When toddlers attack

Friday, July 30, 2010

Ala... Moana... has everything.

How I spent my week
Or so went the jingle when I was a seven-year-old living in Honolulu of what I believe is still Hawai'i's largest mall.  This is relevant because I'm writing this from my room at the Ala Moana Hotel, which overlooks the mall's majestic Macy's parking lot.  I'm here for work, not fun, so I've spent nearly the whole week in my room, glued to this damned keyboard.  I've also been risking sodium poisoning stuffing myself on ahi poke (raw tuna... they sell it at Costco, who knew?), sai min (sorta like ramen), li hing mui (salted preserved plums, apparently an acquired taste that I acquired as a kid) and other foods from my childhood that are hard to find on the mainland.

The hotel is fine, though it wasn't my choice to stay here initially.  This the second time my coworkers and I have come to Honolulu, and it was one of my coworkers who first booked us here.  It was an ironic choice, as it turns out I have a long history with the Ala Moana.

When I was six or so, we were still living in Hilo on the Big Island.  For my spring break that year, my parents took me and a teenaged girl who lived a few houses away for a trip to the big city.  We stayed at the Ala Moana, which, it being Easter time, had pens set up in the mall's main corridors filled with live bunnies, and other delicate baby animals, perfect for children to torture.  I got to spend lots of time at the pool with Lori the babysitter and had my first vacation romance with another six-year-old, visiting from the mainland.

One funny thing, though:  my dad never took vacations.  We never went anywhere fun involving an overnight stay, all three, as a family.  My mom would take me for short trips, and my dad took us to live in places everyone else goes to holiday, but generally he was either working or horizontal on the sofa, reading. 

Years later, my mom told me what was behind our trip to Honolulu that year... it was so daddy could get a vasectomy.

So it's true, Ala Moana does have everything.  Even vasectomies.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Stalking the Stork Anniversary Edition

I've mentioned before on here how, for one blissful year, I was a travel reporter. I did four trips involving air travel while there (Santa Barbara; Durango, Colorado; Disneyworld; and a cruise to Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore. The stories aired on local newscasts across the country. Whenever my friends talked about how jealous they were, I shut them up quickly and spit through my fingers, or whatever you're supposed to do to ward off the evil eye. I knew it was too good to last. When the dot.com implosion sank the San Francisco-based production company I worked for I very reluctantly went back into local news, but I mourned the loss of that job for years. I mean, getting paid to travel? What's not to miss?

So occasionally when we travel, I'll write about what we find.

Two years ago this week, we took my mom, met 15 more of our friends and family from Stateside, joined 46 of Adrián's friends and family, and got married at Alicante City Hall. The question was, where to honeymoon?  We considered Morocco and Lithuania (mainly because Ryan Air and Easy Jet have cheap flights to both from Alicante), but a country where we could be arrested for getting married didn't sound like an ideal place to spend our first day as husband and husband.  Then Adrián found a cheap... really cheap... flight to the Canary Islands.  That clinched it, so we headed to Lanzarote for a week, me with the remnants of a wedding night-induced hangover that lasted three days. After planning a wedding that was a lot larger than we expected and ten days across Spain in a car with my mom... a week of peace and quite was very much needed.

I wrote the following article about our trip. I don't do this much anymore because I spend more time obsessing about whom I need to talk to and where I need to visit than I do enjoying my travel time, and having a day job means I don't have much time to pitch what I write. This one almost ran in the SF Chronicle -- the editor asked me to rewrite it to include more about the Almodóvar angle, but it never saw the light of day.  But I figured, hey, I'll publish it here, two years late:

LANZAROTE – Volcanoes, vines and viento – August, 2008
For an island that specializes in the production of sweet white wines, our first experience with a vineyard on Lanzarote –the northeasternmost of the Canary Islands – was surprisingly sour
My husband and I had stopped into a tiny, unnamed bar in a whitewashed roadside building to ask directions to La Geria, the town where most of the island’s vineyards are clustered. The noise of raised voices was like walking into a 100 decibel wall as soon as we stepped through the door – an argument already in full force. About a dozen men were shouting at each other over cañas of beer.

“What’s got everyone so upset?” I asked a local, Gerardo, who stepped out with us into the parking lot where the decibel level allowed a conversation at normal levels.
“Wine,” he said. “They’re talking about wine.”

Specifically, he said they were discussing Stratvs, the newest cellar on an island with a 200-plus year history of coaxing vines from the arid soil. Local developer Juan Francisco Rosa opened the winery to much fanfare in May after an investment of 18 million euros, including more than a million euros from the island government. It didn’t help that Stratvs wines began winning international competitions even before its doors opened to the public.
“They were already swimming in money,” said Gerardo, who wouldn’t give his last name because he worked at another winery. “They didn’t need it. They didn’t deserve it.”

Sour grapes, perhaps, but winemaking is a fiery topic on Lanzarote, which seems appropriate on an island that boasts some 300 volcanic cones, the most recent of which date from the 19th century. Getting anything to grow here is a challenge, but the island is home to 18 wineries. The vines hug the ground, peering over zocos, individual semi-circles of lava rocks that scallop the hillsides, protecting them from the relentless island wind. The surreal landscape draws film crews from time to time; this is where Raquel Welch ran screaming from giant anachronistic turtles in One Million Years B.C., and we missed Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz by a month. They visited the island to shoot Los abrazos rotos, which opens in the U.S. in November.

A tray bearing glasses of white wine met us on a vine-shaded patio when we finally made our way to Stratvs, the source of so much hot air back in the little bar. The tasting room is built from native lava rock and is tucked in a hillside next to the highway. We found a place among a group listening to the winery’s resident sommelier explain the blend of malvasía and muscatel grapes we thought we were about to sample.

Then he spotted us.

“Are you part of the tour?” he asked, raising his eyebrows in suspicion.


“Uh…” I stammered, “no, we didn’t know this was a tour.”

He walked over to us, took the wineglasses out of our hands, set them back on the tray, and finished his presentation. Turns out there’s not much free wine tasting to be found on Lanzarote.
“It’s okay,” said my husband, Adrián, as we slunk out the entrance, mortified. “I already drank out of that glass he set back on the tray.” Though Adrián is no wine aficionado, he assured me the wine was quite good; semi-sweet and floral. I just hope he backwashed.

We had better luck down the road: the winery El Grifo opened its doors in 1775, less than a half century after a massive eruption resculpted the island. El Grifo still bottles sweet and semi-dry malvasía and muscatel wines from stock that dates from the 18th Century. Today, the old presses and vats are on display in the winery’s Museo del Vino.
“We’re the oldest winery in the Canary Islands and one of ten oldest in Spain,” said tasting room manager Ana Cárdenas. “They’re experimenting with red wines now, but if you have limited room in your luggage, I say don’t bother. This is still the land of white wine.”
Until the 18th Century, Lanzarote was famous for its grain, not its vines. But the 1730 eruption buried the only part of the island with natural springs, covered more than 400 homes with 30 feet of lava, and displaced and impoverished hundreds of islanders.

Mmm... donuts
While Lanzarote has largely been spared the runaway high-rise development that plagues the rest of the Canaries and Spain’s Mediterranean coast, it has its share of beach resorts, still so popular with the Northern European package holiday crowd that the island has been dubbed “Lanza-grotty.” But the rivers of lava belched out by the volcanoes provide a rugged-yet-easy escape from the sunnier, tourist-mobbed southern side of the island. Just past the pretty town of Yaiza on the LZ-67 begins the Malpais de la Corona (the “Badlands of the Crown”), a landscape of twisted lava, frosted in places with a lime-green or orange layer of lichen. That’s where we found the entrance to Timanfaya National Park, marked by a steel sculpture of a pitchfork-brandishing devil at the side of the road -- appropriate for a countryside straight out of Dante – and off in a hollow to one side of the road, we spotted... camels.

Camels are one of the only ways into the national park, the others being on a guagua (the local word for tour bus) or a guided hike. Farmers introduced the one-humped dromedaries to help with agricultural chores, but when tourists began arriving in large numbers back in the 1970s, the animals began hauling two-by-two loads of Brits, Germans and Scandinavians. For five Euros each, guides strapped us into basket-like seats on either side of the animal, and up we went the side of a cinder cone. Okay, it wasn’t particularly informative or comfortable. But sharing a camel train with two dozen other sunburned tourists was good for a laugh.

Fun with volcanoes
The winding road leads away from the highway and heads up the Montañas de Fuego to a spectacular visitors center atop the 1700 foot Islote de Hilario. It, like the park’s diabolical logo and many of the other attractions on the island, was designed by local artist and architect César Manrique. Islote de Hilario includes an eye-popping view through bowed plate glass windows, a restaurant that grills meats directly over volcanic heat radiating from the rocks, and light fixtures shaped like frying pans.

But when we showed up at the park’s second visitor center near the town of Mancha Blanca, we were told you need to reserve a spot in a guided hike three weeks ahead of time. “No os preocupéis,” "don't worry," a guide told us conspiratorially as she unfolded a map on the counter, “you can hike alone just outside the park boundary.” She showed us a trail that took us to two ancient volcanoes, across a desolate plain piled high with lava flows broken and beaten into stiff peaks of black meringue. The hike wasn’t difficult until we reached the steep side of the 1300-foot volcano Montaña Blanca, but the loose, rocky footing made a good pair of boots a must. As soon as we reached the rim of the volcano, we were pummeled by blasts of wind that came screaming up from the caldera, a thousand feet below. The higher we went along the uneven lip, the stronger the wind became. Halfway around, the wind forced us back.

Almodóvar's beach at Famara
It was fine; we were starving.  The hike worked up our appetite for the roasted parrotfish, papas arrugadas (“wrinkly potatoes”), garlicky mojo sauces and other magnificently prepared local dishes at Casa Ramón, in the town of Caleta de Famara on the north coast. Almodóvar shot a major scene on the nearby beach, stocking it with sunbathers, kites and windsurfers. The truth is, Famara is a beach more akin to Northern California than Ibiza – while windsurfers may be common, the gusts deter all but the hardiest of sun worshippers. Fine with us; we retreated each night to our rented 19th century farmhouse not far away, where the wind whistling through the lava rock walls outside lulled us to sleep each night.

If you go:

Connecting service is available on American Airlines, changing to Iberia. Passengers change airlines in Madrid for the final leg to Arrecife, Lanzarote’s capital. Budget fares are available on RyanAir and other low-cost airlines. .

To call any of the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code) followed by 34 (the country code for Spain), and then the local number.

Most traditional accommodations are clustered near Arrecife or on Lanzarote’s southern coast, where the fog and wind are not as apparent and sunburned hordes congregate. But you’ll find casas rurales, converted country houses offering bed-and-breakfast-like services, across the island.
Finca de las Laderas, Calle las Laderas 2, Caleta de Famara, 607.591.447, is a traditional Canario farmhouse converted into several guest apartments. Each has its own kitchen and is tastefully and comfortably furnished by owners Elke Sellmann and Juan de León Luzardo. Finca de las Laderas has a pool and is about two and a half miles from the island’s largest beach (windy, but popular with surfers) and the tiny town of Caleta de Famara. From 50 euros/night, depending on the season.
Finca de las Salinas, Calle La Cuesta, 17, Yaiza, 928.830.325, occupies the former mansion of an 18th Century salt merchant, with former stables converted into guestrooms. The casa sits in the middle of a beautiful garden in the town of Yaiza, near the wine region in La Geria. Rooms start at 61 euros/night.
Is that a cannon in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?
Gran Meliá Volcán Lanzarote, Urbanización Castillo del Águila, (888)956-3542 (toll-free U.S. reservations) is a 206-room five-star resort in Playa Blanca, one of Lanzarote’s larger tourist zones. You’ll lack the windswept solitude of towns like Famara on the island’s northern end, but the hotel isn’t far from Timanfaya National Park or Playa Papagayo, one of Lanzarote’s prettier beaches. Rooms start at 119 euros/night.


In Arrecife and the larger beach resorts, you’ll spot plenty of places selling fish and chips, bratwurst and gooey paella. Avoid them. Local food is fresh and delicious, lighter than mainland Spanish cuisine, and difficult to find outside the Canaries.

Casa Ramón, Carretera General, Caleta de Famara, 650.423.704, specializes in local fish – try the vieja (parrotfish), roasted with papas arrugadas (baby potatoes boiled in salty water until they emerge looking like a six-year-old after a two-hour bath), all served with red and green mojos, the traditional spicy sauce of the islands. Dinner for two runs about 40 Euros.

El Monumento al Campesino, Carretera Arrecife-Tinajo, 928 520 136, was designed by the ubiquitous César Manrique as a tribute to Lanzarote’s long-suffering peasants. The real monument isn’t the sculpture you’ll spot from the highway; it’s the museum below that features traditional Canarian crafts. The restaurant and tapas bar here are reasonable and one of the best places to try local delicacies like grilled octopus, lapas (limpets), and sweet potato and blood sausages (better than they sound). Small plates start at five Euros.


TURESPAÑA, Spanish Tourism Office, L.A. Office: (323) 658-7188, http://www.spain.info/.

Patronato de Turismo de Lanzarote, http://www.turismolanzarote.com/ (Spanish only), 928 811 762
Museo del Vino, Mon.-Fri., 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., 928 524 951
Bodegas Stratvs, every day from 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. with reservation, 928 809 977, bodega@stratvs.com (just be sure to sign up for the tour or they get really bitchy)
Timanfaya National Park Visitors Center, 928 840 839, can reserve your space in a guided hike, but be sure to call weeks ahead of time.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Evita made me gay

When I was 16, my mom told me she'd take me to see the show "Evita" if I learned a little about Eva Perón. I did. In fact, I became obsessed with 1940s Argentina, playing the eight track cassette my parents bought me until it wore out... not before they threatened to throw it in the trash after having to hear it every afternoon when I returned from school.

A few years ago, my mom remarked that I never fell victim to stereotypical gay diva worship. I replied "um... Evita?" "Well, that's not the same," she said. "You loved history." Well, yeah, and I still do, but somehow I never got as excited about Catherine the Great.

Argentina leads the world in psychiatrists, beef consumption and hair dressers per capita, and of course gave us a Dior-clad quasi-fascist dictator's wife as a gay icon. Now Argentines can be proud that they're leading the world -- especially Latin America -- in a new direction, as the first country south of Canada to offer gay and lesbian couples the full rights of marriage. The Argentine Senate passed a bill legalizing marriage equality -- with full adoption rights, something that even much of supposedly liberal Europe doesn't allow -- early this morning after a bruising wee-hours debate.

Not surprisingly, the Roman Catholic Church took a hardline stance against marriage equality for same-sex couples, marshaling some 60,000 Catholic and Evangelical faithful to march on Congress.

But yesterday, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirschner -- who in my book now replaces you-know-who as the Argentine gay icon -- addressed the topic in an interview from a trade visit to China:

Wow! While our supposed friends in the Democratic Party here in the U.S. wring their hands over conceding us our basic humanity, in Argentina Kirschner actually calls things -- that is, attitudes -- as they are: medieval, harking back to the inquisition. It never ceases to amaze me that more Americans aren't threatened by religious groups gnawing away bit by bit at any Constitutional freedom that doesn't expressly apply to freedom of religion. Oh, and the freedom to bear arms. They love that one, too.

But I digress. Meanwhile, a crowd was waiting outside el Congreso:

The forces of equality actually ran an excellent ad campaign called "The Same Love, the Same Rights." Here's one of the best... no subtitles, but it's pretty self-explanatory:

Maybe we can get them to do an ad campaign for us here in the States...