+ Brazilian public transport

My love-hate affair with transport in Brazil started no less than the very first hour I landed in Rio. Mellow Yellow hostel, voted ‘best hostel in South America’ arranged for me to have my very own car to chauffeur me from the airport to the hostel. When I got there, about a dozen other travellers had also been given this ‘offer’ for just 80 Reals. For a journey that could have been divided by four and cost a small sum, Mellow Yellow certainly milked us gringos for all we’re worth.

Taxis in Rio De Janeiro are a law unto themselves. They speed through red lights (afterwards I was told that this was actually legal), and drive so recklessly it’s a miracle they haven’t turned over in the road. One taxi driver we had, obviously sensing our urgency to get to House nightclub, stepped on it to the point that my missing seatbelt became less of an inconvenience and more of a dead-cert for death by driving. We pointed at the red lights and expressed our wonder for his overtaking of the police, to which he replied in his heavy accent: ‘Fuck the police!’ That was the only English he knew, and my god we knew he meant every syllable.

But the real drama began when I decided to depart Rio. Waiting three hours in the sweaty bus terminal that wouldn’t know air-con if you bombed a whole factory of them onto it, I was pleased to see my 1001 bus to Buzios arrive in the right platform, on time! We were barely twenty minutes outside of Rio on the highway when a big great smashing sound came out of nowhere. I looked up from my South America On a Shoestring and one of the passengers was covered in shattered glass and had cuts down her legs... and most intriguing was a missing window pane. After coming to a halt a few metres down the road, we dutifully offloaded our bags from the coach just in time for a brand spanking new coach to roll up right behind us! If this was the UK, we would have been sitting on the verge of the motorway until midnight.

Before we knew it were back on the road and got to Buzios in time for a steak and chips dinner, and of course a caiprinha.

+ Me and My Backpack - We Have Issues

In the run-up to a potentially year-long stint away from home, it’s fair to say you need to put some thought into what you’re going to take with you. One of the worst things you can do is wait until the night before your flight to pack (especially when you’re still recovering from a beer, gin and wine induced hangover).

One major travellers myth is that pack what you think you need and then half it. I have met many travellers who have done just that, and although they can parade their sparse backpacks in the runways of the bus terminals, there’s actually a couple of downsides to being so damn organised. Firstly, acclimatising to the heat of a country like Brazil involves sweating out buckets of salty water. We all have to deal with this, but if you only own a couple of shirts you’re going to be shouting ‘laundry service’ quicker than a tourist jumps in terror of scorching hot sand. You may be armed with a pot of travel wash and the jealousy-inducing universal sink plug, but there’s nothing like freshly washed clothes from the beloved washing machine. The places I have stayed so far charge between 18 and 25 Reals for this honour, around £6-9, which is often equivalent to a night’s accommodation.

The other inconvenience about packing lightly is that you end up spending more money on things you already own at home.... cue getting back home and owning two of everything.

I, on the other hand, decided that being away for so long warranted me bringing all my favourite impractical going-out clothes, big bag of make-up, toiletries, woolly jumpers, skinny jeans... you name it and I’ve brought it. I have lost count of the times a Brazilian bus or ferry worker has lifted my backpack and nearly bucked under the weight of my home-from-home.

Worst of all, instead of buying one of those teeny weeny sleeping bags that ALL backpackers should own, I’ve brought a mammoth sized-one that I felt warranted its own wheeled holdall. Well, after a couple of weeks of trapping poor Brazilian pedestrian’s toes in said holdall, that had to go. (If you ever picked up a deserted Tous holdall in Nova Rio Bus terminal please let me know that it has a new long home).

I am only three weeks in and I have also shed a pair of denim long shorts (otherwise known as toddler-length jeans), a scarf, a pair of flip flops, (unwittingly) a towel, and goodness knows what else.

The motto of the story is not to pack when you are hungover and not to pack less than 24 hours before your flight. Hindsight is a bitch I must say.

+ Travel Plans {Brazil}

So I head into Rio De Janeiro this Sunday.... and I cannot begin to state in words how unbelievably excited I am. Going backpacking is one of my main ambitions, and to think that it's about to all come to fruition is fecking fantastic! Particularly because as I flicker, on uhh Flickr, I am getting more and more butterflies :)

Below are some possible options for my travels around Brazil. However, I still have many more countries to consider in the next 3 months (Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Chile to be precise!) so I have a lot of research to do.


So far, on my to-do list are the obvious attractions like the Sugar Loaf Mountain and the Christ statue on Corcovado Mountain, but after a bit of research I have come across some more ideas:

+ Street Parties. I might be wrong but I am more excited about the street parties than going to the Sambadrome.

+ Santa Teresa neighbourhood.

+ Tijuca forest.

As well as experiencing the carnaval, visiting the sights and sunbathing on the beach, I hope to do some day trips from Rio.

+ Ilha Grande This island has so much to offer, so I hope to spend a couple of days here with any luck. It looks like the ideal place to relax after all the havoc of the carnaval!

+ Búzios. The Búzios peninsula is just two hours from Rio, and its website boasts that the area is a hotspot for amazing cuisine, surfing, trekking, art and nightlife. Visitors have included the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Mick Jagger, but most importantly this place has beaches, beaches and more beaches... 24 to be precise!

After doing these excursions from Rio, I hope to travel south towards SÃO PAULO. For some reason I was going to give this place a miss and head further on my travels, but I now realise that would be ridiculous! I haven't researched the place much yet, but I can't wait to see the Japanese influences. I read somewhere that Liberdade (Sampa's Little Tokyo) is almost more Japanese than Tokyo itself!

+ Florianópolis. This place is the so-called Party Destination of the Year. Enough said I think!

+ Reflections on my time in China

Living in Shanghai throws its fair share of obstacles at you – what with shrewd landlords pinching every kwai in your pocket, the temptation of McDonald’s home delivery, coping with getting to work in ankle-high rain, it seems the language barrier is the last thing on your mind!  Here is a random collection of my reflections on China (I wrote this ages ago but never got round to publishing the post until now)...

What I was totally unprepared for was the sheer difference in moods in my time in the two countries.  The four months I spent away from the UK coincided with the first stages of the British recession.  Shanghai was buzzing with movement, what with all the construction sites dotted about the city and the daily changes to my local neighbourhood there. Back home in the UK however, I really felt a sense of depression all around the country. Every time you turn on the television there’s bad news about the economy, and everyone on the street looks forlorn with the majority never even raising a smile. A good deal of British people I knew living out in the country kept re-iterating how badly they wanted to stay in China and not go back to the UK. At least in China, there is this unstoppable enthusiasm for life, with even near-centenarians cheerfully strolling the streets with their carrier bags of green vegetables. The Shanghai Expo of 2010 is starting to make its mark on the Shanghai landscape, with the new Cool Docks development having opened by the Bund and new metro stations being carved into the ground.

Of course, I now hear that even China is experiencing a slowing economy, but it was amazing to see heaving crowds of well-to-do Chinese bustling around the newly opened Marks and Spencer’s on Nanjing Xi Lu paying the equivalent of £5 for pasta sauce! Now I’m back home, the newly opened Westfield shopping centre is always just that little bit too empty, and the shops are more often than not struggling for visitors. If I get a chance on my round-the-world trip to visit China again, I would love to see if there is any marked change on its aura since the global downturn has got into full swing. Perhaps the 2010 Expo will be hit by heavily reduced Western businessmen visiting the area. Many people ask me, “so what’s China like?” and it really does defy description. I might mention the hectic lifestyle, the uniqueness of its people, or perhaps the beautiful National gardens and temples.... but there are almost too many ways to sum up China. I usually just say “you have to see it to really believe it”!  The inability to label current-day Shanghai makes it very hard for me to convince my friends just how mind-blowing living there was. One of the strange things for me is that you can go for hours walking around the city and not see another Westerner, and yet this city is allegedly the most Westernised city in China. Sometimes once you leave such a place it is hard to accurately remember all of the minute details that made up your experience there. I came across an e-mail I sent to a friend after I had been living in Shanghai for a couple of months, and below are some of the points I made to try to convey the quirkiness of living in the city!

 + To get proper fruit and veg in Shanghai is a mission, my local Chinese supermarket sells cheap fruit but the majority is mouldy, misshapen and has flies swarming around it. You have to go to the major Western supermarkets such as the one above Jing’An Temple station or Carrefour in Zhongshan Park. To eat basic items such as nice apples or salad, you will probably have to pay twice the price of what you would pay at home.

 + As expected, the Chinese culture has very different notions of what constitutes acceptable public behaviour. One of my friends saw an old guy actually shit on the pavement in broad daylight, and he even had toilet paper with him to clear up after himself!!! In the poor areas behind where my office was most of the locals wash in tubs outside their houses, and little children wee wherever they like because the majority don’t wear nappies but just have detachable panels on their trousers.

+ There’s no denying it, the city is full of rubbish and is pretty smelly. Also, on the touristy sites and on postcards the Bund is always accompanies with a blissful sunset or clear blue sky, but a blue sky in Shanghai is a complete rarity! Most of the time the sky is so muggy you can barely see more than a few skyscrapers in the distance, and I even noticed the impact of the poor air on my own body. I felt unhealthier, although I think part of that was due to my habit of smoking a whole lot more in Shanghai due to the cheapness of cigarettes (less than 50p a packet usually).

+ Public transport is dirt-cheap, but its users have absolutely no common-sense – instead of making way for people leaving the carriage, people stand in the doorway and then pull the most unpleasant face, as if they are shocked that they are getting pushed about! There are dozens of people all struggling to get into the same carriage at once, and it can be quite a violent experience. I remember seeing one mother holding her baby and I felt genuinely worried about their safety due to all the pushing and shoving.

+ There are endless shops in massive shopping malls and yet I found it very hard to find items that I liked. One of my favourite shops out there was called ‘Codes Combine’ which has a American Apparel feel to it and seemed a bit like an upmarket H&M.

 + I miss having a thrice-weekly maid coming to my home and tidying up all the mess I made... not to mention washing dishes and making the bathroom spotless. It’s amazing that for such a little amount of money you can make small changes to your life that make you feel like some extravagant princess! I guess there is not much more I can say to convey the reality of living in Shanghai – you will just have to go there to experience it for yourself :)

+ A weekend in Nanjing (early November)

A train ride lasting little more than two hours takes you from Shanghai into the city of Nanjing. Despite my belated start (got drunk night before and so missed the train that my friends took!) I made it into Nanjing Train Station at around 4pm. I was pleasantly surprised by the serenity of the lake a few metres away from the station. Couples, families and lonesome Chinese men wander around its perimeter, and I was especially lucky to be there when the colours of the sky began to warm before the sun set.

Some of the people I’ve spoken to before my trip, and after, weren’t that taken with the city... I can understand why the nightlife would fail to compare with that of Shanghai’s, but I really appreciated the national parks located just outside the main city centre. Before I discovered that area, I took a walk around the local neighbourhood of my youth hostel. The market was thriving, with bargain stores blockaded with people eager to get silky scarves for less than 30RMB (£3), and rows of pet shops. The pet shops moved me but for all the wrong reasons. The little puppies and rabbits were gorgeous, but the circumstances they were kept in were shocking to me. One crate had a batch of puppies all shivering with cold, and to top it off there was a used chocolate wrapper in the cage that one dog was sniffing at... I was the only person who stuck my arm in to get rid of it, because obviously chocolate can be poisonous to dogs!

Like other Chinese towns and cities I’ve visited, Nanjing had its usual array of street food and temples, and as me and my friends discovered when we went for drinks, there’s even a development similar to XinTandi in Shanghai. Western-style bars and nightclub dominate the 1912 bar street area. The bar we ended up at was in a sumptuous 20s style with velvet seating and one-off pieces such as gramophones and paintings set the atmosphere. Expect oldstyle ambience with live acts and the odd punter turning up in cocktail dresses and suits.

The next morning I left the hostel to see the sight of yet more Chinese locals dancing and exercising on the pavements of the town! The woman on your left is using either a fan or a pingpong paddle to add some drama to her dance!

After a bit of a mix-up with what bus to get, I went through the city walls and onwards through the valleys towards Zhongshan NP. By buying an all-inclusive ticket for 100RMB (about £10) I was able to visit all the sites, which included Plum Blossom Hill, Dr Sun Yat Sen's Mausoleum, the Linggu pagoda, and the Xiaoling Tomb of the Ming Dynasty. Alongside general sightseeing, i was able to use the frequent connecting buses between the sites, and even allowed time to use one of the makeshift cable cars up the mountain (only to be ushered off and left alone in some sparse mountain area!).

+ I stayed at Nanjing Fuzimiao International Hostel which was adequate enough but next time I will remember to bring my own toilet roll! Also, it is in a convenient location but just make sure you memorise all directions to bus-stops etc to ensure you get around the city effectively.

+ I took a train from the main Shanghai train station to Nanjing; I bought it on the day but it is best to book in advance to get better fares.

+ Food can be done quite cheaply here if you are backpacking, but there also many restaurants here who offer all sorts of dishes for very reasonable prices. And of course, the street food is great here!

Below are some pictures of my stay – I would recommend this town to anyone who wants to really see how beautiful China is!