Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Two "isms" of Florida

Colonialism and tourism: essentially, what makes up the vast majority of the towns in this state.

On Tuesday, we decided to take a trip to St. Augustine on the east coast of Florida.  It was about a 3 hour drive from where we were and we decided to take the scenic drive through a National Forest.  It was, as they say here in the south, “real perdy”.

St. Augustine is famous for their lighthouse, a 180’ white and navy spiraled building built back in the late 1800s.  That was our first stop.

We arrived and just as most historic lighthouses are these days, it was turned into a tourist trap filled with figurines and fudge.  The great thing about this lighthouse is that you can still go up to the top.  We climbed the innumerable steps of the spiral staircase and reached the top to see a spectacular 360˚ view of the St. Augustine area.  It was pretty fantastic.

After we soaked in the landscape, we climbed back down and took a little stroll around the property and went back to the gift shop.  I let my sweet-tooth get the best of me and bought some butter pecan fudge.  Matt bought a figurine for his mom (she collects sea-faring décor).

We left the lighthouse and headed toward town where we stumbled upon an old fortress which was pretty cool.  It even had a moat and an oven specifically to heat up cannonballs to shoot at enemy ships!  My imagination went wild with the possibilities – alligators swarming and snapping in the moat, fiery canon balls firing at invaders, dramatic love stories (hey, I might not be the girliest girl, but I still have a heart!).  It was a really neat place.  The archaeologist in me got a little hot-n-heavy, too.

It was getting dark, so we decided to head to the beach.  By the time we arrived it was full-on night time, but that was ok.  We parked the car on the beach (something I still am troubled by), and walked toward the water.  The sand was fine and soft like baby powder.  The stars were out, there was a boat out on the water, but the moon was no where to be found. 

As we were standing there, we noticed a crimson red light on the horizon.  We speculated what it might be: a boat with a disco light, a space ship, a Coast Guard with an emergency light?  Matt jokingly said, “If that starts coming out of the water, I’m gonna run.”  But then it did.  It got larger and larger.  We stared at it intently trying to figure out what could be bright red and growing.  Then, I noticed a slight discoloration on it and excitedly started jumping up and down screaming, “It’s the moon!! Oh my God, it’s the moon!”

It was one of the most amazing and stunning things I’ve ever seen.  We stood there, thinking this may be the only time in our lives that we’d witness such a thing.  As it rose, its color faded slowly to white, but for that moment when it was rising above the horizon, it was blood red and beautiful.

We were beginning to get hungry, so we decided to head back to town, but stopped at this amazing little restaurant near the beach called Playa Chac-Mool.  It was a small restaurant operated by a nice Mexican couple. 

The food was amazing, authentic, the portions were humongous and the price was right.  Twenty-one dollars for an appetizer, two entrees, and a dessert.  We shared a delicious appetizer of melted refried beans and cheese on bread with pico de gallo, Matt had the sampler which included four small burrito-style wraps each with a different filling, I had the chimichanga, and we finished it off with a traditional Mexican dessert called sopapilla – it was French vanilla ice cream with deep fried triangles of what seemed like tortilla, all sprinkled with cinnamon. 

I love being a foodie with a good metabolism, because I devoured every last bite.

The rest of the night was spent strolling the streets of downtown St. Augustine.  It’s a charming little university town with a ton of history.  Cobblestone streets, historic buildings, and lots of Spanish influence makes you feel like you’ve travelled a lot farther than a few hundred miles.  The streets were littered with shops, restaurants, bars, cafes, bakeries and chocolatiers.  The people were really friendly and there were limited numbers of people who looked either homeless, crazy, or both.

After accidentally missing our turn-off on the way home, we finally arrived home again and once we had enough shut eye, we decided to head a u-pick orange grove a few miles away.  They had a cute little outdoor farmer’s market area with lots of fruits, honey, gator meat, juice, salsas and other jarred and unjarred delights.  We strolled around, didn’t pick a single piece of citrus, stood inside a giant wigwam (I don’t really know why this was on the property as the farm was clearly run by white people), bought some blueberry banana bread, pineapple salsa, and gator jerky, tried a piece of pomello, and left.

On the way back to the house we decided to stop at the Lakeridge Winery for a free tour and tasting.  I’m so glad we did. We waited around for a while, then were lead upstairs by the most hilariously amazing tour guide: Doug.  Doug was from the south, he said the word “red” like it had two syllables, and talked about himself in the third person, all the time.

Doug showed us a nice video about the winery, filled us in on everything you could possibly want to know about the Florida native muscadine grape, and took us through the steps of harvesting grapes and making wines.  We tried 12 different wines in about 20 minutes, and considering I’ve hardly had a drink since I got to Arkansas on October 6th, I was feeling it.  The wines were seriously delicious, even the red, which I don’t  like.  Maybe it was the fact that I was buzzed, but I ended up leaving the winery with four bottles of Lakeridge wine: Southern White, Southern Red, Chivas, and Sunblush.  I’m really glad alcohol is so cheap in the US.

Later that night we headed into Orlando where we were persistently accosted by people trying to scalp tickets to the Magic game.  By the 7th scalper, we started responding, “What game?” to which they'd shockingly respond, “The MAGIC game, c’mon man!”  It was a slight triumph, but a triumph nonetheless.

We walked so many streets that my blood sugar was seriously tumbling and I was beginning to get agitated, so we settled on Church Street, which is a nice little historic district, at a Cajun restaurant that just opened a month before.  We got an appetizer of deepfried gator, shrimp and these little deepfried veggies that were a little bigger than capers, but I can’t remember what they’re called.  It was my first time trying gator and it was kinda weird: it had the taste of chicken, but the texture of seafood, and it was really greasy. For an entrée, I had half a rack of ribs, some sweet sweet corn cake (aka corn bread), coleslaw, and beans.  It was pretty delicious.

For any city I’ve ever been to, LA included, Orlando has the highest percentage of hoochie mama’s.  I’ve never been so confused about women’s occupations.  I couldn’t tell if they were out for a night on the town, or if they were looking to turn tricks.  There was more lingerie being worn as outerwear than I’d ever seen on Halloween.  It was almost troubling and in my denim, cardigan, t-shirt and scarf, I was most certainly out of place.

We had gone into Orlando to check out a musician, Aloe Blacc who was performing at the Back Booth.  We decided to check out the venue and knew we were in the right place by the time we got close enough to see the details of the crowd gathered outside.  Thick framed glasses, fedoras, suspenders, men’s skinny jeans, plaid and stripes: the wardrobe of those who attend indie rock concerts.  We were at home.

The opening band was Peter Baldwin, a local group with tons of soul and great energy.  We only caught the last of their gig, but were really impressed by the crowd they drew and their talent.  Next up was Maya Jupiter, who was recently picked up by Aloe Blacc’s label and whose debut album was produced in part by Aloe amongst others.  Maya was a super-empowered half-Mexican, half-Turkish, Australian-born woman with a really meaningful message.  Politically charged and clearly feminist, she dominated the stage for her too-short 20-minute set, tackling everything from reggae to dancehall to rap, she was a force to be reckoned with and though most of the audience clearly hadn’t heard much of her stuff before, she had everyone moving.

Aloe’s band backed up Maya which lead to a perfect transition between their sets.  Aloe, of course, played his hit “I need a dollar” and proceeded to infect the crowd with his upbeat, soulful, R&B styles and inspiring, political messages.  Maya even joined Aloe on stage for one song and added her own dancehall flare – she totally rocked it for being a newbie.  If you get the chance to check out any of these artists, I would strongly recommend it.

Next up?  My first American Thanksgiving, Downtown Disney, and the madness of Black Friday.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Where Dreams Come True

Picking up where I left off, I was awaiting a visitor.

It was like Christmas morning, only better.

So, I’m getting ready, checking flight arrival times, dollin’ myself up a bit, checkin’ out my butt in the mirror… you know, that kinda thing.  I’m ready to rock at 12:55 pm, since the flight arrival time is 2:15 pm, but we need to stop at Walgreens and pick up some polysporin and Band-Aids because of the giant oozing abrasions on my left arm and knee.

My wonderful chauffeur (no sarcasm, seriously) is running late – as usual – but only by a few minutes, so it’s all good.  Shoes on.  Out the door.  Off we go!

When we get to Walgreens it’s raining, for the first time since we’d gotten back to Central Florida.  Of course, the day I’m having a visitor.  Anyway, I exit the vehicle, assuring my driver that I’d be in and out and that I’d already scouted out the products online.  I got inside, grabbed the goods, showed off my battle wounds to the pharmacist, paid, and ran out to the car.

But, my driver was no where to be found, so I called his cell.  Of course, Ferrero Rocher takes precedent over being on time for airport pick-up.  I tease, of course.  But seriously, the flight was scheduled to arrive in 10 minutes and we were still 20 minutes away from the airport.  I hate being late.

I made it to the arrivals terminal, scanned the baggage area, but it appeared despite the chocolates, I was still on time or even better – early!

My usual, slightly finicky-when-anxious, self then proceeded to pace, lean against random structural objects, stare at arrivals monitors, pace more, sit in a chair, stand up, lean some more, then finally stand in one place.  Finally, down the glorious tile stairs (as opposed to the escalator) of MCO came that tall glass of water I’d been thirstin’ for.

Our visit together started out like most of our other experiences together – someone took a stab at Matt’s pride then complimented me.  Here’s the story: we went to Enterprise to pick up our rental for the visit.  The car rental clerk processed our reservation, looks at Matt hands him his card and says, “I’m sorry it says it’s been declined for insufficient funds.”  Matt, shocked, knowing this is impossible looks like his heart drops into his toes and can only muster out a “what?!” before the clerk smiles, laughs, tells us she was just joking and she’s “so bad!” and then proceeds to tell me that she loves my haircut and thinks it’s super cute on me.  

So off we go and our usual luck follows us, most of the way.  First, we got a free upgrade on our rental car.  Score.

After having some supper and discussing the weeks plan, we decide it would be best to get up early and hit up Disney World the next day.

I’m sure it was a blessing in disguise, but I accidentally set the alarm clock for pm instead of am, so we slept in – not late though. We got to Disney by 10:00 am and filed through the endless crowds to get to Magic Kingdom. 

We took the ferry across and arrived to one of the many periodic parades down Mainstreet USA, involving all of the usual suspects: Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald, Daisy, Belle, Cinderella, Ariel, Sebastien, Lumiere and almost every other Disney character you can name. 

I immediately transformed into a five year old and felt blissfully happy.  I’d finally made it to Disney World, after all these years, and it was just as good as I’d imagined.  It’s really true what they say – Disney World is where dreams come true!

Now, if you’ve only got one day to spend at Disney, I would suggest you tackle it the same way we did to get the most bang for your buck.  If you don’t want to waste time driving between parks, you’re going to want to focus on Magic Kingdom and Epcot, which are connected by tram and you don’t need to move your vehicle to get from one park to the other.

Figure out which rides you want to do most and start at that park first thing in the morning to get “fast passes” so you don’t need to wait in line as long throughout the day. The fast passes are tricky, because you can only have one at a time, so you’ve gotta time it right.

We went straight for Splash Mountain and picked up our fast passes, then walked around checking out other rides with short stand-by times to fill our time before we could use our fast passes.  We went through the haunted mansion, strolled through a few areas of the park, and watched Mickey’s Philharmagic Orchestra 3-D movie.

After realizing the wait time for Space Mountain in Tomorrowland was significant, so we wandered back to FrontierLand to use our fast passes. When we presented our passes to the attendant, he kindly informed us that they were for Thunder Mountain Railroad, not Splash Mountain (in our defense, the rides are practically side-by-side).  So we rode the Thunder Mountain Railroad, but the wait times for both fast passes and stand-by on Splash Mountain were too long, so we headed to Epcot.

After a short ride on the monorail, we arrived to the world-famous view of the Epcot Globe.  We headed straight for the main attractions: Soarin’, Mission Space, and GM Test Track – all of which had 180+ minute stand-by wait times and sold out fast passes.

Lucky for us, as we got to Mission Space and stared hopelessly at the wait times, a lady walked up and offered us her fast-passes which were just about to expire.  They wouldn’t be using them so they thought they should find people who would – and those people were us! 
We went to the entrance of the ride where you get to choose between “green” and “orange” tickets.  The ride has a very specific disclaimer warning people that if they get motion sickness, or a variety of other motion related ailments, they should choose the green ticket.  Orange is for “true astronaut training”.

We chose orange.  I’ve never felt more afraid of voluntarily subjecting myself to something in my life.

Of course, the waiting line didn’t make it any easier.  Every minute that passed I got more anxious.  Video monitors on the walls offered constant reminders that if you changed your mind and wanted to do “green” training, you could still opt-out.

Apparently, more people throw up on this ride than any other ride at Disney World.  Isn’t that charming?

So finally, we get called into our “pod” for a briefing by one of those guys who always plays the role of a scientist or astronaut in Disney movies.  And we wait.  And we wait some more.  People begin to sit down, getting fatigued from standing in line then standing in our training vessel.

Finally a door opens.  But it’s the wrong one.  Through the door we entered from stands a ride attendant, in his astronaut gear.  Apparently no one told them that the ride they sent us into was broken.  We all got switched to the next available pod and went through the debriefing all over again.

We all entered in our space ships to prepare for a six month voyage to Mars.  Sweet.  One of the girls in our row opted out at the last minute, so we were down a commander.  We would just have to make due.

We each locked down our chest-restraints and proceeded to obey our orders to keep our heads pressed firmly to the back of our seats and stare directly through our viewing window.

Engines: check.  Fuel: check.  Mission is a go!

There was a loud and viscous rumble from below, and lift off! We were propelled through Earths’ atmosphere and into space.  The six month journey would sling-shot us around the moon and onto Mars.  Thankfully, since the voyage was so long, we were put into a hibernating state to pass the time.

Six months passed as quickly as we were told it would and upon awakening Mars was in sight.  Unfortunately, so was an asteroid storm!  We dodged and darted through the chunks of space debris successfully, but ended up off-course for our landing.  We’d need to work together to complete an emergency landing.

The captain was called on to steer us in, lights were flashing, options were ignited, and after a rough up-and-down, through ancient fjords, and past our landing site, we crash landed, albeit successfully, on the edge of a cliff.  Phew.

For the next 45 minutes after exiting Mission Space, we were disoriented, unbalanced, and slightly nauseous.  I now fully understand why there are so many warnings and disclaimers on the ride.

So we checked out a slightly more low-key ride: Ellen’s Universe of Energy with Bill Nye the Science Guy!  I learned all about fossil fuels and dinosaurs and lots of other forms of energy and laughed heartily because the Ellen who hosted was Ellen circa 1998, a slightly less fashionable, slightly more “mullet-ey” version of the Ellen we know and love today.

After that we headed to the World Pavilions, which included: England, Canada, Morocco, Germany, China, Norway, the US, France and a few others.

I was, of course, very much intrigued to see how us Canadians are represented.  And, I’ve gotta say, they did a pretty spot-on job, if we were all lumberjacks, that is.  The female Canadians had the pleasure of wearing the always flattering ¾ length, mustard-brown pleated skirts with delightful button accents down the front, construction-style boots with wool socks, and red and black plaid shirts.  The Canadian boys had a similar uniform, but got to wear pleated pants instead.  Lucky!

So I obviously have to see what else the visitors of Disney are learning about our beautiful country.  We stroll through a beautiful reproduction of Stanley Park in British Columbia, and head toward the 360˚ theatre to watch an 18-minute movie about Canada, as presented by one of Canada’s top comedic exports: Martin Short (sarcasm intended).

As I’m heading toward the theatre there are two Canadians waiting to greet us.  I begin to get closer and find myself squinting in disbelief.  I wait until I’m close enough to confirm this Canadian’s identity via her nametag and say, “Amy Irving?!  Umm, Allie Mason?  New Glasgow High??”

We were both shocked.  What are the chances?!  Turns out from my small high school of 300 (at the time when she attended before we were amalgamated), Amy Irving had made her way all the way to Disney World to work for a full year.  She was two months in, at the time.  After we chatted for a couple of minutes we went into the theater where she happened to be hosting today.  She gave me a nice little shout-out in her introduction, where she shocked audiences by telling them we don’t say “eh” all the time and we don’t live in igloos or take dogsleds to work.  One man requested she give a “Hey hoser!” to his son.  I have no idea what that means, but he seemed to enjoy it.

Anyway, the movie was a beautiful tourist-ey type of movie, showcasing all that Canada has to offer from our major cities to beautiful backcountry villages and our vast natural landscape.  I always find it odd when our strong aboriginal presence is ignored in our cultural history, but that seemed to be the case again.  Heck, even the US Pavilion had an animatronic Chief!  I guess it’s to be expected after seeing the outfits they had us in.

We checked out all of the other pavilions, took a log ride through Norway, stopped for a meal in Morocco, took another ride through Mexico, strolled the streets of Germany, France and China, and watched a completely animatronic theatrical production starring the founding fathers of America.

I don’t know about you, but I this animatronics are hysterical.  The fact that they had an animatronic Mark Twain, smoking a cigar and talking to George Washington was slightly entertaining to me.  I’m sure it’s just because it’s Disney, and Disney would never recognize negative relationships between cultures, but the US’s depiction of their history was about as ignorant and their depiction of Canada’s history.  It was so bad that Matt made sure to point out when it was over that he, “hoped I didn’t think it really happened that way.”  I had a laugh.

We hung out at Epcot to see their fireworks, which were absolutely phenomenal.  A giant light-up globe floats out into the middle of the lake and opens up to show a video inside, fireworks are going off everywhere, there are torches lit up in the middle of the lake.  It was an amazing display.

When they finished, we headed back to Magic Kingdom to see if we could catch their fireworks and hit up a few more rides before we headed home.  We arrived just in time to see Cinderella’s castle lit up from all sides with fireworks.  Mainstreet USA was packed.  We found a good place to witness the rest of the spectacle and took it all in.  The castle looked like it had been sprinkled with fairy dust.  It was beautiful.

We figured since all the parents and young kids would be heading out after the fireworks that we’d have a better chance of getting onto a few of the rides that had long wait times earlier.  We went straight to Space Mountain – an entirely indoor rollercoaster that zips and zooms through the universe!  Out of the coasters at Disney, Space Mountain was definitely my favorite.  It was fast, had lots of dips, dives, swerves and spirals, though it didn’t go upside-down at any point.  It was a lot of fun and being in the dark made the ride that much more suspenseful.

After, we went to go check out the inside of Cinderella’s castle, and go on Splash Mountain.  Splash Mountain is pretty low-key, comparatively speaking.  It’s a log ride, and for the vast majority of it you’re just floating around through this strangely erotic animatronic woodland.  I’m not gonna go into any more detail about that.

When we left Splash Mountain we were a little wet, so we decided to dry off on the Thunder Mountain Railroad.  We made our way to the top and were all settled in within 10 minutes.  Toward the end of the ride, the rollercoaster got stuck.  Slightly anti-climactic, but since it was almost back to the end it wasn’t so bad. 

We were pulled into the station where some people fiddled with whatever got jammed.  About 5 minutes later, the problem was fixed and the ride attendant yelled, “We’re all fixed… and you’re going on again!!”  The crowd cheered and off we went for one more round.

We strolled through an eerily empty, midnight Disney World, took the ferry back to the parking lot, and took the tram back to our car.

Disney World -  great success!

Monday, December 6, 2010

First of Three

So, after getting all settled in, I had about 5 days to prepare for my first and only visitor in Florida.  It would be the first friend I'd seen since October 6th (also happens to be the last person I saw on October 6th!).  Needless to say, I was pretty darn excited.

I was so excited that I’m pretty sure my nerves got the best of me.  The whole week before said guests’ arrival I had this weird feeling that I was going to get hurt.  I didn’t know how or when, but I had an eerie suspicion something was going to happen.  On the motorcycle I was paranoid.  When I went for a run I would be extra careful not to drag my feet or trip.  

The day before arrival day, not even a mile from the house, I’m casually riding my bicycle down the street and a palmetto bug lands on me.

Now, if you know anything about palmetto bugs, you know they are like giant flying cockroaches and they won’t hurt you.  If you’re me, however, and know nothing about palmetto bugs, you automatically assume the worst case scenario: it's going to bite/sting/plant its' eggs in me and I'm going to die.

It flies toward me and lands directly on my foot.  I panic.  I start shaking my foot furiously, but it’s got a grip on me as tight as a headlock from Mike Tyson.  So I attempt to drag my foot against the foot pedal, all the while still attempting to maintain my balance and continue my bike ride. 

In retrospect, I should have just stopped dead in my tracks and went and rubbed my foot in the grass, but all reason escaped me when that giant bug landed on me.

So, I manage one scrape, but the bug is still there.  At this point I can’t even tell if it’s dead or alive, but I just keep trying to get it off.  By swipe three against the pedal, the bug is undoubtedly dead, and I’m flying toward the pavement.

Instinctively, I clench my fists, so that I don’t scrape up my palms of my hands upon impact.  I land squarely on my left forearm and left knee.  I burn a hole through the knee of my pants, and into my skin, and scrape a solid four and a half inch gash into my arm.  Luckily, I didn’t hit my head, or scrape my face.  Apparently my emergency landing skills are top notch.

I’ve come close fainting only a few times in my life.  When I looked down at my arm, this was one of those times. 

I stumbled to the nearest house and rang the doorbell.  No answer.

I looked at my arm again.  I felt the blood drain from my head, my vision narrowed, my ears began ringing, and I stumbled again, like a bloody drunk, back to the grass where I proceeded to accept my demise.

All I could think, sitting there, bleeding in the grass on some elderly persons’ lawn in a gated retirement community, was, “how am I supposed to walk back to my Dad’s when I can’t even walk 10 feet to a neighbor’s door?”

Now, as much as I give nosey neighbors slack for constantly having their noses perched between their horizontal blinds, on this day, I was thankful.

Sitting in the grass, bleeding away, fearing losing consciousness, I notice a man walking toward me.  Once he gets close enough, he notices my arm and asks if I’m okay (pretty sure if you see someone sitting in the grass, bleeding and incoherent, they’re probably not “okay,” but whatever).  I tell him I feel like I’m going to faint.  He says he’s a former marine and if I ever feel like I’m going to faint I should put my head between my legs, so I do just that.

After giving him the low-down on what happened his wife joins us and said she noticed me staggering around while she was on the phone with her daughter.   So she sent her hubby over to check on me.  God bless and hug a veteran, all at once.

They drove me home.  Needless to say, I was pretty ashamed of the gash considering the circumstances, and the fact that the bike was only a one-speed.

I guess it was just a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Next, I thought about how trouble always comes in threes.  Maybe I shouldn’t have thought that. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

All apologies

I've been a bad blogger.

I promise I will post something with a recent update as lots of very interesting things have taken place in the past two weeks.  It's for that reason that I haven't been keeping up with ye olde blogge - I've been on the road again.

More to come in the next few days!  I love and miss you all and promise a good entry once time permits.