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What stands out to you about San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala?

San Juan is a unique place both natural and cultural reasons. It’s located on the southern shore of Lake Atitlan, in between the San Pedro volcano and the so-called indigenous “Rostro Maya” (Indian Nose), a mountain which has a face-like shape.

The luxurious subtropical forest covering the surrounding mountains gives way to majestic coffee and avocado orchards and a variety of farm crops, most of which are cornfields. This is the setting of the everyday-life activities and economy of the local indigenous people, who are largely farmers on the mountainside. The people who live here hike for hours from the village up to the very top of the “Sierro” (mountain) to work their land, pick corn or coffee.

From a cultural point of view, as soon as I arrived to San Juan to work with Alma de Colores, I was astonished by the pulsating life of the small village. It stands out as an uncontaminated village, a cradle of Mayan cultural tradition and heritage in the area.

The colorful traditional clothes and the local language, Tzutujil, a surviving Mayan language, are the most apparent signs of the indigenous culture. I was amazed by the wall paintings scattered in several places of the village, which offer a modern representation of the traditional Mayan cosmology.

However, managing to stay in San Juan for a little more than the typical tourist’s plan of 1-2 days, it’s possible to scratch below the surface and get to the vibrant soul of the community, thanks to the welcoming attitude of the locals.

As an anthropologist, I have noticed that this approach towards foreigners is not simply a matter of good manners or goodwill, but rather a practice that stems from the locals’ cultural identity. Not that the neighboring villages are unwelcoming, but the “Juaneros” (people from San Juan) actually construct their identity and represent themselves through this practice. In other words, it is a place where, people will disclose authentic, intimate aspects of their life and culture to visitors with the traveler’s mindset: openness, curiosity and a sense of adventure!

Handcrafted goods lie at heart of the cultural and social life of the community as much as the coffee production and refining. The cooperative of coffee makers and textile artisans, opened to visitors, is definitely a must-see of San Juan.

This is my perspective, as a foreigner, but what would a Juanero answer to the same question? Well, what stands out about San Juan La Laguna is the Rostro Maya! Not just from a geographical and panoramic sense, either. To the indigenous people of San Juan, it is a sacred and ritual place, a highly evocative and symbolic of their culture and identity as Maya.

(I’d like to thank our friend and colleague, photographer Colin Field of Photographers Without Borders, who has thoroughly documented both our work and various Guatemalan lifestyles).

Tell us about Alma de Colores as a program. Who does it serve, and why does it matter?

Alma de Colores is a social and labor inclusion program for people with disabilities. The project is based in San Juan La Laguna and serves people ages 16 and older in the whole Lake Atitlan region.

The project is strongly rooted in the cultural and social ground of San Juan, and is part of Centro Maya Servicio Integral, a local organization that provides therapy, special education and other services to people with disabilities in the Lake area.

Its occupational therapy and inclusion project is developed through five different areas of work: handicraft production, sewing, baking, organic agriculture and a small restaurant. The quality of the handcrafted goods is astonishing, and visitors can find both traditional and original pieces from macramé to traditional clothes and jewelry. The organization’s fair approach, rooted in values of social and environmental sustainability, also extends to its products, which are carefully crafted employing local materials and knowledge, placing recycling at the heart of the creations, and practicing and promoting organic agriculture.

The restaurant, Alma de Colores Cafè y Comedor, is a beautiful, chill locale where organic and healthy food is served in a floral veranda overlooking the lake. Alma de Colores’ users receive fair compensation as employers of the different areas of occupational therapy. They also receive benefits like food, therapy, transportation and interest-free loans for education, along with access to a health fund to cover their short and long-term medical needs.

The impact of the project is huge – it’s the only program in the area that employs and provides regular income to people with disabilities. Alma de Colores even develops the professional skills of its users in a genuinely positive environment pursuing a communal approach which leads users and workers to share many existential and professional experiences. Also Alma de Colores is a great resource for the broader community as it fosters a new and sustainable model of production and development.

What are you as an organization most excited about right now?

The project is growing, not just in size, but also in terms of the results we’re creating! Our impact on the people is what we care most about. Alma the Colores, after expanding its project last year with the comedor, is enhancing its reach giving therapies and occupation to more and more people.

The social and economic independence of our users is at the core of our mission and through developing their work skills that allow them to practice in different job sectors, from handicrafts and agriculture to the culinary work, we are building inclusion and supporting our constituents’ wellbeing. Our greatest satisfaction is contributing to the fulfillment of our peoples’ goals and dreams, giving them the chance to pursue careers and create independent lives.

We are even in transition as a developmental project, moving away from being supported by a foreign organization to being independently run and funded. This is highly motivating as it is a challenging process and it opens up new horizons as a social enterprise, and we are deeply excited by this new phase!

What are the best ways future travelers can support Alma de Colores?

Alma de Colores is a place for sharing, sharing experiences and knowledge. We love inviting travelers who are visiting San Juan to learn about our project by involving them in our activities, introducing them to all our staff and users, and to their stories.

We then welcome them to the Cafe Y Comedor Alma de Colores to try the fresh, vegetarian food that we cook everyday using vegetables from our own organic garden. We also arrange day trips for travelers to San Juan, which begin with a rich, traditional breakfast at the Comedor, where our guest can sample the best local organic beans, fruits and free-range organic eggs.

We then show travelers a tour of San Juan where they visit our partner organization Centro Maya Servico Integral, to get a feel for their longstanding experience in the lake region working with communities with disabilities.

Travelers can partake in a workshop of handicraft and weaving and get a glimpse into the traditional manufacturing process of clothes and accessories. To support, travelers have the opportunity to purchase goods as take-home gifts!

Then it’s back to the Cafe y Comedor for lunch, which changes based on our organic garden produce. Travelers can sample traditional local dishes and gourmet samples of our chef’s specialties like empanadas, calzones, burritos, pizza and fried dough as a side dish.

What are the must-do’s for travelers visiting Guatemala for the very first time?

Guatemala is an enchanting country! It is one of the richest Central American regions for discovering the Mayan culture, indigenous tradition and heritage. It also offers an incredible variety of microclimates, from the tropical sea level to the highest volcano top, rising to over 4000 meters above sea level. The shorter Atlantic coast offers a beautiful stretch, while the Pacific coast is a long, low-lying tropical land characterized by volcanic sand seashore.

From the old colonial city of Antigua to the market of Chichicastenango, or the many volcanic hiking routes to Tikal, the Mayan archeological site, Guatemala has both rich cultural history and natural beauty to offer the hungry traveler’s eyes.

The area “Indigenous Altiplano” includes several provinces with an indigenous population as the majority, the provinces San Marcos and Huehuetenango along with Sololà (Lake Atitlan) are of particular interest for the indigenous culture; the lively and pulsating one with its traditional and contemporary practices, their cults and syncretic religious practices expressing Christianity in constant dialogue (not without contradictions) with the traditional Mayan religion.

Lake Atitlan itself, where Alma de Colores is based, is one of the main areas of interest for travelers. Here the spectacular natural scene piques all the senses. With its three volcanoes surrounding the lake that Aldous Huxley once described as “too much of a good thing”, indigenous traditional culture is preserved.

It also coexists with a more recent phenomenon, that of groups of expatriates, travelers and other locals who have created certain sites around the Lake as countercultural places of prayer and worship, where yoga, meditation, natural medicine, communal living and even some Dionysian parties are an integral part of the everyday life. And when you travel to Lake Atitlan, don’t forget to swim in the lake! It is powerful – at least, that’s what the locals say!

About Alma de Colores

Alma de Colores (Soul of Colors) is a labor and social inclusion program for people with disabilities in the Lake Atitlan region, Guatemala. Located in San Juan la Laguna, the workshop has over 24 participants between 16 and 44 years old who work in five main areas: handicraft production, sewing, baking, organic gardening as well as cooking and running a small restaurant. The garden and the restaurant are part of the Café Correcto project which took place in the frame of the “Nutrire il Pianeta 2014” program. Visit www.almadecolores.org to learn more and support the program.

March 19, 2017

by George Millo

pulp-fiction-4

“They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder?”

We’ve all seen that scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent (John Travolta) schools Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) on the “little differences” between Europe and the United States. In Paris you can buy a beer in McDonald’s. In Amsterdam people put mayonnaise on their french fries. And the French, of course, “don’t know what the *f* a Quarter Pounder is”.

I’m European — British, to be precise — and I recently made Vincent’s trip in the other direction, visiting the U.S.A. for the first time in my adult life. I now realise that Pulp Fiction didn’t nearly go far enough. The U.S. and Europe are very different places — far more than I think we Brits tend to assume. I’ve been all over the world, and I can’t recall a single Western country I’ve visited where I felt a stronger sense of “away from home” than the U.S. of A..

Note that I really enjoyed my time in the U.S., and I look forward to going back — and not just because of the British Privilege I benefit from while there. (By the way, to my fellow Englishmen — visit the U.S.A.. The rumours you have heard about your accent are true.) But I have a few observations:

1: Border Control

border-control-line

The first uniquely American experience comes before you’ve even technically entered the country. Unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been to, in American airports (if you’re arriving internationally) you have to go through security after getting off the plane… even though you already went through it before getting on. Apparently the U.S. doesn’t trust other countries to do a good job. Maybe they’re right, but the plane has already landed safely, so if there were are terrorists on board they clearly weren’t good at their jobs.

But beware: even if your nefarious plan to sneak toenail clippers past the TSA succeeds, you can still expect a thorough interrogation from an underpaid border guard before being officially allowed entry to the country. I’ve crossed many a border in my life, and I’ve never received a grilling like the one I got on arriving in the U.S.A., all for the sake of a three-week visit on a tourist visa.

I can’t complain — I’m a guest, and they don’t have to let me in—but what amuses me is that, according to many American friends, the U.S. Border Patrol often gives the same interrogative treatment to American citizens who are arriving home, even though they can’t be denied entry to the country anyway. (For the record, every time I enter the U.K., they just scan my passport and let me straight in without saying a word.) “What were you doing in [country you visited years ago for which you still have the passport stamp]??” is a typical question, I’m told, spoken in an accusatory tone as if that business trip you made to China in 2009 is a dead giveaway that you’re a dirty Commie bent on destroying the Land of the Free.

Speaking of catching bad guys, when you’re filling in the “ESTA” form before entering the U.S., you have to tick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ next to a whole plethora of interesting questions, including “are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities?”, and the following:

Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were you involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies?

I bet they catch a lot of people that way.

2: Guns

I’ll save the exhausting debate about gun politics for another day. (Is there any other issue which causes such division in the U.S. and such widespread agreement everywhere else?) All I’ll say is that, within twenty minutes of making it past the aforementioned border guard, I had another moment which confirmed that I had very, very definitely arrived in America. As I sat in the departure lounge waiting for my connection, a man walked past me with his phone pressed to his head, and I caught the following snippet of his conversation:

You have the guns, right? Make sure you keep one with you at all times!

God bless America!

And to the annals of “things that are amusing to a foreigner but totally mundane to a local”, I add the following sign:

texas penal code 30.06 and 30.07 sign

You’ll find the above notice by the entrance to every public building in Texas. “What’s so interesting about that?” I hear every Texan say… I’m not even going to bother trying to explain.

3: Everything is bigger (and not just in Texas)

Something that travel has made me appreciate is this: if two places are both in the U.K., they are close to each other. We are a tiny country, as exemplified by a conversation I once had with a Canadian friend:

Me: Where in Canada are you from?
Him: It’s called (name of town). It’s not well-known.
Me: Yeah, I haven’t heard of it. What part of Canada is that in?
Him: It’s close to Calgary, just a six-hour drive away.
Me: That’s not at all close!!

The U.S. is only slightly smaller than Canada, which is another way of saying that it’s massive. Really bloody big. To quote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy talking about outer space, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts compared to the States.

I tell people I’m from a small town, but “small town” means something different in a British (or European) context. My small town of ~11,000 people is just a 15-minute drive from a city of 150,000 people — and during those 15 minutes you’ll pass multiple other towns, villages, and hamlets. (And in the other direction, I’m only an hour from London.) It’s rare to drive for more than 10 minutes through the British countryside, especially in the south, without seeing some evidence of human habitation. Even between towns, just about every square inch of land is being used by humans for something, usually farming. The U.K. hardly has any of what you might call “wilderness”.

middle of nowhere usa

Not pictured: the middle of nowhere

In the U.S., on the other hand, if you live in a “small town”, there’s a good chance that you live in a remote settlement in the middle of the desert and have to drive for two hours just to find an attractive member of the opposite sex who isn’t also your second cousin. And in America (like in most of the world outside densely populated countries like England), unkempt wilderness is the norm, not the exception — and the beauty and diversity of the scenery is absolutely breathtaking.

Travelling in the U.S., I really get the sense of being on the “frontier” — vast, virgin land that humans have yet to conquer, full of possibility and adventure. If that’s what it feels like to a newcomer in 2016, I can only imagine what it felt like in 1620. It must have been, in the original sense of the word, awesome — which brings me to my next point:

4: America is so, like, totally awesome dude, literally!

I’m not the first person to make this observation, but omigawd dude, the way Americans, like, talk, is like, kinda literally totally dripping with excessive positivity and, like, totally unnecessary filler words, dude, literally.

Nowhere is this more prominent than with the word “awesome”, which in olden days meant “awe-inspiring”, before taking on the colloquial meaning of “good” or “cool”, and these days has become watered-down to the point where it can mean anything (“okay”, “yes”, “um”, “please”, “go for it”), while simultaneously meaning nothing whatsoever. “Awesome” is the Polyfilla (read: spackle) of American vocabulary, used indiscriminately to fill empty space, and it’s as overused in American English as ignorance of science is pervasive in the American South. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard an American say the word “awesome”, I’d have a totally awesome amount of money.

When I remarked on this in a text message to a friend, she replied tongue in cheek, with the following:

Dude totally, like seriously!! Don’t worry, everything is rad and super chill here and everyone is stoked on life and pumped about everything.

To which I said this:

S’alright mate, if we ever meet in Blighty (even if that’s yonks away) we can have a right bloody chin-wag down the local, I’d be chuffed.

I offer the above as evidence for the quote of unknown origin (dubiously attributed to George Bernard Shaw) that America and Britain are “two countries divided by a common language”.

Incidentally, I once read an archived newspaper that used the phrase “an awesome event” to describe the previous day’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I think it’s safe to say that the meaning of the word “awesome” was different back in 1945. Literally.

5: Residential Sprawl, and the Necessity of the Automobile

recurring-suburban-dream

The U.K. has the population of California plus Texas in an area the size of Michigan… meaning there’s not much space, so we have to cram our buildings together tightly, or vertically. In the U.S. such pressures don’t exist, so in many neighbourhoods you’ll see that practically every house is detached, with barely a terraced house in sight. (And to prove my point, most Americans reading this will have no idea what the terms “detached house” and “terraced house” even mean.) Wandering around American suburbia, I’m struck by the sheer amount of empty space everywhere.

But the more foreign thing about American residential areas is that they are just that — residential, in their entirety, over vast, vast swathes of land with nary a commercial building in sight. The concept of a “corner shop” apparently never made it across the Atlantic. If you need to buy anything in America — even just to pop out to buy a loaf of bread — your destination is probably far, far out of walking distance, and don’t expect to be able to get there via public transport. If you want to survive just about anywhere in the U.S., you need access to a car.

Luckily for me, Uber and Lyft exist, and I was able to rely on Uber (and on lifts from friends) for most of my trip — but if they hadn’t been available, I don’t know what I would have done. It’s a minor frustration, but the second-order effect is worse — since everyone is driving, no-one is walking, which means that most of the time when you do go for a walk, no-one else is around, even in the middle of the day on a weekday in a huge city.

To be a pedestrian in the U.S. is to inhabit an eerie, surreal ghost town, inhabited only by cars and the homeless (of which there are an alarmingly huge number, but that’s another story.)

6: Credit cards

Bizarrely, the U.S. still barely uses the EMV (“chip and PIN”) system for credit/debit card payments — despite this being the standard just about everywhere else in the world. So if you want to pay by card in the U.S., in many places you still have to do the primitive, Stone Age thing where you swipe the magnetic strip then sign your name on a piece of paper. Really? This is still a thing? Chip and PIN has been not just the default but the only way to pay by card in the U.K. for ten years, and they have it all over the rest of Europe too. How is it that the world’s richest country hasn’t caught up with this technology yet?

To add to the confusion, every time I went into a bar (where I would always get asked for I.D.; I’m 25, and the U.S. and U.K. are the only two places in the world where I consistently get I.D.’ed when buying alcohol), if I paid for my drinks by card then the bartender would usually ask me if I wanted to “close it up”. I had no idea what this meant, and it took me a while to figure it out… but I’m not going to explain it here, just so that the next Brit who tries to buy a drink in the U.S.A. can experience the same confusion that I did. Ha!

tipping-etiquette-around-the-world

7: Tipping

When I wasn’t being confused by bartenders, I was forgetting to pay their wages. In the U.S., you’re expected to tip bartenders, and also people in a whole plethora of other professions, applied in a seemingly random fashion. Taxi drivers, but not bus drivers. Hairdressers, but not tailors. People who deliver pizza, but not people who deliver the mail. It makes no sense, and it left me constantly worried that I was paying too much or too little.

What’s the point? One article on American tipping etiquette make the unusual move of stating the facts plainly: “We tip waiters and waitresses because they don’t make a livable (sic) wage. Our tips are helping to subsidize substandard wages.” Wait, what? Why not just pay service staff a livable wage in the first place and get rid of all this theatre? The end result is still the same anyway — I get a meal, you get my money. Why does it have to be so complicated? (Note: in the U.K. you’re generally expected to tip in restaurants, but rarely anywhere else — and waiters here don’t rely on tips to survive like they do in the U.S.A.).

It’s argued that when service staff are working for tips, they’re incentivised to provide better service. This is true, and in some countries which don’t have tipping cultures, the service is universally terrible. (No Spanish waiter could hold down a job in the U.S. — they’d all be fired on the first day.) But I’d like to propose an alternate system to holding your staff hostage to starvation wages: pay them a reasonable price for their work, and if they don’t do a good job — such as if they don’t provide good service to customers — fire them. This system is also known as “how it works in every other industry, everywhere,” it’s all the rage.

With all that being said, it’s not my fault that American service staff get paid next to nothing, so I tried my hardest to get things right and tip as expected (or more.) And I’m always amused by the flip-side of this, when I’m out with American friends who have newly arrived in Europe and often can’t wrap their heads around the concept of not tipping:

Them: “How much should we tip?”
Me: “You don’t have to leave anything. It’s not expected.”
Them: “What?? You can’t not tip!”
Me: “Yes you can, trust me.”
Them: “I’ll just leave this money on the table.”

If I was a waiter in a country like Spain, I’d pray for more American customers. They leave all this extra money lying around all over the place unnecessarily! What strange folk.

8: Sales Tax

I can’t complain about tipping without also making the obligatory jab at the way sales tax (“VAT” to Brits) is charged in the U.S.. It’s absurd. The price printed on the label is not the price you actually pay; it doesn’t include the tax. They don’t add the tax on until you bring the item to the checkout and scan it. Let me repeat that: the price printed on the label is not the price you actually pay. Do I even need to explain why this is ridiculous? Judging by the conversations I’ve had with many Americans (and Canadians — they do this too), the answer is “yes”. I don’t even know what to say.

Even weirder, some stores in the U.S. don’t display any prices for some or all items — to find out how much something costs, you have to take it up to the counter and ask (or just plonk down some cash and hope you have enough). I don’t think I’ve ever seen this practice in the U.K. — in fact I’m pretty sure businesses have to display all prices, legally.

I did get a taste of home though in Santa Monica, California, where I stumbled across an establishment called the “British Store” whose shelves are stocked with all kinds of British goodies that I’d never before seen sold outside the U.K., such as Jaffa Cakes, HP Sauce, and, just to please the Scots, Irn Bru. The only problem is that all self-respecting Brits (there’s dozens of us!) are wincing at the establishment’s name — if it had actually been British it would have been called the British Shop! At least they win points for effort.

9: Sports!

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By complete accident, my visit to the U.S. overlapped Superbowl Sunday, meaning I got to experience this time-honoured American tradition for the first (and probably only) time in my life. I didn’t get to go tailgating (I still don’t really get what this activity actually is unless you’re talking about the dangerous driving practice), but I did watch the game at a friend’s house.

I have vague memories of getting trounced at Madden NFL on the Playstation 2 by a friend when I was 12, but other than that, I’ve never played American football and had no idea how the game was played, how points are scored, or what the rules are. By the end, though, I think I’d got it figured out:

  • 6 points for advertising a car.
  • 3 points for advertising a new brand of phone or TV or similar overpriced gadget that no-one really needs.
  • 3 points for advertising a medicine for an embarrassing condition like erectile dysfunction (points are nullified unless one team member concludes the ad by reeling off a long list of the drug’s scary-sounding side-effects.)
  • Extra point for backing up your advertisement with an endorsement from a fatuous celebrity.
  • Penalty awarded for every woman during the half-time show whose clothes leave anything to the imagination.

The only thing I couldn’t figure out was how they’d occasionally interrupt the four hours of solid advertising to show a thirty-second clip of armoured men throwing a funny-shaped ball around. What was all that about?

10: Patriotism

i'm sorry i can't hear you over the sound of my freedom meme

I like the U.K., and I like being British. Despite our tendency (and this isn’t unique to Brits) to complain incessantly about our country and government, only a fool could deny that, all things considered, the United Kingdom is a pretty good place to live and to be from. Yet, unless there’s currently a football (the other kind of football) world cup taking place, overt displays of patriotism in the U.K. are exceedingly rare. However patriotic Brits might feel, we generally keep it to ourselves.

The U.S. is the polar opposite. Americans, in general, love America, but you didn’t need to be told that – they’ve already told you themselves. Repeatedly. On a typical day in the U.S.A., you’ll see more people flying the Stars and Stripes than you’ll see Union Jacks in an entire year in the U.K.. The national anthem of the U.S. is also sung before every sporting event (not just international games… do Americans even play any international sports?), whereas I can’t even remember the last time I heard anyone in the U.K. singing God Save the Queen in any context. Even if all the other differences I’ve described didn’t exist, you can’t spend any length of time in the U.S. without being repeatedly reminded what country you’re in.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing — I think patriotism is fine, just as long as it’s not mindless tribalism and you actually have valid reasons for liking your country. And there are many valid reasons to like the U.S., which is probably why people from all over the world have been flocking there for centuries seeking liberty, opportunity, or just a plain old good time. I had a great time in ‘Murica, and I know that I’ve still only scratched the surface – there’s so much to do and see there and I’ve still only experienced the tiniest fraction of it.

So like a two-term governor of California, I’ll be back… and it will be totally awesome. Like, literally. Dude, seriously. Omigawd, I can’t stop talking like this!

September 22, 2016
1 Uncommon Way To Find Out Who You Really Are

Yesterday I met with a friend who recently returned from about 3 months of solo traveling in Southeast Asia. As we sat down together for the first time since before she left, I asked her, “Who do I have the pleasure of dining with today?”

I knew that the person across from me was not the same person I knew from before. She had gone through her own trials and transformations, dissolved and rebuilt parts of herself. (On a concrete level, within three months many of the cells in her body were literally new…)

She smiled, and started to share with me who she is now.

She embodied a new level of confidence, a grounded assertiveness, trusting herself in a deeper way than before.

Later that evening I wondered to myself, “Why don’t we allow everyone in our lives to show up newly each time we meet them? To discover who they’ve become since the last time we saw them? Why do we assume they’re the same person, who will predictably act the same way, and remain as we “know” them to be? And doesn’t that trap them into being the same…?”

Once, it would have been easy to assume that my boyfriend, my best friends, or my parents would be the same people day in and day out.

Now, I show up to most interactions with that question subconsciously in mind: “Who do I have the pleasure of spending time with today?” (*and yes, I still sometimes assume they’ll be exactly the same people as they were yesterday…*)

It may seem obvious to rediscover who someone is after we haven’t seen them in months or years… like meeting an old friend from high school and having the thought, “Wow, I wonder what they’re like nowadays!” automatically cross your mind.

A subtler trick though is to allow ourselves to continuously rediscover who the people we see everyday of our lives are.

It gets fun pretty fast. And what I’ve noticed is that people enjoy the space that opens up when they realize you don’t expect them to be a certain way…

If you’re really feeling bold, try applying this mindset to yourself. Allow yourself to find out who YOU really are, each day, newly. Play around with creating yourself as someone new, each day. Perhaps you’ll choose to emphasize playfulness, or curiosity, or unstoppable action, or generosity that particular day…and something new the next day.

My invitation to you is to try this out. And if you want, let me know how it goes for you. Do you notice a difference in the quality of your conversations or depth of connection with the people around you? Do you notice a difference when you allow yourself to discover who you are each new day?

I’m curious. Let me know in the comments below 🙂

xx,
Ginger

August 27, 2016

Written by Dylan Livingston

Volunteering abroad is a fulfilling cause, especially when you go to support a volunteer organization that is responsible, sustainable, and has an amazing long-term relationship with the community it aims to support and help.

Many good volunteer programs recognize the virtue it takes to volunteer abroad, and can sometimes offer to cover the expenses of your trip in return for your hard work. There are many options for affordable volunteer placements, and there are programs that even fund your expenses. However you are able to find a way to volunteer abroad for free with a reputable, responsible organization, your work is sure to be both appreciated and rewarded further down the road.

1. Find a Trustworthy Organization for your Volunteer Experience

There are not many programs that offer meals and a place to stay for free, but if you do stumble on what looks like a free volunteer program, it’s important to do extensive research on the company. If a volunteer program is accommodating you for your visit, it’s important to know how the money is being distributed amongst the organization vs. amongst its impact projects.

There are, however, many volunteer programs that ask for small fees that help their cause, that can be as low as $200 or less and typically go towards the cause you are working for.

It’s important to first inquire what your costs are going towards before paying them, and any reliable organization will be more than happy to share specifics with you if their cost breakdown is not already listed on their website. As a general rule of thumb, most nonprofit organizations are worth looking into closely; stay away from most for-profit volunteer organizations, where dollars often don’t reach the people you actually want to help most.

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2. Apply to Join the Peace Corps

Have the chance to travel around the world, working in a variety of specialized fields, by volunteering with the Peace Corps. While joining the Peace Corps is a 27-month commitment, you will be paid a monthly allowance during the duration of your volunteership that is intended to cover average living expenses in the community you work in.

The majority of Peace Corps work is done in Africa, but there are also programs in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands.

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3. Cultural Exchange Programs

The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs offers scholarships in return for the completion of tasks, such as housing an international exchange student or volunteer. After hosting an international student or volunteer, you will then have access to a host family free of charge when you travel abroad. You may also qualify for scholarships by making presentations to local youth clubs or schools.

By sharing your intentions and goals for your volunteer abroad experience with a community, you may inspire the youth to take a similar path for their future. Making meaningful presentations can lead to private donations towards your cause, which can lead to further networking and opportunities for fundraising.

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4. Crowdfunding

The world of crowdfunding is on the rise, which means there has never been a better time to start a travel fundraising campaign. You will be surprised to find the amount of enthusiasm and support people will give you if you outline the purpose of your trip in a meaningful, educational and inspirational way!

You might make a video or start a travel blog (for example, this site is built on WordPress, hosted by BlueHost for $4.95/month). It also helps if you offer people something in return for their donations, such as an exclusive look at your trip through photos, videos, or journals. FundMyTravel is an excellent site for creating a crowdfunding campaign for purposeful travel!

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5. Creative Fundraising

There are lots of ways to fundraise offline too. One method is to organize a community walk, half marathon, or 5K run to bring your community together for a cause you care about. You can request that people pledge X amount of money for every mile that you walk or run. Another option is to host a dinner or cookout series for donations.

The 52-week challenge is also an effective way of saving money that has been gaining popularity amongst international travelers. All you have to do is commit a year to saving up for your trip. Here’s how it works:

During the first week you set aside $1 into a free savings account (many online banks let you open a checking or savings account for free), and for each following week you increase the savings by a dollar. The second week, you save $2, and the twentieth week, you set aside $20. On the 52nd week, you’ll deposit $52 into your savings account, totaling $1,378.

$1,000 or so will usually be more than enough to cover the costs of most short-term volunteer programs and can even cover part of your flight cost. No matter what way you choose to raise money for your volunteer trip abroad, be creative and have fun with it!

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6. Social Media

Social media is a great way to share your volunteer goals and get feedback from past international volunteers. Posting regularly about your trip is more likely to get attention and will generate awareness to your cause. (You can also follow popular travel pages like BBC World, GoAbroad, and Lonely Planet to see what different types of posts get the most engagement, and put your own spin on things with original posts that promote your trip, your fundraiser, or any travel blog posts or videos you create.)

All three of these popular pages host regular forums and discussion boards related to affordable travel. Don’t be shy! Post your question and someone will answer you. Social media has made networking within the travel world more accessible than ever.

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When you take the time and make the commitment by setting a travel goal for yourself, you have already done half of the work.

The rest of the journey unfolds from making your goal known to the world, and putting in the time that is necessary to achieve that goal. Purposeful work with positive impact so valuable, and by volunteering for a responsible, sustainable organization without expecting anything in return, you’ll gain a fulfilling and enriching experience that is worth more than what money can buy.

About Dylan

HS-Dylan LivingstonDylan Livingston is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he hopes to work in the entertainment industry some day so he can share his passions with the world. A passionate writer, filmmaker, and musician, Dylan enjoys traveling because it helps broaden his perspective of the world.

August 23, 2016
Solo Female Travel: Women in the Wilderness

Written by Karo Wieczorek

Despite the fact that women have been successfully traveling and having adventures alone in nature for centuries, the solo woman who announces she’s going on a back-country adventure still seems to be a topic that gets people’s emotions going. The majority of support for solo female activities outdoors goes to the women on the billboards – the extreme sports heroines, the pioneers reaching for the ultimate heights.

But what about the rest of us? What about all other women who want to get out there and live their own small adventures?

For us, the situation can look a little different. Our dreams and plans come up against a wall of doubt, distrust, fear and disbelief. We face it not only from the people around us (“Are you sure you’re ready for this kind of trip?”), but also the doubts that live inside our own minds (“Can I really do this?”).

If you’re a woman who wants to take a solo trip into the wilderness, but is having a hard time dealing with the reactions from the people around you (not to mention the doubts coming up in your own head), this post is for you.

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Social Stigma

You have great dreams, you make plans, you test your gear, and you’re happy to go out and embrace the wilderness. Excited, you announce your plans to your family and friends and the moment you do, you face an irritating reality – no one shares your feelings of excitement. Instead, you get the opposite reactions:

You’re Going Alone!?

One of the first things that can come up when the adventurous woman shares her travel and adventure plans with people who care about her is shock and difficulty comprehending why she would want to risk going alone.

And not just going anywhere…but going alone into the woods, mountains, desert. For people around her, it’s unimaginable. They might not believe that a woman would be courageous enough to do such a thing. No boyfriend going with her? No other girlfriends? No hiking buddy?

The underlying question they’re asking is why? Why would she ever want to go alone?

The need to be constantly surrounded by people is embedded into our society. It’s how humans have survived as long as we have. Being alone used to mean certain death.

Nowadays, being alone is not a death sentence, but it does mean having to have to deal with yourself. It means having to confront your own deepest thoughts and emotions, your inner shadows you would rather not think about. Being alone, you might even hear your heartbeat for the first time, and confront your own humanity…your own mortality.

For many of us, being alone is something to avoid.

But for the courageous ones, we have our reasons to wander into wilderness alone.

It’s up to us if we try to make others understand. The thing to remember is not to get discouraged — just stick to your decision and trust yourself.

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But You Don’t Know Anything About [insert outdoor activity/location here]!

The next thing that the adventurous woman has to deal with is the denial of her skills, often wrapped in the form of “concerned questions” that downplay what she is capable of on her own.

Will you manage to set up camp?

Do you really know how to make a fire?

How will you stay safe?

How could you possibly be able to do all that on your own?

All the time she has spent reading, educating herself, taking courses and practicing wilderness survival skills seems to be irrelevant compared to the fact that she’s still a woman.

People may believe that outdoor skills are difficult to master, something out of reach of the average person working a desk job in a city.

That of course is not true, and the wild woman knows that. She’s also confident and aware of her skills and has no problems facing obstacles and conquering them.

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But…The World “Out There” Is A Dangerous Place!

This is one of most common fears, the argument the adventurous woman hears the most when people are trying to persuade her away from the idea of a solo wilderness trip.

There are so many dangers out there!

Opinions that if you go “out there”, every human will try to harm you, every animal will try to eat you, and you will fall in every possible hole are common. They’re created by a general fear of the unknown.

For the adventurous woman, the unknown is something exciting. For others, the unknown only brings trouble and danger. These fears that loved ones or friends have are the hardest to explain away. Realistically, it will take the adventurous woman a couple expeditions and just as many safe returns to convince the people who care about her that she can actually thrive “out there”. Even then, there will likely be resistance to each new trip she plans to take.

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Build a Strong Inner Mindset

The fact that people around us doubt our skills and abilities can always be expected. What is much harder to overcome is the doubt and distrust that dwells within us.

No matter how hard she tries, the adventurous woman will face a point where she starts to feel the seeds of fear within her.

Can I really do this?

Are my skills really good enough?

What if they were right…What if I don’t make it?

All these questions and many more will race through her mind. She will experience moments of discouragement and doubt. The key to her success will be to stay strong and cultivate her self-awareness and self-confidence.

But the adventurous woman travels prepared. She will remind herself that she knows exactly what she’s capable of. She knows her gear and the place she will travel to. Trusting herself is her main asset. In the end, she will be on her own out there and she will be the only person she can rely on, so she prepares herself and trusts herself to tackle challenges, one by one.

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Be Prepared

The key to a successful outdoor adventure is preparedness. There are a couple of important things the adventurous woman needs to think about before going into the wild:

Manage Your Risks

It’s probably one of the most important aspects of your preparations. Knowing exactly what to expect and mitigating any possible risks should be one of your core skills.

The wilderness is unpredictable, yes, but you can and should make sure you have as much information as possible in advance about the following…

  • Weather conditions: what can you expect during your trip?

Knowing your forecast will allow you to prepare your gear accordingly and prepare for quickly changing weather.

  • Trail conditions: is your trail open at this time of year?

Make sure you check if the trail you have chosen is open to the public and if any other difficulties or obstacles will be in your path.

  • Day length: how much daylight will you have during your hike?

This will allow you to plan and time your trek, especially if it’s a long stretch.

  • Wild animals: what wildlife activity can you expect in the area you chose?

This especially applies to regions where bear and/or mountain lions live, where you should be extra cautious with carrying and storing food and other smelly products like sunscreen and lotion!

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Skills and Education

You’ll acquire both skills and knowledge over time, mostly through experience. However there’s a good chunk of knowledge you can get before your adventures.

Educate yourself by reading books and articles (like this onethis one, and this one), listening to podcasts like The First 40 Miles, DirtBag Diaries, and Sounds of the Trail, and watching some wilderness survival videos (like “Magnetic Declination Demystified“, “How to Tie the Simplest (But Also The Most Useful) Knot in the World” and the “Ultimate Hiking Gear & Skills Clinic“. Whenever possible, attend trainings and get first-hand experience in a safe, controlled setting.

Try and test things out yourself as well! Trying to start a fire for the first time on the trail is not a good idea. Put effort in acquiring as much knowledge as possible in advance; it will pay off once you’re out there in the wild!

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Equipment

The gear you carry is everything you will have to survive on your own in the wild. Make sure you know how to use it, make sure you can rely on each and every piece in your backpack.

To do that you MUST test out ALL of your gear in advance. Every part of your equipment should be checked long before you take your first steps on the trail. Go walking or hiking in your shoes for several miles, wear your backpack while doing so, try cooking something on your small camp stove.

The very best way to prepare your gear is to embark on smaller hikes and walks where you can test most of it before you take your big wilderness trip!

Fitness

You need to be able to trust your body as much as your gear.

Knowing your abilities and limits is important because it lets you set boundaries and manage your own expectations. How much weight can you carry for a couple of hours? How many miles can you hike before you need to rest? How will your feet react to constant use?

These are the questions you need to know answers to before you start your adventure. I recommend starting a small training routine to strengthen your legs, core and back as well. This will make all your hikes much easier and allow you enjoy your adventures even more!

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You Did It!

When you meet a woman in the wilderness, you know she’s special.

She has a particular energy about her, a kind of strength and power. That’s what solo adventures give you.

They empower you, give you self confidence, and build your trust in your skills and abilities. They make you realize that you can handle so much more than you thought you could.

The adventurous woman who travels, hikes, backpacks, or does any other kind of solo outdoor trip becomes a better version of herself. She is healthier, happier and more fulfilled — and she doesn’t leave that behind on the trail. She takes all those positive things back into her everyday life.

No challenge at work is comparable to that last stretch with no water and an aching body… No fight is as threatening as that terrible storm that almost blew her off the mountain. Her inner self gets stronger with every trip she takes. Now, she makes decisions with confidence; her mind is sharp and fast.

The truth is that the ability to survive in the wild on your own makes you a strong, confident and self-aware person. The energy you get on your adventure will influence others around you, too. You’ll inspire your friends to be more courageous. To trust themselves more. To take on challenges directly and not shy away from something that might stretch their comfort zone.

So follow your dreams, adventurous woman, and don’t get discouraged. Have respect for nature on your solo trip, but have no fear.

About Karo

Photo - KaroKaro is a passionate hiker with a true calling. Every trail is an adventure and every adventure is a lesson. When not hiking she’s either planning her next tattoo or writing to her blog where she shares her knowledge and experience with other outdoors-loving people. Connect with Karo at Trail Maiden.

July 18, 2016
9 Things You Must Know Before Traveling Outside the U.S.

1. In the majority of the world, you will be safe and sound. The media (and your mother) likes to make you think that leaving the country will end in death (or kidnapping). In most places, this is both statistically unlikely and just plain inaccurate. Travel will actually enrich your life instead.

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2. Learn how to read train, metro and bus schedules and maps. Much of the world outside the USA has extensive public transportation systems. They’re often reliable and inexpensive – take advantage while you can! (You can learn how in our very own Travel Savvy eCourse, along with 29 other must-knows for new international travelers.)

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3. Asking for help, early and often, makes travel easier. You might not speak the language, but if you pick up a Lonely Planet Phrasebook for the country you’re visiting, asking for help becomes as easy as pointing to a phrase on a page.

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4. Knowing even 5 words or phrases in the language of each country you travel in basically means that you can get all your major needs met. The most useful ones to look up in advance are: “hello”, “how much?”, “yes/no”, “thank you”, #1-#10, and “good”. Need to order something? Say “hello”, point to the object you want, say the number (or hold up your fingers), ask “how much?” and say “thank you”. Easy peasy.

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5. Staying in hostels, though budget-friendly and probably inside your comfort zone, is not the best way to have an authentic travel experience. Alternatives that are friendlier on the wallet, with the added bonus of a local’s perspective? CouchSurfing and Airbnb.

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6. 99% of people have good intentions and want to help if you are in trouble, even if they don’t understand what the problem is. People are generally kind, everywhere, especially if you begin the interaction with a smile!

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7. You can create a sense of home wherever you are. All you have to do is bring a hobby of yours from the USA with you. For example, dancing salsa: whenever you get to a new city, look up the salsa clubs or find a Meetup.com dance group and head out for a night. You’ll end up meeting local people and evade homesickness too!

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8. Street smarts serve you everywhere in the world. You have personal boundaries, and you are allowed to assert them and stand your ground or leave a situation whenever your gut tells you to. (No idea how to set a clear boundary, especially when you don’t speak their language? You can learn this in the Travel Savvy eCourse, too.)

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9. You don’t need a TON of money to travel outside the USA and have the time of your life. Google “travel hacking” or “credit card hacking” to learn how to use points and frequent flyer miles to pay for travel. Use a fare alert site like AirfareWatchdog to tell you when prices drop. Join a volunteer organization that covers your travel expenses, apply for grants and scholarships that sponsor you to be in a foreign country, or get a working holiday visa and take your time to explore countries like Australia and New Zealand while earning normal income.

P.S. #6 is my favorite 😉

What do you believe everyone MUST know before traveling outside the U.S. for the first time? Share your ideas in the comments below!
July 2, 2016
How To Persuade Your Kid To Study Abroad

by Danielle DeSimonetravel-map-of-europe

Hey parents – it might be hard to believe that there are kids out there who are reluctant to study abroad, but they do exist. If your child is one of them, but you’d like them to experience the wonders of study abroad, we have a few tips for you to convince them that yes, they should absolutely take that chance, get out of their comfort zone, and study abroad.

World Explorer

What young person hasn’t dreamed of exploring the world, Carmen Sandiego-style? When talking to your child about studying abroad, be sure to remind them that studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get out of their home culture and explore a culture entirely different than their own. Travel is one of the grandest adventures anyone can have, and experiencing a global learning environment at such a young age is a major opportunity.

Academic Advantage

Explain to your kid that studying abroad will set them apart from all of their fellow classmates. Are they studying French? Obsessed with marine biology? Studying abroad immerses any student completely in the subjects they are studying, so that their textbooks come to life. Speaking French every day in (and out of) the classroom in France or monitoring sea turtle nests as a volunteer in Costa Rica will give your student incomparable academic experiences that aren’t possible if they stay at home.

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Independence Day

Have a teenager at home? They are probably vying for their independence from you on a daily basis anyway. When discussing study abroad with your child, be sure to point out that going to another country will give them the ultimate sense of independence and seriously develop their confidence.

Of course, as their parents, you’ll always be just one Skype call away. But, a summer or year abroad will give your child the skills and experiences they need to become truly independent and capable of handling themselves not just in day-to-day life at home, but in a foreign country.


Listening Is Key

In your enthusiasm to convince your child to study abroad, be sure to listen to them as well; tune into their interests and their goals. Although your support is obviously crucial to your child being able to study abroad, and opinions matter, remember that this is their adventure. Their interests are what are important, and they won’t have a rewarding study abroad experience if it isn’t the right program or country for them.

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Financial Concerns

You and your child might have concerns about the price tag of going abroad, but studying abroad can be affordable. GoAbroad’s Scholarship Directory is an excellent start to learning about financial aid that is available to students. The Traveler’s Mindset guide to funding opportunities like grants, fellowships, and scholarships is also a great resource.

Your student you could also explore crowdfunding options such as Fund My Travel, which would allow your student to tell their story to the world on why they want to study abroad, and accept donations from people in your community and from kind strangers to help them get there.

Summer Camp, but Better

Summer camp friendships are legendary, bonds forged over s’mores and archery contests… Now imagine these kind of friendships built while teaching English to children in Peru, navigating the busy streets of Hong Kong, or learning to speak Italian in Italy by deciphering the restaurant menu together.

Remind your kid that these sorts of experiences will bring incredible people into their lives, not just through their fellow students, but their host families who welcome them into their country simply by opening their home to your child.

Call In The Professionals

Despite your enthusiasm for study abroad, sometimes it’s helpful to bring in the professionals. Speak to your child’s high school counselors or with a representative of a study abroad program, as many of them will know how to answer questions better than you can on how this decision will affect your child, both academically and personally.

Telling Their Story

Does your kid have a fierce creative streak running through them? Explore the endless opportunities for personal expression that travel allows: photography, creative writing, video-blogging, musical inspiration, even an Instagram-blog! Travel and studying abroad are experiences that can help your child to explore new artistic ventures and express themselves in ways they never before thought possible. Plus they’ll get, like, at least 100 more followers on Insta.

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Flying The Coop

Although many students are ready to jump blindly into a study abroad program, some might have a few more reservations about the idea of going to a foreign country by themselves. It can be a scary thing for first-time solo travelers, no matter how old they are!

When discussing study abroad with your child, highlight the support systems that exist within many study abroad programs, like on-site staff to assist with emergencies and transitioning into a new culture, pre-arranged housing, or host families who look forward to welcoming your child into their home.

Celebrity Inspiration

High school students are inspired by their peers and the celebrities they admire. Google celebrities or role models that your kid admires and see how many of them have studied or lived abroad. When having a conversation with your child about study abroad, mentioning “You know who else studied abroad and lived in other countries? Gandhi and JK Rowling!” might just be your ticket in.

Resume Booster

With college admissions being so competitive, study abroad experience is becoming an increasingly valued resume bullet point. Very few high school students study abroad, which will make your child’s college application (or job application) stand out from the crowd.

Explain that by studying abroad, they will gain invaluable skills, a more globalized view of the world, and will demonstrate to future colleges that they are valuable potential candidates that should be accepted. Plus, study abroad revelations make a killer topic for application essays!

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Cultural Crash Course

Express to your child the amazing cultural education they’ll receive while abroad. Being in another country will open their minds to entirely new way of living, and can completely change their perspective of the world. This might seem scary, but the payoffs are worth it, and this adventure will probably lead to even more travel in their future!

Although all of these tips might help you “sell” your kid on studying abroad, it’s important to remember that they are your child and you know them best. Be open and honest about why you think studying abroad would be such an amazing opportunity for them. They’ll catch that travel bug and will be boarding a plane in no time!

About Danielle

After graduating from the University of Mary Washington with a degree in English, creative writing, and Italian, Danielle decided to leap across the Atlantic and move to southern Italy! Five years have passed and Danielle has traveled to over a dozen countries since making the big move abroad, and she doesn’t have plans of stopping anytime soon. Danielle currently works for the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) as a social media manager and assistant editor, and also works as a freelance travel writer for GoAbroad.com.

July 1, 2016
Cuba: In-Depth With Hillary Griffith

What was the very first reason you traveled to Cuba, over 15 years ago?

I have a long love of dance. I was dancing salsa when the Afro-Cuban all-stars came through Boulder, Colorado many years ago. I mentioned to them that I had just finished dancing for famous salsa artist El Canario’s music video, who was finishing shooting in Denver then. I took them to meet him, and we all became friends.

As they were leaving the country, they called me for help with some sound gear issues. They were so grateful I helped them out, and told me to come visit them as a thank you. I went there initially with that invitation. This was in the 90s.

I was dancing at a large congress event that was happening in Puerto Rico every summer at that time. I was on my way there with one of my dancer friends when I went to Cuba with a research license. In Cuba, I stayed in a little town just outside of Havana with one of the families of one of the artists.

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Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

I fell in love with Cuba after the first five days, mainly because the people are incredibly beautiful. If there’s a place where you’re going to experience community and the most non-judgmental culture ever, it’s Cuba! Everybody has struggled there, so there’s so much compassion for surviving. People know that everyone has to work together to survive.

During that first trip, we had dinner one night with some family members and friends. One of the guys who lived in the house was so excited for one of their good friends to come. He wouldn’t stop going on about her, telling me she would be the most beautiful woman I’ll ever meet.

When this woman arrived, a bunch of neighbors came together and carried her in her wheelchair up to the third floor of the apartment building. This guy treated her like the most beautiful, incredible woman in the world. I had never seen somebody treat a disabled person with so much admiration and love and inclusion. It was amazing.

Once I went to Cuba that first time, I was sold. I had to go back and see more. Five days was not enough.

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Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

As you went back multiple times over the years, how did you get into Cuba?

Over the years, people have found many creative ways to get into Cuba. It was never illegal to go to, but it was illegal to spend money there. The Cubans were never against having Americans there.

There were a lot of legal ways to get there. In some cases, I was involved with an organization or a group that had permission to go. I was able to do that for example, with the Cuban Sister City Organization for many years.

There were a lot of ways one could travel to Cuba, for example to do research, for religious reasons, or for educational purposes. I traveled that way too in some cases. These days, it’s very easy to go.

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Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

Are there direct flights now for people who want to go from the U.S. to Cuba?

No, there aren’t many. American Airlines, for example, has been flying out of Miami for many years. Last I saw, a lot of the airlines were fighting over which ones would get to fly directly into Cuba. I think it’s supposed to be 20 daily flights into Havana, and another 10 throughout the rest of the country starting in November 2016.

Right now, the best way to go from Colorado is probably to Cancun and then to Cuba, because it’s the shortest travel distance. Cancun is the cheapest place to get accommodation if you have to spend the night.

 

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Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

Have you already seen things start to change in Cuba despite little outside influence from the developed West?

Remember that though the American embargo was in place for years, very few other countries in the world have had travel restrictions for Cuba. Europeans have been going there for a while. I don’t know if it seemed as hot of a destination, because it didn’t get the same sort marketing that it does now.

A lot of people say, “I want to get to Cuba before it changes,” but Cuba has been changing all the time. When I started going there, things were still raw, in a way. There has been a change in the urban landscape. You used to see Santeria ceremonies, the main religion in Cuba, in neighborhoods that are now more touristic locations.

Santeria is a blend of Yoruban polytheism and Catholicism. In this religion, there are multiple gods and goddesses who come onto Earth and possess people, and then through those people they offer wisdom and blessings. There are certain rhythms that are played only for ceremonies, which open the door to the heavens. Anybody can become possessed in a ceremony. It’s quite an experience.

People of that religion greet one another with the same kind of deep admiration and respect that they would a god or goddess, because anyone is a potential vessel for the god or goddess to run through.

As a dancer, I love it. I discovered Santeria for the first time when I was wandering down the street and heard those rhythms. I thought, “What is this rhythm that I’ve never danced to?” I went to go check it out, people invited me in, and I discovered this whole new experience.

A lot of people are very scared when looking at another religion, but it’s amazing to experience and witness and contemplate an entirely different mindset.

I live part of the year in West Africa too, and I see where some of the roots in indigenous villages there have evolved in Cuba. It’s quite fascinating to see the parts of Cuban culture that are really African.

I think that one of the reasons why communism became attractive as a political system in Cuba is because in African culture, you share everything. In Africa, everyone sits around and eats form the same bowl, no matter how much food there is. A certain amount is cooked, and if more people from the village show up, it goes to smaller portions. People who work come home and share with their entire family compound, which could be around 50 people. Sharing is a very natural African value and psychology.

It’s very difficult for an African living in that context to step up from a quality of life standpoint. They get stuck sharing their income with the larger group. It’s interesting to see both the beauty of that as well as the challenges that come with it.

Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

 

What would you say to someone who wants to be a little more adventurous, to convince him or her to go to Cuba and discover what it has to offer? Is there something in particular that Cuba can unlock in a traveler who goes there for the first time?

I think Americans tend to feel isolated, but in Cuba you really feel what it’s like to be fully welcomed and taken in. When you’ve experienced all that nurturing and love from strangers who take you right in like you’re family, you know how to bring that back and share that with others.

Some women go to Cuba and feel a little overwhelmed, because men talk a lot on the streets. It’s a very macho culture, but also one that has a lot of love, appreciation, and respect for women. What the men value about women they fully value, and they acknowledge that and speak it out loud.

I always tell women to not take it so seriously. I feel like it’s a form of entertainment for Cubans. They don’t have access to a lot of things, like cable TV or the internet, so they sit on the street in front of their houses in Havana, watch people parade by, and find ways to say interesting, poetic comments and see which ones catch. It’s like going fishing with your words.

People will always speak. The choice is yours to respond or not respond. Americans tend to be very friendly. In Cuba you want to look the other way and kind of smile, but not engage with the other person unless you want that contact.

It’s okay to be really feminine in Cuba, which I think is sometimes hard to do in American culture with all the issues around sexual harassment or what’s politically correct. I feel like people have to be very gender neutral in the United States. In Cuba, women get a chance to rediscover parts of their femininity that they don’t always get to express or experience.

Men are also forced into being more gender neutral in the United States. I think that men here are terrified of doing something wrong. It might be refreshing for them to be in a place where they can also be more traditional and feel that role.

Anytime you travel or find yourself in an international scene, you have to learn how that culture sees the world. Anytime you step out of your own culture and place, the first thing to do is to observe the people around you carefully, and see what it is they’re doing to learn the lay of the land. That way, you will move through the challenging parts more quickly.

 

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Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

How do the things that you would normally purchase in America on a daily basis differ in Cuba, and how are they similar? What should travelers prepare for?

I would say that Cuba is changing about every three months at an “avalanche-turbo-rate” right now. Years ago, for example, I would never have thought of eating out at a restaurant. They were all state run.

About three to five years ago, Cuba had a policy change so that people can now own private property and start an enterprise. This has started to take off within the last year.

In the one neighborhood that I usually live in, there are about six great restaurants that opened up, and they’re all fantastic. It’s great, creative food. There are no Starbucks or that kind of thing, but we don’t know at what rate things will progress and in what direction they will go. You might go to a smaller town though, and still see what things were like in the past.

As a tourist, what would you do in that situation? Would you have to go into a family’s home and ask to share with them?

In the past, the best food you would eat would always be in people’s homes. Some people have formalized those into paladar, where they have their little restaurant in the front living room of their house.

In other cases, you would maybe ask around a neighborhood, or you’d ask the family you were staying with who the best cook is in the neighborhood. You could go to different neighbors and spread out the wealth by giving them some money and having them cook your dinner that night. That’s pretty much how I always ate.

The food is incredible, because about 90 percent of it is grown locally, and it’s organic. There’s nothing like fresh guava juice in the morning, and fresh coffee from a little organic farm.

Another funny thing for travelers is that it’s good money to sell a pig. I was staying in one house just before New Years. The family next door had been raising three pigs and decided to kill them at 7:00 one morning. It was quite horrible to hear the pig scream, but that’s the reality of real food and what it takes to get that food.

Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

What was the most surprising thing or things that you’ve experienced in or about Cuba so far?

That’s hard, because I’ve been going there for so many years. I think one thing people will find very curious is that Cubans live a kind of double life. In the past, everyone was required to have his or her state job, and almost everyone also had an additional ‘under the table’ job to survive.

Then Cuba started allowing free enterprise, which has been transitioning into people starting their own businesses. Almost everyone is a small business owner, unless they’re still working for the state. They might be taxi drivers, or own a house and rent rooms, or have a restaurant, or sew clothes. People can now start registering those as private enterprises.

Because it was illegal to have a second job in the past, Cuba never had any marketing or advertising. There are no signs or billboards there now. People traveling to Cuba might find it very refreshing to be in a non-commercial space.

In the case of second jobs, people had to work only with people they trusted. Any time you wanted to find or buy something, you had to go through a network of trust. Cuba still operates that way, because these are patterns that are really ingrained in people.

You could also look at how collective trauma happens. Unfortunately, it’s happening all over the world right now. Cuba has had it’s own, too, like the repercussions of the embargo and the “special period”  that have left their mark on how Cubans function in the world. It’s interesting to observe a culture where people have lived under a lot of repression, and see all the ways they have learned to survive.

Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

I’ve heard that the average Cuban is joyful and self-expressed. Despite the destruction, trauma, and human rights issues, how are Cubans still so happy?

Cubans have also had many great things. Not that they live well on government subsidies, but they have always had food, healthcare, education, housing, and transportation covered in a basic way.

I feel like Cuba came through a time where it responded to a very urgent issue, like the Special Period, when Russia stepped out and the American embargo was in place. Suddenly grandparents were starving to death to make sure their grandchildren were being fed. When you see that happening with your people, you want to get that figured out. So what do you do?

There are policies such as if you kill a cow, you go to prison for life. It’s pretty damn straight.  Some people would say that’s ridiculous for someone to be in prison for life for killing a cow, but they look at it like if you’re killing a cow, you’re killing six people, because six people don’t have access to the milk.

The laws are also changing in Cuba. It used to be illegal to hold American dollars, but it’s not anymore. So what should happen with the people who are still in prison from 10 years ago who did it, because it’s no longer illegal? Are they going to be given amnesty? All these things are rapidly evolving.

I think this is very positive, but it’s also part of a natural evolution of coming out of a place of chaos and moving towards a place of stability. I think growing too fast has also been a challenge for Cuba. They’ve been sort of fast-tracking many things to try to really work with this time that Obama is in office, because the policies of the people who are running for office now could be radically different. This is creating this hyper speed for change, and that also comes with its risks and challenges. They’re dealing with choices, and what the consequences are of the different scenarios.

 

Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

Do you now take people to Cuba with you? Is this a business for you, or is it for fun?

I started a company called Havana Creative. It started out because people—my family, friends, and acquaintances—knew I spent a lot of time in Cuba and everyone had questions. As it has started to open, many people have been coming to me to ask for advice on where to go, where to stay, what to see and what to do.

It’s a place that I love, so I love to send people and to encourage them to go and discover it. It became so much of a full-time activity, that I decided I needed to formalize it. I’m at the very early phases of creating a website that is a portal for information.

I’m just building the website now. It’ll be located at www.havanacreative.com when it’s live. Basic things that I’ve been helping with have been facilitating lodging and housing for people. These are things that you can kind of get online and see photographs of sometimes, but I want to help people in really knowing what neighborhood they’re in, that it’s the right neighborhood, that you’re in a clean, safe and good house with good people. A place that’s not just about the photographs, but is also a really great spot with amazing people.

I want to be able to connect people to really local resources, like a university professor who could take them on a walking tour of architecture or urban planning, or help them create a custom itinerary based on some special interests. So it’s a very personalized, local perspective, getting people comfortable but integrated into what people on an average day experience.

And yes, there are still a lot of challenges with traveling in Cuba.

You’ll wait in line for so many things. There aren’t many banks. You only change money in the change house, or CADECA, but the line is very long. If you’re buying an Internet card, the line is very long.

You can do things on the street, but not everybody is comfortable changing their money on the black market, or if they don’t speak the language, not knowing whom they’re buying the card from. And that guy probably spent a couple hours waiting in line to buy the legal limit of like three half an hour Internet cards, and he’s going to sell two. It becomes a business for him.

Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

People make a business out of waiting in line in Cuba.

Around New Years Eve, a lot of people kill pigs for the holidays. They come and they deliver pigs in these giant trucks. People will be out there just like on black Friday, and they’ll be there the day before to get their ticket to get their place in line to buy the pig. They’ll resell their ticket to people, so some people don’t have to wait in line.

If you’re going for a short holiday, you don’t want to spend half of it waiting in lines. One thing that Havana Creative can facilitate is helping with things like internet cards and bus tickets, or getting things that you’d otherwise have to spend a lot of time waiting to get. In addition, I am really interested in helping facilitate people who also want to bring small groups down, especially any sort of creative arts, or entrepreneurial activities.

One of the things I’ve done is blocked inventory of a lot of really great casas that have 6 to 10 rooms for 10 to 20 people, because there’s not enough infrastructure to support the influx of tourism right now. I’ve made the reservations and paid the deposits to have certain inventory. So with some of these pieces, as well as the contacts I have, I can make it easy for a small group to come down and have a great experience there.

There are a few trips that I’m personally facilitating and leading, in addition to helping other people who want to do that. I am bringing about 25 business students from the University of Colorado-Boulder Global Creativity and Innovation MBA class down for a two-week tour at the end of April. We’re doing things like having dinner with Cuban entrepreneurs, who are some of the people that Obama met with. We have lectures on economics, legal structures, import and export, and manufacturing.

There were also fun things mixed in with that, like an activity called Havana Hacks, where people can go out and look for creative hacks for how Cubans have solved small problems in creative ways. So it might be that they reused a water bottle to create a watering system. We will be looking for these kinds of things, then facilitating some sort of dialogues and discussions around it.

Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

Photo by Adria Ellis, @aconica

I’m doing a dance trip from July 18th through the 22nd. I’m bringing people for dance workshops, and it’s overlapping with the carnival period in Santiago. Carnival time is not based on religion there, but on the Día de la Revolución on the 26th, so it focuses around this Cuban independence celebration.

In the future, I would really like to do more things that facilitate the arts from a tourism standpoint. A fantasy end goal would be to work with a lot of Cuban artists who are friends of mine and who are jazz artists, musicians, dancers, and painters. I want to work with everybody in the arts and create a collaborative, creative space. Cuba has such a vibrant, creative culture, and for me to bring people together in that environment and collaborate on creative work would be very special.

There’s nothing like having an informal jazz jam session, and letting people bring in whatever their instrument or background is and create fusions. It’s the same thing with dance. What happens when you mix tango with salsa, or some other dance form? It creates a really interesting, invigorated space!

Where is the best place to go for people who want to find out more about you or your work?

At this moment, if they’re interested in doing anything with Cuba, they should email info[at]havanacreative.com.

 

About Hillary

d77646_a642eeb026ef457787cafbcadabf5669Hillary Griffith has been traveling to Cuba for over 15 years, as a dancer, an artist, and a social entrepreneur. She is the founder of Havana Creative, a company that facilitates group travel to Cuba for people who want to experience the country in-depth. For more information or to join a group, email her at info[at]havanacreative.com.

May 15, 2016
Why You Should Visit (Or Live In) Switzerland

What is living and working in Switzerland like? How did you come to live in Zurich in the first place?

I had finished at Uni and was meant to move to London to start a job in Investment Banking back in 2009, but then the bank told me they’d pulled all their graduate positions due to the crisis. Having ready English and Italian Literature at Uni, I didn’t have options galore.

A job agency specializing in English and Japanese speakers (how niche is that, eh?) got in touch with me and suggested I interview for a position in Online Marketing based in Zurich. I didn’t even know what the job really entailed, but I went along with it and one thing led to another. I figured I could do with living in a mountainous country (I climb and ski), and optimistically thought I’d be able to learn a little German before returning to London perhaps one, maximum two years later.

I was naive in two senses:

1. German is a hard language to learn, especially in a Swiss environment. I immediately realized I’d need more time.

2. Once the Alps become your neighbor, it’s near impossible to find a neighborhood that’ll satisfy your needs the same way.

So, almost seven years later, I’ve secured myself permanent residency, quit my corporate job, and discovered how welcoming of entrepreneurs this country is. In short, I’m extremely happy here and am now pretty firmly rooted to the city.

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What is your favorite thing about living in Zurich? What has been most surprising or shocking?

I won’t bang on about the mountains – we all know they’re amazing, so I don’t to spell things out there. My favorite thing is that it’s very international. I feel it has its own sense of multicultural identity, which you’ll notice if you stay at centrally-located hotels like Moevenpick. It’s not like Singapore or Dubai, where hundreds of English speaking nationals have flocked over and labeled themselves expats.

I feel like the people I’ve been lucky enough to make friends with here are all here for reasons other than just work – they’re all pretty outdoorsy, in some cases even more so than the Zürcher themselves. People say the Swiss are hard to make friends with as a foreigner and, sure, you can’t compare it to the at times overbearing hospitality of Southern Europeans, but I do find it to be an exaggeration. I have made friends with plenty of lovely Swiss people, and it’s taken no extra effort at all on my part.

What has been most surprising is the education system. It’s very common to have opted for an apprenticeship rather than go straight to Uni. I find that where I’m from, going to Uni is largely considered the only way to carve out a respectable career (though, I have to point out that my idea of a “career” has transformed massively of late).

I like that the Swiss value experience and work ethic just as highly as a piece of paper you obtained at an institution somewhere.

What kind of work are you doing now?

I went from Online Marketing for a multinational private education company, to Private Banking at a well-known Swiss bank, to realizing desk jobs are really not for me. I waited until I’d saved some money and got my permanent residency and plotted my escape. I spent my bonus on an English teaching qualification, and decided to teach English to pay the bills while I tried to figure out exactly what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to work with food, but not as a chef. I went and got some kitchen work experience just to reconfirm that latter point.

Now I hold cooking workshops, primarily on the topic of Japanese fermentation. I take part in the Slow Food Youth Network’s activities, and hope to continue to be inspired by the wonderful people there and to find my niche. I’m getting there, but I’ve accepted that it will take time.

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What do you see from living in Switzerland that the average tourist might not?

Switzerland is a beautiful, almost fairy-tale-like country. Most tourists come to ogle at the mountains, and rightly so. Zurich is a lovely city, but doesn’t really offer much by way of tourist attractions. I always tell people it’s a wonderful place to live – life is comparatively easier than in all the other cities I’ve lived in, but I’m not sure it has a whole lot to offer tourists who are keen to snap pictures of landmarks and the like. The culinary scene is starting to blossom and, as I said before, it is rather entrepreneurial. It’s lovely to go and dig around for small businesses and see what they’re up to.

People associate Zurich with banking, insurance, and sometimes, pharmaceuticals. While they have played a large part in building Zurich’s reputation as a financial hub, I like to tell tourists that Zurich is also like the rich man’s Berlin. There are left-wing squats and a strong alternative scene that don’t meet the eye at first. The only difference is that living in a squat most often signifies you are taking a political stance, not that you have no other choice. Hence it being the rich man’s Berlin.

Why do you believe it’s important for people to live abroad?

The struggle can be real, very real, but it’s never the kind of struggle that drowns you. It’s more like the struggle I imagine one faces when learning to surf. You’re doing it because you know that once you get the hang of it, it’s going to be amazing and your way of life will change forever.

About Christine

d77646_f362c0f54221489ea73a4f0123751fd2Born in the UK and raised both there and in Japan (with a diversion to Italy as a young child), Christine is pretty familiar with being a foreigner, even in her two home countries. Since her passions lie in writing, cooking, skiing, trail running and climbing, it’s obvious she’s not really cut out for a nine to five office job. So as of 2014 she is hustling as a part-time English teacher and part-time entrepreneur.

April 23, 2016
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