Wednesday, April 22, 2009

April 20th, 2009

We recently returned to Curitiba for a few days visit with Luciano. It was great seeing him again, and of course, the kids loved playing with Mel, his gentle but incredibly strong pit bull. While we were there, we were taken all around the city to various points of interest. The large park we visited one evening was bustling with all sorts of people out enjoying the evening air. The kids played on the monkey bars, that also doubled as a work-out station for those inclined. Walking over a little bridge we noticed an odd looking critter swimming in the river we were passing over. Watching more closely, we realized we were getting our first look at a ?. They are a creature that sort of look like a cross between a very small hippo, and a beaver. While the animal was cute and begged for a hug, we were informed that they were wild animals and to not get close to them.

He also took us to a large local craft fair the following day. About the time we thought we'd come near to the end of long line of tents selling all sorts of items, we were informed we weren't even half way done the first of two rows. It was an enormous market. We managed to pick up all sorts of trinkets that looked interesting, and a few others that we bought on impulse and have since regretted. Michael shook hands with a man performing as a statue. The man shifted his body position to give Michael a one-armed hug, and then of course froze there. Michael looked a bit alarmed at first, but eventually figured out how to wiggle his way out of that one. I'm pretty sure I'd have slapped the man, personally...

Luciano had planned to come with us on the next leg of our trip, to Foz do Iguazu. However, a last minute emergency at work required him to stay behind while we boarded the 9 hour bus ride. We hadn't done much planning for this trip, as Luciano was to be our go-to-guy, so we held our breath and hoped we'd be able to figure out how and where to go when we got there, without him.

It was a rather uneventful bus ride, and we landed in Foz after an all night trip. Not knowing the city, we hailed a taxi and made our way to the hotel that Luciano had booked for us. Even though we were there early, our rooms were ready and we were able to plunk down our backpacks and wash up a bit before heading out again. With only a few days to explore a city, you don't waste much time!

We climbed into the same taxi we had arrived by, and took off to the Itapu Dam for a tour. Though we were exhausted and admittedly, grumpy, it was quite a site to see. The amount of water it brings through is staggering, as is the electricity it generates for both Paraguay and Brazil. Thankfully, it was a bus tour so we didn't need to walk around too much. Though the warm sunshine coming through the bus window made it a challenge for me to stay awake for the driving portion of the tour.

After the tour was over, we made our way back to the hotel where I immediately collapsed onto the bed and passed out for a few hours. Rich, who apparently got more sleep the night before than I had, took all the kids who were interested on a walking adventure to find some groceries and a quick bite to eat.

By late afternoon, I was up on my feet again, and Rich suggested a quick jaunt into Paraguay might be fun. Everyone seemed keen on the idea so we called up our cab guy again and off we went across the Brazil/Paraguay border.

Entering Paraguay was quite interesting. I had assumed the bordering countries of Brazil would be more or less the same as Brazil, but I was wrong. Paraguay was a whole new crazy and chaotic world. Perhaps it was just the area of the city we were at, but the impression we got from the small piece of Paraguay we wandered around in, was that it was disorganized and somewhat desperate. Street vendors offered you their wares, but wouldn't take no for an answer. They then followed you around, offering you what sounded like different bargains (I speak even less Spanish than I do Portuguese), until they got tired of being ignored. There was barely any sidewalk to walk on as some of the more organized street vendors had set up shacks to display their wares, leaving a small sliver of walkway for you to pass by on. Of course they were offering all sorts of deals as you walked by, seeing we were not from around there. Even in the buildings that had established stores, they seemed desperate. Owners would beckon you to come into their store, hoping to sell you something, anything. Electronics are incredibly cheap in Paraguay, so I was struck by the idea of looking for a Garmin GPS watch. We asked a few places, but no one had one in stock, though they could set us up in a few days...

We looked for a place to have dinner, as it was getting to be that time of day, but every street looked as crazy and crowded as the next with no restaurants in sight. Police were trying to direct traffic through a traffic circle, a woman was trying to control some chickens she was keeping in a cardboard box, and we were getting pushed more and more into the street. Grasping each child's hand tightly, we crossed the street, located our ever vigilant taxi driver, hopped in, shut the doors, and headed straight back to our relatively orderly Brazil again. Paraguay was interesting to visit, but saying goodbye was easy.

The next day, we arranged to be picked up by our taxi driver in the morning, and to be taken across the border to Argentina to visit the Iguazu Falls from that side. We knew the day would be costly, what with the cab ride and the fees to get into the park, etc. But we hadn't anticipated it being as costly it became... It turns out the Brazilian officials take very seriously the 90 day tourist visa we had. Knowing we were going to be in Brazil for more than that period of time, we were told we'd need to leave the country before the 90 days were up, and simply apply for another 90 day visa. Very straight forward... However, it requires us remembering to leave the country BEFORE the 90 days are up, and by this time we were hitting upon approx. the 105th day. As we tried to leave Brazil for the day, the officials noticed the date discrepancy in our passports, and called us on it. Though the penalty could have been much worse (ie: uh... jail time!), it ended up costing us about $500 Canadian and a bit of time watching them play with paperwork. Not a great way to start the day but in the end, we got through the Argentine border and arrived at the falls.

Our cab driver joined us for the day as we hiked around the park taking in different viewpoints of the immense and breathtaking falls. One part of the Argentine hike takes you right up to the edge of “Devil's Throat”, the main and biggest waterfall of the area. Standing on the walkway beside such a water wonder, the mist was quite thick but a welcome wetness given how hot it was that day. The roar of the water crashing and tumbling over the cliffs edge was deafening but soothing all at the same time. The park was thick with butterflies, and the kids took turns luring them to land on their hands. After taking in Devil's Throat, we hiked around some of the smaller, lower falls and along the way were kept entertained by the little Caitu's that live in the park. These are creatures that look like a cross between a ring-tailed racoon and a long-snouted anteater. They are scavenger animals and at one point, we caught one with it's butt sticking out of a garbage can, rifling around for an empty potato chip bag.

There is a little train that takes you to some of the farther points of the park, and the soundtrack they had playing for you was from the movie, “The Mission”, which was filmed at that park location. We also heard more English spoken on the train than we had heard in a very long time. You can always tell when you're at a large tourist attraction...

After a long afternoon of walking around in the hot sun, it was time to head back to our hotel to put our feet up again. The kids were anxious to try out the weight room, as well as go swimming in the big pool. The weight room adventure didn't last long though... Matthew managed to get himself bucked off the treadmill, and Emily almost followed suit but I was right beside her and grabbed her arm to keep her upright. Jillian melted down when she couldn't reach the pedals of the exercise bike and there was only one weight training apparatus which caused all sorts of uproar, so it was a bust experience. To the pool, we went.

The next morning we took things a little more easy, letting the kids sleep in a bit and have a lazy start. By noon, we were ready to take on the Brazilian side of the Iguazu Falls, so again, we called up our taxi driver and off we went.

We had purchased some boat tour adventure tickets from the service desk at the hotel, which were expensive enough that we assumed also included park entrance fee's. Sadly, we were mistaken. Add to it the fact that, though the park took care of all our transportation needs, our taxi driver felt we needed him to accompany us again, this was beginning to look like another expensive day... But we were there for a once in a lifetime adventure, so we tried to push the cost aspect aside so we could focus on the experience at hand.

We went on a little safari to begin with which consisted of a open-air wagon being pulled by an electric jeep. Our tour guide did her spiel in Portuguese first, followed by English at each scheduled stop. We learned about some poisonous caterpillars that live on the trees. If you touch them you can get pretty sick, so we were told not to touch the trees. We also learned about various sorts of flora and fauna facts that were mostly quite interesting. She caught some of the waning kids attention when she mentioned that there are wild dogs in the forest, and hey, can you smell that?... I think one is near... Apparently they do live there, but I couldn't smell one at the time.

Eventually we ended up a boat dock where we suited up in life jackets, stowed away our electronic possessions in water tight containers, and jumped into a zodiac style boat. We cast off and began our journey against the river's flow, heading towards the large waterfalls. We stopped a few times as we got close to the falls, so we could take photos from a very unique perspective in the river. But we knew it was time to put the camera away when our videographer, who accompanied us on the trip, put his camera in a waterproof contraption, and put on his rain gear from head to toe.

As we got closer to the falls, our boat driver had to navigate the rapids, timing our accent up some of the narrow passages at the right time. I couldn't help but notice how much faith we were putting into our driver to get us both there and back safely, despite moving the wrong way over such angry waters...

We couldn't get right up to the Devil's Throat, as the river water levels were low enough that too many rocks were sticking up close to the water surface which would be a problem for our boat. Instead, he took us to a smaller waterfall, and proceeded to get us right into the falling water, drenching everyone in the boat. To ensure everyone had equal soaking, he went into the falls several times at several angles, getting everyone soaked to the bone. Rich panicked at one point when his eye glasses were ripped off his face by the force of the water. I took a quick glance by our feet and found them floating lazily in the bottom of our boat. I scooped them up before they floated under someone's foot, and Rich was careful to hold them in his hands until the dunkings were done.

We had hoped the tour would also take us to the Argentina waterfall side, however it was not to be. And with that, we began the careful journey of navigating our way back to the boat dock.

The following day was our final day in Foz, with a bus scheduled to take us back that evening around 7:30PM. We stuck around the hotel until we had to check out (luckily they could keep our backpacks behind the service desk until the evening time) and we then proceeded to wander around the touristy streets to do some shopping and get our last dose of Foz.

Matthew managed to find some wonderful rocks that he always enjoys collecting, including a rock decorated knife sheath, complete w/ knife. What kind of parent lets their son purchase a knife, I know... Rich and the other boys managed to purchase several soccer jerseys both for themselves as well as for friends/family. We still had time to kill, so four of the five kids got spontaneous hair cuts, and when we were shopped out and trimmed up, we took in one last sight... The Three Frontiers. It's a place where you can stand on Brazilian soil and look across the river to see both Argentina and Paraguay. A nice way to end our day in Foz.

We weren't particularly thrilled about the 13 hour bus ride back to Florianopolis, especially on the low budget bus we were booked in for. But we hoped we'd be asleep for most of the trip as it was a red-eye ride. No sooner had we begun to nod off after heading out, when we were stopped by the Federal Police for a road check. The driver flipped on the interior lights and the Police boarded our bus. Starting at the back, they eyed everyone up, asking to look inside a few people's bags and see documentation for newly purchased and still in the box items. It seems that the cheap electronics in Paraguay is a huge draw for some people to purchase a bunch of items, and then flip them for a profit (and without paying the proper taxes) in Brazil. Between that and a small drug bust earlier in the evening at their road check, they were out get the bad guys. All in all, it was a pretty quiet and respectful check. Their guns were visible but holstered, and they asked people directly but politely for their co-operation. When they were satisfied all was in order on our bus, they let us go on our way. The lights dimmed again and we all managed to step aboard the sleep-train once more, when lightening struck twice and we were stopped yet again for another road check, only this time by the Military Police... a group of officers more renowned for being bribable cowboys than law enforcers. Three officers boarded our bus after not only unholstering their guns, but cocking them at the ready, as well. They posted one man at the back, one in the middle and one in the front and systematically went through every single persons bag and/or purse. To finish it off, they had most of the adult males stand up in the middle of the aisle with their hands clasped behind their heads, and they did an extremely thorough frisking from top to bottom. Rich's eyes almost bulged out a bit when they hit the lower-mid-region... Oh, how I wish I had a camera close by when this happened! Not surprisingly, they found nothing of interest and allowed us to head on our way again. By this time we were wide awake and eager to see what the next stop may bring.

Thankfully, it was a quiet rest of the ride, minus some flowing bodily fluids from a fellow passenger, but thankfully from no one in our family.

We're back in Florianopolis for the remaining week we have in Brazil, now. We're madly trying to find homes for the two adopted street dogs we took in while we've been here. We have literally gone door to door on our street asking people if they are interested in taking them in. We have some leads, but nothing in cement yet. This issue was made even more complex by the surprising find Rich and I made on a walk last evening. We were wandering down a narrow dirt road, when we looked over and saw four little puppy faces looking at us. They were all huddled quietly together, looking bewildered. We wrapped three of them in my jacket and Rich took the remaining one, and we took them to our house. Our neighbour works with dogs as a groomer, and knew enough to put together some electrolyte water, as there were very dehydrated dogs. She also gave us some puppy kibble to mash up w/ some cream. She figured the abandoned pups are about 1 month old, give or take. So, now we're keeping them here, reliving our puppy days with Maggie, but magnified four times. Vera, the neighbour, figures she knows of one person who will take one, and of a pet store who will take in stray puppies if you get there early on Saturday morning. We'll de-worm them tonight and keep plumping them up until they head out. I haven't lost my faith in humanity quite yet, but I sure wish there was an effective way to pound responsible dog ownership into people. Dogs don't ask a lot from you. A warm place to sleep, some food to keep the hunger pains at bay, some clean water, and an occasional pat on the head. How hard is that to give? And if you don't feel you have it in you, consider that before you get a dog in the first place. I understand life happens and occasionally you have to find a new home for a dog, but there has to be a way to go about doing that without resorting to abandonment, which is the most popular option here, it would seem.

As an aside, we've taken up Brazilian Jui-Jitsu lately and have been enjoying kicking each others butts in class. If I could summarize this martial arts, I'd say it's like very strategic wrestling. No punching or hitting really... the goal is to 'strangle' your opponent or otherwise incapacitate them. Supposedly it's a great martial art to know if you're a woman, as it relies less on strength/weight, as it does technical manoeuvres to trap your opponent.

- Heather

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