Tag Archives: Travel

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

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

2 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My awesome host, Sherri made my time in Orlando unforgettable

My awesome host, Sherri made my time in Orlando unforgettable

It works like this:

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

It’s that simple.

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

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

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

This is how my four days went:

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

    My first ever game of American Football. Go UCF!

    My first ever game of American Football. Go UCF!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Result…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep dancing folks.

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What I love about Cali, Colombia

30 May

As the lyrics to Cali Pachanguero go, “Que Cali es Cali, Señoras, Señores, Lo demás es loma”

I’ve been living here in Cali, Colombia for almost 9 months now and I can happily say that although it hasn’t been totally smooth sailing, at ALL times it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

I feel I’ve developed as good a feel for the place as one can in the amount of time I’ve been here and I’ve wanted to write about the things I like for a while, both to share with my readers and to help me appreciate my experiences here a little more definitively (I try to be thankful for all I have as much as possible).

So, here we go, what I love about my new home

Colombians
They’re friendly, easy going, love to joke around, extroverted and on top of that they love dancing. They’re a really welcoming people who know how to have a good time.

Weather
There’s a lot to be said for living in the tropics. Here in Cali, the temperature hovers around 29C most days at mid-day which is a little hot for my Irish blood but it’s not too humid and the early mornings and late afternoons are deliciously cool. Apart from 2 short rainy seasons I don’t have to worry about carrying an umbrella too much either.

Free, Live Music
I have really been spoiled here in Cali with the amount of live music events that one just finds randomly on the street or at larger events around the city, many of them completely free. I’ve so far had the pleasure of seeing La 33, currently one of Colombia’s most popular salsa groups, Choquib Town, a hugely popular group playing a mix of hip-hop and pacifico music) and Habana con Kola (of “Vente Negra” fame) all without spending a penny.

Caleñas
When I learned that Cali was famed in South America for it’s beautiful women I can honestly say that it didn’t put me off coming here. With mixes of European, African and indigenous South American blood, Cali produces some of the most beautiful and diverse women I have ever seen.

Fruit
With more varieties than I can remember (including plenty of fruits I’ve never even seen before) along with the universal availability of cheap, fresh and delicious fruit salads and smoothies, Cali’s tropical environment keeps me supplied with all the vitamins and antioxidants I could ever need.

Salsa
This really is the world capital of salsa. With virtually every radio in every home, store and taxi spouting out Latin beats, it’s no surprise that virtually everyone here dances salsa (or bachata or merengue or reggaeton or pacifico) on a night out.

Pacifico culture
The pacifico culture is the culture of the African-descended people who populate the pacific coast and make up a large proportion of Cali. Discovering their music, dance and food was one of my most pleasant surprises here in Colombia. Have a look a my favourite song by one of my favourite groups, Herencia de Timbiqui

Respect for the elderly
Whenever riding on public transport, if an elderly person gets on board and there are no seats available, someone will always offer them their seat. The way it should be.

Friendly advice on safety
If I ever have my phone out on the street or even at a streetside table in a café, someone will always tell me to be careful with it or let me know if I should put it away completely. Also, because I stand out so much if I ever wander into a dodgy neighbourhood, the locals will warn me about it pretty quickly.

Coffee
For the record, I hate coffee (true to my Irish roots I’m a tea drinker). However, I have discovered the godsend that is coffee’s energizing properties (essential for early mornings after a late night salsa session) and the coffee they serve here is cheap, plentiful and a lot smoother than the stuff I’ve had back home which I would consider reminiscent of what Satan’s blood might taste like.

Diminutives
Here in Colombia they use diminutive forms of words like it’s gong out of fashion. You never order “un cafe” it’s “un cafecito”, nothing ever happens “ahora” it’s “ahorita”. I really just love being able to call girls “mamacita” and hearing them call me “papacito”. Makes my day.

Never needing to know someone’s name
Don’t know someone’s name but want to talk to them anyway? Take your pick; mami (mommy), papi (daddy), nena (girl), chico (boy), niño (kid), joven (youth), linda (cutey), hermosa (beautiful), flaca (skinny), gordo (fatty), the list goes on. In my case, everywhere I go I’m known as mono (blondie)!

Street food everywhere
While I am not a fan of Colombian food in general, I’ll never have difficulty finding something quick and cheap on the street. I just wish the menu was a little more varied than arepas, empanadas and chorizos.

Relaxed political correctness
Excessive political correctness is a pain in the ass an has made people (at least in the English speaking world) way too sensitive. Here you say things as they are and people don’t get offended. I call my black friends negrito and they call me blanquito, I call my skinny friends flaco and they call me mono. We are what we are and have to realize there’s no need to be upset by it.

Mornings in my barrio
The sun shines, people sit in the local panaderias (bakeries) drinking café and eating pandebono, things are relaxed and it never seems like anyone is in a rush to start the day. I am getting really used to this.

Champús, looks like vomit but thankfully doesn’t taste like it.

Champús
A “drink” I had never heard of before made of a fermented mixture of fruits and corn and seasoned with cloves and cinamon. This is sold by the glass from huge vats carted around the street on special bicycles. It may look a little like vomit (just like salpicon and mazamora) but it is delicious.

Haggling
I have loved haggling since I first tried my hand at it in Ethiopia 12 years ago and (when I have the energy) I feel I’m pretty good at it. Like when the asking price for a pair of knock-off Nikes was COL$190,000 (this was most certainly the “Gringo” price) and I managed to get them for $35,000, I have to admit I felt pretty pleased with myself.

Feria de Cali
Starting on Christmas day, begins a week long party in Cali that you simply cannot escape. With parades, concerts, food, music and of course salsa dancing every night it certainly is a different way to spend the Christmas holidays.

Hugs and Kisses for everyone
I love the affectionate culture and different perspective on physical contact that people have here. You greet and say goodbye to women with a kiss on the cheek and to men with a hug or at least a good handshake (if you run into a big group of people this can take quite a while to get through). People aren’t uneasy about touching each other (which took a little getting used to) which is something I feel we really lack in Northern Europe and North America.

There’s much more that I could mention but I’ll probably add to the list as time goes by and I remember other things that I love about this place.

I’ll leave you with a nice, little song by Orquestra Guayacán called “Oiga, Mire, Vea” all about this great little city. I hope it gives you the incentive to come and visit.

If you’ve been to Cali before or want to come visit, let me know in the comments

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Fiona Uyema

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