Saturday, December 21, 2013

Nelson Mandela Has Gone Home

In South African indigenous cultures, death is only reserved for animals. The human spirit lives on so it is said that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has passed on, he has gone to join the ancestors, he has gone home. I have spent the last few weeks mourning this  inevitable fact, along with the rest of the world. Madiba (his Xhosa clan name) represents so much more than a political leader to me.  The brutal inhumanity of apartheid that he and his people braved, from being torn from his ancestral land to being imprisoned for 27 years because he had the audacity to protest, is inspiring not because he survived but that he refused to surrender his dignity or humanity during the process. He goes down in history for his formidable feat of forgiveness and reconciliation but he was also a  seasoned fighter who knew when to wage a battle and when to fall back. My own political awareness began with images of the children of Soweto fighting off armed police, posting "Free Mandela" posters on my college campus and arguing for the morality of divestment of South African ventures. Watching the greatness of Madiba's life played back over the last few weeks has made me realize how little we have done to promote justice and equality and how crucial it is for global peace. His most memorable words during the Rivonia Trial of 1964, which would result in a life imprisonment sentence, still hold lessons for us all:

"During me lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony, and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

He lived to see his ideal practiced in theory but the reality is still a distance away for many South Africans and people around the world, including the U.S. I don't know if we will  ever witness another freedom fighter with the strength and conviction of Madiba again but I do know that there are too many battles that will continue to be waged. Like most great political movements, music played a significant role in the struggle to end apartheid and release Mandela and other political prisoners. There are dozens of songs that celebrate Madiba and call for his return but my favorite is this one by Vusi Mahlasela, "the Voice of South Africa." You can hear the beauty and fortitude of the South African spirit in his soaring vocals. You can also hear the wisdom of his urging, "We must give something to the world and not just take from it."

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Next Stop: A Return to Lovely St. Lucia

It's turning out to be a very busy year end for me. I'm still processing Oaxaca and the beauty of Huatulco but this week I'm off to one of my favorite islands, St. Lucia. This press trip is sponsored by Coconut Bay Resort, where you may recall, I experienced the unexpected pleasure of paintball in paradise, a few years ago. I'll be tackling another unlikely adventure this time, with a dive into kite surfing as well as stand-up paddle boarding. Wish me luck on that, I'm not known for having great balance so we'll see how this turns out. I'll also return to St. Lucia's famous drive in volcano and take a catamaran journey around the island.  One thing I won't be attempting this time, is scaling St. Lucia's twin peaks, The Pitons, one of which is captured above.I need to leave something for the next visit! Stay tuned for St. Lucia posts and pics next week.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Huatulco's La India Beach

The beauty of Huatulco, Oaxaca is underscored by the fact that this quiet Mexican town boasts nine bays and 36 beaches. All of the beaches are unspoiled and uncrowded but playa La India, a crescent-shaped beach located in Chachacual Bay, wins the most attention for its serene loveliness and outstanding snorkeling.

Accessible only by boat, La India stretches out with pearly sand and lush forest. I walked the beach from one end to the other and even though there were a couple of boats full of visitors, the peace and beauty of the spot was soothing.

A coral reef surround La India so the snorkeling is very exciting, you're bound to see lots of jewel-toned fish and other sea creatures. But I preferred to just stroll the beach and listen to the waves.

I couldn't leave La India without discovering the inspiration for the beach's name. According to locals, an indigenous couple lived on the beach before it was declared part of the national park system. The government offered money for them to relocate but the woman refused to leave. I don't know how they finally persuaded her but the beach is named in her honor. I like to think that her strong spirit protects the beach from pollution and desecration to this day.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Gulping Down Grasshoppers in Huatulco

I believe in experiencing the culture of every place I visit. That's how you really connect with the essence of a location. So I was a little taken aback to discover that Huatulco's essence is buried in little, wiry, grasshopper legs. Located in Southern Mexico, along the coast of the state of Oaxaca, Huatulco pulses with Southern Mexican traditions. Munching grasshoppers or chapulines, is one of those traditions. I was hosted by Secrets Huatulco Resort and when an array of Oaxacan dishes was presented to me on my arrival, chapulines were the first ones. As you can see from the photo above, they are toasted and seasoned into a mound of spicy critter snacks.

Traditionally, chapulines are served with a variety of salsas, guacamole and totopos or tortilla chips or sprinkled on a taco.

I was lucky that my first servings were small ones that once covered with guac and salsa, I could forget that I was munching grasshoppers.  I know the closeup above looks like they're dancing on top of the chip but I didn't look at them before I stuffed them into my month. They weren't chewy or really crunchy.  They tasted like a savory, spiced snack, with a flavor a little like jerky.

When I spotted the big ones at a Mezcal tasting, I was glad that the wee ones were my first initiation. There was no way that I was crunching on a big ol' grasshopper, regardless of the quantities of  premium liquor supplied to wash away the memory.  

I saw chapulines for sale all over Huatulco, in beach shacks, in little stores and restaurants. I was glad that I had tried such a big part of Oaxacan culture but I was never tempted to try them again. Although I did buy a bag to bring home. You never know when you'll need a quick dose of spicy protein.....

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Next Stop: Huatulco, Mexico

I'll be escaping Chicago's cold and snow this week with a press trip to Huatulco, in the Southern part of Mexico. Located on the coast of the state of Oaxaca, along the edge of the Sierra Madre mountains, Huatulco is famous for its nine lovely bays; one of them, Santa Cruz, is pictured above. Of course, I'l also be exploring as much Oaxacan history and culture as I can mange. Stay tuned for posts next week!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Embera Children Playing In The Rain

If the eyes are the window to the soul, then children are the mirror for the soul of a culture. Wherever I travel, observing children supplies me with more information about a place than any guidebook. The Embera are one of 7 indigenous cultures in Panama and they maintain traditional villages with raised, thatched-roof huts with no walls. Peeking out from one of the huts, I watched children play in the rain. No adult cautioned them or called them into a hut, as they squealed with the delight of feeling the raindrops splatter on their little bodies. The joy and unrestricted freedom to play and explore (We caught a few peering through a hole in the village outhouse as we took turns using rain forest facilities.) that these children expressed reveals a lot about Embera culture. They are clearly valued and encouraged to discover the world around them. Although the children only spoke their native dialect, they communicated their happiness to me very strongly.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Galena Getaway

I love exploring the globe and experiencing different cultures but sometimes, a different world can be discovered just a few miles outside of your home. Galena, Illinois is only a few hours drive from my home but it offers another lifestyle of laid back, small town, living. A charming spot in Northwest Illinois known for 18th century architecture and as the hometown of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, Galena is just plain pretty. Covered with rolling hills, green valleys and bluffs, I seem to relax as soon as I step onto the cobblestone streets.

Voted one of the ten best small towns in America by Forbes magazine, Galena was also named the second friendliest city in the U.S. by Conde Nast Traveler and I understand exactly why. It may be a cliche but small towns really do nurture caring and helpful attitudes. My favorite place to stay in Galena is Cloran Mansion Bed & Breakfast and the owners, Cheryl and Carmine, are masters of Galena friendliness. Homemade cookies and an anniversary card awaited my husband and I when we recently celebrated our wedding anniversary at Cloran Mansion. Besides the elegance of the 18th century architecture, pictured above, the grounds of the mansion are just as inviting.

This heard shaped arch that leads to the garden and gazebo, is my favorite place to sit in the sun. There's a fire pit for cool nights and loungers and chairs to while the day away.

In the back, a pond covered with lily pads and rimmed with flowers is a favorite hangout for butterflies and birds. Apple trees and the heady scent of magnolias make this my favorite place to sit in the shade.

All of the rooms and suites are named for Cheryl and Carmine's relatives, we stayed in Sara's suite, where I stuffed myself with Cheryl's homemade fudge in this cute nook.

Not that I had any business indulging in anything but water at Cloran Mansion. The breakfast part of the term bed and breakfast, is taken extremely seriously by Cheryl and Carmine. We awoke to a spread that filled two tables and kept us stuffed until the next day. Omelets cooked to order, freshly squeezed orange juice and bacon, sausages and fruit were just the starters. Cheryl perfected a new recipe of cinnamon swirl pancakes above, that made me swoon.

Strolling the scenic streets of Galena was my remedy to working off that breakfast. These are the same roads and avenues that Lincoln and Grant once walked and it looks pretty much the same as it did then. Narrow roads that used to feature horses and carriages, Victorian houses and a hilly terrain make up downtown Galena. You feel the history on every corner and most of the buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Galena is also noted for its vineyards and Galena Cellars is an award-winning,  family-owned vineyard and winery that spans three generations. The winery produces 40 wine varieties, although I don't recommend trying to sip them all during the vineyard wine tastings.

The vineyards sprawl out over lush hills topped by dreamy blue skies.

Bottle trees featuring color-coordinated Galena Cellars bottles dot the landscape.

I especially enjoy fruity, sweet wines so I scooped up the fruit wines in peach, rhubarb and the apple wine with a label that I couldn't resist, shown above. Whenever I need a quick getaway, Galena is my go to destination. No matter how many times I visit, I always uncover another appealing aspect of this quaint river town. What is your favorite local getaway?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Visiting The Panama Canal

I confess, I'm not usually excited about visiting huge tourist attractions but the Panama Canal proved the exception for me. Everybody heads to the site whenever they touch down in Panama and now I understand why. Viewing one of the most difficult engineering feats ever established is an awesome sight up close. The experience begins with a stop by the Miraflores Visitors Center, which supplies four floors of extensive history and interactive displays about the Panama Canal.

Miraflores Locks is the tallest of the three sets of Panama Canal Locks, measuring over a mile long.The Panama Canal unfolds for 48 miles between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans so you can only view a portion of it at Miraflores Locks but it's still a jaw-dropping sight. Looking down from the observation deck, I witnessed a ship enter the waterway.

Gatun Lake forms part of the Panama Canal, carrying ships across the Isthmus of Panama. I watched as the canal gates gradually opened and closed for the massive cruise ship.

I stared as the ship was raised 87 feet above sea level, all through gravity. The passengers waved as they glided through the canal and I stood amazed at the spectacle I had been lucky enough to observe. The mechanics of the canal are intricately explained at the visitor center but all I remember is the image of that sprawling ship being gently raised and guided through the canal's passage, like it was a toy boat.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Happy Day in the Gaspe'

Quebec's Gaspe' Peninsula exudes quintessential Quebecois spirit with lots of French-flavored traditions. I spotted this clown on a sunny afternoon at the harbor of the tiny village of Perce'.  Equipped with accordion, stylish hat and shades, she doesn't look like any clown you'd see in the U.S. She crooned French children's songs as kids scurried around, blowing bubbles and playing with balloons.   With the sun playing off the bright blue waves of the sea and a crisp breeze floating over the shore, it felt like a typical cheery day in this charming maritime province.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

UV Sun Protection For Eyes

I love the sun. You will never hear me complain about too much sun or too much heat. I have never met a beach or tropical spot that I didn't love. As I write this, the sun has beamed 95 sweltering degrees onto Chicago and I am heading out to soak it up. Don't get me wrong, I always protect my skin with sunscreen and usually a wide-brimmed hat but always, always, sunglasses. I wear sunglasses year round and wherever I travel because my eyes are sensitive to light. It never occurred to me that I was actually protecting my eyes from damaging UV rays until I recently attended an informative webinar organized by The Vision Council. It turns out that your eyes can get sunburned just as easily as your skin and  wrinkles around the eyes, cataracts and cancer of the eye are all connected to UV eye exposure.

Since I specialize in traveling to sun-drenched locations, I thought it would make sense to learn important UV blocking tips for the eyes. According to The Vision Council's UV Report:

*Although UV protective sunglasses are the best defense against UV-related eye damage, only 40% or adults in the U.S. wear sunglasses outside.

* UV damage is cumulative, which means that daily UV exposures adds up over time, possibly leading to future vision impairment and medical issues.

*UV rays can penetrate the Earth's atmosphere at any time or place but certain locations produce increased risk. San Juan, Puerto Rico, Honolulu, Hawaii and Miami, Florida top the list for the highest UV concentration.

* It's best to avoid direct UV radiation but reflected UV light is just as damaging. Water reflects up to 100% of UV rays, snow up to 85%, and dry sand and concrete up to 25%.

So what to do when traveling to sunny or UV-reflecting locations?

*Purchase UV-protected sunglasses from reputable outlets. This means that vendors along the beach, online auction sites, vintage stores and that guy selling shades on the sidewalk are out. I'm a huge fan of scoring bargains but it turns out that cheap sunglasses offer little value for eye health. Shop eye wear shops, department stores and brands that offer UVA and UVB protection labels.

*Check the label. Sometimes  UVA and UVB  protection stickers can be torn off or switched around. Your optometrist actually has a machine to check just how much UV protection your sunglasses provide.

*A protective carrying case is key. Good quality sunglasses come with cases to protect against scratches and breaks.

*Slather sunscreen on exposed skin, including around eyes and areas not covered by your sunglasses.

Disclosure: This is a sponsored post by The Vision Council, a non profit organization.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

My Take On TBEX Toronto

With TBEX Dublin coming up soon, I've been ruminating on my experience at TBEX Toronto. A lot of bloggers have asked me about whether it's a worthwhile conference and how such a big and buzzy event can be helpful for independent-minded bloggers. In my opinion, it all depends on who you are and where you are in your travel blogging journey. I was a speaker at the very first TBEX, when it was just a gathering of  travel bloggers and writers meeting up in Chicago. Maybe there were a 100 people at that meeting in the Chicago Cultural Center but it seemed more intimate. That was four years ago. TBEX Toronto attracted 1200 attendees. It didn't seem intimate, it didn't seem like just a gathering. It was a BIG EVENT.  There were pre-tours and post tours and parties and speed dating and lots of drama. If you are an introvert and don't deal well with crowds, you probably wouldn't find TBEX that enjoyable. If you don't like the idea of corporate sponsorship or any level of wheeling and dealing, TBEX would probably turn you off. If you don't know why you blog or aren't sure if you want to continue, you might find TBEX to be intimidating. That being said, I felt the experience was worth the money and time I spent and here's why:

I learned from  the sessions offered. I gathered helpful tips and ideas about content strategy, social media management tools and how to build community with readers. I especially learned valuable travel photography tips from the inimitable Lola Akinmade Akerstrom.

I had the chance to explore one of my favorite cities from another perspective.  I explored Toronto's ethnic communities, including Chinatown, Little Portugal, Indian Bazaar, Little Korea and Little Italy with a local chef. He guided us through streets I might not have ever seen and offered local tastes that I might not have ever savored.

Not only did I get to catch up with blogger friends and connect in real time but I met new ones. I traipsed through the funky Kensington Market neighborhood with Debbie Abrams Kaplan, We shopped through the quirky vintage salons where they only accepted Canadian dollars.

I was so exhausted by the second night of the conference that I skipped the Expedia Viewing party and hung out with my friend Mikey B, local writer and fellow music head. He squired me around T.O. for tapas, sangria and live music. (Which alas, I couldn't keep my eyes open for.)

I had the opportunity to try out Airbnb for the first time, snagging a great apartment in the middle of downtown Toronto and steps away from the TBEX headquarters.

Finally, I got to stay with a gracious Italian couple, Elisa and Giancarlo, who walked me to the island airport on my way back home and reminded me why I love Italy so much.
So that's what I got from TBEX. I had fun, I learned new things and met with old friends and new. Are you considering going to TBEX Dublin?

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Vallarta Vision

I know this totally looks like an arranged scene but I was lucky to grab this classic shot of a paleta vendor relaxing in the Puerto Vallarta sun. The vivid colors of the hammock and dress, accented by the perfect, sun-blocking tilt of his hat makes this one of my favorite travel images this year. I think it showcases the appeal of Mexican culture, from the traditional textiles and importance of entrepreneurs, to the natural tropical beauty, all in one snap.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Moose Tracking in the Chic Choc Mountains

Besides maple syrup,moose are probably the most common symbol of Canada's expansive natural beauty. I've tasted lots of maple syrup but I've never seen a moose up close so I was excited to hike through the Gaspe Peninsula's Chic Choc Mountains and track moose.  Chic Choc ( pronounced shick-shock) means impenetrable in the First nation Mic-Mac language and the mountains did indeed present an endless maze of jaw-dropping vistas that I certainly wouldn't have navigated without our sure-footed guide, Jean Pierre.

We spotted a female moose (no antlers) early in our trek and I couldn't believe our luck.

I was close enough to watch her delicately select leaves to munch but she didn't seem to be fazed by the presence of five gawking humans.

Staring directly at us, she calmly marched away, convinced that there was nothing we could do to all 600 pounds of her. She personified the phrase, "large and in charge." The moose was huge but we didn't hear her footsteps through the forest at all, only the distant crunching of leaves. 

Jean-Pierre pointed out a flattened  grassy area as a moose bed.It didn't look big enough for a moose but maybe they curl up their hulking bodies for a sound nights sleep.

Jean-Pierre brimmed with hiking expertise and Quebecois spirit, as you can grasp from the photo.I had a quintessential Canadian experience that will always stand out in my memory. Have you had any travel experiences that fully represented the destination?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

For The Birds: Gaspe's Bonaventure Island

The stench arrives before you even spot them. Sailing to Bonaventure Island, absorbing the stunning scenery, you realize that you're near the world's second largest Northern Gannet breeding colony when the noxious aroma of pounds of bird poop accosts your nose. But the wonder of the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of birds quickly helps you forget that.

Gazing at them from a distance, they don't even look like birds but blankets of white, covering slabs of rock. Even if I didn't know that these were birds I soon received sticky proof in the form of bird poop dropped on my shoulders from the 250 foot nesting cliffs.

I was glad to arrive on the island and wander the pretty trails lined with lush greenery.

We hiked through the cleared trails that lead to the birds. We hiked up hills. And down hills. And through forests. And we hiked some more.

Finally, there were the birds. Flapping, squawking, flying, everywhere.

Everywhere you turned, the white feathered Gannets perched.

It was an overwhelming experience, being totally surrounded by birds. Bonaventure hosts 293 species but the Gannets are the most visible.

My favorite sight was this mother bird with her baby chick, calmly sheltering the newborn in the midst of a sea of activity.