Category Archives: USA

One Week in Boston

It’s been an exhausting week. That’s how most of us here in Boston would describe it. Exhausting, because we’ve been trapped in a movie that we can’t get out of, and this movie isn’t a romantic comedy. It’s more like a really long episode of “Cops,” or a week-long version of “24” (“168?” Doesn’t have the same ring to it…), only more personal. This “movie” has come complete with villains and heroes, car chases and bizarre breaking news, love stories and heartbreak, close calls and sad coincidences. It’s been doused with losses and fanned by unpredictable violence. But most of all, it has left so many of us feeling on edge, unsafe where we are supposed to feel safest, and angry at the senseless destruction of human life that has occurred on our home turf — especially because, in a sense, it came from within the very place we retreat to when we’re scared. While the death toll isn’t particularly high compared to other attacks, the ripples of those few deaths and the many injured have felt more like tsunami waves here in this proud city. Everyone in Boston spent five days incredibly close to terrorists. Too close. And most of the time, we didn’t even know it.

Magnolia trees. Cambridge, MA. April 17, 2013.

Magnolia trees. Cambridge, MA. April 17, 2013.

In all honesty, this has also been a fascinating week. Not only have we been part of this developing storyline as its plot unfolds, but we have also, in a way, served as its directors. Thanks to the rapid (albeit sloppy) dissemination of shared images and information through every form of social media, we have been working as full-time investigators, only without the bulletproof vests. Every time a new license plate was announced on Friday, I found myself at my window trying to read the plates of every car that went down my street — JUST in case I could help (ok, so my roommates may have made fun of me for this). When the first photos of the suspects were released, I stared intently at them, trying to memorize every detail of their blurry faces while desperately trying to rack my memory for any clues I could offer. It was all of us v.s. them. All week long, we had to be on high alert as tidbits of information were shot out of our TVs and i-screens like rapid fire hitting and missing the facts. During a few brutal days of painfully slow progress, we were left sorting through three-day old casings to see if any evidence had been left behind long after the smoke had cleared, and where, if anywhere, all of it might lead us  — if we even wanted to know. Unfortunately, it lead us right to our own backyards (literally, for one family).

Wanted. Somerville, MA.

Wanted. Somerville, MA.

Really, what we wanted (well, needed) to know was: Are we safe? It’s a simple question that many Americans don’t usually have to ask themselves on a daily basis, or if they should, they usually don’t. It is a particularly exhausting question when you don’t have an answer, and you don’t know when you will. In some ways, it was that simple. We had to go five days without knowing where a couple mass murderers were sleeping. We had to go five days wondering if they wanted to kill again. We had to go five days knowing we were who they wanted to kill. That, my friends, is a horrible feeling. While we felt many other wonderful feelings as the city came together in beautiful, inspiring ways last week, that feeling lurked, despite my best attempts to pretend otherwise.

As we tip-toed around the city, the grotesque details and haunting images of lost limbs and shrapnel became part of our daily lives. As much as I don’t want to admit it (and trust me, I really don’t want to say this), terrorism won for a few days. It gave me that anxious feeling in my gut when I got on the T that I remember so well from the first weeks in Manhattan after September 11. It kept my eyes open a little wider and my heart beating a little faster at loud noises and sirens (ugh, the sirens — they were the constant, unsettling soundtrack to the week). I had my finger constantly seeking the story’s pulse, worried that the worst might not be behind us. I don’t want to admit it, but at times I was really a little scared… It all felt so out of our control. I wasn’t necessarily scared while I was awake, but it was in my gut at night, proven by the two nightmares I had, and the deflated sense of security that I woke up with knowing I was a little less sure of what each day might bring.

On Thursday, I met a friend for lunch near MIT. This is me walking out of the T station at Kendall/MIT, hours before a shootout would occur nearby. Cambridge, MA.

On Thursday, I met a friend for lunch near MIT. This is me walking out of the T station at Kendall/MIT, hours before a shootout would occur nearby. Cambridge, MA.

I won’t forget checking the news right before I went to bed Thursday night, only to find out there was a shootout a few blocks from where I had lunch that afternoon. Or waking up repeatedly in the middle of the night, as so many of my friends did, with a nagging need to keep checking the news and find out more as a dramatic confrontation unfolded. My roommate heard the shootout from our house. A couple of my best friends live right up the street from MIT. I eventually found out I had eaten ice cream across the street from the two suspects’ home that Wednesday. Everything was feeling a little too close. It reminded me of the coup attempt I experienced just before leaving Quito, complete with listening to machine gun fire for the first time (which you can read about, and listen to, here: Couped Up In Quito). It felt almost surreal, yet unavoidably real.

Waking up Friday morning to a massive manhunt, being told not to leave our homes, and spending the day glued to the news as emails, texts, and Facebook messages trickled in from friends near and far (and even some who have been completely MIA for years) is something I won’t forget.

As the story unfolded and the chase ensued, we watched with a perpetual anxiety that became incredibly draining. I had intense cabin fever, and while I didn’t necessarily want to go outside, I struggled with not knowing how long this manhunt-induced buzz would have to be sustained. As the world looked on, we sat trapped in our living rooms (an ENTIRE city off the streets — how crazy is that?!), hoping — at times, desperately — that the good guys would finally catch the bad guys, hoping that it wouldn’t take long, though the hours mounted and mounted, as did our snacking. Then came that final, perfectly unique and dramatic discovery of a bloody boy in a boat — a very “Life of Pi”-meets-the-OJ-Simpson-trial grand finale. And the heroes of this story? There were too many to count.

Captured. Somerville, MA.

Captured. Somerville, MA.

We really have been a part of this investigation from start to finish. Never in my life has the public played such a critical role in such a serious and dangerous real-time investigation. While we’re all still dealing with what has happened here in Boston, I cannot describe the sense of relief that I felt when I went to bed Friday night, and when I woke up Saturday morning. It is a relief, not just in knowing that the manhunt was over and the suspect had been captured, but in knowing that we live in a world surrounded by mostly GOOD people — people whose instincts lead them unflinchingly into the wake of destruction to help strangers, people who despite having their legs blown off awoke in a hospital bed determined to tell police that they looked into the eyes of the man who put them there, people who worked extra shifts in the hospitals and came together to help complete strangers with the precise coordination of a ballet during one of the most traumatic and chaotic moments of their lives. People offered their homes, their businesses, their BLOOD without even thinking twice. These are the people who surround us, not them.

Cherry blossoms in Cambridge, MA. April 16, 2013.

Cherry blossoms in Cambridge, MA. April 16, 2013.

While the fleeting sense of terror may linger in our bones, the faith that for every two bad guys, there is an entire city of good people around us — THAT is what I hope to take from this last week in Boston, and into the next four weeks I have here before moving back to New York City.

Thank you Boston, for reminding all of us that there are more good people in the world than bad. And, despite being a little mangled and beat down, for showing the world how strong you and the people in this city really are. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.

But, 40 degrees in April… Really?! Can we talk about this?


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Filed under Boston, September 11, Uncategorized, USA

A Spoonful of Beantown

This morning marks my second morning here in Beantown, and I have to say: so far so good! Despite the four flash thunderstorms since I arrived (one so powerful I think it was right above the house!), it’s been a really nice 41 hours. I definitely feel like I’m in another world than I am used to. Waking up at 5am to the loud bird songs and going to sleep to crickets is not exactly the “white noise” I’m used to in Manhattan, but I slept like a little angel these past two nights (until 5am at least) — and I look forward to more of that!

Living in Somerville makes me feel a little like I’m in the suburbs, or at least in some up-and-coming area of Queens. I’m a little farther away from public transportation than I am used to (a 15 minute walk up/downhill), but at least there is public transportation at all. There is a whole network of buses that I’ll eventually have to figure out, but I’ll get to that. Honestly, I like accidental exercise so adding a 15 minute walk uphill everyday makes me happy. I mean, whose ass doesn’t need a hill once in a while?

Rainstorm over Quito. View from my apartment in Quito, Ecuador..

I always seem to end up on the top of a hill when I move. If not on top of an actual hill, then on the top floor of a walk-up apartment. In Quito, which is built into a valley, my street — Guanguiltagua (pronounced “wanwuiltawua” if you want to sound more like a local Quiteno) was two streets down from the outter-most ring of streets. Think of the city as a circular stadium or arena, and my street was the second-to-last row of seats all the way at the top (btw, do you know that the word “arena” comes from the latin word “harena” — “arena” is Spanish for “sand” — which referred to a fine sand that was good at absorbing blood and used to fill the floor of stadiums like the Colosseum in Rome? BOOM. Now you do!). The nice thing about living way up at the top of the city was the incredible view, and getting to watch the daily rain or hail storm approach from the southern end of the city, or watching the sunset over the Andes mountains. It was a stunning, daily show, and I will never forget the beauty that I saw while living high in the mountains of South America. There were so many days when I would just sit in my living room watching the weather pass through the mountains like some sort of constantly changing parade…

But back to Boston. Unlike the hill in Quito, which was a straight-up ascent at 9,400 feet and left many of my visitors huffing and puffing through the thin air, this hill I now live on is short and sweet, but definitely noticeable. I have to say — I didn’t expect Somerville to be as pretty as it is. Sure, it helps that June is a favorable month to live in a quieter area (let’s not talk about Boston winter yet). But really — the houses are adorable; no two are exactly the same, each is a slightly different color, with unique details/accents that are special to a girl who has been surrounded by too many buildings lately. Maybe I’m giving Somerville too much credit, because I’m new and everything is a little exciting and different, but I really am excited to be here and try this whole house-thing out.

Sunset over Quito. View from my apartment in Quito, Ecuador. Real life colors — nothing altered/enhanced.

Yes, I have never lived in an actual house (long-term). I’m not used to having a backyard, and despite the two beautiful days that have gone by, I have yet to do more than stare at the backyard and smile knowing that I have it. But today I hope to actually go out there and enjoy it, maybe for a stretch before/after my run around the neighborhood. Maybe to help my new roommate with the gardening she plans to do this morning…

Butterfly. Dutchess County, NY.

Of course, it has only been one full day here, so this post is just a net to quickly capture that first impression before it escapes. I can’t believe I live here now. I can’t believe that after a thunderstorm, I get to hear frogs croaking, and after a long day, I get to walk through a peaceful neighborhood without getting caught up in the tangled energy of many other people’s rat races. I love NYC, I really do. And yes, I’m a city girl. I like being able to order Tibetan food at 11pm if I wanted, or wander into a gallery because it’s on my way home from the gym. I’m used to being able to grab a bagel at the 24-hr deli downstairs if I need it, and choose any type of food I feel like and have it in my mouth within an hour. But this “almost-that” is worth trying. This slightly calmer environment is worth sampling, before the roughness of NYC and all that comes with it makes me forget the alternatives.

Right now, as I type, bells from a nearby church are playing “Amazing Grace.” An American flag waves next to the house next door. There are Virgin Mary statuettes in front of many of the homes on my street. The next door neighbors sit on the front steps of their house, smoking cigarettes while one guy sips a Red Bull, their Boston accents thick and proud. The birds have calmed down since 5am. The frogs are quiet, for now. And I am sipping my coffee at my new desk, thinking… I like it here.

It’s a start. A good start.


Filed under Boston, Life Stuff, USA

Tavel Does Beantown: A Big Apple in Molasses

For some New Yorkers, moving to Boston is like sleeping with the enemy. It’s like a Bowdoin kid transferring to Colby. It makes us feel like we’re cheating on our city — cheating on our Man(hattan), if you will — and maybe some people like that feeling. There is a very subtle sense of excitement when it comes to making the switch, like we are betraying a part of ourselves or someone (Manhattan) that we love. Or maybe we’re just teasing New York, and after years of it controlling us we’ve decided to play hard-to-get. I’ve been known to tease a little… Either way, for some reason, moving to Boston makes me feel like I’m crossing a line people didn’t expect for me to cross. But, as a traveler, it is these invisible barriers that tempt me the most.

Eye contact. Old Town, Quito.

Now that I am about a week-and-a-half away from becoming a Bostonian, I’ve decided to do a little research. For starters, I needed to know why Boston is called Beantown. Now, many of you might know this already, but if you don’t, Beantown gets its nickname from when Boston was part of a triangular trade route between the Caribbean, Boston and West Africa. Sugarcane was being shipped from the Caribbean to Boston, where it was turned into molasses, and then the molasses was shipped to West Africa, where it was made into rum (and then the rum was used to buy slaves in the West Indies). Because of this trade route, Boston was full of molasses — a thick, uncrystallized syrup formed from raw sugar. Cooking beans in molasses became a popular food, and that is how Boston became known as Beantown. I like beans.

Quitenos. Quito, Ecuador.

So, I know, Boston isn’t exactly the kind of travel adventure you’re looking to read about. Sure, NYC and Boston are both big cities with many cultures, religions, and socioeconomic classes represented. But lemme tell ya — they are also VERY different in their own ways. Sometimes, I feel like people don’t talk about these differences.

In the next few months, I’d be lying if I implied I might spend my summer exploring the Boston bar and restaurant scene. The reality is that I will be doing a two-semester sequence of college level physics (1 year of physics, in other words) condensed into 7 weeks at Harvard. This might be my craziest decision yet, but I did buy myself a “Physics for Dummies” book, so I feel a little better about things. I will be doing one week of physics material per day for 7 weeks straight, and something tells me I won’t get out much during those first two months in Boston. BUT, I am not a zombie. Even if most of what I get to see of Boston (initially) is the library, I will be taking it all in. For the first time in my life, I’m going to be living in an actual house, in what feels to me like the suburbs (our neighbors have an above ground pool, and I have my first ever backyard PLUS patio furniture and a fire-pit!!). No matter how similar Boston and New York are, living in Beantown is going to be different for me — very different. And I’m excited for that.

Ecuadorian family enjoying a Saturday stroll and some ice cream. Quito, Ecuador.

Obviously, TwT hasn’t been so much about “traveling” lately — at least in the geographical sense. Someone recently told me, “I miss all the traveling! I used to read your blog to live through you and now it’s all about school…I don’t want to live through that!” Yeah yeah, I know I know. And I’m sorry! Really. But as I explained, people used to want to live through all my travel adventures — they envied me! (I envied me!) And now, nobody wants to be me, so I think that’s a good balance, don’t you think? Now you can read my blog and think, “Whew — thank goodness I’m not in pre-med classes, unable to travel, and out of money like Tavel!” Meanwhile, I can secretly know that life is still awesome — just in a completely different, less sexy, less wild way. And I plan to find more of the “awesome” in Boston.

I have to admit: there is something flickering inside me, some remnant of the “old Tavel” (the one who fell for a Dutch-Caribbean swimmer and traveled to a Caribbean island to spend a long weekend with him after spending only one day with him 3 months before that in Argentina– yeah, her!) that I think will come out in some form when I’m in Boston. I make no promises, I make no predictions, but I do feel a sense of adventure in this relatively mundane move. I will try to channel it to keep things interesting for all of you but, as always, I keep some of the best parts to myself.

As I get settled in Boston, I’m going to write a sort of “New Yorker’s Guide to Boston.” As I search for the perfect brunch spot in what has been described to me as “not a brunch city,” and I find my favorite bagel place, I will record my findings and share my impressions. And maybe, just maybe, there will be more spice to this town than I expect.

Cathedral view. Quito. Ecuador.

It may not be the most exotic ride, and it may not be a long-distance one, but living in Beantown is still going to be a trip. The adventures might be more localized these days, but I can promise you that they never stop. So, with that in mind, I hope you continue to join me as TwT crosses the NY-Boston line and I take on the smooth and the sticky molasses of Beantown… and with it, another year.

(This video is from an Oasis concert at River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2009).


Filed under Boston, Life Stuff, School, Uncategorized, USA

A New Yorker’s September 11 (in Maine)

In ten days, it will be ten years since September 11, 2001.

There are a lot of September 11 commemoration articles, documentaries, etc. going on, so I couldn’t help but chime in. I’ve never fully written this down, so here is my story — where I was, what I experienced, and how September 11, 2001, hit me. Please feel free to share your experience as a comment, or say whatever you feel needs to be said.

Rainbow in Dutchess County, a wedding gift for my sister from Hurricane Irene.

A New Yorker’s September 11 (in Maine)

The phone kept ringing. I figured it was just my brand new roommate’s persistent boyfriend, Jared, whose constant calling had already become routine even one week into my new life as a college freshman living in Maine. I had just had crew practice that morning and was up at 5 am rowing on the New Meadows River, so I was trying to catch a few minutes of shut-eye before heading to my 10:30am Art History class. After the third or fourth call, and my roommate’s third or fourth refusal to get out of bed and answer the phone, I got up — slightly annoyed, but more perplexed — and picked it up myself. Jared’s words changed my world.

Me: “Hey, Jared…It’s Rachel. Emily’s asleep.”

Jared: “I’ve been calling nonstop! You’re from NYC, right?!”

This was the little many people knew about me at this point.

Me: “Yes…”

Jared: “Turn on the TV right NOW. Terrorists are attacking New York! They just crashed a plane into the Twin Towers! TURN ON THE NEWS! IT’S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW!”

His words didn’t make sense. What was he TALKING about? Terrorists? Attacking MY hometown? My family was there… all six of them. This stuff didn’t really happen, did it?

Me: “Wait, WHAT?”

Meanwhile, I started to hear knocking at my door. I told Jared I had to go, and that I would turn on the TV. I thanked him for calling. My mind started trying to spin some sense out of what he said, but his words still bounced off of me as nothing but words — they weren’t sinking in.

I answered the door. It was a couple of my dorm-mates asking me if I was ok. Ok from what? I still wasn’t sure what the hell was going on. I started getting nervous. I had only left New York City a little over a week ago, and all these people checking in on me were shiny new friends who knew little more about me than the fact that I was a New York City girl in Maine living on the fourth floor of Maine Hall at Bowdoin College, but I would soon need their comfort more than I had ever needed anyone’s.

Most of us hadn’t connected our TVs or cable yet, so the boys downstairs came and got me, and told me to call my family and come watch TV in their room. My first instinct was to call my Mom — my Dad was at work. I tried calling. NOTHING. I couldn’t get through. I tried calling my Dad. Nothing. I tried calling cell phones, landlines, home, work, brothers, sisters… Nada. Word came through that the Pentagon had been attacked too. My dad worked in Rockefeller Center in the middle of Manhattan, 30 or 40 floors up. Was he safe? Where was my baby brother? It was his first day of school.

Just before I headed downstairs to watch the news, the other NYC-girl who lived next door to me, Allison, came to my room. She asked me if I heard what was happening. I could barely comprehend what was going on because it was all happening so fast. I had never used the word “terrorists” until that day. I had never used it directly relating to my life, at least. Earlier that summer, in July, I had taken a friend visiting from Paris to the Twin Towers. I was just there, probably for the fourth or fifth time in my life. I remembered how impressive the lobby was, with the high stone arches lining the endlessly tall windows. I remember waiting in line in the lobby, and loving how excited all the tourists looked.

We went up to the top, and looked down at the whole city. It seemed like a dream now. My mom used to work in one of the Towers. Sure, I remember the bombings. I remember getting bomb threats at our school and piling into a nearby school’s gym until we were told it was safe. Growing up in NYC during the 80s and 90s was different — the city had changed a LOT since then. It was safer, stronger, there were less prostitutes, less drugs, fewer crack vials on the sidewalks and less guns, but I knew the city had a dangerous side — I grew up  there. My backyard was Riverside Park.

Who else did I know who worked in the Twin Towers? I knew there would be someone — if not someone, 50 people that I knew indirectly. Maybe many more. But the Towers would be fine. They were huge. They were the biggest thing about the biggest city I had ever known. They were indestructible. Were they our Titanic?

Allison burst into the room and asked me, “Did you hear what’s going on?” I said “Yeah, I’m so confused. What is happening?!” A few friends stood and watched as we tried to put together the scraps of information we had gathered. Neither of us could get in touch with our families. All I kept thinking was what’s next? Where is next? How many of these attacks are we supposed to expect? Were we safe? Was my family safe? Was anyone safe?

Then Allison and I had the most bizarre reaction; we started laughing. It was a nervous, uncomfortable laughter that neither of us could understand, but we stood there covering our mouths in shock. Then, she said “Oh my God, I think I’m going to cry…” I told her I thought I was going to cry too. I still didn’t even know why, but everyone was scaring me. I knew so little, but I could see the fear and the shock on everyone’s faces. Before I knew it, our awkward laughter had turned into a confused, fearful cry. It was almost like everything around us was telling us to cry, whether or not we understood why… yet.

No one else was crying. People hugged us and told us to go watch the news. The first priority was getting more information. Allison began to realize this was affecting us differently than everyone else. We sat on the floor in the dorm room directly below my new room and watched, live, as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. At this point, my tears turned silent. I felt sick to my stomach. My new roommate stroked my back. Someone else got me tissues. I just watched. I couldn’t believe it.

No, this was not happening. I was not seeing this.

The first Tower crumbled to the ground. I watched it happen, live, with my hand covering my mouth, feeling like I wanted to throw up, watching my world crumble, feeling my heart break, just trying to understand what my eyes were telling me.

I never planned to have all these new friends see me cry ever, let alone within two weeks of arriving on campus. But I had no control. I settled into my tears and watched, in shock, quiet. I didn’t want to talk. I couldn’t.

As we watched, RAs came around to tell us that classes were canceled for the day, and that there would be a mandatory full-campus meeting in the gym at 4pm that afternoon to discuss what was happening. They also told all the New Yorkers to hang tight — that they would help us get in touch with family as soon as possible.

There I was, surrounded by almost-strangers, in a new place, with a new life, after leaving my one and only hometown — Manhattan — to live somewhere else for the first time in my life. And there I was, watching on TV as the world I knew best literally fell apart. I kept thinking: I was just there… I could have been standing right there. 

My 18th birthday was two days later. I felt weird. I was in the wrong place to be experiencing this. I should have been there, on the ground, running away from the plumes of smoke with everyone else, trying to help. I couldn’t comprehend what this meant. I remembered plenty of bombings and minor attacks on New York City, but this hit too close to home. This was too big. This was different.

I watched as each Tower crumbled into dust from a dorm room in Maine. I watched as the lobby I had just stood in disappeared into an ominous, terrifying cloud of black death. I watched, helplessly, as I tried desperately to come up with the names of people I knew were in that building. I couldn’t think of any. I watched with my hands covering my mouth, tears rolling down my cheeks, new friends stroking my back, my phone sitting silent, my family all within a few miles of this disaster, and I tried to understand WHY? As large-scale as these attacks were, why did it feel so personal? Why did it feel like someone was attacking me? As weird as it sounds, I felt in that moment like those Towers were my family, and everyone in them was a part of my family, and I was watching someone kill them right in front of me, and I couldn’t even remember their names.

The Bowdoin College campus was right next to a Naval Air Base. Pretty quickly after the disaster struck, planes started soaring over campus. Huge planes — the kind that blast in your ears and shake the whole building. I felt so incredibly vulnerable. I had never felt that vulnerable. The way I saw it, my home, my family, my world was under attack, and I was so small that I couldn’t even make a phone call to check that my mom, dad, two brothers and two sisters were ok. What could I do besides sit there and watch everything fall apart? How long would we have to watch? Whose world was I living in?

I was worried about not even showing up to my 10:30 am class, so I told everyone I had to make the two-minute run across campus to tell my Professor that I wasn’t going to be there. I was prepared to sit through class if I was supposed to. Mostly, I think I needed alone time, and to run away from what was happening the only way I could.

As I ran across campus, I caught the eye of a friend — Elliot — who had been one of the pre-orientation leaders I met during my backpacking and canoeing trip the week before. He sprinted — literally — across the campus to give me a hug, to ask if I was ok. He looked me in the eyes and held my shoulders and said “Are you OK? Have you talked to your family? Is there ANYTHING I can do?” I was blown away by the support of Elliot, of my dorm-mates, of my proctor group friends, of the boys downstairs, of the girls upstairs… I hadn’t processed my feelings yet. They were just coming out in sloppy, bizarre bursts of emotion that were completely disorganized and confused.

I reassured Elliot that I was OK, although I wasn’t sure if this was true, and accepted his hugs before I continued on to my Professor’s office. I walked in, totally shaken like a bright orange autumn leaf on the ground that just got stomped on. I was the only one there. He told me class was cancelled, of course, and asked me if I was ok. We talked briefly, then he told me to go back to my friends and keep trying to get in touch with my family. He wished me luck.

The rest of the day was a blur, but I was beyond impressed with how Bowdoin handled something so unexpected and shocking. In retrospect, I think it brought me closer to my new friends, and my entire campus, than anything else could have done in the first two weeks of college. For the rest of our lives, this would be something we all went through together. For the rest of the day, week, month, year and years to come, this would be the family that surrounded me when tragedy struck… and it would again, only in a more personal form a few months later when my mom was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer that December, 2001.

Needless to say, it was a rather somber 18th birthday. But no more so than when I went home, for the first time, after September 11.

I’ll never forget it. The city was different than when I had left it. The atmosphere had totally changed. American flags hung from every building entrance. The city that once stood tall like the Twin Towers — untouchable and strong — was now aching, heartbroken, and trying to muster the strength to stand back up. It was hurting, but beneath the hurt there was pride. Every restaurant or cafe I visited, people were still talking about it. You heard, “I was doing… (this) when it happened…” “So and so’s brother was getting a bagel on the corner…” “My coworker lost his father…” Etc. etc. My parents knew at least 300 people in the towers. My friend Chris’ parents had reservations for their anniversary dinner at the restaurant on top of World Trade Center — 7pm, September 11th, 2001. A family friend was catching the elevator, late for work after a fight with her husband, when a fireball shot through the elevator down to the ground floor and knocked her across the lobby. She wouldn’t get home until March 12, 2002, after two months in a coma and a long, painful recovery from 2nd and 3rd degree burns covering 82% of her body (her story is currently featured in Vanity Fair). The stories kept piling in. So and so’s uncle died, so and so’s fiance was there, and on and on and on and on and on… But, we were safe. What I was feeling, what I was experiencing, as profound as the effect felt for me, it was nothing compared to how this was going to directly affect so many other people’s lives. But the city, as a whole — the country — we were all in this together.

There was a vulnerability to the once cocky city, a vulnerability like the one I felt as I watched the World Trade Center disappear  — one life at a time — into nothingness. But there was also a strength like I’ve never seen before.

I remember taking off my bags and putting them down beside my bed when I got home, to NY, for the first time that October. I walked up to my window to look out at the changed city and noticed it was hard to see through the screen. The screen was filthy. I had never seen it so dirty. I took a paper towel and began to wipe away the thick layer of ashes that coated my window. I’ll never forget it, because in that moment, as I wiped the layers of dirt and ash off my screen, I realized where it had come from. I wiped it as carefully and thoroughly as I could, and let a tear roll down my cheek as I did so, because I knew that those ashes came from the World Trade Center on September 11th. I knew that the wind had carried them uptown, and that I was wiping away broken hearts, and that it wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right, but it was as real as ever.

I couldn’t wait to get downtown. I was supposed to be there and almost felt guilty that I wasn’t in NYC on that horrible day. My local train was the one to the World Trade Center. I got on and took it to the closest stop it would allow. And then, it hit me: THE SMELL. I’ve never smelled anything like it. As the train got closer and closer, the smell got stronger and stronger. It was the first week of October. Everything was still so fresh. Every wound was open and still bleeding, and you could smell the death. When I walked out of those subway doors, I had to cover my mouth and nose. It smelled like burning, like chemicals, like metal…like hatred. It smelled toxic and sad, and so so real. I walked out onto the streets. I followed them to the remains of the buildings I once knew. I saw the signs for missing loved ones. I smelled the burning. I felt the destruction. I can smell, see, feel it all still today.

I know it might sound cheesy, and cliche, and melodramatic, and whatever the heck you want to call it, but that day really did change my life. For the first time, I realized I was a part of this world more than I thought I was. I was not untouchable — my city was not untouchable — and I could do whatever I wanted with my life but the world would be something I couldn’t control.

I also realized how much I loved New York. I loved it like a brother or sister. I loved it because it was a part of me, and I was a part of it, and I was going to love the hell out of NY because anything else was unacceptable. Yes, this wasn’t just about New York. The attacks on September 11th were so much bigger than New York, and yet for me, I felt instinctively protective over my town. As Carrie Bradshaw once said (oh yes, I went there…), “If Louis was right, and you only get one great love, then New York may just be mine…and I can’t have nobody talkin’ shit about my boyfriend.” New York and I, well, we were in this together. New York took a hard hit, but I wasn’t about to let anybody think they could knock us down.

This fall, I will go back to the site of the World Trade Center for the first time in ten years. I will go back to remember, and to reflect. My heart goes out to all of the families of the victims, but not just to them — attacks like this one happen all the time, and nobody rebuilds for the nameless victims in more constant, small-scale attacks. That said, when I get down to Ground Zero, and stand over the footprints of the World Trade Center Towers I once knew so well, I will be looking up, at a new tower, built stronger, smarter, and taller than the first ones. In many ways, I am that Tower. New York is that Tower. Each decade only makes us stronger. I can’t wait to enter the new World Trade Center, go all the way to the top, look out over the city and smile — for me, for New York, and for everyone who couldn’t be here today. Until then, I remember. We all do.


Filed under Life Stuff, New York City, September 11, Uncategorized, USA

The Quest for Apartment Za-Za-Zoo

I interrupt your wanderlusting to share with you the dreadful non-adventure that is the NYC apartment hunt.

I can’t help myself. I’ve got to write about the fruitless quest for the perfect (trust me, “perfect” is a very loose term in New York City real estate lingo), affordable (herein lies my first major problem), apartment (or excuse for one) to spend the next two or more  years studying.

Finding an apartment in NYC is like the apartment-Olympics; ANYWHERE else in the world, you are competing at the high school or maybe intramural college level. In Manhattan, it aint NO joke. It’s as tough as it gets. Yes, it’s rough out there, people. We take a lot of shit in this town, because it is fantastic. Or at least, at times like this, we have to keep telling ourselves that.

In Manhattan (yes, Williamsburg, you count), it’s not about what you get, but what you don’t get. A deal? Let’s just get this overwith: you won’t get one of those. Roaches? Meh, maybe. But if you don’t have cockroaches, you most likely will have mice. No mice? Congrats! Bedbugs for you. Don’t even get me started on the bedbug conversation… If you’ve never checked out, now might not be the best time to do so, as bedbug infestations are predicted to be the worst — by far — beginning this June (so help us all).

View from the outside of a beautiful, spacious apartment I loved... with a history of bedbug infestations.

If you get a great layout, you sacrifice natural light. If you find an apartment with many windows, it is most likely on the first floor which does you no good. The cheapest apartments are on the top of fifth- and sixth-floor walk-ups — a deal breaker for the girl with a bad knee. When you finally find the dream home you were looking for, you’ve got a drummer with daily 9pm band practice in the room directly above your bedroom (but you don’t find this out until you’ve already moved in). No matter what you find, apartment-wise, you can never predict your neighbors, or their hobbies (opera singers: check, drummers: check, barking dogs: double-check)… and they are EVERYWHERE. Like, within a foot of your home in every single direction.

Apartments in New York are lose-lose situations. We just accept that. The trick is to find some WIN in that loss. It’s a delicate dance of sacrifices.

I’ve gotten lucky with apartments in the past. Wait, scratch that.

My first Manhattan apartment was on 80th and Amsterdam — a neighborhood that has now become incredibly yuppy (a recent New York Times article called it the new “suburbs of Manhattan” because of all the blossoming young families of finance advisors and lawyers who can afford the ‘hood). But in my defense, it was an opportunistic move; a friend from college (shout-out to SK!) had moved out a year earlier, and even though she had found a replacement, her roommate now needed to move out too. So, I got in touch. I had been to a party or two at her place, and knew it was exactly what I was looking for, although a bit more expensive that I was hoping to find. That said, the cost of not having to search for a roommate or apartment in New York (brokers fees, crazy people, questionable supers galore) made the extra monthly cost worth it. I could slip right in.

Well, when I say I was excited to move in to my first Manhattan apartment and out of my parents’ place, where I had been living and saving money for travel and life for two years, that would be an understatement. I was feeling empowered, grown-up, and beyond ready to finally be independent in NYC. I felt so strong that I decided I could move into the 5th-floor walk-up without any help (pssh, boyfriends  – who needs them?! Fresh out of heartbreak, I didn’t!). I wanted to prove to myself that I could manage without anyone’s help, even if it meant my quads would be burning by the fourth or fifth trip up the steep, pre-war stairs.

I did the move in flip-flops, because it was a gorgeous day and I was young, sturdy, and in my eyes, unbreakable. Now, it’s one thing to walk up five steep flights of stairs over and over again. It’s another thing to do it carrying as much as you are physically capable of holding during each trip up. When I say I did this alone, I should add that I didn’t have a bed or dresser yet, my parents stuck by the car downstairs, and I had a rowing friend bring over a table she wanted to get rid of. I eventually had a couple teammates help me carry my Ikea and West Elm furniture up in pieces, which we then sat on the floor and put together (adult Legos), which was SO much fun. I actually love building furniture (side job?!).

Nevertheless, I must have completed at least 20 trips up and down those stairs. I’m no mathematician, but I probably walked up over 100 flights of stairs while carrying around 30-50lbs of stuff on many trips up. That’s a lot. But when it was all said and done, I couldn’t have been happier. I was in my first apartment, I loved it, and that suppressed (do to lack of funds and stability) domestic side of me was ready to pounce on the possibilities of my new home. Exhausted but thrilled, I finished the move off right: with my rowing teammate (the table-donator) and a couple margaritas at the bar downstairs. It was the perfect start to summer.

Three weeks into my brand new one-year lease, while rowing 3-4 times a week and running almost every day I didn’t row (I was planning to race again for the first time since college, and as always, wanted to rip it up on the water), disaster struck. I dislocated my knee, could barely walk, and found myself in so much pain I kept blacking out as I walked on my suddenly bad knee. A few x-rays, a couple MRIs, and three disagreeing doctors later, I realized I was in a tough spot. I could barely walk, let alone go up five flights of stairs, but I refused to give up my new independence so quickly. Instead, I decided I could hop on one foot up the five flights of stairs, and the staircase was narrow enough that I could slowly get down it using my upper body to lift myself between the wall and the banister, and lower myself several steps at a time, while keeping all weight off my right knee. It was a hovering technique, and it almost worked.

A couple weeks of this, and I knew I was screwed. I had to move right back into my parents’ place, leave my new apartment (which I still had to pay for), and wait until I was healed enough to get back in there. My roommate would pack me some clothes and bring it down the stairs for me, and I’d hobble with a roller suitcase back to my parents’, in my sunken, new, injured reality. Thanks, life.

I moved back a month later, definitely prematurely. I continued my hopping up the stairs and hovering down, to the best of my abilities, plotting each day so that this up and down procedure only needed to be done once. It wasn’t long before my good knee started getting mad at me, and one day, while getting my breakfast ready for early morning physical therapy, I nailed my forehead on the sharp corner of a new shelf I had installed, giving myself a small concussion. I half-passed out in my towel, and had to lay on the floor of my kitchen until the nausea and stars stopped twinkling overhead. I’ve had brighter moments.

My year in the fifth-floor dream apartment in the perfect neighborhood didn’t quite pan out the way I had hoped, but I got through it. Sadly, I was forced to move because my knee just wasn’t healing (the last thing anyone with a knee injury should be doing is walking up and down five flights of stairs daily, often more than once). For apartment number two, I required an elevator, which usually shoots the rent right up.

Thanks to the economy crashing, and sudden panic amongst the New York landlords, I snagged an incredible apartment twenty blocks further north, with an elevator! I was prepared for a long hunt, but this was the first apartment I saw, and I knew it was the one. I took it, without a second thought, and it was — although I hesitate to use the word — perfect. I reluctantly hired movers to get my furniture from the fifth-floor walk-up to my new, cheaper-and-easier-to-access 4th-floor digs, and, yes, with the help of a wonderful boyfriend (who would fail to last until the next move),  the transition was smooth. I was in this place to stay, I could only hope. The biggest issue was that, like clockwork, every night when I finally got into bed, the thumping of a pedal, the strumming of an electric guitar, and the low off-key notes of a 20-something guy having band practice would cause my bed to vibrate. But eventually, I was able to make peace with the guys who played the drums above my bed. It was a New York miracle.

I had so many good times while living in that apartment. When one romance ended, another one began. It was a fantastic, albeit tumultuous, year. But, when the second relationship fell apart, I was offered a job in Ecuador, and it was clear that I was going to have to give this gem of an apartment up. That decision still haunts me a little, but it was the right one at the time.

Now, I’ve got to find myself a new place. I knew it would be difficult, but the options I have seen so far are just depressing. Not only has confidence in the economy suddenly spiked, causing the highest rents the city has seen in a few years, but there is also less than 1% vacancy in New York City apartments. That means people are desperate, landlords can raise rents, and any apartment you see has several other applications already in the works. If you don’t act immediately, your crappy option for an apartment is gone. So, what about the good ones? The “perfect” apartments? Well, apparently they are no longer out there. Yippy.

So far, I have seen apartments with barely any windows, beautiful teaser apartments that have a history of bedbug infestations, and construction sites with no walls, sinks, or floors installed yet that already have applications in progress. Every apartment that comes close to being something I can work with has a deal breaker, such as bedbugs, one bedroom with no windows (that does NOT qualify as a bedroom, ya jerks!) or hardcore construction going on directly outside every window. In other words, there is a reason all these apartments are vacant. And in NYC, finding an apartment that works is like striking gold; you don’t give that up for nothing. Right now, all I’m getting is the scraps.

Actual apartment I saw yesterday, available immediately for $2400. This is one bedroom. The other one didn't have a window.

Sigh. It’s brutal, people. This apartment hunt is making me question why I love NYC so much. It makes me want to live anywhere but here. Every year, I get closer and closer to wanting to live elsewhere. I fantasize about having a home or apartment in any city but this one, and I know I could find something that works for a fraction of the cost that I have to pay here. I have to stop myself from thinking about this reality because it is painful, especially in moments like this. Whatever you do, do NOT tell me how wonderful your place is and how little you pay for it. And if you have a porch or terrace, you must remain silent. Bottom line: I KNOW, ok. I know! And I don’t want to hear about it. [See other posts for why I love NYC. I should probably re-read those right about now…]

Because I am going to be a student, I am not very flexible on the cost. This takes me to new depths of despair. Because I have a soul, I am not flexible on the amount of windows and natural light. Because I am a New Yorker, I know what is out there — I know what each neighborhood means, in terms of apartment,  atmosphere and accessibility. I’ve seen it all, at this point, and yet the only thing I haven’t seen is a place I could or would want to live for the next year or two.

The gloomy view from another apartment I saw yesterday. $2300/month.

It’s pretty depressing. I’m feeling a little deflated with the whole search process, but finding an apartment is like finding someone to love: some people are willing to settle, some people think “I can work with this if I just change one or two things around,” but I’m not looking for a fixer-upper. I am looking for it, the apartment that I can fall in love with, the one that clicks (I’ve felt it before), the one that becomes my home — the one, above everything, I can trust with my new life. I need an apartment that gives me the za-za-zoo when I walk in. It’s got to make me happy, and be zen. I might be picky, but I’ve seen enough apartments (and yes, had enough relationships) to just be at a place where I know what I want. I’ve felt the za-za-zoo before, and I need to feel it again. As discouraging as this search is right now, I know my future apartment is out there. Until I find it, I just can’t see myself settling for anything less.

And so the hunt continues.


Filed under Life Stuff, New York City, Uncategorized, USA

A New York Girl In Old San Juan

I didn’t expect “beautiful.” No, not necessarily. Puerto Rico isn’t the most culturally “exotic” place for a New Yorker to visit since we’ve actually got more Puerto Ricans in NYC than there are in San Juan. Plus, the island is a US territory; although they consider themselves their own country, culture, and nationality, no passport is required for Americans to enter (nice!). But I did want a taste. I wanted to know what it would feel like to walk the streets of Old San Juan surrounded by Puerto Ricans and enveloped by warm ocean breezes, rather than riding the subways of New York City surrounded by the same people all bundled up in the frigid stillness of an East Coast winter. It quickly became clear that, even while many Puerto Ricans and I call New York City “home,” this island, this colonial city, is where their heart is. And for one week, mine got to be there too.

View from Fort of San Cristobal. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Part of me expected Spanglish to fly out of everyone’s mouth, because that’s what I’m used to in NYC. But when you’re on the island of Puerto Rico, you’re far, far away from the urban jungle. I found myself speaking Spanish like I was in South America — how I love when I have to speak Spanish. While most locals speak English as well as Spanish, many do not. I quickly realized that I was farther away from the US than I expected to feel, although the first sight of a Starbucks, Chili’s, and Walgreen’s helped to remind me of the connection. It’s Miami meets Cuba meets New Orleans. That’s how I’d sum up this town. The Latin energy thickly coats the muggy nights, and the colors, architecture, and rhythm are undoubtedly Spanish-influenced. It’s exotic but familiar, foreign but navigable, us (U.S.) but them, here but there

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Often when I travel, especially to Latin American cities or even Caribbean islands, I find myself confused by a feeling that I am almost more in my element and more at home in these places than in my beloved Manhattan. I definitely feel more at home in Latin cultures than anywhere else in the US where, even though I look white, I never feel as white as the general culture around me.

Fort of San Cristobal. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I love to dance. For anyone who doesn’t know that, there it is. But, as I have joked, I can’t really dance to “white people” music — the kind they play at weddings and in well-lit rooms. It just doesn’t feel natural. I’ve got to get my hips shaking and I need the right beat, but without forcing anything — it’s got to just start happening on its own. I like to get close, to sync-up with another person charged by the music. I like to be spun and led by a Latin man who knows how to work it. I can’t just listen to salsa, merengue, reggaeton, reggae, bachata, cumbia, dancehall, soca, tango, etc. and not MOVE. It gets in me, as white as I may seem, and works its way through me with a determined vigor that rock (or whatever you call it) just doesn’t give me.

Graffiti in Old San Juan. Puerto Rico.

This all became extra clear on Saturday night, when my mom, my sister, her Australian boyfriend and I headed to the Hotel San Juan just down the street from our swanky hotel, where we were told the locals love to go for the live salsa music and dancing. We sat in the old, massive lobby and watched as Puerto Ricans of all shapes, sizes, and ages got up and shook their hips, gliding across the dance floor with their partners in an effortless haze of natural talent. These people are so unafraid, so uninhibited, so free and HAPPY when they dance — and boy can those men dance! At one point, we all found ourselves completely mesmerized by the hips of a tall dark-skinned man with moves that could slay vacationing gringas with one perfectly placed thrust. Women wore anything that resembled second skin — words that come to mind: short, tight, revealing and/or excessively sparkly. Men wore loose, airy button-down t-shirts with white belts and comfortable pants, many with that dark complexion that beckons a panama hat and cigar. They danced because they couldn’t help it. They danced because it was in their sangre. They danced and danced and all I wanted to do was transport this place to New York, take all of this energy with me, and dance with them as one of them on my island. But this time, I was an onlooker.

Window and cobblestones. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

It made me nostalgic for Ecuador, where every Wednesday I would go salsa dancing with a combination of gringas and Ecuadorians (shout out to Victor, my favorite dance partner!). That’s probably what I miss most about living in South America: the dancing. The constant liberty to just move if you felt like it — the inevitability of dancing. This is what the US lacks. Americans can be so up-tight on the dance floor — so afraid. Especially the men. (Of course, this is certainly not ALWAYS the case.) It just isn’t a part of the culture the same way it is in the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America. And it’s not in Americans’ (oops, “our”) blood to just MOVE, to let a beat take them wherever it wants to, and to let go. When I travel and dance in other countries, all I want is to take these places and the people back with me to Manhattan where I can feel at home in my hometown. And yet they’re already here, already transported, immigrated, mixed right in. But it’s different here, on the continental US. The energy, the music, the weather — it’s just different.

Colorful homes in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I’ve got to say: I loved Old San Juan. I was expecting it to be a little seedy or run-down, but it was quiet vibrant and — the travel writer’s most despised adjective — charming. Not to mention, Puerto Rican men can be quite friendly when you wear short shorts… Yeah… Hehe.

Ok let’s see if I can paint the picture for you: Imagine you’re walking up a hill, two sixteenth-to-eighteen century fortresses to your right are separated by a large expanse of bright blue ocean. To your left, a dark man with a potbelly in a too-tight bright green t-shirt shakes a bell, letting you know he’s selling coconut and mango flavored ices. Another man sells potato skins in a rolling cart. An overwhelmingly warm morning is whipping around you in the refreshing ocean breeze. When it stops, you realize your sunglasses are sliding off your sweat-slicked nose. The tops of your feet are burning a little in your flip-flops, but despite the excessive heat, the air is light. The streets are filled with colorful colonial-style homes, with balconies and shutters that remind you of the Creole-Caribbean influenced houses in the French Quarter of New Orleans. All the streets are cobblestoned and lined with leafy trees, bright magenta flowers, and the occasional graffiti. The energy is new even though the city reeks of history, pirates, cannon ball fire, large ships with the quest to conquer, and footprints of the Spanish.

Ship sketch on wall of dungeon in Fort of San Cristobal. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Dome next to El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Especially after the sun sets, Old San Juan comes to life from beneath the heat. Pulsing with a newfound chic-ness, this city is anything but dead or run-down. Puerto Rican food is generally unhealthy — chincharrones (the Puerto Rican interpretation of chicken nuggets) and fufu or mafongo, a sort of stew with a base of mashed plantains and black beans — are staples here. However, either I had very good luck with our restaurant selections for the week or Old San Juan has an amazing little selection of Nuevo-Latino restaurants with with which to play. (See list at the end of this post.) Let’s just say I ate well. Like, really well.

Tres Banderas: Spanish Military flag, Puerto Rican flag, American flag. El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For those wondering, this was a family trip. Every year, my family (of seven) tries to do a spring break together. It’s a tradition that, for most families, fades after high school, but in ours, it has managed to continue, albeit with the occasional sibling missing in action. One nice perk to dating a Tavel: you get to join, courtesy of my dad. Not too shabby… Not that you need ANOTHER reason to date or hang out with me, but there it is. (HA! SO JUST KIDDING. This better be obvious.) Not bribing. Just sayin’…

Me strolling through Old San Juan.

Since I graduated from college, the annual Tavel spring break has taken me to Turkey (Istanbul), Argentina (Buenos Aires, Salta, Tucuman, Cafayate, Purmamarca), Portugal (Lisbon, Sintra), Austria (Vienna, Salzburg, Bruck), Italy (Rome, Pompeii, Vatican City), and now Puerto Rico. As you can see, most of the trips have been to European cities, where we spend our days exploring museums, ruins, and general neighborhoods in a nonstop fury of productivity, punctuated by heavy, excessively delicious three-to-five course meals that often happily backfire on us and slow things down. Getting four adult kids and an opinionated, sassy Argentine mom to agree on the daily itinerary can be trying, at times. It often feels like the opposite of vacation, and sometimes – by the end of the trip – I find myself needing another one just to dilute the intensity of the phantom vacation I supposedly just had. But it’s also wonderful, and it means a lot to my parents that we are still happy to do these trips. That said, I always end up in the middle  seat on every flight when I specifically request the aisle (why, WHY, will no sibling every trade with me!?). My mom acts like an excited puppy when she sees good shopping, at which point my impatience begins to take over (I am not a shopper). We all just have slightly different agendas, and it takes a lot of bending and shutting up to make things work in a big family. Alas, it somehow always does…in its own way.

Colorful street. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Needless to say, it’s getting harder and more complicated to pull off these trips without a clash of opinions, priorities (mine are always cultural – the art, the food, the people, the street life, the history, the desire to take in the big picture of a place), and moral/existential/social/personal preferences. To try something different (and save a little cash), I thought we should go somewhere that could combine our interest in another culture with our desire to completely RELAX (you know — the point of a vacation), and suggested Puerto Rico.

El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

To my happiness, this worked out PERFECTLY. Every morning, we’d sip our Puerto Rican coffee on the balcony of our hotel overlooking the ocean, and spend most of each day either basking in the sun by the pool, or submerging ourselves in the warm sea. We’d go for daily walks up and down the beach of Isla Verde, and order the occasional pina colada, mango smoothie, or beer from the comfort of our bright blue pool-side chairs. Most evenings, we’d venture into Old San Juan for a trendy restaurant, and spend a morning or two casually strolling through the city, only to follow the effectively calm morning up with an afternoon nap by the water. It really was heaven, and for a change, it truly felt like a vacation.

Beach. Isla Verde. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

And now we’re back in New York City. Gone are the beaches and the palm trees, the waves of calm water, the cilantro and plantain-filled meals, the constant pulsing desire to move my hips and speak Spanish. But here in Manhattan, I’ve still got the Puerto Ricans. A girl like me can only hope that I will find myself a slice of that Old San Juan energy somewhere within the crowded streets of this less tropical and slightly less Latin island that, like for many Puerto Ricans, I call home.

For those of you actually traveling to Puerto Rico, here are some restaurant suggestions:

Tavel’s Old San Juan Dinner Picks:

Marmalade. Considered “the best” restaurant in Old San Juan, it was an easy choice for the Tavel clan. The restaurant is very trendy, but backs it up with a really delicious and funky Latin-inspired menu. I opted for the four-course tasting menu, which included a paella with smoked chicken, then an unforgettable white bean soup scented with truffle oil and dusted with pancetta, followed by a perfectly tender beef tenderloin in a cabernet-rosemery jus with roasted mushrooms and three cheese potato gratin, and topped off by a killer chocolate mousse. Before dinner, I sipped a honey-chamomile martini (for a girl who hates sweet drinks, this was a good choice as it was like a chill, alcoholic version of relaxing and strong chamomile tea with honey). White curtains dangle between diners, and the hip but relaxed atmosphere of this primely located San Juan restaurant — not to mention the memorable food — hit the spot. It’s a great place to celebrate anything, or nothing. Basically, just come up with some excuse to go here if you find yourself nearby.

Baru. The tapas-style menu, along with the flamenco music on the speakers and the outdoor courtyard in the high-ceilinged Spanish-style building, will temporarily transport you to Southern Spain. I loved this restaurant from the moment I walked in. Immediately, the interior architecture makes you feel like you could be in someone’s home, with the small rooms having the natural flow of a house, and the outdoor seating small enough to be intimate beneath the shade of a big palm tree, but large enough to feel you’re on your own even surrounded by other diners. Highlights of the menu include a salad with greens and incredibly sweet mangoes, plantain chips in fufu and a spicy black bean dip, amazingly light pan seared scallops in a coconut curry sauce, a delicate asparagus risotto, a fresh paper-thin halibut carpaccio, and possibly the best chocolate mousse I’ve had in a long time. The vibe is a perfect island calm, and it’s a great place for a small group dinner or a romantic evening for two. After dinner, the restaurants and bars on this famously beautiful street, San Sebastien, fill with locals grabbing a quick bite or setting up for a night of live salsa.

Dragonfly. Located on a bustling Old San Juan street with a string of outdoor dining just outside, this restaurant was modeled after a Shanghai opium den. The atmosphere is hip at this Latin-Asian restaurant, which provides a great getaway from the Puerto Rican standards while incorporating the strengths of the island’s flavors. The dark, red seductive interior goes well with dishes like the criollo BBQ pork steamed bun sliders, the pork and amarillo (plantain) dumplings, and the miso-honey halibut. Creative cocktails and tapas-sized dishes make for a fun dinner experience. More sexy than casual, I’d definitely go back — perhaps with a nice Puerto Rican man rather than my family, the second time around. If you can stomach it, try the ginger tres leches dessert.

And here are a few songs to finish off this post and complete your immersion into the San Juan mood (as always, ignore the actual videos and just enjoy the music):

Feel free to add links to your favorite salsa music as a comment!


Filed under Food, Islands, New York City, Puerto Rico, Travel, Uncategorized, USA

And Nothing Happened…

I don’t know much about avalanches, but today’s TwT contributor, Tom H., came very close to learning a bit too much about them. As one of the last  (if not the last) guest contributors for February Contributor Month, let’s see if we can dodge a few avalanches with him.

By the way, I took the month of February off to see what a month might bring in terms of my future plans. During this month, more than I expected has come together. You’ll have to wait for the next post, written by ME, to finally learn more about that…

And Nothing Happened

By Tom Hazel.

On Sunday January 30th, 2011, I sat in a conference room at the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. The avalanche awareness course I was taking was almost over. The last thing we did was watch a short documentary called, “A Dozen More Turns” (Parts 1, 2 and 3), which describes an avalanche that struck five experienced skiers on a hut trip in Montana. The avalanche danger was High, but the skiers stayed in the trees on a low angle slope, hoping to mitigate their risk. As Doug Chabot, says in the film, “they were doing a lot of things right,” but the risk was High, they still went skiing, and someone didn’t come home. In that moment I decided that I wouldn’t go skiing when the avalanche risk was Considerable or High. Easy decision.

Tom H. (red jacket, white goggles) and friends. Photo by John Davies.

Four weeks later I found myself on a similar trip in Eastern Oregon with an eclectic mix of friends hailing from New England, Texas, San Francisco and  the Pacific Northwest. We knew going in that the avalanche danger was Considerable-High because of an unstable snow layer about three feet below the surface. Here I was on my first trip after the avalanche awareness course, and already I was being tempted by great snow to break my own safety rules.

Just like the guys in “A Dozen More Turns,” we started out by playing it safe. On day one we decided to stick to some low angle terrain covered in trees. Both the angle and the trees make avalanches less likely.This was my first backcountry trip and I was nervous in the first place. The more experienced members of the group seemed cautious, but not worried. The only experience I had with this area was reading the avalanche forecasts before the trip. These guys knew what they were doing; they wouldn’t be putting themselves at risk, right?

Snow-covered mountain. Oregon. Photo by Tom H.

We picked out the lowest angle route up to the top of the ridge. Low angle was the theme for the day. Most avalanches occur on slopes between 35-45 degrees. Slopes under 30 degrees are considered pretty safe. The downside in our situation was that there was too much snow to ski on slopes much less than 30 degrees. With 20 inches of new snow, a 25 degree slope isn’t really steep enough to ski on; it ends up being more of a hike downhill. Any slope above 30 was potentially unsafe, anything below 30 was almost unskiable. We had a clinometer (a tool for determining slope), and the route up was just about 30 degrees.

On the way up we heard a loud WOOMPF. A “woompf” is a scary thing in the backcountry. Imagine you’re minding your business, hiking up a nice 30 degree slope, when all of a sudden you hear a loud sound from under you. Your skis drop an inch and all the snow on the surrounding trees falls off. We immediately looked for signs of an avalanche.

Tom's friends Sam and John examining layers in a snow pit. Oregon. Photo by Brian R.

In this case, nothing moved.  The sound is caused by a layer of snow collapsing somewhere beneath you. A woompf gives a skier two important pieces of information: First, there is indeed a weak snow layer somewhere beneath you; and second, your weight is enough to collapse that layer. Neither of these pieces of information bode well for a safe trip. A bit shaken, we pressed on being sure to stay away from open areas.

Another WOOMPF. Shit. Should we really be up here? I knew that we were on a slope angle that was supposed to be safe, but I sure didn’t feel safe. I tried to keep my heart rate down and not freak out. I was sweating, but not from the hiking. It was that nervous kind of sweat that you get when speaking in public or waking up from a bad dream. We backed down the slope a bit and changed course, hopefully in a safer direction.

Before too long, we made it to the top of the ridge. Our ideal route would have taken us down the steeper northwestern side of the ridge. We dug some snowpits on that side of the ridge to test stability. As it turns out, the northwest side of the ridge was not very stable, so we went back to the lower angle side. We skied each pitch one at a time, in case anything happened. I was pumped to start heading downhill and it was great to make a few turns. The snow was amazing, but the low angle meant slower skiing. Despite my apprehension at every turn, we all ended up at the bottom, safe and sound. We were happy and wanted more. We took a couple more laps along the same route, accompanied by the sound of a a few more WOOMPFS, but nothing else.

Slope in Oregon. Photo by John Davies.

I was worried. The “woompfing” really freaked me out. I wasn’t sure if it made sense to ski another day. The group made the choice to ski a bit steeper terrain the next day. Being cautious and remembering the documentary, I decided it wasn’t worth it and stayed back at camp. In the afternoon people started trickling back in. They spoke of an amazing day of skiing. Once again, everyone came back safe. Maybe I was being too cautious.

With a 10 am departure from camp, only the early risers had time to ski on the third day. Four of us woke up early that morning to try to get a last few turns in. We got our gear on and left around 6:30 am. We hiked up a southwestern slope right behind the camp — the steepest we’d skied all trip — but it was nearby and there hadn’t been any problems so far, so we thought there wouldn’t be too much more risk. I heard a couple big “woompfs” and a couple small ones on the way up. The trees were tightly packed, but we were hiking up right next to a more dangerous open area.

Trees are a mixed blessing in avalanche terrain. A group of tightly packed trees can make a slope more stable. The cumulative effect of many trees adds stability to the snowpack. However, trees by themselves can cause problems. Snow tends to be thinner and less cohesive around the base of trees. Especially conifers with their wide bases. When the snowpack is less cohesive, it is easier to break off and cause an avalanche. Areas that are completely devoid of trees make for some of the best skiing, but since there are no anchors to hold the snow in place, they are riskier.

We decided not to hike up to the top because we would’ve passed through an open area. We got ourselves ready to head down through a tight cluster of trees. I was the second to go and followed the first set of tracks pretty closely. There was an easy pitch at first, and I made some nice turns before rounding a corner into another slope. It was much steeper, just the sort of thing we were supposed to avoid. I can remember my brain splitting into two parts: One part of me knew it was some of the best skiing I’d ever experience, the other half was petrified about starting a slide. I made my first few turns and then…

Nothing happened. There was no slide. The snowpack felt solid below my skis. We were all fine.

Freeland (Tom and my friend) hauling a sled full of gear out from the huts on the last day. Photo by Tom H.

On the five mile hike back to the car I was swimming in thoughts about the experience. Was I a better skier now because I had experienced more difficult conditions? Or had I lost some of my fear and respect for what I was doing? Was I more likely to make bad choices because nothing happened? Did we just get lucky?

I guess there’s no way to know until the next time I head into the backcountry.

Tom Hazel is a software engineer by day who splits his time between Boston and Austin. He spent a year shoring up his skiing chops in Salt Lake City, but has since settled down on the ski hills of New England. Tom shares some Barcelona routes with the Tavel herself, but most of his recent travels have been centered around finding good snow. You can follow him @TheRealTHazel.


Filed under Contributor, Natural Disasters, Travel, Uncategorized, USA, Winter

A Foggy Day in Galveston, Texas

Not all travel is glamorous. Not every trip seeks adventures and “the exotic.” Some trips are more rough around the edges — not because one stays at a hostel or camps in the woods. Not because we buy fancy outdoor gear for “roughing it” and take a guidebook along with us into the controlled unknown. Some places ruffle our feathers just enough to make one feel uncomfortable; it’s a welcome feeling, one that those eager to learn about the world actually seek out.

Today’s guest blogger shares her experience on an alternative spring break trip to Texas, post-Hurricane Ike, and explains what it feels like to go from an excited college kid ready to help, to a volunteer scraping mold and decay off of the walls of what was once someone’s home, sweet home.

A Foggy Day in Galveston, Texas

By Katie Woods.

It was a foggy day in Galveston, Texas, but the other student volunteers and I were smiling and laughing.  We were clad in hazmat suits, which made us feel like clunky spacemen on a mission.  But we weren’t headed to space.  We were about to gut a small house that had stewed untouched since Hurricane Ike hit Galveston about seven months prior.  Flood waters had ravaged the neighborhood we stood in, leaving it full of empty houses and overflowing dumpsters.  But my friends and I were taking photos of ourselves and goofing around.  For the time being, we felt good.

Overturned house in Galveston, Texas. Photo provided by Katie W.

We were in Galveston for Emerson College’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB). Rather than go on our own vacations, we decided to apply to build houses, feed the hungry, or clean beaches.  In 2008, a freshman, I went on my first ASB trip to Waveland, Mississippi, to work on Hurricane Katrina relief.  And then I was hooked.

Since then, I have journeyed to Galveston and Cedar Rapids, Iowa for flood relief.  This year, after months of working on the trip-planning, fundraising leadership team, I’m headed to Pensacola, Florida to work on wetland restoration, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  Each trip is a unique, perspective-altering journey that is incredible to experience but difficult to describe. But I’ll try.

House in Galveston, Texas. Photo by Katie W.

Let’s go back to that house in Galveston.  Before Hurricane Ike, it was inhabited by an elderly woman.  We volunteers didn’t know much about her, but on that monochromatic day, we took her personal belonging from her home and set them on the curb, turning this woman’s life – her photos, her fish tank, her little statuettes – into a pile of water-rotted garbage.  We’d all gutted houses before, but only when they had already been stripped.  Then it was fun – tearing into drywall, hammering toilets to pieces.  But this house had a personality. Soon into the job, we stopped goofing around.  We needed the hazmat suits to protect us from the extreme mold in the house.  Two students squeezed a soggy, stinking mattress through front door. Bugs scurried across the walls when we removed pictures from their nails.  The refrigerator – unopened for months – sloshed dangerously as we carefully lugged it outside.  Even through our masks, we could smell the decay.  We were utterly silent.  On the front lawn, I approached one of my friends who was standing totally still, looking stricken.  She pointed to the grass, where the body of a cat lay flattened and gray.   No one joked.

Debris in Galveston. Photo by Katie W.

I describe this day not because it was sad – which it was – but because it will never leave my memory.  I frequently imagine who this woman was, where she ended up living, what has become of her house now.  These are things I’ll probably never know.  This woman, or whoever lives on the property now, will never know me.   But we’re connected somehow.  And the other volunteers and I, while laughing about the frustration of a particular patch of drywall or while holding back tears to avoid steaming our goggles, all formed a bond of our own.  We grew closer to members of our college community while serving a community miles and miles away.  We experience a side of life and a type of work that was utterly different than what we – aspiring filmmakers, writers, and actors – did in our normal school-week.

Gutted house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Photo by Katie W.

There is no way to quantify the impact that service trips have.  Sure, this many houses are built, this many pieces of trash are cleared.  But the links formed between people cannot be measured.  When my Waveland group went out to dinner in a local restaurant one night, a middle-aged couple approached our table.  Teary eyed, the woman thanked us for being there, for not forgetting them, for helping though we didn’t know them.  Alternative Spring Break teaches people to care and reminds others that they are cared for.  It puts life into perspective.  And that’s something wonderful.

Photo of Katie Woods during ASB trip.

Katie Woods is a senior at Emerson College, earning her BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing.  She is the Student Coordinator for Alternative Spring Break through the Office of Service Learning and Community Action.  Her favorite place to travel is the redwood forests of Northern California. You can help her and the other volunteers go on this year’s trip by donating here.


Filed under Contributor, Life Stuff, Natural Disasters, Uncategorized, USA