#26 – Brazil, Foz do Iguacu

So it turns out Paraguay and Brazil have an open border – so the next day off I went to secure stamps from both sides, slipping back out of Brazil and pretending to enter again for the first time.

It at least gave me another chance to see the beautiful Ciudad del Este of Paraguay. And by beautiful I mean horrible. If all the worst parts of capitalism could be summed up in one place it would be here.

Cheap/stolen/smuggled electronic goods – more shops then I ever thought possible in one place and old women struggling with 50′ TV’s as they walk back across the bridge from Paraguay to Brazil. Every day here must be like Xmas eve down at your local shopping centre – consumerist heaven.

I did a runner back to Brazil as soon as possible, and will never forget the events of later that night. My first full day in Brazil and my first time seeing a Brazil game on home soil. I was excited to say the least, if quite apprehensive of their chances. I had a number of comments asking if I was German, so for safety measures bought a cheap yellow t-shirt with some generic Brazil football writing on the front for a couple of quid.

Only a few minutes in and I was glad of my Brazil-fan disguise, as Germany ripped apart Brazil time and time again. I’d sussed out a decent bar-come-restaurant to watch the game, and got there nice and early to soak up the atmosphere. The atmosphere, though, seemed lacking even before kick off and It looked a nervy crowd – not the usual buzz of expectation you would imagine Brazilians to feel before a game.

I was joined at my table by another Englishman, an older guy who had taken 6 weeks off of work to follow the world cup. He made great company as we traded a few stories of our travels. We both thought Germany should win fairly comfortably, but neither of us saw this coming.

It quickly became a surreal experience as Germany raced to such a large early lead, and by half time most of the Brazilians were cheering on the Germans, while the others sat in complete disbelief. The waiters seemed to take the blow the worst, as they moped from table to table, one eye on the screen, the other seemingly holding back the tears.

As the match finished, we made the decision not to hang around. There was no knowing what might kick off – I had visions of riots and hospitals full of over-celebrating Germans. As it turned out, it passed almost without incident. The day that marked the death of Brazilian football. De-throned on their home soil, a match that broke all sorts of records, and a game that will talked about throughout the future of football.

Football aside, the city of Foz – a lot bigger then I had imagined – is a pretty bland place. I’m probably being favourable by only naming it bland, but you come here for one reason, and thats the Iguazo falls. There isn’t too much to say about the falls – the pictures, although don’t quite do it justice, are better then any words. Though I’ll throw a few words in anyway, init.

The first day was raining when I visited the Brazilian side and like a fat kid accidentally locked in a sweet shop, I couldn’t stop grinning as I wandered around. Even though it was a terrible day weather wise, it added an atmospheric quality to the falls, with mist surrounding and following you as you walked.

On the Brazilian side you can get up right next to the falls, thanks to a platform which will leave you soaking wet after a quick stroll along it. The crushing roar of the fall more than makes up for a quick shower, and you can see and hear the sheer power of the water which really is quite awesome to behold.

The second day I checked out the Argentinian side. I was blessed with a perfect day and stunning views, albeit from a little further away. It was also jammed full of people and much more of a tourist park then the Brazilian side. Both were great for separate reasons but I was glad to have dedicated 2 days to both sides. Sometimes the big tourist attractions disappoint, but Iguazo was simply magical.

After seeing both sides it was time to head to Rio – via a cheeky 26 hour straight bus ride from Foz. Throughout the trip I have been quite enjoying the long distance bus rides – but they are all about preparation. Lots of snacks, a charged iPod, book and most importantly 4 or 5 cans of beer.

The trick is to stay awake during the day, and as it gets to night you drink the beers in quick succession and then boom – you’ll wake up, hopefully with all your stuff, right in time for jumping off the bus in the morning.

This bus ride was particularly ominous, as I had booked some accommodation in a favela (when in Rome), and also wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to get there.

Attempting to save a few dollars by taking public transport instead of a taxi, I had an absolute mare in the morning on the way to the coach station. To cut a long story short, I ended up getting a bus that was sort-of not the right one, and then suddenly realising my beloved notepad had dropped out of my pocket, just as I was due to get off the bus, and catch a different bus.. (long story).

The panic hit me at once. Panic that I’d lost 5 months of random notes, music suggestions, emails, drunk scribblings.. and panic that I was going to miss my bus to Rio. My notepad had survived nearly a dozen countries, at least 3 pickpocket attempts in Santiago alone and now it was to end like this? I searched quickly around the seat, but I only had a few moments before the bus was going to carry on – I had to jump off.

I ran around like a mad man trying to find a taxi, eventually succeeding and speeding back to the hostel. I was pretty convinced I had it with me when I left the hostel, but it was worth a try – but no luck. After a quick 2 minute search of the hostel I was back in the same taxi and speeding towards the bus terminal. If I missed this bus I was pretty screwed.

As always when you rush to catch something, you get there and it turns out its running late and there was no hurry in the first place. Just time to check my bag and pockets for the 46th time – no notepad, I was a combination of gloomy, anxious and sweaty as I boarded the bus. Not good preparation for the 26 hours. Not good at all.

My mind was on the notepad – where was it? Most likely being thrown around on a bus, or sitting under a seat in a bus stop. Would I ever see it again? WILLSSONNNN!!!

The bus ride itself was fine – and as the 24th hour passed I got talking to two girls behind me, who didn’t help my nerves by looking completely alarmed at my staying in a favela. It’s meant to be really safe I assure them, but I’m not sure if it is them or myself I’m trying to convince.

As we got close to the centre of Rio I looked again at my instructions – I had scrawled the number of the bus I needed to catch in order to get to the foot of the favela, then apparently a motor taxi could be taken to near the top and where the hostel was located. I desperately wanted to get there before it started to get dark, so I had a few hours, barring any major incident it should be fine.

I found the bus station easily enough, and boarded the bus – telling the driver Rocinha. He eyed me strangely as I paid and took my seat. The bus seemed to be full of shady characters, or maybe I was being paranoid, but I was certainly the most on edge I had been in a long time. I could have done with a cheeky drink to take the edge off, but there was no time for that now.

A man sitting with his wife and kids overheard me tell the bus driver Rocinha and made motions to say he was also getting off at Rocinha, and to follow him -or at least that was what I presumed. As we rattled on for around an hour I started to get concerned I’d missed the stop, or was on the wrong bus entirely, as I recalled the hostel had said it was only a 45 minute bus.

A few minutes later we went through a huge tunnel and as we were about to emerge, the man stands up and signals that this is the stop for Rocinha – that or he is about to mug me. As I get off I thank the man, and with that the sheer energy of the place completely overwhelms me. Like suddenly shaking a bottle of redbull and spraying it in your face, I instantly felt alive.

Sprawled as far as the eye can see are houses, seemingly built on each other and using it up every bit of available land, with a mishmash of designs and building materials. What I had expected to be something more akin to a slum was electrifyingly alive with the buzz of shops selling all sorts of things, people everywhere and a huge array of food everywhere you looked. Life was abundant – but it was also daunting as hell.

I found a motor taxi driver, and tried to show him the piece of paper with the address of the hostel, and appallingly attempting to pronounce it’ Rua un’ ‘Hua.. un’ ‘ruaha on..’. I never did master the art of pronouncing that particularly place – and this time, like all the others that would follow, he looked at me blankly, waving me away. It confused me, and I thought perhaps I was at the wrong place entirely. I took a moment to study my surroundings, walking up and down the street a little and to work out where I actually needed to go.

I stood out like John O’Shea playing in a Manchester United all-star game, but yet I never felt particularly ‘eyed up’ like I had expected. I tried another motor taxi, and with a combination of English, Spanish, Portuguese and some hand signals I was loading myself on to the back, excited but yet apprehensive as to what I was getting myself in to.
What happened next was probably the most frightening and yet exhilarating experience I had had on the trip. Complete with heavy backpack on my back, rucksack on the front, and the first time on a Brazilian motor taxi, we shot off up the hill, dodging and weaving through hordes of favela pedestrians.

I assumed it was only going to be a 2 minute journey, and as we took the first few winding corners I was exceptionally close to falling off – a constant monologue of ‘oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck’ proceeded in my head as I battled to stay on.

I shuffled as close to the driver as possible – any closer I feared he might turn around and punch me – and held on for life. Each time he raced away from a corner I would lurch backwards, just about using my arms to push me forward and fighting my backpack dragging me closer to the road.

This battle between the motor-taxi and I carried on for what seemed like an eternity, weaving in and out of the busy favela road as it snaked its way up the intimidatingly steep mountain, darting between cars and other bikes – taking pride in my fear, I was sure.

In reality the journey was probably only about 5 or 10 minutes, and he must have thought I was a complete amateur, before he pulled over and stopped. I jumped off – just pleased to have survived, and not caring a huge amount if I had even found the guesthouse. After taking a few moments to gather myself back together, and with the Portuguese language barrier, the driver then tried to help me find the guesthouse, and began asking random locals in the street.

My guard was firmly up – I was lost in the middle of a favela with all of my bags in plain view, but yet everyone the taxi driver talked to were very friendly, if not helpful with locating my place. After the 3rd or 4th person, someone pointed at a sign I had missed. Rocinha Guesthouse – it must just be down this alleyway!

The man who had pointed out the guesthouse insisted on walking me down the alleyway – and although I didn’t feel comfortable I didn’t really have a choice. Off of the main winding road, we entered the maze of back alleys that encapsulate the favela experience, bustling with music, laughing and life. Past converted houses that were now bars, shops, hairdressers and even internet cafes – I saw another sign for the guesthouse pointing down some steps.
This was it! And the man departed with a big smile – I was expecting him to ask for money for delivering me to the guesthouse – but he waved goodbye and left before I barely had the chance to say thank you. I walked up the stairs – well over 30 hours after leaving Foz – but once I checked my bags in and looked out from the view of the balcony none of that mattered in the slightest. Brazil; I had made it!

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