Novelas and coffee: two things that make up the fabric of many Brazilian evenings. So in 2008, when a novela aired to commemorate the centennial of Japanese immigration to Brazil, it was another case of “art imitates life”. The novela, Haru e Natsu, told the story of a Japanese family that came to Brazil in the early 1900s to work on the coffee plantations that were in need of labor to replace the work force since slavery ended just a few years earlier.
Much of that novela was filmed at Fazenda Tozan, where I toured the farm, heard a bit of Brazilian history, and had one of the best cups of coffee I have ever tasted. Fazenda Tozan was founded in 1798 by a Portuguese family headed by Floriano de Camargo Peneado, and at that time, only produced sugar cane with the help of African slaves. It wasn’t until the mid 1800s when coffee made its way to the region of São Paulo state, “with an ideal climate and soil conditions” as my guide pointed out, that Fazenda Tozan jumped in on the coffee craze weaving its way through Brazil.
Fazenda Tozan wasn’t always known by this name. Its original Portuguese owners called it “Ponte Alta”, meaning high bridge, but after being in the family for a few generations, it was eventually sold to a Japanese family in 1927. The Iwasaki family, also the founders of Mitsubishi, renamed the coffee plantation Tozan, meaning “east mountain” in Japanese. A bit of a misnomer, as there are no mountains nearby Fazenda Tozan, the name survived the discrimination and detention of Japanese immigrants during World War II. After being abandoned during this tumultuous time in Brazil’s history, the Iwasaki reinvigorated the farm with new life in its later years.
Listening to my guide talk about this tragic time in Brazil’s history, it reminded me of the similar situation suffered by Japanese in the United States. Walking through the fields, I thought of the contributions of immigrants here in Brazil, and around the world. With the upcoming harvest, the labor of generations past were planted firmly in this soil as my guide told me about the manual harvesting process. “We still use a manual process here at Tozan which begins by placing a cloth beneath the coffee trees to avoid the coffee cherries coming into contact with the ground. It can be damaging to the quality of the coffee.”
Back at the main house, my guide walked me through the process of making coffee, explaining the different colors and what they meant, as well as the cleaning process in the reception tank. But the highlight was watching one of their longtime farmers, Raimundo, do a live demo of the coffee harvesting process. His enthusiasm invigorated me the way this popular morning elixir jolts people out of bed every morning!
Nothing prepared me for finally sipping on this delicious coffee at Fazenda Tozan. I had a new appreciation for the world’s most popular drink! Each sip delivered rich notes and a depth unmatched by most coffee I’ve had in my lifetime. Savoring the house special, I had a flashback of my visit to Ceja Vineyards in Sonoma, California where my tastebuds had a similar epiphany. Learning all about chardonnay and pinot noir from the inspiring Ceja women was a true gastronomic adventure!
As I sat in the window looking out at the farm, I laughed as I thought of the droves of Americans lined up at Starbucks to guzzle down their diluted coffee drinks. What a treat to be able to enjoy something right at the source that had been harvested with such pride! Driving back to São Paulo, I thought of the many lives that helped keep this farm alive – African slaves, Japanese immigrants, and Brazilian farmers. Learning about the history of this drink made me even more grateful to have had this experience at Fazenda Tozan.
I recently went behind the scenes at the Los Angeles Travel & Adventure show, which is just one stop along the travel show’s ambitious tour throughout the United States. With my press pass, I was able to go behind the scenes and speak to some of the tour operators and country representatives about what makes their travel experience unique, and why travelers should spend their precious vacation time heading to their destinations. Here’s what I learned:
Never judge a book by its cover. Just like the old saying goes, think twice before passing judgement. Especially on a country you’ve never been to! When I spoke with Elsie from Bella Guatemala, I was surprised to learn that this Central American country could be an adventurous “girl’s trip” hot spot. How so? Well, Elsie shared with me that not only can your fellow girlfriends hike inside a volcano, but they can also follow that daring adventure with a spa trip near one of Guatemala’s picturesque lakes – awesome! And since Guatemala is one of the world’s largest producers of jade and silver, your girlfriends can participate in a jewelry making course with local artisans. Sounds fun to me!
Wellness is not a trend. Spa retreats and detox destinations made their foray into the travel landscape years ago as “alternative” travel. But if recent trends are any indication, like the $500 billion spent on wellness vacations in past years, wellness travel is here to stay. I had the lucky fortune of interviewing the cofounder and president of Wellness Tourism Association, Anne Dimon, who has been in the wellness travel sector since 2004.
“Wellness truly means something different to each of us, but generally it is simply the overall health of the mind, body, and spirit. When a wellness vacation is planned with intention or with a specific objective in mind AND it is the right fit, it can truly be a gift to oneself that keeps on giving,” Anne shared. I was even more thrilled to learn that Anne had helped plan the Wellness Sessions at Virtuoso Travel Week 2016 where I learned about Miami’s Carillon Wellness Resort. I excitedly told her that I had a trip to Carillon planned for April, and she smiled ear to ear when I told her about my very first wellness vacation in Spain many years ago. Stay tuned for more on Carillon…
Explore your own backyard. I’m lucky enough to live in California where there are plenty of escapes within a two hour drive, but I’m ashamed to say I haven’t taken advantage of all that my home state has to offer. And I’m sure that can be said for most of us. A couple of my favorite discoveries at the Travel & Adventure show are right here in my own backyard! After speaking with the team from Visit 29, the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park, I added this stunning natural oasis to my bucket list. Besides being an art colony to artists like Noah Purifoy, Twentynine Palms hosts the Joshua Tree Night Sky Festival – a must see for all of you stargazers out there!
Another find was Yosemite’s Tenaya Lodge. This luxury resort in the California High Sierra is perfect for family reunions, girls’ getaways, and year round fun – no matter what the season is! At the Travel & Adventure Show, the team shared with me some of their favorite amenities, including a private tour in their shuttle that has no roof so you can see all of the beautiful nature around you. I have to do this soon!
Explore the “other” landmarks. Each country or travel destination has its proverbial bucket list landmark. Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Peru has Macchu Picchu, New York has the Statue of Liberty, and so on. But if you want to avoid crowds and have an experience that’s just as authentic and meaningful, sometimes it’s ok to head off the beaten path.
When talking with the team from India Tourism, I was enthralled to learn about all of the other places to see besides the Taj Mahal. On the west coast of India is Maharashtra state, which is home to the historic Ajanta and Ellora caves. These exquisite specimens of architecture are also a glimpse into the country’s faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. And in central India, there’s the magnificent Khajuraho temples, a UNESCO heritage site that dates back to the powerful Chandela rulers. Definitely lots of exploring to do here!
Africa is not a country. Well, I knew this already. But I often hear travelers say, “I want to go to Africa”. That’s like someone saying, “I want to visit North America”, and I think we can all agree that a weekend in Newport, Rhode Island is going to be quite different from a weekend in Cabo San Lucas.
Did you know that Africa is a continent made up of 55 nations. Wow! I admit I didn’t really understand its size and scope as a travel destination until the Travel & Adventure show when I had the chance to talk to representatives from Rwanda, Zambia, Tanzania, and specialty tour operators highlighting a diverse range of experiences. Did you know that Rwanda is the safest country in Africa, and the 9th in the world? And that you can see gorillas, chimps, and other primates in their rainforest habitat?
Or maybe birdwatching is more your thing…and if it is, then head south to Zambia where you can visit Lochinvar National Park and see over 400 species of birds. Amazing! There’s always the African country of Tanzania for those travelers who want that unforgettable wildlife safari or an enviable beach vacation on some of the best beaches in the world along the Zanzibar coast. My bucket list is growing…
If after reading this, you’ve added a few new places to your travel bucket list, email me to help you plan your next trip. You won’t be disappointed! I’ll close with a quote from one of my favorite authors, Mark Twain. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
When I took my trip to Iguaçu Falls earlier this year, I expected to see magnificent waterfalls, exotic wildlife, and endless lush forests. Who wouldn’t in this glorious part of Brazil that is considered one of the natural wonders of the world? What I didn’t expect to witness was a culinary tour of Brazil’s history, produced by the talented chef, Fabio Tavera.
“Why don’t we give value to simple things? We think, ‘oh this is from the south, the Amazon, it’s from immigrants’ – Casa do Chef is a response to all of this. We have great food here in Brazil and we need to break it down so people can understand. Understand what’s in our food, understand our people, understand our society.”
Chef Fabio’s intro was merely a hint of what was to come. Having lived, worked, and traveled in Brazil over the past 15 years, I thought I knew a thing or two about Brazilian cuisine. All of that changed as Chef Fabio took the “stage” at his rustic and inviting culinary school called Casa do Chef. “After 16 years working in kitchens, now I am having the opportunity to present Brazilian food in a broader way, relating the historical and anthropological approaches, garnishing this experience with music, which is also my passion. Casa do Chef has been my dream for years.”
And I felt like I had just fallen into a epicurean dream! While my tastebuds were teased with the first dish from the Tupi, Chef Fabio walked us through the dish, dissecting this fish in a history lesson peppered with culinary facts. “The Tupi didn’t use salt at all; you won’t find it in Amazon cuisine. They used peppers and chiles as a preservation mode for meat and fish, and their curing technique is different. Their ritual of smoking is the fusion of the four elements – earth, water, air, and fire.”
Watching Chef Fabio prepare the plates for our first course, I listened intently as he continued to describe the features of this prehistoric fish, pirarucu. “The pirarucu is the biggest scaled fresh water fish in the world. Because the fish scales are so huge, the only way to catch it is in the river during dry season when it gets stuck because of these strong scales. But that’s what makes the meat so good!”
Dressing the fish with pineapple, roasted peanuts, and honey, Chef Fabio continued – his knowledge the perfect hybrid of TV favorites, History Channel and Food Network! “The Guarani Indians domesticated the pineapple and peanut, here in this area of South America. And when the Portuguese arrived, they noticed that the bees made honey from flowers. At this time in Europe, honey was of very poor quality, so this was one of the first Brazilian exports.”
Chef Fabio recommended starting with a bite of the jambu, an herb from Amazon forest, that has a strong aroma and gets the tongue numb, perfect to eat with this fish that’s been seasoned with fresh chiles – no spices or salt! Enjoying the balanced, smoky flavor, I marveled at how delicious this “sodium-free” dish was – and made a note to integrate some of these healthy techniques when I returned home. Chatting with Chef Fabio as he plated our next course, he shared that Japanese cuisine was one of his favorites because of the beautiful presentation and lightness of flavors. As you read on, you’ll see that same artful influence evident in all of Chef Fabio’s Instagram-worthy presentations.
When I thought it couldn’t get any better, Chef Fabio walked us through his side-by-side comparison of moqueca, one of my favorites! Having been to Bahia, Brazil’s Northeast state known for its gorgeous beaches, I was already aware of the strong African influence in its culture, music, and food.
“This mixing of the trade routes with the Portuguese is really evident in what most people know today as moqueca baiana; the mango, lime, and coconut came from India. The cilantro from the Middle East, onions and garlic from the Orient. But what moqueca looked like 600 years ago is here on the left. Fish, urucum, oil from the native Brazilian coconut – babaçu, chili, and of course, no salt.”
Having sampled both, my tastebuds weren’t sure which way to go! I loved the caramelized, simple flavor of the native technique, but I also found the familiarity of the cilantro mingled with the coconut milk delicious. Luckily, I didn’t have to choose!
Listening to Chef Fabio describe the fusion of foods from all over the world, I thought about the similarities between Brazilian and U.S. culinary history. Both countries had a strong Native Indian food culture that was often aligned with spiritual practices of the tribe. After the arrival of European settlers, much of that history was drastically changed, with many indigineous techniques lost. I felt really grateful to see Chef Fabio reviving some of those techniques here in his cooking school.
Next up on the Casa do Chef tasting menu – Carne de Sol, which Chef Fabio said was the perfect dish to highlight the Indian, Portuguese, and African influences. But as he explained, carne de sol is actually a misnomer! Finding out that I spoke Portuguese, Chef Fabio carried on in his native tongue, saying that it’s more of a “de lua, de noite, do vento” because of the aging process. And the description of his homemade clarified butter – well, I’m sure you can imagine how my stomach responded.
“Normally, manteiga de garrafa, or clarified butter, is done the French way – skimming the solids and the clarified butter remains. But this way – a heavy cream is reduced until it’s almost caramalized and solids remain, ending up more like a cheese.” My stomach screamed – “yes, please!”
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Chef Fabio walked us through the rest of this colonial dish. “We use the ancient method of soaking the abóbora, or pumpkin, in limestone for 10 minutes and then cook it in molasses. This is the African influence with the sugar cane grinders and the use of molasses.” The finishing touch? A hollandaise sauce, using that same delicious manteiga de garrafa…OMG!
And finally, Chef Fabio’s presentation of feijoada. This is one dish that most tourists have tried on their trips to Brazil, and is what most consider Brazil’s national dish. “This food we call ‘Brazilian’ is new, developed in the last 100 years – at most! Through recipes and ingredients, my idea is to demystify feijoada, and enhance some things that we never thought we could.”
Chef Fabio’s history lesson on feijoada was as much a surprise for my Brazilian colleagues as it was for me. “Meat was rare for everyone in those times. The invented story of feijoada being a ‘marginal dish’ with scraps and leftovers that was fed to the slaves is false. All parts of the slaughtered meats were preserved because there was no refrigeration as we have today. So everyone ate the same thing. This notion that the diet of a slave and the main lord was different is a bit of a myth, with the exception of sugar, which was very expensive.”
After snapping some shots of this tantalizing plate, I finally enjoyed this Brazilian classic, with Chef Fabio’s special touch. “You know feijoada has a Portuguese influence too, but theirs is with white beans; ours with black beans. Here it’s not deconstructed, just presented differently for more texture. And since the concepts have changed in this invented dish, I invented mine”, he said with a sly wink. Savoring each bite, I thought about how American cuisine is also a melding of immigrant influences, and the bevy of restaurants that are in my Los Angeles neighborhood: Mexican, German, Korean, Armenian, Peruvian. A true melting pot!
Nibbling on the most picturesque sampler of Brazilian dessert classics, I looked up to hear Chef Fabio emerge from the kitchen, serenading us with a flute performance. A true Renaissance man! Historian, musician, and talented chef – how lucky I was to have had this enlightening epicurean adventure through Brazil.
To book your visit to Foz do Iguaçu and experience this once in a lifetime opportunity at Casa do Chef, contact me today!
My first toy was a dictionary, so it only made sense for me to pay a visit to Dr. Samuel Johnson’s home-turned-museum in London. Dr. Johnson, publisher of the first printed English dictionary, was born into his fate, as I learned on the candlelit tour, since he has been born in a bookstore. Wordies, linguists, and English teachers will all be mused, and inspired, by the quips and quotes from Dr. Johnson, all on display throughout the house. Pictures of important friends and family hang beside replicas of the first English dictionary, while the museum staff enthusiastically shares intimate details of Dr. Johnson’s life.
As the tour continued, I learned about Elizabeth Carter, a pioneering woman who studied the Classics back when women weren’t exposed to such scandalous texts. Lauded by Dr. Johnson as a good cook, and even better conversationalist, Elizabeth Carter helped him edit texts, while also expanding his social circles. The other memorable highlight was the story of Francis Barber, Dr. Johnson’s manservant and friend, who eventually became Dr. Johnson’s heir. As a man who loved a debate, Dr. Johnson strongly opposed slavery and bequeathed much of his small estate to someone who came into Dr. Johnson’s life shortly after his wife had passed.
Listening to our guide reveal more details of Dr. Johnson’s remarkable life, I was inspired by this man who seemed to be a pioneer in his own right. Flipping through his detailed dictionary, I thought about the enjoyment I used to get from mine, coercing childhood friends to play word games, after which they eventually tired, saying it reminded them of school.
I certainly didn’t think I’d be eating tacos in London. But lucky for my strong sense of smell, I was led along the cobbled streets of Soho by the trace of hickory smoke to an underground haven called Temper. Unbeknownst to those walking by, it has a modest front, and you’d never know that this culinary gem lies below. Looking around, trying to figure out where the luscious smell was coming from, I saw blocks of firewood through the glass, my first clue that I had found the source.
Do not come to Temper if you are a vegetarian or vegan. The sight of lamb shanks, beef loins, and a pig’s head roasting over crackling fires might deter you. It only lured me in further. I took a seat at the bar-the perfect spot to watch the Temper team make fresh tortillas, prepare cuts of meat, and toss eggplant onto the coals. When my plate finally came, it was hard to decide where to start. The fresh burrata drizzled with lime and jalapeno oil, or the soft cuts of pork gently set atop fire-grilled tortillas? Life should always be filled with such decisions! With portions small enough to sample a few options, I began my fireside feast.
In the era of smartphones, it seems as though there’s a social media channel to suit everyone’s fancy. I love Instagram, so it was only natural that I pay a visit to Saatchi Gallery, “the world’s number one museum on social media” as they say on their site. And rightly so. With tastefully, yet provocatively, curated exhibits, Saatchi Gallery is a must-see while you’re in London – whether or not you have a smartphone.
I planned to see the opening of Saatchi Gallery’s SALON featuring Tsuyoshi Maekawa’s paintings, and was pleasantly surprised. A longtime fan of Maekawa’s work, I learned a bit more about his art and the Gutai Art Association, Japan’s post-war avant-garde art collective. The word gutai means “concrete”, and was an intentional choice by the collective’s founder “to express the idea that art constitutes the embodied, material manifestation of human spiritual freedom.”
Walking among the rest of Maekawa’s work, and Saatchi Gallery, I thought about my own spiritual path, what “freedom” really means, and the profound and distinct impact that art has on all of us.
Leaving Saatchi Gallery, I enjoyed an uncharacteristically sunny day in London and walked up to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Friends who recommended I visit warned me that the museum was large, but I had no idea what to expect upon arriving. Holding over 2.3 million objects, I figured I should tackle only two exhibits and save the rest for my next trip to London.
A photography enthusiast, I caught the last days of The Camera Exposed, a small exhibit that featured black and white photography, with each photograph capturing the camera, either in the hands of the photographer, or angled to attempt antiquated selfies. Studying each image, some dating as far back as the 1850s, I was reminded of my days in the dark room back in college.
My last stop at this immense place was the Lockwood Kipling exhibit. Up until early April, this exhibit details some British history, not only of the V&A Museum and its beginnings as the South Kensington Museum, but Kipling’s contributions to the arts and crafts in the Punjab region of British India.
An illustrator, designer, curator, and teacher, Kipling, along his wife Alice, made much of his life, and artistic contributions, in India. Intricate watercolors from artisans in Calcutta are displayed next to Kipling’s earthenware plates that depict these artisans, each piece telling a different story. As I stepped out of the exhibit in the expansive halls filled with art from around the world, I thought of the quote hung on the wall at Dr. Johnson’s home, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”. I definitely wasn’t tired – just on to the next part of my journey.
While you’re in London, the last question you’ll ask yourself is “why leave?”. With iconic music landmarks, bespoke fashion, and provocative museums at every turn, it’s no wonder that this metropolis is one of the most visited cities in the world.
But an excursion that you absolutely must put on your itinerary is a luxury train journey with the Belmond British Pullman. These train cars have many a tale to tell, having hosted notable guests like Sophia Loren, President and Madame Vincent Auriol of France, and Sir Laurence Olivier. Rich in history, these cars were used in some of the famous rail services of Britain including the Brighton Belle and the Queen of Scots. The British Pullmans, all of which have been refurbished and restored to lavish, yet comfortable grandeur, are named after American George Mortimer Pullman, who designed these trains to be “palaces on wheels”.
And it definitely felt like a palace from the moment I first stepped foot on the train. Greeted by friendly staff eager to help me settle in to my plush chair, I sipped on my peach bellini while taking in the art nouveau decor and delicate vintage details. Waiting for other guests to board, I read up on these luxury rail cars like the Minerva, Audrey, and my car Perseus, which was Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral train car in 1965.
Before long, our journey started as we pulled away from Victoria Station and headed towards the English countryside. While enjoying the most sumptuous brunch of Scottish smoked salmon, caviar, and a warm buttered crumpet, all served on the British Pullman’s signature china, I quickly became friends with the travelers across the aisle. Well-versed in the British legal system, my neighbors shared some of the nuances of their system and recommended I visit the Royal Courts of Justice when back in London. What I loved most about our conversation was the personal, cross-cultural exchanges that can only happen while you’re traveling. We discussed the differences between the British and American systems, the U.S. constitution and its cultural grip on gun laws, and what it means to rehabilitate a citizen in the justice system.
Looking out the window, I drifted off into a pleasant state of daydream as our journey wove through farmlands edging out of a winter frost. Grazing sheep and fields of pheasants dotted green pastures, while the gray clouds broke up as the sun beckoned. It was already turning out to be a beautiful day.
As we arrived in Bath, our destination for the day’s journey, we were guided through the ancient town on a short bus tour that showed us the highlights. Our guide pointed out Jane Austen’s old haunts, the distinctive architecture of the city, and where to wander at our leisure, all while slipping in some interesting anecdotes.
Exiting the bus, our guide whisked us past the long weekend lines to visit the Roman Baths. Once inside, it was like a flashback to my AP Latin courses from high school. Statues of Roman politicians like Julius Caesar and Vespasian lined the open terrace that overlooked these historic waters. As I sat under a blue sky with these statuesque stone figures above, I reminisced on my school days as president of the Latin Club, where we attended annual conventions that held everything from chariot races to spelling bees, all eventually ending in a nightly toga party.
Making my way up to the exit, I passed my self-assigned patron goddess Minerva, and marveled at the interior baths and stone architecture of this ancient site. With a few hours to roam the city of Bath at my leisure, I headed up towards the hill that led to Royal Victoria Park.
The best part of this Belmond journey is that there is something for everyone in Bath. You can meander through antique stores, catch a rugby match at a local pub, or if the weather is nice, sit outside in one of the parks and observe the greenery lined with intricate cathedrals, buildings, and monuments.
Always a purveyor of art galleries and museums, I wandered up Broad Street towards the Fashion Museum. Along the way I found Magalleria, a little shop that merged two of my favorite things: art and magazines. Named one of Bath’s best shops in 2016, Magalleria specializes in curating rare, provocative, and artistically designed publications. If you’re in need of a gift or a souvenir, browse their “gallery”. You’re sure to find something that is a smart alternative to a coffee-table book, and won’t weigh a ton in your luggage. After talking with Susan, Magalleria’s owner about the changing landscape in print publications and how artistic magazines are making a comeback, I made a mental note to connect her with a few publishing contacts back home.
Passing quite a few enticing bars and cafes, I was grateful that I didn’t have to worry about choosing a place to eat, as I would be treated to a delicious dinner on the British Pullman after departing Bath. All the more time to wander these quaint streets!
My final stop in Bath was to the Fashion Museum, which seemed fitting as it was Fashion Week back in London. I started with the newly opened exhibit, Lace in Fashion, that displayed intricate designs, dresses, and decor dating from the 1500s. Walking past gowns by Balmain, Dior, and a beaded dress worn by Elizabeth Taylor during her controversial trip behind the “Iron Curtain” to Moscow, I thought about my recent visit to the Luna Mae showroom, where dreams of bespoke lace lingerie come to life. Seeing this craftsmanship behind glass gave me a new appreciation for this elegant material.
As the British Pullman rolled out of the station, I thought about the Romans’ contributions to transportation, the developments since that era, and how much we depend on these various modes today. Watching the sun set, I savored each bite of the most delicious cauliflower soup, a perfect starter to the freshly made seasonal menu served for this trip’s dinner.
Over a few more courses which included a delectable daube of beef, dauphinoise potatoes, and a cheese plate sampling regional cheeses from the British Isles, I caught up with my neighbors about what they saw on their afternoon in Bath. As it turns out, we all carved different paths throughout the town, each of us highlighting a favorite experience.
Winding our way back to London, I was already thinking about when I could travel on another Belmond journey. Luckily there are many options to choose from! The newly launched Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland’s first luxury touring train, glides through rugged countryside, winding along the striking scenery of Ireland’s northern coast. Or choose the highly anticipated Andean Explorer, South America’s first luxury sleeper service, where you can see the spellbinding curves and natural crevices of Peru.
Regardless of your destination with the Belmond Trains, one thing is for certain – you’ll definitely have the trip of a lifetime. My journey on the luxurious British Pullman is something I hope everyone can experience on their trip to England. The superior service and world-class gastronomic fare provided by the British Pullman team, the intimate and daring conversations with your travel companions, and of course, the postcard scenery along the way all add up to create a unique journey for each of us. And really, that’s what travel is all about – the journey.
Loosely translated as “that embrace”, the title of this famous Gilberto Gil song captures the sentiment of the first time I stepped foot on Brazilian soil 15 years ago. Since then, I’ve had the fortunate fate of vacationing, living, and adventuring in this country that welcomed me in its warm embrace like a close friend.
And it’s felt that way ever since. Having continually returned to Rio de Janeiro, or the “cidade maravilhosa” as it’s known by its neighbors and fellow Brazilians, I discover a new facet of this glittering urban gem with each visit.
My latest discovery happened, serendipitously as it seemed, when I attended a yoga class one Saturday morning. I met Kauan at a cultural center down the street from my apartment in Botafogo. As she arrived, I instantly knew she was the teacher from her commanding walk that was fit for a reigning queen. Although I practice yoga, I found myself struggling to keep up with her challenging class “Flexionamento.” With every one of her lithe movements and authoritative, yet reassuring chants of “respira” and “relaxa”, I felt a tad more at ease as the class progressed. After class, I had the chance to learn more about my captivating instructor. Trained in dance performance with a Bachelors degree in Fine Arts, it turns out Kauan is a bit like royalty. She comes from the Gracie family, pioneers in the world of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and fitness champions throughout the world.
Upon learning that we were both raised in Los Angeles, we became instant friends. As we talked, Kauan shared the story of how her family made açai famous. This Amazonian fruit, touted for its antioxidant and energy-boosting qualities, is somewhat of a Brazilian delicacy. Kauan recently learned of her family’s connection to the açai culture here in Rio while casually eavesdropping a conversation between a patron and the man behind the counter at Arataca, a Copacabana landmark frequented by author Paulo Coelho and other Brazilian greats.
Her eyes glistened as she recounted the details: “I go into Arataca and overhear this old man saying that he brought açai to Rio, but I knew that he had to be wrong because as far as I knew, it was my family who brought açai to Rio. So I asked him to tell me more and it turns out he was a retired pilot who used to fly the plane that literally brought açai from Pará to Rio.”
As the story goes, Kauan’s great uncle Carlos lived in the building above Arataca and used to eat this delicious, cool treat after training. Being one of the key members of this famous sport family in the city, and throughout Brasil, people started to emulate Carlos, his diet, and his lifestyle, and began to enjoy this ambrosia from the north, making açai more popular as the years went on. “No one here really ate it before”, Kauan mused, “so in a way my family brought it to Rio, too!”
Enthralled with her story, I asked if she’d take me to this açai landmark. Learning more about her story over this delicious local delight, Kauan said that she had been dancing her whole life and that given her family history, fitness and health were always at the forefront of her life. She recounted how in her post-graduate work in Italy, she didn’t really find the dance and styles she was looking for and eventually made the move to Rio, a natural next step in search of her family’s roots and progression as a dancer. “The outdoor lifestyle drew me in immediately. Rio stimulated a lot in me – I knew I wanted to stay.” Luckily, her transition was easy. She landed a job as a dance teacher after attending a class at a nearby school with a friend. The teacher, commenting on her “talent, spontaneity, and connection with the students”, hired her immediately. It was here that Kauan got connected with Carlinhos de Jesus, famous samba school choreographer and judge of Dança dos Famosos.
For all things gastronomy, I defer to my friend and celebrated food photographer, Tomás Rangel. With the tough assignment of photographing Rio’s award-winning restaurants and bars for Veja’s annual Comer & Beber issue, Tomás is the source for whatever pleases your palate. Lucky to have him as my tour guide on an afternoon stroll through Santa Tereza, I was enchanted with the old world charm of this neighborhood that offers sweeping views of the city.
Our first stop was to an unnamed padaria that Tomás stated had the best “pão de queijo”, or cheese bread, in Rio. And he should know. With family lineage from Minas Gerais, which is known for having the best pão de queijo in the country, Tomás made some recommendations on other places in the area to grab a bite, including the outdoor café, “Simplesmente” that sat right across from our anonymous bakery. Wandering around the winding streets of Santa Tereza, we stopped at the Museu da Chácara do Céu to take in some of the breathtaking views that offered a panorama of the city below and a glimpse of the ever-watchful Cristo Redentor.
Weaving our way through the streets lined with boutiques, bars, and beautiful churches, we stopped for a drink at Bar do Mineiro. Sticking with the theme, we both agreed that it was a welcome reprieve from the afternoon jaunt. Having lived in Minas, I asked Tomás about his impressions of Minas cuisine and if it’s impacted Rio menus. We compared notes on our favorite dishes from this state, deciding that Minas Gerais should be on every foodie’s bucket list. Ruminating on the delectable demands of his assignments as a food photographer, Tomás and I decided that I would have to return to the city soon to continue my sampling of Rio’s culinary scene.
On the way back from Santa Tereza, I stopped by Catete, a neighborhood absent of any tourist flair, but with all of the energy of this city’s heartbeat. I wandered over to Palácio do Catete, wanting to see the photography exhibit by anthropologist Anthony Leeds entitled “O Rio Que Se Queria Negar.” Roughly translated as “Rio In Denial”, Leeds’ black and white photos highlighted life in the favelas during his fieldwork in the 1960’s, casting a sobering and poignant glimpse into the construction of Rio’s landscape.
While reading the captions on each picture, I realized although I had lived in Brazil and traveled here many times, I never quite understood the labor migration and urban development that resulted in this city’s sprawling ghettos. I returned to my apartment and looked up some of Leeds’ work, which led me down the virtual path of a crash course in Brazilian socioeconomics. My curiosity, possibly intensified by the occurrence of Brazil’s recent Dia da Consciência Negra, a holiday analogous to our Black History Month here in the U.S., heightened the similarities between the two countries when it comes to the intersection of race, class, income, and upward mobility. That evening, as I translated some of the lyrics of the samba songs woven throughout Leeds’ images, it was with a heavy heart that I began to understand the title of the exhibit and I wondered at what point we’ll stop denying injustice and begin to acknowledge the chasm that exists between our communities.
Of course it wouldn’t be the quintessential Rio vacation without a visit to its beaches, made famous with songs like João Gilberto’s “Garota de Ipanema” and Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana.” Rio’s beaches are not for the faint of heart. Before you even step foot on the steaming sand, you are greeted by an ambush of sights, smells, and sounds that embody the carnival spirit that this city is famous for sharing with the world. Once you’ve nestled into the sand with a chair and umbrella, highly recommended by the way, you’ll see vendors selling everything from rosaries and holy cards, to beer and bikinis. This flurry of activity is set against the backdrop of bronzed bodies basking in the balmy heat, some of whom stand like proud peacocks on the shore.
When I need a respite from this lively scene, I make my way to the rock formation that divides Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, Arpoador. An ideal lookout for those trying to capture the perfect shot of Dois Irmãos in the distance, or for locals diving off of the cliffs into the whirling sea below, Arpoador always feels like a world away, although it’s only a few steps from the avenue. While up here, I make it a point to meditate and thank the universe for the magnificent memories of my visit. As I bask in the glorious sunshine, I can hear the hum of the frigate birds swooping by, some diving into the waves that wash up on the rocks nearby.
To outfit yourself for the coastline of Ipanema, or really anywhere else in the world that admires gorgeous beach attire, you must stop by Lenny Niemeyer. Beyond just outfitting you with a proper Brazilian bikini for your beach visit or afternoon pool party, Lenny’s colors, cuts, and canvas of styles put most resort wear to shame. Made famous by word of mouth amongst Rio’s fashion mavens of the 80’s, Lenny combined her background in architecture with a love of lush landscapes and natural beauty to launch her eponymous swimsuit collection. One visit to her boutique will provide you with everything you need to look the stylish part on your warm weather adventures.
Making my way along the animated Ipanema avenues, my next stop was to one of my favorite music stores, Toca do Vinícius. This is a mecca for anyone who considers themselves a Bossa Nova enthusiast, or for those in search of an obscure Brazilian jazz record. Named after one of the godfathers of bossa nova, Vinícius de Morães, this tiny treasure of a shop captures the spirit, and the soundtrack, of Rio. Standing in this “library of bossa nova”, I am instantly transported to memories of sitting in my grandfather’s office with the melodies of João Gilberto playing in the background.
Later that afternoon, I headed to the other side of town to the Museum of Modern Art. I was again transported to 1960’s Brazil, revealing yet another perspective on life during this tumultuous time in the country’s history. The exposition, “Opinião 65”, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the original exhibit that introduced controversial artwork by Roberto Magalhães, Antonio Días, Carlos Vergara, Hélio Oiticica, and other avant-garde artists who used their canvases to speak out against the military coup of 1964. Given the protagonistic context of this period in Brazilian history, it is no surprise that this spirit of rebellion showed up in other art forms of this era.
While looking at one of my favorite paintings, Fausto, Mefistófeles e Guida, an oil piece by Carlos Vergara, I was instantly transported back to my first visit to the opera with my father. He took me to the San Francisco Opera House to see Faust, quite a hefty piece for my first opera, making it all the more memorable, of course. Devouring any material I could find about the plot, I eagerly read up on Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles, the Devil’s representative. Oddly enough, I identified with the protagonist’s hunger for endless knowledge, and empathized with his perpetual plight.
As I wandered through the exhibit, I was drawn to the sound of bossa nova muddled by voices in Portuguese, eventually ending up in front a video piece featuring interviews of some of these neo-expressionist artists. Discussing the initial exhibit in 1965 and how it was a radical departure from what had been done in Brazil until that point, Vergara stated that “our goal was not only to fight the military, but to fight complacency. The complacency of the people with themselves, and we had choices to make. Art is a field of action.”
Back home in Botafogo, I met up with one of my former students to catch up over at one of my favorite neighborhoods spots, Hell’s Burguer. While it’s not the only
burger joint in town, it has definitely made its mark with the locals, as there is rarely a time I’ve been by where there isn’t a bit of a wait. But it’s well worth it. The menu is small; burgers and fries, with a small sampling of beers and other cold beverages. My usual order is simple: the house named Hell’s Burguer, a juicy, grilled rib meat patty topped with a generous amount of cheese, both sandwiched between a soft bun. It’s accompanied by steak fries perfectly cupped to scoop up the house-made spicy sauce, nicknamed “So Hot It’s Stupid.” Which it’s not. Brazilians don’t really have a palate for spicy food, unless you’re in the northeast or a few other pockets of Brazil. Either way, try it, as well as their Voodoo BBQ Sauce – they’re both delicious!
After finishing our hamburger feast, my student, a fellow football fanatic, talked about the upcoming Rio Olympics and the changes that were happening all over the city. Working to strengthen the infrastructure for this impending sports competition, Rio has faced quite a few challenges preparing itself to host athletes, fans, and tourists from all over the globe. But the more we talked, we both remained hopeful that this “marvelous city” will live up to its nickname as it prepares to showcase this historic event on its urban stage in just a few months.
While walking through Art Share’s exhibit honoring the 6th Street Bridge, I wondered how a piece of architecture could come to represent so much for a community. This Los Angeles landmark, made famous by movies, video games, and maybe the occasional music lyric, connects the burgeoning Arts District of Downtown L.A. with the neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. Set for demolition this month, the iconic structure was the theme for the gallery’s “Ode to the Bridge” exhibit.
The viaduct, now on the National Register of Historic Places, leaves behind an inspired collection of diverse artwork: gelatin silver prints, canvas wrapped photographs, satin laminate on gatorboard, all capturing what will soon be remnants of LA’s history. After spending a couple of hours at the exhibit, I did a little research on the bridge and the reason for its impending doom or development, depending on who you ask. Reading through old press releases and snippets from the Los Angeles Times, I came upon a quote by the architectural historian and critic Reyner Banham: “The point about this giant city, which has grown almost simultaneously all over, is that all parts are equal and equally accessible from all other parts at once.” Access: that’s what this bridge stands for.
Prompted to learn more about the bridge and the art history of the neighborhood, I put on my tourist hat and enlisted the help of artist Steve Lopez to give me a tour of the area. Snapping some shots of this soon to be demolished structure, Lopez and I talked about what moved him to pursue a career as an artist. “Los Angeles graffiti was my outlet. It allowed me to be angry and not feel insignificant. It seeded me with courage to stand up against the fear of violence, authority, and assimilation.” Using art as an outlet for the simmering frustration of being raised in two competing worlds, both culturally and physically, Lopez got his start here on the streets of L.A. Honing his skills through formal education and exposure to other artists in the field, he now has his work represented at galleries all over the U.S., including Hive Gallery in nearby downtown L.A.
The Arts District is where every street corner is a gallery, every wall a canvas. Guided through what Lopez called a “hub where international artists converge”, we wandered past works by David Choe, Alex Kizu aka “Defer”, and Asylm while Lopez mused on the intersecting history of hip hop, art, and politics here in L.A.
Stopping for a bite at Zinc Café, Lopez and I compared notes on how we thought the city has changed. Both LA natives, we laughed at the idea of being tourists in our own city and discovering its hidden gems. Ruminating about how the neighborhoods have evolved, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, we did agree on one thing: Los Angeles has become a destination for artists, art enthusiasts, and art historians.
With all of this renewed art appreciation comes boutiques, bars, and restaurants, or sometimes all three as is the case at Zinc. I first discovered Zinc when I came to the grand opening of Black Milk’s flagship U.S. location last year. It was by accident, which is always the best way to
discover a neighborhood dining gem like this. Since then, I’ve been back a few times and enjoyed the savory pizza blanco, a perfectly fluffy quiche, and their decadent dark chocolate brownie, but it wasn’t until my second visit that I realized the menu was completely vegetarian. There’s a room for every mood at Zinc: it has a front patio, an outdoor garden, a back bar, and a gift boutique that has a bevy of hostess gifts to pick up on the way to your next party. Glancing up at the wall in the back bar of Zinc, I noticed some paintings of the 6th Street Bridge and thought about how bridges not only connect neighborhoods, but cultures, communities, and generations.
The next stop on my self-imposed art walk of Los Angeles was the recently opened Broad Museum in the center of downtown. The newest addition to the family of museums that dot this urban sprawl opened in September and sits next to the equally striking Walt Disney Concert Hall. If there’s one word that describes the art at the Broad, it is “provocative”. Walking through the different rooms, I was met with a vast collection of modern art, some of which struck me as vibrant and dynamic, and others as vile and revolting. But one of the most striking pieces of art at the Broad is what architect Liz Diller labels the “veil”, or the outer façade of the structure. This veil, which Diller describes as beautiful because “it’s distorted, incomplete, ragged at the top”, has added a new dimension to Grand Avenue’s skyline.
Driving along the endless stretch of freeway towards the next stop on my seamless staycation, I thought about how the freeways bridge the suburbs of this sprawling cityscape. With Santa Monica as my next stop, I was grateful for the clear freeway that was uncharacteristically absent of any traffic. The song by the Missing Persons had it right: nobody walks in LA. Unless you are walking to the valet, the nearest bus stop, or those rare metro stops, you’re in a car and you’re going to need this transportation to see all of the highlights that this city has to offer. As the antiquated GPS in BBC’s 1972 documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles narrates: “get in the lane marked ‘Santa Monica’ but watch out for traffic, and remember that flashing a signal does not constitute any right of way.”
My home for a few days of my staycation was the Ambrose Hotel. Santa Monica’s first LEED certified hotel, which artfully blends eco-friendly decor with what they call “holistic hospitality” sits right outside of the bustling shopping district of this southern California tourist destination.
The Ambrose Hotel, founded by hospitality industry veteran Deidre Wallace, is the perfect combination of luxury, culture, high design, and sustainability. Wallace, who noticed a gap in the market for “affordable luxury and healthy hotels”, said that going green was not an afterthought that she just added to certain elements of the hotel, but rather an integral part of the hotel and her business. And it definitely shows, even down to the smallest details in the bathrooms, organic refreshments in the lounge, and the helpful complimentary local transport service.
I took a ride around the neighborhood on one of the bikes provided by the hotel, and marveled at the endless blue sky dotted with palm trees along the coast. Shooting photographs of the seductive sunset, I watched, listened, and eventually joined in as tourists from all over the world captured moments that would keep these memories alive long after they’d return home. And then I thought about how lucky I was to call such a picturesque place home. A place where people from all over the U.S., as well as the globe, come to catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, the sandy shore, and this coastline that they’ve seen in so many Hollywood movies.
My art tour continued at one of my favorite destinations, LACMA. Celebrating its 50th year in Los Angeles, this museum is where I’ve seen everything from King Tut’s tomb to Stanley Kubrick’s provoking manuscripts to Diane Von Furstenburg’s divine dress collection. Growing up, I spent countless Sundays here with my aunt Reenie as my guide and I fondly remember the first time I saw Diego Rivera’s work while she provided insight and perspective on the murals that I’d one day see in his native Mexico. Now I frequent the museum with friends and visitors from all over the world, passing on the knowledge I’ve learned over the years.
On my most recent visit, I was lucky to catch the last days of the Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada exhibit. Purifoy, the pioneer who brought art education to the California prison system, created masterpieces from his surroundings here in Los Angeles and throughout the Mojave Desert. His art is provoking and poignant, highlighting some of the more tragic moments of L.A. history. Using debris from the Watts riots, Purifoy’s sculptures, photos, and transcripts are a timeless reminder of how much healing still needs to be done in our local urban communities.
As I drove along the freeway back to downtown, I thought about how these highways acts a bridge, connecting the streets and the people. Streets that have hosted momentous occasions like the passing of an Olympic torch or the last flight of space shuttle Endeavor, while at the same time bearing witness to riots and outraged citizens. And then I was reminded of Lopez’s statement about art and how it was a vehicle for him to channel outrage and anger, ultimately acting as a cathartic release. This is one of the primary purposes of art; to provide a platform for people to express their perspectives, their emotions, their soul. Without art, our communities lack a healthy means to express the challenges and successes in their lives.
Hungry for a bite to eat, I stopped at Phillipe’s, home to the original French dip. While the origin of the sandwich is debatable, one thing is for certain: this deli is always packed. And rightfully so. The sandwiches are perfectly crispy on the outside and soaked in the signature au jus, making each bite a sumptuous morsel. Dining here with my father, he reminisced about how he would frequent Phillipe’s with my grandfather back in the day. Whether they were headed to a nearby Dodger game or a Rams football game, Philippe’s always made the perfect take-along sandwich. Always eager to share a good story, my dad’s eyes glistened as he recounted the good ol’ days in Los Angeles.
Back in downtown, I had the opportunity to join a private tour of the Los Angeles Public Library. The tour, led by our animated and encyclopedic docent, Diana, was a convergence of all things that make me happy: books, art, and history. Spending childhood summers between the beach and my local library, I was instantly transported to that larger than life feeling I had as a child when I walked into the Rotunda Room. Its centerpiece is a magnificent Lee Lawrie-designed chandelier, which helps
to illuminate the murals lit up by the natural light that floods the room. These murals, completed by Dean Cornwell in 1933, colorfully depict the history of California. Cornwell, who studied under Frank Brangwyn in London, used his artistic background as an illustrator to influence his renderings for this ceiling. Standing there in awe, I was delighted by Diana’s anecdotes about the artists, their style, and inspiration for the artwork in the library. My favorite piece on the tour was Lawrie’s Statue of Civilization, with her veined marble dress decorated with icons symbolizing progress and development throughout history. She glows from natural light that flank her from every angle while holding a torch, a tribute to the library’s theme: “The Light of Learning”. Crowned with angels and a bear, both nods to the city and state symbols, she looks across to the children’s room, another art-filled universe within this beautiful landmark.
My final stop of the day was to one of my favorite downtown eateries, Bottega Louie. The restaurant is always bustling no matter what time of day I dine, and the food is always delicious. My favorite dish, the trenne pasta, combines the most delectable and tender short rib pieces with seasoned kale and is set atop pan-seared pasta, with fresh parmesan as its finishing touch. Whether meeting friends or hosting out of town guests, Bottega Louie is always the perfect place to meet for a meal. Having dined here countless times since its opening in 2007, I’ve dipped in to pick up sandwiches and sweet treats from their Instagram-worthy patisserie, savored their smoked salmon benedict while brunching with friends, and enjoyed their wood-fired pizza after a night out.
Heading home, I drove east across the 6th Street Bridge for the last time. Tears welled up in my eyes with an uncertainty about what the future holds on many levels. But there’s one thing I know for sure, I’ll definitely be back, with each visit just as memorable as the last.
“I am an American discovering America”. These words by Marsden Hartley never rang truer than during my trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This enchanting artists’ colony has been on my travel bucket list for some time. I had no idea the rich history, both culturally and culinary, that awaited me in this southwestern town.
A lover of all things epicurean, I enrolled in a cooking class at the suggestion of my hotel concierge. Santa Fe School of Cooking hosts a wide array of hands-on courses and tasting menus, which made it hard to choose, but I ultimately decided on “Mole & More”. Mole, a dish with endless ingredients and prep time that would deter most home chefs, has always intimidated a seasoned cook like myself. Little did I know that our instructor, Chef Michelle Chavez, would guide us through the process with ease, providing helpful tips and tricks along the way.
Michelle, equal parts historian, teacher, and foodie, began our four-hour session with an introduction that rivaled my AP US History class. During her talk, I learned more about this region of America than in my four years of high school history classes. “Every group of people who came through Santa Fe, be it on the Camino Real or the Santa Fe Trail, left an indelible impression on our food and culture. To remove one from our history would change our ways drastically”, shared Michelle as she pointed out the bountiful culinary traditions of those who had come before. “Corn, beans and squash, collectively known as The Three Sisters, were gifts of the native population, as well as the wine grapes, pigs, sheep, wheat and other cultivars brought by the Spanish.” She shared stories of the Pueblo, Zuni, and Oaxaca heritages, highlighting the often overlooked contributions of these Native Americans to this plentiful cuisine and culture.
While Michelle mixed fresh beans, roasted fragrant chiles, and simmered Abuelita chocolate, she offered suggestions on everything from making bone broth to cookie-crumb crust. Scribbling down every word on my recipe sheets, I was eager to try these suggestions back home. With Food Network-style presentation, Michelle wove around the room with each course neatly timed. Each dish exceeded my palette’s expectations, and had a precise mixture of sweet and savory, all while offering that signature New Mexican spice.
As class came to a close, I had the opportunity to speak with Michelle and thank her for an unforgettable experience. After telling her about my spotty knowledge of American history, she recommended that I read Blood & Thunder by Kit Carson. Eager for a deeper insight to the history of New Mexico and the southwest, I added the book to my wish list. Not wanting the class to end, I asked Michelle for a photo and barraged her with other questions. Obliging, she mentioned that she was working on a book and that her travel bucket list location was “to the spice markets of Northern Africa and India; basically anywhere that has a strong food culture with great biodiversity.”
Weaving my way up through the center of town, I thought about my impromptu history lesson and what this area must have looked like centuries ago. I imagined towering rows of corn, fields of colorful squash, and an earthy expanse set against the stark blue sky and hovering mountains.
Stepping into the courtyard of the New Mexico Museum of Art, I now understood why so many artists had been drawn to this magical place. The Will Shuster murals that lined the courtyard offered a glimpse into what life was like on this land long ago.
Once inside the museum walls, I walked through the exhibit enjoying a multitude of interpretations on early American life. From Diego Romero’s Romanticism-inspired piece Olympiato Fritz Scholder’s larger than life Pop-Art Super Indian, I was overwhelmed by the wash of hues and textures that this “Summer of Color” inspired exhibit displayed. One piece drew me closer, and I stepped towards it in a cautious manner. The Scout, by Warren E. Rollins, made me wonder what was going through this man’s head. Capturing the uneasy feeling of a stranger approaching, “Do I retreat? What do they want? Where are they from?” Rollins’ work left me pensive, yet uncomfortable.
Moving on to Taos Pueblo-Moonlight, the neighboring oil painting by E. Irving Couse, I longed to step into the picture. A familiar, yet somber mood came over me as I studied the family around the fire: an elder passing on generational wisdom to an eager child.
Leaving the museum, I crossed through the square and absorbed the fresh breeze on this crisp, spring evening. Inspired by the varied artistic expressions, I took some photographs of passersby and local architecture. While seeking out my next stop, a local vendor in the square recommended that I take a walk up to San Miguel Mission.
San Miguel, the oldest church in the United States, has a simple façade washed in the burnt almond color that is ubiquitous in Santa Fe. With each creaking footstep, I made my way along the pews, admiring the quaint and homely church.
Approaching the altar, I dropped in some coins and lit a candle for my nephew. As I knelt down at the wooden altar, I looked into the foundation of the church. Squinting to make out the placard below, I could see the ruins of an Indian home dated 1300. My eyes welled up with heavy tears, overcome with the emotion and burden from the day’s lessons. I silently wept for all those who had lost their homes and habitats in that early round of colonization. Walking slowly out of the small church, I wondered what it would be like to be displaced and lose my house and heritage in the process.
Once home, I was eager to try my hand at the menu that Michelle had so synchronistically prepared during my trip. Lucky enough to live in Los Angeles where many of these ingredients can be found, I reviewed my notes and assembled a shopping list for my recreation of “Mole & More”. Noting a few holes in my ingredient list, I called the school and ordered a few things to complete my menu.
I created a new acronym, WWMD, as I repeatedly asked myself through the lengthy preparation, “What would Michelle do?” With a few tweaks and twists, I prepared a spicy and sumptuous feast for a few friends. My delectable dishes were devoured in what seemed like minutes. Sharing stories of everything from summer romances to systemic racism, my guests and I enjoyed a fragrant and fulfilling meal. Pleased with my performance, I recounted stories and insights from my trip to Santa Fe and vowed to return to the southwestern town before year-end.
Frida and I share the same zodiac. The world-famous artist, and spirited water sign, has long captured my attention. Although I just learned that Frida Kahlo was also a Cancer, I’ve been enamored with her life, style, and art for many years. In high school, I scoured flea markets in my LA suburb for tchotchkes bearing her unmistakable image. During my university years, I pored over books about this incredible woman, eventually saving some money to buy a cookbook honoring her culinary skills. Now, I am lucky enough to attend museums and cultural events highlighting Frida’s art and unique style.
It wasn’t until I visited her famed Casa Azul in Mexico City that I finally understood this woman. I planned my trip around the Vogue-sponsored exhibit that displayed Frida’s shrouded wardrobe, which had been hidden from the public since her death. As I entered the exhibit, the first piece I saw stopped me dead in my tracks: her body cast. I stood there, tears rolling down my cheeks, as I came face to face with the object that embodied Frida’s tragedy, and ultimate impetus for her art. Confined by the cast, and eventually to her bed, Frida created some of her most somber, yet glorious art because of this physical adversity. Meandering through the lush gardens in her hacienda style home, I got a glimpse into the daily life of this provocative woman. Trotsky’s guest bedroom, the art studio that Frida and Diego shared, and the decorative kitchen, were just a few of the highlights of my visit to Casa Azul. The Frida Kahlo museum is a required destination for any visit to Mexico City. Coyoacan, which hosts the museum, is a short cab ride from the city center, and accessible by the city’s metro system.
After spending the morning in Frida’s former home, I wandered down the colorful Calle Ignacio Allende toward Jardin Hidalgo, stopping at the corner coffee spot, Café El Jarocho. As I sat outside El Jarocho sipping a latte and nibbling on churros purchased streetside, I talked with a local university student who suggested that I walk through the Mercado for jewelry and handicrafts. After promising to visit the Mercado, I bought a few pounds of coffee for souvenirs and walked down to the plaza. In a carnival-like atmosphere of colors, music, and aromas, I observed families out for an afternoon, tourists sampling street food, and vendors selling their wares.
As I rushed back to the city center, my only regret was that I didn’t stay in Coyoacan longer. But I had a good excuse; I was enticed by my reservation at Azul Historico to indulge in the seasonal dish “chiles en nogada”. I first learned of this dish, which is featured on local menus in September, in my aforementioned cookbook, Frida’s Fiestas. Azul Historico is nestled in the candlelit courtyard of Centro Historico. Colorful and fragrant dishes float around tables full of locals, business travelers, and tourists seeking an outdoor patio dining experience. After perusing the menu, I sputtered my order in broken Spanish and asked my server for this featured dish: “one of each, a sweet and a savory”. He chuckled knowingly, and recommended that I order just one and demonstrated the size of the stuffed chile with his hands. Picture-perfect and tied up with a red, white, and green bow to commemorate Mexican Independence day, my chile was worth the wait. I’m glad that I took his advice and enjoyed each morsel of my savory pork-filled entrée. Relishing each bite, I thought about Frida and the endless misfortune she overcame throughout her life, all while contributing to the world with her controversial art.
After dinner, I wandered through the courtyard and upstairs through some of the shops. Luckily, I happened upon Que Bo!, a local chocolatier that produces a small, but impressive menu of truffles, drinking chocolates, and other sweets to satiate any chocoholic. Sitting on the small balcony, I sipped my dessert and watched the diners at Padrinos, making a note to return and dine under their lush vertical garden. While walking back to my hotel, I heard music coming from an upstairs venue. Weaving my way across the street in a light rain, I headed upstairs to a small bar, La Diabla y La Santa. The band, Los Hijos de Chunga, was jamming in preparation for an upcoming music fest. Their sound, a hybrid of the Doors and Jethro Tull, was the perfect soundtrack to end a Friday night.
Museo Soumaya was next on my list. Its glistening exterior is probably one of the most photographed museum entrances in Latin America, if not the world. A generous gift from business tycoon Carlos Slim, Museo Soumaya makes art accessible to local Mexican citizens, as well as the international community. Upon entering the museum’s foyer, I was greeted by Rodin’s, “The Thinker”. Having seen this statue many times as an undergrad on my college campus, I made my way up to the circular ramp to the permanent exhibits. A vast array of styles and periods can be seen at Soumaya, including works by Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, commercial works by national artist Jesus Helguera, and Salvador Dali’s sculptures. With so much to see, I spent most of the day absorbing the diverse collection and made notes to revisit my art history books upon my return home.
Making my way back towards the hotel, I stopped at Limosneros Restaurante at the recommendation of hotel staff. Limosneros did not disappoint with its inventive take on Mexican gastronomy and Instagram-worthy presentation. I sampled a little bit of everything including a local mescal and some of the best ribs I’ve ever tasted, but the highlight of my meal was the “flautas de flor de jamaica”. Having used flor de jamaica, or hibiscus flowers, in tea and juice, I was surprised to see them featured in a savory dish. Pleased with my choices, I asked the server for a dessert recommendation and was more than satisfied with the molten chocolate cake infused with ground chiles and pepitas. Admiring the light fixtures, which looked like miniature goblets made of blown glass, I made my plan for the remainder of my trip. In a city that boasts loads of museums, second only to Paris worldwide, I narrowed it down to a few for the last leg of my trip.
Sunday morning found me at the obligatory mass. But in reality, I needed to stop in and say thank you for an amazing trip thus far. Upon entering the Metropolitan Cathedral at Zocalo, I realized that a young girl’s quinceañera mass had begun. I quietly wandered through this architectural masterpiece, the largest and oldest cathedral in Latin America. Counting my blessings and giving thanks for a safe journey, I ducked out of the cathedral and wandered over to the neighboring Templo Mayor. At the entrance, visitors are guided through the ruins that were left behind after conquistadors used the stone and foundation to build the adjacent Cathedral and other nearby monuments.
Templo Mayor has an expansive outdoor portion of the museum where visitors can wander through these anthropological discoveries and read about this important part of Mexican history. Learning about the contributions of the Aztecs to Mexico’s foundation, both literally and figuratively, is a necessary stop for anyone visiting Mexico City.
After wandering along Calle Tacuba and some of the streets near the Zocalo, I worked up an appetite and stopped in to enjoy a bountiful brunch at El Cardenal. Waiters practically waltzed through the dining room, carrying large trays of pan dulce, clay jugs full of hot chocolate, and colorful jars of agua frescas. Tempted to order one of everything on the robust menu that featured seasonal dishes such as cuitlacoche, I opted for the Mexican classic, chilaquiles. But it was my starter that was the star of the show. The bean soup, a brothy mixture of poached eggs, spicy pintos, and fresh cheese, was accompanied by housemade tortillas. Simple and flavorful, it hit the spot for a mid-day meal. With a full belly, I walked down the streets near the Zocalo and picked up a few last minute souvenirs. My prized find was a silk scarf by Mexican designer, Pineda Covalin. Narrowing down my choices was difficult with so many vibrant designs to choose from, but my ultimate choice reflected some of the Aztec images that reminded me of my earlier trip to the Templo Mayor.
Back “home” at my hotel, I ended the day at the rooftop café overlooking the Zocalo. Sipping on a fresh, green juice, I reflected on all of the awe-inspiring experiences that I had while here. Eager to return, I felt grateful for the opportunity to learn a little more about my heritage and the contributions of the Mexican people and began to plan my next trip.