Monday, February 27, 2012

Travel + Foods-Are You a Risk-Taker?

strawberry shortcake

red and white conch chowder

cheeseburger in paradise

Cuban sandwich

crab cake with an edible orchid

Once upon a time, there was a boy who grew up in Maine, USA and was raised on a standard of meat and potatoes. Meals were solid, wholesome, and without a lot of variety in terms of how they were presented, even in terms of herbs and spices that were used. When that Maine boy grew into a man, two of the things that he discovered were his love of travel and his taste buds. Since then, he has enjoyed traveling to places he'd never been before and trying the foods that he found there.

When it comes right down to it, part of my travel philosophy is that if you aren't willing to try new foods you might as well eat at home. Food finds aren't my primary reason for travel, but they are an essential part of the whole experience. When you go to a small, out of the way cafe or bar where many of the people are not tourists, you develop a more authentic flavor for the total culture of the place, in addition to that of the food. In such a place you see how people really interact with each other, how they dress when they are "on their own time" and yes, what they eat and drink. One of my memories of southern Spain was the late night restaurant scene with grandparents, parents, and children all enjoying each other's company dining out on a weekday night, regardless of the hour.

The photos in this post were taken in a variety of settings in Florida. The strawberry shortcake (deliciously decadent) was found at a roadside produce market and freshly individually hand-crafted. The chowder that had the meat of both red and white conch was from a dock-side restaurant outside Marathon on the Keys. The cheeseburger in paradise was the result of a visit to Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville in Key West (yes, there were probably more tourists than locals there..but it was fun, especially with the specialty margarita that I had with it). The Cuban sandwich was in Tampa's Ybor City (a section where cigars were rolled by hand) served and a dining room with crystal chandeliers by waiters in formal evening dress while customers wore shorts, sandals, and T-shirts. The crab cake, a meal in itself, accompanied by an edible orchid was served to us at a dock-side bar that was associated with a restaurant a short distance for the place where we stayed in Apollo Beach. I can honestly say that I enjoyed each and every taste experience.

When you try an off of the beaten path eating experience, there are always "risks". There will be times when either nothing on the menu i s appealing (read any menus posted outside before entering), or the atmosphere inside is uncomfortable to you. During my Florida trip I enjoyed everything I tried-the fresh sea food, the Cuban sandwiches, even the exotic gator stew (alligator) and the conch fritters (a sea snail). In most places, I also felt welcome. The one exception to a stretch of comfort level was a bar/restaurant in Marathon along the Florida Keys, where it was made obvious to us that local customers were preferred. Still, one experience out of a month's visit was not discouraging, and did not prevent us from risking other places. Travel is an adventure, and can not truly be enjoyed without taking a few well-thought out "risks" to stretch your horizons a bit. If you're not willing to do that to some degree or other , you will find that a McDonald's is a McDonald's, is a McDonald's wherever you go (or you can substitute Starbuck's, if you like) .

Thank you for visiting, please feel free to stop by again. In the meantime, may your travels be interesting and enjoyable.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Tarpon Springs-Sponge Capitol of the World......

What kind of experience are you looking for as you travel? Are you seeking the historical? the authentic? the shops? the glitz and glitter? I didn't know quite what to expect when we visited Tarpon Springs on our way back North after a month in Florida. I knew that Tarpon Springs was known for its natural sponge gathering industry. I also knew that there was a well-established Greek community. What I didn't know was what the town, itself, was actually like.

As we entered Tarpon Springs, we were looking for the historic waterfront district with its sponging boats. It was lunchtime and, while we hadn't found the district quiet yet, we did find a restaurant that advertised "Mama Maria's Authentic Greek Cuisine". Our thought was that we could satisfy our hunger, taste some good Greek food, and then get directions to the historic district. (I lived in Greece for a month and a half in the early 1970's and really enjoy Greek cooking.) Mama Maria's lived up to its name- both the souvlaki and the gyros were excellent. The friendly server then sent us on our way, directing us to the historic district.

After finding a paid parking lot on the edge of the main street of the historic district, we began our wanderings. Our senses were hit by the good, the bad, and the ugly (although even the ugly was not so bad). Along the harbor were working sponge boats with sponges strung out to dry. There were also tour boats when you could buy a ticket and see a sponge boat in action. The streets and side streets were a mixture of tourist curio shops (with many Greek imports and sponges of all kinds, including sponges put together to form a mounted deer's head). There were also Greek restaurants, Greek fine arts stores, imported wines, open air cafes, and New Age shops. Building walls held mosaics that celebrated the divers of the sponge industry. The streets were filled with tourists that sunny afternoon, and the sound of live reggae was in in the air.

When I think back on the afternoon, I have pleasant memories. In some ways, the Tarpon Springs that I experienced was a bit like Maine's Boothbay Harbor with a blend of a working coastal town and its main street tourist attractions. You couldn't confuse the two, however, as each has its own unique cultural flavor. Wandering around Tarpon Springs was fun and the people who lived and worked there were hospitable. At one point, an elderly man who we ran into again offered to take our photo under a sponge diver mosaic. When we later ran across him sitting on a bench in the sun with his family he said, "I take good pictures, don't I?" and smiled. It was just that kind of day. If you are interested in learning more about Tarpon Springs, you might follow this link:

Thank you for visiting, feel free to stop by again. In the meantime, may your travel be interesting and enjoyable.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Wandering on an Ocean Beach

There's something exotic about walking along an ocean beach, whether it is deserted and pristine or crowded with beachcombers and sun-worshippers. The waves that reach its shores bring tidings from distant lands. The treasures that appear on them spark curiosity and interest. Persistent hunter-birds, stealthy mini-crabs, and strange, unusual shells are just some of the finds as you walk along the shore. There are times when you are the only person walking along what seems to be a timeless beach. At other times, teaming crowds of people drawn to the sun and high rises built for their view surround you. Each scenario can be a pleasant experience when you in the right mood for it.

The beaches of Florida were one of the focuses of my January visit. The photos in this post range from the crowded beaches of Marco Island to the quiet Sombrero Beach of Marathon in the Keys. Each of them had their allure.

While I was traveling , I found an fantastic book that I'd like to share with you. "Florida's Living Beaches: A Guide for the Curious Beachcomber" by Blair and Dawn Witherington is a book that I'd recommend that you have with you before you start exploring the beaches. It is well-illustrated (including a diagram of beaches and where the best beachcombing finds are,and has photos of shells, flora and fauna, man-made items that appear on shore, and many other bits of information. I don't usually promote a book, but this is a "must-have" if you're going to spend Florida beach-time.

Thank you for visiting, please come again. In the meantime, may your travels be interesting and enjoyable.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Travel Adventures/Travel Level of Comfort

My recent road trip to Florida made me think about both the adventure of travel and personal comfort levels involved in travel. My first long distance travel began when I was 22 and a new Peace Corps volunteer about to spend at least two years in Kenya, East Africa. My place of assignment that was undetermined at the time that I boarded the plane and, to be honest, the uncertainty wasn’t even an issue. I knew I was going beyond my present horizon.. Since then, I have traveled to other countries in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and North America. I have also explored parts of my own country. Some aspects of my travel have changed over the years, while others have remained the same.

I have never been a traveler who has needed luxuries. Give me a clean, safe place to store my gear and sleep with minimal disruption and I am content. Four-star restaurants are not necessary (although they can be appreciated), I’d rather experience food and drink authentic to the place I’m visiting. While I’m no longer the person who spent nearly three months going from Kenya to Ethiopia, Israel, Turkey, Greece, and Amsterdam with just a backpack and a sleeping bag in 1972, I still tend to travel lightly when taking a trip that involves air or train travel. (I took much more than I needed when we drove our van to Florida, just because I could).

My travel goals have remained fairly much the same. I am more interested in seeing the place and how people live than I am visiting museums, although I recognize that museums have their value in helping understanding a place. I also prefer to get to know a few places well rather than add yet another name to “My Places That I Have Been” list. One of the things that I learned early my travels is that it is more enjoyable to travel with someone, and share the ups and occasional downs of the whole experience. I feel very fortunate to be married to someone who shares my joy of travel and has similar travel experiences in mind.

One of the outcomes of this last trip was that I started thinking about my level of comfort in different travel situations. There are some situations in which I feel very comfortable. Hitchhiking is a thing of the past (1960-70’s era) due to the less friendly, more violent world we live in. Planes and trains are fine with me, as is driving in North America. I’d rather deal with the limitations of public transportation than the driving conditions of other countries (I did have a motor cycle in Kenya). I feel comfortable exploring new urban areas, including those in which English is not a common language or in which I am a racial/cultural minority. I avoid places where violence is presently commonplace due to either political issues or wide-spread criminal activities.

An aspect of my recent road trip to Florida and back was how uncomfortable I felt in isolated rural areas. There were two instances in which I felt truly stressed, mostly for similar reasons. The first was the part of the drive from Central Florida to the Keys that took us across the top of the Everglades. The second was our drive back to Wisconsin through rural Alabama and Georgia. In both of these situations, I felt very vulnerable as a traveler. Long distances on well-kept secondary roads that contained isolated houses at best and mile upon mile without any visible inhabitants were the common worry-factor.. My stress was generated by my lack of mechanical ability and a concern that if the van broke down we’d be on our own. Yes, I have a AAA card for roadside assistance. Still, miles from the nearest town and potential “dead-spaces” of cell phone coverage made me edgy. Add the additional factor of a breakdown potential in an area that has alligators, panthers, and poisonous snakes (where the campgrounds are for daytime use only due to wildlife dangers) and you compound the issue. I am very much unlike my British friend who thinks nothing of driving his Toyota Fore-Runner off the beaten path into the sand dunes of Morocco. To be honest, our van had been fully tuned up before our trip to Florida and we were careful to fuel up before attempting long distances without towns. There was very little chance that anything bad would happen. In spite of that and the fact that there were interesting sights along those drives, there was a concern lurking in the back of my mind during those stretches of the trip.

As I sit in my wintery Wisconsin city and write this blog entry, I have very good feelings about the recent trip. Travels went smoothly and I got to explore a part of my own country that I had never experienced before. I have a better understanding of parts of Florida’s Gulf Coast and would like to spend more time there because our stay was both interesting and enjoyable. I also took many photos that I am happy with, some that need editing and will help pass the time during the cold winter months that remain. All in all, the trip was a success.

Thanks for visiting, please feel free to stop by again. I would be very interested in any thoughts that you might have on travel and comfort levels, and welcome and comments that you might share. May your own travels be interesting and enjoyable.