Sunday, August 30, 2009

Marauding In Mexico

I had no intention of traveling to Mexico to hang out with pirates. Cozumel was a popular hideout for pirates during the 17th century but this is the new millennium. Pirates are played out. So when I gazed at the Jean Lafitte floating slowly toward the Cozumel dock, I didn't know what to think.

Until I spied Pork Chop or Chuleta, as I liked to call him, in his Mexicana pink shirt, brandishing a sword. I knew I was in trouble.

El Capitain peered down from the ship's mast with a nefarious expression. He looked like he was sizing up people to loot.

El Capitain climbed further up the mast with Sparky, hovering over everyone and everything in the ship. My stomach dropped. Should I jump overboard? Hideout in the lower deck? Break out my silk scarf, fashion it into a pirate doo-rag and join them?

Then the whole motley crew descended upon us. They started going through purses, pulling off rings, hugging and kissing women and eyeing watches. El Capitain examined Laura's pearls but decided not to snatch them. He looked at my necklace but since it was only an abalone shell purchased from a local vendor, he left it alone as well.

Despite such thievery, I began to warm to these pirates. They sang. They told jokes. They looked really good in tight pants and eyeliner. Then they did something I've never seen pirates do. They danced. In rhythm. They performed a limbo dance, swiveled their hips to salsa and performed a rousing rendition of YMCA that let me know that indeed, these were my kind of pirates.

Risking their lives by leaving evidence, Pork chop and El Capitain posed for a photo with me. I told them that it was just for my personal memories, that I'd never show it to anyone. I lied.

With a melancholy spirit, I watched as as the Jean Lafitte sailed off into the brilliant Cozumel sunset. Afterwards, I caught a lot of flack for hanging out with pirates. But wouldn't you do the same thing if the pirates were this cool?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Special Cozumel Celebration

Few things thrill me more than a wedding. The happiness and romance never fails to whip me into a frenzy. So when I spied a suspicious little happy face next to "Marissa and Brian event" on my Cozumel itinerary, I suspected that some sort of ceremony was in the plans. Straight from the airplane, I pounced on Marissa and Brian. (shameless I know) Didn't matter that I didn't know who they were, where they were from or exactly what they were doing. Somebody was planning a ceremony and I had to be a part of it. Turns out they had no plans at all. They wanted to renew their vows and had no clue how they wanted to do it. That was my cue. High school sweethearts! Three kids under four-years old! They deserved a twilight, beach ceremony complete with flowers, music and private 5-course, romantic dinner.

So I told Laura, a Royal Holiday account manager, that they should have candles and a flower strewn path.

The chairs were elegantly covered in white and were guarded by bouncers that directed beach goers somewhere else. This wasn't my idea but it worked.

Marissa looked gorgeous in a flowing floral confection, strolling down the candlelit aisle.

Marissa and Brian renewed their vows in the shadow of the sunset, with a Mexican breeze blowing through their hair.

Did I mention that I officiated the ceremony? Even though Sean, another account exec is an ordained minister, they elected me to do the ceremony since I was so involved in all the arrangements. Needless to say, I almost didn't make it. We went snorkeling the afternoon before the ceremony and afterwards, I took a little nap that stretched into evening. Laura called me minutes before the ceremony with grave concern filling her voice. Of all people, nobody expected the wedding planner to be late! I dashed down the cobblestone path like Cinderella at midnight. That's when they informed me that I would officiate.

Marissa and Brian had both packed bibles and they had me read passages from Matthew and I Corinthians. Out of all my travel adventures, this ceremony is one that I will always remember. Our group gathered to take photos afterwards. I insisted on the bouquet-throwing ritual, which featured much ducking and dodging.

Kristin landed the bouquet and I briefed her about my expectations that I would plan her wedding next. I don't know if that scared her or the fact that she caught the bouquet in the land of Ixchel, Mayan goddess of childbirth and fertility.

We left the joyful couple to their five course, beach side meal, hoping that Ixchel would work her magic on them once again.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Journey To Ixchel and San Gervasio

One of the things that excited me most about Cozumel was the chance to explore the Mayan goddess Ixchel's shrine at San Gervasio. The 2,000 year old structure covers 125 acres in the Cozumel rain forest. Mimi, our authoritative guide above, showed our group the intricacies of ancient Mayan culture.

San Gervasio is the biggest archaeological site in Cozumel and is located in the center of the island. Ixchel is the Mayan goddess of the moon and fertility and women made the pilgrimage to the shrine from as far away as what is now Belize and Guatemala to ensure that they birthed the average 18 kids expected of a Mayan woman.

The structures were created from a mixture of stucco, honey, gum and crushed shells. Temples typically boasted a sauna and a steam bath with hot rocks so that followers could purify themselves by sweating, praying and meditating.

The steps to the shrines are very small, forcing worshipers to walk sideways so as not to look the priest in the face, which is a sign of respect.

This is the the entrance to the 9 mile road called Sac Bey or white road,that they Maya took to reach the shrines. They would walk by moonlight when it was cooler, leaving their canoes back at the end of the road. The arch is about 5 feet tall and dates from 1200-1650 A.D.

The Maya cut the limestone rocks using onyx knifes. The innovation and details of these shrines and altars still remain, thousands of years later.
An aura of the sacred hovers around the site and Mexican women still make pilgrimages to Ixcehl's shrine. In a little box in front of the shrine below, we saw flowers, coins and incense left as offerings to Ixchel. They say that Cozumel retains something in the water and that couples routinely return home pregnant. I don't know about that but I was happy to pay my respects to Ixchel.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Reading Down Babylon

Caribbean culture brims with nuance. A rural Jamaican patois sounds flatter than a Kingston accent, which doesn't sound as British as a Trinidadian one. Bajan rice and peas typically boast coconut milk, which you'll never find in the same staple prepared in St. Croix. These details never quite translate to the broad, mostly off key caricatures that fill American media. There's a whole lot more to the region than smiling faces, jerk chicken and ganja. Trust me. If you can't travel to the Caribbean and experience the complexities, the next best thing is to read Caribbean literature that captures the richness of a specific island. Geoffrey Philp's Who's Your Daddy and Other Stories not only conjures up the sounds and images of rural Jamaica, it also reflects the Jamaican community in Miami, which is an element that I've never seen portrayed quite so vividly.

I found myself enmeshed in the layers of Cuban and Jamaican politics with the riveting story, Joseph's Dream. Joseph has clawed his way up from rural Jamaica to the head of a Miami daycare empire. Along the way, he meets Silvio, A Cuban immigrant who prides himself in the honor of his family name. Silvio rails against the perception that all Cubans are corrupt. Joseph rails against the stereotype of all Jamaicans being drug dealers. They eat arroz con pollo together and join forces. Silvio heads the Hialeah branch of the daycare and builds a tight connection with the local Cuban community. When Silvio needs help, he hires his cousin Caridad,who represents the new Latin women with looks, charm and degrees. But all is not as it appears, as Betty, Joseph's homespun Jamaican secretary observes, "sorry for mawga dawg, mawga dawg turn round and bite you." (Mawga means scrawny.) It's an old Jamaican saying popularized by a Peter Tosh tune that basically means that many will bite the hand that feeds them. Caridad turns on Silvio and Joseph, tearing down their shining Jamaican and Cuban partnership. The story reveals a lot about the tensions between the two groups and the possibilities for true community.

Another story, I Want To Disturb My Neighbor explores the spiritual and religious aspects of rural Jamaica. I enjoyed the tale because it gives an authentic picture of the struggle between mainstream religion and Rastafari. Contrary to popular belief, Rastafarianism, which holds that the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie is Jesus Christ returned, has never won widespread acceptance anywhere in the Caribbean. Most practitioners were regularly persecuted until very recently. In the story, Courtneigh, an adolescent boy, is sent by his mother to tell their rasta neighbor Jah Mick, to turn his reggae music down so she can lead a bible study. Humorous and direct, Courtneigh boasts a colorful voice that dissects the real issues behind the adults problems. "Jah Mick had gone up as Michael, what society people like my mother used to call "a decent boy." But he'd come back six months ago with a new name and a new flex, a beard and long dreads-a "boogooyagga." You don't need no translation. So it mean, so it sound. Say it, "Boo-goo-yagga, Boo-goo-yagga." It sound bad, eh?"

A poet, playwright and English professor, Geoffrey Philp fills his stories with the lyricism of Jamaican speech as well as engaging characters. There are quite a few married playboys with "outside children," a closeted and torn gay teen, a first person tale of Geoffrey using his hypnotic Jamaican dialect to sweet talk an unreliable refrigerator and even a dread-locked vampire. The collection's 20 stories serve as an inventive display of the many nuances of Jamaican culture. Check out more of Geoffrey's writing on his popular blog.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Cape Verdean Summer Music

It's a steamy, hazy, August day in Chicago and for me nothing captures the listlessness of a hot summer day better than Cape Verdean music. The melodies skip playfully but the tone still manages to sound languid. I have quite a few favorites, including Sara Tavares and Lura. I saw Lura a few weeks ago, swirling around sensuously and raising the roof (figuratively) of Millennium Park with her dynamic vocals. Most of the audience was mesmerized, even though they clearly had no idea where or what, Cape Verde was.

Save for the looming presence of Cesaria Evora and her powerful interpretations of classic Cape Verdean mornas, the music of this isolated archipelago off the coast of Senegal, West Africa is mostly unknown by the West. Colonized by the Portuguese and largely ignored for most of its 500 years of occupation, the 10 small islands are prone to devastating drought as well as constant emigration. Since the country’s independence in 1975, there are more Cape Verdeans living abroad than in Cape Verde. One of those displaced Cape Verdeans is Lura, a charismatic young singer living in Lisbon, her music uncovers the sensual and complex sounds of Cape Verde for the rest of the world.

Lura's childhood was steeped in the percussive, ritual-based sounds of batuco, finacon and funana, rather than the Portuguese-influenced morna. Batuco is the percussion and funana are the rhythms that were formed by hand-clapping, call and response and the beating of cloth called tchabeta, held between the legs. Finacon as well as funana will sometimes feature accordions or scrapers. The music was improvised during rituals and celebrations but was outlawed by the Catholic Church because it was considered too erotic. After independence, pop bands rushed to incorporate these traditional sounds into contemporary tunes for a totally new sound that resembled the jerky rhythms of Caribbean zouk music. Lura's music, however, retains a distinctive sound all her own.

Listen as her throaty yet breezy vocals pour over "Oh Naia," an accordion-driven funana about a border guard she accuses of overcharging her because she failed to bring her anything back from her Lisbon trip. Watch for the traditional Cape Verdean dance moves toward the end.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Taste Trippin' Part Tres

*Mouth-watering food pix alert. Do not read on an empty stomach.

Even though I was exhausted from the Blogher and TBEX conferences, my husband and I managed to skip out to Colombia to celebrate our anniversary. Of course, I'm talking about La Fonda Latino Grill in Chicago's vibrant Edgewater neighborhood. We were served up heaping doses of Colombian flavors and hospitality. Melodic rock en Espanol and Latin dance mixes filled the intimate eatery as we stuffed ourselves silly.

The interior is washed in warm colors accented with fanciful paintings that invite leisurely dining. Colombian cuisine, like most South American fare, focuses heavily on red meat and I wasn't sure that I would be able to eat many things on the menu. It turned out not to be a problem, La Fonda features meatless dishes like spinach mushroom empanadas, arepas, and fish options like salmon and red snapper.

We started with fresh fruit drinks whipped up with Colombian fruits that I had never heard of, even though I pride myself with having a large tropical fruit vocabulary. I ordered maracuya, which is passion fruit, pictured on the right and my husband tried lulo, which is a fruit that only grows in Ecuador and Colombia. Thanks to a crash Colombian fruit course given by Fly Brother, I learned that lulo is a very popular fruit used in sauces as well as drinks.

It tastes tangy, sort of like lime and rhubarb, not like the wild apple that was described to us at La Fonda. You can see from the image above that it looks like a tomato on the outside and a fig and papaya on the inside.

My hubby wolfed down an appetizer of ceviche camorones or shrimp ceviche. Colombian food is dictated by region and fresh seafood is popular in coastal areas.

I sampled an arepa with cheese and mushrooms, which I failed to finish. Arepas are corn cakes that are popular street foods but I didn't expect it to be this big! It was slightly bland but still tasty.

My hubby of the huge appetite feasted on cazuela de marsicos or seafood stew for his entree. It was more soupy than anything and he was dazzled by the complexities of the seasoning. He tasted the fresh shellfish and a myriad of spices including garlic, cilantro and pepper. It also managed to fill him to the point of not finishing, which doesn't happen very often.

I opted for the classic arroz con pollo and was not disappointed. The dish was studded with a surprising array of vegetables--lima beans, carrots, peas, that I've never seen prepared in the dish before. It also boasted the required fried plantains and lots of turmeric. I didn't finish that either but enjoyed eating it over the next two days! This post is part of Wanderfood Wednesday on Wanderlust and Lipstick. Check out the other foodie posts!