Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Travel Memories and Adventures of 2014

It's been a wild and wonderful year and I can sincerely say that I'm sad to leave all of the year's experiences behind. I've made some great connections and created unforgettable memories. Here are just some of my favorites:
Exploring the rich and enchanting culture of Andalusia,Spain. The photo above shows a lovely courtyard building in Granada. Beauty was everywhere I turned in Southern Spain.

The intoxicating charm of Martinque will always remain with me. The image above reveals just a glimpse of the island's magic, from the top of the famous town of St. Pierre.

I was thrilled to visit Asia for the first time and Macau was a fascinating introduction. The people, the culture, the history and food supplied me with nonstop excitement. I think I'm still calming down from that trip.

Montreal will always be a favorite city and I was as enchanted to visit this year as I am every time I go. I was lucky enough to catch the city's Caribbean parade and revel in the mix of Caribbean flavor in a French influenced city.

I enjoy visiting nearby Midwestern destinations as well as far flung countries and the pretty resort town of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin has been at the top of my travel list for years. The unspoiled landscape was beautiful and my dive into blind-folded golf cart racing was truly memorable.

I kicked off the year in the serene hills of Hocking Hills, Ohio, an area steeped in Native American and moonshine! history that I enjoyed discovering.

Of course, my ultimate 2014 adventure was publishing my book, Exploring Chicago Blues  and embarking on the author's journey of book signings and events. I'm still on that journey and am extremely thankful for the experience. Here's to more enriching adventures in 2015! What were your 2014 highlights?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Parrot, Pedals and Palm Trees

Strolling the boardwalk in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, I spotted this scene and quickly snapped it. The parrot never moved or fluttered, he looked perfectly content perched on the bike and riding along the beach. Since I love parrots, biking and beaches, it turned out to be one of my favorite impromptu travel photos. What's your favorite unexpected travel pic?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Macanese Murals

One of the fascinating things I discovered in Macau was the seamless mix of Chinese and Portuguese culture. It shows up in every aspect of daily life but I found seeing Cantonese and Portuguese languages side by side particularly interesting. The mural above instructs on recycling in Macanese style, using both Cantonese and Portuguese. However, I guess not everything translates into both languages. The funny mural below urges dog owners to clean up after their pets but there're no Portuguese words to be found!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Inside Macau's A-Ma Temple

Spirituality laces through every aspect of Asian culture and connects areas of daily life. So I was really excited to visit the oldest and most famous temple in Macau; A-Ma Temple. Perched halfway up Barra Hill, the temple incorporates the natural landscape as well as Chinese symbolism.  A-Ma Temple attracts so many visitors that I had to wait for about 20 minutes before they filed into the entrance and I could view the gateway adorned with lions and red lanterns. The temple dates back to 1488, during the Ming Dynasty and includes six different pavilions constructed at different times.

Inside the temple, clouds of smoke from incense fill the air. Offerings, like the ones pictured above, are for sale throughout the pavilions. I didn't take many photos because I wanted to be respectful of worshipers but you can get an idea of the serenity of the temple from some of these images.

Incense represents different deities and can be burned for different purposes, such as bringing safety to a home or success in business. I quietly watched several worshipers kneel in prayer after lighting incense.

The interesting thing about A-Ma Temple is that it represents an unusual blend of Taoism, Confucianism Buddhism and Chinese folk culture all in one space.This Buddha statue surprised me after viewing traditional Taoist and folk deities but it makes perfect sense in Macau, with its mix of Asian and European culture. Mixing and blending is a hallmark of Macau culture in general.

These incense cones were my favorite, they look like beehives gently releasing sweet scents. Visiting a historic temple is an interesting way to glimpse the values and beliefs of a culture. I saw visitors from Macau and all over Asia.I felt honored to witness their sacred rituals and celebrations.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A View of Macau's Coloane Island

Macao is a peninsula with two islands connected by land fill bridges. Yes, two islands. So you know where this is headed. Taipa is the island north of Macao but Coloane, the southernmost island, really grabbed me. I've never met an island that I didn't love and Coloane is no exception. Check out the green landscape and Maco's highest point, Alto de Coloane. The island offers a striking contrast to bustling, densely populated and developed Macao. What captured me were the ocean views, quiet beaches and salty air. With tiled paths and Portuguese shops,Coloane really reflects Macao's European influences, even though the Portuguese didn't occupy the island until 1864. Coloane's sea caves and heavily forested hills made it a favorite pirate hangout for most of the 19th century. I don't know about the pirates but I'd gladly hole up in Coloane's hills, as long as I have beach access!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Traditional Chinese Culture in Macau

I'm still absorbing the whirlwind of sights, sounds and tastes that encompass the allure of Macao. It is unlike anyplace that I've experienced before and I think it will take a little time for me to completely translate my perspective. When I think about what stood out, it's definitely the unusual blend of Chinese and Portuguese cultures. I experienced them separately and together in the special Macanese style, beginning with a stunning Chinese cultural dinner at the Sheraton Macao, Cotai Central. It started with the Qin dynasty warrior pictured above. There were two of them, silently guarding the the dining room.

And why would a room need guarding you ask? I thought the same thing until I walked into this; a spectacle of sumptuous red fabrics, orchids and fine china, complete with a stage.

A six-course feast awaited us, starting with slices of sucking pig, marinated cucumber and wasabi-infused jellyfish, pictured above. The dishes represented traditional Chinese cuisine with touches of Macanese innovation.

Before I could become totally enthralled with the food, the stage throbbed with music, announcing another cultural presentation. These Olympic trained wrestlers demonstrated traditional Chinese acrobatics.

I was excited by the brilliance of the mask changing dancer and thrilled when she revealed her face. As a woman, she represents change in a centuries old tradition of men passing down the dance technique.

The drummers throbbed with drama and energy. You can here a brief clip of their traditional Chinese song below. This extravaganza was just my first introduction to Macao culture so you can imagine the adventures to come. Stay tuned for posts on Macao history, cuisine and landmarks!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Next Stop: Macau

I'm not a huge fan of Las Vegas but I'm excited to be traveling to Macao, Asia's answer to Vegas and the world's largest casino mecca. Perched on the Southeastern coast of China, Macao is a peninsula that offers much more than gambling. I'm most interested in  Macao's unusual  blend of Chinese and Portuguese cultures. It was a Portuguese colony until 1999, when it was released back to China and became a Special Administrative Region. The Portuguese legacy is everywhere, from the Unesco World Heritage Cite of the Historic Centre of Macao, including the 16th century St. Paul's or Sao Paulo ruins, pictured above, to the egg tarts and golden codfish drenched in coconut milk and saffron, that typify Macanese cuisine. I'll be exploring Macao's cuisine and history as well as the highlights of Sheraton Macao Hotel, Cotai Central, the sponsor of my media trip. Please stay tuned for posts and pix!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ti' Punch Tales

I was almost knocked out in Martinique. Not in a brawl but by the heady power of the national drink, ti' punch. A deceptively simple mixture of cane syrup, rhum and lime, ti'punch is not so much a cocktail as a way of life. There was no part of the island, no time of day, where I didn't see the telltale bottle of rhum lined up with syrup, lime and an empty glass. This is a drink so singular that locals prepare their own versions at bars and restaurants. I watched countless mixers until I dared try a version whipped up by Steve, Uncommon Caribbean's rhum connoisseur. The pure strength of the rhum burned my throat and threw me off balance. They don't say,  "chacun pre'pare sa propre mort" or "each prepares their own death" while making ti'punch for nothing.

I discovered that the type of rhum used depends on your location on the island, with different areas pledging loyalty to the local distillery. Martinque rhum (that's not a typo that's the elegant French spelling) isn't distilled from molasses like other rums, but from sugar cane juice, for a more distinct flavor and aroma. It also depends on if you use rhum blanc or vieux, with blanc traditionally downed early in the day and vieux in the evening. Of course, ice is frowned upon, least it water down the potency. I never learned to mix my own ti'punch or even to drink an entire glass while I was in Martinique but I watched lots of mixing. I appreciate the devotion and skill that goes into its creation and I think the drink reflects Martinique's refined Caribbean sensibilities. The video below shows a ti'punch concoction shaken up  and served while  I visited Ilet Oscar, off the coast of Martinique.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Silkworms on the Streets of Granada

I've discovered that when it comes to travel photos and experiences, it's the unexpected that leaves the strongest impressions. Strolling the cobblestone streets of Granada, Spain, I spotted this little boy in his doorway. He's playing with silkworms, an especially symbolic past-time because just steps away from his doorway, the legendary Granada silk bazaar or Alcaiceria unfolded on several streets during the 15th century. From the 15th through the 19th centuries, the Moorish tradition of silk production supplied the Alcaiceria with fine fabrics that filled hundreds of small shops that dotted the labyrinth of streets and alleyways. The original Alcaiceria  burned down from a fire that raged for eight days in 1843. By that time, silk trading was firmly entrenched in Japan and China and the Spanish silk trade never recovered. But remnants of that history, like these silkworms stored in a shoe box with holes, can be glimpsed if you keep your eyes and mind open.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Browsing Fort-de- France's Covered Market

The heart of any Caribbean island is always a bustling, open air market where locals buy fresh produce, crafts, clothes and anything else considered a staple. In Martinique, the cosmopolitan capital of Fort- de- France hosts the island's shopping mecca, Le Grand Marche' Couvert or covered market. It was designed by a French architect in 1901 and still serves generations of locals.

I love shopping in local markets because it's the best way to sample cultural hallmarks. In Martinique, spices are essential. The line-up of spices shown above include a heaping pile of columbo, the curry powder that flavors many Martinican dishes.

The madras cloth that represents the island's cultural tradition fills many stalls. The boldly colored cloth appears in basket linings, on dolls, purses and  on an array of clothes. I spent a long time looking through all the dresses and shirts until I found a turquoise madras sundress that I quickly snapped up.

Jewelry also plays a significant role in Martinican culture, rows of traditional necklaces and bracelets made from seeds and stones claim a prime spot in the market. Notice that the sign welcomes visitors in French, English, Spanish and creole.

Of course, you can actually buy fruit and vegetables at the market as well. Seasonal tropical fruits like genips,  and tamarinds and vegetables like christophene dot  the stalls with pretty colors and scents. I left clutching my dress and munching on a bunch of tangy genips and I felt like a true Martinican. What are your favorite markets that you've discovered  on your travels?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Martinique Folk Dancers

Whenever I visit the Caribbean, witnessing local dance and music is always a priority. The essence of the people and culture are reflected in the music and movements so I was thrilled to witness the vibrant dancing of members of Le Grand Ballet De La Martinique. Gracing the lobby of  Hotel La Pagerie in Trois- Illets, the wave of rhythm, color and spirit took over everyone present. The dancers creole dress uses the bright madras pattern brought from India when indentured servants from India immigrated to the region after the abolition of slavery. The points on the hats represent the wearer's social status, one for free, two for engaged, three for married and four for anything goes! The drummers and musicians are pounding out a traditional Bele' rhythm, which traces directly to West Africa. The charm and energy of the twirls and steps can be witnessed all over the island, in Martinican's stylish and fun-loving attitudes.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Martinique's Infamous Headless Empress

She looms in the middle of the tropical splendor of  La Savane Park, in Fort de France, Martinique's bustling capital. Strolling past the palm trees, I spotted the marble statue dedicated to the island's most famous daughter, Josephine Bonaparte. Of course, that wasn't her name when she was born in Trois-Ilets in 1763. She was named Marie Josephe  Rose deTascher de la Pagerie and was called Rose until she met Napoleon after she moved to France and he nick named her Josephine.  It seems that Josephine and the statue that was erected in her honor in 1859, represent the tangled and discordant relationship between France and Martinique. Although Martinique is an overseas department of France, the colonial history and legacy of slavery casts an uneasy shadow over the relationship.

In 1991, after remaining in tact for 132 years, Josephine's statue was vandalized. Her head was severed from its base, in much the same way that French aristocrats were guillotined during the French revolution, a fate suffered by Josephine's first husband and one she narrowly escaped herself. A few years later, red paint was splattered on the shoulders and base of the statue. Scrawled in creole on the pedestal are the words, "Respect Martinique, Respect May 22."  The phrase references the date of the 1848 slave rebellion that finally led to the abolition of slavery in Martinique, after Napoleon reinstated the institution in 1802 after a decade of freedom, at the urging, it is said,of Josephine to benefit her family's flagging sugar plantation. The head remains missing and the paint was never removed.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Isle of Flowers

It's actually an understatement to describe Martinique as beautiful, it's like calling New York kind of big. This southern Caribbean island stunned me from the first glimpse outside my plane window. The mountains are sweeping, the water a crystalline turquoise and then there are the flowers. The original inhabitants of the region, the Arawak Indians, called the island Madinina, or island of  flowers.  Blooms dot the landscape everywhere and Martinque is especially noted for nearly 100 orchid varieties. Unfortunately, orchid season on the island is March and April but I was treated to a variety of exotic flowers during a visit to Balata Botanical Garden.

This flower comes in red and pink and is called Porcelain rose. It's a popular export flower because it lasts for weeks.

I thought these long stemmed blossoms looked like flamingos peeking out of the greenery.

These striking blooms reminded me of golden dandelions. Of course, they're taller and more elegant with rolling hills as a backdrop.

The cone shape of these flowers recalls pineapples, which also grow on the island. Another nickname for Martinique is Pays des Revenants or Land to Which One Returns. As you can gather from just these pix, it's not the sort of place that you want to leave..

Monday, July 21, 2014

Next Stop: Martinique Magnifique

It's been a busy summer and a huge highlight is traveling to the French Caribbean island of Martinique. Although the island is noted for lush vegetation and dozens of orchid varieties, I'm excited for the chance to delve into Martinique's multi-faceted culture, courtesy of Martinique Tourism Authority. My introduction to Martinique has been through  the exuberant rhythms of zouk music, the poetry of Aime' Cesaire and through my favorite movie, Sugarcane Alley so I'm thrilled to experience it firsthand. I'll be visiting the Aime' Cesaire Museum and the vibrant covered market in the capital city of Fort de France as well as Le Petibonum, the restaurant famous for creole dishes, as well as the cook charmingly dubbed chef hot pants. So please stay tuned for some lively Martinique posts!

Photo of Martinique's Pitons Du Carbet courtesy of Steve Bennett,of Uncommon Caribbean

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?