25 May 2012

Rio de Janeiro – Mar 2012

Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes, each one she passes
Goes "A-a-a-h"
When she walks she's like a samba
When she walks, she's like a samba
That swings so cool and sways so gentle
That when she passes, each one she passes
Goes "A-a-a-h"

Rio de Janeiro is locally pronounced as ‘Hee-oh dae shanairo’. And let me tell you that it’s not so easy, as was evident from all the twisted faces that we made as Ronaldo taught it to us on our ride from the airport to the hotel. And we are introduced, in a lighter vein, to the City Wars - Rio de Janeiro vs São Paulo. We are stuck in a traffic jam, which is unusual for Rio as per our guide. Traffic jams are found only in São Paulo!!!

Rio has long been romanticized - whether by the 1962′s hit “Girl from Ipanema” or more recently, when Cristo Redentor was selected as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. It is difficult to resist a city that’s wedged between lush jungle and crystal-clear ocean – no wonder it is the most visited city in the Southern hemisphere.

Sunrise on CopocabanaIt was a bit late by the time we reached the hotel. Some of us decide to go and experience the vibrant night life later and try the Caipirinha (again recommended by Laura). I wanted to go, but a 10 minutes stretch on the bed turns into a deep slumber! So again, am up at 4:00 freakin' AM. Luckily for me, I had a roomie who just gets up with me without a sigh!!! We decide to go to the Copacabana beach, only a 10 mins walk from our hotel, for an early morning walk. Copacabana beach, considered one of the top 10 beaches of the world, hosts the biggest outdoor New Year party every year. And everyone wears white!!!

It was simply beautiful – the sunrise, the coast-hugging mountains including the famous Sugarloaf, the turquoise waters… Soon we are joined by a few others and are enjoying ourselves in the water, when we see A and N coming from the other end of the beach towards us. What they tell us leaves us all shocked. They have been mugged off their cameras - at knife point. Locals on the beach just ignored the whole incident. A little jittery as all of us were carrying cameras, we decide to go back.

Christ, the redeemerLittle later, our city tour takes us along the Guanabara Bay and Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas (lagoon) and through the Rebouças tunnel. This tunnel links the southern and northern parts of the city cut in half by the Tijuca ridge that makes Rio the only city in the world to have a National Park 5 minutes from downtown. From the Cosme Velho district, we take a cogwheel train to go up the Corcovado Mountain to visit Christ, the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue. “Corcovado” means hunchback and that is what the granite hill looks like. Its original name is Pinaculo da Tentacao or Pinnacle of Temptation alluding to the Biblical Mountain.

The statue, 130 feet tall with a span from fingertip to fingertip of 28m, arms outstretched, as if it is embracing the city and welcoming all the visitors is magnificent. Covered with a mosaic of soapstone, it is one of Rio's finest Art Nouveau monuments and the largest Art Deco and the 5th largest statue of Jesus in the world.The status was very impressive, no doubt. But like I was explaining to someone, there are some churches /temples/ status which are very touristy while some evoke in us religious sentiments, want us to sit down and just close our eyes. It’s happened to me at many places during my travels. SugarLoaf MountainI particularly remember one small church in the Barcelona old quarter, where a service was going on and I just sat there for close to an hour! This was NOT one of them. It didn’t have to be Jesus. Could have been Pele for all I cared! But that does not take away from it, its magnificence.

The vantage point offers stupendous views of downtown Rio, the bay, Sugarloaf Mountain and Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches. The white of the cliffs, the blue of the sky, the green hills and ever-changing shore is sWOW Samba Schoolo meditative.

We then visit the Samba Stadium where the Rio Festival and the completions between the various schools take place every year. It’s actually supposed to be closed, but they are bringing down the stands from the recently concluded festival so we manage to go in and decide to have our own Samba school!

Catedral Metropolitana Rio’s Catedral Metropolitana sure was an odd shaped building. Infact, it is one of the 50 most extraordinary churches in the world. Conical in form, it didn’t look like a cathedral at all, but more like a Pyramid of Egypt!!! The inside is 12 sided with four rectilinear stained glass windows that are a massive 210 ft tall and soar from floor to ceiling to a cross shaped roof of lights. I distinctly remember that after the scorching sun, the cool interior was really welcome! Now I have read about its green architecture, much ahead of the times when it was built in the 1970’s. Inside of Catedral Metropolitana There are no windows at all - the four huge stained glass windows are there but otherwise there are no open windows. The fresh air comes through openings in the walls that are layered so that rain cannot come in but cool air can. The architect has designed it in such a way that no electricity is needed for cooling the building. Hot air rises and leaves through the top vents and cool air comes in through the open doors and lower vents. Electricity is not needed to light the building either as usually sufficient light Jesus Statuepasses through the stained glass windows, the vents and the large doors.
It was designed by the world renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. According to our guide, there was a competition held to select a design for the new cathedral and this one was chosen because it was cheap to build and also cheap to maintain ( no painting and little external cleaning required) and also cheap to upkeep as very little is needed to cool or light the inside of the building!!! There is a beautiful wooden cross with Jesus hanging from the roof. I just love the place. Some carol singing from a room at the back makes it perfect!

From there we go to an Italian restaurant for Lunch. The food takes ages to come. I am a vegetarian but for this trip I had decided I will be open to trying some non-veg so I decide to have the pomfret. It’s the only non vegetarian meal that I enjoyed. We had a choice of 3 desserts. The papaya dessert sounds very weird but it’s the yummiest. We are lucky. All the confusion from the delay, they mess up our order and get us more of that!!!

We visit the legendary Pão do Açucar better known as Sugar Loaf Mountain because it resembles the early large-lumps of sugar supplied to shops which they would simply slice a lump off when someone came to purchase sugar.

Painted!!Driving around Copacabana and Ipanema beaches we cross the university area where we see several boys with painted bodies. It seems that’s a part of their ragging and inclusion to the tribe! Return to our hotel to get ready for our ‘Pink’ evening. We all are expected to wear pink for dinner at one of the barbecue restaurants. The waiters come with various cuts of meat at the table. Unfortunately I am sitting at a corner and they would come suddenly with these huge chunks of meat. It is here that I decide – I can’t eat non veg. All that meat just got to me and I return to being a vegetarian!

After dinner we go for a Rio by Night Plataforma Show - Sambaa samba show. 7 feet tall ladies dressed in samba attire come around to get photographs clicked. They tower over even the tallest of us and are nearly double the size of the some of the shortest in our group. The show begins where the "mulatas" exhibit the intricate steps of local dances and "batuqueiros" produce a delirium beat from exotic percussion instruments. After the show, we leave cracking chocolate jelly / mousse jokes amongst us all the way back to the hotel.

22 May 2012

São Paulo – March 2012

“Non dvcor, dvco”
(Motto of São Paulo translating as "I am not led, I lead.”)

São PauloAs we landed at São Paulo, our first stop on the South American trip, our excitement was just so obvious– like little kids grabbing window seats, peering out and clicking snaps. The first impressions are of a rapidly growing congested city with all those skyscrapers. After all, it is the third largest city in the world!

At the airport we are greeted by our bubbly guide Laura. She doesn’t stop talking for even a minute, as we move from the airport to our hotel, which is at the other end of the city, nearly an hrs drive away- giving us so much information about her city, Brazil, Brazilian culture, what to eat, what to drink etc etc. It starts raining & pouring and we are transported to our very own Bengaluru / Mumbai with traffic jams and over flooded streets! She warns us that this is a daily thing – morning will be nice and sunny and it will start raining at 4:00 PM. And she is so right, as we encounter rain again at the same time the next day!!!

She tells us that traffic jams are so bad here that São Paulo has the 2nd highest no of helicopters per person in any city in the world. Many of the high-rises have helipads. The business honchos feel that the cost of owning and maintain a helicopter are less than the cost of the time wasted in traffic jams. Plus there is the added benefit of freedom from the fear of mugging and kidnapping.

Cheese BreadM and I decide to call it a day early. The downside of that is that we are up at 2:00 AM, ready and packed by 5:00 AM and at the breakfast table at 6:00 AM. No one seems to speak English as we struggle and finally succeed to explain Laura’s recommendation - 'cheese bread' (pão de queijo ) to the staff. It’s yummy especially if eaten hot!!!

We finish breakfast and no one from our group is to be seen so we decide to go for a walk. And that was the best part of the day. My initial impressions of this being just another economic power-house with offices, offices and still more offices are changed. Just a short walk from our hotel in the business centre, and we are in lovely neighborhood. It’s full of bakeries and patisseries which have the most amazingly creative ideas for their shops, cakes, vans! Then we see a computer repair shop – that was like height of creativity. They gate of the Laura doing a sambaplace had been decorated with chips, keyboard and mouse. The banner had an old laptop with a stethoscope around it…he is after all a doctor for sick laptops!!!!

A cute little dog scampers up – he has orange balloons for socks!!! What a great idea, considering the dampness left by the rain of the previous day.

Back at the hotel, Laura has arrived. As we wait for the bus she gives us a samba demo!!! We leave for the city tour. What a city of contrasts - next to the modern High Rises are the 'The Favelas'. These are supposedly the 'slums' of Brazil but as Maria rightly pointed out - they ain't no 'Dharavi'!!! Inspite of being slums, they are on neat clean tree lined roads

The municipality developed a slum demolition and redevelopment program named Cingapura (Portuguese pronunciation of Singapore). But that was a failure and now what they have is the Favelas, still existing as is behind the Cingapura.

We pass by the official residence of the Governor against the backdrop of towering, modern skyscrapers – again a wonderful blend of the traditional & the contemporary.

MuseumOfArtLocated on Paulista Avenue is the striking São Paulo Museum of Art, one of the postcard monuments of the city. It can’t be missed - it’s a large concrete and glass structure raised above the sidewalk, supported on two huge bright red beams on one side. From there we pass through Ibirapuera Park with it’s beautiful gardens and lakes. It is a huge 2 million square meter oasis of green in the heart of down-town São Paulo.

Monumento às BandeirasAt the entrance to the park, we stop to admire another of São Paulo's postcard monuments - Monumento às Bandeiras, popularly called by the locals as the Push Push monument. It’s homage to the first settlers, the Bandeirantes. The name literally means "monument to the flags" i.e. "those who follow the flags", which was the name used to refer to these private explorers.

Inside the park, we stop by the lake and admire the obelisk – a monument built in memory of the republicans that were killed in the 1932 revolution.

Laura introduces us to a Brazilain term – Fruit StallJeitinho which the Bangaloreans can equate with ‘Adjust Maadi’. She changes the itinerary because she knows we will enjoy the local market more than a soccer stadium. So we stop at this market with the most amazing fresh fruits, spices, food, meats & sweets!!!!! Everything looked so tempting it was hard to decide what to try and what to leave.

We first attacked a fresh fruit stall and tried some of the freshest fruits! M bought her lunch – a chicken Pastel de Bacalhau. It was a wee bit salty, but still quite nice.

Brigadeiro Obviously Brigadeiro was not to be missed. In southern Brazilian states is it called as negrinho, literally "blackie" and is just a simple chocolate bonbon, but wow…was it yummy!!! There were other flavors also and I tried a pista one which was also amazing!

Soon it was time to leave and say good bye to the market, São Paulo and Laura. One image that stays with me is the friendliness of Laura. She had bought her lunch, a vegetarian Pastel with corn and banana at the market and she willingly was letting some of us try it.

16 May 2012

Why do I travel?

I was asked to write for the Logica’s Women Network blog on Travel. They couldn’t  have chosen a better topic for me to write on. Below is what I posted on the Garam Chai blog.

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page! -  St. Augustine

I love to travel, explore new places and re-explore already explored places!
People who know me say, my eyes twinkle and I become a different person when I talk of old travels and plan for new travels.
Why do I travel? To learn and grow – when I visit better countries, I wish to improve my own. I have now realized it is possible to drive without honking and I do try to do so. And if I travel to a country worse than mine, I learn to appreciate my own country.

The perspective of the word Still changed after my visit to the Amazon Forest.
Visiting Hampi, Ajanta & Ellora, Golden temple, I learnt that as we build the so called ‘state of art’ sky scrapers, we forget Beauty.
Fear was redefined after being chased by an elephant in Kabini.
Skydiving in New Zealand instilled in me a new found Respect for myself.
Scandinavians give a new character to the word Honesty.
As we travelled in the Norwegian Fjords, I discovered Majestic.
For the first time we Listened to our guide to stick together, after my friends were mugged on Copacabana beach in Rio.

I could go on and on but for now I want to leave you all with a beautiful quote from Mark Twain - Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

14 May 2012

A bit of Johannesburg – March 2012

What a start to the trip! I had just finished my immigration and was waiting for the rest to join me when an official approached me and wanted to know if I was Sumitra or belonged to her group. As I nodded he asked for my passport and rechecked my visa and says –‘see ur visa is OK. But one of your frens has a transit visa and so we can’t let her out.’ WHAAAAT! I went to the baggage collection to send Sumi back to immigration and start the beginning of what seemed an endless wait. 2 were missing – Nalini and Smita. Finally Sumi returned …but only with Nalini – mixed feelings …whew for Nalini (they kept her passport for a day and allowed her out), and bewilderment for Smita – where the hell was she? We walk out and see her standing there – she had been up and down to the hotel 3 times in the shuttle looking for us! A porter accosts us and offers to show us the way to bus stop for the shuttle. But we had heard so many horror stories about Jo’burg that we found it difficult to trust him. On hindsight – what were we thinking? That one man is going to kidnap 20 of us!!!
A quick nap and lolee (yummy Sindhi style paranthas) courtesy Meeta’s mom and off we were to Cub playing with Sumi's lacesthe Lion Park. The Lion Park - neither a game reserve nor a zoo, is split into two areas – one area for the herbivores such as zebra, giraffe, antelopes etc and the other area for the carnivores.
First stop was the Cub World area where sub-adult lions and cubs are housed and where we could enter and actually play with lion cubs. Awww…the cubs were sooooo cute…playfully pulling at our laces and trousers. Gita and the giraffe having a conversationI just didn’t want to come out of the cage.
Then off to the herbivores area where they roam freely around and we can interact with them at close proximity. The Giraffe was the cutest…eating peanuts from everyone’s hands and seemingly having a very intimate conversation my friend.
Mini 7The baby Meerkats suckled while the mother stood patiently and majestically. Other sightings were Zebras (first time for me), Ostriches and deer and black wildebeest.
This was followed by the Self-Drive through the Main Park – first through the antelope area where our guide pointed out various species like Gemsbok, Springbok & Blesbokthen and Black Wildebeest, followed by the wild dogs’ enclosure where we saw what tops the list of the 5 ugliest of South Africa.
And then the highlight – we entered the cheetah and lion enclosures. There were 2 Cheetahs and they were like the synchronized swimmers – they were sitting in identical postures, facing in the same direction and when they moved they seemed to move in sync! The Lions and lionesses were very impressive, specially the white lions. But now I know why patience is required when you go on wild life safaris. Initially we couldn’t see the front of the 2 lionesses sitting as we entered the enclosure, so we asked the driver to move to the other side. But as luck would have it, before we all managed our pictures, they decided to turn to the direction where we came from. It was if they were trained to show only their backsides ;-)
Mini 15Mini 16
And the lions were sleeping away peacefully - lazy bums refused to get up. But we waited patiently and patience pays. Because we finally saw them get up and I even managed a beautiful picture of one of them yawning. Unfortunately, my memory card got spoilt after a few days and I lost all the pictures of the first few days L
As we moved away, one of the lions emerged from the bushes and crossed the track right in front of the vehicle behind ours. Did a personal ramp walk for them – lucky people!
I was having so much fun that I just didn’t want to leave. The thought of Pan African cuisine at one of the top restaurant in Jo’burg pushed us into leaving and off were to the stylish Moyo restaurant at Melrose Arch. It had started to drizzle and sitting on the diwans under a Moroocan tent, with fire bowls close by – very, very exotic! I am told by M to go visit the loo – she doesn’t tell me why, but has this smirk on her face. Not getting into the details, but I have yet to see a more erotic loo!!!
Live music was playing inside so we moved to the bar after some time where some enjoyed the African Amarula (like the Baileys Irish Coffee).
A winding, spiral wooden staircase took us up to our tables. The waitress comes with a big bowl and a water jug and makes us wash our hands. They also paint our faces with intricate tattoos… a lot like what the Bengali brides do. The starter– a moyo flat bread with dukka spice and olive was awesome. Yummy carrot, coconut & cumin soup, chickpea, chilli & feta salad and abampofu salad and my tummy was nearly full. So I just nibbled at the main course of Tanzanian mango chicken, North African lamb tagine and tagine seven vegetables as I wanted to keep some space for the dessert. And thank god for that – the never ending bowl of toasted almond ice cream was sinfully yummy! I thought I’ll have a few bites and leave the rest…but it was just impossible to stop.
Thanks to Sumi and South African Airways we had an awesome time in Jo’burg. I now can definitely say – I enjoy wildlife holidays the MOST!!!

09 May 2012


Found a little note as I was clearing a drawer - I had written it down during my trip to New Zealand. It was so appropriate that time, as it had rained the whole day. And now also it seems appropriate as I miss the Bangalore rain!

It rained and it rained and it rained and it rained;
the average fall was well maintained,
and when the tracks were simply bogs,
it started raining cats and dogs.

After a drought of half an hour
we had a most refreshing shower,
and then the most curious thing of all:
a gentle rain began to fall.

Next day was also fairly dry,
save for the deluge from the sky,
which wetted the party to the skin,
and after that the rain set in.