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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy fest’

Buddha, Target and the Blond Giraffe: Our Spring Break

Posted by Tony & Cheri on March 17, 2009

Tony in a garden Cheri at the Heron House with the beautiful Crown of Thorns plant

We don’t often travel without each other. It’s more fun when we do things together, and over the years we have defined our travel roles: Tony maps out where we are going; Cheri arranges the details of transportation and schedules; Tony packs for the trip out; Cheri packs for the trip back, etc.

However recently Tony took off on his own. His growing interest in the practice of Zen Buddhism had lead him over the past year to correspond and visit with Reb Anderson, a Zen Master, or Roshi, who lives and teaches at the Green Gulch Zen Center in Northern California. Reb, whose Buddhist name is Tenshin (meaning “naturally real”), is a renowned teacher who often travels to speak at other Zen centers and address groups around the world. A couple of weeks ago Reb was leading a four day Zen meditation retreat in southern Florida, and Tony decided to attend.

Zen is not a religion (it does not worship Buddha or anyone else) but is a discipline centered on meditation. And meditation is simply sitting quietly and looking within yourself, at your life and at the world around you…which can be a good thing whether done at the end of the day with a glass of wine, walking on a deserted beach or at formal sitting in a meditation hall under the guidance of a teacher.

The retreat was held at a small conference facility. Attendees spent approximately four hours each day in meditation and another three hours attending lectures on the teachings of Buddha. Attendees could also have private discussions with Tenshin Roshi if they wished. Meals were vegetarian (quite a change for steak-loving Tony), and the entire retreat was conducted under a vow of silence. No speaking except for exchanges with the teacher. Wow! What a difference from working at the hotel and bar where we spend the day talking with guests and friends.

The retreat ended on Sunday, Cheri’s birthday. We planned that she would fly to Miami that day and Tony would pick her up at the airport. Starting the next day we were going to drive through the Florida Keys to Key West for our own little spring break vacation. But on Cheri’s birthday we were going to be in the Miami area. To celebrate, Tony suggested a night at a fancy South Beach hotel and dinner at some hip new restaurant…or any other thing Cheri might want. Cheri’s choice? She wanted to spend the night in Florida City, a small town that is the last stop south before entering the Keys. Why? It had a Target store and a couple of malls!

Key West: the end of Highway 1Life in Mexico is a life without the commercial rat race of the States. In some ways that is very good. We have learned to slow life down and to put “things” in a proper and less important space. Yet we still miss being able to go shopping for whatever we might need or want without traveling from store to store or even town to town to find it. And we miss the selection of items not often available in Mexico (clothes, personal items, English language books, meat marinade, cement screws, etc). So Cheri’s birthday wish was to spend some time shopping, starting with her all time favorite store, Target.

After emptying Target’s shelves we headed for our hotel, the Florida City Travelodge. Yes, the Travelodge. Again, Cheri passed on some expensive place in Miami and went for the Tripadvisor #1 recommendation. The Florida City Travelodge is not a vacation destination but is a clean, comfortable motel for those traveling to or from the Keys. The next day there was a “little” more shopping (Macy’s, the mall, Office Max, Target again, JoAnn’s Fabrics and a few others) and then we were off to the Keys.

We know of two beautiful vista-filled roadways. The first is the Pacific Coast Highway in California as it winds along the ocean side through the mountains and forests of Big Sur. The second is Highway 1 in Florida as it meanders through the 100 miles or more of the islands known as the Keys.

The highway crosses the biggest keys first. Key Largo and Islamorada are large islands with plenty of development. Houses, stores and people are everywhere. It’s a strange combination of architecture and cultures. There are numerous strip malls, fast food restaurants and souvenir stores. But because of the nearness of the ocean and the gulf, there are also many dive shops and marinas. There are funky little docks filled with sailing boats and weathered cottages everywhere. The sense of being in a tropical, almost Caribbean, part of the world is added to by the sight of palm trees waving in the winds everywhere and the bright colors seen on buildings, boats and most of all on the art and crafts work that seems to be for sale everywhere.

Once past the largest keys the islands begin to shrink and the bridges between them start to lengthen. At this point you begin to have the sensation of driving on the water. To the left is the great darkening blue of the Atlantic Ocean while to the right is the blue-green water of the Gulf of Mexico. As we drove along in the late afternoon the setting sun bathed both bodies of water in a soft glow. If you are looking for a road trip with spectacular scenery, this is it.

The Heron HouseWe followed US 1 until it ended on the little island of Key West…the end of the road, the line and the rainbow for some. We had reservations at the Heron House, a very delightful Bed and Breakfast one street off of Duval, the main drag through the tourist zone of “Old Town.” The “other” Tony and Cheri recommended it to us as they stay there every year during Fantasy Fest. (BTW there will be a Tony and Cheri convention at the Luna Blue Hotel this August when the “other” T&C come to Playa for the first time!) And the management of the Heron House was nice enough to offer us an industry discount when they found we were also in the hotel business.

Our room at the Heron was ground floor and opened via French doors onto the central patio and pool. In the mornings they would fill a sideboard with breakfast foods (one hot dish…eggs one day, waffles the next… and fruits, cereals etc.). It really is a beautiful place. The staff was friendly and attentive and the location couldn’t be beat. Duval Street was just around the corner in one direction, with quiet walks through neighborhoods of lovely homes and flower gardens in the other direction.

In fact the Heron House was such a nice place some people just can’t leave it…ever! Cheri was talking with some of the staff about a beautiful plant in the garden (a Crown of Thorns it is called) when they mentioned that it grew over someone’s grave site! It turns out there are four people who, after cremation, have had their ashes buried in the garden there because they loved it so much. Now that’s customer loyalty.

We had last been in Key West in October for Fantasy Fest, the town’s crazy, adult, semi-dressed weeklong version of Halloween. This time we were looking forward to a less hectic, more laid back trip to visit some of our favorite spots. It was Spring Break, but even with lots of college kids wandering from bar to bar the town still kept its laid back vibe.

Duval Street is the heart of Key West’s “Old Town” with several blocks of stores, restaurants, bars, and clubs. Duval ends on the west side of the island at Mallory Square, a large open area dock/deck where each evening the crowds gather to watch the as the sun settles into the ocean, spraying the clouds and water with a pink coral glow. Food vendors, fortune tellers, craftspeople, acrobats, performers and hustlers of all kinds fill the Square to entertain, and make a little money from, the tourists. Stopping by Mallory Square for sunset is a must whether it’s your first or fortieth time to Key West.

In addition to long walks along quiet streets, we did some shopping on Duval where we got some great decorations for our bar and Cheri picked up what seemed like a dozen little sundresses perfect for Mexico’s coming summertime. We also dropped in a couple of times at the open air dockside Schooner Wharf Tavern to see one of our favorite musicians, Michael McCloud. Michael is old school Key West. He has a huge repertoire of songs including many he has written himself which he delivers with an easy patter of wry humor and comments. We have tried for some time to lure him to Playa to play at our own Luna Blue Bar, but Michael says he likes his quiet life in the Keys too much to disturb it. His wife jokingly says she can’t get him past the ballpark in Miami!

We also spent an evening sailing on the schooner Western Union. An aged sailing vessel, the schooner was built in the thirties and used to make runs between Key West and Cuba. Now it takes tourists out in the evening to watch the sunset from the deck of a rolling ship. The night we went the sea was calm and the sky clear. It was peaceful and sweet.

When we weren’t relaxing we were going to some of our favorite eateries. We ate at: Fogarty’s (which hosts “Red Night” during Fantasy Fest); Cheeseburger in Key West (a sister to another of our favorite places, the Cheeseburger in Paradise on Maui in Hawaii); Kelly’s Caribbean Grill (owned by actress Kelly McGillis and set in a lovely tropical garden…and home to Kelly’s Kinky Carnival during Fantasy Fest); Mangoes Restaurant ( right on Duval with a sidewalk level view of the nightly promenade); and Blue Heaven (the funky chicken roost of a diner made famous both by its breakfasts and the Jimmy Buffet song “Blue Heaven Rendezvous”). Tony also enjoyed stopping at the Five Brothers, a small grocery store out in the neighborhood that has a lunch counter known for its Cuban style coffee. Local workingmen gather there at 7 in the morning for the dark, thick, mud consistency espresso loaded with several heaping tablespoons of sugar and equal portions of steamed milk. What a great way to kick start your heart in the morning.

And of course, the Keys are not only famous for being one of America’s craziest and most beautiful places, but also for the Key Lime fruit which is used to flavor drinks, pastries, candy and above all else…the legendary Key Lime Pie. After much investigation and research on our part, we decided that the best Key Lime Pie in Key West is to be found at the Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Cafes. There are several in the area, and they all offer the same sweet but tart, flaky-crust piece of heaven. Sometimes we overindulged and ordered the Pie on a Stick version: a slice of Key Lime Pie, frozen on a popsicle stick, dipped in chocolate which then hardens. OH…MY…GOD. Believe us, it’s very, very good!

After thoroughly relaxing (and gaining more than a few pounds we suspect) it was time to head home to Playa Del Carmen. While we had been on vacation, two of our dearest friends, our almost daughter Sarah and her new husband Adam, were in Playa staying at our home and housesitting our many pets. After returning home we got to spend a couple of days with the “kids,” which was a wonderful way for us to end our spring break. Now it’s back to work, even if work means running a hotel and bar in paradise.

The other Tony and Cheri on “Leather Night” at Fantasy Fest
The other Tony and Cheri at Fantasy Fest

A typical Key West garden
A typical Key West garden

The garden at the Blue Heaven restaurant
The garden at the Blue Heaven restaurant

The Heron House
The Heron House

Michael McCloud at the Schooner Wharf Bar
Michael McCloud at the Schooner Wharf Bar

The crowd at Mallory Square waiting to watch the sunset
The crowd at Mallory Square waiting to watch the sunset

Chocolate covered key lime pie on a stick. Mmm Mmm Good.
Chocolate covered key lime pie on a stick

Sunset over the Atlantic
Sunset over the Atlantic

Cheri on the sailing vessel Western Union, dreaming of key lime pie
Cheri

Early in the morning at Five Brothers Coffee Shop
Five Brothers Coffee Shop

A sailboat silhouetted against the setting sun, taken from Mallory Square
A sailboat silhouetted against the setting sun, taken from Mallory Square.

By the way, HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY!!! And if you’re in town tonight, be sure to stop by the hottest party in town, the Luna Blue Bar’s St. Paddy’s Day Party. 7pm to midnight.

St. Paddy's Day Party at the Luna Blue Bar

Posted in Living the Dream, The Love of Travel, Trip Report | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Election Escapades: From San Francisco to Mexico to Key West & Back

Posted by Tony & Cheri on October 30, 2008

With the US presidential election racing to a finish soon, we thought people might enjoy hearing about how we are taking part in the election from down here and how it compares with politics here in Mexico. And of course we will offer what has been labeled as our “misguided” opinions on who should be President…but don’t worry, we won’t get too preachy and you can even skip that part if you want. We won’t be offended.

Unlike the US elections, open democratic elections in Mexico have only existed for a few years. From 1929 until 2000, Mexico was ruled by one party which controlled the outcome of elections. Democratic reform swept the country in 2000, and Vicente Fox became the first opposition party candidate to ever win the Presidency.

That fragile democracy was tested in last year’s presidential election when Felipe Calderón ran against López Obrador. The race was very close and very nasty, splitting the country into two camps. Most educated professionals and people in large cities went for Calderón. Poor people living in the rural areas went for Obrador. The result was very close with Calderón winning but with many Obrador supporters claiming that the election had been fraudulent like so many in the past.

When we tried to talk about the election with Mexican friends or even our employees we were met with silence and downcast eyes. Unlike America where everybody has an opinion and is more than willing to share it, most Mexicans don’t speak easily about their political views. Whether a matter of etiquette or fear we don’t know. The few who did speak about the election were unshakable in the belief that no one could stop the rich and powerful from always being in control. It appears to us that a large part of this country views the entire political system with a mixture of distrust and fatalism.

With that atmosphere here in Mexico, we sometimes have to chuckle at the partisan squabbles back home over who is too left or too right. And the complaints about an unfair media or fears of a fraudulent voter turnout seem pretty overblown to us when compared with the real problems in establishing a democracy south of the border. Americans should never forget how really special, and strong, their democracy is.

Vote ObamaIf anything, seeing how people reacted to elections in Mexico made us want to participate in our own elections even more. The question was how to do that from 4,000 miles away. Our original thought was that we would take some time off and go back to the US as volunteers for whatever candidate appealed to us. It was a nice idea, but the more we discussed it, the more reality set in. Who was going to do our reservations, supervise our hotel, watch our bar and most important babysit all our animals? We realized pretty quickly that wasn’t going to happen. So, we did the next best thing. We sent money. By the time we were ready to give money, the race had narrowed down to Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama. Lifelong Democrats that we are, we sent our money to Mr. Obama.

Of course, in our world of international living, writing a check and sticking it in the mail is not possible. If we had mailed a check to the Obama campaign from Mexico, it might arrive in time for the election in 2012. So we went online and gave what we could. And then we gave a little more. Okay, we maxed out our contributions. We decided this election was that important.

We got a nice thank you email from the Obama campaign. And suddenly we had new best friends. Actually it was kind of nice. Even though we couldn’t give any more money, we still got almost daily updates from the campaign. They also gave us the opportunity to volunteer without ever leaving Playa del Carmen. As part of their internet volunteer program, they provided phone numbers of undecided voters in swing states for us to call. Our swing state was Nevada.

Of course it wasn’t an international call as we have an internet phone line that basically operates as a San Francisco number. That was the good news. The bad news is we have been getting constant phone calls from state, local and national campaigns who don’t realize they’re contacting us in Mexico. Boy will we be glad when the election is over. We even got a phone call tonight from the Obama campaign asking us if we’d come down to the San Francisco office tomorrow and make phone calls to get out the vote. We’d love to, but it’s a bit of a commute. :)

Having done what we could to help our candidate win, the next step was of course to vote for him. That was easier said than done. It ended up involving several weeks, multiple emails, two trips to the United States, a mule from Iowa, and a ballot that eventually passed through three states, four time zones and an international border. We take our voting seriously!

We got the ball rolling on a trip to San Francisco in early September. We still maintain a home in San Francisco, so that’s where we are registered to vote. After a couple of phone calls and emails, the Department of Elections in our home town informed us that we needed to print out an application for a mail-in ballot and bring it to City Hall. As we had a laptop but no printer, we asked the nice folks at the front desk of the Chancellor Hotel (where we always stay when traveling through San Francisco) for help, and they graciously printed out our forms. We then headed over to City Hall. We couldn’t pick up the ballots that day as they had to be mailed to us. Since nothing mailed to Mexico ever arrives on time if at all, we arranged for our ballots to be mailed to our friend & semi-adopted daughter Sarah in Iowa, where she lives with her now husband Adam.

Some Fantasy Fest revelersSarah & Adam were heading down in October to get married on the beach here in Mexico. Along with her dress, party favors, decorations and assorted wedding accessories, they “muled” our ballots to us. We set them aside knowing we would be returning to the US before the election, so we could mail them ourselves. There they sat relatively undisturbed (except for one unfortunate incident involving the overflowing bladder of our very old cat) until we took our vacation to Key West last week. There, amidst the insanity and raucous fun of Fantasy Fest, we managed to find time to fill out the ballots and prepare to mail them back to San Francisco. Except that somehow in the process we lost one of the return envelopes. Panic. Calls and emails back to San Francisco’s Department of Elections, who calmly informed us that we could send it in another envelope as long as it was properly addressed and specifically marked according to their directions.

So off we went on our bikes through Key West, weaving among painted nymphs and tipsy pirates searching for a store to buy the proper size envelopes. We finally found one and purchased what we needed. We stuffed and addressed the envelopes, and asked the store clerk how much it costs to mail a letter these days. He said, “Hell, I don’t know.” Key West is very laid back. So we stuck on four or five 37 cent stamps just to be sure, made our way back through the partying crowd and deposited our ballots in a US mailbox. From San Francisco to Iowa to Mexico to Key West and finally back to San Francisco. We sure hope your trip to the polls is easier. :)

So now it’s just a matter of waiting for election night. When it comes we’ll probably end up on the couch in front of the TV with a cup of tea, a dog, a bunch of cats, and our fingers crossed. We truly believe that Barack Obama will be the best choice for the country, and we dearly hope that he wins. More importantly, though, our experience in the third world has reinforced our belief that the best thing about democracy is that everyone has a chance to be heard and that in the end we’re all Americans, no matter which political party we belong to. Regardless of who is elected on November 4, we hope the country will give him a chance. He’s going to have one hell of a tough job.

Now go VOTE!!!!

Posted in News & Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

 
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