Friday, February 12, 2016

Barbadian De-compression Jan 26- Feb 11, 2016

We're not beach people. Trish and I find beach culture monotonous. Getting sauted in the sun whilst under-sized speedos on oversized bellies strut around isn't exactly the height of culture. Just recently I skipped el cheapo beach destinations in Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and India. So why go to Barbados?  Well if you're asking, you don't live in Ottawa over the winter. Besides we have Mel (aka Old Spice) a buddy down there so free digs, yippee! And yes, after 4 plus months of travel I needed a bonafide vacation.

Barbados was once inhabited by Amerindians whom the Spaniards called Caribs, hence the term Caribbean. Raise your hands if you knew that, we sure didn't. Anyway the Spaniards had a hand in wiping out the native population in much of the Caribbean, leaving Barbados largely uninhabited until the English colonized it in 1625. For a while more English lived in the West Indies than the Americas.

Then they discovered how wonderful Barbadian sugar cane was. But who was going to work those sugar plantations? Slaves from Africa of course, ya silly. Then they figured you could do more than just sugar with the those towering canes, and we don't mean molasses, that's boring. How about  a rum and coke? Pretty soon Mount Gay, the world's oldest (legal) rum distillery started up. 
Trish was first in line at Mount Gay for the 4 itty bitty samples included in the $10 USD tour. 

It seems nobody moves without a rum-based drink nearby. The locals say there are as many churches as there are rum shacks ---think combo of divey pub and liquor store (1500 shacks).

But most of the half million plus tourists come for the beaches, all of which are free and public:

Crane Beach, south east coast

Accra Beach, south coast

Miami Beach, south coast

Bathsheba, Atlantic/east coast also a primo surf spot

Martin's Bay, east coast


Caribbean/west coast

Our big splash out touristy day ($105 US each) was catamaraning and snorkelling around Hawksbill turtles and a shipwreck. A dozen pasty white cruisers on a day excursion joined us.

Each of the 11 parishes or regions centres around a church. St John's is a gem on a cliff sided with lush forests and a beautiful cemetery. 
And a rooster who guards the front.

So who are these ladies?
Well dearest Mel (beside Trish) is a native Barbadian (Bajan if you're feeling lazy) living in a veritable mansion,  and mom to Andrea,  a buddy in Kanata.
Mel and her network would show us around the tiny island (smaller than Metro Toronto) but more importantly immerse us in their highly community and family-oriented lives.
Annette (in the middle) is one of the kindest women around, and Wendy (white top) is a suppository of all things known to and about Barbados.

Barbados smells of money, most of it white.
We posed as potential buyers ( I can talk white) in a couple of private resort and residences.
This slum started at $2.5 mill US, plus mooring fees
Mel and Annette playing a couple of snooty, condo hunting Bajan belles

Architecturally speaking you can count on many Caribbean and Latin American places to be dominated by Spanish colonial influences. Not here however as Barbados may be the only colony to not change hands as the English hung onto it right up until the peaceful independence of 1966.
Nevertheless, a couple of decent looking buildings are worth poking around.

Downtown Bridgetown is only minutes from the beaches and high end shops and resorts but nary a pale face other than Trish can be found.
Which made us wonder. In just about every country we travelled (except Iceland) since August, an under current of racial tension could be felt. You'd think this would be no different. 280,000 locals-----92% black, a healthy smattering of holdover Brits from colonial days sitting in big houses, white folk buying up choice property, drunken Englishmen, a murder rate 7X Ottawa's (which is pretty low to begin with).
But no. Not a peep of complaining or bitching about dem foreigners and pale or Asian faces. They accept tourism as the backbone of the economy. And unlike Cuba, the Dominican Republic, etc...the relative absence of large, all inclusive resorts and hotels means many tourist dollars trickle down, and beaches and retail activity are shared between and amongst locals and tourists. 
But before you jump on a direct flight from Toronto, Miami, or NY, beforewarned, this local, authentic experience is costly. A single day small car, A/C rental can be $100-160 US. Ouch. Thank Goodness for Mel, Annette and the greenthumbed, pie baking extraordinaire, Carol.

The local fare is seafood heavy and the stars are flying fish (below---also a joy to 'flying'  over the water) and dolphin (aka mahi mahi).
Mel cooked up a storm of flying fish one night... seasoned with lime, salt and her own own sauce, then rolled in flour and fried...lip smacking good.

Doubles (2 pieces of flat fired bread wrapped around channa masala) may be more Trinidadian in origin but it's widely consumed here.

Bake Salt Fish (thicker piece of bread slit open like a pita and stuffed with salt fish fried up with tomatoes, onions, spices, herbs)

A tad more adventurous is the pudding and sous, a Saturday mainstay. 
The yellow, potato looking thing is actually bread fruit and was quite good.
The dark, sausage like pudding is steamed and seasoned sweet potato stuffed in...pig intestines. Think haggis and you'll be alright.
The sous is traditionally pickled pig's head and feet. Trish took one look at this and headed for leftovers. The leaner cuts actually went down pretty good with Mel's home-made scotch bonnet and mustard hot sauce.

Now that we're home for good (for now), our tans will quickly fade and photos will have to sustain us while we plot our next move. Long term it will mean an extended stay in Japan, and as  much as India almost broke me, I haven't stopped thinking about it. Trish already knows what that means.

Barbados was a rum and sun soaked playground and a figurative distance from Asia, the highlights of this long run.  But it was completely stress free as we no longer had to fret about transpo, accomodations, sanitation, getting scammed....And for 16 warm days we basked in Mel's exceptional local hospitality, kindness and circle of friends and family. In a travel where we met so many exceptional people, stayed with so many generous hosts, she was a fitting finale.
Trish is happy to be home again. I could be elsewhere, even on a beach watching under-size speedos wrapped around over-sized bellies...

Next:  Back to work while Trish and her mom cruise the Mediterranean in May/June, bitches.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Miami Nice: Jan 23-26, 2016

With the Canadian dollar under 70 cents to the Yankee greenback, Miami was only meant to be a 3 day pitstop between Mexico City and Barbados. 

5 million  ppl board these floating hedonist palaces each year in Miami, making it the world's busiest concentration of ppl named Ethel and Fred.

Miami Beach is a city and island separate from the City of Miami. The former was essentially a sandbar and swamp created in 1915 by the wealthy, for the wealthy, attracting civic role models like Al Capone.
A hurricane in 1926 wiped out much of the area but the reconstruction took place at the height of the Art Deco period. 

Nowadays it's the world's largest concentration of such buildings with more than 800 constructed in the unique Miami Art Deco style with features such as:
•3 distinct sections ( left, centre, right) and usually 3 floors. 
• a zig zag roofline
• symmetry and geometry --- the left half mirrors the right with ample use of clean, straight lines and or curves and round windows in a nautical theme
•short ledges above windows to enhance cooling

Most hotels were originally white. But .... the 1980s Don Johnson blazed into town on that studly tv show, Miami Vice. The world watched and many hotels highlighted their architectural elements and painted walls in essentially the whole town became a movie set, got it, Crockett?

The area known as Wynwood only 8 yrs ago was a down and out inner city hood. Then artists and gallery owners moved in and whaaaala! Gentrification. Now it's a maze of steet art, galleries, hipster hangouts and the only ppl down and out are those who can't find parking.

Miami is a melting pot of the Hispanic world as more than sixty percent are Hispanic. The majority are of Cuban descent, such as these old anti-Castro warriors playing dominoes in Little Havana.

We Couchsurfed in a condo by Little Havana with two superb hosts, Dairo, a public health planner from Colombia, and Tanya  a pianist protégé from Russia. Thanks to them we got chauffeured around and loaded up more culture than anticipated. This included an unbelievable concert by her friends (one of whom will play for that swollen head, Pinchas Zukerman).

This purplish Russian concoction is a tasty mayo, salt fish dish that Tanya made. 

However Tanya's magnificence is best heard, as she's going to be a renowned  pianist. 

Perez Art Museum....of modern wtf is this supposed to be art? With many notable exceptions eg this Gerhard Richter

Our fav however was this piece.
Spotted oven plates reminded the artists of stars and are counterpointed by blackened baseball bats. Their blackness and the darkened cotton are suggestive of the south and racial strife but the artist dude (whose name we've shamelessly forgotten) thinks the cotton represents healing. Whatever.

Definitely not in the guide book, Marlins Park where Dairo and I hit a grad ceremony of 200 former street people who'd gotten their lives together. The unmistakable born again Christianity theme abounded. Except for the lack of alcohol, I'd say they have more fun than the Catholics.

Miami Beach 
Miami and environ oozes money. Some old, real old. And some young, like Miami Beach (aka SoBe, aka The Beach) where a phalanx of condos average $2.35 million US, and rent out at14k monthly..., if you can find one. 
The beach itself is 10 miles long and unnaturally widened in order to protect the island.

A blizzard further north feather touched Miami with the coldest winter in some time. Not being beach ppl, a they have to work real hard to win us over, especially here where the sand is now trucked in.
While it beats shovelling 2 feet of snow, it's kinda meh, if you ask us.

Next: Barbados

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mexico's Due January 15-23, 2016

Before the purgatory of work, it's great to be on the road again, even if only for a month. This time my trusty wingman Trish is back in the saddle, joined for a few days with long haul loner Marc Brown in his annual escape from the real cold.

For those who think of Mexico either as a hotbed of crime and drugs or beach resorts,..,.well that's like seeing Canada only as hockey and cold.

Yea it also gets cold in Mexico, maybe not minus 20 but an unheated room in the hills at12 degrees is pretty chilly. The great white, long haul loner can attest to that.

For 20,000 years, millions of monarch butterflies have migrated to an area a few hours drive and a few hours on horse and hike west of Mexico City.

We had hoped to see clouds of the orange and black critters. Instead most of them were dormant in their camouflaged grey, stuck onto trees. This was rather disappointing, a veritable Devil's Elbow.
Trish was so bummed out at the critters' inactivity she threw sticks at them. They had the last laugh.

Bizarre and campy, pro wrestling aka Luchas Libre has long and deep roots in Mexico, having proceeded the U.S. and Cdn versions. Colorful masked fighters, many of whom come from generations of wrestling, duke it out in simple story lines of good vs evil, revenge and honor. 

Supported by big boobed cheerleaders, dwarves and a raucous crowd, it makes for a wonderful primal experience.

Teotihaucan is one of the most mysterious pyramid complexes in the world. It's not certain how and why they were built and who was in charge. Quite frankly the Mayan ones in the Yucatan are more interesting, but these are bereft of the bus loads of Cancun day trippers so call it even.
Despite Marc's stunning growth spurt,The Temple of the Sun is the worldest 3rd largest ancient pyramid (the first 2 honours go to Cheops and another Egyptian biggie)

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent had the best scary faces. Check out  what it looks now and probably did 2000yrs ago in a repro in the Anthropology museum 

Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul
The blue house where she grew up, lived, painted, hobnobbed with Trotsky and the creme de la creme of the lefty and art world, incl her 300lb on again off again hubbie Diego Rivera.

This is the Two Fridas, which is actually hung in the mod Art museum, a bust of a tourist destination except for her self portrait of her broken heart after one of many stormy break ups with Diego.
Casa Azul is set in resplendent gardens and even had a pyramid,

Even if you don't care for surrealism, you can't help but be moved by her courage, her tragedy, and amazing life.
Born with polio and having suffered a horrifying streetcar accident at age 18(eg.,handrail went through her hip and into her vagina), she would go through 30 operations in her life, with amputations).
It was while convalescing that she learned to paint, often doing so while in bed.
A black belt fashionista with her own sense of style and design, even her corsets had panache.
She designed her hair and clothes to draw your eyes away from her deformed leg and feet.

Her kitchen entertained her philandering Diego Rivera, Trotsky whom she had an affair with (ok, everybody in Mexico slept with her, and Diego---incl Frida's sister) and anybody and everybody in the left and nouveau art world.

Palacio Nacional
You can't speak of Frida without the hulking 300lb shadow of Diego Rivera nearby. In the National Palace some of his most famous murals hang.

The Palace also had a superb exhibit on masks from around the world.

Museo de Anthropolgie
Failing to persuade Marc to stay behind with us (he would drive towards a ferry to Baja), we hoof it over to one of the finest museums in Mexico, perhaps the world...with a fantastic display and collection of Aztecan and Mayan pieces, in a wonderful space.
This Aztecan fountain supports a massive roof.

The Centro Historico area is a vast UNESCO site with about 1500 heritage buildings and monuments.

Casa Azulujenos....House of Tiles, an Art Deco gem

Along Madero Ave.

Plaza Constitution is one of the world's largest squares. It's also sight to the latest Bond film's exhilarating opening sequence.
As for cops and heavily armed military, they were everywhere. It's said that there is a cop for every 100 locals, some of whom it appears, will gladly look the other way for a small tip. Nevertheless, the major tourist spots and Roma Norte where we rented a killer apt felt very safe. 

Palacios Bellas Artes
This neo-classical/Art Deco gem more than any other spot, made us regret we didn't have a proper camera.

Mexico proper is dominated by two volcanoes. Of which many of the 22 million are sardined into barrios on the hills. Impossible to escape seeing them on the way to Teotihuacan. Ok, likely not a good place to wander about with flashy gear unless u want sweaty young men to feel you up. 

Yet Mexico's core is surprisingly clean, the efficient subway is only 40 cents CDN--I call that free, the streets and tone are urbane and safe, English is widely spoken and the people, vendors are very friendly and helpful. The near absence of hordes of teams of beggars. Fantastic street food at rock bottom prices, endless historical riches, sleek modern landscapes and cutting edge architecture goes unmissed by most of the 23 million visitors to the country who instead beeline to resorts and gated communities. Fools.

Sleek modern buildings..,,

Right from the get go we all fell in love with blue corn quesadillas....anywhere from 14-20 pesos ($1.2-1.8cdn) a pop

Five mini tacos for 20 pesos, or $1.75 CDN. Almost all street food is cheap, clean, sanitary and regulated. After the hygiene hell of India, this is  Nirvana.
World class Luchadores with Canadian accents.
Of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world, some are in the US (eg New Orleans , St. Louis), a few in South Africa, and all the rest in drug-centred barrios in Latin America. Raise your hand if you think Mexico City is one of them. I did. Wrong.
This city is a myth buster and we think it's time you were due for Mexico.

Next: Miami

For Wayne Ng's latest travel adventures and book " Finding the Way: A Novel of Lao Tzu ," please go to his website and blog at...