10 weird things to know about Brazil

Happy New Year everyone! I know, I know, I’m a little late to the game but this is my first post in 2014. Yikes! Here’s a picture from the wild NYE celebrations I took part in Tel Aviv. That place can party! My friend and I danced at this underground club The Cat and Dog until 7 a.m., but turned down all the offers of drugs and bathroom hook-ups. 😛

NYE

What a crazy year it has been so far, and we are only in mid-February. Over the last seven weeks I’ve taken nine flights and set foot on eight countries on three continents. I’ve gone from dark wintery Finland to spring-like Israel, made pit stops in Istanbul and Berlin, and taken a painful 18-hour train ride through Bulgaria. In late January I got into a car crash with a motorcycle in the Dominican Republic and yet danced bachata afterward for a week in a beach festival. I suffered through a few New York snowstorms in February but escaped to Brazil just before the 14th one. I’m now under the hot Brazilian sun in Rio de Janeiro and loving it! And this was supposed to be my year of taking it easy and not traveling as much… only a few months ago I was happy to be living a somewhat stable life in NYC and was trying to convince more digital nomads to move there.

But alas, such is a traveler’s life. It changes in a New York minute. 🙂

So now that I’ve suddenly found myself back in the only Portuguese-speaking country on the South American continent, it might be a good time to share some of my thoughts about this land that’s known for samba, sun, beaches, favela shantytowns (one of which I’m currently staying in – and the view is lovely!) and of course the impending World Cup. These oddities appeared in my old blog, written in 2008 during my first trip to Brazil, but I’ve found that they still hold true.

Turano

10 WEIRD THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT BRAZIL

1) Brazilians LOOOOOOVE meat!! There’s always a barbeque party (or a churrascu, as it’s called in Portuguese) coming up, and nope, they do not grill any tofu or tomatoes or tofu sausages here. It’s all about meat: steaks, ribs, chicken wings, chicken hearts (yep!), sausages…. maybe a bit of fish, too.

Rodizio

2) Salt is DEFINITELY a favorite among the Brazilians…. they use so much of it on everything that I’m surprised they aren’t having tons of heart attacks (or maybe they are… not sure about the stats..).

3) This is definitely the promised land of all-you-can-eat buffets, and “food by the kilo” buffets (where you pay according to the weight of your plate). They’ve even got this cool thing called “rodizio,” a buffet that comes to you! All you need to do is sit down at a table, and the meat/pizza/sushi just appears on your plate. The waiters bring the food around every few minutes, and you can choose what you want and have as much as you’d like. Yummy!

4) Brazilian houses (the upper-class ones anyway) tend to have several toilets. One for each room is not uncommon, I hear. Therefore a medium-size house can even have six toilets. Wow! No more waiting for your turn outside the door 🙂

5) Many of the bathrooms have a bidet bowl next to the toilet. It kind of looks like a cross between a sink and a men’s urinal. No one seems to know what to do with it. It’s just tradition to have one. I guess previously it was used for washing yourself up, but nowadays it seems to be just an expensive laundry basket!

6) Brazilians love all things made of manioc/yucca/cassava, the traditional root that tastes slightly like potato. Mandioca is eaten in soups, as mashed (like potato), as fried (like french fries) and even used as flour to dip your meat in… and probably in many more ways.

7) Brazilians also love their national booze, cachaça aka pinga, the main ingredient of caipirinhas. They think it’s the greatest thing ever invented. Taste-wise it’s not my favorite, but I gotta say it’s not the worst beach drink… (here as a mango version).

Mango caipirinha

8) Brazil is definitely NOT the right place for someone who has bacteria phobia! The locals love to share everything with their friends: beer, coke, water, pinga, not to mention food. If you buy a tapioca (sort of like a taco) or a sweet corn cob, you’ll need to offer bites to all of your pals. So you may even be sharing your drink or food with up to 10 people. But hey, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger! 😉 The Brazilian immune systems surely must be strong from all this sharing.

9) It’s fairly easy to become a true Paulista (FYI, a Paulista is a person from Sao Paulo. Carioca = Rio resident). All you need to do is spot a local “celebrity” called Fofäo on the city streets (well, more like a local loonie bin). Hahaa. 🙂 Fofäo is a scary-looking man who has injected tons of silicone into his cheeks… he got his nickname from a cartoon character who looks the same way.

Picture 1

Why this guy has done that to himself, nobody knows. My Sao Paulo friends said he is a transvestite who was trying to be transformed into a woman. When that failed, he just became a weird-looking man who had done tons of operations to himself. Other people are scared of him, others just feel sorry… some say he can be violent too, so better keep your distance I guess. Fofäo works odd jobs around the city of Sao Paulo and can be spotted here and there by any lucky people walking around town… or unlucky, as he looks very scary! Legend says you can have a heart attack if you see him in the dark. As for me, I saw him twice during my 2008 visit to Sao Paulo. Once he had crazy make up on his face, neon colors all over. I guess that was to promote some flyers he was distributing. Scaaaaary….. I walked past him stiff as a stick… So yeah, you would think that in a city with 16 million people you wouldn’t see the same person twice but apparently you cannot avoid seeing Fofäo. Unless you are a Carioca for life… 🙂

10) Brazil has a reputation of being a somewhat dangerous place. However, the main thing that reminds you of the unsafe nature of the country are Brazilians themselves and the way they guard their possessions (those that have them, naturally). Most of my friends here have high fences around their houses, alarm systems, a scary barking dog in the backyard and some even have a paid guard patrolling their street. When going out in the city, my friends park their cars in guarded parking garages, as the risk of the car being robbed is supposedly high. Apartment buildings often have a guard downstairs who checks who is coming in and out. Sometimes my friends will ask me to walk fast as “this is not a safe area.” But I’ve seen a lot of proof that Brazil is not as dangerous of a place than what the locals make it out to be. For example, it’s customary here that if you are left without a seat in the bus, someone who has a seat will hold your purse so that you have two free hands to hang on to the strap rather than just one. WOOOOOW! I wouldn’t trust my purse to a stranger even in Finland! But here people don’t even think twice about it. How cute! 🙂

Iguassu

So yeah, Brazil is great and well worth a visit even outside of the World Cup! (For which I’m not sticking around, by the way… I’m not a fan of sports crowds.) People here are really friendly and even if you just met them, they will probably invite you to stay in their house for a few days, or to come for a barbeque.  And they always have a friend in another city, and “you can call them when you are there and they will help you out with everything!” 🙂

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A case study of Guyana: When a country just feels right

If you have been keeping up with me on Facebook or Twitter (@mirva08), you may have noticed I’m currently in Nicaragua, my country number 62. After a brief 10-day stint in Costa Rica, I’ve now spent about five weeks exploring the “Unique and Original” Nicaragua, as the tourism authority’s new slogan goes. My friend Mira and I even managed to get ourselves featured in a local online magazine promoting Big Corn Island as a tourist destination. See how cozy I look in that hammock?

Big Corn

Being back on the Central American isthmus has got me thinking about quite a few things – including the last time I was here on these latitudes, in 2011. Back then I did a 3-month tour of the Caribbean and Central America, starting from the wild carnival in Trinidad and Tobago (which is actually going on right now!), and continuing onto Guyana, Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.

While I had some fun times in all of those countries, I felt a closer connection with only a couple of them. I have since then wondered many times why some places “click” with you so well and just feel right, while others don’t.

That brings me to a case in point – Guyana. This is a country that  made a lasting impact on me and was definitely a place I was sad to leave behind. To see the beauty of this land, check out the photos of this “Forgotten Guyana” article I wrote for Helsingin Sanomat (and if you are not Finnish-challenged, you can even read the article here):

Guyana HS

I first became intrigued by Guyana when I traveled around South America in 2008. At some point during my 5-month trip I looked at the map and saw this relatively small country next to Venezuela that I realized I knew nothing about! I asked other travelers I met along the way if they had been to Guyana, or were planning on going. The answer was always no.

Nobody seemed to know anything about this place, and even the Lonely Planet has no guidebook for the country. It was obvious that I needed to go check out whether Guyana actually exists and what goes on there.

My opportunity to visit came up pretty unexpectedly in 2011. Once carnival in Trinidad was over, I was trying to figure out where to continue next. I then noticed that I could buy a one-way ticket from Port of Spain to Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, for $160 on Caribbean Airlines. Not bad! I found the ticket at 10 p.m. and the departure was at 6 a.m. the next day. I figured that if I skipped sleep for that night, I could do laundry, pack up my bags and be ready to head for the airport at 4 a.m. Sold!

As soon as I boarded the one-hour flight from Trinidad to Guyana, I knew I had stepped off the beaten path. The plane was only about a third full. Most people on the plane seemed to be locals, and were of Indian descent. Some 60 percent of Guyanese people, I later learned, have their roots in East India. Their ancestors were brought to Guyana as indentured servants back in the 1800’s when the English ruled the country. The rest of the Guyanese people are a mix of black people (40 percent), white folks, Native Americans (called Amerindians there) and something in between. Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America, though the English there is of the Caribbean variety and very hard to understand (at least for me…).

On the plane I struck up conversation with a Guyanese man living in Canada, and got lots of good advice on where to go and what to do. He also offered to give me a ride to the center of Georgetown as his wife was about to pick him up at the airport. Sweet!

Beach Guyana

Much to my dismay, my arrival into the country wasn’t as smooth as I had hoped for. Having bought my ticket at such short notice, I didn’t have a plane ticket out of Guyana yet. And I didn’t know if I even wanted to buy one, as the man on the plane had told me I could take a bus to Suriname or to Brazil, and go from there to Venezuela.

But Guyanese immigration officials didn’t think that I should have the luxury of deciding my travel route on a later date. The serious and strict-looking ladies told me that I had to buy a ticket out of the country right then and there, or I was going to be flown back to Trinidad & Tobago. Blaah. Where’s your carnival spirit, people?

With immigration officials giving me a bad first impression of the country, I quickly decided to just stay for 8 days. I figured that if Guyana was as unwelcoming as its immigration officials, I didn’t want to waste too many of my precious travel days there. So on a whim, I bought a $300 ticket to Jamaica for the following week (a semi-random choice: I was heading to Cuba and figured that Jamaica was on the way).

After finally clearing customs I was lucky enough to run into the man from the plane who had offered me a ride to town. He was still waiting for his wife to come pick him up. That was great news for me, because it turned out my ATM card didn’t work in the airport’s cash machine and I couldn’t get any cash out (always a nice feeling in a foreign country, eh!). Catching a cab to the center of Georgetown would have thus been a challenge.

So my week in Guyana started with the friendly couple dropping me off at Hotel Tropicana in the center of Georgetown, and it ended up being quite an interesting eight days. The time actually felt more like three weeks, and included a lot of highs and lows.

The lows were mostly due to feeling pretty lonely at times: it turned out I was the only guest at my hotel and that there were barely any other travelers in the whole country. Guyana receives only about 100,000 international visitors per year (compared with Jamaica’s 600,000), and of those only 5 percent are coming strictly for tourism purposes. The great majority come for business conferences, to do volunteer work with NGOs or to visit family or friends. Thus I got stared at a whole lot wherever I went, whether it was onboard a river boat crossing the Essequibo, South America’s third largest river, or visiting the local market in Georgetown.

Riverboat

Walking around Georgetown and looking at the white wooden Victorian houses, surprisingly many of which were beautifully renovated, I felt like I had been tossed back to the 1800s. I was in this country that everyone had forgotten existed. There were at times more donkeys on the street than people. No wonder I had never met anybody that had traveled to Guyana. The place was empty! At least this was the case on a Sunday afternoon.  On Monday the city’s pace picked up a bit, but it was by no means a buzzing metropolis.

The highlights of the week were plentiful, though. Through some contacts from the traveler’s networking site Couchsurfing.org I got to know plenty of locals, and got to witness a Hindu ceremony and an Indian wake (referring to the night before a funeral. The deceased person’s friends all get together to eat, chat and play Dominos).

Ceremony

Some of my new pals organized for us to go visit an Amerindian village nearby Lake Mashabo, which was an incredibly beautiful lake with palm trees growing out of it! I couldn’t believe my eyes. Can trees grow out of water? I hadn’t thought so… And later on I heard it was actually an artificial lake and that the trees were dying little by little. Boohoo.

Palmtrees

Over the week I got invited to stay in local houses in the town of Bartica and the Essequibo Coast and tried various traditional Guyanese-Indian foods. My favorite was smashed pumpkin with roti, the fluffy Indian flatbread. I also tasted some really tasty chicken curry. One of my favorite meals was lunch at Coalpot, a small restaurant in Georgetown where you could pick and choose your favorites from a selection of Indian and African dishes, with mashed potatoes and macaroni pie thrown into the mix. The total price for the meal came to about $4.

Overall Guyana isn’t a cheap traveling country though, even if it is the poorest in South America: accommodation starts from $15-20 for a basic room. But considering all the offers I had to stay with my new local friends, the price of accommodation wasn’t really an issue. A bigger problem was the price of doing excursions and sightseeing. Now THAT is expensive in Guyana, mostly because there aren’t that many tourists and thus there’s no competition between travel agencies. Day trips to the Amerindian villages and nearby monasteries start at $150 per person, and a tour to the Kaieteur waterfall, one of the world’s biggest single-drop waterfalls, costs a minimum of $195. That’s because it’s located in the middle of the country in the dense tropical rainforest, and you have to fly there on a small plane. Going by land would mean driving a couple of days on bumpy roads, and then trekking for three days through the woods.

Since seeing Kaieteur was one of my biggest incentives for traveling to Guyana, I decided to splurge on the plane ride. But I soon found out that the price of the trip wasn’t the only problem: another one was the scheduling of it. None of the tour companies knew whether they’d have a trip going all week. It would all depend on whether other tourist would show up and sign up for the flight. Considering I hadn’t seen any other travelers during my time in Georgetown, I didn’t have high hopes of this happening.

In the end they did get a group of 9 together (comprised of people working with NGOs or visiting friends in the country), but it wasn’t until my last day in Guyana and the price was $270 instead of $195. This was because the tour also included a visit to another smaller waterfall in Southern Guyana, near the border of Brazil.

I decided to go for it anyway, even though this meant largely missing out on the colorful Indian Holi celebrations that were the same day (or Phagwa, as it’s called in Guyana). And I’m super happy that I went for it! It just might have been the best $270 I ever spent.

The whole day was pretty surreal, but the most amazing sight was flying over the solid green rainforest for an hour and suddenly seeing the huge Kaieteur waterfall pop up in middle of it all.

Kaieteur

Our little 10-seater plane (where I got to be the co-pilot!) circled above it for a few minutes, and we could see the masses of water falling down to the bottom of the valley far underneath. Whoa! The drop is a whopping 7000 feet. Venezuela’s Angel Falls is of course higher, but that one is actually several waterfalls falling down simultaneously on top of one another. So as far as single waterfalls go, Kaieteur is the king. We landed on its tiny airstrip and went to admire it from several viewpoints.

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Next we flew  to visit (and to take a shower in!) the other more humble waterfall, Oruinduik, near the border of Brazil. There we got to meet some Amerindian kids. Apparently they always paddle over from the Brazilian side by kayaks when they see a small plane like ours arriving (which the guide said happens about once a week. Kaieteur gets more visitors than that, but most people don’t bother paying for the Oruinduik leg of the trip). The kids come over mostly for the joy of seeing some new faces in their isolated surroundings, but also in hopes of candy, food or some change. There were about six or seven kids, along with an older woman who was holding a baby. They stared at us in a shy but friendly manner. The girls all had long black hair, one of the boys had almond-shaped eyes. All had small holes and stains in their clothes, but were otherwise looking pretty sharp considering they live hours away from the nearest big town.

I took some photos of the kids and gave them some small bills for a couple of US dollars’ worth. Not knowing if they understood English, I slowly asked one of them “what-is- your-name?” He quickly answered with the confidence of an army soldier: “Kevin! Kevin Peter!”

So go figure. Even a Native American child who lives hundreds of miles from civilization has a name much easier than mine. Hah! 🙂

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Needless to say, my time in Guyana was truly memorable and still brings a smile on my face. After just a few days there, I could tell this was a place where I felt right at home, though it looks nothing like my home country on the outside. There’s just something about Guyana that clicked with me.

 

Do you remember visiting a country that just felt right to you? What do you think it was that made you feel this way?

The Art of Traveling Light

A few weeks ago I wrote about the five unexpected benefits of traveling light, and in the end promised that I’d share my own packing tips with you soon.

My apologies that it took a while for me to get back to you on that, but here I am, ready to address all your questions and packing concerns with:

 Mirva’s Ultimate Guide to Traveling the World with a Carry-On

Before you get started, here’s my disclaimer: this information may not be suitable for mountaineers, hikers, skiers, winter enthusiasts, campers or globetrotting opera singers.  This advice is geared for typical travelers who are heading to those predominantly warm destinations – Australia, Asia, Africa, South America, the Caribbean  – and who plan on mostly sleeping in hotels, hostels or private homes, not outdoors. Also, some of this advice may not apply as well to guys as it does to girls. Sorry about that.

Still, this post will include information that may also benefit those above-mentioned groups and several others. Just remember that anything you read here should not be taken at face value – what works for me may not work for you – and is best used as a guide that can be modified to suit your needs.

Everyone has their own “must-have-items” while traveling, so please do not get offended if I have left out the one item without which you absolutely cannot live. For each his own! That said, here is my advice that comes from 10+ years on the road.

The Three Things You Think You’ll Need, but You Really Do Not

1)      Jeans

This may come as a shock for you blue jeans lovin’ folks out there but these heavy, cumbersome and hard-to-dry pants are the first absolute no on my packing list. You know how much space those take out of your little bag? And you know how much they weigh? A lot. Let’s face it, you plan to chill on the beach for the majority of your vacation anyway and jeans do not belong in that scene at all.

I realize you may want to bring a pair with you ‘just in case’, but I am telling you – it’s not worth it. Instead bring a few of the following: light-weight khakis, a thin pair of black pants, capris, shorts, sweatpants, skirts, dresses, leggings or even jeggings –basically anything is better than a pair of jeans. And if you are one of those countless people who just cannot imagine life without jeans, then fine, bring one pair. But make sure that it is of the lightest fabric you can find and be prepared to wear it whenever you are on the move: changing cities, flying somewhere or sitting in a bus for 30 hours. At least that way the jeans won’t take up precious space in your bag. Just don’t come complaining to me that you’d rather be wearing shorts or a nice dress in this heat! In all my travels around Asia, Australia, Latin America and now Africa I have never once wished I had brought jeans with me. Instead, long skirts are my staple travel wear (perfect also for countries where you shouldn’t show much skin). Whenever I get cold, I just wear leggings underneath.

2)      Sleeping Bag

I used to travel with a sleeping bag at all times though I wasn’t planning on doing any camping. I just brought it along in case the blankets in my hostels would not be warm enough or I’d take a night bus where the AC was on full blast. How many times did I actually roll the sleeping bag out of its case? A handful, at the very most, and even then I used it mostly just to get at least some use out of it.  Thus hauling a sleeping bag around for months just in case was hardly worth it. Nowadays I travel without one and have never regretted it. Every hotel gives you a blanket, and hostels too. When I have gone Couchsurfing, every host has offered me a duvet or a blanket or at least a sheet. And should you ever find yourself really needing a sleeping bag – well, just deal with it somehow. Wear layers, cuddle up with someone, tear down the curtains of the hotel room, use a scarf as a blanket… Be creative.

(The only time my sleeping bag came in handy in Australia in 2006 was during a visit to Byron Bay with my friend Kaisa, pictured here. The bus dropped us off at 4.30 a.m., and we didn’t want to splurge on a night’s accommodation when the night was almost over anyway.)

Nowadays I’d rather experience a chilly night once or twice during my trip than haul extra weight around for months. If you absolutely want to bring something to calm your nerves, get one of those slip-in silk sleeping bags that weigh nothing (and are meant for avoiding contact with dirty sheets) or “borrow” one of those handy, light airline blankets.

3)      Towel

While I started off traveling with a fluffy normal towel, over the years my towels just got smaller and smaller, until I finally was down to a tiny kitchen rag. You really do not need much more than that to pat yourself dry. Air-drying is so underrated! And if you love wrapping yourself in a big towel after taking a shower, don’t worry. Many guesthouses and hotels will supply you with one. Also, being deprived of a real towel for a while will help you appreciate the luxury when you come across it. For me that is part of the point of travel – learning to enjoy things you used to take for granted.

(Here I am, loving my most recent borrowed towel in Senegal’s Casamance region)

On the other hand, here are the…

Three absolute  must-haves for a traveler

1)      Sarong

If I could only take one item with me on my trip, a sarong would be it. If you are not familiar with the term, a sarong is a thin, colorful piece of fabric that is sold pretty much in every beach town worldwide.

If you do not already own one, make sure to buy one when you hit the road. You can rest assured, there is not a single item in this world that is more multi-functional than a sarong. I use mine as a towel for the shower and the beach (which is why I often do not even bring the little kitchen rag with me anymore), as a blanket in chilly buses and planes, as a sheet or a pillow case in one-star hotel rooms. I wrap it in my head like a turban or around me like a dress.

I even wore a flowery sarong to a Cambodian wedding once! I sometimes carry things inside my sarong, or hang it down from my hostel bunk bed to create an illusion of privacy. I use it as a curtain or as art on the wall. The sarong simply cannot be beat! I usually buy a pretty one from every trip and keep it as a multi-functional souvenir.

2)      Bolero

As with jeans, many people feel the need to bring a bunch of long sleeve shirts along just in case. But unless you are going to a Muslim country, a place with an abundance of malaria or some chilly high altitude towns, you will not get much use out of long sleeve shirts. But since you’ll still want to be prepared for chilly days or nights, the best solution is to bring a bolero or two. A bolero refers to those add-on sleeves that were trendy some five years ago, and are still super trendy in my books as the ultimate travel accessory (hence I’m wearing a bolero in the sarong photo above!). Just throw on a bolero and voila – your sleeveless top has turned into a long sleeve shirt! The best part is that you can wear the bolero with any of your tops, and it weighs much less than a full long sleeve shirt. So even if you never end up needing to wear it, it’s not a big loss weight-wise. The only thing is that boleros are a bit hard to come by these days. So if you see one sold, grab it right away! In fact, I just spotted some in a store in Dakhla, Western Sahara, if anyone is heading that way…


3)      Mini-size shampoos and other beauty products

You know those mini-size shampoos and conditioners that you get at hotels? That is what you should be traveling with too. There is absolutely no reason for you to haul around full-size lotions and potions that take up half of your luggage (yet many people still do!). I bring just a tiny shampoo bottle with me – well, everything I bring is tiny in fact! Here’s a half-liter water bottle as a size comparison.

This black miniature shampoo bottle in the middle lasts me a couple of months, easily.

“How?” you may ask. Well, for one, I have trained my hair so that it only needs to be washed once or twice a week. Other days I just take a shower without washing my hair, which is a great time and shampoo saver. Secondly, I’ll refill the little bottle from time to time from the big bottles that other travelers are hauling around – they are usually more than happy to get rid of a few extra ounces of weight. Or if need be, I’ll buy a bigger bottle to refill from and give the rest to another needy traveler or a local.

(Note: If you think that your hair cannot be trained not to get greasy every day, you are wrong. It definitely can – you just might not want to be seen in public during the training period as it takes a few weeks. Getting braids makes the process a whole lot easier. Your hair doesn’t need to be washed more than once a week after it is braided, and you can continue on that path even after you take the braids off.)

  (Braids are also a great ice-breaker when traveling. People cannot wait to touch your strange hair, at least when you have partly pink braids…)

 

What did you think about these tips? Were any new to you? I still have a few more up my sleeve, so stay tuned…