Carnival and the Southern border

Welcome back, and how absolutely grand of you to read yet another installment of my digital ramblings. I keep telling myself there’s some merit to my scribbling, and if this notion will go unconfirmed by society I can always take this as an affirmative regarding another tried and tested notion, namely that I must have been way ahead of my time.

After spending almost three weeks in that biggest of cities, Sao Paulo, the carnival frenzy was finally building up to a joyous, exuberant climax. One could feel it in the air, and this beloved feature of Brazilian life was of course the talk of the town. I had attended a couple of blocos (a street party) by then, the biggest being a ‘pre-party’ which involved close to a million people on the street. Reminiscent of Dutch carnival or the more raucous music festivals (Prystanek Woodstock comes to mind here), the streets are filled with drunk, stoned or otherwise inebriated people of all ages, genders and colours, dancing, laughing and kissing the time away. Accompanied by thunderingly loud music (depending on the bloco, this can be samba or techno, Brazilian funk or metal), Brazilians interact with abandon. Complete strangers lock tongues after exchanging the most cursory of glances, giggling groups of girls and boys compare tallies and surreptitious salesmen sell all a person might want to either imbibe to maximize their enjoyment or minimize their sanity.

The city began to feel a little stifling though, having been there for a while, so I decided to head south. On the last day before carnival, I arrived in Florianopolis, capital of the state of Santa Catharina and a popular holiday destination. It is situated on an island in front of the coast, tied to the mainland by a couple of huge bridges. The island itself is quite big and the city takes up only the western part of the island. Jungle, lagoons and small towns make up the rest, with some of the most gorgeous Brazilian beaches forming the eastern shore. Through Couchsurfing I met Pablo, a well-travelled Argentinian who was kind enough to host me for a while. He lived in a small house with two other tenants, one of which had just left. Unfortunately this previous tenant had taken the door with him and left behind a plank that was roughly the size of a door, apparently meant to cover the hole. I didn’t care much, though, as I was glad I had managed to find a place at such short notice during the carnival.

I wasn’t planning to spend much time there anyway. Carnival meant packed streets and for two days I roamed the streets in a drunken delirium, surreal images of costumes, music, throngs of drunk people and transformed avenues impressing themselves on my retina. At night I would somehow always find an Uber home, after I had been driven to the point of exhaustion by the seemingly endless festivities. I woke up on an anonymous, sunshine filled day around noon, decidedly done with drinking, parties and the human masses. I decided to check the map to see what else this place has on offer. The island of Florianopolis sports a beautiful lagoon on the eastern side, and (favourite offline navigation application for travelers all over the world) showed a hiking trail leading over the mountain, through the jungle, to the east side of the island. Forcing myself to get up to do some physical activity, I packed my small bag, put on my hiking shoes and within half an hour I was in the jungle, surrounded by the sounds of insects, the occasional scuffle of some unseen animal and the wind rustling through the dense foliage overhead.

Such a contrast compared to the hustle and bustle of the city, the roaring mass of stimuli that is carnival. Here the world fell away into an equally complex but less demanding, less chaotic playground: although each plant is a different entity (and many different species co-exist) and you pass thousands every minute, all are part of the thick intimately connected mass of vegetation, which adds a zen-like quality to a hike like this. The world as a comfortingly predictable place: endless variations on a theme, for hours on an end, with an occasional clearing or waterfall to remind you of all the secret, beautiful places to be found in the wilderness. The rhythm of my legs moving, the physical exertion washing away the hangover and that unhealthy feeling caused by days of partying melting away slowly as the mind starts roaming freely, thinking of past, present and future: not distracted by any person, mobile notification or other impulse that keep us distracted in our stimuli-rich daily urban lives. Hiking for me is a combination of all of these beneficial effects. The time to think about questions, events or motives at leisure. The exercise of the body, with all the rewarding endorphins that brings. The awe of nature and the vastness of the world. And of course that sense of exploring, all alone without a human soul around.

This trip has seen a greater focus on hiking than before, as I slowly started reassessing the priorities of nature and urban life. As kids me and my brother went hiking for two weeks every summer holiday, much to our chagrin. Our parents, both avid hikers, rented two different holiday houses every summer, and we spent about half the days exploring various trails all over Europe (although it seemed much more back then: time passed at a glacial rate when spent doing something we did not enjoy). Now, years later, I am surprised to see I have slowly grown to love hiking, and catch myself thinking back of those long holidays of my childhood often.

The jungle suddenly vanished around me, disturbing my ruminations. I had reached the other side of the island without noticing in the thick jungle, and a road appeared in front of me, filled with slow beach traffic. Before I knew it, I was back in the world of humans, and I spent the rest of the day with some friends from Ubatuba along the lagoon.

As often happens when traveling, the excitement of a new place slow gives way to a feeling of restlessness, of the familiar. When this happens I know it is time to move on, so I took an early shared ride (driven by a friendly air force pilot) to Porto Alegre, the happy port. The biggest city in the south of Brazil is apparently not a popular destination for the  holiday season, for rarely have I seen a city so deserted. I sat alone on a huge terrace in the central square, surrounded by closed shops and some sleeping locals not even bothering to hawk their dusty wares. Within the hour I headed for the big bus station, trying to catch a last minute bus to the south. With only a couple of weeks remaining, I wanted to spend my time well, and the unexpected abandoned state of Porto Alegre left me free to head straight towards the capital of Uruguay: Montevideo. I had been warned this small country was a very expensive travel destination, especially compared with its giant, inflation-ridden neighbours Brazil and Argentina, and that proved to be true before I ever crossed the border. The twelve-hour bus ride turned out to cost a whopping 90 euros, far more than one of the many buses laboriously driving around Uruguay with destination Buenos Aires. Montevideo, it turned out, is not a popular destination among Brazilians.

My fellow passengers all looked like well-off business people, most of them comfortably settling into the luxury seats like they had done so many times before. Our part of the bus was made to resemble an airplane as much as possible, with a small bathroom and a stewardess bringing microwave dinner and a glass of whiskey. All passports were collected upon departure, with the bus personal conveniently handling immigration in the middle of the night. Despite all their efforts at making this a comfortable experience, I did not manage to fall asleep until late at night, waking up bleary-eyed and tired in the main bus station of Montevideo.

I did not know much of Uruguay before this trip, and I suspect neither does my average reader, so here a short introduction. Uruguay obtained independence after two centuries of struggle, first against the Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires, later against the states of Argentina and Brazil. Lead by a progressive left government since the nineties, Uruguay has universal healthcare, free higher education, high press freedom, gay marriage and legal cannabis consumption, among many other features that make it stand out in South America. Taxes, however, are sky high and I would soon learn from my guide for the day, a local nurse called Silvia, that the average Uruguayan works long hours to pay for all this. Lunch is between ten and fifteen euros in one of the many eateries in the capital, a lot of money in a country where the minimum wage is less than two euros per hour.

The capital is a charming city with a vague soviet feel to it, mixed with late-colonial architecture and the inevitable modern high-rise apartment buildings. I booked the first hostel of my trip there and spent two days exploring the city, enjoying the perfect weather, and binging on the local obsession: mate. You might be familiar with the Berliner rave drink Club Mate: this drink has its origin in the strong caffeinated tea-like beverage enjoyed by all here. Montevideans can be seen with their small, ornate mate-cups all over the city, bringing them (plus huge thermos cans of hot water necessary to make the drink) to work, to the park, to a football match or on a walk. I actually did not manage to taste the drink at first since it is so ubiquitous it is simply not sold at bars! Between this and the local carnival traditions time here flew by, and as I am typing these last words, the skyline of Buenos Aires is coming into view: I am on the ferry across the Rio Plata, traveling from Uruguay to its dominant neighbour where I will spend my last two weeks, beautiful land of silver, of tango and of gauchos, Argentina!

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