Happy Belated Holidays From infusedexposures!
We just want to take a moment out to wish everyone a happy holiday season! May your day be merry and bright! Our Christmas was far from white this year as we spent it in the capital of the Amazon region in Brazil, the steamy city of Manaus. And okay, I’m a little late with this post but we had non-existent or glacial internet up until now. This city was our least favorite city in ALL of South America! It’s dirty, smelly, big and loud. Picture a giant city of 2 million in the middle of the Amazon rainforest! A huge monstrosity of mankind in the center of pristine nature. This wasn’t part of our plan but as is so often the case with travel, plans get disrupted and change. You just have to ride the waves and make the best of everything.
We try not to make too many plans when we travel for precisely this reason. After traveling for two years, we know all too well that things change and they change often. Whether it’s our mood or circumstances, travel seems to always be in flux. Most of the time we have been pretty successful between planning vs just winging it but not always. Often there comes a time when plans are a good idea due to time or money constraints. I’ve met some travelers that tell me that they NEVER plan anything when they travel. Well, you bought a plane ticket right? Or did you just show up in the airport and point to the first flight with available seats. If you did that, kudos to you for truly not planning anything!
Most people at least buy a ticket in advance (even a day or so counts!) and pack according to where they might go. This is planning whether those types want to admit it or not. These people usually think they are the kind of ‘Into the Wild’ kind of traveler and will balk at any form of research or guide book. If the information hasn’t gotten to them by word of mouth, then they don’t really want a part of it (even if the person who told them read it from a guide book!).
Then there are the others who plan every single detail down to what they will wear each day and where they will eat. These hardcore planners are usually pretty proud of their planning and organizing skills and want no part in anything spontaneous. I find these types to be rigid in other areas too and have trouble connecting to them at times. These types also seem to favor large group tours, all-inclusives and chain hotels. Not really our way to go.
Both Laurent and I feel that a healthy dose of research (including guide books) as well as leaving lots of room for spontaneity is the way of travel that works best for us. If you are a ‘wing it’ person or a hardcore planner and it works for you, then by all means continue with what floats your boat. We prefer having a mix of everything and don’t feel extreme in either way. We’ve had times where we have literally had to wing it for months including hitchhiking and not knowing where our next meal could or would come from. We even ran out of money due to no plan. We survived. We ate, we slept and breathed. Then we have had other times where we knew where we would go and what we would do in advance. We’ve organized both our own treks and have taken group treks.
And I can tell you after being on both sides of this coin that there is no right or wrong way to travel. Whatever works for one might not work for another so its best to do whatever you feel comfortable doing. I used to think that people who only took organized tours and planned every single detail must be missing out somehow. But now I know they aren’t. They are just enjoying things in their own way. I also used to think that the people who claimed they never planned a single thing (a lie if they did indeed purchase a plane ticket in advance) were hippies in search of an unattainable truth but now I know they aren’t either.
Our original idea was to spend Christmas in Venezuela. This was a time where we needed to plan due to time and money constraints. It also turned out to be a time when best laid plans didn’t stand a chance! We had high hope to do the Roraima trek (one of the best in the world) and then on to Angel Falls and Canaima National Park. In case any of you are not aware, the current situation in Venezuela went from bad to much worse. Political unrest, massive corruption, protests and a heavy police presence everywhere have made the country dangerous for not only the residents but also potential travelers. Fortunately in the south of the country where these areas are, it remains relatively hassle-free and somewhat peaceful. Our plan was to enter through the border from here in Manaus heading towards Boa Vista, Brazil to Santa Elena, Venezuela. After our travels in Venezuela were finished, we had planned to exit out the same safe border we came in.
The key word there is planned! To make a long story short, Laurent being a French citizen, cannot re-enter Brazil until 90 days after he has departed. We don’t have the time to spend 3 months in Venezuela, so that means the only way we could keep our original plan was to either cross the border into Colombia by bus or by air. Air was prohibitively expensive so that left bus as our only feasible option. The problem is the borders between Venezuela and Colombia are in a very bad state at the moment and we didn’t want to risk paying bribes or something worse.
So how did we end up in our least favorite city to spend the holiday? Well, that is another long story of course! We really did try to get out but in the end, I suppose it was destined to be. I had visions of cruising down the Amazon in a river boat (used mostly for cargo) where you can hang a hammock and sleep a few nights aboard. We treated ourselves to early Christmas presents by buying two fantastic (but heavy!) hammocks! I couldn’t wait to hang it on board the boat!
The slow boat which departed from Manaus had two options. The first was to stop in a town called Tefe (about halfway between Manaus and Colombia) and the other was to go directly to the border of Colombia. The thing is, if you take the slow boat all the way to the border, it takes 7 days! My hammock visions did not support 7 days of no shower/heat/mosquitoes and a gross bathroom. To Tefe-it takes 2 days. That was more like it. From Tefe we planned on getting a speedboat to the border, which by word or mouth, we heard were easy to get. We bought our slow boat tickets and the next day planned to by the speedboat ticket. According to our plan, it all seemed perfect. But we all know, best laid plans….
Without getting too into details, we couldn’t buy the speedboat ticket and were forced to try to get our money back for our slow boat tickets. We panicked at the thought of spending Christmas in Manaus! We had to get out! We saw a flight leaving that day (the 21st) that would get us to the border with Colombia. We rushed to the airport only to find out there were no seats left! For the next two days, there were no flights. That left one expensive flight the day before Christmas and one very cheap flight on Christmas Day. I’m sure you can guess we waited until Christmas Day to fly out!
AS if things couldn’t get more complicated they were. To top things off, we had visa issues. This past Saturday marked our 90 day visa expiration in Brazil. We had officially expired!! That left us two choices. Get an extension (and me being from the United States was the only one eligible for this costlier option) or just go to the police station and pay the daily fee (8.2 Reais). We had found out (with a little detective work) that after we paid our fee, Brazil would give us 8 free days to leave the country! Perfect! The only problem with our “perfect plan” was that we thought our visa was up last Thursday! On Friday, we arrived at the office at 2:58 and were informed that they were already closed (they close at 3 and let me tell you, Brazilians are always late and nonchalant about so many things! Except when it is time for them to leave work!!
But it was a mute point anyway because our visa really expired on Saturday. We arrived Monday to pay for our two days of overstay but of course there were about 500 people in the office on Monday morning! And to top it off, there is no organized system for getting served. Put it this way, it made the Department of Motor Vehicles (which is a joke in the US) look like a dream place to go! It was chaotic and it seemed if you had a good enough story or a prop with you, you could cut the line and get help immediately! One guy had a cane, another had his suitcase packed with a ticket from the airport and still another had all her children with her. It was our first ‘official’ taste of Brazilian inefficiency! We took a number and waited forever while everybody and anybody cut in (provided their story impressed the guy behind the counter enough).
Finally, three hours later, we were helped and were set to pay our fee but we weren’t free yet! In this country (as well as in others in South America) they don’t let you pay directly to the place where you are. In this case, to the police station. No, come on! That would be too easy, efficient and hassle-free! No,they sent us to the bank to pay first which meant we had to first endure the Brazilian bank line (which is an entity in itself in this country!) and then back to the police station to give them our receipt that we paid. Of course there was no bank anywhere near the police station to top it off! Sometimes even in stores here, you are forced into this process of paying someone and then showing your receipt to get your stuff. Usually the two people sit right next to each other and somehow there are always lines for both. Chile is another country overly fond of this method for paying things! If you are inpatient with lines (like I am), it doubly sucks because you have to wait twice just to buy one thing! It didn’t help that they put the police station so far out of Manaus, it was practically in the Amazon jungle!
Lucky us, we got to take rides on the public buses 3 different days in Manaus just to go to the police station. We spent our first four days just back and forth on buses buying/exchanging tickets and going to the police station. Things weren’t looking very merry or bright. I really wasn’t feeling the Christmas spirit. And I didn’t even mention the icing on the cake! In Salvador we discovered that Laurent’s credit card had been hacked! In Manaus, we were still dealing with resolving that problem which wasn’t going very well either!
So we decided to cheer ourselves up. I was ready to put some cheer into this holiday season dammit! We bought some wine and decided to make our Christmas card! I wanted to find some santa hats and pose in front of the big tree they had set up in the city. Everyone in the stores wears a santa hat, so I figured they would be pretty easy to find. But nothing was going to be easy this holiday season for us! Not even a damn santa hat.
In a city where you can buy anything (and I do mean anything!) on the streets, I couldn’t find a damn hat! So in the end we had to photoshop them on us! I desperately (and I mean desperately) tried in vain to find a real friggin santa hat. What country doesn’t have a santa hat?! Brazil! Everyone wears one (in all the restaurants and shops but no one knows where to buy em!). I even learned how to ask for it in Portuguese for crissakes (I learned they call santa, Popai Noel and when you pronounce it, it sounds like “Popeye”, at least that’s how I remembered it)! Everyone kept telling me to get it on the street. Well, I’ll tell you, I never saw one on the street! They all lied! People sell every freaking thing on the streets here from power saws to underwear to hammocks to exotic fruits but no damn santa hat! I was starting to drive Laurent totally crazy from my frantic searching and finally he just said ‘enough’ and said he’d photo-shop the damn things in!!
Well, I have to tell you, I FINALLY saw the santa hats the other day. We were on the bus and moving pretty fast. I was staring out the window and I saw a guy walking down the street selling them. Not just ordinary santa hats. Hell no. These had lights and BRAIDS dangling from them! Two white Braids from either side!! Laurent had to literally restrain me from jumping out the bus to go catch the guy!!
Through all of this confusion, there was one bright spot in Manaus to help get us in the Christmas spirit. There is an old, historic opera house in the city center. It’s really beautiful, modeled after the one in Paris! As if this city wasn’t bizarre enough being in the middle of the jungle, here is this old, beautiful opera house! Every year for Christmas they put on an outdoor performance telling the story of the birth of Jesus for free! We got excited that we could see a show but when we saw the time and date (on Christmas day at 7 pm!) we realized we’d already be gone. Our flight was at 3 pm. Fortunately, they rehearsed on two different nights while we were in the city. We liked it so much, we returned for the second rehearsal too.
You might think a story about Jesus being born might be a bit boring, I certainly did. I knew the story already and wasn’t really interested at first. But this was not an ordinary story of Jesus being born. No sir. This was completely Brazilian both in style and energy. I ended up really loving it! The costumes were really ornate and something I’d expect to see straight out of Carnaval. The serious acts were broken up with circus-type stuff, even a bit of acrobatics like cirque de soleil. Amazonian themes prevailed like pink dolphins, trees and exotic flowers. One act even had children all dressed up like Amazonian fish!
The remainder of the show was just a spectacle and the Jesus story was told with every odd thing from giraffes, tribal horses, pink paisley elephants (that oddly resembled the ones on the Delirium Tremens label!), opera singers, camels and a real baby playing the part of Jesus! The dancing and singing was great and even though the usual suspects like Mary, Joseph and the wise men were there, it was not somber in any way. Come on, this is Brazil! No time for somber here! The end was the best part when the entire company rushed on stage, breaking out in a dance frenzy, to the tune of the song ‘Happy’! As a friend pointed out, Jesus would probably love to be born to ‘Happy’ and the Brazilians seemed to be on to this. Rumor has it there will be fireworks for the big performance too. Screens were set up with high definition images in the background and inside the opera house, the philharmonic played with a full orchestra and chorus! We were indeed happy by the end of the show (both times!)
I really miss being in New York for the Christmas season because I love seeing and putting up a tree. Well, just because I was in the middle of the Amazon, don’t think I didn’t get to do either of those things! Okay, it’s not Rockefeller but it was still nice!
The best part was that we splurged a bit on a proper hotel room and I surprised Laurent with a little, tiny Christmas tree! Small in size but with a big heart. And it only cost be US $3.50 for the “decorations” and the tree! I got pretty creative with lighting by using our headlamp (which has a red light feature!) I used my red dress as a tree skirt and lit up the headlamp for a real festive look! We had a nice little Christmas Eve night with some wine, cheese and crackers. We shared our favorite French and American Christmas songs.
I got desperate to watch a Christmas movie (instead of the Brazilian novellas that were on TV!) so we ordered netflix and watched National Lampoons Christmas Vacation!
So even though we thought that it might be the worst Christmas ever, it turned into a real memorable one. And that’s the true spirit of Christmas, making memories with the people you love most. I still miss my friends and family for the holiday season but am lucky to be with one I love this year. And that’s also the true meaning of travel. Just going with the flow and making the best out of any circumstance. Whether you are on a cruise ship, group tour, hanging with an indigenous tribe or trekking up a mountain by yourself. Just make the best of the situation and a fun time is guaranteed.
To make up for our lackluster destination for Christmas, we decided to indulge a bit for 2015 (and our 6 year anniversary together!). We’ll be flying off to the Caribbean island of San Andres and Providencia, Colombia. Hope ya all had a Merry Christas, Feliz Navidiad, Joyeux Noel and Feliz Natal to all!!
We hope 2015 will be a healthy, prosperous one filled with lots of love, laughter and of course, travel!