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What Makes a Great Dance Congress?: Dublin Fever Fest 2015

13 Oct

I danced so hard I caught a cold!

That’s exactly what happened to me a couple of weekends ago when I attended the 2nd Dublin Fever Fest, Ireland’s most recent Latin-dance congress and a show of how popular salsa and a whole spectrum of other dances have become in the Emerald Isle over the past few years.

How do you catch a cold from dancing? Well if you have to ask you’ve clearly never danced hard enough before 😛 . Continued heavy exercise can weaken your immune system and I’ve run myself down in the past after suddenly thinking it would be a good idea to go dancing every night for a week straight (I’m usually a 2 or 3 nights a week kind-of-guy). Fever Fest, however, was my first time catching a cold after only a weekend of dancing… well done Fever Fest.

Despite, running myself into the ground and catching a cold (which I still have by the way “sniff sniff”), I really had a blast at Dublin Fever Fest and I think it’s worth pointing out why; what made it special and maybe what could make it even better.

Size Matters!
Let’s be honest… it does! In the case of salsa congresses, they can be small local congresses with just one class at a time or they can be huge international congresses with thousands of attendees and multiple classes running simultaneously. They all have their own Pros and Cons.

Fever Fest is on the smaller side with about XXXX attendees in total and two classes at any one time. I have to admit that I really enjoy this type of “cozy” congress. By the end of the first day of workshops you get to dance and chat with a good portion of the attendees and knowing more people makes for much more enjoyable nights of social dancing.

One of the great advantages of smaller congresses is getting to know and dance with so many people in such a short time.

One of the great advantages of smaller congresses is getting to know and dance with so many people in such a short time.

Great International Teachers
Most people who go t congresses go for one of two reasons; to dance their asses off or to learn new skills from teachers they wouldn’t normally get the chance to learn from.

The line-up at Fever Fest was a great mix of mostly European teachers who, again due to the smaller size of the event, came together as a mini-family of “dance parents” who happily mingled during the event with their “dance kids”, the attendees.

While I usually don’t condone favoritism I have to mention one of the instructors in particular. The world famous Marco Ferigno, dance partner to the equally famous Karol Florez, gave a Master-class in Mambo Shines and it was simply… masterful. On top of being a simple astounding dancer, he also happened to be a very friendly, approachable and down-to-earth teacher. I was exhausted after an hour and a half of his rapid fire choreography, but happily so.

A great collection of talented and friendly teachers that really mixed with the festival goers.

A great collection of talented and friendly teachers and performers that really mixed with the festival goers.

A Class Act
While the actual teachers at a congress are vitally important, the type of classes they teach are just as important. Everyone is used to doing the good old staples like “LA Partnerwork” or “Ladies Styling” and these were duly represented at Fever Fest. However, they were supplemented with novel classes such as Boogaloo and Reggaeton. This is the kind of refreshing variety that makes a congress worth attending; classes that take us out of our comfort-zone and expose us to new styles and techniques that broaden our horizons as dancers.

It’s full of Dancing Irish People
While I may have the internet rights to call myself “The Dancing Irishman”, the dance-floor of Fever Fest was full of many more Dancing Irish People just as worthy of the title. Fair enough, the dance community in Ireland has a huge expat component but I really think that if you want to party with the Irish, there’s no better place to do it than on home-turf.

Great social dancing is a must at any congress and Fever Fest didn't disappoint.

Great social dancing is a must at any congress and Fever Fest didn’t disappoint.

Show me something new
Last but by no means least, I need to mention the performances at Fever Fest. For most people, the most important parts of a congress are the classes and the social dancing and while I feel mostly the same myself, I was definitely impressed with what I saw. To begin with the first performance of the weekend involved four stunningly beautiful women shaking their ample booties in what could only be described as some form of urban/latin/funk… that got me hooked. On top of that there was the usual mix of excellent performances by both professionals and student groups that one would expect at a congress but one in particular stood out. An original choreography by the MC of Fever Fest, Azael Salazar and Nadezda Antipenko simply blew me away. The contemporary piece that Azael described as being about the desire to be with someone you can’t be with literally left me with my jaw hanging. By far the highlight of all that was on show. One final good point about all the performances is that they didn’t outstay their welcome every night. They kept them short and sweet and they didn’t reduce the actual social dance time too much at all.

Quite possibly one of the best contemporary dance performances that I've ever seen.

Quite possibly one of the best contemporary dance performances that I’ve ever seen.

I’ll be back
All in all, Fever Fest impressed me, especially as a congress that is still in its infancy. Even though I don’t live in Ireland any more I can see myself making the trip to this great event on a yearly basis.

Great classes, great performances and a great dancing… what more could you ask for?

Keep dancing folks!

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Karaoke: Japan’s Gift to the Language Learner

26 Mar

Four years living in a different country will change anyone. Especially if that country is Japan!

If you’ve ever known anyone who has lived (for an extended period of time) in Japan you’re bound to notice that they’ve picked up a few “interesting” habits and I’m no different;

Not wearing shoes in the house, sitting on the floor despite having a perfectly good sofa right next to you, eating salad with chopsticks (Try it. It’s so much easier), not feeling like you’ve finished a meal until you’ve had a bowl of rice (or two), bowing even while on the phone… the list goes on.

Salad with chopsticks? Try it. You'll never try to stab a piece of lettuce with a fork again!

Salad with chopsticks? Try it. You’ll never try to stab a piece of lettuce with a fork again!

Japanese was the first language that I learned to fluency and I have one of Japan’s greatest exports to thank for that: Karaoke! This article will cover how you can use it to learn any language to fluency “WITHOUT EVER HAVING TO SING IN PUBLIC”!!!

Why Karaoke?
Karaoke in Japan is as much a part of the culture as rice-balls and ramen. If you live there, it becomes part of your life; you go out for dinner with your friends, you end up singing karaoke; you have a staff party with your colleagues, you end up singing karaoke; it’s Wednesday, you end up singing karaoke. And the Japanese take their national passtime pretty seriously so you learn fairly quickly to improve your karaoke game.

I realized that I was going to need to learn some Japanese songs to keep my coworkers happy and in doing so I realized that practicing karaoke is a fantastic way to improve my Japanese in three major areas:

  • Pronunciation: listening to a song and repeatedly trying to match the way pronunciation of the singer is an amazing way to improve your accent and how you sound in your target language. I’ve spoken previously about how important pronunciation and understandability are when speaking a second language. Repeating a song over and over again allows you to practice the vocal chord/lip movements and breath control necessary to imitate a new language.
  • Reading: karaoke involves reading the lyrics of a song in your target language at (what can be) a pretty challenging pace. That challenge and stepping out of your comfort zone can lead to a huge improvement in your reading speed.
  • Vocabulary: learning (or at least practicing) the lyrics of songs inevitably leads to you learning new words and ways to use them and they tend to stick better when you mix in a catchy tune (I can still recite songs in Irish that I learned as a child in primary school)

How to Karaoke!!! (without the humiliation of actually singing in public)
So, how do you actually go about improving your Japanese (or any language) with Karaoke? It’s as easy as following these 3 (or 4) easy steps.

  1. Pick your Songs: Find songs that you enjoy and that are of a relatively easy tempo. It’s important to start with slow songs at the beginning as it’s easier to keep up and follow the lyrics on screen. Starting off by trying to follow the lyrics of a fast paced rap song is not a good idea, no matter how much you like the song. Love songs (cringe) are usually ideal, just like this one below which became one of my karaoke staples.

    Download the songs to your computer/phone or create a specific “Lyrics” playlist on Youtube (some videos will even have the lyrics included) so you can always access them easily.
  2. Find and Save the Lyrics: Thanks to the good old internet you can now find the lyrics for virtually any song instantaneously. Find the lyrics for your chosen songs and save them in some form of file on your computer or on your phone. I personally save them to the memo app on my iphone (check out the picture below) but I’m sure there are better, more organized ways to store them for easy access. At this point you can also look up any new vocabulary or grammar that you don’t understand so you can actually know what the song is really about.

    This is how I save lyrics to songs I want to my practice in the memo app of my phone.

    This is how I save lyrics to songs I want to my practice in the memo app of my phone.

  3. Practice: Here’s the fun part. When you have some down time just play the song you want to practice and recite the lyrics trying to match the cadence, intonation and sound of the singer. You can do it in the privacy of your own room and no one ever has to know about your new karaoke fetish. You can even practice in public without bothering anyone or appearing to be a total psychopath. For example, whenever I’m using public-transport I pop in my headphones and listen to my “Lyrics” playlist (I have one for Japanese and one for Spanish). Then I either recite the lyrics in my head as the song plays or I lip-sync the song. I consider lip-syncing the better option as you actually practice the mouth movements needed to produce the sounds. People do this on public transport all the time anyway (and it’s only annoying if they actually do start singing out loud).
  4. (OPTIONAL) Rock some Karaoke: When you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of a few songs, why not show your native-speaking friends how you can rock out and sing with the best of them during a night of unbridled, laser-illuminated mirror-balled, karaoke fury…
    …or just sing in the shower like a normal person!

    Just think. With a little practice, this could be you!

                                                      Just think. With a little practice, this could be you!

Time Efficient and Free
The reason I’m such a fan of this method for learning a language is that it ticks a couple of boxes that are important for me:

  • It can be done whenever you’re on public transport or driving or just chilling out at home

  • It is completely free

  • You can store the songs and lyrics on your phone and have them with you at all times

  • In all my time learning languages I have found this gives you some of the best bang for your buck when I comes to speaking improvement in relation to time invested.

If you’re sitting at home in front of a computer right now you could literally start practicing this method in less than 30 seconds i.e. the time it takes to find a song on youtube and its corresponding lyrics. There’s no reason not to give it a try.

Do I sing well now?
F%&K NO! But I now have a repertoire of Japanese (and Spanish) songs that I can belt out (as long as I have the lyrics to follow on screen) whenever I end up at a Shidax. More importantly it has improved my spoken Japanese and Spanish considerably, which I’m happy enough with.

Get singing folks.

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How to Instantly Improve your Accent in a second language

7 Oct

We’ve all met a foreigner who has come up to us to ask a question (maybe directions to the bus station or the nearest bakery… at least that’s what I usually look for in new cities) only to not understand a word they have said to us because of their “heavily” accented English.

Was that some form of Quehua???

Was that some form of Quechua???

They might be speaking grammatically perfect English but their accent signals to our brain that: “This person is speaking some strange language that you don’t understand… possibly Dutch… or Klingon! YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!!!”

It happens all the time. I work part-time in a bar and last week I had an older Finnish guy come up to ask for a drink. I had to ask him to repeat his order 4 times before I realized he wanted a Gin & Tonic. I felt ridiculous and I consider myself to be much better than average at understanding accented English due to over 7 years of living in non-English-speaking countries.

The under-appreciated Importance of Accent
Here’s something that you unfortunately won’t hear much about in your average secondary school language class:

“ACCENT IS IMPORTANT”

Working on your accent in your second language will benefit you in the following ways:

  • it will make you instantly more understandable
  • it will make it easier for native speakers to accept you as a competent speaker of their language

Check out this little video I recorded which shows the difference between Spanish and Japanese spoken in my native Irish accent and then with a much more “neutralized” accent. I think you’ll agree that the neutral accent sounds a whole lot more understandable (but does lose some of its Irish charm 😉 ) 

Eliminate your own accent
So, imitating the accent of another language is not easy. It is by no means impossible but it does take plenty of conscious practice.

What I’m proposing, to begin with, is the much simpler option of just eliminating your own accent.

The easiest way to do this is to focus on what makes your particular accent distinct and then gradually try to eliminate those idiosyncrasies from your second language (where they only help in making you more difficult to understand).

This can run the full gamut from cadence, to pronunciation, to sentence intonation etc. Obviously, the more aspects you focus on, the better.

Let me take a Selfie!
So a great way of doing this is to record yourself speaking your chosen language.

Make a quick video of yourself reading something (newspaper clippings or comics are great). Play it back, analyze it yourself and then decide what parts are making you sound… like a foreigner. Better yet, get a native speaker of your target language to review it for you and help you work on your pronunciation issues.

Then it’s just a matter of practicing the same words or sentences, just without the accent that makes it sound… odd!

Give it a shot. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll be able to improve how you sound, be it in Japanese, Spanish, Klingon or whatever.

Keep talking folks.

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Welcome to the Latin Dance Community

1 Oct

Todays a big day folks.

No, it’s not my pancake day (unfortunatey 😦 ).

No, I haven’t figured out what women really want.

And, no, I am definitely not giving up Salsa to focus on my true love, Merengue.

Today, marks the birth of the Latin Dance Community.

Oooh yeah! We've got a snazzy logo too! Which proves we're legit!

Oooh yeah! We’ve got a snazzy logo too! Which proves we’re legit!

“The what now?” I hear you murmur confusedly as your eyes glaze over. Well, to put in the far more eloquent words of the website:

“Latin Dance Community (LDC) is a collaboration of writers from around the globe who are passionate about latin dance. Our mission is to serve as the leading online resource for the latin dance community by providing entertaining, educational, and informative articles on Salsa, Bachata, and Kizomba.”

Ok, ok so Kizomba may not be a latin dance but it certainly is making its way through latin dance scenes worldwide.

I’m a writer!!!!
Yes, you read right! Me, the Dancing Irishman, I’m officially a writer now (and not just the crazy, old, bearded man sitting at desk made of an old ironing-board supported by empty paint cans, cackling while I right inflammatory blog posts as I drink partially curdled milk from a skull-bowl… as most of you assumed I was. Right?)

I want to say a big thank you to my brother from another mother, Chilly for getting me involved in this little group of dance-literati. It’s a real honor for me to be working with all of them on this project.

To boldly go where no dance website has gone before
The LDC has some pretty modest goals:

  • keeping the world informed on current opinions in latin Dance
  • providing interviews with current dance innovators
  • world domination… making all you dancers happy 😉

So what are you waiting for?

Get your fine ass on over to Latin Dance Community and check out all the great articles we have to offer.

Oh and don’t forget, keep coming back here to The Dancing Irishman for my semi-regular updates on dance, language, nutrition, exercise and pictures of interesting cats.

Keep Dancing Folks.

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The Dancing Irishman in Barcelona

25 Sep
Just getting to know my new neighbourhood. That's just the local amphitheater, nothing special.

Just getting to know my new neighbourhood. That’s just the local ancient-Roman amphitheater, nothing special.

So… I live in Barcelona now!

Which means that in the last 4 years or so this is the fourth country I’ve “officially” lived in. After 4 years living and teaching in Japan I left in 2010, lived in Ireland for a year working at the Japanese embassy, moved to Colombia in 2011 working as a freelance translator, came back to Ireland via Cuba and the US at the end of 2013 and now, after all that, I am resident of one of Spain’s most famous cities.

I’m beginning to understand why my friends constantly tell me that they can never envision me settling down in one place. I’m not quite sure if I should be worried or not.

The Irish Diaspora
Since 2006/7 emigration out of Ireland (particularly of young people) has increased significantly; part of the great global economic depression. I was always secretly proud of the fact that I didn’t leave Ireland because I had to, because there was no work for me but because I wanted to experience life in other places. Hence my stays in Japan and Colombia.

This time is a little different
This time, I couldn’t find a job that I wanted to do. A job that I could actually see myself doing and importantly, enjoying, long-term. Anyone who has been following this blog will know from an article I posted a little over a year ago, when I left Colombia, that I left because I wanted to start thinking about what I wanted to do with my life.

Well, this year, living back home on the farm in the far south of Ireland, I had plenty of time to think. If we want to get all “touchy feely” about it, I wanted to do something that I loved. So I had a few options. The blog itself is actually a pretty decent window into the things that float my boat:

  • Dance: After all this blog isn’t called the “Administrating” Irishman. I do love dance and it is a huge part of my life. I’ve even taught dance before but it’s not what I see myself doing in the long term. I’m much happier working on my own dance and learning as much as I can fit in myself.
  • Languages: I’ve been working as a freelance Japanese translator for a few years now and while I enjoy the freedom it affords me, the work isn’t exactly regular. I may have “future” kids to think about and a “future” family to provide for so something a little more stable is called for. Also, my particular field of expertise, biosciences, while interesting, hardly makes for riveting translation.
  • Travel: I really don’t know how I could make a living just traveling the world. If you do, just drop me an email. That said, I think I’ve come to a point where I’m starting to want just one place to call home (other than my family home).
  • Fitness: I love researching fitness, putting it into practice and helping people get started in the gym or just exercising in general. That said, I don’t think I’d really make it as a personal trainer. I just don’t have the pecs for it.
  • Food: Now we’re getting somewhere. I do spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about food; cooking it, eating it, rolling around in it. However, while I considered becoming a chef in secondary school I pretty much turned against the idea when I realized I would probably be working social hours. That, and Gordon Ramsay in “Hell’s Kitchen” scared the crap out of me.
    Which leaves us with…. Drumroll please
  • …Nutrition: I love being able to improve my health through the food I eat, I love reading up on the latest research in nutrition and I really love helping people with their diets. It genuinely makes me feel fulfilled. Add to that the fact of the western world’s expanding waistline and it looks like it may be a rather lucrative little industry too 😉

Sooooo… I am about to start a Masters degree in Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Barcelona & the University Rovira I Virgilli. Further education is going to be my first stepping stone towards the career I really want.

Why so far away, Irish?
Firstly, it’s cheaper than living and studying in Ireland. Significantly so.

Secondly, it allows me to indulge some of my other loves at the same time (we wouldn’t want to neglect those now would we?):

  • Salsa: Barcelona is well known in Europe for having a spectacular latin dance scene
  • Language: I get to do my Masters through Spanish and maybe learn a little Catalan too
  • Food: it’s just sooooo good here

Presenting… The Nutritioning Irisman!!!!
Hmmm, doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it? Maybe I’ll hold off changing the blog title.

In any case, I’m going to do my best to keep updating the blog and providing you with as much helpful and mildly humorous info as I can… just from Barcelona.

If you have any tips on the salsa scene here I’d be very happy to hear from you.

Keep dancing folks.

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Salsa: You’re doing it wrong!

29 Apr

“If you don’t have African or at least Latino roots you will NEVER dance Salsa well”.
Did you know that?

Or did you know that “Studio Salsa (whatever that is) is watered-down Salsa that has lost its sabor”?

Or that “Puerto Rican street Salsa is the only real Salsa there is”?

Were you aware that “for Salsa to be good it has to have a multitude of turn patterns, acrobatics and footwork”?

No? Well, neither did I… but according to some of the angry comments that I received on last weeks hugely popular article, this is what some “Salseros” actually think (and very adamantly at that). All those ridiculous statements you’ve just read above were the opinions of people who wrote some rather unpleasant comments on my blog or Facebook page last week.

They were either deleted or never allowed past moderation (my house, my rules 😛 ).

Controversy
Last week’s article did exactly what I had hoped, just on a MUCH larger scale. It went viral and created one of the biggest international dialogues in Salsa that I’ve ever seen (although, in fairness, my Salsa history is pretty short).

People from the entire Salsa sphere gave their two cents; social dancers (like myself), performers, instructors, promoters, club owners… the whole shebang! It was like an international Salsa focus group 😀 . A massive array of opinions and ideas were shared and I couldn’t care less if people agreed with the article’s content or not. The simple fact was: It got people talking and that kind of dialogue is great for the salsa community and I really am proud that this blog was part of it.

The Killers Within
Unfortunately, there were some particularly vocal individuals (and I call them individuals because I’m certain they don’t represent the views of the groups they claim to speak for) who made me aware of the unfortunate way some people think of Salsa. The people who seem to be fighting to keep Salsa segregated.

Salsa-Factionists
Some people got REALLY upset at the article. After reading their comments I realized that the vast majority of them completely misunderstood what I was getting at. The title was intentionally misleading, most people got that, but some people decided to carry their anger from reading the title with them through the rest of the article (assuming they actually read it :/  ) and then took the wrong meaning from virtually everything I said. Also a lot of people completely misunderstood what I meant by a Bah! dancer (someone who, after years, doesn’t even manage the basics well but has no desire to even get their rhythm in order… it’s all about a Bah! attitude i.e. they don’t care about salsa!). People seemed to think I was demanding everyone train to be a performance level, fancy footworked, acrobatic Salsa wonderkid! Nothing could be further from the truth.Some people made some seriously inaccurate ASSUMPTIONS and that unfortunately led to the misunderstanding.

How I felt reading some of the comments! (that guy's almost as white as me!)

How I felt reading some of the comments! (that guy’s almost as white as me!)



Anyway, anger at the article turned into anger at me and that’s when I realized how segregated our Salsa community is. Some nasty comments directed at me opened my eyes wide open. There were even some people who were supporting my views but who had some completely ridiculous (elitist) ideas too which I would never be in favor of.

Our salsa is best
Basically, the gist of everyone’s blame throwing was this: Everyone considered their particular faction to be the best!

I had people telling me that the only way to dance Salsa is studio style (?) with as many crazy combos as possible. Nope, can’t agree with that!

Some said too many Latinos in clubs were the cause of Salsa’s decline. Really? The people who brought us Salsa? I didn’t know where to begin with that one!

Others said that people who “learned” Salsa in a classes couldn’t hold a candle to those on the street. A universal untruth in my experience.

Some told me that Cuban Salsa was the only authentic way to dance with sabor. Funny that I’ve seen people dancing every other style of Salsa with sabor too.

Some people told me that white people like me (I really am as white as you can get :/ ) would never be able to dance well. I know a lot of dancing albinos like myself who’d take offense to that lie.

Some commentors even suggested I should start refusing people dances based on their style or level. Can you believe that? I, for better or worse, just don’t say “No” to a dance. It’s one of my most important rules of Salsa etiquette.

Some people misinterpreted my comment about Cali (which I’ll gladly admit wasn’t worded well enough). Just to be clear, Salsa in cali is “Rica” but if you don’t know what that means look it up because, according to one angry commentor, if you don’t speak Spanish and understand Latin culture you will never dance with real sabor (I know, seriously, so many salseros are doomed).

Apparently we've all been completely mistaken about Salsa!

Apparently we’ve all been completely mistaken about Salsa!

 

***You know what, don’t even worry about what I said last week, these might be the attitudes that are actually damaging Salsa!***

And there I was worried about peoples skill level when there’s a whole heap of people spreading hate like that in the community!

I’ll stick with what works
After all those wonderfully “inclusive” suggestions I received I think I’m just gonna ignore them completely and keep doing exactly what I’ve been doing up until now:

  • I’ll continue dancing with everyone regardless of style or level (good thing I never suggested such an extremist approach in my article. I guess I’m a monster for wanting to encourage beginners 😛 )
  • I’ll continue dancing as many styles of Salsa as I can (there’s a reason I’ve traveled around the world dancing as much as I have {LA, Colombian, Cuban, NY} it allows me to dance with almost anyone I meet on the dance floor. Puerto Rico is on my list too, I’ll get there eventually 😀 )
  • I’ll continue trying to learn and improve whenever I can because I’m still convinced I’ll be able to shake this bright white booty with as much sabor as anyone with adequate melanin levels).
  • And you know what? I think I’ll continue encouraging people to do the same.

I‘m sorry for having such monstrous views. Clearly I’m an awful person

Be different
You know, people will always prefer and dance different styles of Salsa and that’s beautiful. It means we’ll always have the beauty of variety in the Salsa community.

It’s just not cool when people start promoting the idea that one style is better than the others and then ridiculing those who dance those different styles. That is most definitely NOT what I wrote about in my last article.

Thanks for everyone’s opinion
To those of you who wrote ridiculously angry comments to make your point, I’m sorry you’re so angry, the internet seems to bring that out in people. At least you provided the inspiration for everything I’ve written here. And to those of you who gave well rounded, mature comments with genuinely insightful suggestions I want to say thank you for contributing to our Salsa community… And it most certainly is “our” community (see my article on why), no matter what the angry comments say, no matter if your style is Cuban or Puerto Rican, NY, LA or Colombian… no matter if you’re African, Latino, European or Asian… or if you dance street or studio, technical or simple… We are all part of one big Salsa community. I’ll see you all on the dance floor.

Keep dancing folks.

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The Salsa Community: All Warm and Fuzzy

5 Mar
If you're in a salsa community you're in one of the best communities around.

If you’re in a salsa community you’re in one of the best communities around.

Let’s get all warm and fuzzy.

Salsa offers us many benefits; new friends, exercise, a new social outlet… I’ve written about them before and the list is long.

Like many others, I started salsa years ago and I’ve stuck with it all this time to reap all these benefits but recently I’ve been appreciating one of them in particular; the sense of community.

I was born and raised in the countryside, in a small village where everyone knows everyone (for better or worse). I was BORN into a community. Whatever social events I went to I would see the same people. I’d see them at mass or at a football match. If ever something happened in my life, good or bad I knew people in the community would always be there with a word of encouragement or congratulations or whatever I needed to hear.

When I moved away from home at 18, my classmates in university became my community. When I worked as an English teacher in Japan, the people doing the JET Programme just like me, became my community. However, as someone who has moved around more than their fare share in life I’ve come to realize that as we get older and move to new cities, it becomes harder to feel part of a community. I think many people will agree with me that the places with the most people are usually the places we feel most alone.

That’s where salsa has helped a lot in my life.

Salsa: Community in the City
I recently moved back to Ireland after almost two and a half years abroad. I’m back home in the countryside but I’ve been going back up to Dublin a lot lately and I love being there. Despite the fact that a lot of time has passed, I simply slotted right back into the salsa community. There are a lot of new faces but there are plenty that I recognize from before and they couldn’t have helped me feel more welcome after my time away.

It’s not just Dublin either. When I lived in Colombia, my main group of friends were those I went dancing with regularly. I would see the same faces out dancing every week. Exposure breeds familiarity and those faces became friends, my Colombian family.

When I lived in Japan, during my final year, I started organizing salsa parties in an attempt to start building a community. I guess it worked because that community is still going strong in semi-rural Miyazaki and I’ve maintained my strongest links, amongst my Japanese friends, with those people whom I danced with.

That sense of community doesn’t even have to be confined to a place where you live either. It can just as easily be formed while traveling.

During the course of my three weeks in Cuba I spent virtually all my time with the instructors from the salsa school I went to. We ate meals together, chatted throughout the day, visited the beach and of course danced our asses off every night.

The best example probably comes from my time in Charleston, South Carolina. When I arrived there in mid-October last year I had only intended on staying a couple of days and moving on to New York. Luckily for me, my first night there I went dancing and met a great bunch of people in the small but close salsa community that is growing there. They welcomed me with open arms and I ended up staying for a week, doing workshops, eating out, going for drinks and dancing our asses of every night (I see a pattern emerging here).

When I was in New York, I was lucky enough to have friends who I knew through salsa who gave me a place to stay and even helped me with some of my first steps into dancing On 2.

I had no connection with virtually any of the people above apart from one thing: We All Love Salsa!

And that’s the real amazing thing about salsa. It brings everyone together. It doesn’t matter whether you’re young or old, the color of your skin, your religion, where you’re from or whether you love Marmite or not. As long as you want to dance, you’re golden!

Love it or Hate...It doesn't matter as long as you dance salsa.

Love it or Hate…It doesn’t matter as long as you dance salsa.

When I go out dancing in Dublin I get to spend time with the most diverse group of people you can imagine; gardeners, tennis coaches, bakers, truck drivers, doctors, geologists, bankers, immigrants, parents, students and manly men with beards (grrrrr!). All brought together by our love for shaking our booties in time with music. It never ceases to amaze me the incredible mix of people I find at a salsa night and eventually end up calling my friends.

I felt the need to write this after the past few weekends in Dublin. Whenever I visit, I always end up crashing on the couch of a salsa friend (thanks Dave). When I go out for coffee, it’s with fellow salseros. When I randomly bump into someone I know on the street there’s a 90% chance they’re someone I know from salsa.

This weekend I went to birthday parties for salsero friends, went dancing and met people who I haven’t seen in years and was greeted with the warmest of hugs, made new friends with people more recent to the community and even learned a load of bad words in European Spanish… all thanks to salsa. I even went out to brunch on Sunday with a huge group of people of whom I had only met two before but ended up having an amazing day and instantly making some new friends because… just because everyone danced. It was beautiful!

Diversity united through salsa!

Diversity united through salsa!

Dublin may not be a huge city by international standards but it is still a city and in any city it’s easy to feel alone or lacking a sense of community. Salsa gives us the community that we need. It makes us feel like we’re part of something bigger, something special and I think that we’re all looking for that… to feel part of something that’s bigger than us.

This may sound ridiculous but I genuinely feel all warm and fuzzy inside when I go into a salsa club alone and spend the first 5 minutes shaking hands and hugging and kissing all my friends who I may have seen as recently as the night before. There aren’t many situations in cities these days that allow someone such a sense of intimacy and belonging amongst the masses. Salsa is a true blessing in this sense.

Nothing’s Perfect…
…nor will it ever be perfect. Just like every community in the world (or just like every family) there are issues. We can however chose to ignore them and just focus on the good (which is what I’m doing with this article).

Basically, what I’m trying to say is: if you’re part of a salsa community you should feel damn proud of it. Appreciate it. Appreciate the wonderful things it has brought you in your life, not least the amazing friends it has probably blessed you with.

Be happy that you have found such a healthy, wholesome way to spend your time.

Keep Dancing Folks.

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Havana: Travel in Cuba on a Budget (Part 2)

18 Dec

Happy Wednesday folks, some of you may have already noticed that The Dancing Irishman is now back on Irish soil for the first time in two and a half years. I arrived in Ireland in secret (and incognito) last Friday and surprised my old salsa crew and later my family.

I have a whole post about that little adventure coming up but this week I’m going to continue with my travel post on what to do in Havana, Cuba and how to do it without breaking the bank. You can find the first part of this post right here.

Little annoyances
Just like any city with a thriving tourist industry, in Havana you will encounter MANY people who are out to take advantage of tourists.

These folks will appear in many forms but by far the biggest annoyances are the people who approach you randomly on the street. These guys are masters and have refined what they do to an art.

The three most common “openers” you will hear are:
Do you have a light?
Do you have the time? (even if you’re not wearing a watch)
Happy Holiday

The only function of these lines is to catch you off guard and get you into a conversation. I particularly disliked the last one, “Happy Holiday” (I was bombarded with this multiple times every day for 3 weeks so I had time to build up a grudge against it!). The phrase is only used in the U.S. where’s it basically means Merry Christmas. I explained this to one guy who approached me with this opener and he was astounded when he found out this was not a common phrase in English (especially since it’s so commonly used in Havana). It’s just a direct translation of “feliz vacaciones” which literally means “happy vacation”.

Anyway, once these guys have you in conversation they’ll start asking you where you’re from and then they’ll tell you that they have family there and they may even know the name of some lesser city (these guys are pros afterall). I must have met 50 cubans, by pure chance, who had family in Ireland. Amazing!

Eventually the offers will start. You’ll get invited to go and get a drink as they show you the local sites and tell you about the country. Your new friend may order multiple drinks while telling you how difficult life is for Cubans. The bill will come and your jaw will drop but you still have to pay it. He will get his cut from the bar later and you’ve been had.

Ashamedly folks, I’m speaking from experience. I’m overly trusting and friendly with people and always like to give them the benefit of the doubt and it bit me in the ass in Cuba. Be warned!

Your best bet, when approached with these lines is to give a quick one word answer and keep moving. Honestly it’s very difficult for me to be that blunt but you’ll have to do it in Cuba. Some people might say that you’re rude or that you don’t like talking to Cuban people but you’ll have to deal with that. Just tell them that you’re running late or  something and keep moving.

Mojitos, one of Cuba's signature drinks getting ready to receive their rum.

Mojitos, one of Cuba’s signature drinks getting ready to receive their rum.

Cigarros? Chicas?
You will also constantly encounter people on the street trying to “recommend” you something be it cigars, restaurants  or women. If you look remotely like a foreigner you are a target for this and you will be approached. A common scam is for someone to tell you that today is the last day of a particular sale on cigars at the “cooperative” (what luck to meet this guy on the last day of the sale). They’ll be really friendly and even offer to take you. My advice is to not buy anything off the streets from random people who approach you, especially cigars.

Why? Well one thing is that they can often sell you fake cigars. The most famous brands of cigars in Cuba are Cohiba and Monte Cristo which can cost a pretty penny. In the local tiendas (stores) you can pick up a cheap, run of the mill Cuban cigar for a grand total of 1MN. Yes that’s 5¢(US). The only difference, to the untrained eye, between these and the more expensive cigars is their little paper wrapper which is very easily changed. If you must waste money on cigars please bare in mind that if you’re passing through the US after Cuba, there is a chance that they’ll be confiscated (especially if you’re a US citizen).

As a man traveling in Cuba, you will also be bombarded with propositions for sex… constantly. Before I got there I wasn’t aware of Cuba’s (unfortunate) reputation as a “sex-tourism” hot-spot and I was astounded by how many times I was either directly approached by girls or by men asking me if I was interested in “chicas”. The fact that I was travelling alone and walked around alone for the majority of my stay there only made matters worse. Actually, the most pleasant walks I had were those I took with some of the female dance instructors from my school. Everyone left us alone because they thought I was already taken.

You will also notice a lot of girls that will “accompany” male travelers, kind of like a temporary girlfriend with the expectation of getting something in return. I also found it very interesting that it wasn’t just foreign men taking out Cuban girls. You will also a huge amount of older foreign women “accompanied” by strapping young Cuban men. People do what they have to do to get by in Cuba.

Anyway, when you are approached (and you will be approached, be you man or woman), just excuse yourself with a “No thank you” (best not to let them know you speak Spanish if you do) and keep moving. I should also mention that I was told that going to “matinee” salsa evenings (starting at around 5pm until 9) was a good way to dance with regular Cubans and to avoid the Jineteros (“escorts”) as the prices are lower so regular Cubans can afford it.

A note on safety
Before I went to Cuba I had lived for two years in Cali, Colombia and this has made me rather “cautious” when navigating cities. However, Havana surprised me by being incredibly safe to walk around not only during the day but at night too.

That’s not to say that it’s the kind of place you want to walk around without a care in the world. Be smart and always ask someone (in a hotel or your casa) if a certain part of town is ok to walk around. Also don’t walk around non-tourist areas flashing your wealth with fancy jewelry or expensive cameras. Havana is safe but if the opportunity arises anything is possible. Be smart and be safe.

Food
Just like any tourist town, in Havana you can find places that cater specifically to tourists (with nicely elevated tourist prices) and you can find places where the locals eat.

However, let me get something clear, you can find some excellent restaurants that provide delicious Cuban food for lunch at prices from 3 to 4 CUC (without drinks). This will usually include a soup and then a main dish of rice, beans, meat and vegetables. You may even find a place that includes a small dessert in the price. Many restaurant in Habana Vieja will even offer main courses for dinner from 4 to 5 CUC. I highly recommend trying out 2 restaurants located in the same building across from the “Capitolio” building in the old town called “Los Nardos” and “Asturianitos”. Great food and very reasonable prices (although not strictly low budget). If you visit the “Vedado” neighbourhood in Havana, try out a restaurant called “La Roca” for lunch.

However, as I have been one myself, I realize there are some super low-budget travelers out there that will want some super low-budget options for food and Havana is full of them. Street food is everywhere and while it won’t blow your mind gastronomically it definitely won’t blow your budget.

You will regularly see small windows with lines of people selling snacks, the three most popular being burgers, sandwiches and fried rice. You should be able to get any one of these for around 10MN (about 50¢ US) (and it’s really important that you have a supply of MN in your wallet to pay for such expenses. While they may accept CUC, they may not give you a great exchange rate). I have tried all of these foods and they’re quick, relatively tasty and in my experience safe; in 3 weeks in Cuba I didn’t once suffer any stomach upsets which is unusual when traveling in developing countries.

A Media Noche sandwich, filled with ham and cheese and some salsa, is a common sight on the streets of Havana

A Media Noche sandwich, filled with ham and cheese and some salsa, is a common sight on the streets of Havana

I really recommend only buying street food from places that already have the prices displayed out front, this way, if someone tries to cheat you on the price you can just point to the price they have displayed. I remember one morning after exercising in my casa I wanted something quick and I saw a guy making and selling omelette sandwiches from window. I asked him how much and he told me, without a twitch, “2 CUC” ($2 US). I knew something was up straight awayn (the eyes of one of his workmates nearly popped out of his head when he heard it)  so I called him on it. He repeated that the price was 2 CUC and I said no thank you. I moved to the side and was able to hear the next customer, a little old lady ask the same thing I had. The guy looked ashamedly at me and then back to the old lady and told in a very low voice “5 pesos” (5MN or 25¢  US).

So remember, a price display is a pocket saver.

If you want to go even more low-budget (and healthier in my opinion) you can visit some of the produce markets that you will find scattered randomly around the city (although I recommend visiting the market at the corner of 17 and K in Vedado, if just to do some people watching and see real Cubans going about their shopping). At the markets you won’t find a huge selection of fruit and veg (plantains, bananas, mango, guava, limes, avocado, tomato, scallions, onions, squash, cabbage, bell peppers, chili peppers, garlic and some herbs and spices) but they are very cheap. You can also usually find eggs (but I’ve been told their availability varies). If you have cooking facilities at your casa you can do what I did and make omelettes and eat them with some fruit at lunch time for a very healthy and very cheap meal.

Just so you get a little idea of the prices I paid:
30 Eggs cost 33MN
1 banana cost 1MN
1 large Mango cost 6MN

Another possible lunch option is to find the restaurants that the locals eat their lunch in. In these places (virtually always in someones house and without signs outside) you can get a meal which will consist of meat, beans, rice and some vegetables for just 24MN or 1CUC. It’s a great price to pay for such a substantial meal.

A typical Cuban lunch; pork. moneditas de platano, avocado and beans on the side (I asked them to hold the rice that day)

A typical Cuban lunch; pork. moneditas de platano, avocado and beans on the side (I asked them to hold the rice that day)

And if you ever do feel like splurging, you can’t really go wrong with the Buffet Breakfasts in either the Hotel Nacional (13CUC) or the Hotel Parque Central (15CUC). Fill up on some spectacular food for breakfast and you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day.

A note on the black stuff: Cuban Coffee
As I am now a coffee drinker (honestly, never saw that one coming) I did my best to find cheap sources of the black stuff while in Cuba. 

Now, you can go into the many hotels or tourist cafes and buy yourself a cup of “Americano” starting at $1.50 US a cup or you can do what the locals do. You will regularly see windows on the street lined with tiny little cups next to a thermos. At these windows you can get a shot of seriously strong Cuban coffee for 1MN. You can also usually chat with whoever is selling it nice a freely if there isn’t a line forming behind you. Be warned however that this thermos coffee is usually very sweet so if you take your coffee unsweetened like me you’ll have to ask if they have coffee “sin azucar”. Most places don’t but you can find it, just look for windows that have a small sugar pot next to the coffee thermos, this means that you can sweeten the coffee yourself.

How to have and instant group of friends
My time in Havana was really made so much better by the group of people I hung out with, namely the dance teachers from the school I attended. They were a great bunch of people to hang out and dance with but not only that, they also gave me a huge amount of “Local” advice on Havana too. This was invaluable because once you are in Havana you will find it very difficult to get information on things to do and when you do get information it will be heavily motivated by the financial gain of whoever is giving it to you.

The people at the salsa school were able to give me advice on where to eat, what to visit, where to go dance, how to get transport, how to find anything I needed around the city and how to do it all on the cheap.

It was also through knowing the the people at the dance school that I got to do certain things that regular tourists would never get the chance to do like attending a Cuban wedding party, joining a Santeria religious ceremony and going to load of dance parties and venues where there were very few other foreigners to be seen.

Thanks to my friends at the dance school I got to attend a Cuban wedding party. And yes, I do scrub up pretty well.

Thanks to my friends at the dance school I got to attend a Cuban wedding party. And yes, I do scrub up pretty well.

When you arrive in Havana, make sure you start taking classes in a dance school ASAP so that you can get to know the teachers and start hanging out with them in the evenings. You can find my recommendations for dance schools in Havana here.

Internet in Havana
Here’s the good news, if you ever wanted to take a vacation and completely disconnect from social media, Cuba is a great place to do it.

The bad news is that once you’re in Cuba, staying in contact with the outside world by internet is not cheap.

You can connect to the internet in some of the larger hotels like the Hotel Nacional but it will cost you about 5CUC an hour although you can also purchase a weeks pass that allows you to use their Wifi but that only helps if you’re staying in that hotel and let’s be honest, if you’re going to stay in that hotel, you will not be reading this “Budget” guide.

A few little recommendations for Havana
I want to finish this (overly long) post off with a few things to do around the city, to fill that time when you’re not dancing. Honestly, there are a huge amount of sites and things to do in Havana but here are just a few of the things that I particularly enjoyed.

  • Walk along the Malecon (the promenade) from Habana Vieja to La Rampa in El Vedado. Do it around sunset to get some great pictures (and to avoid the heat of the day). You can then people watch as the locals hang out chatting and drinking on the wall.

    A great sunset caught walking along the famous Malecon in Havana

    A great sunset caught walking along the famous Malecon in Havana

  • Visit the Plaza Vieja and people watch from the shaded comfort of El Escorial cafe.
  • Enjoy the thickest Hot Chocolate ever and breath the heavily chocolate scented air of the Museo del Chocolate.

    The thickest hot chocolate ever in Museo de Chocolate

    The thickest hot chocolate ever in Museo de Chocolate

  • On Sundays from 12pm check out the Rumba show at the Callejon de Hamel. It’s a total toursit trap and you will be bothered by numerous people asking for money and donations but once the show starts they quiten down. It’s a cool look at Cuban dance and culture but keep your wits about you and watch out for pickpockets.
  • See the most beautiful stained-glass windows ever in la Iglesia del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus.
  • Dance in Club 1830, it’s open-air, right on the waterfront and one of the coolest places I’ve ever danced and watched people dancing. I think it only costs 3CUC to get in on Thrusday nights.
  • Visit El Barrio Chino (China Town) if you feel like a break from Cuban food. Tien Tan (天壇) is particularly good and boasts a native Chinese chef.
  • Escape the city and hit the beautiful white sand beaches of Playa del Este (20 minutes). You can grab a return ticket by bus for only 5CUC. The buses leave from infront of Hotel Inglaterra in Habana Vieja every 30 minutes. Just check the weather forecast and make sure you don’t go on a day like I did.

I hope you all enjoyed the post, if you have any more questions, feel free to drop me an email and ask.

Right, that’s it for me today folks. I’m off to enjoy some down time here at home in Ireland, after two and a half years away, I think I’ve earned it.

Keep dancing folks.

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Oh America, you so crazy!!! (Thoughts of a Dancing Irishman on his rambles through the USA)

31 Oct

America, land of the free and home of the brave… and the downright crazy.

I’ve been here in the US for over a month now and I finally reached my goal destination of New York City a little over 2 weeks ago (where were you all with the welcome parade eh???). It’s been a roller-coaster of experiences so far.

Football games, homecomings, shrimps n’ grits, beach after beach after beach, terrifying bus stations, pumpkin spice lattes, compliments about my good English and even a little bit of salsa dancing… that’s how I’ve spent the last month or so and I believe I’ve got a good grasp of (certain) things here in the states (at least enough to write this article).

A whole lot of crazy
Everywhere on earth is different (thank god for that) and the great thing about being a traveling, dancing Irishman is getting to experience these differences first hand.

Here’s a few little things that have stood out to me over the past few weeks in the United States of A, both good and bad, that have made me stop, think and say to myself either “hmm, that’s nice” or, alternatively, “what the F##K”.

Excluding Tax
“Oh look, a pack of peanuts for only 89 cents. Why that’s wonderful, I’ve got exactly that in change in my pockets”…Up to the register I contently skip, elated with the fact that I can now relieve myself of the heavy burden of coins I’m carrying. I count out my change carefully to make sure it’s all there, pass my peanuts to the clerk with a smile and she smiles back while saying “that’ll be $1.04 please”… Dreams of a change free pocket crushed!
Really, would it be so hard to just label things with the tax included???

People talking to themselves on the street
They’re everywhere and I always make sure to check that they’re not using a handsfree set or bluetooth… and they’re not. The majority of them appear to be bats##t crazy too.

Cinnamon on everything
Now I like cinnamon just as much as the next dancing Irishman but I really don’t understand why Americans have chosen it as the “spice of choice” for everything sweet. I can’t seem to find any baked goods that haven’t taken a shower in it. Less is more folks.

Adds for law offices
This I really can’t understand, there are so many advertisements for lawyers on local television and newspapers that it boggles the mind. Has suing other people for accident claims become the new pastime of America? If add space on newspapers and airtime on local radio is anything to go by then it certainly seems so.

Big Gulps
Why in the name of god would anyone need a “bucket” of flavored sugar-water.

Tipping
Please America, just pay your staff a fair wage. You are expected to tip for everything in this country which (along with the non-included taxes) means that you’re almost never sure how much you need to pay at the end of a transaction.

I understand the necessity of tips for servers but they’re only necessary because servers get paid a ridiculous hourly wage. On top of that (speaking as someone previously unfamiliar with the custom as it exists in the US) I used to get so confused about tipping in different places; should I tip 15% or 20 %? how to I tip my bartender? what if I’m paying with credit card?and what if I’m in bad mood? Does my server have to suffer for my bad day? I could go on!!!

And don’t get me wrong, I tip generously, as i know that’s how the people who wait on me  make their living so I consider it good karma… But I still resent having to pay extra for a service that is included free in most other countries in the world (and I imagine other travelers would be like-minded). In Japan, for example, restaurants provide some of the finest service I’ve ever experienced and they actually refuse tips.

Obnoxiously friendly servers
Related to the above, some (and I really have to stress that it’s only some) servers put on way too much of a show in their attempts to get better tips. Some are overly friendly to the point of just coming off as false and some push more and more product on you that it’s annoying. In case any servers reading this are getting pissed off at me for writing this “without knowing what I’m talking about”… I assure you, I have plenty of experience as a server.

Big cars
Having lived in Europe and japan where small cars are frequent sights I find it very difficult to comprehend Americans prejudice against small cars. The streets are full of huge gas-guzzling pickup trucks and SUVs with usually just the driver inside. I’ve only visited urban areas so far here in the states so I really don’t get why anyone would even need an SUV. Do they think that extra power is necessary for the slope in their multistory car-park?

Small cars are looked down upon as something to be ridiculed and the only small cars I saw with any frequency were mini coopers and Volkswagen beetles, cars that get bought for their style factor and not for the fact that they make economic and environmental sense. Priorities folks… please!

Oh My “GOSH
I really didn’t think people actually used the word “gosh”. It appears I was seriously wrong!

In your face food
This probably stuck out to me a lot more due to the fact that I arrived in the states after 3 weeks in Cuba, which is practically another world, but as I soon as I arrived in the US I couldn’t help but feel the desire to EAT!!!

Advertising for food is literally everywhere here. I can’t walk down a street without being recommended a limited edition “first long weekend in October” burger followed by a half gallon of chocolate-chip jalapeño ice-cream made with milk extracted from “recombinant growth hormone-free” Persian kittens, all washed down with hot and delicious PSL (google it, they’re really good actually).

Yup, Fried Chicken and Waffles... for breakfast. I ate it coz the sign told me to.

Yup, Fried Chicken and Waffles… for breakfast. I ate it coz the sign told me to. This, by the way is only half a portion, I was sharing breakfast.

Taking that Into account and combined with the overpricing of fresh produce and ridiculously low pricing of processed junk-food (which comes in equally ridiculous potion sizes) it’s no wonder that America is fighting an obesity epidemic.

Awkward hugs
I can’t help but laugh my ass off when I see Americans meeting friends on the street and performing the most awkward hugs imaginable. You know the ones I’m taking about; cheeks out to the sides and asses sticking way, way back (you’ve got to make sure those crotches don’t get anywhere near each other now). I don’t want to over generalize (not that I haven’t been doing that since the beginning of this article) so I really must add that I only see these hugs performed by white Americans. Everyone else seems to know how to hug.

What's wrong with allowing those crotches to get nice and close?

What’s wrong with allowing those crotches to get nice and close for a proper hug?

Work work work
It seems that the majority of Americans I’ve met so far either work ridiculous hours or work multiple jobs, in some cases just to “get by”. I really don’t know the reason behind it: is it the unrivaled consumerism here that compels people to spend spend spend, or the need to compete socially with every one else or maybe just the simple desire to make as much money as possible. Whatever the reason, I see a lot of people missing out on actually living and enjoying their lives!

The Green Man is White
Does it not strike anyone else as odd that, for driving, the internationally recognized color for “go” is green and for “stop” is red whereas for walking, “stop” is a red man but “go” is mysteriously” a white man?

I’ve even heard people say, “let’s go, it’s green” when the “white” man lights up…

LET’S THROW IN A FEW NICE THINGS SO I DON’T SOUND LIKE A COMPLETE PESSIMIST…

Lovely people
Americans, as a people, tend to have an awful reputation internationally but I have to say that I really only hear it from people who haven’t actually had a lot of contact with Americans. I have worked with Americans for years (admittedly, outside of the US) and I’ve found them to be great people. In fact, a great deal of my closest friends are American. They’re helpful, courteous and great fun to be around.

Even since I arrived in the US a little over a month ago I feel I’ve been blessed with meeting an unfathomable amount of incredible people all along the way. Every day, I get to start up little conversations with Americans who are always interested to hear something about me and what I’m doing here. To be fair, the majority of the them just happen to be attractive women and I may be playing up my Irish accent a little to help get a little extra attention 😉 , so I might be just a little biased with my judgment. What good is all this Irish charm if you don’t use it, right?

Anyway, I think Americans are lovely.

You want it, you got it!
No matter what you need, be it organic unrefined cold-pressed armadillo oil, a 700 meter shocking-pink extension cord or the latest issue of “LGBT lumberjack quarterly” (real magazine, seriously), if you live in a large-ish American city, you can probably get it.

They really have everything here!

Power Showers
Americans know how to take showers. From super high pressure that makes you feel like you’re getting massaged by a thousand tiny hands to heat that makes you want to stay in the shower forever on a cold morning, I always look forward to my showers in the US.

That said, I probably appreciated showers here a little more after 2 years in Colombia where I had to deal with low water pressure and no heating…at all!!! Thank God I lived in the tropics

Hmmm, seems a little one-sided
I know it seems like I’m really trying to insult the US with this whole post but that’s just another name for international diplomacy… right?

Honestly though, I’m having a ball here in the states and I plan on having even more of a ball once I get settled in a little better. I’m here to do things that can only be done in the US (specifically New York) and there are a whole lot of things that can only be done in New York. I plan on doing lots.

Watch this space.

Where else in the world can I take photos like this? New York is gonna be a lot of fun!!

Where else in the world can I take photos like this? New York is gonna be a lot of fun!!

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Have you been working-out lately? Because you look spectacular 🙂 If you liked this article go ahead and share it with your friends via the Facebook or Twitter buttons below and if you use Stumbleupon please give it a “Thumbs Up”. I’d really appreciate it 😉

How to travel the world cheap and have more fun than ever! (My first weeks in the US)

2 Oct

I’ve stayed in 5-star hotels and I’ve slept on bare stone floors. I’ve walked solo, visiting monuments around the streets of some of the biggest and most famous cities in the world and I’ve gone to tiny little bars with groups of locals who I’d just met hours before.

I’ve traveled in a lot of different ways and I’ve seen different places from many different perspectives accordingly.

While I like my “me time” (a lot), one thing that I have undeniably learned over the years is that travel (at least for me) is much more enjoyable when done together with others. I’m not sure exactly what it is, maybe it’s the fact that traveling and sharing experiences with someone else makes those experiences more real, more memorable, more lasting…better!

Whenever I travel alone (which is a lot) I always feel that I’d be having more fun if I were with someone else. A little over a month ago, for my first few days in Cuba I actually felt lonely as I wandered the streets of Havana. It was still amazing seeing the city but I wanted to talk about it with someone, tell them how I feel, hear how they feel, share cup of coffee in the quaint little cafes or grab a meal together in the lively local restaurants. Luckily I only felt “lonely” for my first few days. Once I made some local friends I was able to do just what I had wanted and learn things that no guidebook could ever have told me.

I’ve been here in the U.S. for about a week and a half now and I’m writing this article on the bus taking me from Orlando to Savannah, Georgia. I’ve just spent 4 days in a little town outside Orlando that I had never heard of before, staying with someone who 4 days ago I had never met and who now I consider to be a close friend. It’s been one of the best vacations of my life and probably one of the cheapest.

I’m a couchsurfer
When I say that to people, the vast majority has absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. Neither did I the first time I learned about it but Couchsurfing transformed the way I travel and allowed me to both save a huge amount of money doing so and experience things that otherwise I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do.

I’ll keep the explication concise but the basic premise is that couchsurfing allows you to host travelers from all over the world who need a place to stay or it allows you to look for a host in the area where you want to visit. And it’s absolutely free. This allows you to meet new people, from different cultures and countries and share experiences with them as you (or they) travel. You can learn about all the hidden local gems that you’ll never find with a guidebook, spend time with locals and learn how they really live (so you’re not just getting to know a place through all the people that work in the tourist industry) and you get to enrich your travels by making some incredible friends along the way. For an example, check out this post from my friends Rebecca and Solomon who I  met through couchsurfing when they stayed with me.

My awesome host, Sherri made my time in Orlando unforgettable

My awesome host, Sherri made my time in Orlando unforgettable

It works like this:

  • You fill out a profile on Couchsurfing.org with some personal details and details about where you live.
  • You can mark your profile to indicate if you want to host or not or if you’re available to meet up for a coffee or to show people around your area.
  • You may then receive requests form surfers in your area or…
  • If you’re traveling you can look for and send couch requests to potential hosts in the area where you’re going.

It’s that simple.

So you stay with complete strangers? Are you insane?
Yes and Yes! The website allows hosts and surfers to leave a “review” of their respective experiences on each other’s page. This allows people to check out a potential host or surfer before hand. If someone has received a bad review you can simply opt out of surfing with them.

This system allows the Couchsurfing community (and it is most definitely a community with over 6 milllion active members worldwide and growing) to “police” itself, so to speak. I have been couchsurfing since 2009 and I have never had a bad experience and I only very rarely here of other couchsurfers having bad experiences. The system works.

My most recent Couchsurfing experience
My last 4 days in Orlando were a perfect example of just how good couchsurfing can be. I was hosted by Sherri, just outside Orlando, Florida who initially declined my request because she had an exceptionally busy weekend coming up and didn’t think she could manage a house guest too. However, five minutes after receiving her first message I received another from Sherri telling me that she hadn’t realized I was Irish and that she had to host me (I knew being Irish would pay off some day).

This is how my four days went:

  • Friday afternoon I arrive in Orlando and grab the bus to Sherri’s office
  • We go to her home, I meet her family and housemates, I shower up and we all go out for dinner at a popular local German restaurant and meet more of her friends
  • After dinner we walk around town chatting and I learn all about the area and get to know Sherri’s friends (who are all amazing)
  • The next day we get up early and go to college football game. We go tailgating and I see my first ever game of American Football with the rules explained to me by Sherri and her (insane) friends

    My first ever game of American Football. Go UCF!

    My first ever game of American Football. Go UCF!

  • That evening we scrub up and Sherri brings me along to a pre-party for her son’s “Home Coming” dance. I meet more locals and become the center of attention by being the only Irishman (only foreigner) present
  • Later we go to City Walk at Universal Studios, checking out the bars. I was as giddy as schoolgirl thanks to one of my most visual stimulating experiences in years
  • Sunday morning and afternoon, I get to help Sherri run some errands around town (driving around the neighborhood and picking up kids to drop them off at skate-parks etc.)
  • That afternoon I joined Sherri at “Gliding Stars”, a group of volunteers who take children with autism and other related conditions, ice-skating at the local ice-rink. I’m an awful skater but I had so much fun skating with my kid for the afternoon (and I only fell on my ass once)

    If not for Couchsurfing I wouldn't have had to chance to spend this awesome afternoon with these great kids

    If not for Couchsurfing I wouldn’t have had to chance to spend this awesome afternoon with these great kids

  • That evening I help Sherri and her friends prepare a sushi dinner to celebrate her housemate’s birthday. We had a blast and I created a new sushi roll “The Crazy Irishman”

    And here's the Crazy Irishman (I'm talking about the sushi roll folks)

    And here’s the Crazy Irishman (I’m talking about the sushi roll folks)

  • On Monday Sherri and I have lunch by one of the many beautiful lakes in the area and then do a boat tour where I learn all about the history of the incredible houses in the area and just how likely I am to get eaten by a “gator” if I fall in the water (I advise against swimming)
  • That night we have amazing slow-cooked “pulled pork” sandwiches followed by ice cream from the most famous Ice cream parlor in the city and then we go for a walk in beautiful downtown Orlando

Result…

BEST WEEKEND EVER!
Despite the fact that I had never met Sherri before she immediately made me feel like I was one of her friends and I can’t thank her enough for that. She allowed me to experience a real piece of American culture that I had never experienced before and that I otherwise would never have been able to.

That’s what Couchsurfing is all about. It’s about getting away from the “done to death” tourist traps (although there’s nothing wrong with those, by the way) and experiencing how life actually is in the place your visiting, doing what the locals do for fun and having much more fulfilling experiences.

Instant Community
Another benefit of Couchsurfing is that areas with a large number of couchsurfers (like big cities) tend to have “Couchsurfing Groups” or communities, which are groups of hosts and surfers that get together for social activities.

This can be a great way for people who have just moved to an area and who don’t know many people. You can check the scheduled activities of the couchsurfing groups in your new city, go along to one and meet a lot of like-minded locals really easily. This was really important for me when I first moved to Cali. I knew no one when I first arrived over two years ago but as soon as I started hanging out with the other couchsurfers I had an instant group of friends. It was also a huge plus that the group was very active in dancing (for anyone going to Cali, Thursday night in the club Tin Tin Deo is generally a great night to meet the couchsurfers). Say hi for me.

Where to next?
I’m really looking forward to experiencing some real “southern hospitality” over the next few days here in Savannah and later in Charleston, once I arrive there.

I’ll be couchsurfing all the way, saving money and having a hell of a lot more fun than I would if I was staying in hotels or hostels. If you’re in either of those areas and you’d like to meet up or if you have advice on salsa dancing or anything else to do, send me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

Keep dancing folks.

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Fiona Uyema

Japanese Cookbook Author

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