Monday, September 5, 2011

I (surprisingly) Love L.A.!

Had I not been summoned to California to appear on Wheel of Fortune, I would likely have never made a trip there. I've never had any desire to visit the Golden State, assuming it was filled with smog, fault lines, snobby people and excessive traffic.  True, So. Cal. is plagued by an abundance of traffic, poor air quality and, of course, land that is is ripe for major quakes; however, there is much, much more to this West Coast wonderland!  

First of all, I feel I must apologize to you Californians for clinging to my misconceptions about you for so long.  I hate to admit my small-mindedness, but I really thought that Cali was a state filled with weird, botox loving, liberal extremists.  I thought I would feel terribly out of place as a chubby, very white, small-town, Christian gal.  Well, I was absolutely wrong.  The people were warm and friendly everywhere we went!  Everyone we met went out of their way to be helpful and extra nice to us.  The other cool thing about Cali is the diversity of her people.  Walking down the street in LA you'll hear dozens of languages being spoken. There really is no such thing as a "typical Californian".  

Diverse is also the best way to describe the neighborhoods and topography of So Cal.  While driving along the lengthy avenues and boulevards you'll soon notice that every 10-12 blocks you feel as if you are in a new city because the landscape, architecture and "vibe" have completely changed. 

The beaches are diverse and beautiful, too.  For an East-coaster, it's just amazing to see the cliffs drop off and turn into the shore.  Several of the beaches we saw were very wide.  I'd guess Venice Beach stretched over 1/4 mile from the beginning of the sand until the ocean.  Venice Beach was insane, a haven for hippies, skaters, tourists and pot-heads alike.  The boardwalk is lined with shops and restaurants.  Many of the shops are "Doctor's offices" where patients can be evaluated and prescribed medical Marijuana.  The beach also boasts a really cool ocean-front skatepark and the famous Muscle Beach gym.

A little further up the coast is Santa Monica Beach and the famous Santa Monica Pier.  The beach is large and lovely, and a better place for families than Venice Beach.  The Pier, which also marks the ending point of historic Route 66, offers several fun diversions for your family.  Enjoy an ice cream cone or an old-fashioned egg cream while your kids take a twirl on the antique carousel.  The more adventurous members of your group can catch a few thrills at the small amusement park a little further down the pier.  There's also an aquarium, along with plenty of dining and shopping available on this 1/3 mile long stretch of historical, ocean front property. We especially enjoyed lunch at Big Deans Oceanfront Cafe located at the base of the Pier.  It's extremely casual, the food was above average and the prices were very reasonable.

A friend recommended we visit Malibu to enjoy a meal at the "Reel In".  I'm so glad we took her advice.  It's a casual restaurant overlooking the beach offering only the freshest of seafood, cooked to your specifications. The food was simply fantastic and we enjoyed the view which allowed us to be entertained by dozens of surfers catching late afternoon waves.

Speaking of restaurants, if you get to Cali you MUST make a trip to Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles. We ate there for my Wheel of Fortune victory dinner and it was so, so good.  Just load up on the lipitor before you go because there's not much on the menu that won't take a few years off your life. 
But, it's worth it.   

A couple of attractions we managed to squeeze in while in LA were the LaBrea Tar Pits and Universal Studios, Hollywood.  It was my Aunt who wanted to visit the Tar Pits, and to be honest, I wasn't expecting much more than a giant, stinky pool of muck in the middle of the city.  I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the big, stinky pit is only one part of the LaBrea experience.  The museum and educational center is really quite interesting, and if you go at the right time, you can actually watch as archaeologists extract ancient fossils from their goopy graves. 

Universal Studios Hollywood was also a real treat and a must-see if you are headed to the area.  The backlot tour alone is just about worth the price of admission. You'll see where scenes from many of your favorite TV shows and movies were filmed, like: Desperate Housewives, Ghost Whisperer, Jaws, Psycho, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Bones, and more.  And, the tour also includes some exciting elements like a 4-D King Kong Experience, an encounter with a great white shark, a simulated earthquake and you'll even find yourself in the middle of a downpour and flash flood.  In addition to the super-cool studio tour, Universal offers 4-D movie experiences, a few thrill rides, live action shows, and a huge array of dining and shopping options.  You definitely need the better part of a day to make the most of your visit here.

True, I did win gobs of money on Wheel of Fortune, which may have colored my view of California.  But, honestly, I really belive I would have left fully satisfied even if I had only taken home the $1,000 consolation prize.  I'd love to go back and take my hubby and kids next time.  Maybe, someday I'll nab an appearance on Jeopardy and have the chance to pay another visit to sunny California. 

"What are...things unlikely to happen in this lifetime, Alex."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

10 Things I Learned About Mexico

1. Mexico is misunderstood.

When I found out I would be taking a trip with Compassion International to Mexico City, to be honest, I was a bit underwhelmed.  I have co-workers who have gone with Compassion to some pretty exotic places, like India and Ethiopia.  Besides, I've been to Guatemala several times already, and I wondered how much different Mexico could possibly be.  
When I told people I was going to Mexico, I got very few “oohs and aahs” and quite a few raised eyebrows and expressions of concern for my safety.  And, of course, I was advised by everyone not to drink the water and to order my drinks without ice.  

Drug wars, kidnappings, crooked Federales, this is the Mexico we in the States know and fear.  Yes, Mexico has perhaps more than its' fair share of crime, violence and corruption.  But, if those are the only places in Mexico that your imagination will take you, then you are missing a much bigger and more beautiful picture. There are many, many places in this diverse nation that are relatively safe to visit, as long as you pack some common sense in your suitcase.  To say Mexico exceeded my expectations would be a gross understatement.

2. There are plenty of things to eat in Mexico that will not burn a hole in your tongue.

As someone who cannot handle spicy food, I was worried that I wouldn’t find anything good to eat on my trip.  I was pleasantly surprised by the many menu items that a sissy-tongued gal like me can to choose from.  Honestly, I experienced some of the best cuisine I've ever eaten in Mexico!  Some of my favorites:

  • Chile Rellenos- poblano peppers that are stuffed with cheese and then breaded and fried (I'm told these may be hot if all the seeds and membranes are not removed).
    Chiles Rellenos

  • Achiote-a seasoning made from spices and annato seeds that is made into a sauce used to flavor meats.
    Chicken in achiote sauce
  • Tamales-Cornmeal made into a dough and filled with a variety of different meats, cheeses or seasonings and then wrapped in a corn husk and steamed.
  • Mole Poblano-a rich sauce made from peppers, seasonings and chocolate, often served over chicken and or as dip for tortilla chips.
  • Jicama- a root vegetable, similar to a potato, but sweeter and crisper.  I enjoyed raw and cubed with a light vingarette dressing and lime juice.
Jicama Salad
Beef Tampiquena, Chicken with Mole, Tamale
  • Beef Tampiquena-Thinly sliced sirloin steak glazed with a seasoned sauce.
  • Tacos-cooked in a huge pan over an open fire filled with chorizo, veggies & cactus (napalitos)

3. At times, visiting Mexico city feels like visiting Rome.

Really.  I’m not kidding.  

The main "touristy" area of Mexico city is divided into two sections: New Mexico and Old Mexico.  New Mexico reminded me of almost any large, cosmopolitan city in Europe or Latin America- boutique hotels, trendy shops and restaurants and crazy traffic on wide avenues and roundabouts.  Mexico city even has a modern Metro system. 

Old Mexico has a quaint European flair and at times took me back to my trip to Italy. It’s absolutely charming with narrow, cobblestone streets, exquisite architecture and many statues and monuments.  

4. The people of Mexico are warm, welcoming and extremely gracious

This is, of course, a vast generalization.  There are plenty of jerks in every corner of the world.  But, as a whole, I found Mexicans to be absolutely delightful people. Almost everyone I encountered was friendly, helpful and gracious. They also have a great degree of national pride. They are not elitists, but they are proud of their heritage and the colorful history of their country which dates back well over 2,000 years.

5. Mexicans have an uncanny ability to remain content in all things.
I met and observed Mexican people from many different backgrounds and walks of life, from white collar businessmen to people living in the deepest poverty I've ever experienced. But even in the midst of incredible trials, the people I met were content, even happy.

6. The poverty in Mexico can be extreme and inescapable.

I've heard the term “oppressive poverty” before, but I've never seen it so visibly and on such an enormous scale until my trip to Mexico. Outside the cosmopolitan center of Mexico City miles and miles of slums extend in every direction. Over 21 million people live in and around Mexico city, making it the largest metropolitan area in the Americas, the 5th largest in the world. The disparity of wealth among it's inhabitants is enormous. While Mexico City is the 8th largest city in the world, about half of it's inhabitants are classified as moderately or extremely poor. Poverty in rural Mexico is even more extensive.

In a town called Neza, one of the poorest areas of Mexico City, I met a family living in the kind of oppressive poverty that so many Mexicans face. This family of five lives in a room that is roughly 12' x 12' in size. Mom, Dad and three children share a bunk bed which has a full sized bed below and a twin bed above. Their home is one of several small buildings on a plot of land that they share with 3 other families...all part of their extended family. The four families share one bathroom and the garden/green area. Dad drives a motorcycle taxi for a living, however the bike broke down and he doesn't have the money to fix it. So, for the time being, he works as a gardener when there is work to be found. Mom works as a housekeeper whenever possible. However, one of the family members who share their living area is a drug and alcohol addict, so one parent must stay home with the kids at all times to protect them from him. 

How can this family escape? What could they possibly do to get out of poverty?

7. A colored ball determines the military fate of 18 year old boys.

Mexico has a fascinating lottery drafting system for military enlistment. After going through a registration process, every 18 year old boy then participates in a lottery where they have to draw a “ball” to determine if they'll have to serve (this used to an actual it's all computerized, although it's still referred to as a ball). If he draws a white ball, he is required to serve for one year in the Mexican Army. If he draws a blue ball, he will serve for a year in the Navy. If he draws a black ball, he is not required to serve at all. Service in the Army or Navy is similar to service in the US National Guard. Unless there is a crisis, their service is limited to a training exercise one Saturday each month. Unlike the National Guard, there is no pay in exchange for this service.

He got a "White Ball" so in a few weeks he'll have to cut his hair and begin his service in the Army.
8. The expression "I was stepping on frogs" means I got up very early.

I had fun conversation with our Mexican friends about the many idioms used in our languages. While they thought it was a bit weird that we say things like “keep your eyes peeled” and “put your money where your mouth is”, we were equally amused by some expressions unique to Mexicans. For example, if you had to get up so early it was still dark outside, you'd say “It was so early when I left the house today I was stepping on frogs”. If an elderly person, like your abuelita (grandmother), saw something amazing and wanted to emphasize that she was sure she saw it, she might say “I tell you I saw it with these two eyes that worms will one day eat.”

9. You don't have to travel to Egypt to see the Pyramids.

Of the three largest pyramids in the world, two are in Mexico. The ancient Aztecs, Mayans, Olmecs, Toltecs and unknown civilizations before these have left their mark all over and under Mexico's terrain, making it an archaeologist's dream come true. Many of these sites, (including Teotihuacan, the one I was fortunate enough to visit) are open to the public.

10. Waiters will not make fun of you even if you ask them not to put ice cream in your lemonade. Not in front of you, anyway.

Mexicans are extremely patient with people who at least try to speak to them in their native tongue. The truth is, my Spanish is really, really bad. To make matters worse, I studied Italian in college, which is really close to Spanish and I get them confused. So, I am fluent in broken “spitalian”. But, the people I met were so patient with me and seemed to really appreciate that I was at least making the attempt. Even when I did, in fact, ask a waiter to bring me lemonade but to hold the ice cream.

A Few of the Many Faces of Mexico

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Christmas Break Trip to Myrtle Beach

A few months before Christmas, I sat down with my husband and kids and made a proposition. Instead of spending a crazy amount of money on presents that would soon be forgotten, I suggested that we instead use the money to take a family trip to Myrtle Beach. Once the kids were sure they would still have a few gifts to open Christmas morning, they agreed to my plan.

So, Christmas morning, we opened presents, ate breakfast, finished packing and were on the road around Noon. By 4:00 we had arrived at our home for the next few days, the Dunes Village Resort, located on the north end of Myrtle Beach. With it's two indoor water parks, complete with lazy rivers and water slides, it seemed like the perfect spot for a trip to the beach during a season when the weather would not accommodate long days of enjoying the sand and surf.

From the moment we arrived, the excellence of the Dunes staff was evident. When a hotel clerk has to work on Christmas day and can still manage be over-the-top nice to each person in a line of guests that are checking in, it makes a strong first impression. Time after time we encountered front desk associates, waiters and waitresses, cashiers, housekeeping staff and other hotel employees going out of their way to be helpful and friendly.
Our room was in Palmetto Tower at the Dunes one of the two ocean-front buildings that house the hotel. Each tower has it's own pools and other water features, along with the indoor water parks that led us to choose this spot for our lodging. We stayed in the Oceanfront Queen Suite, with 2 queen beds in the bedroom plus two pull out beds in the living area...plenty of sleeping space for our family of 5. The room also had one shared bathroom with a lovely oversized jacuzzi tub and a full kitchen. Our room was clean, comfortable, fully stocked and had a wonderful ocean view.
The Dunes is in-and-of-itself a destination at Myrtle Beach, especially for families with younger children, and a perfect spot for a cold-weather beach retreat. The property boasts all kinds of indoor and outdoor water activities, several restaurants and caf├ęs, a miniature-golf course and game rooms. While the in-season rates are beyond our family's budget, the winter rates are a real bargain, especially considering what this resort has to offer.

Usually when our family spends a week at the beach in the summer, we cook and eat most of our meals in the room to save money. But, since this was a short trip and a special occasion, we decided to eat out. This was a mistake. It costs a fortune to feed a family of 5 at Myrtle Beach! And, to be honest, the food was just not that great...certainly not worth the $80-$100 per meal we spent. I cringe when I think about the amount of money we spent on mediocre food in the few days we were there.

Our only memorable meal was at the Horst Gasthaus, an authentic German restaurant in North Myrtle Beach. I discovered it on one of my favorite money saving websites, To be honest, when we first pulled into the parking lot, I was afraid we had made a huge mistake. The building is pretty run-down looking outside and it's location is anything but inviting. But, with a $25 gift certificate in hand, we bravely entered. Once we stepped inside, we were transported to a cozy little slice of Bavaria. We dined on bratwurst, knackwurst, sauerkraut and red cabbage, along with a nice selection of German beer and wine...all while entertained by an accordion player dressed in, you guessed it, lederhosen. The kids found the experience somewhat annoying. Apparently, teens and pre-teens these days aren't into Polka. But, Alton and I thought it was festive and fun.


In the summer, the ocean and the pool are usually all the entertainment we need for a week at the beach. But, a December beach trip calls for a few extra diversions. So, we splurged and enjoyed a few of Myrtle Beach's inland family attractions at Broadway at the Beach.

Ripley's Aquarium
Our first stop was at Ripley's Aquarium. This was our first trip here in several years and I wasn't sure if the kids would still enjoy it. So, I was pleasantly surprised when our whole family really did have a good time.

We were all fascinated by the new “Lethal Weapons” exhibit, where we saw some pretty frightening residents of the deep blue sea... things like a shrimp that lands a punch with the power of a bullet, an electric eel that packs a 500 volt jolt and tiny creatures that produce enough venom to kill armies of people. Hmmm...we may have to re-think our annual summer beach trip. I hear Arizona is lovely in July.

The Dangerous Reef is just plain cool. Being transported via a moving glidepath through this 350' tunnel while all kinds of exotic fish and sharks surround you is fantastic, no matter what your age. Laura and I also enjoyed trying to pet a sting ray and we were very thankful for the high powered hand dryer in the bathroom by the snack bar, especially since Laura was soaking wet after our visit to “Ray Bay.

Ripley's Aquarium is open 365 days a year and there are several coupons and packages available, so make sure you pay a visit to their website before your trip.

After the aquarium, Alton, Carley and Andrew went to MagiQuest while Laura and I did some shopping at Broadway at the Beach. This was their second MagiQuest experience and they had a blast. Yes, it is ridiculously expensive. But, when my 11-year old daughter and 13 year-old son actually have fun doing something together and can't wait to do it again, something truly magical has happened. And, as long as they don't loose their wands, it will be much cheaper the next time around.

With some advance planning and research you can have a great time at Myrtle Beach in the off-season and save a ton of money compared to a peak season vacation. Look for coupons and discount codes online and check for travelers reviews of hotels and restaurants to help you plan your itinerary.

Snow on the Beach!

About Me

My photo
I have three extremely cute kids-Andrew is 14, Carley is 12 and Laura is 9. My husband, Alton, is a delivery driver by day with dreams of one day publishing his own comic book. Yes, he is a geek, but I love him anyway. I have been working at WBFJ since September 2004 when God threw me out of the boat I was riding in and set me on a new and wonderful course. I love co-hosting the morning show, although the lack of sleep does make me a bit loopy at times.