Christmas on the Coast: the Gulf Seashores of Mississippi

If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, but don’t like snow- then I suggest a trip to the US Gulf Coast. Stretching from Florida to Texas, the white sand beaches and quaint coastal towns, coupled with 70 degree days, are a delight in the off-peak winter months.

A “sandman” greets us at Christian Pass, Mississippi

The Gulf Coast isn’t complete without a ‘Pascagoula Run’, so avoid I-10 and take Highway 90 instead to Pascagoula. Are you a Parrothead? Look for the Buffet Bridge near Buffet Beach, a 2015 honor for local-boy-made-good Jimmy Buffet. You can also stop by his childhood home on Madison and see a plaque, and imagine a young Jimmy listening to tales from his grandfather, a ship captain.

Buffet Bridge, Pascagoula

Ready to fuel up on some lunch? According to Charles McCool of McCool Travel, you can’t beat the po’boys at Bozo’s Seafood Market. Order seafood at the deli, a sandwich from the counter, or just pick up some groceries at this market, which has been around since 1956. I recommend their shrimp or their oyster po’boy, or if you can’t decide, get their half-and-half. Watch out for their cocktail sauce- it has a nice kick!

Bozo’s Seafood Market, Pascagoula

On your way out of town, stop in at the Lighthouse Park. For $2, you can climb to the top and see the 360 degree views. Take a short walk to the boat launch, and look for the plaque commemorating the 1973 alien abduction of two men fishing the river one night. Hoax? True story? Decide for yourself.

Pascagoula Lighthouse

Heading west, consider stopping for the night at Ocean Springs. In the morning, be sure to grab a biscuit and a pour-over coffee at Greenhouse on Porter– they have a daily special combo of one sweet and one savory, and you can sit inside their actual greenhouse to eat your breakfast.

A chocolate chip oatmeal cranberry biscuit, and a cheesy broccoli with roasted tomato biscuit from Greenhouse on Porter’s, Ocean Springs

Ocean Springs is also home to the Gulf Islands National Seashore Visitor Center. You can take a guided walk with a ranger, watch the movie about the barrier islands, or fish off their piers. All kinds of pelicans, gulls, terns, and shorebirds can be spotted here. Ferries run to the uninhabited Gulf Shore islands from mid-May to mid-October.

Gulf Shores National Seashore Visitor’s Center

Crossing the Biloxi Bay Bridge, you’ll see several huge casinos and resorts- Harrah’s, MGM, Margaritaville, Beau Rivage, and more. If gambling is your thing, stay a night or two in the high rise hotels- what a great sunset view! Otherwise the beach side of Biloxi offers everything from campsites, to RV parks, motels, and bed and breakfasts.

Hard Rock Cafe, Biloxi

If you’re looking for a little bit of a different take on the standard Cajun cuisine, definitely pop in to Le Bakery, where you can get Vietnamese iced coffee, bubble tea, and bahn mi po’boys. We tried both the coconut curry chicken and the lemongrass pork. Dressed up with cilantro, daikon radish, pickled carrots, and fresh onion, drizzled with soy sauce, and served on crusty French bread, it’s really good. And under $5!

Bahn Mi Po’boys and Almond Bubble Tea from Le Bakery in Biloxi

There’s a section of the Biloxi beach front worth stopping in at for a little bit of history- the Biloxi Lighthouse Pier. A sign there tells the story of the 1960s civil rights “wade-ins” that spurred the creation of the Biloxi branch of the NAACP. From that beach, you can also get easy access to the grassy median full of old oak trees. Many have been damaged by fire, hurricanes, lightning, or old age, and artists have used the remaining stumps to carve designs into them. They are all up and down the coast, but here in Biloxi you can catch a dozen or so.

Oak Tree Carvings, Biloxi
Biloxi Beach

Heading west from Biloxi, a fun stop is historic downtown Gulfport. Plenty of small bars, restaurants, and coffee shops all back up to Fishbone Alley, covered from end to end with paintings, drawings, poetry, and street art. The paving stones used in the alley were actually discovered under the main street after hurricane Katrina destroyed part of the city, and date back to the turn of the century.

Fishbone Alley, Gulfport

At the University of Southern Mississippi Gulfport Campus is the Friendship Oak Tree, a huge monolithic oak tree (actually duolith, as it’s two trees that grew together into one!) that dates back to 1458. At over 500 years of age, this ancient tree has sure seen a lot of history. A plaque at the tree says that “Those who enter my shadow will remain friends forever”, so bring a loved one with you.

Friendship Oak, Gulfport

It’s tempting to finish off a Gulf Coast trip in Gulfport- but continue west to Pass Christian and Bay St Louis for a small town, unique beach vibe. In Pass Christian, take a short detour onto Scenic Drive and see some of the prettiest beach-front homes in the state. They look especially nice all done up with holiday lights and decorations.

Crossing the bay bridge into Bay St Louis, the small town features dozens of locally owned boutiques, b-and-b’s, bars, yoga studios, art galleries, antique shops, and ice creameries. Dotted around town you can also find four different “Angel” tree statues carved by chainsaw artist Dayle Lewis, carved from oaks destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. There’s a community garden, and I spotted at least two Little Free Libraries. Clearly this is a town that places a high value on community, which is nice to enjoy even when on vacation.

Bay St Louis
Crawfish Étouffée Omelette at The Buttercup on 2nd, Bay St Louis

There’s more Gulf Coast to see, once you pass into Louisiana and then Texas, or if you head east to Alabama and Florida. For more information on the Gulf Coast shores, visit the US Gulf Coast Travel website, or download the “My Gulf Coast” app from the Coastal Mississippi website. There’s also a few visitors centers dotted along the beach road, and their staff are always happy to point you in a good direction.

What’s your favorite Gulf Coast destination?

Housesitting in Monterrey, Mexico

Deah and Chris in Monterrey Mexico

For Thanksgiving week, Chris and I got to experience travel with a twist: we went as certified housesitters and cared for a cat while her owner was away. We’ve been members of the website Trusted Housesitters for a year now, and we finally found a gig that would match up with our schedule, plus a place we wanted to visit.

Although we could have flown from our home airport of Austin, there were cheaper and more direct flights from San Antonio. The two airports are only about 75 miles apart, and sometimes it really pays off to have that flexibility. We took an Interjet flight from San Antonio to Monterrey, Mexico, and stayed the first night in a hotel in the city.

Deah and her trusty Osprey backpack are ready to jet!

Before meeting our cat and her abode, we took a walk through part of Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest city. Our La Quinta hotel (or LQ as they called it) was located just a block away from the Macroplaza, all decked out for the Christmas holidays. Also on the plaza was the Governmental Palace of Nuevo Leon, which is now a museum dedicated to the history of the state of Nuevo Leon (free; closed Mondays). It was a nice way to spend a few hours. I highly suggest going for lunch at El Rey del Cabrito, if you enjoy grilled goat.

Christmas at the Macroplaza

From there we took a quick Uber ride just eight miles away to Santa Catarina, and met our new friend for the week. After Bella’s owner gave us all the details for cat care and took off for the airport, we got to know the area. We walked around the small town, found some tacos al pastor for dinner, and visited a nearby bodega to pick up some ice cold Tecates and limes to drink while sitting on the roof, watching the sun set. The next day we went to Huasteca National Park and did some hiking- a really nice day to be outside. The park also features some really good climbing routes, if that’s your thing.

Deah and her new friend, Bella
Chris at Huasteca National Park

In between feeding Bella and trying to get her to like us (she’s a bit of a cantankerous old biddy), we Ubered back to Monterrey to visit the Antiguo Barrio and the Paseo Santa Lucia. The “Old Neighborhood” was a fun little area of 16 old cobblestone blocks and small, brightly painted pastel buildings, dating back to 1765. Some of the buildings are still homes, but most are now cafes, bookstores, restaurants, nightclubs, bars, and coffee shops. Definitely a fun place to meet for coffee or to hang out on a Saturday night! We also walked along the Paseo Santa Lucia, a riverwalk with boat rides and a walking path that stretched a couple of miles. Later, we visited the Museo de Historia Mexicana (40 pesos; closed Mondays)- as luck would have it, celebrating their 25 year anniversary- so we got wine and cupcakes along with a first-class museum visit!

A row of shops in the Antiguo Barrio
Wine? Mariachi? A giant cupcake cake? Plus a museum. I’m in!

Our cat owner came back from vacation and we stayed one last night in Monterrey at the SmartHotel Cintermex, next to the convention center. We explored Parque Fundidora, an old manufacturing zone of town. Most of the factories have been dismantled, but they’ve left a couple of old ones- now turned into a museum and a zip-line, as well as huge machinery pieces dotted here and there as statuary. It’s a fun place to explore, and with no cars and plenty of greenery, a nice park to spend the day in. From mid-November to mid-January, the Paseo Santa Lucia and the Parque Fundidora also feature Luztopia, a beautiful light show that runs each night. For dinner our last night, we found a little place called El Tony’s Papa Asada- seriously delicious baked potatoes topped with two kinds of cheese, carne asada, and jalapenos, all for a whopping $4.

Parque Fundidora
Parque Fundidora Paseo Santa Lucia Monterrey Mexico
Paseo Santa Lucia

All too soon it was time to head to the airport and return to the United States, where unfortunately, beers are not $1 all the time and we don’t have a cat to greet us every time we come home- and we don’t have a fabulous view from our rooftop.

Sunset over the Huastecas

Have you used housesitting as a way to increase your travels? Any funny house- or pet-sitting stories? Let me know in the comments!

Volunteering for Hurricane Relief Efforts in the Bahamas

Bahamas Strong

On September 1st 2019, a category five hurricane passed through the northern Bahamas. For 24 hours, the hurricane- the strongest to EVER hit landfall there- stalled out over Abaco Island in particular, pummeling the island with 185 mile-per-hour winds and a 25 foot storm surge. By the time the hurricane passed on to other parts of the Bahamas, more than 80% of the buildings on Abaco Island were damaged. An untold number of lives were lost- as much as 25% of the population of Abaco are Haitian refugees, who are not counted by the Bahamian government- and an estimated $3 billion of infrastructure was damaged.

Homes, cars, shipping containers, and boats were tossed around in the storm

An organization I volunteer with, Team Rubicon, was one of the first to arrive to provide immediate aid. Less than a week after the deadly hurricane hit, Team Rubicon had a medical team on site, and an advance team of sawyers there to help clear roads and search for survivors. A further call for volunteers went out, and my husband Chris joined up and was sent with Wave 3, from September 27-October 8. For two weeks he cut down trees and other debris, mucked out houses, tarped roofs, and assisted with World Central Kitchen, who were feeding over 6,000 meals daily on the island of Grand Abaco.

Chris whips up a huge pan full of protein, veggies, and rice with World Central Kitchen

Another call for volunteers went out, and I signed up as well. Chris came home and gave me some of his gear, and on November 5, I boarded a flight from Austin, through Fort Lauderdale, and on to Nassau. After one night in Nassau, I arrived on Abaco Island, ready to work. The flights for me and over 50 other volunteers for Wave 6 were donated by JetBlue and SouthWest Airlines, with several other corporations donating miles, dollars, and tools needed for our work there.

The beautiful Bahamas from above

For the next two weeks, we slept in hollowed-out ravaged school classrooms. The building had been swept by the storm surge, and an earlier team had ripped out all the drywall, the ceilings, the classroom materials, and carpets. They salvaged what materials they could, tarped the roof, and used the space for our base of operations for the months of October and November. We slept on cots, with mosquito netting hung from the bare rafters. Out back we had two outdoor shower stations set up, and five portajohns. We ate MRE’s (meals-ready-to-eat) for breakfast and lunch, and had a hot meal provided by World Central Kitchen for dinner each night.

We were divided into eight or so teams, some with hand tools such as hammers, crowbars, shovels, and drills, and two teams with heavy equipment such as skid steers and earth movers. Our teams mucked out houses, carrying out everything from toys to clothing, furniture to appliances, baseboards to crown molding. Once the house was empty, we cleaned it as best as we could, and assessed the roof (if there was one). We put tarps or plywood up, which should last temporarily, and families were able to start moving back into their living spaces and begin the process of starting anew.

A homeowner who asked for our help. Photo posted with his permission.
All the waterlogged materials removed, the homeowner can now move back into his house. Photo posted with his permission.

I worked several days in the World Central Kitchen. What an amazing organization! Every day the chefs, and their island assistants, slice, dice, mince, stir, cook, and serve over 6,000 meals. Since they arrived in the Bahamas (before the storm even arrived), they have distributed just over 2 million meals. With no grocery stores, produce, fresh meat, or dairy for the months of October and September, the residents of Abaco had no other options besides World Food Program and Red Cross emergency rations. The World Central Kitchen, founded by Chef Jose Andres, promises “a hot plate of food when it’s needed”, combining both nutrition and deliciousness to those in need. From Puerto Rico, to Haiti, to the Bahamas, to the wildfires of California, this organization of “food first reponders” is getting the job done on a daily basis.

Unloading a delivery of produce to World Central Kitchen

All too soon our time in the Bahamas was over. It was time to pack it up and head home. Every day we worked on Abaco Island, at least one- most days more- islander came up to me or my group and thanked us for being there and helping. At times it felt like the work we were doing was just a drop in the bucket, but hearing the heartfelt thanks from dozens of hurricane survivors made every aching muscle, mosquito bite, and bump and bruise worth it. I know that we couldn’t help every one of the 17,000 inhabitants of Abaco, but I also know that we enabled dozens, if not hundreds, of people to return to their homes and face the future in the Bahamas.

Proud to be a “Grayshirt” with Team Rubicon

If you would like to donate to Team Rubicon, or another organization that helps with disaster relief, here’s an article about various teams that are assisting Hurricane Dorian recovery efforts.

*Also, a huge thanks to the dozens of other NGO’s and organizations that have responded to the crisis in the Bahamas, including but not limited to Samaritan’s Purse, All Hands and Hearts, NetHope, 4Ocean, USAid, HARP, Americares, Heart to Heart, Telecom Sans Frontiers, Sol Relief, and Catholic Relief Services.

**Don’t worry, we did get a day off to get out and see some of Abaco Island and nearby Hopetown on Elbow Cay. My team went to the beach and had some drinks and dinner at a local restaurant that has now opened up on a limited basis. I’m happy to report that the natural beauty of the Bahamas is still amazing.

The view from Pete’s Pub

***For more information: https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/hurricane-dorian-destruction-abaco-islands-bahamas-11279524

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/abaco-islands-letter-d-marks-site-grim-recovery-effort-n1052166

https://nypost.com/2019/11/16/damaged-caused-by-hurricane-dorian-totals-3-4b-in-the-bahamas/

The Art of Burning Man 2019

Chris and I returned to Burning Man again in August of 2019. This was my second year and his fourth. The theme this year was “Metamorphoses”. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Burning Man are pretty hard to describe, so I’ll just post a few of my favorite art pictures (all taken with my iphone):

“I.L.Y.” by Dan Mountain
“Mariposita” by Chris Carnabuci
“The Temple of Direction” by Geordie Van Der Bosch
“The Folly” by Dave Keane and the Folly Brothers
“Giant Harmonic Pendulum” by Gyuszi Suto
“Wing Portal” by a group of California artists. After the Burn, it will be publicly installed in a part of California that was affected by the wildfires last year
“Alternity” by Roy (The Wiz) Trammell
“Bee Dance” by Andrea Greenlees, Andy Tibbetts, and Josh Haywood
“The Man” by Yelena Filipchuk and Serge Beaulieu
“The Awakening” by Philip DePoala
“Sacred Grounds” by Michael Benisty
“Love” by Laura Kimpton
“Paraluna” by Christopher Schardt
The Temple Burns

For more pictures from Burning Man 2018, visit my post from last year.

Beautiful Belarus

Chris and Deah in Belarus

I have to admit, we arrived in Minsk a little travel fatigued. It was our 26th country on this trip, and we’ve been traveling for over a year. But as Chris and I spent more time in Minsk, the city really began to grow on us and we kept discovering more fun areas to explore. Since hosting the 2019 European Games, the country has rushed to modernize, including a free visa for most nationalities (if you arrive by air to Minsk). If you take your time and get to know it, Belarus might surprise you.

Minsk

We spent nine days in Minsk, which is a huge sprawling city. Nearly everything in Minsk was built after World War II, as it was almost completely destroyed. In fact, some stories even suggest that Stalin purposefully allowed Minsk’s destruction, in order to re-build it as a huge “premium Soviet city” on the road to Moscow. In any event, for fans of Stalin Empire architecture, this city is a gold mine.

20190804 belarus, minsk 002
The massive Minsk gates

We took the free walking tour, which met at City Hall, and explored the area of town that includes Gorky Park and the National Ballet And Opera Theater (in fact, the building was meant to be the base for the largest Lenin statue in the world).

National Theater

On another day, we explored the Kastrychnitskaya Street area, near the train station. The area used to be industrial factories, but now pubs, cafes, food trucks, art spaces, and huge murals are transforming this block into a creative space. The week we were visiting coincided with a 2 week initiative of Brazilian artists visiting to create several new murals. Plus lots of delicious food stops along the way!

A mural in progress

For just .65 Belorussian Rubles (30 US cents), you can hop on any of the stylish metro stops and travel across the city. We took a metro from Lenin Station (huge hammer and sickle of course) up to the National Library. It’s a huge, modern glass building housing ten million items, and for just $2 you can take an elevator up to the 23rd observation platform for a view of the whole city.

National Library of Belarus

Probably the most interesting part of Minsk is Independence Avenue, also called Prospect Niezalieznasci. 15 kilometers long, eight lanes, and flanked on both sides by giant Soviet brutalist buildings, it’s supposedly the longest such street in the world. I’m not sure about that, but I can say that walking along the various full block-long buildings such as the Central Post Office, the GUM department store, the old KGB building, the State Circus, and the History Museum can really make a citizen feel small (which was exactly the intent of Stalinist architecture). Small cogs in a huge state wheel.

Old KGB building

Vitebsk

We took a train to visit Vitebsk, a city in northeastern Belarus, close to the Russian border. We spent three days there and…. well, we had a hard time filling those three days with things to see. We visited the Marc Chagall Museum (he lived most of his life there), and we had Mexican food. Twice. Lots of churches. We found a Soviet-style canteen (what we’d call a cafeteria), which had delicious draniki (potato pancakes served with sour cream or sometimes mushroom sauce). We took some naps.

Cathedral of Holy Assumption Belarus Vitebsk
Cathedral of Holy Assumption Vitebsk

Mir Castle

From Minsk, we also took a day trip to Mir castle, one of the four UNESCO world heritage sites in Belarus. It’s a 16th century Polish Gothic Castle, once owned by the Radziwill family. Only 70 km away from Minsk, it’s an easy bus trip (6 Belarussian rubles, buses at 8:40 am, 9:40 am, 11:50, and 2 pm). Entry to the castle is 4 rubles ($2).

20190811 Belarus, Mir 001
Mir Castle

From Mir, we headed back to Minsk. Our “must-see” list complete, we spent the last couple of days just roaming around, gazing up at immense buildings and admiring the ornate interiors, while peeking behind and between buildings to find interesting paintings, mosaics, and statues.

20190810 Belarus, Minsk 006
Chris in Minsk

Deah in Minsk

Use my Google map to find just a few of the fun things to see around Minsk.