Category Archives: Travel

The Year of the Dragon

Happy Lunar New Year! I heard a fellow New Yorker once say this interesting observation, “New York City celebrates three New Years: Gregorian, Jewish, and Chinese.”  (By the way, Koreans and Vietnamese also celebrate this Lunar New Year.)  While New Yorkers from other cultures–Tibetans, Bolivians and Peruvians of Incan descent, for example–celebrate their respective new years too, the most prominent ones are these three.  As if to confirm this observation, the Empire State Building was lit red and yellow on Jan 23 to commemorate the arrival of the Year of the Dragon.

Chinese astrology assigns a different animal to each year for 12 years and after the twelfth year, the cycle repeats again.  Similar to the Western zodiac signs, personality traits are attributed to each animal and it is believed that individuals born under each sign exhibit such traits.

My Komodo Dragon Mug from Starbucks

I was born in the Year of the Dragon and an Aries. These two signs are often said to be the cultural parallel of the other since they supposedly share similar traits. Dragons and Aries are often described as leaders, risk takers, and adventurous while also being assertive, judgmental, and quick tempered. I was never one to believe in astrologers nor have I ever had my palm or tarot cards read. Yet somehow, I am strongly drawn to my astrological signs for their seemingly accurate descriptions of my personality.  I like to think that being both signs makes me doubly potent!  I swell with pride at all of my supposed positive traits and feel encouraged to act in these ways in times of uncertainty.  The negative traits serve as excuses to support my bad habits such as my proclivity to start many projects without finishing one.

A new year means a clean slate full of endless possibilities. When I was a child, I always loved the start of the school year in September: the smell of fresh crayons in the box, newly sharpened pencils all the same height, and unwritten composition notebooks waiting to be filled. But by October, I would be bored of them because the luster was gone. As an adult, I still act that way today in many aspects of my life.

Months ago as a bikram yoga teacher trainee, we were required to memorize a dialogue—a script if you will—for each of the 26 postures that we teach in class. A large part of training was spent in posture clinic, where each trainee recites one posture as three fellow trainees demonstrate. This recitation was done in front of 40 fellow trainees and [at least] two teachers who provided feedback at the end of each recited posture. Posture clinic lasted for 6 weeks and it was the part of teacher training I dreaded the most. Every time I went up, my goal was to deliver verbatim dialogue. I needed to be flawless.  I needed to be perfect.  Yet just like everything in life, I never finished reciting the end of each posture:  either I blanked out or never bothered to learn those last few lines.  Teachers often gave me the same feedback:  finish what you started.

I blamed it on my Dragon-Aries personality.  Was it a lack of focus, a lack of desire? Later, a teacher back home suggested that I choose not to finish things because I don’t want my end-product to be judged for fear of not attaining perfection. It was a breakthrough moment for me. This thought never occurred to me but it makes a lot of sense.

Dragon years are considered to be very lucky and are a great time to take huge risks or undergo incredible change.  For people born dragons, 2012 is full of promise and highly fortuitous.  Big changes are coming to ActionJoJo this year that include: a website overhaul; greater and more consistent print and video content creation; and more engagement with both my local and online communities. Heck, world domination is another goal! There, I said it.

I left an office job to create a life of freedom and flexibility to do what I love. However, I need to earn a livelihood to make this new life a sustainable reality. In order for me to achieve these goals, I have to remember to strive for action and not perfection. Heck, my online name should serve as a daily reminder. It will be hard work to overcome my bad habits but I will use my positive Dragon-Aries traits to attempt to trump them.

Welcome, Year of the Dragon! I’ve been waiting for you.

Dragon Meets Dragon in Lima's Chinatown (Peru 2003)

Flower Petal Blooming

Happy New Year friends!

And so it begins again.  A new year.  A new promise.  A new resolution.

Last year, I resolved to write a blog post once a week.  I was doing well for  a few months but eventually that goal became surprisingly unmanageable.  So much of my life changed last year as result of both choice and serendipity.  My husband lost his job about a year ago at this time.  I voluntarily left my comfortable job in September to pursue my dream of becoming self‑employed.  If you described to me my current life at this time last year, I would have labeled you certifiably mad.  Yet life has a beautiful way of unfolding itself at precisely the right time.  What was once a seemingly unimaginable road became the only viable option in the end.

As I started blogging more seriously in early 2011 about my travels, about culture, and about my home – New York City, and more specifically, the borough of Queens – I discovered joy in the act of writing and in the act of sharing what I knew with others.  After a few weeks, I was getting recognition for my work.  In July, I attended my very first conference for travelers and bloggers in Vancouver.  People at the conference encouraged me to do more.  The seed that I once planted years ago about self-employment began to flourish and grow.

When I hopped on that plane to Los Angeles in September, I had no idea what 9 weeks of full-time Bikram yoga teacher certification would be like.  All I knew was the conviction I felt in my heart that I was doing the right thing even if it was unconventional.  Those 9 weeks challenged me physically, mentally, and emotionally.  All of my strengths and weaknesses were made bare for me to face with no place to hide.  As trainees, we were encouraged to “trust the process” even though our hearts screamed out, “F*$K the process!!!”  Breakdowns happened gradually as did the breakthroughs.  By November, I came out a changed person, shedding layers of myself that no longer served me.

In Bikram yoga, the first of the 26 postures is half moon pose where students bend to the right or left creating a crescent shape with their bodies. As a teacher, my job is to remind my students of proper alignment as they hold the posture. In half moon pose, I instruct them to adjust their shoulders so they can “open up their chest like a flower petal blooming.” This tiny adjustment leads to a gradual opening of the upper body where the chest lifts up exposing the heart, the piece of ourselves we shield and protect the most.

Half Moon Pose at LAX: My Love for Yoga & Travel Intersect

Life is like that flower petal blooming. Change happens so incrementally that often we don’t notice it has happened.  Only when we look back and see the distance traversed do we marvel at its occurrence.  So here’s to the accomplishments, the failures, the struggles, and the discoveries of 2011. Together, they form the stepping stones to the unwritten events of 2012. Wherever life leads me this year, I am going to trust the process.

Without judgment and without attachment, I accept that I did not achieve my blogging goal for 2011. Yet once again, I have set a goal that I will write more and blog regularly.

“Never too late, never too old, never too bad, and never too sick, to start from the scratch once again.” ~ Bikram Choudhury

Forgiveness, Courage, and Leaps of Faith: Why I Left My Job

Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes.  As leader of the newly formed, democratic South Africa, he rejected anger, revenge, and violence despite decades of suffering incredible injustice. Instead, he turned to reconciliation and encouraged both the former oppressors and oppressed of his country to work together to do the same. In the movie Invictus, he offered this advice to his black bodyguard who had trouble working with newly assigned white colleagues:

Forgiveness liberates the soul.
It removes fear.
That is why it is such a powerful weapon.

I was drenched in sweat. My face turned to the right, my entire left ear pressed against the soaked towel. I lay on my belly, body and mind still. My Bikram yoga teacher broke the silence in the room and said, “Time waits for no one. What are YOU waiting for?” Her words slapped my face and seeped through my every pore. The clarity I sought for years suddenly came rushing forward out of the fog of uncertainty and fear. That moment propelled me to listen to what my heart had been saying for so long.

Eight years earlier, I felt directionless and burned out. I left my job and took a leap of faith by backpacking for four months through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Portugal, and England with someone I loved. As I lived through this life-altering experience, I had no idea that the travel bug would bite me so hard. When I came home to NYC rejuvenated, I promised myself that I would see at least one new country every year.

I worked at a private, philanthropic foundation helping give away millions of dollars annually to colleges and universities. I was ambitious, driven, and pushed myself to the limit. I asked for (and got) more responsibilities, pursued a Masters degree part-time, got married, bought a house, and still managed to travel for three weeks to my new country of choice. But soon I would learn that my go-getter attitude was not sustainable. My body eventually rebelled and broke down gradually, cracking under my self-imposed physical, mental, and emotional prisons. Medical doctors only offered me prescription drugs and surgery to help me deal with the severe, chronic pain I felt throughout my body.

Desperate for an alternative, I turned to an Eastern healer and Bikram Yoga. I channeled the same hard work, focus, and determination that put me in this mess to get myself healed. Working to heal myself was hellish and grueling because it was an irritatingly slow process and went against everything that our pill-popping, quick-fix culture teaches us.

In every Bikram studio, students are instructed to look at themselves in the mirror for the entire 90 minute class. As a beginner, I could not look at myself without unceasing criticism. You’re too fat. You’re too injured. You’re not flexible enough. You’re not good enough. Each time I looked in that mirror, I confronted my own worst enemy: me.

The intensity of the heat magnified the challenge of the yoga poses. Many times, all I wanted to do was collapse, give up, or run out of the room screaming. Magically, my teachers knew when to offer me the compassion I needed to back off. Johanna, stay still. All you have to do is breathe. They also knew when I gave up too easily. You fall out, you jump back in! Johanna, what are you waiting for?”

To survive in that hot room required only a calm breath. Surprisingly, even that seemingly simple act was the most challenging. The classes where I struggled to “just” breathe were the ones that dealt heavy blows to my ego. Patience, compassion, and forgiveness were forced to set in because there was little room for self-criticism, judgment, and attachment. The salty tears and gallons of sweat chipped away at the protective walls I built so long ago against hurt and pain. It no longer mattered if I wasn’t good enough, quick enough, pretty enough, or smart enough. All that mattered was that I do my best. And when I fell down or fell out, all I needed to do was jump right back in.

As counter intuitive as it may seem, acknowledging my humanity afforded me the freedom to access my inner strength. Only when I forgave myself could I allow myself the chance to start again.

In the 2½ years of practicing Bikram yoga, I no longer feel the weight of the world.The chronic debilitating pain I once felt, is completely gone. Today, I am the healthiest I have ever been in body, mind, and spirit. I have learned to live my life the same way I practice yoga. I tackle each challenge and uncomfortable situation with a calm breath, a focused mind, and a compassionate heart. I have learned to be okay with uncertainty, fear, and discomfort knowing that these feelings ­shall pass. I am still learning.

Last Thursday, I said goodbye to my colleagues of eight years at my secure job. I venture now into uncharted territory. Yesterday, I arrived in Los Angeles for 9 weeks of full-time certification to become a Bikram yoga teacher. I have always dreamed of becoming self employed, doing things that I love most. Leaving my job and becoming a yoga teacher will make room for my greatest passion: writing travel stories and making travel videos with my husband. I feel that my mission in this post 9/11 world is to promote cultural understanding and healing. As a yoga teacher, I can help others who seek redemption. As a traveler, I can tell you stories about the places I visit and the people who live there. As an anthropologist, I can provide a unique insight to these cultures.

Every morning we awake, we are given another day for the chance to start anew. That journey always starts with the decision to forgive. I’ve learned that forgiveness first begins with ourselves before we can bestow it to others. Only then can we become courageous. Only then can we aspire for greatness. Only then can we inspire others to do the same.

A Tradition from Ponza, Italy Continues: The Feast of San Silverio

Religion. Politics. Power. Plots. Exile. Death.

Tile Rendering of Ponza's Main Port

All these ingredients create a perfect recipe for a dramatic plot.  But residents of Ponza, the largest of the Pontine Islands off the Italian coast in the Tyrrehenian Sea, celebrate a man whose life experienced them all.  The Ponzese annually celebrate the feast day of their patron saint on June 20 with a Roman Catholic Mass, a street procession with the statue, and abundant food.  Accused of treason for another’s political gain, Pope Silverius was deposed in the early 6th century.  Despite numerous attempts to prove his innocence, he was exiled to Palmarola, a harsh and rugged island 8 miles from Ponza, where he died.

The Ponzese were among the surge of Italian immigrants arriving in the United States between the 1880s and the 1920s.  Many arrived in New York City and eventually settled in the Bronx.  Like most immigrants, they continued their cultural traditions, one of which was the feast day celebration of their patron saint.  A fraternal society organized the Bronx celebration, which would mimic the one in Ponza.  After Mass at Our Lady of Pity Roman Catholic Church (now a closed parish on 151st Street near Morris Avenue), the faithful would process behind the statue throughout the neighborhood.

Hymn to San Silverio

By the mid 20th century, irreverent onlookers would throw eggs and bottles from building windows onto the processors.  In response, society member Ercito Mazzella offered to donate 81 acres of land in Dover Plains, NY that he recently purchased.  Located approximately 70 miles north of the Bronx, Mazzella originally intended to develop the land but instead, urged the society to raise funds to build a shrine that would serve as a permanent site for future processions to be held in peace.  In 2012, the San Silverio Shrine in Dover Plains will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

A Mass celebration and a small procession continues to be held every June 20 in the Morris Park section of the Bronx.  A week later, on Sunday morning, the shrine in Dover Plains hosts another celebration attracting hundreds of families, all of whom are descended from or somehow connected to the island of Ponza.

Fr. Ciro Iodice, OFM, sailed to the United States from Ponza on the Andrea Dorea in 1956, the ship’s penultimate voyage before it sank.  For the last 30 years, he has celebrated Mass at the shrine, driving several hours from Massachusetts to do so. He explained that many people participate in a procession because the saint is invoked for a specific intention or thanked for an answered prayer.  “A procession is a solemn, spiritual dialogue where a person can be in communion with the saint, with other members processing, and with the earth…the surrounding elements, both visible and invisible.”

The procession snaked along a forested path, led by a marching band and Rev. Iodice followed by men who carried the statues of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and San Silverio with the rest of the participants behind them.  The procession lasted 30 minutes with a pause in the middle for prayer. Red carnations on San Silverio’s boat were distributed to the crowd and several people pinned money to the ribbons adorning the saint’s statue at the conclusion of the ceremony. These donations were visible signs of requests or thanks.

Guido Rivieccio carried the statue of San Silverio this year as he has done for many previous years.  “As a kid, I was involved with the feast in Morris Park and I’ve been carrying the statue for about 10-15 years,” said Rivieccio.  He does it to honor his parents pointing especially to his father who was standing a few feet away.  The elder Rivieccio carried the statue in New York and in Ponza as a young man.  Rivieccio tries to remain connected to his roots by attending this annual celebration and by traveling back to Ponza.  Four years ago, he tattooed an image of San Silverio on his entire right deltoid and bicep!

Over time, most societies formed by newly arrived immigrants whither away as the connection to the homeland becomes more distant.  Yet for generations, these American descendants of Ponza have gathered with their families to celebrate this annual tradition in Dover Plains for almost 50 years.  Their devotion to San Silverio and their connection to their roots have not died. Let’s hope they never do.

A Weekend in Queens in Pursuit of the American Dream

This post is my entry into the TBEX Blog Carnival Contest sponsored by Choice Hotels International Services Corporation.  UPDATE:  On July 18, TBEX tweeted this announcement that I was one of the three winners!  Thank you to TBEX and Choice Hotels! 

In honor of Independence Day (July 4th) in the United States, I want to celebrate one of the many things that makes this nation great:  its people.  All of us who have ever lived in this country can trace our histories back–even the Native Americans, who crossed on land over what is now the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia–to that first arrival in America from a different shore.  Some came of their own volition while others by force.

For centuries, New York City has been the destination of choice for explorers, traders, immigrants, and tourists.  But a visit to New York City today is too often limited to the borough of Manhattan.  Even people who live here are hard pressed to explore the vast city they live in!  So hop on the subway, bus, or ferry and cross the East River to visit Queens, the most ethnically diverse county in the United States!  Below I have tailored a special weekend itinerary in Queens that celebrates New York City’s past and present, and honors the people who have settled here in search of the American dream.

Strap on your walking shoes, prepare your senses, and come on an empty stomach!  Queens will enthrall you.

SATURDAY:  WESTERN QUEENS
Ride the N or Q train to the first stop and walk to the remaining destinations.  Travel time is built into the itinerary.

8:00 am – Breakfast at Artopolis Bakery (Greek)
[23-18 31st Street, Astoria]

As a teenager, all my high school Greek friends hailed from Astoria.  Before the Greeks arrived in the mid-20th century, the area had previously been settled by the Dutch, Germans, Irish, and Italians.  Since those high school days nearly 20 years ago, people from the Middle East (particularly Egypt), Brazil, Japan, the newly formed Eastern European countries, plus whites escaping escalating rents in Manhattan and Brooklyn all flocked to Astoria, due to its close proximity & easy access to Manhattan.  Despite this diversification, Astoria is still synonymous with Greek immigrants.  For the 2004 Olympic Summer Games, the Olympic Flame first traveled all over the world before arriving in Athens.  As one of four US cities to host the Olympic Torch, it only made sense to commence the NYC relay in Astoria, in Athens Square Park.

Start your day off at what is arguably the best Greek pastry shop in the neighborhood!  Your eyes will be bigger than your stomach when you see the seemingly endless displays of cookies, pastries, bread, and delicacies.  Remember to order a coffee!  The bakery is located in a mall, just follow your nose.

Coffee at Artopolis - Photo Courtesy of Petit Hiboux (Flickr)

9:00 am – Steinway Piano Factory Tour (German)
[1 Steinway Place, Astoria]

Walk through a residential part of Astoria to get to the industrialized northern tip of the neighborhood.  The famous piano maker still creates and refurbishes Steinways in its original Queens factory.  Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (later anglicized to “Steinway”), emigrated from Germany with his family in the mid 19th century.  Shortly thereafter, Steinway started manufacturing pianos and by the 1880s, the Steinway family built its new factory and village in Astoria.  The Steinways were influential in the development of the neighborhood, hence a major thoroughfare is named after them.  The three-hour tour highlights the history of the family and the neighborhood, the one-of-a-kind quality of each instrument, and the craftsmanship of the workers past and present reminding you that historically, Western Queens was a major manufacturing area as a result of its close proximity to the East River.

1:00 pm – Lunch at the Bohemian Beer Garden (Czech & Slovak)
[29-19 24th Avenue, Astoria]

Established in 1910, the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden is the oldest beer garden in the City.  Munch on grilled kielbasa or bratwurst and wash it down with one of the Czech or Slovak beers on tap.  My personal favorite?  The Krušovice tmavé (dark) for its roasted, malty flavor.  The scene is always packed on weekends and it is not uncommon to see families enjoying themselves while they let their young children run round.  Many of the outdoor picnic tables are shaded by old trees, allowing for a relaxing and refreshing afternoon break from the summer heat.

Photo Courtesy of WallyG (Flickr)

3:30 pm – The Noguchi Museum (Japanese/American)
[9-01 33rd Road, Long Island City]

If you are not a lover of sculpture, a visit to the Noguchi Museum may just change your mind.  Born to a Japanese father and a white American mother in 1904, Isamu Noguchi lived in Japan as a child and moved to America as a teenager.  By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was in his late 30s living in NYC as a sculptor.  He created the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy in 1942, a group dedicated to raising awareness of Japanese-American patriotism.  He also asked to be interned as an act of solidarity with his brethren Japanese-Americans.  He spent 7 months in an internment camp and his work during this period clearly reflected his personal turmoil and sadness.  The gallery, which includes an outdoor garden, was created by Noguchi.  His primary studio was across the street, which he often biked to from his Manhattan residence; he also maintained a studio in Japan.  His pieces are strategically placed so that you sometimes feel like they belong in the “natural” landscape.  Somehow, serenity manages to envelop you during your visit.

Photo Courtesy of RocketLass (Flickr)

7:00 pm – Gantry State Park at Dusk
[Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue, Long Island City]

View the Manhattan skyline while strolling along the now refurbished waterfront piers of Long Island City, where the landscaped park offers you welcoming chairs to take in the scenery.  Watch as the sun sets behind the skyscrapers, feel the last rays of the day hit your face, and listen to the river lapping on the shore.  If you’re lucky, sometimes hammocks are there.  Snag one, close your eyes, and take in the silence.  Burn this memory into your brain:  you are swinging in a hammock, by the water, in NEW YORK CITY!

Manhattan Skyline from Gantry State Park

8:30 pm Dinner at Manducatis Rustica (Italian)
[13-27 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City]

On the outside, this squat Flatiron-shaped building looks like a residential house with a non-descript white door.  The only possible clue offered is its big bay window with curtains pulled shut and a sign.  Blink and you could miss it.  Once inside, you still feel like you are entering a residence, since in many ways, you are.  Couple Vincenzo and Ida Cerbone, have been feeding artists and working-class folks from the neighborhood for approximately 20 years, well before the arrival of the sleek luxury condos and chic, hip restaurants that now inhabit the area.  Let them and their staff welcome you and help you pair the right kind of wine with your Neapolitan meal.  Try to resist the urge to plant a kiss on each check when you say good-bye, but if you can’t, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.

If you still have some energy left and want an after-dinner drink, there are a bevy of bars within several blocks of each other, including Domaine Wine Bar, Dominie’s Hoek, Dutch Kills, and LIC Bar.  You could even stroll back to Gantry State Park to view the lights of the Manhattan skyline at night.

SUNDAY:  CENTRAL QUEENS
The second day, you’ll ride the 7 train and hop on and off in both directions.  Again, travel time is built into the itinerary.

8 am – Breakfast at Ihawan (Filipino)
[40-06 70th Street, Woodside]

Filipino food reflects the countries that have heavily influenced the culture,  usually China, Malaysia, Spain, and the United States.  It comes together clearly in a typical Filipino breakfast, consisting of a cured meat or fish (tapa), garlic-fried rice (sinangag), and eggs over easy (itlog).  Combine each underlined portion of the Tagalog words and you come up with its name: tapsilog.  Ihawan is run by the Bacani Family, who hail from the province of Pampanga in the Philippines, widely accepted amongst most Filipinos as the home of the best cooks in the country.  Fuel up now, because you’ll need it for your next stop.

Photo Courtesy of Kitakitts (Flickr)

9:30 am – Flushing Meadows Corona Park

Once the site of the “valley of ashes” as described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby, a rush of urban beautification measures in the early 20th century created this 1,255-acre park, and site of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.  Today, the park offers many outdoor activities.  Walk, or even better, rent a bike to cover more ground.  You’ll definitely want to see remnants from the World’s Fair such as the Unisphere and the New York State Pavilion observation towers, more recently made famous in the movie Men in Black as the place the aliens apparently hid their spaceships.  Be sure to stop by the Queens Museum of Art where you’ll see the Panorama of the City of New York, a 3D model of the city’s buildings and structures since 1992.  See also the memorabilia from both World’s Fairs and the exhibit on Tiffany glass, produced in neighboring Corona.  The park is also home to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, host of the US Open and Citi Field, home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets.

The Unisphere with Observation Towers in the Background

1:30 pm – Flushing (Chinese, Korean, Dutch, English)
[137-16 Northern Boulevard, Flushing]

Wander around the neighborhood that is home to Queens’ Chinatown and Koreatown.  If you are feeling peckish from your time at the park, you could get some cheap street food to tide you over to dinner.  You’ll find the majority of storefront signs here not in English, and perhaps you’ll start to wonder if you’re in another country.  Before your mind starts playing tricks on you, stop by the Flushing Quaker Meeting House, built near the end of the 17th century, and considered to be the oldest house of worship in New York State.  Even back when Flushing (then known by its original name, Vlissengen) was a Dutch colony, residents clamored for religious freedom in response to rampant discrimination by the colonial Dutch government.  This vocal protest resulted in the signing of the Flushing Remonstrance by local residents in the mid-17th century, a document that inspired the right to freedom of worship as enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution.

Signs along Union Street between Northern Boulevard & 37th Avenue

4pm – Louis Armstrong House Museum (African-American)
[34-56 107th Street, Corona]

Catch the last tour of the day at the home of jazz legend Louis Armstrong.  He and his wife, Daisy, lived in their modest Corona home for nearly 30 years, from 1943 to his death in 1971.  No one has resided in the house since then and the interior decorations have been preserved to show how the Armstrongs lived.  Listen to audio clips as you walk through the home and wander through their Japanese inspired garden.  See photographs and learn about the man whose career spanned a time in American history when racial discrimination blatantly segregated blacks and whites in society.

5:30 pm – Dinner at Rincon Criollo (Cuban)
[40-09 Junction Boulevard, Corona]

In recent decades, Corona became the home to people from all over Latin America.  And while you may have your pick of cuisines from Guatemalan fast food to Mexican chain restaurants, I recommend Rincon Criollo because it has been around for 30 years and the story of the family who owns and runs it exemplifies the American Dream realized.  The Acosta Brothers opened the original Rincon Criollo in Cuba in the 1950s as a modest room consisting of four wooden planks for its floor and palm branches as its roof.  Years of hard work led to the restaurant’s successful growth and expansion, while becoming a favorite of Cuban celebrities.  However, life changed dramatically in Cuba as the brothers had their restaurants seized following the Cuban revolution of 1962.  Fourteen years later, the brothers re-opened Rincon Criollo in Corona, Queens.  The restaurant walls are lined with photos from the old country, a reminder of their past and their roots.  Regular patrons of Rincon Criollo have been coming with their families for years, savoring the tastes of a home that exists today only in their memories or in the stories of their [grand]parents.

The Acosta Brothers and all the people and families who have been highlighted on this tour of Queens are living testaments to what we celebrate most visibly on July 4th:  the American spirit of innovation, creativity, hard-work, determination and hope.  Regardless of their backgrounds, immigrants have come to America with a dream for a better life for themselves and their families, and millions have started that dream right here in Queens.

Artopolis Bakery
23-18 31st Street
Astoria, NY 11105
(718) 728-8484
www.artopolis.net
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard

Steinway & Sons Factory
1 Steinway Place
Astoria, NY  11105
(718) 721-2600
http://steinway.com/
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard
Call in advance to schedule a tour.

Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden
29-19 24th Avenue
Astoria, NY  11102
(718) 274-4925
www.bohemianhall.com
N, Q train to Astoria Boulevard

The Noguchi Museum
9-01 33rd Road
Long Island City, NY  11106
(718) 204-7088
www.noguchi.org

Gantry Plaza State Park
Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11109
7 Train to Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue or
G Train to 21st Street/Jackson Avenue
http://nysparks.state.ny.us/parks/149/details.aspx

Manducatis Rustica
13-27 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 729-4602
7 train to Hunters Point Avenue or
G train to 21st Street

Domaine Wine Bar
50-04 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 784-2350
www.domainewinebar.com

Dominie’s Hoek
48-17 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 706-6531
www.dominieshoek.com

Dutch Kills
27-24 Jackson Ave
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 383-2724
www.dutchkillsbar.com

LIC Bar
45-58 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 786-5400
www.longislandcitybar.com

Ihawan
40-06 70th Street
Woodside, NY  11377
(718) 205-1480
7 train to 69th Street
www.ihawan2.com

Flushing Meadows Corona Park
7 train to Mets-Willets Point

Flushing Quaker Meeting House
137-16 Northern Boulevard
Flushing, NY  11354
718-358-9636
7 train to Main Street
http://www.nyym.org/flushing/hmh.html

Louis Armstrong House Museum
34-56 107th Street
Corona, NY  11368
718-478-8274
7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza
www.louisarmstronghouse.org

Rincon Criollo
40-09 Junction Boulevard
Corona, NY  11368
(718) 639-8158
7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza

My Top 5 Highlights of TBEX 2011

I attended my first travel blogger conference in Vancouver, Canada last weekend. The Travel Blogger Exchange (TBEX) held its third annual North American conference, TBEX’11.

© Kirsten Alana Photography / Galavanting

As a first time attendee, my goals were simple: network like mad, learn a thing or two, and experience a little bit of the host city. Not only did I accomplish all of those goals but I did so with 5 hours of sleep a night, coming home late from a networking event and getting up early to strategize and prep for my day. Here are my top five highlights from the conference (really wishing I attended that non-narrative writing workshop as I write this):

#5: Face Time with Members of the Travel Community
Despite the power of social media, the best way to connect with a person is, well, in person. It took a 3,000 mile plane ride to meet fellow New Yorkers Leslie Kohen (@leslietravel), Annemarie Dooling (@TravelingAnna), Kelley Ferro (@kelleyferro), Brian Peters (@brianepeters), Aaron Shapiro (@adventurousness), and Rosina Shiliwala (@rosina_s).

I finally put faces to Traveler’s Night-In (#TNI) friends Erin Halvey (@ehalvey), Janice Waugh (@solotraveler), Jade and Bob (@Vagabond3Live), and Catherine Sweeney (@TravelingWithS). We regularly came together on Twitter at 1530 hrs ET on Thursdays to talk travel.

Trailblazer Evelyn Hannon (@Journeywoman), the intrepid Vogel family who biked from Alaska to Argentina (@FamilyOnBikes), and visionary Tracey Friley (@OneBrownGirl) whose Passport Parties provide young American girls with their very first passport, all inspired me.

I shook hands with John DiScala…err…Johnny Jet (@JohnnyJet), Benny Lewis (@irishpolyglot), JD Andrews (@earthXplorer), Mike Barish (@mikebarish), Jodi Ettenburg (@legalnomads), Beth Whitman (@Wanderluster), Sean Keener (@SEKeener) and Jessica Spiegel (@italylogue) of Bootsnall.com,  all bright stars in the travel blogging firmament.

I had meaningful conversations with Melanie Waldman (@travelswithtwo), JoAnna Haugen (@joanna_haugen), Crai Bower (@craisbower), and Elyse Mailhot (@ctccct) who shared their tips on work-family/life balance. I thank them for their generous advice.

(l-r) Me, Leslie (@leslietravel), Tina (@crozul), James (@nomadicnotes)

Oh, and I also discovered that I had fans! James Clark (@nomadicnotes) was the first to spot me at the kick-off event at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Besides travel, we discussed our mutual admiration for Fountains of Wayne. Later, I met Tina Rozul (@crozul) of Go2it.com, Lauren Nicholl (@WanderLoz) and Anis Salvesen (@anis_salvesen) of Tripping.com, and Shana Zheng of Triptrotting.com. Thank you all for your encouragement and making me feel validated!

Before arriving at TBEX, I made a list of the people I wanted to meet. I managed to meet all but two on that list. As I talked to people at the conference, I discovered more people I wanted to meet.  I knew it would be impossible to chat with everyone but I am certain opportunities to cross paths in the future will present themselves.

#4: Narrative Writing Workshop with Pam Mandel (@nerdseyeview), Don George (@don_george), and Andrew Evans (@WheresAndrew)
I had homework. Homework! Yes, I know I was supposed to learn a thing or two but these folks assigned homework and wanted me to turn it around in 24 hours. Where was I, graduate school? Of course, I reverted back to my usual MO when such assignments are due:  CRAM. An hour before the thesis story deadline, I went into seclusion in a conference center corner to write my 200-600 word narrative on how I got to TBEX. Under pressure, I managed to bang out a 215-word piece that I kinda felt good about considering the circumstances. We broke up into groups in the second session and Pam was my leader. I felt my face get hot and winced inside as I waited for the criticism. I got some good feedback from the group, which made me realize the things I needed to do when I got home:  write more regularly, find people to read my work and provide constructive feedback, and develop a thicker skin. Within the short span of an hour, I was astounded that homework assignments were now self-imposed.

Pam leads our group. Photo courtesy of Tina Rozul (@crozul).

#3: Getting shushed because I was a loud New Yorker and member of Robert Reid’s “Live Research Crew”

I was grateful to Robert (@reidontravel) for choosing me as one of a three-member crew to help drive his point home on the importance of research. It gave me the chance to not only work with Robert, Kymri Wilt (@kymri) and Matt Gibson (@xpatmatt) but also to present to the large crowd of attendees. I tried to improve a weakly written blog post on Niagara Falls by finding new angles on the story and attempted to get a quote through phone calls. Clearly people weren’t listening to Robert when he introduced us at the beginning of his presentation. Or maybe you couldn’t hear him because I was apparently speaking very loud on the phone. Attendees shushed me for my perceived rudeness! I was just doing my job as a jourblist, a new term coined by Robert. Um, can someone explain to me exactly what a jourblist is since I was too busy talking during his presentation? Oh wait, I should’ve done my research before asking that question.

(l-r) Robert, Matt, Kymri, and me. © Raul P of hummingbird604.com

What an opportunity! © Kirsten Alana Photography / Galavanting

#2: Favorite mascot and celebrity @Banff_Squirrel got star struck meeting me!

The feeling was totally mutual!  Usually, I can maintain my New York City cool but my excitement at meeting this famous furry little creature got the best of me.  I couldn’t help but let out a shrill scream…like a total fool.

@Banff_Squirrel Tweets Our First-Time Meeting

And my #1 highlight of TBEX?

Gary Arndt (@EverywhereTrip) said he would wear my ActionJoJo t-shirt to TBEX next year! Witnesses included Jodi Ettenberg (@legalnomads), James Clark (@nomadicnotes), and Shannon O’Donnell (@shannonRTW) so that I won’t let him forget it. I was so excited that I almost ran him over with my hug. Thanks for the vote of confidence Gary! I’ll be sure to have a few t-shirts ready for you before we arrive in Keystone, Colorado next year!

I wonder if Gary is thinking, "What did I get myself into?"

I echo Pam Mandel’s recent reflections on TBEX.  My ultimate goal for TBEX was to meet people and get my name out there.  I planted a ton of seeds that I hope will bear fruit in time.  I’ve still got a lot of learning to do as a writer and videographer and yes, a blogger.  I’m determined to work hard and with patience, determination, and focus, I hope to realize my personal and professional goals.

A special shout out and high five to Kim Mance (@KimMance), Joey Hernandez (@joeybear85), and Courtney McGann (@courtneyisneato) for the herculean task of putting together TBEX’11! Thanks also to our host city of Vancouver (@ctccct, @myvancouver and @tourismbc) for showing us a good time!

©KirstenAlanaPhotography/Galavanting

Fortified New York

Four out of the five New York City boroughs are either an island (Manhattan and Staten Island) or part of an island (Brooklyn and Queens are two of the four counties that make up Long Island).  The Bronx is the only borough that is part of the US mainland.  As a result, the waterways surrounding the city are an intrinsic part of its identity and served an important economic function in its history.  Yet the waterway system made the city vulnerable to attack so fortifications were built at strategic points along its harbors.  This week’s challenge instructed me to spend time in a city park and while Flushing Meadows Corona Park may have been an obvious choice, instead I chose Fort Totten Park to learn more about the city’s military history.

Located on 60 acres in Bayside, a neighborhood in the northeastern-most section of Queens, Fort Totten was built in the mid-19th century and along with Fort Schuyler in the Bronx, served to protect the eastern entrance into New York harbor via the East River through Long Island Sound.  It complemented the fortification of the harbor from the south at the mouth of the Narrows, with Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn and Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island.  Today, a small section of it still houses the US Army Reserves and the US Coast Guard.

One of the highlights of my visit was a self guided tour of the water battery, which was built in 1862 as one of the US government’s responses to the attack on Fort Sumter and the subsequent outbreak of Civil War in 1861.  After checking in at the refurbished Visitor’s Center, I accessed the battery at a nearby entrance that led me into a long transport tunnel lit by a single file of light bulbs along its ceiling.  Walking through the tunnel felt like going through an old-fashioned wormhole in slow motion because when I emerged on the other side, I came upon an eerily abandoned unfinished fort from the past.

Walking amidst the large granite blocks and bluestone floors was reminiscent of my exploration of the buildings at Machu Picchu in Peru.  Arched cannon rooms and walkways, numerous doors that led to hidden rooms and little crannies, stairwells that raised or lowered you to another level, and windows that peered out onto the water made it feel like a maze.  The blocks, although universally sized here, reminded me of the large boulders smoothed out and tightly fitted together by the Incas to create the buildings of Machu Picchu.  This place would be a photographer’s dream as light and shadow interplay well with the structure’s architecture. In all of my exploration, I did not encounter another visitor even though I saw a couple enter the tunnel just five minutes ahead of me.

Since the battery is adjacent to the water, it affords excellent views of Long Island Sound, Nassau County, and the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges that connect Queens and the Bronx.

Throgs Neck Bridge in Foreground & Whitestone Bridge in Background

View of Long Island Sound & Nassau County

Decades of neglect have left the battery and many of the buildings at Fort Totten in a state of decay.  In some parts, nature has taken over.

Batteries Built in 1885-1903 that Housed Disappearing Guns

To see incredible pictures on the state of a decaying building, check out this photo essay on Fort Totten’s Army Hospital.  There is hope for some of these buildings to return to their resplendent beauty.  Below is the former Commanding Officer’s house and today it is the Parks and Recreation Department’s northeast Queens headquarters.

The Gothic revival building below is known as “The Castle”.  It was once the Officer’s Club is now home to the Bayside Historical Society.

Replica of the Archaeological Site

Bayside Real Estate Brochure in the 1930s. A 2-story, 3 bed house on a 40x100 plot cost $5,890-$6,290.

I highly recommend a stop at “The Castle”. On the day of my visit, Margaret, a friendly employee offered me a quick and dirty “ten cent” tour. After showing me the lay of the land, I lingered to view the exhibits on display. Committed to remembering and explaining the history of the building and the neighboring area, permanent exhibitions inform visitors of the archeological digs of the area, the Native Americans who lived here, as well as the development of Bayside.  Special exhibitions such as “The Women of Bayside” currently on display, highlight the contemporary events and people of the neighborhood.  The society hosts lectures and events and the building is even available for rent by the public.

Union Soldier Uniform

Fort Totten was designated a NYC Historic District in 1999 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In 2003, it was transferred to the City of New York with the exception of the 77th Army Reserve. In addition to the army reserve, the park is also home to the NYC Parks and Recreation, Fire, and Police Departments as well as the US Coast Guard. The park accommodates all ages and interests. Park Rangers offer historical tours of the battery, architectural tours of the buildings, and even take children on birdwatching tours! You can walk, run, and bike throughout the grounds and in the summer, a public pool is available for use.

To learn more about events at Fort Totten Park or any of NYC’s public parks, pick up the free quarterly magazine by the Urban Park Rangers, “Outdoors in NYC”.  It is a useful guide that sorts information by borough, date/time, then activity.  You can also access a copy online.  I am struck by the incredible breadth of activities available to the public, the majority of which are free!

Fort Totten Park
Cross Island Parkway & Totten Avenue
Bayside, Queens
Visitors Center:  718-352-1769
FREE / Hours: Dawn to Dusk
www.nycgovparks.org/parks/forttotten

The Bayside Historical Society
Thu – Fri:  10 am – 2 pm
Sat:  12 – 4 pm
Sun:  11 am – 2 pm
$3 Suggested Donation
www.baysidehistorical.org

7 train to Main Street, Flushing,
followed by the Q13 or Q16 bus to the last stop
— OR —
LIRR Port Washington Line to Bayside,
followed by the Q13 bus to Fort Totten