Madonna and the Whores

Madonna and the Whores

Disclaimer: All photos taken on my phone. I apologize for the static and blur.

The girls were all wearing cowboy hats and glitter spread across their cheeks. They had cropped halter tops and plastic pacifier necklaces straight out of a 90s rave, only this was 2016 and we were nowhere near a DJ. It was a Wednesday night at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo and the party girls were hitting the empty dance floor alongside two couples in their mid-late 60s doing intricate line dances in their high-waisted denim. I asked one of the girls if their outfits were for a party and she said, “Every day is a party and we’re ready to party,” while not discreetly rubbing her nose. I have never done coke and I had to wonder if this was one of those coded references to gage whether I was “cool” or not. Without a response from me on my level of partying, the girl followed her two friends to the bar to park herself on a pink vinyl seat and wait for five other skinny blonde girls in equally strange outfits to join them.

Paparazzi of the paparazzi


I became obsessed with finding out how they had come to be at this roadside attraction dressed the way they were. Was it a bachelorette party? A reality tv show with hidden cameras? I let my friend Instagram while I leaned in closer to the bar and eavesdropped with all of my hearing capacity. One of the girls told the bartender that they had been their for a modeling shoot. Was it legit or was it porn? They had that special brand of seediness that was either girls on drunken holiday or sex worker.



One thing was certain though, the Madonna Inn was the perfect place to find them. It had a mixture of nostalgia, kitsch and a special brand of loneliness that can only be found in dive bars in cities that have no real industry. People huddled in dark corners or whispered over their shoulders, the customers were all slightly large like images one conjures of Middle America. But all of this was surrounded by bright pink leather, fake grapes hanging from ceilings, large rock fireplaces, and hidden gum ball machines. It was like the hotel was one large 90s rave, taking itself a little too seriously but only to those on psychedelic drugs.


We had found out there would be dancing in the bar when we checked in for our one night stay at the Madonna. My friend once tried out for So You Think You Can Dance and teaches salsa classes and I am an ex-cheerleader so we had a certain type of club level dancing in mind that was instantly shattered when we entered the Dionysian bar that night. The music was from a live band and it was of the swing and blues covers variety. One of the couples dancing was celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary and had met in the pink dining hall of the Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steakhouse on that very dance floor. I tried to imagine what it must have been like 40 years before, at its height of popularity. Was this a destination? Did young men and women come here to mingle, to meet their future mate? Was this still the case? Did the party girls know something I didn’t know?


My friend and I did our own twirl or two around the parquet floor then headed back to our Sweepstakes room for the night. I found myself slightly disappointed. I had come for kitsch and wanted kitsch to the max. There were a few paintings of racing thoroughbreds and curtains with horses on them. Part of the wall looked slightly like a stable and there were old lanterns surrounding our bed, but that was it.  I was hoping for a faux-horse hair sofa or a chair made out of a saddle. There should have been trophies lining the walls and images of jockeys. The walls should have been large stripes of bubble gum pink or lime green. The sheets should have been satin. I was paying for the experience to be overwhelmed by the over-the-top. This was underwhelming at best. The brochure tells us that the Madonna Inn has “whimsical decor and a timeless elegance.” The timeless quality is apparent but without a visit to the more expensive suites, I had yet to see the whimsy my heart desired.


Alex and Phyllis Madonna dreamed, designed and opened the inn in 1958. The Inn is still family-owned and operated and it has the feel of a legacy that you can’t touch, that you aren’t allowed to touch.


Keeping tradition alive seems to be important at the Madonna, and it should be. The Madonna wouldn’t be the Madonna without it’s strange little quirks and it’s unprofessional aesthetic. That being said, it doesn’t mean that I don’t want more. Keep the spirit of the original but add something that goes even further to each of the themed rooms. Go big or go home, right?


My friend had childhood memories of the place so when we soaked in the hot tub with a family that makes a special trip every summer, trying out different rooms, the enjoyment of the hotel made that much more sense. A bed housed in a boat would be the coolest thing you experience that summer or sneaking into the boys’ bathroom to pee in the waterfall urinal would be a thrill you would remember the rest of your life. In a 1982 New York Times article, Aljean Harmetz shared “Some guests come for a week and change rooms every night. The first woman to sleep in all 110 rooms took seven years and finally made it in 1977. Several others have done it since then.” There’s something reassuring in that what made the hotel so odd during the year of my birth hasn’t changed since then. 

The Men’s Room, infamous for the waterfall urinal designed by Hollywood set designer Harvey Allen Warren

Personally, I loved the cakes.


The Madonna is also famous for it’s pink champagne cake, a monstrosity the size of your head that looked like the skirt of a Barbie doll on it’s way to a Gone with the Wind themed ball. It was covered with shavings of white chocolate, half of it dyed pink. Apparently there was a pink chocolate shortage (who knew such a thing existed) and the pink cake was temporarily on hiatus. Behind the glass case in the Copper Cafe there were other giant confections from yesteryear. A german chocolate cake. A toffee cake covered with broken pieces of something that looked like a Butterfinger bar. Lemon and cherry cake with perfect Maraschino cherries resting on top. This was my cocaine and I was happy to dive in. We bought four slices, each in a different flavor.


When our checkout time arrived, we packed up my car, parked right outside our door like the true motor lodge that the Inn really is. In the morning sunshine, there was no sign of a troop of girls in iridescent bell bottoms and cowboy hats. The sun washed away the strobe light vibe of the hotel and left a patina of barnyard and pink gables instead. This was a family affair and you could see that in the daylight. Maybe one of the girls met their man of 40 years on the dance floor that night or maybe one or two just met a John. Either way, we were all embraced by the loving arms of the Madonna family that night, welcoming us into their 110 room home.

Rosé and Cigarettes

Rosé and Cigarettes

Warning: Not to be read by those under 18. Do not do as I do! I mean it, I’m looking at you. Don’t even think about it!


I made it 30 years without ever smoking a cigarette. I was very proud of this. In high school I would thumb my nose at all the smokers and feel very holier than thou when I announced that I would not smoke, did not smoke, that not one cigarette had touched my lips. In college, I was a loner. I didn’t smoke cigarettes and the only reason to go out into the snow at 7 pm at night in Boulder, CO was to smoke a ciggy and I would not do that, so I was alone.

And then there was Portugal.

Oh Portugal. Europe on the cheap. Who needs the French Riviera when you can have the Algarve Coast?

I was traveling with my work friend Caroline and we needed a well-deserved break from the school year. And what was the best way to relax, by drinking rosé and smoking cigarettes on beaches in Lagos, in parks overlooking orange rooftops in Lisbon, in al fresco restaurants in Cascais.


Cigarettes were everywhere and I needed them. They went perfectly with sardines and potatoes. They complimented our chilled wine while we were warmed by sun on our shoulders. They circulated why we played card games with Germans and Italians in hostel backyards. I couldn’t say no and I didn’t want to. I was a chain-smoking queen.

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I would love to say that this piece has a moral to the tale. That I learned that my lungs were heavy with tar and I couldn’t stop coughing for a week. That I felt my skin getting loose and my breath tarnished with cigarette taste for days. I would be amiss not to think about the death of my grandfather from lung cancer and hang my head in disgust. While all of this is true, that is not this piece.

Instead, cigarettes became a lesson in mindfulness on my Portugal adventure. They slowed me down. They made me appreciate the moment. I could just be. Just sit and experience everything in a heightened sense of awareness of this one particular instance of time. It was now and would always be now and I damn well appreciated it. I was doing nothing other than tasting the Tremoços, peeling their skin off with my teeth.

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I was sucking miniature snails from their tiny little spiral shells, letting condensation run through my fingers as I held a glass of wine in the heat, feeling my legs grow warm as my feet sunk into the sand of yet another beach. Each cigarette kept me locked in that moment, slightly high on the heat, the wine, the heady hit of the tobacco. I was here, in Portugal, enjoying the small pleasures. And what pleasures they were.


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In Porto, we wandered into a charcuterie restaurant for dinner then meandered down a cobblestone side street to have one last drink for the night. By the time the drink was over, a band had started playing fadó and suddenly the small room was packed with dancers.

On a wine tour of the Douro River Valley, we were taken to a small boutique port vineyard and were handed apricots straight from the trees. They were the sweetest things I had every tasted until we were ushered into a small house from the 1800s and escorted into the parlor where skinless plums shaped into balls were waiting for us. I thought I would never stop eating those plums. But then I had the bread, with the cheese or the olive oil, it didn’t matter, both were delicious especially paired with the ports that varied from white to a deep blushing red.





In Albufeira, we sat by the ocean and ate large chunks of fish from a stew called caldeirada. The briny broth trickled down our chins and we laughed as the waiter tried to translate all the different seafood we would be eating in our stew.

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I had my first taste of pastéis de nata with a coffee by the seaside port of Lagos. I had avoided it for days but the yellow egg custard pastry was surprisingly refreshing after a night of drinking and for the rest of the trip I would make sure I got one every day.

This is specifically Pastéis de Belem

After a long afternoon of walking the Alfama, we stopped at a nondescript restaurant and had grilled octopus in a butter and lemon sauce before making our way back up the hill to the Bairro Alto for drinks at Pharmacia while the sun set and waiters brought blankets over to warm our bare legs.

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Outside at night in the beach town of Cascais, I accompanied a Brazilian guitarist at our hostel with Sublime covers. My favorite phrase to say was “Caracois in Cascais” after a local Portuguese man boiled up some snails and had us eat them for the first time. And through all of this, we were accompanied by cigarettes and a summer rosé.

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Would I do it again, just as I did then? Yes. Do I allow myself to smoke cigarettes now? No. They are not the same. I don’t know if it was the Portuguese tobacco or just that summer, but I never get quite the same feeling anymore. It’s not worth it. Could I have enjoyed the small pleasures without them? Probably. But at least for now, I can say I truly had the European experience.

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How uncomfortable do I look holding that thing?


Rather than a book suggestion this week, I offer up a movie for your perusal, Coffee and Cigarettes by Jim Jarmusch.

Sea Turtles, Stingrays and Sea Urchins- Oh My!

Sea Turtles, Stingrays and Sea Urchins- Oh My!

When I saw the sea turtle for the first time, I was floating above it, attracted to where it was by the commotion of the other snorkelers bobbing in a circle and pushing towards the sea floor in short, truncated dives. I was directly above them in their misguided attempts to reach the turtle and touch it and somehow this proximity to their foolishness made me feel like I just walked into the turtle’s bedroom with its pants dropped to the floor.

I decided to let the tide pull me away and give it some space, but the wonder of seeing a real live sea turtle in the wild, didn’t keep me from turning away for long. In the half minute it took me to circle back in it’s direction, the turtle had decided to ascend to the surface of the water, perhaps due to the actions of the tourists.

Where it was once napping on the sandy bottom, it was now perpendicular to the sea floor and rising slowly in one straight line, it’s cream belly facing me and its green head pointed toward the surface like a geiger counter. In my memory of this moment, I like to imagine the turtle slowly spinning as if it were on a pedestal in a jewelry box, but I know that it wasn’t. It did feel as though time had slowed down somehow and it was only the turtle and I in this giant expanse of water. The turtle had been 40 feet below me at first glance so as it glided upwards, it’s presence became more real, more solid, even as I knew that it would also slowly be moving away from me and outward into the greater ocean.

But this didn’t matter to me at the time. All that mattered was that I was sharing the ocean in a slow motion freeze frame with a sea turtle in ascension. Many people have seen sea turtles in their travels, but this day was special somehow, more magical, as if the sea turtle had bestowed something on us, as if he had given us a gift from the sea.

This was my first time out to Electric Beach on the leeward side of Oahu. I had lived on the island for six months and spent every vacation out there since the age of 12 but I had never gone swimming below a power plant just for kicks. In return, I repaid my new friend, David, for this snorkeling trip by showing him the tide pool at Makaha.

Makaha Valley after the rain

My cousins had introduced me to it a few years before when they took breaks between surf sets and to my hearts chagrin grabbed purple sea urchins and broke them apart to feed to the fish in the tide pool. Yes, I would eat sea urchin if cooked for me and yes, other animals eat them too, but somehow it made me so sad to see their purple spikes torn apart and their insides scooped out just for our pleasure.

Makaha Beach…and my cousin, back when he was sweet and innocent. 

The tide pool creates a small swimming hole in a break in the reef that locals often come to soak in. On this day, that was not an exception. A family of four Hawaiians were jumping from the rock ledge into the pool. Their sarongs hung from the rock wall bordering the water like flags announcing their heritage. They were all rotund and a deep brown, their long hair tied to the tops of their head. One woman had a large gap in her front teeth and a big smile to match. They were friendly and spoke such a deep pidgin of Hawaiian and English that even with my “local haole” status, I couldn’t understand much of what they said.

The tide was in and I wouldn’t normally go swimming in the natural pool with the water as deep as it was and the waves coming in as fast as they were, but with the locals there in the pool, I couldn’t lose face and turn around either. I turned to my friends and said, “This is it. Ready to jump in.” And what were they going to do, say no. We walked up to the rim of the diving ledge and looked down at the water frothing over the top of the reef. At least we knew it would be deep when we took the plunge. One after the other, we all made it into the pool, the locals clapping and cheering us on.

The waves came with a speediness that rubbed me up against the reef a time or two, but I was able to keep my balance well enough that there weren’t any major accidents or injuries. The time had come to move on though and our driver announced…“Well we’ve seen sea turtles and swam in a tide pool, now how about some sting rays?”

We were off to Ko’olina on our way back towards Hawaii Kai at the south of the island. Ko’olina is known for its calm beaches lined with large hotel chains. It’s no Waikiki, more family centered and less surf, but for sting rays and a tropical drink during sunset, it was worth a stop.  David took us to the Marriott and expertly weaved his way through the hotel until we came to a man-made shallow pool full of stingrays floating through the water in a graceful balletic dance. I was mesmerized by them, watching them glide, swerve, speed over the top of one another. While it wasn’t a wild sea turtle, there was still something enchanting about it. We made our way to the bar and ordered drinks with fresh pineapple, putting our feet up on chairs and watching the sun set over the Ko’olina lagoons.

Stingray in the Maui Ocean Center – 2007
Maui Ocean Center 2007

We have no pictures from this day, only the memories imprinted on us. The sea turtle spinning through the ocean, the Hawaiians bobbing in the water, the sting rays gliding through sunset-tinged streams. It was the perfect Hawaiian day. A little bit of magic and a whole lot of Aloha.

Looking forward to living this dream again in 2 weeks. Summer vacation!

Featured image from Morguefiles

We Were Here: A photographic essay

We Were Here: A photographic essay


We reach Sigiriya and there are signs everywhere warning us of hornets. Each sign shows scared, cartoon-like men racing away from the finger print of hornet wings.




This impending sting attack has us on our toes and every buzz sends a tingle up my spine and adds an extra jaunt to my step. We needed it too, because we have 750 steps to climb to make it to the top. I don’t necessarily have a fear of heights. I have a fear of falling from rickety things or open ledges. A fair amount of these steps are screwed into the side of the rock and spiraling up the cliff face, trapping us in with a metal cage around the outside.


We were here.

The Sigiriya Frescoes, around 7 painted ladies, bare chested and pinching flowers between their fingers adorn the protected wall on the side of the giant rock. These murals have survived 1500 years and display only a small sampling of the supposedly 500 wives the King Kasyapa kept in his harem. I don’t know if any of you watched Big Love but juggling 3 wives was hard enough for Bill Paxton’s character. I guess if your water palace is on top of a 660 foot rock with a 114 foot statue of a lion as an entrance, 500 wives doesn’t phase you. The women were other-worldly and slightly alien in their green hue. Their full-orange breasts reminding us there must have only been one fashion style for the wife of a king on an island that reaches 86 degrees at the height of the summer (#naked).


We were here.

Now, the war may have kept tourists out of the country for the last 30 years, but this wasn’t always the case. The mirror wall has graffiti from tourists dating back to the 9th century. We weren’t the first ones peeping these lady paintings nor the first ones to be marking up walls with our thoughts. At least in the past, the entries were a lot more poetic than “Nicole 4 Eva” but that’s not to say there wasn’t the 11th century’s Sinhalese version of “We were here” either. Some phrases are as old as time and forever applicable.


And then there were the paws. Oh the lovely ginormous paws.


Ruins are fantastic. I love being able to imagine what something looked like from the past, but even more so I like seeing the real thing. I’m glad the paws are there, but I’m not going to lie…I really wish the full lion still existed. It would be like one of the grand entrances from Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones when you see the Braavosi statue standing over the waterway. I want that. I want that in real life. I suppose these paws are the closest thing to that. At least in the shadow of their claws, you can feel the presence of the full statue, the magnitude of it’s size and the awe it would have struck in visitors to the fortress.


I felt it even more so when trying to descend the stairs that were no better than a loose ladder and kept seeing myself plummeting into the lion’s grip like a cat toy being batted from paw to paw.


We were here.

And then it was over. We took our pictures. Made peace signs in front of the paws like the Japanese tourists in front of us.

© Michael Goode

Snapped shots of the painted ladies and shots of other people taking shots.


We snacked at the top of the fortress and looked out over the water gardens below, gazing on the manicured lanes and the giant Buddha statues.


We made our way down the 750 steps and out past the ancient rock walkways strewn with yellow petals.


We reminisced about the time we spent looking at carvings of elephants at the Isurumuniya Temple in Anuradhapura.


We pondered whether or not the bodhi tree was really grafted from the tree Buddha found enlightenment under and whether or not Buddha’s tooth was really being housed in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy.


We stood in the chilled caves of Dambulla and crooked our necks at the ceiling, covered with ancient paintings to rival the Sistine Chapel.


We ate as many rotis we could get our hands on at the Agricultural Market and rode on the back of an elephant.

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And then…

© Michael Goode

We were gone.

I have yet to read it but if I were to go back to Sri Lanka, I would grab Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje as my beach/train read.