Friday, October 29, 2010

Ukuleles, Flowered Leis, and a Roasted Pig

Colorful and fragrant lei around my neck: Check
Bright yellow flower behind my right ear: Check
Decorative wrap skirt: Check
Ready to enter into an authentic Hawaiian luau: Check
The island of Oahu can be described as a world of its own. If you’ve ever visited its neighboring islands, you will be quick to see that Oahu is filled with people who are all about the fast-paced lifestyle; similar to those living in New York, for example. Stepping out onto its streets, Oahu provides excellent night-life, eateries, and beachside strolls. However, if one wishes to experience a night in Oahu, one filled with good food, great entertainment, and unique tradition; then one must attend one of Oahu’s many luaus.
Having attended one of these myself 14 years ago (I was just 11 at the time), I can say that even at my young age, it was quite an entertaining experience. My family and I chose to take part in the Paradise Cove luau during our stay in Oahu. The hotel where we were staying allowed for employees of Paradise Cove, to come and pick up attendees and take us to the luau. We lucked out and received what would be like a “host” on our shuttle. Not only did he keep us entertained with jokes and information about various buildings and Oahu history, he made us feel like our luau had already begun. His bright red, flowered shirt stood out against his black slacks and I was beginning to feel more and more anxious to take part in this great Hawaiian spectacle.

My mom
Upon arriving at Paradise Cove, the setting could not have been more perfect. Not only was the sun hanging low in the sky, casting shades of orange and yellow onto the ocean below, but the warm breeze could be felt against my skin – two additions that could only help to make this a beautiful evening.
Met by players dressed in grass skirts, coconut bras, and flowery leis, we were greeted with the welcoming word “aloha.” One thing that I noticed quite quickly, entering into our luau, was that everyone seemed so friendly and welcoming. Of course, this could be due to the fact that it is their job and to make tourists feel unimportant would drive away business; however, with each person it seemed truly genuine. That is, except for the older woman who was handing out flowers for the women to wear behind their ears.
“Right or left?” She asked.
“Excuse me?” I asked, unsure as to what she was asking me.
“Right or left?” She asked again.
I stood there completely confused by the question she continued to ask. What was she asking me right or left for? Was I supposed to guess and hope I guessed right? I didn’t see anyone going a particular direction, just these women slipping flowers behind the ears of other women.
“Are you married or not?” She asked, obviously aggravated by my lack of knowledge regarding this issue. Now, let me ask…if you saw a young girl, who was obviously not the appropriate age for marriage, would you really be asking if she was married? And secondly, would you get snippy because she is young and has no clue about your traditions? If you answered yes, well…I’ll keep my thoughts to myself. However, if you said no…well, kudos to you.
“Not married,” I answered hesitantly, and now deathly afraid to lower my head so she could place the flower behind my right ear.  Moving along, I could see various games being played, such as spear throwing, rolling different types of rocks across the sand, and what looked to be like tubes that were shooting out darts. My dad, being the socialite that he is, decided that he would try his hand at spear throwing.
With his grass skirt secured around his waist, he was officially ready to take part in the Hawaiian sporting event. This of course, led to his involvement in the Hukilau ceremony; an event that allows guests to help pull in the net that traps fish, all while the Hawaiians chant and blow the conch shell.
Now, my dad can’t take all the credit for getting involved because my sister and I did as well. We may have not pulled the nets in from the ocean or thrown spears, but what we did was much better. It was something that I am proud to say that I took part in, and although I didn’t master it, I sure did try my best. What we did required some serious focus and attention as we took instruction from our Hawaiian leaders – we did the hula. Yes, that’s right…my sister and I stood among a crowd of others and attempted to shake our hips and move like the pros. I emphasize the word ‘attempted’ because I can’t foresee a career in hula dancing in our near futures, but that’s okay because it was fun while it lasted. (That's me in the back row with the white sleeveless shirt. My sister is the blond next to me)
The events at Paradise Cove do not stop there though. As the sun continues to set, the traditional Imu ceremony begins. With the crowd gathering around, a vast production unfolds. Not only are there ceremonial dances taking place, but two men step into the center to unearth the cooked pig. To see your dinner come up from an underground cooker is truly a sight. Hanging upside down, the pig is carried off to be prepared for our feast. I have to admit, I love animals and I’m all for animal rights, but that pig looked delicious!

Once we are made aware of the show getting ready to take place, we took our seats at a long wooden table. The way it is set up is that you eat among others; sharing in the feast that they provide. Looking at the plate before me, I could feel my mouth watering at the delicious pig that had been cooking just for this special occasion. Along with the pig was white rice, pineapple, hot buttery rolls, and a salad. When I looked at the corner of my plate however, I noticed a small pile of something that was a mix of purple and gray. Looking at my parents, I was unsure about eating it.
“It’s poi,” my mom informed me.
Looking at it with hesitation, I decided that you only live once. Now here’s my advice to you: If you taste this delicacy known as “poi,” make sure you have a nice, big, tall glass of water to wash it down. Tasting like what I would imagine chalk and paste to taste like, I tried not to show my disgust while sitting at this elegant feast. Luckily for me, everyone else in my family seemed to harbor the same feelings towards the purplish-gray goop.
Happy to let it sit alone at the top of the plate, I finished off the rest of my delicious meal and readied myself for the show. The people of Paradise Cove do not disappoint when it comes to show time. Watching it all unfold in front of me, I watched as men stood in the background, beating the tall drums in front of them, all while Hawaiian women danced to fast-paced, authentic Hawaiian music. Fire breathers accompanied them as they lit their torches and lit up the sky with fire. I felt myself literally enthralled by the scene before me. The music, the drums, the dancing, all of it was so captivating that I couldn’t keep up with all the movement on stage. I can remember sitting there with the biggest smile on my face, wondering how in the world these dancers and performers were doing the things they were doing.
Leaving the luau that night, it was obvious how pleased we were with the experienced we had been given. From the food, the games, the show, and the ceremonial traditions, I can’t think of a better way to experience Hawaii and its culture. It is one thing to travel to its beautiful islands and take in the scenery, its beaches, and maybe even its volcanoes, but to attend a Hawaiian luau; you are getting the whole package and more. It is a fabulous way to experience Hawaiian culture and take part in its traditions…how many times are you going to be able to say you did something like that?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Broken Streets Next To A Sea Of Blue

Let me ask you a question. When you think of a deserted island, what do you see? Do you picture a Gilligan’s Island sort of place, or maybe you imagine a bearded Tom Hanks running around with Wilson, his pet volleyball. Personally, I see a place that houses two or three tall, lush green palm trees bunched together, a plot of sand that sits in the middle of the bluest ocean and if you were to walk its perimeter, it would only take you 20 minutes max, and finally, a small hut that provides shelter from the sun. Maybe my vision seems a bit extreme for some people, but what would you say if I told you that I have been to this “deserted” island that I just described to you? This isn’t some dream I’m about to share, or even some fantasy that I built up in my mind. In the summer of 2004, I really did find myself on this exact island, in the middle of the ocean. It just so happened that this particular ocean held the second largest barrier reef in the world and surrounded the island of Belize.  
Now, I’ve done my fair share of snorkeling throughout the years; however, never in my life have I seen such incredible beauty beneath the sea, like I did in Belize. After our cruise ship docked in the middle of the Caribbean Sea; I mean, we literally dropped anchor in the middle of the ocean, we took a speed boat out to one of the many offshore cays. As we approached the small cay, I remember thinking that it looked just like something you would see in a cartoon. You know a cartoon where there’s one or two people sitting on the sand, up against the lone palm tree? Well, maybe no one else thought that, but I did.
Once on shore, all of us that were on the small speedboat, migrated into the hut and waited for further instructions. I was excited about the thought of snorkeling over the second largest barrier reef in the world. I’d always wanted to go to Australia and see the Great Barrier Reef; however, what I saw in Belize was breathtaking enough. Sliding into our flippers, we were instructed to walk backwards into the water – an effective way to keep from falling. So I’m working my way into the ocean, when suddenly my sister lets out a scream so loud that I nearly fall back into the water.

“What?” I asked panicked. My dad was frantic, wondering what it could be that made her react in such a way.
“Seaweed!” She said while attempting to get herself out of the tangled mess. 
By this point, I was laughing hysterically. My sister has always had a fear of seaweed and many of the ocean’s creatures. She’s deathly afraid of coming eye to eye with an octopus or squid – two things I continue to tell her, she will more than likely never see. I’m honestly surprised she still ventures into the ocean today.
My dad, being her saving grace, walked over and helped her to float across the seaweed, all while trudging through the green mess himself. We had two guides, one at the front and one at the back, who led us around the reef, making sure no one swam away from the group.

Of all the waters I have snorkeled in, the waters surrounding the barrier reef in Belize were by far, the most beautiful. The water was so warm and inviting, so crystal clear and blue; everything that lie beneath the surface looked absolutely beautiful.
“When you spot the Elkhorn reef, don’t go vertical in the water. You will scrape your feet along the top and cut yourself if you do!” David yelled out. David was our guide at the front. We’d struck up a friendly conversation with him during our speedboat trip towards the cay. We later found out that he was a singer and went by the name “Indio.” We ended up buying one of his CDs. 

When I spotted that Elkhorn reef, I was stunned. Not only did it emit the most beautiful yellow color, but it stood tall and wide, making it nearly impossible for anyone not to see it. I snapped dozens of pictures but due to the fact that it was a water camera I was using, the pictures weren’t too spectacular.
Along our snorkeling adventure, I spotted all sorts of fish. My dad even claimed to have seen a large angelfish. Whatever they were, each of them sported the brightest colors, swimming as if they had nowhere to be and no particular time to be there. I was so entranced by the sights below me that I suddenly felt my body coming into contact with cooler water. I noticed my mom not too far from me and with my goggles on, we both looked over to see the edge of the reef dropping off. It was one of the creepiest moments I have ever experienced in the ocean before. It was like half body was in warm water and half was in cold. Not only did the temperature of the water change, but the color did as well. Here I was, swimming in beautifully clear water, but the moment the reef dropped off, it was like looking into a deep, dark blue abyss. Needless to say, we both made our way closer to warmer water.
I often wonder what hides beneath those depths. Maybe that oversized octopus or squid that my sister is so deathly afraid of, lurks in the cold, deep waters of that small cay. It’s always fun to tease her about those kinds of things.
I may not have seen an octopus or squid, but as we traveled back around towards the cay, I looked up to see a long, skinny fish skimming the top of the water, off in the distance. The way its tail was flipping and its quickness through the water, I quickly realized it was a barracuda. I had seen one before in the Bahamas and by its blue and silvery color; I knew instantly that I needed to swim just a bit quicker and away from that particular fish.
By the time we reached land, I was thoroughly convinced that I had just seen the prettiest piece of ocean in my life. Sitting on the small beach for another hour or so, my parents, my sister and I enjoyed the feel of the sun, soaking up its rays, all while watching a tiny little crab pop in and out of various holes in the sand. It was quite humorous to watch. We just made sure our fingers and toes were properly out of reach for the crab.
Later that day, we made our way into Belize City. To have just come from the most beautiful water I’d ever seen, to this city, it was heartbreaking. The roads and sidewalks were difficult to walk on as they were so damaged and broken up. We had absolutely no idea where exactly it was we were traveling, but a short Belizean man approached us, asking if we would like a “tour guide.” Now, I cannot for the life of me remember this guy’s name, but what I do remember is something he told my dad.

“I come to America and work for you. That way I can marry your daughter,” he said, pointing directly at me. Now, this man had to have been at least 45 years old, if not older. As flattered as I was (notice the sarcasm), I was thankful for my dad declining his offer.
Belize City used to be the capital of Belize, but that title has been transferred to Belmopan. However, it still remains the primary port for ships arrivals, and due to the various attractions, such as the barrier reef and Mayan ruins, the city remains a thriving center for tourists. It is a large commercial center with markets up and down the streets. Vendors with metal carts and decorative umbrellas line the streets with various fruits, nuts, and other Belizean foods for sale. As badly as I wanted to try the fruit that smelt so sweet and fresh, I opted against it, as I am not to take my chances eating off a cart. Sorry, but I’d rather not take my chances on getting food poisoning thanks. The same rules applied when I visited New York as well, so it’s not just an island thing.

What is so sad about all of this is that the infrastructure is so very poor. As of 2008, the U.S. was one of the biggest providers of economic assistance to Belize, according to the U.S. State Department; however, rumors say that due to the Belizean government, the money does not finds its way to bettering the streets, sidewalks, and other developmental issues that the city so desperately needs.
Amidst the broken streets, I cannot help but look back and think positively about my time in Belize. I am sure there are areas that are better developed than Belize City, but for anyone interested in traveling to this island, I say, do your research and find out which areas are more suitable for shopping, dining, etc… However, one thing is certain, if you travel to Belize, take time to snorkel over the barrier reef. I promise, it will be an experience you will never forget…I sure haven’t.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Mexico: Then and Now

I must say, with everything that is going on in Mexico right now, it disheartens me to think that it may no longer be an ideal getaway for families, couples, and spring break teenagers. Ten years ago, people had no reason to worry when traveling to Cozumel, Cancun, or even Cabo. Just like any other tourist, they readied themselves for the sun, the beach, authentic Mexican food, and cold margaritas. That is what I prepared for when I took my first trip to Cozumel.

Considering that this was our first real cruise -- our first cruise broke down the year before -- I was beyond excited to be in Mexico for the first time. I mean, just imagine docking at this fun and exciting city, walking to the end of the long, wooden dock, and being met with loud music, young people dancing, and a large neon sign that reads “Fat Tuesdays.” If that doesn’t say "Welcome to Mexico," I don’t know what does.

We had an excursion booked at Dolphin Discovery, a place that allowed for snorkeling, dolphin encounters, and even a seal show. I thought we would be swimming with dolphins; however, once I strapped on my orange life vest and stepped down onto the long, metal walkway that was submerged in the warm, crystal clear water, I quickly realized that this would just be an encounter. Here is a piece of advice, make sure you know what you are getting when you go to book an excursion on a cruise ship, just saying. I couldn’t help but be a little bummed, but after the beautiful creature swam by us and let us rub its rubbery, yet, smooth belly, I had to admit that it was a great way to start my day in Cozumel. To top it off, I even got one of those pictures with the dolphin kissing my cheek.

Okay, so the start of my day turned out pretty well. Since we were in the area, we decided to hop over to the nearby lagoon and do some swimming. Here’s the catch though, we had to swim over a massive wall of rocks, containing sea urchins and sharp, rocky edges. My dad quickly realized just how sharp those rocks were when he raised his leg to see a cut along his shin bone. However, that cut would be minor compared to what we heard next.

“What in the world?”

I jerked my head around to see who was screaming. The four of us stopped to see a young girl, probably around the age of 10, being carried towards the shore, her screams sounding of pure agony.

“What happened to her?” My mom asked someone nearby.

“She was trying to swim over those rocks and stepped on a sea urchin,” we were told.

Now, I don’t know about you, but just the thought of what it would feel like to step on one of those black, spiky balls makes me cringe! I was so terrified that while I swam over the rock wall, I literally found my legs hardly moving at all.

Our time spent in the nearby lagoon didn’t last long as we decided that lunch was in order. Walking through the streets of Cozumel, we stumbled upon a Mexican eatery that allowed for outside seating. Not only was it decorated in reds, greens, and whites, but it housed the best tasting salsa; my mouth was practically watering at the sight. Large bowls of homemade, warm tortilla chips came out and I was convinced you could fill up on just the chips alone. But to make it even better was the individual bowls of salsa that they placed in front of us. Vibrant colors of red and green filled the bowls; a mixture of salsa and peppers just waiting to be scooped up by these deliciously warm chips and then taking a trip to my mouth. If we ate anything else for lunch, I honestly couldn’t tell you what it was because I’m convinced that I made a meal of just the chips and salsa.

Naturally, we ended our little day in Cozumel with the first place we saw on our way in, Fat Tuesdays. What better way to be welcomed and sent off, right? Well, considering that the legal drinking age in Mexico is 18, and I was only 15 at the time, I technically should have been drinking a virgin strawberry daiquiri. However, if you were at a place called ‘Fat Tuesdays,’ in Mexico, and people were dancing on the bars and tables, would you be expected to consume a non-alcoholic drink? I didn’t think so. While my parents and sister enjoyed their red, margarita filled tubes (because the drinks were served in yard glasses), I sat back and relished in the thought and enjoyment of drinking an actually strawberry daiquiri. Unfortunately for me, that enjoyment wouldn’t last long as I ended up passing it off to my dad because it was too strong for my liking. I was 15, cut me some slack!

Thinking back on my first day in Mexico, I laugh at the fact that my biggest fear was stepping on a sea urchin. If that was all I had to fear, then I was extremely fortunate. Never, while I was petting that dolphin, sipping my daiquiri, or eating that divine salsa, did I ever worry that someone might try to kidnap me and my family, or start shooting at us unexpectedly.

In September 2010, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to those traveling to Mexico, to be on guard and alert at all times, due to the rising violence. The drug gangs that are taking over these cities and killing innocent lives are doing a superb job of repelling tourists from the beauty that Mexico has to offer. It is a shame since it is such a popular tourist destination for so many. It is unfortunate that even all-inclusive resorts are no longer safe. Tourists are becoming just as much of a target for these drug cartels and it is not just occurring in and around the border.

Just today, CNN reported that the Jonas brothers were canceling their concert in Monterrey, due to the “rising wave of violence” brought on my drug gangs “battling one another.”  At the end of September, a husband and wife were on the U.S./Mexican border, jet skiing, when they crossed over into Mexican water and the husband was shot in the head. According to Sky News, pirates are being blamed for the murder of David Hartley, but the drug gangs are making it difficult for authorities to investigate.

For the past year and a half, at least, news reports are constantly telling us about the heinous crimes being committed by drug gangs in Mexico. Beheadings, shootings, and kidnappings seem to be the typical work of the members of these drug cartels. I don’t know about you, but those three words: beheadings, shootings, and kidnappings, are enough to keep me away from Mexico and its borders.

I hope one day tourists can return safely to this tropical haven and enjoy the splendors of places like Cozumel and Cancun. Until the Mexican government steps in and takes a stronger role on nailing these drug gangs, my vacations will be spent elsewhere, in places where I won’t feel that my life is in danger.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Walking on Hallowed Ground

Just ten days days after the 66th anniversary of D-Day, I was blessed with the opportunity to step foot on the infamous Omaha Beach. Never had I imagined that I would get to see a place that is held in such high regard by so many Americans. Some would say they get the same feeling when traveling to New York and seeing Ground Zero. Don't get me wrong, I have seen Ground Zero and it was an equally humbling experience; however, being the history buff that I am, especially with World War II, the opportunity to walk along the sands of Omaha Beach is one I'll never forget.

Of course, the moment I learned I would be visiting France, Normandy was an immediate "must" that I just had to see. I wish I could say that it was an easy-going, no worries trip, but I would be lying. Now, that morning, the 2 1/2 hour train ride from Paris to Bayeux was pleasant. I spent my time enjoying the sights of the beautiful countryside and listening to others speak their beautifully fluent French. I'll admit, for months, I had every intention of better educating myself of the French language, but unfortuantely, my efforts were well...effortless.

When we arrived in Bayeux around 10:30 that morning, we anticipated being able to catch a bus that would take us to the American National Cemetery. That would be far too easy, right? Apparently, buses only run every two hours in this little town; something we definitely were not expecting. So, for the next hour, or so it seemed, my sister and I were seriously contemplating how we would get to Omaha Beach. We actually contemplated walking, having heard that it was only about a twenty minute walk. Thank goodness we didn't go that route because we would probably still be trying to find our way.

Pulling out our small English to French dictionary, which came in quite handy, we approached a woman at the train station. Now I even have to laugh at this. When my sister attempted to motion with her fingers "walking" to our destination, not only did the woman's eyes grow to the size of saucers, but she let out, in her strong French accent, "WALK?" Yes, we know...stupid Americans. Deciding that we weren't getting much help, we left the train station and walked back outside, only for me to spot a sign that read "Omaha Beach English Tours Available." Thinking to myself, someone has to be speaking some English there, we walked down to a unique, quaint-looking hotel/restaurant/bar. It looked unbelievably homey; complete with flowered wallpaper, a small, private bathroom, and a bar where you could order Croque Monsieur and Croque Madame--two dishes that we would eventually order later that day.

The gracious man inside offered to call us a taxi and was so kind as to let us sit inside and wait for our saving grace chariot. By the way, did I mention that it was June and our teeth were practically chattering from the cold? I didn't think so. By the time it arrived, we met our driver who informed us it would be around 30 euros one way. Luckily, the things he explained and pointed out to us on our trip through town, made me not resent the fact that this one way cab ride was costing me 30 euros.

Arriving at the entrance to the American National Cemetery, I started to feel a bit of excitement boil inside of me. Part of me was so anxious to see it all that I had to restrain myself from throwing open the side door and sprinting towards the main walkway. The other part of me, although excited, felt incredibly humbled and blessed to be stepping on such sacred ground.

Wrapping our jackets tighter around our bodies, my sister and I made our way up the main walkway and passed the visitors center. All I could think of in that moment, as the breeze pushed hard against my face, was that I would soon be walking along the same stretch of beach where so many men perished. Rounding the turn at the top of the walkway, the sound of crashing waves could be heard in the background. All that was needed was the sight of Allied ships and the sound of gunfire and I would be transported back to June 6, 1944.

Looking up from the ground beneath me, I felt a shudder of emotion wrack my body. Before me was a field of perfectly manicured, lush green grass, and sitting atop it were rows upon rows of white crosses that bore the names of those who had fallen. Each cross was perfectly in line and workers could be seen walking up and down the rows, polishing off any residue that may resting upon these sacred markers. As I walked down the concrete pathway, lined with trees on both sides, I remembered back to the scene in "Saving Private Ryan" when the old man in the beginning was walking along the same path. Looking over at my sister, I saw her eyes grow red with held back tears and I knew she was just as affected as me. The feeling of being among such brave and honorable men; I felt like going to each and every cross and saying 'thank you' for your service.

Not only did we find the crosses to be a breathtaking sight, but the monuments dedicated to our fallen heroes, were equally as beautiful. A tall, circular chapel-like structure stood in the midst of the lawn. A small alter sat towards the front with the engraving "I Give Unto Them Eternal Life And They Shall Never Perish." To both sides stood various flags and on opposite walls, inscriptions could be read. Looking up to the ceiling, I was in awe of the mural that showed an angel watching over these brave soldiers, only to take him in her arms as he lay dying.

Across the way, we walked towards what could be seen as a long, rectangular pool with a semicircle structure built behind it. A black stone man stood in the middle of this arc, extending his hand towards the heavens. Behind him stood a wall consisting of all the names of the missing. After admiring and taking in the beautiful structure, we decided it was time to make our way down the long and winding path, towards Omaha Beach.

I wish everyone could have seen the sight that I did when I reached the beachfront. I found myself asking how I could ever be so lucky as to walk in the footsteps our our nation's finest. Maybe I wasn't sporting combat boots, a helmet, or dodging bullets, but my body was carrying me along a path that for so many, would be their final resting place.

Large sand dunes could be seen for miles while rocks lined the beach. I couldn't help but wonder if somewhere along this beach, underground bunkers remained hidden from that fateful day. Waves crashed against the shoreline as I stood there with my sister, taking in the important and humbling moment. Here I was, 66 years after American Allied forces stormed this beach, and I was on, what I consider to be, hallowed ground--how lucky was I?