Thus begins my Great Seattle Sandwich Hunt: Salumi

My happiness is best expressed with salami.
Photography by Decktor.

Oh Sandwiches. How is it possible for you to be so simple, yet so delicious? I love a good sandwich and will go to great lengths for an exceptional one. Favorites of mine dot the country: roast beef with peppers and cheese at Sam La Grassa in Boston (I laughed for *years* at their claim to be the World’s No. 1 Sandwich until I finally had one. Oh. My. God.), Jim Rome or Elvis Kieth at Ike’s Place in San Francisco, or pastrami at Katz’s Delicatessen in New York.

Two years ago, with a plus one coming with me to visit Seattle, I thought I’d branch out from my family and go out to eat. After a little research, I learned that Mario Batali’s family runs a salumeria and sandwich place in Seattle called Salumi. Say what?  How on earth did I miss out on that happening? I shared my discovery with my family but they all already knew, yet no one had told me. WTF family?! Three weeks later, my sister Laura sent me two Salumi salamis for my birthday. 🙂
Since then, I knew a pilgrimage to Salumi was in order. In the shadow of the Smith Tower, this small unassuming shop is known for tasty house-made meats and lines down the block. Their hours make it tricky if you don’t work down near Pioneer Square: Tuesday to Friday 11am-3:30pm, and many sandwiches sell out early (at my visit, the daily special was already gone at 11:45am).

Make-a mine with-a mott-zer-rellah!
Left, from Right, photography by Decktor.

I was accompanied by a fellow sandwich devotee and my visual composer for the day. Standing outside in the bright January sun and feeling a little under the weather with a cold, I placed my hopes in the healing properties of pork. While waiting in line for about twenty minutes, we snacked on free slices of mole and spicy paprika salami and negotiated which sandwiches to order and split. Luckily we were on the same wavelength: Leonetta’s Meatball with mozzarella ($8.50) and Muffo (cotto salami, hot sopressata salami, provolone, and olive tapenade; $9.75).

Time to dig in!
Photography by Decktor.

I started with my half of the meatball sub; it was served hot, dripping with sweet tomato sauce, with sautéed peppers and onions on top and melty mozzarella underneath. The roll was just crispy enough on the outside, substantial enough to hold up to the drippy goodness, yet soft enough to eat easily. Pork meatballs broke apart softly with each bite. I found it all a lovely savory balance, the homey flavors hitting the spot.

Photography by Decktor.

I devoured my portion, licking sauce from my fingers. It completely filled me up, so I took my half Muffo back home for dinner with a cup of tomato soup. I crisped it in the toaster oven, partially melting the cheese. I really dug the olive tapenade and the overall flavor, but wished for an extra helping of salami! I’m still getting up the guts to try their other hot sandwiches: Porchetta (their tribute to pork; looks insane!) and Grilled Lamb. Always good to save something for the next trip.

Central America trip CliffsNotes

As I meet people now who are curious about my adventures in Central America, I want to share this blog with them but my prolific 100+ entries from the trip are a daunting pile to sift through. So to help I have put together a collection of entries that to me represent the essential narrative, the most important/meaningful/highlight moments of my trip. It’s not the whole story, but they are my favorites. It’s still a good chunk of reading (it was a crazy six months ok? There are a lot of stories!), but hopefully it is more a digestible guided tour. Enjoy!

Let’s get this fun in the sun started!

Origins story
Safety concerns for a solo woman traveler
What’s in my backpack
Mexico: Day 1, arrival in Merida
Mexico: My first cenote, the beginning of a water love story
Mexico: Tulum ruins
Mexico: Tulum cenotes
Mexico: San Crisobal de las Casas
Guatemala: Border crossing and arrival
Guatemala: Hiking Santa Maria volcano
Guatemala: Colored chicks, the first sign of Semana Santa
Guatemala: Lake Atitlan
Guatemala: Bugs
Guatemala: Chichi market
Guatemala: On traveling solo
Guatemala: Semana Santa in Antigua
Guatemala: Alfombras
Guatemala: Semuc Champey
Belize: I decide to get SCUBA certified
Belize: Open Water course, day 1
Belize: Open Water course, days 2 and 3
Belize: Caye Caulker, sunset at the split
Belize: Cat calls and drug dealers
Belize: Erin’s Caye Caulker food manifesto
Belize: Just say yes
Belize: Crystal Cave
Belize: Iguana photo shoot
Belize: I heart stew chicken
Honduras: Epic transit to the Bay Islands
Honduras: Roatan
Honduras: Deciding to extend the trip
Honduras: Settling in to Utila
Honduras: Advanced Open Water
Honduras: Le sigh roommates
Honduras: Makeshift rum cake
Honduras: Rescue Diver
Honduras: Falling in love with Utila
Honduras: Perpetual illness
Honduras: Snorkel vanity shots
Honduras: Stability in Utila
Honduras: Thunderstorms
Honduras: A birthday party
Honduras: Photo dive
Honduras: Nico’s 100th dive day
Honduras: Last Utila dive
Honduras: Leaving Utila
Nicaragua: Erin gets a travel buddy
Nicaragua: Lady at a cock fight
Nicaragua: The Fourth of July
Nicaragua: Granada
Belize: Epic three-day transit to Long Caye
Belize: The Blue Hole
Mexico: Diving cenotes
Mexico: Swimming with whale sharks
Mexico: Isla Mujeres
Utila throwback
Erin’s top 5 Central American hostels

My cooking show debut on xoxocooks: shakshuka!

Taste testing shakshuka.

While in New York, I was invited by my friend Adrienne to appear as a guest chef on her YouTube cooking show xoxocooks. A 3-minute “adult cooking” blitz complete with beer breaks and swearing, the only way to cook! 😛 My episode features cooking my most favorite easy-cheap-healthy-anytime dish: shakshuka. It was a super blast to tape and pretty entertaining to watch if I do say so myself. I’m really excited to share it with you all. You must must must check it out. 🙂

For the recipe-inclined, here are the deets:

* olive oil – 2T to start, then another 2T for frying spices
* tomatoes – 1 28oz can or approximately 4 fresh, or a combination of canned and fresh
* 1 yellow onion, chopped
* 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
* vegetables, chopped: my favorites are carrots, red bell peppers, and butternut squash, but use what you like/have
* leafy greens, thinly sliced: I like to mix in chiffonade spinach, bok choy, or other leafy green, but this is optional
* chili pepper, minced
* spices: this can also be adapted to what you have/like. I usually use a mix of cumin, coriander, turmeric, paprika, cayenne, cinnamon
* 2 eggs per person
* salt
* pepper
* toppings: chopped fresh cilantro, feta cheese or greek yogurt

1) Dice vegetables into small pieces all approximately the same size.
2) Heat 2T oil in pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic, sautee for 2-3 minutes then add other vegetables and chili. Sautee a few minutes until they begin to soften and are bright in color.
3) Add a little more oil, then fry spices in the oil for 60 seconds until they are fragrant.
4) Reduce heat to medium and add tomatoes with their juice. Cover and let simmer for 5-10 minutes.
5) Return to your pot; juices should have been released so it’s now a thick soupy consistency. Taste and adjust seasoning.
6) Add leafy greens.
7) Reduce heat to low. With a spoon make indents in the vegetable mixture and crack in the eggs, evenly spaced. Cover and cook for a few minutes. Return and base the eggs gently with juice from the vegetable mixture. Cook eggs to your desired doneness, often covered, jiggling the pot to test how cooked they are. I prefer a runny yolk so cook my eggs longer on a low heat, watching closely so as not to overcook.
8) Spoon out eggs and vegetables into a bowl. Top with salt, pepper, chopped fresh cilantro, and feta or greek yogurt and EAT!! 🙂 Great served with bread and a green salad.

All said, this is a customizable recipe. If you like butternut squash or mushrooms or chicken or whatever else–throw it in! Don’t like spinach? Take it out. Cook with what tastes good to you, be creative, and enjoy. Here’s another take on shakshuka that is more classic than mine, and I bet would be super tasty. 

Gummi Death Match: Haribo Classic Gold-Bears vs Haribo Juicy Gold-Bears

Who’s ready for a gummi-off?!

I ardently believe that Haribo Gold-Bears are indeed the gold standard of gummis. Kids and grown-ups love it so! Recently my world was rocked when I discovered a new variety: Haribo Juicy Gold-Bears. Amazing! I decided this new gummi varietal deserved serious investigation and evaluation against the original. To the tasting room! I enlisted a few friends to help.

The contenders: juicy vs classic.



Lover of sugar, Wenjun has an infamous sweet tooth. In her office, co-workers consult her for what candies to purchase for their candy bowls because they know she’ll be the one eating most of it. She likes the sweeter the better, including artificial sweeteners and pixy stix, but hates salty-sweet combos. She digs ice cream, but not cake.

Top 3 go-to candies: Nerds, Hershey’s chocolate, Airheads


Erin loves flavor in her sweets! Fruit candies should taste like fruit and chocolate should be dark and complex. She adores gummi bears, but laments that many only taste like sugar and gelatin. Her favorite by far is Haribo Gold-Bears, as is evident by her administering this taste test. (It’s serious business!) She gets a little hankering to eat sweets at night.

Top 3 go-to candies: Haribo Gold-Bears, Skittles, other Haribo gummis!


Not an avid candy-eater, Joan prefers subtle sweetness and natural flavors. Her favorite fruit flavored candies are Jelly Belly jelly beans because they taste like an actual thing! Joan enjoys the mix of salty and sweet, favoring chocolate with caramel, nuts, or pretzels. She also likes a mix of soft and crunchy textures.

Top 3 go-to candies: Twix, Ferrero Roche, green tea hard candies


Step 1: Separate both bags by flavor into tasting groups with one of each flavor. The classics were easy to sort but juicy was another story; so many of flavors appear VERY similar in color. We had particular difficulty telling the difference between peach, pear, and lime but after much deliberation nailed it.

Hard at work, sorting juicies. 

Step 2: Head-to-head blind taste test for the only overlapping flavor between the two varieties, raspberry vs raspberry.

Step 3: Alternating non-blind tasting for other flavors, all unique. Used chilled water for pallet cleansing.

Step 4: Non-taste evaluation. How do ingredients, nutrition facts, and price compare?


We began with a blind head-to-head taste test of raspberry, the only flavor classic and juicy have in common. One by one we each blindly tasted both raspberries in randomized order. All had the same tasting notes: juicy was more pronounced and tart, while classic was milder and chewier. All correctly identified which was juicy and which was classic. Joan and Erin preferred the strong tang of juicy; Wenjun preferred classic.

Let the tasting begin!
Photo courtesy of “oh Joan…” 😛

The remaining flavors (JUICY: black currant, peach, pear, apple lime; CLASSIC: strawberry, pineapple, orange, lemon) were tasted with open eyes, alternating between juicy and classic.

Classic pineapple, strawberry, and orange were all categorized as having a sweet and light flavor. Lemon was the strongest of the remaining classics, and was the favorite when pitted head-to-head against the similar citrus juicy lime. The juicies had more flavor in general and were longer-lasting in taste. Black currant was particularly strong and divisive, which Wenjun found far too tart but Erin quite enjoyed. Joan was had high hopes for pear but was disappointed, experiencing a bad aftertaste. Wenjun preferred the milder pear and apple, while Erin and Joan preferred grape-y black currant, zesty lime, and tangy peach.

Preferences were remarkably consistent, with juicy more flavorful (preferred by Erin and Joan) and classic sweeter and subtler (preferred by Wenjun).

Juicy is billed as more natural: “NEW! Contains more than 20% of fruit juice” and “no artificial colors”. The top two ingredients are the same for both: corn syrup and sugar. Further down the ingredient list, both have the same mix of gelatin, citric acid, corn starch, fractionated coconut coil, carnauba wax, and beeswax coating for that signature Haribo sheen and chewiness.

But from there they diverge. As ingredient #3 for juicy is fruit juice concentrates (raspberry, peach, pear, black currant, apple, lime) for primary flavor and are also indeed additionally naturally colored/flavored with other plant concentrates (lemon, orange, apple, kiwi, elderberry, black currant, aronia, red grape, passion fruit, mango, spinach, nettle). Classic contains none of these, instead relying on natural and artificial flavors and artificial coloring agents Yellow 5, Red 40, and Blue 1.

Serving sizes are comparable (classic 39g, juicy 38g) and both had nearly identical calorie and carb counts, but classic had 16.7% more sugar (21g vs 18g) per serving.

Classic is more brightly colored. Juicy colors are more muted, but Wenjun (the aesthetic designer of our bunch) found them more visually appealing.

Flavors defined left to right.
TOP, classic: pineapple, orange, raspberry, strawberry, lemon
BOTTOM, juicy: black currant, peach, pear, raspberry, apple, lime
Photo courtesy of “oh Joan…” 😛

Classic is slightly more hard-chewy, but both have a pleasingly toothy texture.

Note: Gummis can get harder with time, but the packages I purchased were comparable in age (juicy had a best by date of June 2014, and classic by Sept 2014), so we determined age should not be a differentiating factor.

Juicy are 25% more expensive per gummi. The two packages are sold at the same price (usually between $1.50-$1.99/bag) but classic 5oz/142g and juicy is 4oz/113g.

Juicy: 48 gummis @ $1.99 = 4.15 cents per gummi
Classic: 60 gummis @ $1.99 = 3.32 cents per gummi

The two varieties are most definitely different! All judges could easily differentiate between juicy and classic. Overall, Erin and Joan preferred the stronger flavors of juicy, while Wenjun preferred the milder sweetness of classic.

After our “official” taste test, we sat around chatting at our girly slumber party and eating gummis like one would normally. In an uncontrolled environment, I discovered how much more I really enjoyed the juicy gummis; when given a choice I favored them strongly. Perhaps another reason is because I eat classic frequently so enjoy a change that is still a riff on a favorite.

My recommendation is classics are fabulous of course and still my go-to candy, but if you are able do give juicy a try. Classic have a far wider distribution and are easy to find, but juicy is much more unusual. So if you see a package of juicy, pounce!

I’ll have what’s she’s having… that’d be a Katz’s pastrami sandwich

I don’t remember how it happened, but somehow Katz’s Delicatessen popped up on my foodie radar early as a reputed ‘best pastrami’ in New York City. They are listed on just about every applicable best of NYC list, in business since 1888 it is an institution. It’s also the site of Meg Ryan’s orgasmic meal in “When Harry Met Sally”. The inside is a bustling self-serve cafe filled to the brim with gorgeous sandwiches, pickles, and other NYC deli favorites.
A slow late lunch hour at Katz’s.
When you enter the restaurant, they give you a little ticket that becomes your bill, then you proceed to one of the sandwich men (or other stations if you want soup, breakfast, etc) to order. Sandwiches are pricey, but in actuality are big enough to easily split between two people, which takes the sting out of the $18.20 price tag (including tax) for the basic pastrami.
Youch! This better be worth it…
When my turn came up, I asked to taste test the pastrami vs the corned beef, as I was tempted by the Reuben. There was no contest–pastrami! Served hot on rye bread and slathered with spicy deli mustard is the house standard. (I would add a second layer of mustard to the bottom piece of bread later; a necessity in my book.) The pastrami was served warm, broke apart easy when bitten in to, and absolutely melted in my mouth. Moist, flaky, savory, tender, mmm… ok, I’m starting to see where Meg Ryan’s outburst came from! I’ve eaten a bunch of pastrami sandwiches here in New York, but I have to say, this one is indeed my favorite.
What a beaut…
I required documentation of this event but the sandwich is a two-hand project; selfies were a total no-go. I asked my table mate, a gentleman delivering a bone marrow donation from Minneapolis, to take my picture. He told me I had a million dollar smile, which I then promptly obscured with a big bite of pastrami. 😛

After he left, I was joined at my table by an older couple who had lived in Brooklyn for 77 years. They come “all the way over the bridge” for Katz’s regularly and raved that it was indeed the best in the city. They shared their french fries with me and gave me their strong opinions on their other New York best-eats, including pizza (15th and J in Brooklyn) and knish (three blocks down on Houston, order the cherry cheese). After chatting for a while, we said goodbye and they asked where I was headed next. I said to their amusement, “well, I guess going to get myself a knish…” Midnight snack secured!

Memories of falling for New York food

Food is a critical part of travel for me. When I go someplace, I want to know, what is the canonical flavor I should be trying? I have visited New York City over a dozen times over the past twenty years and each trip has had a food element that stuck in my memory.

The first time it was 1995 and I was twelve, traveling with my father and sisters. I was overwhelmed. The city felt big, dirty, loud, scary, and unfamiliar. Our hosts Mario and Judy fed us girls New York bagels for the first time and whipped cream cheese, which rocked my world. A planetarium show at the Museum of Natural History narrated by Tom Hanks simulated the explosion of the sun and destruction of all earth life, scaring me so much I walked out and huddled in the gift shop reading comic books until it was over. We saw Cats on Broadway, also a little terrifying. We went to church on Sunday at a Baptist church in Harlem. The gospel music so different from my familiar Episcopal hymn repertoire. My little sister Jill lost a tooth in the middle of the service and was fussed over by a cluster of very maternal big black women. I felt so very out of place the entire morning. Afterward we brunched on soul food at Sylvia’s, an experience I’m sure I would insanely dig now, but back then I didn’t know how to deal with such new flavors and atmosphere.

Our hostess Judy was emphatic that we must try *the best* butter cookies in New York; I think they were flakey little mini palmiers. She drove us into the city (we were staying across the river in Summit, NJ) to pick them up from the one particular bakery she loved. I remember my wave of terror as she plowed through New York City traffic and did a u-turn in the middle of a busy intersection, all of us crammed in the back seat, to pull up outside the bakery and dash inside to pick up our special order. She returned triumphant with a big white cardboard cake box filled with delicate butter cookies, more than we could ever dream to eat.

Subsequent trips have had their moments as well. On my second trip, a spring break retreat in 2002 during my first year at Wellesley to my roommate Wendy’s home on Long Island, she and I day tripped into the city for a visit to the Museum of Natural History. For dinner, we were surrounded by bad options and I acquiesced to her hunger so ate at her choice: Uno’s. I went along with the whims of my hostess peaceably but (sorry, Wendy, throwing you under the bus here!) thought “I did not come to New York to eat at Uno’s!! I can eat Uno’s back in Boston, and even then don’t really want to…”. I’m pretty sure we had mediocre Chicago-style deep dish pizza. I vowed never again.

See on of these? Order a cappuccino.
Image via

I fell in love with New York on my third trip in the summer of 2002. It helped that I was already feeling blissful, traveling with a hunky boy I was head over heels for. We stayed in midtown near Times Square, arriving to our hotel after a mad dash through the rain from Penn Station, laughing and splashing wildly through puddles as we ran down the street on a warm summer night. We had a basic uninspired Italian pasta dinner that first night but finished with the best cappuccino ever per his advice. To this day, whenever I see a Brevetti Gaggia cappuccino machine–burnished bronze crowned by a golden eagle–I cannot resist.

The New York visits kept coming throughout my remaining college years and thereafter. Kati rolls at 4am guarded by a bouncer. Sim teaching me her back-in-the-day drink progression from cosmos to a Bailey’s nightcap. 😉 Instructions from a Jersey Shore boy on how to properly fold pizza (which I still never do) and keys to ordering a good sub sandwich (changed my life and I still follow; among other points, as sandwiches are serious business no joke, never forget to ask for salt pepper oil and vinegar). Chocolate truffles in Brooklyn. Hangover dim sum brunch in Chinatown after the funnest wedding ever. Fried pickles in Long Island City. Bagels with scallion cream cheese everywhere. The buttery smell of caramelized onions and sickly-sweet honey roasted nuts that permeate the streets. On one of these trips I made the fatefully brilliant decision to try a bialy, my now breakfast/snack bread of choice. Mmm…

This New York trip shall be no different. In fact, it shall be more epic of a food adventure than before! Stay tuned.

Route 1 Road Trip Day 4: Hello San Francisco!

I continue my road trip with the California coast via Route 1 with my travel buddy Nick, check out days onetwo, and three.


Finishing our time on the road with a morning two-hour drive from Pigeon Point and a nutritious breakfast of cinnamon rolls and cappuccino It’s Its, we arrived in San Francisco. We were in my hood; the city proper was my home for the last four months before I left for Central America and I also lived forty minutes south for four years. We started Nick’s San Francisco experience with an afternoon walk through Golden Gate Park and a driving tour through some of San Francisco’s most iconic neighborhoods. The sun was shining and the Painted Ladies on Alamo Square dazzled. Nick asked if I knew where the Full House house was and admited I had no idea! Great tour guide I turned out to be.

Painted Ladies on Alamo Square Park. *

Our tour finished in my old neighborhood, the Mission. We got out on foot to stroll Valencia and Mission streets between 16th and 24th. The stark gentrification divide between Valencia and Mission–two blocks apart–never ceases to amaze me. Valencia is a hipster beat with funky vintage shops and trendy restaurants. In contrast, Mission is grungier, noticeably a lower income bracket, and much straight out of Central America. Both streets ofter great shopping and dining, it just depends on what you are looking for. Our walk terminated in dinner at a place I knew Nick would dig: El Farolito, a hole in the wall Mexican joint at 24th and Mission known for cheap, awesome food–particularly burritos. Nick was tempted by the quesadillas, but I steered him in the right direction and he was not disappointed; he said it was the best burrito of his life. Booyah. We paired it was Pacifico, his Mexican beer of choice, and left no hot sauce behind.
Rockin’ the Pacifico once again. Me perfecting my bunny-nose squinch. *
Nom nom nom nom!!!

We checked in with our lovely hosts Hilary and Austin, spent far too little time chatting (to be rectified later!) before rushing off to San Francisco Nerd Nite to see my brilliant and snarkily charismatic friend Simran educate all us drunken geeks about old-school British handwriting manuals. Within minutes, she had the room eating out of the palm of her hand.
Aw, check out the midgets learning how to write. If only they had some workbooks…

We woke up early the next morning and hustled through rush hour traffic on the Muni to get to Pier 15 for our 9:30am Alcatraz cruise departure. It was a gorgeous day. From the moment you board the boat, visiting Alcatraz is a great experience. The ride to the island offers brilliant views of the city and the bay; for us this also afforded sightings of the America’s Cup boats just days before the Americans upset the Kiwis.

Pro tip: Alcatraz tickets ALWAYS sell out days in advance. We booked three days prior and were incredibly lucky to get tickets at all; Thursday at 9:30am was the only boat available for the five days Nick would be in San Francisco. 
Drinking ill-gotten coffee on the way to a maximum security prison… something about this seems like a bad idea. *

The Rock.

Alcatraz is a place of layered history. It was originally a military base built in 1853 to guard the booming gold rush town of San Francisco and its lighthouse is the oldest on the west coast. It was later recast in 1868 from a fort to a long-term military detention facility to house prisoners form the Civil War and Spanish American War and then in 1933–its most famous incarnation–one of the most infamous maximum-security civilian prisons in the United States. After the closure of the prison it was the site of Native American protests from 1969-1971. The tours exploring the varied stories of the island are fabulous, the history intriguing, and the views stunning. The jailhouse audio tour is particularly quality with interviews with guards and prisoners and details of daily prison life and dramatic escape attempts. It is well worth the trip for visitors and residents of San Francisco alike!

The cell block. *

A typical cell.

So close and yet so far. *

Yes, this was staged. But he looks so realistically sad! *

We returned from Alcatraz feeling rather tuckered out, but after lunch and a siesta we rallied! And a good thing too because we had baseball tickets. I didn’t have Oakland colors, so instead showed off my inner Bostonian. Red Sox Nation represent! Nick is a baseball lover and all about hometown pride, so we arrived a full hour early specifically to go baseball hat shopping. We went on the hunt, visiting every souvenir store in the Coliseum, but nowhere was selling the hat of Nick’s choice at the right price. Probably should have opted for one of those $5 knockoffs being sold outside the subway. 
Root root root for the home team! *

West siiiide! (Or is it east side, since we’re in Oakland?… I’m so confused!) *

We are ridiculous, and very fashionable.

After a thorough assessment of dining options (including the discovery of the mother of all hot sauce–a one gallon jug of Cholula!), we both got sausages and Sierra Nevada beers and brought them back to our section. The stadium was virtually empty, an odd thing for a team about to secure the division title and head to the playoffs. No one was seated in the front five rows of our section, so we hung out for a few minutes for a photo op. I was about to make a joke to Nick about the American baseball custom of squatting in empty seats when an usher kicked us out. Flustered, I spilled my $11 beer.

There’s a yuppie foodstamp’s worth of beer and sausage. Do you know how many bottles of Flor de Caña I could buy for that?! That answer is two and a half. Two and a half!!*

I pouted. $11 is a lot to loose on my daily budget. I really wanted a beer to go with my sausage, but could I really justify the expense a second time? I decided to plead my case to the bartender, an older woman who Nick had charmed not ten minutes prior. But when I got there she was nowhere to be seen. I spotted a gentleman bartender I had talked with briefly and decided to try my luck with him. I had my story prepared, ready to jog his memory and then launch into my tale of woe. “Hello again,” he said, already remembering me thus rendering the beginning of my speech moot. Thrown for a loop, I stuttered into the body of my argument, and he shook his head with disapproval at us sitting in other people’s seats. My chances looked grim. Just as I was getting to the punchline–will you please give me another beer for free?–a stout man wearing a traffic guard-orange vest labeled “ALCOHOL POLICE” came up behind him. Oh shit. I turned my attention to the alcohol policeman, concluding my statement with, “…and it made me really sad.” I gave my very best puppy dog eyes. He leaned in closer and grunted, “what kinda beer wereya drinkin’, honey?” YES!!!!

Over the course of the next few hours, Nick melted into a puddle of baseball-appreciating ooze, illuminating to me the most important person on the field. “The pitcher is the heart of the team. He’s the one who puts it all together.” Ten minutes later: “Now, the catcher, oh, he’s the brains behind the whole operation.” Another ten minutes went by: “But you know who’s really in charge out there? The third base coach!…” I had fits of uncontrollable giggling, fueled by mascot Stompy the elephant appearing next to us and whipping the crowd into a frenzy. “Erin, I know it’s just a man in an elephant suit, but the people are responding to him like a pagan GOD!!!” We aren’t allow to talk anymore, this is all just too funny. Tell me in broad strokes… how are we getting home?

Take us out to the ballgame! *

Deliciousness. *
The morning after we were headed to wine country. First, we fortified ourselves with a brunch of bialys and Reuben sandwiches at one of my favorite spots, Wise Sons deli in the mission. Their bialys are crisp and chewy, their pastrami delectably savory. Extra pickles please! Mmmm…
One of my fave spots, off the beaten track in the Mission. *

One of Nick’s passions is wine, and California wine country was always a draw for him on this trip. (Offering them up *may* have been one of my early tactics to get him on board with a trip–bwahaha! :-P) While it was cloudy in the city, it was beautiful in Sonoma! We headed to Russian River in search of pinots and were quite successful.

Pro tip: wine tasting in Sonoma and Napa is expensive, running $5-20 a pop. Two ways around this: pick up free tasting coupons at a visitor center or flash your Visa Signature credit card for two free tastings at dozens of wineries. (Most of the time they don’t even ask for a card, you just mention the deal and they start pouring.) Doing so turns a pricey day into a cheap one!

Not a bad way to spend a Friday. *

Gorgeous Russian River countryside. *

Entering a wine cave. *

Cheers! *

There she is! *

Ah, Sonoma. *

Our traveling duo temporarily parted ways for two days, and I headed back to wine country sans Nick, this time to Napa via Sausalito with a fellow burner for a red wine and crawdad party. Threatened by rain earlier in the day, the evening ended up picturesque and a pleasure. We drove up in a car still covered in playa dust with bins of gear still in the trunk, sharing stories from the burn. We arrived to a beautiful diner set out in the vineyard of Hall winery, were welcomed and beaded a la Mardi Gras. We quickly found wine and made friends, eating cornbread with our fingers while huddling under a heat lamp at our secret VIP table. And even at a posh Napa wine party, a couple of burners can find amusement  in quirky large-scale art, in this case large huts made of twisted branches like giant bird nests. The evening was a treat of great wine, gorgeous ambiance amongst the vines, and delightfully mischievous company. 
“Childhood Dreams” Not the one I saw, but beautiful and captures that nighttime ambiance. Photo credit:
On Nick’s last full day in North America before returning to Australia, we reconnected over–what else–football at the pub. We enthusiastically caught up over the happenings of the past two days, then the mood turned nostalgic. It was the end of his seven-month trip in Central and North America. We realized this trip that each of us had been the other’s #2 travel buddy in terms of time spent together on both of our respective trips, not too shabby. 
It was truly fun and also a bit weird to have Nick in California, my old home; it was like two worlds colliding, Central America and “real” life, me now and me then. Though we traveled for weeks together in Central America, I feel this leg of the trip solidified our travel buddy awesomeness and friendship. With a sincere farewell I dropped him off. It was hard to see him go. I felt withdrawal immediately. Mi vida, I love ya and miss you already! See you on the flip side of the world soon.

Travel buddy love. Heart! *
* Photos courtesy of Nicholas Cooper.

Route 1 Road Trip Day Three: from beautiful Big Sur to picturesque Pigeon Point

I continue my road trip up the California coast via Route 1 with my travel buddy Nick, check out Day One and Day Two.


After our big night out in Cambria, we took the advice of our new local friends and hit up the Redwood Cafe for breakfast. Nick was tickled by the brown leather bar stools, Americana kitch, and bottomless coffee. We ordered California benedict with hash browns (a must!) and Nick’s first order of biscuits and gravy. We were sparing no calories on this trip! The hot sauce bandits struck again.

Displaying the goods. Why yes, I will take another refill, thank you. *

Serious about my biscuits and gravy! To the uninitiated they may look ugly, but they are cheap, tasty, and even better with hot sauce. *

We left town, but not before a celebratory jumping pic in front of the town sign on the side of the highway. Discussions of proper jump-photo variations and techniques ensued… these are the top priorities that our traveler minds are occupied with.

Jumping for love of Cambria!

Our 4 hour route for the day, Cambria to Pigeon Point. Better get moving!

Ten minutes up the road from Cambria is Hearst Castle, the mega-mansion of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. I had seen the little brown signs on the highway and was all about checking it out. Little did I know what I was getting us into: it is an Attraction, with a capital A. I thought we could pull up, see the house, be on our way. But no, it’s a $25 ticket with guided tour and the house is only accessible by tram. Instead of a pit stop, this would be a three hour major detour. So we played in the ridiculous enormous and random gift shop, looked at postcards and calendars to pretend we had actually seen the grounds, and rocked out.

Because what better says I visited (or in our case, didn’t) Hearst Castle than a giant pencil or whale shark toy?
Shortly up the road we stopped to gawk at a beach full of elephant seals chillin’. Question is, do they have a gift shop? Indeed they did, in the form of a volunteer selling elephant seal mugs and stuffed toys at a card table.
Elephant seals taking it easy. Occasionally one would splash itself with sand, or an energetic youngster might hop a few feet. I cheered them on.
The drive up was perfectly picturesque. The sun, the water, the land… all incredibly beautiful. Driving through the neighborhood of Big Sur–with a full tank of gas, mind you–was an utter joy. We stopped at many a lookout point to enjoy the scenery.
Utterly gorgeous coastline. *

Check out that beautiful kelp. If we can gotten our acts together, we would have gone diving in it. *

Me and the ol’ Honda. She’s doing pretty great! *

Stunning views for hours. *

Nick took a turn at the wheel, happily navigating the racetrack-like curves of Route 1 through the oceanside cliffs. I DJed, introducing him to one of my favorite bands of all time: super-mega group 2Ge+her. 2Ge+her is the Monkees of my generation, a made-for-TV parody boy band who had a movie and show on MTV in the late 1990’s. And they are FANTASTIC. If you are unfamiliar, you must improve your life immediately and watch this and this. We grooved to their sweet beats, doubling over laughing more often than not, with most of the lyrics and dance moves coming back to me easily even though I hadn’t listened to many of the songs in years. Then Nick remembered that he lost his driver’s license in Vegas seven months prior. Whoops. Time for a driver change.

Sharing driving responsibilities, briefly.

I love the California coastline hills. *

Big Sur, you are lovely!! *

We pit stopped in Monterey for a late lunch. Out on Old Fisherman’s Warf, we sampled chowder slurps from various restaurants, then had a mediocre chowder and fish and chips lunch with a pithy “VIP” calamari appetizer. Oh well, not brilliant cuisine, but part of the experience I suppose. We watched the gulls, pelicans, and sea lions from our window table. But the far and away highlight of the meal? Nick’s fantastical instruction of his personal strategies and opinions on how to eat an Australian meat pie. From his well-versed description, I came up with my own (perhaps foolhardy) ideas of how to eat my first meat pie down under, stubbornly different than his tried-and-true technique perfected over three-plus decades. He cautioned me on the many obstacles ready to thwart an unsuspecting novice, but I’m ready to take it on… sounds like an adventure to me!

Monterey Bay harbor. *

Sampling chowder along Old Fisherman’s Warf. It’s apparently a thing. *
We arrived at Pigeon Point, just north of Santa Cruz, home to a historic lighthouse and cozy hostel. We checked in, were instructed on all of the Hostel International rules (and their lax enforcement), dropped our things off in the dorm, and then went out to the lookout to check out the sunset. As we approached the boardwalk, Nick pointed, “look!”. A grey whale was breaching right off the point in front of us. He continued to frolic until dusk, delighting the many whale watchers on shore. 

Stunning Pigeon Point vista. *
Nick taking in the sunset.

One of the hostel “rules” is no alcohol. We had been given a nudge nudge wink wink on this at check in, so I snuck some beer from the cooler in the trunk and sipped it discretely from a coffee cup throughout the night. It was so relaxing to quietly chill out on our spectacular balcony. When finished, I weighed my options: put beer bottles in the recycling or discretely pack them out. I opted for the former and laughed when I opened the bin; it was filled to the brim with wine and beer bottles. Guess I wasn’t the only one ninja drinking!

Just ninja drinking beer out of a coffee cup at sunset, nbd. *

Pigeon Point was a peaceful retreat. Nick and I criss-crossed periodically throughout the night, but spent most of the evening having individual quiet time, a travel necessity periodically. When our paths did cross, one of us would say out of the blue “Don’t do it! It’s a bad idea!” with a bit of a smirk. We had had enough DNMs throughout the trip that we both knew what the other was thinking without talking anymore. I curled up in a wool Army surplus blanket and talked on the phone out on the porch for over an hour, then actually got into the kitchen and cooked dinner. He found a spot on the couch and caught up on Dexter episodes (you still owe me a bag of chips and a Black Books viewing party, man!). The evening closed with a hot shower and soft bed; it felt wonderful.

Our adventure continues on Day Four when we arrive in San Francisco! Coming soon…

* Photos courtesy of Nicholas Cooper.

Route 1 Road Trip Day Two: Near Catastrophe, Hot Sauce Banditry, and the Coolest Kids in Cambira

I continue my road trip up the California coast via Route 1 with my travel buddy Nick, check out Day One of the trip.


I awoke to the sounds of the ocean against the rocks just feet from our tent at Faria Beach. Being the portrait addicts we are, we spent a few minutes taking panorama photos (I needed five tries to perfect the pivot-method) on the beach before quickly breaking camp down and booking it back to the highway.

Nick is so much better at the panorama pivot technique! 

Neither of us were crazy hungry so we decided to forgo an immediate breakfast and drive to Santa Barbara. But you know what, there are *no* backpacker budget spots in fancy-schmancy downtown Santa Barbara! None at least that we could find. After driving around the posh main streets, we cut our losses and drove out of town, sure we could find something on the road north.

So we drove. And drove. But no luck. My gas light came on, but every station we passed was incredibly expensive. $4.50 a gallon?! They’re selling it back in Oregon for $3.65, and you get full service. We kept going. The next town listed on highway signage was Gaviata. If has a sign then it must have a gas station, right? Apparently not when your town has a population of less than 100… we blew through the two buildings that comprised “downtown”. After about a half hour we reached a fork in the highway: Route 1 or Highway 101? This is a Route 1 road trip, is it not? It was just a few miles after we took that fateful fork that I started truly worrying about gas. The next marked town was over 30 miles away and there was nothing but beautiful countryside around us. Gorgeous, but in our case potentially disastrous. I began fuel conservation techniques and coasting downhill. Nick quietly contained his panic in the passenger’s seat. The car jerked when I floored it going uphill. We had a team meeting. There were cars on this highway, scattered houses in the hills; if we needed it we could get help. I have AAA roadside assistance. We had food and shelter with us. Hell, we could live out here for a week if we had to! Still, we both hoped for salvation in the form of the town ahead of us–Lompoc.

1.5 tense hours before breakfast…

Signage appeared: Lompoc, the town of arts and flowers, population 42,434. It has a nickname! If it has a nickname, it’s pretty sure to also have a gas station. And surely all of those people need to eat somewhere! We coasted into town, filled the car with gas first thing, then stopped at the attractively named Budget Cafe for a late breakfast. Hash browns, pancakes, and bad coffee, here we come! The heavyset man in the booth across from us was wearing farmer overalls and marbled rainbow crocks; we probably looked just as odd to him with our traveler singlets and unusual jewelry choices. To each their own. Walking out of the diner, Nick quizzed me on the name of the town. Um, Lanpinc? It’s got an N and C in there somewhere, don’t tell me… turns out he didn’t remember either. It took us days to accurately remember the name of the town that saved our butts.

Relief and refreshment in the form of coffee, pancakes, hash browns, poached eggs, and breakfast meats. *

Perhaps it was our near brush was danger. Perhaps it was the caffeine from cup after cup of diner coffee. Perhaps we just needed a mission. But here a prank elevated to a crime spree. We set a goal: sneak (ok, steal) a bottle of hot sauce from every restaurant we visited along the road, the fuller the bottle the better and no duplicate brands if at all possible. The hot sauce bandit gang was born.

We continued to drive. Less than an hour later, we hit Oceano and the holy grail of Nick’s search for classic American diners appeared: a 1950’s themed rock ‘n roll diner in an old railroad car. It didn’t matter that we had eaten recently. There was no way we were missing this.

Diner in a railroad car? I literally turned the car around. *

One half of the hot sauce bandits, casing the joint… and ordering milkshakes. *

Vanilla malted for me, cherry oreo for Nick.

I bounced on the red and silver vinyl seat to oldies tunes. We got thick milkshakes with the overflow served up in a cold steel mixing container. The hot sauce bandits were almost foiled: there was no hot sauce on the table and asking for hot sauce when ordering only milkshakes might seem suspicious. Still, we exited victorious.

Success! So begins the littering of my car with bottle of open, pilfered (dare I say “hot”?) hot sauce.

We decided to stop driving in the early afternoon so we could siesta and then have a big Monday Night Football pub crawl in some cool small town. Our pick: Cambria. Described in our tourist literature as “Rising from a rocky shoreline into pine-covered hills, the arty village of Cambria has a creative, natural spirit shaped equally by ocean and forrest. In many ways, Cambria is a throwback to simpler times. A lawn bowling pitch occupies a prominent place in the heart of town, and numerous historic buildings survive from Cambria’s early days as a center for whaling, logging, and mining…” Words were thrown around like ‘irresistible’ and ‘perfect base’. We scoped downtown and were satisfied by the number of taverns on the main strip that would likely be showing the game.

We pitched the tent on the windy hills of Washburn camping area in San Simeon State Park with the help of a pretty killer rock, then took a quick nap/journal break. The site was properly Californian with those beautiful dusky browns and scrubby greens that I love, clouds rolling in from the Pacific but never quite reaching us, and just the right mix of sunshine and breeze.

Our pretty and peaceful campsite at Washburn campground.

By the time kick off came around (Steelers vs. Bengals), we were at a great pub called Mozzi’s Saloon with pints in hand, asking what’s the deal with Stonehenge, buying Alcatraz and baseball tickets online, and giving requests of our favorite country music to our new friends with jukebox DJ power. I noticed a crockpot and hot dog buns at the far end of the bar, which can only mean one thing: chili dogs! And for $1.50 too. Love small towns with their reasonable pricing. I learned back in Utila that chili doesn’t exist in Australia–shocking!–but had forgotten until Nick began to question me. (He would later return the cultural-exchange favor with tips on how to eat a meat pie and properly cuddle a koala. I can’t wait to do both!!) I gave him the low down and set him free to pop his chili dog cherry. He did so with gusto. Another round of beer, and we were talking in Southern accents like I, I say, I never ever do! Oh, and I must mention that their selection of hot sauce was phenomenal. 😉

About to dig into my chili dog!

My word, look at all that beautiful hot sauce… *

From there we crawled. Enchilada happy hour where we had another DNM and added to our hot sauce collection again, a steak house that we rejected as too expensive, a pie joint where we made new friends fast, and finally to the Cambria Ale House, the perfect ending point. A cozy yet happening pub all about the beer, I got a great sampler of local brews and Nick had a stellar double chocolate stout. We went home happy after a kick ass night out. Everywhere we had gone the locals were friendly and the beer was cold. Cambria, you are one awesome small town that can rock it on a Monday night. Oh, and I think some football happened too?

On Day Three we drove the most picturesque part of the trip through the stunning Big Sur coastline. More coming soon…

* Photos courtesy of Nicholas Cooper.

Route 1 Road Trip Day One: Travel Buddy Reunion, Beach Camping, and Sunday Night Football

The next adventure during the fall of my Glorious Return to America was a California road trip months with one of my most favorite travel buddies, Mr. Nick Cooper. We realized we both had the interest and availability in such a trip way back in April, shortly after we met on the road in Guatemala for the second time, and had been brainstorming ever since. Our plan began as a three-week American west National Parks road trip (which still must happen, Nick!) and evolved into a California Route 1/San Francisco trip. We were both super keen and had already tested our travel buddy compatibility in Nicaragua. September was the perfect time; let’s go for a road trip.

The thing about me and Nick is that we get on like gangbusters. We could spend the entire day drinking beer, a mix of talking shit and DNMs (for the non-Aussies, that’s “deep and meaningful”, conversations where Australian men actually open up about their feelings), and laughing our asses off. Actually, we could do that for multiple days and in fact did on this trip. It’s a beautiful thing to find someone who you both adore and travel well with. We’re so on the same page on travel interests and decision-making it’s ridiculous. Yes, my posts about this trip are going to be travel buddy love-fests, so it is the perfectly appropriate time for me to give the following note of caution…

WARNING: This Route 1 series of posts contains a high concentration of super adorable team pics. It may be too much awesome for some people to handle. What can I say, it’s how we roll. 😛

Team Nick and Erin! Kicking things off at the Getty. The first of many rockin’ duo selfie photos. *


So. I picked Nick up in Burbank, where he was visiting one of his countless friends around the globe met while on another beautiful travel adventure. He jumped into my car and we immediately fell into non-stop talking and laughter. It felt amazing to be in the company of another true traveler again, someone who was THERE in Central America, someone who understands! Someone who rocked up to my car wearing a goddamn Skid Row t-shirt. LOVE! We had much catching up to do since our last parting two months prior in Nicaragua so grabbed pumpkin beer and sandwich fixins from Trader Joe’s and went to the Getty Center for an afternoon picnic.

On the Getty lawn, enjoying capsicum and smuggled in pumpkin beer, the perfect picnic.

First team meeting: discussion of goals for the trip. Nick is from Australia and California was his last stop on a seven-month Central and North America trip. He has a passion for experiencing the epitome of whatever is local wherever he is. On this road trip, the name of the game was classic Americana culture–think bad diner coffee, football, beer, and bar food–and Californian natural beauty.

Progress, day one.

We intended to camp in San Louis Obispo on night one, but spent longer than anticipated having too much fun catching up all afternoon at the Getty. Driving along the coast, we just escaped the greater Los Angeles surrounds at dusk and hunted for anywhere to pitch the tent. We found Faria Beach, five minutes north of Ventura. We quickly pitched my palatial 10’x12′ tent, still dusty from Burning Man, and hit the rocky beach with beer in hand just in time for sunset.

Route 1, here we come! *

Not a bad first night spot. *

After watching the sun set over the Pacific, we drove through Ventura searching for the Yelp-recommended greasy spoon diner Nick had selected. The one we wanted was oddly closed, but as luck would have it right next door was a Red Robin, a Seattle-based burger institution and one of my old high school date-night standards. I am constantly amazed at how many things that I used to do in high school to save money are back in vogue for me personally now that I don’t have an income. Sometimes I feel like such a kid! One of Red Robin’s major thriftiness selling points is their bottomless french fries. As another cheap backpacker, Nick appropriately appreciated the awesomeness. Pro tip: order your burgers, then ask for your first batch of fries as a free appetizer. To top it off, we had some great local beer and the Seahawks annihilated the 49ers. Even though we’re celebrating California this trip, I felt Seattle pride!

First beers at the bar in front of a football game, but far from the last! (I think we did 4 in 8 days.) *

Hello bottomless fries and varied array of condiments. Red Robin, I love you. *

That night, I fell asleep happy to the sound of the ocean crashing against the rocks just outside the tent.

On Day Two, the adventure continued–with a near brush with disaster–from Ventura to the super cool small down of Cambria.

* Photos courtesy of Nicholas Cooper.