Monday, March 31, 2014

week of awesomeness - day 01

I am without employment this week, but I say that without negativity or resentment. Small chunks of unemployment come with the freelance territory, and I have experienced a blessedly small lack of work in the past seven years. Adding to my positive outlook is the fact that I am without a job for this week, and this week only - I have a few small gigs lined up over the rest of the month, and then launch into a massive project at the beginning of May - so really, I'm on more of a forced staycation.

Taking an exotic trip wasn't in the budget this time around (and really, I did go to Belize not that long ago), but just because I'm trying to save my pennies doesn't mean I have to live like a hermit. So this week, I am allowing myself one purely-for-fun, slice of awesomeness per day. Today's mission? Bake a loaf of bread. From scratch. Why? Because why not? Oh and also because I recently cashed in some gift cards and bought myself my first ever dutch oven (Martha Stewart, 6-quart, in red), and apparently that's how you bake bread these days.

I followed this blogger's suggestion and used this recipe for No-Knead Bread (based on the original from Sullivan St. Bakery, and it turned out wonderfully. The Week of Awesomeness is officially off to a great start.

Monday, March 24, 2014

52 photos/weeks 9-12

 9.) Nothing pleases me more than going for a walk and discovering newly installed public art in Madison Square Park (Iván Navarro's This Land is Your Land)
10.) I was wondering around the upper east side late one chilly afternoon when I caught a sliver of a sunset through the trees. A few steps up to the Reservoir, and I got to watch the colors dance in the sky.
11.) When you go all the way to Flushing for a 9am meeting that gets cancelled only after you get off the train, you get soup dumplings for breakfast. Because it's never too early for dumplings.
12.) Repotting my new succulents and trying to turn my black thumb green.

52 photos is my personal challenge to take one awesome picture per week in 2014. All photos were taken by me and my iPhone 5s and if edited, with Snapseed and/or Instagram. Follow me - @maspad - to see these and many more pics!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

SNUBA - the beautiful love child of scuba and snorkel

A while back, I wrote how J and I escaped the mid-winter-all-season-polar-vortex-blues by doing absolutely nothing on a Caribbean island for a week. Well, now I'm here to tell you that I kind of lied a little - but only about the doing nothing part, not about the vacation part (I would never lie about a vacation). On our second day of vacation, we went on a SNUBA trip. And no, that's not a typo.

The word "snuba" is a combination of "scuba" and "snorkel," and the activity is just that - it uses the fins, mask, and air regulator of scuba diving, but instead of the diver having to personally wear the air tank, s/he is connected via a 20'-long tube to an air tank that is floating (on a raft) on the surface of the water. Because you're not responsible for your own air control (the snuba guide swims alongside the floating tanks and wears his own personal air tank so that he can adjust and monitor accordingly) you don't have to go through a lengthy (and often expensive) training session before getting in the water; instead, there is a only 20 minute, on-board tutorial during which you will be shown how to breath through the regulator and how to safely equalize the pressure in your ears.

Which leaves you free to simply swim and dive and enjoy all the wonders of the deep blue without the burdens of pesky things like air tanks and having to constantly go back to the surface for air.

I was IMMEDIATELY a huge fan. I have to admit that I adapted pretty quickly to the breathing while others in our small group struggled a bit, but most people got the hang of it after a while. We started out in shallow water (about 4' deep) so there were no worries about having to tread water while figuring out how to breathe through a giant piece of plastic in your mouth. 

You don't have to be an olympic swimmer to enjoy snuba diving, but it does help to be more than comfortable in the water. You wear a mask, regulator, fins, and a weight belt, (and if you’re like me, an underwater camera that’s strapped to your wrist) and have to navigate around the tube that's attached to your regulator, so you end up dealing with a decent amount of gear. While you certainly want to take all the time you need to familiarize yourself with your new lungs and legs, you don’t want to waste so much time remembering how to swim that you miss out on the fascinating world that inhabits the ocean.

Our excursion took us to two different sites in Belize’s barrier reef (fun fact: it’s the second largest barrier reef in the world!). First was the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which has an abundance of coral, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests. While it didn’t actually have the most colorful marine life I’ve ever seen (there’s a reef in the Bahamas that wins that contest for me), having the snuba tube elevated the experience to such an awesome level that I didn’t care about the lack of pretty pink coral.

Never before had I ever been able to just hang out on the ocean floor without the hassle of having to shoot back to the surface for air every 48 seconds (I don’t have the greatest lung capacity). I also had never been 20 feet below the surface - previous to this, the deepest I’d ever dove was 12 feet, and that was in a pool that didn’t offer much more to look at than tiled lane lines and a stray diving ring. But in the reef, I saw massive schools of fish, beautifully lacy corals, and one lone sea turtle - all without having to come up for air.

The second site we visited was called Shark Ray Alley, named for the abundance of nurse sharks and sting rays that gather there. I strongly suspect that the high number of marine life found in this part of the reef is due to them being fed by guides right before the tour boats show up, but nothing I saw in my short time there indicated that any animals were being mistreated in any way. We weren’t allowed to snuba in this part of the reef - only snorkel the old-fashioned way with just fins, a mask, and an attached plastic air tube. Though it was awesome (and slightly scary) to be able to swim with sharks and sting rays, I have to admit that I was thoroughly disappointed that we couldn’t snuba again. It was akin to someone putting truffle salt on your vegetables for the first time and then saying, “Nope! Only on the appetizers!”

But I digress. Going snuba diving was one of the better experiences of my life. I would suggest it to anyone who is already a fan of snorkeling but is hesitant to take the plunge (no pun intended) into full-on scuba diving due to money or time constraints. I should note that I had to search for this excursion. I’m not quite sure why, but it wasn’t advertised on any of the websites I was using to research and plan my Belize vacation. Almost every water sport you can think of (paragliding, sailing, etc., in addition to snorkeling and scuba diving) is peddled heavily on every piece of Belize travel literature - but I only stumbled on snuba because I happened to be reading an unrelated article on water sports in an entirely different country. I quickly decided that I just had to try this diving hybrid, and though it took some sleuthing, I finally found an outfitter in San Pedro that offered this as an add-on to a pre-existing snorkel trip (about 2/3 of the people on our tour boat were there just to snorkel). A few emails later, and we had ourselves a snuba date.

If you go:
*A SNUBA - Go Beyond Snorkeling! tour with Discovery Expeditions cost us $78/person (plus a $10 Hol Chan Marine park fee). They picked us up from our hotel's dock and the excursion lasted approximately three hours. All equipment (mask, fins, air tank, weight belt) and bottled water (for drinking) were included in the price.

Please note: I was not in any way contacted or influenced by Discovery Expeditions to write this post, nor did I receive any compensation; I simply wanted to share with you what I believe to be a relatively unknown yet wonderful experience!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Black bean hummus

You guys, I can't. stop. making. hummus. Seriously, I opened the Pandora's box of homemade hummus and can never go back. It's just so good! And so cheap! In that, it's inexpensive, not that it's of little account or value (thanks, Anyway, to make this hummus:

1 can (15 oz.) of black beans, drained, but reserve the liquid
2 tbsp tahini sauce
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic, chopped
Juice from 1/2 a lime
Spices to taste - I used a dash of salt, a dash of cumin, and a healthy helping of Trader Joe's Everyday Seasonings

How to: 
In a blender or in the cup of your immersion blender (which I personally prefer), puree until smooth all the ingredients listed above plus half of the liquid from the can of beans. If you like a thicker hummus use less liquid, use more liquid to thin it out. Add some cilantro if you like (I'm actually not a fan, but most people love it) and serve with your favorite chips and/or veggies!

Friday, March 14, 2014

weekend link love 02

*Here is a good reminder not to work too hard.

*Some local love - they're talking about the possibility of a Queens highline (yes please!) and the new Astoria Flea & Food Market will be located in the Kauffman-Astoria backlot!

*An interesting series on how to pick and keep a life partner.

*Book report: I couldn't put down Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch - it's a hefty read (it clocks in at 784 pages) but it takes you on a wild journey from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam as the protagonist tries to protect a stolen work of art. I repeat - I couldn't. put it. down.

*This blew my mind!

*I'm thinking it's time to treat myself to a new film camera from Lomography ;)

*Did you ever wonder what would happen if artists designed buildings? Because this guy did. And the result is awesome. 

*A public note to Instagram - thank you, thank you for making the lux effect slider!

*Nerd Alert: I know they're only one episode in, but I'm loving the new Cosmos series on the National Geographic channel.

*Did you (or are you planning to) watch the Veronica Mars movie this weekend? I curled up with a giant tub of popcorn and loved every minute of it. Go Pirates!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Quick bites: veggie naan pizza

Last week, J brought home some extra naan from a work lunch thing he attended. It sat in the fridge for a few days, until inspiration struck - I'd make a flatbread pizza! Now, I'm clearly not the first person to have this idea (google "naan pizza" and you get like 6 million results), but the pizza I made was just so good I had to share it with you. All you need is a a slice of naan and your favorite pizza toppings. I started with a light brushing of pesto, then added my go-to pre-made pizza sauce (Ragú Pizza Quick), sprinkled some shredded mozzarella and grated Parmesan cheeses (the combo is delicious), then topped the whole thing off with my favorite veggies - fresh chopped spinach, sliced mushrooms, marinated tomatoes (leftover from my homemade hummus) and artichoke hearts. Bake on a cookie sheet at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes, or until cheese is fully melted. So yummy. So easy. And so close to my beloved Chicago-style-thin-crust that my soul did a happy dance ;)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Travel notes: Ambergris Caye, Belize

 A few weeks ago, J and I got to take an honest-to-goodness vacation on an honest-to-goodness tropical island - Ambergris Caye, off the coast of (and part of) Belize.

Oh. My.

We're talking swaying palm trees, turquoise waters, quiet beaches, and drinks with tiny umbrellas. Where the schedule for the day consists of: sleep until you wake up, lazy coffees under those swaying palm trees, read a book, take a nap, get a suntan. When your most pressing decisions are, do I get the snapper or the grouper? and, is it a beer, wine, or cocktail kind of evening?

You should do this. I fully believe that everybody should experience this kind of lackadaisical bliss at least one time in their life, and it should definitely take place on what at times felt like a deserted island.

And actually, you should do this sooner rather than later. In all honesty (and if you'll allow me to get serious for a second here), I fear for the future of Belize's islands. While we were able to enjoy seemingly untouched waters and walk-up bars that made little distinction between the sand and the barstool, we also got a more than a glimpse of what one day could be a very real case of overdevelopment - high-rise condos, massive all-inclusives, beach entrance fees, and overpriced prix fixe dinners, just to name a few. Case in point: on our second-to-last day on the island, we passed a billboard stuck in the sand of an empty lot that advertised a coming hotel described to be "the Venice of the Caribbean"- multiple rooms and suites all connected by freshwater canals, complete with gondolas and a Bridge of Sighs!

But I digress. Though the island as we saw it was far from undiscovered (there were plenty of American and a handful of European tourists, mostly older and on 2-4-week vacations), it was still one of the most stunning places I have ever visited.

The majority of people who visit Belize tend to turn it into a two-part trip - they spend the first half of their vacation trekking through the jungle on the mainland, staying at eco-lodges, visiting zoos and nature conservatories, and hiking up Mayan Ruins. Then, they hop a flight over to the islands that lie between the mainland and the barrier reef for a week of scuba diving, parasailing, boating, and sun bathing. J and I didn't have two weeks to devote to this vacation so we opted for the latter half of the itinerary, spending 5 nights/6 days on Ambergris Caye.

We made the right choice for us. While I usually operate on a "let's-conquer-all" travel setting (I think I saw more of Paris in four days than most Parisians see in a lifetime), J and I both had been burning the candle at both ends for quite some time, and we were exhausted. Scaling ruins would have been a really fun experience, but I think we would have come back more tired than we already were.

So we chose to take the path of least activity - and exceeded our own expectations ;) Other than a half-day "Snuba" excursion (something that warrants it's own post, so more on that later), we. did. nothing.

Ok, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. We did spend an afternoon wandering around the tiny town of San Pedro, but weren't too impressed with anything we saw there - like a lot of major island cities it was cramped, crowded with day-trippers from the cruise ships that dock in Belize City, and had far too many souvenir shops for my taste.

But we mostly spent our time lounging by the pool and ordering from the bar. I drank my weight in Belikin Beer, which is brewed and bottled in Belize, and J discovered the Mudslide, which turned into one of the more endearing moments of my life.

If you go:
*We inadvertently booked the trip over Valentine's Day, and as a result couldn't find one hotel for all five nights. We ended up staying first at Caribbean Villas (located in the southern part of the island with slightly more rustic rooms (i.e., I found a few lizards in the bathroom), decent pool, fantastic beach, great bar/restaurant on premise) and then headed north to Coco Beach Resorts (spacious rooms, massive pool with a swim-up bar, decent restaurant, complimentary water sports). We chose not to stay "in town" (in San Pedro proper) and I'm so glad we didn't. Though cheaper, I think the ambient noise from nearby bars would have been a huge problem.

*Food was in the moderate-high price range. I think we could have chosen some cheaper dinner options, but we were on vacation. Some favorites:
Blue Water Grill - fantastic sushi!
Caliente - mai tai's as big as your head
Hidden Treasures - on the far south end and great for a quieter, more romantic evening; offers complimentary pick-up/drop-off services to and from your hotel
Mambo at the Matachica Resort - closer to town but also offers a pick-up/drop-off service, and is one of those stunningly beautiful open-air, candle-lit-dinner under a thatched roof experiences

*We found the island to be pretty safe, even when walking back to our hotel after dinner in the dark. Obviously every traveller should take caution while visiting unfamiliar areas (each of our hotel rooms had safes in which we locked up our passports and most of our money), but Ambergris Caye is a great destination for anyone looking to branch out from domestic and/or all-inclusive resort vacations; I also wouldn't hesitate to recommend this area to a solo traveller - on the puddle-jumper from Belize City to San Pedro, I sat next to a woman roughly around my age who was on her own for the week. We happened to run into her a few days later and she reported that she was having a fantastic time.