Category: Brazil

Beyond Rio….a look at the favelas

Most visitors to Rio do their sightseeing by checking out views from Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf, or the deck of their hotel overlooking Copacabana or Ipanema Beaches. Well that’s all fine and good, but did you know that some of the best view properties in Rio are rarely visited at all by camera-toting tourists? What are those brightly colored buildings clinging precariously to the hillsides, anyway? Aren’t they the slums – the favelas? Aren’t they ridden with crime and poverty and machine guns and drug lords?
Actually, favelas are neighborhoods with people and kids and schools and stores and restaurants and businesses, much like any other neighborhoods. Sure, they have a crime-ridden reputation which is based partly in fact, but which is widely exagerated by films and media. Yes, they can be dangerous, and you wouldn’t want to go wandering into a favela on your own. But if you so desire to see “the other side of Rio”, then book a favela visit with an experienced and reputable outfit, such as Marcelo Armstrong’s Favela Tour.

Of course, there are the views of Rio you don’t get elsewhere.

But the best experience is to wander through the streets and alleys and get a glimpse of every day life in a favela. I did just that, and was charmed by the colorful buildings and people who make the favelas their home.

For more:

Feathers and Food (Rio and Carnival)

Favela Photo Gallery

Brazil Photo Gallery

Back to School (around the world!)

It’s Back to School time!

Which means I finally have some time to share a few back to school photos and stories. So in sticking with the theme, here are some of my favorite images of kids and schools I’ve had the pleasure to meet and visit during my travels.

Let’s start in NEPAL:

When I think of the stories parents tell kids, of how they used to walk miles to school, in the snow and rain, uphill, BOTH ways(!), I can’t help but reflect upon these children heading off to school near Ghandruk in Nepal. I was on the descent of my 6th day of trekking in the Himalayas, having survived 86 hours of monsoon rains and traversed mudslides in action, when taking an early morning start I met these lovely children walking to school – uphill, up a very steep mountain actually, in their tidy uniforms with not a single complaint.

And speaking of high elevations, the Andean town of Cusco, PERU forms a quaint backdrop for these girls walking home from school arm in arm.

As for the classrooms I’ve visited, what fun it is to find them outdoors as weather permits!

From this very crowded kindergarten class in the Hutongs of Beijing, CHINA….

to not just a class, but the entire school’s student body enjoying lessons outside in the remote Osa Peninsula of COSTA RICA….

And speaking of remote, in BRAZIL‘s Pantanal region, where it is far too hot to have class outside, I visited this classroom (with the entire student body of 6).

Back in CHINA, there are small classes to be found, like this one at the Children’s Palace in Shanghai, a school devoted to Chinese traditional and cultural arts.

Regardless of class size, country, or culture, children everywhere appreciate school and learning, and it shows!

Peruvian school girls in uniform

Brazilian school girls proudly showing off their English notebooks

Chinese first graders on a field trip in Kunming

While I believe there is no greater education than travel, circumstances don’t permit such a life experience for most kids. There are many children around the world for whom a school and an education of any kind would be a treasured gift. That’s why, last year, I helped to build a school in Cambodia through a program called Passports with Purpose. This year, they will be raising money to build not just a school, but an entire village in Southern India. More details are forthcoming, and you will soon see the widget here on my blog so that you can donate and participate. Meanwhile, you can get the latest details on the Passports With Purpose facebook page.

Finally, if you are a parent like me, I hope you are sending your child(ren) back to school with a great big smile and thumbs up! Have a great school year!!

Be sure to visit Delicious Baby every Photo Friday for more fun blogs and travel photos!

Life on the Amazon – Part II: The Experience

The meeting of the waters on the Amazon, as seen from the plane

Preface: I wrote this blog (as well as “The Pantanal” article) on a napkin in a brand new wine bar at the Tropical Hotel in Manaus, where I was entertained by a wide screen tv playing a DVD of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” concert live in Berlin. I must say it was a very surreal experience, made all the more wondrous by an endless stream of complimentary house drinks – the first because the wine bar was new so they offered a “welcome drink” for checking it out. The second came compliments of the front desk because I was ending a 2-week tour with my guests at the Tropical and had already seen them off at the airport – they knew I was finally off the 24/7 clock. And the third because I had simply made myself so comfortably engrossed in my napkin writing that the bartender thanked me for being the only one there most of the night. By that third drink, I was feeling like Joni Mitchell “…in the blue tv screen light….I drew a map of…”, so my table, and napkin, looked like this:
Point being, the Tropical Hotel is simply the place to stay in Manaus. The heavy metal rock band Metallica just checked out, and now Prince Charles and Camilla were there; the staff were already buzzing about news of hosting Obama in the next month (has that happened yet?). Meanwhile, I was finally adjusting to working without my overheated mac, and here at last, I present the final publication of the Amazon napkin blogs. As hand-written.

Amazing Amazon

So, if I lacked for rain in the Pantanal, the Amazon surely made up for it. Manaus is probably the rainiest city I have ever been (and I lived in Seattle for 3 years). Well, it is in the middle of the Amazon, which is a rainforest, afterall. And if nothing else, you can be sure of rain. Lots of rain.

I boarded the luxurious Iberostar Grand Amazon in the company of 30 fellow passengers, on a boat that accommodates 150! How lucky was that? It felt like a very exclusive cruise, like we were the personal guests of the Brazilian captain – who, as a matter of fact, had his family on board too! And the crew were no less attentive to the rest of us, they were positively welcoming. By the end of 3 days I felt I’d been adopted into a Brazilian family, with lots of brothers, cousins, and a few crazy aunties.

Our first outing by small boat expedition began with blue skies and warm temperatures. Forget about jackets and raingear, “it’s gonna be gorgeous” was the attitude everyone had as we left the Iberostar.

The first 40 minutes were, then suddenly, out of nowhere, a massive tropical downpour. Rain so thick and dense it made for white out conditions! And there we were on an open-air excursion boat, no roof, no cover, nothing to protect us from the elements. It was a first for me to experience getting completely drenched – socks, knickers and all!
Fortunately, I always carry a drysack for my camera and lens – a lesson I learned in the 90’s when I forded a river in Guatemala, and ended up treading across neck-deep with one arm while the other held my camera over my head. I’ve only used the drysack once since, in Costa Rica, but I always carry it, several in fact, when I am cruising. It’s the most valuable accessory in my photography travel bag by far.
But you know what? Rain in the rainforest is good. It just feels so good, so pure, so real. Better than a hot shower after a cold surf…and that’s heavenly. So as long as I have my drysack with me, let it rain all it wants. Bring it on! There were certainly enough breaks in the clouds to pull the camera out and spot a few animals – here are some of the more exciting sightings:

Three-toed Sloth

Boto – Pink Amazon River Dolphin
Green Iguana
Squirrel Monkeys
Caiman (immature)
…and another Three-toed Sloth

This is not a showcase of amazing wildlife stock photography – consider this a very realistic Amazon wildlife portfolio for 3 days from a boat. If you go to experience a cruise on the Amazon, then you’ll love it – you’ll return home with lots of pictures of trees which you’ll share with friends explaining “there’s a bird or monkey there somewhere”, and the joy is in the story told. But if your intention is to get decent wildlife pictures, then head to the Pantanal, where you’ll find the same animals in more open areas and easier to see close up without neck strain. My advice? If you’re in Brazil, or planning to go, do BOTH.

The great thing about cruising the Iberostar Grand Amazon is that you always have a plenty of food to come back to. And it’s easier to photograph, too.

And now, a tribute to the Iberostar staff, particularly the bartender, and those fun-lovin Brazilian aunties of mine!

Life on the Amazon – Part I: The People

To put the Amazon experience into words is an intimidating task, but one that is overcome easily with a lens instead of a pen. So here is the first of two parts of my “Life on the Amazon” article, in which I’ll let pictures tell the story. Enjoy the journey!

These images, plus many more in vertical composition, are available for licensing. Please visit the complete gallery at Mira Terra Images Amazon Stock Collection.

Feathers and Food – Carnival alternatives in Rio

Ok, so you’re in Rio de Janeiro, and you’ve missed Carnival. You still want to experience the music and see the costumes, but without spending days and nights sitting on a concrete stadium bleacher surrounded by crowds and a giant party. Out of season, but are you out of luck? What to do?

Well, depending on the time of year, it could be worthwhile to visit a Samba school. I didn’t do that, as I was in Rio only a week or two after Carnival, and the schools were just re-forming and classes re-grouping to begin preparation for next year’s celebration. So there wouldn’t be all that much in the way of performance going on. But that’s a link worth following anyway.

Any time of year, however, there is an excellent option at the Plataforma Theater in Leblon. There are many websites, reviews, and youtube links which refer to this venue/show, so Search away. Or if you’d rather just take it from me, here are the details:

Plataforma I
Rua Adalberto Ferreira, 32
Leblon Rio de Janeiro
Phone: 2274-4022

In researching links for this article, I discovered many are of the opinion that this folklore show is just a big tourist trap. Well, I am of the opinion that shows attract tourists with good reason, and nothing about this show had me feeling trapped. In fact, quite the contrary, it had me dancing for weeks following!

I didn’t have dinner there, but that is an option. I just went for the show. What a show it was! Amazing mulata dancers, Capoeira (a mixture or martial arts and dance), and of course Samba, accompanied by a cultural journey of Brazilian music….and live singers! The grand finale is a parade of colorful feathered Canival costumes, and apparently this particular show is the venue for the winners of the 2009 Carnival Schools Samba Contest. The Samba Schools are judged in the following categories:

* Samba Song
* Harmony
* Flow and Spirit
* Theme of the Year
* Overall Impression
* Floats and Props
* Costumes
* Vanguard Group
* The Flag Bearer

They all looked pretty fantastic. Here’s a slideshow of some favorite costumes:

And of course, what blog about a Samba Show would be complete without a video clip, just to give you an idea of the rhythm, energy, and pulse of the evening!

And before I abandon the subject of Carnival, I feel compelled to share a link to some pictures of the real deal, Carnival in action, by my good friend, great photographer, and Brazil enthusiast, Mark Whitley. Take a browse around his website to see more travel and people pictures from Brazil – for years his images have inspired me and fed my dreams to visit this colorful country!

As for dinner, well, Rio is full of excellent dining options. ZUKA is my choice to mention here, because the food presentation was a Carnival in itself. Don’t panic that the website is only in Portuguese – the staff speak and understand english, and the menu is bi-lingual, but it is anything but a “tourist menu”! The food looked as good as it tasted, so of course, I’ll finish my short review in pictures instead of words:

Portraying the Pantanal

What is the Pantanal exactly? My local guide in Brasilia, who has never been, thinks it is part of the Amazon with thick rainforest and lots of rain. Is it the jungle? No. Is it even part of the Amazon? Not exactly. The name “Pantanal” comes from the Portuguese word pântano meaning wetland, bog, marsh or swamp. The Pantanal of Brazil is it’s own ecosystem entirely, and makes for the largest wetlands in the world.
So here it is the end of the rainy season, and the Pantanal should be flooded, right? I prepare for muddy roads, puddle filled trails, fording knee-deep through muck, getting soaked, all that. Another year, perhaps. But not this year. The rainy season of 2008/2009 so far has been the driest on recent record in the Pantanal. The roads are dusty, not even a puddle; the air is scorching hot, no raincloud or raindrop in sight.

The water level is so low that our lodge, which is supposed to look out over flooded plain and wetlands, instead looks out over dry brush, not even a waterhole to be found. The climate is changing all over the world, and quite notably for the animals of the Pantanal.

The Pantanal adventure begins with the drive to the remote Cordilheira Lodge at the Caiman Ecological Reserve. The first sighting is a good one – the Capybara, the largest rodent on the planet. Awfully cute for a rodent. Especially when the whole family appears, adults and little ones, splashing in and out of the cooling waters of a river.

And just a few feet away, what’s that? Caiman?!! Yep. Interestingly enough, caiman and capybara co-exist peacefully. Caimans just aren’t interested in expending any energy to chase down a big furry rodent. Instead, they can get a delicious seafood meal by just sitting in the cool water with their jaws open as the water flows over the rocks. They are not drinking. They are simply waiting for a fish to come tumbling into their mouths and snap, how easy is that? I’ve yet to see a caiman without a smile. They all wear a big ear to ear grin in fact. What’s to complain about? Here they are living in the protected wilderness of the Caiman Ecological Reserve, in the heart of the Pantanal – best life to be had for these reptiles!

At last arriving at Cordilheira Lodge, I settle in to laze through the afternoon heat from my porch. The forest edge is nearby, and I spot a creature making it’s way from the tree line across the cut grasses and straight toward the compound. I jump from my hammock and grab my camera, excited to capture another wild mammal of the Pantanal so quickly and easily! Turns out, the exotic creature in my eyes is an everyday nuisance to the Lodge staff – a pesky scavenger on par with a possum or a raccoon back home. But of course, I recognize it now – remembering the Coati in Costa Rica which bravely stole a snack sack from the zipline rest area. Still, this is a wild animal, and living in the wilds of the Pantanal, and it certainly posed nicely….
The feathered wildlife sightings in the Pantanal are far more rewarding for both guides and visitors. In any season, the Pantanal is a bird lover’s paradise. Here are just a few favorites:

Toco Toucan, Yellow Headed Caracara, Burrowing Owl

Greater Rhea, Great Black Hawk, Jabiru Stork

Perhaps the Pantanal is best known as prime habitat for the Hyacinth Macaw. A visit to the rescue/rehab center doesn’t guarantee a sighting. In fact, only the empty nest box stood as evidence of their existence. But when you least expect it, there it is. In the wild. And it is beautiful. THEY are beautiful. To watch these gorgeous Macaws in their native habitat is utterly amazing, and the true highlight of a visit to the Pantanal!

That’s great and all, but what about the jaguar? I never saw it, but it more than likely saw me. They are quite rare to catch a glimpse of – the guide had only seen one four times in the past five years at the Pantanal. But the other guides told an interesting story about the jaguar and politics. Apparently, the jaguar is a big fan of Obama, as it chose to make an appearance on Election Night 2008.
A group of Americans were staying at the Lodge, and glued to the satellite tv to watch the election coverage on November 4. When it came time for the safari outing, only a Danish couple broke away from the media to get out in nature. And guess what. Only the Danish couple was graced with the sighting of a jaguar. They missed a few hours of Obama and McCain on tv, but they saw a jaguar in the wild, they watched it, they took pictures, and everyone else missed it. So the Danish couple, along with everyone else, still get 4 years of watching the media cover Obama. But everyone else, unlike the Danish couple, missed a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a jaguar in the wild. So the lesson is this: given the prospect of choosing between two once in a lifetime events, go for the one that CNN doesn’t cover!
But there are other mammals to be discovered in the Pantanal, such as the Howler Monkey, and the Crab-Eating Fox.

By the way, for those of you who winced at my earlier post about all the mosquitos in the Pantanal, let me just say that the joy of watching wildlife in the wild, zooming in on a Savannah Hawk in perfect light, or getting video of caimans gliding with capybaras in the rivers, well, moments like these make it all worthwhile. Yes, it’s incredibly buggy, but the bites go away….the memories last a lifetime.
That’s it from the Pantanal. For more captivating images of the Pantanal lodges and wildlife in the wild, visit Mira Terra Images.

Brasilia: A study in composition

When it comes to capital cities of the world, few compare to the wonder of Brasilia. For those of you who didn´t have a Brazilian roommate in college, Brasilia is in fact the capital of Brazil – not Sao Paulo (the financial capital), or Rio (the glamour capital). It was built entirely from scratch in 40 months, out on a plateau in the middle of nowhere, when then President Juscelino Kubitschek ordered it´s construction there in order to bring population to that region of the country. Inaugurated in 1960, today Brasilia is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city was planned by Lucio Costa and his close friend, Oscar Niemeyer, who was the princial architect of Brasilia. I am convinced this guy would have made an incredible photographer, as every structure demands an eye for composition, and every vantage proves the city to be incredibly photogenic.
Brasilia makes a perfect entry point for visitors to Brazil – it is a modern city and a good place to leisurely immerse oneself into Brazilian life. All the hotels are centrally located, with shopping and banks nearby; the avenues are long and wide; and there is no escaping iconic landmarks – the city is composed of a great concentration. It takes only a glance at these images to recognize the traits of a modern planned city, built circa 1950´s, and to appreciate the imagination and inspiration that went into it´s planning and architecture.

As I am using a public computer, I don´t have ability to edit and caption the images, but I will update this when I am back home so that you know what you are looking at!
As for the best restaurant in Brasilia, well, I am certain I found it. Though it lacks it´s own website, Patu Anu is an absolute must for a fine dining experience, great ambiance, location, and the food exceeds expectation. There was no problem ordering special requests and modifying menu items for vegetarians. It is worth the remote access, and my insider´s tip is that you prepare to wait as long for the check as for the meal – request it when you order dessert, and save that last drink to enjoy conversation and company while your bill is being prepared!

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