In The Shadow of Christ

That’s me, 902,471st from the left

Let’s see where the next 12 months take us.

CONSIDERING that sentence was written in my flat in Gloucester last New Year’s Day and this one is being tapped out in a Rio de Janeiro hotel room, the past year has clearly taken us a long way.

That was the sign off to last year’s Travel Marmot new year post – a tradition started in a Ghanaian beach bar five years ago and, in every year bar one since, has failed to see the intended light of day on January 1.

Good to get 2020 off to a customary start.

So how far exactly did 2019 take us?

In no particular order, it saw me lose more weight (which may have stalled a bit in the last couple of months), get fit (well, fitter), lose another good friend far too young, quit my job, move out of my flat and embark on another bout of overland travelling on a big yellow truck – Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and now Brazil taking my country count up to 64.

Rio offers a chance to draw breath (barely) and marks a farewell to several travelling companions, hello to a few new faces when we roll out in a couple of days and the halfway point of our 31-week adventure.

There’s plenty of Brazil, Suriname, French Guiana, Guyana, more Brazil, Colombia and a return to Ecuador to come before mid-April with a return to the real world and attention finally turning to answering all those “what are you going to do after the trip?” questions.

Interesting way to clean the streets

So having reached halfway, how are things?

Physically, pretty good. The weight loss and time in the gym had me in much better shape than my Trans Africa trip five years ago and that has allowed me to do things which would probably have been avoided in the past.

The toughest of them, the Inca Trail, was the most feared part of the whole itinerary, but conquering three and a bit days on the trail to Machu Picchu proved a few things to myself and have done several activities which would have been shunned beforehand.

They have still not managed to get me on a horse though.

A break in the dancing. Or drinking, whichever you prefer

Not that it has been plain sailing physically. The first week or so was dogged by persistent, ahem, digestive issues and the heat on a couple of long truck days had me crawling to bed as soon as possible at the end of them. And let’s not get started on my left knee.

And, as is customary, any insect which can bite me has done exactly that, leading to a few days when parts of my body looked like they had been mauled by wild animals a bit bigger.

But after the swollen hand in Cafayate – brought down by a single injection – and a slightly swollen face which may have been down to bites earlier in the week (and was quickly treated), it has not been a lingering issue.

Mosquito bites – like the ones which covered my back in the Pantanal when everything else was covered in repellent – come up and vanish in a couple of days, some other insect leaving more lingering marks on my legs down to my reaction to them.

Not the easiest place to explore in flip-flops

The Pantanal was a bit of an insect paradise over Christmas, meaning even the lure of air conditioned rooms and a bar was not enough to stop us being glad to get back on the road on Boxing Day.

That feeling maybe did not last too long as the hours rolled by and the heat rose and rose on the back of the truck – was not the only one wilting by the time we got into bush camp that night.

The next day proved just as hot and even longer as we opted to press on around Sao Paulo and well into the, thankfully cooler, night on the road to the seaside town of Paraty.

Our efforts were rewarded with an early arrival and plenty of time to explore the old town with its cobbled, car-free streets which are, in parts, washed clean by high tides.

A day lazing about drinking and occasionally jumping off a boat you say?

All very pleasant and enough to lure us back to the town square after our second truck trivia quiz – and a second come from behind victory – for an evening of checking out the caipirinhas and the impromptu dance floor well into the night.

Certainly far enough into the night to make getting up early for a day’s trip on a boat rather difficult for some, but the effort was well worth it and we spent the day relaxing and splashing about on a series of stops at beaches and little bays ripe for snorkelling.

The evening was rather quieter – a fine Thai meal for many of us apart – as we did our best to ignore the noises in and around camp to catch up on sleep before hitting the road to Rio.

Not the easiest group shot to assemble

What awaited us ensured most people were up and packed away well before our early departure time which got us in too early to check in at our hotel, but provided ample opportunity to sort out preparations for New Year’s Eve ahead of our discovery of the Brazilian tradition of the kilo restaurant – a buffet which charges by the weight of what you choose.

We may have been back a few times.

Before we could turn our attention to New Year’s Eve celebrations, we headed out on a tour of the city’s greatest hits which was hugely illuminating, enjoyable, frustrating and very, very hot.

With all due respect to the cathedral, the arty steps and the neighbourhood we walked through for no apparent reason – bar the guide taking a random picture of us at a bus stop – the highlights were Sugar Loaf Mountain and the statue of Christ the Redeemer.

The best view since a sliced Sugar Loaf. Copacabana is the beach stretching away in the distance

Which each come with crowds and resultant queues – thankfully not as long as the previous day or we may not have made it to the beach for midnight.

Christ the Redeemer going over the heads of the selfie possee

The views from the top of Sugar Loaf are stunning and make you realise just how blessed Rio is in a geographical sense. It is a city studded with beautiful spots.

Christ the Redeemer is certainly one of them, but that is only part of the story.

It is, once you have got through the crowds and made the final climb to find Christ, equal parts absolutely remarkable (in terms of the statue and the views) and sheer hell with the number of people battling in the heat to capture the perfect picture.

May well have been the least popular person on Instagram, given the number of painstaking poses which were shoved out of the way or photo bombed.

Colourful or not, that’s still a lot of steps

It was too hot to hang around waiting for them to complete the full range of poses.

Back at base, we just had time to weigh another meal, grab a shower, don the traditional white and grab the supplies from the fridge before heading down to join an estimated 2.9 million others on the beach at Copacabana to see in the new year.

With the group brought together by a system of meeting times and people fighting to keep our spot from much earlier, we staked out our patch and did our best to keep going (some did better than others) and avoid using the neighbour’s makeshift facilities (crawl under a covered table and cover your tracks with sand) unless strictly necessary.

But still pretty much in one piece, we raised our glasses (or doctored bottles of Cokes) to the new year as the Brazilian national debt was placed on full display with a spectacular firework display.

Not many pics from the beach on New Year’s Eve – not the best place to get a camera out. One when the enlarged group was all still standing

Not a massive fireworks fan and always think that sort of money could be better spent elsewhere, but there is no denying it was an extraordinary sight, running the full length of the beach and lasting 15 minutes.

And so 2020 is with us in explosive style and that’s where the last 12 months have got us.

Or is it?

One major change it might be time to reveal.

Happy New Year

The big change heading into 2020 was that I was not seeing in the new year alone. This trip has brought rather more than great sights, experiences and new countries – it has left me no longer single.

Anyone paying attention to recent posts may have seen the odd clue, but Lisa – the one who blames me for not protecting her from a monkey stealing her empanada – was not stood next to me at the time by chance.

Let’s see where the next few months take us.

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