Sunday, 14 August 2016

Rio Rio Rio

With the Olympics in full swing I thought that now was as good a time as any to share some photos from my visits to Brazil. It's also a bit of a love letter to a city that I've fallen head over heels in love with.

My parents moved to Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2014. The move was quite a surprise to us all and I won't lie, I was anxious and a little apprehensive. Rio De Janeiro has always been a place that appeared to be dangerous and I had little interest in visiting before the big move. 

I went out in December 2014 and fell in love instantly. Since then I've been out a further two times and my flights for a two week October visit are booked and I'm counting down the days impatiently.

Rio is almost difficult to describe, I've never been to a  city like it. It positively buzzes with colour and life. The predominant colours are the colours you can see on the Brazilian flag: blue and green.

The backdrops to the sprawling city which is home to 6,452,685 people are thick swathes of jungle and high reaching mountains. What a sight this place must have been when the Portuguese settlers arrived in 1502 after a long and dangerous sea journey across the Atlantic. They must have thought they found paradise. The natural geography means that the views from famous 'vistas' are picture perfect.

Delve into the Rio de Janeiro wikipedia entry if you want to get an idea of the long and fascinating history of the city. People often get confused and think that Rio de Janeiro, or even São Palo is the capital of Brazil. Rio did have that privilege until 1960, when Brasília became the new capital.

Rio de Janeiro feels like an urban jungle. Everywhere there is greenery and you're never too far away from the most famous beaches in the world.

But people here exist in close proximity. High rises are stacked tightly in blocks and resilient people build their homes up along the mountain, making a life for themselves. The inner city feels how I imagine New York to feel like. Bustling with excitement and life but that little bit more green. The taxis are also yellow, and also whizz past you at a dangerous speed. But the drivers are chatty and warm to you instantly.

The local 'carioca' are warm and welcoming people, people will smile at you as you walk past and will wish you a good day, even if you don't know each other. Even taking out the bins leads to small talk. Life is notoriously relaxed. When my mum has an emergency in the flat the handyman leisurely visits and his life motto is 'fica tranquilo”, which pretty much means keep calm and don't worry.  As my mum has found out though, that doesn't necessarily mean that things are under control or that you should be remaining calm.

The fascinating thing about Rio is that you can hop onto a metro, get a taxi or jump into your own car and take a short trip and in a matter of minutes you're experiencing a whole new side to this amazing city. One of my favourite moments was taking a short 20 minute car ride up into the Tijuca Jungle and visiting an old stately home tucked away in the heights. You're so far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life you feel like you're in another place entirely. 

Almost everywhere you look you can see Christ The Redeemer with his arms outstretched over the city, welcoming everyone. Construction for this iconic New Seven Wonders of the World statue began in 1922 and ended in 1931. If there's only one thing you do in Rio, you have to go up and see the statue. Seeing it in person is almost overwhelming and very moving. The view over the city is also spectacular and gives you an idea of the sheer scale of the it.

During my first visit we did all of the 'touristy' things but with my parents now being settled in their flat, we always slip into a nice little routine when I visit.

Going from Cardiff to the bright bright lights of Rio means that even every day things are exciting and a little adventure. One of my favourite Rio experiences is going to the farmers market on Tuesday's and Thursday's with my mum. We load up with big shopping bags and empty stomachs. Stall sellers entice you in with free fruit samples and the typical carioca charm ("Oh you two must be sisters!").

There's never a dull day, even going out for milk and eggs can turn into an exciting trip. Whether it's a funny encounter with a Carioca in the supermarket aisle or a Bossa Nova flashmob in the subway, there's always something to make you smile and keep your mood high. 

The beach is engrained in the Carioca. It's not just a way of life, it is life. Life revolves around the beach here, come rain or shine there will be someone at the beach. It's a 24/7 365 days a year part of life.

You can arrive in Rio without having brought anything for the beach, but you can show up ready for a beach session and be able to buy everything you need. Sellers walk around flogging swimwear, sunglasses, beach kangas (never bring a normal towel to the beach - absolute faux pas), suncream, hats, food, selfie sticks, fresh coconuts and cocktails. Service is A+, the beach is separated into invisible stripes, and each is designated to a stall holder that rents out chairs and umbrellas for shade. All of this is set up for you so you just need to sit back and relax. Brazilians aren't necessarily a fan of shade, the darker the tan the better. But for pale old me shade is non-negotiable.

In Brazil one rule goes: the smaller the bikini and swimming trunks the better. I now know where the Brazilian wax gets it's name. Spotting the male tourists is easy as they resolutely stick to the longer swim shorts variety, whereas the Brazilian men prefer the smallest swim trunks possible. My mum couldn't stop laughing when I brought my high waisted granny pant swimsuit with me. 

It's easy to feel self conscious about not having the right bikini body, but in Rio every body is a beach body, and everyone is having far too much fun living their life and enjoying it to be worried about body hangups. 

Rio is a beautiful city and like every city it has it's difficulties and challenges. It's currently under a microscope under close scrutiny during the Olympics.

I've said before, I know I am very privileged to experience Rio in the way that I do. My experiences here haven't even vaguely scratched the surface. But I try to educate myself and keep an open mind. I see the people who struggle to get through their normal day, I see extreme poverty and I question the prudence of hosting these expensive games. But I also hope that the so far smooth running of the games has endeared Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil, to the hearts of many just as it has done to me.

There's just something about this amazing city that has just captured my heart. There's no wonder why they call it 'Cidade Maravilhosa' - Marvellous City. 

My passport is lying impatiently in my desk drawer, ready for that new Brazil entry stamp to be inked on it. I can't wait.

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Sunday, 24 July 2016


TW: self harm
"I am thankful for my struggle because without it, I wouldn't have stumbled upon my strength." - Alexandra Elle

Half of a decade. 5 years.  260 weeks. 1,825 days. 2.3 million minutes.

Five has been a reoccurring number in my life this year. I turned 25 and this year marks my fifth year of being self harm free. I've talked about my self harm extensively on my blog (see here and here) Plus I even made a video about it.  See here.

For my fifth year anniversary things went a little bit differently.

To start off this special year I did something I didn't think I'd ever do. I spoke with a national newspaper about my self harm. It went online, it went into the physical newspaper. It was overwhelming. When I went to speak with the reporter it was the first time I'd ever spoken with someone about my self harm who wasn't a family member, a boyfriend, friend or my therapist. Before this article came out I could count the number of people who I had actually spoken about this issue of mine on two hands.

Once the article came out it really blew up. I had people text me that I hadn't spoken to in years, the post got shared, liked and talked about. The messages of support and love continued for days. It was as if the biggest weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Emails from the parents of my school friends poured in, sharing that their own children struggled with mental health. A school friend that I had shared a room with for one year and counted as one of my closest friends, messaged me and said that whilst we'd been roommates she'd been visiting a therapist which I had no idea about.

It was so heartwarming and at the same time heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking that girls I lived with and shared a part of my life with struggled in silence. And I didn't have a clue. It just shows how isolating suffering with mental health can be.

When the article came out, it came out suddenly and without much warning. To my shame I didn't have time to warn my parents, who I worried would try and talk me out of speaking with the reporter. When the article came out it was very difficult for my mum. Once I completed my therapy for her it felt like that chapter of my life was closed. When they read the article, my dad who paid the therapy bills but had never ever spoken with me about it before, called me and said "You've got to see this through now".

Mum and I have spoken at length since the article. She understands now that even though I'd been in therapy, the chapter of my life that was marred with self harm was never 'closed' or over for me. She admitted that she would have tried to talk me out of doing the article. But now she's proud that I did it. Only now, five years later do I realise how hard my self harm was for my mother and how alone she must have felt with it. She was trying to hold our family unit together and be the rock for all of us. She struggled as well. That still breaks my heart.

Now that I've shared the most secret and darkest part of myself to the world it truly feels like that chapter of my life is over. I have nothing to hide any longer. I have nothing to be ashamed of any more.

Something about this anniversary feels more important and I'm a little more melancholic about it than last year where I felt jubilant about it.

The biggest struggle for me is the concept of my fading scars. 

I can point out every single one of them even if they are almost gone. I know the exact part of my thigh where I carved 'fuck up'. The scars are long gone but I still see the letters like little ghostly apparitions, dancing on my own skin. But the reality is that my scars are fading. It's like finally letting go of that ex who still haunts your dreams. I don't want them to fade because once they're gone it will feel like none of it ever happened, there's nothing left to remind me except the hazy and foggy memories of difficult times. I think that's why I try and talk about the milestones as often as possible. I want to remember it happened because I want to see how far I've come.

I spoke with a friend, Si, about this and for him it's the opposite. He's glad to see his go, whereas I almost want to tattoo them on me as a permanent reminder. It sounds twisted and I can understand that others who have self harmed may disagree with me and even think I'm really insensitive about it. That's part of the problem, self harm and mental health are both so subjective. There's no blueprint or one size fixes all approach. 

This year, keeping focused on my mental health and working towards another year of being self harm free has been harder than usual. At times this year I've felt trapped in a rut and struggled with keeping things in perspective. 

With that in mind I've set myself a challenge to keep myself focused. I'm running a half marathon. On October the 2 I'll be lacing up my trainers and running 13 miles (21 kilometres) across Cardiff. The only thing that will be keeping me going for another kilometre on the day is that I'm running this half marathon to raise money for a charity that is so close to my heart.

My friend Si, along with an amazing group of people, set up Heads Above The Waves. This is a charity that supports young people who struggle with self harm. It encourages them to find positive ways to have open conversations about self harm and mental health. As well as finding positive coping techniques to 'keep your head above the waves'.

I'm hoping to raise £500 which will cover the vital workshops that HATW take to local schools to introduce the concept of positive alternatives to self-harm. They encourage honest and open conversation, and plant the seeds for self-help. Every penny donated will go straight to Heads Above The Waves, I know Si well and wish that something like HATW had been there for me when I was struggling.

If you have a few pennies to spare I'd appreciate any donations. If you don't, don't worry. Check out Heads Above The Waves online and see how you can get involved and support them. They sell great merchandise and are really engaging.

So where will I be in another year? Who knows. 

There are days when I forget that this part of my life ever existed. But then there are days when old feelings snare me down and leave me speechless. I don't know if those feelings will ever really go away. I'm single at the moment and I have no idea how I would ever bring this part of my life up to a boyfriend. Or whether I would even want to. That bothers me a lot. I guess I will just have to wait and see. The further I get down the road of recovery the more questions it seems to throw up about my self harm, what it really meant and what the effects of it have been. I'm not even sure if I'll ever get all the answers that I'm looking for.

For the meantime I know I'm still here. I know I'm a fighter. I know I've worked through worse. And I'm happy to be where I am now. So happy.  I'm surrounded by amazing people who even though I didn't always know it at the time, have had my back and always will. 

If you're struggling with any kind of mental health issues, I can understand how hard it is to get yourself on a path of recovery. It's so tough. But trust me, once you start racking up the milestones, whether it's one day, two weeks, three months or four years, you will feel amazing. And it's worth it.

I'll be seeing you at the finish line of the Cardiff half marathon in October. I'll keep you updated.

All my love as always.

"Time heals all wounds. And if it doesn't, you name them something other than wounds and agreed to let them stay." - Emma Forrest

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Saturday, 9 July 2016

Nina Eats - Wagamama

A few weeks ago I was invited to settle down in Wagamama's with a well deserved glass of wine and to work my way through their menu. I was allowed to bring a guest with me so I took my much taller and more glamorous sidekick Jade with me.

Jade hadn't been to Wagamama before so it was fun to experience it with her. The Wagamama in Cardiff is located in a beautiful building right next to the Cardiff Library and St David's Cardiff. It's an airy and bright location making it great for people watching.

I've been to Wagamama a few times. I enjoy the seating arrangement of the benches, it feels very communal but at the same time there's enough spacing between the seats so you don't feel like you're gatecrashing someone's dinner or date.

The staff here are great, they take you to your seats and straight away ask if you've visited before. If the answer is no, which in Jade's case it was, then they explain how it all works.  

At Wagamama there are no 'starters', if you want the side dishes specifically as a starter just let the staff know. Everything at Wagamama is cooked ready to order, there are four different sections in the kitchen each focusing on the different types of food Wagamama offers. This means that mains don't always arrive at exactly the same time, but the staff ensure that all tables are served speedily and that no one in the group has to wait too long for their food to arrive.

As you can see Jade and me took full advantage and sampled lots of things from their menu. 

We especially loved the variety of gyozas and the garlic chilli salt covered edamame. The pork steamed bun was also delicious - the bun was soft and fluffy whilst the pork melted in your mouth. Also a side note, the green tea at Wagamama is free of charge and you can top it up as much as you want. Green tea has all sorts of health benefits, but helpfully it also makes you feel less full and bloated post food overdose. So it's good to have a cup after you've worked your way through the menu.

I'm guilty of always eating the same dish when I visit. It's either the Yaki Soba, the Pad Thai or the Raisukaree (which is the delicious curry dish Jade went for). Whilst Wagamama are famed for the Katsu Chicken Curry that's not really up my street. So this time I stepped outside of my little Wagamama comfort circle and went for the Grilled Duck Donburi.  

I would without a doubt have this again. The shredded duck was perfectly cooked and really offset with the teriyaki sauce and the vegetables. The rice was super fluffy and the fried egg with the perfectly runny yolk just brought it all together. A word to the wise - this looks like a misleadingly small sized dish but it's best tackled on an empty stomach. There was a lot to get through and I'm afraid to say I was a little defeated by it.

I say we were defeated, we of course also had to give dessert a crack.  We went for the mini three dessert plate plus a side of coconut ice cream with coconut shavings and passion fruit sauce. The chocolate fudge cake was so so, the passionfruit cheesecake delicious but the real winner was the ginger cheesecake. Perfectly zingy and refreshing after all the strong main course flavours.  The coconut reika is my staple favourite and wraps up the Wagamama experience perfectly.

If you're Cardiff based and you're intrigued by all my food adventures get yourself over to the St David's Eat Club. Once you're signed up you'll be the first to know about all things foodie whether it's new openings or special offers, cooking inspiration and recipes. Wagamama frequently revamp their menu so it's worth keeping up to date with!

So all in all Jade's first visit went pretty well. We both rolled home completely happy with our experience. No doubt I'll be back soon.

NB: I was invited to Wagamama's through St. David's Cardiff but all opinions are my own

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