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Brazil’s Gold Mine: A Visit to Minas Gerais

 

 

Long before Google had every inch of the globe mapped and scaled online, I was assigned to an exchange program in a small Brazilian town called “Ouro Branco”.

Eager to learn more about my future destination, I entered this foreign city into the search box, only to discover the name translated to “white gold”, and that it was a few hours from Minas Gerais’ state capital, Belo Horizonte. As with all things destined, the mountainside town of Ouro Branco became my anchor for discovering more of Minas.

Brazil’s inland state is just that, a hidden gem. A quick plane ride from its more popular neighbors, Rio and São Paulo, Minas Gerais is a vast countryside full of historical towns, hidden waterfalls and hiking trails, and the best cuisine in all of Brazil – the general consensus among Brazilians.

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The most expansive of Minas’ hidden gems is Museo Inhotim. To call it a museum is an understatement. This 5,000 acre masterpiece is a design lover’s dream, a nature lover’s paradise, and of course, an art lover’s epiphany. Sitting about an hour outside of Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s sixth largest city, Inhotim is a full sensory experience. Lush, green trees envelop you from the moment you walk in, wrapping you in a cocoon of natural wonders.

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My knowledgeable guide Marcelo Martins led the way, pointing out the natural furniture by famed Brazilian designer Hugo França. These striking pieces from repurposed wood sat amongst the 500 different botanical species at Inhotim. My favorite tree, paxiuba, is known as “the palm that walks”, moving 3 centimeters a year to follow the sun. Stopping at our first exhibit, he asked “What do you see here?” as I gazed up at a large set of chairs and tables surrounded by a manicured garden. Apprehensive about my answer, I wondered if Marcelo would allow me to advance to the next exhibit based on the quality of my response.

 

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Chris Burden’s Beam Drop

 

Luckily, my answer was suffice and our next stop was the Sonic Pavilion. An ambitious and complex work by Doug Aitken, the pavilion holds a deep well over 600 feet, equipped with microphones that send the wailing frequencies of the earth’s cry up into the room. Tears welled in my eyes as I felt the pain and voice of Mother Earth crying out, reverberating through my body and soul.

 

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Doug Aitken’s Sonic Pavilion

 

There’s not much to say when you leave an experience like that. I walked along in silence with Marcelo until we reached our next stop when he said, “The earth was extra loud today. She must have known you were coming.” This prompted our discussion of meditation, as I told Marcelo that I’m glad I had a daily practice which truly prepared me for Inhotim. The spiritual and physical work that I’d been doing allowed me to fully absorb every somatic stroke of this magnificent place.

 

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Mathew Barney’s From Mud, A Blade

 

Speaking of preparation, nothing truly prepared me for the next exhibit by Mathew Barney. Weaving the conflict of Ogum, god of iron, war, and technology with Ossanha, the god of plants and nature, Barney’s massive work draws inspiration from Bahian Candomble to highlight the tension between our natural and man-made worlds. In a word, this was disturbing. Which is exactly what great art is supposed to do, right?

IMG_2483Less disturbing, but just as provocative was the gallery featuring work by famed Brazilian contemporary artist Cildo Meireles. Awash in varied hues of red, it was a playful, yet evolving exhibit as the strong color came to signify violence and blood as I moved from room to room.

Heading to lunch, Marcelo shared the history of Inhotim and its gardens, “Roberto Burle Marx visited this place, and being a close friend to Bernardo Paz, the museum’s founder, he advised Bernardo on what plant species to use, the colors, and even the layout.”

 

Over a delicious lunch of fresh fish and endless salads and local fruits, Marcelo reminisced on his early days at Inhotim. “When I first started working here, I thought 2 days was enough time for a visit, but now I recommend 4 days. You really want time to experience Inhotim. To really absorb it.”

During our decadent meal, Yara Castanheira, who heads the education department at Inhotim, joined us. “Here at Inhotim, we connect art and nature. We blur those boundaries.” And it’s evident at every turn. Exhibits are hidden behind towering trees, obscured by winding vines and orchids, and discovered at the end of trails overflowing with the flora and fauna that is unique to Brazil.

 

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“Our collections, all with a theme, provide a new perspective. But we’re mediating and guiding – not giving answers.” During my visit, Inhotim’s theme was gender and water, chosen in line with the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainability. “We’re looking at contemporary challenges, and through researching this theme, we discovered that in places where there was enough water for the community, the women were also having that basic need of education met. Without water in the community, women and girls have to collect it and forgo the chance at an education. It’s a powerful discovery.”

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Thinking about how grateful I was to have an education, we talked about Inhotim’s international partnerships with schools around the world. “In such an expansive place you can feel small. But yet each of us has a big impact. With the foreboding climate change and global warming, you think about the impact of your trash and plastic on our environment.” Yara’s words never rang truer as I thought about the political debates on global warming back home in the States.

 

Leaving lunch, Marcelo took me to an unexpected artwork – a pool. If you know me, or follow my Instagram, you know that I love a good pool party! In the balmy weather, I was tempted to dive right in, held back by the absence of a bikini. I’ll remember to pack it next time! Like every work at Inhotim, Jorge Macchi’s Piscina encourages the viewer to particpate with the art. Macchi’s work is a large scale recreation of his paper drawing, which fused an address book and a swimming pool, two items that are rarely seen together. Sitting there with my feet dangling above black granite letters, I wished that I could come back for another day at Inhotim. One day was definitely not enough!

 

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My tour through Inhotim unfortunately came to an end, but as Marcelo carefully orchestrated every turn, we ended at the symphonic “Forty Part Motet” – a surround-sound exhibit blasting a choral work that was written for Queen Elizabeth I’s birthday in 1575. Talk about a grand finale! I didn’t know what else to do besides stop and take it all in, letting my body harmonize with the chorus.

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You know a place is good when you eat there twice in 24 hours. Because you want to. This is obviously the case at Pão de Queijaria, an ideally situated gastropub in Belo Horizonte where I ate the night before I left for Inhotim. And when I returned! Quickly gaining fame in a city full of foodies after its opening in January 2014, Pão de Queijaria won coveted “Best Of” awards from Veja Magazine, all hanging on their wall among funky artwork.

 

At first bite, you’ll think that “white gold” I mentioned earlier refers to the toasted puffs of bread, or maybe it’s the creamy canastra cheese that accompanies your pão de queijo. Either way, your tastebuds will be thanking you. Sitting down with Lucas, one of Pão de Queijaria’s founders, I learned a bit more about this precious canastra and its importance in their menu. “We source from local farms here in Minas, where we know the cows by name. And the aging process is very particular – producing only the best cheese – usually over the course of 20 to 30 days. We like to call it our ‘black label’,” he said with a wink.

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And the quality is evident in every bite. Tearing me away from my sandwich, a perfectly marinated short rib garnished with fresh tomato, Lucas showed me a bit of their “behind the scenes” operations, and wow was it fragrant! Seeing what goes into this craft of making something seemingly simple as cheese bread made me appreciate it even more. This snack that I first learned of during my days in Ouro Branco had a new elevated status thanks to Lucas’ insight.

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Drawing inspiration from star Chef Jaime Solares, who owns a nearby restaurant, Lucas and his partner Mario have asked Chef Jaime to give an unofficial nod of approval to their menu. “We just changed our menu, adding the short rib you just had, a fried chicken sandwich, and we made some changes to the hamburger, calling it Hamburger 2.0”. I’m just glad that they left the polenta bites and caprese sandwich on the menu – two of my faves. But now I have another reason to come back!

Sitting there with my friends, we were already deciding what to eat on our next visit. I told them that I would definitely be back – I had to follow Marcelo’s advice and do three more days at Inhotim!

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Contact me to book your visit to Minas Gerais, Brazil!

 

Aquele Abraço

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.Sarah_Taylor_9

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.

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Arataca storefront, Copacabana

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.

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Kauan and her post-workout treat

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.

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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. Cristo

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.

FavelaWhile 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.

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Vendor

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.

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Lenny Niemeyer store in Ipanema

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.

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Interior of Toca do Vinícius

 

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Untitled, by Adriano de Aquino

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.”

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Fausto, Mefistófeles, e Guida by Carlos Vergara

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

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Trifecta at lunch

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.

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Under The Bridge

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. bridgeartAfter 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.

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“Seeking Heaven” by Asylm at The Container Yard

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.

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Steve Lopez in front of David Choe’s mural in L.A. Arts District

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

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Patio dining at Zinc Café

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.

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The “veil” of the Broad Museum

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.

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Guest bikes at the Ambrose Hotel

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.

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Chris Burden’s Urban Light

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.

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Phillipe’s customers waiting for a local delicacy

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.

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Los Angeles County Public Library

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

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Statue of Civilization by Lee Lawrie

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.

madeinLA
Hecho en Los Angeles

As American As Mole

“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.

Chef Michelle Chavez provides a historical introduction to our class
Chef Michelle Chavez provides a historical introduction to our class

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.

Prepped ingredients ready for
Prepped ingredients ready for Michelle’s mastery

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.

Entry to the New Mexico Museum of Art
Entry to the New Mexico Museum of Art

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.

Museum courtyard lined with artwork by WIll Shuster
Museum courtyard lined with artwork by WIll Shuster

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 Olympia to 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.

Detail of Rollins'
Detail of Rollins’ “The Scout”

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.

San Miguel interior
San Miguel interior

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.

Foundation of San Miguel altar
Foundation of San Miguel altar

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.

Spicy honey from Santa Fe School of Cooking
Spicy honey from Santa Fe School of Cooking

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.

Santa Fe, New Mexico airport
Santa Fe, New Mexico airport

Frida’s Fiestas

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.

Frida's studio
Frida’s studio with photograph of Diego Rivera

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.

Chiles en Nogada
The seasonal dish, Chiles en Nogada

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.

Sacrificial altar at Templo Mayor
Sacrificial altar at Templo Mayor

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.

Patio café at Gran Hotel
Patio café at Gran Hotel

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.