Travel is in my bones, and short day trips to Milwaukee or quick jaunts to the Michigan shore don't do it for me. No, to make me blissfully happy it has to be remote, exotic and involve lots of frequent flyer miles. In the first 10 weeks of 2007 I've already rollicked through South Africa, sailed the shores of Zanzibar, squinted up at the sunny skies of Southern California, braved the Mexican border in Baja and, just this past weekend, hit up the mind-bogglingly beautiful beaches of Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
Folks seem to love a gal traveling solo because I couldn't find a minute alone if I tried. Riding an ancient bicycle that my darling beachfront hotel loaned me, I spent my days skittering across the island, slurping down mojitos, slinging back fresh strawberry daiquiri and bellowing out "Hola!" every inch of the way.
Faraway travel just makes me a little more, shall we say, "free" with my ways. My first night there, I agreed to let a beautiful, half-stoned jewelry-maker shear off my hair with her dull baby scissors in a dark bar. The next day, I snorkeled through magical reefs, with hundreds of rainbow-color fish swirling around me in an underwater frenzy, then rode my bike straight toward Cuban food and gelato in the cobble-stoned fishing village.
Truth be told, I literally ate my way across that tiny island. I happened upon pigskins crisping in a boiling hot pot down a dumpy alleyway my very first morning and downed glorious carnita tacos sprinkled with cilantro and onions every chance I got. In the afternoon, I ate whole grilled fish dredged in beer, salt and lime while listening to a plucky drunk man named Jorge tell me all about the best dive spots surrounding the island. (Turns out, he owns the restaurant and gave me my whole meal for free; see, pays to roll solo.)
The point is, if you want to escape the concrete jungle you can. Do a bit of online investigating today, and you could find yourself in a tropical paradise by late afternoon tomorrow. But if the mood strikes to hit the road and you simply can't jet, a few local neighborhoods are fully capable of transporting you away from the daily grind.
When I need light-years-away escape, I hit up Little Vietnam. Hai Yen has my favorite sugar cane shrimp (chao tom) wrapped in soft rice paper packets and shrimp fried rice that's to die for. My next country-on-the-horizon, Cuba, is oh-so-close-and-accessible when I swing through La Unica for a cafe con leche and a tasty Cuban tamale. North Clark Street has become a new haunt due to its mostly off-the-radar Mexican dives, and an all time fave is still Pilsen, with its just-below-the-border vibe.
Don't fret. Just when this mad, mad city has you by the cojones, spring opens its balmy doors, making your existence once again purposeful and sunny. That's what makes Chitown so bloody incredible…its international proximity and its unbeatable array of ethnic restaurant. Border or no border, we've got the best of all worlds within a five-mile radius.
THE FINAL RAVE: Just south of the baseball field on Isla Mujeres is a tiny taco shack doling out made-to-order horchata and the most breathtaking homemade salsa I've ever had. Don't let the shoddiness scare you; places with tin roofs are usually spot on. It's called Taqueria El Paso.
KEEP IT GOING:
DO IT: Devon Avenue
Get lost in Chicago's melting pot of Indian culture by strolling up and down this busy little avenue. The meat smell coming from the open windows is enough to drive someone crazy.
EAT IT: Little Italy
I cannot believe that as huge as the Italian population is in Chicago, we don't have a bigger, badder Italian 'hood. Maybe all the tough guys are in the 'burbs. You think?
SEE IT: Ukrainian Village
Not only is real estate still affordable in the Village, but there are all sorts of interesting architectural finds looming about. Where? Start walking; you'll see what I mean.
GET CRAZY WITH IT: Isla Mujeres
My last-minute ticket was $422. My shuttle to the dock was $12. My boat ride was $3.50. My hotel on the Caribbean was under a hundy per night. My drinks were fast and furious. So, what are you waiting for?
Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.