Tomorrow, I’m going home.
I’ve been trying to come up with a single word that describes how I have been feeling the last couple of days, as I’m experiencing an absolute whirlwind of emotions. I’m really glad to be going back, meet Maria, my family and my friends, play violin, drink Belgian beer and eat fries, and start a next chapter in my life. I’m sad as well, ending this lifestyle that I’ve become so used to, and that, as fleeting as it can be sometimes, remains a rush I will never tire of. I’m scared to tackle the many challenges ahead, and simultaneously profoundly reassured that everything will work out. But most of all I’m thankful. For how lucky I am to have been able to do this, for the endless beauty I’ve experienced, and for all the wonderful people I’ve met along the way. I can’t even begin to express my gratitude for the kindness I’ve been afforded nearly everywhere I went. This journey has changed how I see the world for the better in a way I could not have imagined at the outset.
But enough melodramatic ranting, let’s talk about Brazil, the country I’ve been spending the last three weeks of my trip in. The Train of the Dead took me through the Bolivian Pantanal wetlands to the Brazilian border in sixteen hours, where I was greeted by Nicoli, a friend of a Guilherme, a great Brazilian traveler I had met nine months earlier in Morocco. She and Guilherme (a different one) hosted me in Corumbá and Campo Grande and introduced me to Brazilian culture in the warmest possible way. My first caipirinha, the first couple tastes of the amazing cuisine, a new language, with unparalleled generosity. Having spent four months in Spanish-speaking Latin America, arriving here took me back to square one in terms of communication. I’d become reasonably comfortable with basic Spanish, and trying to speak that to a Brazilian is like bringing a sword to a gunfight; useless and you look silly doing it.
What struck me right away about the people was their great diversity. In the whole of upper Latin America the population has been quite uniform, usually quite short, dark-skinned and black-haired. All of a sudden I was surrounded by all kinds of colors and sizes, and if not for the musical and lively Portugese exchanges one might have gotten a quite European feeling. Where previously I had stood out as an obvious gringo, I now fit into the mix perfectly. People even told me I looked Brazilian, but then again I’ve had a hard time defining what a Brazilian look would be.
I continued my journey by yet another bus down to Foz do Iguacu, the site of the magnificent Iguazu waterfalls, the greatest in the world. I’ve been traveling overland since Lima, that’s over 5000km of buses, trains and drives. Divide that by an average travel speed of about 50km/h and you get a sense of the ridiculous travel times that have been involved in this. But comfort is usually inversely proportional to cost, and by this point money had become a serious concern. Also, the reward of arriving somewhere somehow seems more earned when the journey takes more effort.
And the reward at Iguazu was simply magnificent. The greatest waterfalls in the world, and one of the seven modern wonders of the world, the might of an average 1000 cubic meters of watering thundering down per second over more than 250 individual falls is jaw-dropping. The vast site sits on the border between Brazil and Argentina so you can visit from both countries, giving different perspectives. When ranking all the natural beauty I’ve seen this year, the Iguazu falls are near the absolute top, gorgeous and spectacular.
With time ticking away steadily I moved on to Sao Paolo, where I was hosted by Ana and her family. We met four years ago, on my first major solo backpacking trip in India, and together with Jayme and Pat we traveled together in what I still consider the best travel gang of my life. Besides a brief reunion in London last year, we hadn’t seen each other since, so having the opportunity to meet her in her hometown was too good to pass up. My weekend in this urban concrete jungle of nearly 20 million people was immeasurably improved by her and her family’s hospitality. The city itself, while the largest and most prosperous of South America, is not a tourist highlight. That privilege is taken and held on to with overwhelming imposition and relentless vigor by the iconic metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. The final destination, and what a way to finish. Rio is hard to describe, or at least in a way that’d do it justice. The adjectives are endless; gorgeous, diverse, maddening, chaotic, mesmerizing, dangerous,... the list goes on and on. It’s a blend of stunning and rugged mountains, their slopes clad in colorful favelas, and a vast city landscape where over six million people live their lives in every kind of way imaginable. I stayed in Lapa, near the downtown center of the city, and one of the most lively and gritty parts of town. That is automatically associated with poverty and crime, and one flipside of Rio is that it’s one of the few places I’ve been where there is actual danger. Armed robberies occur often and consistently, night and day, whether you’re alone or in group. Where in other places you perhaps hear of a couple stories of people having been harassed, here it’s a steady stream, and at least ten backpackers I met in my time at the hostel had been robbed at knife or gunpoint at least once. I’ve been lucky and nothing’s happened to me, but it’s a sad stain on an otherwise fantastic image.
I’ve now spent two weeks here, with a short holiday to the beautiful Ilha Grande as a repose, and I’ve hiked stunning and difficult hikes, saw the sun set from the top of Sugar Loaf mountain, visited Christ the Redeemer, and soaked in the sun on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema surrounded by the most attractive beachgoers I’ve ever seen. At night, every night, the parties rage and people gather in streets everywhere to drink and dance. The atmosphere is as intense as it can get, dense, dark, dirty. A crossover between the cave scene at the beginning of The Matrix Reloaded and Dirty Dancing. People just live and breathe on a different level here.
And just like that, the end has finally arrived, and I’m returning home a different person. It’s been a crazy year, probably the most adventurous of my whole life past and future. And while I will likely never do something like this again, I will never stop traveling, see new places and witness life from all possible angles.
For now I’m simply grateful.
July 22nd, 2017
Over the course of my journey I’ve collected songs associated with memories of places I’ve been and people I’ve met. I made a playlist out of them and you can listen to it below. Enjoy!