My Shoes Are In Mumbai

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Buenos Aires

Last stop, Buenos Aires. Hotspot of the Southern Cone and home to tango shows, ludicrously cheap music and language students on a jolly. As a contrast to the hooliganism and idleness of the rest of the trip, our time in the city was largely spent with an NGO called LIFE. The acronym stands for Luchemos por una Infancia Feliz y con Esperanza ("We Strive For A Childhood With Happiness And Hope"). Quite simply they work with disadvantaged children around the poorer parts of Buenos Aires and other parts of Argentina, taking volunteers out to soup kitchens and schools where the kids can have a decent meal and play with each other and the volunteers. The organization also works to distribute food, clothing and school supplies, and arranges regular visits to dialysis wards in local hospitals. The children will often come from quite unhappy backgrounds of violence, abuse, family alcoholism and needless to say nutrition and education are often sporadic or nonexistent. Programs are run with the intention of providing a happy and safe environment for the kids to play and eat, so that they might have the sort of childhood that should be every person's right ... and that is distressingly absent so often.

The organization is pretty much run entirely by Lily and daughter Vicky, with permanent staff member Juan-Jose. There is a constant stream of changing volunteers from backpackers such as ourselves, usually on the way down to Patagonia, or occasionally from Spanish language students, who happen to find their way there by word of mouth. I had no idea what the volunteering work would actually entail, nor what environment we would be working in. The first Thursday was spent at the Juegoteca ('Playarea') in the district of Ciudad Occulta. This was a stark contrast to the luxury and ease of our base in Recoleta, with barefoot children running around in some of the poorest conditions we'd seen since leaving India. I wasn't sure exactly what to do at first - the instruction was simply to go and 'play', something I'd not done since I was of a comparable age. The awkwardness and reticence of adulthood was soon forgotten, in the shape of a tennis ball and a couple of rackets. It's amazing really ... two people can overcome barriers of age, language and culture by belting a spherical object around for a bit or sitting and doing a jigsaw puzzle together. La Farrera is another district that LIFE operates in, and again is an area which you would never, ever see as a tourist. Run down buildings that would probably be condemned in the UK, with only rudimentary electricity and plumbing in cases. Bus services are next to none, and regular taxis do not come this far out. Instead public transport is provided by a fleet of ageing Ford Falcons, which are often on their last legs and falling apart. My ride to the bus terminal was in one that had been in service since the seventies, had a hole in the floor and what looked suspiciously like blood stains on the seats.

Working with children is mostly a very rewarding experience, and dare I say it, something that you can learn from yourself. However, there are always going to be things that make you frown, though I was probably more prepared for this from the time spent in Pa Do Ta. What I'm talking about here is not so much out and out bullying, but seeing a kid who's quite happy doing his own thing and another coming over and giving them a bit of needle to get a reaction. Or twatting them over the head with a plastic truck. It constantly amazed me to see how confident some of the kids were, and it was mostly them directing the action and pulling you over to horse about with something.

The old cookery "skills" were rolled out again, with frequent visits to the soup kitchen at Los Angelitos, in the area of Ciudad Occulta. During our time around the world, Dan and I have had the importance of a good feed hammered home a good few times. Our stints at the kitchens mainly involved peeling up the veg in preparation for the cooks. There was a lot of waiting around between preparation and serving, and sometimes we questioned whether or not we were actually needed. That changed once the food was being dished out, and pandemonium broke forth. The language difference was occasionally an obstacle, but there's not much that can be lost in translation when someone points at a big pile of spuds and simply grins and nods. Yeah ... I understand perfectly. Lamenting over legumes was broken up by the spectacle of an unfeasibly large rabbit escaping from the backyard, and hunting around for morsels. It eventually clambered it's way into a box of spuds, where the big white bugger sat noshing happily away on the tuberous booty. At each session around 120 people were fed, including quite a few adults, some for taking leftovers home in a tub - a humbling experience.

Other hi-jinks involved adopting the role of the "Charity Mugger" - discussed previously on one of Dan's comments pages. So on a mild Sunday afternoon we stood around in the City of Fair Winds, the melancholy intervals of an old man playing classical guitar sounding across the park. Which made the time pass a lot easier, as there were precious few people prepared to put their hand in their pockets. This is the sort of experience that can change your perspective on a few things, if only for the duration of an afternoon. The reactions of people were varied to say the least. Clearly we had our work cut out for us anyway, given our standard of Spanish was some way short of being "confident". The majority of people don't acknowledge you at all, some almost run past, others even change their path completely and head for the safety of the church opposite. This at least brought a grin to my face ! Some have the cheek to refuse a donation then ask for directions towards the nearest payphones. Others look into the tin and exclaim '¡No Gracias !' ... the money isn't for you, Numbnuts. This was at first a deeply disheartening experience, and I actually found myself becoming slightly depressed at the slim pickings. The odd piece of change in the tin lifted my spirits rapidly, though. All in all, about twenty odd dollars worth ... nothing too "Life Changing" then. I think Liliana appreciated the support, however.

The focal point of our time with LIFE was surely the four day visit to Peruti, a village of around 500 people in the Misiones province and populated by indigenous Guarani. The Guarani were estimated to number around 400,00 by the 17th century, in tribes formed along lines of dialect when discovered by Jesuit missionaries. The Jesuits built a series of villages giving the Guarani opportunity to adopt a sedentary lifestyle. In 1838, Misiones came under control of Paraguay, but following the War Of The Triple Alliance, again came into possession of Argentina. This war (1864-70) was one of the bloodiest in the continent's history, fought over the strategic River Plate region, and pitted Paraguay against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. If that sounds like a tough prospect, it was. Ultimately, the results were the total defeat of Paraguay, Argentina emerging as the most wealthy and modernized state in the area and the abolishment of slavery in Brazil (which started with slaves in the military being emancipated and following from there).

The monthly trips that LIFE run to the village center around distributing clothes, head-lice treatment for the children, a program of family planning and AIDS education. We had our work cut out for us there - the water pump was in a state of disrepair, owing to the fact that a vital part of the mechanism had been stolen (presumably to sell for a quick buck). This meant that any water for cooking or cleaning had to be dragged up the hernia-inducing hill from the river. No mean feat, as the quantities of water needed meant at least twenty or so trips every day. A big theme of the visits are the clearing and disposal of litter around the village - it's heartening to see the kids so eager to help with this (naturally there's a small incentive for them to do so, with some sort of treat for every three bags of rubbish collected). I'm told that some of them are quite quick to nag their parents for help with this, and they're very keen to drag you off for an explore around the houses and fields whilst looking for "things that poison the land". Liliana has a fine line to walk on these visits, and naturally in negotiations with the Chief and other adults wants to avoid entering into the politics of the village too much. Difficult to do, as there are limited resources and items to distribute. In addition to this, it wasn't always clear if we were truly being welcomed by some of the older people in the village. The kids were immediately friendly and confident around a bunch of relative strangers (most people can only volunteer for at most two months at a time, so there's very little continuity in who turns up with Lily and Vicky), but there was a palpable feeling of distance with some of the adults.

The kids of the village line up for the food. You can see more photos of this on Dan's blog, I was charged with serving up hastily assembled burgers and orange drinks. It doesn't take Gordon Ramsey to work out that a hamburger cooked over a wood fire, left in a plastic tub for a bit and then flicked into a bun with some token lettuce and tomato isn't going to win any prizes for culinary sophistication. This did not bother our diminutive diners who wolfed them down ... and yes, there were a couple left over at the end, which I necked with great gusto (and half a litre of mustard). Yum !

Everything was going reasonably well until the sky decided to dump it's bladder on us on the Saturday afternoon. While the others huddled under the leaky dining area, Dan and I were kindly asked to charge about in the mud and deliver the benches back to the school house. Every kid in the village has their lessons there, and from what I remember there were no distinct classes - everyone just piles in together. I'm not sure what standard of teaching you could hope to impart to a class of this size and with such a range of ages and abilities. In the school at Pa Do Ta there were two distinct class rooms, even if the kids did wander between the two if they got bored. Or out the front door.

Yay for me, I'm covered in shit ! Our smiling troupe of volunteers ... a nicer and more patient group of people you couldn't hope to meet. Which is handy, given that the start and end of each day was spent bundling into an already overloaded van, vying for seating and floorspace with several hundred bottles of water. Before having several boxes of clothes and numerous trays of eggs plonked on top. This was taken on the day it pissed down with rain, and I'd been carrying innumerable buckets of water back and forth between the river. We paraded into the shop to buy some well deserved beers, and I was secretly quite pleased to be greeted with the undisguised look of total disgust from the charmers at the checkout.

Aside from such worthy deeds, most of the rest of the time was spent tirelessly shopping for music and tending a social life. Argentina had a rough time of it in the earlier part of this decade, though the economy is slowly getting healthier now. I look back at the time in this city with a large amount of fondness, and again it's because of the people we met mostly because of the trip to Misiones. It's only now with the benefit of hindsight I can see just how much of a difference this made - yeah, we didn't get to travel to Patagonia, but it doesn't matter because a few weeks hanging around with some genuinely nice people is worth more than all the "ooh, look at that" opportunities put together. And highlighted exactly what was missing during my stay in Melbourne (it could easily have been the other way around). So, a big "cheers !" to Lucy, Gregory, Anna, Matthew, Deanna, Marc, Olivia and everyone else who hung around with us in Buenos Aires.

Argentina is synonymous with Tango, a broad term which encompasses a number of different styles of music and dance, originating in the poor and immigrant areas of Buenos Aires and Uruguay's Montevideo. It's next to impossible to travel around Latin America and not take an interest in the music and dance - and Tango is certainly one of the more sensual styles. A cross between playing football and humping, the randy strolling is a sight whether it's on the streets of working class La Boca or in the context of a polished stage musical. Steamy stuff !

The antiques market in San Telmo on a Sunday is well worth a lot. It's great fun, wandering around the stalls and laughing at all the old crap. I've already mentioned the penny farthing, but other domestic curiosities include dog shaped walking sticks and an object that can only be referred to as "The Bonce". I myself have cupboard full of 1970s era video games and other rotting technology. I must get this fascination with useless rubbish from the old man, who I know for a fact has a rare collection of "objets d'irt" that he's rescued from the depths of the earth. Who knows what else the old scoundrel's got in the shed ?

Inevitably the last few weeks were spent counting off the days and champing at the bit with impatience. Unsurprising really, and various schemes were kicked around in the pursuit of sanity. A hop over to Uruguay did the trick for a few days, a mooching around picturesque Colonia del Sacremento, and dullard of the coast, Montevideo. There we met an incredibly offensive ex-pat who thought it jolly good form to insult our mate Gregory to his face and then boast about how big an insurance deal he'd just closed. Something on my face must give drunken bores the nod to come over and start talking such nonsense, and the only highlight of the evening was that we managed to get away before the subject of politics and current affairs came up. Which I'm sure would have been positively mind blowing.

The journey home was long, delayed and nerve-wracking. A lightning strike took out the control tower at the airport, and an hour into the flight a call came over inquiring as to the presence of a doctor - cue lots of people running along the plane with briefcases and determined expressions. Just the thing to calm a nervous flyer such as myself ... still, the live video feed from the tail made things interesting as we came in over the Sierra Morena. By the time I arrived back at Heathrow, I was almost too dazed to take in the wild cheers, painstakingly prepared banners and emotional reunions with my relatives.

Now I'm back to the comforts and ease that I've taken for granted all this time. Need some quick, unrestricted internet access ? A secure and clean place to sleep ? Or just some non-poisonous food and water ? Yours without a moment's hesitation. Not to mention all the family members and friends that I've missed so much whilst on the road. The first few days at home were spent feeling a bit dazed and lost as to what to do next, but at the very least sure that I made the right move at the right time. The anxiety and uncertainty that I felt in that cold, icy March of last year have completely dissipated, and I can look back with an immense amount of fondness for a journey that spanned three continents, sixteen countries, twelve months and five thousand photographs. An ever shifting backdrop of backwaters and bus stations, high seas and highways, inaccurate maps, tourist traps, deserts, glaciers, fields, forests, beaches, capital cities, rural villages, mountain trails and grotty bars. All the times spent looking nervously at bare electrical cables next to a shower head (which happens much more than you'd ever expect). All the times spent gripping the arm rests on a bumpy flight. All the times spent rolling up to a large, anonymous dormitory and wondering what conversational delights awaited (and yet sometimes they were, genuinely). Finally, the importance of traveling with a good friend who I could at all times trust and enjoy their company (very occasionally having some pretty intelligent conversations with) cannot be overstated. I have also been informed, by a reliable source on such matters, that my hip-hop skills have improved ... owed in no small part by spending most of the year playing the Rhyming Game. That by itself was worth every penny and sleepless night.

Right, that's your lot. Thank you for reading !

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

São Paulo To Buenos Aires

Time, it's a rare old beast ... one of those things that they're just not making any more of. It stretches and flexes, pouring itself away. Time, lots of it - it's the ultimate luxury, taken for granted when young and lamented for as an adult. Possibly more sought after even than money ? Well ... maybe not. It's a good joke though, you come into this life with no idea just how long you've got, or even how to spend the hours you have. Most of it's just maintenance, tending the fire, keeping afloat. Eating, sleeping and working. Proportionally there's only a miniscule amount of time to do anything else ... sometimes life on the road is not that different. I've probably given the impression that the most of the trip has been packed full of experiences with no down time and no boredom. It's not really ... just because you're not doing a day job, doesn't mean any of the other stuff goes away. In fact it takes on a much greater significance, causing even more irritation and taking up more of the day than expected. If there's one thing they never tell you to pack, it's patience and stamina. Travel takes time, in ways other than sitting on a bus. Whole days get written off basically doing nothing productive or of any use, a contrast to being at home where I'd spend a large part of the working day scheming up plans for the most efficient way to use the weekend.

Eating is a large part of anyone's life. I only now realise how much it affects your mood when you can't, as at home when I'm hungry I just eat - that's all there is to it. Spending sixteen hours on a bus with only a tube of Pringles for sustenance inevitably means that when you get to somewhere like, oh I dunno, Phnom Penh and you're swamped with people all trying to grab your bags (which may or may not be an act of good-will) and coerce you into staying at their rotten and dilapidated hostel, you're already in a pretty foul mood. This is when tempers start to fray. And when this goes on for some time, not sure about how many dead flies is an acceptable amount to ingest when included with the food in front of you, means that the word "nutrition" is something to largely snort at.

So when you get the opportunity to eat well, you've got to take it. Typical lunch activities in São Paulo go like this ... turn up at one of the hundreds of 'Kilo' restaurants around, get as much stuff onto your plate at once (using a garden shovel in my case), get it weighed and cram it down your throat as quickly as possible. Less waiting than your average visit to the toilet, and the finest food you will find for the price. Massive amounts of fresh veg, high quality meat carved in front of you, all manner of beans, pulses, carbohydrates and puddings. And the fruit, the fruit ! Kiwis, strawberries, mango and peach ! Apple and orange, all within reach ! I stuffed myself every day until fat and gleeful. A bit on the pricey side at five quid a go, but at least I don't feel like I'm falling apart from malnutrition any more. This is often combined with a meat buffet - an procession of waiters do the rounds to irritate with endless offers of various carvings ... though the results are sometimes not what's expected. It was in a slightly run down gaucho themed restaurant that a vague look of revulsion crossed Dan's face in one of these episodes. Dithering over a few unusual yet convenient looking chunks, it took a few chews before I could surmise what it was. Numerous small kidneys on a sword ! Which turned the dining experience into a cross between Jamie's Kitchen and Predator (a combination I'm sure a lot of people will have fantasised about). Still, I've seen worse - the ant sandwich of Bangkok for instance. Do try, they're offaly good ...

Everyday life really is absurd, though. Laundry ... usually something to be largely put off for as long as possible suddenly becomes top priority at the most inconvenient times (usually when arriving in the middle of nowhere after a seventeen hour bus journey). It's easy to get through two T-shirts a day when you're sweating constantly from the heat and humidity, walking everywhere and carrying a heavy bag on your back, all day long. Disconcertingly easy to get done in most of Asia, next to impossible in some parts of South America. For example, the strange old fish that ran the laundry in Santiago mostly looked like he wanted to kill me for asking to get my clothes laundered. In Cusco they came back sopping wet. In Rio de Janeiro it took two and a half days to wash some T-Shirts. But it's São Paulo that really put the weasels in the kitchen. Of course there was no indication anything might be amiss, and we handed the entire cache of clothes over with a big smile. My word it looked professional ! Every piece itemised on the receipt, described by brand, colour etc. All very nice. Very. What ... is ... the ... catch ? The show-stopper is that it was all going to be dry cleaned. Even the pants (realistically, they probably need to be burnt instead). For the bargain price of 85 Reals (21 quid). I'm not exaggerating when I say I almost fainted ... the kindly bloke behind the counter saw my reaction and gave me a free fridge magnet and sewing kit (it's even got one of those things you use to thread the needle - I always wanted one of those !). Dan and I just stared at each other, trying not to cry. But y'know ... "they needed to be cleaned" / "at least they won't go missing" / "it's worth the money for the convenience" etc. Funny how quickly deluding yourself brings about a sense of temporary happiness. And well, at least I'll be able to get a worthy, well paying job quickly enough when I get back and become financially solvent again. See ? Lying to yourself ... it works.

So what is it that makes the dullness of everyday life more (and sometimes less) bearable ? It's the people you come into contact with. We originally planned to spend about two days on a stopover in São Paulo ... that was until Fernando (bottom left) and friends decided to show us just what the city was about. The nightlife. The established idea is that "Rio is beautiful by day, São Paulo by night". So we accidentally spent two weeks hanging around the city and going nuts. Yeah alright, we didn't do anything particularly ground breaking or culturally important, but one of the main themes that keeps coming up is the observation that you can't really make proper friends in an area unless you stay there for a while. I think we managed that in Sampa, mostly thanks to the efforts of Fernando (bottom left) and girlfriend Dani (to the right of me), and it still astounds me the level of kindness and hospitality we received from two people we had never met before. If two effectively homeless people from the internet said they were going to turn up on my doorstep, I'm not sure how I'd react. By rights Fernando should have pointed a pressure washer at us. São Paulo, like Rio, has a reputation for being somewhat dangerous - indeed in some parts of the city the traffic laws have been modified so that a red light at a junction simply indicates to slow down. Such is the danger of carjacking and other violent crime. The city center, while somewhat tourist unfriendly seemed as safe as anywhere else we'd been. It's a very different atmosphere to Rio, which is a strange mixture of Favelas, beaches and business districts all jostling against each other in close proximity. The worst problems we had were linguistic ones - Portuguese is a surprisingly tricky language to get to grips with, and I have no excuse for failing spectacularly at this. All through Brazil I had to wing it with a combination of stock phrases, pointing, and defaulting to English. Absolutely shameful, and the whole experience has only made all the more clear how important it is to make an effort with languages in general. Especially when it comes to communicating to a landlord who appears at random intervals that, for the last week, there's been a load of cat shit in the corridor, and it's the height of summer.

Brilliantly, the VW Beetle and Kombi are still made in Brazil and are a common sight on the street. I asked our mate Fernando if this was because of surf or beach culture in Rio ... he said no, they were pieces of shit and only sold because they were cheap. The truth comes out ! I still thing they're cool, and they perform functions you'd never see at home. Delivering post, acting as impromptu shuttle services, even as converted ambulances. Alright fess up, who turned the oxygen tanks into a bong ?

All things come to an end, and despite having some of the best times possible with Fernando and friends (who went "above and beyond" the definition of hospitality), there were a good number of miles to get rid of between São Paulo and Buenos Aires. A few days stop over in Florianopolis let me top up my sun burn, leaving a trail of peeling skin a thousand miles long.

This made me grin when I first read it. It's safe to say that I too am a bit sick of tourist activities. The sights and experiences are still amazing, but I think I'm a bit jaded with the process of standing in line with all the other drongos for that 'special shot' of some cultural or geographic icon. There's no quicker way of dissipating the awe of seeing something truly unique than being elbowed around by a load of tools with digital cameras. The Iguazu Falls were probably the last real tourist activity of the trip, and for all my moaning, were utterly breathtaking. This is taken from the Garganta del Diablo, and to me it's how I think people would have talked about the 'edge of the world' in less accurate times. The falls straddle the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, where the Paranu and Iguazu rivers meet - twice as high as Niagra in parts, and made up of 270-odd individual cascades.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Here's One Yule Like

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year ! It's been a strange and musical one this year. Mercifully, there was an almost total abscence of Christmas buildup in our part of the world. Owed in no small part to the fact that we were in a tent in the middle of Perú for most of it. Upon arrival in Santiago it was discovered that there was basically nothing in the way of any celebration going on, and not even very many people around. Ordinarily this might have been slightly depressing, so we did the only sensible thing in this instance ... bought some guitars. It's an old trick but a good 'un - when life starts to get you down, just buy another musical instrument and a load of beer. This is how we spent Christmas day ... wandering down the deserted streets of Bellavista with guitars on backs, a hot dry wind blowing the dust up and making a good thirst. Printing off masses of guitar tab and annoying everyone else with some unpracticed singing (which eventually attracted the attention of the carabineros on motorbikes, eyed our opened beers, looked uninterested and then buggered off). It was a blazing hot day where children rode their tricycles into each other and we played to other drunks until the booze ran out. In addition to this, Roberto was good enough to once again meet up with us and take us to a decent gig and be generally helpful and rad - thank you so much !

A word about the sad state of affairs with respect to online guitar tablature at the moment. This is where one person listens to a song, works out how to play it and writes it down ... when I was starting off you had to pay twenty odd quid for a book (costing nearly double the actual album), whereas (for the time being) you can get amateur transcriptions on the internet. In my mind this is not very different from just asking someone at school how a song goes, and obviously the accuracy varies just as much - if you really feel like it you can pay through the nose for the "official" transcriptions. This statement on the Guitar Tab Universe forums pretty much sums it up. Basically a great many tab sites are being forced to take their transcriptions of songs by the bullies at the record companies, who in addition to treating a lot of their paying customers like criminals in recent years are now of the opinion that telling another person how to play a song on an instrument constitutes copyright infringement. I must be some sort of criminal mastermind then, as I bought Dan a chord book for Christmas, which means ... he'll be able to play just about any song ever recorded ! And what's this in the photo ? Playing a C7 chord in public, heaven forbid someone should remember the sound of this and hum it back to themselves later. It's piracy all around ! What a dastardly plan, I regret nothing. In all seriousness, I cannot see how this is anything other than a very bad thing for anyone trying to learn an instrument. Quite clearly a free resource for improving one's own capabilities helps each new generation of musicians and feeds back into the industry itself. And in the words of my future brother in law "how can it be copyright infringement if it's mostly wrong ?". Very good point.

Ah, but this is what it's all about. We flew into Rio de Janeiro just before New Years Eve - this is our mate from school, Nathan (with girlfriend Lia and her mate Tatiana), impressing everyone with his Bossa Nova guitar skills. Outside our hostal in Urca, on the sea wall where the fishermen make very half arsed attempts to actually catch anything. I've not actually seen any fish around here ... perhaps they were scared off by the sound of the insects in the trees, who make a sound that wouldn't be out of place in the H.P. Lovecraft book I'm reading. Bossa Nova is a musical style that developed out of Samba and influenced by American Jazz. The compositions of Antonio Carlos Jobim were key, often performed by João Gilberto. The term Bossa means a natural adeptness and flair at something, with a certain charisma. I'm having a stab at learning some of this myself, and it's a real joy trying something which is a proper challenge again. The chord sequences are like nothing I've ever seen before, and while I can quite easily pop out the odd minor seventh or suspended second without looking them up or thinking too much, having a continuous stream of thirteenths and random add notes is well beyond my skill. This with a rhythm that I've not used properly before means that I'm basically lost ... fortunately Nathan is quite patient ! If you saw some of these sequences written down, you could be forgiven for thinking that it's complication for the sake of it ... but the results really do sound quite lovely.

People aren't afraid to just let go around here. There's no seeming chasm to overcome if you feel like playing some music or dancing in the street at any hour. These guys are playing in a style called Pagode, a variant on Samba - just outside a sidestreet bar. Everyone else drank down their beers and sung along. I saw this happen all over the place, a song would be playing in a reception and people would just start dancing with each other. Thanks to Lia we got to go to a few Samba clubs, which turned into some of the best nights out we've had on the whole trip (and certainly beat the shit out of going down The After Dark in Reading for the 300th time). Here's the setup : a Samba group on the stage with guitars and various percussion, and loads of people turn up to dance by themselves, with partners or to ask total strangers. There's no aggression or aggravation, people of all ages, and nobody really cares if you can dance or not. Best night out ever. Favourite tipple around here is the Caipirinha, pretty much the national drink. Take a load of Cachaça, dump it on loads of ice and whole crushed limes and sip vastly. Tangy, sweet and very, very strong - we sat around and drank whilst increasing the drowning humidity with our own sweat. It was like something from The Rum Diaries.

New Years Eve in Rio was always going to be something special ... between 2 and 3 million people gather on the beach, second only to Carnival (in which the madness goes on for several days) in terms of local importance. Offerings such as roses and floating boats to Yemaja, the sea goddess, are an integral part of the celebrations here. Of course this goes on all over the place - that's the beach at Urca on the left a few days before the big night. The mood was slightly nervous in the city, due to the fact that some buses had been burnt by some members of the local gangs coming from some of the nearby favelas (areas that are similar to slums, but created due to the mass displacement of a large population from elsewhere, usually rural areas). These areas were given a grim portrayal in the 2002 film City Of God, but it is thought that the earliest example dates back to around 1897 (though some sources cite it later at around 1920). The areas are characterized by extreme poverty, lack of amenities and utilities (only 50% of faveladors have access to an in-house toilet) and rampant crime associated with the drug trading that proliferates within and around the areas. Most of the infamy that surrounds the favelas comes from the fact that the drug trade that runs through the areas largely takes over the function of the state itself. Police generally only enter the favelas in large scale operations, and it's debatable who carries more firepower (I suspect it's the gangs) - it's disconcerting to say the least to see an officer on a street corner carrying an assault rifle capable of instantly cutting a man in half. A good deal of them are situated on the hills that dot the city, with the earliest settlers at the bottom (near water mains etc.) and later arrivals moving further towards the peak. So, anyone who is unfortunate enough to be at the top has the unenviable task of making several trips a day just to get water from the tapped water mains. Rio is an interesting case, in that the abject poverty and danger associated with the favelas nestles alongside some of the richest tourist areas in the city. There do exist tours for people who might feel like driving into these areas for a quick gawp at the poor sods who live there, but I have no idea how this might operate ... whether the drug lords themselves are paid off by the tour companies, or they agree to it as a way to keep the authorities off their backs. Either way, I didn't feel like participating in this ... not so much through any moral decisions, more it just seemed like a very dumb thing to do. The closest I personally came to seeing anything like this was on a regular bus journey that went around the outskirts, Dan and I sitting there with a 'whats all this' expression on our mugs.

The big night itself was spent whooping it up around the beaches. Highlights include watching Sergio Mendes perform his best known hit Mais Que Nada, while everyone on Ipanema went completely nuts and ran around in the sea. Deliberately missed The Black Eyed Peas, but instead went over to Copacabana to see a zestful firework display. Then we joined this drumming procession, 'helped' them out with some added percussion and danced around in a fashion that stretched the idea of playing around the beat to it's very limit i.e. not keeping to it at all. Then I eat a corn on the cob smothered with unwise amounts of salt and butter (Brazil is definitely the place for street food, you can survive on this alone). Obviously this tomfoolery couldn't last and I did my ankle in again, so we went home to play Oasis covers on the guitars with random pissheads in the pouring rain. Success all round !

"Take me out tonight ... because I want to see people and I want to see life" - you know it's going to be a good evening when you bundle into a taxi that's playing There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. New Year's Eve in Rio takes some beating. And beaten it is, by a typical Friday night in the Lapa district. Mini street parties abound everywhere, dancing, laughing, sometimes forming a roda (circle), around a Capoeira demonstration. This is one of countless examples of the African influences that were brought over, and developed during the 16-19th centuries when slaves were taken from Africa by the Portuguese. The modern day form is a martial art combining gymnastic skills, dance and a sort of (mostly) non-contact kickboxing. The crappy photo on the left doesn't do it justice really ... the action was characterized with exceedingly quick, improvised yet graceful roundhouse kicks, sweeps and feints. There's a lot of groundwork with the odd roll and jump, and even handstand-splits. The best example I can give is that it was used on one of the BBC's interludes they were using a couple of years ago. You can see the tops of the Berimbau on the right - a kind of musical bow that provides the buzzing, percussive tones that the dancers move to (in addition to drunken clapping from the other revellers). Rio gets a bad reputation in terms of safety etc., but I am beginning to think that the most dangerous thing I will see in twelve months of world travel will be Reading High Street next time I'm there on a weekend. It always strikes me as sad that some people have to cause violence to establish/re-affirm their status, instead of getting over their insecurities and enjoying/expressing themselves without caring what other people think.