Category Archives: biking

NOLA: the city that stole my heart

I had a trip booked to Cambodia and Vietnam in January but after being hospitalized in December I ended up having to cancel it. Since most of my savings went to moving and securing an apartment (and the fact I couldn’t take vacation for six months after starting my new job) I hadn’t been anywhere since June 2014, when I traveled to Nicaragua. My vagabond feet have been restless ever since then as I usually take a trip abroad at least once a year and smaller ones throughout the states every two to three months.

Considering where I was at just three months ago and the emotional roller coaster I’ve been through over the last couple of years, it’s incredible the recovery I’ve made in such a short time. I’ve put all my effort into taking care of myself these last few months so I figured it was time to let loose, have some fun, and explore somewhere new. New Orleans just happened to be my pick only because I found a last-minute ticket for $200 dollars (sweet deal!). In the end, I’m so glad I went because it’s a charming, lively city – one that quickly stole my heart.

At the suggestion of my friend M who used to live in NOLA I rented a bike for the four days I was there. It’s a fairly flat city and given my hostel was a 25 minute walk to pretty much everywhere it made getting around so much easier. Compared to other tourists I felt like I saw a lot more of the city instead of being confined to the French Quarter or Bourbon Street. I also got a shit ton of exercise.

One thing I’ve noticed over the last five years I’ve been staying at hostels is there are infinitely more people from Australia than there used to be. Of the seven of us who ventured out to Bourbon Street on my first night there, five were Aussies. In general, they’re wild and crazy and they certainly know how to show you a good time. I love them for that, especially since I’m shy when first meeting people.

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That night I was also able to cross off on my to-do list eating beignets at the famous Cafe du Monde. Three-quarters powdered sugar and one-quarter dough, I’ve now had them sober and I’ve had them drunk. They are definitely better when drinking.

Perhaps one of the most beautiful neighborhoods I saw in NOLA was the Garden District, known for its architecture and historic 19th century homes. Most of the homes are enclosed by wrought-iron fences and many of them were draped in Mardi Gras beads. I found it amusing that such a wealthy neighborhood would add a touch of flare to their plantation style homes. It made me like them more. I would snatch one of these homes up in a heartbeat, if only I had millions of dollars.

PicMonkey Collage

I also spent part of a day doing a self-guided tour of the Lafayette Cemeteries. The St. Louis Cemetery is more widely known but my goal for this trip outside of food and entertainment was to do mostly free stuff. Lafayette was a viable alternative to St. Louis since it didn’t require you to pay entrance and guide fees.

Most interesting to me were the tombs that carried multiple family members dating all the way back to the early 1800’s (as shown in the photo above). What I found so touching was that family still visited their ancestors’ graves. I couldn’t even tell you where my great grandparents or great great grandparents are buried. In the tomb above, the flowers were fresh and I found the statue of Mary oddly comforting. At another tomb I stumbled across, a World War I medal was draped across the steps along with a picture. Seriously cool.

Days two and three were spent exploring the French Quarter and riding the ferry to Algiers Point. Algiers Point provides the best view of the NOLA skyline and you could spend an entire day in the French Quarter and still not see everything. The St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square are the focal point of the quarter and it pretty much reminded me of a castle in a fairy tale. I’d also recommend checking out the French Market, not so much for the stalls of cheap souvenirs but for the interesting food they serve there. Gators on a stick? Weird but kind of intriguing!

PicMonkey Collage2And I can’t forget the food! By far the best meal I had was at a dive bar in the Marigny called Mimi’s. C (who I met at the hostel) and I were skeptical when we first walked in but the atmosphere upstairs was pleasantly surprising. Mimi’s has the best late night tapas menu around. We started with one tapa and a few hours later had practically made it through the entire menu. Few tourists know of this spot but it’s popular among the locals and came highly recommended from M. Plus, you can actually hear each other talk. Other great restaurants I recommend are Surrey’s Cafe and Juice Bar for breakfast, Deanie’s for seafood, and Coop’s for some authentic Cajun food.

Perhaps my favorite part of NOLA though is the abundance of live Jazz music, especially in the French Quarter during the day and on Frenchman Street at night. I had a conversation with a local about this very subject and he told me about a local parade that happens every week from March to June. It’s not publicized and many tourists are unaware of its existence. C met me where the parade started and we walked along the route with hundreds of others who were playing music and dancing in the streets. Here is a short clip of the parade and another one of a jazz band we came across on Frenchman Street one evening.

It’s fair to say NOLA quickly became one of my favorite US cities. Pictures don’t do it justice but I do know I’ll be going back there someday soon.

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Filed under adventure, Algiers Point, biking, Bourbon Street, Cafe du Monde, exploring, Food, Frenchman Street, fun, Garden District, music, New Orleans, travel

Chicago off the beaten path

One of my favorite things about living in Madison is its proximity to the Windy City. I’ve been to Chicago several times and I’ve hit all the typical tourist attractions like the Art Institute, Navy Pier, the Magnificent Mile, and the Sears Tower (side note: I will never call it the Willis Tower, sorry).

Having already gone to these places (and loving them) I wanted to dig deeper and go further off the beaten track. My typical approach to travel is based on my passion for the people so whether it be near home or somewhere far away I want to be immersed in the community and pretend I’m a local for the day.

On Saturday I roamed the neighborhoods of Chicago and the Pilsen neighborhood quickly became my favorite. Largely Hispanic and predominantly Mexican, there’s a treasure waiting to be found around every corner. There were heaps of vintage shops, bold murals, and authentic Mexican food and deserts from the taquerias and panaderias that lined the street.

One of my first finds was the National Museum of Mexican Art, a lesser-known Chicago attraction. I really loved the exhibitions on display as they were so lively and colorful it reminded me of being back in Central America. In general, I think I prefer this kind of art over those that are more abstract, maybe because every way you look at it there’s some sort of story being told that you really don’t need to infer what the artist is trying to tell you. Plus, admission was free and you can’t beat that. Here are two of my favorites:

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Most striking, though, were the streets lined with bold, colorful murals – an art that seems to be disappearing in the States. I was particularly captivated by a house that sits on the intersection one block before you get to the museum. This piece was painted by Hector Duarte called Bulliver en el pais de las Maravillas – or Gulliver in Wonderland. It is supposed to represent the struggling Mexican immigrant.

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Although it was Hector’s house and art gallery I don’t think he minded the photo shoot my parents and I had outside his place.

As my friend Jesse says, “This one represents every 90s rap video.” He is so right.

As my friend Jesse says, “This one represents every 90s rap video.” He is so right.

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I wish street murals weren’t such a dying art breed because they speak to the history and characteristics of those living in the neighborhood. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say it could actually attract people and bring in business if it was included as part of the thriving arts gallery movement in Chicago. Take note, you Chicagoans!

No matter where I go I always buy a souvenir, usually something like a piece of art or a corny postcard to remember the place by. On this trip, my souvenir came from Irv’s Bike Shop – a mom and pop shop that’s been in the Pilsen neighborhood for more than 40 years. Given I only live 5 miles from work and Spring is just around the corner, I’ve resolved to start commuting to work via bike.

A few years ago I bought an adorable pink bike with a basket on the front (total 60s fan girl) but for longer commutes it just doesn’t cut the deal. So, I’ve been on the hunt for a used road bike in good condition (and one that doesn’t break the bank). Irv’s came highly recommended from an avid biker I work with and I have to say it’s the least pretentious bike shop I’ve ever been to.

Over the course of my time there people came in and out, some for tune ups others for bike shopping and still others just to chat with the store manager. Everyone was friendly and very helpful and stuck to showing me bikes that met my needs and price range. Something my Dad taught me growing up is that a warm smile and friendly banter can go a long ways, which seems to always work in my favor. The store manager gave me $25 off my bike and threw in a free cart so I could attach a basket on the back. I walked out of there with new digs and a helmet for $200.

On my first spin around the block I momentarily forgot how to ride a bike. Embarrassingly enough I ran into the store window. And then into the stairs down the street. You know the old phrase, “It’s like riding a bike. Once you learn you never forget?” Well, not for me! I need a little practice before I get on the road so Bobby and I took it out for a test spin today over lunch. Isn’t it gorgeous!?

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To round out my trip I just HAD to check out Bookman’s Corner. It’s a fire hazard waiting to happen, with books stacked from floor to ceiling. Half of them aren’t even on shelves and you have to be careful when you pull one book out because about four others come crashing down. The front of the book store can be hard to miss if you aren’t looking for it but the store has been selling used books “rare, medium and well done” since the early 1980s. It’s ridden with character and worth a trip just to listen to the owner banter with the customers. A writer and reader’s dream, it’s definitely a place you could easily spend all day in. You’ll find small treasures and unbeatable prices. Just make sure you take a Lorazepam before going in. Also, there is a massive sign in the front that says no photos. Obviously, rules are made to be broken.

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Filed under art, biking, Bookman's Corner, books, Chicago, Hector Duarte, Irv's Bike Shop, murals, museum, National Museum of Mexican Art, travel