Iceland is eccentric. No doubt about that. It is eclectic, artsy, open minded, and fiercely independent. Its capital city is the only one I know of that has silly walk day where everyone walks around the city apparently doing a silly style of walk. I’ve been told that Reykjavik also unveiled one, if not more, “silly walk crosswalks.” I’m sure my Russian family in law would hate this. They do not do silly things. But, I think it’s great!
What I describe as oddities are actually things that make Iceland unique. For starters, its language is not related to or “like” any other language in the world. Its closest to Old Norse which is what the Vikings spoke. For that reason alone, I want to learn it.
Icelanders also try to preserve their unique culture through names. No child born in Iceland may have a non Icelandic name. Check out this article for more specific information on the law and tradition!
Iceland Phallological Museum
This place holds more dicks than even the most promiscuous of sorority girls. This museum is devoted entirely to – you guessed it- penises! There are 282 natural specimens and 350 art installments related to penises. The museum is more specifically devoted to scientific realm of phallology. This academic area studies penises through different lenses including artistic, psychological, social, and biological. These different areas are apparent throughout the museum.
In terms of biology, you can see vast amounts of preserved pee pees from all sorts of creatures including whales, seals, and even a polar bear. There are artistic expressions of dicks including exhibits such as a penis lamp and utensils carved to look phallic. Iceland’s culture is big on believing in mythical creatures.
Naturally, you can see troll and elf penises as well. While my husband got nauseous half way through and left, I had a damn good time. All I can say is, I’m so happy that I won’t ever have to sleep with a mink whale. Ow.
One of the quirkiest places to eat in Reykjavik is undoubtedly the Laundromat Cafe. It is an “all types” welcome eatery in which they boast their acceptance of the LGBTQ community as well as breastfeeding moms! The space is bright in both its lighting and pop art decor. In many ways it feels as if you’ve stepped into a hip and woke comic book. The name, as you guessed, is because you can complete your laundry in the basement of the restaurant – and then come upstairs for a great meal.
The restaurant also offers books and games to peruse during your time at the cafe. I came for brunch and there was a fair offering of choices ranging from pancakes to acai bowls. You can also choose between a “clean laundry” platter or a “dirty laundry” platter for brunch. Of course I chose the dirty – who the hell eats healthy on vacation? I highly recommend this place if you are looking for “zanier” things to experience in Iceland.
It’s impossible not to talk about Icelandic oddities without mentioning the Lebowski Bar! The bar is inspired by and is named after the cult class movie, The Big Lebowski. The film surfaced in 1998 and features legends such as Jeff Bridges, John Goodman (LOVE), Steve Buscemi, and Julianne Moore. The bar is open for food and drink throughout the day and night, and becomes a night club meets bar on Friday and Saturday evenings.
The bar is decked out in eccentric style and pays a ton of homage to the film with movie posters and still photographs galore. Jeff Bridges, who is the lead in the movie, displays a serious affinity for white Russians throughout the film. Naturally, the Big Lebowski Bar has an entire menu dedicated to “white Russians.” The most famous is perhaps the “cocoa Puffcasian.” It has vodka, kahlua, and cream with a generous layer of cocoa puffs on top. It’s a boozier version of the end of a cereal bowl. This place offers a ton of great dancing on the weekends and fun to be had – as well as a great bite to eat.
More than half of Iceland’s population believes in elves, or as they are also called – hidden people. To be fair – Iceland’s landscape definitely lends itself to that belief. We took a free walking tour of Reykjavik and learned all about a particular elf stone. By the way, an elf stone is a typical stone, boulder, or rock that an elf has decided to make its home.
As the story goes, during an expansion project this particular stone was in the way of city planners. There were several attempts using various types of equipment to remove the stone to no avail. The city hired an elf whisperer to step in. After listening to the demands of the hidden folk living inside the rock the whisperer was able to convince the elves to “ease up.” Apparently – the rock was moved with ease after this encounter.
Bleeding Vagina Wall
Iceland is proud of their feminist culture. As such, it is only appropriate that a giant painting of a menstruating vagina hang in Reykjavik’s City Hall building. I’ll always remember the look of pride our tour guide had as she beamed at the painting. More so, I’ll remember the elderly people in our group who couldn’t believe the word vagina had been uttered aloud – let alone painting shown on the tour.
Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat Statue
Our next Icelandic oddity, is this man with a giant rock over his head. Iceland has erected this status in honor of its many civil servants who give service to the country every single day. There are so many, that in this piece they are depicted as a single person and that is why the man, with his briefcase on the way to work does not have an identity.
This Giant Fucking Goose
More than half of all Icelanders have Viking DNA coursing through their blood. Apparently, this fucking goose we found also has Viking blood running through his soulless body. He made it very clear who ran things down the the water, and I was never more terrified in my life. I’ll never forget the terror in my heart when I heard his big feet stomping against the ground. He turned a corner to find me and said, “this is my turf sucka. Don’t forget it.” It was a weird way to start our trip, I’ll be honest.
We took a bar crawl on our first night in Reykjavik. I highly recommend doing it through the company “Wake Up Reykjavik.” We met a lot of great friends and it was a really cool way to see the city. The price was a bit steep, but it covered all drinks and entrance into a nightclub. Typically drinks are ridiculously expensive in Iceland, so I found this reasonable.
At one stop in particular, we tried two of Iceland’s famous items. The first is the “black death” shot – also called Brennvin. It has a lethal reputation, and is popularly consumed within the country. It’s made from fermented potato or grain and fermented with carraway seeds. tastes…well…a lot like death.
Apparently, people used to get hammered off this shit and the government felt less than happy about that. They made all makers of Brennvin put a black label and skull on the bottle to make it less appealing. It had the opposite effect and is still drank far and wide today. The skull is gone, but the black label remains.
A note about drinking in Iceland. Reykjavik-ers lover to do bar crawls on the weekends. Make sure to get a good buzz going in your hotel or rental before hitting the bars, or else you’ll be paying off your credit card from now until next year!
Fermented shark came with the black death shots, and I was less than enthused about this option. Fermented shark used to be eaten by Vikings way back in the day, and that is about its only appeal. It tastes like raw and rotten fish mixed with ammonia. If you were looking for a dish that mixes those two flavors – this is your snack!
Hot Dog Hero
If you don’t try an Icelandic hot dog when you visit, you suck. Compared to all other dining options they are pretty cheap and SO fucking delicious. It is hands down my favorite “street snack” to date. Particularly you want to go to the stand where Bill Clinton – in a shocking twist of an old classic – put a weiner in his mouth. This weiner being a hot dog, though. I feel like I need to end that joke by saying if you think Monica Lewinsky is a whore, you are actual human trash.
You need to know that this hotdog has exceptional snap. I mean really, we’re talking a legit 10 out of 10 for snap. The hot dog also consists of a mix of pork, beef, and lamb meat which certainly makes it an oddity to anyone coming from America. The meat is top notch, organic, and free range. You should order your hotdog with everything for the best experience. This includes raw onions, crispy onions, ketchup, remoulade sauce and a sweet brown mustard sauce. You will know true love after finishing your dog.
I lay on my back in my swimsuit laying next to my (now husband) fiancee. The stars were copious and the air around us was freezing. Every breath I exhaled floated as white matter in the direction of the plentiful stars. We had visited a local “swimming pool” as the Icelanders call them. As an American, I’m more inclined to call them “thermal baths” because they are scolding hot.
“Us locals like to come take a swim with our children. Then we wash them, change them into pajamas – it’s a natural way to induce sleep. Visiting the baths before bedtime will be the best sleep you ever get. Trust me.” We did trust our tour guide, and that’s how we found ourselves at Vesturbaejarlaug swimming pool. It’s the favorite one among locals. Many Reykjavik citizens have memories of splashing about as children and return now as adults to discuss the matters of the week with their peers.
Most of Reykjavik believes that the baths, being full of geothermal water, have healing properties. People will come in order to soothe all sorts of ailments. Many, I assume, visit just to lay back in the warm water and look up at the stars as we were doing. Bathing in the water had a strange way of making me feel like I was doing something “natural.” That would be the first of many of the “swimming pools” we visited, and of course the Blue Lagoon would be our final one.
Iceland has a way of throwing travelers steadfast into its way of living. You cannot find “whatever you want and need” in Iceland, and that’s why I like it. Icelanders are decidedly proud of their culture and fierce about protecting it. Citizens cannot even give their children non-Icelandic names! With that, nature is pervasive within the culture. It is the basis for much of the literature and sagas of the country.
Where I live, New York City, I’m hardly ever aware of circumstances such as the trees blowing in the wind or the sky changing from light to dark. There is a business in the people, the energy, and the aesthetics. Iceland is quiet and spacious.
One cannot help but be conscious of nature’s subtleties. The sudden dimness of the light in the sky was always something I enjoyed watching. I more enjoyed the opposite too. Since we visited in winter, the morning hours were frequently pitch black and ethereal. When we arrived in the city at 4AM it was DARK and there was not a ton of man made light around. However, people continue on their day as normal.
In our AirBnB there was a window inside of the shower. I always enjoyed feeling the hot water hit my back and hair as the cool velvet air from the evening sky rushed in through the window at the same time. It felt therapeutic and was a daily ritual. The cold wind in my face during walks caressed me so tenderly, that it was easy to imagine that it had hands and lips. If you’re afraid you won’t pick up on these subtleties of nature – don’t fret. You will not be able to help but notice that in one moment there is a blizzard while in the next there is absolute sunshine. Reykjavik has a saying. “If you don’t like the weather – wait five minutes – it will change.”
Iceland has a proud Viking history, and when taking a meditative walk by the water at the edge of Reykjavik as the fog rolls in, it is not too hard to imagine a Viking longboat rowing in from a faraway raid.
I have an obsession with the Vikings, possibly since the show on the history channel aired. Walking through Thingvellir National Park to see where Vikings from near and far gathered to discuss important matters at the parliament was a bucket list item for me. I couldn’t believe that people so long ago would travel to such a remote area. I imagined what must have went through their mind as they took in the immense natural splendour around them and the seemingly endless and vast swaths of land.
At no time was this more apparent than watching the Northern Lights at the park. Our guide warned us that there was a minimal chance of seeing nature’s best performance. Dozens of travelers stood in Thingvellir Park, seemingly all being told the same news. I’m a weirdo, so I pretended we were Vikings and all gathered around for a mid winter ceremony. It was a weird ass ceremony because nobody out of the entire crowd spoke at all.
One guide announced, “you know – ancient people believe if you clap and cheer it brings the lights out.” HELL YEAH if ancient people did it, then I want to as well. Again, I have a really idiosyncratic obsession with early people. The crowd clapped and cheered with all of its might and a faint green light appeared. The crowd went wild, and screamed louder as the light became stronger and spread across the sky. With one final gusto of enthusiasm the lights became their strongest. I don’t think there was a single dry eye in the crowd.
The Northern Lights were a little different than I expected. For one, they do not dance and sweep across the sky as I imagined. You know when you stare at an image for a long time? Then you stare at a blank wall and see that image? It felt a lot like that. However, it was incredibly magical and made me feel connected to the nature around me and the people before me.
There’s no shortage of waterfalls in Iceland. Standing above them, in front of them, and even behind them will surely stun anyone into silence.
Standing in front of Skogafoss falls was a reminder of how frail we are as humans when compared to natural elements.
I could not believe how close we were able to get. I can totally see how early settlers must have believed that the gods inhabited Iceland. Skogafoss certainly looks and feels as though one is in another dimension entirely.
Gullfoss falls is especially powerful and is a good reminder how frail humanity in comparison to the powers of nature.
Iceland’s nature isn’t just limited to its landscapes. It has a host of wildlife – none more famous than the Icelandic horse.
Despite its small stature, they are considered horses and not ponies. They are only found in Iceland and not shipped anywhere else. They date all the way back to the Viking age.
During a lesson, the guide said that in the summer some locals will get drunk and ride their horses around, laughing as they get thrown off. The horses sometimes run away, but always return safely home. Many Icelanders also ride bareback as well. Icelanders are fucking fearless!
Have you read my post about the douchiest horse ever? You should! It’s my top rated story and will make your sides hurt with laughter.
Nature even inspires many of the locally sourced meal options at restaurants. Menus are full of langoustines and seafood. The fish chowder is not at all what I expected. It’s so thick that it comes served on a plate. It comes with their famous brown bread and butter.
Iceland is synonymous with the sea. Walking around the old harbor area we came across some old boats and rustic seaside cottages. It’s not at all unusual that the best lobster bisque ever would be served in such surroundings.
Saegreifinn definitely gets my vote, and many others, for best lobster soup. It has HUGE chunks of lobster in a velvety, creamy broth served with fresh bread and butter. It might have been one of the best things I ate in Iceland.
A great opportunity for anyone able to do so is glacier hiking and ice climbing. It’s a unique chance to really connect with some of the greatest natural wonders of Iceland. Check out my post on hiking Solheimajokull glacier!
Nature has long been a source of inspiration for much of Iceland’s creative masterpieces. Sometimes, when if you get really lucky, it might inspire the person you love to ask you to spend the rest of their life “adventuring” side by side together.
As soon as Arthur and I began planning our wedding, it was a given that we would have a destination wedding. After looking at tons of countries and possible locations, we settled on an all inclusive resort in Mexico. I really think Mexico is the best in the business when it comes to all inclusive packages.
I got a lot of pressure, mostly from my family to have a “normal wedding.” There were a lot of people who could not make it to Mexico, and I was told over and over to consider them. At the end of the day, I couldn’t have a New York wedding. Weddings in New York cost upwards of $25,000. Shocked? I’m serious! It is not at all unusual for couples in New York to go into debt to pay 45-100 thousand dollars for their big day. I do not know a single friend who paid anything less than $30,000.
I couldn’t see myself spending that much money for a wedding that we didn’t want. A destination wedding even with airfare and hotel wound up costing a fraction of that price. Not to mention, we got so much for what we spent. For starters, a week long trip to fucking Mexico. If you’re concerned about cost I highly recommend visiting with a travel agent who specializes in destination weddings. Often, they can find great deals. These almost always include your room free and upgraded. In addition, many resorts will throw in a deal like every fifth room booked is free.
I know a woman who had a wedding in St. Lucia. Every detail from her rehearsal dinner (which took place on a catamaran during sunset) to a steel drum band to DJ and everything else cost only $12,000 for 45 people.
Remember – destination weddings tend to be small because there will be many people who cannot travel, or travel on the dates of your big bash. Zika Virus was a concern for many of the young friends we invited. So, you will wind up paying much less than a typical wedding of 150 people or more.
I was OK with a smaller gathering. Originally, I wanted to elope in Vegas and not even have a wedding. I despise how “goo-goo” women go over their big day. However, 60 people (our total number) is actually a HUGE turn out for a destination wedding!
Making Friends Before the Big Day
By the time our actual wedding reception rolled around, everyone knew each other. Seriously – all of the guests who were strangers at the beginning of the week acted like they had been friends or family forever. I’ve always loved bringing people together. Few things make me as content as being with a big group of my loved ones.
Being surrounded by people who love me and have my best interests in mind is so joyous. To have all of those people get along and act so warmly and loving toward each other was the best wedding gift I could have ever received. How many opportunities in life will you have to spend a week with so many of the people you know and love? This is hands down one of the best parts of having a destination wedding.
Tip: The night before the wedding I made my guests play “Getting to Know You Bingo” in the hotel lobby. Guests had to find a new person to initial each box that corresponded to their new friend. An example would be, “find someone who has never been to Mexico before” or “find someone who would love to have a shot with you” and “find someone who met the groom in college.” It was way more successful than I ever expected. Each Bingo box gave the guests a way to start a conversation with someone new. I can thank teaching for this hit!
Young, old, it didn’t matter. Everyone got along so well. It was a great way for everyone who is important in my life to get to the know the other people who were important to me as well!
Week Long Party
At the end of our wedding, I gave a speech to our guests. As I looked around at the dozens of people who were in attendance, I began to cry. I knew in that moment that there would be few moments in my life going forward that would ever compare to the joy that I felt during that entire week in Mexico.
So much planning goes into a wedding – nearly a year or two full of effort. I couldn’t stomach the idea of all of that zipping by in a matter of four hours. Instead, we were able to enjoy the company of those we loved most for an entire week. What made it so special is that everyone was so relaxed.
In a typical wedding, you barely get to spend time with your guests depending on the number. People travel far and wide and drop serious money to be acknowledged for maybe a total of ten minutes if they are lucky. Having a week with my guests meant I was able to enjoy quality time with each of them in a way that wasn’t rushed.
We enjoyed meals together, pool time, and WAY too many evenings shutting down the nightclub. I was out until at least 1:30 in the morning the night before our wedding!
You’re only young once. Few people have the foresight to know that life will change in the near future. I’m glad that in this respect – I was. Growing up changes things. I knew after my wedding that everyone would continue on with their busy paths in life, and seeing friends would be a special occurrence. I made sure to spend every moment of that week partying like a rock star with my friends. The first thing in the morning there would be a mimosa in my hand!
Since we would all start drinking so early, this would ultimately lead to more and more fun as the day went on. I’ll never forget performing choreographed dances in the club with my friends or several of us hanging onto the same raft in the pool and telling other guests that it was our dinner table.
Vacation for All
People were not only coming to Mexico for our wedding day, it was a vacation for them as well. Our guests spent anywhere from a long weekend to two weeks at the resort. Everyone was able to enjoy all of the activities that the resort had to offer. Some even took day trips and excursions and that way were able to see more of the country. To see the tension melt from the shoulders of my guests who work so hard day to day was a treat in and of itself.
Double the Honeymoon
Being in Mexico allowed us to feel like we were on a honeymoon for the entire week. Our resort really treated us so special. The day after our wedding we were given a private romantic dinner right on the beach complete with bottles of wine and an exclusive menu. We also received a couples massage! The chance to relax on the beach and let loose in the sun as we celebrated our love was a great way to start a marriage together immediately following our wedding!
The best part? We had a real honeymoon to look forward to a few months later.
It Was Just So “Us”
When I look back on our pictures, we couldn’t have done it any other way. These photos of us in the lush Mexican nature surrounded by bright warm colors is just who we are as people. The joy in these shots and the joy I have looking back on them makes me feel like I made the right choice. We eat, breathe, and dream about travel constantly. Planning our wedding was also like planning a vacation. It was doubly exciting to plan the wedding for this reason. It was not only a special day for us, but a week long getaway with friends.
I’ve always been an odd duck. I don’t like to do what everyone else does. By having a destination wedding we had some unique opportunities during the party..like jumping in the pool in our outfits!
Are you considering a destination wedding? Reach out to me if you have questions or need advice! Leave a comment below!
There is no place more controversial in Costa Rica than Jaco.
Jaco is the closest beach town for tourists coming from the San Jose international airport. It’s about an hour and a half to two hour drive. That close proximity, to many, has been its downfall. For years Jaco was a dirt cheap destination for travelers looking for debauchery. Those looking to buy drugs, or a good time with a hooker could certainly find both in Jaco.
These types of travelers never left, and on their heels came investors and retirees from the United States. The result of both types of folks flocking to Jaco? High rise condos, English signs everywhere, shitty American food, and crime. In addition, the high price of the area catered towards those with an American salary have in many ways pushed the local people out, and suppressed the culture. It has made way for a new wave, hybrid, Costa Rica meets trashy American ethos.
This has been the case for years now, and every year it gets worse.
Jaco’s Unconventional Appeal
I first visited Jaco four years ago looking for great nightlife and experiences at cheap prices. My husband (then boyfriend) had visited with friends, and considering it was the only town I had heard of in the country, I went. I stayed for one week with my girlfriends, and I fell in love. As someone who lives in New York City and had very little travel experience at the time, Jaco felt like the most exotic and exciting place one could visit.
Truth be told, I’m an urbanite. I love the chaos, grittiness, and edgy feeling of big cities. I’m also a writer, and a creative in this way, and so naturally, I enjoy places that are a touch unsettling and dangerous. It’s where I draw my best ideas from, and it excites me. Who the hell finds the inspiration to be creative in a place like the fucking Maldives? No true, self respecting, author – that’s for sure.
“Who the hell finds the inspiration to be creative in a place like the fucking Maldives? No true, self respecting, author – that’s for sure. “
The truth? I loved seeing the prostitutes walk around at night and try to pick up men. It was thrilling ducking into sketchy little makeshift bars with my friends in the dead of night while the rain poured down around us. I liked walking around the graffiti covered streets, trying to find a place that looked good for a drink. I laughed while piling into a small taxi, buzzed at the end of the night with four of my friends and no one giving a shit if we wore seat belts and smacked our heads against the car windows as a result. All of this thrilled me.
So, with the image I’ve painted, why in God’s name would I choose Jaco for a family vacation?
Simply put, because Jaco is so much more than its hookers and giant Walmart.
All That Jaco Offers
Jaco has the opportunity for adventure:
It’s beaches are more than perfect for lounging and relaxing.
Plus, it’s a great place to learn to surf, or to practice surfing if it’s a skill that you already have
It’s absolutely beautiful, and the sunsets are world class.
It’s a great central location to take day trips from:
It is family friendly. I never met a single local or employee who didn’t dote over our son. We were never made to feel embarrassed or ashamed of his sometimes less than perfect behavior.
No one seemed to think it was weird to bring him to late night dinners or live music venues.
If you walk around in the day or night, you will see tons of other families around grabbing gelato, having meals together, and playing at the beach.
What I’ve learned is, whatever you go looking for, you will find. If you are looking for the sinister and more dark aspects of travel – such as sex tourism – you will find it. If you are looking for places that feel like America, but are actually in Costa Rica, sure you can find it. There are hamburger joints with English menus aplenty.
However, if you want to interact with locals and learn about Costa Rican culture, there is plenty of opportunity for that as well.
I love that Jaco has a bite to it, but is also really friendly and approachable. When one thinks of art in Europe, we think classical paintings. We met some really wonderful people from Jaco who are always up for having a conversation, and are never without a smile. However, nearly every one of them has some form of well done, badass looking tattoo and often more than one. It became a rarity to meet a Jaco local who did not have tattoos. Every tattoo I inquired about told a story of childhood memories, hopes, dreams, or was a tribute to a loved one.
When one thinks of art in Jaco, the mediums are largely street art and body art. One of the best examples of this is when engaging with the locals. Jaco could easily be viewed with the same romantic intrigue as Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Birmingham in the UK, or Berlin, Germany. It’s only Achilles heel was perhaps its accessibility to the wrong kind of tourists who took an interest in its low costs. By the way, Jaco is no longer inexpensive. My husband and I both having gone years ago (on separate occasions) were surprised that a roundabout 23% tax was imposed! So, prices in Jaco are now comparable to that of New York.
I have few qualms with Jaco. I have few qualms with any destination that I visit, truth be told. However, I think it will be a while before we return. There are so many other places we would like to visit for starters. Second, the now sky high prices of things like dining experiences and excursions will prevent us from returning as our family grows. I hope someday, however, to return to Costa Rica and perhaps see a new part of the country. I would hate to think I will never return. After all, it holds a special place in my heart, click here to see why.
Would I recommend it? I think it depends on what you’re looking for. It has a great mix of beaches, accessibility to other parts of the country, local excursions, and great food. It’s a beach town with the “grit” of a city in many respects.
Is it safe? That depends on your version of safe. Jaco is relatively safe if you practice precautions. I wouldn’t walk around at night, especially alone. I would take a registered cab instead. Have a plan before you go out at night and don’t wander aimlessly, unless you are on the main strip. In the populated areas of Jaco there are always many people and families around. For a more in depth look at Jaco and Costa Rica, check out all of my other posts on the country!
When I look back on my young life, I feel blessed to have had an idyllic childhood. While we never flew to Italy or Morocco, my parents had an adventurous spirit. I remember taking road trips, traveling to Florida often, and visiting the Caribbean with our family.
From those memories, a love of exploration was cultivated. However, I did not travel in high school or even college. Instead, I got lost in the small town way of thinking and found myself doing the same things every weekend. Then, at 24 years old, I took my first international trip as an adult to Costa Rica. I went with a group of girlfriends and we had a blast. Years later we can still easily laugh about and reminisce on all of the memories that we made.
Naturally, when the opportunity to visit Costa Rica years later a second time presented itself, I gave an enthusiastic “hell yes”. This time, I wouldn’t be going with my gal-pals. As a married woman and mother, I would be going with my husband and 10 month old son.
So how did the two trips compare? What did I learn after going back a second time – in a completely different place in my life?
Damn. I remember coming home from Costa Rica and feeling like I had seen some shit. I think to some extent – everyone feels that way after their first international trip. People at home just can’t relate and don’t get it. But, really. I had done things that for me were incredibly adventurous. Things I would never have thought I would find myself doing.
Costa Rica is known for its adventure tourism, and ziplining is more or less a right of passage. If you talk to anyone on a trip to Costa Rica or has been to the country – odds are – they’ve ziplined. Considering so many people zipline, before going it doesn’t even feel like such a big deal. However, I can assure you, once you’re looking down over the edge of your first platform…it is a very big deal. My girl friends and I went through the Los Suenos company for our ziplining adventure. n my opinion, I highly recommend them if you plan on going – professional, enthusiastic, and they provide free transportation to and from the hotels!
While getting suited up, I remember all of us girls jesting with one another and making jokes about falling out of the trees. I put on a brave face, but inside, I was a nervous wreck. During each step of the process, my heart would pound just a touch more. When it was our group’s turn – I was really shocked that I raised my hand to go first.
It was almost as if my hand has a mind of its own. I gripped the rope with both hands and pushed off the platform. The wind rushed through every inch of me. I had never been simultaneously thrilled and terrified at once until this point.
I was thrilled because I had a full realization of how high in the air I was flying. It was me, and the trees. All I heard was the “whirring” of the line and my yelling to myself “Oh my God! Woohoo!” My heart was pounding once I landed. It was weird because even though I had the thrill of a lifetime – I remember saying, “I don’t want to go again.” Of course, there is no other option. I finished the course.
A few times I even got stuck and had to climb my way to the landing platform. I was so proud of myself, I felt like a professional. I don’t think I stopped shaking or smiling the entire time. However, one time was more than enough for me.
The Hike From Hell
I don’t remember who started it- but at some point all of us got it in our heads that the quintessential Costa Rican experience would be to see a waterfall. The entire week we were in Jaco we scoured for the perfect guide and the perfect excursion. Somehow, we found Ronald, his driver Andy, and Nauyaca waterfall in Dominical.
How do I begin to describe Ronald? He is the Costa Rican version of Zamir from Parts Unknown. Ronald makes you do things you’d rather not do, and are really annoyed about, but always with a positive outcome. Often, he has a vision that is usually pretty hard to see at first. Also, he has an enthusiasm that feels oppressive, especially when you’re hot and hungover. However, he is knowledgeable, happy-go-lucky, and was committed, I mean, FULLY committed to making our day memorable. He’s an exceptional human and made the trip worthwhile – we still talk about him to this day.
None of us are athletes, yet somehow, decided a five mile hike upwards in mud and cowshit would be the perfect experience. This hike is so trying, to long, so hot – I remember thinking, “is this legal?” at least 500 times on the walk. There are parts of the walk which are uphill and too many times we slid, pulled, at weeds for stability, and had to put our bare hands on the ground to steady ourselves. I have never been so angry, so frustrated, or laughed so hard in all my life. The further we got along on our hike, the more I felt like I was in a different world.
What’s more – everything felt undiscovered. We were the only ones around wherever we went. We passed sheep on a really high mountain, unique bugs, and wide open fields. In addition to angry, frustrated, and giggling – I was also left quite speechless at times. I’d never experienced nature in the capacity that I saw during our hike. There were so many sites that took my breath away, and I was hardly sure they were real. Sometimes the mountains and fields seemed to go on forever.
The first view of Nauyaca waterfall took my breath away. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. There are seven levels at the bottom and even more at the top and the water cascades down powerfully into a giant and freezing lake. By that time we were drenched in sweat and couldn’t wait to dive in. Although – that was no easy task either. The first few feet into the water are extremely slippery and I definitely busted my ass more than once. The water is so cold that it numbs your body, but looking at the falls from the lake makes you forget all of that.
The people climbing up high onto the falls make it look easy, but it’s definitely not! It’s extremely slippery and the jump from even the first level of rocks into the water is scary! This was one of my fondest travel memories even to this day.
The hike back down was interesting to say the least. It began raining, and we began getting hot again and just wanted to get the fuck back to the hotel. The mud and cow shit became wildly slippery and our friend, Morgan, went sliding and landed on her back. She fell so hard that the tongue of her sneaker was all the way out to the side. We were really worried and I remember Amanda and I running to her and immediately thinking we needed to clean out her wounds. “NO!” Ronald exclaimed.
“I know what to do.” His plan…was…weird. “First, I need one of your friends to push your back.” *Insert WTF meme here.* “Now, listen to me, I’m going to tie your shoe very tight, this will fix most of the problem.” We had no idea why he thought to do this, and we still don’t. We went from shock and fear to outright CRYING from laughing. No one can retell this story with a straight face – it’s so absurd. It took Morgan a really long time to heal from that fall, God knows how much longer had Ronald not tied her shoe really tight.
We still went through Los Suenos tours – and this time I watched from afar as people suited up for the adventure of a lifetime. I remembered fondly that I had once been them. However, I don’t think I’d have the nerve to go soaring through the trees again! Now, we were embarking on a different journey offered at the adventure site – a chocolate tour.
We were able to follow the entire process of chocolate from start to finish. We tasted chocolate at each stage of the process. I have seen images of the giant cocoa fruit, and have always been curious what it tastes like. I finally figured it out, and the answer is Styrofoam. Generally, you scoop out the seeds and chew off the flesh around them.
Each stage of the process becomes sweeter and sweeter. We were even able to see that there is a noticeable difference in quality between chocolate that is handmade versus made by a machine. If you follow my adventures enough – you will see that I am a huge fan of ancient civilizations and Shamanism.
One story that stands out to me from high school history class is Cacao. Cacao is essentially hot chocolate. The Mayan people would make the drink and considered it a gift from the gods. Beginning in the 8th century (AD) the image of the Cacao god began to appear on pottery. I always imagined what this drink might taste like. No seriously – I spent a fuck ton of my childhood imagining what Cacao might taste like. I pictured bubbles and it being cold for some reason, but super thick and mildly sweet. I also pictured people drinking it through a straw. Basically, I pictured chocolate milk.
I’m happy to say that I finally got to try it! It was essentially hot chocolate, but with a much more earthy and natural taste.
On our girls’ trip, we were apparently ALL about self care before it was even a thing. We treated ourselves to massages and yoga class on the terrace of our hotel:
We also took a four hour ride (each way!) to visit the Baldi Hot Springs at the base of Arenal volcano.
Baldi Hot Springs is a resort which offers a fuck ton of thermal baths to soak and relax in. Some have the look of a jacuzzi, some are more like pools, and others have water slides and waterfalls! The temperature of the baths range from hot to scolding hot, and a few cold pools to dip into as well.
Yes, it’s possible to unwind and relax with a baby. Every morning we would take Henry to the pool and the three of us would splash around. The hotel had a baby floaty and Henry enjoyed peddling his legs underwater and being able to move on his own. We started him off in the kiddie pool, and wondered why more of the children weren’t using it.
Then one day, we saw an iguana take a massive crap in it, and quickly switched exclusively to the big pool. Arthur and I were so much, and family time between the three of us is pretty much exclusive to the weekend, and sometimes, one day a week. It was such a joy and so relaxing to laze around in the pool with my two boys without a care in the world.
Sometimes, Arthur would swim with Henry and I’d make my way over to the deep end and just float. My ears would be submerged and I couldn’t hear a thing. I would just stare at the palm trees and be in the moment. I would just think to myself how grateful, lucky, and happy I was to be in Costa Rica with my family. When there is no clutter in your mind, no anger in your heart, and no maelstrom in your soul – that is the definition of relaxation. A smile on everyone’s face and a few laughs along the way doesn’t hurt either!
We made a whole event out of watching the sunset. Villa Calletas is THE place to watch the sun go down over the water. The big draw is their stone amphitheater made solely for watching the sunset. It was so much fun to grab our bougie drinks, sit in the amphitheater, and watch the sun go down while having some much needed girl time and talk. We got dressed up, did our make up, and took some great photos!
While we couldn’t make our way to Villa Calletas this time around, the view from our balcony was just as stunning. The sunset in Costa Rica is perfect no matter where you are watching from. In this case, each evening, Henry napped in the room while we sat outside on our rocking chairs. Arthur grabbed us each a frozen drink as we talked about life and watched the brilliant orange sun go down over the water. We would talk about where we saw ourselves in a year, five years, ten, retired. We would talk about our dreams and our hopes. It was really nice to re-connect on such a deep level with such a romantic backdrop.
I jumped at the chance to see monkeys up close and personal. On our trip to Baldi hot springs, our guide offered to stop at some random-ass house where guests can interact with the tiny tree dwellers. We paid $20 each to feed and hold them – which was definitely a fucking rip-off. But, experiences build experience – even negative ones. In my mind, I probably would have paid any price to experience something that I felt was so exotic.
I still remember my heart beating as I washed my hands and walked to the tree after. The alpha climbed down and inspected us, even showing his teeth once to let us know he was the boss. After he gave us the “all clear” many more monkeys joined. I was sniffed, climbed on, and nearly had my sunglasses stolen. My hair was yanked, my arms were scratched, and I loved every second.
There was plenty of time to explore the beaches on our girls trip! We laid out, drank daiquiris, and ate poke bowls at Playa Hermosa. I had never seen a black sand beach before and the ethereal fog among the palm trees made me feel like I was in Jurassic Park. While we had plenty of time to enjoy the beach, we didn’t spend a lot of time there. Our schedule was jam packed!
Beach Time Now
In terms of the beach, there is not a lot of difference between Costa Rica then and now! I was still wowed by the unique aesthetics of Costa Rican beaches. That familiar foggy, pre-dawn, jungle-esque feeling was all around. We spent our entire first day just walking up and down the shoreline and exploring.
As a family, we made it a point to get to the beach every day. Often, we would only stay for 20 – 30 minutes. Henry as a baby is susceptible to heat stroke, especially being completely covered because he can burn easily. We would go into our air conditioned room where he could have playtime. That wound up being fine with me, I’m not someone who can lay out on the sweltering sand all day.
Arthur got to get a good surf lesson in while Henry took a nap in his beach tent and I did some relaxing and tanning. All in all, I was surprised by how much didn’t change. I was surprised that it was still possible to have a normal beach outing and do our usual stuff. Something that did change was that we used the beautiful beach behind the hotel to do a family photo shoot. I used to heavily make fun of travel bloggers who partook in professional photos. (I hate false candid.) However, I definitely see the value after getting them back. Professional photographers are able to come up with unique poses in flattering angles. These will be photos our family will cherish for a lifetime.
Crew Hang Outs Then
Our first morning in Costa Rica started with a bang. We took a catamaran cruise to Isla Tortuga, and we started drinking insanely early in the morning – I really think it had to be around eight a.m. After a great breakfast, we boarded the boat with dozens of other young people. We laid out on the nets in front of the boat, vibed to music, and talked SO much shit about people back home.
I remember first pulling up to the island and being inspired for a novel instantaneously. With the swaying palm trees, strong sun, warm sand, and lapping waves – I was transported to somewhere remote and relaxing. We drank beer and I tried ceviche for the first time and thought it was the most amazing blend of tastes in the world. I can still taste the freshness of the fish and tanginess of the citrus on my tongue! My best friend and I re-made the dish shortly after getting home.
The day was an endless barrage of eating, drinking beer, tanning, swimming, and napping in hammocks. I remember walking into the water (in a fucking TWO PIECE) and feeling a sharp pain on my ass cheek. The island was so remote that I thought an islander shot me with a blow dart. I looked down, and I had been stung by a bee – good thing I’m not allergic!
My favorite memory of the day was snorkeling. A small, rickety, boat took several of us out to sea. When the driver pointed to each person – you were expected to throw your body backward into the water so as not to capsize the boat. I got so nervous that I jumped up on the seat and dove into the water – causing a COMPLETE panic on the boat.
The resistance in the water was really strong – I specifically remember us being afraid of that. One of the guides dove to the bottom of the sea and pulled up some type of mollusk. “Cool, I wish I could dive like you.” I remember saying. “Yes?” The next thing I know he was deflating my life vest, thinking I wanted to go under water, and I was screaming NO while my friends cackled. It was a day full of that childish, side clenching, ear to ear smiling laughter – and I’ll never forget it.
Crew Hang Outs Now
We were still able to embark on excursions, but we had to definitely scale back the pace of how we travel. We only did two excursions on our two week trip, and one per day. One was the chocolate tour from above and the other was the monkey mangrove tour. The other days we were either taking Spanish lessons at Academia Tica, or just lounging and relaxing at the resort. Even on the days we hung back, we still would go out for lunch and take walks around the town. Life moves at a slower pace now.
I noticed we also had to be very cognizant of time. Whenever we looked for an excursion, we had to consider if Henry could withstand being on “go mode” for X amount of hours. His max is about four to six hours, which is pretty freaking good for a baby. If a parent is reading, work your way up to this slowly! We also had to consider safety and be realistic. Would I have loved to visit Isla Tortuga again? Yes.
However, realistically, could I imagine taking my 10 month old on a catamaran ride for two hours each way? No. Can I imagine us being stuck on an island all day long with no way of getting back if Henry was cranky, sick, or we ran out of food? No. So, it wasn’t so much about NOT doing so much as it was adjusting what we do and how we do it.
Night Life Then
We went to the few bigger bars and clubs that Jaco had to offer. For some reason they all seem to be colors…”Orange” or “Blu.” I don’t recall being too wild and crazy, but I remember the freedom of being able to have four of five drinks with no responsibilities in the morning other than excursions. Flash forward, for a moment, to 2020. We took taxis everywhere at night at the advice of our concierge. Jaco can be pretty sketchy at night. For that reason I was shocked at remembering how we would walk around at night – sometimes late at night – to different clubs and bars. Although I do remember one night of piling into a taxi cab, barely fitting, and DEFINITELY no seat belts being worn.
On our trip to Costa Rica – we turned in fairy early – usually by 10:00. I’ll be honest with you right now…I FUCKING LOVE IT. There is no greater joy than collapsing into clean sheets after spending all day in the sun. I didn’t long for one bit for being out until 2 in the morning and spending the next day sick from a hangover.
That is not to say we spent every evening in our polo sweaters playing checkers. We were still able to enjoy all of the “adult” things that we like. We drank margaritas, caught a lot of live music, walked the strip, and bullshitted over beers and greasy food on the beach. Henry slept through most of this and we were able to have legitimate adult time.
What I Learned
I will always cherish the memories I made as a young woman who traveled the world. I’m so happy that at an early age, I invested in traveling when many of my peers were content to blow every last dollar at the same bars every weekend. Don’t get me wrong, I did plenty of that before I saw the light – but I got out early. My travels were full of time to do whatever I wanted without a care in the world beyond seeing everything on my itinerary and nursing a hangover.
Things are different now, but I have to be honest – not so much so. For the most part, when we travel, we are still able to do everything we want. We’ve still been able to eat out at restaurants, go on excursions, and engage in local culture and unique experiences. I now have the added benefit of seeing the world through the most innocent and excited eyes. I’m so grateful to get to share so much of the world and travel with him and my husband. Both trips to Costa Rica were so very memorable. I hope I will get to go back someday, I’m sure I will. Life is long. Arthur and I talk about retiring in Costa Rica. Maybe! Who knows? Writing this piece has been refreshing. It was really eye opening for me to see how my trips to Costa Rica from then to now have changed.
“This is where she operated, the famous Norma Wallace” our tour guide announced. A three story building in the iconic New Orleans building stood before me on an unpopulated street. At the time, I had no idea who Norma Wallace might be, but I snapped a photo anyway. Chills ran down my spine, and I got the spooky feeling that something of importance probably happened there. I wasn’t sure what and to be honest, I wasn’t even sure I cared.
In a trance, I considered how wild the decades past in New Orleans must have been. In my mind, sex work in New Orleans was something that stopped just about everywhere in the 20’s. To know a brothel operated all the way into the 1960’s was shocking information. My tour guide seemingly read my mind. “If anyone wants to know more about her, get a copy of The Last Madam.” Two months later, I purchased the book and finished it in one evening. It is one of the single greatest pieces I have ever read.
What are you waiting for? Purchase your copy here.
Norma Wallace was a high profile madam, five times married, an alleged criminal, and above all – a national treasure. We’ll revisit her later on.
A Paradigm Shift
Feminism can be really tricky. For the longest time, I felt that women who participated in sex work were the enemy. The prospects and possibilities of the type of career women can pursue has never been higher in our country. Yet, some women choose sex work. This is a career which in my mind only reaffirmed the male perspective that women are good for one thing. I felt for most of my life that women whose only job was to bare their naked bodies and lay on their back reinforced the notion that a woman with a brain was an oddity. To me, they upheld the idea that a woman’s real calling is to please men. I experienced one of the most profound paradigm shifts of my life after visiting New Orleans. First, a history:
Having been ruled by the French before the establishment of the United States, New Orleans in some ways dodges the bullet on the Puritan Prudism that plagues the east coast and thus most of the country. New Orleans was swamp land in its conception. Dirty, bug infested, stinky swamp land. Thus, France has a tough time populating and building up the area. No one in their right mind would have left the sanctity of France to move there. France’s answer?
Well, find people who maybe weren’t in their right mind to move there. Enter – a deal. Criminals and the criminally insane held behind bars were given the opportunity for freedom. This was by way of moving to New Orleans and leaving France. The catch was they had to do the dirty work of building up the city. The men did, and in addition took it upon themselves to build places to drink, places to gamble, and…wait a minute! They needed a place for sex! They needed women for sex, primarly though.
French prostitutes were next emptied out of the country’s jails and sent to New Orleans. So you see, New Orleans was a city built on vice. The first prostitutes sent over were actually more like pioneers coming to an unknown world. Beyond opening their legs, they sailed the great distance and foraged a path facing insurmountable dangers the entire time.
These is Bloody Shoes
I can only assume that being a prostitute in the 17 and 1800s could not have been dreamy. Often times from film, when we see prostitutes of the past picture we are met with images of lace, chandeliers, and sexy lingerie. Through my travels I’ve learned that this was definitely not the case during this time period in New Orleans. Most prostituion took place near the old French Market. The area was disgusting and smelly. Trash, dead bodies, and decaying seafood littered the ground. The blood from animals being slain from meat ran into the streets. It would often stain the bottoms of the high heel shoes of the prostitutes working there. Therefore, according to my tour guide, Quinn LaRoux, when Cardi B sings, “these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes” she damn well knows her history.
The area was unbelievably violent – so much so that the police would not even enter. Sex workers had to learn to survive this climate and soon themselves became some of the most vicious and violent perpetrators themselves including stabbing, shooting, and robbing to survive their hard environment.
A New Place for Sex Work in New Orleans
New Orleans knew this could not continue for much longer, and so pushed sex work into Storyville – the city’s red light district. Storyville was a more “elevated” means of prostitution. Well – elevated in the sense that women weren’t giving out blowies in broad daylight on the street and people weren’t getting stabbed and raped in public. Prostitutes operated out of actual houses. Men visiting New Orleans would often be handed “blue books” which listed the names and telephone numbers of the prostitutes as well as which madams house to find the women at. Clients received more than sex here, it was an experience. Drinks were often served and accompanied by live jazz music played by legends such as Pops Foster and Jelly Roll Morton.
Keep in mind, we are talking about the early 20th century here. Also, I’m not trying to paint an image of Storyville being an Eden. Storyville has its fair share of questionable morality even beyond traditional sex work. If you dig deep into the far corners of the internet, you will definitely find that sexual acts with animals (and oyster shells apparently) were a thing for sure. However, let’s return to my thesis. These women of Storyville didn’t have the means to go to college and become white collar professionals. Even if they did, how far would their male counterparts let them go? I’m damn proud to say that out of nothing many of these women grew something.
Many of these women became business owners – madams of prostitutes and grew their own fortunes. These women handled the accounts, set the prices, negotiated terms, leases, and pricing. In many times, they were their own security detail as well. In Storyville, many women banded together and formed deep friendships. One woman might watch the kids of the prostitutes on her off day. By doing so, their mothers could earn a living. Those women would return the favor on their off day.
For those women that found themselves accidentally pregnant and unable to have a baby there was some help. There would often be one woman who would give abortions. Women could then continue on with their trade without worrying about being pregnant and losing business. This is not female comradery as we see today. Rather, this is an early example of women helping women. This, given the circumstances that they were made to face.
In the 1920’s in one of Norma Wallace’s homes is one of my most favorite examples of women helping women. There was a system for when the police would knock on Norma’s door. She would put a plank of wood from her window to a neighboring brothel across the street. The place was run by a woman named Josephine. The prostitutes would scurry along the beam and into the safety of the neighboring bordello. The girls would pull the plank of wood in all before the cops were let into the door.
By this point, you’re wondering who Norma Wallace is anyhow.
Norma Wallace began to work as a “street walker” at just 15 years old. This was essentially after her mother abandoned her to pursue a wild life of sex and alcoholism. Eventually, she would go on to own New Orleans’ most infamous and well established brothel. Norma essentially born and died being fiercely independent long before it was in vogue. Throughout the course of decades many men tried to enter into Norma’s life and gain control of her.
Men tried to force her to settle down and turn toward a respectable life of being a housewife and mother. She never buckled or wavered under this pressure. Norma always stayed true to her desire to live life as a fruitful “landlady” as madams preferred to be called. She was tough, elegant, and took no shit from anyone. Norma was a business woman ahead of her time and was respected, loved, and feared by thousands.
She was always dressed luxuriously and was the original bad boss bitch. It became tradition to visit Norma’s whore house for sex. What I found most interested is how many fathers would take their sons there because they had been there as boys. Men would even take their wives to meet Norma and reflect on their wild youth. Norma was notorious among college boys, unsatisfied husbands, business elite, famous movie stars, mafia members, and the authorities.
Beyond sex work in New Orleans, the city has its fair share of “sex-y” work as well. There are many who say that burlesque has its origins steeped within the city. Burlesque is different from what we think of as stripping. It is sensual, artistic, refined, and at times quite “campy.”
Burlesque: Classy Nudity
When one thinks of New Orleans Burlesque, one may think of Kitty West. Her stage name as she was better known was Evangeline – The Oyster Girl. One of her most famous acts involved sitting half naked in a giant oyster shell on the stage at Casino Royale. She would dance scantily clad accompanied by a basketball sized faux-pearl.
Burlesque shows were huge decades ago and many famous venues for the seductive performance art lined the street. Women and men alike would actually dress in their finest for the performance. Patrons would imbibe in strong cocktails while enjoying the artistry. Burlesque belonged to another era entirely – one of jazz lounges and supper clubs, high heels and suits.
Legend has it that Kitty was either jealous of a fellow performer or performer at another lounge. Either way, her rival created an aquatic themed act. Kitty felt this to be a rip off of her performance. When her rival performed in a giant fish tank, Kitty channeled the violence and rage of the women who had come before her. She smashed the tank with a sledge hammer. Wu-tang clan ain’t nothin’ to fuck with Evangeline and her giant oyster ain’t nothin to fuck with. Unless of course, it was all a publicity stunt. If that’s the case, the two girls were very much in on it. They hearkened back to the business genius of those women who came before them.
You can still find sex performance, but unfortunately its largely confined to the sub par strip joints on Bourbon Street. While the naked bodies are still alive and thriving, the mystique and decorum of the art is lost entirely.
I deeply believe that there can be, and is a beauty, mysticism, and sensual element to women in professions like prostitution and sex performance. For so long I wondered, “Does any woman actually want to be a prostitute or sex performer?” Some women do. Some women enjoy sex, or strip teasing and for them, the career is not only lucrative but enjoyable. In these cases, I support these women. Not only that, I believe that there is power and strength in a woman choosing a profession in sex work. This is so long as it’s a choice and not forced. These women are the living epitome of the notion that many find appalling. The idea that it is OK for females to be sexual and to enjoy sex. It’s enjoyable even enough to earn money from it.
Men only take issue with this type of work because they’ve yet to find a way to control it. Where prostitution is legal, they are not typically proprietors and thus do not profit. This is especially true in the cases of female run establishments. Men can never be comfortable with an entity that they do not own entirely. This is also why there is a heavy stigma of sexually active women. Female sex workers are typically seen as not being suitable wives.
Perhaps as women we sneer at sex workers because we are ignorant. Women, by way of being human deserve to be treated with respect. Women deserve dignity no matter what their chosen profession or sexual history. Many feel that to treat a sex worker, a woman of the underworld, with respect and integrity is indecent. True indecency would be believing that a person’s chosen career, especially one as benign as sex work, makes them deserving of being treated cruelly and as less than human.
Hopefully, you’re reading this somewhere with a glass of something alcoholic in hand as I am. If so, it is only proper to toast. I’d like to remember and thank the women in this article, even the hundreds not mentioned by name.
I’d like to give respect and kudos to the women of the sex industry. Particularly, I’d like to give respect to those who have been a part of the history of sex work in New Orleans. Many of whom who endured the harshest and most unforgiving conditions on the streets of New Orleans. These women have faced some of the worst that humanity can bestow.
Many of these women took what was handed to them. They made not just lemonade, but a lemonade empire out of lemons. Others, we must never forget, were undoubtedly physically and sexually brutalized and perhaps utterly broken both in spirit and body. Although most will remain nameless for all of eternity, you are not forgotten.
Looking to book the Drag Queen Walking Tour where I learned a lot of this? Click here
Entering and Leaving the 20’s. On New Year’s Eve, I anticipated the iminent spectacle of the New York City ball drop in the time capsule of Soviet culture that is my in law’s Brooklyn apartment. In Russian, my father-in-law gave a speech about the exciting moments to come in the new year, and I looked apprehensively at the shot of vodka in my hand. I’d had enough olivier and caviar to choke a horse, and yet, my mother in law insisted on walloping heaps of mayonnaise-slathered (albeit delicious) helpings of cuisine onto my gold and white china plate.
The stupor from over indulging in the Russian spread, combined with the inhumane lack of sleep from being a new mom, left me nearly forgetting that New York, and the entire world, would be welcoming a brand new era at the stroke of midnight. It had seemed, at least according to my Instagram feed, that Americans were beguiled by the possibility of another “roaring 20’s.” My mind conjured up images from The Great Gatsby, a novel I’ve taught dozens of times as an English teacher.
Champagne, jazz music, flappers, tuxedos, and Gilded Age mansions for housing the aforementioned three. There is a scene where the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, forgets about his own birthday. As the ball began to drop and those around me began to count, it dawned on me that as society was ready to welcome the “20’s” I was days away from preparing to leave my own 20’s behind me. This would be my final year to secure a foundation in life before turning 30, when the “building” of an “adult” life allegedly begins. “Thirty – the promise of a decade of loneliness” is how Nick Carraway, describes the impending development of the big 3-0.
As I prepared to enter the last year of my 20’s, I meditated on Nick Carraway’s feelings towards turning 30. In many ways, of course, I was not lonely. I noted that I had my husband, both parents, a son, and a small, core group of friends. However, I could not help but reflect on every other birthday celebration of my 20’s. A memory of my 24th birthday in particular stood out. Twenty or more of my friends and I stayed over at the luxurious Standard Hotel which boasts floor to ceiling windows – presumably for those with voyeuristic fetishes in mind – housed in Manhattan’s exclusive meatpacking district.
We danced and imbibed in New York City’s hottest night clubs, transported via a behemoth of a party bus. I remember the night as an endless barrage of flower bouquets, free drinks, and a $2,000 bill for dinner which upon its arrival, that I didn’t blink an eye at. What was I to care? It was wasn’t me who was paying. I felt like a celebrity that evening. In my mind, I always assumed the throngs of friends I celebrated with would attend every birthday celebration of mine my whole life.
Much like F. Scott Fitzgerald, I found myself unable to cope (even if I only admitted this to myself) that my roaring decade of popularity and evenings out in New York City – the “golden shimmering mirage” – had ended. As I turned 29, and with 30 looming on the horizon, I made the disheartening realization that I have nowhere near as many friends as I once had a few years ago. Even among the friends that remained close there was no time to celebrate something as trivial as my birthday. My core group of friends were pregnant, closing on houses, moving out of New York, working 16 hour days, and – feeling their own “hot whips of panic” upon nearing 30 – and in response, were desperately navigating the dating scene.
Bleary eyed, in the early morning hours sitting at the school where I teach, I scrolled through Groupon looking for a way to celebrate my special day that did not involve a Bacchanalian evening and the torture of wearing black stiletto heels. It was a half hearted endeavor, I scrolled absent-mindedly just knowing I’d settle for some minor off Broadway performance. Suddenly my finger abandoned the mouse and my fingers found their way to the dry patches of skin on my lips, as they often do when I’m deep in thought. “Oheka Castle” I mused. An overnight stay at Long Island’s only castle-cum-luxury hotel. The groupon was my own, personal, green light on the end of a dock. A signal to “go for it.” My finger hit “purchase.” In a minute or less, I had booked my trip to Oheka Castle.
Why would someone in my position be interested in staying at Oheka Castle? As stated in the aforementioned paragraphs, I am a book nerd and English instructor. As such, it is my duty to fawn ceaselessly over writers of the “lost generation.” This is a labor of love, for I passionately and intensely love the writers of this era as if I know them personally. The first time I saw Baz Luhrman’s rendition of Gatsby in movies, I sobbed.
The beauty and grandeur of the era belonged to those of the past, and I would never experience it for myself. Oheka Castle was in large part a source of inspiration for The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald visited the chateau with Zelda while living on that “riotous slender island.” In its heyday of the 1920s, Oheka Castle hosted lavish cocktail parties, the kind Fitzgerald sought inspiration in for his great American classic. The mansion was used it partly as the setting for Jay Gatsby’s colossal home.
Otto Herman Kahn was the original owner of the home. He was a banker and philanthropist, as well as a contemporary and competitor of JP Morgan. In addition, he was the inspiration for the Monopoly man (as if his resume were not impressive enough) at least according to the lovely tour guides at the estate. The castle was built on a 443 acre plot in Cold Spring Hills neighborhood of Huntington, NY; its construction cost over 100 million dollars in today’s currency.
Needless to say, Kahn possessed an unfathomable type of wealth. The gargantuan size of the estate cannot be overstated enough. In fact, the 109,000 square foot estate was twice the size of the White House. Unlike the White House, Kahn and his family did not live in 127 room estate full time. Oheka Castle, the second largest private residence in all of the United States was merely Kahn’ summer residence which happened to host a number of royal figures, politicians, and celebrities at its glamorous parties in the 1920’s. Chaplin, Gershwin, and the Folly girls all indulged in the opportunities for fun provided at the estate such as ballroom dancing and swimming.