It was a long long flight - well, flights actually - from Cusco to Rio. Our plane out was delayed for a couple of hours due to high winds above Cusco Airport - a not uncommon thing apparently - and it looked for a while that we might not get out at all that day. If the flight couldn't get the go-ahead by 5.00pm, we were there for the night. In the end, we taxied onto the runaway at 4.50pm and were in the air on the stroke of 5. The next flight, which also had Aussie pilgrims on board (not ones from Sydney Catholic schools though), didn't get in the air that day at all and spent another night in Cusco. They made it to Rio (again, not without difficulty) 24 hours later. We also had a very long delay in Lima before boarding a overnight chartered flight to Rio De Janeiro.
There were lots of very weary pilgrims on that plane! Even those who claimed that they did not usually sleep on planes seem to manage to this time. Alas, not for me. If someone has a strategy for helping one sleep on a flight (other than a pharmacological solution), please share it with me!!
We arrived in Rio de Janeiro Airport at around 9.30am local time and after the usual airport fun and games, we were on our buses and straight into into the peak-hour traffic. Peak-hour in Rio de Janeiro is like sitting in the M5 heading into the city at 7.00am - for every road. The short trip to the city took an hour.
The pilgrim accommodation is at a place that has been nicknamed 'Aussie Central'. It is a long pier located right on the Rio harbourfront where a series of what I presume were once warehouses have been converted into dormitory accommodation. It is a pretty basic set up, but it is safe and dry and has one of the best views in the city! There are separate dormitories for boys and girls and students from each bus group are located together. Entry into the area is by pass only and this is very strictly enforced.
Parents, if you have noticed that you are not getting as many phone messages from your kids over the last day or so, it is likely that this is because there are no wifi facilities at Aussie Central. I could imagine that even if they had wifi, the sheer volume of traffic would make it pretty difficult to get on anyway (Not quite clear how many people there are staying at Aussie Central but there are many more than just our own 300 pilgrims)
As you might imagine, taking away 300 young people to countries on the other side of the world is a pretty challenging thing to do. Of course, there have been the usual travel delays (and the sleep deprivation that follows), illness, homesickness, the intricacies of getting around in a foreign country and even students just dealing with being out of their routine and comfort zone. Our pilgrims have seen and experienced things that are have been alien to them (particularly during the mission work in Lima) and they have been called on to be tough and resilient.
With all of that in mind, I just want everyone reading this blog to know what incredible young men and women we have on this WYD pilgrimage. While I have spent a lot of my time travelling with and helping out with bus group 1, 1 have also spent time with students from many other of the bus groups. Time after time, whether it has been sitting for hours in airport departure lounges or while on a long weary bus ride somewhere or while trying to get on a crowded Rio train, I have been inspired and energised by these awesome young men and women - your sons and daughters, grandkids, students, brothers, sisters, friends. When there have challenges - and there have been some - I have never heard a single complaint; when it has been difficult, they just get on with it. I am proud to be in their company and on this journey with them. To the parents of these awesome kids - please be proud of them. They are awesome!.
Sometimes in my job, I need to do a bit of what you might call 'public relations'. A dimension of my role is to tell the good news stories about the the great things that Catholic schools do every day. That is not hard to do because there are plenty of those stories to tell. But I want to be clear that I am not writing to you here as the Head of Communications at the Catholic Education Office. I am writing to you as Mark Rix, observer, fellow traveller, former teacher and WYD pilgrim. I make that distinction because I wanted you to know what talented, caring, skilful, tough and courageous teachers there are here leading the students on their WYD pilgrimage. For all of the reasons that I explained, this can sometimes be a challenging experience for students but it can be no less so for teachers and other pilgrim leaders too, and for different reasons. Time and time again, and despite whatever personal challenges they have to had to manage along the way, what has been very clear to me is that the kids have been their only concern. The students on this pilgrimage are in great hands because they are being looked after by great people.
I have to head off now to the first of the catachesis sessions which is already underway. Last night was the opening Mass on the sands of the famous Copacabana Beach - you know, the hottest spot north of Havana? I can assure you Copa wasn't too hot a place last night (it rained for part of the night) but it is (another) amazing place.I have heard that around 1 million people attended the event ( I cannot confirm that number as I lost count at around 300,000). I will write to you about that experience tonight. Got some photos of the kids having a great time with pilgrims from other countries prior to the start of the Mass and a few videos as well, which I will attempt to load on the blog. Finding it hard to get enough time to write about everything we see and experience here (and do it at the same time) but will do my best. I also want to tell you about Rio itself. That is a story worthy telling!
PS Here's a few pics of Aussie Central. For those bus groups with no pics yet, I will chase those guys up for you to see what we can get something happening for you. Promise.