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Mornings In Mexico......A Plethora of Pinyattas

Episode 1

sunny 22 °C

Nothing can prepare the weary traveller for the assault on the senses that is Mexico city.
Big bold brassy ( quite literally... The sound of Tijuana seems blatantly omnipresent) this seething metropolis grabs and shakes you , scares you and finally woos you with its Aztec charm until surrender becomes less than a choice.
Arriving late into MC s Benito Juarez airport the air traveller cannot fail to be awed by the sheer magnitude of the place .... A blanket of twinkling stars extending over the horizon in every direction as if some playful Aztec god has transformed mother earth to some vast eternal mirror..... brazenly reflecting the firmament ....

That greater Mexico city is home to some 23 million souls comes as no surprise given the sheer intimidating vastness of its span, and yet , punctuated by green space and impressive mountain vistas mother nature wrestles with Suburbia and wins... Never seeming far away.

I chose to stay in the Distrito Federal downtown area in the unimaginitively named DF suites , a basic but clean and welcoming hostelry. Mercifully with an English speaking host.. Which proved quite useful , given that the almost universal international proficiency for the English language seems to have bypassed Mexico entirely. For a traveller with little Spanish this can be intimidating.... But hey.... When in Rome ?

Throughout my four day stay in the city therefore, my Spanish phrase book was always within reach, and my A
advice for new players would definitely be to arrive armed at least with the basics .

Forearmed and with the goodwill that is generated by a manful effort to converse in the native tongue ,the traveller will fare much better..... At the very least your efforts... When slightly off the mark ,tend to generate much hilarity and doors seem to open.

As with most major cities the best way to explore is on foot.

Once on the streets one cannot fail to be impressed by the splendor of Mexico City . In particular the Centro historico where Aztec and Catalan architecture jostles for line honors in the majesty stakes. Colonial and ancient side by side in mish mashed alliance that somehow works . The museum del belles Artes in its white and gilded splendor skirts the avenue Juarez en route to the Zocalo ( or city square) where the sumptuous cathedral and presidential palace border the vast polis with a grandeur which amply rewards the tourist ... More advice. Figure out how to use time delay photography ahead of your visit to the cathedral... As you will be ejected if you flash ... And the architecture soars and dips with such Spanish grace and grandeur that pictorial record is a must!

Having prepared for my Mexican sojourn by rereading DH Lawrences " Mornings in Mexico ".... A travelogue from the 1920s ,capturing the authors impressions of the country and it's inhabitants ( particularly the Mexican Indian who seems to outnumber the Conquistadore descendants by at least ten to one). I could not fail to be struck by some of Lawrences insights which still hold true in the 21st century.

In respect of the Indian ... There is a solemnity... Dark and brooding which signals the otherness and separation from the Caucasian.Two races treading entirely different paths each cogniscent yet utterly separate from the other .

With the average height of a Mexican Indian measuring up at maybe 5 foot 2 a blonde haired greying gringo like myself sticks out like the proverbial dogs nuggets . This aboriginal mexican then contrasts with the suave confidence of the Catalan.... And having had contact through a surgeon acquaintance of my partner with several professionals of that ilk.... A twentieth century sophistication combines with a fierce national pride generating an energy which adds credence to the notion that Mexico is biding its time before becoming a major powerhouse on the world stage ,economically at least.

With the Mexican indian, staunch, placid and brooding with his black eyes and blue black hair one senses a connection with nature and the rhythms of the earth and the seasons ...which Lawrence captured more eloquently than myself .. That becomes all the more apparent when the traveller shuns the conurbation and touts his tequila y tortilla to the sticks " the real Mexico" which sits under a metallic blue sky nestled in the folds of the pleated grey mountains of the Sierra madre and in my case , goes by the name of Ixtapan de la sal. More of that later.

Before I take my leave of the metropolis I should first warn you about the pitfalls of traveling via the local metro system .

Again.... The most penetrative prose Cannot do justice .....Lonely Planet advises that it might be prudent to travel outside of rush hours... For during rush hours the forward cars are reserved for women and children only... Leaving their hapless menfolk to struggle with the writhing ,jammed in breathless sweaty mass that characterizes metro travel...

The train pulls in to the station and the impossibly full carriage spews forth its human cargo.... Rapidly replenished by more souls packed belly to belly and the journey continues.
I chose to negotiate my maiden voyage on this transportive monster whilst carrying all my worldly goods in a backpack and smaller pack held close to my chest. Now ,given the impossible proximity of ones fellow passengers ... Even outside the rush hour period... It's hardly surprising that pick pocketing is rife.... So I was more than relieved to complete my journey with my belongings ... And sanity ,intact !

Imagine my chagrin when arriving at the Terminal de sur to catch my Jalopy after much investigation at the very limits of my ( and my phrase books ) capability... It seems I had been fed a bum steer by my host and that in reality I should have been headed to Observatorio not Tasquena station.... So with less than a glad heart but more than my share of macho grit .... I launched myself back into the fray.... This time changing lines... Mercifully to a less crowded carriage.....and with my luggage safely monitored began to actually enjoy the experience .

Having travelled the Paris metro I am familiar with the notion that a moving trolley car and its inhabitants can be a captive audience for buskers or salespeople of whatever variety....
Mexico City takes this to a whole new level . Most peddlers seemed to be selling musical Compilations of various genres .. Whether it be 50 s Rock
And Roll.. Best of the classical composers or 70s Schlock a la Terry Jacks " seasons in the sun".... The sales strategy then seems to bo that a snippet of each song on their particular compilation is broadcast...and hopefully a sale will ensue .

At least ten peddlers had negotiated my carriage during the course of my journey without one of them generating a single peso.Enter the guy selling the pirated Beatles compilation and soon the strains of " I shoulda known Better with a Girl Like you" were put forth for the multitudes closely followed by " and I love her" and "obladi oblada ".

Never underestimate the selling power of the fab four !!! The guy was inundated with customers.... At 10 pesos a disc ( about 70c) he was selling those babies like hotcakes. Though I venture to suggest none of that hard earned bounty will end up in the coffers of Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono .. But hey .... I guess theyll get by with a little help from their friends.

All this entertainment for the princely transit fare of 3 pesos or around 20 c Australian.... And there's the other thing ... Mexico is a time machine when it comes to pricing.... Everything is a fraction of the cost and one finds oneself back in the 1970s ... And with the strength of the Aussie dollar .... Well let's just say that the shoestring grows fat .

And so I find myself at the end of the pink Metro line number 3 .... Observatorio station .... With surprising ease I manage to locate the ticket seller from the seemingly hundreds of companies promoting the delights of their particular range of charabancs and with my luggage safely stowed and my wallet 100 pesos (7 dollars) lighter I begin my 3 hour journey ( the first hour and a half to exit the city ) to Ixtapan de la sal which is a spa town at the foot of the Sierra madre about 160 south west of MC.

A strange name which combines Aztec Ixtapan .. (Meaning "salt pan "in Mexican Indian Lingo) and the Spanish de la sal ( of salt) ..... So there you have it Señor welcome to salt pan of salt... Talk about stating the bleeding obvious.... The town planners must have been having a bad day!!!..... It's almost as double barreled as Peter o Toole .

To be continued.

Posted by Paul Neary 04.02.2012 05:25 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Mornings in Mexico.....Viva La Difference !

How I made it out of Mexico !

sunny 23 °C

To understand the Mexican ... You must first think like the Mexican ....

Hmmm OK !! Well that's a mighty tall order , especially considering the average Mexican inhabits a universe so very foreign to my own experience...

For a kick off Señors Garcia and Hernandez ... Partial to the occasional cold beer on a hot day, are of the opinion that to truly enjoy the benefits of a Corona ( or a Pacifico or Montejo ) it must be consumed , not from the bottleneck ( with the retardation to flow afforded by a sliver of lemon or lime , so beloved of my Australian amigos.)

No .. This is not good form !

Instead the Mexican amber nectar is discharged from the bottle and mixed with a generous shot of a cloudy lemon based concoction which lends to the brew a certain cloudiness not unlike it's Australian cousin Coopers sparkling ale ! Garnish with a sprinkling of salt around the rim of the copa , a la margarita , and there you have it ....Different , but strangely alluring !

It's not entirely a surprise that Corona and Sol... The most visible Mexican beers in your average trendy Sydney hostelry are not highly regarded on their home turf and in much the same way as our own international brand , Fosters , is largely disregarded in Australia , the global Mexican flagship drop is regarded with haughty disdain , in favor of more parochial varieties.

You would think that having consumed generous quantities of the good stuff that the local populace would be lulled gently into slumber at a reasonable hour......No such luck amigo!....and as I am finding as I move East across South America the siesta is king....recharging the batteries for an assault on the hours after midnight which beggars belief.

Now im no slouch in the party department ! I can mix it with the best of them. However ! Noone seems to eat before 11pm and I simply cant wait that long for my tucker !.....and after a solid days exploration of the third largest city on the planet,by midnight Im ready for a kip!
But the noise !!! if it wasnt the revellers it was the fireworks...if it wasnt the fireworks it was the guns or other inexplicable explosions...if it wasnt the guns it was the dogs and the cockerels who seemed to be competing. In Ixtapan the town clings to the hillside looking across a wide dusty valley to the Sierra Madre. Every night it would seem some body was letting off fireworks and bombs and the sound from several different towns somehow seemed to find its way to my bedroom.
Thank God Kirsten had the presence of mind and theh travel nous to pack five pairs of earplugs with my luggage

As I am three weeks into my trip and composing this blog retrospectively I have come to realise that abiding by Australian sleep patterns becomes futile and I am now adopting a "cant beat them....Join em" attitude.

Another small clue to the fact that the world turns a little differently here came during my first tour of the city on foot. I was staying some distance from the Centro Historico and decided to take a somewhat circuitous route to the Zocalo in order to get a better feel for the place, which eventually brought me to the outskirts of the CBD. It struck me very quickly that the street down which I was strolling was filled entirely with shops selling nothing but electric light accessories...switches...wiring ...light fittings you know the type of shop I mean....but all the shops grouped together in the one place. This struck me as somewhat odd in that in Australia or the UK these shops are likely to be seperated and immediately adjacent to other different types of business.

Moving to the next street I quickly found that this rule of thumb also applied to purveyors of sexual novelty items!!....oo er have you ever been tickled missus ?.....moving swiftly on I found myself in the Distrito mobile phone and so on and so forth with only the occasional department store providing a departure from this trend.

To the Mexican this is perfectly normal.

Later that evening I was having a drink with one of the locals and I questioned him in this regard. His response was that it was simply the way business was conducted here and always has been. His explanation was that it enabled the customer to drive a harder bargain when the Senor in the next shop had the same product at a few pesos less....Great for the consumer and very likely to elevate the levels of customer service.

The next day I was continuing my Lawrence travelogue and happened upon a section where he discusses the same phenomenon in a small Mexican town, but in the 1920s .The Zocalo becomes a market place on the weekend and vendors from the outlying villages come to the big town to sell their wares...be they fruit....leather goods...... poultry etc etc....and Lawrence noted that each type of business had its own little area of the market place. He posits that the need for social intercourse is intricately entwined with the desire to barter....and that the deal becomes immaterial ,merely providing the vehicle for human contact with a stranger and the correspondent satiety of the need for human contact..........Go figure !

He also observed that there was a vigorous trade in the shoe making sector in human excrement....at the time used as an adjunct to the tanning of the leather....and that prospective customers were sniffing the pots to make sure he got the best shit......ewww...a practise now mercifully redundant....(although one of my taxi drivers did tell me there was good shit to be had on the streets.......perhaps thats what he meant)?

Oh and the taxis.....there seems to be a taxi classification whereby taxis are broken into two groups safe (Seguro) ,authorised (Autoriso)taxis and the rest....which I am reliably informed are certainly not safe and inadvertent entry may see you driven to a less salubrious suburb and relieved at the very least of your camera and wallet....and in some instances your period of time on the planet !! Now call me crazy but I cant see people queuing up around the block for an unsafe taxi can you ? “ no mate....thought id live dangerously tonight and go for one of the dodgy ones !! ”

For it does seem that despite its undeniable charms Mexico is not without its challenges from a socio economic perspective.

It seems to be the case that whilst the wealthy , at least, appear to have harnessed the potential of a vibrant nation, growing fat on their tequila y enchiladas....the common man....whilst by no means starving, remains largely impoverished and underpaid....and driven by ever increasing cyber glimpses of a 21st century Utopia beyond their shores, and the lure of a quick buck trafficing drugs , the noble savage has turned bandido in order to sate the burgeoning need for a newly minted coin of consumerism.

One need only look at the crime statistics...a staggering 20,000 plus murders took place in Mexico last year, along with countless acts of petty crime, pickpocketing ,muggings and rape.

Smart Traveller urges the need for extreme caution in Mexico and to steer clear entirely of the border towns such as Suarez where the crime rate is out of control where the rubber meets the road of Cocaine trafficing between North and South America.

Everyone who has visited Mexico seems to know someone who has experienced some act of crime or violence and warnings abound to never go out alone after dark.

The upshot is that whilst Mexico is a fascinating and beautiful place to visit I never did feel 100% safe and whilst I made some forays alone into the city at night I tended to stay pretty close to my hostel as a result of this awareness.

A little sad I guess but I least I made it out of Mexico.......wonderfully fed and watered...fascinated by a disparate culture.....So ,sleep deprived and thirsty for my Chilean adventure....Santiago here I come !!

Posted by Paul Neary 14.02.2012 12:34 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Does it feel Chile to you ?

Gotta Love Santiago !

sunny 31 °C

It would be difficult to imagine a more picture perfect metropolis than Santiago...framed as it is on three sides by the majestic snow capped peaks of the Andes and nestling confidently and cleanly into an accommodating geological basin On the banks of the Mapoche River, minding its own business since 1541.

The people of Santiago share the same photogenicity....handsome Caballeros and exotic Senoritas being the result of a gradual intermingling of the Spanish Conquistadore blood and the Incas for whom Santiago was a hub for an empire which stretched over half of the South American land mass.

This city is good looking...and it knows it !

I´m not suggesting that Santiago carries a swagger...Ón the contrary Santaguinos are largely descendants of a strongly agrarian society and despite the presence of over 7 million inhabitants the feel here is of a big country town...in much the same way as my home for many years ...Adelaide. The similarities continue with the structured ...grid like layout of the streets ( its very easy to navigate) and the wine growing regions within a couple of hours of the capital.But I digress!

Along with this there is the disarming ability on the part of most of the Chileans I met to combine a natural elegance and undercurrent confidence with a refreshing Laissez Faire attitude that is very attractive.

My very first contact with this was the taxi driver who ferried me from the airport to the Happy House hostel in Barrio Brazil where I was staying. A delightful man who not only filled me in on the must see,must do attractions of the city but with a fierce pride was able to promote not only the city but the women...the wine and the music....I guess that covers the important subjects !

In all the excitement of drinking this in...and with the weariness of an overnight flight from Mexico and the dissolution of the stressful apprehension and watchfulness carried through my stay in the land of Tequila , I conspired to unwittingly leave my travel document wallet..including my passport ,on the back seat of the cab..doh !! But my driver chased me down the street with an `Hola Senor`to save the day...bowing deeply he informed me in his broken English `Sir I am a professional and this isnt Mexico`. Guess who got the business on my return trip to the airport !!

Santiago sparkles and shines like a shiny new pin and thereby is completely at odds with the rest of the large South American cities I have visited..... It doesnt have the swagger´and dirty- sweet arrogance of a Buenos Aires, nor does it have have the mentality that its ok to litter or to allow your dog to freely defecate in the street that seems to be the case in the Argentinian capital . It doesnt have the stratospheric craziness and energy of Rio De Janeiro at Carnavale time ,but nor does it have the abject poverty or the all pervasive odour of urine born from the lack of amenities and the seemingly god given right of the Brazilian male...to piss where he damn well chooses!

What it does have is a strong sense of civic pride as evidenced by a wonderful and inexpensive public transport system and the amount of architecturally sweet urban developments, combined with an ability to embrace change , along with the world beyond its borders .
I was not surprised to learn that many multinational corporations have chosen to utilise Santiago as a business hub for Latin America further feathering the nest of Chiles largest city.....already thriving with its Fishing forestry, mining and tourism industries.

Lonely planet had already moistened my appetite for my visit when it selected Santiago as one of the top ten hottest travel destinations in the world for 2012. It also suggested for me to beware of the smog here (apparently it is something of a lottery in terms of visibility)....However it seems that fortune favours the brave traveller and for the nine day duration of my stay the air was hot ,but dry and diamond clear....as if the city had chosen to wear its best clothes to impress me....vivid and colourful like a freshly minted postage stamp .

I guess all these things combine to single out Santiago as probably the most accessible South American city to the Australian or UK visitor in terms of staying within ones comfort zone....Not sure if this is such a good thing in terms of the travel experience...but hey it was a welcome respite from the apprehension I felt during my Mexican sojourn and enabled me to gather my strength to fully appreciate my impending visitsto Buenos Aires and Crazytown Brasil !

The foods good too !

Despite being 200 kilometres from the port of Valparaiso (also incidentally the administrative capital for the nation) the seafood is mouth watering, fresh, abundant and inexpensive . Chileans often serve their seafood raw ...but its dissimilar to the Japanese inspired cuisine of Rios sushi bars in that the presentation isn´t as orderly and much of the fish is served having effectively been ``cooked ``by the generous additon of Lemon juice......and if you get the chance to sample a seafood ``Galeon``...which is a cold soup made from selection of different seafood delicacies; oysters ,scallops, mussels, fresh tuna , prawns ,crab etc and served with red onions and a bread roll...bloody well go for it.

They also make the best thin crust, tasty, healthy Pizza in which it has ever been my privilege to indulge....and you can customise your pizza! Finish this off with gorgeously fresh salads , accentuated with the judicious and delicious use of herbs such as sage and thyme, and a glass of Torontel from one of the local vineyards and Santiago caters for the most discerning palate
Only problem is that like everywhere else in South America dinner comes late (or extremely early the next day!)....Luckily by this stage I had begun to assimilate this trait and have had several memorable meals still continuing as the clock ticked over .

After my first days exploration of the city...again on foot... I decided to stop in to a hostelry with the locals to wash away the trail dust with a cold one....for the equivalent of $3 Australian I was expecting the Chilean equivalent of a Carlton Cold ! what I got was a litre of the local brew, Escudo....cold , crisp ,eminently palatable and quite potent and I found myself staggering a little en route to the hostel. I guess in the convivial Chilean spirit , the bottle is intended for sharing...hic.

Finally ,I mentioned earlier that the Chileans are a pretty laid back race of people...generally happy , friendly and peace loving..These traits seem to have been somehow superimposed on the large canine population of stray dogs.....extremely good natured creatures too......even encountering a group of the beasts on a street corner is somehow non threatening, because the dogs are as chill as the people...almost as if they had shared a joint earlier in the evening and were kicking back with a coupla cans of chum!!

Hey...I could go on but I have a plane to catch!!!

If only they didnt have earthquakes here !!! I could get used to the Chilean way of life !!

Posted by Paul Neary 22.02.2012 08:08 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Brazil ... Where the nuts come from ! Carnevale !

Let me take you down...to Crazy town !!! A tale of two cities !

sunny 34 °C

There is a line from the play "Charley's aunt" by Brandon Thomas that has resonated with me since childhood ..........This being when Charlie Wykeham speaks of his relative , Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez ,as being " from Brazil .... Where the nuts come from !!!!!"

Well ! Indeed !

Always attractive .... This sentence assumed epic clarity during the six days of mind numbing frenzy....endless samba driven backside jiggling......shameless hedonistic endeavour....and plain wall to wall party madness.... Unpuctuated by any semblance of rest.... That is Carnivale in Rio de Janeiro.

This is, my friend...where the nuts come from !

Moreover, it is not only in Rio that Carnivale takes over : indeed the whole country succumbs to Carnivale lunacy during the six days of the festival.....It is ,however ,only in Rio De Janeiro that Carnivale is celebrated and crystallised on such a grand ,energetic scale ,with round the clock dancing ,singing, carousing....and very often stimulation by various illicit substances to keep the whole juggernaut rolling for six days and nights without respite.

Be assured, ye who have not been privy to this event that the saying "slow and steady wins the race" simply does not apply....for whilst sleep may take you in its blissful embrace variously during this six day party....this vast river of celebration continues unabated...round the clock for the entire festival....ready at any time for the visiting reveller to jump right back in.

It seems somehow incongruous that Carnivale is actually the Latin way of preparing for Lent......that 40 day period of self imposed abstinence which is supposed to mirror Christs 40 day period of fasting and self examination in the wilderness..... and I'm sure that given the deeply Catholic leanings of this country for some individuals at least this significance is retained ! For the vast majority however it's just a huge opportunity to party hard.

The secular way of marking this religious calendar event in Britain and Australia is to eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday......In hindsight this custom might be considered slightly conservative considering that the Brazilian way is to assemble 10 million participants from around the world (many Rio natives...having seen this all before willingly escape the madness by heading out of town) in the unashamed pursuit of fun .

The next step is to clad said participants in the compulsory crazy garb...... (Everyone wears a costume of some description ranging from the flamboyantly expensive and glamorous costumes on display at the official sambadrome parades to the simple addition of a novelty item...usually a hat ....to ones wardrobe ).

My modest contribution to this vibrant and remarkable pastiche was a pirates hat red bandana and an eye patch ....which accoutrement was eventually rejected in favour of the much needed benefits of twenty twenty vision .It has to be said that I felt somewhat guilty given the planning and effort that had gone into most of the costumes on display around the clock......all ages ...children...dogs...everyone seemingly digs out the cossies and gets into the swing of things.

Maybe its the fact of my British heritage and stiff upper lip...as I'm not normally shy and reserved....but strangely enough most of the British and Australian participants in Carnivale ,whilst enthusiastic observers don't seem to have the appropriate party credentials to look good doing the samba.
Obviously there are exceptions to this rule...but as Tom....an Oxford graduate sharing my digs at the Rio Hostel was heard to intone " I wish I could .....but I cant seem to bring myself to let go and dance in the street ".

Obviously...whilst the City of Rio is extremely well planned and prepared for this onslaught of humanity......some things slip through the cracks......and in the sea of "Antarctica" beer cans and through the palpable odour of urine that descends upon the entire city as the toilet facilities are tested to their limits and eventually fail ( I have never seen so many people ...of both sexes openly urinating in the street) the reality of poverty and the ugly face of humanity rear their heads like the double headed Carnivale monster they undoubtedly are.

It is difficult to comprehend the number of people literally sleeping in the gutter.....not because of any over indulgence in most cases...but because this is their natural habitat......consigned to sleeping in a sea of beer cans , cigarette butts and flowing urine whilst the rest of party hard and snuggle down between freshly laundered sheets when it all becomes too much.

With this as a backdrop , therefore it hardly seems surprising that crime...particularly pickpocketing and petty theft become a reality that is the rule rather than the exception.

I was the victim on two occasions of being relieved of personal items...which incidents I am about to relate..and in a fresh spirit of looking at the world from a positive standpoint will endeavour to imbue these incidents with a positive slant.

Firstly my I phone !!! Myself and Paul ,a fellow Australian staying at the Rio Hostel in St Theresa were attending the opening procession of Carnivale and I was excitedly capturing some of the color and eccentricity with my apple device.... This obviously made me a target, since bitter experience would eventually inform me that standing too close to the vanguard of a procession ... To get a better look, is pure follly ... Putting you firmly in the path of the "I phone pick pocket detail" who seek to utilize the passage of the procession and the consequent press and loss of balance as an opportunity to relieve you of your connection to the outside world.

Surprisingly they didn't take my wallet !! Which would have has more far reaching implications..... however four people within a couple of meters of myself suffered a similar fate.

The sight of four people within a couple of meters of one another scrabbling in the gutter in search of their lost phones brought home to me what had actually happened ... Yet caught in the throng and with nowhere to go ... At least until the procession had passed.... All you can do is shrug your shoulders and marvel at the professionalism of the thieves .

Fortunately I insured the phone ahead of my trip... And I guess that's what insurance is for.

The second incident was on the final Night of Carnivale...... It was 1am in the morning and I had ventured from the hostel to the street to soak up the madness in Lapa one final time.....

I was aware of a completely different vibe.... The drunkenness of the populace was the sad drunkenness of several days of excess taking its toll and sharpening the atmosphere with a sad brooding malevolence which was palpable . The exhortations of the drug salesmen .... "cocaine hash Marijuana you try... Good blow" became almost frenetic and insistent to the point of being threatening . Similarly the approaches of the professional ladies of the district became more persistent ..... Not because of my wit and charm but because the commercial window of opportunity afforded by the festival was rapidly closing and by the looks of things some quotas had not been achieved .

I was approached by a Brazilian lady of a certain age ... Accompanied by a ring of dirty henchmen.... My white shirt and blonde/ white hair made me stand out I guess and for this lady I became a target .... She began to hurl profanities and obscenities at me from 15 m . And whilst my Portuguese is weak to say the least the vehemence of her outpouring whilst unintelligible to me left nothing to the imagination ... And even in the midst of the crowd I felt that bitter flow of adrenaline that tells you something is wrong...

Soon she was screaming right in my face and whilst she might have only been five foot 3 or so I felt the violence in her explode as she pushed me backwards with both hands simultaneously striking my shoulders..... Not knowing what to do ,I stood my ground and this is when she reached for my neck..... Grasped the chain and Argentinian peso which hung there and ripped it away.... She then held it up in front of my face with a blank evil stare and a gurgle of laughter which spread to her henchmen..... All of them poised for me to challenge her for its return.

I had purchased the chain at Ipanema markets for 10 reals so it was a cheap bauble ..... Had it been an item of some personal significance I might have pushed back for its return.... As it was I held up my hands.... Turned on my heels and legged it back to the refuge of the hostel.

I had heard tales of similar incidents where the individual trying to retrieve the item had been viciously beaten .... And in the case of one unlucky French photographer only three days previously lhad lost his life because he had refused to surrender his camera. So on this occasion discretion as opposed to valour was definitely the order of the day.

My Mate John Cowles captured it succinctly when he said ...." dont worry Paul think of it as a direct tax on those rich enough to attend carnivale .....going directly to the poor"... I do hope this is actually the case.

All told I dont think I really saw the real Rio.....the romantic Rio of Carmen Miranda.....the Rio that inspired Mike Nesmith to pen the words " Its only a whimsical notion to fly down to Rio tonight"....

I did catch a fleeting glimpse on my final day there before I moved down the coast....somehow within the space of twelve hours the beer cans had been removed....the urine washed away and the undoubtedly beautiful city of Rio emerged ,like a butterfly from its chrysalis, from beneath its blanket of party revellers.....

Thus revealed I could finally see the golden sands of Ipanema and Copacabana....glimpse Christ the redeemer presiding famously over the city from his mountain home and Sugar loaf mountain breathed a sigh of relief unburdened by its constant procession of tourists.

Brazil is a wonderful place...as I was to discover in surf country down the coast......with great people,fantastic food and an unbeatable climate.

Carnivale is not the real Rio....but Crikey...its one hell of a shindig !

Sent from my iPhone

Posted by Paul Neary 29.03.2012 03:21 Archived in Brazil Tagged crazytown Comments (0)

Lisbon......Coffee, Cobblestones and Class.

23 °C

Flying in to the Portuguese capital the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that at first sight , the place looks ...well...somewhat bland !

This (entirely false) impression explicable by the fact that from the air most buildings seem to be homogeneously crafted from the same greyish, white building material, and the overall impression is a little dull ! ...On the ground nothing could be further from the truth.

Up close, the building material turns out to be the rare Lioz limestone......a local product sitting somewhere between the more porous limestone of Northern England and the marble from which the better heeled amongst us fashion our swanky kitchen work surfaces...and rather like a blank canvas to the talented artist, provides a fitting backdrop to the colour,style and pizazz of this exciting city.

One of the first things that struck me is that every pavement and open public square in Lisbon is intricately paved with this beautiful stone...and one of the cities more memorable and appealing signatures are its wonderful cobblestones.

Architecturally and aesthetically Lisbon turns out to be an undiscovered gem and from my own perspective made all the more gratifying by the fact that prior to my visit ,I had rarely given Lisbon (or Portugal) more than a passing thought...and If I had these were undeveloped thoughts related to football ( Eusebio..Cristiano Ronaldo.....Benfica)...alcoholic beverages (Port....Vino Verde) ,erstwhile pioneering explorers ( Vasco da Gama et al ) and whether or not the Algarve was a viable alternative to the Greek islands in my "twenty something" travel plans.

Arriving in the country as a mature man (at least in years) and with a travellers eye sharpened by two months of new experiences, I have been more than delighted.....for around each corner in Lisbon is a new adventure , a new delight , and on foot exploration of the city ( as well as utilisation of the excellent and efficient public transport system) is its own reward..

It is also one of the worlds most ancient cities...predating London and Paris by hundreds of years and a melting pot of history that has included periods of domination by both the Germans ,Romans French and the Moors ,each leaving behind their particular architectural signature and contributing to a wonderful melting pot of building styles.

Lisbon is the Westernmost Capital City in Europe.....brazenly challenging the vast expanse of the Atlantic ocean before it like a question mark and whilst this may be a romantic notion ,it is easy to visualise a young Vasco Da Gama on the banks of the majestic River Tagus squinting into the westering sun and dreaming of lands yet to be discovered.
I have nothing but admiration for these early explorers....true pioneers in the spirit of adventure and it is no surprise therefore that there is an immense sense of pride on the part of the Portuguese people for this sparkling maritime tradition.

Whilst Santiago Chile is redolent of a new financial confidence and prosperity ,the ancient city of Lisbon reeks of "old money" ..... and let me tell you there must have been an abundance of the stuff back when Portugal ruled the waves...How could there not have been when the city is replete with such ornate and graceful architecture on such a grand scale?...... and whilst Portugal may be currently grappling with the ravages of the GFC...when in the ancient and beautiful Barrio of Belem in the shadow of its famous tower with the magnificent Monastery of Geronimo not far away, one can almost hear the wind in the white sails of the galleons in which Vasco de Gama and his colleagues set sail centuries ago to lay claim to half the planet and generate a cash bonanza in trade and commerce which would fuel the expansion of the nation for centuries......

One of the countries discovered by Da gama and colonised by the Portuguese is Brazil. By design the country immediately preceding Portugal on my RTW itinerary . There are obvious links between the two countries...the most intriguing being that at the beginning of the 19th century when Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in the city the King and Queen of Portugal suffered self imposed exile in South America and the seat of Portuguese government switched from Lisbon to Rio...a fascinating turn of events which Im fairly confident hasn't happened before or since!! and whilst there are some similarities (language being the most obvious)...culturally these countries are worlds apart.

It has to be said that whilst I enjoyed the frenetic new world energy of Brazil....my inital impression on arriving at my hostel in the classy and artistic Barrio Alto....which clings to one of the seven hills on which Lisbon is built ,was just how "old school" classy and very "European" this place is and significantly ,after several weeks in the coffee wilderness of South America........(sounds strange doesnt it because a significant portion of world coffee production is from there...but they cant make an espresso to save themselves)...Imagine the bliss when finding excellent espresso available seemingly at every street corner.

The next day I was to discover the perfect accompaniment to aforementioned coffee in the shape of the most agreeably delicious Custard tarts it has ever been my pleasure to inhale...Now.... coming from the North of England .....no sluggard in the production of excellent custard tarts itself...this is a rare accolade......but here is one thing you must not miss whilst in Lisbon....a custard tart...dressed with Cinnamon and Icing sugar...washed down with perfect espresso...and preferably from the celebrated "Pastis de Belem".... a much frequented cafe in the suburb of the same name.......Compulsory.

One of the passions in which I have indulged in every city I have visited is that of football....more specifically as a spectator to this magnificent sport...and probably the best game I have attended on my travels is Benfica versus Zenit in a Champions league quarter finals qualifier in the awe inspiring Estadio Da Luz.........60,000 passionate fans cheering their team (and my team for the evening...sorry dad it did necessitate wearing Red and White colours) to victory over the visiting Russians.

This really did give me some insight into the Portuguese People on my first night in the country.....not only because of their passion for the sport...but in the laid back, good natured fashion they indulge that passion.. Travelling back to Barrio Alto later that night the banter of the people...(though in a language I have great difficulty understanding) gave me the impression of a race of laid back individuals not dissimilar to the people of Australia. This was further reinforced during my stay....and in conversation with several of the young Portuguese staff at my hostel ( a very interesting building overlooking The Castle of St George across the valley which used to be the Swedish embassy).....we concluded that this must be the case because of the similarities in the climate...quite possibly.....since the climate is not dissimilar to my old stamping ground , Adelaide , and I was blessed with balmy temperatures throughout my visit.

This is also an extremely attractive race of people......obesity seems to be virtually absent..despite the quantity of food consumed by the populace . The Portuguese male is much more likely to be handsome than not ( girls check out the Portuguese football team... I rest my case!)and the female population are extremely attractive creatures...in general not as "comely" or buxom as your Brazilian or your Argentinian senorita ..(indeed the average height of the Portuguese lady seems to be greater than her south American counterpart) but with a calm ,almost regal grace.....cascading chestnut hair framing aquiline features and bewitching smiles....( steady Paul ..youre starting to sound like a fella who has been away from home too long !!).

It has to be said that leaving Portugal I was thinking that it would be a hard act to follow....and as I skipped across the Iberian peninsula from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.....I was to find that act..in the shape of the city of Barcelona.

Posted by Paul Neary 01.04.2012 10:51 Archived in Portugal Tagged cobblestones Comments (0)

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