New Orleans!

The mardi gras beads were still dangling from the giant oak trees when we arrived in New Orleans at the end of March. A local African American artist explains to me that as a kid on the streets during Mardi Gras, he’d shout, “over here! Hey mister throw some beads over here!” and glanced at the throngs of people catching fistfuls of the shiny necklaces and doubloons.  He moved into the crowd of white people and crouched down. He finally started catching some bling– right before getting yelled at and chased away. The good times are rolling for some, but not for all.

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Jackson Square in the French Quarter is the place to be, especially on the weekends.

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Across the street from the gurgling gray Mississippi, brass bands jam out to the crowds, street acts crop up and the wrought iron plaza fence is decked out with every kind of local art, from prints to acrylic-on-Katrina-scrap-wood  to my personal favorite, a kid in art school who buys old records and spray paints his own designs onto them with homemade stencils:

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Even the art in the galleries and museums amazed me:

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Black and white pieces by Steve Prince, a NOLA native and self proclaimed “art evangelist.” His work can be found at http://www.eyekons.com/steve_prince

The French quarter is made up of old buildings where ivy falls from balconies and horse drawn carriages wheel past voodoo shops, art galleries and restaurants. You can get cocktails to go, or buy a spell to make someone fall in love with you while you bite into your muffaletta sandwich from Central Grocery at 923 Decatur. You know, all in a day’s work.

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We found balconies reminiscent of Old Havana

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and a gay porn shop masquerading as a used bookstore. (Yeah, look closely)

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We took the streetcar out out west on St Charles through the Garden District. An all-day pass on any of the streetcars is $3.00 and you can get on and off as many times as you want.

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See the monkeys in the trees?

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Stately mansions with regal white pillars and giant oak trees flank St Charles. We get off in front of Tulane and Loyola University and wander through Aububon Park, with its fountain, lake and jogging trails.

Along the St Charles street car route is the Blind Pelican at 1628 St Charles. In addition to these crawfish, they have 25 cent oysters during happy hour from 4-8. And this deal of the century is spray painted on their concrete wall, so fear not, you have time!

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So yeah, the food in New Orleans is kind of a big deal. I scouredTrip Advisor and chose Herbsaint as one of our first classier joints, owned by a renown restauranteur of the city who also runs Peche and other much fussed over haunts.

The only redeeming taste of Herbsaint came from the cocktail. Our appetizer of ” louisiana shrimp with calsparra rice (?) artichoke and maitake mushrooms” was so salty we had no choice but to order another of their beautilicious cocktails. Oh the Steel Hibiscus! Ohh em geee! It’s made with a new liquor that just hit the market called Sorel. From their website, Sorel has “the brightness of Brazilian clove. The warmth of Indonesian cassia. The heat of Nigerian ginger. The woody bottom of Indonesian nutmeg. The full, aromatic body of Moroccan hibiscus.” Whatever. I just want to get my paws on some!

The next night we chose Canal Street Bistro in Mid-City, which is way up Canal Street on the streetcar ($1.25 each way or $3 all day) and located in an old house. Not somewhere you’d expect a classy kitchen. I’m sorry we skipped the Drunken Mussles appetizer with “PEI mussels and tequila-chilpotle butter sauce” and the Lamb Chille Relleno “spiced roasted leg of lamb, roasted poblano chile, blackberry coulis, griddled cheese, pecan cream.”  But we chose well with the roasted quail in mole sauce and cactus salad. Oh, and the key lime martinis (on the left with all dat cream!) were like dessert. Killer.

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Cafe Carmo in the CBD serves tropical themed local produce based dishes. Everything we had was delicious. They have a juice bar too and they even juice cacao, the plant used to make chocolate. I loved their bread less sandwich “made of a grilled plantain patty topped with melted cheese, spicy smoked ‘n’ pulled pork, avocado, salsa fresca and our tangy sweet spicy “Rico” sauce. Served with organic greens drizzled and with mango vinaigrette.” Uh, yum!

The coffee at Carmo is infused with chicory root. Is that a southern thing? I ask the waitress. She thinks it’s just a New Orleans thing. Whoever’s thing it is, it’s delicious and that’s coming from someone who’s not into being “experimental” with her cuppa joe.

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The crowd may be New Age but the food is for all ages and all taste buds who appreciate eclectic equatorial goodness.

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Bennigan’s is a BYOB in the French Quarter that serves up West African food. We tried the Jama Jama Ni Makondo, “sauteed spinach, fried ripe plantains, and coconut rice.” I’m a sucker for fried plantains, so I loved it. Just don’t use the bathroom, because you have to walk past the sullen faced kitchen crew cutting up meat in a tiny room with giant bags of dinner rolls slumped over the cutting boards.

My favorite place to go out at night for music and drinks was Frenchman Street, home of the Spotted Cat nightclub. But you can browse something like ten different bars with live bands jamming out as you squeeze through the crowds and street performers. There’s no cover charge anywhere, so you can take your drink out of one bar and cruise the street scoping out the next one. Or hit up the night market off Frenchman Street for some locally made art and souvenirs. Or spend twenty minutes talking to a traveling kid who uses an old busted out TV and a long roll of paper and two dowels that twirl to showcase his “movie.” He sings his own soundtrack from behind the contraption like a live orchestra, while he twirls the dowels and the story streams through the TV screen.

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So basically unless you hate endless bars with free music and cheap drinks, tons of restaurants of every style and caliber, historic buildings and horses pulling carriages while dudes wail on saxophones at dusk under tumbling wisteria, New Orleans is for you.

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Road Tripping New Zealand’s North Island: Cathedral Cove, Coromandel and “The Backside”

Here’s the route: we’re driving from Coromandel down to to the surf town of Raglan, up to Paihia in the Bay of Islands, west to NZ’s Tasman Sea Coast, and then down the enigmatic Highway 12 through the misty fern filled Waipoua Forest and back to Auckland.

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First stop is Mana Retreat Center in Coromandel. We pass bays and inlets with signs saying “50 cockles per day limit,” or something like that. There are mostly empty parking lots with an old car or two and some have swing sets that sway eerily in the wind. Sometimes people wander the shoreline with buckets. The road winds RIGHT along the shore with abrupt drop offs to sandy inlets and coves.

We stay at Mana for Georgie Jahner’s weekend dance retreat, founder of http://www.openfloor.co.nz/.

The workshop includes (unbeknownst to me) a (gasp!) a 24 mandatory period of silence. Aroooo? Like NO talking. This is, ahem, a first for me. Mana hosts all kinds of courses and retreats and offers lodging and meals on site. The food is largely local, including delicious kiwis of course. Beware party people, there is no meat or alcohol available here. You have to travel to the town of Coromandel, a short drive down winding green hillsides above the bay. Which fills and drains dramatically throughout the day. A smiling white bearded man (the proprietor?) hips us to a beautiful deserted bay about half an hour away. Indeed the only people there are some Australians napping beside a Westy, and miles of turquoise water:

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Mana Retreat Center:

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Here we meet a man from Minnesosta who married a Kiwi. He’s in the unique position of offering cultural tidbits we can easily digest, so we ask, “so what are Kiwis like? What’s it really like to live here?”

He tells us about the Tallest Poppy Syndrome. New Zealanders have “a thing” about “standing out.” It is culturally discouraged to be extremely loud, extremely awesome, extremely curious or pushy, or well, extremely anything. We sip our coffee. Eeeenteeresting.

At the very top of Mana Retreat Center, there is a sanctuary overlooking the bay. People come up here at sunrise to mediate and shit, so Mom and I thought we’d give it a go. We start walking (without coffee, mind you) up dark fern lined roads that turn to little trails, and sun begins to rise.

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We open the doors to the sanctuary, and what to we see but a beautiful man wielding a violin. Who proceeds to serenade our sunrise.

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Okay, so the coolest things to see on the Coromandel Peninnsula are  Cathedral Cove, the Hunderwasser Toilets (yes I said toilets) and Driving Creek Railway and Potteries.

Cathedral Cove is stunning but getting there is just as fun. A hike through giant tree ferns plops you out right about here:

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A fern unfurling: the seemingly obvious mascot of New Zealand.

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This mural is across from the fabulously famous Hundertwasser Toilets in Kawakawa, designed by a quirky Austrian artist. I won’t give it all away, but let’s just say these are the coolest public restrooms you will ever see.

http://www.bayofislandsinfo.co.nz/Hundertwasser-Toilets-Kawakawa.html

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Alright, so I’m a train officianado. When I heard about nearby Driving Creek Railway and Potteries, I knew we had to go.  Local pottery artist Barry Brickell had a dream of making his own railroad to gain access to rich clay deposits for his art, and after years of laying track largely by HAND and building bridges across gorges, here you have Driving Creek. They even built their own little rail station.

You can read more about the railway and make reservations here:

http://www.drivingcreekrailway.co.nz/Building-DCR.cfm

It’s just north of Coromandel Town. NZ’s only narrow-gauge mountain train takes you across steep hillsides of forest and the wide views of Coromandel Bay are beautiful. In fact, so beautiful they look, uh, exactly like the San Francisco Bay. (Auckland and SF are in fact at the same latitude, just on opposite sides of our spinning planet.)

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Did I mention I like trains?! After the retreat I book us a night at Solscape in some converted railroad cars in Raglan, home of the epic left in the surfing world. I think the trains are really cool! Mom thinks the trains are… really cold. It’s May which is almost the dead of winter in New Zealand, and there’s no heat. But so much charm! There’s a shared kitchen, wifi, a cute cafe and surfboard rentals, all with a view of the break and the Tasman Sea.

http://www.raglan.net.nz/2009/08/solscape-eco-retreat-backpackers

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Raglan is on the other side of some very windy roads once you pass Hamilton. (Don’t go to Hamilton, by the way.) There is a waterfall on the way with good signage.

Raglan has cute shops with expensive local crafts, art and clothes. I spent way too much here. There are a handful of restaurants and the Harbor View Hotel with a beautiful inner courtyard. The kind of place I imagine myself sipping a martini at dusk.. but didn’t. WTF?! The whole town has a hippie surf vibe, without a lot of the pretentiousness.

The next leg of our journey is back through Auckland and up to the Bay of Islands. Passing over the more historic and seemingly more pricey Russel, we decide to stay across the bay in Paihia. After walking past rows of tour operators, crank em out restaurants and souvenir shops, we decide to book our hostel for one night and one night only.

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In the morning, we set off on a boat tour of the Bay of Islands from Paihia. They’re all kind of the same. Different boats, different voices on the microphone. The morning starts out foggy and I’m worried we won’t be able to see the islands, but it clears by mid morning. Apparently this is normal.

My favorite stop is Urupukapuka Island. Clear turquoise waters showcase schools of fish. We hike up to the top of the island, scaring goats and listening to the call of strange birds as we creep through bent over trees. We look out onto a curve of yet another white bay and teal water. Hundreds of goats and their late afternoon shadows move across the grass, darting from the gaping visitors.

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We see loads of happy spinner dolphins. I take a 2 minute video of them playing next to the boat and when I’m done, they’re still frolicking!

So we get the fudge out of Paihia the next day. We stop at little cafe and ask a bearded, newspaper reading man about our next route: west across the island and then down 12 along the coast past Dargaville. He’s never done it. How could you live on this little island and not have done it?? We glance at each other. We’re still going.

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At some point on this journey, we see a small brown sign that says “Glow Worm Caves.” Now these are not the well advertised, pricey caves near Waitomo, south of Auckland. I guess NZ has lots of glow worms and some caves are more hyped then others.

We drive up a gravel road, no one in sight except rolling green meadows broken only by farm houses. But now I can see we’re driving straight at the most interesting sight: this cluster of funny looking rocks. When we get “there” I still don’t’ see a soul. No one in the parking lot. We find a trail and start walking, past giant boulders with trunks twisting around their bulk, and the air gets cool and wet. Soon we go over a ridge and descend into a staircase that leads into blackness. Now, we are not prepared for this. We have no light. We giggle and hold onto the railing smoothed by many hands, and I use the dying iPhone to cast a little light on our path. We are in deep deep dark. And then there they are. Looking up is like looking at the night sky, only its the middle of day. Bagillions of little glow worms, bright and almost blue. At the other side we are stopped, half way to our car, by a Maori woman in a uniform. Apparently we spaced the signs pointing to the “tour” where people tell you about glow worms and have lights and shit. Oops. We took the unofficial tour. And backwards. At the very end, (really the beginning) we see the signs that say “No Photography.” Oopsies again. Mind your signs.

We pass through Kaikohe in the middle of the island, which has inexpensive (and very sulphuric- take off your silver) local hot springs, and descend into Opononi just before sunset. This was just a speck on the map. But there’s something cool about this town.. there’s a skate park with a view of the ocean, where two points of land- one pale dunes, one forest- almost meet like the tips of a horse shoe, with distinct white peaking waves cresting from different directions. Across the bay where the sand dunes are, a Kiwi tells us, is a local village. People over there speak, live, read, and conduct business entirely in Maori. I am kind of shocked and delighted to know this, especially coming from Maui where the Hawaiian language is more of guarded treat than something lived and breathed by entire communities.

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We stay at the Copthorne Hotel in Opononi, unannounced and unreserved. (Not recommended- this place hosts events in its conference room and the place can be completely booked.) There is a pool, well landscaped grounds right on the water, a driftwood filled beach and a pier to sit on at sunset. The restaurant serves up creative cocktails and filet of local fish (among other yummies) in the old fashioned classy bar, with a view of the ocean.

The next day we continue to Waipoua Forest. This is home of the oldest Kauri tree in New Zealand, going back something like four thousand years. Pre- JC. This tree has seen some shit.

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So we pretty much pass NO cars from Opononi to Waipoua Forest. But when we get to the trail that leads to the famous tree, there’s a handful of beater cars and some Maoris hanging out with their family. And friends. I think. Just on the road.

I say hi.

We smoke a joint, chat, and before I know it we’re all cracking up. They are especially interested in my vape stick. Maybe these haven’t come to NZ yet.

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Point being, locals are friendly.

If you are.

Like most places.

So be friendly. Be awesome. (Just not extremely)

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Auckland! K-Road, Street Art, Coffee & Comedy

When we get off the plane in Auckland at midnight, I am a little buzzed I admit. See, when I get up and headed to the bathroom a few hours into the flight, there was the whole crew of Maori dancers I saw file onto the plane. They’ve stuffed themselves into the flight attendant’s quarters near the loo, joking and bantering. They make fun of my accent. I make fun of theirs. The cutest one with long curly black hair asks, “what can I offer the lady?”

And I say, well, a glass of cabernet would be lovely!

And he opens the metal cabinet and holds the bottle high in the air and a long stream of red fills the plastic cup.

I look at him, confused. “Wait, do you work on the plane?” I ask.

“No I just know where the booze is!”

And they all roar.

So needless to say we had a good time in the back of the plane. And no flight attendants came to interrupt… or fetch drinks for other passengers. Towards the end of the flight I’m back my seat and ask for a beer. The stewardess leans in and shout-whispers, “we’re OUT!” Holy hot potatoes. We drank this plane dry.

So. Midnight in Auckland. A few bottles of water later, I start the rental Yaris, and proceed out onto the street- on the left side. Mom is in the passenger seat, turning the map around and around in her hands. Two foreign girls and no GPS. This is weird.

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We have booked Verandah’s Backpacker’s Hostel, two well preserved Victorian buildings fronting Western Heritage Park, with it’s sunken ornate concrete “building.”

Typical Ponsonby Road scene:

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And nearby neighborhood:

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It’s also just a block from two awesome streets: Ponsonby, and Karangahape Road, affectionately known as “K-Road.” Ponsonby is the gentrified boulevard of boutiques, galleries and cafes, while nearby K-Road is the run-down red light district speckled with thrift shops, a fringe-y bar and music scene, international cafes and my favorite indoor food court and bohemian “mall.”

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Verandah’s is kind enough to leave us a hidden key, since we’ll be getting in at 1am or so. Rooms are sparse but charming, with a big shared kitchen on the bottom floor of one of the buildings. Bathrooms (only 4 of them in our building) are shared. Hmmm. But Campbell the owner and his staff are friendly and helpful.

See the tall pointy thing in the background? It’s the tallest building in the southern hemisphere and braver souls than I can bungee jump off of it.

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Near where the two streets meet, a spontaneous clothing sale appears. Below, a typical gallery full of local art treasures.

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We have our first kiwi breakfast at Dizengoff, at 256 Ponsonby Road, an easy 15 minute walk from our hostel. We take a sip of the  “long black” coffee, which is how you get an American style coffee instead of an espresso down here, and almost fall of our chairs.

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“Why is this so good?”

“I don’t understand!”

I look at the barista, the bags of coffee beans lined up on a shelf, and shake my head. I take a sip of the cream from the carafe.

“Oh my god that’s it!” I say. “This tastes like clouds! Fluffy french clouds!”

I don’t even know what that means but the coffee (and cream) was to die for. This begins our coffee obsession in New Zealand. We have our morning cup (or two) and our afternoon cup (or two). It’s that good.

We try the avo and spinach eggs benedict, equally fabulous and mind-blowing. In fact everything we try is off the charts delicious. But each breakfast is $15 – $20. Ouch. NZ currency is worth about $1.20 American dollars, but it’s all about 20% more expensive so it’s kind of a  wash.

After breakfast, we kind of fall into a record store. Because it has, well, RECORDS! They even let you you sample your music before you buy it. I look to the back of the store where there’s a patio with  an adobe looking pizza oven, a bar, and stain glass windows. Really? I have to get out more! This is too cool. I buy a CD of some locally produced electronica and we keep walking.

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This mural is INSIDE the record shop. (Note my mom’s cheetah hat.)

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We pass art. And more art. The street art here is beautiful.

We just so happen to be in Auckland for the New Zealand International Comedy festival, which I highly recommend.

http://www.comedyfestival.co.nz/join-us

There are comedians at several different venues, and we get tickets to “The Big Show” featuring five different comics at the The Auckland Town Hall (The Edge). We leave our car at the hostel and walk downtown. (Also known as CBD, or central business district.) Highly recommended: like any major city, there is no parking downtown unless you want to drop some ca$h. We are seated  cabaret style at a big table with some Auckland locals. We suck cocktails and try to pick the jokes out from the frothy layers of accent and cultural fog. I look around and honestly wonder if there are other tourists here or if it’s just us…

Miami: A Boy, An Alligator and a $45 margarita

If I was going to do it, I was going to do it right. I book a room at the Posh Hostel in the heart of Miami Beach. Complete with glittering chandeliers, free wifi and a rooftop pool for $60. What more could I ask for?

http://www.poshsouthbeach.com

I take the train and then the high monorail, gliding into Miami Beach as it’s starting to come alive, buildings lit up in red, and everyone looks like they just stepped off a the shoot of a music video.

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So, of course, I meet a boy. In the sea of aluminum bunk beds, I am given #34. And across from me there is  a movie star, almost napping, in a tux. With his arm casually thrown behind his head. He opens his eyes as I set all my junk down.

“So where are you from?” He asks.

“Hawaii.”

“Me too,” he says.

Far out! Fancy that, meeting someone from Hawaii, right here.

“Which island?” I look at him. His dark, kind of tousled hair. On purpose? Can’t tell. His dark eyes. Day’s worth of dark stubble. Square jaw. Lips.. oh boy.

“Maui.”

Now this is getting weird. Someone from Maui, laying here across from me on my one night at the Posh?

“Which part?”

“Haiku.”

Get the fuck out! There are about 120,000 people on Maui. And Haiku is definitely in the running for one of its tiniest towns.

Movie star and I decide to go out on the town. We walk the cobbled streets blocked off from cars, past people smoking hookah on restaurant patios, flamenco dancers waving like silk in bar windows, and walk and walk and walk. By the time we stop talking and find a place we want to eat at, it’s 3am. And the funny thing? This place looks more alive at three in the morning than in did at three in the afternoon. So what else do we do? We order wine. And whiskey. And salad. And lamb. And the night swirls around us. We walk to the beach and have a buzzed make out session on a lifeguard stand. It isn’t until morning that we realize his iPhone is missing. And he’s got to leave on the next flight to New York. We look up his phone on google and access the tracking feature. And lo and behold, there it is! Moving slowly down the beach, passing 9th street! With three hours of sleep, some free Posh coffee, and a quick dip in the rooftop pool we head out to solve the riddle of the Disappeared iPhone. Like, quickly.

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We pass art deco buildings on our blind stumble back to the Strip. At the beach, we stop. There are joggers, dog walkers, and models power walking with boobs that don’t jiggle. I start tapping shoulders. “Hey did you find an iPhone?”

We realize whoever it is might be getting away. I stop a runner, who yanks out his earplugs and lets me use his smart phone. The google tracker shows Movie Star’s iPhone slowly moving up the beach.

“He’s on the move!”

“Thank you!” I yell back at the jogger.

And then it dawns on me. There’s a man in the distance, waving a long wand back and forth over the sand, with a big sack over one shoulder. I run up to him, breathless.

“Did you find an iPhone?”

He smiles, and rummages in the sack between the other metal objects, and whips out, yep, Movie Star’s phone. Goodbye, handsome.

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The second night I stay at the Freehand Miami Hostel– whooeee! If this place isn’t fun I don’t know where is.

http://thefreehand.com

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They have an outside bar next to the pool, which is, well, fabulous.

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That night some friends and I hop on trip advisor and find Icebox. One watermelon martini later, I am in love!

http://iceboxcafe.com

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I mean, they use vintage electrical insulators as lamps. How cool is that? Maybe I’ve been living on a small tropical island too long. But the soft glow of candles everywhere, cocktails and killer food = happy girl.

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Of course we have to top this off with a drink on the Strip. And not your average drink either. This margarita is oh, the size of my head. No joke. And so we get lured in by the plastic sample tray. Who’s judging? And you really could fit two beers into this glass. With breathing room.

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It’s all fun and games until we get the bill. Gulp.

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The next day, what else do you do in Miami? Go on an airboat tour of the Everglades of course. We choose Gator Park.

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We drive out past city limits (thank you GPS!) until it’s straight highway and nothing but sky and puffy clouds. Surrounded by swamp. And I can see how flat it really is here. It makes me nervous, all that space and not a mountain in sight.

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We tear through the swamp, every language but English peppered around my head. This is not exactly a locals tour. But I don’t care. We scan the reeds for alligators. Not crocodiles. Which are saltwater creatures, our guide explains. Get it straight. And as we’re about to give up on the wildlife and veer back to Gator Park, there is an alligator!

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And a baby alligator. Okay. I’m complete now.

FORBIDDEN SOIL: CUBA

It’s all Ivy’s fault. I got dumped by Mr. Tall Dark and Handsome himself and felt like I’d fallen off a skyscraper. I needed to get out of Maui, like fast. So on December 7, 2013 (coincidentally the day my Saturn return starts) I find myself in a dingy brown wing of the Miami International Airport meeting up with… the Public Defenders of Los Angeles. What the fuck am I doing traveling legit style straight from Miami to Havana with a bunch of lawyers? Why am I not flying sneakily out of Mexico with a hundred dollar bill tucked in my passport, sweating and wide eyed  in the customs line? Well I don’t know really know but here I am. Thanks to Ivy’s friend Fabiola Oritz and CTS Travel that organizes trips to Cuba, I am on the “Art Tour.” After some paperwork, I am stamped sealed and approved.

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We step off the plane onto the hot asphalt. Inside the terminal (no A/C of course) is one old screen mounted in the corner, displaying not twenty flights, or ten, but…three. One of them mine. The rest of the screen is blank and flickering.

We drive into a leafy neighborhood, to the home of one of Cuba’s well known artists. He finds old things and paints on them, like petrol signs from old gas stations. Making political statements in whispers. His father was Fidel’s personal photographer. He takes out old boxes full of black and white photos of the aging dictator, catching faces of Castro I’d never seen.

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When you can’t easily buy canvas, or go online to order paintbrushes, things get… creative. The art in this country blows me away. Unlike most of the world, in Cuba it’s only the artists and athletes that make any money. What about doctors and lawyers? They have second jobs, or open bakeries in their basements. These are not glamorous professions. But to be an artist… this is how you can lift yourself out of Cuba and float on the wings of foreign currency. This is the dream.

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In Havana Vieja, I walk. And walk. Into little galleries and big ones, hole in the wall shops down cobbled alleys, and apartments-cum-studios. Past old churches with doves cooing in cement ledges, past sculptures and tumbling bougainvillea.

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And while I’m walking, I meet… Aurelio. We’ll call him Aurelio. I wouldn’t want to get him in more trouble than I already do. He shows me this little shop and that one, the artist cooperative at the end of the alley full of more prints and oil paintings than a New York art school. We’re talking and laughing- me practicing my Spanish, him his English, when he stops dead in his tracks and his eyes go wide.

“Uh oh.”

“Como?” I ask, and stop too, to stare at him.

But I didn’t have to wonder very long. Two brown uniformed officers step out of the shadows and take his arm. What’s happening, what the hell is going on? I’m thinking. They’re talking low and gesturing at Aurelio. They ask for his papers, that part I can tell. Aurelio fishes them out of his pocket and then voices get louder, faster, and I can’t understand anymore. I sit down on the curb. I wait. Finally I go up to the officers and say, “esta bien, Aurelio es mi amigo, todo bien senores.”

They turn their backs to me and keep talking. Wow, okay. I watch from the street in silence, my stomach sinking. I don’t know what I’ve done to this poor guy, this man that hasn’t asked for money, who is showing me Havana, taking me to Hemingway’s watering hole and buying me sweet spiral peeled oranges from street vendors.

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Ten minutes passes. Twenty. It’s starting to get darker. And finally, the officers let him go. I run over to Aurelio, who looks visibly paler.

“What happened?” I ask, looking up at this sweet man, this kindergarden teacher, this new friend.

“I not should talk to you,” he says, bowing his head.

“Why not?”

“They don’t like it.”

“What was the problem?”

“There many problem,” he says, looking down the busy street.

“We can’t talk to Americanos,” he pauses. “And they looked up my papers.”

“And?” I prompt.

“Three years ago I do something. I try to leave Cuba. On a raft I build with my friend. We get out to sea and get blown back. We get caught.”

I stare at him. This is beginning to feel like a documentary on Netflix.

“And this not the first time,” he says.

There is a girl in a wedding dress walking between a gaggle of friends, laughing. Someone calling out about fresh fruit.

“Vamos,” he says suddenly and starts down the street. I jump up and follow him.

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Aurelio keeps talking like nothing happened. He takes me into a plain shop with mostly bare shelves, and old Soviet cash register. Two men light up in smiles behind the counter. Something to do! I think.

“This is ration shop,” he explains, and shows me his little paper booklet of rations. DSC_0121

Sugar, flour, rice, coffee, salt. Half a pound of this per person per month. Two pounds of that. This is where you get your food. If you want fresh fruit or vegetables, you have to buy them out of your salary. Which is very close to nothing.

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I bid farewell to Aurelio into the back of a shiny 50’s Chevy backseat with five other men. Back at the Melia Cohiba, I try to get in some internet time in the lobby. I strike up a conversation with a Cuban man sitting on the couch with me, the Special Couch which is the closest spot to the Special Router behind the concierge desk, which sometimes works– when the time is right. And the stars are aligned. And the smoke curls away from Miami. He tells me that this and the other nice hotel are the only places in Havana where you can get internet. I am stunned. And, he says, it costs a month’s salary for an hour of internet time.

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The Melia Cohiba meets the neighborhood.

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I look at him, stunned.

“Como?!” I am saying this a lot.

“Si, si.” he says. And explains that IF you can get to the hotel, and IF you can afford to blow a month’s salary, and IF you can get on the network, it is very slow. And lots of things are blocked. He is currently downloading his emails so he can read them offline. He tells me about the “newspapers” and “magazines” in Cuba.

“Todo Castro y Fidel,” he says. Nothing else. No current news, events, sports, international gossip, nothing. Just a dead guy and a dying one, day after day.

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One week is not enough. I have to go back to Cuba.

Thailand and a Malaysian Surprise!

I guess it all happened because Dad got depressed. And not your average boo-boo either. The real kind. The kind that includes hospitals and break ups and electric shocking.

I drop out of college. Move into the trailer in the front yard, surrounded by potted cactus Dad snatched from Baja, and he lets me park my motorcycle inside the house. (I love him for this.)

I think he’s already on meds. I don’t remember which ones, if it’s still Lithium or is it Ativan now? I don’t know what to do.

Sometimes I ride down Highway 1 to Santa Cruz, back to taste an old life that’s warm and happy in my memories. Surfing and Jon and hopping freight trains. Of course everything is different now so my visits are more like tepid and strange.

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After a few months, or maybe it’s just weeks? It becomes obvious that my glorious presence alone is not going to snap him out of this. I ask for his credit card; tell him we’re going on a trip. I probably could have said I’m pregnant and going to dye my hair blue and move to Alaska and he would have said, okay honey.

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San Rafael, California, waiting for the Airporter. A little testy hmmm?!

I celebrate my 21st birthday at 30,000 feet, somewhere above the dark water near Tokyo. A gaggle of Japanese stewardesses whisper me a very happy birthday while everyone else snores under scratchy gray blankets.

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Thailand! You can buy eels slithering around in plastic buckets. Giant metal men hold traffic lights. The river in Bangkok has more squirming black catfish than water. But anyway.

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Woohoo! This piece of art just outside our room reminds me that it wasn’t just the Romans that raged like rock stars. Kinda makes me feel more normal.

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There are pictures of the Thai Royal Family or whatever everywhere. (Note the arching thing above.) It’s like the whole country is their living room.

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Let me just say. Telling someone who’s never done it that you rode is elephant is cooler than actually riding an elephant. Keyword: Sloooow.

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Get it straight people! Monks first!

After a week, Dad has to go home. I decide to stretch this shit out. I’m going to Bali!

But somehow I fail to notice that my layover in Kuala Lumpur is actually overnight until, uh, the day before my flight. Guess who’s going to Malaysia? Surprise!

Flying in to KL, there is nothing but perfectly spaced date palms as far as the eye can see, and the air is orange. Or more like brown. It’s a sea of haze that looks like it must stretch to China. Like a computer generated palm desert from hell.

“Palm oil,” my seat mate grumbles without taking his eyes off his magazine, and shakes his head.

Then I have a little inside freak out while I’m in line to get my Malaysian visa. I read the fine red print: “Be forewarned, Death for Drug Traffikers Under Malaysian Law.” Scenes of Brokedown Palace swarm me. Please God don’t let me have any orphan buds in any of my pants pockets! This is one of the reasons normal people actually plan which countries to visit, I remind myself. Malaysia is a total contrast to Thailand, where you can order a “special” pizza and stumble back to your hotel high as a kite.

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I’m riding into KL from the airport, and it’s crazy muggy mixed with the smell of burning. There is a sudden downpour and instantly a crowd of hundreds of scooter and motorbike drivers gather under a freeway overpass. At first I think, it’s a party! People shake the rain off like ducks and start selling drinks and snacks to each other, while other groups break off and play cards, smoke, laugh. Right there next to the eight lane highway I am speeding down. And then the sun comes out, and as quickly as the crowd appeared, it is gone.

The day I arrive is Chinese New Year. The whole city is glowing with lanterns.

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Yay, my first terrorist sighting!

(Um, kidding. I hope you’re smiling. But if you’re not, it’s probably because humor has a grain of truth in it. And racial profiling is real and widespread. Which is why that was funny! Or least at was. Not anymore. Damn.)
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I’ve never been an a Muslim country before. I certainly didn’t bring clothes for it! Oops. Looks like the mannequins fucked up too.

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Translation? Anyone?

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School girls inside the towers.

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View from the Petronas Towers, the tallest buildings in Asia. And this is only halfway up!

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A big WTF.

Do you wear a Lady Loo Urinal Bowl… or use one?

Speaking of questions.

So does Dad get better? Well, yes. Was it because we took this trip?

Umm like I said, speaking of questions…

Kenya! Diesel, Ugali and Lots of Zebras

When I told my Tutu I was going to Africa, she hung up on me. Now I’m on Kenya Airways popping Ibuprofen. The ache of an abortion and a man I left keep me company and keep me awake as I fly over the dark continent. But that’s another story. DSCN1859

Nothing was going to stop me from taking this trip. I look down at little red bush fires that pepper the blackness below me. I know we were somewhere over North Africa. The total lack of lights surprise me. When I land at Jomo Kenyatta at midnight, friend of a friend Mona drives me through Nairobi, racing through red lights. I’m thinking, do they mean something different here? Does red mean go? 

I ask Mona, “what do red lights mean?” and she laughs, throwing her head back and staring straight ahead.

Um.

Okay.

I wait.

“You can’t stop at da red,” and then she get serious and looks over at me.

“Why?”

“Cause if you stop, somebody with a gun can come up to your car and take everything you got.”

“Oh.”

It smells like diesel fuel. I spot some birds on the side of the road, but they’re more like baby dinosaurs. I’ve seen twelve year olds smaller than these birds! When one lands on an electric wire along the highway, I wonder if it will break.

Two days later, without my friend Dena (where is she? Why wasn’t she at the airport?? Am I doing this alone? Is she okay??) I am on a bus. It takes eight hours to get to Kiamokama where WE we supposed to be WWOOFing together at a rural orphanage for the children of parents lost to AIDS, accidents, murder. I do not want to do this alone.

Nairobi means something like “the high place,” and we descend from the city down into the Great Rift Valley. I see a lake covered in pink. Algae? No, flamingoes! I stare though the plastic window that’s been cracked and lets the heat in. We stop to pee at a petrol station in Kisii. Years later I learn that Obama’s father is from here. Kids descend on the bus holding out bags of roasted peanuts and soft drinks and ears of corn and yelling in Swahili. I hover over a concrete pit thinking, this is of course where I’m going to contract Malaria. Bugs I don’t even recognize buzz around me, loud, too loud. It smells like ammonia and its dark dark dark, which is fine because there’s nothing here I want to look at very close.

So, long story short, we are very hungry in Kenya. We are lots of other things too, but hunger covers all those up. Tea for breakfast, not much till dinner. Goat stew with mostly bones. We buy 3 cent avocados at the market when we can sneak away to look for food. And feel guilty about it. We eat a lot of ugali. This is ground corn (maize) but it’s field corn, not sweet corn. It’s mixed with water and boiled. When you eat it, it expands in your stomach and makes you feel full. Yay. It’s the staple food of Kenya.

We hang with the kids at the orphanage. We go around the “town,” talking about why these heavy sacks of ConAgra fertilizer and pesticides are short term solutions. Kenyans tell us about their diabetes, high blood pressure, fainting. All starting in the last fifty years. Everything is changing. We explain compost. Companion planting. And I feel ridiculous. One generation of Fix it All chemicals nearly wipes out a bagillion years of agricultural wisdom, and a white girl from America is sitting in a mud hut, explaining the past back to a culture whose bones know more about this land and how to grow food that I could ever know. DSCN2152-2

We visit the Masai Mara game park. We see lots and lots of zebras, which makes me really happy! And giraffes. They’re a dime a dozen. We find a mother lion resting in high grass. A bird picks the nose of a water buffalo and feeds him his boogers.  DSCN2366 DSCN2367-5

Anyway here’s how it went, picture style: DSCN2527-2

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One girl, one world and a whole lot of pictures