The man in the roof: Final days in Brazil

The man in the roof: Final days in Brazil

Before I came to Brazil, in my ignorance, I thought the whole country was one big jungle. How hard it must have been to cut football fields out of the dense fauna I thought? It was a pleasant surprise to find, on my way across the state of Minas Gerais, which despite the name is not a location in Middle Earth, that the landscape lookes very similar to the North Island of New Zealand. Rolling pastures dotted the green swell of the hills and fences of timber and wire swam alongside my moving bus or sprinted away across endless paddocks to the horizon. The only fair haired Hobbit was me but the Shire could easily fit within this scenery. The capital of the state, and my home for the week that followed was Belo Horizonte, a city of 2.5 million just seven hours inland from Rio.

A nice detox week in Belo Horizonte was motivated by trying to keep expenses to a minimum; when you’ve been travelling for months the thought of retreating back to normal life routine is as foreign and frightening as the initial decision to leave, so delaying the day of reckoning was a natural course of action. The rain, which appeared for the first time in six months the day after my arrival, kept my initial few days in Belo Horizonte confined to my host Felipe’s apartment, watching films and writing. That however disintegrated the travel vibe pretty quickly as I felt myself becoming accustomed to a lazy hermit existence which I decided would be better to embrace once I became a fat alcoholic in later life.

I picked myself out of those suffocating confines for a day exploring the far more claustrophobic spaces of Ouro Preto’s mines. Ouro Preto itself was to me, Brazil’s Cuzco. Symmetrical colonial townhouses leaned against one another, their pale hues of blue and beige a soft sight beneath the misty mountains that surround the town. Large jutted stones beneath my feet invited the use of the cramped footpath which crossed in front of the clean commercial shop fronts that have inevitably invaded the streets. The whole town is set on one slope of a steep valley, making the decision of which street to take important; I spent about two hours wandering with puffed lungs and strained calves on the steep cobbled roads. The town was established 400 years ago with the mining boom, Portuguese settlers using slaves, many of them children, to work underground.


I took a short bus ride out of the town to Mina da Passagem, apparently the largest mine in the world open to the public. Arriving brought an eerie feeling; large rusted machinery and shacked together sheds lay beyond wooden fences as fresh as if the workers had all cleared out the previous day, but today, they were abandoned. Some sign of human life came at the cable tram which lowers you into the mine. Some young workers who were laying cement joined me on the tram, laying their long PVC pipes across the seats. The tram itself was angled in such as way that cramped knees took my weight onto the hard steel of the seat close in front, the dark depth of the mine entrance sliced into the land beckoning below. During decent I thought I was alone with the workers and would be wandering the mine at my pleasure. In fact a young woman who sold me my ticket was sitting behind me, and once we descended 200 metres underground she proceeded to give me a slow tour of the mine in Portuguese, of which I understood three fiths of fuck all.

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Later in the day I returned to Ouro Preto, wandering loosely with my map in search of another mine. I was no less than 20 metres onto the correct street, confident that the mine was just ahead of me, when a local middle-aged man in a smudged loose shirt and crinkly shorts spoke to me as I walked past. Usually I make a point of being fairly sharp with locals offering assistance as it never comes for free, but for some reason on this occasion I entertained him, parroting back the work ‘mina’ (mine) with a speckle of navigational uncertainty which still plagued me. With this he took up the invitation and walked with me, despite my feeble protests that all was well. We passed a sign to Mina Choco Rei, the name of the mine I was searching for, but even after trying to communicate this with him he walked with a sureness and spoke swiftly around my words that I thought he was leading me instead to another entrance. He eventually led me up a long narrow staircase cut into the hill where no other people were around and at this point he was putting in far too much physical effort to not kill me, or in the least expect a good tip. Thankfully, we did eventually arrive at a mine that had a surprisingly professional tour setup. I tipped the guide and got shown through the cramped clay tunnels, learning that children slave miners had their testicles crushed with a hammer at age seven to stop them growing any taller, so they could work in the truly micro-sized spaces in the mine. I got a very broken English speaking guide which was an absolute unexpected luxury, especially compared to Choco Rei, the original mine I sought, where I found the entrance was just a hole in the hill out the back of someones home, and that I could wander through it’s intimidating isolated depths unsupervised and completely alone .

I also was intrigued by an open art museum my friend Juliana described as “a place where you ask yourself, how does a place like this even exist in Brazil”. It’s accurate, Inhotim is a hyponizingly sprawl of lush lawns and gardens speckled with a breathtaking array of international level art pieces and exhibitions, not that I’m anything close to an expert on the art world but well, if you can impress me, that’s worth a few brownie points. My personal favourite was a large auditorium laced with dozens of speakers laid out in a formation which invited you to sit in the very middle of them, then being treated to the experience of a phantom orchestra playing around you. Not so much just orchestral music but a performance, a woman’s voice narrates conversationally some truly disturbing nightmares while an old industrial factory clanks and steams to life around you. At another point a howling tropical storm engulfs the listeners, the lack of wind the only sign of safety. Footsteps pace from speaker to speaker as if a ghost loiters there. Another exhibition was made up of several rooms, one simply an empty space with 60’s pop art projected on the walls, a dozen mattresses laid out on the floor, and Jimi Hendrix music blasting. At first I thought that was just stupid, but the YOLO mentality convinced me to lie down on one of these mattresses and I’ll admit for a few moments I felt sophisticated. Or comfortable. One of the two. Like every art museum there were pieces where I’d be kidding myself if I stroked my beard while telling you how a drawing of a woman shoving a science beaker up her muff represents the fragile feminine in the 21st century. However there were also countless rather magnificent pieces and exhibitions; the place was undeniably magical and every visitor would certainly leave with part of that other-worldliness wedged in their thoughts.

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My bus ride to Sao Paulo a few days later provided me with one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had on this trip, one that took place almost entirely over my old friend Google Translate. It was akin to txting the person next to you like a teenager who thinks they are clever, except I was passing my phone back and forth with my new Brazilian friend. Early on she tried to be polite and highlight if I was tired of the conversation just to let her know. Google, ever the comedian, translated to ‘If you start to get bored just faka me ok?’, to which I giggled like a schoolgirl.

A few days in Sao Paulo waiting for my flight to Colombia were spent hanging out with friends I had made on my last visit there, oh yeah, and dodging falling debris in a nightclub. Juliana took me to a free gig for which Busta Rhymes was headlining, and late in the night, as Busta Rhymes was wheeling his huge frame and aggressively insulting the mosh in front, who lapped it up like a cat to milk, a huge chunk of the ceiling wobbled, craned to it’s side and tumbled down onto the freaking crowd below. As we watched on in astonishment, a pair of legs lowered out of the fresh hole, kicking in the air with only the shoulders left up inside the roof. It was a good eight metres down to the ground, a critical injury or death poised to occur at any moment. Nice then that Busta Rhymes used the situation to show off his freestyling prowess, booming into the beat: “There’s man in the roof! Oh yeah there’s a man in the roof!” The gig continued through the chaos and to our relief the figure soon managed to pull himself back into the relative safety of the rafters above. I still don’t have an explanation for the incident. No chance the near death of a probably drunk reveler would halt the show though; Busta Rhymes was such a monstrous presence on stage I wanted to stay just because I was sure at some point he’d eat the microphone.



Flight in the Favela

Flight in the Favela

In an instant, the visage of a happy-go-lucky traveler wandering to a new place was ripped out with my breath as panicked cries I didn’t understand being shouted from somewhere I never had time to see, spurred the favela street into chaos. One moment I was following a stranger to my hostel in Rio de Janeiro’s Complexo de Alemao favela, ignoring the friendly warnings from a group of teenagers to not go any further under the assumption they were trying to scare the only gringo in sight, huge backpack and blonde hair not exactly an everyday sight for the residents here. But when the military police took a moment from pointing their assault rifles down an adjacent alleyway up ahead to wave us back, the first prick of unease grabbed me. Joining the crowd of teenagers and other locals, we waited in hushed conversation and for me, awkward smiles. Out of tense stillness, those shrieked warnings swooped through the calm like an axe, loud and suddenly, and the crowd swarmed in panic, bottle necking as they squeezed through a small door behind us into an internet cafe. I entered last, still fresh as to what was actually happening as a guy no older than me yanked down a roller door behind me and we all cowered in the highly charged silence of our protected den. A boy about 16 was playing a shooting video game, through the chaos he never glanced from his screen, even once the real shooting started. The first crackle of the gunfight was monstrously deafening, sickeningly terrifying, and forced a surge of adrenalin that yanked the present moment into transparent focus. It extracted gasps and cries from the locals cowering behind me as they jutted their trembling bodies further to the floor. A woman behind my shoulder began crying hysterically, clasping a young girl whose expression was neither fear or calm, but complete bewilderment as she tried to comprehend a reality far beyond her. The fighting lasted no more than a couple of minutes, followed by a short period of calm. The teenagers, muttered jokingly amongst themselves as if this was nothing new. Even they went quiet as the lengthy rumble of an assault rifle sliced through the room and seized everyone’s attention once again. Outside was a war zone. A few minutes later, against another period of calm, the roller door was pulled up. On the opposite side of the street a chubby teen stood in the doorway of a small superette. The young guy shouted to him and teen retreated, reappearing a moment later with a bottle of water, which after a quick glance of caution, he threw across the street. Our guy passed it back for the terrified woman who was now hyperventilating. An old man walked past the window down the street, either unaware of the situation or disinterested in it, either way, the room erupted with Portuguese cries for him to hide. From where I was crouching, I could see one of the police officers positioned behind a jutted wall, just waiting there with a worried mouth, clenching his black rifle. I watched him for an age, until a woman behind me made a joke, the word ‘Gringo’ standing out. The crowd laughed, and I joined in just to try to free the fear stuck in my throat, the situation about as different from the sheltered haven on the end of the world I call home as you can get.

My host Ellen later tells me, the war is between the police, and the gangs of the favelas. The ‘Pacification’ project being undertaken in Rio is essentially a military operation designed to remove the gang presence in the slums, by any force deemed necessary. For the locals, it’s a case of same old. Before, the gangs controlled the favelas, now, the police do. This is a tense time I’m told. During the world cup, the area was tranquil, the police were relaxed and less intrusive, and the area was full of the fiesta’s and the community vibe the favelas are famous for. After the world cup, the police have cracked down on the gangs and are seemingly more forceful, I just so happened to pop my favela cherry during an operation. After about 40 minutes hiding in the internet cafe, it was deemed calm enough to leave, and I chatted over Google translate with a local. He explained this area has always been this way, comparing it to the Gaza strip. I told him I was staying at Barraco #55, and two teenage girls walked me five minutes up the road, through pockets of police and loitering old men, down a thin alley to a bolted door that opened into my new home.

More a house than a hostel, everybody who stays in Barraco #55 chips in with the cooking and maintenance, creating a comforting family vibe. During my stay, with all the tension, Ellen advised we limit our time outside. From the rooftop terrace, I could get an incredible view of the favela snaking across the valley as the afternoon sun pried the jagged brick neighbourhood, illuminating its messy features like that of a battered cliff face. That first night, the shock of the shootout still stiff in my bones, the beauty of the favela vista became tainted with the tragic realisation of what life is really like for the locals here. Outside heavily armed police are everywhere, on every corner, alert, pointing the barrels of their rifles down each alleyway as they pass, including ours. In fact if I walk out the front door, the first thing I see looking up the alley, is the top of an officer’s head; he is peeking around the corner from the main street, the silhouette of his hand gun clearly visible, aiming down the alley where I now stand. I slide past him on my way to a cheap favela burger, a monstrous thing with a meat, egg, bacon, beetroot, potato crisps, lettuce and tomato, for $1.25. Upon my return he is still there, gun raised in locked stance in case a target comes into view. When I squeeze past him, we are both aware the gun is pointed more or less at my back. Innocent locals do get shot here, trigger happy cops mistake umbrella’s for guns or get surprised down the labyrinth of streets here. One of the residents Dave is warned not to stand too close to the edge of our rooftop, the tension is very high tonight and a jumpy policeman is dangerous in the maze-like neighbourhood and multi-story residences where spotting a gang member from a local is tough pickings. Occasionally gunshots ring out from somewhere in the distance, and in the night a huge explosion rocked me awake in bed, apparently a bomb simply designed to scare the police.

Assassins Creed should be set here.

Last two days, I’ve barely left the hostel. A gang member apparently got shot the day before last, so all the shops are closed under the order of the gangs. The streets are close to empty and there is nowhere to go, most people are simply staying indoors. Ellen, who after immigrating from Holland started the hostel with her Brazilian partner Eddu, explains this is exceptionally rare. Usually the streets are bustling, the community vibe bursting with life, locals interacting with the people who stay here; Barraco #55 serving as a front to bring together artists and other creatives to collaborate with one another and foster a relationship with the community members. I would love to come back during a more pleasant time; I have heard incredible stories during Carnival and when the hostel is bursting with visitors, and no doubt it will return to that state when this all dies down.

Staying in the favela, although for me just a short and somewhat limited experience, has proved to be equally inspiring and eye-opening. The residents of the favelas, ahead of poverty and low standard of living, are living in a dangerous environment, yet they still go more or less about their lives. Residents young and old lounge on the sidewalk, greeting everyone who wanders as if they’re family. Their homes are as connected as their relationships, with none of the privacy barriers that blot Western lives; fences, long driveway’s and the like. Most evening’s you can look across the valley of shacks and observe a ‘Where’s Wally’ level of visual stimulation. A cluster of brick and cement, half finished rooftops and walls of dark mold, is from one perception, an architecturally dull vista. From another, its vast beauty washes over you like a wave and immobilises you. Beige homes sprout up from the ground at varying heights dependent on their stage of construction or the lay of the land from which they grow. Their organic construction means many roofs consist of walls which snake up to nothing, allowing you to peer into a bare story where clothes lines and wash basins live. A dog wanders around a seemingly inaccessible top floor before slumping onto the concrete to bask in the sun. Jubilant jeers yank my attention to dark void between buildings which the afternoon light ignores. A child has just become a football superstar. His older brother lifts him triumphantly to celebrate the collision between wall and football, a screamer of a goal. I take a photo and hear a voice; a shirtless man smoking a cigarette is calling to me through a huge smile a few rooftops away, but I can only shrug in reply. Behind me samba music blasts from some unknown source while across the favela laughing and chattering rise from every nook and echo across the valley in continuous waves of boisterous joy.  Looking across the valley a huge ridge of Atlantic rain forest marks the edge of construction, and in that same line of sight, over a dozen tiny kites skitter erratically on the air currents, some 100 metres up or more. Their masters are scattered across rooftops throughout the town, tiny bodies from where I stand, their arms yanking swiftly in an effortless dance with the string, allowing the thin plastic kites to do the same at the other end. Down at street level in this moment, little of the magic exists, a hard edge of tension cultivated by intimidation and firearms, but in the sky far above the heavy weight of fear and violence, the locals dance.


Barraco #55 is an organisation designed to foster a closer relationship between the community of the favelas and wider society through art and culture. They organise events and workshops in a variety of disciplines with a focus on interacting with the community, and also run a hostel in the heart of Complexo de Alemao, one of Rio’s many favelas, for $12 a night –


End of the Tan Line

End of the Tan Line

It seems ridiculous that a traveler would ever take a holiday from travelling itself, but seeing the world is a tough gig. Sometimes you have to set an alarm for the morning or even walk up a large set of stairs. A blistering hot shower is rarer than a football hating Brazilian and picking out any of the mysterious pastries from the bakery is  pure lucky dip. With this weighing on or minds, we set out for the old colonial town of Paraty for some chill time, arriving at the super convenient hour of 4 am. Avoiding some aggressive commotion which I am certain was an organised dog fight, and a little anxious about having our entire lives on our backs, we thankfully found our hostel after a short stroll through Paraty’s beautiful but fucking dangerous uneven cobbled streets. That morning as we explored the town it was slightly easier to navigate the jutting stones which make up Paraty’s picturesque colonial avenues and have no doubt claimed a fair few elderly woman’s ankles in their 300 year life; the many old churches and forest green water of the harbour appropriate distraction from the careful placement of each step. We considered accepting an offer from the many boat owners around the pier who tried to sell us a ride round the harbour with them, and of whom at least one simply tried to sell us weed. One charismatic chap came right out with his price (for the boat ride of course) which saved the awkward initial negotiation, and we quickly talked him down to a tidy $20 per person for four hours cruising around the harbour. This turned out to be a fantastic move, not only could we lounge on cushions atop the boat as we crawled across the sleepy bay, our driver stopped at essentially our own private beach, a seaside restaurant for a beer, and beside a quaint rocky island for a session of diving from the boat’s bow.

Ilha Grande, a large island which boasts some of the best beaches in Brasil was the second stop on our intercity break. With tremendous luck, we arrived at our hostel five minutes before an almighty downpour which would have turned our baggage into smelly sludge. While the wet season weather behaved predictably during our three night stay, it held off just enough to allow some magnificent and more importantly cost free hikes throughout the lush Atlantic rainforest and along rugged white beaches. A small bar on the island’s main settlement was our host for the two semi finals of the world cup, where we witnessed our hopes for an orange final wiped out with a nail biting penalty shootout loss to Argentina, and watched in immobilising awe as Brazil went down in flames 7-1 to Germany. In our small Gringo-infested settlement, there was no sign of the rioting or disruption which was predicted for that nightmare scenario, just a lot of disgusted, crushed and shocked faces.

Not wanting either Germany or Argentina in the final but having to back someone for enjoyments sake, we decided before game day in Rio de Janeiro we would have to support the men from Deutschland. However once arriving on Rio’s famed Copacabana beach, where huge screens in and outside the fanfest had been erected, the unbelievable swarm of Argentinians which dominated every corner of the beach found us wishing for the sake of the after party for a blue and white victory. Argentinian jerseys stretched the entire length of the beach like colourful sprinkles decorating the yellow sand, an atmosphere of punchy chants bellowing into our eardrums from all sides with midday fireworks screeching towards the hot sun overhead pits of jumping bodies all synced in excited song; it became impossible to wish for anything but a win for the Messi faithful. As the anticipation grew towards kickoff, we could have never guessed the tense stillness which would fall over thousands of concentrated faces once the match commenced. Occasionally an Argentinian chant rose from the quiet, but for the most part, a collective study of the screen held the crowd in a spell, every touch of the ball or whistle blow glistening with supercharged importance. And as the game pushed towards extra time with no goals yet scored the tension mounted until it was as if the screen was delivering a eulogy to uneasy listeners. Only a minutes before the match was to go to penalties, the death blow, a goal to the Germans. For us, it meant nothing, we were simply in awe at the response of the people for whom it did, for if you weren’t watching the action on screen, you wouldn’t even have known a goal had been scored. Hypnotic, eerily creepy silence. Not a groan or a shout anywhere within earshot, almost as if the Argies were expecting to concede. Over a hundred metres away, straining our view across the statue-like heads of the crowd, a pocket of celebration; German flags waving amongst leaping fans who must have been experiencing the most enraptured high, yet the sound of their joy would not even reach us.

With the world cup over, the focus was on Rio the destination, this city of the world that captures the imagination of travelers year round. And there is a reason for it. The whole downtown area emits a constant confident buzz like a girl who knows she’s hot. You can walk along mosaic footpaths underneath skyscrapers that could belong in any city, yet the bustling population that swarms around you are full of people in flip flops and short shorts. The knowledge that a block away are beaches like no other is just plain awesome. They nestle between mythical towering cliffs, which drop dramatically onto sprawling hot sand only half visible through the throngs of beach goers; fighting the aggressive surf on the water’s edge, flinging their bodies across the sand in a game of beach football, or lounging horizontal like bathing seals, exposing all but a slither of flesh to the engulfing warmth of the sun. A cable car ride up to Sugerloaf mountain makes you appreciate why the city’s harbour is a world wonder. Guarded over by Christ de Redeemer, who’s towering outstretched pose seems to claim the city as his own, the skyscrapers and urbanisation tucked between stacks of rainforest engulfed mountain and giant rock hills that rise like behemoths from the flat ground. A jutting harbour sprinkled with beaches which retracts and flings itself from the mainland at random, sometimes opening up to cradle huge sections of sparkling blue ocean. We watched the sunset from our vantage point up among the paparazzi; countless phones and cameras jutting around for their own unobstructed eye of the mighty vista. A few days later, the journey of my Kiwi mates from home came to an end just as this glorious section of my travels have, the world cup leaving my bank balance bruised but still fighting. Momentarily lost, I booked into a hostel in one of Rio’s favelas, hoping to experience a completely different side of Rio. I never actually expected it to be so drastically opposed to the postcard Rio that we had become so smitten with, or leave such a profoundly memorable impression in my mind.

Charms of a Concrete Metropolis

Charms of a Concrete Metropolis

7pm on a Sunday night, and we’re going clubbing. Not just any club either. This congregation of Sao Paulo’s hipster night dwellers is being held in a dated brick industrial factory, complete with towering chimneys and an underground labyrinth of tunnels. Our local friend Juliana meets us at the entrance and leads us four Kiwi’s into a dancefloor completely lit up from above, not like the dark grindfest you’d usually expect. To one side are several clothes racks just in case you showed up in the same outfit as your friend, or more likely, just wanted to buy clothes at a nightclub because well, that’s what hipsters do. In the case where none of the attire on show takes your fancy, you simply walk downstairs, through a dark underground dungeon serving as another dancefloor, into another room where you can purchase art, and even vinyl records. In the claustrophobic tunnels which run below the factory you can gaze up into the huge brick chimneys and get a sight identical to being stuck down the well in the film ‘The Ring’. This is all topped off with another area outside that pumps Brazilian electronic to the revelers bopping up and down on their acid trips in what probably used to be a lovely garden for the factory workers. The place was hipster as fuck, but we loved it.

A little over 20 million people live in this quirky metropolis, so it’s no wonder the nightlife caters to a variety of tastes. One night we walked into a nightclub where people were getting tattoos on the floor – $13 for as many as you want, and if that incredible deal doesn’t sway you, tattoos on the face, arse or genitals are free. Unfortunately we opted to save our money; we’d been told about D-Edge, an electronic nightclub that rated as one of the best in the world, which in a city that is already one of the most expensive in Brazil, wasn’t going to be cheap. At 11pm one night we sought it out, hitting a congregation of people where we expected the club to be. It was the back of a line which stretched a good 50 metres. Making the decision to wait was partly due to not knowing where else we could go, and made easier by the fact the line was supplemented by beers and spirits from several entrepreneurial street vendors. Drinking in public is legal in Brazil, so eventually to pass the time, we began playing drinking games. Some locals joined in, and before we knew it, it was 3am, the line to get into the club serving as the host for our spontaneous party.

We called it quits that night without getting in, but fortunately, being world cup time, we were never short of fiesta opportunities. Watching Holland beat Mexico right at the death in their knockout game was special; the Mexican fans were going ballistic earlier in the match when they scored, throwing full cups of alcohol into the air and embracing with a primitive enthusiasm. However two late goals from Holland sent us and the other Dutch supporters into a frenzy; the cheering echoing off the dull skyscrapers which caged the fan fest in. That evening Juliana showed us the neighbourhood of Vila Madalena, where a huge street party was going on. “It’s like this every night in the world cup” she told us as we pushed through throngs of people extending in every direction while vendors carrying polystyrene bins full of beer kept their thirsty gobs satisfied, “but on the days Brazil play, it’s even bigger”. A moment later a dark haired guy walks up to Juliana and starts saying something to her, but she waves him away promptly, telling me that he, like countless other Brazilians, are taking advantage of the world cup, faking a broken Portuguese accent to seem like a tourist. Brazilian girls are attracted to gringos I’m told. How unfortunate.

Mexican supporter wishing he didn’t waste his beer

Sao Paulo, although it does it very well, isn’t just about the partying, it’s cultural scene is what people more sophisticated than I might be inclined to call: ‘happening’. In our time here we visited a contemporary art museum on the border of scenic Ibirapuera park. It had elephants made of foam, magazine collage posters, and random words printed on the floor like fridge magnets. I knew at that point Sao Paulo was a city of the world, because it had wanky artists making wanky art, just like the rest of us. A trip to the famous football museum also proved a worthwhile excursion; even though the exhibitions were mostly in Portuguese, it was huge and ultra modern, with many different areas designed in funky styles, interactive sections and exhibitions covering the history, rules, players, goals, basically everything related to the world of football.

Not necessarily a tourist attraction but just as exciting, riding Sao Paulo’s extensive metro system in rush hour was an experience not forgotten easily. You’d think in a city with five times as many people as there are in the whole of New Zealand that four gringos would be able to fit in, yet squashed in a metro carriage tighter than an elevator with Kim Dotcom is where we stood out the most. At the metro station only about three people would be able to detach from the waiting mob and squeeze them self onto the arriving carriage and even then they were compressed, palms up against the glass like a gecko. A fully vacant train eventually arrived but despite successfully boarding, there wasn’t enough room to even pick your nose. As we approached our station we realised the door we needed to exit from was on the other side of the carriage. Mike unfortunately was closest so got the full force of the rest of us urging him forward, yelling like midwives at him to push as we tried to nuzzle our bodies through the pack. It became clear we were fighting a losing battle and ended up having to retreat, exiting at the next stop with the eyes and giggles of an entire carriage on us.

Our last night in Sao Paulo was a Saturday and we had a bus out at 10am the next morning, yet we were still bitter about our failed attempt to enter D-Edge. We decide to return, giddy in our confidence that because we were arriving at 9pm this time, we’d go right to the front of the line. Well we did, but only because there was no line. In fact, there was no people at all, no bouncers, no music from inside. The doors were closed, the nightclub, comprehensively, explicitly, shut. Turns out, as Juliana told us over message upon asking for other recommended clubs, D-Edge opens at 11pm on Saturday’s, and stays open until no less than midday Sunday. After killing a couple of hours we returned, entering in what can only be described as ‘Tron: The Nightclub’. Strobe lights burst sporadically from the ceiling and floor beneath us, while colourful equalizer bars bounced on the walls in sync with a godly deep bass. The dancefloor was packed, the drinks were horrendously expensive, but we stayed there, in a trance of deep robotic tunes intersected with gasps of fresh air from the roof top terrace, until 8am, when we emerged, wincing like vampires into the blistering white of the morning sun. Staggering half blind onto and off the metro, time marched on as a sobering reminder that we needed to pack our bags and get to the bus terminal, with now less than an hour to do so. We careened around our hostel room like groggy toddlers shoving anything that appeared in our tunnel vision into our backpacks, before rushing back to the metro, the extra baggage threatening to topple our wobbly legs at any moment. The climax came as we exited the metro and sprinted through the crowds as fast as our drunk feet could go, bags bouncing everywhere, dazed eyes screening the signs for our gate. If we looked like gringos before, at this point we may as well had flashing lights and a giant arrow above our heads. We did, predictably, miss our bus, but our whirlwind tour of this incredible city meant our attempted exit from it was wildly appropriate. Thankfully we were able to book another bus free of charge for that night, but the city had floored us, literally. At 7pm that Sunday night, we were in as close as a healthy person can get to a coma, but Sao Paulo, often termed South America’s ‘city that never sleeps’, was still wide, wide awake.

Stupefying Salvador and a dream World Cup

Stupefying Salvador and a dream World Cup

“English doctor in three hours here”. The Brazilian nurse stared at Ben and I hopefully around his computer monitor, presenting the Portuguese to English translation, courtesy of Google. To us, that was a result, a few back and forth passes of the keyboard and the internet had bridged the language gap for us. Pity we didn’t have it at the first hospital we tried. A  low but functional level of Spanish proved next to useless, word’s like ‘infection’, ‘mouth’, ‘doctor’ missing from my vocabulary. They wouldn’t of been much use there anyway; a helpful lady explaining in broken English that the hospital was for pregnant woman only. Another kind fellow who spoke English kindly pointed us in the direction of a hospital where Ben could get help so we went there. I then found myself communicating with a hospital receptionist in embarrassingly terrible Spanish, the only common tongue that we could both fumble our way through. Apparently and to our bewilderment, it seems no medical professionals in Salvador speak English, apart from one woman I’m assuming was urgently flown in from out of town just to quell the scene we were making at this hospital, but alas she would eventually give Ben the drugs he needed.

Salvador would keep on surprising us; a day out from the opening game, Mike, James, Ben wandered out to marvel at the industrial chaos that was to be a Fifa fan zone. They had joined me from Peru that morning and we couldn’t help but wonder if Brazil was really going to pull this off. Scaffolding littered the site, both constructed and prone on the ground, fluorescent workers buzzed around from trucks to the massive unfinished stage, above it the screen for the games. All around the sound of metal upon metal and a hurried air swarmed; were the world’s fears about Brazil not being ready for this event about to become reality? Thankfully, no, the next day, we donned out yellow jerseys and joined the mosh in front of Salvador’s iconic Barra lighthouse, craning out necks in the warm downpour and raising our cheap canned beer with new friends as the jubilation of Neymar’s first goal possessed us.

incomplete stage
Is there something on here?

There is no doubt about it, Brazilians love their football and they love to party, but they have solid competitor in the Dutch. Rumors had circulated about a massive congregation of Dutch supporters in Salvador’s historical centre Pelourinho before their opening match against Spain, a rematch of last world cup’s final and we were blessed enough to have tickets. Horrendous traffic forced us out of our taxi so we walked the remainder of the way. Even in our half hungover state (the Brazil game was the day before, tough life I tell you), it was hard not to get invigorated by the cheers of locals as we made our way down the street. I don’t know much Portuguese but I can certainly shout back to ‘Hollanda!’. Part of the reason for the support may have been because of the orange paint which adorned our bodies, but also the locals in Salvador are just incredibly warm and friendly in general; countless time’s we’ve simply been approached and asked where we are from; we usually take a moment to realise we aren’t being sold a necklace or foot massage before engaging in a curious and enriching conversation.

Dutch march
Half Dutch. Mum’s from Holland.

Eventually on our walk we stepped down a quiet cobblestone street, only a beer cart vendor and a couple of locals in sight, and we wondered whether we were still going in the right direction. It was then that we heard a distant chanting. We glided towards the noise and looked down the adjacent street, that’s where we saw them; a magical parade of orange, hands raised, singing in a way only a good shower can encourage. Or alcohol. Alcohol will do it too. Within moments of merging with the party a fellow supporter passed me his Caipirinha and we bopped with infectious enthusiasm down the old colonial road to the Dutch folk anthems being blasted from the back of the double decker bus that led the crowd. Once inside the stadium the sight and riotous roar of 55,000 people all ready for their first world cup game yanked the corners of our faces into a mightily stupid grin. When a goal was scored, an eruption of collective joy echoed around the stadium, strangers hugging strangers, beers being spilled without care. At the games end we felt like celebrities, staying for almost an extra 20 minutes as Brazilians, Bolivians, Spanish and countless other people posed for photos with us, celebrating the pure, intoxicating euphoria of the moment.

Where’s Wally?

With the other games rivaling the Dutch for atmosphere we hoped to maintain it watching Brazil v Mexico at the fan zone. Naively, we showed up with 45 minutes before it started, the result being confronted with the biggest line for any event I’ve ever seen. There must have been at least 60,000 people trying to cram into this relatively small fan zone, one that was only meant to supplement the main zone that was cancelled last minute. Stressing that we wouldn’t have anywhere to watch the game, we rushed to a bar by our hostel to see two Brazilians being shown the last free table, a large round one in the corner. The doorman could see our desperation but there was nothing he could do; they were packed. However, Google translate again would be our savior. I showed my phone’s screen asking if we could share a table with the Brazilians, and the doorman allowed me in to ask their permission. As I approached I readied my tongue, hoping we could communicate; “Falas Ingles?” I blurted. The blank stares that met me I assumed were for my god-awful pronunciation, so I repeated, the young guy parroting back in a Canadian accent “English? Yes we speak English”. And so a new friendship was born with the Brazilian impostors, bonding over beers, football and the unbelievable fireworks in Salvador which a middle aged man for some reason was detonating on the street outside the bar. Not only can you buy them off the street, sometimes from children, but some of them aren’t fireworks at all. They are bombs. It’s concerning how content I am now hearing almighty explosions in my near proximity, yet drop a firecracker at my feet as the kids here love to do and I’ll jump higher than Tim Cahill.

Post game we wandered to the fan zone to party some more; Nir and Jasmine the Canadians celebrated what I assume was the glory of their new company by climbing atop the Salvador sign. Jasmine eventually accepted a lift down by a passing local but Nir, being a respectable bloke, jumped off himself, bailing slightly but seeming okay. That was until someone noticed the pool of blood at his feet half a minute later which was pouring from his hand. The fact that he was close to fainting from blood loss as we rushed him to the makeshift medical hut was secondary to an even bigger shock; that the medical staff there spoke English, and that Nir could receive treatment without even being pregnant.

Chaos and Tranquility in Bolivia’s Jungles

So far since travelling I’ve been in the odd precarious situation, but it wasn’t till I was abseiling down from the Presidential hotel’s 15th floor in Bolivia’s capital La Paz dressed as Batman that I was genuinely scared. Not from the height itself, but from the complete lack of grip between my cheap market shoes and the plastered exterior wall, which caused me to slip and slide from 70 odd metres above the ground, almost rotating around to face the wall and completely unable to keep the instructed form for the decent. Got some pretty neat Go Pro footage though. This is La Paz.

Batman needs new shoes

You hear a lot of things about La Paz before arriving, both good and . . . . interesting. I would have to say in terms of the vista you get from a decent viewpoint, it’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen. Ramshackle houses crawl up the sides of the bowl-like valley in which it nestles, behind them the magnificent snowy peak of Huayna Potosi climbs into sight. To the right a grand cliff of craggy rocks breaches in between the urban jungle. On the ground level it is less pretty but no less stunning. Chaos in every direction. If you’ve ever watched a trail of ants closely, they’re always bumping into each other and frantically adjusting to get past, even if they have a common direction. This is how people drive in La Paz. Tiny streets on uneven terrain, steep hills, so many different types of vehicles; the scenes are similar to some places in South East Asia. The chaos inevitably spills into the life of a traveller also, you can certainly get up to a lot in La Paz and the hostels cater for this party vibe. Different themed events every night in the main hostels including a beer pong tournament where teammate Steve and I endured a heartbreaking loss in the final. The cheap alcohol flows like a sick backpackers bowels and from there La Paz simply pulls you in and spits you out on the floor next to your bed, where you stay until the following afternoon. The fact it’s the cheapest place in South America keeps it up as a favourite backpacking destination. I regularly fed myself with a $1.50 NZD street burger, but the prices of some of the restaurants persuaded me to spend more on  the odd occasion. One of the casualties was the biggest and best hunk of barbecue pork ribs of my life for $15, and at a really nice steakhouse too. To beat the chill of altitude I picked up a fake North Face jacket that nonetheless did the job superbly, and an ‘if I didn’t look like a Gringo before I certainly do now’ alpaca fleece style jumper, both for about $10.

Of course the Death Road is on everyone’s radar once they arrive in La Paz, whether they are considering doing it or not. Basically it consists of a downhill mountain bike down a thin gravel road cut into a valley a few hours from La Paz. The name comes from the fact that when road traffic was more prominent on the road fifteen years ago it was dubbed the ‘Worlds Most Dangerous Road’. On bikes, yes there are sheer drops just metres from where you are riding, with the road tightening to only three metres across in some parts, but it’s mainly okay and hard to go off the cliff. People do bail in every ride but thankfully they only scab up their face, break their elbows and destroy their knee caps on the brash rocks. But everyone gets a t shirt and DVD included!

No visit to Bolivia is complete though without a visit to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,811 metres above sea level. Copacabana was the town I arrived in late one night in the pouring rain, spending the night chilling in a hostel that cost less than a deluxe cheeseburger for the night with some Brazilians I met on the bus. The following day I got up early to catch a boat to Isla Del Sol (Island of the Sun) which sits in the lake and is regarded as a must do day trip. I was pretty stoked to bump into two mates I met in Santiago at the beginning of my trip at the dock, a crazy coincidence that happens surprisingly often with the various people you met as you go along. Guess the Gringo trail holds you closer than you think. The views on the island were spectacular, actually reminding me a bit of Lake Taupo at some points. On the boat ride over I was a bit chilly given the altitude and the fact it is winter, inconveniently and typically the only person who thought shorts were a good idea. I had the last laugh though, once on the island the combination of trying to hike inclines in the lack of oxygen that high up and the blistering sun caused a decent sweat to join the party.

Patrick connecting with his Sol

The jungle in Bolivia beckoned as the next stop, a three day tour in the wetlands they call the Pampas to swim with pink dolphins, search for anacondas, and fish for piranhas. Well we didn’t see an anaconda, and I accidentally kicked a dolphin while treading water which led to shear panic and girly yelping on my part and an obvious disinterest in playing with me from the dolphin’s side, but god damn am I good at catching piranhas.

boat trip
Boat cruise Bolivia style
jungle sunset
I do feel bad about kicking that dolphin










The four day planned stay in the jungle and the launch town of Rurrenabaque got complicated with me spontaneously signing up to spend five days living off the jungle with a local Spanish speaking tribesman. Despite probably being the messiah of fishing it is too slow a sport for me, but in the jungle it kind of becomes a necessity. The strategy is basically search for larvae in tiny rotting coconuts, which I also ate (it wasn’t as good as Timone and Pumba make out), use them to catch a small fish, use that fish to catch a bigger fish and if you can, use the bigger fish to catch an even bigger one. At night we slept in pre-built leaf huts on the ground, I had just the one pair of clothes which I slept in and a mosquito net, plus some kind of scraggly rag that only served to keep you off the dirt. Oh and termites taste like menthol. You gotta keep your breath fresh in the jungle somehow.

Day one, no fish, it was getting late, I was still getting used to drinking the water from the river which was not only murky brown but containing soot with every mouthful; nonetheless it was tasty and my daily morning ritual of slight diarrhea which it no doubt brought on lasted only slightly more than a week, which for South America I consider a raging success. We’d been sitting unsuccessfully for hours tossing our hand lines into the river when finally a huge bugger yanked the line. In I pulled the accidental and disappointing catch, a tortoise. Upon bringing it ashore it must of had a vision of seeing it’s 30 babies grow up because it gripped the sand with a Hercules-like strength, causing the line to pull taut to the point of the hook coming lose, the sinker shooting out of the darkness and cracking me just above the eye. I had a cute little war wound, and Lazaro my guide found it utterly hilarious so I guess it’s not all bad. That determined reptile sadly met its end soon after and I’m not proud of it. A second time upon pulling in my eagerly awaited catch the beady head of the tortoise greeted my from the waters edge. After some back and forth attempts to understand Lazaro’s shouting from a rock 10 metres away I realised Tortcules was dinner, and I was the reluctant butcher. I only had a small knife, and without revealing the details, my brutish attempts to end its life quickly were not met with anywhere close to success. Enter machete-wielding guide and four or five solid hacks at its rubbery neck and the poor beast was beheaded. I shit you not it’s arms were still flailing half an hour later as it roasted on our beach fire. When cooked, Lazaro cracked it in half and we both held half a shell like a tortoise taco, reaching in and ripping out bits of chewy flesh and who knows what else. It was dinner, jungle style.

The next few days we had more success with fishing, relatively. My luck with the piranhas didn’t translate so well, a perceived clever attempt to climb a fallen tree overhanging the wide river to get to a good spot was followed by me dropping the hand line in the water as I tried to cast. There was a split second of bemused staring before I leapt in after it, fully clothed, but the line was gone instantly in the strong current. Then the next day I threw a monster cast out into the river, glancing at Lazaro with a wry smirk to see if he noticed that it went even further than his. Pity then it had too much slack and got stuck under a log, making me a useless companion because he told me to wait in case a fish came and took it. Lazaro went to a better spot with his line and I took the opportunity to try and dry my clothes, which were damp mainly from the knee deep mud that was trying to swallow me with every step. The beach mosquitoes and flies pounced on the banquet of my exposed near naked body for far too long before Lazaro called me over; between the flying bugs and the biting ants whose bodies split in half before their vice grip released whatever they sunk their teeth into, I would be itching my wounds for the next fortnight. I went to my master and helped pull in a truly gigantic catfish, which when cooked that night was undoubtedly the best fish I’ve ever had in my life. I sat there literally pulling every piece of meat off it’s carcass, then sat sharing cigarettes and the little whisky Lazaro had in his small milk bottle around the fire, with a full belly, trying to communicate  in broken Spanish while the bugs of the jungle hummed all around and the deep groan of the river lulled me into absolute tranquility,

By this time I was looking pretty ridiculous, I had a feather poked out of my ear, a hat made of flax, a shell necklace and a large water holder made from bamboo, all things I’d watched Lazaro whip up from the resources the jungle provides in absolutely no time at all. By the end of the day, the only thing left in one piece was the water holder. A typically brisk morning hike to another area greeted us soon after the sun rose, with the traditional chewing of coca leaves that I’d been participating in giving another great buzz that made it easy to push through the heat. Up ahead however, a huge storm slowly rolled towards us. Birds sparkled out of the trees above, the thunder sparking a melancholic air as the relentless mosquitoes and utterly awful biting ants disappeared entirely.

We took a quick breather under a tree as the rain began to pelt us, I was utterly wrong thinking that was as bad as it would get. In front of us was a log which served as a bridge across one of the many stagnant streams which I had crossed the last few days without any trouble. With that success I was feeling a bit like Indiana Jones but in the rain and the chaos, a few steps in off I slipped, landing chest deep in the water just as the rain turned torrential. Gone was my beautiful tribal hat and feather ear piece, and any patch of dry clothing left on my body. But when I jumped back on the log my inner feral tribesman came out, charging through the jungle echoing the ridiculous jeers and animal sounds that Lazaro was always making, just to fight through the downpour with a functional level of moral. Eventually and freezing cold at this point, we arrived at the hut we stayed in the first two nights for shelter, meeting two English girls Helen and Naomi who were also doing survivor with their guide and seeking shelter. Speaking English felt like cheating but we didn’t have a lot of time to acquaint, the subtle cracking of wood leading to all five of us madly dashing out of the hut as a large tree crashed to the ground behind us, just missing the tiny tepee shaped hut. Wisely, the guides took us to an old timber building the local tribesman used to live in. It was elevated above the soggy jungle ground, albeit with missing pieces of the rotting timber floor and half walls which left us exposed to the cold. Me and Lazaro were meant to build a raft out of driftwood that day and sail down the large River Beni to our final pickup spot but instead I spent the next twenty hours huddled around a fire drying my soaked clothes and frozen body and bantering with my new friends, waiting for morning where warm food and a boat back to civilization awaited. Not really what I would call surviving, however the night was notably bitterly freezing so at least I got a bit more of the unpleasantness that I signed up for. I later found out the storm and the cold front it brought about was a once a year event. While biding our time in the hut the guide made a tribal ink from some seeds, for doing henna-like tattoos which he prompty rubbed over my hands before I could protest, meaning I looked like an oil worker for the next two weeks. Cheers Lazaro. Got a cool forearm tattoo though which was made up of symbols documenting my time in the jungle; amongst them a sun, the river, a fish, and most notably, a tortoise.


Hiking, Rafting & Poo in Peru

Hiking, Rafting & Poo in Peru

Learning Spanish is hard when you’re on drugs. Here in Cusco I’m taking four hours of lessons a day for a week, hoping i can improve on the flailing attempt at communication that I’ve been wingin it with so far. But as I’m sure happens with every single long term traveler ever, I’ve gotten sick. My cold symptoms, a nose with an infinite and effectively run snot production system and a cough like a dogs bark, have been kicking around, on and off, for about six weeks now, almost the time I’ve been in South America. Then the loose bowels decided to join the party about two weeks ago, and that is what the mentioned drugs are for. Fingers crossed I’m out of the woods now – La Paz in Bolivia is my next destination, and from what I’ve heard there’s enough else there to make you sick than a bit of a cough.

When I crossed the border from Chile into Peru I made a beeline for Arequipa, having read good things in my trusty Lonely Planet. Arequipa, at least in the centre, is a colonial style town with a really cool adventurous vibe about it. El Misti, the resident snow capped mountain overlooks the city, and there are plenty of hikes and other activities in and around the city that you can tackle. I first tackled the city using my trusted strategy for finding my feet (or loosing them depending how you look at it): parking myself at the hostel bar and ordering a beer. The hostel was called the Wild Rover, and it has set me off on a quest to have the best threesome in South America. The sexual innuendo being a slogan on a t-shirt that you get if you stay at all three Wild Rover hostels. I spent a couple of nights at the one in Cusco also so La Paz beckons as the final tick box for my free t shirt.

I met a lot of cool people at the hostel, and went white water rafting with a bunch of them, organised through the hostel. After my desert escapade I was thinking that was the one time South America would try to get me, and I was home free now. Well Arequipa decided to shake that up a little more, flipping our raft on the very first rapid where every other boat had passed without incident. Being pushed along a current head down, not knowing which underwater rock will slam into my face is a pretty hair-raising experience. Especially when you do eventually right yourself and the raft is preventing you from breaking the surface for air, so you are frantically gasping underneath it, managing to get tiny breaths in the air pocket while trying to work your way to the side. Yup, in all honesty, it was awesome.

I learnt a vital lesson in Arequipa that I’m sure many backpackers have learn’t before me: NEVER have a big night before a trek. I mean playing drinking jenga is hard to resist on the best of days, couple that with free drink vouchers being given out by the bar and nine times out of ten you don’t have a choice, a big night is literally forcing itself upon you. But before a 3am bus that takes you to a two day trek of the Colca Canyon, not clever. I could have done with an ‘advice for drinkers’ section in the Lonely Planet. We drunk right up until the bus and crashed out during the bumpy journey, but on arrival, I was not happy. In my foolishness I hadn’t packed my glasses or spare contact lenses and somehow during my sleep, I had lost a contact lense. Also the cold that I thought I conquered had come back for the sequel and brought with him a headache not unlike one would get from a pillow fight with the All Blacks after they’ve eaten their Weetbix. When we did eventually start walking, alas with slightly skewed depth perception from having just one contact lense to look through, the scenery was incredible enough to allow a few moments of tranquility to override my horrendous Peruvian hangover. After a full day of hiking into and around the second deepest canyon in the world, deeper even than the grand canyon, we arrived at our nights accommodation – a green oasis with a swimming pool and warm beds, it was magnificent. During the night I had to get up for the toilet a couple of times and found it rather unsettling however to have the glowing eyes of about four mules locked on me from just a few metres away. It’s hard to pee while mules stare.

One of the coolest things I’ve done so far has to be flying up and over the huge sand dunes of Huacachina in a dune buggy, only stopping so the driver can pass you your sand board and send you over the end of some mammoth dune yourself. It’s like an unpredictable roller coaster with no rules, the rush of tumbling over the lip of a near 90 degree sand slope that has seemingly appeared out of nothing is absolutely pure and incredible. The oasis town of Huacachina itself is totally unique too. Despite being close to a larger city called Ica, everything that you can see from the town itself makes it seem like a tiny patch of vegetation surrounding a tiny lake in the middle of the desert, alas with restaurants and a few tiny stores.

In Paracas, a 7-8 hour bus from Huacachina, they have what is called the ‘mini Galapagos’. If like me your on a backpacker budget and can’t afford Ecuador’s wildlife haven, the Ballestas Islands in Paracas are more than satisfactory. I’m not much of a bird man, even coming from New Zealand where many a bird watcher have gotten a hard on, but let me say even I got slightly aroused by the magnitude of birds in the Ballestas. And the sealions. One beach was completely covered by their oily black bodies; all of them groaning like some swingers orchestra and spilling out into the sea because there wasn’t enough room on land. I swear I even saw a couple that were the size of bears.

A short spell in Lima was uninspiring, but that was unnecessary seeing as Maccu Picchu was right around the corner. I did a four day excursion called the Jungle trek, which started with a downhill bike ride from 4300 metres in the highlands of Cusco’s Sacred Valley. The weather was terrible at the top, making the first one & a half hours miserable. Instagram-able views obscured by cloud, rain stabbing your eyeballs, boots sloshing with water, my pathetic gloves soaked and doing nothing to prevent the razer edge of the chill slicing at my fingers. The weather did clear up for the second section and there were no complaints there; it was free gravity-powered gliding through beautiful valleys with nothing to interrupt you for 90 minutes – pure bliss. A full day of hiking greeted us the second day and on the third, zip lining over the trees in a valley beneath Maccu Picchu. I’ll admit before seeing it the main attraction itself felt a lot like something you just had to do, a right of passage for visitors to Latin America. Perhaps the allure was slightly dampened by the fear of that one token image that saturates travel pamphlets distorting what would otherwise be a fresh, overpowering awe. Well I was wrong, Maccu Picchu is undeniably grand and mesmorising in person, like something literally placed by the gods for us to oodle over. A full day was spent there, hiking a huge mountain to get a birds view of the ancient city and wandering its mythical avenues.

Peru has left me with a sour taste however, a sour taste brought about because I know I have barely seen it. I’ve explored the south and because of time restraints, I’m prevented from going any further north, or spending more time in Cusco where the host family I’m staying with this week are making it extremely difficult to say goodbye. Cusco itself is a city like no another, thin cobblestone streets, old brick homes straddling the hills of the valley that the city is nestled in, gorgeous plaza squares, bustling markets and a pumping nightlife. But the world cup beckons in just over a month on the other side of the continent, and I know I’ll be back to explore the magic of Peru another day. As you say in Spanish – VAMOS!