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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Follow the Yellow Brick Road...

It’s almost midnight. December 26th, 2006. I’m leaving for Sydney, Australia in one, yes one, day and…I have absolutely nothing to wear. Sydney is chic, as is Melbourne. The Outback is rugged, New Zealand is hike-centered, the islands of the South Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef are all linen and lycra, flowy skirts and skimpy swimwear. I’ve forgotten how to pack; my list isn’t helping. I don’t know what to bring. I’m overwhelmed, I haven’t done this in a while. Clothes are strewn all over my floor, shoes are no longer neatly tucked in their shoe-rack homes, and I’ve decided that I use way too many products. Frocks that fit perfectly in South America, yeah…not so much. (I guess I won’t bring THREE bagel sandwiches of varied assortment on the 24-hour plane ride to Sydney). That cute go-to skirt from Vietnam, yeah…not so cute. (I guess I’ll remember the term “impulse buy” this time out). New York has seeped back into my blood. I’ve been here too long. I’m stressing over the pack, not the trip. Good and bad. Just pack and go, Marie. Pack and go.

So, it’s been a while since we’ve done this. The blog dance. I’ll have to reacquaint myself with it, though I’m looking forward. Since we left off in Paris with my mom and sister, I’ve spent 4 months in New York trying to sort myself out. It took a while, I’ll admit. The other home stays were all short-lived. I had weddings and commitments, other people’s stuff—things that deflected attention from “being home.” Being home, for real, was tough. I’d gotten used to the travel schtick, the life it entailed, being on the move, waking each day to a new sunrise over a different horizon. I fell in love with the constantly rotating cast of characters; I adored the challenges of each new cultural situation. New York, I felt, hadn’t changed. I yearned to be back out there, in the world, on the road. There’s so much to see, why see the same thing every day?

However, part of this year was the desire to try my hand at not just traveling, but writing. Not this, the off-the-cuff blogging. A real sit down attempt at actually creating a piece of narrative about my adventures. Me-speak sure; but with great scenery, completely honest stories (good and bad) and a genuine respect for punctuation and vocabulary. I had to spend some time doing that. I felt it part of the process; it was equally important. So, after tending to bone spurs from walking the world in flip-flops (another lesson), readjusting to Eastern Standard Time and getting out of bed when I had really didn’t have anything pressing to do (for those who know me well, always a struggle), I took some woe-is-me (if world travelers can actually partake in woe) isolation time. I wrote off everyone I knew and spent a few solitary weeks in the Hamptons at the house of the very generous Millers; it was only then that I FINALLY started to write. Like traveling, I became obsessed.

Back in the city, I would venture to the gym in the AM, waving hi to Rosenberg and her trainer on Mondays and Thursdays, then hit Gotham Coffee House on 68th Street and settle into (after hovering for a vacancy) one of the two bay window seats in the joint and write all day. Usually about 6-7 hours (yes, that includes "screwing around online" time), surrounded by my journals, my guidebooks, my photos, my blogs, and my ruled notebooks of each country’s details. Gotham became my office; people popped by to say hi; Cathy and Hayden (who work there) knew me by name and put my daily soup in a to-go container instead of a fancy ceramic bowl because they knew it took up too much room on my “desk.” Everyone asked a million questions about my coffee shop days:
"They just let you sit there all day, like it's your cubicle?" Yes, though I never had a cubicle.
"Do you put money in the communal tip jar?" Yep.
"What if you don't get a seat?" I wait. Someone is always leaving.
"Do you make friends with other daily patrons?" Some. "Which ones? What's mingling criteria?" It varies.
"Do you go outside to make phone calls?" I rarely answer while I'm there, but yes.
"Are there some people who you can't stand, who have bad coffee shop manners?" Oh yes...
But, these are all stories for another day, as coffee shop culture is a whole other blog.....

After about five recounted country experiences and two hundred pages of writing that I’m insanely proud of, I realized it was turning summer in Australia. Temptation. Big time. Torn between sticking around New York (ducking old-college-acquaintance-turned-Mommy-run-ins on the Upper East Side) and finishing my book at the coffee shop OR heading off to Australia to complete the trip I planned 14 months ago, learning to incorporate writing into my life wherever I happen to be, I opted for the latter. I leave in a day. I’m overjoyed to be continuing my journey, thrilled to see travel friends from along the way, and eager to put both passions that the year has brought me together into one grand adventure. The South Pacific awaits.

But, for this moment, so does my closet.
More soon from the Land of Oz…


Thursday, August 03, 2006

Parisian Yin and Yang

Lisbon was followed by Lagos, a southern ocean town in the Algarve that offered much less frenzied a pace than the northern city of my flight lessons. It was breathtakingly beautiful, rocky mountain cliffs that dropped off steeply into the surf below. The Algarve beaches, which boasted both lovers’ alcoves and banana boats, were seasoned with tourists enjoying Europe’s high season. The expanse of sand on which my hotel had a slice of land was large and airy, rock formations set off in the distance, an Atlantic blue sea meeting a summer day’s blue sky, a swift and constant breeze making the heat bearable, even enjoyable. My days in Lagos were spent on a beach lounger, lazily heading into the town each night. A cobblestone maze of ups and downs, Lagos’ town is dotted with restaurants and cafes, all serving the finest seafood and spirits imaginable. It was a blissful three days, though, ANY day on a beach is a good day from my perspective. From Lagos, I quickly stopped back in Lisbon, en route to Paris. There I would meet my mother and sister for a week in the City of Lights. I must admit, I was a little apprehensive to meet up with them (of course, while simultaneously excited); having traveled for so long on my own, running to my own rhythm, indulging my own set of rules, plans, likes, dislikes, urges, I wondered how I would do with travel partners. FAMILY travel partners, no less. Uh-oh…

I got back to Paris, having spent 23 hours on a train, luckily in my own car for the duration, to a sleeping mother and sister in a teeny-tiny room that was stifling upon entry. They were wiped from their trip, while I, on the other hand, was rearing to go. After a quick change of rooms to a suite, a hasty unpack, and a survey of the “where to” question, we headed out, if to do nothing else than familiarize ourselves with the neighborhood. We were staying in the St. Germain des Pres area of the city, an upscale tree-lined shopping district, filled with historic restaurants and hot spots. First stop, Café de Flores, a favorite haunt of Hemingway, Sartre, et al… for a little sustenance. The allure of the Paris streets in summer makes me smile, seeing all the cafes grandly opening their arms to patrons, asking them to sit and linger over a coffee, a glass of wine, a baguette, while watching the passerby on the street. There isn’t a city that equals Paris in that regard, that energy of street life is unmatchable. But, alas, my mom wanted to sit inside. Air-conditioning, no cigarette smoke, away from the riff-raff. OK. We’re the ONLY people IN the restaurant. OK, no worries. It’s FINE. We eat. And, it all rushes back. You forget how good the bread is, how enticing the crepes are, how hearty the salads taste, how fragrant the cheese smells, how sweet the chocolate tastes, and how quickly the wine relaxes. Mmmm, Paris delicacies. Video killed the radio star. Europe’s killed my waistline.

In the past week, I’ve accumulated countless Parisian tales. They start in storied places like the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc de Triomphe, they ramble down streets like the Champs Elysses, Blvd de Montparnasse, and Rue de Bac, they quiet in places like Notre Dame and the Sacre Couer, they explore Pompidous and Orsays while getting rowdy at the Moulin Rouge and Buddha Bar, they spend lavishly at Longchamp and Bon Marche, they fall in travel love with beautiful French men named Antoine, and they all end at the Hotel Pont Royal. All of the things you know and love about Paris are on display in these stories, the bonus of course, is that THESE stories include family rows about where to dine, what each day’s schedule consists of, hurting feet, morning crankies, why so-and-so makes themselves gag when they brush their teeth, or so-and-so insists on using a French accent to ask for coffee. Other stories address why napping is a partial occupation for so-and-so, leisurely lazy meals vs. baguettes on the go, who holds the map, who had a tone in their voice over breakfast, and who picked a better area to go shopping. You get the gist. Sometimes being with family is really easy, sometimes it’s really hard, not bothering to censor and hold tempers when censoring and temper-holding is required. I know I’m guilty of NOT being the easiest girl on the travel circuit, and I’m a bit of a travel snob at this juncture of my life. I’m not totally patient when asked if the “inclusive ticket” includes “everything,” or if we should ask the information counter if we’re on the right line (when there’s ONLY one…) “just to be sure,” or something equally obvious. Yes, yes, yes. I know this. So, I’m sure you’re not at all surprised to hear that I was definitely pushed to my limits this week, then reeled back in by my equally tolerant family as I took them on the Marie tour of Paris (of course, I held the map…but, they let me). They were great, and all the bicker faded to grey. I took my moments to indulge in smoke-filled lazy lunches at overly-expensive restaurants that my mom thought “ridiculous,” read my paper each day, write in my journal, and cavort until the wee hours at Parisian clubs. So, the dynamic, though it took getting used to, worked. Yin-Yang. All in all, a terrific week…

Now back to NYC, where I have to figure out my next steps. I know they involve a return trip to Argentina and a few months in Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Fiji. The order and timing of which remains to be seen… I’ll keep you posted.

More soon…


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Amelia Earhart lives in Lisbon

Warning: this is a long, but fun blog. Enjoy at leisure…

A city of seven hills, like San Francisco and Rome, Lisbon is a high-low adventure of altitudes (very hard to determine on maps: you start your walks fresh, you end them winded), rambling cobblestone streets (very bad for heels-wearing, being graceful), and stunning old buildings with elaborate tilework facades (very dangerous for gawking at, then tripping over the cobblestones b/c you’re wearing heels…), and a stellar view (no downside). More San Francisco than Rome, partly because of the mock-Golden Gate Bridge (really called the Ponte 25 de Abril, which commemorates the 1974 Portugese Revolution for democracy), partly the location to the western coastline of the continent, partly the good/cultural scene, partly the trolley cars that traverse the hills of the city, Lisbon was not what I expected. Not that I can actually conceptualize what I DID expect. Possibly, I thought it would be more sleepy, more small-town. Possibly, I expected it to be less cosmopolitan, more old-world European. Regardless, I was so pleasantly surprised by Lisbon, I wound up staying four days instead of two, and I couldn’t have been given a better welcome.

Lisbon felt a little bit like Ecuador did the first time around, thanks to Amy Abreu, a friend of Plum, Gina, and Longo’s, who made it her personal business to put me in touch with her husband’s family and friends in anticipation of my arrival. All men, not complaining. My first day was spent with João, Amy’s brother-in-law, who met me in Rossío (a central square full of fountains, cafes, shops, and for now, the cows from the cow exhibit that tours the world) who took me to the two extreme ends of the city. First, Belém, where we took in the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (church) and The Monument of the Discoveries (in front of which is a large tiled map of ALL of Portugal’s colonial territories. Very impressive for such a tiny country. You tend to think the Spanish discovered the world, when in fact, much of the credit belongs to the Portuguese…), and then went to a little café that dates back to 1837 to have espresso (new thing, love it) and these custard-egg white mini-custard/tart/cakes that you douse in sugar and cinnamon and shove into your mouth. They were…divine. Then, we went to the modern side of the city that was completely refurbished for the World Expo in 1998. It’s an area full of seaside restaurants, a concert hall, aquarium, gardens and million dollar apartment buildings, settled into another café and chatted until his car was about to be towed, and we had to drop some Euros on the table and make a run for it…

Day two brought more exploring, this time of the Alfama district, specifically the Castelo de São Jorge, ala the Princess Bride, where phrases like “My name is Indigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die,” and “Mawrige. Mawrige is what bwings us together today,” littered my head throughout. To think that people actually inhabited such a place once upon a time ago is hard to conceptualize, but fascinating when you are walking across stone passageways high above the city. Then, to ever-more beautiful churches, then to a late lunch. Fish is the thing here in Portugal. Makes sense. On a personal note, my body welcomed the contrast from the Spanish potato, bread, tapas overdose of last week. Evening brought André, cousin of João (the symbols are KILLING me…), who took me through Barrio Alto and Chiado, the older, now trendy parts of Lisbon, teeming with bars, restaurants, outdoor cafes, and throngs of people. We caught the sunset at a park overlooking the water, and chatted about Lagos and music, mostly Van Morrison, who he’s just getting into (!?!?!)

Day three brought a trip to Docas (the Docks), per João, where I lazily ate fresh sea bass under the “Golden Gate” at a promenade of outdoor restaurants, drank port (aaahh…) and made friends with the neighboring table of two Portuguese guys and an American girl, all of whom happened to be on my train to Lagos later in the week. Night introduced me to Paulo, Pedro’s friend who took me to dinner with him and his friends. Eight of us in total, it was like Ecuador all over again. Great company, food, wine, conversation, what could be better? We continued onto a waterside bar (they need more of these in New York – forget rooftops, waterside spots are the thing), and then Paulo and I went to Lux, “the” three-level club in Lisbon, where before we knew it…4:30 AM. Huh? How did that happen? I barely made it to Sintra the next morning, a UNESCO World Heritage city (I need to count how many of these I’ve been to, definitely double-digits) that is filled with more castles and old, winding streets, and of course, charm. It was in Sintra that things got interesting…

The night before at dinner, José, a friend of Paulo’s, was telling me about a friend of his, Luís, who is an aerobatic pilot. You know, the kind of pilot who does tricks in the air in a two-seater plane. Talk about a daredevil. Of course, I’m all, I would LOVE to do that, blah blah blah… Next thing I know, I’m on the phone with Luís, tentatively making a flight time for the next day. I didn’t REALLY think it would happen. However, on my way to Sintra, my phone rings. Paulo. Tells me that I need to be at the airfield outside Sintra at 2:30 PM if I want to fly. GULP. Um…well, I won’t have time to really SEE Sintra, then. Right? Right. But, it’s the chance of a lifetime, and why the hell not? So…I make a quick tour of the castle, then have lunch (bread, cheese, water – very light, I’m going to be a little queasy, likely…), and head to the airfield. Paulo meets me. GULP. Paulo, who is terrified of flying comes to actually watch me do this because he can’t believe I will... BIG GULP.

I meet Luís, who is eating SPAGHETTI CARBONARA, when we get introduced. IS THIS MAN ASKING TO BE SICK IN THE PLANE? He’s a robust, affable guy, thrilled to take me with him for the day. Turns out, MTV and Ford (the sponsor of his plane) are doing a documentary on extreme flying, aerobatics. Luís is one of the top aerobatics pilots in the world, so he’s their focus. So…….I fly with him to the shoot in full flying garb (with the hat that made me think of Snoopie, all I needed was the scarf), in his two-person-Red Barron-type-glass-sliding-over-the-top-of-your-head-plane, doing tricks along the way, chatting with him through my mouthpiece, receiving him in my headset. WHAT IS GOING ON? Then, watch him from the ground while they film. I must’ve lost my stomach about 10 times, but it was fucking unreal. Exhilarating doesn’t cover it. It’s indescribable. THEN, I go up in a 4-person Cessna with the guy filming and a pilot, while they shoot footage from the air (!!), open-door-Vietnam-war-helicopter-style. I’m taking photos, giving thumbs-ups to Luis, dying about what the hell my life is, all the while open-mouthed over the spectacular Portuguese coast. Talk about SEEING a country. This is the way to do it. Then we were to fly back to meet José, who was going to pick me up and take me back to Lisbon to make my train to Lagos.

Needless to say, I didn’t make my train to Lagos. Instead, I spent the day on a roller coaster in the sky, without a track, twirling, pirouetting, flipping and dipping, in a aerobatic aircraft, filming a kamikaze pilot messing around with gravity, and having the time of my life. I learned to fly a bit (I was terrified to be in control of that machine, but secretly loved every minute of it, knowing that if I did anything wrong, I had back-up), but every time I gave the controls back to Luís, somersaulting we went. My photos are half right side up (ocean underneath us), half upside down (ocean on top of us). Oh my god. The most AMAZING thing I’ve ever done. (Kar, I thought of Neal the whole time…) I now need to jump out of a plane, to skydive, I’ve decided. I think that’s likely the ONLY thing that can top this.

José met me on safe landing back on Earth. He took me to change, as we had dinner plans, of course. We went to Cascias (Lisbon suburb) to the Design Hotel there (each room designed by a different person), a boutique hotel of fabulous proportions, for dinner. Dinis, the owner of the hotel, restaurant and adjoining club, Nuts Club, was a friend of theirs and hosted 10 of us for sushi. He shared with me that Uma (Thurman) and Andre (Balazs) finally called it quits this week, and I shared him with him how to make a good saketini to accompany his sushi: “The drink of next summer, for sure. Thank you for that.” After a quick peek at Bob Sinclair, seemingly “the” world’s #1 DJ of the moment, who was playing at the club, and the rumor of Athena Onassis staying on premises, I had to call it quits. It was well after 3 and I had an 8 AM train to Lagos in the morning.

Think I made my train? Think again.

More soon.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

(Re)Seeing Spain


I’ve been here before. It’s semi-familiar, but I feel as if I’ve grown so much since that trip that I’m seeing Madrid through new eyes. Now that I have the knowledge to actually compare world cities (I’m loving that, obv…), I can say that Madrid is reminiscent of Buenos Aires, without the port side. Possibly, there’s a little more Soho in Buenos Aires, a little more whimsy. While the Spaniards live their nightlife with reckless abandon, they’re still a conservative people, by nature. The Argentines are a bit more easy-going. Given the choice, Madrid or Buenos Aires, I’d still choose BA. Amongst the many other reasons, starting with the way I felt when I was in BA, the other one essential one is: I can’t be more than an hour, max, from a coast.

Being that Madrid is the first foreign city I’m revisiting after the passage of years (how weird to think that I’ve never actually revisited any foreign city not counting, like, Caribbean islands), I decided that I would base in Madrid and take a day trip or two from here, being that Madrid is so big and there’s so much to (re)see. It started off on a difficult note, as I had to change hotels after a miserable 11-hour train ride where I was in a six-person car sitting up (no recline feature on these suckers...) with six other passengers. My situation was made worse by the fact that my luggage didn’t fit in any of the luggage specified compartments, so I had to sit Indian-style, for the duration of the ride next to two hooligans who were singing Shakira outloud (that Hips Don’t Lie is the song of the Spanish right now) for way too long. Not fun. When I got to my hotel, it was sub-par. Being 7 AM, I figured I’d walk around a bit, find another place, so I went to the café for the “included” breakfast to look over my guidebooks. The “breakfast” was a coffee machine, like you’d find in a hospital, with lit-up buttons from which you choose your hot drink and it mechanically pours out, and…bread and butter. I tried the machine, but didn’t want as much milk as was being added to make my café “con leche” and was rewarded with the milk feature of the machine shooting all over the floor, drenching me, the nearby table, the bread display (who takes THAT MUCH milk in their coffee?) I left immediately, smelling like a dairy farm girl, and wound up finding the little boutique hotel that became my home for the next four days. After wheeling my luggage through the Madrid streets to my new home, I was spent (read: fucking annoyed), and decided to just relax for the day, walk around, and learn my way around Madrid.

It was easy to shake off any annoyance, however, Madrid is amazing. There’s a very historical side (Palacio Real, Plaza Mayor, church upon church upon church, plaza upon plaza upon plaza – all the site of some bloody battle with the French) and it’s easy to get lost. There’s also a very modern side, full of museums, shopping, and parks to while away the hours of daylight, and fabulous restaurants, lounges and terraces to enjoy the nightlife. And, oh the nightlife! For all the quiet of the days, the nights kick into high gear and don’t let up until sunrise. It’s unbelievable. It’s like everyone is out once it hits 8 PM and doesn’t even THINK of turning in before 3 or 4. I partook in ALL of it. By day it was Museo, Museo, Museo. I hit the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Reina-Sofia twice (I forgot HOW much I love to wander through museums), and was lucky to be here for a Picasso exhibit at both the Prado and Reina Sofia that celebrated the 125th anniversary of his birth, and the 25th anniversary of the return of Guernika to Spain from New York. I read in Retiro Park many afternoons, while watching the people in the rented rowboats lazily spend their own time (Nabi! Lukoff!) At night, I drank Riojas on the Plaza Santa Ana with an eclectic group of young professors from the university; I went tapas-hopping through the area of La Latina where I had to ditch a Frenchie and a Yugoslav by feigning tiredness, then danced ‘til dawn with a few Spaniards I met after the fake-out at a nightclub near my hotel; I went to a some new restaurant, the pride of an upcoming young chef (who looked like Eric Pellegrino) I had read about in a Bilbao magazine, who came out of the kitchen when I didn’t eat my soup (it was gross…some fish, ginger ale, cod gazpacho) and proceeded to serve me personally for the rest of the meal, pairing wines with each course. I then stayed while he closed up, sharing nightcaps and chatter in a deserted restaurant with him, at which point he walked me home, gave me the requisite double-kiss and said goodnight (I know…I wish it were a BETTER story than that!!!)

I took a side-trip to Toledo, an astonishingly beautiful old city that served as Spain’s religious nerve in the 1500-1600’s, tolerantly. A Jewish quarter, a Muslim quarter and the Catholic Church all lived in peace and harmony in the center, which was set up on a mountain, surrounded by three rivers, high above the other parts of the countryside. It was breathtaking to look up, or look down, depending on vantage point.

Of course, Madrid, like the Basque Country, wasn’t without it’s gastronomic rewards. Paella, Rabo de toro (oxtail), manchego cheese plates, freshly made gazpachos, sautéed prawns and albondigas (meatballs), all helped keep me feeling like a complete animal. Clara (a beer-lemonade concoction), sangria, and mucho vino kept me quenched. Gyms are only for those with memberships (makes sense, but unlike other cities I’ve visited…), so I was SURE to book my hotel in Portugal WITH a fitness center. I went to the Reebok Club for a mani-pedi, and oogled all the ladies with svelte frames (HOW do they live here and look like THAT?) I probably sound like a recovering Mary-Kate asserting just how much food she’s inputting daily, and just how many calories of sweat are needed to counteract the effects, and I apologize for that, BUT…I cannot stop stopping to eat here!!! And I cannot help being aware of it! ☺

That’s all for now. I’m sitting outside, having some “last day in Madrid” wine, and then will head off on my journey to Lisbon. IN A SLEEPING CAR…finally.

More soon…


Friday, July 14, 2006

Trains, tapas, and tortilla espanol...

Hi, hi...
I'm back, sorry this took so long. I seem to have a lot of worried friends from lack of blogging, lack of photos.
I'm fine, I'm fine...I've just been in my own world since I got to Europe last week...

Northern Spain, Basque Country, La Rioja…the stuff of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Michener’s The Drifters, and my latest adventure. Having been in Spain almost ten years ago (gasp!), a mere twenty-one year old (gasp again!) college graduate, I went back and reread my journals before taking this trip to Europe. Not the best idea. Shock, dismay, brief bouts of nausea reading through each day’s entry. Who wrote that?!?! Me? Most certainly not. What a lil’ bitchy thing I was, full of impatience, lacking palate and appreciation of culture, food, and experience. My time in Spain was rife with intolerance of both Lukoff (sorry, lovey) and the ever-ADD-Nabi, as we made our way from Barcelona to Sevilla, Madrid to Logrono, and finally, to Pamplona where we proceeded to sleep in an ATM booth while Nabi took bong hits from Spanish strangers out of carved melons and I struggled with bronchitis. In the morning, after a good night’s ATMisery, we “watched Todd run” with the bulls perched high on fences above the chaos. Exactly… Spain didn’t leave the best impression. So, I was most eager to come back and reacquaint myself with this country, on my own terms.

After a very long plane ride that landed me in Paris at 8 AM, followed by a day spent endlessly wandering the streets of Montparnasse and St. Germaine du Pres, loitering in coffee shop upon coffee shop eyes wide shut until my 11 PM (yep…) train to San Sebastian (NOT a sleeping train, mind you…), I was very VERY happy to finally arrive. I most definitely blocked out what train travel, Eurail (Hello, 1996! Plum, Luke..where are you?) travel is like. Though, it’s certainly not your average, door-to-door-taxi-counter-check-your-luggage-5-hour-American-Airlines-flight-with-a-snack-blanket-and-window-seat-nook-for-a-good-nap-after-popping-an-Ambien, that’s for sure. It’s more like keep-your-eye-on-your-triple-locked-luggage-at-all-times-don’t-tangle-your-feet-with-the-person-sitting-across-from-you-or-make-too-much-eye-contact-during-the-10-hours-you’re-spending-together-go-hungry-and-thirsty-and-hope-for-the-best kind of a scenario.

Still, getting to Spain felt good. Familiar, even. I know I haven’t been to San Sebastian specifically, but Europe, even Paris earlier, and now Spain, felt familiar. I guess having spent the last nine months only being in places that were completely foreign, lacking anything you can liken to things in the States, Europe offers familiarity that felt different. Weird, almost. I’m still trying to figure out if that’s good or bad. I think I’ve gotten so used to novelty that anything partially comfortable is disconcerting. (I’m sure my parents are cringing reading that…)

Anyway, San Sebastian was a stunning seaside town, on par with Monte Carlo and Nice. It’s fabulous, you can feel it as you walk around; this is a European Hamptons, of sorts. Although, inherently Spanish. With MUCH better architecture. But not as good shopping. The glory of being a Spaniard… Aaah, that life. Sleep until ten or so (the cafes didn’t open until around 10 each day and, even then, they were scrambling to serve the waiting early-rise, mostly American tourists), work a bit, maybe until around 1. Take a long, wine-fueled lunch, have a siesta, start work again around 4:30. Stop around 8, grab some tapas, head to dinner around 11, linger longer, go out and dance. Sleep, repeat as needed. A good life, indeed. The streets of the old city – winding four/five storied connected buildings of browns, beige and rusts, terraced with potted begonias dripping off the green/blue/red shutters – pulsed with the tapas scene. Pinxtos, they’re called here. All day long, it’s just tapas bar after tapas bar after tapas bar (Lukoff! The bendy-match tapas bar!). You can find people at all times crowding around a bar, crumpled napkins strewn all over the floor (it took a while for me to just litter like that…), as they devour their pinxtos; sangria, wine or cava (their version of champagne) in hand, nibbling, sipping, and moving on. It’s all on the honor system, so you can have two tapas, walk away, go for a run, buy a shirt, come back and pay. I mean…. I will admit that I had to test the system JUST ONCE and walked off after a red wine and a seafood au gratin shell (Mom, it was coquille, delish!) and nary an officer (or bar-man) tracked me down. Dangerous to know. I kinda felt accomplished. I’m not a shove-your-face tapas’er that hovers at the bar, being obvious. I’m more picky as I’m not a huge fan of bacalao (cod), which is a staple, or anchovies (another hot topper), or mayo, which is a base for so many little treats. So, I would skulk through each potential tapas bar before I would commit to it. Sometimes more than once, just to be sure. I think I freaked people out a little. I stuck to the really healthy stuff: tortilla espanol, croquetas, chorizos, fried cheese/meat dumplings, stuffed pimientos. Right.... And, anytime I was slightly hungry, I just stopped off for a tapa, which became three, which became five, throw in a cava, SURE. Bad, bad, bad… And while tapas are fantastic and all, don’t even get me started on the actual restaurants…

I think my cholesterol has skyrocketed already because anyone who knows me knows that my absolute favorite food in the whole is my grandmother’s (and mom’s) potato and eggs. Which is, basically, tortilla espanol. I have about 4 a day. I already had two for breakfast (it’s 10 AM right now). Here they serve them on bread. Like you need bread to sandwich your potatoes! But hey, I’m not REALLY arguing. I spent a couple of days on the beach, people-watching; pondering the weird, weird hair cuts and colors of the Spanish teenagers (and adults) and adoring the little kids playing in their red-white little outfits in celebration of the Running of the Bulls. I spent a couple of days wandering the city, overhearing the shouts of World Cup’s finale, the gasps at the nightly newsreels of Pamplona’s injured, and the sighs after Nadal’s Wimbledon loss (a very sad day for Spain). My “wow” moment, I guess, was getting into my elevator, bleary-eyed at 9 AM yesterday as I made my way down to the gym, only to think I “knew” the crotchety, dirty old man in the elevator with me. Why do I know this skeevy grandpa beatnik? Um, maybe because it was Bob Dylan. He was playing a concert there the day I was leaving, I had read about it in the papers every day, I mean… It was the concierge, my man Carlos, who said when I asked him for a gym pass – you see Bob Deeelin? Aha! Right. Crotchety.

And, now onto Bilbao to see the Guggenheim. Cannot wait. I hear it’s amazing.

More soon.


Friday, June 30, 2006

Romancing Cartagena...

If I liked Bogota, Cartagena astounded me. It was a Technicolor odyssey of architectural sights, set inside a fairy-tale-like wall that surrounded the city like a fort. Well, it WAS a fortress once upon a time ago. Cartagena is a port city, so of course, it was the sight of many a battle for occupation. Those Spanish, always trying to take over South America, one city at a time… The now-rusty canons that once fired at such Spanish proudly stand tall against the backdrop of a Caribbean Sea; the Colombian flags wave at intervals along the dated stone walkway (you can walk atop the wall surrounding the city – at sunset it makes for the beginning of a great night); the watchtowers still loom, nowadays filled with school kids peering out or lovers making out, and the skyline of a more modern side of Cartagena is outlined in the distance. It’s unlike any city I’ve been to in South America, and in keeping with my Colombian theme, it’s another favorite.

My stay in Cartagena was semi-quiet but amazing...
As most of you know, I like my beach time solitary, I’m not a big fan of sand-side chatter and nonsense; too much fuss in creating a relaxing environment negates the whole experience. I need an uncluttered space, and like a bit of solitude when I find myself near the water. Plus, this trip was ending and at each trip’s end, I get a little anxious. Cartagena provided beautifully. I stayed, as instructed, inside the walled city. I filled my mornings lazily taking breakfast poolside, spent afternoons on the beach, and evenings strolling through the narrow cobblestone streets of Cartagena. The vivid colors of the buildings; the people dancing in the streets at sunset; the horse-drawn carriages that transported people from place to place; the little cafes with dancing couples inside – heads of ladies on shoulders of men, hips in unison; the seafood menus that make me hungry just thinking about the coconut or cilantro based incarnations of fish stews, ceviches, and grilled filets; the beautifully lit churches that demanded attention against the night sky; the people, infused with a little bit of South America and little bit of Caribbean, as colorful as their city, and as hospitable. I took a trip to the Islas del Rosario, ecological islands that reminded me a little bit of the Galapagos because of their seclusion and their natural beauty. The boat-ride to Islas del Rosario showed Colombia to be a country of such diversity when comparing the hills of Bogota to the old city of Cartagena to the untouched jungles of the coast. The blue of the sky, meeting the green of the landscape, meeting the turquoise of the water. I feel almost as if I’m romanticizing Colombia, but really, I was just overcome by how surprised I was by this place, this country, these people. All of it.

I could tell you a hundred ridiculous stories about how I had to change my hotel room three times and after that everyone in the hotel knew me by name (“Aaaah, si, si…Senorita Martinez…” not, I’m pretty sure, in a good way), how I got into a scuffle with a church usher who wanted to take me into the church museum (I didn’t want to go) and he asked why I was being such a “scared American?” I could tell you how my Australian pop-star from Vietnam resurfaced and is now looking for ME to be HER friend or how I saw the legendary Gabriel Garcia Marquez going into his house (around the corner from my hotel), but I was too terrified (and way too sweaty, it’s about 100 degrees everyday here) to approach him and try to talk to a WRITER in Spanish (god, talk about grammatical pressure…). I can tell you how I seemingly had a stain on the back of my white skirt the day I went scuba diving that looked like blood, rendering me completely mortified in front of the Islas del Rosario tour group when I was the first out of the boat. I quickly became “that poor girl.” The kicker was that it was chocolate, not blood, but WHO would believe that if you saw what it looked like (and try explaining THAT to a boatload of vacationing Colombians). I can tell you how everyone gets searched, thoroughly and repeatedly, when flying anywhere in Colombia, and the guard, upon opening my bag and seeing the order, the effort, the anality with which I packed, looked up sheepishly, and said: “I’m going to ruin all of your very hard work,” and removed EVERY piece of clothing from the bag. I had to sit on my hands to actually allow it to happen – don’t even ask about HOW he repacked it all. I tried not to watch. Instead, I’ll just leave you with all the amazing feelings and images that Colombia inspired. I cannot wait to return, hopefully with someone who I know will be as awed and surprised as I was during their first trip. It’ll be a pleasure to experience that. There are only a few places where I’ve thought that: I MUST return with someone else to appreciate what I’m seeing. Both Bogota and Cartagena are two such places.

My trip finished as it started, in reverse. I found myself sitting in the airport in Panama City, awaiting a flight connection that would deposit me into NYC in the middle of night, instead of South America. Waiting with me were two precious little girls and their mother, in Ecuador World Cup shirts, going to New York from Quito for their second time, to visit some new friends. How apropos…life's little coincidences.

More soon from Europe…a very different trip with many different stories, I’m sure.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Horace Mann Bogota!

Like most people, I had my ideas about Colombia. I knew of the horror stories dealing with drug cartels, burning coca fields, drug “mules”, Pablo Escobar and his empire in Medellin, political kidnappings. I knew of pop culture references like coffee man Juan Valdez, Shakira and her fabulous hips (I’d love to be able to shake like that!), and writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera (both books I devoured). I’d always heard it was “dangerous” to visit (as many of you reminded me on hearing I planned to come). However, having traveled around South America last year, I met many Colombians and other South Americans talking about this country; how beautiful it was, the mountains of Bogota, the beaches of Cartagena, how little it was visited by tourists, and I was intrigued. So now, having spent the last week here, I can say without hesitation, I’m fascinated. I will return; it’s easily my favorite country in South America, after Argentina. Everyone else should stop fretting and visit too, it’s amazing…

It’s funny, when I went to Bangkok I had been warned that I’d want to get in, get out; that the seedy underside of Bangkok outweighed its positives. I couldn’t have disagreed more. I loved Bangkok, in all of its seedy splendor and returned three times during my trip to SE Asia. I was given the same warnings about Bogota. And again, found myself enamored by a city that I didn’t expect to be taken with. (What’s with those B capitals…?) Bogota, set high above sea level, is about 60 degrees year-round, and has so much to offer. It’s at once modern and historic, trendy and old-fashioned, immaculate and filthy. Fabulously sleek tapas lounges sit next to old Colombian standbys. Chic little boutiques neighbor artisans souvenir shops. Beautiful red brick high-rises of the tree-lined northern districts are offset by the red-roofed colonial houses of the more southern Centro, or La Candelaria. The cobblestone streets rise and fall in sync with the altitude, and spending a day winding through them, -- the museums, the cafes, the plazas, the people-watching -- I found myself smiling a lot.

Part of my day in Bogota was spent in the Botero museum (the easiest way to describe his work is: he paints fat people – sounds mean, but you’d know his subjects if you saw his work), easily the best modern art museum, the most comprehensive I’ve seen on my trips yet. The art is both his own work AND his private collection of Picassos, Chagalls, Monets, Miros, and de Kooenings. The other part of my day was spent with a friend of China’s, the cute, funky Adriana, who sat outside in Usaquen (a northern plaza) for hours with me lazily drinking wine and talking shop: dating in Bogota vs dating in the NY, men in Colombia vs. men in the States. I found it’s all the same, we just speak different literal languages. Then, we went back to Adriana’s (their apartments are SO much more fantastic than ours!!!) to meet her friends. She was having a reunion of her four girlfriends from high-school. They hadn’t seen each other in ten years. All, except Adriana, are married. Two lived in the States, one in rural Colombia. One of the States-side girls lived in NYC . . .

The two girls that arrived first were the Colombian and one of the States girls who lives with her husband in Mississippi (Why, right? He’s Army.). They’re so sweet, unassuming, wouldn’t know a Blahnik or Choo if it him ‘em on the head. We’re chatting away in Spanish, they’re asking me about my trip, having wine, quietly…when the New York Colombian walked in. WELL…it was so scary how familiar it all became. She is stunning, hair just fresh-from-a-blow-out, with ends so perfectly flipped up, I could lick them. Camel pointy-toe boots, skinny leg jeans, blazer, blinding cushion-cut-rock on her finger, $2000 bag, and she talks faster than the wind. In BOTH Spanish and English. And, from that moment on, ONLY SHE TALKED. Everyone just listened to her fancy NYC life. She lives on Riverside, in the 90s, with her husband, “but they’re moving to Miami because it’s just too much money in New York and her two kids are both under four, but they’ve been in private school since they were 2, and they were at a point where they were starting to think about Horace-Mann and other schools that are competitive and does she want that for her children, for her life with her husband?” Going in and out the subway (and she mimes walking a stroller down the subway steps, in heels, with her bag...), not having a grassy place for them to play besides Central Park, and "the process of getting me, my husband, two kids, a nanny and TOYS to the park! Aye, Mammi!" They contemplated only having one child to stay in New York, “but she’s Latin and wants a big family like her own,” and blah blah blah…. And, I burst out laughing! Like, unable to help myself burst out! Because this WHOLE conversation, every hair-flip’s worth, is in staccato-Spanish BUT IT’S EXACTLY THE SAME AS oh-so-MANY I’VE OVERHEARD (or had with some of you…yes!) at home. I almost died…. Thankfully, she understood. Like I said, same shit, different language.

I didn’t continue onto dinner with them.
While I loved Adriana, there was only so much Horace Mann and hair-flips I wanted to take…in Bogota!

Onto Cartagena, the Caribbean city where, YES, Romancing the Stone was set.
I didn’t know that, but everyone else seemingly did…

More soon.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Marie and Chavez, BFF

I guess I had a right to be worried…

How does one compare of week of jet-setting amongst fabulous friends; three cities, five days, countless faces, places, and spaces to a rainy Panama? One doesn’t. One just rolls with the punches. Which I did. Since I’ve been home for a spell, I forgot that every minute on the road isn’t perfect, that it sometimes HAS to rain, and that I’m not going to love every city I go to. Panama was one of those experiences. Not entirely bad, as I really came to like Panama City. But, overall, not my favorite.

I arrived into Panama City after lots of Ecuadorian goodbyes and checked into a marvelous little hotel near the center of Panamanian night life (little did I know…) After stopping for a delicious dinner at restaurant that was exactly how one might imagine a Panamanian restaurant (banana-leaf wallpaper, plastic wicker chairs, high cocktail tables with basketed candles atop (I wanted to steal one), khaki safari and white “Panama hats” strewn lazily on high shelves), I turned in early. I was
a) exhausted from Ecuador and
b) had an early day on the Panama Canal in the AM.
Little did I know, I didn’t need rest. I’d get PLENTY of that over the next few days…

So, they never really reveal to you all the details of day-trip excursions to tourist traps like the Panama Canal. After a 6 AM cab ride, where the cabbie got lost getting to the Canal Zone (Umm…this is your country’s ONE tourist attraction, we’re LOST! Are you KIDDING?), I opted on a half-day Canal trip ($105, meanwhile!). We’d be back in the City by 2 PM. Great, I tend to get a little bored on these learning excursions. As I settled into the boat (comparative to maybe, a Circle Line ship), with my Miami Herald and a book of stories (that I randomly, and thankfully, grabbed on the way out of the hotel), I was eager to start the day. Grannies with straw hats, Chinese/Japanese tourists posing at bow/stern/starward/leeward sides BEFORE we moved away from the pier, solo 50-year old men with bad teeth from Minnesota in fisherman caps, young backpacker couples making out in between free-empanada-from-downstairs-in-the-buffet-bites, and a family with 7 rowdy, dirty blond kids toting Dr. Seuss-in-Spanish readers, made up my cruising partners. It looked to be a very long day. At around 8, we pull out into the water. We must, as our roving-guide-with-a-mike tells us, wait for our Canal appointed pilot (all vessels that pass through the Canal have a licensed Canal pilot steer the ship through the Canal) to come on board and give us our “passage time.” 9-10-11 o’clock. No Canal Pilot. I’ve finished the Miami Herald and passed it on the periodical-less Minnesotan with poor dental hygiene, and I’m on page 100 in my 200 page book. I’m a little warm under the collar, a little stiff from the lack of cushions on the seats of the Pacific Queen, our ship. Then, the people around me start to applaud. Our Canal Pilot is coming aboard. Wa-hoo! Like a mock-celebrity, he swings from the Coast Guard boat to the Pacific Queen’s deck. Our passage time is…..12:30. NO! REALLY? More waiting? Oh my god. This sucks.

Yes, I finished my book before we went through the Canal, and the passage through was, at best, semi-interesting. Considering that the Canal was built in 1914, and is still completely functional today, it’s pretty crazy. Going through the Miraflores Lockes, being raised 27-32 feet higher by increasing and decreasing water levels and pressure, was wild. Slowly, we are raised three times, and then voila! we’re Canal bound. Of course, the whole thing is mildly anti-climactic, but nonetheless, I can now say I’ve traveled the Panama Canal alongside the huge, huge Maersk (what up Nemeth!) tankers carrying loads upon loads of cargo from places far off and distant. By our 4 PM delayed return to the city, I was wiped. I took a quick tour of Old Panama, called Casco Viejo, and while I’ve never been (though secretly long to go) to Cuba, this is what I think Havana would look like. Colorful, two story buildings boasting intricate iron balconies rimmed with half-dead floral vines; the buildings falling apart, but at the same time, vibrantly alive. Spanish music drifting from doorways, men smoking cigars in soiled undershirts and ladies in layered dressed casually swaying their hips around them, stray dogs bark at passerby. It’s a cool scene, in a dilapidated kind of way. Past Casco Viejo, Panama City is modern and brimming with business. The whole city sits on the waterfront, so the view is surprisingly pretty. The nightlife is full-of-action, the various parts of Panama City have their share of trendy restaurants, hotel bars and, even a few swanky lounges. My friend China, from Ecuador, put me in touch with her friend, Alexandra here in Panama. So, my luck, I had a partner in crime to prowl the town with. I know – who comes to Panama and has friends? Me, I guess!

Post-Panama City, I went to two other cities to explore. Pedasi, on the Pacific Coast and Boquete, a mountain town that sits in the middle of two rivers. Unfortately, I left my new friend Alexandra in Panama City, and brought along my old friend, the rain. In Travel and Leisure magazine, I had read about a project on the coast called Azueros. A French architect found the most beautiful palm-tree-lined beaches, and had a vision to build a town in the isolated area. He turned his self-made residence into a hotel, and it looked gorgeous. So, I decided to go to Pedasi to check it out. A four-seater plane ride and one-barely-there dirt road later, I’m at Villa Camilla, a visually stunning estate in the rolling hills of Pacific Panama. But, alas, I am the ONLY guest! With my staff of five men, feeding me, cleaning up after me, getting me anything my little heart desires, I felt weird, not to mention completely isolated. I was literally the ONLY sign of life besides my caretakers in the whole region. The town, about 3 miles off, was merely a sign announcing “Pedasi” and a general store (if you can call it that) and a hostel (for who, exactly?). I had planned to go scuba diving, but the rain and the swell of the sea nixed that plan. The beach was breathtaking, but off-limits because of the rough waters. So, there I was, puttering around my villa, with invisible servants at my beck and call. After two days of elaborately served meals at solitary tables in the study, two more books (I was technologically barren in Pedasi), and a LOT of time to think, I had a car service take me to Boquete.

Boquete, a mountain town where I was SUPPOSED to white water raft and horse back ride, suffered the same fate as Pedasi. A rainy one. So, while my little B&B that boasted the town’s best restaurant and spa, was lovely, and there were plenty of retirement age folk to talk to (Boquete has become, seemingly a haven for American retirees…) about the cost of living in Colorado, Arizona, and Florida versus Panama, I was again, bored and devoid of fun activities, and headed back to Panama City, my savior city, called Alexandra and had a fun Thursday “parting-Panama” party for myself. My big moment finally came when President Chavez of Venezuela (who was staying at my hotel) and I were leaving at the exact same time for the airport. Him, flanked by local media, photographers, press agencies and TV cameras yelling “Presidente, Presidente,” and me, backpack in hand whispering to a nearby bellman “Um…un taxi, por favor.” We’re standing thisclose, only separated by his bodyguards and hotel personnel, flashbulbs bursting all around us. I’m telling you, the Panamanian CBS, NBC, ABC news outfits have their 5, 6, and 10 PM news leads, and I’M ALL OVER IT!
Marie and El Presidente Chavez. BFF.

Onto Bogota today, meeting more friends of China (and Alexandra). Then, Cartagena, which I think will provide more exciting stories and adventures. Sorry so bland a tale this week. Panama just didn’t provide as I thought it would.

More soon…

~ M

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Ecuador, Round 2

The past week is a total blur…
Living life, Ecuadorian style, takes stamina. At least the way I was living it!
This was Ecuador, Round 2.

From the plane, I was whisked to Sake, a restaurant ala Bond Street that Jose Luis owns. A dozen rolls, sakes, and catching-up stories later, we rest up for a long day of sightseeing. Teleferico, Statue de Libertidad, Historic Quito, churches, and a quick manicure, one day has gone, and we’re on a plane bound to Cuenca, the colonial city of Ecuador. Me, I LOVE colonial cities. Seemingly, there are four in the Americas that bear resemblance to each other. After this trip, I’ll have hit all four: Cusco (Peru), Antigua (Guatemala), Cuenca (Ecuador), and Cartagena (Colombia). The first I visited was Cusco, a city I wound up helplessly, but happily, stuck in for over a week. Then, when I visited Antigua, I was eerily reminded of Cusco. The buildings in all of these cities are brightly colored, with various iron balconies, stone pillars, and tile work dotting the facades; fabulous gardens lie within each building and cobblestone streets connect one adorable alleyway to the next. They blend both old and new civilizations: ruins of churches stand next to brand-spankin-new white-washed government offices stand next to crumbling poorhouses stand next to restored private villas. Each Plaza Mayor is reminiscent, in both size and feel, to the one before it. So, Antigua reminded me of Cusco, Cuenca now reminded me of Antigua. (I’m told Cartagena is the best of the them all, I can’t wait!). So now, here in Cuenca, I am enamored once again.

Dashing from the charming boutique hotel to dinner with fantastic friends, who are of course, cousins of other friends (everyone is related here in Ecuador), we are served wedding-worthy platters of skewers, cheeses, sushi rolls, cured meats, hummus/pita combinations, olives, and guac/chips. 1-2, 4-5, 9-10 bottles of Veuve are brought out, popped, poured, and overturned back into their waiting chillers. Fruit platters replace the apps, Perrier-Jouet replaces the Veuve (that we’ve gone through a whole bar of….), tipsy replaces sober. The next day brings more long, lingering meals with friends (this time, the brother of another family). 2 PM-4-course lunches become 5 PM-snacks-and-cocktails; same company, easy conversation. Everyone owns magazines; for younger, for older, for the rich, for the traveled, for the gay, the straight, the conservative, the liberal. By the time I left Cuenca, I met all of my Galapagos friend Antonio’s extended family (cousin JD, brother Andres, girlfriend of other brother Yona, Yona’s brother and friend who works at the magazine, blah blah blah….). I have a hit-list of to-dos (restaurants, bars, hotel spas) for the rest of my South American itinerary and about ten new emails to add to the list of people to play with (en Espanol, of course…)

In Cuenca, we walked the town, photo-op here, Ecuadorian sweet there. Then, caught an evening plane to Guayaquil. Next apartment, next unpack, next waiting chauffeured car to whisk us to the next destination. China’s (Galapagos dive partner) birthday! First to have a drink with Roberto and Antonio (kiss, kiss, I love your cousin, brother, future sister-in-law), then onto the Mediterranean tapas place to meet apprehensively-turning-30-year old China and Priscilla, my Miami girl who lives in Ecuador. The girls! I was in serious need of some girl talk about all the faces and places I’ve seen. Drinks, apps, MORE photo-shoots. Back for sleep before the World Cup game (Ecuador-Costa Rica) in the AM. 7 AM wake-up, very early, grrr…. Have you been able to tell, I have YET to sleep? Thursday brings an amazing win for the underdog, Ecuador moves to the next round. The whole country declares holiday, wearing their yellow Ecuador T-shirts, and waving their flags, celebrating their country, the win, in the streets, restaurants, bars, residences, and offices. I feel lucky to be here, to witness. World Cup, something us Americans are JUST becoming hip to, is infectious. Ecuador proves that to me. This isn’t a Super Bowl, this isn’t the World Series, or the U.S. Open, this IS World Cup - completely different animal. Amazing…. Parties all day, parties all night. More drinks, more friends, more festivities. And then, alas….it’s over. And fast as it came, as quick as it passed, it’s over. A week in Ecuador, a week of new friends who feel like old friends, a week of fun. I can DEFINITELY get used to this…

So, now the only think that’s got me riled is:
Shit, will Panama compare?


Thursday, June 15, 2006

"Marie Elena...Como Estas?"

After a month plus of New York City, wherein I came to find that manicuring, lunching, gyming and gossiping with people you run into who ALSO don’t work on the Upper East Side wasn’t doing it for me, I decided to head back out for a quick June trip. Itchy feet, right, Sar? I debated on the possible wheres over and over again in my head; it needed to be somewhere close because I needed to be home over July 4th, it needed to be stimulating both culturally and intellectually (Belize just left a bad taste in my mouth), and it needed to be Latin (b/c as you all know, I’m pretty Latin obsessed these days). So, after settling on Panama and Colombia, I found myself back in touch with Ecuadorian legend, Jose Luis, and after much prompting, decided to make a quick first stop in Ecuador for five days to see him and the Galapagos friends who helped me start this whole adventure eight months ago.

I was able to book my flights on miles, thrilled that they only space left open on the flights were in first class. So after a night without sleep, I headed onto my five hour flight to Panama where I was completely ready to doze for the duration. But, alas, the first class mantra on Copa Airlines (Panama based) isn’t at all what one might expect. That being, leave the passengers alone, keep the noise to a minimum, and do not encourage inter-passenger friendships. Yeah well, I guess I have to remember that the Latinos are a bit different. First of all, the stewardesses (stewardi?) had a practical convention in the galley of first class. They were rat-tat-chatting like a Telemundo soap opera about the misdeeds of their muchachos the entire trip. Dish your dirt in the coach galley, senoritas. Not here, chicas, not here. Add to that, a rapper (who I cannot place) who had his ‘wo-man’ (as he referred to her) sit in the row in front of him with his child who screamed and cried the whole time, giving the rapper-I-can’t-place the pass to lean over the seats every few minutes (did I mention he was as big as a house and when he moved, the whole plane moved?) to try to get the wo-man to quiet the kid. Why are children allowed in first class, mind you? All people traveling with kids, the rich and rap moguls included, should NOT be allowed to purchase a first class ticket. It should be coach all the way. You have a kid, you’re in coach. I mean, fancy boutique hotels in fabulous places don’t allow children under 12, why not first class on the airlines. I didn’t sleep a wink, I was irritated the whole time

Now, the upside to my first class Copa ticket was the VIP lounge in Panama where I got to spend my 10 HOUR layover to Quito, happily ensconced in their overstuffed chairs, using their internet to plan my next legs, watching the World Cup, eating their muffins (AM) and crackers and cheese (PM), and loading up on their excellent Panamanian coffee. Had I not had the first class ticket, I would’ve been stuck in either the crappy “Lo Siento Por La Construccion” war zone of a terminal or spent the day schlepping around Panama, possibly a Canal Zone tour, lugging my overstuffed backpack and sweating my ass off in an outfit suitable for the 60 degree Quito climate, rather than the 99 degree Panama climate. Yeah. All of this would NOT make for a pretty sight when greeting Jose Luis upon exit from the plane. Thank god for Copa first class. Funny how fast it all changes, right?

Arriving in Quito, I found myself smiling out the window. This was where my whole trip began last year. Here was where it all started. I remember feeling unsure, apprehensive, elated and anxious at the same time when the plane touched down last October. I remember my first hours in Quito, in my little hotel room in a strange South American city, sleeping off the anxiety of what I had embarked upon. My phone rang while I feigned slumber, it was Cohen calling, making sure I landed alright, wishing me luck and love one last time. The relief of seeing a familiar number, name at that moment had me immediately emotional. I remember staring at the stucco ceiling for hours afterward, paralyzed by the decision I had made, semi-scared to leave the cocoon of the room, Quito beckoned but I had absolutely no idea what to do with it. I remember wondering how I’d make each day count, how I would achieve a sense of place, culture and education in each new surrounding, how I would be received by people, both natives and other travelers, how I would survive feeling lonely. And yet, by the time I arrived in the Galapagos, I had realized I would succeed in my adventures, I would make new friends, I would accomplish all I set out to do.

Ecuador holds a special place in my heart for that reason. It was in Ecuador, in Galapagos specifically, that I started my trip. I made friends who I am so excited to see this week, who are excited to see me. Over the past eight months, we’ve been in touch, we’ve kept up. They helped me understand how strong I was, how anything is possible once you set your mind to it. They embraced me in a way that I hadn’t expected, especially that early in the game, and helped set the tone for the future travels. Sometimes it’s that initial tone that can make or break a situation. And, I truly feel that my first experience in Ecuador helped me to experience the rest of the world. All of the fears I had that first day in Quito never resurfaced, and it’s been smooth sailing since. So, now, landing in Quito, I’m ecstatic. It’s just fitting to be starting the second half of my travels back here. It feels right. Going through customs, getting my baggage, walking out of the doorway to a sea of Ecuadorian faces greeting their loved ones. And there, off to the right, pokes a familiar face from the beginning, eyes welcoming me back to Quito….

“Marie Elena... Como estas?”

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Sweating Through the Sights

I have learned a few things on my way from Lake Atitlan (which was nice, but very hazy…) to Flores, which is a teeny-tiny island that juts out into Lake Peten Itza in northern Guatemala.:

1) I'm really not a LAKE person (boring, no surf, contained, usually murky, always a mist over them, surrounding towns - kinda bland).
2) When a guide book uses the word "gritty" in ANY description of a town, skip it. EVEN when everyone else raves about the place. Once you've come to trust your guide book, don't doubt it. "Gritty"
translates to "crack-den-ish" like the Van Dam exit en route to the 59th Street Bridge.

Everyone seems to love Flores, the way station for trips to the Mayan ruins (Guatemala's largest) of Tikal. My flight from Guatemala City was purchased in the (aforementioned hazy) lake town of Panajachel at this shady travel agency with folding chairs, a cash box, and lone Guatemala poster taped to the wall as a sell-tool. So at 4 AM, when I got to the airport and nobody, and I mean NOBODY, showed recognition of the airline I was flying, snickering to each other in Spanish when I showed them the ticket (HELLO, I CAN UNDERSTAND YOU, PEOPLE!!!), I felt a little upset. Finally, a lady with a walkie-talkie walkie-talkied a voice who told her that I had to go to the small planes part of the airport. One taxi, 30 minutes, and 50 Quetzales (Guat currency, ripped off again by a taxi driver!) later, we find ourselves near a deserted airfield with one bulb of a light way off yonder. Check-in, yeah...well, there's no room on the 6-seater for me. I'll have to transfer to yet another flight, at yet another terminal that is yet harder to find. When I landed in Flores, I had wanted to be refreshed, I wanted to be enamored. But, well, I was a little tired, and Flores was a little…"gritty."

While the colorful buildings, the sweet people, the culture and authenticity of place all were alive and well in Lake Peten Itza's Flores, it just lacked the charm of the other cities I visited in Guatemala, reminding me of the setting for a scary movie where someone gets killed strolling the banks. Similar to other cities in Guatemala (I think Central America really), though, there is a young expat culture here too. They study Spanish, bum around, frequent the same places each night saying "Hasta Manana" at closing time, and backpack the region. They're all in college, or left college for Central America, scraping by each day on whatever money they can muster. I have actually seen TWO instances where these types hover in restaurants and, very discreetly, make their way around the restaurant eating the leftovers off of unfinished plates on vacated tables!!! One time, yes, was in Flores. And the girl devoured a whole leftover fruit plate, licking her pineapple-juiced fingers after each steal! Very unsettling...

From Flores, I went to Tikal for the day. Starting at dawn, watching the sunrise, strolling the park before the mass of people entered around 10 AM, Tikal is a very-mini Maccu-Picchu: predominantly jungle dotted with excavated remnants of Mayan civilizations, mostly temples. The day was hot, VERY hot, and I kept leaving my water bottle in various places as I stopped to take pictures and had to go back and find it. It was like a day of hide and seek with an inanimate object. I specifically wore black on black because, for any of you that don't know this, I am a sweater. I am not (and never will be) one of those
perfectly dry girls who can hike in a skirt and pastel colored shirt and stay wedding-day photogenic throughout. Nor am I one of those people who can walk around sightseeing spots with four backpacks and a guitar, nary a glisten on my brow. Me, I carry an airline ticket through a 90 degree region in a bathing suit, and I sweat. Anyone who has seen me after running at the gym for an hour (Ilysa, Rosen...?) aren't looking to hug me close (or at all). That's for sure. But, I thought the black-on-black ensemble would help the situation. Foiled again. As evidenced the last time I was in South America, I have sightseeing-outfit-troubles. Consistently. This time, the white powdery atmosphere of the ruins set into my black outfit as a light layer of dust, drying when I wasn't climbing temple stairs, as white outlines of previously soaked areas. I looked like a pavement on which chalk outlines were drawn. Reverse sweat rings. I was mortified, keeping my arms crossed a lot... But, I kept on keeping on, listening in awe to the sounds of the howler monkeys (they sound like ferocious lions and I actually turned back and sought company to walk through the dense jungle paths to each ruin amidst the lion roars of the howlers), woodpeckers (have you ever heard woodpeckers peck? they sound like old doors creaking open in haunted mansions...), and various species of birds that sang like no birds I've ever heard before. I felt like a sweaty Snow White in black. It really was pretty amazing, Tikal. And cheap. Compared to Maccu-Picchu, which is quite costly to enter, Tikal is a mere $7, but as the guards told me, Survivor filmed a stint near Tikal recently (is this true, my reality-friendly friends?), and since then they're trying to raise their prices to $10. Hearing a guard in Mayan ruins talk about the inflation of entry b/c of a American reality-phenomenon like Survivor, in Spanish, was pretty amazing, as well...

Not being an archeological lingerer in these types of tourist sights, I was ready to go (and change my clothes...) by about 11 AM and caught a bus through the countryside back to Flores to wind down my time in Guatemala. I spent more time than I planned here. Despite parental Don't Go's, I really fell for the country, the obviously charming parts, and the not so charming parts, alike. I highly recc a trip down here to anyone looking for a little adventure. Tomorrow, I'm off to Belize for some sun, sand and scuba. Very much looking forward.

More soon,


Friday, April 21, 2006

Lack of water, Lack of guide.

Day three brought me to Antigua, a mountain town about 30 miles out of Guatemala City. As I emailed hotels for lodging, a small villa/hotel next to the hotel I had my eye on emailed me back in about 10 seconds. Alex, the proprietor and fellow New Yorker, was Chatty Cathy on email, the place seemed nice, and so as not to have hassle, I booked it. She would send a shuttle for me the next day, 12:30 PM – wait in front of my Guatemala City hotel. Possibly I should’ve known that my next 24 hours would be off when the shuttle was an hour late and Alex, when called on it, responded “Yo no se.” But, this is Central America, after all, you roll with the punches, right?

Driving into Antigua, I was automatically enamored. It’s this quaint little town with cobblestone streets and multi-colored one-story buildings, behind the doorways of which were lovely inns and posadas with grassy courtyards and cozy environs. Arriving at La Capilla (I have to find out what Capilla means in Spanish…), completed the experience. Like the posadas I passed, La Capilla was a large villa of 5 suites, surrounding a lush garden with a fountain as center. Alex, an attractive 40-ish brunette, came to the door, addressing me by name to her large, but gorgeous, blue-eyed mixed breed of a dog. Even the dog didn’t put me off (yet…). Into the villa I wandered, realizing what a special place this might be. After settling into my room, Alex brings me around back to a tiled pool area. There, I find three very young, very tanned boys lounging. They’re all under 20. Danes and Americans, the trio are a few of the many “boys” that Alex keeps around. They are world students in Antigua to build houses for the poor and study Spanish. Alex calls them all “Hon,” they eat her food, drink her beer, plug their Ipods into her sound system, smoke her cigarettes and order pizza to her villa. No, they don’t live there, they just hang there. They met her playing poker in town, and are the half-naked, massage-giving pool boys for Ladies Tuesdays, the DJs for BBQ Thursdays, and the chefs for Ceviche Saturdays.


After a couple of games of backgammon that I begrudgingly lost to a hot Dutchie with great hands, I decide to head into town as Thor arrived. Thor is a nerdy local expat from the States who is packing an extra 30 lbs and a baby girl whom he forgets at the entry of the pool…until she starts to cry about 20 minutes later. The Dutchies remind me that I must come to Ladies Tuesdays tomorrow, they’ve got new costumes: mere bowties! Into town I head for a breather, a walk around the Plaza Central (eerily reminiscent of Cusco, Peru but on a smaller scale) and a snack before heading back to La Capilla. Alex is leaving as I return, she gives me a cell phone to reach her in case of emergency. Ok… There I am, completely alone in a huge villa, all other amenities of which have been completely padlocked, and there’s nary a staff member around. I’m not sure how to handle this. I wander around a bit, highly aware that should I want for anything, I’m locked out except for my room and the pool. So, I look on the bright side – a whole villa to myself – and go to take a shower. Turn on the faucet…no water. I go from room to room (the other rooms aren’t locked, the padlocks on them deceiving) to check the water. Nope, it’s the same. What the … ?!?! I turn on my computer. No service. Hmmm… What has happened to the bustling La Capilla in the past three hours? I call Alex on my designated cell.

Alex: Hola, Marie Elena, que pasa?
Me: I’m so sorry to bother you…
Alex: Then, Hon…why are you bothering me?
Me: Well…there’s no water.
Alex: Really? What do you mean?
Me: Um….there’s just, well…no water.
Alex: Weird. I just checked the tanks before I left. Are you sure?
(No, I’m not sure…)
Me: Um…yeah, quite. Nothing as I turn on the faucets.
Alex: Oh. Wow. Ok. I’ll be right back, then. You sure?
Me: Yes. Again, sorry to bother, but…
Alex: No, no….I’m coming back.

Alex arrives, pours herself a scotch, takes off her jean jacket and opens the tanks. Yep, no PSI, no pressure, no water. She checks the computers. They’re on, but not connecting. Shit, she’s about to lose her only guest. “This is when you need a man,” she says. Enter Elliott. A man. Elliott is a local textile exporter, originally from Jersey. Elliott is ten sheets to the wind, pours himself a scotch from the now-unpadlocked bar, tells Alex she should’ve told him about this earlier because he has “a guy” and sits down near the pool, slurring through our introductions (and two more scotches). We all look at each other for a while, as I smell the waft of non-powdery, mucho-alcoholy Elliott from afar. Finally, giving up, Alex makes a call to the place I originally wanted to stay at next door, books me a room at the same price she was charging me, packs up my room with an unstable Elliottt, and has yet another “boy” move me out of La Capilla. Guatemala is shaping up to be VERY interesting…

Next day, after waking up in my fabulous Ralph Lauren-via-Guatemala room at my new hotel, I decide to see the town, the many churches (which are gorgeous) on foot for the first half of the day, and the surrounding mountainside on horseback for the afternoon. After some help from my new, 24-hour hotel staff, I embark on a three hour journey with Paco, the ranch hand. Well, I ASSUMED he was a qualified ranch hand – he had the flannel/jeans combo with the big buckle belt, he had the cowboy hat with a ribbon of red yarn around it, he even had the requisite gold front tooth. I explain to him that I don’t want to walk all day, I’m a qualified rider, I need to be able to gallop my way through the day, not trot. Si, Si, says Paco. And, we’re off. But not before trading horses, because my stirrups were too short, on the last hole, and couldn’t be lengthened. Ditto my ranchero’s horse after the swap. I felt like a jockey with my knees up WAY too high, but decided to make do (though I’m regretting it a little, I have a shooting pain down my right leg, still…the trials and tribulations of height with respect to Guatemalan saddles). Now trotting on cobblestone, let alone galloping, I’ve come to find is not so fun. I definitely wore the wrong bra and am starting to rethink my little “Let’s gallop” conversation. I guess it’s not often that the tourists of Antigua see people in the cobblestone streets on horseback and I unwittingly became the subject of many photographs taken by people with fanny packs and Jams. But, as we got into Candelaria Park, the terrain changed, as did my guide’s willingness to move through the mountainside. Trot, Walk, Trot. Uh, Paco…mas rapido, es ok? Si, si, says Paco again. So, off I go. Cut to the next scene, it’s about 20 minutes later, and Paco, who had been right behind me in the beginning of the Park, is nowhere to be found. I wait a few minutes, then a few minutes more, then start to head back to find him. When I do, he’s OFF his horse, walking in front of it, panting like the horse just rode him.

Me: “Paco, que pasa?”
Paco: “Es un buena cabellera! Muy rapido!” (Translation: You’re a good rider, very fast! Note to reader: I was VERY proud of this observation of Paco’s…as many of you know, I love my horseback riding…)

But, Paco’s supposedly my GUIDE. What is happening here?!?!? I’m utterly confused. So, as Paco, seemingly embarrassed mounts his horse again, I take off. Twenty minutes later, same scenario. I go back, he’s on foot, about to keel over, horse grazing the bushes behind him. So, I explain that I’d prefer NOT to wait and can I just meet him back at the hotel, the pace is too slow. So, he ties up his horse to a tree, says “sure” with a wide smile, takes out his cell phone and CALLS FOR A RIDE!!!! He says he’ll meet me back at the hotel, he’s through! I mean….You can’t ditch your horse and call for a ride!!! What’s up with that!?!?! So, there I am, riding solo through the streets of Antigua, astride a horse, being stopped by cops asking me where my guide is, that I shouldn’t be riding alone. I have to explain. In Spanish, no less. Blah blah…. Now, I’m even more of a spectacle – the solo gringa on horseback. And, when I get back to my hotel, there’s Paco, with a stable attached to his little pick-up truck for my horse! He’s not even riding the horse home. He’s towing it! Who ever heard of such a thing? In Guatemala, no less. Antigua has just been one crazy experience after the next.

Hope you all had an equally fun-filled week.
I’m headed to the Mayan ruins at Tikal in northern Guatemala next, after having spent a couple of days at Lake Atitlan (beautiful) and the market town of Chichicastenango (say THAT three times fast), which was authentic and oh-so-colorfully-Guatemalan. There, I dusted off my bargaining skills…successfully, of course. Gotta go figure out how to fit the three new skirts into my luggage…. (Yes, Cher, one’s for you. I will WOW you with trip presents yet. I’m wholly determined.)

More soon,


Next up: Central America...

Back in Latin America…and it feels good.

After a hectic couple of weeks in New York wherein my sister got engaged, my best friend got married, and I had lot of friends and family to catch up with besides, getting on the plane to Guatemala City was a welcome departure. During that flight I tried to reflect on my trip to Asia, but I must admit, there’s something unsettled about it for me. Possibly it was the inability to digest it properly once back in the States because of loyalties at home which required my attention; possibly it was the pace at which I experienced eight vastly different countries, each requiring focus and learning, patience and perserverence; possibly it was the fact that I didn’t head-over-heels-love everywhere I visited in Asia and I very much want every stop on this journey to be entirely magical – but, newsflash: life isn’t always magical. So while Asia was one of the most outstanding experiences of my life, it’s still not an experience I’ve come to complete terms with yet. Nor may I ever. I guess I’ll have to learn to accept that. And, slowly continue to process it.

However, the rhythm of this trip I’m on is constant, so I must go forward.
So, first stop, next leg: Guatemala.

I’m not sure what I expected of Guatemala, or what I expect of Central America on the whole. I adored Costa Rica when I visited a few years back, but the Central America part of this trip came about when I fell so hard for South America. If I wasn’t as flexible as I’ve started to allow myself to be (haha…), I’d be in Australia right now. Anyhow, all I know of cities like Guatemala, Honduras, Panama are the things that my dad would tell me after his frequent trips when he owned a manufacturing business: Don’t go. So, I had little to go on other than I loved the culture and there HAD to be redeeming qualities to these places, to the homes of ancient Mayan civilizations of old, no? Yes. I’ve been here for almost a week, and Guatemala is most definitely underrated. It’s a gorgeous country, reminiscent (for me) of Peru, rich in culture and customs, and short little people in colorful outfits, cowboy hats, and the friendliest dispositions. Guatemala has helped me get my travel groove back on.

I arrived in Guatemala City to the sounds of a mariachi band outside the airport terminal – husbands playing guitars to Spanish songs, wives whipping up tortillas for sale nearby, and smelled the familiar smell of the Latin world. For some reason, the people of Latin America have this powdery smell, almost like a baby, that is instantly recognizable, and actually, calming. They fly by but leave the talcum and I love it. Sheets at authentic posadas smell this way too – maybe it’s not the people but the textiles – either way, I’m into it. Other than the lovely nasal and auditory re-entry to Latin America, Guatemala City is bland and worthy of little mention other than that I spent Easter Sunday there, which was a trip since I’ve never seen a holiday mass in my own country, let alone another one.

Easter was pretty amazing to witness – the parades of statues of saints and Jesus’ that made their way into the churches, hoisted on the shoulders of 20-30 men each who, like pallbearers, took severe honor in the task at hand. Each statue was followed into the church by throngs of people clapping and cheering for their chosen saint or God. I made my way into the church behind Jesus, being carried by the flow of the people making their way in front of me and behind me, but no worries, I was EASILY a head taller than any single person in the church, so no matter where I stood, I had the best view. The Guatemalans are teeny, hardly over five feet, any of them. Being 5’6”, I felt like an absolute giant, but the upside was that my vantage point was definitely the best going. There were bleachers outside the churches for the overflow that the pews and floor spaces (lines with lawn chairs and grannies in visible knee highs) inside the church couldn’t hold. Men, women, children, holding umbrellas to shield them from the sun, listened to the mass, which was broadcast over a huge sound system, allowing all to participate in the ritual of Sunday Mass. After mass, everyone converged on the square, or Plaza Mayor, outside of the church to celebrate in a carnival-like way. Hundreds of booths that sold everything from clothes to toys to food to souvenir trinkets to religious relics lined the square. Men with ice-blocks bigger than themselves shaved frozen pieces into paper cones for the kids. Clowns making balloon-animals, shoe-shine boys, photographers, magicians, and singers hooked up to sound-systems on nearby pick-up trucks entertained, while whole families set up fast-food outlets to feed the Guats. It was a holiday circus that was easy to wander through for hours on end. time there last about 2 hours, at which point, I had enough “Easter” and took solace in the pool at my hotel, paying respect to my very favorite resurrection…the sun.

Happy Holidays.
More soon...


Sunday, March 26, 2006


I left Singapore, watching the city disappear as I passed overhead in the plane, looking like a replica of a model community made of plastic below me. The perfection of the trees and lakes and buildings below, it’s just fascinating to see in person, Singapore is sterility redefined.

Arriving in Bali, I was excited. Everyone has the most wonderful things to say about Bali and I was eager to experience it for myself. Being the end of my trip, I splurged and checked into the Oberoi on Seminyak Beach, the east coast of the island. It rained much of my time there, but the Balinese style villas and resorts were so peaceful, filled with lily ponds and dark cobblestone walkways throughout the grounds, foot-high torches lighting up the paths at night, service unmatched with suntan lotion and water spritzers refilled hourly at the pool overlooking the beach all day long, ice cream cones of sorbets given at 11:30 AM and 3:30 PM to all guests, ten minute massages in the AM and PM at poolside, as well. It was blissful. And the shopping in Seminyak was insane. The home décor is so colorful and airy, the clothes all authentic Scoop Beach-esque tunics and tank tops, tissue paper skirts and sarongs, beaded flip-flops and necklaces, for a fraction of Scoop prices (needless to say, I did VERY well here in Bali shopping since the rain kept me a slave to the stores), the art post-modern and intriguing. The restaurants along the beach and in the town are divine, the first New York level of food and service yet. And the two Barbie twins at the pool by day, whose bodies folded up perfectly like beach chairs with nary a roll (you know the type), frolicking topless with their perfect tits and asses around a wrinkled and sun-exposed Speedo-ed playboy of, at the very least, 70 years old, had the attention of both staff and guests alike…especially when they sat around Grandpa and caressed each other, then alternatively caressed him. Yeah, the beach side of Bali was great for a few days….

BUT, the real Bali is to be found in Ubud, the interior of the country, an artist community of perfection and culture that absolutely mesmerized me. I could’ve easily stayed in Ubud another week, it was one my favorite places on this trip. I was in love with the people, the landscape, the culture, the little touches of the city and know I will absolutely be coming back to Bali, and spending a lot more time in Ubud when I do.

Ubud is one of those small towns with a ton of charm. The narrow, one-way streets are lined with shops, cafes, art galleries, and villa resorts. Every day, as the town comes to life, small offerings of flowers and incense are placed in doorways, giving the entire town the smell of freshness and flowers. In every shop, in every home, Balinese traditional music plays in the background, a mix of Enya-Enigma type dream music with xylophone and drum beat accents. You almost don’t hear it, and then, when you do, you can’t help but smile – it’s so calming. I checked into a resort where they upgraded my room to a suite (they do this a lot in places where tourism has suffered from either the tsunami or terrorism) that had a verandah which overlooked a rice paddy. Every afternoon, I read on a lounge chair and watched the sunset while the Balinese tended to their paddies below me. Each morning I would either take a drive or a bike ride out of town through the countryside and talk to the people – the Indonesians are the friendliest, warmest people I’ve encountered out here. Their smiles and genuine desire to help you embrace their island is so refreshing, they don’t hawk you (except on the beach side), they don’t beg, they don’t pester, they are just as interested in you, as you are of them, and want to learn simultaneously from the interactions. I talked to so many different types of people, artists, locals, shop owners, holy men, it was amazing. Everyone was approachable and equally interesting.

I indulged in daily Balinese massages, then a run, then took my breakfast, (which I will miss terribly while I’m home for two weeks, the AM spreads) where a couple was on my same schedule EVERY DAY. The British woman of the pair (Cher, a complete clone of Heather Gitlitz) was chatty chatty Cathy, who didn’t shut up from the second she sat down, talking about nonsense to the guy who, I SWEAR, was nodding off during her rants. And the same schtick happened every morning, she would hem and haw over eggs or pancakes, eggs or pancakes, when the waiter would come over to her. “I just dunno today, should I greet the morning with some eggs, or should I allow the pancakes to win out? Hmmm, what do you think?” in her grating British accent. Oh my god….kill myself. She was always done up in some ridiculously formal skirt of a silk or satin, a lacy shirt AND…Tevas. It annoyed the hell out of me. She carried an umbrella for walking in the sun. But, not a pretty little parasol, it was a golf umbrella that could house a small army underneath. Each day, I dreaded getting to the dining area, she killed my tranquility.

But, then, I’d head off onto my day, and forget the bothersome Brit at breakfast. The temples you can find throughout the city and countryside are all gorgeous, and the villages where the Indonesians live were fascinating, each family has it’s own temple, in addition to their living quarters, the tips of which peek from behind the walls of the family compounds. Driving around is a treat, just taking it all in. One of the highlights I was told I had to see was the Monkey Forest, which is a forest of just that, monkeys living in the wild around three Hindu temples. There’s thousands of them and I couldn’t wait to go into the forest. On a trip to Costa Rica a few years back, Ilana and I were a monkey’s plaything (or two) when we found them there, Lukoff hedging off getting rowdy with them, us making fun of her for being apprehensive around the cute little monkeys. Well, Lukoff, you were the wiser. Here’s my Monkey Forest story:

So, I head into Monkey Forest, at the end of aptly named Monkey Forest Road. As you approach, there’s at least 10-15 monkeys hanging around the entrance, waiting for the tourists to feed them bananas. ALL the guidebooks say specifically “Do not feed the monkeys,” and there’s a sign on entry saying the same, but RIGHT UNDER the sign, is a vendor at a little folding table with a sign that reads “Official Monkey Forest Bananas” and is piled high with bunches of about 20 baby bananas. Everyone entering is buying bananas and feeding, taking pictures with and running around with the greeter monkeys. Ok….so, I buy some bananas. If I don’t use them all on the monkeys, I’ll have them for myself to snack on, right? So far, so good. So, I take my bunch, all ready to go play with these cute little guys, like in Costa Rica, I’m a monkey expert. I’m THE monkey girl. As I start giving out the bananas to the monkeys that are jumping on me, climbing up my skirt, sitting on my shoulder, I hand my camera off to a Japanese (maybe Chinese) tourist close by to snap a few pix of me in my monkey glory. A large, hulking monkey approaches. I have two bananas left, one in each hand. I bend down toward him and extend my left hand to him, holding my right a little farther out. He takes the one in my left hand, but reaches for my right hand. WHY I didn’t just it to him, I’m not sure. In my mind, possibly I thought I needed to ration the bananas in an attempt to “be fair” to the other monkeys. What logic is this? They’re monkeys. Well, the monkey didn’t like the logic either, because as he climbed over me to get the other banana that I pulled away again, he FREAKED OUT, and…attacked me. He grabbed my right arm with both hands, and started scratching me, then, biting my arm over and over again, like it was a piece of corn on the cob, jumping up and down all the while, screeching. All of his monkey friends are gathered around watching, clapping, screeching too. All I kept seeing were these little teeth, going into my arm, over and over again. WHAT THE FUCK!?!?! I’m being mauled by a monkey, in Bali, now. Right now. The Japanese (Chinese, maybe) tourists are bugging out, the guards all come running, my arm is scratched open and bloody, and the monkey, both bananas in hand walks off, giving me dirty looks every few minutes as he saunters back into the forest. Calm (why, not sure…?), I walk into the ticket booth, where the staff cleans and dresses my wounds while I ask if the monkeys have diseases. “Like rabies?” you mean, says one monkey forest man. “Sure,” I say, “oh, and like…AIDS.” To which, they say – “no, no, don’t worry, monkeys safe.” So, with a bleeding arm (I cannot be deterred), I re-enter the forest, after getting a refund for my bananas, politely handing them back, and go see the temples. I’m like the walking warning sign for the rest of tourists, different languages being whispered in the ear of the apprehensive partner to the other, as they nod toward my shredded forearm. As if to say, “Look at her, be careful with those bananas, hon.” Quite a day, to say the least. My massages suffered, as my masseuses couldn’t adequately rub my right as vigorously as they rubbed my left arm, and I felt slightly off-kilter after each session, but hey….at least I got all my shots before I left, right. Lesson to all, unison now… DO NOT FEED THE MONKEYS.

At night, I took in different dance ceremonies (there are about 7 different types of Balinese dances performed every night) followed by tasting menus at a variety of local haunts. Balinese dance is an art form, the way they move their bodies, focusing on details like wrist and ankle flicks and rapid (and slightly freaky) eye movements to convey emotions, were mesmerizing. Sure, there were a few too many ants for my liking generally, in Bali, and the heat was overpowering, giving me little water blister rashes when I ran, like in Peru on my Macchu Piccu hike, and obviously, the monkey situation, but overall, Bali was absolutely amazing. A perfect way to wind down my Asia trip.

Now, back to Singapore for another night with Pam and Rich. Then, to Bangkok for a spa day at the Banyan Tree, then one more island to go before I’m home. Can’t wait to see you all. Three months in Asia, while amazing in SO many ways, is a long time. I cannot wait for a fat-ass steak. And a veal chop parm. And a cheeseburger from PJ Clarkes or Melons. Ok, making myself hungry. The consolation – I have pad thai in my future in Bangkok.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

Shiny Happy City, Shopping

I know how to shop. This we know. But…

Singapore overwhelmed me. God, did it overwhelm me. I think I’m still recovering from shop shock. And, outside of two beautiful tea sets and a magnet for my dad (he’s charting my route on his garage fridge – for those of you who frequented the Massapequa house/garage, you’re familiar…), I didn’t buy anything. It was just too furious a pace, too frenzied an atmosphere, too wild a spree for, yes…even me.

Singapore is the squeakiest, cleanest city in the world. There rumors are true, well…some of them (they don’t cane you for gum-chewing in public), and the ten-second rule in Singapore is EASILY the ten-minute rule. You can drop ice cream on the floor, let it melt a bit, slop it up with a spoon, and eat it. It’s THAT clean here. It’s mind-boggling. I got to the Singapore airport and immediately had to don my sunglasses. First of all, it’s enormous. But it's also SO bright and shiny and seemingly, new, it’s all glass and chrome and lights and modernity. There’s a spa, a gym, a swimming pool, gardens, hundreds of food courts, and about 200 stores per terminal. There’s Gucci, Prada, Hermes boutiques IN the airport.
I mean….

Finding my way to my friend Pam’s, an old Harper colleauge who lives here with her husband, Rich, the roads are immaculate, landscaped with gardens, flowers, greenery. There is nary a candy wrapper to be seen lying roadside, no roadkill, no postings about apartments for rent, music shows coming to the area, lost children or kittens, just concrete and metal and shrubbery. The cabs smell lemon-fresh, the toll booths are devoid of exhaust residue, the city air is (gasp!) highly breathable. When I arrived at Pam’s apartment complex, Emerald Green, it’s Melrose Place-ian, only nicer. The streets, hilly at points, full of colorful low-rise colonials housing shops and lounges (the whole lounge thing, they’ve got it down pat – everything is Bond Street-esque, it’s great) and cafes, are quaint and inviting. You can hear a pin-drop in Singapore, no one yells, no horns honk, no babies cry. IS THIS REALLY PART OF ASIA?

I spent two days in Singapore, Disney-land for city planners, the wet dream of good government. Part Jetsons, part Chicago, part DC, there’s no traffic, people wait for cabs at stands throughout the city, democratically, PATIENTLY. The gleaming office buildings shine over the Singapore River (I wonder, briefly, how many window washers, garbage men, bathroom attendants, street cleaners, etc… the city employs to keep it so damn sanitary), leading down to Riverside Point, a bit Michigan Avenue lake front, only…yep, you guessed it, cleaner. But, back to the more important stuff. The shopping….

Orchard Road is Sing’s main thoroughfare for shops. It’s like an odyssey of indoor malls with mirrored outsides and formica insides. Floors upon floors of stores, restaurants (all restaurants are in malls, very weird), doctors offices, food courts. And, I’m not talking 4-5 of these malls, there’s HUNDREDS of them. Same stores, over and over again. On both sides of the length of Orchard Road, (and it’s not the length of, like Vanderbilt Ave, it’s more like 2nd Avenue), I probably saw 8-10 Louis Vuittons, 5 Chanels, 5 Dior, 5 Ferregamos. This isn’t your friendly neighborhood Gap kind of shopping (though Gap, Old Navy and Banana are coming to Singapore this fall), this is the real deal, intensified. In addition to the French Connections, the Betsey Johnsons, the Nine Wests (THESE ARE the $$ shoes here...go figure!) the Diesels and Stussys, it’s fast food central, as EVERY mall has a food court. So, you see Starbucks signs on EVERY corner, Burger King next to McDonalds, next to Dairy Queen and Orange Julius. KFC lurks next to Subway, next to the Coffee Beanery and Haagen Daz. It’s consumerism exploded, it’s a nightmare of spending. And, you’d think that because there are so many stores, it wouldn’t be so crowded, right? WRONG. DEAD WRONG. It’s like the Friday after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, I think they call it, EVERY DAY. Asian style. A million tiny Asians, shopping, fiercely pushing, clawing through the racks, buying and charging, and running from mall to mall. Everyone carries a shopping bag, two, four, eight. I, with my measly tea sets and magnet, am appalling to them. I suck at their national pastime. I am a shopping novice in Sing. I bow my head, ashamed at my own failures, and leave Orchard Road (but not before indulging on a DELICIOUS half-BBQ chicken salad chopped at California Pizza Kitchen). Me and my lone bag, defeated.

Spending money gained (for once!!), I head back to Pam’s for a great authentic Chinese meal on a backstreet of Sing’s Chinatown, and then, off to Bali for a final dose of SE Asian culture before returning home to the consumer world I know, love, and can shop oh-so-well . . . NYC.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Magnificent Maldives

I can now die happy.

The Maldives are all that and more. The most AMAZING place I’ve ever been, beach-wise. They are what, in my ‘suspending-non-religious-beliefs-for-just-a-moment’ reality, I hope heaven is like. The Maldives. Yes, they are heaven on earth.

Traveling constantly, seeing new places and things every day, with a never-ending to-do-list of the world map, I wind up having high expectations for a lot of the places I’m going. The last person I met told me about such-and-such a place, the guide book glorifies another nearby place, my best friend’s sister’s mother-in-law’s uncle said I just HAD to hit that local to the other place place. I try, god knows, I try to do all of the “musts” and, lots of times, I’m disappointed. So, going into the Maldives, I had HIGH HIGH hopes. I heard the diving was out-of-this-world, the beaches magnificent, the level of service unmatched, the weather perfect, and the resorts luxurious. All of those things are true. Not half-true, not depends on where you stay true, 100% true. I was blown away. I did it all blindly, my hotel booking, my island, my package – I KNEW NOTHING going into it, except what I was reading online about the country. There’s only one guide book on the Maldives (Lonely Planet and a) it’s hard to find and b) I think Lonely Planet un-user-friendly and prefer Fodor’s) and there little else to go by. So, I spent countless nights awake online, searching websites that had a bit here and a bit there about the islands. From that, I chose Kurumba, the oldest resort in the Maldives, recently renovated, with affordable (and laughable) price points, and a GORGEOUS website. Sounds good.

Oh, man…it was BETTER than good. My villa was bigger than my apartment in the city (not a hard accomplishment, but…), and beautifully decorated. I had an indoor and outdoor shower (which I was obsessed with – I took outdoor showers about 4 times a day), I had a reading nook, I had a canopy bed with chiffon sheets that closed around me when I slept, like a princess’s bedroom (in my mind’s fairy tale). It all opened out onto a porch that came right up to the sand of the beach, the water lapping playfully at my door. I mean….

The Maldives are made up of hundreds of tiny islands, about 140 of those are inhabited by resorts, and another 40 or so, inhabited by a small Maldivian population of 270,000. Outside of the resorts, which must BUY an individual island from the Maldivian government in order to open, the islands of the Maldives are poor, low-functioning islands. The high-low of the Maldives is actually quite disturbing, but most tourists don’t take the time to travel to the actual inhabited islands, they stay at their resort. Shame, as the people are so sweet and friendly, and the crafts are about 1/10th of the price of the hotels. Hehe… Needless to say, I shopped. The main industry is tourism, with two artificial islands recently built to accommodate a Coca-Cola bottling plant and a steel company. Otherwise, there’s no industry in the smallest world capital of Male.

This was my typical day for a week in the Maldives:

7 AM Wake Up. Breakfast at the biggest breakfast buffet I’ve ever seen. Unnecessarily big. Like stupid, too many choices that early in the AM, big. There I would eat an omelette (sometimes veggies, sometimes ham and cheese as a throwback to my previous and, upcoming trip to South America), hash browns (they were like McDonalds hash browns of my childhood and I couldn’t resist though each night I SWORE I wouldn’t have another hash brown but then I would see them, next to the fruit juice section as I got O.J., and be physically unable to keep my fingers away from the hash brown tongs), pancakes (Mom – I was a pancake whore. Everyone reading – so is my mom, a fellow pancake whore. Dad, a date at IHOP in FL in April. They made two kinds everyday – plain and banana, choc chip, blueberry, lemon (gross, I tried), so I would have one regular and one fancy one with loads of syrup) and then, fruit for breakfast dessert. This was my only meal until dinner time (no, kids, I’m not regressing – it was a temporary thing….). So, I indulged. As you can tell from the description, I was into my breakfasts…Sorry for going overboard there.

8:30 AM – Scuba Diving. I dove everyday I was in the Maldives. More on this to come.

Between 11-2 PM – return from diving and set up shop on two lounge chairs. One for me. One for Ipod, current book, Clarins SPF 15 for face and body, snorkel, fins and bottle of water. Lay out, relax. I would go into the room every so often to make Iced Nescafe, Let me explain. The coffee was very strong on the island, but I had a coffee maker and milk, et al…in my room, so would brew my own Nescafe (it’s not really brewing, but it sounds better) and put it in a water bottle and fridge it. I was obsessed. The houseboy caught on, and left me extra Nescafes and sugars every time he came to tidy my room (about 3 times/day they “tidy”).

5-6 – Watch sunset, or get massage.
6-7 – Run.
8 - ?? Dinner (usually fresh caught fish or sushi) on the beach and drinks with other guests. One night I ventured into Karaoke-land. Not worth detailing. I sucked, though I put on a good show. I think…

How’s that for a life? Yeah, I know…. Too bad it’s now over and I’m sitting in the airport waiting for a delayed flight to Singapore on a hard-ass wicker chair with a head cold. So, don’t worry – the good life isn’t as good right now.

So, the diving here was absolutely incredible. The clarity and visibility were astounding, the sea life was overwhelming, the dive team comfortable to be with, and my dive buddies (4 unrelated Brits who I wound up diving with every day), completely in sync with me. I wound up getting so hooked, that I became certified as a Deep Water Diver (can go to depths of 130 feet instead of 60 now…) and started on my Advanced Open Water Certification. OBSESSED. What we also did (me and the Brits) was a dive charter one day, where we did two dives – one shark dive, one dolphin dive. Both were fantastic. My divemaster Mohamed said it was the best day he’s had in his whole life in the Maldives. The shark dive was at about 100 feet, for about 40 minutes. We wound up surrounded (in a non-threatening way) by about 30 white-tipped reef sharks, who were happy to hang out with us, swimming by gracefully while we clung to coral in an attempt to watch them for as long as we could without being pulled by the current. The dolphin dive deposited us in about 100 feet of clear blue water. Not good with an underwater compass (though I working on it…), I couldn’t tell you which way was up, it was all just blue, no reefs on one side, no sea life to give away direction. And then, after about ten minutes of “ok, let’s go SEE something,” the dolphins appeared. About 200 of them, swimming in schools of 15-20 each, everywhere you looked, playing with us, frolicking, squeaking, twirling. Mommies, babies, big, small – it was one of the greatest times I’ve had underwater. SOOO fun. I also dove a wreck, a perfectly intact sunken ship off the coast of Male – downed in 1981, so it’s still in pretty good condition. Surreal to swim in and out of cabins of the ship, stand on the mast, peer through the windows in the galleys. Awesome underwater site. In addition to the diving, the snorkeling in the Maldives is equally good. The fish are fearless, they swim right by you, and hang around the shore if you feed them. I spent many hours snorkeling off my beach, watching stingrays and lobsters, eels and turtles, saunter back and forth the ocean floor.

Of course, being a Muslim country, the Maldives wouldn’t be complete without what I’m now calling my “Muslim Moments.” This one involved Ahmed, the mysterious Kurumba staffer (everyone’s name is Ahmed or Muhamed here – Muslim country theory – so it was hard to figure out just which Ahmed it was), who took to me from afar, seemingly, and started calling my room on a regular basis asking me to be what I thought was his “Good Friend,” to which I would get annoyed and have frustrated conversations with him about WHY he was calling me and that I didn’t understand him because of his accent (why I didn’t just hang up, I’m not sure…), when I realized that he was saying “GIRL FRIEND” and had to report him to security. The island then ALL knew my name, room number, to “look out for me” etc… The housekeeping head made me look through mug shots, if you will (photos of all the houseboys standing next to a made bed, smiling – their mattress handiwork), of all the houseboys to make sure Ahmed wasn’t among them. Blah blah… I’m out of the Muslim world after today, so hopefully, no more shady stories of men looking for a Western piece.

In sum: Even with Ahmed lurking somewhere close by but undetected, there were no drawbacks to the Maldives and EVERYONE should make it a point to get here in their lifetime (especially since they might not be here in 15 years…). If you have a honeymoon coming up – COME HERE! I would know immediately who the brides were, as the bodies on the female partners were uber-thin, and those same girls were eating pancakes, crossaints, hash browns, waffles and muffins every AM at breakfast, scarfing down steaks and baked potatoes with butter AND sour cream at dinner – poor thangs probably hadn’t eaten since their engagements. One such bride still made it to the gym each night, bless her 80 pound heart. The rest were happy reveling in their lack of photography and spotlights, wedding dresses and size 2s, in their short-term futures. My resort was one of the nicest from what I heard and saw, but I would say that South Male (where a lot of the good resorts are – Four Seasons is next to Kurumba, Banyan Tree, etc…) is too close to the airport, and while I’m not usually phased by planes, trains and automobiles, I did catch myself hearing an airplane every so often (Girls of Blue Jay Way – I can’t IMAGINE Rosen’s bitching on Maldivian air issues…!!!) But, otherwise, SHEER PERFECTION.

My plane just arrived. Onto Singapore to stay with my friend Pam and her husband. I have no idea what happens in Singapore except that you get caned if you chew gum while walking down the street and are killed if you possess/use drugs and it’s supposedly very clean. So, I have a lot of reading to do on the plane. I turned to mush in the Maldives and have to refocus on Singapore and Bali, my next stops. But likely, without any prior expectations, these countries will be amazing. Can’t wait.

More soon…