Friday, December 29, 2017

The Wonders of Willie Mae's in NOLA

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 are rarely quiet, was really quiet as we concentrated on the feast.

Willie Mae's owner even won a prestigious James Beard Award for "America's Classic Restaurant for the Southern Region"  and the Travel Channel has declared the chicken as 'America's Best Fried Chicken." I didn't know all this before I visited  but it just goes to show you that it pays to go beyond the glitzy tourist hangouts to discover the real heart of a culture.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Soul of NOLA

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. Standing on the spot where my ancestors connected with their spiritual heritage, I felt a surge of joy and pride. I felt like the soul of New Orleans was waving and singing right before my eyes.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Next Stop: New Orleans

This week, I'm going on a special trip. I'm headed to New Orleans 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!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Child Acrobat Performing On An Ahmedabad Street

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.

Monday, October 30, 2017

India's Spectacular Navratri Dance Festival

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 congratulate these girls after their lovely show and I had fun watching the different interpretation of the Gujarati  raas-garba dance from small villages.

The girls in this video are performing with traditional sticks called dandiya. 

In this video, these village dance students performed for judges.

I shopped for a traditional Navratri sari at the market and wore it to the opening ceremony. My outfit attracted a lot of photo requests that I wasn't expecting but it certainly made the experience even more memorable!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Faces of Gujarat, India

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 school children greeted us when we arrived in their Bhuj village. They sang for us and asked for pens, which I had plenty of to pass out. The knowing smile of the teenage girl really captured me. She watched quietly as the children scrambled around but her personality stood out clearly, just as the spirit of India stood out in all of the faces we met.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Help For Puerto Rico

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 will deliver resources where it is needed:

United For Puerto Rico: This is the initiative started by the First Lady of Puerto Rico and one that I personally support.

Hispanic Federation Relief Fund: Elected officials have partnered the Federation to organize a special fund.

Hispanics In Philanthropy:  This organization sends donations directly to community organizations in Puerto Rico, Cuba and Florida.

Unicef:  I also regularly support Unicef, they have created a special fund to support children in Puerto Rico.

The photo above shows a view of San Juan from El Morro Fort that I shot last year.  As you can see from the image, Puerto Rico is beautiful. The people are beautiful. The culture is beautiful. Please help the island.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Next Stop: India!

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!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Salsa in Cali, Colombia

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 drenched in sweat and fun. I'm not even close to the finesse of local dancers but joining in at a club is an essential part of the Cali experience.

Check out this video of salsa dancers on a Monday night at El Habanero Club (note the Cuba flags)

Cali also hosts a live cabaret salsa show called Ensalsate, this video features musicians from the Petronio Alvarez Fest:

Sunday, September 10, 2017

How to Help The Caribbean After Hurricane Irma


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 from Irma's destruction. 

St. Thomas
The Caribbean needs immediate help to assist her people and start the process of rebuilding. I have compiled a list of reputable organizations that will supply direct aid to the people who need it. In the wake of many relief agencies being accused of fraud, I researched these at Charity Navigator and Charity Watch to measure their effectiveness. 

Here's a list of organizations that accept donations for Hurricane Relief in the Caribbean:

Global Giving Hurricane Irma Relief Fund: This org.receives high ratings from Charity Navigator.

Community Foundation of Virgin Islands: A local charity that supplies funds directly to the U.S Virgin Islands.
U.S. Virgin Island Relief Fund: Retired NBA star and St. Croix native Tim Duncan has donated $250,000 to this charity and will match donations to the first million.

Unicef: This org. has very good transparency and honesty rating. It's also one of my personal charities that I support annually. Unicef has a disaster relief fund  that supports children affected by Hurricane Irma.

American University of Antigua Barbuda Relief Fund:  The University of Antigua, on Barbuda's sister island, has created a fund for emergency supplies and long-term support for hurricane survivors.

Caribbean Tourism Organization Hurricane Relief Fund:  This organization represents 27 islands and their tourism sectors. The fund supplies donations directly to the ministry of tourism of affected member islands to help with rebuilding efforts.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Cats of Cali, Colombia

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 sugarcane history and her sweetness makes her my fave. Above is Gata Constelada, displaying different astronomical constellations.

This is Gata Dormida and I think she's worn out from chasing all of those birds lounging on her back.

Here's Gata Decorativa, whose name and style was probably the least creative that I saw. So how are Cali, cats and dancing all connected? Well, Cali is the world capital of salsa and the city really jumps  with music and dancing at night. That nocturnal nature, famously shared by cats, is how Cali came to have cats as landmarks.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Next Stop: Colombia

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!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Curacao's Artful Architecture

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 hues everywhere you look. Curacao is famous for the kaleidoscope of colors, including citrus yellow, watermelon red, and cornflower blue that mark the island's iconic skyline.

The story goes that the buildings of Willemstad were once all stark white. A 19th century governor complained that gazing at all the glaring white facades highlighted against the intense sun, gave him migraine headaches. He ordered all residents to paint their houses any color but white. After his death, it was discovered that he owned stock in the only local paint company!  There's now a law that prohibits government officials from mingling business interests but there's also a law requiring owners of the historic structures to paint their building a bright hue and to repaint it every two years. 

I can't say that I'm mad at the governor or the reason that Curacao is so famously colorful. It's such an exciting, uplifting experience being surrounded by so much color that I think that more government officials should make laws requiring beauty and color.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Rosy Beauty of Curacao Flamingos

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.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Next Stop: Curacao

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 , 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!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Cuba's Legendary Tropicana Cabaret

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 dim, 10pm light.

When the  show started and the lights blared and the music boomed, I can't even explain to you all that I saw. To my left, to my right, above my head, and up in the air, there was someone singing, dancing and prancing in outrageously scanty costumes. Thanks goodness I took photos (for a $5 fee that was well worth it) because it was truly a sensory overload.  There were musical stories told through each segment and I understood why cabaret shows are such a popular part of Cuban culture. Tropicana is the most famous but most hotels and even small rural towns host cabaret shows. Although some might consider them tourist traps, I was thrilled to witness a part of Cuban history.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Beach Day at Havana's Mar Azul

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. With reggae and salsa blasting from a boombox and a sea breeze swirling over me, I felt like I was in a part of heaven called Cuba.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Lands End in Los Cabos

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!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Fete Fever at Bahamas Junkanoo

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 the water bottle variety.

I loved the varying shades of blue of this group. They reminded me of the waves of the Caribbean Sea as they marched through Nassau. Have you ever participated in carnival?