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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
How I learned real Spanish online

“But everyone is taking Spanish! I just want to learn French,” my fifth-grade self decided obstinately one day. I couldn’t bear to do what everyone else was doing.

So I didn’t.

Looking back on the next four years that followed my decision to decline having Spanish in my life, the little rebel in me grew to regret her choice at times. I chose French in middle school and learned approximately three verbs in four years, all in the present tense. This was followed by a short-lived and painful year of high school Latin, another three years of learning French at university, two years of Italian and seven years of German, mein Gott.

Yet Spanish remained in the back of my mind, an alluring and most practical Romance language. The native tongue of famous revolutionaries and artists, served up in its many flavors, accents, and nuances. It overwhelmed me to think about learning the language where the standard textbook Castilian is only spoken in one country, Spain, yet dozens of varieties of Spanish remain the majority language in 20 additional sovereign states around the world.

And yet, with all my years of language learning, I knew it had to be done. Spanish speakers total well over 400 million people, which qualifies it as second on the lists of languages by number of native speakers.

Finally, when I booked a trip to Spain in 2011, pragmatism won out.

Guggenheim Bilbao Spain
I had been dancing salsa, merengue, and bachata while I was living in Germany for over a year by that point. My past courses meant that I already understood the grammar of Romance languages.

Yet, I wanted to learn Spanish in a distinct way. I wanted a native speaker for a tutor, and I only wanted to learn what was absolutely necessary to communicate clearly and efficiently as a tourist.

I placed an ad for a language tandem partner in the online classifieds, offering English conversation with a native speaker (me) for Spanish conversation with a native speaker.

Hugo, a Mexican man living in Germany, reached out. We met for coffee, spoke for a half hour in English (his was near-perfect already), and then the fun began.

Madrid street scene

Luckily, he had been trained in teaching Spanish as a second language. He offered simple phrases at first, ones I should know as tourist. Things like, “Could you please help me?”, “How much does this cost?”, and “Where is the bathroom/bus stop/metro stop?”.I fumbled my pronunciation badly, treating the words like Italian as it was the closest thing I knew, but felt confident in my ability to recognize and understand the words themselves.

We continued to meet for two months prior to my first two-week foray into a Spanish-speaking country. Hugo’s lessons focused only on speaking, not on grammar or writing, and prioritized the most useful words and phrases for getting around.

I was traveling with a friend who, despite having majored in Spanish in college, was afraid to make mistakes. He hesitated to speak in most initial conversations. I fumbled grammar, but the words came out of my mouth somehow and in the end, we always got the information or food that we needed.

Park Guell Barcelona Spain
So in 2015, when it was nearly time for another trip to a Spanish-speaking country, I knew I had to step up my game.

Enter: BaseLang

Again, I wanted a private tutor. I also wanted to skip the fluff and useless phrases taught in textbooks, like learning to say “the butterfly lands on the flower” before learning “Please drive as fast as you can, my flight leaves soon” or “I’m allergic to penicillin”.

I had planned a two-week trip to Medellín, Colombia, a city that has written a new, innovative narrative for itself since its violent, drug-ridden past.

By chance, or by Facebook ad smarts, I happened upon the website of BaseLang, a language startup coincidentally based out of Medellin. As I scrolled, I saw that they had only native speakers as tutors, and that I could have unlimited online lessons each month, via Skype.

I was in.

It seemed simple enough. All I had to do was sign up (BaseLang’s service costs $1 for a trial week, and $99 for a month of unlimited lessons), set up my first Skype tutoring session through their simple online calendar, and have one “diagnostics” class, where a teacher determined my level of Spanish.

After that, it was up to me to schedule whatever 30-minute chunks worked for my schedule, and I could schedule multiple sessions in a row. (It’s unlimited, remember?)

hillside Medellin Colombia

From December through February leading up to my trip to Colombia I worked with BaseLang’s teachers several times per week, just enough to familiarize myself with the present tense, the most useful irregular verbs to know, and of course, all the tourist phrases I’d need.

Each teacher had a different style, but of the ten people I worked with, all of them were extremely friendly and warm. I appreciated how they adjusted to my needs as soon as they noticed I wasn’t comprehending something, or if I interrupted them gently to ask them to please only speak Spanish to me.

While I took private lessons with BaseLang’s native teachers, I also used Duolingo and Memrise to keep my brain focused on basic vocabulary when I had downtime, usually right before I went to bed. Since high school, I’d found that way was the best way to let my brain process and memorize the words or conjugation tables while I slept — no extra effort required.

colorful door Guatape ColombiaTo top it off with some entertainment, I listened to salsa and reggaeton lyrics and watched a couple of films (Y Tu Mamá También and El desconocido) in Spanish with English subtitles, trying not to read them unless I absolutely had to.

When the end of February 2016 rolled around, I felt confident in my Spanish-speaking ability. In fact, I felt much more confident than ever before, excited and a bit nervous to test out my new skills with native speakers in-country rather than just via Skype.

Using my traveler’s mindset I had thought to reach out to BaseLang’s American co-founder, Connor Grooms, and see if I could stop by the startup while I was in town. Connor is the guy who learned Spanish to intermediate level within 1 month (and made a documentary about it) prior to founding BaseLang.

I let him know that I’d be down in Medellín soon and asked if I could meet the team in person, including the startup’s co-founder Adrian Castaneda. The team was all for it.

Fast-forward a few weeks and I was there, with another idea: why not take some time to share my experience with them, and film a video about BaseLang and my experience with it to share with others looking to learn Spanish online, real Spanish.

So, on the 19th floor of a swanky building with a view of Poblado and the mountains beyond the valley below us, we filmed this interview for you.

As you can probably tell, I only take the time to spread the word about ideas, products and services that I actually use and really love. There was just such a difference in how my spoken Spanish improved, even in the short few months I used BaseLang, that I could tell if I wanted to continue and really dig into the language, I’d be at intermediate level in no time!

For the meantime, I’m content to travel around the Spanish-speaking world with a little more ease and peace of mind. I can hail a taxi and explain where I need to go. I can order food, even if I have allergies. I can make small talk with a kind stranger who becomes a friend or change a person’s perception of what people from the U.S. are like.

And the next level, for me? Total immersion. I’d like to move to a Spanish speaking country to enjoy all the experiences that come with learning a new language — the food, the sights, the sounds and the smells of a new culture. And you can be sure there will be plenty more articles on The Traveler’s Mindset when that happens.

About Ginger

d77646_230e1634c7d646198beada6bf4487463Ginger Kern is a transformational coach and the founder of The Traveler’s Mindset. After working in Europe for over three years and traveling to 25 countries around the world by the age of 25, Ginger wanted to bring the ‘traveler’s mindset’ back to the United States. Through coaching, The Traveler’s Mindset, and speaking at universities and organizations across the U.S., Ginger turns people into adventurers who are confident and powerful on the road and in their everyday lives.

April 5, 2016
Top Tips for Immersive Travel
Amy Segreti, founder of Live All of You, is a recovering editor-in-chief turned writer, self-inquirer, traveler, dancer and manifestress. Fluent in Spanish, wine and AP style, she has written/edited for the Huffington Post, Thought Catalog, New Worker Magazine, Elephant Journal, The Baltimore Sun, The Globe, InMadrid, and The Washingtonian, among others.
A writer in her heart and soul, she helps people honor their inner compass, craft their day from the inside out, connect with fellow world-loopers, and weave their unique selves into their daily rhythm. She hasn’t had a 9-to-5 since 2007 and lives a completely location-independent lifestyle as an entrepreneur. Find Amy at @amysegreti on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

Amy joins us on this episode of the interview series to share her top tips on immersive travel including…

– How to feel at home in a new place – FAST
– What you’re probably not doing (yet) to connect with epic people all around the world

 

We also dive into the dark side of travel as Amy shares a surprisingly dangerous story of the time she was robbed at gunpoint in Mexico…and how it turned into a huge learning experience for her.
Watch the video below or click here for the mp3 audio download.

 

 

Use Amy’s 5 strategic questions to “vet” destinations before you decide to travel to a new place. Set aside 30 minutes and brainstorm:
1. Where might I want to eat?
2. Where do I want to stay?
3. Who should I connect with?
4. Who can be in my tribe there?
5. Who can be a mentor to me while I’m there?
Last but not least, Amy’s #1 tip for new travelers:
Plan time in to your trip to actually build a relationship with the city you’re traveling in.

  

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 Have you ever said, “I don’t have the money to travel”? Problem solved! Check out the Traveler’s Mindset guide to over $50,000 in funding for travel/work/life abroad.
October 22, 2015
How to Have Authentic Travel Experiences

“I live on the road. My home is the world.” Living between the United States and Morocco, Yasmine began her international career at the young age of 17 when she moved to Kansas as a young ambassador for the Arab world.

In this interview, Yasmine shares how to have authentic travel experiences around the world. Her startup, Voyaj, provides a unique way of social networking (literally!) by matching up potential travelers with local hosts around the world that best fit their travel interests.

An advocate for women empowerment and modern Arab identity in the West, Yasmine believes that person-to-person connection is the best way to break down cultural barriers and comfort zones.

 

About Yasmine

Yasmine El Baggari is the Moroccan Founder and CEO of Voyaj, an online platform that matches people, worldwide, to provide them with genuine experiences – sharing cultures and beliefs and opening hearts and minds. She is also an undergraduate student at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Yasmine’s research focuses on women’s empowerment and the concept of identity, morality, and cultural evolution for Arab Muslim students in the West.

 

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Have you ever said, “I don’t have the money to travel”? Problem solved! Check out The Traveler’s Mindset guide to over $50,000 in funding for travel/work/life abroad.

April 7, 2015
Creative Ways to Travel Abroad for Free

Julie got her first passport in college. Postgraduate, she now lives between London and Boulder, Colorado and has an undergraduate curriculum of over 40 countries, most of which she visited by the generosity of grants and scholarships. By the time she graduated, she had accumulated 150,000 frequent flyer miles to propel her around the globe and give her a sampling of different countries all on her own.

Julie is truly a pioneer when it comes to how to travel abroad for free. Now, her travels have inspired her to speak out about safety as a solo traveler – particularly as a female solo traveler – and design her app, pingWHEN, which uses your phone’s GPS to check in with a friend or loved one back home each time you leave for or arrive home from a trip, a night time run, or even a party downtown. If you don’t arrive when you said you would, pingWHEN alerts your contact know that you haven’t so they can check to see if you’re safe.

Click here to listen to the interview with Julie (mp3)

Links

pingWHEN app
juliemarkham.com

The Traveler’s Mindset Guide to Over $50,000 in Programs, Grants, Fellowships and More to Fund Your Time Abroad

About Julie

Julie Markham is passionate about using technology for social impact and is on a hell bent mission to empower women. From her travels to more than 40 countries, she was concerned about her safety which led her to create pingWHEN – a personal safety app. In between travels, she has worked with a tech company on environmental responsibility and a microcredit program in Rwanda. She has served as the Director of Special Ops with Unreasonable Group which has led to projects including sailing across 13 countries Unreasonable@Sea, and helping to push entrepreneurs impacting millions of girls in poverty through the Girl Effect Accelerator. Julie believes in continually learning and has a strong intellectual curiosity as demonstrated by the fact that she was a Fulbright Scholar and holds three master’s degrees. Contact: julie@pingwhenapp.com

 

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Have you ever said, “I don’t have the money to travel”? Problem solved! Check out The Traveler’s Mindset guide to over $50,000 in funding for travel/work/life abroad.

March 24, 2015
Embark on Your Own Hero’s Journey

Michael Bennett leaves no stone unturned on his quest to experience an adventurous life and create his own version of the Hero’s Journey. He even went so far as to combine his passions for adventure travel, personal development, and experiential learning for his doctoral research…and now he’s using his findings on real-life trips with Muddy Shoe Adventures, to create experiences around the world in transformational learning for adults.

Michael joins us today to share how your journey can be the Hero’s Journey too.

Fun fact: Michael’s passion for Joseph Campbell’s work was so great that he even got a tattoo depicting the Hero’s Journey on his left arm!

Watch the interview below, or click here to download the audio-only interview.

About Michael

Michael is a traveler, adventurer, writer, photographer, and life- and career coach who has spent the past 20 years exploring the world. His struggles with finding meaningful work led him to go on his own personal journey of self-exploration and discovery, which inspired him to launch Muddy Shoe Adventures in 2011.

 

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Have you ever said, “I don’t have the money to travel”? Problem solved! Check out The Traveler’s Mindset guide to over $50,000 in funding for travel/work/life abroad.

March 3, 2015
A New Way to Explore Colombia

Marcela is the co-founder of On Board, a mobile outdoor classroom where mindful, continuously moving students learn, travel and make an impact in the communities they visit. She is best described as a life-long education-hacking journeyer. At age 24 she has already visited 45 countries, lived in 7 countries, and learned 6 languages. She has created her own career path as a Flow Consultant and she is currently working with EduAction on a documentary about alternative education projects like gap years as replacements for the formal university path.

Where are you from originally, and why did you choose to leave your home to travel?

I am from Medellin, Colombia and the first time I chose to leave home for more than two months was right after high school. I went to France to study French and the travel bug bit me, hard. After that, I spent a year volunteering in Palermo, Sicily.

Think back to before you ever took your first trip abroad. What was the biggest thing holding you back, and how did you overcome it?

There was never a strong reason that was holding me back, personally. However, my mother was very attached to me and she had been sick for quite a few years so the hardest part was to leave her, knowing that it was difficult for her to let me go even though she supported me.

What is one key lesson you’ve learned from traveling?

I think the biggest lesson has been to deeply understand the world we live in and put into perspective the challenges we all face by living in one country or another, including how that “simple” factor really makes us who we are as individuals.

Also, I believe that learning the language, the culture and the history of the foreign countries I lived in were the best “subjects” I could have ever studied!

What is your dream trip?

My dream trip is one in which traveling is the engine for having great learning experiences… A journey in which I would be surrounded by a community of travelers, exploring the depths of a country and leaving a positive impact on the communities we visit!

Ideally, that dream trip will happen very often now that I’ve created my startup, On Board, that is getting travelers around Colombia on a bus that doubles as a mobile classroom.

How have you designed your life to include travel as a core part of your lifestyle?

Traveling for me has always been the most authentic way of learning and I have always looked for opportunities to travel without escaping from reality, but instead using travel to shape reality and understand it better.

This is the reason why Camilo Russi, my cofounder, and I created On Board, a mobile outdoor classroom. We expect to expand our vision of On Board to other countries that would like their visitors to discover their country in a unique way. We also want to build a community, a network of ‘on boarders’ around the globe.

What would you be doing if you hadn’t started traveling?

Honestly, I don’t really know! When I was at university in my city, before going abroad to two different universities and deciding to walk the path of alternative education, I created a program called “Paisajiando”. I offered walking tours around my city showing people the non-touristy, true sides of Medellin and people paid me according to how much they liked the tour. It was a way to travel without leaving my country, and if I hadn’t started traveling I would probably still be doing that.

How do you stay adventurous in your everyday life?

I really try to avoid being in front of screens (whether that’s TV, my computer, or my phone) and I make sure I’m outside more, meeting good people and exploring new places. I join new networks and communities and I intentionally do something new every week. Reading great books also pumps up my adventurous spirit. I also love welcoming foreigners to Colombia and hanging out with them!

Oh, and my weekends are sacred: I have to discover a new town or get back in touch with nature!

 

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Have you ever said, “I don’t have the money to travel”? Problem solved! Check out The Traveler’s Mindset guide to over $50,000 in funding for travel/work/life abroad.

February 27, 2015
Only Six Months Left to Live

Chelsea’s home base is currently West Virginia, where she returned in 2012 after living on St. John, USVI for six years, Dominican Republic for two, and a couple tours of South Africa. She keeps a nook in the woods as a retreat to work, write and collect herself before taking on the next thing. Professionally, Chelsea builds websites and custom applications with her Tech Diva Media team, and consults with others on internet marketing and outsourcing. In September 2014, she started the 6 Month Experiment to see how much bigger her life could become if she started living like it’s her last 6 months.

What do you love most about traveling?

I find there’s an intriguing psychology around traveling and habits. Travel, without a doubt, has had the greatest impact in shaping my life. Travel helps facilitate change because it gets me out of my normal mode of daily living. I break my routines and find myself present to the moment because I’m experiencing new things.

Travel gave me the opportunity to zoom out and made me consider the way I was living my life. If I wasn’t happy to return home to my “normal life” after my trip, I could ask myself why not. That made it easier to figure out what I could do to adjust things.

The most adventurous trip you’ve ever taken?

There are two… The first was moving to a Caribbean island when I was 22 without a plan for where to live, what my job would be or what I was going to do. I had faith I’d figure it out…and I stayed for six years.

The second was traveling through South Africa and visiting the people living in a ghetto, Guguletu, outside of Cape Town with my boyfriend at the time, a native South African. I was amazed at how the American media had shaped my fears/beliefs about Africa…or any other land, for that matter. I was touched by the warm hearts and gentle smiles of the people I met.

How have you designed your life to include travel as a core part of your lifestyle?

Five years ago, I had the opportunity to design a new career for myself and take entrepreneurship seriously. My partner and I had gone bankrupt with our computer repair business, and I swore I wasn’t going to tie myself into another business where I had to be physically present each day. Thanks to my partner, I stumbled onto the Internet marketing expert Eben Pagan and his training materials for building an online business.

Because travel is a high value, I am proactive about planning trips to build relationships, get additional training or gain new perspectives. I get itchy if I don’t have a trip planned every 6-8 weeks or so. I have chosen to invest in a house and make my base in a rural area where the cost of living is low so I can pour money into plane tickets instead of rent.

What is one key lesson you’ve learned from traveling or living in another country?

The media is biased; I stopped listening or reading news three years ago. If it’s important, I’ll hear about it. Otherwise, I’ll discover it for myself rather than get sucked into the manufactured drama of the news industry. Every single time I have visited another country, I have been pleasantly surprised to find it’s much less intimidating than the American media usually makes it out to be.

What is your dream trip?

Round the world ticket, traveling for 3-6 months and staying 3-4 weeks at each location. It’s on my calendar for 2016! What would you be doing if you hadn’t started traveling? Making physical art (paintings, collages, sculptures) and more homemade things. I’d probably be making clothes or beauty products and have multiple Etsy stores.

Can you share one thing you do to be more adventurous in your everyday life?

Since my last birthday, I took on a “6 month experiment” — living right now as if I were living the last six months of my life. It’s shaping the way I choose to spend my time, trips I take and relationships I nourish. It’s also helping me to take my time more seriously and pushes me to be bold before it’s too late.

 

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Have you ever said, “I don’t have the money to travel”? Problem solved! Check out The Traveler’s Mindset guide to over $50,000 in funding for travel/work/life abroad.

January 27, 2015
193 Countries & A Lifestyle of Adventure – Chris Guillebeau

Chris Guillebeau is a New York Times bestselling author and modern-day explorer. During a lifetime of self-employment that included a four-year commitment as a volunteer executive in West Africa, he visited every country in the world (193 in total) before his 35th birthday. Since then he has modeled the proven definition of an entrepreneur: “Someone who will work 24 hours a day for themselves to avoid working one hour a day for someone else.” Every summer in Portland, Oregon, Chris hosts the World Domination Summit, a gathering of creative, remarkable people with thousands in attendance. Chris is also the founder of Pioneer Nation, Unconventional Guides, the Travel Hacking Cartel, and numerous other projects.

 

Now that you’ve visited every country in the world, what is your dream trip?

I’m still traveling every month, so I’m not sure I have a “dream trip.” I honestly enjoy the process of being in motion and transit, making my way towards something or somewhere. And even though I’ve been to every country, there are still plenty of other places within all those countries I haven’t yet visited. Thankfully, I have no plans to stop trying.

Lots of people talk about the sights they see when they travel, but seeing isn’t necessarily the best way to experience a new place. Between taste, smell, hearing, and feeling, what’s your favorite sense to use to fully experience travel, and why?

Hmmm, I think I’d pick “feeling.” There’s a powerful combination of familiar and foreign that I experience as I visit and revisit major world cities. Quite frankly I find the sense of travel itself to be somewhat intoxicating. It doesn’t always hit that way, but when it does, other travelers know that there’s nothing like it.

What would you be doing if you hadn’t started traveling?

Who knows? I had no other real skills or qualifications. Fortunately, I discovered travel and writing somewhere along the way, and something “stuck.”

Think back to who you were before your first major trip. What was your biggest fear?

I wasn’t afraid; I was excited! I mean, I was probably nervous or worried in an anxious way. But mostly I was eager to get out of the familiar and experience something different. In a lot of ways I had grown stagnant in my life, and I had the suspicion that travel would push me out of my routine. I was drawn to it far more than I was afraid of it.

In your latest book, The Happiness of Pursuit, you write about how when disaster strikes and you miss the only flight back from Seychelles, you go into “traveler survival mode”. What’s one survival tactic that even first-time travelers can use?

Start asking questions—both of yourself and anyone around you. Are there any other flights? No? OK, then when is the next one? Is there any other way off the island? Where will I stay? What, if any, are the long-term ramifications of this misadventure—and how will I deal with them?

I don’t want to say that travel disasters are “good.” They’re disasters for a reason, and you wouldn’t wish them on anyone. But I do think it’s helpful to maintain perspective and control.

What does having a “traveler’s mindset” mean to you? 

A traveler is curious. A traveler has preferences but is also somewhat open-minded and motivated by discovery and differences. A traveler doesn’t hate the aspect of travel itself—I’ve never understood people who are all about the destination and don’t enjoy getting there.

Lastly, by nature, a traveler is grateful for all they’ve seen and experienced. It’s a very fortunate and unusual thing we’re able to do, so we should appreciate it.

 

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Have you ever said, “I don’t have the money to travel”? Problem solved! Check out the Traveler’s Mindset guide to over $50,000 in funding for travel/work/life abroad.
December 18, 2014