Paying for Carnaval
After completing my journey from one tip of South America to the other, I have the following thing to say: crossing continents is not easy; in fact, it can be downright exhausting! I write to you all from the palm-fringed beaches of Sao Luis, Brazil, where Carnaval is set to begin in a few hours. But before you curse my good fortune, you must understand that I truly deserve the pleasures I am about to receive. After all, I just completed an arduous journey of 8,540 miles (13,665 km), culminating in a punishing 40-hour bus trip through central Brazil. But despite the hardships inherent of an overland voyage, it remains my preferred mode of travel.
We can all admit that there is something magical about jumping on a big, shiny airplane amidst freezing temperatures and stepping off a few hours later to the humid air of the tropics. For those with week-long vacations, this mode of travel is probably the norm. When people complain of “long” nine-hour flights, I laugh. After all, sitting in a cushiony (ie: non-wooden) seat, watching movies, sipping Bloody Mary’s and snoozing under soft blankets until a pretty woman wakes me to ask if I would like a warm croissant is hardly what I would call an unpleasant experience; more like a luxurious spa.
To this day, I still marvel at the miracle of the airplane. Though I have a basic grasp of the physics involved, as I even built a wind tunnel with the help of my pilot stepfather for my high school science fair project, I still find it hard to believe these massive pieces of metal actually get off the ground. But what is even more incredible is the way it relocates the traveler to another reality. Going from snow to tropics in four hours, while convenient, is just not meant to be; it is an anomaly of nature. Since it is more of a transplant than a true “means of travel,” I shun air travel when I have the overland option.
My eyes were opened to this reality when a blizzard hit Chicago on the first day of 1999. Eager to head south as soon as possible, I headed to the nearest Latin American travel agency, begging for a cheap air ticket “anywhere close to the equator.” After cajoling with the friendly Mexican travel agent, I was unable to secure a reservation for less than $400. Exasperated, I pleaded with my new travel agent friend that there must be a cheaper way. “You cannot tell me that you would pay $400 for a one-way fare to Mexico!” With this comment, it seems I struck a chord, for Hector looked around to make sure no one was listening, and whispered to me in his thick Mexican accent, “Chu know, chu can take dee bus. Dee company is El Conejo – call them.” And with those words of wisdom, two days later I was on a bus to Mexico, fleeing the cold like an ex-con flees the law. Leaving three feet of Chicago snow, heading directly south, I was witness to the change in topography and temperature, as I shed a layer of clothing at each rest stop. In just twenty-four hours, I was standing amidst roadside taco stands in Monterrey, Mexico. That, I reflected, was true “travel,” as I had personally covered every mile separating me from Chicago snow to Mexican cacti. And then, after crossing Africa by land in a six-month adventure, I felt I was ready to undertake this South American traverse.
Now that my continental drift is complete, I can catalogue the trip and reflect on some of its joys and difficulties. Hitch-hiking out of Argentina into Chile sounded like a fine way to begin the journey, as I have always been a fan of hitch-hiking, offering me the opportunity of carefree (and free) travel while getting to know the locals at the same time. But what I didn’t realize is that Tierra del Fuego, also known as “The End of the World” is where all the world’s wind is born. The next time you feel a blast of cold air, you can be assured that it has come all the way from the southern tip of South America, a place where all the trees are slanted due to its force and the inhabitants walk at a 45 degree angle so as to avoid being blown away like an Antarctic tumbleweed. It was in this spot I stood holding a sign that read “Al Norte,” feeling like an immigrant in search of American soil. (Looking back, my sign was pretty silly, as the only people heading south were on board cruise ships headed to Antarctica). After three excruciating hours, the cold wind chilling my very soul, I gave in to traditional bus travel.
Argentine and Chilean buses are quite comfortable, as the roads and coach services are equal to American or European standards. On one fancy cama (bed) bus in Chile, I was even served hot food and waited on by a stewardess, much like fancy air travel except for the unfortunate absence of on-board Bloody Marys. The backpacker culture and festive summer mood did make hitch-hiking an occasional alternative, which yielded some memorable experiences, such as the Argentine truck driver that seemed to take a liking to me and not only offered me a ride all the way to Buenos Aires forty hours away, but the opportunity to share his on-board bunk. Luckily, my Spanish was good enough to say, “You can drop me off here!”
As for Bolivia, well, Bolivia presented a few challenges. As I set out in a Jeep on a road from Chile, I came to a diversion in the road. To the right, along the newly-laid virgin black asphalt, stood a sign pointing to Argentina. Off to the left, was a lunar-like gravel road with a sign welcoming me to Bolivia. In Robert Frost fashion, “I took the road less traveled,” and let me assure the reader that Mister Frost never traversed Bolivia by land! Despite the atrocious condition of Bolivian roads, let me point out that the main factor deciding my route through Bolivia was not the usual shortest-distance-between-two-points theory.
The day I arrived, I purchased the local paper and was greeted by the headline: “WAR IN LA PAZ!” Nothing like civil unrest to welcome the independent traveler. It seems the government, in trying to cooperate with IMF demands, decided that the police should have to pay taxes like everyone else (yes, quite a crazy idea), at which point the police protested, until the military intervened and killed thirty-six of their men in blue. Meanwhile, not to be outdone (for who says the cops and the army should have all the fun), the locals decided to join the festivities with some good old-fashioned looting, a skill the South Americans have developed into an art form.
So, in an effort to avoid La Paz, I decided to pass through a different city, Cochabamba, but was told that there was not only rioting there as well, but the peasants had been setting up roadblocks, stranding trucks, cars and buses for days in order to protest various government policies. The presence of roadblocks and the ever-present mudslides provided me with the fear of missing Brazilian Carnaval, being stranded on a Bolivian bus, famous for their lack of toilets, and propensity for breaking down (at one point when our bus just couldn’t reach the top of a hill in Potosi, we, the passengers were forced to get out and push the Little Engine That Couldn’t). So, my path being decided for me by politics, within days I was on board a mosquito-infested, 17-hour train through the swampy Pantanal to the Brazilian border. That was a whole other experience…
Brazil is also blessed with adequate roads and bus service, but I decided to test the limits a bit in undertaking my final (and most ambitious) leg of this cross-continental journey. After spending a few days visiting deep caves with crystalline blue lakes and nearly losing a finger while feeding fish in a tropical getaway aptly named Bonito, I spent the weekend with friends in the capitol of Brasilia, a strange city built in just five years in a communist-style during the 1960′s in the middle of the desolate green wilderness, dominated by a unique urban plan with separate sectors for housing, hotels, government ministries, etc. I received an urgent phone call from my cohort Laz who shouted to me amidst the merriment in Sao Luis that though Carnaval was slated to begin the 28th, the locals had decided to begin a week early. Though it was hard to hear him amidst the festivities on his end, I assured him I would undertake the 40-hour journey as soon as possible.
Returning to Brasilia to catch my bus after a wonderful weekend among sensational waterfalls and surreal landscapes in a famous national park, we were stopped at a police roadblock and detained half an hour for a routine traffic stop. After this unexpected delay, we did the math and realized we would have to drive at an average speed of 100 mph in order to reach the bus terminal in time. Though I considered myself lucky to have made it in time, I was not quite so fortunate, as my seat was not only in the back row, where I could feel every bounce in the road as it shook my very soul, but I also had the seat next to the toilet, which after thirty-something hours, emits a pretty mind-altering odor. To top things off, the seat next to me was not filled by a pretty female or even a friendly gentleman, but, yes of course, a mother and her eight-month old child. Claudio, the teething toddler, did his very best at driving me completely insane, using the age-old tactic of the “continuous baby scream,” which has driven mothers to horrible crimes and bus passengers to drown themselves in dirty toilet bowls. Fortunately, I pulled through, as the images of a festive reggae-laden Carnaval and a reunion with my best friend Laz kept my spirits high enough to survive the grueling 40-hour traverse through Brazilian greenness. I reflected that while many pay for their Carnaval sins after the week-long carnal celebration, I was in fact paying my dues ahead of time. Call it an advance payment…
To quote a favorite song of mine, “If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air, quaint little villages here and there,” then Sao Luis is your idyllic spot. Upon arrival, I headed to a deserted beach, located next to a fishing village on an isthmus with rolling sand dunes and endless white sands. As I immersed myself in the Caribbean Sea, I marveled in the completion of my continental drift. More important than the personal satisfaction I sensed, was the catalogue of unforgettable experiences of this enriching journey. And after a total of 234 hours in transit, after sleeping in 31 beds, after enduring 10 overnight bus journeys, I can pass along something very important that I would like to share with all of you. In the coming weeks, as I continue my travels and am able to reflect more deeply upon the lessons learned, I am sure I will reach some more profound lessons, but until then, all I can say to you all is that South America is really big.