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Travel After Semester at Sea

After the structure of SAS, I was a bit lost in arranging my travels. I came back, graduated and started working on Kitchen Connection right away. I went to New Orleans with friends and then Curacao for my birthday in June, but other than that, my travels included me going to France for a bit and back (due to a family illness), to Venezuela to visit my dad, to Dubai on my first official KC ‘business trip’, to Berlin for a conference, and then to Italy for the World Food Expo — but not before a quick stop in Amsterdam, which was actually cheaper than flying directly there. It’s not that I wasn’t traveling. It’s that I wasn’t doing it with the freedom of mind that I wanted to. Most recently, I’ve been organizing my life a bit more with KC — incorporating travels into my life and love and work. I promised myself to start blogging again, and I think I will 🙂

Back on a Ship: Peace Boat Edition to Panama, Nicaragua and El Salvador, through the Lens of the UN Sustainable Development Goals

 

IMG_3791.JPGI 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.

IMG_3430.JPGThe 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.

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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 

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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

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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

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

IMG_4452.JPGA 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Cultivation:

  • 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

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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

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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.

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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 

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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

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The cutest puppy I saw!! ❤

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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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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.

IMG_2023Some 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.

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Shark!! Apparently, they’re friendly.

——

Fun facts: 

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 MestizoLatino, 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

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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

IMG_1839It’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

IMG_2098Belizeans 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.

Great video talking about Belizean culture! 

Altun Ha:

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

Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and a little bit of Panama

Met with the Ecuadorian Tourism Ministry to learn all about their foods:

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What About Uganda?img_1473.jpeg

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 — komezi for men and 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!

Bahamas vs. Bairu – Bahima— 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

  • In January 2017 – the exchange rate was about: 3650 shillings to a dollar
  • 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.

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: 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: 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

 

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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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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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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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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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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BRINGING CAMERA/LAPTOP:
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 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: 

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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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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.

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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: 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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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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Guadeloupe: Rent a Car.

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I got to Guadeloupe in a bit of a frantic positon. In proper Earlene fashion, I only paid $150 to get there (thank you Norwegian Black Friday deal), but when I arrived, due to a lack of proper research on my end and an overbearing sense of optimism, none of the buses were going to Deshaies, which is where my Couchsurfing hosts awaited me. La seule solution, the only solution would be a taxi… or to rent a car. Non, merci. I can’t drive stick. So off I went, the meter, bringing constant pangs to my heart upon every increment.

First thing I notice — the roadsigns; they’re just like those in France, which reminds me, I’m in France. Creole France. Tropical France. Indian France.
$150 to get to the country and 128 euros to get to where I would be staying. #GREAT. I seriously tried to forget about it, which, I don’t think will ever happen, but I was able to set it aside enough to enjoy the rest of the evening with my hosts.

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We bond over the calabasses that they are scraping and using as lamps shades, flower pots, dishes — they used to sell them on the beach.
Ashanty, Cindy, Diatomy — a lovely family that had escaped their 9-5 lives in Grenoble, France to live a life of travel with their little one. 3 years in Guadeloupe, maybe Dominica or Brazil next, Asia or Africa — those are the plans.
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The next day, while they work, I don’t leave the house. I’m engrossed in the last of the Junot books, #rip, and swinging my worries away on a hammock. It couldn’t get any better. Actually, the cat cuddling up like this made it better. I’m more of a dog lover, but there was something about that cat.
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The next day, I had an interview with a local chef — it was only about 20kms away, but given the bus system, I was told to leave early. 4 hours to get there — I think: ‘ehh, if anything, I can explore the city a bit’… As I wait for the bus to take me to the second bus stop which will deliver me to the third, I contemplate hitchhiking. I signal to what looks like the bus arriving, and when I board, I realize there is only a schoolkid in the back. Turns out: it’s not a bus at all, but some dude who ended up indulging in my previous thoughts of hitchhiking. “You’re lucky, he says. I own the bus that you’ll be taking to Pointe a Pitre. I told the driver to wait for you.” I still don’t know if it was really his bus, but thanks to him it took me 5 hours versus 6 for me to arrive at Saint Francois…
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On the second bus. I’m the only foreigner there, but it’s ok. These local experiences are what I live for… That is, until I’m extensively late for my meeting and the bus driver stops to talk to the passengers that have exited the bus. #islandlife — it seriously wouldn’t happen in New York, and I honestly can’t figure out whether, outside of my frantic mind, it’s a good thing or a bad thing; either way, it was surprising.
The chef is great. Great food, great story. Looking forward to publishing it on Kitchen Connection soon. Given my experiences with cabs and buses, I decide to stay in the nearby area instead of attempting to return to Deshaies. It turns out that the chef’s friend/ taxi driver was the one that I communicated with, who the embassy had nicely arranged to chauffeur me around. Why didn’t I know this? Anyhow, it ended up turning out great — he offered to drive me around during the rest of my time there and that night back to where I was staying.

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E Gwada Hostel became my home. No pajamas, nothing but the tiny bag on my back, so I slept in my muggy clothes. Luckily though, because of salsa class, I always have an extra deodorant in my bag, so it wasn’t as terrible as it could’ve been.
I did get stuck in the bathroom though and ended up climbing on top of the toilet to ask for help from the window that was above it.
A long day behind me, a questionable day ahead.
I ended up having breakfast at the hostel with an animal bone doctor; I didn’t even know that was a thing. I was then picked up by Ruddy, the taxi driver from heaven, who drove me back to Deshaies to pick up my things.
With no plans and no real desire to make any, I decided to spend the day with him, taxiing around. I accompanied him to drop a couple off at the airport, to go pick up something at a hospital, and then to a waterfall. It was really a great day, that of Carribean tunes and random pit stops for streetfood in between. There were coconuts and ice cream . I came back exhausted, chatting with fellow travelers at the hostel and eventually discovering a restaurant that bled creole music through its pores.

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I forgot my phone charger in Ruddy’s car, and the one that I borrowed didn’t work for my phone, so I ended up not sleeping, just looking at the clock, waiting until it was time to get ‘up’. With a snowstorm awaiting back home the next day; there was no way I was missing my flight.
My experience ended up being great, but I guess the moral of this post is: in Guadeloupe, rent a car, buy a car, find a friend with a car,_____ a car — it’s absolutely essential.
Best food hadThis homemade coconut ice cream was incredible! We stopped on the side of the road for it, and it was made with a blend of spices and raw coconut, #yum!

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Best thing done: Seriously just relaxing on the hammock. It reminds me of my childhood adventures in the Dominican Republic and of just sheer bliss and freedom.
 
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Favorite City: Deshaies — I spent most of my time there, but I also think, from doing a sort of cross-country trip throughout the butterfly, Deshaies was the least touristy place (I’m told because it’s beaches have golden sand instead of white), with the most pure, sort of wild beaches, contrasted with vast hills that really make the area lovely.
Interesting thing(s) learned: 
I noticed that the bread is really great in Guadeloupe, unlike that of most Carribean countries that I’ve been to (something to do with the humidity getting into the bread), and perhaps because it is France afterall, and they’ve figured out a way to combat the effects of the humidity
There are barely any motorcycles in Guadeloupe, but there are tons of cars, which often leads to crazy traffic jams
I did not see one delapidated car. They were all pretty much in great condition — never have I seen such a thing in the Carribean
It takes the water from 3-5 coconuts to fill up one liter of coconut water

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COSTA RICA:  Pura Vida, Vida Pura

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My SASter and I set out on a journey months before the new year, in celebration thereof. A trip starts not when you begin your travels, but right when the idea of it comes to mind. Destination: Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is a small country. Tiny, even. But it is home to 5% of the entire world’s biodiversity, and this is something it takes care of. It is the first country in the Americas to ban hunting for leisure, it’s doing so well with the elimination of carbon emotions (thank you Wikipedia)– and, unlike where I live, recycling bins are everywhere — and not just recycling bins, but the kind that confuses you and puts you through a semi-physics lesson before releasing you from its grasp.
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To be honest, the diversity of its ecosystem did not impress me as much as the diversity of its people – it is the first Latin American country that I had traveled to that wasn’t plagued by slavery. It was somehow, inherently, and in a way that I can’t describe, symbolic of a utopian equality. I’m sure Costa Rica is not free from racism; no country is, but this one in particular made me take a step back and stand in awe– in wonder of what this world would be if all countries were like this, as unassuming as its flora and fauna.
I won’t go into detail about every single thing we did, but I’ll summarize a few of my personal highlights.
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I strained coffee through a sock.
Talked to a really nice bodega– lady owner — I actually liked all of the colors playing together in her store; they formed a stark but nice contrast against the neutrals of the earth.

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I also liked observing the differences in the packaging. Her rocking chair was my favorite though. The sign above her kiosk in the picture reads: “I’ll lend you money tomorrow, but not today” — I’ve seen the same here.
It was my first time making tortillas on my own — it’s hard to flip them! And picking spinach straight from a backyard.
I visited a farmer and his wife.
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He showed me his pigs and pictures of his hunting game over the years. She gave me homemade cheese.

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I saw where Cuban refugees are being hosted — Costa Rica is really doors open. The rule is that if they can get themselves to America (the US), then they’re not refused. But to get there — extensive travel through Central and South America is necessary — or on a boat. Many die via the latter.

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First time driving in a foreign country — which was, of course, scary, especially in the evening when the only light in the streets is the one emanating from your own vehicle. But I, along with my two passengers, survived (wipes sweat off eyebrows).
We had to leave the beautiful jungle/forest we were staying for reasons I won’t disclose, but we ended up at a lovely beach, right in time for New Years Eve, where a surfer offered to host us — this happened just as we were on our way to potentially locate a hostel or another form of housing, sitting on the back of our taxi’s pickup truck, where we stopped for lunch. #GoodTiming #ThanktheCouchsurfingGods #Especially #ThankYouHoel

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New Year’s Eve. Costa Rica explodes with fireworks. 2015 slips away. Resolution: I will meditate every day. So far, I’m on top of my game.
We spent the next two days picnicking on the beach. A few of my favorite things: coconuts, wine, grapes, cheese, more grapes, and the meat from the coconut. Crunch. Yum.
More beach — each day, I notice how different it is in its sameness. The sand changes, the wind, the people — I guess it’s not so easy to get bored of it.
Our time is up, we have to go — off to another surfer — this time, at a sugar plantation where our host is offered housing by the company. We drive during the night to a field burning in the distance, and as we approach it, our host informs us that this is the first step to processing the sugarcane before it is harvested. We arrived just in time. It smelled like cotton candy, everywhere.
A coconut fell from a tree next to us and exploded with venomous ants. The locals left, and so did we.
We danced. Of course.
We zip lined, and I superwomaned — it was great.
I SEE MONKEYS! THE MOST ADORABLE MONKEYS IN THE WORLD!! This one vvv eats a seed off of someone’s hand. I wish that was my hand.

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I saw stars. Many many stars. I should have paid more attention in my astronomy class.
My time ended with a zumba session with the local ladies, who are wives of and/or employees of the sugar plantation — it reminded me of a college campus. It even had its own store.
Bye, Costa Rica! Thanks for the start of 2016.
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Best food had: Rice – it may sound minimalistic, but Costa Rican white rice isn’t so, without its uniquely flavored seasoning, consisting of onions, garlic, and an array of spices that varies depending on the family; I found it lovely in all of its simplicity, the ingredients playing well together

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Best thing done: zip lining — it was the first time I ever did it, and it was great to do it with my bestie.
Favorite city: I didn’t leave the Guanacaste region, so not much outside of Liberia and Playa del Coco/ Panama, but I greatly appreciated the vibes in Filadelfia, even if we were only there for a few hours
Interesting thing(s) learned: 
Before I left Costa Rica, I kept thinking about how in New York, the recycling bins were smaller than the garbage bins, when in reality it should be the other way around, and in Costa Rica, that’s exactly the case!
Lights are turned on at the airport only after sunset and only in parts which are being used; I know because I was there until late evening – waiting to be picked up
Apparently, the locals in Costa Rica eat the iguanas that roam freely, and according to what our host told my friend, they’re called ‘chickens of the trees’; it’s an endangered species because of that
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Processed cheese — unlike how it would be in the United States actually seems to be a selling point in Costa Rica
Tico = a Costa Rican guy
Tica = a Costa Rican girl
Mai = equivalent of ‘brother’ or ‘son’ (informal)
Pura Vida — they say it all the time and for everything — it means ‘pure life’ — but is, as I learned, like the hakuna matata of Costa Rica; it sure did seem that way!

 

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