Wednesday, May 21, 2014

North Carolina Birthday Surprise

The first weekend in May, Brittany and I flew out to North Carolina to surprise Kristen (a friendship that originated back in our early UCSD days!) for her birthday.  We had been scheming with her boyfriend, Daniel, for months, and somehow we pulled it off without her having a clue.  Here's footage of the surprise:

The first night we got dinner at a local place called Venable, and spent the time catching up.  Once Kristen acclimated to the idea of us visiting for the weekend (rather than her presumed yet unconfirmed conjecture of a trip away with Daniel), we put together a slew of ideas of fun things to do over our four-day weekend.  The weather was phenomenal, so most of them took place outside!

On Friday, we visited Chapel Hill's Botanical Gardens, where we learned all about local plants and birds.  Did you know that venus fly traps, in all the world, are only native to the Carolinas?  There was an array of carnivorous plants, poisonous plants, and on the fauna side, really cool lizards with blue rainbow tails.  We also learned that bird-watching is way cooler than it sounds.  Those cardinals are really something!

That night, we headed to Raleigh for dinner at The Pit, and to enjoy the outdoor festivities of "First Fridays".  Apparently down there, "BBQ" exclusively means you roast a whole pig.  If you're just going to throw some meat on the grill, you're having a "cook-out", so be careful if you're inviting some North Carolinians over for a BBQ, because they're going to expect you to roast a whole damn pig.

Look ma, I ate the whole thing!  Fried chicken, BBQ pork, collards, and mac & cheese.  We also got to try fried okra and fried green tomatoes, not to mention the most buttery-delicious biscuits and hush puppies.  Mmm.

Happy birthday, Kristen!  The only reason they knew to bring us cake was because they checked our IDs and thus knew it was her birthday.  People are so nice here.

We continued our tour of the state capital, where we met the statue of one of Daniel's ancestors, once the governor.  These are the three presidents (arguably) originating from North Carolina:

First Fridays, if that indeed is where we ended up, was an energy-filled block party with local artisans, a beer garden, fire dancers, and live music.  We had so much fun taking it all in, especially when an extremely talented and fearless 7-year-old came out to perform in the fire dancing.

We also got to check out a couple bars, meet some of Daniel's friends from college (who would later make an appearance on our beach day) and play some pool, which got a little feisty.

On Saturday we headed to Saxapahaw (sacks-puh-haw), for lunch at the nostalgic General Store and a nice stroll along the river, where we risked poison oak with the ultimate payoff of getting to watch turtles.

That night, we headed to Durham for dinner at the Federal followed by square dancing at Pinhook. 

I never met a beer in North Carolina I didn't like.

At the Pinhook, there was an awesome local band that sat in a tight circle jamming while a tall, wonderfully hoaky man (think Kenneth from 30 Rock, only with a PhD) called out the steps.  The leaders were "biscuits", the followers "gravy", and we would jump to action as the caller proclaimed, "Promenade go two by two, now spin 'em round like you always do!"  We spent the whole evening allemanding and promenading, putting birdies into cages, opening clams, and swinging corners.  It was completely exhausting learning not only a new dance but practically a whole new language, and ridiculously fun!

On Sunday, we headed to Wrightsville to go to the beach.  The water was about as cold as the Pacific in SF, but somehow Kristen and Daniel managed to jump in while we shivered just watching them.  Daniel's friends joined us, and we just hung around chatting for hours, until the po-po arrived and gave us a ticket for having a glass bottle (of lemonade!) on the beach.  Wrightsville?  More like Wrongsville.  Seriously, they are not messing around about foot safety.

That evening we headed back to Daniel's friends' place for a cook-out.  We had veggie shish-kabobs, guac, sweet potatoes, and portabello burgers before retiring to the firepit for a rousing game of boys vs. girls charades.  The PBR was flowing and we really had the chance to feel like locals.  It was one of our favorite nights there!

Monday was Kristen's actual birthday, so we started with Monuts in Durham, where we all got amazing bagel sandwiches that looked and tasted amazing, but sometimes squirted egg yolk all over you, making Daniel gag and the rest laugh as you feebly attempted to de-yolk your watch.

We spent the rest of the day at Duke Gardens, a 55-acre free garden on the university grounds.  This time around, we could actually name a lot of the flowers and plants, and we also spent a great deal of time sitting by the lake, watching the ducks (we about died from baby chick cuteness) as well as geese and a heron.  Flying right over our heads, the ducks would land gracefully in the water, and at the luckiest point of the day, the baby chicks waddled right by us.


The gardens were magnificent-so perfectly curated with an unbelievable variety of flowers.  We couldn't help but feel like we had come at the perfect time of year-almost everything was in bloom!

On that last night, we went to Jujube, a delicious Asian fusion restaurant within walking distance of their house to celebrate.  Later, Daniel played the banjo for us and we taught them the card game we learned in Puerto Rico.  A lot of the best moments of the trip were spent just hanging out at home: surprising Kristen, opening birthday presents, making breakfast, or scarfing down some of Louise's Old Fashioned Pecan Pie.  There's nothing like getting to visit with old friends, and our lovely southern getaway with these two awesome hosts did not disappoint!  

Thanks again to Daniel for all his help, ideas, and espionage efforts in planning, and to Kristen, for welcoming the surprise, and being born in the first place!  Love to you both.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

PR: Vieques "Was it cool?"

Once we got safely to the island of Vieques, off the ferry, and picked up the jeep, we started heading through the darkness and down tropical tree-lined roads to the town of Esperanza on the south side of the island, to the Airbnb apartment we were renting there.  On the way, we rolled down the windows and were shocked to hear the same sounds of the rainforest: rustling leaves and the chirpy sounds of the coqui frogs ("Is that the radio?" "No, it's real life!").

We arrived pretty late, but after a quick orientation from our hostess, enjoyed BBQ ribs at Belly Button's (seriously) and a walk down the Malecon, Esperanza's seaside strip of bars and restaurants (where we ended up every night, as it was a 10-minute walk from our place, and also the only place to go in town).

Let me introduce our jeep and our home while in Vieques, plus our neighborhood:

A big chunk of Vieques used to belong to the U.S. Navy, but since the base was deactivated, it has been turned into a nature reserve.  All the beaches have a Puerto Rican name as well as a (pretty boring) Naval name.  The first day we decided to try Navio, a beach rumored to have a harrowing road, but worthwhile spoils.  In order to understand both the Road to Navio as well as how my friends and I make decisions, please watch this hilarious video:

Don't you worry, child.  We made it and it was in fact gorgeous!

She'll get ya.

Gio preparing to make an unsuccessful palm hut

Model/Beyonce behavior

We also spent some time at Media Luna beach that afternoon, which was so much a favorite that we ended up returning a couple days later!  

Here are the best pics from our underwater camera.  We would do some sort of weird pose and then Brittany would ask, "Was it cool?" Several shots were spent trying to capture the acrobatic male models doing a photo shoot on the shore.  

That evening we went on the much-anticipated Bioluminescent Bay tour through a company called Abe's.  To reach the bay, we had to go over roads very similar to Navio's, only this time at faster speeds, in the back row of a giant commuter van with a dozen other people, in pitch blackness.  Carlitos, our charismatic guide, ended up also being my kayak partner, as we were an odd(-numbered) group.  We kayaked out to Mosquito Bay (eek!) and he taught us all about the micro-organisms that glow blue as a defense mechanism whenever they're disturbed.  We only needed to agitate the water by splashing our hands or feet to see tiny blue sparks dance over the surface.  It was like wearing a sparkly Michael Jackson glove, really spectacular!  Even without the bioluminescence, it was such a beautiful, peaceful experience to kayak over the bay at night, taking in the sounds and the stars.

Later that night, for dinner, we went to Lazy Jack's Pub where we met some unique island characters, including David, the (oft drunk) ex-marine that did 10 push-ups in exchange for us correctly guessing his age.

The next day we went to Bahia La Chiva (Blue Beach) and this was fo' sho' our favorite beach of the trip, largely thanks to our palm tree oasis.

We made some young friends that afternoon, Jada and Klaus, that latter of which enjoyed stealing sandwiches from a nearby group!

We were in need of a little fancy, so before we dropped off our jeep, we headed to the W, the only resort hotel on Vieques.  The vibe and decor was something along the lines of "modern, vibrant beach luxury" and we soaked up the sprawling ocean view, in front of the fire pit with drinks in hand.

Vieques has wild horses roaming the island, and we finally stopped to visit with some on the W grounds.  With curated grass and loads of excited tourists (ehm, Brittany), these horses know where it's at.

That evening we caught the tail-end of the sunset and had a great dinner at Bili, you guessed it, along the Malecon, where we could hear the beats resonating out of La Nasa, Esperanza's seedy, seaside salsa bar.

On our last day in Vieques, we were jeep-less, meaning we got a different kind of adventure.  We decided Sun Bay, the closest beach, just wasn't up to par (we had become so spoiled!) so we returned to Media Luna, after many miles on foot!  Thank goodness for the jammy pack, Robyn, and Shakira.

That night we grabbed a 6-pack of El Presidente beers and headed to Malecon's narrow beachfront, settling down near the mysterious shipwreck to enjoy the sunset and revel in our last night on the small island we had come to love!  We also started planning our next trip (or ten), of course.

Here's Brittany eating a fish eye at dinner at Duffy's that night.  As part of the bet, I had to walk down the Malecon with my underwear on my head.  This face was totally worth it.

Our last day, we took the ferry back to the mainland to spend a day in Isla Verde, part of San Juan.  Lowlights of the day included a nauseating ferry ride, mushy PB&Js for lunch, a hotel that sounded like it was in an ongoing earthquake, and, well, leaving.  Highlights included an iguana sighting, a machete-opened coconut, a rooftop happy hour (although I think all our hours in Puerto Rico were happy), and walking up and down the beach at sunset to Beyonce's "Drunk in Love".  

"I want to remember everything...but I just can't." -Brittany