Cusco (6.29.2016)

TMJ: After 15 hours of surprisingly comfy bus ride, we safely arrived in Lima. However, the rainy weather made us jump town quick- from the bus station directly onto the first plane to Cusco. There, we were greated with glorious sun, crisp air and racing hearts (literally feeling the high altitude with every step!).

Cusco is beyond words. Quaint colonial town with structures dating back to the Inca times.

Fabulous food- avocado featuring in nearly every meal we’ve eaten so far!

Our hostel-Peruwana- is also amazing (rated best in Peru and top 3 in the world by hostelworld). The staff is very friendly- they try very hard to make everyone feel welcome and invited to activities. At night, we participated in the  hostel salsa night. We started with a lesson and learned a few cool dips. The lesson was hilarious and borderline life threatening- beginners were asked to do very advanced stuff; there was body grinding and bodily fluids and lots of laughter.

WILT:

  • Tourists get charged 4x more than locals for a flight to Cusco, ~300-450$ round trip flight. That’s more than we paid to get to Peru…. No way in hell I’ll pay that for a local flight. Solution? We used British Airways Avios to get to Cusco from Lima. 900 Avios + 15$ in tax per person. Can’t beat this deal!
  • Getting to Macchu Piccu is a total ripoff. You’re especially screwed when pressed for time (as we are). One day trip came to $200 per person. Insanity.

First international flight to Chiclayo (6.28.2016)

TMJ: Chiclayo airport received their very first international flight today. We were on that flight, hence all the celebratory foods and drinks, big executives and TV station cameras. We literally made the local news as soon as we stepped foot in Peru! Making history, baby.

We had enough time to walk around Chiclayo- visit the local market and a park- before jumping on a 15 hour bus ride to Lima.

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WILT:

  • ‘Peshmerga’ (the Kurdish fighting units) means ‘those who face death’
  • 2017 world expo will be held in Astana, Kazakstan
  • Iguanas’ ability to live underground earned them a title of mediators between the living and the death, according to ancient Peruvian mythology
  • CRISPR, gene cutting tool that is revolutionizing nearly every scientific field, is on the National Intelligence mass-destruction threat list

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Biking around the Cape (6.25.2016)

TMJ: Today was a ‘bike to’ type of a day. Bike to lunch, then bike to beach; from there bike to get ice cream, and beer. Finish with a bike to a winery.

We ended up clocking in 20 miles today while testing out all of the best foods in Cape May. I could not imagine a more perfect summer Saturday.


WILT: Camilito taught me a bunch of knots in the evening. He’s good with those things. My favorite one is the alpine butterfly knot, which basically creates a strong loop in a single line or connects two lines.

Learning Arabic (my fast & lazy way!)

My magic in learning languages is to drop the fear to SPEAK TARZAN.  The rest of the sweet juice is PUBLIC SHAMING, or, having a language partner(s), so you feel bad when you’re being a slacker.

That’s the secret. And here’s how it applies to my latest project.  

A month ago or so, I posted this message on Facebook:

I’m going to Egypt!

I’ll explain soon, but for now, I’m launching Arabic language bootcamp challenge. If you’ve been wanting to learn a language for a while, learn with me! Read this thing: http://goo.gl/forms/tWfJ5VkuJn

and voila! Turns out that my friend recently married an Egyptian and she wants to learn his native tongue. Perfect.  And, probably the most productive thing I will ever get out of social media, lol.

Truth be told, I have to learn to speak basic Arabic in only a few months, and since I’m a slacker, I needed help.  I decided to find a language partner, so we can keep each other accountable.  The goal of my crash course is to learn a total of 300+ words in an easy, steady and fun way over a 6-8 week period, while focusing on recall and pronunciation.

THE METHOD

Did you know that to follow a basic bar conversation you only need about 200-300 words in your target language?.  Incidentally, only 300 words in English language account for 65% of all written material.  Learn that, read non-verbal clues and you are golden!

Our magic juice? Mnemonics.  

We keep a running list of words (with pronunciation) in Google Docs.  The idea is to learn 4-8 new words every day (minus weekends) using easy to remember mnemonic devices and partnership work to stay focused.  Research shows that creating vivid images with new words and/or associating the new words with familiar names, places or words helps you learn languages faster and retain them for longer.  This is because your brain forms memories in form of connections (read this amazing article about the art of language learning and speed memorizing).  It’s also well known that focus groups significantly raise the performance bar and success rate of any endeavor (note Weight Watchers and Mastermind group strategies).  

THE RESULTS

So far, we’ve been awesomely successful. We are on week 4 right now and we already know 130 words!  It’s been a fun, creative process that only takes a few minutes out of my day.  I actually look forward to learning this stuff.   For that reason alone, I think this method deserves sharing.

Here is my recipe for learning the basics of any language.

  1. Take a list of most commonly used words in your target language. Here’s our list of of 25 words to learn in week one (approximately 2-3 words per day per person).  Column 2 has a rough guide for how the word should be pronounced in Arabic.  Column 3 has a link to a video that illustrates pronunciation (43 second means 43rd second of the video has the word).
  2.  Each day both partners send a google chat/email/text with their 2-4 words of choice per person (from the list) and mnemonic devices that help them remember the words.  The mnemonic device could be a sentence, picture, funny statement, rhyme… anything.  I shared our examples in the table below.

The idea is pretty simple: select a word, create a way to remember it, and share them with your partner. Simple, but works magic.

To review, create a deck of flashcards in Quizlet with the words, definitions and mnemonics.  Use Google forms to create quizzes and tests and try to take one every weekend. That’s it 🙂

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Where should I stay in Cuba?

Pre-book your first night in Cuba. You might be asked for your accommodation address on the visa card you’ll need to fill out at entry.  For clever travelers, you can just memorize one of the hotel addresses and pretend you pre-booked your accommodation– the immigration has no way of checking.

I will discourage you from staying at a hotel anytime during your stay in Cuba.  It’s expensive ($80+/night) and has no cultural value.  My advice is to stay in a ‘casa particular’.  These are official B&B/guest houses licensed by the government.  This will typically cost you $20-40 per night. The experience will be wonderful– your family will feed you (for extra charge), introduce you to the Cuban life, recommend off the beaten path travel gems and hook you up with accommodation at their cousin/brother/mother’s house for your next stop in the journey. You’ll get tremendous value from staying with a Cuban family, and I highly encourage you doing it.

You can recognize a casa particular by a blue symbol outside.  It’s very easy to find a house, since many Cuban families rent their rooms for secondary income.  The house front door will also have a ‘Arrendador Divisa’ sign.

People on the street (jineteros= hustlers) will ask if you need accommodation, and will offer to bring you to a casa- be aware that these people typically get commission from the house owner. Since it is you who will end up paying the commission in your accommodation fee, try to get recommendations ahead of time. Again, word of mouth and family&friends of your hosts are your best resources.  There’s also apparently an app for your smartphone which shows casas with reviews. I haven’t used the application, but it looks like a pretty convenient way to book a place prior to your departure.

A couple of promised words RE: safety.  Cuba is insanely safe. It reminds me of Poland back during the communist times.  There are cops nearly everywhere 24/7, and certainly in all tourist areas. Cubans risk harsh files/prison time for violating the law. Crime happens- but rarely, relatively speaking.

In fact, the only two things you should be careful of are scammers and water.  Typical scams usually relate to currency conversion (mentioned in the last post) and taxi drivers (as anywhere in the world).  For currency- use common sense.  Don’t buy special edition CUC, use simple math during conversions, ignore overly polite hustlers and be very careful when renting a car.  Pretty standard travel precautions. Take note of the emergency number in Cuba: 106.

As to the water– buy only bottled and make sure it hasn’t been refilled and resold to you.  It’s a good idea to bring a few cartridges to purify water, just in case.

How do I stay connected in Cuba?

The short answer to this question is: you don’t stay connected.  Going to Cuba means complete screen detox.  Internet is only available in touristy hotels, and even there you have to pay extra for browsing.  If that wasn’t enough… even the paid-for Internet use is scarce! Hotels get only a limited number of minutes of Internet use from the government, so if they use up their allowance, you are out of luck.

For those of you who think there’s always the option of international calling from your domestic cell phone plan- nope, there’s no roaming service.  You will be literally disconnected from the world- embrace it.  Enjoy the sun, the ocean, the food, the people, the rum and the salsa dancing!

If you absolutely have to connect with your folks, the best way to do it is by buying a calling card (known as the Chip card) in major tourist centers, hotels, ETECSA call centers or post offices. Chip cards will work in the ‘blue’ public phones, which are the newer generation phones.  To call the U.S., Australia, UK or Canada, just dial 119 1 +number with area code.  The latest cost I could find was $2.00 per minute.

Word of advice: don’t use hotel phones to make international calls.  Their rates are outrageous (upwards of $10 per minute!). As you may have already guessed, incoming calls are nearly impossible in Cuba.

There are very few international newspapers in Cuba.  Your only choice to stay informed is via highly propagandist national newspapers ‘Juventud Rebelde’, ‘Trabajadores’ and ‘Granma’ and four equally propagandist television channels (Cubavision, Telerebelde, Canal Educativo 1&2).  You will find out about events and festivals mostly from your hotel/casa particular hosts and/or word of mouth.  Some might find this lack of planning annoying, but I actually find it liberating.  You never know what wild event you will walk into in Cuba.

That’s all I have for today.  I’ll look into costs and accommodation questions next.

What’s the currency in Cuba?

To start off- a quick edit to my last post.  There will be direct flights from JFK-Havana starting in March.  Things change quickly! I’ll try to keep this blog up to date.

This week, I have a bunch of useful travel tips to share.  They will range from general/random travel advice to specific Cuba tips. Let’s start with the two most sought after answers:

1. Border Crossing.

If you are traveling to Cuba via another country, the border control will probably not want to stamp your passport.  This is no big deal- it’s just the standard procedure, since before February it was practically illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba. Some people went anyway, and the Cuban government made it easier for them with this ‘no stamp’ policy. Immigration officers will conveniently just stamp your ‘tourist card’ that you will get on the plane. You will carry this card with you during your stay in Cuba- police officers and owners of hotels/casas particulares will ask for it to prove legal entry.

Just as a precaution: If you are traveling via a different country (Mexico, Jamaica, Bahamas, etc.) it’s  a good practice to ask the immigration officer not to stamp your passport.  That way, you don’t have two entry stamps to your gateway country.

On your way in and out of Cuba, you’ll be asked to pay $20 entry/departure tax.  Some websites call this a ‘visa’ payment. Whatever the term, it’s just another way to rip the tourists off.

2. Currency.

There are two separate currencies in Cuba.  There’s the Cuban peso (CUP) which Cubans use and there’s the Convertible Peso (CUC) which tourists use (and which has no value outside of the island– it’s literally monopoly money).  If that seems confusing, it’s probably because there are only a few examples of countries with dual currency.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • CUC: 1.00 Cuban Convertible Peso = $1.00 USD (slang terms used for CUC are baro, divisas, fula, moneda efectivo)
  • CUP: has very little value, about 25 CUP to one CUC. If possible, it’s always good to have a few Cuban Pesos (pesos cubanos) on you. It’s not illegal for tourists to use CUP, contrary to the common belief.
    • Be very careful when exchanging your money.  I’ve heard of scams where the bank teller would give you CUP instead of CUC.
  • What makes things the most confusing is that both currencies will show with a dollar sign ($) in front.  You will literary have to ask or use your common sense to differentiate between the two.  tip: CUP is often called ‘Moneda Nacional’ so you’ll often see $1MN for 1 Cuban Peso.
  • You require Passport for all currency exchanges. Be very careful when exchanging your money.  I’ve heard of scams where the bank teller would give you CUP instead of CUC.
  • Try to exchange your money at a bank or in change bureaus (CADECAS)  located around the island or in any bank (note that banks close ~3PM in Cuba). Your hotel will have the worst exchange rate imaginable. Don’t give your money to anyone on the street who is offering you an exceptional deal for money exchange- this is a very common scam.
  • There are very few ATMs on the island and most only take domestic cards.
  • If this level of complexity/rip-off wasn’t enough, you should know that Cuban government especially likes to thieve from Americans.  You will be charged 10% extra commission for exchanging dollars anywhere on the island.  So, if you are American and/or have U.S. dollars, you should exchange them to another currency (i.e. Euro, Canadian Dollar or Mexican Peso) prior to your departure.  Don’t exchange U.S. dollars anywhere on the island- it’s a terrible deal.
  • Certainly much less than in Italy or Spain, but pickpockets do exist in Cuba, so, exercise your common sense. Don’t walk around with a wallet stuffed with all of your cash.  Separate and hide your money in various locations on your body and in your luggage.
  • If you run into trouble and need emergency cash- get in touch with an organization called Asistur (www.asistur.cu).  This is a company that serves tourists with financial and legal trouble.  They will connect you with a bank back home.

It is not possible to use a U.S credit card anywhere on the island, though as I mentioned in my last post, this is supposed to change in March for Mastercard holders. European and Canadian (Australian, etc.) credit cards are good to go, but there’s a fee associated with use. Cash is king.

That’s it for now- let me know if you have questions. I’ll be back tomorrow with safety, Internet connection and gifts tips. Cheers!

How do I get to Cuba?

The easiest way to travel to Cuba is on a chartered flight.  However, those flights are overbooked, expensive and currently only service Miami airports.  Also, from what I understand, charter companies such as ABC Charters, have not yet updated their internal policies for U.S.-Cuba travelers. So, you will have trouble getting on the plane without a license.  As a point of reference, R/T charter flights from Miami to Havana are in the neighborhood of $400-600.

If you are planning a trip in the next few months and you don’t live in Miami, I’d suggest flying via a different country that services budget airlines to Cuba, such as Cubana, AeroGaviota or Carribean Air. Here are a few options for flights from NY:

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You can find additional connections here: http://www.cubajet.com/.

Based on my research, the cheapest option is NYC-Cancun-Havana.  I found R/T flight in February for $650. Note, I used skyscanner.net and skiplagged app to find the cheapest connections. However, I ran into a problem booking the Cubana flight from Cancun.  The website did not take my credit card (I tried 4 different ones, including one debit card).  Apparently, this is supposed to change on March 1st for Mastercard owners, but for now, American cards don’t work.  If you have friends or relatives with cards from abroad, I’d suggest asking them for a favor. Otherwise, you’ll have to pay a premium and book via one of the travel agencies.

Another useful note for folks from the north is that there are a few budget airline companies flying from Canada directly to Cuba.  Sunwing and WestJet are two examples.  This solves the credit card problem.

Now that you have the flight details, here comes the fun part: understanding Cuba.  I’ll describe the Cuban culture, history and points of interest you should know in the next few posts.

Who can travel to Cuba?

Let’s start from the very basic question of travel to Cuba as an American citizen.  President Obama has been easing travel restriction since 2009, earlier this month lifting the licensing requirement for people who fall into the ‘people to people’ travel categories.  Unfortunately, the Cuban embargo remains in place; Americans are still not allowed to travel to Cuba for tourism reasons.  However, the new rules have made it easy to fall under the 12 categories of authorized travel.  Here’s a quick recap of the 12 categories that now allow you for travel to Cuba:

  1. Family visits
  2.  Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  3. Journalistic activity
  4. Professional research and professional meetings
  5. Educational activities
  6. Religious activities
  7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  8. Support for the Cuban people
  9. Humanitarian projects
  10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  12. Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.

Put simply, you can travel if you somehow find yourself fitting one of the descriptions above. No OFAC licensure paperwork needed, no proofs required.  You will simply have to check a box denoting your purpose of travel on the airport.  As you can see, the rules are still broad and unclear, though each category is described in more detail in this official treasury.gov material.

My feeling is that the new restrictions will be loosely enforced, if at all.  If you claim you are an educator attending the International Book Fair workshops in Havana, and the purpose of your travel relates to your new research… The government will look away.  But again, that’s just my best guess, for now. I’ll soon reveal the particular way I see myself fitting in the framework.

If you are a millionaire or just have more money than I do, there’s of course an easy way.  You can spend $3,000+ for a tour organized by a licensed travel agency, such as In Touch With Cuba or Insight Cuba.  I’d consider this option only if you see no way to count yourself into one of the above 12 general license categories.  Quite frankly, if you don’t fit, I’d just wait for the embargo to be lifted. Nothing wrong with the agencies in particular- it’s just not the way I choose to travel.

Okay, so let’s assume you found a way to count yourself in as an academic, workshop instructor, government/humanitarian or religious/non-profit representative, or other member of the above 12 categories.  How do you actually get to Cuba? I will answer in tomorrow’s post.