Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tatting Up In Panama

Deep in the Panamanian rain forest, on the shores of the Chagres River, an Embera Indian Village welcomes visitors interested in learning about their centuries-old traditions. We had traveled in a hand-carved canoe,  and scaled makeshift bridges to reach the village. Before I entered into the village's circle of thatched roof huts and glimpsed the laughing children and heard the flute trills of their instruments, I knew that I wanted to connect with the Embera.

After a demonstration of cooking, plant medicine and weaving techniques, I requested a traditional tattoo. A village's elder was enlisted to do the honor for me. The Embera paint their bodies with the juice of the jagua plant. The black etchings are semi-permanent tattoos that last up to 3 weeks. The elder wiped the sunscreen off my arm and pressed sharply into my skin with the tip of a bamboo stick. He slowly created my design, scrawling the lines carefully.

Each symbol has a specific meaning and I was startled to learn that mine represented a house or home. At that point, I had been displaced from my home by a fire and was struggling to adjust to the moves and changes that would last for eight months. My tattoo remained on my arm for a full month, reminding me of  Panama's proud traditions and that I would eventually return to my home.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Chicago Blues For Travel and Music Fans

I mentioned that I had completed writing my book a couple of months ago and it will soon be published on April 8! Exploring Chicago Blues; Inside The Scene Past And Present, is an accessible guide to Chicago blues history, with suggestions on where to go, who to see and where to eat for an authentic blues experience. I've researched and experienced the varying aspects of Chicago blues culture for several decades, first as part of my heritage and then as a fan and finally as a columnist;I write a monthly blues column called Sweet Home for the Illinois Entertainer. With this book, I take travelers and music fans on a trip to one of my favorite places and cultures.

It guides you inside the local blues clubs, helping readers savor the experience of listening to artists like Peaches Staten, above, belt out soulful blues accompanied by her frottoir, or washboard, inside the friendly walls of Rosa's Blues Lounge. I guide travelers through the best soul food spots to sample another important aspect of blues culture. Pig feet, greens and fried chicken were always essential ingredients at many Mississippi juke joints. The crucial connection of Mississippi, where blues masters developed the genre, to Chicago, where thousands of Magnolia State residents moved during the Great Migration, is the foundation of both my book and Chicago blues style. If you won't be in the Chicago area in the coming months to attend any of my book events, please visit Amazon, Barnes and Noble, The History Press or Good Reads to order a copy or learn more about Chicago blues. And if you do visit Chicago, please let me know so I can offer you some personalized Chicago blues tips!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Lucian Style Farmers Market

Farmers markets offer Americans an easy way to buy fresh produce, directly from the farmers. But in St. Lucia, this concept gets a Caribbean twist with this farmer floating out to our sailboat with freshly picked tropical fruit.

The sensory delight of his coral-colored canoe, laden with gold and green fruit against the deep sapphire ocean was not lost on me. I just gazed at the spectacle for awhile before I could even focus on what I would taste.

In the end, I passed up juicy starfruit and luscious mango for my all time favorite, jelly coconut.  The farmer whipped out his machete and swiftly opened my coconut, handing it to me before he floated off. I can still taste the lightly sweet coconut water, swirling around the jelly pulp at the bottom. What's your favorite fruit to try when you travel?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Turtles and Tequila

The Pacific coast of Mexico captivates anyone lucky enough to experience it. I traveled the 17 miles of coastline that make up the nine bays of Huatulco and I'm still amazed at the raw beauty. The deep sapphire blue water holds untold treasures, from a coral reef to scores of sea turtles, which I glimpsed up close.

I headed to Santa Cruz harbor and hopped aboard a little boat called Tequila. Sailing to the nine bays was an idyllic journey, with salty breezes and freshly picked  avocados for guacamole in St. Agustin. But the waters were choppy on the way back and after four hours of sailing, a big dose of sea sickness smacked me with a vengeance. My crew was unfazed though, and they quickly took over photographic duties for me.

Sea turtles bobbed all over those choppy waves and I watched from a slightly steady corner as little faces popped up in the water.

We saw whole families swimming by and solo adventurers floating along.

Sea turtles nest along the beaches of Oaxaca around June and bury hundreds of eggs in the sand. They hatch two months later and make their way into the water. I spied several baby turtles that looked like they were just born a few months ago. Unfortunately, I couldn't join them for their leisurely swim, my fortitude had waned in the blistering Mexican sun, even though I was sailing on a boat called Tequila.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Huatulco's San Agustin Bay

Located along the Pacific coast of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, Huatulco is cradled by the Sierra Madre mountains and the Coyula and Copalita rivers. The region's  pinnacle of natural beauty can be found in its nine bays, or the Bahias de Hualtulco.  I visited all nine bays on a motorboat one afternoon and I was stunned by the surreal vistas at every bay. They unfold along 18 miles of jagged coastline, with different color sands and different shades of water. San Agustin is the furthest out and the most difficult to get to. It is also the most beautiful.

The cerulean loveliness of San Agustin's beach grabbed me right away. There were no tourists to be seen, just pristine sand,  a few rustic beach cafe shacks and a smattering of the 100 locals that live in the small village.

The landscape is mostly undeveloped with flowers, cacti and animals covering most of the town.

The San Agustin church sits on top of the hill overlooking the bay and I was rewarded with this view at the top.

Chickens, goats and turkeys roamed around freely and didn't seem to be bothered by the fact that they would one day be turkey tamales and birria or goat stew.

I spotted a few local surfers later in the day and this slogan scrawled on some rocks near the beach made me realize that quiet San Agustin is probably very popular with young singles.  It basically translates to "no condoms, no party."

The sands of San Agustin beach are a soft pearly color but the unshaded shore made strolling barefoot a no go, unless you desire scorched feet.

A tree washed up on the beach shore during a hurricane years ago and now it serves as the symbol for San Agustin Bay. If you can't take in all of the bays, I strongly recommend that you at least stop at San Agustin. The views and glimpses of village life are one of a kind.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Jamaican Bobsled Time

Watching the Jamaican Bobsled Team at the Sochi 2014 Olympics conjures up memories of the classic '90s movie, Cool Runnings for a lot of people. Based on the storied 1988 Jamaican Bobsled Team that managed to capture global attention, you can't make up a crazier  and more inspiring tale. Seeing the two-man team reminded me of my own precarious bobsled run down Mystic Mountain in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

Tucked into the lush rain forest, the Bobsled at Mystic Mountain captures stunning tropical vistas as well as the nerve-jangling bobsled experience. An exhibit with the famous Jamaican bobsled uniform and stats on the original team's history fill a corner before you arrive at the bobsled.

Before hopping on, I was greeted with the ominous sign above. There seemed to be lots of conditions and precautions for what I thought was a straightforward ride. Turns out that the bobsleds are actually a sports installation, developed to operate like a real bobsled. That means that the contraption works with gravity and is equipped with brakes. Brakes. So, you know, you can stop it as it speeds down the mountain. I was tempted to turn around but Ocho Rios is a long way from Chicago. I stepped in and was instructed on how to use the brakes. As the sled twisted and winded down the mountain, I kept the brakes on the entire time and it still whizzed along pretty fast.

I was rewarded with serene views like the one above. Flying down a tropical mountain appears to be much easier than tearing down an icy hill but that's just my perspective. Even though the 2014 Jamaican Bobsled Team finished 29 out of 30 teams, they continue to maintain cult hero status. The video for their official theme song below demonstrates just why Jamaica always wins, on some level.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Bunny Rugs:The Voice of Enduring Reggae Music

It has been 40 years since the quintessential reggae band Third World, graced the globe with its smooth and spirited rhythms. Debuting  live as the opening act on Bob Marley's 1974 European tour, they have maintained an international presence ever since. One of the most enduring and popular reggae acts in the world, they spread the music as Jamaica's official reggae ambassadors. A genre-defining musical mix of cultural lyrics and contagious melodies laced with funk and soul,  the Third World sound was personified by Bunny Rug's rich and commanding vocals. I have been very lucky to have experienced the magic of Third World many times, the most recent at Jamaica's Jazz and Blues Fest last year. A third World concert always features thrilling musicianship and lots of  high energy. I watched as Bunny, also known as William Clarke, pushed the dancing crowd into a frenzy, belting out hits like "Try Jah Love," "Reggae Ambassador" and "1865 (96 degrees in the Shade)".  Hailing from the mountains of Mandeville, one of my favorite cities in Jamaica, Bunny represented the island's pride and culture well.  He was stricken by leukemia at only 65 years old. I'm heartbroken that I'll never see him prance and sing across a stage again. But the music lives on. "As sure as the sun shines way up in the sky/today I stand here a victim the truth is I'll never die." RIP Dear Bunny.