Tuesday, May 31

Abstruse Goose Click for more info

Single people are told over and over again how there's someone for everyone, and based on the number of people in the world statistically it's very likely true. But as Abstruse today explains, there's no absolute proof yet, which means any one of us could be the counter-example.

So here's hoping SUSY is true... or at the very least I'm not the counter example!

Monday, May 30

Great Yarmouth

Although some would choose to accuse me of being a highly maintained traveller who wouldn't settle for anything less than an adventure across a continent, I do think I have more than enough evidence to show the contrary. The same people will also not believe me when I say how I don't actually need to travel, how I've had just as nice a time at home with the right conditions, and how I've actually been a passenger rather than lead on most of my recent trips abroad. I won't go as far as to say I've hated and wished I never went on them, but I do see holidays as a bonus on life rather than source of personal joy and so actually cringe each time I read the opposite sentiment on matrimonial profiles. And before I go on, no, this isn't me trying to be ghetto and roughing it as some kind of rite of passage. I meant it: when you consider any trip to be a bonus, you tend to enjoy them no matter what.

When "family" now means five adults and a clutch of kids, a family holiday becomes a little more difficult than it would be otherwise. Take this long weekend, for example, which consisted of staying in a caravan for three nights in Great Yarmouth, you know, that place all your non brown friends went to for the holidays instead of Pakistan or India. I have to admit that a part of me was looking forward to finally catching up with David and Jodie from Primary School, but aside from that the cliché of it all being about the company totally stood too - resulting in the feeling of same kind of excitement as I would when leaving for any other destination.

Overall it was exactly how you would imagine a seaside resort to be. With all due respect to my fellow travellers and guests (and I certainly mean this is a positive way), it was so trashy, cheesy and unsexy there was no choice but to embrace it all wholeheartedly. Although I assumed it had the basic facilities, the caravan we stayed in was quite impressive even though my bed doubled up as the sofa. The caravan park itself had a private beach, an entertainment complex (so a pool, tennis, stage) and lots for the kids to do and take part in. Butlins had finally become a reality for the Shaikh family.

Venturing out from the park took us to Great Yarmouth proper. This was just another beach done in a way only the British can: funfairs, piers, games arcades full of those penny shoving games my parents (and now a new generation, it appears) seem compelled to play. The only real weird thing about the place was how dead it was - the beaches and promenade were deserted even though it was a bank holiday weekend. We didn't manage to figure out why. Still, we some how managed to go to this beach three times over the the weekend, which must be some kind of record.

The rest of the weekend was filled with various sights and activities including Burgh Castle, Elizabethan House Museum and the excellent BeWILDwewood, which deserves a post of its own really. It probably goes without saying that this was a kids orientated holiday and we all seemed to have enjoyed it even though it meant having to get used to some insanely early starts. But hey, that's the price for staying with reasonably disciplined kids.

And that was it really - a quick trip away that really was more about the people, particularly the kids, than the place we were going to. Looking around it seemed the same for most people who were there. And of course it is with zero irony when I say they all seemed to have enjoyed themselves much more than they would have trekking across South America.

Sunday, May 29

BeWILDerwood Click for more info

In an age where nothing less than a Ben 10 cartoon will grab the attention of children it's quite refreshing to visit to a self titled "adventure park" getting them excited instead. That's not to say that BeWILDerwood (that's going to get so boring to write soon) didn't have its fair share of merchandise, because it did. But it was good clean fun too, and seemed to make that more of a priority than any kind of moneyspinning activity.

The main activity on offer were a bunch of kid-friendly tree-set mini obstacle courses - so slides, rope swings and bridges, monkey bars, zip slides and the like. Also available were arts and crafts, den building, live and interactive story telling and a group dance session - there was even a day long competition where spotting six differently coloured boots would win you a badge (not that anyone checked the answers at the end).

But the real genius of the place wasn't how accessible and fun it was for the kids, but how adults were encouraged to participate too. None of the courses were "too small" for grown ups (and were even scary enough for some), and all were encouraged to get involved with the other activities too; I even got my own badge. In short, we got just as much value bringing the kids to BeWILDerwood as they did being brought there and the place was well worth the tenner or so entry.

I would say BeWILDerwood is definitely a hidden gem and well worth seeking out if you ever happen to be in the area with children.

Monday, May 23

Breaking Desire

I never thought I'd ever write an opinion post that I could legitimately tag with both Islam and food, but here you go.

The fact is that the book I reviewed in a preceding post was specifically lent to me after I (somewhat flippantly) commented to a friend how once an individual is able to control their appetite of food and sex then anything is possible for them.

Although at that point this random insight (or rather coincidence) was merely my way of declining another slice of cake at the time, the value to an individual of the ability to resist these two desires is something that makes a lot of sense to me, and I was particularly interested in Al-Ghazali's second book Breaking the Two Desires because of how it almost felt like a vindication.

Not being a foodie in particular myself (as in I eat anything without any discrimination), I don't tend to be held by grub as many of my peers seem to be, but I do sometimes succumb and overeat (and feel the regret that comes with that); that said I do feel that it's something I am able to consciously control too - and I did find that the book did help improve that aspect of will power.

But although food and sex can be seen as the important desires to focus on (mainly due to how essential and lawful they are otherwise) it's quite clear that desire doesn't just end with these too. The truth is that most of the people reading (and writing) this post are spoiled rotted. We demand the right to achieve our desires and wants, be they in the form of food or travelling or careers or even our right to incessantly indulge ourselves on Twitter and Facebook.

There is even the somewhat ironic situation were we "over-practise" (an excellent term that I stole from elsewhere) and become addicted to Islamic camps and talks, and that's even before we consider the inevitable social updates that we feel obliged to publish while we're in them. Where's the critical thought? The deep absorption? Before we've even left one we're signing up for the next.

Most passion and fervour can be seen as worldy, but that's not where the problem lies. There doesn't appear to be any self-checking, no self-assessment and no self-regulation. It's more important to be free than measured and in control. Of course I'm not suggesting that we should stifle our interests or even our sources of enjoyment - and I guess that's where I differ from Al-Ghazali - but I do agree that at the very least we should step back and check ourselves from time to time be that in an explicit or implicit manner, and further that we shouldn't hide behind explicit lawfulness to disguise the fact that we are being led by desire.

On a deeper level this is really about considering the limited amount of time we have here, a point that the book stresses quite clearly. As much as it makes me sound like the our madarassah teachers, we appear to be distracting ourselves with the short term of this world instead of thinking of the everlasting in the next. Is the food we eat really relevant in the long term? It literally all goes down the pan anyway. What about the money, work or even the friends that we seem to hold so dear? And sure, I have my own battles to fight, be they my constant need to watch all the films and TV shows I want to, certain dodgy behaviour and even my obsession with getting married. There are very few things that we take with us, worship and the love we have for one another being two examples, so surely we should focus on those instead?

We should enjoy life but not end up relying or being addicted to it; after all we're all going to be forced to let go of it all at some point anyway.

Saturday, May 21

The Lee Valley White Water Centre Click for more info

As the preparations for the Olympics start to finish, it will always be interesting to find out exactly how us, as residents of London, get to leverage our side of the deal that we were signed up to. For me, that means checking out the facilities - The Lee Valley White Water Centre was the first specially built venue to become operational, and one of the first to be open to the public to boot. Although it will be used for the canoeing slalom in 2012, most of us mere mortals will choose to use the centre for white water rafting, and that's exactly what eight of us did this morning.

So first things first: the rafting itself. To be honest I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Yes it was fun and exciting and yes we got wet, but it wasn't very far off from the rapids ride at your favourite theme park, except in this case we had to wear fitted wetsuits (and no, there are no pictures). There is an element of increased involvement in that you have to paddle, but as with all team activities like this this only works if you're a team to begin with. I suddenly realised why Pakistani men don't dance - we don't have rhythm. That said I'm sure it would have been better in a group that knew each other.

The whole thing was quite short; we booked into the 9am session and were done before 11am. We chartered a whole boat, working out at £49 per head, and I found that quite pricey for what we eventually got. Still we got to spend fifty quid in the relatively decent cafe so it wasn't all bad. So yes, although I don't have any regrets going I did think that the morning lacked in the value for money stakes.

But still we did get to use some world class facilities, and it was quite an experience to use a venue that would be attracting the top most competitors throughout the world - the venue was actually shared today so we even had the pleasure of getting in the way of practising professionals. From the course itself to the changing facilities, everything oozed class and I was actually proud of what London had to offer the world.

Although expensive I do think it's something worth checking out, both for the fun of it and if you're interested in anything to to with the Olympics.

Friday, May 20

Book: Al-Ghazali on Disciplining the Soul and on Breaking the Two Desires: Books XXII and XXIII of the Revival of the Religious Sciences, T.J. Winter Click for more info

It's always a little tricky to review a translation of an original work, since you'd effectively be looking at the work of both the original author and the translator. That said, this compendium of books 12 and 13 of Al-Ghazali's The Revival of the Religious Sciences does come with an extremely useful, interesting and somewhat sizeable introduction by T.J. Winter, which does help attribute credit to him in his efforts here.

This is less an introduction and more a primer for what's to come. Winter gives an in depth background of when the book was written, including the context surrounding what was being debated at the time. He explains how a lot of the philosophy back then (and indeed what some consider to be purely Islamic now) actually had it's origin in that of the Greeks. And finally, he even goes on to critique some of Al-Ghazali's ideas; something I found quite refreshing considering he was going to throw himself into translating the work. I do think that some of the deeper coverage of the two books was a little redundant given that I was going to read it first hand anyway, but that's hardly a complaint.

Despite an academic translation of a scholarly work, the book was prose enough to be read end to end without too much friction. Yes, there was a lot of repetition, labouring of points and redundancy throughout, but nothing more than was to be expected.

I found Disciplining the Soul to be a little uninteresting to be honest. Al-Ghazali essentially focuses on will power and on how being good is both an observable and learnable behaviour, and to do or not do either is in our individual hands. All of it was pretty much common sense, much in the same way the modern equivalent of self-help books are, although I will say that any reminder to talk less and be explicitly nice to other is no waste of time.

Breaking The Two Desires on the other hand was much more interesting (which I go on to explain here). The desires in question are food and sex by the way, although four fifths of the book does explicitly deal with the former. Perhaps surprisingly, Al-Ghazali starts off being a little extreme and even masochistic at times, recommending things like starvation to the point of self harm. It was a little difficult to consider the initial advice as anything but impractical and over the top but he eventually admits to condoning balance instead, explaining that this can only be achieved if we aim past that and to the impossible levels he initially presented. I'm not quite sure how correct a strategy that is; it sounded a little Machiavellian actually, although I have to admit that I found myself controlling my own appetite in a very explicit way so perhaps his (somewhat disingenuous) tactic worked after all.

In a world where the average Muslim on the street seems proud about how much friend chicken they can eat or what fancy restaurant they visited that week, the book happens to be quite topical today too. This could just be seen as yet another example of killjoy Islam putting to bed any social activity Muslims choose to partake in, but ultimately as explained above the advice is in regards to balance rather than quitting food completely.

In conclusion however, I can't help but feel that Al-Ghazali is in danger of overcomplicating and academicising the issues he wishes to deal with in these two books, making it difficult for the reader to take as much value from his as they could have otherwise. His technique of wanting to define each and subtlety of an argument, although comprehensive, can never be complete and one can go mad trying to list and categorise of all of the infinitely countable variations on a theme.

As someone who believes Islam should be more accessible than this I have a problem with that approach, although as a proponent of multiple paths to God I do feel that there is a place for this book at least as a starting point for those who wish to discuss it further. However given the depth to which Al-Ghazali reaches in both his books, I suspect these people are few in number. On the other hand, the book did inspire me further (again, here) and so ultimately I have to recommend it for that reason despite my clearly mixed feelings of his work.

Sunday, May 15

Food: George's Fish and Souvlaki Bar Click for more info

It's okay: I didn't know what Souvlaki was either until I looked it up. It's not too important really seeing as how George's is first and foremost a chippy.

But what a chippy. It's clean, relatively good value, the service was amazing (so good that I'm compelled to have to name check our server, David) and best of all, the food was brilliant too.

We went for the Sunday special consisting of two courses: the first a selection of awesome dips and humus; even the pitta was toasted to perfection. For the main I decided to stay healthy (!) and go for the grilled cod and chips, but various fish (and meat) prepared in various ways were also available. Mushy peas and gherkins were also ordered on the side. The special itself was a shade under £11, but we ended up paying around £15 each after the trimmings.

Overall it was a pleasant way to spend a Sunday evening, and that list of excellent places to eat locally just continues to grow. Very much recommended.

Saturday, May 7

South America, Day Fifteen: Rocinha

Apart from a few days in school and many years later in Morocco, I never really had the chance to even inclination to do the whole hostel thing. The one I stayed in for my final night in South America was nothing like what I had experienced back then or expected now. It was pretty good and could maybe even be considered as high level. In fact it kind of made me regret not having done it for the night before too. Still, the mixed dorm was fun for one night too, not that I had time to mingle too much.

I got out soon after breakfast to check out the nearby beaches; since I was staying in Ipanema, the beach of the same name as well as the possibly more renowned Copacobana were only a few minutes walk away each. Although I spent most of the morning on them, I wasn't too impressed and I failed to see how either could be considered amongst the world's best beaches. They weren't too clean, and the waters seemed very tumultuous and unpredictable. I'm hardly an expert on beaches, but I could think of at least three or four better that I had been to myself. It took me ages to get any kind of decent pictures and it was all so uninspiring. But sure, the ladies were hot.

For the afternoon I caught a favela, or shanty town, tour. The best part for me was the motorbike taxi on the way up to the top of Rocinha, despite it only costing 2 of the 65 Reais we paid for the whole tour. Since the ban for two men to ride bikes came into effect in Karachi it's been over a decade since I last rode on a bike as a passenger, and I totally lapped up the five minute ride as we wound up the mountain.

The rest of the tour consisted of walking back down through the town itself. If any of you have been to the equivalents in the Subcontinent or Africa then you will probably get a good idea of what this involved. If I'm being a little brutally honest, in comparison to those other places Rocinha was quite luxurious (it must have been the drug lord funding) but we managed to play the part of well-meaning tourists anyway and lapped up the poverty porn. We learned about how favelas were societies unto their own, with their own laws and rules.

Although I got back relatively early at 4pm, I was pretty much done for the day, and indeed the trip. Since we had no inclination to do anything else, after a final South American lunch of MacDonald's we decided to head off to the airport early, but not before taking part in a pro-marijuana rally. Don't ask. As an aside, Rio was a little bit of a let down, not least because of the lack of a prayer room or chapel. That makes it exceptional rather than typical; I can't recall using an an international airport in the last decade that didn't have one.

And of course the very last thing to do on a holiday like this is to play The Loose Change Game - the idea being to finish a trip such as this one with no local currency in my pocket. I did well this time, my 5.50 Reais buying me a bottle of water and a pao de queijo cheese bread ball thing. I had no Argentine Pesos either, but the 2000 Chilean I had burning in my pocket since Valpo did lose me points.

But this was truly it; I was coming home. The most disorientating thing was realising that I had only been away for two weeks - it certainly felt like much more than that, especially when I did the maths. I counted four countries, eleven towns or cities and over ten new friends (well, on Facebook at least) which I consider to be pretty incredible for fifteen days, particularly because it didn't feel like I had rushed or missed out on too much. Nevertheless I did feel that my time in South America was up and I did want to get back to home and normality. As I woke up mid-flight and realised that I had missed take-off again, it became clear how full circle I had travelled.

Friday, May 6

South America, Day Fourteen: Plans, Failures and Successes

This day was the hardest I had had on the trip so far.

Despite getting up at 7am I was still unable to leave the hotel before 9. Still I had taken the time to meticulously plan the day: I was going to leave my luggage at the hotel, do the local sites of Lapa and Santa Teresa and then catch Jummah at the only mosque in Rio. Of course it's the best laid plans that are doomed to fail, and so many things went wrong that morning I actually almost panicked. Almost.

Failure number one was assuming the hotel would hold on to my luggage for the morning. This is something I obviously took for granted since this one in particular refused to, even though I technically had my room till 12pm. Accepting that it wasn't going to happen, I decided to take my luggage to the mosque down the road to see if they could look after it instead. After all, that's why I had booked this particular hotel.

Except the mosque I was after didn't exist any more. It had been there, and indeed the website still lists the same address for it, but now it was five stations west on the metro, a good thirty minutes away. The issue was of course that all my planned morning's sightseeing was supposed to have been before I left the locality. Assessing the situation, I knew I wouldn't be able to do it all lugging a suitcase around and so after confirming that so called "Central Station" (now the bane of my life) didn't have luggage lockers I decided to give up and head to the mosque for the morning instead.

The journey to the mosque felt more desperate than lonely. Still, Rio is quite easy to navigate around and I found the mosque quite easily - or rather I found what looked to be a half built mosque.

For those who don't know, participating in Jummah is quite important to me, and that for a bunch of reasons including habit, culture and being able to establish links with local Muslims. The upshot of this is that I've yet to miss a Jummah for around two decades (apart from two consecutive weeks where, ironically, I was on Hajj), and this despite being lucky enough to travel to some quite inaccessible places (even though I'm of the opinion that missing it isn't that big a deal particularly while travelling). In short, my heart sank as I came to terms with the fact that I would miss it today.

Before turning to head to my new hotel I decided on a closer inspection. It turned out that God was literally on my side that day; the place was open and preparations for Jummah were well under way. Since I had two hours to kill, they kindly allowed me to leave my luggage there while I headed back to Lapa to try and salvage the morning.

In those two hours I managed to cover the Catedral Metropolitana, the aqueduct, the Lapa Steps (which I will admit to not having heard of before coming to Rio) and even got to ride on the Santa Teresa trolley.

An interesting thing I've noticed so far in South America is how pleasant the tip-cum-begging culture is. Essentially, at no point in time are you ever made to feel that you have to give anything, and this lack of compulsion (obviously) leads to more people giving with joy. It's actually quite refreshing to see and makes a nice change from the hassle and attitude in other parts of the world (including the UK).

Despite fulfilling all my objectives that morning I still managed to get back to the mosque for Jummah with plenty of time to spare. Returning as a veteran rather than a desperate stranger, I was in much higher spirits and enjoyed the congregation much more than I would have otherwise. Talking to some of the participants afterwards I found out some pretty incredible things about the Muslim population in Rio, including how around 50% were converts and that there was absolutely no halal food in the city. How much of that was true I'm not sure, but what I did see for myself was how many non-Muslims were at the mosque for the Portuguese khutba or sermon. Otherwise it was the same story; there was around fifty people for Jummah that day, although that apparently was not indicative of the population of Rio itself.

After moving into my new place, I headed to that other staple tourist attraction, Sugar Loaf Mountain. The day was much clearer than the last, but overall the attraction wasn't as interesting and amazing as the time I had that morning; particularly seeing as how I had visited the Covacado the day before anyway.

I ended a day with a couple of hours at the Leblon Shopping Mall. And when I say "shopping" I mean "shopping". I have to admit that I still thought Buenos Aires was top when it came to "atmosphere".

Thursday, May 5

South America, Day Thirteen: Rio de Janeiro

The second lazy start in as many days was a clear indication that the holiday was beginning to wind up. Although there were three days left the poignancy was beginning to creep in, especially when I realised that this would be my last long distance bus ride. The route taken by the bus wasn't as pretty as the leg from Sao Paulo to Paraty, but I did notice a lot of rigs and tankers and took them as evidence of the growing oil interests in the region.

Due to last minute planning (another example of the downsides to being free), I booked the cheapest hotel I could find in what I thought was central Rio, something I hoped would make life easier the next day. It turns out that "Central Station" doesn't quite imply that. Although the area was very seedy it was actually quite refreshing to not be steered away from the less desirable parts of a new city as well as to finally be able to use local buses instead of taxis.

After checking in I headed off to the Covacado for the obligatory ritual pilgrimage to Christ the Redeemer. Unfortunately the weather was not on our side again and so the views weren't as spectacular as they should have been. I got some decent shots anyway though.

With the main attraction out of the way I decided to call it an early night and headed back to the hotel in order to prepare for Jummah the next day, while all the time ignoring the fact that I was in the final straight home.

Wednesday, May 4

Grupo Contadores de Estorias Click for more info

For sure, I went into this one blind. But when I heard of there being a puppet show in Paraty I felt I had little choice but to check it out and add to the quirky charm of the place.

The show was pretty interesting too. The puppets were hand manoeuvred rather than on a string (I'm sure there's a better word for that), and as such were so expertly manipulated that there was no trouble believing that they were in fact alive and I soon forgot that the puppeteers were even there. There were no words spoken during the seven stories told, each with its own universally understood message. My favourites were the flirty old couple and the suicide. From the start it was clear that the themes were quite adult and in some places it even put Team America to shame; for me Conception went on a little too long.

But it seems that my first hunch was right and the show did indeed add to the general vibe I was getting from Paraty. It was a lovely way to spend an evening in an equally lovely town and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who happens to visit Paraty.

South America, Day Twelve: We Are Sailing

After a well deserved lazy start and breakfast, the morning was spent with a little bit of housekeeping including booking a bus ride out to our next destination for the next day. I felt a little sad as I booked the seats but happy enough that I got to stay in Paraty at all.

The plan was to catch a boat to explore the sea around the port. As usual, the sky was overcast but the sun did come out at times and was well received when it did. For a boat trip it was relatively unoriginal, and all the standard boxes were ticked; we moored a couple of times, we visited a few islands and we took lunch on the boat while being entertained by live music.

There really is not much like diving off a boat and into the open sea, and I feel real sympathy for those who feel uncomfortable with water enough to prefer remaining dry on deck. I even managed to snorkel with the equipment loaned to me by some new Argentine friends we had met on the trip (I forgot how many I had collected by that point). And best of all? The boat trip was damned cheap, even when I considered the hidden costs (although I did enjoy the music much more once we were told we had to pay the musician).

On our return we experienced first hand a unique quirk of Paraty: how it gets flooded for a few days of the month (during the full moon to be precise). It was a little odd to see but fun nonetheless.

After having a shower back at the pousada, I spent the rest of the day exploring Paraty further, including checking out the beach and fort. These were both nothing special in themselves, but they both definitely added to the charm of the town. While waiting for a theatre show I had booked that evening I even managed to chill in a hotel bar for an hour reading a book, playing DS and people watching, a holiday activity of mine that I had yet to do in the last twelve days.

My final thought on Paraty? It was totally wasted on a single person like me.

Tuesday, May 3

South America, Day Eleven: Paraty

The 8am bus meant getting out of bed at 6am. By that point of the trip that time of day felt early - particularly seeing as how 6am was when my flight took off just the day before. It did feel weird that I was staying in Sao Paulo for less than 24 hours, but I quickly got over that.

The bus station was simple yet impressive and we got our tickets in good time. Since buses are all about convenience we were going to take a big portion of the quick inland rather than slower coastal route like we would have done via a rented car. The upshot of this was that we could sleep on the way since there was nothing much to see. The entertainment on board was Rug Rats: The Movie which made me smile.

The gorgeous weather broke out just as we joined the coast. It suddenly and finally felt like I was in Brazil, which made me reassess where exactly I thought I had been the past couple of days.

We arrived in Paraty at around 2pm. After spending a couple of hours faffing around with lunch and finding accommodation a random guy handing out leaflets pointed us to a pousada a little way out of the historic centre. It was a lovely place and totally fitting in with the vibe of the town itself.

With the logistics out of the way I spent a little time exploring the historic centre. Full of charm, it became apparent that Paraty was a place to chill rather than tour and it was almost as if each building had its own quirk and story. I visited a cooking school, a world-class spa, a jazz cafe with live music and even spent a few moments watching a class of kids dancing in the street to live musicians. It was a little quiet with respect to people, but unlike Santiago this was in a good rather than bad way. Even the river was alluring, but although the cobbled stones looked good they killed me in my flip flops.

Although I have nothing in particular to talk about with regards to Paraty, it is by far one of the best places I visited during my stay in South America. And that's not bad, especially when you consider how it wasn't even on the original itinerary. Heck, I hadn't even heard of the place ten days ago.

Monday, May 2

Film: Bollywood Dream Click for more info

It's pretty tough watching let alone reviewing a film in a foreign language without subtitles. That comes with watching a foreign film in a foreign land I suppose, but despite not really understanding the detail I quite enjoyed Bollywood Dream.

Whether that's a testament to the film being well made or just how an audience can get by with half an experience I don't know. But the technical merit of the film was clear to see no matter what language it was in - the acting was passable, with the direction and production equally so.

What I gathered of the story was pretty interesting too - we often just about manage to juxtaposition South India with Europe, so seeing it done with the complete polar opposite of Brazil was quite engaging to see, and made me reassess the "ownership" some of us in the UK feel we have over Bollywood.

Since I'm not totally clued up on the film I can't quite bring myself to recommend it unless you happen to understand Portuguese; in which case you'd be handy to have around if I ever got the chance to see it again.

South America, Day Ten: Sao Paulo

Unlike other days, the 6am flight to Sao Paulo wasn't by choice. Still we embraced our destiny and hoped it would allow us for an early start in the big city. Fate had other ideas, and instead we got to the hotel around 10am. I suddenly realised that this wasn't the first time I had been to Sao Paulo - I had actually been here ten days ago, although it felt like weeks.

This was less of a problem than expected as we discovered how many of the museums and attractions in the city were closed on Mondays - and even if they weren't I wasn't able to see much to do around there. This was yet another vindication for being flexible with travel plans; we were already discussing our departure by lunchtime.

In terms of what we did see, well, the Cathedral was nice, as was the free views from the top of the Banespa Bank. Nevertheless, it seems that Sao Paulo can be skipped unless you're there for personal reasons. I could imagine having a good time if I had been there to doss with friends.

The lack of proper things to do did mean we started exploring other options including catching a local film. After considering a Hollywood flick (which I didn't see the point of doing) we came across a screen down the road from us that was playing Bollywood Dreams, a film in Portuguese about three Brazilian girls who go to India to make it in Bollywood. Given the circumstances, I didn't see how I couldn't watch it.

I didn't really understand a lot of it, but the girls in it were pretty so I enjoyed it anyway. Oh and that reminds me: I've noticed that Brazilians have the nicest hands and feet, something that is probably due to them choosing function over form. Girls from UK, please take note: no matter how pretty you think your shoes are, if they're mangling your toes then they're not worth it. And yes, I know how this last paragraph makes me sound.

The original exit plan was to rent a car and then drive up the coast to Rio, stopping off whenever we felt compelled to - pretty much in the same way a few friends of mine and I did in Spain, Geneva and Austria over the past couple of years. As amazing as that sounded, a combination of cost, time and traveller preference led to us choose a bus and single destination instead. And seeing as how the bus was leaving early, we decided to make it an early night; possibly the last of the trip considering how close we were to our final destination.

Sunday, May 1

South America, Day Nine: Foz do Iguaçu

As expected crossing the border to Foz was relatively painless with our taxi driver taking us from the doorstep of one hotel to the other. Nevertheless we got to our hotel and then the National Park on Brazil's side much later than had been planned. Luckily this side of the falls didn't take too long to cover (and in fact could have been seen as not quite unmissable) and we managed to catch up on time. The difference between Argentina and Brazil could already be felt, the latter being much more developed. That said it was clear which of the two countries had the better falls experience.

As was the case yesterday, after being done with the falls we decided to head into town. We saw a lot of Islamic signage and even food on the way, but decided to head to the mosque for guidance (of more than one kind) anyway. After a longer than expected walk we finally got there, where I took the chance to perform my day time prayers as well as talk to Ibrahim about the local Muslims. The story was the same here as it was in Buenos Aires - a lovely mosque but very few people to use it. Still, I was told that there was a community of Pakistanis around, and they along with the other Muslims appeared to commute to Ciudad del Este across the Paraguayan border (twenty minutes away) to work. Ibrahim kindly gave us a lift back to the bus station, and more usefully at that point, halal food.

Almost as a punt we headed north to Itaipu, home to the worlds largest dam. Luck was on our side that day, as the special guided tours were running despite us being advised they didn't on Sundays. Managing to catch the start of the last tour that day we spent a couple of hours driving and walking around the dam, just taking in the sheer scale of the construction. It was a brilliant and amazing thing to do, and for me even topped our visit to the falls hours before that morning. Itaipu was definitely a hidden gem, and definitely recommended.

Despite the slow start, today was a brilliant day. I got a lot done (everything I wanted to do) and got to talk to a local about Islam in the region. Although after thinking about it, it didn't quite yet feel that we were in Brazil properly; apart from having to adjust our bad Spanish to bad Portuguese. Oh and yes, the women were even nicer than they were in Buenos Aires.

Perhaps our next destination tomorrow will feel more like we've reached a new country?