The last three months of living in Berlin have been culture-filled indeed. One of our guest speakers this term expressed his belief that if Paris, London, NYC, and other global cities had their heydays in past decades, Berlin is having hers right now. While it's harder to find a contributor to culture living in New York City than it is a financier or business person, in Berlin the culture contributors are the vast majority and the makers of the dough. If you're going to study art today, this is certainly a place to witness a present movement gaining definition.Read More
Busyness, people. This production schedule is mad with work, and during any off time from outings and filming, we're making new quick trip videos, publishing photography, researching the next experience, having photo shoots, and looking for food to sustain our laborious efforts. The past week was spent in the crazy comfort of Casa Oaxaca, a beautiful hotel with only seven rooms and food service by a celebrity chef, only available to the hotel guests. The staff was pleasantly accommodating, and the breakfasts, dinners, and desserts had us thoroughly high on life. And that was just our lodging and food.
Our guide and driver for the week was the premier Oaxacan tour guide, Diego, who knew virtually everyone and helped us understand the facts and receive access to the locations in need of filming. Hilarity laced every outing with him. It was a fantastic week.
Since I last posted our experiences, we witnessed the creation of many artistic wares using age-old traditions and previously unseen techniques. Doña Rosa burnished black pottery, while spinning everything on two concave plates stacked bottom on bottom. Meanwhile, another group of artisans carved wooden figurines and decorated them with elaborate and tiny detailing. Oaxaca is a place for creators to be inspired.
Sticking with the creation thread, we also were exposed to the brilliant culinary world of Mexico's culinary capital, thanks to our host Alejandro Ruiz - renowned chef of traditional Oaxacan food with innovation. He surprised us with his enthusiasm to assist our efforts in many capacities, and boy was he ever spunky.
Paper making, weaving and painting, chocolate concocting, and some history here and there - we had one packed week. Fret not, for photoblogs are to come. We're now in Merida (Yucatan) and weathering 100% humidity on top of high heat and logistical issues. Nothing we can't handle, though. Follow the real-time tweets and await some stunning visuals and stories.
I traveled with my parents recently to Chicago, Illinois for a week of displacement and the entertainment that ensues. My time was enjoyable and low key, full of new discoveries and ample free wifi time at Borders for work. I thought I would share some of the things that made this trip stellar. Here are ten great ideas for Chicago (the order is chronological).
1. The Megabus
Instead of driving the 3+ hours along the Chicago Skyway and through the cornfields of the Region, my mom snagged us discount seats on this double-decker bus equipped with AC, free wifi, a bathroom, and a full skylight across the entire second deck. Aside from the woman talking loudly on her phone for the last 10 miles, the ride was fantastic and well worth the normal ~$20 ticket price. However, we bought ours on a special promotional deal for $1 each. You read right...
2. The Signature Room
Riding the elevator up to the 96th floor of the Hancock Building is a tad typical for an out-of-towner to do (a Chicagoan friend laughed at me later for doing this), but I think my two other friends from Chicago (who accompanied me on this excursion) would agree: the Signature Room at sunset is cliche for a valid reason.
Not only was the wait tolerable, but we snagged the best table in the house, at the very southwest edge of the building closest to the sinking sun. We ordered schmancy cocktails and took photos of ourselves with Chicago's pastel skyline. People continuously bumped my back trying to get in for that final shot of the disappearing star, and though I wanted to shout, "YOU NEED A TRIPOD!," I followed the mantra of "serenity now" and enjoyed the view for all it was worth. And ladies, note the best city view is actually from the ladies room! Just another reason why we're better...
3. The Best Tapas in Town
I received word from two different people that Cafe Ba-Ba-Reebas! in Lincoln Park had the greatest and most authentic tapas in the city. Since my cousin is a budding foodie and my other friend lived in Spain and learned to cook there, I took their advice as fast as I took down my sangria.
Rioja short ribs with manchego mashed potatoes, house meat plate with serrano, salchichon, chorizo, chicken & artichoke paella, crispy spicy potatoes with sun-dried tomato alioli, and warm potato & onion omelette - everything tasted so flavorful, even my friends who had been here before were amazed and raving. The thrill of good food doesn't get old.
4. The Blues at Kingston Mines
Though I haven't sat in a classroom for 1.5 years, I flashed my international student ID (courtesy of STA Travel, ha) for a $5 price cut off my cover into Chicago's oldest and largest real blues joint. It was an older, very relaxed crowd that felt completely opposite to the environment we'd previously been in at a local college bar.
Duke Tumatoe claimed the late shift that Saturday night and had people dancing like flopping sardines in the little space allotted just in front of the stage. I had some beers, put my hands up, and let my boots do some stompin'. I like the blues, and I love atmospheres like this one.
5. Brunch in Lincoln Park
Sitting on the sidewalk, orange leaves falling into my hair, I ate some high quality granola, yogurt, fruit and poached eggs with good company. Regardless of where you dine in this neighborhood, I think this is the ultimate way to take in a good weather day in Chicago. John's Place isn't a Mecca of breakfast food but it's no exception to the rule either. My advice is to find a similar place with a relaxed atmosphere, and you're guaranteed to spend the rest of your day in a fairly good mood.
6. Carnivale for the Taste Buds
This restaurant embodies the essence of the word and the party. What seems to be a massive warehouse, covered in brilliant paint with lights the size of elephants, makes up the main arena for the festive food consumption. I got on those caiprinhas without a lick of hesitation but let our waiter guide me to the best entree of the house: the pork chop.
My cousin hit the bullseye twice, once with the tapas joint and twice with this "nuevo latino" recommendation. He and his newlywed, Ashley, joined us in tackling the awesome appetizers, entrees, and the final kahuna: a three-layer, ice cream cake with chocolate syrup. I forget what it's called because I pulled a "Homer drool" upon seeing it placed on our table.
7. The Art Institute of Chicago
This is no hidden gem; this is an obvious item on on the list. The AIC is up there on the list of the nation's best art museums and truly has the ability to impress most, if not all, art lovers. Caravaggio's The Supper at Emmaus now sits in an oversized room with many of its similar style and proves itself superior to all. Caillebotte's Paris Street, Rainy Day begins the long line of impressionist works through the central galleries. I made a little video to illustrate the AIC experience. Come on along with me...
8. The Siskel Film Center
Whether this attraction is popular or not is a bit ambiguous judging from the Monday night crowd of tens, but its location lends to the idea that everyone knows about the Siskel Film Center (across from the Chicago Theater). It calls itself "Chicago's premier movie theater" and shows world-class international, independent and classic cinema.
My parents and I viewed the film Afghan Star, which is:
A sleeper hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival...In an Afghanistan recently freed from the Taliban, the equivalent of American Idol has become the national obsession. Two men and two women make it to the finals, and the country’s first baby-steps into democracy involve voting for their favorites via cell phone. The excitement is at fever pitch, then one of the female contestants performs an unthinkable, horrifying, death-defying act: she lets her head-scarf slip a bit and she dances on national TV.
9. Three Happiness in Chinatown
Don't be confused by the massive restaurant of the same name that smacks you in the face upon getting to Chinatown. That's not the establishment I'm referring to. Apparently, locals refer to it as "little three happiness," as the acclaimed restaurant seems but another modest family-owned joint among many.
I had no idea what to order and hoped the lady would sense I was up for anything, even the pot-o-love created for their employees' lunches. The waitress treated me very kindly but assumed I wasn't too experienced with Chinese food (since I told her I had no preference and wanted her recommendations). I asked for spicy and got medium...along with silverware. Slap in the face! I put my ego aside and just enjoyed what she brought me: schezwan chicken with vegetables over steamed rice. I don't think I left a grain of rice on the plate, nor a drop of tea in the kettle.
It was worth it just to get away from the high rises for a few hours and see a neighborhood less visited than most. If only Indianapolis had similar 'hoods.
10. The Silver Palm and the Little Pigs
At a sorority sister's recommendation, I took the blue line out to The Silver Palm Restaurant, a stop on my list thanks to the Chicago episode of No Reservations. As my friends and I strolled into this train car-turned-dining room, ginger gimlets and margaritas on our lips, I felt the challenge summoning me. I ordered the house speciality: the Three Little Pigs sandwich. After Tony's rave review, I had no choice but to order:
"This is a work of genius, in an evil way.... A two-fisted symphony of pork, cheese, fat, and starch... that sandwich is the greatest sandwich in America. This is the apex of the sandwich-making art... the sandwich that dreams are made of."
I did it. I can't believe I ate the whole thing. I couldn't lie on my stomach that night, but I felt pure satisfaction after its consumptions, quickly followed by meat sweats.
Other great ideas for Chicago (courtesy of my friends):
Mahzoh ball soup at Frances on Clark Street Walk along the lake to Millennium Park Have a wine-centric meal at BIN 36 The Greek Islands restaurant in Greektown on Halstead The Museum of Contemporary Art Playing a game of Whirlyball Having lunch behind the Civic Opera Building The Violet Hour Bar Seeing Jersey Boys or the Million Dollar Quartet Going to Nookies for Omelets Staying up until the wee hours and ordering a chocolate shake at the Weiner Circle Hot Doug's for a Chicago-style hot dog The Map Room with its wild selection of craft beers Great hibachi restaurant called Ron of Japan's on Ontario
What do you think about my ten great ideas for Chicago? Any personal experience with these or do you have one to add to this ever-growing list? Comment below, and thanks for reading!
My hair fluttered in the wind on the back of the hired tuk-tuk. Driving twelve kilometers into the Angkor jungles, the amazing Cambodian air was cool and luscious, yet upon stopping it instantly created a "stick" factor that made me look freshly emerged from a pool. I even wore my Bayern Munchen soccer jersey in order to avoid the unfriendly cling and sag of wet cotton. I loved it. My driver friend and I were on a quest to see massive, ancient temples and wander the jungles littered with hidden landmines. I didn’t care how terrible my entry photo looked on my ticket stub or that I had a "moistache". The earth was red, the leaves were electric, and stone towers were on the horizon. Every explorer wishes to discover amazing locations themselves without the help of a guide book or treading an already "beaten path." But the reality is that we often travel because we've heard things from previous travelers and want to see for ourselves the wonder they witnessed upon discovery. The real trick is trying to blind yourself to the ambiance created by word of mouth and imagine that first moment of awe that shakes the timeless traveler to the core.
There are many UNESCO World Heritage sites and major city landmarks that receive a lot of hype, yet never surpass their reputation, in my eyes, when experienced in person. I was let down by such structures as the Eiffel Tower, the London Bridge, the main tourist drag of the Great Wall (until I illegally branched off and went along the crumbles), the "romantic" canals and piazzas of Venice, the Forbidden City, and more.
But not the Angkor temples.
Virtuosity. The human capacity for perfection. We as people are obsessed with seeing, feeling, hearing and tasting the best accomplishments of mankind. It's one of the main pulls on us to look elsewhere from our home bases to find something better or different than what we know. Child prodigies in music, gorgeous cathedrals in Italy, or practiced chefs that write the book on their specialty, we know how to measure the rest in a genre if we know what to compare it with. And when one dips their senses into an ambiance orchestrated by many virtuosos simultaneously, enlightenment is almost within reach.
"Fly on little wing." Jimi sang my favorite melody through the buds in my ears, as I placed my bottom atop a mound of elephant-lain stones. Pulling out my journal, I jotted the things that elevated my spirits to the status of "inspired."
Some time in the early 1000s, the people in this part of the world wrangled wild elephants into hauling massive chunks of the Earth's crust together and chiseled their mark with great cultural and artistic pride, displaying a skill level hardly matched one thousand years later. The expanse is vast; the design incredible. Even the bite of the slow "cattle herd" atmosphere isn't strong enough to deter from Angkor Wat's isolated magnitude.
I was in the presence of greatness, evident by sight and the tactile touch of its elephant skin-like surface. The dampening rain or the dew-filled air revealed colors reminiscent of a riverbed cross-section: murky olive greens, smears of light rust, cold tint-less gray, thin browns and streaked tan. The stones were earth-toned rainbows, and between the stone corridors and colonnades wove the solemn monks, decorating the steaming enterprise like half-melted popsicles.
Like mountains, these elaborate religious complexes take what mankind and Mother Nature dish out, and they come out more resilient on the other end. I saw the main temple of Angkor Wat as having a face, one so wrinkled, jaded and too old to even roll its eyes at the shutter-happy, grouping tourists in matching hats.
And when all the tourists got in close to squint and contemplate a bundle of Angkor-inspired questions, I thought to myself, "Are we all trying to look like we discern what we see?" Have we all read the history and the books on ancient architecture? Have we all decided to pretend like we look amused, even though the humidity is directing us to take the obligatory shots and evacuate ASAP? There's a reason we all trek out into the personally unknown to see for ourselves the things of this physical world.
Why do I do it? Understanding others and the path of humanity helps me understand myself and the next inch of my path. Some times I'm barely aware of where I am, but one look sends my internal thoughts a-spinning.
Those who were able to delight in the wonders of Cambodia while on Semester at Sea all brought home a t-shirt from the roads of Angkor that I envied. I left my earbuds in, sunk my hands in my pockets, and moseyed the stretch of vendors outside Angkor Wat to peruse their goods in search of such a find. One woman sitting in a lone chair called out to me saying she liked my style, maybe not so much my clothing choices but my nature as I strolled the local "strip mall," and we began chatting. I told her friend I wanted to buy some t-shirts in bulk for a good price and proceeded to get 8 shirts for roughly $10, while showing off our grins to each other and enjoying the game of the haggle. I had a little posse of women in my periphery all there to giggle at something or offer their own brand of souvenir. I took one up on a sweaty bottle of water and walked away content with all my purchases.
The relentless saleschildren tried to coax me into other painting stands, but only one man summoned real appreciation and praise. I found a guy that not only took his art seriously but was selling the work of his master, both artists finally breaking the molds of the mass-produced Angkor artwork. With all the cash I had left, I invested in the master and had the piece quickly rolled for transport to avoid the heavy showers that soon lacquered my hair to my face.
Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and a jungle filled with rock piles; I wandered like I was a very damp Lara Croft in the very structures that inspired the movie's plotline and destination. I stepped from stone to stone to the grand pathway in front of a monkey temple and time traveled to the moments when the buildings' grandeur was at their pinnacle.
While my toes baked in my cracking flip-flops, I was mesmerized by the ringing I couldn't place. Looking around for a row of monks with little clinking bells, I thought I was a little bit crazy for hearing things so foreign in the middle of nature. After asking my driver, busy chowing at his favorite open air restaurant, what they were, he enlightened me by spelling out the word he had trouble pronouncing, "C-I-C-A-D-A-S."
I joined my driver for lunch of Khmer soup at the restaurant/trivia zone for the wandering saleskids. "What is the capital of Madagascar? Do you know the population of your own country? If I know, then you buy something from me!" Many of us were made fools of based on the knowledge we lacked in our own world geography and by children who were skipping school in order to profit from these impromptu quizzes. I sat in the back, very torn by how I felt about these kids and their daily routine, hoping this wasn't evidence of their necessity-imposed priorities but that they just didn't have school in the afternoons.
When my stomach churned, letting me know it would soon be quite aggravated, I climbed on top of a pile that marked the site of a dilapidated temple and sat for one last experience before I bid the jungle farewell. It was atop this mound that I finally could form the descriptions I was feeling of a place so enlightened. I began to sing under my breath the song I paired with this leg of the journey in a video: Lauryn Hill's "Miseducation". The cicadas provided the starting note fittingly in the key of "C".
The driver and I burned diesel as we flew out of the jungle. He offered me the name of his brother in Phnom Penh if I ever needed a ride anywhere, and I thanked him for the comfort he provided every time I turned to the parked taxis in search of my kind chauffeur and saw his easy smile.
That was all I wanted to see. That's the only other thing I wanted to do in this country besides hang out with some kids. I booked a bus for the next morning, recovered in my room and took to an empty Thai restaurant for some grade A service and tasty fare. The boys served every glass or dish with an outstretched right hand and a gesture of respect with the left, presenting me with two extra treats I didn't even order in the name of hospitality. When a personal fan materialized to waft a calming breeze in my direction, my mind solidified, "Siem Reap is stellar, clean and homey, from the initial breath to the ride out of town."