Saturday, January 25, 2014

Catching up is a little bit hard to do

You may have noticed that I haven't blogged much lately. The good news is that it's partially because I have been traveling and struggling with an absolutely enormous pile of photos and thoughts. Now I've had just over a month at home, and it's cold and dark outside, so it is finally time to create again.

Winter in Norway - A time for indoor activities and/or outdoor freezing.
So where have I been? Well, in May I went to Madeira for a week, surprising my parents who were already there. That went quite well. Then summer came, and I spent it traveling around Norway. As you may know, Norway has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, and I will try to show you some examples of this in a while.

My big trip of 2013 was a six week escapade with my girlfriend through large parts of South America, from October to December. It was a bit of a highlights tour, with Easter Island, Salar de Uyuni and Foz do Iguaçu, but we managed to fit in some additional places of less fame, but plenty of beauty. All in all it was an excellent adventure, and what follows here is my account of the first few days.

By the way, if you haven't already discovered that Google+ [] is a great place to follow travelers and photographers, I encourage you to try it out. I'm certainly followable there, with updates and photos published much more often than I get around to do any actual blogging here.

So, here goes. Whirlwinding through South America, Part One.

We started out by flying to São Paulo. One reason was that it was the cheapest ticket we could find to South America. Another reason was that we are geocachers, and if you don't know what that is, but you're interested in traveling, I'll just wait here while you learn about something you as a traveler must know.

You see, in the rainforest just a few hundred kilometres west from São Paulo, a very special geocache is hidden. Sure, it's just a box in the wilderness, but it's only been found a hundred or so times in more than a decade. It's the last survivor of a dozen or so "Planet of the Apes" geocaches, and it's in the middle of a nature reserve with lots of amazing animals, birds and insects, so we figured that since we were in South America anyway, we might as well try finding it. (Or, you could argue, my girlfriend decided that since the geocache is in South America, that was where we would have to go. You choose.)

Landing in São Paulo is fine, because the airport, Guarulhos, is not in São Paulo at all, but located a safe distance outside it. I really loathe São Paulo, having visited it before. It's incredibly large, street after street after street of huge apartment complexes, inhabited by 17 million people who I'm sure are generally nice individuals, but as a group they tend to feel like a plundering army out to get you. Because many of them are. It has been getting better lately, and not being a drug dealer improves your chances for survival a lot, but there's a lot of petty crime. That's just the way it is.

So when we went straight from the airport to a car rental place (Thrifty, easy shuttle service, super-friendly people), I was a bit worried. Each time I have visited Brazil before and observed the traffic, I have congratulated myself on being a bus passenger instead of a driver of a car. As a nation, the chances of dying in the traffic in Brazil is about 8 times larger than in my country, Norway. I didn't really worry about that, though. It's more just that the probability of huge hassles is so large. Either you'll bump into someone, or they will bump into you, and there's going to be a lot of paperwork related to insurance. And then there are the typical road robberies, followed by the boring and frustrating procedure you have to go through to get a new passport and all that.

Oh, and I should probably mention that I got my driver license in Brønnøysund, my hometown in Northern Norway, where we have no multi-lane roads, no turn-abouts, no traffic lights and no one-way streets. But I have logged a lot of hours in the Grand Theft Auto video games, so I'm definitely qualified for driving anywhere in the world.

Still, the geocache we were looking for is hidden almost 400 kilometres away from the airport, in a location where no scheduled bus will get you even close to. So a rental car it was. The rental people prayed for us and gave us a semi-automatic to protect ourselves with, and off we went. Semi-automatic car, not gun, of course. And by that I mean that it tended to want to do it's own thing, but we managed to talk sense into it most of the time.

Driving through São Paulo
The drive from one side of São Paulo to the other was nerve-wrecking. We drove really fast, and the main road west kept splitting and joining and not having many signs at all saying what that meant for us. Numerous motorcyclists weaving their narrow way between the cars just added to my anxiety.

We of course had brought GPS, so we just kept on going in the right general direction, figuring that this would eventually lead us where we wanted to go. It worked well enough, and after a while we could turn onto a toll road. This was bliss. It was rather expensive, but well worth the money. As a result of the toll, most Brazilians crowded onto the free and pot-holed alternative, while we could relax on a wide and almost deserted perfect highway.

Eventually we had to leave the highway, and we entered a small road. We went through a village, and the road lost its asphalt. Another village, and the road turned into loose gravel, on which we still had another hour of increasingly worse road to go.

Both of these car models were manufactured in Brazil until very recently.

Our destination was Intervales State Park, where we had booked a room in a rustic cabin. It had a shower with reasonably hot water, and we could drive to a small hamlet 15 minutes away to get food. By sneaking up at night to the walls of the park ranger office and sit very, very quiet in the darkness there, listening to a ranger having an amorous conversation with his girlfriend (and, it could seem, his second and third girlfriend), while we ignored the sounds of insect feet and flapping wings, we were even able to steal a faint wifi signal. And with that, all our basic needs were well catered for.
Somewhere in these hills there's a box hidden. Good luck on finding it!
I can warmly recommend the park to anyone with an interest for nature. There was plenty to see, touch and be bitten by. Hundreds of species of birds are present in the park, and you don't even have to do much walking to see them. Regarding animals, the most exciting possible sights are probably jaguar and tapir. We saw footprints probably left behind by both of them, and that was good enough for me. And bugs! Lots of mostly harmless bugs! More bugs than all my programming colleagues back home could create in a century. Wear long sleeves and enjoy.

As mentioned, the reason we had come all this way was to grab the last remaining of the Project Ape geocaches. There's not much I can say about that without seeming over the hills and far, far away crazy to you non-cachers out there, so I won't. Suffice it to say that it was an absolute pleasure to hike through wet rainforest, through dense jungle and morning mist, and eventually be able to spot a metal container full of trinkets from many parts of the world and a log book. We came, we signed and we left.

Easy find.

If you decide to go search for this geocache, I wish you the best of luck. Do tell us in the comments below how it went!

After this triumph, we went back to São Paulo. Only once have I been more relieved than when I could return the apparently undamaged rental car (the trick is to cover all scratches and dents in mud and dust) at Guarulhos Airport, and that was in 2001 when I finally got back to a proper toilet after having walked the Inca Trail for four days in a rather constipated condition.

Then we flew to Buenos Aires. I'll get back to you about that. In the meantime, you can find more photos and details about my time in Intervales right here.