Tag Archives: travel

My Love Letter to Mexico and Guillermo del Toro

About eight weeks ago, newspaper headlines scared the crap out of Americans–or fueled their pre-existing fears–that Mexico was a dangerous place, putting five of Mexico’s states on the same warning level as Yemen, Syria and Iraq. A U.S. State Department travel advisory, issued January 10, begins like this: “Exercise increased caution in Mexico due to crime. Some areas have increased risk. Read the entire Travel Advisory. Violent crime, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery, is widespread.”

Mexico, overall, has a Level 2 warning, as do popular areas such as Cabo San Lucas, which is a New York Times “must-see” for 2018, and Cancun . Level 2, according to the U.S. State Department, means “Exercise increased caution” and in Mexico’s case, it’s “due to crime.” Well, I could also say the same about certain parts of 8th Avenue at certain hours of the day. Also, you know who else is a Level 2 destination? Our Anglophile cousins in the U.K., France, Spain, Germany, Belgium (Belgium!!!) and Denmark are all Level 2s due to terrorism. Level 1 destinations where you are as safe as you’ll ever be since leaving your mother’s womb are Canada (no surprises there) and Japan, where it’s not only safe but the streets of Tokyo blind you with their cleanliness, especially if you’re coming from Newark Liberty Airport, like me.

Mexican mask 2018

Journalism credit where credit is due; newspapers including The Miami Herald eventually brought some nuance to the discussion—nuance sorely lacking in most national discussions these days—to remind readers “Hey, folks, not all of Mexico is scary. Go ahead with your spring break to Isla Mujeres.” (Which is beautiful, by the way.)

I’d like to know where are the domestic warnings about visiting Chicago, which, in 2016, accounted for more than 20 percent of the nationwide murder increase? Or the warning about going to a concert in Las Vegas? Or a warning about simply going to school in America? Instead, we get headlines about arming our teachers and keeping our eyes open while lounging on a beach in Mexico. What are other governments telling people who want to travel to the U.S.? Arrive armed with an AR-15 just in case???


These headlines matter because I’ve encountered these perceptions right here in my neighborhood, a blue-ribbon school district that’s supposedly educating our future to be open-minded. You know how many people make decisions about places they’ve never been to based solely on what they see on TV? Everyone. Most recently, I had lunch with some Australian tourism folks who came to New York, and one said “It’s not like ‘Sex and the City’ at all. No one dresses up here.'”

Many don’t even realize how influenced they are by mainstream media. I’ve had people who have graduated from schools far more expensive and fancier than mine make disparaging comments about Mexico. In 2015, at a dinner, I mentioned I was heading to Cancun, a woman asked if that was safe “because you’re blonde.” At a holiday party two months after that trip to Cancun, another woman asked me “If that was safe, because you know, the drugs.” The drugs??? Suburbs are pumped with benzodiazepenes, pot, and heroin, to name just a few. Vincente Fox frequently comments that the U.S. is Mexico’s biggest customer. More than a decade ago, my mother-in-law, who taught Spanish to children, commented on “dirty Mexicans.” There is a misguided perception here in the suburban Northeast which no one wants to own: Mexicans are people who clean our houses and make our tacos. Folks struggle to see beyond that.

There are always exceptions. A family around the corner from us—we’ve been friends for 12 years—go to Mexico every year. They’ve explored the country top to bottom, from sampling different moles in Oaxaca to strolling Mexico City to scuba diving off Cozumel. They haven’t roamed Colima, one of the five states on the State Department’s recent naughty list, but they’re not shying away from visiting Mexico either or ascribing to affluenza notions. Also, Colima is about 150 miles south of Guadalajara, which is where Guillermo del Toro is from. You might have heard of him after last night: his movie, The Shape of Water won Best Picture. He wrote the screenplay and won Best Director. Here he is talking about being an immigrant and finding success.


Clearly, I’m a del Toro fan girl though I still haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth because I already have trouble sleeping and had a feeling this movie would stick a little too much, though that was a few years ago. I might be able to swing it now. When I saw The Shape of Water in a movie theater on a rainy January day, it was me and three elderly people there for an 11:45 a.m. showing. The weather had sent my seasonal affective disorder into a spin and I decided to cocoon inside a theater and escape not really knowing what I had signed up for when I bought my ticket. An hour and a half in, I nearly stood up and applauded when The Creature and Eliza break out into a black and white dance sequence. I have to thank del Toro for that; an artist known for darkness brought sunshine into a dark room on a dark day.

Del Toro isn’t the first Mexican filmmaker to win this honor. Three years ago, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman won Best Picture and Iñárritu became the first Mexican filmmaker to win Best Director (Birdman was wonderful and imaginative, but I really liked The Revenant, my idea of a girls’ night out). Change happens slowly, but it’s happening.

After the disappointing 2016 election, I talked with several people who pined for Canada. The running joke was that there would be a beeline to the Canadian border, and while I’m a six-hour drive from the Canadian border, I’ve often said I’d rather go to Mexico. A longer drive, yes, but Mexico is more me. Not just for the sunshine and palm trees, which I seem to be biochemically dependent on, but because everything about me and Mexico clicks: the people, the bright colors, the architecture, the music, the dancing, the fascination with ghosts and the dead, and the abundance of gluten-free food. Last week, I had lunch at Cosme, a restaurant on East 21st Street that serves what’s dubbed as “high-end Mexican food” because in America, we assume that Mexican food means Taco Bell. The restaurant was founded by Enrique Olvera, a pioneer in the haute cuisine scene, and is run by Chef Daniela Soto-Innes, who won a James Beard award at age 25, and who moved to the United States from Mexico at the age of 12. Her corn husk meringue, inspired by her mother’s corn soup, is worth your time and money.

Mexico is America’s neighbor, yet America hasn’t been acting very neighborly these last 14 months. Someday, I’d like to go a neighborhood gathering or a dinner out and not defend my willingness to go to Mexico, which I have done more than once, or explain my love for Mexico, which is only based on three trips to the Quintana Roo region and several visits to Los Angeles’ Olvera Street. I’ve got a lot to learn and much more Mexico ahead of me: San Miguel de Allende, Isla Holbox, Oaxaca, Mexico City, Nayarit, where some of my Christmas ornaments were made. So don’t trash-talk Mexico and then tell me about your upcoming weekend to Las Vegas. I don’t want to hear it. Racism and Otherism is both explicit and implicit, and it’s the subtle, insidious comments, like the ones said to me or U.S. newspaper headlines, that build up and misguide. Our options for nuanced discourse may be disappearing, but our thoughts are still ours, and we get to choose what to think and to not buy into misinformed hyperbole.

When a Blog Feels Like a Utility Bill

To say I stink at blogging is an understatement, plus it feels so 1998. Social media is microblogging and vlogging, and now, in 2018, everyone has either a carefully curated online lifestyle or a reactive opinion to something. I don’t know where I fit into this, and remembering to blog about something feels like remembering to pay our utility bill.

I started this blog in 2005 to talk about my family’s vacations, and now I’m being introduced as a “travel writer” to people. This floors me because in 1998 when blogging and my journalism career were in their nascent days, a travel writer to me was an elderly white dude who had worked his way up the chain at a particular newspaper for the past few decades, and who wrote about eating poi in Oahu. Or, it was cracking open National Geographic Traveler (which has published me–twice!) and reading something awesome in long-form by someone who didn’t have an Instagram account but was somewhere far away, and perhaps had hammered out observations on a Smith Corona (and if you’re of that age where you think I’m referring to a type of beer, think again). Now, everyone is a travel writer because everyone has Instagram.

(A favorite room at The Roxbury called “Amadeus’s Bride”)

Lately, I’ve been writing about hotels. For reasons I’m still trying to understand, this brings me absolute joy. And it’s so weird to arrive at this point at almost-45, to feel wow’ed by sharing your opinions on hotels, for tourism boards to invite you to places. You see, my parents did not attend elite four-year universities–or any university–to be groomed for greatness. We struggled financially, and I was raised to attend college, get a job, get married, pay the bills, remain within a short drive from the family, have at least two children, and ride out the years without complaining (I complained). Travel was a luxury, and if you could afford it, was something you did one week out of the summer to some place within driving distance; for us, that was usually Mystic, Connecticut. I was the first on either side of my family tree to actually leave town to attend a four-year, in-state college and come out the other end with a bachelor’s degree. It sounds sad that this would be considered pioneering in 1995, peak Clinton years and the dawn of the Internet, but that’s how I grew up, raised by parents who preferred bubbles of their own making. I didn’t even know what the Foreign Service was until my late 20s when I was building my journalism career, and I look back and wonder if anyone during my high school years had explained to me what the Foreign Service was, would I be schmoozing in nice hotels with ambassadors in places like Riyadh or Dubai? Because I do have schmoozing skills. Sadly, I’ll never know.

(Sails in the Desert near Uluru in Northern Territories, Australia)

So hotels. I can’t get enough of them, and I realized my fascination with them goes back to November 1998 (a pivotal year, now that I think about it), when Mike and I took a boat ride up to Victoria, British Columbia, and as we got off the boat, I saw Fairmont’s Empress Hotel. We weren’t staying there; we stayed at the Bedford Regency, which also sounded classy and was right on that main thoroughfare, Government Street. But still. The Empress was as regal as its name (and on Government Street). It had opened in 1908, an Edwardian chateau-style party house for passengers of Canadian Pacific’s steamship line, which had a terminal a block away. Canadian Pacific Hotels eventually became Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. If there’s a chain hotel I’m addicted to, Fairmont is the one. One glance at the Empress and I was hooked. I would have afternoon tea and spend a night there two years later.

Since then, I’ve sought out hotels that had character and swimming pools. There are no points programs for going off-brand. One of my favorite hotels is The Roxbury up in the Catskills, which is adding a pool (thank God!). Other favorite hotels are in the fall 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveler, and I recently gushed about this lodge on Australia’s Victorian coast for Flung magazine. I’d love to return to Paris’s Grand Hotel Des Gobelins, which had this majestic staircase, tiny rooms, and this phenomenal breakfast buffet that was served in the bowels of the building (this was 2011, so maybe they changed that). Or go back to the QT in Melbourne where I stayed last November and soaked in another amazing bathtub. Or walk out on to my balcony to listen to the birds before the heat of the day hit at Sails in the Desert Resort near Uluru. I’m eager to try out The Rookery even though I have no immediate plans to return to London. I’ve wanted to check out El Convento in Old San Juan for about a decade. Macau has hotels sprouting up like weeds. Trying out hotels wasn’t something that was encouraged at home or at college: hotels were cheap places with the same non-threatening taupe decor and dentist office art where you crashed for a few nights. Hotels weren’t the vacation.

(Ah, Le Sirenuse)

Maybe I still want to blog about travel after all but it’s taking on a new form: waxing poetic about beloved hotels (or scrutinizing them for something annoying, though if I’m there in the first place, it’s because there’s something I like). For some people, the excitement of travel begins when they arrive at the airport or board their train or pack the car. For me, it’s sliding the key into that door and seeing what’s inside. Is this hotel about local history? Is it pretentious? Is it an architectural puzzle? Does it want me to have fun? To relax? To sit up straight and take this place seriously? To forget or admire where I am? To disconnect or reconnect? Does it smell like carpet cleaner or someone’s cigarettes? What’s the view?

And that’s the fun, isn’t it?


The word “lunatic” doesn’t have the best reputation, and unfortunately, there’s no appropriate word to describe individuals who are mentally balanced, not overly weird, and simply enjoy the night sky when the moon is out. Selenophile doesn’t work either. Moon spotting seems ok, but has a menstrual quality to me. #Lunafan? #Lunaproud? #LunaLover? See? Nothing fits.

As I type this, Europeans are apparently enjoying a beautiful night for a “supermoon,” one of three to brighten up this winter between tonight and January 31 (the second one happens New Year’s Day). The “supermoon” nickname simply means the moon will appear about 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than a typical full moon. The supermoon at the end of January is predicted to be quite spectacular, which is good news for me because I’m feeling moon-cheated tonight. Clouds cover the New York City region; this morning it didn’t even look like the sun showed up for work, so chances of witnessing a supermoon tonight are dim.


Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m addicted to sunlight otherwise I rapidly sink into seasonal affective disorder symptoms. But I’ve also become intrigued by the moon the more I travel. Years ago, I was at the Griffith Observatory on a night during the middle of the week; in between weekend crowds when there was no line to peer through one of the massive telescopes set up and pointed at the almost-full moon. The image was startling; a white rock with hard grooves posing like some aging nude model in an art class. Two years ago, I was sleeping in a nest in Big Sur and woke to moonlight hitting the Pacific Ocean so hard that almost everything appeared silver, as if someone had turned on a light. This past September, I laid in a hammock in Tuscany and watched the moon. In October, I walked around glitzy Macau and spotted the moon. A month ago, out near Uluru in Australia’s Northern Territories, I had an unforgettable moment with the moon. We were having dinner in the desert. Moonlight poured over everything. Shadows moved across the earth. Someone had set up two telescopes: one pointed at the moon and the other pointed at Saturn. It was a very clear night, the perfect conditions for a spectacular sky, in which there was a very full moon.

I approached one telescope. To the naked eye, Saturn was a speck of light, indistinguishable from the other white specks of light filling the heavens. Then I looked into the telescope and almost jumped. On the other end of the lens was Saturn, with perfectly clear edges and a ring. I didn’t expect to see the ring. The image looked like a kid’s sticker or a classroom science project of a planet dangling from a string. It was almost cartoonish, not at all like the large, looming images of Saturn I always saw at planetariums and museums.

Then I approached the second telescope, the one directed at the moon, and looked through. This reminded me of that evening in Los Angeles at Griffith Park. Like that night, the moon wasn’t being coy, everything was being bared—proudly. It made me think of how we wear our age, or maybe should wear our age. The moon is 4.5 billion years old. It’s easy to think of the moon as timeless, but it isn’t. It has a creation story, and for generations watched Earth’s continents drift and rethink their borders, watched empires rise and fall, watched wars and reunions, watched flags fly, watched men visit its surface and plant flags of their own, watched us watch it, watched me look up, think about how I never thought I would have traveled to Australia, how on my daughter’s desktop globe, Australia looked so far away. Yet, there I was in central Australia, in the middle of the desert, far from anything familiar, admiring the moon, anchored by its light, this beacon that’s been with me my entire life. Yes, we, especially I, need the sun, but where would we be without moonlight? Yes, the moon’s gravitational force is critical to earth’s well-being and to controlling the tides, but without moonlight, I’m guessing we’d lose about half of the world’s love songs—maybe about a third of all lovestruck poems.


I was looking at the moon when my ride back to the hotel arrived; we had a 4:30 a.m. departure for a sunrise camel ride, but I wanted to stay with the moon. That’s the problem with itineraries—they don’t take into account the moments when you want to linger.


During my press trip to Australia, we sat quietly waiting for the sun rise over Uluru. Seeing the light change at 5:30 in the morning was indeed beautiful (that’s not my usual hour for that first cup of coffee), but I kept my eyes on the moon, which didn’t budge. The light I couldn’t keep up with; I’d glance down into my coffee cup for a second, take a sip, look up, and the whole desert suddenly looked different whereas the moon held firm. The sky softened from purple to pink to a misty blue, and the moon was still there—the sun directly across from it—as if to say “This is my hour, too.” I didn’t sense competition, just an understanding that in the morning, the moon doesn’t quickly exit stage right for the day, even if you’re caffeinating up and need to be somewhere in a hurry. It’s not like that. After 14 years of living in the New York City area, I appreciated the lack of rushing. And now I look for the moon wherever I go. It fascinates me that wherever I stand, desert or beach, from a hotel balcony or my own backyard, the moon is steady, with a rhythm that I can rely on and a change in contour and colors that sometimes surprise. Clouds covered tonight’s supermoon, but I’ll be waiting for the next one.

I Won’t Say I Was “Under the Tuscan Sun” (Even Though I Was)

Okay! It’s that part of the day where I’m up at 3:30 a.m. rearing to go because my body is still in Italy thinking it’s time for cappuccino and sunshine. This is what flying from Europe to the United States means: doing laundry at 4 in the morning, feeling like the only one moving at this hour except for the raccoons outside calling it a night and the hookers on 8th Avenue thinking the same.



My 10 days in Italy flew, and there’s no effective way to capture all that I did, saw, ate, smelled, heard and overheard other than to list. As Diego Montoya says in The Princess Bride, “Let me explain. No. There is too much. Let me sum up.” Here we go:

– Nonnas everywhere: towns, cities, dirt country roads. And it’s good luck to catch a nonna. I caught one last year while standing on a train that was slowing down to the station. Our train lurched, and a nonna standing next to me lost her footing and just fell into my arms. It was *exactly* like that feeling of catching the ball in third grade and all your classmates cheering for you. This nonna regained her balance, squeezed my arm, and pronounced the longest “Grazie,” Italy had ever heard. It was like six syllables long and easily a full 10 seconds, that’s how grateful she was to have not fallen down. She wore a cardigan, skirt, and a beautiful scarf, and as I drove from Sestri Levante to Panzano to Siena this past week, I saw that all nonnas wore cardigans, skirts, and beautiful scarves. It’s their superhero costume. One even wore yellow Crocs. So always slow down for nonnas crossing the road, getting on/off trains, and better yet—catch one! She might even grant you three wishes.

– People keep making films in Tuscany and about Tuscany because Tuscany is probably what the Garden of Eden looked like, and we all crave to get back to what was green and good.

– Green shutters on all houses. It’s like a homeowners’ association thing, but nationwide.




– No one uses dryers. I love this about Italy (perhaps because my own dryer doesn’t work). This was my third visit, and I always saw people line-drying their clothes. Fuck dryers.

– Fat grapes heavy on the vine do indeed look sexy.

– I drove a little stick-shift Lancia from Florence to Sestri Levante to Panzano to Siena to Florence. I named him Pepe. He didn’t like uphill dirt roads but anything downhill turned him into Peter Pan. Also, driving Pepe into one-way city streets or markets in Florence while jet-lagged and with minor traces of Klonopin in your bloodstream may sound scary, but Italians appeared accustomed to this and simply moved aside while I made very public mistakes and got turned around. I even pulled up to Il Duomo and no one cared. This zigzagging and series of false turns is not in any guidebook but is a great way to see Florence.

– As my new friend Rose McAleese says, “Bugs are annoying in all countries.” Italy was beautiful, but its bugs are formidable. I saw bees that had actual muscle mass. I saw ants that could bench-press Skittles with ease. I also watched a yellow jacket take a piece of chicken (or was it pork?) off a spoon and fly off with it. I have an allergy to wasps and hornets, and while I’m not interested in wiping out any species, I don’t need to get close with bugs. I did two beautiful hikes with my EpiPen in tow and nothing happened. I’ve been fortunate to have not needed the EpiPen, and if there is an emergency stinging situation, I’m worried injecting an EpiPen will be like trying to remember how to properly use the kitchen fire extinguisher. Those are two situations you don’t want to screw up.

– I ate my body weight in mozzarella. I am both proud and slightly ashamed I did this without hesitation.

– I did not see the actual David in Florence, though saw its replicas everywhere. Honestly, I don’t mind missing David. I’m a fan of The Man, but David looks like a guy who lives in his head and he’s not well-endowed, so I didn’t feel motivated to pay museum admission to stand and admire a thinky dude with a small penis. I know that says a lot about me.

– I ate my first gluten-free ice cream cone in Sestri Levante. I’ll take this to the grave. The flavor was olive oil gelato, which was amazing and should be its own body scrub.

– Finding St. Catherine’s severed head was indeed a “Where’s Waldo” moment. You’d think a 700-year-old head would stand out, but we walked by it at least three or four times before realizing that waxy bulb behind the glass was the face of a 14th-century nun who had a relationship with Christ that would incite Jesus-envy among women and men alike. Not only did she suffer the Stigmata, but was said to have a ring made from Jesus’s foreskin that only she could see. Can you picture her showing off that bling? Once we did find her, me and my two companions, both Irish-Catholics, dropped to our knees and bowed in prayer. We may not be church-going regulars, but we know what to do when facing the mummified face of a saint.

– I hiked by olive trees that had inexplicably split. No one knows why they did this, but the olive trees kept growing and now look like hands raised in prayer. This seems to work because there are now more olives.

The Bay of Silence lived up to its name. Go, especially late morning on a Wednesday when it’s just you, a few leathery-looking ladies, one nun, and the beach guard.

– You can get bad coffee in Italy. Anything that comes from an automated machine should not be trusted. You’re in Italy; treat yourself. Pay the three Euros and ask some handsome fella behind the barrista to razzle-dazzle the espresso machine and whip up something nice for you. You won’t regret it.

Going Places

This summer, I went to a handful of places: the town library, the town pool, the grocery store, the yoga studio, and the Adirondacks—always a late-summer favorite. While neighbors and friends went on vacations to cool places, I stayed home and tried to spend as little money as possible. I looked and behaved like a suburban hausfrau. The rest of the world was happening somewhere else, not in my ‘hood. When not grocery shopping or borrowing library books, I browsed Twitter for the latest Donald Trump bashing, worked on corporate writing assignments, or read some fabulous books including Paul Yoon’s “Snow Hunters,” Roxane Gay’s “Hunger,” Annie Gray’s “The Greedy Queen,” and Emily Ruskovich’s “Idaho.” See? Lots of trips to the town library.


I’ll need plenty of books for the fall season of globetrotting that’s kicking off on Monday. I’m in Italy for this amazing Hedgebrook conference, then I am squeeing over the fact that I will be going to Macau in October and Australia’s Northern Territories in November as guests of the local tourism boards. In fact, four days after I fly home from Macau, I turn around and fly to Australia. If you knew me, that last sentence would make you laugh your head off because you’d say, “Hey, you don’t like to fly.” True, being stuck on a plane isn’t my preferred state-of-being, but neither is getting my yearly mammogram, sitting in Lincoln Tunnel traffic, or waiting in line for interstate fast food I don’t even want to eat but I have to because I’m starving and there’s nothing else sold on the interstate and I’ve run out of snacks. I’ve decided I like travel more than I dislike flying, so airplanes it is. The klonopin and donut floatie are ready.

My last (and only) trip to Asia was a 13-hour flight to Tokyo in 2013, so I’m rusty with long hauls in the sky. Plus, I’m not a spring chicken and I do like my sleep; the idea of being 25 and “powering through” sounds ludicrous to me. I don’t want to “power through” anything. I want to savor all of it, not rush any of it, see as much as possible, and get enough rest so I can keep not rushing things. Twenty-five-year-olds do not think this way.

I have no idea what to expect when I go to Italy (well, okay, this is my third trip to Italy so I have some idea), Macau, or Australia, but you can follow my reactions, inner monologue and photos here. Also, all three of these trips are solo. My biggest accomplishment from them will not be a published clip but to instill a sense of empowerment in my 13-year-old daughter, to show her that the world is hers to explore, that it’s a world of yes, and if anyone tells her no, she keeps pushing forward, that despite society being rigged to benefit white guys, she can still succeed.

I feel very lucky to have the travel opportunities that I have. I know that people see the trips and assume it’s a glamorous life, but as any travel writer will tell you, it is anything but glamorous and few travel writers I know earn any real money writing about interesting destinations. Tumbleweed may blow through my wallet, but I have a long list of interesting experiences to share. Assuming I can afford to get into the party, I have enough cocktail party stories to keep the night lively. I usually don’t have a hard time at cocktail parties as long as someone else is paying for the drinks.

Stay tuned, and we’ll see what stories emerge. I can promise you that I will try to use the word “cerulean,” one of my favorite words ever anywhere, as often as possible. You’ll likely get sick of it, maybe even find it pretentious. I can’t help it, I love that word and that color. To date, “cerulean” has appeared in three of my travel articles, including my most recent piece which is in the October/November print edition of National Geographic Traveler where I talk about my obsession with hotel swimming pools (it is indeed a long-running thing). I have my second story coming out in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, where, sadly, the word “cerulean” didn’t apply, but there are several references to “green.” It’s a coming-of-age essay set in London coming out any day now.

So off we go! Join me on the journey. No sugar-coating, I swear.