The trials of being an ‘English Rose’

It is hard to shake seven years of delicate ‘English’ skin when you land in a hub like Rocinha. There are mosquitoes to contend with and if bitten the chomp/swelling if of ridiculous porpotions. First-world stomach sensitivities need to be grappled with (cheese and guava flavoured ice cream is a no-go on day one) and aparently parasites, more commonly associated with cats and dogs, can run riot in us newly arrived pastel cases. Then there’s sub tropic rays to battle with for the first few days – factor 30 usually smothers these into submission. But, what one does’t account for is the delicate nature of our ‘English’ immune systems versus that of a robust, beetle-brown, mozzie-immune, cheese and guava loving 10-month old Carioca gurgling infront of you and with a nose full of thick green mucous. Said infant is joyous, parasite free and has no idea of how dangerous he is to the ‘rosey’ individuals he crosses paths with.

Moises – 10 months
Image by: Kate Walker

I am said individual and have been laid flat for the last five days with a horrendous cold. Swelling right eye, infected larynx and loss of left nostril functionality has lead me to hunt out antibiotics and, thank the almighty favela gods, Rocinha’s pharmacists provide.  Over the counter, beaming faces and no questions asked.

Lack of the Portuguese lingo does, however, require one to abandon their dignity at the pharmacy door and ‘charade’ one’s way through necessary questions; such as:

  • Must I take these with food and water?
  • How many times a day?
  • Is it ok to lug back Caipirinahs during the course of taking these wee pills?
  • Exactly what is it I am taking?
  • Any idea what the English version of these are?
  • Do these cause drowsiness? (No?..oh good, as I will be hang gliding and wish to clearly take note of the experience).

Donning my fragile dignity and heading back out into the maelstrom of Rocinha’s streets, I figured (being fully dosed on the good stuff now and primed for a full recovery) my ‘rosey’ throat could do with an ice cream.

Guava and cheese?.. why the hell not…

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Crèche days with UMPMRS …14Jun12 – 26Jun12

Our yellow home in Roupa Suja
Image by: Kate Walker

From our yellow house – boasting a trio of marmosets, mango trees and sweeping views; it’s a three minutes trot down the slick paths of Roupa Suja (meaning Dirty Washing) to the day care centre.  We never quite break the three minute record as 07:50am sees humanity on the move. Kathy and I break out into ‘Ois’, ‘Olas’ ‘Bom Gias’ and an array of other colourful and probably incorrectly remembered phrases  as we skirt the edges of our path, backs pressed to crumbling walls, to allow workmen to pass. Mothers with troops of kids (some theirs and some tag-alongs) stream up and down and dogs barrage past – a few happy at the new day and new folk to greet, and some intent on a point beyond us.

Music sweeps out of houses and down the warren of streets from early in the morning to the close of night. Neighbours compete for volume and we have grown used to the sounds of Favela Funk intermingled with Adele and sometimes a little Flo Rida. Kathy (or Faffy – as my mother calls her) has on occasion sung along to the lyrics of Adele and passing kids smile and shout ‘gringa’. It’s getting easier to hear.

Morning walk to the day care centre
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Five or so minutes later and we’re ascending the front steps of the day care centre and into a kitchen smelling of freshly baked pão (bread), bubbling fejioã (black beans) and boiling coffee beans. The coffee is the strangest brew I’ve tasted and I’ve only managed to sip half a plastic cup. By day two, Kathy and I figured we’d do better to sort breakfast at our yellow pad. We now have a routine of papaya, banana, apple, yoghurt and soya mango juice (yes –  a strange carton we thought we’d give a go) before starting our descent to the centre.

Weekdays by 08:00am and most babies, toddlers and up-to-five-year-olds have been deposited. Kathy spends her day mingling with the one to two year olds in classrooms well equipped with age-old toys, books, mini furniture and tiny nap mattresses. She’s an exhausted heap by the time I see her for our lunch at 11:30 – always beans and rice with occasionally some Frango (chicken) or veg on the side. Her hours are spent dancing, jumping, feeding, colouring and attempting to maintain peace and order along with two other local crèche ladies.

Kathy´s creche group
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Me – I’m up the top with the babies. Five to 18 month olds. Mornings kick off on the floor with up to nine bubs crawling and tottering to loud Brazilian baby music tapes. We clap, gurgle and bounce for hours with my role mainly being the master of proper toy distribution so that no rowdy fights ensue. There’s a lot of nose wiping to be done and the two other women I work with (Tynara and Mynova) sort all nappy cleaning and bathing of the little ones.  Windows are flung wide, we get a terrific breeze through what would otherwise be a furnace box, and mozzies are near to none. A massive relief, as we often hear the locals talking about Dengue. Dengue, it turns out is the same word in Portuguese.

Baby Luna
Image by: Kate Walker

The wee ones – Moises & Isabelly
Image by: Kate Walker

Twin Ana Larah & Moinova
Image by: Kate Walker

Very few of the adults dropping and picking up the babies are older than 25. Tynara herself is 19 and already has two children. The first when she was 14…

I’ve since learnt from Alessandra – our go-to lady should we ever have a serious issue, that the majority of mothers in Rocinha are not married and simply have children with multiple partners.  Their children’s names are tattooed to the underneath of their forearms. There are a multitude of what I think are young girls walking the streets of Rocinha with tattooed arms…

Sitting on a tree stump in the sun is my favourite spot for lunch. And it’s a long lunch while all bodies under the age of five sleep for three hours. The centre is quiet, the ladies chat and laugh amongst themselves quietly and Kathy and I are content to sit and watch on in post rice/bean haze.

Nap time
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Afternoons from 14:00pm are optional. We can carry on with entertaining and generally being involved or we have the choice to say ‘ciao’ and ‘até mais’ (see you…) until the following morning.

So, some afternoons Kathy and I stay on until 16:00pm when young moms and dads or grandparents come to collect their children; and on other days we head into the bedlam of Rocinha and explore juice bars (ah there we go, as I type Adele’s Someone Like You is pumping out), pastry stalls, the few internet joints that there are and shop for our soya mango juice, bananas, apples and yoghurt…

Evening streets of Rocinha
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Hello Lapa…

Taking the corner at what was probably close to 60km/hr, our lunatic bus driver managed to just keep all four wheels on the ground. With windows wide open and winds whipping our hair straight back Kathy and I were in hysterical laughter. And we were the lucky ones – seated. Others, standing, grasped at anything within reach (often each other). The pay-your-money-to-the -woman-in-the-corner had a vice-like grip on her turnstile and anyone preparing to dismount stood wedged in anticipation of coming to a screaming halt. What the..? Where’s Keanu Reeves when you need him?!

For the last 30 minutes our bus had be crawling in terrible traffic and the driver must have spotted a gap. There was no question he wasn’t going to take it. Holy cow – Lonely Planet’s description of Rio’s bus drivers being “raving maniacs” is spot on. Many of them open the doors and continue to drive slowly along the side of the pavement while one is required to simply take a leap of faith. Then, there’s no waiting for formalities, asking directions or closing the purse strings. The bus is off and more often than not folk are hurled through the turnstile and near-trussed up alongside all those others lucky enough to make it on board.

Still giggling, some 15 minutes later, and having spotted the right signs; Kathy and I made the undignified leap off our wild Friday night ride and onto the streets of Lapa. What a fabulous place.

Without a map or any previous knowledge of the area we simply walked. People were out and about in their hundreds and the numbers continued to grow with each passing hour.  Pavement bars sprung up, roller doors opened to reveal samba clubs within, Capoeira ensembles appeared under walkways and in amongst market vendors – the place was pulsing. With crowds swelling so to was the number of pick pockets. Kathy was frisked three times but was quick enough to confront the culprit. No loss of belongings.

Sitting in one of the largest outdoor bar crowds I’ve seen in a long time, we sipped Caipirinhas, picked at olives, Brazilian salami, pão (bread) and people watched the hours away. Music pulsed from all surrounding bars, parking lots, street set-ups and windows. What mayhem, but it felt real. Young and old danced singularly as well as together, cachaça (a high-proof sugar cane spirit, pronounced ka-sha-sah) bottles appeared and shots sold for silly money.

Exhausted, Kathy and I decided to make this an explorative night. We’d come back to Lapa and get fully involved. But for now, weaving through throngs of locals and tourists alike, we needed to spot a bus and prepare for the light-speed ride home.

The first 30 hours – the cidade maravilhosa: 13Jun12 – …..

With (what looked like) a wing-tip skimming the sides of Pão de Açúcar – iconic ‘Sugar Loaf’ mountain and a sunset just kicking in; Iberia flight 6025 touched down in a light lilac haze. I had arrived in the ‘marvellous city’ known as Rio.

With a backpack I’m not used to hoisting around and pacing it out of customs a little heavy footed, I was met by a carioca – a local Rio resident; kindly alleviated of weight and transferred to Copacabana for the night. After managing to un-wedge myself and pack from the bedroom door frame of Che Lagarto Suites, it was a cold shower and an early night to bed, for me, with air-con purring.

Kathy – Ross’ other half/artistic photographer/lover of all things purple and cats…and my travel partner; tapped on my door early morning of day two. Managing to backpack-jump, jig and tap-dance her excitement to me at having arrived (finally?) she had a story to tell….

On leaving London Heathrow Kathy was to discover her Brazilian visa had already activated and she was down by a handful of days. And not only this, but her cabin luggage (camera equipment) was tipping the industrial scales at triple the allowed kgs. With brimming eyes and persuasion only Kathy can pull off – she actually made it onto the plane and with all her belongings in tow.

It doesn’t stop there… On arrival into Rio, the dear soul stood for an hour at her baggage carousel and collected nothing. Mr baggage-delivery-man eventually popped up and indicated she was waiting at the wrong delivery belt. A single backpack was circling close by – Kathy’s.

09:00 saw us fed on super sugary cereal and now teetering under the weight of packs but at least out of the barbed-wire confines of ‘the suites’ and onto Rocinha (pronounced Ho-seen-ya) – home for the next two-ish weeks.

Rocinha – Latin America´s largest favela
Image by: Kate Walker

Rocinha is Latin America’s largest favela (shanty town) and apparently also the world’s largest slum area. Somewhat apprehensive, we were deposited onto the side of one highway under a limelight screaming ‘gringas who have no idea where they are and don’t speak the language’ and, thank heavens, after some skimming of the crowd we spotted a waving fellow gringa. Danielle, as it turns out, works for an NGO in the favela as an English teacher and she’d heard of our imminent arrival and felt we might need a hand embracing our new neighbourhood.

Rocinha – the view from our rooftop
Image by: Kate Walker

Horrified at Kathy’s triple kgs and the pack looming above my lofty 5f 3.5’’ frame, Danielle scouted two muscular cariocas to assist with the carrying. And there we were….striding up and into Rocinha’s bulging slopes. Ascending super narrow streets, well, really they’re half meter wide slabs of concrete/dirt/water-piped/pooped/slick/crumbling patches/bridges of space in flimsy slops; is a fine art. Even Brazilian branded Havaianas are questionable in their protection of my feet and one must be quick footed in order to dodge kids barrelling up and down with balls, folk moving ‘stuff’ across backs and rogue, balding dogs – as much residents as anyone else and not pets!

Roupa Suja – our neighbourhood in Rocinha
Image by: Kate Walker

Gracious, are we really doing this?

Passing shacks and throw-to homes, the thought of what our abode might be like was a little alarming. Arriving half way up, or perhaps 10 minutes into our ascent – actually I have no idea as orientation isn’t possible; we were met by Paolo and a spacious triple storey house. Basic, but an actual house with roof top patio and views to rival all postcard shots you’ve ever seen of Rocinha.

Our humble Roupa Suja abode
Image by: Kate Walker

Our home security wall
Image by: Kate Walker

The bright yellows, reds, greens and pinks across the way reminded me in some way of the vibrant Cape-Malay quarter in Cape Town and the Italy’s higgledy-piggledy and multi-coloured Cinque Terra.

Neighbourhood rooftops
Image by: Kate Walker

Unpacking and gawking at our situation could wait though, as our main reason for being here is to voluntarily work with “Union of Women for the Betterment of Roupa Suja” (UMPMRS) –  a community run (just 12 ladies), non-governmental, not for profit organization located in the neighbourhood of Roupa Suja. Roupa Suja is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Rocinha.

UMPMRS’s mission is to improve the quality of life for the children and families living in the community and the little Kathy and I would be offering – playing with and entertaining up to 50 little ones at a day care centre.

Day Care centre play equipment along with reconstruction materials
Image by: Kate Walker

Having led a super organised six and a half year career at STA Travel and with negotiation and communication being pivotal to my role; I naively climbed the steps to the day care centre believing there might be a sort of welcome pack or few points on what to expect and how our days would follow (and hopefully in English).

Nope. It was literally the deep end of anything I’ve ever experienced before and boy did we jump in. The rest of our day was spent corralling three to five year olds, breaking up biting matches, collecting what little toys they had and assisting with mini lunches, afternoon showers and naps. And, all of this achieved with our dignities and Havaianas flung aside, miming and gesticulating our way through the language barrier.

Evening found us slip-sliding our way back down Roupa Suja (heavens, it looks even more unfamiliar going the other way and in the half-light) being led to local supermarkets, fresh legume stalls, crowded spots which signified a multitude of bus stops and given a minute, ground level orientation of Rocinha.

Running across roads, dodging motorbike taxis (honestly, they’re like hornets on cocaine) and generally trying to stay abreast of the humanity here – it’s a lot to take on board.

After a few near motorbike hits (…there are no driving lanes or street rules) Kathy and I made the executive decision to recuperate from the safety of a street bar. With Caipirinhas (Brazil’s national cocktail) in hand, our evening drifted to the sounds of funk, samba, ‘hornets’, street vendors and we watched beautiful, proud and smiling locals come and go all night.

Are we really doing this? Indeed, we are.

Manathai Resort – Phuket

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Its intimacy, design and vibe are what make the Manathai Resort Phuket my favourite of all holiday accommodations. As a product contractor in travel, I have seen and stayed in a myriad of properties but this particular boutique space, central to Surin Beach, really appeals to my senses.

Separating from our frenzied scooter hive on highway 4025 and throttling back onto the less hurried sois (streets and alleys) of Hat Surin, we immediately felt the strain melt off our wind-swept faces. This nook in the West of Phuket is a delight. It is north of damaged Patong, central enough to access both the south and north of the island easily and Surin is considered by locals and expats alike, to be a chic weekend getaway.

There are no blazing neon signs advertising the resort. Instead, puttering along Srisunthorn road, you are met with beautiful green tiled A-frame roofs, white washed walls, trickling waters and an open plan road-front restaurant fringed with white patio umbrellas. Security waved us in and having killed the waspish drone of our scooter we were welcomed inside with lemongrass drinks and cool moving air from silent fans.

Manathai Resort Lobby & Bar

The open plan reception-cum-lounge-cum-bar is really the crux of why this place is so attractive to me. The mood here is laid back, staff come and go and never fail to greet or smile in passing, the constant warm breeze lulls you into relaxation and it’s where my partner and I tended to spend most evenings.

We, of course, explored the local scene but found ourselves returning early each night to relax on large couches, amid brightly coloured cushions with drinks, books and the days’ photos until we felt the need to drift off to bed.

Manathai Resort Deluxe Room

The room was huge, with high ceilings and shelving holding beautiful ceramics, platters, stone and wood carvings, tiles and all sorts of traditional Thai earthen wares. Huge, low-hung, pod-like lighting warmly reaches all corners and the smell of lemongrass incense and the wafting aromas of freshly cut lotus flowers polished off the setting.

Our days spent exploring Phuket Island by motorbike was a hot and sticky affair. So, returning to ultramarine blue pool waters was just bliss. Gliding up and down, eyeing out chirruping frogs in the pool’s pond edges and relishing the sound of tricking waters from enormous mossy-skinned pots just felt so luxurious and private. The place was ‘ours’ and we never felt impinged upon by other holiday makers. In fact, at any one time we spotted perhaps a couple here and there but we were never in anyone else’s company.

Summing up my surroundings:
Antique furniture, dark woods, pebble pathways, white walls, wrought iron designer lights, fresh lotus flowers, comfort and class, natural light abound, frangipanis, earthy colours and the staff.

Manager Khun Daniel and his staff were (and still are) a super crowd with attention to detail and personalised touches being their unique selling point. They are what made our stay wonderful and should we make it back to Thailand again, Manathai Resort is where we will call home.

Dusit Thani – Bangkok

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Dusit Thani – Lobby
Image by: Kate Walker

We had been trekking train platforms and streets for the better part of an hour attired in longs, closed shoes and hauling on luggage. Unaccustomed to such humidity (especially at night!), perspiration ran slick and Bangkok had us cursing our decision to train it from the airport.

Why had we passed up the convenience of an air-conditioned taxi? However, we had the hotel within sight and with one final heave, doors opened to a ‘Sawasdee Krup’ and we were warmly shown into the cool interior of one of the city’s oldest and grand hotels – Dusit Thani.

Devarana spa

Grand is the most fitting word to pin to this 41-year-old property. The upper lobby is home to reception, concierge, a variety of restaurants & bars on differing physical levels and fresh displays of tropical flowers and tranquil trickling waters.

This vast, columned space is where the majority of folk migrate to, at any hour of the day. The atmosphere is chilled, natural light floods most corners and there’s never a feeling of over-crowdedness.

Check-in was fuss-free and one of the swiftest I’ve experienced. Reception staff welcomed us with beautiful threaded Phuang Malais (Thai flower garlands) and within minutes I was peering out of my 17th floor room window across a twinkling Bangkok skyline and down into the peacefulness of Lumpini Park.

Grand room

Airline hair and the removal of city grit was the next thing to sort out and our Grand King room certainly had a bathroom equipped to deal with this. Cool marble flooring, wafting essential oil, light dimmers, complimentary soaps and shampoos, a walk-in shower large enough to fit four and a deep bathtub to boot ensured we were well scrubbed and fit to occupy D’Sens Bar for a nightcap and to toast a superb start to two weeks off in Thailand.

Occupying the 22nd (top) floor, D’Sens offers up both a bar and Michelin star restaurant catering to the fine French/Mediterranean palate. It being far too late to dine though, ‘welcome drinks’ suited just fine.

Pineapple, coconut & sours I aptly renamed “The Dusit Thani” as they were literally “heaven on earth”. Nestled deep within a stack of cushions next to a bar-length tank of kissing gouramies and pale catfish; we were content to survey the outdoor night scene in silence and save talking to-do lists and plans for the morrow.

The morrow broke to find us having slept a deep, star-fished sleep and keen to breakfast at leisure. A holiday for me is one without alarm clocks and late breakfasts…

Il Cielo laid on an array of foods. Noodle dishes and pork buns for locals and neighbouring visitors alike, pastries and cereals, meats and cheeses for the Europeans and all the components to a cooked breakfast you could wish for.

A multitude of fruits, juices, yoghurts, pancakes, smoked salmon and French toast too. Again we noted, while sipping lattes, how un-chaotic the venue was.

Il Cielo restaurant

Usually buffet breakfasts equate crowds with sometimes queues and a little elbowing for the last croissant. But our mornings in Il Cielo were super relaxed.

Breakfast items were well stocked and skilfully displayed with cheerful staff unexpectedly recalling our names and favourite hot beverages.

Bangkok hums. The city never sleeps and there’s a constant hive of activity. So instead of leaping into the mayhem on day one we decided to take it o’ so easy by the pool with books, a snack menu to hand and not a care for the time of day.

A few scattered Chaise Longues around the pool’s peripheries, a waterfall in the background and sun streaming down – the pool is an easy spot in which to do not much at all.

Peckish moments can be satisfied in any one of the hotel’s 12 restaurants, cafes and bars. Our most memorable meal was actually on our last night.

Benjarong is the hotel’s signature restaurant whipping up a wide selection of sophisticated Thai cuisine with ingredients prepared and fused according to royal Thai recipes. The Tom Yung Kung was fresh and sweet, and the seasoned Tilapia – the best flaked fish we had had in a long time.

I even managed to knock cheesecake off my partner’s all-time-favourite desert pedestal and replace it with sticky coconut rice and mango!

Il Cielo restaurant

The Dusit Thani caters exceptionally well to the business traveller, groups, trade familiarisation visitors, your average tourist and even the spa connoisseur.

The hotel is located centrally within seconds of the Skytrain, local subways, Lumpini Park as well as being minutes from the likes of Silom and the Chao Praya River. So in regards to access and getting around – it’s incredibly easy.

Staff cheerfulness and a desire to always assist, a grand but homely ambience, the choice in cuisine, plush rooms and a view out over Bangkok’s largest green patch is what made our stay.