Cruising to Cleveland

Once again, work necessitated that I drive somewhere new for another trade show.  I made my reservations as usual, but on this glorious occasion, Enterprise had very little available on the lot.  ‘Would you mind taking a free upgrade to a 2015 Ford Mustang?’  ‘No problem. That’ll be alright.’  The thing was banana yellow and had a bit more pep to it than did my oh so practical hybrid.
IMG_0577On this particular day, I was transporting a kiwi friend in from Sydney who just coincidentally was planning a visit to Cleveland herself.  Having someone to share the drive with made the trip far less boring, and of course it saved her a brush with a Grayhound.  Even better was the chance to swing north into Michigan for a quick visit to my hometown of Holland.  We did a whirlwind tour through the downtown and Hope College’s campus, Holland State Park, and then joined my family and grandpa for dinner and dominoes.  It was a bit of a detour, but worthwhile.  Finally some 5 hours later we rolled on into an fairly impressive looking city.  I really didn’t know what Cleveland would be like, and was pleasantly pleased by the accessibility of the downtown area.  We met to walk around before I had to hit Wooster for some booth time.  One point of curiosity was a particularly large stamp that defied practicality.

Cleveland’s most famous tourist draw is of course the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  I assume that you like me were wondering why they would choose this city in which to build a monument with such universal appeal.  Turns out that at the time of construction, Cleveland was the 7th largest city in the USA (Currently down to 48th) and more importantly, it was in this city that DJ Alan Freed coined the phrase ‘Rock and Roll’ way back in 1951.  Not sure who designed this hodgepodge of a structure, but it sat proudly right on Lake Erie.
IMG_0560We were there when the doors opened, and spent a couple of hours working through the various exhibits.  It was a great mix of music history both old and new, and had loads of noteworthy memorabilia on display.  John’s Sgt. Pepper’s suit was an intriguing example.  There were exhibits on all the great acts from every generation, as well as some of the other aspects of the music industry.  Roger Water’s iconic ‘Wall’ caught my eye.
IMG_0572After the day’s Wooster time, I returned to meet Hannah and a couple of her friends.  One of the guys was a fellow teacher from during our time in Japan, so it was good seeing him again.  We swung into a couple of the local bars that night, and my favorite was definitely Great Lakes Brewing Company.  This is one of the larger regional craft breweries that has distribution into other states.  It’s nice to get some of those recognizable beers from the source, and their Edmund Fitzgerald Porter was my obvious choice.  After seeing a few leg lamps in windows during my short time there, it was a definite ‘aha’ moment when I realized that ‘A Christmas Story’ had been filmed here back in ’83.
IMG_0579There was a bit more to do down in Wooster, but just as soon as possible I was heading toward home.  All of the first hour was spent tearing through rural villages and roads.  This was a fun drive, and really gave the sense that I was in authentic Ohio.  Most of the radio stations were either Christian or country.  Nothing to see but crops and barns. Once back on the freeway, the rest of the drive continued on uneventfully and eventually I was back to Chicago.  Prior to this little excursion I had only ever been to Cedar Point, so getting just a bit more of what this state had to offer was worth the effort, and better than a cubicle.

St. Louis: An Overarching Report

Once again, my company’s need for a human body behind a table dictated that I head on down to St. Louis for a couple of days.  This was another place that I had never been to, and was of course keen on the idea of checking it out.  I hopped onto Wikipedia to glean a few St. Louis facts before soaking it all in for myself.  Here were my findings: It hosted the 1904 Summer Olympics, has more than halved its population since 1950, and is also home to the largest group of Bosnians outside of their homeland.

I finally made it down to Earth City, MO where I got the booth situated.  I’ve shared booth photos before, and I know you aren’t interested in seeing more.  With everything set for the next day, I returned to my car and did battle with traffic until arriving at the vastly more interesting St. Louis.  The city was of course smaller than the Chicago metropolis I call home, but thanks to its famous arch the skyline is no less distinctive.IMG_0511The domed building once served as the courthouse for St. Louis, but has since been re-purposed as a museum and ticket counter.  I strolled through the rooms to learn a bit about St. Louis’ French fur-trading origins, slavery, and of course the historic journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark that began from here.  The inside of the dome looked a bit like ‘The Patriotic Church of USA’.
IMG_0514I picked up a 10 dollar ticket, and then made my way on over to the inverted cantenary arch.  At 630 feet high [and interestingly, 630 feet wide] I knew that it was going to be on the larger side.  Coming up to the base though, the bold lines and flat surfaces really made it loom.  I was able to charm some passerby into snapping a rather snazzy photo.  I didn’t spend a great deal of time down in the base, the plan was mostly just to go up and down.  The trams that haul people up were clearly built at a time predating American’s swelling waists, and the concept of claustrophobia.  Up at the top were some small windows, and to be honest, the view from the apex was nothing spectacular.  I had a clear day with great visibility, but the merits of such a vantage point are lost when there isn’t really worth looking at: St. Louis is only a medium-sized city, and the Illinois side has nothing at all.
IMG_0519Following my descent, thirst set in.  One of the National Parks employees pointed me toward the Morgan Street Brewery.  Tuesday night must not be a big one for St. Louis, so I just strode on in and took a seat at one of the many empty bar stools.  Their flight let me a sample one of everything they had on tap.  I imbibed while listening to a guitarist play several unlikely covers.  The beers were all good enough, but nothing jumped out to me as truly remarkable.
IMG_0539After settling up, I decided to again in another area of town.  I walked several blocks, struggled to find an entrance, but did eventually make it into Alpha Brewing.  They offered two vastly different sets of beers so I simply had to try a flight of both the ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’ varieties.  The alphas were represented by a predictable mix of lagers, ales, and IPAs – all good, but no surprises.  Then there were the betas, each of which was uniquely it’s own.  As the the bartender/owner explained to me, he and the other owners would generally inebriate themselves so as to summon inspiration.  Many of these were sour beers, and most were aged in some exotic barrels.  The chardonnay casks imbued an interesting flavor profile in one, the use of coffee in another was great, the pomegranate in another was tasteful.  Each of these were unlike any I had ever had before, nor were they gimmicky – I truly enjoyed them all.  It was at last time to go and prepare myself for the next day.  St. Louis was a nice city to walk around in, and certainly iced the cake baked by getting out of the office for a bit.

Tampa Time

The sales team recently had a bit of a pow wow down in Tampa (Clearwater, technically).  As a company we get together to talk strategy, new products, and overall direction each year, and while this generally takes place at either the Chicago headquarters or manufacturing facility in North Carolina, this time a year of great sales was rewarded.  While the mindset was that this was still work, I’m fairly certain that everyone was looking to it as an opportunity to relax just a bit.  If I can say anything about the company, it’s that they do know how to keep us employees happy and having a great time.  There were a lot of meetings and presentations, but I’ll just highlight the fun stuff we did besides that.  I had to rise earlier than I would on any true vacation, but doing so to this view was a marked improvement over an average day.
IMG_0062aAfter the first full day of meetings, we convened that evening over at the marina.  They had chartered a yacht so that we could motor around Tampa Bay for a couple hours while eating a fantastic dinner.  The purpose was of course to get to know our coworkers a bit better, but also celebrating the individual successes of the sales team.  One of the highlights of the outing came after the sky darkened and cracked with sprawling splits of lighting – a phenomenon common enough to merit naming a hockey team after it.
IMG_3939aThe next day we got hands-on with a number of our products.  For this we drove an hour south to Sarasota to stand out in the sweltering sun, and tempt death in the absurd combination of heat and humidity.  For many of us, we don’t get to see our products in action, so the crash course is always appreciated  I was definitely dressed with the wrong vein of clothing.

Our bus broke down on the way back to Tampa, though we were able to keep mostly on schedule by continuing presentations while stranded on the side of the road.  Our new bus did show up eventually to whisk us away.  That afternoon we had a team building activity scheduled that required us to form various materials into a shipshape vessel, and then race it against our peers.  About an an hour was scheduled for the build, and the crew below crafted the S.S. Zero-WHC (for Water-Holding Capacity, an industry term).  We were supposed to put together a chant, but failing to budget adequate time we settled for a mic drop.
IMG_4294aAs the chosen captain, I was perhaps a bit eccentric about a few of the construction points.  My team didn’t see my vision eye-to-eye, but in the end,things turned out well enough.  We had to clear out the pool from the photo above.  There were 6 teams, which allowed for two 1v1 elimination rounds, and then a three person championship regatta.  I hopped into the boat, and very nearly sank it straight away.  I redistributed my weight, tried out a couple of paddling methods, and in the end found something that worked.  The two races went pretty well.  Amusingly, the best boat built was the only to sink.

After that activity, we had one more competition that tasked us with catching water balloons launched from a slingshot.  Our boating prowess did nothing for us this time around. For the rest of the evening, we had a luau on the beach featuring the finest of food, fire-dancing, a few drinks, and later, some makeshift football.  The light was waning, but here was our Profile Products Photo.IMG_4346aI know that it may not look it, but we really did have a lot of productive meetings and other work-related events.  One of Profile’s pillars is that that they want to be a fun company to work for, and to that I’d say they are thus far doing a great job.

Detroit Daytrip for The Rolling Stones

Some time ago it was suggested by my S.O. that we go see the Rolling Stones; we pulled the trigger.  May is a self-confessed fan, and hitting this show would be a dream come true for her.  And for myself, as a fan of music in general, it would be a chance to witness legendary greatness.  We got out of work on Tuesday and cruised right on over to Detroit.Detroit_4054a

We arrived to the Motor City Casino sometime after midnight, and went to walk the gambling floor.  We deserved some drinks after the long haul in the car, though we both managed to refrain from donating our money to the house.  That next morning is when the tourism really kicked off.  May insisted that the purpose of this trip was to see the Stones, and not pack the day full of everything else (as I tend to do).  That said, we did still maximize our time.Detroit_9178

Our first stop was to Astro Coffee, where the former barista and I settled in for some hipster drip and a healthy breakfast.  We took it slow, enjoyed the distinct flavors of our coffees, and started to plan out the rest of the day.  We coordinated to meet with a good friend of mine from my Japan days, and to make a quick jaunt over to Canada.  With plans set, we left to explore Corktown.

The effect of Detroit’s shrinking population and ensuing debt crisis was apparent everywhere.  Although the towering skyscrapers could be seen just a mile or so away, there were enormous swathes of empty green space where buildings had once stood.  One of our stops was to the former Tigers Stadium, site of their 1984 World Series win.  The building was torn down to make room for…nothing, and now all that remains is a rusticated ball diamond and unkempt vegetation.  We did a little shopping before working our way down to gawk at what epitomizes Detroit’s post-apocalyptic vibe – Michigan Central Station.  This awesome old building was built in 1913, closed down in 1988, and now stands as a monument to the glory days gone by.  There have been numerous proposals for how to redevelop and re-purpose the structure, but nothing has yet materialized.


IMG_0107After a bit we connected with Saad and got in the line to go to Canada.  They weren’t able to stamp our passports, but I was able to add a couple of notes to my currency collection.  Our first order of business was getting food.  This was Canada of course, so naturally we stopped for kebabs.  To May’s and my delight, they also had poutine on the menu which is actually a Quebec staple.  None of us had had it before, but this was the only ‘Canadian’ dish they had, so we gave it a whirl.  They unfortunately dressed it with the less authentic shredded cheese, rather than the curds that should adorn the schlopp.  We did at least add some flair to the meal by washing the grease down with Canada Dry.  For the record, this dish essentially consists of french fries, gravy, and cheese.  Savory yes, but one could not possibly finish it all without experiencing a complete degradation of self down to ‘louche status’.

facesWe went on over to the Canadian Club distillery for a tour.  None of us had a particular fondness for their whiskey, but it was something to do.  It wound up being a very informative historical tour that brought us through a mansion and explained the origins of the company.  Thanks to prohibition in the ’20s there were plenty of ties to the mob, and there was even a room set up for Al Capone.  Ask me if you’d like to hear the origin of the phrase ‘the real McCoy’, or where the word cocktail comes from.  As you can clearly see, Saad and I were having a great time!  At the end of the tour, we did have the opportunity to do some tasting.  We were offered their newest Canada-only Maple infused whiskey, and also a higher-end rye variety.  Both were good, and I was pleased to find that they had poured a few too many samples…
Detroit_4249We finished up our tour and meandered on back to the USA for dinner.  Slow’s BBQ had a superb selection of [Michigan] beers, and according to Saad, the best food around.  May and I each wisely went with the brisket, and Saad opted for some lame sandwich, but the beauty of the meal was in all of the sides that came with it.  They had six sauces at that made each bite a different experience.Detroit_9948
Detroit_8436Stuffed, we bid adieu to Saad and transitioned into the next stage of the evening, which truly was the purpose for our coming all the way out here – it was time for The Rolling Stones!  May had long wanted this experience, and it fell on me to make it happen.  We started by working towards Comerica Park, at which point we had to get a concert T.  I didn’t mind, but the 40 minutes that it took felt a bit excessive.  The shirts were Detroit-specific, and made for a pretty cool souvenir.  The excitement you see us wearing is from having finally escaped the shirt queue, and in anticipation of our pre-concert visit to the Detroit Beer Company.  We made it in just as Walk the Moon was playing their lone hit ‘Shut up and Dance’.
IMG_0125There were certainly some loonies seated around us – people who had been in the concert game for far too long.  Soon enough, the lights dimmed, and the first notes ripped across the sound system.  It was hard to believe that these legends were actually there before us.  Their plan was to play music from the Sticky Fingers album, a Motown cover, a few by Keith Richards, and then that smattering of hits that they couldn’t possible ignore.  I had done some homework in the weeks before to familiarize myself with the album, but was amazed at how many of the songs I knew.  Mick must have changed what he was wearing at least 8 times throughout the show.

Prior to the show, my dad had mentioned that he was at their ‘Farewell Tour’ back in ’82, and now 33 years later they are still just going for it.  Spindly Mick moved around a bit like he was wearing heels, but still far more spryly than any other 72 year old I know.  At one point he mentioned that this was their 9th time through Detroit, with the first being 51 years earlier, back in 1964!  They certainly wont be going for another 50, so getting such a legendary show under out belts now was a great call.  They closed out with ‘Satisfaction’, and these happy concertgoers definitely got some.
Detroit_8869With the fun over, all that remained was navigating the crowds and dark Detroit streets back to the car.  We stopped for some munchies and soda to keep up us up and running, and then at 1am finally began our return to Chicago.  Both May and I were ecstatic about work the next morning, but by putting up with some mere exhaustion saved ourselves us the utter waste of taking another valuable vacation day.  Traffic was sparse throughout the wee hours, so we made good time.  We even managed a couple hours of sleep before having to report for duty.  It’s amazing how much can be packed into 36 hours.

Chicago Beer & Burgers

With the grandiose plan of craft beers and burgers, things were shaping up to be a noteworthy day.  May and I drove to Logan Square and walked on into Revolution Brewing.  They were busy, and we didn’t feel like waiting.  Some brisk walking and a short jog took us to the site of their actual brewing just in time to make a tour.  Things started out on the right foot with a citrus tinged IPA, and then we were led through the production & packing floors.  All was good, but we were ready to start sampling their offerings.  We tried the Rosa, Triple Fist, Fist City, and 1ZEnuf, with the Triple being our mutual favorite.  I’ve been assembling a collection of glassware from the different breweries I visit for my bachelor pad, so I snagged one from here, and then another from Half Acre Brewery, our next stop.IMG_0074IMG_0091

This brewery is certainly smaller than Revolution, but their Daisy Cutter IPA is a favorite of May’s.  Their smallest sizes are a larger 8 oz size for only 3 dollars, which makes sampling a bit more substantial – much better than the tiny sips most places offer up.  We opted for the Daisy Cutter of course, and also Akari, Vallejo IPA, and some 4 others whose names are not coming to me.  We reminisced back to our early days in Chicago, and then set out for dinner.  The artwork for each of the beer labels was consistent only in their absurdity.


Not too far away was a burger restaurant I’d seen named as being one of the top 5 in the US.  I’m not much of a foodie, but this was the sort of meal I could get excited about.  We got there and were told it would be a 30 minute wait, and unlike most restaurants they weren’t overestimating the time.  We went to the dingiest saloon around to wait and order some brews on the lower end of the spectrum – ‘I’d recommend Special Import Lager, it’s neither special nor import’.  Sold!  We needed to reset our baseline flavor profile to as near zero as possible, so as to fully realize the dynamics of our upcoming burgers.


We were finally seated in a haze of smoke coming off the nearby grill, and blaring heavy metal music.  I wouldn’t call it the ideal dining environment, but with such a reputation, they can do as they please.  45 minutes had passed, and May was on the verge of stepping out.  The smoke and her extreme hunger were both eroding her patience.  At just the last moment, these masters of suspense swooped in with our two glorious burgers.  I went with the Plague Burger.  Most burgers that claim to be spicy are no sweat, though this one left me panting.


Our eyes grew enormous, and at this point we chose to pause any attempts at communication and just focus on our food.   May isn’t generally the biggest of eaters, and I can usually rely on getting to eat whatever she can’t.  We shared some bites back and forth, but I was impressed that she put that whole thing away.  May also earned a few respect points by ordering her burger medium rare.  This meal was the ultimate in umami, and by far the best burger that either of us could recall.  We’ve both come to enjoy how Chicago offers so much with which we can fill our weekends: food, fun, and whatever we’re in the mood for.


The Japanese Rugby Football Club Of Chicago (JRFCC)

Several months ago, through an unlikely series of introductions that all began from something written on this very blog years ago, it was asked if I might be interested in playing rugby.  I replied with a vehement ‘yes’, and then just the following weekend was rolling out of bed for practice at my namesake Busse Forest Nature Preserve.  Up until this point in my life, the complete lack of terrestrial athletic success that I had had had had me questioning whether this sporting endeavor would be any different; I possessed understanding for neither the rules nor nature of the game.  4 months on I’m still far from knowing much, but that hasn’t stopped me from thoroughly enjoying the sport and contributing the team’s success.

This team, as the name would suggest, is rooted in the Japanese community that cycles through the area.  Most members have only been on for a year or so, but all have got a passion for the sport that in some cases spans several decades – we’ve got a sexagenarian on the team with no fear of jumping into the fray.  My first practices felt good because on a basic level I was finally getting some much needed exercise, and especially because this was another opportunity to try something new.

After only a month it was time to play in my first match, this time against the Chicago Lawyers.  I honestly had little idea what I was to be doing out there, and was especially thrown when instead of playing the forward position as I had been practicing, they put me in as a wing.  Wings tends to be similar to baseball’s left field – they don’t see a great deal of action, and there aren’t too many ways for the novice to fail the rest of the team.  My primary responsibilities were to 1) destroy anyone in my area with the ball and 2) go full on Forest Gump should it ever somehow wind up in my hands.  There were some other roles like sweeping that we had practiced as well, but the bar determining my success for this game was pretty low.  I had no qualms with this and was certainly excited just to get some game experience.

In the end we lost a close and well fought game, but it was not without personal triumphs.  In a moment of unlikely greatness, the ball was pitched all the way down the line a la textbook rugby and into my hands where the only job left was to just run straight and make what I could of it.  There were probably only 15 meters to the try line, which I covered before being taken out.  I was ear to ear, and the team loved it too.  There was actually another instance in which I plowed through a group of people and put the ball down in the end zone (something you need to do for it to count), but the ref missed it.

There is such blithe satisfaction that comes from playing this brutish game of team endeavor, knowing that every opposing member will wreck you if you aren’t fast/strong/good enough.  The heightened sense of vulnerability thanks to the lack of pads only adds to this.   Most satisfying for me though, I actually have worth out there on the pitch.  I can hold my own swimming in a pool, but that skill set has never transferred into making tangible contributions on land.  Here though in this realm, my stout build and rippling musculature offer a distinct advantage.  Here is a group shot of the two teams after the match.


One of the pleasures of rugby is the mentality that opposing teams have once the match is over – ‘we all play for the same sport’.  Convention holds that the hosting team arrange an location for both teams to go socialize.  At their team bar, the match MVPs and standout rookies were announced by each team’s captain.  I was named ours for the latter, and thus had to defend our honor by racing my counterpart to the bottom of a Guinness pint, which I did.

On another weekend, we entered into the Rugby 7s Tournament at the Scottish Highland Games.  Brother Parker came in to play, and my parents came to watch.  Our three matches throughout the day didn’t quite have the result we were looking for, but I did manage another try for our team – one of only a handful scored by us that day.  These 7s matches unfortunately involved a good deal of running around and excessively brief halves, but was still good fun.  The teams that won it all were clearly on another level, so there were no hard feelings.  This picture of the ‘Wrecking Crew’ spawned great internet notoriety.
IMG_1410The season will continue on in the fall, and should offer numerous opportunities to give and take a pummeling.  Things reach an apex in early November, when we will compete in Los Angeles against each of the other US based Japanese Teams for the Japan Cup.  No matter our degree of success as a team, getting to know each of these guys has been fantastic.  It has truly defined and enhanced my Chicago experience thus far.

Miller Park Sausage Race

Part of what my employer does is create the material used on and in baseball infields, and on this particular day a few of us were going to meet the head groundskeeper for the Milwaukee Brewers.

We showed up and scarfed down a couple of brats before making our way down to the field – yes, of course we had field passes.  We got to hang around the backstop as the opposing team finished up their batting practice.  We thought we’d soon be ushered out of there but they let us hang around.  Despite the student group coming out to sing the national anthem, there we remained.  It was after they announced the starting lineups and the umps took the field a mere four minutes before the first pitch that we were directed towards out seats.  They had a cozy little spot for us in the 4th row along the 3rd baseline.  Here are the Dodgers lined up for the anthem.


After a few innings, we went up to a secret meeting spot and were led down into the the guts of the facility.  On this most incredible of days, we would be taking part in the famous Klement’s Sausage Race.  After some back doors and secret passages we arrived to a room filled with the various mascots. We signed some wavers, and got the run down of what we were NOT to do.  Having completed our 5 minute orientation, we selected our sausage shells.  It was my assumption that at every home game, 5 random fans were selected to go out and run this legendary race, but not so!  The execs want to keep exclusive, and limit the races to those members of the Brew Crew Staff, only allowing close friends and industry partners (us) to take part a couple times per season.  Learning that brought a certain cachet to the opportunity.  Here is the Turface team.


Getting those suits on and off wasn’t the easiest task, but we were able to get a feel for what a running in a hot, top heavy, meat cylinder was like.  Here we were before the big event (LtoR): Frankie Furter the Hot Dog, Brett Wurst the Bratwurst, Stosh Jonjak the Polish Sausage, Guido the Italian Sausage, and Cinco the Chorizo.  I was that smug dog in the middle.


We were led to a gate in the outfield, near the bullpen, where we awaited our grand unveiling.  The race is always run at the middle of the 6th inning, so we just had to wait for a couple more outs before taking the field.  They were explaining to us that we would be heroes, and that we would want to play it up a bit with the kids and fans.  They did also mention that the starting horn can be a bit muffled from inside the suit.  We waddled out there, not entirely sure of where to go, but loving the notoriety.

I was invested in throwing up high-fives to kids and adults alike, but after glancing askance saw that my colleagues had already taken off!  I was only a couple strides behind them coming off the line, but from the perspective of my tunnel vision it was far.  I tore off after them, came close at the bend, and continued to reel them in as we approached the finish line.  The video doesn’t do my race the utmost of justice, but I’m fairly certain that I brought it into a tie for second, and had the best line to line time overall.  No, I didn’t win that day, but I can still say I’m proud.  Chorizo was actually facing the wrong way entirely at the start of that race, and represented poorly on Cinco de Mayo. He we are coming down the homestretch.

Back Stretch

Win or lose, we were rewarded with a beer and puppy chow once it was all said and done.  I think that every job is going to have some sort of perk associated with it, and this one here really was a fantastic opportunity that would have never been afforded to me in any other way.  I may very well never see such a chance as this come again.  To those wondering: yes of course, the event was taped.

Hiking at Starved Rock State Park

At some point May offered up that she’d like to do a bit of hiking.  Once a mutually available weekend coincided with decent weather, I made it happen.   There was debate as to where we should go expend all our pent up workweek energy, and in the end decided to properly invest in the activity by driving some 100 miles southwest to Illinois’ Starved Rock State Park.

S__3686529Before hitting the road we carboloaded at Walker Bros. Pancake House.  It had a line out the door, but 15 minutes was plenty justifiable given the soon to be discovered quality of the food.  I went with the Sante Fe Omelette, and May some eggs and ‘cakes; we struggle to make certain decisions sometimes though, and had to split a Dutch Baby as well.

The sky ahead of us was a bit worrisome, but a veer toward the south allayed those fears.  Our weather guy let us know that rain would hit at 6pm, giving us ample time.  The weather and temperature were both suitable, and after manufacturing a spot in the car park, we set out in earnest.

Neither of us had been here before, but the pictures sold it.  There are a lot of different trails to trace, but as we came across our first landmark it was clear that our understanding of the map scale was completely off.  This state park is well known for the sandstone features unlike the rest of the otherwise flat Illinois topography.  All of the trail was wooded, and some of the earlier sections traced through the basin of an old canyon.  The spring leaves were just coming in.

There were a number of spots on the map marked with names, which pertained to those areas with small waterfalls and particularly impressive walls.  Now I know this pales in comparison to such a place as the Grand Canyon, but for something in my own backyard, I was impressed.  Whenever I request to be in included in a photo, I always manage to look foolish and out of place.  Much credit goes to May for ignoring all my poses and pauses, in favor of something more organic.

S__3686527It was not even an hour in before May started to notice some congestion.  Throughout our time there, it got worse and worse, and she fell completely to the mercy of the springtime pollen – I guess this isn’t the best time of year to trudge through nature.  I was of course completely free of its miasmatic effects.  The rest of the hike was without too much variety, S__3686530aside from the moment that we stopped to sit and stare out over the Illinois River while feasting upon Stax and Turkish figs.  After a bit we got up to continue, but thought it best instead to turn back and avoid the impending weather.  We arrived to the car at the very moment precipitate began to ‘tate.  I’m pretty sure this shot of us is from before May was harried by her runny nose and constant sneezing.

Prior to heading home, we wanted to stroll around the small town of Ottawa before the weather became too much of a problem.  On the way in we noticed a few robust murals on the sides of buildings that merited further investigation.  We parked near the centrally located green space to get out and stroll.

There were a great number of benches haphazardly strewn about Washington Park, but our attention was quickly stolen by large statues of a certain Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.  As I am sure you all remember from your history education, this town played host to first of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.  I can’t say my life has been changed too much in the wake of this visit, but it may just serve to benefit some future crossword session.  Ottawa has more than just that too, I learned!  Ottawa was a famed ‘station’ on the Underground Railroad, and it was in this town that William Dickson Boyce incorporated the Boy Scouts of America, back in 1910.  I’d recommend you make a mental note of those.



Also, because curiosity drew me into doing some additional research on the town, I have a bonus nugget for you: Ottawa was once the location of the Radium Dial Company.  For about a decade women here applied glow-in-the-dark paint on S__3686533watch faces, which would be a pretty cool industry, that is, if the radioactive pigment they handled directly, ingested, and dolled up their nails with wasn’t killing so many of them.  There are still areas of the town that register tangibly higher on a Geiger counter.  I’ll allow these cheerful flowers to assuage thoughts of necrosis and anemia.

The rain grew in significance, so we hopped back in the car to make the drive home.  I was intentional about not using my wipers to see when May would notice. (‘Can you see?’ – Yeah, no problem.’)  T’was a fine day, and among the better ways to spend a weekend. I’m told that hitting the park during each season offers a different experience, so, I may add a Fall update, we’ll see.

Livin’ la Vida de la Republica Dominicana

With my girlfriend heading down to the DR to revisit friends and attend a wedding, it was easy to make that my next destination as well.  I wouldn’t be joining in on those festivities, but we’d get a couple overlapping days together before she returned home and I onward with the rest of my trip.  I conned a couple past travel buddies into joining me for the additional days: Kei Mamiya of Japan and compatriot Neil Ferguson agreed to once more throw caution to the wind in pursuit of adventure.

My flight departed on Christmas day and arrived before sunrise the next morning.  May offered that there could be a taxi waiting for me at the airport, but I saw no sign bearing ‘Señor Bussies’, and instead charmed a Japanese guy into splitting a cab to La Zona Colonial.  It was going to cost way too much going solo, so this worked out perfectly.  After dumping him at his hostel, I went the rest of the way to where May was staying with her friend Marybell.  It was early, but after waking May and fumbling with an absurd number of locks, the two of us sat in the morning sun and caught up for the first time in quite a while.   I was very pleased to find this awaiting me.


We needed some food, and for that visited a nearby cafe.  Curious to try out the new cuisine, I took one of everything.  Most of these items were a sort of fried dough with a meat and cheese inside.  I was relieved to have no issue paying with plastic, meaning my bankroll could last a bit longer.  By the time we finished up and got back, the rest of the family was stirring.  The first person I met was abuela, a nice lady who spoke zero English, and interestingly was a follower of SGI – a denomination of Japanese Buddhism.  I briefly spoke with madre, and then finally Marybelle.  It was great to meet them, sip espresso sized coffee, chat, and sort the rest of the day.  The architecture, and warm weather assured me that I had gotten far from the Michigan winter.


The plan that emerged involved a trip over to La Romana, where a friend’s family had a place we could stay.  The drive lasted 2 hours, but traced the beautiful southern shoreline.  Their place was quite nice, and by my count had no fewer than 110 places to sit.  The villa is located in Casa de Campo, which is the DR’s Hollywood Hills equivalent and is indeed home to many celebrities, baseball players, and I assume golf players.  Once settled into our rooms, we made our way out to check a few places and grab some refreshments.  The nearby beach was glorious, but so too was the Altos de Chavon, a re-creation of a medieval European village.  The place offered incredible views.  I was told that somewhere along this river the movie Anaconda was filmed.
IMG_4184aAnother stop that day was to a restaurant that served more of the fried empanada-esq delicacies, along with a couple of El Presidentes.  From there we regrouped back at the chateau before moving on to the evening’s activities.  One of the social conventions I apparently failed at was identifying the need to change into something else for that evening.  Feeling confident about one’s appearance is apparently inadequate, especially if in the presence of those who did feel the urge.  I went on and got garbed up into something different (for different’s sake), and we made our way out to the marina.  We were going for a Christmas yacht parade, but by the time we arrived, most of the boats had bailed on the contest to go do their own thing.  This was described by my hosts as ‘typical Dominican’, but was still a great time.  The weather was warm, and the atmosphere down there great as well.


On the way back towards the car, we caught the parents sipping on wine and were invited to join.  There, we had a nice time all together and even corralled in a few other familiar faces.  We later moved on to have our own night but did seize the opportunity to snap a picture as group.  Here, we have the parents below, and the rest of our crew.


From there we went out to see what fun could be had.  We hit to a bar or two around the Altos de Chavon area, and I destroyed some street-style hamberguesas before we worked our way back to the estate.  The next morning, after a nice breakfast overlooking the sunny golf course, we tore off to the easternmost point of the island, Punta Cana.  Another of the family members had a house there and was happy to put us up for a night.  It was an hour before we arrived, and we were excited to at last hit the beach.  The amount of seaweed in the water and on the shore really had me wondering why people spend hundreds of dollars a night to stay here, but I was told that it wasn’t the norm.  To be fair, everything else was spectacularly beautiful.


…especially the people.

That evening the May and I hung back whilst the others found food.  We were both exhausted and passed out instead.  We arose again around 1 am to find people lingering and still contemplating the idea of going out to do something, but we unilaterally agreed that we lacked the ganas.  I was completely fine with that.  That next morning, May and I bid adieu and bused back to our Santo Domingo hotel to meet up with the rest of my travel crew and begin an entirely different type of trip.  It was great getting the chance to meet some of May’s good friends, and of course to see this country from an angle that would contrast the rest of my trip.  As usual, I was well on my way to packing in a great deal during the short week on that half of the island.

DSC_8875_edited-2We checked in to a decent bed and breakfast where Neil had already arrived.  He came in on the same painfully early flight as I and went on to spend the day sleeping himself back to life.  We grabbed a bit to eat and awaited the arrival of Kei.  With the whole team there, tourism began at last.  The plan for that evening was to walk the streets, eat, and eventually get ourselves dancing.  It was a Sunday night, but the Dominicans seem enjoy a good dance on any day, and it only took a few blocks before we found a little salsa place.  May and I had been excited about dancing together in the months prior to this trip, but in the end I had to cede her to an older man who actually knew what he was doing.  We were ready to move on to somewhere playing music that was a bit more Dominican, and wound up next door at more of a bar.  It was club music, but at least it the music being played was of the island.  We moved on looking for just one more place, but in the end just returned to our domicile.  May was going to be departing that next day, and I’d be without any chance to see her for over a month, so we spent a good long while chatting before finally turning in.  Kei was stuck taking the photo below


IMG_4241aThat next morning we rose in time to catch our complimentary breakfast and sort out the rest of the day.  Walking around, one of the stops we made was to a Cuban cigar shop, and also the Santa Maria la Menor Cathedral, the first to be built in the Americas.  May had been in on a previous trip to the country, so she took care of some last minute shopping while los tres amigos took an audio tour.  The most interesting takeaway for me was that it was the only cathedral in the entire hemisphere to be built in the Gothic style.  There was an excessive amount of information covering each of the flanking chapels.

IMG_4238aAfter regrouping with May, we walked over to the America’s first castle, the former residence of Christopher Columbus’ son, Diego Colon, who was kind enough to serve as the Viceroy of the Indies.  Our research suggested that it was possible to enter the structure, as well as the adjacent museum, though we struck out on both.  We returned to the hotel to see May off, and then we men gathered our things and set out for the next night’s accommodation. We trudged under the sun to the one proper hostel in town, arriving just a short moment after they filled their last room.  They sent us to another spot that was a bit of a dump, and completely without personality, but could at least offer us lodging.  We actually followed the street down all the way to the ocean before decided we had probably gone too far.  I was approached by some kid wanting money for food, but I instead gave him a Cliff Bar.  I would be remiss to neglect this quality photograph, crafted by Kei.


The rest of that afternoon involved walking around, and not much else.  Though the area was full of history, what one could really do in the area was somewhat less. We had had our fill at least.  We lazed about, faked conversation with some annoying people at the pension, and then went to a supermercado to get ingredients for dinner.  We would be dining as kings this evening on imported chips and salsa, and grilled cheese.  The bread seared to the pan though and came out pretty carcinogenic, though we had also gotten some large beers to help rectify the poor cooking.

The next morning we went to Los Tres Ojos, a national park located in the center of the city that really couldn’t feel further from the capitol.  The limestone in this area had been eroded over the ages to carve the ‘three eyes’ caverns out of the jungle.  Getting to one of them required crossing an underground pool on a hand powered raft.  Finally, cameraman Kei makes his appearance.
DSC_8951aFrom the capitol area, we left and spent several hours on a bus that hauled us to the northern shore of the island.  It took a few transfers, but we eventually got into the sea town of Cabarete, where we had booked a stay at some resort.  When trying to figure out where to stay the next night, we realized that by each pitching in 50 dollars a day, we could make it an all inclusive stay.  Obviously the place was not going to be a Four Seasons, but our expectations were nowhere near that.  We were extremely content to have reasonably priced lodging along with the bonuses of beach access, wifi, food, and an open bar.  This would all be especially beneficial as we were turning over the New Year there.  Nothing about this place was pristine, but it was perfect for a few bros.

During our days there we spent time around the pool, on the beach, playing pocket pool billiards, eating a glorious New Year’s feast, coconut boccie, horseshoes, volleyball, and some of the best live entertainment in existence.  Don’t miss the tinge of sarcasm in that last one.  None of the staff spoke any English, but they would put on skits every night for all of the guests.  Production value was extremely low, but endearing all the same – there was one lip-sync in particular that was killing us.  The weather was great throughout our time, but one day on the beach was enough.  Seriously, how are people be entertained by laying in the sun over consecutive days?!  It is perhaps the most unexciting of ways to spend time in any foreign nation. DSC_9012_edited-a1

We did of course plan this part of the trip to coincide with the transition into 2015, which made for a great night.  We skipped the taxis and instead walked the couple of kilometers along the coastline.  It took a while but our party did arrive to the bustling beaches of Cabarate where masses of revelers had already gathered along the shore.  Open container laws clearly didn’t exist, so we got our own fix and set out to take in the sights and sounds.  People were launching lanterns that soared up over the bay.  The sounds of the open air clubs pounding away proved good foreshadowing, and before long we were up there ourselves.  I was a hot sweaty mess, but no one seemed to mind.  We stayed quite a while before making the hike back.

DSC_9046aThat next morning we spent those last few hours of our stay around the pool before packing up and hitting the road.  Neil would be flying back the next day out of Santiago, so that was where we had to get to.  There were some taxis offering to take us into town for what would be a stupid amount of money even by American standards.  I had been wanting to take advantage of the local transportation, and this proved a great chance.  These are generally just junked out vans that they pack with anyone wanting a ride.  Sadly, all those that passed us by were completely full.  We waited a half hour before I spotted a three wheeled something cruising past to whom I half jokingly gave a wave.  I was a bit surprised when he actually stopped.  The man had no qualms with us hopping in the back for a small bit of cash, logic presumably being that he might as well get paid for a trip he was making anyway.  The way people stared at us gave the impression that this was not a conventional means of getting around.

IMG_0232_edited-1The hike to Santiago didn’t take long, and we were soon checked into our austere abode.  There was a McDonald’s within walking distance which certainly made for a good last meal for the trip.  We got in and were astounded to find it absolutely packed – there was nowhere to sit, and even had a security guard on hand to ensure order.  The menu was pretty unimpressive and had nothing that really reflected the local culture.  Back at the room, we watched 21 Jump Street and passed out.  When Kei and I woke up, we were a man down.  After cashing in on our free breakfast, we took a cab to the bus station that would like us to the next destination.

The DR was an awesome destination, thanks in large part to the variety in locations and experiences that I was able to enjoy.  The two phases of the trip with May’s good friends and mine, really made for some great memories.  The week cruised by, but the adventure was only halfway over!

Haitian Heaven

Our plan was to hop on a bus from Santo Domingo, cross the border, and arrive to Cap-Haitien a few hours later.  For as long as I had been making these travel plans known, everyone seemed to state authoritatively what I needed to watch out for.  That these same people were basing their advice and ‘knowledge’ on untenable rumors – or a border visit at best – was quickly apparent though; I found no consistency between their warnings and reality.  My plan was to tackle this country with the same level-headedness I take to every new place.  People were all surprised that I would even want to go to Haiti, and that I would ‘risk life and limb.’  So why then was I?  Definitely to find the beauty in a place unfairly smothered by negative press.

Our bus rolled to the border, and we piled out to go through the two checkpoints, just as I had done at many other land crossings.  It was fair to say that the place was a zoo though, and that nationality could be generally be ascertained based on skin tone – things were a whole lot darker without the Spanish influence.  The language had shifted to French Creole as well.  Having entered Haiti, we boarded our bus and set out toward the northern city of Cap-Haitien. There were some that offered such advice as to only take a bus with bulletproof windows, but I fared well enough without.  An odd observation perhaps, but one of the first things I noticed about this new place was that cacti were used as fences to mark property and contain livestock.  A photo of the beautiful disorder.


We arrived to the town, gathered our things, and then set out for the hotel.  There were a number of taxis anxiously awaiting the bus, so we decided to see what we could manage on foot and then take a cab that wasn’t so hawkish.  In the end though we walked all of the kilometers to our hotel, really enjoying things along the way.  During all but the last moments of the trek we saw not a single fair skinned individual.  I’ve been in those places where people stare at me for sticking out, but never happened in the Americas.  The best part about the place was how apparent the French influence was, in architecture, colors, and planned layout.  I was later told that the city now looked like New Orleans did some 100 years ago.

10390480_964594403035_6158561247560183811_nWe were hot and sweaty upon arrival, but the Imperial Hotel was truly an oasis.  The domestic travel market is nonexistent and therefore removes the budget niche provided by hostels in most places.  We were fine with the relatively higher costs though: this place was clean, equipped with AC, and had a bar.  After some much appreciated showers, Kei and I sampled Haiti’s local beer, Prestige.  With a name like that it had better deliver, and it surely did.  The crispness brought back memories of Kirin, or Asahi.  Another interesting tidbit unique to Haiti is the manner in which a beer is served.  They first wrap it in a napkin, and then pop the cap – BUT WAIT! – it is left atop the opening.  When asked why, our bartender explained that it wasn’t his beer to be messing with.  Every beer in that country was handled in just the same way.

Actually though, we weren’t going to be spending the whole of the evening at the hotel bar.  A friend of May’s had put us in touch with a few local people who were happy to meet and improve the overall quality of our experience. I reached out to let them know we had arrived to Cap-Haitien successfully, and then we set out to take in the best of the city.  We flagged down a few motorcycles on the street to take us away.  I was surprised that they had never taken such transport before.


We were zooming off to La Kay, considered the best restaurant in town.  Kei and I had pangs for some legit Haitian food, and knowing nothing of it ourselves, left the ordering duties to our hosts.  In addition to a glorious spread of food (conch, pork, and of course pikliz), we got some bottles of Couronne, which is an extremely sweet soda loved by the Haitians.  The place had great atmosphere, and also a dance floor where we foreigners showed off our impressive skills.  Though there were other fair skinned individuals present, I was informed that they were almost certainly locals who had lived their whole lives in Haiti – not tourists.


We took motorbikes back to the hotel to plot out the following day.  Our plan was to hit the nearby citadel, but time restraints necessitated our own transportation.  The cost of this was significantly higher than cramming into the back of a local’s truck, but skipping this site was out of the question. We thanked our fantastic docents as they took off and then spent the rest of the night chatting with the hotel manager.  She helped us arrange the private car, and was interesting to speak with in general.  The manager was Filipino, which we learned was common among middle management in Haiti.  She explained how hard it was to keep working class Haitians doing their job properly, and that they needed to be reminded constantly of the task at hand.  Having not grown up in our capitalist environment, most just don’t grasp concept of work with the same attitude.

IMG_0009_edited-1aThe next morning we downed a breakfast and hit the road.  Our vehicle reeked of the diesel spilled in it the night before, but with windows down we rolled on.  The first stop of the day was to King Henri Christophe’s Sans-Souci Palace.  Although largely ruined by an earthquake, it was still impressive.  The average person likely envisions Europe when the topic of fortresses and castles are brought up, but these in Haiti were actually the largest in the Americas.  We were forced to hire a guide, but he did at least tell us about the history of the place.  Built in 1813 by King Henri I, a former slave and leader in the Haitian Revolution, he ruled from here for 7 years before taking his life with a silver bullet in one of the many rooms.


After a good walk through the structure and grounds, our guide made the expected transition into crapmonger, peddling stuff from his shop.  He insisted that he was giving us the best deals, but failed to notice my complete lack of interest in his wares.  The driver took us further up the mountain to our next location, the Citadelle Laferriere.  This along with the Sans-Souci Palace comprised a very worthy UNESCO site.  The car could only go so far before we were responsible for the rest of the way, hoofing it by either ass or foot.  Being perfectly capable of tackling the arduous slope on our own, and undeterred by a little workout, we trudged up the grade as the sweat poured.  The hike was a couple of kilometers, but the weather was at least fantastic.  The citadel loomed impressively atop a 3000 ft mountain in the distance.

We were in a bit of a rush to get back before the last bus of the day, so we requested the slightly abridged version of the tour.  There were all sorts of interesting things about the history of the place, but to me the best part was the view.  Although the Napoleonic cannons they had won in battles with the French could never hit ocean invaders, from this lofty perch any attack could be spotted well ahead of time.  I do realize that this is not the coolest photo of me, but the view was only met in vastness by that from Sri Lanka’s Sigiriya.


IMG_0466aOnce we had soaked in the sights and bathed in our new-found knowledge, the two of us scooted down the hill back to the car.  We were cutting it a bit close with our bus, but the departure wound up being an hour late.  We did finally take off, and it was an insane ride.  We snaked through the mountainous jungle for hours, bounding along the pitted roads.  It well after dark before we would arrive in the capitol.  Along the way I spoke with a local guy who filled me in on the state of government corruption, as well as the ‘Money = Power’ mentality that most people had.  I took his cynicism with a grain of salt, but can’t imagine that he was too far off the mark.  We arrived to a sketchy bus station on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, and would need to get a cab to take us up to the safer area of Petion-Ville.  Fortunately, this guy that I had been talking to was heading in the same direction.  I wasn’t the most excited about that bus station, and glad to find my garrulous nature rewarded.

We parked in front of a landmark cathedral and then called that night’s host.  This was another friend of May’s contact, and he was kind enough to welcome us to their home.  Coordinating the taxi and transfer would have been extremely difficult had we not met the guy on the bus, but sometimes you just need to bank on things working out.  Once Gerald arrived, we transferred cars and went further up into the hills.  We stopped along the way at a pizza parlor to grab dinner and a beer.  It was interesting talking to the couple.  The wife was with an NGO that was working to improve the still devastated capitol following the 2010 earthquake, and Gerald had worked for many years as an adviser to the Olympic Weightlifting Committee.  It’s always great to learn from people bearing such a diversity of experiences and backgrounds.

After some delicious food, we arrived to their nearby homestead.  They were kind enough to give us the master bedroom and take the pull out for themselves.  They explained how to make use of the facilities, we took refreshing showers, and then turned in for bed.  I had a wee bit of indigestion and faced some minor issues when a power outage complicated the toilet process.  Here was a view from the porch.


IMG_0468aThat next morning, the wife had prepared some Soup Joumou for us, which is the Haitian national dish.  Way back during colonialism, it was a dish reserved only for the French nobility.  After the successful uprising, slaves celebrated by eating the soup for themselves.  Our batch had quite a kick, and the flavor was excellent.  We spent the rest of the morning sipping on Haitian coffee and listening to Gerald rock out on the guitar.

Once we finally got around to starting our day, the sunlight reveled what beauty the area had.  We swapped out their vehicle for a more capable Jeep Wrangler, and I eagerly accepted an offer to drive it.  I would never turn down such a chance, and I did indeed navigate the crazy traffic and hairpin turns without any issue.  Gerald returned to the helm before going through a police checkpoint, which almost certainly would have caused our party issues otherwise.  Along the way he spoke a bit on the religious situation of Haiti, which is mostly Catholic and Voodoo.  In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson had the US Marines take control of the country to promote our own economic interests.  The United States ran the show until 1934 and in that time tried to squelch the agglomeration of African folk religions that is Voodoo, and instead promoted Christianity.  In order to hide the places of worship from the Americans, Haitians disguised Voodoo deities as Catholic saints.  This legacy is still extant today, so someone outside of the know could go into a church thinking their prayers were going to St. Peter, but instead reach Papa Legba instead.

Our first stop of the day was at a BnB up in the hills.  It was a quiet area with good gardens and exceptional food.  I had no idea what anything on the menu was, so we again left the decision making to our ‘aufom’ hosts.  We wound up with a bit of Chicken Djon Djon (a sauce made from a black mushroom),  fried plantains and pork, and a bit of djon djon rice as well.  That, mixed with the crisp Prestige made for the perfect light lunch.  After some chatter, our party settled up and resumed the course.


The primary reason for us making this trip up the crazy unpaved roads was to reach of the best view in all of Haiti.  There was a small restaurant and cafe atop a mountain that overlooked the entire capitol valley.  Google Maps confirmed that I was seeing things well over 50 miles away!  We nibbled on some fried cassava and marveled at all before us. With the sun setting behind the mountain, we were challenged to get good light for this photo, but here was our group.

IMG_0529_edited-1aBack down the mountain, Gerald dropped us at Le Perroquet, a bed and breakfast back down in Petion-ville.  I was really looking forward to sitting still for a few nights as we closed out the rest of the trip.  Straight away, we were welcomed by a couple of beers and the amicable owner Eric.  He and his wife Lana would come to be the best of hosts and wonderful company throughout the our remaining time there.  For that evening, we had very little planned, just drinks and relaxation.  We put off the idea of getting street food until things had gotten a little too late, and were instead advised to just stay in and eat whatever they could whip up for us.  Lucky for us, Lana was a world class chef and her ‘lil’ something’ was anything but.  We spent the evening catching up on our neglected lives, downing beers, chatting with Eric, and sorting the rest of our Haitian plans.

IMG_0541aThat next morning we truly enjoyed sleeping until whenever and eventually got around to the unambitious mission of walking around the locality.  We planed it to be a languorous day but wanted to continue on with our mission of finding Haiti’s awesome.  The first stop was to the Kinam Hotel, which is really nice, but more for people who are not of our travel caste.  From the roof of it though, we were able to grab a gander at an exceptionally colorful hillside a la Valparaiso, Chile.

IMG_0556_edited-1aAnother stop that afternoon was to the bank, were I was surprised to find no issue pulling cash out with my debit card.  While walking over there though, a truck lost control and slammed into the wall about 30 feet ahead of where we were.  Had the timing differed by just a bit, I would be without my legs, and quite likely my life.  There was a really nice art gallery selling the works of Haiti’s most famous artists.  This country has an artistic expression all its own, and much of the cheaper art being sold on the streets was based on the styling of these in the gallery.  I liked Franz Zepherin’s work the best (center, and right).


Later that evening the two of us were privy to more of Lana’s wonderful cooking.  As a sort of promotional effort, Monday was dubbed Purple Monday and featured a dinner menu incorporating the color into each dish.  We went with a combination course that included some of each amazing offering; one of my favorites was the locally sourced blood sausage that was hearty and a bit ferrous to the taste.  It was all washed down with Dr. Zhivago’s beet juice martinis.

IMG_0575_edited-1a IMG_0576_edited-1a

Throughout dinner and in the time after we were posted up at the bar, we enjoyed a wonderful evening.  The Prestige flowed, and so too the conversation.  Around midnight, Eric and Lana led us up to an area below the stars with a great view of the surrounding area.  As things started cooling down, we returned to the bar area as the only patrons, and it became the best per-person-party in which I’ve ever partaken.  With just the four of us, we had a fantastic evening dancing and singing to old music.  I could scarcely believe being asked ‘Have you heard of the musical Chess, by Murray Head?’.  Lana was born in the USSR, so I was doubly pleased when she threw on Boney M’s ‘Ra-Ra-Rasputin’.  What an incredible night.

That next morning, for our last day of tourism, we arranged a car to take ourselves and another Chicagoan down to Port-au-Prince to spend time walking around the more poverty stricken areas.  Ron put my collections to shame: not only had he made it to twice as many countries, but his currency collection dwarfed mine.  The driver brought us down to the Banque de la République d’Haïti where he would be purchasing two uncirculated copies of each banknote.  His deeper pockets solved the issue of choosing between which side of the banknote to display back home.  I am usually content to get the best circulated note I can, but took his lead and picked up a set myself.  The woman who humored our obsessions had a bubbly personality and even volunteered a personal tour through an exhibit on Haitian money.  We were also led to the roof to view a few of the area landmarks.  I was really interested in the subject matter, though, our driver could not have possibly been less enthused by the lengthy detour.

He seemed to think the bank was the only reason we had driven 45 minutes to the downtown area, and kept acting like he knew where nothing was.  I had GPS and a map though, and our collective pressure was enough to get a few more stops added to the itinerary.  The Iron Market is an absurdly cluttered and unsanitary jungle of people peddling everything from food to garbage sculptures.  We didn’t venture inside the madness, but were content to drive around the car-high trash mountains amassed on the outskirts.  We were also on a quest to see some of the wreckage from the 201o earthquake that killed an estimated some 160,000 people.  They had already cleared away the ruins of the National Palace, but we were able to visit the remains of the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, which has been ‘preserved’ as a monument to the event.

IMG_0606aBack up to cozy Petion-ville at last, we agreed to have dinner with Ron, and a Belgian guy he had met before.  The food was great, and the service acceptable, but Belgian had to make a huge fuss about everything, eventually refusing to pay for his meal.  In the end, he succeeded in nothing more than making us uncomfortable, taking advantage of the locality, and proving himself a complete ass.  It was soon evident that he was intoxicated as well, and his catcalling of every hooker was doing a fantastic job of drawing unwanted attention.  Out of nowhere, a band of some 30 guys on motorcycles encircled us.  Of course, there he was trying to pick a fight.  Ron, Kei, and I were a mere block away from our hotel, so we just bailed on that situation for our safe haven.  He would survive and later join us back at the hotel, but we were all thoroughly relieved when he left soon thereafter.  Those are the sorts of people that get into trouble in places like this, not sensible folks like ourselves.


The next morning it was time to bid farewell to this fantastic country.  There was an elderly man short several marbles leaving nice and early from our hotel to the airport, so we planned to ride along with him.  He had already reserved the vehicle for 40 dollars, and when we arrived to the airport our driver was seeking an additional 20 each from Kei and I.  Was the cost of the services rendered somehow greater with more people in the car?  I was fine yielding a 20 to him, since it have just gone to the old man anyway, but no way was he getting any more.  I realize that my actions were probably approaching pettiness, but I despise being taken advantage of on the grounds of being foreign.  In the end I won out.  That car was reserved the day before, and 60 was already more than he planned on; victory felt good.  At the airport, Kei and I found a place to spend the last of our gourdes on what was certainly the worst meal of the trip.


All in all, Haiti was an absolutely fantastic, and I would go so far as to place it in my top 5 all time destinations.  For one thing, Haiti felt like such an altogether different world compared to anything else in the Americas, or anywhere I had ever been.  Going to this country truly came with the sense that I was in a new world – or at least one different to me. It brimmed with the novelty I felt in those first ever journeys during my young adulthood.  While the language, food, culture, and history stood apart as interesting, it was the people I met along the way that really buoyed my positive experience.  Everyone with whom I interacted were such genuine people, and clearly overjoyed to have the chance to initiate an outsider the real Haiti.  And if I had to pick a third reason, this place was also made great by the masses who insisted it would be anything less.  I can’t honestly recommend it to the fresh or first time traveler, but those with an open mind and sprawling curiosity will find a dark horse of Haiti.  Go.  Before the rest of the world figures this out too.IMG_0246_edited-1a