Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Maple Syrup and Hockey, eh?

I never thought Canada was my type.

Or at least I didn't think we would hit it off like we did. I mean, I always figured it would be nice, but nice in that kind of 'we could be friends way,' not the 'I want to spend every waking moment in your presence kind.'

It is a love affair, my relationship with travel–some countries will set my pulse racing with excitement, while others draw lukewarm feelings, no butterflies in my stomach.

But you can never really know a place until you visit it, go out at least once.

That seemingly quiet and simple country could turn out to be packed with all kinds of colorful delights and adventures once you get to know it; things you might never have otherwise discovered.

That was Toronto.

The warm summer days were filled with sights and culture, and the equally warm nights with an array of worldly cuisine and cozy bars.

A quick subway ride brought me into Mirvish Village one particular evening. Trees partially camouflaged the charming, old-fashioned buildings. There was something comfortably quiet about this place even though the restaurants were packed and the bars filled.

We ventured to the end of the street and took a seat on the patio of the Victory Café. The wooden, almost picnic-like tables gave the place a relaxed feel. It really was cozy. In my world, cozy usually depends on how nice the designer couches and chairs are in the place. But this was a different kind of cozy, the company also made it that way.

We ended up chatting with the groups of people on either side of us (sure it was after a couple of shared beers by each party, but so what?)

Marcus, a sweet-faced, glasses clad guy to my right was especially friendly. We fell into deep conversation about life, politics, and misconceptions as they exist both in Canada and the United States.

Being a traveler himself and having experienced other places, he tells me, "I really do love it here, Canadians are just nice people. We actually get made fun of by the States for being so nice."

I was ashamed to admit I had heard a joke (or two...) of that nature.

Marcus's chipper friend decided to pipe in when he heard I lived in California. In all seriousness and enthusiasm, he turned to me and said, "California? So do you hang out at Venice Beach and go rollerblading?"

I looked back at him with the same seriousness and enthusiasm and said, "Do you love maple syrup and play hockey?"

No?

I didn't think so. We both laughed when he realized the silliness of his comment and the mockery in mine.

Sure, there are Californians that go to Venice and rollerblade, and I am sure there are Canadians that love maple syrup and play hockey. But not everyone does.

Travel is the most supreme education. I shudder to imagine the things we would run around thinking of places and people if we were never to experience them and learn that there is so much more than what little we might know.

Marcus ended the evening by saying, "It was nice chatting, eh?" I smiled and said yes. He smiled back and said, "Yes, we really do say eh."

While some things might be true, there's way more to this place than maple syrup and hockey.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Coolest. Plane. Ever.

I am flying.

I am sitting in the comfort of my fancy, black leather seat, laptop open, and writing this blog.

I arrived at the airport a few hours earlier for the second time in a month. I know, I know, I love this place. Besides, after such a long separation from travel we have a lot of catching up to do.

I walked into Terminal 3 of Los Angeles Airport to meet a scene quite unlike that of last month's. There were flowers in vases, fancy carpets, and cute pink mood lighting. Beyonce's Sweet Dreams was playing in the background. Everyone was young and attractive.

Was this a party? Did I make a wrong turn and end up in some swanky lounge?

My confused thoughts were interrupted by a soft and courteous voice. "Where are you traveling tonight?" he asked, then escorted us to exactly where we needed to be. I guess I didn't make a wrong turn after all–this was flight check-in for Virgin America.

I couldn't believe it.

Everything was perfect. There were no long lines, no broken kiosks, no people rolling luggage over my feet, no screaming babies; none of it.

Even the bag tags were cute. Just under my name, the tag had a line for 'Favorite Thing.' My favorite thing?! How special that the luggage tag and its affiliates want to get to know me!

I had barely enough time to write names on three luggage tags, and it was my turn to check in.  The attendant was friendly, pleasant, and efficient (yes, I might not believe it either if I didn't witness it first hand). This must be some sort of alternate universe; one where no one needs to curse. She handed me a neat little boarding card with just the important information on it, and small enough to fit right into my passport/pocket/other convenient location.

And the coolness didn't stop there. The headphones were pink, the flight crew was hip, and the captain proposed to his girlfriend. Yes–a full on proposal, ring, one knee, tears, kissing, clapping and all–right in the middle of his captain's welcome speech. It was beautiful.

This plane is amazing.

I can even shop from the slick screen in front of me! Seat-to-seat chat?! Wow, this would be perfect for sending a message to the cute guy/girl seated ten rows ahead, provided that you scoped out their EXACT seat number. It would not be nice to mistakenly send your flirtations to the old man snoring, mouth agape, in the seat next to them.

But there's really just not that much excitement in my life, so I sent a message to my mother. In the seat next to me. Sigh. Well, at least there is no annoying person near me making audible reactions to their reading. But that may just be because I am well acquainted with both of the passengers in my row, and there is no social etiquette preventing me from looking over and saying, "Shhh!"

This is how flying should always be.

And for those of you lucky enough to have flown Virgin before, please excuse my naiveté, it was only my first time. But seriously–Coolest. Plane. Ever.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Ciao...

It's over? Am I really leaving all this behind? 

Every time I leave a country it feels like a break up. Knowing that for now, this country and I can't be together brings about an overwhelming sense of sadness. 

I feel the pain of separation creeping up on me as the plane leaves my newest love behind. I am overrun with thoughts of how we can rebuild our love–of how quickly I can get back to rekindle this relationship. 

The first week back home is miserable. All I can think about is that country. All I can talk about is that country. I miss the country terribly; my lost love. 

Eventually, the wound heals and I am ready to love again. 

But I know it is only a matter of time before I fall once more, and the next country is left to pick up the pieces. 

I am forever being unfaithful to my own country. I am heartbroken, but for now I must say ciao to it all. 

First and foremost, mallorcas at La Bombonera, for all your sweet and savory deliciousness, you will be severely missed. Refreshing and tropical humidity, I know it sounds crazy, but I love you. Concalma, I have a beautiful bag to take home to remind me of you, but I am sad to leave the 'take it easy' attitude of your brand and your people behind. Medalla, I won't know what to drink without you. And last but not least, ciao to my kayaking boatsmen, your strength and beauty will stay with me forever. 

Sigh. 

Puerto Rico, te amo. This is not the end. You have too much beauty left unseen, too much delight left untasted, and too many beautiful people left unmet. 

I promise I will return to you; muy pronto. Ciao...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Beauty at the Bio Bay

It was pouring down rain. 

Not exactly ideal weather for kayaking on a bioluminescent bay in the pitch black darkness of the night. But José, the driver of the tour bus kept reassuring us that it wasn't raining in Fajardo. After all, it was one hour from San Juan on another part of the island, and his people at the tour company had told him it was not raining there. 

One hour later, the bus having splashed through rather thick traffic most of the way, we arrived. And it was raining. 

But considering that he had provided some laughs and a cooler of Medalla on the bus, José was quickly forgiven. Perhaps this nighttime adventure would be all the more exciting with the element of rain added. But cold, wet, and waiting in line to check in with the tour company, I doubted it. At least the young boatsmen of the tour company were a sight to see, so the wait was fine. 

We signed disclosures, buckled our life jackets, and climbed into our two person kayak. It was my first time, I had never kayaked before. Should be fun right? 

Wow, paddling is hard. So I paddle left if I want to go right? And right if I want...Less than five minutes in, we were done, spent, tired of kayaking. Not so much fun.

We decided to take a break. But you cannot take a break from kayaking when the current might just drift you right into the nearest mangrove. So we paddled.

Paddling furiously now, and not moving much at all, I am sure we looked like we desperately needed rescuing.

And just like that, Cliff was there. He attached our kayak to his, and paddled us on our way. Now this was fun! Amazing how beautiful everything suddenly became when I was no longer feeling a pang in my bicep and trying to dodge a mangrove.

We glided on in a single file line somewhere in the middle of our group of twenty or so kayaks. When we reached the darkest part under the mangroves, right where the magic begins, Cliff told us to touch the water.

Now, putting my hand into strange waters where I can't see a thing, and tiny animals make the water glow, did not really sound like a fantastic idea to me, but I knew I had to try it. 

I dipped the tips of my fingers into the water warily for about one tenth of a second, and splashed. And that was enough. 

It was amazing, the water was really glowing! 

I could fill this space with a thousand different words to describe the scene: magical, mystical, magnificent, etc; but only your own eyes could do this justice. 

It was Disney-esque. It was just like the Kiss the Girl scene in The Little Mermaid. I was just waiting for a little Caribbean crab to appear and whisper, "kiss the girl..." to the gorgeous and supremely athletic boatsman towing my kayak, but it never happened. 

We splashed, and played, and let the bioluminescence run down our arms while the rain soaked us to the bone. We kayaked–ahem–were towed out to the middle of a lagoon near a lighthouse, where cute boatsman #4 told us some facts and history of the bay. I couldn't tell you a word he said, because the rain had decided to come down in full force, and I was too close to cute boatsman #1 to really be paying attention. 

We headed back, and aside from one kayak nearly tipping over and emptying out its passengers, it was a smooth ride to shore. 

Having started a splashing match (which we were losing terribly) with our boatsman and the one next to us, they had decided payback was due. Instead of helping us out of the kayak as gentlemanly as they had helped the others, they tipped it over, leaving us face first in the sea and covered in sand and seaweed. 

In case you happen upon the same fate, wearing a bathing suit and carrying a change of clothes is a good idea. 

I am truly indebted to Las Tortugas Adventures for an incredible, off the beaten path experience (and the eye candy). There is endless beauty to be seen at the Bio Bay.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Uncle Jorge

A slushy machine?

Jorge, the bartender of the millennium, set the tall glasses in front of us, complete with the little umbrella and a cherry, and waited patiently for our reactions.

I did not have high expectations.

Had I not already seen Andrew Zimmern's shocked reaction, I would have been just as surprised that the "original" and supposed best Piña Colada, was a pre-made mixture from a slushy machine.

I tried it.

The sticky, humid temperature of the evening made that first cold sip quenching and almost heavenly. It really was the best Piña Colada I had ever tasted!

We told Jorge exactly this, to which he replied:

"Ah come on. You never had a Piña Colada in your life. This is your first."

I think he might have been right.

I had traveled up the uneven sidewalk lining Fortaleza Street to the Restaurant Barrachina, where the Piña Colada is said to have been born in 1963. Tucked into an old colonial building, the tropical and open courtyard greets you with an air of paradise. A young woman welcomed us in Spanish, and my amateur knowledge of the language was not enough to decode her greeting. The blank expression on my face as the wheels spun furiously in my mind must have given me away.

Considering that I have this unexplainable urge to be mistaken for a local wherever I travel to (which I know in some places just won't happen), I knew I had failed when she translated into English. Damn. Must. Learn. Spanish. And French, and Portuguese, and Italian, and...

Anyhow, delicious Piña Colada, and language frustrations aside, Jorge really was the highlight of the evening. He was awesome. He was funny, wise, comforting, and profound all at the same time. He was the kind of bartender that had something to offer to every person that took a seat at his bar. The kind that could look into your eyes and tell you things about yourself that you hadn't even realized yet. He could cooly help you reevaluate your entire life with one simple statement, and not even notice it.

Uncle Jorge, as he preferred we call him, told us of the Puerto Rico we should have been seeing. Not the over touristy, commercialized one we had seen instead. He told us about Liquid, a club where Puerto Rican music artists Daddy Yankee and Don Omar drop in unannounced from time to time and perform surprise concerts for their fans.

He said that La Placita is the best place to find local food, drinks, and people enjoying local music and dancing in the streets. He told us to have a Medalla, a local (and my new favorite) beer at El Batey, where Benicio del Toro is even said to stop for drinks when he is at home.

He could have filled an entire itinerary for our stay in his country; if only we had found him sooner. I suppose I have no choice but to come back.

It was hard to leave La Barrachina. We were there until they turned the chairs over on the tables. By the end of the night, I really did want to hug Jorge and call him tío. 

Uncle Jorge is definitely a man to meet.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Café in the Plaza

Trying to channel my inner artist and writer, I searched endlessly for Cuatro Estaciones Café, a café known as a popular meeting place for artists and writers.

After asking hotel guest services, several locals on the street, the girl behind the jewelry shop counter, and the man in the restaurant opposite the plaza, all of whom had no idea what I was talking about, I thought I might never find it.

But lo and behold, the third person we asked at the tourist bureau knew what it was and where to find it. And when I finally saw it, I understood why no one could help me.

It was just a kiosk in the middle of the plaza. A place that locals have probably passed by and frequented a thousand times without ever realizing it had a name.

At first glance, it does not look like the type of place that would draw artists, writers, or anyone that is even remotely interesting. There are pigeons that will be glad to escort you to the window while you order your café con leche, and are even kind enough to return to your seat with you and keep your ankles protected. You can only hope that their friends in the trees above don't decide to drop any surprises in on you.

It seemed highly anticlimactic after all of my searching. But considering that the temperature was reaching new levels of sweltering and we had been ambling through the cobblestone streets of Viejo San Juan for some hours now, we stopped to have a drink anyway.

As I sat in the iron chair under the cool shade of the trees and took a look around, I realized why people come here. They come here to feel the daily life of San Juan. They come here to see the people, the culture, the highs and lows of society, and everything else that passes through the plaza.

They come here to grab a coffee en route to work, or to sit and enjoy one, not in a rush to anywhere at all.

The women across from us sit together on their lunch break discussing el color de su pelo. They are not talking about work, what happened at work, or what work they still have to do; they are taking a real break and hair color is at the forefront of their minds.

The businessman shares a bench with the homeless man and enjoys a laugh at his crazed rants; they almost look like friends. The security director outside of the Departmento de Estado greets the female police officer with a standard kiss on the cheek as she arrives.

In my world, I can hardly imagine any male officer of the law greeting any female officer with a kiss on the cheek, under any circumstances. At least not in public anyway.

Things are different here, I like this world. It is quiet and busy at the same time. The wealthy and the poor share space as though it were natural. Life takes priority over the rigors of work, and things still get done.

As the subtle Spanish music plays, setting the scene perfectly, I really almost feel like I could sit here and paint San Juan. The old doors, the colorful buildings, the cobblestone streets, I can see them all from right here. I get this place.

Channel inner artist and writer: check. It was worth the search for my café in the plaza. 

Monday, July 5, 2010

Tranquility at San Cristóbal

So I'm supposed to be doing this travel writing thing; supposed to be documenting the things I see in the places I go.

But I can't stalk out a story. I can't just show up at a historical site, or restaurant, or cultural location, and start to write.

The story finds me.

It manifests itself anywhere, at any time, and demands to be written. So when I found myself at Castillo de San Cristóbal, one of the forts of San Juan, and a truly recognizable symbol of Puerto Rico, I figured I should probably write something about it. 

I stood there, desperately begging for words to come to me. The blank page just stared back. What could I really say about such a major tourist attraction that no one else has said? I suppose I could mention that there is a discount when purchasing entry for both San Cristóbal and neighboring fort, El Morro. I could say that there is a great introductory video to watch outlining the role of the fort in Puerto Rico's history. I could say that the inescapable fanny-pack toting tourists are here, in case you need a reminder that you are still on the beaten path. 

But none of that would be particularly interesting. 

Is this the predicament travel writers are constantly finding themselves in? I mean, I have long since been ditched by my travel companions and left standing alone on top of this stone looking like some kind of freak with my brochures and notebook, pen in hand, looking around for something to write. 

I really don't have all day to do this. 

So I give up. 

I close my eyes, and my notebook, and realize for the first time how quiet and peaceful it is up here. I can hear the waves splashing up against the stone walls of this fortress. The tourists must be scattered throughout the various tunnels and observation posts, because no one is near me, no voices interrupt my thoughts, no babies are screaming. 

This would really be a fantastic place to get some writing done if I had anything to say. 

I think how strange it is that there were once soldiers standing here looking out on their land, fearful of encroaching troops and poised to fight off an invasion. And now I stand here, looking out on the same land, the cool breeze caressing my face (and staving off a heat stroke) and I couldn't be more at peace.

Funny how time changes things. I am sure as attacks ensued, Spanish troops could not have imagined a day where someone would stand in the plaza de armas and their biggest battle would be against writer's block.

I am sure they never imagined tranquility at San Cristóbal...but it is there. 
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