Friday, February 16, 2018

Honoring Madam Marie Laveau in NOLA



On Tuesday, New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras with the traditional parades, parties and wild revelry that has made the Crescent City famous. I didn't attend this year's celebration but I always like to honor the tradition in some way, whether with a king's cake, pralines or listening to brass band music.This year, I munched on my last batch of pralines and recalled my visit to Marie Laveau's house on the edge of the French Quarter.



To natives of NOLA, Marie Laveau represents much more than the touristy shops and gimmicky tales associated with her role as a voudou priestess. She was highly regarded for her healing powers and her pride and knowledge of African rituals. She held her famous ceremonies right down the street from her house, in Congo Square. To visit New Orleans without paying homage to Madam Laveau is like going into someone's house without greeting the host. I sat on the stoop of the old building and offered my respects when a man came out of the house next door and set down a beautiful second line umbrella.  The second line tradition sprang from jazz funerals, which are also traced to African rituals. In a jazz funeral, the first line of people are the close relatives of the deceased and the second line are the people who join the procession and help brush away the sadness by dancing to the brass band and waving white handkerchiefs and umbrellas to shade them from the sun.



I stared at the umbrella, intricately decorated with feathers, sequins and golden fleur de lis. "You can have it if you want, we're moving," he said as he went back inside his house to retrieve more stuff. I picked up the umbrella and noted the feathers (a symbol Marie Laveau  often used). Smiling incredulously,  I thanked Marie as I left with my special gift.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My Fave Travel Experiences of 2017


Looking back on the year, 2017 was packed with unforgettable travel experiences that left a permanent mark on me. I'm actually still reflecting and documenting them with articles and posts but here are the standouts. Cuba was literally a dream come true. I've longed to visit the land of some of my most cherished rhythms and traditions but I had no inkling that I'd visit to celebrate the wedding of my friend to a wonderful Cuban man. Nights along the malecon and days in the markets and beaches were perfect but my visit to the Museo Yoruba de Cuba, also called the Orisha Museum, was a once-in-a lifetime experience. I witnessed ritual dances, shown above and saw artifacts and traditions connected with the Santeria religion.




Curacao, with it's gorgeous architecture and landscape, offered up friendly people and a fascinating food scene as well. Little Curacao, with it's pink lighthouse pictured above, was a highlight.


India is famous for it's intense colors, flavors and scenes and my trip to Gujarat did not disappoint. From the temples to the inquisitive locals, I'll never be the same after my India trip.


My love of art and hand-crafted jewelry made Santa Fe a long-time feature on my bucket list. I wasn't quite prepared for the beauty everywhere, from the land to the public art on roofs, doors and gardens.


Returning to my NOLA roots was special on many levels. I traveled with my family and traced my maternal history, visiting the house that my great-grandparents lived in.



Cali, Colombia was a surprise in so many ways, from the quirky cat sculptures to the city wide excitement of the Petronio  Alvarez Afro Colombian Cultural Festival. But the most unexpected treat was meeting Ebony and Nia, on a small Cali Street. Hailing from New Orleans and San Diego, respectively. they came up to me when they saw me take out my camera and realized I was a visitor. Learning about their experiences living in Cali and how they preferred the city's slow pace to the  tumultuous political landscape of the U.S., was the ultimate travel learning experience. What were your 2017 travel highlights?

Friday, January 12, 2018

Why Traveling To Haiti was One of the Highlights of My Life


This was supposed to be a post that examined my year in travel. But in light of the nonsense that has been recently stirred up about Haiti, El Salvador and the 54 countries that make up the African continent, I felt compelled to shine the spotlight on Haiti. I have long been weary of the constant dragging that the "Pearl of the Caribbean" endures. I have yet to see a mention of the island that doesn't describe it as "the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere" or reference the many natural disasters that have challenged this small country. You would think that it was some ravaged hole on the other side of the Dominican Republic, the way the stereotypes portray it. I assure you, it is not. Poverty and earthquakes have not stopped Haiti from being a vibrant country with a rich culture and stunning landscape. The elegant ruins of the Sans Souci palace, shown above, is  just one example. The grand palace was constructed in 1813 for Haiti's King Henri Christophe and included an amphitheater, a hospital, stables, gardens and pools.


And here we get to the real issue. Yes, Haiti had a king, a palace and an iconic mountain top fortress, La Citadelle,constructed to preserve Haiti's status as the world's first Black Republic. The audacity of  an enslaved people to snatch their freedom from France is something that the former colonial power never got over and Haiti has been paying for it ever since. But despite all the stereotypes and struggles thrown at Haiti, the pride and spirit of the Haitian people remain formidable. Stepping into the green hills and art strewn sidewalks of the island is something that I will never forget.



Color and art fill every surface of Port Au Prince, from shops, to tap tap buses, to  artfully painted houses.



The National Museum of Haiti boasts a sculpture garden as well as the tombs of Haiti's freedom fighters, Pre-Colombian artifacts, fine art and even the anchor from Christopher Columbus' Santa
Maria ship.


At the St. Trinity School of Music, over 1,000 students learn classical and Haitian folk music in a rigorous program that allows them to perform all over the world and record CDs. Many of the children are supplied with free music lessons and the melodies from their instruments can be heard through the streets of the trendy Petionville suburb of Port Au Prince. This is just a portion of the Haiti that I experienced. To witness the beauty, the resilience and the grace of the Haitian people and to know their courageous history fills me with pride. Ignorant remarks from a fast-food loving, half wit will never change that. Haiti is magnificent and I am forever changed because I had the opportunity to glimpse it personally.


Friday, December 29, 2017

The Wonders of Willie Mae's in NOLA



Many visitors head to the French Quarter when they want to sample the famously flavorful New Orleans cuisine but I prefer to eat where the locals go. So I asked Zydeco star and foodie Sean Ardoin
for his recommendations and he insisted that Willie Mae's is the ultimate NOLA restaurant.


We rolled up to Willie Mae's restaurant in Treme and the long line of patient customers outside the spot demonstrated that Sean told no lies. We waited for about 35 minutes as a waitress came out to estimate how many tables could be filled every 20 minutes.



But once we were inside the historic restaurant that opened in 1957, we could see that the wait was worth it. There's a homey feel to Willie Mae's, like you're eating at your grandma's house. The food arrived quickly and the crunch and flavor of the fried chicken helped me understand why Sean called it the best in New Orleans. We shoveled in green beans, beans and rice and biscuits and my family, all of whom are rarely quiet, was really quiet as we concentrated on the feast.



Willie Mae's owner even won a prestigious James Beard Award for "America's Classic Restaurant for the Southern Region"  and the Travel Channel has declared the chicken as 'America's Best Fried Chicken." I didn't know all this before I visited  but it just goes to show you that it pays to go beyond the glitzy tourist hangouts to discover the real heart of a culture.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Soul of NOLA


For people unfamiliar with New Orleans history, the French Quarter and its myriad of bars and tourist traps is the focal point for their experiences in the city. But if you know a little history or like me, have roots in the city, you know that the heart of NOLA is in the historic Treme' neighborhood and the iconic Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park.


Treme' is the oldest African American neighborhood in the country, as well as the birthplace of jazz. It's where African American musicians developed the Mardi Gras Indian tradition of drumming, call and response mingled with brass bands. Of course, the essence of all these traditions started in Congo Square, the spot where enslaved Africans gathered on Sundays to drum, dance and celebrate their cultural traditions, which still informs every aspect of New Orleans culture. As soon as we landed, my family and I headed to Congo Square to go to the Treme' Gumbo Fest and hear the legendary Rebirth Brass Band. Standing on the spot where my ancestors connected with their spiritual heritage, I felt a surge of joy and pride. I felt like the soul of New Orleans was waving and singing right before my eyes.




Sunday, November 19, 2017

Next Stop: New Orleans



This week, I'm going on a special trip. I'm headed to New Orleans with my mother, aunt and uncle to research our family history in the Crescent City.  I've been digging through centuries of records and history to discover the lives of my ancestors and in New Orleans we will try to trace their steps. We'll be visiting neighborhoods, cemeteries and historical societies for my research. We'll also be attending the Gumbo Festival in Treme and soaking up required music on French Street and all the  necessary restaurants.  This is a guaranteed adventure into my family's history so please stay tuned!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Child Acrobat Performing On An Ahmedabad Street


This is Buchi, she's eight-years-old.  Walking around the mid-sized city of Ahmedabad, I never saw child beggars or street children like the media portrays in cities like Mumbai or Delhi. So I was a little taken aback when I spotted her tiny body gliding over a tightrope on the side of a busy street.



She moved with focused grace and didn't seem disturbed by the cars, buses and bikes whizzing by but I was still relieved to see her brother hovering nearby.


My fellow travel writers and I made sure to give her money directly for her talents and she looked happy for the acknowledgement. She never spoke a word over the blaring Bollywood music but I could see that she was alert and quick-witted. We learned that families of acrobats used to roam Ahmedabad streets regularly but the practice has lost favor, which I was glad to hear. Hopefully, Buchi only performs part time, when she's not in school.