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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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To New York

14 Oct

This day, October 14th, exactly one year ago I arrived in New York city… absolutely terrified!

THE FOLLOWING MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE ACTUALLY HAPPENED

What I’m about to publish here is a letter I wrote exactly 1 year ago, at the start of the almost 24 hour bus ride I took to from South Carolina to New York.

I’m publishing it because I want people to know that:
1. Not all my travels have been the “happy go lucky” kind
2. Life can get scary but you can never let that hold you back… ever

In a sense, it’s my confession, that my time in New York wasn’t as spectacular as I may have made it seem.

To New York

13/10/2013

I’m fucking terrified.

I’ve felt this way all morning since I looked in my wallet and found a single hundred-dollar bill.

I needed to use the vast majority of that to buy my bus ticket from Charleston, South Carolina to New York. So, with the change from that and the cash I have in my pocket (and provided I don’t need to spend any more money along the way) I will arrive in New York City (arguably the greatest city on the face of the earth) with a grand total of $14.45.

I also have a €50 note that I’ve had in my wallet for years (along with other foreign currency) as an emergency fund. It looks like that emergency may really rear it’s ugly head.

I actually thought that there would be 2 hundred-dollar bills waiting for me when I went for my wallet so I genuinely think I must have lost one along the way. That’s pretty inconvenient to say the least.

$14.45
That doesn’t buy much in the good old U.S. of A.

When I get to New York, I’ve already decided that most of that money will go towards some essential groceries. Something cheap and healthy. Something to live on for my first week.

It’s going to be quite a change from how I’ve been eating here in the U.S. up until now. I have been eating well (my waistline will attest to that), especially here in Charleston, enjoying the local “southern” cuisine and being as generous with tips as I can, which hasn’t helped my finances but I’m hoping that it’ll bring me some good karma in New York, especially if I find a job waiting tables… I’m going to need it.

The people I’ve met along the way on this adventure have been great and have really helped me out along the way. Especially in Charleston where I hadn’t planned on staying too long. I had decided to get to NYC as soon as possible after I realized how little cash I had left but the salseros of Charleston managed to convince me to stay a whole week.

All the good times I’ve been having along the way have ensured that my financial situation will be dire when I arrive in the city that never sleeps. And I regret none of it.

I have seen parts of the U.S. I had never seen before, I have done things I have always wanted to do and met amazing people all along the way that make it all the more worth while. This has been an amazing journey for me.

I’m just going to have to pay for it when I get to New York.

The only thing that is keeping me from freaking out completely is the friends I have waiting for me in New York. I have a place to stay, with great people and that makes a huge difference when moving to a new city.

I remember when my mother drove me to the bus station over two years ago, just before I left Ireland to go to Colombia. She kept asking me what I was going to do for work, how I was going to get by, where I was going to live. I just kept replying that I “knew” I would find something. I knew that I would find work, meet new people, find a place to live, make a life for myself in Cali, a city where I had one single contact, a friend of a friend.

That said I also went with the confidence of having healthy savings account to back me up should I need it. That savings account is now empty as is my Japanese bank account that I tended to forget about and that had bailed me out on numerous occasions.

So that’s probably why now, I’m not brimming with the confidence that filled me when I left home for Colombia.

All the money I have in the world is $14.45 and a €50 note,

I will do anything I need to do to earn money when I get to New York. Even in Charleston I was looking for odd jobs and managed to earn $60 (and a great meal) by helping someone clean their house. I’m not “too proud” to do any type of work, you do what you have to do. $60, unfortunately, doesn’t last long.

The last thing I want to do, however, is to have to ask my parents for money. It’s not that I can’t, we have a great relationship and they would give me whatever I needed in the blink of an eye. I’ve just always been proud of the fact that I have never needed to ask them for anything since I graduated from university and got my first job. I don’t want to worry them and I don’t want them to think I’m struggling, like I need to come to them with my tail between my legs after all my gallivanting around the world. I am, it seems, “too proud” for that.

Faking composure on the bus to NYC

Faking composure on the bus to NYC

My mam just sent me a text (yeah, I couldn’t believe my mam knows how to send texts now either!) asking where I am and what towns I’m going to pass through on my way to New York. I just replied and felt the urge to send her a picture of myself smiling on the bus and then finished it off with “Love you loads, mam”. I don’t know where that came from but it made my eyes well up a little.

I have had butterflies in my stomach since I realized where my funds were at (and after a thorough search of my pockets came up with nothing else). They’re like butterflies of dread, nagging me “how could you have let this happen?” “you’re supposed to be smarter than that”, “you’re not going to be able to make it on that”.

I don’t have a choice, I have to make it. I have to find work, work my ass off if I have to. If I don’t I have no way of getting home and I have absolutely no intention of outstaying my legal welcome in the United States, I want to be able to come back. I also have the added worry of getting caught working while I’m here as a tourist. That would mean an instant ticket home, but not the happy kind.

The people I’ve met have been encouraging too. Telling me to keep positive and positive things will happen. I appreciate it and believe it too (although I think they may not have been so ready to say it had they seen the contents of my pockets).

The confidence that I do have comes from my friends and contacts in New York. They’ll help me find a way. Just before I left Colombia, only 6 weeks ago, someone very dear to me, out of the blue, told me that if ever needed money over here, all I had to do was ask. This is someone who is far from well off but it doesn’t matter, friends help friends! I pray that I never have to ask anyone for money (stupid pride) but I can’t begin to describe the comfort it brings to have loved ones who you know have your back.

I will arrive in New York tomorrow. I will take my place on my friends couch. I will start looking for a job from the moment I enter her neighborhood. I will find work and then I can start looking for something I can do more professionally. I will try to find a way to stay in New York (legally) so I can start to really reach the goal of this dance-fueled jaunt around the globe.

I’m writing this now because I really need to get it out of my system. I think I might publish it in a year, well after arriving in New York. I have no idea if I’ll still be there in a year or what I’ll be doing.

Even if I am terrified, I can’t say that I’m not really excited about the whole thing. Fingers crossed!

So, what happened?

I found a job in an Irish bar in Manhattan less than a week after I arrived. I was working only for tips and the place wasn’t even busy at the beginning so the first couple of weeks were rough, one day I even needed to decide if I was going to spend the little cash I had on groceries or on a subway ticket to get me into work. The subway ticket won out!

I worked almost everyday for a minimum of 10 hours, sometimes as many as 13 and put up with one of the most tyrannical bosses I have ever encountered. I put up with it because I had to.

The first decent tip I made. I can't begin to describe the elation I felt when it was slipped into my hand through a slick handshake.

The first decent tip I made. I can’t begin to describe the elation I felt when it was slipped into my hand through a slick handshake.

Anyone following the blog from last year will know that I didn’t write much about the salsa scene in New York while I was there. I simply didn’t have much free time to enjoy it. The couple I did publish while in New York you can find here and here!

I made enough money to buy myself a ticket home to Ireland and the rest, as they say, is history. I never did find a way of staying in New York, but I survived it made it home (unannounced and to the surprise of everyone) and I’m writing this article from my new base in Barcelona. Happy, healthy and safe.

Thank you

To all the wonderful people I met along the way in the states and especially to those who were so good to me in New York (you know who you are) I want to let you know how grateful I am to count you amongst my friends. Thank you and I hope I can repay that kindness one day.

A year goes by quickly!

Keep dancing 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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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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The Salsa Congress Survival Guide

24 Jun

I can’t feel my legs!

Add to that a serious sleep deficit and a feeling of complete euphoria and it’s pretty obvious that I’ve just come back from one hell of a salsa congress.

This is pretty much how I feel the day after a congress! (just not as cute)

This is pretty much how I feel the day after a congress! (just not as cute)

The 9th Irish Salsa Congress (formerly and nostalgically “Salsa School”) was a roaring success and my thanks and respect go out to everyone who made it so. You did a spectacular job folks 😀 .

I had forgotten how much a congress can take out of you so I decided to write up this quick little survival guide made up of my observations, some of the things I did right and a LOT of the things I did wrong.

NAP!!!
Anyone who has gone to a salsa congress can tell you that you will work up a serious sleep deficit over the course of a few days. Add that to all the dancing and you will quickly wear yourself out.

Grab a nap whenever and wherever you can. An hour here and an hour there will go a long way to keeping your energy levels up for the long, late nights of dance mayhem.

Not a nap person? Neither am I but I learned through necessity at this last congress. Dancing through all the way to breakfast isn’t unusual at some congresses.

If you're not a natural napper, a sleep mask is a great help.

If you’re not a natural napper, a sleep mask is a great help.

Pace Yourself
It’s perfectly understandable to feel that you need to go to every class on the schedule to “get your money’s worth” at a congress. However, you’ll quickly wear yourself out that way. There is nothing wrong with skipping one here and there to have a little extra sleep or to grab a nap in the afternoon.

Do some research and prioritize
Before you go, find out what teachers are doing what workshops and ask around about what classes to do from people who’ve taken their classes before. Then prioritize the classes that you feel you’ll get the most from.

For example, this past weekend I focused mostly on Musicality and On2 classes; two areas that I feel I really need to work on.

Remember that some of the teachers may have come from quite far away so this is your opportunity to learn from some fantastic dance-instructors. Prioritize things that you may not be able to learn in your local salsa scene.

Eat well
This will vary at every congress and depends a lot on where you stay. If you have self-catering accommodation you can bring your own food and “cook”. I’ve also heard of other congresses where the only food some people eat all day is the breakfast buffet.

Either way, remember that if you eat healthy you’ll feel much more energetic and enthusiastic dancing. If you eat crap, you’ll feel crap and sluggish and no one wants to dance like that.

Bring healthy foods that are quick to prepare like fruit, instant oats, cottage cheese, protein shakes, eggs, ready-to-eat salad bowls and you’ll feel a lot lighter on the dance floor.

Healthy, Quick and Easy. Healthier food will keep you dancing longer!

Healthy, Quick and Easy. Healthier food will keep you dancing longer!

Make new friends
Congresses are a great chance to meet other dancers from other cities and even from other countries. You’ve all got one thing in common, dance, so take advantage and get chatting to people in the workshops during the day. It’ll probably get you more dances at night.

On top of that it’s great to get to know dancers in other cities; if you ever visit you’ll have a contact with info on the best places to dance and maybe even a couch to sleep on.

Dance with strangers
Don’t confuse this with “dance with strange people”!

As I mentioned above, congresses are your chance to dance with people who normally you wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to dance with again. The more and varied dancers you dance with, the better you’ll become.

Play safe 😉
Again, in relation to the fact that you’ll be meeting lots of new people at the congress (some of whom you may never see again) and coupled with the sensual nature of latin dance… it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring a few packs of condoms with you… just in case 😉

Know Your Etiquette
If you’re new(ish) to salsa don’t forget to study my Guide to Salsa Etiquette. It’ll keep you from committing any of the faux pas that might otherwise cause some awkward moments on the dance floor.

Bring a SSK (Sasla Survival Kit)
I’ve covered these already in my guide to salsa etiquette but they’re so important that there’s no harm in mentioning them again.
I carry a courier-bag with me everywhere I go and in it I have my SSK:
  • Spare T-shirts
  • Chewing gum
  • Wet-wipes
  • Deoderant
  • Handkerchief
All guaranteed to keep you smelling nice even after hours of craziness on the dance floor.
Everything you need to stay fresh on the dance floor!

Everything you need to stay fresh on the dance floor!

Dress Well
This may seem irrelevant but you may end up getting more dances if you show a little fashion sense. We all know that salseros have “quirky” fashion styles so feel free to put in some extra effort at a congress. That goes for the workshops during the day too. Make a good impression there and you’ll have plenty of dance partners at night (I wasn’t aware of this but it actually turns out it’s a topic of conversation amongst the ladies at congresses)

If you're wearing something like this, don't expect too many dance offers!

If you’re wearing something like this, don’t expect too many dance offers!

Practice what you learn
All that amazing stuff you learn in the workshops is no good if you don’t put it into practice on the dance floor.

Record
If you’re anything like me you may not be able to remember new patterns or styling tips after an hours class. If that’s the case make sure you record the moves you’re taught in the workshops so you can go back and review them later.

You can also share videos with people who have done different workshops from you (another reason to not worry too much about missing classes here and there).

Hydrate
Carry a bottle of water with you. If you get dehydrated you’ll feel crappy, tired and grumpy. Who’d want to dance with someone like that?

Ask questions
If you’re at a workshop and something isn’t clear… ASK!!! More than likely you’re not the only one who’s a little confused. A good teacher will be happy to clarify any points.

Look after your Feet
You’re going to be on your feet pretty much all day so make sure you’re wearing comfortable dance shoes that will help you take the punishment. This goes for practice footwear at the workshops too.
Ladies, I know style is important but there are plenty of dance shoes out there that look great and go easy on your footsies. Ask other salseras what they wear. Make sure you break them in too. A congress is probably not the best place to field-test a brand-new pair of shoes that may end up causing you some serious foot pain.
Also, a good friend of mine swears by a 30 minute foot-bath with Epsom-salts after a hard night of dancing: give it a try. Look after your feet and they won’t let you down when it counts.

OK, so you may not be able to manage the flowers or the personal masseuse but taking care of your feet should still be a priority.

OK, so you may not be able to manage the flowers or the personal masseuse but taking care of your feet should still be a priority.

And most importantly, Have Fun!
Congresses are amazing. You make new friends, dance until the sun comes up, learn loads… it’s some of the best fun you can have with your clothes on (even though they probably won’t be on all the time 😉 ).
Keep Dancing Folks.

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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 😉

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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Havana: Travel in Cuba on a Budget (Part 1)

11 Dec

So it’s cold old winter here in the Northern Hemisphere (ugh, I haven’t said anything like that in a few years) and people are occupying themselves with which flavor of lip-balm they’re going to use, what scarf best matches their jacket, what seasonal coffee they’re going to buy next and just protecting themselves from the cold in general.

There are also some people who just don’t want to deal with the winter and the chapped lips it inevitably brings, so they’re planning holidays away for some fun in the sun. Who can blame them?

If you’ve been following the blog (please tell me someone besides my mam reads it) you’ll know that I spent 3 weeks in Havana, Cuba in August/September on a quest to learn Cuban-style salsa and rumba. Winters in Cuba,I’ve been told, are apparently heavenly for those of us from the northern latitudes (although the locals will complain that it gets a little chilly… I personally don’t trust such comments from people who have never seen snow before!)

At this time of year everyone could do with a little bit of "Tropical Paradise". The cigar is just for added effect!

At this time of year everyone could do with a little bit of “Tropical Paradise”. The cigar is just for added effect!

I’m foreign, take my money
Now almost everyone I’d met who had gone to Cuba told me that, as a tourist, I was going to be financially fleeced by everything from accommodation to food. The impression that I got was that Cuba was an expensive holiday destination FULL STOP!

That was, at least, until I spoke with my lovely friend Sita (my partner in crime in this video here) who had been to Cuba and fallen in love with salsa there. She let me know that it definitely was possible to do Cuba on a budget and she gave me a few tips on how to do so. Thanks love 😉

I spent 3 full weeks in the beautiful city of La Habana, in private accommodation, ate well, took about 25 hours of PRIVATE dance classes, went out regularly to dance clubs and travelled extensively around the city… all for a little over $1000.

Now, to some budget travelers that may seem pricey but bear in mind the quantity of private classes I took and the fact that I like to have a very nice meal every now and then. I should also mention that I don’t drink so you should factor that in if you do.

Anyway, today’s post is going to be a very practical guide on how to have a great salsa vacation in Cuba without going broke.

I’ve tried to cover as much essential information as possible so I’ve broken this into 2 seperate posts (Part 2 will be published next week)  and if you are going to Cuba and want to do it on the cheap I recommend you read them both fully.

A few things to know
To enter Cuba you need to pay a US$25 entry/visa fee either at your departure airport or upon landing in Cuba. You only pay it once so don’t let anyone fool you into paying it more than that.
You will also need to pay a 25CUC exit fee at the airport when you leave so remember to keep that much Cuban currency with you for your return voyage.

Cuba uses a dual currency system
The C.U.C (pronounced “cook”) is the currency one receives when they change foreign currency for Cuban.

Remember that you can really only exchange the large international currencies in Cuba so make sure you bring your cash in Euro, Pound Sterling, Swiss Franc etc as you can’t change less internationally accepted currencies (like Colombian Pesos, which I found out much to my distaste upon arrival). I’ve had been told not to bring US dollars as there is apparently an additional charge for converting from them. Don’t change your money at the airport, the rate is pretty poor (read on to find out where you should change it). You should also be able to use your banks ATM card (provided it’s not an American bank) to take out money but remember you’ll have to pay a transaction fee.

1 CUC is equivalent to US$1 and is used in most tourist transactions which has led some people to mistakenly believe that it’s the only currency tourists are permitted to use. These people are idiots.

The other currency is the Moneda Nacional (MN) which is used by the vast majority of the population for day to day expenses like groceries, food, transport etc. The exchange rate is set at 1CUC = 24MN. You may change your CUC for MN at any “Casa de Cambio” around the city, just ask at a hotel where the nearest one is. The exchange isn’t free (nothing in Cuba is) so expect to get an exchange rate of about 21/22MN per CUC.

Transport
So, when you arrive at the airport and get through the tediously slow customs the first thing your going to want to do is get into the city itself. Outside the airport you will be greeted by your first amazing site in Cuba; an entire parking lot filled with the most beautiful selection of classic cars you will likely ever see. All of these beauties are taxis that will take you into the city center for a set fee of 25CUC. Do not pay more than this but don’t think you will be able to get lower by haggling… not gonna happen!

The car that was waiting for me at the airport. I knew this was going to be a good vacation!

The car that was waiting for me at the airport. I knew this was going to be a good vacation!

I really recommend that you ask your driver to stop along the way at a Casa de Cambio so you can change your money before you arrive at your hotel. Believe me, this will make things much easier for you and you want your first day to be easy. You can get him to go in with you if you don’t feel comfortable leaving your luggage with him.

When it comes to traveling around the city I really recommend that you use the coches (the big American classic cars). They can be used in 2 ways; you can get in by yourself and tell the driver exactly where you want to go and your fare will start at 5CUC. I recommend against this as it gets expensive.

The best way to use the coches is to use the ones that already have passengers inside. These operate on fixed routes around the city and cost only 10MN (so about 50¢ US) kind of like a public bus service, just in a car. You can ask the driver where he’s going and if it’s close to your destination you can hop on in. Speaking Spanish will help a lot so get studying.

The golden rule in Cuba
Here is one piece of advice that I highly recommend you follow while in Cuba: ALWAYS ASK THE PRICE FIRST!
If you don’t, less than honest people (and you well meet many who deal with tourists) will overcharge you at whatever chance they get. If you don’t ask the price before hand then you’ll have to pay whatever price they tell you at the end.
This goes for drinks, taxis, food, entrance fees… whatever. Always ask first.

Accommodation
Whatever you do, please book your accommodation in La Habana Vieja, the old town. Why? It’s by far the most interesting part of the city with the most things to see and do. The old town is relatively compact and makes for some great days of walking around aimlessly looking at all the old buildings and amazing architecture (much in disrepair) that Havana has to offer.

If you want to see spectacular architecture and history than you really should stay in the Old Town of Havana.

If you want to see spectacular architecture and history than you really should stay in the Old Town of Havana.

If you’re visiting Cuba to learn salsa, many of the dance schools are found in the old town so it really helps cut down on your transportation costs if you don’t need to travel from one part of the city to the other every day.

Another very practical point is that it is very, very humid in Cuba (at least it was in September) and air-conditioning is not as common as many North Americans are used to. In short you are going to sweat and it is nice to have a centrally located hotel or room so you can go home during the day to freshen up. Seriously, I was showering three times a day while I was in Havana so a close place to shower is a godsend.

To make life really easy for yourself (and to enjoy a little bit of luxury) you could book your first night or 2 in one of the many beautiful hotels in the the old town. They’re expensive but you can easily book them online and this will reduce stress on your first day or two.

However, to keep costs low you’re going to want to stay in a Casa Particular. These are “private houses” which have a license for renting accommodation to tourists. You can recognize them as they will have a sign, similar to that in the photo below, outside. You will see them everywhere.

This symbol indicates that the house is licensed to rent accommodation. You will see them all over Havana.

This symbol indicates that the house is licensed to rent accommodation. You will see them all over Havana.

Now, you could search for one online before you come or you could do what I think is even better: find one that you like that is near where you want to be in town. I’ll explain: you will see casas everywhere and you just ring on the doorbell, ask if they have a vacancy and see the room straight away. If you like it you can haggle over the price. The reason I recommend this method is because, if you know where your dance school is (or whatever particular area of town you want to be near), you can look in that immediate area for accommodation which will mean you have much more time to do other things as you won’t be wasting your time walking all over the city to get around. It also means you can haggle the prices in person which gives you a better chance of getting a lower price.

For a private, one person room with your own bathroom and air-conditioner in the center of town you should only have to pay 15CUC per night. For 5CUC extra you should get breakfast and maybe even dinner included. Talk to your host and see what kind of deal you can work out with them. (Please bear in mind that I was able to get these deals in September which is off-season so you may not be able to get such deals in during peak season).

Remember that if you’re planning on staying a week or more you might be able to ask for even more of a discount. Ask them if the can provide you a laundry service too (if you’ll be there long enough to need it).

One little deal you can also try on negotiating into the price of your accommodation is a few bottles of water daily. Every Cuban household boils and filters their own water for drinking so they’ll definitely have plenty for you. Otherwise you’ll be buying a lot of bottled water.

So you’ll have a hotel for your first night or two and then you can move into your much cheaper (and conveniently located ) casa for the rest of your stay. This will help cut cost significantly.

I’ll leave the rest for Part 2
There’s a whole lot more to cover when talking about Havana but I’ll leave this as a start and I’ve covered the rest in Part 2 (which is online now). Stay tuned.

Until then take care and if you’re up in the Northern Hemisphere at the moment, like me, stay warm.

Keep dancing folks.

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Hands-Free Salsa (a way to switch from On1 to On2)

30 Nov
Switching from On1 to On2 can be tough. Try this  hands-free follow method to automate your new timing.

Switching from On1 to On2 can be tough. Try this hands-free follow method to automate your new timing.

Don’t worry folks, I’m still alive.

Due to some unexpected circumstances I’ve been unable to update the blog this month (hence this quick post I’m writing just to make sure I at least publish something for the month of November).

The same unfortunate circumstances have meant that I have done virtually no dancing since I arrived in New York. For those of you following what I’m up to you’ll realize that I’m not very happy about this. Anyway,starting a few days ago, I finally have some time to take some dance classes; a total of two, with the lovely Maria Torres. I’ve also been out dancing on 3 occasions; Jimmy Anton’s Social, Santo Rico’s social in Queens and Candela Fridays where I danced last night.

My Confession
Now, I have a pretty major sin to confess. Every time I have danced here in New York, I have danced On1. But wait, wait, before you turn up your noses and decide to never read this blog again, hear me out.

My first two nights out, my jaw was literally hanging around my ankles watching the level of the dancers I saw. If I had attempted to dance On2 (without any practice whatsoever) it would have been the salsa equivalent of watching two white Americans hugging; Awkward!

I didn’t want to put anyone through that and also… I just wanted to dance (I really needed to dance off some pent up stress). So I just asked around, found out who could dance On1 and had a great time dancing with them (one girl actually told she hadn’t realized it could be so much fun to dance On1!)

Last night at Candela Friday on 34th street I had one dance with a girl who I had noticed was not completely comfortable dancing On2; she was an excellent dancer but I could see from the expression on her face as she was being turned that she wasn’t completely comfortable with the timing. It turns out she was German and much more used to On1. So I started my night off with LA style and figured that it was going to stay that way for the rest of the night 😦

However, I noticed this one girl who was dancing beautifully but she wasn’t holding hands with any of her partners. She was pretty much just dancing shines the whole night (and dancing them with an awesome Hip-Hop style that I would definitely be happy to see more of).

Anyway, my Irish accent has giving me a lot more confidence when approaching people here so I had no problem in moseying up alongside her and asking, point blank, “So, do you just really like dancing shines or what?”. I got an instant laugh and an explanation. Turns out she was nursing a rotator cuff injury and wasn’t comfortable using her arms but she also couldn’t resist the urge to go out dancing (with such an awesome scene as in New York, I can’t blame her).

She asked me if I wanted to dance (specifically, she asked “would you like to dance across from me?” 😀 ) and I (with my usual awkward laugh indicating I’m not comfortable with the answer) told her that I couldn’t dance On2. I gave the explanation you guys just read up top.

Ms. Motivator
She gave me pretty much the exact same advice I would give someone in the same situation. You’ve got to practice to get comfortable with the timing and to make everything automatic. Absolutely spot on! However, I was intimidated by the level of everyone else and didn’t want to look completely uncoordinated (I know, I’m such a hypocrite).

Then she did what it appears most girls have to do with me these days and took the bull by the horns. She walked out on the floor and told me we were dancing (and I had no say in the matter).

And we danced, with no hands, starting back and forth and then doing cross body and lots of shines… On2. Fair enough, I slipped back into On1 on occasion but I caught myself and got right back On2. And you know what? I had a blast.

And that my dear friends, is the story of my first ever dance On2.

No major disasters, no uncomfortable fumbling with combinations… just a really enjoyable dance with a really cool follower (or should I say lead in this case?).

Lesson learned
So yeah, I just learned a great way to switch over from On1 to On2. Dancing hands free with a partner who knows New York style well to “lead” the timing helps you maintain your footwork On2, and not having to worry about your hands frees up your mind to improve the muscle memory in your feet. Also it’s great for working on your shines.

If you’re considering switching over to On2, give it a shot.

Ciao from New York and keep dancing folks!

Note: This whole post was typed up, edited and published on my iPhone in about an hour and a half. It was a total pain in the backside and I’m going to blame it for any errors or irregularities in the text. My apologies, I’ll be using my laptop next time.

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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 😉

Fiona Uyema

Japanese Cookbook Author

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