My Thoughts on Cuba

the view of what looks like havan ruins, but is actually the neighborhood directly beside the old centerCuba is a crumbling colonial city – literally. The few buildings that comprise the center of Havana and also the small town of Trinidad are immaculately kept buildings, preserved in their same state since colonial rule, but the rest of Havana and all the more rural towns are filled with buildings that are literally falling apart. The stereotypical colour array of brightly painted houses  only applies to the lucky buildings, and the ones that are in the middle of being restored look quite different as colourless facedes completely gutted and surrounded by scaffolding old enough that vines have overtaken them. The deteriorating state of homes may have something to do with the fact that they are all owned by the state; individuals are allocated housing and have no ownership to the property, and of course when something isn´t yours, its harder to motivate someone to take better care of it!

The women are as colourful as the houses, wearing a lot of bright, bold colours like red, yellow and white, that stick out beautifully against their dark tans. Some of the people are actually quite fair; green and blue eyed beauties represent those many that are actually of european decent. The antique cars that literally fill the city are also as colourful, immaculately restored to look like theyhave been newly made in the 60’s just yesterday. The rest of the 50 year old cars, mostly russian Lada’s, are barely running, heavily pollutant, and definitely wouldnt be street legal in any other country.

People in cuba really do smoke a lot of cigars, but not the Cohibas or Montecristos that are exported for foreigners; they smoke 1MD (moneda nacional peso – the equivalent of 5 cents) cigars that I think are just as tasty, so long as you don’t get one that is totally dried out. You can also buy ridiculously cheap churros and ice cream, but only if you are far away from tourist central, since they will charge foreigners the peso equiavelent in CUC (aka pesos convertibles) which are actually worth 25 times more than one MD peso. This is an extremely confusing pricing system, since both are refered to as ´pesos´but one is pinned to the US dollar and actually converted at a rate slightly stronger then it, and the other is their ´old´peso currency, but both still circulate as legal tender. The most ludicrous business in Havana is getting on the internet; since it was just recently legalized to have computers and internet connection, expect to pay around 4 or 5 euro per hour!

I visited the tranquil Cementerio de Colón, which was extremely beautiful, but some aspect of reverence was lost when a man in flip flops walked up to the cemetery wall (from who knows where since there was just a highway beside it) and threw over it a dead chicken. Weird.

Traveling as a woman in Cuba isn’t easy if its your time of the month since they do not sell tampons, anywhere. Couchsurfing is also, for the most part, non existent since it is illegal for Cubans to host foreigners. And buses and trains operate with extreme infrequencies, with posted schedules a rarity, and even if they were accessible, tourists get different bus services and ticket prices – about 25 times more the cost for long distance buses that only run once or twice a day.

All in all it was a wonderful trip, but one of the more difficult latin american countries to backpack through since little tourism infrastructure exists outside of Havana. People outside of tourism hot spots are not used to seeing tourists, and definitely not aware of how the industry works, and frankly, not interested in finding out since the laws on interacting, hosting or charging tourists are extremely strict; instead of looking like walking walles, most tourists probably just look like a reason to get in trouble. The quietude I experienced from almost noone hassling me for my money was something that has never happened to me while traveling, and at times I enjoyed it, but other times, it made travel a little more difficult since people almost totally ignore you and are much less inclined to help you or spend their time talking to you if you have questions! Kind of bizarre, but I don´t blame them, and when I did get to interact with the locals, they were an extremeley happy, friendly bunch.

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Niagra Falls

I spent a few days in Toronto on my way from Cuba back to Iceland, and it was a cold, windy weekend. I was staying with a friend who lives a stone throw from Kindgand Queen street – the main shopping drags – as well as a few blocks from the CN tower, so I couldnt justify taking and public transport and spent a few days just walking around in the blistering cold. I was wearing my Olympic gear jacket and hat since it was the only winter wear I packed with me and felt like that kid who was wearing clothes that were ´so yesterday.´ My friends lived in one of a set of 2 storey, 150 year old brick buildings that looked like they were straight out of the Mary Poppins movie set!

I wanted to go up the CN tower but it cost a cool $25 just to take the elevator up to the top and look through the glass floor apparently many people dont even have the stomach for. I instead observed it in all its glory from outiside, and was almost blown over by winds so strong that taking a photo of that was difficult.

The highlight of my visit to Tonronto was a daytrip I took to Niagra falls, about an hour and a half drive away and directly on the border between Ontario, Canada and NY, USA. It was even more windy and cold there, with some of the water from the falls being blown back up instead of falling down, and coming right over the observation deck and soaking everyone and their cameras. It was soooo horrible cold, and you couldnt even look directly at the falls since water was literally being thrown in your face, so Im not sure I got the best Niagra experience, but I did have my waterproof camera and managed to get a few shots. Even if you walked a few hundred meters away from the falls along the cliff edge, still with a good view of the falls, it was raining, and with the wind combined, raining horizontally, still going straight into your face. It was like batlle of the elements as I struggled to walk forward and in a straight line with winds strong enough to blow you over. The American Falls, a set of falls on the american side of the river and half a km away from the main horseshoe falls, were more tame, and also far away enough not to soak me, so I took a couple photos of that too, but the sight of casinos, and other highrise buildings in the background in Buffalo took something away from this ´natural wonder´atraction.

Vancouver 2010: an Olympic Party

The fireworks set off outside BC Place, where the closing ceremonies took place inside

The fireworks set off outside BC Place, where the closing ceremonies took place inside

During the winter olympics that just passed, Vancouver experienced the biggest party of its life. It traditionally has no festivals, concerts or carnivals that are large-scale enough to bring hundreds of thousands into the city, causing every hotel, resturant and bar to be packed to capacity 24/7. In addition, road closures and traffic bans were made, allowing the same thousands of people to flood the streets for any combination of shopping, walking, dancing, drinking or celebrating, and overflowing all the buses and sky-trains, and sea-buses despite increases in frequency.

On big game days, mostly men’s Canadian hockey, but also some skating events, and other days for no reason at all except that it was the olympics, you would feel the Canadian love simply by the sheer masses in the streets wearing red, screaming “Go Canada” and being overly happy. Everytime Canada won a medal, one of the large cruise ships parked in the harbour would blow its horn loud and clear, so that everyone in the streets erupted in cheers, whether or not they knew what medal or event they were yelling for. During the qualification playoff, quarter final, semifinal and gold medal hockey game, this would happen every single time Canada even scored a goal, so the entire city, whether they wanted to or not, followed the game’s progress until Canada won, and the same chorus of cheers lasted just a bit longer and louder to let everyone know the game was over and subsequently, that is was party time.

On the last day of the Olympics, Sunday February 28th, the combination of the Men’s hockey final and the explosive, impressive closing ceremonies sent the city into a full day (I’m talking an 8 am party start time) and night (til 4 am the next morning) long celebration for the most successful Canadian Olympics ever, with Canadian pride pouring thick and the colours of red and smell of alcohol inescapable in all the streets of downtown Vancouver. Im sure this happened in other Canadian cities too, but what was so suprising was the intense silence that followed Monday morning. No more fans, no more athletes, no more red, no more Canada cheers; the entire city seemed like a ghost town as businesses and people returned to their regular, every day lives, and traffic began to fill the pedestrian-empty streets.

Goodbye Winter Olympics, we loved having you!

Patagonia: Terra del Fuego & Ushuaia

To actually get to Antarctica, I had to fly south from Buenos Aires to the small port of Ushuaia, affectionately called the Southernmost city (not town, which is in Chile) in the world. Not so proudly, it was also once the city of condemnation for criminals, where all of Argentina’s worst criminals were sent to be isolated in the cold, lonely island province of Terra del Fuego. It was called ‘Land of Fire’ because the first european explorers to discover it sailed along its shores noticing many fires and smoke rising from the land since the indigenous population there used fire often in their day-to-day lives. More than using fire for heat, they used it to cook, since they were actually an evolved type of man that barely felt cold – despite the cold temperatures and snow, they lived in small, uninsulated huts made of wood, wore no clothes, and ate over 10,000 calories a day that they easily burned up without being overweight at all.

Ushuaia, also nicknamed the Ed of the World, is the only city in Argentina that is actually on the west side of the Andes, forcing people to cross the massive mountain range and all its glaciers to get to mainland Argentina. Since the province is also technically an island, they have to cross into Chile before being able to sail accross to mainland Argentina. Their tourist season runs all year round and is the main industry there, since they have the ski mountains to appeal during the winter months, and the 40,000+ cruise passengers visiting in the summer months to board their ships that sail to Antarctica. It still has a small-city feel, with unpaved roads, and the little bit of ‘rough-around-the-edges’ underdevelopment that still exists probably disappears under a blanket of snow every winter.

the andesTerra del Fuego National Park was one of the most beautiful parks I have ever seen, lush in mosses, vibrant flours, big forests, with colours of green, blue and brown dramatically lit by the long sun-hours. There is only about 1/3 of the park that you can access by car/bike, and the rest you could get lost in hiking around for weeks. The andes, glaciers, and not far-off Chile creates a spectacular backdrop, and without any fences or farms, horses seem to roam freely in open fields, bunnies hop around grazing, and breeding ducks and big hawks litter the ponds and air everywhere. If i could do it again, I would have given myself a lot more time, supplies and film to have spent weeks there, roaming the coast, fields and mountainsides for days on end trying to capture the natural beauty I find myself having a hard time trying to explain now.

Uruguay's Many Sides

Punta del Este's Atlantic beachAfter a week in Argentina, we traveled for 5 days through Uruguay which required almost as much travel time as actual down time since we ferried from Buenos Aires to the historical town of Colonia del Sacramento, bussed to Montevideo, and then finally onto Punta del este on the South East corner or Uruguay where the beach actually opens to a mixture of river and the Atlantic Ocean before coming all the way back to Buenos Aires in only 5 days.

Colonia was a beautiful small town, with cobblestone streets and colonial architecture, old vintage cars and a sleepy feel which was slightly disrupted by the really windy day we had there. It is only a 1 hr ferry from Buenos Aires to get there, and many tourists from Buenos Aires make it there just for a day trip to say they set foot on Uruguaian soil.

The entire downtown core is walkable in 5 mins accross in either direction, so after one night and a day there, we carried on to Punta del Este, a much larger, metropolitan and modern tourist destination that lies on a peninsula of land surrounded almost 360 degrees by water. The beach on the west side technically sits on the Rio de la Plata, and the beach half a kilometer away on the east side is the Atlantic side, with big waves, great surf, and a bluer tinge to the water. The main strip down the centre of town almost feels like Miami beach even Vegas, or some smiliar, busy, bright-light party town, with lots of shopping, nightlife, casions and tourist-infrastructure.

Prices were not cheap here, or atleast not comparable to the rest of Uruguay, and because of this, in addition to being there during the height of tourist season, we paid $25 per person for a hostel bed each, my bed being the top bunk in a set of 3 (inches from the roof) with 9 people in a small, windowless, basement room, and Steve’s bed being a mattress in the hallway beside all the storage lockers. We made the most of it by trying to cook a delicious steak dinner in their kitchen (also in a hallway) but ran into some complications when their only knife broke and we barely had enough pots, plates or utensils to prepare a meal for two.

Finally there was Montevideo, a big, sprawling city that was much more developed than I expected, with an old, historical core and then a new, more european-feeling, modern area surrounding it. We couchsurfed with a couple people who lived 3 blocks from the beach – the crowning jewel of Montevideo which makes it almost a better city to live in than Buenos Aires. The beach had perfectly soft sand, made of the tiniest grains that sparkled like pieces of gold in the sunlight, and the water would change from shades of brown to blue depending on how much river water could reach the banks after mixing with the open ocean water  a few kilometers away. It was strange to see the murky river water acting tidal, small waves of the Rio de la Plata crashing on the shore.

Uruguay definitely impressed, feeling just a little warmer, cleaner, and more expensive than Buenos Aires, but perhaps it was just my bias from loving the beach time I had while in the city when Buenos Aires’ Puerto Madero riverbank teased as the only waterfront area with no swimming access.

Antarctica

some crabeater seals on a drift icebergI wanted to go to Antarctica for a few reasons; first, because I am studying ecotourism for my master’s thesis and wanted to do a case study, second, because I LOVE penguins, and thirdly, because it is the 7th and last continent I had to visit. I actually booked this trip by accident, or at least with very little planning, since I was talked into going by a cute little japanese travel agent that gave me a price deal that anyone who is obsessed with traveling would have been crazy to turn down.

I sailed for 9 days from Ushuaia, starting due east out the Beagle Channel to avoid crossing into Chilean water (which is literally a few hundred meters away at certain points) on a 200 person capacity reinforced-hull cruise ship named the Clipper Adventurer with Quark Expeditions. Most of the other 120 passengers were either retired, rich, an American couple or questionably too old to handle the trip, leaving me as the youngest, brokest, loneliest passenger… until I made friends with the comparably aged crew. There were these two token ladies on the ship who always wore the same colour; one was always in yellow, the other, always in purple, and I mean head to toe in colour – shoes, pants, jacket, gloves, scarf, hat, glasses and even nail polish.

I shared a room with two hilarious Chinese women, who insisted they were from Alabama everytime you asked them where they came from even though they are American immigrants from Beijing with the furthest thing from a southern American accent. They were sea-sick the entire drake passage, as was most of the ship, and rightuflly so since the 5 m swells rocked our little ship, despite the stabilizers it claims to have. Our room was comfortable, and for the most part the ship was really luxurious (excpet for a minor issue with our toilet seat falling off) with the most amazing 3 course, porcelain plated meals a budget traveler could ask for (which was included in the cost of the curise).

Vernadsky, the Ukraine Antarctic research station we visitedMy first penguin sighting happened a few hours after departure, on a lighthouse island in the middle of the Channel. I smoked a couple cigars on the chilly deck, and managed to find a comfortable place to hang my hammock to try and counterbalance the sea-sickening rocking. Once we made it to the Antarctic continent 2 days later, we made 8 landings over the course of 4 days, visiting some active research stations, and other abandoned research stations or places that have been turned into museum-like historical points of interest.

There were all types of seals, lots of whale sightings, and the most dramatic, beautiful landscape of massive mountain peaks, thousand-year old glaciers, and icebergs the size of our ship. I saw thousands upon thousands of more penguins, of all shape and size, mostly Gentoo’s, Adelie’s, and Chinstraps, but also one each of a Macaroni penguin, King penguin and Emperor penguin, all of whom were far away from any of their species or breeding grounds. We had a polar plunge where 30 brave souls actually jumped into the water – it wasnt just freezing, it was below freezing! We visited one Ukraine research station and got out passports stamped as if we had cleared customs in Ukraine – very cool.

lots of gentoo penguins and their chicks, with the Clipper Adventurer in the backgroundThe sail home was suprisingly calm, with barely any waves – very atypical of the Drake. Once arriving back Ushuaia, it was hard to lose your sea-legs on stable land, and the faint smell of exhaust from cars almost made me choke – confusingly stifling after a week of the freshest, cleanest, cool Antarctic air. I flew straight back home after this, 38 hours and 4 flights later from 54 degrees latitude south to 49 degrees latitude north. Going through the airport in Buenos Aires was a weather shock, with the humid, tropical air equally stifling and the torrential rain soaking me in seconds as I walked from the plane onto the tarmac to get into the terminal. I managed to miss one connecting flight in Houston, but got rerouted through San Francisco, upgraded to first class, and then had 2 hrs to spare to meet my bestfriend for lunch at In-n-Out burger.

Finally getting back home was a relief, but I am definitely still daydreaming about the surreal landscape of Antarctica.

Argentina's Wonderful Cliche's

Iguazu FallsI traveled to Buenos Aires as my gateway to get to Antarctica, but thought I’d take the time to spend 2 weeks there roaming around. I of course took the opportunity to tango dance, making it out to a few ‘milongas’ and ‘practica’s’ to dance with the most stereotyped Argentinian men ever – serious faced in full suits, slicked back, long-ish hair, with shiny black dance shoes beautifully leading around women in dainty, stilleto shoes in this aggressive but very seductive dance in the most professional way you can.

I of course had to try mate, the strong, bitter tea that all Argentinians seem to drink but no tourist can actually buy anywhere without buying all their own ingredients and making it themselves. Figuring out how to cure the mate cup and make a perfect drink was no easy task either, but one friendly waiter at a hotel we stayed at finally helped us make our first cup.

My spanish is far from good, but my comprehension is alright and my travel companion’s speaking skills were great, so between the two of us, we got by ok but still had trouble with the ‘sh’ sound that Argentinians prnounce double ll’s (as in llamada or llave) instead of the traditional ‘y’ sound used in other spanish-speaking countries. ‘Calle’ (road) became ‘cashe’ and ‘llama’ (name) became ‘shama’ and adopting their italian intonation in certain words and phrases was tricky too.  However, different from the French, it was refreshing to know that they would always stick to their rapid spanish speaking and allow us to struggle through what we were trying to understand or say in broken spanish without switching to english the moment they knew we were english speakers. Some of them would be perfect english speakers too, but still patiently allow the conversation to continue in spanish unless we finally surrendered to english.

The wine was bountiful and cheap, great bottles of Cab. Sauv from mendoza for under $2US a bottle. Even their liquor was cheap, at $3 a bottle of vodka or whiskey, but their whiskey somehow tasted like bad tequila – a sacrifice I guess I was willing to make to support a steady drinking habit while on vacation. Best of all was the many types of domestic beers – Pilsen, Salta, Isenbeck – all availbe in lager, ale or dark/stout, for about $1 – $3 a litre. The street food paired perfectly, and we managed to find the best empanada shop in Buenos Aires in a small hole-in-the-wall place a few blocks from one of the couchsurfers we stayed with.

We went to Tigre, a delta town north-east of Buenos Aires, but were much more impressed by the rivers and waterfalls of Iguazu. We spent a day at the falls, accompanied by hundreds of butterflies all colors of the rainbow, and later at our lavish hotel realized we could kayak to Brazil by paddling accross a calm, 200m part of the river. We were met by a lone brazilian, on weekend retreat to his small shack built on the river bank. After realizing the river was at a high point, swollen high by the rainy season, and that anacondas would easily reach us, we quickly paddled back to be met by a security guard from the hotel frantically calling us back to the Argentinian shore. Too bad we don’t have a stamp in our passports to prove it (or any photos for that matter), but kayaking to brazil was definitely a highlight, and perhaps well worth the risk of being eaten by anacondas…