Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Follow the Fish and Hibiscus Trail in Islamorada

Morada Way Arts and Cultural District, Islamorada
Look for the fish and hibiscus flower logo.

If you blink while driving down Route 1 at mile marker 85, you'll miss the area that makes up the Morada Way Arts and Cultural District. But don't let size fool you. The district is a thriving enclave of culture in a place where it's all about the water.

Folks come to Islamorada to look at fish, catch fish and eat fish but to see fish on canvas? That might be an afterthought, but it shouldn't be. Marine-inspired artists here capture the spirit of a community devoted to its aquatic surroundings.

The Morada Way district was founded in 2010 off an industrial road Old State Highway, which runs parallel to Route 1. Today, it's a non-profit that brings together artists and community partners featuring events such as a third Thursday art walk, live painting, classes, culinary gatherings and more.

Anchor galleries Redbone, Pasta Pantaleo and Gallery Morada, as well as Morada Way Clay and Blue Marlin Jewelry, are surrounded by some of the area's favorite restaurants, including Florida Keys favorites The Green Turtle Inn and Ma's Fish Camp. The Florida Keys Brewing Company is scheduled to open on Morada Way early in 2015 and will offer brewery tours and tastings.

To the undiscerning eye on drab Route 1, Islamorada seem like a flat, scrubby island, but from a satellite's point of view, the "rock" (as locals call it) is surrounded by the mangrove estuaries of Florida Bay and the reefs of the Atlantic Ocean -- all in a dazzling array of green and blue hues.

Local artists bring to canvas what isn't immediately visible from land. Robert "Pasta" Pantaleo is one of them.

I first visited Pasta Pantaleo's gallery in 2011 one evening while attending a Ladies, Let's Go Fishing workshop. Housed in a historic cottage -- a Red Cross House built in 1937 -- the gallery offers a visual feast for anyone who loves sea creatures. Several signature pieces, many of which show off the vibrant colors and dynamic movement of marine life in large, bold brushstrokes, hang from the walls of the quaint gallery.

A marlin bursting out of the ocean.  Art by Pasta Pantaleo.

Can you guess how many turtles are in this Escher style painting? Art by Pasta Pantaleo.

Pasta Pantaleo Art Gallery, Islamorada
The very affable Pasta demonstrated his acrylic painting technique to us travel bloggers.

This time around, I had a chance to meet the artist and see him at work. Later, I gave him a call.

Brooklyn-born Pasta remembers his early fascination with fish. "Being a young kid, I was enamored with the water. I had fish tanks in my room," he said. "Fish had a gravitational pull. I watched Jacques Cousteau documentaries on TV. All the colorful aspects of the ocean inspired me."

The grown-up Pasta hasn't lost his passion for all things ocean and now he's inspiring younger artists.

"I try to mentor young artists to be larger than the canvas or whatever their craft is," he said. "Whatever you do, try to expand upon it and do bigger things. Share it and give back. You can make change. Once you get that voice, use it for betterment.  And you can still do what you love to do."

Sage advice for all, not just for kids or artists.

See more Pasta sharing his advice below or on Youtube.

To learn more about Pasta and the district, visit Art by Pasta and Morada Way Arts and Cultural District.

For this post, I visited Islamorada as part of a press trip. Opinions my own, as always.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Who Says White Fish Can't Jump?

Robbie's Marina, Islamorada
Here little fishy, here!

What weighs more than an average adult human and jumps oh so very high? If you guessed LeBron James, guess again.

Behold Megalops atlanticus, a.k.a. tarpon or the Silver King of the flats, so named because of its large, silver scales. In Islamorada -- well known as the sports fishing capital of the world -- you don't need a rod and reel to witness the strength of these finny creatures. Instead, feed them by hand!

Postcard Inn at Holiday Isle, Islamorada
Tarpon are ubiquitous in Islamorada. At the Postcard Inn at Holiday Isle, you'll even sleep next to one.

In my angling adventures, I've felt this strong fish swim like a speeding Mac truck at the end of a screeching line. They run like mad and jump high at which point every fishing guide will tell you to "bow to the tarpon" -- drop the rod tip so the line goes slack and doesn't snap.

Fishing technique aside, you should bow to this royal highness of Florida's backcountry. Not only has this majestic fish been roaming our coastal waters since prehistoric times, in theory, a leaping tarpon could also do some serious damage.

A couple of years ago, during the World's Richest Tarpon Tournament in Boca Grande, I almost got clobbered by a bounding 200-pounder. The only thing between us was the hull.

Extreme angler Jeremy Wade even researched a documented case about a fisherman who died after a run in with a "killer torpedo" in Central America. The poor guy was fishing in a canoe. Thank goodness for monohulls, although Wade dared to catch his tarpon on fly rod in an inflatable craft.

But tarpon are no river monsters and have no appetite for humans. Hand-feeding them is no more dangerous than giving a bone to your pet Fido. Tarpon aren't toothy, so they can't really bite you. Their big mouths are packed with tiny, densely packed teeth, giving the inside of the mouth a sandpaper-like texture.

Tarpon are simply eating machines who will jump for food.

And jump they will at Robbie's Marina in the Florida Keys, where you can see hungry tarpon leap into the air with only one aim in mind: to snatch baitfish from your hands. You'll offer the tarpon some delicacy du jour from a bucket, perhaps mullet or threadfin herring, which was on the menu the day I visited Robbie's mid-November.

The clever tarpon know that there's a free lunch at Robbie's. Staff at the marina recognize return "restaurant" guests by their unique markings.

Like a gang of freeloaders, Jack Crevalles also wait for a complimentary meal, but they circle swiftly under the dock as if anticipating a feeding frenzy. The tarpon are far more relaxed, so you can never quite know when one is going to jump, which adds to the thrill.

Robbie's Marina, Islamorada
For a tarpon, this is first-rate sushi.

Robbie's Marina, Islamorada
Tarpon aren't the only critters in line for free food.

Robbie's Marina, Islamorada
Kneel down to feed the fish.

Robbie's Marina, Islamorada
Still scratching my head on how anyone could be strong and fast enough to remove a tarpon from the water.

There's more to do than hand-feeding tarpon at Robbie's Marina -- a rustic, laid-back stop along Route 1. Satisfy your own appetite at the Hungry Tarpon, although you'll never see tarpon on the menu. This popular game fish is too bony to eat and a strictly a catch-and-release species, unless you purchase a permit.

Stroll the open-air shops, rent a kayak, take an ecotour, go fishing and more. For more information visit Robbie's Marina.

To learn more about this amazing fish, visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust.

More photos on Flickr.

See yours truly hand-feed the tarpon in the video below.

For this post, I visited Robbie's as part of a press trip. Opinions my own, as always.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

A Cure for Nature Deficit Disorder in Miami

Safari Edventure sloth
I fed a gentle sloth!

Safari Edventure is definitely off the beaten path for Miami tourists and not exactly a pit stop for locals when they venture south of Kendall Drive. Five acres in the Redlands are eclipsed by theme park style attractions such as Miami Zoo and Jungle Island, yet the land is home to 130 species of animals and 1,000 species of plants.

It's here where the not quite so wild things are: the animals were either rescued, re-homed or rehabilitated or born on the site. Glenn Fried, who has worked in wildlife education for over 35 years, and his wife Niki, run the non-profit.

It's a labor of love for the couple and a group of volunteers.

This isn't your ordinary zoo. You'll find nothing plastic or smoothly paved. No over manicured landscapes. Guests use composting toilets.

Safari Edventure hosts camps for schools throughout the year for kids to learn about wildlife hands-on and up-close. Garden paths teach children about fruits, vegetables and herbs -- or most importantly, where they come from -- fruits don't just appear magically at Publix.

Safari Edventure ackee poisonous
Ackee, a staple fruit in Jamaica, is only poisonous when unripe.

Safari Edventure peacock
Winding trail at Safari Edventure and a resident peacock.

Grown-ups can enjoy the winding paths and serenity of the grounds, just like I did. It's a little slice of backcountry exploration with an old Florida feel, just a few minutes from US1. Picnic benches are wedged under a huge banyan tree. An enormous avocado tree, laden with fruit during my visit, shaded the Fox Trot Trail, which is home to a Mynah bird with astounding digital-sounding vocalizations. I thought R2-D2 was following me around the corner. Actually, a beautiful peacock did seem to trace my steps.

This lemur is a resident of the Fox Trot Trail.

Safari Adventure also isn't your ordinary petting zoo. I touched and fed a sloth. I also petted very tame timber and arctic wolves, which reminded me of a time that I met a woman in Hawaii while she walked a wolf dog on the beach. The animal required a special permit to be on the island as her emotional support pet.

I would never think to come close to such a majestic animal, but here, these wolves were gentle and seemed to enjoy interacting with humans. There's something definitely grounding and healing about petting a wolf.

Safari Edventure arctic wolves
Arctic wolves at Safari Adventure.

Solace Health Miami thinks so, too. This South Florida behavioral therapy provider brings patients here for animal-assisted therapy. The nature-focused holistic treatment helps those who suffer from behavioral, emotional and other psychological disorders.

And then there's nature deficit disorder, which isn't a medical condition but a result of not spending enough time outdoors under peaceful circumstances.

For those of us who are simply stressed-out by the jarring, fast-paced energy of Miami, take a hint. A day in the Redlands, surrounded by nature, is just what the doctor ordered.

So don't come here to do anything. Just be. 

Safari Edventure is at risk of losing the land, which would leave its resident critters homeless. You can support this non-profit by visiting and spreading the word.

For more information, call 305-238-9453 or visit SafariEdventure.

Mouse over the image below to see more photos from Flickr.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Hair: It's Kind of a Big Deal

dante gabriel rossetti lady lilith hair
Lady Lilith by Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Hair, oh glorious hair! Glorified since time immemorial as a symbol of power, so much so that Delilah had to whack it off Sampson’s head, but on the flip side, patriarchs didn’t consider it fitting for women to display their loose locks in places of worship. Surely, my Spanish ancestresses wore veils to church lest G-d forbid their tresses would entice men with wanton lust. Orthodox Jewish women wear wigs for the sake of modesty. Muslim women cover-up with a hijab.

But dudes take their own hair seriously, too. Sikh men protect their hair under turbans. Rastafarians follow the tradition of holy men by sporting dreadlocks. Shall I go on? Hair is power. It means something in every culture.

How many stories haven’t we heard about hair? Lengthy strands and strong follicles helped Rapunzel out of a tight spot. Lady Godiva used hair to solve a wardrobe malfunction. Goldilocks wouldn’t have been the same in a pixie cut.

botticelli venus hair mons venus
Botticelli's Venus.

Hair isn't just clogging up your shower drain, it's also all over the place in art and culture. Botticelli’s Venus looks like an ad for spa: two angels blow the hair of the goddess of love as she uses it to cover her naughty bits. Pre-Raphaelite painters depicted medieval maidens with luscious, voluminous hair -- a precursor to the Pantene commercial.

Marie Antoinette hair
Excusez-moi, is there brioche in your hair? The neck of Marie Antoinette ended up on the guillotine, the ultimate SuperCuts.

French royalty wore powdered wigs so large they could hold a year’s worth of peasant bread rations -- the kind of ostentation that would lead to some very unbecoming beheadings. Industrialization and world wars ushered in a new age of fashion: flappers chopped it all off for sartorial freedom – no more Victorian stuffiness! Gone were the corsets, bustles and elaborate up-dos. Then hippies made long hair cool again. Braids were synonymous with flower power.

Some characters are unimaginable without hair. In Star Wars, Princess Leia's doughnut side buns are practical for space travel and fighting the dark forces of evil. And it’s a good thing Mitzi Gaynor didn’t have long hair in South Pacific, otherwise she would've taken that much longer to wash that man out of her hair.


Yeah, hair is kind of a big deal and you don’t know what you’re missing until it’s gone. One fine day, well on my way to age 50, I looked in the mirror and saw a forehead the size of a billboard. Yikes! I couldn't pull my hair back in a bun anymore.

Sigh. There it was: female baldness staring back at me. I always had fine, wispy hair and now that it was falling out I felt naked.

Turns out I’m not alone. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, over 80 million people in the United States have hereditary thinning or baldness.

Oh, how I’ve always envied the heads of many friends who were blessed with good hair genes. Friends who’d visit and shed like a small furry mammal all over my home. It’s only out of politeness I didn’t hand them a broom. Oh, to have so much hair!

Well, it turns out that some of my friends are fakes. No, no … they’re genuine folks at heart, but they’ve cheated genetic destiny a bit. I had always contemplated the idea of hair extensions until one day a friend told me she couldn't go out all weekend because she was getting her hair done.

“Wait,” I asked. “You mean you don't just jump out of bed everyday looking like you've been photoshopped onto a magazine cover?”

She laughed proudly. It was a labor of love. She also laughed a bit nervously,  as if she were hesitant to admit that getting hair extensions involved taking yourself hostage with a ransom of half a paycheck.

So I put it off.

But more recently, my beautiful friend Linda Ponder – who always looks red-carpet ready in a natural way – confessed her beauty secret to the world.

Yes, dear readers. I went there.


hair extensions miami
Pre-surgery, er procedure, selfie. "What? I need a triage team of two to fix this mess?"

socap hair extensions
Say hello to my not-so-little friend: SoCap Original USA human hair extensions.

The whole process took less than two hours and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg, much less a precious hair follicle.

But Linda only led the way. Juan Carmona of Cosi Chic Salon in Coral Gables was responsible for my transformation. I felt whole again: so this is what I was missing and what the hell was I waiting for? A miracle? How about a little no-nonsense, low-maintenance hair technology? SoCap’s adhesive extensions were so ridiculously easy to put on my head that I wish it had taken longer so I could enjoy more time chatting with the affable Carmona.


joe carmona cosi chic salon miami
Yes, happiness comes from within, but it sure doesn't hurt for some folks to help you express it on the outside.

You see, he has an interesting story with hair, too. As a former supervisor for Miami-Dade Police Department's evidence unit -- think Miami CSI -- he clearly developed attention to detail doing forensic work. Surely, he had to have gone through crime scene evidence with a fine tooth comb.

But more specifically, Carmona's passion for hair started 34 years ago when he married his wife -- a woman who should be legendary -- because as far as I know, she's the only woman on the planet who has ever let a husband groom her hair. Carmona’s skills were so good, word spread among their circle of friends and he built a following while moonlighting from home.

Most men buy a fancy car and date bimbos at age 50. Not Carmona, he reinvented himself to follow his passion. He earned his certifications officially and opened Cosi Chic, which he runs with his wife and daughter.

She’s a faithful customer, too. “I don’t trust anyone else with my hair.”

And so is the wife. Imagine the bonding time the couple must have had over the years because of hair. Nothing says “I love you” like a good hair brushing at the end of a long day. I think other wives should take a hint, if they should be so lucky to marry a man with such skills. After all, grooming is such an intimate practice. Who doesn’t love to have their hair brushed?

I certainly do and especially now that I actually have hair to brush. Carmona chose extensions in two different shades to match my highlighted natural hair. The SoCap extensions come from some  woman’s head in India who was born with that hair I so often coveted. The beauty industry calls it Remys hair -- that's just a fancy word for hair that’s cut in one direction from one head, so it doesn’t tangle.

“I guess it really is about genes,” I quipped. “I eat a lot of curry, sing mantras in Sanskrit and my natural hair is still flimsy.”

hair extensions miami cosi chic salon
Sorry, but I'm not covering this up, even if it drives men wild with fiery passion.

hair extensions miami cosi chic salon
Just in case I stumble upon a red carpet, I'll be ready.

I still can’t believe it when I look in the mirror. “Hair. OMG! I have hair!” Long locks that hang almost all the way down to my toosh, although unlike Botticelli's goddess, I won't be able to cover my mons with these new tresses.

My extensions, which once belonged to another woman from another continent, have become an extension of me. Yes, genetics, I’m cheating you. So what? Beauty inside and out, come full circle.

Whereas I once feared extensions would turn me into an annoying, high-maintenance princess, instead I now enjoy the mindful practice of washing this new head of hair. I savor the moments I brush it and wrap it around my head before going to sleep. Yes, it covers almost the full circumference of my noggin. It’s meditative. It’s sensual. And while I may not have a husband yet to do this for me, there are other things I'd rather he do for me, anyway.

I don’t like to rush through life. And so as in life, so as in hair. Hair, oh glorious hair! It's kind of a big deal.

Some legs of this hair journey were supported by Cosi Chic Salon and SoCap. Opinions my own.

Note: In addition to cosmetic enhancement, I’ve also consulted a dermatologist regarding hair loss, which is common in women my age but all potential contributing factors should always be ruled out. Carmona carefully placed my extensions so as to not pull further on the thinning part of my scalp. He suggests coming in for upkeep every six weeks or so. It's easier and healthier than using dyes.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Words Made Flesh

"Candelita de ojos azules," wrote my mother when I turned 2 years old 45 years ago.

Candelita literally means "little candle" or "little flame on the candle," but in Cuban Spanish it can also mean "a little girl with fiery curiosity and mischief to spare."

My love of cooking must have started then. My mom noted that I cracked eggs on the sofa and grabbed olives from the refrigerator. I also remember opening and emptying out every single jar in the spice cupboard onto the countertop in neat little piles -- my first mis-en-place.

Forty-seven years ago my mother gave birth to me in San Juan. Every year since -- until Alzheimer's stole her memory -- my mother would tell me the story of my birth, of how I came into this world her flesh and blood, both bound to each other, poised for a 47-year adventure.

My mother always wanted to write a book. And today, on the eve of my birthday, I caught a glimpse of what could have been a career in writing three months after my mom's last breath on earth.

"Now I understand why rental apartments in the U.S. post NO CHILDREN signs," she wrote to introduce a description of my childhood pranks in a baby book, still wrapped in protective plastic, which I found in a box next to her ashes.

Thank you mother, for recording this moment in time.

Many memories have dissipated in the sea since my childhood years, shoring up now through your handwriting, which floods my heart with immeasurable love.

If I could speak to you now and hold the hand that once traced those words, I would say to you: "But you did write a book, mother. You did!"

You raised a prankster daughter who has written more words than she cares to remember. Words so charged with urgency. Important words. Words that mean nothing now. Those words crumble down, collapse into a pile of meaningless absurdity next to the simple phrase candelita de ojos azules.

I see you writing this, probably after I had gone to sleep, on the living room table. I see myself reading this now and there is no time, no distance between us. It's 1969 all over again. It's also 2014. The heart doesn't know time. Love is boundless, with no beginning or end.

Mother, know that your voice still lives, has always lived, through the ink and tears, the laughter and parchment of my own writing. Words made flesh in the fiber of my being.

My words are your legacy, mother. And since I couldn't give you a grandchild, my legacy -- our legacy -- lives on through my writing and the stories engraved in our hearts.

Thank you for giving birth to me, mother. It was and always will be "our" birthday.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

To Know Such Love

They would have been married 55 years this Thursday. Havana, Cuba 1959.

I don't know if my father remembers the date but today was especially quiet, as if a premonition of the anniversary. I mourned my mom in a different way. I mourned her for him, for his sadness. A tether keeps him attached to his body, knowing full well his soul wants to be next to hers, that his life is meaningless without her. Time stands still, stuck in the past of all he has ever known, the one constant in his life, the woman he most loved, my mother.

Would we all be so lucky to know such love.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Local Foodies Travel the World Without Leaving Miami

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Maude Eaton beckons with a "come eat" look and her Persian Polo (steamed basmati rice with golden saffron crust).

I'm American but you can keep your turkeys, cranberry relish, green bean casseroles, bread stuffing and mashed potatoes for another day.

This is what I'm talking about: a great afternoon savoring delicious food and wine in the company of friends without having to rush through a meal that took an entire day to cook just to stand in line at some megastore. Forget about Black Friday. How about Sunshine Sunday?

Because that's what happened last week in Miami.

"This is better than Thanksgiving," said my friend.

"Better than what you'd get at many a restaurant," I replied.

So there was much to be grateful for when South Florida Foodies gathered at Zonin Wine's hospitality suite for an afternoon of gourmet delights, thanks to Maude Eaton and over a dozen folks who prepared 16 dishes, paired perfectly with prosecco, red and white wines chosen by Casa Vinicola Zonin.

And in true American fashion -- after all, we're a country made up of immigrants from around the world -- these potluck dishes served up flavors from French Polynesia, Lebanon, Scandinavia, Asia, Italy, India, the Middle East, Britain, Colombia and France.

So let our palates be thankful for variety and the pleasure of eating in good company, without having to set foot on an airplane.

Behold a sampler. If Pavlov was right, get a napkin.

The appetizers alone were enough to satisfy ...

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Sardinian Octopus Salad (made with conch instead of octopus) for a Bahamian twist.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
From other islands, across the globe: Poisson Cru with Coconut and Lime Juice, inspired by Tahiti.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Quick stir-fry bell peppers for Asian tacos by Wokstar.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Asian pork meatballs in sesame-toasted wonton cups with sweet chili aioli and pickled scallions by FOODalogue.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Unfortunately, the Italian wasn't on the menu, but the Prosecco was.

And then the main courses ...

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Cooking, laughing, eating, drinking at the Zonin hospitality kitchen.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Tuscan grilled chicken with rosemary, lemon and olives.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Khoresh Gheimeh (Persian meat stew), saffron rice and Masto Khiar (yogurt salad with shredded cucumber and mint).

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
In the cup, a tribute to Louisiana: spicy Cajun crawfish sausage with creamy smoked gouda grits.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
To sip it all down: Zonin's selections for the gourmet potluck.

And last but not least, dessert ...

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Il Diplomatico Cake by yours truly.

World Cuisine Potluck - South Florida Foodies & Zonin Wines
Truffles, Sticky Toffee Pudding and Cheese Platter.

Hungry? More photos on Flickr or mouse-over and click on the arrows to see a slideshow.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Photographer Mac Stone Launches Everglades Book in Miami

A snail kite hunting for food. Photo by Mac Stone.

I hope Marjory Stoneman Douglas was looking down from heaven recently because she’d have been very pleased. The author of River of Grass -- a book that changed the world's perception of the Everglades in the 1940s -- would’ve loved to meet conservation photographer Mac Stone.

Stone grew up in North Central Florida, where he cultivated a love of swamps and practiced the craft of photography. As a teenager, he'd wake up before dawn to capture the perfect light, even if it meant being tardy to school.

His dogged determination didn't end there. Fast forward -- after years of traveling around the world with his camera -- to the Everglades, where Stone trekked through the wilderness, shooting breathtaking images of flora and fauna for his new book, Everglades: America's Wetland.

Stone launched the book last week at the Frost Museum of Science where over 100 guests enjoyed viewing 40 framed prints in the gallery. In the book, art meets science through photographs of birds, reptiles, plants and weather -- all things great and small in the river of grass. The book also features narrative and a list of resources.

Mac Stone at the Miami book signing.

Photographer Mac Stone with book cover and print.

I’ve followed Stone and his work on Facebook for months but nothing prepared my eyes for the stunning images seen on a wall instead of a computer screen -- so precise and detailed,  as if graced by the brush of a watercolorist.

To the undiscerning eye, an Everglades panorama may seem flat and boring, but it's really a complex landscape of contradictions, harsh and yet subtle in its vastness. Stone's photography beautifully reveals the many nuances of America's only subtropical wilderness.

During his presentation, Stone often reminded us about a story that needs to be told.

And it's a story that's not so easy to tell -- logistically speaking.

It takes true grit to explore this forbidding landscape. For five years, he ventured into remote areas far from the comforts of civilization. He hung a hammock from a cypress tree for a makeshift campsite that dangled above a lake. He took a close up of a snake, fangs about to attack the lens. He snapped an image of a very toothy alligator -- jaw gaping, tongue covered in mud. He endured sunburn as well as mosquito bites in chest-length black water for days just to capture a snail kite’s hunting technique.

While showing us a slide of his face covered in spider webs he pointed out the obvious: “It’s not glamorous or Indiana Jones.”

For those of us who aren't brave enough to witness the Everglades so intimately in the muck, we can experience Stone's adventure vicariously and travel to places distant not only by miles but also in time. Trails carved where there are no trails, far from the truck-filled highways that intersect the state. Winding rivers that have never seen urban development. Celestial backdrops on flowing water. Nature beating its own primal rhythm.

I’ve experienced this poetic side of the Everglades before. A blanket of peace. The smell of the swamp. The shrill cry of a hawk.

The book brings it all back to me, although I've never ventured so deep into the wild as Stone. Its pages serve as a meditative road map to this once pristine wonder. The camera's lens glimpses an ancient past when plants and animals coexisted without meddling humans. It’s a privileged vantage point: look but don’t touch.

Stone's story is simple yet its impact is profound: if you don’t appreciate it, you won’t protect it. So in a very tangible way, he’s carrying on Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ legacy in the effort to restore, conserve and protect the Everglades.

Stone’s work -- 40 large prints from the book's enormous collection -- will be on display at the Frost Museum of Science until December 4. Half that exhibit will remain until closing date, January 11.

The book launch was also co-presented by the Audubon Florida.

Everglades: America’s Wetland is available wherever books are sold. Support a local bookstore and buy it at Books and Books.

We had an impromptu chat at the book launch. Video on Youtube.

Fortunately, we needn't travel too far to experience and appreciate America's Wetland -- at least from the safety of boardwalks and cemented paths. I recommended the Anhinga Trail and Shark Valley for beginners. Visit Everglades National Park for more information.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Fledgling

Photo via Teddy Llovet's Flickr.

A falcon is fledgling on the edge of a dizzying precipice, clumsily flapping its wings. Winds blow hard on the mountaintops, dropping and swirling through the valley below.

As my talons grip the nest, all I see is the infinite sky.

 I'm afraid. Mom’s shrill call echoes in the distance.

And then I woke up.

This morning’s sunrise greeted me with the thought that in two weeks I would celebrate my first birthday without my mother’s living presence on this earth. And although I’ll be 47 years young, it’s perhaps fitting to call it a first birthday.

Every year, she would tell me the story of how I was born. Never why. Just how.

The mundane details: how she packed her hospital bag early to avoid traffic in San Juan; how labor was not as painful as her first three births; how I peed on my brother the first time he held me in his arms; how my ears were pierced; how the delivery doctor told my dad "it's a boy" as a prank.

On the brink of 47, I think I know the “why” now. It’s a why that doesn’t need the clutter of words. It’s a why of soaring through vast open spaces, of being unafraid, of not staying stuck, of peace in the midst of chaos. A why of infinity.

A why of raptor birds perched on cliffs.

“I’m a fledgling too, Maria. I also took a leap into the unknown. Don’t be afraid of living. Don’t be afraid of dying.”

And with those words, my talons let go.

Happy first birthday, mom. It's yours just as much as mine.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Miami Plants A Seed for Healthy Eats

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Wake up, taste buds! You won't need a rod and reel for this zesty Mushroom Ceviche from  plant-based Temple Kitchen in South Miami.

Last week, a seed was planted in Miami that will hopefully grow into a big tree, spread roots all over town and yield abundant fruit.

The first annual Seed Conscious Plant-Based Food and Wine Festival celebrated all things vegetarian, vegan and organic through a variety of activities, including a dinner hosted by health advocate Alicia Silverstone (you might remember her as the blond from the film Clueless) and a day-long festival in Midtown.

Since I've recently embraced a plant-based diet -- I hesitate to even call it a diet since it's by no means restrictive -- I ventured out to Saturday's festival not quite sure what to expect. The last time I attended the South Beach Food and Wine Festival, or as I like to call it -- the people-watching orgy -- I felt jaded and unsatisfied.

Not so with this gang of plant lovers.

Seed's one-tent wonder was full of enthusiastic folk with contagious energy. Smiles beamed. No 86 on happiness at this unpretentious event. Many of Seed's vendors were local mom-and-pop business owners who manned their own booths and offered samples of fine product.

And by product, I don't just mean food. If you are what you eat, then natural beauty was definitely on the menu here. My friend was drooling at the site of so much eye candy. I almost wiped his chin with a napkin. Oh wait, that was soursop gelato ... never mind.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Two of the ladies who run Lunchology, a Miami-based gourmet food delivery service. When you eat clean on the inside, you look great on the outside.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
To be fair, I couldn't get my hands off this hot guy's vegan "pop," either. Who can resist that smile? Filippo from Eccolo Pops brings Italian ice and gelato tradition to his shop in Downtown Miami.

But back to the drinks and grub.

To my surprise, there were more businesses advocating healthy eats in Miami-Dade and Broward than I imagined -- a great discovery in a town with agricultural roots. Before urban development pushed plows down to Homestead, South Beach was a fruit plantation. Allapatah was farmland.

The festival's tent was only deceptively small. I thought I'd be there for two hours. I ended up staying five and still didn't try everything. I missed the wine, talks and cooking demos.

What I did thoroughly enjoy were some delicious bites that made me want more. That's right: a culinary tongue tease. For the bed, leave something to the imagination. For the table, leave something for the appetite.

And voila:

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Spaghetti squash, lentils and curry from Lunchology. All food made fresh daily.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
The brand name tells it like it is: Pure Brazilian Coconut Water. It's raw with a brief shelf-life. I'll never drink carton or canned coconut water again.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Live in a condo? No excuses. Grow herbs in these stylish wine boxes.  How? Contact Urban Gro in Wynwood.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Basil Park had run out of utensils, which was just as well. This marinated mushroom, water chestnut and cilantro iceberg lettuce cup with homemade sriracha was finger lickin' good.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Marcel had me at his exuberant hello. Or maybe the biceps. Definitely the flavor of Badass vegan artisanal cookies, made with spirulina and chock full of bounce-off-the-wall energy. Created by Badass Vegan founder John Lewis.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
I've always wanted a monk in the trunk.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Fruit and Spice Park showed off their exotic specimens. Pay them a visit to see the amazing variety of plants grown in South Florida.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Fennel-icious faux meat Italian sausage and dairy free mozzarella from small-batch delicatessen Atlas based in Hollywood.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
Worth a drive to Fort Lauderdale: Green Bar Kitchen's Walnut Taco (served in an orange bell pepper) and spicy Coconut Soup.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
The line was long to sample Beyond Meat. I'll have to buy some at Whole Foods.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
South Florida-based OnJuice makes cold-pressed juices for cleanses that also work well as cocktail mixers or refreshing alternatives to soda. Ginger freaks, try the Lemon Aid.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2014
KIND bars was giving away pay-it-forward flowers.

Seed confirmed for me what I've lived in the flesh the last two months: cooking up a riot of vegetarian alternatives in my kitchen, eating well and abundantly yet shedding pounds. I always loved fruits and vegetables. Now I know they're loving me.

And that's a seed I'd like to see grow not just for me but for the rest of the community.

Seed was presented by Whole Foods. For a complete list of vendors who participated, click here.