Keep it Luquillo – Wednesday Wandering

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Whenever snow is predicted, I scroll to my photo album “Warmer Places.” Increasingly I turn to my photos from Puerto Rico. With five inches of snow predicted to fall in Chicago, let’s jet for Luquillo beach, just outside of Fajardo.

Every article we read advised to get to the ferry office a few hours before it opened to guarantee a spot on the boat to Culebra, considered one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Our hotel echoed the advice. Despite all those warnings, I couldn’t fathom we would have to give more lead time for a boat than for our flight to Puerto Rico.

Leann and I looked at the ferry schedule, discussed what time we should wake up to arrive at the ticket office. The boats leave every two hours, which throttles how many people can enjoy them at a time. The ticket office opened at 7AM and I thought an hour would be plenty of time. For the record, Leann suggested we go earlier. We got directions from the hotel staff and opted to walk instead of driving the half mile. Continue reading Keep it Luquillo – Wednesday Wandering

A Year of Adventures and Doing Stuff

Rodin on traveling abroad.

December 31, and the week leading up to it, has always been of interest to me. The culmination of a calendar year causes me, and seemingly every other blogger, to reflect on the past year’s events, what happened, what didn’t, where’d they go, what did they cook/eat, who did they date. The arbitrary nature of time demarcators has led me to question the significance of today versus yesterday or any other day. As a society (and world) we mark today as the end of the year and tomorrow the day to join a gym, just as soon as the room stops spinning and we find our pants.

In stark opposition to the mindfulness movement, I have largely been focused on the parts bookending “now.” Where am I today versus a year ago? Where will I be a year from now? In my 29 years I can safely assert that I am not clairvoyant, nor a historian. I often struggle with remembering where I parked my car or what I just ate. I have a vague notion of where I will be tomorrow and maybe a week from now, but beyond that…

The basis for mindfulness is that you can’t change the past, nor predict the future, so why worry about either? If you have any friends who post those inspirational quotes or read any profiles on a dating site this year, I’m sure you’ve read some variation on that axiom, likely attributed to Buddha.

While I try to become more “now,” I did want to enumerate what happened in 2014, mostly so I have some reference point when I fry my brain from rapidly vacillating between gadgets and apps.

Travel

Oh, the places you’ll go…

Where didn’t I go this year? I have dreamed about going to Europe for many a New Year’s reflection day. This year finally was the year. After dating Leann for about two months, I shared that I wanted to spend my birthday somewhere other than Chicago. She asked where and I said Italy and Paris. She followed up with inquiring if I was going solo or with friends. Leann shared that if no one else would go, she would be interested.

“How committed are you? If you had to give a percentage…”

“75-80,” Leann answered.

A few weeks later I asked “Are you sure?” no less than five times. And after that our first trip was booked. My quest for a passport stamp would be realized. Oddly, I don’t think I’ve looked at those stamps since the adventure. Even more peculiar was that someone was willing to go overseas with me for a prolonged period of time.

Stops along the way: Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris, Fajardo, Old San Juan.

Each inspiring and beautiful in their own way. Florence was one of the most breathtaking places I have been, possibly due to the steeply sloped hills. Traveling was one of the main themes for my writing this year. While it certainly can be expensive, seeing other cities and cultures opens the mind. Plus, I don’t think many people want to read about my daily commute. Traveling is my escape to newness. Experiencing a city for the first time is magical. There is no feeling like my first time in Paris. Walking around Paris that premiere nuit. Wandering in the damp and chilly early evening. Emerging from the Metro and seeing I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid. Turning to Leann with mouth agape. Then walking some more. Wandering. Then, our feet hit the damp pavement a little faster. There it was. Illuminated in all its glory.

Le Tour Eiffel.

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I have never experienced anything like that day. That’s the magic of travel.

I hope to return to some of these places in the future, but I’m not focusing on the future. MINDFULNESS!

Dating

More than traveling this year, there was a larger theme. Adventures with Leann. By some luck I happened to find someone who is eager to try new things, a patient listener (we all know my stories are seldom succinct) and someone who says yes. She gives unconditionally. She has unknowingly reminded me of the innocence of young love. Those times before becoming jaded or disenchanted with the dating “process.” There is little doubt that I am crazy. Somehow that doesn’t bother her. What started as a conversation about ice cream while sipping margaritas has developed into a year full of happy times getting to know her, her family and her friends. What adventures will we get into in 2015? Follow #lookatusdoingstuff to find out.

Foodstuffs

This was the year I became a professional chef. Thanks to Chicago Food Bloggers and Mealsharing.com, I hosted my first dinner party at a swanky rooftop in Chicago’s South Loop. This was also the year of bacon. Leann and I entered a cooking competition through The Takedowns. To supply us for the showdown, they gave us with bacon. Lots of it. Enough to clog all your arteries. And those of your friends.

Also thanks to Yelp and Chicago Food Bloggers, I got to eat some delectable dishes that inspired my cooking. I had the chance to meet restaurant owners and some other bloggers in the process.

Dancing

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2014 was also the year I became a professional dancer. No, not that kind. Thanks to Nicolle Wood, I got a bit closer to learning that devil dance known as balboa. The first few weeks were rough because I had basic knowledge of the basic step. Through her patience and generosity with her time, I was able to learn hangman, crabs, scoots and the routine in time for our performance outside Harold Washington Library. Hoping to take on lindyhop in 2015.

Working

Another year at the same place, but there were lots of shuffles. The company was acquired by another company and the office moved from the ‘burbs to downtown. That has necessitated several shifts in commuting and lifestyle. The company continues to grow and my team is growing exponentially. I have had the opportunity to recruit and hire some very talented people.

So now, it’s off to another party. Some close friends are gathering for homemade pizza and reflecting on the year that has been full of -ING verbs. Thanks for following this year and I hope to share more great adventures from around the world in 2015!

Mofongo Tasting in Puerto Rico | Food Traveler’s Guide

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Mofongo is like the non-existent snowflake in the Caribbean, with no two being alike.

Every guide book and article on Puerto Rican cuisine raved about the mofongo as a must-try dish. And you definitely should try it. Prior to having it presented in front of me in Loquillo, I had little conception of what it was or how it would taste. Travel books describe it as mashed plantains combined with a meat. With each restaurant presenting a different variation, it’s tough to generalize the dish. The prices were mostly $12-20 for mofongo. Some places we saw charged more. The cost also depends on the meat you select.

Here’s my run down on what you can expect from mofongo.

#4 – La Parrilla

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  • Luquillo Beach
    Kiosk 2
    Luquillo, Puerto Rico 00773
  • (787) 889-0590

This was our first foray into the world of mofongo. After some misadventures earlier in the trip with restaurants that no longer exist, we found our way to La Parilla after a day at Loquillo beach. There is a string of kiosks offering souvenirs and food. La Parilla, which means the grill, had high reviews and looked to have decent prices. The service was like the weather, warm and inviting. The chicken mofongo wasn’t what we had expected, not bad, just not what our mouths were anticipating. At La Parilla, their interpretation on the staple dish is more like a pork chop suey or Chinese chicken with peppers. It was still tasty, but not the garlic-filled wonderment we had hoped for. The portion was plenty for two people if you get a few appetizers. The plantains tasted more like mashed potatoes or yucca than plantains. We went during the week, so we lucked out to have both the beach and restaurant to ourselves. Their appetizers were OK. Nothing stellar.

Overall, this was our least favorite mofongo. If you’re in the vicinity after a day at the beach, I’d suggest going there. Otherwise, La Parilla is not worth the trip east for their Asian-inspired mofongo.

#3 – Genesis Restaurante

327 Calle Recinto
Old San Juan
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We ended up here on our hunt for Lechon, the other dish touted by all the guide books. Lechon is a roast suckling pig. I didn’t see it on any menus or featured in any dishes. I suspect this may be a local thing more so than tourist sampler. We asked our hotel if they knew where we could get some on our last night and they suggested another spot up the street. When we got to that restaurant, we checked the menu and asked the hostess. She advised us to go to Hennessy’s. Walking east on Recinto Sur while searching for Hennessy’s on my phone proved futile. It turned out the restaurant is called Genesis. Genesis is definitely more of a local spot than the other tourist-leaning locales. Think of your favorite tacqueria vibe. They have two TVs; one had an NBA game and the other Telemundo. The waitress was friendly and spoke english well. I normally use group think to help influence where I dine.

If it’s packed, you probably won’t yack.

There was a table of about 6-8 younger folks in a celebratory mood. A few other tables were occupied with families. The restaurant was more empty than full, but it smelled good. The food took a while to come to our table, but the waitress kept us updated on how much longer it would be. While we were hungry, I would rather food is made fresh instead of fast.

We ordered two pig dishes: smoked pork chops and then asked if we could get mofongo with pork. At first look, the mofongo looked light on pork chunks, but after some forking into it, we discovered more in the plantain mash. Their rustic mash tasted the most pure or authentic versus all the others. The missing factor was a sauce. The mofongo was surrounded by iceberg lettuce and two tomato slices. If there were a gravy, this would have been in the running for the crown.

#2 – Fefo’s

Calle Tanca 203
Old San Juan

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I’ll admit, the photo doesn’t look the best. The green hue and ambiguous milky sauce don’t speak to the flavor of this mofongo. We had wandered around looking for a good spot and saw a lot of closed places. Insider tip: most of the restaurants are toward the south and east of Old San Juan. Fefo’s had a sign for happy hour. Leann and I love a good bargain AND we were hungry, so we sat down near the window looking out on Tanca. This had more of an upscale dive feel, if that is a thing. The happy hour drink special runs all day and is for 5-6 different drinks. We got two margaritas. Mine was with bitter passion fruit and Leann’s a sweeter local fruit.

The sauce made this #2. It was liquid garlic, but soft. The chicken was moist and tender. It looked and tasted like it had been poached in broth. The smashed plantains were tasty and chunky. We closed Fefo’s down before our nightly stroll through the streets.

#1 – La Estacion

  • Carretera 987 Kilometro 4
    Fajardo, Puerto Rico 00738
  • (787) 863-4481

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Remember my adage about following the line? This was the first restaurant we tried to go to in Fajardo. Navigating Fajardo at night definitely requires GPS. La Estacion is off a two-lane road 987. There will likely be tons of cars outside and you’ll hear the din of a hopping restaurant. They were full to the red snapper gills our first night, so we ended up severely settling for Wendy’s. At a day of flying and driving, you don’t really care where you eat, just that you do.

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Not to be deterred, we asked our hotel to make us a reservation after our Bio luminescence kayak adventure. What we failed to realize was we would be soaking wet, so we opted not to smell like mangroves while eating dinner. After a shower and dry clothes, we hit the road for La Estacion (the station). Their parking area wasn’t as full as our first night, but still lots of people. The restaurant was reminiscent of some of Chicago’s hot spots with a cocktail list and kitschy-tiki bar decor.

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We ordered some apps and skirt steak mofongo. The server asked me how we wanted it cooked. I said medium rare and he responded with “medium.” We did this dance once more before he explained that getting skirt steak medium rare would be very chewy. I hadn’t intended on a verbal dance with the waiter, but after sipping our cocktails and munching small apps our mofongo with skirt steak arrived and my irritation passed. Maybe it was working up a huge appetite kayaking, or the steak or the cocktails, or maybe their mofongo was just that good. This was also the day we had our first mofongo near Loquillo. The steak was well-seasoned and the mofongo came in a wooden cup that looked like a molcajete. The cup was deceptively deep. Their plantains and yucca combo also had minced garlic. The steak created the sauce and the plantain mash was moist versus the others we had that were somewhat dry.

This was one of those dishes where as soon as it hits your tongue you look at your dinner partner and say “dios mio.”

Why You Need to Haggle On Your Trip

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Being on hold for the majority of two hours was not on my itinerary for this trip. Starting the day with fresh coconut water and pineapple, wasn’t officially, but it was a welcomed breakfast.

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Following the theme of this trip, today started with a few knuckleballs. I have started to reluctantly await each day’s plot twist, a la Scrooge and his spirits in A Christmas Carol, whether it’s a restaurant that’s closed or a ferry that filled before we could get our tickets.

Today was transition day from Fajardo to Old San Juan. That meant checking out, returning the rental car and checking in at our new hotel. On our way to the airport we stopped to get fresh fruit from the coco frio man. Not knowing Spanish well enough to barter or attempting to, we got hosed on the cost of the fruit. To save some toll money we took the 3 all the way to the airport instead of getting on 66. That saved at least $7. The first two legs were relatively smooth, minus creating my own roundabout trying to find a gas station before returning the junk bucket.

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Fish Don’t Go to Heaven (and other advice from Fajardo)

Loquillo

“Sometimes certain things happen…” Denise trailed off before pausing, shrugging her shoulders and raising her hands to the sky. She works in the mornings at the front desk of the hotel where we are staying. “Everything happens for a reason, you know? That’s what I believe.”

My girlfriend and I got up early to purchase tickets for the ferry to Culebra, an island said to have one of the best beaches in the world. We were advised to be there at 6AM for the 9AM ferry. That seemed ridiculous, so we walked there from our hotel and were in line by 7. It was a 10 minute walk from our hotel and we figured we’d save the $5 on parking. While Leann waited in line, I went to the nearby post office to attempt to pickup or MIA sunscreen and contact solution. En route a man waved me toward him. I asked where the post office was and he pointed up the street before asking me if I could give him a dollar for the ferry. I said I didn’t have cash and walked into the post office, which didn’t have an attendant for another hour.

Back in line with Leann, the line inched forward. There were three windows to buy tickets; one for Culebra, Vieques and cargo. Everyone was in line for the best beach in the world. The family of four in front of us purchased their tickets. Then the woman waved at us, shook her head and signaled to another man who announced that the 9:30 ferry to Culebra was sold out. That was our plan for the morning. The ferry to the other island was available, but they weren’t known for being one of the best. We decided to check the post office again and regroup. Continue reading Fish Don’t Go to Heaven (and other advice from Fajardo)

191 to 3: dia dos en fajardo

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“191!” he shouted as we walked in opposite directions.

We started today with directions from our hotel, along with a highlighted map, to el yunque. I put the rainforest into the Google maps app and away we went.

Fun fact about the roads near Fajardo: the main interstate is circular. The 191 circumscribes the rainforest. We discovered this after we took the 3 south through flooded back roads with cows, stray dogs and chickens, all sorts including spotted ones and ones that look like Foghorn Leghorn.

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GPS said we had arrived. We hadn’t. We drove up 191, which wound its way up and up past vibrantly colorful homes and more dogs who were unable to provide us directions. One looked like Baxter from Anchorman; he also spoke Spanish.

We drove up a few kilometers and doubted we were in the right place. We drove down past the dogs and Pantone wheel of homes. Consulting the map on the phone, we couldn’t see any other route taking the 3 to 191 would lead to El Yunque. So, back up and up we drove. At this point the dogs were so irritated by our disrupting their naps, one was stretched out in the street begging us to end his days. Driving. Farther up the 191 we were about to give up when we saw a sign indicating we had arrived in the rainforest! There was no welcome center like our map indicated and three other cars. Not positive signs for a major tourist destination. We walked around and confirmed we weren’t in the verdad spot. On our way out we asked two men walking their dogs if they spoke English and how to get to the visitor center. One man told us the path was closed due to rain, but we had to take the 191 toward Luquillo/Fajardo.

We thanked him profusely and walked back toward our white hatchback speckled with what used to be bugs. “191!” He shouted.

Were it not for our “scenic” driving we wouldn’t have heard the birds, experienced the nearly desolate grounds and seen this.

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2,077 Miles from Chicago

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There’s something comforting about a neighborhood Walmart. Some scenic turns through the area surrounding Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport allowed us to see chickens strutting in the narrow streets, with cars parked however the owner felt convenient. The wandering cats are in need of Purina. I opted against attempting to play fetch con los gatos.

The roads immediately leading from the airport to Fajardo were a bit circuitous and GPS wasn’t immensely helpful, beyond triggering my fight of floor it reactions. Our rental car is a Mitsubishi hatchback, light on features and horsepower. Eventually we wound our way to the interstate and made it to the hotel.

In an effort to be efficient, my girlfriend mailed our fluids (contact solution, bug spray, sunscreen) two weeks ago. The thought was we wouldn’t have to wait for checked bags. The USPS, being occupied with delivering Christmas cards, has yet to deliver our package. So, with a dinner recommendation from the front desk we adventured out to get dinner and contact solution.

Our first stop was the restaurant. It was full and the host told two women in front of us they were closed. We hopped back into the hatch and drove toward the Walgreens. We spotted a familiar, glowing sign.

WAL-MART
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I have often lamented my irritations with Walmart’s clientele back home. Oddly, after a day of flying, driving, and being hungry, the familiar store brought a weird amount of comfort. Everyone may be speaking Spanish, but I know these aisles. Following up the trip to Wendy’s drive-thru may not have been authentic Puerto Rican comida, but I stopped caring about that as soon as I could feel the hangry coming on.

Tonight, we ate Wendy’s on the hotel bed and watched A Charlie Brown Christmas. As the locals say, esta bueno.

I’m reminded today of the mindset that we hear about in all those TED talks. We learn more about ourselves, not through introspection, but by testing our boundaries and extending our comfort zone. At no point did I feel horribly unsafe; the surroundings are just different. And my Español is nowhere near my remedial French.

I also recalled that little bit of mom wisdom when turning out the lights tonight. I may be six feet tall and finish my burritos at Chipotle, but always pack a nightlight. I always forget something when traveling.

Tomorrow is a new day. We shake off the previous day and embark on trekking the only rainforest in the U.S., el yunque.

Hasta mañana.

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