Friday, July 20, 2007

El Yunque rainforest – Puerto Rico

I am now in Puerto Rico for the first time and will be spending in total 11 days here. I must say that I am already enjoying the Caribbean life immensely after only two days. I am staying at a hotel on the beach in the Isla Verde area in a town called Carolina, just outside the capital San Juan along the northeast coast, see map below (more about the hotel, beach and other casual activities some other day).

I took a guided tour with Rico Sun Tours to El Yunque rainforest today. Our tour guide and bus driver for the day was an energetic and friendly fellow named Josué (not sure about the spelling but it wasn’t the regular José). That guy was a living encyclopedia! He was an excellent story-teller; knowledgeable about everything from history to social studies and culture to political science – all while being charming and entertaining. I learned a lot from him about Puerto Rico and am very pleased that I decided to take this tour. It makes a world of difference for the experiencing and appreciation of a new place and culture when you know a little of its past and present. If I could only remember one tenth of what he told us, it would make a very interesting summary of the island’s history, culture, population and sauna.

Anyhow, here’s what I remember:

There are three ethnic origins of the people of Puerto Rico: the native Taíno Indians, Spanish conquistadors and African slaves. Today there are 4 million people living in Puerto Rico and the first language is Spanish. The biggest populations of Puerto Ricans outside of Puerto Rico reside in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

Puerto Rico has belonged to the US with ‘commonwealth status’ for over a hundred years, and has contributed to the US military armed forces, fighting to defend democracy together with US troops since the First World War. After the Spanish-American War in 1898 the island passed to the United States, and in 1903 the US officially proclaimed the Luquillo Forest Reserve which is where we were headed. Timber, bananas, subsistence crops and coffee were once harvested on the forest's lower parts. An 1899 hurricane prompted abandonment of some farms in this area. Subsequently, the Forest Service replanted trees and lands were allowed to return to rainforest. Today, there are only a few houses left in the National Forest and the people living in them have to abide by the Forest Reserve’s strict guidelines in order to preserve the rainforest and its wildlife.

Although Puerto Rico is governed by US federal laws and is an important port and point of trade with Latin America for the US, it is not an own state. Puerto Ricans are not allowed to vote in the Presidential elections. They have to move to any of the other 50 states first and register to vote in order to participate. In order to become the 51st state of the union, the majority of the Puerto Ricans would have to vote yes in a referendum, and the rest of the states in the union accept to let them in. Since Puerto Rico is mainly Democratic, the Republicans would not be too keen on letting in a new state where they’d basically always lose Presidential campaigns in that state. Puerto Rico is also the second most densely populated island in the world (only Singapore has more people per square mile) and if I understood what Josué said correctly, this would mean that they therefore would get more votes / influence over US politics and legislation than other (scarcely populated with lots of land) states that have been part of the union since its start, e.g. Wyoming, which would probably not be seen very favorably by those states.

On the other hand it’s unlikely that Puerto Rico would be ‘allowed’ to become an independent, sovereign state. USA would then risk losing its most important window to South America to Venezuela or Brazil. Puerto Rico has enjoyed a lot of positive trade effects and boosted economy by being part of the US commonwealth, so it’s perhaps not surprising that around 65% of the Puerto Ricans have claimed in recent surveys that they would vote for becoming a new state of the union. On the other hand, when push comes to shove, Puerto Ricans are very protective of their national heritage and one of their biggest national “sports”, cock fighting – which is apparently an 800 billion dollar per year industry(!) – recently became illegal in the last remaining state of the US, Louisiana, which is phasing this old tradition out by the end of this year. Therefore, Josué believed that the final say on the future state of Puerto Rico would not be determined any time soon.

The three main industries in Puerto Rico are pharmaceuticals, rum and tourism. In fact, Puerto Rico is famous for its premium rum (I can’t complain about the Mojitos I’ve had so far) and the quality is ensured by all rum being stored at least a year before it’s bottled and sold. There are 11 brands of rum; the Bacardi Rum is the no 1 brand in the world but not in Puerto Rico – here the Don Q (named after Don Quixote) is the no 1.

El Yunque rainforest was a fantastic experience. It was very humid and felt very hot and I would guess it was around 35° Celsius. After watching a 15 min film at the Visitor’s Center in the Luquillo Forest Reserve and checking out their exhibition to learn a little about different plants and animals in the rainforest, we stopped at the Yokahu Tower, an observation point some 480 m above the sea where you saw the whole east coast of Puerto Rico, including Luquillo Beach – see photos below, although they may not give justice to the colors in the rainforest. Unfortunately I was out of luck with my cameras today (or perhaps badly prepared is more correct) – first, I discovered that my analog system camera was out of battery before I had even taken one single photo (it’s been a while since I used it, since it’s so convenient to carry a small digital camera these days), then I ran out of batteries in my digital camera, so I was left with my Sony Ericsson K810 Cyber-shot phone for the entire rainforest excursion...(not too bad considering).

Yokahu Tower

We walked along paved trails in the rainforest and saw breadfruit, banana plants with beautiful flowers, thick vegetation of palm trees and bushes, some incredibly large trees, bamboo, tiny lizards (thankfully no snakes as far as I could see!), creeks and waterfalls. There were lots of sounds – birds and rustle in the underbrush – and I wished we could have seen some parrots but apparently the green Puerto Rican Amazon Parrot only lives on the higher altitudes and have long been an endangered species although it is now slowly picking up in numbers thanks to the relentless work of the Caribbean National Forest Reserve. There are however 105 species of Coqui (frogs famous for their ‘coqui, coqui’ sound at night, soothing to most Puerto Ricans but a nuisance to some other nationalities who are not used to them), of which 75 are represented in El Yunque rainforest.


Banana plant with a flower at the end of the stalk

Condensed water in the moss on a tree

La Mina waterfall was a beautiful spot with a wooden bridge after about 20-30 min walk along a forest trail. Here people ‘cooled off’ in the warm water under the falls and played with their kids in the river.

La Mina falls

On our way back with the tour bus to Carolina we passed a couple of towns along the coast, the biggest one being Luiza with a typical town center with a Catholic church and directly in front of it a town square and next to it the City Hall. The coastal towns predominantly have black population with descendants from African slaves brought to Puerto Rico when the indigenous population of Taíno Indians had diminished and the Spanish colonizing the islands needed more labor. The biggest river in Puerto Rico is the Río Grande de Luiza, which we crossed and saw the river mouth in the Atlantic Ocean.

We also passed another little village just outside Carolina called Piñones with lots of little simple restaurants along the road and live music at night. I will perhaps go back there one evening, enjoy the local beer, Medalla Light, and see what the locals are up to. By the looks of it, they seem to enjoy horse race betting even if on a turn-wheel with miniature horses (I saw several of them within a mile of each other, with locals gathered around)…

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hamburg Salsa Congress 2007

This past weekend I have been in Germany for the 5th international salsa festival in Hamburg. I have been at this congress before, but it was a couple of years ago. I have now started a 4-week summer vacation and what can be a better start of your holidays than four nights of salsa dancing?!

I stayed at a cheap Etap Accor hotel in the St Pauli area the first night and went to a pre-festival party on Thursday night. It was a fun party in a club called La Macumba. Some of my salsa friends from Stockholm were there, including Christoffer, Arram, Lalla and a few others. I danced with the famous DJ from New York, Henry Knowles, and the producer of the major part of all L.A. style salsa congresses in the world, Albert Torres. Juan Matos, a fabulous dancer from New York, known for his slick moves and incredible charisma on stage, was standing dancing and singing to himself in a corner so I decided to be daring and invite him to dance - I was actually rather surprised that he accepted. He was very friendly and it was a very pleasant dance experience.

Lalla and me at La Macumba

On Friday I changed hotel to Radisson SAS at Congress-Centrum (next to the central Dammtor train station), where the weekend salsa congress was hosted. A salsa friend of mine from Stockholm, Elena, performed for the first time with her new partner from Toronto, Mark Anthony - it’s not the famous singer, as you can probably tell from the spelling! They were the opening number at the Friday congress party at the Congress-Centrum and did a great job with an On2 show.

Since I had been up dancing till 4am the night before, my feet were already hurting so the first part of Friday night was kind of mellow for me until I got an energy boost from dancing with a very talented French guy. I had a similar experience the rest of the nights, with a part in the middle where I ran out of energy and then all of a sudden the mood and energy levels picked up the last two hours from 3 or 4am…

I had a great weekend dancing with many “congress friends” from different countries, among others Marlon, Bernard and Sonder from Holland; Ludovic, Didier and Juan from France; Tony, Guy, Floyd and Sean from London – always a pleasure dancing with all of them! I was also invited to dance by Cesar Sanchez from Latin Dance Education in Hamburg, which was a lot of fun. It turned out that there were quite many people from Stockholm attending this congress - apart from the ones already mentioned, I was happy to run into Miriam from Stockholm Salsa Dance, Rafael, Jose, Carina and Johan - very nice and friendly people all of them. The parties closed at 5am, but the last night it didn’t finish until about 6am.

German TV really has some silly shows. As I was getting ready for Saturday night’s party, I had channel 1 ( on in the background. They broadcasted some sort of family entertainment, I presume, with what I would describe as videos with “oompa, oompa music” and German traditional music à la Bier Stube. It wouldn’t have been so bad, I guess, if they hadn’t insisted on showing some sort of “music videos” as well with silly dancing and pretending to play instruments in an overly cheerful manner in a country environment. It was a little surprising that the next program was one of the Beck programs. Beck is a character in a Swedish detective novel series by Sjöwall/Walöö, which has been made into a TV series and several movies with Swedish actors Peter Haber and Mikael Persbrandt. Of course the program was dubbed into German; I don’t know how the Germans, Italians, French and Spaniards learn English when they never actually hear it…

Saturday night a big Cuban band called Mercado Negro from Switzerland played. On Sunday night, my friends Anna and Laia in Mambo Sisters from Stockholm performed their very nice mambo routine in white dresses and long evening gown gloves. During the social dancing I saw an amazing 7-year-old girl dance with one of the adult, male performers and was astonished that she was already way more advanced than most of the rest of us! It’s besides the point that she should probably have been home in bed instead of spending late nights in a loud environment at a salsa congress.

Me with Guy & Floyd, two dancers from London – as you can see salsa dancing at congresses is a sweaty experience!

(Click pictures to view them enlarged)

Elena and Laia from Stockholm

7-year-old girl dancing with one of the male performers

On Saturday afternoon I walked from the hotel to Gänsemarkt and went shopping along Gerhofstrasse and Jungfernstieg followed by enjoying the sunset over lake Alster (a branch of the river Elba) with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa (my favorite wine country). The restaurant on the lake had delicious lasagna, a friendly atmosphere and decent prices. It’s been a hectic first half year and I so enjoyed being off and not having any obligations at all. A handsome male friend of mine accompanied me to the same place for lunch on Sunday afternoon. It had become incredibly hot, 30-35°C and quite humid. Apart from these short strolls, I haven’t seen much of Hamburg, I’m afraid.

Binnenalster - Left: me. Right: Tony

Tony and Anna at McDonald’s

View from my Radisson SAS hotel room, overlooking Dammtor train station, a park and the city

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sailing Hobycat in the Stockholm archipelago

Normally I only blog about my travels, but also Stockholm can offer some treats. This is just so cool that I have to share it with those of my friends who may be interested…

I am fortunate to have some friends who sail. Two of my salsa friends Anders and Karim are enthusiastic sailors and frequently take off into the Stockholm archipelago. One weekend not long ago I was offered by Anders to accompany him and Karim on Anders’ Hobycat (a Catamaran) for a few hours’ intensive sailing on Askrikefjärden (the Askrike Bay) close to the peninsula Lidingö east of Stockholm.

It was fantastic! See photos below (the ones of me are taken by Anders). It was wet and cold but went fast! Very liberating and like balm for a stressed soul. Anders has promised me to hang in the harness next time – I’m going to hold him to it! :-)

Karim and Anders

Quick trip to The Big Apple

A few weeks ago, I went to New York for 3.5 days again. I had some meetings with my PR agency, a couple of press interviews (read an interview with Fast Company here) and then a whole-day press event together with a couple of US colleagues. The PR agency also took me out to dinner at Asia de Cuba, a fabulous and trendy restaurant with a fusion of Asian-Cuban cuisine. As I walked in they played salsa music and kept doing so the whole time we were there, so I felt right at home. :-)

View over Lower West Side from one of my press interviews – Ground Zero where the Twin Towers once stood are to the bottom left of the picture

On this June trip, I was staying at the Sheraton Manhattan near Times Square with a short walking distance to my PR agency. I flew in already during the weekend so I could meet some friends and go salsa dancing. New York is fabulous for that!

I went to Greenwich Village – usually shortened to “the Village” by New Yorkers – to have dinner with my Swedish friend Vinay who has moved to New York and one of my On2 salsa friends, Marlon. We met for a drink at Sushi Samba on 7th Avenue and Bleeker Street. This was a hip restaurant with a sushi kitchen in the middle where everyone can see, a trendy bar with good cocktails being served and modern music coming out of the speakers. It was very crowded and the waiting line for a table was over an hour so we gave up and walked around in the West Village until we found a good Italian restaurant called Morandi who could seat us after some wine and a starter at the bar. The food was excellent, as was the wine and service. This was a very good pick in a quiet area on Charles Street / Waverly Place, away from all the traffic on the bigger avenues. The West Village felt like the narrow streets in some Southern European town, not like the hectic Manhattan. New York is full of surprises.

Vinay was tired after many travels so I accompanied Marlon to someone’s birthday party at the dance studio where he teaches mambo and ballroom dances. There was an interesting mix of people, mostly dancers of various styles.

I had Sunday brunch with Vinay. We walked up on 7th Avenue to Columbus Circle and Central Park West and found a restaurant that served pancakes and some sort of wine cooler which was a mix of melon (or was it orange? I can’t remember anymore) and Champagne, apparently very popular among New Yorkers this summer.

7th Avenue

Monument at Columbus Circle

Vinay and I went for a walk in Central Park in the afternoon. It was a hot summer’s day with sunny weather and lots of activity in the park. First, we sat down to watch a couple of Sunday afternoon baseball games. I am not familiar with all the rules but was intrigued by the passion that all the locals poured into this game. Baseball is such a natural part of regular Americans’ life but we don’t have this sport in Sweden other than among some elitist sportsmen who see it as a more advanced form of the Swedish “brännboll”.

Baseball in Central Park

We went for a stroll in the park, saw the regular horses and carriages with tourists (one of these days I’m going to take a ride myself; it seems like a comfortable way of exploring central New York and the vast Central Park) and passed beach volleyball courts, various drummers and jugglers drawing attention from the Sunday strollers. We went to see the Central Park Dance Skaters, meaning people on rollerblades dancing with their own DJ spinning old-school disco tunes. This was an interesting phenomenon. I suppose that some people might compare it with salsa fanatics like me who attend Sunday salsa socials and get totally absorbed by the music, rhythms and sweat like pigs. Some of these dance skaters have made their own “disco costumes” and show off their dance moves with a series of skating routines, spins and even couples’ dancing. Quite fun to watch – until you get sick and tired of the same beat / tempo of the music and have to move on to greener pastures.

Central Park

Every second Sunday evening, there is Jimmy Anton’s salsa social at the Manhattan Dance Studio. I was lucky to be in the city on the right week, because this is one of the best salsa nights you can get in New York City. I had barely walked in and put on my dance shoes when I was lucky to be invited to dance by Angel Ortiz from Stepping Out Studios. He’s a well-known international instructor, on occasion arranging events where Eddie Torres, the king of mambo from Latin Dance Studio, gives classes. I had a fabulous night with many great dances. The tempo (and temperature) is high at Jimmy Anton’s and you need to drink lots of water to be able to keep up the energy. I am already looking forward to next time in New York. But I suspect I will meet at least some of the same dancers at this summer’s salsa congresses, which some of my next blogs are likely to cover. So stay tuned.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Beihai Park – Classical imperial garden with 1000-year-old history

After my visit to the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park, I stopped for a few minutes to watch some locals play some kind of old Chinese board game. I then continued to China’s oldest and most impressive classical imperial garden, Beihai Park. As you walk between the parks, there are a number of bicycle taxis (I would say “rickshaws” but I’m sure the Chinese have their own word for it) offering you a sightseeing tour in the old parts of Beijing located to the east/north of Beihai Park. It was however already getting late in the day for me, so I prioritized taking a stroll in Beihai Park and digest all that I had seen at Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park.

Street area between Jingshan and Beihai Parks

Men hanging around and playing a Chinese board game

Beihai Park is located west of Jingshan Park and has a history of nearly 1000 years. It has existed throughout the Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. Beihai was first built in 938 A.D. during the Emperor Huitong of Liao Dynasty and in the 12th century improved into an imperial summer palace. In the second half of the 13th century, Kublai Kahn – a name recognized by most Westerners thanks to the Marco Polo travels – took Beihai as its center to establish the capital of the Yuan Dynasty in Beijing. Beihai means “the north sea” in Chinese and the park actually contains a large, artificial lake with Qionghua Island in the center of it. In1267, Kublai Khan had an imperial city called Dadu built around the Qionghua Island. He called the island Longevity Hill, and the lake around it Taiyechi.

The park is huge and there are many walkways through it. There’s a path next to the water around the whole lake, so I strolled around it for a while, passing tourist boats for rental and some restaurant or teahouse overlooking the lake. It was getting windy and cloudy and the big lake really behaved like the North Sea, with big waves rippling the surface and making the tiny, colorful tourist dinghies pull their mooring ropes.

By the northern shore of Qiong Island, at the foot of Longevity Hill, there is a palace-like, lake-side building with a curved walkway “corridor” along the waterfront with colorful pillars, beautiful wall paintings and red lanterns lighting up the evening stroll.

There is also a very elaborately decorated restaurant with a big, golden, imperial chest at the entrance and various artifacts displayed outside, like imperial China vases and an ancient imperial sedan chair. Waiters and waitresses in traditional costumes dashed in and out of various side doors to the restaurant and kitchen areas, with plates of food that were exquisitely adorned with vegetables and fruit carved into fancy decorations, pastry looking like a swan etc. It looked like a very expensive place and I saw many dressed-up Westerners go there, perhaps for business entertainment. See photos below.

Restaurant and waitress

Beautiful wall and ceiling decorations at the lake-side restaurant

After contemplating the imperial ways of living by the lake, I started climbing up the hill and discovered lots of colorful pavilions, chambers, towers and terraces among the rocks, some Taihu Lake stones apparently moved here during the Jin Dynasty from Genyue Garden in Bianliang (capital of the North Song Dynasty in 990-1127), ancient trees and pathways.

Ceiling details in pavilion

At the top of the hill on the Qionghua Dao (or ‘Jade Flowery Islet’) in Beihai Park, the Tibetan style White Pagoda (Baita) Temple is the landmark visible from miles away. It’s an almost 36 m tall Buddhist temple constructed on the former site of the Palace in the Moon where Kublai Khan received Marco Polo. I arrived after closing hours so unfortunately I missed the thousands of Buddha statues that are apparently on display in the temple.

Baita – The White Pagoda

It was getting really dark at 8:30-9 pm and since I couldn’t enter the temple I looked at the view of Beijing and the lake from the terrace at the hilltop. The evening sky was very pretty with a pink sunset breaking up the heavy clouds.

View over Beijing and the Taiyechi lake from the top of the Qiong Island

Beihai Park is probably one of the fondest takeaways from my trip to Beijing. Located in the middle of a modern city, this multi-faceted but harmonic imperial garden showcased the powerful elements of nature and history in a beautiful mix. I left with an impression that I could return many times to let the winds by Taiyechi lake wash away contemporary problems and to discover new historic treasures every time.