Thursday, March 31, 2011

How to make Mayan Coffee

Ingredients: coffee, alcohol, whipped cream, cherries, orange peel and a streak of pyromania.
I can't vouch for how authentic this is in terms of Mayan tradition since this spectacle did take place after a ho-hum dinner at Temptation Resort in Cancun. Zoe described it best as "a beautiful thing to behold (but tasted like a stale cigar)." It's still worth ordering though. Even though my regular morning cup of coffee tastes better than this, I gotta admit the guy has a few more tricks up his sleeve than my coffee cart guy on the corner of 46th and Madison.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Abrí mis ojos

Tengo dolor de cabeza fuerte despues de estudiando a ultimo momento para mi examen.

I probably made 5 mistakes in that one attempt to say something in Spanish but I don't care. My brain  is completely fried from two days of futile cramming. Plus, I don't care because I can't coast by anymore. I have to try harder, even if it means I'll look stupid.

I am tired of sucking at Spanish. So I'm gonna try to do a bit more than just attend my weekly classes and scribble out my homework during my lunch break. I'm gonna force in a little bit of Español into every day in some shape or form. Today I watched two hours of La Reina del Sur on Telemundo's On Demand channel. It seems like it could be a compelling telenovela. Once I got past the fact that the heroine selected turquoise colored pumps to run for her life in for the entire first episode, I was hooked. The telenovela is based on the best-selling novel of the same name written by Arturo Pérez-Reverte about the rise of a female drug lord whose reach spanned three continents. Who knows, maybe someday I'll even read the book.
Another novel method of practicing I've stumbled onto: Tweeting. Last Sunday, I attempted to express my frustration at studying (while using a subjunctive) in a Tweet and got an impromptu lesson from the lovely @emilyinchile, who kindly helps out in the grammar department when she's not blogging about her life in Santiago de Chile at Don't Call Me Gringa. ¡Muchas gracias Emily! I'm thinking of designating one day per week for Tweets solamente en Español. Lo siento, chicos y chicas, pero es necesario. I will understand if you decide to unfollow me based on that alone.

My iPod playlists are also coming into play. I've been listening to Juanes ever since my South American friends introduced me to their music back when I was a wee intern in Stuttgart. I have to say, it's even more enjoyable now that I understand the lyrics better! A Dios le pido, a song I loved and danced to numerous times before I understood the words, turns out to be quite good for practicing subjunctives. One of the uses of the subjunctive form is to express deseos or wishes, so a song that asks God for a whole lot of stuff helps to get subjunctives on the brain.
And then there's my daily dose of Neruda. His poems, full of romantic entreaties, are quite good for familiarizing oneself with imperatives.
Quitame el pan, si quieres,
quitame el aire, pero
no me quites tu risa.
Hopefully, all the little tricks in addition to my lessons will add up to a Spanish-unleashing Celine someday. Someday before May 21, 2011, preferably. Ojala.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Gearing up for Coachella

I'm sure I'm not alone when I say I have been sweating the arrival of my Coachella festival tickets. It is just twenty days away and there's no sign of those wristbands! I had to laugh when this came up on the Coachella Facebook fan page with the caption "Patience":
More friendly reminders about those wristbands (i.e. you still need the regular wristband if you upgrade to VIP and such) can be found here. I just can't wait to get mine!

One of the acts at Coachella this year is Robyn, whose songs got me through more than a few half marathons, double-digit mile runs and the big finish, the New York Marathon, last year. I love this song because it simultaneously has you living in the moment and dreaming about more good things to come. I think it's the perfect song to daydream to about our coming Coachella adventure ...

TGIF and have a spectacular weekend!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Quote for the Day

I've always admitted that I'm ruled by my passions.
- Dame Elizabeth Taylor (February 27, 1932 – March 23, 2011)



Monday, March 21, 2011

Love Poems by Pablo Neruda

I may have found a beautiful way to practice my Español.
After catching up over a delicious Sunday brunch, Monica and I browsed at shops all over Williamsburg. In one bookstore, I found this book of wonderful poems by Pablo Neruda. A dear friend once gave me a book of Neruda's poems back in college but after all the moving between continents and all over Manhattan, I've sadly misplaced it. So when I saw this book today, I bought it immediately. It's such a pleasure reading these poems now that I'm reading Spanish with better comprehension. A big part of the beauty Neruda's poetry lies in his choice of words in his mother tongue and I'm grateful that I am able to appreciate that more these days.

It's hard for me to find the motivation to crack open my Spanish grammar books and study, but I couldn't tear my eyes off this book on my subway ride back home. It makes me wonder if the best way for me to learn the language is to read as much as I can. I never paid much attention to my English grammar classes growing up but I ended up eventually making a living as a writer and editor for awhile because my voracious reading must given me a good feel for the language. We'll see ... at the very least, I'll have some dreamy poems to keep me preoccupied on my train rides.

I haven't talked about how I fared with crossing off conversing in Español while in Mexico, have I? That's because I didn't do so well. I broke out the Spanish a few times during our trip: to purchase tickets, ask for directions, to find out what a driver's favorite soccer team is, and to answer the questions of a soldier at the military checkpoint. But I didn't speak more than necessary and never really maintained an actual conversation so as far as I'm concerned, it's not yet a done deal. But I will dredge up the courage—I have exactly 60 days to do it!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Snapshot Sunday: Cherry Blossoms

It has been such a long and dreary winter, and I am so stoked that longer days with lots of sunshine, bare legs and pretty dresses are coming soon. And of course ... those beautiful cherry blossoms! 

I took this photograph last year in the United Nations headquarters in New York when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. I can't help but feel a twinge of sadness looking at the cherry blossoms this year, knowing that our Japanese brothers and sisters who gave these trees as a symbol of friendship, are still in peril. Help is still badly needed so if you would like to make a donation, read this for a rundown of ways to do something. Keep your eyes open for establishments in your city that may be doing something to help. Last night, I noticed that karaoke bar Sing Sing in St. Mark's Place was donating $1 from every $2 song ticket to earthquake victims. Every little bit helps. 

I am going to make it a point to go out, have a great New York brunch, soak up the sunshine and blue skies, and just LIVE. I hope you do too.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Coachella Playlist: Another World by Chemical Brothers

Another world will surround me
Another heart will forgive
Some gorgeous weather descended on New York yesterday and we're due to get temps in the 50s for the rest of the weekend. It's amazing how great weather just gives the city and entirely new feel.  I do hope that the great weather sticks as I am so done with winter! In less than a month, I will be in sunny Cali soaking up the warmth and the amazing music at Coachella. 

Speaking of which, how cool is this song by Chemical Brothers? I am so totally digging their trippy new tunes and can hardly believe I get to see them live very, very soon. See you on April 15 boys!

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Little Taste of Mexico

"It doesn't even feel like we're in another country," the girl seated behind us said in dismay to her husband as our hired van ferried us from the Cancun airport through the Zona Hotelera to our all-inclusive beachside resort. I could understand her disappointment. The Zona Hotelera has about as much local Mexican flavor as a Chili's restaurant, and if you limit yourself to it then you might as well have stayed within the US borders.

Fortunately, Zoe and I had a mini road trip to Chichen Itza planned—though if we had either gone on a bus tour or remained on the autopista cuota, we would never have gotten a glimpse of what Mexico is really like. After our visit to Chichen Itza and Il-Kil, we decided to go on a little adventure and take Highway 81 libre—the free road that would double our travel time back to Cancun but provide us with far more interesting scenery (For Zoe and I, there's no worse fate than boredom, apparently). The roads were riddled with topes, which we quickly learned was the Spanish word for speedbumps. But we got to see everything from cows tied to thatched-roof houses to more stately little cities.
By the time we hit the road, we were starving. As much as we would've loved to stop at any of the roadside shacks we drove past (one had particularly enticing hunks of meat cooking over an outdoor charcoal grill), we were afraid of getting hit with Montezuma's revenge (Someday I will return to the Yucatan and do Chef David Sterling's Street Eats tour to rectify this). So in the end, we had to make do with Maruja Cafe y Galeria, a lovely outdoor cafe in Valladolid's main square that had a sufficient number of tourists dining in plain view. With instructions from a waiter, we were able to find a municipal parking lot where we could safely park our car for just 5 pesos. Then we walked back and sat down for a little snack and people watching on the outdoor patio. I ordered a michelada—a lovely Mexican concoction that typically contains cerveza, tomato juice, lime juice and spices. My Yucatan version tasted like the tomato juice had been traded for Worcestershire and had some delicious heat. The drink tastes similar to a Bloody Mary and is somehow that much better imbibed at a town square in Mexico.
Before my trip, my Mexican friend Carlos had told me to try the Yucatan specialty cochinita pibil (also known as puerco pibil), which is essentially slow roasted pork that's been marinated in orange juice, lime and achiote paste. Fun fact about cochinita pibil:  In the movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Johnny Depp's character Agent Sands is so obsessed with this dish that he kills any cook who makes it too well in order to "maintain balance" in the country. (Source: Wikipedia) Zoe and I each ordered corn tacos with cochinita pibil and it was very tasty. The pickled onions were a nice touch as the flavor was not strong at all but gave a nice crunch and provided a slightly sour component to the dish. We were happy.
After lunch, we checked out the small gallery within the cafe where there were these amazing sculptures of ancient Mayans. Quite nice to see after spending the morning exploring Chichen Itza and Il-Kil.
From there, we went back on the road for our slow crawl to Cancun. Despite the slow pace and some minor directional hiccups,  it was an enjoyable ride. A lot of people told me we were crazy for attempting this drive given how the news is full of warnings about how dangerous Mexico is these days. But our drive was relatively uneventful, save for one military checkpoint where we were asked this very serious question: "¿Va a tomar el sol en Cancun?" ("Will you sunbathe in Cancun?")

If you're an experienced traveler with your wits about you, I would recommend going off the beaten path to see the real Mexico beyond the Americanized hotel zones. There is so much more to this country than all-inclusive resorts and body shots, and it would be a shame to miss out on it. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

- Invictus by William Ernest Henley
It's been difficult to concentrate on achieving personal goals when across the world, our Japanese brothers and sisters are in the midst of so much tragedy. The world has been shaken by the sheer scale of the disaster that continues to unfold in Japan from a massive earthquake, devastating tsunami and now, the impending danger of a nuclear crisis. It's always a staggering realization that no matter how advanced our societies become, we are powerless when faced with Mother Nature's wrath.

What has been truly awe-inspiring to me, however, is how the Japanese have faced tragedy with such dignity and an unwavering regard for the common good. There have been no riots, no looting.  While they may have lost all their material possessions, they have held on to their humanity and their dignity. While I do pray fervently that no one else will have to experience such tragedy in their lives, I also hope that the human race will learn a lesson from how the Japanese have coped with the cards they've been dealt.

It's hard to know what to do in the face of such disaster. There are several different ways to make donations listed here and if you're a believer, one can never discount the power of prayer.

But once we've done all of that, all we can do is acknowledge that our time on this earth is limited, and no matter what precautions we may take, it can all end tomorrow. So stop putting things off for later. And don't tie your self-worth to material things that can be taken away in the blink of an eye. Invest yourself in relationships with people that matter while you still can. Do the things that make your heart sing. Because a life well lived is something that can never be taken away.   

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

#13.5: Swim in a cenote

Countless times on this 30 Before 30 Project, I set out to chase one experience only to get completely floored by another. Zoe and I had journeyed to Mexico to marvel at the Mayan ruins. But in the end, what truly took our breath away was our encounter with Il-Kil and the Sagrado Cenote Azul.
Cenotes are surface connections to the subterranean rivers that run underneath the limestone bed that is the Yucatan Peninsula. To the ancient Mayans, some cenotes were sacred and used for ritual offerings while others served as vital water sources. Accounts vary on whether the cenote at Il-Kil was used by the Mayans for relaxation, for ritual sacrifices or both, and I'd frankly rather not delve too deeply.  All I know is that today, visitors to Il-Kil are allowed to swim in the ink blue waters of Sagrada Cenote Azul and this pleasure is worth every single one of those 70 pesos.

Il-Kil is a far too easy 2.5 kilometer drive from the entrance of Chichén Itzá for the treasure that it holds. The Sagrada Cenote Azul is an imposing limestone sinkhole measuring 60 meters in diameter and 40 meters in depth, with an additional 26 meters from the surface of the water to that mysterious underbelly. The jagged limestone edges are fringed with lush vegetation. Fresh water drips relentlessly down the thick tree roots that hang from the mouth of the cenote down into the turquoise well below.  The water is unimaginably blue. The sight of it took my breath away.

It was upon reaching Il-Kil that we realized that the decision to skip the tours and go on our own  was undoubtedly a good one. There were no crowds when we arrived and we had the chance to enjoy the serene beauty of this Mayan treasure. We changed into our swimsuits in the dressing room, rinsed our sunscreen off at the outdoor shower, and descended into the cenote. 

Swimming is not one of my strongest suits so I have to admit that I was intimidated by the thought of jumping into this 26-meter deep sinkhole. Have I already mentioned how much sinkholes creep me out? What if the Mayan gods had a taste for Asian sacrifices that had yet to be satisfied?
But as soon as my body sank into those deep blue waters and I felt myself enveloped by the peace of this ancient cenote, all apprehension evaporated and only bliss remained. Out in the water, it was as if nothing else existed but us, those impossibly blue waters and a few fishes swimming under the surface. Zoe and I swam out into a small patch where sunlight had broken through and a small rainbow formed under a spray of water. It's a moment that couldn't have lasted for more than a few minutes but it will forever be etched in my mind.

By the time we were out of the water and collecting our things, the crowd in the cenote had tripled in size and we realized how lucky we were to have had that moment of peace. We left Il-Kil completely revived, as if we had just started an entirely new day.

#13: Explore the Mayan ruins—CHECK!

Bright and early on a sunny morning in Mexico, Zoe and I set off for Chichén Itzá in our $26-a-day rental car. From Cancun, we took the Highway 180 cuota autopista (toll road) to beat the tour buses to Chichén Itzá. It was safe, fast and well-paved with two minuses:
  • The road was dreadfully boring. Three hours of driving on a straight road surrounded by nothing but trees and with no functioning radio stations.
  • The toll fees are exorbitant: $26 to drive from Cancun to Pisté and another $7 for the remainder of the journey to Chichén Itzá. One way. In American dollars. While this may well be the safest road in the Yucatan Peninsula, the toll fees are highway robbery.
    The fee pile-up continued at Chichén Itzá. At the admissions booth, I asked, "¿Cuánto cuesta?" I was told we had to pay twice: 116 pesos now and 51 pesos later for a total of 166 pesos. I forked over the dough but was confounded with the double charge. For a disconcerting moment, I feared we'd been suckered into donating to some cultural institute due to my inadequate Español. Finally, it was explained to us at the entrance that 166 pesos is charged by the Federal government while 51 pesos is charged by the State. While I was relieved the fees were legit, I couldn't help but feel like a thoroughly milked cow by the time we entered.

    But the gratification was instant once we stepped foot in the ancient Mayan city. The first sight that assails you is the magnificent El Castillo (Temple of Kukulkan), rising up 82 meters above the ground. Constructed between 1000 and 1200 A.D. the temple was built around the Mayan calendar. The stairs flanking the four sides of the pyramid each have 91 steps, adding up to the 365 days in the calendar. The faces of the terraces number 52 in total, corresponding to the 52-year cycle when both solar and religious calendars realign. At the north side of the tower, serpent's heads crown the base of the stairs. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the setting sun casts a shadow that looks like a snake slithering down these stairs. It felt surreal to finally be there after seeing so many pictures and movies depicting this mysterious, ancient wonder.
    After snapping photos to our heart's content at El Castillo, Zoe and I trekked through Chichén Itzá to see the other structures. El Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors) is an imposing vision—a pyramid surrounded by row upon row of columns.
    During ancient Mayan times, these columns were carved with the images of warriors, a few of which can still be glimpsed today.
    I found the Group of the Thousand Columns impressive in their simple symmetry and had to stop for a picture.
    Over at the Mercado, Zoe and I got cute with some columns.
    We braved the long line of souvenir peddlers lining the road to the Sacred Cenote. After hearing "One dollar!" ad nauseum, we finally reached our destination. Now, sinkholes creep me out in general, and according to history, this one was actually used for sacrifices. So this sucker gave me the heebie jeebies.
    Creeped out as I was, I found it odd to overhear a man indignantly complaining about how people  seem to forget that so many were killed in these sites as sacrifices during Mayan times. I certainly do not relish the thought of people getting decapitated and thrown into sinkholes, but what is the point in getting angered by a long lost civilization's customs? We did not live in that space and time, and cannot possibly understand why they clung to their beliefs the way they did. All we can do is marvel at the multifaceted culture that was developed by a civilization that existed thousands of years before our era.

    That said, it's tough not to cringe when faced with such a blatant testament to the brutality of this civilization: Tzompantli (Temple of the Skulls). The stone platform is carved with rows of skulls because every decapitated head of a sacrificial warrior would be impaled on a stick and neatly displayed on this platform back in the day. If you have the stomach for it, the movie Apocalypto has some pretty graphic scenes depicting what went on in these various sites during those times.
    Near this temple is one of the most interesting ruins in Chichén Itzá: the Juego de Pelota (Ball Court). Here, they played an ancient form of basketball where players attempted to get a ball through the stone hoops using only their elbows, knees and hips.
    Tales vary on whether it was the losers that paid with their lives or if it was only the winning player that was deemed fit to be sacrificed to the gods. Whatever the case may be, one of these remaining wall carvings show a player who's literally lost his head ... so somebody goes either way.
    Despite the minor hiccups, it was truly and absolutely worth it to travel all the way to Mexico and through the Yucatan Peninsula to see Chichén Itzá. Seeing the ruins of a highly advanced, ancient civilization always makes me think about how our lives are such a very tiny blip in the story of mankind. So much had already transpired before we were born, and so much more will continue on when our turn eventually passes.
    Wonders never cease.

    Thursday, March 10, 2011

    Off to Mexico!

    On tomorrow's agenda: Hop on a plane to Cancun. Check in at Temptations Resort. Giggle endlessly for four days with Zoe if it does, in fact, turn out to be a swingers resort.

    Friday: Drive through the Yucatan peninsula to see the ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. Jump into a cenote.

    Saturday: Lie out on the beach, get sand between my toes, take a dip in the Caribbean Sea and soak up the glorious sun all day long. Seek out a mezcal worm to swallow. Unleash some Español once sufficiently hammered.

    Sunday: Bask in as much sun as humanly possible before heading back to the Big Apple.

    I can't wait!

    Tuesday, March 08, 2011

    Coachella Playlist: Runaway by Kanye West

    I'm a sucker for tutus and pointe shoes so this Kanye West video got my attention right away. And when the song started to play ... let's just say he had me at "Let's have a toast to the douchebags."

    That's actually not an attempt at sarcasm. I'm probably not supposed to like this song but I do. I like how self aware it is. I don't mind having people in my life with quirks, a splash too much attitude, or the odd complex here and there. Heck, I don't even really mind douchebags all that much. They have their entertaining moments, too.

    As far as I'm concerned, you can be whatever you want to be as long as you own it. The only thing that really bothers me is when people try to pass themselves off as something they're not. There's no need to be the wolf in sheep's clothing. The sheep would probably put me to sleep anyway. So shed the shearling and proudly howl at the moon. 
    Baby, I got a plan
    Run away as fast as you can
    Run away from me, baby, run away
    Doesn't have to get crazy
    At least the dude gives fair warning. Well played, Kanye. See you in 40 days.

    Monday, March 07, 2011

    The thing about running ...

    That's the thing about running: your greatest runs are rarely measured by racing success. They are moments in time when running allows you to see how wonderful your life is.
    - Kara Goucher, American long-distance runner (via Runner's World)
    I had a very nice weekend with lots of fun times with good friends enjoyed, a ridiculous amount of delicious food consumed, an ample selection of spirits sampled, sufficient sleep had and (miraculously) zero hangovers suffered. But one of the things I enjoyed the most was finally being able to go outside for a run. Temperatures were in the 50s on Saturday without a single drop of rain, so off I went to Hudson River Park to enjoy the fresh air and lovely views. I'd forgotten how happy running outside makes me, having been relegated to the hamster wheel (a.k.a. treadmill) for the last few months. The simple act of running outside is enough to hammer home how lucky I am to be alive, healthy, happy and living in the city of my dreams. It brought a smile to my face when I read the quote from Kara Goucher above because I couldn't agree more. As thrilling as it is to finish a race, some of the most memorable runs I've had were done in solitude, accompanied only by a breathtaking sunset, some fireflies or cherry trees laden with blossoms. One of my favorite runs to date took place after I had just moved to the Financial District and went on an afternoon run on the West Side Highway all the way to Chelsea Piers and back. I chanced upon a truly stunning sunset that day and I remember being overwhelmed with everything that I had been blessed with, from the great new apartment to this one incredible view.

    It's moments like these that keep me running.    

    Sunday, March 06, 2011

    Snapshot Sunday: Ibiza

    On this dreary New York Sunday, I am transporting myself to long and languid afternoons in the Balearic Isles spent soaking up the Mediterranean sun, sipping refreshing gazpacho and snacking on sweet cantaloupes and jámon ...

    Thursday, March 03, 2011

    Down by the Bayou

    For all the time I've spent visiting and living in the US, I find myself still getting surprised by what this country has to offer. I've been guilty of assuming that this is a country made up of strip malls and homogeneous housing developments. But the trips I've taken during the course of this project have proved my assumption wrong. Our road trip last year in the Southwest and our recent trip to the South showed me how varied the landscapes and cultures in this vast country can be.

    On a beautiful Lousiana day, we drove an hour and a half out of New Orleans to get away from the city and explore the bayou. A little place called Schriever (population: 5,880) was the site of Munson Swamp Tours, a smaller operation compared to the usual swamp tours, but one I quite liked because it felt like we were just dropping in on some Cajun folks and taking a little tour in their backyard. 

    Before embarking on the tour, we got up close and personal with one adorable baby gator. Its skin was so soft, it didn't squiggle around too much, and it was just so good at mugging for pictures! Made me rethink ever buying anything made with alligator skin again. But then again, I felt no remorse for the yummy gator I ate at Cochon the night before. The way I see it, it would eat me given the chance, so I'm just holding on to my spot on the food chain.
    After playing with baby gators and gawking at pictures of their 20-foot-long relatives, we got on the pontoon and began our journey into the swamp. It was a gorgeous day to be out surrounded by nature. It was warm enough to wear tank tops and shorts, but cool enough that we barely sweat despite being underneath the sun. The only drawback was that because it was still technically winter, the large alligators were in hibernation. We did spot a couple of their little ones, however.
    The raccoons were especially entertaining. Knowing that the pontoon's guide was going to feed them bread, they came out and followed us along on our tour. I was so charmed, I may be put off raccoon fur for here on out.
    There were some majestic birds in the swamp, as well. They were quite a sight flying amidst the cypress trees fringed with Spanish moss.
    Almost as fascinating as the wildlife: our Cajun guide, who cracked jokes and entertained us nonstop. At some point, he even convinced me to do some Cajun dancing on the pontoon. What exactly is Cajun dancing? "You can do whatever the hell you want cos errbody's too drunk to care!"
    As much as I enjoyed the wackiness of our guide and the serenity of the swamp,  in the end I did not trade in New York for the bayou. Now, if I'd run into this guy below during the tour, it would be a different story. A 20-foot gator couldn't chase me out of there if I had him plus that fried chicken and swamp fries from Wilson's Kountry Korner.
    If you're ever down south, a tour of the swamps is a must-do. Settling down with a Cajun lover, optional.

    Munson Swamp Tour is located at 979 Bull Run Road, Schriever, Louisiana 70395. Phone (985) 851-3569 for reservations.
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