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Travel Guide

Markets and Octopus in Galicia

by Elena on March 8, 2010

There are many images and smells in Galicia that bring me back to my summers in Spain as a child.  The little things that people see, smell, hear, and taste which combined you can’t find anywhere else.  Things like the bunches of chorizos hanging from the ceiling of our pantry or tossed on the side of a truck ready to sell to people shopping the local market.  The smell of octopus boiling in large pots, hardening and softening in the burgundy stained water before the vendor pulls one out with a hook.  The loud bellow of the delivery man’s horn when he drives thro  ugh town each morning to deliver everyone their bread.  Even the white powder of the salted cod that needs to soak in water until the salt that once preserved this big fish slowly seeps out so it‘s suitable to eat.  These are the things I remember well, the little things that continue each day, when I leave, when I return, and when I leave again.
This past week was the feria do pulpo, and people come around with the same purpose, to buy and eat octopus.  Although in the rainy winter when the surrounding towns lack people and the desire to leave ones home, there isn’t much ambiente a very important quality that adds people, movement, and life (vida).  This day there were mostly men with salt and pepper hair just above their ears and nowhere else that came to eat pulpo at the local bar with their friends.  They talk sports I imagine or something else like their pesky wives, their wine, and the reminiscences of stories when their bodies allowed them much more than mere talk about  past adventures.
The pulpeiro let us try the pulpo and it was soft and flavorful having lost all the toughness that it had before cooking.  Once cut with sharp scissors you drizzle olive oil on top of the pulpo and then sprinkle some Spanish paprika and rock salt and it’s ready to eat.

There are many images and smells in Galicia that bring me back to my summers in Spain as a child.  The little things that people see, smell, hear, and taste which combined you can’t find anywhere else.  Things like the bunches of chorizos hanging from the ceiling of our pantry or tossed on the side of a truck ready to sell to people shopping the local market.  The smell of octopus boiling in large pots, hardening and softening in the burgundy stained water before the vendor pulls one out with a hook.  The loud bellow of the delivery man’s horn when he drives thro  ugh town each morning to deliver everyone their bread.  Even the white powder of the salted cod that needs to soak in water until the salt that once preserved this big fish slowly seeps out so it‘s suitable to eat.  Chorizos in Galicia Spain

Bacalao Salted Cod in Galicia SpainThese are the things I remember well, the little things that continue each day, when I leave, when I return, and when I leave again.

Pulpo Octopus in Galicia Spain

This past week was the feria do pulpo, and people come around with the same purpose, to buy and eat octopus.  Although in the rainy winter when the surrounding towns lack people and the desire to leave ones home, there isn’t much ambiente a very important quality that adds people, movement, and life (vida).  This day there were mostly men with salt and pepper hair just above their ears and nowhere else that came to eat pulpo at the local bar with their friends.  They talk sports I imagine or something else like their pesky wives, their wine, and the reminiscences of stories when their bodies allowed them much more than mere talk about  past adventures.

Pulpo Octopus in Galicia SpainPulpo Octopus in Galicia Spain

The pulpeiro let us try the pulpo and it was soft and flavorful having lost all the toughness that it had before cooking.  Once cut with sharp scissors you drizzle olive oil on top of the pulpo and then sprinkle some Spanish paprika and rock salt and it’s ready to eat.

Pulpo Octopus in Galicia SpainPulpo a la Gallega

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Salar de Uyuni Guide

by Elena on February 25, 2010

Nothing like a huge, salt desert high up in the mountains of Bolivia to remind you just how cold it can get.  The expanse of white looks like a huge field of snow, and in the middle of the night it might as well be.  It is cold.  You have been warned.Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

We booked our tour of the Salar de Uyuni in La Paz, and were assured by a stealthy travel agent that we wouldn’t come across any problems.  We hopped on an overnight bus to Uyuni, expecting to arrive the following morning.  The kiosk in the bus terminal printed clearly: Uyuni?  Apparently the bus company thought it was questionable as to whether or not we would arrive, an omen perhaps of what was to come.

UyuniThe bus had no heating and all night long, freezing air leaked in to where we were seated.  Ice began to form on the inside of the glass and we tried to snuggle together, under every bit of clothing that we had in our backpacks.  We arrived in Uyuni hours earlier than expected, in the middle of the night, and without a helpful guide to greet us.  We made our way to the nearest hostel and slept in our jackets and shoes until we were able to feel our toes again.  Just a couple hours later the sun came out and the memories of the cold, white night seemed almost fake.  They say that a mirage in the desert can trick the eye and it made me wonder about deserts made of salt and perhaps a mystical force that can inflict pain.  As it turns out, the most difficult part of our trip was actually getting to Uyuni.  Now we were armed with lots of warm clothing and jackets (no longer tucked away at the bottom of a bus).

We joined our tour group, one Canadian, one Australian and two Argentinians, who would be our companions for the next couple of days.  Like all other groups touring the Salt Flats, we would be traveling around in SUV’s capable of maneuvering the tricky terrain.  It really made my cynical mind wonder about the possibility of Jeep endorsements, with all the Jeeps cruising around like a real life Jeep commercial, but I digress.

Our first stop was a train cemetery, created after the mining industry collapsed and industrialists left abandoned trains on the outskirts of the Uyuni Salt Flat.  Turns out the abandoned railroad is part of the tourist attraction, a somewhat eerie reminder of the past and how quickly something that used to be so powerful can end up rusting under the Bolivian sun.Salar de Uyuni - Abandoned Railroad

The Salar of Uyuni is 10,500 square kilometers, large enough to be viewed from space, and to impress even the most jaded eyes.  During the dry season, you can stand on packed salt, formed on top of a mixture of brine.  The salt flat used to be a large lake that slowly filled up with sediment because of the lack of any drainage outlets.  Legend tells a slightly more interesting story that the salt flat was formed because of the giant people living in the mountains, more specifically the tears and breast milk of a woman grieving over her fleeing and unfaithful husband.Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

The feeling of standing in the middle of such a huge, natural wonder can you make you feel insignificant in comparison, but that feeling of inadequacy doesn’t last long.  Not when there are funny pictures to take!  Just like the obligatory picture of pushing up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, tourists must take advantage of photographic tricks like this one:Salar de Uyuni Bolivia 13

The next stop on our tour was a place called Fish Island, an island of rock and cacti, where we stopped to explore and eat our lunch.  Some of the cacti on this island are well over 1,200 years old and gigantic, almost triple the size of my 5’2 height.  The highlight of this stop was the chance to see the salt flat from higher ground, seeing as you can’t really tell the shape of the fish while you are standing on it.Salar de Uyuni - Fish Island

After Fish Island, we drove through the salt flat for hours, stopping ever so often to take pictures and to admire the ripples in the salt.Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Day one included the train graveyard, the salt flat, and Fish Island.  We stayed at a hostel (not the salt hotel) in the salt flat, made friends with other land cruising tour groups, had a few beers and watched the sun set and rise.  One of the members of our group, from a country that shall remain nameless *cough* Argentina *cough* experienced one of the side effects of high altitude, a pretty nasty hangover.  The next day we explored the Altiplano.

For the full photo album of the Salar de Uyuni, check out the photography page.

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Free Museums In New York City

by Elena on February 18, 2010

MoMA Museums in New York CityNew York City is a mecca of culture, art, music, and society, where you can brush elbows with artists and creatives in one of the many museums, theaters, or galleries that the city has to offer.  Unfortunately for many however, New York City is also a mecca for those paying high rent, a high cost of living, and just getting over an economic depression.  It isn’t always so easy to experience culture without the cash, which is why smart New Yorkers and travelers alike take advantage of FREE NYC.  As a student living in NYC, I used to get into quite a bit of museums for free merely by showing my student ID, but you don’t have to be a student to enjoy the benefits of free culture.  In fact most museums in NYC have a night when one can visit and pay absolutely nothing to enter.  There are also quite a few lesser known museums that are free to enter at any time.  Take a look at the compiled list below to find out when you should visit each museum.

MoMA | Museum of Modern Art

Admission to the MoMA is free for all visitors on Target Free Friday Nights.  Every Friday evening from 4pm to 8pm.  The museum also offers what they call MoMA Nights.  Every first Thursday of every month, the MoMA stays open until 8:45pm.  Although you do have to pay admission, you can enjoy free gallery talks and music.  There is also a cash bar and a pre fixe dinner on this night.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Although the Metropolitan Museum of Art lists entrance fees, if you pay closer attention you will see that these fees are suggested.  If you want you can enter without paying anything, although I have gotten a few dirty looks from the employees until I show them my old student ID with an extended expiration date.  Don’t be guilted into paying if you don’t have the cash, but if you do you can donate if you wish.

Guggenheim New York

The Guggenheim offers a pay-what-you-wish program on Saturday evenings from 5:45-7:45 pm.  The program means exactly what it says, pay what you wish, which means free!  Check out the Guggenheim’s calendar of events.  Sometimes they offer programs and events that are free for students.

American Museum of Natural History

At the American Museum of Natural History there is a suggested donation of $15, but we all know what suggested means.  If you want to see the show at the planetarium you will need to pay the full price of admission.  The museum also hosts the party One Step Beyond once a month (every second Friday) inside the Rose Center for Earth and Space with the Planetarium looming overhead.  The entrance fee is $20 in advance but you can use the ticket as free admission to the Planetarium space show.

New Museum of Contemporary Art

The New Museum offers Target Free Admission for youth everyday of the week, so if you are 18 years or younger, you get to enter for free.  General admission is $12 and student admission is $8.

American Folk Art Museum

Every Friday after 5:30 until 7:30 pm admission to the American Folk Art Museum is free for visitors.  Not only is the museum free, but there is live music, as well as your choice of food and drink provided at the cafe (which you have to pay for).

Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney has a pay-what-you-wish admission on Friday nights from 6-9 pm.

Museum of the City of New York

The Museum of the City of New York has a suggested donation of $10.  If you live in the neighborhood all you have to do is say “I’m a neighbor” at the entrance, and they will let you in for free.

MoMA Museums in New York City

Here is a list of museums that are free every day:

Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology
The Hispanic Society of America
National Museum of the American Indian
Carnegie Hall/Rose Museum
Dahesh Museum
The Drawing Center
Artists Space
Goethe House German Cultural Center
The Municipal Art Society

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Granada and The Tales of the Alhambra

by Elena on January 14, 2010

Alhambra Granada SpainWhat does it take to be first online to get into the Alhambra?  If you avoid the reasonable route of getting your tickets in advance, like other more responsible travelers, then you will have to wait in line, a really really long line.

After a couple days in Seville we made our way to Granada with a vague plan of interest and no guidebooks.  The heat of summer in the Spanish south had sucked out all of our energy, and a small part of us had no desire but to sit around drinking freshly squeezed orange juice under one of the makeshift sun blockers in the streets of Seville.  Needless to say we were not prepared for our excursion to the Alhambra.  We arrived, somewhat brazenly, to the entrance of the palace shortly after 8am.  The line was impressive, so long and winding we couldn’t see the unlucky chaps at the end of it all.  Even they were luckier than we were.  We were not getting in that day.  Our only other choice was to arrive unreasonably early the next day and wait in line.  Although many people assured us that we need only arrive a couple hours before the ticket booth opened at 8am, my cousin wanted to be one of the first people on line, hence arriving so early you might as well take a sleeping bag.  At first I felt guilty that he was ‘taking one for the team’ and going to stand in line to ensure our entrance into one of the most remarkable sights in the world just about when I was entering my REM cycle, but then the clock started buzzing at 3am.  You try waking up at 3am with jet lag, travel fatigue, and a sudden bout of I’m not a morning person.  He left the hostel sometime after 2am and was behind only two other groups, a group of hippie Spaniards who had slept at the entrance overnight and a friendly Moroccan family who offered him some coffee brewed from homegrown coffee beans.

The Alhambra is definitely worth the wait.  We were able to enjoy the benefit of entering early, as well as an early entrance time into the Nasrid Palace.  The gardens are better enjoyed if you visit them in the afternoon.  The sun can be brutal, but the flowers look their best under the sun’s rays.  Alhambra means red fortress, and it certainly looks like a fortress when viewed from lookout point San Nicolas.  You would think that this fortress would be filled with medieval Christian architecture rather than its distinctly arabesque designs.  Originally an Islamic palace, it eventually fell into the hands of the Christian kings after the fall of the Islamic Empire in Spain.

The Alhambra is big but you can easily see everything in one day.  The following are the major sites that you mustn’t miss.

Palacio Nazaries (Nasrid Palace)
The Nasrid Palace is one of the most elaborate and recognizable Islamic structures in all of Europe.  It is known for the intricate stucco work, painted tile walls, and extensive courtyards.  The palaces inside the Alhambra were erected for the Muslim sultans of Granada.  In this palace you can walk though ceremony rooms, courtyards, private residences, and offices.  As well as the time slot they give you to enter the Alhambra, you will also have a time slot for entering the Palacio Nazaries. Once you get inside you don’t have to worry about time for the rest of your visit.

Alhambra Granada Spain 2The Court of Myrtles is an iconic image of the Alhambra and the Nasrid Palace.  The Moors loved incorporating patios into their architecture.  There are many theories as to what this particular court was used for.  Some say that the sultan’s harem were kept upstairs behind the windows with wooden screens, after all, it isn’t appropriate for the sultan’s harem to be seen by other men.  Others simply believe that the upstairs was used during the cooler winter months and the outdoor courtyard was used in the summer.

Alhambra in Granada SpainThere are twelve lions around a fountain in the Court of Lions.  The twelve lions were a gift from a prominent Jewish leader at the time.  Granada had an extensive Jewish population, and a rich history of Christians, Muslims, and Jews living together, sometimes not in harmony.  As for the significance of the twelve lions, historians aren’t certain, but they probably represent the 12 tribes of Israel.  The lions were later turned into a clock that spouted water out of a different lion’s mouth according to the time of day.  The clock no longer works after the Christian conquerors took it apart to see how it worked.  Unfortunately, on my most recent visit to the Alhambra, the lions were taken away to be restored.  The good news is that they are coming back soon, sometime in 2010.

Court of Lions Alhambra in Granada SpainAlhambra Granada Spain 3Washington Irving penned his legendary story, Tales of the Alhambra, from within the Alhambra’s very walls.  Irving’s work helped introduce western audiences to the treasures of the Alhambra.

Washington Irvings Room in Alhambra Granada SpainAlcazaba
The Alcazaba is the fort of the Alhambra.  Alhambra itself means fortress, making the Alcazaba the original Alhambra.  It is the oldest and hence the most ruined of structures.  This fort was used to defend the small town within the Alhambra wall.  If you climb the high structures you will get amazing views of the Sierra Nevada, the city of Granada, and the Albazin.

Alcazaba at the Alhambra in Granada SpainGeneralife Gardens
The Generalife Gardens are a short walk away on the opposite side of the grounds.  If you have time to kill before your assigned entrance into the Nasrid Palace, you should make your way to these gardens and Generalife Palace.Generalife Gardens at the Alhambra in Granada SpainThese gardens were planted in an overzealous effort to create a paradise on earth.  The flowers, shrubbery, and fountains are all said to have kept their Moorish character.  Fruits and vegetables were also grown for the inhabitants of the palaces.  The sultan is said to have enjoyed the Generalife Palace during the summer, when he could roam around the gardens and enjoys its fruits and flowers.Generalife Gardens Alhambra in Granada Spain FlowersEl Partal is right at the entrance of the Generalife Gardens.  Here you will find another large courtyard with a pond.  I imagine these ponds help keep the area cool during the hot summer months.  They seem to do the trick.

El Partal in Alhambra in Granada SpainCharles V’s Palace
The Alhambra wasn’t always under Islamic rule.  Muslim Spain slowly came to an end, and Granada eventually fell from Islamic rule in 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella took over Granada and the surrounding areas.  When the Christians came into the power, they built their own structures, as conquering parties often do, within the Alhambra walls.  Charles V constructed this palace with the money from the taxed Muslim population, another way of exerting Christian authority, and rubbing some salt on their wounds.

Alhambra Granada Spain Palace of Charles

Alhambra Granada Spain Palace of Charles V

Buying Tickets For the Alhambra

  • The best choice is to buy your tickets ahead of time on www.alhambra-tickets.es.  Buying ahead of time will ensure that you won’t have to wait long on the line or risk not getting in at all.
  • You could always wait in line like we did.  This of course means that you will be up inconceivably early during high season and reasonably early during low season.
  • Book with your hotel or hostel.  Sometimes hotels put aside tickets for their guests.
  • Pay for a tour.  This of course is the more expensive option, but if you have no other choice it could be well worth it.  Go to a local travel agency or hotel and see what tours are available.

When you buy a ticket, you are given an appointment time when you can enter the Alhambra and Nasrid palace.  This prevents overcrowding.  Make sure to arrive an hour before your assigned appointment to enter the Alhambra because you will most likely be waiting awhile on line (even if you bought your ticket ahead of time).

The floors of the Palace of Charles V are rather slippery.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Alhambra Granada Spain Palace of Charles V 2

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Coca Museum In La Paz Bolivia

by Elena on December 30, 2009

Coca Museum in La Paz BoliviaWhile in La Paz, Bolivia I was looking forward to seeing this small unusual museum, especially after a bout of altitude sickness in Peru that had me chewing on coca leaves for days.  The museum is on calle Linares, and lucky for us it was down the block from our hostel.  Like many shops and restaurants in La Paz, the museum is located inside an alcove hidden in between buildings and back alleys.  It is on the second floor of what looks like a residential home.  Upon arrival, we were greeted by a man who looked confused to see visitors who were so uncharacteristically on time for the opening of the museum.  He turned on the lights and opened its doors for us.  After his brief statement about the museum, he offered us some coca leaves which visitors are free to chew on during their visit.  The museum consists of one large room with many displays covered in pictures and text, as well as a  few small artifacts.  There may not be much in comparison to other more elaborate museums, but they certainly are not as provocative.  The information dedicated to this small leaf, is hard to find anywhere else.

Coca Museum in La Paz Bolivia 4The coca leaf is a very important part of Andean culture, and the plant was seen as sacred by the Incas.  It is believed that people in the Andes have used coca leaves since 2500BC after traces of the leaf were found in mummified bodies in the ruins of Northern Peru.  The oil of the plant was used to remove tumors and prevent the body from physical discomfort.  Today many people continue to use the plant, in particular those who live in the highlands.  While traveling around the Andes we saw many people chewing on these leaves which are said to relieve altitude sickness.  The coca leaf stimulates the respiratory centers, allowing more oxygen to absorb in your body, especially helpful for those of us who aren’t born with the larger lung capacity of people who live in high altitudes.  It is also believed that the leaf regulates metabolism of glucose and contains nutritious qualities similar to quinoa and wheat.Coca Leaves

During colonization, the Catholic Church first banned the use of this leaf but later recognized its medicinal purposes.  This sudden change of heart most likely had more to do with the increase productivity of the native workforce that chewed the leaf rather than concern for people’s health.   The curator of the museum explained how the colonists abused workers by relying on the plants increased productivity, as well as lowered appetite.

Fast forward hundreds of years and you get to 1863, the beginning of the legal cocaine boom.  The coca leaf is made up of various alkaloids, one of which we know as cocaine.  Cocaine is made when you extract the alkaloid from the coca leaf.  The trade of cocaine first started after chemists visited the region and saw the popularity of the coca leaf among people that live in high altitudes.  The first purpose of cocaine was of course medicinal, but it soon became used for other forms of entertainment.

A French chemist name Angelo Mariani used coca leaves from Peru to make his wine vin Mariani.  It was essentially cocawine and contained about 6mg of cocaine per ounce of wine.  The ethanol in the wine helped extract the cocaine from the coca leaves.  Another pharmacist by the name of John Pemberton also included coca leaves in the drink he created, which later helped create one of the most successful companies in history.  Coca-Cola’s original purpose was not as a soft drink, but rather medicine that relieved exhaustion and headaches.  The original recipe of Coca-Cola did have traces of cocaine (9mg per ounce), but they changed its recipe around 1903 when people began to worry about the effect of the drug.  Some say the drink didn’t become completely cocaine free until 1929.  Coca-Cola became wildly popular around the time of prohibition, when Americans were forbidden to drink alcohol.  Today Coca-Cola continues to use coca leaves that have been “spent,” meaning they no longer have traces of cocaine.  Their manufacturing plant imports the coca leaf to the US, but don’t try doing the same.  Don’t even think about bringing back coca leaf tea, if you live in the US, unless you want to spend some time with airport security.  The Stephen Company manufacturing plant, is only company allowed to import coca leaves of any kind, so drink up all your coca tea in Bolivia.

Coca Cola and Mariani WineThe Coca Museum was created by doctors, sociologists, anthropologists, and various institutions in order to create awareness about the coca leaf and its derivative cocaine.  Drug use in Bolivia has only increased in high numbers since preventative drug laws were enacted, however the coca leaf is not considered a drug, in essence it isn’t much different than the popular stimulant in the US, a cup of jo.  The curator of the Coca Museum made it very clear that the coca leaf is not cocaine (which needs to be created in a lab), but rather a natural remedy and tradition that has lasted for many years.

Coca Museum in La Paz Bolivia 2This guy doesn’t look so good.  Reminds me of the Bolivian version of the D.A.R.E. program.  Just say no to drugs or you’ll end up looking like this guy.

Image of Coca-Cola and Mariani Wine via: Coca Museum and Wiki.

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New JerseyBeing from New Jersey I have heard the brunt of many Jersey jokes.  I know what it feels like to sit behind big hair at the movies, to watch a cashier count my change with her the long finger nails sticking between the bills.  I can recognize the distinguished nasal accent the second I hear it, and I’ve seen girls walk down the street without the slightest movement of their hair, held oh so carefully with an entire bottle of hair gel.  I used to work with a girl who filled the ladies bathroom with the fumes from her Aquanet bottle everyday, so yes I know the stereotypes.  Industry rules.  Down I95 factories pump out streams of smoke swirling around like a strange Rorschach test in the sky.  As if my home state didn’t have it hard enough, the MTV ‘reality’ show The Jersey Shore has thrown more gasoline to the fire of Jersey insults.

Granted the success of these shows are all based upon stereotypes.  I don’t judge Los Angeles by the fake tans, fake breasts, and lip enhanced women on reality television, ok maybe I do just a little, but I certainly can’t make broad assumptions about the city as a whole, much less the whole state.  We all have our own prejudices that affect our opinions about the places we visit, but by being completely ruled by these assumptions, we miss out on a lot of the good stuff.

What most people forget is that New Jersey is the “Garden State,” and to all those distant snickers, I am dutifully ignoring you.  While industry has been an important part of our economy for many years, there are many beautiful parts of New Jersey.  Believe it or not there are farms in NJ, quite a bit actually.  If picking your own fruits and vegetables strikes your fancy, you can do so at multiple locations.  Farmers’ markets are all over the state and you can check on the Department of Agriculture website to find one close to your home.  Chances are some of the produce found in your supermarket and restaurants is from a nearby farm, especially if you’re buying tomatoes, blueberries, apples, beans, broccoli, corn, and the list goes on.  When I lived in Montreal, I would shop at the local farmer’s market and I was surprised to see Jersey tomatoes and berries so far north.  I have gone to farms in NJ since I was a little girl, where children could ride hayrides, go apple, peach, and pumpkin picking, drink apple cider, and pick out homemade pies.  Maybe I’ve belabored my point, but allow me to reiterate; we aren’t all sludging around in grime and hair gel.

As one of my family members said about the comments people were making about NJ and The Jersey Shore show.  “Let people think NJ is like that.  Save the nice beaches for ourselves.”  And it’s not merely the beaches but also the trails, the mountains, the small towns, the multicultural cities, the good food.

That is the thing with New Jersey.  People don’t go to places because there was a rave review in a prominent publication like the New York Times, although that is quickly changing.  People go to restaurants because of word of mouth, because the food is great, their friends go, it’s been open for years, they know the owner, and the service is friendly and generous with their drinks.  I’m not referring to the chains I love to hate and hate to love.  Yes those are popular too, and while they aren’t as ‘authentic’ as the small Italian eatery in my town, sometimes you just want to choose between 25 different kinds of cheesecake.

I challenge anyone to find a better quality steak or rodizio than in Newark NJ, and if you find one, I’ll be first on line.  If you want a great meal, go where the immigrants are; the Brazilians know their meat and they live in Newark.  If you want gargantuan portions of Spanish food, Newark is also the place.  The cost is reasonable and the food is damn good.  More “modern” eateries are popping up as well.  Modern Spanish dining, or as I like to call it shi-shi,  can be more expensive, with smaller portions and sauces drizzled onto nice designs on your plate, still delicious and following in the footsteps of Nouveau Spanish cuisine all over the world.  If you want Mexican food, Mi Pequeno Mexico on Ferry Street is by far the most authentic Mexican food I’ve tasted since wandering around Mexico City.  That’s a place worth returning to.

Call me biased.  I absolutely am.  I love New Jersey.  I love that there are trees outside my window and that the GWB  is a 15 minute drive from my house.  In a perfect world with no traffic and endless parking, I can be walking around the MOMA or grabing a coffee from the Mudtruck in Astor Place in 30 minutes.  In New Jersey there are towns that still have bookstores, coffee shops, and vintage stores that have remained untouched by the hands of chain stores.  Go to Montclair, Englewood, Ridgewood, or Madison and you’ll feel like you stepped into a small town movie set.  If you need a discounted superstore you’re in luck.  Rest assured, no matter where you stand in New Jersey, you are within 20 minutes from a few malls.  Sometimes closer.

So yes some of the stereotypes may be true, but in a state where there are so many cultures and immigrants, it is impossible to stigmatize the whole population.  Go to little India on Newark Avenue in Jersey City and tell me if you are reminded of the folks on the MTV show.  Not likely.  Taste some chicken makhani or saag paneer and you will be back for more.

Say what you will about the industry, the hairspray, the housewives, or the Sopranos, this is the place I call home.  And to those who don’t want to get past the stereotypes to find the good stuff, it is fine by me.  Like my cousin said, more for us.

Image via: Nicholas_T

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Plateau and Latin Quarter Street Guide

by Elena on November 16, 2009

Since Montreal is a city that best suits the flâneur, you get the most out of this city when you walk around.  The plateau and the Latin Quarter in particular are neighborhoods best seen and experienced on foot.  There aren’t particular sites or ‘must sees’ but rather good food, cafes, shopping, basically a taste of everyday life.

Montreal Plateau Map 2Avenue du Mont-Royal
On Avenue du Mont Royal there are always people, whether they are grabbing some food, buying flowers at the local florist, or shopping in one of the many shops along the avenue.  For interesting clothes made out of recycled material go to Moly Kulte, a brand created by two Quebecois designers.  Food is plentiful, what with all the bistros and cafes around.  You can try Montreal’s famous bagels at St-Viateur Bagel one of the best known bagel shops.  The pastry shop Première Moisson is worth a visit just to taste their crème brûlée which is absolutely incredible, although I may be biased.  Also the macaron shop Point G is along this road.  My friends and I would always enjoy happy hour (cinq a sept) at Le Boudoir, a bar that is usually packed close to the weekend with people watching a hockey game, meeting friends or looking for an inexpensive beer and a relaxed atmosphere.

Rue Saint Denis
Saint Denis is one of the main roads in Montreal that cuts right through the Plateau neighborhood.  If you start at UQAM, the heart of the Latin Quarter and walk all the way to Avenue du Mont-Royal you will see a great deal.  Near UQAM there is Juliette et Chocolat, by far the best dessert place in Montreal.  So good in fact, a friend and I had thoughts of approaching the owner to ask her what her secret is.  She drove a Juliette et Chocolat car which would make the stalking fairly easy.  Just across the street from Juliette et Chocolat is Le Saint-Suplice, the biggest beer garden in the city.  In the summer, there is nothing better than spending a great deal of your sunday at Le Saint-Suplice, since beer gardens don’t exactly count as a bar there is no guilt for drinking most of the day.  A little further on Saint Denis, past Rue Sherbrooke, you no longer are in Latin Quarter, but rather the Plateau.  Renaud Bray is the largest French book chain in North America and is located on St-Denis between Rue Marie-Anne and Mont-Royal.

Rue Rachel
Rue Rachel runs perpendicular to Rue Saint Denis and has a very conveniently located bicycle route.  On the east side of Rue Rachel, close to Parc Lafontaine you can have your choice from many different types of poutine at the 24 hours La Banquise.  Right next door to La Banquise is a bar called La Quicaillerie which has long table perfect for a large party.  The best part of this bar is that you can bring in poutine from next door, very convenient after a happy hour.

Rue Saint Laurent
St- Laurent is what you might expect from a street in the middle of a hipster neighborhood.  The end of this street runs into Mile End, the up and coming trendy section of Montreal.  This street has many shops, clothing boutiques, yoga studios, and hair salons.  The famous smoked meats of Schwartz’s Charcuterie cause lines to spill out the deli door.  For the best burgers in the area go to Patati Patata on the corner of Saint Laurent and Rue Rachel.  You know the food is good if people are willing to wait to eat, before sitting in the cramped locale.  If you eat at the bar you can watch the cooks frantic pace as they flip burgers, collect orders, and charge customers all at the same time.  The proximity of St-Laurent to the various universities in the area, means that a lot of university students will be out at night.  Expect a young crowd at the various bars and lounges that line the street, such as Rouge on the corner of St-Laurent and Prince Arthur.

Rue Duluth
One of the very few cobblestone streets left in Montreal, this street cuts through various ethnic neighborhoods, or at least what is left.  Many of the immigrants may have moved to the suburbs but their restaurants and shops have remained.  Portuguese and Greek restaurants scatter this area, although the Portuguese are definitely more prominent.  On the corner of Duluth and St-Laurent there is the bistro Le Reservoir.  The food is good with unique spin on bistro favorites.  In warmer weather they open up the front windows as well as the upstairs terrace.  If you continue to walk a couple streets past St. Denis towards Parc La Fontaine, you will find the indulgent restaurant of Chef Martin Picard, Au Pied de Cochon.

Rue Prince Arthur
Prince Arthur is known for its policy of apporter votre vin (BYOB) however the restaurants on this strip are nothing to get excited home, except for the whole being able to bring your own wine.  The interesting part about this street is that from St-Laurent to Square St-Louis it is a pedestrian walkway.  In warm weather there usually are street performers and tons of people sitting outside the restaurants.  It is a pleasant place to walk around on your way to Square St-Louis which is very much worth a look, at least to see the architecture of the buildings surrounding the square.  My one suggestion would be Gelateria Pagliacci, located on the corner of Prince Arthur and Rue Bullion.  They make homemade gelato with fresh ingredients.  When I lived in the McGill Ghetto I was a frequent visitor to this shop.

Rue Laval
When you are at Square St-Louis you stroll up the nearby Rue Laval.  This is a purely residential street, however it is one of the prettiest in Montreal.  The houses are typical Montreal architecture with protruding stairs on the outside.

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People in Quebec speak French, however they don’t speak as the French do.  The accent, the words, the expressions are all greatly different than the Francophones overseas.  Admitedly the accent took awhile to get used to.  Quebecois tend to speak quickly with a more nasal quality to their sounds, versus the French who seems to always be pushing words out to the front of their mouth were they will stay.  The Quebecois also love to contract words, not helpful for those who can’t catch on to such subtleties.
Who are the Quebecois?

Who are the Quebecois?

Quebecois Expressions and Idiomatic Phrases

BonjourHi
Hello hi
Ok granted this isn’t a word, but if you’ve spent more than an afternoon in downtown Montreal, or more than 15 minutes in a department store, you will get the words BonjourHi spoken to you, so closely jumbled it’s as if it were one word.  This is a bilingual city afterall and most people, in particular those working in restaurants, stores, etc need to speak English and French.  Since there is not distinguishing factor on who is Anglophone or Franchophone, the bonjourhi serves to allow the person to answer in his or her stronger language.

Ta Blonde
My Blond
Calling someone your blond is not in anyway refering to their haircolor.  Any blonde jokes are not refering to a ditzy personality, or an aloof demeaner.  If you tell a blonde joke you better make sure your girlfriend isn’t nearby because you will be making fun of her.

Mon Chum
My bud
To make matters confusing, the word chum can refer to a boyfriend or a male friend.  Makes the ‘what are we’ conversations you have with your significant other a little harder to decipher.  Are we chums or are you my chum? I also find the traditional French word for boyfriend a bit strange as well.  If someone is your petit ami they literally are your little friend, otherwise known as your boyfriend.

Baise-moué l’ail
Kiss my garlic
Come on use your imagination.  Kiss my garlic…  Kiss my…  Don’t know how garlic became appropriate for such a term, but hey, to each his own.

Avoir mal aux cheveux
Have a hairache
If you ever woken up to a splitting headache caused by excessive amounts of alcohol.  We aren’t perfect afterall.  To be mal aux cheveux means you have one of the worst hangovers of your life.  It’s so bad naturally your hair hurts.

être tiguidou
It’s all good.  Everything’s peachy. Okey dokey.  Everything is fine.  All is well.  Everything’s in order.  A-ok.  I think you get the picture.

Lâche pas la patate!
Don’t let go of the potato.
Hmm this is an interesting one.  When someone says don’t let go of the potato they don’t want you to wimp out. In other words, don’t be a pansy.  Not really sure why you have to hold on to a potato to do so.  Maybe it has something to do with poutine?

Se laisser manger la laine sur le dos
To let eat the wool right off your back
If you let someone eat the shirt off your back, well then you’re a complete idiot.  Although not so sure the other guy is that smart either.

J’ai la langue à terre
I have my tongue on the floor
In Quebec if you have your tongue on the floor it means you are extremely tired or extremely hungry, which can be a little confusing since each time you say it, you will need to elaborate which one you mean.

Note on cursing in Quebec: Similar to other cultures, the Quebecois have appropriated seemingly ‘good’ words and turned around their meanings.  Religious terminolgy can be used to express discomfort, annoyance, or merely to tell someone off.  By turning these relgious words into something negative, the Quebecois made a statement against the church, who had a stronghold on French Canadians in the past.

Image via: laurent_gilot

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Day of the Dead

by Elena on November 3, 2009

Day of Dead SkullsWhile it may appear that celebrants of the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) are mocking the dead, with all the over the top colors, sugar skulls and dancing skeletons, but in reality the tradition is meant to honor those who have passed.  It isn’t a sad occasion, but rather playful, because displaying these caricatures of the dead, known as calaveras, lessen the fear and sadness of death.  Rather than feel sadness, participants celebrate and remember their loved ones by offering their favorite food and drink.  Check out these pictures of Day of the Dead celebrations from all over the world.

Day of the Dead SkeletonThis day coincides with the Catholic holiday All Saint’s Day on November 1st, the day after Halloween, however Dia de los Muertos lasts two days.  The Day of the Dead dates back to the pre-Hispanic era, when the Aztecs would honor the goddess of death.  The rituals have lasted and evolved with time, and the importance has remained.  The Catholic Church was at first vehemently against such a holiday, however realizing they couldn’t deter its following, they moved it to All Saints/Souls Day in hopes of amalgamating both traditions.  Throughout Mexico, and parts of the United States, the Day of the Dead is widely popular and a very important part of their culture.Day of the Dead food offeringsSugar skulls another important part of the ritual.  Usually you will see them with the name of the person deceased on the top of the skull.  These skulls are given as offerings and later eaten by friends and family.  It is an interesting dichotomy between the sweetness of life and sugar versus the sadness off death and skulls.  You can see these sugar skulls at every alter and Day of the Dead celebration.  Many people take the time to decorate them together, further cementing the importance of gathering as a family.

Mexican Sugar Skull is a site completely devoted to these sugar creations for Day of the Dead.  They have a step by step guide and recipe on how to make them yourself.  You can make them with egg white or meringue powder, depending on which recipe you choose.  A writer for the Baltimore Sun posted a slightly easier recipe to follow.  Not all of us have meringue powder lying around.

Sugar Skulls
Makes 50 small skulls

Ingredients
2 egg whites
1 tablespoons pure honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups granulated sugar

Sugar Skulls

The beauty of the celebrations are accentuated by the bright orange marigolds that are used to decorate the alters.  Local markets are colored orange and red with thousands of blossoms decorating the squares.  Known as the flower of the dead, the marigold was used by the Aztecs as offerings to the dead.  These flowers are said to attract the dead to the offerings.

Day of the Dead - Marigolds and Markets

Day of the Dead Marigolds and Makets 2

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Lares Trail

by Elena on October 27, 2009

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Many people remember the experience of trekking to Machu Picchu as a mystical encounter, a way of getting in touch with yourself and taking in the energy of the mountains.  Not being completely in tune with nature myself, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  What I did know was that this trek was something I had to experience, a check off my proverbial list of things to do before I die.

We chose the Lares Trail, mainly because the more popular Inca Trail was sold out.  If you want to reserve tickets for the Inca Trail you must do so way in advance.  There are restrictions that only allow 500 trekkers per day, including guides and trekking staff, therefore it is harder to reserve a spot.  The Lares Trail on the other hand, has less people walking around on any given day.  It gives a somewhat more private feel to your tour.  It is very rare that we passed another group on our trek.  It literally felt like we were the only people trekking about.  Another draw of the Lares Trail, one that many of the tourist agencies emphasize, is the fact that this trail  takes you through the rural communities.  It is the ‘off the beaten track’ trek so to speak, that allows you to have a bit of contact with the Quechua people.IMGP5127

Day 1
Your guides will pick you up very early so make sure to get a good night’s rest.  We visited the town of Calca, a small town on the way to Lares Village.  The drive through the Sacred Valley to the village takes about 3 hours from Cusco.  The first stop was to the hot springs, which were essentially small man-made pools of hot water.  After we dried off we drove to the beginning of the trail in and had lunch.  Afterward we started the 2 1/2 hour trek to our campsite.  Here is where we met a few campesinos and the most adorable children playing around in their backyard.

Day 2
This is the longest day of the trail.  It was an approximate 7 hour hike to Cancha Cancha.  We ended up staying at a closer campsite because our group got altitude sickness and was weary from the hours of walking.  The highest point of the trek is Pachacutec Pass at 4,450 m (roughly 14,600 feet).  At this point you will see the snow capped mountains up close and personal, and will most likely feel the harshest effect of altitude sickness.

Day 3
This a welcomed day of walking downhill.  With each hour the effects of altitude sickness started to wear off almost instantly.  The walk will take around 5 hours (longer if you are suffering sickness like we were).  The trail ends at the village of Huaran where we stopped to eat lunch.  Then we took a van to Ollantaytambo, where we had to catch a train to Aguas Calientes.  We spent the night in Aguas Calientes at a hotel.  The biggest difference between the Lares Trail and the Inca is that the Lares Trail doesn’t end up directly at Machu Picchu.  The Inca Trail is the only trail that actually ends at Machu Picchu.  That is the one negative  factor about Lares.  The high of hiking and conquering the altitude is somewhat diminished after staying a night in a hotel room.

Day 4
Machu Picchu!  Wake up early.  The first bus up to Machu Picchu leaves before dawn.  We lined up at 5am to make sure that we were first online.  It may be a sacrifice to wake up at such a early hour, but it is worth it to arrive before all the crowds.  Although even at 5am there will be a line forming and much more people following after.

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More helpful tips:
The high season for all trails is from June to August.  If you want to travel at these times you must book in advance.  The rainy season is from November to March.  Keep in mind that the climate in the Machu Picchu area is warm during the day and cold at night.  The rainy season is the coldest and the ground will be wet.  One good point of visiting during rainy season is that there will be less crowds and the clouds that give Machu Picchu and the surrounding area the mystic quality will be prevalent.

Altitude sickness afflicts many travelers who aren’t used to the heights.  While being physically fit may not completely protect you from the effects of altitude sickness, it is important to be certain that you are able to do what is physically required of you.  You will be hiking for many hours for a couple of days.  The Salkantay Trail is said to be one of the most difficult because of the constant ascending and descending in the mountains.

IMGP5002Lares Trail Photo Gallery

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