Festival de Jerez XXII Dance Workshops: Muñoz, Leal and Guerrero

16 Mar

Alongside the treasure trove of world class and premiere performances, an equally compelling reason to go to Festival de Jerez is its master classes. The two-week program offers weeklong daily classes in dance at all levels from absolute beginner to professional. In addition you can study palmas, castenets and, new this year, Spanish language.

All Festival “maestros” are top artists ranging from the young like, 26-year-old Gema Moneo, to older professors such as Javier Latorre. The only way to judge beforehand how good they actually are at teaching is by word of mouth. As you might imagine, excellence on stage isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of ability to teach. That would be like expecting Dame Judy Dench to both write and direct a play in seven days.

Other factors to consider are style, physique (e.g. tall men would do well to study with tall men) and of course the palo and props, if relevant.

With this in mind I went with known quality, Angel Muñoz, for Solea Por Bulerias (basico) for week one. Angel’s choreography is peerless and his genuine affection for pupils wins him devoted students who literally follow him around the world. Well, Stuart and I did travel to Rome last May just so I could take his weekend tarantos workshop! The only issue for me is that Angel’s boundless energy can sometimes be overwhelming. These days I’m more able to dial it down.

Our singer was Momi de Cadiz and the guitarist David Navarro. Both worked hard from day one to give us gorgeous music to dance to. David’s original falsetta is particularly lovely. By day seven we had nine minutes of incredible choreography including a bulerias finale, quite an achievement. Angel laughed at me because I counted his remates – there were six – and complained I could never remember which one was coming up next. Angel’s English has improved in leaps and bounds in the nine years I’ve known him, so much so that when he explained something critically important in English a French woman called out in Spanish, “Can you please say that in Spanish so I can understand”.

For week two I selected Leonor Leal (born in Jerez) por bulerias (basico). Her alegrias workshop a couple of years back was a real break through experience for me.

Leonor is like a female version of Manuel Betanzos in her fluid use of upper body. Another generous, humble, kind artist, she teaches from the heart. She is also particularly responsive to individual student’s needs. She saw several people couldn’t understand the musical structure of a bulerias song so she brought in butcher’s paper and coloured pens and wrote out the lyrics then marked up exactly where the closes/remates and calls/llamadas could potentially be placed. These were taped to the mirror so we could refer to them.

Leo is exactly the kind of beginner bulerias teacher everybody benefits from. She allowed us to video her each day, hence all the cameras.

A flamenco friend invited me to the Jerez launch of Leonor’s children’s book, “Catalina sin pamplinas” (‘Catalina without frills’), illustrated by Guridi. Sitting on the floor surrounded by kids listening with rapt attention to the story of the flamenco dancer who travels the world to perform was just magical. I hope this is the first of a series of adventures for Catalina.

A special shout out too to our guitarist, Jose Torres Vicente. Leonor’s command of English is good but Jose’s is even better. When he saw we were struggling to understand something he would offer an English explanation. It’s so valuable to work with an articulate guitarist experienced in accompanying dance. Eva Rubichi was our singer, what a tiny powerhouse she is!

I had planned to take just one course per week but when I saw Eduardo Guerrero was teaching alegrias (one level only second week) I was sorely tempted. I’d enjoyed my week with him at Manuel Betanzos’ academy in Seville last year. We had been just four students for tangos (basico) and whilst it was tough I thought I did ok. I wrote to Eduardo saying I would have liked to take his course, but as it was medio I felt it would be above my level. Eduardo convinced me it would be ok for me so I registered late and went in prepared to give it my best shot.

I lasted three days. I didn’t leave because the choreography was too hard. I left because I don’t agree with Eduardo’s approach to teaching. As a teacher myself (journalism back in the day) I have a fair idea of how to support adult learning. One thing no one needs, in a two hour twenty minute class of 25 people, is to stand idle for half an hour while every person demonstrates individually that they can dance a step sequence to Eduardo’s satisfaction. This happened more than once. I tolerated it, but when Eduardo got brusque about us moving into precise rows of five people to repeat a sequence across the room and actually pushed me his time was up. I think teaching can be like parenting. We tend to replicate the model of parenting we experienced and without self awareness and knowledge we may repeat inappropriate behaviours.

Class photo of Eduardo’s alegrias medio. Although they take attendance they still tried to present me with a class completion certificate in absentia.

Dropping the class gave me more time to spend lunching in the Andalusian sunshine with Stuart whom I hadn’t seen in two months and who was only in Jerez for four days. We had Scottish friends from Australia, Heather and George, visit twice too. They hugely enjoyed seeing Ana Morales perform in their first ever flamenco experience.

Here we all are pre-Villamarta show with Suzanne at La Cruz Blanca.

I’ll finish with well deserved praise for Javier Latorre’s choreographic workshop group who performed gratis in Sala Compañia on the final afternoon of the Festival. A large group of dancers from all over the world, 18 in all, they acquitted themselves well and, combined with solos by Javier and two other accomplished dancers, gave us a memorable show. ¡Ole con ole a todos!


Other Festival flamenco dance teachers I heartily recommend are:

Andres Peña

No one comes close for pure soul and flamenco sensibility

Manuel Betanzos

Demands 100% commitment but in return you receive Manuel’s energy, choreographic flair and body work

Olga Pericet

Consummate professional, great drills and choreography

Manuel Liñan

Surprisingly grounded and thoughtful with mercurial choreography

Mercedes Ruiz

Warm up is a little too long, but otherwise a great teacher for women with a relaxed style

Pilar Ogalla

Excellent bata de cola teacher with feminine upper body style

Alicia Marquez

Excellent bata de cola teacher with a great sense of humour

Rafaela Carrasco

Calm and considered, she uses a repetiteur (in my case a dancer called Luna) which means you can see the footwork more easily wherever you stand in class

Increasingly Spanish maestros speak at least a little of other languages however it is well worth the effort to study Spanish before you start taking class in Spain.

Photo above was taken during a water break in Leo’s class of Colleen, a gorgeous new friend I made from Canada.

Triumphant returns and debut fails: Festival De Jerez XXII Performance Reviews

13 Mar

I write to the soundtrack of a snoring dwarf splayed across the airplane seats in front.

One of a group of foul-mouthed Glaswegians with smokers’ coughs, the dwarf’s tattoed arms are revealed by his tshirt. Drunk Glaswegians don’t feel the cold.

From the top of his head to his butt he is of regular size, but his legs and arms are tiny, with white-socked feet the size of a five-year-old. I learn his name is Turk when his mate wakes him for the descent into Edinburgh. They’ve clearly been hitting the grog hard in Barcelona, and apart from Turk, who had a skinful when he boarded, continue to drink their duty free on the flight. Turk slept solidly for three hours.

As for me, I stretched out too, but used the time to relive the highlights of the past fortnight in Jerez. My eighth Festival de Jerez since first experiencing it in 2009, 2018 will be the last one for a while.

Much has changed for us already this year even though it’s only March. One granddaughter has made her appearance in Melbourne and the other is poised to debut mid-April in Edinburgh. With luck we will be bi-hemisphere grandparents. Plus we now have a home in Broken Head, Australia. Stuart is threatening to put down roots and has joined the table tennis club. I gather croquet is next.

Elka at four days.

But back to the Festival which was dedicated to the very much alive and kicking Angelita Gomez, awarded a medal of honour this year by Andalusia for her services to the art of flamenco.

To make it easy for you to flick through what was a mammoth two weeks of flamenco shows I’ll start with my very subjective assessment of the performances. ¡Disfrutar!


Opening Show, Friday 23 February, 2018

Ballet Nacional De España, Villamarta Theatre 9pm

This was a BIG program presented in two parts with an intermission after the Bolero.

The company had performed the program several times before so as you would expect of a national corps, they were very sharp and polished. It marked seven years with Antonio Najarro as the director of the Ballet and he is clearly a force to be reckoned with.

ERITAÑA is from the fourth ‘Book’ and the final piece of the suite written for piano “Iberia” by Isaac Albeniz between 1904 and 1909. This fourth section was written to evoke Andalusia (the first two pieces are called “Malaga” and “Jerez” and the Eritaña is a lively piece of music paying homage to the historical Seville flamenco cafe cantante called Venta Eritaña.



“Isaac Albeniz, Portrait of a Romantic”, (2002) publisher Oxford University Press, by Walter A Clarke accessed https://books.google.es/books?id=dg60ZjqZLfkC&pg=PA64&lpg=PA64&dq=meaning+Eritaña&source=bl&ots=Zid1xbo2A8&sig=BFWROP_26VTtA22vmU1w2yZ91As&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiI4MWG2L7ZAhVPkRQKHdZ8C5AQ6AEwA3oECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=meaning%20Eritaña&f=false

In costuming, staging and style, this piece for the corps, with castenets, with some individual and small group features, was typical of what I expected to see from this company. It was a restaging of a classic peice of choreography. The music was recorded which is always a minus for me.

SOLEA DEL MANTON performed by the statuesque Esther Jurado was one of my favourite pieces of the evening. Esther is a commanding presence, a strong woman with a calmness about her that inspires confidence. Wearing a simple black dress with a full skirt and single strap fitting bodice that really showed her powerful upper body, she wielded the black and white closely patterned manton artfully. The musicians were excellent. Having both the male and female voices to sing gave light and shade.


This was another choreographic piece by Antonio Ruiz Soler, a male solo with live music by a pianist and violinist. The dancer, Jose Manuel Benitez, is young, but technically accomplished. The choreography had a high degree of difficulty in the turns and fast, controlled footwork which Jose Manuel performed very cleanly, especially given that the music was quiet and some parts he danced to silence. It was a long piece with a break and he took bows, that made me think he had finished, however he returned, reprised a section, added a bit and then finished with a flourish. Personally, I would not have put in the break, it seemed gratuitous.


Again we had a beautiful, slim hipped young man, Sergio Bernal, dancing solo, this time with the occasional accompaniment of the seated female corps with fans and later members of the male corps.

With his naked torso showing every single muscle he moved sensuously, mostly using only his upper body with astonishing control.

I felt I had seen a terrific, elegant and energetic show, but it was only intermission. When the company returned to the stage for the second half they gave us a six-part ballet called ‘Alento’ to a recorded orchestral piece that ended with all 28 members of the Ballet dancing. A strong opening night with plenty of flamenco amongst the danza español to satisfy even the flamenco purists.

Friday 23 February

Antonio Rey “Dos Partes De Mi” Bodega Gonzales Byass Midnight

However the night was far from over for me. The midnight show in the Bodega with Antonio Rey on guitar showcased both his divine flamenco and world music. Annoyingly for audience members who still have their hearing, the sound system was ear splittingly loud and attempts by several people to persuade the sound engineer to turn it down failed. He must have had industrial deafness. I moved my chair to the extreme back of the bodega. Invited artist, Joaquin Grilo, strode onstage at 1am and I found a spot standing on the sound stage which gave me a perfect view.

Joaquin gave us 30minutes of maximum Grilo-style dance enlivened by a spectacular mullet and spray on black pleather pants. Joaquin is always a crowd pleaser.

Saturday 24 February,

Manuel Liñan “Baile de Autor” Villamarta Theatre 9pm

“Baile de Autor” by Manuel Liñan was another tour de force by the ever evolving maestro of flamenco dance. This time Manuel was part magician, part showman, conjuring up moods, fantasies, dreams. I joked with Manuel Betanzos on the way into the theatre that Manuel Liñan would have to add abanico, baston and sombrero to his routine of bata de cola with manton this year after his successful “Reversible”. Lo and behold in the second half bata de cola and manton appeared, then fan, followed by a clear perspex baston. No sombrero, but there there is always next year. To be honest I could do without props. Manuel and the music is enough for me. The final piece was a cinematic treat, stripping down to a white singlet Manuel stepped into a shallow tray of water that extended the width of the theatre. With each step, swish and turn the water sprayed and splashed making beautiful patterns against the back wall.

The singer was David Carpio and Manuel Valencia played guitar.

Sunday 25 February, 2018

Compañia Flamenca La Lupi “La Paula” Villamarta Theatre 9pm

This show would benefit from some prior research by the viewer as knowledge of the historical figure of the gitana flamenca from Malaga, La Paula, would help to understand the work better, the program notes did not offer much.

La Lupi, from Malaga, wanted to pay homage to this popular figure born at the turn of the century, and whose final five years were marred by senile dementia. La Paula died of a heart attack aged 76. She is immortalised by the poem ‘Romance a La Paula’, written by Ceferino Sanchez Calvo


There was also a clear theme of obsessive love for her mother, also a dancer, but I couldn’t find any historical reference for this.

The style of dance La Lupi chose to characterise La Paula bordered at times on burlesque and bawdy which, which while common of dancers in Malaga (and one reason I am not fond of their style), does not gel with what has been written about La Paula. She is said to have danced mostly with her upper body with elegant movements of her arms and hands. La Lupi went way over the top and thereby lost impact.

Juan de Juan danced a strong petenera in a masculine, staccato, gitano style which seemed more Farruquito than Farruquito.

The musicians were excellent, especially Chelo Pantoja of Jerez, who sang and also danced a little as La Paula’s mother and invited artist Maria Terremoto. Maria only needs to open her mouth to sing saetas to open my tear ducts. Other singers were David ‘El Galli’ and Manuel Tane. Los Makarines also sang bulerias and the guitarists were Oscar Lago and Curro de Maria. Percussionist was David Galiano, palmista was Roberto Jaen, and Nelson Doblas played violin.

Miguel Poveda name appears on the program notes in the long list of acknowledgements, so when he walked on stage singing the copla ‘La Paula’ the Villamarta roof nearly came off. His and Maria’s singing and Chelo’s song and dance were the highlights for me. Miguel returned for the finale to sing again and proved what a good sport he is.

Sunday 25 February

Roman Vicente, La Guarida Del Angel 11pm

From the Villamarta I went directly to Guarida Del Angel for the standing room only 11pm show. It started at 11:30pm with the announcement that alongside the headline act, guitarist Roman Vicente, Farruquito would not be appearing as billed because he had torn a meniscus that afternoon in Seville. He even apologised to us in a video recording projected on the wall. Younger brother, ‘El Farruco’ Antonio Fernandez Montoya, did his best to fill his brother’s shoes. Several people left when they realised Farruquito would not be dancing but to be honest I was happy just to hear Roman Vicente. What an artist!

Monday 26 February,

Belen Lopez, ‘Flamenca’, Sala Compañia 9:30pm

There was no Villamarta show so with a class that did not end until 6:30pm, this time slot was perfect for me. Belen Lopez, from Tarragona, is a high energy, young dancer. It has been eight years since her first appearance at the Festival and she has grown in stature in that time. There was no grand theme or fancy staging, just a confident, solid program of four dances (seguiriya, tangos, alegria con bata de cola with bulerias de Cadiz, and tarantos con manton), delivered with convincing emotion. She has a trademark jumping style to emphasis peak moments. In the fin de fiesta finale the artists took a selfie which seems to be a thing now.

The singers were Manuel Tane, Morenito de Lllora and Pedro Jimenez. Guitarists were Juan Jimenez and Carlos Jimenez while the percussionist was Rafael Jimenez ‘Chispa’.

Tuesday 27 February

“Flamenconautas, Compañia Internacional de Flamenco: Vamo’alla” Villamarta Theatre 9pm

For only the second time (to my knowledge) the Villamarta Theatre stage was filled with flamenco artists – dancers and musicians – from all over the globe. You can’t please all of the people all of the time but 95% of the 14 pieces they presented pleased me very much! The artistic director and choreographer Javier Latorre danced twice, solo and with groups and for a fifty-year-old who doesn’t perform much any more he acquitted himself well. The Japanese singer Yuka Imaeda was convincing, especially por bulerias.

I enjoyed Karen Lugo and Jose Maldonado’s contemporary piece and Jose Maldonado’s zorongo solo was wonderful. I would be remiss if I did not question the wisdom of having Shoji Kojima dancing. Age is no barrier to performance (he is 78) but a lack of ability is. I respectfully disagree with El Diario’s reviewer Fran Pereira and suggest it is time Kojima san exited the stage gracefully. Juan Gomez ‘Chicuelo’ accompanied Kojima on guitar as he has done for decades.

Photo credit El Diario

Tuesday 27 February

Maria Terremoto “Raices” Bodega Gonzales Byass Midnight

The sublime Jerez gitana, Maria Terremoto, and 11 of her Jerezano friends and family, including Melchor Borja, on a grand piano, gave us a show to remember. Her talent is formidable and she performs confidently and professionally. Her singing style is natural, but has great power. Still so young, (27) it will be interesting to see in what direction beautiful Maria takes her talent. Invited singers: Rafael del Zambo, Enrique Remache, Manuel de la Nina. Guitar: Nono Jero, Percussion: Carlos Merino, Chorus: Ana Gonzalez, Inma La Carbonera, Encarni Benitez, Palmas: Manuel Valencia, Manuel Cantarote.

Wednesday 28 February

Ana Morales “Requiem”, Museo de Enganche de la Real Escuela Andaluza de Arte Ecuestre, Salon 1810 1pm

Artist in residence (a new Festival feature) Ana Morales staged the second iteration of her work in progress in the open space of the Museo Del Enganche with the audience seated on three sides. She will perform it again at the Seville Bienal too under the title “Sin permiso. Canciones para el silencio”. Four pieces, (costume changes on stage) all very different in mood and content, but all virtuosic except the last short homage to her late father which she danced wearing his overcoat. In one piece she mirror danced in silence and to percussion by Daniel Suarez, with dancer Jose Manuel Alvarez in a manner that seemed to show the deterioration of a relationship. Then she donned bata de cola to dance a serrano to the singing and guitar playing of the gorgeous Juan Jose Amador. In each piece she connected with the audience, sometimes literally reaching out to them and very generously (and bravely) gave us the opportunity afterwards to ask questions and provide feedback directly to her in person. When she danced this work at Sadlers Wells a week prior it was only thirty minutes. Somehow within a week she managed to add thirty minutes.

Wednesday 28 February

Rocio Molina “Caida Del Cielo” Villamarta Theatre 9pm

This is not a new work by Rocio and the title made it clear that we were in for a wild ride, however Rocio still managed to shock and offend people. The show opened with Rocio on drums bashing along to a rock metal song wearing a hooded bathrobe. She returned with a virginal white bata de cola and bare feet. Using the white plastic covered floor of the stage like a wall, she moved as if in a trance, then bounced and slid across it. The piece ended with her disrobing completely, strategically placed arms and hands a la the Venus de Milo. A musician helped her dress for the next dance. In the space of an hour and half she barely left the stage and moved through a range of characters and costumes, only one of which I had seen before, the torero with knee pads which she peformed a version of at the Bodega GB last year. My favourite piece was the slightly S&M garrotin in which she looked like she was going to strap on a dildo but instead stuck a packet of crisps to her pudendum and a sombrero on her head.

She flirted and played with the crisps provocatively and humourously all the while continuing her trademark perfect soniquete. Rocio’s command of her body and compas is complete. I can’t think of another female dancer who comes close. After she destroyed/painted the stage with a plastic bata de cola dipped in what looked like blood and mud (a musician later washed her feet for her on stage), she danced to hard rock music then donned a ra ra skirt and midriff floral top while eating grapes to finish with a flourish. Ole Rocio! Not sure where you will from from here but eternally curious to see.

Co-Artistic director for dramaturgy, sets and lighting, Carlos Marquerie, electric bass guitar and singing: Jose Angel Carmona, Compas and percussion: Jose Manuel Ramos ‘Oruco’, Drums and percussion: Pablo Martin Jones, Choreographic assistance: Elena Cordoba

Thursday 1 March

Alfonso Losa “Con-Secuencia’, Villamarta Theatre 9pm

This one man show was said to be a reflection of all the influences that come to bear on an artist and that cause them to evolve. Further it was to be a conversation between the building blocks of flamenco and the necessity to articulate new dance languages. Losa is a fast and physical dancer and he carried the show successfully with fantastic support from the gitana cantaora La Tana and singers Ismael de la Rosa ‘El Bola’ and Manuel Tane. The guitarist was Yerai Cortes. The final bulerias was electrifying. My only quibble is that Losa kept the same trousers on the entire show despite the opportunity for a full costume change in the musical numbers. Sweaty hair is one thing but completely saturated pants are offputting.

Friday 2 March

David Palomar, Riki Rivera, El Junco and Roberto Jaen “Que Pasaria Si Pasara?” Villamarta Theatre 9pm

The consummate comedic singer-showman, David Palomar, appeared to be the main attraction in this show dreamed up by Riki Rivera, but I was surprised and delighted to see how even-handed the performance was. Every one of the Gaditanos got a chance to showcase hitherto hidden (to me) talents. El Junco delivered a rapid fire comedic spoken piece, Riki Rivera sang and Robert Jaen danced. Skewering sacred cows, satire, impersonations, word play, is all par for the course in Cadiz, but not often seen in flamenco. The show was huge fun even if a lot of the script flew over my head. There can be no denying Palomar has one of the most versatile voices, El Junco dances like a dream, Jaen is a metronome, and Rivera’s guitar playing is perfection. A fabulous show!

Friday 2 March

Gema Moneo, “El Sonida de Mis Dias”, Sala Paul Midnight

Jerez-born 26-year-old Gema deserved this chance to dance solo for the first time in the Festival. Last year Farruquito selected her to partner him in ‘Baile Moreno’ at the Villamarta and she was mesmerising. She has been studying and performing full throttle since that opportunity and has improved solidly as a soloist since I saw her at La Guarida Del Angel in the off festival program last year. There was nothing fancy in the sold out Sala Paul program, everything she wanted to say she said with her dance and with the quality of the musicians. Her wonderful trio of singers were Miguel Lavi, Manuel Tane and Jesus Corbacho, with invited artist her uncle, the singer Luis Moneo. The guitarist was Juan Campallo and Percussion was by Ane Carrasco. Congratulations Gema, you are fulfilling your promise.

Saturday 3 March

Eduardo Guerrero “Faro” Bodega La Constancia 1pm

After winning the audience’s favourite Villamarta show award for last year’s solo show “Guerrero”, Eduardo brought us a slightly more pared down solo work evoking the seascape of his native Cadiz with the lighthouse as a powerful metaphor. With couturier costumes tailored skin tight (four dances = four costume changes) and a spare stage set of multipurpose white boxes, some of which he adjusted mid dance and later leapt on to to do footwork and a white frame clothes rack, the show benefited from Guerrero having toured it extensively overseas. It’s a physically taxing performance -caña, tangos, seguiriyas and alegrias – and as usual he gave us his last drop of sweat with just a good length of pause for the singers to have their moment in the spotlight and well deserved it was. Anabel Rivera so relaxed and confident singing “Alfonsina y al mar” and Manu Soto letting rip later in his “Rompio el Amor”. Another impressive show that won him more fans.

Saturday 3 March

Andres Peña and Pila Ogalla, “La Tournee”, Villamarta Theatre 9pm

This is the show many of us had been eagerly anticipating. With two past ‘best of festival’ awards in the bag (one for Andres for his one man show in 2014 and one jointly in 2016) plus a third in 2008 as an invited artist (Miguel Poveda’s show), there was a lot of pressure on the pair to deliver again.

And deliver they did! Starting with simple concepts of life as a journey in which every day is the same but no two days are alike, alongside the reality of a travelling band of flamenco artists arguing over which foreign city they want to travel to for work, they put together a series of solos and duets that played to their strengths. There aren’t too many married flamenco dancers of the calibre of Andres and Pili. You can see them read each other’s minds and the chemistry between them is authentic. Using Pilar’s manton to bind themselves together and embrace was sexy and magical. Pilar shone in her solos and my favourite moment of the evening came in the abandolao when Andres really did abandon himself to the joy of dance. The smile on his face was pure gold. That is ‘duende’.

If I could choose, I would live it again exactly so that nothing repeats itself.” This is the quote that ends the program notes. I shall be looking for an opportunity to see “La Tournee” again as I am sure I will enjoy it even more the second time around.

Kudos to David Coria for his stage direction. I loved the bare stage (no curtained wings) with the only props the red chairs which Andres danced on and the hats which gave an interesting silhouette to each artist. Wonderful singing by Inma Rivero, Emilio Florido, and Miguel Rosendo, Guitarist (as always): Rafael Rodriguez and Palmas: Roberto Jaen.

Sunday 4 March

Ballet Flamenco Andalucia Instituto Andaluz Del Flamenco ” Flamenco, Tradicion, Vanguardia y Proyecto Cantera” Villamarta Theatre 9pm

Rafael Estevez was back with another immaculately rehearsed and staged ensemble show in three parts; Mediterranea/Atlantica, Hierro/Bronce and Tierra/Aire.

Estevez gave himself plenty of stage time as did the principal dancer-choreographer Valeriano Pañas. They shared choreography honours with the dancers. Soloists this year were Sara Jimenez and Macarena Lopez. Male corps members were Marti Corbera, Borja Cortes, Eduardo Leal and Alberto Selles, while the female corps were Nadia Gonzales, Gloria del Rozario and Carmen Yanes. The guitarists were Juan Torres and Pau Vallet. Singers were Sebastian Cruz, Jose Luis Carcia “Cheito” and Jose Luis Perez-Vera. It was another strong show, however I would like to see less of Estevez and more of Alberto Selles, the standout male dancer for me.

Monday 5 March

Jesus Fernandez “Puntos Incabados”, Sala Paul 9:30pm

This show filled the time slot of the Villamarta and sold out. Much was expected of Fernandez who was last at the festival seven years ago, but I was sorely disappointed. Whilst his footwork is technically brilliant he has a slackness in his upper body and arms which verges on camp. The work was constructed in tandem with the contemporary dancer, Ivan Amaya, with solo and partner moments, the latter being some of the more interesting bits of the show. Fernandez also danced with Anabel Moreno, styled as the stereotypical hypersexual ‘Carmen’ and whilst the execution of the choreography was competent the pairing was completely unbelievable and did not excite. The El Diario review said that Fernandez had been mentored by Daniel Doña and Doña is credited with artistic direction and co-choreographer. I don’t think Doña helped him. The invited artist was the great singer Miguel Ortega and Jose Almarcha played guitar.

Tuesday 6 March

Rafaela Carrasco “Nacida Sombra” Villamarta Theatre 9pm

This was one of my top five shows. Rafaela created four strong, very different female characters with complementary beautiful costuming. Rafaela’s role was that of the religious mystic Teresa de Jesus, while the other dancers enacted the roles of Spanish feminist novelist Maria de Zayas (1590 – 1661), the celebrated actress Maria Calderon (1611-1646) who was the mistress of King Philip IV for two years and bore him his only heir, and Mexican, self-taught philospopher, scientist and latterly nun, Juana Ines de la Cruz, who lived during the mid-16th century.

The dancers were Florencia O’Ryan (used to go by Zuniga – the stunning Chilean dancer I talent spotted at the T de Triana in September 2011 who went on to the Ballet Flamenco De Andalucia), Carmen Angulo and Paula Comitre. Guitarists were Jesus Torres and Juan Antonio Suarez “Cano”. Singers were Antonio Campos and Miguel Ortega.

Tuesday 6 March

Ezequial Benitez “Quimeras Del Tiempo-Recuer2” Sala Paul 7pm

My favourite, male, living Jerezano singer, Ezequiel Benitez was in stellar company, including the singer Jesus Mendez and dancer Maria Del Mar Moreno. He really is the most beautiful man and when both he and Jesus sang for Maria my heart melted. An hour I will cherish. Guitarists were Jose de Pura and Paco Leon, Palmas by Chicharito, Israel Tubio and Jose Peña.

Wednesday 7 March

Daniel Doña Compañia De Danza Española “No Pausa” Villamarta Theatre 9pm

This was probably my least favourite show. I can only watch so much Danza Española to recorded music at a flamenco festival, but the El Diario preview article assured us it would include flamenco. Well blink and you would have missed it (actually it was more folkloric than flamenco). The title was misleading too, there were plenty of pauses in the so called perpetual motion machine. Add to that I only really rated one of the dancers, Cristina Gomez. So there I was wondering whether I could sneak out unnoticed. Answer, no. Daniel Doña danced two solos, and the other two dancers were Soujung Youn of South Korea and Cristian Martin. The talented guitarist was Francisco Vinuesa and the singer David Vazquez.

Thursday 8 March

Antonio Molina ‘El Choro’ “Gelem” Villamarta Theatre 9pm

Slightly odd programming to schedule a performance by eight men on International Women’s Day, but ‘Gelem’ was a strong Villamarta production resulting from a collaboration between the gitano dancer, Antonio Molina ‘El Choro’ (Huelva) and dancer-choreographer Manuel Liñán. Invited artist, singer, Pedro El Granaino, had me in tears in the opening song. ‘Gelem’ is a gitano hymn of struggle and suffering. Singers were Jesus Corbacho, Jonathon Reyes and Pepe de Pura, Guitarists Juan Campallo and Manuel de la Luz, plus Percussionist Paco Vega. A very satisfying 11 part show that will take El Choro to the next level in his career.

Friday 9 March

Isabel Bayon Compañia Flamenca “Dju-Dju” Villamarta Theatre 9pm

I saw this work, which is artistically and choreographically directed by Israel Galvan, with the same cast, at Seville’s La Bienal 2017. With its vodoo theme I found it amusing as it pokes fun at all the superstitions of performing artists, if a bit fringe for what is billed as a flamenco show. I liked the section where the three women danced as a kind of witches’ coven. That part has disappeared and in its place there is more humour and less dance. I was not alone in that estimation. The dancers, besides Bayon, were Alicia Marquez and Nieves Casablanca who acquit themselves well when allowed to dance. The guitarist (a Jesus character) was Jesus Torres, the singer Alejandro Villaescusa, Clavichord and Piano were played by Alejandro Rojas-Marcos and the motorised props, including a dancing white xmas tree, were operated by Pedro Romero.

Friday 9 March

Juan Ogalla “Bailar Para Contarlo” Sala Compañia midnight

The show of the night (for me) was Juan Ogalla’s triumphant return to the Festival after seven years’ absence. In the meantime he has worked solidly, especially in France, the US and in Canada. With his sister, Pila Ogalla, as artistic director he crafted an impressive body of work that played to his strengths; his powerful, mature male presence, explosive footwork and arguably the most interesting soniquete of this festival. Yes, even better than Guerrero’s. The musicians were wonderful too, Emilio Florido, Miguel Rosendo, Manuel Gago (cante), and Eugenia Iglesias (guitar). ¡Ole Juan!

Saturday 10 March

Manuel Fernandez Montoya ‘El Carpeta’ “A Bailar” Villamarta Theatre 9pm

It was a disappointing debut show at the Villamarta by El Carpeta. Expecting a 20-year-old to carry the weight of the closing show of the Festival was a lot to ask and he came up well short. The credits and the preview article make it clear that the artistic and musical direction was El Carpeta’s responsibility alone. Where to begin. As all good teachers try to I will praise the fact that he accepted the challenge and that he does indeed have very snappy footwork and great, long remates that have developed ever since I first saw him dance live in 2009, dancing por bulerias in Farruquito’s come back show. It is also possible that Farruquito’s being unable to perform left him with a hole he had trouble filling. Certainly I enjoyed his mother, Rosario Montoya “La Farruca”‘s bulerias dancing more than his.

Now to the problems that beset the seven-part show.

Nine musicians sat on stage in a semi-circle for most of the show. Two of them were percussionists which always makes me anxious. One percussionist I can handle, but two is one too many for flamenco, especially when the sound levels are all over the place. The lighting also seemed to be jinxed with levels too low at the beginning in the Seguiriya and spots not hitting the mark or cutting out at the wrong time. There had been flooding in parts of the theatre basements and toilets earlier that day however it had not affected the stage or equipment. Then there was the  extended dischordant piano and song section “Mujer de Maquillaje” by Melchor Borja (with his back to the audience) that went on way too long. If that’s a cry for society to pay attention to the treatment of women I respectfully ask him to let us sing it ourselves.

Also the choice of Africa “La Faraona” to partner El Carpeta in the bulerias was a poor fit and her costume was unflattering. Who advised him on the costuming, including the decision for him to wear glow in the dark shoes for the reprise of the tangos?!

The main choreographic problem El Carpeta has is how to link the various sections of each piece without repetitive marcaje. This exact same problem Farruquito solved in “Baile Moreno” by crafting a story. El Carpeta resorted to marching or skipping across the stage and back with one arm raised to the audience seemingly urging them to applaud him rather in the manner of a boxer when they win a bout. Unfortunately he had not done enough to warrant the applause. Another technical matter he should attend to is that he only ever turns to the right and always the same type of turn. Only the number and velocity of the turns vary.

Despite all that, the family firm are fin de fiesta specialists and, relying as ever on the recency effect, when the show was over and El Carpeta and Farruquito finally stopped talking, they pulled out the big gun for their fin de fiesta, ‘El Moreno’, Farruquito’s cute mini me son.

The two guitarists were the wonderful Roman Vicente whose solo was heartbreaking and David Caro, whose solo seemed unnecessary. The wind instrumentalist was the virtuoso Sergio de Lope. Singers were Ezequial Montoya “Chanito”, Juan Fernandez “El Negro” and Ivan Carpio. Percussionists were Fali de Electronico and Lolo Fernandez.

And that’s a wrap for Festival de Jerez XXII from me! Time for Turk and me to return to the real world.

You can search for videos of edited highlights of each show on vimeo.com . I’ll be back soon with commentary on my dance workshops with Angel Muñoz, Eduardo Guerrero and Leonor Leal.

Cadiz Carnaval: Less “Carne Vale”, More “Manducare cibum, bibe epulare”

21 Feb

Call it what you will; Carnival, Carnaval, or Mardi Gras (literally Fat Tuesday), this annual bacchanalia was first celebrated in Venice in 1162, but by the 1700s had made its way through Europe and across to South Louisiana and New Orleans. Whilst Venetians claim an historical aspect to their celebration, notably the birth of the Republic of Venice, other countries had murkier motivations.

For observant Roman Catholics and many other Western Christians, Shrove Tuesday marks the final blowout day of pancake-eating, dress up fun, frolic and indulging in carnal pleasures. Pleasures of the flesh include, but are not limited to, alcohol, meat (the latin Carne Vale = Carnaval = Carnival), and sex. Ash Wednesday begins 40 days of Lent observances that end with Easter.

Interestingly, the six Sundays are excluded from Lent as Christians believe every Sunday celebrates Jesus Christ overcoming sin and death (by his resurrection) and thus is a celebratory day.

This year (2018) Ash Wednesday fell on February 14 which is also St Valentine’s Day, the commercially sanctioned annual day for celebrating romantic attachments. Awkward much. No problem for Andalusians though. They sacrificed red roses by the hundreds, toasted each other with litres of alcohol and couple selfies crammed Instagram.

I could observe zero difference in Andalusians’ behaviour during the first week of Lent, whether it was in Seville, or in Cadiz, where Carnaval officially started on February 8 and ran to the 18th. City Hall’s very own La Bruja.

In Rio de Janeiro the official 2018 Carnaval dates were similar, February 9 to 17th. Venice has the longest Mardi Gras calendar, starting this year on January 27, but pulling up abruptly February 13th.

The usual explanation for Cadiz celebrating Carnaval, while Jerez and Seville have Feria (the spring equestrian, drinking and dancing fair) is that, as a port city trading heavily with Venice, Cadiz adopted their customs.

Got me thinking.

Here I nail my colours to the mast: I am a vegan atheist. I voice no opinion about Christian beliefs or observances as long as they don’t harm people, other creatures and our shared planet. Big ask I know based on historical precedents.

Live and let live is my motto, but as a frequent visitor to Spain, and more specifically Andalusia for flamenco, I have become sensitised to hypocrisy. This is my fifth trip to Cadiz over ten years or so. I have a great affection for the city.

Seeing Cadiz streets awash this weekend with revellers from midday to 4am I’m left with burning questions. How do these party people then observe Lent? Is it like Muslims who can choose to do extra fasting days at a later date to make up for any missed during Ramadan due to travel, illness or pregnancy?

Are the sombrely dressed, candle-holding, incense-swinging citizens walking in front of and carrying the statue of a purple-robed Jesus, who blocked streets around Cadiz Cathedral last night possibly the self same ones who were dancing a drunken conga outside my apartment at 3am Sunday morning?

Overwhelmingly the driver for Mardi Gras /Carnaval is money. Certainly Cadiz City Council is happy to take the cash and clean up after revellers have finally crashed or gone home.Two Fridas, my prize for the most beautiful.

Sentimental favourites.

Overnight the beer bottles, plastic cups and food wrappers overspilling garbage cans are collected by garbos with trucks. Streets and plazas are pressure hosed down.

Here I give you exhibit A, Plaza San Juan de Dios, shot from my apartment.

In Cadiz the water runs off, with the tons of confetti, streamers, cigarette butts and foam spray, straight through the grates in the road then directly into the storm water system.

The next day the partying and cleaning happens all over again.

Lest you think I’m a party pooper, I support tourism events that drive employment for Andalusia, with the important exception of bullfighting which nothing can justify. The province is still in financial strife, as is much of Spain. I do however believe that more sustainable practices could be introduced by Cadiz City Council. What happened to rubbish separation and recycling? Why must so much water be used for street cleaning? Why the glitter confetti? And what the hell are they doing selling that horrible coloured foam string stuff anyway?!

To give them their due I recognise Council made explicit in their Carnaval messaging that, as in Rio: ‘No means No’.

Other messaging against violence and concerning Carnaval etiquette, reads: ‘In Carnaval if one is attacked all are attacked’, ‘In Carnaval all have the right to move in safety and security’,  ‘But, don’t try it on, flirting is not harassment’, ‘For a free and egalitarian Carnaval respect diversity’, and finally, ‘Neither crowding nor alcohol justify aggression’. Admirable.

Moreover, on the positive side, the entertaining and well rehearsed groups of singers and musicians hauled through the streets by tractors, or strolling as small groups of minstrels, are no doubt a great community adhesive. Months of work must go into the costumes, logistics and rehearsals.

Once the hoopla ended Monday and the bulk of tourists exited the city, winter’s cloudless blue skies, quiet streets and beaches were perfect for cycling and walking.

I sang along loudly and badly to my flamenco recordings while strolling on the sand with only gulls to complain.

I watched a group of novices during their longboard lesson from a surf school at Victoria Beach. The water temperature was 15 degrees celsius and the air 20 degrees celsius.

Cadiz’ famous sunsets did not disappoint. La Quilla cafe-bar is my favourite spot to watch the sun sink slowly in the west accompanied by a generous pour of G+T.

Flamenco classes were thin on the ground. I could find only kids classes and the University of Cadiz student term module. Live flamenco was limited to the tablao La Cava, which Sugika and I went to last time. Not recommended. The season at La Merced ended in November. To add insult to injury Leo Iglesias, the Cadiz singer I first met in 2011 at La Perla had a gig in London and was away at exactly the time I was there. No tientos or tangos lessons this time for me!Cantaora Cadiz estupenda, La Perla de Cadiz.

Instead I signed up for daily yoga classes with Georgie, a young, relocated, English mum of one, at her Escuela Internacional de Yoga. My “Ve invertido” benefited enormously. This week Georgie taught in Spanish so I also had a language lesson for free.

There were quiet evenings for watching back to back episodes of CSI in Spanish, reading “A Gentleman in Moscow” and “Two Years Before the Mast”, and research, specifically about the Cadiz Meridian.

“Que es eso?” I hear you ask.

For over a hundred years, between 1717 and 1850, Spanish sailors used a longitudinal (pole to pole) line running through Cadiz as their prime meridian, that is, zero degrees of longitude. No Greenwich or Paris meridian for them. The Cadiz meridian, as it was drawn on navigational charts, is said to have passed through a point where the Las Cortes statue stands today in Plaza De España, marking the first Spanish legislative body who established the Spanish Constitution.

However, I think it more likely that Plaza de la Hispanidad, 50 metres to the east, which has an unmarked large, modern, metal sculpture in the centre of the roundabout actually marks the meridian, but for the life of me I cannot find confirmation of that. If you know for sure I am keen to hear.

And for those of you wondering what in the world Stuart is up to this week, he is on ski safari in Italy in the Dolomites with his Australian ski buddy, Michael C.

Tomorrow I jump on the train to Jerez. The Flamenco Festival starts in 48 hours!

Favourite cafe: Monkey Bakery Cafe

Favourite Restaurant, Rosario Uno, a brilliant conversion of an historic building.

Cadiz February 2017: https://sharontickle.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/tangos-de-cadiz-in-barrio-santa-maria/

Cadiz 2012


Cadiz 2011


References for the Cadiz Meridian:

Jesus A. Caños, in ‘El Pais’, (9 January 2017), accessed 20/02/2018 https://elpais.com/elpais/2017/01/02/inenglish/1483355711_147804.html

Brian Hooker article (2006) accessed 20/02/2018 http://zeehaen.tripod.com/unpub_2/multitude_meridians.htm

Jose Manuel Oneto blog post (20 August 209), accessed 20/02/2018 https://blogdruta.com/2009/08/20/el-meridiano-de-cadiz/

My Valentine, Flamenco: Triana, Seville

18 Feb

Back in familiar territory, Seville, and specifically Triana, I wrangled jet lag and fought off the hundred or so viruses other travellers had coughed, sneezed and breathed over me in Rio and in transit to Spain.

I’ve lost too many weeks to bad head colds to repeat the mistake of diving in too deep to soon. Sleep, yoga, walking in 20-23 degree celsius sunshine, green tea, home-cooked meals and only one hour of flamenco class in the first week is my winning formula. Fingers crossed – it’s working so far.

The best option to work my way back into dance fitness was morning technique class with Angel Atienza at his Triana studio, A Dos. It bears repeating that Angel is the best technique teacher I know. Every day presents a new challenge with the treat of a bulerias pataita (short sequence of steps) on Fridays.

Three things made this week especially sweet. First, on Wedensday, Valentine’s Day, Angel turned fifty. Hard to believe as he only looks 40 and he has the softest beard I have ever Spanish kissed (left cheek first, then right)! Staff and students made a celebratory party for him after class with lots of gifts, cake and a spirited rendition of “Cumpleaños feliz”.

The second thing was that I nailed my solo demonstration of Angel’s pataita, a llamada contratiempo and a remate, to music. I’d been finding earlier in the week that I picked up and remembered steps more easily and that was certainly the case with this llamada. I can only wonder if the month of rocking and sitting on my backside on Skyelark looking out at the endless Atlantic has shaken something loose in my brain. I just hope it stays loose!

Dancer’s lunch (above).

The third thing was catching up with dear friend Cathy (originally from Adelaide) who continues to study flamenco in Triana. Her quiet commitment and strong spirit always lift me up.

Cathy introduced me to a new, very ‘un-Seville’ Triana cafe, La Baronessa, which has super healthy breakfast options and not a leg of jamon in sight.

Flamenco entertainment options on weeknights were limited. I went to Casa de la Memoria principally to see Antonio Molina ‘El Choni’ dance and had the bonus of Manuela Rios singing in her high sweet voice. It was Valentine’s night and guitarist Manuel de la Luz dedicated the solo composition he wrote and performed to his mother who was upstairs in the audience.

The Thursday night series of flamenco, “Jueves Flamencos”, sponsored by Fundacion Cajasol, started the week I was there, but annoyingly opening night with singer Antonio Reyes and guitarist Pedro ‘El Granaino’ was sold out. I think Fundacion Cajasol (Cajasol is one of the four distressed Spanish banks the Spanish Government merged and which ultimately formed Caixabank in 2012) must keep great swags of tickets for favoured customers and clients.

The consolation for me was hearing a trio of young women – voice, oboe and violin – from the conservatorium busking in calle Sierpes. When they broke into ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’ (the Habanera) from ‘Carmen’ it was heartstoppingly beautiful.

I won’t dwell too much on my own banking fiasco of trying to have my euro Banco Santander credit card replaced swiftly so I can actually use it to withdraw cash from ATMs (Banco Santander cards always seem to fail about six months after being issued). Suffice to say the new card did not appear as promised on Friday despite waiting 1.5 hours for the courier.

New instructions have been issued to send my card on to Jerez as I have two weeks there for the Festival de Flamenco in a week’s time. Even a threat to close the account forthwith brought no action.

All the branch staff have changed since I opened the account in Seville seven years ago and they could clearly care less. The days of being invited across the road for a quick coffee by my account manager are long gone. Now the three women who run the show, Director, Deputy Director and Teller all just shout at me in Spanish at high speed and seem to wish I would simply go away. The only man in the place, speaks in a more moderated manner, but at critical moments he disappears outside for a smoke.

God help the poor bastards who don’t have the resources I do. Banco Santander must make their life a misery.

But enough of Seville, Cadiz Carnaval is calling!

PS Look at the treasure I found in the little library of left behind books in my apartment building. Dana’s memoir of two years on a brig sailing Boston round The Horn to Northern California and back starting in 1834. It’s the author’s reissued copy. Twenty-eight years after it was first published he reclaimed copyright. How perfect for me!

Carnaval 2018, Rio De Janeiro

16 Feb

In seven years of travel blogging no story has been as difficult to write as this experience of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval.

A week after the event I’m still processing and debating with myself what I should and shouldn’t say. I don’t get paid to write, I report to no one except my own conscience, and in conscience I am sorely conflicted.

Laying the groundwork first, this was not my first Rio rodeo. Some years back I enjoyed a glorious weekend sandwiched between work commitments and took in the tourist sights. Scenically Rio rates up there with Sydney and San Francisco as one of the most stunning oceanside cities in the world and Cariocas love to party like it’s 1999.

Coming back for Carnaval was a once in a lifetime treat for one who lives to dance. And isn’t Rio’s Carnaval the biggest and best annual dance party in the world?

The answer to the first part has to be – yes, it is probably the biggest based on body count (maybe North Korea has bigger, I don’t know), but best – no.

Let me break it down.

I won’t concern myself here with Rio’s horrendous crime rate and the current drug gang war that’s raging. Travellers make their own decisions about personal safety and there is much one can do to reduce risks. I’ll stick to the Carnaval program for my commentary.

A detailed, free program in Portuguese was given to me at the first event and, along with the Sambodromo ticket I bought online, I was sent a multipage guide and program for Carnaval. I’d done additional research so was as informed as I could be.


Starting with the Sambodromo opening night and the six Samba Schools that paraded. This is a competition by the lower tier ‘Access’ schools on the first two nights. They’re trying to move up into the next ‘Special’ tier who perform on the third and fourth nights. Access schools are as large (up to 3,000 performers) and as passionate about their school, but may not have the money or talent of the currently more successful schools. Schools can move up and down year on year.

Paradoxically for a country whose tourism seems based on ‘Anything goes!’, a myriad of detailed rules govern the Sambodromo performance and its judging.

Nine judges dressed in white sit in a box in prime seating area eight (this year I counted eight men and one woman – go figure). Each judge is responsible for scoring a specific aspect of the performance, from the song created for the school that year, to the theme, to the quality of the spinning and flag waving couple who lead the school. Points are deducted for going under 65 minutes or over 82 minutes to complete the parade. Rules and regs are as prescriptive and persnickety as ballroom dancing competitions.

Songs are quite simple and short, only eight lines of lyrics sung like a football chant and the best become ear worms after listening to it for an hour. Mostly amplified, live male voices are laid over a strong drum beat. The song is sung by all performers (and by supporters in the crowd) for the entire parade.

The easiest way to describe the composition of each school’s parade, which starts with fireworks at the entrance to the 700 metre concourse, is as massed groups of ‘dancers’ led by an individual or a couple of special dancers, interspersed with gigantic floats, often with mechanically moving parts, carrying more dancers. These dancers usually hold on to poles to stay upright. I use quotation marks on ‘dancers’ because some performers don’t qualify as dancers in my estimation.

They may have shaken a leg or a hip, but there were a lot of unfit people (not all were women), some chewing gum and looking bored, with costumes sliding off, who were an embarrassment. I don’t think they were tourists who pay to learn their role and perform with a school. I think they were no hopers making up numbers.

Choreography was pretty average generally. I probably saw only three outstanding samba dancers (the woman decorated like a blue bird was the best) and two groups that had anything exciting by way of moves. I checked online videos tonight and the quality of the dancing this year wasn’t really in a different league on the other nights.

The schools seem to rely on surreal, fantastical costuming and the mass of numbers to generate colour and movement. Humour, surprise, athleticism, circus skills, staging, props are under utilised.

Echoing current political controversies, this year’s overall winner and the runner-up both had anti-corruption themes. The theme I liked best on my night was the Amazonian theme by GRES Renascer de Jacarepagua Sexta-feira. Overall I enjoyed Sossego School most, as they seemed the most energetic and genuinely committed.

That’s the parade, but what about the spectators?

As is true on the street during Carnaval, people come to Sambodromo dressed up or down as the fancy takes them. Groups sitting together coordinate as angels or devils or whatever floats their boat, or like a group of men opposite me, as Playboy bunnies. You’ll se more tutus than at the Bolshoi. Couples may be pirates or super heroes and there is, of course, lots of cross dressing with Edna Everage sparkly glasses and wigs. Mounds of female flesh are on display, much of it articially pumped up.

Many people start drinking well before the show starts at 10:30pm and continue through the night. Men seem particularly keen to take their shirts off although it wasn’t a hot night.

One of the booths at the event promoted sexual safety for women (and by extension any vulnerable individual). One lot of cardboard fans handed out read, ‘No means No’ in Portuguese. Sexual violence and exploitation of minors are continuing huge problems. Why else would every hotel reception have large signs saying it is against the law to discriminate based on sexual orientation, or to exploit people sexually, especially minors.

Plenty of fast food outlets are located outside the seating areas, but attendees are allowed to take in a couple of snacks and two bottles of water. No glass and no guns! Ambulances on site are kept busy looking after those with alcohol poisoning. The last parade on the night I went finished at 4am.

Crowd management and security is good inside the venue and my seating in a box (an area a couple of tiers back from the edge of the concourse allocated to a maximum of 12 people) had bench seating around the perimeter of the box and was occupied by only nine people. Being the first night the event was not sold out.

I was lucky to share the box with fellow travellers and first time Sambodromers Natalia (Brasilia) and her partner Frederik (Oslo) and Monica (California). As a solo traveller it was lovely to have their company and as Natalia is a talented professional photographer I anticipate enjoying her fabulous photos down the track http://www.nataliacastanho.com/. The others were a family from Argentina plus an older man who spoke not a word, but videoed every single parade exhaustively. Someone kindly said, ‘Maybe he’s videotaping for his wife who couldn’t make it’.


The second component of Carnaval (the third is the paid entry balls and parties), and probably the most important for Cariocas, are the free street parties held in many neighbourhoods throughout greater Rio de Janeiro.

I stayed in Arena Hotel next to Copacabana Fort which is exactly between Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches. The Empolga As 9 Bloc Street Party was scheduled for 11am on the beach avenue just down the road on the morning following my Sambodromo experience. Enough time to catch some shut eye and breakfast beforehand.

When I stepped into the street at 11am the last section of the main wave of people was passing. Street cleaners were fighting a losing battle against trash and groups of tourist police and military police were watching disinterestedly. I caught up with the main body of revellers following a large truck crammed with singers and dancers atop.

Again almost every person was in costume and most were carrying drinks, often carry bags full of alcohol on ice. Overwhelmingly they were Brazilian, not international tourists. A lot were the worse for wear. Drink vendors pushed their wheeled eskies through the crowd calling out their wares. When the truck stopped for a while at the intersection of Avenida Atlantica and Rua Rhaina Elizabeth the crowd condensed. Thousands of bodies were clearly more than the road and pavements could hold. Thousands more spilled onto the beach.

The beach was on my right, but the pavement was crowded and I decided I would exit the parade via a side street. Bad move. A lot of other people, including families, had the same idea and as we got funnelled along and pushed by the press of people it became distinctly uncomfortable. Matters were made worse by a truck illegally parked.

The inevitable happened, a fight broke out between two men and people tried to back away. That made a small space momentarily, however when the fighters were forcibly separated by onlookers people surged forward into the gap. A drink vendor was pushed over and his cool box with its entire contents spilled onto the road with everyone (bar one young woman who tried to help him) continuing to push past, slipping on the ice. Groups were linking hands and pulling each other along.

At that point I became quite concerned people were going to be crushed, including me. Everyone was sweating and pushing. The liberal sprinklings of body glitter got spread around…

Luckily I was strong enough to wedge myself behind the largest, fittest man I could find going at an angle to the main flow and stuck to them until I got back onto the main beachfront road where the crowd had thinned considerably. Two policeman had watched the whole episode and done nothing. It seems shots have to be fired before they act.

Soaked to the skin and tired of the whole scene I headed to an air-conditioned Japanese restaurant for a civilised lunch.

Do I recommend Rio Carnaval? On balance no. Yes, visit Rio for its beauty and vitality. The city is extrovert and social enough at any other time of year.

Sambodromo parades don’t rate for me as a dance spectacle. No amount of razzamatazz can paper over that.

The group pictured above had just completed their sports training session at Copacabana at 8am. I would definitely be that!

Personal highlights of this visit were fiery sunsets over Ipanema and Stand Up Paddleboarding off Copacabana with my mobile phone tucked under my big hat!

The Pantanal, Brazil: Home of Barefoot Cowboys and Tropical Wild Things

9 Feb

I’ve swapped salt water for fresh, jumping into the wet, beating heart of Brazil’s World Heritage Pantanal. This is no metaphor. Squillions of litres of rain water drain from the high plains, down through the savannah of the Cerrado and thence into the veins of the Pantanal, pumping life into this vast tropical wetland, the largest in the world.

Yep, the dark green blob in the image above is the Pantanal.

And see the long-legged Jabiru? That’s my destination.

Why choose Pantanal for my Brazilian wildlife experience? For the jaguar of course! In Bandhavgarh, India, during a tiger expedition – a 60th birthday gift to myself – I met a wildlife specialist tour guide, Luis, who waxed lyrical about the natural beauty of the Pantanal. Few things make my heart sing like seeing big cats roam free. Lions tick! Tigers tick! Now I was on the hunt to see a jaguar and the Pantanal has the highest concentration.

After all my planning and prepping for a Transatlantic sailing trip on Skyelark and the Rio Carnival experience that comes next, I took the easy route by booking an independent Pantanal tour through Peregrine (Intrepid) Travel. That was months ago and the only thing I’d done since was ensure I had anti-malarial medication.

The extent of my knowledge of the detail of this trip was that I would be transported by car 330K from Campo Grande, the closest airport, to a lodge in the Pantanal. All questions would be answered once I got there. Connecting Avianca flights from Joao Pessoa to Brasilia and then on to Campo Grande were unproblematic and the soulless modern hotel I’d booked in Campo Grande compensated with super fast wifi. Nice to catch up with friends and family after being incommunicado for weeks.

21 kinds of cake for breakfast leave me cold, but look, avocado!

Handsome, young, Portuguese-speaking driver, Nilson, collected me fifteen minutes early next morning. There was clearly no need for the lecture I had organised Paolo from reception to deliver to him on the illegality and perils of using a mobile phone whilst driving. Nilson is a professional (he doesn’t even have the car radio on) and his vehicle is an all terrain beast of a four-wheel drive. Water buffalo might well come off worse.

Nilson handed me an A4 sheet in English that explained we would be travelling for four hours with one planned stop for refreshments and that I could request to stop as many times as I liked for photos and such.

Road conditions in Matto Grosso do Sul state are good, much less traffic than in Paraiba. I would even consider self-driving here. We were quickly out of the city and into verdant cattle pastureland and soya fields. A newly asphalted 80k/hr road leads in an almost dead straight line into the Pantanal for 400 kilometres north-west.

The highway pierces Bolivia, which shares the Pantanal (along with Paraguay), and according to Nilson is the main supply route for drugs coming into Brazil. We slow down to drive through two serious looking Federal Police checkpoints.

Main street Campo Grande.

Either side of the road clusters of tiny, huts appear. Flimsy constructions of wood, plastic, palm fronds and whatever other materials the owner-builders can cobble together. These tributes to optimism were mandated by former Socialist President Lula da Silva as part of his poverty alleviation program.

The promised break happened at a spotless roadside restaurant and souvenir shop, Rancho do Pescador. I mention the name because I was deeply impressed with the food and staff. Menus in Portuguese, Spanish and English! My breakfast of fruit and bread had long been digested. Vegan beans, rice, fries and salad were just the ticket.

More palm trees and green vistas, but the topography changes. The plain steps down into the distance and either side of the road imposing red cliffs topped by a fuzz of green shrubs rise in an undulating, narrow ridge line.

Road signs announcing the Pantanal and images of protected animals make an appearance. Every few kilometres radar speed camera towers pop up and drivers slow from 100k plus to 80. My road kill count was one fox and two capybara (the giant rodents that look like longer-legged wombats). Nilson said that by day the animals stand a chance, but night time is carnage with so much trucking passing through.

One section of road is hosting a yellow butterfly exhibition. Clouds of them flutter by.

Soon we start to see live animals ourselves. Small groups of capybara nibble grass on the verges and kites wheel overhead. Where the road veers left to Bonito, we take the right hand exit to Corumba, then turn onto a dirt road for another half hour. We start to see standing water and cross the Miranda River. Colourful painted houseboats for anglers to rent are tied up to both banks.

Nilson slowed and pointed ahead, a fox was crossing the dirt road. He waited and another crossed. He waited longer and said “baby”. Sure enough a tiny fox scampered across and the family disappeared into long grass.

The rutted dirt road became red mud in places and we crossed and recrossed a meandering stream on plank bridges. At this point Nilson mentioned that they’d had an exceptionally wet three months. Then we stopped at a flooded sign for Pousada Xaraes. That looks familiar. A long, whip-thin black snake swims at high speed across the track.

The penny dropped. That’s the name of my lodge. I understood Nilson to say that since the road flooded three months ago they’d had to take guests a different way way in. Off we went again.

Another fifteen minutes and I saw small animals on the road ahead and some buildings. These were piglets and we had arrived in Bridge 24 over the Abobral River, one of the main veins of the Pantanal. I look quizzically at Nilson who points to a dark, stocky man in a big hat standing by an aluminium outboard dinghy. “That is your boat man, he will take you.” We agree to meet again here at 3pm in four days time.

Nilson holding the boat while my driver goes for a pee.

My water taxi driver should be cast in the Brazilian version of Steve Irwin’s show, as a cowboy eco-warrior. He swash buckles up to greet me, machete protruding from a leather pouch tucked into the back of ancient jeans. Thrusting his right hand out to shake I see his middle finger is missing. “Caiman”, he says with a grin. (Yeah, right, crocodile my arse, I think to myself).

“My name is Paulo”, he adds in English, so I introduce myself in English and say I am from Australia. “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, OY OY OY”, he comes back at me quick as a flash. I smile but groan inside. He must have been devastatingly handsome in his youth but the typical Brazilian diet has taken its toll.Paolo on a mission at the pousada.

Paulo loads my bags into the boat and covers then with a plastic sheet, motioning for me to take the seat in front. Apparently we’ll take one and a half hours by water to reach the lodge.

Seconds later we are whizzing down the narrow, flooded waterways at high speed. I jam my straw hat on my head, tighten the chin strap, drop my shoulders, breathe out and lean forward onto my knees. We take blind corners like Moto GP riders. I haven’t had this much fun with someone else at the controls since my chopper flight over the Vic Falls! Birds scatter in all directions.

Every so often something will catch Paolo’s attention and he’ll throttle back and point to the bird, name it in Portuguese and English and, if it’s calling, call back. Amazon Kingfishers in their grey and white pin strip suits with a red cravat are my immediate favourites. So fast on the wing!

We stop to greet piranha fisherman. Not an activity for me!

I am excited to be the first to spot a caiman (freshwater crocodile). It’s lurking close to a cluster of trees, just the eyes and tip of the snout visible.

I start to film it and I swear on my Irish Grandmother’s grave, this is what happens next. If you’ve seen “Crocodile Dundee” you’ll get it. If you haven’t then watch films 1 and 2, they are comedy classics.

More caiman and bird spotting and finally we round a bend and I see the first red-roofed building, then the jetty of Pousada Xaraes (Xaraes is the traditional Pantanal name for a farm and pousada is lodge).

Staff come to greet me and take the bags. Vanessa the office manager introduces herself.

Vanessa is the only staff member (besides Paolo) who understands any English, but most comprehend some Spanish so our communications lurch along okay. I learn that I am the only guest and will be so during my stay. Basically, I have the run of the place and eight staff looking after me. Paolo is my guide for any and all activities I’d like to do. Up to two a day are included.

I ask him what my chances are of seeing a jaguar. “Zero”, is his instant reply. Okaaaay, expectations lowered to zero.

On the way to my room I surprise a family of capybara munching grass outside my patio. They are shy and sit abruptly on their haunches like rats, or sidle away when I approach.

I’ve been given a family suite with a shared, insect screened patio, my hammock ready to go in the corner. I make good use of it.

I agree with Paolo to take a sunset boat trip with some spotlighting on the way back. Lourdes, Paolo’s wife comes too, and we identify masses more birds and several caiman including this six-month-old juvenile frozen with fear. Apparently he can’t move to hunt until night falls or predators, the main one being his father, will eat him.

Paolo calling birds. Woven nest is of a Crested Oropendola.

My greatest thrill comes when I spy my first Toucan with his ridiculous long red beak.  Shy birds, they like to sit together high up in tall trees. By the time that two-hour trip is over I have counted twelve.

When it’s almost dark we turn back for the lodge and, as though a gate has opened, the air fills with clouds of tiny insects. We zoom through them and soon I’m covered and eating them. Paolo had tried to loan me clear wrap around eye protectors, but I explained I wear spectacles so they would not be necessary. Paolo has a scarf over his face (noted for next time) so I resort to pulling my shirt up over my nose and hunkering down. Lourdes has to hold the flashlight so Paolo can see to drive. Conditions are not ideal for spotting wildlife so we agree to call it a day and zip back.

The cook, Claudia, had seemed perplexed to learn she would be feeding a vegan (three meals a day are included), but she produced spaghetti with Italian-style tomato sauce, lightly oiled plain rice, a savoury soya dish, Brazilan-style beans, salad and fruit for desert. I ate until my stomach hurt. I am underweight after the sailing trip. Claudia’s food is exactly what I need. I find out later that what she cooks for me everyone has to eat. She jokes that they are going to lose weight on a plant diet which she is pretty stoked about.

A noticeboard in the dining room gave the background to the property, originally an additional income stream for a 4,400 hectare cattle ranch. Ecotourism is encouraged in the Pantanal and every small contribution helps. Commerce and conservation have co-existed here since the area was first settled by non-Indigenous Brazilians and the Brazilian Government has no plan to reverse that approach.

Breakfast at 6:30am is coffee, fruit and two fresh, unsweetened fruit juices and home made bread which I eat with olive oil and salt. Maria shows me a photo on her phone of her daughter, Daniella, two years old next month. Maria is 19 but looks 16. The child lives with Maria’s mother far away. Maria’s husband, Jonathon, cares for horses on the next door property. “I get sad”, she says, “But I have to work”. A tear escapes down her cheek.

By 7:30am I’m back on the water with Paolo and Moshy, the cook’s son who is on pre-Carnaval  holiday back with his Mum (seems there is a pattern of parents staying at their place of work and the kids in the city). This time we only dinghy ten minutes upstream to tie up to a dilapidated boardwalk where we proceed on foot, a combination of walking and wading where the path, such as it is, is mostly inundated. Paolo and Moshy go barefoot but I am well shod, I have stretchy boat shoes. My tetanus shot is up to date, but I don’t want to invite drama.

Paolo employs his machete frequently. The high pitched cutting sound, “Ching”, is like an effect from a kung fu movie. That blade is wicked sharp!

Paolo doing his best Paul Hogan, ‘That’s not a knife. THIS is a knife’.

We ease ourselves through wire fences (the Pantanal is 99 per cent privately owned) and at times the water reaches my waist. It’s an odd sensation stepping on the silty, muddy bottom of the stream as each footstep compresses trapped gas that bubbles up tickling my legs.

Lourdes refused this trip as she is scared of caiman, snakes, fish, and it seems, any other animal that moves. The only beasts that disturb me are on dry land – insects. Big black ants like to bite my feet and ankles and mosquitoes are dense in places. I have plastered myself in insect repellant but they seem to love it.

I develop a dance routine that goes like this: step one foot forward, raise the other leg and swipe the ants off my foot. Repeat on the other side. Two regular steps then bat the mozzies away from my face and neck. It’s actually better in the water. If Paolo starts to slip in the mud he reaches back for my hand at shoulder height elegantly, as if leading me onto a ballroom floor to dance a minuet. I’m not sure who is assisting who.

Little wildlife is willing to be spotted this morning. Three mamma howler monkeys perched high up in three different palm trees are mainly discernible from the shaking of the branches. Paolo did find a Blue Fronted Parrot feather though. It’s my new book mark.

The real threat is from two hives of African Bees. Those can kill you! We hear the buzzing trees from a distance and give them a wide berth. A large tapir has walked this path recently. It’s footprint is nearly as big as my shoe.

Coming back across one loop of the stream I see a caiman off to the side. Moshy isn’t thrilled about it, but it’s the only way to go.

Paolo stopped the boat at the horse ranch on the way back to introduce me to Jonathon, and Moshy showed me around. Divorced just one year, Sebastiana lives in a two-roomed cottage on the property with three of her four kids, four dogs, and more frisky piglets than I could count. She invited me to sit and offered me coffee from her thermos in a small glass. It’s fragrant, sweet and strong. This gave me an excuse to politely refuse to share the metal mate straw Jonathon, Maria’s husband, was drinking with Paolo. They drink it Paraguayan style, continuously adding chilled water to a mass of finely chopped mate leaves in a cup. And like cowboys the world over they love their country music.

A hen nested on an old saddle in the tack shed.

Eager to try all modes of Pantanal transport I canoed this afternoon. Paolo and Moshy followed me in the outboard. I had hoped to glide downstream silently with the current, but engine noise and Moshy’s constant chatter put paid to that. Still, I saw plenty of birdlife.

Actually I don’t need to go far to see animals. Iguanas frequently walk across the lawn and if I sit quietly by the water masses of birds come close by to search for insects and grubs. I watched a capybara family swim across to a small island.

Late afternoons are perfect for yoga and flamenco drill practice in the pool cabana. Cooling off with some lazy breaststroke laps two Red and Green Macaws zoom in formation straight over my head and I laugh out loud.

Paolo asks if I am up for a 4-5 hour horse ride to another property. There’s just one catch. Because the roads are flooded the horses will be mostly walking in water, and much more than usual. Paolo assures me these semi-retired cattle horses are fit for the exercise. He never asks me if I can ride, just assumes I will say if I can’t or don’t want to do it. This is an opportunity to see another side to the Pantanal, one most outsiders don’t see. “Okay, I say, let’s do it.

The horses check me out and I check out the saddles.

Dining in solitary splendour, chickpea stew, potatoes and corn.

By 7:35am Paolo (on Bella Vista), Moshy (on Typhoon) and I (riding Ourso/Bear) are in the saddle and walking the only dry bit of land, a whole 50 metres, that we will ride in the next four hours.

Paolo and Moshy are barefoot. I have the closest approximation of riding gear I can cobble together, including shoes and a bicycle helmet I picked up from the office. No legal waiver to sign, I am expected to take care of myself like a grown up. Novel.

When we head into deeper water along what was once a dirt road, I try to keep my shoes dry however I realise pretty quickly that’s a wasted effort.

Ourso is steadily wading through the water following Bella Vista and when it starts lapping my knees (up to the base of his tail) he seems to like it. Most of the time the water is about a metre deep with masses of river grasses and lily pads and small fish. Only once does he startle, a black fish the size of my hand has darted between his front legs.

About two hours in a house and outbuildings become visible in the distance. As if on cue three cowboys enter the frame riding in from the left. They’re barefoot too, wearing tshirts and board shorts. Paolo greets them and asks me if I want to stop at the gauchos’ place. “Hell, yes!” A chance to stretch my legs and see more gauchos up close and personal.

I am formally introduced to Anderson, Luis and Hugo. All in their twenties, they are slim, fit and joke a lot. Paolo is talking about nick names and how people here often have native birds as their nick names. Paolo’s is “Boogly” which means Indian (he was born on a cattle ranch in the Pantanal and there is some Indian in his ancestry, but it’s complicated). Paolo calls Moshy “Calvin Klein” because of the smart shirt he is wearing.

Moshy decides to model Paolo’s felt gaucho hat that cost 300 real. He wears it well.

Luis is a dead ringer for a young Marlon Brando. They smoke thin roll your own cigarettes and share water from a large orange, plastic beaker.

Their set up is tidier than Jonathon’s and their tack more impressive, but then their role is different. Because of the unusually high level of summer water this year (the highest since the 2011 flood, eerily the same summer our Brisbane riverside home was inundated) they have to go out at 3am with headlights on the horses carrying feed to supplement the cattle’s grass diet. They had just finished. Sometimes they can leave early and be out all day.

Luis is married and his wife stays with him but the other two are unmarried. They all work six weeks then have a week off. I ask if, given the problems with flooding in recent years, the ranchers are rethinking cattle farming. “No”, comes back the answer emphatically.

Paolo checks out the gaucho’s saddles as we depart and compliments Henderson on the fine leather plaiting he has done. It is similar to rope detail you would find on a ship, fine, intricate work. Paolo is handy with a knot too. I tied my Mother’s tiger eye pendant (wards off misfortune on the water) with a dodgy Chinese slip knot. In one minute Paolo has refashioned perfect double, floating slip knots.

We take a wide loop back through the drowned landscape. Lily pods look ready to burst into flower. Cattle we pass are mostly white Brahmin steers, their hip bones jutting out painfully.

Past the rear side of Jonathon and Sebastiana’s place Paolo points out mom and pop Hyacinth Macaw guarding their offspring in a nest in a dead tree in the horse corral.

When we reach a large field with only a shallow covering of water I sense a canter coming on and ask Paolo to wait for me to get the video function ready to film him. He does and I count him in, “3, 2, 1, go!’

Grinning widely Paolo takes off. Ourso decides that’s his cue to canter too! This is my epic fail at gaucho cinematography.

How I didn’t drop my phone and/or fall off I don’t know but happily we all ended up laughing, Moshy the hardest. I couldn’t ask Paolo to repeat the exercise, but I can attest to his formidable riding skills.

Back at our ranch I asked Paolo why the stirrup straps have a large metal ring that digs into the middle of your shin. “No, you are doing it wrong. Look, when you ride barefoot you hook your toes like this and straighten your legs!”  Oh well, more bruises to add to my fine collection! Barefoot riding gaucho style is a lesson for another day.

I’m ready to call it a day but Paolo offers a “Slide Show” that night. It’s a well constructed thirty-minute Powerpoint presentation about the property and the Pantanal. I have the impression that some years ago the Portuguese owners stopped injecting cash into the pousada. It is starting to degrade in places, a common problem of maintenance in the tropics.

Next morning is my last chance to spot the elusive jaguar. I am waiting for Paolo at the jetty at 5:30am and we set off with a powerful torch heading upriver. Insects are bad but not like at dusk.

Paolo scans the banks and across the stream constantly looking for eye gleam. Nothing. But I am happy just to be out on the river. I recognise a bank where Paolo last saw a jaguar three months ago (he shared his photo). Empty.

From a black, starry sky with a half moon the day opens with an orange and pink spectacle of fluffy clouds.

On the return we see a solitary howler monkey high in a tree, too well camouflaged to photograph. The Amazon Kingfishers are out in full force. This must be peak fishing time for them.

Vultures really love this dead tree.

Breakfast is waiting on my return, and an hour later we are back on the water. We’re heading downstream this time. Paolo is nothing if not diligent.

A large solo Capybara sits half submerged in the water munching contentedly.

We pass the gauchos’ from yesterday and all three are outside the cabin, sweeping or sitting. We shout greetings and continue.

Highlight of this excursion are the twin Rufescent Tiger Heron chicks sitting in their nest in a tree curved over the water. They crane their necks for mum who is high in a tree on the opposite bank. She isn’t exhibiting any concern even though we approach closely.

A close second is the large caiman lying on a bank with mouth wide open to the sun. Paolo explained that sunshine is a natural remedy for parasites that infest the gums of crocs. UV treatment!

Third is the large cormorant that dives like a stone from a tree in front of the boat and stays under for ages.

But my parting gift from Xaraes is delivered by Maria on our return. She has spotted a large Anaconda crossing the paddock. Everyone is excited to see this gorgeous specimen (not so much the Cobra that was sighted on the property last night).

The snake is unperturbed by our presence and takes his/her time passing through.

When I tally my list with Paolo’s help I’m thrilled to see how many Pantanal natives I’ve identified. Of course the jaguar is missing, but Paolo assures me we will see one when I come back in the dry season!

In the meantime here is the first jaguar I could find.

My heartiest thanks to the marvellously kind staff of Xaraes Lodge:

Office Manager, Vanessa

Restaurant staff, Maria

Chambermaids, Eloise and Reina

Cook, Claudia

Gardener, Jose

Driver and Engineer, Elcio

(Maria had disappeared when we took this photo.)

And saving the best to last – my deepest gratitude to a peerless Guide, Paolo and to his side kick, ‘Calvin Klein. Moshy wielded my camera for me when asked so I didn’t have to resort to selfies.

To the rest of the people of the Pantanal who made this such an fascinating and enjoyable experience for me, “Obrigada!”

PS For the return boat trip we are joined by Paolo’s excitable, older cousin, wife Lourdes, three other unidentified women and Jose, the gardener, plus masses of bags, and last but not least a kid, i.e. a baby goat! I stop the obvious question before it escapes from my mouth. I don’t want to know the answer.

The benefit of this load is that we can fit under the bridge Paolo and I had to detour around this morning.

Punting Pantanal style!

Essential tools of a gaucho’s trade.


Amazon Kingfisher

Tucu Toucan

Green Kingfisher

Chaco Chachalaca


Hyacinth Macaw (Arara Azul)

Blue Fronted Parrot (feather)

Buff Necked Ibis

Black Faced Parakeet

Red and Green Macaw


Guiya Cuckoo

Great Potoo (Owl)








False Water Snake


Armadillo (two crossing the dirt road on our way out)

Photography Note:I upgraded to an iphone 8S in January 2018 and use a Lifeproof case to protect it from the worst I can throw at it. So far so good.

Nilson works for Transpantanal transport company. Look them up if you like to stay alive!


Life’s Beachy in Brazil: João Pessoa, Paraiba

8 Feb

João Pessoa hits with full sensory overload after three weeks on the Atlantic. At sea you smell only what is in the boat; people, cooking smells, or things that land on deck, i.e. fishy stuff.

You also look out on a seemingly endless sea to the far horizon, and up to clouds, sun, stars, moon, glimpses of a rare passing ship, jet streams, birds, nothing more.

Sounds at sea; groans, creaks, rattles, flapping of sails and rigging on the boat and the slapping of waves against hull become background noise. The wind generator hums quietly above the bimini, and a petrol generator complements the wave, wind and solar for a couple of hours a day.

On night watch nearly three hours drifts by without a word spoken or heard. Thoughts quieten, then still, a calmness creeps into your core.

That calm stayed all of ten minutes once I was out of the cocoon of Skyelark and the Cabedelo marina. Traffic, noisy people, pollution, it was an assault. I was relieved to reach my hotel room and shut the door on the world for the night.

The most easterly point in Brazil, João Pessoa city, was renamed for its state reformist governor João Pessoa Cavalcanti de Albuquerque assassinated in 1930. His name means John of the People.

Proudly proclaimed the world’s second greenest city after Paris, and the third oldest city in Brazil, João Pessoa’s beachfront high rise apartments and resort hotels; first sighted from sea, create an almost unbroken line for several kilometres.

But this is egalitarian, democratic Brazil. The palm-fringed beach is worshipped by rich and poor alike and no buildings are allowed on the sandy side of the road apart from cafe-bar kiosks. Separate jogging and cycle paths run the length of the strip, but just in case citizens and visitors need more space to walk/jog/cycle/skate/skateboard, every morning from 5-8am the beachfront four-lane road is closed to vehicle traffic. Yes, that’s right, every day. Take note Australia.

I see grandmas walking their pampered pooches, silver stallions in dick togs, tshirt and trainers jogging, serious lycra-clad cyclists, and a middle-aged woman wearing full elbow, wrist and knee protection out for what is clearly her first or second (I hope) attempt to inline skate. There is no glide, just step, step, step….Even with my odd sailor-style rollicking gait I walk faster than she skates.

I feel I’ve earned some self-indulgence after the passage. My ambitions are modest, to sleep through the night, eat well, toast myself with a caiparinha, have a massage and, most importantly, get in touch with family and friends.

But first I have a urgent and compelling desire to buy a pair of canary yellow bermuda shorts and tshirt. Everyone else looks so colourful and vibrant. Besides, I have no clean clothes and the laundry deal I negotiated will take 24 hours. Thus we persuade ourselves to consume.

Jumping a cab to Mangobeira, the biggest mall this side of the city, I’m immediately back in shoppingland. Brands are different, but it would be recognisable the world over as a typical aspirational destination. I make the mistake of asking directions of a security guard. The words are out of my mouth before I notice he is not alone, there are three guards, two with semi-automatic weapons. “Ask someone else”, he grunts and refuses to look at me. I back away.

The yellow bermudas are easy to find, once I get past 27 different styles of denim cut-off shorts.

Eventually I locate the beauty salon I’d identified online. They’d changed their trading name, but not yet their website. What follows is a fiasco. A cautionary tale in failed communications.

My massage could be taken in my hotel room so I booked one for tomorrow’s treat. Instead today I would have a facial and that most important beauty treatment of the aging thin-eyebrowed woman, a brow tint to pick up all the fine, sun bleached hairs and give me back some brow definition. Do not over pluck your brows girls and boys, they may not grow back!

Anastasia seems to understand, but she’s a bit distracted by being late to work and whoever is calling her on her mobile. I have mimed, I have used the correct words in Spanish, I have indicated on the salon menu, what could possibly go wrong?

In a bright back room with no sink (dead giveaway), but lots of waxing paraphenalia (this is Brazil after all) she snaps on blue gloves and attacks my face with scrub and cotton balls, more cleanser, then a mask which I gather is a coffee mask (below), followed by a glycolic peel. All this with bright lights on, constant interruptions for phone conversations and a manner that can only be described as brusque.

I am left for 15 minutes to marinate then she returns, removes the mask with damp cotton balls (from a spray water bottle) and begins the assault on my eyebrows. Twice she tries to remove brow hairs. No, I repeat, no plucking, just the tinting por favor! She looks disappointed.

The brow tint goes on my left brow and I decide to sit up and check her handiwork in the mirror before proceeding. Bloody hell, she’s given me black Chinese Opera eyebrows. For a horrible couple of seconds I think it’s permanent then realise it can’t be. That was close!

When I tell her I don’t want what she has done she protests, “But that is what you asked for!” Um, no, it’s not. She agrees to remove it and we call it a day. She even deducts the brow tint charge from the bill. I don’t feel obliged to tip.

I have more luck renting a bicycle from Rent A Bike (And be Happy) a pop up bicycle rental on the main beachfront road. The owner-manager has no English, beyond hello, thank you and goodbye, but his attitude is customer-oriented and his service impeccable. I spend a happy hour dodging vendors, kids, dogs, other cyclists and joggers on the beachfront path then celebrate with beer and fries.

The ultimate in cool, two smartly uniformed cops on Segways with super fat tyres cruise in tandem up and down the strip.

I had already been cautioned that morning when walking the beach path. A concerned, older gentleman stopped his bicycle ride to tell me not to have my mobile phone in my hand (I was taking photos at the time).

I’d hoped that now, on a bicycle, wearing the national colour, I would fly under the opportunist thief’s radar, but probably not. Just being a solo traveller makes me stand out. Brazilians don’t holiday alone.

I have had to review my risk management strategies. Crime of all kinds has ramped up in Brazil, especially in Rio de Janeiro, my destination for Carnaval. I checked news websites, checked local transport options, registered on smarttraveller.gov.au for alerts, got a local sim card for my spare mobile and loaded emergency contacts, then made sure family knew where I would be and when and also when I would next check in with them. I told hotel staff where I was going and when I expected to return.

This is not over the top. Military Police moved into Rio last August at the request of the city as police were losing control. The day I arrived in João Pessoa Military Police were in the middle of a gun fight in a slum area of Rio which had spilled over onto a main arterial highway of the city. It shut the highway for the day and locked down a chunk of the city as gangsters set fire to buses and cars to form barricades. Innocent bystanders were shot. Three gang members taken out. Roads have twice since been closed and just two days ago a three-year-old girl and  13-year-old boy were killed by gunfire – collateral damage. 126 military police were killed in a six-month period.

All kinds of crimes against persons have increased too and tourists during Carnaval are sitting ducks.

This won’t stop me trying to do what I came to experience, I shall just be as circumspect as I can and present a small, and hopefully uninteresting target.

I’m reunited with my laundry, now as clean as the day I bought the items, and am fully recharged for the next part of the sojourn, four days in central Brazil in the Pantanal, wildlife spotting. I still can’t sleep more than five hours at night. No matter, pre-dawn I read, write and muse on my experiences. Sleep will return eventually.

How’s this for a wash and fold?!

The bruises too will fade. I got a shock the first time I saw myself in a full length mirror. My left butt cheek is black and blue. I felt obliged to explain to the masseur, Lejer, that the bruises were self-inflicted. Adventure comes at a cost. I’ll happily pay the toll. On the plus side all that boat rocking and rolling loosened up my hips and low back and toned my core muscles more than pilates ever could. I am stronger and more flexible despite not having practiced yoga as I would normally. An unexpected reward.

Now I’m packed and ready to go bush!