If you took Austin, shrunk it, surrounded it with lush greenery, put a snow-capped mountain in the backdrop, added convenient public transportation, added light rain, and threw in a beautiful beach just outside the city which required a scenic drive to get to, you’d get Portland. It had that laid-back weird eccentric vibe, much like Austin, but with more liberals and fewer gun-nuts.
The brunch scene is thriving there, as my Yelp search results can demonstrate. I did not get to try many spots (I am sure this would’ve been my daily Saturday morning routine if I lived there) but I did go to Pine State Biscuits, twice. Reggie Deluxe each time. Large, moist biscuits? Check. Lightly breaded fried chicken breast? Check. Fried egg? Check. Gravy? CHECK.
I didn’t get many pictures of downtown Portland. I did find their chrome animal statues on drinking fountains and benches to be charming. The downtown area is small and one could easily walk across town in 30 minutes. The food trucks in Portland surround parking lots instead of being in a parking lot. The trucks served mainly foreign foods from Asia, with the odd German wurst and Greek gyro truck. However, after making a few rounds, I didn’t find anything especially interesting or unique. I will stipulate that I did not visit all the food truck areas in and around Portland, just the one downtown.
Other sites visited: Japanese Garden, Lan Su Chinese Garden, The Grotto (“Catholic garden”), Powell Books (“book garden”). Gardens. Zen. Knowledge. Peace.
I’d say Portland is one of my top 5 favorite North American cities, joining New York City, Montreal, Austin, and San Francisco. I’d love to go back again for another visit. Now, if only the flights weren’t so long.
And who else has watched Portlandia? It’s a brilliant show that pokes (friendly) fun at some of the eccentric personalities that gravitate to Portland; feminists, hipsters, LGBT, environmentalists etc.
Underground pools of fresh, clear, cold water. Stalactites and stalagmites. Fish.
It’s quite another experience swimming in a cenote. It’s recommended during the hottest and sunniest hours of the day though, because the sunlight that penetrates the holes in the roof is the only element warming up the waters.
Cenotes come in all varieties. The famous Cenote Dos Ojos required us to strap on some life vests and waterproof torchlights and follow a guide deep into a cavern. Cenote Zaci (in the center of Valladolid) was like any other outdoor public pool. (Try not to have a vivid imagination of sea monsters as it’s wide and very deep in the center and you can’t see the bottom.) Cenote Samula and Xkeken are at the ends of steps that lead deep into the underground.
Overall, a very new experience for me, one that is truly unique to Mexico.
That’s what they’re calling “escamoles” or ant larvae. Cooked in a buttery sauce and priced the same as actual caviar (not that I would know), escamoles is a delicacy that one has to hunt around a little bit for around Mexico City. Or visit one of the restaurants listed on Lonely Planet.
At Los Girasoles, a fancy joint on Calle Tacuba near the Zocalo, I feasted on a plate of escamoles, chapulines (tiny fried grasshoppers), and gusanos (grubs). While the escamoles was delicious (butter makes everything delicious), the chapulines was crispy and sour, due to all the lime it’s soaked in. The gusanos, devoid of innards, was fried to an oil-soaked moist crisp. It’s funny how bugs are cheap streetfood in SE Asia but here, it was $25/plate. Yes, $25. By Mexican standards, that’s the cost of about 50 chicken taquitos I could buy from the local market.
Nonetheless, it was an interesting dining experience. I would take a fresh hot corn tortilla, spread some black bean paste and guacamole on it, then sprinkle the bugs onto my taco, wrap it up, and enjoy the various textures and flavors; a little crispy, a little chewy, a little creamy, a little salty, a little sour, a little spicy.
Frida Kahlo. She of the unibrow and colorful dresses. Although I recognized her name and have seen multiple pictures of her work, usually self-portraits complete with unibrow and colorful dresses, I never actually paid close attention to who she was and why she was such a big deal. They even made a movie about her, starring Salma Hayek.
A blue-walled museum dedicated to her located in the cozy neighborhood of Coyoacan opened my eyes. This museum was formerly the home of Kahlo’s and her husband, famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. I dislike large museums because I lose interest about an hour in and realize I only covered 25% of it. But the Frida Kahlo museum was just the perfect size. After all, it was a home, albeit a large one with plenty of rooms, halls, and a massive backyard, perfect for any creatives who need space, fresh air, and solitude.
So what’s the big deal about this museum visit and why am I writing about it?
I think it’s because I’ve always been interested in what makes people tick and this museum showed me what made this person tick. I walked past her self-portraits, smirking inside my head at how self-absorbed she was to focus on painting herself most times. (She was the original queen of selfies. No doubt that if she had lived through our age, her Instagram would be filled with plenty of selfies taken by her iPhone.)
But I started reading excerpts of her life story spread across the museum. The more I read, the more my perspective changed about her.
I did not realize she was disabled. She had polio as a child, causing one of her legs to shrivel. She had a bad accident at 18 which broke her body badly resulting in a lifetime of surgeries and also the inability to have a child within her loveless marriage to Rivera.
And she had to hide it all; the pain, the embarrassment, the hopelessness. She wore corsets designed to support her spine and hid everything behind her beautiful dresses which covered up her broken body. But one thing that stood out was her steely-eyed determination you saw from her self-portraits. Her spirit was not broken. Her whole life, she was supposed to be just another woman who would become a wife to a husband and bear kids and stay home. She was supposed to fit a stereotype. But she didn’t want to. She wanted to become someone. And life wanted to break her but she didn’t let it.
Took a while to get this crossed off the bucket list but it finally happened.
Went to San Marcos with a coworker and his buddy. Arrived 2 pm, geared up around 5, jumped out around 5:15 with my tandem instructor Chris and my videographer Yoshi.
Felt tiny bit of nerves prior to arrival but then again, doing any new activity is always like that. To be honest, I didn’t feel anything but excitement when I was on the plane and ready to get thrown off.
It all went by real quick and was a blur. Here’s the video of my jump:
I wanted to impress the locals with my rudimentary command of French but in the end, nobody had time to entertain a tourist. They just want to do their jobs and get on with life. Fair enough.
Unless I was planning on going out of the city, I don’t think knowing French is really needed. The Québécois are still Canadian and they need to know how to converse with their fellow Canadians from non-Quebec regions.
What’s there to do in Montreal and Quebec City (QC)? Walk around. Take the subways. Ride a bike everywhere. Eat.
I didn’t take many pics of Montreal itself. A subway looks like a subway. A row of shops looks like a row of shops. Nothing truly stood out as different. I’m not saying it wasn’t a great city; it had a great vibe and its own identity which leaned more toward young and hip. It’s worth a visit and in another life, I could even find myself living there.
Quebec City was a short 2.5 hour drive from Montreal and worth a night’s stay. More than that and it could feel long. Much of the interesting sights are concentrated in one tiny area in QC, the tourist district which includes everything below.
TIP: I would absolutely recommend that a visitor make reservations at ‘Restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens‘ for lunch and asking for the ‘table d’hote‘, which is the set lunch menu, to get a good feel of Quebecois cuisine, such as the meat pie below. You can see a screenshot of the restaurant’s menu HERE.
Also, according to locals, for the best poutine in QC, visit ‘Chez Ashton’, which is a fast food chain. Order the poutine only.
Up until this point, my blog has always been about my long-term trips (2010-2011 RTW and 2014 South America) but I plan on writing about places that I visited the last few years and really enjoyed but never got a chance to highlight. Forgive me as I write from memory.
Flashback to January 2013. I attended a meeting in Tampa and thought to myself that it would be nice to take a holiday somewhere in Florida. Browsing Googlemaps, I saw that the Caribbean was nearby, so I figured I’d check out a country there. I remember that most flights to the Bahamas was expensive and that I was surprised to find a $160 round trip (from Tampa) ticket to Puerto Rico. I figured it was because they are a territory of the USA and plenty of flights went to and from there.
When I finally arrived in the capital,San Juan, and got out of the airplane, I was hit instantly with its humidity. I had a rental car to pick up the next day but on the day I arrived, I had to find my way to Old San Juan where my hostel was. I had done a little research on buses that would take me close so I hopped onto a local one which I thought was correct. I was armed with rusty Spanish but I had taken some time to memorize key phrases (“Can you tell me when we arrive at …”). Luckily for me, some people in Puerto Rico speak English, especially the younger generation, so I wouldn’t be completely stuck assuming I got lost.
Long story short, I got off at the wrong stop, got lost, and a young English-speaking girl helped get me on the right bus and also told me when to get off.
In Old San Juan bus station, I still had to figure out where the hostel was. After some time staring at my Lonely Planet guide map and asking several taxi drivers chit-chatting, I find my hostel. It was a charming place called “Posada San Francisco”. After setting my bags down in the somewhat muggy 5-bed dorm room, I headed out to find dinner. I had a list of things I wanted to eat in Puerto Rico and top of the list was PORK. Puerto Rico is well-known for their lechoneras, which serve lechon, or roast suckling pig with delicious cracklin’ skin. The best lechoneras are to be found in Guavate, a 2 hour drive south of San Juan. I had planned on driving there in a few days.
I found a charming little restaurant that had a bar. Pina colada was supposedly invented in Puerto Rico and Bacardi rum is their biggest liquor export.
I ordered chuleta kan kan (fried pork chop) and a strawberry pina colada. The pork chop had too much fat on the sides but the mofongo (plantain mash) was fantastic. Although it was delicious, I couldn’t finish the pina colada.
On my second day, I spent my morning exploring Old San Juan and its coast. A statue of a dancing San Juan was the highlight. The famous old fortress or La Fortaleza was closed that morning but I wasn’t really into fortress-exploring mood. I had bigger fish to fry that morning. I checked out of my hostel, found the bus that would take me to the airport, and picked up my rental car. Renting a car is cheap in Puerto Rico and the preferred way to get around the country as everything is driving distance. I paid $20/day for a small compact Toyota Yaris.
I headed east toward Vieques where the legendary Bio-luminescent Bay, or Bio-Bay, is located. It took me about 1.5 hours to drive to the Fajardo ferry docks where I would park my car for $5 and keep it there for a night. Be wary; The ferry has strict departure times so you might want to check it out here and plan on arriving 30-45 mins early.
Vieques is a small island about 1.5 hours from Fajardo. Upon getting off, I found communal vans (publico) which takes people into the town. It’s a much cheaper option than taking a taxi solo because the fare is split between 10 people. Expect to pay $5 pp. There are several trucks running around the island that can take you anywhere. Expect to pay $10 for a trip anywhere.
After checking into my charming “hostel”, which really was a European guy’s home where he rented rooms out, I took a trip to the beach. The beaches are much smaller and relatively empty. Several tour companies take you on horse rides along the coast but for a hefty price, about $80 per person. A really cool thing about Vieques is that horses can be seen roaming freely everywhere. It’s quite a sight.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the highlight of my Puerto Rico trip, Bio-Bay. It was a night-time group expedition to the lake and I didn’t want to risk bringing a camera onto the canoes. The night was filled with mosquitoes (no surprise, as Bio-Bay is actually named Mosquito Bay). We walked in the mud as we dragged our canoes into the water. Then we paddled to the middle of Bio-Bay where a small boat was parked there, perhaps for the purpose of allowing people to climb it and jump into the lake.
Here’s a picture I borrowed of Bio-Bay:
What makes Bio-Bay special is that the water is filled with dinoflagelattes, micro-organisms which cause the water to glow eerily luminescent when there is movement in the water. The water was warm, the waters glowing, and the moon was out. I’ve never swam in the middle of a lake at night so it was exciting.
The next day, I boarded the ferry back to Fajardo. My schedule for the day was to drive to El Yunque National Forest and hike the trail to the waterfalls. I got to the falls, tried to swim in it but it had rained the day before so the current was extremely strong and I didn’t want to risk being washed downstream filled with massive rocks. Taking a selfie there was almost impossible due to water droplets clouding the front of my camera lens.
Next up, the other highlight of my trip; The drive to Guavate, home of many popular lechoneras. I first learned about these places from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. I decided to hit up one of the more famous ones, El Rancho Original (the other being Los Pinos). It was tricky to get there because the winding roads go through a forest and the roadsides are filled with many competing lechoneras. But you knew when you got to the main street. It was jam-packed with people. As lechoneras only open on the weekends, everyone comes at the same time to feast and party. I stood in line while I admired the beautiful roast pig sitting on the front display for everyone to see, as the employees carve juicy chunks off it. Don’t forget the sides, which there are plenty to choose from. As a bonus, there was a party going on next door and there was a live band playing and people of all ages were dancing their afternoons away.
Overall, Puerto Rico was a great place to stop for a few days. There were other cities to visit but I felt I hit the highlights that I really cared for (Bio-Bay and lechoneras) so I was more than happy to leave after that.
I never wrote about my time in LA. I had started an entry one time but found it hard to put my thoughts and reflections all together so I deleted the whole thing. I’m going to try again, but it’s going to be simple.
I don’t regret leaving my job, selling my house, packing what I could into my car, and driving off for 22 hours and 1400 miles to LA. It was a great experience and brought me new sights/smells/sounds. Living there for 4 months wasn’t always easy but I did take quite a few memories from it. And the characters, oh boy, the characters I lived with…
I lived in a very very small room (toilet attached but most of us shared a community shower outside. One person at a time though) and paid $650/month. You could pay the same amount for a 1b1b apartment in Texas. It was a dorm style housing area run by a Korean man. It used to be a Christian rehab center for drug addicts. Even then, there were those who still sold/bought drugs there. Anyway, I guess it got shut down and the place turned into a housing complex on busy Venice Blvd. It was in Koreatown but I suppose it shared the same space are Mexicotown.
The first day I got there, I was being shown around by the landlord and some drunk hispanic-looking guy came in and started a huge argument with the landlord, right in front of me, apparently over some broken furniture from the night before. The landlord decided that he had to stop lest a potential renter like me would be scared away.
Over the next few months, on top of job-searching (EE grad, with 3 years experience in the power/energy industry, looking for work in hardware design without any network contacts, does not help), visiting the beaches, eating the foods (oh, the local joints were great), seeing the sights, waking up at 4 am to watch soccer matches at Irish pubs, etc…I got to meet my “dorm” mates.
There’s the most normal guy, a nurse who used to be a doctor in the Phillippines. Nice guy, divorced, played tennis with him a few times.
The drunk guy earlier. He was an Indonesian-born chef who had a number of other various odd jobs previously. He’s an aggressive crazy drunk but when sober, he’s actually a very nice humble guy who liked to share all the food he brings back from the kitchen he works at. Apparently his uncle is a gangster. I could tell he was a bit lonely because he always was looking for a friend to drink/bowl/watch TV with.
The 19 year old kid who came from a juvenile home. He had talent for drawing perverted anime, which he was proud of. His ambition was to be a flash animator but he didn’t have the resources for it. He didn’t have internet, his computer was really ancient, he had no job or no cash. His room smelled terribly funky because he had old food laying around, he was generally a pretty messy guy but he didn’t care.I’d hear reports of food being stolen in the community fridge downstairs and his friends would be accused of it. I tried to become a friend to him, installed animation software and stuff on his PC to play with (I was lucky to have an internet port). One day, my neighbor came knocking on my door and said there was blood on the door of the kid with a note saying he didn’t care anymore for life etc. We tried knocking on his door and asking him to open it but no response. We got worried and called his juvenile home to ask them to send someone. Luckily, he eventually opened the door and he was ok, no wounds or anything. Apparently a cry for attention. But he was a pretty good guy, just dealt a lousy hand growing up.