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Category Archives: Culture Shock!

Enjoying Havana

We had been trying to go to Cuba for awhile.  We had the whole plan set to go before we were officially allowed to, but easing of the restrictions made it easier for us.  Our flight from Mexico City set down after dark and we had our visas and passports and we couldn’t wait to get out there exploring.  They took our picture at customs then we waiting in the muggy airport for a long while waiting for our luggage.  Everything was painted USSR red and the women customs agents wore tight khaki army skirts along with fishnet tights and heels.  The agents led basset hounds around the airport, making people drop their bags while the dogs circled them.  The form we signed made it very clear we were not to bring drugs, guns, or pornography into the country.  Our taxi driver was waiting for us with our name on a sign.  She would take us to our casa particular in Centro Habana.  First we had to change money.  Cuban locals use the peso, while foreigners have to change their cash into Cuban Convertible Pesos which equal $1 or 24 local pesos.  They charge 10% to exchange dollars so it was cheaper for us to bring Euros and trade them for CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos).  All the local shops use pesos while tourist areas only take CUC so after you get the CUC you can trade a little bit to pesos to spend on snacks and ice cream and such.  It was confusing and redundant, like many things we would find in Cuba.

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Our taxi was a red ’50s Chevy with the inside refurbished and a big TV screen that played loud reggaeton music videos.  It was awesome.  In Cuba travelers have two options for accommodation: government-run hotels or private “casas particulares” which are rooms in private family homes.  Kind of like AirBNB, the casas are much more affordable and friendly than the overpriced, stark government hotels!  In Havana we stayed in a fifth floor apartment in the center, with a nice lady whose Spanish was understandable.

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Breakfast at our casa particular

The first thing I noticed in Cuba was the lack of billboards.  The only thing resembling advertising was political propaganda.  There’s about a 50/50 ratio of old/new cars in the city.  The stores had dim lighting and the shelves were sparsely stocked with dusty goods.  No Coca Cola!  Only a national soda brand.

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View from our bedroom window in central Havana

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In Havana it seems like everyone is always out and about, living their lives outside.  Every building is a different color and in a different state of disrepair or renovation.  The cars were the same, with the freshly-painted old classics always full of tourists driving loops around the city.  As we walked through Habana Vieja (Old Havana), enchanting live music flowed from almost every cafe, even at lunchtime.

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Surprisingly, we were never really hassled; we just had a lot of friendly people want to know where we were from.  We walked and walked, seeing the old castles and fortifications that kept the pirates out.

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Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro

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Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana

It was super hot on our first day in the city (high 80s) but the sea breeze coming off the Malecón (sea wall) helped a bit.  The Malecón is where everyone gathers at night to hang out, drink beer and rum, and see and be seen.  On our second night the wind picked up and sent waves over the wall in dramatic fashion, closing the road and sending careless tourists running for dry ground.

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West of the Malecón lies the Vedado neighborhood.  Newer than Havana Vieja, Vedado is home to the large hotels, sprawling residential areas, and the city’s best nightlife.

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We found a Beatles themed rock club called Amarillo Submarino where they had a great rock ‘n’ roll cover band.  It used to be illegal to play all English music, but times have changed in Cuba.

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Our favorite spot in Vedado was the Coppelia ice cream shop.  The place is shaped like a giant space ship and was opened in the ’60s right after the revolution.  Always busy, you have to wait in a long line where they have a one in-one out policy.  They try to usher foreigners into a separate area, but do not be led off course because the locals’ area is the real deal!  Once inside you will be ushered into one of four rooms, seated at shared tables and served whatever ice cream flavors they feel like at the time.  Each room has different flavors, so cross your fingers when getting seated.  Oh, and the scoops are one peso each, or about 4 cents.  Since the ice cream is so cheap, everyone orders at least 1o scoops apiece!  On the best night we got a choice of mint or chocolate mint flavors, on the worst the choice was between guava, banana or plantain.  It’s also a great place to people watch and witness the redundancies of the communist workforce.  There are bored bouncers in several different locations, servers, scoopers, bussers, water pourers.  It takes a simple ice cream shop to a crazy level of complexity.  Never did it stop being strange.

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Coppelia

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We did NOT order enough ice cream on this night

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That’s more like it

Havana is a city of layers, never lacking in character or interesting encounters.  The people are full of life and resiliency, pushing forward despite everyday struggles that are sometimes unbelievable.  I don’t think you could see the same Havana twice with so much change happening at every moment.  It did make us appreciate just how easy we have it, the simplicity of just going out and buying whatever, whenever.  But then again, is that how things are supposed to be?  Is that ability to freely spend really necessary, or is it just a lie created to fill fat pockets?  I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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We end where we began?

The beginning

Summing up La Aventura Project in one post has left us here staring at a blank page for weeks now.  The same questions run through our heads: “What did we do?” and, “What did we accomplish?”  The jump back into life in the USA was quick, and we were immediately left with little time outside of work, back to normal US life.  The world we came from was stuck in the backs of our minds, left to dwell in occasional yearnings and stories misunderstood by their listeners.  When I have a street food craving at 11pm there is no friendly woman selling tortillas across the street.  Saddening, but it’s also nice to have a kitchen.

Here is a quick list of answers to some of the more popular questions we have been getting from friends and family:
Yes, they did in fact have electricity in Latin America.
Yes, we got sick a few times from the food.  But it was all delicious and we don’t regret trying everything!
No, we did not notice any drug cartel activity.
No, we don’t plan on settling down now or buying a house or anything like that.

Trying to make a list of our accomplishments sounded corny but I did it anyways to brag a little bit:
Learned Spanish to an intermediate level in which we could have decent conversations.
Traveled to 10 countries without flying.
Got engaged!
Learned much more about Latin American history than we did at school, more than most North Americans know.
Hiked the Inca Trail.
Built our blog into a resource for other travelers.

Regrets:  I wish we could have done more volunteering, but maybe you could say that we were more like scouts, examining the playing field.  We did have two stays at WWOOF farms, one in Colombia and another in Ecuador.  It would be fun to check out some more WWOOF farms in Central America someday.

The travel at first was much easier than I expected.  The roads were paved and the buses as nice as the Megabus that we took in the United States.  But as we entered Bolivia our luck was about the change.  It was there that we experienced transportation strikes and washed out highways.  Bolivia was by far the most “out there” country we visited.

La Aventura Project started as a film project and a longing to escape from it all.  Along the way we wrote more and more and eventually were able to use the website to make the adventure last longer.  We passed through phases of preferring writing over filming and vis-a-versa.  Near the end we really dreaded the thought of returning to the grind of working class society.  Here everyone makes little problems seem like the end of the world.  There there were real problems.

The future: We will continue adding to the website and will be posting hostel reviews by guest writes.  (More info if you are interested.)  Our goal is for the website to grow and continue as we start posting our travel tales from the States.  We’ll be beginning the US section of the website in September when we take a road trip across the northwest in the process of moving to California!  We’re also working hard to edit the documentary and we’ll post updates on that front as it gets done.

Ending where we began: So now we find ourselves in much the same place we were in when the seed of the idea for La Aventura Project began.  Making the most of the US and working hard to save money for future adventures.  Dreaming and trying to decide which continent to conquer next.  Asia?  Africa?  Europe?  South again to finally make it all the way to Patagonia?  We have no idea where we should go, but luckily we have awhile to decide as we work to replenish our bank accounts.  The only sure thing is that we can’t stay here for too long, so una nueva aventura is unquestionably on the horizon.

“There is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” -Christopher McCandless

Chau chicos.

Culture Shock! Rules of the Road in South America

In the United States there are many laws that definite exactly how one i supposed to drive while on public streets.  Every vehicle is meant to follow the same rules no matter how big, small, expensive, or cheap.  In South America, the rules seem to be a little different.  Here are a few things that we have determined…

  1. Stop signs are only a suggestion and in general mean you should slightly slow down and honk your horn to let every else (who are also not stopping) know that you are not stopping.
  2. A traffic light, though very uncommon, is to be followed more closely than a stop sign.  At a red light cars will, in general, stop at least until they get bored, and then of course, honk before they run it.
  3. Most intersections have no signal and conform to the “General Rules of Intersections” which go something like this:
    • If the street isn’t crowded, then you can probably just blow your horn and cruise right through without looking.  Maybe speed up a bit to lessen the chances of being hit.
    • If multiple cars get to the intersection at the same time, the order in which you go depends on the size of your vehicle, i.e. semis and buses go first, then vans, then taxis and cars, then motorcycles.
  4.  Motorcycles can usually squeeze in between everyone else because it’s not necessary to stay in lanes.  A two-lane road will usually have three lanes of cars with “motos” sneaking in between.
  5. Bicycles go last and people even after them.  Never EVER walk into a road when a car is coming, even if you have a “Walk” sign at a crosswalk, because people will not even slow down.  They will probably honk at you and pray that you don’t make a very big dent.  Unless, however, you think you weigh more than the vehicle coming at you, in which case they may stop for you.
  6. When driving around corners, people don’t stay on the right but rather take the shortest distance, cruising all the way to left like racecar drivers, possibly honking if they can’t see around the bend.
  7. When on a narrow, dirt, one-lane road, if two vehicles are coming towards each other, whichever one is smaller has to somehow back up, nearly go off a cliff, whatever, in order to let the bigger one pass.

This might all seem very crazy and unsafe, but we have seen significantly less traffic accidents here than we do back home in the U.S.A.  Why this is, we can only guess.  Maybe it’s because no one has insurance so they don’t have the option of “Yeah!  Let them hit me and buy me a new car!”  Or maybe everyone’s car is so precious to them that crashing is not an option.  When we first arrived, I was scared silly every time we got in a car, but now I’ve realized that it was mostly only frightening because it was different.  I do think it’s not as good of a system and probably less safe, but because of all the insanity people in general are better drivers.  Not safe drivers, but more skilled at maneuvering to avoid accidents.  Having said that, I’m still not sure I could safely drive here myself and don’t want to try!

Culture Shock! Why Doesn´t Anyone Read?

When traveling on long bus trips, or when we have time to kill sitting in the park, we always have a paperback or a Nookbook to pull out.    What we are wondering is, why do we never see any of the locals reading?  Sure, once in a while you catch a student studying for classes, or an old lady reading  a romance novel, but for the most part people just sit and stare into empty space when unoccupied.   Every day we also see street vendors and bus attendants or various other workers with an abudance of downtime, but they are never reading.  You´d bet if I were them I´d read a book a week!  I don´t think it´s a literacy problem, just something that´s embedded in the culture.  The positive opinion on this is that people evidently aren´t in constant need of stimulus (ADHD) like people from Europe, North America, or China are, but there is definetly a HUGE downside!  Not reading seems to indicate a lack of curiosity, as well as decreased learning potential, vocabulary, and general reading skills.  Reading for pleasure would definitely be a hard phenomenon to introduce, but we think it would have great benefits.  Fortunately we have come across many NGOs and charity groups starting libraries and trying to encourage reading.  It´s going to take awhile though.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

Culture Shock! Classism

Here´s your latest “Culture Shock!” post, late as always.  Someday we´ll get back to actually doing these on Wednesdays!

One thing we have unfortunately noticed in South America is the rampant presence of classism.  Ugh, what an ugly “ism.”  We didn’t see it so much in Colombia, but we have definitely noticed its presence in Ecuador, Perú, and Bolivia.

In countries where the per-capita income is so much lower than in the United States, you would think that there would be less of a class hierarchy than we have.  In fact, I think the opposite is true.  One example I’ve thought of is this:

In the United States, there are plenty of wealthier people who will still occasionally eat at McDonalds or other fast food places.  Maybe this is just because the horrible fast food restaurants have gotten us so badly addicted.  But regardless, in the US, I think most would agree that plenty of people who can afford not to will still occasionally eat this cheap food.  In Ecuador or Perú, this would NEVER happen.  From what we have seen, a majority of the wealthier people in those countries avoid cheap food at all costs because they consider it “beneath them.”  We have had locals actually cringe when we’ve mentioned the fact that we eat street food or basic lunches.  Also from what we’ve seen, a wealthy Peruvian, for example, will never associate with a poor indigenous farmer.

This is not to say that this doesn’t happen in the US, just that we have noticed it a lot more here.  I want to know why the classism is so bad?  Is it a remnant of the Spanish colonial system?  Probably partly.  Is it because breaking out of poverty and rising to the upper class is much more difficult here?  I bet that has something to do with it.  Once, we met some really wealthy 30-ish guys in Perú.  They had family in the US and thus had each lived there for about 10 years.  They spent these years working menial jobs at fast food restaurants or driving taxis, while learning English.  Not a very lucrative life, most of us would imagine.  When they returned to Perú with the money they had saved, they were able to live like kings!  These guys would eat at only the best restaurants, wear only the nicest clothes, shop at the best stores, and flaunt their ability to speak English everywhere they went.  They would never, ever consider buying street food, or associating with the poorer Peruvian majority.  They were the elite, and they certainly knew it and acted like it.  Their attitude was “We’ve arrived, so why care about anyone else?”  The thing that gets me is this:  how can you live for such a long time at a low-class level in one country, but then once you have money in a new country you totally disregard the poor around you?

I’m not an expert on the subject and I don’t have answers to any of these questions, of course.  I’m just an outside observer noticing the strict class divide and less-than-compassionate attitudes of the rich in South America.  It seems to me that the lack of empathy and loyalty the upper class shows toward the lower class is one of the biggest social obstacles toward development in these countries.

Culture Shock! Let’s just throw all our trash on the ground, why don’t we?

Latin America has a growing trash problem.  In the major cities the garbage lines the sides of the roads until locals start small fires to diminish the piles.  This creates smog and the cities smell more and more like trash.  There are a few ideas that we have had to help with the problem.  The first and most major problem is that everyone buys the small single serving plastic water bottles.  This problem is intensified by the fact that the water from the tap is not drinkable in most places.  Sure, tons of people have drank the tap water from birth, and most boil, but everything else is purchased in small bottles.  They do sell the big bottles, but people don’t think ahead, “Maybe I will drink more than 600ml of water before I die…”  And to make maters here worse, NO ONE knows how to use trash cans.  When you are riding in a bus someone will eventually come onto the bus to sell small waters and sodas.  As soon as people have finished the drink, they open the bus window and dispose of the bottle onto the highway.  There along the highway it will sit for years and years making a larger and more disgusting pile.  Is this the peoples’ fault?  Yes and no.  I don’t think there has ever been proper education on disposal of trash.  Many times you have to carry your trash through half the city before you can find a can to toss it into.  There is no recycling system set up.  Sure, there are people (pickers) that sort through all the trash for recyclables and sell what they find to the recycling companies, but there is no specific place to throw the recycles.  Not that the average person would even know what can actually be recycled.  In a few cities we have been to there have actually been three cans side by side, (like in San Francisco) “Trash, Compost, Recyclables” but, since no one knows (or cares) which is which, the three cans are all full of the same things (mainly plastic bottles).

What can be done and who is at fault?  There needs to be better education on how and where to dispose of your garbage.  There needs to be more trash cans and more reliable collection.  Basically, the South American governments need to start addressing this as a serious problem.  Yes, there is major poverty, hunger, class division… but by the time they fix these problems, the entire continent is going to be covered in an inescapable pile of filth.  Compared to all the stupid things that I see governmental money going towards (like huge stupid statues in the center of every tiny village…) I think they could spring for a few trash cans and a couple of people to collect garbage.  Maybe the whole problem is that life is so hard for so many people here that it’s nearly impossible to get them plan farther in the future than tomorrow.  The attitude is to worry about today first, then think about tomorrow.

Culture Shock! Everything is OTC

Guys, we totally forgot to post a Culture Shock! on Wednesday!  Woops!  We were too focused on finishing the Inca Trail epic.  So here it is for this week, better late than never!

So far on our adventure we haven’t needed to use our health insurance.  That is not because we haven’t gotten sick (we have), but because everything you need is sold over-the-counter at your friendly neighborhood “farmacia.”  The only thing you need to do is diagnose yourself!  It’s sometimes actually fun playing doctor.  The process usually goes like this.  Day one: stomach pain and diarrhea.  Day two: usually everything is better once it’s all out of your system, but if you are still feeling problems, wait one more day.  Day three: If you still feel terrible then get yourself some Ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic for bacterial infections which will knock out just about anything.  If the Cipro doesn’t clear it up, then you are in trouble and should probably go to the doctor.  Carrie and I have both taken the Cipro once and both times within a few hours we were feeling much better.

There are some potential negatives to this system, of course.  Firstly, you really can get anything you want over the counter.  It is of course possible to abuse this for recreational purposes.  Secondly, pharmacists are not actually educated or trained like they are in the United States.  When we went to get some Cipro for Zach the pharmacist actually tried to sell us more than two times as many tablets as we needed and tried to convince Zach he needed to take a large dose for 10 days.  Either she was being totally dishonest to make a sale or we really knew the drug instructions better than she did, because you’re only supposed to take a small dose for five days!  You have to be smart and research to find out what you really need when you’re sick.  If in doubt, you should see a doctor first!

However, I think needing a prescription to cure yourself of obvious problems is part of what makes medical care super expensive in the United States.  Sure, pharmacies shouldn’t hand out addictive drugs over the counter, but there’s also no reason it should be necessary to pay a doctor to tell you what you usually already know.  Maybe instead of forcing money out of people’s pockets, we could focus on educating people on how to help themselves.  But no, let’s continue to let the drug companies tell us what medicines we need.  We all know that they have our best interests in mind.