In Spain with VaughnTown: Olé!


When I planned our latest trip to Spain, I didn't picture myself spending part of my time doing an inpersonation of Ivanka Trump, or playing the part of a dwarf in a parody skit on Snow White. I didn't expect I'd be dancing the Macarena under a disco ball in a village bar after midnight. Nor would I have guessed these "skills" might prove useful to a group of new Spanish friends working to improve their English conversational skills.

My husband, Tom, and I, just finished up a week with VaughnTown  a cultural exchange program that brings native English speakers and Spanish professionals together in a mountain retreat outside of Madrid for six days of one-on-one conversations, skits, and social activities. When I tried to explain to friends back home what we would be doing, everyone assumed we had to know Spanish. On the contrary. The No. 1 rule at VaughnTown is that NO Spanish be spoken the entire time. Started by Richard Vaughan, a business student from Texas who came to Spain to teach English in the 1970s, the program tosses out the idea of teachers, books and formal lessons in favor of non-stop talking, starting at breakfast, and continuing on well past dinner at 9 p.m.

"Summer camp for adults," is how our director, Carmen Villa, describes the experience. The week is free for the English-speaking volunteers in exchange for our time. Vaughn paid for our lodging, meals, wine etc., but not our airfare to and from Madrid. Our home for five nights is the Palacio del Infante Don Juan Manuel Hotel, a restored 15th-century palace in the village of Belmonte in Castilla-La Mancha where film directors used the historic hilltop castle to make El Cid, starting Charlton Heston and Sophia Lauren, and more recently Don Quixote. 


The "Anglos," as we're called, come from all over the U.S., UK and Australia. Sixteen of us have been selected, based on short online applications that asked about our backgrounds, interests and reasons why we wanted to participate. We first meet at a tapas reception in Madrid on the Saturday, before joining the Spaniards for the start of the program on Sunday. 

The room fills with friendly faces. There's Peter from the UK, who has plans afterwards to walk the Camino de Santiago trail. Chris, a professional actress from Portland, and her husband, John, plan to take a Rick Steves tour in Spain after the program ends; Carolyn is a retired high school librarian from Atlanta, Her traveling partner, Mary, fluent in sight language, had a long career working with the deaf. They and many of the others are VaughnTown repeaters. We're surprised to find that only five of us are doing this for the first time. The oldest member of the group, Judy, 77, from Austin, Texas, estimates she's volunteered nearly 20 times, and has written an excellent Facebook post about her experiences.

The resumes of the 12 Spaniards we meet the next day are impressive. On the bus, I sit next to Edi,  27, an entrepreneur who owns two restaurants and a moble app company. He and three others are in the midst of a five-month intensive English program at Vaughn that calls for 5 hours of classroom work daily followed by five hours of homework. Like most of the others, he is well-traveled, and we share stories about our mutual experiences in Morocco and Sri Lanka. Pilar from Valencia works for the UN in IT support. She's also a ceramicist and knowledgeable about natural medicine. Carmen is a lawyer for a construction company, with an interest in furthering her English by doing a short homestay in the U.S. Carlos, an executive for Mercedes Benz, is a wildlife photographer whose philosophy is "life is a hobby."  The youngest is Martin, 22, a kindergarten teacher who spent two years studying English while living with a host family in Vancouver, B.C.


In the beginning, we're told, it will be the Anglos who do most of the talking. Our job is to help Spaniards build their self-confidence and listening skills. By Wednesday, after warming up with some amusing skits and creative getting-to-know-you exercises, the conversation should be around 50-50. At the heart of the program are 50-minute "one-on-one" conversations that take place as we walk around the village, hike to the stone windmills that dot the hillsides above town, or  relax over coffee on the hotel terrace. What we talk about is up to us, but the conversation flows surprisingly well, even without formal topics.


On a walk through the town, where we stop to snap a picture of a baker who makes house calls in his van, I chat with  Maite, the manager of a computer unit for the Bank of Spain. We discover we both traveled to Myanmar recently. Laura, 27, a veterinarian thinking about switching careers, shares a photo of a street dog she rescued in Panama. Our talk turns to pets, travel, her boyfriend and her mother's volunteer work in third-world countries. On a walk to the castle, Laura introduces Tom and me to Miguelitos, a Spanish pastry filled with chocolate. She buys a box for her boyfriend, but insists on opening it so we can try one. 


Interspersed throughout the days are mock conference calls (I play the role of Ivanka Trump scouting out a location for a casino in Spain while the "mayors" of four cities make their pitches) and telephone sessions on how to order a pizza or deal with lost luggage. One day we take a field trip to a local winery for a tour and tasting. No matter what we do, we look for ways to explain English idioms (You're in the Dog House was a favorite), and the multiple meanings of phrasal verbs (break in, break up, break down etc.). Meanwhle, the Anglos work on adapting to the Spanish lifestyle of eating lunch at. 2 p.m., followed by siesta until 5 p.m. and dinner at 9 p.m. Just abut the time we're thinking about going to bed, the Spanish are ready to party.

Most evenings include an 8 p.m. "entertainment" hour for which Alba Rosa, 28, Vaughn's high-energy "Master of Ceremonies" drafts varioius people for skits involving wigs and other props, One night, Alba persuades several to dress up as witches as she concocts a caldron of Queimada, a "fire" drink made from a distilled spirit, coffee beans and sugar that erupts into blue flames when lighted. Tradition calls for the reading of incantations during preparation so that those drinking it will be conferred with special powers. 




Whatever we do, there's just one goal to keep in mind: The purpose of this program is to help the Spaniards gain confidence in their ability to speak and understand English. The "final exam" is a five-minute presentation the Spaniards must deliver in English on a surprise topic. With some coaching from the Anglos, they spend the day writing, rehearsing and revising. When the time comes to take the stage, they are nervous, but they all do beautifully, speaking on topics ranging from love to skinny-dipping.

Belmonte is a sleepy town with several churches, a city hall, a park, a grocery store and a couple of banks. We rarely see anyone out on our walks around town, so we're surprised when Alba announces she's found a pub open late where we can celebrate our last night together. It's nearly 11:30 p.m. when we set out walking in the dark to find the cozy bar just outside the town's medieval walls, A few beers and gin and tonics later, we're all dancing the Macarena under a disco ball. As they really do say in Spain, Olé!



Local entrepreneurs bring taste of Old Europe to downtown Olympia

Take a building big enough to house a car dealership. Fill it with the smells of french pastries and buckwheat crepes. Add an oyster bar, a gelato maker, a distiller, an epicurean grocer and a bone broth maker, and you've got the recipe for 222 Market, a slice of old Europe in downtown Olympia. 

Open since last November, the market is the latest entry, in the city's evolution as a foodie destination, the outgrowth of an abundance of agricultural land surrounding the state capitol.
When a major tenant moved out of a building that housed a Packard car dealership in the 1940s, owners Gray and Joy Graham teamed up with Olympia restaurant owner and chef Lela Cross to design what they envisioned as a community meeting place as well as an incubator for food-related businesses they felt the city lacked.

Nine vendors occupy niches in an open, indoor space designed for gourmet grazing.
"Their dream," says Fred Moore of Blind Pig Spirits, a distillery which relocated to the market from Centralia,  "was to get local people who actually produce something."

The partners first decided what type of businesses they wanted. High on the list was gelato, Northwest oysters, fresh flowers and a grocer who would stock locally-produced products. 
Next they set about hand-picking vendors, some first-timers who graduated from a training course offered by Enterprise for Equity, a community nonprofit that helps people with limited incomes turn their ideas into small businesses. 

"Part of Olympia growing up is helping the next generation of people finding ways to become business owners," says Cross.

Anchoring the project is long-time tenant André Le Rest, a Frenchman from a small village in Brittany who opened the Bread Peddler bakery and cafe in a corner of the building in 2006. With its cases lined with french pastries and rustic loaves of naturally fermented breads, the Bread Peddler remains the market's biggest draw, generating foot traffic for the newcomers. 

Best advice: Stop in for late breakfast or early lunch, and do a little exploring around town. Then return for cocktails and dinner; a  scoop of gelato; homemade tamales; or container of bone broth before heading home. 

Some suggestions:

Besides the bakery and cafe, Le Rest and his partner, Frances Wolff, run two other sit-down dining spots in market, the Bistro, a Parisian-style  cafe open for dinners and weekend brunch; and the Creperie, specializing in crepes made with buckwheat flour imported from France. 

"In Britany, creperies are like Starbucks," says Le Rest."But there were none in Olympia."
Picture windows face the sidewalk, replacing the frosted glass that hid the payroll offices of a financial services company that once occupied the space. Customers can watch while cooks turn out paper-thin pancakes on pizza-size griddles, then fill them with roasted tomatoes, ham and eggs or poached pears with chocolate hazelnut sauce. The restaurant doubles as a boutique filled with imported French treasurers such as old keys from Paris ($2 each) and woven farmers bags ($7.85).

Sofie's Scoops and the Salt, Fire and Time Broth Bar share a counter with four, bright yellow stools that spin around soda-fountain style. Sophia Landis and Chris Proctor use an Italian gelato machine to make 12 flavors of gelato from scratch daily, using locally-sourced ingredients and milk from the Tunawerth Creamery in Tenino which they pasteurize on site. Flavors include goat cheese and honey; olive oil; and their signature gelato, Oly Fog, made with tea from Olympia's Encore Chocolates and Tea.

On tap at the Broth Bar is house-made Kombucha along with vats of nutritional broths brewed from beef, chicken, lamb, pork, bison and alpaca bones. Sisters Tressa
 and Katie Yelling opened their first broth cafe in Portland last August. The pair source the bones from  Northwest farmers and ranchers, then cook them for three days with cider vinegar to extract trace minerals. Basic broths ($5-$9) can be spiked with extras such as rosemary salt, juiced ginger and scallions; or coconut milk, basil, olive oil and lemon.

Facing the center of the market is the Pantry, a cooking school and artisan grocery where Olympia chef Kevin Gerlich showcases his homemade pates, black bean, yam and quinoa tamales and herbed gnocchi. 

Filling spaces near a back entrance fronting on Olympia Avenue are Fleurae Floral, selling flowers grown by organic farmers in Centralia and Shelton and Blind Pig Spirits, distilling gin, vodka and flavored moonshineon site and serving samples in a cozy tasting room lined with wine barrel tables. Across the hallway is Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar, a 40-seat cafe with a cocktail bar open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch.

Brother-and-sister team Shina Wysocki  and Kyle Lentz wholesale their family's oysters around the U.S., and ship their geoducks to China. With their farm just five miles away, and the ability to bring in fresh shellfish daily, opening a restaurant in the market was a logical next step.  

Wysocki said they looked several years for a space they thought would appeal to Olympia's diverse population of locals, government office workers and visitors. 

"Here, we have legislators sitting next to farmers," she says. "That's what we wanted to see happen."

If you go: 222 Market is at 222 Capitol Way North in downtown Olympia, 60 miles south of downtown Seattle. Shop and restaurant hours vary, so check the website before visiting. 

More to see and do around Olympia

Free, guided  50-minute tours of the Washington State Legislative Building are offered daily — weekdays 10 a.m.- 3 p.m. and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on weekends. Completed in 1928, the Legislative Building has the tallest free standing masonry dome in North America and houses the world's largest Tiffany chandelier. Tours begin at the information desk on the second floor of the Legislative Building inside the main entrance.  

Volunteers offer free, 45-60 minute tours of the Washington State Governor’s Mansion on most Wednesdays.

More than 150 hands-on exhibits on two floors and an outdoor discovery center connecting children with nature. General admission (2-64) $12.95; seniors $10.95. 414 Jefferson St NE.  

Perfect for rainy days because it's undercover is the Olympia Farmers Market, 700 Capitol Way N.,  open Thursday-Sunday 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Vendors bring fresh produce, meats, dairy products and nursery plants from Thurston County farms. Specialty food producers sell homemade pastries, chocolates, salsas, jams and jellies. Crafters include glassmakers, jewelry designers, metal workers and potters. 

Walk off the calories with a hike through the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, 8 miles southeast of Olympia at 100 Brown Farm Road NE. The Refuge was established as a natural habitat for migratory birds. Estimates are that more than 200 species visit through the year.  The Visitor Center, with a nature shop, information desk, a view of the freshwater marsh, and interpretive exhibits, is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. The daily fee is $3 per four adults. 

Make time to explore all or part of the Thurston Bountiful Byway, a 60-mile agritourism route pointing visitors to craft distillers, winemakers, farmers and family-owned businesses showcasing locally-produced culinary treats. More than 60,000 acres of farmland form the backdrop for a day of exploring, with opportunities to soak up bite-sized chunks of state history, and enjoy hiking trails and bike paths. 


Parting ways with Delta Air Lines

Delta Air Lines made a big push into the Seattle market in the past few years, gaining customers by partnering with Alaska Airlines, then gradually going its own way by establishing competing routes, lowering mileage awards for flights booked on Alaska, and finally as of May, breaking off the alliance in pursuit of its goal to dominate West Coast travel.

While Delta has profited from the moves, my impression is that its customers have not. Delta's systems have failed to keep up with its growth, the reason it was slower than other airlines to recover from delays and cancellations caused by recent storms. The mess was inexcusable, but it's longer-term trends that are behind my decision to forfeit by Silver Medallion elite status in 2018. 

Why am I leaving Delta? Let me count the ways:

*Prices: Nearly every Delta ticket I've purchased in the past few years has been priced higher than I would have paid on another airline. Delta's revenue requirements for maintaining elite status have become a Catch 22.  What started as a $2,500 annual spending requirement in 2014 has risen to $3,000 - not including taxes or baggage fees. I found myself paying higher fares and settling for less convenient flights just to meet the requirement. 

One of my biggest beefs is that Delta fares between Seattle and Paris or Seattle and Amsterdam are nearly always higher than they are in and out of Vancouver, B.C., 140 miles north. A Seattle-Paris non-stop, round-trip in June is $1,537 on Delta's website vs. $1,052 (U.S dollars.) between Vancouver and Paris. A Seattle-Amsterdam round-trip is $1,290 vs. $1,012 (U.S.) in and out of Vancouver. 

Elite status meanwhile, is worth less and less. Rows of seats that used to be reserved for Medallion members now go to those who pay extra for Economy Comfort. Silver elites board in Zone 1, along with credit card holders and after those who pay extra for Economy Comfort. Upgrades rarely happen anymore, and when they do, it's to a middle seat in Economy Comfort, not comfortable enough for me to give up an aisle seat in coach.

Monitoring my account to make sure Delta credited me with the correct amount of Medallion Qualifying Dollars (MDQs) became a nuisance. I was shorted at least twice. Delta corrected the error after I contacted them, but who needs the hassle?

Another example: Delta recently failed to credit my husband with miles flown on a rebooked flight from Atlanta to Seattle, following a weather-related cancellation. A representative explained that Delta identified an error in its mileage posting system, causing eligible flights to be declined for appropriate credit. Delta was "working feverishly to resolve the matter," he said. That was two weeks ago. The miles still have not been posted.

*Mileage partnerships: Delta's break with Seattle-based Alaska Airlines means means customers will no longer be able to redeem Alaska miles for Delta flights (valuable for overseas travel), or get any benefits from being an Alaska MVP when flying on Delta.

Delta's partnerships with other airlines are weak when it comes to earning MDQs.  A business class ticket on a flight marketed and ticketed by partner Air France earns only  25-35 percent of eligible MQDs. Korean Air flights, even if ticketed by Delta, earn none.

 *A decision to add basic economy fares (no overhead bin space, no seat reservations, last-to-board, no changes or refunds) on international routes, then bump up prices for standard fares - same seats in the same cabin, only with the ability to reserve, make changes (for a fee) and use the overheads. 

At last check, booking a ticket with Air France on Delta-operated code-share flights netted a better deal than booking with Delta. 

Air France, apparently unwilling to tell international travelers to stuff their carry-on under their middle seat, recently offered an October Seattle/Paris round-trip standard economy fare of $656, the same as Delta was charging for basic economy. Delta's website showed a fare of $719 - $63 more - for the standard economy service. The same $60-$70 difference also showed up on Delta-operated code-share flights between Seattle and Amsterdam and Atlanta and Madrid. 

*Loyalty doesn't work both ways: In 2015, I realized I would come up $100 short of meeting the spending goal for 2016 status due to the need to cancel a trip for family reasons. I asked Delta to extend me the courtesy of continued elite status based on my many years as a loyal frequent flyer and plans to travel enough to meet the goal in 2016. They refused. 

I'll continue to fly Delta when it makes sense, but already I like the idea of becoming a free agent, liberated to book less expensive and more convenient connections on Air France through Vancouver, or on other airlines such as Emirates, Iceland Air and Hainan.

Next steps: I'll look at credit card options that offer perks such as early boarding and priority seating, and I'll look more closely at booking on Alaska when possible, or with one of its many partners on overseas flights. 

It's buyer beware when it comes to new "Basic Economy" airfares

Beware of the new "basic economy" discounted class of air fares offered by Delta, United and American airlines that don't allow changes or refunds; restrict seat selection and, in the case of United and American, limit carry-ons to whatever you can shove under your seat.

The idea is to compete against low-cost carriers such as Sprit and Frontier by offering less service in exchange for lower fares. The "savings" can be as little as $15 on a round-trip ticket, hardly worth getting stuck in a middle seat, being the last to board, and waiving your right to change your plans, even for a fee.

Not surprising is a recent NPR report that found the new basic fares that go into effect at United starting April 18 are mostly about finding a way to charge more for standard economy. 

NPR's check on United's website on the seven initial routes on which the airline will offer basic economy showed the lowest basic fares were the same as the lowest standard economy fares before April 18 while the standard fares went up $15-$20, essentially putting a surcharge on the right to choose a seat and use the overhead bins (United and American, but not Delta restrict carry-ons to a personal item that fits under the seat).

Delta, which became the first major American carrier to offer basic economy fares, appears to be doing something similar with international fares.  

I was surprised when I searched for fall fares to Paris recently to find that Delta has added basic economy on international routes. More surprising was finding that Delta's partner, Air France, offered a pair of flights in standard economy ($656) for the same price Delta was charging for basic economy. Delta's website showed a fare of $719 - $63 more - for standard economy. 

This was a Delta-operated flight by the way, meaning the airline is letting Air France (which apparently doesn't have the capability or the willingness to tell international travelers to stuff their carry-on under their middle seat) offer a better deal to customers savvy enough to find their way to its website.

Two more examples:

*Delta and Air France operate a code-share on a Delta non-stop between Seattle and Amsterdam. A check with Air France showed a standard, round-trip economy fare of $955 in May, the same price Delta quoted for basic economy. Delta's price for standard economy was $1,015, $60 more. 

*The differences were the same for Delta's Atlanta-Madrid nonstop in May. Air France sold the flight at $944, standard economy while Delta marketed its basic fare at that price, and its standard fare for $60 more. 

Adding to the confusion is that Delta calls standard economy "Main Cabin" on its booking site even though all the seats - basic and standard - are in the main cabin of the plane.

Don't count on the airfare search sites to be of much help. So far they fail to distinguish between basic and standard economy when they bring up the lowest fares. 

My search for the Paris, Amsterdam and Madrid fares on Google Flights brought up identical fares on Delta and Air France, with the option clicking on "Book with Delta" or "Book with Air France" to link to either for purchase. Only when I hit "Book on Delta'' did an itinerary pop up warning in small print that I was booking basic economy, with an offer to "upgrade" to standard economy (Delta calls it Main Cabin) for $30 extra each way.

Policies on basic economy restrictions vary with the airline. Delta's is the most liberal with no restrictions on overhead bin access. Passengers can choose their own seats after check-in on Delta while American and United auto assign seats. All three have different policies on seat selection, priority boarding and carry-ons for elite members of their frequent flyer programs. Click here for a good comparison chart offering by the Points Guy.

"It's getting a lot more confusing," Jeff Klee, founder and CEO of the travel search website, told NPR. "It'll be much more of a challenge to shop for air fares and it'll be important to make sure you're comparing apples to apples."

Discover new restaurants, shops, galleries in Honolulu's Chinatown

The renovated Hawaii Theater

HONOLULU, HAWAII - Mornings at Manifest, a cafe, lounge and arts venue in Honolulu's Chinatown, start with a latte and breakfast from the toast bar.  Afternoons and evenings morph into laptop time over bacon-wrapped dates and craft cocktails. 

Sharing the block with a Chinese herbal pharmacy, a jade  shop and a tattoo parlor, Manifest occupies an Italianate-style brick building on Hotel Street in a neighborhood once known for its strip clubs and X-rated theaters.Across the street, next door to where patrons at Smith's Union Bar start the morning with $2 beers, is Tchin-Tchin!, a rooftop wine bar serving drinks in a garden patio furnished with white sofas.  

Rooftop bar at Tchin-Tchin!

A block away in the Maunakea Marketplace, a man sits on a box as he hacks stalks of sugar cane with a machete while locals sip coconut juice next to a statue of Confucius. 
Call it the tale of two Chinatowns: Bakeries, lei makers and outdoor markets catering to a large ethnic population do business side-by-side art galleries, hip restaurants, bars and designer boutiques in a historic 12-block area designated as the Chinatown Honolulu Culture and Arts District. 

Tea at Manifest cafe
"This is one of the few places in town where you can still get cheap rent, so it tends to attract people willing to take a chance," says Mark Pei, co-owner of the Hound and Quail, 920 Maunakea St., a vintage shop specializing in medical antiques, old photo equipment and typewriters. 

Just a few miles from the high-rise glitter of Waikiki, Honolulu's Chinatown for years "had a reputation as one of the worst neighborhoods in the Pacific," says Rich Richardson of the Hawaii Academy of Performing Arts headquartered in the ARTS at Marks Garage, a gallery and performance space that serves as an unofficial visitors center. "It was a Red Light district during World War II, then a no-man's land after that." 

Changes began with Chinatown's designation as a historical district in the 1970s, a move that's preserved many of the one and two-story buildings constructed in the early 1900s after a major fire.

Sparked by the restoration of the historic Hawaii Theatre, and later the opening of Indigo restaurant (since closed), art galleries and new shops opened under owners attracted by cheap rents.

 "It was like SoHo in New York," recalls Sandra Pohl, owner of the Louis Pohl Gallery, making a comparison to the  Lower Manhattan neighborhood known for its artists' lofts and galleries. 

She and others got together and launched First Friday art walks which drew crowds of newcomers until the economy sputtered in 2008 and many of the galleries closed.

"It's much more quiet now," says Pohl who sells the work of her late husband, Louis Pohl, known for his paintings of Hawaiian volcanos. But First Fridays continue, with shops, galleries and restaurants inviting visitors to linger over cocktails and late-night happy hours. Aimed at attracting more families are new Second Saturday "DiscoverArt'' events with artist demonstrations, ukulele jams, craft displays and improv performances. 

Browsing to bluegrass tunes

One of the liveliest venues is the Hawai'i State Art Museum, 250 S. Hotel St. First Fridays always feature music - bluegrass on the night I visited - but also slack key guitar, harp and piano. Housed in a Spanish-Mission style building on the edge of Chinatown, the museum focuses on the work of contemporary artists who are either Hawaiian or have a connection to the islands.  

The Hawai'i State Art Museum's sculpture garden

Pohl calls the outdoor sculpture garden "magical at night," when lights transform what was a swimming pool into a shimmering blue surface resembling a skating rink . One of the reasons to come other times is to see the museum's collection of welded copper and brass wheels by Hawaiian sculptor Satoru Abe, now in his 90s. Another is to eat breakfast or lunch in the downstairs Artizen Cafe which makes its own Spam - a pork and sausage spread fed to the U.S. military stationed in Hawaii after World War II. 

A few blocks away from the museum is the Hawaii Theatre Center, 130 Bethel S., a historic Vaudeville theatre and cinema with a large neon, marque. First opened in 1922, and reopened in 1996 after a $20 million restoration, it's a popular venue for stage shows and concerts. At last check the theater no longer offered public tours, but visitors can usually peak inside when the box office is open.

Around the corner is the recently-expanded ARTS at Marks Garage,1159 Nu'uanu Ave., a community arts center and performance space on the ground floor of a parking garage owned by an arts patron. 

The ARTs at Marks Garage

First Friday nights bring a youthful vibe to Chinatown, says Melanie Yang, assistant at the Pegge Hopper Gallery,  1164 Nu'uanu Ave., open since 1983 in a building that once housed a Chinese herbal shop and barbershop.  "It's a different energy."

In4mation, 1154 Nu'uanu, a shop selling skater gear, tees and hoodies, used a fog machine, techno music and an offer of "beers flowing like wine"  to set the stage for a recent exhibit called "Overmind."  

Jewelry designer Cindy Yokohama  owner of Ginger13, 22 S. Pauahi St., hired a henna artist to apply free tattoos while customers sipped orange cocktails and tried on chunky necklaces and sets of mismatched earrings.  

Jewelry designer Cindy Yokohama

Clothing designer Roberta Oaks poured gin and tonics made with green cucumber soda for customers browsing through racks of the mens' shirts she sells at Aloha, her retail shop at 19th N. Pauahi St.. Next door, Phuong Tran, owner of Art Treasures Gallery, wore his signature straw hat as he guided visitors through his shop stocked like a mini-museum of Asian-inspired jewelry, antiques and artifacts. 

Phuong Tran at Art Treasures Gallery

Tea and chocolate

"Chinatown is mostly a locals spot," says Oaks, but drawing more tourists are new foodie destinations specializing coffee, tea and chocolate and restaurants featuring French, Latin, Moroccan, Italian and pan-Asian cuisines.

Barely visible from the street except for a small neon sign in the shape of a pig is the Pig and the Lady, recently named Oahu's best restaurant by Honolulu magazine.
Creating a menu filled with seafood and speciality noodle dishes, owner and chef, Andrew Le - the pig - took inspiration from recipes created by his mother Loan  - the lady - to go from pop-up restaurant, to farmer's market stand selling Vietnamese sandwiches  to his current bricks-and-mortar outpost at 83 N. King St. 

The Pig & the Lady
Morphing into a nightclub on First Fridays, with live music and samples of spiced hot chocolate, is Madre a bean-to-bar chocolate maker tucked into a storefront at 8 N. Pauahi St.Dr. Nat Bletter, CQ a researcher at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, drew on his expertise in ethnobotany to start making chocolate from scratch for friends 10 years ago. The hobby turned into a business, with a factory and shop in suburban Kailua, and later a store in Chinatown.

Bletter invites visitors to stop in for samples made from locally-grown cacao spiced with coffee, cinnamon, ginger and coconut, or sign up for "make your own chocolate bar" class. If he's around, he will show you around his urban garden where he experiments with growing cacao, sugar cane, lemon grass, figs and passion fruit.   

Chocolate from scratch at Madre

A two-minute walk from Madre is Tea at 1024, and English-style tea salon on Nu'uanu decorated with glass tables and chairs wrapped in pink bows. Owner Michele Sorensen  grew up in Tacoma, opened a design shop in Chinatown in 1997 and the tea shop in 1999.

"Years ago," she recalls, "there was nobody here...Now it's above amazing what's happening."

Despite the changes, she doesn't sugarcoat the lingering problems that come with a neighborhood in transition.

Extra police patrol the bars and restaurants on Hotel Street on First Fridays, and Sorensen says it's not unusual for her to come to work and find someone camped on her doorstep.

 "We're still interlaced with the homeless and drugs," she says. "If you have thick skin, and like to experience fun, cool places, come on down. If not, go to the mall."

If you go:

Getting there: Buses travel between Waikiki beach hotels and Chinatown. Trave time is about 30 minutes. 

Exploring: Take in the Chinatown arts and culture scene every First Friday of the month from 5 p.m.- 9 p.m. when shops, galleries and the Hawai'i State Art Museum stay open late. 

Second Saturday  "DiscoverArt" daytime events feature mini-classes,  music and arts and crafts demonstrations. Info at

Maps and information are available at the ARTS at Marks Garage, 1159 Nu'uanu Ave 

Moving on from Mandalay: Exploring Burma's Bagan and Lake Inle

Bagan at sunset

Boat, bus or fly? There are lots of ways to get to Burma's lost city of Bagan from Mandalay. We decided on a 10-hour boat trip along the Irrawaddy River with Malikha lines, using tickets I bought online for about $50 each. Departure time was 7 a.m., meaning it was still dark when the taxi dropped us off at the dock. Boys swarmed around us, offering to carry our bags, a good thing since boarding the boat meant walking from the road down a dirt hill in the dark - no steps or lights - then walking up and over another boat to reach ours. This was a middle-of-the-road cruise, not a luxury ship, but not a locals' boat either. A tour group filled only about half the seats, so most of us were able to sit in wicker chairs on the top deck instead of in the the air conditioned, airplane-type cabins below. 

Boat ride along the Irrawaddy River

Breakfast was hard-boiled eggs, bananas and jam sandwiches packed for us by our guesthouse. Our ticket  included a similar breakfast along with tea and coffee and a fried rice dish for lunch. I can't say the ride was all that scenic or interesting, but it beat taking the bus and gave us time to read, write, listen to podcasts and relax.


There are constant reminders that Myanmar still is a third-world country. It lacks the infrastructure found in more developed Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand or Vietnam. To reach land from where the boat docked in Bagan, everyone had to walk along this narrow gangplank to shore. 

Bagan Thande Hotel

We wanted to make the most of our stay in Bagan, so we splurged on an elegant, old hotel in Old Bagan, with the largest concentration pagodas, shrines and temples, built by kings starting in the 9th century. The Bagan Thande Hotel was the first hotel in Bagan, built in 1922 to welcome the Prince of Wales while Myanmar (Burma at the time) was controlled by the British. We stayed in a "superior bungalow" overlooking a Lilly pond and the swimming pool. With a buffet breakfast served on an outdoor terrace facing the river, our rate was $100, about double what we paid elsewhere on this trip.



There are more than 2,000 pagodas, monasteries, shrines and stupas in Bagan, many reconstructed in the 1990s by the military to repair earthquake damage. Art historians and preservationists have criticized the restoration work as inauthentic, and UNESCO denied the area World Heritage status in the mid-1990s (The Burmese are reapplying). Bagan is nothing like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but it's still impressive. Bus tour crowds swarm some of the bigger pagodas which double as shopping malls for local souvenir sellers. We rented an electric scooter from our hotel ($10 a day) to tool around on our own, veering off the main road onto dusty side streets to find some of the smaller, unrestored pagodas.


Most fun was discovering what was inside. Most of the pagodas have four entrances, with different Buddha images placed in each niche. Burmese enforce the no shoes or socks rule in Bagan as they do for all other pagodas and monasteries in Myanmar. Everyone leaves their shoes at the entrance and walks through barefoot, often on uneven, stone walkways and steps. All shoes are safe. No one would even think about taking them.


Bagan is recognized internationally for its handmade lacquerware bowls, trays, boxes etc. made in small, family workshops. I've never been much of a fan of Asian lacquerware (it's also made in China, Vietnam and other countries), but Myanmar's products are different, and although the quality can vary greatly according to price, the colors are more vivid and the hand-etched designs more intricate than I've seen elsewhere. 


Craftsmen and women produce lacquerware products from bamboo or wood, then reinforce the object with either paper or horsehair and coat it with resin extracted from the local thitsi tree. We took our scooters to a village to look for a family workshop called Jasmine. Word got around that a couple of tourists with red helmets were asking directions. Within minutes Win, the owner, pulled up on his motorbike to lead he way (and avoid having to pay someone else a commission for showing us).

Win explains lacquerware process

It took about an hour explaining the process of coating each piece with 7-14 coats of resin in between sanding and drying. Cheaper pieces get fewer coats and take less time to produce, although all are hand-etched, then colored with natural colors, and finally polished with pieces of petrified wood.


Bowls are made from bamboo. Flat pieces such as trays and boxes are made from teak. We bought a $35 bowl from Win in traditional colors of red, black and green, then shopped at the souvenir stalls near the pagodas for several less expensive pieces.

Golden Empress in Nyaung Shwe

After leaving Bagan, we took a nine-hour mini-bus ride through the mountains to spend our last few days at the Golden Empress Hotel in the town of Nyaung Shwe at the base of Lake Inle, a fresh-water lake housing about 70,000 members of Intha ethnic minority group who live and work in floating villages reachable only by boat. 
Nyaung Shwe is a friendly town filled with hotels, guest houses and family-run restaurants surrounded by rural villages and farms. We've tried as much as possible on this trip to support local businesses as opposed to big government-owned hotels etc. Golden Empress owner Kyaw Khaing bought this hotel five years ago, and remodeled it with wood-paneled rooms, private bathrooms and little balconies furnished with massage chairs. He's added nice touches such as a fridge filled with cold bottle water in the lobby. With breakfast, we paid about $50 a night. 


The lake isn't known so much for its scenery as it is for the unique lifestyle of its villagers. Khaing arranged for us to spend a full day with a boatman ($15 for the day) starting at 8:30 a.m. He did a good job of steering us close to the fishermen so we could see their unusual technique of balancing on one leg, while wrapping their oar around the other, leaving their hands free to cash their nets. 


The Intha people first came to Lake Inle in the 18th century from Southeast Myanmar, fleeing Thai invaders. The chief refused to grant them land rights, so they built stilt houses on the fluctuating water line of the lake, adapting to life on the water by cultivating floating gardens anchored to the lake bed (about 7 feet deep in dry season) by bamboo polls.



Many of the homes house little cottage industries. Weavers spin fabric from lotus fibers. Villagers also make thin, green cigars called cheroots by wrapping a combination of tobacco, star anise, banana and honey in leaves.

Padaung women from the mountains of Burma’s Kayah State, close to the Thai border, have settled in Inle and have established village workshops among the local people where they weave and sell their wares to tourists. Sometimes called "long-neck" women because of the brass rings worn to lengthen their necks, they are not "tourist attractions'' as they are in some parts of Thailand where businessmen charge visitors to take photographs. No one here charges for photos, and there's no pressure to buy. Their style of weaving, however, is unique. I bought a beautiful black and white cotton scarf for about $15. The women start wearing the rings on their necks at 9 and finish at age 25 with 25 rings.

Two days here would have probably been enough, but we had a third due to our air connections back to Seattle from Yangon. It gave us time to leisurely explore Nyaung Shwe. We spent one day taking a 15-mile bike ride ($1 to rent seven-speed Chinese bikes for the day, with locks and baskets) into the countryside. The destination was a winery called Red Mountain. The wine was terrible, but the ride gave us a chance to see more of village life. Housing styles vary with people's income. Many homes are like one the one below, made of wood, thatched palm and thatched or metal roofs.


Others use concrete blocks, painted wooden shutters and ceramic materials. Stores tend to be open-air, street-front bungalows with dirt or concrete floors. Main roads are paved, but side roads are dirt, and trucks and motorbikes kick up a lot of dust. 


We've come to love Burmese food, heavy on the vegetables, salads and fish or chicken. One of our favorites is pennywort salad, made with grassy pennywort leaves, sesame, peanuts, lime juice, fish sauce and garlic. We also love the avacado salads with black sesame seeds, and meals such as the one we had at a little family restaurant called Htoo Htoo Aung. With nine tables on a cozy patio decorated with twinkling Christmas lights, the owners offered a  $6 set menu that included pumpkin soup made from their home-grown pumpkins; an appetizer of rice crackers served with an herbed tomato dip; sautéed greens; rice; and a whole fish steamed in a banana leaf. 


Our favorite part about staying in Nyaung Shwe was becoming regulars at the tea house down the street. The town has plenty of tourist places where you can get a good cappuccino, but we became addicted to Burmese tea, sold only in the local tea shops.  It's a work of art as well as a tasty 25-cent treat. Notice the thin layer of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of the glass. You drink it seated at low tables on child-sized plastic stools, Snacks usually appear along with the tea. You pay for what you eat, or wave them away if you're not hungry. Decorating our local tea house was a shrine, two TVs playing "Rocky" and a picture of a golden Buddha image sitting on a pile of money. Hmm...I think I need another cup.

That's all for now from Myanmar. Click here to see more photos in our photo gallery.