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To a New Beginning

DSC01129So much has happened since my last post in May. First, I got a job 🙂 . I moved yet again for the job. I now live in the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas. I teach 5th grade ELA (English Language Arts). I love my job sometimes and other times I just don’t know. I am also a Teach For America Corp Member…….In terms of traveling, I went back to Jamaica 🙂 in July, Dallas in September, DMV in October, Mexico, Panama and Cuba in November and I’m now in Colombia. On Jamaica, I couldn’t resist the USD$250 RT flight to Montego Bay. I was super stressed after the six weeks intensive training with Teach For America and I desperately needed a break. I had just 6 days so I took the Knusford Express bus directly to Ocho Rios as soon as the flight landed in Montego Bay. I love Ocho Rios, plus it is close to the things I love such as 9 Miles (Bob Marley’s birth place) and waterfalls. I stayed two nights before decided to try something new. Off to Negril I went. I wasn’t expecting much from Negril but I ended up loving it.

DSC01103I stayed at Judy’s House – pretty cool place surrounded by nature. There I met amazing folks that made my stay memorable. I did most of the touristy things – the beach (very clean), Rick’s café and Just Natural restaurant. I will surely return to Negril :).

P.s – I have updated the Jamaica resource page….. For Thanksgiving, I always travel somewhere. This year, I went back to Cuba. Making it my third time. Cuba has its ways of making me come back. I spent a night in Mexico City on my way there and back. Layover in Panama City where I couldn’t resist going shopping. Because I was very busy prior to this trip, I barely had time to plan it. I tried reserving a Casa Particular that I stayed before but due to slow internet in Cuba, I didn’t get a response. We arrived in Havana at midnight with nowhere to stay. The ladies at the information desk got us a place in Central Havana and changed money for us (the black market rate is way better than the bank’s rate). Since it was a Sunday, we went to Callejon de Hamel when we woke up. Callejon de Hamel is an alternative Sunday service honoring the Orishas of Yoruba religion. It was amazing as usual. We spent the afternoon in Havana Vieja which hasn’t changed much except there are constructions and renovations all over the place (I think China is putting money in the development of Cuba).DSC01139 The next day, we went to Trinidad. The casa we stayed at was very close to the town center. Trinidad was very quiet and probably has the cheapest and most varieties of souvenirs. We stayed only one night and the next day, we went up to Santa Clara to see the Che Mausoleum. We had arranged a car to pick us up from Trinidad, take us to Santa Clara and drop us off in Veradero. All for 120 CUC (about USD$140).  It was special being in the Che’s museum and mausoleum again (I’m a Che fanatic). The museum had all these rare photos for him from childhood to death. His beret, uniform, gun, water bottle……..it had everything CHE! After the visit, we arrived in Veradero late evening. Again changing money on the black market. Black market rate gives us between 90-96CUC for USD$100 while the bank rate is 87CUC for USD$100. Veradero is great for the beach and resort bums. Since we did not fall under that category, we didn’t love Veradero. We left to Vinales. Oh, we got cheated big time for the car ride to Vinales 😦 . The ride was so uncomfortable. Anyways, I have always thought of Vinales as a tourist trap but I ended up loving this tourist trap. It was colder than the rest of Cuba, surrounded by mountains so fresh cool air. We stayed on the main street in a really cool casa. The next day, we went on a horse ride. My first time EVER. I had the horse to myself (scary). The guide showed us how to make it go right, left and faster. I did not use the faster one. The guide was so great because I was ready to give up after the first 30 minutes. This was a four hour ride by the way. We stopped at a cave (also first time in a cave :)), coffee plantation and tobacco plantation. The tobacco plantation was pretty cool – they showed us how to make cigar without the nicotine. DSC01054 - CopyWe later returned to Havana where we rented out an apartment in Havana Vieja. We went on a tour in one of the old cars….me like. We stopped at Plaza de la Revolucion and a park close to Vedado area. For our last night, we went clubbing with the Cubanos. We met four Cuban guys at the internet café. One was a rapper and another a fashion designer. The rapper decided to rap to my friend and I 🙂 . He was pretty good. Anyways, we went out with them and a few of their other friends. It was a great way of ending our stay in Havana. We went straight from the club to the airport (brief stop at the apartment to get our luggage). Eight hours layover in Panama City, we decided to take the free shuttle to Metro Mall. We shopped (rather, I shopped) and met up with a friend for ice cream. The mall had this scale so I decided to check my weight. I lost 6 pounds 🙂 (p.s, I had been on a diet for a month – I eat chicken or fish with mixed vegetables, sweet potatoes and rice once a week and 3miles walk five times a week). Feeling proud:).DSC01248 Returned to work, my students took a mock exam. The average went up 14percent from the benchmark exam they took in September. The majority of them showed improvement so makes me feel that I’m doing a decent job educating themJ. New beginning because this year had me trying stuffs for the first time and challenging me in many ways…..

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Quien es la ultima? (Who is the last person in line?)

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My second time in this Caribbean island! What can I say, sometimes I love it here and sometimes I feel so frustrated that I can’t wait to leave. But I keep coming back – can’t explain.

Since my last visit here (last year March), things seem to have changed or maybe I just didn’t pay attention before. Now, there are (1) more new car models on the streets; (2) more street begging; (3) folks are more vocal about their dissatisfaction with the government; (4) Cuban men are way too sexual and direct.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still lots of veryyyy old car model around, but more new car model as well especially Kia and Volkswagen are on the road. More street begging in that once they know you are a tourist, they ask if you have clothes, shampoo, lotion e.t.c……….. Majority of the folks I spoke to no longer whisper when they talk about the government. Gosh, the Cuban men got on my very last nerve. Within minutes of meeting you, they ask for a sexual relationship.

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I went to Santiago de Cuba. Yup, I took the 12 – 15hours long bus. One advice, make sure you take the 6.30pm bus – it is direct and 12hours. The 3pm bus stops every 1.5hours and it is 15hours long. Santiago is very laid back and less touristy than La Havana. Also less hustlers and more friendly folks. We went to El Morro, hmm a very spectacular view, cost about USD$14 for round-trip taxi and USD$5 for the entrance fee but I think it totally worth it. We also visit the cuartel monada and the 26th of July museum – both important historic site showcasing the revolution.

I met up with a girl and guy from couchsurf here in Santiago. Both worked so I hung out with them after work. Pretty cool folks. Check out Lianne and Nelson on couchsurf – Santiago de Cuba. They will be happy to show you around.

In Havana, I revisited some places and explored new places. Callejon de hammel is still a cool place to be on Sunday from 12noon to 3pm. It is an alternative gathering celebrating the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion. I also hung out with folks from couchsurfing here in Havana.

I also hung out with Nigerians. Some students and others diplomats – I feel important. It’s always feels good to meet Nigerians when I travel.

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Did you know Cubans call papaya -fruta bomba (Bomba Fruit). I was told Papaya means a female private part here in Cuba so remember to ask for jugo de fruta bomba and not jugo de papaya.

Stuff that surprised me, in Santiago at least, restaurants have two menus – one in CUC (currency used by tourists) and the other in Moneda nacional (the currency citizens of Cuba use). So if you are a tourist you will pay 8 CUC (about USD$10) for a plate of rice and chicken. If you are a Cuban citizen or student studying in Cuba, you will pay 50MN [(2CUC) about USD$4) for the same meal.

Most people in Santiago thought I was from Jamaica, not sure exactly why. Maybe because of my dreads or because Jamaica is very close to Santiago and most Jamaicans end up visiting Santiago or they simply can’t see the big a** Nigerian map tattooed on my back.

As for the title – there is always a line here in Cuba. A line to use the internet; a line to change money or use the ATM; line to buy snack; a line for everything and anything. So folks just asks ‘who is the last in line’, they take notice and go do something else. There is never a single straight line, folks just stand around.

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Ask me what is the most frustrating thing about Cuba and I’ll tell you the INTERNET. I have never used anything that slow and scarce before. The hotel’s cybercafé opens from 8am to 6pm; the government’s internet café opens from 8.30am to 7pm. Sometimes both hotel and government’s internet café are out of the internet cards which means there is no internet until they get more cards. You have to purchase the internet card to use internet– it has the username and password you need to get access to the internet. 30 minutes cost 3CUC (about USD$5).

Though I’ve had great experience with folks from couchsurf, be careful in Cuba. It has come to my knowledge that some guys and ladies in Cuba use couchsurf to prey on tourist. For example if you are a female tourist, a male from couchsurf might be exceptionally nice and friendly with you in the hope that you fall in love in him and spend your money on him. Some of the Cuban guys make a living from this. They are called jinteros and their female counter path is jinteras.

Okay that’s it for now on Cuba. Enjoy the photos. If you need information on Casa Particulares in Havana and Santiago, let me know. As usual am happy to answer your questions on Cuba.

Budget: Money Talk – Colombia 2009

Below is how money was spent for my 10 months trip across Latin America (Aug 2009 to June 2010). Colombia was the first country, then I went up to Mexico and visited Cuba. I didn’t really do a estimation of how much I should spend. I just went with the flow. Now, I’m much better in creating a budget and sticking to it. I stayed in Colombia for 4 months and took Spanish classes for 3 months at two different institutions. I also took Spanish classes at Nicaragua and Guatemala. Some countries were cheaper than others. By far, Costa Rica, Belize, Mexico and Cuba were the most expensive. Those were the countries where I had to be very strict on how I spent money. Whereas, in countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua, I could afford to pay more for better hostels, take more comfortable buses and eat at nicer places. Panama and Colombia are in the middle tier, sometimes I enjoyed ‘luxury’, other times I was careful on what I spent money on. Below, you will find a breakdown on how money was spent in general and by country/city. Oh, a good amount went towards ATM and Credit Card transaction fees.

Country Total USD Per Day (USD) Duration
Colombia $5,914.78            $53 16 Weeks
Panama $1,148         $32.8      5 Weeks
Costa Rica $294 $49 6 days
Nicaragua $1,679.29 $50 5 Weeks
Honduras $1,110.69 $26.4 6 Weeks
El Salvador $255.48 $36.5 1 Week
Guatemala $951.13 $45 3 Weeks
Belize $277 $40 1 Week
Mexico $902.54 $44 3 Weeks
Cuba $910 $65 2 Weeks
Sub Total $13,442.91
Ticket $1,490.50
Shots & other travel gears   $1,138.06  Included Backpack, medications, travel insurance e.t.c
Total $16,071.47
 *Ticket was Multi-city:First leg: Atlanta – Miami – Medellin (Colombia). Second Leg: Cartagena (Colombia) – Panama City. Third Leg: Mexico City – Havana (Cuba) – Panama City – Guatemala City. Fourth Leg: Mexico City – Houston (Texas, USA)

Colombia 2009: Aug 13 to Dec 12, 2009

Colombia USD Duration
Medellin $4,862.78 3 Months
Bogota $200 5 Days
Cali & Buenaventura $540 2 Weeks
Cartagena $312 1 Week
Total $5,914.78 4 Months
Medellin: Breakdown USD Duration
Spanish classes $1,572 7 Weeks
Home stay (2 meals per day, Laundry & Internet) $1,540 8 Weeks
Belly Dancing $103
Student Visa $150
Others (Food, Entertainment, Weekend trips, Tours, In-City transportation) $1,497.78
Total $4,862.78
Panama (Panama City, Bocas, David, Playa Las Lajas & San Blas) USD 1148
Other (Hostel, food, drinks, transportation, e.t.c) $1,076
ATM fee $73
Costa Rica (Puerto Viejo & San Jose) USD 294
Other (Hostel, food, drinks, transportation, e.t.c) $280
ATM fee $14
Nicaragua (Managua, Leon, San Juan del Sur, Playa Popoyo, Isla Ometepe, Corn Islands & Granada) USD 1679.29
ATM fee $86.21
Domestic Flight $171.33
Spanish class & Homestay $260
Fedex Shipment to the USA $221.83
Other (Hostel, food, drinks, transportation, e.t.c) $939.92
Honduras (La Ceiba, San Pedro Sula, Copan, Sambo Creek, Tela) USD 1110.69
ATM fee $56.80
Other (Hostel, weekend trip, food, drinks, transportation, e.t.c) $673.89
Room & Board $380
El Salvador (San Salvador, Playa El Tunco & Mozote) USD 225.48
ATM fee $5.48
Other (Hostel, food, drinks, transportation, e.t.c) $250
Guatemala (Antigua, Lago Atitlan & Xela) USD 951.13
ATM fee $20.99
Other (Hostel, food, drinks, transportation, e.t.c) $815.14
Spanish class $115
Belize (San Iganacio, Hopkins & Caye Caulker) USD 277
ATM fee $5
Other (Hostel, food, drinks, transportation, e.t.c) $272
Mexico (Mexico City, Tulum, Merida, Oaxaca, Palenque & San Cristobal de las Casas) USD 902.54
ATM fee $10
Tour – (Chichen Itza) $35
Other (Hostel, food, drinks, transportation, e.t.c) $857.54
Cuba (Havana, Santa Clara & Trinidad) USD 910
ATM fee $10
Other (Hostel, food, drinks, transportation, e.t.c) $900

Visiting the ‘forbidden country’

 As I got off the plane in La Havana, Cuba so many things was going through my mind but it didn’t prepare me for the nightmare I went through with the Cuban immigration officers. They are worst than the US immigration officers. Oh my God, I was questioned for 3 hours by 8 different officers asking the same questions all over again and I even had to do a X-ray to see if I swallowed drugs. After all that ordeal, I met up with Maddiel (from Couchsurfing) who showed me to a Casa Particular. I sort of promise myself not to analyze the political situation in Cuba because it wouldn’t make a differences and it will keep me from fully enjoying the county and its people. However I’ll tell you a little about this country.


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Interesting things about Cuba 
There are two currencies in Cuba – “Moneda Nacional” (for its citizens) & “Convertible Pesos (CUC)” for foreigners -exchange rate is 1 CUC= 1.23 Euros/1.31 pounds. There is an additional 10% penalty for those exchanging with the US dollars. Everybody is welcome to Cuba even US citizens, they don’t stamp anybody passport. You buy a tourist card for US$20 that they stamp. The government either owns all business, or a joint venture, there are some exceptions, like the accommodations for tourists. Citizens are allowed to rent up to 2 rooms in their houses to a maximum of 4 people, this is called Casa Particular and they must register with the government & pay 200 CUC per month regardless if they were able to rent room or not. These Casa Particular are up to 50% or more cheaper than the hotels which are government owned. It is illegal for Cubans to allowed foreigners to stay over at their house. In the past Cubans where not allowed in hotel rooms or tourist sites (the law to allow them was put into effect just 3 years ago).

SketetonsHealth care & Education is free for Cuban citizens. A majority of the people do not have access to internet because it is extremely expensive, it costs about US$6 per hour which is a lot for the people. I never saw extreme poverty or people starving from hunger however they was a lack of modern conveniences such as home computers, iPods, fancy electronics, good working vehicles, and the likes. The country is rich with educated people, art & music, diversity, naturally beautiful people and culture. There are a lot of pay phones on the street because cell phones are expensive and not everybody has a home phone. Everybody are not equal as claimed by its government – there are rich, middle class and poor people and racism do exist in Cuba. Females are barely dressed (meaning so far female Cubans wear the shortest clothes ever regardless of their age).
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Not every Cubans like ‘Fidel Castro’ or are communist or believe in it – a lot of them especially the young ones are desperately for change. I have been told that the revolution was true to its cause for the first 20 years or so. Which means for 31 years now, its been a lie. Now, there is a lot of social disobedience and young musicians criticizing the government through their music.

Baseball is the most popular game here & the most popular type of music for the young are Hip-Hop/Rap and Reggeaton. The government is against Cuban Reggeaton & Hip-Hop music because they strongly criticize the government so there are hardly any concert of those two types of music. Its illegal for foreigners to use the ‘Moneda Nacional’ – the currency for Cuban citizen however you can get away using it on the local bus/taxi, buying street food & buying tickets of shows/concerts and the likes. I changed a little of my money to the ‘Moneda Nacional’ and bought street food all the time, for local transportation and stuffs like that – usually it works because I can pass for a Cuban or I give one of my Cuban friends to buy for me.

Sol& Moon Pyramid
I enjoyed Havana, there was always a show to go to and things to do. On my first day, I went to a show at the ‘Museo de los Orichas’, another time to a dance show and every Monday there is a meeting at the house of this professor – people come together to make music, talk about music and different cultures. Or you can chill at this one street that is packed with hip-hop free style artists and ‘Emos’ (Emos are sort of punkish who usually dress in black and have their hair covering half of their face).
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I visited Santa Clara -the sanctuary for Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, this city has a mausoleum, museum, statues among other things about him. Then next to Trinidad -a beach town that is filled with way too many tourists, I stayed only one night here.

I decided to skip Santiago de Cuba (the second largest city in Cuba) and return to Havana because unfortunately I was running out of money and I can not use my ATM card here because of the embargo, so I changed my ticket to leave Cuba 5 days earlier than planned -its sad, but oh well, there will always be another time to come back to Cuba. Meanwhile, I spent my remaining 4 days in Cuba trying to go to an Cuban Hip-Hop concert but ended up hanging out with a bunch of childish people, went to the Sunday alternative religion ceremony, Monday music meeting, a visit to a restaurant serving ‘Yoruba/African food’.

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I think you should visit Cuba, it will make you appreciate what you have in your own country regardless of how you feel your own government is messed up. I met a Nigerian here on my way to check out the Nigerian Embassy – he told me there were about 200 Nigerian students studying sports or medicine. He told me about how Nigerians who come to visit or plan on living in Cuba all change their ticket and return home and that some of them even cry like babies. He also said after the Nigerian tourist, potential immigrant or student return home, they can not dare complain about the Nigerian government or the situation at home because we have it way better than Cuba. I must say I totally agreed with him.

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This is a country I can NEVER live in. I so much cherish the freedom I have & the conveniences that life has to offer however I wouldn’t mind having the free quality healthcare & education the Cuban government has going for its people….Plus being in Cuba gives me this closeness to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. I intend to come back here to do a research on the Yoruba people of Cuba, I think  it will be interesting to learn about their culture, religion and compare it to that in Nigeria. Note: the Yoruba people of Cuba are descendants of Yoruba slaves brought from Nigeria and I’m from the Yoruba tribe – that’s why I find it fascinating to learn about the people in Cuba.

I decided on Cornell because I got a fellowship there which will save me a lot………Oh sad news, the president of Nigeria died today

Hasta la Victoria Siempre (Until the Victory, Always)

……….