September 12, 2011
We are here! Mark and I are now busy unpacking boxes and settling into our new home.
On Sunday my family greeted us to a wonderful welcome home lunch of Arroz Con Pollo! The chef for the day was family friend Rene Viera. He's a charismatic man who's quick with a joke and has a contagious laugh. He's also a good listener which is the first indication that he has the patience required to be a wonderful cook! I ask him what he likes about cooking. He thinks about it for a second before calmly replying, "It relaxes me."
Rene was born in Havana, the son of a prominent journalist. Now that I am home I want to begin learning Cuban recipes so I can one day share them with our daughter. Rene offered to teach Mark and I how to make Arroz con Pollo. This lunch was also the first time Mina got to meet her Great-Grandfather Andrew Vazquez. It was nice having the whole family together!
As Rene cooked, I took notes and pictures for me and for you! This recipe feeds 8 people.
Chicken: Rene says he always buys skinless drumsticks and thighs. The reason?: Chicken breast is very dry, whereas the drumsticks and thighs are juicier. Since he wanted to cook for 8 people, he guessed 3 pieces each for a total of 24 pieces.
Sweet Peas (8 oz)
Roasted Red Peppers (12 oz)
Tomato Sauce: (4 oz)
Bijol Seasoning (two 1 ½ oz jars): Did you know?: Bijol was founded in 1922 in Cuba http://bijol.com/history.php
Onions: 1 ½ to 2 large size Yellow Onions
Goya: California Pearl Rice Arroz Tipe Valenciano (two 14oz bags)
1 Bulb of Garlic Did you know?: A clove of garlic is Spanish is called a "diente de ajo." Diente means "tooth" in English.
First you want to let the chicken marinate overnight in a simple rub of garlic powder and salt. Just sprinkle on the chicken and let it sit in the fridge overnight.
Next you want to work on the sofrito. In this case it is a combination of onions and garlic. Dice 1 ¾ Yellow Onions and a bulb of garlic. Rene will place each clove of garlic, or diente de ajo, under a knife to mash it and then cut it. Place in pan with some olive oil and let that simmer. Rene explains how the onions add flavor to the rice.
Up next, set the oven to 450-degrees.
In a pot, place some onion with a touch of olive oil and then at 3-4 pieces at a time brown the chicken, don't cook it. Just flip several times on either side to slightly brown the skin.
Boil enough water to make the rice. Follow rice package instructions. Usually 2 cups of water for every cup of rice.
The onions and garlic are cooked first. When the onions are caramelized, (they reduce and look glassy), then you add the tomato sauce. When all that is well mixed and hot, you add it to the boiling water and the chicken. Add bijol and salt to taste and boil all that for about 5 minutes.
After about 5 minutes, take the chicken out and pour the water/sofrito mix into the pan and stir a little bit . Then place the chicken on top.
Cover with foil and transfer into the oven right away, you can't let the water get cold.
In 40-45 minutes you will have a yummy dish!
The rice in Arroz con Pollo should be what's called humedo, or damp. Never dry.
So when you are trying to gauge if it is ready you want the rice to be moist but not soggy (If you are using Valencia Rice). The rice should absorb all the water.
When it is done you garnish with the roasted red peppers and baby peas.
Some people chop the roasted red peppers but I have most often seen it placed on top in strips.
Rene explains that the peppers and peas are really for decoration or garnish more than for flavor.
We take what will be our final major break at a rest stop in Ocala! As we get back on the road we see the first sign for Miami! Almost there!
Christine Armario is an Associated Press reporter and President of the South Florida Chapter for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) .
Networking guru Ken Olivas, Parity Project Director for NAHJ, connected Christine and I through Facebook. She was kind enough to invite me to an event tonight commemorating the one year anniversary of the Florida Center of Investigative Reporting.
We?ll be getting into Miami pretty late but it would be nice to meet other reporters on our first night! Mark says if they have food he?s in! Vamos a ver.
Thank you for reading our travel blog! It has been a fun adventure and I hope you learned something along the way -- I know we did!
I begin with WPLG October 3rd. If you have any story ideas feel free to contact me through my website: www.ChristinaBoomerVazquez.com.
Four time zones, four days, 1,890 miles and roughly 50 diapers later we arrive in Tallahassee, Florida. Woo-hoo! Almost there!
My very tired husband wants to lounge in the hotel for the night so I run next door to Julie's Place for some grub. Turns out this place is rich in Tallahassee history. The gregarious bartender and general manager Troy Kirkingburg explains how they are the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the city. Its website claims the restaurant is, "a Tallahassee Tradition Since 1978."
Troy is busy getting ready for Karaoke night. Everyone in the bar seems to know him by first name. As a man orders two glasses of zinfandel Troy tells me how Tallahassee is a "big city with a small town feel." He said we are 3 miles from the capitol building on the north side of town. He adds that everything north of here is, "country, about as country as you can get." As if to prove his point two men in cowboy hats cozy up to the bar behind him.
When I went to Boston College and told people I was from Miami some would say, "Oh, I've never been to the South," and I'd reply, "Neither have I." You have to travel north from Miami to get to the South. Tallahassee certainly has a Southern feel.
The last time I was here I was a teenager participating in American Legion Auxiliary's Florida Girls State. Girls State is a hands-on way for teens to learn how local and state government operates. You have to compete to attend. Activities include debating and voting on mock bills as well as campaigning. I ran as a Lt. Governor and faced a crushing defeat. It began with Boys State in 1935 which their website explains was founded in Illinois, "to counter the socialism-inspired Young Pioneer Camps."
Wikipedia says famous alumni include: Neil Armstrong, Bill Clinton, Mike Huckabee, Rush Limbaugh, George Pataki, Harry Reid, Michael Jordan and Mark Wahlberg. Really? Marky Mark? Hmm...I called American Legion and rattled off the names. A woman is quick to confirm. Yep. They all participated.
Pass Christian, Mississippi
During a stop for gas in Waveland I chatted up a man standing in front of the food mart. Want to know the best places to eat in a new city? Skip the internet and ask a local. He scopes out our silly arrangement in the car. Dog in the back, baby in the middle, a meowing cat in the front, he smiles and in a wonderfully thick Southern accent tells us to cross the bridge into Pass Christian. "Just before the harbor make a left, eat at Pirate's Cove." He tells us to get a roast beef, shrimp or soft shell crab po-boy.
When we arrive I ask the woman behind the counter what she recommends. "I'm known for my roast beef and shrimp po-boys." She sure is! I order one of each so Mark and I can share. Then I spot "corn nuggets" on the menu. I've never heard of such a thing and so order immediately. They are tasty deep fried balls of creamed corn. We polish it off with a glass bottle of Barq's root beer. BeverageHistory.com says Barq's was first bottled in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1890.
That's also the supposed birthplace of the "po-boy." A po-boy everywhere else in the country is called a sub. The first thing we noticed was the bread. It was perfectly crunchy on the outside, soft on in the inside. According to Gumbopages.com, "What makes a po-boy special is the bread. A po-boy isn't a po-boy unless it's made with good quality, fresh French bread."
Frenchquarter.com offers this explanation of how the sandwich got its name: "The most widely accepted story holds that the sandwich was invented by Clovis and Benjamin Martin, brothers and former streetcar drivers who opened a restaurant on St. Claude Avenue in the 1920s. When streetcar drivers went on strike in 1929, the brothers took up their cause and created an inexpensive sandwich of gravy and spare bits of roast beef on French bread they would serve the unemployed workers out of the rear of their restaurant. When a worker came to get one, the cry would go up in the kitchen that 'Here comes another poor boy!' and the name was transferred to the sandwich, eventually becoming 'po-boy' in common usage."
A big thank you to Local10.com's Managing Editor Barb Besteni for recommending that we take the coastal route instead of the highway. She even mapped us here from New Orleans! Thanks!
We are cruising the Mississippi coast along Highway 90, enjoying the sight of water until it hits the horizon. My husband grew up sailing off the south shore of Boston and I am from Miami. That?s what makes us self-professed "ocean people."
This is our first time in Mississippi. We marvel at the grand mansions on the north side of the highway and white sands to the south. The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) says this stretch of road is one of the most scenic in the South. The coastal roadway was part of the Old Spanish Trail and used to be known locally as Beach Drive.
MDOT has been working to repair the damage done to Highway 90 since Hurricane Katrina decided to pay a visit in 2005. Pictures on their website show a road rippled with deep cracks.
We just can?t resist the call of the water and decide to pull over. On our various trips to California we learned Fahrenheit loves to play in the ocean. Plus our cat Buddy could use a walk. It is hard for most people to believe it, even when they see it, but our cat can walk on a leash.
It seemed like a great idea, even to Buddy, who was thrilled to be free from his soft carrier. Then it hit him, this sandy beach leads straight to WATER! If you have a cat you know exactly how much they love getting wet. So there we were, the whole family enjoying some beach time. Mina was gripping the soft sand with her long toes while Fahrenheit swam and Buddy...well...while Buddy freaked out realizing a large body of water was so close. Who the heck brings a cat on a leash to the beach? I guess we do! That?s how we roll.
We are headed out of town today. Up until this point we hadn't decided where to go next. Options included Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Tampa. Our cat Buddy is beginning to grow weary of traveling so we picked the city with the shortest commute: Tallahassee.
Before hitting the road we walk up the Mississippi river to play Frisbee with our pup. Local10.com managing editor Barb Besteni recommended taking the coast instead of the freeway. We figure what the heck? Why not?! This will be my first time in Mississippi. Stay tuned!
Belle Chasse, Louisiana
After dinner Dave and Dina Illg invite us to meet their kids and see their business. Dave gives us a tour of a large empty building currently under construction behind their existing hardware store. The gleam in his eye and pep in his voice are clear indications of how excited he is about the expansion. He'll employ about 16 full time workers; another 6-7 are part time. His son Evan shows us a rendering of what the new storefront will look like.
Dave experienced part of Hurricane Katrina in his hardware store. The powerful storm left battle wounds on the landscape and souls of everything and everyone in her path. In his front store window Dave keeps a satellite image of Katrina's massive footprint with the center right over Plaquemines Parish.
It was one of the hardest hit yet least assessed areas. The compassion I witnessed between people in Plaquemines Parish left an impression on me when I was there covering the storm. At the same time news crews were feeding back video of some people looting in New Orleans, the folks in Plaquemines were turning to each other for survival. Businesses and private residents were donating clothing and food to the local high school where volunteers cooked meals for first responders and area residents who had lost their homes.
Dave recalls how after the storm he left his back door open and wrote a note that told people to take what they need, just leave your name and phone number. As we stand in his hardware store he walks over to the counter and taps it as he explains, "there was a stack of paper right here". Everyone complied and he doesn't know of a single person that didn't pay.
This is why despite predictions of an active hurricane season Dave thinks they will do alright. The people of Plaquemines are an industrious bunch who stand by each other come hell or high water. "We're prepared, we're ready, we're experienced," he tells me. "God willing, we'll be good."
Belle Chasse, Louisiana
One of the reasons we wanted to stay in New Orleans an extra night is to ensure we had a chance to pop down into Plaquemines Parish.
That's where I was when I covered Hurricane Katrina. Photojournalist Max Benitez and I were working for KVIA-ABC7 in El Paso at the time and traveled there as embedded reporters with the New Mexico National Guard. Once we landed we spent much of our time with the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Office. An experience like that bonds you. I stayed in contact with Captain Robert Cosse ever since, even traveling back down there for a visit in April of 2010. It was at that time that I met "Sea Plane Dave" as he is called in Mark's cell phone.
Dave is David Illg. He used to be Captain Cosse's partner when the pair worked undercover narcotics. After 16 years in the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Office David decided to retire and run his Belle Chasse hardware store JeanFreau's fulltime. As you might be wondering, yes, he has a sea plane. On our last visit he arranged a trip onboard so Mark and I could get an aerial view of some of the restoration projects under way to build up surrounding barrier islands.
On this trip we wanted to surprise Captain Cosse and so arranged a dinner at Lil G's in Belle Chasse with David and his wife Dina. But Tropical Storm Lee decided on a change of plans. Captain Cosse was out of cell phone range, at the mouth of the Mississippi handled flood damage. Dave shows us cell phone pictures of washed out roads in Myrtle Grove. Dina tells us the reason it flooded so fast is because Lee was only moving 2 miles per hour and dumping a lot of rain.
Lunch was so great I thought it was worth a post.
Our casual stroll led us to the corner of Washington and Magazine Streets where we stumbled into Coquette, a bistro and wine bar. http://www.coquette-nola.com/
I think it was the "$5 Wine Wednesdays" sign that caught our eye. Waitress Kaylie Siekkinen was quick to greet us with a smile. Her brother Gavin is the general manager and explained how Chef Michael Stoltzfus opened the restaurant after Hurricane Katrina, a difficult time for many businesses.
After the storm many people left town which means there weren't enough people to support area restaurants. Shortly after that the economy began to tumble.
Not only did they survive, but they are expanding with plans to open a second restaurant with a different concept in the French Quarter. I asked Gavin why he thinks they've been successful during a troubling time. He tells me it's all about the food. A lighter fare packed with flavor. He tells us how the Chef will often substitute stock in recipes that traditionally call for cream. He believes this taps into a new societal awareness to eat healthier.
We give it a try and love every bite. The appetizer was a curiously delicious pairing of oysters with a pickled peach salad. I know that sounds weird but boy did it work! Up next, a chicken breast that Kaylie told us is vacuum-sealed in a marinade before it is served was savory.
Being in New Orleans we had to go with the beignets. Kaylie says theirs are made with a French pastry so are actually lighter than the traditional beignets you'll find at Café Du Monde. They were served with two dips. Mark preferred caramel whereas I enjoyed the "coffee pot de crème" which had the consistency of pudding.
New Orleans, Garden District
Just as National Weather Service meteorologist Gavin Phillips predicted it was a beautiful day; low humidity and plenty of sun. This was the day we built into the trip to take a breather. It was nice not to be on the road.
The historic St. Charles street car line runs right past our hotel so we boarded for a trip down to the Garden District. According to NewOrleansOnline.com, in New Orleans, we call our vintage electric rail vehicles streetcars - never trolleys.
With Mina strapped into a Baby Bjorn we wandered around brick paved roads with nowhere to go and in no particular direction. Simply enjoying the surrounding architecture was a treat. Gorgeous historic homes with delightful details like ornate molding, wrought iron balconies and tall wooden shutters.
Coming from the beige landscape of Phoenix's stucco homes and strip malls, our eyes feasted on the range of home colors. There were canary yellow ones and cotton candy pink. Electric blue and sea foam green.
It may sound grim, even morbid, but we also strolled around Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 which was founded in 1833. I found a website that catalogues the various types. http://www.nolacemeteries.com/
The city's high water table is what prompted the creation of these decorative above-ground tombs.
We are enjoying a nice and easy start to our day. We decided to stay in New Orleans a second night and so there was no rush to the morning. Before Mina I would say "sleeping in" was at least noon. Since her birth in June that's moved up a couple of hours to 8am? by that measure we got the chance to sleep in, which was fabulous. I was grateful because my pup Fahrenheit and I wound up having a late night. It all started when Mark asked for a beer.
We had just rolled into New Orleans from San Antonio. Mark said he'd watch the baby and our cat Buddy if I'd fetch him a beer. A good plan given Fahrenheit needed to stretch his legs. The hotel receptionist recommended I visit a neighborhood market which was a few blocks away. When I arrive I ask the clerk if I can leave my pup just inside the front door. In an abrupt and gruff tone he barks at me to get my dog out of there. Under his breath he mumbles something about dogs. His co-worker quickly offers to watch Fahrenheit but I decide I'm all set. Fahrenheit could use a longer walk and I'm sure there's another establishment that won't mind the company of a smiling pooch.
I follow the sound of big brass to Bourbon Street. There on the corner of Canal was a Brass Band performing for the handful of tourists who had gathered by a hot dog stand to take pictures and record video. Fahrenheit and I join the ranks. We enjoy a tune, toss $5 in their bucket and then continue on our mission to find Mark a beer.
As we walk past several bars I remember that in New Orleans you are allowed to walk around with beer in an open container. On the backside of large wooden doors are rows of plastic "to go" cups. I ask a nearby bouncer just to be sure. "Are you restricted to Bourbon Street or?" he cuts me off as he says with a smile, "Nope the whole city!" Perfect. Now I can just buy Mark a beer at a bar, pour it into a cup and walk it back to the hotel. I ask the bouncer which bar he thinks might welcome Fahrenheit.
He points to a frozen margarita joint down the street. "They have turtles so I am assuming they are pretty pet friendly." Inside are three bartenders with large grins and a lot of empty chairs. I'm the only person in the place. Reggaeton is blasting on the speakers. I order my beer and chat about dogs. One bartender tells me that he has three Pit Bulls who think they are lap dogs. The conversation quickly changes to Hurricane Katrina. He was in Baton Rouge at the time, which didn't suffer as much damage as New Orleans. He says the crime rate has dropped since the storm and people just seem friendlier to one another.
As I am about to wrap up, a crew of Canadians walk in to meet Fahrenheit. As they shower him with high-pitched greetings they explain how Fahrenheit reminds them of their dog.
Their pup is a Shepherd-Pit mix, scandalous in Toronto where Pit Bulls are banned. If you decide to get one you have to pay a fine and buy dog insurance. I looked it up when I got back to my hotel. According to Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General's website the ban took effect in August of 2005. "The legislation bans pit bulls in Ontario, places restrictions on existing pit bulls, and toughens the penalties for the owners of any dog that poses a danger to the public." If you already owned a Pit Bull at the time of the law you were allowed to keep it as long as you muffle the Pit in public and sterilize it. To make life easy, they just tell people their pup is half-Boxer. This shocks the bartender who leans across the bar to show us cellphone pictures of his Pit Bulls.
Turns out Sarah, Scott, Robin and Jason were all in town to visit their buddy Chris. Chris is also from Toronto but explains how shortly after Hurricane Katrina he decided to move to the Crescent City on a whim! The place was a mess. He arrived as the city was barely emerging out of chaos. He found a job at a local restaurant and that's where he met his future wife Brandi. Notice that her name is spelled with an "I" at the end. "That i is very important," he tells me. "She'll be sure you let you know if you forget the i."
Brandi is from the Ninth Ward, an area hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. Chris says luckily she evacuated before the storm hit, but it took a long time for her to ever come back. Like so many others there wasn't much to go back to. She first traveled up the Gulf to Mississippi and then over to Houston, Texas, looking for work and shelter. After more than a year Chris tells me Brandi knew it was time to go home. She missed the feel of the place, the culture, the food and her family. When she got back Chris was already there. They now have a 3½-year-old son. He shows me a picture on his cellphone. A super cute kid draped in Mardi Gras beads.
This is the fourth time his friends have come down to visit. I ask the group for restaurant recommendations. If there is one thing you should know before visiting New Orleans it is to bring your appetite! The food here is amazing and so just about everyone has a favorite place to eat. Take Local10.com Managing Editor Barb Besteni, who wrote in an email this morning, "If you're in New Orleans for a couple of days, venture on over to Mandina's. It's off the beaten path from the Quarter, but definitely worth going. My mouth waters just thinking of that place."
As for the Canadians, it takes them less than a second before they rattle off these places:
Mahony's Po-Boy Shop on Magazine Street. Robin's eyes sparkle as she talks about Mahony's Louisiana Po-Boys.
Up next, Port of Call in the French Quarter. Sarah tells me their hamburgers are the best in the world.
And if you are looking for authentic New Orleans jazz, Chris says Fritzels on Bourbon Street is THE place to go. You have to check out their website: www.fritzelsjazz.net . It offers a sneak peek at the sound you'll hear walking into the place. Mina loved this site! The music being the only thing keeping her calm enough to write this post. Good to know; I may be picking up a jazz CD today!
Fritzels bills itself as the "Oldest Operated Jazz Club in New Orleans." The Canadians tell me they are also the first bar in America to ever serve Jagermeister. Sarah believes that alone is worth a visit! My brother Jonathan would probably agree. I called them this morning and sure enough, the man on the other end of the phone confirms the fun fact, although he doesn't know what year the first shot of Jager was poured. Chris says their manager Kate is a doll who I should meet. I hope to swing by tonight.
Today we plan ride a street car and appreciate the Garden District before meeting a group from Plaquemines Parish for dinner. That was the area I covered during Hurricane Katrina when I was a reporter for KVIA-ABC7 in El Paso. We've stayed in contact ever since, even visiting them last year. We happened to be here just as the BP Oil Rig explosion happened. Today the crew is dealing with flooding at the mouth of the Mississippi River due to Tropical Storm Lee.
Mark thinks about that and says, "So you met then during Katrina, last time you saw them the BP Oil Spill happened and now they are flooded. They might just ask you not to visit anymore."
I'm happy we won't be meeting Lee. He's been raising hell in the Southeastern states, fueling fires and promising floods. The tropical storm is inching so slowly across land that some area rivers and urban draining systems have been struggling to absorb all his rain. As he drowns certain parts of Louisiana in up to 13 inches of rain the wind he has generated is helping whip a wildfire in Texas.
On the eastern edges of San Antonio the horizon view along I-10 was filtered by a grey hue of smoke. About 90 miles North a massive wildfire was burning near Austin. Local news reports said the blaze had already destroyed 500 homes and evacuations were underway. A National Public Radio report stated that on Monday winds from Tropical Storm Lee had been clocking-in at 20-to-45 miles per hour.
Highway advisory signs remind drivers that Texas is in "Extreme Wildfire Danger." On its website the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) says that the state is experiencing a record-breaking severe drought: "The 10 months from October 2010 through July 2011 have been the driest for that 10-month period in Texas since 1895, when the state began keeping rainfall records."
You wouldn't know any of that standing along the River Walk in Downtown San Antonio. It was a stunning morning. The air felt clean, crisp and cool. Then again, pretty much anything compared to Phoenix's 117-degree heat feels cool. If you have been reading this blog than I am sure you won't be surprised to learn that we had another late departure. After enjoying a free hotel continental breakfast we swung by the Alamo and took the dog for a walk along the river before heading back on the road.
Next stop is New Orleans. I wondered about Tropical Storm Lee's impact on the city and decided to call Gavin Phillips, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in New Orleans. Phillips explained that due to rain over the weekend some small rivers in Louisiana's Northshore such as Bogue Chitto are on flood watch. "We currently have 19 different points where the water in the rivers is above flood stage," explained Phillips. But he added that it is nothing new for the folks who live in those parts. "It's a part of life." In fact those areas will sometimes see worse damage from a routine isolated thunderstorm than what they experienced from Tropical Storm Lee.
So how's New Orleans looking tonight and all day tomorrow when we are in town? Dry and gorgeous according to Phillips, "79 and sunny and low humidity," he tells me. "It's two months ahead of schedule, unheard of weather for this time in September."
We are happy to be done with the drive through vast stretches of West Texas. Buddy is grateful to be out of his carrier and Fahrenheit is in need of a walk. Mina is already fast asleep so I decide to take the pup down to River Walk, just a few blocks from our hotel. Mark and I visited San Antonio last year. It happened to be the one weekend each year where they drain the water to clean out the river. Lucky us right? The city should really halt all flights into town when that happens. Ever since then we?ve wanted to return and so I was very happy life presented us this chance.
River Walk is a real gem. Restaurants, shops and bars are tucked away along the river?s sidewalk banks. I think what makes it feel so quaint is that the river is quite narrow and bends and twists allowing for plenty of intimate-feeling nooks and crannies to enjoy a glass of wine or quiet conversation.
I decide to catch a cab back to our hotel. Ali, a Persian cabbie driving a Prius Hatchback, agrees to allow the dog in the car. Within seconds I discover this man is fascinating.
He?s one of four children, nearly each born in a different country. You see he was a teenager during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. So while he was born and raised in Tehran he tells me his brother was born in Germany, (their family?s first stop after fleeing Iran), and the other two were born in Texas. He said back then he truly thought the overthrow of the Shah would lead to an American-style democracy. ?The Shah? refers to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi which was Iran?s monarchy.
Ali told me how many young people at the time thought the revolution would rid them of a dictator in favor of elected representation. So against his parents? wishes he returned to Iran after the royal regime collapsed. ?I was 17,? he told me, ?and I was willing to lose my life for democracy. I wanted to help rebuild my country.? He discovered that his idealism didn?t match reality. The power vacuum resulted in a power grab by Islamic fundamentals. He was drafted to fight in the Iran-Iraq War. Then he turns to me and points to his stylish frames as he adds with a chuckle, ?but they rejected me for having bad eyes. Thank goodness.?
I naturally ask him about the ?Arab Spring?. This is the expression many use to describe the recent and relentless march of pro-democracy protests across the Middle East. What began in Tunisia has spread across the region, leading to the fall of Egypt?s regime and a civil war in Libya. I wonder if the youth of today will repeat his own past. Will religious extremists hijack the protestors? well-intentioned fight for representative democracy? Ali shakes his head, ?no, I am optimistic.?
The reason? He believes what differentiates this generation is that they have access to the internet. He tells me that it allows even the most common man to be more educated because he has access to a world of ideas and information. He adds that, ?a life without bread to eat, without jobs or opportunity is a life without hope.? That these people are able to find hope in their grim circumstance is in part why he thinks they?ll have the courage and stamina to continue the fight for a true democracy.
Ali tells me driving a cab is his second job. By day he is a structural engineer for a San Antonio engineering firm. He picked up the cabbie gig to help pay for his daughter?s college education. We spend another 10 minutes chatting about American politics. He?s worried about two things: 1) voter apathy; and, 2) lack of reasonable and respectful public discourse. Without those two things he wonders if a revolution will knock on our door someday.
After paying him I realize we never had any dinner. Mark usually skips an evening meal but I am starving. Our hotel offers some basic grocery items near the front desk so I decide on a can of tuna and peaches for desert. Mina is still sleeping soundly and Buddy is enjoying cuddle time with Mark. Now it is off to bed so we can hopefully start early in the morning. On my walk with Fahrenheit I spotted a sign for a large Farmer?s Market near River Walk. At just nearly 3-months old Mina has never experienced a Farmer?s Market and so I think that would be fun for her. A great experience to introduce her to new colors, scents and textures.
I finally get the chance to take a nap. When you are a new mom parents always advise you to ?sleep when the baby sleeps?. It is truly the BEST advice! When I awake I find Mark is counting road kill. ?4 raccoons, 3 deer and 1 coyote,? he explains. A sure sign he is absolutely bored. We stop for gas and another diaper change on my lap, (I?ve gotten really good at those), before cruising into San Antonio.
We decide to stop into Fort Stockton, Texas for lunch. Not being a fast food eater we venture around town to find regional cuisine that won?t take forever because we did get a late start to the day. One problem is that we are traveling with animals. We spot the answer to our needs: Bien Venidos. A mural on the side of their building declares that Bien Venidos is ?a Great Mexican Food Restaurant.? I am excited about the other sign painted on the tan cinderblock wall, ?Drive-Thru?. That?s right; this restaurant has a drive-thru window! It is perfect for our traveling family. We decide to order and enjoy the meal at a local park. This gives us a chance to play ball with the pup and take the cat for a walk. You read that right; Buddy knows how to walk on a leash! The park had a special feature we were truly impressed with?a sizeable BBQ smoker! How many public parks do you know have a BBQ Pit? It is one of those, ?you know you are in Texas when?? moments.
Fort Stockton is home to the world?s largest roadrunner?it even has a name! That?s according to the website Tourtexas.com. The site explains that, ?Paisano Pete is 11 feet tall, 22 feet Long and is a favorite snapshot subject in Fort Stockton?. Of course it is! How many times in your life do you see a ridiculously large roadrunner statue? I am sure Paisano Pete will keep his world record for years to come. Can?t imagine why anyone else would erect a roadrunner statue.
Gotexas.About.com describes Fort Stockton as being ?way out in West Texas? and they are absolutely right. It was formerly a military installation in the late 19th century established to protect travelers and early settlers. The National Park Service states that Fort Stockton also protected the El Paso-San Antonio Road. Fitting since that is exactly our course this afternoon. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places with some of the remaining military outposts serving as a showcase of frontier architecture.
Before we head out of town I wanted to get one last look at Downtown El Paso and the Santa Fe Bridge leading to Juarez, Mexico. When I worked here in 2005 and 2007 I frequently visited Mexico both for work and pleasure. Some weekends I would cross the border just to get a café con leche and pan dulce at Café Central near the old mission in Juarez. How things have changed. Since then Juarez has erupted into drug violence as the Juarez and Sinaloa Cartels engage in a bloody turf war. According to Loan Grillo who wrote an extensive special report on the city for Global Post, Juarez ?is the murder capital of the world, claiming more than 5,500 killings since January 2008. It is responsible for one-fifth of the more than 25,000 drug-related murders that have occurred in Mexico since 2006 when President Felipe Calderon officially declared war on the country's heavily armed drug cartels.?
It's always hard to say goodbye to good friends. Andrea Simmons, her husband Jerry Wallace and their pup Winston were gracious enough to host our family as we passed through El Paso. Andrea is a FBI agent who is simultaneously studying to be a pastor! She's also an AMAZING cook! When Andi invites you over for dinner you always say yes. For our first meal on the road she prepared whole wheat pasta with a homemade pasta sauce and roasted heirloom tomatoes. The desert, a scrumptious pear phyllo pastry with toffee syrup á la mode (made with pears from her yard). They were also gracious enough to let us run a load of laundry and be patient as we juggled the demands of dog, cat and baby. Come morning Andi had a pot of coffee ready as well as yogurt, granola and fresh berries for breakfast while her husband checked our tire pressure. He's an attorney with experience in litigation involving SUV accidents. Thank goodness he thought of it because unbeknownst to us our tire pressure was low. It was a great suggestion that we'll certainly remember for future trips!
El Paso, Texas
Our first morning on the road kicked off with a knock on the door, bark from our dog and a sharp startled cry from our swaddled baby. We wanted to leave by 8 a.m. My friend was knocking on the door to tell us that it *was* 8 a.m. Mina slept in! That means she slept about 9 hours! Yeah! The bad news: we didn't set an alarm and so now we are, once again, starting a bit later than we had wanted. C'est la vie! Next stop will be the Riverwalk in San Antonio.
The day started with Mark's preferred menu item. The Wolfpack at Over Easy, our favorite breakfast joint in Central Phoenix. Owners Brad and Andy were kind enough to treat us to a farewell breakfast (and hold Mina so we could eat).
We began our voyage a wee bit later than we had planned -- like 5 hours later! As with any move there were some last minute items we had to tackle in the morning. Plus Mark had to play a game of Tetris to comfortably fit everything into our car. A stroller, travel crib, travel bassinet, clothes, a cooler and a whole heck of a lot of diapers!
With the cat and dog in tow we are essentially a mobile petting zoo! Our dog Fahrenheit truly has the best seat in the house. He's set-up in the back on a large dog bed with his own fan. At 75 pounds we wanted to make sure he had plenty of room to stretch his legs along the way. It is our 14-pound cat Buddy that's not too happy with the arrangements. We bought him a large soft carrier so he too would have room to roam. So far he's decided to just ball up in a corner and belt out whimpers of discontent. We did get him a Rescue Remedy cat collar to take the edge off. Learned about this trick from a neighbor who volunteered at a nonprofit that rescues stray cats. Rescue Remedy is a blend of flower extracts that help calm a cat's nerves. Lucky for us Buddy is a travel pro! He already has several moves under his belt and has lived in more states than some people. Born in Cumberland, Rhode Island, this cat has survived New England winters, a hawk attacked in Texas and Phoenix's oppressive summer heat. He's the kind of kitty that can whip even the largest dog into submission with just the narrowing of his eyes and presentation of his large polydactyl paw. You see, Buddy is what they call a "Hemingway Cat." Like the cats you'll spot at Ernest Hemingway's home in Key West, Buddy essentially has an opposable thumb -- which means he has an extra claw per paw. No one messes with Buddy. If there is any cat that can not only survive a cross-country trip but take it in stride it's Buddy!
And so, to the soundtrack of Buddy's protest meows we drove out of Phoenix. Mina slept like a champ. Last night was our farewell party which came on the heels of a VERY busy day. Our baby girl was pretty fussy at the gathering. She was tired and hot and cranky. Aren't we all some days? So I think this car ride is helping her little body catch up on the sleep she may have missed.
The drive is absolutely beautiful! I suspect due to the Monsoon rain the desert just past Tucson is exceptionally green. Cradled by large, calm mountains patches of white rock and beige sand cut through the lush landscape of desert brush and ocotillo cacti.
When you are on I-10 East bound for El Paso you quickly spot large billboards for "The Thing?". It is a tourist curiosity that helps bring business to a gas station rest stop. Walk past lollipops made to look like feathers in a Native American's head dressing and stands of cowboy hats to a black door. Pay $1 and you can find out what "The Thing?" is all about. I won't spoil it for you in the event you ever find yourself out this way. Let's just say I'm sure you will find it appropriately priced.
I ask Carmaletta at the cash register where exactly we are. Her response, "I tell folks we are out in the middle of nowhere." Nowhere is somewhere between Benson and Wilcox in Arizona. Not knowing when we might return I decide I have to buy Mina a pair of pink moccasins. So Southwest right? It's not until hours later when I am in the car do I notice they are made in the Dominican Republic. Seriously?
While there I also buy a bag of my favorite pistachios. Grown by the McGinn Family in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the Pistachio Tree Ranch always offers pistachios seasoned with fun flavors like red chili or lemon lime.
By 5:30 p.m., we entered New Mexico, the Land of Enhancement. Just thinking of New Mexico makes my mouth salivate. The reason: red and green chili! Yum, yum, yum! I have to say New Mexico is one of my favorite states. Understated and rustic. Lots of natural beauty and southwest charm can be found from Santa Fe to Ruidoso. But mostly I love their food! When I lived in El Paso I would often travel a ribbon of black road that snaked through pecan trees to Mesilla, New Mexico just to eat!
7:09 p.m. we pass the Continental Divide! Elevation 4,858. The one drawback with traveling from West to East is you lose part of your day? one hour at a time. In Arizona we were on Pacific Standard Time, we are now entering Mountain Time and by tomorrow will be on Central. With each change you tack on an extra hour to the trip.
7:35 p.m. We drive straight into a classic Southwest sandstorm. Strong gusts of wind lap against the side of our car kicking up sheets of sand along the freeway. Visibility drops, the horizon turns beige and both of Mark's hands hold the steering wheel steady.
9:03 p.m. We roll into El Paso. Mina has pretty much had it with the car seat. Can you blame her? She's a bit hungry and certainly bored. Every once in a while she blurts out a sharp noise. Not quite a coo, not quite talking, it sounds a bit like a baby raptor dinosaur. Right now she is clearly trying to make a point. We'll just assume she's begging for a change of position and scenery.
That "west Texas town" is one of the most profound and enriching experiences in my career. Due to its proximity to the border I covered many immigration and bi-national issues. I also frequently reported from Juarez, Mexico. While I was there long-standing Anchor Gary Warner was still on the desk. He was a newsman from the days when people took time to tell stories and everyone knew to check more than one source before putting something on the air. He was a role model who always made sure we remembered that it is better to be right than to be first. The people of El Paso are full of warmth and generosity. I will always treasure my time there.
Well, time to get my little raptor out of the car? friends and a pasta dinner await us.
There it was. Our life, packed neatly in boxes, piled up on the front porch of our Phoenix home. As I stared in disbelief at the mounting wall of cardboard I remembered the day when all our stuff used to fit in just one car!
This would be our last 113-degree day in Phoenix. There is much I will miss about the Valley of the Sun. The exquisite Sonoran Desert with its majestic saguaros and breathtaking sunsets; the smell of the creosote bush after a Monsoon rain and prickly pear margaritas!
11:56 a.m. (PST)
The day has finally arrived -- packing day!! Movers are packing the house as we scramble to grab all the last minute items we need. Last load of laundry? Check! Dishes clean? Check! Uh oh... dash to the dry cleaners to pick up a suit we forgot about! Whew... made it!
We are so excited to be Miami-bound! I was born and raised in Kendall. A graduate of Bent Tree Elementary, McMillan Middle School and G. Holmes Braddock High School (Go Bulldogs!).
At Braddock I was co-captain of the color guard team and anchor on WBHS, the school's news station! I then took off to Boston College before pursuing my passion for journalism. My career has taken me to London, Boston, Rhode Island, California, Texas and Arizona. Along the way I picked up several awards to include two Emmys and the Water Cronkite Award for Excellence in Television Political Journalism.
But just three months ago I was given my most important role, mother. Now I've decided to return home to raise my daughter and invest my experience into a reporter position at WPLG. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents and my father were born in Cuba. Making sure Mina is exposed to our family customs is also something that was important to me. Meantime my husband Mark is from Boston but his parents now live in Stuart, Florida. Having them nearby is also a blessing!
I can't wait for our Mina Sophia to know the taste of a guayaba y queso pastelito, or my childhood favorite, a batido de mamey!! I'm SO looking forward to hearing salsa music on the radio again; enjoying a Rum Runner at Holiday Isle in Islamorada; and, listening to someone play Jimmy Buffett songs while in Key West! When you live away from home those are the small things you miss. Miami is a very special place. I've spent years missing the food, the music and Miami's diversity. So saying I am thrilled to be coming back home would be an understatement.
This Sunday Mark and I will be loading up our baby girl, our 75-pound lab mix Fahrenheit and feisty cat Buddy into our family car for the cross-country trip to Miami! It is sure to be an adventure and you will be there!
We will be snapping pictures and recording video along the way. Wish us luck -- and if you have any tips for traveling with an infant please send them our way!