To entertain yourself in San Francisco – and to build awesome calf muscles – all you really need to do is take a walk. During a recent day spent in the city, I walked, visited Alcatraz, and found several good veg meals.
Here’s a suggested itinerary for the vegetarian/vegan who likes to explore on foot.
Fort Mason Hostel! I love this place for many reasons. One is nostalgia. I first stayed in the dorm here many years ago when I was 17. I’ve been back several times since. Now that I’m older and more crotchety (you damn kids make too much noise!) I sprang for a private room. I also love that this hostel is in a historic building. First built during the Civil War, it was later used as a hospital during World War Two. I stayed in room 14, which was once the eye examination room. Fortunately, no eyeball-related bad dreams.
The hostel has many excellent amenities: a downstairs movie theater that shows a free movie every night (I missed a showing of Blade Runner), spacious common areas including a fireplace, kitchen facilities, a traveler’s library and breakfast included in the price. Breakfast is in Café Franco, which looks out on the bay. The meal consists of vegan bagel or toast, instant oatmeal, a piece of organic fruit and unlimited orange juice and organic coffee. I’m a coffee snob, and this coffee was really good. You can also buy additional pastries and espresso drinks. The café is also open for lunch and dinner, and features veg dishes like a hummus plate.
The location is also fantastic. First, there’s green space around the hostel. If you’re traveling with kids or hyperactive adults, they can romp in a big grassy area. Walk around behind the hostel and you have views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Fort Mason is in one of the safer sections of San Francisco. Walk over to the Marina for dinner or, if you’re feeling touristy, it’s a short walk downhill to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. There’s also a fitness center down the hill going towards the wharves where you can drop in for yoga, Zumba, or other classes.
Dorm beds start at $30 and private rooms at $75. My room was basic yet comfortable, with a bunk bed (single bed on top, double down below), dresser, mirror, chair and locker. Strangely, no electrical outlet. But they’ll charge your phone behind the desk if you ask them.
Even though I lived in San Francisco in the early ‘90s, I’d never visited Alcatraz. I decided it was time.
The prison island has intrigued people for decades. So strangely close, yet so difficult to escape from. And so strangely close to a major city, yet so filled with super violent criminals.
It amazed me how popular this attraction is. Alcatraz Cruises, the official government concessionaire, runs a dozen tours a day at 30 bucks a head. And they’re not driving empty boats out to the island. I visited on a sunny yet nippy day in November, and I had plenty of company. In summer, many of the cruises sell out a week ahead.
Cold was one of my major impressions of Alcatraz. Walking down a crumbling corridor of one of the old prison buildings, the wind whipped through after me. I doubt the prisoners had my fake fur scarf or cozy gloves. The chill was just one of the hundreds of reasons being imprisoned in Alcatraz must have sucked.
If you visit Alcatraz, make sure you take the cellblock audio tour. This excellent production brings the prison to life. Listening to the voices of former guards and prisoners, I felt like I could begin to grasp the prison experience. A few features:
- Tiny cells
- Vicious neighbors
- Extremely creepy solitary confinement in total darkness
- Only one visitor per month, and you were lucky if anybody came to see you
- The torture of San Francisco in view but beyond reach
- A strange obsession with playing bridge
- Usually fatal escape attempts
- Families of guards – including children! – lived on the island
Lucky Creation Vegetarian Restaurant
After Alcatraz, I hightailed it to Chinatown for lunch. It takes about 40 minutes to walk to Chinatown if you don’t stop and look around. I was very excited to get some Chinese dim sum for lunch.
Lucky Creation is one of those holes in the wall that gets mixed reviews on places like Yelp. Some people dare to call the restaurant’s hygiene into question. I wasn’t too worried about that, but I’d say the folks could have been a little friendlier. As soon as I ordered, the proprietor shoved my dim sum into a plastic to-go container. When I said I wanted to stay, she grudgingly indicated the table right by the drafty front door. I had to scrounge a plate off another table. The proprietor also seemed a little put out that I didn’t want to eat with my fingers, but she finally handed over a fork. Oh well. I got four pieces of interesting dim sum for $2.95. Not sure exactly what everything was, but it was pretty good. And it’s always an interesting cultural experience to be the only whitey in a place. Kind of like leaving the country without having to.
After lunch, more walking awaits. China Town, North Beach, Russian Hill and the Marina are all close and full of shops and coffee places. I’ll assume you can entertain yourself in these areas, and skip right to dinner.
I chose Benjarong Thai for dinner because I was walking by and remembered it had gotten good online reviews for vegetarians. The restaurant was totally empty of customers on a Wednesday night when I walked in around 8 p.m. While some people take that as a bad sign, there was nothing to fear. They made me a lovely dish of tofu, vegetables and shredded ginger. Garnished with a gorgeous pink orchid! I sat in the window just in case there was any people watching in the Marina on a Wednesday night. Benjarong has really cool hanging lights, which the proprietor said she ordered from Thailand. They also have a bunch of ornate Thai bowls behind the bar, which she said is the meaning of the word “benjarong.”
So there you have it, a lovely, touristy walking day in San Francisco. Suitable for solo travelers like me, or couples, or a small group or family who enjoys walking and veg dining.
The world of yoga is a great place for seekers, as evidenced by yesterday’s second annual Yogi Roots Festival. Yogi Roots, our own Portland yoga nonprofit, worked hard to bring together teachers and students from very different traditions. Participants could choose from active ashtanga, quiet yin and lots in between.
There were a lot of highlights of this all-day event. But here are a few that stood out for me.
Iyengar was the first style of yoga I ever fell in love with. And Julie Lawrence was one of my early teachers. I didn’t study with her for very long, but she made a big impression and I admired her a lot. Also, when I lived in Baton Rouge in the 1990s, there was no Iyengar teacher. I used to frequently practice to her yoga cassette tape. It was fun to take her class and hear her voice again. She is a master of clear and precise direction.
I’d never been to the ballroom before. It is gorgeous! Long red curtains separated the ballroom from the snack area. The organizers yogaed up the place with altars featuring Ganesh, Buddha and Nataraj. And the ceiling was one of the best yoga ceilings ever. I enjoy opening my eyes during savasana and contemplating ceilings. This one is painted dark red with gold metallic trim. During Karen Lerner’s Jivamukti class, East Forest played live music and a disco ball bounced light crazily over teacher and yogis. What a treat to watch the green and pink disco lights swirling around that ceiling during savasana.
Leigh Drake, who owns Unfold Studios, taught a fabulous yin class. It was crowded, but somehow it felt nice to all be in those quiet, relaxing poses so close together. Leigh is a lovely person who knows her stuff.
Debate on Gurus
What’s a multi-lineage yoga fest without some spiritual and philosophical debates? The topic of gurus came up in several different sessions. Presenters had a fascinating range of experiences with gurus. Swami Chetanandana, director of the Nityananda Institute, said only about one person in two billion doesn’t need a guru to reach enlightenment. Some teachers focused on finding the inner guru. Nitai Deranja, the founder of Living Wisdom Schools and a devotee of Paramahansa Yogananda, addressed the situation of having a guru who left his body before Deranja was born. Which brought up the question, does a guru have to be alive? And does a guru need a body to be alive? Intriguing.
Matt Nelson gave an interesting and accessible presentation on bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion. Matt’s practice is Chaitanya Vaishnavism, which considers Krishna the supreme godhead. This is different than most sects of Hinduism, for which Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu. So what is the vast appeal of Krishna? Matt said that the blue-skinned, flute-playing, milkmaid-teasing Krishna plays so hard he forgets he’s god, and is thus more approachable for devotees. Matt’s not ashamed of being biased toward Krishna over the other Hindu gods. “Bhakti is about bias,” says Matt. “Love is about specificity. If something’s formless, it’s hard to love it.” And Krishna does have a beautiful form.
I’m not someone who likes to skip meals. So I was thrilled to hear there would be an interesting line-up of local food purveyors, most of which I hadn’t sample. I considered it my writerly duty to try something from everybody.
Roshambo makes veg organic Indian food. I was disappointed they hadn’t brought any hot sauce with them, but I can highly recommend their pumpkin chutney to top a curry.
Pixie Retreat Raw’r Laboratorie & Makery offered raw pizza and raw tacos. These looked good but you can only eat so many entrees in the middle of a nonstop day of yoga. So I settled for trying a sample of their coconut-based caramel pudding, which is amazing. You can get their products at local co-ops and New Seasons.
I was especially excited about Kilikina’s Chocolat, a brand new local chocolatier. Owner Kristina Pescatore made her public chocolate-selling debut at the festival. She moved to Portland last year from Austin, where she studied chocolate making from ChocoSutra. She’s been selling to friends and preparing her website for online ordering. At yesterday’s festival, she brought three flavors of chocolates: spiced pecan, goji heart and peppermint “cream” patty. The base of the first two is Ecuadorian cacao, while the peppermint patty is coconut-based. She uses ingredients like spices, Himalayan pink sea salt, honey, maple syrup and essential oils. Since it’s my moral duty to support such a charming new business, I tried both the spiced pecan and the peppermint patty. Both were delicious and had that special feel of something handmade with love. While they looked professional, they weren’t entirely uniform. When I picked a particularl peppermint, Kristina said, “I like that one, too.” Ah ha! She does have a personal feeling for her individual chocolates. Just as I’d suspected.
To drink, participants could buy kombucha from SOMA Evolutionary Refreshment or a wide variety of juices from Portland Juice Press. SOMA features raw, organic, probiotic drinks in flavors like cherry chai. Portland Juice Press specializes in delivering juices to people for juice cleanses for people. They mix in surprising ingredients like romaine, cilantro, jalapeno and sweet potato. I tried way too many samples.
Here’s hoping there are many more years of Yogi Roots Festivals to come!
If you spend as much time hanging around gyms and yoga studios as I do, you might bemoan a loss of style. Sometimes I look in the mirror and say where has glamor gone? Where are my fake fur coats, my shiny green boots, my vintage dresses? Or even pants with a zipper?
Thank goodness for lipstick and accessories. Shiny earrings. Glittery headbands.
I’ve been trying out some new headbands lately, made by Bani Bands. Allegedly this company started because Renee Hanson had a big head. Normal headbands slid off. So her sister Bonnie started sewing custom headbands. The style evolved to include an adjustable buckle, an extra soft and velvety backing and super cute fabrics to liven up gym clothes. The hundreds of patterns you can choose from include skulls and cross bones, many colors of glitter, chevrons, polka dots and flowers. Sorority gals can choose the appropriate Greek letters to encircle their heads. Headbands range from $8 to $15 on the Bani Bands website.
In their first four years of business, Bonnie sewed 50,000 headbands! That’s in addition to her job as a PE teacher. As Bani Bands grew, they had to recruit more people to sew them. Renee and Bonnie soon had a sewing crew that included college students, veterans (Renee herself served in the military) and moms, including their own.
These days, it’s kind of special to hold something in your hands and know somebody made it with theirs. And it’s nice to support a business that’s both woman-owned and veteran-owned.
My tests of Bani Bands demonstrate that they stay in place well through gym activities. And a look in the mirror verifies that they’re super cute.
Sometimes I forget how much I love the colorful joy of Mexican décor. Growing up in San Diego, I took it for granted. Now that I live in Oregon, it’s become dear to my heart.
So on a recent visit to El Cajon (just inland from San Diego), I was thrilled to discover Hacienda Casa Blanca. This colorful restaurant is jam-packed with piñatas, rooster statues, hanging star-shaped lamps and paper flowers. Plus the website promised it had a section of comidas vegetarianas, in addition to all the regular stuff.
The menu is huge. I had a half dozen vegetarian choices. My sisters had about 4 pages of meaty wonders to peruse. I narrowed it down to vegetarian fajitas and a big salad with olives, avocado and cilantro vinaigrette. Ultimately I chose the fajitas. The plate was delivered sizzling on a black cast iron platter. I love sizzling dishes. My photo doesn’t do the steam justice. The fajitas featured red, green and yellow peppers, zucchini, tomatoes and onions. All fresh and not too greasy. The accompanying tortillas (choice of corn or flour) were warm, the beans and guacamole good.
But I do have a gripe. This is a restaurant that has a vegetarian section, states on the menu that they don’t use lard or trans fat in anything, and proudly fries food in vegetable oil. But being paranoid, when the server delivered my lunch I asked if the Spanish rice was vegetarian. The server assured me it was made with chicken stock. Why, oh why? When will restaurateurs accept that chicken stock is not a vegetable?
Other than the rice issue, I liked this place a lot. They offer a good deal on a daily $9.95 buffet if you really want to tank up. Or you can get the Sunday champagne brunch buffet for a few bucks more. Buffet-loving vegetarians should ask a server for a buffet tour to make sure they get appropriate foods.
In his documentary “Vitality,” Pedram Shojai makes a strong case for people taking more responsibility for their own health rather than relying on doctors and drugs. Shojai is an herbalist, chi gung master and acupuncturist based in Southern California. Virgil Films, which brought us the wildly popular pro-vegetarian movie “Forks Over Knives” is releasing “Vitality” on DVD this month.
The film’s premise is that exercise, diet, sleep and mindset are the four components that together determine your spot on the disease-vitality spectrum. Where you land on the spectrum is mostly up to you.
The film combines interviews with naturopaths, physical therapists and fitness professionals and old film footage to make these points. The old black and white snippets of news reels and educational films are the most fun to watch.
The film showcases Shojai’s genuine concern about people who eat terribly, sit too much and take lots of prescription drugs. But it’s hard to imagine a situation where these unhealthy people would watch this film. And it’s awfully basic for those who already care about their health. At one point, one of the film’s talking heads takes the viewer on a tour of a farmer’s market and explains that this is an excellent place to get fruits and vegetables.
However, “Vitality” makes a few interesting claims, including:
- The U.S. spends more on healthcare than any other country, but only rates about 37 in health
- 90% of U.S. doctor visits are due to stress
- We average two hours less sleep per night than our great-grandparents
Overall, “Vitality” shares a positive message for improving people’s health. I just hope it reaches people who need to see it, and that those people are ready to make changes in their lives.
I realized a lifelong dream while staying at Morgan’s Rock ecolodge in southwest Nicaragua: seeing a sloth in the wild. That alone would have been enough to make my stay worthwhile. But there was so much more worth seeing and doing there.
A French family by the name of Ponçon are behind the ecolodge. The Ponçons have many ties in Nicaragua, including owning coffee plantations in the Matagalpa region. Back in 2001, they began investigating tourism uses for some of the land they owned. Advisors suggested a golf course. But the Ponçons were more interested in ecotourism. Dedicated to reforestation and preserving nature, they’ve spent the last decade planting more than 1.5 million hardwood and fruit trees on 1,000 hectares of land around Morgan’s Rock. Eight hundred of those hectares are a nature reserve located adjacent to the ecolodge property. This terrain – called the dry forest, as opposed to the rainforest, because rain only falls six months a year – hosts white-tipped deer, howler monkeys, native birds and my beloved sloths. The beach provides nesting ground for sea turtles.
Guests at Morgan’s Rock are free to hike on trails through the dry forest or to wander on the private beach. I happened to be at Morgan’s Rock during a slow time with very few guests. It must have been the most private beach I ever visited. My first night I walked down the many paths and stairs from my remote bungalow to catch the sunset on the beach. I saw no one on my way down, but once I emerged onto the sand, lit chimineas on either side of the path glowed. I had my choice of sand, beach chairs or hammocks as the sun slipped down and darkness quickly fell. It felt both magical and pristinely solitary.
I’m a very project-oriented person. I’m always coming up with a scheme, jotting down notes, reading everything. Sitting quietly usually holds little appeal. But I kept finding myself at Morgan’s Rock just sitting in beautiful places, not wishing for anything to read or do. I sat like that on the beach at sunset. When it got too dark, I sat by the pool and watched the fireflies flare and disappear in the jungle darkness. I could hear waves from the beach below and soft old-timey jazz and Latin music playing from the bar. Once I’d covered myself with enough DEET – jungles are seriously buggy – it was hard to imagine anything more pleasant than sitting in the warm breeze, taking in the sounds and sights.
The construction of Morgan’s Rock is amazing. Spacious, individual bungalows dot the property, with plenty of room between them. Designed by English architect Matthew Falkiner, they’re meant to let in the jungle while maximizing comfort. To accomplish this, Falkiner used as much screen and as few solid walls as possible. The only mostly solid wall was in the bath area. An outer wall encompasses the bungalow and its courtyard to provide some privacy. But I still felt very much on display to any interested parties when I had the lights on in my bungalow and the night was completely dark outside. Fortunately, the only interested parties were probably monkeys.
Guests eat their meals at La Bastide restaurant. Much of the ecolodge’s food is raised just down the road at the Ponçons’ farm. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and between meal snacks are available to guests. Morgan’s Rock caters to many vegetarians, chef Socorro Martinez told me. Indeed, both lunch and dinner menus featured at least four vegetarian entrees, plus appetizers and salads. Martinez and most of the staff live on the Ponçons’ property. The ecolodge is fairly remote, especially for people without cars.
My favorite meal there was a veg-heavy dinner of vegetable skewers with a side of vegetables, served with rice. Unlike the veg shish kebabs I’m used to, which have maybe ten big chunks of vegetables to fill up the skewer, these veggies were cut into small, thin squares. Each of my skewers must have had more than 20 pieces of vegetable. The accompanying cauliflower and carrots tasted a bit sweet, almost cinnamony, although the server assured me the sauce was simply butter and white wine.
Breakfast was also a veg joy, with a huge fruit platter of fresh local fruits and tropical pancakes made with coconut and cashews.
Since Morgan’s Rock is remote, the ecolodge employs a tour director to help people decide what to do with their time. Bismar Lopez was an excellent help to me. I told him my interests – seeing animals and learning more about the property – and he said he’d take me on a tour in one of the ecolodge’s four-wheel drive trucks. When? As soon as I was ready. I had originally planned on hiking, but he said we’d see more animals if we covered more ground. I went back to my bungalow to change – pants and closed-toe shoes are better than a sundress and flip flops for any jungle excursion – and he summoned the driver.
It was quite the personalized tour, with just Bismar and me sitting on a bench in the back of the truck. His English is exceptionally good and he’s very personable. He grew up on a farm outside San Juan del Sur. Later he worked as a deep sea fisherman. When the job came up at Morgan’s Rock – for someone who could lead tours in English, take guests fishing and horseback riding – he was uniquely qualified. And he’s good at spotting animals.
The truck is quite bouncy and open to the sun. Wear your hat and sunscreen, and hold on.
Morgan’s Rock is named for Alabama senator John Tyler Morgan (1824-1907), who was a well known champion of building a Nicaragua Canal, rather than the Panama Canal. In fact, Bismar told me about another role Nicaragua played in international transportation. Some gold-crazed folks during the 1840s California Gold Rush took a sea route from America’s east coast. Their ships approached Nicaragua from the Caribbean side, followed rivers up to the huge Lake Nicaragua, crossed the lake, then went overland the short distance to the Pacific. This is the same route that was proposed as an alternative to the Panama Canal, and is today being developed by China. Which won’t have the best environmental effects on Nicaragua. And perhaps not the best economic effects, either, since most of the money will probably go back to China.
I’m hoping that if China does manage to develop a Nicaragua canal, it won’t ruin the ecosystem the Ponçon family has done so much to nurture. But if you do get the chance to visit Morgan’s Rock, go sooner rather than later. Relax. Watch a sunset from your hanging bed. Listen to the steady splash of waves. And as you stroll through the walkways, watch the trees for that icon of relaxation, the gentle sloth.
Before going on my recent trip to ChicaBrava Surf Camp in Nicaragua, I wondered how the heck I’d protect my skin from the strong sun. I like warmth and sunshine, but my pale, cancer-prone skin is less keen on it. I dreaded the damage that days of surfing could cause.
So I researched sun-protective gear. I contacted Solartex, a company which specializes in such items. They generously sent me a surprise package of products to test in the field. And thank goodness they did. Because their water hat made by Sun Day Afternoons was an absolutely genius item I didn’t even know existed. Not only did it keep the sun out of my face, the brim shaded my eyes. Being a complete surf newbie, my first question was how do you keep your sunglasses on? My light-sensitive eyes were shocked by the answer: You don’t. Sunglasses stay onshore. Between sun and salt water, my eyes were squinty and less than happy. The hat was their savior. Blue with black trim, it features an adjustable brim, a neck-shielding cloth in back and a strap that keeps it firmly in place. At $34.90, it’s an inexpensive investment against sun damage to your face. And it really stays on! I wiped out just about every way imaginable as I tried to learn to stand on a surfboard, and never once did I dislodge my hat.
Solartex also sent me a one-piece suit made by Stingray. With a sun protection rating of UPF50+, this made a huge difference between burning and not burning. The sleeves ended just before my elbows and the pants ended a few inches above my knees. It zipped up the front all the way to my neck. The lightweight, chlorine-resistant fabric didn’t feel too hot even on a summer afternoon in Nicaragua. It retails for $67.90.
My four surfing companions at ChicaBrava looked a lot sexier than me in their bikini bottoms and rash guards, hair blowing in the wind. But between my water hat and my Stingray suit, I was the only one who didn’t get burned. And if you’re like me – someone who tries to hide beach visits from her dermatologist – then you’ll understand choosing a water hat over sex appeal. Also, the other surfers’ rash guards constantly slid up, leading to stomach chafing from the wax on their boards. My one-piece suit stayed put.
Solartex sells Tropical Sands sunscreen, which rates 30 SPF and contains zinc oxide and titanium oxide to provide a physical barrier against the sun. An 8 ounce bottle costs a very reasonable $18.90. My dermatologist recommends this sort of physical block, rather than the chemical blocks employed by many sunscreens. Tropical Sands is also biodegradable and reef-friendly, and says so on the label. This is important because some eco parks in environmentally sensitive areas might require this of your sunscreen. I know when I was preparing to go to the Galapagos I couldn’t find this designation on any products in a regular store.
I was so grateful for Solartex! They saved me from becoming a human lobster.
I have a little OCD part of me that likes to measure things. I love stopwatches, bike computers and the like, unless they take me a long time to figure out. One of my favorite accessories is a heart rate monitor. I got really fascinated by measuring my heart rate when I took a Spin certification course and a monitor was required for the training (I realize this is a little weird. You don’t need to point it out). At the time, I borrowed the regular sort of two-piece heart rate monitor. One part looks like a normal sports watch, worn on the wrist. The other piece is a chest strap that sends a radio signal to the watch.
The chest strap is the less fun part of this duo. You cinch it tightly just beneath the bottom of your sports bra. But as you sweat, the strap has a tendency to slip and slide. Not only does this diminish its accuracy, but requires lots of adjustment to your bra area. If you’re in a group ex class or out running, this makes you look like a weirdo.
Enter the MIO Alpha to the rescue! This new heart rate monitor accurately measures your heart rate with a wrist-only design. No sweaty chest strap! My friends from MIO Global sent me one to try out. My new heart rate monitor and I have been having lots of fun together.
First of all, fashion. I think the Alpha is really cute in a space-age, high-tech sort of way. With a band that’s just over an inch wide at its narrowest part, it looks more like a wrist cuff than a watch. The black band with charcoal and white accents is nicely neutral.
To get an accurate reading, you need to wear the band just above the wrist bone. I’m a medium-sized person (5’ 6”, 135 lbs) with smallish wrists, and the fastener is on the second to the last set of holes for me. This might be a problem for petite folks. For example, people who are closer to 5 feet and 100 pounds might need to wear their Alpha around an ankle!
One of my main gripes about heart rate monitors that require chest straps is that too much activity makes the strap slip down around my waist. While a chest strap monitor stays in place pretty well for Spin, it lasts for less than a minute of my Zumba gyrations.
I first tested out my Alpha while teaching a Bombay Jam class. Once I fastened it tightly enough, it worked fine. Note, it must be tightly fastened if you’re doing dance fitness or other activities involving waving your arms around.
I’ve read that Zumba incorporates interval training, but usually when I take class the exertion runs together. While monitoring class with my Alpha, I could note the rises and dips in my heart rate during calmer and faster routines. Neato.
The MIO Alpha allows you to do all kinds of nifty things, such as program your target heart rate zone. You set a high and low number for your exercise session and the Alpha beeps when you work too hard or not hard enough. After your exercise session, you can find your average heart rate. You can also pair your Alpha with a receiving device, such as a smartphone, and use data in conjunction with other apps. As a writer, I spend enough time looking at a screen so am not as app-happy as some. But maybe I will try this in the future. Oh, and you can swim in your Alpha, too.
The Alpha bills itself as “the world’s first performance level, strapless, continuous heart rate monitor you can wear on your wrist,” and as “very accurate.” I was a bit skeptical when using my Alpha during step aerobics and boot camp classes. At times it showed a heart rate considerably lower or higher than I would have guessed. Does my heart rate really fluctuate that much? Well, maybe so. I didn’t stop participating in class to try an alternate heart rate measure, as I didn’t want to look that oddly OCD in front of my classmates. But at home I tried dancing around, then comparing the Alpha’s reading to the old-fashioned method of putting a finger against my pulse while timing six seconds on my stopwatch and then multiplying by ten. I know, I just used a super low-tech method to confirm a high-tech gadget, but that’s just the kind of person I am. Anyway, I was much reassured that the two methods produced the same number.
Overall, I’d say the MIO Alpha is a winner. I look forward to trying it out in more settings. It’s a fun indulgence, or makes the perfect gift for fitness buffs.
Until I tried surfing, I never really stopped to think how crazy it is. But then there I was, lying on a surfboard in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua, my instructor pushing me into a wave and yelling, “Get up! Get up! Get up!”
She can’t be serious, my body said. That’s impossible.
Not only was it possible, but plausible. At my recent stay at the ChicaBrava surf camp, even I – by far the remedial student in our group of five – managed to ride a few small waves. Yes, in a standing position.
Ashley Blaylock founded ChicaBrava surf camp after leaving her native Texas for Nicaragua. Though trained as a lawyer, she chucked all that in favor of surfing. Ashley has won Nicaragua’s national surf championship six times in the women’s division and in 2007 was ranked fourth overall in Central America. Now she wants to empower other women through surfing.
Surf camp starts each Saturday when the ChicaBrava van picks up the latest batch of chicas from the Managua airport, then drives two-and-a-half hours south to SJDS. My group ranged in age from 20s to 40s, with folks currently residing in New York, Ohio, Portland, San Diego and Lima, Peru. The camp manager, a lovely young Hawaiian surfer named Noelani Anderson, accompanied us on the journey.
ChicaBrava offers two lodging options: The Surf House, which is dormlike and in town, and the Cloud Farm, a more upscale property about 15 minutes outside SJDS. We were bound for the Surf House, which felt like being dropped into a surfer chick clubhouse. First thing you see when you walk in is their massive surfboard collection. There’s a big open room that serves as hangout area, breakfast space, and the site of surf theory lessons and surf movie watching.
That first day we unpacked, toured the town, and had pizza at a beachside restaurant.
Next day, it was rising early and preparing to meet the ocean at Playa Remanso.
Now, I might as well admit it: I’m kind of a chicken. I especially have a fear of sports where I’ll break my wrist and put myself out of work. But I also fear avalanches, snow, sharks, stingrays, head injuries, knocked out teeth, really any broken or damaged body parts at all. Which is why I’m more comfortable in gyms and yoga studios, where there are fewer unknown variables to contend with.
The other beginner, Stephanie from Ohio, managed to stand up on her first wave. Not only can she waterski and snowboard, that chica brava has boarded down a volcano!
But Elsi Marin, my instructor that day, was steadfastly patient and encouraging. Over and over she’d find me a suitable wave, tell me when to get on my board and when to pop up. A pop-up means pushing from your belly up to plank, then stepping your feet into a position where they’re perpendicular to the board. Then you stand with your knees bent, arms out to the sides, and ride your wave in to shore. Or fall on your butt. Or your face. Or many other ways I learned to wipeout that first day. But I did get up on my fifth or sixth wave, with intermittent success following. And there’s no way that would have happened at all without Elsi guiding me! By the way, Elsi is a local star, being the first girl surfer from San Juan del Sur.
ChicaBrava keeps a ratio of about one instructor per three surfers. In our case, we got the grand treatment with three instructors and five chicas. We spent the second surf day at Playa Hermosa, a gorgeous long beach with opportunities to collect shells, lounge in a hammock or buy a fresh smoothie. Since the other chicas were all on the outside – that is, past where the waves break – I had Noelani all to myself. I understood the concepts a lot better, although my body was still way too slow in complying. I really wanted to ride the board on my stomach, where I was comfortable and could have a good look around. But Noelani trusted me to send me out alone for what they call the “Empower Hour.” I was skeptical, but dutifully shuffled out – shuffling to drive off stingrays – with my board and tried to catch some waves uninstructed. I found I wasn’t scared at all. In fact, I was a little relieved because I didn’t have to feel bad for my instructors when I failed. Now the pressure was off. I didn’t quite make it to standing, but I had learned enough about wave reading to know which to catch, and had gotten a lot better at handling my board and positioning myself on it more quickly.
Ours was only a three-night mini-camp. ChicaBrava’s regular program lasts six days, which includes daily surf instruction, video review of the surf lessons, surf theory, homemade breakfast at the Surf House, surf movies and time for activities around SJDS.
Even in a mini-camp, we managed to squeeze in a couple of non-surf activities.
Kimberly Dawn and I went ziplining with the Flying Frog Canopy Tour. It was the first time ziplining for both of us and was lots of fun. I’d never looked down at the tops of trees like that. With 17 lines, it’s a big operation and a good value for $30.
After ziplining we walked up for a closer look at the giant Jesus statue that towers over the harbor. That was a steep walk on a sweaty afternoon, but we were rewarded with gorgeous views of the bay, and a closer look at Jesus Grande.
On the last morning of mini camp, we got up early to observe the dawn patrol at Playa Maderas. This was our chance to see our instructors in action. However, after doing yoga on the beach for a little while, I went to get an Americano at Café Revolucion, an adorable thatched coffee house just off the beach. And there I met the sweetest pit bull puppy, only a few weeks old. He fell asleep in my arms, so I had to stay at the café for quite a while. I’m afraid I missed the surf show. Making me suspect yet again I might be more of an animal person than a people person. But look how cute he was!
Other highlights of my ChicaBrava stay included taking a restorative class at Zen Yoga Studio, getting a massage at Gaby’s Spa and Massage Studio and eating at El Colibri, SJDS’s fine dining establishment. They do quite a nice South Indian curry.
And, of course, the empowerment aspect. Both Ashley and Noelani stress that surfing is a microcosm of life. At one point, Noe and I were in the sea and I told her when I was trying to catch a wave I wasn’t sure if it was time to stand up yet or not. She said, “Oh, you should always stand up. It’s just like life. You should always stand up.”
And whether or not I further pursue surfing, that’s advice I hope to remember.
The enormous L.A. Convention Center is not the most veg-friendly area of town. Walking between the big buildings of the convention center and Staples Center feels sort of like trying to get to the next casino in Vegas: it looks so close, yet you’re still walking. Throw in giant billboards and ads on huge TV screens and you might feel like you’ll never find a place to sit down and eat. But on my recent visit, I found a few good candidates for veg meals and ate at two of them.
On my first day in L.A., I was super tired, as I’d gotten up at 4:30 a.m. to catch a plane. So I was bumbling around, more confused and navigationally challenged than ever. I heard there was a place right in the convention center complex with a bunch of restaurants called L.A. Live . After walking in circles, I finally found a security guard. “Where’s L.A. Live?” I asked. “And does everybody get so lost trying to find it?”
“Where did you park?”
I said I flew.
“That’s the problem,” he said “If you drive, you just park and take the elevator.” It was so L.A.
But he did point me in the right direction and soon I was at the Yard House. I’d never heard of it, but turns out it’s a chain with outlets in many states. In fact, their website says we’re supposed to get one here in Portland next year. It’s a little like a Hard Rock with less memorabilia. Cold, dark and loud inside. Cosmetically, not the sort of place towards which I gravitate. However, they had a quieter outdoor seating area and, amazingly, an entire section of their menu featuring a fake meat called Gardein. Plus lots of salads and veg appetizers.
Most of the veg dishes looked heavy on the dairy, but I found one that looked vegan. Or close enough for me when I’m stuck at the L.A. Convention Center. For $9.95, the Gardein chicken bowl had baby corn, bok choy, celery, peppers, pea pods, broccoli and fake chicken over brown rice. It was similar to what I’d make at home, not the most exciting dish. But I was excited to get some wholesome food.
Sometimes when I’m traveling and have little control over my environment, I go into this fear mode where I worry I’ll never see a vegetable again. So I got a field green salad, too, topped with mushy tomatoes, grated carrots and garlic bread croutons. I even had leftovers for my hotel fridge. Oh, and they had my two favorite hot sauces, Tabasco and Sriracha. And served the Sriracha in a small white bowl, which was extra classy. I felt contented sitting outside in the shade, away from the full volume of the classic rock.
That night, still worried I’d starve during my trip to Los Angeles, I cased out a likely lunch place for day two. Just four blocks from the convention center, I found a food court at 7th and Figueroa. Beneath the City Target sits Indus by Saffron, an Indian joint. Sure enough, it made for an excellent lunch the next day.
Indus has quite a few good veg dishes. You can get two curries and rice for $8.45. If you’d rather have salad than rice, they’ll swap it. Or for another dollar, you can get vegetables instead of rice. I pondered this for a while. The server encouraged me to order the rice, since they’d gone to the trouble of finding a good brown rice supplier. He pointed out that Indian restaurants don’t usually have brown rice. Realizing he was right, I ordered rice with my chana masala and peeli dahl.
Cilantro and a few chopped onions topped my chana masala. The dahl was mild, yellow, wholesome tasting and not at all greasy. Next to the tub of hot sauce was a warning sign that the hot sauce was actually hot. That’s what they all say, I thought. They were right! It really did sear the roof of my mouth. I was happy, as hot sauce is so often not hot enough. The mint sauce mixed with brown rice provided a good counterpoint to the heat.
So I can attest to the fact that a vegetarian can happily survive a couple of days at the L.A. Convention Center. And if you’re really committed, you can even find brown rice. Two days in a row!