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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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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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My Cuban Salsa Adventure: 3 Weeks of Casino, Rumba & Sabor

24 Sep

In this article I’ll be giving some recommendations of salsa schools in Havana and also on places to go dancing. Next week I should have an article on general traveling tips for Havana, a city you should definitely consider visiting.

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’m currently in the U.S. of A folks, I arrived in Miami last week after 3 weeks in the Mecca of salsa; Cuba. Here’s the article I started writing over there.

It’s been a few weeks of highs and lows.

I started writing this article in El Escorial, a beautiful café in the equally beautiful Plaza Vieja in Havana’s old town, one of the most architecturally stunning neighborhoods I have ever visited in my life. This is one of the highs.

However, I started writing this article because I physically can’t do anything else… I injured my neck this morning and can barely move without wincing in pain so it’s either sulk in the air-conditioned comfort of my “casa particular”… or write. I chose the more constructive latter. This is one of the lows.

We’ll get to my neck injury later.

In my last article, almost a month ago, I wrote about my challenge to learn Cuban-style salsa, casino, as well as learning as much about this country (or at least Havana) as I could in my short stay here.

Let’s be terribly unoriginal and summarize some of the more interesting points from this little adventure:

  • I took 27 hours of private lessons of salsa, rumba and a little reggaeton
  • I went out dancing a total of about 14 nights
  • I walked aimlessly around the streets of Havana enough to wear holes in my sandals
  • I discovered it’s actually possible to sweat more water than one consumes in a day  (some additional water may have been lost as tears)
  • I received countless offers of taxis, cigars and chicas
  • I went to a Cuban wedding party
  • I met some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered
  • I got to see a traditional Santería (Cuban religion of African origin) party in someone’s home
  • I learned that Cuba has some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen

Cuban Salsa from scratch (almost)
Let’s get down and dirty and talk about what people most want to hear about from that list (this site is, after all, mostly about dancing (or at least my attempts at it)).

My previous experience with casino had been a few sporadic classes in Miyazaki, Japan when I first started dancing salsa. I ended up forgetting most of what I had learned as I stuck with LA-style salsa but I regularly used one or two Cuban turns even when I danced LA and this helped me a lot when I started dancing Cali-style salsa.

To give you an idea of my “transformation”, I’ll explain things like this:

On my first night out (Friday) in Havana (before I had taken any classes here) I sat on a sofa in the bar of “Hotel Florida” with my jaw hanging somewhere around my ankles, staring in awe at some of the most intricate dancing I had seen in years.

I psyched myself up (this took a while) and finally worked up the courage to ask one of the local girls for a dance. Before we started I told her clearly that I didn’t know how to dance salsa cubana. The look of discomfort that I saw flashing in her eyes caused the flock of butterflies in my stomach to go on a rampage.

What happened next… was not pretty. I managed to pull off some basic turns from salsa caleña but in general things were sloppy. Let’s just leave it at that. I sat down disheartened after only one dance and thought to myself: I need to start classes soon.

Fast forward to the night before writing this article (Sunday, 16 days after that first night) and I danced Casino… all… night… long. I filled my dances with “dile que no”, “corona”, “habana loco”, “America”, “setenta y tres” and a whole host of other moves who’s names escape me. Now, it may not have been the most finely choreographed display of salsa cubana ever performed but I can definitely say that I now dance casino… and I love it.

How to dance Casino in under 3 weeks
First things first, I owe my progress entirely to the fantastic teachers in the school recommended to me by my friend Tanja from The Cuban Food Blog, who was my initial contact for all things Cuban (thanks for everything Tanja 😉 ).

The formula that worked for me was the following (and in my opinion it’s the best way to learn any social dance):

  • regular classes with good teachers
  • recording new movements learned
  • regular social dancing

I took about 25 hours of private classes with “La Casa del Son” (it would have been more had it not been for my neck injury calling a halt to everything that required… you know… movement!). The majority of the classes were of Cuban salsa but I also spent a good amount of time learning rumba (a traditional Cuban dance of African origin that heavily influenced salsa). Rumba is not easy, especially with my teacher Adrián the perfectionist but I think it can really enrich one’s salsa and especially one’s body movements (although don’t expect to see results quickly, the road to rumba is a long one).

At the end of every salsa class I took I a video of myself and the teacher dancing the combinations we had learned. This is vital for remembering not only the sequence required for each movement but also for just remembering the sheer volume of moves that you can learn in a couple of intensive weeks of salsa classes. Even on nights out dancing socially, if I couldn’t remember a particular move I would just take a quick look at the video on my phone to remind myself.

Finally I went out dancing very regularly. The great thing about the school is that the teachers go out as a group quite regularly so I was able to go out and practice what I had learned frequently and with great dancers. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times “You learn the moves in class, you learn to dance on the floor!”. The more frequently one dances socially and with the greater the variety of partners the better one commits new moves and combinations to muscle memory, making them far easier to execute in the future.

Picking a Salsa School in Havana
If you go to a popular salsa club in Havana you’ll probably meet a whole host of amazing dancers who will offer you private classes. However, being a good dancer does not necessarily translate into being a good teacher so bear that in mind.

Luckily my school was recommended to me and I can gladly recommend it to you too. I took the grand majority of my classes at “La Casa del Son” and I was very happy that I did.

The school has 4 separate, mirrored practice-rooms and is located in the center of old Havana (the heart of the tourist area). The school has a team of 6 male and 7 female instructors who are not only great dancers and teachers but they are also one of the most fun groups of people I have ever had the pleasure of hanging out with. They really take you under their wing at the school and make you feel like one of the family. Going out dancing with these guys is an experience and a half.

They offer classes in Salsa, Son, Rumba, Afrocuban folkloric dances, Tango, Kizomba, Bachata and Reggaeton so I really recommend taking the opportunity to learn as much as you possibly can with them.

The school’s details are as follows:

  • Address: Empedrado No. 411 entre Aguacate and Compostela
  • Telephone: (53 7) 8671537  or  (53 6)2641047
  • Email: lacasadelson@bailarencuba.com

Ask for Ray when you visit or email them and tell him that Richie (the dancing Irishman with the beard) sent you. I hope to get a few favors out of sending them a little business (just so we’re clear).

To be honest you’re best off visiting the school as soon as you arrive in Havana so you can organize your class’ and so you can get information on where to go dancing every night of the week (they really helped me out with this). It’s also great because the teachers can become your social circle while you’re visiting the city and it’s always more fun going dancing with a group of friends than going solo (especially in a new city).

I also took classes with Maria Elena Hernandez, a teacher at the well know Marisuri Escuela de Bailes Cubanos. They classes I took were mostly on body movement but she also teaches Folklore, Rumba, Casino and Son.

  • Telephone: (05 2) 760194
  • Email: marielenala@carpusmail.com

I also can recommend a newly opened school called Salsabor a Cuba, which has a group of fantastic dancers teaching salsa, son, cha cha cha, rumba, folklore, and reueda del casino.

  • Address: Calle Oficio No. 18 (First floor, Apartment 5) entre Obispo and Obrapia
  • Telephone: (53 7) 8608982  or  (53 5) 3027501
  • Internet: www.salsaborcuba.com

Where to dance in Havana
You can only enjoy the salsa in any city if you actually know where to find it. This can be issue when you first arrive in Cuba. Luckily I just had to ask my teachers at the end of the day where they were going to go that night and I had an instant destination and a group of dance partners.

I’ve included a very basic night by night list here that can “help” you decide where to go. I’ve left out a huge amount of places that will no doubt enrage other Habana experts but I’ve decided to just include the safe bets that I visited myself. You will be able to find the directions to each venue by asking at any large hotel in Havana (i.e. I’m too lazy to look up the address/contact details).

  • Monday: Hotel Florida
  • Tuesday: Casa de la Musica (Miramar) for the matinee (5-9pm)
  • Wednesday: Casa de la Musica (Galiano) for the matinee (5-9pm)
  • Thursday: 1830 (pronounced “mil ochocientos treinta”) until 12pm (I loved dancing here)
  • Friday: Hotel Florida
  • Saturday: Hotel Florida or Casa de la Musica (either)
  • Sunday: 1830 and the secret club full of locals that I’m not going to reveal for fear of ruining it 😛

Remember this, when all else fails, Hotel Florida is a safe bet for dancing every night of the week all though I  didn’t really like the atmosphere in the place. It’s full of tourists and people trying to take advantage of them. That said, if you go anywhere with a group of friends you’ll have a good night.

I recommend the matinees in La Casa de la Musica because it’s cheaper and you tend to get more regular locals there dancing. The later shows tend to be frequented by people on the prowl for foreigners.

Feeling like a beginner again
The interesting thing about learning a new style of salsa is that it makes you feel like a complete dance beginner all over again… which really sucks.

I went from being totally confident in my environment in Cali where I know I dance well to a new environment with new rules and new standards that made me feel like I knew nothing. And you know what, that’s probably one of the best things that could have happened to me.

I think it’s great to feel like a beginner again, out of one’s depth. Obviously it sucks at the time as you lose confidence and you feel overly self-conscious about your dancing but you overcome it because you’re reminded of how you were when you started out with other styles. Then all you have to do is remember how much progress you made with those styles and it actually encourages you to drive forward.

On this trip to Cuba I experienced many moments where I felt like I didn’t want to dance in public because I felt I would look ridiculous around the people who had been dancing for years. My confidence hit a low and I would get frustrated (as I regularly do). However, all I had to do to get over it was remember that I’ve done it all before, with LA style salsa and salsa caleña. And thinking of that got me right back in the game.

With dance, the initial learning curve tends to be uncomfortable but just remember that all great dancers most likely had to go through a brief period where they “probably” sucked. That’s the price to pay to dance well and honestly it’s a bargain.

Loads more for another time
This article already is way too long and there’s a lot more that I want to write about dancing in Cuba but I’m going to have to save it for another article.

Note to self: when taking pictures of sunsets, ensure iPhone is pointing at the sun!

Note to self: when taking pictures of Cuban sunsets, ensure iPhone is pointing at the sun!

My adventure in North America is just starting so I’ve got lots to keep me occupied for the next few weeks. Remember, if you have any recommendations for dancing or places to visit along the east coast of the U.S. drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

Keep dancing folks.

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Goodbye Cali, Hello Cuba!

29 Aug

It’s the end of an era!

Today, after almost 2 years living here, I have left my “Cali bella”. I’m leaving Colombia.

I’m writing this post in El Dorado Airport in Bogota (funnily enough this song was playing when I got off my flight from Cali) as I await my connecting flight that will take me, via San Salvador, to my next destination: La Habana, Cuba.

I’ve spent the last few weeks answering the same questions from my friends over and over again:
-Why are you leaving?
-Did you get bored of Cali?
-What’s are you going to do?

I probably should have written this post a lot sooner to preemptively answer those questions but, as a lot of my friends in Cali pointed out to me over the last few days, I seem to have taken to procrastination after spending so much time here. Better late than never, right!

Why am I leaving?
I’ll be brutally honest: I feel like I’ve stagnated here in Cali and I’ve felt that way for a while now.

I came here with the goals of learning Spanish and adding more “latin sabor” to my salsa. I now speak Spanish (far from perfect but enough for some Colombians who have been speaking to me for a few minutes to find it necessary to confirm that I’m not originally from Colombia) and I now dance very differently from how I danced before I came here.

So now I think it’s time to move on to another challenge (more on that in a moment).

I also feel I need some time outside of Cali to think seriously about what I want to with myself, long term. I was speaking with my mam a few weeks ago and she dropped the “You’re nearly 30” bomb on me. She’s entitled to do it; she’s my mam and she only wants the best for me and she wants to make sure I’m doing something with my life. It still hurt like a kick in the teeth, though.

I’m hoping a change of environment should help me to think and plan a little better. At least that’s the idea.

Did I get bored of Cali?
The best way to answer that is: No, I didn’t get bored of Cali BUT Yes I did get bored of the salsa here.

I’m the Dancing Irishman (yup, it looks like it’s gone to my head) and salsa is a huge part of my life. I’ve become far too comfortable in Cali (typical Irishman; thinks something’s wrong when things are going too smoothly). Dancing socially in Cali doesn’t challenge me the way I would like it too. Don’t get me wrong, I love going out with my friends and dancing into the wee hours but it has become quite repetitive for me. In general I can only use a limited amount of moves in salsa caleña.

I want to learn other styles. I want my own style to continue evolving. I want to get better.

This is why I feel I need to move on and find new challenges.

So what am I going to do?
Cali is known as the world capital of salsa but there a few other places around the world that would like to claim that title.

Hence my first stop: Cuba.

I arrive tomorrow… or this morning… or whatever, I’m tired from a week of going away parties. I’m going to spend 3 weeks there (very short I know but the length of my stay has been dictated by the pitiful-ness of my budget. The plan is to learn as much Cuban salsa as I can, dance my ass off, and get to know the country (and its people) that claims to be the birthplace of salsa.

And then, near the end of September, I arrive in Miami. The idea is to start there and slowly but surely dance my way up the east coast to my final destination: New York City.

Yes folks, it’s time the Dancing Irishman learned to dance “On2”.

And that’s my plan, in all it’s naive simplicity.

Mi nuevo camino
I’m looking at this like an adventure. I’m following my heart (can you say cliché?) and going where the dance takes me.

If you happen to live some where on or near the east coast of the US and you have some advice for me on places to visit (salsa or non-salsa related), if you want to meet up for a coffee or if you want to offer me a couch to sleep on during my travels 🙂 drop me an email: richie@dancingirishman.com

As I’m a big fan of Couchsurfing I’d be very happy to hear from you. Bear in mind that while I’m in Cuba (until September 20th) I won’t have much access to internet but I promise to reply once I arrive in the US. This means I probably won’t publish any new posts for a few weeks.

To my friends in Cali
I can’t finish this blog without mentioning that which became more important for me than anything in Cali: the beautiful people I got to know and the incredible friends I made.

In just two years I truly feel that I became part of Cali, that it opened its arms and accepted me as one of her own (albeit an exceptionally pale one). The people here made me an honorary caleño, ve!

They made me feel welcome, they thought me how to appreciate salsa on a level I never even knew existed, they helped me find my latin “sabor” (turns out I’m white chocolate) and when I was leaving they made sure to say goodbye in a way that would make me want to come back as soon as possible.

Las sonrisas bellas de mi gente linda! That was one hell of a Farewell Party!

Las sonrisas bellas de mi gente linda! That was one hell of a Farewell Party! Try and find the Irishman!

I love you Cali. I love you my Caleños. Les quiero mucho…e hasta pronto!

Cuba, here I come!

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The World Games 2013, Cali: Proud to be Colombian!!!

23 Jul
The World Games 2013 is Cali's chance to shine!

The World Games 2013 is Cali’s chance to shine!

In just 2 days I’m going to be standing along with over 30,000 other people from all over the world in Pascual Guerrero Stadium in the heart of Cali.

We will be watching the performances of close to 500 salsa dancers, pacifico dancers, acrobats and musicians along with a gigantic firework’s display, all in celebration of the largest sporting event that this country has ever seen; the World Games 2013.

I will watch as Cali and Colombia celebrate this opportunity to show the world what this amazing city is really about and I’m pretty sure it will bring a tear to my eye.

A Fresh Start
This is Cali’s chance to celebrate its true identity as “The Capital of Salsa” and “The Sporting Capital of the Americas”. This is Cali’s chance to cast aside the stigmas of it’s past and the stereotyped images held by a poorly informed minority. This is Cali’s fresh start.

This will be the first time that the World Games, second in importance only to the Olympic Games, will be held in South America and it is Cali’s honor to play host.

Ask what you can do for your country!!
The world will see over 4000 athletes from over 120 countries compete in 30 different sporting disciplines in some of the finest sporting facilities in the world… and I’ll be doing my part.

I’ve been living here in Cali for almost two years now. When I heard that Cali would host the World Games I saw this as my chance to do something for and to give something back to my adopted city.

Cali has given me a great deal during my time here; a new language, a new culture, dance and above all, some incredible friends. The truth is that I won’t be here much longer and the thought of not being able to contribute something to my Colombian home wouldn’t sit well with me.

So I signed up as a volunteer. So far I’ve helped out with the English interview process for fellow volunteers (the official language of the games is English, so we need as many bilingual volunteers as possible) and I’ve been helping out a little with the training of the translators division, which I’m part of.

I’ve been selected to be the translator to the delegation of Japan, a huge responsibility and one which I intend to fulfill to the best of my ability. Over the past week I’ve been listening to nothing but Japanese podcasts and music in order to “get back in linguistic shape” and I’ve been familiarizing myself with the cities sporting venues, hotels and the members of the Japanese delegation (more than 80 people) that will be visiting. During the 11 days of the games I will be “on call” virtually around the clock, ready to go wherever I am asked whenever I am needed.

I AM EXCITED!

I know that that I am going to be incredibly busy and that at the end of it all I am probably going to need a vacation but I genuinely can’t wait to help Cali show the world what it’s made of.

The Irish Colombian
Over the past few weeks, the volunteers have been doing general training seminars in preparation for the games. The seminars were in relatively small, mixed groups and conducted completely in Spanish. This means that I was the only foreigner in a room full of Colombians, mostly Caleños learning how to be a better “Face of the city”.

We learned about everything that a tourist visiting for the games could possibly want to ask us about Cali and Colombia; its history, its achievements, its culture, its nature, its gastronomy. By the end of it all I have never felt so proud to be Caleño, to be Colombiano (even though I may be the palest, most blue-eyed Caleño in existence!).

I know 2 years seems like only a short time but I genuinely feel that I’ve become part of this city, that Cali, the city and its people, has accepted me into its arms and I can proudly say that I’m Caleño. I think you know your part of a city when something great happens, just like the World Games and you feel proud that it’s happening in your city. Just like I feel right now.

I am very proud to call myself Colombian and more importantly, Caleño

I am very proud to call myself Colombian and more importantly, Caleño

You can get all the information that you need about the games on The World Games website.

If you’re going to be in Cali for the World Games and you want some local guidance on what to do in and around the city, feel free to drop me an email. I hope you end up loving Cali as much as I do.

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Fiona Uyema

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