All posts by Miki Lentin

Travelling, building, family...

Miles and miles and miles and miles and miles. Away from home again.

It’s 6.45pm and the sun is about to set on the small sand island of Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. The sun is blazing a bright shimmer across the water towards the beach, still powerfully hot and bright, reminding us all of its strength even at this time of day. Tourists – Mexicans and Americans mostly – are gathered, iPhones at the ready, to capture the ball of fire as it falls rapidly from the horizon, sending twirls of pinks, purples and reds across the sky. Beer in hand, I’m also watching.

I’ve been thinking about this ‘final’ blog for some time and this seems as good a time as any to write it. With only a 8,000 kms flight back to London (not including a short hop to Dublin), that’s it for my third round the world trip. I caught the travelling bug as a naive and ponytailed 17 year old, took off again in 2002-3 (mostly to watch the World Cup in Japan and Korea) and again this time with my brilliant wife, Miriam and my brave, funny and awesome young girls, Arielle and Eden.

I sometimes sit back and think, did we achieve what we wanted to from this trip? Well, yes, I think we did. We wanted to show the girls that there’s a big wide world out there – check. We wanted them to understand that the world is not scary but exciting and inspiring and that there is life outside London – I think check. We wanted to spend more time together as a family, to learn and teach each other – yes, check. And, we wanted to share in an experience of a lifetime and gave the girls lots of memories – definitely check.

So after 56,000 miles, 33 flights, 50 taxi rides, 2 campervans, 14 boats and 18 coach journeys we head home. On the way through 11 countries and 4 stop-over countries, we’ve stayed in 42 hotels, 3 rainforest lodges, 3 eco lodges, 1 hotel car park, 1 school, 27 campsites, 2 restaurant car parks, 1 town square, my sister and relatives and countless other hostels, farms, and others. We’ve had many bizarre illnesses, strange allergic reactions and a good few fevers and tummy bugs. We’ve lost money (still don’t know what happened to that cash in Chile), missed and booked the wrong flights (twice, cost a lot of money!), run out of petrol and been stuck in the sand twice!

We tried to learn two languages – Spanish for us all (went ok-ish but should be a lot better after nine months in Spanish speaking countries!) and I’ve been trying to teach the kids Hebrew (going better than Spanish!), we’ve learnt a lot of coding, finished the school curriculum, surfed, snorkelled and swam so much! As Eden says #notgoingbacktoourlocalpoolagain!

We have also met the most brilliant people along the way. Long lost relatives, who the kids have really taken to and I’m happy that they’ve now met so many relatives from my side of the family. Other families doing the same as us, traveling different routes, taking their time, but all with the same shared objectives. And, families who have settled away from home, searching for a different, quieter and more open lifestyle.  And like these folk, it’s not always been easy and certain moments have been very stressful and difficult but having to deal with that, I suppose, is part of the experience.

And while the world seems a lot smaller than in 1992 – anyone under 30 heard of reverse charging an international call? – it still amazes me that you can stay in touch with friends, family and news of home on a handheld screen. But, honestly, it has also been very liberating to leave all that behind for a while and just have the time to wonder, to think, to be still either alone or together, to wake up early and see the sunrise or walk in the warm evening air. That is what I’ll miss the most.

Thanks for following our trip.

Until next time.

PS – title is from The Edge of The Deep Green Sea by The Cure

Coffee in Oaxaca

There is something beautiful about waking up early, going for a run and getting a quick coffee before everyone else really wakes up. It is a time when you feel the warm sunshine air and see the shadows slowly lift on the old colonial single-storey buildings as the town starts to wake up. The buses thunder down the empty streets but the noise doesn’t seem to effect the overall sense of tranquility that shrouds this neat, narrow and old city.

Despite the obvious influx of tourism, expats and gringos learning English in one of Mexico’s most likeable cities, there is an air of tradition that lingers. You’ll find a church every few corners and small street food stalls selling tortillas, quesadillas, flutes with mole and other local specialties and good coffee and hot chocolate wafting from the plethora of local cafes and chocolate stores. The smells take you to local markets where old men and women crouch over huge pots of stews, grass hoppers and fruit juices making it difficult to decide what to eat, sometimes overwhelmed by the choice on offer.

That time in the morning is precious. Getting up and seeing the empty streets is one of my favourite times of the day. The warm air is kinder then before the heat of the midday sun and the light rains and mosquitos emerge with the evening grey clouds and the first mezcal of the day has yet to be poured. The rubbish has been collected and the shops are still closed so the crazy hustle and bustle that takes over the shopping streets has yet to start.

Like may of these cities, Puebla included, these is a strong student vibe here. Posters with revolutionary slogans adorn the walls of old buildings, declaring ‘no passivity, no oppression’ and communist symbols are stencilled in black graffiti ink across the town. And meanwhile there is a strong culture of art, as in much of central and South American – huge murals depicting futuristic events or traditional Mexican skulls cover many buildings.

And yet Oaxaca seems miles away from much of the rest of Mexico which is in parts a troubled society. Apart from the horrendous killings that happen on a daily basis in the so-called ‘war on drugs’, there is huge inequality here as in much of the country. That is why we decided to volunteer for a small charity called ‘Oaxaca Street Children Grassroots’ that supports and educates kids who are from deprived backgrounds. Many live with single mothers or parents who work on the streets or as farm labourers, too poor to buy their kids what they need for school and too poor to take their kids to school as they need them to work . In all honesty, what can you do in a week with these kids, apart from help them with some English and maths and have some fun with them? But every little does help and the centre helps over 600 kids a year from 6 upwards and some stay until university age, so they need volunteers. And as we’ve done a few times on this trip we wanted to show our kids that not everyone comes from good middle-class backgrounds and can afford school books and lunch.

We are fast approaching the last month of our odyssey. One thing I’ll miss is being able to amble through these historical, yet young towns like Oaxaca that is filled with students and backpackers mingling gently with locals in the warm evening air which cascades down from the mountains into the zocalo and plaza Santa Domingo, heating the stone paving stones and seats as the sun falls slowly under the horizon.

Last stop (big boo!) RV-ing to the Yucatan.

 

 

Better in Baja, long-lost cousins, life-long friends

It’s a tad nerve-wracking going to stay with a long-lost cousin and family, who you haven’t seen for nearly 20 years, in a desert, over an hour from the nearest big town and with no idea if you’ll get along. Added to that our main memories of each other was spending summers together at our grandmother’s apartment in Haifa, Israel when we were younger and constantly arguing, about nothing of course, but these are the things you remember from your teenage years. So, yes I was nervous.

Well all I can say is that it’s bloody brilliant that I have family from both sides scattered in far-flung places, from an uncle in Ecuador to sister, brother in law, niece and cousins in Australia, Mexico, Canada and more. Carmel, Pablo and the beautiful Lucas and Lola live in tranquility, in the rugged, dusty and mesmerising Cabo Pulmo national park that is on the southern tip of Baja California. The protected reserve is where you can snorkel with sea-lions, dive with sharks, dune buggy across enormous sand dunes and walk for miles across pristine beaches and still find more things to do. Yes, the heat is unrelenting and we are told that the hurricanes come thick and fast in late summer, but if you want to sleep under thousands of stars, watch out for snakes, road runners and jack rabbits then this is the place for you.

But back to family affairs. I’ve always admired, ok been jealous of people I know who have taken interesting and unique turns in their lives. I’m not saying we haven’t but it is fascinating to meet people you know who’ve done it and succeeded. Carmel and family live as far away from normality as is possible down there. Electricity comes from the sun, water is brought in once a month, they don’t have an address so can’t get mail and the local school has nine kids – yes nine kids! But it’s not just the location, it’s the way of life. Daily beach trips, fishing, surfing and snorkelling are just how they live and while I know not every day is ideal and there are hardships, I admire their tenacity and openness to living as they want to.

And luckily we all got on – really well. Eden found a new life-long friend in Lola (obviously separated at birth), Arielle and Lucas are bizarrely the same person and well cousins and spouses just got on, like long-lost friends. And we didn’t argue once! I needn’t have worried.

Next stop Copper Canyon, Puebla and Oaxaca.

Nine month itch…

It’s that time, nine months. In fact it’s now more than nine months and counting, down. Each day seems like it’s getting closer to the end and our minds have slowly but surely started to think more and more about home, what it will bring, what will have changed (if anything) and how we and the kids will adapt. Yes the itch is on and it’s getting itchier.

Quite a few blogs that we follow of other families that have had similar experiences express the same angst. Never quite really believing that they’d get to this moment and also not quite finished yet, they inevitably start to think about what’s next and many write about what life is like when they return home. Some return euphoric, others less so. So, what is next? I ask myself that question pretty much every day and have yet to come up with an answer that really appeals, apart from the fact that I could keep going and going.

Life on the road is certainly interesting and never dull. I’d be lying if I said that every day is splendid – it’s not. Like home life, there are great and not so great days. But at least we are experiencing new things most days and that continues to excite me.

Meanwhile, Eden has expressed that she wants to be a scientist that studies animals, and spends time chasing insects and birds, and Arielle has got into made-up Dungeons and Dragons, a good way to pass the time. The beauty of this easy-going life is that we have the time to do all of this, the difficulty is thinking about how you maintain it in the pragmatic life and also how we use some of the values we’ve learned this year in the future.

I have greatly admired some trail-blazing families that we’ve met over the past nine months – people who I consider brave and inspirational. The father with two young girls whose wife died recently and promised her that he’d take his two adopted girls away on a round the world tour to learn new languages and see new sights. The family of organic farmers in Argentina who built something from nothing and made their lives in an empty plot of sub-tropical rainforest. And the US couple who established a gorgeous eco-lodge in Nicaragua who support the local community, grow all their own fruit and vegetables and are just great, knowledgeable folk. I’d go further than saying that they are free-spirits but more humane people who don’t take much and give a lot back, each in their own way. All values we can learn from.

Yes I realise that this all sounds very idealistic, but isn’t that what traveling is meant to do to you? Sometimes there isn’t often much room for failure or experiment but one thing I hope the children will remember is that it’s OK to fail, make mistakes and try things creatively or differently and if you don’t enjoy or like it, then that’s fine.

One thing I will miss are the fascinating conversations with people who we have met who have incredibly interesting and fulfilling lives. The botanist we met on a boat who was developing a book for Nicaraguan guides of the local flower and fauna or the Disc-golf player who introduced us to the game at the world’s highest course, again all interesting and unique in their own way.

So, we’re entering the final stretch.  The question ‘are we nearly there yet?’ springs to mind.  No, still a long way off … thankfully.

Two children’s stories

Hello

So, I’ve written a couple of children’s stories this year. They are both based on imaginary games I play with my daughters. Click the pdfs below and excuse typos and mistakes.

The first, called the ‘The Thousand Star Hotel’ is about a band that Arielle is in that is managed by a pushy publicist called Felicity.  It tells the story of the band, as Arielle decides to change its focus from a school band to one that has a bit more meaning.

The Thousand Star Hotel

The other one, called ‘The Amazing Adventures of Eden and Pee-Po’ is about a little bird that Eden discovers in the park and how she helps the injured bird.

The Amazing Adventures of Eden & Pee-Po PDF

Do feel free to read them to your kids, share them or give me feedback.  I’m a novice so more than happy to get criticism!

Enjoy

Miki

 

#Peru

I was pleasantly surprised by Peru. It’s a huge country, packed wth history, folklore and culture that, as I’m sure many guide books will tell you, surprises at every turn. From drinking chicken soup with rice and coffee for breakfast in a hill-top village en route to Manu rainforest to driving across endless bendy mountain country roads past historic villages where women still dress in their traditional clothes and hats, Peru is an invasion of the senses.

But beyond the endless schmatte (tatty souvenirs) shops there is a deeper Peru. For example, the amazing disparity between the relatively middle-class looking people in Cusco and the upper-classes of Lima with the poor who live in the rest of the country. The vast, steep hills of the Andes are littered with mud shacks usually occupied by a family who are farm workers, growing potatoes, coca leaves, maize or corn on incredibly hard to get to terraced farm land that is separated by dry stone walls. Cattle can be seen scurrying around the village streets, herded by women in beautifully decorated cholla hats or peaked bowler hats. It’s pretty much a scene from yesteryear.

As you drive around you also notice that in the poorer areas of the country especially, the focus seems to be less on brand advertising and more on political advertising. Everywhere politicians have their slogans and names stencilled onto the brick-work of buildings and houses. With the history of populist presidents in South America and especially so in Peru it seems that presidential candidates target the poor as potential voters.

Then there’s the folklore and traditions which are embedded in the country. The festivals, the clothing, the food and the drink – usually Chicha that is sold on the roadside outside houses depicted by poles with red plastic bags hanging at the end of them, warm round bread fresh out of the oven that tastes of anis and fennel and of course guinea pig, roasted and delivered to your table before being chopped for consumption.

There is also something really honest about Peruvian culture that I think we all admired. The continued adoration of all things Inca and their respect for Inca gods like Pachamama, the current swing away from Christianity to their Incan religious roots and their mysterious and slightly dark traditions such as shamanism.

Local Trekkers – Video Reports

And for the kids it’s a travelling playground. From feeding llamas on Machu Picchu, to looking after monkeys, sloths and toucans at Amazon Shelter animal rescue centre, and walking through dense rainforest searching for animals, insects and birds, Peru is one of those places that can really occupies a child’s mind.  We were lucky that the kids’ cousins and family came out to stay with us for two weeks, which they loved.  Having other people to talk to was a real luxury especially after so many months of just talking to ourselves.

And hey, who’d have thought that a bunch of north London Jews would bring their own matzah to the jungle and make Seder by candle-light, swim in rivers and cover themselves in mud as if they are in the Dead Sea and when they get back to civilisation gorge themselves on Guinea Pig…

Next stop Ecuador.

Sloths, monkeys, toucans and more…

I really didn’t know what to expect when we signed up to ‘volunteer’ at an animal rescue shelter in the Peruvian rainforest, around 45 minutes from the city of Puerto Maldonado, on the Tambopata river. I was especially concerned as wildlife and I definitely don’t usually go well together – let’s just say it’s a control freak thing – I’m fairly jumpy at the best of times and much more with wildlife.

Well. As you fly into Puerto (as the travellers call it, of course), you see the enormity of the rainforest. It’s just immense and this is only a small part of it. Coming down from Cusco and 3,500 metres you are hit by a wave of heat and humidity that we hadn’t experienced in a while. I was bitten by a mosquito within a few minutes of landing, spreading fresh blood on my hands, the cab was some kind of tiny Fiat cinquecento thing with the rucksacks literally hanging off the back and there was no a/c. Mmmmmm….

And so we travelled down yet another dirt track, the asphalt ended a few hundred metres from the airport, towards Amazon Shelter. Miriam had read about it online and most people gave it great reviews on TripAdvisor, using phrases like, ‘not for the squeamish’, ‘if you like getting muddy and hot’, ‘don’t worry about the mosquitos’ – I was yet to be convinced. We arrived at the shelter and had to wade through the mud, the cab couldn’t get in the driveway, and were greeted by one of the vets and were invited to lunch. And all of a sudden, we felt at home. Food was simple, rice every day with lots of Peruvian combinations, but hey it was always freshly made, and you could eat as many bananas with dulce de leche as you wanted, so the kids were happy.

That night, we slept under a mosquito net listening to the rain thunder down onto our straw roof. I woke up intermittently in the pitch black, completely disoriented wondering where on earth I was and all I could think about was the river flooding and how on earth would we get out of here if the road became impassable. But soon enough we woke to the sounds of red howler monkeys, parrots and toucans, not a bad start to the day.

The rain eased up the next morning and we got a tour of this wonderful facility. Set up 11 years ago by the inspirational (I don’t use this phrase lightly), warm-hearted and obviously deeply committed Magali, Amazon Shelter rescues animals who’ve been trafficked, abused or kept badly as pets and looks after them, treats their illnesses and eventually if they are able, sends them back into the wild. She relies on donations and volunteers to run this facility on a shoe-string, which is hard work, but it’s her life’s work and it has to be admired.

Over the next few days we were introduced to the sweet woolly monkeys especially Cesar, the baby sloth Agi (who I think everyone fell in love with), Ramon (the cheeky capuchin), countless red howlers – some aggressive, some not, turtles, toucans, deer and a man-eating pig. Twice a day we and the other volunteers helped prepare the food and water for the animals and cleaned their cages which meant that you could enter allowing you to experience them very closely. The rest of the time we helped with general tasks such as painting, cleaning store houses, macheteing fallen trees, picking leaves for the monkeys and building fences all of which the kids helped with also, even though they could usually be found feeding and playing with the baby sloth.

Half-way through the week we embarked on building a cage for some monkeys which have to be re-housed. When I say build I mean, manually digging holes in the ground for posts and nailing the cage together. I bought them a drill which they didn’t have as after a while even Rolando, who seemed to be able to do everything, was finding it hard to get the nails through the damp wood – it was a very welcome gift! It took us three days to build the structure, working often in the rain whilst being bitten alive (I think we used 4 bottles of repellent in 9 nine days), we put up the netting and also created a table for the monkeys to eat from (which I’m especially proud of!). The kids painted a sign which we put up on our last day. It was great to feel really useful.

As well as the four of us we were also joined by an Australian couple who not only were incredibly knowledgeable about construction but also entertained us all with their amazing circus skills in the evenings as we sat around usually exhausted after a long day in the heat. I’m not sure how Magali manages when volunteers leave and when the volunteer vets return home. The place has a real community feel about it and when we said our goodbyes to those who were left, it was fairly tearful.

Now back in the cold of Cusco, I actually miss the heat and humidity, the mud, smelly socks, cold showers and insect bites. It becomes a right of passage and if you are being useful it actually starts to pale into insignificance as you get used to it. I now have a new respect for these beautiful animals that are often treated so badly even though I still flinch a bit when a monkey jumps onto my shoulder.

Next stop Machu Picchu.

The mighty Apurimac

The road from Cusco to Lima is a long one. Albeit we only drove a hundred kilometres of it but one can envisage the road continuing to twist and wind in a hell-bent fashion around the mighty Apurimac river and foothills of the Andes as it descends from Cusco (at 3,500 metres) to Lima at sea level. Long after the Incas were swept away by the violent and greedy Spanish conquistadors what remains is a beautiful mass of land that stretches right up to the sky and deep down into the depths of the earth itself.

I’m reading the beautiful Bridge of San Luis Rey to Arielle right now, a book that was bought for me when I first travelled the world in 1993 (yes 1993!). The book is a fictional account of a bridge over the Apurimac Gorge somewhere on the road between Lima and Cusco that collapsed killing five people sometime in the early 1700s. Thornton Wilder’s story, written in 1924, tells the tale of the five interconnected people who die and the events that lead up to the collapse of the bridge. To be so close to the gorge where the bridge collapsed is pretty exciting.

For me it’s just a small part of the history of this immense land that is shrouded in mystery and folklore. We are currently in a small town called Curahuasi, 100 kms north-west of Cusco and the world centre of anis or aniseed, so they tell us! Here the landscape is serene, quiet and mesmerising. We are staying in a B&B called Casa Lena which is also part of a pre-school for young kids from the local area (more on that later) but when we open our curtains in the morning, we are either greeted by mist that shrouds the mountains, the ‘eyebrows of the mountains’ as the Incas used to call it, or snowy peaks that pierce the crystal clear blue sky.

The other day we climbed to the Mirador San Cristobal at the top of the mountain that watches over this small town in the valley below. As you trek up the zigzag path catching your breath as you go, you begin to get a feel for the enormity of the landscape you are climbing and as the wind starts to bite and the sun scorches your back you appreciate the gorge below. Turning the last corner of the path you are faced with a sheer drop of 2,500 metres down to the mighty Apurimac below, all muddy and rushing along at a mighty current. It really is a stunning and frightening sight and no wonder locals continue to fix crosses at the mount wrapped in traditional cloth for good luck.

Back in town, traditions die hard. We were lucky enough to see a Yunza ceremony in the main square which is part of the traditional Carnival celebrations before the end of Lent. Other than a handful of other volunteers, we were the only non-locals there. The ceremony consists of a tree that is erected in the centre of the square decorated with presents and the obligatory cow’s head. Locals then dance around the tree and every few minutes a couple takes their turn to axe the tree down. The couple who make the final chop are tasked with arranging next year’s ceremony. Coupled with the endless Chicha drinking, traditional clothing (including many varieties of bowler and Cholla hats for the women) and the obligatory loud Peruvian music it makes for quite a spectacle.

And amongst all this a lovely little school called Oye Lena has been set up to support the education of local pre-school aged kids, many whom come from very poor backgrounds, as well as older kids with physical or mental disabilities. The school offers the kids a chance to learn and play, allowing them to experience decent facilities that they do not have in the local government school. It runs in the afternoon to prevent the kids having to work on the farms that patchwork the valley after their morning pre-school. When kids as young as 3 or 4 don’t turn up, it’s often because they have to work in the fields.

We decided some time ago that as well as travelling and enjoying the sights of these amazing countries, we should also try and give something back to the communities we were visiting. Oye Lena has been a good mix of being able to help with some of the lessons (even with our very bad Spanish), and teaching our kids the importance of being able to mix with kids who don’t speak their language and have learning difficulties, while also learning for ourselves how to do this kind of work.

They kind of throw you in at the deep end here which is admirable but I for one would have appreciated some more information on what we were being asked to do. I think volunteering whilst you travel is a great thing to do, but if you are reading this and are intrigued don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you can about what you will be doing and what will expected of you before you go as it’s better to be useful than not.

Meanwhile we while away the evenings avoiding the enormous moths that enjoy the light of our balcony and discussing Peruvian shamanism and the benefits of Ayahuasca with a Dutch couple who are cleansing the earth and galaxy one crystal at a time. It’s all part of the mystery, charm and history that this epic country offers up.

Next stop the Amazon.

The simple things

Before we left quite a few people asked, how do you know what to take with you on a year-long trip? My answer was always that we’d fill two rucksacks and a few day bags and hopefully we’d have enough things and we can always pick stuff up if we need to. Despite having to send a few boxes home with things we have accumulated, we haven’t actually needed more than we have. In fact it’s really easy to get used to living within your means with what you have. In all the time we’ve been away, I’ve never craved an item or thing that we didn’t take with us and I think the children are the same.

Part of living simply has also been visiting places that are just that, slightly less developed and simpler. Maybe that’s why I have preferred the smaller islands and towns of Brazil than the hectic cities that are a reminder of the modernity of modern life.

Lencois and Boipeba are two such places. Lencois was the centre of the diamond mining world in the 17th and 18th centuries when French, Spanish and Portuguese miners came to exploit the natural resources of this rich and beautiful part of the country along with the millions of slaves that served Brazil for over 400 years.

Surrounded by the plateau-shaped national park of Chapada Diamantina, Lencois is now a beautiful and quaint town that serves the now burgeoning tourist trade. But the speed of life here is slow. You can walk for half an hour and be surrounded by natural water holes, shaped by whirlpools in smooth conglomerate rock and natural water slides that speed you down into brown, tannin coloured water and return to the old streets of the town later that day.

And then there is the Bahia Coast of Brazil and the simple, easy-going island of Boipeba, just south of Salvador – the kind of place you read about but don’t really know what it’s like until you visit. No vehicles are allowed on Boipeba apart from tractors that take you via a pretty bumpy ride to the windswept beach of Morere where you can have a cheeky beer before snorkelling amongst small stripy tropical fish on a reef when the tide is out and walk along the mangrove trees to secluded beaches frequented by no-one apart from the odd tourist and drink seller.

But we were also lucky to be here during Carnival, Brazil’s massive party that celebrates the start of Lent. Unlike the famous carnivals of Rio and other big cities, things here are slightly more ‘traditional’ with open-air plays celebrating bulls and children dressed as cowboys to a parade of the local men dressed as women – not sure of the meaning of that one though!

Like other places we’ve been to such as Tigre in Argentina, where we didn’t see a car for well over a week, these places are kind of how I imagined much of our trip – places where you can really remove yourself from the day to day, where you have to make your own fun and where it’s not always easy to get around and buy things.

Sometimes it isn’t that easy and the kids are craving some other children to play with (looking forward to seeing their cousins in Peru soon…), but I can completely understand why foreigners are inspired to settle in places like these. We don’t have a lot with us but for me it’s the memories of things like walking through Chapada Diamantina as the sun set and snorkelling on the reef off Morere Beach that will remain imprinted on me, long after we return home…I hope.

Next stop Peru for a month.

Contradictions (initial thoughts after a couple of weeks…)

Beautiful Brazil. Samba Brazil. Football Brazil. Beaches Brazil. Food Brazil. Architecture Brazil. Yes the guide books sell Brazil the brand brilliantly. The richness of the rainforest mixed with the drummed tunes of Carnival with the sublime skills of football and the freshness of the juices makes for a heavenly mix that excites the mind in anticipation.

Violent Brazil. Middle-classes with maids and helpers Brazil. Derelict post-Olympic stadiums Brazil. Immense poverty Brazil. Corruption Brazil. Road blocks with police holding sub machine guns Brazil. No country is perfect of course, but Brazil seems to have a lot of issues that are quite simply extreme, and as the sixth largest country in the world it’s a country of a few contradictions.

The Museum of Tomorrow typifies this. It’s a beautifully constructed building, built by starchitect Santiago Calatrava in 2015 in an area of Rio near the docks that was regenerated for the Olympics. Gentrified I think is better than regenerated as the poor that lived there were shipped out – not sure where to. The building itself is stunning. It provides amazing vistas over the port where if you are lucky you can catch a glimpse of the old harbour and the bridges between the enormous cruise ships that are parked in the way.

The museum itself is meant to be about the threat of climate change. The content tries to explain how all living beings are linked through amorphous digital spaces and interactive surface screens and takes you eventually to a space where video screens literally scream at you about the impact that population growth and an increase in consumption is having on the planet. That’s fine, but there is nothing about the impact governments or corporations are having on the environment. Come on! The country that has nearly destroyed the Amazon, where damns are built killing indigenous people and where corruption of Presidential proportions links directly to massive oil companies like Petrobras. Oh, and the whole thing is sponsored by Shell.

This feeling of contradictions is also ‘slightly’ apparent at the beautiful Inhotim, an art park situated in the middle of the jungle, around 60 kms from not so Belo-Horizonte. For anyone who visits Brazil and if you are interested in art, I highly recommend a visit to this exceptional open-air museum that has some amazing contemporary art on display in stupendous surroundings.

One of the more haunting exhibitions was the photographs of Claudia Andujar who documented the Yanomami tribe from the 1970s to recently. The shots capture how these people live, from their rituals to how they dress and hunt. It also shows dramatically how they lost their land, habitats and culture because of massive transport development, the discovery of gold and the building of damns. It depicts how the photographer was asked to leave working with the tribes to avoid leaking news about what was really going on in the area and it shows how these people continue to suffer today. Yes Brazil is a diverse society, especially when you look at countries like Argentina, but there is huge and obvious gap between the rich and the poor, the white and the indigenous.

And then there’s Brasilia. A citadel to architecture and especially the glorious work of Oscar Niemeyer who for 50 years planned and designed this amazing city. I loved the way the 1960s design has endured the test of time, how some roads are linked seamlessly by other curved slip roads, how there are huge public spaces and how each building surprises you with its use of natural light and aspects like futuristic underground entrances and the white-suited security guards that look after Kubitschek’s Darth-Vader like black marble tomb.

However, despite being the seat of government Miriam noticed that the public spaces aren’t used at all. Huge swathes of parkland and road-scape lie between one architectural delight to the other but it’s just masses of road and grass and nothing else. Whether or not the planners thought of this when they were planning is debatable, but perhaps the planners and urban designers need to find a better way to use this space so there is more of a sense of community away from the shopping malls and bus station. I was however taken by the vision to build a new city in the rain forest, in the centre of the country as it’s centre of government – there are other countries that could learn from this. Just wonder how much it all cost…

Saying all that, Brazil is an intoxicating ride. From watching the poseurs on the beach being pampered by their girlfriends or mothers (you’re never sure), hand gliding off Pedra Bonita ramp onto Sau Conrado beach in Rio, dancing to drums in Salvador a week before Carnival to seeing incredible Brazilian samba jazz at a local bar near our pousada in the Bohemian Santa Teresa district of Rio, it is proving to be just as we imagined and perhaps more.

Next stop Salvador and some beach time.