Travelogue: Beirut, Lebanon

I just finished a four-day trip to Beirut, Lebanon for work. It was such an intense experience. My family immigrated from Lebanon about 100 years ago and this was my first time visiting the “homeland.” So, you can imagine my excitement leading up to the trip. This excitement grew tenfold during the plane’s descent into the city, which offered stunning views of snowcapped mountains and a beautiful Mediterranean shoreline. Despite the short stay, I explored and experienced many great things in this amazing, cosmopolitan city.

The purpose of the visit was to meet with Beirut-based arts organizations and to explore potential collaboration. The four organizations we meet with – Zico House, the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut Art Center, and Ashkal Alwan – are all pioneers within their areas of art production, documentation, and presentation. Each organization has inspiring and visionary leaders, which leaves me very optimistic about the possibility of working with these institutions in the future. There is much work to be done in documenting and further developing art production and appreciation within the Arab diaspora.

In addition to the meetings, we (I traveled with a colleague) spent a great amount of time exploring the city. Beirut is an amazing juxtaposition, in so many ways. One of my favorite things to do when visiting a new city is to explore it by foot. Speaking to this, we logged numerous miles each day trekking from neighborhood to neighborhood. Some highlights include walking the Corniche and viewing Pigeon Rocks from Raouche; visiting Saint George Maronite Cathedral; standing in Martyr’s Square while watching the memorial service for Rafic Hariri on the seventh anniversary of his assassination; discovering Roman ruins, which included baths, a cardo maximus and colonnade in the central business district; walking through the beautiful campus at the American University of Beirut; experiencing the amazing architecture and diversity of the numerous religious institutions downtown; spending time in the monumental Nejmeh Square; and learning about the city’s archaeological past in the crypt museum at the St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

In hindsight, walking is really the only way to experience Beirut. Cabbies will summon you with “Taxi! Taxi!” on every street corner. However, despite the lack of public transportation and the thrill of a hair-raising jaunt through the city’s congested streets in an overpriced cab, I recommend only riding in a taxi when traveling longer distances (two miles or more). Otherwise, you’re missing out on a great opportunity to truly appreciate Beirut.

I also enjoyed exploring the Lebanese culture through food. I had the pleasure of dining at local institutions, including Cafe Younes in Hamra, Le Chef in Gemmayzeh and Falafel Sahyoun in Ras El-Nabeh (the latter two were featured on Anthony Bourdain’s return trip to Beirut). A breakfast of freshly baked menaeesh from a corner vendor is a must; the zaatar spice mixture is simply amazing. Bliss Street near the AUB campus offers many cheap but delicious restaurants including Food 101 and Zaatar w Zeit. And then there are the numerous sweet shops offering delectable treats! And, last but not least, there is Tawlet at Souk el Tayeb. This restaurant is an open kitchen where each day a local producer/cook prepares typical food from his/her region. Suzanne Doueihy and her husband Sarkis served an amaging Zgharta-influenced meal that included kebbeh nayeh, kebbeh bassalieh, batata mehshieh, moujaddara bi loubieh, el’ass bi toum and maamoul mad bi loz. Tawlet is not to be missed when visiting Beirut.

I really hope I’ll have the opportunity to return to Lebanon sometime soon. In addition to a more in-depth exploration of Beirut, I want to get out of the city to visit Jbeil (Byblos), Tripoli, Tyre, and Baalbek, as well as Hasroun (my family’s village) and Al-Arz (The Cedars) in the mountains. So much to see and experience in this small country…Here are a few iPhone pix I took during my stay. Stay tuned for more pictures from the trip.

Travel references: my map and Foursquare list for Beirut

Pigeon Rocks at Raouche
Pigeon Rocks at Raouche
Nejmeh Square
Nejmeh Square
Roman Columns
Roman Columns
Rafic Hariri Memorial
Rafic Hariri Memorial
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Travelogue | Thanksgiving in Florida

As much as I love my home state, I’m starting to appreciate our (seemingly) annual Thanksgiving getaway to warm destinations. This year, Dharma and I are spending a week in Florida at my parents’ new condo. It’s so nice to be relaxing in a warm and sunny climate. I find that a vacation this time of the year is well-needed. With shorter days and colder weather, the transition between fall and winter can be tough. Coupled with an insanely busy year at the museum, this vacation was badly needed. Fortunately, we were able to reserve the week for some adventure and relaxation down south.

To express our gratitude for their hospitality, we decided to cook Thanksgiving dinner for my parents. This was the first time that Dharma and I cooked a complete Thanksgiving dinner. Thanks to a great article from Taunton’s Fine Cooking, the dinner was both simple and fun to make. Fine Cooking describes the article, titled How to Make Thanksgiving Dinner, as an “all-in-one guide to making a delicious, stress-free dinner on the big day.” I’d say that aptly describes it.

What I liked about the article was that it broke down the process into simple, coherent steps. It included a menu timeline, shopping list, and a toolbox of kitchen tools/supplies. This certainly helped to create a stress-free environment in the kitchen.

The menu included:

  • Dry-Rubbed Roast Turkey with Pan Gravy
  • Cranberry Sauce with Caramelized Onions
  • Bread Stuffing with Fresh Herbs
  • Rustic Mashed Potatoes

We decided to forgo a dessert because neither of my parents eat sweets. Yes, this was difficult given that we have a history of going overboard with baking Thanksgiving pies. A small sacrifice to make… Here are a few pictures of the meal.

A picture of Dry-Rubbed Roast Turkey with Pan Gravy
Dry-Rubbed Roast Turkey with Pan Gravy


A picture of Bread Stuffing with Fresh Herbs
Bread Stuffing with Fresh Herbs


A picture of Thanksgiving Dinner
Thanksgiving Dinner

All in all, the meal was a great success. The recipes were easy to follow and the resulting dishes were delectable. I’m already looking forward to the next holiday meal we cook for family (perhaps an Italian-themed four course dinner for Christmas?). The joy of cooking a meal for the ones you love is a most enjoyable experience. For me, great food and conversation shared with family is what holidays are all about (sadly, as I write this, many people across the nation are gearing up for Black Friday; what a crass way to celebrate the holiday).

Cheers to all and I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!

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Travelogue: Houston, Texas

I just returned from a 48-hour trip to Houston. Although I had little time to explore the sprawling city, it was nice to see the sun, to feel its warmth, and to get a glimpse of this southern metropolis.

Trying to figure out public transportation was too confusing and time consuming, so I logged some serious mileage ambulating around town. I was a little startled by what I discovered. For being the largest city in Texas, and the fourth largest in the nation, the city lacks that vibrant feeling familiar in many other major urban areas. I’m sure there’s a lot happening, but I suspect it takes time to discover the city’s unique offerings.

So, let’s focus on the highlights of my trip.

The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation
My first stop after checking into my hotel room was Ninfa’s. Finding great TexMex was high on my list of things to do. Ninfa’s did not disappoint! I enjoyed an amazing meal that included delicious horchata, beef tacos al carbon, and the best tres leches I’ve ever had. I walked the two miles back to my hotel after the meal to burn of a small portion of what I ate!

A picture of the original Ninfa's on Navigation in Houston, Texas.
The original Ninfa's on Navigation in Houston, Texas.

On Saturday, I hiked over to midtown to eat brunch at The Breakfast Klub. This local institution is renowned for its southern breakfast. I waited an hour in line, which wrapped around the corner of the restaurant, to eat their signature wings and waffles. The meal was washed down with some delicious coffee and sweet tea. Heavenly.

A photo of wings & waffles at The Breakfast Klub.
Wings & waffles at The Breakfast Klub.

To burn off the heavy meal, I walked a mile to visit the Rothko Chapel. I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of Mark Rothko’s artwork. However, this tranquil meditative environment is absolutely stunning. Rothko created the interfaith art space under the patronage of Dominique and John de Menil. Rothko worked closely with architects Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry to design the beautiful sunlit space that encompasses his fourteen paintings. The ambience of the space is moving, as is the Chapel’s commitment to being a place for dialogue on human rights. All in all, the Rothko Chapel lives up to its designation as “a modernist shrine for a timeless art.”

A photo of Rothko Chapel in Houston, TX.
Rothko Chapel

From the Chapel, I hiked across town to explore Buffalo Bayou park. My hope was to spend the afternoon kayaking along the waterway. However, I sadly learned that all of the kayaks were rented from the various outfitters providing service at the Bayou. So, I set out on foot. I was expecting a tranquil stroll along an urban parkway. Instead, I was shocked to discover the hiking trail essentially followed the noisy interstate highways. It was a total bummer. Nonetheless, it was nice to get some exercise and see more of the city.

A photo of the Buffalo Bayou hiking trail in Houston, TX.
The Buffalo Bayou hiking trail

Afterwards, I decided to quench my thirst at Cafe Luz before heading back to the hotel. This new coffeehouse in downtown Houston offers craft sodas and excellent coffee that is roasted at the cafe. I tried a made-to-order blood orange soda and an iced toddy coffee. Both drinks hit the spot. I had a great conversation about coffee with the owner while I enjoying my drinks. There was a chocolate making class taking place in the back kitchen, which reminded me of the one we enrolled in while visiting Peru. I highly recommend Cafe Luz to those visiting Houston.

A photo of Cafe Luz in Houston, TX
Cafe Luz (Photo: Houston Press)

Unfortunately, there were a few places I hoped to visit, but I was ultimately constrained by time (as well as crummy business hours). This included enjoying eastern Texas barbecue at Pizzitola’s, drinks at Anvil Bar & Refuge, and a trip to Saint Arnold’s Brewing Company. If I ever return to Houston, these destinations will be on my list of places to visit. Also, despite high prices, I’d like to check out the local specialty shops Maida’s Belts and Buckles and The Hat Store.

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Travelogue: Detroit, MI

I love when guests from out-of-town come to visit. It’s a great opportunity to show off things and places that are unique to our state and region. This past week, Dharma’s dad and brother paid us a visit. Some of the places we took our guests included the Dexter Cider Mill, the Nichols Arboretum, Joe Louis Arena for a Detroit Red Wings hockey game, and El Barzon for dinner.

Additionally, we visited the Cadieux Cafe in Detroit for a few games of feather bowling. Yes, you heard that right, feather bowling. Once a speakeasy, the bar is most famous for being the only place in the U.S. where you can still play feather bowling. This game, which originated in Flanders, Belgium, is similar to bocce ball and horseshoes. In short, it’s big fun (yes, there’s even a league!). In addition to feather bowling, the Cadieux Cafe has fantastic mussels (so I’m told) and a decent selection of Belgian beers. Here are some pictures from our trip.

Cadieux Cafe | Detroit, MI
Cadieux Cafe | Detroit, MI
Cadieux Cafe, 02 | Detroit, MI
Cadieux Cafe, 02 | Detroit, MI
Feather bowling at the Cadieux Cafe | Detroit, MI
Feather bowling at the Cadieux Cafe | Detroit, MI
Feather bowling at the Cadieux Cafe, 02 | Detroit, MI
Feather bowling at the Cadieux Cafe, 02 | Detroit, MI
Feather bowling at the Cadieux Cafe, 03 | Detroit, MI
Feather bowling at the Cadieux Cafe, 03 | Detroit, MI
Feather bowling at the Cadieux Cafe, 04 | Detroit, MI
Feather bowling at the Cadieux Cafe, 04 | Detroit, MI
Feather bowling at the Cadieux Cafe, 05 | Detroit, MI
Feather bowling at the Cadieux Cafe, 05 | Detroit, MI
Feather bowling at the Cadieux Cafe, 06 | Detroit, MI
Feather bowling at the Cadieux Cafe, 06 | Detroit, MI

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Amazing Places: Floyd’s Pelican Bar

Situated on a sandbar off the southern coast of Jamaica, Floyd’s Pelican Bar is simply paradise. We visited Delroy “Floyd” Forbes’ bar back in 2005 while staying at Jake’s Island Outpost in Treasure Beach. It was our honeymoon and we were in pursuit of adventure. So, we hooked up with a local fisherman for a tour of the Black River. The fisherman introduced us to Floyd’s, which is located nearby in the Parottee Bay. We sipped cold Red Stripes, ate amazing fresh caught fish from the Caribbean, and sat back and watched the dolphins pass us by. I’d love to go back…

Floyd's Pelican Bar | Jamaica
Floyd's Pelican Bar | Jamaica
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Puerto Rico Travelogue: Day Six

Yesterday was about as perfect as it gets. Highlights included a visit to the Ayala Crafts Workshop, a hike in El Yunque National Forest, a refreshing swim at Luquillo Beach and dinner at the neighboring rustic kiosks, and a nighttime kayak trip to see the bioluminescent bay near Fajardo.

Our first stop was at the Ayala Crafts Workshop in Loiza to check out the folk art of Raul Ayala. Ayala is a member of the musical group Los Hermanos Ayala and a master artisan of vejigantes.

Vejigante masks and costumes are worn by people dressed as vejigantes, or people who represent 11th-century Spanish Moors, in Puerto Rico during the time of Carnival, as well as during the festival, or carnival, of St. James in July. Vejigante masks date to the 1700s Spanish traditions, and represent a spiritual battle between the Apostle James and Spanish Muslims.

After purchasing a couple of Ayala’s beautiful masks, we made our way further down the coast to El Yunque. EL Yunque is a designated UNESCO Biosphere and the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system! Imagine a place that gets 100 billion gallons of rainwater a year! We enjoyed a great hike while taking in the lush vegetation and the many beautiful waterfalls along the modernized trails.

Afterward we headed to the beautiful Loquillo Beach to cool off and freshen up with a swim in the ocean. Because we arrived late in the day, we didn’t get too much time to relax in the water. However, by this point we had worked up a pretty mean appetite and we were looking forward to eating at the renowned rustic kiosks next to the beach. I’m not sure how many food kiosks there were, but it seemed like the line of eateries stretched out at least a quarter of a mile. There was so much amazing, traditional Puerto Rican food to choose from. This stop was definitely a highlight of the trip for me!

To end the night we headed further out to Farajo for a kayak tour of the bioluminescent bay. The luminescence is caused by micro-organisms (dinoflagellates) that glow whenever the water is disturbed, leaving a trail of neon color. Because there was a moon, the bay was not nearly as illuminated as one would have hoped. But still, the two hours navigating the kayaks under a star filled sky was amazing.

All in all, this was the perfect last full day on the island. Our flight back to the States departs tomorrow afternoon, so we have limited time for much else.

Yunque 03 La Coca Falls
From Puerto Rico: Day Six

– Devon Akmon

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