Saturday, February 28, 2015

Bahamas Blue


I've visited the Bahamas many, many, times but I don't recall being so struck by the startling blue water and sky. Every where I stepped on the small island of Bimini, I felt enveloped by the dreamy blue landscape. I was so taken that I coined the phrase Bimini blue whenever I became awestruck by the island's beauty, which was every time I strolled along the shore. When I arrived on the larger island of Nassau and realized that the scenery was still the same serene blue, I decided to change it to Bahamas blue. There are 700 Bahamanian islands so I don't know if all of them share the same beauty but there was enough on these two to soothe any winter-worn soul.


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Next Stop: Bimini


I'm extremely excited to visit the Bahamian out island of Bimini this week. Located 50 miles off the coast of Florida, this little island is the closest Bahamian island to the U.S. but its old school culture and history is a world away. I'll be tracing the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote part of his Nobel Peace Prize speech while relaxing and sailing in Bimini and Adam Clayton Powell, the first African American  to represent New York in the House of Representatives and also an activist and minister who introduced MLK to his island retreat. Bimini is also noted as the place Ernest Hemingway loved to game fish and where the Lost City of Atlantis possibly originated.  So I'll have lots to post about! Look out for pix and updates from this fascinating trip soon.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Sampling Semla in Stockholm


The quickest way to understand a place is to dive into the culture. In Stockholm, I was extremely lucky to be invited to experience the Swedish ritual of fika. An important part of Swedish life that involves enjoying coffee and pastries with friends, family or co-workers, fika reveals the Swedish love of home life and sweets. Strolling the narrow streets of Stockholm, I noticed that every cafe was crammed with people lingering over coffee and big, puffy, rolls. Turns out those rolls, called Semla, are a hugely popular part of the Lenten ritual of fattening up before the fast. Only people seem to gobble more Semlor (plural) than they practice Lenten fasting these days.


I was fortunate to arrive in February, just when the Semla craze stirs up and even more fortunate to have two Stockholm based friends, Lola Akinmade Akerstrom and Germaine Thomas to invite me to fika and guide me through the tradition.  Fika (pronounced fee-cah) is like a coffee break except it's not tied to work or any pre-determined structure, you can have fika several times a day at any time you like. The semla is made from wheat flour, sprinkled with cardamon and filled with almond paste and whipped cream. It sounds rich and impossibly decadent because it is. I have to admit, I was intimidated by the size and heft of the Semla. How do you eat them without making a mess? As we settled into a bustling cafe in the Central station of Stockholm's metro, Lola and Germaine showed me. You take the lid off the bun and you're supplied with tiny spoons the scoop out the cream. As Semla experts, they informed me that these were good Semlor, fresh and made with high quality ingredients. Apparently, all Semla is not created equal and it's possible to get stuck with bad Semlor that tastes terrible. That definitely wasn't the case here. I dug into the creamy sweetness and sipped chai tea, savoring the sweetness. My favorite part was the almond paste but I especially loved trying fika with my Swedish friends.





Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Glimpse of Stockholm's Gamla Stan


When I landed in Stockholm for the first time, I was surprised at how familiar it seemed. Perhaps it was because of the daily snowfall and the people rushing through streets and train stations bundled against freezing blasts. This is my Chicago reality and Stockholm really was not that different at all. Gamla Stan, the city's old town and city center, was where everyone suggested I start my exploration. So I hopped on the metro and arrived in the winding labyrinth of Gamla Stan streets.


This sculpture is the first thing I spotted as I climbed out of the metro. Stockholm is a city filled with art and aesthetics but this was my first up close look at an art piece. I was charmed by the whimsical lines and the parents sheltering a smiling child. I thought it was a good representation of Stockholm's overall welcoming vibe.


Gamla Stan was built in the '1300s but most of the buildings date from the 18th and 19th century.
The cobblestone streets were narrow and slippery with snow and I was worried about sliding down one of them so I didn't stop and take as many photos as I would have liked. It seemed like the streets all melted into each other and opened up into tiny alleyways like this one.


When I arrived at this imposing structure, I was sure it was the palace but it turned out to be the parliament building. All of the streets started to look alike and I got lost strolling through Gamla Stan. I didn't worry though, the Swedes I met were very friendly. A nice man guided me to a metro station that was two stops away from the stop I started from. By this time, I was soaked from all of the soggy snow and ready to visit a cafe for tea.


This was my last glimpse of Gamla Stan and it's my favorite image. The faded gold buildings and narrow passages served as my first Stockholm greeting and I was eager for more.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Next Stop: Stockholm


It's the dead of winter in Chicago and I'm excited about visiting some place warmer; Stockholm, Sweden. Yes, the arctic north is actually warmer than Chicago at this point but regardless of the temperature, I'm thrilled to be traveling to Scandinavia for the first time. I'm joining an international delegation of journalists from India, China, Russia, Turkey, Japan and Romania to cover Stockholm Design Week. I'll be learning about the inspiration and philosophies behind the famous Swedish design principles as well as exploring the "Venice of The North." I didn't realize that Stockholm perches on 14  islands and makes an archipelago comprised of  24,000 tiny ones. Knowing my love for water and islands, I expect to be happy indeed, despite the snow and ice. Stay tuned for posts exploring Stockholm's lovely architecture, design and culture, soon.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Race, Violence and American Lives


I have been haunted for months. Everywhere I turn, there is a reminder of this country's deeply embedded racism, injustice and violence. It follows me like a wispy shadow that you can't quite see but you know is there. I have barely been able to write because I have felt emotionally blocked. The pain I feel witnessing the violence, injustice and media manipulations concerning the Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice cases has been unbearable. When the news first broke I spent days crying and feeling paralyzed. It's not like it hasn't happened before. It's not like I don't know that I live in a country where racism is embedded within its very foundation. It's that I unconsciously expected the American justice system to suddenly become just with the world watching. Well, it didn't and these issues are not going away.

I don't believe it's a coincidence that just as Chicago and the rest of the country erupted in protests, I was teaching the particulars of racism, privilege and community ethics to a class of 18-year-olds. I also don't believe it's a coincidence that one of my students, a sandy-haired, blue-eyed ,creative writing major, hailed from Ferguson, Missouri. She cried as she explained  how her friends were tasered and tear gassed for protesting the longstanding police brutality in her community. I challenged the class to come up with solutions that they thought would help address the complex problems of racism and police brutality We discussed the Criming While White Twitter revelations of the disparities that exist between how differently police treat white people compared to people of color. As a class of black, Latino and white students who hailed from all over the country, all but one of the 17  expressed distrust in the police and held little hope for any relief from racism. But they did have some ideas to help improve some things. Mandatory workshops where police had to face and examine racist beliefs. Cameras to monitor their behavior and an outside organization to monitor the cameras. An organization of citizens to monitor the police and hold them accountable for their actions. All helpful ideas that might move things in a better direction Although they were skeptical,  I encouraged my students to help organize protests. None of these issues can be forgotten or buried under the next celebrity news cycle. I joined several organizations to help organize as well. I donated money. I signed petitions.  I marched.

And then Charlie Hebdo happened. 12 French journalists and cartoonist killed in retaliation for insulting the prophet Muhammad in a satirical newspaper. It was tragic. It was a terrible loss of life. It was an act of terrorism. But so is the unrelenting attack on black lives. Somehow, the outrage about the loss of 12 French lives is bigger and more righteous than the loss of the 2000 Nigerian lives lost to the Boko Haram attacks right before the Charlie Hebdo attack. The loss of French lives who were simply practicing their right to freedom of speech somehow trumped the lives of  poor, black Americans who dared to practice their right to life. The fact that even the slogan, "Black Lives Matter" was adjusted by some sensitive souls to "All Lives Matter" so that we can pretend that everybody's lives are treated with the same disdain and cheapness as black lives, completely illustrates the point. Black lives do not matter in this country. How else can this still be happening?  How else can black bodies still be left in the street, to warn against any further uppity actions like questioning the law and demanding your rights, as they were during slavery and Jim Crow? "Until the killing of black men, black mother's sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of white mother's sons, we who believe in freedom can not rest." The civil rights activist Ella Baker said that in 1964. Why does this statement still resonate 50 years later?  I just spent the last year writing a book about Chicago blues, the music that documents African American history in this country. I had to re-visit slavery and Jim Crow and bombings and lynchings in order to tell the story of the music that forms a vital part of my culture and history. I did not think that I would have to face the living variations of those past horrors today.

But I do. So I spent Martin Luther King Jr's holiday reading over his strategies for combating racism and overall evil. I shared his teachings on Twitter and Facebook. I participated in a forum on diversity and cultural representation in travel writing on the Oubounding website. It was probably the healthiest discussion on racism in general and in travel in particular, that I've witnessed since I started travel blogging seven years ago. The silencing of our voices, the colonialist portrayals of developing nations and ancient cultures and the lack of diversity in most travel industry events were all addressed. Then I had a dialogue outside the forum with a fellow travel writer who is white. She told of how she was questioned about why she includes people of color in her interviews. How she has been asked to take down a post calling out the racist tendencies of the industry. Of the jobs she has lost because she refused. Of publications paying white writers for the same content they ask people of color to write for free. I'm not shocked by any of this but I'm appalled that it continues to happen so often. It has clearly shown me that the privilege that racism provides for white people is still being tightly held, despite the pronouncements otherwise.  It points to the reality that if you do not want any part of  racism and its benefits,you have to do more than be a good person and hope for the best.

When I was asked about what white people could do, I thought about all the MLK teachings.  He said, "The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict." Not speaking up and calling out situations that are clearly wrong, unfair and racist means that you approve. Not using your power and privilege to help make a more balanced and inclusive playing field means that you're comfortable with the way things stand. Refusing to see injustice, becoming defensive and attempting to paint white people as victims means that you're willing to trade your comfort and privilege for the lives of  those who suffer and die in a racist system. It's not about guilt or making people feel bad about themselves. That doesn't help anybody. It's about being a part of the change instead of the problem. It's a choice.

The illustration that tops this post demonstrates all of this on multiple levels. It shows three young victims of racism and violence that live on as martyrs for a movement. They are covering eyes, ears and mouths in reference to the principle of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It represents this country's legacy of turning a blind eye to the atrocities of racism. It also showcases the history of this struggle. The first boy who is covering his ears, is Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was lynched in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. His killers were acquitted but his brutal murder galvanized the African American community and helped begin the Civil Rights Movement. Emmett was from Chicago, I interviewed his mother, Mamie Till Mobley about his murder and the details are so chilling that 14 years later, I can't stand to repeat them. A mother's pain from losing a child is always unbearable but imagine losing a child because he was the wrong color and not properly submissive. Imagine the mother of  Trayvon Martin, the boy with his eyes covered, facing the loss of her son, killed in 2012  simply because he was black, and therefore threatening. His killer was acquitted. Mike Brown, with his hand over his mouth, is the most recent loss, killed last year because, yes, he was black and of course, threatening. His killer was acquitted. His mother must deal with the tragedy as conservative groups paint her son as a thief, a thug, a bully, who clearly deserved to die, his body left in the street for hours. As I'm writing this, I'm getting messages that the St. Louis police have just killed another unarmed, black teen. Global organizing is increasing and lines have been drawn.

 "The time is always right to do what is right." Martin Luther King Jr.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Taste Trippin': Skulls and Spicy Snacks




It's a new year and I've decided to revive the popular Taste Trippin' series where I take readers on culinary journeys around Chicago. The polar vortex has returned and there's no place cozier than the tropical confines of a tiki bar. Filled with all of the kitsch and fun that's required for an authentic tiki experience, Three Dots And A Dash is the city's best tiki bar since Trader Vic's. With a nod to Chicago's speakeasy past, the bar is hard to spot if you don't know where to look. Despite a respectable Clark Street address, you can only access the lounge through a dark alley that provides little assurance that you're not headed down to a den of debauchery and crime. You're required to make your way down a staircase adorned with a collection of eerie skulls, shown above.

 

Pushing through a door and a velvet curtain, the lounge is finally revealed, complete with ukuleles, thatched roof bar and tikis from the original Trader Vic's. Although it didn't actually remind me of Hawaii, the atmosphere was warm and inviting enough to make me forget the arctic air outside



It's a small space that fills up quickly and after one sip of my drink, aptly named Painkiller No.3, I realized why. Getting past the cool glass and garden of flowers, foliage and cinnamon sticks floating in my cocktail, I discovered that two kinds of rum (Bajan and Jamaican, oh my!) makes for a very strong drink.


In fact, some drinks were so lethal that skulls decorated their names on the menu to warn of their potency.

 

The only way to soak up so much liquid fire is with food and the lounge served up a selection of small bites, including  Thai chicken, shown above, which supplied a sweet and spicy pairing for the rum.


Other dishes included pork sliders and guacamole topped with pineapple and served with puffy rice crackers that were bland and unnecessary.



Holed up with my friends and surrounded by the high spirits and tipsy offerings of Three Dots And A Dash, I understood the appeal of tiki bars. I even learned a little about tiki culture. Three Dots And A Dash is a classic tiki drink created by Don the Beachcomber to commemorate the end of WWII. Three Dots And A Dash is Morse code for V, as in victory. I certainly felt victorious as I settled in, pretending to be swept by tropical trade winds instead of frigid blasts from Lake Michigan. Have you ever visited a tiki bar?