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A WARM, SNOWY WELCOME TO CHICAGO

November 23, 2014

Everything was so… great! Chicago’s skyscrapers loomed over, surrounded, and cast their shadows on my face. They didn’t seem so daunting from inside the plane. The Floridian in me quivered. No city of this size (and height) existed in the Sunshine State. But no… we were going to conquer this city!

View of the skyline from the Navy Pier

View of the skyline from the Navy Pier

BF Shoes and I had been looking for an affordable flight to a place we’d never been before. Not only was Chicago unknown territory for us, but we only had four days– we decided to be total tourists on the beaten path. Ready? GO!

FREEZING THE FLORIDIAN

Our landing coincided with an unusually sudden cold front for November. Just four hours ago we were basking in 70 degree Florida temperatures. Now snow flurries laughed in our faces in the 30 degree temps. No wonder the flight was empty… Using Lyft, our more-Pakistani-than-English-speaking driver brought us from Midway Airport to our AirBnB home-from-home. I gazed in awe at the skyscrapers zipping outside the car before we landed along the Riverfront.

God bless AirBnB! Outside our window 30 floors up, we had an excellent view of the Riverfront below framed by impressive buildings and surrounded by falling snow. Wait… forget the view for a moment… we were starving! To add further irritation, we became lost walking the sub terrain streets of Chicago—what the heck was this?!—it’s like a gigantic tunnel BENEATH the action where you can also pass through and park. Eventually we stumbled into our first taste of Chicago food. Despite being a chain, Giordano’s is still Chicago-based and welcomed us with some classic Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza.

Giordano's Classic Pizza

A classic, Deep Dish Pizza from Giordano’s

CURIOSITY AND THE CHICAGO CULTURAL CENTER

The next morning, a sign labeled ‘Visitor Center’ beckoned us into a large building. Although the tourists’ exhibits weren’t vast, curiosity pulled us around the corner and into the Chicago Cultural Center – a community area scattered with small galleries, NPR ties, and meeting tables. In an upstairs ballroom we were treated to young contemporary dancers entertaining the curious audience. All of this was housed inside a vast, historical building with grand carvings in the archways.

Chicago Cultural Center

The Chicago Cultural Center housed several types of arts.

A MILL OF THRILLS- MILLENNIUM PARK

No visit to Chicago is complete without attempting a creative selfie in front of Cloud Gate—aka ‘The Bean’—that iconic, large, kidney-shaped art installment covered in reflective metal. Don’t worry, you won’t be alone. After using too many megabytes filled with every angle of The Bean and the surrounding skyline, we visited other residents of Millennium Park. Further south Red Bull featured a pop-up gallery dedicated to sculptures created entirely from its cans—with some free Red Bull for drinking naturally.

The grand, concert field (with an impressive stage) was empty during the visit and a nearby grand fountain stood empty. Guarded by expressionless faces carved into tall thin panels (a modern day Easter Island) an empty lot stood between building-sized screens playing various faces. During the season, water spews out of the mouths from the screens and into the lot for visitors to play in.

[Left and top right] Must enjoy the icon Bean [Bottom right] Exhibit from the Red Bull Can of Art

[Left and top right] Must enjoy the icon Bean [Bottom right] Exhibit from the Red Bull Art of Can

EAR POPPING NOT OPTIONAL- SKYDECK* (WILLIS TOWER)

One minute. That’s how long it took the elevator to bring us to the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower (formerly tallest building in the world but currently 12th). While grand views of Chicago can be seen from all the floor-to-ceiling windows wrapping around the floor, the real attractions are the three ‘skydecks’—glass boxes jutting away from the Tower allowing guests to get surrounded on four sides by the view. Chicago is… vast! By visiting Skydeck on our first day, I really got to appreciate the city’s greatness and felt more eager to go back and immerse myself in what I could see.

Chicago's Skydeck

I’m floating over the city! J/K I’m just in one of the Skydecks

Hungry, we stopped at the nearby Pierogi Heaven to nosh on steaming Polish Sausages surrounded by creamy Sauerkraut, Fried Onions, and Mashed Potatoes while also nibbling Pierogis stuffed with Potato and Cheese or Beef and Spinach.

A GHOST TOWN OF RIDES– NAVY PIER

Mostly closed for the season. Then again, what mad soul wanted to ride a Ferris Wheel into the source of the snow flurries? All the brightly lit rides sat idly and cast an eerie glow on those walking by. Only the large building housing the Children’s Museum contained life. The restaurants and shops inside were open but the only thing catching our attention was the large, dark greenhouse in the back. We left quickly. The best part of Navy Pier during this season were the great views of the Chicago skyline pushed against the water.

WINDING DOWN THE DAY

Tray from Henry's Swing Club

Tray from Henry’s Swing Club– too dim in here to really capture the food’s beauty

I immediately loved the vibe at Henry’s Swing Club. It was loud, fun, and hipster where the art on the walls extended to the art in the food and the servers. With most food offerings being less than $4, you’re tempted to order a lot and it was a great way to taste many culinary delights. Among our tray sat mini Burgers (bigger than sliders) filled with Teriyaki Pork and Kimchee, Fried Chicken drizzled in Honey, and Lamb topped with spicy Tzatziki sauce.

Afterwards we sampled a Beer Flight from nearby Rock Bottom Brewery and Restaurant. Although this brand was also a chain, the Beers were still made in-house, the brewery was the closest to Downtown, and we craved Crafts.

Walking home, we ran into the Chicago Tribune building where large stones from important locations were embedded into the walls. We were delighted to find a rock labeled from Corregidor in the Philippines. Represent!

Walking everywhere made us feel like we had been in Chicago forever. The day had been more packed than expected. I quickly fell asleep with the twinkling lights of the city spread outside my window.

*Admission to Skydeck was part of our purchased Chicago CityPass which allowed admission to five distinctly Chicago venues at a discounted rate. Keep watch as we use up the rest of the CityPass.

I’m an experiencer. Not a foodie or a traveler. Give me the experience.
Twitter: @Pyra_Danny
Instagram: @Pyra_Experiences
WordPress blog: wwwPYRAwww
Fotki Photos: Pyra-Ako

FLIFF – SHUNNED

November 17, 2014

“I just want people to understand.”

Villarosa stands in front of her movie's poster

Villarosa stands in front of her movie’s poster

Years later near flashy Downtown Ft. Lauderdale and promoted by a blinking theater poster at the Cinema Paradiso, Janice Villarosa calmly took her seat behind the audience. Her visual creation was about to be understood by an eager crowd.

Shunned is Villarosa’s first feature documentary. For three years this South Californian interviewed, recorded, and followed a group of Transgendered women in the Philippines while also directing and producing the project. Now Shunned was slowly makings its way to film festivals around the world before finally arriving on my side of the planet at the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival. Did I mention Villarosa is a relative? There’s no way I’d pass a chance to support a creative relative.

Although the movie began with some provocative dancing by several of the cast, Shunned quickly became a heart-wrenching look into the pains and struggles faced by the young women as they retold their transformation from boy to girl. Their struggles went beyond bullying; we learn of a rape, of familial rejections, and struggles in relationships.

Shunned - Mini FlierBut among the sadness there were moments of joy as well as unexpected laughter. “I would never cut off my penis,” one gorgeous lady laughs admittingly. Another lady loudly shares her outlooks on life amidst bouts of laughter. The ladies don’t wallow in their struggles. They are sexy, beautiful, and confident.

Shunned - Hanging PosterHowever, for most of my viewing I kept wondering—was Shunned a good speaking voice for Transgenders in America? I’m sure the family struggles and bullying were similar, but I wondered at some striking differences. What about how all of Shunned’s ladies were gorgeous and almost all of them worked as dancers or pageant queens? When you look like a typical model, less people are likely to stop and gape at you. And in America, working as a dancer is not an ‘inspiring’ line of work. More relatable Transgenders would come from fields such as business people, teachers, firefighters, or politicians. Furthermore there weren’t any Transgender men… only women. Villarosa voiced her difficulties at even getting close to this group of Philippine women—many didn’t want to come forward. If she had created her documentary in America the research would probably have been easier.

Still, Shunned managed to deliver many parts of a bigger picture—some of its women were accepted by their families while others were not. One had a child while another had a boyfriend. Some mentioned God while others didn’t. Shunned seemed to be telling three stories about being Transgender in one film. One story followed the lives of the women while the other story showed the struggles of the Transgenders via dancing away from burdens and the third story reenacted the women’s struggles told through a young boy slowly embracing his feminimity. While each was delivered well, the cuts between all three lines seemed rather sudden although they were meant to support each other’s story.

When the lights returned, waves of viewers thanked Villarosa for broadening their understanding. The faces of the audience seemed to show all walks of life. One particular lady was a Transgender standing tall in a fitted dress and leggings. She smiled as she spoke to Villarosa.

 

Background: The author Pyra-Danny is a very conservative Catholic (by her own choice and studies—not because of family). She is not writing to begin a debate on a Catholic’s stance on Transgenders. She’s merely writing a general review on a movie documentary.

A ONE-HOUR RACE AGAINST ALCOHOL

October 26, 2014
This station contained Sakes... and MORE

Just us, a glass, and a lot of alcoholThe list of available beverages practically covered the sheet! I was horrified. Every few feet was another station manned by a smiling attendant. More alcohol to try. My hand holding the empty wine glass trembled. My two-wine-glasses-a-week liver hissed. Yet everyone was laughing and chatting.

My more alcohol-tolerant friends had invited to this event at South Tampa’s ABC Fine Wine and Spirits. For only $10 (including a souvenir glass) a large variety of alcoholic beverages were available for sampling—Vodka, Sake, Beer, etc—and Wine of course. As a budding wino, I jumped at the chance to learn from the more experienced. The parking lot was packed! Luckily this ABC location was bigger than most of its sister stores and much more clean, modern, and new. With an hour left to the event, BF Shoes and I stumbled inside late… we had a lot to experience in a little time.

With only an hour remaining my group took on the perimeter stations beginning with the lone Beer table. With a half dozen Craft choices, I made sure to try Harpoon’s Pumpkin Ale (gotta stick with the season’s offerings although I would’ve preferred a stronger Pumpkin and Spices flavor) as well as a Swamphead Smoked Porter (keeping it local now). A smaller handful of popular cold Sake like Nigori and Rei followed. Suddenly these tasted much stronger and smoother and began my descent into dizziness.

This station contained Sakes... and MORE

This station contained Sakes… and MORE

Sweet Red CatSeveral Cabernets (like Handcraft and Justin), Moscatos (Risata), and Merlots (darn I don’t remember) found their way into my glass. Each station was well-stocked with water pitchers to rinse out glasses as well as Bread to rinse out mouths. The attendants were patient, courteous and allowed us to discover our own tastes without pushing their particular brands. I’ve begun recognizing and appreciating more the little nuances in differing Wines (so that means I’ve graduated past the newbie stage) but there was no way to truly appreciate everything I tasted that night. Blame it on the lack of discussion between my friends after each sample, or no teacher telling me what to look for, or even too many styles and flavors in a short time period, and definitely blame it on the subtle countdown making us rush to try as much as we could during the time remaining.

Yet I could hear the volume from my friends growing louder as the hour flew by. More giggles escaped my throat. Maybe I couldn’t fully appreciate the tasting but I was having damn good fun! Another Cabernet by Belle Ambiance was followed by the sweet Red Cat. My more alcohol-weakling BF ran off to try and ease his liver with a snack from the Firehouse Subs station.

My two standouts from that night were the Orange Flavored Vodka by the local Florida Cane as well as the Apple Pie Moonshine by Ole Smokey. The Vodka had a great candy Orange flavor with a very mild Vodka taste—I would totally sip this during a party but this would also be great as shots. The Moonshine was insanely smooth and really tasted like Apple Pie—I imagined sipping this during cold holiday evenings. I don’t sip much Vodka or Moonshine so this was very new to me.

Three flavors of Moonshine to try

Three flavors of Moonshine to try

Well done ABC. I’ll definitely do this again. My Vino knowledge level actually grew and I met new people along the way because many of the tasters were eager to strike up conversations. Most important my friends and I had a great time. Next time I promise not to race against the clock and sip time slowly too.

ABC Fine Wine and Spirits Tasting Event
3015 W Kennedy Blvd, Tampa, FL 33609
Date of visit: Oct 23, 2014 6pm-8pm

Before and after taking a candy-tasting shot called "Porn Star" Whew!

Before and after taking a candy-tasting shot called “Porn Star” Whew!

Thanks for reading my Pyra-dise. I’m an experiencer. Not a foodie or a traveler. Follow this local explorer’s experiences at…
Twitter: @Pyra_Danny
Instagram: @Pyra_Experiences
WordPress blog: wwwPYRAwww
Fotki Photos: Pyra-Ako

HOWLING AND SCREAMING AT THE CURSE

October 7, 2014

Pouring rain, drifting fog and a crowd full of zombies, clowns, and man-eating plants couldn’t stop me from having fun. Howl-O-Scream just reeks of that giggly atmosphere all under the guise of a CURSED theme. Scary? Kinda. Instead of dwelling on that never-ending debate on “Which Florida event is scarier? Howl-O-Scream or Halloween Horror Nights?” (see my old response here) I’ll focus on the bottom line—I had a lot of fun. Here’s why.

Howl-O-Scream Entrance

With a lower budget and no ties to movies (compared to its eastern neighbor), Howl-O-Scream has instead been getting more creative recently and I’m really liking the shift. Looking back, most of the ideas seem silly and simple—but this is what memories are made of! Armed with two free tickets (not a bribe—I WON them from a Wiregrass contest. Thank you!) BF Shoes entered HOS during the 2nd Friday of its 2014 CURSED year.

TIMING AFFECTS EVERYTHING

What’s scarier than a snarling clown? Waiting in long lines!! To max out your HOS fun it’s best to go when there’s less crowds. Seriously—nothing but good comes out of that. The further away from Halloween you go the less crowded it will be (Unless it’s the very first weekend which tends to be a ‘preview/insanely-low-priced-admission’ weekend bringing in as much crowds as Christmas eve mall shopping) THERE’S MORE SURPRISES = With less people In front of you, the element of surprise won’t be ruined because everyone in front got scared first. FEAR IN NUMBERS = Sometimes I’d lose the person in front of me. AHHHH it felt like it was just me against a haunted house full of scares. SHORTER LINES = self explanatory. This goes for both the houses and the rides. Not only did we go the 2nd weekend of HOS 2014, but heavy rains kept out more crowds yet by our 9pm entrance it was clear skies. Despite the late entry we were STILL able to visit every house, watch the show, and take it easy all without buying the Quick Queue.

HOWL-O-SCREAM HOUSES
OoOoO so what scared me out there? Although the commercials were eerie, the actual CURSED area consisted of a mountain of old electronics watched over by gremlins wearing tights. (Gremlins do like electronics right?) But what does that have to do with a curse?

The Cursed Icon

It looks like a Gremlin on a mountain of old electronics to me.

There’s enough descriptions of the houses peppering the internet so instead I’ll mention anything that stood out to me. If a review isn’t mentioned it’s not because the house was bad—every single house made me leap a few times—but some houses had that extra OOMPH.

ZOMBIE CONTAINMENT UNIT 15 – simply and surprisingly fun. This new addition isn’t really a house but a warehouse containing zombies you have to shoot. After being split into groups of four, we were each handed a futuristic, plastic toy gun and released into the warehouse where you could render the charging zombies immobile for a few seconds if you shot at the light on their chest. Through the sirens, smoke, and crates it wasn’t complete chaos as the fences directed us through the undead reaching from both sides. Even though it wasn’t difficult- you could probably have walked the entire maze without ever firing and still be okay—there was something insanely fun about pretending to be part of the interaction and fighting back. I still felt fear whenever I came face to face with a zombie yet raced through like an action hero unfazed by my surroundings.

ZCU 15

Entrance to the new, interactive house: Zombie Containment Unit 15

DEADFALL – This is the second and final ‘new’ house. The majority takes place in a Victorian-esque garden. Most of those you’ll meet are the creepy, happily psychotic variety. Notably, I got startled from several large plants—really—Little Shop of Horrors anyone?

DEATH WATER BAYOU (escaping the Cajun curses), BLOOD ASYLUM (a psychotic killer loose in an asylum) and THE BASEMENT (killing and grinding up humans to make meaty meals) were good but not show-stopping. Both Blood Asylum and The Basement contained too many obviously fake body parts and blood it was almost distracting however I enjoyed tiny moments of The Basement more. The Basement contained a cool trick of forcing a guy into a stew amidst gluttonous chomping of human meat; the result turned my stomach into a vegetarian for the duration of the house.

THE EXPERIMENT is this year’s go-alone house. We held onto our money and skipped this upcharge.

ZOMBIE MORTUARY – From death to vengeance this was a mostly typical zombie paradise but there were a couple really good surprises resulting from the scares appearing over a doorway or at my legs.

CIRCUS OF SUPERSTITION – 3D glasses? I almost groaned aloud because past 3D houses in my HOS experience have been a waste of creativity. This ended up being one of my favorites not only because it used the disorienting aspect of the glasses well but the 3D effects blended well with the circus theme. Real clowns hiding among mannequins were a blurred together. My biggest and best scare came from this house—I won’t ruin the surprise but let’s just say it leapfrogged at me…

FIENDS (SHOW)
Normally I get some good LOLs from this HOS staple ripping on pop culture but this year it seemed every joke between the potty-minded Igor and Dr. Freakenstein only captured mild “hehes.” Perhaps it’s because the longest running joke there revolved around selfies. (I have nothing against the act but the multiple mentions of it bordered annoying) This time around Igor is looking for love. Once again the dancing was well done and straddled a thin border between contemporary and sexy. The naughty nurses in their pink wigs and bras stole many photo ops. When did this show totally get rid of its talented singers? Ah well, it wasn’t a deal-breaker but all the ‘singers’ lip-syncing while holding a mic seemed silly.

My tickets

Thanks for the tickets Shops at Wiregrass

THE SCAREZONES/ROAMING HORDES
Due to the threat of rain, most scare zones were devoid of scareactors but still spewed fog, eerie music, and flashing lights. However, the roaming hordes were in full swing ensuring you may run into the crazies even while waiting to buy ice cream. The best ones were perfectly disguised as bushes. Another particular group used an ice cream cart in a funny way…

GO WHILE THERE’S TIME
When you throw in the dance club by the entrance, scattered DJs, and plenty of thrill rides Howl-O-Scream delivers a lot for your admission. Now for a tiny scaredy-cat-Pyra confession… Although the scares chased me I handled it much better this time. The last time I entered a Halloween theme park event with BF Shoes we weren’t even in the ‘talking’ stage. Now not only did I have a human shield permanently attached to me, but I had someone to throw as bait if I wanted to run the other way… haha jk.

I apologize for the lack of good photos… it’s soooo hard to really capture the essence of this event.

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