Category Archives: Travel

My escape to the American Southwest

I flew out to Arizona for my first time and I fell in love.

Route 8The purpose of my trip was to see Alois Kronschlaeger’s awe-inspiring Untitled (Basin and Range) at MOCA Tucson. His installation, his largest and most ambitious to-date, was stunning. It was over a year in the making, took seven weeks to install with a crew of people, and one night to celebrate his accomplishment.

Alois Kronschlaeger Maria KucinskiI also ventured into the desert. I took in the landscape and the culture.

Tucson Arizona

Tucson ArizonaAt dawn, I bid adieu to Tucson and headed to Yuma, Arizona in a red convertible Chevy Camaro. I got the grand tour of Yuma by the city’s own spokesperson, seeing the Colorado River and the Ocean to Ocean Highway.

Martha GuzmanI hopped back in my Camaro and continued my journey to San Diego. I traveled through the desert, the sand dunes, the turbines, the mountains, and finally through paradise.

View from the CamaroI drove over 400 miles to the coast, basking in the sun upon my arrival.

Maria Kucinski Red Chevrolet Camaro Convertible 2013I ate Mexican food while talking aviation with my old pal and Marine pilot.

Brad PanasitiThe next day, I traded in the Camaro for a new set of wheels, a beautiful bicycle with red rims. I rode all along Mission Beach, envisioning my life in this paradise.

Maria Kucinski Bicycle in Paradise

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How to enjoy and/or have an existential crisis in Istanbul

Sea of Marmara, Island of Buyukada, Istanbul, Turkey

Sea of Marmara, Island of Buyukada, Istanbul, Turkey

This past New Year’s I went to Istanbul, Turkey to visit my friend, Nico. My friend, Erica, also joined in on this trip. The three of us, with our individual variations on the “quarter-life crisis” (plus my horrible cough) managed to explore one of the world’s most fascinating cities. Here is a series of photographs that captures the various moods throughout my week-long trip:

Istanbul, Turkey

Four Cool Cats in Istanbul

Dancing in a Turku bar in Istanbul until 5:30am

Hagia Sophia

Turkish cuisine

Turkish crisis

Galata Bridge, Istanbul, Turkey

How to win at backgammon in Turkey

Galata Tower and a Sea Gull

The Grand Bazaar

Maria Kucinski Istanbul

Istanbul Sunset

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Oystering on Cape Cod

Oystering on Cape Cod

Oystering season is Sundays in November and December, and lucky me, I had the opportunity to participate in a New England tradition on one of the coldest days of the year.

Bourne Shellfish AreasA friend of mine invited me to join her family in Bourne, Massachusetts for oystering. I have never been oystering, let alone shellfishing, and those fishing rods my family bought for the beach have been collecting dust for over 10 years. I have, however, spent a good chunk of my life at the beach so I was looking forward to the chance to stretch my “sea legs” and try something new.

What I didn’t know was that oystering is very similar to looking for shells. That simple? Not exactly, but fairly close.

My friends and I donned our gear – I wore wool socks with rubber boots, a down jacket, and heavy duty mittens while the pros wore waders equipped with neoprene et al. This city girl tried her best to fit in to the mostly male dominated “sport” with her manicure and Ray Bans.

Oystering BourneWe rode in the back of a pickup to the beach – the wind already causing a severe chill. It was about 35 degrees Fahrenheit with a strong and constant wind. We grabbed our tools – a regulation bucket, a rake, and a club. That was all we needed – plus a permit from the town of Bourne which came with a measuring tool with which you compare oyster size. In order to take oysters, they have to be at least 3 inches. And the shellfishing warden checks. (This is Massachusetts after all.)

Our first stop was a bit crowded and the oysters were already spare even though low tide was just upon us. After briefly conferring, it was determined that we would be going to the “secret spot.” Crossing roads, climbing jetties, traversing a reedy swamp, sliding between trees, and dodging driftwood. This path led us to the motherload of oysters.

Oystering BourneI finally saw oysters in their natural habitat and was able to pick them out of the water myself. There they sat, mixed in with the rocks, shells, snails, periwinkles, seaweed, and other things I would rather not know about, on top of the sand.

Clubbing oystersWe spent about an hour gathering enough oysters to fill our bucket. We made sure they were the right size – which takes about 3 years. My job was to club any unwanted attachments off of the oysters – an art I realized when my friend delicately yet forcefully knocked off stubborn snails with one tap. I got the hang of it eventually with my frozen hands, getting those suckers off the beautiful oysters.

This is New EnglandAfter our journey back to the road and to the house in the pickup, the fun continued. It was time to “shuck.”

With a chainmail glove on one hand and a knife in the other, you hold the oyster down while jabbing the knife into the hinge of the shell, applying pressure until the sides of the oyster bubble with water. That’s when you know you have some leverage. You angle the knife and hope the shell pops open. Once you do that, you slide the knife along the top shell, opening it up and releasing the oyster from the muscle on top. The top shell is tossed and you go under the animal on the bottom shell with the knife to detach the other muscle.

Shucking oysters

And although you feel really terrible for killing this innocent animal who was just chillen at the beach, you know that this is the way of the world and that it will taste delicious.

Shucking an oysterA touch of lemon, a drop of cocktail sauce, and down the hatch. Sweet, tangy, cool, salty, and tender. A kick to the brain after the wind had been whipping all day. Delicious.

And then, we fried them. To quote my friend who probably guzzled 8 raw oysters and about 15 fried ones, they tasted like “heaven.”

All in all, those oysters were definitely a treat worth suffering in the cold for. So glad I was able to go shellfishing with pros.

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Searching for the elusive in Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland. I recently took a little trip with my family to Reykjavik, Iceland. The country is weird. It is weird because although it’s all very nice and the people are very nice it seems like they have no real strong culture (unlike say Italians). There are only 300,000 people living in all of Iceland, 2/3rds of which live in Reykjavik and the surrounding area. The ongoing joke on the trip was that Iceland has the most [fill in the blank] per capita. We also felt like everything we saw and did reminded us of another place we had visited. That became a fun game saying that the streets reminded us of Lisbon or the climate reminded us of San Francisco.

Geo-thermal tomato farm in IcelandIcelandic food is quite varied with lamb, minke whale, puffin, shark, and tons of fish. They grow produce in greenhouses so they have fresh fruits and veggies of all kinds. We went to a geo-thermal powered greenhouse of tomatoes where they ship out 300 tons annually. That’s just under a ton of tomatoes a day!

Minke whale on the left. Puffin on the right.

Minke whale on the left. Puffin on the right.

At dinner, I tried whale – very much like a steak that is prepared on the raw side, and puffin – which is more like lamb in texture. I am glad I did it, but I feel like I should repent. The waiter who served those dishes grew up on a puffin “farm.” When asked how his family would prepare puffin, he said they would “rip off the chest” and boil it whole. Quite a vivid description…plus the fact that there were stuffed animal puffins in all the souvenir shops and the book of “50 crazy Things to Eat in Iceland” eloquently noted that puffins were, “So Cute and Tasty.” Gulp.

Gull Beer.Which reminds me of the terrible Icelandic beer called “Gull,” pronounced “Ghoulkh” meaning “rainbow” and named after the impressive three-step waterfall, “Gullfoss.”

Gullfoss Waterfall Iceland

Gullfoss Waterfall.

Icelandic horse.

Icelandic horses.

The Icelandic horse is a national treasure having come over with the Vikings and never bred with any other breed. It has an extra gait specific to its breed and is fairly small.

Strokkur Geyser Iceland

Strokkur Geyser, the active geyser next to the original Geysir.

Mid-Atlantic Ridge Iceland

Between two continents. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge in Iceland.

We also saw Geysir, the big, historic geyser and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the tectonic plates between North America and Europe are separated by 70 meters. From there we could also see the largest lake in Iceland. It was beautiful.

Blue Lagoon, Iceland.

Blue Lagoon, Iceland.

One of the highlights was the Blue Lagoon – a sulfur steam bath in the middle of ancient lava. It was so cool (even if it felt a bit like a water park) knowing that it was all naturally harnessed energy. Note to self: don’t ever get your hair wet with sulfur. My hair did not bounce back to its natural softness the rest of the trip (showering and conditioner did not help as the hot water has sulfur in it too). I called it Iceland hair and heard others remarking about it at the airport. Glad to hear I was not alone and now my hair is back to normal.

Reykjavik Art Museum

Reykjavik Art Museum

We spent a full day in Reykiavik (make sure to roll the “r”) exploring the culture. We went to the Reykjavik Art Museum to see contemporary Icelandic art, the National Museum of Iceland to learn about the history, and the Culture House to soak up the history of the Sagas – essentially near-truth fables of Iceland.

Icelandic Pylsur

Icelandic Pylsur

Another Icelandic delicacy is the pylsur or hot dog. Although we had heard so much about it, we couldn’t find those elusive dogs anywhere. When we finally did, I don’t know what kinds of sauces were on mine but it was disgusting. More disgusting than a Colombian Dogger with piña sauce.

Moonrise in Reykjavik at 11pm

Moonrise in Reykjavik at 11pm.

Did I mention that the days lasted 20 hours or so? We arrived at 11:30pm and there were still remnants of sunlight until midnight. Other nights, the first colors of sunset didn’t show until around 10pm.

Lost in an Icelandic Forest

They say that if you get lost in an Icelandic forest, that all you need to do is merely standup. The native birch trees grow only about a meter tall.

It was pretty fun to pronounce Icelandic words and seemed fairly simple in its rules as a mix of Germanic and Scandinavian (does that make sense?). For example, our hotel was the Center Hotel Arnovall – pronounced aargnovawlkh. All the t-shirts had the name of the volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, that erupted 2 years ago with the way to pronounce it. I got through the first four syllables before we left.

Reykjavik Sunset.

Reykjavik Sunset.

All in all, Iceland is a pretty rare and beautiful country.

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Boatel

Recently, I spent a night at the Boatel – a floating hotel and theater in Far Rockaway fashioned out of abandoned and reclaimed boats.

My friends and I were supposed to go the weekend of Hurricane Irene but it got postponed to this weekend when the temperature dropped into the frigid 50s. We weren’t quite sure what to expect because the only information about the Boatel, is an article in the New York Times and the fact that it has been sold out all summer. So, of course we had to check it out.

But whether it was the weather or just my long week catching up to me, I was underwhelmed.

The best way to describe the boatel experience is to call it more like a youth hostel in a foreign country that was listed in Lonely Planet as the hostel to stay at. We could have been in a foreign country as it took over an hour to get there via the A Train (and almost 2 hours to get back due to construction).

We were greeted by Constance Hockaday who showed us to our boat, the New York, N.Y. After scoping out the boat situation we settled on the main dock with other boatelies. And this is where the typical hostel conversation came up – How did you hear about this? Where do you live? Where are you from? Where did you get that food?

We ate some long-awaited hot dogs with mustard and then all gathered around for a lecture presented by Connie about how water can lead to transcendence. The presentation was entertaining and educational, spanning philosophical discourse to daddy issues. But afterwards, everyone went back to their respective boats and did not come back out until morning.

All in all, it sounds like a cool idea – especially in NYC – but it just did not deliver.

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Tejo – The National Sport of Colombia

As I noted in my previous post about my trip to Colombia, I played the National Sport of Colombia, Tejo in Medellin and it was one of the coolest parts of my trip.

Tejo is the national sport of Colombia and predates colonial times. The original name, “zepguagoscua,” was changed to Tejo – the shortened “te jodes” or “you fuck yourself.” (Pardon my Spanish.) The game is somewhat similar to bocce and shuffleboard in that you play on a court with two stacks of mud on either side.

In this mud there is a metal circle or “mano” as they called it in Medellin, on which you place triangles filled with gunpowder or “mechas.” (In Bogota, they play with 4 mechas, and Medellin, 2.) Each player is given a metal disc or “tejo” for which to throw across the lane underhanded to try to hit the mechas and set off the explosion.

Tejo, Medellin, Colombia

Taking notes on the rules of Tejo in Medellin, Colombia

This does not happen often, so the points system is as follows -

  • If you get closest to the mano out of the other players, you get 1 point.
  • If you hit the explosive but the tejo lands outside the mano, it’s 3 points.
  • If you hit the mecha and it lands inside the mano, but doesn’t explode, it’s 6 points.
  • If you successfully ignite the mecha, it’s 9 points.

Now that you know the way to play, here’s what happened to Nico and I…

We had planned to meet up with a bunch of people at the tejo court at 4 pm. Well, Nico and I were the only people that showed up. We walked towards the bar to ask if we could play – there was one court open – and everyone on the court stopped and stared. Who were these gringos? We asked the bartender if we could play and at first it seemed like he wasn’t going to let us – the first grouchy person we had met in Colombia – and so I prodded and he begrudgingly agreed to let us play. He handed us the smallest tejos they had and prepared the courts.

Then, like that scene in Romancing the Stone when the Colombians realize that she is de Joan Wilder, the author, people welcomed us to tejo with open arms.

Proper tejo throwing technique

Proper tejo throwing technique as taught by Jaime

A guy named Jaime from the court next to us, immediately came over and explained the rules to us. He placed the mechas in the correct spot and showed us the proper throwing technique.

My first throw of the tejo

My first throw of the tejo

We decided that we should start close as to not accidentally hurt anyone with a wild throw, and work our way back as we got the hang of it. Now, I must admit that I can be a bit of a jock – I pick up games quickly, drawing on my dance and basketball background. For me, the throw seemed somewhat natural, calling on bowling but stepping left then right to have the same momentum as the throwing arm.

We gave it a few tries, all the while getting pointers from Jaime. One of my tejos got seriously stuck in the mud, so another Jaime showed me how to use the crowbar to unhinge it from the mud. Tejo is a bit of a dirty sport, in that your hands get covered in mud.

Tejo goal

Success!

Then, after only a few tries, I hit my first mecha and it exploded! I raised my arms in triumph as the entire court cheered for me. I was filled with orgulla. A few tries later, Nico ignited a mecha too! We were a hit! Gringos who could play tejo!

I got a lot of compliments saying that I had a graceful throw and that my technique was better than guys who had been playing for 20 years. It was awesome.

Aguardiente with Medellinenses

Aguardiente with Medellinenses

Except that once Nico and I’s egos were inflated and we stepped back and back, farther from the goal, we got worse and worse. It might’ve also been that we were never in a proper groove as people continued to interrupt us, often to not even talk about tejo at all. There was also the amazing offer by the Jaime’s to share aguardiente – the anise flavored liquor of Colombia – together. Dream come true.

We were also given pointers by Esteven, a current national tejo player and another man, Ernesto, who was a national champion but is now retired. Ernesto told me that I had to go slower and concentrate on the mechas. I tried to explain to him that I couldn’t go slower and hit the target because I wasn’t strong enough from that distance, but he wouldn’t listen to that excuse.

Tejo Medellin Colombia

It’s getting late and we’re not getting any better…

Nico and I decided to call it quits without hitting another mecha the rest of the night.

Tejo in Medellin

Tejo in Medellin

Everyone wanted pictures with us before we left and I was even made an honorary member of the red team.

Honorary member of the Red Team

Honorary member of the Red Team

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed learning a new sport and hanging out with such friendly and helpful people.

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Ah, Colombia

Colombian FlagAfter spending eight days in the country, exploring the coastal touristic city of Cartagena, the small mountain town of Salento, and the big city of Medellin that is not as cold and miserable as Bogota, I have only good things to say about Colombia.

My journey started in Cartagena, a colonial city on the Caribbean coast where I met my friend, Nico. We stayed in a lovely little bed and breakfast facing a park in this colonial fortressed city that reminded me of a mix of Milan, Sevilla and San Juan.

La Playa Blanca Cartagena, Colombia

La Playa Blanca, Cartagena, Colombia

We took an hour long boat ride to the Playa Blanca where we spent the entire day in the warm water, soaking up the sun. Vendors came by to ask us to look at their merchandise and served as a personal concierge until you would actually look at and buy their merchandise. If you had no intention of buying anything, they would leave you alone graciously.

Cartagena, Colombia

Downtown Cartagena, Colombia

We went to the highest point in Cartagena, an old nunnery that was also used as a military outpost, just a few minutes away from the largest castle in Latin America.

We took an overnight bus to Medellin that took 12 hours through the mountains with multiple police checks and speed bumps. We made friends on the bus who assured us that we were safe. I definitely felt safe.

Medellin, Colombia

Medellin, Colombia

We spent a day in the beautiful city of Medellin that reminded me of the modern world. There was commerce, culture, and a friendly atmosphere. A trip up the east side of the valley, a visit to the Antioquian Museum filled with modern art and a large collection of works by Fernando Botero, and a quick snack at Dogger (Colombians love hot dogs) made for a picturesque day.

Valle de la Cocora, Colombia

Valle de la Cocora, Colombia

We took another overnight bus to the mountain town of Salento in the eje cafetero or coffee district. We arrived at 6:30 am, just in time to hop on a jeep to the Valle de Cocora where a five hour hike awaited us. We went from the valley floor to the top of a mountain, crossing a waterfall multiple times on logs and suspension bridges, and back down again through a strip of land that has the largest palm trees in the world.

Palm trees in the Valle de Cocora, Colombia

Palm trees in the Valle de Cocora, Colombia

We ate a lot of trucha or trout in this precious town with the friendliest people. We learned about how coffee is grown and processed from start to finish on little fincas or farms. At one point, we sat on a bench overlooking a steep hill when some kids came by and kicked a tire down the hill, tumbling down the road at the bottom for 100 yards, then over a small hill, across a basketball court and eventually ending up in a soccer goal underneath the basketball hoop. Nico and I sat there in awe as this amazing feat occurred. High fives all around from the gringos.

Tire Rolling Hill, Salento, Colombia

Tire Rolling Hill, Salento, Colombia

Did I mention how nice the people were?

We stopped to get ice cream at someone’s house on the way back to town and they had us sit and talk to them as we ate homemade mora ice cream from the woman’s blackberries and her neighbor’s cow’s milk.

Cauca River, Colombia

Cauca River, Colombia

Our daytime bus ride back to Medellin proved a beautiful site. Mountains in every direction as we followed the Cauca River. We crawled along the mountain ridges, passing oil tankers on blind turns, realizing a 7.5 hour trip for only 196 kilometers (121 miles).

Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellin, Colombia

Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellin, Colombia

Our return to Medellin proved once again to be filled with culture and friendliness. We scoped out the Museo de Arte Moderno Medellin (MAMM) and ate at a chic – non-colombian – restaurant and got to play the national sport of Colombia, Tejo. We walked up to the Tejo courts, everyone stopped and stared as the gringos came to try it out. We were a bit intimidated but 10 minutes later, everyone on the court became our best friends, instructing us and complimenting our skills. I was even made an honorary member of the red team.

Tejo, Medellin, Colombia

Taking notes on the rules of Tejo in Medellin, Colombia

Which brings me to this point put so eloquently by our new Tejo playing friend, Jaime. He asked what I had heard of Colombia before coming. I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer. So he jumped in and said, “Drugs?! Violence?! Have you seen anything of the sort?!”

To which I could only shake my head no.

And it is true.

Every Colombian we met was willing to help us in any way they could. They would offer suggestions, advice, reassure you that the bus wouldn’t leave without you, walk you 20 minutes to the Metro, exchange phone numbers so they could invite you to Tejo next week, and drive you all the way home even though you only had enough cash to get you 10 blocks away. The only way to describe Colombians is “muy amable.” From the coast to the mountains to the city, this was true.

All in all, the experience was amazing, learning about Colombian culture and opening my eyes to the beauty of the landscape and the people.

Afterword: That is not to say that danger does not exist in Colombia. There is still fighting going on by the guerillas and the paramilitary. It is important to be mindful wherever you go whether it’s down the block or across the world – and we definitely were.

Sidenote: The people in Colombia were extremely nice, but that is not to say that there was no machismo. I often felt like I couldn’t be the one to talk first, that Nico had to ask the questions and do the ordering. They would also often talk about me, right in front of me. And it was often a question they wanted to ask me but Nico had to reply on my behalf. Obviously, this was a bit annoying so I’m glad that I live in a city and a country where I can be independent.

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