At this time of year my thoughts always turn to South America. For most of the past 17 years, I’ve led an annual bowling tour to the continent and whilst I won’t be heading there this autumn, it is hard not to associate the leaves turning brown with the idea of getting on a plane and heading for Rio de Janeiro.
It began back in 1999 – living in Kintbury, playing bowls in Hungerford – and in need of a change. So I severed my work commitments with the wonderful In Press, (still going strong in Lambourn, and unhindered by my departure) and went to south and central America for 9 ½ weeks. (There was no connection between this period of time and the film/book of the same name…except that there was, as I will explain below.)
The choice between Africa and America largely rested on memories of crippling tummy ache that had accompanied a visit to Kenya and so I settled on a trip that would start in Rio and end in Guatemala City. However, we need to take a step back, because it matters too that I had written a play called Load of Old Bowls that had premiered the same year in The Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich. And, through an internet chatroom that I had joined in order to publicise the play, I had ‘met’ Lair, a lady bowler from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
So, ahead of my trip, I contacted Lair to advise of my impending visit and to suggest we could meet for a coffee in Sao Paulo while I was awaiting a bus connection. She suggested we could go one better: she would arrange for her friends in Rio to meet me at my hotel and take me for a game of bowls.
Grateful to know I would have a local connection, I agreed. I arrived off the plane in Rio, took a taxi to our hotel to meet my tour guide, made a quick trip to the ocean on Copacabana beach and returned to be greeted by my new Carioca friends.
I was given the most wonderful welcome, visiting their club – established by British workers in 1872 – and meeting as many members as they could introduce me to. We played bowls, of course, and the overall welcome was just amazing considering I was a complete stranger, introduced by someone I’d never met.
They took me back to the hotel with the offer to do it all again the next day (Sunday).
But on Sunday it rained. There was no chance of playing. And, that should have been that. Except, our little tour group, our guide, two girls and me, had to find something else to do that day. They, not I, suggested a match at the Maracana Stadium, Flamengo versus Vasco de Gama, a Rio derby that was guaranteed to be ‘lively’, and a little bit dangerous. We all agreed and needed tickets. So Sarah, our guide, and I agreed to get buses to the Flamengo Stadium in order to buy them. While we were there, I realised that I knew where I was. Flamengo’s stadium was just over the road from the club where I had been bowling the day before.
So, we blagged our way in, had coffee with a few more members, and then left for the game.
But the welcome, again, was so lovely that several days on, as our tour continued, I decided I had to do something to repay their kindness. Mindful that the bowlers in Rio had complained at the paucity of competition over there (since there was one club in Rio, and one in Sao Paulo) I decided I needed to see if I could persuade some bowlers from Hungerford to join me to go there and play.
And the following year, that’s precisely what happened. In fact, about ten pioneers from Hungerford plus others from clubs in Berkshire, became the first Bowls In Brazil group to head off for a bowling holiday in South America.
That first tour was ten days. The next year, it became 14 as we added a trip to the Iguassu Falls too, and as the years have gone by, the tour has grown into a 4 week adventure with bowls in Brazil and Argentina, as well as sightseeing of glaciers, and waterfalls, Christ Statue, and Sugar Loaf, and beaches…and hang-gliding – you haven’t lived till you’ve taken a group of pensioners hang-gliding.
There have been some amazing moments, and some scary ones, but the joy of taking people on a south American adventure, and of introducing them to my friends in Brazil and Argentina, has been truly wonderful.
And as for 9 ½ weeks? Before travelling, I’d had a health scare that required an operation. On a visit to the consultant, I’d browsed the WRVS bookshop at the hospital and two titles caught my eye. One was 9 ½ Weeks, the planned duration of my trip. The other was The Mission, appropriately my favourite film, set in Brazil, and to some extent, an apt title for my original trip. At the time, I had no idea that it would become my mission to take British bowlers out to South America, but the coincidence of book titles had given me some encouragement to think that the health issues would not compromise the trip.
In the case of The Mission, the film is better than the book. In the case of 9 ½ Weeks, don’t tell my family I’ve seen the film.