Lake Michigan and Labor Day Weekend

Chicago emptied out some over Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Large rollerbags and their owners fill aisles of the Blue and Orange Lines. Some restaurants and independently-owned stores close for the long weekend or take a proper, well-deserved week away. The highways are even more congested than usual — to Rockford, to Wisconsin, to Indiana, to Iowa, to any place not-Chicago.

Those of us who remain, however, enjoy the last sweet breath of summertime — Labor Day Weekend.

Many of us, I predict, will spend some time this weekend at (or if you’re luckier, on) our city’s treasure… the Lake. That’s Lake Michigan.

This video vignette making the social media rounds quite deservedly underlines why, if you visit Chicago, you want to get on a boat.

But if you’re landlocked like 99% of us plebians, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy the Lake.

Because post-Great Chicago Fire, architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham put forth a vision of a lakefront greenspace for all to enjoy. This treasured greenspace is at once a few things in its magnificence: gymnasium, picnic area, bar, tanning bed, reading room, and above all in my eyes, spiritual center.

There’s the active set on the bike trail: runners in increasing wattages of florescent high performance clothing, rollerbladers with wide-legged strides that seem to warrant their own lane, bikers resplendent in spandex and calling out “On your left” to errant pedestians. Volleyballers string up their nets on the sand (yes, we have a beach). Softballers kick up dust on the diamonds, waiting for the pitch. We’ve got families, we’ve got folks on teams, in pairs and alone. The Lake is a place where we can be alone, and alone together.

We do swim in it. Notgonnalie, the water is not crystal clear. The guys, the gals strap on their suits and slather on their sunblock. Stay away from the water at the doggie beach and what I fondly call the soggy diaper area. You’ll know what I mean. 

And there are innumerable of us, just looking out towards it, contemplating own own problems against its vastness or thinking about nothing at all upon its lovely breeze.

Added, August 31, 2014. Here are a few pictures I took on a bike ride yesterday. 

Chicago Summers.

Oak Street Beach, John Hancock, Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, USA.

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Sunset skies over Lake Michigan, Chicago. Perfect.

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I’d stop to skip rocks with my feet in the water then noticed the sky changed colors again. Chicago, USA.

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Sweet little dollops of a cloud. And everyone enjoying the day and the Lake. Chicago, USA.

Rare wave clouds in the center left there.

Rare wave clouds in the center left there.

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Don’t be Scared to Eat Street Food

Good news! Street food trucks and carts are as safe or safer than their brick-and-mortar restaurant counterparts, reports a recent study done from 260,000 food-safety inspections in seven US cities by the Institute for Justice, “Street Eats, Safe Eats.”

Excellent news for Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami, Seattle and Washington, D.C.!

But what about the rest of us? And what about eating street food when traveling abroad? Is that street food safe? Is it RISKY BUSINESS?

I’m not gonna mince words. There is risk involved eating at a street food vendor, a restaurant and even at home if food is mishandled. As a contributor to the award-winning book, “Street Food Around the World,” I am often asked how I stay free of gastrointestinal ills through my culinary adventuring. But I am also here to tell you:

Yes, you too can enjoy street food.

If you’re looking to channel your inner Anthony Zimmern of Bizarre Foods fame, partake in foodways and traditions, make some new friends, and directly support local entrepreneurs, try these nine tips to keep your taste buds, tummy and the rest of your GI system happy.

1. Ask a local. Locals know where to get the best street food. They’re their streets, after all! They also often know what’s in season and what local or regional or holiday specialties are available right now.

Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid, Spain

Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid, Spain

If language is a barrier, pantomine “I’m hungry” then hand your new local friend a paper map and a pen. (For more on language, skip to tip #8 below.) On my flight to Madrid in April, I was seated next to two lovely older gentlemen. One of them knew about food, but he didn’t speak any English nor I any Spanish, unfortunately. But by the number of times he circled Mercado de San Miguel in black ink, I knew I had to make time for that place in particular. I went three times. The market is filled with vendors specializing in all types of food like olives, seafood, desserts, jamón, wine…

 

2. Get in line. People vote with their feet. Yes, it is annoying to wait — especially if you’re hangry. But if droves of locals are willing to queue up at a particular food stall, vendor or cart, there’s probably a delicious, affordable, locally-grown reason for it. And, as Anthony Bourdain has said, street food vendors are not going to poison their neighbors. It may surprise you but much of the world’s population relies on street food to get them through their days. Take heart in that. It’s gonna be alright.

Food Truck Rally, US Cellular Field parking lot, Chicago, USA.

Food Truck Rally, US Cellular Field parking lot, Chicago, USA.

3. Watch how ingredients are prepared and stored. Take advantage of the fact that street food is often prepared right in front of the customers (unlike the kitchens tucked away in traditional restaurants)! Are meats cooked to order? Or, worse, are meats just sitting around? Are ingredients covered and stored in a cooler, away from flies, heat, feral cats? Are clean or gloved hands on food only, and not on money?

If you don’t know what to watch for, check out FoodSafety.gov — which will help you cook safely in your kitchen at home, too!

4. Sneak a peek at the final product. Before standing in line, observe a few finished dishes as they leave the truck/cart. Trust your gut, your nose and your eyes.

Isaw (barbecue) chicken intestine, pepper, onion and vinegar dipping sauce. Also pictured, center, Betamax (congealed pork's blood cubes). Banchetto, Manila, Philippines.

Isaw (barbecue) chicken intestine, pepper, onion and vinegar dipping sauce. Also pictured, center, Betamax (congealed pork’s blood cubes). Banchetto, Manila, Philippines.

5. Go online. Research travel blogs and local media. Google “street food [LOCATION NAME].” Ask friends and contacts on social media and other online forums. Here we’ve even got something called the Chicago Food Truck Finder. If you want to know where to get started, seek out travel reviewer sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp. (Yelp is now in twenty-seven countries including Argentina, see sidebar.)

Food Truck Festival, Kendall College. Backdrop, Sears (Willis) Tower. Chicago, USA.

Food Truck Festival, Kendall College. Backdrop, Sears (Willis) Tower. Chicago, USA.

While you’ve got the browser open, find out from traveler sites like the US State Department’s Country Specific Information or Fodor’s or Frommers if the water is safe to drink or of any other reported food-borne concerns. If the water is questionable, steer clear of street foods with ice.

6. Look where locals congregate. If the map-and-pen method didn’t work and you don’t have Internet access, go to the popular local spots.

  • The open-air or covered markets.
  • Shopping malls.
  • The major plaza or square.
  • Near places of worship. I know I’m always hungriest during church…
  • By the university.
  • In or near major public transit hubs.
  • Lunchtime near offices

Lunchtime has a different meaning, depending on where you are. In Manila, Philippines, one night market, Banchetto, caters specifically to several call centers, where English speaking employees provide customer service to callers from the Western Hemisphere. Place opens up at 10 PM local time.

Logan Square Farmers Market every Sunday throughout the year. Chicago, USA.

Logan Square Farmers Market every Sunday throughout the year. Chicago, USA.

7. Pace yourself, don’t overeat. Belly aches are the bane of too-zealous gustatory explorers, and will put you down as easily as overexposed ingredients or buggy water. Get a small portion or split one order among several companions. Some vendors may even offer a free sample! If you only have a short amount of time in a city or country, you may be tempted to eat as much as possible. Maybe wear looser-fitting pants or a maxi dress.

8. Learn some key phrases in the local language. Useful example, “I am allergic to shrimp.” Or, “One, please?” How about “Where did you buy that?” or “How much does that cost?” Learning a little of the local language always, always, always leads to richer travel experiences because you can talk to more locals than with just English. A simple please or thank you shows hosts courtesy and respect.

Or just try body language: smiling, pointing (at things, not at people!) and pantomine. Perhaps my favorite pantomine conversation I had while walking the Camino de Santiago (yes, that’s where I was for so long). I was eating with a group of pilgrims from all over the world at a communal dinner at an albergue (pilgrims’ hostel) in a small town in Spain. The Spanish lady seated next to me was from Burgos, a large city a few day’s walk ahead. In my broken Spanish I asked her what we should eat when we arrive in her city. Unfortunately her blister situation was sidelining her and her husband from continuing. Morcilla, she said, taking her index finger to pretend-stab her jugular vein, spraying forth the word in question.

Though our resulting meal in Burgos was not a street food experience, it was DELICIOUS.

Morcilla (blood sausage), Casa Ojeda Restaurante, Burgos, Spain.

Morcilla (blood sausage), Casa Ojeda Restaurante, Burgos, Spain.

9. Bring medicine from home. All the preparation and caution in the world may not prevent you from getting ill. The reality is there’s always some risk whether at home or away so you may as well prepare yourself for that scenario. And almost nothing is less fun than trying to explain GI symptoms in a pharmacy where you can’t speak the local language.

What are your tips for street food indulgence?

Sun Bay and not another soul in sight, Vieques, Puerto Rico

Three Reasons to Stop at the Airport Tourist Information Desk. Travel Hack Thursday.

Many international airports have tourist and visitor information desk on its premises. I honestly never thought about stopping there until my recent trip to Puerto Rico showed me how helpful they can be. All for free.

1. Tourist Information desks know local news.

Uncharacteristically, I had not booked our bioluminescent bay tickets before we arrived in Puerto Rico. Bioluminescent bays are bodies of inland, brackish water where the native plankton, in a chemical reaction similar to that of fireflies, emit light when agitated. There are a handful of bioluminescent bays in the world. It was the one must-do activity that the three of us traveling together wanted to do.

At the San Juan Airport, we stopped at their tourist desk right off of the baggage claim area. That’s where we met Maria. Sadly, we learned that the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo, on the western shore of Puerto Rico, had gone dark. Scientists had not figured out why it happened or how to fix it.

Thanks to Maria, we booked a visit to the perfectly unspoilt bioluminescent bay in Vieques, a small island southwest of the main island via an hour’s ferry ride.

Sun Bay and not another soul in sight, Vieques, Puerto Rico

Sun Bay and not another soul in sight, Vieques, Puerto Rico

2. Tourist information desks know local holidays.

As we talked with Maria about our bio bay tour, she realized that we should probably book the tour right then because tomorrow was Discovery Day, and many schools were out of session and some businesses were closed.

Discovery Day commemorates the island’s ‘discovery’ by Christopher Columbus. (Disambiguation: ‘Discovery’ implies some idea or land was newly found, and since there were native people of the island now known as Puerto Rico, I feel it appropriate to add the quotes.) Let’s continue.

Plaza de Colon, Christopher Columbus Plaza, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Plaza de Colon, Christopher Columbus Plaza, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

This knowledge put a very interesting initial frame on our time in Puerto Rico, as we both are Filipino. The Philippines and Puerto Rico share some similarities — islands located in the tropics with a common history of colonizers, both Spain and the United States. As we walked through Old San Juan, both of us imagined what Manila’s Intramuros might have been, had the Japanese not bombed it in World War II. (See the photo collages below.) We wondered what different fate may have been for the Philippines and Filipinos had it stayed a Commonwealth. What if, what if, what if…

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Intramuros (The Walled City), Manila, Philippines.

3. Tourist information desks know neighborhoods.

After Maria from the San Juan Airport Tourist Office had booked our bio bay tour in Vieques, she asked where we were staying in San Juan. We told her the name of the hostel (which I will withhold here). She furrowed her brow and told us she wasn’t familiar because she only works with the larger hotels. I showed her the printed email with the address of the hostel and driving directions by landmark. We should have known that it was a bad idea when she said we should probably not go out at night and never alone in that neighborhood.

We decided to go check it out anyway in the light of full day, since we’d already made reservations. I called the hostel several times, with no answer. Our taxi driver had a hard time getting us there, even with the landmarked directions which were in English only unfortunately. We should have listened to Maria.

No one who worked at the hostel was there to meet us. The common room was dark and dingy. Feral cats with bald patches on their bodies from fighting skulked the property and hissed at us. A woman came over to beg for spare change. But most disturbing were the barred metal doors. They were padlocked on the outside. Feasibly someone could padlock us in the room. Thoughts of Taken and any prison movie I’ve seen flashed before me.

Quickly Natalia and I exchanged let’s-get-out-of-here-right-now-honey looks, found a new hotel in Old San Juan (thanks to her iPad — still US cellular carriers!), and took the fifty cent municipal bus out of there.

At the bus stop we saw this cool piece of street art. Took it as a good omen we were finally headed in the right direction.

Hipster gnome street art, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Courtesy of NBR.

Hipster gnome street art, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Courtesy of NBR.

Palawan, Philippines. Wish You Were Here Wednesday.

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On the way to the ferry, we stopped at a snorkel shop where we rented water shoes, fins, goggles, breathing tube thingy. Everything bright orange. At the shop, I still wasn’t sure if I actually would snorkel, but I figured, if I decided to do it, I’d need the equipment. And a bag of fresh pandesal, soft, semi-sweet bread rolls, to feed the fishies, too.

This is Pandan Island, Honda Bay, Palawan, Philippines. This is where I first tried to snorkel. That’s a big deal for me because I can’t swim. It’s sad to be a Filipino who can’t swim. But, snorkeling is different, right?

We waited in the van for our guides to make final arrangements with local officials for our island hopping day. By this third day in Palawan, our guide knew we were the wandering types and he was better off telling us to stay put.

Pearl hawkers came to the window to tempt our companion pearl-phile. Unfortunately for the young hawker, a deal could not be struck.

A street vendor with sago balanced wares on his shoulders. Street food temptations! I still did not move.

And then, we were off.

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A little nipa hut. Just in case walking on the sandbar became too sunny.IMG_7332

I’m truly in love with mountains.

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Other than the noise pollution from the catamaran’s motor, the slight overcast went away as we pulled to shore, and suddenly it was perfect. Welcome to Pandan Island.

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I suited up with a life vest, fins, goggles and breathing tube for a test drive. How tight should I make my goggles so water doesn’t go up my nose? I put half of my face in the water. I emptied the slightly snotty saltwater from the nostril well, then tugged at the notched rubber straps on the sides. How well does this breathing tube fit in my teeth? Ok, it doesn’t make me gag. How do I use these fins? Kick? Just kick. And it’s easier to walk into the water backwards with these. Is this vest really going to make me float? Check.

Yes, this is how neurotic I am. The Doubting Thomasina in me was sated and I decided to go for the snorkel. A dive guide swam out with us, myself and the pearl bargainer, the three of us holding on to the life ring.

I’ve just got to kick my legs, hold on to the life ring, enjoy the view downward and REMAIN CALM.

As we swam out into deeper and deeper water, the temperature dropped bit by bit. Sea grasses billowing softly in the undercurrent slowly slipped away. We approached the fringes of the world of fish.

Despite this serenity and the promise of what lay ahead, my heart rate began to quicken. My breath became erratic. I looked for the seafloor. I noticed that it was cold. How is it cold? My death grip on the life ring became even tighter.

Oh, what power this fear has. We were still swimming, and I had no idea how far out we were and how far yet we had to go. FOCUS! CALM DOWN! ENJOY YOURSELF!

I can only chalk this up to animal instincts because I’m not anybody’s momma, but I started Lamaze breathing. Or maybe it comes from yoga. Cool! It sounds kinda like scuba. Or Jacques Cousteau! And after about 30 seconds of it, I was calm.

Our guide handed me a roll of pandesal. Pinching off little bits of bread, I watched them float like stars in the diffracted light just before a brave little fish scurried over to snatch it up. Then another, and another.

A few flashes of pink, shocks of yellow splotches against a radiant blue, elegant black arches, fish whose names I did not know. These creatures are so beautiful.

Feeling more adventurous, I shook pandesal in a very loose grip, agitating the water as a cloud of teeny bits of bread billowed out between my fingers. Schools of fish swooped in for the food, and it was the underwater equivalent of being run over by litters of bounding puppies. Exhilarating.

We swam back to shore. I was so happy that I didn’t turn back when I got scared. Still having the life vest on, I floated on my back. A giant rainbow encircled the sun. I’ve never seen anything like that before, and I don’t imagine I’ll see one again soon.

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Back on land, the locals ply the cabanas, tempting island hoppers with sea foods, which they will also cook for you on the spot. I’ve never seen crabs this pretty, or urchins right out of the sea, or slipper lobster ever in my life.

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Though I don’t feel that bad that we didn’t try any. We brought out own lunch: lechon, whole roasted pig; grilled unicorn fish.

Practical Information on Visiting Palawan.

Puerto Princesa, the capital of the Palawan region of the Philippines, is located roughly in the middle of the main island. It’s an hour and one-half direct flight southwest of Manila.

If you fly to Puerto Princesa from Manila, you’re likely at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). Its four terminals manage domestic and international flights (some terminals handle both).  Double-check which NAIA terminal your flight is scheduled to leave from. There is a free bus service between the terminals if you end up at the incorrect one, but they’re far apart, so try to get it right on the first pass!

Island hopping in Honda Bay is really fun. Ferry service is regulated by the local port authority. As I’ve only been there once and never got out of the van to see the port authority, I can’t say how easy or difficult coordinating ferry service yourself may be for travelers. I can recommend working with local tour guides. Some hotels, like the Legend Palawan, have a tour desk.