Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

For decades, travelers to Cuba have raved about the island’s stunning beaches, sipped icy cool Mojitos…and complained about the food. With dining options limited to State restaurants, run by government employees who had no incentive to get creative, Cuban food was monotonous at best. Thankfully,  paladars – restaurants in private homes – are rapidly changing that stereotype.

Lobster lunch at Bodega Las Brisas, a paladar in the small village of Cojimar, near Havana, Cuba

Lobster lunch at Bodega Las Brisas, a paladar in the small village of Cojimar, near Havana, Cuba

Paladars have always existed under the communist regime. Prior to 1993 they were illegal and thus hard to find, but during Cuba’s economic crisis of the 90’s, the government rethought its policies. In 1993, they legalized 117 forms of self-employment, which included enterprises such as home barbershops, mechanics, and and massage therapists. Paladars were legalized and given the right to have 12 seats and serve up to 20 clients per day. It was a slow beginning. The government still controlled what could be served (the sale of seafood, horsemeat, and beef were prohibited), and severe shortages of even the most basic ingredients, like salt, made it difficult to get creative with the cuisine. Read More

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

We’d barely stepped off the plane when I had my first conversation with a Cuban. At Revolution Square, I hurried over to the line of classic car taxis awaiting passengers and began chatting with the owner of a shiny black 1955 Chevy Bel Air. His eyes bugged out when he learned I was from the United States.

Americanos pueden viajar a Cuba ahora?” he asked incredulously. I explained that travel was still restricted, but that I had come with Discover Corps, a company that offers people-to-people tours approved by the U.S. government. I added that, due to the warming relationship between the U.S. and the Cuban governments, I was sure that travel to Cuba for all Americans would soon be possible.

“I hope so,” he replied, switching to English for my benefit. “We want you. We NEED you!” I turned to snap a photo of his classic car and he stopped me. “No, no, no…you must sit inside and let me take a photo of you.”

Sitting in a 1955 Chevy Bel Air, now a classic taxi in Havana, Cuba

Sitting in a 1955 Chevy Bel Air, now a classic taxi in Havana, Cuba

Discover Corps granted me access that the normal traveler to Cuba would not have. In addition to introducing us to local artists, musicians, dance troupes, and the emerging class of Cuban entrepreneurs, evening walks along the malecon in Havana allowed direct contact with residents, who were eager to speak to us about life in Cuba and how things are changing. Certainly, Cubans are eager for the U.S. to lift the travel ban on Cuba. They want the one million American tourists that are projected to flood into the country each year. But whether or not they need America was addressed in depth on the day we met with Jorge Mario Sanchez, an economics professor from the University of Havana. Sanchez explained some of the far-reaching consequences of the American embargo on Cuba and insisted that, “We do not need to trade with the United States, but we do need the U.S. to stop interfering with Cuban trade.” Read More

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

Note: Free airfare from Miami to Cuba was originally offered exclusively to my readers who booked the June trip to Cuba with Discover Corps, but the registration deadline for that tour has passed. Discover Corps has kindly extended the offer for their July tour as well. See below for details:

I’m back in the U.S. following my Discover Corps tour of Cuba, and my head is spinning from everything I saw and learned. The name of their tour – Building Bridges – says it all. Travel to Cuba is not yet legal for all Americans, but since January of this year, restrictions have been substantially eased. Discover Corps seized that opportunity and designed a State Department approved, people-to-people tour that focuses on cultural interaction.

This is a new program for the company, so they have openings on their tour that begins July 25th, and they’ve provided me with a discount available to readers of my blog. Book this Discover Corps tour between now and May 25th and receive free round-trip airfare on a chartered flight between Miami and Cuba. This is a $600 value – an incredible offer, if you have the ability to act quickly. The program fee of $4,495 includes all meals, excursions, transportation, and tips in restaurants and hotels.

Horse-drawn carriage on the streets of Santa Clara. Travel to Cuba before scenes like this begin to disappear.

Horse-drawn carriage on the streets of Santa Clara. Travel to Cuba before scenes like this begin to disappear.

So what can you expect to see and do? My recent tour included visits to numerous community dance, art, and music, groups many of which are working with youth and/or neighborhoods to improve the quality of life in Cuba. A professor of economics from the University of Havana met with us for an hour to explain the economic challenges of the country and how the U.S. embargo has affected Cubans. We visited a Read More

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

It’s been a long 15 months in the U.S., with little opportunity to travel, but that’s about to change. By the time you read this, I will be in Cuba, a place I have long dreamed of visiting. Having lived in both the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, I am no stranger to this part of the world, but Cuba has a mystique like no other Caribbean island. Antique muscle cars, polished to a deep sheen, rumble down boulevards like deep-throated lions sizing up prey. Sensuous salsa tunes float into the street from dim and smoky music clubs. Crumbling buildings, painted in shades of peeling pastel, are a photographer’s paradise.

Map showing my travel to Cuba with Discover Corps, showing the destinations we will visit

Map showing my travel to Cuba with Discover Corps

You may be wondering if legal travel to Cuba is available for all U.S. citizens. The answer is yes and no. On January 16, 2015, regulations governing travel to Cuba were amended by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Twelve categories of travel that previously required a specific license are now allowed by OFAC. These include categories such as family visits for persons of Cuban descent; journalistic activity; professional research and meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic, and other competitions and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; and humanitarian projects. Travel for general tourism, however, is still not allowed. Read More

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

The tide is ebbing. I had hoped my father would live to see another spring and summer. To enjoy his final pontoon boat rides on the river. To see the trees bud out and watch the deer sneak surreptitiously into the yard under the cover of darkness. But the pull of the moon is strong and the tide is receding a bit more each day.

My heart aches with each little thing he can no longer do. He says he is suffering from “Daddy Syndrome” – he’s taken care of his children for more than 62 years and suddenly we are taking care of him. This role reversal has been more painful for him than any of his health issues.

Centennial Olympic Park Fountain show in Atlanta Georgia, a metaphor for the ebb tide of life

Centennial Olympic Park Fountain show in Atlanta Georgia

I was in Atlanta last week, packing up stuff that I had stored there for the past few years and hauling it back up to my Dad’s house in Illinois. The trip reminded me of an earlier visit to Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, which was created for the 1996 Summer Olympics. The centerpiece of the park is the Fountain of Rings – five intertwining Olympic rings embedded into the pavement, through which waters spout in syncopation with broadcast music. Read More

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

Close your eyes and picture a Viking. Most likely, you envisioned a axe-wielding, muscle-bound man clad in filthy animal skins, wearing a metal helmet with pointed horns protruding from each side. As I learned recently at a behind-the-scenes preview of the new Vikings exhibition at Chicago’s Field Museum, this stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth.

Replica of a Viking wooden sailing vessel

Replica of a Viking wooden sailing vessel

The Vikings left no written history of their culture. Much of what we know has been gleaned from a history of the Vikings that was written by an Icelander named Snorri Sturluson, several hundred years after their civilization had vanished, or from extremely skewed characterizations, written by people who interacted with the Norsemen as they traveled far and wide to trade and raid. One such comment came from Ibn Fadlan, an Arabic envoy who in the early 10th century described Scandinavians he met on the Volga river, saying, “They do not wash after visits to the toilet…and they do not wash their hands after they have eaten. They are like stray asses.” Read More