My 2007 Trip to Mexico

In recent “Oh fuck I’m getting old!” news, I was reminded by Facebook that it’s been 10 whole years since I took my very first trip to Mexico. I thought it would be fun to share some photos with y’all, rather than just letting them float around on my hard drive.

My only regret about this trip — other than not keeping a journal or doing vlogs so I could remember what the hell I did — is that my camera was absolute garbage, so half the photos I took were blurry or washed out. I spent about a week in Mexico and don’t have nearly enough photos worth showing.

I flew to Mexico City with my friend who was going to visit his parents. My broke ass was excited because that meant I had a place to sleep and one less expense. We arrived late, and at the crack of dawn the following morning, we all piled into the car and drove to Acapulco. We stayed there for about 3 days in a home owned by a friend of the family. One day we went deep sea fishing, and another I went with my friend and his mom to the beach, then watched the famous cliff divers at La Quebrada.

When we returned to Mexico City, we spent the remainder of the trip sightseeing; the Basilica of Guadalupe, Frida Kahlo’s house in Coyoacan, Chapultepec Park, the zoo, botanical gardens, and local markets. We also took several day trips. We walked through the caves at Cacahualmilpa, then visited the city of Taxco, which is famous for its silver mines. We journeyed to the Teotihuacan archaeological site to see the ruins and climb the pyramids. On our last full day, my friend’s dad accompanied us on a short hike up nearby Nevado de Toluca, a dormant volcano located outside the city of Toluca.

The high altitudes really messed me up; at times it was hard to breathe and I often felt groggy or sleepy. But otherwise it was a wonderful trip!

Postcards from Swamplandia

I recently had a request — actually from someone I don’t share chromosomes and/or a last name with! — to please write more.

So while I’m working on actual content, I thought I’d oblige my loyal twos and threes of readers by answering a few “frequently asked Florida questions.”

Q. “So, Jacksonville, huh? How you liking that?”

This is mostly from people upon finding out that I’ve relocated from New Orleans. The answer is, “A lot more than I thought I would.”

Look, let’s be clear: no place is like New Orleans except New Orleans. I still visit every chance I get, which is not nearly as often as I’d prefer. For the first year after I moved here, I was homesick and FOMO all the time. But I think if you make a choice to live somewhere, then you have basically two options: 1. Walk around constantly butthurt that the place you’re living in isn’t exactly like the place you came from; or, 2. Within the limits of common sense, make your new location into someplace you want to be.

When I moved here I really didn’t know anything about Jacksonville, so I thought I was going to the middle of nowhere.  Despite still not really being “on the map” when compared to Miami or Orlando, we do have over a million people living in 800+ square miles. We even have a NFL team, for fuck’s sake. I mean, it’s not a GOOD team, but we’ve got one.

Living in Jax is nice because winters are mild, and the gulf stream keeps most hurricanes away. I can stumble to the beach from my house, and unlike some other locations in Florida, our beaches are still an accessible place to live for people who aren’t millionaires.  (I’m barely a thousandaire most days.) The beaches also have a great community with our own little festivals and parades. It ain’t mardi gras or jazzfest, but it’s still cool.

As a beach resident, if I don’t feel like driving on the weekends, I can ride my bicycle to 99% of the places I need to go. Jax has an international airport and two interstate highways, so it’s also fairly easy to get away when I want to.

Plus,  we have a minor league baseball team recently renamed the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp — that shit is fucking hilarious.

Yes, Jax has things that need improving, but I’ve most assuredly lived in less desirable locations.

And no state income tax, so that hits.

Q. “Does Jacksonville really have a wonderful TGI Friday’s?”

A. So, it seems that “We have three of them, but I haven’t been to a TGIF in years” isn’t the answer that people are looking for here.

I really wish I had some kind of epic story to tell you but I’m 99% sure that you will find the same greasy burgers and watered-down drinks you get at every other TGIF location.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Q. “Florida isn’t really the South, though.”

A. I guess this isn’t so much a question as a statement people like to make because they think it’s some kind of “gotcha!” moment. I’m not entirely sure what they seek to achieve by it. Is it like, “Gotcha! You think you’re from the South but really you’re from Florida!”… Gasp, oh no! Now I have to return my Bitter Southerner membership card?

Look, okay — as far as I’m concerned, anyone above I-10 is a damn yankee.

(Just kidding, everyone knows yankees live above I-20.)

[Seriously, kidding; don’t send me your hate comments.]

So let me learn y’all a thing about Florida. It’s the only state in the country where the further south you go, the more ‘North’ you get. What I mean by that, is in Florida there exists a line of delineation not shown on any maps. Going by the results of an unscientific survey with a sample size of me, the divide occurs somewhere around interstate 4.

Everything located above Orlando is more or less an annex of Georgia/Alabama. The culture is undeniably Southern. Go to Panama City or Pensacola during spring break and try to tell me you ain’t in the South. (They don’t call it the “redneck riviera” for nuthin.’ Although I think Myrtle Beach, SC, is competing for the title.)

The Florida that exists below I-4 is another world entirely, with a completely different cultural landscape, one that has been shaped by immigrants from the Caribbean and Central America, as well as immigrants from above the Mason-Dixon. (I mean, you can trash talk Florida all you want, but nobody retires and moves to New Jersey or Ohio. They all come here. Just sayin’.)

In my humble opinion, cities like Miami and Key West are great because they are so different. (Hell, Key West is barely the United States. I think they’d secede if they could.) You can take a vacation to someplace new and different without ever leaving your state! Florida is awesome like that.

But it’s also definitely the South. At least half the time. This explains why we are a swing state in every election. It really just depends on which half of Florida turns out to vote in larger numbers. But if any state has a split personality, it’s Florida. Speaking of which…

Q. “Hey, did you hear about [insert crazy news headline from Florida Man this week]?” or “Why are people in Florida so crazy?”

A. Yes, whatever it is, we’ve heard about it. Florida is the butt of every joke. Trust me, you just have to laugh about it and own that shit. We don’t hide our crazy, we put a margarita in its hand and let it walk down the beach. Florida Man is the best/worst superhero.

A2. I don’t know for sure, but I have a hypothesis: Drugs + heat = crazy.

I realize I’m approaching this topic with some levity, but we seriously do have a drug problem — there’s that whole opiate crisis among low-income/rural Americans right now, and our government still refuses to treat addiction as a mental illness instead of a criminal act due to a for-profit prison system that thrives on keeping drug users locked up. In our culture, addiction is ‘treated’ with bullshit “12 step” programs instead of doctors, and illegal drugs are often easier to get and cheaper than health insurance, so it’s really not a surprise that a lot of people are walking around tweaked out of their minds.

Compounded onto that is Florida’s soul-crushing heat, which lasts for about 13 months of the year and can make even the most well adjusted of us (not yours truly, but, like, I know some well adjusted people so I just assumed) act a little bit insane sometimes.

End result, every once in a while… you get people going off the deep end, doing bath salts and eating someone’s face.

(It’s not the heat, really; it’s the humidity. Makes the faces oh so tender and delicious.)

Nah but really… the reason these things make the news is because they are so rare and bizarre. It’s not like face eating is a daily occurrence in the bread aisle at Publix. Pretty sure you’re more likely to get your face torn off by a frat bro at the Florida-Georgia game after his team loses.

Q. “Do alligators really come to people’s doors like that?!”

A. lol, no. The only Gators near my house are UF graduates. But even literal alligators would still be better than Jehovah’s Witnesses.

 

Switching Gears & Changing Lanes

I recently came across saved copies of some blog posts I’d written in 2009, when I was mired in a deep quagmire of personal disasters. Life, as they say, had handed me lemons. Shit… a whole damn grove of lemon trees.

In March of that year, I had been downsized during the worst point of the recession, and despite my best efforts, remained unemployed with no job prospects; I’d also recently ended a romantic relationship, and was living out of my car while sleeping on a friend’s couch.

I drank. A lot.

As I floated through the boundless expanse of my quarter-life crisis, I didn’t really have much else to do except turn up a bottle of Jack Daniels and spew my half-coherent opinions into the aether.

This was a time in my life when I was seriously contemplating uprooting from midtown Atlanta, moving to rural Alabama or somewhere similar, living in the trashiest trailer park I could find, making friends with all the residents, and writing a book about it. I imagined it being part investigative report, part dark comedy, part feel-good narrative about the rural South.

Hell, some of my friends told me to go for it.

I’m not gonna claim I was the next Hunter S. Thompson or anything. The stuff I wrote I certainly wouldn’t win any awards, nor earn me a publishing deal, and the word “fuck” was occasionally used in place of punctuation — but it was actually pretty funny.

Look, I don’t fancy myself a comedian or nuthin.’ In fact, usually when I find something I wrote a million years ago, I always end up reading it with a little bit of cringe. (For a real “dafuq was I thinking?!” moment, or fifty of ’em, try reading the journal you kept in college.) I don’t know how published authors do what they do… get to the point where they feel their work is ready to be permanently stamped onto sheets of dead tree. I’m always seeing how I could have worded something better or turned a phrase more eloquently, or… just… not been so much of a dipshit, I guess.

So when I say I thought my writing was funny, I’m not tooting my own horn — I think I’m my own worst critic. As I revisited my old memories, I was sitting there in total bewilderment, like, “Well damn, where did THAT person go? What happened?”

What happened? Well, I finally got a job and had to quit drinking so fucking much.

(But I’d moved to New Orleans by that point, so in reality I didn’t have to quit drinking that much. Now I live in Jacksonville, where “because it’s Tuesday” isn’t an excuse to close the office and day drink on the neutral ground. My brain misses that, but my liver, wallet, and waistline are like, “Nah. Stay the hell in Florida, asshole.”)

Eventually I really wanted to start writing again, and thought I would try to do so in a relatively sober fashion. If you’ve been keeping up with my blog (which probably means we’re related somehow or have been friends for a long time), you can probably tell I’ve clearly been trying to “find my voice” again.  When I rebooted my blog, I told myself: no more late night booze-fueled rants! I’m gonna write about age-appropriate topics, and people will take me seriously.

Yeah, well… as it turns out, that shit is boring AF. That’s clearly evident as I read over what I’ve posted in the last 2 years.

I’ve always wanted to make people laugh. I like when I do make them laugh, and frankly it surprises me every time they’re not laughing at me. But sometimes that’s okay too. I try not to take myself too seriously either.

Attempting to take myself seriously meant that instead of writing the way I actually talk, with all of the slang, redneck-isms, and “fucks” interspersed ever so delicately (’cause I’m fuckin’ classy) — which are the things people seem to find amusing — I’ve been writing the way I think a “serious” blog would sound. Sure, it winds up mostly free of grammar errors / made up Southern idioms, and scrubbed clean of all the words that would make your granny try to wash your mouth out with soap… but it’s about as interesting as a kitchen appliance manual.

I don’t want my blog to read like I’m narrating a PBS documentary instead of talking about my own life. I don’t want to come off as pretentious or ingenuine ungenuine disingenuous (thanks for nothing, spell check). Keeping up an internet ‘persona’ is high maintenance and frankly too damn exhausting, and ain’t nobody got time for that. Sure, maybe this internet-me is good at “adulting,” never forgets dirty dishes in the sink overnight, always puts the preposition before the end of a sentence, never hides in the bathroom and looks at Instagram during awkward social situations… But that person just ain’t me.

I’m going to start trying to write more naturally, and even let myself have a beer or whatever if that’s what I need to put myself in a writing kinda mood. Maybe I get this blog off the ground for real this time.

Winter Vacation: Universal Studios

Devon and I are Universal Studios season pass holders, but since we’ve been so busy with the house this year, we haven’t been able to visit the parks. So when we were brainstorming a relatively inexpensive way to spend the long christmas weekend without being stuck at home, we decided to pay Orlando a long-overdue visit.

Loews Sapphire Falls Resort

Photo courtesy of Loews Hotels

When we visited, this hotel had only been open for 4 months.  It definitely feels very new, with modern upgrades like NFC room entry, Keurigs in each room, and USB plugs in the wall outlets. I really loved the atmosphere of this resort. Everything had a warm, Caribbean feeling with lots of rich wood tones and tropical colors; not the cheesy “themed” environment I was expecting. (It was almost as nice as being back in Nassau!)

room

As season pass holders, we were able to get some extremely discounted holiday rates that came out to about $99 a night for a standard queen room. I really liked the bed, which is a lot coming from me — Devon and I have a Tempurpedic and pretty much nothing beats it. This bed was a dang close second.

Amenities

Our passes have holiday blackout dates on early park admission, but fortunately all Universal Studios resort hotels provide early admission to guests. (Workin’ the system!) Along with the other resorts, Sapphire Falls provides complementary transportation to the parks as well. You’ve got your choice of water taxi, shuttle bus, or a walking path. The water taxi was amazing. We didn’t have to move our car all weekend (or deal with that gawdforsaken parking deck). On foot, from Sapphire Falls to Citywalk was about 10 minutes.

Aside from these, you’ll find some fairly standard hotel inclusions like a fitness center and a (very impressive) swimming pool (with a water slide). In addition, there is a gift shop, children’s play area, and private cabanas available to rent. We didn’t use any of it. lol.

dining

We didn’t spend a whole lot of time at Sapphire Falls, so I didn’t get a chance to sample all the food options the hotel had to offer.  On christmas day, the main dining room does a special brunch, but it requires making reservations and looked like a ‘prix fixe’ kinda deal. I don’t usually fuck with fixed menus, so we went to Citywalk instead.

The New Dutch Trading Company coffee stand opens at 6am, making it perfect for a grab-and-go breakfast if you’re hitting the parks for early admission. No vegan sandwich options for me, but I did find plenty of fresh fruit, and got a soy latte.

At the end of each day, we’d stop for a drink (or two, or… many) at Strong Water Tavern before going to bed. Our bartender was really fun and we had a great time just shootin’ the shit with him while drinking our way down the menu. My favorite was the cuba libre, with house-made cola syrup, fresh lime, and Cana Brava rum. The food menu was very meat heavy, but we did speak to one of the chefs, who mentioned that they are working on an authentic Rastafarian vegetarian stew to offer in the coming months. 

I’m also a sucker for drinks with fruit & flowers in ’em…

The Parks

Our plan of attack for christmas eve was to get in with early admission to hopefully avoid the crowds of people that occupy Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Then we would just do as many attractions as we could cram in before the end of the day. The high temperatures were in the low 80’s and it was cloudy all weekend; perfect weather for walking around (and avoiding sunburns).

When we returned to the parks on christmas day, the number of guests had tripled — almost like midsummer crowds. The wait for Reign of Kong was 75 minutes instead of the probably 90 seconds we experienced the day prior. (From my past experiences, 60-75 minutes is an average summertime wait.)

the wizarding worlds of harry potter

If you’re not aware already: in order to get the entire Wizarding World experience, you need access to Universal Studios AND Islands of Adventure. For non-season pass holders, you will have to purchase tickets to both. Otherwise, you can’t ride the Hogwarts Express, and you miss out on half the experience. (Honestly, this was one of the deciding factors for us in buying season passes, because with how much a single day pass costs, if you visit more than twice in a year, you’re basically going for free every time after that. Florida residents also get a discount, which helps sweeten the deal too.)

This is my third time visiting the Wizarding Worlds and for me the only turn-off is the crowds… I think probably at least half of the people who come to Universal are doing so as fans of Harry Potter. I anticipated even larger than average crowds because of the holiday weekend. To my amazement, this was not the case at all! We got into Universal Studios at 7, made a beeline for Diagon Alley, and were waiting in line for the Escape from Gringotts ride by 7:15. This is probably my favorite of the Harry Potter themed attractions. (The animatronic goblins in the foyer are especially creepy to me now since I just finished watching Westworld. These violent delights have violent ends!)

Afterward, we hopped on the Hogwarts Express, then got in line for The Forbidden Journey ride — which was the longest “wait” we experienced, maybe all of 5 minutes. Even when the queue is longer, it’s actually not horrible, especially in the summer when it’s nice to spend some time in a dark, air-conditioned area. There are also bits of entertainment scattered throughout, such as one room where the Hogwarts portraits talk to each other, and another where you’re eavesdropping on Harry & company.

For the other attractions, we were able to walk right up. It was refreshing to be able to really explore and look around without being pushed and shoved in a crowd of sweaty muggles. People started really flooding into Hogsmeade after the parks officially opened at 9:00 am, but by that time we were ready to move on to something else. When you’re not waiting in long lines, it becomes really apparent how short most of the rides actually are. I think we rode everything in less than an hour. This is NOT a typical experience. 

I didn’t “grow up” with Harry Potter since I was already halfway through high school when the first novel came to the States, but I love the stories just the same, and I’m really impressed with the attention to detail in these sections of the parks. Everything looks ancient and weathered, and some buildings (like Gringotts) appear to defy the laws of physics.

Diagon Alley

As a graphic designer, I find the hand-painted looking signs and overall application of typography really compelling and just fun to look at… everything right down to the packaging on the candies in Honeyduke’s and trinkets inside Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. The park designers really managed to capture the slightly off-kilter whimsy of J.K. Rowling’s magical world.

Fun details from Diagon Alley

This time around I finally had a chance to go inside Ollivander’s, but was disappointed that the wands are not actually made from wood?! You’re literally paying $40 for a stick of plastic. Nah, man.

islands of adventure

As I’d suspected, most people were there for Harry Potter, so everywhere else was absolutely deserted! Not a single wait took more than 5 minutes. It was absolutely glorious.

Similar to the Harry Potter series, Jurassic Park is another much-beloved movie/book from my ‘young adult’ years… check this out:

Myself & my brother, circa 1995 — If this photo was a person, it’s now old enough to buy a beer.

However, the main attraction in the Jurassic Park area is a water ride, so with the weather being on the chilly side (FOR ME, okay! Below 80F is chilly for Florida!), we skipped it this time.

The Marvel area could stand to be updated a little, but I love the Hulk coaster and am glad they renovated it. I was not super interested in seeing the new Reign of Kong 4D attraction. To be honest, my first reaction was incredulity at the idea of trying to reboot King Kong yet AGAIN… Like, whose bright idea was that? My second reaction was dismay at yet another screen-focused “ride” — usually that the physical components just do not interact smoothly with the on-screen elements. (Even a difference is clearly evident between the newer Gringotts ride and the slightly older Forbidden Journey ride.) However, with Reign of Kong I thought the blend of digital and practical effects was incredibly successful. For this ride you’re sitting in a trackless, self-driving bus, which creates a more immersive, 360-degree experience. The only aspects I didn’t like as much were 1. still having to put on 3D glasses, and 2. the animatronic at the end was a bit clunky and anticlimactic.

There are also entire sections of this park that I avoid because they don’t appeal to me. Seuss Landing is obviously for children, so that’s an instant nope. And there’s a whole area based around reheating cartoon leftovers from World War 2. I mean, are the “Sunday funnies” still relevant? Do today’s kids even know who Beetle Bailey is? I would not mind seeing this transformed into something else entirely.

universal studios

Many of the rides from my childhood like Jaws and Back to the Future are now gone, having long since been replaced by Men in Black, The Simpsons, and Diagon Alley. (The ET ride is currently still there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes away soon.)

Other than Diagon Alley, my favorite area in this park is Springfield, since I’ve always loved the misadventures of everyone’s favorite dysfunctional cartoon family. (True story: in 3rd grade I made friends because I was the only one who could draw, and I doodled Bart and Homer on everyone’s notebooks.) The Simpsons “coaster” is kind of a misnomer since it isn’t an actual roller coaster, it’s a motion simulator (albeit a pretty good one). It’s enjoyable for the nostalgia factor, but I wouldn’t bother waiting in line for it, as it’s not anything mind-blowing. Same for the Transformers ride — it’s fun, but it’s what we’ve all come to expect from 4D rides, so not remotely life-changing.

My favorite ride in this park is probably Rip Ride Rockit, since I still prefer actual roller coasters. Revenge of The Mummy is another I like a lot; it’s an indoor coaster with practical “stage effects” (creatures, glowing hieroglyphs, fire, etc.) built into the ride, which I tend to prefer over 4D. What I would really like to see happen with this park is a full reboot of the classic monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, etc.) since they already have The Mummy going on. My other wish is for another Harry Potter expansion, perhaps to reinvigorate the “New York” area with an attraction involving the Ilvermorny school and North American wizarding world.

dining

Okay, if you’re not a vegan then you will in no way be faced with anything less than a cornucopia of options to shove down your gullet. But if you are, then finding something to eat can be hit or miss. This is my first visit to the parks since going vegan, and I’m pleased to report that the choices were better than I expected them to be.

First, the not-so-great:

Poor dining options are where the Wizarding World stops being so magical for me. If you’re in the park for early admission, then this is your only choice for breakfast. Everything I saw at both the Three Broomsticks and the Leaky Cauldron was platters of meat, eggs, meat, buttery pastries, and more meat. The lunch and dinner menus appeared to be a bit more flexible, where a tenacious vegan could make a “meal” by ordering sides, but there are plenty of other places to eat where you’re not stuck with side salads and the like.

Nobody at the park is allowed to divulge the ingredients for butterbeer, but the internet rumor mill seems to speculate that it contains whey. Whatever the reason, pretty much everyone says for vegans to avoid it. However, all of the other drinks appear to be vegan, as far as I can tell, but… seriously, who goes to the Wizarding World to drink a damn pumpkin juice? Yuck.

Now, for the great:

Both candy stores (Honeyduke’s in Hogsmeade and Sugarplum’s in Diagon Alley) sell a few vegan treats, including these goth-appropriate lollipops for us sassy Slytherins.

The Magic Neep cart in Hogsmeade sells a variety of fresh fruit for wizards on the go.

Outside of the Wizarding Worlds, in the “New York” section of Universal Studios, there is a full-service Ben & Jerry’s counter where you can find their amazing almond milk ice cream! They only had the PB & Cookies flavor in stock at the time, but that was enough to make me happy after not being able to join Devon in drinking a butterbeer.

Yes, it’s vegan!

There are also many food kiosks scattered around both parks, where I found a few vegan choices, including: Lemonade / lemon slush, all Coca-Cola products (including Icees! THE BEST on a hot day), and Auntie Anne’s plain pretzels.

I was told by a very helpful employee that Mythos Restaurant in Islands of Adventure has vegan options, but we did not get a chance to eat there.

Citywalk

Let me tell y’all, the best dining options by far are in the restaurants outside the parks. 

Our server at Antojitos took special care to ensure that my veggie fajitas were made vegan: leaving off the cheese and sour cream, substituting flour tortillas with corn (their flour ones contain dairy), and asking the chefs to omit the butter they add at the end. (Ugh, now I wonder how many times I’ve ordered vegetable fajitas and someone sneaked butter in at the end… sigh.)

It was delicious, and ended up being way too much for me to eat, especially after starting off with tableside-made guacamole. I almost forgot to snap a photo before it was all gone!

At a New York deli inspired restaurant called Sandwich Box, I ordered the veggie melt (minus cheese or pesto) and the result was fantastic. Plus, it’s physically impossible to go wrong with tater tots. That’s just science.

Of course, if you’re looking to imbibe a few adult beverages, don’t forget about a vegan’s best friend: tequila! I first had a blood orange margarita at Antojitos and then a “mood ring” margarita at (where else?) Margaritaville. It’s purple, y’all. Also, lime juice helps fight scurvy, and it’s got antioxidants and… stuff…

Ungoth confessions: I actually like Jimmy Buffett’s music. Just look at this giant-ass blender and try to tell me it don’t make you wanna sing a sea shanty-inspired song about getting drunk during a hurricane. Hey, tropical depressions are like the most gothic weather there is.

On christmas day, we slept in and ventured out late, deciding to grab an early lunch before hitting the parks. I didn’t think a place called The Cowfish would have anything I remotely wanted to eat, but I was pleasantly surprised by their take on a basic vegetable roll, and I loved the “Treehugger” maki roll: shiitake mushrooms, fried portobellos, red peppers, cucumbers, red onions, and basil, with a wasabi yuzu dipping sauce. Sushi on christmas? Why the heck not?!


This trip was such a relaxing, low-stress way to enjoy a long weekend — Devon and I don’t celebrate christmas, but I gotta admit, I would not be upset if this became our first/only christmas “tradition!”

If a vegan wins the Game of Thorns, they sit on the cactus throne!