Posts tagged ‘South America’

One last knees up. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Note: You might have noticed that it’s been a while since we last updated (almost 6 months actually). We have been home for that whole time and we didn’t want to update until we had this – an edited version of an article I wrote for the travel section of the Irish Independent.

I remember being conscious of the bead of sweat trickling down my nose as I pressed my back against the wall. I was face-to-face, toe-to-toe with a Brazilian drug dealer, his rifle cold against my shoulder as he brushed past. In the stifling heat of Rio de Janeiro’s slums, the cool touch of metal was the only relief from the rising humidity.

A month later I would be watching news reports on a police siege of the slums that left at least 45 dead. But that day I felt safe in the favelas. I believed my tour guide Luiz’s soothing words. “Don’t worry,” he said, “they usually only use their guns to fire in the air to signal that the police are coming.”

As we wound our way down alleyways too tight to accommodate a pram, between the hotchpotch redbrick shacks – one stacked clumsily on top of another – we passed huge mounds of putrefying rubbish stowed in every available space. We backed into walls to let pregnant women, drug dealers and schoolchildren past; the kids happily swinging their backpacks and tearing around corners on their headlong rush home; the dealers chatting lazily to friends, cigarettes dangling from idle fingers.

By the time we had reached the centre of the favela (slum) a whole other world had revealed itself. While gun-toting boys selling cocaine patrolled the edge of the neighborhood, the centre was a refuge for thousands of families. Here teenagers banged out samba rhythms on empty buckets, women hummed as they draped their washing on lines, dogs stretched out in isolated cracks of sunlight yawning widely and shopkeepers sat out on their stoops tapping their toes. From the staff at the local juice bar to joggers on the beach, everyone in Rio de Janeiro was moving to their own beat and in the favela I was learning that that beat was surprisingly uplifting. Slowly I started to lower my guard, letting out a deep breath I hadn’t realised I was holding.

With Luiz leading the way, we climbed four floors up a cramped staircase, sidestepping crumpled steps briefly illuminated by flickering neon lights. At the top we shoved through a splintered door and gazed upon one of Rio’s most memorable sights. On the roof of the city, far away from tourist board images of Carnival, volleyball games on the beach and Christ the Redeemer, we were presented with a view of Rio not usually printed on postcards.

Dripping from every hill and valley was a sea of houses. In the early afternoon it was strangely mundane. Mothers collecting their kids from school or folding coloured sheets that flapped in a rare breeze, old men fanning themselves on their stoops and teachers keeping a close eye on their lunching wards at a nearby playschool.

“Life here,” said Luiz as he stepped out onto the roof, motioning to the scene in front of us, “is not as bad as people say. Many people live here and work in the city. For many families this has been home for generations. Their parents lived here, as did their grandparents and in the future their children and grandchildren will be raised here. There is community here. Life in the favelas isn’t perfect of course, but what neighbourhood is?”

Listening to the rhythm of life in the favela it wasn’t hard to see it as the birthplace of samba. Between the towering houses, suffocating alleyways and looming shadows came dizzying cracks of light. The screeching sound of little girls reciting a skipping chant rose from the streets below and mingled with the sultry tones of Amy Winehouse drifting from a nearby window. Leaves rustled. Luiz drummed his fingers. Doors slammed. A mother called out to her children. Electricity lines fizzed. A gunshot cracked through the sticky air.

Of course there was much more to Rio than just the favelas. We spent a lot of time people-watching on the beach, we climbed up to see Christ the Redeemer and we partied hard. One major highlight was our night at the street party in Lapa – a weekly occurrence for those lucky enough to live in this magical city.

In a word, it was immense. Samba bands filled the night with music and hoards of tourists and locals of every age filled several blocks. People lounged on the colourful Lapa steps chatting to friends and strangers; restaurants spilled out onto pedestrianised streets; laughing vendors sold homemade caipirinhas and street food from rickety tables; and some incredibly friendly locals showed us how to shake our (completely insufficient) hips to the beat of a drum. As a wise woman once said, I could have danced all night.

Rio was the perfect end to a perfect trip. The Cariocas really have it sussed – rollerblading to work, spending lunchtime on the beach, eating out on weekdays and dancing until dawn. We made two new Kiwi friends, laughed a lot and then, when it was time to leave Fla, cried a lot (well I did anyway.) How could it be time to go home already? In ways it felt like only yesterday that we had left, shaking with excitement and fear. But in other ways it felt like a lifetime. We had done so much in only 12 months. We had climbed the Great Wall of China, dived the Great Barrier Reef and hiked to Machu Picchu. I’d lost half my face to a Vietnamese Road, we were chased off a desert island by monkeys and we were poisoned by a yak stew near Tibet. We had also made more friends than we could count – friends that hopefully, we would keep forever – and perhaps most notably, we had survived an entire year together with little or no drama. And no breakups! Year long breakup indeed, I guess this thing is going to go on longer than we had expected.

There are more pictures from Rio de Janeiro available in the gallery


May 10, 2011 at 10:46 am 2 comments

A short stack of home. Samaipata, Bolivia

A little mountain town outside of the sprawling, characterless Bolivian/Brazilian metropolis of Santa Cruz was the last place in the world we had expected to find ourselves feeling at home. Yet our two day stay in Samaipata had somehow turned into five days of guiltfree pleasure. Mornings consumed by difficult decisions such as whether to have bacon and eggs for breakfast or a short stack of chocolate pancakes. Afternoons spent lazing in the family sitting room watching our favourite Will Ferrell comedies. Absorbing the last of the evening sun on the porch playing cards over a few beers and mostly, laughing ourselves sick with two new friends we were comfortable enough to discuss bowel movements with.

The end was even more promising because our trip to Santa Cruz hadn’t started out all that well. Knowing only that it was more Brazilian than Bolivian and that it was around 30 degrees in Santa Cruz, we had come in search of a swimming pool, two sunloungers and a top-up on our tans (we could hardly go home as pasty as this after a year long holiday now, could we?) What we got was a city centre plaza we were not permitted to stand still in, a bland hostel and some subpar food – all at Brazilian prices but Bolivian quality. Still there were some nice sheltered hammocks in the hostel and the funniest pet toucan so we were pacified, if not impressed.

More importantly however, we managed to fill a few vacancies we were casting for. Having parted ways with Sarah, Matt, Sophie, Paul and Swati for now, we were facing a daunting future alone together – a situation that, for the sake of maintaining a healthy relationship, had to be rectified immediately. Cue Sam, a scruffy Scott with a wicked sense of humour and some interesting stories about climbing a mountain with a loose boweled German. Then there was Sam’s child bride Mo, a failing vegan with a chocolate/egg addiction and serious guilt issues. And we had just shaken that troublesome vegetarian…

Having been promised temperatures upwards of 30 degrees we were a little disappointed to find Samaipata cold and decidedly wet. Had we not already booked into in Posada del Sol on the recommendations of several travellers and Lonely Planet reviewers, we would probably have headed straight for La Paz but we had so instead we bedded down and got to know our new family. There was Trent, the gregarious Texan, his charming and impeccably mannered daughter Sierra and our new adopted Bolivian Mum, Lydia – an incredibly welcoming woman with an impressive collection of berets and the best hugs this side of the equator.

The plan was to visit Amboro National Park which, according to a Dutch tourguide with no discernable inside voice, was “absolutely ruined by snow recently. If you want to see animals don’t go to Amboro. If you want to see plants, don’t go to Amboro.” Then we thought we would go to the waterfalls but according to Dennis, our famer friend from Limerick who was over in Bolivia to maybe marry a local girl or maybe flee before it was too late, “the waterfalls are shite. Don’t go, it’s shite. I’m going on this Chay Gevara thing tomorrow but will probably be shite too.” So Amboro was out, the waterfalls were out and because of time limitaions, the very promising Ché Guevara tour was also out.

That left two sites – El Fuerte and the zoo/animal refuge. Efficient as we were we decided to tackle both in one day so as to leave the most free time possible open for sleeping, eating and exploring the local nightlife and all the bellydancing, Shakira-wannabe boys and Bolivian karaoke it had to offer. Yep, Samaipata was an experience all right…

So back to El Fuerte, apparently an ancient Incan religious site although, according to some claims it may also be a launch pad for spaceships. The site was… interesting I guess. A lot of the original features, such as carvings and statues, have been destroyed by wind and the Spanish *shakes fist* so it is really only a fraction of its former self. Still, it is easy to make out the importance of the site from its scale alone and from the remaining carvings. When combined with a trip to the museum in town El Fuerte makes a nice day trip and lays the foundations for a much more in-depth discovery of Incan culture throughout the rest of Bolivia and Peru. Be warned though, the “handy” map and signposts at the site don’t match up at all and the “bottomless” hole that “goes to the centre of the earth” can be reached with a 20m stick. Maybe the Temples of Angkor have just made me difficult to please though.

Our second stop of the day was every inch as rewarding as it had promised to be. For less than €1 we got the full run of the zoo, all its inhabitants and a German Woofer (if you haven’t heard of Woofing and you call yourself a traveller, shame on you!). Not normally as enthusiastic about all things small, fluffy and cuddleable as I am, Gary was surprisingly taken with the place. The key, I believe was in the winning charms of a certain little lady. Having sniffed him out only a few minutes after our arrival, the chica in question was quick to seduce him, clutching at his arm, stroking his neck and running her fingers through his hair. With all the excitement of a young child with a new friend she grabbed at his hand dragging him around her garden showing him this and that – her favourite tree, the bouciest branches, the greenest leaves… Gary played along as best he could, mindful of my feelings of course, but when she peed on her hand and then licked her fingers, the romance was off.

Another monkey took a particular liking to me (this one a howler, Gary’s thing on the side was a Spider Monkey), wrapping herself around my neck like a thick hairy scarf and falling asleep for the next half hour while her mate, a sulky looking hulk of a monkey, tailed Mo like a shadow. Sensing his fear of all things furry, the animals steered clear of Sam although he did manage to grit his teeth and pet one of the 16 puppies for a few minutes.

With so many dogs, cats, monkeys, ducklings, pigs, birds, noise bears, ducks and goats there was enough cooing and petting to fill an entire day although the absolute highlight came from an unexpected source. After prying myself away from the impossibly cute puppies who had just peed on my handbag I followed the others down to the farmyard animals – snore! Well we have all seen the goat that shouts like a man on YouTube right? Well this was better – a big ugly sheep that opened up its mouth and let out the most guttural, satisfying burp I have ever heard. We laughed until we cried and then we sat and watched it burp over and over again. Comedy gold – hopefully Gary can get the video uploaded.

It was with swollen bellies and heavy hearts that we eventually bid adieu to our big Texan family, left Samaipata and headed to the big smoke. I wonder if La Paz can cook pancakes like Trent can.

There are more pictures from Samaipata available in the gallery

August 14, 2010 at 8:06 pm Leave a comment

Chi-chi-chi, lay-lay-lay, viva Chi-lay! Santiago, Chile

Walking through Bellavista on Monday 28th June you would never have known that it was one of Santiago’s most lively neighbourhoods. Shop windows were darkened by graffiti-covered shutters and dogs roamed freely along the empty streets, sniffing at discarded burger wrappers. Traffic lights flicked uselessly from green to red on the main road where police and army officials in riot gear twirled their batons at invisible mobs. Still it was an eerily beautiful scene. Single and two-storey buildings with flat roofs painted orange with deep blue doors or hot pink with green windows. Riverbeds coloured by artistic murals and mounds of rubish. Meanwhile standing as a reminder that this was no ordinary city in no ordinary continent was a backdrop of hazy snowcapped mountains seen above a skyline of mix-and-match skyscrapers.

In every bar, cafe and home around the city people were sitting around moaning and sighing. Every now and then the empty streets echoed with a collective scream. Santiago was in the grips of football fever and today, Monday 28th of June, was to be their last World Cup appearance. Later there would be riots in the street, temper tantrums and defiant cheers of “Chi-chi-chi, lay-lay-lay, viva Chi-lay!” For now though, an entire nation was holding its breath.

Behind one purple door in Bellavista the scene was of a different nature though. Two opposing armies faced each other down – one in green and yellow, the other in red white and blue – across a room. They traded chants and insults in different languages for 90 minutes, one revelling in the misery of the other until eventually it ended and everyone grabbed their bottles of beer, wine, rum and pisco and headed for the rooftop garden. Somehow we had managed to choose a hostel which was sheltering a mob of Brazilians and when, a few hours after arriving we were woken up by a pretty girl waving a bottle of rocket fuel (aka pisco) and insisting on shots, we knew that our Santiago trip was going to be a little bit messy and a lot of fun.

By the next morning we had managed to slot into a huge group of Poms, Aussies, Brazilians and Irish people and were ready to take our hungover, jetlagged heads out for a walk arond the city. Leading the way, Katie decided that we should all climb a hill – Cerro Santa Lucia. After walking around the city for an hour we had come to four conclusions:

1.Chileans are incredibly friendly people

2.Santiago was one of the most sexually charged cities we had ever seen with couples, young and old, locked in passionate embraces on every street corner and park bench

3.There was an astonishing amount of stray dogs in the city – something about people liking to own puppies but not being too keen on fully grown animals.

4.We were going to love South America.

Although it was a challenging uphill climb, Cerro Santa Lucia was worth all of the energy. As we stood at the top and took in Santiago our hangovers started to clear and awe set in. The city seemed to be an endless maze of towering apartment blocks, delicate church spires and colourful residential areas. Most surprising of all were the ever-present Andes which, in the dense smog of a working day were all but invisible, their snowcapped peaks strangely detatched like whisps of cloud against a dim blue sky.

Over the next two days we cemented our first South American friendships over football and pisco (I know, us watching football. Gas.), grappled with our first few words of Latin American Spanish and wandered around Santiago. We were amazed by the stunning architecture of some of the city’s buildings – the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Ex-Congreso Nacional, the heart-stopping Palacio de la Moneda and the surprising Bolsa de Comercio (far too beautiful to be a stock exchange) – little slices of Barcelona, Paris or Rome peeking out over the bells of tiny churches and ugly office blocks.

The best thing we saw though was Plaza de Armas. As was our habit in Santiago, we arrived with bellies full of pisco and heads full of cotton wool and had to sit down for half an hour to take the mammoth square in. On a bandstand at one end were dozens of tables crammed full of old men stooped over chess games, a picture of concentration amid a flurry of activity. Across the square shoeshine boys (and men) tauted for business; a comedian was surrounded by a hysterical crowd of hundreds; tarot card readers poised serenely over desks covered in red cloth; and artists fussed over exhibitions of varying quality. There were some bizarre scenes too – toy ponies ridden by children posing for photographers; a group of students dressed up as The Flinstones; thousands of pigeons perched wing-to-wing on the roof of a sweet stall; and an information point on wheels that was zipping about the square far too fast to be of any help. Amid the chaos churchbells chimed and middle-aged men snored on benches yet somehow everywhere we went people looked at us as if we were the strange ones.

More than a little overwhelmed and still jet-lagged we tried to let it sink in. We were in South America. We had new friends. We were once again the obvious strangers in any crowd. We were finally adventuring again. Here in Santiago among life-size toy horses and a thousand curious eyes we were totally, utterly and completely happy.

There are more pictures from Santiago available in the gallery

July 5, 2010 at 9:41 pm 3 comments


Thanks for coming to visit us – stay tuned to watch us argue, punch, kick, pinch and scream our way around some of the most beautiful parts of the world.

Over the next year we will be fighting in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South America.

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