Trapped: Exploring An Alternative Art Museum & Life In Cuba According to a Cuban

Trapped: Exploring An Alternative Art Museum & Life In Cuba According to a Cuban

It was Friday night in Havana and since I would need quite a few mojitos before I was confident enough to hit the Cuban dance floor, I decided to start the evening at Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory). A few years ago, they converted an abandoned cooking oil factory into a mixed use art space filled with unusual photography, film and dance studios, music venues, restaurants and bars. It was an absolute maze… when I thought I had seen it all, I turned a corner and a whole new section opened up. Exploring the Art Museum with A Local After my initial survey of the area, I decided to break for a $3 baguette to pass time until performances started and I struck up a conversation with the Cuban guy who was behind me in line. He was just starting his first year of university as civil engineering student. Most of his family lived in Washington DC and he was hoping he could join them some day, but in Cuba, you pay for higher education with two years of working for the government then men are obligated to serve a year in the army so it would be a long process. After eating, we decided to wander around together and seeing the museum through his eyes was a completely different experience. He brought me to a short animated film, where a girl continuously failed in her attempts to leave the island where she was marooned. She tried to make a boat out of a bucket but the bucket quickly filled with water and sank. She tried to use two palm trees as stilts in an attempt to call for help but the trees fell over. She tried to climb a flagpole to send a signal but the flag blew away in a sudden gust of wind. I interpreted it as a klutzy girl, unlikely to be a finalist on Survivor. He looked me in the eyes and solemnly said, “That’s us. We’re in jail here” referring to the situation of his county, his people. He took me to some of his other favorite spots in the museum. This included a collection of newspaper clippings from the 1950s about all the lies the government told the people, inciting fear of nuclear power, Chinese immigrants taking all the work and praising the strength of the Cuban currency. He took me to his favorite piece… it looked like an amateur photographer spilled a random collection of photos (mostly strange things and naked people) on the table. One photo included a sign of a bar that told people they were free to blaspheme and criticize the government. He said something along the lines of, “if only such a place existed”. Visiting Communist Cuba With Obama easing travel restrictions in Cuba, there were countless articles encouraging Americans to visit to see the country “before it changes” or before it’s ruined by the onset of Americans. Admittedly, I’m guilty of coming for exactly that reason. There’s some evidence of progress, like people hunched over their phones in wifi hotspots around the city and some modern taxis with air conditioning and even mini movie screens to watch music videos, but when people say visiting Cuba is like traveling back in time, it’s absolutely true. The cab driver who picked me up from the airport drove a car from 1956 and commented, “all the tourists say ‘your car is so beautiful’ but I’d trade this car in an instant a modern American one”. The Cubans maintained cars from the 50s and 60s because with the embargo, they had no other option. Now, the cars are UNESCO protected national treasures, often being “Frankensteined” combinations of parts from other cars within the body. Outside Havana, most taxis are horses with carts or bike taxis. It’s inspiring to see how Cuban ingenuity made the best of a bad situation but how long should we let this go on? It’s still a visibly communist country. When I waited in line at the bank to change money, I was entertained by a slide show of photos of Fidel Castro. In Vinales, I went to a disco party in a cave and they interrupted the evening for a 30 minute photo slideshow with songs dedicated to Fidel. Practically speaking, options are limited, even as a tourist. It’s hard to find markets or even places to buy snacks, non-Cubans can only travel with one bus company and Internet access is restricted primarily to controlled hotspots. Products are limited too- the market ran out of big water bottles when I was in Vinales. My Havana tour guide joked...

Must-do Niue Attractions, Exploring a Hidden Gem in the South Pacific

Must-do Niue Attractions, Exploring a Hidden Gem in the South Pacific

Niue is a small island in the South Pacific (just about 70 kilometers in circumference), about a 3.5 hour flight from Auckland.  It’s a magnet for divers and snorkel enthusiasts, because the lack of sandy beaches mean it has some of the cleanest waters in the South Pacific.  It has a close connection with New Zealand, so they use NZD as their currency and you can find L&P soda and hokey pokey ice cream sold everywhere. I spent four days in the place and absolutely fell in love.  It’s small enough that you can bike everywhere but there’s so many caves and swimming spots, that we barely stopped moving during our trip.  Here’s a list of must-do activities, most of which we were able to squeeze into four days on the island so they are tried & true Niue attractions. 1. Cliff jump at the Limu Pools (ambitious jumpers can ask locals about a more daring jump at the Matapa Chasm)- Limu Pools are one of Nuie’s most famous attractions for their crystal clear water and secluded snorkeling spot.  It’s not just for tourists though- locals head here on the weekends, attempting increasingly brazen jumps to impress whatever females might be in the vicinity.  They’ll welcome any foreigners who are brave enough to join in. 2. Feel at home at Niue Backpackers– Ira and Brian run a three or four room hostel in the house above “the world’s biggest small yacht club”.  It has an awesome central location, airport pick up and drop off and a cozy collection of couches and an endless supply of really dusty books.  They’ve also compiled notes, advice and tips for dozens of travelers… it’s better than Lonely Planet!  Niue Backpackers is a good deal at $25-$30 per night but you’ll have to pay in cash! 3. Have a cup of espresso at Hio cafe- Hio cafe was opened in September 2016 as a container restaurant with a perfect location above one of Nuie’s only sandy swimming spots.  The owner, Victoria, is super passionate about the operation and has an espresso machine with roasted beans from a cafe in Auckland.  It’s the perfect spot to stop for a pick-me-up and they hope to add cabins soon. 4.  Trek to Talava Arches- most of the swimming spots and caves are just 200 meters off the main road but Talava Arches involves a longer walk through a butterfly-covered forest.  It’s one of the most well known images of the island and scrambling through the caves makes the destination all the more impressive.  If you time your visit for low tide, you can get closer to the arch. 5. Find the secret swamp at Togo Chasm- Togo Chasm was my favorite hike on the island.  You meander through some tropical jungle, then take a precarious path through a razor sharp coral “forest”.  That leads to a long ladder where you can descend to a chasm filled with sand and palm trees of a mysterious origin.  But the magic doesn’t end there… if you climb over the boulders, there’s a secret, moss-covered swampy pool.  You’ll definitely feel like Indiana Jones.  On the way back, make sure to climb over some more rocks and check out the waves crashing on the coast.  The coral pools make this view pretty mesmerizing. 6.  Watch the sunset at Sir Robert’s Wharf- The main shipping port is the perfect place to catch an uninterrupted view of the sunset.  (And it’s right in the center of town!) 7.  $5 roti at Gill’s Indian Restaurant- Food in Nuie is pretty pricey (you’ll pay at least $20 for a main dish) so grabbing a chicken, beef or vegetarian roti at Gill’s Indian Restaurant in the main square is a great deal for lunch! Additionally, Gill’s the only restaurant I found with vegetarian options. 8.  Test your strength (or your stomach) at a Village show day- During the month, villages take turns having show days to showcase their local crafts, food and culture.  Usually, a lot of locals show up to catch up with their family and friends so it’s not just for tourists.  It’s pretty entertaining to watch the boys of the village test their strength throwing coconuts or climbing soap-covered poles.  It’s even more entertaining when the adults (women, then men) engage in a canned corned beef contest, where everyone’s a winner with the free lunch. 9.  Make at least one canine friend- Like people, you’ll encounter the same furry friends again and again and most of them are pretty charasmatic!  It’ll be hard to leave the island without befriending at least one dog. 10. Enjoy gourmet sushi at Kai Ika- An Israeli...

Adventures of A “Muzugo” in Malawi

Adventures of A “Muzugo” in Malawi

One of the most common misconceptions people have about Africa is “all of Africa is the same”. Almost every time I cross borders overland, I’m amazed at the kind of changes that some imaginary line can introduce. Malawi was no different. First, I noticed an increase in population density (Malawi has almost 14 million people in just 118,000 square kilometers compared to Zambia which has about the same population in an area seven times the size). While nothing seems crowded after my month in China, there was a consistent string of little villages, to an extent that it made finding a lunch spot or even a non-discreet bush toilet a challenge even for our driver TK has been perfecting his picnic spot spotting abilities for over a decade. The Land Where People Materialize Out of Thin Air Our first day in Malawi he picked a place that fit two out of three usual characteristics (clean, shaded, away from villages)… or so he thought. When we unpacked the first couple chairs, we saw one kid peeking curiously from the road. Before we knew it, a dozen of his friends gathered, shyly hiding behind a dead tree but very blatantly watching our every move. “Ignore them, ignore them” said Nikka, as he quickly chopped carrots, since Nomad Adventures has a policy against giving leftover food to villagers since word travels fast and they don’t want the locals to expect a free feast every time they see a truck. A few minutes after the young children started gathering, a herd of cow hopped over the hill made by the elevated train tracks. The teenage herdsman paused to investigate what we were doing but seemed to decide, regretfully, that he should follow his cows. Tailing the bovines came another clump of preteen boys wielding small wooden clubs accompanied by mangy dogs. They surrounded us, spaced out in the nearby field, watching us hungrily between the tall grasslands. “Oh goodness. It looks like we might be the ones eaten at this meal”, one of the Belgians commented. Nikka’s chopping accelerated audibly and we awkwardly clutched empty water bottles and nervously looked around for potential defense weapons. After ten or so minutes, the preteens got bored and the hunting party moved on but the first clump of young kids didn’t move an inch until our truck left them in a dust cloud. “Sharing is Caring”: Relentless Entrepreneurs Who Convince You to Strip Time and time again, this lesson that “empty spaces in Malawi aren’t actually empty” seemed reinforced. You go for a swim at the beach of Lake Malawi and one guy appears to welcome you to his country. Before you know it, his brother, Happy, joins the group. Then it’s his cousin “Name is William. Business name is Georgie Peorgie”. Another kid pushes them aside to hold our hands. “I’m No Hassle. Come into my shop. T.I.A. (“This Is Africa”)… free looks and you have all day”. Another doesn’t wait until we finish our swim and dives into the water and pulls out a handful of bracelets for sale (still not sure how he kept them dry). You tell them you don’t have any money and this excites them more. “Hakuna Matata. No problem. What do you have to trade? Maybe your watch? Sharing is caring!”. These twenty year olds are relentless and successfully had us stripping and swapping T-shirts, hats, socks and headphones for their woodcarvings, bracelets and necklaces. I ended up trading an old digital camera for two custom tailored pants and a magnet. While I’m sure I could have bartered harder, it provided an afternoon of activity, which involved marching around the village to pick out the fabric, finding two tailors (sharing is caring!), meet the boy’s mother and his friends… etc. The Wild West of Africa? Malawi mystified me in other ways. The buildings looked better constructed than in Zambia but the small towns gave off an eerie deserted feel like an old Wild West mining town (especially because they have “Gold Depot” shops). The paint was faded or peeling and chunks of the buildings seem to have been broken off. Many of the structures had boarded up windows and doors, with tattered sheets blowing in the breeze. Locals would be hanging out at one or two shops, or shooting pool at an outdoor billiard table under a thatched roof. The other half was completely deserted, as if haunted by ghosts. I was especially entranced by the “tea shops” I found in every town. “People in these parts can’t possibly be drinking enough tea to warrant a shop”, I thought to myself. When I asked the tour...

“Africa’s Not for Sissies”: Travel Zambia Overland

“Africa’s Not for Sissies”: Travel Zambia Overland

“This is NOT a luxury tour”, our tour guide Nika roared his welcome to the trip, his glassy eye adding to the intimidation factor. “Meet Bertha, our home for the next three weeks. She is NOT a bus, and doesn’t come with air conditioning, curtains or mechanical shocks for specific purposes. She’s a truck, equipped to carry 945 kg of supplies, absorb the shocks of East African roads and protect us from the wildlife. On this journey, we will have to deal with many challenges: corruption, dangerous insects, less than ideal accommodation and sometimes, harsh conditions”. He paused for emphasis and sternly added, “Africa is not for sissies, especially this region. This trip is designed so you can see the real Africa, but it won’t always be comfortable. Are there any questions?” The driver TK silently reinforced what Nikka was saying, standing like a bouncer at an inner city club, glowering at us over his bulging biceps. The eight of us shake our heads solemnly. There’s an retired Australian couple who are “expert overlanders” continuing their journey that started in Cape Town, five Europeans of holiday (a blonde Belgian couple in their early 30s, two tattooed Germans with a classy choice of hats, one Middle-Aged Austrian man who polishes off an average of 4 cans of beer before lunch) and me. The truck is pretty roomy because it’s designed to accommodate eighteen but we all scramble to find our seat belts as the truck starts lumbering out of the driveway. Life On the Road The subsequent three days could be the definition of living hell for some people. Three days in a hot van with picnic lunches on the side of the road. One day the bugs were so bad that it seemed they ate more of us, than we ate of our lunches. For the first two days of our tour, the main attraction for the first two days was a traffic jam in Lusaka (the capital of Zambia… we didn’t even get out to explore the city) and an evening activity of spider killing (mostly for the people in hotel rooms) and devising creative ways to take showers without water (our second rest camp shut off all water). The roads delivered an extra-strength “African massage” so by day 2, the Belgian girl and I donned our sports bras, to minimize unnecessary bouncing as we levitated off our seats and crashed into the metal sidewalls. The African sun shone brightly on our laps, and dust flew into the windows. We learned to shut our windows at every stop so monkeys won’t climb into the truck and steal/”shit” on our stuff. We learned to always close our tents to keep the monkeys, spiders and other insects out. We learned how to check for elephants, hippos and lions before leaving our tents for a midnight bathroom run (they actually recommended we hold it). We learned how to disassemble our tents to prevent rolling scorpions into our hand, which someone on the last trip figured out the hard way. We learned about the supremacy of the bush toilet. South Luangwa National Park “Everything in Africa bites but the safari bug is worst of all” -Brian Jackson Our main stop in Zambia was South Luangwa National Park: Zambia’s pride and joy. The park is known for its hippos and leopards, and they estimate there’s one leopard for each square kilometer of the 90,000 km^2 park. Our camp was right along the South Luangwa River, where we could see elephants crossing in the distance. Often these wildlife encounters weren’t so distant: a hippo walked straight through camp when we were eating dinner, elephants feasted a few yards from the bar, a sivet (African cat) made an appearance when the boys were drinking a beer and the whole camp was a play place for the yellow baboon. We did an morning guided walk through the park where a camouflaged guy named Jimmy guarded us with a rifle as Herman (a white native Zambian and lover of the bush) explained how to identify various tracks, feces, plants, insects, birds and more. These walking safaris are more about learning and seeing the small details that connect various elements of the bush ecosystem, instead of getting close to the big game (for safety reasons). However, we still spotted plenty of zebra, giraffes, elephants, impalas, warthogs, hippos, crocodile and dozens of species of bird. After a relaxing afternoon, we set off on a sunset game drive that provided an opportunity to get closer to these animals and see a variety of others. Before the sun set, we were lucky to see a leopard...

Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

For those of you who have read my other posts about Vietnam, I’ve had mixed feelings about my two weeks here. For some context before I dive into my overall impressions, I was initially hoping to spend this time in Myanmar, exploring a country that recently opened up to foreign travelers before it got too touristy. I had to fit the trip into specific dates before my teaching gig in China and when looking at flights, Myanmar would be much more expensive and require more plane transfers and time spent in airports. I decided I might as well see Vietnam, which eluded my prior trip to Southeast Asia because of Visa requirements, and finish off the region and visit without paying a penny for flights. So that’s why I’m here, wishing I spent the extra time and money on Myanmar. I think I would have liked Vietnam better if I was younger and less familiar with the region but this country is a well-trodden journey through the Southeast Asian backpacker trail and it was hard to avoid getting caught up in all that entails. First, the hostels are full of backpackers from the UK and Australia and vacationers from Korea.  Most travelers come here on summer break or a gap year between school, attracted by cheap booze and beaches, so the average age is around 20-22. Some of the people I saw looked barely old enough to drive a car, never mind travel around foreign countries. Since this many people’s virgin foray into foreign travel, the whole country is set up to shuttle people up or down the prescribed route from North to South. Everyone and their mother wants to sell you cheap trips to Halong Bay and Sapa, and since budget conscious people (me included!) just look for the cheapest price, I found most of the tours to be lots of people packed in small spaces with tour guides who can barely speak English and don’t even attempt to explain what you’re seeing. A typhoon in Halong Bay and my failure to just postpone the trip instead of listen to the travel agent and replace it with mediocre day tours, caused my week in the North to be back-to-back tours which are generally something I only sign up for as a last resort. Perhaps if you pay more, you’ll have a better experience. For me, traveling that way is a bit superficial and unsatisfying, however it’s often the easiest and cheapest way to get to these places if you don’t speak the language to get good taxi rates. If you have limited time, I’d recommend sticking to the North. Sapa, Halong Bay and Hanoi were all highlights for me and give a good sense of an urban experience as well as some of the most beautiful nature in the country. Hoi An, in central Vietnam, is usually the universal favorite. It’s a cultural city with cute yellow buildings, a river flowing through it and some of the best shopping in the country but definitely touristy. I had my most powerful experiences in the South of the country with the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Cu Chi Tunnel tour, which is a half-day trip from Saigon. As much as read about the Vietnam war, watched travel shows about other people experiencing these exact same tours, the extensive scope of the devastation to both sides never sank in until I saw these two things myself. One of the most surprising things about this trip and knowing the history is that no one, anywhere in the country seemed to hold the slightest bit of resentment against me, being an American. Seeing photographs of people and villages destroyed and the atrocious aftermath of chemical warfare (Agent Orange) made me uncomfortable to be an American here.  It was truly heart wrenching for both sides.   I couldn’t believe the lack of lingering bitterness over something that many middle-aged or older people in Vietnam had to live through. I really wanted to get a local perspective on this but the Vietnamese couchsurfer who walked with me through the War Remnants museum and the other locals I asked, feigning incomprehension and/or dismissing my questions with “I’m-not-going-to-talk-about-this” smiles. The hard to overcome cultural barriers was another reason Vietnam wasn’t my favorite place to travel. People of Vietnam are “friendly” and there’s always someone around who speaks enough English to get your immediate needs met/sell you things (even in the middle of Halong Bay) but the culture is much more reserved. As much as I tried to talk to locals, I rarely got any meaningful information with three surprising exceptions: I spent...

Mud Sliding through Rice Paddies: The Real Story of Sapa Vietnam

Mud Sliding through Rice Paddies: The Real Story of Sapa Vietnam

After traveling most of Southeast Asia a few years ago when I spent a summer based in Singapore, my first week in Vietnam didn’t impress me much. Part of it was my fault because with all the traveling I’ve been doing lately, I didn’t have much time to do research beyond familiarizing myself with the typical backpacker route.  Ho Chi Minh City- Nha Trang- Hoi An- Da Nang- Hue- Hanoi- Sapa and/or Halong Bay…. but even after talking to dozens of travelers, that’s all anyone did so it seems like it’s a country where people don’t get off the beaten path.  The cities were crowded and loud, with only a few attractions within walking distance. Most of the things that were worth seeing required a motorbike and luckily, I could ride on the back of a bike with couch surfers braver than myself to explore the attractions of Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hanoi but still it was a lot of temples and wading through Asian tourists armed with selfie sticks. When my trip to Halong Bay got cancelled, I was a bit bummed, especially when the replacement tours felt like something that had to be survived rather than enjoyed. But I was definitely looking forward to Sapa, the land of rice paddies and tribal minorities in the North. This trip also turned into a bit of a debacle, but in the end, quite a pleasant one. Getting picked up from our hostels was the usual hassle: we expected a sleeping bus but instead we got a crowded van with another non-verbal tour guide, so we sat on each other’s laps wondering whether we’d have to endure the 6-hour journey in a massive mosh pit. The man wordlessly checked a couple tickets, kicked two Russian girls on the street then took us down a dark alley where, thankfully, a sleeping bus awaited our arrival. The arrival to Sapa I passed out on the drive and around 4:45 AM, the bus pulled into a gravel parking lot. Some fellow travelers confirmed that we arrived in Sapa our final destination. we stopped somewhere which was Sapa according to some people’s GPS but when a brave soul tried to leave the bus, he was blocked by the driver and the assistant. The driver shut the bus doors dramatically and there we sat until 6 AM with no idea when we’d be released from captivity. At 6 AM, they forced us out of the bus into a rainy parking lot where the locals tried to sell us homestays and periodically arrived with signs with names like “Tim Thom” looking for people who didn’t seem to exist. As our group dwindled, about 45 minutes later, a man with a sign with our names on it welcomed us into his van. We drove up to Grand View Hotel, which was positioned to have a great view, but fog obscured our view. To enter the hotel, we had to elbow our way through a mob of Hmong women trying to sell us bracelets and wallets. We piled into a lobby filled with angry tourists trying to change their reservations to switch hotels and alarmingly, the receptionist didn’t even seem the slightest bit surprised. When we asked to brush our teeth in an empty room, we could see why. One of my fellow travelers aptly described the hotel as something out of The Shining. It had it all from exposed pipes, unexplained puddles, punch holes in the door, grimy glassware collecting decades of dust, a funky smell and inadequate lighting. We were invited to breakfast in the next room. A woman “dusted off” our table with a duster that looked like it was designed for breeding dust bunnies and we sat down, exhausted after our night bus ride and asked for coffee. “No coffee,” the waiter abruptly replied, throwing moldly menus like Frisbees at our faces, potentially to distract us from the cockroach running across the checkered tablecloth.  After a bit of squealing, we chose our breakfast based on which food would make us less sick and decided it would be hard to mess up bread with butter and honey. Sure enough, the waiter replied to that request, “no butter”. We meekly munched on our half-roll of bread, avoiding the wilted side of tomato and cucumber, skeptical that it would fuel our 12 km “hike”. The trek After finishing breakfast and another hour of waiting and discovering new reasons to be sketched out about the hotel, we were rallied by a young Hmong girl with a baby on her back who introduced herself as our tour guide. We donned our ponchos and...