Saturday, February 26, 2011

Samarya Yoga Studio, Seattle: Go!

Monday night at 1:00am I decided to go to a yoga class at 8am Tuesday morning.

Sometimes I like to practice a little yoga in my living room with Sophie since, as everyone knows, cats are invariably yoga masters.

But practicing alone or with a DVD can be a little flat and I much prefer the feedback and warmth of a live instructor. Unfortunately, yoga classes are expensive, so I'd been on my own since about 2005 when I stopped getting my teacher's yoga discount at a district gymnasium. But a listing on the website caught my eye late that night and I decided to try Samarya Yoga Studio in Seattle the next morning.

Parking is ample and free around the humble Samarya studio, which is located on Yestler next to a restaurant called Good BBQ. That's right: good. Not the best, great, or even Mom's.

Inside the studio I was greeted by Ingrid, the volunteer instructor, whose eyes reminded me of the upside-down U shapes drawn on anime cartoon characters. She made me want to return the so-happy-I-squint expression. I took my shoes off to walk on the hardwood floors and inspected the flowing curtains and paper lanterns decorating the interior.

Only three other students arrived so the four of us, plus Ingrid, rolled out our mats in front of purple curtains and sunlight filtering through. One of the other students was a stay-at-home mom in her thirties with a sleeve tattoo on one arm and parts of a second tattoo peeking from the waistband of her yoga pants. The other two students were college age; one a muscular young man with a map of the world around his left arm and Celtic knots encircling his right. The other young girl was tattoo-less.

Ingrid read briefly from the Bhagavad gita and was interrupted by the studio doorbell. I could tell it pained her to decline to answer it, but she explained it would be most respectful to pay attention to those of us who were on time.

For someone who has done yoga before, but isn't looking to work up a kick-boxing sweat, this class is perfect. If you can't go from Plank to Upward-facing Dog to Downward Dog quickly, or need explanations for those poses, let the instructor know before class starts. The level for this session was listed as "gentle," and it was, but the next day my abdominal muscles and hamstrings reminded me that they had worked hard. That's just how I like it.

And Samarya Yoga Studio is just how I like my yoga--relaxing and FREE. Check the website at§ion=about for the schedule and go!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Las Vegas, Day 3

On Friday night we had agreed to meet for breakfast at 9:15 and walk to Paris to sample another buffet of buffets, but by 9:40 it was clear that our pals weren't meeting us and were likely still sleeping like the dead. Jared and I set out for Paris in a bit of a hurry, wanting to catch the buffet before breakfast was over, but as it turns out, for a city so fast-paced and bustling, it's impossible to get anywhere quickly. Las Vegas is the ultimate example of the saying "hurry up and wait."

We were out early enough that we passed a Pikachu without his costume head on and a street performing robot whose gold paint was only half-applied. A man waving coupons in front of Harrah's Casino called out, “Nightclubs, strip clubs, gay clubs—I got 'em all!”

When we finally got to the buffet in the Paris Hotel, we groaned at the line, but stood obediently for a few minutes anyway. It occurred to us that our “buffet of buffet” bracelets might be good for getting us in for our free breakfast a little faster, so I wandered toward the express line (where if you pay twice as much, you skip the wait). Just in front of the booth I encountered a man with a name badge that said “Keith” and I asked him if we still had to wait in the line if we already had our pass. (Actually, if we had read the brochure that comes with the pass, it states very clearly that YES you must wait in line.) Keith said, “Yes, even with the bracelets. The line's about an hour and a half at this point. We're already moving to the lunch menu...How many in your party?”

I brightened, “Just two!”

“Go get your partner quietly and come on back here. I'll do a good deed today.” Keith had served in the Navy and was quite familiar with Bremerton, we learned while our wait shrank from an hour and a half to only ten minutes. Thanks Keith!

The Paris buffet, while not nearly as expansive as Planet Hollywood's, was decorated like a little Parisian village and the attentive server brought us coffee, water and juice. The crepe and dessert station was situated in what appeared to be a tiny cottage and ivy climbed the “stone” walls. The food at this buffet was excellent, and even though we'd missed breakfast, Jared prefers lunch anyway, so he didn't mind. If I ever see Keith again, I will thank him profusely, especially in light of the next buffet experience we had in store.

As we finished our meal we received messages from Andy and Stephanie, who had woken up and were planning to take the shuttle to the Rio off The Strip. I drank the last slurps of my juice and we tried to hurry to the shuttle station, once again thwarted by meanderers, street performers and people snapping prostitute playing cards.

We waited for the shuttle in what has to be the most boring place in all of Las Vegas: the parking garage beneath Harrah's Casino. Eventually we caught the free shuttle, suffered through some bad oldies and ads and got off at the Rio. Despite having eaten quite recently, Jared and I decided to stand in line with our friends while they waited to eat at the Rio's international buffet, which we had heard was excellent.

It was not. Well, the food was good...when we got to it....finally...

It's a long story, but essentially there was a stanchion error. A very unfortunate stanchion error. We stood in the snaking buffet line like good citizens, while dozens of people skipped past the s-curves and went straight into the cashier. People were livid. I thought there was going to be a brawl. Emotions were high, blood-sugar was low. A group of young, fashionable 20-somethings behind us blew sighs up into their bangs while the grumblings behind us started getting louder. A severe woman in a suit appeared, pointed at a sign (which was rather confusingly worded) and announced, “IT COULDN'T BE MORE CLEAR.”

It could.

She sent the skippers, who genuinely did not know they were getting away with anything, to the back of the line. About four minutes later the same thing happened. Dozens more people passed us. I thought there was going to be a brawl. When we reached the cashier, we realized she was at least 134 years old, probably didn't see or hear well and certainly had no idea what was happening around her.

Once inside, we were free to sample the international cuisine. The food was good, but not worth an hour and a half in line or narrowly escaping a bar fight (buffet fight?). The selection certainly left nothing to be desired, although when I inquired about whether the custard or crust-less cheesecakes were gluten-free, the woman behind the counter snickered and answered, “There's flour in EVERYTHING.” She was wrong though; there is no flour in gelatto and the Rio's flavor selection was good. However, there was a line to get a scoop and I'd had more than my fill of those.

Our blood-sugar levels now approaching normal enabled us to plan the rest of our day. There was one kink in the planning due to our buffet of buffets deal. We had 24 hours free, but it had taken so long to get to lunch that we would have to eat dinner within the next 3 hours. This seemed a little ridiculous, especially for Jared and I, who had already eaten at two buffets in a row. But we were willing to take one for the team and eat again.

I'm sure the Rio is a well-managed place, but the buffet left a (metaphorical) bad taste in my mouth, so wandering around the casino and hotel didn't impress me any. One of the pool floors was actual sand, which sounded neat at first, but really, getting the grit in your sandals and swim suit is one of the drawbacks of swimming, so I'm not sure that's something I want simulated. At one pool a sign read, “No solo bathing” and I have yet to figure out what that's about. Are they afraid we would drown?

Inside the Rio casino a pit-boss was conducting a contest at a long line of slit machines with two-foot conversation hearts adorning their tops. We didn't stay long enough to find out what the exact event was, but it seemed that the object was to hit the “play” button as fast as possible. Contestants were hunched over the machines, index fingers pounding the buttons. There must have been a good prize involved.

The shuttle back to Harrah's filled up before we could get on, so we waited at the stop for 15 minutes for the next one, and then rode with a group of shiny young people who couldn't control the volume of their voices. Back on The Strip we split up so Stephanie and I could see the Bellagio while Jared and Andy played a little more blackjack. We stopped in at Bill's for margaritas first.

The Bellagio's quiet opulence took me by surprise because it didn't strike me as over-the-top, trying-too-hard to be snooty, as I expected. The entire building is beautiful—the walls, the pools, the fountains, the statues, the art, and even some of the carpeting.

The place was gorgeous enough that at one point I wondered aloud, “What are all those people looking at?” indicating a line-up of people who seemed to be intently examining a Chinese New Year display. I realized it as Stephanie explained, “That's just the front desk, Suzanne.”

Two thousand square feet of the Bellagio ceiling is covered in enough Dale Chihuly glass swirls to buy college educations for the entire city of Tacoma.

The botanical garden layout, complete with a Chinese fishing boat, water features and lucky statues, make me wonder who has the amazing job of designing the conservatory's seasonal displays.

Jean Philippe, a French chocolatier, owns a tiny pastry shop in the Bellagio where people stood shoulder to shoulder waiting for scrumptious truffles, mini cakes and tart-lets. I managed to snap a few photos of the cakes on display.

Above the pastry counter a mannequin labeled “Lady Chocolate wore a dress entirely made of chocolate, and the ceiling-to-floor chocolate fountain is (according to the Guinness Book) the largest chocolate fountain in the world.

Jared texted me while Stephanie and I were doing more wandering and staring, this time in the Vdara hotel. We met him and Andy at Caesar's Palace for our fourth and final buffet of the 24-hour period. There was not even one person in line. Essentially, we'd eaten so recently—the whole Rio fiasco—that we weren't really hungry, but it was nice to sit in cushy chairs, drink good coffee and relax. If you do this long enough, you will eventually get hungry again.

The Caesar's Palace buffet didn't offer as many gluten-free choices as the other buffets, but everything available was fresh and neatly presented. When I asked the man behind the buffet what the salmon was cooked in he said, “It's just fish.” But the woman setting out slices of meringue pie, key lime tarts and mousse covered in shaved chocolate went to get the chef when I asked her about the desserts. “I don't know how he makes them. I will get him. Please wait,” she asked. The chef materialized and pointed out a couple of types of custard in little cups, explaining that they were made without gluten. “I am sorry we have only these two for you. In the back I have fruit--I can make you a fruit tart right now if you would like.” I was honestly thrilled that the chef would offer to make me my own special dessert, but I also didn't want to bother him, so I declined the generous offer and ate one of each type of custard instead.

Treasure Island was the next stop of the evening. Jared and Andy stationed themselves at a poker table, where I hear Lex Luther from Smallville came by and hung out, but I wasn't there to witness our one celebrity sighting. Stephanie and I sat in the bar overlooking the huge moat in front of Treasure Island, warming ourselves by the lamp-post heater and singing Bon Jovi loudly along with the DJ. The bouncer at the bar informed us these were the best seats for viewing the pirate show.

The pirate ship in front of the casino must be at least three stories high and is the set for Treasure Island's Siren's Cove show, featuring dancing sirens. A second, equally enormous boat carrying pirates is somehow propelled across the moat during the show and the two boats battle with fireworks and explosions until the pirates' ship sinks into the water and the men all swim to the sirens.

By the time Jared had collected a couple hundred bucks in chips from the other players, it was time to head back to the Luxor for a few hours sleep before we flew out the next morning.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Las Vegas, Day 2

At 7:15am my phone made a cricket noise, indicating I had a text message. I'd rather ambitiously set my alarm for 8:30, but Andy and Stephanie, having gone to bed at 9pm, were already hankering for breakfast. The four of us met downstairs in the Luxor lobby and decided to hit the Mandalay Bay buffet. Mandalay Bay, one of the newer hotel/casinos on The Strip, lies just south of the Luxor, essentially the last stop before you run aground in the no-man's land of Vegas.

I had been nervous about eating in Las Vegas because I have Celiac disease, which means I can't eat gluten and it can be tricky to determine what's safe for me. But the Mandalay Bay breakfast turned out to be one of the best meals I ate on the trip—and that's saying something. My breakfast requirements aren't stringent though; give me some coffee, fruit, yogurt and I'm delighted. Add in some eggs, bacon, cheese and smoked salmon, and I'll be overjoyed. For the gluten-eaters in our group (okay, everyone but me) there were pastries, pancakes, and french toast, too.

The one odd thing about the whole experience was the somewhat disturbing statue behind us. Was he supposed to be a minstrel? If so, where is his instrument?

At breakfast Andy tried to confirm our reservations at the Hofbrauhaus for that evening only to discover we had none. He made some.

Fortunately for me, my traveling companions were just as keen on seeing animals in Las Vegas as I was, so we headed straight for Mandalay Bay's Shark Reef Aquarium. Upon entry a young man directed us to stand in front of a green screen and then cheerfully barked orders at us, “Hands on hips! Face the camera! Good. Now look scared! Good. Now just you two. Now you two. Good.” As Andy described it, we had our pictures taken like we were at shark prom.

The aquarium was one of the highlights of the trip for me. The exhibits were clean, the animals were healthy and easy to view, and the brochure we received with our ticket was educational and included a “seafood watch” card to help us make sustainable seafood choices. I approved.

There was a lounging Komodo dragon, a cylindrical tank full of undulating jellies, and an emerald tree monitor that was (if you will indulge me to say so) adorable. In a giant tank set up to resemble a shipwreck we saw a huge sea turtle, groupers, saw-fish and many different species of shark. A touch tank stretching at least twenty feet down the center of one of the rooms housed horseshoe crabs and two types of ray, some of which were over a foot in diameter. Their skin felt silky.

After I barely resisted the urge to buy everything in the entire gift shop, we left Mandalay Bay and must have been eager to receive some more abuse(or it could have been the two-for-one beers)because we stopped back in at Dick's Last Resort. I feel like much of the rest of the afternoon was spend walking and staring, which doesn't sound fascinating, but it was.

Three young lions slept in a pile in their enclosure at the MGM, which also boasts a theater that accommodates over 16,000 spectators.

We saw a cleaning lady boogieing (Yup, that's the recommended spelling) while mopping the floors of the Tropicana and a Michael Jackson impersonator doing the moon walk while “Billie Jean” blared. Caesar’s Palace, though over 40 years old was still one of the most impressive hotel/casinos we toured, with Romanesque statues, reliefs, fountains and marbles floors. We vowed to come back when the pools were open.

At this point we had to take a break from walking and gawking to slip into Bill's Saloon for some $1 margaritas. While Jared and Andy played a little blackjack and Stephanie was getting another drink, I was temporarily seated alone at an empty poker table, essentially an invitation for strange men to speak with me. Three older men in soccer jerseys suggested that I cavort with their friend donning a cowboy hat and another young man showed me his biceps.

After our margaritas (okay WITH our margaritas), we continued our exploration of The Strip. Inside the Venetian we discovered an actual canal running through the hotel, complete with gondolas and gondoliers in striped shirts. The cobblestone floors and quaint storefronts were reminiscent of what I (now) hope Venice is really like.

Most of the hotels had elaborate displays in honor of Chinese New Year, with paper lanterns and lucky coins. Part of the Venetian's décor included a two-story animatronic rabbit that wiggled its tail, blinked its eyes, and made us want to flee the building in terror.

On the extensive front veranda of The Venetian we called the Hofbrauhaus to confirm our table, only to discover they had once again lost our reservations. We gave up on the Hofbrauhaus and took the monorail back to the Luxor to freshen up and change into something suitable for a night on the town.

Our first task for the evening was to purchase a 24-hour “buffet of buffets” pass, granting us access to seven different buffets in Vegas, where we could eat as much as we wanted as many times as we wanted. We kicked off the buffet of all buffets at Planet Hollywood's Spice Market; in keeping with the planet theme, the buffet features stations with cuisines from around the world, so I spooned Moroccan spiced lentils, Greek salad, candied yams (these came from the American station), tuna rolls, and Mexican grilled turkey onto my plate. I left room for dessert in hopes that there would be a pudding or truffle that might be gluten-free, but when I asked the woman behind the pastry counter she said, “We have a cotton candy machine—let me know when you are ready and I will make you a batch!” I thanked her for being so accommodating, but had a bowl of soft-serve with Heath bar topping instead.

Donning our “buffet of buffets” bracelets, we walked through the Planet Hollywood hotel and sat at a bar called Blondies where the waitresses were dressed like cheerleaders, but the bartender wore jeans and a plaid shirt. This particular bar was located near a fountain with a sign that said there would be a display in twenty minutes, so we drank and waited. Twenty minutes later, we were giggling at the drizzling excuse for a “display.” When the dripping faucet stopped, we decided to indulge in the slurpy-like “yard dog” (no idea why it is called this). Jared and I split 32oz between us, as did Andy and Stephanie.

In front of the Bellagio we stopped to see a fountain display that put the one in Planet Hollywood to shame. It's amazing what can be done with water, music and lights. Plus, this show is free! This show is well worth watching.

You can use your imagination to envision what we did for the remainder of the evening, but it definitely involved training stone dog to “hold” and a rendezvous with TV's Joel McHale.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Viva Las Vegas, Day 1

When Jared first asked, “Wanna go to Vegas in February?” my reaction was probably not what he expected, considering I'd been prodding him about a getaway for ages. “No. What would I do in Vegas?” I sputtered. I had been envisioning a romantic beach vacation or a secluded cabin in the woods. From what I knew of Sin City, there was drinking, gambling, stripping and more drinking. But anyone who has visited Las Vegas in the past decade knows that its reputation as a seedy place of unsavory characters and debauchery is outdated.

Not that there isn't debauchery.

So I agreed to go. We booked our flight and hotel with Andy and Stephanie, a couple who we trusted would be excellent traveling companions. He is a lab biologist and she is a student working toward a degree in web design; both of them are relaxed, funny and fabulous. We booked for the weekend before Valentine's Day and waited.

On a Thursday morning we dragged ourselves from our Kent apartment at 3:45am, only to discover that the cab I had scheduled had not arrived. If there were a contest for having anxiety about tardiness, I would at least win an Olympic medal and would be considering going pro. I called the cab service and spoke with a man who assured me that no such reservations existed and instructed me to call someone else. Waiting for a second cab seemed too risky, so we resigned ourselves to paying airport parking feeds and high-tailed it to Seatac in Jared's 350Z.

Andy and Stephanie met us at the gate, exclaiming, “We're going to Vegas!” Jared had been to the city once before, but the rest of us didn't know quite what we were in for. The men waiting next to us in our terminal were discussing the advantages of not bringing a camera to Las Vegas, “Nothing incriminating that way. Plus, my phone takes photos.” Why are phone pics less incriminating than those snapped on a real camera? We didn't ask. I brought my camera. I planned to document the trip thoroughly.

What happens in Vegas gets posted on several social networking sites.

Aside from the slot machines flashing enticingly at you as soon as you disembark, the Las Vegas airport décor belies nothing of the surreal atmosphere outside its doors. The cabbie we chose overcharged us, and even though we all suspected it, no one said anything until I under-tipped him in front of the Luxor.

One of the older hotels on the Vegas strip, the Luxor still has an impressive exterior. The building itself is shaped like a giant pyramid, complete with a sphinx and a blazing spotlight shooting out of the pyramid's point. We wandered into the cavernous lobby, apparently seeming lost enough that we were pounced upon.

A small Asian lady materialized and twittered “Are you just checking in? Come this way!” We obediently stepped to the desk, where a man began firing questions that became increasingly more personal. “How long you folks here for? You wanna see some shows? Are you married? Do you live together? Are the addresses on your driver's licenses the same?” Fumbling for words, we answered the questions, increasingly confused until he showed us a map and continued, “Gimme just a couple hours of your time, come see these new properties out North of the city and see three free shows. Which shows do you want to see? Take this map. It won't take long. What should I put you down for?” Eventually, our wits having somehow returned, we conveyed that what we really needed to do was check into the hotel, not listen to a fast-talking salesman trying to push time-shares on us.

After dropping our bags off, it was still only 9:15am, so we snacked at McDonald's and wandered through the Luxor, examining the wedding chapel, pool, and enormous false Egyptian scenery. “Is that the Chrysler building?” asked Stephanie. “Do casinos recycle their props?” I mused. “Maybe New York, New York got tired of that one?”

We needed naps.

Unable to sleep, Andy headed to Dick's Last Resort, a bar in Excalibur, where the staff is intentionally as rude as possible. When Jared and I joined him later, the server announced, “Hey Ladies, are you with Princess here?” then looked at me, “Whaddaya drinking, Hooker?” When I answered, “Nothing right now,” she gave me a thumbs down and made a farting noise.

I was eager to get my first real glimpse of the Vegas strip, so we set out to explore. Despite the numerous times I'd been audience to people's recaps of their vacations to Las Vegas, I couldn't quite wrap my head around the bizarre combination of sights and sounds until I was there. The buildings were replicas of other things—a pirate ship, the Eiffel Tower, a castle—and all of them were glaring with lights and billboards. Stilettos, Uggs, flip-flops and sneakers shared the same sidewalks, and people with alcoholic beverages from Bud Light to 32oz hurricanes were taking advantage of permissible open container law. Someone in a Winnie-the-Pooh suit waved at us and I had my picture taken with him. A man in a wizard's robes painted gray stood motionless until a woman passed too near; then he pounded his staff and bellowed.

Even the outdoors in Vegas smells climate-controlled, when you aren't passing someone with a lit cigarette on the streets. Electronic bleeping and dinging rang out from every entryway we passed and on every corner, people thrust what appeared to be prostitute playing cards in front of you, slapping the individual card against their stacks making sharp snapping sounds.

We stopped at a cafe in Paris after gawking at the giant dome above us, painted to look like the sky and the storefronts and restaurants, all painted like Parisian shops. I ordered seared tuna salad, which arrived as large chunks of tuna so tender it practically melted on my tongue, on a bed of tomatoes with seasonal veggies on the side.

Since Andy was nodding off into his prime rib, we decided to head back to the hotel to relax before hitting the town again.

Instead, we all fell asleep. Jared and I tested out the jetted tub that overlooked the streets of Las Vegas, one of the highlights of the Luxor rooms. When I'd dried off, I texted our pals, and they might as well have responded “zzzzz.”


After a long hiatus from blogging, I'm succumbing to the delusional idea that someone might be interested in reading what I put down in words. If you are visiting because you know me, then feel free to skip the salutations. For the rest of you, I am a staff biologist at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, WA for half the year and I am a number of other things--bookworm, rookie cake decorator, and rock climber, among others--full-time. If you'd like more information, please see my profile, which I promise will someday be updated.

Thanks for reading.