Iguazu Falls, Argentina/Brazil
It’s pretty hard to classify what makes the largest waterfall in the world. Widest? Most volume of water falling? Tallest? Largest sheet? The native Guarani people named this place Iguazu — big water. Good enough. Iguazu Falls is considered the largest waterfall system in the world. It’s big enough to render anyone momentarily speechless.
Straddling the border between Brazil and Argentina, I decided to visit the falls from both sides on two consecutive days, staying in the city of Foz do Iguaçu on the Brazilian side, then taking a day trip to Puerto Iguazú on the Argentinian side. More of the falls are on the Argentinian side than the Brazilian one: that means that Brazil has the better panoramic view, but Argentina has far more trails alongside the falls.
Curitiba seems to be the envy of Brazilians from other cities. Every person who I told that I would be flying to Curitiba would nod in approval and offer some sort of compliment about the place. It’s not hard to understand why: the city’s full of green spaces, it’s not sweltering hot in the summer like the north (every day of this trip has been above 30°C, with a couple days above 40°C), it’s relatively safer with a lower crime rate, and it’s got world-famous urban planning and public transportation.
It’s definitely a great place to live. For a tourist, it’s a pleasant short stop, usually on the way to somewhere else. But for me… this is an intentional stop. Sure, I’m going somewhere else to end my trip, but I’m in no rush: I’m here to visit my dear friend Mabi, a Curitiba native who now also lives in Vancouver, but is in town to visit her family after a two-year gap, while also searching for a wedding venue.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
In the pantheon of cities like Paris, New York, and London, Rio needs no introduction. I’ll give one anyway — it’s not the capital of Brazil. (That’s Brasília. Rio used to be, and even briefly served as the capital of Portugal for a time, the only time in history a colony held the seat of power of an empire.) It sure feels like the cultural capital though.
Songs, books, movies… So much popular culture has been inspired by the city. What can I say that hasn’t already been said?
The name exudes glamour. There’s the world’s most famous beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema, photogenic and full of photogenic people, lined with barracas selling caipirinhas. Football-crazy folks invented futevôlei (volleyball, but played with a soccer ball and no hands) just so they could play something resembling football on the beach. Then there’s the iconic mountains: Corcovado, with the giant Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer, built in 1931) perched atop, visible from virtually every point of the city, a simultaneous symbol of triumph and of a seemingly watchful eye over a still-heavily Catholic country. Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain), perched right over the water, provides a dramatic view both from the ground and from the top. The Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) overlook Ipanema. These aren’t just symbols of Rio, they’ve become symbols of Brazil.
Can you imagine a Brazil without capoeira or samba, or even its famed Carnaval celebrations? So tied are these things to Brazilian culture and identity, but they come from one community in particular: Afro-Brazilians, those of the former slave trade and now their descendants. The epicentre of Afro-Brazilian culture is Bahia, in particular its capital, Salvador.
Situated on a hill separating it from the rest of the city, the Pelourinho charms immediately with its cobblestone streets, photogenic colonial buildings, beautiful views over the Bay of All Saints, and multitudes of grand churches. It’s the touristic centre of Salvador, but regular life continues for its residents sandwiched between the restaurants, shops, and hotels.
Boipeba and Lençóis, Brazil
The site of the first landing of the Portuguese in what is now Brazil, the state of Bahia is historically and culturally significant.
But I’m not ready for that yet: time for a break from all the educational travel! Bahia’s also blessed with stunning nature, from the palm-fringed coast (which includes the namesake Baía de Todos os Santos, Bay of All Saints) to the lush, mountainous interior.
Oiapoque to Macapá, Brazil
You know that picture in your head when you imagine Brazil, if you’re not a Brazilian? It’s all probably Rio. Crowded beaches, scantily clad people, caipirinhas, parties, soccer fanatics, samba, all that. Rio isn’t just that, and Brazil is not just Rio. But anyways, we’re not there yet.
So here’s my first impression of Brazil, before I’ve gotten to where I’m going.
I’ve just entered on a boat (ignoring the bridge, finished in 2011 yet still not fully open in 2019 since Brazil hasn’t bothered to add a border post on it) from one scruffy-looking small town in French Guiana (St-Georges) to another scruffy-looking small town (Oiapoque). Swap the French language for Portuguese. I’m now in the Brazilian state of Amapá, the former Portuguese Guiana.
“Hey, I got Chinese takeout! Have some!”
–“Thanks! Where’s it from?”
“Just around the corner from here.”
The next day, I walk around the bend. The restaurant’s name? Fortune House, the same name (in English, but not in Chinese) as my dad’s former restaurant. It may have only been day one of my trip, but it made me immediately homesick.
It’s been absolutely mind-boggling to see the constant presence of Chinese people in the three Guianas. We’re members of the same diaspora, but we just ended up on opposite sides of the globe. Our daily language, the ones we live in, are completely different, mutually unintelligible, and yet the immediate knowing glances when I walk into the door of a Chinese business immediately leads to a conversation in the one thing we share.
Kourou and Cayenne, French Guiana
Another day, another aquatic border crossing. Just taking one of those small rickety pirogues to the other side, that’s all — that’s a little step down from the ferry between Guyana and Suriname. Wait, why is everybody speaking French now? Why is my phone welcoming me to… Martinique? And now my phone’s stuck in the wrong time zone, one hour behind the local time.
This town looks a little run down. The road out to Kourou seems quite empty, and huh… hello corrugated steel shacks. Haven’t really seen them that much this trip until now.
Oh look, there’s a freakin’ space rocket.
Jaw Jaw, Suriname
Aside from the languages, there’s one other thing that inspired me to visit Suriname: the connection to West Africa. Suriname has a large Maroon population — that is, escaped slaves who fled further inland into the forest on foot, establishing their own communities with their own customs, using what they remembered of their home traditions. The largest of the Maroon groups is the Saramacca (Saamaka), and I wanted to take the time to visit at least one community. Having spent a memorable month in West Africa a few years ago, seeing everything from the big city to more rural areas, I felt a strong pull to compare the lives of those on both sides of the Atlantic. Same ancestors, different geography, hundreds of years of separation.
Past the end of the road, the Saramacca have established their villages along the shores of the Upper Suriname River (Dutch: Boven Suriname). Some of these villages are visited by group tours passing through and staying at isolated resorts, but I chose to visit Jaw Jaw (pronounced “yao-yao”), where returned former expat Bele has started a guesthouse in the centre of his village. Eschewing over 20 years of the hectic rat-race life in the UK and the Netherlands for a return to something simpler, he’s grown proud of his roots and was eager to share.
Paramaribo has always been a place I’ve aspired to visit ever since I became interested in languages. It’s the only city and general population centre of sparsely-populated Suriname (pop. 550000), the only official Dutch-speaking independent nation in the Americas, but one that speaks a bunch of everything else.
With a population even more mixed up than Guyana, while all signage is in Dutch, Sranan Tongo (Surinamese) is the general lingua franca of the country, their confounding creole of English, Portuguese, Dutch, and various West African languages. It’s so weird to see Chinese people speaking amongst themselves in Sranan! Speaking of which, other languages I’ve heard commonly are Cantonese, Mandarin, Javanese, Hindi, Portuguese, and of course English, passably spoken by most of the population. Add in the beautiful Caribbean Dutch architecture, and my heart’s already stolen. This place is almost criminally underlooked — the only other tourists I see are all Dutch, and there are few English resources about places to visit in the country!
But speaking of criminal… There’s some sort of nefarious current here. You don’t need to know any of these myriad languages to feel it, but it sure makes it more obvious.