Sunday, March 29, 2009

Into The Fire

So I've been hanging out in Spain lately. I spent the weekend watching Woody Allen's "Vicki Cristina Barcelona," eating tapas and listening to live flamenco music. There's something about the intensity of Spanish culture that yanks at me. Watching flamenco dancers twirl their skirts and stomp out rhythms at the local nightclub/restaurant Alahambra Palace (more on this in another post), wasn't enough. So I dug through my flamenco music collection. I love flamenco in all it's forms, traditional guitar, nuevo and fusion. The drama, romance and emotion of the music enthralls me. But I haven't found a single flamenco artist that enthralls me quite like Concha Buika.

Born on Mallorca of parents from Equatorial Guinea, Buika grew up in a swirl of African, jazz and gitano (gypsy) sounds. Her third CD "Nina de Fuego" (Fire Girl) shows her literally unveiled on the cover, with tattoos of the names of her female family members, her muses, trailing down one arm. It's a symbolic image that perfectly captures the rawness and vulnerability of Buika's music. Her smokey, throaty vocals melts around a verse and stabs it out in another. The CD showcases a hypnotic fusion of jazz, flamenco and soul singing. No matter if you don't speak Spanish, the power of her voice leaps over all cultural barriers. You feel the longing and soul-wrenching passion in every note. Javier Limon's guitar soars as eloquently as Buika's voice. It's a perfect, 11-track album, from beginning to end. I thought it was funny when I discovered that before she became the queen of flamenco fusion, Buika used to do Tina Turner tributes in Vegas. Now that I think about it, it's not so surprising. Fiery divas are divas, no matter the culture.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Riding Through St. Lu

All terrain vehicles supply another cool way to see St. Lucia. Rolling along the Honeymoon Beach area of Vieux Fort, on the island’s southern tip, the picturesque countryside and small fishing villages serve as a vivid backdrop. St. Lucia's landscape is extremely hilly and rocky so navigating an ATV can be a little jarring initially. I'd never rode an ATV and was slightly intimidated by the various gears. After bumping over rocks, potholes and hills along the rugged Atlantic coastline for about 30 minutes, you learn how to swerve around all of the obstructions.

The heat from the ATV's engine can also burn your shins. Mine started tingling after about 15 minutes. Guides provide makeshift shin guards that do the trick with pieces of foam and an elastic band to hold them in place. Lead by the baby-faced and charming Bash, we glide past small houses perched on hilltops, bamboo and cinnamon trees and cows and goats freely roaming. The ATVs roll through coconut and banana plantations before Bash stops to guide the way through secluded coves. Climbing the coves grants a spectacular vista of the Atlantic and the twin-peaked Pitons mountains, which are St. Lucia's defining feature. Amid palm trees swaying and hibiscus scenting the balmy air, we stop in the quaint town of Virgie for a snack. Fresh star fruit, mango, sugarcane and wax apple are laid out on a table for sampling. I ended the tour with mud-splattered ankles and a sense of accomplishment.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Paintball in Paradise

A tropical island isn't the typical backdrop for a heavily equipped game of paintball but St. Lucia provides an unexpected Caribbean activity with an 11,000 square foot paintball field. Nestled among coconut palms and izora blossoms on the Coconut Bay Resort in Vieux Fort, a retro industrial-inspired war zone beckons. I'm not a huge fun of paintball or any activity that requires three layers of protection, especially in camouflage. But I can't pass up any travel adventure that promises a one of a kind experience.

Guides strap a chest guard around your torso and then pull on a heavy tan camouflage jumpsuit. After an overview of rules and safety, players are equipped with mask, helmet and a 3-4 pound paintball marker, ready for battle. The poof sound of paintballs whizzing fills the air. If you're playing against seasoned paintballers, you're likely to be covered in crayon yellow paint splotches very quickly. A white canopy shelters eliminated players and onlookers. Running around in the tropical sun weighed down in about 6 pounds of equipment isn't my idea of fun but it was indeed a one of a kind experience. I was eliminated after about 10 minutes and I have to admit, taking off the mask and throwing down that paint gun felt good.
Afterwards, I headed straight to the resort's bar where Crazy Charlie mixes a refreshingly sweet and deceptive concoction called the Dirty Banana. As I've said before, I'm a light weight and Crazy Charlie took one look at me and threw out most of the drink's rum. I sipped my watered down cocktail gazing at the St. Lucian sunset, impressed that I had made it through my first (and last) paintball game.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Climbing Volcanos

A few years ago, I decided to celebrate my birthday by pushing myself (rather violently) out of my comfort zone. I travel solo all the time but I don't enjoy adventure travel by myself. What if I get hurt? What if I get killed and nobody's there to report it? I swept past these fears and headed to Costa Rica, where I zip-lined through the rain forest and climbed Central America's most active volcano, Arenal.

From a distance, I could see lava spurting. The signs warning of the danger and entering at your own risk, got bigger and bigger as I marched closer to the volcano. It was raining and the rocks were slippery. My binoculars kept fogging up but it didn't obscure the glory of Arenal. I climbed close enough to stare at the ash creeping down crevices. Arenal rises about 1633 meters above sea level. It was like gazing at Mt. Olympus.

Afterwards, I visited the hot springs at the foot of Arenal, in Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort. It's one of those tourist-filled, five-star hotels that I usually avoid but I wanted to float in the hot springs. Immersing myself in the water felt like being embraced by a liquid sun. It was thick and hot and wonderful. They served a four-course meal at Tabacon that I don't remember because about three hours later, I was sick from a parasite. I was throwing up in my hotel, on the plane and at home. It lasted for weeks. It's the only time I've ever gotten that sick on a trip so of course, I'll never forget it or Arenal. Four years later, I still haven't wiped the mud and lava from the sneakers I wore to climb the volcano. When I'm in strength-training class, crumbling from the ridiculous torture my instructor dreams up, I like to look down at my shoes and remember the strength I showed when I climbed that volcano.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Traveling Through A Liberian Childhood

I like to explore the world with books as much as I like to actually travel. A well-written narrative can transport you to places that you'd never experience with just superficial details like photos and descriptions. I've been interviewing writers about the criteria they use to select books for Summer reading and it made me think about my own general reading criteria. As a journalist, I'm really drawn to biographies, autobiographies and memoirs more than fiction. There's something about using the facts to entice readers into your world that gets me. It's no coincidence that some of my favorite writers--Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Zora Neale Hurston, Hemingway, started out as journalists. So when I glimpsed The House at Sugar Beach, at my local bookstore and saw it was a memoir written by a journalist, it was pretty much a done deal that I would buy it.

Now it wasn't only that the author Helene Cooper was a journalist, it was that she was a Liberian journalist chronicling her childhood as a member of the Liberian elite. Liberia is a country that claims an extremely complicated history. It was founded by American blacks in the 1820s and enjoyed generations of prosperity and peace. But discontent bubbled beneath the surface. Native Liberians resented the domination of the Americans and the 80s set off decades of civil wars and coups. I know all of this not because it's covered in the book but because my first college roommate was Rita Tolbert, niece of the President of Liberia and a member of the same elite group as Helene Cooper. President Tolbert was assassinated in 1980 and Rita alluded to threatened rapes, torture and lonely English boarding schools when she summed up her journey to the U.S. At the time, I only understood a little of the political situation on the African continent and I never asked Rita the probing questions that are typical for me.

So I devoured The House at Sugar Beach, eager to witness the details that had escaped me before. Helene Cooper totally delivers. From the rhythm and vernacular of Liberian English, to the cognac-colored couches that filled the 22-room, waterfront mansion where she lived, Cooper escorts her readers on a full tour of 1970s Liberia. We see the olive groves that surround their Summer house in Spain, the shacks that edge the elaborate estates of Congo people, (descendants of the American settlers) and we recognize the intensifying resentment of Native Liberians living in squalor. She also intersperses her accounts with the significant history of her family's involvement in settling Liberia and the political unrest that connects to it.

The House at Sugar Beach rivets you with the nuances of Cooper's childhood, like reading Barbara Cartland novels, eating fufu and pepper soup and telling "heartmen" stories, about men who cut the hearts out of people to sell them. The book also translates the horror of living through a coup 'd tat, where relatives were killed or raped, including Cooper's mother. Cooper, who now covers the White House for the New York Times, says the inspiration to write her story came when she realized that as a foreign correspondent, she had traveled through war zones and battle fields to record the stories of other countries, but never her own. But now Liberia has a richly defined account, that dives beyond the wars and struggles. I highly recommend The House at Sugar Beach.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Taste Trippin'

Although most of my trips are scheduled, sometimes I like to fly off with spur- of -the minute jaunts. This weekend, I dashed off to Jamaica, Cuba and Peru with a quick detour to Spain. Instead of feeling strangled with jet lag, I feel full, very full. That's because my trips involved a visit to my favorite Nuevo Latino/Caribbean eatery, Cuatro. I started out with a visit to Spain, sipping on a white wine sangria sprinkled with berries. I'm a lightweight drinker and it almost knocked me out so I traveled to Peru, for a divine ceviche with hearts of palm, avocado and whitefish. For my main excursion, I tripped over to Jamaica and Brazil for jerk chicken drenched in tamarind sauce and spicy morros y christanos accented with plantanos. Meanwhile, my traveling companions ventured into Brazil for my favorite moqueca, which I was too stuffed to sample. It was a satisfying journey that almost completely transported me, except for the good old Chicago house music that blasted a reminder that I was still at home.