Monday, 28 March 2016

Oh Cartagena, You Had Me At "Ceviche"!

There is a time in everyone's life when a decision needs to be made on a whim. On a whim and based on the "me first" kind of philosophy. Sprinkled with a bit of carelessness - the good kind - just to prevent overthinking. Carelessness that simply must include some form of hedonism.
Sounds interesting?
Well, let me tell you about my most recent "Hell YES!" decision I am sure to revel in for the rest of my life!

Next thing I know: I'm in Colombia!
Towards the end of this winter - the weirdest winter of wars and worries - my phone rang and I heard a: "Would you travel to Cartagena with me?!"
As one of my best friends rattled on with her contagious zest and elaborate plans listing fast approaching dates I got lost for a second. My young life flashed in front of me: I was 15 and back in my favourite geography class. South America. A strategically important port. Chocolate. Coffee. And of course, narco mafia, cocaine. Pablo Escobar. Thank you movie/TV stereotypes! The soundtrack playing in my subliminal cortex: Romancing The Stone!

There was no time to Google anything. Just pack the cabin luggage, grab my passport, kiss the kids and get ready to experience the very essence of the word: AVENTURAS!

Fav coffee place
I don't know what made me fall in love with Cartagena the most, but here it all is and not in any particular order. In fact, it was more like a tsunami - everything hitting me at the same time - the warmth, the tastes, the smells, the sights, the sounds making me feel enchanted from SEGUNDO UNO! 
 - Caribbean Sea breeze that hugs you as soon as you step out of the Rafael Nùñez International Airport whispering: "Life Is Good"
 - Coffee - thick and powerful, nutty with the hint of caramel that removed in a single sip all remnants of our red-eye flight tiredness; Se Volvió Prispri - a little, elegant, home-made, cool piece of heaven
 - Cobblestone streets - close to 500 years of history polished into the stones lining town squares and corners. From the Inquisition (the Museum of Inquisition serves as a somber reminder of atrocities done in the name of the cross - too bad CNN wasn't around to report on it) to Inspiration - street-art, performers, entertainers, ladies selling fruit in traditional costumes and an explosion of colours at street vendor offerings
Colombian tote bags
 - Spanish colonial architecture - colourful facades, balconies adorned with cascades of bougainvillea, magnificent entrances and door knockers that totally deserve to be in their own coffee-table book
Breakfast is ready!
- Fruits - mango, maracuyá, papaya, pitahaya, passion fruit, pineapple, guava and guanoabana and my all-fruits-favourite lulo. How to describe the divinity of exotic flavours? Simple: you bite into a banana and at once understand that is how God intended it to taste. Not how we get to buy it in North America - yanked off the tree while still seriously green then shocked into hibernation by cruel, unnatural cold in some giant cargo crate only to be stunned by the neon lights of the mega-grocery-store, presented to us in a pale-shy-yellow... Blasphemy!
 - People - with learning English still being considered a privilege reserved mostly for well-to-do families it is amazing to experience how easy it is to connect with people while knowing only a few Spanish words (note to self: learn Spanish!). Thank you Google translate App! There is something so unbelievably easy and generous in the collective demeanour of Colombians. They simply love life. They get it. Minutes are not rushed. Meals are not gobbled. Steps are taken in a leisurely way.
Fernando Botero at Plaza de Santo Domingo
- Celebration of the feminine curvature - imagine a place where Spanx is a mythical term. Where tight clothes are welcome, busts carried with pride and behinds ready to move at the first beat of salsa. And although South America is notorious for their ultra-high plastic surgery rates (the unspoken rule is: nose-job for sweet 15 and silicones for coming out of age), I have never seen more beautiful women of all ages wearing whatever they God-damn-well please without a care what the fashion police is saying is a faux-pas for their age group.

New friends!
 - Book-lover's & writer's playground - I have finally discovered the ultimate happy place: ábaco libros y cafe - a small corner coffee-shop and independent bookstore that is as enchanted as the books that stack far up to the ceiling. It didn't matter that most books are in Spanish although there indeed is an English shelf. Just browsing the spines, recognizing the writers and titles, and smelling the print felt like home. Sipping coffee. People watching. Meeting new glorious friends. HERMOSA!

Cartagena was also a home of South America's most famous writer and one of the greatest Colombians.
Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez. The Nobel Prize for Literature laureate was a journalist, short-story writer, novelist and screen-writer who studied at Cartagena's local university and made home within the old city walls.

Mmmm... Arepa con queso
- Street foods - from freshest fruit juices squeezed right before your eyes, to calorie-loaded-yet-oh-so-worthy empanadas to my all time favourite arepa con queso. There was this street vendor just on the side of the park at Plaza Bolivar (if you follow the Amazing Race - this was the pit stop of the first leg contestants ran in Cartagena that aired this month). No matter what kind of self control my gal-pal and I resolved to follow, just seeing the crispy golden tops made us line-up, morning after morning, patiently waiting to spend the fifteen-thousand pesos the best way possible. 75 cents!

- And now that I've opened the Pandora's box of all Foods irresistible, here it is:

Devil's shrimps and Mango octopus ceviche
In the Cartagena restaurant Olympics there would have been two winners: Cuzco which is likely one of my best dining experiences ever - the food and the company! And then there is La Cervicheria where the entire menu is fresh sea-food that has been cured in lemon and lime juice, sprinkled with aji (chili peppers) and garnished with cilantro and red onion and spices. The varieties are endless and delicious and refreshing and light and totally guilt free!
Ultimate favorite: Ceviche
There is also Montesacro - where delicious foods and full bodied wines are served on the terrace overlooking Plaza Bolivar while the band plays bossanova seducing you into thinking life should always come at +26 C and a best friend laughing out loud with you.
Seafood coconut curry
The winner of Cartagena's desserts... and we explored decadent stuff like coconut crème brûlée and the likes (aka coconut dulce de leche) is...

Everything at La Paletteria
...and I am not even an ice-cream person!!! Tamarind and kiwi-like lulo are absolute must-tries!

Tough battle between the best beverage - alcohol free and kid-proof!
Mango-2-go @ Mila Vargas, the Queen of brunch
Coconut-lime smoothie (for Juan with mint!)

All this and I haven't even touched on the Argentinian steak-house or many non-food experiences such as Castillo de San Felipe, the origin and faith of the natives, Convento de la Popa, historical term: vomito negro - I am sure to use not as a medical diagnosis but a character description; the dark muds of the near-by volcano, the pink sands of unspoiled beaches and coral-reefs of Rosario islands. The Havana club with authentic jazz or the cool of finest linen fashion the Clinton's have already discovered. Witnessing the full moon during the horse-carriage ride through the narrow cobblestone streets. Experiencing Colombian authentic chocolate making process from start to finish making my own truffles to go at museum of chocolate. Dear TripAdvisor, I owe you so many 5-star reviews!
A 5-star experience with dear friends @ CHOCO museo
And one last thing... Cartagena is way more than a sophisticated, safe and sizzling travel destination. For me personally, it is the port into the new world and the new era. The one where my fort withstood the attacks and my ships earned their smooth sailing with my flag proudly waving in the wind. Which brings me to my friend Vesna. The commandant, the confidante and the fellow conspirator of all things fun. Because the truth is, although I loved every second of my Colombian adventure, the best part of it all was experiencing it with a kindred spirit, an extraordinary woman, mother, sister, daughter, friend, fashion-expert, home-chef, vine-connaiseur. Fifteen hour flight there + 7 days + 15 hour flight back of the best friendship, pure and uninterrupted joy! 

Flight there: well hello Houston, TX of all places, HA, HA!

Flight back: #cantstoplaughing
My favourite word I learned in Spanish is the word for 'jewelry' - as in emeralds, gold. After all the yellow half of the Colombian flag represents natural resources.
And although I always preferred Swarovski-like bling rather then the real thing which I have to be responsible for, this word is now my absolute favourite and I am using it to describe my 2016 - my friendship, my trip, my life: 

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Stuff I Learned About Life From Intense Interval Training

Who am I kidding?
Me the queen of marathon-chatting sessions with girlfriends while holding a hot-caffeinated beverage in hand? The gold-medallist of all things sofa - books and movies and writing and cuddles? Me?! Interval training? When in the past, success was if I crawled uninjured after a Zumba class, for seniors?

Actually - yeah!
This happened to be a winter of deep hibernation for me - and those are dangerous!
For someone who already had one serious encounter with a beast called depression, being as much as even lightly brushed by its wicked whip poses a major threat. When depression approaches obstacles start to appear larger than they actually are. Minor everyday problems acquire a long and dark shadow. The appetite dissapears (which - I agree - for the first little while sounds like a welcome gift).
Wickedly, the bed then starts exerting its gravitational pull, the muscles go sluggish and the duvet is right there to conveniently muffle even the softest of cries. Shame moves in. It's so dangerous because it's so easy. It feels like comfort. Sleep is good. I am just tired. Let me put my head down...

I credit an incredible army of people for making sure I didn't get caught into the treacherous spiralling-down depression web that was so eager, so motivated, so applied to suck me in. Left on my own, I would have surely succumbed to it without a fight. Like a fierce giant insect, depression sucks life juice out of you, than effortlessly crushes the shell. Eats your heart. Then rips your head off.

But what if you - somehow - get dragged to take care of that shell first? Well, thankfully, I was.
He did it very much in a cave-man fashion, as - almost literally - he had to drag me there by my pony tail (thank you husband!).

There is this truly punishing gym in our neighbourhood my sole-mate raves about. They have classes called TreadSanity and ROWster and H.I.I.T. and Gravity, and countless others I am yet to try. Fellow-gym goers for the most part look as if they are all training for the friggin' Iron Man. It is intimidating as hell to step inside, but once you do - regardless of the level of ultimate unpreparedness - pure magic happens.

Here is what I learned about life from sprints and burpees and kettlebells and slamballs and shoulder-presses and push-ups and bands and sumo-squats and bosu balls. And buckets of epsom salt afterwards.

1. You do one hard thing as a break from another hard thing

This is also exactly how my grandfather taught me how to study when I was little. Doing what's hardest first (math) then taking a break with another demanding subject (French) than relaxing with the easiest thing (art project) so I can return to the second hardest (history). Without procrastination all was done right after school and the rest of the day was free for play and friends and writing.

The same rule goes for the gym: running on treadmill under an ever increasing incline is abruptly halted so I can enjoy 20 Mountain Climbers or burpees (oh how much I still hate those), or push ups. Who knew I would learn to rest doing a 60 second plank!?

2. Your weight is all yours - unless you drop it, you've got to carry it

Gravity Gear
This is just like life coaching - you can select to drop the baggage and travel light through life or it is all yours to carry forward. My personal twist is that I learned to quickly start loving my baggage at least for the duration that I have to lift and carry it as a burden. Instant gratification rarely exists when what you want is real, long-lasting and meaningful. I tend to joke about my load - it makes it lighter and I sometimes don't even notice when it disappears! Poof!

It is nowhere more obvious that all my weight was mine than in this workout called Gravity - 60 minutes of having my core, arms and legs pull all of the glorious me I managed to acquire under my own skin, especially since my little kids were born! There are no fairies, helpers or marines descending into the gym to help. One must carry one's own weight until the clock says so, no matter what.

3. You can do anything for 60 seconds

I learned this one night between January 23/24 1996. during the marathon no-epidural-available birth of my first son. As fellow women who attempted natural birth know - a contraction, that minute long WTF?! How did we even survive as species?! intense sensation, a contraction is a perfect example of us being wired to survive anything if it is a minute long. I still have the watch I had on my wrist in labour mesmerizingly envisioning the relief I would feel when the second handle passes the moon.

Some wicked gym guru clearly knew this because when we to this H.I.I.T class staying on each station for a minute with 40 sec of insane intensity and 20 seconds recovery time the body is tricked into a relief that really never arrives while the reward is amazing!

4. Angry music makes for great motivation

I admit. Growing up, I was a total new-wave snob with tunes (and mixed tapes and posters) of Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Visage, Ultravox and OMD. I scoffed at people who wore AC/DC and KISS T-shirts while injuring perfectly fine denim jackets by embedding pointy metal beads into them. Listening to heavy metal. Shaking a big head of unwashed hair, tongue sticking out!

But boy can that 'angry' music make for an amazing trip while running or rowing indoors! I close my eyes and transport myself somewhere Mad Max-like and listen to the machine zip under my vigorous steps and pulls. It's rocket fuel. Who knew?!

5. Pick a great crew: Rocky Balboa, Hurricane Carter & moi

If in need of the initial drive to get one started it was so worth re-watching movies that celebrated a man's turn to physical empowerment as a stepping stone to mental strength. The hidden gift of hibernation is that days are really long and Netflix is really generous.

Those moments when the burn would be excruciating (ahem, only for me - the rest of the gym-goers seem to be immensely enjoying themselves) I got silver screen peeps to join me, make it meaningful and even more fierce. Imagination is an amazing gym prop!

6. Never say never

❤️my gym!
I know. The king of all clichés. But if I ever feel that it is true, it is right now.
There is no less likely person to enjoy being on a treadmill than me. How many times have friends tried to lure me into the Running Room group or a 5k run? My excuse was always the same: "Oh, I am not a runner!" Then I pull out the data about knees and ankles and running in filthy city air. Sure, I would do a Hawaii marathon, however... I love running on treadmill. Crave it. Just like I do yoga. Super weird.

The point is not to get as fit as to qualify for the Olympics. Or to match/surpass the number the 'treader' next to me seems to be effortlessly blasting through. The point is to look at each day like a marathon I was chosen to run. Then show up. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sweat. Hustle. Burn. If I could do it - anyone can do it. And when a whiff of Lysol wipes fills the air, it means 60min expired and it's time to get the equipment ready for the next group of warriors. And that alone feels like gold!

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

When First We Met

I pulled the boutique's glass doors and the cool air mixed with posh perfume scent welcomed my face. The decor was dark and glossy and sexy and it spelled the language the Kardashians are fluent in. Silly me! When first we met Kardashians weren't a thing yet. 

  "OMG, YOU ARE MARINA!!!" - she said with enthusiasm I thought was only reserved for Cher or Madonna. Or other one-name celebrities. Neither Rihanna nor Adele have been discovered when first we met. 

  "Let's do coffee!" - became our mantra. Not talking Starbucks or Tim's, God forbid! With Vesna, the sacred ritual of coffee meant the sophisticated roast, finest China and delicate pastry. A dark chocolate treat glistening at the edge of the saucer. 

  "I was waiting to meet you" - were her first words when we sat down, coffee cups clinging - "my husband came back from that New Orleans conference and said 'I finally met someone who talks more than you! You should be friends." 

And friends we became. We never really talked when first we met - it was more like an avalanche of words mixed with girly giggles. We chatted about everything, jumbling high fashion with pharmaceuticals and making men out of our boys; we deciphered divorces - first mine, then years later - hers. And we've changed our personal outcome of the Balkan war - Serbia and Croatia could coexist just great!

Tonight at La Cervicheria in Cartagena Vesna and I remembered all this. Was it the high of girlfriends' first escape to South America or the caipirinha on repeat matters not: our laughter is loud, our hopes are high, our bond is deep - just like when first we met. 

Going 3G - Glorious Girlfriends Getaway!