July 27, 2004

Brazil: the Pantanal

Part of travelling as a very curious person... is not having too many suprises. A little forward looking reaserch is always very good. So the more I read about the Pantanal the more I get excited about visiting this very unique place. With this entry I hope to share some of my research with you and set the stage for my impressions of the place.

The Pantanal has the greatest concentration of fauna in the Americas. Generally people outside Brazil know only of the Amazon. . . it's a shame because the Pantanal is a very important ecological place.

Dr. Maria Tereza Jorge Pádua,
Former Director, Brazil's National Parks

Re: The Pantanal
It is the largest wetlands in the world, it covers an area of approximately 150,000 km² (source: http://www.pantanal.org/Mainpant.htm) that is a completely separate watershed basin from the rest of brazil. It feeds into the Rio Paraguay which eventually feeds the Paraná river; the second longest river system in South America. The Paraná river finally flows into the Atlantic ocean between Argentina and Uruguay. As a result of the topography (The Pantanal is very very flat) and because of the seasonal climate, the landscapes consist of seasonally flooded swamps, grasslands, woodlands and various types of forests. The result is a mixture that has provided the habitat in the Pantanal housing the highest concentration of wildlife in all of the Americas. (source: http://www.ladatco.com/PAN%2DGATE.htm)
When first seen by the Portuguese, the basin appeared so big and with so much water that it was thought to be an inland sea. If you look at old maps of South America it is called the "Sea of Xaraés". The current name of Pantanal simply signifies the Swamp.
"As a result of the rain there is a huge flood wave that moves through the Pantanal. It takes this wave six months to go from the north to the south of the Pantanal. So in the south, a couple of months after the end of the rainy season, all of a sudden the water level rises again and the savanna gets flooded once more for a while. By the end of the dry season only a few spots of water are left and this is when you get the famous congregations of wildlife in the Pantanal." (source: http://www.pantanal.org/book.htm)

While researching the Pantanal I also started reading about a proposal for Hydrovia to increase the capacity of the river for larger ships for transporting cargo. Apparently, for over a hundred years, it has been a idea that has been floating around. In the late 80's an Intergovernmental Committee on the Hidrovia (CIH) was created to promote and oversee the development of this commercial waterway. "The waterway would link the five countries and would promote a regional integration among countries of the Mercosur (i.e., southern common market) by ensuring year-round navigational transport of minerals and agricultural products (primarily soybeans) from landlocked regions to major markets along the Atlantic coast. The goal was to transform the meandering river into a deepened channel, navigable for barges up to 2.8 m drafts during the low-water months. Presently, the river allows much smaller barge transport." (source: http://www.pantanal.org/gottgens.htm)
The study, however did not take into consideration the environmental impacts on the wetland areas of the Pantanal. Ironically as the plans for Hydrovia continue, other countries are working to reduce the damage that dykes and artificial waterways have done to many of the world’s large rivers such as the Florida Everglades/Kissimmee River complex, the Missouri-Mississippi river system, the Rhine, Danube, Nile, and many others.
The good news as far as I can gather is that the Hidrovia project has been on hold since 1998. But who is to know when such an attractive transportation corridor won't be looked at again as the source for economic development in the region.

What is really the biggest attraction, is the flora and fauna. With more than 650 species of birds, 80 species of mammals, 230 species of fish, all kinds of reptiles and 1100 species of butterflies I am guaranteed to see a few interesting animals.

Hopefully this has been an interesting read for you as well. I am really excited about going to this region. Please check out the following link for an image taken from the space shuttle of the Pantanal http://earth.jsc.nasa.gov/sseop/EFS/lores.pl?PHOTO=STS091-708-14

As well as the following


Posted by gwendal at 08:26 AM | Comments (0)

July 23, 2004

Brazil: Following the Iguaçu River

Last Monday under a rainy sky I left a freezing cold Curitiba. The forecast was poor predicting rain all week. To spite the rain and the cold I road out into the rain, instead of waiting. My gamble paid off, as on the second day the rainclouds stayed over Curitiba and did not follow me any further west. In Curitiba however, the rain continued. It rained so much that the Sao Joao bridge, one of twelve rail bridges that links Curitiba to the port of Paranaguà collapsed and 35 cargo-railcars fell into the valley spilling out tonnes of non-transgenically modified soy. (I know it is not transgenically modified because the Paranà government has put out many billboards propagating the fact that if it used transgenically modified soybean like the rest of Brazil it would have to pay 60 million dollars US to Monsanto in royalties)
In any case it was a little scary to think that just three weeks ago I was going over the very same 110 year-old bridge with the Sierra Verde Express touristic train.

Back to following the Iguaçu river; all this rain will hopefully translate to more water flow over the Iguazu falls. This however, is subject to the decisions of the Itapu Hydroelectric Dam Management Agency (which is an extra-national management agency that acts on the behalf of both Brazil and Paraguay).

Check out this very interesting satellite image of the Iguazu River and the confluence of three countries.

On the way to Iguaçu I had a very pleasant 650km bike ride throught the high plateau of the Paranà countryside. Going from 900m at Curitiba to just over 1100m at Guarapava and then back down to around 300m (to be confirmed) at Iguazu. The towns are all very beautiful and small enough that finding accomodation is easy... there is often only one hotel and it is cheap and comfortable and all you can eat breakfeast is usually included. Could a cycletourist ask for anything more?

I had a fantastic visit to the Larangeria Mate factory along the way. It was so much fun to film the whole process of loading the branches, drying the leaves in huge spinning ovens and the rest of the process of sorting the palo (little sticks) and mulching the whole thing down to the desired consistancy (The brazilians like their chimarao much finer than the Argentinians). I felt like Mr. Rogers when he visited factories in his television show to show children how things are made. Looking back I think that was the part of that tv show that always enchanted me when I was a child.

My next entry will be about my impressions of the famous Iguazu or Iguaçu (depending on what side of the border you are on) Falls.

Posted by gwendal at 08:43 PM | Comments (1)

July 18, 2004

Brazil: Fear and Loathing in São Paulo

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell,
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.

Written by Dante Alighieri, The complete translation can be found at http://triggur.org/inferno/
Dante´s opening words seem to illustrate how I felt arriving in São Paulo.

Against many peoples advice I left Rio de Janeiro on thursday to go to São Paulo. My curiosity receptors were on full alert, and I was bent on trying to learn as much as possible about this megalopolis in 48 hours as possible. What I found is a massive megapolis that is the biggest economy in Latin America.

Its surface area is approximately 1500 km². The population number is subjective as it relates to where you draw the lines of the metropolis. Do you follow political boundaries or simply all contiguous urban areas? According to http://www.nationmaster.com São Paulo has 16,533,000 inhabitants (1995 est) third in the world behind Mexico City and Tokyo. The urban population of inhabitants within the city proper or the metropolitan area is estimated at 10,009,231. http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/bigcities.htm

São Paulo at night.

What caught my attention about São Paulo other than its tremendous size is its astounding growth. In 1950 is population was 2.4 million then by 1970 it had already jumped to 8.1 million but what is increadible is that by 1990 it was 14.8 million. The latest number for 2000 is 17.8 million. (source Thinkquest online Library, see Also The mega-city in Latin America ). Although the exact number for a city of this size is uncertain there are certain things that are obvious. São Paulo has a major transportation problem. I risked my life and limbs cycling through the center with Arturo (whom I met in Joinville at the bicycle museum) who lent me one of his spare bikes. In 48 hours I had run more red lights than I have my whole life! I am fairly experienced at riding in traffic and as a result found it very nice not to be limited by all the traffic jams that I cycled past. However I was also very concious that there is almost no infrastructure that benefits the cyclist. This is important because this city has many people who work for very little. Arturo quoted me a crazy number, 30 percent of people in the city walk to work because they can´t afford to pay the 1.70 reals that it costs to take the bus to work. Many of them live far from the center and walk more than 10km each way. São Paulo has a very clean and beautiful subway system that is unfortunately completely outpaced by the growth of the city. Many of the lines don´t even reach the inner suburbs, let alone outlying parts of the city. This leaves the majority of public transit users on buses that have to fight it out with the rest of the traffic. This city certainly has as many byways, underpasses, overpasses, highways, freeways, arterials, and speedways as any other city. But it just does not seem to help... traffic is always jammed. They even have traffic jams in the middle of the night.

On Friday I went with Arturo to drive his maid home in a eastern suburb of the city. W drove for 2 1/2 hours and only made it 40km out from the centre. Not once did I see a break in the urban fabric. Just a change in the age of the buildings that became progressively younger, smaller and of poorer construction. I was completely dumfounded after that trip. I still can only barely conceive the size and the immencity of this city. This statistic will help illustrate how completely unbeleivable the challenges are: in 1973, there were only 73,000 people living in favelas or 1.1 percent of the population, Today there are 1.1 million people living in favelas which is about 11.3 percent (Alan Gilbert)

I am starting to wonder if it is a miracle that this city continues to function. Or maybe the people working here and administering the city are working the miracle. It seems like São Paulo is buzzing full steam ahead with a thriving capitalist economy. But I keep wondering if it is on the brink of collapse. For example, this is a very thirsty city that is operating nearly at the capacity of its water supply. What would happen if their was a major drought? While crossing a bridge I was able to have a good look at one of its rivers. It was very dirty, the water was not flowing at all, their was a very visible oil slick on the surface and it was bubling with what probably was lots of little mosquito larvae. The shores of the river are void of any public infrastructure and I got the feeling that the river is litteraly a forgotten backwater. When it could be a beautiful green space that people could enjoy. I was however increadibly suprised when I spotted a capivara on the shore of the river. Maybe because it is the largest rodent in the world and is related to the rat it is able to survive in such polluted conditions.

Nevertheless São Paulo continues to operate and thrive with all its problems along for the ride. The most encouraging thing in my eyes is that the growth rate of the city´s population is declining and is currently less than 1.8% per annum (Alan Gilbert) Hopefully this means that the city has time to catch its breath and can put in the infrastructure that will permit the city to exist more sustainably.

Posted by gwendal at 02:30 PM | Comments (0)

July 03, 2004

Brazil: Ilha do Mel

One of my fears during this expedition is that by being away for so long I will become blazé. That all the beauty in nature and the fantastic cultures I encounter will cease to amaze and arouse my curiosity.
Fortunately, so far that is not the case.

The Ilha do Mel is a place that has really aroused all the senses and truely enchanted me. The only way to arrive on "honey island" is by small wooden ferry boats. They are pretty much converted fishing boats with a lot of life jackets instead of fishing nets as cargo.

I boarded at the small dock in Pontal do Paraná and loaded my bike on the roof of the boat. It was a nice balmy 25 degrees and I was wondering why this was considered the off season. But for some reason it is and I was the only passenger.
Once at the dock in the small fishing village of Nova Brazilia on the Island I was helped by Oca who at first seemed a little too eager to help me. But I later realized that it was just in his nature to be very personable and friendly. Nova Brazilia is a very interesting little town where none of the streets are paved, but rather just sandy walking paths. There are no cars, cows or horses on the island. Everything on the island has to be moved around in carts pulled by someone. Or brought around by small dugout canoe fishing boats, which are the only motorized vehicles on the island.

I have to explain that 81% of the island is a designated ecological station and a remaining 12% of this 27 square kilometer island is a national park. That leaves only 7% for the two towns of Nova Brasilia and Esperansa. Nova Brasilia (where I was camping in Oca´s back yard) seems to be very well integrated into its landscape. Most people are either fishermen who also run a small "Posada" Bed and Breakfeast type place or just run small shops. When you go up a hill and look towards the town It is almost impossible to see any buildings as they are all well hidden by the tree canopy.
Just as the name of the island implies life seems to move along at a syrupy pace. The moment my toes dug into the sand all my muscles seemed to relax knowing that I would do a lot of nothing for the next few days. I did not wear my shoes for he entire time I was on the island. I should mention the only drawback is that the sand is very fine and it has an amazing ability to get everywhere.
One night I ate fresh barbequed oysters with my caping hosts Oca and Claudette. This island is a perfect place for those who like sea food.

I think I will stop now otherwise I will start to sound like a tourist broshure. However my lasting memory of the place was its cleanliness. Everywhere there are small garbage bins reminding you to keep this unique environment clean. The island has a limit of 5000 visitors to the island on any given day. They are even talking about reducing it to 3000. In the "winter" when I was here, I guessed the number of visitors to be no more than 20. At the time I visited it really looked as if it was a very good model of sustainable, ecologically sensitive trourism that respects the local economies and culture.

After seeing some of the mega beach resort towns like Baleneario Camboriú with unlimited growth, I am very very impressed.

Posted by gwendal at 08:09 AM | Comments (0)

June 30, 2004

Brazil: The only Bicycle Museum in South America

I was very fortunate to be given a Brazill guidebook when I was in Criciuma because it allowed me to know that there is a bicycle museum in Joinville.

Joinville is the largest city in the state of Santa Catarina. As I approached it from the south on the coast highway (BR 101) I noticed that traffic increased a little and there was more development on the side of the highway. But never enough let me know that I was about to enter a city of 500 000 people. Within minutes of turning off the highway I was near the center of the city. As I later figured out the city has an oblong shape which is a collection of fairly self sufficient neighbourhoods. It was two in the afternoon, so I decided to go straight to the main attraction before looking for a place to spend the night or even eating lunch.
The bicycle museum is housed in the old train station on the south end of the city. It is the only bicycle museum in South America and it is there because of the painstaking collecting over the last 25 years by Valter Busto. He has amassed a personal collection of over 10 000 artefacts related to cycling with almost no money spent and a flair for trading.
Valter is in his 50´s apprears much younger despite an wild and out of controll beard with loads of strays. Since 2001 the city of Joinville for its 150th anniversary has given him the space to display the best peices in his collection.

Within a few minutes of seeing me arrive on my overloaded touring bicycle a very excited Valter had already called his fellow bicycle enthusiast/journalist friend on visit from Sao Paolo. Together they carefully inspected my bicycle asking me a million questions. Then they barely gave me time for a quick visit to the museum before they asked me to leave my bike in the museum as a "temporary exibit" so that we could go to the internet cafe to show them the pictures of the bicycle in its tandem configuration. Valter was quick to try to make me promise that when the trip was over I would send him the bike to exibit in the museum. It was really nice to meet two people who really understood all the aspects of what it takes to undertake such an expedition.

We quickly became good friends, and I spent the weekend resting and relaxing
with them. One of the highlights was a visit to the excellent Brazilian National Maritime Museum in Sao Fransisco do Sul (Brazil´s second oldest port after Bahia). The other highlight was luch with Valter´s sister Walkiria in Barra Velha.

Posted by gwendal at 01:05 PM | Comments (0)

Brazil: Passion fruit Cake

Bolo de Maracuja

This is a new and exciting discovery on the trip. I am learning recepies that are truely exciting that I can forward to you to try out. This is plugged-in gastronomic geography!

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of how you can make it, I have to explain how I came accross this gem. I first tasted this cake when I was taken to the best confeteria in Joinville (the biggest city in the state of Santa Catarina). I was spellbound at first bite.
A few days later I was invited to lunch at Valter´s (bicicle museum curator: see next entry for details) sister´s house in Barra Velha. Lunch was very animated with a fun group of guests (all Valter´s friends) who like many brazilians enjoy to express themselves and talking a lot. The food was excellent, as I am writing I wish I had written down all the other dishes. But the one that struck a chord with me was dessert. A fantastic Passion fruit cake with a beautiful mix of the soft cake that is moistened by the strong sour flavour of the passion fruit.

Ok I know it is a challenge to get your hands of fresh passion fruit in Canada (not exactly a native fruit) But if you do come accross some remember this recepe.

You will need:
Mix the dry stuff
2 cups of flour
2 cups of sugar
1 soup spoon of yeast

Blend the wet stuff:
1 cup of fresh Passion fruit juice (make at least 1/2 cup extra and save all the seeds)
3 eggs
1 cup of Oil

Then in a bowl mix the dry stuff with the wet stuff untill you get a sticky dough.
Then pour into a well buttered cake pan (or use parchement paper to line the pan) Cook at cake cooking temperature (I think this is around 350) until the cake is done. Then take it out and let it cool a little before pouring on the remaining Passionfruit juice and sprinkleing the seeds on top for decoration.

Then to really enjoy this cake you must eat it with friends, close your eyes and imagine you are in Brazil.
Credit for this recette goes to Walkiria Fernandes who lives in Barra Velha. She made one of the best meals I have eaten on this trip so far.

I realize that Passion fruit is either expensive or difficult to obtain in canada. So I have devised a solution. If you can find ready made passionfruit juice, use this for the juice that gets baked. Then save the fresh passionfruit juice you extracted for the juice you pour on to the cake after it has been cooked. I think this will still have the sour zing that makes this cake so good to eat.

ps: I forgot to take a picture of the cake but when I get one I will post it.

Posted by gwendal at 12:26 PM | Comments (0)

June 22, 2004

Brazil: Getting to Florianopolis

This is a little account of my approach to Florianopolis. The BR-101 road that more or less hugs the coast has a poor reputation
See comic
In reality the road is very busy with big trucks happier on the coast road with few hills rather than further inland where there are some very beautiful mountains. (last week it snowed in Sao Joaquim)
There is however a fairly large shoulder that I generally have all to myself.
Although there is the occasional horse drawn cart and other odd vehicles that use the shoulder.

The approach to Florianopolis is probably designed to kill cyclists. As I got closer to the city. It gradually got busier. However the only approach to Florianopolis (300,000 inhabitants) is on a highway that goes through Sao Jose (just as many inhabitants) on the mainland. There are a series of narrow shoulders, overpasses, on ramps and off ramps. The icing on the cake is that you have to cross the highway to get to the tourism office which is some sort of island sourrounded by highway roads. The reward for finding the tourism office is that I figured out how you cross the bridge. There is a neat hanging cyclist pathway under the bridge to town. Fortunately I learne of this un-marked pathway before I attempted to cross with the traffic on top.
Another odd note. The City has a beautiful coast walkway/bikeway that reminds me a little of the sea wall. However it fails terribly because between the walkway and the rest of the city is a 6 lane coast road. I had to ride 2.5km before I found a light that allowed me to cross over into the city.

The Island of Santa Catarina is amazing with a very varied geography. Huge sand dunes on the east coast and a series of large hills through the center of the island all covered in all sorts of subtropical plants like banana trees, papaya and citrus trees. In the center of the island there is also a large laguna that seems to increase the amount of coastline on this island twofold.

Before I go I want to talk about showers. Since I´ve been in Brazil there has been a change in the way water is heated. In Argentina a country blessed with lots of natural gas all the water heating was done with the kind of systems we know in Canada. Sometimes it was a heat as you go gas system. All of them however offered no risk of electrocution. As those of you who have travelled to countries within 30 degrees of the equator know. Brazil seems to favour the heat as you go showerhead heater. These things are an anathema to me.
The are designed to be easy to install, but offer no system to prevent the electrical wires from getting wet. It is sort of like having a very wet electric toaster above your head. More often than I would like if my head gets too close to the shower head I start to get the wonderful tingling sensation of electricity running through my body. Talk about the energising effects of a shower!

Fortunately all of these contraptions have so far produced hot water. I am anticipating arriving to a point where hot water just is no longer available.
This is probably still a little while away.

Posted by gwendal at 04:27 PM | Comments (0)

June 17, 2004

Brazil: Voting from abroad

On June 5th I sent a fax to Elections Canada to request that I receive a voting package for the upcoming elections. Although I am far away I was in Uruguay where the local first cycle of presidential election campaign was taking place.
Their election date is on june 27th and the Canadian election is on june 28th. Seeing all the election posters and and people campaigning in the streets really made me think of our own elections in Canada. In Uruguay the Partido Colorado has almost continuously held power in the country except for a a few times where the Partido Nacional-Blancos have won. However in the last election in 1999 the Encuentro Progresista held the majority of the vote in the first cycle but not enough to win. So in the second cycle the Colorados and Blancos made a coalition to defeat the Encuentro Progresista. This time however the winds of change seem to be stronger and Uruguay may be have a new government.
While learning all of this I started to look into voting from abroad for the Canadian election. This is a privilege that Uruguayans do not have and many other countries also do not provide this service. Ironically in the last federal election I was also abroad and had to make use of this service in Australia. In Uruguay when you are in the country voting is mandatory for all who are elegible. If you do not vote you face a heavy fine.

This time however it is a little more complicated as I do not have a fixed address. At the time of requesting the package I did not know any addresses where I could have the voting package sent. So I checked the map and tried to calculate where I could be that would provide enough time for the package to arrive but also not to far as so it would be too late for me to vote. Elections Canada requires that votes sent in from abroad must be mailed by the tuesday before election day. This is already a very short election with barely a month of campaigning. With mail taking at least 10 days to arrive my margin of error is very tight. I chose to have the package sent to the Poste Restante in Criciuma. The Poste Restante is an international service for which local post offices will hold mail addressed to you for generally up to 30 days.
I have been in Criciuma now for three day, waiting for the mail to arrive. Fortunately I am staying with my friend Flavio´s Aunt and Uncle who are treating me as family. They were very efficient in organizing two newspaper interviews and getting me a tour of the local coal mine.

The article about the expedition made it to the Front and Back page of the local paper, in colour. They even used the expedition as the subject for the political editorial cartoon. Click on image to see full size.
Some things they kind of got a little mixed up because of my broken portuguese. According to the article I am finishing in Alaska. But it was so much fun to wake up and see yourself on the front page of the paper in Brazil.

I am now faced with a difficult decision. I really want to keep moving north and continue riding but at the same time I feel that being able to vote is very important. As far as I can gather this is a very tight election and every vote will be important. It is amazing to me that in such a short election period the voter packages for canadians abroad are not sent by express post.

...Funny Side note. After my very interesting visit of the coal mine with Flavio´s cousin Daniel. They gave me a "small" 1 pound bag of coal with which to remember them. To them this was a very small amount of coal but to the very weight concious cyclist this will be difficult to carry. I think I am going to keep one little pebble :) I was able to film the whole visit and learn a lot. This mine in Criciuma is apparently the first to fully treat its acidic waste water. With a process developed at the local university it is now manditory for all coal mines in Brazil to put such a waste water treatment system into place.

Posted by gwendal at 09:56 AM | Comments (0)

June 12, 2004

Brazil: Pictures are back online

After a month of pleading with the company hosting the website we have the security glitch that prevented me from posting new pictures fixed.
I had not added any pictures since Bahia Blanca in Argentina.
Please check out the Argentina image gallery

And the Uruguay image Gallery

I am now in Capao de Canoa near the northern end of the worlds longest continuous beach which is at least 400km long and has already taken me 4 days to follow. Today is also one of the coldest i´ve had in a long time and ironically in Brazil where I really thought it was always warm. But apparently this preconception was because of what I knew about Rio de Janero. If I´d checked the lattitudes I would have realized that the southern border of Brazil is at 32 degrees south. Wich is the equivalent of just north of Newcastle in Australia. I´ve been there in June and It was cold. Anyway I am on my way north so hopefully it will eventually get warm.

Posted by gwendal at 04:29 PM | Comments (1)