Uganda 2017

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What About Uganda?

My most recent travels led me to Uganda where we were greeted by the Musuke god (rainbow god) whose light reigned over us during our welcome dinner.

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For two weeks, about 15 students ventured to Kampala to participate in a cultural dance exchange whereby we (Americans) would learn traditional Ugandan dances along with students from Kyambogo University. We would come together as teachers who would pair up to choreograph dances with children who would then perform with us at the National Theatre four days later.

I write this, as I eat mindlessly in front of my computer. And my first thought is: “Wow! I haven’t done this in over 20 days.” And immediately with that thought comes a sinking feeling of solitude.

The root of all problems is expectation, and to avoid feeling this way, I need to realize that not every day will be as rich and exciting as the time that I spent in Uganda – I may not have incredible conversations over lunch every day, dance beyond my mental limits, or be inspired by a country that is pulsing with peace and acceptance, but my daily life can be an embodiment of this experience.

As one of our professors, Jill Pribyl, mentioned, “All humans come from East Africa. History tells us that the first human was found to live here, so if you feel at home, there must be a reason why.”

I hope that some of my learnings and stories make you feel at home:

I. History

IDENTITY:

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There are 56 tribes in Uganda – 1/2 of which speak Bantu languages — all tribes consider themselves different peoples

Acholi /Acoli people are people who live North of the Nile who are called Northerners

  • For the Acholi, dance is life; they have the biggest number of dances that are still in circulation
  • The classroom for one to learn Acholi dances is the community and the people served
  • Northerners — when the British came – they made northerners soldiers and part of armed forces in Buganda (South) – since they didn’t speak Lugandan, they were not liked
  • The Acholi had war for 20+ years when children were given guns and as such there was a power/authority shift amongst adults and children, people of the North and of the South
  • Because of this turmoil, dances were lost and transformed

LANGUAGE:

  • Bugandans speak Lugandan
  • Acholi speak Luo
  • Banyankole people speak Banyankole
  • 50+ languages spoken in all of Uganda, but the Bugandan language is widely communicated

COLONIALISM:

When colonizers came, the British decided that the Acholi were warriors, but previously, they considered themselves human beings and not even distinctively Acholi

The British made individuals bring all of their valuables to a centralized location, so that they were able to distinguish what was cherished by the locals, ultimately curating that into the Ugandan National Museum, which is the largest museum in East Africa

GEOGRAPHY:

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Uganda is the  country

Buganda is a region within the country

In the South is Lake Victoria, so there is no Southern region

PARLIAMENT:

1955 – is the year that the Buganda parliament was built, which sits 8 times a year

  • Built after the King made a trip to Northern Ireland – Belfast inspired this architecture
  • At meetings, attendees must wear traditional wear — Kanzu for men and Gomesi – traditional garb for women

The king in 1856 was the first to be photographed; he sent mail to the Queen of England, requesting “more white people” to teach Ugandans how to read and write and to propel Christianity. He had 86 wives – At the time, the king would ask any/all women to serve as his wife; men would happily give up their wives to serve their king. He built the kasubi tombs for the kings and their predecessors.

Another king came into power at the age of 1 — married one official wife in church; at the age of seven, he went to Europe. Ideas he thought of while in Europe: table tennis, and the ideas that women should be able to go to school, eat meat, eggs and fish. He made a school for kings – Kings College Buganda.

King – father to the current king refused to make East Africa one Country — he was exiled in England then son came and built parliament

People love the Kingdom — queen/king establishment!

The Buganda kingdom is the most famous/organized kingdom in East and Central Africa, so it serves as a model for all Kingdoms in the region, which consult this one for advice.

Elder son is never king, only the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th son etc. can be — eldest son serves as a consultant.

Kabaka – Title for a King in Uganda if s/he is living – otherwise called a Busekabaka — a dead king, but kings are never really “dead” to Ugandans, instead, they’re “disappeared”

A king is a king for life, even if the king is not well liked by the people

Ssekabaka — predecessor to the kabaka

MISCELLANEOUS:

Gaddafi mosque is the second largest in Africa, donated by Gaddafi, who was a good friend of Ugandan royalty

Uganda – Kenya – Tanzania is the old East Africa — now includes Burundi, and South Sudan as parts of the region

Uganda has had the same president since 1986

1890 – first Ugandans to travel abroad for school

Model T – 1925 — first car driven in Uganda was driven by British Governor

Olympics 1956 – British lost soccer game to Ugandans even if Ugandans were not wearing shoes

The British helped to build the Buganda palace in 1922

There are 56 clans in the Kingdom, and each clan has a specific role in the tribe. Members of the Cow Clan, can’t marry other clan ladies from that specific Clan and cannot eat that specific animal.

Legend of a father and his three sons: 

Kakama (king)

Kahimina (cattle leader)

Kairo (servants)

Still, the descendants of these individuals remain king, cattle herders, and servants, respectively!

Bahima vs. Bairu – Bahilma— because they have cattle, they are wealthy —  they depend on milk, ghee and butter – women of this tribe believed to be lazy

Bairu— tilling lead = getting wealthy, but slowly; both still trade and exchange services with each other

 

II. DANCE 

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Dance is cathartic for all human souls, but as it relates to Uganda, dance is an expression of worship, celebration, preparation for marriage, honoring life, and even complaining about death.

In a circle, men are always to the right of the women, as a symbol of protection

As compared to traditional American dance, which focuses on elevating the body i.e. ballet, Ugandans “keep it low” i.e. akel dances, which are grounded and really use the floor to accentuate movements

Ugandans don’t create dances, they are taught dances as children in a religious, traditional or social setting; dance is part of Ugandan culture, whereas in the US, the culture is mostly closed to paying students of dance

Dances are fading out, as only people in the villages are learning many of them; those in the cities may learn traditional dances if they are a part of a cultural center that teaches dance

Dance learning methods: just follow and repeat, “we” mentality, no singling anyone out, no mirrors

1. Ekituguriro Dance: 

  • Dance comes from Western Uganda
  • When men go to the fields, women go to the gardens
  • Dance comes in because of the cattle
  • Trying to mimic the cattle because they are prized and praised, going up the hills and down the valleys drinking water
  • Jumping, thumping, stomping, hands held high hip movement, is a resultant of the footwork
  • Mostly men dancing
  • Vocal accompaniment – talking about the day – often holding a hidden message / events of the day – doubt entendres – as well as direct meanings
  • Men secretly talking about women, and not exactly about “cows”
  • Performed during joyful occasions, not during deaths
  • Put on cattle skin
  • Eat butter, drink milk
  • Fabric comes from arabs/indians that came to trade
  • Now commercial to some are paid to dance this
  • Form of cultural preservation
  • People earned through school/community
  • Form of social affirmation form

2. Matuput Dance:

  • Ceremonial Acholi dance to resolve conflict – was to bring everyone back together, fighters and those affected – everyone in the community from both parties
  • Men and women had particular pre-established roles
  • Now, individualism is more and more accepted, which means that women don’t need to marry, shifting power dynamics and as such, dance dynamics

3. Akel dance:

  • Acholi youth dance, a social dance for boys and girls who are ready for marriage; gendered dance
  • Men stand on right side of women as this side is a symbol of power and strength
  • Circular formation, like a hut, where they would first perform this dance, so they are very compact in a close group
  • The dance is grounded in different rhythms — the torso is leaning forward, no solos (as this is a communal dance), gender specific, knees bent
  • Accompaniment: voice, drums, whistle (pirini), calabash, cow bells, beads around waist, and other string instruments as they may
  • In contrast with the Banyankole people who are conservative, Acholi people wear mini skirts to show off bodies — if you (as a man) can’t dance well, you do not get a wife! Dance proves how well you are able to take care of the women
  • When Arab Traders arrived with their fabrics, the Acholis wore more clothing, but initially just covered some body parts/private parts with animal skins
  • Acholi women always wear beads (virgins) – but also used for dance
  • Men danced for discipline couldn’t be aroused while dancing – taught how to behave through dance
  • Circular – partners chose each other on the ring, but there were suggestions from family members as far as whom one should marry
  • Akel Song U U We-e —> No, I don’t want you! When a man comes to pick a    lady for marriage, this is her response. | Akel lamin ma-a —> admiring her to the extent that s/he will be like his mother

III. Culture/Education

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5 Dimensions of culture — 

1. Relation to authority

2. Conception of self — individualism vs. community

3. Concepts of masculinity vs. femininity

4. Ways of dealing with conflict

5. Longterm orientation

1. Relation to authority — Ugandans have a high level of hierarchical authority  

Working with Ugandan Children —  “be aware of the quiet ones” — Ugandan saying because Ugandan children tend to be quiet and reserved – a product of colonialism and top-down approaches to teaching, which focuses on not challenging authority, and as such it stifles creativity.

In large power distance cultures like Uganda, parents treat children not as equals, but as subjects that must respect adults at all costs.

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  1. 2. Conception of self — individualism vs. collectivism Ugandans primarily associate themselves as part of a collective culture – identifying with their immediate family, extended family, clan, tribe, and kingdom. They expect protection in exchange for loyalty in a symbiotic social coexistence.In a more individualistic culture like that of the United States, friendships and even family ties are voluntary, allowing children to speak their mind as a sign of honesty rather than as a sign of discord with the larger group.

    In a collective culture like Uganda, children think of each other as “We” — with the goal of harmony being maintained. Resources are shared and socialized in outdoor settings.

    Values shared by the culture are considerations of what is moral vs. immoral, feminine vs. masculine, and good vs. bad.

    This idea of collectivism influences ideas, especially the ideas expressed in public, which may be synonymous, but different and more individualistic in the private sphere. Again, this is with the ultimate goal of maintaining harmony.

    For this reason, as teachers, we were told to find language that allows the children to think for themselves.

img_13823. Concepts of masculinity vs. femininity   

Greetings — not greeting mom when husband is around, no greetings if girl’s outfits are too short, too tight, and/or she is not married; these ideas alone hint at the gendered characteristics of traditional Ugandan culture.

However, during my short stay in Kampala, I was shown the highest forms of respect and acceptance as a woman and as a foreigner.

Patrilineal society – dad is the head of the home and woman is the main planner, is to bear children or man will find someone else; children are highly valued

 Patrilineal society – dad is the head of the home and woman is the main planner, is to bear children or man will find someone else; children are highly valued

4. Ways of dealing with conflict – communal, traditionally by bringing both dissenting parties together, often through dance 

5. Longterm orientation – i.e. do you think of the future in terms of tomorrow, 5 years, or 10 years from now? – Ugandans normally live in the moment.

 

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MISCELLANEOUS:

Fire places were traditional educational places at night, only taught by elders of the communities

The Aguara (calabash) is a primary representation of Ugandans’ resourcefulness. It was used: to fetch water, to shower, as a plate for food, as a cup for drinking, as an instrument, a chair, an umbrella, a cover baby for rain, a pillow, and an alarm clock as women come and play the calabash to wake up their husbands.

Primary sources of entertainment:

Traditional:

  • Mankala – Mwebo Game
  • Blacksmithing

Modern:

  • Soccer/Football

IV. Religion/Spirituality

“For God and My Country” is the motto of the country, which speaks to the depths of religion (Christianity)

Uganda is primarily a Catholic nation, with traces of Anglican and Muslim religions

Despite statistical representations of official religions, Uganda is a highly tolerant nation of all religions, promotes freedom of worship, and as such even has a Bah’ai temple!

MISCELLANEOUS:

“Dead bodies are respected more than living bodies”  — made out of bark from the birch tree Walloombe — God of Death

Bangalore people – believe in God – Nyamhuanga

In 2009, the King celebrated his birthday with the Catholics, and in 2010, he celebrated his birthday with the Muslims, which speaks to the cultural understanding and collaboration of the country at large

“We thank God, known by many names” – Professor Grace announced before one of our meals, speaking again to Ugandan’s religious understanding

Uganda is a nation with over 50 tribes and many more languages, which may add to its tolerance of diversity

There is an increasing duality between conventional medicine and homeopathic medicine, and traditional spirituality and post-colonial religions, which seem to coexist organically

Coffee beans are one of the first meals that connects you to ancestral spirits in Buganda

If you are impotent in Buganda – it is believed that your parents or grandparents have a curse behind your family, so they come to Sseswiba Falls with beer and pots to offer their ancestral spirits

Belief in life after death complements Christianity

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V. Family

TWINS:

Twin ceremony — twins are highly valued, as they are known to increase population, also from the legend of the twin born Rivers — Waswa and Kato — Waswa is the firstborn

—  ceremony, Bolo Laputa must be performed,  otherwise it is known to bring diseases for the kids

Nnalongo – mother of twins

Ssalongo – father of twins

Bark cloths used as blankets and cloths used for initiation of newborn twins

MISCELLANEOUS:

Children are highly valued as part of the family and as an addition to the labor force, complementing the work of the cows

Individuals are distinguished from either the west or north regions of Uganda according to their last names

Mixed babies, lighter skinned babies are generally not treated well and seen as “half breeds”

 VI. Role of Performing Arts

Frank, the director of Tender Talents Performing Arts Center, was once part of the N’Dere Troupe, the youngest of his group at the time who was always asked to train the incoming youth, and as such learned how to teach others. He has now been giving workshops all over the world for the past 17 years. “I don’t think that there’s a stage in Kampala that I don’t know.”

He has since returned to the community where he hosts 350 children in his center. He uses the arts to train the children in other disciplines, from history to geography and cited one of his students who said that “if it wasn’t for the art program, he wouldn’t have made it as a lawyer.”

We had the honor of watching one of their performances, which had been entirely choreographed by children. The lights stopped working and nails on the stage often hurt the dancers, but they kept going, speaking to their unwavering resilience.

“Once you do good things, good things come socially and physically,” Frank mentioned in response to someone who offered to build him a space for the performing art’s center, after he was asked where the children danced (previously outdoors).

This speaks to the power of performing arts as a vehicle for growth and transformation of individuals and societies.

For many children, like those whom we visited at the Break Dance Project, dance is an outlet for communal expression and an escape from poverty, most importantly the psychological and physiological stresses that come with it – through dance, the body does not speak poverty, it speaks freedom and connection.

As previously mentioned, dances are fading out in Uganda outside of villages where dance still form part of daily life: organizations like the N’Dere Center and Sosolya Undugu Center are keeping souls and culture alive.

VII. Food

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At – Sylivia’s house — “I have 10 different types of jack fruit trees in my backyard, and each tree’s fruits tastes differently; I have no need to pay for fruit, I just ask my neighbor, and she just asks me”

Ugandans have lunch at 1pm

Millet (Akaro)  is a staple food cereal — it is still the food that people use to welcome guests and dignitaries into their homes

Realization: saw many women eating alone in public spaces – in the city anyway

Lots of Indian and Chinese immigrants i.e. business men, so lots of Indian/Chinese food establishments and influences in food like pilau rice, which I am a fan of!

People don’t fry foods in the north, so it is generally “healthier”

VIII. Money

  • It is good to bring $100 bills minted after 2003 to ensure that they will be exchanged
  • Tip isn’t required but it is highly appreciated by all service workers

IX. Miscellaneous:

  • “Ugandans respect dead bodies more than live ones”
  • Birds are important, many songs about birds
  • Boda boda — “border border” motorcycles, as a primary transport in Kampala – called this way because they were used to transport people from Uganda to Rwanda
  • Taxis – are group transport vans; “private hires” are taxis as they are more commonly known
  • Uganda sits right on the equator, so 12 hour days, 12 hour nights — pretty great weather!
  • Horns were once used for blowing & communication — before, one’s grandfather decided what partner you took, and announced it through specific horn blowing
  • Takes three months for something to go from end of Nile in Uganda to Egypt
  • Every president of the US that is elected prompts people in Uganda to start naming their kids after that, including Trump
  • Many British style bricks used – similar architecture throughout Kampala
  • Roads/ infrastructure in Kampala generally good, compared to other similar GDP areas
  • Covered up hygienic pads for my friend at supermarket with a separate bag, seems to be a taboo and a form of preserving secrecy
  • Circumcision is highly valued — saw a booth across from the National Theatre: “get circumcised now!”
  • Very little recycling in Uganda, garbage is burned

X. Reflection

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“Seeing the sons and daughters of their soil divided makes us quite perplexed,” Simon Ewasu said regarding how polarized our views were on the United States’ levels of freedom. This for me was the first moment that greatly materialized the importance of our being in Uganda. Many of the people that we interacted with were first exposed to Americans through us, which was a mutual blessing given the diversity of our group as first/second generation Americans, recent émigrés, and visiting students.

The next few weeks were a reminder that my identity as a minority in an increasingly intolerant State made me ever more connected to the individuals that I had the opportunity to work with, not as a colonizer of ideas but as a collaborator.

I was reminded of this through our many visits to performing arts centers, where dance was the source of life for many children whose talent could not be compared. Their talent alone spoke for the power of the arts, of opportunity, and of human collaboration, which is at the core of my belief that empathy trumps sympathy when trying to make a difference.

Empathy brews empowerment, and empowerment dissipates hierarchy, bureaucracy, and other top-down approaches to the thriving of human souls.

This approach allowed me to listen in different ways and to open myself up to a community of dancers who have the rigor of businessmen, paired with the creativity of the overarching artistic community.

As our professor, Deborah Damast mentioned, “Your identity is only up to you” — and as such, my ideas of myself as a “non-dancer”, whose memory would fail her until the very end, and who could not make a distinguishable difference on her own were blurred. The truth is that the power of this program is beyond me; it is beyond any single human and his identity as an individual. The power lies in the collective, and in the strength that this collaboration forges as part of human history.

 

 

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ASIA ADVENTURES 2016: MALAYSIA  

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Breakfast in Thailand, lunch in Malaysia. Thanks to Asia’s generally condensed geography, I was able to meet my friend Rachel, whom I had met at a CS gathering in Paris in 2013. A bit of food poisoning got me down, but not down enough to keep me from exploring the food market that had been set up outside for the first day of Ramadan. It was my first experience therof in a majority-Muslim country.

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We relaxed by her pool to this view before heading over to a speakeasy hidden in a mall. Quite an Asian experience, I think.

Gabe left for a day in Singapore the following day, while Rachel and I pampered ourselves, catering to my self-indulgent side — a facial, makeup class (Rachel is a professional makeup artist), and hair blowout later, we were ready for a dinner at a food+fish farm about 30 minutes from KL.

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In this fashion, I welcomed my birthday — surrounded by more love, food, and happiness than I could’ve asked for.

 

Highlights:

Catching up with friends!

KL’s beautiful views

Experiencing Asian-Muslim culture during Ramadan

 

Favorite thing(s) eaten: Steamed bread and kaya ❤

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Interesting learnings:

-They drive on the left side of the road!

-Malaysia is a majority-Muslim country

-Plane is sprayed with disinfectant before landing, required by Malaysia — announcement on plane “cover head for fumigation

-They eat with fork and spoon, pushing the food into the spoon and eating off the spoon

-There are Malaysian-made cars! The most common brand is: Myvvi

-The Quran is most often translated into Malay, although some people do study Arabic

-Movies used to take 3-4 months to be streamed in Malaysia because of censorship; my friend joked that “50 shades of grey was ‘all white” and only 20 minutes long LOL”

-There are so many malls in Malaysia that they call the airport, “the shopping mall with an airport” — after passing through dozens of shops before getting to a terminal, you understand why that is the case..

-Yet to be determined, but my theory of why the ATMs I used don’t charge fees is because of the Quran’s verse on not charging interest/tithe for borrowing money

-Men in Malaysia can marry more than one wife ; max 4, but most likely are very wealthy, as whatever is given to one wife must be matched for the other

ASIA ADVENTURES 2016: INDONESIA

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Lunch in Malaysia, dinner in Indonesia. My birthday dinner, actually, which was shared with about 30 Australians, who seemed to follow us, or whom we seeemed to follow to the bars. The truth is Kuta is a hub for Australians. As I learned, the winds blow from the shores of the Australian coast, inspiring intense waves (the most intense I’ve ever seen) and attracting the Australians with them.

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I celebrated my birthday at Sky Room, an 8-floor dance club, which seemed to be the hub for tourists in the Legion beach area.

The next day, we were off to Ubud, where in February of 2015, I won (for the first time in my life) a 2-night stay at the 5-star Alaya resort.

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My trip advisor review for the hotel says it all:

“My stay at Alaya was nothing short of magical. My first day there happened to be the day after my birthday, which Ayu at the front desk meticulously noticed, providing me with my one and only birthday cake of the year, a complimentary massage for my partner and I, and assistance in planning the rest of our time at Alaya, which made our time in Ubud seamless and worry-free. Many delicious meals later, I got to meet chef Siharta personally, whose passion was evident in his creations and in his warmth in his communication with the patrons. He not only greeted us with interest, but with genuine engagement, requesting our attendance again that evening and asking for us to meet with him again before our departure. I can honestly say that at Alaya, there is no discomfort or distance that can come with hotels of this caliber. No request is too lavish or minute to at least be considered. With no attachment or connection to the resort, and as a frequent traveler, I highly recommed your stay here. Special thanks to Yasa for facilitating the booking all the way from NYC!”

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Shortly after our arrival, we headed towards the monkey village, which was one of the best moment of my life, No joke. I actually Youtube monkey videos all the time and wish I could have one as a pet, but it’s illegal where I live.. womp.

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Anyhow, my desire for one was shortly satisfied as I got to feed, play, be bitten by, and briefly be a victim (one bit me after I tried to return his leaf, another one tried opening my backpack zipper, and shuffling through my hair which was hiding the earrings that he was going after) of these adorable creatures.

IMG_3085.JPGOur last day of the trip was quite eventful with a healing (perhaps because of the spiritual nature of simply the energizing pressure from the water fountains) visit to a water temple, an instructive coffee tasting of “the most expensive coffee in the world”,

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a visit to rice patties,

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and having dinner with a motor taxi/ property manager who took me a bit outside of Ubud to explore the places where Eat Pray Love was filmed — succumbed to the chill of the downhill winds and under those bright Balinese stars, the trip came to an end.

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Favorite thing(s) eaten: 

-I greatly enjoyed the complementary snake fruit (called so because of its scaly skin) at the hotel — unlike any fruit I’ve ever tried

-Nasi Goreng, fried rice, is quite unique in Bali given the traditional Balinese “spice”, which is actually a combination of spices

-Aside from the “cool” factor of the cone-shaped rice, the Nasi Raja, is historically important, as only kings had this dish in the past; it is filled with options from land and sea, and most definitely satisfying any palate

 

Highlights:

-Massage in Bali

-Free cake & dinner & massage @ Alaya for bday

-Monkey forest

-First time river rafting

-Visit to coffee plantation

-Learning from Wira, our driver to the hotel that “yoga” could be anything Couldn’t find uber/ he canceled so ran into nearest guy I knew, hot even, and took me; told him about maxi, smoked a menthol cigarette, learned that yoga can be anything that makes my soul happy — so dancing can be it too!

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Interesting Learnings:

-Ladies on thier period can’t go into the temple / inside the pool at the water temple

-In Bali — 60% of a new structure’s architecture must retain a Balinese style

-If someone dies 4,000,000 Indonesian Rupees (about 4k) is neededfor the ceremony, but if a monk dies around the same time, you can share the ceremony

-Our driver said he didn’t have enough money to bury his uncle, so he keeps him buried until he has the money to cremate him/partake in a ceremony for him

-Rice patties – manually picking rice because it’s not possible for tractors to go up because it’s high and on an incline– harvest is 2x a year in June and January; because we were there in June, one could see many people processing through the streets, partaking in rice festivals at various temples

-They consider thier Hindu religion to be a trinity of a monotheistic religion: Brahma- fire; Vishnu – water; Shiva – wind

-Bali operates on a 5-tier caste system — at the top is the priest

-Graves also serve as temples

-People in Bali feel like it’s its own country, separate from other Indonesian islands, each one has its own language

 

On Lewak/Balinese coffee:  

-Male coffee is more bitter, with two coffee beans instead of one; Bali coffee is a mix; espresso is just male coffee

-How cofffee is made: Roast coffee bean for one hour – then grind the coffee beans – then sift to get powder very fine

-No milk is added to this Balinese coffee, just palm sugar and honey ; 30% coffee

-Lewak– eats only good quality coffee & ferments it turning it into protein filled coffee w/ low caffeine

-Lewak coffee is more expensive in the world; about $50 USD a cup, made from cultivating and cleaning the coffee beans from the feces of the animal

-Interesting — difference between good and bad (real and fake) lewak coffee i.e lewak coffee has this thick residue at the end when finished drinking

-How to make from powder: two teaspoons of powder and (very) hot water, so that the coffee is diluted and doesn’t just sit at the top

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FROM WIKIPEDIA:

-With 18,110 islands, 6,000 of them inhabited, Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world.

-Portuguese colonization reflected in some of the words like “meja” for table

-80-88% of the population of Indonesia state their religion as being Islam (Sunni) making it numerically by far the largest religion in the nation and Indonesia the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. Nevertheless, Indonesia officially remains a secular state.

-The most significant season of the year is the Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan. During its 30 days, devout Muslims refrain from passing anything through their lips (food, drink, smoke) between sunrise and sunset.

-During Ramadan, all forms of nightlife including bars, nightclubs, karaoke and massage parlours close by midnight, and (especially in more devout areas) quite a few opt to stay closed entirely. Business travellers will notice that things move at an even more glacial pace than usual and, especially towards the end of the month, many people will take leave.

-Indonesia imposes the death penalty on those caught bringing in drugs.

-Indonesia is a very ethnically and linguistically diverse country, with around 300 distinct native ethnic groups, and 742 different languages and dialects.

ASIA ADVENTURES 2016: THAILAND 

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 The adventure begins on a cold evening in December 2015, at a Lower East Side bubble tea shop. At that point the goal was: Asia. My travel buddy and best friend, Gabe and I knew nothing more than that we wanted to spend about two weeks on an adventure there, arguably one of the most complex trips I was to plan.

Having Gabe was a blessing, not only because of our often-shared perspectives on our experiences and overall companionship, but also because of his complementary ways of planning, researching and ever-structured way to facilitate everything, realizing our plans in a seamless way. Without him, I probably would’ve seen about half of the things that we did together.

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These three posts are a tribute to our 2016 summer adventure. A bit more tan, a bit more fit, and a bit more knowledgeable, we survive to tell the tale.

Thailand. 

40+ hours after our departure from JFK, and we arrive in this bustling city, the humidity immediately (I mean 30 seconds or less) transforming my hair into a ball of frizz. We lounged at the mall to drop of our luggage while we awaited the return of our CS host, Poom, from work.

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As I expected, the MBK mall in Bangkok was not a dissapointment. Not only are malls in Asia the best, most lavish, and most delicious I’ve ever encountered (yes, the food is G.R.E.A.T), it is a haven for people watching, and quite frankly a perfect place to experience Thai culture. I chose to experence it through an incredible ginger tofu dish, which tasted like it could cure every ailment in my body — in the most positive sense.

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The rest of our time in Bangkok was spent visiting Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, and similar tourist attractions (John Thompson House, Sky Bar, River Tour, Bangkok Cultural Art Center) which are undeniably musts — all of these somewhat intese physical activites were counteracted by the constant sprinkling of massages we got on a daily basis… I think I ended up averaging 1-2 a day… sounds silly, but a. I’m a huge proponent of massages as mental and physical healers and b. a good Thai massage is less than a cocktail back home, so… why not?

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We flew to Phuket for a more relaxed time, relative to that of our highly structured time in Bangkok; with a beachfront AirBnb — it was hard not to be highly satisfied just enjoying the view.

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The nighlife called, however, which promised us a great night out. Gabe and I  ended up in different nightclubs, but with groups of people that made our nights equally enriching. I don’t think I EVER danced as much as I did that night in Phuket. Special thanks to my three dancing buddies (Xelliot and co.) that night!

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The following day was basically spent “at sea” on a ferry from Phuket to Ko Phi Phi. Although our stop was brief, simply enjoying a lunch we had won from entering and winning a raffle for a free night at this hotel, our brief séjour was quite awesome. Special thanks to Pilar for raffling off (and us winning) her hotel stay! The picture says it all.

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Bangkok had us back before our return to the US, allowing us enough time between our flights to enjoy the Chatuchak market.

The food @ Chatuchak was great — as a CS friend suggested, try the coconut ice cream!! — I didn’t have energy to explore anything else.

This market is the largest in Asia, where I ended up losing Gabe before meeting him at the Terminal 21 mall — themed with different regions and countries on each floor — where we played Mario Kart and ended our trip watching a break dancing competition. I won first place in Mario Kart 🙂

 

Highlights: 

La Rueda Salsa Club — great for social salsa + bachata dancers!

Night out in Phuket — White Room is so fun!! — great DJ

Massage at Wat Pho, the birthplace of Thai Massage — interesting that they say a prayer before massaging you! // massages in general!

River tour from Sathorn

Learning about Thai culture from Poom, our CS host

Parasailing in Phuket – first time! ❤

 

Favorite thing(s) eaten: 

-Of course, the ginger tofu chicken @ MBK mall

-The coconuts were also to die for.. I averaged 2/day!

 

Interersting learnings:

Despite the hustle and bustle, when elders wish to cross the street, people stop for them

-Of-the-menu veggie options are available if you ask

-Thailand requires leaving every 90 days so there was a guy on the plane to Malaysia leaving again that night — with plans to just eat and shop in Malaysia

-“Bye bye” means that it’s ok — don’t worry about it

-They drive on the left side of the road!

-Parasailing in Phuket —  first time ever! ❤

-Male monk was free to enter the Grand Palace but lady monk/ nun had to pay

-Bangkok is super rectangular shape, which can be seen from the plane

What We Know About Starting (Food) Businesses in Cuba

 

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While the trade embargo remains, President Barack Obama’s recent and unprecedented 21st entury visit to Cuba is symbolic of a new amiable age between the two nations. On December 2014, presidents Obama and Raul Castro simultaneously addressed their nations, promising to restore diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba, after more than 60 years. In August 2015, the US Embassy in Cuba raised its flag, and since, Cuba has been in the global spotlight, romanticized as a place for nostalgic tourism and economic opportunity.

 

The rapidly changing economic climate comes with business opportunities: the Port of Havana is only 198 nautical miles from the Port of Miami, which would ease exports and tourism between the two countries. European and Asian countries have decreased the barriers to entry for doing business on the island; they have been there for decades. the nation boasts of a population of 11 million, previously secluded and longing for American goods. Illegal satellite TV hardware present in many Cuban homes are eyes into the world of American capitalism.

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Demand is high. The supply is there. But as of March 2016, Cuba isn’t quite ready for capitalism just yet.

 

Removing the embargo would facilitate investments between the US and Cuba — meaning between the US government, US companies, US individuals, and US entities and the Cuban government. See the disparity? Also, only Cuban nationals (excluding expatriates) can ‘own’ property in Cuba — so unless a foreigner marries a Cuban national and opens the business under his/her name, dreams of opening small businesses like restaurants, cafeterias and bars are futile.

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According to the Los Angeles Times, while the U.S. Treasury and the Commerce Department has eased restrictions on remittances, facilitating trade in the telecommunication and agriculture sectors and allowing some U.S. companies to establish a physical presence on the island — most U.S. firms are still not allowed to invest in Cuba.

 

A few American businesses are already operating in Cuba: Airbnb and Netflix uniquely satisfy a preexisting model of ownership.

 

Tyson Foods is perhaps the largest American food business present on the island. It has been doing business with Cuba since 2000, when restrictions on farm products were lifted.

 

I was there just days before the arrival of Obama, and I can tell you that Cuba is not ready yet.

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At a restaurant in the Prado district of Havana, I had a conversation with a waiter, whom I had invited to dinner. It was his first time there. Most Cubans live off government salaries of around $25 a month, the cost of our meal. There, he told me of his dream of going to the US to work on a trucking business, returning with enough capital to open a restaurant in Havana before they let the yumas (foreigners) own property in Cuba.

 

“Havana is where I belong,” he said.

 

Cuba is not ready yet, but if his eagerness is any indication of the omnipresent entrepreneurial spirit that inhabits the island — for better or for worse — capitalism isn’t all that far away.

For the Love of Mind and Body

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I remember playing “spa” with my cousins as a 9 year old. I seemed to know meditation before I knew about meditation; at that age, I bought incense and would inundate my bedroom with its allure — not knowing its healing powers at the time, nor that of a great pedicure. The passion for self-care has remained with me into adulthood. I deeply care about my health — both mental and physical, in the same way that I care for the health and lifestyle of my pooch, Bella.

 

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She represents my love for nature at large, and the opportunities it affords me in this life — in all of its forms, the curative, the spiritual, the healing.

I write this post as an emblem of the many ways in which nature can heal — mind and body.

Don’t get my wrong, I’m not a perfectly healthy guru, but these are just some things I try to be a bit better to myself. Hope it helps!

I. FOR MY BODY:  

 It’s Beauty and the Feast — I learned that if you couldn’t eat it without getting sick then you shouldn’t put it on your body. Your skin is your largest organ after all, so it makes sense. Here are a few things I use:

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This German face scrub — I get it on Amazon — it smells great and feels great on the skin; I use it once a week, and it instantly makes my skin super duper soft.

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Body scrub —  I make my own, using this recipe that I found online. I substitute grape seed oil for olive oil and find that white sugar works best with this:

Lavender and Vanilla Body Scrub

Total Time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 jar

Ingredients

2 cups sugar

1 cup grape seed oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons dried lavender, optional

12 drops lavender essential oil

Instructions

In a medium sized bowl, mix together all ingredients.

Store in a jar and use in the shower or tub daily, stirring before use.

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I first encountered these rock deodorants in France where they have been used for centuries. Deodorants with aluminum, which is contained within most of the common brands, are a common contributor to breast cancer, so my girl and guy friends, beware. These are natural and organic and often last me 1+ years… just don’t drop it on the floor.

Massages — I suffer from moderate scoliosis, which sometimes inhibits my sleep. Massages help, but unfortunately, massages are often quite expensive.  I try to get them at least once a month, as they truly seem to decongest my joints and release me from my muscle/spinal pain. Renewal Body Wellness in Manhattan is one of the most affordable and effective places I have found in the area.

Salsa — dancing is the one thing that takes my mind off of everything. When I dance, nothing else matters. In fact, because it is so all-encompassing of my body and mind, there’s no room for thought, only feeling. This is my primary form of exercise, and I even hesitate to call it that because it doesn’t feel like any work at all.

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Face Masks —  I’m a fan of face masks! They’re not only great for the skin, but they soothe me, as they smell great: aromatherapy is an added perk!  I love them using them when I know I won’t be going out for a while, as I tend to leave them on long-after the suggested 15 minutes (not advised), but the ones like this oat & rose water from Lush seems to not dry out your skin, even after prolonged usage. I like these Astara ones as well, which I get at the C.O. Bigelow in Manhattan.

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Argan oil — argan oil came into my life about 5 years ago, shortly after which I happened to be in Morocco and purchased about 2 liters of it, which lasted me over a year. I use it for everything: to moisturize my body, my face (it doesn’t clog pores, and actually improves the overall quality of your skin), as a leave-in conditioner for my hair — literally for everything-moisture.

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I had the bottle of Josie Moran Argan Oil with me at the time when I was in Morocco, and the vendors – experts in the field – agreed that the quality of this one was great.

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Burt’s Bees face wipes — great for travel and for the lazy “I-don’t-feel-like-taking-off-my-makeup-days” ; these smell great, don’t clog your pores, and leave your skin incredibly moisturized

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Homeopathic Meds — after being on a number of prescription meds over the years, I decided to counter the effects and wean off of them by substituting them with homeopathic remedies, which have not only caused my ailments to subside, but have also attacked the issues at the root, improving my overall health. I would advise to go to a homeopathic doctor, while simultaneously following a normal regimen with a regular M.D. — I see this as a complement rather than a complete substitute.

Vega One I love this protein powder, especially the French Vanilla one, as it’s all veggie based — it fills me up and provides me with most of the nutrients and protein I need for the day.. so just in case I slip up and don’t nourish myself properly, at least my day started off with enough sustenance. I usually add one portion of the protein, 1.5 cups of water, 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 1 ripe banana, and ice to my smoothie.

II. FOR MY MIND: 

My 2016 New Year Resolution is to meditate every day. I was using the Headspace app for a while, until they wanted me to pay for it, at which point I found another crowdsourced mediation app, Insight Timer, which has an incredible array of options in many languages, too. The only drawback is that you need Wifi in order to use it.

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Lavender — room spray, candles, etc. — I love lavender, and use it on everything from my own room spray (just add water to a bit of essential oil in a spray bottle), candles, and my body scrub; a bit under the nose also helps to calm me down if I can’t get myself to sleep.

Journaling – I’ve kept a journal for much of my life, and I intend to do so until I can’t write anymore. Aside from dancing, this is the one time I feel truly connected to myself and my emotions. It’s a way to reflect, renew, and recycle thoughts. Here’s one method that I’ve been sticking to for the past few months, courtesy of Tim Ferris:

5 minute journal: 

 

MORNING:

3 things I’m grateful or:

3 things that would make today great:

2 daily affirmations – I am: 

EVENING:

2 ways I could’ve made it better: 

3 amazing things that happened today: 

I completed the Duolingo for Italian and now use the Memrise app — I find that they’re better than memory games for me, and help me start the day on a positive and instructive note, if only for 5 minutes; my next linguistic goals are Arabic, Dutch, or German.

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Origins Peace of Mind Mind —  this is great to help me focus, and often is enough to help me get rid of my migraines; all it takes is an application to the temples and a bit under the nose. No aspirin or ibuprofen needed.

For the past two years, I’ve become obsessed with lighting a candle every day; in order to combat how expensive this daily habit can become, I bought a candle-making kit, but time and effort is lacking at the moment for me to continue doing it, so I resort to going to a store like Marshall’s, which always has incredible candles on sale; my favorite are the Pecksniff’s candles from London. They have great room sprays as well.

Incense —  Incense is a less-expensive alternative to candles, and seems to transport me to a place that’s renewing. Incense goes back thousands of years, beginning in the early cultures of India and Northern Africa, which is somehow healing in its own light. It clears the room of any odors and seems to increase my focus. I have a stark preference for sandalwood at the moment.

Music —  I work with music on, shower with music on, pretty much do everything with music on — it sparks my creativity and motivates a space of focus and positivity in me.

III. FOR MY PUP: 

Because I’m a fan of all-things Burt’s Bees, when I saw these wipes on sale at Marshall’s for the pup, I had to get them! I like to think that if I ever run out of mine.. that this could be a pretty safe backup 🙂

I, of course, also use the Burt’s Bees shampoo on her — also often on sale at Marshall’s

Wellness Dog Food —  this is what I feed her, which she seems to like; I like the fact that it is hard food, which is very practical, as she manages when and how much she wants to eat throughout the day

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Corn starch  + milk of magnesia + hydrogen peroxide = a non-invasive 15 minute mask under the eyes, which keeps the pup’s area clean and white

Massages — my dog loves belly rubs, but additionally, when I get the chance, I take the time to massage the rest of her body; it’s de-stressing for both of us

After two mastectomies, I ordered this Life Gold treatment; I felt another tumor growing, and it has honestly subsided after just a few of these squirts of this in her water every day – this stuff is magic!

Argan Oil —  after her surgery, Bella’s skin was very dry, so I used this to moisturize the area around the incision, without noticing any allergic reaction to the product

IV. TRAVEL: 

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My Usual Travel Kit

You may be wondering how I do this and take it all with me when I travel? Well, sometimes I have to sacrifice things like a face mask and even meditation in order to be in the moment and truly experience the place where I am. Travel seems to be all-encompassing of my mind-body goals, often opening opportunities beyond what I can achieve in the comfort of my own home i.e. learning a new language just being in that country, being meditative as I look at the clouds outside of the plane or ride an elephant; in many ways, Travel is complementary to these goals.

 

An American Girl in Cuba

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It’s my 50th country! And if it’s not my favorite yet, then it’s certainly in my top 3.

I. Personal Background:

There’s just this magic about Cuba, the same humid-like sensation I felt in Mumbai that has absolutely nothing to do with the weather. The kind that envelops you as you leave the plane, and you can breathe again, your worries unfounded and with no place in the new environment.

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I was born in a very “Cuban” environment: where I live was once a city that was 80% Cuban, mostly sons and daughters of political prisoners, including my best friend and schoolmate Stephanie.

The sad thing is, however, that they don’t yet know that I’ve been to Cuba, and despite how close we are, I can’t get myself to tell them.

You see: I arrived in Cuba at the cusp of the improving Cuban-American relations — Obama arrived just two days after I left, and in honor of that arrival they made the Cuban CUC currency 1:1 with the dollar instead of 1:98, which it was what I traded it at just days before #schucks.

In spite of this generally positive climate, I couldn’t help to ignore the many stories of brutal oppression my friends recounted, both first and secondhand. How they came from nothing, and how they would never go back to it, under any circumstances.

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Street poet in Trinidad

 

And let’s be real: just because there are signs of change does not mean that the day-to-day lives of the people will change, for the better or for the worse, just yet. Some predict it will take a minimum of 20 years. Some say the mentality has already changed. That their Cuban peers are happier.

I tried to leave those biases behind, with the very challenging idea of experiencing Cuba for what it is — good, bad, ugly, but mostly good and mostly beautiful.

FROM MY JOURNAL:  I’ve started planning my Cuba trip. It’ll me by 50th country, but I think this one requires the most planning, given the lack of wifi and the whole government situation — Like, I’m researching things I never do when I travel: ‘phone usage’ ‘can I bring my camera’ ‘can i bring my dslr to cuba?’ ‘currency in cuba — how do I get it?’ This is all because I can’t assume that I’ll be able to use my phone for quick answers, access the internet, or even have access to an ATM — Bank of America doesn’t have Cuba on the list of travel alerts. Thank god I at least speak the language.

Many of these questions and fears were unfounded, which I will address below for anyone who happens to stumble upon this blog and finds it useful.

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Air Force  Plane Waiting for Obama in Havana

 

GETTING THERE (As an American):

As of March 2016, travel to Cuba for Americans requires a visa, falling under 12 categories of travel. I marked my reason for travel as ‘professional research’ and was not questioned about it, nor was I asked to provide supporting documentation.

I heard that booking flights directly from Miami to Havana and to other cities in Cuba is cheaper than booking through an agency, but the agency I used, Cuba Travel Services got me all of the necessary documentation for my visa and the flight to and from, which made me feel entirely more confident about it.

My passport was stamped in Cuba, although it is not required, but it is not a problem to have it stamped, as I’m sure Obama will be having his own stamped shortly.

HOUSING: 

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My Host Mom Sarilda

 

Couchsurfing, which is my primary way of travel these days, is technically illegal in Cuba, as in order to host a foreigner in your home as a Cuban, you need to a. have special permission from the government and b. pay taxes — with that said, unless you have family in Cuba, in order to stay anywhere in Cuba, you must pay for housing or a hotel.

Te explico un poco como funciona el asunto sobre la estancia de extranjeros: En Cuba oficialmente no puedes recibir a extranjeros si no tienes un permiso o autorización que es el mismo que se usa para rentar, o sea, si recibes a extranjeros debes rentar, a no ser que sea tu familia o demuestres que son conocidos y no estas recibiendo dinero sin reportar al gobierno. Lo más sencillo es buscar un hostal agradable para estar. Yo conozco a una muchacha que ha rentado a otros CouchS y te la puedo recomendar, es muy buena gente y puedes tener con ella ese tipo de relación como si estuvieras conviviendo con una familia. Si quieres hablo para ti o te doy sus contactos para que le escribas.

Por supuesto que puedo acompañarte por La Habana…por el resto de la isla esta en dependencia de mi trabajo, pero veremos que se puede hacer.

I ended up staying with a friend of a Couchsurfer given his aforementioned explanation, and it ended up being just like Couchsurfing: home cooked meals, personal stories, and all of the things that make traveling great.

A homestay in Central Havana costs around $30/night

TIP: Bring your passport everywhere! A host in Trinidad wouldn’t let me stay there before getting a permit from the immigration office because I didn’t have my passport with me; luckily, another lady took pity on the situation and the romance of an American with a Latino last name letting me stay at her place and even risking a 1500 USD fine from the government. Make multiple copies if you’re scared of losing it like me.

GETTING AROUND:

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-Rent a Car: for 40-80 USD/Day

-Taxi – negotiable

-Tourist buses – $30-60 one way to farthest points of Cuba

-Bicitaxi like the one in the pic for 1-3USD in local areas

 

 

 

FOOD: 

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Because of the political and economic state of the country, locals do not have access to many ingredients one would find in neighboring countries with similar climates. Vegetables are expensive, seasonal, and sporadic, hence the concept of vegetarianism let alone veganism is a faraway ideology for most Cubans. Staple foods are pork, chicken, rice, potaje (bean stew which often has bits of pork sausage in it), and a mixture of meats and seafood turned into miscellaneous patties. Desserts and streetfood are a plenty, safe and delicious.

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Coppelia’s Ice Cream in Havana

Foreigners should be advised against drinking water that is not bottled, as even Cuban expats have difficulty readjusting to it.

$$:

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Cash, cash, cash — preferably Euros that you exchange at the airport or on the street (riskier but better deals)

Dollars work too.

Do not expect to use your credit or debit card in Cuba just yet (unless you’re in a hotel — call in advance to confirm); there are about 10 stores in the entire city that take card (non-American); I tried my French debit card at one of them, and it did not go through.

Also, given the dual economy for tourists and for locals, Cuba is expensive! As I mentioned, unless you can speak and act like a Cuban — my tan skin and Dominican Spanish were not enough — you will be charged tourist prices, and it’s not necessarily a scam; it’s just how the economy works given the socialist circumstances at the moment.

TIP! Save some backup money for airport hunger pangs. I met this guy at the airport who travels while running a company that exports old car parts; he ended up buying me food because my credit cards weren’t working at the airport and I spent the last of my cash on cigars.

WIFI:

There are a few — maybe 5 — designated government-run WiFi areas in Havana, mostly in parks where you buy a WIFI code (from a lay man/woman) for 3 CUC to put into your phone or laptop. The service is offered through the one and only mobile company in Cuba, Etecsa

 

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PHONE/STAYING CONNECTED:

The aforementioned WiFi is strong enough for emails, searching and posting to social media, and making calls over WiFi.

T-mobile and American phone companies do not work in Cuba, but you can (if you haven’t already) call your phone company and ask them to unlock your phone (often free) and purchase a SIM card in Cuba for about 15 USD.

Public phone booths are everywhere in Cuba, and they’re used frequently by the locals.

Although you will see a surprisingly large amount of people with modern phones, refreshingly, being on your phone at dinner is a sight you will not see just yet.

 

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It’s ok! Just make sure to keep it safe; no need for special permission or documentation to bring DSLRs or similar cam/video equipment.

 

 

 

 

 

LANGUAGE: 

It’s not entirely an English-friendly country, although speaking Spanish (unless you speak, act and look like a Cuban) will not necessarily get you better financial deals.

Although there have been few American tourists, German, Italian, and French tourists have been coming to Cuba for decades, and they all communicate with the locals in English, so you can also navigate the touristic landscape by just speaking English.

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SAFETY: 

Protect your things, as you would in any busy city, but I will preface this by saying that as a woman and solo traveler, I never felt safer. There is little to no crime in Cuba, which I believe is a great benefit and product of the socialist environment.

RACIAL CLIMATE: 

This is a sensitive topic of interest for me whenever I travel. As an ‘ambiguous-Asian-looking’ Dominican-American who speaks Spanish, English and French, I tend to be able to blend into many countries that I travel to, if not because of my languages, then because of my appearance. This was not the case in Cuba. I was known as ‘La China’ to the guy who sold me a WiFi code, and most people were shocked that I even spoke Spanish. To that end, the small wave of Chinese immigration that came to Cuba has only left the relic of a Chinatown in Havana. Cuba is a very black and white place now. In the 60s, mostly the more affluent (synonymous with white) Cubans left the country (which is why I only know about 2 black Cubans) leaving the country to now be a very ‘black’ country.

Refreshingly though, there does not seem to be a lot of racial disparities in Cuba at the moment, black and white sharing in the same merit-based rights and benefits of their country.

—–

II. Memorable Adventures: 

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As you can imagine, rumors about Americans traveling to Cuba are a plenty, mostly those negating the possibility. To be honest, until I was in Havana, I had a lingering sense of doubt that I would ever make it to Cuban soil.

My very close friend who works getting Americans to Cuba and Panama doubted the fact, but I trusted Nathalie at Cuban Travel Services (this is non-promotional) and her reassuring answers to my dozens of questions regarding my entrance. Case and point: do what they or any similar agency says, and you’re able to get in.

Once in Havana, the biggest realization I had in Cuba came very early on and persisted throughout my stay: they may not be happy with the regime, but they are happy!

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Quinceanera Parading Down the Streets of Trinidad

 

By they I mean the people living there who often resort to comedy to shed light on their situation, the tourists like me who flail to the ground in search of the best picture next to cars that bring them back to the 1950s, the very buildings that are very much alive and boost your mood with their vibrant colors, and the sounds that melodically complement one another from block to block.

And just like that, Cuba is a happy place.

I may be reductionist in my approach and in my language, but I’m human too, and I like to think of myself as capable of detecting this ubiquitous human emotion.

 

It is one that emanates from this man’s trumpet.

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And the writer who dedicates his life to travel poems, even without ever having left Cuba: he had one of where both I and my mother were born – on two different countries and continents.

I dare you to go, and I dare you to challenge that.

—-

Best thing(s) done:

Jumped off a cliff in Trinidad

Had private casino salsa classes with Yosnel Herrera

Best Food Had:

Legendario rum, which I like more than the Havana Club(s)

Breaded eggplant stuffed with mozzarella cheese

All kinds of street food: Coconut ice cream in a coconut shell, churros etc, corn on a cob ❤️

Favorite City(ies):

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Havana Bella -<3- Central Havana

 

Havana: I only spent a minimal amount of time in Cienfuegos, and just a few more days in Havana than I did in the lovely Trinidad; Trinidad is a city recommended to me by my friend who frequents Cuba on a regular basis – it was quaint, cozy, lined with cobblestones in every charming way possible — but nothing compares to the vibrance of Havana, another New York City in my eyes — never really sleeping, filled with life and sound, but cleaner, safer, and not evidently racially segregated, a true melting pot under the Carribean sun.

Interesting Learnings: 

  • “Hay que hacer mas con menos” — Fidel; after the Soviet Union severed ties (due to its fall) and support of Cuba — Fidel popularized this phrase, which basically urged Cubans to do more with less. This is the governing philosophy behind the repurposing of buildings, and at a domestic level, the recycling of machines and overall utensils, extending their lifespan and that of the entire material country

 

 

  • Infrastructure — except for very obvious dirt roads in remote areas, the infrastructure relating to roads was generally great in Cuba; highways were well-assembled and well connected

 

  • Condomble – Santeria: condomble (in Brazil), Santeria (in Cuba) is a religion blended from Catholicism and African traditional religion; only a very small percentage of the population practices, but you can spot those who do, as they often sport an all-white ensemble. My Couchsurfer, Juan, and my host are both of this faith. Some learnings: for a period of a year and longer if desired, all white should be worn, one should drink out of a single cup (and carry that cup around), avoid the sun (hence the white umbrella), and not have pictures taken of him/herself.

 

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  • Ex-refugees and Cuban expats in the US who have become residents can bring a few dozen kilos worth of stuff to their relatives once a year (see blue tanks in pic above)

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  • Abortions are illegal in Cuba, also in the form of the morning after pill; regular contraceptives and preservatives are legal

 

  • Cuban doctors are great and will treat you, oftentimes only as long as you have a passport; it helps if you go with a local

 

  • Public buses will be playing music; while I was there, the song of the season was: “Hasta que se seque el malecón” by Jacob Forever — I can’t count how many times I heard that song…

 

 

 

  • The public buses were originally made for Chinese people who are on average shorter than Cubans; seats have been removed from many of the buses to accommodate for the buses’ new passengers, which makes the arranged seating number confusing given the old numerations

 

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  • My host decided that it would be more cost-effective to use the local buses to go from Havana to Trinidad, the ones that are illegal for foreigners to board and the ones that require a Cuban ID. The brilliant idea: we would take his mom’s ID. At 6am that morning, I was forbidden to speak or to show my eyes – so I hid them in the dark morning under sunglasses- they didn’t look Cuban enough. Only one hour of my day had passed and we already had a super eventful day. We made it to and from Trinidad, through 5 checkpoints, and once accidentally leaving my host in the bathroom, forcing me to speak to the bus driver himself, otherwise safe and sound. The ultimate irony: as we’re getting off the bus said in Havana (our final stop) I was slow to collect my things and the last one to disembark. The driver said that “if the Americans were coming I’d be in trouble” … Little does he know
  • For better or for worse, things are changing at a microlevel, slowly contributing to a macro level change: about 10 years ago, Cubans couldn’t chew gum or have an American flag exposed anywhere I.e on t-shirts or on their cars like you often see now

 

VOCAB:

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Yuma: a foreigner, someone who although may have Cuban ancestry is not living in Cuba

Jinetero(a): A Cuban who goes after tourists at popular places for drinks, money, “love”, and ultimately a visa or an escape from Cuba

RECOMMENDED PLACES: 

HAVANA:

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Galiano 110 – where I stayed in Havana

Balabana – good nightclub; live percussionists on Frida

Club Sarao  – good nightclub; live bands

Casa de la Musica – good nightclub; ubiquitous all over Cuba

23 February — for classy stuff, traditional music

Coppelia — Epic ice cream store where there will be a line to enter; it does move quickly

Casa Tigris — fantastic Cuban-Swiss restaurant in Central Havana

Place for cigars – location: Mercades y Obrapia or at the airport; I bought 2 Cohibas, which Castro infamously smoked for around $40

TRINIDAD:

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On The Streets of Trinidad

 

377 Fran pais – where I stayed in Trinidad

El Gijones Restaurant — decent food, around $15 for an entrée

Las Cuevas — epic nightclub in a natural cave; play a lot of cosmopolitan music; locals mostly go only during the weekends

Casa de la Musica

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Beach in Trinidad