Quick – spell Equinox at Quito, Ecuador!

Following our trip to the Galapagos Islands we flew to Quito, Ecuador. At an altitude of almost 10,000′ this city is surrounded by green peaks of volcanoes. After the heat of the Galapagos it was nice to be in a much cooler, almost cold, place. img_4513
From our hotel we did a city tour of old Quito, a Unesco World Heritage site because of its old Spanish buildings, cathedrals and other buildings. The area is prone to both volcanic eruptions and earthquakes so much of the old city is low buildings.img_4523 Perhaps daily life has lulled people into some complacency because the outskirts of this city of 2.5 million people has highrises built right on the edges of cliffs – in my eyes a disaster waiting to happen. img_4551The old city squares felt very Spanish and we enjoyed strolling along, watching women in black felt hats and long skirts sell strawberries and other fruits and candies.

We’re a bit churched-out after our time in Spain, but visited a large cathedral as well as an amazing smaller church completely decorated in gold.

But the highlight was our visit to the Equator. Here the invisible line dividing the northern and southern hemispheres creates for some fun science experiments. Now, upon coming home and writing this blog, I decided to do some research so that I could explain what we saw on the equator: water flushed through a sink – either going straight down (on the equator), swirling down the drain clockwise or counter clockwise depending on which side of the line we were on… We were most impressed with what we saw. However… in checking Google, I read nothing but articles posted on science websites, in the Huffington Post and so on, that explain that all this is a hoax! I was baffled. I replayed the video I took. Then I went to the sink and poured water in the same manner. Indeed – I can make it go down clockwise or counterclockwise. It seems that the thing we enjoyed most in Quito was a simple hoax. I guess the young man who showed us around care nothing about the truth and fooling people. All that mattered was the income derived of unsuspecting tourists…

 

img_4541We tried our hands at balancing an egg on the Equator. Because it is pulled one way and the other, it took a lot of patience but Kees earned a certificate for a skill he never knew he had! Another equatorial hoax…

The museum here displayed some local native history: an enormous boa constrictor (stuffed!) and several shrunken heads. To our amazement we learned not only how to make a shrunken head but also that this practiced happened as late as the 1990’s. Tourism likely improved once they stopped this practice.

We ate at a restaurant that specialized in Ecuador cuisine: empanadas with shrimp, cheese and avocado.  And a fabulous soup eating together with a thick paste of peanuts and bananas.

We asked many questions about the education system (mostly free), about politics (elections this weekend and lots of unhappiness about corruption and broken promises), about religion (many young people turning away from the church and traditions) and also about why Ecuador is not called Equador is it is named after the important line running through the country. The answer: it is the Spanish spelling. Ta-da!

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Galapagos: Boobies and Frigates

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Sally Lightfoot Crab

We hiked across Mosquera Islet seeing many birds up close, including – to my delight – the Blue Footed Boobie. We had watched documentaries about the Galapagos and were thrilled to see these birds in real life, as well as the bright red Sally Lightfoot Crabs scurrying across the black lava rocks, pelicans, swallowtail gulls and many others.

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Blue Footed Boobie!

One of the funnest animals was the sea lion, which looks exactly like our North American seals but the ears show that they are sea lions. It is amazing that all animals here have no fear of people. The seals come right at you, follow you like puppies and want to play. It is the hardest thing not to reach out and pet them… But this is a National Park and everything is highly protected – you cannot take a rock or a shell or touch anything. And rightly so.

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Male Frigate bird

Next we hiked North Seymour island where the huge Frigate birds soared overhead and young ones with white heads in perched in trees looked like bald eagles.

Iguanas live on most islands but they are different species, having adapted to life on each island. Some islands had black iguanas, elsewhere they were yellow or even pink. We also saw the swimming ocean iguanas.

img_4402We hiked across Santa Fe and South plaza Island. Being on a boat allowed us to visit more places but it also had the disadvantage of rocking and bobbing.

However, the biggest thrill for me was being able to swim off the back of the boat. Even after a few excited calls of “shark!” I couldn’t figure out why it was OK to swim when there were sharks but I trusted that our guides knew what they were doing… We snorkeled several times and it was beyond description to be in the ocean and have a large sea lion coming straight at me, like a bullet, only to veer off at the last second. At one point two sea lions swam alongside me on either side. I watched turtles swimming below me, hundreds and hundreds of colourful fishes like parrot fish……img_4431

And sharks. White tip sharks. Pretty cool.

On San Cristobal Island we strolled through the town and it was a bizarre experience to run into two friends from Kelowna! img_4332

We bought tshirts and other souvenirs, of course, and visited the Galapagos Interpretation Center. Sweat dripped of our bodies as we just stood still, reading about the violent human history on the islands. The animals really ought to be afraid of humans after they killed over 100,000 turtles and thousands of whales during the mid 1800 to mid 1900’s. Nowadays 97% of the islands is strictly protected as a National Park. All we can do is hope it will always stay this way and that Galapagos’ amazing variety of wildlife, which so well demonstrates its way to change and adapt to its natural environment, will be around for generations to come.

Reflecting back on it all, I am very glad to have been able to make this amazing trip and to see these special places on earth. But it is a very long way to travel, expensive and a bit overrated. Like ‘Serengeti’ the name ‘Galapagos’ has mysterious allure, but we have visited many places where plants and wildlife have adapted to their environment, and places like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef where we also saw giant tortoises and birds that stayed a foot away from us. If you can go, do it. But otherwise savour nature around you anywhere – nature is always incredible and forever adapting.

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Remember that all photos are Copyright ©Margriet Ruurs

Galapagos – From Bluefooted Boobies to Swimming with Sharks

img_3948Galapagos Islands: the very name conjures up images of a mysterious paradise, of unique species of animals that have adapted to their environment is special ways.  img_4109

I am so glad and grateful that I had a chance to visit these far away islands, even thought they have now lost some of their magic for me. But the intrigue has been replaced by memories of walking among iguanas and swimming with sharks and sea lions. img_4095

When we made the decision to travel to South America there were two thing high on our wish list: Easter Island and the Galapagos. I had read a wonderful, insightful book called Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman. This book heightened my wish to see these islands for myself.

We flew from Guayaquil, Ecuador west across the Pacific and landed on one of the circa 40 Galapagos Islands (did you know there are so many islands here?!): Baltra. The humid heat hit us like a wall. Tourists can travel to the Galapagos on their own or via a planned trip. But even if you go on your own, you cannot visit the National Park areas without a guide or small tour group. We booked our trip via a travel agent in Florida that specializes in South America. They adapted the itinerary to our budget by selecting types of accommodations but mostly by adapting the length of stay. The Galapagos are not only expensive to reach, they are expensive in every way since all food and drink needs to come from far away.

A guide met us at the airport, expertly whisked our luggage away and loaded us and about 18 others onto a bus. It was only a 10 minute drive to the boat launch where we climbed aboard a bobbing dinghy.  We would repeat this exercise in agility many times in the coming days. img_3985

The dinghy brought us to a medium yacht, or tiny cruise boat. The MV Coral I had about 14 cabins and a total of 20 guests on board plus a crew of 15, including two naturalists.

We were shown our cabin: a small room below deck, with a tiny bathroom. It did have everything we needed but the closet door wouldn’t open far enough to reach the hangers inside, so we never did unpacked our stuff.

An orientation meeting told us onboard routine. Each day we would get a friendly wake-up call, followed half an hour later by breakfast. Shortly after that we had the first of two activities in the morning, then a hot lunch, a siesta and then another activity like a hike or swim. Dinner was at 7 or 8 o’clock.

img_3939That first day we visited the Charles Darwin Station on Santa Cruz Island. This is where the breeding program for the Galapagos Giant Tortoises takes place. Eggs from all over the islands are hatched here and the little Giant Tortoises (how do you call a little giant tortoise?), are raised until the age of 5 when they are released in hopes that they will survive on their own. We saw several huge, ancient tortoises as well as amazing prickly pear cactus trees that grow into huge trees over 400 years old. Unfortunately, the buildings were not open to the public and we did not see eggs or baby tortoises.

We walked through town and discovered that, like Easter Island, the Galapagos we had imagined was very different from reality. For instance, did you realize that the archipelago consists of nearly 40 islands, four of which are permanently inhabited?

img_3943And did you know that over 30,000 people live in Galapagos? I had no idea… The cities of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal have schools, stores, government buildings and much more. Two airports serve the islands. Since Galapagos was used as a penal colony by Ecuador, most houses had bars and gates as opposed by the much more friendly atmosphere on Easter Island.

The heat was incredible. There is almost no rain on these lava islands. Some are lush and green but others are a volcanic wasteland. In fact, one early explorer wrote home to describe that he had arrived in what he truly thought was hell…. img_4052

That first night we slept well in our slightly rocking bunks. However, the next two nights were though as we crossed open ocean and coped with high swells which rocked the small boat left to right and front to back. Things flew through the cabin and we ended up sleeping on the outside deck. Most of us didn’t get sea sick but we rocked for 3 days afterwards…

 

Sorry – Bluefooted Boobies coming up in the next episode!

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Tales of the South Pacific 3: Moving Moai and the Birdman Battle

img_3473Our next visit was to the steep cliffs of the south west coast of the island. From up above we gazed down on foaming white waves pounding the shore of a small island: Moto Nui. This is were history was made.

The first inhabitants likely arrived on Rapa Nui in wooden canoes from far away Tahiti. From these first few, grew a population of thousands. But European diseases and fighting reduced their numbers to a low of 110 at one point. After the moai carving culture, competing tribes designed a non-violent way to establish order on Easter Island: the Birdman Cult. Chosen young men competed for the right to have their tribe rule for the next year, until the next competition was held.

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Birdman figure

The competition was held near the most important site on the island: the Rano Kau volcano, and consisted of climbing down a steep rock face of Orongo to the wild ocean below, building rafts from reeds, using these as floatation devices and swimming the rough kilometre wide passage of pounding ocean to Moto Nui island.

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We saw tiny rock houses at Orongo and scattered rocks carved with birdman and boat pictures. We also climbed the sides of the ancient volcano to look inside the crater, filled with shallow lakes where drinking water was collected and reeds for the rafts were cut.

img_3498We saw tiny rock houses at Orongo and scattered rocks carved with birdman and boat pictures. We also climbed the sides of the ancient volcano to look inside the crater, filled with shallow lakes where drinking water was collected and reeds for the rafts were cut.

The best came last when we visited the site famous from so many photos – the long row of moai standing shoulder to shoulder. This is iconoclastic face of Easter Island. img_3642

But my favourite site is the quarry. When I first heard the name, I pictured a rock excavation site where rocks were dug up. However, when you approach the quarry, it is as if the stone people have come to life and are walking out of the mountain from where they are born. A gently sloping green side of a volcano is scattered with upright figures. They seem to be walking down, stumbling and standing all over the slopes. The sight gave me goosebumps and a lump in my throat. img_3618img_3633

The moai were carved here from gigantic blocks of basalt and lava. Weighing many tons and measuring up to ten meters in height, their individual features were carved. I had heard that most figures only show the upper body while the lower half is still buried. Before I saw them, I thought that this meant that the moai had been covered by drifting sand over the ages. But that is not true at all, there is no sand. Only lava and rocks. The artists did not have ladders, so they dug deep pits in which they lowered or erected the moai until they could reach their faces to carve them.

Once a figure was finished, it was erected and “walked” down the mountain to spots all over the island – a mind boggling feat that National Geographic has tried to recreate. Why did they stop carving and moving? It seems like they were in the middle of ongoing projects when work came to a halt. No one knows…img_3604

Why did the Rapa Nui create these statues in the first place? Well, it is believed that well to do families ordered a moai in memory of an important member of the community. When this person died, male or female, a moai was constructed in his or her image and erected over their bones. Once the grey basalt figure, with or without red lava topknot had been given white corral eyes with a black obsidian center, it was believed that the deceased person’s spirit had enter the moai and would now protect Rapa Nui and its future generations.  img_3637

For details on Easter Island and its history, click here:http://www.mysteriousplaces.com/easter_island/

See a reenactment of ‘walking’ the statues here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvvES47OdmY

Tales of the South Pacific – 2. Easter Island or Rapa Nui 

img_3874We flew from Santiago, Chile to Easter Island on Latam Airlines. Which is, in fact, the only way to reach the distant, isolated island. Before getting there I had imagined an old, small airplane. I don’t know why – but I had thought it would be a local airline with an old prop plane. The opposite turned out to be true: Latam is part of One World and operates a brand new Boeing 787 on the route to Easter Island. As we reclined in luxury we crossed the south Pacific Ocean. Only then does it become clear just how distant this place is. From mainland Chile you fly at a speed of 850 KM an hour for about 5 hours! The island is almost halfway between mainland Chile and New Zealand. img_3508

We arrived in luxury and comfort. But now imagine that you are an early explorer, sailing the Pacific Ocean in search of new lands. After weeks of nothing but water, you spot land. A green island with round, cone shaped hills and the odd ragged cliff dropping off into the roaring ocean. As this Dutch ship under the comment of Captain Roggeveen, cautiously approaches the island, furling the sails that billowed from its three tall masts, you spot people. Giants.

Huge, towering people standing shoulder to shoulder with their backs to the sea. These stone giants are most likely meant to honour chiefs and other important people. For more than a thousand years – no one knows their exact date – have they silently been standing here. Only a few statues face out over the sea, looking in the direction of other Polynesian islands, possibly the Marquesa Islands from where the first inhabitants of Easter Island might have come by canoes.

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Roggeveen did go on land and communicate with the native population. As it happened to be Easter for the European Christian sailors, they named the island Easter Island; Paas Eiland in Dutch, Isla de Pascua in Spanish. Never mind that the island already had inhabitants and a name: Rapa Nui. Like other islands claimed by European nations, it has now gone back to using and being proud of its original name and so I shall refer to Easter Island as Rapa Nui in my story. Since 1965 the island is under Chilean government. It uses Chilean pesos but has its own Rapa Nui postage stamps.

The stone statues for which the island is famous, are so shrouded in mystery that it is hard to realize that they stand on a normal island where regular people live in a regular town. I had only ever seen images of statues and green grass and found it slightly jarring to arrive in this mysterious place to see ordinary trucks, Cola machines, dogs – just like in any other town. Where was the mystery?

We walked across the tarmac to the palm fond covered entrance of a tiny airport. Each and every new arrival is greeted with a lei of fresh flowers.  People here still speak Spanish but also Rapa Nui, which is very Polynesian and looks like Hawaiian to us. We noticed that most of the other tourists in our hotel and on tours around the island, must have saved up and planned for this trip-of-a-lifetime just like us for most had white hair! Our hotel was a lovely, one story building with high ceilings and large rooms. Palm trees and flowering shrubs surrounded a small pool. It was nearly 30º, even late at night. With only two and a half days on the island, there would not be much time for sitting by the pool. We had a place to explore!

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Our hotel

Rapa Nui is roughly the same size as Salt Spring Island with almost the same number of people, around 7000 – increasing with tourists. They also face similar problems, like sustainability, water shortage and recycling. Of course this island is much further away from a main land. Supplies used to come, and still may, once a year by ship. Everything else is flown in. So the cost of a soft drink or anything else is sky high. A small bottle of water which was 1 dollar in Santiago, costs 3 dollars here. Everything needs to be recycled or re-used. A sign in our bathroom asked us not to ‘throw paper at the toilet’ – which we took to mean no flushing of paper…

At 9 AM, we climbed aboard a small bus together with other tourists from Chile, France, Australia for our first day of touring the island and seeing the statues. img_3542

Salt Spring has its deer and lots of rabbits. Rapa Nui has dogs and horses. Dogs roam everywhere, the nicest, sweetest pups, wagging tails and friendly as can be. An estimated 2000 horses have been branded but, like our chickens at home, are free range and roam all over the island.

img_3541Our very first moai, or stone statues, was a row of five who, unlike all other moai, face out over the ocean rather than inland with their backs to the sea. Why? We can only guess and only “the ancestors ” know the real answer. They sit near two platforms on which the moai typically rest. These platforms are built of huge square basalt blocks with straight lines and rounded corners. It is impressive how precisely these were constructed so many hundreds of years ago, without the use of metal tools.

Once the guide pointed it out, we noticed moai that have fallen forward, on their faces, and cracked. Many have been destroyed during a civil war between the Long Ears and the Short Ears tribes around 1680, as well as by missionaries, neglect and the passing of time.

The standing, reconstructed moai were about 5 meters tall. Each face is quite individual. A few wear ‘top knots’ – these round blocks of red lava have a smaller red part on top and are said to resemble not hats but hair, worn traditionally on a long pony tail tied in a knot on top of the head, just like most men here still wear it.

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Top Knot lava stone

 

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Next story: More Moai Tales and The Battle of the Birdman!

Tales of the South Pacific – 1. Santiago, Chile

img_3429Normally we are very individual travellers and book all of our own arrangements, including flights and accommodations. However, just like in Africa, we felt that this short trip to South America merited the knowledge and advise of a specialized travel agency. We found South American Vacations in Florida.

We often travel for an extended period of time, combining personal travel with work in international schools. This time, however, I did not have school bookings and we could only go away for a short time, around 2 weeks. The top destination on our long time bucket list only required two weeks, in fact we couldn’t afford any longer to this expensive destination. We took a deep breath and bit the bullet: we would visit Easter Island and the Galapagos Islands while we are still healthy enough for the amount of hiking involved.

img_3432Easter Island and Galapagos are often visited together with Machu Pichu. But we weren’t interested in hiking at such a high altitude nor in seeing more ruins after visiting many Mayan and Aztec sites in Mexico. Later we met people who visited both destinations and also include in their trip Rio, Patagonia and Antarctica. This seemed way too overwhelming to me..

South American Vacations was able to taylor make us an itinerary. But it did involve a lot of flying. Booking a prearranged trip has advantages as well as disadvantages: I felt that we wasted a lot of time waiting for drivers to pick us up. But it was also nice not to have to figure out taxis, haggling over fares or finding  addresses. We travel with cabin luggage only which allows us to be the first ones through customs and off with our waiting ride.

The travel gods were with us. We seldom have snow on Salt Spring Island but a foot of thick snow fell just before we left. We made it out OK even though flights all around us were canceled due to snow. From Houston, TX we flew 9 hours to Santiago, Chile where it was a balmy 25º. The arrival hall in Santiago beat anything we’d ever seen in airports around the world: hundreds and hundreds of arriving passengers in one gigantic line up, snaked around and around. We shuffled along for over an hour until they finally opened up some extra windows and we cleared immigration.

img_3416Thanks to booking with the travel agency, all little details were arranged including pick up by taxi to get to our hotel – a small but very convenient hotel in downtown Santiago. We walked around the neighbourhood and ate a sandwich on a patio. I was surprised at how un-Latin-American the city felt. It resembled a modern, European city and in fact I think I read somewhere that Santiago is called “the Paris of South America” – stylish business people rushing to offices, expensive cars, underground parking garages, and of course several Starbucks…

We didn’t spot any Chilean food – just French, Thai and American – and ended up having a great meal in an Irish Pub of all places. After having spent a night on the airplane we slept like a log. img_3426The following morning we were picked up for a city tour. The downtown in which our hotel was located, was the cosmopolitan, business part of the city. But there is also a historic downtown. Dating back to the mid 1500’s, the streets are narrower here and lined with historic houses, palaces and churches rather than with glass and glistening steel skyscrapers. Our guide, Cristobál, was extremely knowledgeable, not just in dates and numbers but with his grasp on politics and development of his country. We learned so much from him about revolutions and dictators, about settlement and government.

Starting in an ancient cathedral with gleaming wooden floors and hand painted wooden ceilings, we walked all over the city for several hours, stopping in front of old palaces where generals lived, the palace of justice, the mint and many other Spanish style buildings and monuments. One monument still had the bullet holes from the 1973 revolution in which Salvador Allende gave up his power.

We ate fresh empanadas and walked around the hill of Santa Lucia where we had a view of this city of over five million people. Green belts and parks are the lungs of the city and many people walked and jogged here.

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Santiago, Chile

Our travel agency: www.savacations.com

For a walking tour of Santiago check out: http://www.swoop-patagonia.com/blog/things-santiago/

Seville, Spain

img_2278After driving throughout Portugal and Spain, we decided to crash on a beach for awhile. Hoping to avoid crowded shores with highrises, we booked an AirBnB apartment in a small town called Matalascañas.

The flat was just perfect – a small kitchen, comfy couch, Ikea furniture, a separate bedroom and – best of all – a large window overlooking the beach and Atlantic ocean. We slept, made our own breakfasts and lunches. We worked, having good wifi available. And we walked on the beach. Kees hiked for miles while I sauntered along the waves.

There were plenty of little shops and cafe’s nearby. But funny enough, just as we were getting used to Spanish restaurants closing from 4 till 8 PM and eating very late, the restaurants in Matalascañas all closed by 7 PM and there was nothing to eat after that…

img_2315After a few lovely, restful days it was time to explore Seville. We had done our online homework and decided that we did not want to drive in downtown Seville, but we did need a place nearby with parking. We found a room in an apartment building that sounded good, including a parking spot. And the location was indeed perfect to walk into the old city center. Getting into and out of the apartment building felt a bit like serving time, with several locked gates and complicated lockimg_2323s….

We walked into the city through the ancient city gates in a huge stone wall. We enjoyed walking the labyrinth of alleys, crooked little streets, churches and shops. At one point, we were very ready for a cup of coffee. Several places had hard, wooden stools or didn’t look too inviting so we kept walking until we spotted the perfect place: a cozy, Spanish coffeeshop with wicker chairs, lots of plant pots and heat lamps on the sidewalk. We picked a table and made ourselves at home. However, the man who approached us did not come to take our order. “Would you mind terribly to move again?” he asked. “Why? We want coffee…” I said. “No,” he insisted, “we are filming a movie here… I’m sorry.” Turned out we had crashed the film site of Game of Thrones being filmed in Seville right now. We did find coffee around the corner, but not as nice a place…

We also found the famous Cathedral of Seville. Build on the 12th century site of a Moorish mosque, this is the 3rd laimg_2325rgest church in the world. Its construction took place from 1401 to 1506. Size and age alone were impressive enough. We walked its cavernous spaces, the ship of the church, admired the side rooms with art, paintings carvings….
I did get a kick out of seeing the tomb of Christopher Columbus, whose name really was Cristobal Colon. Somehow ‘colon’ just doesn’t have the same ring as ‘columbus’, does it? I would have been skeptical about this truly being his grave but apparently recent DNA tests have confirmed that his weary bones do indeed rest in this spot.

As we exited the church we were once again exposed to calls of “madame, a horse carriage ride?, a tour?” We ignored them all and walked along the winding streets, the Plaza de Toros, the treelined Avenida de Hercules, and the ancient Alcazar. We hopped on a city bus (any C bus) that drives around the perimeter of the old city city. The city bus is 1.20, a lot better than 18 euros for the Hop-on bus – although you also don’t get commentary with the city bus.

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Flamengo dancer in Seville

The best thing we did was splurge on tickets for a flamengo show. Seville and flamengo are synonymous so we felt it was a must to see a show here. We asked locals for their recommendations: Casa de la Memoria and Tablao Flamenco El Arenal. I’m sure there are many others that are good. We picked the lateral and bought tickets for their 7:30 PM show. Arriving early paid off since we got the best seats, although almost every table was good in the small room, around the small stage.

We bought the least expensive seats that only included one drink. You can also purchased tickets that include a full dinner. You can buy tickets online or in many souvenir shops on the same day.

The music and caliber of the show blew us away. A cast of 10 played guitar, sang and danced. Colours and sounds whirled together and left us exhausted – as if we had danced all night! A colourful end to memorable day in a colourful city.