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Showing posts from 2017

The Wonders of Willie Mae's in NOLA

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Many visitors head to the French Quarter when they want to sample the famously flavorful New Orleans cuisine but I prefer to eat where the locals go. So I asked Zydeco star and foodie Sean Ardoin for his recommendations and he insisted that Willie Mae's is the ultimate NOLA restaurant. We rolled up to Willie Mae's restaurant in Treme and the long line of patient customers outside the spot demonstrated that Sean told no lies. We waited for about 35 minutes as a waitress came out to estimate how many tables could be filled every 20 minutes. But once we were inside the historic restaurant that opened in 1957, we could see that the wait was worth it. There's a homey feel to Willie Mae's, like you're eating at your grandma's house. The food arrived quickly and the crunch and flavor of the fried chicken helped me understand why Sean called it the best in New Orleans. We shoveled in green beans, beans and rice and biscuits and my family, all of whom

The Soul of NOLA

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For people unfamiliar with New Orleans history, the French Quarter and its myriad of bars and tourist traps is the focal point for their experiences in the city. But if you know a little history or like me, have roots in the city, you know that the heart of NOLA is in the historic Treme' neighborhood and the iconic Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park. Treme' is the oldest African American neighborhood in the country, as well as the birthplace of jazz. It's where African American musicians developed the Mardi Gras Indian tradition of drumming, call and response mingled with brass bands. Of course, the essence of all these traditions started in Congo Square, the spot where enslaved Africans gathered on Sundays to drum, dance and celebrate their cultural traditions, which still informs every aspect of New Orleans culture. As soon as we landed, my family and I headed to Congo Square to go to the Treme' Gumbo Fest and hear the legendary Rebirth Brass Band.  Stand

Next Stop: New Orleans

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This week, I'm going on a special trip. I'm headed to New Orlean s with my mother, aunt and uncle to research our family history in the Crescent City.  I've been digging through centuries of records and history to discover the lives of my ancestors and in New Orleans we will try to trace their steps. We'll be visiting neighborhoods, cemeteries and historical societies for my research. We'll also be attending the Gumbo Festival in Treme and soaking up required music on French Street and all the  necessary restaurants.  This is a guaranteed adventure into my family's history so please stay tuned!

A Child Acrobat Performing On An Ahmedabad Street

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This is Buchi, she's eight-years-old.  Walking around the mid-sized city of Ahmedabad , I never saw child beggars or street children like the media portrays in cities like Mumbai or Delhi. So I was a little taken aback when I spotted her tiny body gliding over a tightrope on the side of a busy street. She moved with focused grace and didn't seem disturbed by the cars, buses and bikes whizzing by but I was still relieved to see her brother hovering nearby. My fellow travel writers and I made sure to give her money directly for her talents and she looked happy for the acknowledgement. She never spoke a word over the blaring Bollywood music but I could see that she was alert and quick-witted. We learned that families of acrobats used to roam Ahmedabad streets regularly but the practice has lost favor, which I was glad to hear. Hopefully, Buchi only performs part time, when she's not in school.

India's Spectacular Navratri Dance Festival

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Billed as the longest dance festival in the world, India's Navratri Festival is filled with color, music and dance. Running nine consecutive nights to honor the goddess Durga,   I was excited to witness this joyful celebration in person. From the minute that I landed in Ahmedabad,  which is noted for extensive and particularly dramatic Navratri festivities, I could feel the high energy. The opening ceremony exploded with a red carpet, spotlights, processions, video projections and a dizzying array of dancers and music. It was truly overwhelming just to keep up with the spectacles because dancers were on the stage, twirling through aisles and prancing on the side of the stage. I'm glad I had the chance to watch subsequent days of the festival because they were different from the opening night. The first night featured a swirl of professional dancers and singers but other nights displayed dance students and judges rating their performances. I got to congratula

The Faces of Gujarat, India

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I discovered that everything I'd heard about India is true. It is colorful. It is chaotic. It attacks all of your senses. Landing in Ahmedabad, the capital city of Gujarat, India's westernmost state, I was swept up by the street scenes, the temples and the constant motion of tuk tuks, bikes and people. But as I explored more of the surrounding villages, I realized that the essence of everything is the Indian people. They always welcomed me with ready smiles and warm greetings. These women were preparing chapatis, an unleavened flatbread, to offer us as we visited an ironworker's shop who handmakes all kinds of  bells. These men live in a small village and asked that their photo be taken. They gave us a tour of their homes and offered us chai. This woman demonstrated how to make cotton thread at the Gandhi ashram .  She guided us through the rooms and complimented me on my dress, which she mistook to be Indian (it was an African design). These schoo

Help For Puerto Rico

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Puerto Rico is part of the United States of America. The fact that I have to state that is part of the problem and shame, that accompanies this country's history. That's because Puerto Rico is not a state but a territory of the U.S ., which  essentially amounts to being a colony. Chicago's own Boriqua   Congressman Luis Gutierrez , (D-ILL.) has referred to the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. as an association with "a distant and inattentive colonial master." I can think of a few other words as U.S. government  response to the devastation of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico lags and American citizens continue to go without water, electricity and food. This goes beyond demolished buildings and ripped infrastructure, 34 people have died and that number is expected to rise if the neglect continues. Dozens of grassroots relief efforts have sprouted to try to address Puerto Rico's relief needs. Here is a list of vetted charity organizations that w

Next Stop: India!

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From the food, to the music, fashion and wellness, I've admired Indian culture for a long time. This week, I get to experience one of my top bucket list items by visiting Gujarat, on the Western coast of India. I'll be hosted by Gujarat Tourism  and they have compiled an exciting itinerary, including witnessing  and participating in the annual Navaratri Festival, shown above. The nine day Hindu celebration is one of the most popular dance festivals in India, which celebrates the nine forms of goddess. Gujarat is also Gandhi's hometown so I'll be visiting his ashram and exploring ancient  stepwells, temples and small towns. I know it will be a life-changing journey so please look out for posts and pix!

Salsa in Cali, Colombia

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Although salsa music was not created in Cali, (they give full credit to Cuba) Calenos have embraced the music and dance with so much passion that the city is known as the "world capital of salsa." I quickly discovered why on my first night in Cali . Dozens of salsa clubs, some little hole in the walls, some full-fledged nightclubs like the legendary Tin Tin Deo , start throbbing with salsa music at about 10pm. Live musicians blast out the swirling rhythms and dancers crowd the floor. I was out of breathe just watching all the twirling, swaying and fast footwork. Colombian style salsa is much faster than conventional salsa and Calenos  are noted for their dizzying lifts and fancy footwork. It's said that men in Cali can't get a date without knowing how to salsa so it is clearly an important skill. There are dance schools all over Cali to help out the less gifted dancers and I joined in a fast-paced class at  the  Live Salsa & Tango  dance school, which had me

How to Help The Caribbean After Hurricane Irma

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Barbuda The reports of Hurricane Irma's destruction across the Caribbean region   has left me worried and with my stomach in knots. After watching how Hurricane Harvey pounded Texas, and how Irma continues to menace Florida, it's doubly concerning because the Caribbean doesn't get the visibility or response that the U.S. commands. The islands of the Caribbean are more than just vacation spots, they shelter a people and a culture that I know and love. After hearing from friends and researching reports, it's clear that donations are needed more than anything else to start a rebuilding process that will probably take years. The most extreme devastation happened on Barbuda,  the tiny sister island to Antigua whose proud citizens and pink sand stole my heart years ago. The island has been almost completely wiped out, leaving Barbudans homeless and evacuated to Antigua. St. Thomas, Anguilla, St. Martin and parts of Cuba are also challenged with trying to recover fr

The Cats of Cali, Colombia

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When you visit the charismatic city of Cali, Colombia , you will immediately notice a few things. First, there is music and dancing everywhere but mostly at night and mostly salsa. Secondly, there are cats scattered all around the Cali River. Although music and dancing and cats might not seem to have anything to do with each other, in Cali, they are interrelated. In 1996, the famous Colombian painter  Hernando Tejada, , donated a three ton bronze cat sculpture to the city he called home. Called El Gato Del Rio , or the River Cat, he sits grinning on the banks of the river. In 2006, Calenos decided that the cat needed a few novias or girlfriends. So artists created 15 different cats that complete Parque El Gato de Tejada. If you stroll along the riverwalk, you'll see an array of pretty kitty sculptures, much smaller than the original gato. There's La Gata Dulce,  pictured in the first photo. She's covered in sugarcane branches and leaves to reference Cali's sug

Next Stop: Colombia

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This week, I'll be exploring the vibrant culture of Colombia, specifically the Pacific city of Cali, otherwise known as the Salsa Capital of the World. Hosted by Tia Stephanie Tours,  I'll be learning about Afro Colombian history and traditions, highlighted by the Petronio Alvarez Music Festival , which celebrates the region's music and dance. My adventures will also include salsa lessons, a cooking class, museum visits and hopefully, a climb up to Cristo Rey,   the towering Christ statue shown above. It's not as big as Rio's but it's the largest in Colombia and is a landmark for Cali, the country's third largest city.  I'm looking forward to picking up some (much needed) salsa moves and discovering the intricacies of this rich culture so stay tuned!

Curacao's Artful Architecture

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The Caribbean region is known for happy, pastel-colored buildings that blend with the tropical landscape but no other island displays quite the architectural flavor of Curacao.   Nothing makes me happier than vivid, rich color so I was in a constant state of joy on the candy-colored streets of Willemstad , the island's capital. This Unesco World Heritage City combines Dutch colonial architecture with pure Caribbean style. A crayon box of colors cover the buildings so that walking the streets is like strolling through an art gallery. The flower accented building above is  a highlight of the Scharloo district, a historic neighborhood that's been transformed with street art. The deep green house above is a landmark in Scharloo. It's called the Wedding Cake House because it was given as a wedding gift from a father to his newlywed daughter. It's the most photographed building in Curacao. Downtown Willemstad enchants with 17th century architecture and bright

The Rosy Beauty of Curacao Flamingos

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One of my favorite things about the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao is the color that drenches the architecture, landscape and culture. I was swept up by the joy of being completely encompassed by color but I was still taken aback to spot these flamingos. Splashing around in the shallow water of the Jan Thiel salt flats, this flamboyance of flamingos commanded attention with their bright pink feathers. They were just far way enough to be unbothered by tourists staring at them but close enough to cast a rosy spell.

Next Stop: Curacao

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The summer adventures are really heating up! This week I'll be exploring the colorful landscape and intriguing history of Curacao.  This Dutch Caribbean island has been on my bucket list for a long time so expect breathless posts about my experiences. I'll be strolling the capital city, UNESCO World Heritage site of Willemstad, taking in the iconic Queen Emma swinging bridge and the famous, candy-colored  Handelscade backdrop, pictured above. I'll also be visiting several of Curacao's 35 cove-covered ,beaches.as well as local food trucks nightclubs (including 27, honoring famous musicians who died at 27-years-old) and Museum Kura Hulanda , which focuses on African art, history and the Dutch slave trade. Please look out for my updates about this fascinating island!

Cuba's Legendary Tropicana Cabaret

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If you consider Las Vegas as the ultimate in over-the-top, showgirl performances, think again. The inspiration for Las Vegas shows and all its colorful, feathered glamor was Cuba, specifically the legendary Tropicana Cabaret.  Opened in 1939 on the grounds of a suburban Havana mansion, it evolved into the most spectacular open air cabaret ever seen. Music icons like Nat "King" Cole, Paul Robeson, Omara Portuondo, Carmen Miranda and of course, Celia Cruz, graced the stage and celebrities filled the seats. I  heard about the history of the Tropicana, including the darkers aspects like the mobsters that ran it and the racism that kept dark-skinned black performers off the stage unless they were superstars like Nat "King" Cole. I knew immediately that I had to see it in person. Walking into the huge outdoor space, I was handed a red chrysanthemum and men were given cigars. Swaying palms, stages at every angle and blinking lights were all I could make out in the

Beach Day at Havana's Mar Azul

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Havana earns lots of attention for the historic beauty of the architecture and the vibrancy of the art and music but I think the city's natural beauty sometimes gets overshadowed. Most visitors head to the resort town of Varadero  when they want to enjoy the island's pristine beaches but Mar Azul, a popular local beach, is just 20 minutes from Old Havana. You can hop a bus for just 5 CUC or take a taxi to the dreamy paradise that is Mar Azul. When I gazed at the perfect stretch of white sand and turquoise waves, I caught my breathe.  The sand is silky, the water is warm and the beach was uncrowded the entire five hours I spent there. It really is a local hangout so the vibe is laid back and the prices for umbrellas, chairs or freshly cracked coconuts is nominal.  I splashed in the water with my friends and then walked over to the beach shacks serving freshly caught fish. I savored a whole, grilled red snapper with salad, rice and plantains for about $5. Wit

Lands End in Los Cabos

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If you've ever traveled to Cabo San Lucas , Mexico, you have almost certainly visited Lands End, also called El Arco or the Arch. These natural rock formations rising out of the Sea of Cortez are as significant a landmark to Los Cabos as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. The best way to view the formations is by boat and I almost fell over the edge as I gawked at El Arco. Experts say that these rock formations date back 30 million years and they mark the point where the Gulf of California meets the Pacific Ocean. The Baja California peninsula is the second longest in the world and El Arco is located at the very southern tip, hence the name Lands End. Besides being an essential photo op, El Arco is a sea lion hang out. I spotted several bobbing in the waves as the boat glided by the rocks. Unfortunately, they were too fast for me to snap a pic!

Fete Fever at Bahamas Junkanoo

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Everybody loves carnival time and if you visit the Caribbean often enough, you can always find an island hosting these colorful celebrations all year round. Although the traditional Bahamian Junkanoo is  held after Christmas on Boxing Day (also known as my birthday) Junkanoo Carnival kicks off in May. I didn't get the chance to participate this time (costume MIA) but I still mingled with the revelers and captured some candid images. Yes, everyone loves carnival but as the Bahamas tourism site suggests, "it's best suited for those who have the stamina, rhythm, confidence, positive vibes and a free spirit!" Check out the evidence below. Lots of  mas bands "wine up" all down the streets but this gal gave a close up demo. I caught this guy as he stopped to gyrate in the street, right before the rest of his band caught up and blocked his photo. Trucks with water hoses spray onlookers who don't move fast enough but these girls preferred th