Countries

Cats Macao – Curtain Call

Two and a half weeks away and just 13 performances and my Cats experience was over. Short and sweet and just enough knee pain.

I have to say performing in the show was every bit of magic I remembered minus the South African audience, which did make a difference. Although any audience gives me a buzz, when I did the show last time, on home turf, it was so exciting because I never knew who might be watching so it gave me that bit of extra energy each time. I was reminded of this when my husband and his business partner came to watch on our last matinée. I probably over-performed but it was fun knowing that there were at least one set of eyes on me at all times. What can I say, performers love attention 🙂

Act II

Act II

Another downside to my brief stay was not having enough time to truly bond with the cast. Many of them had toured with the show for a year and you could really see and feel the camaraderie on stage. From working on two international productions, I can say that theatre people, regardless of home country, are some of the craziest and friendliest in the world and I would have relished getting closer to this particular group of people. They were so welcoming and sweet and great with baby Ayla.

Silli and Vicky

Silli and Vicky

Out of costume - Cassandra, Silli, Tanto and Vicky

Out of costume – Cassandra, Silli, Tanto and Vicky

Mistoffelees and Victoria

Mistoffelees and Victoria

Me and Olivia

Me and Olivia

Tumble, Tanto, Vicky and George

Tumble, Tanto, Vicky and George

After the final show we were treated to a closing party at the Bellini Lounge, a casino bar with live music and burlesque-clad waitresses. The music was fantastic and we danced the night away to some great classics and golden oldies. My feet hated me but I pushed through, I mean, how often do moms get to let their hair down!

Earl Gregory AKA Tugger

Earl Gregory AKA Tugger

Closing night party

Closing night party

While the rest of the cast was due to continue to Korea, I had opted out of the tour, which had many of them asking what my plans were for when I got home. It was then that I could finally reveal to the cast the news I had kept secret. The fact that I was 14 weeks pregnant!

The reaction of the cast members was overall shock (“OMG I lifted you pregnant!”) …followed by congratulations. So I guess it was the right decision not to tell them about it during the contract but it was awesome to finally share the news.

I actually knew about my pregnancy before I left South Africa. After taking the necessary contractual precautions I went ahead with the contract because I had danced while pregnant before and the three-week commitment was short enough for me to feel comfortable with the physical demands of the show. And it was all fine. I saw a gyne in Macao for the crucial 12-week scan where they do an ultrasound and take blood to rule out certain complications and in fact, I felt less of the awful morning sickness and fatigue while away than when I was at home. I think being busy and having something big to keep my mind occupied were the best pregnancy blues busters ever.

Media Call - "statistical cats"

Media Call – “statistical cats”

So what is next for me? As I am writing this I am 16 weeks along and already showing slightly, so I guess any big dance contracts are out of the question. Teaching is on the cards and I have joined forces with some exciting people but actually I am thinking about doing something completely different. Maybe it will be choreographing, maybe a 9-5, maybe moving to China with my husband. I don’t know yet but what I would like to do is fill in the blanks on this blog. All those adventures I had while traveling and touring Asia with Phantom of the Opera, those memories need to be captured before I forget about them completely.

Well its goodbye to Cats, maybe forever, maybe just for now. I am so grateful I got to do it again and add to my fond memories, my friends list and my bank account. So until next time, here’s to an exciting 2015, filled with adventure, change and a healthy dose of uncertainty.

Vicky touches Grizabella

Vicky touches Grizabella

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Cats Macao – The Rehearsals

I can say with absolute confidence that I was not in my best shape when accepting the offer to do Cats again. The last time I performed in Cats was 5 years ago and the last time I performed on stage was almost a year and a half ago. Add a pregnancy into the mix, and, well, need I say more.

But never one to turn down a challenge, I took the bull by the horns and did what needed to be done. My first attempt at re-teaching myself the choreography I had completely forgotten was by watching clips from YouTube. This bright idea was obviously a waste of time so I contacted my earlier Cats dance captain to see if she had a better memory of the moves than I did.

I was in luck and she agreed to work with me a few days a week in an old squash court until I had relearnt most of the show. I decided to focus on just the main dance numbers and leave the rest for the 6 days of rehearsals scheduled for Macao. Until then it was up to me to work by myself to get my fitness levels back to a reasonable level and the felinity of a cat back into my body.

Then suddenly my time was up and I found myself in Macao on my way to day one of rehearsals. From 9am to 6pm. With the Joanne Robinson. Great stuff. To say I was scared is a vast understatement. Then again, there were other new cast members who probably felt the same way. Although they did have 2 days of rehearsals in Sydney learning the entire show in its most up-to-date form.

What happens is each time Cats is launched in a new country a million tiny details are refined and changed so that the version I learnt 5 years ago was completely different to the current one. Where I used to be placed upstage right I was now downstage left and so on. Add to that the non-dance numbers I had decided not the learn and there were moments of me being dragged, quite literally, around the room by fellow performers – a great bonding experience.

After 3 full days we had run the entire show. That’s the whole 2.5 hour production in just 3 days. Surprisingly my body was feeling alright despite a few niggles in the obvious knees, back and hamstrings so I was quite proud of myself.

Then we moved to the stage and the hours got longer. 12 noon to 10pm. Although I had worked by myself, it’s one thing dancing around a squash court by yourself and quite another working on a huge stage with 20 other performers. Watching your spacing and timing, perfecting costume quick changes and maintaining your character throughout the show all take their toll on the body.

I had also forgotten how much time my character, Victoria, spends on her knees. Being a kitten, she is never in a standing position unless it is one of the big dance numbers. Also she never leaves the stage, she is in every number. This is a very different experience to Phantom of the Opera where the ballet dancers are only in 4 numbers so there are up to 45 minutes of off-stage time to relax.

Thankfully we had a fantastic physiotherapist at our disposal and massages at the hotel spa but despite all this, by the end of day 6 I could barely stand up straight. In fact, while I am sure in my 12-year dance career I have experienced extreme pain, I seriously could not remember ever feeling that sore. My knees were broken, my lower back felt like it had a metal rod instead of a spine and my hip flexors woke me in the middle of the night.

But as any performer will tell you, it was worth it! I love rehearsals. It’s so satisfying to feel yourself get fitter and stronger and perfect the work. 5 years ago I had 5 weeks of rehearsals, in Macao, just 6 days. But in those 6 days I had gone from mildly fit with a vague idea of what I was doing to being show ready and feeling very much like my pre-pragnancy self. Well, almost.

After the longest week of my life we were one day away from Opening. For me it was a true test of character. After leaving Phantom I thought I would never set foot on stage again and there I was about to perform in an extremely challenging show so dear to my heart. And I couldn’t wait to feel that magic feeling when you are on stage with an audience…

Next time, Curtain Up!

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Cats Macao – The Arrival

After more than a year away from performing thanks to baby Ayla – the sparkling new addition to my family –  I finally got a chance to return to the stage to perform in Macao in my favourite show of all time, Cats.   I performed in the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical five years ago and since then I don’t think a day has passed where I didn’t think about that special time in my life. What can I say, Cats is a show like that boyfriend you just can’t get over.

Cats Musical Logo

So there I was in Macao, or the Vegas of the East, with my baby girl, a nanny friend and later, my husband. It’s quite poetic that Ayla turned one on the very day I arrived to my first “job” in a year. Being a full-time mom this past year has been incredibly rewarding but certainly has had its ups and downs and I was very excited to be heading back into the world of work.

Baby Ayla at 8 months

Baby Ayla at 8 months

From the moment I arrived I felt very spoilt. Firstly, I managed to scrape together every one of my voyager miles and upgraded to business class (which was absolutely necessary as a mom travelling alone with a baby), then the amazing Cats company organised me a car to get me from the ferry to the hotel and then I scored the most incredible hotel room I think I’ve ever been in. I mean, my shower was so big it had its own corner bench!

The shower

The shower

The Conrad Hotel, our home for the 3 week contract, was super accommodating. It’s not easy travelling with a baby and while most hotels provide a crib, there they actually provided a baby bath as well and a complimentary box of baby products. So thoughtful.

Complimentary baby products

Complimentary baby products

Even the room service menu seemed to cater to babies. In the kiddies menu besides the usual fish fingers and hotdogs were pureed vegetables, which came in a plastic baby bowl with baby spoon and knife. These might sound like silly little things but they make a big difference in my books.

So after a 13 hour flight, 2 hours waiting for a ferry and a 1 hour ferry ride from Hong Kong to Macao, I can say that the arrival went as smoothly as I could have hoped for with a 1-year-old. Thankfully I had one more day to relax and get my nanny friend, Avril re-acquainted with Ayla before rehearsals started the following day.

Ayla and I basically chilled that first evening and after a few laps up and down the corridor in her pram, she was asleep, allowing me to indulge in whatever rubbish reality TV was on…ah bliss.

Stay tuned for my next post on The Rehearsals…

 

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Lower East Side Eats

Manhattan Island or NYC is divided into 12 areas, each one with its own look and feel, history, food and real estate prices. The Lower East Side was an area I really wanted to see for its rich Jewish history and cultural diversity . An influx of Jewish, Ukrainian, Russian, German and even Puerto Rican immigrants at the turn-of-the-century, who brought with them recipes from the old world, created a melting pot of international cuisine. We decided the best way to experience all the area had to offer was through our stomachs.

Yonah Schimmel's Bakery

We kicked of our food tour with some knishes from Yonah Schimmel’s (located at 137 East Houston Street New York, NY 10002). The bakery has been around since 1910, enough time to perfect the art of the knish. If you’ve never had one it’s a large roll of light, fluffy pastry with either a sweet (ricotta and cherry, chocolate) or savoury (meat, sweet potato or spinach and feta) filling and at $3.50 they are the perfect comfort food for cold weather.

Knishes

Just down the road from YS’s is the famous Katz Deli (205 East Houston Street 
New York, NY 10002). Around since 1880 this eatery is another veteran in classic American dining. They serve everything from soups and salads to sandwiches and steaks but having just eaten two knishes we didn’t buy anything from Katz. Also we try to eat on the healthier side and deli food is notoriously heavy and processed, Katz being no exception. However, if you decide to eat there bring cash because they don’t take card payments and be prepared to wait a while as the place is always packed whether you choose to be served by a waiter or order yourself at the counter.

Pastrami on Rye by Mathew M.

In between all the food we did also learn a thing or two about the area, in particular the tenement style buildings. Tenements were the typical living accommodations of most immigrants in the early 20th century. Often three or four families would live together in one room and the building’s toilets or out-houses were outside at the back of the building. Later a toilet was added to every floor for residents to share. Our tour guide highly recommended the Tenement Museum to learn more about the era but we ran out of time.

Lower East Side Tenements Wikipedia

One of my favourite places to visit back home in Cape Town is a deli called New York Bagel. It is the place for a good brunch and of course, a good bagel. On our food tour we got to experience the real New York bagel at Russ and Daughters (179 E Houston St, New York, NY 10002).

Outside Russ & Daughters

Starting out as nothing more than a pushcart in 1914, Russ and Daughters survived four generations to become one of the best places to eat in the Lower East Side. This eatery is incredible and was listed by Anthony Bourdain as one of 13 places to eat before you die. The variety of salmon and cream cheeses on offer will boggle the mind. They also sell sweets and pastries, caviar, smoked fish, fruits and nuts. We ordered two bagels (which cost the same as a fillet steak in South Africa) and they were honestly the best I’ve ever had so I guess I have to say it was money well spent.

Cream cheese

Smoked salmon

En route to the next stop we passed a number of landmarks like the Orensanz Foundation for the Arts which used to be a synagogue but now serves as a venue for events. On the day we visited they were setting up for some or other event and we got to take a look inside, it was beautiful.

Orensanz Foundation for the Arts

We also stopped at Streit’s Matzoh Factory. Normally I wouldn’t find anything fascinating about a matzoh factory or matzoh itself. In fact I hate the stuff. Forced to eat it for 8 days a year, the cardboard-tasting, fiberless cracker is only palatable smothered in chocolate spread, so by the time Pesach is over you’re at least a kilo heavier and constipated. However, at Streit’s the matzohs we tasted (sans chocolate spread) were quite delish. Each golden piece was nicely toasted and nutty tasting. Even the colour was better than the mass-produced stuff we get at home. What’s more, the factory produces over 7000kg of matzoh per day. That’s enough matzoh to feed around 100 000 people.

Streit's Matzoh Factory

The next stop on the tour was a tiny little place called Prosperity Dumplings (46 Eldridge St #1, New York, NY 10002). Their specialty? Pork fried dumplings, four for a dollar! I don’t eat pork so I can’t personally vouch for these but the rest of the members of our tour seemed to enjoy them.

Dumplings

Next up was Sugar Sweet Sunshine (126 Rivington St, New York, NY 10002), so much more than a bakery. Not only can you find an incredible assortment of cakes, coffees and cupcakes, you can also indulge in pudding. That’s right, little shots of pudding in flavours like banana and chocolate, choc-chip and apple pie for just $2.50 a cup. We tried them all and an oozy-gooey chocolate almond buttercream cupcake. Guess who was not counting calories? I think the idea of serving pudding shots is so clever and unique, I mean who doesn’t love a spot of pud, especially after an afternoon of savoury treats?

Pudding Shots

Our food tour ended unceremoniously with pickles. And why not? If, like me, you love a good sandwich, nothing beats pickles as the perfect accompaniment for almost any type of sandwich. Even on their own I find pickles have a way of hitting a very particular spot when a craving strikes. The Pickle Guys (49 Essex St, New York, NY 10002) sell a range that varies in strength from sweet to hot and includes other pickled and fermented delights like sauerkraut, pickled olives and sliced hot peppers. I loved the half sour pickle although it did give me a massive attack of heartburn. Good thing I had left over pudding shots to ease the burn 🙂

Pickles

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New York Newsies

Newsies

It’s long been a dream of mine to visit New York. Not just because it’s one of those great cities you feel you have to see in real life (as opposed to just in the movies) but also because it’s a performer’s paradise. At any given time there are over 40 musicals and plays showing in the theatre district alone so it’s practically mandatory to see a show in New York.  I couldn’t wait to get my toosh into a seat on Broadway, or more accurately, 42nd street, where most of the bigger shows play.

Newsies modern-dance inspired

In fact I was so keen that I booked our group seats for Newsies on the day we landed. Of course I told them a high-energy performance was the perfect way to stay awake and overcome the jet lag we would all struggle with after a 16 hour flight through 7 times zones. If you are going to catch a Broadway show I suggest you print your tickets out before-hand, make sure you know where the theatre is and get there at least 30 minutes early. We arrived on the dot and discovered a massive queue that circumnavigated the entire block, and this was a queue for people who had already purchased tickets. Thankfully we managed to finagle our way in right at the front by holding up our printed tickets for all to see and putting on our “We’re very confused South Africans” faces, but don’t take my word for it that this will always work.

Newsies all-male cast

Newsies is the story of the newsboy strike of 1899 and has been adapted for stage from the 1992 Disney movie of the same name. After asking friends for advice, reading reviews and scouring different discounted ticket sites I finally settled on Newsies for two reasons. First, it won two Tony Awards in 2012 for best score and best choreography and second, it’s virtually an all-male cast. Now I have no problem watching a mixed cast, especially as a female performer myself. However, being involved in my own choreographic pursuits back home I was really interested to see how choreographer Christopher Gattelli achieved the difficult task of telling a story of social change through original dance while ensuring the male ensemble looked sufficiently manly. I was not disappointed. The athletic choreography was distinctly ballet inspired with elements of modern dance and  jazz. While I didn’t see anything completely unique in terms of the dancing I did love the great use of space and props. The dancers storm the tenement-style set with the same hard-sell tactics they use to sell their papes (newspapers) and each number reads like a blazing, scathing headline. The obvious highlight was the sequence of synchronised dancing on real newspapers. That must have taken hours of rehearsals. All-in-all money well spent.

Newsies newspaper number

New York’s Broadway scene draws thousands of people everyday so you might wonder how the theatres handle interval toilet breaks. Well I’ll tell you how. With army precision and drill-sergeant theatre ushers. First you join a queue that snakes from the bathrooms down two flights of stairs and ends in the stalls (of course the men’s bathroom queue has like five guys). Then you shuffle along in little geisha-like steps, all the while being herded by the ushers to stay close to the railings and keep the stairs clear. The pace of the shuffle is deceiving because within five minutes you are at the bathroom entrance where another usher sergeant takes over and hawk-eyes movement of bathroom doors. The minute one opens another person is hurried into the cubicle to do their business and so it continues until it’s your turn. By that time you are so afraid of the usher sergeant that you practically sprint into the cubicle, avoiding all eye contact, complete your business in record time and sprint out again after washing your hands – on a side note the Nedelander theatre has a lovely variety of hand creams but I didn’t have the time to try any out.

Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Unfortunately we didn’t see any other musicals although we did checkout Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular, which delivers exactly what the name promises – Christmas spectacle. A massive 6000-seater auditorium, huge screen, 3D glasses and thousands of eager children await you so best bring your Christmas cheer.

The Rockettes

The spectacular is really just light-hearted entertainment for kids. The loose story line is played out by a few key actor-singer-dancers with the famous Rockettes making regular appearances to wow the crowd with their precision and uniformity. The show highlights Christmas in New York, is great for getting you into the Christmas spirit and makes you feel incredibly lucky to be in the city for the holidays but in all honesty I would rather have spent the money on another musical or play. I guess there’s always next time…

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Oh Rio, the place I long to be…nighttime naughties

Take a group of 40 MBA students, add upcoming thesis stress, marinate in two years of exams, assignments and group projects and deposit in Rio. Remove from heat and enjoy the wildest party of your life!

So there we were in a plane landing in Rio. Arriving there, the anticipation you feel is incredible, you just know you are gonna have fun. So the question is, what to do on your first night in Rio? Get your wobblies on of course! Now, Rio is an expensive city so we prepared ourselves for the worst but with the Rand/Reais exchange rate factored in, boy a night out don’t come cheap. But we were on a mission and if we could get through two years of lectures, we most certainly could get ourselves sozzled. So decision made, a bunch of us headed down the road from the hotel to the Mud Bug pub, a sports bar in the heart of Copacabana that plays live Jazz, Blues and Rock music. We were in for an  eyeful; when they say Rio brings the heat, they weren’t kidding. The men and women of Rio ooze sex and passion and when the lights go down and the music goes up you will see no one making excuses for being hot-blooded. I found myself staring at couple after couple snogging passionately or groping on the dance floor. The atmosphere was heady and despite the pricey drinks after a while no one cared and the Mud Bug became our regular joint after that famous night… and its accompanying hangover.

Live music

Cocktails!

Besides Copacabana, another area you just have to see in Rio is Ipanema. The beach, just as picturesque as the Copacabana, draws volleyball players, runners and general hunky athletic types that would not look out-of-place on the cover of a Mills and Boon novel. The streets are lined with high-end boutiques, cafes and restaurants and men and women clad in beach-wear patrol the streets looking like they haven’t a care in the world. Once again I caught myself staring at the gorgeous populace and realised they weren’t shy to stare right back, something I am so not used to but rather enjoyed.

Not only is Ipanema famous for its comfy flip-flops and beaches, it was put on the map in the mid 1960s by bossa-nova artist Antonio Carlos Jobim who composed the Grammy award winning song Garota de Ipanema or The Girl from Ipanema. In honour of the song we had dinner at its namesake restaurant. What can I say about this restaurant…it’s menu is..well…great if you don’t mind having a liquid dinner and deep-fried everything is your cup of tea. Despite the unappealing food, just being in Rio made up for the lack of nutrition and by the end of the night a few group members (guys) found themselves decorating the poles at the restaurant entry, much to the delight of the dinners inside.

Dinner at Garota de Ipanema

Our third day in Rio was spent at a favela doing volunteer work with a local community. The intensity of the day left us famished and in need of an evening of light-hearted Brazilian fun so we headed to the bohemian area of Baixo Gavea. The area is packed with al-fresco diners, clubs and pubs playing live music and the most exotic people on earth – there must have been a model convention going down.

Fabio

We had a great meal of the usual rice with black beans, feijoada or meat stew, cooked veggies and the standard caipirinha.

Dinnertime

The area really gets going after dinner time and the vibe was intoxicating…

On our fourth night, despite a long, hard day of beer-tasting at the Cervejaria Bohemia, our group was determined to paint the town red and show Brazilians that South Africans know how to party. I had arranged to meet a friend of mine from home and she agreed to show us Brazilian nightlife in exchange for good old SA magazines and rusks. She took the entire group to Lapa, a neighbourhood in central Rio famous for its nightlife and historical monuments like the Carioca Aqueduct.

Carioca Aqueduct

Lapa

The area is concentrated with restaurants, bars and clubs playing a mix of samba, rock, pop and hip hop music. At night the Carioca Aqueduct is illuminated with magnificent multicoloured lights and, being surrounded by enthusiastic street vendors, serves as the perfect spot for greasy food and warm-up drinks.

Carioca Aqueduct

Lapa

Caipirinhas

Food!

The great thing about Lapa is that all the historical buildings, converted into clubs and restaurants, are maintained on the outside, creating an urban hotspot with old-world charm.

Lapa buildings

Lapa clubs

No Rio experience is complete without a night of Samba, the symbol of Brazil and the Rio Carnival. Thank goodness we had a Carioca (local) in our midst because the choice of samba clubs awaiting us in Lapa was incredible. Add to that the mix of beauties spilling onto the streets and hanging over the balconies and I was completely overwhelmed. We ended up at Rio Scenarium, ranked first in Rio nightlife on TripAdvisor and one of the top ten bars in the world according to the Guardian (London).

Rio Scenarium

The four storey club looks like a vintage museum and is bedecked with antiques and curiosities lining every wall and ceiling and plays everything from live samba bands to Brazilian club music.

Floor to ceiling decor

Rio Scenarium decor

Decor

Antique clocks

Curious

Besides the incredible music the other great thing about this place is the dance floor packed with couples who know how to move and aren’t afraid to show it. There is nothing quite like a man who can dance and  even though I am a married woman I will say this, it’s true what they say about Brazilian men!

Live samba music

Rio Scenarium

The ground floor band plays typical samba music that gets Cariocas to their feet and brings foreigners (also called Gringos) to a standstill. The few ladies brave enough to give the samba a go had no problem attracting an eager male partner. I decided that the men weren’t flirting, they were just being polite and acting in accordance with their cultural norms, really I swear!

After a while we found ourselves gravitating upstairs past the restaurant to the hip hop and dance floors which became packed after midnight. I don’t know what it is about Latino club music but it just keeps you going and going. By the time we got out of there I could barely stand despite wearing responsible latin dancing shoes. If you choose one place to go big in Rio, go to Rio Scenarium!!

Our last night rolled around all too quickly. We headed back to Lapa, our lecturers chose the famous Carioca da Gema samba club to wrap up the elective. The place is also an excellent pizzeria but I was so sad to be leaving Rio I honestly can’t remember what the food was like. I do, however,  remember the music. It was light samba performed by Nelsinho Felix, a Carioca with long dread locks and a smooth voice (I have added in a clip of his at the end of this post, it’s well worth a listen).

For some over achievers in our group the fun wasn’t over. Those who had handed in their final thesis stayed on in Brazil or jetted off to Peru and the Amazon.  But with two weeks to go until hand-in and a mountain of work still to do, for me the fun was over. I count myself lucky that I had the chance to visit this intoxicating place which far exceeds its sultry reputation. Rio is everything it promises on the postcards; sun, sand, sea, sights, music, food and tons of sexiness! Cariocas watch out, this Gringo will be back and armed with feathers, sequins and spray-on tan for Carnival!

Copacabana beach

Ipanema beach at sunset

Ipanema beach

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Oh Rio, the place I long to be…daytime delights

I knew I was going to love Rio de Janeiro, everybody knows they will love it just by its hot reputation. Leaving São Paulo behind I could feel the tingle starting at my feet and moving up my whole body with every mile of ocean passing beneath our aircraft. As if the pilot could feel my anticipation he did a loop around Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf mountain and then swooped down real low, hovering above the glittering sea before making his way to the landing strip. Atta boy!

After what seemed like an age at customs we were finally on our way to our hotel. That first night I will never forget how special welcome drinks can be when you have the Copacabana Beach for a view.

Copacabana Beach

Copacabana Beach

Copacabana by night

Rio is very different to São Paulo. On the surface its the city’s obvious beauty that takes your breath away; the beach, the mountains, the climate. Taking a closer look its got more to do with the people of Rio or Cariocas. When South Africa won the bid for the 2010 soccer world cup we were eager to prove to the outside world just how wonderful, fantastic and friendly SA and its people are, catering to tourists’ every need. Brazil on the other hand has an attitude like, “well duh, of course we won!”. It’s slightly better in São Paulo but in Rio, hardly anyone, even in business , is bothering to learn English.

Speaking of business, no MBA excursion is worth its weight without the mandatory company visits. Our first morning we were invited to a lecture at Petrobras, Brazilian multinational and global leader in energy. This company is so serious it has its own university where students are educated in Petroleum Engineering and the building itself is made from certified wood, recycled products, low emission paint and is US Green Building certified. Apparently they only hire locals so if you are looking for a job with this giant but don’t have a Brazilian passport, don’t bother.

In the afternoon we had a tour of the famous Maracana stadium, the largest stadium in Brazil and South America. Now soccer is not really my thing but the guys in our group were practically drooling as we drove up to the stadium. Unfortunately it was under construction so we couldn’t get the full effect of it but at least I can say I know what it is to walk a day in Pele’s shoes.

Pele's feet

Late that afternoon we roamed the streets of Ipanema before dinner. Ipanema is an area in the south of the city adjacent to Copacabana Beach and is one of the most expensive places to live in Rio. One of the best things to do, besides window shop, is to sit at a beachside café, beer in hand, and people-watch.

Just chillin' in Ipanema

Our group took this a bit too far by cheering the runners and cyclists as they went by, particularly if they were of the female variety with exposed midriff. Beach culture is a huge part of life in Rio so the Cariocas work hard to maintain their physiques.  In fact a Brazilian friend told me business in Rio only really gets going around 10am as Cariocas are accustomed to spending their mornings on the beach. Now that’s what I call good work-life balance!

Ipanema at sunset

Ipanema beach promenade

The next day’s excursion has to go down as one of the best experiences of my life. We were visiting the Rocinha favela in South Rio. This favela is quite famous as it was used as a filming location for some scenes in the movie City of God which depicts life in Rio’s slums and is based on Paulo Lins’ book Cidade de Deus. In fact we were told that, until a recent police and military crackdown, the favela was too dangerous for tourists to enter.

Four storey house

The slums of Rio look quite different to those in South Africa. For one thing, the houses there are made of concrete and brick, a step up from the tin shacks of our townships. Also, many of them are three and four stories tall, have basic sanitation, plumbing and electricity. In fact Rocinha has its own bus lines, medicine stores, banks and even its own cable television channel called TV ROC plus the street art or graffiti is incredible!

Graffitti

Favela street art

Rocinha favela

We hooked up with a neighbourhood association so that we were not just visiting the favela as tourists but were there to do some cleanup work to improve conditions.

Local group

After a brief talk about the history of the favela and the work they were doing to clean it up, we were led up the steep concrete steps into the favela.

The adventure begins

Inside the favela

One thing this favela has is a spectacular view of both Sugar Loaf mountain in the sea below and Christ the Redeemer on the Corcovado above. It was a perfect day with a clear blue sky and that brimming excitement you feel when you know you are about to experience something totally different.

Incredible views

Sugar Loaf Mountain

Corcovado in the distance

I loved that the first item on the agenda was lunch because I always work better on a full belly.  The meal was standard Brazilian; rice with black beans, feijoada or meat stew, cooked veggies and fruit. We were also offered Batida to drink which is a mixture of cachaca (of course), coconut milk and sugar. It was good albeit a bit too strong for an afternoon of volunteer work.

Lunch!

After lunch the fun began in earnest with music, football and dancing. Some of the guys worked off their lunch with a game of soccer and the rest of us attempted dancing. I must admit that even though I am a professional dancer, I struggled to pick up the footwork of the Brazilians. I think it’s just a natural-born rhythm in their blood.

Brazilian foorwork

It wasn’t all fun and games that afternoon, we were there to do some real work and by real I mean dirty. We divided ourselves into two groups, lets call them soft and hard. The softies (including myself) spent the next few hours hand-painting street signs which we later hung ourselves to demarcate the various streets of the favela. The hardcore team, armed with brooms, brushes and trash cans, were let loose to do some serious street-sweeping. Their efforts proved slightly ineffectual given that there was a strong breeze that day so some of the rubbish brushed away was simply replaced by new rubbish but in the end it felt good to do something worthwhile with our time and leave a small piece of ourselves behind. Here are some of the street signs I painted.

Travessa Jose Reis

Painting away

Rua Joao Bertoldo

My day's handiwork

And some more of the softies’ work…

Hand-painted street signs

Working happily

Happiness

All in all it was a perfect day. We had music, we had dancing, a blue sky, a cool breeze, great food and a sense of satisfaction from doing something good for others. Here is a little video I made capturing the afternoon atmosphere.

Now I am sure the other MBA groups in other countries had fun but we snagged the two best lecturers as our chaperones for the Brazil elective, proof of this was in the next day’s trip to the Bohemia Brewery included in our itinerary. Cervejaria Bohemia is nestled in Petropolis, a winter holiday spot offering a cooler climate, forest hills, a charming urban landscape and the former Summer Palace of the second Brazilian emperor.

Petropolis

Petropolis

The Bohemia brand claims to be the first Brazilian beer with production starting in 1853 so the brewery tour itself delves deep into the history and culture of beer brewing in a high-tech experience unlike any you have ever had. The tour is divided into parts, the first being history of beer from as far back as Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt with interactive games and videos for the enthusiasts. Next you explore several different rooms covering the main ingredients in the perfect brew – water, hops, malt and yeast and then watch as floating holograms bring the beer making process to life. Finally with your thirst sufficiently whetted you get to taste the golden talisman straight from the barrel.

River of beer

Bohemia

Bohemia

99 bottles of beer on the wall

Beer tasting

Our last day in Rio was spent sight-seeing and beaching. We all climbed into jeeps and made our round-a-bout way up the mountains toward the Tijuca Forest. Hand-planted and nestled in the city, the national park is home to thousands of plant and wildlife species as well as the Mata Macado favela. Despite the car sickness I always suffer from twisty-turny ascents, the views of the lush vegetation and Sugar Loaf  were spectacular.

View of Sugar Loaf from Tijuca Forest

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Waterfall

Unfortunately the journey took longer than anticipated and most of the group elected to go back to the hotel but a few of us diehards soldiered on to the main event – Christ the Redeemer! As far as I am concerned visiting Rio and not seeing this landmark is the equivalent of going to Beijing without climbing the Great Wall of China or Paris without the Eiffel Tower. Christo Redentor stands at almost 40 meters high atop the Corcovado mountain and is considered the largest Art Deco statue in the world. After a 30 minute wait in the queue we were squeezed into the tram which ascends to the peak in about 15 minutes.

Tram ride

Once on top it’s just 220 steps to reach the imposing statue surrounded by shoulder-to-shoulder crowds all clambering to get that perfect shot of both the statue and the spectacular views of the city.

View from Corcovado

View of Sugar Loaf from Corcovado

This symbol of Brazilian Christianity is even more imposing up close in the sweltering Rio heat.

Christ the Redeemer

Christo Redentor

The height of the statue and small surrounding crowd area make it difficult to get yourself and the statue in the same photo. For this reason you will see tourists lying on the floor, shooting upwards and getting their models to imitate Jesus’ outstretched pose. Of course, I couldn’t resist my own kitschy shot…

Tourists

Strike a pose

The heat up there was so intense I was glad for the nearby café that sold water. Other facilities included a curio shop where you can buy T-shirts, postcards and other knickknacks but beware, some pictures have been photoshopped so that the statue faces away from Sugar Loaf instead of towards it!

Once the excitement of seeing the landmark is over, the 45 minute queue for the tram ride back down is a bit of a bore but the local samba players inside the carriage make up for it!

Finally back from the clouds we at last had a chance to go to the beach. The Copacabana beach is world-famous. It’s featured in songs, movies and music videos and you are guaranteed an eyeful of beefy bronzed bodies (not our group’s, clearly).

Sun tanning

The hazy weather meant the beach was not over crowded and perfect for a leisurely stroll and a game of soccer or beach volleyball.

Copacabana beach

Copacabana

Copacabana

Although we were in Rio in October, the best weather and time of year to visit is in February for carnival. If you are interested in shaking what your mamma gave ya, check out my post Right in the Rio Carnival. 

Sadly my time in Rio came to an end. As expected, the short trip was undoubtedly one of my best. Rio is not just beauties and beaches, it’s an energy, a pulse that the Cariocas seem to carry around with them. They have a way about them, a certain arrogance that comes from living in a city whose saucy reputation precedes it.  Not only do the people of Rio love their city, they take it for granted that you will too and of course, they are right… life really is a beach in Rio!!

At the Copa...Copacabana

((Keep an eye open for my next post about what we got up to in Rio when the sun went down…))

Caipirinha

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A semi-student in Sao Paulo

Last year I was fortunate enough to visit Brazil with my university as part of the degree I studied. While students could choose between countries such as the US, China, Japan and India, I knew right away I wanted to visit Brazil. Brazil is said to be quite similar to South Africa in terms of its geography, climate and eco-political landscape. This similarity, along with the lure of the Copacabana beach and Brazilian men, provided the draw card for me. Our trip took place over 10 days, 4 of them in São Paulo and the remaining 6 in Rio de Janeiro.

I always enjoy the  journey from airport to hotel when I arrive in a new country, especially when the journey is by road as I can get a feel for the lay of the land. Upon arrival in São Paulo I had to admit that I felt like I had not left Johannesburg. The highways and byways, billboard advertising, rolling hills and grey skies that greeted us where typical of an overcast day at home. Once we got into the city I found  once more that it resembled different parts of Johannesburg. Some roads looked like they had been pulled right out of trendy Rosebank while others looked just like parts of Hillbrow – run down, dirty and dodgy.

Streets of Sao Paulo

On our first evening we had drinks on top of the Unique Hotel, so named because of its unique arc shape. We got there in time for sunset and were able to enjoy spectacular views of the city as well as delicious pizza and Brazil’s signature drink, the Caipirinha!

Unique Hotel Rooftop Bar

Although the weather wasn’t great, the drinks warmed us up and we soon learnt that in Brazil they are not cheap on the cachaca.

Caipirinha

The next day we had to suffer through two hours of group presentations but had the afternoon at the Mercado Municipal (Food Market).

Mercado Municipal

The place looks like an old train station that has been converted and is filled with little bars and restaurants, thousands of food items and a boisterous atmosphere.

Pubs and restaurants Mercado Municipal

Mercado Municipal

We were told we had to try the cane sugar juice, beer and the famous lanche de mortadella sandwich which is basically a kilo of sliced meat between two pieces of bread.

Lunch!

Lanche de Mortadella

We ate and drank until merry and our slightly inebriated group of 40 loved the experience so much we treated the passers-by to a bad rendition of Shosholoza. 

Slightly tipsy

We ended our day at a local flea market, charming in every way. There was a transvestite busking on the  street-side singing samba songs, bearded men selling leather bags and little old ladies with hand-made magnets of Brazilian birds carved in wood. I bought a floaty yellow dress and a tribal dagger.

Samba street singer

Market jewellery

Leather bags

Flea market

That night we decided to try the Bohemian area of Vila Madalena recommended to us by our local presenter.

On our way!

Wow! This place is a real gem. The vibe was incredible; streets of pubs, clubs and restaurants, people spilling out onto the streets and live music filtering out into the night.We chose a cozy pub for dinner. The drinks flowed and when a plate of flaming steak was set before me I felt like I could die right then and there a happy camper.

Good times!

Barbecue anyone?

The next day was back to business and we visited ABB where we were treated to a talk by Director Roger Agnelli, a renowned and charismatic businessman who sang Africa’s praises and made me feel rather patriotic.

The afternoon was supposed to be dedicated to seeing the São Paulo Stock Exchange but the sun had finally decided to show its face and  all we really wanted to do was be outside. Instead we roamed the streets of the charming Praca da Se area along Avenida Paulista and the square in front of the gothically beautiful São Paulo Metropolitan Cathedral.

Avenida Paulista

Catedral de Se

Catedral de Se

Catedral de Se

Also in the area stands the Banespa Building, an exact replica of New York’s Empire State Building, which supposedly has one of the best views of São Paulo.

Empire State Building in Sao Paulo

I really enjoyed this area of São Paulo. The streets were bustling with people going about their day, cart vendors selling fresh juice, cozy pubs and restaurants and of course, the mandatory Michael Jackson street performer.

Juice vendor

Michael Jackson street performer

At last the evening was upon us and the meal we had all been waiting for arrived. If its meat you are after, nothing beats Fogo de Chao, the best churrascaria in town. A churrascaria is a place where meat is cooked barbecue style  (churrasco in Portuguese). Apparently these are quite common in Brazil and it would be a shame not to visit one while travelling here. For a tidy sum you get access to an amazing buffet of salads while the waiters continually circle the tables with knives and a skewer on which are speared various cuts of meat including lamb, sausage, beef, filet mignon and duck.I have to say my favourite was the chicken hearts. When you arrive you get a little card with green on one side and red on the other. The waiters will keep dropping meat onto your plate while the green side is up, turning it to red gives you a breather and some time to wash it all down with those crazy strong caipirinhas. As you can see, some in our group grew quite attached to these little bombs of firewater…

Fogo de Chao

At the time I was not amazed by São Paulo, maybe because it felt too much like home. But looking back I see I had a blast and in fact most of what I did I could not do back in Johannesburg. At the very least, Jo’burgers need to learn how to make a stronger cocktail!

Caipirinha

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Korean Food Fest

Many years ago I saw a cooking program about a Korean-American woman who decided to visit her homeland and pay homage to her roots by learning to cook and enjoy Korea’s traditional food. I remember being fascinated by the vast types of noodle dishes or Ramen, the unfamiliar vegetables and the exotic cuts of meat. The presenter travelled all over Korea and when she arrived in Seoul she invited one of her friends along to the Gwangjang Market.

The Gwangjang Market is more than a food market. It’s the place to go when shopping for Korean silk, tailored suits, traditional Korean shoes and custom-made Korean Hanbok.

Korean silk

Korean Hanbok (traditional dress)

Tailored suits

Traditional Korean shoes

At meal times the place is packed full with locals and for good reason. The food here is both good and cheap. It’s cooked right in front of you and almost all the vendors have a seating area for you to relax and enjoy your meal.

Seating for meals

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The whole market is quite small and can be walked through in about 30 minutes but as a tourist it took me a lot longer as I stopped at many stalls to soak in the sights and smells of the exotic dishes. From what I could see there are four types of sellers; those selling pancakes made from mungbeans, spinach, seafood and other things, those selling Korean sweets and desserts, the vegetable sellers and finally the ones offering meat and fish.

Pancakes yum!

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Korean sweets

More sweets

Vegetable seller

Beans and pulses

At the meat vendors you can have fresh seafood, fish soup, sushi, giant beef sausage and if you are feeling really adventurous, pig’s trotters.

Mixed seafood dish

Dried fish

Pigs trotters

Could that be intestines?

And of course, loads of Kimchi!

Kimchi

I decided to try a bunch of different things and ended up with sushi, fish soup, mungbean pancake and some Ginseng sweets for dessert.

Fish soup and sushi

Here is a short video I made of my lunch.

I had a fantastic time at this food market, it’s incredible how different the palate is in the West from that in the East. Also the style of eating; here in Korea it’s casual, you come inside, sit down with a bunch of strangers and enjoy sharing together a meal made of many small side dishes whereas at home everyday meals are mostly eaten alone or formal plans are made with friends and extended family and large plates of food are passed around the table. In fact this style of eating may be why the Eastern population has fewer cases of obesity and a collectively lower BMI than the population of the West.

I think I might borrow the asian style of eating. Even though I can’t get into the taste of Kimchi, I do like the idea of everyone bunched together casually sharing little bits of food. That’s the thing about travelling, it opens your mind and allows you the opportunity to see new ways of living that you can choose to ignore or take on as your own…

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Winter in Korea

Happy New Year! 2013 has arrived with all the promise of a newborn babe and while my South African friends and family bring in the new year with beach parties and flip-flops, I have done so with mulled wine and roasted chestnuts.

2012 was an epic year for me; I completed my Master’s, saw five countries and performed in Phantom of the Opera. I continue on with the Phantom Asia Tour in Seoul, South Korea; a non-stop city that has the intrigue of the East with the comforts of the West.

Our own bus!
We arrived at the end of the Fall, when the streets were still free from ice and a few trees clung on stoically to their last remaining
leaves of flaming red and burnt orange. But the cold came fast. Within the first week of December it snowed; giant snowflakes that blanketed the entire city, sending it into a quiet slumber. The same could not be said for the Phantom cast. One week of rehearsals and then straight into performances and two 9-show weeks over Christmas and New Year. Phew!

Fun in the snow Snow angel

Despite the crazy schedule and freezing weather we did manage to get out and about. Travelling in Winter has never been a favourite of mine. One must plan for multiple café stops to defrost, wear the appropriate footwear and get used to the idea of being intermittently boiling hot (on the subway) and freezing cold (everywhere else).

Normally I enjoy being outdoors and seeing a country’s natural attractions such as one of Seoul’s many national parks where you can hike up mountains, kayak down rivers and indulge in the simple pleasures of sprawling vistas and fresh air. But, being Winter and well below freezing, it becomes difficult to motivate a trip to any place that does not have central heating.  However, I did make an exception for the world’s fourth largest Ice festival.

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The Hwacheon Sancheoneo (Mount Trout) Ice Festival takes over the Hwacheon area from 5-27 January 2013 and turns this natural mountain trout habitat into a tourist mecca. Ice fishing, frozen waterfalls, traditional Korean food and general Winter madness are all on offer for a rather reasonable fee. My husband was over visiting from South Africa so went together and all-in-all the whole experience cost us no more than KW200 000. The journey was rather long and arduous but well worth it. We caught the tube to Yongsan Station just in time to catch the 10am ITX to Chuncheon. These trains leave every hour on the hour so if you miss it you’re in trouble. Unfortunately we got on the wrong train. In our anxiety not to miss the 10am we got on a 9:55am train – not the ITX Chuncheon. Thankfully Koreans are extremely helpful and after a 10 minute game of charades to explain ourselves (nobody speaks English in Korea) a nice old lady took us under her wing and helped us change trains and eventually got us all the way to Chuncheon (an hour later than expected but better late than never). From Chuncheon we walked to the nearby bus terminal to catch the bus to Hwacheon. This takes another hour so in the end it took us about 3.5 hours to get there.

The bus stops directly in front of the tourist office, which is quite useful as you can pick up a map of the area. The first stop on the map was the Ice Illumination Plaza inside the Hope Lights Plaza. We paid KW5000 each to enter but got a KW5000 voucher to spend anywhere in the area so entrance was actually free. We entered a darkened hall filled with huge ice sculptures, lit in multi-colours. Each sculpture was iconic; the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, Buddha and many famous Korean, Chinese and Japanese temples. One even had a double-slide for the kiddies to enjoy.

Ice sculptures Lotus Temple Taj Mahal Asian animal Double slide Arc de Triomf

Next we went to the Snow and Ice Fun Park where we were treated to a figure-skating performance by a troupe of Russian figure skaters. I was thoroughly impressed with their  version of Gangnam Style-on ice!

Figure skater Arabesque Leap!

At this point I shall remind you that it was roughly -10 degrees celsius and so after an hour outside we were ready to defrost. We headed to the snack bar for a nice cup of coco and some waffles and met a professor who came to the festival every year and was there with his family. He recommended the Ice Fishing and since I live in a country that does not experience snow, we thought we would give it a go.

Ice fishing may sound like an adrenaline filled activity but in reality its more of a waiting game, unless of course, you are me. We
bought our rod – a short pole with a winder and a fake sardine at the end – found a ready-made hole in the ice and within 2 minutes of plopping my sardine into the water I felt a strong tug. I started yelling and jumping about and then pulled the string up with my hands because the winder thingy was taking too long and behold, a fish! All eyes were on me as most people had been trying in vain to catch something for more than an hour. I looked at the poor fish slopping and flopping on the ice and felt so bad for him (or her) that I grabbed him/her with my bare hands (well I had gloves on) and threw him/her back into the water. It was all over in 40 seconds. When I looked up I was met with stares of disbelief, “what’s this silly girl doing throwing a perfectly good fish back in the water”. Even my husband was upset as we learnt we could have taken our fish to the sushi bar for grilling. What can I say, I guess when it comes to eating animals I would rather not get my hands dirty, maybe it is time to go vegan?

Ice fishing

All that activity called for another pit stop. This time we tried the food court which consisted of stall after stall of Korean food. Fresh trout was obviously in abundance along with other seafood and strange-looking bean soup that may have been beetle soup, but it was hard to tell. In the end we settled for grilled Sancheoneo (trout) and deep fried sardines with rice and veggies which, thankfully, I did not have to kill myself.

Beetle soup? Beetles or beans?

Another highlight was the Snow White igloo. The outside was a series of sculptures carved to resemble the fairytale characters while inside ice walls trapped frozen fish, suspended motionless in the blocks of ice (although I don’t think the fish were real).

IMG_0733 Wicked with sculptured igloo Deadly apple sculpt Frozen fish

The amazing thing about the Festival is that most of the fun and games take place right on the Hwacheoncheon river which freezes over early in Winter. Koreans swear this is entirely owing to Eolgomi, the Ice Festival’s Bear mascot whose job it is to fan the river so it ices over. When approaching the entrance one sees hundreds of people ice fishing on the left while those on the right are sledding, sliding, skating, biking (yes, biking) and go-carting over the ice. Over-head screaming children (and some parents) whiz past on the zip-line and there are even games of ice soccer in the distance. If all this isn’t enough one can always catch bus number 7 to Mt. Ddansan to see the frozen waterfall and the Hwacheon dam.

The Ice festival was loads of fun with so much to do. I would definitely recommend staying over night to take it all in. Below are some pics of all the awesome activities on offer, great for the whole family and even if, like me, you are a summer person, you can always try ice fishing to up your temperature and your spirits.

Ice go-cart riding Eolgomi Bike Eolgomi Bike Figure skatingIce cave Ice fishing Christmas tree house IMG_0715 Food market

Categories: Countries, Jaunary, South Korea | Tags: | Leave a comment

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