Travel

Who does not love exploring?

Copacabana beach, Rio de Janero Brazil

grey Copacabana beach, Rio de Janero Brazil

Copacabana beach, amazing. People here love soccer so much that they play a version of volleyball which follows soccer’s no hands rule. It is quite something to see. Half naked rollerbladers zoomed past as I wandered along. A few times I nearly fell off the footpath as I watched those soccer/volleyball people do their thing. Shame I was too scared to get out my camera, that dreadlocked character looks dangerous. Bikini girl doesn’t! I enjoyed watching sunburnt tourists stumble back to their hotels full of beer with their bazooka cameras waggling in front of robbers. Just behind Ipanema beach is a large favela. A favela is a slum area, most are run by drug cartels. I heard a few distant shots ring off in the distance as the police continue their battle against these powerful drug lords. A battle starting in February with 2600 highly trained police mobilized, 30 people dead so far.

 

Time to leave the beach. Still security conscious to the point of paranoia. I stood at the bus station clutching grey Copacabana beach, Rio de Janero Brazilmy wallet as the primary school flooded the street with hundreds of little robbers in training. I was starting to panic. I was a grown up in a sea of blue uniforms and nimble hands ready to grab my wallet. Just because they were all wearing neat uniforms and only come up to my belly button does not mean they don’t pose a security threat. Right?

 

I soon gave up on catching a bus. I had a hot date and needed to get back to my hotel quickly. Not wanting to miss my date I flagged down a taxi and jumped in looking at the driver. Have you seen the Green Mile? Well the black actor who played the guy on death row has given up acting and is now a taxi driver in Rio. This guy was massive. He looked like he had been genetically engineered to crush small cars. My man had his seat as far back as it went and still had to stoop down to see out of the window. He should buy a car with a sunroof and just look through it giraffe style. With memories of Huaraz fresh my hand was on the door handle the grey Copacabana beach, Rio de Janero Brazilwhole way ready to jump. I needn’t have worried as he got me back to my hotel in one piece in time for a shower before my date.

 

Bugger the internet keeps dropping out. This is going to make my date hard. Yup, my hot date was an online skype chat with Jette. I kept on dropping out throughout and was nearly going to throw me computer out the window. We managed to chat a bit which put a spring in my step before the internet dropped out altogether. My computer nearly went out the window at that stage. I needed cheering up. Pizza.

Christ the redeemer statue – Rio de janeiro Brazil

grey Christ the redeemer statue   Rio de janeiro Brazil
grey Christ the redeemer statue   Rio de janeiro Brazil

Christ the redeemer statue in Rio de janeiro Brazil stands almost 40 metres tall (39.6) and is made out of concrete and soapstone covered with thousands of tiles and stands. I was more interested in the hundreds of people jostling for place to take the obligatory photo arms outstretched. What is it with me? At the Louvre I was more interested in finding paintings which looked like friends, at Macchi Picchu I spent half an hour watching a rabbit. Here I am giggling at bazooka wielding Chinese doing what they do best. Maybe I suffer ADHD – Attention deficit holiday disorder. Well the statue was amazing, inspired and all that. The views were truly incredible from the top of the hill. Did I mention how funny the people were having their photos taken?

 

On the bus ride up I got chatting to Jane. We decided to share photo duty and help each other with photos, arm outstretched at the top. On the way down Jane mentioned that she is a designer for books and has worked for random house publishing. I have got her card safely in my wallet. Jane mentioned a monthly market which she was heading to, it was near my hotel so I decided to tag along. At the market we bumped our way through the crowds looking at stalls full of both tacky rubbish and amazing artworks. I clutched my bag the whole way.

grey Christ the redeemer statue   Rio de janeiro Brazil grey Christ the redeemer statue   Rio de janeiro Brazil For dinner tonight I had subway. Not traditional or exciting but close and safe. I scuttled down the hill like a rabbit and was back at my hotel in no time. Belly full, relaxed behind the razor wire fence and writing on my computer. I can hear a mad sunday session next door but am content with my quiet beer next to the pool.

 

Winding down, getting mentally prepared for home. Already starting to plan my next adventure….

Paintball Paragliding

grey Paintball Paragliding

 

 

 

 

grey Paintball Paragliding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paintball Paragliding full article

It started as a bit of a joke, a throw away comment made on a beach somewhere in Chile.

When I scrawled, “Paintball Match, Monday, who is interested?” on the communal chalkboard I had no idea the can of worms those six words would open.

I had three takers, Robert, Fabio and Sam, all Swiss. A few days later Fabio and my Swiss/Aussie combo declared war on the wholly Swiss team. I do not know what we were fighting for exactly but we were determined to rain hellfire on the opposing force. We spent an exhilarating afternoon chasing each other around blow up obstacles in the sand. Everyone was made to wear heavy protective clothing in the oppressive heat of Iquique. The sharp sting of being hit and subsequent bruising more than enough incentive to keep moving in the heat.

Fabio showed that he was most definitely a team player before the last volley. He had run out of pellets. I had three. Fabio offered to run straight towards ‘team stupid-head’ as we had dubbed them wielding his empty gun, acting as decoy. The plan was for me to sneak around unseen and hit Rob and Sam from behind. The plan failed. A stray paintball somehow found its way under my mask and burst on my front tooth. My speech was impeded for three days, the bright orange paint tastes truly foul. This small setback failed to ruin the fun..

Dripping with sweat and all feeder tubes empty we handed in our guns and clothes. I cannot remember who mooted the idea of an aerial match later that day on the beach. It was intended as a throwaway comment. A joke. Even before that remark had floated away on the wind our brains were in overdrive. We walked towards the bus looking up at the paragliders in the sky, pondering, calculating. Why not? Everyone agreed that flying would be much easier than running around in the heat so we launched ourselves into the task of organizing a match.

I am in safe hands. Rob is a professional tandem pilot based in Switzerland, both Sam and Fabio work for the film industry between instructing and working as tandem pilots. Me? Well, my flying experience includes one tandem flight in Bolivia and five small hops off the little dune at Palo Buque. We unanimously agree that I would be relieved of flying duties. I teamed up with Rob. Fabio and Sam formed the other team.

Early the next morning I caught a bus back to the paintball centre to secure our arms. Explaining our plan to the owner in my broken Spanish proves a challenge. I resort to using the medium of mime. Arms out, running around the car park and making shooting noises I finally got the message across. He agrees to bring equipment to our accommodation on Sunday afternoon, on the proviso that we show him some good footage. Renting all the equipment cost us a grand total of forty US dollars.

Guns organized, we now need two wings and four harnesses. I was not privy to the exact conversation but the boys manage to secure two old tandem wings and four harnesses from the school. The purple harness was for sale so we had to be careful not to stain it. I think the boys just told the equipment manager that we needed two wings for a tandem flight. Not entirely a lie, they just neglected to mention one tiny detail.

Sunday arrives along with the guns. We smuggle all the paintball gear into a van along with our wings. I am getting increasingly nervous about this exploit. A lot could go wrong. A lot could go right. We arrive at Palo Buque to find no wind. Fabio who only weighs around seventy kilograms is unable to soar the ridge alone under a tandem wing. I am somewhat relieved to be let off the hook, at least for today. Sam and Fabio grab a gun each and run off down the dunes. As they start to shoot each other, whooping like school boys I wander off to practice ground handling.

I return to find three sombre faces waiting for me. “Check this out Ben”, Sam lifts his old wing to reveal three neat round holes near the left hand trailing edge. The boys wanted to know what would happen should one of us accidentally hit a wing. They raised the old glider and fired off a few rounds. Straight through. The Ripstop nylon is no match for these air propelled bruisers. We sit in the sand we discuss rules of engagement. Number one would be a clear do not hit the wing. Do not take a shot if the wing is anywhere in your line of fire. Agreed. We also agree on the lowest altitude at which to start and stop shooting. Apart from these two rules it was free for all. We decide to go to the more reliable Alto Hospicio launch site the following morning.

That night we drown our disappointment with a few beers and go early to bed. I dream about plummeting to earth, screaming and covered in orange paint. First light sees me sitting alone at the dining table eating what could be my last ever bowl of cornflakes. I savor every corny spoonful. On the bus to Alto Hospicio my stomach is trying to reject breakfast. The theme from Star Wars is incessantly repeating in my head. To distract myself I make seemingly casual conversation with the others about flying. In truth I am covertly trying to find out just how experienced they all are. I am comforted with Sam’s comment that he cannot recall hearing of anyone ever dying during a tandem paragliding paintball match. In fact no one knows of anyone who has done this before. Could this be a world first?

Ready to break brave new ground we arrive at the launch site and wait for the flock of jittery tourists to fly away with their guides. I sneak off five times in this half hour for a nervous wee. A Youtube video of me loosing bladder control four hundred meters above a sand dune could go viral, but I wish to maintain some dignity. Soon all that is left at the launch zone are four masked bandits, a pile of guns, wings and a slightly darker patch of sand nearby.

Pre flight check: Harness done up, wing ok, conditions good. Face mask and body armor on. Gun securely tied on and all cameras working. Sam and I have Go-pros on our helmets, I have a camera stuck to my gun barrel, Sam has a handheld camcorder. We are determined to properly record this event. The safety mask severely limits my vision. I am about to ask Rob if he could see to fly just as he raises the wing and tells me to start walking towards the edge.

As My feet leave the ground I think to myself; “You are committed now Ben, no turning back”, I also realize that no one has thought to research the legality of our little plan. Rob and I fly over the highway. My white knuckles in stark contrast with the black gun barrel. Shortly after launching my personality splits, I find myself swinging between intense nerves, feeling tough holding a gun and giggling like a naughty child. As we ride a nice little thermal up the others launch and give chase. Robs calm voice in my ear reassuring as he demonstrates the Big Ears move. We are now level with Sam and Fabio and ready to play.

I yell out a muffled “Game on boys, fire at will!” in a terrible British accent as I raise my gun.

Click, click, click, the gun’s noise is muffled by the expanse surrounding us. Aiming is difficult in this three dimensional environment. Rob and Sam are working hard to keep the two teams in firing range.

No return fire. Fabio’s gun has jammed. I can see him bashing the feeder frantically as I carefully take aim and fire. No mercy. It was with no small pleasure that I see Fabio’s legs flail as I pepper his thigh with rounds. He is still battling the blocked feeder tube. They cut away to the left, we give chase.

Looking down I can see motorbike riders playing on the dunes and wonder if any riders got hit by a falling paintball. Over a big abandoned building we make contact again. When we launched over the highway I was a bundle of nerves. Now I am so enjoying shooting my friends that all nerves are left behind in that first thermal. I lean right out of my seat, supported only by my leg straps, determined to make those skinny legs kick again.

We are circling each other, jostling for position high above the dunes. Through my increasingly foggy mask I see Sam steering his wing while aiming his video camera at us. I start shooting at the camera thinking this will make great footage. It did. I also nearly killed Sam’s camera. Everyone has masks on, no one is taking any risks with the wings. In the third and final round I cover the harness which is for sale with pellets. We can worry about that later.  I have been laughing so hard that my eyes are streaming. My mask keeps fogging up, I hope Rob can see to land.

Too soon we are below our agreed firing height and the sky falls quiet. Only the wind whooshing through the lines and the occasional burst of manic laughter break the silence. On the way to land we fly past some men painting from a platform halfway up a multi storey building. In my adrenaline charged state it takes all my willpower to resist a few pot shots. The same challenge awaits me as we fly over the flight park, the highway, the footpath and the beach.

Back on solid ground my hands are still shaking with adrenaline. My cheek and stomach muscles are sore from laughing. Dead legs from standing in the leg straps the whole way. High fives all round and excited babble about how much fun that was.

Thankfully the stray bullets which hit the purple harness did not burst. No people or equipment were harmed. We arrive at the beach to find no police or angry motorbike riders waiting for us. Fabio and Sam have walked away disappointingly bruise free. I should have followed the Austrian’s advice and put my paintballs in the freezer to make them harder.

As we slung all the equipment on our backs and started up the hill I got to wondering where we could rent some motorbikes for a re-match on the dunes….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great walks

This is a scan of the very first story I ever got published. I won a pair of Scarpa bushwalking boots for my efforts!

grey Great walks

Ugly Betty

I have no money and am down to my last chocolate bar. I have returned, almost, to civilisation after ten inspiring days fulfilling a lifelong dream of trekking through a remote area of the Peruvian Andes. I had only a local guide and donkey for company. I have been well off the beaten tourist trail and have not met an English speaker in weeks.

Hungry, penniless and dirty I leave my guide at his small hometown and hitch on the back of a potato truck to Chiquan where I need an onwards bus ticket to Huaraz. My money and credit cards are in storage at Huaraz as I rightly figured that there would not be any ATMs in the mountains. Arriving in town it becomes clear that intense riots nearby have halted all forward transport. Chiquan is a small farming town on the edge of the Andes in Northern Peru, there are no banks (not that I have my cards) and nobody speaks English. I am a four hour bus ride away from money and food, in between me and my cards Peruvians are angrily burning tyres and smashing local banks to protest a Chinese gold mine, go figure. Spending the afternoon in this tiny town I dodge Llamas and sheep in the street and wander past mud brick homes clutching my English/Spanish dictionary like a Bishop does his bible as I try to find updates on the situation. I peer through a dirty cafe window with a Dickensonian stoop to see buildings burning on TV while an excited reporter in front nearly swallows his microphone as he babbles rapid Spanish.

My situation looks very grim.

Enter Betty. She calls herself Betty Feo (ugly Betty) after the television series of the same name I meet her in the town square as we both watch young men jumping into vans to join nearby riots;

“Hola”

“Hola”

(this conversation is translated from my halting Spanish)

“What are you doing here? What is your name?”
“Mi nombre es Ben, I’ve been…”

“Haha! HOLA Ben-Ten!”

“You Peruvians must love that cartoon, everyone calls me that here. Anyway, I’ve been trekking but it looks like I am stuck here for a few days”

“This is not so bad, mine is a lovely town, I can show you around”

“That would be great, but I have no money and my credit cards are in Huaraz”

“Huaraz is bad now, very bad riots, you will not go anywhere now Ben”

“This is my worry haha!”

“You have no money right? Then no food?

“Sadly, only about twenty Soles, which I need for the bus” (approx $5)

“Then you must come to my new Cafe for dinner tonight, I need a gringo to try out the menu”

“But I have no money”

“Pfft, forget money, you will be helping me, but be honest about the food”

“I can do that, no guinea pig please!”

“I will not do that to you, this will be fun, come to that building just over there around six”

“Ok, thank you so much”

That night I knock on the door of a newly set up restaurant to be greeted by an imposing man, “You must be Ben-10!”, laughing he waves me inside. Betty bounces out of the kitchen in a fresh looking apron, she ‘Holas’ and hands me a glass of red wine, saying that dinner will be ready in a few minutes.

Betty and her friend produce a feast of delicious local food which is easily enough to sustain me throughout the next day. My new friends and I share two dinners as I wait for the riots to quiet. Nights are spent drinking red wine, passing around my English/Spanish dictionary and laughing as we try to tell stories or make jokes in an unfamiliar language. They do not ask for a penny. When the riots stop and with the help of Betty I find a bus to Huaraz, retrieve my money and credit cards and continue my travels south.

Ugly Betty deserves a name change. She is one of the most sharing people I met in my travels through South America, even in all of my travels. I will always be thankful for the generosity and kindness of this stranger who welcomed a stranded traveller into her home without asking for a thing in return.

Buy this book!

The Red Rucksack - Available now

This business partnership has expired.” Ben has no idea what adventures are in store when he sets out to discover what lies over that next mountain.

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