Into The Wild

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Image by: Katherine Griffiths Photography

Hundreds of dragonflies dart haphazardly around me, fracturing the silvery pink light. They snatch at small clouds of gnats and unsuspecting mosquitoes as afternoon turns to evening. The humidity slowly drops. Standing in the ‘open window’ that is my bedroom wall, I witness the sounds of larger forest life quieten and the smaller insect world increase in crescendo.

I can hear distant laughter and the tinkling of glasses. The sweat on my arms and face dries as the air cools. It’s now the twilight. The dragonflies feed with less abandonment, the forest with her large palm fronds and the vines near to me, morph into one giant silhouette against a now blue-black night sky. The last of the light disappears and standing in the dark I reflect on what an amazing place I’ve landed in.

I’m in Tambopata National Park in the South East of Peru with the award-winning ecotourism outfit – Rainforest Expeditions. I’m here to experience the Amazon, to search for the elusive Jaguar, Anacondas, the very rare Giant River Otter and the Harpy Eagle. These four species are considered, by my guide Aldo, as the top four endangered predatory creatures in the area.

Squinting at the glow of my watch I realise I’ve almost missed sundowners at the lodge bar. With the smell of dinner in the air I grab a torch, stroll the walkways to the main hub of ‘Refugio’ (the lodge) and find some of the guides and other guests already at the bar, tucking into Pisco Sours and discussing the coming days’ activities.

Refugio Lodge
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

 

Lodge walkways.
Image by Kate Walker

The perfect spot to while away the afternoon hours…
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

His incredible ear for faun calls and eye for the tiniest of movements sees me witnessing Saddle-back Tamarinds for the first time, different species of Tucan, teasing Chicken Tarantulas out of their ground burrows (this is not for the faint-hearted) and learning about the stranger of beasts (Screaming Pijas and Hoatzins to name a couple) in this huge conservation area.  We pass Walking Trees, Strangler Figs and Kapoks – the incredible and majestic trees that inspired James Cameron in the making of the film ‘Avatar’.Life, in this part of the world, is at its busiest early in the day; I’m up each day at around 06:00am to the awakening calls of Howler Monkeys and within the hour, walking the forest trails with a belly full of breakfast and in the footsteps of Aldo.

Chicken tarantula
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Tambopata NP really is a special place. It has one of very few Macaw research/conservation and protection centres in all of South America and along with Colombia it is ranked the top spot for bird watching in South America.

Tambopata lies within the larger region of Madre de Dios (Mother of God) where 52 per cent of the forests are protected by the government. Of the 120 ‘world climates’, 80 can be found in this setting and wider Peru. This nook in the world is all about halting development and promoting conservation – it’s fantastic to see.

One of many forest trails..
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Perched silently in a hide overlooking the clicks, I watched vibrant yellow, red and blue Scarlet Macaws socialise and parakeets group together in their tens. Bird enthusiasts can sit glued to telescopes and high-tech binoculars for hours, so if you’re all about the avian world – this is the place to be.Traipsing the forest trails and crushing dry vegetation underfoot is not conducive to glimpsing some of the more shy fauna in the region. So this is where the Clay Licks come in handy. A Clay Lick is an area, usually on the edges of a riverbank, where creatures great and small gather around exposed soil and eat the nutrient-rich clay to assist in their digestion of fruits and other vegetation. Some also believe it’s a place where Tambopata’s 1,800 species of bird come to socialise. And, Tambopata is home to the largest ‘Clay Lick’ in the world.

All you need it a cold beer and a spot to perch.
Image by Kate Walker

Afternoons saw me scaling canopy towers allowing a peak at the expanse of green I’d been moving under for days. By night there’s the opportunity to go Caiman spotting – these creatures that grow up to two meters long are far more active at night. And if the reptiles are proving difficult to hunt out then a boat ride with your head hung over the side is just as good – the stars and clarity of night sky in this corner of the planet is incredible.

Fading light on a sandy bank.
Image by Kate Walker

Sadly, I never got to see any of the mentioned top predators but I saw a huge array of other wonderful species and I’m far richer for the exposure. Refugio’s guides and staff make the experience; the lodge is an oasis of comforts in what is a wild, remote part of the world.

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Chasing dust trains

Bitter winds whip at my exposed face as I make my way over to border control. Around me the early morning light paints a deceivingly warm hue over grand mountains and snow-capped volcanic scenes. A land rover hurtles past me, spraying gravel and creating a cloud of dust. Hunkering further down in into my fleece (and five layers beneath that) I hurry over the invisible line that denotes Chile and into Bolivian territory.

The border between Chile and Bolivia
Image by: Kate Walker

Sunlight streams through the dust covered windows of the immigration ‘shed’ I stand in. Being in seriously rugged terrain and a long way from anything civilised, one can forgive the lack of facilities and comfort immigration offers here. An elderly man seated on a three-legged stool thrusts his hand out, refuses to acknowledge me, takes my passport and without reviewing the ID page stamps me in.

Well, ‘hola’ Bolivia.

Covering my eyes with a gloved hand, I dash back to the smaller shed we parked at and join the group for breakfast. At over 4000m altitude my 50m dash leaves me heaving and narrowly avoiding a coughing fit. Wow, the air up here is dry. Not only that, it comes with about 40% less oxygen that I am used to. Recovering over a plastic up of instant ‘cafe con leche’ (the regular out here…coffee with milk), I burrow in with the French, Welsh and Kathy for body warmth.

The breakfast shed
Image by: Kate Walker

Cafe con leches and peach jam sandwhiches
Image by: Kate Walker

Edgar – our ‘Spanglish’ driver and guide joins us for peach jam sandwiches and advises us that there are no baños (loos) here. The next possible baño stop is 30 minutes drive from here. Great! Having already sipped water for hours and now cradling my second cup of hot coffee; this is not good. I think of mom and agree she would hate this. No loos and with winds being sub degree, it prevents you from discreetly dropping you pants behind a mound of rubbish.

Image by: Kate Walker

“Vamos”, Edgar shouts. We go….

I stand and watch my backpack, along with others, get thrown up onto the roof racks of our 4×4. Wrapping the load in tarpaulin and tying on additional fuel tanks on top, Edgar doesn’t even puff with the exertion. He later tells me he has been doing this for over 20 years and that it takes a lot for him to wheeze at near to what we gringos do. Fair call.

As I climb into the back of our land rover, I look back out at the scene we’re leaving. Abandoned truck skeletons lie covered in thick layers of dust, a multitude of other land rovers gear up and pull away leaving the old, unperturbed man on his three-legged stool hidden in a blanket of swirling yellow and red dust.

The only way to move around this part of the world.
Image by: Kate Walker

Here we go. Three days through Bolivian National Parks, deserts, volcanic plains, geysers, lagoons and her famous salt pans/flats (the largest in the world).

Train skeleton
Image by: Kate Walker

With six of us layered and padded for warmth, along with Kathy’s camera equipment, it’s a tight squeeze. Edgar asks us to not open the windows or play with the air vents. They must remain closed or risk choking on streams of dust. Pulling away and into the dust trail of a 4×4 in front of us, I silently ‘whoop’ with the excitement of all of this. London certainly doesn’t cough up scenes, space or the extremes I’m currently moving through. This is insane. It’s liberating and it’s only hour three of 72.

Kathy
Image by: Kate Walker

Valentine
Image by: Kate Walker

Me – happy to be back in a land rover!
Image by: Kate Walker

Clocking near to 100km/hr in our land rover, mountains and volcanoes (both dead and alive) move past at a snail’s pace outside my window. The vivid colours out here are just mesmerising. Below a crisp blue and cloudless sky lie brown, rust, orange, yellow and purple-ish undulating shapes. White, white snow lathers the tops of higher peaks, pink and yellow dust trains swirl in the air and rogue yellow tufty grasses lie flattened in the freezing winds.

Colourful landscapes
Image by: Kate Walker

Valentine – my back seat French friend – mutters “Mon Dieu”. Indeed….My God.

Thirty minutes later and Edgar slows, the land rover wheels swishing in the soft sands and gravel. We’re approaching the first of three lagoons for the day. Blanco (white) Lagoon rests in Eduardo Avaroa National Park and if you’ve never seen a winter-layered lagoon before (like me) it’s pretty special. Ice-fringed lagoon edges sparkle in the mid-morning sunlight. Soft brown muds mix with snap-frozen green and red algae. Encircling us and this colourful icy spot are even more dramatic mountain scenes. Wind-streaked clouds break the horizon and ….it’s quiet. So quiet.

Our first view of Blanco Lagoon.
Image by: Kate Walker

Being at altitude, the heart pumps faster. And here at Blanco Lagoon I can hear my heart. The thumps and pulses echo in my ears.

Kathy & Me at Blanco Lagoon.
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Icy shores – Blanco Lagoon
Image by: Kate Walker

Blanco Lagoon
Image by: Kate Walker

Frozen ‘chicas’ – Kate & Kathy
Image by: Kate Walker

Ten minutes is all we can bear. Wide, open lands are conducive to ‘sideways winds’ and it’s exhausting to stand out here for too long. Cramming back into our trusty 4×4 steed and with Edgar’s Bolivian tunes sounding out, it’s “vamos” once more. Again, we leave in a veil of dust and aim for a far off dust train – the ‘only’ life out here; another land rover.

Mad geyser winds and flying grit
Image by: Kate Walker

We can only withstand a few minutes…
Image by: Kate Walker

We visit two more lagoons for the day. Verde (green) and Rojo (red). Both beautiful, wild and very different in their makeup and resulting colours. Rojo Lagoon is home to flamingoes but being winter, sadly, there are very few tip-toeing the ice-encrusted shores. Edgar tells us during summer, it’s difficult to spot a pool of water between the tens of thousands of pink legs that migrate here in the season.

Strong winds at Verde Lagoon
Image by: Kate Walker

Rojo Lagoon is my favourite. It’s huge, the reds are dramatic, the slopes down to the shores of the lagoon are not for the feint-hearted and it’s a place where you can’t help but seek a little solitude and squat with your own thoughts.

Rojo Lagoon
Image by: Kate Walker

Rojo Lagoon – difficult shore slopes
Image by: Kate Walker

Rojo Lagoon & me
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Light footed Delphine & Valentine – Rojo Lagoon
Image by: Kate Walker

Day two is all about covering distance. We settle in, the Bolivian tunes are on repeat, puffa jackets have been removed and the car is quite. Some sleep and some nurse altitude sickness. Me – I’m propped in a sunny corner and I watch incredible landscapes go by for hours. I have never seen anything like this before. I try to piece together scenes of the Judean Desert/Israel’s Dead Sea with a touch of Namibia’s sandy landscapes – but it just doesn’t work. This part of the world is completely unique and almost looks untouched and un-inhabited. The few local faces we do pass are terribly weathered. Skin that starts out as light brown quickly turns dark and before middle age, many folk look near-black in the cheeks and hands. The sun is vicious in this part of the world and coupled with that, the winds suck what moisture they can. Within one day my hand were chapped, swollen and my cuticles split and bleeding. Doing up/un-doing frozen jacket and backpack zips is an art by day three.

One of few active volcanoes in the region
Image by: Kate Walker

06:45 on our last morning and I’m sitting up in bed, swaddled in everything I own plus the blankets provided by our ‘Salt Hotel’ – looking out over the edges of The Salar de Uyuni. This is what we’re here for. Sunrise creeps into existence and the black and blue hues of the salt flats change to purple, pink and finally a blinding white. Again, I’m taken back by the sheer space out here. It’s salt for as far as the eye can see.

Dawn on the salt flats
Image by: Kate Walker

With hot cafe con leches lining my stomach along with a bit of dulce de leche smothered bread, Edgar has us packed up and spinning tyres in the direction of …well salt. How he knows where to drive and without navigational equipment, is beyond me. He turns and winks at me, somehow knowing my thoughts; and quietly comments that he drives this route every three days. And remember, he’s been doing this for over 20 years. I wink back and give him a small salute too.

A fellow 4×4…the only other moving object for miles on the salt pans
Image by: Kate Walker

Forty minutes later and we pull over. I laugh as there is no difference to the salt we’ve been driving over to the salt we come to stop on. But, it’s here where the fun begins. For hours our group happy-snaps away. Folk ‘hang off’ the hair braid of Delphine, our German friends traipse my horizontal body and the girls hold each other in the palms of their hands.

In the palm of their hands
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Hanging by a braid
Image by: Kate Walker

‘Walking Kate’
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Snapped a second too soon.
Image by: Kate Walker

The jump shot – super fun!
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

It feels like such a short time, but apparently not. “Vamos” we hear.

Post all the fun on the salt flats. “Vamos”…we’re off again.
Image by: Kate Walker

There are more dust trains to chase and we set off – a tiny moving speck in the brilliance of the salt flats of Bolivia.

Image by: Kate Walker

Hang checks, views and soaring high

A Hang Check:

‘The act of a pilot to check that one is properly connected to the hang glider before flight (and hanging at the correct distance above the base tube). This is accomplished by the pilot laying down in flight position to ensure all connections are properly made and putting pressure on that system.’

…I was told in a round-about, more simplified way as I hung in my harness on the edge of a cliff in Tijuca National Park.

Just making sure he’s strapped me in good and proper.
GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

The Hang Check….

I’m about to willingly run off the side of a mountain but for a few seconds I’m arrested by the views. Tijuca National Park is the largest urban forest in the world and it slams right up against the Atlantic Ocean. Hard not to appreciate that for a few minutes. But, before I can recap all the rules to gliding in my head one more time, my wings move forward by pilot Beto Rotor and then it’s “run, run, run, 1, 2, 3…..feet up!”

I’m slammed into my harness, pulled into the V of our glider and Beto is whooping with delight. He lives for this stuff. For a few seconds I can’t get a word out, my head is craned back and the wind is causing my eyes to tear. Eeewwww – this is insane.

Seconds after launch
GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

Strong up-winds throw us nearly higher than the height we launched at. We are up and over Tijuca, Rocinha – favela and our home is incredible and the sea looms closer and closer.

Soaring high…
GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

This is the truest form to flying…really. So much to take on, you see everything, you feel the winds dip, surge and press down upon you. No comparison to bungee jumping and skydiving.

Free flying with Rocinha in the background
GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

Preparing to land – gut wrenching
GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

Inches away….
GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

Down – Eeewwwww
GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

Quick Facts:

Who to hang glide with: Beto Rotor (www.betorotor.com)

Where: In, up and high above Tijuca National Park – Rio de Janeiro

The trials of being an ‘English Rose’

It is hard to shake seven years of delicate ‘English’ skin when you land in a hub like Rocinha. There are mosquitoes to contend with and if bitten the chomp/swelling if of ridiculous porpotions. First-world stomach sensitivities need to be grappled with (cheese and guava flavoured ice cream is a no-go on day one) and aparently parasites, more commonly associated with cats and dogs, can run riot in us newly arrived pastel cases. Then there’s sub tropic rays to battle with for the first few days – factor 30 usually smothers these into submission. But, what one does’t account for is the delicate nature of our ‘English’ immune systems versus that of a robust, beetle-brown, mozzie-immune, cheese and guava loving 10-month old Carioca gurgling infront of you and with a nose full of thick green mucous. Said infant is joyous, parasite free and has no idea of how dangerous he is to the ‘rosey’ individuals he crosses paths with.

Moises – 10 months
Image by: Kate Walker

I am said individual and have been laid flat for the last five days with a horrendous cold. Swelling right eye, infected larynx and loss of left nostril functionality has lead me to hunt out antibiotics and, thank the almighty favela gods, Rocinha’s pharmacists provide.  Over the counter, beaming faces and no questions asked.

Lack of the Portuguese lingo does, however, require one to abandon their dignity at the pharmacy door and ‘charade’ one’s way through necessary questions; such as:

  • Must I take these with food and water?
  • How many times a day?
  • Is it ok to lug back Caipirinahs during the course of taking these wee pills?
  • Exactly what is it I am taking?
  • Any idea what the English version of these are?
  • Do these cause drowsiness? (No?..oh good, as I will be hang gliding and wish to clearly take note of the experience).

Donning my fragile dignity and heading back out into the maelstrom of Rocinha’s streets, I figured (being fully dosed on the good stuff now and primed for a full recovery) my ‘rosey’ throat could do with an ice cream.

Guava and cheese?.. why the hell not…

Crèche days with UMPMRS …14Jun12 – 26Jun12

Our yellow home in Roupa Suja
Image by: Kate Walker

From our yellow house – boasting a trio of marmosets, mango trees and sweeping views; it’s a three minutes trot down the slick paths of Roupa Suja (meaning Dirty Washing) to the day care centre.  We never quite break the three minute record as 07:50am sees humanity on the move. Kathy and I break out into ‘Ois’, ‘Olas’ ‘Bom Gias’ and an array of other colourful and probably incorrectly remembered phrases  as we skirt the edges of our path, backs pressed to crumbling walls, to allow workmen to pass. Mothers with troops of kids (some theirs and some tag-alongs) stream up and down and dogs barrage past – a few happy at the new day and new folk to greet, and some intent on a point beyond us.

Music sweeps out of houses and down the warren of streets from early in the morning to the close of night. Neighbours compete for volume and we have grown used to the sounds of Favela Funk intermingled with Adele and sometimes a little Flo Rida. Kathy (or Faffy – as my mother calls her) has on occasion sung along to the lyrics of Adele and passing kids smile and shout ‘gringa’. It’s getting easier to hear.

Morning walk to the day care centre
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Five or so minutes later and we’re ascending the front steps of the day care centre and into a kitchen smelling of freshly baked pão (bread), bubbling fejioã (black beans) and boiling coffee beans. The coffee is the strangest brew I’ve tasted and I’ve only managed to sip half a plastic cup. By day two, Kathy and I figured we’d do better to sort breakfast at our yellow pad. We now have a routine of papaya, banana, apple, yoghurt and soya mango juice (yes –  a strange carton we thought we’d give a go) before starting our descent to the centre.

Weekdays by 08:00am and most babies, toddlers and up-to-five-year-olds have been deposited. Kathy spends her day mingling with the one to two year olds in classrooms well equipped with age-old toys, books, mini furniture and tiny nap mattresses. She’s an exhausted heap by the time I see her for our lunch at 11:30 – always beans and rice with occasionally some Frango (chicken) or veg on the side. Her hours are spent dancing, jumping, feeding, colouring and attempting to maintain peace and order along with two other local crèche ladies.

Kathy´s creche group
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Me – I’m up the top with the babies. Five to 18 month olds. Mornings kick off on the floor with up to nine bubs crawling and tottering to loud Brazilian baby music tapes. We clap, gurgle and bounce for hours with my role mainly being the master of proper toy distribution so that no rowdy fights ensue. There’s a lot of nose wiping to be done and the two other women I work with (Tynara and Mynova) sort all nappy cleaning and bathing of the little ones.  Windows are flung wide, we get a terrific breeze through what would otherwise be a furnace box, and mozzies are near to none. A massive relief, as we often hear the locals talking about Dengue. Dengue, it turns out is the same word in Portuguese.

Baby Luna
Image by: Kate Walker

The wee ones – Moises & Isabelly
Image by: Kate Walker

Twin Ana Larah & Moinova
Image by: Kate Walker

Very few of the adults dropping and picking up the babies are older than 25. Tynara herself is 19 and already has two children. The first when she was 14…

I’ve since learnt from Alessandra – our go-to lady should we ever have a serious issue, that the majority of mothers in Rocinha are not married and simply have children with multiple partners.  Their children’s names are tattooed to the underneath of their forearms. There are a multitude of what I think are young girls walking the streets of Rocinha with tattooed arms…

Sitting on a tree stump in the sun is my favourite spot for lunch. And it’s a long lunch while all bodies under the age of five sleep for three hours. The centre is quiet, the ladies chat and laugh amongst themselves quietly and Kathy and I are content to sit and watch on in post rice/bean haze.

Nap time
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Afternoons from 14:00pm are optional. We can carry on with entertaining and generally being involved or we have the choice to say ‘ciao’ and ‘até mais’ (see you…) until the following morning.

So, some afternoons Kathy and I stay on until 16:00pm when young moms and dads or grandparents come to collect their children; and on other days we head into the bedlam of Rocinha and explore juice bars (ah there we go, as I type Adele’s Someone Like You is pumping out), pastry stalls, the few internet joints that there are and shop for our soya mango juice, bananas, apples and yoghurt…

Evening streets of Rocinha
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

The first 30 hours – the cidade maravilhosa: 13Jun12 – …..

With (what looked like) a wing-tip skimming the sides of Pão de Açúcar – iconic ‘Sugar Loaf’ mountain and a sunset just kicking in; Iberia flight 6025 touched down in a light lilac haze. I had arrived in the ‘marvellous city’ known as Rio.

With a backpack I’m not used to hoisting around and pacing it out of customs a little heavy footed, I was met by a carioca – a local Rio resident; kindly alleviated of weight and transferred to Copacabana for the night. After managing to un-wedge myself and pack from the bedroom door frame of Che Lagarto Suites, it was a cold shower and an early night to bed, for me, with air-con purring.

Kathy – Ross’ other half/artistic photographer/lover of all things purple and cats…and my travel partner; tapped on my door early morning of day two. Managing to backpack-jump, jig and tap-dance her excitement to me at having arrived (finally?) she had a story to tell….

On leaving London Heathrow Kathy was to discover her Brazilian visa had already activated and she was down by a handful of days. And not only this, but her cabin luggage (camera equipment) was tipping the industrial scales at triple the allowed kgs. With brimming eyes and persuasion only Kathy can pull off – she actually made it onto the plane and with all her belongings in tow.

It doesn’t stop there… On arrival into Rio, the dear soul stood for an hour at her baggage carousel and collected nothing. Mr baggage-delivery-man eventually popped up and indicated she was waiting at the wrong delivery belt. A single backpack was circling close by – Kathy’s.

09:00 saw us fed on super sugary cereal and now teetering under the weight of packs but at least out of the barbed-wire confines of ‘the suites’ and onto Rocinha (pronounced Ho-seen-ya) – home for the next two-ish weeks.

Rocinha – Latin America´s largest favela
Image by: Kate Walker

Rocinha is Latin America’s largest favela (shanty town) and apparently also the world’s largest slum area. Somewhat apprehensive, we were deposited onto the side of one highway under a limelight screaming ‘gringas who have no idea where they are and don’t speak the language’ and, thank heavens, after some skimming of the crowd we spotted a waving fellow gringa. Danielle, as it turns out, works for an NGO in the favela as an English teacher and she’d heard of our imminent arrival and felt we might need a hand embracing our new neighbourhood.

Rocinha – the view from our rooftop
Image by: Kate Walker

Horrified at Kathy’s triple kgs and the pack looming above my lofty 5f 3.5’’ frame, Danielle scouted two muscular cariocas to assist with the carrying. And there we were….striding up and into Rocinha’s bulging slopes. Ascending super narrow streets, well, really they’re half meter wide slabs of concrete/dirt/water-piped/pooped/slick/crumbling patches/bridges of space in flimsy slops; is a fine art. Even Brazilian branded Havaianas are questionable in their protection of my feet and one must be quick footed in order to dodge kids barrelling up and down with balls, folk moving ‘stuff’ across backs and rogue, balding dogs – as much residents as anyone else and not pets!

Roupa Suja – our neighbourhood in Rocinha
Image by: Kate Walker

Gracious, are we really doing this?

Passing shacks and throw-to homes, the thought of what our abode might be like was a little alarming. Arriving half way up, or perhaps 10 minutes into our ascent – actually I have no idea as orientation isn’t possible; we were met by Paolo and a spacious triple storey house. Basic, but an actual house with roof top patio and views to rival all postcard shots you’ve ever seen of Rocinha.

Our humble Roupa Suja abode
Image by: Kate Walker

Our home security wall
Image by: Kate Walker

The bright yellows, reds, greens and pinks across the way reminded me in some way of the vibrant Cape-Malay quarter in Cape Town and the Italy’s higgledy-piggledy and multi-coloured Cinque Terra.

Neighbourhood rooftops
Image by: Kate Walker

Unpacking and gawking at our situation could wait though, as our main reason for being here is to voluntarily work with “Union of Women for the Betterment of Roupa Suja” (UMPMRS) –  a community run (just 12 ladies), non-governmental, not for profit organization located in the neighbourhood of Roupa Suja. Roupa Suja is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Rocinha.

UMPMRS’s mission is to improve the quality of life for the children and families living in the community and the little Kathy and I would be offering – playing with and entertaining up to 50 little ones at a day care centre.

Day Care centre play equipment along with reconstruction materials
Image by: Kate Walker

Having led a super organised six and a half year career at STA Travel and with negotiation and communication being pivotal to my role; I naively climbed the steps to the day care centre believing there might be a sort of welcome pack or few points on what to expect and how our days would follow (and hopefully in English).

Nope. It was literally the deep end of anything I’ve ever experienced before and boy did we jump in. The rest of our day was spent corralling three to five year olds, breaking up biting matches, collecting what little toys they had and assisting with mini lunches, afternoon showers and naps. And, all of this achieved with our dignities and Havaianas flung aside, miming and gesticulating our way through the language barrier.

Evening found us slip-sliding our way back down Roupa Suja (heavens, it looks even more unfamiliar going the other way and in the half-light) being led to local supermarkets, fresh legume stalls, crowded spots which signified a multitude of bus stops and given a minute, ground level orientation of Rocinha.

Running across roads, dodging motorbike taxis (honestly, they’re like hornets on cocaine) and generally trying to stay abreast of the humanity here – it’s a lot to take on board.

After a few near motorbike hits (…there are no driving lanes or street rules) Kathy and I made the executive decision to recuperate from the safety of a street bar. With Caipirinhas (Brazil’s national cocktail) in hand, our evening drifted to the sounds of funk, samba, ‘hornets’, street vendors and we watched beautiful, proud and smiling locals come and go all night.

Are we really doing this? Indeed, we are.