Friday, April 23, 2010

Fire & Ice - from volcanic ash to a BAires hail storm

After watching coverage of the volcano in Iceland over the weekend, yesterday I was confronted with a miniature natural disaster of my own in the form of a hailstorm of epic proportions! After an overall beautiful, sunny, late-summers day in Buenos Aires, the sky all of a sudden darkened and lightning started flashing overhead with fast-increasing intensity. After a while it started to rain lightly, soon more and more water was falling from the sky - and then the hail began. For about 15 minutes our house was pummeled by rock-hard balls of ice the size of tennis balls.

I was working in our attic office/playroom, where my desk is located just under a large sky-window. Karin asked our daughters if they wanted to go downstairs with her to watch the garden as the rain was beginning to fall. After some minutes I decided to get a drink and so I followed them downstairs. That was a lucky decision.

I arrived downstairs at 8.15, just when the serious hail started to come down. We were standing on our back porch, under a tiled roof as the first icy bombs came down, hammering into the grass and turning the pool into a wild spectacle. Trees in our garden were rapidly “shaven”, as thousands of ice balls bombarded them, ripping off leaves, branches and taking out the occasional bird on their way down. We quickly ran back into the safety of the house and I started to close the blinds on the most exposed windows.

Each room I ran into echoed with the thuds of ice slamming into the windows, and each time I feared that one would come straight through. By the time I was done most of the hail had subsided and was replaced by a torrential rain that seemed like a huge bucket of murky water was being poured out over our neighborhood. At some point we could hardly see our garden anymore, covered as it was in white icy rubble with massive curtains of water sweeping before our eyes. Then I remembered the attic…

I ran upstairs to find my desk covered in glass, ice and water. Somehow most of the window had managed to miss it and my laptop and auxiliary screens were still functioning. I stood there, frantically looking from left to right, not knowing exactly what to do first, it was as if a giant tap had been turned on directly above what used to be my work space - water was pouring everywhere. And then, all of a sudden, the rain stopped, and at the same moment the entire neighborhood went pitch black.

I managed to find a flashlight and went back down to Karin and the kids. They had had a great time watching the storm and had no clue what had happened. We put the children to bed and went upstairs where we cleared the area of glass and actually managed to salvage most of the equipment. We found some flattened cardboard boxes and a couple of planks and went about with hammer and nails.

Later Karin reminded me it might be a good idea to see if the “vigilante” (the private security guys you see guarding street corners in cities across Latin America) had survived the storm. So I went outside and made my way through a thick carpet of leaves and tree-branches, looking at the cars as I passed; windows shattered and round dents in roofs, hoods and hatches. Our security guy was fine and did not need water or cigarettes, so after chatting to him and our neighbor about insurance policies and how both our dogs had taken this weird natural event, I went back inside. It remained dry for the rest of the night and this morning the sun came out and another sunny day started as if nothing had happened…

The garden, however, told another story, with branches lying all over the place like a jungle floor and the grass dotted with potholes. Power stayed out until midday and with it internet, phone lines and the comforts of working from home. We had enough to do however, especially when we saw what else had happened in those 15 minutes. Roughly 60% of the tiles on our roof had been shattered and our garden furniture was smashed to smithereens. Another window of hardened wire-glass in our garage was hit in three places and had opened up like paper. There were large holes where the ice went straight through and glass shattered all over the cars, which luckily otherwise remained intact. We spent most of the day collecting glass and rubble and it was then that I realized how extremely dependent on all those modern-day comforts I have become.

Still we have been lucky, very lucky in fact. Buenos Aires is not usually prone to serious natural upheavals, apart from a tropical rainstorm every now and then. Other parts of the world are not so well off. Natural disasters are happening more and more often and in many cases have tremendous effects on the world economy, as recently the Financial Times described in an article about the volcanic eruption in Iceland, of which I hereby copy the intro (reply to this post and ask me for an official forward and I will try to send you the entire article!):

“(April 16th 2010) Volcanic disruption

Pandemic flu, blizzards, volcanic eruptions: Mother Nature seems resolved to hurl grit (or fine ash) into the turbine blades of economic recovery. Disruption to international air traffic caused by a rather different Icelandic blow-up from the one 18 months ago is already the most serious since 9/11, and may outstrip it. A Sydney-based consultant, the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, forecasts that if the disturbance extends even three more days, it could affect 1m passengers, and cost airlines $1bn in lost revenues. Yet as with other recent natural phenomena, the overall economic impact may ultimately prove insignificant…”

Of course then there is the human aspect of these occurrences, not only for the people directly involved in them, but also for those that know, are related to, or have simply met them at some point. As my formerly Asia-bound colleague Beth says:

“…the tsunami that hit Sri-Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia was a disaster on a huge scale, but what struck me about it was the world response. It was the height of the Christmas season and most everyone I know knew someone who was there, heard first hand stories of the day, or had been there themselves in the past. News wasn’t just on the TV, it had happened to someone you knew, millions of first-hand stories were transmitted by word of mouth on a global scale.

I have many great memories of Thailand beach holidays, and essential to these memories are the people I met while I was there – the guys who cracked open fresh coconuts for me on the beach, the father and son who took us out in their fishing boat, the girls making seashell necklaces and running along the beach to sell them – all of these people’s faces came back to me when I heard the news, and I wondered how they were and what they lost. I think that this was the same for everyone, and that this is the reason why the world showed such solidarity. It wasn’t something just effecting international airlines and multi-national hotel chains, it was the guy who made you fresh mango juice on the beach in Ha Tien. Yes, it was all going on far away in a distant land, but it was something we could all relate to on a human scale.”

This is one of the positive effects of globalization and ever-increasing world travel, we have, and should have, an increased understanding, empathy and solidarity with our world neighbors. Tourism and travel bring great responsibility on many levels, be it related to preservation of natural habitats and heritage or simple material transactions that keep local economies moving. The way in which the world has developed means that many, many people in many countries rely almost entirely on tourism for their livelihood – if this is suddenly cut off, for example by a natural disaster, what happens to them?

In our globalized world everyone is connected, and so in turn everything that happens and how we respond has repercussions all around the world. The big volcanic dust cloud recently grounding flights across Europe, has all sorts of myriad effects on people around the world, from the plantation worker in Jamaica to the hotel cleaner in Egypt. As soon as the dust settles the world will be up and flying again, but the effects will continue to be felt, if not by you, by someone else in some distant land that you may one day travel to. This volcano reminds me of all the other disasters in recent years, of Chile, Haiti, New Orleans, Thailand, Sri Lanka… the list goes on. And it reminds me that the privileges and pleasures of travel go hand in hand with a responsibility to the people and the places that we travel to.

Our 15 minute hailstorm was an ever so small taste of the destruction that nature can wreak, and it made me realize just how small we really are, and how futile and vulnerable most of the security-net is that we try to pull up around ourselves. Without that net, how long would we hold? Because without all the 21st century shields we reinforce ourselves and our lives with, we are pretty much useless when it comes to surviving in raw natural circumstances. I had to think about “The Road” and wondered what would happen if we had a hailstorm like yesterday’s, but for, say 1 month. …Note to self, must remember to buy batteries and enough freeze-dried food for at least 4 weeks tomorrow!

…signing off now, just got my internet, home computer network, flat screen TV and media PC working again; and it’s time for some channel surfing with a chilled beer, an ordered in pizza, the pleasant hum of the air conditioning and the already fading notion of a different reality, and how it almost bit me…

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Brazil, a land of contrasts – Part 2

Dear Fellow Travelers,

Here we go with the next installment of my Northern Brazil adventure!


The next day we left for Pipa, close to the town of Natal and some 450 km to the north of Olinda. After driving in the wrong direction again (and this time in broad day light) we thought it might come in handy to have a map of some sort. We had packed hastily for this trip (as we usually do) and some things had sadly been left behind. After several stops at gas stations, supermarkets, and other places where one might expect to be able to buy a map, we finally found one at a local pharmacy where, as it turned out, everybody buys their maps. At least that was the fact in Olinda (at the end of this journey, we stumbled upon the “Giua Cuatro Rodas”, an excellent guidebook, with all kinds of tips, directions and hotel options in the country, along with an excellent road map; so we’re all set for our next trip!). Now it became a lot easier to find our way and within no-time we entered the famous BR101 highway. The BR101 is undergoing many repairs these days, so long stretches are “en obras” (under construction), which means our trip took a little longer than expected and we arrived to Pipa after dark, yet again. Another thing we quickly came to realize is that even though we were visiting a neighboring country of our beautifully southern hemispheric Argentina, we had come quite close to the equator, and the sun here sets at 6.30pm sharp, something to take into account if you are planning a full-day’s drive.

Pipa turned out to be amazing. Lovely beaches circled by high cliffs, lagoons, Atlantic forest and dolphins. Pipa has cobbled streets and good surfing beaches, in addition to a lake full of manatees (in neighboring Tibau do Sul). It is an old hippy colony and was recently discovered by Brazil’s traveling youth. Even though the town can get a bit crowded at night it remains a beautiful little spot to relax and enjoy nature.

We spent our days here walking along one of the beaches, spotting dolphins from a small speedboat, and eating… The place was called Panela do Barro and we went back three times. Located in the heart of town, sitting on the cliff, overlooking Pipa’s central beach, their seafood Moqueca is a feast. The ways various African, Portuguese and indigenous ingredients, and cooking methods have merged through the centuries to create this wondrous dish I cannot describe, but man it was good! I really need to get that recipe, or better still, find me a good Brazilian restaurant in town… It can be said though; food in Brazil is GOOD!

Porto Galinhas

From Pipa we moved on to Porto Galinhas, which was not really worth visiting. Supposedly home to the best beach in Brazil, the town changed from a fishing village into the playground of Brazil’s rich and famous and later became a popular vacation spot for domestic travelers. The town has a questionable history as the “chicken port”, so called by the Portuguese during the time when the English started getting bossy and imposing their power to try and force the Portuguese to abolish slavery - just as the rest of the world had done before. On paper, Porto Galinhas was a port where poultry and other livestock arrived from Europe, but that was only to deceive the British; what actually came off the boats was slave trade business as usual, and it would go on like that for many more years. Today Porto Galinhas does not have too much to offer to the discerning traveler. We relaxed in one of the huge resorts there for a couple of days, but were happy to move on.

Praia do Forte

Praia do Forte on the other hand was a very nice surprise. We stayed in the Tivoli Eco-Resort, which is a pleasure in itself, and explored the surrounding area from there.

The Tamar Project (TAMAR being short for Tartaruga Marinha, Portuguese for Sea Turtle) is definitely worth a visit. The story of marine conservation in Brazil coincides with the creation of the TAMAR Program. Seventeen years ago the Federal Government, in tune with international demand and increasing environmental awareness in Brazilian society, began to adopt measures aimed at marine protection. In the beginning of the 1980s, the Brazilian Institute of Forestry Development (IBDF), created the TAMAR Program with the objective of protecting sea turtles in Brazil. The work started in Bahia (Praia do Forte), Espírito Santo (Comboios) and Sergipe (Pirambú), and was then extended nationwide. The project focused on the identification of different species, their main nesting sites, their reproduction period, and the main socio-economic problems related to the exploitation of sea turtles by the coastal residents. Technical staff spent two years traveling along the Brazilian coastline gathering information. In 1982 and 1986, SUDEPE (the Fishing Development Agency) passed regulations prohibiting the capture of all species of turtle.

From April through November one can also go out to sea to spot Humpback Whales, something that I would love to do. Unfortunately, we arrived off-season this time, but I will certainly go back one day to see these wondrous creatures.


From Praia do Forte we decided to escape Carnaval (absolutely a great party, but a little too much with two small kids) and head for Lencois, some 450 km inland. Until 1996 this was the wild, wild, west where some 80,000 people tried their luck at discovering diamonds. Lawlessness ruled and the area was notoriously unsafe and environmentally irresponsible. Come the mid 90’s the Federal Government decided enough was enough and diamond mining in Lencois was made illegal. The area almost immediately shifted to tourism for its income, and today Lencois, and the few towns surrounding it, are the heart of the Chapada Diamantina National Park. This is a beautiful area of natural springs, waterfalls, weird rock formations, quaint little towns and large underground cave-systems that can all be visited from Lencois.

We found all ranges of accommodation in the village, but relatively few people seem to know about it, or make the decision to go there, so the whole place is very calm and tranquil. Lencois is also a place where all races seem to be living together in perfect balance (from what we saw at least) and it is throughout a very safe and pleasant place to be. We walked through the outskirts of town after dark with our two small children without ever having the feeling that we should start being careful. We have been around the block a bit in this continent, so our antennae are attuned, but here we felt perfectly at ease. Talks with locals confirmed this feeling; Lencois is one of the safest places to travel. Combine this with a great surrounding area for hiking and sight-seeing and you have one fantastic destination to add to your list of Brazil must-sees.

Happy trails,


Ps I just had a look at our webpage and came across this aptly named package to Northern Brazil visiting Salvador, Lencois and Praia do Forte - Salvador and the Beauty of Bahia