The new OE

By Joanna Hunkin

Dave Burley and Fran Nancekivell grin as they walk out of their inner-city office for almost the last time.

The lawyers, both in their mid-20s, are one day away from leaving their firm; two weeks away from what they hope will be the adventure of a lifetime. This time next month they will be in South America, in the Peruvian city of Cuzco, to the south east of the country, near the Manu National Park.

Where they should - if all things go according to plan - be working in a construction firm and an orphanage. The plan is to spend a month volunteering in Peru, before meandering up the continent into Central America and finally up to the United States, where they will fly out of Los Angeles in six months' time.

The couple have never been to South America before and are excited but understandably nervous. "We don't know what we're in for," laughs Burley. "It's the blind leading the blind." That's not strictly true. The couple know dozens of other Kiwis who have travelled the region recently - just a handful of those partaking in the new great OE. The South American experience.

The final destination - London - remains the same, even in these days of economic doom and gloom. But the route has changed. Southeast Asia is out.

South America is in. When and why the trend started is hard to pinpoint. But the past year has seen bookings to South America soar. STA Travel confirms a 50 per cent increase in the number of 18-35-year-olds travelling to the region, compared with the same time last year. Thailand is down six per cent for the same period (which isn't unexpected given the recent political turmoil), but more surprisingly Vietnam is down 25 per cent. India and Japan, however, are on the rise with increases of 25 per cent and 48 per cent respectively.

Flight Centre has also noticed an increase in the number of South American tours being booked, which it says is indicative of the younger, OE market. More specific numbers are harder to come by. Kiwis don't require visas to enter any South American countries (unless you stay more than a month, in which case you can buy one over there) so the local embassies have no records. What is definite though, through anecdotal evidence and the great social barometer that is Facebook, is that South America is the place to be these days.

Santha Manoharan, a 25-year-old lawyer, is a month into her South American sojourn. It's her second trip in the past three years. When she first went, in the summer of 2007, she was the first of anyone she knew to travel to the region. She and three friends flew to Buenos Aires in Argentina and spent three months exploring the area, travelling north to Bolivia, into Peru, over to Brazil and back down through Uruguay to complete the loop back to Argentina.

At the time, they wanted to go somewhere new and exciting, somewhere no one else they knew had been. Once they got there, they swore they would be back. "I just loved it," says Manoharan. "I wanted to keep going. I definitely enjoyed it a lot more than Southeast Asia." This time she has returned with seven friends - all 20-something corporates - as they make their way from Colombia into Central America, through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize before ending the journey in the north, Mexico City. It will be dangerous at times, particularly through Colombia, but Manoharan says it's not enough to keep her away. "It definitely puts you out of your comfort zone but there's the same sort of trouble in Thailand." She survived her last trip unscathed, though one of her travel companions lost his passport and ended up stranded in Bolivia for several weeks (New Zealand has no embassy there and trying to get a passport over Christmas is rather tricky).

But she admits she has heard some horror stories. "One guy from Auckland, who worked with my boyfriend, told us he'd been held at knifepoint by street kids who demanded all his money. He had to go to the police station and missed his bus because of it. But the police drove him and pulled over the bus so he could still get on. The police and authorities are pretty helpful when things go wrong." Another Kiwi traveller, 26-year-old engineer Hamish Sheild, has also seen the dark side of South America. A night out with friends in El Salvador turned bad when one of his mates ended up drunk and separated from the group.

Walking home alone, the young Kiwi was attacked by a group of homeless people who began beating him and trying to strip him of his clothes and possessions. "Luckily a taxi drove past and the driver opened a door for him to jump in. He wasn't badly hurt, just a few bruises and stuff. But they had him on the ground and were kicking him." It's a far cry from the sleepy villages of Vietnam, where your biggest concern is how to shake the street hustler following you down the road, trying to get you into a shop or restaurant.

So why are these sensible, young professionals heading for the hills of Chile, the beaches of Brazil and salt flats of Bolivia? Manoharan says the culture is a major drawcard for New Zealanders, who can relate to it more easily than most Asian cultures. "And Spanish is the easiest language to pick up. I remember in Southeast Asia, we could say 'Hi, how are you?' and that was it. I didn't have the desire to learn any more. But with Spanish, I'm really keen to learn the language while I'm there. "South America's got some pretty big attractions as well - Machu Picchu, the Iguazu Falls, the Salt Lakes in Bolivia. Whereas, off the top of my head, I can't think of that many things in Southeast Asia."

For Sheild, there was the specific draw of kiteboarding - for which South America is considered the Mecca, with perfect conditions every day. And for Burley and Nancekivell, it was a bit of everything. The chance to go where the wind takes them, without having to stick to a strict itinerary or tour schedule. "There's this intrigue about the culture and the countries within South America," says Burley.

Age also entered into the equation for the couple, who didn't want to postpone the trip beyond their mid-20s. "I just think it's the sort of place you want to go when you're younger," says Nancekivell. "You're backpacking around and it's dirty and a little bit dangerous. It's something to do when you're young and up for it." Burley adds: "I always think Europe, you can do it any age. I'm always going to see Europe and I can put it off for five years, 10 years, whatever. But I can't keep putting off South America." Cost is also a factor. Though more expensive than Asia to travel to, South America is still cheap.

Most people budget about $50 a day to get by comfortably. That doesn't include flights (approximately $2000) and vaccinations (which can cost up to $800). But perhaps the greatest draw of South America is the variety it offers - from natural wonders and historic ruins to street carnivals and all-night parties, lost cities and jungle treks to mountain climbing and wine tours.

All in a warm, relatively dry climate. It's exactly what Southeast Asia offered 20 years ago, before tourism left its grubby thumbprint on the region. Anyone who has been to Phuket's Phi Phi Islands in Thailand recently - the iconic setting of the Leonardo Di Caprio film The Beach - can testify they are no longer the postcard paradise they once were. Of course, there is no saying the same won't happen to South America. For now though, South America is a Kiwi's paradise. Just look on Facebook.

Follow the wind

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a kiteboarder - the new wave of sportspeople to take over New Zealand beaches. A cross between wakeboarding and parasailing, kiteboarding - or kitesurfing as it is also known - has seen a boom in popularity over the past five years.

And while New Zealand offers no end of lakes and beaches to practice the sport, our weather conditions are often less than ideal. Which is why South America, in particular Brazil, is becoming the tourist destination of choice for kiteboarding Kiwis, offering perfect and consistent conditions day after day. "All of us are going to go back there again, without a doubt.

In Auckland, the wind's so varied and the conditions, even on the day, can vary so much," says Hamish Sheild, who recently spent four weeks in Paracuru, Brazil. "It's sunny, hot and windy all the time. You can go kiteboarding from dawn 'til dusk and it's just perfect. There are lagoons where the water is completely flat or you can go out to sea and jump the waves.

It's awesome and so much fun." But beginners beware. With little in the way of instruction available in Brazil, you'll need to know your stuff before you head over. A minimum of six months' experience at home is recommended before you set out to tackle the South American winds.

The recession

You might think the recession would see young corporates holding on to their jobs at home but, strangely, it hasn't deterred many from packing their bags and heading overseas.

In fact, some are even more determined to go, taking advantage of the stagnant British job market to spend more time exploring South America and delaying their Heathrow touchdown. For some, like Hamish Sheild, they had already embarked on their big trip when Black Tuesday hit. There was little to be done except keep forge ahead, enjoy his holiday and hope for the best. Others, like Santha Manoharan, know it may be tough but are determined to give it a crack anyway.

And some, like Dave Burley and Fran Nancekivell, are using the recession as the perfect excuse to extend their trip and delay the time until they have to start looking for "real" jobs again. "There's no point in letting the recession rule your life," says Nancekivell. "If you say you're going to go in a year, you're pushing your life back a year.

And if it's not over in a year, are you then going to push it back another six months, and another?" Burley adds: "We've almost used it as an excuse to go. We're not going to get jobs at the moment. We want to give Central and South America a good crack and then we want to go to France. It's not going to be for another year, at least, until we're looking for jobs, so we've actually written off the recession."

The recession has also seen some significant bargains arise as governments subsidise airfares to try and get tourists into their countries. Airfares to South America, which were steady around the $2000 mark, have recently dropped to less than half that, with return fares of $895 on offer.

- NZ Herald

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