Friday, August 22, 2014

Happy yellow

Sam's parents sent us home in June with an old bench that I thought would work very nicely on our back patio.  The problem with the bench was that it had a broken slat, the iron was rusty, and the the slats needed a new coat of paint.  So I made it a project, and Sam nagged me until I had it completed.

Tada!  I scrubbed off the rust and repainted the iron a dark grey, replaced all of the slats and painted them a happy yellow, and replaced all of the hardware to keep the bench together.  Sam helped drill holes and screw things together.

And now we have a nice bench on the back patio for when friends come over.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


We had some volunteer tomatoes and squash come up in our garden this year.  For the most part, we let them live to see what they would become.  We ended up with four different types of cherry tomatoes and a whole lot of delicata squash.

One volunteer came up outside of the garden, however, and this one we are still curious about.  It's about the size of a watermelon now, but it's definitely more of a squash-type thing.  I'm inclined to let it grow til the plant dies to see what happens, and Millie is doing her darndest to protect it from the influx of mice scurrying around.

Anyone have any idea?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Brazil Day 5: Lencois

It was a good thing I mostly slept through the bus ride from Salvador to Lencois, because on the basis of the swerving feelings, the road was narrow and the bus was going fast.  I didn't need to see that.  Sam did wake me up once to view what might be the starriest night sky I have ever seen.  I recognized the Milky Way immediately, but the rest of the stars of the southern hemisphere were a mystery to me.

We arrived at the little bus station in Lencois at 5am.  Our host said he "might be able to meet us," so we hung around a little awhile and then started walking in what we thought was the right direction.  A nice guy from a hostel saw us walking away and asked us where we were headed.  When we mentioned that Ito was our host, he knew exactly where we were going.  We were soon to find out that Ito is the sort of guy that everyone knows.

Ito actually met us about halfway.  He is a 60-year old man with long dreadlocks, and he has lived in Lencois all of his life.  He and his wife, Simone, have built Surya Chapada, which is what they call the little enclave of the family house and two little chalets that they rent out.  It is cozy, quiet, and very welcoming.  We went into our chalet and took a nap for a couple of hours.  When we got up, Simone had left us some delicious watermelon juice and bananas.

We relaxed in hammocks and chased lizards for a bit, and then went into town for lunch and to see what the tour options were for hiking in Chapada Diamantina National Park.  Ito, who is also a licensed guide, had agreed to take us on one hike the following day, but in order to see some of the other sites, we needed to hire a guide with a car.  We found a reasonable-seeming company and a reasonable-seeming trip, and booked it for the day after next.  Then we tried to have lunch.

It seems that nothing in Lencois is really open until after 12 noon.  The tour companies open early because they start their tours early, but since all the tourists are gone in the morning, nothing else opens until later.  We sat down for beers until the kitchen opened up at a little restaurant on the square.  Stray dogs wandered in and out, sniffing for food, or just lying down in the shade.  We watched one lying down in the middle of the street and not even flinching as cars swerved around it.

We finally ate a light lunch of soup and salad, and started exploring the little shops and markets.  I bought a necklace handcarved from a coconut shell.  I chose one with a lizard because I love to watch all the lizards scurrying around.  After some more shopping, we tried our hand at reading the Lonely Planet's directions for a short hike along the Lencois river.  In hindsight, I would suggest not trying to figure them out.  Just go up.

We walked through town and up the riverbed where families were out washing their clothes in the pools of water formed in the rocky bed.  Ito had said it was the dry season and it was particularly dry, so while there was water flowing, it was also very easy to walk through areas that would be covered in water in the rainy season.  We hiked to the top looking for a promised waterfall, but found nothing.

At this point, we were approached by a guy who made it his goal to get us to hire him to take us to that waterfall.  He would not take no for an answer, and while we didn't really need to find the waterfall, we eventually caved and agreed to pay him $R15 for guiding us.  The waterfall wasn't that impressive due to the lack of rain, but he also took us through a sand cave that local artisans use for paintings and such.  The rock in this is area is composite, which means that there are lots of different kinds all stuck together naturally.  In the sand cave, you can rub away at one section, and the sand will be blue.  In another, it will be red.  It was nifty.

When we got back to the trailhead, the guide told us that no, it was $R15 per person, not $R15 for the group.  You must have misunderstood! No amount of arguing would change anything, so we finally just paid him, and chalked it up to our one time of being ripped off.  It could have been worse.

We headed back to Surya Chapada for showers and then back into town for dinner.  We stopped at "Burritos e Taquitos," where we were met by the chef/owner, Joseph, who apologized that his waiter hadn't shown up and he would be doing both the serving and the cooking.  We weren't in a hurry, so we sat down and watched lizards, and helped Joseph out whenever possible with setting tables and greeting other customers.  Dinner was fantastic.  Sam and I split nopalitos (cactus) burritos and bean tacos with three different salsas.

On the way home we picked up some Fanta and juice from the little gas station to go with the local organic cane-sugar liquor we'd picked up earlier, and spent the rest of the evening playing euchre and finishing off the bottle.  A fine ending to fine day.

Travel tip: The juice in Brazil is fantastic.  Watermelon juice, lime juice, pineapple juice, whatever juice.  It's usually freshly blended and perfectly thirst-quenching.  Try it all, with and without alcohol.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

On the water

It's our only weekend at home for months, and we're enjoying it!

Yesterday, we finally took the canoe out to Goose Island and paddled around for a few hours among the backwaters of the Mississippi.  The weather was gorgeous, with a nice breeze coming down the river.  Millie jumped out of the canoe only once (to chase a tree stump), but we didn't tip over.  We found a beach and a few sandbars to get out and explore, and Millie loved swimming around chasing whatever looked worth chasing.  It was pretty much perfect.

Thanks to our awesome friends Cassy and Connor for the indefinite loan of the canoe!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Brazil Day 4: Brasilia/Salvador

By the fourth day we had become familiar with the neighborhood and familiar enough (we thought) to try out a coffee shop that seemed to have a breakfast buffet of pastries and juices.  This was the place we'd briefly stopped for just coffee the morning before, and it seemed that one of the waitstaff remembered us.

We tried to indicate that we wanted the buffet, but were confused by the fact that we were also given a menu to order from.  Had we actually gotten the buffet? Could we just go up and take some delicious-looking pastries?  We tried to ask the waiter, we tried to ask another patron, and eventually we just got up and helped ourselves.  In the midst of our trips, our ordered entrees also arrived.  I had a waffle with dolce de leite cream, which was heavenly.  All was well until we received two cups of coffee each.  No idea how that happened, but we ate enough quiche, muffins, juice, cupcakes, and other tiny delicacies to make up for paying for extra coffee.

We went back and tidied up the apartment and repacked our bags while Cassy and Connor made their morning trip to a different coffee shop.  After everyone was ready to go, we said goodbye to the doorman and walked down to the bus stop for the bus to the airport.  Thirty minutes later, and it hadn't come yet, so we woke up a napping taxi driver and had the most leisurely car ride in Brazil.  Seriously, no one in Brazil except this old taxi driver drove reasonably.

Flying domestically in Brazil is easy.  Print out your boarding pass, walk through a metal detector, and you're ready to go.  You don't have to worry about liquids, shoes, or belts.  Sam did note, however, that there was an insane number and size of knives in the "you have to leave it here" box right before security.

Once in Salvador, we had about six hours until we had to get to onto the overnight bus to Lencois.  We took a cab to the long-distance bus station to pick up our tickets and then crossed over a bustling pedestrian bridge to Iguatemi Shopping, one of the largest malls in Salvador.  We quickly claimed a table in the food court and started our countdown.

I always maintain that grocery stores are a good way to learn about a culture.  Malls are pretty good too.  While food courts in the US are designed to get people their food as quickly as possible, this is not the case in Brazil.  Most of the eateries had servers who came out to you to provide menus, and most of the food was cooked to order.  Sam and I got a pizza, which was hand-tossed and brick-oven baked after we ordered it.  Cassy and Connor got lasagna.  Also, soft drinks at the mall cost one third the price of bottled water, and beer was on draft.

After dinner, a few rounds of euchre and drinks, and taking turns wandering the stores, we put our bags back on our backs and headed back across to the bus station along with everyone else leaving the mall at closing time.  We got on the bus at 11pm and settled down to sleep as much as possible until we were scheduled to arrive in Lencois at 5am.

Travel tip: The water in drinking fountains at airports, malls, public buildings, and the like is good to drink.  Always carry a water bottle to refill so you don't have to buy expensive water at restaurants.

Monday, July 14, 2014


I do intend on continuing the Brazil story, but work and Ultimate have caught back up to me, and those long posts take awhile to write.

In local news, we're harvesting snap peas, snow peas, daikon, and kohlrabi from our garden.  The beets are almost ready as well, but the tomatoes and peppers aren't too happy with the cool weather.

Sam has been cooking fantastic meals from the bounty of our CSA and our garden.  Today's Indian-spiced beans were delicious, and I'm looking forward to the pineapple chutney this evening.  I am very appreciative of his cooking skills and his willingness to feed me while I'm holed up in my office.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Brazil Day 3: Brasilia

The nice thing about most of our days was that we never had anything scheduled to do right away in the morning, so we could wake and get ready for the day pretty leisurely.  On this day, we nibbled on breakfast and then wandered down to a coffee shop so Cassy and Connor could get their caffeine fix.  After that, we were ready to head out to the Parque National, which was said to be inhabited by giant armadillos, anteaters, and capybaras.

The bus ride was longer than we expected, but some friendly passengers assured us we were on the right bus and asked the ticket-taker to tell us where to get off, which happened to be just on the side of a six-lane highway.  How to get back on the bus?  Just wave as it comes into view...

We hiked two trails, the Capybara trail and the Crystal Water trail.  The first was wooded and devoid of any life besides scurrying lizards and giggling high schoolers.  The second was out on a savanna of sorts.  The red soil was vibrant in the sun, and the slight breeze made the tall grasses and short trees wave slowly.  We saw a plethora of leaf-cutter ants trudging along toward their holes in the ground, and took note of hundreds of termite nests in trees, but the closest we came to any of the large animals was a few footprints in the mud.

We returned toward the front of the park hot and ready to take part in the other main attraction, swimming pools fed by natural springs.  It seems that this was also the main destination of a few class trips, as the school kids outnumbered the adults.  A few heard us speaking English and all of a sudden we were being heckled by calls of "Hello!" "American Pie!"  Teenagers really are the same all around the world.

We swam, changed, and left the park refreshed, which was good considering our next adventure.  We went and stood out at the edge of the highway and almost immediately saw our bus hurtling toward us.  We waved, and it crossed two lanes of traffic and screeched to a halt a mere feet behind a car stopped on the shoulder.  Sam says the subsequent ride was a like a roller coaster.  I'll agree, but only in the sense that I do not want my bus ride to be like riding on a roller coaster.  Connor swears that the bus was on two wheels on a few cloverleaf on-ramps.

We got off the bus in a residential area supposedly known to have a scattering of good restaurants, but it was early yet, so we sat down at a little bar to watch the Brazil pre-World Cup friendly match.  The owner, who called himself Tony Bennet, chatted with us and told us about his daughter, Alyssa Milano, and was generally pretty funny and friendly.  He invited us to visit him at his other home in Macao on our next vacation.

First dinner was at a different bar/restaurant where we shared plates of baked potatoes topped with gravy and shrimp, toasted cheese sticks, and deep-fried pockets filled with pork.  We only half knew what we were ordering.  For second dinner, we went back to Green's and to our surprise, they suddenly had English menus!  Was it because of our issues the night before, or were they already planning such menus in light of the World Cup?  We don't know, but it was extremely helpful in ordering a very satisfying dinner of soup, sandwiches, and the ever-present and refreshing lime juice.

Travel tip: In Brazil, the buses run on loops without much of a time table.  Because many buses run past a single stop, you must flag down the bus you want, or it will just keep going by.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Brazil Day 2: Brasilia

Everything we read said that Brasilia was not designed for walking.  We ignored that and walked Brasilia.

After a lovely breakfast of egg scramble made by Sam and local melon we found at the grocery, we headed to our first destination of the day, the Office of Tourism, to pick up our tickets to the World Cup game.  We hopped through multiple lanes of traffic to get to the correct building, but couldn't find the office.  We asked a friendly looking man in uniform, and all of a sudden we were being led through an auditorium filled with pretty much all of the police, fire, and rescue personnel in Brasilia.  We had stumbled upon some of the final logistics meetings for the World Cup.

We eventually picked up our game tickets, made a quick stop to drop them off at the apartment, and then attempted to find our second destination, a bus station at which we could purchase bus tickets for another section of our trip.  We stopped at a tourist information center, but the English-speaking helper was out to lunch.  So we decided to get lunch too.  We ate sandwiches and wine outside on a little plaza.  The information from the English-speaker was what we had heard before, "Maybe you could try....," but nothing definitive.  We decided to skip it for now and start sightseeing.

Brasilia is arranged in the shape of an airplane.  There are two wings (north and south) and a central axis running from the cockpit to the tail.  The residential areas and some commercial areas are in the wings, the government buildings are in the cockpit, and the museums and other sights are scattered along the axis from the cockpit to the tail.  We started near the tail and worked our way toward the cockpit.

TV Tower: Mostly under construction, but if it were open it would probably give a good aerial view of the city.  All the construction surrounding it gave us a good idea of how much last-minute updating was going on ahead of the Cup.
National Library: The guy at the desk said that there were more books in his college library than in the National Library.  Based on what we saw, we could believe it.
National Museum: (see photo above): We didn't get to go in, as it was closed for renovations.  Looks nifty from the outside, though.
Cathedral of Brasilia: This is one of the only three postcards of Brasilia I could find, and all of the photos were horrible.  The building is distinctive on the outside, but the stained glass on the inside is really the beautiful part.
Government Buildings: Nearing the cockpit, the avenue is lined with rows of tall, boring, identical government buildings.  At rush hour the lines for the buses fill the sidewalks.  Once we passed this section, we found a row of bushes and trees in which hummingbirds were flitting.  While stopping to gaze, some stinging ants found Cassy's feet.  We quickly walked away.
Plaza: Surrounded by the palace, the congress, the judiciary, and other government buildings.  Like most of the other architecture, it is cement and plain.
Hero Museum (not official name): We ventured into a small museum dedicated to the heroes of Brazil.  We couldn't read the exhibits, and the stained glass memorial was closed.
Eternal Flame for past president: We climbed up the steps close behind some teenagers with McDonald's.  It seems this vantage point is popular with both tourists and bored youths.

At this point it was just past sunset, and we had been walking around for about seven hours total.  Our guidebook said there was a good bar not too far back toward home, so we slowly headed that way.  No luck in finding the bar, but we stumbled upon a small plaza where a street vendor was grilling meat and cheese for a small throng of locals seated on plastic chairs.  We waded in and Cassy's charm garnered us some chicken and bacon sticks, and some grilled cheese sticks.  Delicious.  The men at the table next to us were very friendly and shared some other snacks, some laughs, and hugs when we left.

We wandered slowly home and tried out Green's, an organic food restaurant near our house, for dinner.  We were having some communication issues when a local guy walked over and helped us out.  He suggested we try the acai.  He was very adamant we try the acai.  I thought acai was a fruit that was mostly used in beverages, but the acai came out in a bowl as a very cold custard or pudding with granola and bananas on top.  Acai became my favorite food in Brazil.

After dinner, we tried a local bar for the "national drink" of Brazil, the caipirinha.  It is cachasa (sugar cane liquor) mixed with lime juice, sugar, and limes.  It is very refreshing, especially after a long day of walking.  While we were drinking, a local came over and talked with us.  It turns out he had been a gymnast for the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana many years ago.

Travel tip: Brazilians are really friendly.  If you put a good-faith effort into trying to communicate in Portuguese, they will really do their best to make the interaction work.  The ones who speak English will also go out of their way to help you if they overhear you having trouble, or will just come over to say hi.  These are the best conversations.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Brazil Day 1: Sao Paulo/Brasilia

Did you know that the entirety of the South American continent is east of Detroit?  That makes the jet-lag to Brazil pretty much non-existent, despite the nine-hour flight from Toronto to Sao Paulo.

This whole crazy idea to go to Brazil started with a suggestion in a bar that going to Brazil for the World Cup would combine two things we've wanted to do: travel to South America and go to a World Cup.  The idea was quickly seconded by our friends Cassy and Connor, and before we knew it, we were buying plane tickets, getting up in the wee hours of the morning to purchase tickets to a game, and scouring Airbnb for places to stay.

And then the day came, and all four of us landed safely in Brazil.  We arrived in Sao Paulo, but hung around the airport for a few hours for our next flight into Brasilia, the capital of Brazil.  Brasilia was built as the new capital in the 1960s, and we were drawn to it for the renowned architecture and city planning which makes it unique in Brazil and the world.  It is also in the center of the country and has a very different climate than that of the coast.

The cab ride from the airport to our apartment introduced us to what would be my lasting impression of Brasilia - the crazy driving tactics of the citizens of Brasilia.  We made it safely, however, and after some poor attempts at speaking Portuguese with the doorman, we met with our hostess, Leide, who is a soil researcher at an institute just outside the city and, coincidentally, had gone to graduate school in Kyushu, Japan about the same time I was there.  We dropped off our bags and  Leide very kindly drove us around the neighborhood so we could get our bearings on the grocery store, some restaurants, and where to start our sightseeing.

By this time, we were quite hungry, so we had Leide drop us off at one of the nearby bar/restaurants for our first attempt at ordering food.  It was fairly easy to order beers and french fries, but my "He's a vegetarian" line did not work so well, and so we ended up with what we assumed were some breaded chicken pieces.  We decided we shouldn't forget the phrasebook next time.

On our way home we stopped at the grocery store for breakfast food.  I love grocery stores in other countries.  You can learn about a culture in the grocery store.  We quickly realized that Brazilians do not eat a lot of cheese, do not have open container laws, and are never in a hurry when checking out.

Travel tip: Do not flush your used toilet paper in Brazil.  There are wastebaskets next to the toilet for that.  Sam says that you should not be able to be a developed country without adequate sewer systems to flush your toilet paper.  It didn't bother me that much.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Travels in Brazil

We went to Brazil.
We saw a World Cup game.
We swam under a waterfall.
We joined a street party with Brazil fans.
We took pictures.

Blog posts coming shortly.