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North America

Puerto Rico rainforest El Yunque hiking trail

Visiting El Yunque- the US’ only rainforest

By | Caribbeans, North America, OUR TRAVELS | No Comments

Whenever I escape the concrete jungle of NYC, I try to find patches of nature and breathe in as much as humanly possible.

On our second and final day in Puerto Rico, we drove 1.5 hours outside of cosmopolitan San Juan to El Yunque Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the US national park system.

Coca Falls, Puerto Rico rainforest El Yunque hiking trail waterfall

Coca Falls can be seen from the road on the drive up.

Puerto Rico rainforest El Yunque hiking trail

El Yunque has nicely paved trails and tame walkways for the most part. I was hoping to get my fitness on via some steep inclines, but these trails were great for a nice morning walk regardless.

Puerto Rico rainforest El Yunque hiking trail

I like trees.

Puerto Rico rainforest El Yunque hiking trail waterfall swimming

There are 6 different trails you can take up El Yunque. We picked La Mina so that we could follow the winding river up to La Mina waterfall for a quick (freezing) dip.

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Puerto Rico has about 270 miles of beach to frolick along. After leaving El Yunque, we took a 45 minute ride to Luquillo, a local beach.

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On a Sunday, Luquillo was brimming with families on jetskis and awkward teens on dates. (Don’t lie. You can relate.)

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Hanging off the piers and catching the breeze with our feet.

Puerto_Rico_food_Luquillo-Kiosks

We spent our last 2 hours at the Luquillo Kiosks, a stretch of 60-or-so outdoor food stalls next to the beach.

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The kiosks serve everything from traditional monfongos (mashed plantains) and morcilla (blood sausages), to ceviche and fried everything, like this tasty but salty little friend. After we got our fill of local snacks and rum-y drinks, we made our way back to the airport. Good-bye for now, Caribbean Sun. See you again in May :D

 

Castillo San Cristóbal

Last Weekend In Puerto Rico

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Every few months, the travel bug creeps on me like clockwork.

So last weekend, I rallied my partner-in-crime and together, Kevin and I ravaged Hitlist for a last-minute weekend getaway. As usual, the criteria was simple: flights had to cost no more than 2 weeks worth of eating out ($400 or less), the plane ride no more than 5 hours, and the destination flip-flop-friendly. Our answer was Puerto Rico.

Castillo San Cristóbal

We landed Friday night and spent Saturday morning exploring Old San Juan. Our first destination: Castillo San Cristóbal, the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World.

Castillo San Cristóbal

Partner-in-crime, Cap’t Kevin D.

the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World.

Peeking out through the second level of the fort. Kevin was in the military and I’m a not-so-closet closet nerd. So if you’re into military trivia ( Kevin) + random bits of history (me), here’s a pretty good breakdown of Cristobal and its little secrets (like its underground tunnel system).

Castillo San Cristóbal

Inside Cristóbal.

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From atop of the fort is this amazing sprawl of city. On our way out, we stopped at the Museo de San Juan. Its location is epic: its entrance faces the Atlantic Ocean and the museum sits nonchalantly between two centuries-old forts. No big deal.

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It was too glorious of a day to spend inside so we didn’t actually venture into the museum. Instead we got distracted by the Saturday farmer market’s in the courtyard.

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Homemade goodness like fresh tamales lined the market tables.

World's cutest pineapple P

We found the world’s cutest pineapples at another table.

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A stand cranking out fresh sugarcane juice.

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We took our hot tamales for an impromptu picnic outside Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the second of the two 400-year-old fortifications surrounding Old San Juan.

Castillo San Cristóbal

Inside, we strolled around its 6 levels until we found a secluded wall for some optimal ocean-viewing.

Puerto_Rico_San Juan_Musuem

A 5-minute walk from El Morro, is Ballajá Barracks built by the Spanish militia for its troops and families. We pit stopped for views + coffee. For $6, you walk upstairs to check out the Museo Las Americas.

Puerto-Rico-IslaVerde

And of course, the beach. Puerto Rico has 270 miles of sandy coast to frolick on. So we took a 20 minute drive to the popular, but still pristine Isla Verde for a splash.

Puerto_Rico_SanJuan_food_Ceviche-Taco

Saturday night ceviche. We popped into Bagua, a local (but highly Yelp-ed) seafood place near our AirBnB in Ocean Park. Fresh grouper in plantain tacos.

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Rum + grilled octopus. This was my favorite dish for its saucy, tender goodness.

Puerto_Rico_SanJuan_food_steak-Plantain

Skirt steak in fried plantain. This was another win.

El Morro castle

Ending the night on top of a fort on a Saturday night…

 

How We Made it to Havana, Cuba

By | Caribbeans, Cuba, North America, OUR TRAVELS, Trip | No Comments

With the recent political talks with Cuba, it seemed appropriate to kick 2016 off with a Map&Move trip that tested a few boundaries.

Current headlines like “CheapAir.com Now Selling Direct Flights to Cuba”, make it sound like Americans can just jet off to the island and daintily sip Cuba Libres on the beach. While it’s nice to imagine that you can just erase 50 years of political weirdness in a few months, ya can’t. In reality the official rules posted by OFAC haven’t changed much. You still need 1 of 12 reasons to visit (legally from the US anyway) and the most common one (obviously) points to a pricy tour.

Old Montreal Tour

So naturally, a Map&Move trip had to test out a few things. First would be the prep work. After mind-numbing hours of calls with the embassy, airlines and complicated websites, everything (mostly) worked out in the last hour. 

Amy found a toy in the window. Excited. Enroute to Havana, Cuba, we had a 4 hour layover in Montreal.

As with any worthwhile trip, a good crew is a must, and the group that signed up for this trip promised to be a fun and eclectic one. Being the only US citizens, Amy and I left from NYC, Jorge and Michel from Mexico City, and Karmin and Philo later from Montreal.

Enroute to Havana, Cuba, we had a 4 hour layover in Montreal.

Amy and I headed out from NYC at midnight. After a 10 hour bus ride, we arrived at Montreal at 5am. We had 4 hours to explore the city before our flight to Havana. Unluckily for us, we arrived right at the start of a blizzard. Our toes frozen into little baby carrot stumps by the time we boarded our flight.

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Four hours later… touchdown. We landed at Jose Marti International Airport and found ourselves in a parallel universe.

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After dropping our bags off at our accommodations for the night, we took off to explore Vedado, the business and urban district of Havana and found ourselves at the entrance of an old warehouse-turned art space.

Cuba_Havana_Nightlife

Any misconceptions of Havana being one giant homogenous city “stuck in the 50’s” were abruptly and deliciously squished (just as I hoped) by the contemporary art scene. Giant projections framed the entrance of an outdoor patio.

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One of the bars in the warehouse.

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One of my favorite pieces from the contemporary art, modern jewelry and furniture smattered around the space.

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Wood etching.

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Alcoves and room connected outdoor spaces for dranks and la música under the stars. Ahh, we made it.

 

Sleep-deprived, on the way to MAASU 2015

Let’s Talk Travel in Madison Wisconsin

By | North America, OUR TRAVELS, Past Events, US | No Comments

So after two weeks of touring of the US, Calvin and I were ending our American road trip in Madison, Wisconsin.

Sleep-deprived, on the way to MAASU 2015

We’d just had one of our best gastronomical experiences in recent memory in Chicago a few hours before, and now we were darting over to the University of Madison-Wisconsin for a talk on Travel 101. Sleep-deprived. Can you tell?

Our talk on Travel 101 at MAASU

Our talk on “Travel 101” at the Midwest Asian American Student Union (MAASU) Spring Conference. Nothing like an energizing talk on your favorite subject… and lots and lots and lots of caffeine to perk you right up.

The gala dinner at MAASU 2015

At the post-conference gala dinner with these exceptional speakers. Continuing the trend of strolling into fancy occasions in jeans and heels. *Note to self: write a post about growing up (caring less and less about what other people think) and women on the go (overconfident in jeans and heels).

 
We  had a few hours to mingle and explore campus. Then we were off to catch a 2:20am bus back to Chicago, where were bound for South America. But first a layover in Aruba…

Pieces of black truffle shaped into slabs of "concrete."

The Art of Food in Chicago

By | Food, North America, OUR TRAVELS, US | No Comments

Our Great American Road Trip had ended, and we said our goodbyes to our beloved Route 66 Crew in San Francisco. But for Calvin and I, we still had a ways to go.

We were scheduled to speak at a conference in Madison, Wisconsin the next day. So after spending the last week driving 2,000 miles from Chicago to San Francisco, we dropped off our RV’s and sped out of the rental lot to catch a flight with a layover in.. you guessed it, Chicago. Lucky for us, Calvin’s inner fat kid sensibility had the foresight to make dinner reservations during our 6 hour layover months before. That’s right, I said months. If the thought of waiting on a ticket queue (that seems longer than a line to a free Jay Z concert in Brooklyn) puts a sour taste in your mouth, than Alinea’s 16-course pre-fixe experience seems to rectify the bougie admission process.

We started our marathon 16-course dinner with a game of hide-and-seek: a piece of dehydrated root jerky hidden in a nest.

True to backpacking form, we rolled into Alinea- one of the world’s top restaurants- with our bags still covered in dust from Route 66. We started our marathon meal with a game of hide-and-seek: a piece of dehydrated root jerky hidden in a nest of branches.

Pieces of black truffle shaped into slabs of "concrete."

Pieces of black truffle shaped into slabs of “concrete.”

Hamachi, shishito peppers, beans and pine branch getting cooked inside a log.

Hamachi, shishito peppers, beans, and pine branches getting roasted inside of a fiery log pile.

Quince, almond, grapefruit and oxalis made for a nice break in between.

Quince, almond, grapefruit and oxalis made for a nice flavor break in between.

A forage of rabbit ,morel, ramp and mastic.

A forage of rabbit plated on top of a forest of morel, ramp, and mastic.

Green apple-flavored taffy balloons.

Green apple-flavored taffy balloons. Yes, they were awesome.

And finally, the grand finale: a tropical fruit-and-rum masterpiece painted by the sous chef.

 

Stretches of nothing

Day 13: Home Stretch California

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We’re on our final day of driving. Hard to believe that we’ve been on the road for nearly 2 weeks. 1,700 miles from our humble beginnings in NYC to Memphis, and another 2,400 miles on Route 66.

On the Road from Needles, California

As if the journey wasn’t long enough, we’re ending not at the original end of Route 66 in LA, but in San Francisco to return our 3 RV rentals. Nearly 500 miles to go.

Stretches of nothing

The rest of the group left before us this morning, so it’s Just Calvin and I left in our RV. We’re cutting across the entire state of California today, from Needles to San Francisco.

Abandoned House on Route 66

We’re just 2 hours in and we’re already drowsy. This becomes our salvation: a creepy, abandoned house on the side of the road, in the middle of Nowhere, California. We couldn’t resist getting out to stretch and explore.

Abandoned House on Route 66

What was the story behind the house? Broken glass and tape cassettes (yes, remember those?) litter the floors and what looked like a cozy fireplace and family home. The kitchen that was once painted bubble gum pink has been redecorated with graffiti and a nice sprinkle of gun shot holes.

Windmills in Bakersfield

Hour 3: Why are windmills so mesmerizing? We passed by this field of them near Bakersfield, CA.

Farmer's Market in Bakersfield, CA

Hour 4: We’re in need of a snack break. An unexpected Farmer’s Market in Bakersfield, CA saves the day.

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We pitstop for fresh California fruit, fried meat pie (so good), and mini nap in the RV. I love this mobile sleep machine.

California Sun and oranges in Bakersfield.

California sunshine in the form of juice and sugar. This was badly needed.

Sunset

The sun is setting and we still have 4 hours to go. Another mini nap, another snack stop, and we’re off!

2015-American-Roadtrip-Needles-SF-8

It’s 2 am. FINALLY. We’re at the so-called 2 mile bridge entering San Francisco, which feels like 20 miles right now. We’ve made it from one end of the state to the other. Good night.

Alice makes moves at the Grand Canyon

Day 12: Sleeping in Teepees and Rocking the Grand Canyon

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We’re finally nearing the Grand Canyon, the monumental piece of America that first inspired 15 people to haul ass in 3 hulking (but wonderful) RV’s across 16 states.

We left Wigwam Motel, the kitschy but charmingly 60's hotel in the morning.

We left Wigwam Motel this morning, the last of the charmingly kitschy hotel chain first started in the 1930’s.

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Sleeping in fake teepees called “wigwams” in the desert of Arizona- is probably as politically-incorrect as it gets. Yet, who can resist the nostalgic, Disney-esque charm of sleeping in forts like these?

Grand Canyon

2 hours of unexpected traffic later, we made it to the Grand Canyon, the piece of earth that’s been 200 million years in the making.

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How’d you get up here?

Alice makes moves at the Grand Canyon

Alice: classically trained pianist, avid yogi, and occasional model for epic American landscapes.

Kel does pose Grand Canyon

Kel: elementary school teacher, nicest guy in the world, and amateur-turned-pro RV driver.

Calvin Sun breakdances the Grand Canyon  Monsoon Diaries

Calvin: ER doctor, founder of TheMonsoonDiaries, and occasional B boy.

2015 RoadTrip Crew Grand Canyon

We’ve come a long way, Route 66 Crew:)

Painted Desert

Day 11: Albuquerque, Painted Desert & Petrified Forest

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We arrived in Albuquerque, NM late last night and this morning, we spent our time ravaging green chile burritos at Frontier, a quirky college spot with homemade tortillas on the menu and rifles on the walls (we did say quirky, didn’t we?).

Old town, Albuquerque.

Our next stop was “Old Town”, the (surprise) oldest part of the city. We took in the chill vibes of the city over some cool, local brews where centuries-old peublo homes have converted to shops, cafes and galleries. In the center rests San Felippe, a charming 300-year-old Parish.

We explored Albuquerque.

Just being weird.

Breaking Bad

We couldn’t leave the city without (of course) finding the house from Breaking Bad. And if you haven’t seen the show yet, please

Dancing in front of Breaking Bad

Oh, just doing some cartwheels in the nabe.

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Roadtrip, Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Practicing some moves.

Painted Desert

Painted Desert

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Sunset at the Painted Desert

Petrified Wood Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Finding just the perfect angle for a photo opp.

Painted Desert

We had 45 minutes until the national park closed. Possibly the most frantic and amazing sightseeing ever.

Cadillac Ranch

Day 10: Three States, One Day

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This morning we left Oklahoma City and by the end of it, we were three states away in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Undoubtedly one of our favorite days on the road from just the visual history alone.

At the Texas State Line

Goodbye Oklahoma.

Shamrock, Texas

Hello Texas!

Texas Border

At the State line. Deciding between Oklahoma and Texas.

U-Drop Inn in Shamrock, Texas

The Tower Station and U-Drop Inn Café in Shamrock, Texas. Built in 1936 and one of the few remaining gas stations that’s been kept intact on Route 66.

Shamrock, Texas

The old Tower Station gas pump.

Shamrock, Texas

Guys are weird?

Cadillac Ranch

Our favorite Route 66 roadside attraction by far: the Cadillac Ranch. In 1974, a bunch of artists decided to bury 10 old junk cars in the middle-of-nowhere Texas.

Cadillac Ranch

They positioned the Cadillacs at the same angle as the Great Pyramid in Giza.

Cadillac in Ranch Amarillo, Texas on Route 66

And over the years, people have come with cans of spray paint to tag these beauties.

Cadillac Ranch

Cadillac Ranch

Center of the Universe, Tulsa Oklahoma

Day 9: Center of the Universe & Other Weird Things

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Leaving St Louis in the RV

Great night, rough morning.

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What makes a man suddenly wake up one day and decide to build the World’s Biggest Rocking Chair? We’re not sure, but here it is in Fanning, Missouri.

Grand Falls in Joplin, Missouri

Grand Falls is the largest, continuously flowing natural waterfall in Missouri. And how you visit a waterfall without posing for some boy-band photos?

Grand Falls in Joplin, Missouri

The falls take a 25 feet plunge over a solid ledge.

The old Union Train Depot that's now defunct and been turned into a jazz museum.

The old Union Train Depot that’s now defunct and been turned into a jazz museum.

Upon entering Tulsa, Oklahoma, you won't see much. A few sculptures line mostly wide, run-down roads. But what we came to see was the Center of the Universe...

Upon entering Tulsa, Oklahoma, you won’t see much. A few sculptures line mostly wide, run-down roads. But what we came to see was the Center of the Universe…

Center of the Universe, Tulsa Oklahoma

We weren’t sure what to except at the Center of the Universe, this 8 ft wide unassuming-looking concrete circle. But stand in the middle, and make a noise. You’ll realize why it’s so bizarre when the noise is echoed back several times louder. It’s like standing in the middle of an invisible amphitheater where a pin drop sounds like a gong. What’s equally weird is that is that no one standing outside of the circle can hear it. Twilight Zone.

POP's soda in Arcadia, Oklahoma

POP’s soda in Arcadia, Oklahoma

POP's soda in Arcadia, Oklahoma

Literally thousands of sodas line the walls of this giant diner/ store in the middle of nowhere.

POP's soda in Arcadia, Oklahoma

Nothing like bacon soda to quench your thirst after a long, hot day, right?

Roadtrip RV's in Chicago

Day 8: The Start of Route 66

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FINALLY. We’ve been on the road for 8 days, but today marked our official start on Route 66, the infamous 2,400 mile road that was the mother of all US highways. This is what we’ve been on a quest to see: the kitschy, quirky, only-in-America roadside icons that follow the now defunct route through 8 states and 3 time zones.

Roadtrip RV's in Chicago

Route 66 is no longer part of the US highway system; most of it has either been absorbed into other interstates and trail off into dirt roads that lead to nowhere. And if we were going to see America, we were going to do it proper: in RV’s.

The Last of Chicago

Tip: if you’re going to drive through long stretches of reception-less highway, get some long-range walkie talkies. They’ll great for coordinating between multiple cars. Plus, it’s fun it say things like, “Roger that.”

15 people, 3 RV's and 2,400 miles to go. Jorge is ready.

15 people, 3 RV’s and 2,400 miles to go. Jorge is ready.

Kel and Duncan in RV SilverFox.

Kel and Duncan in RV SilverFox.

Roughly around the age of Don Draper, there were other advertising studs like these. "The Gemini Giant" in Wilmington, IL is one of the few fiberglass statues from the 60's. Statues like these used to flank the entrances of burger and hot dog drive-in's on Route 66.

Roughly around the age of Don Draper, there were other advertising studs like these. “The Gemini Giant” in Wilmington, IL is one of the few fiberglass statues from the 60’s. Statues like these used to flank the entrances of burger and hot dog drive-in’s all along Route 66.

City Musuem

heading into St Louis to take on the LEGO pits and adult jungle gym of awesomeness at the City Museum, in downtown St. Louis.

Chicago city view from Hancock Building

Day 7: The Start of Route 66, Chicago

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We started the day with a 4am wake-up call. The plan was to fly out of Memphis to pay homage to the food and architecture capital of the Midwest, Chicago.

architecture, chicago

But due to shenanigans involving broken planes, our flight was delayed by a good three hours. SMH. To make up for lost time, we headed straight to Millennium Park, the public art space built to celebrate the start of the century and home of the infamous Cloud Gate (below).

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Shameless selfies at Cloud Gate, the iconic Chicagoan sculpture by artist, Anish Kapoor. Since its inauguration in 2005 though, this 110-ton(!) piece has been known as “The Bean”.

architecture, chicago

The underside of The Bean is concave, kind of like a shallow bowl. So walking underneath the massive legume is like into the trippy mirrors of an amusement part fun house. On the right, is just another example of the city’s rich legacy of architecture.

Vegetarian Breakfast Croissant, Bongo Room, Chicago

We followed the guidance of our friend to the Bongo Room, home what he’d claimed to be the best brunch in Chicago. The huge portions of delicious did not disappoint. Pictured: the Vegetarian Breakfast Croissant.

Red Velvet Pancakes at the Bongo Room, Chicago

The Bongo Room’s signature red velvet pancake is a massive doughy dream drizzled with vanilla sauce and nuts. Be prepared for a food coma.

Official Start of Route 66, US, old highway

Finally! At the official start of Route 66, one of the original highways in the U.S. We’ll be driving on this monster of an interstate for the next 6 days. All 2,448 miles of it.

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Route 66 Crew

architecture, chicago

#architecture

Chicago city view from Hancock Building

We ended our day with views and drinks from the John Hancock Building (amazing) and deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s (New York pizza still wins hands down).

Breakfast at Barista Parlor, a hipster coffee joint housed in a garage with an outdoor stage. Friendly, bearded servers in lumberjack shirts bring you over-priced, artisan coffee and gourmet sweets. Like being back home in Brooklyn, but friendlier.

Day 6: The Kings of Memphis

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1,200 miles later, we made it to Memphis, Tennessee

The first leg of our Great American Road Trip ended in Memphis, the home of Elvis, rock n’ roll, the site where the great Martin Luther King was assassinated, and where the energy of Beale St. radiates at night.

Breakfast at Barista Parlor, a hipster coffee joint housed in a garage with an outdoor stage. Friendly, bearded servers in lumberjack shirts bring you over-priced, artisan coffee and gourmet sweets. Like being back home in Brooklyn, but friendlier.

Breakfast at Barista Parlor, a hipster coffee joint housed in a garage with an outdoor stage. Friendly, bearded servers in lumberjack shirts bring you over-priced, artisan coffee and gourmet sweets. Like being back home in Brooklyn, but friendlier.

 

Instead of handing you a receipt with your order number, Barista Parlor gives you this: your very own cardboard companion.

Instead of handing you a receipt with your order number, Barista Parlor gives you this: your very own cardboard companion.

Music Hall of Fame

Music Hall of Fame. Photo credit: Jorge

Music Hall of Fame

Music Hall of Fame.

Elvis' meditation pool in Graceland

The King’s meditation pool in Graceland.

Downtown Memphis

A mural on Main Street by the Lorraine Hotel.

Memphis Graceland Elvis Roadtrip 2015

In the “Jungle Room”, the infamous corners where the King hung out with friends.

Memphis Graceland Elvis Roadtrip 2015

Mod TV’s at Graceland

Lorraine Hotel

Lorraine Hotel

At the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. stood when he was assassinated.

At the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. stood when he was assassinated.

Sun Studios

Sun Studios

Memphis Graceland Elvis Roadtrip 2015

Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., April 3, 1968, a day before he was assassinated at approximately the same place. From left, are Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, King, and Ralph Abernathy. The 39-year-old Nobel Laureate was the father of non-violence in the 1960s civil rights movement. Photo Credit: AP

Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., April 3, 1968, a day before he was assassinated at approximately the same place. From left, are Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, King, and Ralph Abernathy. The 39-year-old Nobel Laureate was the father of non-violence in the 1960s civil rights movement. Photo Credit: AP

Nashville by Night cowboy boots and live music

Day 5: Guns, Moonshine & Contradictions in Tennessee

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When Calvin from The Monsoon Diaries and I first planned this road trip we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. He’s a New York City native through and through, and both of us were much more intrigued by seeing the rest of the world than exploring our own backyard, America.

Driving across the state of Tennessee today, reminded me of the crazy and at the same time, mesmerizing contradictions that this country represents.

Guns and animals at a shooting range and outdoors shop in Tennessee

We stopped at an outdoors shop off the interstate. Guns in every color of the rainbow and taxidermied carcasses from every creature of the animal kingdom seemed to line the store’s walls. We were definitely weren’t in NYC anymore.

hunting trophies and guns

Hunting trophies of the store owner and his daughter: hippos from Tanzania, mountain goats from the Himalayas, wildebeests… Yowza.

Tennessee Moonshine

We found Tennessee Moonshine.

Nashville home of country music cowboy boots main street

Hours later, we arrived in Nashville. It was a completely different world than the one we transversed for the last 6 hours.

Nashville by Night cowboy boots and live music

Taking Nashville by night. Music and cowboy boots on Main Street.

Dinner and Experimental Southern food at The Southern Steak & Oyster nashville

We stopped by The Southern Steak & Oyster for some awesome experimental Southern grub. Homemade hot sauce and egg over bacon pasta.

On Broadway in Nashville

On Broadway in Nashville

Tootsie's, Broadway in Nashville

Tootsie’s

Jorge on Broadway

Jorge on Broadway

Robert's, Nashville

Robert’s, Nashville