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

DSC08709

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

Categories: Brazil, Countries | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Categories: Brazil | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

IMG_1212

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!

IMG_1216

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…

IMG_1283

IMG_1271

IMG_1264

IMG_1243

IMG_1237

IMG_1223

IMG_1218

IMG_1210

IMG_1205

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

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.

IMG_0785

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

The Belle of Bohol

During my time in the Philippines I was determined to venture beyond Manila and see at least one island. As the Phantom cast only got one day off a week this was quite difficult but I managed to squeeze in a 1-night stay with my hubby on the island of Bohol which is about an hour and fifteen minute flight away.

I debated long and hard between Palawan and Bohol but eventually settled on Bohol because it has a beautiful beach, like Palawan, as well as ecological treasures such as caves, forrests and exotic wildlife. We managed to see all of these in one day but I would not recommend this type of sight-seeing, better to spread it out and enjoy each place.

Our flight landed on Monday morning and from the airport our guide took us straight to the Tarsier Conservation Sanctuary. Tarsiers are part of the monkey family and are the smallest mammals in the world. They grow to about 8cm which is the average length of an adult index finger.

 

These little guys are so sweet…

Their eyes are fixed in their sockets and are not mobile like ours. As a result they have really flexible necks; a tarsier can turn its head 180 degrees to face the back.

From the tarsiers we went to the famous Chocolate Hills.

The Chocolate Hills are a series of over 1200 grass-covered mounds that cover an area of 50 km and turn brown during the dry months resembling Hershey’s Chocolate Kisses, hence the name. We were there in the rainy season so the Chocolate brown was more Pistachio green but the view was still impressive.

Legend has it the hills are the aftermath of a fight between the gods – no wonder they have been afforded UNESCO World Heritage Site status!

Our last stop before lunch was the Butterfly Sanctuary. We had the funniest guide and even though the trip was short, it was a highlight. We were told that most butterflies die within 21 days but the “Lady Gaga” butterfly, which is half-male, half-female, dies within 4 days. It is born with one male wing, usually big and beautiful and one female wing which is smaller and less colourful. Our guide assured us it is “born this way” due to a “bad romance” 🙂 🙂 .

Next we were shown the butterfly cocoons which are like drops of pure gold…

The in-between phase where the caterpillar emerges from the cocoon as a half-butterfly is straight out of science fiction…

We moved on to the actual butterfly garden, filled with hundreds of the tamest butterflies. Our guide was able to pick up any butterfly (by the body, never by the wings) and place it into the palms of our hands where it obediently stayed still and posed for the camera.

For those brave enough you can experience the ultimate in hair accessories by having the butterflies placed in your hair. This is fine so long as you don’t think about the fact that you have insects crawling on your scalp!

The tour came to an end but not before showing us how to grow our very own butterfly wings. I swear! Check me out…

Lunch was a cruise down the Luboc river on board a floating restaurant. The food was traditional Philippino-style rice, prawns, meat and fruit. The cruise was lovely except for the blaring noise which was a guy singing golden oldies, plugged into an acoustic system on full volume – I would have preferred to hear the sounds of the river running beneath us.

The cruise by-passed a bamboo pit-stop of sorts where we were treated to a Philippino song and dance performance.

In one of my earlier posts about my honeymoon in Thailand I spoke about the traditional Thai Bamboo dance. Well it seems the dance is also a Philippino tradition (don’t know who stole it from whom). Here is a video of my attempt at the crazy dance.

The cruise continued down the river until what appeared to be a dead-end and the climax of the scenic tour – a series of mini waterfalls!

After lunch we headed to the Bohol bee farm which is actually a really quaint resort.

The gift shop had beautiful hand-crafted bags, freshly baked bread, organic honey, pesto and other condiments. There were also a variety of “health” ice creams on sale. No chocolate and vanilla, think herb and vegetable flavours that don’t taste too great (I had the Durian) but at least you can enjoy your cone guilt free!

The bee farm is less of a farm and more of a herb garden with a few “bee boxes”. I’m sure there is an official term for the slates of bees that hold the honey comb in these boxes but I don’t know what it is. My husband and I bravely took hold of a slate and posed for a picture as if it is something we do everyday.

The final stop on our whirl-wind tour of Bohol was the Hinagdanan Cave.

We got there near closing time which was a good thing as it was a bit quieter. The guide leads you down a narrow underground stairwell into a dark and humid cave about the size of a 2 bedroom apartment. You feel like you are in for a real adventure the minute that cave smell hits your nostrils. Something flew next to my ear and I shrieked thinking it was a bat (I have long hair ok!). It was actually a really strange-looking bird with a short body and wide wings so it actually does look like a bat.

The guide, in friendly Philippino style, offered to adjust the light settings of our camera and take all our pictures for us. He had a whole photo shoot planned. The first shot was of the paintings visible on the cave walls.

Then he made us pose by the water which is very clear and warm. Apparently people can swim in the water and it’s so hot and sticky inside that I regretted not having my bathing suit with me.

Finally our guide took a shot of us and the whole cave.

By the end of the day we were absolutely exhausted so we had a little siesta back at our hotel before dinner. When we awoke the wind was howling but it was still hot so we headed out for some dinner on the beachfront. The vibe was incredible – tons of beach cafes, music playing, little shops and trees dressed in fairy lights.

 

The great thing about eating on the beach is you get to see your food before it gets cooked. I had a tuna steak and some red snapper.

And of course, the mandatory beach cocktail…

The next morning we had an early flight back to Manila which was slightly depressing because Bohol was in for a beautiful day. At leat we got to have breakfast on the beach which is a real treat for city dwellers.

Despite a crazy day of sight-seeing I am so glad I got to see this beautiful island. So many treasures and pleasures. I can’t say whether we would have preferred Palawan but what I can say is if I ever come back to the Philippines I will be visiting Bohol again.

Categories: Countries, Philippines | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Highlights from the Philippines – Mount Pinatubo

At last I have time to blog again! Here is a quick run down of why I have been absent and what I have been up to…

Finished last 5 weeks of Phantom of the Opera in Manila (while working on my thesis at the same time), came home for 4 days, went to Brazil for 10 days as part of my MBA, came home, worked like a demon for 16 days, handed in my thesis, partied for a week or so and that takes us to about now 🙂

So now that I have my life back I thought I would sum up the last 5 weeks I spent in Manila in a few short posts – highlights only, which will be rather difficult as it is such an incredible place but here goes….

The last 5 weeks were filled with both highs and lows. An obvious low for me was having to sit in my hotel room all day working on my thesis while the sun teased me through the window. But I did allow myself one day off a week and it was on these days that I had my greatest adventures. The first was in week 3 at the Pagsanjan Falls , then the following week at the Taal Volcano  and finally in week 5, the incredible hike to Mount Pinatubo crater lake.

The Pinatubo trek caught my eye from the first week in Manila. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 was the second largest of the 20th centuary after the eruption of Novarupta in southern Alaska in 1912. The hike to Pinatubo is an epic journey that begins at 3:30am and ends at about 7pm.  The decision to do it was especially difficult because the show ends at 11pm on Sunday night and Monday is the cast’s only day off so it means getting to bed at 12pm if you are lucky enough to fall asleep, getting about 3 hours sleep and then getting up again for the hotel pick-up. Needless to say I struggled to get a group together to join me for the trek. Most people heard the words “3:30am” and started to laugh hysterically. Eventually I managed to scrape 4 brave souls together and off we went. We spent the next  2.5 hours in a minibus to get the permit; the area is used for naval training so on certain days they don’t allow anyone to do the trek. Then we spent about 1 hour bumping around in a 4×4 open-topped jeep.

The terrain is moon-like; grey, flat and filled with loose rocks. Its obvious where the larva carved out its path down the mountain and burned its way right through the cliffs.

Afterwards we persuaded our sore bottoms out of the jeeps and the 2.5 hour, 7km hike began.

Four words…bring the right shoes… Basically you wade through rivers every 10 minutes or so. Some are knee-deep and you almost lose your shoes, others rise to just above the ankle but the rocks are loose and slippery so come prepared (especially if you are a ballet dancer and twisting your ankle would put you out of work for a few weeks). I bought these plastic crocs with good gripping under-foot and an ankle strap. One of the guys in my group wore aqua shoes which have really thin soles which I do not recommend. His feet were sore for 3 days after the hike – our guide, however, managed with a pair of flip flops.

You start hiking around 8am when the weather is still cool. Hiking is a solitary exercise. There is no time for serious conversation as your head remains bent with eyes fixed firmly on the ground which is either slippery and wet or loose and dry. Either way you need to look where you are going. After about an hour the terrain starts to rise steeply and you pull your way up, sometimes using your hands for balance. At this point it is hot so sunscreen and a wide hat are essential. Finally you reach a resting point where we all enjoyed our trail mix, granola bars and lots of water before pushing through the last frontier.

A small sign signals how much longer  to go, depending on your age. I was the youngest in the group but I took the longest because I had to be extra careful not to injure myself. Best tip, take your time, place your feet carefully and don’t lift one foot unless the other is firmly in place. The last frontier is completely different to the rest of the hike; jungle-like terrain, steep rivers (that you hike through) and some shade from the burning sun.

Finally you arrive at the top and get your first view of the crater lake….incredible.

The colour of the lake changes according to the sulphur-levels in the water. I read that it goes from palest aqua to green to brown and even to black. I prayed we would be lucky and get aqua waters and we were! Nothing can describe the water and the view.

The mountains are deep green, lime and purple, the lake, turquoise. It is one of the most breath-taking sights I have ever seen and well worth the incredible effort.

Best of all you get to swim in the healing waters. You step in and immediately sink. It’s not like a beach where the ground gradually gets deeper – you are in the crater of a volcano. The water is strangely cool and even though there are no fish inside the lake, no one ventured further than a few feet from the shore. The idea that this lake is bottomless is a bit freaky. Apparently its depth has yet to be measured because all instruments melt once they go beyond a certain depth, closer to the core of the earth. Here is a short video I made (for my dad) of me swimming in the lake…

The water stays aqua even up close, it’s the strangest thing. Floating in the lake, looking at your body. The water is both opaque and aqua, not like the turquoise waters in the Seychelles or Thailand which are clear and you can see to the bottom. I took so many pictures to try to capture the colour of the water but you just have to see it in person.

We swam for about an hour and then headed back down. The trek back is the hardest part because you have already seen and experienced the climax. Plus it’s usually after midday and even with the bit of cloud cover we had, we still melted.

If I had to grade this hike on difficulty I would say its intermediate if you are a relatively fit person. What makes it difficult is the unsecure ground, the changing terrain, the length and the sun. There are no toilets or places to buy food and water so you must bring everything with you on your back. Also that you can’t wear normal hiking shoes makes the hike difficult. If I had to grade the hike on “worthiness” I give it a 10 out of 10. The whole experience makes you feel like you can conquer the world and the beauty of the crater lake and the experience of swimming in it are life-changing. I highly recommend this trek to anyone with an adventurous spirit. So you will be a bit tired and a bit sore but what the heck, you can sleep when you’re dead right?

Its incredible to think that just 20 odd years after the devastating eruption of this volcano I was able to swim inside its crater. If nature can rebuild itself in 20 years imagine what humans could do if we put a bit of effort into cleaning up the mess we have made of our planet.

Categories: Countries, Philippines | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Manila – Week 4

Opening Night and Taal Volcano 

Week 4 was filled with anticipation as we prepared for Opening Night. We continued with previews from Tuesday until Friday and then officially opened on Saturday 25 August. It is theatre tradition to hand out Chukkas sweets before opening. These are sweets and gifts of good luck. I have no idea where the word Chukkas comes from but it is apparently bad luck to say “good luck” in theatre so instead we say Chukkas or Merde. The best part is coming back to your dressing room and seeing a pile of delicious sweeties on your spot.

Opening went great and the show earned some excellent reviews. Afterwards our hotel hosted the Opening Night Gala Party. It was incredible and had all the ingredients of a VIP event – great food, champagne, media and well-dressed guests. Here are some pictures.

Local celebrities were at the event! 

Jonathan Roxmouth as our Phantom 

The Phantom dancers with Claire Louise in gold as our “Christine”

 

The Gala party was so fun, there was a live band that played all the regular party starters and by the end we were up for a big night out. Luckily for us Tim Yap was at our Gala party and offered to take us to his club, Prive. About 10 of us piled into a mini van and off we went. The club was AWESOME!!!!!! The music was fantastic and we were treated to free champagne all night. Better still each time the bubbly was delivered it had a giant sparkler coming out of it so we all felt pretty special. The club was packed with local celebrities such as TV actors and even Miss Philippines. What a night, definitely wanna go back there!

The next day it was time for our first group adventure to the Taal Volcano, the smallest active volcano in existence. A bus collected us and we drove about 2 hours out of Metro Manila and our tour guide gave us lots of um….facts…about Manila….the WHOLE way there. (Note to tour guides: after 40 minutes on a cramped bus the only sound tourists prefer to hear is the sound of silence).

We arrived at an ocean resort where we swapped our bus for a canoe-like boat that took us on a 20 minute ride across the bay to the strip of land which hosts the Taal Volcano.

 

 

Once across the water we were kitted out with straw sun hats and each got our own horse which would take us up to the top of  the mountain. The trek took about 30 minutes and I felt quite bad for the horses who were grunting and groaning with exhaustion by the end. I am also quite a scaredy-cat on a horse so I couldn’t enjoy the scenery and kept my eyes on the ground the whole way, fearful the horse would lose it footing on the really steep sections of the climb. I opted to walk down the mountain on the way back.

Finally we were at the top. The Taal Volcano is actually a volcano that lies inside a lake and has a lake inside of it, still following?

 

 

 

The view from the top is spectacular! In some places we were able to see steam rising from the ground and the mountain rocks were warm to the touch.

In the neighbouring ocean we could see hundreds of fishing boats docked and on the other side there were tall mountains on the horizon, all providing plenty of great photo opportunities…

When we got back to the resort we had a buffet lunch and then it was time to swim in the HUGE resort pool.

The pool also had an incredible ocean view and I couldn’t resist striking a pose…

After swimming we were treated to more snacks as well as a complimentary cocktail and a free cap from the resort. It was a great day and even more so because we were in a large group. We arrived back at our hotel around dinner time, exhausted, sunburnt and happy.

Categories: Philippines | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Manila – Week 3

Week 3 – Tech week and Pagsanjan Falls

This week was CRAZY at the theatre as it always is during tech week. We often worked 12 hour days from 10am to 10pm.  Basically the entire show is performed at snail’s pace in costume so that every detail can be set in stone from the placing on stage of the props and the performers to the lighting and sound and the costume and set changes, all timed according to the pace set by the orchestra who in turn is led by the conductor. Besides the on-stage choreography that is mastered weeks before anyone sets a foot on stage, the back-stage choreography is set during tech week and changes at each new theatre. Quick changes mean people are running backstage in darkness and pieces of the set are moving so the theatre can be quite a dangerous place if people don’t respect and watch out for one another. Luckily the cast and crew here at Phantom Manila is extremely professional and everyone takes their jobs seriously. Without mapping out every detail of the show the pace and dynamics would suffer along with the overall effectiveness. The secret of a great show is really what happens backstage to make it all seem effortless on stage.

After a long tech week we finally moved to previews, these are the same as normal shows except that the media have not officially seen the show so they are called previews. Sometimes we do two shows a day so much time is spent in the dressing room messing around relaxing.

At the end of the week we all looked forward to our first Sunday night pool party! Our hotel specially arranged for the pool to be open from 11pm to 2am for us every week on a Sunday so we can all relax and have a cocktail and a swim. Here is video of the crazy cast letting loose.

The next day I headed out for a solo adventure to the Pagsanjan Falls. After a long and stressful week the cast and crew were understandably exhausted so I was on my own but it was still a wonderful experience. A mini van collected me from my hotel and we drove about 2.5 hours out of Manila to the start of the Falls where I could lock my bags away and prepare for the adventure. I got into a really slim boat by myself with a boatman at the front and one at the back. The journey starts and the river is wide with houses and lodges on either bank. I spotted a few kids having fun leaping off their balconies into the water. About 15 minutes pass and then we passed a sign saying Adventure Zone. After this point the river narrows and the banks grow into mountains on either side, covered top to bottom in greenery. The sky was partly cloudy so when the sun shone it turned the leaves and plants above luminous green and the light would catch the spray of the many waterfalls and the wings of the butterflies and dragonflies buzzing around. Leaves would fall from above and create a slow, spiral dance to the river below, it was just so beautiful. I felt like I was in the world of an Avatar.

During rainy season there are more waterfalls than during dry season, I must have passed about 7 or 8, two of which were large and I could feel the refreshing spray on my skin as we glided past. As you go further into the adventure zone the calm waters turn to rapids which the boatman navigate by literally jumping out of the boat and running along the rocks and kicking off them with their feet before jumping back in! I would love to say they do this with practised easy but it does not look easy in the least so let’s just say they do this with practise and you will definitely want to tip them at the end of it. I really wanted to take pictures but I was worried my camera would get wet, also the boat gets dangerously close to the rocks so its best to keep your hands inside the boat. The climax of the trip is the bamboo raft under the waterfall. About 12 of us got out of our boats and sat cross-legged  on a bamboo raft that sinks about 10cm once everyone is on – so wear a swimming costume and some board shorts. The boatman then steers the raft toward  the largest waterfall by pulling on a rope. We all started oohing and aahing and then screaming as we inched closer to the waterfall where we got soaked by the cascading waters, scary but worth it!

After the Falls I returned to the place I left my bags for lunch. Clam soup, fried chicken, spring rolls and rice, umm hmmm. Next I wandered around the pretty gardens. Most of the tour drivers have to wait 2 hours for their guests to return from the river. To accommodate this the venue has little huts for the drivers to take a nap in, these also provide some great photo opps.

All in all it was a wonderful experience and I am so glad I went.

Here is a video I took while on the water…

Catch my next post about our trip to the Taal Volcano and my hike to Mount Pinatubo!

Categories: Philippines | 1 Comment

Manila – Week 2

In a fight between the sun and the rain clouds I have to say the sun came out on top this  week. But unfortunately for the POTO cast we spend most of our days inside the theatre where the air-conditioning blasts arctic gusts of wind at us all day. For this very reason I have decided I hate air-conditioning. Johannesburg especially never gets that moist, balmy air so when I finally find myself in a country that does get it I would rather get a bit sweaty then be freeze-dried every time I step indoors.

Apart from the A/C debacle I have to say Manila is definitely growing on me, the people too, they are just so friendly and complimentary, especially to us western-faced women. I personally think Asian women are the most beautiful in the world but a girl never tires of hearing “You are so beautiful ma’am”.

The highlight of my week was definitely seeing Cirque du Soleil. I have never seen a Cirque du Soleil production before and it did not disappoint. Circus-style shows are all kind of similar with the comedy act that goes on a bit too long, the juggler, the contortionists and the acrobats but this show, Salimanco, had an act I have never seen before – bungee trapeze! We were not allowed to take pictures (you don’t want to be the idiot responsible for causing the trapeze artist to fall of her perch when your flash catches her in the eye), but basically the artists have bungee cords strapped to either side of their body on a harness so they can bounce up and down and can land back on the trapeze on the way up, it looks like great fun, I would love to try it!!

I also tried my damndest to organise a group of us to go see Nelly Furtado and the Gym Class Heroes who were in Manila for one night only but nobody was game so that didn’t happen : ( I am quite impressed with all the world-class shows and artists that come to Manila, not what I was expecting, even Maroon 5 are on their way here.

Another highlight was the buffet at our hotel. Each night there is a different theme so I went on seafood and bottomless white wine night – for obvious reasons. There are many crustaceans I have not tried so I really didn’t hold back as you can see from the mountain of seafood sitting on my two plates. I was literally in pain by the end of the night after three helpings of the mains and three of the deserts. Good thing bed is just an elevator trip away.

Our cast also got treated to an exclusive cocktail party thrown for us to officially introduce the staff of the Diamond Hotel. As always the food was outstanding and we finally got to show our appreciation – the head of catering got the loudest applause.

Although I still haven’t ventured far from the hotel due to a busy schedule, we plan on changing that next week. The Philippines are made up of about 7000 islands so we are planning some overnight trips to 2 of them and some day trips to the famous Taal volcano, Mount Pinatubo and the Pagsanjan Falls but more on that when it actually happens.

Coming up this week is tech week where we work into the night on stage getting all the technical aspects of the production up and running and then we have our first preview on Saturday!!!!! Every show has a point where it goes a bit flat where rehearsals need to turn into performances. There is just a different energy on stage when there is an audience on the other side of the curtain, I think the whole cast is itching for that moment on Saturday, I know I am!

Categories: Philippines | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Phantom of the Opera in Manila – Week 1

Hi Manila! Pleased to meet you. I hope the next 2 months we spend together will be full of adventure and excitement, exotic food, balmy weather, petite fashion and hopefully, not too many typhoons.

First of all let me say that, while my intention for this blog was to be about dancing in all the greatest festivals around the world, I found it pretty hard to write about places I haven’t been to. So instead I have decided to write about the travels I experience through my dance career. I am a part of the cast of Phantom of the Opera (POTO) and this is the first leg of an Asian tour that extends to 2013.

So here I finally am in Manila, Philippines with the cast of POTO. After a long flight (16 hours) I have to say my first impression of this city was a little jaded given we arrived in the middle of some of the worst floods the city has seen in over 10 years! This is the view from my hotel room, not very summery is it?

However, the hotel we are at is AMAZING! The Diamond Hotel is on the Roxas Blvd,right across the road from Manila Bay so when the sun is shining the view from the 10th floor is quite spectacular. And the rooms themselves are highly luxurious. Every morning we wake up to an enormous breakfast buffet with food to satisfy guests from both East and West. There is also a gym with sauna and steam room, a spa, a pool with outdoor jacuzzi, free broadband internet in every room, a pastry shop and a Japanese restaurant all within the hotel. Even one of the TV channels advertises the show every 30 minutes, we all feel like real celebrities here! We also have the Sky Lounge on the 27th floor which is a restaurant that stays open till late and often has live bands and a great view. Another bonus is the location. We are on the same block as a Starbucks – a real necessity for the less-adventurous Westerners and we are a 5 minute walk from a huge shopping mall and supermarket.

One strange thing about the supermarket was the 20 to 30 minute queues at checkout?? Perhaps it was out-of-towners stocking up in preparation for the flood as I did see a lot of bulk buying going on. Man oh man every cashier had around 12 trolleys queued up behind it. On the plus side the malls have every Western food item, including an abundance of protein powder, so there really is nothing to worry about when visiting Manila. And the sweets and cakes….I guess Philippinos have some serious sweet teeth, my mouth was watering constantly!

Another interesting thing about the Philippinos is how polite they are. Every time we walk past the hotel staff, down the street and into the malls we are greeted by absolutely everybody in sight and every one of them is helpful and forthcoming. I also appreciate the strong work ethic here. The room is always spotless and cleaned twice a day. At my 20 minute gym sessions the guy manning the area wipes down all mats and equipment at least twice and there is always iced water with orange slices waiting for you on exit. The only slightly irritating thing is the strangely heavy security. Every time we enter the hotel our bags are searched, even if you only stepped outside for a few seconds. However, this seems to be the norm at all major mall entrances and shopping complexes and the security guards at our hotel have the sweetest dogs standing on-guard. 

The first few weeks we are here we are still mounting the show so it’s usually full day rehearsals and the evenings are off. From about week 4 we open so the schedule reverses where we have the days free and work in the evenings. 8 shows and 6 days a week, double shows on Saturday and Sunday and Mondays are off – don’t you dare tell me this ain’t a “real job”! Just cuz we love it doesn’t mean we don’t work hard.

So for some reason, even after a week here I am still waking up at 4:30 am every morning. At least I can get a gym session in most days and I can catch up on all the rubbish reality TV we know we all love. After a long day at rehearsals I feel like passing out by 8pm (must be the humidity) but we usually go out for dinner. The first night we went to a Thai restaurant in the mall nearby but the next night we went to a fantastic restaurant in a place called “Greenbelt 5“. Instead of bread on the table they had crustini’s with eggplant spread and free water.  Every time we finished the food they just brough more and more and more….I find that quite excellent. We ate al fresco and the food was great!

When Monday finally rolled around we had every intention of spending our day off at an outdoor market but it was raining so we did what every Westerner does – hit another mall. This time it was the Mall of Asia, apparently one of the biggest malls in the whole of Asia as the name suggests. At the end of the day, a mall is a mall and I’m ready for something different, perhaps a walk around the Harbour Square across from the theatre where we have lunch everyday. 

All in all it was a good first week but I really hope to get out of the hotel a bit more and see the real Manila!

Categories: Philippines | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: