I’ve been in Doha, Qatar since the start of the new year running a conference for work. As part of an effort to let attendees relax and get to know the country better, our partners organized a caravan of off-road vehicles to take us romping around the desert near the Saudi border. The ride was actually quite gentle compared to my past experience, but it was still thrilling to cruise along the very edge of a dune, and bounce around the desert for a while.
This experience of course reminded me of our full-day swimming, romping and dune-boarding adventure in Egypt. While this trip was shorter due to time constraints, it was great to see some more of Qatar. I think everyone who came was happy to get out of the city (I am a city girl but I need frequent doses of nature), and more importantly, to get away from the conference center and have a few laughs without spending half their rent on a glass of wine.
The Pope was instrumental in this negotiation. The Pope has always had great popularity in Cuba, and his predecessor’s visit there was seen as an acceptance of Afro-Cuban religions that riff on Catholicism. The papacy continues its legacy of advocating for the release of political prisoners, and for greater respect of human rights.
The US Special Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy will become a true US Embassy once again. Will workers there no longer receive hazard pay? We should expect to see an influx of official visits from American politicians, although there have been somealready.
I’m not surprised that the release of Alan Gross and the remaining Cuban 5 (Los Cinco Heroes) were major points in bargaining (along with an unnamed US operative), although Obama chose to refer to the 5 as agents, continuing the US government’s stance in the face of pretty compelling evidence. To learn more about the Cuban 5, check out the movie The Trial (El Proceso.)
Cuba’s placement on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorists will be re-examined by State. Relations could never fully normalize without this step, and more importantly, it has not been a fact-based assessment of the Cuban government for a long time, if ever.
The US backing off on telecom restrictions means that the US will no longer be the reason that internet access is so fractured and slow. Will this lead to the Cuban government relaxing their own restrictions on access to the internet and cell phones? Soon they won’t be able to blame this on anyone but themselves.
Americans will be able to import certain goods, with restrictions. Well hello there, Havana Club! I expect to see cigars and rum at a huge markup soon. Authorize American citizens to import additional goods from Cuba
Tourists will be able to spend US dollars and use US debit cards. But don’t think that means you can just carry plastic around. Cuba is almost entirely a cash economy. I’m waiting to hear whether Cuba will removed the tax on USD that artificially pegs the dollar to the CUC (the more expensive of the two currencies.)
General Licenses to travel to Cuba have been expanded. This type of license is far less paperwork (and potentially money), has fewer time and other restrictions, and now covers Family visits, Journalism, Educational and research activities, religious activities, Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations, humanitarian projects, artistic or athletic activity, information sharing, certain types of commerce, private foundations, and the appropriately vague “support for the Cuban people.”
President Obama still needs Congress to officially remove the embargo, which is a Treasury issue, as opposed to normalizing diplomatic relations, which falls directly under the president’s purview in the Constitution. Until the embargo is lifted, there is still a punishment in place for spending USD or trading with Cuba.
There will no longer be caps on remittances sent to Cuba, which means investments, medicine, medical equipment, staple foods and textbooks will be able to make their way to the island, along with other goods. I hope there isn’t too much price gauging, although in the past the US sold these things for cash upfront at a markup, so market price will probably be a relief.
53 political prisoners are being released in Cuba.
I’m glad to hear Obama acknowledge Cuba’s amazing health care, as well as their role in Ebola prevention and care, something mainstream media in the US has shied away from.
President Obama’s research team was on point–referencing Jose Martí was a great way to show some amount of understanding of Cuban culture.
Lack of relations with Cuba has been absurd for a long time. As the president points out, our relationships with China and Vietnam make this look absurd. I am also absolutely still cautious about what this means for Cuba. There are aspects of materialism and tourism there already, but like anyone who loves the island, I’m wary of anything that could harm its natural beauty or cannibalize it economically.
How soon can I get back there? It’s already been a year and a half, and I would love to witness how these changes continue to change Cuba.
What are your thoughts on the President’s announcement?
Enough people have died when I travel for it to give me pause. When I was twelve and in Colorado for a school trip, my dad took me away from my friends to his hotel room to tell me: “Sister Peggy passed away.” He exhaled it all at once like he had been holding it in since the phone call, trying not to let is slip out in front of everyone. Sister Peggy was my great-aunt, my Nana’s sister as well as a nun (Sisters of Notre Dame) and she had died five months after my Nana, almost to the minute, of a very similar complication. My dad hugged me and told me we would miss the services. Sometime later, perhaps when she took me to the grave so I could finally feel like it was real, my mother said she never would have told me if I’d been on the trip alone. Without my dad there to look after me, the news would have kept till I was back in Massachusetts.
I was blessed with an abundance of grandparents, both biological and honorary. When I was in Rouen, France five years later on a short-term high school exchange, I only talked to my parents three times. The final time, just a day or two before I flew home, I remember hanging up and thinking about that time in Colorado. I knew my parents wouldn’t have told me if something terrible had happened, if someone had died, and I went to sleep uneasy. On the ride home from the airport they told me Bud had passed away, one of my grandparents of the honorary variety. There’s something extra-special about people who don’t have to love you but choose to anyway, not out of any sort of obligation but the one they feel in their heart.
Just over a year ago, I went to a party at a friend’s house in my hometown. We had known for a while that my next door neighbor, Carolyn, was dying. There had been several phone calls over the past few months with updates on her health, but mostly as a gentle nudge to say my goodbyes. I had a feeling that this one last nudge was the right one though, and I went to the party planning to be at my parents’ house the next day. I had a feeling she wouldn’t be there to see me anymore. I was right, and I expected to feel guilt or regret, but I honestly don’t.
Four years ago, one of my mother’s favorite cousins finally succumbed to a long and difficult illness at the end of a brief and happy, but incredibly difficult, life. My mom decided she was done saying her goodbyes at wakes and funerals, or even at hospital bedsides. Of course I wouldn’t hear about this decision for another month or so since I was in Cuba for the first time, but when I did I thoroughly agreed. I had come to the same conclusion when a close relative was diagnosed with a degenerative condition. What was the point of missing a fun dinner for yet another protracted club meeting? In the grand scheme of things, what was the cost of missing a meeting here or there, versus the cost of missing out on time with a loved one? What was the point of ever missing an opportunity to see the people we love when we know we could lose them soon?
So that’s how I had been with Carolyn. I had spent many afternoons at her house since we moved to the Terrace during the early 1990s. What art skills I have came from her, and she made my American Girl Doll clothes more beautiful than anything in a catalogue. She tailored a bridesmade dress for me, which is when I found her cheat sheet: Kevin: boy, tall, brown hair. Delia, girl, brown hair, glasses. I saw her in her hospice bed, many times. I held her hand, and told her stories even when she didn’t know my name. I delighted on the days her face lit up with recognition of mine. As my mother said, I was done waiting for people to die to miss them. I was determined to enjoy them while they were still here.
And that’s how we came to miss a funeral of one of my mother’s relatives, even though I was in the country. We sailed right past the exit toward Terry and Bud’s house. While he had died in 2006 when I was in France, we had seven more great years with Terry. Bud’s funeral was also when I decided to go to college in Boston. My older brother had been forced to miss it and it pained him, and I decided I didn’t want that. I wanted to be able to go the things that mattered to me. Terry mattered to us, an awful lot, so I found myself in Hyde Park on a bunch of days off with my mum.
We would drink tea, eat tune salad sandwiches, and talk about books, Boston politics, JFK and feminism. I found myself ditching work a couple of times to go to Block Island with her and the rest of her family, who rather generously made room in the family roster for my parents, brother and I. I remember dumb things, like giving her my cone when hers broke one night that last summer, knowing she would be gone soon and that I would wish I had given it to her. And rubbing the dry skin on her hands with lotion on the last day I saw her alive, taking photos of her with my mother because I knew she would want them. Looking back, I remember thinking god, how pissed would I be if I missed Block Island with Terry to work a shift at Kohl’s? How pissed would I be if I missed this because I didn’t have the guts to ask for a day off from my job, a job which wouldn’t even exist six months later. I look back and thank god I traded whatever day to day crap I was supposed to do for all those afternoons in Hyde Park and long weekends on the Island.
It’s how I knew the answer, right away, when my mother asked me if I could afford to go to the funeral of another honorary grandparent, my Nana’s cousin Fritz. Sure, I missed yet another Arabic class and had a job interview that I rushed to afterwards. I ended up with a C for the semester. But those wheels were already in motion–it’s not like I could trade the funeral for an A. And how much would it suck to miss the funeral and get that grade anyway? Some things matter more than others, and while Arabic class mattered in the aggregate, Fritz’s funeral mattered, period. Besides, I got the job, which sent me to Greece.
If travel is your life, inevitably, you will experience all aspects of your life in connection to it. Travel bloggers don’t usually write about death. The usual stance on missing out on home is that you should just go because you won’t miss anything worthwhile; everything and everyone will be the same when you come home. That’s mostly true, except for when it’s not. And it means when you’re home you have to make a bigger effort to see the people who matter, since you don’t have as much margin for error.
Of course my philosophy isn’t perfect. It’s much harder to prioritize people who are young and healthy, especially when everyone is so busy and there are so many friends criss-crossing the country and the globe. I genuinely have no idea when the last time was that I saw my friend Naman, who died at 21. I’d like to think it wasn’t when we left the Dominican Republic, but it could be. For whatever reason I spent the next few semesters too caught up in the bubble of my daily life and my ex-boyfriend’s friends, people who I haven’t seen in years now, to spend time with one of the best groups of people I’ve ever traveled with. To spend time with a perfectly healthy 21 year old who was taken well before his time.
It gets harder as life gets busier, and as the competing offers get more interesting, to see in the moment which choice you will thank yourself for later at a funeral. Every time I find myself thinking, “I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” I try to remember that really, we’re all just one complication or offer too good to pass up away from missing even the most important events. That’s what I was thinking about when I woke up early this morning for Terry and Bud’s memorial mass: not just to remember the people I miss, but to spend more time with everyone else I love who misses them so much. And it’s what I think about every time I spend Friday night with my 9 and 12 year old cousins. Sure, they can’t have a beer with me for another decade or so, but it’s important to me. Some day, when they look at the sum total of their lives, they will remember that in spite of how often I left the country, I was always there, the whole time they were growing up.
On our way toward Dingle, Ireland we stopped in Castlegregory for the opportunity to take a surfing lesson. Yes, surfing. In Ireland. It was a dreary, disgusting day, and I was not surprised that only three of us wanted to go–my brother, one half of a nice young couple who got stuck traveling with us, and me. Luckily, our traveling companions were more than happy to cheer us on from shore and take pictures. Even in the cold, Brandon Bay in County Kerry is a lovely place to spend a few hours. It was cold and rainy, and I have a feeling we were warmer than them in our wet suits and booties.
Our instructor, Jamie Knox of Jamie Knox Water Sports, was very understanding with my brother’s and my status as complete beginners. He went over safety rules and explained a few different technique we would use, and focused on getting us in the water early and often, to make the most of our lesson. Both my brother and I have terrible vision (I clock in at -8.00) and I can’t imagine that helps us in our aquatic adventures. Kevin was flying blind, and I wore some outdated contacts. There were several times when Jamie would be gesturing and we just looked at each other and shrugged because we had no clue what he was trying to say, but nobody got hurt so I guess it turned out fine.
We were given foam boards to practice on, because obviously we would be smacking ourselves in the heads quite a few times, so we may as well get hit with foam. We learned the basics of timing and actually catching a wave on our stomachs.
I had a ton of fun pulling myself up on the board and learning to steer and control my own speed. It was pretty easy and it felt amazing to glide along the water so quickly. We were called out of the water to learn how to stand on the board. My brother Kevin and I shared a look like hey, this is wicked fun, why ruin a good thing? Plus, that looks really hard.
And it was really hard. I am quite a bit smaller than the other two, and I spent most of my time getting tossed around and trying to get back on my feet and be in some sort of a position to actually catch a wave. By the last half hour or so, my arms were so tired that I could barely pull myself to the front of the board, nevermind paddle. Luckily, our instructor could see my struggle and would help launch me so I could keep trying to stand up on the board.
I did finally get up standing on the board, on my very last run of the day. Of course, our audience had gotten bored, and one of the downsides of being the only single person on a trip is that no one is particularly invested in photos or videos of you, so there is sadly no proof of my triumph. I can’t wait to try surfing again, although I think I need to seriously improve my arm strength if I plan to be out there for more than a couple of hours.
2-hour beginner surf lessons are €35 per person for adults, € 25 for under 18s, and includes rental of board, wetsuit, booties and hood. If you find cheaper surf lessons in Co. Kerry, they’ll match the price. They also offer windsurfing and stand up paddle boarding as well as surf camps for youngsters and family packages.
One of the things the drew us to Vagabond Tours was the kayaking option in Dingle. We are an outdoorsy crew, owning two canoes and a kayak back home. We knew we were going to be kayaking this trip, come hell or high water. It was also one of the keys to a successful family trip–you are who you are, no matter where in the world you go.
Irish Adventures was right on the waterfront in downtown Dingle. Our guide, Noel, was funny and informative. He also took some great images, although he didn’t seem to understand why it would pain me not to be able to take them myself. Someday, I would love to have a camera or rig that can survive kayaking, but this was not that day.
A few people were in tandem kayaks, but most were solo. There was a quick lesson and continued instruction for those brand new to kayaking. Michelle was a compete newcomer to it but she was able to learn the techniques quickly from Noel and had no problem with the paddle. We paddled along the bay in search of the famed Fungi the Dolphin. I had read about him ahead of time and my bullshit detector lead me to believe there were a few dolphins off the coast and on the rare occasion one was spotted, they were called Fungi. Or that Fungi was a bit like the Dread Pirate Roberts or a child’s goldfish, secretly replaced every time he passed on. It turns out there was no need for the cynicism–Fungi is the rare lone dolphin, and he has been alive for over 20 years. Like all Irish folks, he is quite friendly and regularly gets close to passing boats, including kayaks. The closest we got was about 50 yards away, which was a bummer for myself and the other animal loved on the trip, but it was still pretty cool..
After the excitement of Fungi, we got to explore the nuances of the Dingle Peninsula’s photogenic coast. We even paddled through a few caves getting a chance to see the aquatic wildlife in the clear water. Starfish, sea anemones and various fish were everywhere. We had been in Ireland for about a week already, but this was the first time we were seeing cliffs up close, and from water level. We also learned more about the area’s history and some of the local creatures of the land and air as well.
The paddle back was against the wind and tide, and also the day after Kev and I went surfing. Unless you’ve got Michelle Obama arms, I do not recommend so many arm-straining activities in quick succession. But such is life for a world traveler 🙂 I absolutely recommend Irish Adventures to anybody from a newbie to experienced kayaker. It’s a great way to see something different. Noel was a great guide and the experience of exploring sea caves was unlike any other view of Ireland.
There are half-day (3 hours) and full-day tours available. Half-day tours like mine are 3 hours and available to paddlers age 12+ of all levels. Cost €50 adult, €45 teenagers, €40 under 12’s. Full day paddles are from €85 to €100. They are categorized as Medium (5+ hours, open to all 14+) and Hard (5-6 hours, age 16+.) You will need to bring swimwear and a towel. Wet suits and all other equipment are provided.
It’s rare for people to write about Ganvie, or really any part of Benin, but when they do it churns my stomach. Romantic, they write. Mystical, inviting, the Venice of Africa.
None of this is what I saw in Ganvie.
We got to the stilt village in the middle of Nokué Lake, not far from Cotonou, Moving in a pair of long motorboats we passed fish farms and what looked like the invasive species water hyacinth along the way. Because we were a human services group, someone asked the obvious question of whether the men who brought us there were from the community, and the answer was hand-waved away with a probably. When we arrived, we got out to find a small, angry monkey chained to a post, setting the tone for our visit.
Reasons given for the existence of the village are varied, from the villagers themselves as well as the internet. Some claim it started 400 years ago, others say the 16th or 17th century. The Tofinu people were running from enslavement by either the Fon or Dahomey tribe. Or was it the Portuguese? Some claim it’s the only one in the world, or perhaps the biggest.
Everything felt uneasy there.
A woman screamed at us in a tribal language as we came to a shop. Throughout the day, children and adults would curse, yell and point at us as they passed on their completely non-mechanized boats. Even for those who didn’t speak French, it still had a chilling effect. We found ourselves lowering or hiding our cameras, not meeting each other’s eyes or theirs.
After I made my purchases I was tired of being pressed further, so I went to the porch to watch some kids splash around. They were all quite small and in various states of undress, but were too engrossed n their play to bother with another bunch of yovos. I took a couple of pictures, as did some others, but one of our flashes went off and a little boy put his hand over his genitals. In French he yelled that he would only remove it for money, which horrified us. Then he said we should really pay so we can have National Geographic pictures, and I was horrified for a different reason. This kid knew our number, knew the number of everyone who pays a boat to take them out there. We wanted something gritty, graphic, exotic and strange. Something that looked like a poor, primeval stereotype of Africa.
We were brought from one building to the next, and it quickly became clear that there would be no talk on the history or culture of Ganvie. Just a lot of wooden statues, wind chimes, and toy cars for sale.
Some students began to get seasick from getting in and out of the boats so often, and others were nervous about a couple of the buildings that seemed to bounce and sway a little too much, where we could see the water beneath our feet through the cracks and holes in the floor. A chatty group, we got more sullen and silent in the face of a strange and incredibly un-fun shopping trip. The less we bought, the more agitated the shopkeepers, boat captains and other locals would get. Some people tried to explain that every shop sold the same thing, or that we were but poor students, but there was little sympathy to be found.
Someone in charge heavily insinuated that it was an obligation to buy things, since we had shown up as voyeuristic little tourists, never mind that these same people in charge brought us here with little warning and no option to stay behind. We came to wonder if the men who brought us there were from the community, how the community felt about our presence (though I think we knew) and who actually owned those motorboats.
Sometimes I think of Ganvie, and it always makes me uncomfortable. It’s one of those places I hardly ever discuss. It felt wrong to be there, but also wrong to take away the much-needed tourism dollars. It was disappointing not to learn more about the logistics of their way of life, but it seems entitled to be disappointed that strangers don’t take time out of their day to entertain me and answer my questions. Some people complain that the locals are too unfriendly–how dare they not smile for us, not open up their homes for us. Most of all, I think about how young the naked boy must have been to already understand exactly how the world sees him, and what it expects of him. He didn’t do anything wrong–in fact he was being a clever entrepreneur. It’s just so unsettling that his venture is successful.
Like walking into a guide book, we ran into “domesticated” elephants several times now in Kerala, always completely by accident. Well, by accident or unknowing on our part. But the two times when we saw elephants at or near hotels were certainly no accident. I quote the word domesticated because I’m not convinced that such an animal can be domesticated. And if it can, surely this cannot happen over the course of one lifetime–isn’t true domestication a multi-generation process, a form of contrived evolution?
According to EleAid, India has some of the strictest laws in Asia governing domesticated elephants, but the laws aren’t enforced. City life is completely unsuited to what elephants need, and some elephants used in tourism or in temples are known for being chained to one spot their whole life or completely over-worked.
As a person who loves animals (and used to spend quite a bit of time with science), I find myself pulled between two poles: I want to both be with animals and see them able to live their lives naturally. As interesting as it was to spot a bear on a neighbor’s porch in Maine, for example, it was sad to realize that this animal had acquired a taste for human food and was bold enough to walk up to someone’s house and take it. This means that it is likely that bear will someday die because of something it eats or because it
On our seventh official day of the Kerala Blog Express, we got to take a boat ride in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (*Tigers not Guaranteed.) This area is only accessible by boat, and is the first place I’ve seen in India with zero trash. The animals have substantial protected acreage at their disposal, and their lives appear to transpire without human interference, other than boats that watch from a safe distance. To me, this is how nature was meant to be observed: from a safe distance, in a respectful way, and in controlled numbers (of humans.)
We were able to see elephants again in Wayanad by driving through Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. We were not permitted to drive through the rest of the sanctuary as planned because the weather was making the animals nervous. I was glad to hear that we were not being allowed to do something that would jeopardize our (and in turn the animals’) well-being. To me, the surest sign of a good sanctuary or preserve is that they use the word ‘no.’ There should not be a dollar amount that will assuage concerns for the animals’ well being.
As much as we love the magic and intensity (and let’s not forget the profile pics and blog posts) of witnessing a wild animal at close range, it isn’t natural. They aren’t meant to bend to our will, to eat our food, or to carry us around. They need space, not chains, and reputable research and preservation organizations need our money more than sketchy places that drug or otherwise abuse the animals do. It’s not satisfying and it won’t boost my page views, but participating in the mistreatment of animals is not what’s best for those animals. Neither is going on an elephant ride (or playing with tiger cubs), getting the cool photos, and then writing a contrite, hand-wringing post after the fact to retroactively atone for our participation. Unfortunately that seems to be the preferred route for travelers with a conscience, myself included: get the snaps, then talk about how messed up it is afterwards.
Beyond the ethics of it, animals are far more interesting when they are behaving as they choose. As fellow member of the Kerala Blog Express Daniel said on Instagram, seeing a mother and baby elephant interacting in the wild is far better than watching one perform for us on paved city streets. It was amazing to see a small herd of elephants quietly going about their business this afternoon, not bothered by our presence, not decorated by anything other than mud and their own skin, and completely free of chains.
I hope that governments and tourists alike will help make it easier for letting animals be wild to be an easy choice, one that is rewarded with good publicity and plenty of business. I hope that consumers become more aware of the power of their dollars, their presence and their photos, and wield them accordingly. I hope elephants and other, less PR-friendly animals are still around in the wild for generations to come.
Want to learn more about how to help animals and make humane decisions? Try some of these resources below.
The Indian Government’s Project Elephant, started in 1992, lays out their plan for protection.
Disclaimer: I was in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism. They gave no input on my posts or their subject. The views contained are completely my own. I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org