Thursday, December 20, 2012

6 months down the road... Thoughts about completing my big trip and FAQ

Today it's been six months from the day I returned from my first round-the-world trip! It feels like a small eternity but still all the memories of the places, the people and the experiences are so vivid...199 days traveling around the world,  about a 100 cities or towns, in 12 countries on five continents - all of them (besides London) that I had never visited before. All by myself. That may seem a lot to someone and not much to some other more hardened world explorers... But it meant the world to me.

People have asked many questions about the trip, no surprise there. So I decided to put together a "little" FAQ list:

Monday, December 17, 2012

Helsinki Zouk Festival - 2012

Mid November + Helsinki... Not the best combination. But a great way to get your mind off of the cold rain and darkness is to dance your toes sore! The zouk festivals in Helsinki have been quite small but this November we had the biggest one - the 4th Helsinki Zouk Festival Nov 16-18 gathered lots of international dancers to our windy city!

There were two days of workshops with visiting teachers from Brazil, Leonardo Neves & Layssa Liebscher, and from Spain, Daniel & Leticia Estevez Lopez, as well as our resident teachers Freddy Marinho & Andressa Castelhano (BRA) and Soile Vedenpää (FIN). The workshops were pretty packed but the mood was great and I think the teachers succeeded well in accommodating the various levels of students attending the classes. Restaurant La Bamba and Etnofitness dance studio in Sörnäinen served as the workshop spaces - and the festival full pass included a hearty lunch and snacks!

The intermediate workshops were packed

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Roda time!

In the past weeks there have been many things to celebrate and in the zouk community we love to party -especially we love birthdays! One reason for that is because we get a special birthday dance, roda (Portuguese for 'circle'). In this case it's not quite like the salsa rueda (also Spanish for 'circle') you may first think, where there is an even amount of guys and girls in a circle dancing a set of various moves which one person shouts out. On birthdays we do a roda where people gather in a circle around the person who is celebrating. So if it's a girl that's celebrating then the guys or the leaders circle around the girl; and vice versa. The objective is for the birthday girl or guy to have the most fun while the others in the circle try to "steal" that girl/guy one after another for one song.

This is a known tradition in other latin dance communities as well but it seems to be particularly strong in zouk! I've taken part in many zouk rodas around the world and in Brazil, especially in the big parties like they have for example in São Paulo it gets quite crazy when there are six or even more rodas going on at once - there people make sure they show up to the parties on their birthdays! Everybody dreams about having their birthday during a congress just for the roda, to get surrounded by all the amazing dancers from around the world!

I wanted to take this chance to post some videos of the rodas we've had in the past month here in Helsinki!

Here is one for my birthday. We took over the main floor of the weekly salsa party, "Salsa at the Cellar", at the Helsinki Salsa Academy. So in a sense it was also a little zouk demo too :) The salsa people in the audience (especially the girls, as you can imagine) were quite amazed and delighted to say the least - and I was quite the happy girl too!

Friday, October 26, 2012

First own zouk choreo!

My dance partner and I had had an idea for a long time to make a little zouk show, practically ever since we started. We thought it would be fun to challenge ourselves and show mainly our non-dancing friends what zouk is about.

Since I was away for over 6 months we kept postponing this but when I returned home we started to talk about it again. It seemed to be impossible to get a good idea, or a theme for the show - or enough time to practice. But then some of our friends invited us to do a show which gave us a deadline to come up with something. Finally we had only three weeks to create this "something"! So we picked a song and thought we can just wing it.. But the music inspired us and what started with "let's just freestyle some zouk to some Finnish music" turned into a nice simple choreography!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Beach & lamba-zouk week in Barcelona!

After my long trip around the world I wasn't exactly looking forward to traveling more any time soon. But I wasn't looking forward to dark & rainy autumn days in Finland either. So I booked a trip to Barcelona for mid-September for the 4th Beach Zouk & Lambada Festival.

The festival was held in Santa Susana, 60km or 1h20min train ride up from Barcelona, right on the beautiful beaches of Costa Brava, Spain. Our small "team Finland" arrived on site already a day before the event, just enough time to unwind, unpack and get a little beach time before the zouk&lambada marathon that awaited! Santa Susana is a small town, basically like one big tourist resort. There's the beach and close to it there are restaurants, shops and hotels. A little off the beach is the town centre and up on the hill there are the residential areas - we never made it that far, after all we just came there to see the sun, sea, sand and dance our feet off!

Holiday on the beach - not bad!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

IZFM! Zouk flash mob takes over the word!!

All summer thousands of people all around the world from Toronto to Melbourne, from Suriname to Singapore, have been practicing for the International Zouk Flash Mob that took place on Sunday Sep 16th. People rehearsed the same choreography and performed it flash mob style at iconic places sush as in front of  the Eiffel tower, the Colosseum, on the beaches of Brazil...

There were about 100 cities in 38 countries that took part in the big event on the same day! I was dancing with the participants of the 4th Zouk & Lambada Beach Festival in Santa Susana, Spain. Here is my funny video of the happening! Me and the deck chair by the pool served as the role of videographer with my camera...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Zouky summer, zouky fall

It's been a busy summer since I got back to Finland at the end of June. I've spent a lot of time with my friends and family - and back at the dance studio! The weekly zouk socials at the Opera stage in Helsinki have gone well and we wrapped up the summer season two weeks ago. Besides the Opera backyard, we've been out dancing zouk at various clubs in Helsinki, in parks and beaches all around, at the summer cottages and even at one midsummer "lavatanssit"!

Mzouk hits Helsinki

In July we had some Mzouk workshops in Helsinki with a Finnish Mzouk teacher-in-training Ossi. The course attracted quite a lot of people - it was nice to get us zoukers together during the summer!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Tracing my steps

This is the full list of places I visited on this 6,5 month trip with links to all the blog posts!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Dancing away in London - last stop on my big trip!

It was the middle of June and I was reaching the end of my big trip! Actually I was also getting back to square one, to London, where this adventure started over six months earlier. I was dying to be done with the trip, I was missing my friends and family, my own bed.. my clothes :D So this was the next best thing, just one final step away from returning home! Even on the Tokyo airport (from where I flew back to London) they had a flight leaving to my home town, almost the same time as my flight to London, it was killing me!! But it wasn't all that bad - I was going to see & stay with friends in London too and dance dance dance zouk like no tomorrow!

I had to get up early in Tokyo to get to my flight and I wasn't too thrilled. Somehow I managed to fit all my stuff in my two bags and got the airport early - ready to "enjoy" another 12 hour flight. I thought I'd get some sleep but I guess I was too excited to relax enough so I just kicked back and watched a bunch of movies instead. I closed my eyes towards the end of the flight and suddenly I was in London! London, baby!

It was a Friday afternoon and I waddled with my stuff to my friend's place, changed gear and was off - determined to stay awake through the evening and kill any jetlag that was heading my way. So I went to see a zouk class at the famous Pineapple Studios. I had just flown across nine time zones and been up & traveling for about 20 hours so I didn't really feel like taking part in the class. But went to watch just out of curiosity.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The imperial and impressive Kyoto

Kyoto (京都市or Kyōto) is located in the central part of the Honshu island, south of Tokyo. This former imperial capital of Japan is a part of the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe metropolitan area and a very popular tourist destination, especially know for its traditional districts and temples.

I was staying in Osaka, just less than an hour away from Kyoto, and took one day to go for a visit. I got very helpful tips from my new friend Mio from Osaka who mapped me a great route through Kyoto! So around noon I arrived from Osaka to Kyoto's Kawaramachi train station, ready to explore the city!

Hills surround this beautiful city and on the hills there are big impressive temple areas. My plan was to go discover the eastern hill and first up was the Yasaka Shrine. It's easy to find the shrine as it's just at the end of the main road - you can't miss the big, red temple gate! I passed through the colourful temple where people were ringing the big bells and continued to a beautiful park called Maruyama Koen. I can just imagine how during spring it's covered with cherry trees blossoming. I heard that the park was also used in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha.

At the Yasaka Shrine

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Once upon a time in Osaka...

After a week of being totally amazed by Tokyo I was exited to go see another Japanese city, Osaka! Ōsaka, or 大阪, is a part of the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe metropolitan area of close to 20 million people. I'm starting to wonder how many of the world's biggest cities are located in Japan....!?!

It was easy to decide how to get from Tokyo to Osaka: with the Shinkansen train (the bullet train), yay! I had popped by the Tokyo train station before my departure day to check out the place so I would know how to get to 1) the right station and 2) the right platform. There are soooo many stations, terminals, platforms, entrances, escalators and underground passages that it's quite easy to get lost! But I made it! Just a little problem with my tickets at the automatic gates but no worries since there's always lots of helpful staff around! 

The noses of the trains look so funny, some had even longer noses than this one, over 10m!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Zouk in Japan - the surprising latin & Brazilian dance hub!

Believe it or not, you can do lots of latin dancing in Japan, even zouk! And not just in Tokyo but in various locations in the country. I was excited to visit some other cities beyond Tokyo in my quest to find out how is Japanese zouk and extended my time in Japan a couple days just for that :) Tokyo dance scene information follows right below, scroll down for Osaka and Kyoto!

Burning the floor in Tokyo

I didn't know anything about the Japanese zouk scene but am lucky to have friends around the world who used their contacts to find some places and parties for me! There are in fact a few monthly zouk events where the local dancers gather up. I was in town for the “first Saturday of the month” party, also know as Utage zouk, ar the G-Box dance studio in Ebisu. I arrived there on time, at 8.30pm when the party started. There wasn't a whole lot of people then but soon enough the place filled up and was packed with 30 or more dancers from about 9.30pm onwards!

The trendy Tokyo - the most amazing city in the world?

Tokyo - actually Tōkyō or in Japanese 東京 - was, surprise to me, the biggest city of my RTW trip and is by most measures the largest city and metropolitan area in the world! (By the way, the second biggest city on this particular 6,5 month trip was São Paulo and third either Osaka or Buenos Aires.)

It was the beginning of June (...yes, I'm this late on my blog posts...) and I was reaching the end of my big trip. I wanted to have a bit more time in Japan so I had moved my flight from Cairns to Tokyo a couple days earlier. This was one of the rare occasions I used the opportunity to freely adjust the flight plan that I had made end of last year (well the plan basically only included the intercontinental flights so most of my travel plan was created as I went on..).

The flight from Cairns to Tokyo was comfortable, yet quite boring 7,5 hours. I arrived to Narita airport in the evening, pretty tired and not feeling ready to tackle the Tokyo public transport system. I don't know any Japanese, at all. It was the first country on this trip where I was complete lost with the language. But no need to worry, I walked straight to the information desk at the airport and they gave perfectly clear instructions on how to get to my accommodation, in fluent English. It was a 1,5 hour journey to the city and through the city (bear in mind the airport itself is also 60km from downtown Tokyo) but I had no troubles getting around.

I started my sightseeing the next morning. Well actually I had no idea where to start but I had a map and Google and some recommendations. First up I went to Shinjuku to see the urban Tokyo with all the tall buildings. I quickly realized how massive the city is and how easy it is to get lost, especially in the mazes of the subway and train stations.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Paradise lies below the surface... smooth sailing and rough seas at the Great Barrier Reef

After getting soaked for three days in the rainforests north of Cairns I returned to the city to change gear, check mails and sleep. Next morning I had to wake up early, yet again, for my last Australian adventure on this trip! I had managed to switch off my alarm in the morning but luckily I didn’t miss my boat, phef! I was off to a 2 day sailing trip on the Great Barrier Reef - I was so excited!! In stead of taking one of the big boats with 30 or 50 other tourists I had booked a trip on a sailboat... Oh yeah, less people and more time. We were a group of 11 people (Finnish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, German, French and Canadian) with a crew of 3 on the fantastic Coral Sea Dreaming.

It had been terrible weather all week and lots of wind so I had postponed this trip to the last days, praying the forecast promising better conditions would hold. But not yet: it was sadly a cloudy day when we set out from the Cairns harbour early in the morning. The waves weren't terribly high but the boat was rocking quite heavily and a couple girls were feeling quite ill, one even did the traditional puke over the rail. I felt sad for them, and happy I had taken the motion sickness pill that was offered to everyone before we set off: I felt better than ever!

The gray weather and the gray water. Not the best day to go out on the sea..

"It rains in the rain forest"

It was my last (and very busy) week in Australia and I was spending it around the Far North Queensland. The week was only halfway and after the trips around the waterfalls close to Cairns I headed up the coast! The plan was to make a loop around the rainforest covered area north of Cairns and the town of Port Douglas.

It was a warm winter morning when I hopped on the bus in Cairns. First I would head to a river to cruise down along the mangrove shores and spot some saltwater crocodiles. I was curious whether we would actually see any but sure enough, as if they were planted there, we spotted a couple big ones. Surprisingly even some small saltwater crocks were swimming around and some more safely hanging around close to their mothers. The smallest I saw was 4 weeks old, about 15 cm long little creature, just swimming along the shore. The boat captain said everybody loves the small ones ... especially the big fish: they love to eat them! Snif.. cuties.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cairns - from one cascade to the other!

It was the end of May and one of those mornings again: an unreasonably early wake-up and off to catch a morning flight from Darwin to Cairns. I felt I had barely fallen asleep the whole night, thanks to the Darwin party people keeping everybody awake (well it was Saturday night so what could I expect). I was counting the days 'til I would be home again, in my own bed, enjoying the peace & quiet…

From one small city to another, I was making my way through the northern parts of Australia. Cairns is the biggest city on the northeast coast, in the middle of tropical nature and the Great Barrier Reef. The city doesn't really have a beach (very strange) but a nice promenade by the sea. This is the centre of most of what's happening in Cairns with big lawn areas, spaces & equipment for the sports enthusiasts and BBQ spots as well as a 4800m2 saltwater swimming lagoon. And a lovely place to go see the sunset!

Lagoon at the Promenade

Monday, July 16, 2012

Darwin - the outback capital

When I was planning my RTW trip I had been very curious about the Northern Australia and the outback so I had decided to add Darwin to my Australian itenerary. I arrived there after very exciting 10 days of dancing in Brisbane and the Gold Coast ... feeling very tired. The hot & humid air of Darwin was a nice change after the chilly nights of Queensland - where I had actually managed to develop a cold. So the first couple days in Darwin I just kicked back, enjoyed the heat and did pretty much nothing. By the third day I was feeling better, happily doing some sightseeing and tanning by the pool. Not bad!

Darwin is quite a small city.. a town really. It's the smallest state capital in Australia though it is clearly the biggest in its territory (Northern Territory). There's basically two main streets that run parallel to the shoreline - and that's it. You'll find plenty of restaurants, bars and shops like in any city; actually there is some quite nice Aboriginal art in some galleries and markets but most shops sell the standard souvenirs. Darwin has in fact a large Aborigine population and you'll notice that pretty easily when you get there. 

Northern Territory coat of arms

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Zouk in Brisbane! And the story about how I got doudouleyd...

If you want to dance zouk in Australia Brisbane is the place to go. During my week in Brisbane I had lots of time to go check out the latin dance scene - obviously I focused on the zouk socials and classes since this was the zouk capital of this side of the world! There's something going on every night, either classes or parties; or both. If you're more interested in parties it's best to be in town for the weekend. There's also great latin and zouk congresses in Brisbane and the area - scroll to the bottom of the post (after the full listing of the weekly zouk classes & socials) for more info on the events!

Party time! Let's burnnnn the floor!!

I arrived to Brisbane on a Friday afternoon, just in time for my first party at Rio Rhythmics. On Fridays they have zouk party or a mixed latin night with zouk, salsa, bachata and samba. The week I was there it was the latter but they were playing mainly zouk (definitely my kind of a mixed night!). The studio is quite big but it does fill up. It wasn’t hard to find good zouk dancers and I had a very busy night on the dance floor!

The weekends are packed with parties for zouk dancers, there are commonly several options. It does vary depending on what week you’re there since all parties do not run every week. I was lucky to be there on Brazilian Soul Dance’s monthly Saturday night Zouk Fever. It doesn’t go on very late (7-11pm) but there are heaps of great dancers – and if you want to check out another party in the same night the early finish makes that possible. The studio feels even bigger than the one at Rio Rhythmics. I was on fire that night and practically had to hide in the bathroom to have a little break :D I did enjoy it a lot and my feet were shattered by the end of it. There was also a show that night by the Raw Connection West Coast Swing group. The WCS dancers stayed to watch the zouk social after their performance and many of them got bitten by the zouk bug, I taught a couple of eager guys the basics!

Sundays there are a couple options as well: Casablanca for salsa & zouk and some weeks Rio Rhythmics hosts a Brazil Beatz night (every 2nd Sunday of the month). I rested my first Sunday in Brisbane and went to check out the Casablanca’s salsa & zouk night on my second Sunday there. They have two dance floors with salsa & bachata on the main floor downstairs and zouk on the smaller space upstairs. I was running between both floors as that week there were special salsa guests (Vito and Stefania from Italy) and I wanted to catch their show and a few dances with the top salseros and bachateros as well. There weren't that many zouk dancers actually that night but had great dances, at one point I even shared one dance with four different zoukeros. Thanks boys for that!

On Mondays and Tuesdays there are no zouk socials at the moment but again on Wednesday there was another Casablanca party. That week it was held at Brazilian Touch in the Valley due to another booking at Casablanca. There were a little less people there than at the socials during the weekend - on Friday and Saturday I'd say there were up to 100 dancers or even more, Sunday around 60 and Wednesday around 40. But a good night nonetheless!

Thursdays you can take a little break from zouk: If you dance salsa the one place I would definitely recommend is Cloudland at 641 Ann Street in Fortitude Valley. Free entry and the night I was there even free mojitos (I'm not kidding!). The decor is very cool with a big dining area on two floors, a long bar, dance floor (with annoying surface unfortunately) - and live bands!

Cloudlands - coolest salsa club on my trip!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bribane and the Sunshine Coast - beach and city life in Australia

I got to Brisbane after three chilled out days in Byron Bay. I had planned to stay a whole week in Brisbane to check out all the zouk dancing spots in town – it is the zouk capital of Australia after all! A dance friend of mine had offered me even a place to stay so I was all set for my dance week! But more about dancing in Brisbane in the next post :)

Brisbane is bit of less known big city in Australia – Sydney and Melbourne seem to get most tourists, as well as Perth on the west coast lately. But Brisbane is quite well located with lots of fast connections to the popular islands such as the Australian reef destinations Fraser Island and Whitsundays as well as Fiji, among others. It’s also in the pretty much half way on the travelers’ famous east coast route from Melbourne or Sydney to Cairns. I immediately liked the city when I strolled from the bus terminal to the river and boarded the City Cat ferry. The river snakes through the city, passing the skyscraper filled down town (Riverside terminal) and you get a good sense of how the place looks like.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Chilling out in Byron Bay

My plan after Sydney and Ayers Rock was to see some of the east coast of Australia between Sydney and Brisbane. But since I had spent some extra time dancing in Sydney and wanted spend some more time dancing in Brisbane as well there wasn’t a whole lot left. So it happened that Byron Bay was my one and only stop between the two big cities. I had asked around for the best places to visit on the coast and Byron kept coming up – frankly people had a hard time finding anything else to recommend which made my planning easier.

So I boarded my first Australian bus – and hopefully the last night bus. I can tell you it wasn’t like those first class buses I took in Central and South America. Luckily the bus wasn't full so I had a two seats to myself but still found it hard to come up with a position to sleep in. The 12 hours went quite fast anyway. It was nice to wake up after the uncomfortable sleep in the bus to see a stunning sunrise over one field in our stop-over. 

The big red rocks

Sorry my blog is ridiculously behind at the moment, I had major internet issues in the last month traveling in Northern Australia. Will try to get back on track this month!

The iconic image of Australia: Ayers Rock! I had booked flights to Ayers Rock already last November when I booked my RTW-ticket so I didn’t have to think about whether to include a visit to the rocks on my trip. It was one of the highlights of this trip that I had been waiting for. 

There’s a couple different sites there: firstly there's Uluru or Ayers Rock and secondly Kata Tjuta - they are two separate sites, two massive rock formations. They are both located in the same National Park area and they're both an easy 20-40 min drive from the small town of Yulara where most visitors are based (or I might say all since there are no other places to stay there). Both Uluru and Kata Tjuta were formed in the same time period and are the same colour but they have different geology - read more about that at the bottom of the post.

There’s also a third popular site there, Kings Canyon, but that’s a 3-hour drive from Yulara and I didn’t want to make my schedule too hectic so decided to skip that – at least there’s something more to see in case I come there again! 


The main thing for me was the see Uluru. I really wanted to have enough time to see all of it so I didn’t join any of the day tours since primarily all of them would just drive around the rock for the most parts. I wanted to take my time so I just got a transfer there and back, leaving me however much time I wanted to walk around it. First I went to see the sunrise – there are separate sunrise and sunset viewing sites where hundreds (and probabaly thousands in high season) flock to see the rock change colours. It was very scenic and you could see the entire rock formation from there – which I would later see up close.

The different colors of Uluru at sunrise

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Enjoying the Sydney latin scene

Sydney is quite a good spot for us latin dancers and I had 10 days to check it out. The city is not known for its zouk scene (Brisbane is the Australian zouk capital) though you’ll find zoukers and some socials & parties there. But for salseros and bachateros there’s a lot of things happening, something every day of the week.

I happened to be in town for the Sydney International Bachata Festival! I didn’t want to tie myself to the festival schedule so I just decided to join a couple of the parties. First it was the pre-party at the Mediterranean restaurant on Oxford Street - cool location. When I walked in a zouk song was playing but only a few couples were on the dance floor. No reason to worry though, soon the floor was packed! They played mostly bachata with a couple salsas and zouks in between. I was happy I found some really good zouk dancers later on in the evening. And obviously tons of amazing bachateros. I had never danced bachata on that level before or Dominican style bachata ever!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cool days in Sydney - my first time in Australia

Australia! The country so big that it's also a continent - though it is the smallest continent. Australia was definitely at the top of my travel list, for one because of the excitement of being that far away from home but also for many of its natural wonders.

My journey in Australia would start in its biggest city, Sydney. I arrived to Sydney on a Monday afternoon, after my couple weeks of stay in New Zealand. I was a bit anxious to see how strict the local customs really were but really weren’t asked too many questions (the same set as in New Zealand - "where have you used those shoes", "are you carrying any fruits") and apparently my visa was in order too since they never asked to see any proof of it. Australia was only country I needed I pre-arranged visa on my entire trip! I took the train from the airport to the city which was really fast & convenient, considering I was staying close to the Central Station (and that was a good place to stay in my opinion). I had even managed to find a hostel with free wifi, amazing (first world problems...)! For the rest of my first day I did a bit of walking around, getting familiarized with my new surroundings and slowly started to feel at home again.

The next morning I had decided to join a free walking tour of the city. It was a similar concept as the tour I did in Valparaiso, Chile – the tour would cover most of downtown and you would tip the tour guide at the end of the walk. You end up getting to know more of the city than you would by walking around a day or two by yourself and they tend to include (or make up.. who knows) lots of small fun stories. The tour starts every day at 10.30 and 14.30 next to the Cathedral. There were around 20-30 people on the tour that day which is quite a lot. This tour guide wasn’t as good or as funny as the one in Valparaiso but I did like the tour and it really helps to get your bearings in the city. BTW, the same tour company offers also evening tours! The weather that was pretty crazy with a tropical storm that completed drenched everybody who was even 10 seconds without a shelter.. and then it was gone after 15 minutes with clear sky and sunshine. But that was the only bad weather I had, for the rest of the week it was mainly sunny - chilly at times but sunny.

Cathedral on George Street - the main avenue of Sydney

Monday, May 14, 2012

Last of New Zealand (this time..)

As a conclusion of my couple weeks in New Zealand I headed back to Auckland for two more - the two last - days. I had tons of planning and organizing to do… Or that was the idea at least. And to go dancing! I still wanted to see a bit more of Auckland so I went out to do some nice walks along Mission Bay and the harbor areas. It was warm and sunny so it was the best way to spend the day. Central Auckland is pretty easy to get by on foot and the circle line buses (1,80 NZ$) will get you anywhere you need. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Windy Wellington

After a bit over a week on the New Zealand's gorgeous South Island I was moving back up to the North Island. I took a morning bus from Nelson to Picton, basically just over one big hill, straight to the Picton ferry terminal. I could already check my bag in the ferry that would leave in about two hours so I had some time to go explore Picton!

Picton is probably mostly known for the ferry connection but it was a nice little town. It had a bit more modern feel to it, compared to the other South Island towns that I visited. The harbor area is the prettiest part of town with manicured lawns and palm trees, the bay was full of sailboats, motorboats and yachts. There’s some pricey cafés with views to the bay or just can just take a seat in the park.

Resting in Nelson and tramping* around Abel Tasman

*) That obviously means trekking in the NZ lingo
After about a week in New Zealand I was making my way towards one of the most popular destinations in the country, the Abel Tasman National Park, located on the North East corner the South Island. To get there I would first go to the town of Nelson, taking another early morning bus from Christchurch. It was one of the most annoying bus rides but I won’t get into that – it might have felt more annoying since I was very very very tired. But it was fun to be a party girl for a change that night before in Christchurch!

I arrived to Nelson later that afternoon, checked into my hostel and went out have a stroll in the city. There are nice cafés, restaurants and shops in the tree lined streets, a cathedral up on top of the hill – it’s all very clean and quaint. You can make some walks in the city, one of the most well-known ones is to the “Centre of New Zealand”, that’s where I went the next day. I was feeling a bit flu-ish but it was a really sunny, beautiful autumn day so I thought a little walking around wouldn’t hurt me. The Centre of New Zealand is supposedly in some way the geographical centre of NZ, surprise surprise. I'm not sure in what way, it seems to be oddly conveniently located on the top of a hill. But it's a nice 20 minute walk up and you can see all around the city from there. You can also stroll in the botanical garden (there seems to be one in every single town) and a river that goes through Nelson has a scenic walkway along it. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Feel the earth move in Christchurch

It was another early morning (after one late evening…) and I was getting on a bus from Queenstown to Christchurch. I had planned to go to Christchurch that day simply because I knew there was going to be some zouk that night and I certainly wasn’t going to miss that! But I had no idea what an interesting town I had added to my travel plan...

On the way from Queenstown and Christchurch: Mount Cook - the tallest mountain in NZ
Christchurch – the largest city on the South Island - is located right on the border of the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates and an unfortunate target of a couple big earthquakes and aftershocks. Now in the April of 2012 the town was still in bit of a distress after the latest shakes that tore the city into pieces. The biggest quake happened in February 2011 and it also killed 185 people. A lot of the beautiful city center, including the Cathedral, was demolished beyond repair and there's still a lot of work to be done all over the region. Many families are in desperate need of new homes and many have been forced to leave the city or have fled in fear of future earthquakes.

For travelers this means that a lot of the places are closed and fenced off – and it was hard to find accommodation. Lucky for me I was offered a place to stay by one very hospitable fellow zouk dancer. Safe to say I was really excited about arriving to Christchurch! I got to my destination in the afternoon and Becky & I went to have a little rest before we would go out dancing. I was barely awake since I hadn’t slept enough in the past couple nights but no one could keep me away from a zouk party! 

The party was the local latin dance school, Salsa Latina. There was plenty of dancers and a good athmosphere. In the larger main room there were mainly salsa and in the small room zouk. I had lots of good dances and certainly didn't have to sit down - actually my host & I had done good work in promoting the zouk room for that night, lots of people turned up and when I was introducing myself it seemed that most of the zoukers knew me already :)

The next day Becky took me out for some sightseeing. We walked around the city and I got to see first hand some of the building that had been damaged. A large area was cleared out and filled by cool shops and cafés - made up of containers! One tall building was actually being taken down right then behind the wire fences - there's a few blocks that are completely off limits. I just saw a small glimpse of the destroyed Cathedral through the fence. The fences were opened to allow the town citizens to go see it for the last time a couple weeks ago. Sadly it cannot be repaired.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Autumn days in Queenstown

So my plan was to - in stead doing the traditional camper van tour of NZ since I was by myself and had only 2,5 weeks - fly from Auckland to Queenstown, which is in the middle of the South Island and bus up and around the South Island, cross the Cook Strait to Wellington and fly back to Auckland. It wasn't a very detailed or well thought out plan but I wanted to see a bit of the cool NZ nature and go dancing in some of the cities and that seemed to cover those.

I had a morning flight from Auckland to Queenstown, right after the Easter holidays. I was really tired that morning after an early wake up but it was one of those ‘wow’ moments (Ushuaia déjà vu) when the plane descended through the clouds: the place looked stunning!

Monday, April 16, 2012

New horizons: the start of my New Zealand adventures in Auckland

It was one of those long nights. But one I had been waiting for a while: my flight from Santiago to Auckland. I had come to the end of my four months in Latin America... Four months... it had passed so fast. As I packed my bags once again I was feeling quite happy since I had grown a bit tired of the cold, damp & dirty gringo trail through Bolivia, Peru and Chile. In any case it was a big milestone for me, leaving South America in one piece after all the adventures that I braved all by myself. I had so many fond memories and made so many fantastic friends, and I knew that I'd be coming back for sure... But now, it was time to move on!

My flight would be leaving around midnight so I had plenty of time to get all my things together – and to get thoroughly bored. I had come up with lots of things to do to kill time but having already spent an  hour or two at the airport and then finding out that our flight was 1h 40min delayed didn't make me particularly happy! Thankfully had some movies on my notebook for just these kinds of occasions :)

The 13-hour ride over the Pacific was quite uneventful: I watched some movies and tv-shows, had dinner and breakfast and in between tried to get some sleep. I have to say that after the very comfortable sleeper buses all over South America I was struggling in the tiny plane seats to find any kind of position that would put me to sleep. But the hours flew by and the service was good - and suddenly it was already time to land. I lost one day in the process though: that’s the bad part about traveling across the globe westwards. Though those are the hours that I am gaining throughout the trip, crossing all the time zones – I just have to give them away all at once.

So jumping from Chile to New Zealand (and straight from Wednesday to Friday) I arrived to Auckland before 6am. I’d booked a hostel for the night before so I could crash straight to bed once I got there. I was feeling very disoriented – getting some sleep was about all I could think about doing. I got up at around noon to go look for some breakfast. It was Good Friday so almost everything was closed but luckily there were a couple nice cafés close to my place on Parnell Street. I was so happy to finally have some “normal” food!! I had trouble deciding what to eat, everything sounded delicious.

Zouking up Auckland!

My weekend in Auckland was packed with dancing. Even though it was Easter and the city itself was practically deserted I had managed to come at a perfect time: there was a dance festival in town! The Jambalaya festival was not exactly just a dance festival but they offered a whole range of open level dance classes and there was a great couple from Belo Horizonte, Rodgrido Delano & Adriana Coutinho, teaching zouk. And there were zouk parties on three nights! 

I'd been in touch with some of the local dancers on Facebook and right on the first day I had planned to go to the first zouk party at the festival. One helpful girl, Dunya, had even offered me a ride so all I had to do was to get myself out of bed and dressed! Despite all my efforts I was pretty tired that night. Well, it was my first night on this side of the world, and after crossing 9 time zones I was "a little bit" off. I didn't dance too much, just a couple songs here or there but it was nice to be out and see people. We left the party fairly early - after all there were workshop we planned to attend the next morning!

On Saturday I joined the festival for the entire day, there were all kinds of dance workshops (tango, belly dancing, salsa, samba, swing dancing, reggaeton and zouk for example). All workshops were open level so they were mainly teaching beginner level stuff. On the Rodrigo & Adriana's zouk workshop I had the chance to take part as a leader for the first time - that was surprisingly fun! And I got some good feedback on my leading so maybe I'll dare to try it again some time :) I enjoyed being on classes and dancing even though it was all very basic but it never hurts to go over some fundamentals every now and then.

Salsa class by Jamie Jesus
Roda at the end of the zouk immersion workshop by Rodrigo (centre) and Adriana)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

End of my South American road - Santiago

I am writing this post about Santiago in SANTIAGO! Wow, for the first time on my trip I'm up to date with the blog. Better open a bottle of wine (wait, it's already open..)! It has helped a lot that I haven't done anything really exiting in the past week so easy to catch up on some writing + not much new stuff to write about. Also I know that I will be veeery busy and the internet is expensive in my next destination (New Zealand) so it's now or never...

I got to Santiago from Valparaíso, just an hour and a half's bus ride away. I got off the bus on a metro station Pajaritos, hoping I could find my way to my hostel from there - and I did! Small victories in life :) It was Sunday and the town was full of people (all the hostels were booked, barely got a bed for me) with the Lollapalooza music festival and the Santiago marathon packing the city with rock & running tourists. Although by the looks of it in downtown Santiago you could imagine that about 200 people live in the city: it was basically empty. Strangely empty. But I guess everybody was having fun somewhere else than the commercial district, almost all the shops were closed anyway. Don't know if it was normal for Sunday or was it just this one.

Found one group of people in the entire Santiago downtown - at Plaza de Armas

Monday, April 2, 2012

The bohemian "paradise valley" is no paradise - the rough Valparaíso

So after one night and two relaxing (boring) days in La Serena I was already ready to move on. I anyway needed to get a bit more south, towards Santiago. 7 hours south of La Serena was the Unesco Heritage site Valparaíso, just an hour and a half from Santiago, on the coast. I thought I might find more things to do there. I left La Serena on the last evening bus that was supposed to leave at 0.30am - but lucky us, our bus didn’t get to the bus terminal until 1.10am. I got settled in my seat and passed out within an instance. At around 7am I was already awake, worried that I’d miss my stop – though this time it was actually the final stop of the bus. At about 8am we were in Valparaíso.

I had booked two nights in a really lovely hostel quite close to the Valpo (=Valparaíso) bus terminal – at this point I had one week to go before my flight was leaving on the following Wednesday from Santiago to Auckland. I was quite happy to have made it this close well on time for the big flight. No need to hurry anymore! No more nightbuses! I was thinking if I should move to Santiago for the weekend but it turned out the whole city was booked: there was the Lollapalooza music festival on Saturday and a marathon on Sunday. The earliest I could find a nice hostel in Santiago was for Sunday so I figured I might as well stay the two extra days in Valpo and just get some rest, and maybe do some arrangements for the coming New Zealand leg of the trip. I definitely was desperate for some rest and quality sleep after spending three nights in the bus during the past week and god-know-how-many way too early wake ups in Perú before that.

Now I had four days to spend in Valpo... Doing, what? How about sleeping.. Eating… Sampling some Chilean wines. That sounded like a plan! I was happy to notice there were two big supermarkets quite close to the hostel so I went and stocked the fridge with groceries and cooked some nice Mexican food. I also took my clothes to the laundry and hand-washed all my wool clothes. I looked up what to do in New Zealand and got in touch with the Kiwi zoukers. And for the rest, yes, I slept a lot!

I realised this was also as good time as any to join a walking tour of the city since it looked like I wasn’t motivated enough to do any sightseeing on my own. There was a highly recommended “tours for tips” walking tour that leaves every day at 10am and 3pm from Plaza Sotomayor. When I went to the tour meeting point I was expecting there to be a couple people, if even that, considering they do 14 tours every week... I was a bit skeptical how they manage to fill them up even in low season. But no worries about that, we were about 25 people on the tour. Our guide Al was a really funny American-Chilean guy who guided us around for a bit over three hours – one of the best guides I’ve come across on this trip! (And I can tell you he made a pretty handsome three hours salary just from the tips!!)
Harbour with lanchas (around 1500 pesos for a 25min tour on the boat)
The different styles of architecture mark the various momentous rises and falls in the town's history
The elevators to the hills, Cerros

La Serena: well, there was a beach & the mall...

It had been pretty hectic for the past weeks when I was leaving San Pedro de Atacama and definitely hadn’t got enough sleep. I even didn’t have time to have dinner before I got on my bus to La Serena from San Pedro – but I did manage to take a hot pizza with me :D The bus left San Pedro at 7pm and was to arrive to La Serena at around 10.30am so at least I could have some sleep there. What I hate most about night buses (well, in addition to people making noise or the too strong air con or heating....) was waking up at the crack of dawn when the bus is arriving to a city you have no idea about. At least now I could chill until 10am. And the bus was pretty comfortable (Tur Bus) and I had made sure I got a cama seat which stands for a bed, i.e. an almost fully reclining seat. They also offered a snack in the evening and breakfast in the morning. The movies they played on that trip were hilarious though - I gotta love the South American twisted sense of humour / lack of tact: first it was the Unstoppable, a film of a runaway train, and next the Speed, the bus terrorist classic. I would have liked to know what they played after that, perhaps a movie about a  bus crashing into a Chilean ravine? :D

I had a decent amount of sleep before I arrived to La Serena. Again I hadn’t made any hostel reservations but I had figured from the map that there were a number of decent hostels within walking distance from the bus terminal and it wasn’t hard to find good accommodation now during low season. Only needed to walk about two blocks to find one. I settled in the small private room I was given and rested for a a moment.

La Serena is a small city on the Pacific coast and I’d heard it was quite pretty there. And it was nice but really nothing special. Am I getting a bit jaded? Like most towns it had nice parks and tree-lined avenues, and the center of the city was full of all kinds of shops & restaurants. There was a beach too and I walked there on my second day but it’s a bit too cold already – there was only a couple of people fishing and a few people walking around here and there. Like I’ve heard about the coast town the sky was cloudy mornings and sunny in the afternoons.

A dry spell in San Pedro de Atacama

When I was looking at the map of Northern Chile the Atacama desert clearly sticks out - that's where I wanted to go! But getting there was no small task...

So how to cross the border between Peru and Chile? They’re not making it easy for the travelers; this was perhaps the first border crossing where there wasn’t a direct a bus that would take you from one country to the other. Nope. First you have to get a bus to the southernmost town in Peru (Tacna). I got a ticket to the 7am bus from Arequipa to Tacna, arriving at around 1.30pm to Tacna, with a nice Cruz del Sur bus. Ah, they have one of the best buses in South America that I’ve come across (and the price isn’t bad, 30 soles i.e. around 10€ for a 6-7 hour bus ride). I met Lauren, who I had already met the day before on the Colca Canyon trek, at the bus station and she was taking the same bus. We joined forces with an Argentinian and a Chilean guy to cross the border. To get to Chile you have to take a collectivo from Tacna to Arica. We didn’t have to wait as our group filled a car so after a bit over an hour, including the stop in the Peruvian and Chilean border offices we were in Arica, we were in Chile! I even managed to smuggle a banana through the strict Chilean customs, haha (by mistake)!

Once we drove across the border I got to see the Pacific for the first time from this side of the ocean! And it was nice to be back in the warm climate! So it was about 5pm when we were in the Arica bus terminal (having lost 2 hours on the time change, crossing to Chile) and the first bus that would go to San Pedro de Atacama left at 9.30pm. By the time I was holding my bus ticket I realised I forgot my shoes in the collectivo… whopsee! That was the first thing I have left behind on my trip… and maybe it was meant to happen, I was sick and tired of those shoes.

We had around four hours to wait for the bus so it was a good time to have lunch, check emails and get a glass of wine. Anyway waiting for the bus wasn’t all that bad since I had Lauren and Cristobal, the Argentinian guy, to accompany me. Cristobal also joined me on the night bus to San Pedro which we boarded at 9.30pm. We had to give our passports to the driver’s assistant and after 11pm there was a passport check – strangly already two hours after we had left the border (and had our passports checked & stamped). But that wasn’t enough, at 3.30am somewhere in the middle of nowhere there was another customs point. Everybody had to get out of the bus with all their luggage and wait outside while the officers checked everybody’s bags… So much for getting sleep on the bus. Then, of course, a bit after 7am we arrived to Calama, already close to San Pedro, for an unscheduled bus change. At 8am we were back on the road to San Pedro where we arrived after 9am. I was thoroughly annoyed and tired – 24 hours of traveling from Arequipa to San Pedro (1050 km, by the way).

Luckily I met a girl on the bus ride to San Pedro, Valerie, who was also staying in town. We joined a French couple and walked to a local hostel. San Pedro is very rustic and our hostel fit that bill – but I couldn’t have cared less as long as I had a somewhere to dump my bags and get some rest. 

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Canyon Country - Arequipa and Colca

After the obligatory (and rightfully so) visit to Cusco and Machu Picchu I was ready to start moving south, to Arequipa. This white city of southern Perú is still in the mountain region, beautifully set next to the volcano Misti. You can feel more of the small city vibe even though you have all the services, lots of restaurants, big plazas with palm trees and another massive cathedral. I got a bit of a shopping bug and found some funny small souvenirs to my friends and actually lots of lambada style dance outfits for the coming dance parties. The shopping malls are not as glitzy as in Argentina or Brazil but you can find everything there. One thing in particular I found surprising were the tens of shops selling wedding dresses, they're everywhere!

One of the top things to do in Arequipa is to visit the Monastery of Santa Catalina (entrance: 35 soles). It’s not just a monastery but more like a miniature city with streets, houses, water distribution systems… The maze of buildings spreads over a couple blocks (20.000m2), conveniently almost in the center of Arequipa. In its heyday the monastery housed 800 people (around a third of them nuns). Several of the nuns’ houses were open to visits, still fully furnished and preserved with explanations in four languages – a very nice place to spend an hour or two. The monastery is also open during the evening on Tuesdays and Thursdays for candlelit tours!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Revising my bucket list: Machu Picchu - check!

"Insert legendary words about this 'Lost city of Incas'...." Nah, despite the fact that no one seems to know what the place was really about, Machu Picchu is one of those places that needs no introduction. It's one of South American most famous sights and #1 image & place to visit listed in my bible, “The Lonely Planet South America on a shoestring”

I came a couple days before my trip to Machu Picchu to Cusco (like most of us who go there) to rest, regroup and make sure all is taken care of. I already had my train ticket to Aguas Calientes and bought the entrance to the Machu Picchu Sanctuary in Cusco so I was ready to go. My train was Perurail's Vistadome (and on the way back the Expedition) - Perurail is one of the top class rail companies in South America. You can already tell by their website and their sleek office at the Cusco's main square (Plaza de las Armas) confirms the image I had. The Wanchaq train station also stands apart from the typical stations I’ve seen on my trip: extremely neatly dressed staffed hovering all around a handful of passangers in the groomed station grounds. Well what do you expect if you pay (at minimum) 56 USD and up for a four hour train ride? Their luxury Hiram Bingham train costs 299,50 USD!! In comparison, a 10 hour bus ride can cost less than 10 USD – and I just booked a cama (sleeper bus with wide reclining seats and meals included) bus ticket from Cusco to Arequipa: it takes about 10-11hours and cost me 50 soles (under 20 USD).

I didn’t really fancy waking up at 4am so I took the later 8.05am train. Now it was the “rainy season” so the train would actually leave from Ollantaytambo (about halfway between Cusco and Aguas Calientes  the Machu Picchu Pueblo) and a Perurail’s bus would takes us there from Cusco. My plan was just to arrive to Aguas Calientes, take it easy for the rest of the day and go up to Machu Picchu early next morning. No need to try to rush up on the same day.

The bus ride was a bit bumpy but there was plenty of space on the small buss. And the views along the way were worth to stay awake (even though I was typing blog posts on my notebook at the same time): fields of all colors with tiny piglets and lambs running around, misty dark green hills behind them... It was less than two hours to Ollantaytambo and from there we boarded the train which slooooowly started to roll the last miles to Aguas Calientes. I was sitting next to Rafael from Lima, it was nice to have a Peruvian person to ask all the stupid questions about Perú and Machu Picchu!

Cusco - the portal to Inca Perú

After lovely four days at the Titicaca lake I got on the morning bus from Copacabana (Bolivia) to Cusco (Perú), on my way to Machu Picchu. I had read about all the various complications travelers had had on this particular journey (extra bus changes, unsafe buses etc) so I was praying for the best. It seemed there wasn’t too much choice and it was hard to find reliable information about the trip so I just bought a ticket to the 9am bus – after asking in three different ways about how many times I need to change the bus (to which I was told just once, in Puno). I found out my travel friend Christine was going to be on the same bus, it was fun to meet here since we parted ways at the Iguazu falls!

We left at 9am from Copacabana and just about half an hour later we were already at the Bolivian/Peruvian border. We got back to the bus after the standard (but fast) border formalities and continued on. Suddenly we were making an extra change in a town called Jumica and got told we’d have to wait a half an hour for the bus to Puno. The locals were laughing about the half an hour wait and in fact it turned out to be close to two hours before our bus arrived: Us and what felt like 100 Bolivians or Peruvians with a truckload of luggage (each) crammed on the same bus, pushing and shoving the tiny bus corridor. Then another change in Puno and I was exhausted… at least there we didn’t have to wait for long but it also meant we had pretty much no time to get anything to eat. Also the ATMs didn’t work in the Puno station so I went to change my remaining bolivianos in the currency exchange / pharmacy so I could pay the departure tax (which seems to be the norm in all the Peruvian bus stations: 1-2 soles).

Tired, hungry and annoyed by all the extra stops we were finally in the bus that would take us to Cusco. What saved me from total desperation was the good company: Christine and also a group of Argentinians who were helpful in understanding what was going during the trip. Finally, after the very shabby looking border regions and Puno, the views started to get spectacular about three-four hours after Puno. The road goes between velvety green hills and farms on the left and snow topped mountains on the right. So finally I was in the beautiful Perú! After having left at 9am we arrived at around 8.30pm local time to Cusco. The lights / the power was out and frankly it looked like we are arriving to an abandoned city… But when we got off the bus the city was back alive, in lights. I was happy to get to my nice hostel, take a hot shower and go to bed. I even had wifi in my room so I could chat with my friends, just lying under my blanket :)

The next morning the first thing on my agenda was to make sure I had a ticket to Machu Picchu. I actually thought I had bought a ticket online but when I checked to make sure that morning it turned out the payment hadn’t gone through and I had none!! So it was off to find the ticket office (Ministry of Culture, INIC) in Cusco and hope for the best! I had booked my train tickets so that I had two and a half days at Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo, just a short bus ride from the site) but I was hoping to get a ticket for one specific day. It took a little bit of looking around to find the office but I was there around 10am and lined up. And yes: I got one of the last nine tickets! That was pretty close.... Well, there were still a couple other options but I happy I got just the ticket I was looking for!

I had two days to wander in Cusco before the Machu Picchu trip so enough time to look around the main sights, do some shopping and also have lunch & dinner with Christine before she left on a trek. Cusco is beautiful both day and night – I heard the nightlife is pretty good but I was so tired both nights I was just happy to get to bed after dinner. But during the day I covered most of the downtown – lots of impressive churches, pristine plazas, wide avenues, souvenir & clothes shops of all types (and for all wallets).

Plaza de las Armas (like all the main squares seem to be called)