Aruba Recap

9 12 2009

Aruba was warm and the people were kind (save for the crazy Dutchman, who shall remain nameless, who yelled at me), but I must say it was a bit of a tease. I continuously drove past gorgeous white sand beaches and that pristine Caribbean turquoise blue, but didn’t have much time to enjoy it.

Such is the life of the travel writer. If I seem a little “woe is me,” it is not because I spent a few days reveling in warmth and gazing at gorgeous ocean. It’s because I spent a few days lost on tiny roads, trying not to freak out. I generally have a great sense of direction, but Aruba was like an abyss to me. Few of the streets are on the maps, which makes little difference since even fewer actually have signs marking them. Instead, locals give directions via landmarks, turn left at th Wendy’s and right at the Dunkin’ Donuts. Except that this gets confusing when there are three Wendy’s and two Dunkins on the same street (noticing a trend? there is also a Tony Roma’s, a TGI Fridays, oh, and a Hooters).

I sought out some music, but Saturday (strange?) turns out to be a bad night for live music on the island, and being always lost in the day time, I wasn’t feeling super comfortable venturing too far after nightfall anyhow. Turns out there is a good music scene, I just happened to miss it (more in the guide).

So in all, not to whine, the trip was a bit of a bust, though highly productive from a work standpoint, and I did get to see some cool buildings downtown. Oh, and, but in chilly “27 feels like 9” degree New York, that sun brings some pretty happy memories… (More photos here.)





Latest Obsession: Sosauce

2 03 2009

I’ll confess I’m not really big on the social networking revolution. I have the obligatory Facebook and MySpace accounts but rather obstinately refrain from using them unless someone contacts me first. I’m behind the times, I know (my older sister, on the other hand, has been on Facebook all of a month and has 300+ friends—go figure).

That’s to say nothing of the many social networking sites devoted to travel alone. I’m not sure if there are other industries that merit their own litany of social networking sites, but travelers, not surprisingly, love to connect and share stories (and pictures and tips) with other travelers. And so this is one type of social networking I can definitely get behind, especially when it’s as cool a site as my latest discovery: Social Sauce.

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting a few of the masterminds behind Sosauce when they hosted a cocktail party with the EuroCheapo crew. Buoyed by Tom’s delicious sangria, I went straight home and, admittedly, stayed up far too long creating a Sosauce profile. Too bad I’ve only since recruited one friend (who, it just so happens, is one of the few people I know who is not on Facebook). Looks like I’m going to have convince my sister to come on board.

Anyhow, Sosauce is the social networking site to end all social networking sites, for travel at least. First, they call themselves “travel geeks” (note: any time you can be an “anything geek,” do it!). Second, there is a cool interactive guide section, as well as a great personal area where you can share videos, photos, journal entries, map your trips and much more. But my favorite part is the socially conscious aspect. The standard profile page gives travel geeks, in addition to the usual name, interests, etc. spaces, a place to choose their endangered species of choice as well as the social and environmental causes they most care about. And it must be noted that the business cards of Sosauce employees each feature a different endangered species with a bottle of sauce. Now if my adoring their business cards isn’t geeky, I don’t know what is!





If on a winter’s night a traveler

25 10 2008

I finally did it. For many, many years (read: since high school), I have wanted to read this book. It sort of jumped off a bookstore shelf at me one day, shortly after I’d read Franny and Zooey for the first time (if that is imaginable) and I was fascinated. I loved the name, I loved the tone of the first few pages, I loved the mysterious Italian author. For some reason, however, I wound up reading two other Italo Calvino books before even purchasing If on a winter’s night a traveler. And once purchased, it sat on my bookshelf for another year or so, until, finally, I read it a couple weeks back.

I’ll just say it was worth the wait. In true Calvino form it was beautiful, slightly crazy and totally modernist. It was an experiment of interweaving 10 different novels, which were experienced through a unifying story (the alternate chapters) of an unknown “reader” and his love interest “the other reader.” It was experimental, and I will say it is not my favorite Calvino work, but it was thought-provoking and enjoyable. And after all, you gotta love a good story about a traveler.





Queens Towers (by special request)

18 10 2008

I was recently chided for having written about two of my nieces and not their sister, my darling Olivia.

And so, without further ado, a post especially for Olivia, in two parts.

I may be belaboring the point but I love being an aunt for the simple joys of passing on knowledge, joy, enthusiasm, and for cultivating those female bonds which I think are so special. At home in California this summer I had several opportunities for just these things, some already noted and others soon to be forthcoming. The added bonus of all this, I found, is that I get to learn in the process as well. And thus, part 1…

We have a tradition when my brother Gregg brings his girls from Colorado to California for visits. We head to Oakland’s Jack London Square and take the East Bay Ferry into the city. From there the routine is pretty generic and pretty touristy, usually consisting, in random variations, of lunch at Johnny Rockets, playing and shopping on Pier 39, and a long time marveling at the famous sea lions who lounge there. Then we make the long walk along the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building, where the rest of us wander the markets waiting for my brother to spend an inordinate amount of time purchasing wine before we catch the ferry back to Oakland. It’s always a great day and the kids look forward to it every visit.

This summer, however, we switched it up, especially for Miss Olivia. Last year, on the walk to the Ferry Building, I pointed out Coit Tower to the darling and she has been obsessed ever since, determined that we must visit the “Queen Tower” and also the “other Queen Tower,” which happens to be San Francisco’s other most distinctive building, the Transamerica. So this year, we diverted from the usual plan and took Olivia to the Queen Tower, no small feat given that I have not lived in the city for more than two years now and have become a little rusty on my geography, not to mention there’s that massive hill to climb (we cabbed it).

Once up there, however, it was well worth the trek. For my mother, who had visited often with her own mother (my Gaga), it brought happy memories of growing up in San Francisco. For Olivia, who for a year had been talking about the Queen Tower, it was a thrill, nearly equaled but not overshadowed by the joy of seeing “Alcatrax.”

The Princess in front of the Queen Tower

The Princess in front of the Queen Tower

And for me, who managed to grow up in the Bay Area, live in San Francisco for two years, and only see one of its most iconic landmarks for the first time on a visit from New York, it was a reminder of what we take for granted when we have easy access to some of life’s most amazing places, and a reminder that you don’t have to travel to travel. Often the best things to see are in our own backyards. Or at the very least just a ferry ride away.

Coit Tower, which can be seen from most places in downtown San Francisco, looms over the city from its perch on Telegraph Hill in North Beach. It was erected in 1933, and was commissioned to honor San Francisco’s firefighters by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric San Franciscan who often rode along with the firemen, despite this being considered unladylike behavior. For more information, click here.





September Highlights

7 10 2008

It’s definitely autumn in New York. The air is crisp, some leaves have started to change color, and I’m left bewildered and wondering what happened to September. Oh right, September was that quick little month during which I: started a new job at the Harlem Children’s Zone, scurried around Fashion Week, and curated a major literary extravaganza.

Somewhere between the sore feet and the frantic running, I managed to fit in two of my favorite things: travel and girlfriends. I got to take a little trip to the tiny town of Altoona, PA, where my dear high school friend Rachel, whom I hadn’t seen in a frightening five years happened to be for a wedding. My travel time of six hours each way about equaled the waking hours I spent in Altoona. The trip itself consisted of crashing the wedding, brunching and talking the following day at Friendly’s (east coast staple) followed by a long and thorough exploration of Target (more talking) before re-crossing the highway and returning to the hotel to lounge and talk some more. It was a simple trip and an amazing one, the kind that proves it does not matter where you are, or how long you travel, so long as it’s to meet a good friend.

And speaking of long trips, my lovely and amazing friend Liz made a huge one across the pond to visit me in New York. We walked all over town, gorged on sweets, and talked until it seemed we must have sucked the air out of the room. And still had so much left to say. It was fun to see New York through unAmerican eyes, but the best part was the realization that over a two week stint in Argentina I had made a lifetime friend. The wonders of travel.

Even more amazing, that in the midst of the chaos of September, I managed to fit in quality time with two amazing women and two great friends (old and new) who, in vastly different ways, are something of kindred spirits to me. I wonder what October will hold?





Paying it Forward (Part Dos)

31 07 2008

A few posts back I marveled at the rewards that come from that aspect of travel that has to do with passing it on, and the best part about it is when you know it’s made an impact. I knew this not only from the excitement that my brother’s girls had while looking at the photos, but from what came to pass after.

Alyssa, who had studied Peru in school and started this whole thing, told me about her project, and about how they had to make food when they presented. They were supposed to make “a…al…alfa-somethings” (she couldn’t remember). Of course I knew what they were supposed to make and didn’t. I knew firsthand. They were supposed to make alfajores. (Yes, that sounded right.) Well they didn’t make them after all, but she wanted to.

The next 20 minutes were spent trawling the internet for the alfajor site her group had found, and then we decided to give it a go ourselves. When I suggested this, Alyssa was thrilled, so off we went to the store, and we spent the afternoon (and the next morning) baking.

Having found several recipes, we wound up, for reasons I cannot now explain—nor can I now even find the recipe—using one that suggested making dulce de leche from evaporated milk. The recipes I found to this end (none of which I can recover currently) involved boiling the milk, in the can, for four hours. While this seems simple enough, it is actually a taxing project, since you have to continuously monitor the pots to ensure there is enough water that the cans don’t explode (we popped a hole in the top of the can, which helped, but then meant we had to take care that water didn’t hit the top).

My brother, who was visiting, got impatient and opened one can before it was quite time, meaning we had to pour the almost dulce de leche into a pan, then place that pan in a pan of water, and stick it in the oven for another hour (yet another recipe I can’t seem to find). All in all, the dulce de leche took nearly five hours to make. But in the end it was delicious.

The cookies, on the other hand, were a bit of a flop. I didn’t roll them thin enough, so making a sandwich was tough. We settled for slathering dulce de leche on individual cookies, which the kids loved, but it was incredibly messy. In all, though, Alyssa was happy, and I was happy, both because I had found another alfajor lover and because I had passed down yet another happy moment of traveling. As for the cookies, I’m still perfecting them.

We used this recipe for the cookies, and it was good, though a little on the dry side.





Small, Small World – And a Conundrum

18 07 2008

For people who love to travel, the world seems like a very big place. Massive. As in, It’s-so-huge-that-I’ll-never-possibly-get-to-all-the-places-I-want-to-go GIGANTIC.

But then there are times when something will happen to make you realize how small the world really is. Like, for example, when you meet a girl in Buenos Aires (who happens to be from London), and she then becomes a great friend. It’s an even smaller world when that initial girl emails and says that her friend (who happens to be from Brazil) is going to be in New York.

And so one Sunday afternoon you find yourself in the Lower East Side (of New York) drinking beer (from Belgium) with Marina (from Brazil) who met Liz (from London) at Carnaval (in Brazil)—and you’re all linked through Argentina (from which no one involved happens to hail). Whew. Looks like travel makes it a small world after all. Sorry for annoying song reference. It was inevitable.

True story? Funny you should ask. Yes. It most certainly is a true story. I showed lovely Marina around New York on Sunday, and marveled at her marveling at New York (and the fact that she had yet to meet a New Yorker who was actually from New York). Then on Tuesday I went with Marina to see the New York Philharmonic play (for free) in Central Park. Through her met numerous other small world souls (from all over the world) through an organization called Couchsurfing, which requires a blog all its own but for today’s purposes helps travelers meet people and find free places to stay (making the world less expensive and thus smaller).

And now for the conundrum. The great thing about having someone in town who isn’t even from America is that you really get to see New York (and the US) through a different lens. And you find yourself explaining things that seem so commonplace, such as leaving your credit card at the bar to keep a tab open and what is a Zagat.

But then there was a question I couldn’t answer. “What types of food are very American?” Simple enough, right? Hot dog. Apple pie. Watermelon? (And then I get stuck in things like hamburgers that seem repetitive.) But it turns out there was more to the question: one goes to Italy and brings home Limoncello; you get champagne from France, alfajores from Argentina (you didn’t think I’d not mention those, did you?). But what should Marina take back to Brazil from America?

And hence the conundrum. I have no answer. She surely wouldn’t bring back hot dogs. Or apple pie or watermelon for that matter. Bourbon is American, but who wants to bring that back? If she were in San Francisco I would suggest Ghirardelli chocolate, but given we’re in New York that won’t do. And thus I’m stumped. So. Thoughts? If anyone can shed light on this little dilemma, please, please enlighten me. And Marina.





Paying It Forward

16 07 2008

The fun thing about travel is, of course, the meeting of new people and the seeing of new things. That part’s a given. But an equally important part of travel (and the part that keeps us travel fiends going in between trips) is the sharing of the travel experience. Even better, sharing the travel experience when the experience itself is a new thing.

Let me explain. While at home in California I got to spend quality time with my young nieces from Colorado, who, at ages 12 and almost 11, are finally old enough to understand the magnitude of international travel and actually be interested in it. (As opposed to six years ago when the little Flamenco fans I brought from Spain were cool solely for the pretty designs on them.)

Now, these girls have had their fair share of travel in the course of their young lives, but somehow trips to California or even the all-inclusive resort in Mexico (while it of course has its merit) does not quite have the same effect. Getting their hair braided doesn’t count discovering a culture.

So the fact that Alyssa (the older sister)’s eyes lit up when I mentioned my trip to Peru was fantastic. When she enthusiastically told me she’d done a project on Peru this year, I wasted no time in whisking her away to my computer and pulling up photos from the trek (a feat not all that easy, given that the pictures—which I finally had all organized and ready to send out—were lost when my hard drive crashed).

There we sat for nearly an hour, flipping through photos of the trail, the houses, the people, and, wonder of wonders, Machu Picchu. To my delight, Alyssa was riveted, as was her sister Nicolette. They were fascinated by the scenery, the dress, the trek itself. And the fact that their aunty (who, admittedly, they know to be a bit of a priss) went five days without showering. And, for my part, I loved reliving the experiences and the stories, and watching their excitement.

But even better was the fact that they were experiencing the wonders of travel (albeit armchair travel) for the first time. While I’ll never know the exact impact it had, by the looks on their faces I’d guess that these girls figured out that there are wonders out there, and that it’s within their reach to see them.

But more importantly, I think it sparked a desire to see them, and it was educational too. Later that day, when Alyssa and I visited the store and I didn’t take a bag for our cans of condensed milk (a preview of my next post) we talked about doing little things for the environment. And when I told her that Salkantay, the glacier she saw in my photos, was melting rapidly because of global warming, her response was, “That would be terrible if I wanted to see it when I grow up and it wasn’t there.” Check and check. New generation of female travelers (and environmentalists) officially recruited.





How I Almost Became My Mother

28 03 2008

My mother is a worrier. She worries about everything, especially everything having to do with her children. And with five children she’s basically spent most of the last 42 years worrying. Being the youngest, and probably the most adventurous, I seem to give my mother the most to worry about these days. She nearly drove herself to insanity with worry when I chose to drive across the country with friends at age 20, and when I moved to New York by myself she almost took my siblings with her.

Funny side note: On a rainy day when we were in Venice together I left breakfast to use the restroom and decided to retrieve my rain jacket from its holding place with the rest of my backpacking gear under the bus. When I stayed on the bus while it drove around to pick up the rest of our tour group, my mother (of course) noted my absence and jumped to the logical conclusion that her healthy 22-year-old daughter had fallen in the bathroom and couldn’t get up to call anyone.

Needless to say, Mom’s worrying has given her children a lot to laugh at over the years. And by the time I was heading Argentina on my own I was used to it. I, it seems, am not a worrier. Not usually at least…

I am typically of the “no plan is a good plan” travel mentality, and have accordingly experienced much hilarity from simply going with the flow. But every once in a while the planner in me comes out, and it did just that in Northwest Argentina. In San Salvador de Jujuy I met another girl, Da, and we decided to head up to Humahuaca for Carnaval together. Given the festival weekend, there was a lot of talk about the inevitable scarcity of beds there. This hasn’t stopped me in the past, but for some reason it made me nervous. Da, however, was ready to go.

I determined that I couldn’t miss out on experiencing Carnaval and next thing I knew I was on a bus to Uquía, which we thought would be a better bet since it is outside town. We arrived around 7 p.m. and knocked on the door of their ONE hostel. The man didn’t even open the door all the way before telling us they were too full. Much to my chagrin I soon found myself following Da around while she asked people if we might sleep on their couches. Then we clambered across the river, where we’d heard a woman had cabins. After wandering a while in no man’s land we came upon two houses, and a man outside the first pointed us even further up the road to the woman.

When we reached her house a young girl came out and asked us to wait, which seemed a good sign. But the proprietor’s face said all. We tried to make ourselves as pathetic as possible, and pointed at the vast empty room behind her, begging for even a tiny space on the floor there just so long as it was sheltered, but to no avail. The thought of two young women without a place to sleep didn’t bother this woman one bit. Clearly she is not my mother, who not only worries about her own children but everyone else’s too. I, on the other hand, found myself becoming increasingly more like my mother as the situation became more dire. I started hearing her worry voice in my head, and kicking myself for not following my initial instincts. My “fearless female traveler” self was waning, and fast.

I kept repeating to myself my former travel adventures: arriving in Bacharach, Germany and hiking half an hour uphill in my heavy pack to the castle hostel that had told me over the phone he had no rooms and then convincing him to lay out mattresses in his conference room (and we got a discount), driving around Bordeaux, France unable to find accommodations and ultimately sleeping in our rental cars (only to find out the next morning that our “safe” hospital parking lot” was right under the helicopter landing pad)… But my previous adventures did nothing to ease the gnawing feeling in my gut that something was going terribly wrong.

All this worry snowballed into yet another strain of worry: worry about my worry. Unlike my mother, I’m not usually a worrier. Or at least not in the same way. I often make myself crazy with thought, but that (I always tell myself) is not the same as worry. And especially in travel adventures I’m not the one to worry, so what was wrong? Am I getting old? Am I turning into my mother? Am I losing my sense of adventure?

Luckily, I never found out, because my planless plan (however worrisome) turned out to be one of the most rewarding adventures of my trip. Da and I went back to the “cabins” on the lady’s property to ask the man who had last directed us to her house if we might stay with him. He gestured to the five children playing in his yard and suggested the cabin next door. Again we were pathetic and pleaded with the man who answered the door for a sliver of his floor. He hesitated but was definitely considering.

Finally he left to ask his wife, and after ten agonizing minutes returned and invited us inside. The cabin (which they were renting from the lady who is definitely not like my mom) afforded barely enough space for the family of four, but Patricio and his family welcomed us in, offering us mate and chatting with us about our respective countries (Da is from China). When the time came they drove us into Humahuaca for the evening’s Carnaval celebrations. The whole way their eight-year-old twins, Octavio and Julia chattered away about their vacation and asked us question after question about America and China.

Upon arrival in Humahuaca we split up (it was at this time that I split my toe), and as we left them for a delicious meal and revelry I laughed at myself for ever having worried. In the course of our wanderings that night Da and I found a woman with two beds for let in her house, and promptly paid her for them, not out of want to escape our family but in hope of making their last night of vacation a little easier.

When we found the family again Octavio instantly took my hand and began chattering away about his night, firing questions about mine in rapid Spanish. (I was smitten.) After Da and I had retrieved our things there were hugs all around and Eugenia, the mother, made us each promise to call her when we were back in Buenos Aires. She would cook for us. And so I reluctantly left my new family with the realization that the very adventure that made me “become my mother” for those few short moments actually allowed me to find her (in Argentina).

And even better than that? We discovered that my new littler brother and I had the same sweater:

“Siblings” in their Sweaters





A Belated Thanks to Inclement Weather

28 02 2008

15000 Feet wasn’t looking pretty.
Is it me or do we look like those guys from Alive?

Last night in New York it was 24 degrees (feels like 11). I left a friend’s house and walked six blocks to the subway, my stinging lips cursing the cold the whole way. But then I realized: I wouldn’t be outside, leaving a Peru party, if it weren’t for the cold.

Flashback to one year ago…

At around this time last year, my amazing, will-do-anything-for-you (and from California) parents braved the frigid temperatures of a New York February, just to see me. At that time I had lived here about six months and, though I was happy, still hadn’t quite found my place. Despite having several close friends, I was far from home, battling miserable weather, and sometimes felt lonely. It may shock those who know her (note sarcasm here), but this worried my mother to no end.

Then the cold stepped in, with a little help from mom. While the parents were waiting for me to get out of my first day interning for EuroCheapo, the temps outside became unbearable, so they sought refuge in Aroma Cafe, just around the corner from my office. My mother couldn’t help but “overhear” the bubbly girl at the next table over, who happened to be talking about travel, and the more she overheard, the more she thought this girl would make a great friend for her daughter. And so my friendly mother struck up a conversation. (Neither remembers what she said.)

I met my parents after work and was surprised when my mother exclaimed, “I met the cutest girl for you!” I was slightly embarrassed that my mother was making friends for me, but decided to email Libby anyway. After months of email tag we finally met and were insta-friends. On our first “date” I told Libby of my plans to travel in South America and she immediately signed on to be my travel buddy. Before I knew it two of her friends, Rebecca and Tiffany, were talking about hiking boots and plane tickets with us.

After four “Peru planning” meetings—and having known each other a matter of months—we embarked on the most taxing journey any of us had ever before attempted. There were blisters, tears, freezing cold days… and that was just the beginning. There was also laughter, long chats, more tears (happy ones), and bonding. One thing there wasn’t: arguing. The stress of that trip, combined with the constant togetherness, seemed sure yield hurt feelings, if not out and out hatred. But we came off that mountain stronger as individuals and stronger as friends.

Now back in the comforts of New York, Peru is all we discuss. Last night, clean and warm, we held the first of what will be many Peru parties. On the menu was the fruit tea (with rum) that we drank on night two, toasted corn nuts, a Peruvian restaurant staple, and takeout Mexican (oops, how did that slip in there?). From the comfort of a couch in Brooklyn, we watched a hilarious, disgusting, and sometimes painful to watch, video about four girls who didn’t know each other all that well but became close friends at 15,000 feet. All because my parents needed to get out of the cold.

So one year after my parents’ visit, I am sending out a note of thanks to the cold, and one to my matchmaking mother who had to get out of it.