The biggest pussy

Some, when they have money, they do funny things.

A few years ago, we visited Inhotim, close to Belo Horizonte, a sprawling park, stuffed with large pieces of installation art. Founded by the mining magnate Bernardo Paz, it’s one of the largest outdoor art centres in Latin America. The park costs much more to run, than it brings in in ticket sales, but, as trading art, particularly at high prices, is sometimes a way to avoid taxation and launder money, perhaps there is much more to the park than meets the eye.
Either way, in 2018, Paz was sentenced to more than nine years in jail for money laundering.

Much more humble, but designed along similar lines to Inhotim (though not necessarily with money laundering in mind), is Usina de Arte, in Pernambuco (a state in the north of Brazil), on the border with Alagoas. An Usina is a term used in Brazil to describe a large production facility, often specifically for the production of sugar from sugar cane. And, indeed, the Usina de Arte until the end of the 20th century produced sugar and cachaça (rum), the dilapidated distillery being part of the logo of, what is now, the art garden.

The usina only has a few dozen pieces in the garden, and are all easily experienced in just a few hours, and are, mostly, nice, but not particularly exceptional. Entrance to the park is free, and only occasionally a guard on a quad patrols the quiet lanes of the park.

The big attraction is the more-or-less annual festival, though, due to COVID, no festival occurred in 2020, while there is also no information I could find on the festival happening in 2019, and, at the venue itself, leftovers of the 2018 festival were still visible.
Because the park is rather off the beaten path, and small, it’s difficult to get usable historical information on its activities. But, part of the reason the 2019 festival seems to not have happened is that the founder of the Usina de Arte, Ricardo Pessoa de Queiroz, who also has two pieces of art in the garden, one pretty bad, one quite good, passed away at 90, at the start of 2020.
Fascinatingly, in 2015 he published what one obituary called his masterpiece, The Practical Manual for Sugarcane, on, well, growing sugarcane. 2015 was also the year he founded the usina as an art garden.

For the sleepy town of Santa Terezinha, essentially centred on the entrance of the usina, the attraction, if only occasionally popular, is a small boon.

That is, perhaps, until the arrival of the park’s latest addition, a deep-red 33 meter tall vagina, “Diva”, sunk into a hillside in the park, visible from literally miles around.

The piece, when the general public was made aware of its existence at the end of 2020, stirred up some controversy, though perhaps more of the teacup kind, though the fact that it reached the likes of CNN and The Sun, does say something about its impact. At least internationally.

Created by local (that is, from Recife) artist Juliana Notari, she stated the piece “questions the relationship between nature and culture in our phallocentric and anthropocentric western society” and discusses the “problematisation of gender”. Undeniably true on both counts, though perhaps also rather obvious.
The piece, attracting attention, inspired a horrible song, Vulva Diva, with a hilarious video clip, with Notari accepting her fame, or notoriety, with open arms, as per her Instagram profile.

The piece, back in the usina, is de garden’s piece de résistance, with the park’s pathways leading the visitor to the best view of the vagina as its culmination, and worth the trip to the edge of the state of Pernambuco.
We were not the only ones thinking this; during our short two-night stay, some 7 or 8 other parties stayed at the same guest house as us, previously a sleepy affair, specifically coming in to visit the vagina.

It’s a hit.

Life’s a (nude) beach

After taking it easy for a few days in João Pessoa, we rented a car to drive south. Specifically, to visit a controversial new art installation in the south of Pernambuco.

On the way to our first stop, the island of Itamaracá, in Pernambuco, we stopped at Tambaba beach, famous as it’s one of the very few nude beaches in Brazil. Interesting, as although Brazilians like to show off on the beach, wearing as little cloth as possible, they also balk at not wearing any at all. So, although the regular, rather small, beach at Tambaba was terribly crowded, the part of the beach that was nudist, accessible by a stairs and a screen, hiding nudists from view, was pleasantly quiet, almost deserted.

There is, interestingly, a nudist guest house on this stretch of sand and, while we were enjoying the sun and the sights, as well as freshly fried fresh fish, a group of, what could only be classified as swingers, arrived with supplies and excellent moods.

Afterwards, we drove on, to the island of Itamaracá (“The stone that sings”). Also once occupied by the Dutch, a fort, Fort Orange, still stands to remind visitors of the past. But, most tourists come to the island as day-trippers, enjoying the weather, the beach, the food, the laid back life, as very little of historical value remains, while the beaches are lovely.
An older church next to our guest house had a clock on its facade, painted, always stuck at 9 o’clock.

For Orange once was used as a jail, where the Dutch imprisoned Portuguese who didn’t want to convert to protestantism. Which is a bit odd, as the Dutch occupation of northern Brazil was known for its religious tolerance, exemplified by the extensive influx of jews, from Amsterdam, who settled mostly in Recife, and established the oldest synagogue in the Americas.

Travel in the time of COVID

International travel is still heavily curtailed. Even though the COVID-19 vaccine has now started to roll out, parts of the country are still heavily affected. Manaus is having the biggest challenges, with Venezuela even sending over canisters of oxygen, clearly as a PR-stunt, but also a necessary relief, while some parts of the Brazilian northeast are also having their containment issues.

Not so João Pessoa, the capital of the state of Paraiba.

While there, we didn’t encounter many COVID-related restrictions, save for the fact that essentially everyone, everywhere, at all times, was wearing a face mask. Perhaps the underlying mentality has paid off, as nearby Recife is struggling much more.
That said, most, but not all, shared public spaces, like museums, were still closed.

João Pessoa is an hour or two north from Recife, the capital of Pernambuco, which once was the capital of Dutch Brazil, or New Holland. Joao Pessoa also has a brief Dutch history, the Dutch invading and taking the city in 1634, which at that time was called Philipeia of Our Lady of the Snows, with particularly the snowy part still on show, today, in many names of business around town. The Dutch renamed the town Fredrikstad, after Frederik Hendrik of Orange, son of William of Orange (William the Silent), the one who managed to get the Spanish to end their occupation of the northern Netherlands.
Frederik, incidentally, was born in Delft, the same town his father was murdered in. Curiously, as an aside, William’s murderer, the French catholic Balthasar Gerards, had a street named after him, in the town he was born in, Vuillafans, on the border with Switzerland, exactly because he murdered William. This, in turn, even more incidentally, was the first murder of a head-of-state with a firearm, and only the second assassination by a firearm ever recorded.

Back to Paraiba and João Pessoa.

In contrast with Recife, there is very little that remains in João Pessoa that has a Dutch connection, possibly because Dutch occupation lasted a mere 20 years, and João Pessoa played a second, and remote, fiddle to Recife. But, the expulsion of the Dutch by the Portuguese, some twenty years later, did trigger the expansion of the sugarcane industry to the Caribbean, as well as the early industrialisation of some parts of coastal North America.
One older church, in downtown Joao Pessoa, has a spire that somewhat reminds of Dutch church architecture of the time, but, as far as we could uncover, that appeared to be the extent of the connection. And even that was a stretch.

The city has undergone several name changes, with the most recent one dating back to 1930. João Pessoa was a vicepresidential candidate under Getulio Vargas, and murdered in Recife, by a slighted political opponent, of whom the police had released love letters after a raid on an opponent’s office.

João Pessoa is the least unequal city in the northeast of Brazil. The coastal zone, a long strip of beach, and where we stayed, felt decidedly pleasant, without the excesses more typical of, say, Rio de Janeiro. And even the downtown area, some 6k away from the beach, on top of a hill and, on the other side from the shore, bordered by a river, was a bit rough, but not comparable to most other larger Brazilian cities. Downtown João Pessoa has clearly not yet seen the regeneration that downtown Recife has received, but is doing much, much better compared to, say, Manaus.

The city’s main attraction, besides its beaches, and surprisingly excellent and unique food, is that the city is home to the easternmost point of the Americas (if you don’t include Greenland as part of the Americas). The spot that is marked as such was recently highlighted with one of Oscar Niemeyer’s final constructions.
However, oddly, the spot that is marked as the most eastern point isn’t actually the most eastern point of the Americas. A point, about 1km south from the marked spot, is significantly further east. But, the rest of the cape, further east than the marked point, appears all privately owned, which presumably made it more difficult to turn the spot into a bit of a tourist attraction.

The city’s geography does hit home, once more, the size of the country; In João Pessoa, we’re closer to Cape Verde, than we are to both Manaus, deep in the Brazilian Amazon, and Porto Alegre, in Brazil’s south, while both are still quite a bit away from the Brazilian border themselves. In fact, parts of Brazil close to the Peruvian border are further away from João Pessoa than parts of Morocco-occupied Western Sahara, or Accra, the capital of Ghana.

Renaming cities seems a bit of a national pastime in Brazil. The nearby town of Bayeux is home to the city’s airport. From 1635 onwards, this town used to be called Barreiros, but was renamed in 1944, in honour of the first French town to be liberated in the battle of Normandy, that is, D-Day, on June 7 of that year.
I was hoping for some connection to the tapestry of the city, but, although Bayeux has been settled for 100s of years, there appeared little of history that remains.

Also, in true Brazilian style, emphasised by the country’s current president, playing fast-and-loose with facts is also not too uncommon. The city is known as the second greenest city in the world, after Paris. But, this was a stunt, initiated by the city’s mayor, in the context of an Earth Summit (Eco-92), which was held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.

In fact, it appears that Joao Pessoa is not even the greenest city in Brazil, with Curitiba often being referred to as the greenest city on earth.

We thoroughly enjoyed João Pessoa. People are friendly and laid back, while the city prospers reasonably well. The coastal strip and its beaches are gorgeous, the food is great, while prices are reasonable.

Food wise, we found many experimental restaurants, as well as a unique local style, often cooking with cream. One interesting import were Hungarian chimney cakes, the delightfully called Kürtöskalács, stuffed with sweets, including ice cream.

The cheese capital of Brazil: Alagoa

Legend has it that an Italian guy visited the valley, bringing a cheese culture. He shared the culture with someone from the valley, who then shared it with his neighbours, who then shared it again… and again… until pretty much everyone in the valley, in which you find the small town of Alagoa, was making cheese.

We asked around; how many families were making cheese in and around Alagoa? The lowest estimate we got was 30. The highest 150. At a population of under 3000, and, with a surprisingly low average Brazilian household size of 3, this means that up to 15% of families in Alagoa could be making cheese.
It seemed a good estimate.

The town is gorgeously situated, essentially at the end of a road, in a valley surrounded by tall green peaks. Founded in the 18th century, the town was on the trail, the ‘Royal Road’, between the mines in the state of Minas Gerais, and the ports of Rio de Janeiro, Paraty, and Sao Paulo. But, though it’s technically possible to traverse the valley, no paved road runs through it.
When we entered the valley, we had to navigate a fresh landslide, which, only just, had been partially cleared, allowing traffic in and out. That, combined with the lack of tourism, mostly due to COVID, made it feel like we were driving into a kind of Stephen King novel, where anyone can enter the little thriving town, but no one can ever leave.

In Alagoa (surprisingly bereft of a lake, as ‘a lagoa’ literally means ‘the lake’), we tried cheese from 9 different producers, only four of which were officially recognised cheese manufacturers. One of those, Entre Morros, ‘between mountains’, had dared to make an old Parmezan, as a one-off. Not much to Brazilian tastes, which prefers younger cheeses, it was not an easy sell, and after making one cheese of 7 kilos, months back, they had yet to make another one.
It was superb. We bought their last kilo.

It was exactly this cheese which, at a visit to a little cheese shop, during carnival, in the little town of Santana de Parnaiba, close to Sao Paulo, had made us decide to seek out the Brazilian cheese capital.

Back in May, we had wanted to visit, but the town’s website said it was closed to visitors, due to COVID. We checked a few times in the following months, with no luck. Then, when we gave them a call in early December, we were told they had, in fact, never been closed.
But, when we finally arrived, we found that all shops were still required to shut down at 6pm, some closing even earlier, others not opening at all. Except for the town’s only bakery, which was allowed to stay open till 9pm, but often kept its doors open for longer.
As we staid across the road from the bakery, at the town’s only pousada, this seemed ideal. Except that, as perhaps the only bakery in Brazil, they did not serve a meaningful breakfast, which we needed, as the pousada had stopped serving breakfasts due to COVID. And for lunch and dinner, they only offered the ever-present Brazilian burger, in all its 20, or so, variations, and as many pizzas. With local cheese, but crappy dough.

The inhabitants of Alagoa take their cheese seriously.
We went for a drive, in search of a particular restaurant, pretty much ‘up in the mountains’, only to find it closed. But, a nearby pousada (kind of like a farm-stay), was open. The Pousada Casarão, meaning something like ‘Big house hotel’, possibly harked back to slave-owning days, with this farm being the central farm of a large estate.
We didn’t find a really big house, but we did find a family running a series of quite lovely chalets with beautiful views, all constructed by the patriarch of the house, João. Who, of course, also made cheese.
Asked to see his cheese, the pride in João’s work was palpable. It took some convincing to allow us to try one of his large cured cheeses, which he proceeded to carry down to the farm’s kitchen, clutching the cheese to his chest as his precious. But, in the kitchen, he couldn’t bring himself to cut open the cheese; it needed to be sold as a whole, João telling us while looking at the cheese with loving eyes. Instead, we got to try another, already cut, similar cheese , from which we bought a kilo, as well as a well-aged Parmezan, which actually was a bit too dry.

Later, on another drive, we stumbled upon a little chalet where an older couple, Barbara and Daniel, Daniel being Uruguayan, also sold cheese, of course, but also curated meats and a bunch of cute handicrafts. Besides once playing Santa in Sao Paulo, in which he would entice the kids with a lama he would bring with him, he also used to sell solid quantities of cheese from the valley.
Now, his son had taken over much of that business, selling about 1000 kilos per month.

When we left, on the deserted track in and out of town, we didn’t hit an invisible Stephen King wall. We did stop, along the way, in the also lovely town of Itanhandu, where we bought even more cheese at a cheese factory, including excellent mascarpone.

The way you make me feel

I happily let myself be roped in to participating in some experimental psychogeographic research, run by a student at the University of Bristol, working on his master’s thesis.

The project’s aim was to get individuals to carry out a dérive, a walk, through urban space, with particular attention to the atmospheres of space. This, while using creative map making as a way to record the subjective experience of moving through the urban environment.

First, participants were to create their own map. Then, participants were given the map created by another participant, to use as a basis for navigation.

Map making at Potato Square

Using Apple’s Shortcuts application, I created a script that downsized photos I took to a 4×4 pixel image, which was then pasted on a map, in the place the photo was taken.

I walked around in the area around Largo da Batata (Potato Square) in Sao Paulo, in-between tropical rain storms, trying to figure out what  the use was of shooting a series of images of 16 pixels.
At some point, I realised that I was being led by trying to find objects to take photos of, where the resulting 4×4 version was very similar to the high resolution original image.

For the end result, the map that was to be handed over to another participant, I mapped the shots I took, but then took out the actual map, the result below.

The sequential grid at the top of this post shows that, towards the end, my images were becoming more colourful, a direct consequence of trying to find objects, or surfaces, which, when resized to a 4×4 grid, would result in a similar feeling.

Somewhat annoyingly, for display, browsers, and image manipulation software, interpolate the image’s native resolution. Normally, this would result in better looking photos. But, when starting with an image of only 16 pixels, this results in blurry, moody, shots.

This ain’t quite Sheffield

For the second part, I was given a map made by another participant, for me to navigate with. The other participant had created a custom map in Google Maps, recording a meander through Sheffield.

Using the map of one place to navigate another, is a bit of a Situationist trope, after Debord brought this first up in his Introduction to a Critique on Urban Geography. I am not totally on board with the term ‘navigation’ in this context, as it implies, to me, requiring a direct connection between the map and the physical world, which doesn’t exist when you transpose the map of one place, to another. However, this disconnected map can function as a tool for moving through space, if not in the way that a map normally, or typically, is used.

In fact, when managing Kompl, we created exactly such a provision, where the map of one city could be used to explore another. But here, the virtual map was provided for the user to try and get themselves, in physical space, to certain locations on the virtual map, when overlaid on the real world, having to move through the real world to get to these virtual destinations.
That is, we made it into a game.

My counterpart’s record of their experience of Sheffield was very factual; a route overlaid on Google Maps, with a series of markers, identifying particular places with one or more images, and a little narrative.

How to take this data and use it to navigate Sao Paulo?

Having some experience with Photomarathons, I used the little narratives for each pinned location to inspire me in taking a, somewhat connected, photo. The result below.

The Great Giana Sisters, mapped!

John Demjanjuk is on trial in Israel for Nazi-era war crimes, the Herald of Free Enterprise capsizes in Zeebrugge, The Simpsons premiere on The Tracey Ullman Show, Mathias Rust lands a small plane on Red Square, Ronald Reagan challenges Mikhail Gorbachev to Tear down this wall!, war criminal Klaus Barbie is sentenced to life, Fiji becomes a republic, a pirate dressed like Max Headroom interrupts the broadcast of two Chicago television stations, and Time Warp Productions produces The Great Giana Sisters, quite possibly the greatest ever platform game created for the Commodore64.

The year is 1987. And, I’m playing video games.

Fast forward to 2020.

On the 29th of September, the Chronotopic Cartographies project and The British Library organise MAPPING SPACE | MAPPING TIME | MAPPING TEXTS, an online conference on the digital visualisation of space and time for fictional works that have no real-world correspondence.

I was intrigued, signed up, but failed to attend the sessions, in part due to the somewhat challenged required use of Microsoft Teams and Gather.town, and in part due to the keynotes arousing my curiosity, perhaps, but not enough of my interest.

But, going over the conference’s poster exhibition, COVID-19 conveniently responsible for making the collection available online, I thought several of the submissions, essentially mapping fictional, but also real, worlds, featured in a range of fictional works, were quite interesting, marvelling at what pleasure it must be to have the funding available to make sometimes almost pointless maps of perhaps obscure fictional work.

One of these posters discusses the effect of the fog gate randomiser mod on game space (yes), in a game called Dark Souls, which, released in 2011, is from after my gaming days.

Going over this poster triggered a distant memory. A lifetime ago, I mapped the complete Giana Sisters world, all 33 levels, and sent the result off to the popular British gaming magazine ZZAP!64.
ZZAP! published the guide, making me proud, and sending me a bunch of video games, including the popular title Hawkeye, by the Dutch collective Boys Without Brains.

A short trip down memory lane allowed me to discover that ZZAP!64 issues are available online, fully digitised, via the Internet Archive. And, yes, issue 42 has my full walkthrough, a complete mapping of the video game The Great Giana Sisters for the Commodore64.

I had almost forgotten that my interest in creating digital topologies has a long history.

Strategies for subverting the tyranny of the corporate map

I submitted a version of the below for a session at CryptoRave, which, due to COVID, has been, at best, postponed to the second half of 2020. I referenced the concept in online panel, Being Social, which I was part of, and which is hosted by Deveron Projects. The text was also submitted to Streetnotes, a biannual peer-reviewed journal for the interdisciplinary study of the city, its lifeways and social relations.
A summarised version of this was presented at the Locative Media Summer School.

Particularly since the introduction of smart phones, we have come to rely on ever fewer, ever more unified, tools to guide us, both in familiar and new environments. We have been handing over agency to tools that tell us what to see, what to do, and where to go.

This document discusses a philosophical background for, as well as tools to, subverting this external control, putting some agency for finding our way back in the hands of the individual, you.

Tyranny

Remember the last time you were in a city you’re not overly familiar with? Did you use a mobile app to tell you where to go? Where to eat? What to see?

Chances are that if two individuals are roughly in the same place, but at different times, and ask the same app roughly the same question, the result will be exactly the same; you’re in Paris, looking for a Thai restaurant? Whether you or I ask Google, we’ll get pretty much served the same list. Worse, because the number of unique content providers is very limited, it doesn’t even matter that much which app you use, as many source their information from a very small list of providers.

What then happens? Both of us will probably pick the ‘best’ Thai restaurant from the list, the first, and end up in exactly the same place, following exactly the same route to get there. 

With a world of information in our pockets, the variety of what is offered to us and what we seek out is actually getting smaller.

The result of this ‘winner takes all’ framework, where the most popular destinations only get more popular, eventually resulting in over-tourism, is the engendering of an attitude where visitors build up a longing desire for a unique, individualistic, experience, being denied this by the very tools they use to look for this unique experience, because the nature of the tools we accept as being at our disposal, can not, by design, provide that unique experience; their creators need, their investors demand, to provide a blanket solution with the widest reach, optimising financial turnover.

‘Personalisation’ of the results to our queries attempt to go some way towards providing us individualised responses. However, compartmentalisation of personal data, limited classification of available results, and an undefined match between what we like, why we like it, and what we experience, means that personalisation in travel offers very limited venues for optimisation. Imagine; you might like the specific way a particular dish at that Thai restaurant near your home is prepared. What data would need to be captured for an automated service to point you to a restaurant in an alien city where that particular dish is prepared in a similar way? Particularly if, perhaps, the restaurant itself is not well-rated, out of the way, or not even Thai?

Of course, this information could be captured, but, requiring rich and up-to-date user input, simply isn’t captured and is less likely to ever be captured. Though, with the potential advent of embedded technologies automatically recording ranges of personalised experiences, this could indeed change.

The commercialisation of society

Back in the 1950s, a bunch of mostly French leftist intellectuals, calling themselves The Situationist International, or Situationists, realised how the public space was being increasingly commercialised. 

After the Second World War, with the increasing cultural influence of the United States in Europe, many of the big Western European cities were taking cues from the US in how to model the publicly accessible spheres of their cities. 

While moving through public space, inhabitants were, more and more, actively directed in how to interact with the environment; go here, look there, buy this, etc. 

The Situationists were ahead of their time in their critique of capitalist society; They rejected the idea that capitalism’s apparent successes, like technological advancement, increased income, even increased leisure, could ever outweigh the social dysfunction and degradation of everyday life that it simultaneously facilitated.

The Situationists recognised society being in the service of the concept of the Spectacle, the reign of the market, as well as the increased tendency towards the expression and mediation of social relations through objects, as opposed to individual expression through directly lived experiences, or the first-hand fulfilment of authentic desires.

In fact, this late-stage capitalism is not organised around the creation of luxury, happiness, or freedom, but, for the system, production, and for the vast majority of its inhabitants, survival.

Creating counter narratives

As a response to the commercialisation of society, the Situationists sought to counter the Spectacle though the construction of situations, moments of life deliberately created for the purpose of reawakening and pursuing authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life, even adventure.

Specifically, the Situationists came up with the concept of psychogeography, roughly the way a place makes you feel, and the dérive, the French word for ‘drift’, where the participant lets herself be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.

To revolt against the commercialisation of public space, and to counter the corporate influence on our lived experience, we need methods that put the locus of the decision-making process back in our own hands, as opposed to us being lead by algorithms that remove our experience and impressions from the environment we inhabit.

Then, by taking control of our own experience, we actualise ‘place’ as something that is dynamic, its meaning depending on the individual and her experience, not as a static notion that is defined by external actors we have no control over. 

Marxist Geographer Doreen Massey calls this ‘sense of place’, where the meaning of a ‘place’ is unique to the individual.

As an aside, though the ideas of the Situationists are often used in the context of exploration and travel, they were designed as frameworks for subversion, and other areas also benefit. In the early 2000s, Precarias a la Deriva, and Grup de Lesbianes Feministes, both in Spain, used psychogeographic ideas to investigate the role of unpaid female labour, and, more generally, of the sexualization of space, moving away from the traditionally more male-dominated theory.

Practical tools

Aware of the apparent contradiction, we can use digital tools, smartphones, to circumvent the tyranny of the corporate map, though digital tools are not a requirement.

The dérive 

The idea of the dérive, conceptualised in the 1950s by Guy Debord, the most prominent member of the Situationist International, at its core is about participants letting themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Best done in small groups, these would, Debord argued, lead to the creation of what he called ‘situations’.

Formalising this idea has centred around the creation of series of loosely directive ‘task cards’, nudging participants in particular modes of behaviour.

The mobile app Dérive app is a popular implementation of this, presenting the user with task cards that have a loose connection with the locale of the participant, like “Find shade”, “Follow a dog walker”, “Ask someone for their favourite building”, “Walk as fast as you can until you detect a public restroom”, etc.

Guerrilla tourism

Back in 1990 Joel Henry founded LaTourEx, LAboratoire de TOURisme EXpérimental (Laboratory of Experimental Travel) in Strasbourg. Acknowledging connections to the Situationists, Fluxus and other experimental groupings, he coined the concept of experimental travel, with ideas like taking a (physical) map of a city and to ‘conquer K2’, K2 being, of course, one of the most difficult mountains to climb, but also a particular square on the map.

Lonely Planet co-opted the concept of experimental travel in their 2005 book The Lonely Planet guide to Experimental Travel, followed by the 2018 Everyday Adventures.
Curiously, both feel, for their heavy curation and hand-holding, more like the antithesis of experimental travel, but can work well for inspiration and exploration.

Phil Smith (‘Crab Man’) has done something similar in his books on Counter Tourism, though, there, limiting himself to British Heritage sites. As part of his work with Wrights & Sites, and their series of ‘Misguides’, he also co-wrote a series of texts with instructions to make familiar places unfamiliar and to inspire the reader to subvert the city through walking.

Jason D. Luger, in his article “The Living vs. the dead in Singapore: contesting the authoritarian tourist city” (in Protest and Resistance in the Tourist City) goes for a more generally used term, describing guerrilla tourism as “going off the pathway”, constructing alternative narratives through the act of transgressing boundaries and walking, contesting and reshaping the hegemony of consumption-led urban development. 

As Luger talks about Singapore, ‘his’ city is also an authoritarian city, but, in many ways, perhaps every modern western city has become authoritarian, meaning the acts of guerrilla tourism he encountered in Singapore are increasingly appropriate in every city.

More recently, a German collective, Happy Tourists, consisting of Christian Haid, Soazic Guezennec and Lukas Staudinger, tries to formalise guerrilla tours in Berlin, though they seem to hold the middle between being a ‘serious’ outfit and an art installation. Nevertheless, they state their mission is “to bring serendipity, chaos and disorder into tourism to trigger critical thinking and power shifts into the tourism industry”.

Travel like a reporter

Nikhil Sonnad at Quartz, suggested last year, that in order to get the most out of your next trip, to travel like a reporter, which he explains as deeply focusing on one topic or theme; For your destination, pick a ‘lens’, subject or topic, and focus on that topic as if you’re obsessive-compulsive, as if you’re required to write a thesis on the topic once you’ve returned from your destination.

Because you will be seeing the things you want to see, not the things everyone “must see”, this will likely mean that there will be fewer tourists at your chosen destinations, while you probably also will be visiting places you otherwise would not have visited yourself.

Even interests that might appear main stream, like World Heritage Sites, become quite obscure in the ‘long tail’, with currently a total of 1121 of them.

Another term that’s sometimes used for this type of discovery is slow travel, where a traveller seeks to immerse themselves in a place they visit, taking their time to learn about the location, along with cultures and offbeat experiences on offer, instead of simply checking-off another place from their bucket list.

Add friction

The appeal of the travel-oriented tools many of us are inclined to use, Google Maps, Foursquare, Tripadvisor, Yelp!, etc., is that they make our lives easy. They take away friction, but as a consequence give its users a remarkably similar experience. Not only do we get presented with the same Thai restaurant in Paris, we also get told to go there by the same route.

Part of the joy is in the journey. Perhaps, then, don’t take that Uber, take public transport. Don’t fly, go overland. Don’t pull out that map all the time, go by what feels right and take your time, more closely observing your surroundings as you move forward, engendering a sense of discovery.

A few years ago, Kompl tried to achieve this sense of discovery by taking away information, instead of providing as much as possible. The app showed you what was around you, but required you to find individual places yourself. In addition, it would not disclose the best, say, Thai restaurant, but just a few good enough ones.
An additional quirk was that Kompl allowed you to explore one city through the physical, geographical, data of another.

Kompl is no longer active, but a more mainstream app like maps.me provides a compass-only view that can achieve a similar result, as it requires you to decide what route to take, as opposed to relying on algorithmic software, optimising your route.

Listen

We’re not much used to listening to our surroundings. The growing field of ‘sound walking’ changes this, nudging you to use more of your senses to give meaning to the environment you find yourself in.

A yearly ‘sound walking’ festival, Sound Walk September, brings this experience to a broader audience and apps like Echoes, Soundtrails, and Locosonic provide access to a broad range of sound walks throughout the world.

What links these strategies?

What connects all these ‘tools’? 

They allow the user to take a step back, engendering mindfulness, nudging the user to rely more on their own capacities as opposed to handing over agency and trusting technology. They bring the user more into the moment, by requiring the user to take responsibility, while making her more aware.

Being more aware of the possibilities at your disposal as you move through public space and making more active decisions, means taking back agency over your own actions. 

You don’t of course need the particular tools described above but, more importantly, you really don’t need the tyranny of the corporate map.

Pandemia de amor

After some five years of being in a stable union, Natalia and I are getting married on May 29. The ceremony is set for 10am BRT (Sao Paulo time). COVID-19 is preventing us from having anyone at the wedding except the two witnesses, and we even had to change the date at the last minute, because of COVID, so a party will follow in due course. Probably, one day, travel restrictions will be lifted.

But, if you so desire, you can follow live broadcasts, throughout the day, of the ceremony, the cutting of a cake, virtual toasts, and more, on my Twitter feed.

We will see you online?

Life is travel, the case for the patron saint of walkers

The Vandals are at the gates. Augustine is deadly ill, spending his final days in prayer and repentance. Having coined the phrase “Solvitur ambulando”, “it is solved by walking”, perhaps his ambulatory restlessness at the end of his life indirectly saved the city, as the Vandals initially retreated. But Augustine of Hippo, modern-day Annaba in northern Algeria, did then not walk enough, as shortly after, the Vandals returned and burned the city to the ground. Though not all of it, as Augustine’s cathedral and library were left untouched.
The year was 430AD, and today, in Annaba’s Saint Augustin Basilica, you can visit some of his remains, where a portion of the man’s right arm has been preserved within a glass tube, itself inserted into the arm of a life-size marble statue of the saint.

Augustine, born in Roman North Africa in 354AD, in what is now Souk Ahras, and speaking Latin at home, is considered to have been Berber and, through his writings, we know that he took his African heritage as a point of pride.
Augustine’s mom was a devout christian, but his father was a ‘pagan’, who’s ancestors likely received Roman citizenship through the edict of Caracalla in 212AD. His father honoured the Punic gods, likely giving Augustine also a Phoenician extraction.

Augustine’s first journey took him to school at Madaurus, some 30km from his hometown. Destined for a life of learning, at 17, he continued his education in rhetoric in Carthage, in modern day Tunisia.

He also became Manichaean, a reasonably fresh religion, barely 100 years old, and of Persian extraction. But, he was not a devout follower.
Then, in 384, Augustine almost by accident, stumbled into the most desired academic position in the Roman Empire; that of rhetoric professor at the imperial court in Milan. It was here, when Roman emperor Theodosius I issued a decree to kill all Manichaean monks, that Augustine developed a close relationship with the archbishop of Milan, Ambrose, and rolled into christianity.

Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet

In Carthage, Augustine fell in with a hedonistic bunch of young men, taking pride in their sexual exploits. There, he ended up with a (female) lover for 15 years, with which he eventually had a son. He had brought her to Milan, but his mom had also joined him, and eventually arranged a ‘respectable’ marriage, to a 10-year old heiress. Legal age was 12 at the time, meaning Augustine had to wait another two years, during which he took up another lover, and during which he left us his famous prayer Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet
But, he received it, as before the marriage was supposed to happen, he decided to live a life of celibacy. At 31, in late August 386, Augustine converted to Christianity.

Then, things moved fast. Augustine was baptised in 387, moved back to Africa in 388, was ordained a priest in 391 and became coadjutor bishop (like a vice-bishop) of Hippo Regius in 395, and full bishop within five years of that, until his death in 430, leaving behind one of the most comprehensive bodies of work on Christian and philosophical thought.

A saint with a long reach

Augustine was canonised (by popular acclaim, as, at the time, papal canonisation did not yet exist), and recognised as one of the original four ‘Doctors’ of the church, essentially a very influential thinker, in 1298, and then became the patron saint of brewers, printers and theologians, and is considered one of the few most influential individuals in Christian thought, second perhaps only to Saint Paul, ‘the apostle’ (who, incidentally, was not one of the ‘original’ 12 apostles).

Besides rationally tackling a wide range of theological questions, Augustine also argued strongly against slavery, as, he stated, man should not have ‘dominion’ over man, but only over beasts.

He also recognised the dangers of only having some education, the most difficult student being the one with an inferior education who believes he understands something when he does not.

Augustine’s work has influenced modern day thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and Ludwig Wittgenstein, with the previous pope, Benedict XVI, stating that Augustine was one of the most important influences on his own thinking, calling Augustine a “traveling companion in my life and ministry“.
Remarkable, in that the real tangible writings of someone who lived 1600 years ago influence great minds of our own age.

To be on the road, is to be at home

Augustine was a prolific writer, and dealt with a broad range of subjects, many, but not all of religious nature. Perhaps due to his origins at the periphery of the empire, his ethnic heritage, his pagan connection, and his close presence to the center of power, he combined his reasoning into a framework that allowed him to question, interrogate, himself, his surroundings, as well as his faith.
And, he thrived through the acceptance of the journey as an integral part of his existence.

The Egyptian-Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, who after his death in 1933 became recognised as among the most important figures in Greek as well as Western poetry, describes in his superb poem Ithaca the journey of Odysseus to his home island. Beautifully, Cavafy describes how the joy is in the journey; “Hope that your journey is a long one”.
Augustine was of similar mind. Stating that “In via, in patria”, which is often translated as “The homeland is the journey”, though I prefer a more colloquial “To be on the road, is to be at home”. The necessity of travel, and the fact that agency for this resides with the individual, not with happenstance, Augustine explained with “God provides the wind, Man must raise the sail.”.

Similarly, attributed to Augustine is the phrase “Solvitur ambulando”, meaning “It is solved by walking”. A fitting statement for a lover of the journey, even though this statement is ‘merely’ an attribution. And, to underscore the possibility of this particular attribution being apocryphal, Diogenes of Sinope, who predated Augustine by some 800 years(!), is said to have replied to Zeno’s paradoxes on the unreality of motion, by standing up and walking away. Not exactly solving something by walking, but definitely ignoring the problem at hand by walking away. But, whether the statement originated with Augustine or not, Augustine recognised and acknowledged the joy, and importance, of travel, and how walking, as an act of and in itself, can drive towards resolution.

Reinforcing the necessity of movement, with travel as a natural state, Augustine also stated that “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”. He brought the point home, emphasising that movement is pointless without self-discovery, with the following piece:

People travel to wonder
at the height of the mountains,
at the huge waves of the seas,
at the long course of the rivers,
at the vast compass of the ocean,
at the circular motion of the stars,
and yet they pass by themselves
without wondering.

More recently, as with Augustine’s more philosophical work in respect to modern thinkers, his vision of walking as methodology has found resonance with modern authors and travel writers. Lewis Carroll brings up the phrase Solvitur ambulando in one of his books; it appears in Gödel, Escher, Bach ;in work by Henry David Thoreau, Bruce Chatwin, and Paul Theroux.

As an aside, “Solvitur ambulando” also was the motto of the British Royal Air Forces Escaping Society, a charitable organization, formed to support those who put their lives at risk to assist and save members of the Royal Air Forces who were attempting to escape capture behind enemy lines during World War II. They, the members of the RAF trying to escape, very literally tried to solve their problem, of not being captured, by walking.

Therefore, walking artists, in their newly emerging field, find themselves in good company. Walking artists know that the joy is in the journey, that being on the road is being at home, and that problems are solved by walking.
In that sense, Augustine of Hippo very much is the spiritual predecessor to today’s walking artists, as well as the natural figurehead of walkers, the world over.

Augustine was said to have an inquisitive mind, evidenced by his success in reasoning and rhetorics, and his long-lasting philosophical influence on matters of the Christian church and beyond.
As a bishop, Augustine traveled to, and attended, church councils in the North African region of the Roman Empire some 40 to 50 times. From Hippo, he made the nine-day journey to Carthage, home of the metropolitan catholic see, meeting other bishops of the region, some thirty times.

Perhaps surprisingly, athletes have two patron saints; a Saint Christopher, more likely ‘only’ a legend, but who also is the patron saint of travellers; Saint Sebastian, also patron saint of soldiers, of whom also no contemporary accounts exist.

Walkers, as yet, do not have a patron saint.

Augustine of Hippo is a towering historical figure, of whom a large body of work survives, who has influenced the Christian church more than almost anyone, and realised the importance of the journey as a process for development and understanding of the self, and found travel an essential component of his ability to do the work he had mastered over the course of a lifetime.

It is time walkers recognise their patron saint. That patron saint is Augustine of Hippo.

The top 10 places to visit in Brazil

 

Reading the news, I noticed a headline urging you to not read yet another top 10 list, but to write your own. The article was really about creating your own list of top songs for the year, but why stop there?

So, here’s my list of top 10 places to visit in Brazil. Just in time for the next decade. With having lived just over half the current one in Brazil, I’m not in the worst position to share my experience.
In case it needs to be said, I’m only including places I’ve actually visited.

10. Paraty

I'm going in

Brazil has an ambiguous connection to its colonial past. Late in abolishing slavery, but unilaterally declaring independence early on, on December 7, 1822, Rio, at that time, had already been the capital of Portugal for some 15 years, after the royal family fled from Portugal to Brazil, with Napoleon invading the home country.

Lots of valuable resources had been flowing out of Brazil for centuries, major wealth produced by gold, coffee, sugar cane and rubber, much of it produced through the exploitation of slaves, Rio also being the largest slave port in the Americas.

Gold was mined in the interior, mostly in what is now the state of Minas Gerais, and then transported to the coast, predominantly to Paraty. After the veins of gold dried up, Paraty lost its importance and development stalled. Hence, while Paraty benefited significantly from the wealth flowing through it, it also almost has been caught in a time warp, becoming what is now a lovely, reasonably well maintained, colonial town.

There are plenty alternatives to Paraty around Brazil, In Minas Gerais, Ouro Preto is one example. In the north, Olinda just north of Recife is awash in (Dutch) colonial history, but there are many more, including, of course, Rio de Janeiro.

9. Gay Pride in Sao Paulo

Couple

Not quite unlike Carnaval, Sao Paulo’s Gay Pride is the largest in the world, clocking in between 3 and 5 million in attendance, coming from humble beginnings, when in 1997 a mere 2000 attended.

It’s probably the biggest single street party you could ever attend.

8. Sugerloaf mountain

Suger loaf mountain

What’s a sugarloaf, really? Well, it was a cone of refined sugar, and the typical form in which sugar was sold until the late 19th century, where individual sections were cut off, using a particular type of scissors.
The mountain in Rio, rising up just under 400 meter from the water level, obviously resembles a sugarloaf.

The Dutch and British colonial powers prevented their colonies from locally refining sugar, making the unfinished product part of the triangular slave trade while enforcing dependency of the colonies on the home countries, though Brazil and Portugal, less so managing their own slave trade, were not as restrictive.

In Rio, Sugerloaf mountain is really two mountains; a smaller first one and a larger second one. Both provide stunning views of the city and Guanabara Bay, the bay which was first encountered by Portuguese explorers on January 1, 1502. The general consensus is that these guys mistook the bay for a river, hence calling it Rio de Janeiro (‘rio’ being the Portuguese for ‘river’), but, some historians argue that the bay was actually first called ‘Ria de Janeiro’, translating to “January’s lagoon”, with the confusion setting in later.

The first of the two mountains can be reached by a footpath, though that’s regularly sealed off, due to the danger of muggings. The second, main, mountain, can only be reached by cable car.

7. Brasilia

Parliament

Brazil has moved capitals a number of times, eventually settling on Brasilia, built in the empty interior of the country from 1956 onwards, and becoming the capital in 1960, robbing Rio just short of its 200th anniversary as the nation’s capital.

The name most associated with the design of the city is Oscar Niemeyer, easily the most important Brazilian architect to have lived (and for a long time, the man died in 2012, just short of his 105th birthday), and a key figure in the development of modern architecture.
Niemeyer’s signature style was the use of curved concrete structures, which he pioneered the use of, constructing futuristic, or retro-futuristic, objects that still fascinate today.

Niemeyer’s architecture can be found around the country. Sao Paulo has the Memorial de America Latina, to name but one, but Brasilia is like a huge open air museum, built in a grid-plan to resemble a bird or a plane.

But, Niemeyer, Burle Marx, Lucio Costa, and Joaquim Cardozo didn’t get everything right; the city was built when cars were replacing other forms of transport, and the city was not designed for walking and is inconvenient to navigate with public transport.

6. Foz de Iguacu

Iguazu Falls

Shared between Brazil and Argentina, and within a (long) stone’s throw from Paraguay, these falls are stunning. It’s a bit of a trek to get to the tri-border area, but you should visit both sides.

Until 1860, the area was disputed between Brazil and Paraguay. But, when Paraguay lost the Paraguayan War, in which that country, according to some estimates, lost the majority of its population(!) the area came under Brazilian control. It took another few decades, notably until the Brazilian pioneering pilot Santos-Dumont visited in 1916, after which the Iguaçu national park, home of the falls, was created.

Somewhat strangely, the area is also associated with muslim fundamentalism and religion in general, the town of Foz de Iguacu being home to a wide range of religious dominations.

5. Christ the Redeemer

Christ the Redeemer

You can not visit Brazil and not visit Rio. The city has just too much to offer. Sugarloaf perhaps provides stunning views, the platform around the Christ tops that.

The statue took nine years to build, from 1922 to 1931, at what seems to be a reasonable 250.000USD, or about 3.5 million in today’s money. At the opening, the statue’s floodlights were to be lit remotely, from, of all places, Rome, by shortwave radio. But, bad weather prevented this from happening and someone in Rio just ended up flipping the switch.

The typical route to get yourself to the top is by funicular, tram, but you can also drive up and save yourself some money, even if that means paying unreasonable amounts for parking.

4. Paranapiacaba

The bridge

This little town on the outskirts of Sao Paulo is where the Brits set up their headquarters for the railway lines they managed in and around Sao Paulo. The city was built like a panopticon, with the lead-engineer’s house, in the center of the town and raised on a hill, in the line of sight of all other houses in the settlement, allowing the lead-engineer to see everyone, and everyone never knowing if, at any time, the lead-engineer was keeping an eye on them.

To make the British engineers feel more at home, the train station sports a scaled model of London’s Big Ben and the town might have been the place where, for the very first time, soccer was played on Brazilian soil, though on a pitch slightly smaller than official rules required.

The town’s name is Tupi, an indigenous Indian language, for “The place from where you can see the sea”. The town is at the foot of a mountain range. If you climb the mountain range, you can indeed see the sea.
Hiking in the area, alone, is generally not advised, sadly. You can get a guide to follow you around, though.

A tourist train runs between the center of Sao Paulo and Paranapiacaba on weekends. You can also just take an urban railway line and then a bus. The town is trying hard to put itself on the tourist map, with, amongst many other things, a yearly witches and magicians festival.

3. Fordlandia

Still standing

In the middle of the Amazon, Henry Ford pictured the kind of utopian society he couldn’t quite establish back home in the US, even though there, too, he tried very hard. But, never having visited and never visiting, his ideals and plans didn’t quite gel with the local climate and culture, let alone the crashing prices of rubber, on which the creation of this company town was based.

Nearby (on a Brazilian scale), the Amazonian capital of Manaus was already suffering the consequences of the end of the rubber boom, and though there was a bit of an uptick during the Second World War, when rubber from East Asia was inaccessible to the allied forces, the discovery of artificial rubber around the same time, saw the price of rubber crash, and the fate of Fordlandia sealed.

More a sign of the times, Ford’s utopian vision was typical for many company towns established around the turn of the previous century, as well as the prevailing idea that society can be shaped in our image. The Amazon, even today, has plenty of company towns, mostly home to companies robbing the Amazon of its resources and completely sealed off to outsiders, but, all over Brazil, remnants of century-old idealism remains.

Just close to Sao Paulo, you can visit a settlement of immigrants from the American South, arriving after the civil war, a Dutch settlement and a former Finnish utopia.

2. The slow boat from Manaus to Belem

Enjoying the on-board showers

The size and scope of the Amazon river, region and basin defies comprehension. It’s possible to start your Amazonian journey all the way in Peru, though that will mean a rocky journey until Manaus, from where passenger services run multiple times each week, all the way to the coast at Belem. You can break the journey in Santarem, from where you can visit beaches resembling those in the Caribbean, in the town of Alter do Chao, as well as the dilapidated utopia that’s Fordlandia.

Taking the boat, you could book one of the few cabins, but the best experience is getting yourself a hammock, hanging it up on one of the decks, like everyone else, and just watching the world go by, for days.

1. Carnival at the Sambadromo

Tranced

Brazil is synonymous with carnival. You can celebrate anywhere in Brazil (as well as in many places outside of Brazil), and have a superb time. But… Rio does take the cake. Get yourself to one of the many blocos, street parties, in the run up to carnival, the kick off typically being the new year, and then get yourself a ticket for the official carnival parade in the Sambadromo, essentially a street, built like a stadium, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, specifically to observe the samba schools competing to provide the year’s best carnival parade.

For just under a full week, starting every day in the early evening and continuing until the morning light, samba schools take turns to show off their elaborate parades, convincing judges and the public that their narrative, music, costumes and floats are deserving of the year’s top spot.

When getting tickets, seats on the stands, from where you have a great view of the parades, are popular, but the better tickets are below, on the edge of the parade, where you’re so close to the participants that you can literally touch them.

What!? That’s it?! No beaches!?

Yeah, I’m not enough of a beach-lover to include beaches in this top ten, but there are some great beaches in Brazil. There’s a fantastic beach in Boa Vista, in the Amazon, as well as in Alter de Chao, the latter often positively compared to the white beaches of the Caribbean.

There are more lovely beaches on Brazil’s coast than you can shake a stick at. Close to Salvador, there’s Morro de Sao Paulo, there’s all the city beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the beaches off the Sao Paulo coast at Santos, Itanhaem and Peruibe, and many more.

Of UFOs and a flying monk

We spent Christmas in Peruibe, a good two hour drive from Sao Paulo, and on the coast.
Brazlians tend to stay home for Christmas Day, meaning that the town was pleasantly quiet on our first day and most of our second, when 1.2 million people left Sao Paulo to find relaxation elsewhere, many heading to the coast.

Many, if not most, of those leaving Sao Paulo head to the coastal town of Santos. On a quiet day, only an hour away, on a busy day, as you have to cross a mountain range separating Sao Paulo from the coast, with only a few access roads available, perhaps four hours away.

Peruibe is further south from Santos, but also accessible through a much quieter road which goes around the mountain range between Santos and Sao Paulo.
On the downside, Peruibe is pretty much only a coastal strip catering to visitors from the interior, whereas Santos also is the largest port in Brazil and a thriving city.

A few hundred years ago, Peruibe did make a promising start, in a way. The Portuguese very early on enslaved the local Indians, while a Portuguese priest fought against this enslavement. His church, now known as the ruins of Abarebebe, though originally the Church of Saint John the Baptist, can still be visited, though not too much remains.
The Indians called the priest Abarebebe, meaning the priest who flies, as he was often seen walking on the beach between Peruibe and the nearby settlement of Itanhaem, while, with his nearly two meters and his feet hidden by his habit, he appeared to be flying, or perhaps floating, across the sand.
The church is sometimes referred to as the first church built in Brazil, but this seems unlikely, as the Portuguese first settled in the northeast of the country, and even our local guide at the ruins questioned the likelihood of this.

Besides the towns vast beaches, Peruibe also has a more modern draw, as the area sees regular UFO sightings, promoted via shitty YouTube videos, and has a yearly UFO conference, though their website has been offline for long enough to no longer show up in search results. Our guide claimed that, as little as a few weeks ago, a bunch of large metal orbs were seen rushing across the skies.
Color me skeptical.

WSA 2020

Like last year, I’m one of the online jurors for this year’s World Summit Awards, in the Culture & Tourism category.

Two types of submissions stood out for their originality. The first is the offering of tours for which ‘sustainability’ is a core feature, typically through somehow accredited local service providers. The other is offering high-quality and hyper-local short tours of specific destinations.

The former is interesting as a general trend, though I’m not convinced of its ultimate sustainable success, as providing tours like this requires more effort and more cost, making them much less competitive in the market, even if there is a core group of tourists and travellers that could be interested in more environmentally and socially sustainable travel options.

The second is interesting due to my personal interests and history. Two years ago, when we won with The Museum of Yesterday, with which we pioneered the idea of mixing location-based gaming with history, journalism and tourism. In 2019, the WSA saw a few submissions somewhat similar to this, but now the quality of those offering similar services has increases and broadened. Though, still, the same problem persists, as replicability is very limited, because creating individual offerings need to be hand-crafted from start to finish.

No stress

Around the turn of this century, Iceland and Iceland Air started pushing stopover tourism; At no extra cost were you allowed to stay for several days in Iceland, when flying between Europe and North America. This has been a huge success. In 2000, the number of visitors roughly equalled the population, at around 300.000. In 2018, more than 2.3 million foreign tourists visited Iceland (source).

Now, Cabo Verde (Cape Verde wants to be called by its own name since 2013) is trying to do the same thing, promoting Cabo Verde as a cheap destination, as well as trying to benefit from stopovers between Europe, Brazil and a few destinations in Africa and the US.

But, though the fruit hangs pretty low, it’s not yet being picked; it appears not yet possible to purchase a flight from one of their off-island destinations to another, while actually including a stopover (of meaningful length). This is exactly what Iceland Air did and what would allow for reaping the resulting benefits.

Flights between Brazil and Europe, on Cabo Verde Airlines, are cheap, less then or about the same compared to the ‘regular’ airlines plying the route, but, at the moment, actually planning for a stopover means booking multiple tickets, which come with more taxes and ‘online booking fees’, cancelling out the financial advantage of taking Cabo Verde airlines between, say, Europe and Brazil.

In addition, though visa requirements have been lifted for most Europeans at the start of this year, it’s still required to ‘register’ upon entry, which costs an annoying 32 euros. Visas, which include registration, go for about 55 euros.

And, then, the Cabo Verde Airlines network is rather limited. In Brazil, destinations include Salvador, Recife and Porto Alegre, all requiring an additional flight, or long bus ride, from Rio or Sao Paulo. While in Europe, destinations are Paris, Milan, Rome and Lisbon, all just a tad too far from Northern Europe, if that’s your final destination.

Funnily enough, as Cabo Verde airlines at the moment only has two planes, they charter other airlines to fill in the gap. Both our flights to and from Cabo Verde were handled by… Iceland Air, while our internal flights were done by a Romanian company.

Earlier this year, Cabo Verde Airlines ran a special promotion; offering roundtrips from Brazil to Cabo Verde for under 250 euros. This did mean we had to get ourselves to Salvador first, but we decided it was worth it.

In Cabo Verde

Cabo Verde is ten islands. To get from one to the other, it’s possible to take ferries, but they don’t run often, particularly between the more distant islands, and their schedule is typically only announced a few days in advance. We decided to fly from Sal, where our plane from Brazil arrived, to Santiago, the island with the capital Praia, as well as the oldest European colonial settlement in the tropics, Cidade Velha, also Cabo Verde’s only World Heritage Site.

Sal is a popular tourist destination. The country gets about 550.000 tourists per year, roughly the same as the number of Cabo Verdians in Cabo Verde, and about half visit Sal. It’s beaches are pretty, but the island itself is a barren wasteland.

Praia, as the capital, has some culture to offer. We attended a little film festival, as well as a performance by a Guinean artist, who’s German partner had actually visited Casa Publica (the cultural center set up by Agencia Publica in Rio), meaning that when she realised who we were, it was a little feast of recognition.

Cabo Verde was uninhabited, when the Portuguese arrived in 1460. They didn’t displace a local population, but happily used the islands as a way-station for the (slave) trade between Africa and the Americas. Later, under Portuguese control, movement between Portugal’s colonies was not uncommon, and now, since independence, the country has looked more and more to the African mainland for its economic and cultural ties, with, for example, many of the market traders being Guinean or Senegalese.
That said, the country also very clearly still has a strong connection with its Portuguese past.

Portugal used part of the island of Santiago as a little penal colony during the middle part of the last century, incarcerating freedom fighters from several of their African colonies, under quite abysmal conditions. The former prison, now a museum, is like a slightly more modern version of Devil’s Island in French Guyana and hopes to become the country’s second World Heritage Site someday.

Us, we took it easy. Eating well, sleeping much, lounging on the beaches. In short, we stuck to the country’s mantra: No stress.

In memory of Gabo

Natalia is on the board of the Premio Gabo, Latin America’s most important award in journalism. Named after Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the award is held every year in early October, when they organise a festival in Medellin and award the continent’s best journalists. This year, I didn’t want to miss Natalia’s birthday, so I tagged along to bask in the shadow of greatness.

We were put up at the Intercontinental, where the clerk told us we had the room with the best view… overlooking the pool.

The festival is in the center of the city, at the Botanical Gardens, and free to all. But, our hotel is in a fancy part of town, up in the hills, surrounded by other fancy hotels, classy malls and few sidewalks. Not deterred, I walked to a nearby, huge, mall, to get to my gym, to find, inside the mall, a reasonably sized fun park. And, on the top floor, instead of some video games next to a cinema, a bunch of large playground areas, including an indoor surfing pool and one of those team sports where everyone fits themselves inside large blowup balls to run into each other.

Natalia, tasked with hosting two sessions at the festival, was at times the tok of the town. But, my basking did not go completely unnoticed as, somehow, students from some university publication decided it made sense to interview me on my thoughts on how to monetise mobile apps.

Climbing the rock

The Piedra Del Peñol or El Peñón de Guatapé, depending on which town is doing the claiming (and whether it’s a ‘rock’ or a ‘stone’), is a 200m high rock, a 90 minutes drive from Medellin, which, once climbed, provides superb views of the area.
The rock was only climbed for the first time in 1954, when three men climbed the rock in a five-day endeavour, using sticks that were fixed against the rock’s wall. Now, with concrete steps leading to the top, this process is a bit faster.

The rock is within the municipality of Guatapé, itself sometimes called ‘The most colourful town in Colombia’. However, those of nearby El Peñol tend to disagree, hence the confused naming of the rock.
On the western side of the outcrop, a large letter “G” and an unfinished “U” are drawn. At some point, the residents of Guatapé decided to settle the matter of who owns the rock, by painting the town’s name on the rock in large white letters. Hard to miss, the residents of El Peñol noticed the work, and a large mob was assembled to stop the propagation of the visual claim.

Colombian coffee country

The Colombian coffee region encompasses a bunch of villages and sites roughly around the towns of Pereira and Armenia, in the department of Quindio. The region’s most iconic feature, perhaps, is the jeep, introduced shortly after the Second World War, when the US needed to get rid of its inventory. Salesmen visited the towns in the region, with their jeeps, driving up and down the stairs of the local churches to show the vehicles’ versatility. With success.
In fact, the town of Armenia celebrates the yearly ‘Jeep festival’, which mostly resembles a carnival. On jeeps.

Colombia is the third largest coffee producer in the world, after Brazil and Vietnam. But mostly, Colombians only drink cheap sweet shots of coffee, tinto, on the street, served from thermos cans. Though Colombia’s version of the Marlboro Man, Juan Valdez, hanging out with his mule Conchita who carries the coffee, was created in 1958, the Juan Valdez chain of excellent coffee shots are lacking outside of the big cities. Though cheaper than Starbucks, their coffees are out of reasonable reach from the Colombian working man.

The town of Armenia is not the only surprising name in the area. Within a stone’s throw, there are Circasia, La Siria, La Albania and Palestina. There’s an El Arabe nearby, too.
Indeed, the names refer to places in the eastern Mediterranean that were under Ottoman control until the First World War. And, indeed, from roughly 1880 to the end of the First World War, a wave of Lebanese migrants from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine did arrive in Colombia. However, most of these, as well as subsequent waves of Middle Eastern migrants, mostly stayed on the Colombian northern coast, where an estimated 20% of the population have Arab ancestry.

Though most Colombians of Arab decent derive from Catholics and Maronites from Lebanon or Syria, just like the Lebanese migrants who ended up in West Africa, like in Sierra Leone, the Colombian coastal town of Maicao also has a sizeable Sunni community, one of the largest mosques on the continent, and, according to the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, ties with Hezbollah.

Besides the names of some of the settlements as faint memories to a continent and culture far away, there’s little that reminds of this particular connection with the old world. Except, when these faint links do show up, it’s the more surprising.
When I was watching the world go by on one of the squares in Pereira, a walking street seller offered what he called kumis. I don’t think it was fermented mare’s milk, more like sweetened churned milk, but also a clear connection to the greater Middle East.
And, a prominent chain of clothing stores goes by the name Tierra Santa, Holy Land, using a (shitty) photo of the Dome of the Rock as its logo.

It’s coffee that provides the economic motor of the region. Coffee tourism centres on the village of Salento, which I thought felt a bit like a tourist village in, say, northern Thailand or Laos, where every restaurant and tour operator touts the authentic experience, solely to foreign tourists. The jeeps, a typical mode of transport in The Philippines, add to this confusion.

The coffee tours are actually not really that interesting, but near to Salento, there’s also the stunning Cocora valley. Steep mountain sides, 60m tall palm trees and rolling clouds to obscure your views of the surrounding peaks and gorgeous countryside.

Armenia is the capital of the province (or rather, department), but nearby Pereira has the commercial edge. The city council is pushing the town for its tourist attractions, but it’s slim pickings; a statue of a nude Simon Bolivar is perhaps the highlight of a visit to Pereira, even though a fast bus network was recently introduced, based on the model of Curitiba (in Brazil), and a cable car, seemingly for entertainment purposes only, is under construction.

The city’s paper tour guide listed most municipal buildings, only very few of which are of architectural interest, and also listed a grand total of one restaurant. Which turned out to be, admittedly quite nice, basement bar with a low wooden ceiling selling ‘beer sausage’ as their only food, and the staff wearing neon-green shirts with the text “De habla mierda”. Which translates to something like “Talking shit”.
In need of some food, after a decent craft beer, I walked back a few blocks to have a soup at a more traditional restaurant on one of the city’s main drags. On a corner, I passed a man, on his hunches, who had ripped open one of the stacked trash bags, which were waiting to be collected.
He somehow had managed to divine that this one particular bag was stuffed with discarded fried rice, complete with bites of sausage and chicken. He was having his dinner, digging in with his hands.

Walks in Bogota

You don’t need an excuse to visit Bogota. It’s thriving, eclectic, energetic, with good food and at reasonable prices.

But, it so happened I had a reason to visit. My scope was in flux, but I was visiting to talk with the fine women of Radio Bestial and discuss how to use Dérive app in their work, as part of an arts festival at Espacio Odeon.
One of Radio Bestial’s planned walks passed by the “Emerald Center”, where, indeed emeralds are traded. On one of their scouting trips, they overheard paramilitary talking about the necessity of perhaps killing some competitors. So, yes, Bogota feels safe, but perhaps the nasty bits have been externalised.

As far as art went, little did I know that not only was Odeon throwing an extended party, that is, festival, a bunch of other, major, arts festivals were dotting the Bogota events calendar at the same time, meaning my being able to secure a lovely and cheap hotel in the center of town was a fluke, if pleasant.
This included an excellent event at a former hospital for up-and-coming artists where none of the art was to be sold for more than a million (of pesos).

Architecturally, Colombia in general, and Bogota in particular, has a lot to offer. Bogota is home to one of the earliest examples of South American Brutalism, and, in general, Colombian architects appear to be more experimental, and interesting, in their plans and implementations, making walks around the city a feast for those keen on looking up.

One fascinating construction is BD Bacatá, a crowdfunded skyscraper which also is the tallest in the country (though not for long), and a modern brutalist delight of glass, aluminium and concrete. 3800 Colombians pooled their money to start the building of the first Colombian skyscraper in 35 years, though construction ran into financial troubles and the building is still unfinished.

One of the building’s lower floor’s is home to a gym, Smart Fit, the same I frequent at home in Brazil. Recently, Smart Fit announced that their ‘plan black’, which allows me to visit every Smart Fit in Brazil (save for three very fancy ones), now applies to all Smart Fits in Latin America.

So, I went. 

Getting into a Smart Fit requires a turnstile to scan your fingerprint. If you visit a branch that’s not ‘your’ branch, you have to first enter your CPF (sort of like a social security number) into a machine, which then retrieves your biometric data such that you can also enter this other branch by having your fingerprint scanned.

Also in Colombia, this worked flawlessly. Except that this also meant that my biometric data was now seamlessly transmitted across international borders, with the only thing necessary being my CPF, which essentially is public information.

I’m quite sure I did not give explicit permission for my biometric data to travel across borders. And, does that mean that, say, the Mexican government can request my fingerprints from a Smart Fit in Mexico, if they only know my CPF, even if I have never been to Mexico?

Disturbing.

A short note on Empanadas

Colombian street food is awesome. The ‘stuffed potatoes’ are perhaps my favourite, but the empanadas are awesome too. But, the best, is possibly the sauces that come with the food. A self respecting food cart or hole in the wall might have up to a dozen different sauces to make your day.

Visiting Pablo Escobar

Perhaps its age, or perhaps it’s just been a few busy weeks, but I was looking at my three-week Colombia trip as almost a kind of burden. I was going to be involved in a presentation and workshop at a gallery in Bogota, I was going to see Natalia at work at the Festival Gabo, I was going to visit the coffee region of Colombia, and, if I could sneak it in, perhaps check out one or two other world heritage sites, too.
But I also had just released a website that matches books with locations, was in the middle of producing Sound Walk September, was working on a new social network (watch this space!), was on the verge of landing a new big client, while the same day I was set to return to Brazil, my mom was also set to arrive and stay for three weeks, shortly after which Natália and I are going to visit Cabo Verde by way of Salvador de Bahia.

So, yes, my agenda was a bit full, either way, though that didn’t convince me I’m not, actually, getting old.
Then again, first world problems.

I only had one day in Medellin, before I had to make my way to Bogota. My incoming flight actually stopped in Bogota, but I could not convince my airline to let me off in Bogota without having to forfeit the rest of my ticket; an argument for booking individual legs.

To minimise unnecessary travel in Medellin, I got myself a hotel close to where the airport shuttle drops people off, in the center of town, which, at night on a Sunday, feels a bit rough, though I also didn’t feel unsafe.
The streets were well lit and clean, there’s plenty of security about, lots of people, including families with kids, with clusters of street sellers selling a range of drinks and snacks, and one guy even working on reasonably impressive fluorescent paintings.
But, at least the Sunday I visited, poverty of those on the street was obvious. Men in wheelchairs selling individual candies, old women hawking coffee from thermos flasks, others just asking for little bits of money.

The city’s poverty is one of the reasons Pablo Escobar received so much popularity. He became obscenely rich from smuggling drugs, but, he also spent a lot of money on the people in his community, providing services which the state did not.
In 1993, after an extensive manhunt. The CIA killed Escobar in his hometown, Medellin. The hippos he was said to have kept, ended up roaming the countryside around the city, while Escobar himself was buried on the outskirts of town, in a large well kept family grave, where hawkers wait for the occasional visitors with water and ice cream.
Foreigners don’t seem to visit too much, but locals do. Some, it seems, with a sense of respect and awe. Fresh flowers adorn the headstone of Escobar, while a cleaner is ready to swipe away leaves and dirt from the tomb, holding 9 bodies.

Escobar’s house, which operated as a museum, was recently taken down by the city’s major, wanting to move away from drugs-related tourism. But, the shrine to the Virgin of the Mystic Rose still stands. The shrine would be visited by Escobar’s hitmen, asking for a successful outcome to their criminal activities, not seldom involving killing their opponents.
Obviously, often the men would be successful, and attribute their success to the virgin, which gave the virgin the reputation of granting both ‘light’ and ‘dark’ requests.
Devotees climb the stairs to the virgin on their knees, with all surfaces covered with little thank-you plaques from believers who saw their wishes granted. The recipients are perhaps wise enough to not disclose their requests, meaning I couldn’t discover a plaque from one of Escobar’s employee-murderers.

Back in town, at night, walking the street and snacking on a sausage with some bread, a family asked me if I could buy a snack for their two young boys. I obliged, buying them the same I was snacking on, at a mere 30 cents to the euro for two. The family thanked me individually, including the boys.

Age, after all

Both Bogota and Medellin airports are modern affairs, while the Espresso Brasilia bus (ironically connecting almost all countries on the continent, but not Brazil) from Medellin to Bogota had individual video screens for every seat, free earpieces, a choice of over 60 films, and a range of jukeboxes in different genres, including ’80s smash hits’ and ’90s rock anthems’. And a slideshow of cellphone pictures of bus-company staff doing bus-company things.
The long march of modern tech made me feel nostalgic. It probably was age after all.