Sunday, August 30, 2015

Our Nation's Capital

I took a short trip to Alexandria, Virginia and Washington, DC for work last week. It had been a few years since I visited this nation's capital, and I want more!! The DC monuments and museums close down pretty early, and the 50 minute ride into DC didn't leave much time to explore. The hotel, Crowne Plaza, curiously (apparently no staff has taken this tour) recommended a rather no frills, "Sanford and Son" styled tour (as one of my colleagues remarked) where you're picked you up in a beat-up conversion van by a rather talkative gentleman, who drives you to the "coach," that really wasn't a coach. It looked something like this:

It was a mini-bus that had seen better days. The weather was quite warm and humid, and the air conditioner on-board felt more a swamp cooler cool than dry crisp, filtered air, that is so needed in the near 100% humidity.  Our tour guide, Ali, was tall, dour, and taciturn until he began the introduction on what a fun-filled tour we were in store for.  He didn't really speak until the wheels were rolling and he was driving.  I rode along with 4 other colleagues, three of whom, I did not know, but by the end, felt like I had known them for at least a few weeks. Once we were underway, Ali would not shut up! His rapid fire regurgitation of the history of DC was at first, impressive, but soon the almost robotic sing-song drone left me just tuning him out. My colleagues confirmed that some of his facts were not accurate. I interrupted him in mid-sentence to ask a question, and like a recording, he picked up exactly where he left off. This was a hop on, hop off tour of sorts. But soon, we found ourselves synchronizing our watches to Ali's so that we could be back at the bus by his proscribed departure time.  It was little scary... As all good tactical teams are formed, an official time keeper emerged in our group, as well as an orienteering advisor/enforcer, when there were multiple monuments to visit. We literally were giving each other two-minute warnings when we lingered too long. This was more of a boot camp tour, where the object was to burn as many calories as possible.  So much for a relaxing evening.  It reminded me of supermarket sweep when you're trying to get to the register.  We were running through sites like it was the end of the world to get our photos taken and history lessons learned in the time Ali allowed.  Ali would be a good drill sergeant.  He even us told the order in which to visit the Korean, Vietnam, and Lincoln Memorials in the 23 minutes he allowed.  When someone tried to deviate, we quickly reminded each other that, "Ali said..."  Amazing how much power he had gained within 15 minutes of meeting us.  Did I mention we were in DC in August?  Steamy!  Good thing we had that quick margarita before we were picked up.

Even though Ali's tour wasn't the best, it was a really fun time.  What do you want for $39? A taxi ride would have cost more! With all its deficiencies, Ali's directives, which I obviously made sound much more dramatic than it really was, well, not really, it made us all belly laugh and bond at every monument. It was a good time, and while I wouldn't recommend this tour to anyone, I would recommend taking a night tour, even if you've already visited these monuments during the day. The lighting on some of the monuments makes it challenging for iPhone photography, but I brought along my smaller, trusty and phenomenal Canon G16, and was able to get some good night shots.  Nighttime in DC is amazing!!  Imagine Arlington cemetery with only the van lights casting subdued illumination.  Magic!

The monuments are amazingly pristine and well-visited at night. The marble at the Jefferson memorial (apparently has its own history) is gorgeous. Like the moon, the Washington Monument is beautifully ever-present in the background. The Iwo Jima site really shows the artist's mastery of detail.  It was powerful.  The Korean and Vietnam memorials were somber and funereal.   The names.  The cast images at the Korean memorial were eerily real.  It was dark, and my camera's flash illumination reminded me of the battleground.  In that instant, a soldier in combat appeared right as he would have in the rapid flash of battle.

I came away really loving my whirlwind visit to DC. The city seems very different from the last time I visited, and it makes me want to return to see the DC slow side. Another evening, I went to the U Street district to meet a friend for dinner at Dukem, an Ethiopian restaurant. I loved the food and the vibe of the neighborhood. People seem friendly and willing to stop and give you directions.

There's simply not enough time on a business trip!!

Personally, I think every American school child should have an opportunity to visit our country's capital, gratis. The area is so rich with history!! The Smithsonian, the monuments, and the White House are amazing places to visit. How can one know what it means to be an American, if one doesn't understand our government, how it works, and what it looks like.  When I say visit, I don't mean a somewhat superficial photo-taking tour, but an in-depth visit to Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court.  Every child should go.

I know that I have been an advocate for going West, but DC is definitely must-see destination that is easily accessible. Flying into Reagan National is a breeze, and the subway is clean, safe, and efficient.    For older visitors, the restaurant and nightlife scene is great.  I'm thinking a short trip is in order in the coming months.

Remember, that DC is as sexy at night as Paris!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Happy Spring! Or, Ode to a Daffodil

This is what I hope to see once the snow melts and and the ground warms.  My beautiful daffodils and tulips.  

Daffodil, O Daffodil
Where art thou?
Beneath the layers of snow and ice
below shallow dirt that has lain fallow 
for eight months or more
To love thee is to know you do not stay
Your petals en Jaune et Blanche
No Haiku can do thee justice
Thy beauty is beyond compare
Your glory is fleeting
but a reminder of how precious and brief
life is.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

San Antonio, Texas

From the Alamo to the Missions of San Antonio.  San Antone.  I've read some blogs that say that you’re a tourist if you call it San Antone.  They called it San Antone in the TV western, Rawhide, so if it’s good enough for Mr. Favor, it’s good enough for me.  

I have mixed feelings about San Antone.  The River Walk is lively and bright, but for me, it was too much of a tourist trap.  It was hard to tell if any of the restaurants were good.  I stopped for Tex-Mex, and it was mediocre.  It left such an impression; I forgot the name of the restaurant.  Venture off the trail, and you’re in the land of meth-heads.  It was really disquieting when you’re just trying to find and buy some skim milk from the local CVS.  Wandering around the mean streets of downtown San Antone like Navarro, Commerce and West Market, you may stumble upon the prostrated bodies of the addicted.  Barefoot and glassy-eyed, my greeters were barely aware that they were conscious.  I felt that running the gauntlet wasn’t worth being able to eat cereal in my hotel room. I wondered why the hotel didn’t warn me, especially when the bellman knew I was going out alone.  It also left me wondering what the downtown area would be like if the River Walk didn’t exist. 

It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and the streets were full.  There’s safety in numbers, I suppose.  I managed to find the Alamo and the cavalcade of souvenir shops on the Alamo plaza without much effort.  The Alamo was smaller than imagined, but everyone had warned me.  It’s nighttime illumination made the white stone glow.  The endless stream of selfies or couples posing on its patio made for an interesting people watching experience.  Unfortunately, my trip was too short to include a tour of the Alamo, but seeing the outside of the structure was just as fulfilling.

The highlight of my stay was my tour of the other four Franciscan missions around town.  However, my tour began at the Alamo, not really known for being a mission.  The Alamo, or the Mission San Antonio de Valero was the first mission established in 1718 on the San Antonio River following the establishment of Mission San Francisco de Solano near the Rio Grande River in 1700.  The purpose was to convert and assimilate the Coahuiltecan Indians.  The mission at its present location was built in 1744.  The mission provided protection and community for the converted, but by 1793, the Indian populations had been so reduced that the mission became a secular institution in the community.  From 1794-1821, the Alamo was a military garrison held by the Spanish, which was locally called the Pueblo de la Compañía del Alamo.

The four other missions that I visited were like Phoenix rising from the ashes of some sketchy neighborhoods and urban/suburban sprawl.  Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission Nuestra Senoria de la Purisma Concepcion de Acuna, Mission San Francisco Espada, and Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo are beautiful 18th Century missions designed by the Spanish and laboriously built by the local Indians.  The history of each mission is similar to the beginnings of the Alamo, so there is no need to regurgitate it here.  The National Park Service has a great website full of resources for learning the history of the mission system.

The National Park Service employees are eager to tell you the history of the mission where they work.  There was a pride behind their words that was borne out of the beautiful artistry and masonry that was flawlessly executed by the Indians who constructed these behemoths.  From what I’ve researched, the privileged few who were allowed live within the mission walls helped develop self-sustainable organized communities, which contributed to the formation of the city that exists today.

As I drove around San Antonio trying to squeeze in a visit to each mission before heading to Austin, I realized that in the 18th century, these missions were worlds apart when they contemporaneously existed.  While only 9 miles separates San Juan Capistrano to Mission Concepcion via the modern, paved Mission Road, I suspect that on foot or on horseback it probably took at least a half day to travel between these missions because of natural land barriers and other obstacles.   I was able to enter each of the sanctuaries, with the exception of Mission Espada.  The interior of San Juan Mission was small and rustic, but very beautiful, as were the others.  When I travel to the Southwest, I love visiting old missions and churches.  To me, that is where the soul of the community continues to reside, so many centuries later.  I was happy to end my visit to San Antonio there.

In addition to the missions, I loved the Pearl Brewery district, and enjoyed Rosario’s Mexican Café y Cantina restaurant only minutes from the River Walk.   I would have to pan (no pun intended) Mi Tierra Restaurant.  Much too much hype--I was told that it was amazing in the experience and the food.  Well, the décor was an amazing morass of kitsch and chaos, and it did look like it would be a fun dining experience.  However, that all changed upon entering the dining room.  It was, well, a bit messy.  There’s nothing more appetizing than sitting next to un-bussed tables of dehydrating refried beans. The food also left a lot to be desired.  I am a vegetarian who eats fish (no comments, please), and usually have no problem finding a great meal in a Mexican Restaurant.  Mi Tierra’s vegetarian menu was uninteresting and unappealing.  The waitress’ attempt to cobble a meal together was admirable, but resulted in cheese enchiladas topped with Velveeta substitute.  With the exception of a small restaurant in Pearsall, Texas, I have not visited a Mexican restaurant that didn’t offer some sort of vegetarian bean.  I nearly walked out in the middle of my meal, but didn’t have the time to go searching for a new place to eat.  Rosario’s, on the other hand, was modern Mexican cuisine.  Loved the service and loved my meal! The Margs were great!!

At Pearl Brewery, I ate at La Gloria, Il Sogno Osteria, and enjoyed coffee at Local.  I nearly ate at Green, which is a vegetarian eatery, but loved La Gloria so much, I darted in there at the last minute.  Local’s coffee was so awesome. Il Sogno…Mama Mia!  It was one of the best upscale Italian restaurants that I had ever eaten!   If I go back to San Antonio, I will spend more time in this area.  The salvation of San Antonio, for me, was the Pearl Brewery district.  Admittedly, I came to the area for work, so I had very little time to explore, but was able to see a lot, considering.   Pearl Brewery is a funky, hipster retail and restaurant district that saved the day for me.  If there are other areas of interest, share them with me!

Lastly, I went to Pearsall, Texas.  Nothing to say except the cattle auction I went to was a little shocking.  I’m surprised they allowed photos.  That’s all I’ll say.  

From what I experienced, San Antone seems to be a city in transition.  That is a good thing.  I hope there is more of the Pearl Brewery sort of transitioning in San Antonio.  Generally, I oppose gentrification that displaces poor people, but from what I was told, these new hipster areas saved the city from urban blight.  While the River Walk is a great idea and has certainly revitalized that area, it just wasn’t my thing, but it does appeal to most tourists.  It’s easy and safe, but I only went once.  I prefer to travel like a local.  But that’s just me.  Go and see for yourself, and then drive an hour to my fave, Austin!

To see photos, check out my website:  Newest posts are under, "The American Southwest."