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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

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“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

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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”.

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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

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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!

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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
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
Beautiful Cuba: Deeper Than A Journey ‘Back In Time’

What was your experience in Cuba like, Adria?

Everyone is talking about Cuba and wanting to go to Cuba, but many people don’t quite understand how to travel there. What I have learned after just having gone to Cuba is that it can indeed be a tricky place to travel. When I arrived, I nearly forgot that it’s a communist country. The little things I could easily overlook became bizarre when I really started to pay attention.

The first big thing I came across that was surprising and interesting was that even finding a bottle of water to purchase isn’t easy. I had been out for a long time, probably three or four hours, and it was hot. I was thirsty and wanted to buy a bottle of water, but there were no corner stores or small shops that sold it. It took me an hour of walking around to find a place and when I did, I waited in line for about 30 minutes.

The other thing I noticed was that there is no media. There are no corner stores, bookstores, magazines, or newspapers—nothing that isn’t produced by the government. I imagine the government is not interested in people having access to it, and the Cuban people don’t have the money to buy media-related things.

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There are also no ATMs in Cuba and credit cards aren’t used, so you will have to bring enough U.S. dollars for your entire trip.

Hardly any windows at street level in Cuba have glass; it’s common to see bars and shutters that close firmly. Everyone’s doors and windows are always open, so when you’re walking down the street, you can just look directly into everyone’s homes and you get a clear taste of exactly how people are living.

Another interesting thing is that Cuba’s literacy rate ranks among the highest in the world. Basic medical and healthcare is 100 percent provided for. But the average salary is $40 a month regardless if you’re a doctor, a lawyer, or a bus driver, or if you’re 20 years old and making Cuban ham sandwiches in a restaurant—everyone makes the same amount of money.

It’s fascinating to observe and it made me appreciate certain aspects of our lives and our government in the U.S. that many people are critical of.

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The main job that Cubans get that is outside of the government control is that of a taxi driver. Taxi drivers get a license from the government to have their car be a taxi. They get paid cash, primarily from tourists. A taxi ride from the airport to Old Havana is about $25, versus $40 for a standard monthly salary. The number of taxi drivers that are educated doctors, lawyers, accountants, and engineers is incredible, simply because they can make so much more money driving a taxi.

The majority of the people who travel to Cuba rent rooms in people’s houses. It’s like Airbnb, but the Cubans were renting rooms well before Airbnb became popular. Many people don’t have telephones or Internet, so the main way to find places to stay is to knock on doors as you go around. Everyone has a little symbol on the outside of his or her doors, which looks like a little blue anchor.

If you do want to stay in a hotel in Cuba, you could check out the H10 Hotels in Havana or Varadero.

What I noticed while traveling in Cuba is that people change their minds quickly. For instance, you could have a room set up, but perhaps the guest that was supposed to leave decides to stay longer. If that happens, you’re out of luck. Or maybe someone the host likes or knows better shows up, and they give “your” room to them instead. You really have to be ready and willing to just go with whatever comes up.

From this short trip, I’ve connected with two people I can trust so that the next time I go I can stay with them easily. Having the connections is part of what makes travel in Cuba rich and interesting, and it’s amazing to have even just a little support when traveling there.

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Are Cubans friendly towards tourists?

Everyone I came across was very friendly and quite a few of them speak English. They’re not used to seeing many Americans, so they got excited to speak with me. I was there one week before Obama visited, so everyone was talking about that. The U.S. is the biggest thing in their news right now, and there I was, an American walking in their streets.

But it’s a little curious—my friend Hillary told me this would happen, and at first it sounded weird to me: Cubans might invite you to do things, but they will never have money to pay for anything.

No one begs on the streets, but there is hardly anyone you talk to who, upon realizing you’re an American, doesn’t ask you for money. You really have to think about how you feel about giving people money, and choose how you want to deal with it. A lot of people bring gifts for the people they meet, like soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, pens, and paper.

I always just try to be genuine and to connect with the people on a human level. Every once in a while, there will just be something about that person’s energy or their eyes, something that I can feel in them, and I feel moved to give them the change in my pocket. But most of the time I tried to avoid it.

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Why do you think it’s important for people to travel to Cuba now, despite the difficulties they might face?

I think what most Americans feel, and what I feel, is that Cuba is getting ready to change. We have a feeling that it’s kind of untouched, and it hasn’t changed. In that way it feels a bit like a time capsule. It’s fascinating to go and experience that.

I don’t feel that there are all that many places left in the world that are still this particular way. I’ve traveled all over the world, and I haven’t been to many places where there’s not a 7/11 and a rack of magazines. That doesn’t exist in Cuba.

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Do the Cuban people want change?

My friend Hillary was having a conversation with a Cuban friend one time, and she asked him what his dreams are.

His response to her was, “I’m Cuban. We don’t dream.”

She asked him what his wildest dream would be. The biggest thing that he could imagine was to get his passport and be able to leave the country to see something else in the world.

There’s little concept of dreaming, culturally. There has never been anything introduced in the Cuban psyche to want things to be different than they are. If we think back to immigrants who came to America, their dreams were simply to have a roof over their heads and raise a family. This is similar to the ethos that the Cubans are living in. It’s a whole different way of thinking and the idea of movement, freedom, and seeing the world is a newer thing.

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There’s a positive flip side to this, which I recognized and admired: Cubans live in the present. They are present in their lives, right where they are, no matter what.

As Americans, we are so wired. Our entire country was based on the idea of coming here and developing it to be able to have freedom and to be able to create what we wanted. I think that has created a society of people that are constantly looking for something else, something more, and nothing is ever good enough. Sometimes we get it in our minds that people should want change, or that people should want to be “like us”. But Cubans have a kindness and brightness in their eyes and spirit that’s so genuine, despite not changing or seeking change as many of us in the U.S. do.

One of the things that I really notice is that when I’m traveling, I’m more present. I am present to what is in front of me and to what I’m experiencing. There is something in me where I almost feel like I need that sense of newness. I was so aware of watching it change as I was in Cuba for just 10 days.

I believe that being present is valuable, that it’s one of the keys in the big picture of life. I also notice I’m not as present at home and I take things around me for granted. See, I’ve seen everything around me at home a thousand times, whereas when I’m traveling, everything is new and I focus on exactly where I am in each moment.

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How did photography allow you to see Cuba differently?

As a photographer, I feel that I see a lot of the specific details. I see little nuances of daily life and of people. I like watching people–how they interact, how they move, how their expressions change. I feel like photography sort of sucks me into seeing minute details.

I noticed that all the falling-down buildings had white marble staircases and beautiful iron work, and the walls used to be hand-painted. The floors were made of old, concrete, painted floor tiles, that then change on every floor and in every room. They were all multi-colored, with geometric or floral patterns.

On this last trip, the barbers got my attention–big time. Cubans hair and grooming culture is so detailed, more specifically for men more than women. Their haircuts have lower shaved sections with designs etched into the hair, often with a longer piece, gelled, coming down, with jagged edges, and manicured eyebrows, arched high, plucked and shaved. Their arms and chests are shaved. It was a huge contrast to see these young men so image aware.

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I always have this little phrase in the back of my mind: “the new normal.” I love it when you go somewhere and the new normals are not in place yet.

The way I take pictures has changed significantly in the last four or five years. I shoot 100 percent with my iPhone, so I’m technically an iPhoneographer.

When I am shooting with my iPhone, I find that I am more present, and feel more connected to what is going on around me. It’s a spontaneous experience: I feel more freedom, and there is so little weight. For me, less is more. I choose to trade the controls and sophistication for simplicity and freedom.

When I am taking a picture I feel what I see and the internal satisfaction is immense. I see a sense of balance in the frame and then I feel that sense of balance in my body. I like to imagine that the viewer can feel this as well. I experience a visual joy, I feel it in my entire being and I am happy. My photography is truly a meditation that allows me to connect with my surroundings and then share what it is that I see and experience.

About Adria

d77646_ba4e5e06cb8c418ba3a08d15e65bde78Adria Ellis is an artist, a photographer, and a creator. She loves to document and share what she sees. She spent years in school learning to use a 4 X 5 camera, process film, print in the dark room, and produce technically perfect images. In the last four years, her creative process has morphed into something so much more enjoyable and simple, more pleasing to her senses. She has transitioned to shooting with her iPhone. She loves the simplicity and the accessibility. She shoots more than ever, and finds that her images carry a new sense of freedom and depth. The shift has resulted in an immense body of work. She loves shooting landscapes, the ocean, fruit, flowers, people are her daily comings and goings. For the moment she has an unsatiated need for love and travel. In the last year, she has been to Cuba, India, Russia, Mexico, Canada, and all over the U.S. Southeast Asia is scheduled for April 2016!

April 8, 2016
Experience The Philippines “Organically” At Happy House Farm

TM: What is Happy House Farm’s purpose?

David: The purpose of the Happy House is to act as an education center focused on enhancing human potential, as well as a special home for ourselves.

Right now we are in the early stages of development. We are creating all the infrastructure, so not a lot can be seen apart from two buildings—the Little Happy House (our home plus a self-contained guest house attached) and the Happy House (self-contained guest space). There is also a ‘Big’ Happy House on the property plans!

Creating all the infrastructure from nothing, in an environment with limited water resources is challenging. Even after four years of hard work, we still do not have tap water, but we now have more than sufficient water, which is a huge blessing.

By early 2017, we will have the final pieces of our water infrastructure in place and will have abundant running water to all parts of the property, in an area that, on average, goes seven months without rainfall each year.

How did it get started?

It started with the focus of being our private home, but little did we know at the time that it would evolve into something much bigger.

When we purchased the property four years ago, we were looking to create a “getaway” space for ourselves. At the time, we were focused on running a busy SME business with a staff of 40 employees out of Singapore, Manila, and Baguio City.

Two years ago, our previously successful business ran into massive challenges and we were finally forced to close it down, which left us with “nothing” to do! The challenge was that we had lost our major cash flow. We were left with very little except the land, a Mac computer, and our very simple home (the Little Happy House) that was built in two weeks when we were soon to be homeless.

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Our ‘loss’ was the start of something so new, that for a while we did not know where we could take it. For a year we just focused on survival, with little or no income to expand the farm.

After a year, a close friend offered to ‘give us a hand-up’ (in their words) with a loan. They told us to put together a proposal, and they would see how they could help. I created a ‘big brush stroke’ proposal that would need two million Pesos to implement—not a massive amount in Western terms, but still over 44,000 USD.

Our friend was so polite, and said they were looking at something that we could easily afford to repay! It was then that we got a lot more focused and looked at what we already had and what we could easily create.

We already had the foundations for the Happy House, so we ran with a proposal to create a temporary building for those foundations that could accommodate eight people with lots of space.

Our friend confirmed our focus by giving us 300,000 pesos in cash the very next day to do the upgrade. We were ‘off and running’. Six weeks later, we had the Happy House all ready to receive guests. Since then, it has accommodated over 200 special people from all over the world.

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What kinds of travelers normally stay at Happy House Farm? What types of programs do you offer to people?

Most of our early guests were overseas travelers who were looking for a different experience. They came and helped on projects. Our initial guests did not pay anything and contributed on a 100 percent work-exchange basis, but this was not sustainable for us because we needed cash to expand the project and to survive.

We implemented a nominal contribution to cover food and accommodation, and it worked as a win-win for everyone. At times we would have seven or more people staying and helping out.

At the beginning we tried to run workshops and training courses, but with our location being a little out of the way, we were not successful in attracting local Filipinos. We let things go for a while until we could expand our infrastructure. Right now, we are in ‘trial-and-error’ mode, trying out different ideas to see what creates attraction.

The long-term vision is to become an international destination for people who want to focus on enhancing their human potential, but right now we do not have all the pieces of the puzzle in place to allow for this to happen.

For the time being, we are building our overseas network of teachers, who in the future will be excited to come here when the time is right. We continue to focus on infrastructure, beautification, and local integration (with local support projects like Billy and Be Proud).

The majority of our visitors are still travelers that come from Europe and North America. On average, around 40 percent come from North America, 20 percent from France, and the rest from other European countries and Australiasia. We receive most of our guests from online websites like Workaway, HelpX, and WWOOF.

We recently joined AirBNB, and have received quite a few local Filipino people as guests for the weekend who want to experience something very different.

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Why is organic farming important, specifically in the Philippines?

To be honest, Organic Farming is a secondary focus, but nonetheless a ‘nose-to-the-ground’ focus. Our focus is on eating healthy and natural foods instead of polluted foods. Organic is really a given. It’s not something special for us. It’s all about choosing what feels right, and at the end of the day, why someone would choose unhealthy farming practices over healthy ones.

For overseas visitors, though, organics are VERY important. Here in the Philippines, there is a low understanding on the real benefits of organic agriculture. Overseas, people know the benefits and are attracted to the fact that we’re an organic farm.

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What is most rewarding about Happy House Farm and organic farming?

Watching the bamboo sway in the cool evening breeze after a full day’s work and drinking a cold beer that costs much less than 1 USD!

Life is very simple here in the Philippines. Being a Western person, I find it VERY quiet here at times. And yet I feel deeply nourished as I learn to let go more and more, and deeply enjoy simple things and simple living.

As each day passes, we focus on improving what we have on the farm and bringing the long-term vision more into focus.

 

About David and Carol

d77646_a8ce733ad8884111bff84a75f2a78992David was born in the UK, and has lived in Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore, and now the Philippines. He has traveled to Germany, Scotland, England, Ireland, India, Nepal, Australia, Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. He has created and co-created eight companies in five countries over 20 years, and is most proud of Buy1Give1.com. He is now a ‘trainee’ organic rice farmer in the Philippines with Happy House Farm.

Carol was born in the Philippines. She has lived over 15 years in Singapore, and is now back in the Philippines. Her passion is people. She wanted to be a nurse and started the training, but didn’t have enough money to continue her studies. Instead she cared for her six siblings, paying their way through school by working as a domestic support person in Singapore. These days, she is a mother to Kyra, who is still only three years old but loves cooking and caring for our guests.

March 31, 2016
Climate Change Work & Life Abroad In The Philippines

TM: What kind of work do you do with climate change in the Philippines?

Naima: I am working under two different hats in the Philippines: one a policy hat, the other a private sector hat, but both hats share the same “green” color.

Under the policy hat, I work as a research fellow for the Ateneo School of Government towards collaborating with the private sector on developing policies and incentives consistent with sustainable development and climate change objectives in the Philippines.

Under the private sector hat, I work with WEnergy Global, a one-stop renewable energy solution provider with a regional focus in ASEAN countries.

How did you come to work internationally?

After graduating high school, I decided to take a gap year and volunteer in Guatemala, where I taught English and health to the children of migrant coffee workers. It was during that year that I was first exposed to both the challenges and excitement of living in another country. I have since become addicted to that environment.

During university, I spent a summer in Uganda working on malaria prevention. I also returned to Guatemala to carry out my thesis research. Since then, I have also lived and worked in Bangladesh, Germany, Spain, and now the Philippines, with a two-year New York City stint in between.

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What are the effects of climate change on a country made up of islands?

The Philippines constantly ranks in the top three most vulnerable countries to climate change. A country made up of 7,000 islands, the Philippines is in a part of the world that gets a lot of big tropical storms. In the past few years, the Philippines has experienced some of the worst storms ever to make landfall on Earth. The mayor of Tacloban, one of the cities that was hit in 2013, continues to find cadavers around every two weeks.

As a developing country, with very little access to vital resources, the Philippines has a low ability to adapt and cope with disasters brought about by climate change impacts.

A report by the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources identifies five different risk factors that contribute to its vulnerability: A rise in sea levels, extreme rainfall events, extreme heating events, increased ocean temperatures, and a disturbed water budget. Given the Philippines’ vast shorelines and built-in geographic susceptibility, any one of these could be disastrous.

Debris lines the streets of Tacloban, Leyte island. This region was the worst affected by the typhoon, causing widespread damage and loss of life. Caritas is responding by distributing food, shelter, hygiene kits and cooking utensils. (Photo: Eoghan Rice - Trócaire / Caritas)

Climate change will continue to affect sectors that are strategically important for economic growth, e.g. agriculture, fisheries, and water resource management.

Given the island remoteness of much of the population, many people are not connected to the main electricity grid and have to buy expensive diesel instead.

In addition, while the country is committed to reducing 70 percent of its emissions by 2030, the government is considering approving 20+ coal plants. This is clearly a big case for transitioning to renewable energy!

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How does life as a non-native give you a different perspective on the country?

More than 10 percent of Filipinos are OFW (overseas foreign workers), a majority of these living in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Compared to the reputation of the U.S. among most other countries in the world, Filipinos actually adore the U.S. They fanatically follow politics, sports (especially basketball), and pop culture. Most of my colleagues here know more about the latest Kardashian update and Trump idiocy than I do. So be prepared, if you plan to visit here, to answer A LOT of questions about the U.S.

One of the most startling realizations I made here was how many Filipinos work in call centers. Because of the Philippines’ history under U.S. rule, most Filipinos speak English and learn it in school. The accent is very light compared to other call-center-heavy countries (e.g. India), so the U.S. prefers to hire them (to lessen the harassment that some rude Americans give to people who speak English with any hint of a foreign accent).

The unfortunate consequence of this outsourcing is the negative impacts of the work on the health and psyche of these mostly young employees. They work shifts ranging from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. (given the 12 hour time difference to EST). This leads to unnatural biorhythms, high HIV rates, and increasing rates of depression–thanks to the monotony of the job and abusiveness of the clients. So next time you call customer service, think about what time of night it may be for the other person on the line.

Children greet the aircrew of an SH-60F Seahawk helicopter in Balasan, Philippines, July 1, 2008, after they delivered humanitarian supplies to their school. The helicopter and its crew are assigned to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 4, Carrier Air Wing 14, which is embarked aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) under way in the Sulu Sea off the coast of the Philippines. The Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group is providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to victims of Typhoon Fengshen, which struck the Philippines June 23, 2008. (U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Spike Call/Released)

Nonetheless, no matter what difficulty Filipinos face (including probably the most annoying one of all–the inescapable traffic of Manila), they always maintain a light-hearted spirit.

I have never come across a people as sympathetic, happy, friendly, welcoming, smiley, positive, fun-loving, generous, and hospitable as the Filipinos. The vibe here feels like the exact opposite as that of New York City.

Several times, I have had an experience such as the following one: I wait forever at the bank, for an Uber driver, or at a cashier due to some technical issue, system failure, or crappy Wi-Fi connection. I am exasperated by the time I am finally attended to, and want to make some snarky remark.

But within 10 seconds, that cashier, driver, or bank teller has won me over with their smile, sincere apology, and go-lucky attitude. And I am once again feeling so happy to be here.

 

About Naima

d77646_5588ead6fb934947b5d44cf026e848cbBorn in Guatemala to Costa Rican and German parents, Naima proudly brings a global perspective to whatever she does. Previously working as a strategist to accelerate public mobilization on sustainable solutions, she has also worked with GIZ in Bangladesh, and UN Women in New York. She is now based in the Philippines. Naima earned her degree in Public Policy from Duke University and wrote her thesis on the use of efficient cookstoves in Guatemala. Alongside her work, Naima is a trained salsa dancer/acro-yogi and loves performing.

March 31, 2016
One With Nature: Exploring Madagascar’s Unique Landscape

TM: What makes Madagascar’s nature so special?

Margherita: Madagascar is sometimes called ‘the eighth continent’ because its nature is so unique. The island separated from mainland Africa millions of years ago and nature has since evolved in total isolation. In Madagascar, you’ll find native animals and plants that cannot be found anywhere else, like lemurs, the fossa, lots of geckos, chameleons, and birds.

The country also offers a variety of natural landscapes in a reasonably small area. For instance, following RN 7 between the center and the southwest of the country you’ll cross mountain ranges, rainforests, spiny forests, and even canyons before reaching the stunning tropical beaches near Tulear.

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What is your favorite thing about being among nature in Madagascar?

One of the best things about nature in Madagascar is that you’ll often be alone. The country still sees relatively few tourists and national parks are usually quite big. Most tourists on organized tours only spend a few hours in the morning in national parks, so if you stay the whole day you’ll have the place to yourself!

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What is “ecotourism”? How do you practice it when you travel?

Ecotourism, in my opinion, means paying respect to nature and the communities you visit. Madagascar has a serious garbage problem, so we made sure we didn’t add to it, and even cleaned up a little when we could.

We also decided to travel by public transport to minimize our carbon footprint and stay in close contact with locals. However, public transport is only recommended for experienced travelers, as it’s very uncomfortable and difficult to navigate.

Using a local guide is another way to get in touch with local culture, and learning a little bit of French will definitely help you if you head off on your own.

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How much of a threat is there to Madagascar’s forests? What is being done to help?

The situation of Madagascar’s forests has definitely improved since the 20th century, when it was estimated that over half of the country’s forests had been lost to illegal logging. The country has established a network of national parks. Access is only allowed with a local guide, and rangers patrol the protected areas. Some instances of logging still occur. The system is far from perfect, but at least the first steps are being made.

How does local life and nature intertwine in Madagascar?

The most locals in Madagascar still live in rural areas. Farming is a lot more common than hunting and gathering, although the latter still happens in remote communities. Malagasy (people from Madagascar) believe in spirits, and have fascinating tales and legends to explain the origin of the world and of nature.

They are at ease around nature, and our local guides knew nature in a way that we as Western city dwellers cannot imagine. They knew the name of every animal, every tree, and every shrub. They were able to identify even those that looked identical to us.

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What has been the most profound impact Madagascar has had on you?

Madagascar is a very poor country. Witnessing how corrupt politics halted the development of the country really broke my heart.

Since 2009 there have been a series of coups d’etat in the country and as a result, foreign investment has stopped, tourism has dried out, and the conditions of the local population worsened. Several people rely on tourism to support themselves, and for this reason I recommend either traveling independently or with an operator that gives back to local communities.

Madagascar is a fascinating country with a huge potential in terms of ecotourism. Personally, I hope conditions for locals will improve with the arrival of more tourists.

Picture Credits: The Crowded Planet

About Margherita

d77646_48a0c21a29904be3a4f0f06d83df1a42Margherita is a cat lover and mountain junkie, and the creator of The Crowded Planet, a nature and adventure travel blog. Coffee, sleeping in and eating are some of the things she loves.

March 24, 2016

Northern Ireland coastline

TM: What’s not to love about Northern Ireland?

Helen: The rugged coastline and majestic Mourne Mountains of our home town of Newcastle, pictured above, are just one of the many great sights in Northern Ireland. Landmarks like Balintoy Harbour and Dark Hedges (made famous in Game of Thrones) have firmly put Northern Ireland on the map. Not forgetting, of course, the stunning Fermanagh Lakes, the legendary Giants Causeway, the walled city of Derry, and the Cathedral city of Armagh.

There’s so much to see and do in Northern Ireland, with outdoor activities, surfing, cycling, and hiking now as popular as ever. From a foodie point of view, Northern Ireland is making big waves with two new Michelin starred restaurants and countless fine dining gems spread across the country.

Our personal favorite has to be Brunel’s Restaurant in Newcastle. We’re a bit biased, as it’s on our doorstep, but it truly is something special – an intimate setting worth checking out if you visit the area of Newry & Mourne on your trip to Northern Ireland.

Here’s a blog post we did recently on our home town of Newcastle complete with video (which was viewed over 40,000 times on Facebook). This should give you a glimpse of what’s ahead!

To start you off, we wanted to share with you a recipe that will bring a taste of Northern Ireland to your home, wherever you are in the world.

An Irish Twist on Classic Crêpe Suzette

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A visit to the Jameson Distillery in Dublin inspired us to incorporate the whiskey into some of our favorite recipes. We purchased some Jameson marmalade on our visit to the distillery and instantly thought of several dishes to use this in.

The dish that stood out the most was the French classic – crêpe suzette. This is a great breakfast or brunch recipe to try out for those of you with a sweet tooth. Crêpe suzette is traditionally made with brandy or orange liqueur but we have been inspired to try the Jameson marmalade in place of this. The Jameson adds a subtle undertone to the zesty orange sauce.

Ingredients

(Makes 8 – 10 crêpes)

For the crêpe batter:
  • 8 oz (220g) plain flour
  • A good pinch of salt
  • 4 large free range eggs
  • 14 fl oz (400ml) milk
  • 6 fl oz (150ml) water
  • Grated zest of 1 large orange
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 3 oz (85g) melted butter
For the sauce:
  • Juice from 2 – 3 large oranges
  • Grated zest and segments of 1 large orange
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 2 heaped tbsp Jameson marmalade (or Jameson whiskey)
  • 2 tbsp clear honey

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Directions

1. Preparing your batter:

Sift the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Make a small well in the center of the flour and break the eggs into it. Begin whisking, ensuring to incorporate all the flour. Mix the milk and water into a jug and gradually add this to the egg mix. Keep whisking this mix until all lumps are removed. Add the orange zest and caster sugar and 4 tablespoons of the melted butter to the mix. Once this is done, your batter is now ready.

Tip: Half fill a saucepan with boiling water and set a dinner plate on top. Keep the heat under the saucepan and set a piece of kitchen paper on top of the dinner plate. This will be used to keep the crêpes warm during the cooking process.

2. Making your sauce:

Pour the orange juice, caster sugar and honey into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the orange zest and segments at this stage and lower the heat. Allow the sauce to simmer for 10 – 15 minutes or until it develops a syrupy consistency. Add the Jameson marmalade (or Jameson whiskey) to the syrup mix and keep on a low heat until your crêpes are ready.

3. Creating your crêpes:

Pre-heat a large, non stick pan to a medium heat. Dip some folded kitchen paper into the remaining melted butter and grease the pan. Using a ladle, transfer some of the batter into the centre of the pan, tipping the pan to spread evenly. Cook until bubbles begin to appear and the crêpe moves freely once pan is shook. Flip the crêpe using a fish slice or spatula and cook on the other side for approximately 30 seconds.

4. Serve and enjoy:

Once all the crêpes have been made, fold into quarters and serve with the warm, zesty sauce. For extra indulgence, add a dollop of whipped cream.

About Nial & Helen

d77646_410e7b66c0cb48d6bf376dc7f3b0c2abNial and Helen are a newly married couple from Northern Ireland who share a passion for food and travel. They want to share their food and travel adventures through their blog Pikalily as they share some of their favorite recipes, dining experiences, and travel experiences.

March 18, 2016
Study Abroad in Ireland

TM: What makes Ireland the best study abroad destination, in your opinion?

Allison: Ireland is a great study abroad destination when people pick countries for study abroad (or even just for vacation), Ireland isn’t typically at the top of the list. It doesn’t have snowy ski weather or sunny beach weather. Ireland does get lots of rain, which just makes you appreciate the sunny days so much more!

Ireland is worth the visit alone because of its breathtaking natural sights. I have been on trips to many different parts of Ireland and to many small towns along the way, and I never cease to be amazed by the country’s beauty. Capturing it in pictures just doesn’t do justice.

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Cork county, where I am studying, is actually the largest of the 32 counties in Ireland. Many of the small towns that I have visited have been in the west of Cork, which is known for its cliffs and beaches, and most of the breathtaking views that people associate with Ireland.

Most of the small towns have been very quaint and quiet, and buildings are painted any range of colors. These small towns also tend to be pretty far apart from each other, and definitely don’t blend together like they do in the U.S.

Studying abroad in Ireland has also given me the opportunity to travel Europe for much less than it would cost going from America. Flights to the European continent have cost me as little as 12 Euros (through budget airlines like RyanAir), and from there I can get anywhere. Traveling to another country for a weekend is an experience that I never imagined I would have.

By studying abroad in Ireland, I’ve been able to see European countries that I’ve always dreamed of visiting, while also experiencing Ireland, a country that I also never imagined I would visit.

How are Irish people different from how they are usually portrayed in films?

Not everyone has red hair, nor does everyone sit in a pub, drinking all day. Not everyone is a farmer, or lives in a small town off the beaten path. Some do, of course, but as an exception. I’ve found that Irish people, for the most part, are extremely friendly, polite, and hospitable. It was a very refreshing upgrade from American standards I’m used to.

What has been the biggest culture shock for you?

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There have definitely been a few aspects of culture shock for me, going from the U.S. to Ireland. One that I wasn’t expecting is that nearly everyone here smokes — a lot. Walking through town everyday, I pass numerous people walking with a cigarette in hand. Even walking through the university campus, there are crowds of students smoking outside buildings.

Another difference was how casual the drinking culture is here. I knew it would be different from the U.S., since Ireland’s drinking age is 18, but I didn’t know how casually people take it. There definitely are people who go out to party at night, and the vast majority of people will go to a pub after work with friends, have a beer or two, and then go home. One of my teachers even suggested to our class that we all go out for a drink together when the class finished!

Another different aspect that I’m very happy about is how much fresh food is available. In Cork, where I am studying, we have a fresh food market with all sorts of vendors that are open daily.  Plus, the food is very inexpensive! Packaged foods in grocery stores have less artificial additives, and are more fresh than their counterparts in the U.S. Even though I have to go grocery shopping more often, for the delicious food I get, I don’t mind at all.

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What has been the most profound lesson being in Ireland has taught you so far?

I’ve been slowly learning to embrace everything thrown my way and dance in the rain, both literally and figuratively. I can’t let myself use the excuse, “It’s raining, I don’t want to go anywhere,” because I have things to do…and in Ireland it could rain for 10 days straight!

Especially as I’ve been traveling more, there is always the chance that something could go wrong. I’ve tried to adopt the mindset of getting straight to “how to fix the problem” rather than staying in the “get upset over the problem” phase as I used to.

My goal for the rest of the trip to enjoy every minute I have left here. My trip is already half over, and it feels like I just got here a week ago. I will never get another opportunity like this, so I’m taking it all in while I can. I can guarantee that once I’ve left, I’ll only want to come back.

About Allison

d77646_a3b5670f70b14d639bc744334b716cceAllison Parker is a second year Occupational Therapy student at Quinnipiac University. She is spending a semester abroad in Cork, Ireland and is journaling her way around Europe. You can read more about her adventures on her blog, The Luck of the Irish.

March 17, 2016
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