Making the Most of Tucson, Arizona

US/Mexico border in Nogales, AZ

US/Mexico border in Nogales, AZ

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The first time I saw the sky in the southwest, I was stunned. Buildings and trees hug the earth, and the light is clear and bright, so the sky is broader and bigger. The earth is tan or red in places, and the cacti, mesquite trees, and scrub brush only add to the otherworldly look of the place. Tucson is a small, affordable, and manageable city in the Sonoran desert, whose population increases in September because of the arrival of students (about 50,000 young people) and soon after, the snow birds from the east coast (about 20,000 seniors). Roughly half of the people in this progressive and arty town are Chicano, so it also has a good Mexican vibe.

We ventured south to Nogales, Arizona as part of the conference. The border fence cuts Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora (Mexico) in half. We learned about water issues and militarization in the border region. Starting salary for a border patrol guard is $50,000, so it definitely seems like a way out for people who would otherwise be stuck in retail or food service jobs.

We stayed an extra day after a conference to do some sightseeing, and a local activist and friend suggested Pasqua Yaqui pride. The tribe fought long and hard against conquest and became known as fierce warriors. Shockingly, the Pasqua Yaqui were only legally recognized by the US government about thirty years ago, so the attendant advantages of tribal recognition (land, financial resources, access), are relatively recent. Pride day included lots of traditional dancing and music, food, vendors, resource tables, and a souped up car show on the reservation. It was a lovely celebration of solidarity, tradition, fun, and a sobering reminder of our nation’s history.

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There is no shortage of delicous Sonoran food in Tucson. One evening, we went to La Indita, a casual, family run place which serves indigenous Tohono O’Odham and traditional Mexican food. The homestyle guacamole, the Tohono O’Odham style beef with red chile, and calabacitas were delicious. The flan was very sweet and perfectly creamy, not curdled and overbaked like so many places do. Another evening, Cafe Poca Cosa, with its rotating selection of Mexican dishes in an upscale setting, truly dazzled. We shared the plato poca cosa after noting the portion sizes at an adjacent table. On that night, the sampler included a rich chicken mole, a layered creamy broccoli dish, and a spicy beef dish. There were rich beans and pillowy corn tortillas on the side.

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Another evening, we had a margarita at a local favorite on Congress. And, in true city as small town fashion, we ran into our host at Cafe Passe, a good coffee shop with a huge outdoor patio in the back, on the popular 4th Avenue. Around the block is a mural to a young Mexican American who was gunned down by border patrol.

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And of course, I loaded up on southwestern staples at Native Seed/SEARCH. This store sells seeds and food products. It’s a bit on the pricy side, so some locals balk at the idea of shopping here, but living on the east coast, I can’t easily access many of these items. I stocked up on prickly pear cactus candy, mormon tea (for allergies), blue posole, bolita beans (hands down makes the best refried beans), corn snacks, and Ga’ivsa, cracked roasted Pima corn. Chiltepins were sold out, likely due to an article in the current issue of Edible Baja Arizona. All the more reason to return soon.

Making the Most of Toronto

view of Toronto skyline from City Island

view of Toronto skyline from City Island

My visit to Tronno (as they say) was a whirlwind, but I wanted to share a few tips before I get completely sucked into the vortex that is NYC.

Navigation

The subway runs north and south and east and west, and there are an extensive network of buses. It is very walkable. I used Hopstop to help navigate. Finding your way around the city is relatively easy. The one exception is public transportation from the airport (a real money saver over taxis), with unclear signage both on where to locate it and how to pay for it. I asked at the courtesy desk and was told to purchase tokens at the money exchange desk. There are different rates for single tokens or more than one or paying exact fare, all of which isn’t clearly indicated. Thankfully, I had a few extra Canadian dollars from my last visit, so I didn’t have to pay high exchange fees.

Accommodations

I used Couchsurfing again with great success. I stayed with two lovely gay men who happily shared tips and fun things to do in the city (everything from Veggie Pride to the LGBT film fest). I learned more about local politics in a short conversation with them than I did during the rest of my stay. Time didn’t permit much else besides the conference, but it gave me a good sense of what was going on and I explored the neighborhoods they suggested. Their home was lovely and I had a comfy pull out couch in a private attic room with a balcony. Couchsurfing is not for everybody and not for every type of trip, but you get to meet fascinating, like-minded people who are willing to share their homes with you for free. It is peer-reviewed and you can verify your identity through credit cards. It makes me happy to confirm that we don’t have to monetize every single thing in our lives, real cultural exchange is possible, and people can travel more often than they think.

Food

I knew that I’d appreciate the local food culture after reading this article in a local free paper. Between the awesome cover art of silverware in a dishwashing rack and understanding that chefs don’t care much for brunch, I was interested. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time outside of the TBEX conference to explore, but this article helped me understand the local food scene, which is similar enough to my hometown.

The conference reception at the elegant Roy Thompson Hall, catered by Core caterers, gave all of us a taste of the different neighborhoods. The standouts were maple syrup quickly chilled on food grade snow, then gently wrapped around a cube of gouda, cheddar or blue cheese. And desserts by Bucket and Whisk, including huge chunks of gummys (my favorite was the cola) and crispy campfire sandwiches: buttery rice crispy treats with a house made, slightly charred marshmallow in the middle. The Cheesewerks mac and cheese and osso bucco were also standouts. The Mill Street Tankhouse ale was perfect to wash it all down. And I also appreciate the candy bars that aren’t widely available in the States, like Mr. Big, and– most exciting– Coffee Crisp. There were also photo booths, including a machine that made a flip book out of you acting foolish. Overall, it was an impressive and well executed event, and I say that having worked hundreds of events like this in NYC.

maple syrup wrapped cheese at the TBEX reception

maple syrup wrapped cheese at the TBEX reception

As I made my way back and forth to the convention center, I managed to check out a few places. I had good espresso at the Pocket and good coffee at Jimmy’s. There are microbreweries all over, and I swung by Tallboys, which sells craft beer in large cans. Limited editions like Kensington Brewery’s Fisheye IPA are produced in aluminum cans with a sticker slapped on for a label. I also visited Soma for a perfectly spicy and rich Mayan hot chocolate and a biscotti. The pristine production room is visible through glass. I had three plump meatballs, crostini, and ample tomato sauce at Hey Meatball, a fun, well designed single concept restaurant that serves local meats and house made sodas. And finally, I wandered into Butterfly Bakery, where I had excellent shrimp dumpling dim sum for two bucks!

The final conference reception was held on City Island, a huge park that is accessible by ferry and has great views of the downtown skyline.

Conference

TBEX is a conference for travel bloggers. The best workshops that I attended discussed storytelling and the potential of tourism to create change. I met lots of interesting people and have lots of new ideas to implement. Coming back to NYC was a particularly busy time, so I will write more about this at a later date. That said, I go to a lot of conferences for work in real life, so I was pretty beat doing this on my free time.

Textile Museum of Canada

Armed with a complementary pass from Tourism Toronto, I went to the Textile Museum of Canada. My interest in textiles stems from an art professor who once said that when the history of art is rewritten to acknowledge the contributions of women, quiltmakers will be credited with inventing modern art.

Guatemalan huipil at the Textile Museum of Canada

Guatemalan huipil at the Textile Museum of Canada

There were two shows at the Museum: Ancestry and Artistry: Maya Textiles from Guatemala and Shine. One featured huipiles from Guatemala, colorful indigenous clothing. The influence of outsiders had an impact on the garments: the Spanish introduced embroidery, and in modern times, visitors from all over the world share images. My favorite was a story about a Westerner who brought a copy of Audubon’s bird book as requested by an artist, and returned the following year to see a huipil with a sewn image copied from the book. The second exhibit included textiles sewn with gold and silver thread, tiny mirrors sewn into garments, paired with contemporary sculptures. My favorite was a huge image of fast food, made out of woven soda cans.

I had a great time in Toronto and hope to visit again soon!