Misery tourism

After two previous visits to Rio de Janeiro, during which I had been “uhm-ing and ah-ing” about whether or not I should do a favela tour (a guided tour through the slums of Rio) this time I decided to go ahead and do it. It is an integral part of city life for a huge number of people, especially in big and overcrowded cities and obviously not just in Rio de Janeiro. 

I went on a three hour walking tour in Rocinho; Rio’s largest slum with a population of over 70,000. The tour was guided by a guy who used to live in that slum, and possibly still lives there (he was very vague about it). 




Ironicallly many of the poorest areas have the best city views


Towards the bottom of the Favela

We started somewhere towards the top of the slum and walked all the way to the bottom in an attempt at trying to get a feel of what life is like in the favelas. 

The majority of the houses are somewhat instable (especially when it rains a lot there is a big risk of landslides which take out several homes - and once the home is gone, that’s it, they’re on the street). These houses are nothing more than bare concrete blocks.. Many without even the minimal essentials such as running water, toilets and showers (communual toilets and taps are placed in between the many houses), yet they don’t exactly come cheap.

The average price for a favela living space is 200 reales (about U$87) per month. To give you an idea of the value of this to your average Carioca (person from Rio): a common way to make a living for poor people in is to collect aluminium cans and sell them to recyclers. 

According to our guide it takes nearly 200 aliminium cans to make one real (about 0.45 U$) so do the maths to work out how many cans it takes just to pay the rent alone. 

The deeper we wondered down through the favela’s narrow alley ways, the worse conditions became. The smell was terrible, stepping over dead rats as we passed streams of filth that would probably near kill you if you would fall into one. The kids tried to make a bit of chit-chat because they all knew the guide and knew there was a bit of change to be made if they plaid a bit of samba drums or did a little dance -  but the majority of the residents gawked at us with a look of contempt. 

Here comes the so-maniest group of gringos to stare at our misery and poverty, blatantly peeking into our houses and yards with a look of disbelief, pity and disgust, to subsequently leave what is our day to day life for good. - going back to their comfortable hotels and their comfortable lives, with their comfortable jobs and their comfortable first world problems. “It’s not all so bad for us” the gringos will say to their friends back home, when going through their favela snaps they rudely took of the residents without asking. Look at these people. Now their life sucks. Look at this house, and this mess, and these clothes and that junk! Gosh, travelling the world is so good, it really broadens your mind - is what they will say, after which they get immersed into their daily routines again for another year until the next holiday and meanwhile they forget about it all. 

So that, in a nutshell is my conclusion of the tour. I was right in not wanting to do it, I didn’t want to rubberneck upon another’s misfortune and that is exactly what it felt like. But there is a flipside too, part of the money earned goes back into the favela communities (or so they say).

If you are interested in a taste of favela life this is the safe way to go in there and have a look at it. Not all the people are poor or miserable, there’s lots of happy older people, and kids adjust anywhere.  There are many middle class people living there that have jobs in the city but are forced to live there in order to make ends meet.

But there’s a lot of criminals living there too, who wouldn’t think twice of lifting your heavy valuables off your poor weak body should you happen to be stumbling around there by yourself trying to find your way in the maze of many alleyways. So if you think this is your thing, check out www.bealocal.com to book it. 

First world problems

This is just one of ENDLESS daily typical South American “service” examples

On Sun, Aug 17, 2014 at 10:01 AM, Ninka Hartog <XXXXX@gmail.com> wrote: Boa noite, Luiz
This is to confirm I will come to stay on the 6th of september for 2 weeks (14 days).

Em 06/09/2014, às 17:06, Ninka Hartog <XXXXX@gmail.com> escreveu:
Hola Luiz, Did you actually make this reservation for me? They don’t seem to know about it and nobody is able to contact you on your phone

On Sat, Sep 6, 2014 at 6:26 PM, Luiz Marcos Fantozzi <luiz@XXXX.com> wrote: I was away and just got back to Rio.
In the end you didn’t confirm with me to make the booking.
Do you still want me to make the booking?

Ninka Hartog <XXXXX@gmail.com>
9:13 PM (3 minutes ago)

to Luiz
Sorry Luiz but I didn’t confirm? In the email I sent on 17 August (copied in above), I said This is to confirm I will come to stay on the 6th of september for 2 weeks (14 days). How much more confirmation than that do you need?

I guess I just have to take it on the chin as being part of South America, they can’t all be as efficient as us! In the end of the day, I am in Rio de Janeiro, for fuck’s sake, is there really any reason for me to complain? 

I wonder if this is what that bizarre word “patience” means? And will I ever get there? 

Some seriously stupid shit (sadly) said
  • Can you buy Havianas in Brazil? 

  • At what altitude are we right now? **while camping right on an ocean beach**

  • Will it rain when we are in Rio de Janeiro? 

  • Passenger: “I know you made a joke about me to everyone behind my back and that was rude”. Me: “I said that right in front of you in the microphone, how is that behind your back!” Passenger:  ”Yeah well I was wearing my headphones when you were talking in the microphone this morning so I didn’t hear that, did I”. 

  • Getting into the Pantanal wetlands in Brazil. 
    Me: “ok, guys, let’s hop off the truck for a few minutes so you can all take some pictures of that huge group of wild kaymans that are in the riverbank!” Grumpy passengers: “I am not getting off, If I want to see alligators I will go to the zoo back home”.

    END OF TOUR. image
Coincidences are meant to be


Many years ago I was working in a back packers’ lodge in a place called PK’s Jungle Village. This lodge is located in Cape Tribulation (“Cape Trib”) , in the far north of Australia. Cape Trib is a good two hours’ drive north of Cairns, located in a beautiful bay where the jungle mangroves meet the corals of the Great Barrier Reef. Apart from the many  tourists that travelled out there to spend a few days at the lodge, there was also a handful of  entrepeneurs that lived and worked in the area. Walking tours, horse rides, fishing tours and diving were some of the activities catered for and apart from one other expensive lodge not too far away we were pretty isolated. 

For the majority of the four months I was there I was working in the bar. I worked for  Duncan, the Australian bar manager. Duncan hooked up with Liz - an English nutty lass and I am still friends with the both of them, 16 years later (and they are still together). Overall people from all nationalities worked there, as the resort’s majority of workers were backpackers. 

Most people that were working and living in the area would come to the party bar where I worked, so we got to know pretty much everyone that was around. This also included the diving crew that worked for the diving companies, one of them being Paul; a very nice guy from London who was one of the dive masters that frequented our bar. 

About a year later when I was already back in Holland I received an email from Steve; a Kiwi guy that had worked in PK’s kitchen during the time I’d been there. Steve was travelling through Europe and asked if he could stay for a few nights. I was staying with my mum so after guilting her into saying “yes” (how would you feel if HIS mother would not let ME stay if I was travelling on the other side of the world all by myself!) Stevo was allowed to stay. He told me that Liz and Dunc had just arrived in the UK, and how great would it be to catch up with them! I couldn’t agree more so we all arranged to meet up in a bar in Covent Garden; probably one of the most touristy places in London. 

So here we are, Kiwi Steve, Ozzie Dunc, Dutchie Ninka and Pommy Liz - in one of touristy Covent Garden’s hundreds of bars, drinking pints and talking shit. After an hour or so, what do you know, in walks Paul, the “Jungle Diver” that used to drink at our bar! We all thought from each other that someone must have contacted him, but judging by the way that his jaw had dropped on the floor while he was trying to utter some coherent words - we gathered that this was actually not the case at all!

It turned out he was just on his way to a birthday party on his motorbike, and had stopped to buy some cigarettes on his way there! So imagine what he must have been thinking; all these people from various places in the world that he had met over a year ago, in the middle of nowhere  and on the other side of the planet - are sharing a table, drinking pints in the first pub he walks into to quickly buy some cigarettes! Out of hundreds of pubs he chose to pop into that one. 

Last week a similar encounter occurred, when I was in Lima to visit a friend. My friend used to live in the USA for a few years until he moved back to Peru seven years ago. We were on our way back from a bar, in a suburb that he is not even from, when someone called out his name. It turned out to be a friend that he had met when living and working in the USA all those years ago.

His friend was also from Peru but he had never met him in Peru, and hadn’t seen him or heard from him since he had left the USA seven years ago! His friend still lives in the USA and was only over for a short break, leaving the next day… Again,what are the chances? If we had left a few minutes earlier or later, or would have picked another suburb or even just another bar, they would have missed each other completely! 

Another story that impressed me for these reasons comes from Bill, who I met when I was in Mexico. Bill had been friends with Perry when he was in high school. Then, more than 45 years ago, Perry left California to travel around in Bolivia of all places, and he was never seen or heard from again. Every one of his old friends presumed him dead as the years passed, and Bill had moved to Mexico with his wife Bobbie.

One day Bill was extremely thirsty in the hot sun so he walked into a bar in a small town called Bucerias, a bar where he normally never went. As he was having a quick beer. he saw this guy standing at the bar making a phone call because he was having car trouble. He thought it was his old mate Perry’s dad at first, but then counted the years and realised that would be impossible. After the guy at the bar finished his call he paid the bar maid and turned to leave, upon which the bar maid called out: “thanks, Perry”!  

Of course Bill could not resist to go over and asked him whether he was that same Perry that he had been friends with so many years ago. It turned out it was the very same person, and he is now living in Mexico (I actually met him that time I was there). So they both met and were friends in California, lost touch for nearly half a century, then randomly met again 46 years later in another country, in a small town in a bar where neither of them normally would have gone if it weren’t for that day’s circumstances! 

Finally, when my uncle Lew was a major in the US army he was sent on a mission to help select the next scout helicopter to be used for the army. Because there are so many competing companies wanting to sell their goods, Lew and his team were sequestered (placed in a secret location) somewhere in St Louis.

Meanwhile Lew’s son Mike had disappeared overnight while mountain- biking in the woods. Lew was notified while on his assignment and it was arranged for him to immediately fly to San Jose (where Mike was living with his mother at the time). As Lew got to the St Louis airport he lined up at check-in and it turned out he was standing right behind his very close friend Ron, and Ron had been looking for him! Lew and Ron had met in Indianapolis while on a journalism course a year before, and Ron knew that Lew was somewhere in St Louis that day. 

Ron was also with the US army and was in St Louis only for a few hours, on route to the Philippines for his next assignment. He had been to the headquarters that Lew had been assigned to, in a fruitless attempt to figure out where he could find him. (fruitless because Lew was in a secret location). They also had to board the same plane and arranged to sit next to each other. As the plane was taxiing for take-off, the pilot requested for Lew to come forward, and informed him that they had just received a call that Mike had been found. It turned out his mother had thought Mike had left the night before to go biking and still hadn’t come back the next morning but he had actually only left early that morning, about a couple of hours before! Lew was taken back to the boarding gate to leave the plane and go back to his mission, but all these events had led to these friends connecting once again. 

These are just a handful of great stories, and I have many more of my own - the number of times where I have run into people again in a country, period or environment totally different to where we initially met- and without knowing from one another you were going to be there.

Not to mention the “six degrees of separation” encounters: the ever accumulating number of times where you meet someone that knows someone that you know - you know?

If this is within your tiny wee village then that may not be so fascinating -  (being in awe when you find out that your one neighbour knows your other neighbour).

But when the Argentinian guy who is showing you around in his home town turns out to know the South African guy that surfed your couch in New Zealand two years earlier, it is kind of mindblowing. And I have had so many of these encounters and epiphanies I could fill a whole book. 
Of course with social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Couchsurfing it is a lot easier to track - as soon as you become friends with someone who has a mutual friend (or even if your friend has a friend who has a mutual friend) it shows up on your home page. This makes it so much easier and more obvious than it was back in the day where you would only find out by actually talking to each other about the people and what distinguished them in order to make the link. 

Every person has got at least one similar story of their own. What each person chooses to take from these encounters -sometimes born from so may coinciding factors, others just a simple “huh?”- is totally up to them. Overall they are incredible stories and personally I like to see it as a little token that you’re on the right track. Whatever the universe has laid out for you, these are little pointers to show you that you’re heading in the direction you’re meant to go. That idea, along with the frequency things like this have happened to me, gives me a lot of confidence. It makes me not worry about the future, because every little thing… is gonna be alright - eh Bob :)



Q: (my auntie) When you come to stay with us in your break (mid-June) are you possibly interested in flying to Las Vegas with your uncle Lew in a 4 seater private plane while you are here, just for an overnight? His sister and brother-in-law who live in Hawaii will be there for a week during that same time. If so, you can sit up front with him and take a turn at flying it. There are controls on both sides, so not to worry!

A: Oh jeez, I am really scared of small planes but should just get over it, that would be such an awesome experience! YES, HELL YES!!!

Auntie: He has a lifetime of experience and it is a really beautiful plane. I would probably come along also. It is a short flight - only approx. one and a half hours each way. No need to be scared at all.

Conclusion: guess Las Vegas is suddenly added to the top of the bucket list! And flying a small plane with my uncle! Life’s a drag… :P

D1: I might buy a new phone.

D2: No, you don’t want to buy a new phone. You are gonna get a free new phone anyway with your contract as soon as you get back to Australia in a few weeks.

D1: Yeah, maybe I should wait, I don’t know, I want a phone now though.

D2: Just wait, and then we can save that money for our boob jobs.

A long story about a long wait

One of the many highlights of this tour is a visit to Bolivia’s never-ending salt flats: the biggest in the world. A huge patch of white, thick, scorching hot salt crust located high up in the Andes, at 3,656 meters above sea level is quite an unexpected, extraordinary sight. 

There is nothing else there, apart from an ugly small town called Uyuni; a sole inhabited stamp in the middle of nothingness. The only reason this town exists seems to be for the crowds of tourists that its neighbouring saltflats attract. 

Our tours usually stay in Uyuni for two nights, giving people an opportunity to explore the salt flats for a full day, taking silly pictures (see earlier blog), and learning about the locals’ way of salt mining which seems to be the only other source of income there (the ground is so barren that no agriculture exists in the area). 

The day after the salt flats tour we were all having breakfast, slowly getting ready for a leisurely 9 AM departure with only a four hour driving day ahead of us to get us to Potosi. Sussy, the owner of our hotel, came running towards me to say that we had to leave immediately; blockades were being put up around the town to avoid anyone getting in or out. This is a common way to protest against whatever it is citizens don’t agree with in South America, especially so in Bolivia. 

I got my group up and ready to go within a heartbeat (bless them) and as we were to head out of the town it was already too late. Within twenty minutes of the announcement the main roads out of the town were fully blocked off. There was only one way left out, the road down South to Tupiza. This is a very bad rocky dirt road and if there is one thing that would be worse than being stuck in Uyuni, it would be to break down in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road and be stuck there (not to mention the 16 hour detour to get to where we were meant to go). I booked my group into the hotel for an extra night in the hope that the blockades would get lifted later that day or overnight, so that we could still get to Potosi a day later. 

That night we watched the local news, where the mayor announced that he was appalled by this way of protest, this was primitive and no way to negociate. Therefore, as a response, he was going on hungerstrike and urged everyone else who didn’t agree with the blockades to do the same (…).  A very modern, not at all primitive response. That will definitely resolve things! As a response, of course even more blockades were put up to make it harder for people to get in or out. 

The next morning I went out in search of a solution, and managed to find only one bus company that guaranteed a night bus out of there by 7 PM, going directly to La Paz that night. They knew the back roads and knew a way out that would not be blocked.

Taking our own truck that way was not really an option; first of all we didn’t know the way, second, back roads are usually pretty bad. The risk of breaking down with a heavy truck in the cold empty nothingness for who knows how long just didn’t seem that appealing so public transport overnight it was.

The crappy thing about Uyuni is that there literally is nothing to do at all (unless you are fascinated by the Bolivian military or the Uyuni military museum). Once you have seen the salt flats, that’s it. Everyone was bored to pieces by now and our 7 PM departure meant we all had to check out of our rooms and hang around in the lobby all day. As the day dragged on 7 PM finally came and while we were literally wearing our back packs on our way out of the hotel, the girl that I had bought the tickets from entered. The bus had been cancelled, there was no longer any way out! She said to me they would go later at night, at 2 or 3 AM, because the road blocks would be unmanned by then. Therefore, we should be ready to go then, though she would call me first to confirm. So I booked my group back into their rooms and advised them to be ready to jump up and go immediately in case of a knock on the door in the middle of the night. 

I set out that same night to see what was going on at the bus companies’ offices and found out that the majority of “our” bus’s other passengers had received a cash refund because the bus would not be going at all! The so-maniest time I had been lied to! To top things up my bus company’s office had closed shop so I had no way of getting my 15 tickets refunded, the phone number on their door didn’t work, there was no means of contacting them.

I called Ricardo, the owner of the hotel in La Paz, to advise that we would not be coming in early the next morning (I had arranged a transfer via him for the following day) and went to an Internet cafe to advise my boss of the latest developments. 

As I was typing away furiously this Bolivian woman on the computer next to me looked at me, at my screen, and at me again and said: “are you Ninka from Tucan Travel”? It turned out that Ricardo had just been on the phone with her to say she had to find me and help me get out of there.

Just to help you get a grasp of this coincidence: at over 10,000 inhabitants Uyuni is not a small village. There’s about 12 Internet cafe’s in Uyuni, all with capacity of 15  to 20 people. And of all places I ended up sitting right next to her, and she knew I was me because she saw my name on my computer screen.

So, Sandra (the woman next to me) told me that she deals with Ricardo on a regular basis (she was also a tour operator) and promised me a bus out early the next morning. I spoke to Ricardo again who promised me I can trust her. Sandra took over my receipt for the other tickets and said she knew that agency and would get them to refund her the cash, so that I wouldn’t have to pay her anything for this other bus through her agency. She told me to show up at 5:30 AM at their office to see from where and at what time exactly the bus would go, and then bring the rest of my passengers there after. 

I advised my group of this when I got back later that night, and made it to the bus station early the next morning. After waiting in the freezing cold for over an hour, by 6:45 finally someone showed up. She said that there would be a bus coming in from La Paz, that would wait on the other side of the blockade, and take us back to La Paz. This meant we had to get to the edge of the town and walk across the barrier to get there. I rushed back, frantically flagged down the few rare taxis available and put my passengers in them. A couple of guys that I had helped out in getting tickets for this bus hogged one of my taxi’s that I had obtained with such great difficulty, much to my infuriation - but there was not even time to argue this, we had to rush over because word had it that the protestors would resume positions again at 7 AM which by now it nearly was!

Once we got to the blockade, our bus for some reason had made its way within the town limits, on the wrong side of the barrier, and just as we were boarding the bus, the protestors put the blockade back up and would not let the bus back through.

Now, common sense would have been to have a bus ready to leave at 5 AM, well before the barriers were occupied and while there was still a free way out of the city.

Common sense would have made the driver of the current bus park well away from that barrier, and on the other side, away from the town. To make matters worse, they put a road block behind us as well, so the bus was wedged in between two barriers and all the streets within the town were blocked off again with parked up cars so we really couldn’t move forward or back.

The worst of it all was that this “barrier” or blockade was just a few twigs on fire, a few burning tyres and some rocks placed within the road. The protestors were fat old ladies and a few old men.

I talked to the driver as they were putting the blockade back in place to try and urge him to go now, we could still go past now! The driver was afraid they would throw rocks at the bus if he did that, so didn’t want to move.

I told him there were far more of us and we were stronger, we can hold them off while he drives through. No luck there either. I tried to talk to the protestors but you might as well have a conversation with a monkey and it would be more intelligible. The answers they spat out at me, they didn’t care, and had no concept of the impact this has on some people (there were people that were going to miss their flight back to Europe, I made up a wedding that someone has to be the best man at, someone’s mother had had a heart attack and was in hospital, but all to no avail). Nothing worked, smiling, joking, lying, getting angry, arguing, nothing had an effect so all we were left to do was wait. 

Every time I tried to get the driver to take some action I was told that it would only be another 20 minutes etc. etc, the usual lies. I suspect he either lives in Uyuni and knows the people and is afraid of repercussions, or he was on their side.

Eventually, after two long and empty extra days in Uyuni and seven hours of waiting around in the bus the mayor signed a document and the so called blockades were lifted, so we could finally get out of there at 3 PM, getting us into La Paz at 1 AM. It could always have been worse. 

What it was all about? On what side of the town the new bus terminal of Uyuni should be built, and whether it should be a tourist bus terminal or a local bus terminal. Monkey countries, is what my sister and brother in law call these countries. And sometimes I really can’t help but agree with them.  


I have two young Philipine/ Australian little princesses on the tour. They are lovely, don’t get me wrong, but my GOD they can just be the DITZIEST things I have ever met. The things they say and ask sometimes are just jaw-dropping .

They have been brought up very protected (under a rock, maybe?) and I suspect mum and dad are paying for their trip judging by their exuberant travel style that includes a cruise from Rio to Miami after the world cup. It’s also a very silly travel style: a one-way flight from Bogota (Colombia) - to Sao Paulo (neighbouring Brazil) @ U$1900 - you can get a flight around the world for that, or a return flight to the other side of the planet and back! With stopovers! 

After we had established that this is actually a participation tour (where every passenger has to shop, cook and clean on a roster basis) and that camping is involved for much of the trip (they didn’t bring any sleeping bags or mats, and had never camped before), they also overcame the final hurdle; THERE IS NO WIFI ON THE TRUCK! Oh my god, like, seriously? Like, what do people, like, do all day! I suggested reading, watching movies on a laptop, writing a (b)log, listening to music, napping and staring out the window. They cope alright and do everything with lots of enthusiasm, though I can’t help giving a selection of stupidities that have come out of their mouths so far. 

  • I heard like, that if you get AIDS, you like, die within two hours of getting it. Is this true? (and this girl is a nurse)

  • Oh my god, that cat!  Look at that cat, that cat is in a tree! Cats never, like climb trees normally, right? I mean, like, aren’t they scared of hights? 

  • Ditzy 1: I wanna like, do a bungee jump.
    Me: They do them in Cuzco, and they also do a reversed bungee jump in Cuzco where they kind of catapult you up into the sky and then you bounce down within seconds. 
    Ditzy 1: No, I don’t think I wanna do that, I mean like, wouldn’t that, like, really hurt your ankles? And wouldn’t you hit the floor hard when you come back down?? **thinking people actually get tied to a piece of rubber band by the ankles and shot up into the sky with a giant catapult**
  • Passenger: After this trip I am flying to Africa because I am going to be a tour leader there. 
    Ditzy: Wow, like, how did you get that job? Do you, like, speak African or something? 
    Passenger: **5 second silence** Africa is not a country. You know that, right?  … 

  • These border crossings that we have to do, they are just so weird. We never have to do anything like that in Australia. 

And this is only one week into the trip since they joined, six more weeks to go! Ooooo yeah, this is gonna be LOTSA fun…

Earth is flat and penguins fly

Yesterday I went for a cruise on the Beagle Channel; a 5 hour cruise to see the plethora of widlife (sealions, seals, albatrosses, several types of penguins and a large variety of other birdlife). 

It was quite cold so I prepared and brought a small bottle of whisky - you know, to keep warm and that… 

Meanwhile, as I was making sure to keep warm, we docked in front of an island full of penguins. Not just full, it was overflowing. Some of the penguins flew in and out of the island. As I vacuously observed these penguins I eventually had the onderlying epiphany: Huh? Flying penguins? I didn’t know there was a species of penguins that can fly… is there? After I squinted for a while longer I realised that of course, they weren’t penguins. They were just birds disguised as penguins.The scary part is it took me a while to  register that there was something not quite right with my registration of what I was looking at! DUH. Don’t get too warm, it interferes with your overall coherence.







Please note: these are NOT penguins flying past in the picture above..