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 ,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!

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?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Next Stop: Los Cabos


I try to travel to a different part of Mexico at least once a year so I'm excited to visit San Jose Del Cabo for the first time this week. Located on the Southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula, it's quieter and more relaxed than the party haven of Cabo San Lucas. I'll be hosted by Paradisus Los Cabos,  a stylish new resort that just opened in December.  Surrounded by mountains and sparkling views of the Sea of Cortez, this expansive property features one of the only swimmable beaches in the area as well as seven restaurants, with the standout being  the Basque-French cuisine of Gastro Bar, helmed by Michelin star rated chef Martin Berasategui. I'll also be checking out the famous Los Cabos coastline and view the majestic El Arco  rock formations, hopefully along with a few whales and sea lions during a cruise on the Sea of Cortez. Please stay tuned for details!

This is Havana


Havana is super charming. It's really difficult to step foot into this energetic, multi-layered city and not be swept away by its appeal. Music flows from every surface, the locals are warm and gracious and the streets are crammed with striking images. There's a lot to see and what you capture depends on how you look and what you're looking for. The colorful buildings of Old Havana are every visitor's fave but I was also taken by the modern structures. El Capitolo, pictured above, resembles the American capitol building but was actually modeled after the Pantheon in Paris. It's interesting that you don't see photos of this lovely building half as much as you see images of the old,classic cars. Notice that there are modern cars rolling down the street in front of El Capitolo.


Plaza de la Revolucion is another popular pic but the iconic portrait of Che' Guevara is almost always highlighted. I discovered that Camilo Cienfuegos, a revolutionary who led a key battle during the Cuban Revolution is also featured in the plaza, as seen above. Camilo, along with Che and the Castro brothers were the major heros of the revolution but Camilo doesn't seem get as much acknowledgement outside of Cuba.


I loved strolling the Vedado neighborhood where I stayed in an Airbnb. I passed parks and sculptures like this wherever I went.


The crumbling buildings and old cars are visual hallmarks of Havana but there are also well kept buildings and serene plazas like the ones pictured above.


The Cuban flag flies proudly over many buildings but I really loved the juxtaposition of this waving flag against the modern architecture.


Murals. street art and graffiti are also common sights in Havana but I especially enjoyed walking past this piece everyday. Viva Cuba indeed!

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Next Stop: Cuba!


I can barely contain the joy and excitement that's bubbling through me. This week, I'm finally visiting the place that's topped my bucket list for years-- Cuba! My love of Cuban music has connected me to the culture for a long time and I feel like I'll be entering a vaguely familiar place, even though I've never been. As an American, visiting Cuba requires a few hoops to jump but it's not a big deal when compared with the reward. Except for an essential visit to the Tropicana Cabaret, I won't be doing many touristy excursions in Havana.  I'll be mingling and living with locals as I am celebrating the engagement of my talented friend Ugochi and her fiancee, Juan Miguel. I will  be supplying posts from a local perspective as well as tips on how to experience the vibrant Cuban culture when I return, so please be on the look out!



Thursday, May 4, 2017

Next Stop: Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival

Photo courtesy of Bahamas Tourism

It's that time again. No matter the destination, I never turn down the chance to participate in the joyful celebration of carnival. This weekend, I'm headed to Nassau for the Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival.  I was in Nassau three years ago when plans for the inaugural event  were kicking off and I'm excited to be able to experience the festivities in person. Junkanoo is a series of concerts, costumes, competitions and street parties that incorporate Bahamian cultural elements like rake n scrape folk music. One of my best Bahamian memories was hearing rake n- scrape for the first time at the iconic Elvina's on Eleuthera.  I can't wait to hear it in another setting and learn about the history Junkanoo traditions as well as possibly participating in the Road Fever parade, so stay tuned!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Adobe Adoration in Santa Fe


One of the hallmarks of Santa Fe are the beautiful adobe buildings that fill the city and supply a distinctive, organic vibe. I've never been in adobe structures so I was thrilled to see them up close, touch their smooth walls and experience their indoor cooling effects.


Historically, Pueblo Indians in the Rio Grande valley constructed expansive homes made from sun-dried mud and straw. Stone floors and rooms surrounding a central plaza was another aspect of the architectural style that has been preserved as Santa Fe  Pueblo style.


Santa Fe features so many adobe buildings that it's actually startlingly when you see places made from regular bricks and wood. I fell in love with gazing at the soft clay colors of adobe under the bright Santa Fe sun.


Many Santa Fe museums and galleries are made from adobe but when you consider the ancient history of  adobe architecture, the art and history is reflected not just inside but outside as well.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Next Stop: Santa Fe


Any place with the tag line, "the city different" immediately attracts my attention but its vivid and multi-layered culture and history placed Santa Fe, New Mexico at the top of my bucket list for a long time. After years of scheduling conflicts, I'm finally visiting this magical mountain town this week, courtesy of  Tourism Santa Fe. I 'm delirious with excitement about exploring the city's art museums including the Museum of International Folk Art, New Mexico Museum of Art and of course, the Georgia O'Keefe Museum. I'll be taking a few art classes as well as sampling the distinctive Santa Fe cuisine. As the nation's oldest and highest elevation (7,198 feet!) state capital,Santa Fe promises an unforgettable trip. Stay tuned for posts!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Natural Splendor of Haiti


When I traveled to Haiti for the first time, I expected to be moved. For centuries, the island was called the "Pearl of the Caribbean" and the waterfalls and rolling, emerald mountains that prompted Tainos to name the paradise Ayiti, which means mountainous land. was just one of the reasons. But I didn't even consider this. I expected to be thrilled because as the world's first Black Republic, Haiti represents the pride of Black people. Haitians dared to snatch their freedom back from a European power and its entrenched system of slavery and injustice. Despite decades of contemporary oppression and natural disaster, Haitian pride and spirit remain intact. That's what I came to experience. But I was blown away because it's not just the Haitian people and culture that are beautiful but the land itself. There were so many aspects of  Haiti that mesmerized me, my instagram is already overloaded with them. So I thought that I would start with the landscape first. The island's hallmarks are the many mountains and hills, as you can see from the photo above.


Historic ruins almost blend into the landscape so that there is an ancient, reverent vibe to the island. That's Sans Souci Palace above and I'll be discussing the significance of  landmarks like this in future posts.



Haiti is also very green, trees, plants and parks like these are all over the island.


In bustling Port Au Prince, the scene is more urban but there are still parks and trees to remind you that Haiti's natural beauty takes many forms.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Impossible Beauty of Victoria's Butchart Gardens


I love gardens and flowers so I always try to visit the botanical gardens of the destinations that I visit. I've explored many gorgeous gardens and been absorbed by the heady delights of blooming plants and trees. But I've never seen anything like Victoria's Butchart Gardens. It's called a garden but it's more like a fairytale land, as you can glimpse in the photo. The thing is, there's not just one garden at Butchart Gardens, there are many, including a sunken garden, an Italian garden, a Japanese garden,a rose garden and a Mediterranean garden. There's even a carousel with exotic animals!  With a restaurant that serves an afternoon tea service and dishes created from the organic produce grown on the grounds, Butchart Gardens is the kind of oasis that beckons you to spend days, not hours.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Totems and Treetops


One of the things that I love about Vancouver and Victoria is the vibrant presence of First Nations culture. From the time you step into Vancouver International Airport,, aboriginal art pieces,especially totem poles, are on prominent display. Strolling around both cities, I discovered that totem poles are as common as the trees that often surround them.


At Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, totem poles dot the landscape, they tell the story of the people who lived there hundreds of years before. In fact, totem poles are sometimes called story poles.


I learned that totem poles are monuments created by Northwest Coast aboriginal people and they can serve as signboards, genealogical records or memorials. They are typically carved from red cedar and then painted. The poles communicate symbolically across all First Nations groups.



The surprising thing that I discovered about totem poles is that they don't have to be towering heights but that they come in all sizes. There are six  main types of poles: memorials, grave figures,house posts, house front poles, welcoming poles and mortuary poles. Historically, totem poles were commissioned by a chief to mark a special event and they continue to hold deep significance for First Nations culture.



Thursday, March 23, 2017

Views From Vancouver's Granville Island


When I landed in beautiful and bustling Vancouver, it was hard for me to understand that I was actually on a coastal seaport. I spotted mountains and buildings everywhere I turned but it wasn't until I headed to the peninsula of Granville Island that I grasped the water connection.


Granville Island is a shopping district that actually requires you to hop a ferry to reach. Floating on the boat, I glimpsed the prettiest aquatic scenes. Vancouver showcases sleek architectural structures like the Science World sphere above.


The city also boasts quaint Victorian building like the ones adorned with Canadian flags above. It didn't really matter where I looked, the water just seemed to make everything that more scenic.



Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Next Stop: Vancouver, Victoria and Haiti


I'm kicking off my travel year by visiting places that I've been interested in exploring for years. First, I'll be headed to the vibrant metropolis surrounded by mountains and water called Vancouver. Destination British Columbia is hosting me for a dive into the city's culture and natural beauty. I'm especially excited to attend the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival where I'll witness indigenous songs, stories and dance. I'll also be exploring the Capilano Suspension Bridge, Granville Island, Punjabi Market and hiking near the North Shore Mountains, among other things in my packed itinerary. Then I'll hop a helijet to Victoria and take in the famous Butchart Gardens and other sights in this old world city, pictured below.


Next, I'm off to the unspoiled beauty of Haiti for the International Jazz Festival of Port- au- Prince. The strength and pride of Haiti, despite the country's challenges has always attracted me. I'm thrilled to finally experience Haitian culture as well as view famous landmarks like Citadelle Laferriere, the largest fortress in the Americas, built by formerly enslaved Africans and a UNESCO World Heritage Site,shown below. Please stay tuned for posts about my whirlwind experiences.




Monday, February 27, 2017

When Anguilla and Australia Meet




The best part of travel is meeting people who share experiences and stories that reflect how diverse and exciting the world truly is. On the flawless beach of Anguilla's Sandy Island, I met DJ Kristelle Morin, who performed as part of the Livin In The Sun EDM Festival. I'm not a huge fan of EDM (electronic dance music) unless it's the house music that I grew up with in Chicago. I need an element of emotion to enjoy music and most techno and electro music lacks that element. But I learned a few things when I met international DJs in Anguilla, especially a sunny-faced DJ named Kristelle Morin from Australia. Lounging on Sandy Island, Kristelle explained how she started out as a DJ in Sydney and travels between London where she works with  Tribe Records, and the rest of the world, spinning her music.
 It's not easy for women DJs to establish themselves in the EDM industry and Kristelle explained the challenges of pushing past the sexism and misogyny. What really intrigued me was how Kristelle mixes parts of her native Australian culture into her music. Although she specializes in deep soul house, she often weaves aboriginal chants between the beats.She not only blended the soulful singing of house but she added chanting for extra layers of emotion. It was the most evocative EDM music that I've ever heard. I watched her at the booth as the rhythms pumped from her turntables and indigenous chants floated over Anguilla's blue waves. It was almost like Australia and Anguilla were joining right before my eyes and it was an unforgettable feeling.







Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Night Out in Tokyo


After flying 13 hours from Chicago to Tokyo, I was a tiny bit woozy. Although the ANA Airlines inaugural flight from Chicago to Tokyo's Haneda Airport was smooth and comfortable, the drastic time difference was starting to affect me. Although we landed at 9 pm Tokyo time, it was 6 am Chicago time and that 15 hour difference was screwing with my equilibrium. But I am the boss of my body, not jet lag so I do what I always do whenever I land anywhere; hit the streets! Walking around in the fresh air does wonders for your internal time clock even without the sun. So I grabbed MJ, the fellow Chicagoan in our group and we strolled out of the Imperial Hotel into the streets of the Chiyoda business district. I had researched a small cluster of hotels that lined the subway near our hotel and we located them neatly situated in a lighted alley, pictured above.


On a Monday night at 9 pm, there's not too much activity in Chicago but that's not the case in Tokyo. The sidewalks were filled with people and as we walked down the alley, waiters came out in white aprons to lure us into their restaurants. We walked down the alley for 20 minutes before choosing a place to grab a late night snack. Since nobody spoke English and most of the signs only had photos, we chose the restaurant that actually offered an English menu.(I need to know what I'm eating because of my food allergy and dietary restrictions.) The eatery was crammed with people who looked like they had gathered after work and were relaxing with drinks and food.


This group of men, who were seated behind us, smoked so much that our clothes were full of smoke when we left the restaurant. With the U.S. ban on indoor smoking, it's been a long time since I've been in a smokey place and I consider it part of my authentic Tokyo experience. We nibbled ramen and chicken wings and absorbed the atmosphere until our eyes started fluttering closed. Then we walked through the dark streets, back to our hotel, ready to reset our inner clocks to Tokyo time.