Sunday, July 26, 2015

Zumba Instructor Training

I've thought about, said I'd do it and now I've done it. I'm a qualified Zumba instructor! 

The basics 1 course is available to anyone, even if you've never done a Zumba class before. Training was held in Kingston and run by Caroline Parsons, who taught at the Zumba masterclass Believe 2015.

Training started at 9am and finished at 5.30pm. I arrived in a sports hall with forty-odd females and two male trainees. 

It was a long day and we were taught the basics-no previous experience necessary. There was a emphasis on joining ZIN, the Zumba Instructor Network.

We started with a masterclass. Thank goodness for an extra change of sportswear, towel, wet wipes and deodorant! 

We were taught about the business requirements of teaching and learnt to warm up and two basic steps, the merengue and salsa before a half hour lunch break.

I chatted to a girl who had flown from Lithuania the day before to visit London and do the training. There was a diverse group of people but most looked like they were in their early 20s. (Or maybe that's just me feeling old.)

After lunch we ran through cueing, my biggest challenge. We did an exercise in pairs where we had to cue each other verbally and visually. 

We learnt the third step, the Cumbia and how to map a song. We split in four groups, did some choreography and performed in front of each other. 

Finally we learnt the fourth step, Raggaeton and how to cool down. When the training was over, I was knackered!

Caroline is passionate about Zumba and loves training people. When I asked for a selfie for this blog, she immediately picked up this DVD. Mustn't be the first time she's been asked for a photo on training day!

I signed up to ZIN. Here's what you get when you sign up on training day. A dog tag necklace, trainer starter DVDs and memory card with Zumba themed wallpapers. 

6 Foods To Eat In Buffalo

1) Tim Hortons - is a cafe restaurant chain from Canada. It's hard to go past a store without buying something and in Buffalo, there's a lot of them. My favourite doughnuts are these bite sized ones called Tim Bits. Sadly Tim Hortons is not as available anywhere else in the States. Even the  stores in NYC don't compare to the ones in Buffalo.

2) Pancakes - an American diner favourite. I ate this stack of thick fluffy pancakes with bacon and syrup. The waitress was so impressed, she high-fived me at the table. That's good diner service.

3) Irish food. Buffalo has an Irish heritage and there are many Irish pubs. My friend swears Guinness tastes better in NY vs UK. I think it's true because Buffalo is where I converted to Guinness from lager. We had a dinner at The Blackthorn Restaurant and Pub. I had the Triple D Platter with a mini beef on weck, mini crab cake, Irish beer soup and tater tots. All for $10.50. Beef on weck is a Buffalonian roast beef and horseradish sandwich. The tater tots are huge and the soup was so thick it resembled dip.

4) Buffalo wings, or just "wings" as they call them are served in most restaurants. They are fiery and an obligatory starter. I get the feeling that Buffalonians have a taste for chilli. These were from The Blackthorn and they're the biggest I've ever seen. 

5) Maple bacon - Canada is a bridge away from Buffalo and one of it's best imports, after Tim Hortons, is maple bacon. We had it for breakfast and the house smelt like maple syrup. My friend's mom couldn't believe I took a photo of it sizzling in the pan. They also have freakishly large white eggs but I'll spare you that photo.

6) Polish food. Buffalo has one of the largest Polish populations in the country. We had dinner at Potts Deli and Grille and I couldn't wait to try their pierogis which are Polish dumplings. This is their Polish platter: golomki (stuffed cabbage roll with beef), zrazy (rolled beef with vegetables), smoked kielbasa (sausage), sweet & sour cabbage and pierogi. It was home cooked comfort food. Perfect for the cold weather.

Buffalonian Life In The Deep Snow

Earlier this year I went Buffalo, USA. I visited with my friend Emily who grew up there. People questioned why I wanted to go at the coldest time. Last November the city was hit with 7 feet of snow and roads were closed for days. 

I can't fathom what 7 feet of snow looks like let alone feels like. I grew up watching a lot of American TV in a hot country so winter in Buffalo intrigued me. 

Prepared for below-freezing temperatures, I carried in my backpack (yes, I travel light and cheap) my warmest clothes. Emily said that Uggs were not going to cut it in Buffalo and I need snow boots. My boots were Uggs but they were made of leather and had heavy duty tread soles. I wore them anyway and they were serviceable although covered in road salt after NYC.

I flew to NYC and took a flight the next morning to Buffalo. I watched the skyline go from NYC...

To Buffalo. I had arrived to an extreme winter. Emily's mom said the air makes her face hurt and she was right, it was that cold!

I was picked up at the airport and we went to Tim Hortons. It's a tradition from now on that when I land in a place with Tim Hortons, it has to be my first stop. Emily said they put crack in everything. I'd say that's probably not true. But I've found their hot chocolates, coffee (ask for a "double-double", double sugar and cream) and doughnuts are euphoria inducing. 

From inside I watched many cars, nay-trucks pass the drive through. An odd man in the restaurant gave us each a piece of gum as if it was the right thing to do. I'm sure he meant well so we thanked him and binned the gum after he left.

Emily and her Mom knew I liked thrifting so they took me to a huge store where I found a bunch of retro memorabilia.

They say everything is big in the US. The cars are big, the roads are big-you get the picture. In Buffalo everything is spaced far away so life is difficult without your own car. Shops are usually in centers with massive car parks. It is easier to drive across the road to get another store than to walk. 

The roadside advertisements are giant, 8/10 times they are for collision or medical malpractice lawsuits. Never in another country have I seen such blatant readiness to sue.

Even the chunks of ice that fall from rooftops (eeek!) are big.

The morning ritual in Buffalo. Start the car, turn on the heat, go back in the house and after 10 minutes, scrape ice off the windows. It's not light work-this scraper broke.

If you want to party in town, you need transport like this because "in town" is a 20 minute drive down the motorway through a blizzard. We went on a pub crawl and this was our limo for six hours. It was practical for a large group because cabs are expensive and not easy to get in Buffalo. The driver said this was his job for the past 20-odd years.

There was a frozen stream and nature reserve behind the house we stayed in. It was incredible to see real wildlife in suburbia. Everyday we came home to deer hanging out in the backyard. In the mornings wild turkeys compete for food left outside for squirrels.

I was at first alarmed to hear the sound of bulldozers approaching the house but they were actually snowploughs clearing the streets. School starts and finishes early to coincide with the clear roads. Sometimes schools are closed due to heavy snow.

The day before we had to go NYC, there was a blizzard warning. The NYC transit system was shut down and people even stockpiled on food and water. Buffalonians see warnings like this many times over and Emily said the shut down is likely to be cancelled. It was, but we were still lucky to be taking the train because flights were delayed.

The train was like how I imagined it to be from the movies. It was 5.30am and we waited in the freezing darkness from a ground level platform. A train pulls up with a blazing headlight and mist of unsettled snow. 

A train conductor carries our suitcases onboard for us because we have to climb up steps to get on. After settling into my seat, I put on my sleeping mask and earplugs and try to catch up on sleep.

That was until the conductor starts making loud and rolling announcements like he was at a motor derby: "The next stop will be Amsterdam, ladies and gentlemen! That's Amsterdam, AMSTER-SLAMMED!"

The sun rose over icy Eerie Canal.

This is what frozen New York State looks like.

One of the many different bridges along the Hudson River.

An other-worldly shot of a boathouse. There's a container ship in the distance. 

We arrived in NYC Penn Station at 1pm, ready to take on the next part of our US holiday.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

JP Morgan Challenge and Zumba Masterclass

I had two calorie busting events in a week. First it was the JPM Challenge which I sign up to every year. There was a tube strike that day and many people dropped out because of it.

It was a hard slog. I felt like I was slowly dying after 10 mins and let myself take three brisk walking breaks. I was parched, heavily panting and ready to pass out. My hay fever worsened when it got dusty. I bargained with myself every 10 seconds not to give in to a break and the race will be over sooner.

My body was in a frenetic mode after exerting max power for 5.6 kms. My throat was bone dry and I even retched a little after I crossed the finish line.

I hadn't trained specifically for the race but it seems that Zumba and Bokwa has had a positive influence on my time of 28m 25s. I was the fastest female runner in my company and it was my best time ever.

On Saturday I went to my usual Zumba and Bokwa classes, rested at home and went out to Believe which is a 2 hour Zumba masterclass. I was excited to see Beto Perez, the creator of Zumba. I also got to see the Zumba instructor trainer for my certification in a few weeks!

I went with a Zumba friend. The doors opened at 6pm and the class didn't start until 8pm. There was no entertainment while we waited.

We knew there was going to be competition for the front but was like a mosh pit and annoying trying to dance with limited space. I stepped on many toes that night and probably came close to whacking someone in the face. 

The presenters were inspirational and I sweated my butt off. Beto came on at the end and performed four songs. He was brilliant and Fanny Madarasz was on stage too. I've been watching these two on youtube and it was so amazing to see them in real life. 

Would I go again? Probably not. The masterclass is mind blowing but having space to dance is a joke  and access to your water bottle (if not always in your hand) is held at ransom for your spot. The after-party was like a high school disco. 

I dashed off as quickly as possible to shower and wind down at home! 

The Four Lake Hike from Mount Titlis to Melchsee Frutt

My Swiss friend runs a hiking club and my visit to Switzerland coinceded with their four lake hike. We caught the 8.10am train to Engelberg and a gondola up Mount Titlis. We got out at the second stop, Trübsee, the first mountain lake at 1796m.

The weather was perfect. This was our starting point after we got off the gondola. It so peaceful and pristine, you could live forever here. 

Trübsee, only the beginning of the natural wonders to come. 

We embarked on a steep climb to the next gondola station, Jochpass 2207m. I was sweating like a pig. Others in the group were like mountain goats on steroids. I don't know how they marched up so quickly. 

We were rewarded with stunning views of the wildflowers, snow capped mountains and Trübsee. 

The higher we went, the more snow on the ground. Yep, there's snow in the middle of summer. I was so hot I wanted to smoosh my face into it. 

We were close to a glacier and I couldn't stop thinking about how unbelievable this paradise was. I feasted on the views with my eyes and the clean air with my lungs. 

At this point it was glaringly obvious that I was a tourist. No one pulled out their phones to take pictures and it seemed that taking a selfie was odd. But not for me. The moment was like a dream but the Swiss have these mountains for life. Souvenir pictures aren't going to take themselves.

EPIC!!! I could touch the clouds. There was an ascent completely covered in snow and my old trainers weren't cutting it. I had climb up on all fours.

After passing Jochpass, we saw Engstlensee, the second lake.

More postcard-perfect views.


More sights of the hike. We stopped at Tannesee, the third lake for lunch.
swam in Tannesee a year ago. The lake was the perfect backdrop for lunch. Families gathered around and we all shared the wood fired BBQ. Fabienne packed us a healthy lunch and a bratwurst for each of us. 

There are water wells, sourced from the mountain springs. I would take the water by the kilo litre to London if I could. It's the purest water that flows freely for anyone to drink. So clean and cold, it felt like I was drinking from the fountain of youth.

We carried on to Melchsee. I was here last year and it was the last lake on this hike. This time instead of walking to the base of Stockalp we went down in scooters.

It was scary and exhilarating. My hands clamped onto the brakes as we zipped down the windy road. I got off the scooter to pass the cattle grates but everyone else flew over them. We had to hurry to make our connecting bus to Sarnen for our train to Luzern. 

The wind was in my hair and we raced past cows chewing cud on the side of the road. I was on a high!

 We made our bus and I nearly fell asleep on the way to Sarnen. It was hotter below the mountains and there was a parade in the town. People were dressed in traditional Swiss clothes, carrying giant cowbells and playing music. They were dedicated in this sweltering heat.

When we got back to Luzern, I took a much needed shower and relaxed for a teeny while before I took the train to Zurich airport. 

From Luzern to Zurich, Meeting Thien Lan and Beverly

In Switzerland public transport is expensive but superior. Their transport system is second to none in Europe, possibly the world. The buses and trains are clean and fine tuned like their watches. It's once in blue moon if anything is delayed or cancelled.

Unless you have a half-fare card or you're under 26, the only reprieve from the high train fares are Supersaver tickets. I always check if they are available online but beware, if you miss the train booked, you won't be able to transfer to another or receive a refund. On the plus side, they can be as cheap as half the normal fare.

I flew to Zurich to visit two girlfriends from Sydney. Thien Lan lives in a village not far from the city. Beverly is on holidays from Singapore. I haven't seen them in years so I was excited to have our paths cross again.

From Zurich I took a train to Stettbach and a bus to Gockhausen Dorf. The train ride was only 9 minutes and the bus departed within a few minutes from Stettbach station. It was perfect timing. I arrived to foresty village and there were not many people around.

Meeting Thien Lan and Beverly again (and their families) was wonderful. The last time we were together, I was about to move to London. That was eight years ago and so much has changed since.

We played with the kids in the backyard, running around shooting water pistols. There was also a play area which Bev and I took advantage of!

The husbands took the kids inside and we got to have a girly catch up with wine. 

I couldn't believe the afternoon flew by so quickly. Soon it was dinnertime. They set up the crepe maker and we got to make our own savory crepes. 

Unfortunately I had to leave at 8.17pm to make my Supersaver train back to Luzern. I would have liked to stay longer. This is me on the bus leaving the village-see how happy I am to have met some dear friends in this pretty place? 

Here's what the trains look like in Switzerland. They are grand machines. Meticulously on time and efficient. Every moving part simply glides because they're so well designed. And look how shiny they are!

In the carriages they give you updates on connecting buses and trains and tell you where to catch them from. This made the day's travels stress-free.

I took the train back to Luzern with my friend who I was staying with. The Luzern festival was on and I've never seen the city so crowded. We went to a rooftop to watch the fireworks. It was the perfect way to end the day.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

2015 LTA Wimbledon Ball

My first black tie event in years was at the Wimbledon Ball. It was held at the Hurlingham Club, a magnificent venue by the river Thames. I rented a dress and got my hair done BIG and TALL. For me, this was a once in a lifetime event!

The weather was balmy. We admired the club grounds as we were driven in. I couldn't believe this spacious sanctuary was in the center of London. On arrival we were personally greeted by the LTA president, Cathie Sabin. 

We had our photos taken and we had sparkling wine on reception. Everyone was impeccably dressed and preened for the occasion. I noticed that no one was taking selfies. Perhaps it's seen as rude, un-British and narcissistic but I think after all the preparation and expense, it would a shame not to take photos for memories sake.

So my friend and I took a walk around the lawns and snapped a few pictures before dinner. 

Our shameless selfie. Just can't help ourselves!

The dining was excellent. Starter: prawn and crayfish tian with cucumber, lemon jelly and basil. 
Main: Tamarind glazed supreme of Barbary duck, confit leg rosti with Sichuan pineapple, honeyed Chantenay carrots, creamed leeks and caramelised sweetened chicory. 
Dessert: flourless chocolate cake with passionfruit, tangerine sorbet and caramelised oranges. 
The belles of the ball! 

At the end of the party and time to go home. Thanks to my friend for taking my picture. It was a wonderful summer night!

8 Reasons Why I Won't Travel In Large Groups Anymore

If you're traveling in a large group, chances are, everyone will have at least one thing in common. From my experience, we are all Australian. Most of us from Sydney and know each other already or via someone else.

We have had big groups for festivals and ski trips. The last big ski trip had a group of eighty people. And this time I was not one of them.

I've realised I'm out of touch with the twenty somethings, freshly arrived on their holiday-working visa. I used to be like them, having so much curiosity and exuberance for the new world.

The introductory small-talk with Aussies in Europe is now tiring. How many times have I asked and answered the same questions. How long have you been in London? Where are you from in Australia? Where is your next holiday?

Not meaning to rain on your parade here, new people. Travelling in large groups works when you're new to travelling, unattached/single, off to festivals or you're in a very exotic country. It's also easy having the planning done and all you have to do is follow. But in other times its like a social security blanket where you least need one.

My priorities have changed. I'm no longer interested in festivals. I prefer independence and comfort. And to be frank, I don't need to be friends with everyone I meet.

Here are 8 reasons why I won't travel in large groups anymore.

1) It annoys the locals. They don't want their lives to be disrupted by loud people crowding up the streets/restaurants/bars. A large group commands attention in some way. They take up space, they make noise and when you're on a flight with one, you will certainly know. When I travel I want to be inconspicuous and blend into the background. Travelling in large groups is as welcomed to the locals as holidaying stag-dos or hen-parties.

2) You have to wait for people before you can go anywhere. You are as fast as the slowest person in a group. Someone will be consistently slow or late. Maybe it's you and people are grumbling behind your back.

3) You might not be able to do what you really want. You have to fit into the group's schedule and not risk being left behind if your thing runs overtime or you get lost.

4) You have to make friends/put up with everyone. Who needs social hang ups when you're traveling? I might be cynical but there will be someone you won't agree with. Or there will be certain people who latch on to each other and it's as if you're travelling like strangers anyway.

5) It prevents you from meeting people-different people! These are the friends you really set out to meet when you came to London. They are the ones who introduce you to their culture, teach you their language and you might get a personalised tour in their hometown one day. Sadly the chances of meeting people outside the group are slim when you're surrounded by friends taking up your attention.

6)  If you're travelling with "noobs", attempts to genuinely assimilate to the local culture will be cheapened by their amusement. Noobs can be annoying and will turn the conversation about your experiences to all about them. I guess I don't have the patience to play along and the sentiment of trying to become like the local is somewhat lost.

7) You are a sitting duck for tourist restaurants. Unless everyone has made their own plans for dinner, you'll probably end up in a restaurant that caters for everybody's tastes with a long menu translated in at least three languages. The food will be bland and have little resemblance to the authentic version served by the small restaurant on the side street.

8) No one can make an executive decision. The decisions are made democratically and this takes time. Sometimes no one wants to make a call. A strong leader is required to keep plans in line and be assertive.

Delayed and Cancelled Flights With Easyjet

Last weekend I was in Zurich to meet friends from Singapore. 

Maybe it's my bad luck but flights from Gatwick are normally delayed. Once I was delayed 5 hours and the experience still haunts me today. I was on my way to Ibiza. To kill time I was walking around like a zombie because the shops had closed for the night. No one was happy.

This time my flight at first was 50 minutes delayed, then it was two hours. I had to figure out how to get from Zurich to Luzern late at night. The train ticket I pre-paid couldn't be used for another journey so I have to by a new one. 

When the flight landed at 10.45pm, I ran from the plane to the train station. The last connecting train to Luzern was departing at 11.02pm and somehow I made it to the platform just on time. Even after taking an airport train and passing passport control. I was that quick!  

As I arrived on the platform (sans new ticket), the train was ready to depart. On an impulse I jumped on. The carriage was packed and with ten minutes to Zurich main station, it was unlikely I'd be checked for a ticket. I don't recommend doing this but I had to make that train or I'd be stranded in Zurich for the night. 

I did buy a new ticket when I got to the main station though.

On the way back to London, my flight was an hour delayed. Only at the boarding gate, were we told the flight was cancelled with no reason except "the plane hasn't arrived and we don't know when it will." I found out on twitter, there was an power cut at Gatwick. Why don't the ground staff tell us this and save some anguish for us passengers?

People swarmed the boarding gate and I sat a safe distance away from the mayhem. It was my first cancelled flight after all these years travelling. I waited an hour for people to be given overnight accommodation and when it got down to the last 20 passengers, we were told they ran out of rooms.

I refused to overreact and trusted that things will work out. I joked around with a couple of random Aussies which relieved some of the boredom. A few people were mad and there was one elderly lady in a wheelchair who I felt sorry for. Finally the phone rang and they said the got rooms for everyone at the Marriott. Hooray!

It wasn't until we were on our bus to the hotel, we realised how lucky we were. People given accommodation earlier were still waiting for their bus to the Holiday Inn. Apparently the bus was only picking up women first. 

So lesson learned. When travelling, don't overreact when a situation is out of your control. It wasn't Easyjet's fault the flight was cancelled. To accommodate a full flight at the last minute is a massive effort. 

It paid to wait things out because the budget accommodation was taken up first and they had to use the Marriott. After being stuck at the airport for hours, I was ready to dive into bed!

I had a spacious and modern room with a huge comfy bed. Breakfast was delicious. I wish I stayed longer. I felt really lucky in the end although our flight the next morning was delayed by an hour. I was tired of being in limbo and as much as I love Switzerland, I was grateful to be going home.