament of the dancers is not only the struggle over love, but also a political and economic lament against disenfranchisement in society and class struggle. A incredibly beautiful and theatrical dance to behold and one that effortlessly adds texture and depth to the national identity.
Dancing, eating and drinking were the activities of choice in Buenos Aires and Sally, me and our little cohort of girlies did these things to an expert degree! When it came to eating, La Cabrera was without a doubt my highlight of the entire trip, if not my entire life! A tall order I hear you cry (seeing as I am such an expert eater!) but my dear lordy lord above, the steak at La Cabrera was mindblowingly good, not to mention the truly delicious and interesting condiments that came with the tender and perfectly cooked meat. Butter beans in a pesto sauce, peanuts and red pepper, creamy mash, sweet potato mash, sundried tomatoes and olives...you name it, they´d thought of it, and made it taste AMAZING! Needless to say we went back a couple of times and gorged on the delights of Argentinians most impressive cuisine...steak! I never knew I was such a carnivore until I cam to Argentina! When it came to dancing, in Buenos Aires you can party hard any night of the week. There is always something going on in this city and so we made sure we made the most of it...especially after our party drought in India. The first time I had been to a club during my entire 6 month trip was in BA and the night was a drum and bass night - perfecto! The ideal opportunity to shock out to some noisy music in a confined space packed with people. The nightlife I have truly longed for! And the event did not disappoint...Sally and I danced the night away, sweating it out and shaking our thangs until 5 in the morning, the bass running through my veins like an addictive chemical that made me spontaneously move my limbs in a way that had almost become alien to me. Almost, but not quite. By the end of the night it felt so natural again, and it certainly made me appreciate the beautiful array of naughty, bassy, delectable musical delights back home in Bristol! Yummy!
So after the first week of luxurious leisure time and money spanking in BA I had work to be getting on with. Extremely boring work at the Buenos Aires bus station no less. My job basically consisted of going to the bus station at 8 in the morning and hanging around suspiciously waiting for backpacker punters to pounce on as they emerged sleepily and unawares from their respective buses... really worthwhile work as you can imagine! I make it sound alot seedier than it was...but it really was mindnumbingly boring! I lasted for about 2 weeks being the bus station girl, managed to lure 20 people to the Milhouse Hostel, made a little money and saved a lot on accommodation. All worth it in the end and it simply made me long for the imminent chilled Brazilian days with Eddie even more, if that was possible!

Just before I left Argentina to meet Eddie, Sally T- the amazingly perfect travelling partner that is, went on her merry way up to North Argentina, carrying on her trip as I was heading back to Brazil to meet Eddie. It was a sad day leaving the ST...we had shared so many beautiful times, so many laughs, conjoinments and congregations with fantastic people, seen stunning sights and experienced unimaginable events together. She had become my right arm, my left leg, my third eye, and I didnt want us to part, although I was immensely excited to find out how our last few months of travelling would pan on our solitary paths. So, here marks the end of SAnna, Banana and Sally T´s, the pea and pods travelling time - the epically ridiculous rollercoaster ride that it was!
And so, after 3 and a half weeks in Buenos Aires it was time to depart. I felt like I had got to grips with a city, finally, after so long of nomadically moving from place to place without settling. BA was seductive, passionate and addictive and I vowed to return one day, maybe even to work and live. Who knows!? And my final, resonating memory of the city that I will leave with you, my avid blog readers with, is La Bomba de Tiempo (translated to Time Bomb). This Monday night event was the main event in BA, attended by porteños and gringos alike and consisted of a group of powerful drummers, featuring singers and guitar-players, enormous shifting crowds, long dreaded dancers, sexy drum beats that pumped straight through your bones, sweaty swaying bodies, rich atmosphere and a call for liberalism and freedom in a nation that have been betrayed and deceived and who feel disempowered and frustrated. The cries and body jerks of those porteños who dance and sing are appeals for justice and freedom from the chains of the crimes their former government committed. My stay in BA of course demanded 3 attendances at La Bomba, and each one was spectacularly electrifying, causing my crush on the city to intensify each week.

Thus, here ends Argentina...and here begins the reunion stint, the Eddie phase, the love session. Stay tuned!
Highlights since my last blog entry:
- Taking stock and appreciating the wonder of Sally T and Anna Bananas travelling extravaganza. So much love for you Sally T x
- Eating the best steak EVER at La Cabrera.
- Moving to the drum beats amongst the porteños at La Bomba de Tiempo

Posted by Anna Rowl 07:23 Comments (0)

Brazil Chill and Fantastic Falls

Post-carnaval relaxation. Or something...

Leaving the chaos and hedonism of Rio and its' Carnaval was somewhat of a breath of fresh air. With our new-found friends we headed to Paraty, a little coastal town about six hours from Rio. It was safe to say my Portuguese had improved minimal amounts as I tried hopelessly on our last day at the Church we had been staying in to ask for a taxi to the bus station. It was a personal challenge of sorts, asking the most basic of questions but making zero sense of the answers received! I resorted to ridiculous gesticulations, facial expressions and a form of Portuguese pictionary! The woman at the front desk and I just ended up giggling at the hilarity of how taxing ordering a taxi could be!

We did eventually get to the bus station. BY TAXI. And myself, Sally, Owen, Felix and Lewis trundled towards Partay. I thought that perhaps moving from Rio and the relentless party time that had been my existence there would help my liver to recover somewhat. I was sorely mistaken! The fact that the name Paraty resembles the word Party is not a coincidence (well, in my opinion anyway!). Paraty entailed more drinking and partying than ever before! An old friend from Sally and I's school days, Tom Bush, was working in a hostel in Paraty and he had booked us in to stay there for a few nights. We hadn't seen Tom in about three years so it was a pleasure to reunite with him again. He was just as cheeky and funny as I remembered from Q.E. school days! Everyone who worked at the hostel was really friendly and we soon settled into a cosy little community there.
The town of Paraty is a beautifully idyllic place. Our hostel looked out onto the beach, just a hop skip and jump to the sand and sea. A short walk into town brought narrow, cobbled streets and colourful buildings into view. Apparently in the 1700's when the mines of Minas Gerais were pouring out gold, the perfect bay of Paraty was a busy port, the second most important in Brazil during the Ciclo de Ouro, or Golden Century. It was a hard overland trip, though, and when a new road was built to another port in Espiritu Santo state, Paraty was all but forgotten. This stage of oblivion or neglect is what kept so many of the colonial buildings pretty much as they were when the last gold-laden ship sailed for Portugal. The historic center is a national historic monument. Closed to vehicles, the streets and buildings have been preserved beautifully and the quaint town retains its' colonial charm. Independent shops, bars and restaurants line the streets and invite you seductively with their delightful trinkets, melodic music, and delicious fodder.

Our first full day in Paraty was spent on a large, luxurious boat sailing around the neighbouring beaches and myriad lush green islands. The day was so clear and the sky was crystal blue...we spent the morning basking on the back of the boat, the wind in our hair and rushing around our bikini-clad bodies. A creeping feeling of guilt emerged as I thought to myself how amazingly lucky I was to be on that boat whilst people worked and froze back home (I apologise guys!). The rippling ocean surrounded us as our boat and countless comrade boats plunged through the waters, leaving waves of excitable froth in our wake. We stopped off at numerous little beaches and everyone bombed, dived, jumped and flipped off the boat with a mixture of pizazz, comedy and absolute laughability (more than one belly flop was displayed that day!). We bobbed about in the heavenly cool waters and gazed onto the white sand beaches that stretched out before us. A perfect first day in Paraty!


We stayed in Paraty for five days and one of the days we journeyed to a nearby town called Trindade. Trindade has nine beaches and we sampled three of them on our day trip there. The beaches are alot cleaner and prettier than in Paraty itself - the sea as clear and blue as can be and a little collective of rock pools nearby one of the beaches. Sally, Lewis, Owen, Felix and I trundled up and over the paths and rocks, through the undergrowth, to reach the pools. We were temporarily shaded from the oppressive heat by the towering lush greenery overhead. A stunning sight greeted us when we arrived, sweating and sticky from the walk. Huge boulders were stacked precariously in natural formations that seemed entirely impossible. The cool, shallow pools of water invited us in with their millpond texture and calm ripplings - an enormous difference from the crashing waves on the other beach we had visited, which had tormented the swimmers, pulling one of our friends under like a fierce wolf, chomping and frothing every second (she was fine...just shaken up, literally!). Deeper spots within the pools dared the adventurous to dive from rocks into the mysterious and murky depths. Not for me! The calming rays of light soon started fluttering down through the shady leaves, reflecting from the surface of the liquid onto the smiling faces of those playing in the pools.

Following Paraty and our departure from the lovely lads we had grown so attached to, Sally and I headed to the Argentinian border and the famous Iguazu Falls. We spent a total of about thirty hours on our hefty trip from Brazil to Port de Iguazu, and when we arrived it was raining in the town. And it continued to do so for our entire first day there. We had endured a few days of rain in Paraty too and this weather didn't bode well for our once in a lifetime trip to some of the most impressive falls known to man! Luckily, after a day of sitting on our bored derrieres in the hostel, and before our night bus to Buenos Aires the next day, we were treated to some much appreciated, beaming sunshine. Thank you weather gods!!

We were welcomed to the meticulously organised and humongous park with queues stretching out before us. A small, quaint train transported us to the series of pasarelas, or catwalks, once we had battled through the crowds. These catwalks consisted of wooden decking that meandered over and through picturesque rivers and woodland, boasting an array of beautiful wildlife en route. The butterflies were the most charming aspect of our stroll towards the falls. Flutter-bys of all shapes, colours and sizes swarmed and bewitched Sally and I, landing flirtatiously and carelessly on our legs, hands, hair, arms...we were hooked, spending as much time papping those little critters than the falls themselves! But now for the main water event: Iguazu Falls are a stupendous series of 275 waterfalls crashing 80m on to the Rio Iguaçu river. Guarani Legend says that Iguazu Falls originated when a jealous god, enraged by a warrior escaping down river by canoe with a young girl, caused the river bed to collapse in front of the lovers, producing precipitous falls over which the girl fell and, at their base, turned into a rock. The warrior survived as a tree overlooking his fallen lover. The geographical origins are slightly less enchanting. In Southern Brazil. the Rio Iguacu passes over a basalt that ends just above its confluence with the Parana. Before reaching the edge, the river divides into many channels to form several distinctive cataratas (cataracts). The most awesome is the semicircular Garganta del Diablo, a deafening and dampening experience. As we walked into the falls area the atmosphere palpably intensified and the sheer sight of such natural beauty and force reared up adrenalin from deep inside and took my breath away in excitable gasps. The cascading liquid, frothy and thick suddenly from its' previously smooth and tranquil texture, flew down the immense drop at such speed and velocity that strange thoughts swarmed my mind, of being one of those particles of water, waiting my whole little particle life to finally be thrown down that heady rush, surely be smashed into smitherines and giving birth to a thousand new particles of gleaming beads. The Mecca of the water droplet world, if you please! A truly breathtaking and awesome display of natural beauty. I recommend to all and sundry!

And so, after our day at the falls, we trundled off to Buenos Aires, the city that we'd heard amazing things about and that we were planning to lay our hats for the longest period of the trip thus far. At least three weeks! Let me at the sunshine, Spanish and steak!

Highlights since my last blog entry:
- Feeling the calm in Paraty after the Rio storm. Well, kind of!
- Enjoying the company of some ruddy lovely English lads! Big up to Owen, Lewis and Felix.
- Being a spectator at the most impressive naturally-created water show I'd ever laid eyes on!

Posted by Anna Rowl 09:54 Comments (0)

Oi Brasil!

Some snippets from my time at the craziest party in the world...

Rio De Janiero. Carnaval. Rio Carnaval. If I say it over and over then perhaps I will start to believe that that I was actually there. That it wasnt just an elaborate dream that in reality never really occured. That I could possibly be that fortunate to have been in the city that never sleeps and witnessed the magic and pizazz of the biggest, loudest and most colourful party on Earth. It´s just starting to sink in now and this entry documents mine and Sallys epic entrance into Brazil and the South American leg of my adventure.
We arrived in Sao Paulo late on Friday night after what seemed like days of travelling. We emerged from the cool airport, still shaking off snow-specced memories of McLeod and collided bang smack into a wall of humid thick air and incomprehensible signs and sounds to our English eyes and ears. Yes, from the word Ir we found the Portuguese language barrier insurmountable. We realised just how indulged we had been as English speakers over our Indian experience and our inability to speak another language suddenly crashed at our feet as we lamely tried to ask questions about buses whilst regularly mopping the moisture from our sweating brows! Money talks (another valuable lesson learnt) and so the conclusion to plonk our exhausted bodies into a taxi was definitely money well spent!

We arrived in Rio the next evening after a day of attempting to memorise the Lonely Planets phrase suggestions whilst waiting for a bus to Rio in Sao Paulo - the busiest, hottest, most Carnaval-chaotic station I´ve ever seen! Along with language barriers, money has also acted as a smack round the face in terms of culture shock. I will never take for granted or forget the gloriously cheap living in India...a forty quid bus ride to Rio sent a few tears flying from my purse! On arrival in Rio, again very late at night, we found Santa Teresa and sweated our way up up up the hill to our place of rest - a church with annexed accommodation. Random? Extremely! A guy who we had met in India had put us in contact with a friend of a friend who lives in Santa Teresa (incredibly tenuous travelling links coming into their own here!). Axel, the friend of a friend, is mad about Carnaval and has the extremely altruistic attitude of wanting to help anyone he can who wants to enjoy the event with him. He amazingly found us a room at the only place in the whole city that wasn´t upping their rates by 2000%, and not only that it had the most beautiful panoramic view of the city. I awoke on our first morning in Rio to the delicate rays of sunshine drifting through the half-open curtain and clambered out of bed to gaze at the awesome spectacle I found in my posession. Tall rock formation covered in lush greenery jutted from the crystalline pools of water, including the enormous Sugar Loaf Mountain directly infront of our room; the rich and famous yacht play-things bobbed on the lakes like small toys in bath water; the glowing orange sun bathing the scene pink and golden as the sleepy haze gradually lifted, giving way to the permanent clean blue sky. What a welcome to the most stunning city I have ever visited!

Axel had also assisted us in purchasing highly sought after tickets to the Sambodromo on Sunday evening. This spectacular event is the glamourous centrepiece of Rio Carnaval and basically consists of ten samba schools, half a mile of parade strip, a handful of glitzy shimmying samba queens, a generous helping of enormous, elaborate, mechanised floats on all themes imaginable, a sprinkling of singers and musicians belting out the samba school anthem over and over and over, lashings of dancers dressed in huge, colourful, dazzling costumes, a dash of patriotism, a squeeze of Brazilian flare and hundreds and thousands of screaming, dancing, singing, bouncing spectators on top. A feast for the eyes, and for the soul! Axel and his friends from France, Holland and Brazil had really got into the Carnaval spirit and had joined in with a samba school, paying 400 reals (around 150 pounds) for the privelege of participating in the world famous event (which Madonna and family were attending, don´t you know!!!) and donning remarkable black, white and silver Carnaval outfits which were incredibly heavy and incredibly hot in the sweaty, thick Rio air. The group of fifteen of them looked brilliant and really demonstrated to me the dedication of people when is comes to Carnaval. So, while Axel and his friends strutted their stuff, me and Sally and our new-found Dutch friends settled into the stands for hours of standing, sitting, drinking cerveza, sweating, clapping, dancing, gawping and eventual, fatigue! The most impressive school, and the one who actually won the entire competition, were called Unidas Da Tijuca. They had a contagiously catchy theme tune (which played for an hour and a half, so for me to praise it after all that ear bashing, it must have been really good!) and they started the procession with an amazing magic box of tricks! This consisted of a huge moving black box with lights lining the edges, men in white suits, top hats and tails with canes dashing about Fred Astaire style and from the box a bevvy of dazzling female dancers emerged in beautiful dresses. The couples pranced and flew about the Sambodromo and over the course of their routine the women magically transformed from one outfit into another...about six times! Such a crowd pleaser! Later in the procession they flaunted thirty-foot, moving, burning buildings with flames and smoke protruding out and people inside emerging, dancing and then disappearing. They had around fifteen floats altogether, including one with Michael Jackson rising mysteriously from a silver space pod and moonwalking across a platform. But my favourite one, without a shadow of a doubt, was a float that consisted of a mechanised platform that moved from flat to sloping at different times during the routine. When it was sloping downwards a huge, fluttering batman sign appeared under the platform and three people in batman costumes skiied down the slope in unison! Random! After that three spidermen would climb back up the slope that the batmen had just descended...superheroes working together! It was hilarious and the 'eeks' and 'aahs' from the crowd were diffcult to not participate in (I'm almost certain I was the one leading the chorus!).

After the Sambodromo, our little group bumbled off to Lapa to enjoy the steamy Carnaval eve further. Lapa is where to find the real nightlife in Rio. The nineteenth century mansions in Lapa fell into disarray with the exodus of the Carioca (residents of Rio) elite to the beaches. In the 1920s it had the reputation of being Rio's cultural mélange, bohemians and artists mixing with hookers and hard men. Today it's being revitalised as a nightlife draw. Yet the buildings remain shabby and the clientele a mixed bag. Needless to say I would not be caught walking around the Lapa streets on my own after dark, even in daylight I felt a little vulnerable. But alas, this is as real as we were ever going to get for a night out at Rio Carnaval! We partied to samba beats, rap, reggae, funk, ska, trance and everything inbetween until 5am. We headed home as the sun rose on the orders from Axel that we had to be up ready and raring to go in our "best Carnaval outifts" (we didn't have any!?!) for 8am Monday (i.e. 3 hours after we left Lapa!) for a street party. Riiiiight!

Like the good little Carnaval goers we are we did as we were told and dragged our weary, aching bodies up and out of bed into the stinking heat to meet Axel and friends who were not only dressed as Indians (full face paint and matching outfits to boot!) but had perfomed and partied at the Sambodromo the night before and hadn't slept! Sally and I well and truly silenced any sleepy utterings that may have escaped our mouths on seeing their bounding, vibrantly attired forms skip down to the Santa Teresa Bloco. This Bloco, or free street party, was one of hundreds of blocos that happened before, during and after Carnaval, in Rio and across Brazil. Carnaval = Blocos! This particular one in Santa Teresa was famed as the one of the most extravagant, vivacious, colourful and well attended blocos in Rio. People as far as the eye could see were dressed to the nines, drinking beer, whooping, screaming and sweating it out in the intense heat. Santa Teresa is a perfectly idyllic little area of Rio, with rickety trams (or bondinho's) trundling along the tumbling cobbled streets full of fading colonial mansions, amongst the most stunning backdrop of Rio imaginable. I felt privileged to be staying in such a vibrant, picturesque and bohemian area, and not some brash hotel in the tourist trappings of Copacabana or Ipanema, and this bloco was our time to embrace Santa Teresa and celebrate our good fortune! The narrow, uneven, stone streets made for an intimate and precarious bloco, as hundreds of hot, heaving, squeezing, shuffling bodies slowly but gradually shimmied and stumbled their way around, following the samba band that lead the stream of people. Like the Brazilian, drum and brass-bearing pied pipers of Carnaval, they commanded the pace, the volume and the excitement of the surging, bubbling crowds. The oppressive heat and streaming sweat was temporarily but regularly abated by residents of the area leaning from their windows or gardens, calling "Oi!" and then hosing down the masses of noisy, fancy-dressed freaks! What a way to spend a Monday morning!
Towards the end of the Carnaval weekend we met up with a group of English guys who are friends of friends and we spent the latter part of our Rio stay with them. Two of the lads had been living in Brazil for a year or more and so were fluent in Portuguese. One night they decided to head to one of the safe favelas in Rio to see some of their friends there. Favelas are monumental, automatically identifiable townships that tumble down the hills towards the sea and completely reverse the normal logic that prime real estate gets the best views. A favela is fundamentally different from a slum or tenement, primarily in terms of its origin and location. While slum quarters in other Latin American countries generally form when poorer residents from the countryside come to larger cities in search of work, and while this also occurs to some extent with favelas, the latter are unique in that they were chiefly created as large populations became displaced. Many favelas now have electricity, a situation that twenty years ago was unheard of. Favelas differ from ghettos such as those in the United States in that they are racially mixed, even though blacks make up the majority of the population - that is, in Brazil it is chiefly economic forces, rather than ethnic or cultural issues, that drive people there. A group of six of us headed there, obviously feeling a little apprehensive as favelas are renound for being dangerous and hostile, especially for Gringos! However we are assured by our compadres that this favela was more than safe and that they would look after us. And it was. It was absolutely fine. We spent a few hours drinking and dancing salsa outside a small bar, improving our Portuguese and embracing the odd stares we received from the locals passing by. At the end of night we caught motorbike taxis up to the top of the favela hill and were greeted with the most amazing night city scape. Some guys were playing Brazilian hip hop out into the balmy atmosphere and as the lights twinkled below and the lapping sea smiled through the breeze I knew that Rio had made its' mark, had left its' stamp, had irreversibly imprinted its' glorious, radiant, glamorous signature on my memory. Never to be forgotten.
Highlights since my last blog entry:
- Arriving in Rio and soaking up the Carnaval vibes
- Wearing what I want for the first time in months! Showing some flesh finally!
- Dancing to loud music amongst hundreds of other adoring movers!

Posted by Anna Rowl 10:54 Comments (0)

The End of India...

When I came to India five years ago, I knew I´d fallen in love. The colours, the smells, the chaos, the absolute contrast to my life in England. It fascinated and drew me in like a magnet. I came to appreciate my need for that exoticism, that difference to´normality´as I know it, and I came to understand that a unique and rarely exposed side of my character is uncovered, a door to my heart is unlocked when I am in India. An aspect of myself that is otherwise hidden in some dusty recess blossoms and flourishes and energises me as a person when I am in this crazy, frantic, frustrating and endlessly gorgeous place.

This time, that seed of awareness, planted five years ago, has had the time to burst from its´bed and grow into a fully fledged flower of certainty. Four months has allowed me to really get to grips with India, the wonders of what it offers, the boundaries that can be traversed, and what it means to me as an open-hearted and impressionable twenty-four year old. When I try to describe India though I find it is beyond statement, for anything you say, the opposite is also true. It´s rich and poor, spiritual and material, cruel and kind, angry but peaceful, ugly and beautiful, and smart but stupid. It´s all the extremes. India defies understanding and for me, right now, that is okay. I can just about put my finger on what I love about the country and that is enough for me.

I love that the sacred is everywhere. Religion permeates from every orifice in India and the people here perceive the divine in all things. In every mountain, monument, ocean and rock. In every person a god exists, a divinity lives, and this belief creates an attitude of optimism, possibility, and vibrancy that cannot be denied. For me, visiting and being part of this vibrancy even for just a few months opens up philosophical fields of questions about who I am, what I am capable of, how my physical self and my mind are inextricably linked, and where I place limitations on myself. This reaction to India has obviously been a personal one but from the people I have met I can confidently say that this country acts as a playground for thought, nurturing and encouraging those inside to throw and catch the balls of opportunity, slide down the ride of possibility and hop-scotch their way to a deeper understanding of self. Whether this is through yoga, through meditation, through healing, through climbing a mountain, sitting on a beach, or riding on a bus next to a chicken in a swarming metropolis. Here, the thoughts that escape us in our every day lives are provoked and confronted in the here and now.

India attracts such a smorgasbord of interesting and diverse people to her shores and I have been spoilt with the amount of engaging folk I have come into contact with. I have absorbed all I can from those I´ve met, whether it be young travellers, holy men, people working in India a time, or holidayers searching for gratification and/or inspiration. I have become more gregarious and open hearted towards people I meet, consuming nuggets of wonder from those who have lived completely different lives to me and cementing the fact that meeting new people is one of my favourite things to do.

Resilience and patience is tested on a daily basis. The staring eyes, leering men, language barriers, incessant pushing to get anywhere, complete disregard for queuing and privacy. But writing all these things down still brings a nostalgic and affectionate smile to my face. Because all the frustrations, the alien behaviour, the immense cultural differences in every day exchanges and life...they all make India what it is. Without one, the place would crumble like a castle of playing cards. And so, I know I´ll be back, but for now it is farewell to India and a few poetic words in its´honour...

What a rollercoaster ride it has been
What sights and wonders I have seen
What enveloping experiences have been enjoyed
What preconceptions have been destroyed
What fire, what heat, what colours exposed
What vibrant harmonious symphonies composed
What teeming humanity has been endured
What relentless staring I have implored!
What entrancing people I have met
What deliciousness my tongue will never forget
What mind expanding open heartedness
What ways to explore prior carelessness
What deep breathing to exhale and in
What tingling stretching of the limbs
What soft, white sand to run through the toes
What delightful trinkets, jewels and throws
What fascinating faiths to explore
What grandiose monuments to stand before
What speed and thrill to travel on the streets
What normal tasks become impossible feats
What joy to emanate from a strangers´smile
What thoughts can arise from just sitting a while
What frustrations that make the mind explode
What strength of those carrying such heavy loads
What sounds that flow straight from the heart
What tenacity of refugees torn apart
What serenity in fluttering prayer flags
What heart-wrenching sights of children in rags
What hustle and bustle the city provides
What calm and reflection in the shimmering tides
What a place to be, a place to become
Whatever you please, in this Indian freedom.


Posted by Anna Rowl 07:11 Comments (0)

A Rollercoaster Ride of Religions!

The final weeks of our time in India...bringing the faiths together.

What a ride the last week and a half has been! We've witnessed the biggest Hindu festival, Kumbh Mela, in Haridwar; we've lived in Amritsar amongst the sharing Sikh's at their holiest temple; and we've been with the Buddhists in the mountains of McLeod Ganj. All in all, a rollercoaster ride of spirituality and faiths that has perfectly ended our magnificent four month stay in Mother India.

We arrived in hectic Haridwar a little shell shocked after our easy ride in Delhi with Dad and a little weakened from our simultaneous tummy bugs. Delhi belly had hit us hard! Haridwar roads were like a death trap - traffic of the vehicle and human kind whizzed, swerved and bumbled all around us, and we were continuously under watchful eyes of all people. Everywhere. It was like everyone was paying as much attention us as they were to the reason we were in Haridwar - the largest spiritual festival on earth, the Kumbh Mela. Female redheads and blondes obviously don't grace the Haridwar shores very often! The Kumbh Mela spans over three months and attracts millions of pilgrims, swamis and worshippers over the period, who all flock to dunk themselves in the holy Ganges water and absolve themselves of their sins. The Ganges is the holiest river for the Hindus and we had already come across it in Varnanasi - it is the container for the nectar of salvation (and also one of the most polluted and stinky!). According to Hindu Legend, once upon a time the Devas (the gods of heaven responsible for sun, wind, rain and fire) were weakened by a curse. They cooperated with the demons to stir the cosmic ocean of existence and from the milky depths of a pot, or kumbh, containing amrit, the nectar of immortality, emerged. The Devas decided they didn't want to share with the demons and a chase across the heavens began. During the battle (equivalent to twelve human years) four drops of nectar fell to earth and at each spot they landed, the Kumbh Mela is celebrated. And so, every twelve years Kumbh Mela (pot festival) is celebrated, and we were lucky enough to be in North India during that time. One of the main bathing dates (that I had discovered on the very 21st century Kumbh Mela website!) was the Magh Purnima Snan and on that auspicious day we headed down to the Ganges Canal, a fast flowing channel parallel to the main river which seemed to be the main worshipping location during the event. Walking through the swarming streets full of brightly coloured sari's, bundled-up tots, masses of women with bags atop their heads and orange-clothed swami's bearing long, noble staffs, I could feel the energy bursting from all angles. A sense of urgency filled the air, of people eager to reach the water and display dedication to their faith. The overwhelming level of sound reverberated through me as I imagined the noise to be the hubbub of the three hundred and thirty million gods of Hinduism chatting at a heavenly cocktail party. Hinduism is the most adhered-to religion in India by a vast majority and is a fascinating and confusing mixture of the idolisation of millions of varying gods, garish colours, fantastical and supernatural legends, caste systems, supplication to a masters and gurus, noisy vibrant festivals and feverish celebration. To me it is exotic and exciting and a world away from the comparatively dull religions that I have been brought up knowing and understanding. Hinduism has shaped Indian culture indubitably, in both positive and negative ways and this emanates in all aspects of Indian life. From the gargantuan tinsel-covered trucks blaring our Bangra music, to the lavish wedding celebrations held for Indian couples, to the lingering caste system that relates significantly back to the Hindu need to let go of ego for spiritual integrity (i.e. praising authority...ie. encouragement of obedience and passivity in the lower castes). One way that Hindus let go of ego is to worship gurus, whether that be one of the 330,000,000 gods, a baba, a sadhu or any other authoritative figure.

In Haridwar we met one such authority - a sadhu. Sadhu's are the holy saints of Hinduism, mourned as dead by their families, they abandon everything to devote their lives to God: reprogramming their body and mind through celibacy, renunciation, religious discipline, meditation, yoga, austerities and secret tantric practices. We first met our Sadhu, Shivaraj, the day we arrived in Haridwar. A crowd had gathered round his naked, ash-covered, dread-locked form and his band of babas, and we could immediately see why (as if you needed anymore reason to look!?). He had taken his three-foot long Shiva trident and had begun wrapping it around his man parts! The crowd eek'ed and ooh'ed in a mix of fascination and horror as the sight unfolding before our eyes. The really unnerving part about the experience though, was as while he was manipulating this piece of metal round his bits and pieces he beckoned Sally and I over to him! Our English sensibilities and prudishness have not been weathered by India enough to cope with that offer and we rapidly scuttled off in the opposite direction! The next day however, we were ready for Shivaraj and whatever tricks he had hidden up his non-existent sleeves. He was sat in the same spot, apparently his official Haridwar home (consisting of a makeshift tent and cooking pot) on the walkway at the side of the canal. This time we responded to his beck and call and sat with him, unfortunately becoming as much of a spectacle as the naked dude next to us, and pulling in a crowd of about thirty Indian men. They delightedly set up camp around us, suddenly endowed with free license to sit and gawp at us to their hearts' content. What a bizarre situation we found ourselves in! Shivaraj was a performer of the highest caliber and soaked up the attention. The Ganges was his stage, and we, his avid fans, ridding ourselves of sinful ego by praising and papping the mystical ashen man. While we were there with him he flung his floor-length dreadlocks about, exhibiting them like a peacock ruffling its' feathers; he washed and carried out his evening prayers in the freezing sacred waters, flicking and smoothing the liquid over his greying frame. During this process, for just a second he became just a regular, fallible human being, before he quickly removed his flimsy loincloth and began again covering himself with more white powder. It was entrancing to watch and the crowd around him grew in size as the procedure went on. He posed for photos as he whispered his mantra to the setting sun and held his infamous trident in his quivering hand. Returning to his homely spot, people clambered to touch his feet and be blessed with bright paint thumbed onto their adoring foreheads. He was a higher spiritual being, apparently, closer to god than these mere mortals surrounding him could ever be (hmmmm). We drank questionable Ganga chai with him and his gaggle of babas and looked on as they coughed and spluttered their way through an excessively strong chillum (hash pipe). We said our farewells to a bleary-eyed Shivaraj and left, still reeling from the extraordinary and exceptional situation we had just experienced! What a day at the Kumbh Mela!

Amristar was our next stop, the home of the Skih faith and the breathtaking Golden Temple. The Vatican of Sikhism, the pure gold structure sits in the centre of a pool of amrit, sacred nectar, that gives the town its' name. On our first day in Amritsar we made our home in the free dormitories that the Golden Temple offer for foreign visitors and began our exploration of the sizable complex. Before you enter the temple you must remove your shoes, wash your hands and cover your head. As we walked through the gulleys of warm water designed to clean the feet of those entering the temple, I caught my first glimpse of the golden beacon, bursting into eye line in rushes of reflective, radiant light. A long walkway leads from the surrounding white marble frameworks to the temple, packed full of people all eager to get into the temple and make their prayers, at all times of the day and night. We joined the crowds circling the pool, strolling along the gleaming white engraved marble and gazing up at the grandiose archways and buildings that all face the shimmering temple like adoring worshippers themselves, housing rows of adoring worshippers inside. Throughout the day and night, from the point when the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, is placed ceremoniously inside the belly of the temple, to the point when it is put to bed in an adjacent building, the air is filled with the rich, resonating sounds of musicians singing and playing inside the belly of temple. And the music is divine! Sikh's seem to be the only Indians who understand that music sounds better if it's not making ears bleed! In shops, restaurants, movies, festivals, weddings, temples and train stations music is always distorted beyond all comprehension, but here the soothing voices and temperate tabla are soft and clear. It is designed to prompt a particular devotional mood or emotion and it really did bring about a feeling of serenity in me whilst I was there. We fortunately met a very informative, friendly, kind-hearted man who, in perfect English, became our guide for the afternoon. He was a proud Sikh and relayed the story of his faith with moist, twinkling eyes as we listened intently. At only 500 years old Sikhism is a young religion and was founded by a man called Guru Nanak. Nanak did not believe in the caste system imbued in the Hindu and Muslim faiths, and spiritual urge lead him to renounce the world in his very early days. His liberal outlook was intolerant of all current conventions and meaningless formalities and he believed that truth cannot be the monopoly of any individual sect or book, it lies within the person. Nanak stated that God is to be found not in holy texts (which seems odd as Sikh's have and praise a holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib) but that God reveals Himself and is present in our everyday lives. To Sikhs, God is not concerned with the caste of man, but with the doings of man. Nanak was against the superstitions and idol-worship of Hinduism and the intolerance of the Muslims. He tried hard to do away with all these things (although I'm not sure if he was successful as the nine gurus that followed him, and he himself, are worshipped like idols, with believers kneeling on all fours and touching their heads to the floor in the presence of paintings of said men).

The communal kitchen at the Golden Temple is a brilliant outcome of the Sikh ethic - all men are created equal and religious instruction sounds hollow and hypocritical to a hungry man. In the grounds of the Golden Temple a colossal operation of preparation, cooking, serving and washing occurs 24 hours a day, every day, 7 days a week. Everyone and anyone can come to the temple and get fed, anytime of the day, for free. The kitchen is funded by donation, is run by volunteers and will feed up to 10,000 people or more each day. You don't just get meager scraps either, but an endless supply of dahl, curries, chapatti and even rice pudding (sublime rice pudding may I add!) ladled out generously and methodically by rapidly passing servers. Everyone sits on the floor and eats with their hands. Everyone helps out to keep the enormous fodder factory running smoothly. Everyone is equal. Sheer amazement slapped across my face as our guide gave us exclusive access to all the cogs within the precisely ticking system. The grinding mechanical conveyor belts being fed billowing sacks of white flour and, in turn, churning and spitting out perfect little round chapattis. Women sat of the mouth of the machine, stacking and buttering the steaming bread as they chattered away in raucous Punjabi. The gigantic cauldrons full of spices, curries, dahl and rice pudding bubbling away over fierce flames like a giant witches' brew. Enormous poles dug into the mixtures and stirred round by equally enormous men in turbans and overalls. Huge vats of chai stood side by side steaming and puffing to cater for the incessant tea queue. A sea of people of all ages, sat cross-legged on the floor chopping carrots, potatoes, onions, spinach, peeling garlic and de-podding peas. Over the way, rows and rows of burgeoning troughs full of soapy water and silver plates, bowls and cups clattered and crashed as hundred of helpers wash the utensils six times. Yes, that's right - six times! It's a cleanly operation at the G.T.! We finished our tour with a meal in the dining room, the delicious grub tasting all the better having seen the unbelievable efforts expended to create it. Over the three days we stayed at the temple I improved my chapatti-rolling technique, my garlic peeling skills, and my de-podding peas flick! We were free to help wherever we desired and I certainly felt part of the system in doing so. What an inspiring place to be part of!

Last stop of this ride is chilly McLeod Ganj, up in the mountains of North-West India and surrounded by beautiful Buddhism and snow-capped peaks. McLeod Ganj is the spiritual centre of exiled Tibetans and their Buddhism and is home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual and political leader. We had heard wonderful reports from friends and fellow travellers who had been there, the majority choosing to stay for a month or more. When we arrived I could see why it holds such a draw. Colourful gompas, beaming white monuments and intricately carved prayer wheels fill the small town, monks and nuns with shaved heads and mahogany robes wander the streets adding an inescapable calm to the atmosphere, the eerie and hypnotising sounds of chanting and slow drumming waft from the monasteries and dharmshalas, steaming silver pots of scrumptious momos are sold on narrow street corners, aside stunning turquoise jewels and conches. The serenity here is palpable and makes for a striking contrast to the boisterous and observed existence we were used to! On our first day in McLeod Ganj the sunshine was beaming and we set about finding out as much as we could about the place and most significantly the exiled Tibetan community and the story of their plight and ongoing struggle for independence inside and outside Tibet. The Tibetan museum was fascinating and helped to clearly illustrate the heart-wrenching Tibetan history. The Chinese invaded Tibet, an essentially peace-loving nation of Buddhists and rich culture, in 1943. The Chinese Communists barged their heavily loaded and substantially sized army into an unprepared and relatively unarmed Tibet, destroying religious monuments, scriptures, artefacts and people in their "Cultural Revolution" efforts. One million Tibetans are thought to have died as a result of the Chinese occupation, and the Tibetans that remain in their country are disenfranchised, bullied and silenced. Informers lurk everywhere and if someone is reported to be criticising China or stirring up patriotic feeling, they can be arrested and tortured in one of the many prisons. One statement from a Tibetan living in Tibet that really resonated was: "Even though your heart is burning and in flames, no smoke may flow from your mouth." The Dalai Lama works relentlessly to raise awareness about Tibet all over the world, and to fight fire with peaceful sentiment, but China is gaining power on the world stage and is greedily and unjustly keeping Tibet for itself with little sign of negotiation. Tibetans are in danger of losing their cultural identity altogether, and for such a beautiful and unique identity to be lost, belonging to such a peaceful and gentle nation of people, is a travesty. If you would like to find out more about the Tibetan struggle for freedom, or you would like to donate to the cause, follow this link: http://www.freetibet.org/. I am certainly returning one day to volunteer in McLeod Ganj.

Buddhism is manifest in all parts of Tibetan culture and all parts of life in McLeod. It is another religion that discards the age-old trappings of the Hindu caste system and treats everyone as equal. The first noble truth of Buddhism is that life is full of suffering and is ultimately unsatisfying; the only way to be happy is to want less and to train your mind to penetrate the ultimate reality. That Buddhist reality maintains that there is no God or soul - we're all just streams of consciousness that have existed since beginningless time in infinite bodies and six different realms (I can barely remember what I did last week, let along six realms ago!). We have all been demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hell dwellers millions of times before. Hence why Buddhists will never intentionally hurt any living thing, as they consider everything a reincarnation of someone, usually they imagine the thing is their mother! Whereas we ordinary humans have no control over our reincarnations, the Dalai Lama is considered a tulku, or a reincarnated lama (someone who can direct their consciousness into another body when they're dying). His Holiness the Dalai Lama is considered to be the 74th reincarnation of the Buddah of Compassion, he was found in a small village in Tibet at the mere age of five and was proclaimed as the spiritual leader of Tibet. He was only nine years old when the Chinese invaded and he had to lead a nation through its' destruction. Absolutely incredible story. The second noble truth of Buddhism is the cause of suffering. Buddhists, like Hindus, believe that bad actions fester within our consciousness and are received back in kind in one of our millions of future lives. But purifying karma is hard work in this faith...Sally and I were treated to a little of this suffering in our remaining three days in McLeod, as the relentless rain fell, the freezing cold climes chilled our bones, and on the last day, the snow chased us well and truly out of town! The worst weather we had endured in our entire India trip brought us closer to Buddhism and the spirit of McLeod! That's what we keep telling ourselves anyway!

And so, India is over...the journey has come to an end. One last entry will follow this to summarise my time over the past four magical months. Thank you for reading!

Highlights since my last blog entry:
- Chilling with Shivaraj, our sadhu, for the afternoon at the Kumbh Mela.
- De-podding peas with a group of animated, hilarious, old Indian ladies at the Golden Temple. I didn't have a clue what they were saying but I loved it!
- Feeling the calm in McLeod (although it was a ruddy cold calm!)

Posted by Anna Rowl 01:44 Comments (0)

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