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

“Say Cheese” at The Queens Kickshaw

This Memorial Day weekend, I am getting my fix of restaurants in western Queens!

After months of hearing rave reviews, I finally got myself to the Queens Kickshaw, a new establishment in Astoria that serves “fancy” grilled cheese sandwiches, craft beer, and specialty coffee.  Thanks to the power of Twitter, I organized a a casual “tweetup” with fellow Queens resident foodies @Stellaaa, @RoxWriting, and @mojoshowbiz, some of whom I met in person for the very first time.

All of the sandwiches on the menu, as seen on the website (screenshot below), sounded tasty and we arrived with a strategy.

Egg and cheese (Brioche and maple hot sauce); Cheddar and mozzarella (Brioche with tomato soup); Gruyere (Pickled and caramelized onions on rye with Napa Cabbage-caraway slaw); Manchego and Ricotta (Minted eggplant and capers on multigrain with green salad and pickled golden raisins); Gouda (Black bean hummus, guava jam, pickled jalapenos on brioche with green salad and jalapeno vinaigrette); Arahovas Feta (Ajvar roasted red pepper spread and dill open-face on focaccia with green salad and olive vinaigrette); Fontina Val d'Aosta (Marinated mushrooms and basil pesto open-face on focaccia with green salad and toasted pine nuts); Great Hill Blue (Prune jam and fresh pear on cranberry-walnut bread with green salad and pickled blueberries; Tomato soup; Napa cabbage slaw; Kitchen sink salad; Miso-mustard pickles; Curried pumpkin seeds; Lemon coriander olives

We agreed in advance to order four different sandwiches, and split them all in quarters so we could have a sample taste of each.  It was a brilliant idea and one I suggest you employ if you want to avoid the awful dilemma of have to choose just one sandwich.

After some deliberation, we decided on the Manchego & Ricotta, Gouda, Gruyere, and Fontina (clockwise, at 12 o’clock) .  All the sandwiches were delicious in their own right but it would be unlike me not to compare and contrast them.  So in order of least to most favorite based solely on personal preference, they are….drum roll please…

While I was prepared for the open-faced Fontina Val d’Aosta, my palette craved the crispiness of a two-sided, grilled cheese.  The familiar pairing of basil pesto with the soft focaccia was lovely but by sheer virtue of sandwich construction, I placed it last.

The Gruyere reminded me so much of a pastrami sandwich without the meat.  The pickled and caramelized onion, the mustard, the rye bread are the building blocks of a pastrami sandwich.  This one was a wonderful vegetarian alternative if you are craving those flavors.

In the rare instances that I see guava on a menu, I almost always order it.  The fruit, and its tarty taste, remind me so much of the Philippines.  The sweetness of the jam juxtaposed with the creaminess of the black been hummus and Gouda cheese plus the pickled jalapanos created a complexity of flavors that I really enjoyed.  The grilled brioche melted in my mouth which added a different dimension of texture to your traditional grilled cheese sandwich.

I really loved the Gouda sandwich and the Manchego & Ricotta barely eeked past it as my favorite of the four.  I think what it boiled down to was my preference today for something not sweet.  Essentially, this sandwich reminded me of an eggplant tapenade.  The smooth texture of the cheeses and the pureed eggplant with whole briny capers was a winning combination.

After taking a quarter of each sandwich, we coined our newly formed concoction the “Franken-sandwich” (with a Guatemalan pour over coffee in the background).

The place was packed at 1pm on Sunday.  Long tables in the back and a large table in the front allowed several parties to sit together, promoting a casual intimacy and sense of connection.  The place definitely gave off a Williamsburg vibe where attention to detail, decor, craftmanship, and service were top priorities.  It is quite a change from most of the establishments in the neighborhood.  At our table, we (three of Filipino & one of Italian descent) sat beside four Tibetan women speaking in their native tongue and a solitary man wearing a plaid shirt and headphones, typing away on his Macbook.  I smiled at a sudden realization.

When I think of Queens’ great asset, its ethnic diversity, I must admit that I often think of its new immigrants.  I forget that there are people who have lived in this borough all their lives, whose families have lived here for several generations.  Heck, I forget that even hipsters are a part of this great borough.  In Astoria, once a neighborhood where all my childhood Greek friends lived, all are welcome.  Our table at the Queens Kickshaw reflected just that.

Owners, Ben Sandler and Jennifer Lim, took the time to chat with us despite the restaurant’s constant incoming flow of people.  When it was time to take the obligatory group photo, the only appropriate response at the end of the countdown was of course, “Grilled Cheese!”


The Queens Kickshaw
40-17 Broadway
Astoria, NY 11103
(718) 777-0913
www.thequeenskickshaw.com

Diner & Coffee Fix in Long Island City

Before my husband and I bought our house last year, I was an Astoria resident for eight years.  Living in the western part of Queens, closest to Manhattan — Astoria and in neighboring Long Island City — was delightful.  New restaurants, stores, residential buildings popped up all the time.  For a curious explorer like me, this aspect of change was exciting.

Magasin Wells Diner, more colloquially known as “M. Wells”,  opened a few months after I left the area.  Hearing all the great reviews about this place, I knew it would be a matter of time before I visited.  But weeks became months and months became a year.  I was embarrassed that even visitors to NYC (like this awesome foodie couple from California) even got here before I did!  They live 3,000 miles away from the restaurant.  Me?  10 miles away. What was wrong with this picture?  So I corrected the problem TODAY.

The food at M. Wells has been described as “Quebecois-American”.  The owners are a married couple, and the husband was a former chef at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal.  I hit the jackpot by arriving on this Friday morning before Memorial Day.  I was seated right away and as I looked around, I noticed there were still some empty seats to spare.  My waitress said this occurrence was unusual and we agreed it was probably a function of the long holiday weekend.

While reviews rave of the offal dishes, I was in the mood to trying something else since it was only 10:30 am and my stomach was not ready for foie gras, tongue, or veal brains.  All right, I’ll be honest. I don’t think my stomach will ever be ready for veal brains…  Gasp! Will you still respect me and view me as a “foodie”?

Instead, I opted for the egg and potato hash because the bacon and fiddleheads in the dish appealed to me.  I was disappointed to learn that the hash had been altered to include crab meat, asparagus, and peas. I still chose it anyway since I was in the mood for potato hash and a soft egg.  While the dish was tasty, it would’ve been SURELY out of this world had it been made with the salty, savory bacon paired with the earthy fiddleheads.

My husband opted for the Cubano sandwich, which was pressed flat allowing the meat edges poking outside of the bread to become crisp.

I’ll be sure to come back here again.  I know I was spoiled today since the place was relaxed and calm with no wait.  Perhaps I’ll check out the dinner scene and stop by one of three weeknights they are open in the evening.  I’m sure by that time, I’ll be in the mood for this.

I only drank water at M. Wells because I knew I would head to Sweetleaf next, just two blocks away.  A charming coffee shop with baked goods made on the premises, the place was warm and flooded with natural light thanks to several large windows in the storefront.  As my senses adjusted to the place, it took less than a few minutes to encounter this amusing sign.

Co-owner Rich Nieto was behind the counter.  Without knowing what to order, I asked him to suggest something for me.  Since it was a hot day, he suggested the “Iced Rocket Fuel”, an iced coffee, cold brewed with chicory and maple syrup.  But I also wanted a hot coffee so he suggested a “pour over” coffee made with Stumptown coffee beans of his choice.

We followed him to the back and settled by the pour-over “bar”.  It was hard to stay seated on the bar stools because I curiously wanted to watch each preparation step.   It was mesmerizing.  Rich reminded me of a scientist in the lab sans the white medical coat.  To brew this individual cup, he sought accuracy and precision with various tools: thermometer, measuring cup, and scale.  In this age of mass commercialization and high production, making one 12-ounce cup of coffee took time, patience, and dare I say, love?  It was a nice change of pace from the usual way I ordered coffee.  It gave me the chance to get to know the man behind the counter and find out how this fellow Queens native, who always loved coffee, went from being the owner of a telecommunications company to the owner of a coffee house.  He decided to follow his coffee bliss after his good friend started Sweetleaf.  “Even though I’ve been to Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, I’ve never been to a coffee farm in any of these countries.  But people always think I have.  I was more likely to connect you if you ever called these places,” he laughed as he recalled his former life.

I was thankful for his leap of faith. For in a few minutes I sipped on a Stumptown Finco El Injerto Bourbon from Guatemala, which was bold but smooth with absolutely zero acerbity. It was one of the best cups of coffee I had because I managed to taste the complexity and combination of flavors free of milk and sugar. I always believed that excellent coffee should be drunk black so as to truly taste it. I couldn’t discern my coffee’s “fragrance of jasmine” but I was able to pick up the super subtle hint of chocolate. The Iced Rocket Fuel, surprisingly didn’t have any acerbity either and it finished with the sweet smoothness of maple syrup.

While I didn’t get a chance to sample the baked goodies, I did manage to sneak behind the counter!  As a totally inexperienced barista, I may have freaked out this disturbingly obsessed coffee geek. I’ll spare him the heart attack so that we can all continue to benefit from his talent and passion.  I shall gladly return to my rightful place on the other side of the bar, sipping a delicious cup o’ joe…or two.

M. Wells Diner
21-17 49th Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 425-6917
7 Train to Hunters Point Avenue
www.mwellsdiner.com

Sweetleaf
10-93 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11101
(917) 832-6726
7 Train to Vernon Boulevard/Jackson Avenue

The King of Queens?

Goodbye to Rosie, the Queen of Corona
Seein’ me and Julio down by the schoolyard.
– Paul Simon

When I think of Corona, Queens, four things come immediately to mind:  1) this Paul Simon song; 2) the home of Louis Armstrong, now a museum; 3) the Lemon Ice King as seen in the opening credits the TV show “King of Queens“; and 4) Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

I grew up in neighboring Elmhurst (formerly named “Newtown” during the British colonial period)  just as Paul Simon grew up in neighboring Forest Hills.  And like Simon, as evidenced by his song, I know Corona today as a neighborhood predominantly comprised of Latin American immigrants.  This week’s challenge instructed me to take a walking tour so I sought out the person I believed could best guide me:  Jack Eichenbaum,  urban geographer.  After hearing him featured in this great NPR story just after he was appointed the Queens Borough Historian, I knew he was the man for the job.

Jack and I met on a cold spring morning at Corona Plaza, near the #7 train entrance at 103rd Street.  Before we began, Jack started by explaining how the arrival of different forms of transportation affected not only the landscape of Corona but also how people came to interact with it.  “No wonder Corona Avenue winds through the neighborhood like a snake!” I exclaimed after Jack described how this street was once the colonial route from Brooklyn to Flushing, and followed the contours of the land.  Anglos arrived in the 1800s after the building of the railroad (now the present day Port Washington branch of the Long Island Rail Road) and by the 1890s, Jewish, German, and Italian immigrants arrived as trolleys traveled down the streets.

By 1917, the elevated #7 train was built above an available area — now known as Roosevelt Avenue, a highly commercial area — which at the time was the least desirable part of town.  The neighboring business district of Flushing resisted the intrusion of an elevated train but in 10 years the subway line was extended to terminate at Main Street, the current last stop.  Flushing’s resistance resulted in the underground building of the Main Street station, which required more money and engineering finesse.  (Jack claimed the reason for the subway line’s continuing signal problems today relates to the elevation change from about three stories above ground to going underground into Main Street.  Hmmm… I thought this whole time “delays due to signal problems” was a NYC MTA euphemism for “we’re taking a coffee break.”)

Immediately, Jack impressed me with his incredible knowledge.  More importantly, he seamlessly connected economic factors to the emergence of transportation advancements that brought about the neighborhood’s changes. He was also able to contextualize the historical events in Corona to what was happening in neighboring parts of Queens, the city of New York, and even the United States.

Park of the Americas (formerly Linden Park, which once contained a lake) was renamed as a tribute to the countless ethnic communities who lived and still live in Corona.

By the mid- to late 20th century, an influx of Latin Americans arrived in Corona. In the photo above, you can see a storefront sign in the upper left called “Tulcingo Deli”, one of a number of Mexican restaurants in NYC with this name.  In fact, my favorite Mexican restaurant in my former neighborhood of Astoria was Tulcingo on Broadway!  In Mexico, Tulcingo is a city in the state of Puebla from where many of the Mexicans living in NYC hail.

Pollo Campero, a Guatemalan fast food restaurant, has a location in Corona while Rincon Criollo, one of the oldest Cuban restaurants in the city still remains.  Jack tipped me off that any business signs with the words “Quisqueyano” or “Cibao” catered to the Dominican population because the island that is now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic was once called Quisqueya by its native people, the Taino.  Cibao, also a Taino word, refers to the northern region of the DR.  A geography lesson from a geographer, I expected nothing less.

Reading the signs & utilizing our Spanish skills

English translation: "Want to try our Fanesca? Then come here. We have the best and most delicious." Fanesca is an Ecuadorian stew made only around Easter.

It was clear that Jack and I were kindred spirits thanks to our mutual interest in the inhabitants who create the culture of a place.  I also discovered that Jack likes to travel to the homelands of the immigrants who live in the NYC neighborhoods he explores.  Out of all the countries he visited, he claimed Vietnam to be his favorite because the country was nothing like the negative messages he heard about as a young adult.

The tour included a stop at the former Tiffany glass factory and furnaces, which now houses several business including a halal live poultry corporation.  How perfect to finally visit the building since I learning about its existence just a few weeks ago during a visit to the nearby Queens Museum of Art for the first week’s challenge!

The former glass factory of Louis Comfort Tiffany

Sign in English, Chinese, Spanish and Hindi (?)

Our final stop brought us to Silver Bell, a Lithuanian bakery from the 1920s that “is still family owned and dedicated to keeping alive the wholesome traditions of ‘Old World’ baking” according to its website.  I wonder what it means to bake “old word” style?  Nevertheless, I’m amazed that Silver Bell has managed to remain and succeed in a neighborhood whose demographics have changed so dramatically since it opened.

Standing in front of freshly baked bread. I could not resist a treat!

As an anthropologist, I learned that a place is where politics, economics, and ecology intersect.  Jack taught me that technology can also be included in this mix.  Akin to an anthropologist doing work in the field, Jack sees the street as a “lab” where observations of the residents’ social behaviors can be made and its effects on a place.

His passion of exploring cities on foot started as a child when his father and grandfather took him on long walks.  As a college professor, he took his students to the streets.  He organized his first walking tour in 1982 of Long Island City, which was  sponsored by the Queens Historical Society.  It was in response to the few walking tours offered at the time, which were typically focused on architecture in Manhattan.  He wanted to guide tours that focused on the vitality of a place – its people – in a borough that he loves:  Queens.

I learned so much from the mere hour I spent with Jack, and I am certain it won’t be the last tour I take with him.  Jack sees himself not as a tour guide but as an educator so if you are curious or interested in history, culture, demographics, transportation and New York City in general, go on a walk with Jack!  You won’t be disappointed.

Be sure to check out his upcoming signature tour highlighting “The World of the #7 Train”, held on one day only — April 30, 2011 — as detailed below.  For additional tour schedules, check his website.

Jack Eichenbaum
www.geognyc.com
jaconet@aol.com
718-961-8406

Saturday, April 30, 2011
10:00am to 5:30 pm (with lunch break)

THE WORLD OF THE #7 TRAIN
Long Island City – Sunnyside – Woodside – Elmhurst –
Jackson Heights – Corona – Flushing

Your tour leader, Jack Eichenbaum, maintains a storehouse of researched facts and biased memories of bygone eras.  Eichenbaum holds a Ph.D in urban geography, teaches Geography of NYC at CUNY  and has been riding the #7 for six decades.  His expertise lies in historical geography and ethnic and technological change.  His tour will focus on what the #7 train has done to and for the surrounding neighborhoods since it opened in 1914.  The #7 has been designated a “National Millennium Trail” for its pioneering role in transporting people in what is probably the most demographically diverse cityscape in the world.

Tour fee is $39 and you need to preregister by check to:
Jack Eichenbaum, 36-20 Bowne St. #6C, Flushing, NY 11354
(include name, phone and email address).
The tour is limited to 25 people.
For further information, email jaconet@aol.com.

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

Doubles, Mauby, Aloo Pie, Oh My!

The best part about Queens?  Hands down, the food, because the incredible variety of options reflects the rich diversity of the borough’s people.

Out of curiosity, I recently listed all the cuisines I’ve ever had in Queens:  American, Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Brazilian, Argentinian, Egyptian, Israeli, Central Asian (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, western China), Afghani, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Veitnamese, Thai, Chinese (including the regional flavors of Dongbei, Shanghai, Sichuan, Hong Kong), Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Malaysian, Indonesian, Polish, Czech, Greek, Cypriot, Bosnian/Balkan, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Irish.

That’s 37 cuisines from around the world, yo!  37!!!  And there’s still so much more to try!

The third week’s challenge charged me to eat in a neighborhood I rarely visit.  After contemplating my options, I decided to not only go to a less familiar neighborhood but to also try a cuisine I’ve never had before: Indo-Caribbean.  I headed to Richmond Hill with a well-established West Indian population particularly from Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago.

I selected Singh’s Roti Shop after doing research online and getting recommendations from friends.  Dishes and drinks I’ve never heard before–doubles, aloo pie, buss up shot, salt fish and bake, mauby, sorrel, sea moss, and peanut punch–I wanted to try.

Upon entering Singh’s, my senses were immediately overloaded.  The huge line extended from the counter to the door, at least 40 feet.  To while away the time, people in line and families seated at tables watched TV transfixed.  It played music videos of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and various West Indian artists while the sound blared from floor speakers.  The television jockey seemed to suffer from ADD because he changed the video every 2 minutes, never completing any one song.  During my 30 minute wait, I observed what seemed like satisfied customers leaving with bags…and trays, MULTIPLE TRAYS, of food.  If impatient New Yorkers are willing to wait long, then the food must be delicious.  I got excited!

When I reached the counter, I saw at least 10 Singh employees taking orders and dishing out food.  I asked my server a question but the high glass counter filled with numerous to-go containers prevented eye contact and the loud blaring music made it really hard to hear each other.  I asked for clarification on the menu and I got a “hold on”.  She suddenly disappeared to the kitchen, returned minutes later, and proceeded to take another customer!  I tried to get her attention. Heck, I tried to get anyone’s attention but all were busy.  After another 7 minute wait, my server yelled “next” and I went back to her and asked why she didn’t serve me.    She came up with this crazy line about how long the line was and that I had to wait.

And then, I LOST IT.

I got all New York on her, ActionJoJo-style!  Despite my yelling still sounding like a whisper thanks to the loud music, she begrudgingly took my order….which she eventually got wrong.

Clockwise from center left: aloo pie, doubles, sorrel and mauby (drinks), chicken roti.

I got doubles, an aloo pie, a roti chicken and to drink I decided to try sorrel and mauby. The roti chicken reminded me of its Malaysian cousin, chicken roti canai sans the coconut milk in the curry. The West-Indian roti is far thicker and bigger, which makes it heartier to absorb the delicious sauce.  Without coconut milk in the curry, it was less creamy but still full of flavor.  Shaped like a tapered submarine sandwich with a slit on its side, the aloo pie surprised me.  I did not expect the consistency of the fried dough to remind me of an Italian zeppola filled with a mixture of chickpeas and potatoes instead of ricotta cheese.  My favorite by far was the doubles, a chickpea curry filling between two pieces of baras bread.  The juxtaposition of the hearty and spicy creaminess of the chickpeas between the thin soft pieces of baras made the dish delicious partly because of taste and mostly because of texture.  I came to understand how it is a popular snack food in Trinidad:  light enough to not make you feel full but heavy enough to tide you over until your next real meal.  The sorrel was essentially a fruit punch but the mauby was more complex:  earthy and herby, akin to a non-carbonated homemade root beer that started semi-sweet and ended with a bitter aftertaste.

Flags of countries from the region

Now that I’ve sampled West Indian cuisine, I would definitely eat it again.  Much of the population of Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago descended from Africans and Indians who arrived as slaves or indentured workers.  Even the Chinese ended up in these countries, which is why you’ll see lo mein, chow mein, and fried rice on the menu.  I tried to sample the “Singh’s Special Fried Rice” for comparison but they were out.

I would not suggest going to Singh’s if you are a first timer like me unless you are accompanied by someone who knows how to order.  I would’ve been better suited going to a sit-down restaurant serviced by wait staff who could answer my questions and explain the menu.  If you have any suggestions of places like these, leave them in the comments!  I’ll wait to go back to Singh’s until I’m far more familiar with the menu.

Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar
131-14 Liberty Avenue
South Richmond Hill, NY  11419
(718) 323-599

A train to Lefferts Boulevard
M-Thu 6am-12am; Fri 6am-2am;
Sat 5:30am-2am; Sun 5:30am-12am
www.singhsrotishopnyc.com

Queenshenge

Manhattanhenge.  Heard of it?

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at NYC’s American Museum of Natural History wrote an essay and starred in a short NOVA Science Now video to describe how a few days in the year, the sun aligns with the street grid of Manhattan.  On these days, you could stand on the east-west cross streets of Manhattan, look west, and (if it’s not cloudy) watch the sun appear to set in the center of the street, flanked by skyscrapers.  Tyson even postulated, “Future anthropologists might conclude that, via the Sun, the people who called themselves Americans worshiped War and Baseball,” since the two sunset alignment days fall equidistantly before and after the summer solstice (May 30/Memorial Day and July 12/Major League Baseball’s All Star break).

Manhattanhenge as seen from across the East River in Long Island City, Queens.
Photo by Pabo76*

While Manhattenhenge is popularized by the dramatic sunset photos taken by modern-day druids, the sun also aligns to the Manhattan street grid on certain days at sunrise.  Due to the grid’s orientation, the lesser known occurrences of Manhattanhenge happen days before and after the winter solstice (December 5 and January 8).  At these times, you could once again stand on the east-west cross streets of Manhattan, look east, and watch the sun rise over the horizon flanked with buildings.  But who wants to get up early in the morning in the middle of winter when you could just as easily see this phenomenon when it’s warm and at the end of the day?

Thanks to this week’s challenge, I turn Manhattanhenge on its head!  Watching the sun rise may never be as popular as watching the sun set.  And I definitely agree that Manhattan takes the top prize for its dramatic urban canyon effect during Manhattanhenge sunsets.  But if you’re willing to buck these two popular trends and be different, then I believe Queens has something to offer an intrepid traveler that Manhattan can never offer:  a double sunrise.

On February 20th, I stood in Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City before dawn.  The Manhattan skyline was dark and as sunrise approached, the sky started to take on light pink and purple hues.  These colors softly casted the skyline in a way never seen at other times of the day.  This beautiful sight was worth the early wake-up time but in a short while, I learned that it was not the main attraction…

As time passed, I faced west to see the Manhattan skyline aglow.  I then turned towards the east, and witnessed the sun rising perfectly from the center of the street and between the twin monolithic condo towers on 48th Avenue.

As if this moment of serendipity was not enough, I turned once again to face west and Manhattan.  I was presented with a grand surprise—the sun rose over Queens precisely between the Long Island City condo towers, and it was reflected in the Manhattan skyscrapers and the East River thereby creating the illusion of a second sunrise!  Taking a cue from Dr. Tyson, I hereby coin the term “Queenshenge” to describe this phenomenon.

If these topics of sun orientation and urban landscape interests you, I suggest you check out this fascinating project called LIC Sundial, where artist Heidi Neilson treated the solitary Citibank building in Long Island City as a sundial to explore the shadows it cast within a year.  In fact, she even designed a poster to describe Manhattanhenge.

Gantry Plaza State Park
Center Boulevard between 47th Road and 49th Avenue
Long Island City, Queens

7 Train to Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue or
G Train to 21st Street/Jackson Avenue
FREE / Hours:  Dawn to Dusk

*More of Pabo76’s work can be found on his flickr page.