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.

Lechon (roasted pig), plantain, rice and pigeon peas, blood sausage, Guavate, Puerto Rico

Lechon: Roasted Pig Magic in Guavate, Cayey, Puerto Rico. Food Porn Friday.

We stole away from Vieques as swiftly as possible that morning. In a short time, we’d grown to love it so much: the quiet, the mountains, the wild horses, the bioluminescent bay.

Vieques ferry pier view, Puerto Rico

Vieques ferry pier view, Puerto Rico

An hour’s ferry ride brought us back to our rented Charlie Car on the main island. My girlfriend’s iPad guided us south around El Yunque National Rainforest to Guavate in Cayey (same US mainland cellular carriers!). Mountains of roasted pig magic await! Lechon, ho! Where else would three Pinays visiting Puerto Rico for the first time go? Continue reading

Sabayon, almond crisp, hazelnut, Joel Robuchon. Photo by Rosemary Nickel, Motivating Other Moms.

Vegas is for Adults: Fine Dining at Joël Robuchon

Author’s note: I dedicate this post to Marissa, friend and faithful reader of this blog. Her response to the reader poll asked me to include more food porn. Here ya go, baby. I aim to please (my readers, especially).

“This is why we do not let children in here”

– Yann, one of Joël Robuchon’s waitstaff, as my dinner companion and I struggled to contain our effusive glee, that reached crescendo as the second dessert phase glided to a soft stop aside our table  — a cornucopia of sweet trifles atop a wheeled Louis XIV style cart — , shaking ever so gently the chocolate sculpture and twisting the heads of the chocolate lollipops in their holder.

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I’m not sure if Yann was kidding, but if he wasn’t, I can think of one reason that they do not allow children in here. Joël Robuchon, the Las Vegas fine dining institution led by the Chef of the Century of the same name, elicits responses from sensible adults with escrow accounts and PPOs a la Meg Ryan’s character in the classic film, When Harry Met Sally (1989). Except we’re totally NOT FAKING IT. Definitely not a place for children. Continue reading

"Cloud Gate" by Anish Kapoor, Millennium Park, Chicago

Chicago’s Millennium Park with Flat Stanlina

Flat Stanlina was so surprised at all the people playing outside, even if it was so cold. My friend Jenny took Flat Stanlina and me to Millennium Park.

When we arrived there was a man polishing the ice rink with a special machine called a Zamboni. The Zamboni machine smoothes flat the grooves that the blades on the skates make into the ice. Soon after the ice was polished, many kids and adults skated. Some people skated fast or even backwards. Other people skated slowly and did not have good balance. A few people fell down, but they got back up again. It was fun to watch them and listen to the music.

Flat Stanlina asked me what that giant shiny bean was. We walked up to see the sculpture called “Cloud Gate.” It was created by British artist Anish Kapoor, and the sculpture was installed at Millennium Park in July 2004. It has a reflective surface that shines like a giant fun house mirror. But Flat Stanlina was right, the sculpture does look like a giant Bean. (In fact, most people here have nicknamed the sculpture ‘the Bean’.) Continue reading

What is Chicago Street Art

While we were visiting different places around Chicago, Flat Stanlina noticed that some buildings and street signs had interesting and colorful designs placed on them, either with paint or stickers. Some were like giant paintings or murals. Some looked like real life and others were like cartoons. She asked me what these are.

We went to see an exhibit about Street Art, “Paint Paste Sticker” at the Chicago Cultural Center. Street Art is a form of visual art made where people in public can see it – on buildings, sidewalks, signs and other public areas.

The artists are not usually trained in art schools. People make street art for different reasons: to make people laugh, to spread a message, to be seen or heard, to make others think, among others.

Sometimes the artists have permission to create their art on spaces owned by other people. The exhibit showed some examples of public art projects that the local government, street artists, homeowners and business owners worked on together.  Continue reading

Puppet Bike delighting Chicago's young and old

Puppet Bike, Chicago’s one and only!

“What’s Puppet Bike?” asked Flat Stanlina.

It’s a one of kind in Chicago. Puppet Bike is a miniature puppet stage built on a bicycle. Because it’s built on a bicycle, the puppeteer (the person inside the stage) can perform just about anywhere the bicycle can go. I’ve seen the Puppet Bike perform in different places around Chicago in all kinds of weather, and I’ve always stopped to watch, even for a little while. Puppet Bike always brings a smile to my face. Flat Stanlina agreed.

Continue reading