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Posts Tagged ‘zen’

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

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 »

Christmas by the Bay

Posted by Tony & Cheri on December 16, 2008

“It’s Christmas by the Bay, time to celebrate in a San Francisco way.”
~Tim Hockenberry

The holiday tree in Union Square, San FranciscoWe spent thirty years in San Francisco, and even though we now live in Mexico, we still return to California as often as we can to see family, friends and the beauty of one of the world’s truly great cities. And since that beauty is enhanced when the holiday season comes around, we decided a little early December trip was in order to help us get in the Christmas spirit. Here is a trip report about our “Christmas by the Bay.”

As always, we stayed at the Chancellor Hotel. It’s an old style San Franciscan hotel, built in the early 1900’s, and owned by the same family for years. It sits right at the corner of Union Square, the heart of the shopping district. It is comfortable, with wonderful service from a dedicated staff which has been there for a long time (some for as much as twenty years). We always get a room on the street side. From our window we could see the City’s official holiday tree, the ice skating rink and the various stores decorations. At night we would leave our window open to hear the clickety-clack of the cable cars that run past the front of the hotel and the street musicians below playing Christmas carols.

Once we got to the Bay Area we had some personal stuff to take care of. Middle age brings a fair amount of doctors poking and probing on occasion. However it turned out all was well and a clean bill of health was issued. Yay!

Then it was a couple of days visiting family up in Sacramento. We saw Cheri’s mom’s new house (of which she is very proud) and got to hang out with the rest of the family, including Cheri’s brothers, sister & nephews. When we first left San Francisco and started our long drive to Mexico, Cheri’s family up in Sacramento took us in for a few nights so we could get our bearings. It always feels a little like home away from home when we go back to visit, but we wish they would come to Mexico and visit more often. Sadly, our son Chris couldn’t join us as he was in the middle of a faculty presentation for his Master’s Degree in Digital Media down in San Diego. But there were lots of phone calls and birthday wishes (he turned 26 on December 6th!).

Tony with poet Gary SnyderWhen we got back to San Francisco we tried to make the most of our visit, experiencing as many of the unusual and fascinating places and things the Bay Area has to offer as we could. Here are some of the fun things we did:

….We went to a book reading by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gary Snyder. Snyder is a renaissance man. He has by turns been a scholar of Chinese and Japanese literature and art, a logger, a fire lookout in national forests, a university professor, a sailor in the merchant marine, Chair of California Arts Council, an adamant spokesman for the environment and the author of a couple dozen books of poetry. On this evening Snyder was talking about his friendship with the late Beat poet and icon, Allen Ginsberg, and reading from a recently published collection of their correspondence. At 78 Snyder still dominated the room with the power of his voice, his intelligence and his personality. He was warm, funny and friendly, taking time to sign books and chat with the crowd of about fifty who came to see him. It was a very special evening with a true national treasure.

…We attended an afternoon Christmas concert at Grace Cathedral featuring the Cathedral’s Men and Boys Choirs. Grace Cathedral is a magnificent Gothic structure of stone and space and is one of our favorite places to have a few minutes of peace in the middle of the City. The Choirs sang Christmas carols to the accompaniment of a string quartet and the church’s massive pipe organ. The sounds echoed around the candlelit church as the day’s final rays of sunlight shone through the giant stained glass windows above us. It was a wonderful way to start the holiday season.

Our good friends Jan & Eric…We went to a tree trimming party at the home of our dear friends Jan and Eric. They are about as perfect a couple as you ever want to meet. They are smart, funny and loving to each other and to their friends. They are also gourmet cooks and have made their small Russian Hill apartment our favorite restaurant in San Francisco. That night there was great wine (Eric’s a wine connoisseur …or snob as we tell him) terrific food (baked panko- and cayenne pepper-encrusted prawns among many other goodies) and old friends gathered about the tree in the living room telling new stories and re-telling old ones all night long. Thank you guys. It was a delight.

…We went to restaurants. Lots of restaurants! It being San Francisco we of course ate waaaayyy too much. This trip we discovered some new treasures. We ate at Brenda’s French Soul Food Restaurant on Polk near Eddy, a miniscule dining room serving the best Creole cooking outside of New Orleans French Quarter. We had the Andouille Sausage and Crawfish bread pudding as well as the beignet assortment. We also ate at Puccini & Pinetti on Ellis Street, a warm, modern Italian eatery with a great bar and unusual menu. We loved the filet set in a bed of warm spinach with cherries and gorgonzola. Of course we hit some old favorites including Firenze by Night on Stockton. Sergio has made his classic Italian restaurant a must for visitors and home to many locals. It’s the best pasta in town. We also ate pretty regularly at Luques which is in the Chancellor Hotel. They have wonderful breakfasts and afternoon snacks with a Cajun flavor. One night we had a North Beach Pizza (our favorite pizza in all the world!) delivered to our room. One afternoon we indulged in Dim Sum (Chinese Tea Lunch) at Yank Sing. Oh, and In -N Out Burgers. And Pasta Pomodoro in Noe Valley, our old neighborhood. And Egg Nog Lattes at Starbucks. And hotdogs from the Stanley Steamer Cart sitting beside the skating rink. And don’t forget Ghirardelli chocolate. The list goes on and on. We are going on a diet the minute we get home.

Entrance to the Green Gulch Zen Center…We went to the Actor’s Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) for their annual musical production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. They stage it every year and it has become, along with the Ballet’s Nutcracker, a San Francisco performance tradition. It is a close call as to which is more adorable, the kids in the production in their 18th Century costumes or the little ones in ties and frilly dresses for a special evening out with Mom and Dad, or Mom and Mom, or Dad and Dad (it is San Francisco, after all). Of course everyone knows the story, and by the time Tiny Tim calls out “God bless us everyone” the whole place was cheering and clapping with the Christmas spirit. No Scrooges allowed! We went home through the streets to the hotel with big smiles.

…Tony went to the Green Gulch Zen Center to meditate and have a private interview with Roshi Reb Anderson. The Zen Center sits near Mount Tamalpais in Marin, just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. A small Buddhist community lives and farms there in a fog-covered valley filled with towering Eucalyptus trees. It is a place of absolutely magical physical beauty. Tenshin Roshi (Tenshin is Mr. Anderson’s Buddhist name, and Roshi means ancient or wise teacher) is the head Dharma instructor at the center. Tenshin Roshi’s teachings mean a lot to Tony, and he was greatly honored to be able to spend some time with this special person.

…We experienced Christmas San Francisco style. There were lights and giant decorated trees in Union Square, in front of the Bank of America building and at City Hall. The Embarcadero Buildings were, as always, outlined in lights like giant presents. There were choir groups singing carols across from the hotel at night (“Merry Christmas San Francisco” they shouted). The legendary cable cars were decorated with wreaths and greenery. Macys’ windows were filled with kittens and puppies up for adoption from the SPCA. And on our last night we experienced an “only in San Francisco” event…Santarchy! Early Morning in Muir WoodsThink Santa and Anarchy and you have your first clue. The word went out over the internet and hundreds of people, mostly young, showed up downtown dressed like Santa in some fashion. There were traditional white bearded Santas, Viking helmeted Santas, Mexican masked wrestling Santas, pretty girls barely dressed as Frederick’s of Hollywood Santas, and even biker Santas on motorcycles completely covered in Christmas tree lights. It was a internet-sponsored gathering combined with a parade and a bar crawl (“Santa needs Beer!!” was the cry of the evening). A great time was had by both the participants and the observers. San Francisco is still a wonder!

…We went early one morning to hike the trails in Muir Woods, a national monument located in Marin. Muir Woods is a protected forest of old growth redwood trees. The park has canyons, streams, wildlife and hiking trails all spread for miles beneath a dazzling canopy of evergreen. We have always loved hiking there, particularly in the early morning before the tour buses arrive. At that time of day the forest is perfectly still, with no sound except the water tumbling over rocks, the wind in the high branches and the occasional caw of a crow. Walking beneath the gigantic redwoods makes one feel insignificant and a part of the natural setting all at the same time. After our hike we emerged from the woods into the crisp cold air with a sense of renewal, which is what nature is all about we guess.

…We also experienced one more San Francisco tradition, one we wish would disappear: homeless people living and sleeping on the street. Some are poor, some are mentally ill, some are addicted to drugs or alcohol. All are cold, hungry, sick and alone. There aren’t enough shelters to help, and some wouldn’t go to the shelters even if there was room because they are afraid of being locked up or abused. So they beg on the street and live in doorways, alleys or in camps which materialize at night in dead end streets and under freeways. We wish there was an answer we could give, some help we could offer, but sometimes the problem seems too big and too complex. So this year, as in years past we made a small gesture by joining San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll’s Untied Way. For a full explanation of how you can join the Untied Way in your town, please read Mr. Carroll’s column which is set forth below. It has been part of our Christmas for a couple of years now, and we hope it can be part of yours too.

A San Francisco traditionFinally it was time to go home…and we were glad. It was a great trip. We love The City and always will, but we missed our little home in the tropics, we missed our Mexican street cats and dogs, we missed our friends and the folks who work for us. And we missed being warm!!! So we are happy to be home now in Mexico and are getting ready for Christmas here. We will blog again soon about our holiday plans down here at the Luna Blue Hotel & Bar on the edge of the Caribbean. In the meantime, Happy Holidays Everyone.

Jon Carroll San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, December 7, 2006

The sleigh bells are tinkling, if you happen to live in a heavily sleighed area, and the snow is falling (according to reliable rumors), and avatars of Santa Claus are coming to town, indeed have already arrived in town, as the gift-giving giant SanClauInc (formerly Santa Claus’ Elf Factory) works out its naughty-nice ratios adjusted for morality deflation.

Which means it’s time again for the Untied Way. The Untied Way is a nontraditional charity. It has no officers, no headquarters, no brochures, no regional offices and no guidelines. It is not a tax-deductible organization because it is not an organization at all. It issues no receipts, nor do letters come in the mail thanking you for your generous contribution.

The Untied Way does not have a Web site. The Untied Way does not sponsor a fun run, a masked ball, a gourmet dinner, a silent auction, a noisy auction, a turtle race or a runway show. It does not have buttons, badges or stickers. It will not send you address labels in the mail. The Untied Way has no overhead at all, and 100 percent of its donations go directly to those in need.

The Untied Way supports and embraces all other charities. The Untied Way urges you to give generously to all of them, or the ones you always give to, or maybe some new ones. The Untied Way exists to care for those people who, as is so often said, “fall through the cracks.” The Untied Way is all about the cracks.

The Untied Way is not so much an organization as an idea. Really, it’s hardly an idea — it’s really more of a plan. Untied Way volunteers follow the plan. Only they know how well the plan works; only they can say what benefits are derived. Untied Way volunteers are self-selected; no records are kept. Untied Way volunteers are not bonded, carry no special identification and do not solicit funds. Untied Way volunteers give money away. That’s it.

Here’s how it works. This is the age of ATMs, so the ATM is the centerpiece of the Untied Way. Go to your ATM and take out some money. How much money is entirely your business, but the sum should be sufficient for you to notice its absence. It shouldn’t hurt, but maybe it should pinch a little.

Take your money to an area of town where there are people who seek funds from passing strangers. Coincidentally, BART serves many of these areas, the result of an unprecedented BART-Untied Way collaboration, of which BART is unaware. Then you take your fistful of $20 bills and stroll down the avenue. When someone asks you for money, you give him $20. You repeat this until you are out of $20 bills. You are now an official Untied Way volunteer and are entitled to all the rights and privileges adhering thereto, including perhaps a no-host ride on a monorail back to your home.

You might expect gratitude from your clients, but you may not get it. Some of your clients may not process the denomination of the contribution, and therefore your special virtue will go unremarked. Sometimes, alas, your clients will say insulting or incomprehensible things to you. Other times, they may be overly grateful, and follow you down the street asking in stentorian tones for God to bless you. The Untied Way is not a particularly comfortable charity.

Sometimes people ask: Won’t the Untied Way clients use their money foolishly? Won’t they buy drugs or cheap booze or unsavory companionship? And the answer is: Yes, they might. Have you ever spent your money foolishly? Have you ever behaved unwisely? Untied Way clients are human beings like you.

Sometimes people ask: Are the Untied Way clients worthy of these donations? What does “worthy” mean? How much suffering would you want them to have? How much virtue do you feel is appropriate? It’s like this: You can spend your time determining the eligibility of clients, asking them to fill out questionnaires and describe what other kinds of financial assistance they are receiving, or you can give them money and move on. The second way is more efficient.

It is the assumption of the Untied Way that people on the streets who ask for money need the money. It is not an occupation that people aspire to. The people on the streets are not middle managers seeking to supplement their incomes. They need money, and you have money. Maybe they are reduced to asking for money because they made foolish choices, but again: There but for the grace of God go you.

Here is a way to help the underserved in your community and get a heart-healthy walk at the same time. If your community does not have underserved people, other communities will lend you theirs.

Posted in Activities, Trip Report | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »