Archive for August, 2009

Couchsurfing in São Paulo

Sunday, August 16th, 2009


São Paulo was a shock to the senses in many ways. I’ve been looking forward to this city specifically because it’s a true mega-city with 11 million in the city proper and 20 million in the greater urban area.

That’s actually an odd thing for me to say; I’m really not particularly into big cities, per se, and we’ve spent swathes of this trip explicitly trying to avoid the major cities and stick the to natural beauty on offer.

I am, however, fascinated by the scale at which humans can engineer machines, buildings, communities. São Paulo delivers.


Another shock was the language barrier. Thinking about it now, it’s actually been 4 years since I’ve wound up in a country being almost entirely unable to communicate verbally. In that time I’ve visited only Spanish speaking countries, and ones where English is, whilst not the native tongue, very widely spoken. Clearly I had been taking for granted just how much Spanish I had been using up until this point.


We had six fantastic days in the city, and we owe the quality of the experience almost exclusively to our Couchsurfing hosts Virgilio and Patricia. If you haven’t heard of it, Couchsurfing is a social networking tool whose purpose is to connect fellow travel-junkies. It facilitates both a general cultural exchange, and also that of hosting “couchsurfers” at your place. We hosted a number of people at ours before we left Australia. Yes, complete strangers! It’s a thrill.


Based on their recommendations we packed our days with gastronomic, scenic, musical and art / visual delights. Some of the greatest value of local recommendations is that you wind up with a very high success rate in your touristic endeavors, instead of wasting time on the inexplicably closed / uninteresting / tourist trappy things that often sap hours of the hard working traveler’s life.


Combine that in this instance with Virgilio offering us the spare bedroom (complete with skyline views) in his lovely, enormous apartment in a very nice part of town (Lapa) and we had an incredible experience. You can read our Couchsurfing profile feedback for the full details on just how lovely these two people are ;-)


Coming from Ecuador, Brazil comes across as a fully developed, modern and thoroughly rich country. Appearances are, of course, deceiving, particularly in the richest of urban areas of São Paulo. However I’ve been struck with a sense of just how dynamic an economy is powering this country right now.


It really is night any day from where we’ve just come – everything works, from buses to espresso, people are quiet and industrious, the traffic, while intense, doesn’t seem to fill the city with choking smog.

Everything is manufactured locally, import tariffs are high, 93% of electricity generation is hydroelectric, the cars run on an 85% ethanol blend and increasingly the buses on bio-diesel.


São Paulo is not a tourist destination, and the prices for many of the services tourists tend to need can be gob-smacking. In fact we never found a meal out to be cheaper than the equivalent in Melbourne – generally it was 10% – 50% more expensive. Prices were often rivaling London. This was, and indeed is, quite hard to figure out.


A final note: The São Paulo metro system is yet another to put Melbourne to shame. We traveled in peak hour, and didn’t feel particularly crushed. Oh and watch out for the 28 new train stations and 107 new trains they’re rolling out by 2010!

In all we had a surprisingly good time in São Paulo, and had a timely re-introduction to big, highly developed city life.


Hasta luego, español

Monday, August 10th, 2009

And so we continue southward onto Portuguese-speaking Brazil. In summary, I think my Spanish skills have consolidated nicely on this trip, to the point where I could almost describe myself as bi-lingual. Almost.

At the end of our Argentine stint in 2007, I expressed disappointment that my skills hadn’t developed further, and I understood that this was due to a lack of immersion: i.e. When you surround yourself with English speaking foreigners (and girlfriend, for that matter) it’s very difficult to break through the fluency barrier.

So I wasn’t expecting much to change this time. And although not much has, another couple of months of activity and problem solving has substantially increased my confidence with the language. My vocabulary might only be fractionally larger, but my ability to pull out the right words at the right time – and comprehend in context – has really excelled.

My yardstick is that now, I never hesitate to approach strangers and ask questions to find answers and solve problems. I don’t have blank, silent moments – I can persist with the interrogation until I can understand the response and gain the necessary information.

That’s undoubtedly a hugely useful tool for traveling. The flip side is that I still cannot have more general, sociable conversation with native speakers. Those can still only skirt around the regular “where are you from”, “how do you like my city” topics.

Portuguese, well that’s another matter entirely. I’ve got the Lonely Planet phrase guide here, and it’s looking rather challenging. But those nasal vowels, phew, what a trip ;-) I think I might enjoy trying.


Friday, August 7th, 2009


We had a thoroughly lovely time in Baños, which is a very picturesque town surrounded by volcanoes, lush green countryside and filled with hot srpings and Swiss expats.

Really. It’s funny how the Swiss love to move to other places that are kind of the same as their country side, but where lax smoking laws allow them to light up in restaurants and bars ;-) We even saw a Swiss registered camper-van, presumably on some sort of ambitious drive-around-the-world trip.


One thing that we must admit about Baños is that it’s a “touristy” sort of place. That word has many connotations, and in our eyes mostly negative, but in this case is was a very welcome thing. Because it allowed us to spend a week sitting in jacuzzis and hot springs several times a day, eating great food in many and varied restaurants. All for prices that were, somehow, lower than the capital Quito.


As our voyage across Latin America has progressed, we’ve really come to appreciate good tourist infrastructure, even that if results in a place becoming a bit “touristy”. It’s not Europe, though, believe me.


A funny quirk was the prevalence of public toilets dotted around the (small) town. They were all labeled “S.S.H.H”, a name whose meaning is not easily imagined. Most toilets in Spanish-speaking countries are labeled “Baños”, and so of course we realized that the locals are a bit touchy about about so many toilets sharing the name of their town. For the record, SSHH stands for “servicios higienicios”.

Public toilets scattered all over town? Now that is tourist infrastructure!



The Galápagos Islands

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009


Not sure why I’ve been procrastinating on this one – it ought to be the easiest blog post of them all, because the pictures will do the talking. There’s not a lot of words I can attach to these islands, other than to say the abundance and closeness of the wildlife is a slightly surreal experience that seemingly can’t be found anywhere else.


I didn’t take any underwater photos, but suffice to say the snorkeling lived up to expectations with sea turtles, sea lions, sharks and innumerable varieties of fish in extraordinarily dense schools sharing the space with us, interacting to an extent we’ve not seen elsewhere.


The luxury boat trip (4 days-ish) was definitely worth the extra cash, considering what a large proportion of the total expenses are fixed (flights and national park tax). We still felt quite seasick at times, of course, but the food was superb ;-)


The major surprise for me was that this time of year the Galapagos Islands get decidedly cold, daytime in the mid 20s and nights probably in the mid to high teens. Bearing in mind that they straddle the equator, I found this odd. Odd also is that it’s currently high season despite cold sea temps, rough seas and poor visibility. Northern hemisphere holiday season, you see.