Archive for May, 2012

Birthdays and random ramblings

George Dunlap Leslie (1835-1921) Titled “Roses”

This week on my birthday, I had a half day before work at 3:oo to do something good. I did not plan anything and wasn’t thinking very imaginatively so at 8:30 am I jumped on the bike and headed for the gym for the morning work out. I usually take side streets and lately when no cars are present I sit up straight and ride without hands. I know it’s potentially a little dangerous. Hit an unexpected bump or lose coordination for one second and wipe out. Top that off with no helmet and add an I-pod to the equation and I guess I could have been an accident waiting to happen. I started thinking: I know this is dangerous but I’m looking in my rear view mirror and grabbing the handlebars when I see a car…NOBODY gets killed on their birthday…well, I’m sure SOMEBODY has gotten killed on their birthday but it’s not gonna be me!

The weather was glorious with sun shining bright and cool crisp air. It seemed a waste to exercise indoors so I changed direction to the lake front bike path. It was my first time riding with the I pod and I have to say it enhanced the experience more than I imagined. I started to notice that almost every bike rider or walker that I passed was smiling. A few were down right beaming with euphoria. It’s like we were all silently bonding on the absolute joy of being outside by the lake at that moment in time. I saw a woman wearing a tee-shirt that said “Je t’aime” and I wanted to say, ” I love you too!” I thought about getting off my bike and doing yoga sun salutations facing the lake. I also considered twirling around and doing a happy dance. I’m sorry to say that I did none of the above ūüė¶ but I was doing a non stop happy dance within.

I thought I’d ride to Navy pier and back but once I got going I didn’t want to stop. During the week, pre summer, the path is much more civilized without the obstacle course of beach goers with little kids running around. ¬†I realized that I’ve never ridden further south than Grant park and decided it would be a new experience to keep going so I did. I passed the Field Museum, Planetarium, Aquarium, Soldier Field, a memorial park for fallen fire fighters and finally McCormick place. I only turned home ¬†because of time restraints but by the end of the ride my legs were like jello.

When I got home I walked my neighbors dog, Bunny. She kept plopping down when we’d hit a sunny patch of sidewalk giving me this look as if to say “What’s your hurry?” Sorry Bunny, gotta go¬†to work! It’s only one day a week but most other days I could indulge in the lifestyle of a dog if I knew how to relax that guiltlessly.

I got kind of dressed up for work and even put on some makeup. When I went out to my car I found my first birthday present splattered down the side of the driver’s side: a generous offering from the neighborhood birds. Nice. I wonder if anyone has ever gotten shit on (their person) by a bird on their birthday? And which scenario, death or bird shitting is more likely? So many things to ponder.

Earlier, while riding I was listening to the Grace Jones song, ” I’ve seen that face before”¬†which made me think of Paris, a city that I have spent many a birthday. In Paris, I can be alone and never be lonely . Birds could shit on me and I might not even mind dying. In fact, in 1987 I had so much fun one evening I told my friend Sue in the morning, all hung over that if I died then, it would be okay for I had lived a lifetime that night. (Bullshit?) ¬†I said it in all sincerity but ¬†I’m glad I got to carry on! Oh, and that same trip a bird did, indeed shit on my friend. It was not her birthday. Come to think of it, there was another incident in Paris where my friend Cassy narrowly escaped a shower of shit when passing under a trellis. Susan called her name, ¬†she stopped and splat, inches away. It was my 50th birthday trip and I did not come close to being soiled…no droppings on my moveable feast!

I’ll wrap this up by saying I’m grateful for all my lucky birthdays and all the time I’ve been surrounded by family and friends in person or in spirit. I hope to continue avoiding any future shit storms and FYI: If anyone ever sees a pair of gloves like the woman wears in this post’s feature image, know that it would be the perfect birthday gift for ME!

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Travel wisdom

Image“Traveling creates anew like nothing else. Go on your own. Go with a good heart and with only enough fear to spur you on. Throw yourself upon the mercy of the world and learn to get by in countries where no one speaks your language. Come home changed forever and get on with being what you want to be and already are if you’d just get on with it. Imagine every dream come true in vivid detail, then work out the simple steps towards those dreams and start taking them, step by step until the dream enfolds you. Do everything you’ve never done because no-one else will want or care to do it for you. Time doesn’t wait; we are Here To Go and there’s only one Now.” ¬†Grant Morrison

I plucked this off the profile of my friend and fellow Couchsurfer Adam S. It is indeed what inspired me to host him after receiving his request…well, ¬†that and the claim he had “surfed with billions”! To date he has 99 positive reviews. Adam: Published writer, taught English in South Korea, juggler, meditator, avid reader and movie watcher, and finally, a would be, could be candidate for Jeopardy. While home was California, he was traveling all over the states and into Canada for a long stretch of time. I only hosted him briefly but our memorable outing was a walk that I refer to as the “night time degenerate tour of Chicago”.

Our aim was to have dinner in Uptown which is about a 2 mile walk from my apartment. We could have taken a more scenic route but the walk up Broadway, between Devon and Lawrence has it’s own special atmosphere. Most visitors to Chicago only get to see the famous downtown spots, Lincoln park and maybe Wrigleyville while so many interesting neighborhoods are ignored. Broadway in Uptown definitely aint no Michigan Avenue but it is the real deal! When daylight fades the city creatures creep out of the shadows. The memory of dinner ( was it Thai or Vietnamese?) is erased by an unexpected Flaming lips concert. I wanted to show him the Aragon Ballroom which was just around the corner from where we were eating. We were approached by a scalper that wanted to sell us tickets to the show for so cheap we didn’t believe they were legit. Adam suggested we first go and ask the bouncer when the show started and if those tickets were for real. He said the show had started 30 minutes prior, paused, looked at us and then said ” Why don’t you two just go in!” We were amazed at this stroke of luck. Adam hugged the bouncer who in turn said he’d rather be hugged by me.

I don’t remember ever getting into a concert for free and although I’m not a fan of the Flaming Lips, I was excited to be there. Then we went upstairs and oh, I forgot. The Ballroom always did have bad acoustics. It was probably grand back in the 1940’s big band days but never for the rock era. It was jam packed, 100 degrees with really expensive shitty beer. The lead singer had his sweaty face magnified and plastered to a giant screen behind the stage. He was doing a lot of talking but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. All I wanted to do was leave but I wasn’t gonna say anything and ruin it for Adam. Five minutes later, Adam asked me if I wanted to go. Yay! He wasn’t loving it either but how were we going to get by that bouncer without him seeing our ungrateful asses? Adam bulldozed through an illegal exit while I slunk¬†past bouncer dude while he flirted with another patron. The concert did truly suck but the big thrill was getting in for free!

Walking back, ¬†we tried to stop at The Green Mill for that historical Al Capone hang out cocktail but it was packed, there was a cover and the bouncer was much less charming than at the Aragon. “Fuck the Green Mill” I announced, ah so lady like. The way home was speckled with colorful encounters with the street crazies until finally arriving at the last stop, Gino’s North. This little charming Edgewater hang out is next to the Granville train stop. It has the same style 1930’s decor as Green Mill, including half moon booths and a fountain behind the bar with statue of naked lady. No bouncer, no cover charge, cheap drink specials, nice bar tenders and super cute 80 something lady that makes the pizzas. It was the perfect finale to our uptown adventure.

Circling back to the beginning quote, there is a point to be made. The world is full of even better¬†freeflaminglipsconcert like experiences. While traveling, ¬†I often find myself in the center of magic and it’s all about being open:

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and fearless:

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It’s harder for me to access that state of mind when I’m at home but that is exactly what Adam was up to and he made it happen with his good vibes.

Advice from the homeless

Take a good look at this picture and then try to imagine a bicycle, minus the people, with an equivalent ¬†amount of crap hanging off of it. One October day , while riding my bike I passed such a thing parked in Evanston. I was on my way to the post office when I saw it and thought “Wow, that’s some crazy looking homeless person’s bike”. ¬†Ten minutes later when leaving I was amazed to see a tall, really sun tanned man who didn’t really look homeless, parking that unbelievable spectacle outside the post office. I blurted out something like “Holy shit, that’s a lot of stuff you’ve got there!” With a big smile he did a Vanna White gesture ¬†towards a license plate that said “I’m biking to Australia!” I said “Do tell!” so we sat down outside on the stairs and he told me his story. Originally from Chicago, living in Las Vegas, in his 40’s, lost his job, re-examining his life, decided to take an epic bike journey, been riding that bike from Nevada for 8 months, tried to get into Canada, didn’t realize he’d need a passport, back in Chicago and at this post office to mail passport application. He had everything he could possibly need to sustain life on that bike including a stove and shower. I guess you could say he was homeless but well equipped.

I thought it was beyond coincidence that I should cross paths with such a person when I had recently lost my job and was trying to figure out how to reinvent my own life. I told him a little bit about me and mentioned my desire to continue traveling but my concern about money. That is when he told me about Couchsurfing.org a travel website that offers the opportunity to host travelers in your home or to be hosted when on the road. Participation can be on many different levels. For instance if ¬†not able to host you can offer to meet a traveler for a drink or meal. The idea, beyond economics, is to connect with people and more genuinely experience a place through a local: Cook a meal together… go to your host’s favorite tavern… maybe meet their friends. To get started, it is most important to create a detailed profile with lots of information and pictures so that others might get the best idea of the stranger they will be meeting. As one surfs and or hosts, there is a review option so you can learn about a member’s behavior and likability. If squeamish, you can only host those that have already been met by others. Limits can be set as to how long one wishes to host etc.

I had heard about CS from another guy who obviously didn’t make the memorable impression of this homeless bicyclist named Ari. At this point in time I was more open and ripe to guidance. I could read his mind as he offered me ¬†phone number and email address. I think he wanted me to invite him to stay at my house as he did not have a host and was camping out somewhere. Sorry, to say, I was not ready to invite this stranger into my home. ¬†On a gut level, I knew he was harmless but there was also something a little crazy about him although probably in a good way. After all, one has to be a bit cuckoo to launch themselves out into the world in such a way. I have had many tell me that I am nuts to take the chances that I do with people. I thanked him for his advice , wished him well, road home and joined Couchsurfing!

I started by hosting to earn myself some credibility followed by some single night surfing on a road trip to Miami. Since then I have hosted many different people as well as surfed in Spain and France. I cannot say enough about the quality of people that have passed through my door and those that have been so kind as to host me. It proves to me over and over that the world is full of good people and that if we’re willing to fine tune our intuition and learn to trust, ¬†infinite friendship awaits.

Escape from Glenview

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My life of travel began with a Sears Free Spirit bicycle.  It was red, white and blue in anticipation of the bicentennial, still two years away.  I felt the bike and I were kindred spirits in our freedom and said this out loud to an older girl at a party. Oops. I guess there was a lot of laughter and eye rolling behind my back but I was oblivious.  I was sincere and innocent in my quest for free spiritness and at 15 had the flawed habit of over sharing. Corny but true.  I was a free spirit and that bike was my vehicle to adventure.

There wasn’t much to do in and around Glenview. ¬†Shopping for record albums. Movie. Bowling. Going to a friend’s house and listening to music. ¬†Hanging out at one of the many forest preserves or the infamous Beck lake, drinking beer and smoking, with one eye on cop alert. Most of these activities required a ride from the parents, except the forest preserve. That was top-secret! ¬†While all those things were fun they were not enough.

For me the answer for adolescent boredom was the bicycle.¬† I would ride to the city , 40 miles round trip, alone and explore. My passion was vintage clothing, record stores and handmade jewelry. ¬†There was a legendary vintage clothing store called Briar house run by a tall beautiful gay man with sexy deep voice. He was someone out of an old Hollywood movie and every time I’d come in to shop he’d pour me a glass of wine. Wow! It was the most grown up experience I’d ever had.¬† I’d come home with amazing treasures. Black beaded dress, wide-brimmed hat with feathers, rhinestone jewelry…traipsing down the hall to math class.

There was a sense of accomplishment to travel so far on a bike. No one that I knew was doing it except for those I had coerced into coming along. It felt a little reckless and definitely against the rules. Actually, I was breaking rules that hadn’t been laid down as my parents never imagined I would venture so far. Once, I played pied piper to three friends and led their bicycle caravan all the way to Broadway and Diversey. One friend was riding a Schwinn Stingray with a banana seat which was considered a little kids bike. We snaked our way to the city while singing the entire David Bowie Ziggy Stardust album. The journey was more memorable than what we did when we got there. I can still remember exactly how I felt: ecstatically¬†happy and totally free.

The bicycle experience was and is a sensory one. Being out in the open air, the scent of flowers and the aroma of food wafting out of restaurants while traveling slow enough to see the details of life that are missed in a car. It is living in the moment at its finest and for me that is the truest experience of travel. No past, no future and only the joy of now.

Please no panoramic views Part 2

Brenda and Ricardo came to greet me at the airport my first time meeting them in Mexico city. I was standing behind a post rearranging my bag when they arrived. They were looking up at the flight info screen when I turned around. Ricardo was way taller than I imagined and Brenda looked a little different only because she was three-dimensional instead of the flat face of a picture. Still, I knew it was them right away and I stood there smiling and waiting for them to notice me. ¬†I think every body was a little nervous, but as I’ve said before, that’s just the way it is when you meet the unmet friend! It didn’t take much to get comfortable. Since I’ve already met them several times I can’t remember exactly when and where but I will guess the magic potion for relaxation was Mezcal. Three tall shot glasses, a plate of orange slices and a tiny bowl of ¬†Gusano salt, made from WORMS (OMG) I loved it like a true Mexican. Okay..there may be many “true Mexicans” that do not love Mezcal, but my core group of two, do and so do I! It’s hard to describe what it is that is so special about it. It is like nothing that I typically like to drink at home. The combination of flavors between the drink, oranges and worm stuff is delightful in a hardcore way. Maybe it’s the ritual and the slow savor of the experience or quite possibly I love it because it is one of the ways I bonded with my new friends.

We did a variety of fun things in one week besides drinking Mezcal:  There was a serene break from the chaotic city  to Teotihuacan, an archaeological site/ancient city with pyramids.

Another out of city experience, tucked in the middle of it all was a colorful canal boat ride at Xochimilco. The following picture is one of a 10 piece set of vintage 3-D postcards that we all three scored at the flea market!

Cuauhtemoc weekend market was the place we found those cards and a pile of other great ones. I even found a 1952 card of Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom! They also took me to a market called Portales which on the surface looked like a bunch of garbage strewn up and down the streets but for those with the true flea market adventurous spirit, there was gold to be¬†mined. ¬†This is where Ricardo and Brenda proved ¬†themselves faithful to the cause. ¬†I didn’t find anything but I got a couple of great pictures. The first one I call “Butt crack baby doll”:

This gem is the best worst Mona Lisa ever!

Another highlight was the most giant bakery I’ve ever been to in my life! It was like the size of a football field. Well… maybe not that big but HUGE and open super late at night. I think it was around 11 PM and there was a crowd of people shopping for pastry!
 A night after one of our Mezcalfests, Brenda and I stayed home and watched a movie in her bedroom.  It was Velvet Goldmine and I think we both fell asleep. What I loved most about it was the feeling of comfort like I was hanging out with my best friend from High School. Of course, the big poster of David Bowie added to that feeling as he was my rock idol back in the day.
Another rich experience I had that week was my time spent with Brenda’s mother, Anna Bertha who was kind enough to let her daughter’s mystery pen pal stay in her home. She did not speak English, except for a few random words and my Spanish is about the same or worse. Brenda worked mornings so every day I would come down stairs and her mom would make me breakfast. BTW, the secret to the best toast in the world is a tortilla pan! We would sit at the kitchen table, stare at each other and try to have a conversation. At first it was so awkward but somehow we would dive into a dialogue accompanied by dictionary and pantomime. It was exhausting for both of us but in the end we understood each other. She was heavy into homeopathic medicine and massage therapy. Before I left, she had made me a concoction for an ailment and gave me an excellent massage! She also took me to the Frida Kahlo museum and even bought me a little tortilla pan so I could make great toast at home. I was treated like a princess. ¬†I believe both of us might have wanted to avoid the discomfort of being total strangers without a common language but we couldn’t . Neither of us had a choice but our persistence paid off.
I have to admit that although I consider myself an experienced and semi fearless traveler I never would have gone to Mexico City alone without friends to receive me. I don’t typically buy into bad news horror stories that focus on a few events and exaggerate. It’s like worrying about a terrorist hijack when flying. I imagine I have a much better chance of getting whacked driving my car. But still, almost everyone expressed concern for my safety before leaving home. Like any big city it’s all about knowing where not to wander. The scariest thing I saw was a truck full of military men with big guns. That’s never a happy thing but otherwise I had a lucky insiders view of this giant city with it’s contrary weave of beauty and ugly.