March 3, 2007

Olinda, Brazil

Traveling from Porto de Pedras to Olinda felt like I was on my own episode of The Amazing Race today: Boat–Motorbike–Minibus–Minibus–Car–Train–Bus–Bus–Walking.

I was up earlier than normal—having awoken naturally to the rising sun in my window. It was just after 6:30 in the morning when I got out of bed and slowly started packing up my belongings.

As I'm loading up my backpack I spontaneously remembered there was a morning bus headed north, passing by at a much earlier time than I had planned on catching. Seeing how I was up and mostly packed, I had good chance of getting on it.

I took a quick (icy) shower, and looked at the time—I had 40 minutes to find and pay the owner of the pousasa, cross the river, and travel the 10km to the town of Japaratinga. The boat ride was 10 minutes, the bike ride would be 20 on the outside—I could do this.

It had been raining all night, and I was pleased to see the clouds had stopped dumping for the time being. But no sooner than I had the river crossing in sight did the heavens open up again. By the time I took cover, dug through my pack for my rain jacket—why was that the bottom?—and affixed the rain-fly to my backpack the black cloud had passed. I left both garbs on my person and backpack—just in case—as I paid the boatman to putter me across to the other side of the river.

I was pleased to see a waiting mototaxi when I disembarked, and quickly jumped on the back of his seat, telling him I was trying to catch the 7:30 bus to Recife. He had just under 20 minutes.

I recently mentioned my reservations (fear) of riding on the back of motorcycle taxis, and doing so with the added variables of a 17 kilo backpack strapped to my back, plus dirt roads, plus an entire night of rain, equals a very tense Craig. The last time I attempted to take a mototaxi with my backpack on was during my exit path from the Dominican Republic in January '06—and that shook me up plenty good. If I only have to do this once per year I'll be happy.

We were less than three minutes into our journey when the sky started sprinkling again. Then it started showering. We were going along at a good clip; my forehead stinging from the drops of rain like little needles pricking my skin.

Let me tell you, there's nothing that makes you feel more like a traveler than to sit on the back of a motorbike with a backpack and rain gear on, speeding down a wet, potholed dirt road in the midst of a palm tree jungle, whilst bullets of rain drench both you an your driver. Wild.

As the showers turned for the worse, the driver pulled off the road and onto the covered, concrete patio of a house we were passing. He knew (as well as I) that the cloud(s) would eventually blow past and didn't want to drive in the rain—the clock was ticking.

This would eventually be the first of three stops the man would take this morning, each lasting a good 10 minutes in duration. We would wait with the motor off while I spooned him with my backpack on, the only noise the sound of the rain and my urging him that it was drizzling light enough to continue.

At the final (rain) stop I looked down at my pocket watch and cringed—7:50. Even if the bus was traveling slightly slower because of the rain, it had surely passed by this time. This stop also revealed why (at least in part) the man didn't want to drive in the hard rain—he had a cell phone in the pocket of the swimming shorts he was wearing and didn't want it to get soaked. Ass.

It's 8:00 when we finally reach the bus stop. I pay the man, noting how few remaining Brazilian reais I actually had left. I walked back into town to use the ATM, but it was closed. Almost all the ATM's close in Brazil—they're not 24-hour machines.

The next bus was due to pass by in over four hours (at 12:20), and I was both concerned that I didn't have enough money to buy a ticket, and impatient at the thought of idling at a bus stop until noon. I jumped on a passing minibus to Maragogi, where I knew they at least had an Internet café that could keep me occupied for a few hours.

I learned that there was a shuttle bus headed to Recife, departing somewhere around 11:30, which meant that I had some time on my hands. I tried my bank card at the ATM in town, but it wasn't accepting international transactions (VISA, Cirrus, etc) at the time. I had less than US$15 to my name in Brazilian currency.

I told the guy behind me the ATM wasn't working, when he notices I'm speaking to him in Spanish. He's speaking Spanish back to me, and I'm caught off guard because we're actually conversing with complete understanding (not your typical day in Brazil for me). He's from Chile and his friend from Paraguay. The 10 minute conversation we had was enough for me to really miss Spanish-speaking countries again.

I'm idling in the town's small plaza (which also happens to be where the minibuses congregate), when the young minibus driver I paled around with a few days earlier recognizes me and comes over to say hello.

He sees the backpack and asks if I'm headed north to Recife. I tell him I'm waiting for the bus, when he says there's a faster way if I don't want to wait. I said that faster usually means more expensive, to which he reassured me that it wasn't (by tossing out some figures). Sounded good to me.

He put me on a passing minibus, bound for a city I didn't even bother getting the name of—it was north, and that's all that mattered. 20 Minutes later I was on the side of the highway in Barreiros, sizing up the transport options.

I didn't know when the next bus was going to pass, so I ended up paying more than I should have for a collective car ride to the outskirts of Recife. The car was a two-door hatchback with a massive natural gas fuel tank taking up the trunk (making me slightly uncomfortable), four people squeezed into the back seat, and me riding shotgun. For as much as I'm sure I overpaid you better believe I was getting the good seat.

In the 100km we traveled to the edge of town (dropping people in the car off along the way), we passed nothing but endless seas of sugar cane fields. So much cane growing, and in every piece of red soil possible. The Brazilians convert a lot of it to car fuel and alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

With the city at the horizon the driver pulls over to the side of the highway, instructing me to walk down the embankment to the bus terminal below—rolling eyes. I get him to write the information I need to reach Olinda down on a piece of paper.

I show the paper to the station officials, who tell me it's not a bus that I need, but the metro train. More writing down of information and I'm on the train, bound for the city.

I disembark the lovely air-conditioned compartment of the train and start searching for a bus for which I don't know the name or number of. I find a collection of bus employees and tell them where I'm going—Carmo in Olinda. The employees are looking at each other, then at me, saying there are no buses there from here—sigh.

Maybe I needed to clarify even more, so I pull out my guidebook and point to the map enlargement showing the area around the hostel I wanted to stay at (in the Carmo district of Olinda). There was a primary city bus stop shown on the map, these were city bus employees, I was referred here by other city employees—you'd think someone would know how to get from point A to point B without the need to grow wings and fly.

A new man on the scene chimes in and all the others agree in unison, Yes, this bus will take you there… sure I'll write it down. This particular city bus was just about to depart, and I hopped on as it pulled away, reconfirming with the cashier that it was going to my desired location.

No, she says (and a lot of other stuff in unforgivingly fast Portuguese). This bus was apparently headed to Olinda, but not Central Olinda, which is what I need. They had put me on the wrong bus. Meanwhile the driver kept on driving, disregarding my protests to stop so I could walk back to the terminal.

I took out the guidebook again and showed her the map, just to be sure we're on the same page—same result. She's flooding my ears with information and God knows what else in a language that is mostly gibberish to me (especially when spoken so quickly).

I'm basically trapped on this bus, because to leave it would put me on the curb of some random street in a sprawling Brazilian metropolis. The cashier motions for me to wait, and I figured at worst I'd just stay on the bus until it eventually circled back to the terminal.

It wasn't long before we pulled up next to another inner-city bus at a stoplight, and after some shouts between drivers I'm told to get off and onto the other bus. If this didn't work out I had just enough money to do this three or four more times before I was broke.

I showed the new driver where I want to go on the map, and ask him to make sure I get off the bus at the right time. I receive a big thumbs-up as a response.

The thumbs-up gesture is undoubtedly the most heavily used non-verbal communication gesture in Brazil. When I say used, I mean used excessively. Brazilians will sign this informal gesture as a question (everything good?), as a response, or just a general statement hundreds of times a day. I personally prefer to Americanize my thumbs-up to people I randomly pass on the street by adding the pinkie finger—turning it into a hang-loose surfer gesture.

The driver did his job and let me off at the appropriate stop. I only had to shoo away one tout trying to push his pousada on me before reaching my new accommodations.

It was 1:00 in the afternoon—one helluva morning, and quite an interesting path.

Stress Found

Dr. Mario had recommended staying at the Albergue de Olinda before we parted ways in Salvador. I should have known better than to stay at an entry in the Lonely Planet guidebook, but figured I'd give it a shot.

Instantly the woman at the reception rubbed me the wrong way. There's a sort of indifference that develops with the staff in a lot of the guidebook suggested accommodations, and his particular woman was a shining example—the contrast even more noticeable having just come from a place where I was actually wanted.

I was instructed to pre-pay for my nights—something generally unheard of—and when I told her I had less than BR$10 to pay her overpriced nightly fee of BR$28 with, she said we take VISA. I don't give VISA, I replied

I gently strong-armed her into letting me put my pack into a locker in my future room so that I could go to the bank. She pointed down the street, and I started walking.

What she neglected to tell me was the closest conglomeration of banks were a good 20 minutes away. I hadn't eaten anything since about 20 hours prior (because I needed my remaining cash to travel), and was getting a little cranky, sweating in the mid-day sun.

Every ATM that I tried either didn't accept international cards or was out of cash (common for a Saturday in Latin America), and was relieved when I found an HSBC branch—saved (I was familiar with the quality of this institution).

A sweaty mess, I plopped the cash down in front of the woman and went off to go change. As I looked at myself in a full-length mirror for the first time in a while I noticed insect bites all over my body—bed bug bites—fan-F'in-tastic. That made twice now in Brazil I'd been bit by bed bugs.

Not only unsightly, but these things also have the tendency to itch like mad. I could only assume my salt water swims helped curb this (for the most part). So now I was forced to watch everything that had been worn (or that had touched something that was worn) in Porto de Pedras. The next two hours were spent soaking and scrubbing clothing by hand in a wash basin, and myself in the shower.

I rationalized the price of my accommodations because they offered Internet access to guests, and figured I had a good 6–8 hours of catching up to do. Just before I sat down at the computer I asked the staffer if it was free, just to be sure—No, she replied, BR$2 for 15 minutes.

I about lost it—a price twice as high as using the Internet connection in some guy's house in a fishing village. Not happy.

I left the hostel and started walking around Olinda, the colonial town next to—or is that district of?—Recife. I hadn't seen any Internet cafés on my 40 minute walk to the bank and back, and the two within a five block radius were charging more than I wanted to spend (for such a big block of time needed).

There are all these "guides" hanging around various parts of the city, pushing up on tourists, trying to bring them to a pousada or give them details about the neighborhood (for a fee). I went up to a group and gave them a challenge (in a mix of Spanish and Portuguese, of course): Show me a pousada for BR$20–25/night, with free Internet access.

After some laughs one took the offer and walked me to a pousada a few blocks away. We tried to swap my breakfast in the morning for Internet, but I wanted more time than they'd give me for the trade. I told the kid to show me to the cheapest Internet access he knew of in the area, BR$2/hour was as much as I'd pay.

Cobbled road turned to dirt as he lead me down a steep hill and into a neighborhood not frequented by tourists. A sidewalk sign pointed up a flight of stairs to my BR$2/hour dial-up Internet connection. I tipped the guy for his time, as the same amount would be returned several times over from his assistance.

I truly don't even know what I'm doing in this town. I don't want to be in the city—a touristy, colonial city. An expensive, touristy, colonial city in Brazil.

I miss the beach, and my simple, secluded, fishing village lifestyle—even if it did give me bed bug bites.

Travel on Sundays can be laborious (given the greatly reduced services), so two nights in Olinda will be endured before packing my bag and pulling one of my classic disappearing acts—poof!—like I was never here.

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