Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande

8 months ago, I was in Florence, Italy, visiting 2 American brothers. Their friends were hosting a Brazilian couchsurfer named Andre. After the group of us traveled to Cinque Terre together and hung out in Florence, I had convinced Andre to surf my couch in Reykjavik one day. 2 months later, he arrived in Reykjavik, and I told him I’d have to surf his couch in Rio one day. 4 months later, I was surfing his couch in Niteroi, with only 2 days notice.

Ipanema

It was impossible to reach him earlier since I was floating around in the middle of the Northern

me and Cristo

Brazilian Amazon, and I wasn’t sure he would be in Rio since he travels a lot. But, he welcomed me in to his family’s home as a couchsurfer and a friend, and Im so relieved I actually remembered I had the outstanding invitation (I have so many people left to visit I often wonder how many cities I’ve visited without remembering to call someone!)

Sugar Load and the teleferico lines in the fog

His home was in Niteroi, accross the bay from Rio, with a spectacular view of the Sugar Loaf hill. You could see Christ the Redeemer from his balcony, and it only took a 14 km bridge to get to the heart of Rio. He took me to Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, we took the gondola up Pão de Açúcar, took pictures from Vista Chinesa, and waded through the crowds up the Corcodova to see Cristo Redentor. I had planned for 6 days in Rio, but on my second day, we took an impromptu camping trip to Ilha Grande.

We were having buffet pizza with some other locals and backpackers on my first night when Digo invited us to go. He said we would need all our camping supplies and food for 3 days since the island is only interconnected by a series of trails and a few boat docks. We had to hike 3 hours to the ‘secluded’ beach we wanted to stay at, but then realized hundreds of other people had made the difficult trek searching for the same paradise… a perfect case of tragedy of the commons. But, instead of a wild and rugged

the crowds and the view from Corcovado

weekend, we had a fun-filled beach vacation, making lots of new friends  while dancing and sleeping only inches from one anothers tents. I learned very quickly that I don’t speak portugese, but I can understand it, and when I try to speak, I’m actually communicating myself through Portunol and Spanglish, a mix of spanish and english with Portugese decoration.

Through the Amazon to Brazil

 

the bidge from Europe to South America

I had been told about the possibility of going by land from French Guyana to Belem and decided that would be the way I’d get to Brazil. I started Sunday afternoon in a very quiet Cayenne and learned I had missed the last bus to St. Georges, the border town of French Guyana and Brazil. Instead, I had to hitchhike, and waited on the side of the road for only a few minutes before a Lexus SUV pulled over. The driver was Cecil, an immigration officer who worked in St. Georges. We drove the 3 hours together listening to Zouk, and only stopped once to buy a bag of lychees for 1 euro on the side of the road. He told me about all the tricks and formalities I had to know to get to Brazil.  In St. Georges, I had to first find the police station in town to get my exit stamp. Then I had to go down to the riverside and hire a motor canoe to drive me across the muddy waters to Oiapaque, the Brazilian town 5 minutes away. Cecil first showed me the bridge to Brazil, which has been completed for some months now and has an entire staffed border on the French side, but the Brazilian side hasn’t finished their road or built the proper facilities yet, so the bridge remains ucrossed.

Once I arrived in Oiapaque, I had to wander a few blocks into town away from the docks to find the Brazilian police station, which makes you wait outside while they take your passport inside and take 15 minutes to examine and stamp it. Then you have to walk back down to the river front, or 4 km further into town, to find a bus to take you overnight to Macapa. There are only a couple daily, leaving between 5 and 6 pm, and take 11 or 12 hours to get to Macapa. I read the road was bumpy and uncomfortable, but even in the very back row, I managed to sleep without hopping around too much.

The bus stopped every 4 hours for a toilet break, and each rest stop had free coffee and water. You could pay for a meal by weight, serve-yourself buffet style of whatever tickled your fancy. It was a long, damp ride through the rain forest, but it was never cold until they overdid it with the airconditioning.

Once you arrive in Macapa, you have to get to Santa Ana, a town 25 minutes away either by bus or taxi. The docks there are filled with boats that sail up and down the amazon, to remote floating villages and all the way to Belem, an urban city of 2 million. There’s usually a boat every day, leaving in the morning or afternoon, and takes anywhere between 24 – 40 hours. I bought a ticket with Sao Francisco da Paula, which was scheduled to leave at 10 am. It left 30 minutes late, but arrived in Belem exactly 24 hours later – a unexpected surprise when I had been warned the boats usually take atleast 36 hours.

We sailed all day and night, at the same, slow speed, with the humming sound of the engine quickly becoming white noise. There were 3 floors – the first, the loudest, with fewest hammocks; the second with hammocks stacked beside and ontop of eachother in every conceivable hanging spot, and the third, a roof top patio and bar where people watched the same music video on repeat the entire 24 hours. I was the only non-portugese speaking person, and only one of three women under 40. The rest were males and families who paid little attention to my strangeness. The staff made sure I knew when meal time was, where I could find free coffee, and approved my hammock spot in a more secluded corner at the back of the boat where I shared the view of the amazon passing under us with only 3 other people.

Sometimes the river was narrow, with overhanging trees and lush vegetation seemingly floating alongside us. Other times, it was as wide as a lake, giving you the feeling the Caribbean ocean wasn’t far away. Every few hours, we passed a fisherman or some kids in dugout canoes paddling against our wake, and a wooden house on stilts with some smoke or light peering out of it. I could never see past the density of the trees, or down below the murky surface of the water, so I found myself looking up a lot, at the bright blue sky, the passing clouds, the thick grey clouds pouring down rain on us or over yonder, and finally the star studded sky and shiny moon filling from the wrong side.

Since I arrived in Belem 12 hours earlier than I expected, I had the entire day to explore since my flight to Rio wasn’t until 2 am. I had no idea or any clue what to do, and Belem was as big and scary as sailing into Miami Beach from the silent everglades, so I took a taxi to an internet café and searched for a friend on couchsurfing. Within an hour, I was walking past the beautiful Nazarene Basilica on my way to Jorge’s house, where I could shower, drink some acai, and leave my bags. He led me to the old town, past another beautiful church, a fortress, and a rancid port where pigeons had been replaced by vultures and the smell of dead fishy things was overwhelming. But the place was beautiful, and an incredible market started there and went on for many blocks until we reached the new town. There we ran into more couchsurfers, and sat on a patio in the drizzling rain drinking beers and cachaca until my midnight calling to go to the airport sadly arrived.

French Guyana

The flight from Martinique to French Guyana was $429, easily the most expensive 2 hours I’ve had on this trip. It was almost the same price to go from Martinique to Paris, and cheaper to ferry to St. Lucia, fly to Miami, fly to Paramaribo and then bus to Cayenne. But, for time efficiency, I chose to fly. I went from the indoor airport in Martinique, onto my plane, and into the indoor, airconditioned airport in Cayenne, only to notice a grasshopper the size of my hand clinging onto my scarf. I have no idea how he got there or how long he was there, but he scared the hell out of me when he started crawling down my shoulder in the baggage claim hall. Regrettably, my checked bag came out with a pocket open and a bunch of things missing, making the voyage even more expensive (Air Caraibes doesn’t have very good baggage protection terms).

skate-board kiting on the beach near Cayenne

I spent my first few days in Cayenne, with friends of my Guadeloupian host. Alexis and Jonathan were both more than happy to host me since they each planned to visit Iceland, and have now made a friend and found a couch ready to welcome them in Reykjavik. They were both ‘metropoles,’ Frenchies from France who live in the not-so-metropolitan overseas parts of France. They were both civil engineers, working in construction, and Alexis had worked with the Space Station in Kourou building satellites.

hiding from the rain at the Centre Spatial Guyanais

We visited the Space station, got up close and personal with a rocket, saw he rocket launch pads, and visited the Space museum, but unfortunately there was no launch planned and I still don’t quite understand how they get those huge machines out of our atmosphere and into outer space. Alexis explained the science behind it and tried to tell me how fast a rocket can travel, but all of the numbers and examples were literally uncomprehendable. He had watched a few launches and said the whole show is over in about 2 minutes, when the rocket is far out of sight and only the deafening sound still travels back to spectators ears. The earth shakes as much as a magnitude 5 earthquake, and the light and heat from the burning fuel required the closest observation point to be no less than 7 kilometres.

hiking near Kourou for a view of the CNES grounds and launching areas

I arrived late in the evening to Cayenne and remember it was 32 degrees Celsius, and sticky humid. I couldn’t light a match because the match tips couldn’t stay dry. It was already the rainy season, and every day, torrential downpours would flash flood the streets and soak any unfortunate soul stuck without shelter. It happened to me on the beach, and eventually I gave up trying to shelter under a palm branch and went swimming instead. The water was even warmer than the air, probably 30 degrees at least. At Jonathan’s apartment in town, they suggested that I use the air conditioner, whose default temperature was 26 degrees. I’ve never even considered an air conditioner to function as a device to lower the temperature to 26 degrees – heaters are usually the machines pumping out equatorial heat to try and warm a room up to 22 degrees at most. But no, in French Guyana, you need coolers to keep the room temperature at a sweaty 26 degrees.

Themes of the Eastern Caribbean Islands

Colonial history. All the islands have similar stories – a long history of European powers changing hands, confused by the French, British, Dutch orDanish affiliations they once had. Now they have a mix up of languages, and place names seem to be repeated everywhere, a Soufriere, Marigot, Basse-terre, or Vieux Fort on each island, pronounced slightly differently in each place.

haunted cane mills in St. Kitts

rum float cocktail

Sugar cane.Cane fields and plantations galore, sugar mill ruins standing around in disrepair, and the slow forgetting of their biggest industry as tourism takes over the economy.

Rum.Cane rum, aged rum, white rum, spiced rum, flavoured rum, rum punch, Ti-punch, rum distilleries, rum chocolate, rum cake… a lot of rum.

Coconuts, coconut cookies and coconut cocktails, coconut milk and coconut shavings. They would literally fall at your feet (or on your head), wherever you went, on the beach, in the forest, and sold on the street to drink straight out of the husk for petty change.

BBQ, barbeque wings, barbeque pork, barbeque anything, sold as ‘the local’ food since it was popular, cheap, and in

BBQ ribs in St. John, yumm

abundance everywhere.

Roti, delicious bread stuffed with ground lentils or boneless chicken curry… which you realize is never actually boneless as you almost choke on a sharp sliver.

Beaches, black sand beaches near volcanoes, white sand beaches as fine as flour, brown sand beaches with grains like undissolvable brown sugar, and pink beaches filled only with billions of little pink shells.

Cruise ships, polluting the port cities with thousands of tourists, sometimes 4 boats docked at a time. Battling through the city center for the 8 hours they were unleashed, buying jewelry and alcohol and overpriced souvenirs, and having to politely smile and explain you weren’t from a ship everytime someone asked ‘Which ship? or reminded you it was boarding time.

cruise ships in port, Antigua

Med Schools, med students and university campuses filled with Canadians and Americans who didn’t get accepted or couldn’t afford tuition in North America. And again, the questions ‘What semester are you?’ and the confused look on peoples faces when you insisted you were just visiting and not studying.

Stray dogs, everywhere, of all sizes, colours, shapes and health. In the French Islands, there were purse dogs and living teddybears who managed to become the chosen ones with homes and owners, which only struck me as weird given the animal abuse the rest of the dogs (some, just as cute) had to bear. I saw some sickly looking dogs, one with its ear cut off by a machete, and even harmless dogs snoozing in the street had to get up once in a while to dodge the cruel drivers who purposely tried to swerve towards them.

Stray roosters and scratching hens with a row of scraggly chicks in tow. And then the lucky roosters strong and healthy enough to become fighting cocks, treated like princes by their gambling owners.

Honking, by every bus driver, taxi, private car and motorcycle, as a means to communicate just about anything – hello, thank you, goodbye, get out of the way, or learn how to drive. So the streets were always singing in a chorus of honks.

Accents, sweet, sing-song accents of creole and patois with humorous vocabulary, unrecognizable slang and unusual ways of constructing sentences and tensing verbs. It was always so charming to see a latin lady speak Islander, a blonde guy speak Spanish, a Rasta speak American English, and children speaking Parisian French that I thought only mature adults could pull off.

black sand beach in St. Kitts

 

Island time. Schedules or opening hours are just suggestions, things happen slower, you can’t rush anyone no matter how hard you try, and the apparent disrespect for time is universal so you become the disrespectful one if you don’t have the time to wait. And people wait, and wait… and wait, sitting around with nothing to do but watch other people do nothing.

Martinique

I was couchsurfing in Fort-de-France, at a collocation of twenty-something metropole males and one French Guyanese girl. Heliott picked me up from the ferry terminal in the city center, which at 7pm on a Sunday was a total ghost town. Even the streets were carless, which was partly due to the gas station trike happening island wide. The few gas stations which were open had dozens of cars waiting patiently in line, some waiting over an hour just to refuel.  

Fort-de-France, looking little different than other island cities

I was back in France, but it just wasn’t the same France. Algae grows on the rear view mirrors of every Peugot and Clio, stainless steel gates are somehow stained, concrete walls and houses crumble, wood rots, and any white paint turns to shades of brown and grey. Martinique is a department of France, but its also a developing, decaying island constantly battling the humid, infectious jungle overtaking all the manmade comforts we’ve tried to establish in a place that screams to stay wild.

I was in Martinique only 5 days, but it was the first island I visited and felt like doing nothing. It was not because of the appeal of the island, but with myself, my tired body,

wildlife on our waterfall trek

 my exhausted mind from weeks of traveling. So many new places, people, sensations, and yet, a big blur of similar experiences, persuaded me to take an entire day to rest, digest. I sat still and relaxed for a day and a half, only seeing the balcony and my bed, and enjoying the people and things which passed by me. I met all the roomates, their boyfriends and girlfriends, tasted their rum, ate dinner with everyone, and talked in French and English about my journey so far.

waterfalls are much prettier than shitty-bat caves

By the second day, I still hadn’t looked at a map, and had no idea where I was except that I was in Martinique, but not even sure what or how big Martinique was. I was in Tivoli, near the middle of the country east of Fort-De-France. There is not much tourism in Martinique, and little infrastructure for a visting tourist. So the rest of my days in Martinique were equally relaxing, doing little else than fraternizing with my new household.

Julien, the other couchsurfer in the group, took me out of the house for a couple nearby hikes. We visited Chute des Didiers, a beautiful waterfall to swim under, so long

chutes du didier

 as you don’t mind freshwater crabs and shrimp scurrying past your toes. And, you have to make it through a 200m, dark, bat-inhabited tunnel, walking along a narrow, slippery, waterpipe, that if you slip off, end up in knee-deep bat shit/mud. Luckily, we managed to stay on the pipe.

Me and his roommate, Jerome, explored another river which wasn’t trail marked, and decided to follow it down to a small waterfall which wasn’t quite deep enough to jump into. But, we were stuck on top of it and had to go downstream to return to the car, so we took turns lowering eachother down and keeping our fingers crossed that no blood baths would result at the bottom.

Another day, I went with their neighbor Alex to the north west part of Martiniqe. We visited his friend in La Carbet, who lived in a house with a beautiful 180 degree view of the ocean from high up on a hill. Together we went on to St. Pierre, the former Petite-Paris and cosmopolitan capital of the French West Indies. It was totally destroyed in 1902 by a volcano, wiping out 28,000 people and all the beautiful architecture, a story similar to the catastrophe of Pompeii, but survived by two who lived to tell the story first-hand.