memorial day weekend in the adirondacks

went to whiteface mountain in the adirondacks (near lake placid) with family and friends. hiked the flume knob trail, right next to whiteface. it’s a short but steep hike (four miles round-trip) to a rocky ledge which offers great views. the first mile climbs gradually, but the second mile is straight up and quite challenging. here we r en route to the top.

on flume knob trail in the adirondacks

new york, new york…

gorgeous weekend in ny. best buddy, hotel in soho, pasta in little italy, chinese food in china town, pink blossoms in washington square park, the museum mile, lunch at the goog, stroll in central park, empire state building, shopping at macy’s, the lights in times square, jazz at birdland late at night and breakfast early morning at some village patisserie! oh yeah, best spring weather ever!

amra and i in washington square park.

pharaoh sanders at birdland.

bah habah lives up to its rep!

we spent the second last week of august in bar harbor, maine. it was everything we had heard about – beautiful, pristine landscape with its own eco-systems, lots of outdoorsy activities, acadia national park’s easy accessibility and a lovely downtown area replete with new england charm. having lived in connecticut for seven years (my first taste of america) i fall for new england easily, every single time. it’s hard to describe. it’s the opposite of nouveau riche. not tacky or too self-consciously granola. simple elegance and old buildings, breathtaking autumns and brilliant gastronomy. it’s culture in pastoral garb.

i took this picture at 2 cats (an outstanding place for breakfast in bar harbor) – it epitomizes the magic of new england…

small fountain at 2 cats

since i was committed to making this a truly active vacation, the first thing i did after we got to the bar harbor motel (where we were staying along with our friends), was to go for a brisk walk. there was a small pathway from the motel that opened onto a quiet carriage road. i felt refreshed. we ate that night at a restaurant right on the pier. obviously i went for the lobster roll. we decided to walk back to the motel instead of taking a shuttle – this is free, clean, reliable transportation bar harbor style. the following day was whale watching day on a 140 feet long catamaran – okay, so boat rides are never painless for me (i spend quite a lot of the time just praying not to pass out or throw up), but i did get to see some whales – 3 of them up close and personal. humpbacks are sleek and quick and can be identified by the unique patterns of black and white on the underside of their tails. we met sonogram and his mother P.D. we also saw some dolphins.

after whale watching we took it easy. dinner consisted of picking up some pizza from anthony’s – service was too slow and the kids didn’t enjoy the bland meatball. over the next one week, we went to cadillac summit and sand beach in acadia park, hiked along beautiful jordan pond and went kayaking in the ocean. we savored an expansive sunset from blue hills overlook and took a million pictures. there was also a biking trip in the rain and lots of shopping downtown. on the way back we stopped over at a small art store and bought dangly silver earrings made by terry strickland and “black-eyed susan” prints by charlotte bridges.

we spent a night in boston and took the kids to our old haunts – quincy market and the boston harbor. some things had changed dramatically. the highway and parking lots have disappeared underground (thanks to the big dig – which took $15 billion and a dozen years to complete) so after years and years of going to boston, we still needed a little bit of help in getting oriented.

back from dc

after studying much american history both my kids had their own personal lists of things they wanted to see in dc, our nation’s capital. we were successful in checking out everything on their lists.

saw the white house (from a distance, never had the urge to go inside), the washington monument (hard to miss when you’re in dc – it’s always somewhere on the horizon), the world war II memorial (built in 2004, am guessing probably after “saving private ryan” and HBO’s “band of brothers” came out), the lincoln memorial (always stunning), the library of congress (had never been inside but my artistically-inclined daughter was interested in the painted ceiling – it was absolutely gorgeous with excellent exhibits about the history and significance of america’s founding documents, the uneasy relationship between native americans and early europeans and finally jefferson’s own library – his books displayed beautifully on concentric glass shelves), the u.s. supreme court, the capitol (very freaky to be surrounded by uniformed gunmen with their fingers literally and figuratively on the trigger), the national gallery of art (always a lovely retreat), the air and space museum (thronging students on school trips, long lines but still way cool flight simulator), u-street (neither hip nor hopping but good food at ulah bistro), the national aquarium (small and mediocre), the spy museum (a total commercial rip off complete with tie-in merchandise but the kids enjoyed some of it – like a tunnel that leads you back to the same room (???) and a james bondish aston martin), the nationals park (guard said people were not allowed to photograph it even from the outside (???) – he had some problems with people just looking at it even though the pope and his entourage had long been gone).

we had chinese food in chinatown, real pakistani food at ravi kebab (glebe road, arlington) and met with some family in dc and virginia. the metro was great and the people very friendly (or maybe it was just the contrast with nyc). on our way out of dc we stopped at old town alexandria to visit the torpedo factory lined with artists’ studios and an art school. the artwork was way out of my budget but i appreciated it no less.

on our way out of virginia i spotted an antique store – it was a dream. there were old doors and windows, furniture and pottery, mirrors and chandeliers – everything was timeworn and reasonably priced. the store sprawled over a large area with things scattered around in tiny houses and unassuming sheds or just on the lawn. it was such a kick to search for things i could use in my work – found objects, frames, tiles. promised myself i would return with appropriate girlfriend! have to give credit to my husband and kids though, for waiting in the car for one hour, en route to ny, ready to go but with one family member missing – someone a little tipsy from all her antiquing!

world war II memorial in dc

snorkeling at laughing bird caye

belize is located in the southeastern part of the yucatan peninsula. it is home to the 200 mile long belize barrier reef, the longest in the western hemisphere and the second longest in the world.

the beautiful laughing bird caye is only 11 miles off the coast of placencia. the abundance and variety of coral habitats and marine life make this isle truly unique. in 1996 the belize barrier reef reserve system was inscribed on the world heritage list with laughing bird caye national park designated as one of its most closely protected areas. the isle is long and narrow and truly breathtaking.

laughing bird caye

on our way to the islet, after hitching a boat ride in front of our house right off of the beach, we saw some dolphins. we changed into our gear and went snorkeling in the warm salty water. it felt like being in an aquarium. the coral comes in indescribably vivid colors, the sea fans quivered delicately underwater, and the schools of fish we encountered felt so close it was magical. unfortunately my daughter’s equipment was too big for her so she kept getting salty water in her eyes and mouth. she was a good sport about it but we decided to cut short our exploring to get her to shore. my son scraped his foot on some coral reef and bled quite a bit. thank god the park ranger had some antiseptic ointment and band aids. we had a delicious picnic cooked on the beach (grilled chicken – jamaican style, potatoes roasted in a cheese sauce, sweet coleslaw and fresh pineapple. what a treat! although we could not take any conchs or shells with us i took plenty of photos. we also took some footage of brown pelicans diving for fish. the water was a myriad different shades of blue, each more delightful than the other. it is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

conch and shells

mayan ruins and swimming in caves

our next trip was to toledo, the southern most district in belize. this is mayan country and we were first headed to the mayan ruins of nim li punit. discovered in 1976, this site is situated along the top of a ridge in the foothills of the maya mountains and has a stunning view of the coastal plains below. 25 stelae, 8 of which are carved, were discovered here. stelae are stone slabs, sometimes 50 feet long, with hieroglyphic inscriptions and carvings depicting the lives of mayan rulers. placed within the ceremonial centers of cities, they now provide us a rare glimpse into mayan life. one of the largest structures is a ball court. the mayans played with a hard and heavy rubber ball and the victor was honored with a beheading. for people who believed strongly in the after-life there could not be a better reward.

after the mayan ruins we went for lunch at our guide juan’s home in the village of punta gorda. the trip had been arranged through robert’s grove and they had packed us an “american” lunch – chicken wings, roast chicken and potatoes, watermelon, brownies and a huge salad. of all the lunches we’d had so far this was the least appetizing. juan’s daughter had made some fresh tortillas and these became instant favorites. the bathroom was surprising – let’s just leave it at that.

after lunch we began our rigorous trek through the jungle to the blue creek cave. the trek could have been a little easier if we had not been carrying backbacks, towels, cameras and life jackets. you definitely need both hands to make it without getting hurt. it was hot, the trek was arduous and we were sweating profusely (i had forgotten what it was like to sweat – the suncreen makes it worse by melting on your face). after all this effort it was a shock to suddenly come upon the glistening waterfall and gushing waters of blue creek. this is where the río blanco emerges from the side of a mountain, becoming blue creek – home to an extensive cave system.

we changed into our swimsuits, put on our life jackets and water shoes, adjusted our headlamps and leapt into the freezing waters of blue creek cave. what an experience. the ground under your feet is treacherous to start with (you might be heading for a huge rock or be in rather deep water) but it all becomes easier as you swim farther along into the cave. once we were quite a ways inside we orchestrated a complete blackout by turning off our headlamps in unison – it was pitch black! the cave is quite deep. juan told us it takes three days to swim across all the way to the other side. we didn’t want to find out. after a fun swim and explore we headed back. it had started to drizzle outside and the rocks were getting slipperier by the minute. i tried to jump from one rock to another but my shoes lost their grip and i landed against a rock on my leg. thank god there was no bleeding, just a nasty bruise. my husband was not so lucky. he was carrying 3 life jackets and when he slipped he got pretty badly scraped. but we all made it in one piece. the 2 hour drive back to placencia and the boat ride to seine bight were tiring but it felt good to have had this great adventure!

at the beginning of it all we had met this tourist family who’d been to blue creek. they had recommended the trek but the guy had added ominously “mind you, there will be blood” – i guess he knew what he was talking about!

toledomayan ruins

peace in belize

there is a popular t-shirt you can find in just about every souvenir shop in belize – it says: “where the hell is belize?” and is followed by a map of central america. formerly called the british honduras, belize gained independence in 1981 after a century of british rule. it is bordered by guatemala and mexico. with heavy forestation in the north, the maya mountains in the south, some 450 islets or cayes along its carribean coast and a tropical climate, belize is rife with biodiversity (marine, terrestrial, flora and fauna). human diversity is not bad either. check out this population mix: 50% mestizos (spanish+indigenous american), 25% kriols (african slaves from jamaica), 11% mayan, 6% garifuna (african+indigenous american), and a small percentage of german mennonites (amish), east indians, chinese, other central americans, and whites from the u.s. not bad for a country of 300,000!

our destination was placencia, south of the country in the stann creek district. we stayed at the bahia laguna in seine bight, a small garifuna town. the bahia laguna is a large bungalow and we had use of the spacious apartment on the ground floor. it had everything we could have asked for: kitchen with large refrigerator, dishwasher, even a washer and dryer. there was a swimming pool in the back with a cool slide and the sea was just footsteps away.

after our last vacation i had appreciated for the first time the joy of cooking with local produce and ingredients. we did just that and apart from a lunch at the coloful “purple space monkey” we ate at home everyday. we’d use our complimentary bikes to go to the tiny chinese grocery store in seine bight and buy everything we needed for the next couple of days. we made easy food like hamburgers and mac & cheese but also spicy chicken karahi and okra with lots of fresh tomatoes.

madalon, the owner of the bahia laguna, has a mayan couple living in the other apartment on the ground floor. delmacio works around the house and he and his wife conceptiona are a great addition to the household. conceptiona made some fresh tortillas for us. they were absolutely fabulous and very close to what we in the sub-continent would call tandoori roti. they went beautifully with the curries we cooked.

you would think that there isn’t much to do in belize (and that’s a perfectly good way to spend a vacation) but in fact there’s lots of adventure just waiting to happen. first we embarked on a water safari to explore the environs of the monkey river. our guide terry showed us a lot of exotic plants and birds whilst we sped along in a motorboat. our main stop was the jungle so we could track down some howler monkeys. man, those monkeys are fierce – their howling sounds a lot like screams in a horror movie. we spotted them perched in tall trees, hanging from their prehensile tails. we were lucky to find an entire family of monkeys and i got some terrific footage on my video camera. for lunch we headed to monkey river village and had some fresh fried fish with a sweet potato salad and rice and beans – a staple in belize. it hit the spot.

on our way back home our guide showed us some manatees. these seal-like creatures are herbivores and can weigh up to a ton. they create such a big commotion that they can be easily spotted by the mud they dislodge from the bottom of the sea as they partake of water plants.


the mean bus driver, cioppino and chicken mole

we had dinner at a nice restaurant that offered a fusion of french-southeast asian cuisine. it could have been any nice restaurant in nyc (no mexican angle) but the food was good especially the sate and the delicately flavored shots of creme brulee that came in a friendly trio. after some down-time at our cousin’s apartment we were off to the hotel. the next day the kids registered for the sheratoons (the local kids club) and made some awful smelling cookies. they also swam and took it easy.

we decided to go to the city for lunch and thought the local bus would be an adventure for the kids. we got tickets and even though kids tickets were half the price, the driver charged us full price. i didn’t care much. we told the driver we wanted to get off in the center of town – centro – that was one of the bus’s regular stops. when we got to the city and tried to get off, the driver wouldn’t let us leave. thrice we tried to disembark but he told us to stay put – he knew where we had to get off. my husband trusted him. i was more suspicious. the city of puerto vallarta is tiny (just a couple of main streets) and it was obvious that we were out of the city now. the bus began to climb a hill. it turned a corner and there we were, bang in the middle of pv’s slums. there were no cabs here, no tall american tourists with flashy sunglasses, no shops crammed with talavera pottery or huichol art. this was the ghetto outside of puerto vallarta and well-meaning tourists are not supposed to see it. there were fewer and fewer people in the bus and i began to panic. i didn’t want to go wherever this guy was taking us. maybe we should just get off anywhere. but how would we get back? finally, after an hour of chugging along, we reached the end of the bus route. the bus driver asked my husband to pay for tickets if we wanted to get back to the city. so that’s what it was all about! i was furious. i refused to pay. my husband tried to explain in spanish but the driver insisted. “non comprende” was the way to end the argument and so it was that we were finally dropped off in downtown pv.

one night, after a day of shopping for pottery and rugs, we had dinner at our cousin’s apartment. her friends, pierre and hillary, were excellent company. pierre made some delicious cioppino with fresh fish and shrimp. cioppino is supposed to be san francisco’s answer to bouillabaisse and since our cousin and her friends are all from the west coast, it figured. the kids had a relaxed evening – lazing around, watching tv, and eating fire-roasted chicken, avocados, and french bread dipped in cioppino, with mango ice cream and guavas for dessert. it was a lovely evening.

we ate out on our last day at a mexican (mariachi and all) restaurant. i had some chicken mole. although the mole sauce was dark and rich and delicious the chicken was hard to tackle. it looked like pv was gearing up for new year’s eve but we were off early next morning, back to rochester and some mind-numbing below zero weather. mexico had been one helluva holiday!

huichol art

andee’s blog: mylifeinchacala

our stay in chacala was fabulous – it was the real thing. fewer tourists, more interaction with local people, excellent food. there was a certain simplicity and charm to it. initially we had planned on staying at mare de jade, a beautiful retreat that offers both accomodation and meals. when that didn’t work out i began to look on the web. i found a blog called “mylifeinchacala“, a treasure trove of facts and information, with colorful pictures and personal recommendations. it was written by an american woman called andee carlsson. i emailed andee a couple of times and finally decided on casa monarca – i had read about it and seen the pictures on her blog.

while writing my posts about mexico, i went back to andee’s blog. the first thing i saw was a picture of her. i scrolled down, more pictures. i was surprised. having navigated andee’s blog in quite some detail while deciding on a place to stay, i had noticed how there were no pictures of her anywhere. i even tried to imagine what she looked like.

as i read on, i was shocked to find a post by her son, saying that andee had passed away on jan 16. we were in chacala last december and i had regretted not having had time to seek andee out and say hello. i guess that was not to be. even though i never met her, i was touched by andee’s sweetness and i just wanted to acknowledge that.

rest in peace andee, under chacala’s beautiful blue sky.

chacala’s blue sky