Monday, December 21, 2009

Mmmm . . . cake.

This weekend was a snowy cold one, so it was mostly indoors. Friday's cheap event was the annual Lexington Handel's Messiah Sing-a-long. Going on for nearly 50 years, there were dozens of folk that had been coming for over a decade. Two ladies had been coming for over 40 years! No wonder it was the best chorus I've ever heard; these people were well-practiced.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Berlin for Beginners

From time to time I hear that a friend is going to one of my favorite destinations. My skills as the finder of all things good and cheap do extend out of this country. I am excited to help point them in the direction of the best, cheapest, and most inspiring things to take in in town. Let me know if you ever would like me to write a mini-guide for you. For Libby and Mary J, here's a Berlin Primer.

My first tip is to pack warmly! But you probably knew that, no?

First, stop by a hostel on the City Spy list to pick up a Mr. Gordonsky's City Spy Map. It's funny, useful and fits in your pocket. It was a valuable reference for me in many European cities. Do this right away!

Do you like art? Well, free museum day is Thursday. 4 hours before closing time everything is free. I think Pergamon Museum was my favorite--it had a giant Athenian temple. Most of the museums are on MuseumIinsel (Museum Island) so you can hit up most in the 4 hours.

I went through an WWII obsessive phase when I was younger, so Berlin to me was also the place of so many unbelievable stories from my youth. But Berlin made them all come alive. If you're into WWII, I highly recommend Checkpoint Charlie--one of the places where folks would cross between the East and West. Outside is often an American and German soldier (or actors, rather) and the museum is full of objects and stories of the people that tried to escape and resist. I read The Fall of Berlin 1945 right before I got there and I recommend the book to get you in the mood.

The East Germany Museum isn't free on Thursday, but is a new, well-done look at life under communism.

You must go to the Reichtag Building. This is Germany's parliment. It was in use until 1945 where it was one of the last stands of Hitler's Youth. Needless to say, the building was pretty bombed out. As soon as the Wall came down, Germans rebuilt the building and is now in use again as the parliment. Today Germans and tourists alike can tour the top of the building for free which now has a beautiful glass dome. You can look down on the desks of the representatives, symbolizing that Germans are now watching their government and will not let anything like the Third Reich happen again. Get there early as lines can be long. Buy some currywurst, a favorite Berlin snackfood to eat while you wait.

Only thing better than cheap is Free Tours! We took a free tour from a student--they work for tips and therefore, work hard. It was really wonderful and probably the most educational and entertaining thing I did on my whole trip.

Get your passport stamped in East Germany. Over where the hostel boat is, is the last longest stretch of the Berlin wall. Follow it down for a bit and you'll find a tacky gift shop, that will stamp your passport with the DDR (Democratic Deutschland Republic) mark. The boat also has a bar on it, which is quite swanky if you need refreshments.

Also nearby the hostel boat is the Friedrichshain & Kreuzberg districts, which are hip and up-and-coming. Filled with youth, artists and Turks there are beautiful city streets to get lost in and cheap restaurants abound with not a tourist in sight. For other hip neighborhoods and restaurants check out this great article in the New York Times about hidden dining spots.

Overall Berlin is just about as perfect combination as you can get. The city is easily navigable and cheap. It's a hot spot for radical politics and artists. This city is full of history and trying to remember it, so as not to repeat it. But at the same time it is trying to reinvent itself to leave all that nastiness behind. So double wrap that scarf around your neck, pick up your beer (I recommend the Heffeweissen mixed with banana juice, a Berliner favorite) and start exploring!

Be a Winner!

So your chance of getting in a car accident, plane accident or getting struck by lightening are better than winning the lottery. But your chances of winning travel and local contests? Very good!

This weekend I did the JP Holiday Stroll and collected 10 different stickers from local businesses to be entered in a raffle. It was either bad advertising or the cold rain, but each of the dozens entrants won. I think I got the best steal with a $50 Ten Tables gift certificate. On Thursday I'm going to a concert courtesy of Berklee School of Music.

So far I've won a 70 lb (and worth 70 British pounds) World Atlas, a book on Australian wine, pocket guides for Beijing and Madrid, and how-to books on surfing, snorkeling and skiing from DK Travel. I've won a USA tour book from Lonely Planet. Rick Steve's Travel as a Political Act, from Rick Steves. . . and more! Most contests require you do a bit of writing, like reviewing your favorite restaurant on DK Travel, or answering a survey for Lonely Planet. But nothing so difficult. Here's a few recommendations of places to try your luck:

  • Friends of Harpoon: You get nifty little card that gets you discounts at a few bars and shows, but you can also enter drawings to go to special tastings. I attended the wet hops beer unveiling there this fall with 50 other invited guests.

  • Berklee School of Music: Sign up for the newsletter and you get info on all the upcoming shows (sometimes free), but they have contests to win tickets. This Thursday I'll be attending a Mark O'Connor concert for free!
  • Another newsletter with good stories, and a contest every month to win a stay at a hostel. (Suppose you still have to get to the hostel, usually located in Europe, somehow.)
  • Lonely Planet Newsletter: Again, good stories each month, special deals, and answer one travel trivia question to be entered in a drawing to win a book each month. Right now if you sign up for the newsletter, you are entered in a contest to win $10,000 worth of travel.
  • Travel DK: These guys make the inspiring, yet awful in use colorful eyewitness guidebooks. But, they do have fabulous prizes. I've won 3 times already! By sumitting a new highlight for a city, or designing your own city guide with their program you are entered to win prizes every month.

If you do win, let me know!

The Proverbial Cherry on Top

On Tuesday I flew out of quaint and quiet San Cristobal straight back into the devil's mouth--Mexico City. The flight was uneventful. Though I saw an interesting news story on the tv at the airport about a woman falling in the path of what looked like the orange line in Boston!)

I had reserved the cheapest room nearest to the subway line that would get me back to the airport the following morning--which turned out to be right next to the main square, the Zocalo. A complete 180 from my wide-eyed marveling on the train when I arrived 17 days before, I rode the subway head down, ipod on, not even blinking at the pda and shady sales going on around me. I emerged in the Zocalo. It looked like at any minute a massive rock concert would be starting and children everywhere had glowing toys resembling quidditch balls that they'd fling into the air and let fall back down gently.

I dropped off my luggage, and ate the free dinner of butter and cheese coated spaghetti. I met some Israelis who informed me that the square chaos was a celebration of Mexico's Revolution Bicentennial and recommended it. I headed back down to the square.

What followed was the most spectacular spectacle that ever was created by man. Better than the Boston Pops Fourth of July, better than the Mummer's Parade, even better than Disney World.

This video does the most justice to the show, but really you had to be there. It's hard to describe what happened but I am now convinced Mexico is the greatest country on Earth.

Well, convinced during the duration of the 15 minute show. At the very least, Mexico City has lost my deep loathing and instead redeemed itself as a visit-worthy city.

I went to bed early and steeled myself for 16 hours of travel the next day.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Done with Tanning and back to Culture

Even after four days of lathering on the sunscreen, I had a mighty awful burn in some awkward spots. I gave up the idea of horse back riding my last day and instead renting a chair and umbrella, ordered a big plate of seafood and took in the surfing competition on the main beach. My stomach was still recovering from whatever it is that makes us gringos sick, so I still didn't consume more than one beer the whole week. Which is hard when you're surrounded by fun-loving (and very good looking) Aussies and Kiwis back at your hostel cooking up fresh caught fish on the barbie every night trying to get you to party.

After four days I could have stayed the rest of the trip and diligently worked on my tan, but two things spurned me on: the thought of having to take a bus back up to Oaxaca and the joyful fact that I had a direct flight from Tuxtla to Mexico City already bought. I hopped on a first class bus and made the 11 hour, very comfortable trip to San Cristobal.

I can't even remember the first thing that made me first look at San Cristobal. Even before I left I wasn't sure if I was going to make it that far. I am so glad I did. The hostel was perfect. My $5 US a night room was empty almost the whole week. Breakfast was on the house. The living room was stocked with about a hundred bootleg DVDs and best of all two new puppies were allowed free range of the courtyard. It was like a second home.

I continued my practice of busy sight-seeing and soaking in sun during the day and laying low at night. My trip-long sickness preventing me from partying up could be considered a blessing and a curse. I'm sure it saved me a lot of money and drama, but I missed out on a lot of fun, I'm sure.

Days in San Cristobal were dreamy. I did a horse-back riding trip to a tiny village inhabited by natives whom had kicked out the Christians years ago and instead used the pew-less church for healing ceremonies and ground-level worship on beds of pine needles. I hiked up to churches perched above the town. Mostly I wandered the charming streets eating churros and shopping the wears of the highly talented artisans.

While there were a handful of tourists, most looked Mexican, but you could tell that before the swine flu/drug war media craze this place was a haven for both the American hippies looking to get in on the Zapatista revolution and yuppie travelers. Excellent restaurants catering to vegetarians abounded and I caught an artsy, political flick at a restaurant/language school/cinema.

It was a wonderful last stop on an 18 day tour and if there's one place I'd return to, it's San Cristobal.

Bus Ride from Hell . . . to Paradise

Now the distance between Oaxaca and Puerto Esconido looks about the same as Philly to New York City, which would take any sensible driver 2 hours. There are two buses you can take from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido: the first class bus for about $35 takes the flat, newer highwaysaround the mountains and takes 8 hours or the second class bus for $17 that cuts right through and takes 5 hours. Given this info, which would you take? Second class, right there with you.

Ehhhh! Wrong choice. I am no elitist. Hell, I had slept on the floor already one night on this trip, but this was a scary bus. It took off as the sun had just set. Extra passengers stood in the aisle, holding on to the back of my seat for one hour as the contraption (nearly a bus) zig-zagged up the mountain range. Each and every settlement along the roads had put in a tope, or speedbump, bringing our demon-speeding bus to a screeching crawl.

My alarm went off at 1am, what should have been 20 minutes before arrival, but the minutes, then the hours ticked by.

The view out the window was jungle flying by to the right. Then jungle flying by to the left as the bus wound very narrow pot-holed roads. Our soundtrack was that creepy Bach organ fugue, followed by Carmina Burana and then . . . the Nutcracker Suite. Was this a nightmare or dream? For the next four hours I was wide awake thinking I'd miss my stop.

I didn't, at 4:30am we arrived. My hostel's guard let me in, pointed to a bed and I collapsed.

I awoke to paradise. A walled in set of houses that all seemed to run together surrounded a quiet pool. A bridge ran over the pool and let to hammocks and lounging chairs. Palm trees were everywhere. Nothing looked too well kept, but in my haze of little sleep it was a dream. I put on my suit, got directions and headed out to the nearest beach. My hostel was a ways away from the center of nightlife and a good walk to the beach, but oh what a beach. One of the more secluded, less traveled beaches, I found myself virtually alone, with a cove of blue and multiple sleepy little bars ready to hack a coconut for me and stick in a straw.

Now this was a vacation.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Oaxaca in Color

The Ruins of Monte Alban, set high in the hills above Oaxaca City

A weaving cooperative outside the city

Oaxaca Institute for Culture displays alters from regions across the state

Celebrators pose

A woman offers shots of tequilla as she sits by her alter

The finale of a dance production put on barefoot in the dirt against the backdrop of the city´s cathedral

Go South!

It was advice given to me on my last night in New York before flying out. I should have listened right away. Mexico just gets better and better (and cheaper) the further south you go. I was charmed by Oaxaca. As soon as I arrived I signed myself up for the first tour. I was tired of do-it-yourself and wanted to be escorted around a bit.

Despite being one of the most popular times to visit Oaxaca (Day of the Dead) our tour was not the embarressing tour bus group of 40 people or so led by a shouting woman holding her umbrella high to make sure her ducklings were following. A van picked me up at the hostel with a mere 6 others and our visits to the ruins of Mitla, the Tulle tree (possibly oldest in the world) and a textile weaving cooperative were uncrowded and all worth it. I found fast traveling companions in the two germans in the backseat with me and two older ladies from the West Coast in front.

Delighted by the cheapness and relaxed tours I decided to do more. I signed up for a cooking class and a visit to Monte Alban, some of the best ruins left in Mesoamerica. I was delighted to find myself the only one signed up for both.

The private cooking class turned into a hangout session with the young chef´s friends that worked at the hostel. While learning the 20 ingredients that go into mole, I also learned about the life and times of being young in Mexico. The eldest girl had recently married. She and her husband were in school studying sustainable tourism. In order for her to share his scholarship they needed to be married. So, he had proposed over the phone and they were married the next day. It was fine, but not what she wanted. She also longed to be out of Mexico City, away from the pollution, but that is where all the good schools and jobs were. It´s not the first time I had heard the story, my host in Mexico City also had had no desire to get married and have kids and wanted out of the city. Mexicans all don´t fit our preconceptions.

The rest of the time, I wandered the old colonial streets and spent my evenings gawking at Dias de los Muertos festivities -- now a strange blend of indigenous belief that the dead come back for a night to commune with their families, the Christian celebration of All Saint´s Day, and the American tradition of dressing up scary and partying. Here the celebrations last 4 nights, with people getting dressed up, multiple bands in the streets, and alters honoring the dead everywhere. And by everywhere, I mean the entire Zocalo, every hotel, every store, every restaurant and school.

My fourth day I tried to get an early bus to Puerto Escondido, but found tickets sold out until 8:30pm. No matter; I spent one more afternoon wandering, catching a cultural tour show on the plaza and then steeled myself for what was supposed to be a 5 hour bus ride to the coast. . .

Monday, November 02, 2009

Restarting in Oaxaca

Mexicó city had been rough. Going from serene, fall foliaged, bikable, Boston--barely a city, really--to the 2nd largest megatropolis in world is shocking. Even my brief overnight stay in NYC before the flight didn´t prepare me for the people shock. It doesn´t help that Mexico City is actually a city upon cities, with falling apart infastructure and not designed for a newcomer.

I have two kinds of the Mexicó City in my head--the beautiful museums, the ruins exposed next to the Zocalo, in the subway stops and in the hinter land, the delicious quesadillas, the murals, political discussions with my host. Then there´s the waking up at the crack of dawn with my host, always being lost, the drenching rain, the confusing and crowded subway, getting very very sick. The two images now seem to balance eachother out, so that I don´t much like or dislike the place. But sitting in the bus station, I was ready to get out and start an acutal vacation.

Finally out of the ring of Mexicó City´s smog, the skies were bright blue, and the fields of marigolds were in full bloom, being sold on the side of the road for Day of the Dead festivities.

As the bus pulled through the narrow Oaxacan streets I hit the reset button in my head. And arriving at a suprisingly spotless hostel I found my reservation (made at an internet cafe in the station right before my bus pulled out) was in good standing. My simple baguette dinner felt fine in my stomach and the city museum was free and open late for the Day of the Dead. My head hit the pillow soundly that night after my first hot shower with shampoo in ages, very, very soundly. I was finally on vacation.

Unedited, untitled, raw mess of photos here. Try guessing what the pictures are for fun.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Holá Again Warm Weather!

My trip to Mexico could be described as my attempt to hold on to the warm weather for a bit longer . . . or a desire to understand a place that the media chooses to keep putting down . . . or a cheaper consolation prize for not being able to afford to go back to Europe.

It's all these things. But it's certainly not a vacation. So far my trip has had many moments where you just have to say 'okay' and go with it -- Your host has one key and needs to leave for work at 6am? okay. The waiter again brings you meat? okay. You get on an express train to the stadium by accident? okay. You loose your atm card? okay.

That is not to say that I'm not glad that I'm here or that it's a completely mindbending experience to take the Mexico City metro at rush hour or see thoroughly intricate Day of the Dead alters or be forced to accelerate your 5 weeks of Spanish classes to the equivelant of 2 years in order to get through the day.

It's awesome, but I woner if the pain in my stomach is the food or the stress.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Goodbye Warm Weather, Goodbye Bike Rides, Hello Cold

Perhaps it is a bit cruel to go on vacation to a higher latitude, but the locale was not in my control. While beautiful this time of year, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine were best experienced from a window last week. It was the first time I had really experienced fall in a while. With the election last year, Barcelona before that and 2 years in Miami, noticing foliage being anything other than green has been half a decade past due. I'll admit it, mountainous drives through the reds and oranges were pretty, but all that ends when it's 34 degrees and sleeting on you.

Here's my homage to wonderful warm weather events gone by:

Wake Up the Earth Festival, Jamaica Plain

Revere Beach, Revere

First Thursdays, Jamaica Plain

Walden Pond, Concord

Lantern Festival, Forest Hills

Blue Hills Brewery and State Park, Milton

Minuteman Bikepath, Arlington

(too busy biking to take pictures)

St. Anthony's Festival, North End

Whale Watching, Gloucester

Riversing, Cambridge

Honkfest, Sommerville

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Elite means I'm better than you.

Watch out dining establishments in Boston - I am now a Yelp Elite Squad member. One bad meal and you are crushed. Conversely, I will shower love and praise on my favorite restaurants and shops. Coincidentally, this induction does include free food events.

Elite Squad is just a few rungs below New York Times' food critic and above anonymous blogger.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Week of Nature Porn

I barely watch tv, what with my rabbit-eared ten year-old set in my living room not having the best picture, but even I know about the new Ken Burns documentary series--National Parks: America's Best Idea.

It's astoundingly beautiful and has already made me pull out my USA guide and start planning trips. I highly recommend to start watching if you haven't yet and try your hand at this week's lonely planet National Parks contest.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ode to the Charles

Now I know to start inviting folks earlier. Going it alone wasn't so bad though, in fact I loved the community vibe.

Riversing is put on by a local band of merry-makers who also run pub sing-a-longs a few times a year. This is the sixth year they've done Riversing in an attempt to create new traditions and build community. There's an amateur choir, a few professionals, a white-haired, spectacled man in a white tux that leads the whole thing and then a few hundred people that join in song.

Joggers still out of breath from their run. Women with popped collars singing in high sopranos. Older men with raspy baritones. Children holding hands and spinning in circles while they sing. Moms singing to their babies. College students singing, yet trying to be cool. Bikers still with their helmets on, balancing their bikes and reading the lyrics in the program.

We all sang our odes to the River. No need for worshiping any omnipotent God or celebration of any special battle. Just people coming together, thankful that they live in such a place where these kind of things can happen, where there's a river and parkland that people work to conserve and that the summer was good and the autumn has arrived.

In between songs we heard poems about rivers. As one poet spoke the line "a flock of geese flew overhead." a flock of geese appeared in the dimming light and flew overhead, swinging back to settle down on the bank opposite us to watch the show. The crowd oohed. More staged magic occurred as the event closed with us serenading a saxophone who had come on a boat with a giant puppet moon and sun. Circling near the shore, we alternated between our voices, his riff and a low bowing of the cello.

Some photos from the evening:

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Leave the Cahr at Home for visiting Southies

Monday of Labor Day weekend was another bike-full day. I pulled out my Walk Boston book and biked the South Boston tour. When you think working class Boston, The Departed, that retahded accent: you're thinking South Boston. Once a not-so-nice neighborhood. It's rising in status considerably as the yuppies who like being close to the center have moved in and renovated homes.

It's also really hilly, so my calves got quite a work-out. First was one of the highest points in Boston: Telegraph Hill. The site of where Washington ordered a cannon to be placed and how we won one of the first battles of the revolution. You can see how close the neighborhood is to downtown from this point, and the water that surrounds the neighborhood. How did they get that cannon up here anyway?

Next stop: Castle Island. Not technically an island anymore and nothing like a castle. Our kind Southie guide gave us a free tour of the fort and all it's history since the Revolutionary War.

The fort has a big park around it . . . with lots of lovely people enjoying the holiday. It reminded me a bit of Montjuic in Barcelona, until I saw these two lovely ladies.

Definitely America. You can see here how the park curves around. Castle Island is now a park and beach with a ring of land around it--perfect for biking of course.

I ended my Southie adventure with a pint at the bar where Good Will Hunting was filmed, chatting it up with a local on a work break about home prices in the area and in Miami.

All in all, a beautiful day, a good workout and an authentic Boston experience.

Many minutes on the Minuteman

Third installment of my labor day weekend now that I'm through with some of the days' labor.

After a late night at the Donkey Show on Friday and a long day looking for whales and checking out the brewery on Cape Ann on Saturday. I was ready for some time alone. I took the T out to Alewife and rode the Minuteman Bikeway out through Arlington, Lexington and to Bedford. The trail is wooded and generally away from civilization, with nice little interludes through downtown Arlington and Lexington. The ride didn't take very long and once I got to Bedford and hit up their little old-timey railroad display I felt like I could go anywhere. I started planning cross-country trips in my head.

Back in real life, I decided to bike as far as Concord, another 5 miles. Concord, the town where Paul Revere rode through warning revolutionaries "The British are coming!" (I have new respect for how far they walked now!) I had an an amazing crab cake sandwich at the Main Street Cafe. A decidedly non-chain bar, coffee shop meeting place, the Main Street Cafe, does not allow cell-phones or laptops (take that Panera's!). I read books at the fabulous local, independent book store and had ice cream at the Bedford Depot. Nothing beats homemade ice cream after a 16 mile ride.

I hopped on the commuter rail back to Cambridge. Apparently, I wasn't the only one with this idea. The front of the car I was in was packed with bikes. I slept all the way back to Porter Square and didn't even get charged. I had another 5 mile ride back home and stopped to run errands along the way.

A lovely day in all. I'm really in love with my bike. It's my gym, my transportation, my meditation. Nothing has been better than bike riding lately, and I know that come first snow-fall in Boston, there'll be a huge a hole in my life.

For now, I'm taking advantage.

A map of my ride.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Day Trip to the Cape, Cape Ann that Is

Everyone knows about Cape Cod--Kennedy's, cranberries, beaches. Cape Ann is Cod's northern counterpart. Lesser known, but no less beautiful and interesting.

To be truthful I didn't know much about Cape Ann until I went. I had bought a whale watching coupon for $20 on groupon. Then I got excited after I saw this article in the New York Times on the North Cape.
Labor Day weekend traffic got us off to bit late of a start--no where near as bad as traffic going to Cape Cod though! We had lobster rolls at Morning Glory Cafe over looking the bay and the Man of the Sea statue. (side note: The Man of the Sea overwhelmengly was voted by residents to be the image put on the back on the quarter for Massachusetts, yet was passed over because it was not a National site. It's owned by the city. And beloved by everyone.)

Whale watching is a simple business. You take a boat out and point to whales for your customers. Cape Ann Whale Watch does this fairly well. We saw a lot of beautiful whales. The trip is run by whale scientists who are not great showmen, but have a lot of knowledge. . . And they sell really cheap boxed wine.

Continuing on the booze trail we went next to the Cape Ann Brewing Company. Now this is something I'd love to have in my neighborhood: a homey bar with a brewery in the back. Your choice of seats--rocking chairs, bar stools or long benches. We did the full tasting, which might have impared my first time playing Yahtzee since grandma was alive.
Colleen's Yahtzee was just fine.

Now I'm reading The Last Fish Tale by Mark Kurlansky to learn more about this fascinating blue-collar beach town, which is still home to enclaves of immigrant communities from the Portuguese Islands Azorea to the western part of Scillily. It also is one of the last true local fishing ports left in America, which is now being threatened by overfishing. I hope for the sake of the fish, the whales, the folk of Gloucester that we figure it out.