Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Holidays

May the season bring you joy, peace and the warmth of family and friends. If you're really special  (and have some canned mackerel lying around) you might just be granted a visit from Fufu, the Christmas Cat.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Last Bow For The Barefoot Diva

Cesaria Evora evoked the longing and melancholy of Cape Verde's morna like no other singer. The island nation of Cape Verde is located miles from the West African coast and centuries of isolation and frequent emigration by the small population helped develop the national music of yearning called morna.  Cesaria cradled the nuanced melodies of morna in her supple contralto voice so that no translation was needed. Morna is frequently compared to blues and Cesaria evoked the bearing of a true blues diva.  She gained international fame as a hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking, grandmother who always performed barefoot in solidarity with the poor. Her voice is haunting and unforgettable and her legacy will live on through 10 albums, a Grammy and the countless lives that she touched.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Sunset Memories

Sunset is my favorite time of day. I love the drama of the changing sky and the pretty colors that spread across it. Of course, the best sunsets are always over water so I've compiled some of the most memorable sunsets of my island travels. My all time favorite is this stunning sunset over Hilton Head Island, above. The Spanish moss dripping over the water just ups the dazzling effect.

This sunset is dipping down over Eleuthera in the photo above. The amber and apricot hues over the water and palm trees create a lovely image.

I think this flame-colored sunset over Cozumel is the most striking. It looks like streaks of fire rolling over the water. The fact that I viewed this from a pirate ship seems extremely appropriate.

In Fajardo, Puerto Rico, the slip of rosiness behind the palm tree on the right qualifies as the most delicate sunset. Do you have any sunset (or sunrise) memories from your travels?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Accents and America

I'm a huge music fan so although I don't follow them every week, I can never resist even scholocky music reality shows like X-Factor. But I was totally thrown off guard last week not by the music but by front runner Melanie Amaro's accent. After two months in the competition, intense emotions finally unleashed her true Virgin Islands accent, which she had covered with a proper American drawl.  Fans watched amazed as a heavy Caribbean patois poured out of Melanie's mouth. "This is the real Melanie," she explained when asked about her suddenly transformed speech pattern.  The singer had learned to adopt an American accent when people complained that they couldn't understand her.  So, like so many immigrants to this country, she felt compelled to blend in and "cater" to American sensibilities. I watched with tears in my eyes because I know the emotional and psychological toll that this embeds on someone's spirit.  It's not simply a matter of speech but identity.

Melanie realized that being a staggeringly talented 19-year-old from the tiny island of Tortola, British Virgin Islands, wasn't quite as acceptable as being a 19-year-old from Florida, which is where she moved a few years ago.  Lots of fans are saying her accent is cool and it makes her more "interesting." (We won't even get into descriptions of her accent as "Rihanna-esque" because that's the only Caribbean accent Americans  know. For the record, Rihanna is from Barbados, the accents aren't the same.)  That may be true but the ugly reality is that Melanie would never have been embraced  by the American public on the same level if she had started the competition with her accent. Americans do not like the effort it takes to understand a foreign accent. You have to adjust your listening to the cadence of the speaker and that's just too much to be bothered with.  Forget the myth of the American Melting Pot, that's just folklore.  I have too many friends who just like Melanie, felt compelled to lose their accents as soon as they discovered that Americans hold it against them. Instead of thinking that a person with an accent is most likely bi or multilingual and how beneficial that is, they think of how much easier it would be if everyone spoke the same language. I'm not making this up. The University of Chicago conducted a study that shows that Americans believe people with accents are less credible. So if who you really are isn't  considered credible, where does that leave you?  It leaves you trying to be someone you aren't. Melanie has acknowledged  that now that she's revealed her true self, there's no going back. I'm happy for her. An online gambling website has already predicted that she has the highest odds of winning the X Factor. I just wish the odds of retaining your accent and your identity in America, were higher.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Montreal's Jean Talon Market

Montreal is a true foodie destination, you won't be able to take more than a few steps without spotting a chic cafe, gourmet restaurant or specialty food shop. This vibrant city entices with lots of flavors and dishes but my most memorable sensory experience was at the legendary Jean Talon Market. Located in the center of Montreal  in the landmark Little Italy neighborhood, this colorful and lively market is the biggest outdoor market in North America and the most charming.  Opened in 1933, Jean Talon mixes old world character with contemporary style for a shopping experience like no other. Tackling Jean Talon requires fortification  so I headed to a nearby Italian bakery beforehand. The dreamy, creamy, cannoli above stopped me in my tracks. Mind you, I don't even like cannoli but I felt compelled to buy some and after one fluffy, crispy, nibble, I can say that I do like cannoli. As long as they are fresh and from Montreal's Little Italy.

Although you can skim the market in an hour, it took me two just to explore some of the over 300 vendors and that's not including tasting all the samples, which is an important part of the Jean Talon experience. The market is brimming with fresh produce but I gravitated toward the more typical Quebecois products like the maple syrup lollipops, above. 

I made my way to the locally produced honey in flavors like apple, blueberry and raspberry, above.

These zany plants caught my eye because of  prominent signs commanding shoppers not to touch them. Apparently, these plants capture insects with a sticky substance and leave movements and one little tap will stimulate this action . It made me wonder how in the world you are supposed to carry them home.

The fromagerie  or cheese shop, is a major part of Montreal culture and they are everywhere at Jean Talon. I sampled mustard with wild mushrooms and fresh goat cheese from the shop above. I topped it off with samples of  different varieties of ice wine and then finished with strawberry-cranberry-hibiscus cake. I left with a feeling of visual and gustatory satisfaction that few shopping excursions can deliver.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Avoiding The Inevitable at Orange Hill Beach

It's November. Which translates as cold in Chicago, which means the imminent arrival of snow, wind and misery. So how do I cope?  At the beach, of course. I traveled to Nassau over the weekend and spent hours at the beach soaking up the sun and sea as fortification for six months of freezing temperatures. Orange Hill Beach is a small public beach on the north end of Nassau. Lined with coral and mounds of seaweed, I found  the beach charming and mostly untouched. I  only shared the beach with seagulls and the odd beach walkers.

The tide was high but the water was warm and soothing. I floated in the waves and then sat on the beach absorbing the serenity.

I snapped pix using the KOLA manual color flash,, a collection of colorful plastic lens that I've been lugging around in my carry on for months but have always forgotten to use.  With such a pretty and  unfussy landscape, Orange Hill Beach provided the perfect opportunity to try it out.  First I used red.

Then the green to offset the turquoise hues of the ocean.

And finally, my favorite rose hue. Which do you like best and what are you doing to prepare for winter weather?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Shave Ice And All That's Nice

Kaua'i is an island that boasts several taste highlights that are a must for any visitor. You must try Hanalei poi, you must nibble a Pukka Dog and you must sample shave ice.  Now JoJo's is the place that will usually top shave ice lists or maybe Halo Halo but I didn't get a chance to go to either. Instead, I was advised to visit  Uncle's Shave Ice, a new treat shop in Koloa.  Shave ice might look like typical sno cone fodder but it's not. Good shave ice is literally shaved into a fluffy, snow like texture, it shouldn't be crunchy.  I tried an ice that was covered with my favorite lillikoi (passion fruit) fl as well as guava syrups. It literally melted on my tongue. The popular Hawaiian style is to fill the bottom of the ice cup with rich, macadamia nut ice cream but I nixed that. I figured I'd be overwhelmed by all the strong flavors. As it was, it took me hours to finish the heady fruity flavors of my shave ice. Yes, it melted but it was still tasty!  What was your last memorable travel taste experience?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Kaua'i Mountain Tubing

Kaua'i is a topographically diverse island filled with gorgeous canyons, lovely beaches and sweeping mountains. You have to experience all of these aspects to really get the complete picture of Kaua'i and one of the most adventurous options is to go mountain tubing. I love mountains and I love being in the water so mountain tubing sounded like a fun, if slightly scary excursion to try. I glimpsed the mountains looming over every place I visited on the island and I figured mountain tubing would be a much easier way to see them up close than hiking them. Kauai Backcountry features the only mountain tubing experience  on the gorgeous grounds of the former Lihue Plantation.  I not only gained upfront views of Kaua'i's  majestic mountains, I witnessed the expertise of the complex irrigation system of tunnels and flumes hand dug over a century ago. That's what I call an adventure.

The tour starts with the tour guide outfitting passengers in headlamps, gloves and tubes. Believe it or not, the trickiest part of the adventure was learning how to feel for the headlamp switch with thick gloves on. You need the lamp in the dark tunnels and I did not want to be floating around in pitch black caverns so I spent extra time perfecting my light switching technique.  I also brought my own water shoes which turned out to be a good idea because the area is one of the wettest places in the world and it gets really muddy.  Our group jumped into a four-wheel drive jeep and headed through the lush lands to the mountains.  The vistas and valleys are spectacular, as you can see from the image above. You really get a sense of connecting with nature.  One connection I didn't count on was how frigid the water would be.  My booty felt like a Popsicle as I hopped into a ditch on top of the tube and  floated until we came to a cave. We were instructed to turn our headlamps on and it was eerie and exciting floating through the dark with glimpses of cave walls and markings left by workers who built the system in 1870, which offered a great historical backdrop. Afterwards, a simple picnic lunch is served in a picturesque valley. It's a three-hour tour that really supplies an engaging view of Kaua'i nature and history.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Hula Kupe'e

In Kaua'i hula, like all aspects of traditional Hawaiian culture, is taken very seriously.  It's not about pretty costumes and elegant moves but about the meaning and purpose behind them. The colors, patterns and style of a dancer's adornments all reflect an aspect of their background and training. For instance, if a dancer is honoring Kane who is symbolized by fresh water, they may wear colors and patterns that imitate water. During the Prince Kuhio Celebration, I was honored to learn how to make kupe'e, which are traditional wrist and ankle adornments that draw attention to graceful hand and feet movements.

The process begins with asking permission from the god of hula before picking the plants. Depending on the hula, there are proper plants that should accompany the song. An array of plants were spread out on a table during the kupe'e workshop. Some plants offer wonderful aromas and some supply sounds. I selected the ones that were easiest to weave into the raffia wristband.

It looks easy but it took me awhile to get the plants to lay in the right direction and provide enough visual interest. Dancers of Hula Kahiko or ancient hula, place a lot of emphasis on kupe'e because their movements are usually more structured, using stiff hands whereas  modern hula or Hula Auana, emphasizes graceful hands.

My finished kape'e made me want to bust a few hula moves but that's a whole other post.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fly in Korean

Being fly translates into any language. It doesn't matter if you rock an edgy salwar kameez in Mumbai or a hot samba skirt in Sao Paulo, fly is fly.  And right now I'm fly in Korean because my current fave t-shirt showcases a cool chick with a Korean phrase, above. Besides the vivid cornflower blue hue and the beautifully hand drawn illustration, what really sold me on this tee was the meaning of that phrase. It says, "everyone's entitled to my opinion"! I had to have it.  But Chicago designer Anna Hovet creates a tempting slew of culturally clever, signature tees that had me dizzy with the possibilities. I  seriously considered snatching up all of these $30 t-shirts.

This innocent-looking tee above, says "looking for trouble" in Haitian Kreyol.  I contemplated this one but since I really don't like attracting trouble, I decided against it.

This one called out to me first. The attitude and the fact that it's in Italian was enough  for me.When I found it it says "not all bad girls wear black," it was all over.  I wasn't the only one that loved this shirt because it' sold out before I could grab the last one.

This one reminds me of  an old school True Romance photo. But that's misleading because the phrase is much cheekier than what you'd find in those magazines. It says "I should come with a warning label" in Portuguese. I love the whole idea behind these culturally diverse designs. I like to think of it as having a truly worldly wardrobe. Have any cultural styles caught your eye recently?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Taste Trippin' Part Seven

It's that time again. No matter that the sun is still shining in Chicago and the temps haven't dipped to their customarily frigid levels, it's the season to travel to one of my favorite islands. There are very few places that can match Jamaica's stunning beauty but what I love most of all is the island's unparalleled culture. Music and food are the hallmark's of genuine Jamaica culture and I like to envelop myself in both at Chicago's Ja Grill. No, there's no palm trees and there's no lyrical patois floating everywhere but there is ackee and saltfish.  The national dish of Jamaica is a savory blend of salted cod and mild ackee fruit, traditionally served for breakfast. The ackee is a  delicate, pale yellow,West African fruit that is poisonous until it's fully ripe, which is why I leave it to the experts to cook up one of my favorite dishes in the world. So I grabbed my friends and flew over to Jamaica via JA Grill and spent three hours at their legendary Sunday brunch. With vintage ska music pumping through the color-splashed walls, I immediately ordered the ackee and saltfish, above. Rice and peas, cabbage and plantains round out this meal and you would think that's all I'd need but you would be wrong.

By the time the music switched to Bob Marley classics, Sheila the Bajan Beach Bunny had ordered a plate of curried goat, above. The buffet is all you can eat and requires well-conditioned stamina and pacing. I sampled a bowl of fruit before I started my ackee and saltfish, as well as festival, a slightly sweet cornmeal and flour fritter.

The next dish that we ordered was the curried chicken, with heaping sides of callaloo, a leafy green vegetable also called amaranth and the requisite rice and peas and plantains. I really didn't have any room for any of the curry so I rested and lounged until I regained my energy.

The ital stew pictured above, a creamy mixture of vegetables simmered in coconut milk was tempting so I took two whole spoonfuls before I had to retire eating for the rest of the day. The Beach Bunny wouldn't hear of that until I had ended our munching marathon on the expected sweet note.

The sweetness arrived in the form of  fluffy waffles and butter rum syrup.  The actual dish consisted of jerk chicken and waffles but there's no way we'd survive that so we settled for a small taste of the waffles with divine butter rum syrup that was strong enough to make me woozy. We stumbled out of the brunch stuffed and satisfied, the only thing missing was a hammock to catch a quick cat nap under the beaming (Chicago) sun.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Homage To Honeyboy

Last week, the world lost a wonderfully illuminating spirit and the last living link to the Delta blues. David "Honeyboy" Edwards was a legendary musician and beloved Chicago blues icon. There was such wisdom and skill that flowed through his sharply dressed, 96-year-old frame that I felt like he was divinely guided. He is mourned as the last Delta bluesman and the last connection to Robert Johnson, Honeyboy witnessed the "King of the Delta Blues" sip his last drop of poisoned whiskey but he represents so much more than that. I'm still struggling to articulate this devastating loss and what it means to blues in particular and American music in general. As the blues community battles for our heritage and birthright, I believe that Honeyboy will be assisting us.  Here is my favorite Honeyboy quote:

"Blues ain’t never going anywhere. It can get slow, but it ain’t going nowhere. You play a low-down dirty shame slow and lonesome, my mama dead, my papa across the sea I ain’t dead but I’m just supposed to be blues. You can take that same blues, make it up-tempo, a shuffle blues, that’s what rock ‘n roll did with it. So blues ain’t going nowhere."
David "Honeyboy" Edwards 1915-2011

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Shark Summit

The first time I glimpsed the dots bubbling underneath the ocean on the left, I thought I was hallucinating. I had sailed a jerky, sun-scorching hour to get to the whale shark reserve of Isla Contoy on the Yucatan Peninsula and needless to say, I wasn't in the best mental state.  The dreaded sea-seasickness had kicked in and I wasn't sure if I was seeing things.

 When we set off at the crack of dawn for EcoColors Whale Shark Adventure, I didn't know what to expect. I certainly didn't expect this Mayan warrior above, jumping and waving his talisman on the dock. I think he was wishing us vaya con Dios Americanos estupidos. It did not feel comforting but what did I know?

I was still smiling when I hopped on the boat, excited about this once-in-a lifetime experience. There are only two places you can see whale sharks in the world:Australia and Mexico. And I wasn't going to just see them, I was going to splash down right next to them and snorkel.

By the time we set sail and the ocean rippled and rocked our small boat, I was having tiny second thoughts. Whale sharks are the biggest fish on Earth, averaging 41,50 feet and 47,000 pounds. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to get all up in their face. Just at that point, the bubbles rose up to reveal a cluster of polka-dotted whale sharks, surrounding our boat. It was almost like they were inviting us to join them.

This baby whale shark floated so close that I could touch him. I slung on  my snorkel mask and jumped in, queasy stomach and all. Our naturalist guide led us to a small group of whale sharks, We were instructed not to swim in front of the sharks because their eyes are on the side and they can't see in front. We swam on the side of the speckled fish, which are part of the shark family but are a slow-moving, filter-feeding variety. They eat plankton, microscopic plants and small animals. I was assured that human morsels are not included in their diet, which is a good thing because they swam so close to me that they brushed up against my skin. Although they ballooned out hundreds of feet around me, they weren't menacing but playful, like dolphins. Unlike dolphins, whale sharks are classified as "vulnerable to extinction" on the World Conversation Union's Red List. I'm glad I endured the six-hour adventure, there are only about  2,500 whale sharks in Mexico and I snagged an up close and personal visit with quite a few of them.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fun in the Sun Without The Burn

I love the sun. It's no coincidence that much of my traveling takes place in climates where the sun blazes nonstop. Nothing encourages exploration and adventure quite like a sunny day, as long as you're equipped to handle it. Besides sunscreen and sun glasses, I always pack sun hats for any tropical escapade. And by sun hats, I don't mean the geeky safari or outback variety. You can have sun protection and style all in one hat and I have a carefully curated arsenal to prove it. The only problem is that not all fashionable sun hats are crushable and easy to pack so I'm always on the lookout for more.  So when I received a  review sample of  the La Scala Collezione sun hat with SPF 50 sun protection, I was a little excited.  I wasn't a lot excited because I was skeptical of the claim that this hat would block 97.5 percent of the sun's ultraviolet rays. With a cute ric-rac design, cotton and polyester fabric and a bendable four-inch brim, this little chapeau just didn't look that powerful. So I took it on the ultimate test--Mexico in the heat of the summer.

There's something about the intense Mexican sun that always scorches me, I don't care how much sunscreen or how many hats that I wear. I have never stepped a toe into Mexico without coming home with some part of my body burned. I wore the La Scala hat in 98 degree heat as I waltzed through Isla Mujeres, dripping in sweat.  Guess what? After a total of nine hours in the sun, I wasn't even lightly singed. Very impressive for a hat that's  also cute and packable. I wish I could tell you that I finally made it home from Mexico without any sunburn but I can not. The one day I didn't wear the hat, I promptly burned my nose and cheeks (slathered with sunscreen). I probably need to order one of these hats in every color. They cost $30 and can be ordered at What are some of your sun protection tips?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Anne's Angst: Raspberry Cordial or Currant Wine

You can't go many places in Canada and not be greeted with a reference from the classic children's book,  set in Canada's Prince Edward Island, Anne of Green Gables.  But I was surprised and delighted to spot bottles of  raspberry cordial at Montreal's Jean-Talon Market. In a pivotal scene in the book, dramatic Anne serves her best friend Diana huge tumblers full of raspberry cordial. Only it's not zesty raspberry cordial but Marilla's  homemade currant wine and Diana stumbles home drunk.  Poor Anne is forever banned from seeing her best friend for getting her in such a wicked state. Sipping the fruity drink, I was transported to weeks reading the Anne of Green Gables books as a child and then reliving them with my daughter decades later. Have you ever seen anything that brought you back to your childhood during your travels?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Montreal Circus Arts

Montreal is a city that vibrates with quirkiness. You'll see evidence of this everywhere from the edgy public art to the funky fashion. I'll have posts on both of those things but another quirky example that really struck me was the prevalence of circus arts. I know that this is the city that birthed Cirque du Soleil but I was caught off guard. My first vision upon entering the acclaimed Montreal Jazz Festival  was the pair of hula hoopers, above.

I was just not prepared for this sight or the mimes, stilt walkers and jugglers that I also saw everywhere I turned. I've attended lots of jazz festivals but I've never witnessed any circus performers during them.

By the time I saw these aerialists, I had discovered that Montreal takes its circus arts very seriously. It's treated like any other art form and admittance to the National Circus Performers School Montreal carries as much prestige as entrance into an Ivy League college.

Cirque du Soleil is just the most famous, there are dozens of similar troupes in Montreal and I enjoyed a taste  of their dramatic attributes for most of the time that I visited Montreal.

Friday, July 29, 2011

A View From The Top: Montreal's Mount Royal

Topping 764 feet, Montreal's Mount Royal is the highest point in the city and the best place to grab panoramic views of the city.  Bikers, hikers and walkers fill the trails, as this is one of the most popular green spaces in Montreal. The mountain is surrounded by a lovely park landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same man who designed New York's Central Park.

Just below the mountain is Beaver Lake, a favorite spot for ducks in the summer and ice skaters in the winter.  The lush prettiness and great views make Mount Royal a Montreal must see.