Welcome to the space where I share what I am up to. (scroll below this for the latest post)
On this blog I post my latest photos, music I am discovering, thoughts that cross my mind, work-related issues, travels and other randomness. It’s like a personal diary that I share with those interested in what I do – but also where I archive memories for myself. Things in here can be serious or not – mostly they are just random updates. Anyhow, I’m here – so if you want to get in touch or ask a question, feel free to send me an email via the contact form!
We had rented a car in La Habana already before we landed, as there apparently are very few rental cars on the island and it isn’t easy to get one. This was confirmed by the online agencies since only one managed to get us a car. It wasn’t too bad but it certainly wasn’t cheap, we paid about 350usd for the car including gas, insurance and free miles for the three days that we would have it. It would have been cheaper to get it on site, but it would also have been risking not getting a car at all, an option we couldn’t go for with our tight schedule.
Online and in guidebooks, people warned about how difficult it would be to drive in Cuba, no road signs, bad roads, bad drivers, they complained – but we saw none of that. While getting out of La Habana was a bit tricky, getting to Trinidad was a piece of cake once we had gotten out on the road. The road sides were full of colourful political propaganda with shout-outs to Chavez, Mandela, and of course Fidel, animals and fruit sellers made driving through villages interesting, and the empty landscapes were vast and beautiful. Driving felt great, and we could stop whenever we wanted, take photos and just be free – considering the fact that the 4 hour drive we did to Trinidad would take at least 6 hours (and 50usd pp) by bus to go, and 11 hours to come back, we definitely saved time, so the price for renting the car was well worth the extra 200usd.
Before taking off, we took a last little stroll around La Habana and found the Taller Experimental de Gráfica de La Habana just by Plaza Catedral, “Founded in 1962 by mural artist Orlando Suarez with the support of Che Guevara, who was the minister of industry at the time, this studio/workshop is still thriving today.” (source) A nice injection of modern Cuban graphic art, different from the things we saw for sale on the street. This was the real deal.
As if La Habana couldn’t get even more interesting, we decided to take a walk around the malecón at night. The seashore drive where lovers, friends and just about any kind of night-loving Habanero meet to hang out after hours. Be it for drinking Havana Gold rum and singing, be it for kissing and holding hands, be it for meditating and thinking, be it for fishing, the people spend hours by the waterfront, and it’s a beautiful and calming midnight walk – great for meeting people that seem completely unbothered by your presence. I didn’t feel like an annoying tourist with a big camera at the malecón, I was just part of the vibe.
After our walk by the malecón, we took a stroll on the little cobblestone streets close to where we were staying in Old Havana. By one of the entrances to a big old building, we met Wilbert who was sitting outside on the street, cooling off in the night breeze. Wilbert had Che Guevara tattooed on his arm and invited us to come in and have a look at his building from the inside, where he explained that more than 200 people live. We walked through the maze of corridors, stairs and cables and peeked through open front doors where people were watching TV and having dinner in tiny 15sqm windowless apartments. They were tightly squeezed together like little Tetris boxes and all free of rent according to Wilbert (yet each apparently with their own electricity meter and water bills.) People looked up from the TV when we passed and smiled politely, “good evening” they said as we passed, I felt a bit awkward on this “tour” of people’s intimate lives, but it was very interesting to get an insight and Wilbert seemed very pleased to show us around on his own initiative. Most importantly, this really wasn’t like one of those scams where people show you staged realities for money, Wilbert just seemed to sense our genuine curiosity and was happy to introduce us to how he and his fellow Habaneros live like. On the way out, Wilbert wanted to also show us his own apartment where he had a living room, a TV and sound system, a nice little kitchen and his own shower. “I sleep on the floor because it’s too hot upstairs, but this is a good place for me, I like it” Wilbert explained, and seemed to really like his place as he showed us the different things that he had in there, a small altar with pictures of saints and glasses of holy water, his DVD player, his aquarium. “I live here alone, so it’s actually quite big for me, but it’s really good – this is one of the nicer apartments.” Wilbert told us that he works at the cigar factory where he earns 10cuc (10usd) and 300cup (12usd) monthly. This is enough for him to get by, even though he said things can get a bit tough sometimes. We said bye, shook hands, thanked Wilbert for his kindness and hospitality, and walked back to our hotel.
As soon as La Habana found us strolling around without plans and open to what she had to offer, the city pulled us straight into her warm nightly embrace and showed us her innermost core. The people of the night were calmer, more open and warmer than those of the day. The buzz was slower, the light was a dull yellow and the cats owned the streets. Most of all, La Habana felt very safe and comforting at night, a place where you just want to slowly walk in whichever direction intuition pulls you, and become a natural part of the city.
On our first morning in La Habana we woke up with a lot of eagerness to get out and start exploring the surroundings – we wanted to see more, meet more people, and walk all of it. This was when Cuba was going to show us, for the first time, the eclecticism of it’s essence – the colours, the architecture, the old American cars that look brand new, the people with golden teeth and aggressively vibrant fashion statements, the mojitos, the tourist traps, and all the posers who walk around town trying to trick you into taking their picture just so that they then can tell you that you now have to pay them.
It was exciting, interesting and packed with contrasts. People queuing for rice and overpriced soap, empty shelves in the grocery stores, the long lines to different offices and people begging for the most random things such as pens and toilet paper. My mother would sometimes say “this is just like Poland when I was young” and the communism vibe could certainly be felt and seen all over the place – the US blockade was on big posters portrayed as the ultimate evil that was the reason for all of the people’s suffering, it was referred to as “the longest genocide in the history of mankind” – no mention of the complete lack of private commerce as per Castro’s ideology, even though people insisted to tell us how they really felt about communism as soon as they got the opportunity to catch us where nobody else was listening. It was quite bizarre yet, interesting. Imagine streets in the middle of the tourist centre and economic centre, packed with people, but almost no boutiques or shops in sight other than those selling art or souvenirs, or government run food stores. To further explain it – we noticed three shoe shops during our entire stay in Cuba, and entered only one shop with clothes (where everything was VERY expensive) – an interesting contrast to the ultra consumerism one is used to seeing.
After a couple of hours of walking, (my phone says did 25km that day!) we ended up on the pretty Plaza Vieja where we sat down next to a very nice Uruguayan couple in the old brewery and had a couple of drinks and some food by the band that was playing “Guantanamera and the hits”. We continued walking and made our way to La Bodeguita del Medio, the ultra-famous little bar where Hemingway supposedly used to have his mojitos, and where a mojito therefore costs 5CUC (5USD) rather than the usual 3, and where tourists and dressed up Cubans gather to get the perfect selfie. We sat down for a while as a band was playing “Guantanamera” (haha, okay, I’m going to stop now – you’re getting it, right?) and looked at people. When it got a bit calmer I went out for a while to talk to Luz, one of the girls that was standing next to the bar and taking photos with the tourists, dressed up as a ridiculed version of one of the traditional African groups. “I don’t want to take your photo for money,” I explained, “I just want to hear why you’re doing this.” Luz told me that she had dropped out of school, because she would make maximum 300CUC if she had finished her education, while she was making 600CUC right here, on the street. “The outfit is just a joke,” she explained, “tourists like it.” She explained how you must get a license from the government to do the job of “having your photo taken” and that she has to give away a significant part of her income, “if I don’t have the license they will put me in jail.” she said, and then insisted I take her photo anyway, and posed. “Maybe somebody will find your photo on the internet and put it in a magazine – and I will become famous. Come on, snap it!”
“You’re from Poland!” another dressed up man with a big white beard and oversized fake cigar came by. “Look, I was featured on the front cover of the National Geographic Polska, I’m a millionaire now! Take a picture – it’s free!”
I was more interested in photographing the real people, though. Alan with the cool flowershirt and big sunglasses. Urbano, who runs his bicycle taxi and is 48 years old even though he looks much younger. Luis Ibañez, the gentleman reading his paper in the bar, and the cool girl above, with her red contacts and little puppy – a teenager hungering for attention just like anywhere in the world, only maybe a little bit more “all in” in her style.
My mother and I traveled to Cuba two weeks ago. I had the country on my list of must-go’s for a couple of years and was desperate to go see it now before I leave the continent and before it changes too much with the newly established US relations. The amount of stories to tell is huge, and people in Cuba were both happy to be photographed and very eager to talk, so it was absolute bliss to walk around with the camera and just take in all the colours, contrasts, details and beautiful personalities.
I’ll give you a couple of photos at a time so that it doesn’t become too overwhelming, and I’ll try sharing some tips and information for those who want to make their way to Cuba as well. All of the Cuba related posts will be found in the Cuba 2015 category. :) And all of this falls under Travels with Mom, as usual, a category that I hope to continue expanding for years to come – my mom is a great travel partner and photography assistant. :)
We arrived in La Habana after a short flight from Cancun and very long bus ride from Belize City. The ADO bus from Belize City leaves at 7.30pm and is freezing cold (sweatpants, thick winter socks and blankets kind of cold) and you don’t really get to sleep as the border crossing takes forever and the bus stops several times (you even have to get out at one point in Mexico to pay the “rest of your busticket” in an ADO office in the middle of the night..). The bus arrives in Cancun airport at around 7am, a time when there’s not much to do other than freshen up and have breakfast. Flights to La Habana leave at 1pm if you fly with the convenient and cheap Interjet (we paid 450USD for two round trip tickets) and when we were there you could get your Cuban tourist visa card at the airport if you were flying with them. We didn’t know that and had our visa cards from Sweden which turned out a bit more expensive, but it was the safe way to go as you get turned back at the check-in counter without the tourist card.
Upon arriving, we exchanged money in the airport at one of the official CADECA windows, USD have a 10% penalty so bring Euros or even Mexican pesos or Yen. The money deal is a bit complicated in Cuba – you have the CUC (peso convertible) and CUP (moneda nacional), the CUC is about equivalent to the USD, while the CUP is at about 24 for one CUC. In hotels, restaurants, taxis and most things that are geared towards tourists, you pay with CUC. A bottle of water is 1CUC, a meal is about 10, a mojito is 3. The CUP is only used in local shops and as some Cubans say “to but things of lower quality” – so cheaper things. We only got CUP for the equivalent of 5USD and actually only used them once when we got my mother ice cream in a small village for 1 CUP, and when I got churros on the street for 5CUP. Things are sometimes “cheaper” in CUP, but if you’re not going for long it’s easier to just stick to the peso convertible (CUC) and keep an eye on the change you get so that it’s CUC and not CUP, the currencies look very much alike. In terms of credit cards, most places and ATMs only accept VISA cards, and no places accept any American Bank issued cards. In general, cash is king.
We took a cab from the airport (30min, 25CUC) and made our way to our hotel in Old Havana, and hung out for a while (completely exhausted from that overnight bus) before heading out for a walk in the old town and then a show by the Buena Vista Social Club. The real deal. The show was 30CUC with mojitos included, and with dinner included it was 50CUC but the food was an absolute joke. The entire thing was a tourist trap, obviously, but the artists, (Omara Peláez, 83, was there) their voices and the songs were authentic, so we really enjoyed the evening as an intro to our week on the Island of colours, music and what we didn’t know would be “Guantanamera” on repeat from every street musician and radio in sight.
Street dogs are marked with ID cards, the card states the dogs name, address and that it has been sterilized.
?Nora Flora Heredia Escul, puffing on a Cuban cigar.
I shared a video of my Belize City home when I first moved in, with the furniture that is included in my rent and the otherwise empty spaces and big empty white walls. I can’t do much to the place other than putting some stuff up, and I haven’t been wanting to invest in it as I’m moving out in a couple of months. But I moved the furniture around a bit, bought some Mexican blankets and colourful carpets – and this is what it looks like today. I really like my place, I love the breeze, I like that it’s airy and clean, and I love that I have an extra room to host friends. And as a cherry on top – I have free wifi from my very kind neighbours (a company) who don’t mind passing me their password, which is an amazing deal in Belize where wifi is ridiculously expensive.
As I said in my last post, this is a tradition that I wish I had started already when I started moving around, because the place you live in is a very nice memory to keep. Here’s a nostalgia tour of my previous homes, since I started doing this in 2011:
Disclosure have released the third single from their upcoming LP Caracal, due on September 25th. This one is a soulful midtempo beat with smooth voiced Kwabs kicking the vocals, and also dancing in the very cool yellow/brown animated video.
I’m looking forward to Caracal, with hopes that Disclosure once again will surprise with a lot of fresh sounds and on-point vocals. The tracklist for the album was shared last week, so it’s official that The Weeknd, Lorde, Sam Smith and Miguel will be featured, among others. It’s going to be very exciting. In the meantine, enjoy this one!
Here’s to beautiful Monday mornings after an all-in Friday full moon celebration and dancing followed by a sweet weekend spent mostly in bed.
Last night, after coming back home from a short afternoon working session at the office, I realized my phone battery had died. Instead of turning my phone back on, I started drawing. And then some sort of trippy elephant emerged. I haven’t drawn anything for many years, so this made me happy.
Held a storytelling, reporting, fundraising and photography workshop for some of our Civil Society partner organizations in the south today. Was a fun day with very active and enriching participation – thanks all!
You know when you decide you’ll probably just have a quiet evening and then something beautiful happens unexpectedly? Well, on Friday, a friend called and suggested a spontaneous hangout session at my place. I didn’t see any issue with “can I bring a friend along?” – which is how this new person, Corey, found his way to my balcony.
Bliss! People who want to share their talents and skills make me so happy.
Marvelously sexy discoveries and obsessions. Music, baby!
The funk and high pitched voice of this guy are a real treasure. And this tune – the complete adoration of a woman in the smoothest cheesiness that gives you the proper Maxwell/Van Hunt/Bilal/Marvin Gaye kinda’ feels – and the bass line..! Ay, no no no no!
Listen, kids and fellow soul junkies. Do it.
(But please do so through proper speakers so you don’t miss out on the bass)
And guess what.. there’s a completely kick ass drum n bass version of this (which is how I was introduced to this talent) but the drop is so damn hot that I can’t even share it. I’m keeping that baby to myself.
I’ve had a beautifully calm weekend on my own here in Belize City.
On Friday afternoon, my yoga studio, Om Shanti, had arranged a Himalayan Singing Bowls meditation with Taunya Laya Rivera, a master harmonic meditation practitioner from New York who had brought her bowls to share her good vibes and play for us.
Feeling the vibration from the bowls was a beautifully calming experience, and while I didn’t really meditate but rather listened to the tones (because I’m a sound addict), I went back home super relaxed and fell asleep. On Saturday I decided that I would make it a day where I did nothing at all. And so it progressed. I listened to music, watched a movie, cooked, read and called my grandmother. And in the evening I realized I didn’t have to go to work the next day either, so I drifted off into dreamland listening to ambient tunes and being magically calm.
Today I woke up and made myself a big breakfast and have since been enjoying the Belizean summer rain while working from home. It’s been shifting from beautiful sun to clouds bursting and warm rain cleansing the air. All so soothing, I’m still vibrating beautiful stuff. Thank you Taunya.
This weekend was a fun one. Isn’t it funny how a lot of things always happen on the same weekend while other weekends are completely quiet?
On Friday we hopped into Ilija’s car straight after work and drove all the way to Cayo to the Italian restaurant Casa Sofia where we had pizza, pasta and wine. We ended up spending all of the afternoon and evening there, and officially started celebrating Ilija’s birthday a couple of days too early.
The rest of the weekend offered a chill-out session and party by a friend’s pool on Saturday and Ilija’s official birthday barbecue on Sunday. Fun stuff!
If that Stephen Hawking supported Breakthrough Listen project was any successful, and we realized there’s indeed alien life nearby, would we then finally all get together as one in-group and share the planet if we found out there was something else we could refer to as “them”?
While I’m extremely excited about living in a time when life on other planets might officially be confirmed, and witnessing the reaction of the masses, I’m not certain that we have done a particularly great job here, on our own planet. If other intelligence is as mean as we have been by nature, they will be suspicious – and they will want a war. If the scientists confirm that there indeed are aliens – foil hatters, conspiration theorists and power maniacs will implode. Many won’t be able to imagine an intelligent being with more power than man, or the idea that these beings one day might decide to come over for a friendly talk. People will quote obscure randomness from Nostradamus. Churches will ring their bells. Hollywood will go bananas. I’m imagining mass hysteria and chaos.
But hey, maybe they’re not only more intelligent than we are, but also beyond primitive attitudes of violence, racism and sexism.. and will just alien-giggle at us as if we were lost kittens trying to bite our own tail.
Maybe we could learn something new.
I’m thinking of much needed sensitization campaigns:
“This American kitten was found dying, what this friendly alien did next will leave you in tears”
Cat healed. Happy music. Funny cat video. Alien and cat-owner hug. Humanity survives.
Here’s an example of what celebrating life is all about. A video I made last month trying to summarize the fun we had when Avina was here visiting me in Belize and we spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Mexico. A beautiful couple of weeks in the best kind of company – a friend that you can relax and be yourself around, and dive straight into total euphoria with. Ella Eyre was our soundtrack for the trip, joy and spontaneity were our rushes.
Soundtrack: Rudimental – Waiting all night featuring Ella Eyre
See the photo blog posts and stories from the entire trip here:
A story I wrote about an NGO that UNICEF Belize works with in the south of the country has been chosen as the July highlight for the European Year of Development 2015 and translated into 23 languages! I’m very glad that the little country of Belize and the work that this great NGO is doing are getting more exposure internationally.
“The men approach us with little suggestions at first. A beer, a lunch for letting them hold our hands or maybe even touch a breast… Then they take out the big guns – they offer to pay your school fees, pay your mother’s rent, take care of the house bills… It’s really not easy to say no when you are in our situation.”
Read the full story, in English, below:
Dangriga looks like the cover of a travel magazine. A tropical paradise in southern Belize, a place to relax under the sun and enjoy the palm trees and turquoise waters. What onlookers may not know is that it is also the district with the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in the country, HIV prevalence higher than anywhere else in Central America, and a place where violence and poverty are an ever-present reality.
A group of teenage girls and women gather in the main room of a small one story building and place their chairs in a ring to prepare for a POWA session. POWA is short for Productive Organization for Women in Action and has been active in Dangriga since 2003.
“Being a woman in this community is not the easiest task,” India, 19, shares. “We are the main targets here and you will often see older men prey on younger and vulnerable girls”
Sitting next to her, Kenima, is only 15 years old but has already been a target. “The men approach us with little suggestions at first. A beer, a lunch for letting them hold our hands or maybe even touch a breast… Then they take out the big guns – they offer to pay your school fees, pay your mother’s rent, take care of the house bills… It’s really not easy to say no when you are in our situation.”
Young girls in Dangriga find themselves lost in a system where they aren’t expected to have ambitions to ever provide for themselves, and where their own mothers feel that they have no other choice than to encourage them to accept these offers to save the family and put food on the table. The high HIV prevalence in Belize confirms this reality, as rates are highest among young girls and old men, many of whom unknowingly keep spreading the virus. Teenage pregnancies are the main reason for school dropouts, and sexual abuse is one of those things everybody knows about but too few dare to report.
Michele Irving, the coordinator for POWA, explains, “We work on the self-esteem of girls, on keeping them in school, teaching them about safety and trying to keep them away from dangers. We target girls at risk and we try to support them with school stipends and giving them practical skills that they can use to secure their own income and become economically independent. All of this to keep them away from falling victims to this horrendous abuse of power.”
POWA’s initiatives have been supported by UNICEF and the European Union since 2006. Under the leadership of Michele Irving, POWA runs after-school programmes for vulnerable children, literacy and school completion programmes for women, an HIV prevention and stigma and discrimination reduction programme, and conducts extensive work on empowerment of women and girls.
“Rather than thinking that you have all the answers to people’s problems, you create a space where people can create trust to transform their own realities,” Michele explains. Sexual abuse is so commonplace that mothers, most of whom have probably gone through the same situations, often choose to not see it. “They will tell you to forget it and never mention it again,” one of the girls whispers.
“But now, when the male teacher in class says something nasty in our ear, or when men try to touch us, we scream, we say no, we report,” Kenima shares with a confident voice. “Nobody can tell me that it is ok.”
Michele continues, “my passion comes from seeing lives transformed. I know I can’t save the world, but I can save one, two, three of these girls and help by making one day at a time better, by giving them the capacities to change their own lives.”
In fact, by changing the girls’ lives, Michele and the POWA programme do much more. They break the law of silence, change the power dynamics and create role models for other girls to follow, allowing them to grow to be concerned, protective and empowered women.