Day 177: On Vietnam

A rice field in the rural Central Highlands.

I struggled to find the right words to describe what it was about Vietnam that stole a part of me and buried it deep within its fertile soil. After toiling through the touristy hell of Bangkok and viewing first-hand the intense poverty of Cambodia, I arrived in Saigon weary from travel and disallusioned by the sight of wandering infants and entitled Aussie drunkards. But then everything changed. Saigon was alive and real, with the buzz of motorbikes ringing through me like the beat of a caffeinated heart. In the four weeks to follow, I traveled through ten cities and small towns, some so rural that I was the first Westerner many had ever seen. In addition to the unbeatable cuisine and stunning landscapes, it was the energetic, amiable nature of the Vietnamese people that would prove to change my life forever.

The floating fishing villages of Bai Tu Long Bay

Background

Vietnam has an incredibly old history, with the first states forming in the year 2879 BC. With mountains, jungles, rivers, and sea, Vietnam is a difficult country to invade. Nevertheless, its strategic location along the South China Sea has enticed nations seeking domination. For over a millennia, the Chinese launched a series of offenses against Vietnam, influencing its culture and fostering a deep resentment within its people. To this day, the Chinese view Vietnam as South China, and the government continues to assert itself along Vietnam's eastern seaboard.

Hiển Nhơn gate at the Imperial Citadel in Huế

Hiển Nhơn gate at the Imperial Citadel in Huế

In the 19th century, the French conquered Vietnam and made it a colonial state, capturing the northern capital of Hanoi and spreading southward. While French influence can be seen through Vietnamese architecture, the local population were persistent with resistance efforts throughout the 60-year occupation. With the introduction of Marxism to Vietnam in the 1920s, Communist parties sprouted amongst the population. The French ramped up suppression efforts, and the Vietnamese responded with more aggressive guerrilla tactics. With the conclusion of the Indochina War against the French, the Geneva Conference of 1954 declared North Vietnam an autonomous state led by communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, and the South a democratic republic supported by the United States. 

Remnants of the American war in Vietnam. 

In the 30 years to follow, a proxy war raged on between the Communist, Russian-backed North and the democratic, American-backed South. By the fall of Saigon in April 1975, three million Vietnamese were left dead, and the effects of American chemical bombs known as Agent Orange can still be seen in children today.

To my surprise, I was welcomed rather warmly by the local population, even in Hanoi, the heart of the communist North. Many Vietnamese view the American War as yet another imperial invasion, looking past politics and separating people from government. With that said, this does not hold true for the Chinese, who they disdain. 

Images of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh can be found throughout Vietnam. The photos above were taken in Saigon's central post office, and outside of the Communist Youth Union

With the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, the nation was officially united under the Communist flag. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and images of their revered leader can be seen on every bill and street corner. Not unlike China, Vietnam maintains a relatively free market economy, and is quickly becoming one of the fastest growing developing nations on the planet. With that said, government corruption and suppression of civil rights advocates continues to thrive. Vietnamese police are the best money can buy, routinely stopping foreigners and locals alike to fish out petty bribes. While the average Vietnamese lives a relatively comfortable life, poverty persists, and reform efforts are met with unlawful detention, or worse. 

A home in a rural town outside of Pleiku

Culture

Tour through the countryside and you'll see seemingly endless seas of green rice fields that are segmented into well-organized square blocks, sparsely tended to by farmers knee-deep in water that have perfected their craft over millennias. Along the riverside and wild coastline, villagers spend their days casting nests into the still, green waters, returning at dusk to their makeshift floating homes alongside limestone spires. In the big cities, scores of reckless motorbike drivers coexist with women in conical hats walking along the road selling fruit from wooden shoulder yokes. At the start and end of each day, incense, fruit, and play money are burned at the stoops of homes and businesses alike for the safe travels of their ancestors. Amid it all are armed military police, ever-watching under a backdrop of red flags and propaganda pumping through the air-waves. 

A typical street in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam

After my experiences in Japan, I ignorantly expected people in Southeast Asia to be reserved by nature, but was pleasantly surprised to find the opposite in Vietnam. People smile warmly to one another, and find solace in the company of their peers. While I oppose the communist regime, its propaganda that pushes family values reflects on the people here, who show genuine affection towards one another. 

Just another day in Da Nang

Just another day in Da Nang

Education

The biggest field in need of reform in Vietnam, after civil rights and more democratic institutions, is education. As only primary school (up to fifth grade) are subsidized by the government, dropout rates remain high, especially in rural and mountainous areas. Teachers are underpaid, making around $60 per month on average, and have been known to charge students to take exams and for writing material. Not unlike neighboring Cambodia, poor households unable to pay the costs of schooling consider a child's labor more valuable than its education. In the rural frontier, it was at times difficult to find someone that could read my simple translations, as many were illiterate. 

Two unamused kids in Hoi An selling candle lanterns along the river.

Cuisine

While I am by no means a professional chef, I take pride in seeking out the most authentic local cuisine a country has to offer, and learning how it is made. I ate almost exclusively at food stalls—if it didn't have colorful, ankle-high kiddie chairs, chances are I didn't walk in. More importantly, if I saw locals eating there, so was I. With that in mind, I am confident in saying that Vietnam is home to the best food on earth. 

My friend Thanh in Hanoi makes the most unbelievable crawfish bún mam, among other things.

Traditional Vietnamese cooking is known for fresh and simple ingredients combined with selective spices, yielding a balanced taste. Herbs are fundamental to nearly every dish, namely mint, dill, and cilantro. These are paired with bean sprouts, and are seldomly cooked.

Bánh phō with sprouts, sautéed pork, meatballs of ground fish and pork, mushrooms, and chilis. 

Meat is generally lightly cooked, either roasted on table-top grills or boiled in rich broth. Competition amongst the incredible number of food stalls runs so high that cooks simmer their stocks in fresh bones for 24 hours to give their broths a fine enough flavor.

This bún rieu was unique in that it employs long grain rice, rather than vermillion noodles. Includes duck, tofu, scallions, and congealed boiled pig blood. One of the most flavorful dishes of my journey.

As you may have guessed, Vietnamese food is largely soup-based, and is generally paired with noodles. The sheer variety of noodles available in Vietnam can be overwhelming, but the most common types are bún (sticky and thin rice noodle, also known as rice vermillion), and báhn phō (thick, fettuccine-shaped rice noodle). Instant noodles can also be seen, and their use is hardly looked down upon, as their quality is vastly superior to the typical ramen. 

Cao làu is a signature dish from Hoi An that consists of wheat flour noodles in a small amount of broth. This one includes prawns and quail eggs.

Vietnam is also home to a unique type of uncooked spring roll, consisting of rice paper wrappers, heaps of fresh mint, thin rice noodles, grilled pork or chicken, diced chilies, and peanut sauce. 

Eating in Vietnam is an active process. You construct your own spring rolls using the materials they provide, just like you add your own herbs to soups. 

Lastly, Vietnam's Central Highlands boast phenomenal dark-roast coffee, which is generally poured over ice and mixed with sweetened condensed milk.

I met a lot of people over a cup of Vietnam's rich bean. 

Looking Ahead

In the early 1990s, poverty in Vietnam hovered over 50%. Today, it's less than three. Foreign investors are pouring money into this rapidly growing economy that is set to become an Asian Tiger in the foreseeable future.

The urbanization of Vietnam.

After four weeks of traveling through this beautiful country, I have been struck by the integrity of the Vietnamese people. They have come to my aid when lost or in need, invited me for coffee when sitting alone, and fed me consistent, savory food when I was hungry, which was all the time. But what ultimately stole me away is far more simple: it's the way people look at one another, gently and directly in the eyes, and smile.

Kids love me. 

With just two months left before I return to Detroit, I am kicking things back into high gear. For the next six weeks, I will be traveling through the north of India, beginning in New Delhi.

Sunset over the former French playground of Da Lat. 

As always, thank you for taking the time to read my blog. Feel free to message me for more photos, stories, or just want to talk.

 

C.A.B.

Day 135: On Japan

Sunday in Tokyo

Sunday in Tokyo

When I was first planning this odyssey across the globe, I geared to undergo two phases, both beginning with an initial country of shock. In Cuba, I immersed myself in a radical nation void of modern conveniences, which, while inefficient and home to an overbearing military dictatorship, quickly drew me in with its exceedingly kind and curious people. This set the stage for my journey in South America, which taught me what it means to be truly happy, even when faced with adverse hardship.

The second leg of my travels will take me inward, where I will delve deeper into myself at a more personal level. The Far East is the birthplace of notions of self-enlightenment, whose ancient cultures strive to strip away social norms and perceptions of pain to reveal the reality of our existence.

Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun. Where two worlds collide to form a twisted, paradoxical society built upon old world values and new age technology. Nothing could have prepared me for this.

Background

To understand modern Japan, you have to understand its origins. Japan's first hunter-gathers arrived to this Pacific island around the year 10,000 BC. As ideas began to spread from the Korean Peninsula, they developed rice cultivation in the fourth century BC. The first known recorded reference of Japan came in the Book of Han, a first century Chinese document that states, "the people of Wo are located across the ocean from Leland Commandery, are divided into more than one hundred tribes, and come to offer tribute from time to time."

Nagoya Castle

Nagoya Castle

In the sixth century AD, Buddhism arrived to Japan from India, and became the national religion. It came to co-exist peacefully with the indigenous Shinto religion, which preaches the sacred nature of everything essential to life. Today, the average Japanese person is more spiritual than religious. Nevertheless, many still arrive to shrines in droves during religious holidays for reasons more based in superstition than observance.

Senso-ji in Tokyo was founded in the year 645 AD

Senso-ji in Tokyo was founded in the year 645 AD

Japanese history can be broken down into 11 distinct periods, beginning in the fourth century with the emergence of the first unified state. For much of this time, it followed the feudal system, with noble families controlling the land and peasants tending to it. Beneath these nobles were the warrior class, the samurai, known for their aesthetic discipline. Japan is a country whose history is wrought with civil war, as clans constantly clashed for power.

The carved images on this shrine in Nikko are called the  Three Wise Monkeys  ( Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil,  and  See No Evil )

The carved images on this shrine in Nikko are called the Three Wise Monkeys (Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, and See No Evil)

In 1853, Commodore Perry of the United States Navy strong-armed the shogun, or military dictator, into a trade agreement that would push Japan into the modern age. Today, Japan has the third largest GDP, and is the most technologically advanced nation on the globe.

Culture

Japan, known as Nippon on the homefront, is a country where you can see 1,200 year old temples one minute and a 400-story skyscraper the next. While people continue to live, worship, and die at the sites of their ancestors, they are immersed in a society so advanced that it's simply unimaginable to most.

A typical neighborhood cemetery, this one in Kamakura, which is about an hour from Tokyo

A typical neighborhood cemetery, this one in Kamakura, which is about an hour from Tokyo

Getting around Japan couldn't be easier, though it's hardly cheap. The high speed bullet train, known as the Shinkansen, reaches speeds of 220 miles per hour, and connects to every major city. City subway systems are clean and easy to follow. Most signs and maps include English translations, and staff are stationed throughout the metro to help tourists like me, who get lost anyways. The trains arrive and depart at the exact same time every day, and are never late.

Technology obviously plays a pretty big role in Japanese life. It is, after all, one of Japan's biggest claims to fame. One thing that shocked me when I first arrived to Tokyo was how quiet it was on a packed train. Coming from South America, where taking public transportation was always a dirty, raucous affair, it was jarring to experience silence on a train. Nearly everyone is glued to their phones, and barely anyone is speaking to one another. I enjoyed the quiet at first, and the fact that no one cared so much as to glance up at the towering foreigner next to them. But after a while, I began to wonder what amazing things were happening on those screens that made people hardly ever want to look up.

Akihabara: where all nerdy fantasies come true

Akihabara: where all nerdy fantasies come true

Manga comics are also very important in modern Japanese culture. At Tokyo's Akihabara district, you can find department stores that sell only manga. On Sundays, the road is blocked off and no cars can pass, crammed with people, many in costume, that want to get the latest edition or fill up the 10-story video arcades. This way of life is not restricted to the youth, and you can easily find men in suits reading comic books after work while slurping down udon.

Even grandpa reads manga

Even grandpa reads manga

At Odds

Japanese old world heritage is based on the notion of living a simple life free from distraction. Some of the biggest, most beautiful temples and shrines in the world are located in Japan, many of which are on the same block downtown as supermodern skyscrapers. It is this paradox that has come to define Japan as it continues into the modern age.

Collision of two worlds in Hiroshima

Collision of two worlds in Hiroshima

Today, the Japanese continue to practice the same social formalities of their past. These include reverence to elders, being respectful and polite to strangers, never raising your voice, and, above all, never complaining. This ancient code of conduct remains strong in Japanese culture, and has come to complement the new world order, which is one based on hard work and abidance of the rules.

But what happens when this blend is taken to the extreme? What happens when people consistently work 15 hour days; when women still look down when walking past a man; when talking aloud on a train is taboo? Up until June of 2015, dancing in public was officially prohibited by the government.

Shame plays a major role in Japanese society, and to break the rules would be dishonorable. While I think it's great that people wait patiently in an organized line to get on the train, or only smoke in the designated smoking zones, sometimes I wish I could just shake the guy that won't jaywalk at 2AM when no cars are within earshot and tell him, "live a little, man!"

Feeding a snow monkey in Kyoto's Arashiyama Monkey Park

Feeding a snow monkey in Kyoto's Arashiyama Monkey Park

The effect of this highly formalized society is noticeable on the average person's self-esteem and overall happiness. In a world where complaint isn't tolerated, many young people don't know how to express their anger or frustration. I think that's why you see so many portal into their iPhones, or dig into a manga comic book: to escape into a world of immediate gratification and excitement. The fertility rate is at its lowest point since WWII, and according to the Japan Family Planning Association, 20% of young men have little or no interest in having a sexual relationship. Rather, walk inside the basement of a comic book shop, where you'll find swarms of adults reading hentai, or manga-style pornography, which is becoming increasingly more violent and bizarre in nature.

Today, Japan has the second-highest suicide rate in the world, behind South Korea. Over 70 people take their own lives every day. That's 25,000 per year. Karoshi: death from overwork. It is the single biggest killer of men in Japan aged 20-44.

Smog is a serious concern, and people are encouraged to wear protective masks when not in their homes

Smog is a serious concern, and people are encouraged to wear protective masks when not in their homes

Cuisine

On a less depressing note, let me talk about the absolute best thing to do in Japan: eat. The food here is incredible, and it's a good enough reason alone to return. Food in Japan is generally very healthy, with the basic building blocks being noodles, vegetables, and fish. There are two major types of noodles: soba (thin, made of buckwheat flour), and udon (thick, made of wheat flour). They can be served either hot or chilled, depending on the season.

If you're looking for a quick fix, you can find quite a bit in Japanese vending machines, including warm miso soup, hot coffee in an aluminum can, Haagen-Dazs ice cream, even packages of ramen noodles that include shrink-wrapped meat or seafood.

Before I get to the fun part, I just want to add that I had no clue what I was ordering most of the time. Not only does the extent of my Japanese stop at arigato (thank you), but at some places you pay for your meal first at an electronic LCD kiosk that takes your order and spits out a ticket, which you then give to the chef. In short, I'm more grateful for waiters now.

I hope these photos do the intense flavor of these dishes the justice they deserve:

The best sushi that I will probably ever have came from Tsukiji in Tokyo, which is the largest fish market in the world. This photo includes lean tuna, medium-fatty tuna, sea cucumber, and sweetened egg, among other things.  

The best sushi that I will probably ever have came from Tsukiji in Tokyo, which is the largest fish market in the world. This photo includes lean tuna, medium-fatty tuna, sea cucumber, and sweetened egg, among other things.  

Beef tendon stew with tomato and boiled potato, parsley to garnish.

Beef tendon stew with tomato and boiled potato, parsley to garnish.

Udon noodles in beef broth with green onions and poached egg.

Udon noodles in beef broth with green onions and poached egg.

Tomato-miso soup with rice, spinach, and rice paper.

Tomato-miso soup with rice, spinach, and rice paper.

Tokayaki : sweet, wheat flour-based batter that's mixed with diced octopus and fried. Topped with teriyaki sauce and  katsuobushi , or smoked bonito flakes (a type of fish).

Tokayaki: sweet, wheat flour-based batter that's mixed with diced octopus and fried. Topped with teriyaki sauce and katsuobushi, or smoked bonito flakes (a type of fish).

Okonomiyaki : soba noodles, cabbage, sprouts, and healthy strips of pork belly sandwiched together between a thin pancake and fried egg. Lathered in teriyaki, then garnished with diced parsley and sesame seads. 

Okonomiyaki: soba noodles, cabbage, sprouts, and healthy strips of pork belly sandwiched together between a thin pancake and fried egg. Lathered in teriyaki, then garnished with diced parsley and sesame seads. 

Moving Forward

I've generally said that I can get an adequate understanding of a country and its people in three to four weeks. Japan proved me wrong. While I can say that I sufficiently explored the four major cities and other essential sites, there is still so much more to see, and much of the underpinnings that form the basis of social interactions remain a mystery to me. I think that it would take upwards of three to six months to figure out Japan, which is a testament to its truly unique, complex society.

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto

With its hip-and-gable roofs, momentous shrines, and intense adoration for its storied past, Japan has wonderfully paved the way for the next stage of my journey in Southeast Asia, which values tradition. But more than that, Japan shed valuable light on what can happen when we allow work to consume our lives, or when we use technology as an escape rather than a tool or luxury. The Japanese happen to be some of the kindest, most hospitable people that I have had the pleasure of meeting on this trip, and it's hard knowing that so many of these proud, genuine folk submit to such a bleak fate. With that said, I promise that I won't return to the US an aesthetic hippie and reject modernity, but I do think that living a more moderate lifestyle is essential to our happiness, and I'll strive to keep sight of that.

I'm glad that I didn't miss the colors of fall, which my home state of Michigan is known for.

I'm glad that I didn't miss the colors of fall, which my home state of Michigan is known for.

Anyways, while I've really enjoyed Japan, I saw the temperature dip into the 30s today and that's a good enough reason for me to migrate. On Christmas Eve, I head to Vietnam, and will travel by land until I reach Mumbai.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post, and I hope you have a great holiday season. Please feel free to message me if you have any questions, want to see more photos, or just want to chat.

 

C.A.B

Day 92: On Solo Travel 

Part I

While I have always been proud to be an American, traveling has made me especially grateful for the lifestyle that we often times take for granted in the States. Traveling alone is the embodiment of personal exploration, allowing me to reflect on those notions that we have come to accept as norms. Most importantly, solo travel has given me the opportunity to witness the human element at play amongst foreign peoples, reaffirming the universality of our experience. These are some of my reflections after wandering South America for three months.

Machu Pichuu, Perú 

I can never relive the feeling of utter awe after seeing a passing band of stampeding stallions along the Chilean coast, or the look of sheer joy in the eyes of that Cuban toddler as he chased butterflies at a plaza center. There are some things that are not meant to be captured on film, and it's easy to miss out on the truly special moments when hidden behind the camera. Sometimes I wish that I could have gone on this trip before the Internet—no social media, no blogging, no GoogleMaps when I get lost—that would have been real traveling. For now, AirplaneMode will have to do as I keep my eyes and mind open to truly embrace my surroundings.

Rainbow over Cuzco

While this isn't an experience that I would trade for anything, I would be lying if I said that it wasn't draining at times. After hitting four cities in a week, or a terrible bout with bed bugs, or getting ripped off by a cabbie, sometimes I wish I could take a weekend off to see a game at the Big House and have somewhere I can truly call home for the night. Traveling can get lonely, but I hold that this is among the most important aspects of the experience. Over time, I have gotten more comfortable with myself, doing the things that I want to when I want to do them, regardless if I seem strange doing it. Becoming your own best friend is essential for traveling the world alone, and for living a full, truly satisfying life. 

Future member of Team X Blades in Havana

Solo travel is, more than anything, a test of will and patience. I can't forget how frustrated I was when my flight to Santiago de Cuba was canceled for no explicit reason; apparently airlines in Cuba don't take calls after five, on weekends, or Mondays, and I had to go back to Havana with no place to stay or a guarantee of remedy. When traveling, it's important to realize that things will hardly ever go as planned. By now, I expect my plan to go terribly wrong. As a result, my stress level has dropped dramatically, and it's a pleasant victory when things work out accordingly. If you stay calm and composed, roll with the punches, and stay positive, you'll probably figure it out.

Met this guy in Medellín wearing the hat of my high school in Detroit—he had no idea what it was about  

In terms of my American identity, I have been very well received by locals thus far in my travels. If you show a genuine desire to learn about their cultures, native people will love you, and are always willing to help you, regardless of where you from.

Colca Canyon: the second deepest in the world, and home of the condor

While I have made plenty of friends from Europe on this trip, I have at times been poorly received by a select few travelers that are eager to criticize "American values", obesity, Donald Trump, or ridiculous scholarships to travel the world for eight months—unprovoked. My best advice to any fellow American traveler is to act politely and with sophistication while abroad. The boldness of those arrogant few will undoubtedly expose itself, and you'll see that they're always the first ones to whine like a "spoiled American" when the going actually gets tough.

Bussed 33 hours along the gorgeous Chilean coast to get to Valparaíso

It's too easy for me to say that every American should travel; not everyone has the time or money to make an eight month journey happen. With that said, you'd be surprised how comfortable you could live while traveling on a modest budget, and how much you could see in just two weeks. It is crucial for our growth as a society to see how the developing world lives. Not only does it put a human face on the suffering of those seemingly different and far from us, but seeing the difficult realities abroad can allow us to recognize the same issues that exist in the States, which we prefer to sweep under the rug and ignore. Ignorance is not bliss—the cycle of poverty doesn't disappear just because you choose not to think about it.

Volunteering for a week with these first graders in southern Perú has been a highlight of my journey thus far

Signing off,

C.A.B.

 

#NOWPLAYING

Patience - Nas & Damien Marley

Day 65: On Colombia

Most people told me that I was crazy, even suicidal, for ditching Ecuador for Colombia. Fully aware that its history has been plagued by violence, corruption, and crime, why would I ever decide to spend a month here? The answer is simple: to experience life in one of the happiest countries on the planet.

The view from the second tallest rock in the world, which can be found three hours from Medellín in the small town of Guatapé.

BACKGROUND

Considering that its history began 10,000 years BC, please excuse this gross oversimplification of Colombia's somber past.

For thousands of years before the Spanish arrival in the 16th century, indigenous Indians inhabited the far reaches of Colombia. While the Inca went on to establish a thriving civilization further south, the natives of Colombia never built a major empire, and few enduring monuments remain. Over a dozen distinct groups once existed, scattered throughout the region. 

When the Spanish arrived to Santa Marta in 1500, they were immediately bewitched by rumors of El Dorado, the lost city of gold. While it was never found, their search led to the rapid colonization of the country. Within forty years, the major cities of Cartagena, Bogotá, and Cali were built, which became hubs for the trade of goods and African slaves in the New World.

It took five days of trekking through dense Colombian rainforest to reach the Lost City, founded 600 years before Machu Pichuu. Some 50,000 indigenous people still live in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta.

The Spanish continued to dominate Colombia for the next two hundred years, and the country developed a complex racial hierarchy. In the late 18th century, Simón Bolivár took advantage of Spanish instability and led a war for independence, resulting in the liberation of Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. 

Colombia was more-or-less wrought with different civil wars for the next hundred years. The Conservatives and Liberals finally joined together to form the National Front in 1958. They banned other political parties, which was enforced by violent repression. This incited the most recent insurrection by leftist guerillas, which is still ongoing. Both the government and the guerillas are equally guilty of committing unthinkable atrocities, including massacre, forced displacement, and extortion. Over 250,000 people have been killed since 1958, with four out of five victims being civilian noncombatants. Amid the chaos, the country sprouted into the world's leading producer of cocaine. Pablo Escobar became a household name, and drug cartels emerged as powerful forces for terror, among the others.

Over the past decade, however, Colombia has seen dramatic improvements in overall security and economic stability. The government has found success in quelling resistance groups, and recently came to a truce with FARC in Havana. Police forces can be seen at every street corner in major cities, and crime is at its lowest point in over 30 years. Tourism has boomed in recent years, resulting in massive foreign investment. The unemployment rate has dropped nearly 10% since 2000. 

After class in Bogotá.

MOVING FORWARD

The favelas of Medellín

Despite massive improvements, Colombia still has a long way to go before its citizens receive the standard of living that they deserve. Government corruption remains rampant, with many officials showing close ties to paramilitary units. The public education system is extremely poor, and only those that can afford expensive private schools have much of a chance for success. Millions remain displaced as a result of the war and continue to be pushed to the outskirts of major cities, where they build shacks without title or access to government services. While crime is nowhere near what it is was in 2000, it remains widespread, and one has to take serious care walking through any city. Five days before my arrival to Medellín, an American tourist from New York taking a taxi from his hotel was robbed and murdered in the same neighborhood that I was due to arrive. 

CULTURE

Considering the above, it probably comes as a surprise to learn that Colombia consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries on the planet (#3 by Bloomberg's BusinessWeekly, #6 by the Happy Planet Index). How can a country with past and ongoing problems of the worst kind boast a population happier than my own, which is the most developed in the world? After one month immersing myself in Colombian society, I have experienced the unfathomable kindness and generosity of these people, and am confident that I have isolated the root causes for their cheer.

Cuisine

Wow. These people know how to eat. On my first day in Bogotá, my gracious hosts took me to a popular restaurant and ordered a wide selection of typical foods. The average meal costs between 5,000-12,000 pesos, or 2-4 US dollars, and you will be full. There's quite a bit to cover here, so I'll just include a few of the most typical dishes.

Fritanga

Arepa is a kind of bread made of cornmeal. It's pretty dense, and can be served plain, or stuffed. Common additions include egg, chicken, beef, chorizo, and chicharron (pork rinds). Arepa is extremely common, and is generally incorporated in every dish.

Bandeja paisa is a high-calorie platter of red beans, white rice, chicharron, shredded beef, fried eggs, and avocado. The best plate can be found in Medellín, where it originated. Though seriously delicious, this thing is not for the faint of heart, and you might have to enlist a friend's help. 

Sancocho is by far my favorite Colombian dish. This hearty soup is filled with potatoes, yuca (not a potato, but from the same family), corn on the cob, and some kind of meat, depending on where you are. The best sancocho that I ate also had rice, avocado, and sliced banana in it. Sancocho can be found in other countries in Latin America, but am told that it doesn't get better than in Colombia.

Sancocho

Fruit in Colombia is extremely varied, with so many types that I had never even seen before. There are juice vendors all over the place that are ready to sell you an icy glass for 1,000 pesos, or about 30 cents. The best juice that I had is called sandía, which is a chunky watermelon juice that is enhanced with lime, pineapple, and sugar.

Lastly, you can't say that you've been to Colombia without drinking copious amounts of coffee. Juan Valdez is the Colombian Starbucks, only better, and can be found every few blocks.  Colombian coffee is rich and potent, yet varies from region to region. My favorite type hails from Huila, which isn't fancy or complex, but naturally aromatic with a consistent flavor.  

Music

Life in Colombia revolves around music and dancing. Its people are born with rhythm from birth, and they learn how to dance as soon as they can stand on two feet. As a hopeless American, I was given a free pass from scrutiny, and people were eager to give me a free lesson. While I am proud of my improvements, I am still very much a noobie in the eyes of any native.

Plaza de Bolivár, Bogotá

Salsa is popular everywhere, and the best dancers in the world come from Cali, which boasts a highly technical, rapid style. With that said, there are countless types of music, each with an accompanying dance. The coast has over 25 different types of music, but champeta is the most popular style, marked by cheerful, African-inspired rhythms that are easy to dance to. In Medellín, expect to dance reggaeton, which is an impassioned, Latin-based blend of reggae and hip-hop, and my personal favorite. More traditional music is popular as well, such as cumbia, which evolved out of native influences, and incorporates vocals, percussion, saxophone, and brass instruments. Expect long nights, sore feet, and weary hips.

Strange video with an unnecessarily long intro (skip to 40 seconds), but a great reggaeton song nonetheless.

Regional Diversity

The weather in Colombia varies greatly depending on where you are in the country, and it stays relatively the same all year round.

Another gorgeous day in Medellín. 

I am confident when I say that Medellín is the best city in the country. Also known as the City of Eternal Spring, it boasts mild and sunny, 80-degree weather year round. The metro system is efficient and clean. It is just big enough to be considered a big city, but it is not overwhelming or impossible to navigate. It is located in a valley, and is completely surrounded by mountains. The streets are wide and lined with tall green palms and willows. On Sundays, a major road is closed for Cyclovia, which is an opportunity for people to walk, bike, inline skate, and enjoy the weather. The best park is Parque Botero, which has giant sculptures from world-famous artist Fernando Botero. Medellín also has the most beautiful women in the world, and I fell in love at least a dozen times per day. The people here are known as paisas, and are especially friendly and cultured.

A typical street in Cartagena

Cartagena is located on the coast, and it is usually around 90 and humid all day. It is known for its historic center, where you can find one of the oldest and significant ports of the New World. Cruise the multicolored streets and you will get a glimpse of Colombia's colonial past. Outside of the walled, historical area, however, you will find a largely impoverished city. People on the coast are especially open and outgoing.

La Candelaria, Bogotá

Bogotá is the nation's capital, and is of major international importance. While Bogotá has by far the worst weather in Colombia, with the temperature hovering above 65 degrees, the epic mountains lining its eastern border provide a phenomenal backdrop to this eerie metropolis. It is generally cloudy, and it rains intermittently throughout the week. Their metro system is called TransMilenio, which is bus-based. It has its own lane to beat hectic Bogotá traffic. People are only allowed to drive their cars on alternating days, so the metro is widely used and very crowded. La Candelaria is the historical center of Bogotá, and is home to some really awesome architecture, which ranges from colonial to postmodern. Bogotá is the most dangerous city in Colombia, and you need to watch your back at all times. Locals were shocked when I said that I use public transport. I could not take very many photos here because it was simply not safe to take out my phone. With that said, there is quite a bit that's worth seeing in Bogotá, and you will be fine if you keep your wits about you and keep away from the south. Museo de Oro (the Gold Museum) has the finest collection of Pre-Colombian gold in the world, and isn't to be missed. Take a trip up the mountain via aerial tram to the sanctuary of Monserratte, where the beauty of Bogotá and its surrounding landscape will leave you speechless. The people here are known as rolos, and are known for being laid back and cool.

El Museo de Oro, Bogotá

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Colombia is such a wonderfully diverse country, which is one of the major reasons why its people are so happy. Each region takes intense pride in its uniqueness, though Colombians are eager to set aside their differences for the nation. It's hard to stay upset for long when you live in a city that's sunny and 80 degrees year round, or when you can drown your sorrows in sancocho and gorgeous women. While still not completely safe, it really is improving. In Medellín, a metro-cable was built to connect the poor mountain neighborhoods with the downtown metro system, which has improved their standard of living and access to work and education, while reducing crime. Colombians are especially friendly people, are don't deserve to be branded by the headlines. The new generation wants nothing more than to leave the past behind them, and to clear misperceptions of their country. Colombia is developing quite rapidly, and has already undergone dramatic changes. As its security infrastructure continues to improve, prepare to hear more about this country being a major travel hotspot for international tourists. If not for its rich culture, delicious food, or fiery dance, come to Colombia to experience true happiness in action, which beams from the people and spreads like wildfire.

Over the next two months, I will be traveling quite rapidly; I will explore Peru, bus through Chile, and cross over into Argentina, where I will stay until early December.

As always, feel free to contact me to for more photos, experiences, or just to talk

Day 31: Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

On Cuba

Havana Harbor

Havana Harbor

For the past month, I have immersed myself in Cuban life so as to attain an understanding of the realities in this socialist state. From the green plains of the rural countryside to the towering peaks of the Sierra Maestra, the white sand and crystal-clear waters of Varadero to the 500-year-old cobblestone steps of Trinidad, Cuba is astonishingly beautiful in so many ways. With that said, life here is vastly different than popular perceptions of 50's glamour and idealistic freedom fighters. Despite its flaws, it is the Cuban people that make traveling to this truly one-of-a-kind island all the more worthwhile, proving to me time and again that they are uniquely forthright and good-natured.

CULTURE

Off the Beaten Path, Trinidad

Off the Beaten Path, Trinidad

To know the real Cuba, you have to familiarize yourself with its complex racial and religious makeup, as well as its rich colonial history. On 27 October 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived to Cuba's eastern shore. Shortly after, Santiago was born, which became the Spanish capital in the Caribbean, and starting point for Pizarro and Cortez, among others, who when on to conquer much of the New World. Cuba became a powerhouse in sugar production. After the natives were killed off by disease and over-work, the island amassed an unprecedented amount of African slaves. This population has had a dramatic impact on Cuban culture, forming the foundations of its iconic music, and introducing the form of religious worship known as Santeria, which is still very much alive today: a pantheistic cult based on the Yoruba people that incorporates some elements of Catholicism. Believers are easily identifiable because they are dressed in all white. Some consider it a status symbol, as there are many costs of membership, like animals for sacrifice, and figurines needed regularly for rituals.

While people will admit that their government is far from perfect, tales of the 1959 Revolution play an important role in modern Cuban identity. A socialist revolution under Fidel Castro overthrew the right-wing government of Fulgencio Batista, which was backed by the military and elites. Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, who lost his life crusading in Bolivia, remains a highly romanticized figure, and you cannot walk 10 feet without seeing his image on a T-shirt, wall, or car windshield.

The famous Iris Jazz Club, Santiago

The famous Iris Jazz Club, Santiago

The Cuban people beam with enormous pride and enthusiasm, and are always in the mood to party (or at least for some rum). Take a night off and dance salsa at a local dive, I promise that you will not regret it. If brazen nightlife is not for you, check out one of the captivating jazz clubs, attend a classical music concert, or cheer on the home team at a baseball game. There is a huge rivalry between Havana and Santiago in pretty much every way, and it all that tension is taken out at the stadium each year.

Jamming out to Afro-Cuban vibe

Jamming out to Afro-Cuban vibe

The sheer number of people that would approach me each day when I am just trying to walk around and enjoy the scenery, or silently read a book in the park was overwhelming at times. It took a lot of patience to not get fed up with heckling taxi drivers block after block (what makes you think that I need a cab right now?), or street vendors that call out every nationality they can think of to try to get your attention (apparently I look Italian). Admittedly, I failed at times, snapping back at them with a few choice words in Spanish, or a glare from Hell that I hope none of you ever have to see. I always regret it. No good comes out of getting upset by someone living life the only way they know how. Tolerance pays in dividends; every encounter reveals something about the culture, no matter how trivial or bothersome it may seem at the time. For every soliciting vendor, or scavenger with half-hearted smile that chats for a few minutes before asking me to buy them a pint of Havana Club rum, there is someone that would approach me with a genuine interest in conversation, and is willing to share their take on Cuban life. I cannot tell you have many sincere, thoughtful discussions I have had. Afterwards, we shake hands as friends and equals, and we go our separate ways.

STANDARD OF LIVING

Down and out

Down and out

Most people in Cuba work for the government to some capacity. Up until about five years ago, you had no other choice but to. Now, very slowly, people are being granted access to open their own private enterprises, which are pretty much limited to in-house restaurants, bed and breakfasts, repair shops, and hair salons. College is free in Cuba, but many do not take advantage, as a degree hardly equates to higher pay. I spoke to a surgeon of over 40 years that makes $35 per month. The average salary is between $10-15 per month, and unemployment remains rampant. Many young people live with their parents well into their 30's because they simply cannot sustain themselves otherwise.

The University of Havana

The University of Havana

I have had conversations with doctors, dentists, economists, shipbuilders, musicians, law students, cult priests - you name it. I have stayed at some very comfortable, yet modest homes, but I have also spent time in the more common reality for Cuban city-dwellers, known as bohios: cement shacks with aluminum roofs and unfinished floors. Despite this seemingly grim circumstance, never have I heard a single grumble or complaint, and I have been astonished to find a people so very generous with the little that they have.

GOVERNMENT

The Sierra Maestra, Santiago

The Sierra Maestra, Santiago

Throughout the course of my journey throughout Cuba, the blatant hypocrisies, injustices, and violations of seemingly basic human rights perpetrated by their government did not cease to amaze me. The Cuban system is one based on overt terror tactics and propaganda, used to strike fear in the eyes of dissenters, and adoration amongst the masses. There is but one political party, and those that speak out or organize against it are liable to indiscriminant imprisonment, at times without due process.

It is evident that the Cuban government has sought out to put their own spin on history, and jam it into the hearts and minds of the people one government-sponsored billboard at a time. These signs and murals can be found on nearly every street, aiming to glorify the Revolution, its leaders, and the Communist Party, or project their barefaced political agenda. One such billboard featured a noose, calling the U.S. embargo on Cuba the "longest genocide in history." While U.S. sanctions on Cuba only proved to hurt the commoner by stifling economic growth and limiting access to basic commodities, it was hardly genocide, and to even compare it to one puts to shame anyone that has ever heard of the Holocaust, ISIS, or the colonization of the New World.

Propoganda at its finest

Propoganda at its finest

While I have enjoyed taking a break from my lifestyle of immediate Internet gratification, I do not think it is right that people have such little access to the Web. To get online, you have to wait in a line for upwards of three to five hours to either purchase a temporary card, good for an hour, or to put money into your account (Cuban citizens only). After that, you have to wait in another line, which is often equally as long, to use one of the government computers, since the WiFi is often times unreliable. Bearing in mind that no other country in Latin America has this problem, I contend that this is merely another ploy by the government to keep their people in the dark. I have learned to become more grateful for all of the great ways to use the Web, whether it is communicating with friends and family, reading the news, or Googling the answer to some obscure question that pops into my head. With that said, these are exactly the things that this government does not want its people to do. Rather, they would prefer to feed them hand-picked news stories on TV and in the papers, and remind them how "just" the government is for rationing them one-pound of chicken per month, without having to worry about them becoming exposed to the finer realities elsewhere.

I suffered a bitter defeat by the self-proclaimed 'Jefe de Cuba' - he lived up to his name

I suffered a bitter defeat by the self-proclaimed 'Jefe de Cuba' - he lived up to his name

I will speak to three successes of the government. The first is safety. Crime is essentially non-existent in Cuba, though mainly due to the extremely heavy police and military presence, and very strict penalties for those caught breaking the law. For the most part, you are pretty safe while walking alone, even at night.

The next is healthcare, which is free to all citizens, regardless of age or ailment. Cuban doctors are actually quite good, arguably the best in Latin America. It is actually a shame that they are so underpaid that many elect to leave the country to serve elsewhere, often times in other countries in Latin America, or in Africa.

The last success of the government has come in the form of agrarian reforms. Before the Revolution, 1.5% of landowners controlled 46% of the land, leaving poor campesinos to tend to it, earning essentially nothing. Land has henceforth been well distributed amongst rural workers, and their quality of life has greatly improved since Batista, though they are still relatively poor.

The rural countryside

The rural countryside

 

I earnestly hope that the recent changes under Raul Castro, such as the loosening of restrictions on free enterprise, continue and accelerate, as the current system is both dismissive and inefficient. I have no doubt that the upcoming surge of American tourists will boost this country's struggling economy, as well as provide new outlets for American industry, which would be a mutually beneficial relationship. With that said, Cuba has undergone periods where people were allowed to practice free enterprise, not unlike today, and these rights were rescinded within a few years. While I am optimistic that this will not happen again, others in this country are not.

CUISINE

Cuban food revolves heavily around cerdo (pork), yet they don't cook bacon, which is a damn shame. The most common cut is lomo (tenderloin), generally either pan-seared, sometimes in a salty, roasted red pepper and garlic sauce, or breaded and fried, which is more commonly the case. A typical dinner also consists of a side of rice, either blanco (white) or moro (brown, with black beans), and a salad consisting of chopped cabbage, avocado, and cucumber, dressed with vinegar and salt.

Chinatown, Havana

Chinatown, Havana

As for street food, you can expect to find little hole-in-the-wall cafeterias every block selling the same ham and cheese sandwiches, or pizzas of ham, extra cheese, or both. I search for places that can serve me up a few fried eggs for brunch, which are cheap and made on the spot, so I know they have not been roasting in the sun with the creepy-crawlers like the sandwiches.

Do not get me wrong; there are some really great restaurants in Cuba if you can afford them. As a budget traveler, however, I have not had that luxury. I really love food, so this has probably been the hardest aspect of traveling for me. With that said, the objective of my journey is to do as the people do, which includes eating at local joints. I spend the first few days in a new city trying out new places and asking people where is the best food for the low. When I find one that is both appetizing and the best bang for my buck, I stick with it. If you ever travel to Cuba, prepare yourself for a lot of pork, and too much salt.

Roasting with the locals in Varadero

Roasting with the locals in Varadero

Fruit is a different story. Mangos in Cuba are truly unbelievable, as well as the guava and tamarind. It is common to find freshly squeezed juice to accompany your meal. Bananas are also plentiful and packed with flavor, though small. A banana goes for one Cuban Peso, or about five cents.

The coffee is to die for, homegrown in the Sierra Maestra. One shot of this bad boy will have you firing on cylinders that you did not know you had, and Cuban sugar is as good as advertised. The best cup can be found at La Isabelica in Santiago, which also serves up live and spirited Afro-Cuban jams.

Last, but certainly not least, is the ice cream. Those that know me well will tell you that I am an absolute fiend for the stuff, and nothing is better to beat the blistering Cuban heat than a five-cent cone of chocolate-strawberry twist (or four). For the finer selection, head over to Copalia's, a popular chain throughout the island, or go to one of the countless other heladerias. Dulcerias also specialize in everything else sweet, and it is not uncommon to see someone walking around stuffing themselves with cake.                         

Where dreams come true: my favorite  heladeria  

Where dreams come true: my favorite heladeria 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Looking back on my experiences in Cuba, I am constantly reminded of the simple acts of generosity that have come to define my stay. I will never forget the day that a young family saw me alone at the beach and invited me to spend the day with them, or when a group of friends bought me twelve scoops of ice cream after I was educated about Cuban reggae by one in line. Consumed by the pursuit of influence and importance, it is all too easy to forget the tender side of human nature, which exists in each of us. While it may seem that I am especially critical of the Cuban government and other inefficiencies in this country, know that it is only because I believe that these people deserve better, as they remind me very much of my people in Detroit and the greater American Midwest.

A visit to Cuba is truly one like no other. Whether you are a classic car enthusiast, coffee and cigar junkie, or an avid beech-goer, there is something for everyone at this Caribbean paradise. For the thrill-seeking backpacker, prepare yourself for a raw experience, as patience is a must for longer stays. If you just want to take a vacation and stay in one of phenomenal hotels, you will absolutely not be disappointed. Take a chance to witness the stunning landscapes, charming architecture, and one-of-a-kind culture. By visiting Cuba, you will be embarking on an adventure unlike any other you will ever experience, and I have no doubt that you will come to love it as I have.

Next stop: Bogotá, Colombia.

The opening of the U.S embassy, Havana

The opening of the U.S embassy, Havana

If you would like to know more about my experiences, or would like to see more photos, feel free to contact me.

Day 5: Havana, Cuba

My first post is dedicated to Detroit's own Local 4 News, who I ran into on the streets of Havana last night after they recognized my U of M and U of D Jesuit clothes. They are doing a special on classic Detroit cars in Cuba, as well as covering the opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana on Friday morning, which I was invited to attend with them. I sat down for an interview with Devin Scillian in Centro Havana with a backdrop of the sunset over El Capitolio. He gave me a Wi-Fi card that is good for thirty minutes, which I am using now. These are pretty expensive and hard to find, as Internet just arrived in Cuba two months ago, and only barely. I'm very grateful for running into them.

Now, onto my eventful start in Cuba. To set the stage, this country is absolutely beautiful. Looking down from my plane window, I could see an endless sea of green palms and farmland. It is incredibly hot all the time (90+), and it tends to rain heavily for an hour or two in the early evening. Upon walking out the airport, I immediately began to see classic American cars, which are often times used as taxis. I hailed one, and set off for Miramar, which is a wealthier residential neighborhood. I thought I'd ease into the trip by staying my first few nights in a nicer place, but the old lady I was staying with told me that there was some miscommunication, and that I only had one night.

For the past four months, I have been training my body for inline skating in heat, which I came equipped for as my form of alternative transportation. After settling in (kinda), I set off around 1PM to explore on blades. Miramar is a solid 7 miles from Habana Vieja, where all the action is, and I couldn't have made it without skating or taking a taxi. I peeked at a map that I had printed before I left so that I had a general idea of where I was going, and decided to check out the famous Malecon: a wide sidewalk that runs along the entire coast of Habana. I spent a few hours exploring this area of the city, which I thought was downtown, but wasn't. The street across from the Malecon was packed with people eating and walking around the countless food vendors along the road. After getting a bite to eat of chicken and brown rice, which is pretty typical, I decided to head back. I crashed early, knowing that I could not sustain this much physical exertion without more water, food, and rest on a daily basis.

The next morning, I packed a water bottle and full water-blatter in my backpack, and set off again, but not before referring to the cached GoogleMap of Havana that I set up while in Michigan. I realized that I had missed most of everything the day before, but was only about a mile away from my furthest point. I took a different route, which allowed me to not only spend a couple of hours at the famous cemetery Necropolis Cristobal Colon, but also get to Habana Vieja more directly. On the way, I saw a sign for a room for rent, and stepped inside to ask about the price, which turned out to be much more in my budget. I took their number and continued, only to be hit by the heavy rain. I waited it out with the locals, seeking shelter underneath covered sidewalks. Eventually, the rain stopped, and I walked around the city center for a couple hours, grabbing an espresso and ice cream to keep me going. Eventually, the rain evaporated form the streets, and I made my way back.

After returning to Miramar around 7, I packed my bags and showered. By 9, I had taken a taxi, and was at my new place, which is much closer to downtown (10 minutes walk). My host family is pretty good at English, which is uncommon here in Cuba, and very convenient for me.

Totally beat, I didn't do much moving the next day. I slept in late, grabbed a bite to eat, and did some reading in the park. Life without Internet has actually been pretty relaxing, though I wish I could at least let my family and friends know that I'm okay more regularly.

On day 4, Victor, one of my hosts, took me to the beach with his girlfriend and 6 other friends. Everyone in Cuba has been extremely kind and welcoming from the very start, and his friends were no exception. With that said, Cubans speak an incredibly difficult dialect of Spanish, and I honestly don't know what the heck people are telling me half the time, so it can be hard to communicate at times. Halfway through the rum, we were more comfortable attempting to speak each other’s languages, and we spent the rest of the afternoon talking about sports, video games, women, and religion, among other things. The beach itself was truly incredibly, with soft white sand and warm, clear water; though I'm told it was "just okay."

Overall, I have really enjoyed my short stay in Cuba thus far. The people are exceptionally generous, and are always willing to help if you're willing to smile and reciprocate kindness. Crime is nearly nonexistent here, and there is a heavy military presence. Police officers are stationed in small tollbooths every couple blocks, and you can see them joyfully chatting with locals. While very few go hungry here, most people are very poor, making an average of $10 per month. You can see gorgeous colonial-style buildings and homes at every turn, but most are in extreme disrepair, many even abandoned, which can be jarring at times. It has been strange to walk downtown and see a magnificent municipal building of stone, and a shanty home of aluminum sheets next to it.

I hope that the general welfare of these people is able to improve now that the U.S. embargo slowly evaporates. Since Raul took the reins from Fidel, the Cuban people have had greater freedom to own small businesses, but these changes are coming very slowly still. Freedom of speech remains very limited, and I once heard someone say to a friend, "Watch what you saw around that guy [me], I think he's a spy". People here are very well informed on the politics of their country, and that of others, including the United States. With that said, people don't expect things to really change for another decade.

I leave for Santiago de Cuba on the 29th, which is on the opposite side of the island, and is a major cultural center of Cuba. In the meantime, I will continue to explore Havana, and I hope to go to Pinar del Rio and Trinidad. When in Santiago, I will also visit Baracoa.

I apologize if this post is a bit disjointed, as I'm still getting used to blogging, and I had to write this rather quickly. I hope that you enjoy my photos of Havana, and feel free to contact me with questions, comments, etc. - I promise to respond as soon as I can, and will upload more photos when possible.

- Christian



Day 1: Yucatán, Mexico

If my first day traveling the globe is in any way representative of what's ahead of me, I'm in for one hell of a ride. 

As you might have noticed from the title of this post, I'm not sipping on mojitos and soaking in the splendor of Havana quite yet. After touching down in Cancún, my luggage was lost in transit. Luckily, I had a four hour layover before heading to Havana, so I wasn't worried about missing my connecting flight. Determined to find my bag, which I literally watched them load onto the plane from my window, I scoured the airport in search of someone that might have some answers. Miraculously, the airline found my bag two hours later, though they didn't have an answer to why it ever went missing in the first place.

After taking a shuttle to another terminal in Cancún's ridiculous maze of an airport, I came to find out that my flight from Cancún to Havana was delayed "3+" hours. By that, they meant 12. Despite the setback, I was consoled by countless airport personnel that laughed with me as I attempted to explain my problem to them in terribly broken Spanish. I was shuttled to a nearby hotel about 30 minutes from the airport, where I have been provided a comfortable room overlooking the Gulf. With any luck, I will be leaving for Havana at 3AM. 

With all this said, today has been actually kinda fun, though I'd prefer to be lounging by the Malecon with a Partagás and an icy glass of rum. Over the course of just 12 hours, I have not only been thrust into an environment completely unfamiliar to me, but I have been forced to think on my feet and remain calm at all costs. There is nothing more gratifying than knowing that you kept your wits about you when confronted with a barrage of errors. 

While I don't want to ever have to waste another day because of careless airlines, I probably will. It's going to be important, though, to remain calm and enjoy the moment, even if it's not the one I had imagined. There are going to be a lot of things that I won't be able to control over the next eight months, and I'll only drive myself crazy if I let every issue get to me. Rather than sulk that I'm not in Cuba, I'd rather be grateful that I've been put into a hotel for the night so I don't have to sleep in the airport. Despite the chaos and confusion, it would be meaningless and draining to try to point the finger at anyone for these unpredictable roadblocks. I'm happy to be here right now, free off all burdens and obligations. Shouldn't that be enough?

 

Disclaimer: Internet is not readily available in Cuba, so I won't be able to post very much over the next month, if at all. If I find that is not practical to gain access, I promise to have a comprehensive post about America's former rival when I arrive in Colombia come September.