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...

My Ten Favorite European Cities (Part I)

My Ten Favorite European Cities (Part I)

“What a long strange trip it’s been”… and although there was no hallucinogenic drugs involved, Jerry Garcia could not begin to understand the wild, spontaneous romp around Europe that I had.  What was supposed to be a studious two months making progress with my PhD in Loeben, Austria turned into explorations anchored in two workaway opportunities (helping a student prepare for her English exams in Passau, Germany and hippies on their love farm in middle-of-nowhere Belgium) turned into a lot of moving around, not always in the most logical manner. So 18 countries and 44-ish European cities later, I conquered much of the continent that I have publicly denounced as boring, over-priced and over-rated.  It’s definitely true for some places but overall, my appreciation for the region has grown.  Since I didn’t do as much writing during my travels as I should have, I figured I’d leave you with a list of my top ten favorite cities to travel and a brief mention of some of the biggest disappointments.  I’ll probably commit a travel blogger crime by linking some of the titles of my Facebook albums, but I know a picture is worth a thousand words so feel free to click. But first, here’s the grand unveiling of how the final trip turned out: (Vienna) Austria, (Passau & Munich) Germany, (Budapest & Szentendre) Hungary, (Ljubljana & Bled) Slovenia, (Trieste & Venice) Italy, (Plitvice Lakes, Zagreb & Dubrovnik) Croatia, (Budva, Kotor & Perast) Montenegro, (Neum, Mostar & Sarajevo) Bosnia, (Belgrade & Vrsac) Serbia, (Timisoara, Sibiu, Brasov, Sighisoara, Viscri, Valencii & Cluj Napoca) Romania, (Amsterdam) Netherlands, (Antwerp, Balen, Ghent, Bruges & Oostende) Belgium, (Deux Caps, Paris) France, (Berlin, Cologne, Dortmund) Germany, (Krakow, Wieliczka, Wroclaw) Poland, (Prague) Czech Republic, (Zurich) Switzerland, (Innsbruck) Austria, (Bratslavia) Slovakia DISCLAIMER:  For all of you amazing couch surfers whose city didn’t make the list, my top cities to travel don’t necessary reflect the cities where I made the best memories or met the most incredible people.  I’d mostly recommend these cities to slightly adventurous, twenty-something travelers on a budget and these recommendations apply to people who want cities easy to navigate independently, friendly locals and plenty of student-friendly free/cheap attractions. 1) Sarajevo, Bosnia The cities of Bosnia barely compare to its natural beauty but I still found Sarajevo a fascinating place to visit.  Every time I traveled through this country, my nose was pressed to the glass to see turquoise rivers, rolling hills on fire with fall colors, sprinkled with rustic farmhouses. It’s a wildly beautiful country with relatively nice roads that lacks Western chain stores and industrial sprawl… until you get to Sarajevo. When the bus first began to approach the city, the shoddily constructed apartments reminded me of Brazilian favelas. Even when I switched from a bus to a tram through some central city streets, I found crumbling and decrepit buildings covered in graffiti, barbed wire and pockmarked with bullet holes. The grassy hills on the city outskirts could have added color and cheer to the city but instead were blanketed with gravestones, which added to the eeriness of the place. I checked into my hostel, and the receptionist gave me vague recommendations to spend the rest of my day: climb through graveyards to a lookout from an old fortress (now covered in graffiti and inaccessible) and check out the mosques and markets in the Old Town. I grabbed the map and marched off with the goal of racing through these sites as quickly as possible since even doing work seemed more appealing than spending time amongst a depressing remains of a city that was under siege a couple decades ago. I don’t know exactly when and where it happened, but some time during my afternoon, I fell in love with the resilient beauty of this city. Maybe when I stood looking out on the city, trying to mentally erase the cemeteries from the natural beauty of a place nestled between hills with rivers running through. I stood for quite awhile, alone except for a few hungry crows, with silent tears running down my face, wondering how the world’s largest genocide since the Holocaust could happen during my lifetime. I tried to compose myself on the walk down the hill, distracting myself by peeking into metal shops, where the rat-tat-tat of artists resulted in ornate plates and Turkish tea sets. I landed amongst the Ottoman market, where the glow of mosaic lamps danced amongst the silver, spices and teas. The stalls exploded with goods from the East, greasy bureks enticed people into same cafes and the sounds of the muezzin call from the mosque kept the time. Eventually, the carpet covered stalls evolved into re-purposed Turkish...

Amsterdam Attractions Beyond Anne Frank & The Red Light District

Amsterdam Attractions Beyond Anne Frank & The Red Light District

Usually when you ask people about their time in Amsterdam, they don’t say much. “I don’t really remember… I was high the whole time”. I knew the capital city of the Netherlands must have more to offer than a massive Red Light district and stoned tourists, and since I had an invitation from a couch surfer I hosted last year, I decided to check it out. I found it to be a fascinating place, well organized, practical and efficient but a little bit trippy at the same time, which kept things interesting for completely sober visitors like me. Prior to coming to the Netherlands, I pictured it as postcards advertised it: wooden clogs, windmills and quaint little canals lined with maroon and navy houses. However, on my trip into the city from Eindhoven airport, I was greeted by extraordinarily modern architecture… daring, steel-cable bridges, glass towers (not too high) in shapes that appeared to be built by toddlers testing the limits of LEGO stability and curvy windows illuminating more spherical buildings. Hmmm… the Dutch have advanced a bit from the days of wooden shoes, footwear that I never understood because it couldn’t possibly be comfortable. The areas near the port contained some of these innovative spaces but as our bus pulled up to Central Station, the city center contained more of what I expected from a European capital: a gilty gold train station, intimidating towering cathedral and quaint floating restaurant near the canal cruise stop. I boarded a smooth-sailing street car to the home of my first Amsterdam host and marveled at how cute the city looked everywhere, even on a 30 minute tram ride outside its center. Christmas lights reflected off the calm water of canals, cyclists lined the streets with scarves waving like welcome flags, people relaxed at outdoor cafes serenely sipping coffee or beer. I expected instant immersion in Bourbon Street-like insanity but this was so much nicer! My first night in Amsterdam was rather low-key but thoroughly enjoyable… a scooter ride through the city to a soundtrack of bicycle bells, past the Heineken factory and the illuminated …. (Amsterdam’s most famous museum), getting to know my host with a nighttime walk and a relaxed beer in a couple pubs. Our first stop (Sound Garden) wasn’t particularly extraordinary but I enjoyed the second, De Nieuwe Anita, a Berlin-esque bar with a dance floor in the basement. I’ve never been to Berlin so I didn’t know what that meant, but supposedly the German city takes a minimalist approach to decorating its bars… someone provided the example of throwing a few plastic chairs on a rooftop and calling that Berlin’s best new hangout. This particular place looked more like someone’s home than a restaurant, with random vintage paintings on the wall, mismatched couches and overstuffed chairs, worn carpets and even a “kitchen” supplied with appliances like spaghetti strainers and flour jars, behind the bartender. And the people matched the place. The people in the bar donned flannel, oversized puppy sweaters, vintage dresses, pearl necklaces threaded with ribbons, and busted out 1970s disco dance moves. The next day, I grabbed an umbrella and splashed through the misty, wet streets of the City Center with only a skeletal idea of what I wanted to accomplish. I headed in the general direction of Dam Square, nearly in the place where people first attempted construction of the city over this muddy land. I wondered what kind of event the police was blocking off the square for, then I saw a band of black people in Renaissance costumes. “Interesting choice of dress for a music group imported from Africa”, I thought briefly before getting distracted with a shop selling warm waffles dripping with melted nutella. I wandered through the sweet-smelling streets of the Red Light District, shyly adverting my eyes at the ladies in see-through slips posing provocatively in the windows. Attracted by colorful objects, I thoughtfully peered the artistic collection of bongs and inventive assortment of space cakes. My attention was peaked by rainbow colored tiles around a street corner and I found a parking garage that doubled as a nighttime art gallery, near Spuistraat street. The brightest building had posters that begged “save the snake” and I wondered whether the city was trying to eliminate street art in their attempts to clean up the city and appeal to upper-class tourists (supposedly there’s already legislation in place to close 40% of the windows and restrict the red light district to a couple blocks by the canal). After taking enough pictures of bikes leaning up against arched canal bridges and row houses tilting in various directions (tilted forward...

Tokyo, Japan: Top Spots For People-Watching And Surrounding Attractions

Tokyo, Japan: Top Spots For People-Watching And Surrounding Attractions

Before coming to Tokyo, I was a little disappointed with the lack of strangeness I found in Japan. Where were the Japanese grandmas with purple hair? People who pay extra to drink coffee in cafes surrounded by cats they can’t touch? Man carrying around life-size pillow woman? As much as I don’t like big cities and dreaded coming to Japan’s crowded capital, the quality of people-watching more than compensated for feeling trapped by skyscrapers and watching my life waste away on trains.  This is the quirky, crazy capital that I dreamed about encountering, where the best attraction is the people walking past.  If you want to plan your visit around the most “fashionable” and ridiculous parts of town , pay close attention where to grab a seat and enjoy the show. 1) Cosplay Teeny-boppers on Takeshita Dori Street- Harajuku  Take the train to Harajuku on any weekend (supposedly Sundays are especially good) to see pre-teen fashion at its most extreme.  Geered for a younger crowd, the street is packed with cheap 100-yen shops, all-you-can-eat-buffets, crepe stands and used clothes stores (its a great place to buy a used kimono!) and the central zone for Cosplay (costume play).  Here, Japanese girls rebel against spend their weekdays in long skirts and pious pig-tails with wild wigs, short skirts and dramatic make-up.  I saw giant tiger backpacks, boys in green alien spandex, another guy dressed up like Rainbowbrite, many girls dressed as poofy princesses toting matching purses and stuffed animals.  Even the surrounding streets take part in the insanity… eight kids dressed up as Mariokart characters waited at a red light, surrounded by taxis and normal cars. While in the area:  On the other side of the railroad tracks, visit Meiji Jingu, one of Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrines.  On the weekends, you’ll likely find traditional Japanese wedding processions passing through, with the priest in platform shoes and the bride in a massive white headdress.  The tourists tend to stay near the main shrine but if you want a peaceful place to relax, pack a picnic to enjoy at the spacious Yoyogi Park.  If you need a one-stop shopping experience for souvenirs, try Oriental Bazaar’s two-story shop which contains everything from kimonos, to samurai swords, to traditional ceramics. 2) Straight-Off The Runway Supermodels at SHIBUYA109 And when I say “straight off the runway”, I mean straight out of those fashion shows where models are dressed in duct tape and feather outfits that would never fly in real life… except in Tokyo.  Shibuya109 is an 8-floor department store for women fully stocked with small boutiques from Japan’s top designers with names like “bubbles mart”, “doll kiss”,”merry me”, “peak & pine” and “titty & co”.  Each boutique has a small corner store of themed clothing sexy schoolgirl, gothic wedding, army brat, etc.  So the shops themselves are highly entertaining and surprisingly un-repeatitive, despite a mind-boggling number of stores.  Even more amusing than the shops themselves, are the  shoppers who are living embodiments of these obscure fashion trends.  The crowd near Shibuya tends to be older and have more money to afford female catsuits with over-the-knee leather boots, boyfriends with matching designer purses, fake eyelashes (beneath the eye) and more.  If I come back to Japan, forget cherry blossom season- I want to come to Halloween in Shibuya- check out a video here. While in the area:  When I heard that people crossing the street is one of Tokyo’s top tourist attractions, I shook my head in horror at tourists reaching a new level of pathetic-ness.  Then I happened to be there to witness it myself and I was mesmerized.  3000 people per minute cross this five way intersection in an event more magical than the parting of the Red Sea.  From below, it looks like the ultimate mob scene… humans swarming like ants overtaking a piece of dropped fruit.  From on high (the 2nd floor Starbucks where all the tourists go to witness the action), its surprising organized (which is  probably not surprising when you remember you’re in Japan where everything is organized).  This is just one of those things you need to see for yourself to believe. 3) Flannel and Hiking Tights at Mt. Takao When a Japanese friend invited me hiking at a mountain an hour from Tokyo by train, I envisioned dirt paths, fresh air, pit toilets and an invigorating void of people.  When I arrived at Mt. Takao, I quickly realized that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Japanese people love to get outside and as one of the closest hiking opportunities, Mt. Takao is the most highly trafficked mountain in the world.  A chairlift or cable car short-cuts...

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 1: New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 1: New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville

If you like free live music and hearty soul food, this road trip is for you! Explore the origins of jazz, blues and bluegrass where it all began. We moved quickly across the south with only a night in each city so here are budget-friendly attractions suggested by locals. We tried to keep admission prices under $5 and meals under $10 so you can have fun without breaking the bank. I’ve included a few things that we didn’t get to see but were highly recommended to us. Much of what we decided to do depended on the day of the week so I highly suggest you check out event calendars for each city you visit. New Orleans: I wrote a whole post about this city back when I was feeling ambitious.  Find the detailed itinerary here! Indianapolis, MS: You’ll feel like you’re the Deep South with this stop because there’s not much going on in this town beyond cotton fields. We stopped here to break up our drive with an amazing museum visit. • B.B. King Museum and Mississippi Delta Interpretive Center (400 Second St, Indianola, MS, ): Fantastic, interactive exhibits that provide an overview of Mississippi Delta region, B.B. King’s life and the beginning of Blues. We debated this museum or the Blues Museum in Clarksdale, MS. There’s probably more to see in Clarksdale (especially if you can go to Ground Blues restaurant and live music venue, opened by) but after comparing our options and experiencing this, I’d highly recommend you chose the same!  Tickets for students are a steal for just $5. • Blue Biscuit Café (501-503 Second Street): good southern soul food and authentic, live blues right across the street from the B.B. King museum. Apparently, you can even spend the night in one of their two villas! Memphis, TN: Although there’s not much shaking on Sundays (when we arrived), Memphis had a surprising number of things going on and could have easily spent a second day. • Explore an Egyptian obsession: Apparently, the people of Memphis love to compare themselves to Egypt, the country who houses Memphis’ namesake city. Both Memphis and Egypt strongly depend on their rivers (The Mississippi and the Nile respectively) and the city is dotted with tributes to this ancient nation. The University of Memphis has an impressive Egyptology Gallery (142 Communication & Fine Arts Bldg.
The University of Memphis) and a giant Ramses II statue on a lawn. The city’s skyline includes a giant pyramid that will house the world’s second largest Bass Pro Shop. It wasn’t opened when we visited but they expect to open December 2014 and the building will include climbing walls, laser galleries, bowling alley archery range and fitness facility. • Riverfront: The city has built paths along the Mississippi with beautiful views of the skyline and the river. Check out the Steamboats at Beale Street landing. • Mud Island: Right near the riverside visitor center, there’s a monorail station that will take you to Mud Island (by monorail $4 or by walking). At Mud Island, you can walk along and get your feet wet in the giant sidewalk scaled model of the Lower Mississippi. It’s a good place to go to spend time outside and learn more about America’s biggest river at their Mississippi River Museum. • Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St): We didn’t have time to visit but everyone raved about this museum and we checked out the interesting exterior. Partially housed in the Lorraine Motel where MLK was assassinated, you can stand where the assassin shot him and see the room he was staying the day he died. • Central BBQ (147 E. Butler): “Go where the locals go” for Memphis-style barbeque. Here you can taste the slow-cooked pork served wet with the sweet, tangy, molasses/tomato/vinegar-based sauce that the city is known for. • Cheesecake Corner (113 GE Patterson Ave): This unassuming cheesecake, quiche and wine bar doesn’t look like much from the outside but all the locals know it as the best place to get dessert in town so you will probably have to wait in line. $10 buys you a mighty slice of delicious cheesecake and you can chose from dozens of flavors. • Duck Parade at Peabody Hotel (149 Union Ave): What began as a joke after a hunting trip has become a true tradition at the fancy Peabody Hotel. Each day at 11 AM, a red carpet is unrolled for the hotel’s ducks to march from their penthouse on the top floor to the fountain in the lobby. At 5 PM, the ceremony is reversed as they march back to their home for the night....

Keeping It Classy in Crescent City: 36 Hours in New Orleans, Louisiana

Keeping It Classy in Crescent City: 36 Hours in New Orleans, Louisiana

“Welcome to the wild, wild west. There are no rules,” Lauren shrugs dismissively. It’s an interesting city for sure. Bourbon Street seems to invite you to leave your morals behind, encouraging recklessness with sweet, watermelon flavored hand grenades drinks to loosen your sense of restraint. You wander down the street, nudged by nerdy guys in suits who raise their eyebrows, look you into the eyes, “Titties! A room fulllll of tit-tit-titties!”. If you respond better to commands than personal invitations, a big guy from a competing bar across the street blows into screeching police whistle with bulging eyes and a red face, “Naked ladies! Right here! Right NOW!”. His urgent shouting made it sound like your life depended on taking advantage of this opportunity, as if after tonight, bare breasts would be extinct forever. If titties aren’t your thing, a young black guy silently shoots you a sweet, dreamy smile from a few doors down. You can see sophistication in his face and an intelligent gleam in his eye and you wonder what he’s doing here… until he does a suggestive shimmy and points your eyes down to his bare chest, a cartoon elephant trunk over his junk. He feigns disappointment as you nod “no” but it doesn’t last long as he’s mobbed by a crowd of fifty-year old cougars in red boas and shirts that say, “Aged to perfection”. Another crowd of people dressed in black clustered near a cardboard cross in the middle of street, passing out Bibles and trying to pray over the infidels who evaded their outstretched arms. They duck as people on the balconies try to get them in a celebratory mood by flinging Mardi Gras beads at their heads. We passed a dirt-encrusted, guy in his upper 20’s who wobbled by us, promising to friend us on facebook if we obeyed his cardboard sign command, “Keep me drunk and high”. Behind him, a break in the line of bars reveals a cathedral, adorned with a crucifix-like shadow projected from a spotlight illuminating a watchful Jesus statue. Just like the street cleaners that power wash away the previous night’s debaucheries, most of these people will probably cleanse their souls by walking across soapy streets to piously pray for forgiveness at church the next day. “If I could put my finger on it, I’d bottle it and sell it. I came down here originally in 1972 with some drunken fraternity guys and had never seen anything like it — the climate, the smells. It’s the cradle of music; it just flipped me. Someone suggested that there’s an incomplete part of our chromosomes that gets repaired or found when we hit New Orleans. Some of us just belong here.” – John Goodman It’s easy to drink away your time in New Orleans but make sure to explore the city’s distinct cultural heritage sober too. Here are some suggestions for a more classy, semi-touristy 36-hour itinerary in Saint City. We started our day as most tourists do, with café au lait and beignets at the famous Café Du Monde (800 Decatur St). Is it worth all the hype? Fried dough covered with a mountain of sneeze-inducing powered-sugar is bound to be good, no matter who makes it. A local recommended New Orleans Coffee and Beignet in midtown as a less touristy and tastier alternative, if you’re ok with skipping the famous one (4141 St. Charles Ave, ~$5 for a coffee and 3 beignets). After we were all sugared up, we wandered by the riverfront to watch huge platforms of boats moosy on down the Mississippi. From there, we headed to the National Park Service Jazz Historic Park (916 N. Peters Street) who has a bunch of interesting free programming happening. We just missed the free jazz yoga at 10 AM but we were able to catch the free walking tour of history of jazz at Armstrong Park (710 Rampart St). We learned about the “gumbo” of cultural groups that made up New Orleans: the indigenous native Americans, the French who came down from Canada, the European prostitutes, ex-convicts and misfits that were sent over to populate the swampy, buggy land, Germans hired to build things and Africans brought over to execute everything. We learned the roots of jazz began with gospel, drum circles at Congo Park, brass bands which led to the traditional of jazz funerals. Jazz funerals involved a slow, drudge-like march to the graveyard then a brass band beat after the burial that exponentially attracts the neighbors that culminates in a life-celebrating dance party. Louis Armstrong, born in New Orleans, gave birth to jazz when he began stealing the spotlight with extended trumpet...