I was graciously awarded the opportunity to serve as a scholar onboard the Peace Boat this summer for its 94th voyage around the world.
As we learned at our orientation, Peace Boat was started in 1983, after a group of Japanese students wanted to promote peace and understanding as a result of the “Textbook Scandal, when Japanese students wanted to change the misrepresented views/information in textbooks of South East Asian countries. The students decided to do this by traveling on a small ferry that has since then evolved into a mid-sized cruise ship – And very soon (launching in 2020) into the world’s first “Eco Ship” – which will be a sustainable vessel, sailing as a literal flagship for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It will feature amenities like wind and solar power, and a dance floor that captures the energy people exert while dancing on it.
The ship, which travels to over twenty countries every 3 months is open to anyone, regardless of nationality or age. However, aside from our program, which calls for youth from all corners of the globe, one must be aware that the ship is “heavily Japanese”, as most of its marketing and operations are based in Tokyo, thus attracting a large Asian crowd.
This calls for a very interesting experience onboard, including, Cuban-style salsa lessons, held in Japanese (luckily, you only need to know 3 numbers and about 5 words to follow along), lots of great Japanese foods for all dietary requirements, and in general, the opportunity to learn a variety of languages, including English (for the non speakers), Japanese, and Spanish.
For me, personally, it was an opportunity to become a student of the SDGs, mainly seeing how a very theoretical system of goals is practically applied and viscerally benefitting the lives of many.
I shared this with the DPI: While there is an innumerable amount of summer programs for youth, the Peace Boat provided me with the unique opportunity to travel to Latin America “through the lens of the SDGs” — we met with government officials and farmers alike, much as we do at the UN, but this time, we were on the ground with them, having a tangible learning experience. We stayed with the Embera Quera Indigenous tribe in Panama and learned, as best as one could, what it means to live sustainably. Also in Panama, we met with the UNDP regional office, which shared how the SDGs are being implemented in Latin America. On board the ship, we hosted a Peace Forum with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in El Salvador. As a youth scholar for the SDGs, I was invited to present on the SDGs that I closely resonated with, ran workshops on Social Enterprise and Design Thinking, as it is relates to promoting the SDGs. The experience complemented my recent completion of a Master’s degree in Food Studies and Social Entrepreneurship. This truly emphasizes the importance and autonomy that is given to youth as part of this program, which I am eternally grateful for.
I’ll give you a brief run down of how the next two weeks unravelled:
June 20 – Orientation at Peace Boat Office
June 21 – Fly to Panama City, hotel check-in, and welcome dinner
June 22 – Visit UN Development Program regional office, session on Sustainable Development Goals in Latin America
Today, we learned about the rapid development of Panama City, in the greater context of Latin America, about the importance of the Panama Canal, and of the great history of colonization and liberation that has greatly impacted this beautiful nation.
At UNDP, we learned from Javier M. Blanco about the importance of the three principles of the 2030 Agenda: universality, integration, and leaving no one behind — as it relates to the greater context of ensuring that countries are first and foremost able to adhere to the Agenda. We learned about how, in spite of suffering from other violations, like those of human rights, Cuba rates relatively high on quality of life for a relatively low level of income.
He continued with examples of how, while Brazil is developed, the rates are not inclusive, as some are geographically left behind
In the US and Europe for example, lots of crops are used to feed animals and not humans, which creates an inefficient use of these crops; whereas in India, one can see a relatively low level of meat consumption and high crop usage for human, which leads to a lack of universality amongst participating members
In Haiti, the integration of SDGs when natural disasters happens is key — i.e. access to water, resilience of its infrastructure, and the reparation of its cities/zero hunger
From Romeral Quintilla, we learned about the importance of UN volunteers, particularly youth volunteers, in securing the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. She emphasized that volunteering is a powerful means of implementation of the SDGs, as oftentimes, the volunteers were working on the ground long before the Goals were established, which gives them a unique leverage in the field.
Lastly, we heard from Adriana Zacarias who heads UN Environment and who shared key personal and governmental suggestions on the implementation of the SDGs, as it relates to the protection of the environment.
On a personal level, she advocated for decreased consumption, and urged us to think about this in terms of food, housing, mobility, consumer goods, and leisure. To complement this, she focused on 4 tenets, which are common in sustainability: reduce, reuse, recycle, and respect — these, she emphasized, could only be achieved after a change in attitudes, paired with facilitators and the infrastructure to allow us to achieve these goals.
We continued our day with a visit to the Panama City Mayor’s office where we learned about the importance of positive reinforcement, as it relates to encouraging youth who are leaders as representatives in their community. The city has established three programs: Joven a Joven, Vivir Con Propósito and Foro Juventud Por la Paz – all with the purpose of encouraging youth, even those who are “trouble makers” – to divert negative energy into positive energy.
June 23 – Visit RET (Resilience, Education and Training) program for refugee youth in Panama
By sharing in a series of SDG – focused activities with youth who had been exposed to some of the most callous sides of life, we learned about the impact that government crises have on fragile populations, especially youth.
What is remarkable, however, is that the youth is resilient, hopeful, and some of the most energetic human beings I have ever seen. I was in the midst of filming a 13 year old girl Venezuelan who gave her testimony before she proceeded to passionately crush an egg we were supposed to keep intact throughout the day break), because she was so dedicated to share the inequalities of her current educational system.
These are the kinds of stories we need to continue to tell.
June 24 – Study Program and cultural exchange with local indigenous communities in Panama
This was the day that I fell in love with a monkey. Manolo had lost his mother, and the Embera Quera community, which we called home for an evening, also welcomed him.
The 3 month old spider monkey will remain with them until he is an adult, at which point he and his fellow adopted toucan will be freed.
What I loved most about our stay is the true sustainable nature of these indigenous communities — while some of the women gloss their lips and the children sing some of the latest songs, they manage to keep some of the traditions of their ancestors, which have also kept them alive for thousands of years.
Unfortunately, the government no longer allowed them to plant in their region, as it was declared a protected area, so they had to relocate. A comment from a friend shed a lot of light on this situation: “…the indigenous people weren’t indigenous enough for the government” — this is so true! In this case, the plants and the land were more important than its people.
In spite of the injustice, the children seemed to be more knowledgeable than many adults I know — some spoke French and Japanese and one recounted the history of The Great Wall.
Some highlights of our stay was cooking with the women — which involved finely grating rice for a sort of wrap, learning about traditional healing plants, including plants that remove fever and the bark of a particular tree, which they use to paint their bodies for protection from insects and disease. Lastly, we learned how to make traditional bracelets, which I was surprised to know was not all that easy – even for the simplest of designs!
I can’t forget about our sleeping situation, which involved us sleeping hoisted above one of their wooden houses with a mattress and mosquito nets — I would pay for this experience alone!
June 25 – Embark on Peace Boat in Cristobal, Panama, onboard orientation
Today we boarded the ship for the first time, which was really a fun experience, especially having the opportunity to share it with our friends at RET, who joined us for a visit.
My peers and I practiced our presentations on the SDGs, which allowed me to learn a lot about the SDGs through what they were specifically passionate about.
I ended the the day, taking advantage of the gym on board and singing to the tune of many songs at Karaoke.
June 26 – Panama Canal passage, preparation for lectures and study sessions onboard
I’m still not sure that I know exactly how it works, but I can tell you that it was very exciting to pass through the Panama Canal.
We spent most of our day outside, again preparing for our presentations, and figuring our the mechanisms of the canal.
I changed Karaoke for salsa dancing onboard, which allowed me to practice Cuban style salsa dance for a second time in my life!
June 27 – Onboard lectures and workshops
Today, I finally tracked down the matcha ice cream, which I had not indulged in since my time in Japan in 2014 — for future Peace Boat voyagers — it’s in the gift shop!
I returned to a group salsa class from 11:30 – 12:30pm, proceeded by lunch with my peers and our presentation on our respective SDGs, which was concurrently translated into Japanese, Korean, and Chinese – a mini UN!
From 6 -7pm, we watched the documentary, Paper Lanterns, which told the story of the American prisoners of war who were killed during the bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki.
After dinner, the film was complemented by a private conversation with four Hibakushas, survivors of the nuclear bombs. As some of the only survivors left to tell share their testimony, this was truly an honor.
I was especially motivated by their advocacy work, which takes the form of talks on global voyages to 80+ countries on and off the Peace Boat, emphasizing “words instead of wars.”
In support of SDG #16 – which advocates for peace, the Hibakushas are unrelenting promoters of clean energy and continue to work with the UN on a nuclear ban.
June 28 – Arrive in Nicaragua, Climate Action study program and mangrove forest visit. Return to ship for departure.
A delay in the passing through the Panama Canal caused the ship to arrive in Corinto, Nicaragua in the late afternoon instead of in the early morning, which sabotaged our visit to the mangrove forest.
It was, however, the perfect reprieve for us. We rented bikes, which toured us around the peaceful town. I was surprised to see a poster of Chavez, Venezuela’s former president, which I was told was put up by the local government, which was grateful for the support that he provide the people with.
Being here reminded me of a briefing I attended at the UN, which spoke about how Nicaragua did not sign the Paris Treaty, as it felt that it would be disadvantaged if it did sign, given its low level of development, which would only be aggravated if they committed to high levels of sustainable energy usage without having the necessary infrastructure.
Before I could continue to think about this, we danced for a bit on the streets, and the ship called us home.
June 29 – Arrive in El Salvador, disembark from Peace Boat, cultural exchange program
We hosted students from the University of Don Bosco in El Salvador for a Peace Forum, where we learned from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the ways that the SDGs are being prioritized and implemented in El Salvador.
As a country previously divided by civil war, priorities are on SDG 16: restoring peace, justice, and strong institutions because as was repeatedly emphasized by many of the panelists, peace is not the absence of war.
The government has decide to delegate the tasks of the SDGs among 71 groups that work to implement them on a national level.
We got to hear from the youth, who play a particularly important role In El Salvador, as, unlike in more industrialized nations, the population is very young. They urged the government to establish programs that would involve youth to assist in the process of SDG implementation.
Of course, we took a break to eat a pupusa, a Salvadorian pocket of corn stuffed with an array of beans, vegetables, and/or meat — which we ended up having at least once a day for the rest of our stay.
Our visit continued to a school in the town of Santo Domingo de Guzman, which houses the country’s sole language learning center for children to learn the indigenous Nahwat language. The is the language of the Pipil people, who are “cousins” of Mayans, but direct descendants of the Aztecs, as they came from Mexico to Central America, but were more culturally integrated as Mayans. Their roots were nearly obliterated, after an ethnic cleansing by a dictator in 1932.
For fear of persecution, the indigenous people chose to be clandestine about their practices, often changing their clothing, religious traditions, and slowly forgetting their language.
Fortunately, a partnership between the University of Don Bosco and the Ministry of Education was established in 2010 to revitalize the Pipil language, the result of which is a school where children, ages 3-5 years old join elderly ladies who cease to work in order to become teachers at the center.
The incredible thing about this is that the classes are taught by these ladies who have never gone to school and who are themselves illiterate! Regardless, the Ministry of Education has recognized their teaching capacities as surpassing that of many formally trained instructors throughout the country.
Dr. Lemo created this program, which now has a partnership with the University of Navarro, Spain, which sends student-teachers over for 3 months to assist in the teaching process.
He urges that the grandchildren of these ladies are the hope! There are 7000 different languages that are spoken around the world, but more than half will die in 50 years because of the same situation as Nahwat languages, the inability to use language publicly i.e. on the radio, in places of worship, in court etc. which forces people to speak other languages.
Is learning this language even practical? Well, as a person who has long advocated for bilingual education, I can attest to proven scientific benefits, which Dr. Lemo is cognizant of – however, for the local community, it means the preserving the way in which future generations will acquire their values and maintain their culture.
Most biodiverse places in the world are also the most linguistically diverse, which does not seem to only be a product of causation.
We “don’t expect El Salvador to become bilingual, but we have to have this community preserve its culture.”
June 30 – Visit University of Don Bosco in San Salvador, forum on Peace and Sustainability
We completed our exchange with Don Bosco University by visiting their campus and listening to a few of their professors discuss peace and how it is manifested in El Salvador.
We learned that for various reasons, 200,000 youth drop out of school every year – 8/100 have access to college, and only 21/100 have access to a baccalaureate degree.
The first professor urged that for a small country, El Salvador’s “only asset” is its people.
The second professor who spoke was a former member of the military who emphasized that friendship is hard between the rich and the poor, between the rich and the rich, and between the poor and the poor, which often incites conflict, and at the base of that conflict is a relationship of different interests that are constantly in flux.
For him, war is a result of unresolved conflicts. His belief is that humans are the most violent of beings, which means that conflicts are often violent.
His experience as a military officer led him to test his ultimate ability to be resilient, and wants El Salvador to be the same because “no one negotiates with the weak — in El Salvador, there are never any negotiations – even the dollarization is imposed on us!”
“Are we in peace today? No. We are still in war.”
25 years after the Peace Agreements were signed in Mexico, he believes that social movements are necessary in order to live in true peace.
Youth, he urges is the key: for him, it’s not about age, but about the capacity to see the world, to make a difference, and to have the courage to make a difference
July 1-2 – Cultural exchange in El Salvador with local community groups focused on the SDGs
Panchimalco is a small colonial town in El Salvador. Just 4 years ago, there were a lot of problems with a gang called the Maras in this area; there were armed people everywhere, but for as long as it has been in existence, it has been known as “Ciudad del Arte” – “ Art City.”
And that underlying beauty is what healed the town.
Artists in Pachimalco were convinced that art is the way for peace, and with a supportive mayor, they started programs to support folkloric dance, paint, music lessons, and sculpting for the youth.
They used this as a tool for violence prevention and the construction of peace, which to date has decreased homicide rates in the town, by decreasing the amount of free time that the youth has, diverting the energy into positive skill building.
We were honored with a showcase of all of these art forms.
In the afternoon, we visited the Alberto Masferrer Univeristy, with a student-run presentation about the culture of El Salvador, as well as its Civil War.
From 1981 to 1992 El Salvador was historically marked with war, leading to a loss of infrastructure, economics, and above all, its people.
It began as a result of a series of human rights violations, resources being concentrated and controlled in the hands of a few, overall inequity, 60% of population being marginalized, and the organization of these peoples in the name of national liberalism.
Development of the war: many organizations merged to form the FMLN Political Party in 1980 to incite/instigate the insurrection. They were not strong enough to deplete the government, but they clearly left their mark on the government, fighting for the next decade until amnesty was declared.
When the peace accords were signed, much of the damage was reflected on its educational system, which now leaves my peers to revitalize it.
The day concluded with a visit to San Isidro, where we learned of the importance of corn, as a member of the community said: “we belong to corn – because corn is the foundation of our diet”.
We also learned about the Mana Ojushte project, which aims to revitalize the ojushte seed, which was forcibly forgotten by the locals as a result of the 1932 ethnic cleaning, which promoted assimilation and an obliteration of indigenous practices.
Also known as the “sacred seed”, “maju”, and “ramon” in Mexico, Ojushte contains vitamins and minerals like protein, iron, zing, vitamins A, B, C, E, fold acid, potassium, triptofane, calcium, and fiber and is naturally gluten free and low in fat.
in 2010, Zacarias, a Peace Corps volunteer came to San Isidro and liked the way that our host, Ana Edith made all-vegetarian food. He first tried ojushte in the house of an elderly member of the community.
Zacarias thought the town should rediscover the crop as a great source of protein since the community didn’t have enough money for meat. He brought it back to Ana – who then joined him to visit the lady who had first shared it with Zaharias but who refused to share the secrets with them. Eventually, they figured out how to cultivate it on their own and since then have won multiple awards for reforestation, as a way to combat hunger and malnutrition in the region.
This is particularly important because after Haiti, El Salvador is the second deforested country in all of Latin America.
Ana not only employs the farmers, but also those who cultivate, and gives scholarships to local students who want to be in the culinary fields.
For lots of youth, their only hope in the San Isidro, is going to the United States, but she believes that there are lots of opportunities right within San Isidro.
- Buy seeds from local cooperative
- Cultivators are paid $8/day ($3 above average) to dry, toast, and grind the seed for drinks, breads, crackers, or as a supplement for food
- Can last for 5 years in perfect state, unlike corn and beans
Blessing of the Seed:
- Use tree bark that is blessed by the Catholic Church as incense
- Partake in a “monkey” and “jaguar” dance
- “All humans walk on the earth, but we think about the sky
July 1-2 – Cultural exchange in El Salvador with local community groups focused on the SDGs
We had a pretty relaxing day before our departure, hiking up a volcano, visiting Mayan ruins at Joya de Ceren – a World Heritage Site, and different from all of Meso American Mayan ruins, as instead of displaying temples and religious sites, this archeological site is a showcase of normal life, a community where people coexisted 1500 years ago.
They lived among homemade gardens, agave, cacao yucca, and guayaba cultivations, with three to five people per family, and each family sharing something with the community, be it his/her shaman abilities, a communal sauna, and of course some of the crops from their gardens.
This spirit of communality and equality is what El Salvador is craving at the moment.
We had coffee and shopped a bit in Santa Tecla, where an artisan handcrafted a dream catcher for me, in my favorite hue of turquoise.
Back at the hotel, I had the honor of co -leading the rest of the Design Thinking workshop on the SDGs.
July 3 – Return home
Before parting ways, we had the honor of sharing our time with former guerrilla warrior, Ana Francis.
After 1992, she did not pick up a single weapon, and upon her reinsertion into civil society, she started working against the exploitation of all of civil society and is now an incredible advocate for women’s rights.
She co-founded Las Melidas, a center that now serves as one of the primary spaces for advocating for women in El Salvador, leading efforts to fight the criminalization of abortion, domestic violence, and a paternity law, which forces fathers to be emotionally and economically responsible for their children, even retroactively, and even if they are out of the country.
She also advocates for women’s rights as workers, sex workers, intergenerational dialogue, and against the wage gap.
On the 26th of July, the center celebrates is 25th year in operation.
Belize: Mayans, Mennonites, and Me
For the first time in years, I decided to travel without planning to make plans. Normally, I plan the bare minimum, expecting to be very flexible with my itinerary, with a few specific places or activities in mind.
After graduating with my MA a few days earlier, and feeling like this has been the fastest year of my life, I decided to book a stay at a resort (fancier than normal for me), and to not leave.
This was 50% a success. While I did manage to relax, unwind, and enjoy the retreat (there were only about 5 other people at the resort for my entire stay) — I did end up going to some Mayan ruins and went snorkeling on the Blue Hole. What can I say, I tried!
Here’s a bit from the journey:
Where I stayed:
El Secreto is about 11 miles north of the town of San Pedro, which means that it is completely remote — the best/only way to get into town is via a chartered speed boat.
I managed to hitch a ride on the speed boat with one of the outgoing hotel guests, which got me into town, also running errands for the hotel, like buying chickens 🙂
I drove one of the golf carts that I drove (and managed to run over my purse/camera – hoping it still works!) #donttrustmewithyourlife
The following day, I decided to stay in for most of the day, so I worked a bit, managed to lose my balance on a hammock and fell into the water with my phone (thank the heavens that it’s somewhat waterproof), watched Master of None, and then went out on the charter boat for a bit. With the captain of the ship, I saw sharks and stingrays, and he even let me drive the boat for a bit!
Back at the hotel, I took advantage of the Jacuzzi, which was such treat — this area alone is about the size of my NYC apartment hah.
After not seeing many people for a few days, I decided to satisfy my history craving with a visit to Altun Ha — the Mayan temple that is famously depicted on all of the Belkin beer bottles in Belize, both cultural icons which they are very proud of.
Some more interesting facts about Altun Ha are included below, but I will say — in the middle of the forest, and in the blazing heat, it is not a good idea to forget your water, especially if you’re planning to climb up the stairs of the temple.
Physically exhausted, I went back to finish watching Master of None.
The following day, I was up at 4am to join a tour of the Blue Hole, the only sink hole of its kind in diameter, structure, and geological grandeur. It’s a perfect circle! Unfortunately, my diving license was expired, so I had to resort to snorkeling, but as I learned, it was better for the sea life. If I had an underwater camera, I would be able to show you the adorable sea turtle that we saw!!!! And the many dolphins and starfish and stingrays. Quite frankly, it was absolutely incredible, and a perfect way to end my time in Belize.
I arrived in Belize on their Labor Day, which meant that literally no one was on the streets; it didn’t seem to change much after the
They seem to have a reggae mix to everything – even to Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”
Someone told me that in Belize, “Bob Marley is like Jesus” – and just like in Christian homes, a picture of Bob Marley is virtually hung in everyone’s home
I’m sure it’s not unique to Belize, but fishermen spend up to 2/3 weeks at sea, living together in tiny sail boats; In general, this depicts the grandeur and great importance of the sea and sea life to coastal-living Belizeans
Belize has mennonites of African decent who converted to it after the arrival of German mennonites (originally settling in the US, then Mexican, and then Belize in the 1950)
There seems to be a very peaceful, appreciation, and reciprocal acceptance for people of different cultures and ethnicities in Belize
Approximately 50% of Belizeans self-identify as Mestizo, Latino, or Hispanic and 30% speak Spanish
As a former British colony, Spanish was banned in schools is now commonly taught as a second language, which is greatly due to the size of Belize in comparison to its Spanish-speaking neighbors
What I mostly heard spoken, however, is a “Kitchen Spanish”, a form of Spanish mixed with Belizean Creole/English
Fast food in Belize isn’t really “fast food” as it is known to much of the world – in Belize, this normally means a home cook has food prepared and heated on the street or on a stand
It’s small in Belize!!! With a population of 350k people, and most of the land uninhabited (which means that populations are concentrated), everyone seems to know each other and as such calls one another “brother” — confusing at time when you don’t know who is a blood-related brother
You can ask for “to go cups” for your alcohol at bars
Belize was struck by a pretty catastrophic hurricane in 1961, which led the country to move its capital a bit more inland
Belizeans make some really great handmade chocolates from locally/organically grown cocoa.
You will not find a McDonald’s or other fast food chains here
Belize is home to many luxury resorts and jungle lodges. However, there are not many all-inclusive branded resorts here. I did, however, see a Wyndham hotel being built along the coast of San Pedro
The tallest building in the country is Canna Temple, a Maya pyramid at Caracol.
An old Mayan trading post
Had 10k residents at its peak
Dedicated to the sun god
Holds the remains of elderly priests
Mayans inhabited Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, which make up the “Mundo Maya”
Found a jade head – kept at central bank of Belize; Jade came from Guatemala, which was most likely traded here
Jade — green represents growth and fertility
For those to be accepted into elite family — had to have flat forehead and cross eye
Babies were applied wooden boards to the front and back of their heads and then wrapped in order to make their heads malleable and adapt to this shape/standard of beauty
Means would have red beads hanging from a tree and would have their babies focusing on it swinging back and forth until s/he would end up with a cross eye from straining his eye for so long
11% of current Belize population = Mayan people
Mayans copied Incan style of building
Mayans introduced chocolate into the world; cacao beans were their main form of currency — mainly for flint — like diamonds
Human sacrifice for pleasing of the gods was common— but not so much at Altun Ha because it was used as trading center
They believed in 9 levels of the underworld —- which one would need to fight off to get up to the upper world, which had 13 levels
Structure of Altun Ha has 9 levels underneath, which represent hell
Played basketball with limbs -the winners (***not losers) were sacrificed to the gods
People sacrificed = went to heaven – not having to fight off the 9 level, so people were happy to be sacrificed
Would burn the bodies & incense would go up to the heavens
Both males and females would pierce themselves
Males thought the female tongue is the most powerful part of body; they would pierce their tongues and nipples
Men pierced their penis
Would bury Mayans with al spice to keep the smell down, as they lived among their dead
1961 = when they discovered Altun Ha – covered under vegetation after the hurricane
The fall of the Mayans was greatly credited to the conquistadors who would have the Mayans trade their expensive things for a mirror for example (previous to this, they had never seen themselves and thought this invention to be magical)
Some believe that peasants revolted against their rulers and that this led to demise of Mayans at Altun Ha
Others believe that the soil lost nutrients because of lack of sustainable farming
The Mayans from Altun Ha went other places where life was better after 1150 AD
First Mayans believed to have come originally from Asia – following buffalo and other large animals across Bering straight – and ended up over to Western Hemisphere
Met with the Ecuadorian Tourism Ministry to learn all about their foods:
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.
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.
In this fashion, I welcomed my birthday — surrounded by more love, food, and happiness than I could’ve asked for.
Catching up with friends!
KL’s beautiful views
Experiencing Asian-Muslim culture during Ramadan
Favorite thing(s) eaten: Steamed bread and kaya
-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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
-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
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.
Foreigners should be advised against drinking water that is not bottled, as even Cuban expats have difficulty readjusting to it.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 off 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:
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!
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.
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
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.
- “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.
- 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)
- 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
- 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
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
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
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