New York.

Arrival.

What began in my head was a two and a half month trip to Colombia and Patagonia, in Argentina and Chile. I would return home in late February to begin my job search in New York City, and return to life as it had been before. But that didn’t happen. The year 2016 became a six and a half month adventure through twelve countries in South America, North America, and the Central Caribbean.

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Saying goodbye to New York! My first photo.

People ask me what was the highlight of my trip, and I have trouble answering this. I suppose I’d have to categorize my favorite places by their best features, whether it be the culture, food, dance, the interactions I had with the local people, the times I had absorbed the beauty of the physical landscape, or the types of adventures I had with certain people. I often reply in terms of sheer beauty of Patagonia in Chile and Argentina, and the salt desert in Uyuni, Bolivia, were the most incredible. In terms of all around nightlife, sights, and culture, I enjoyed my time in Colombia the most. Iquitos, Peru and the surrounding Amazonian rainforest were the most insightful in terms of the environmental ephemerality of our world. The sunsets were endless, and I experienced the best ones in Punta del Este, Uruguay, Jericoacoara, Brasil, or Mancora, Peru. I saw more monkeys and other wildlife in the jungle regions of Costa Rica than anyplace else on my trip. I tested my physical limits in Antigua, Guatemala and I went through emotional roller coasters in Ecuador. Cuba shocked me to my core, but in a good way.

All the places I traveled to for 6.5 months.
All the places I traveled to during my 6.5 months abroad.

So what happened exactly? What comes to mind first is what my body went through in these months. I shattered my gut, at times having no choice but to eating food that I knew just didn’t sit well with me (and only truly feeling better once I returned home). I was hospitalized once from a bad experience with food. I had variety of infections, a skin fungus, sunburns, scabies, mosquito bites that at one point required a half a tube of cortisone a day to alleviate the itching, mosquito bites that turned into massive bruises, and a right knee injury that stayed with me from the time I hurt myself in December until now.

A backpacker can take a lot of discomfort, and traveling can give us an incredible amount of perspective, especially when coming upon certain luxuries that some people take for granted in their daily lives. I learned to carry toilet paper with me wherever I went for the basic reason that toilet paper is a necessity in bathroom use throughout much of the world. I learned to “use the toilet” in a variety of places: in a hostel, an outhouse, a hole in the ground, or on any given patch of grass or behind a rock. There were times when I slept in a bed at a hostel, sharing a room with 2 people to at most 14 people. But I also slept in a tent, a hammock, on a couch, in a closet, on the beach, on the floor, or in a bus. Sometimes where I slept it was too cold, sometimes it was too hot. I slept at altitudes ranging from sea level to 4500 meters above sea level. I rode shared small gypsey busses for durations ranging from 5 minutes to 12 hours. I slept in long haul busses, at the longest for 23 hours in one time and in seats ranging from the lowest economic quality to a decent 140 degree incline, and even once in a luxury 180 degree lie-flat seat. II spent 4 days without showering. A cockroach lived in my bag for a couple of days without my knowledge. Sometimes electricity was not in the day’s itinerary. Wifi was a gift, one that at times was malfunctioning but highly appreciated when available. And of course one cannot go traveling that long without any experiences with theft; I had my money and belongings stolen twice, once in Peru and the other time in Ecuador.

What did I learn? Well, I made a lot of travelers’ mistakes. I learned that in long-term travel, it is not advisable to book anything in advance, past the next 3-4 days. You never know where you’ll end up, or if you’ll want to stay a day or two longer in a particular place. This goes for plane tickets, hostel reservations, bus tickets,and short, 1-3 tour bookings. Speaking of tours, I learned that group tours for long periods of time are not for me. In fact, it was one of the few regrets I had during my trip, not having explored Patagonia on my own, the way I saw the rest of South America. I learned that I had overpacked medications for every possible scenario: unless you have a prescription medication you’ll need to take every day, most likely all medications will be available at a local pharmacy. And I found that they were far cheaper there than anywhere in the United States and Europe. For example, malaria pills are not only really inexpensive in South America, they also don’t require a prescription. I was also much too cautious about the potential altitude sickness I would have arriving in Bolivia, and so I started taking Diamox right away, which ended up doing more harm than good for me. Just simply resting, taking it slow, sleeping at a decent hour, eating well, and drinking lots of water are all you’ll need to prevent altitude sickness. One mistake I didn’t make was overpack.  I used all of what I had packed (here is my post on what exactly came with me in my backpack). Although I only had clothes for cooler climates, so I ended up throwing away some of those while I was in Brasil and buying more clothes fit for summer, for I knew I would be making my way up the continent by the end of my trip.

Yet all these illnesses, mistakes, and general discomforts combined are all still a minor piece of the totality of my travel experience. Because what, really, did I do? I danced salsa in Havana and tango in Buenos Aires. I bathed in the miraculous volcanic hotsprings in Baños. I partied with the locals in Montevideo. I hiked up a snowy, active volcano in Pucón. I saw the witches market in La Paz. I scuba dived in the cenotes of the Caribbean coast of Tulum. I surfed in Manuel Antonio. I went paragliding in Medellin. I danced in the famous Sambódromo for Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. I visited the ancient Mayan ruins in Tikal. I witnessed extreme geographical diversity as I hiked to a glacial lake in the high mountains of Huaraz and sand boarded in the hot desert of Huacachina, all within 36 hours.

This is what I did, plus a whole lot more.

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Volcan Villarrica in Pucon, Chile.
Waterfall hike near Montezuma, also on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Waterfall in Montezuma, Costa Rica.
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Paragliding in Medellin, Colombia.
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Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate, Argentina.
At the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, for Carnaval.
At the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, for Carnaval.
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Sunset in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
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Huacachina, Peru.
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Treetop swinging in Banos, Ecuador.
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Acatenango Volcano, Guatemala.
Havana, Cuba.
Havana, Cuba.
Diving through the Casa Cenote, one of the longest cave systems in the world.
Casa Cenote, Mexico.
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Uyuni Desert, Bolivia.

It truly amazes me how little I expected my travels to turn out the way they did. The turn of events and the expectations I had have shown me that each choice I made, whether they were as small as what time to move on to my destination or as impactful as deciding to continue traveling, have led me to where I am sitting right now, at this very moment, typing this post.

As I reflect on my journey I see that today it’s been 1 month and 19 days since I’ve returned home. I purposefully took this amount of time before writing anything, as I’ve decided to fully integrate myself back into living here, and to be careful not to make any judgements about myself and my surroundings until I’ve fully settled. Truth is, I can’t possibly feel fully settled; although I’ve recently returned home, I’m in a state of transition. I know that at some point in the next year I will be moving to Europe, more specifically to Berlin, to go to graduate school. I’m not living in my old home in Manhattan anymore; I’ve moved back to my mother’s house on Long Island. It’s a transition into living under someone’s roof again, and with that comes a balance of learning to keep your own space while also respecting the rules of someone else’s home. And without that freedom or that mobility of city-life, I am physically and mentally forced to take a step back, slow down, and not put myself through any pressures of being everywhere at all times.

I was lucky to have a beautiful reintroduction to New York City, with an evening flight from Cancun where outside my window I saw lightning storms, a gorgeous sunset, and a view of the Manhattan skyline. I immediately burst to tears when the plane touched down; it was as if I was holding back all my emotions until the moment when my arrival was physically real and final. I remembered when I landed at JFK in January of 2015 after traveling to Southeast Asia, when I couldn’t hold back my tears at knowing I had come back too soon, pulled back before I felt complete. But this time, I think I cried because I knew it would be quite some time before I would have the opportunity to travel long-term again. I was overwhelmed with knowing that I was going to start, at a fairly fast pace, a new phase of my life, and one that wouldn’t keep me in the United States much longer. True, I would be traveling someplace else in the near future, but in a different sort of way. And despite the sadness, I also felt a release of that past phase. It was an emotional shedding of the old and an acceptance of the unknown future.

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Views from my flight coming back to New York.

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When I first saw the New York City skyline from the car a few days after settling back in Long Island, the hairs on my arms raised and I felt goosebumps across my skin. New York truly is a beautiful city. And the first stop I made was to my old apartment in Battery Park City to pick up a few things I left there. I greeted my roommate and stepped inside; that moment was entirely surreal to me. Nothing had changed. I walked over to my window, watching the sun setting over Jersey City, the Hudson River reflecting the pink glow in the sky, the piers dotted with mega yachts and people running and biking along the boardwalk. I smiled as I remembered my time spent in the apartment, and the knowledge that I couldn’t move back did tug at me. I felt for one moment the desire to sit on my bed and say, “Okay, living with you seemed like fun mom, but, I think I’m going to go and find a job tomorrow and start living here again. See you later!” But that moment passed. Because as much I tried to feel like I was home again, I couldn’t. It felt incredible to go back and see just how much I made my life in New York, in that apartment, my home. But I was a visitor now, and if I had to go back in time and choose whether I would go on this journey for as long as I did, or remain in my apartment as a local, I would do exactly what I had done ten times over again.

That was at the end of June. And now it’s early August, and I am getting ready to leave the country yet again, this time to Brasil for the Olympic Games in Rio. This time not as a solo backpacker, rather with my family on a vacation that was planned nearly two years ago. Just a week ago, I was sitting outside in my backyard reading a copy of E.B. White’s famous essay, Here is New York. Interestingly I had the book sitting in my room for over four months before I even left the country in December, and yet I only picked it up now to read for the first time. At after each and every page I wanted to put the book down, get someone’s attention and cry out, “How has no one ever made me read this before!” It made one thousand percent sense to me, what E.B. White had written. And even more so being that he wrote his reflections on New York City (namely Manhattan) from the perspective of an outsider, someone who had gone to the city young and bright-eyed, lived life to its fullest there, and has since left the craze for a quieter, more comfortable life in the country. I was amazed that what he wrote can describe the city right at this very moment, even though it was written in the summer of 1948, as he describes it as both “changeless yet changing.” It’s interesting to me that I found myself reading this after deciding to formally leave New York and after deciding to try living in Europe for some time. I think that if I read this essay when I first purchased the book, while living in that apartment in Battery Park City, I wouldn’t have felt the same connection with White as I do now. Because now I guess you could say I am an outsider, too. And with a whole bucket list of experiences to back me up, from not only my time in South America but from all my travels since I was a child, I am absolutely ready for what’s next.

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Hang-gliding in Rio de Janeiro.

Havana.

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The energy I felt within 24 hours of arriving in Havana was overwhelming, exhilarating, and surprisingly enlightening. In Cuba, you’re truly thrown back into the past. You’re given a glimpse of what life may have been like when technology and branding didn’t rule our lives. When mobile phones weren’t constantly occupying our right hand and our line of vision while we walked on the street, when computers stayed fixed in a household’s “computer room.” When advertisements were saved only for billboards and television commercials, and weren’t an ever-present force. In Havana, people walk on the streets and know one another. Whether they may be friends, neighbors, or enemies, they know each other business; they know what happens on their streets. People are awake, alert, and living. They stop and speak to one another, really look the other in the other’s eyes, and have a conversation. There are few mobile phones around to disturb their conversations, no Instagram push notification or Facebook comment they must attend to right away. The locals are having real conversation about the day-to-day in their lives, or the gossip heard the other day about their elusive neighbor. Having that escape from being online and from being connected to the world actually brings you even closer to your own city. And as a tourist, I was brought into the Cubans’ world, whether they wished it or not, and I felt a closeness with the country’s energy that I hadn’t felt in the same way in any other place I had visited before on my travels. And so, this post is special to me in that as I describe my much too short eleven day sojourn there, I recall how the country made me feel, and how I truly fell in love with Cuba as I never thought I would.

I have to admit I was incredibly nervous when I landed at José Martí International Airport. Thankfully by this point I was not backpacking solo; I was told by other backpackers that it was not recommended to travel alone, and as things always seem to work out in the way they should, I found myself traveling with my old companion, the one from my days in Peru. But I was still anxious about what I was going to be met with in Cuba. I was prepared for the worst: inability to tap into cash when needed, exchanging money at alarmingly high rates, excessive cat-calling, long lines for just about everything, scammers, terrible food and borderline starvation for lack thereof, being lost without internet or ways to obtain tourist information, poor accommodations and unfriendly hosts, and numerous other bits and pieces that travelers had warned me about. All the people I had met either hated Cuba, or loved it but with a little asterisk, a sort of aside that meant it was a difficult kind of love, a tug of the heart, an obstacle that they overcame and in the end felt good about. My heart was beating out of my chest, and I was visibly nervous and scatter brained when we walked through to immigration and customs. I was sure that we would have issues at immigration, despite the fact that I was using my Brazilian passport. But, we passed through quite easily. We arrived at night, and in the typical Cuban way we didn’t book any accommodation – we only had the card of a casa particular that a backpacker recommended to me. We took a taxi to old Havana, where we found the casa. Old Havana’s buildings are sadly falling apart, but retain their charm from the prosperous years. But this casa was a little gem in the city. More about our host in Havana a little later.

Havana was by far one of the most fascinating capital cities I have visited. The extremes of the rich and the poor, of the locals and tourists, are immense. Their dual currency, the CUC (foreign Cuban Convertible Pesos currency) and CUP (local Cuban pesos), heightened this dichotomy. The CUC, although used for foreigners, is also used by locals for specific purchases, such as bottled water, household furnishings, and real estate. In the upscale residential neighborhoods of Havana such as in Vedado, you can go to a bar and pay twelve dollars for a cocktail. At El Floridita in Old Havana, world famous for their daiquiris and catered exclusively to tourists, you’ll be short six dollars for the rum and lime juice concoction. El Floridita also highlights Cubans’ obsession with Ernest Hemingway, the writer who spent a great deal of time in the country. Various places claim to have hosted Hemingway at some point during his stay in Cuba, including El Floridita, where he spent time writing and drinking, as he always did in the likes of New York and Paris. Hemingway also visited the bar called La Bodeguita del Medio, which lays claim to being the birthplace of the Mojito. Salvador Allende, Pablo Naruda, and other personalities have been known to patronize this bar as well.

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El Floridita bar next to old Havana’s architecture.
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“Coco” taxis waiting outside El Floridita.
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Tours of the city can be done in these old cars, parked outside the Gran Teatro.
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Old Havana.
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Images of Che Guevara everywhere in old Havana.

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Visiting the famous La Coppelia ice cream parlor was a sad and eye-opening experience for me. Local Cubans can pay an astoundingly low one penny per scoop of ice cream, but at the cost of waiting over 2 hours in line to be able to do so. As we walked towards the shop and saw the line, my heart sank. I was afraid I would never try the ice cream as I wouldn’t want to wait on the line. However, as we neared, we were called after by employees, asking if we spoke English, and then waved over to a nearby area. We pass the line and the main entrance, walk up the side stairs, and enter a nondescript door. Inside is an air-conditioned, empty ice cream parlor with old fashioned photos and three employees waiting to serve us. We sat down, ordered, and and promptly served two scoops of strawberry and vanilla ice cream. I was uncomfortable and frustrated by the outright exclusivity of it all, yet satisfied by the delicious flavors. We left after twenty minutes, and I felt guilty for passing the locals in line, eyeing us knowing that we had just finished having our share of the dessert so loved by Cubans. And, how much did this special VIP treatment cost us? The ice cream cost two dollars and fifty cents per person.

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Locals waiting outside for La Coppelia ice cream.
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Inside the foreigner’s ice cream parlor at La Coppelia.
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Image of Che Guevara in Revolution Square.

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Transportation is another divider amongst the rich and the poor. A taxi ride from Old Havana to the upscale town of Vedado cost about ten dollars, whether or not you take an old car or a regular yellow taxi. A ride in an old car that’s been exquisitely and expensively kept will cost about thirty dollars for a day ride through town. The quality of the highways are very high, but this is because there are so few cars on them. It is expensive to travel from city to city. A driver we met had never been to Cienfuegos, four hours from his hometown of Havana. Our “Mama,” our host in Havana, was from Pinar del Rio, but hadn’t visited her hometown in years, even though it is only three and a half hours away from Havana. And leaving Cuba for vacation is out of the question except for the ultra-rich. In order to get a visa to visit another country, Cubans must show sufficient funds, which they almost never have. We learned that a lot of Cubans have family in the United States, and some in parts of Europe. It is very difficult to obtain a visa for them to visit their family, even if the family promises to pay for their airfare and to support them financially during their stay. Especially owning a car in Cuba is a costly luxury. Not only is the price of gasoline high (diesel being less expensive means that most cars’ engines are switched out to accept diesel fuel), but the prices of cars are disproportionately high to their value elsewhere in the world. For example, we rode in a taxi driver’s used Peugeot from the year 2000 and with over 500,000 kilometers on the odometer, which he told us was worth about 15,000 dollars. In the United States this same car wouldn’t cost more than one thousand dollars.

A ride around Havana is a beautiful thing to do, especially along the Malecon at night, where you’ll whizz by hundreds of people hanging out on the esplanade, looking to the sea. Havana’s crazy nightlife starts and ends here, with a few drinks along the boardwalk at all hours of the night and early morning. Some nightlife options for tourists and upper class Cubans include a well-known Thursday salsa dancing night at Jardines del 1830 and grabbing drinks and looking at new art exhibitions at the Art Factory in Vedado. You’ll find both locals and tourists at both these places, but there are an endless amount of options that are exclusive to tourists merely based on the price of entry and cost of drinks.

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The Malecon.

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Speaking of our “Mama,” she was our warm and delightful host at the casa particular we stayed in, in Havana. It was with her that we learned about her life as a Cuban and her thoughts on the visible changes happening in her country. It was with her that we had a place to sleep, food to eat, laughs, and where I realized that I was already in love with her city, with the wild west of Havana. She is a nurse, working six days a week from 7am to 6pm each day. She doesn’t earn much, but is content with her life. She earns well for she uses her home as supplemental income. She is not happy with how Cuba has made things difficult for her, such as seeing and learning more of the world, but she is hopeful for change. She also feels that having the country open to the United States will be better for business overall, and she welcomes it. I don’t think she realizes, as none of us really do, to what extent having open doors to Americans will change Cuban culture and lifestyle. The brand-less, unwired, time-warp of a city won’t stay that way for very long.

A casa particular is truly the only way to properly get to know Cuba. A hotel, although more comfortable, is not only much more expensive but it is not the honest way to meet locals and to see how they live. It’s also a new way to support local businesses and individual families. A casa costs between fifteen and twenty-five dollars per night in Cuba, some including breakfast. Anyone with an officially registered casa has a special symbol on their door, and they must report to the government their monthly earnings, paying a tax to them regardless of whether they had any guests or not that month. And, local food is best found at casas, where the women cook the traditional dishes made legend in other cities where Cuban restaurants are plenty, such as in New York. You won’t get the lobster or the steak, which are illegal to purchase by residents (although you can buy lobster at any upscale restaurant, they just won’t list it on the menu), but you will try their vegetables, rice, pork and chicken, and fruit. You can even visit any casa that you’re not staying in and have dinner – most families would be happy to prepare food for you, for around five to ten dollars. Almost every home has multiple rocking chairs, whether in people’s living rooms on their front porches.

I am sure you are as shocked as I am to read this – it is true that the average wage the Cuban government gives to each person, to account for food and shelter and water for the month, is fifteen dollars. That’s it. To give some perspective on what the costs are for Cubans, equivalent in CUP, food from a sidewalk window shop would be one dollar for a ham and cheese sandwich, bananas from the local market cost four cents, one pound of a pork’s leg is less than two dollars, electricity/utilities about five dollars per month, ice cream is about fifteen cents per scoop, bread was ten cents, the National Granma newspaper costs about two and a half cents. I saw a beautiful modern dance performance at the Gran Teatro de La Habana, the Havana Grand Theater. Here, a ticket for a local is one dollar for any seat. As a tourist, I paid thirty dollars.

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The Gran Teatro de la Habana by night.

These staggering differences prices are quite normal – entries to museums, theaters, transportation, market prices, and any attractions are exponentially higher for tourists. Although some necessities are still too expensive for locals, as is evident by a trip to a supermarket. The water in Cuba is very poor – it is actually poisonous. Cubans are forced to drink bottled water, and can only purchase this in the tourist current, the CUC. It costs about one dollar fifty for a bottle of water. Milk is about two dollars, household items like lamps and plastic storage containers can cost up to fifteen dollars, a lock is five dollars, a lamp between twenty and thirty dollars, a screwdriver three dollars, Butter (one small square costs ten cents) and olives (a small pack costs seventy-five cents) are among the more scarce items, seen behind a glass container at the supermarket, sharing the same space as alcohol and cigarettes. Toilet paper and napkins are also highly priced. There are little items in terms of brand named cookies, snacks, and the like – rather, a trip to the ice cream shop is what satisfies the very sweet-toothed Cuban. Cubans love sugar. Everything they consume as loads of sugar in it – coffee, fruit juice, ice cream, and the two drinks Cuba is known for: daquiris and mojitos. Havana Club rum was seven dollars a liter, beer between one and a half and three dollars a bottle. Cuban cigars range from one dollar sixty to nine dollars per cigar, depending on the quality.

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A typically bare supermarket.
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Local markets offer limited meat, mainly pork.
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Local market.

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Communication is quite costly too, for both locals and tourists. It’s a humorous timewarp with all things “internet.” In order to access the internet, you must go to a hotel or an ETECSA shop and purchase a card with a unique number. This costs about two to three dollars per hour. You then log in to the wifi and enter the number – you can use the one hour as many times as you want, just having to log out to stop the timer. However, wifi only exists in public parks and squares; you’ll notice if a park has wifi when you see tourists crowded together looking down at their phones, or Cubans in business suits on their laptops writing emails.

Oh, a post about Cuba isn’t complete without a brief mention of their cigars! Truly, even as non-cigar smoker, trying the various types of cigars was a pleasure. Cohiba cigars were without a doubt the highest quality, and they’re a relatively inexpensive and fun gift to bring back home. The United States now allows up to 100 dollars worth of tobacco and alcohol from Cuba to be brought into the country.

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You probably haven’t heard of José Martí. The airport is named after him, there are museums in old Havana dedicated to his life and place of his birth, his face is on the local Cuban currency, and he is visible in almost every small town in some form, whether it be a statue in the main square or on propaganda posters. He is quite an important figure for the Cuban people. He was a poet who fought and died for his country during the Cuban War of Independence from Spain in 1895. Fidel Castro has long since used him as a symbol for Cubans, interestingly adding his image and words in almost every town in the country, rather than having his own face and slogans. And the subliminal propaganda works; by the time I had left Cuba I was not only convinced that José Martí was pivotal in the war, even though he died on his first day in battle, but I was also strangely reminded of Fidel Castro’s importance and reign during the 20th century, and his longstanding stronghold over every single element of the Cuban people’s lives. In Havana, there is a statue of José Martí shielding a baby in his arms and pointing a finger directly across a square. This building, a few meters away, happens to be the United States Embassy (what used to be the US Special Interests building has recently re-opened as the Embassy, since the United States and Cuba began negotiations again). What an incredible (and quite hilarious) message Castro has given to Cubans. Despite an Embassy being there, José Martí, the symbol of fighting for Cuba, will shield the coming generations from the wrath of the American influence.

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The statue of Jose Marti in front of the US Embassy in the background.

There was so much more to Cuba than Havana or, as many Canadians may be familiar with, the pristine beaches and large all-inclusive resorts of Varadero. We didn’t even visit Varadero; instead, my friend and I decided to venture around the west side of the island. First, we made our way to Trinidad, the colorful colonial town founded in 1514. My fascination with the old cars continued as I frantically snapped photos of the cars against the colored walls. In Trinidad we stayed in an entirely different sort of casa particular, a family with a larger home and multiple bedroom/bath ensuites, and a rooftop overlooking the town. A larger casa, a more elaborate breakfast, with fresh guava juice, mangos and pineapple, eggs, bread, butter, coffee, cheese, and guava sweets, but also a more reserved family, one that wasn’t excited to talk about their lives or learn about ours. Trinidad was certainly a less happy place than Havana, and we found that although most of their business is derived from Tourism, they don’t welcome it the way they do in Havana. And they’re not as talkative – in Havana we were met with so many people who came up to speak with us, and not for any reason other than to welcome us to their city, and to offer advice on areas to see and educate us on Cuban culture.

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View of central Trinidad from our casa.

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Our next stop was Viñales, home to tobacco farms, caves, and mountains lining the Viñales Valley, located in the north western part of the country. The areas of Cuba I had visited thus far were flat, connected by a single highway road, noticeably desolate as Cubans lack the means to leave their towns. The only cars visible were taxis, and the roads were mostly busy with tourist busses by the same company called Viazul. Viñales itself is a small, largely touristic town. The closest major city is about thirty minutes away, Pinar del Rio. We rented a motorbike to explore the surrounding countryside and to take in the viewpoints. We also rode to the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas, the largest cave in Cuba and the second largest in Central America, and did a torchlight tour of the interior. We were surprised how few visitors there were to this cave, one that seemed to be far more interesting than the other nearby caves such as Cueva de la Piscina or Cueva del Indio. Having a motorbike allowed us to travel to farther distances without having to worry about booking tours; we also rode about two and a half hours to a Cayo Jutias, a secluded beach along the coast. We passed through small villages, each one melting into another as they had similar layouts, and all with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro posters and slogans, as well as José Martí statues protruding from the center squares.

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Che Guevara propaganda seen en route to a small village outside of Viñales.
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Our casa particular in Viñales.
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The main bakery in Viñales.

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Viñales has beautiful countryside and farmland, still tilled by ox and managed by horses. It’s a flashback to the past, to a country western movie where there is no rush for anything. There’s nowhere to be but right now, at the very moment, tilling the land. The people are friendlier than in Trinidad but still more reserved than in Havana. What stood out for me apart from the landscape was the food – I was blown away by the perception that you cannot eat well in Cuba. In fact, I had tried some lovely dinners in Viñales with seafood and fresh vegetables, two things I thought were scarce. I should note, however, that these two items may not be as easily accessible to locals, who may not afford it. I was eating at a delicious restaurant, and did occasionally go to restaurants during my stay in Cuba, but unfortunately the patrons were mostly tourists. The few Cubans I saw were in Havana, and they looked extremely well-off and fortunate to be able to dine at a restaurant. It hurt me to know that this food would never be eaten by a local Cuban. A typical dinner dish cost between eight and twelve dollars, which by New York standards is cheap. But for a Cuban, who makes the equivalent of fifteen dollars a month, this luxury outing would be impossible.

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Viñales countryside.
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Inside the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas.
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Climbing the caverna.
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A seafood meal in Viñales.

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We spent our last two days back in Havana, and I had revisited what I loved about the city when I first arrived. I left the country with every intention of returning, more curious than ever before about the changes that await Cuba, and what the effects of American tourism will actually mean for its people. I realize that although my eyes were blinded by only what I as a tourist could see, I knew that the reality Cuban history and dictatorship still remains. As we went through immigration, side by side with some Cubans who clearly were leaving their country for the first time, I knew how fortunate I was to travel, to see the world. To leave the island I live in, the not so little island of Manhattan. I went through their duty free store to spend my remaining Cuban currency, and to my dismay I saw all the items that were missing in their stores all around their country: oreo cookies, chocolate bars, branded candy snacks, foreign spirits and whiskey. These goods were not even physically 30 kilometers away from Havana residents, and some people would never know they existed. And, even if the rich Cubans could afford it, they wouldn’t readily have access to these products unless they too have the same gift that so many of us have, the gift of mobility. The gift of leaving your home country to explore another. The ability to travel and bring back memories of a place, so strange.

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Manú.

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After Bolivia I made my way to Peru for the second time (I wrote a post about my trip to Peru over a year ago, which you can read here). My intentions in Peru from the beginning were the areas of the country that are usually visited when there’s enough in someone’s vacation after Machu Picchu, Cusco, and Lima. These include the desert, the central Andes mountain ranges, the northern coast, and the northwest amazon (which includes the well known city of Iquitos in northeastern Peru). After arriving in Cusco I decided to take a four day tour through the southwest rainforest in Manú. Manú National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site biosphere reserve covering an area of 15,328 square kilometers. The park protects ecological zones that range in altitude, from as low as 150 meters above sea level to the Central Andean high selva, or jungle, at 4200 meters. Because of this topographical range, Manú has one of the highest levels of biodiversity of any park in the world.

Our first day we began our 10 hour bus ride at 6am in Cusco. We passed the town of Paucartambo and then descended the high selva cloud forest at 3400 meters above sea level all the way down to 500 meters to the jungle town of Pilcopata. As we rode through the highlands, beginning in the cold, dry, classically Peruvian terraced mountains that later became the flat, lush, humid, hot jungle, I had some time to watch the vast changes in landscape to reflect on my travels thus far, which had totaled three months and eighteen days.

A tamarin monkey jumped to my lap at the animal conservatory in Manu.
A tamarin monkey jumped to my lap at an animal conservatory in Manu.

In December, I realized I wanted to go back to school. I never thought that I would even consider graduate school, but there I was hiking in the gorgeous Patagonian mountains in Argentina and thinking about going back to the student lifestyle. And the more I thought about graduate school, the more I was drawn to studying abroad in Europe, specifically in Berlin. And so after I left Recife at the end of February, I decided I was going to apply for a Masters in International Affairs program in Berlin. I’ve applied and am awaiting a reply — I will know soon enough if my life is about to change drastically. I may be leaving New York in September to go to Berlin, and for two years, at least. If I don’t get accepted into this program, I will honestly be okay with it. It does not, however, change my intentions to move to Europe to obtain a masters degree. It may happen in the following winter or spring semesters, but it is something I feel I must do. I love New York City and I know it will always be there for me when I return, just as it was when I moved to Washington DC for my undergraduate degree, when I moved to Paris for my exchange program, and whenever I leave to travel for long periods of time. I am not afraid of packing up and settling into an unknown place. What I don’t know right now is the exact context of my moving to Europe. Will I be changing careers and studying international relations? Is this even what I want to do? Or will I be taking the slightly more comfortable route of receiving a masters in business at a lesser known school in Berlin that caters to foreigners? Or, will I move there to work for a startup, and study for a master’s degree part time? Depending on my moving timeline, what will I be doing in NYC to earn a living? Should I find a full time job or just work on some side projects?

As of now, I know that I will be moving to Europe for some time. I need this change. I left my apartment in Manhattan initially to sublease it for three months, which then turned into six months, and as of almost a month ago I told my roommate I wasn’t coming back to the city. My mother went to the apartment and moved out almost everything that I had left behind. Thinking about it now, I didn’t have the chance to really say goodbye to my life at that apartment that I called home for the last three years. I didn’t tell my doormen, I didn’t say anything to the local businesses that I frequented in the area. I left my life there while I was already gone, and maybe that’s the best way to do things anyhow. I am devastated that I won’t have a place to go back to when I return, and that I will have to come back to my mother’s home, which I know will be extremely challenging for me. I won’t have the freedom I had in the city; I won’t even have a car. But I know that is the sacrifice I have to make so that I can still travel and save enough money to be able to live abroad again. And, hopefully with the help of some friends, I can stay in the city here and there when I need to.

I am not at all sure what’s next for me in the very near future, and it’s often overwhelming to think about. It’s crazy to think that I am even going through this process in of all places in the amazon rainforest, more than halfway through my travels. Applying for graduate school is not an easy task at home, let alone at random cafes in Bolivia and Peru with terrible WiFi. Moving out of your home is not something to be taken lightly, and here I am moving out of my beloved apartment virtually, without even closing my front door for the last time.

And so in rainforest my thoughts kept coming back to what the real purpose has been for me to travel right at this moment in my life. I thought, this is what traveling is all about. It’s a lot of work. It’s a roller coaster of emotions. It’s one day of feeling absolutely free to the next feeling completely strangled. It’s yesterday having a clear head and moving in a straight line to tomorrow feeling cloudy and sensing you’ve only made the wrong turn and nearly falling off a cliff. At that moment in the car, I was feeling all the extremes at once; it was like I was revisiting the drastic weather changes in Patagonia all over again.  It felt like I was waiting for everything to make sense somehow in an instant, a sign that some higher power was in control of my destiny and was going to make all the decisions for me. I was searching for the moment where I would feel that same relief I felt when I realized on Christmas Eve that I wasn’t coming home in February when I was supposed to. It was such a bright and beautiful feeling.

So much has happened since that day, it’s hard to believe it was only a few months ago. It’s funny how when traveling, although we may be visiting a certain place at a slower pace than those who are going for a two-week vacation, we make decisions quicker. I’ve made big decisions more rapidly and with far more conviction than when I was stuck in the day-to-day at home. It’s because I am removed from that routine, and with that comes a far greater perspective, concentration, and clarity. I couldn’t have dreamed my travels would turn out the way that they have so far. And what’s even more scary and beautiful all at the same time is that I’m not even close to finished yet. I suppose that means I still have some more traveling to do – and some more big decisions to make. Stay tuned.

 

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A tapir wandering about the animal conservatory, our last stop before arriving in Pilcopata.

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Hoatzin birds at lake Machuwasi.
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Lake Machuwasi
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Paititi Lodge, a 30 minute boat ride from the Port of Atalaya, Manu’s last town accessible by land. Our lodge had a view of the Madre de Dios river, which we used every day to explore deeper into the jungle.

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We came across fresh jaguar paw prints imprinted into mud on a morning hike.
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We woke at 5am for a pre-sunrise boat ride along the Madre de Dios River.

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