Camping (Mis)Adventures in Neusa

I don’t have a lot of practical survival-in-the-wilderness skills, a fact that was never more obvious than on the weekend side-trip a few of us took from Bogotá up to Embalse del Neusa, a beautiful state park nearby.

One of the other Remotes on our trip is actually from Colombia, and she’d been camping here a number of times, so she planned the excursion. It was a great idea—Neusa is beautiful, and a weekend away from the hustle of city life sounded amazing.

After stopping for groceries in Zipaquirá, we squished 12 people (plus all of our camping gear, food, and wood) into a van built for 9, and ventured up into the park. Thanks to a combination of a late start, our grocery run, and a bit of confusion at the park entrance about where we could buy wristbands for camping permits, we didn’t arrive until after sunset. That meant pitching tents in the dark—but luckily, a few of my fellow travelers came prepared with headlamps and lanterns, so we did a pretty good job of it.

Our first meal, likewise, went well. Mostly thanks again to my fellow Remotes—between their food-pairing skills and cooking-on-campfire-coals experience, we wound up with delicious fish filets on veggie beds for dinner, with a side of rice that turned out surprisingly well considering it was boiled on an open fire.

Unfortunately, that was the end of our well-planned meals, since while we were all enjoying that dinner, packs of stray dogs ate most of the other food we brought… We managed to salvage a package of hot dogs and some eggs, but that was about it.

Still, we enjoyed ourselves passing rum around the campfire and joking late into the (increasingly chilly) night.

The next morning, we woke up (grumbling) in time to watch the sunrise over the lake next to our campsite. Even with the clouds and mountains between us and the sun, it was a fantastic view.

After that, our morning got a bit more chaotic. It all started with the firewood. We didn’t have much to start with, and what we did have was damp from a late-night rainstorm. Combine that with some equally damp firestarters and tricky lighters, and let’s just say it took a while to get a breakfast fire going.

Once we had one roaring, we made do with our remaining food—hot dogs and eggs for everyone! Unfortunately, we didn’t realize until after we’d already cooked and eaten most of the hot dogs that they were still tightly seran-wrapped in plastic… So much for a healthy breakfast?

To be honest, though, burnt-plastic covered hot dogs still taste exactly like regular hot dogs. Which was in and of itself a bit concerning…

Fortunately, when half of us campers left for a long morning hike, we discovered that there was actually a restaurant right next to the entrance of the campsite (a restaurant that sells firewood, no less!). We were saved by the home-grilled arepas and the fresh-caught trucha (straight from the lake on which we were camping).

All in all, it was a great weekend, despite the rain, the cold, the dogs stealing all of our food, and the accidental ingestion of burnt plastic. This trip was the first time I really came to appreciate the diversity of experiences and life skills we all bring to this adventure—whatever we needed to figure out, whether it was fire-building or cooking or just the logistics of renting out a campsite, we had people who stepped up to the plate. Plus it’s good to know that our group can still have fun (and a lot of laughs) even when the elements are against us.

But I’m definitely going to brush up on my fire-building and tent-pitching skills before I venture into the Colombian wilderness again…

We were totally disconnected for the weekend, we swear…

Cows spotted on our morning hike

The van on the way home – now imagine this same size van with 5 more people and 100% more groceries packed into it…

Our adopted camp dog. Yeah, she probably ate all of our food in the middle of the night. But look at those puppy-dog eyes…

Turismo: Tourism in Bogotá

I didn’t want to make the same mistake in Bogotá that I did in Mexico City—namely, waiting until my last week to try to cram in all the local tours. So I signed up for the free walking tour of the historic district, La Candelaria, the very first week I was here.

The walking tour covered both older and more recent Colombian history, including a few basics about the emerald trade, the FARC war, the Colombian revolution (which led to Colombia’s independence from Spain), and even the local beer wars that started back in the early 1900s and are still brewing (haha, sorry…) today.

But the tour wasn’t all talk—we sampled a local beverage called chucula. Chucula was developed when the price of cocoa began to skyrocket in the region. It’s basically a chocolate replacement, a mix of various spices and just a couple of cacao beans, rolled into tight-packed balls that you can dissolve into hot cups of water or milk to create a hot chocolate-esque beverage. I liked it even more than hot chocolate, because it still had a hint of chocolate-y flavor without being overwhelmingly sweet or rich. But that could just be my taste buds!

After the chucula, we also tried chicha, a traditional corn beer that tastes (to me, anyway) like a cross between sour beer and cider. I enjoyed it, though I think it would be hard to drink more than a pint of it, since it’s pretty sour.

Chicha used to be crazy popular in Bogotá until the Bavarians rolled into town and started an ad campaign to demonize the drinking of chicha. All so they could run it out of business and fill the resulting gap with their own beer, naturally!

That was my first introduction to the beer wars here, but it wouldn’t be the last. Later in the week, I went on the Bogotá Craft Beer Tour, which took us from a small microbrewery in La Candelaria out through the other neighborhoods, stopping at a tiny brewery called Madriguera located in what looked like someone’s renovated house, another bar built by a brother-and-sister brewer-and-architect duo, and to eat and drink at a delicious local restaurant, Cervecería Gigante.

Along the way, our guide talked about the pushback these local microbrewers have encountered as they get started here in Bogotá. It’s difficult to break into a market dominated by Bavaria, a Colombian beer company owned by Anheuser-Busch. Local, small-batch brewers are still fighting same battles that chicha ran into over a century ago—being stigmatized and out-campaigned in a tough market. But there’s a growing resistance to bigger beer companies here, and a push toward drinking locally made microbrews, which will hopefully only continue to grow in the future.

On another downtown walking tour through La Candelaria, I learned more about the other battles that have been fought (and are still being fought) on Colombian turf. Bogotá has some of the most beautiful and varied street art I’ve ever seen, and the graffiti tour walks you past some of the best examples of work in different styles. But the guides also talk a lot about the politics of street art here—the violence and wars the art depicts and protests, as well as the current move by the government to promote street art (and in doing so, cut down on unauthorized graffiti tagging).

It was a fascinating tour, all in all, but it didn’t even come close to walking us past all the art La Candelaria and the surrounding neighborhoods have to offer. There’s now even a panel of art in Palermo created by some other members of my Remote Year group (Meraki pride, woo!).

Venturing a little ways outside of Bogotá itself, I visited the two salt mines nearby: Nemocón and the better-known Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. If you want my advice, I’d say first of all, don’t visit both—that was a pretty repetitive exercise!

Personally, I preferred Nemocón. It’s a bit smaller, and you can still find the actual salt in the mines. Not to mention carvings made in said salt, a lickable wall, natural deposits that people imagine depict nativity scenes or trees, a massive salt pond mirror that’s so convincingly reflective that standing next to it feels like you’re about to plunge off a ledge, and of course, Salt Jesus.

Fun fact, Nemocón was also the location where The 33 (that movie about the trapped Chilean miners) was filmed. You can explore the set and imagine just how claustrophobic it must have felt to be those guys.

Zipaquirá, on the other hand, was much larger, but also way more touristy. The Salt Cathedral itself is lovely, but left me wondering where all the salt was (the sculptures inside are either carved from rock or marble). Plus, the mall tacked onto the outside is just strange. Unless you’re shopping for some tourist emeralds, then I guess it’s a good stop to make.

The last tour I did, which I actually went on a couple weeks later, but I’ll include it here for good measure, was to Lake Guatavita. Best known as the origin of the myth of El Dorado, our local guide explained Guatavita as the Muisca’s version of the Aztec temples. The Muisca people worshipped the moon here, so it made sense that rather than building grand temples to try and reach the sky, they would make a sacred space of a deep, nearly perfectly circular lagoon instead.

Many sacred lakes dot the hillsides in this region, but Guatavita is the largest and best-known. It was here that future tribal rulers were crowned—though not until they had undergone extensive trials to judge their worth, including living for 9 years in total darkness within a cave (a year for every month their mothers carried them to symbolize their gestation and rebirth) and exiting naked to a ritual where nude women danced around them, trying to seduce them. If they reacted at all (yes, you know what I mean), they were deemed unfit to rule.

But, our guide assured us, every ruler who reached that phase of the trial passed. They were then covered head-to-toe in gold dust, and swam out to the center of Lake Guatavita in the final ceremony.

All in all, there are a plethora of tours both within Bogotá’s city limits and outside it. If you’re ever in the city, I’d recommend deciding what parts of local history call to you, and checking out the tours that cover those topics!

Ellens in the Salt Cathedral

Yes, I licked this wall

Salt Jesus

Chicha cups

Street art in Candelaria

More street art

Political commentary via street art

View from the hike up to Guatavita

Respirando: Breathing in Bogotá

As much as I loved my time in Mexico City, I have to admit that after a month of living there, the pollution was getting noticeable. Every time I left the city, I’d feel my lungs expand and my throat clear (not to mention my sinuses).

So on my first Sunday in Bogotá, a day when the city bans any non-essential cars from the roads (and closes a lot of those roads for bikers and runners to use), breathing was first and foremost in my mind.

Taking a stroll through Virrey, the scenic park right next to my apartment in Bogotá, and gazing up at the mountains in the not-so-distant distance, I realized that this city was exactly what I needed after a month of eating myself silly in Mexico. (It didn’t hurt that the first thing I wandered across in the park was a mobile bookstore where a few neighborhood kids were stocking up on their next paperback novel, either.)

There’s nature everywhere here. That first evening, I took a cable car up to Montserrate (not to be confused with the one near Barcelona), the mountaintop shrine that overlooks the whole city, and drank in the view of Bogotá at dusk. It’s a sprawling metropolis, boasting only ~400,000 less people than New York City (albeit in over twice the space). Yet everywhere you look, you can find green—tree-lined avenues planted on the busiest streets to absorb the bus fumes, parks carved out in each neighborhood, and of course, the mountains that border it all.

Since then, I’ve found myself waking up earlier than I ever have in my life. Not only did I volunteer for a 6am hike up to Sendero Quebrada La Vieja, a hike straight up a mountain that starts right in downtown Bogotá and is open every morning, but I actually enjoyed it. We lost both our tour guide and our local friend (a theme that became common throughout my time here), and yet we make it to the peak anyway, enjoying an early morning view of the city. Not only that, but since we’d lost our guide and gone a different route, we found a whole new section of the mountain, a dense pine forest carpeted in needles so thick that it felt like hiking over a trampoline (and through an episode of BBC’s Robin Hood).

I started waking up early other days, too. Going for early morning runs through the park was a great way to jumpstart my brain for the day of writing ahead. It also, admittedly, turned out to be a pretty good cure for hangovers.

Which was needed after we discovered our new favorite bar night: Gringo Tuesdays at La Villa. The idea is, you come to the bar early for happy hour, join a language exchange table (labeled by flags—we sat at the English tables, since a lot of locals and visitors from around South America went to the club night to practice their English), and chat in the assigned language for a few hours. Then around 9pm, the tables are cleared away and the club night begins.

It doesn’t end until 3am, so be prepared for the long haul if you go.

In addition to a new favorite bar, we also found our new favorite game. Only Colombia would think up a backyard game like Tejo, which involves taking a heavy puck-shaped rock and throwing it as hard as you can at a mud-caked target packed with explosives in the center. If you blow up an explosive, you get 3 points. Otherwise, you get 1 point for throwing your tejo closest to center.

It’s mostly a countryside game, but you can find places within the city limits like Club de Tejo la 76, where we played. Unlike bowling, you don’t pay to book a lane—you pay by buying cases of beer to drink during the game. I’m blaming the beer for how I ended up accidentally hitting 3 of my fellow travelers with the tejo rock…

All in all, we had a great first week in Bogotá, and a much-needed slow-down after the hectic pace of life in Mexico City. More on my Bogotá adventures soon, but if you’re impatient, I keep a much more up-to-date record of the goings-on running over on my Instagram page. Give me a shout over there!

The view from Montserrate

Don’t mind me, I just live in a postcard now

Seriously, what even…

Inspired to write!

This mountain was steep as hell for a 6am trek…

But we made it to the top! And made some policía friends along the way

Explorando: Exploring in Mexico City

My last week in Mexico City was a whirlwind of preparations. Booking future side-trips, figuring out how many pesos I’d need to get through one last week, stocking up on items I needed to buy for the rest of my trip… And figuring out how to repack my bags in a semi-reasonable manner.

But I saved plenty of time for exploring the city, too.

I finally made it to the pyramids in Teotihuacán. The Sun and Moon pyramids are the most famous, but there are actually around a dozen pyramids scattered around the site, with more earthen mounds that have yet to be excavated hiding still more pyramids beneath them.

There, we learned about the mysterious origin of the so-called City of the Gods. Built between 100BC-250AD, it was the largest city in the Americas prior to Colombus’s arrival. Most people associate it with the Aztecs, but actually, by the time they discovered Teotihuacán, it had already been abandoned for centuries. The city fell around 750AD, most likely due to an internal uprising, though the jury is still out on that one.

Recently, archaeologists discovered several new tunnels beneath the site, including a tunnel beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent that’s still being excavated. Our guide, a local archaeologist with UNAM, plied the team working on the excavation with tequila, but sadly, they didn’t have anything new to report yet.

In addition to the pyramids, I trekked out to El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary with a couple friends. This is a sanctuary for the monarch butterflies, who fly there from Canada every winter, then fly home every summer. For the moment, in the depths of January, they were in hibernation mode—but they still venture out during sunlight hours to eat/breed/all that good stuff.

I’d never seen the monarch migration up-close, so it was definitely worth the trip (which involved an Uber, a bus, a taxi we paid to sit and wait for us to return, then a 45-minute hike into the mountains, for which I was not at all dressed properly. By the way, it’s a lot colder in the mountains…).

When we reached the top of the mountain and our guide pointed out the butterflies (in Spanish of course), I thought I had misunderstood him. All we could see in the trees were black clumpy masses, like clusters of dead leaves waiting to fall. Then he explained—the butterflies huddle together for warmth, so tightly packed that only the black edges of their wings are visible.

That is, until the sun hits. Then they wake up and start to fly between the trees, down to the ground… Even landing on us more than a few times.

Dude butterfly

Luckily for us, we ran into another American woman traveling with her daughter, who had just finished raising some monarchs in her classroom for release. She taught us how to tell the males from females (males have black spots on their hind wings), among other useful tips.

After a carne asada (think Mexico’s version of a backyard cookout) on my Spanish teacher’s rooftop, followed by a day of relaxing at Hotel Habita‘s rooftop pool (pro-tip: even if you aren’t a hotel guest, they only ask that you spend a minimum of $200 pesos/~$10 USD at the poolside bar in order to hang out for the day—easy to do when they have an extensive food menu, not to mention micheladas on hand), I powered through the last few to-dos on my Mexico City list.

That included the free walking tour of the historic district downtown, which I cannot recommend enough. It’s one thing to read about the Aztec’s afterlife beliefs, but quite another to be taken down into the bowels of the city (below the modern street level, since Mexico City is slowly sinking) and led through an artistic representation of that underworld.

Chillin’ underground with Mictlantecuhtli

Plus, once the tour finished, we were in the perfect spot to enjoy a delicious mole and some cocktails at La Casa de las Sirenas, a mezcal bar downtown.

Our last night in Mexico City, we celebrated with a Remote Year-organized boat ride along the canals of Xochimilco, another must-do. There, you can still see the chinampas, vast floating rafts on which the ancient Mesoamericans cultivated farms and built homes. Mexico City used to be built on these rafts as well, until the lake where it originally sat drained. It’s truly a wonder of ancient architecture and ingenuity—and pretty fun to sail between, too.

But after that, it was time to say our (slightly hungover) goodbyes and board our flight to Bogotá. I’ll miss Mexico City, the history, the food, the art, the culture, and did I mention the food. But there will always be time to go back and hit any of the spots I missed. Until then, it’s off to the next city on our list!

Thousand-year-old street art

Just your casual erosion-exposed tomb beneath the sinking cathedral…

Also your casual giant baby Jesus in said sinking cathedral

Elevator at the historic post office in downtown CDMX

Street parade protesting gas prices

Boarding our fleet of boats on the Xochimilco canals

Canal selfie!

Finances: Freelancing in Mexico City

At the end of each month this year, I’m going to tally up my expenses in order to evaluate the costs of living in each city we’re visiting. A month is a good time to get an estimate of how much it would cost to settle down in a city, and for anyone out there working remotely for a U.S. company, a lot of these places are much cheaper to live in than the U.S. itself.

Now, some of my estimates will be off, since I’m traveling with a program, and not paying for my own housing or office space rentals. I pay $2,000 USD a month for my office/apartment/some events with the group.

But just for estimates’ sakes, I’ve done some digging, and average apartment rent for the neighborhood we’re staying in (Roma Norte/Condesa, a very trendy Brooklyn-esque ‘hood) seems to range from ~$500-1000 USD for a 1-BR apartment. Office space rentals vary depending on size/location/amenities, but I found a few decent-looking listings in the $300-450 USD range.

So, after a month in Mexico City (the world’s 10th largest metropolitan area as of 2015, with a population of 21.3 million), here’s how the finacials of what I actually spent break down:

Food (in Restaurants): $562.78

Food made up the biggest piece of my spending pie. This was not surprising, since a) I ate out almost every meal, lunch and dinner (see here for more details), and b) living in NYC, I already tended to splurge on dining out pretty often. And when I’m in a new country, especially a new country full of delicious new cuisine to sample, well…

But I should note that one of those meals was at one of the top fine dining restaurants in the world, and it still only cost $160.26 (and made up a big chunk of my dining-out expenses by itself). My average cost-per-meal not counting Pujol was $8.38.

Living Expenses: $166.48

I included groceries in this category, along with the usual necessities like toilet paper, bottled water (the tap water isn’t always potable in Mexico City), laundry and cleaning supplies, etc.

Shopping: $332.42

Again, bit of a splurge category, though I mostly only splurged on practical items. A quick breakdown of the biggest expenses:

$117.40 – new trail-runners and hiking pants for Machu Picchu (not to mention for all the running I need to start doing to work off these tacos)
$194.07 – new leather jacket (half off, no less) because I very, very stupidly left mine at home. Do not do this, kids. Learn from my mistakes.

 

Medical: $117.92

This looks like a large amount, but keep in mind that $90.93 of that was buying my allergy medication for the next 6 months. At home, that same amount of allergy medicine would have cost me $300 out-of-pocket, AFTER my insurance deductions.

Drinks: $127.38

Again, not too surprising, considering I’m in a new country with a zillion new beverages to sample (mezcal, anyone?).

Transportaion: $117.58

The vast majority of this (except for $21.70 spent on a bus to see the monarch butterfly migration up north) was spent on Ubers alone. But this is with me taking Ubers to and from events nearly 5 nights a week, and that’s also keeping in mind that some of those Uber rides were 1+ hours long.

Museums/Tours/Shows: $29.67

This isn’t technically a living expense, since if I moved to Mexico City, I likely wouldn’t be doing things like going to Lucha Libre shows or visiting the Anthropology Museum not once but twice in a month (listen, the Piedra del Sol is cool as hell, okay?). But it’s part of my spend this month, so for the sake of completeness, I’m including it.

Overall Monthly Spend: $1,454.24

This was a bit of a splurge month for me, though, since it’s my first month on the road, first month meeting all my new traveling companions, first month adjusting to the cooking-at-home versus eating-out balance of a new location.

Taking into account the fact that a) I went out almost every night (often with 79 friends who needed to meet up in places large enough to accomodate huge groups of us), b) I’m being a major tourist, and c) I stocked up on meds and shopping items for the year ahead, this actually stacks up really well against my usual budget.

 

In New York City, my average spending was $1,800 on rent/bills/medical expenses, and another $1,500-2,000 per month on groceries, living expenses, eating out, and going to events.

That said, I’ll definitely be trying to cook at home more often next month.

Onward to Bogotá!

Comiendo: Eating in Mexico City

Coming to Mexico, I knew there would be delicious tacos aplenty. Those certainly didn’t disappoint. Every taco I’ve eaten has been tasty, from the ones sold in street carts outside our office to the ones you can buy from guys who ride around the city on bikes ringing a bell to let you know they have tacos (sadly, this is not where Taco Bell got its name, but I like to pretend).

Most of the street tacos run somewhere from 10-50 cents apiece. A local explained to me that “you can tell the best taco places by the size of the meat roasting out front,” because the taco stands with the largest hunks of meat over the grill were expecting the
most customers. On the other hand, if you prefer fancy tacos, you can try them at local restaurant chains like El Califa, which will run you more like $1.50-3 each (I know, gasp).

There’s also chilaquiles of course. The best I found were right next to my apartment at Café el Asturiano, a hole-in-the-wall with a 70 peso ($3.50) breakfast menu that includes red or green chilaquiles (get the green), fresh fruit, fresh-squeezed juice, fresh-baked bread and a tea or coffee.

What I did not expect was the rest of the food. The weird-but-worth-trying Mexican sushi at Moshi-Moshi (most of the rolls include cheese, mango or both); the salads, acai bowls and duck pate sandwiches so rich you have to eat them with a glove at Corredor Salamana, an open-air cafeteria-style restaurant/bar/cafe/ping-pong/hookah lounge where we wound up more nights than we ought to admit.

Crepes stuffed with ricotta and covered in berries at Crepes y Waffles

I ate the best ceviche I’ve ever tried and followed it up with a rich, spicy hot chocolate at Mercado Roma; sampled crepes and waffles at the aptly named Crepes y Waffles; fell in love with pozole, a rich stew-like soup, at La Casa de Toño (great hangover cure, by the way).

The Mexico City restaurant scene rivals New York’s, in my amateur-foodie opinion. There are fantastic seafood restaurants like Contramar; up-and-coming vegan delivery spots like Los Loosers, which changes its menu daily (it was mole ramen the day I went); and three of the top 50 restaurants in the world. A lot of the people I’m traveling with raved about Biko and Quintonil, two of those, but I only tried Pujol. It was a uniquely delicious experience, and I loved everything from the baby corn cooked in chicatana ant sauce to the mole madre (which had been cooking for 1,185 days when we went). The humorously-named Happy Ending was delicious too—a dessert course comprised of avocado ice cream, churros, coconut pastry, and some kind of chocolate-y beverage. If the other two top restaurants are anything like Pujol, holy crap, I need to come back to Mexico City ASAP and eat there too.

My trip wasn’t all fine-dining though. There was the mysterious torta I bought from a guy with a bucket of sandwiches on a bus to Angangueo (definitely an interesting experience, but not recommended), and the street flautas which were delicious but difficult to eat, considering the only utensil the cart vendor gave me was a spoon. We cooked a traditional Carne Asada on the rooftop of my local Spanish teacher’s apartment, and then I got sick (probably from too much red meat in one day). One night we had the brilliant idea to go to a rooftop bar for the scenic view and supposedly famous burgers. Unfortunately, not only was it freezing that night, but we also waited two and a half hours for an extremely rare (read: still frozen inside) burger.But overall, the less-than-savory (haha see what I did there) experiences were anomalies, far outweighed by the delicious ones. For example, I ate the best Caesar salad I’ve ever tasted in an airport sports bar while awaiting a flight to Cuba—the waiter hand-mixed the sauce right at our table, complete with fresh anchovies.

And of course, I can’t rave about the food without mentioning the drinks, too.
Between the clamatos (the beer-based version of a Bloody Mary) at Juan Molletes; the micheladas and cubanas (beer mixed with lime juice and Worcestershire sauce respectively) at La Cervecería del Barrio; the gin-and-rose cocktails at Gin Gin; and every type of mezcal you could ask for (either neat or mixed into perfectly-balanced cucumber and avocado cocktails) at La Clandestina, a speakeasy in the back of La Lavandería in Condesa, Mexico City’s mixology scene is at the top of its game too.

Not to mention you can get a nice bottle of Chilean wine at just about any corner store for ~$5, which is hard to beat back home.

All in all, I will definitely be back here for the food alone. I’m already sad to be leaving so soon, when there are still so many restaurants, bars and street carts I need to explore… Though I’m excited to move along to Colombia next month and try out the food scene there, too!

Whatever you do, though, the next time you’re in Mexico City, remember one thing. The tacos are great, the clamatos and micheladas are tasty, but…

You need to try the crickets.

(Trust me, they’re a whole lot tastier than they look…)

Street churros in Coyoacán

The market in Coyoacán

Torta de pato (duck) so mess it requires a glove to eat

Corredor Salamana, which we affectionately named Fractal for the excellent coffee shop on the ground floor

Sopa de pescado at the Mercado Roma

Street vendors near our office

Mole with eggs and Spanish rice at Casa de las Sirenas downtown

Crudo course at Pujol: raw tuna in a vinaigrette

Amarillito tamales (vegetable) at Pujol

Mole madre (1185 days) at Pujol

Palate cleansing course at Pujol (yes, it’s sorbet)

Happy Ending: the dessert course at Pujol

Whole fish at Contramar

What Not To Do in Cuba

Habana Vieja (Old Havana)

Last weekend, I went on my first side-trip to Cuba for the long weekend. It wound up being a great trip by the end, but there was a steep learning curve, so I figured I’d share how not to plan your trip (learn from my mistakes!).

1. Don’t forget your cash.

Luckily I planned ahead for this part, at least. US debit and credit cards don’t work in Cuba, so Americans need to bring as much cash as they’ll need for their entire trip. I budgeted $100 a day, and wound up with $5 left at the airport (which I spent on the world’s strangest steak sandwich), so that seemed about perfect.

2. If you’re staying in Havana, don’t book a place far from city center.

Trust me. GPS is not a thing there. Neither are cell phones or maps. If the taxis can’t find your Airbnb, you’ll spend half your trip giving directions and the other half winding up lost at 3am.

Vintage car tour through el Barrio Chino (Chinatown)

3. Don’t rely on finding internet.

Seriously, it doesn’t exist. Pretend it’s 1990 and plan everything you want to do (and where/when you’ll rendezvous with your friends) ahead of time. If you absolutely must find internet, the Hotel Nacionale (worth a visit on its own for the beautiful architecture and the cash exchange in its basement if you need it) has Wifi you can access for $10/hour, but it is still a very weak signal.

4. Don’t use your cell phone.

I made the mistake of turning on data a couple times to locate friends. $65 in roaming charges later… Ouch.

5. Don’t plan too much in one day.

Life moves slower in Cuba. Glacially slow. It can be a really fun, relaxing getaway if you’re prepared for that, but if you’re expecting to run around and see a zillion things every day, then you will get frustrated. (It was so difficult to silence my inner New Yorker this trip.)

Habana Vieja

6. Don’t be freaked out by the way things appear.

We all know Havana is stuck in the 1950s. But from afar, that can sound romantic and nostalgic. In reality, it means that some houses look like ruins. Ceilings have fallen in, doors are missing, everything is broken and peeling. Same goes for the cars. On the surface, it can look dangerous. But Havana is probably one of the safest places you’ll ever visit, despite its appearances.

7. Don’t expect good food.

The pizza tastes like a disassembled hot pocket. The tuna is all canned. There’s meat in just about everything, and your salad will most likely not be fresh. There are good restaurants here and there (I highly recommend La Catedral and Decamarón, both in Vedado), but remember, Cuba has been on food rations for decades. Of course the restaurants have struggled. Which leads me to my last point…

8. Don’t forget where you are.

Navigating the taxis in Habana Vieja

As an American visiting Cuba, I became intensely aware of my own privilege. I can travel almost anywhere in the world, whenever I want to, simply because I was born in the USA. Most Cubans (especially any doctors or skilled professionals) are not allowed to leave their country, even for a vacation. They live in the houses the government decided their families would have, drive falling-apart “vintage” cars because our government decided they couldn’t import new ones…

It’s intense. It’s eye-opening. It’s the first time in a long time that I experienced culture shock, and it really woke me up.

But this list sounds very negative. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to Cuba. By the end of my visit, I really loved it. It was a unique experience, and I learned a ton.

So, now that we’ve covered what not to do, what should you do?

Tropico beach in Playas del Este

1. Relax and go with the flow.

Sneak up to the rooftop bar at Hotel Saratoga. Kick off your shoes, stick your feet in the pool, and spend a while admiring the view.

Explore Old Havana. Buy some cigars or enjoy a cuba libre (rum and coke) in one of the bars that dot the neighborhood.

Visit the Playas del Este, the beaches east of Havana. There’s a number of them, though we found Tropico pretty uncrowded (also, the snack huts dotting the beach serve epic piña coladas).

Sunset over the Malecón

Walk along the Malecón (the seawall bordering the city) and get soaked by waves while you drink in the sunset.

While you’re on the Malecón, go dancing at the seaside salsa club 1830. I guarantee you’ll feel like you’re at someone’s backyard BBQ, sharing drinks and getting swung across the dance floor by locals. If it’s rainy, though, you can always dance indoors at Casa de la Musica Miramar instead, or even catch a show. We watched Pupy perform live, after having a couple of drinks next door at the cafe attached.

But the biggest lesson I learned was just to go with the flow. Pre-planning is nice, but if you plan your day to death, you’ll spend most of it working on frustrating logistics (like trying and failing to rendezvous with the vintage car tour you booked), rather than actually experiencing Havana.

2. Talk to locals.

There’s no better way to get to know a city—or to find your new favorite night out spot! Our Airbnb hostess Julia was extremely sweet and helpful, always recommending new spots for us to check out (if you decide on an Airbnb in Cuba, definitely check out House Blue Sea).

3. Brush up on your Spanish (and bring/download a really good dictionary).

Vedado neighborhood

Some people speak English, but many don’t. It was helpful to know the essentials, especially when talking to taxis, ordering in restaurants, or going out dancing in the clubs. Also, without internet or cell phone access, looking up translations on the fly gets tricky, so either bring a pocket dictionary with you, or download an app like Google Translate, which allows you to download language packs for offline use in advance.

4. Be present.

Havana is a strange, beautiful, wistful, inspiring place to visit. It forces you to disconnect—from modernity, from the world you’re used to, from the internet (I know I keep saying this but it’s only because I have a serious ‘net addiction, okay?). It can be jarring at first, and it can throw you out of your element. But that’s the beauty of it.

Just let yourself live in the moment and experience what’s in front of you. Don’t worry that you’re missing out on a million other things (it’s impossible to see it all anyway).

Simply enjoy where you are.

View from Hotel Saratoga’s rooftop

Street art in Habana Vieja

View from the Hotel Nacionale

Caipirinha at Hotel Saratoga

Aprendiendo: Learning in Mexico City

Trying to speak Spanish after 10 years without using it is a constant exercise in humility. One moment I’m having an in-depth conversation with a doctor about switching medications from my U.S. brand to a comparable Mexican one, and the next minute I’ve completely forgotten the word for fork.

But as the month progresses, I realize my Spanish isn’t the only thing that’s out-of-practice. I’ve forgotten how to learn.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy learning. I love reading books, going on historical tours, watching documentaries. But I’m bad at it, because I make everything about me. When a tour guide talks about local history, I usually latch on to the first interesting tidbit they mention, then drift off into daydreams—thinking about how I could use that factoid in a story, or how it intersects with other facts I’ve heard.

I stop listening.

And sure, I remember that particular tidbit very well. I file it away in long-term memory and I trot it out whenever someone mentions they’re about to visit that place or go on that tour. Usually it’s even interesting (or at least, I think so).

But I’m missing the point. I’ve focused on one aspect of the story instead of absorbing the whole narrative. I’m trying to see everything through my own lens.

Technically, it’s impossible to experience anyone else’s world. We can only rely on our own perceptions, experiences, lifetimes. But just because it’s impossible doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Understanding is the building block of empathy, compassion, expansion.

Why am I traveling around the world if I think I already know everything about it?

So I’m trying to quiet that inner voice, to listen instead of waiting for my turn to speak. 

I visited the Museo Nacional de Antropología and practiced my Spanish by reading about the ancient city of Teotihuacan, the first true metropolis in North America. I learned about the Toltec political system and the rise of the Aztecs. I learned that Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) is still spoken today, and moreover, how much it influences place names, food names, slang and other words in Spanish and even English (we have them to thank for “avocado”).

Across the Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park), I climbed up to Chapultepec Castle for the best view of Mexico City that I’ve yet to find—and to read up a bit more on the Spanish conquest and local governments before and after.

I went on a free walking tour around Coyoacán, a neighborhood I knew nothing about. It used to be a separate island, and still maintains its own distinct history, flavor, culture.

In the Mercado de Coyoacán, I ate dried crickets and churros (more on all the delicious food there next week). I experienced my first Lucha Libre event in the
Arena México and learned that hechicero means sorcerer. I met up with an old college friend and an internet friend who also works remote, whose schedule finally synced with mine (after 10 years of trying). I visited Paseo Interlomas, a Mexican mall that includes, among other things, an ice skating rink, a surprisingly pretty outdoor garden overlooking the city, and a restaurant with air hockey tables (which was sadly closed).

Along with a few other Remotes, I watched the Chef’s Table episode about Pujol, one of the best restaurants in the world, and got really excited for my reservation there (next Wednesday!). I visited the beautiful Casa de Cultura—Jesús Reyes Heroles and fell in love with the gardens (perfect spot to read a book or journal for an hour or two). I walked past Frida Kahlo’s Blue House—and learned that I’ll definitely need to book ahead if I want to go inside.

It’s been a week of new experiences, new sights and sounds and food. And that’s before my weekend in Cuba (talk about culture shock). I’m trying my best to take it all in.

Coyoacán houses are colorful and brightly decorated, usually with a ton of plants out front

Mercado de Coyoacán (try the crickets—seriously!)

Street Saint in Coyoacán (a common feature on the street corners in that neighborhood)

Christmas Piñatas (distinguishable from normal piñatas by the star design—the pointed cones originally represented the 7 deadly sins)

Coyoacán smelled like flowers the entire tour—this might be why

10 Things I Miss About Office Life

I haven’t been at the freelance bit long (just over 2 weeks full-time), but I am already starting to notice things I’ll miss about working a regular 9-5 office job. Nothing earth-shattering, just little day-to-day amenities that I took for granted when they were right in front of me. Now that I’m out of the office and striking forth on my own, I’ve started to notice those little things.

In case anyone else reading here is debating going freelance (or maybe already has!), I’ve put together a top 10 list.

 

10 Things I Miss About My Office:

  1. Copiers/printers/scanners. (Traveling with a printer is impossible, and you’d be surprised how quickly those little per-page fees add up. Not to mention the lack of multi-page scanners at most printing places… ugh!)
  2. Office supplies. (Where do all the pens go?! The same place missing socks vanish to?)
  3. Healthcare. (Though healthcare/travel coverage outside the U.S. from U.S.-based providers is surprisingly affordable)
  4. Mail room. (Not that I send snail mail often, but it’s nice to just be able to drop large boxes off in an outgoing mail tray…)
  5. Coworkers. (Okay, that’s the obvious one)
  6. A desk. (It’s handy to be able to leave your computer at work once in a while)
  7. IT support. (When you’re freelance, it’s up to you to fix that weird website bug!)
  8. Team happy hours/lunches. (Nothing beats the camaraderie of a team that’s all dealing with the same problem.)
  9. Free tea/coffee. (For budgetary/addiction reasons.)
  10. Leftover lunches from noon meetings. (Don’t judge me, you know we all turn into vultures around free food.)

But if that sounds dire to anybody, don’t worry, I’m not pining for home or tempted to run back to my desk. I’ve actually got a pretty great counter-list so far, after freelancing full-time for the last couple of weeks.

5 Best Things About Freelancing

  1. The hours. (Tired from a long exciting weekend? Sleep in on Monday! Who cares?)
  2. The work. (Not gonna lie, I love what I do. I make up stories for a living. Doesn’t get much better than that!)
  3. The freedom. (I am currently writing this from Mexico City, my first stop on a yearlong round-the-world tour, living in a different city every month. Hard to beat that.)
  4. The people. (I miss my Wiley fam, but I’ve met a lot of other freelancers doing awesome things this month! It’s fun to hear about new people’s projects and unique work lives.)
  5. The work. (Did I mention I make stuff up for a living?)

So for all the comfort and security of my day job that I’ll miss, I can’t say I’m regretting my decision. Weirdly, I’ve been waking up earlier than I used to for my office hours – I’m that excited to hop out of bed and start writing every day! All things considered, I made the right call going freelance. (At least, so I think after a few weeks. We’ll see how I’m feeling in a year!)

But if I needed any further confirmation, I got it when I parked myself in a bookstore here in Mexico City. I found this store in the Bosque de Chapultepec (a park near the apartment I’m renting this month), and wound up lingering in it for a few hours, writing and taking notes on future projects.

The view of the paddleboats on the lake outside, and the great selection of English and Spanish books made it difficult to leave. I definitely didn’t have an experience like that in my old office!

But hey, the freelance life isn’t for everybody, and I’m starting to understand why. There are lots of minor inconveniences. Personally, I’m just happy that it’s right for me.

Relajando: Relaxing in Mexico City

I didn’t make a New Years Resolution so much as a life goal. Last year was great for my writing career, but it turned me into a workaholic.

My 2017 goal is Balance.

I plan to concentrate on different aspects of that in each city I visit. In January, which I’m spending here in the beautiful Ciudad de México, I decided to work on slowing down – taking time each day to appreciate where I am and live in the now.

That turned out to be a fitting choice.

From the cafe my new RY roomie and I wandered into on day 1 (a local hole-in-the-wall where we ate chilaquiles, fresh papaya and a mystery breakfast of the day) to the outdoor ping pong bar and food court (a trendy smorgasbord of acai bowls, sushi, tacos and chiles rellenos that would be right at home in Williamsburg), meals here are an experience.

Much like in Europe, table service is slow, unhurried. Nobody wants to rush you, and nobody is in a hurry themselves, either. The New Yorker in me got impatient at first – I have so much writing to do! So many neighborhoods to explore and museums to visit!

But then I reminded myself of this month’s focus: Slow Down. Sit back, relax. Enjoy the great food and the even better conversation. I have a whole month here. No need to run around like crazy trying to see it all today.

Yesterday, I went for a stroll through el Bosque de Chapultepec, a park near our workspace. I explored the botanical garden inside, then stared at a map, overwhelmed. Should I visit the Museum of Anthropology, located within the park? The Modern Art Museum is also here. Or I could go into Chapultepec Castle, which looms over the whole forest and houses the National Museum of History.

I wanted to see them all. But instead of trying to rush, I followed my instincts. I was craving greenery. Instead of museum-hopping, I settled near a stream, took off my shoes, and wrote freehand. Nothing for work, just notes for future stories. Random ideas. Snippets of memories from the week.

A local stopped to ask what I was writing. That turned into an hour-long conversation about my trip, the gas riots downtown, his military career and rebound from an accident that nearly paralyzed him.

My Spanish is still rusty. I forgot how to say “lucky” (suerte, by the way) and floundered, trying to describe it for an embarrassingly long time (just try to describe what luck means without using the word itself, I dare you). But like all of the locals I’ve met here so far, he was patient.

He taught me some slang (“padre” means cool – I guess dads are finally cool now!), and gave me trip advice (the Basilica of Guadalupe is a must see, but not on the 12th of the month, her day, because it’s a madhouse). All throughout our conversation, he kept using the word relajado. To describe life in Mexico City, his job, relationships, people here on the whole.

“We know how to enjoy life with what we have,” he said (in my approximate translation). “We throw a lot of parties, we don’t work too hard. We remember to live where we are.”

So I adopted that as my word of the week:

Relajado (adj.) – calm, tranquil, relaxed. e.g.: “Este bosque me parece muy relajado.” (This forest seems very relaxing to me.)

Judging by week 1, I picked the perfect place to start living a more balanced 2017.

(By the way, if you want to see more pictures from my trip so far, I’m posting more than you could ever want on Instagram, ha.)