Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Day At The Beach--In Montreal

I love the excitement and action of big city travel but I also love the relaxation and natural beauty of beaches. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to discover a beach just five minutes from the bustling streets of downtown Montreal. I caught wind of it as a guide was explaining the city's many parks and he casually mentioned the beach in Parc Jean-Drapeau. My ears perked up. What's this? A beach nearby? As a certified beach baby, I grabbed my sunscreen and dashed over. A short Metro ride landed me at Parc Jean-Drapeau, which is actually two islands sprawled along the St. Lawrence River. Islands? You know I was excited. And the adventure was just starting because the park boasts tons of other attractions before you can even get to the beach.

This pretty strip of tranquility beckoned me to sink my toes into the sand and lounge for hours. It was quiet, with just a few families enjoying the water. Before I located it, I found myself at La Ronde, the amusement park that draws teens and adolescents from all over the city. It turns out that I had grabbed the wrong shuttle bus.

Then I strolled by the glistening dome of the Biosphere environmental museum. Nearby, vendors were setting up for Piknic Electronik, the weekly summer music fest that serves up electronic music for a non-stop, outdoor dance party. But I still didn't spot a beach. Finally, Francois, a shuttle bus driver who watched me wander around, hopped into his car and personally drove me to the elusive beach. His helpfulness was par for the course for friendly Montrealers but I was touched by his gallantry.

On the way, he pointed out the casino and the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve racetrack, which hosts the Canadian Grand Prix every June and supplies a smooth course for bikers, skateboarders and runners for the rest of the summer. We rolled up on the other side of the racetrack and he delivered me to "la plage."

Being near the water is always worth the journey for me and I spent my last few hours in Montreal sprawled on the beach, grateful for still another Montreal discovery.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Montreal Street Art

Montreal overwhelms me. In a good way. For art lovers like me who live for connections with artistic and cultural expressions, Montreal is truly a dreamland. There is absolutely no place you can go in this stylish city where you will not be surrounded by art in some form. Metro stations, sidewalks, buildings, cafes, schools, markets, everywhere you turn, you'll be greeted with visual, musical or performance art. Montreal actually enforces a law that at least 1% of  a building's budget must go to public art. I thought it was just me honing in on every art form but no, Montreal really is covered in art. I find that it's an uplifting feeling to always have art close by. I think that's one of the reason's that Montrealers always seem so good-natured and vibrant. The mural above, was created during Montreal's Mural Fest (There is a fest for everything art-related in Montreal) and drew me in with the vivid colors and trippy designs.

This painting lines a wall by a park and displays Montreal's history.

There's lots of super hero/comic book figures peering out from Montreal buildings. I was told that this guy represents a particular event coming up. Obviously relating to blue hair and bionic back packs.

Music is an art form that Montreal clearly adores, you hear live music everywhere Jazz is a ubiquitous favorite. I was walking back from Old Montreal when I spotted this lovely tribute to Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

All metro stops are splashed with art in Montreal. I found myself lingering in the stations, just to take in the art.

I like the mix of colors and patterns on this piece that adorns an alley. The face on the right looks like Ringo Starr to me but I don't think that was intentional. What city do you enjoy for it's art scene?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Next Stop: Montreal Mon Ami

It's been three years since I've dipped my feet into the European charm of Montreal. I love the city's dynamic energy and elegant architecture. Of course, I also love the legendary Montreal Jazz Fest, the world's biggest jazz festival. Thanks to Tourisme Que'bec, I'll experience more of the city's gifts, from the also legendary circus arts festival, Montreal Completement Cirque, pictured above, to the museums and bustling neighborhoods. Montreal nightlife is the focus for this trip so I'll be documenting the exciting foodie scene as well as the nightclubs and non-stop festivals. I'm especially excited about pedaling through a night bike tour of the Mount Royal neighborhood and a visit to Bota Bota, the floating spa fashioned from an old ferryboat and boasting sublime views of the St. Lawrence River. So stay tuned for culinary, music and arts posts soon.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Grilling Sardines On A Spanish Beach

Andalusia is noted for its distinctive culture and aside from the eye-popping beauty, that's my favorite thing about the region. On the sunny Costa Tropical, the cultural delights continue. This beach in Salobrena, about 45 minutes from Granada, enchanted me with mountain views, pristine waves and the smell of sardines grilling.

To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of sardines but I was excited to see this chiringuito or beach bar, with an authentic boat used as a grill because it's a hallmark of Andalusian beach culture. Fresh, just caught fish are a specialty with espetos de sardinas or sardine skewers, the most essential.

My excitement must have been obvious because I was quickly invited to learn how to skewer the sardines for grilling.

The bamboo sticks are pushed through the body of the sardine for even grilling and it's probably easy to do for more spatially refined people but unfortunately, not for me. I mangled a handful of silvery fish before I was able to slide one on the skewer properly. I don't think I'll look into a sideline as a grill cook anytime soon.

Espetos are the perfect beach food and are eaten with your fingers, popping the whole sardine into your mouth. I couldn't quite manage that trick either but the salty, delicate taste of the fish was a lovely accompaniment to the laid back lifestyle of Salobrena.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Mermaid of Motril

Andalusia's dreamy Costa Tropical, a collection of beaches and resort towns that hug the Mediterranean coast, captivates all who venture into the area's sunny landscape. For a water reveler like me, the salty air and cerulean sea felt like a European version of tropical paradise. Our first stop was the hilltop town of Motril, which boasts a colorful port filled with fishing boats, lounging  locals and this mermaid. She was the first thing I spied in the port which is fitting, since she seems to be waving a graceful greeting to all soon-to-be-mesmerized visitors.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Journey Into A Writer's Life

It's been a really busy few months with the release of my new book and all the publicity events that go along with a book launch. That's in addition to my usual travel, writing and teaching schedule. So when my friend, photographer, writer and guidebook author Lily Girma, invited me to participate in a writer's blog hop, I was aghast but excited about the chance to delve into my chaotic writing process. I'm honored to join so many talented writers who all provide a snapshot into what their writing process involves and what motivates them to write what they do. Below are my answers to the questions about my writing life and in a few weeks, three writers that I respect and am inspired by and who also happen to hail from some my favorite places in the world--Italy's Angela Corrias, London and Cuba's Mario Lopez-Goicoechea and Chicago's Maureen Jenkins,will share their answers.

1. What Am I Writing Now?

After an enthralling visit to the Andalusia region of Southern Spain, I'm crafting articles, posts and photo galleries exploring aspects of the culture. The richness of the heritage and the beauty of the architecture, mountains and beaches was overwhelming. I'm writing about the significance of flamenco, which has been a favorite art form of mine for a long time, as well as the fascinating Andalusian cuisine, the historic towns of Costa Del Tropical and a perspective of Alhambra Palace, among other things. I'm also working on an essay about what I learned from my experience of living through a house fire and being displaced for eight months, as well as prompts and posts for my upcoming online Travel Blogging Class, starting July 1. Features on Chicago blues travel and Chicago blues women are also in the works.  Of course, I'm also writing theater and music reviews and outlining topics for another book.

2. How Does Your Work Differ From Others of its Genre?

Every writer's perspective is unique.  My own perspective comes from a lifetime of reading and writing and living with an introspective focus. Like any good journalist, I observe people and ask a lot of questions but what makes my writing different is that I usually connect with my subjects in some way, whether's it's the sartorial drama of Spanish culture or the easygoing pride of Hawaiian tradition. The reason that I specialize in travel and culture is because that's what I'm passionate about and you'll feel that passion in my stories. I also like lyrical voices and narratives with singular, culturally specific details, reflected in the work of some of my favorite writers: Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison, Chimamanda, Ngozi Adichie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I strive to create storytelling that's as evocative as these master storytellers.

3. Why Do I Write What I Do?

My motivation stems from being a person of color whose experiences and perspectives are too rarely represented in the media. I became a writer because I wanted to tell the stories of people who are often invisible and voiceless. Misrepresentation and misunderstandings about people and cultures usually happen because there is only one dimension or perspective displayed over and over. So much of history and media reporting is presented from one, very narrow viewpoint. I like to reveal unfamiliar viewpoints and tell the other side of a popular narrative. I enjoy exposing the beauty of places and cultures but I also strongly believe that these small exchanges help open minds and expectations.

4. How Does My Writing Process Work?

I'd like to say that I follow an orderly schedule, writing a certain amount every day with reggae rhythms playing in the background and birds chirping on my windowsill. Well, sometimes it happens like that but more frequently, I'm propelled by a deadline that drives me to pore over my notes, research my topic and write my story as quickly as possible. A lot of my process stems from a tight journalist's schedule that has changed little over time. My ideas are inspired by reading, traveling and talking to people. I'm usually reading four or five books simultaneously so the syntax and narratives swirl in my mind along with the sensations of wherever I'm traveling. While drinking huge mugs of tea, I write down ideas and titles in my notebooks and sometimes I take pictures of things that grab me as great topics. From there, I write a short outline of the story idea, which serves as my pitch to editors. Sometimes, phrases and topics come to me right before I wake up so I keep a notebook by my bed. When I'm writing about music, I usually listen to whatever genre I'm writing about but if  I 'm not, I find that music distracts me way too much. As a music lover, I can never just leave the melodies and lyrics in the background, I'm always analyzing the delivery, contemplating the words or dancing. When I'm writing out the story, I look at related photos and have my notes and research by my laptop. I like to have at least a few days to let a story sit and then come back to it with fresh eyes after I've finished it but I don't always have that luxury. I'll do revisions and then send it in. I'd like to work on writing my work with enough time to really let it marinate and be able to do multiple revisions and versions.

Well, that's my basic writing process, I'd love to hear about your creative process as well.
(Travel photos are from my recent trip to one of my favorite islands, St. Lucia.)

Please meet my fellow blog hop writers:

Lebawit Lily Girma has contributed writing and photography to CNN Travel, New York Magazine, AFAR, American Way, Travel Channel, BBC Travel, and others. She’s the new author of Moon Belize for Moon Travel Guides, and is completing a second title, Moon Belize Cayes.A serial expat, Lily’s lived and studied on three continents, including Africa–from her native Ethiopia to Cote d’Ivoire––and Europe, and is fluent in four languages. A former attorney who ditched the office for the road in 2009, she favors all things culture and adventure, and escapes Washington DC’s winters every year. Lily also runs her award-winning travel and photography blog, Sunshine and Stilettos.

Angela Corrias is a freelance travel journalist and photographer. Born in Italy, she left her home country after college and since then she has lived in Dublin London and Shanghai. Now she's back in Italy and made Rome her new home and the base for her future wanderings. Among her favorite activities is updating her travel blogs, Chasing The Unexpected and 

Mario L√≥pez-Goicoechea is a freelance writer and reviewer who has contributed pieces to various publications such as The Guardian, The Voice, (the now defunct) New Nation, Noticias (monthly newspaper for the Latin American community in the UK) and London’s multicultural online newspaper The Prisma. Since 2007 he has written the blog A Cuban in London whose range of subjects, popularity and quality merited its inclusion in the first anthology of the Cuban blogosphere, Buena Vista Social Blog. He is married with two children and lives in London.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Live Flamenco in an Andalusian Garden

The breadth of the beauty and the richness of the culture that I experienced in Andalusia is overwhelming. I took 732 photos on my DSLR, 200 on my point and shoot camera and 100 on my phone. It was hard to decide what to share first so I thought about the essence of Spanish culture. I observed a great respect and value for family, food and music. So I decided on one of my most memorable experiences, listening to live flamenco in the garden patio of Alcadima Hotel, in Lanjaron. It's a family run hotel that sits surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Alpujarra region. We were treated to a nine course dinner prepared by the owner himself and served by his son.The lush gardens that encircled the patio are tended by his grandmother. He invited a local flamenco guitarist who was accompanied by his mother, who danced the stomping rhythms along with his playing. If you can imagine the heady sensations of a striking landscape, rich food, warm hospitality and hypnotic music all at once, then that was what Andalusia was like. Please watch my video and you can get a glimpse of this trans formative experience.