OK — quick blog about how I got to where I am in the last couple days. Partly to show how incredibly lucky I am (hope I don´t curse that) and more to show how cool people are out in the world.
My boat to Africa was set to leave a port called Sao Francisco del Sur on the 31st. I had worked out all the details with the shipping company (lots of back and forth details, more later) over a period of weeks and they told me to call the local shipping agent a couple days before the boat left to figure out the time to meet the boat and agent at the port.
So I went to a little, little, little town in Uruguay called Cabo Polonio for about three days with some new friends I met. Pictures up when I get to South Africa. The place is not in the guidebooks. About 70-80 permanent residents. No electricity to speak of, except for the one store in town, a nicer hotel that I didn´t stay at, and the occasional generator. If you want seclusion and relaxation — this is the spot for you. Obviously, no internet. So no way for me to get email.
No problem. I left on the 27th. I was planning on a quick, but long, trip to the waterfalls on the Argentina/Brazil border, then over to the port and catch my boat. Bus from the little town (not the town, which there are no roads to, but the bus stop is literally people standing by the side of the road – where big sand dune trucks take you to and from the highway to the village), left around 4 or 5 p.m.
I was going to the border town between Uruguay and Brazil about 2 hours away, place called Chuy. Then hopefully catch an overnight bus to Porto Alegre in Brazil and then a 12 hour bus to the falls. Get there around the evening of the 28th. Hit the falls on the 29th. Bus to the port on the 30th. Easy.
Got to Chuy around 7:30 p.m. or so. There was a bus leaving for Porto Alegre at 11 p.m. Perfect. Stopped to check my email. Email from the shipping company. The ship I was taking was early to the port. Two days early, to be exact. It was arriving some time on the 29th. What mode of transport is ever early??
Had to obviously ditch my plans for the falls. Also realized that I had forgotten half of my electronic gear at the hostel in Cabo Polonio. And my jeans and more importantly, my belt. I´ve lost about 3 inches in my waist on this trip. My khakis barely, barely stay over my hip bone without a belt. Obviously no time to go back and get that stuff either.
Email Chance in Buenos Aires and ask him to sort out the stuff with the hostel owner. Figure out a way to get the stuff to him and have him ship it over to South Africa. As usual, he´s a rockstar and replies immediately and says he is on it. Check mark for that small issue.
Bigger issue — how the hell do I catch my boat?
I email the shipping company, but it is late Friday night in the U.K., where they are based. Try to email the local shipping agent from the info that I´d been given, but the email address was wrong. Damn.
OK, had a bus ticket to Brazil and from there an entire full day to get to the port. On the map and the guidebook, it looked possible. Finished up at the internet cafe, walked over to buy my bus ticket. It was about 10 p.m. Bus station was locked up, but some American standing there said he was on the 11 p.m. bus I wanted and the ticket agents would open at 10:30. I had read in the guidebook earlier that you needed to get your exit visa stamp from Uruguay about 3 kilometers south of town. I had already done that, so I was set. I went around the corner for a late sandwich to hold me over for the night.
I got back and bought my ticket at about 10:45. The ticket agent asked for my passport. I handed it over. She asked about my Brazil visa. I had gotten it a week earlier in Montevideo (blog later — first time I had to get a visa in advance of the border). I pointed out my exit stamp from Uruguay and my paid visa into Brazil. She motioned and I eventually got the point — I didn´t have an entry stamp into Brazil. But up to now, every time I had taken a bus over the border, the bus stopped, we all got out, and got stamped there. Apparently, not at this border crossing.
I needed to go into Brazil before I had my visa stamped, get it stamped there, and come back and then board the bus. She said she could not let me on the bus without the stamp. She also said that to get the stamp, I had to have a ticket into Brazil, so she sold me the bus ticket for the bus leaving in 10 minutes and pointed to the cabs out front.
I got into the cab, pointed to my passport, and said ´Brazil visa,´ímmigration,´and made stamping marks in it. I also through out a bunch of ´rapidos´to make sure he understood we had to haul ass. He got the point. I got in and we started off. About 5 minutes later we jetted right past what I assumed was the Brazil border stop. I frantically pointed at it as we went by, and for about 5 minutes after, and tried to get him to understand I had to get stamped and get back by 11 p.m. In Spanish/Portuguese and more with sign language, he got the point across — that station was closed and we had to go 20 more kilometers to get to the next one.
Well I´m fucked. And not remotely in the good way. Plus, I am now steaming.
I figure that the ticket agent knew I´d never get back for the 11 p.m. bus and she just made me buy a $25 dollar ticket for nothing. I was wondering if we´d make it back before the bus stop closed again. I recalled there might have been a bus leaving for Florinopolis (in Brazil, even further up the coast, towards my final destination) at 1:30 a.m., but I had asked another agent about that bus earlier and wasn´t sure it ran on this particular night. Could I catch any bus tonight? Could I trade in this ticket?
Damn it. I think I have been screwed by everyone. And when I asked the cabbie how much, when I got in the cab, he said 400 pesos — about $20 dollars. At the time, I figured ´what the hell´, get me my stamp and I won´t mind getting totally and completely ripped off. Now I was pissed about the bus ticket, the cab fare, and that I might miss my boat. Not necessarily in that order, of course.
The cabbie got me up to the town where the police/immigration station was open by about 11:15. I went in, got stamped and came back out to the cab. He then started driving off, but not the same way we came. About 2 minutes later, he pulls up to a bus station in the town in Brazil. He then tells me that the bus that left 20 minutes ago from Uruguay would be at this station in about 10 minutes. I could catch the bus here with my ticket and be on my merry way.
There are about 2 cabbies in 10 that I think are the greatest people in the world (and about 5 in 10 that should rot in hell). I think I must have told this dude ´mucho gracias´ about a dozen times. I handed him a 1,000 peso note for my 400 peso bill. He said he didn´t have change. I pulled out the smaller bills and coins I had and told him I only had 360 pesos. And he took it.
Great cabbie and one of the South American change moments. My trip to the boat was looking up.
So, the overnight bus got to Porto Alegre at about 6 a.m. I needed to get a bus about 10-12 hours up the coast to Sao Francisco that night (the 28th), so that if the boat was leaving early the next morning (the 29th, per the email), I would be there and ready to go. One of the frustrating things about buses in Central and South America are that there are usually about 6-10 bus companies and only some of them go to certain locations. And I was in Brazil. New language: Portuguese. Similar to Spanish, but I was beyond clueless.
I pulled out the email about where I needed to go and starting going down the bus ticket line. They kept pointing to other companies. I asked at about four of five of them and finally got to the one that I was fairly certain was right. I asked him about the bus to Sao Francisco and he pointed and said to go to the agent in the stand immediately next to him. I went there. That guy pointed back to the person I just came from. I went back and got pointed back to the other guy.
It was ´Who´s on First,´ but in language I didn´t speak. I saw a bus outside bording people – the sign in the front of the bus said ´Curitiba.´ That was reasonably close to where I needed to be, after consulting my map. I went back to one of the ticket guys that kept pointing me off next door, pointed at that bus, said ´Curitiba?´, got a nod, and bought a ticket. Curitiba was a big city, over a million.
I figured that I would get in at about 5 p.m. or so and be able to catch a bus to Sao Francisco that night. It looked like about 150 kilometers between the two. I also figured that I would get into Curitiba early enough to call the local shipping agent and confirm the time the boat was leaving. Maybe I wouldn´t have to rush down, if the boat was leaving late on the 29th.
The bus was supposed to take 11 hours by the guidebook. It took more like 14 hours. I got in around 8 p.m. I found the internet cafe at the bus station and checked my email, hoping for an email back from the shipping people in the U.K. that I´d emailed asking for follow-up. It was Saturday. No email. I used Skype to call the number I had for the shipping agent in Sao Francisco (after getting help navagating the menu, which was in Portuguese, by another helpful bystander).
The number I had wasn´t working. I went downstairs to check on buses to Sao Francisco. No buses that night. The first one left at 6:30 a.m. and got in around 9 a.m. or so. Rent a car? Hitchhike?
I went back up to the internet cafe and re-read the email. The boat was ´now due to arrive on the 29th.´ There had to be some amount of time to load and unload, right? I also checked the boat schedule again, after this port, they had two more stops in Brazil. If I missed it the next day, I was absolutely sure I could catch it in Rio de Janeiro before it was to leave there three days from then. Totally and completely sure.
I decided to trust to fate, buy the bus ticket for the next day, get a few hours sleep (I hadn´t slept more than about four hours total in the last two days) and see what happened.
Got up, took the bus, got into Sao Francisco around 9 a.m. or so. Took a cab to the port. The guy at the enterance to the port didn´t speak English, but I showed him the email with the name of my boat. He seemed to say that the boat was there and let me in, pointed down past some of the huge stacks of cargo containers waiting to be put on freighters and said ´go up there a ways and look to the left.´ I assumed. I walked down there on a complete travel high — I´d navigated the shoals and made my boat. Cool.
Two freighters getting loaded. My ship, the MOL Wish, was not one of them. Hmmmmmm. Now I figured I had missed it. One of the guys loading one of the two freighters spoke English. I showed him the email, he immediately nodded and said that the MOL Wish wasn´t due in port until 4 p.m. Golden. I had made it. I asked him where the local shipping agent was in town and he gave me directions that I didn´t understand, but it was a fairly small town and I had hours to find him. No worries.
I walked back towards town, looking for an internet spot to check email from the shipping agent in the U.K. (hopefully) and also to verify the address of the local person I was supposed to contact. Its a Sunday, which means that about everything is closed. I asked a guy on the street about an internet cafe and he pointed off down one street and said there was one down there. I walked in the direction I thought he indicated for a couple hundred yards, as he was stopped at a train crossing to let a train pass by. I saw him back up from the crossing and come towards me. He honked, pulled over, and told me I was going the wrong way. He told me to hop in — I did, and he drove me to the internet cafe.
When I got there, I still had plenty of time before the boat arrived. Since it was a Sunday, I assumed the shipping agent probably wouldn´t get to his office until a couple hours before the ship arrived, so I checked email and killed a half hour reading the news. Then I got up and asked the owner of the internet store, Mohammad, who spoke very good English, if he knew where the shipping agent´s office was.
He said the office was close by, but it was closed because it was Sunday. He asked why I was asking about it and I told him I was catching a ship that afternoon. He got the ship´s information and the name of the agent´s company and said he knew the agent, Fabio, but he didn´t have his cell number. He told me to hold on, while he tried to track it down. He then made a couple calls, got the cell number for Fabio, called him for me and put me on the phone with him.
Fabio just came by Mohammad´s place about an hour ago to pick up my passport to take it to Brazil immigration. I´m sitting here waiting for him to come back and trying to figure out how much I should tip Mohammad on top of my internet bill (he waved me away earlier and told me I didn´t owe him anything).
There are plenty of times I love being on the road. And the people are usually at the top of the list of reasons why. It has been a really good, though long and tiring, two days to get here.
Can´t wait to see my ship in another hour or so. And get some sleep.