Monday, 23 September 2013 01:59

Lifestyle | Travel Blog: Tanzania

Travel Blog // September 23, 2013

Go on Safari. Climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Lounge on the beaches of Zanzibar. Two years ago, if you’d asked, “What are you going to do in Tanzania?” I likely would have cited those three activities. When I finally visited Tanzania this past August, those items weren’t even priorities on my list. What was? Filming.

For fourteen days, my biggest adventure was filming One Day I Too Fly in Africa, a documentary following five African students at one of the U.S.’s premier technological universities. The purpose of our production trip was to follow our student, Sante, home. As expected, her reunion with family was emotional – but so was our visit to a new country. In addition to adjusting to an entirely different culture, my producing partner and I had to navigate foreign production laws. There was no time for jet lag. Nearly every day, we were up by 5am, out by 6am and home close to midnight. We researched a ton before leaving, but our trip ended up being mostly trial and error. My knowledge of Swahili has grown exponentially – though many people in the city of Dar Es Salaam understood and spoke English.


An Education

Four days of our schedule were spent in Sante’s family’s village of Kirua Vunjo. Within moments of arriving in their village, a squirrel and a large spider attacked me. I quickly realized that we were in Mother Nature’s arena. Located in sight of Mount Kilimanjaro, Kirua Vunjo’s primary source of water comes from the tippy-top of the mountain. Read: glacial shower water. For a chick who’s used to taking two hot showers a day, this was quite an adjustment. I can honestly say that those four days made me completely rethink my routine in the U.S. My luxurious 20-minute showers now seem over-indulgent. But despite missing certain creature comforts, Kirua began to feel like home.

For four lovely days, we embedded in Sante’s family, made new friends, and got our behinds kicked playing soccer with local kids. Our experience was one that we never could have had on a “vacation” in Tanzania. We witnessed lifestyles in the city and in the villages, saw the landscape of a vast expanse of the country, and learned stories that only locals could tell.


While I can’t give you the “traditional” must do’s in Tanzania, here’s a list of things to do and try, if you’re interested in sampling the life of a true Tanzanian:

1. Take a drive down Bagamoyo: This road connects Dar Es Salaam to the city of Bagamoyo, which used to be the center of slave trade. Bagamoyo means “Lay Down Your Heart. ”It’s believed that the name could be tied to slaves who were separated from their families, or perhaps to sailors who left for long trips from port.
2. Make a friend: This is very broad, but the best moments of our trip were spent over tea or dinner with people we’d just met. If you make a friend, they may just invite you over for dinner. Since returning home, I have decided to be equally gracious with my home and food.

3. Drive, drive and drive some more: If you’re going to Mt. Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater, or on a safari, it’s easy to catch a flight from city to city. But, if you can, find someone to drive you between cities (driving in Tanzania is 10 times more intense than driving in NYC, so you’ll want a driver). While passing through, slow down and observe as much you can. You’ll miss out on a lot if you opt to fly.
4. Go to Mblamwezi Beach Club: Have you ever dreamed of an open-air bar on the beach with late night Karaoke? This is it! The D.J. is great, but please note that we left the club as Karaoke legends – you have big shoes to fill.
5. Dance the night away at Club Bilicanas: Located in Dar Es Salaam, this club is a popular spot for locals. I now have an entire Spotify playlist dedicated to songs discovered at Bilicanas.

Our next production trip for One Day I Too Go Fly is to Rwanda, in December. If it’s half as amazing as Tanzania, it will be a success.

Published in Travel

Lifestyle // July 15, 2013

Ah, Belize. For me, this tiny nation with a population of less than 350,000 will forever evoke images of swaying palm trees, friendly smiles and sounds of the rainforest.

I just got back from a nine-day Belizean adventure with my husband, and although my skin hasn’t recovered yet from the scorching sun, I am grateful for the chance we had to relax and learn more about this Central American country where tourism is the number one industry.

Belize provided the best of both worlds: it gave us the chance to explore a new country but still stay within our comfort zone. Total travel time (including layovers) was about eight hours, and our Belizean friends speak English as their official language and widely accept the US dollar.

Jungle Fever

We began our journey in the mountains of Belize in an area known as the Cayo District. I thought it would be beautiful, but I never expected the laid back luxury we found at Chaa Creek, the secluded eco lodge where we spent our first three nights.

Our cottage at Chaa Creek was decked out in gorgeous hardwood finishes and featured huge indoor and outdoor showers – “in case you decide to shower as nature intended,” according to the staff. Cloaked in solitude, it was the perfect place to unplug, catch a nap or lounge in hammocks for stargazing.

From checking out the a butterfly farm to canoeing down the Macal River to lounging by the sparkling pool, Chaa Creek offers plenty of onsite activities and we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect stay.


But adventure abounds outside the resorts, too. We spent one day trekking to and through the Actun Tunichil Muknal, an ancient Mayan cave where religious rituals once took place. A few swims through dark corridors and several rocks climbed will take visitors to the ultimate artifact: a skeleton completely intact.

While we loved our time in the Cayo District, we were thrilled to head toward the coast and spend the rest of our vacation embracing the island spirit.

Island Adventures

Our first stop off the coast was the tiny island of Caye Caulker (“Caye” is pronounced “key”). Golf carts and bikes are the modes of transportation, and people here are very easygoing. We “splurged” for an oceanfront suite in Caye Caulker that cost us far less than a basic hotel room in any major U.S. tourist destination.

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Aside from little shops, restaurants and beachfront lounging, the major attraction of Caye Caulker is its access to some of the best snorkeling and diving on earth. We don’t scuba dive, but we decided to check out the snorkeling we’d heard so much about.

The reefs were teeming with wildlife. We were within two feet of gigantic manatees, half a dozen sea turtles, sting rays, nurse sharks and dozens of friendly fish I’d never seen before. Our guide was a local with endless knowledge and personality, and we shared our adventure with just four other visitors. If you ever make it to Belize, take the time to snorkel from Caye Caulker. Its small, family-oriented style made it the most memorable part of our trip.



After the snorkel adventure and a half day recovering from a pretty excruciating sunburn (even our SPF 30 couldn’t protect us from that blazing Belizean sun), we headed to the island of Ambergris Caye, Belize’s most well-known and frequently visited island.

Ambergris Caye is everything I imagined when I used to picture what it would be like to visit an island. Something about it just made me feel like I was on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. Although the beaches are smaller than some, they are postcard perfect.

Since this was the last portion of our trip, it was time to take it easy. We walked along the shore, kayaked in the ocean and rented a golf cart one afternoon to explore the island. We also had fun trying the different restaurants and enjoying one Belikin (the official beer of Belize) after another. Our rooftop hotel deck made for some gorgeous sunset views and one very groggy but breathtaking sunrise.

Tastes of Belize

The food in Belize was my favorite surprise. I don’t know what I was expecting, but almost every meal was one of the best I’ve ever had while traveling. We learned about new, delicious foods such as fry jacks and coco (a root vegetable similar to a potato) and we enjoyed the local spin on pasta dishes, soups and salads. And let’s not forget the local fruits and freshly caught seafood. Shrimp and snapper were abundant, and most mornings we had platters of pineapple, papaya and watermelon – all grown in Belize. This trip was everything I hoped for. My style of travel is to visit a new place that will offer plenty of R&R but will also allow me to learn about a country through dining, excursions and activities.

What’s your summer travel style?

*Note: Chaa Creek kindly offered me a discounted room rate as a writer, but opinions are completely my own.


Published in Travel
Thursday, 04 April 2013 00:22

Lifestyle | Travel Blog: Ecuador

Lifestyle // April 8, 2013 

This winter, I officially became a card carrying adventurer when I traveled to Ecuador for the first time. When my boyfriend, Mathias, invited me to tag along to visit close family friends I jumped at the opportunity to experience this unique South American country. The combination of diverse geography, the remains of the Inca Empire and influence of Spanish-Colonialism make this equatorial nation rich in culture and natural beauty.

Our first stop was the quaint, Spanish colonial city of Cuenca. Nestled in a valley surrounded by the Andes mountains, the dominant features of the city's geography are also the inspiration for its name in Spanish: the four rivers of Cuenca (meaning a basin). These rivers are the Tomebamba (named after the Cañari culture), Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara. When we arrived, the friendly people of Cuenca made me feel instantly welcomed. Locals patiently listened to my broken Spanish as  I navigated the narrow streets, made purchases at the open air markets and ordered vegetariano meals at local restaurants.

Tourists from around the world flock to this cultural center, the country's third-largest city and the capital of the Azuay province. Cafes, clothing shops and art galleries are tucked among the weathered cobblestone streets. The main plaza houses both the old cathedral, built in the same year that the city was founded (1557) and the blue-domed Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, built in 1885. Cholas de Cuenca (women of Cuenca) stroll the streets as they deftly weave Panama hats to sell at the central shopping market, Casa de la Mujer.

Upon landing in Cuenca we were greeted with Pase del Niño Viajero (Passing of the Child), a rich cultural tradition that depicts the birth of Christ amid parades of locals dressed in traditional costumes. This colorful event combines Catholic and indigenous traditions and is a three-month-long activity, beginning the first Sunday after Advent and continuing to Carnival in early March.


       Pase del Niño Viajero

After enjoying the art and culture of Cuenca, the next stop was summiting Cotopaxi. Cotopaxi is a majestic, glacier capped mountain rising 19,347 feet above sea level (5,897 meters). We began our adventure by climbing Rumiñahui (a mountain next to Cotopaxi) to adjust to the altitude before the big climb.


       View of Cotopaxi from the base of Rumiñahui

Our journey to “The Middle of the World” led us to the equator (for which Ecuador is named), the imaginary line that divides the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. We straddled the equator, toured the equatorial monument and visited some friendly Llamas that roam the monument park grounds. Next, we headed back to Cuenca to visit the pre-Columbian Inca ruins.





Ingapirca, which means “Inca stone wall,” is a well restored site of Inca ruins located near Cuenca. A fragment of Inca road called the Ingañan remains leads past the highlight of Ingapirca, the Temple of the Sun, also known as El Castillo (The Castle). The Inca Empire’s last remaining sun temple stands on a hill 3,200 meters high with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. It’s fun to imagine the temple as it was, lined with gold to reflect the sun in a way designed to create a religious experience.




Finally, we ended our trip with a relaxing visit to El Cajas National Park. Located 45 minutes outside of Cuenca,  El Cajas is a beautiful, high altitude park with  approximately 270 lakes and ponds,  rare species of bird and animal life, and more beautiful  plants and flowers than I could count.

The Spanish-colonial charm of Cuenca, the wild beauty of the Andes mountains and the vibrant culture of the Ecuadorian people made the trip to the middle of the world one that I’ll never forget.


Published in Travel

September 10, 2012

I can’t lie and say I’m some crazy fashion connoisseur, or that I know the name of every high fashion designer. But hey, I can definitely appreciate the art and drama of the runway. I love clothes and hair and makeup; I love seeing an individual’s (or team’s) inspiration turn into a living collection of garments to swoon over.  So when I found out I’d have the opportunity to cover Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, hosted in Madrid this year, I was beyond psyched.

I had the opportunity to peruse the showroom floor, all of the sponsors’ booths and the private reception area (free nail polish and Ron Barceló cocktails, anyone?) and caught the colorful, over-the-top Agatha Ruiz de la Prada show. I even had the chance to make it backstage, where the models were getting their hair and makeup done, and receiving last-minute prep before hitting the runway. My inner 7-year-old was excited by the thought of playing dress up.


A week later, I caught a few more shows that were presented by a fairly new organization called EGO. EGO was formed by IFEMA to promote up-and-comers in the Spanish fashion world. It’s a platform for young talent, built to help further fashion in Spain as an artistic discipline; it was created to help infuse the art into the overall culture. But not only does EGO support the art of fashion, it also created a direct selling space that was open on the premises during fashion week. There, these young designers were able to display their collections for sale. A business-woman and entrepreneur at heart, I was intrigued. What an amazing tool for young designers!


Thanks to the help of a new friend, I was able to track down some of the EGO staff, who introduced me to Miss Leyre Valiente. And after seeing her fascinating collection I couldn’t wait to chat with her. I got the inside scoop on the inspiration behind her Chimaera Spring/Summer 2013 show, and the woman behind it.

Her last name alone, Valiente, seemed to set the tone immediately. Valiant, brave and bold are words that describe both her personality and her new collection. In the 27-year-old’s own words, the collection, Chimaera, signifies “the growth of a woman.” Leyre weaved a Sci-Fi narrative through her show as it flowed from nude garments, “like skin, to represent when we’re pure and simple,” to darker pieces, signifying “a dark period, a struggle. We all have many sides—dark and light, like beautiful little monsters.” The struggle against this inner monster culminates in “a breakthrough. It’s like coming into the light.” The range of jewel tones: ruby reds, greens and striking gold combined with the taffeta, leather, silk and organza fabrics paint an image of this creature growing and seemingly taking flight.

I was amazed to hear that Leyre was able to create and execute such intricate patterns with a team of just three young women and a small staff of interns. I found it moving to see her inspiration come to life on the runway, in a narrative that every Made Woman can relate to. Even more, I was excited to see that Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week and EGO are giving young women like Leyre a spotlight in which to shine and grow their future fashion empires.

To find out more about Leyre, click here.
To find out more about EGO, click here.

Published in Lifestyle

July 30, 2012

Anyone who knows me even semi-decently knows one thing: I. LOVE. Food. Culinary exploration is one of my favorite parts (and biggest expenses *sigh*) of traveling and experiencing new cultures. Stop number two in my travels across Europe was Ireland. My grandmother--although US-born--was 100% Irish by blood; so as I left Barcelona and headed to Dublin, I was definitely looking forward to learning more about Irish culture. But leaving tapas and Sangria behind, I can’t necessarily say that I was psyched about Irish food. I mean, I like potatoes as much as the next girl (okay, probably more), but how many can a woman be expected to consume over the course of a week?

Luckily, Irish cuisine has much more to offer than I originally surmised. Of course, a bustling city like Dublin offers more than just traditional Irish fare, but I don’t travel to have a burger and fries (…I’m sorry, “chips”) wherever I go. I wanted to get a feel for some of the typical dishes, which—in most places I found—are served with a fresh new twist. I invite you to tag along with me through my day of Dublin cuisine:

Breakfast

Naturally, I couldn’t make it all the way to this country and not try an Irish breakfast. That’s about as sacrilegious as building a pub in an old church! Okay, maybe that’s a bad example for Ireland (see: The Church Bar, Dublin, Ireland):



But I digress. Generally speaking, this traditional dish includes bacon, sausage, fried eggs, black and white pudding, toast, fried tomato and sautéed mushrooms. Chatham Brasserie’s version includes tasty, crispy breakfast potatoes and their choice of a poached egg offered a bit more polish to the traditional dish. And although I did taste the black pudding, I can’t say that I will be going back for seconds (hint: one of the main ingredients is blood). Definitely NOT Bill Cosby approved. But pudding aside, an Irish breakfast is a tasty and filling way to start the day. Wash this one down with an Irish coffee--coffee with whiskey, topped with a thick cream--and I wasn’t feeling too shabby.  Off to a decent start!


Lunch
After such a huge breakfast, I wasn’t that hungry around lunchtime, so I decided to take a local Irishman’s advice and hit up Grogan’s. Described as a good place to “relax in the middle of the day”—read: drink a couple of pints—Grogan’s is a low key, artsy pub where you’ll encounter “relaxers” of all ages. It was a beautiful day, so I enjoyed my pint of Smithwicks Ale and one of their toasted sandwiches on their comfy yet crowded patio.


Situated between the centuries-old George’s Street Arcade and the Powerscourt Antique Gallery, it felt a bit more authentic than, say, the Gourmet Burger Kitchen across the way, advertising their €9.99 “meal deal.”  The patio is perfect for people-watching--and eavesdropping on discussions between the locals about important cultural issues like the authenticity of Margaret’s Irish accent on Boardwalk Empire, among other things. While far from gourmet, their toasty sandwich of Irish cheddar cheese, traditional deli ham and tomato was surprisingly tasty, and I found Smithwick’s to be a nice local beer for those who find Guinness to be a bit on the heavy side. If you’re looking for a cool, non-touristy pub in Dublin, this is a great option.

Dinner
For dinner, I stepped out on a non-Irish limb and was genuinely impressed by the offerings of Roly’s Bistro, a French-Irish fusion restaurant whose café offers quality yet reasonably-priced set dinner menus. I opted for the Thai spiced fishcakes as a starter, the confit of duck as a main and two of their “tapas style” desserts. Far from traditional Irish, the restaurant came highly recommended by several Dubliners I met on my trip. And for good reason. The fishcakes were flaky and seasoned just right, and the duck perfectly cooked and served on a bed of Asian-inspired noodles and veggies. The mini dessert of a Pavlova pillow with fresh strawberries and chocolate mousse with malteasers complemented each other perfectly.  The staff was friendly and helpful, and quick with recommendations. Highly recommend!


I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by Irish cuisine as a whole, even as I ventured out of Dublin to the west coast of the country. I loved that I could indulge in modern, fusion dishes as well as those with old-world, traditional charm. But as I’m not a vampire, there will be no black blood pudding in my future. Next stop: London!


Published in Lifestyle

July 2, 2012

Culture shock. It’s one of those funny little phrases that are difficult to fully grasp; it’s hard to really nail down what it entails exactly—until you find yourself smack dab in the middle of it. 

I would consider myself to be a somewhat “traveled” person. I’ve been to most of the major US cities (and some cornfields in between), hit the Caribbean a few times and went to Paris in college. I even threw Mexico, Canada, Hawaii and Puerto Rico in for good measure. From my childhood until now, I’ve lived in very diverse neighborhoods and encountered people from all backgrounds. Culture shock shouldn’t be an issue for me, right?

Uh…not quite.

Let me back up. A few months back, I made a decision. Although it was relatively simple in a lot of ways, it wasn’t an easy one for me to make. I decided that I was going to pack up everything, quit my job at a major record label in LA and just…go. I would work on my passion project, Made Woman Magazine, see the world (starting with Barcelona, Spain) and solidify my next steps in the music industry. And in June, that’s just what I did.

And never before have I experienced culture shock on this level.

I’m sure much of it stems from the fact that I decided to roll out here completely solo: I spent my first week and a half or so wandering the streets of Barcelona, seeing sites and frequently getting confused while doing seemingly mundane tasks. I’ll never view going to the bank, the post office, or generally communicating with other human beings the same way again.  I stopped at the market one day to pick up a few items, which sounds easy enough, right? Problem: my Spanish vocab needs serious work (how the hell do you say “bell pepper” in Spanish?). Since there are like a zillion stations spread out in a huge marketplace where the vendors select the items and ring up your orders separately, communication is slightly important. After roaming aimlessly for a few minutes trying to find bags for my produce (they bag it for you), I luckily found a sweet lady in the cheese section to take pity on me and figure out that I wanted mantequilla y harina. But the whole thing was kind of like being on Mars. Sure, I had been put in touch with some people in the city, but they had been in Barcelona for years, surely leaving moments like these far behind them. Taking in all this newness independently had me feeling like a Punk’d crew would come rushing out laughing at any moment.

                                                    

Also—and this partially prompted this trip--I had never spent more than maybe ten days on a given vacation. I got in, saw some sites, hung with the friend(s) I had traveled with, ate more than I should, and then headed back home. Hey, ten days is a long vacay in the US!

This time, however, those ten days were spent finding my way around a huge city, working on my (rather broken) Spanish and just generally getting acclimated. Rather than being a true “tourist,” I’ve been able to take in some of the true nuances of the region’s culture.



Beyond the simple things like my feet hating me for making them do more than push some pedals in a car to transport me around the city (and where the hell is a good mani/pedi!?), eating dinner at 10pm, or paying $3 to drink water at a restaurant (wtf?); taking in the cultural differences definitely sheds a light on my own background and my personal ideals. It’s challenging! Seeing kids running down the street outside of arms-reach of their parents, or lighting fireworks in the Festival de St. Joan was shocking to me! Looking across my balcony and seeing people outside smoking a cigarette in their underwear the first time caught me off guard, I can’t lie. And learning about the differences between Catalan and Spanish people first-hand has been eye-opening.

So what does this all mean? For some travelers, it may mean that they should rush back to their home where babies aren’t running around with firecrackers. Hey, I wouldn’t judge! Everything isn’t for everybody. But personally, I think it makes sense to remain open to new cultures and situations and what you may be able to learn from the differences. Instead of labeling something as “weird” or “foreign” and rushing back to my bubble, why not try to embrace at least some aspect of it?


Sure, seeing people on a nearby balcony half-naked on a hot afternoon can be startling, but I think it’s nice to see people who don’t equate nudity with shame. In their mind, it’s just hot! And with the lack of A/C around these parts, they may have something there. And sure, you could consider it annoying that you have to chase down the waitress for your check every time you eat out, but isn’t it nice to not be forced on your way so that they can free up the table (read: get more tips)?

Clearly, I’ve felt more pangs of culture shock than can be named or explained in one article, —and will no doubt encounter more as my travels continue. But if I can offer my humble advice to someone considering travel of any length of time, it would be this: put away your preconceived notions, your expectations and, many times, your pride. Give your travels the opportunity to shape you for the better and take the experiences as they come. And most importantly, learn to laugh at yourself. Seriously. 

Have you had your own experiences with culture shock? Where were you and what happened? Let me know in the comments!

Published in Lifestyle