I Am Not Breaking the Law

I kinda can’t believe I haven’t covered this yet, but I really should:

I am an American.

I am not in Cuba illegally.

Rules of Engagment

I don’t have an extra passport or Cuban family.  I flew directly from Miami to Havana.  Both governments know I’m here.  Northeastern University applied for the licenses for all eight students and our accompanying professors.  I have a visa, which has been renewed.  We’re required to be here for at least ten weeks because changes made by Bush jr., and we’re required by CASA’s schedule to only stay here twelve weeks.

I am allowed to bring home art, handicrafts and educational materials. No cigars, no rum. Cuba would let me–America will not.

Well, How Did I Get Here?

That being said, it’s not hard to come here illegally.  Many more Americans than you would suspect come and go.  And some just come–but that’s another story.  You can fly through Canada, Jamaica, Cancun, Haiti, the Bahamas or any other Caribbean country.  From what I’ve heard, Cuba won’t stamp your passport (my visa is removable), and illegal travelers talk of slipping some money in your passport upon return to

There are many ways to come here legally.  If you are a diplomat, an athlete, a student or a Cuban-American you can apply for specific visas.  Humanitarians and business people can also come, under certain circumstances.

The Travel Ban

There’s also the oft-overlooked fact that we are not actually banned from traveling here: we are only banned from spending money.  That, coupled with the fact that few airlines and travel agents can fly us here make it pretty impossible to show up without crossing the line.  The so-called “travel ban” is actually just an aspect of the economic embargo.  The whole ordeal falls to the US Treasury, not the Department of State.  So if you get into trouble, don’t hesitate to go to the US Special Interest Section–they promise not to report you to the treasury.

So if you’d like to come here, which I recommend doing at some point, see if you can apply for a visa legally.  It’s a little time consuming, but it means not having to worry about any problems with customs.  And if you do come illegally?

Don’t lie, don’t have any Cuban money on you, and just plead the 5th.


One argument against online journalism as a legitimate means of reporting is the idea of ethics, from fact-checking to use of sources.  While many of the best blogs are essentially annotated with links, even (or rather, especially) heavy hitters like p-trunk have trouble with the intersection of their blog and their personal life.

If you are someone who posts often, and who is widely read, you will eventually have to tell the people in your life about the blog.  How does one do that, and how long should they wait?  In the meantime, what is off limits to write about?

When I first started this blog I left out all names, although anyone close to me could tell who I was talking about.  after a year or so I started getting complaints from close friends about never being in the blog, so I started putting names in.  I also found it cumbersome to refer to all 25 of the Egypt Dialoguers anonymously all the time, especially for something a benign as, “so Sarah, Alex, Janine and I went to lunch and…” especially since those sentences usually end with, “…they all said brilliant things that inspired the following post.”

If you write, has this been your experience?  Do people want shout-outs?

Where is the line when you write, almost daily, about the people in your life?  Who is off limits?  Which conversations are “off the record’?

What do you think?  Should I have strict rules for writing about other people?  What sort of advance notice can people reasonably expect if I’m going to write about them?

Regardless of whether you’re a journalism student, a fellow blogger, or just a thoughtful reader, I would love to get your thoughts on this topic.  I’ll be posting my amorphous personal philosophy on the subject later.

Foto Friday: Calle 13

Remember Foto Friday?  Me neither. Let’s see if we can work on that.

You’ve already heard about the blemish on my time at the Calle Trece concert, so how about the rest of it?  I think the pictures will do it more justice than my words.

The stage at the tribuna anti-imperialista, aka the demonstration plaza right behind the US Special Interest Section so the Cubans can protest at the drop of a hat
Calle Trece is from Puerto Rico--the US gave them permission to come, and made no comment about it
Kristina and I, up above the crowd on shoulders.
The crowd behind us. This is also where Cuba protested the Elian Gonzalez thing for weeks on end.
The crowd (including me in yellow) from above. Oh and hey, those are the guys who took my wallet.
Calle Trece with the Cuban and Puerto Rican flags. We eventually got up pretty close. Apparently the only concert that was bigger was Juanes.
The buildings alongside the tribunal. Streets were closed off for blocks around, and there were almost no event police. Even if there had been, they wouldn't have been able to get anywhere with that many people
Smile! Or, as we were told to say, "Whiskey!" This is us having 15 CUC worth of fun

Jenn Walsh, my Ada Lovelace

Jenn is chased by an iguana. See, science is fun. I promise.

Yeah, that’s right Jenn, I’m writing a post on you.  Suck it.

Jenn works with coffee, one of her favorite substances.

After reading what Leify Greens had to say about Gina Trapani and Ada Lovelace Day in general, I was inspired (read: ordered) to rack my brain for a worthy female.  My first thought was of a chica who combines travel, language skills, a big heart, and biology.

Ada Lovelace Day is a time for bloggers to show some love for the amazing women in their life in the fields of science and technology.  I know I have quite a few more of those inspiring chicas in my life, so I’ll be sure to participate again next year.  For this year, though, I’m excited to talk about a woman (ew, Jenn, are we women now?) who found a way to do some of the things I love (travel, speak a foreign language and become immersed in a foreign culture) while being really impressive in her given science-y field of choice, biology.  Many people say I get to travel through school because of my major, and use theirs as an excuse not to.  Not so with Jenn!  She wanted it, so she made it happen.

Jenn and her turtle friend.

Jenn spent her last co-op at Northeastern in Galapagos Island among Darwin’s finches.  She helped local farmers, picked her own food, and swam with blue-footed boobies.  Her sense of humour and adventure kept her always in good company and strange experiences.

More than that, she’s a brilliant young accident-prone woman who totally upturned her life at a tumultuous time.  She went somewhere with little to no promise of contact with home, and less than modern, western toilets.

Sorry Jenn, but I adore this photo of you.

Jenn is so much more than just a lab coat.  She’s a great friend, a sorority sister, and makes delicious food.  She travels, she innovates, and she gets killer co-op jobs.  I can’t wait to see what she does after she graduates (how many days?)

Jenn, you rock my socks and I miss you buckets.  I can’t wait to see what crazy thing you invent or how many families you help with your dream of going into genetic counseling.

I promise she’s much more of a bio rock star than I make her sound, just trust that it’s my own inability to understand her brilliance, and not any lack of brilliance on her part, that is causing that.

Oh and hey grad schools: she’s in the market for one of you, and if you’re lucky you might just be able to snatch her up.

Jenn with one of her Boobies

Algunos son Buenos, Algunos son Malos

Me, smiling deliriously on some guy's shoulders at Calle 13. I have no clue what's about to happen.

Just when I go thinking, “I’ve got this, I’m handling the travel thing,” I get a little proverbial smack.  A smack designed to wipe that smug look off of my face.

I got pick-pocketed.

The travel gods say no, you’re not that suave.  And in true Cuban fashion, the times when I think I get something are the only times I am truly wrong.

It didn’t happen in Boston, France or Cairo, but sooner or later it was bound to happen.  The worst part (well, there are a few worst parts) is that I’m the only one to blame. After all those nights of bringing just chapstick and 10 cuc in my pocket to clubs or the Malecon, I went to the most crowded event in Cuba with a decently bulky wallet that had the potential to poke out of my pocket.  I was also dumb in that I didn’t tell the guys we came across to buzz off, and I rolled with sitting on some guys’ shoulders at a concert even though I didn’t know them and didn’t really want to.

The real worst part is that behind me, while I was up on shoulders, was a guy who was gesturing, and then laughing.  He was nudging his friends and making me uncomfortable.  I couldn’t understand him because it was so loud and I was up high.  As soon as I got down and was in a standing position, I knew my wallet was gone.  I saw him laughing and put something in his pocket.  It took just enough time for me to realize I lost it, tell Kristina and accuse the guy in white behind me for the real culprits, the guys who had brought Kristina and I to the front and boosted us up, to vamoose into the crowd.  So yes, I accused a totally innocent Cuban.  He apologized, turned out his pockets, and explained the gestures.

He was trying to warn me.

And how do he and his friends treat the evil gringa who worked her way in front of them, blocked their view and then accused one of them of theft?  They went and told the cops about the guys who really took my wallet, and set them hunting.

I suck.

I didn’t lose much–some random papers (they created the bulk, really) some moneda nacional (worth <2 CUC in total), my Changó necklace, ~15 CUC, and my Cuban health card.  And yes, the health card and the necklace are the two things I’m most bummed about, because I’m like that.

But ya know what?  I think Cuba is getting to me.  Because this is what I looked like after my wallet was stolen:


Reasons I’m suddenly happier about Cuba:

Going home doesn’t seem so far away. A weird paradox, but knowing it’s soon frees up some mental space to stop stressing and start enjoying

We went to Santiago. For one thing, I love that city.  Another is that we got a change of pace, making Havana seem fresher, and my time there more precious, in addition to giving me an entire new perspective on Cuba

I emailed Ilham. She was a faculty leader on the egypt Dialogue, and she’s on of my personal rock stars.  All throughout Egypt we had to keep journals for reflection, and I was very conscious that Ilham was reading it, at times almost treating it like a conversation with her and expecting her to react the next day about something I had written the night before.  Something about writing her a conversation for real was comforting, and reminded me of the person I’m trying to be, both personally and academically.

Our Group. The people I’m with includes Michigan and NU students, house staff, Casa staff.  I’ve noticed that the whole group is a lot more zen lately, especially about interpersonal relations.  I’ve seen people cutting each other slack where they wouldn’t before, and spending time with people they hadn’t before.  The relaxed attitude makes our house so much more pleasant to live in.  It fills it up with boisterous, friendly chaos, instead of jarring, staccato coldness.

I watched some American TV.
Dumb, I know, but it helped.  It was also fun to just be American kids for a little while.  We could’ve been anywhere at home, lounging on a couch, eating (fake) pringles and watching television in English.

Food. Aliesha’s mom sent a giant box of goodies, and Kristina’s mom brought some homemade cookies and pancake mix.  We also got great, filling breakfasts in Santiago, and decently priced, delicious food for lunch and dinner.  That was probably one of the only times I’ve felt truly satisfied with a meal her.  To boot, there aren’t as many shortages right now on staples like bread or eggs.

Home is a wee bit more organized. I know when my flight leaves for France, and when I come home from Benin.  I can go to Andrew’s graduation (after missing so many important events in his life this past year) and I can go to BMG’s first communion.  The first thing she asked was whether I would be there, and I hated that I didn’t know and wasn’t really in control of the answer.  Cuba has made me really laid back (in some ways), but I feel calm knowing I won’t let Miss Bridget down.

It’s amazing how much your perspective can change by seeing your world through someone else’s lens.  It felt good to have someone well-traveled recognize that Cuba is indeed strange.  We’re not imagining it, this really is hard, and it really is different from going to Australia.  I also loved realizing that what comes to mind about Cuba for me is all the good stuff, and I see all the bad stuff in a good light.  Things that other people found strange, stressful or scary rolled off my back with a laugh.  Someone said that we’re a funny group, but I countered that no, it’s just Cuba that’s funny.

I really do believe it.

Is Fidel Back in Power?


Last week, on the tenth, Brit found a Newsweek article claiming Fidel had rallied his health (he’s about 84 and had given over the reigns to Raul, who is 6 years younger and has been involved in the Revolution since the beginning) and had taken charge on the third of March.

The third?

I found out on the tenth.


I’m in Cuba right now, and a polisci fanatic no less.

So I did some digging.  I asked some Cuban friends, and when random Cubans started talking to me or harassing me, I asked them about their president.  Previously chatty Cubans (they are almost always verbose) clammed up, entirely ignoring me or shrugging their shoulders.

A press woman at the US Special Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy answered questions about the Castro back and forth in a sideways manner, opting instead to comment on the difference between Presidents Bush and Obama once more.  While it was mentioned that Cuba went from Fidel to Raul, “and now back to Fidel, maybe?” she chose not to comment on that part of the question.

Then we had the first of two lectures by Cuban pr rock star Margarita Alarcon, and I asked her.  The response?  No, of course Fidel’s not in power.  That’s ridiculous.  So what gives, Newsweek?  If you’re right, where are BBC, CNN and EVERYONE ELSE on this topic?  It seems right now that the only story is that Newsweek reported a story.  If you’re not right, where’s the retraction?

Either way, where is the noise on this subject?

A St. Patty’s Day Miracle!

Today I woke up late, and went upstairs to find this:

mmmmh Ghirardelli...
...REAL maple syrup...

Needless to say, I ran around waking everyone up with my St. Patty’s greetings and spreading the Good Word of the St. Patty’s Day Miracle.

Thanks to Aliesha and Kristina for making them, Kristina’s mom for bringing the supplies, and Maria for letting them take over the kitchen.












Happy birthday cheb, I miss ya!

Oh, and

A St. Patty’s Pot on YOU!

What I Wish I Brought

Let me start by saying sorry for the bizarre spacing–wordpress is dumb and so am I.  Second, congrats the UNA for their performance at Southeast!  Even more congrats for finding the Spartanburg nightlife–I hadn’t thought it was possible.  Good luck gearing up for Nationals!

Toilet Paper.
Closet storage. We don’t have any bureaus, and in my room Kate and I have to share a nightstand, which she graciously lets me use most of.  We each get four hangers in the closet, and the rest of our stuff is in suitcases under the bed.
Snacks. There just aren’t any here.  That seems like no great loss, but I seriously feel like I’ve been observing the most epic Lent ever over here.
Sweats. Like with snacks, sometimes you just need something comforting and home-like.  I don’t do the whole bit with bringing pictures from home.  If I miss my dog, I have pictures on my laptop.  If I miss my dad, I listen to Bruce.  If I miss the entire Harrington clan, I can watch Gram’s 80th birthday thing.  If I’m sick or tired, I just want some sweats and goldfish.  Well, I really just want Andrew and pad thai, but neither of those travel well.

Underwear. Let me first clarify that I did in fact bring sufficient undergarments for the trip. I did not, however, bring a ton.  It’s such a pain to wash your underwear here, because it either goes in the ineffective washer and out on the line for all to see, or is painstakingly washed (still rather ineffectively) in the bathtub and then put out on the line for all to see.  I think when you’re in a very strange environment, comfort is key (if you didn’t get that already.)  They don’t take up much room, and are far more valuable than a lot of the space-wasters I brought.  So for Benin, given how little room clean underwear takes up and how drastically it brightens my mood, I plan to bring enough so that I don’t have to wash it.  Yes, I know this is absurd.  But whatever, I’m the one going to weird countries, I get to decide what eccentric items make it possible for me to do so and not go insane.  Apparently, it’s underwear, sweatpants, cheez-its and my teddy bear.  Because I’m twelve.

School Supplies. It seems they can only be bought at rest stops here, who knows why.  It would also be nice to leave some with some of the people I’ve met here, since pens and pencils are a commodity.
Rain Boots. We’ve been rained at and semi-flooded often, and seriously epically flooded once.  I didn’t realize I’d need the boots here as much (or more) than  I need them in Boston.

More stuff to give away.
Toilettries, presents, clothing, medicine.  I didn’t need the big bottles I brought that weighed down my suitcase, but in this instance it worked out because it means I have a bunch left to leave to someone like Miledys.

Cold Medicine. I was a sniveling mess when I left the states, and I was terrified they would think I had h1n1 (I didn’t, and had the vaccination card to prove it) but my parents thought they would take away dayquil and cough drops.  Since then, I have wished I had them a million times.  What’s the worst that could have happened?  They take away my bargain bag of Halls?

Warmer clothes.
This is the coldest “winter” Cuba has experienced in about thirty years.  This country was not made for these gale force winds or temps toward freezing.  We can’t even close all the windows all the way.  For the first week or so, we wore all of our warm weather stuff all the time, even to sleep.

A bigger carry-on.
They weigh the checked luggage, not the carry-on.  Duh.  Silly Delia.

DVDs. I know it sounds stupid, and that’s why I didn’t bring them.  I’ll be in a tropical country, I thought.  I’ll be too busy being tan and fabulous to do a silly, indoor thing like watch a movie.  Yeah right, Bad-at-Packing Delia.  It’s three months!  There will be downtime, and there will be nights when you just want to stay in and relax.

Shell Reading

The altar from the Cajon, with a musician. All photos credited to Hector Delgado

So I may be dying in Cuba.  But don’t worry, it’ll be a swift death.

Padrino is in the middle, while Justin (left) receives counsel from a clairvoyant santero, who would later go into trance

I went to have my shells read at the padrino’s house a month or so ago.  It’s in a barrio humilde in Habana Vieja, the same place where the Cajon was.  A padrino (or a madrina) is a godfather, literally translated, and a spiritual leader.  They play friend, confidant, psychologist, marital counselor and interpreter.

I was told that the people I’m surrounded by aren’t good people; they want to do me harm.  For whatever reason, be it my personality, mannerisms, looks or whatever, they cannot stomach me.  Just because someone hugs you, he said, doesn’t mean they care about you; they’re ust trying to decieve you.  Someone will try to take something from me, and oh yeah, that family I have?  Where I’m the youngest?  Yeah they’re not as healthy as I think.  But I shouldn’t react too strongly to news, good or bad.

The doubled over man in white is entranced, during the Cajon al Muerte, while we look on in confusion and curiosity.

Thanks padrino, I’ll try to remain calm.

Gabby told me I got one of the worst signs in all of Santeria, and padrino said I got the worst reading out of anyone in our group.  At one point, Gabby stopped translating because he felt too bad.  I appreciate that, and him interjecting with his opinion that the shells weren’t right, but I still know enough Spanish to know what padrino said.

The only highlights?  The reason people want to deceive me and hurt me is my natural intelligence, of which I have a lot.  Oh and that death?  It’ll be swift, no worries.

When I first came out of the reading I was stoic to the max, and really rather melancholic.  Basically padrino took everything I’m afraid of and told me it’s true.  And I don’t even care about the death bit.

We all dance at the Cajon, in Padrino's house. We (at least 30 people) all fit in this small living room on a hot day.

Once I went back in to have my head cleansed and got my Changó necklace, I truly did feel better.  I suddenly felt wildly silly for having been even a little sad before.  Changó was protecting me, I was just supposed to avoid Santeria and trust in god.  Since then, we’ve joked about my need for a body guard, the meaningless nature of the hugs I get, and we wonder aloud in what ways they could possibly be deceiving me at any given time.

I wasn’t going to write about this, or a bunch of other topics, because I don’t want to be henpecked.  But ya know what?  Santeria is what’s going on down here, and my particular shell reading has become part of the fabric of the group.  So either you can learn to not worry, or I can learn to ignore the concern.