Mardi Gras: The Ultimate Party

New Orleans, Louisiana

by Samantha Adler

New Orleans' Afterlife

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans, Louisana

by Samantha Adler

When in the Wild, Wild West

Deadwood, South Dakota

by Cassia Reynolds

The Wild, Wild West still thrives, albeit commercialized, in the teeny towns sprinkled along Interstate 90, which runs between the border of Wyoming and South Dakota. There are several almost-famous stops here: Rapid City (the gateway to Mount Rushmore), Sturgis (home of one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world), and Sundance (the namesake of the Sundance Kid and the film festival). It’s a strange place, both because of the rolling, open landscapes of next-to-nothing and the surprisingly abundant, random tourist attractions. (Including: Dinosaur Park, Bear Country USA, and The World Famous Corn Palace.)

And then there’s Deadwood, South Dakota: population < 1300. I’d never heard of it until I was actually on I-90, driving past it.

My friend (a North Dakota local) and I were searching for a good fishing spot when we saw a billboard for one of its gaming resorts.

“What’s a gaming resort? It sound so snazzy.” I asked, oh-so-naive.

“It’s a kind of all-inclusive casino with bars and food and stuff. It’s awesome.” She told me.

“Oh. You know, I’ve never been to a casino.”

“What?” Her voice pinged sharp with a hint of incredulity. It was then that I began to understand how integrated the gambling culture was in this part of the country.

“Not a real one. Never even gambled before.” I shrugged it off.

“Then let’s go.”  She said. It wasn’t a question.

When we pulled up to Deadwood, all thoughts of fishing long forgotten, we found ourselves in an unexpected wonderland of outlaw debauchery. I kid you not, downtown is ½ gaming resorts, ¼ Harley Davidson accessory stores, ⅛ specialty cigar shops, and ⅛ cowboy outfitters. It’s as niche American as it gets. Everything’s packed together on the winding main street, which is so outlandishly decorated that if someone had told me I had actually taken a wrong turn and ended up in Disney World’s Frontierland I would have been less surprised. All that was missing was Big Thunder Mountain and a sweaty man stuffed into a rodeo-style Mickey Mouse costume.

I wasn’t really sure where all the people had come from, seeing as we were in one of the least populated states in the USA, but Deadwood was bursting with tourists. Tattooed biker gangs in matching leather outfits, booted-and-hatted cowboys with legitimate bolo ties, families with crying children, and groups of elderly poker-aficionados swarmed the sidewalks. We were the ones out of place; two twenty-somethings wandering slack-jawed down the street, unable to comprehend this hedonistic paradise we’d stumbled upon. The question on our minds wasn’t what to do - it was what to do first.

We climbed down a metal staircase and through a dank stone hallway to the basement cigar and bar (really - there was a set of beer taps and everything) of Deadwood Tobacco Co.

Intricate etchings of Day-of-the-Dead-style skulls decorated the walls and the boxes that lined them. It was quiet down there, dark, cold, and the air was heavy with the smell of tobacco. A woman behind the counter watched in amusement as we perused the wide selection of Sweet Jane, Crazy Alice, and Fat Bottom Betty cigars, Deadwood Tobacco’s specialty. She gave us a you-total-newbies onceover before helping us pick out two mild, hand-rolled stogies.

Our next stop was a biker shop, where we browsed through piles of clearance-deal Harley Davidson paraphernalia. The 2015 Sturgis Rally had ended earlier in the month and the sales were glorious. They had everything a motorcycle enthusiast with a Harley fetish could desire: branded shot glasses, bandanas, corsets, belt buckles, gun vests, and assless leather chaps.

I couldn’t help myself and ended up snagging a particularly kitschy (or badass, depending on your taste) men’s 2015 Sturgis Rally cut-off vest with frayed sleeves with an image of a half-Native American half-wolf face superimposed on a dreamcatcher. I’m not a big souvenir person but this addition to my wardrobe felt particularly triumphant.

When in Rome, right? I thought to myself.

We finally made it to the gaming resort, smashing a couple of beers in the connected Irish pub before heading to the Blackjack tables. The casino was teeming with older folk, flashy machines, and waitresses wearing shiny dresses and balancing trays of free cocktails above their heads.

When I traded in my $20 for chips, I mentally prepared myself to lose it. I had no idea how to play Blackjack. But it turned out that I didn’t need to know how to play Blackjack to play Blackjack because everybody wanted everybody to win. It was a no-competition gambling experience, just me versus the odds. The whole table gave me sympathetic looks every time I lost (which was more often than not). I still walked away $20 poorer, but with a pleasant smile on my face.

On our way back to the parking garage, my friend and I waded through a crowd of people watching a dramatic duel reenactment. Men in old-timey Western outfits shouted at each other on the street and fired off fake guns that made very realistic noises. Children watched with wide eyes and parents clapped. I briefly wondered where all those kids went while the adults gambled in the casinos.

In conclusion, Deadwood is a funny little place paying homage to the great pioneers of old, the lawless gunslingers, and the badass Western stereotypes that we all want to channel a bit sometimes.

Lovely & Unkempt: The View on Cannon Street

Charleston, South Carolina

by Cassia Reynolds

Charleston is an emblem of southern charm and hospitality. The tea is sweet, the humidity is heavy, the tobacco is chewed, the catfish is fried. Whenever a foreigner asks where in the United States they should visit, it’s on the top of my list.

I’m not the only one that thinks so, either. Charleston was voted the #1 Best US City by Conde Nast Traveler (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011) and one of the World’s Best by Travel + Leisure (2015, 2014, 2013). It’s a unique, artsy, cultural hub, especially for a state as traditionally conservative and rural as South Carolina. There’s tons to do, but every time I visit (which is often because I only live an hour and forty-five minutes away), I always end up walking around, taking in the scenery.

The blocks are laden with slatted wood buildings, cobblestone alleys worn from hundreds of years of use, intricate columns, and hand-painted signs. And the further you go away from the busy downtown, the more gritty it gets. If you just stay by the historical district, it’s like visiting Manhattan and only checking out Times Square and Central Park. There’s just so much more to see. If you want to get a real feel for this good ol’ southern city, make your way inland.

On Cannon Street, some of the arched porches are so old the wood has become warped and curved. Many homes wear a crumbling mask of cracked paint chips, the molding beams seemingly held together only by the glue-like grip of the kudzu vines twisted up the sides. But the area doesn’t appear totally abandoned: a faded fence frames a garden crowded with pink blossoms; there is a set of shiny, pastel-painted shutters on one corner; a hammock woven from fuchsia cloth hangs in the shade of a particularly plain brick house.

These little bright bits of humanity, quirky and colorful, radiate positive vibes. There’s a soft heartbeat that pulses from this place, a faint lifeblood still pumping through the dusty veins of this half-dilapidated neighborhood.

My favorite building on the street is a large, traditional, white, two-story, colonial-style structure. It stands out even among other similar buildings because of its spotless, perfect upkeep, and the intricacy of the carved wooden decorations that overhang the ledges. A classic wide bay window overlooks the second floor balcony. It’s one of those places that feels rich with history, and is so well-maintained that it must be loved by the owners. It’s also a business; the little sign dangling out front reads “Dorothy’s” in curly script, and underneath “HOME FOR FUNERALS” in blocky lettering.

Before I came across Dorothy’s, I’d only seen funeral homes set in drab brick buildings. You know, very formal and pretty empty of personality. I’d never come across such a quaint setting for dealing with such a serious business as death. And the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of Dorothy’s. The name, the intimacy of the neighborhood house, and the fresh garden of flowers out front all emanated an aura of hope.

And isn’t that kind of necessary when mourning - a reminder that there’s still so much life?

Dorothy’s Home for Funerals exemplifies Charleston’s vibrant nature, the one that I’ve come to appreciate so much. It’s that essence of comfort, embodying the warm, cheerful character of southern hospitality and the traditional grace of southern charm. And even more than that, it’s the spirit of optimism and the “gung-ho-carry-on” attitude that is so much a southern outlook on life.


Cigarros Cubanos: an Exploration of the American Dream

Little Havana, Miami, Florida

by Cassia Reynolds

Some people dislike the amount of Spanish language that’s crept into mainstream American culture. Me? I fucking love it. Lo amo. Dame más. When I dwell on what gives America so much of its unique color and spice, I always come back to its history as a global melting pot, a progressive nation of culturally-distinct individuals whose diverse backgrounds only add flavor to day-to-day life.

I’m also innately biased. I’m a first generation American; my mother is from Naguilian, a riverside village nestled between the mountains of the northern Philippines. I actually visited her birthplace for the first time earlier this year on a solo-journey to discover my roots. (Read more here.) It was an eye-opening experience and it gave me a deep appreciation for the opportunities I have here in my own homeland.

But what does any of this have to do with anything at all? Well, today I’m writing about Little Havana, a neighborhood that sits in Miami-Dade county, where about 50% of America’s Cuban and Cuban-American population resides.* Little Havana is not just home to Cubans, however. 94% of the population is Hispanic, and includes Nicaraguans, Hondurans, and Colombians, among others.*

Everything in Little Havana is in Spanish; from the store names spelled out in big block letters to the live music blasting from the bars in the middle of the afternoon. There are funky, Spanish-style, pastel-painted homes with burnt orange clay rooftops. Open cafes sell pastillas and empanadas wrapped in crinkly paper. Coffee shops offer teeny glasses of cafecito: strong, sweetened Cuban espresso shots. And right on Calle Ocho, the main artery of the district, is Dominos Park, where elderly men wearing starched, embroidered guayabera shirts and straw fedoras gamble around plastic tables.

Walking down Calle Ocho felt like stepping out of America and into another country. I loved experiencing a totally different culture without spending the time and money to travel overseas. Myself and a friend/fellow tourist, Christina, had only walked two blocks before we were serenaded by a man playing guitar and whistling through a leaflute and then given a lesson on famous salsa singers by several young men. The group, also visitors to Miami, then asked us to take their photos by the engraved stars of The Latin Walk of Fame that decorates Calle Ocho’s blocks.

We wandered toward the dark awning of Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co and into the shop for two reasons. 1) Because we were on a mission: Christina’s boyfriend back in Charleston is a cigar-enthusiast and she hoped to bring him back a token from our girlcation (wow, I thought I’d made that word up, but spell check isn’t even catching it). And 2) because the storefront was overwhelmingly kitschy-looking, sporting all sorts of cigar paraphernalia, including a wooden statue of a Native American wearing a skirt painted like the US flag, and an ornately carved table specially built for playing dominos.  

When I pulled open the glass door, I inhaled a deep whiff of fresh tobacco. Not the ashy, toxic-smelling haze that lingers after someone smokes a cigarette. No, it was more like an invigorating, herby, earthy scent. It reminded me of one of the best investments I’ve ever made: (and something I’ve been attempting and failing to find since) a bergamot tobacco scented soy candle from Urban Outfitters. I breathed in slowly, savoring the slight sweetness of the air as my eyes adjusted from Miami’s bright afternoon sunshine to the shop’s warm lighting.

The walls were lined from ceiling to floor with slender wooden boxes and glass platforms showcasing fat, gold-wrapped cigars. A sharp thud, like the sound an industrial hole-puncher makes when it’s pressed through an especially thick stack of paper, came from near the cash register. A man sat behind an intricately carved desk littered with crumpled, dried tobacco leaves, a neat stack of newly-rolled cylinders in front of him. Poised between his lips sat his own half-smoked stogie. Gray clouds billowed from his mouth as he puffed.

The man glanced up at us for just a moment before returning to his work, his steady, trained fingers carefully twisting together a wad of leaves against a flat, thick board.

While Christina inquired about purchasing a cigar, I meandered through the stacks of boxes, admiring several sepia-toned portraits of smiling men and women that hung down on the olive-painted walls. Most of the furniture was carved from a rich, dark wood that soaked in the light and caused the tiers of gold cigar casings to glow, like gemstones sparkling in the depths of a mine. The back room held two rows of desks, similar to the one out front, built for hand-rolling. And nearly everything was engraved, stamped, or pressed with the gilt-and-burgundy branding of Bello Cigars. Most boxes also included an image of the same elderly man wearing a panama hat and staring pensively out at potential customers.

I later conducted a little research and found out the elderly man whose image is plastered all over the store is Don Bello. The Bello family has passed down the tradition of cigar-making for generations, beginning in the Canary Islands. In the 19th century, Don traveled to Cuba for better tobacco growing. In the 1960’s, after Cuba nationalized the tobacco industry, Don Pedro Bello and his son, Pedro “Peter” Bello, immigrated to Miami. In 1994, Don and Pedro opened Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co in Little Havana. Today, the Bello brand is known worldwide as a high-quality product manufactured in Miami and Honduras.*

As I learned more about the history of Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co, I thought of the American dream. Don Pedro Bello’s entrepreneurial spirit and wild hope to find better opportunity in America, for his business and his family, reminded me of the same brave impulse that caused my own lolo (read: Tagalog for grandfather) to immigrate to this country. When he first sailed to America and settled in Indiana, my lolo had to leave behind his wife and seven children, working day and night until he could earn a living and eventually, over the course of nearly a decade, brought them one-by-one overseas to join him.

Today, my family is spread throughout the USA: Illinois, Indiana, California, and of course, South Carolina. My relatives work in many different fields: healthcare, construction, fashion, education, armed forces, and photography. At family reunions, we eat pancit, lechon, and arrozcaldo along with burgers, spaghetti, and barbecued ribs. We embrace a mesh of American-Filipino culture and there is no lacking in flavor, in color, in laughter, and love for what America stands for.

Little Havana is a historical representation of American values, ideals that sometimes get lost in the political mayhem of the 21st century. It’s the myriad of international communities found across this country, from New Glarus in Wisconsin to Koreatown in California, filled with immigrants and distinct cultures, that embody the all-American spirit. As globalization continues to grow, creating both new opportunities and problems to be solved, I can only hope that we can remember America’s foundation as a refuge, a country built on the courage of individuals who dreamt wildly and work tirelessly for a better life.

And whenever I overhear people speaking Spanish or pass someone eating Chinese take-out or find myself signing up for a Jiu Jitsu class, I feel most at home here in this world of opportunity, in the land of the free.


* "Ancestry Map of Cuban Communities."

* "Census 2010." City of Miami Planning and Zoning.

* "Legacy." Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co.

Getting My Art On In Miami

Miami, Florida

by Cassia Reynolds

I recently day-tripped to Miami, Florida, just to get a taste of the flashy, tropical metropolis. It was my first time visiting the city, but I was traveling with a few childhood girlfriends, one of whom is a Fort Lauderdale local. She (mercifully) guided our group through the cluttered maze of freeways that dominates the landscape surrounding the downtown area.

The first thing I noticed as we exited the maze is that Miami’s architecture is extremely colorful. Unlike New York’s skyline, which lays out in an assortment of gray, beige, and chrome, there is no uniform to the buildings here. Graffiti is everywhere; huge, bright sculptures seem to spring out from the walls; and everything from parking garages to monuments is embellished with its own special, festive paint job.

My friends and I are all on your standard mid-twenties-can-barely-afford-my-rent-and-drinking-habit budget so we weren’t looking to blow cash on Miami’s infamous nightlife or glamorous fashion scene. Instead we wandered around for a bit, sweating in the muggy heat and people-watching on the boardwalk that overlooks the yacht-spotted port downtown.

We stumbled upon the Freedom Tower in the early afternoon, its intricate stone-and-copper spire sticking out in an area of otherwise contemporary buildings. I thought it might be a historic site, a landmark preserving early Floridian history, but when we wandered closer, I saw it was actually an art museum. Specifically, the Museum of Art + Design for Miami Dade College. And the banner dangling off the building side said admission was free.

Disclaimer: I love museums, especially art museums. I studied photography in college and am always ready to deepen my understanding of anything related to design or visual storytelling. So happening upon this spot felt like winning the lottery.

We spent about an hour in the Tower, drifting from one artwork to the next, puzzling over the messages of conceptual pieces, entranced by the lines of paintings and the curves of sculptures. In the hallway opposite the main gallery was a showroom dedicated to one artist’s photography. The walls were lined with large, bright prints of stark landscapes composed so strangely they appeared abstract.

As we were leaving, a young man standing near the entrance stopped me and asked what I thought of the exhibit. His dark eyes lit up when I totally geeked out, explaining that I loved the way the images were shot; I had a similar taste for aesthetics as the artist.

He held out his hand to shake mine.

“Sebastian Muñoz. This is my work.”

In a classic case of starstruck word vomit, I blurted out question after question about his technique and equipment. The artist laughed, humoring me until my friends finally dragged me away.

Afterwards, riding that visual-stimulation high, we decided to check out the Wynwood Art District, a recently-renewed, up-and-coming neighborhood. What used to be a neglected area of abandoned warehouses and factories has been given a new life by street art. The blocks are nearly completely doused in paint. It’s a wonderland of color as bright and overwhelming as a Dr. Seuss landscape. The large pieces on the building walls are commissioned, but the sidewalk is fair game to any willing artist. And the cement here is soaked in spray-painted stencils, spotted with stickers, and scrawled upon with freehand messages by artists known and unknown. It’s a fun, enthralling place for the creative mind to draw inspiration.

The neighborhood’s centerpiece is the Wynwood Galleries, a grassy, outdoors walkway that winds between several large buildings whose huge walls have been refurbished as canvases for murals. Admission here is also free. You can lounge on large rocks under gold-and-glass ornaments dangling down from tree branches or plop down in the grass and just stare at the complex scenes surrounding you. And if you get tired from the heat, you can sit under a multitude of fans in a covered area with a cafe.

The Galleries have been made famous by Art Basel and other outlandish showings,* but lesser known is the fact that you can tour the whole neighborhood for free. There’s a little stand right outside the start of the walkway. The guides there will take you around the surrounding blocks, giving you the lowdown on the artists and even some history on the area. It’s definitely a must-do for anyone interested in urban art - the Galleries are great, but there’s so much more to see. Our guide was a student who held an umbrella to shade himself from the blistering sun as he described the cultural impact and creative influences behind a multitude of artwork. It was informative, casual, and short (a blessing in the heat).

By the end of the day I was exhausted and my brain was in information-overload-mode in the best way. Before visiting Miami, I hadn’t expected it to have such a thriving art scene. I was completely ignorant of the booming alternative subculture that’s transforming its streets and brightening its landscapes. This city truly is a haven for artists and art lovers alike. And I have a feeling I barely scratched the surface on my short visit. So check it out!

*Art Basel is an international art show that takes place in Miami Beach, Basel, and Hong Kong every year. It's considered the world's premier Modern and Contemporary art fair and often attracts famous artists, critics, and celebrities. 

Cassia's Hometown

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina 

by Cassia Reynolds

My hometown is a place built upon tourist traps within tourist traps. We have it all: Ripley’s Believe It or Not’s, water parks and amusement parks, a Hard Rock Cafe shaped like a pyramid, a wax museum, multiple trashy clubs that serve alcoholic slushies in plastic cups with bendy straws, NASCAR speedpark, Medieval Times, a pirate-themed song-and-dance dinner show, and more putt putt golf courses than schools, hospitals, bars, police stations, YMCAs, and fire departments combined.

I usually steer clear of these so-called-attractions with the same level of desperate desire for self-perseverance as a 1350’s British native avoiding central London during the height of the the Black Death. I’m ingrained with that kind of grumpy cynicism that many a tourist-destination-native has, the “why-the-fuck-would-anyone-want-to-visit-this-place-and-spend-money-on-this-shit” kind. And the hordes of visitors that transform my simple, twenty-minute grocery trips into hour-and-a-half, frantic fights-to-the-death over the last batch of non-moldy strawberries, bewilder me.

But once in a while, mostly out of curiosity, I venture into the world of vacationing day drunks, screaming children, and hapless lost drivers. And the question I ask myself every time is one that sometimes feels as confounding as the classic “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

What is it that entices thousands of legally-sane Americans to visit Myrtle Beach every summer?

On this particular journey into the tacky wonderland of Myrtle Beach tourism, I was assisted by one of my childhood friends, a former employee of a beachfront water sports company. (Okay, so there are some perks to living in a tourist hub. The most relevant of which is that everyone works in attractions and you get a lot of free rides.) The two of us went sailing, jet skiing, and parasailing. I’d never taken part in any of these activities before, and I have to admit, it was all pretty freaking fun. At one point, I even found myself standing up on my jet ski, my hand twisted hard around the accelerator, “WOOHOO-ing” at the top of my lungs like one of those tourists I usually roll my eyes at.

The cheery captain of our parasailing boat was a South Carolina native; and had all the quirks of one, too. As his first mate clipped my friend and I into the strappy harnesses, he chain smoked and described his recent adoption of several miniature donkeys.

“I have three of ‘em and they’re all just up to waist high. Not as easy as taking care of rabbits, like I was ‘fore this.”

Before I could ask where the hell he’d even found a miniature donkey, my body was launched into the air. And as we rose up, my friend threw himself backwards so that he was hanging upside down. I followed suit.

And then there was nothing to block my perfect view of Myrtle Beach’s coastline and the blue-green depths of the sea below me. I laughed out of joy and fright, the beige sands and blocky hotels snaking across my vision, meeting foam capped waves in squiggly lines. I was so high up the tourists became nothing but skin-toned speckles on the shore. The wind whipped through my hair, and that whoosh was the only sound I could hear. Even with all the adrenaline pumping through my limbs, my fingers death-gripping the harness, a kind of peacefulness overtook me.

And so I just hung there, enjoying it. Circular blobs of blush-colored jellyfish bobbed to the surface. A neon blue sailboat cut across the water, leaving behind it a creamy trail. The ocean seemed much more mysterious and larger from up here, stretching out forever to the horizon. The sun’s intense rays had bleached the shoreline a dull beige, bringing out the deep hues of the grassy dunes behind it. And this faded quality caused any bright spots of color on the beach to practically glow: advertisements, umbrellas, bikini tops. When I took my gaze inland, I could see beyond the shore and behind the rows of pastel hotels and condos along the beach, to the gray streak of Highway 17, and then finally to the heavy green treetops of the nearby forest.

And that’s when the epiphany hit me, like a slap across the face. It took something as drastic as dangling upside down in the sky above my hometown to see it, but I did. I answered the question.

They just come for a change of scenery.