5 Things I Learned Living In Brazil

(Photo Credit: Alejandro via Flickr)

I met my wifey a little over 10 years ago. I had been invited down for an old friend’s wedding where his Brazilian wife wanted to do a ceremony for her side of the family. So, I had some vacation time saved up and decided, what the hell? After the first week helping prep for and holding the wedding, I then had two more weeks on the side to travel around between Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro states. It was in Rio that I met my future love of my life, though of course I didn’t know it at the time!

Anyway, after a few years of long distance back and forth visits, Skype calls, and snot-filled emotional separations, we finally decided to make a go of it as I was soon to finish grad school. One of us had to make the move to other person’s country, or the relationship would just not last. At first, my wife said she would come to San Francisco where I lived. Then, as all good plans have unintended twists, the financial crisis of 2008 basically obliterated any and all potential job opportunities I might have wanted to pursue. And there was no way my wife (even though she already spoke English) was going to find a new job in the US either.

So, the decision was made to migrate down to the land of tropical beaches, samba and pineapples. The economy at that time was red hot, and I knew that as a native speaker, I could at least start teaching English right off the plane. I ended up living and working in Sao Paulo for 4 years. I wasn’t just another tourist either, passing through for a hedonistic spree during Carnival. I learned about another culture, learned to speak Portuguese, learned how to navigate the worlds largest bus system in a city of 20 Million, and saw some pretty damn incredible places.

Welcome to the Jungle…

Although, I’m back in the Bay Area (for now), I like to reflect back on my time in Brazil and what influenced me and how I now see the world in a different light. Travel of course always changes us, both mentally and spiritually. Living abroad can do it even more. Of course, nowhere is Utopia, and Brazil has it’s own set of challenges to overcome as it continues to develop. There are positives and negatives everywhere. But I think there are some important things us First Worlders could stand to learn from our bronze-skinned cousins down South:

1. Family Comes First:

Brazilians are big on family and their families are usually big. As one of my friends there once jokingly told me, “Greg, you can’t understand how family is for us. Its like this giant communal village that surrounds you from the minute you are born, and then accompanies you along for every single moment of your entire life, right into the grave.” He was saying it in a funny way, and I while I could tell that this kind of relationship was of course very supportive, it could also be constricting and complicated too.

But, I hardly ever met a Brazilian who was alone in this life. You never saw an old person, sitting home alone with nobody to talk to. For most senior Brazilians, there’s always family around to take care of you, and plenty of grandkids and grand nephews to play with and bring you joy. I think most Latin Countries have very low suicide rate as compared to the West, probably the large supportive family structures in these societies play a large part in this.

It’s also a social backup network too. If you lose your job, get sick, have a string of bad luck etc, there always room for you back at of the family compound. You’ll never be left out on the street, not as long as mom has a breath in her body and a pot of beans on the stove. American culture can be so harsh many ways: parents kick their kids out at 18: “Well son, you’re on your own now!”

2. Racism:

Though I will never deny that there’s also racism in Brazil, I guess it manifests itself differently. Of course, the color of the faces of the majority of the people in the favelas are black and brown, and slavery only ended in 1888! But I never felt that distinct separation between the races that you find in the US. There were never the types of Jim Crow laws enacted in Brazil to keep people of African descent officially locked out of society. I always saw groups of young people of all colors: Italian, Japanese, Lebanese et al. hanging out in big groups together and partying. Even in terms of love, so many marriages are intermixed. People are proud of having mixed children, it was almost like a point of patriotic pride.

As a white gringo walking down the street, strangers would sometimes call me “Alemão” (Big Kraut/German). An Asian person would be called “Japa” (it wouldn’t matter if you were Korean or Taiwanese), someone of African descent would affectionately be called “Negão” (Big Black Guy). Although I kind of got irked at these terms at first (I’m Jewish, don’t #$%@ call me German!), I realized that Brazilians haven’t adopted this knee jerk PC culture we find at home. Calling someone “Alemão” is just meant as light, humorous nickname. It’s like calling a bald man “Curly”. Nobody intends it as offense, and none is taken.

It seemed to me that most folks in Brazil identify with being Brazilian first, and then at some point recognize that they have an ethnic/immigrant identity somewhere in there down the line. Culturally, at least to me as an outsider, there’s no divide between the races and their foods, slang, music and interests. Everyone’s just…well, Brazilian.

3. Learn How To Relax:

Brazilians do work hard. It’s a still developing country, and life is not always easy for most people. Contrary to many foreigner’s imagined stereotypes about Brazil, people are not all laying around in hammocks all day, drinking tropical cocktails and dancing in tiny bikinis. It’s not Carnaval 24/7. In fact, as an English tutor in Sao Paulo to lawyers and executives, I was often shocked at their working hours. Their working day could sometimes end at 1 in the morning😵 Then they’d be up at 7am for our English lesson before getting back to their desk.

But, people also recognize the importance of slowing down and smelling the roses. Time is always made for family, leisure and relationships- not the other way around. Brazilians have 30 days off per year, to rest or to travel, and usually they love to go the beach (where they lie around in hammocks all day, drinking tropical cocktails and dancing in tiny bikinis). Vacation means vacation: where you disconnect your stupid smartphone, chill the fuck out, and have a beer in a laid back fishing village. Life is about having fun and being in love. Enjoy it before you drop dead of a heart attack in your cubicle at age 50.

(Photo Credit: Silveira Neto via Flickr)
4. Have A Positive Attitude:

One thing that struck me about Brazilians, even if they were spending their days dragging a wooden cart full of recycling through the city streets, was that they always had a smile on their faces. Always a positive attitude, a thumbs up sign and a belief that things were going to get better in the future. There was always an optimism in the spirit of the people you’d meet. Never sure where that came from, but it stood in marked contrast to us Americans and Europeans: we’re the richest people on Earth, but we’re all somehow strung out on anti-depressants.

Maybe it was because as a developing country, things are always on the up-and-up, always on the move. Life might be tough now, but 10 years from now, it will be better than before- and it will be even better for your kids. Perhaps in the Industrialized world, we’re seeing that our societies reached a peak where things were great, and now they’re invariably pulling back into a long slow, decline. I think again too, it comes back to being emerged in a large, caring family unit. It probably just gives you a better sense of happiness about yourself.

5. Work Is Not Your Identity:

One thing that confused the hell out of my spouse when she moved with me to the Bay Area was everybody always asked her (as Americans tend to do): “What Do You Do?” I know, the most annoying question in the world. I realize that most people are just trying to break the ice, or learn more about you, but for her as a Brazilian, that was the most irritating, nonsensical, boring-ass question you could ever ask someone. Why? Who cares, really?

For Brazilians, your job is just basically something you do, whether it be as a doctor or a beach vendor: something to pay the bills and take care of your family. It’s not your life. Your job doesn’t define your sense of identity or self-importance in this universe. In a country where so many jobs are just basic and don’t have a lot of potential to make you rich or successful, perhaps Brazilians prefer to simply not define themselves this way.  Americans on the other hand, because we’re supposed to always be aspiring to be an astronaut, a millionaire businessman or famous singer on MTV, our jobs are supposed to define us. What you do is who you are. Why? Most of us are never going to be rich and famous anyways, let’s drop the bullcrap and live our real lives when the working day is done.

Anyways, I ramble on. If there’s any Brazilians out there reading this: please forgive my naivety if any of the previous point seem incorrect to you. I know these are some very broad generalizations of a huge and complex country of 200 Million people. But as an Gringo in your country, these were just some of the observations I had…

What about you: Has traveling given a you a unique or different perspective on your own culture that you never had before? Has visiting or living somewhere else shown you fresh ways of existence that have changed your life for the better?

What Would You Do Without The Internet?

I’ll admit it: I am an internet addict. When I wake up on Saturday morning, the first thing I wanna do is brew an extremely strong pot of coffee and start reading the newspapers online. I like to start my morning with a dose of acidic caffeine and depressing humanitarian crises.

I run this blog too, so actively engaging followers and promoting my posts on social media can become a daily fixture. I try not to get sucked into Facefuck too much, but every few days, I do get the urge to check in. 9 out of 10 posts though are always just about Trump or Game of Thrones anyway, so its no longer very interesting to me.

I’m not anti social media per se, but it’s easy enough to get drawn into that world when you have free time on your hands. I think before when the internet didn’t exist, I would read more, practice music or be actively engaged outside the house with my friends. Not that I’ve stopped doing these things, but the internet can easily become a great way to entertain yourself all on your own. I’m an introvert by nature, so this is for sure a tendency I need to watch out for.

And there are absolutely great things to found online. All the world’s newspapers are there for your perusing. Blogs by artists, amateur journalists, dancers, travelers, photographers etc. You really do have access to just about all 6000 years of information known to humanity– and it’s accessible through your little plastic telephone. Honestly, you have no excuse for being ignorant anymore. The problem is that most people just use their telephone to look at videos of cats.

It seems like most of us nowadays are hooked into the internet for so much of our waking hours. We use it to shop, communicate, find a dating partner, apply for jobs etc, we start to be unable to function without its presence. Even though widespread internet use is only around 15 years old, it’s sometime difficult to know what the hell we did most of the time before it.

I went to Cuba in September of 2017, and the streets at night, even though they were devoid of street lamps, were simply FULL of young people, even kids, glued to their cheap Chinese laptops and smartphones. I hope they were actually doing something important with their newfound digital freedom- rather than just posting ducky lip selfies on Instagram.

So what would happen if the internet actually shut down?

Togo (no, it’s not a sandwich shop- its a small country in West Africa), actually experienced this just a few months ago due to a government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. What would you predict to be the consequences of people’s smartphones and laptops becoming useless?

I would say it was a mixed bag. You would hope that young people would actually start boozing it up and having more sex with each other during this social media blackout. Disappointingly, quite the opposite: they started becoming more productive and actually working hard to progress their society away from a corrupt dictatorship. Funny how the government’s tactics complete backfired on them. Maybe Millennials aren’t actually the smartphone addicted fucktards they’re usually depicted as after all…

Another shocking phenomenon emerged from this digital blackout: Men who previously sought to impress ladies by copying and pasting cute quotes and images on social media now had to go out, bring friends together in a bar, pay the bill and prove their real verbal and intellectual skills.” Verbal and intellectual skills: what the hell are those?!? Women are actually impressed by that stuff? What’s this world coming to I tell you?

Things only spiraled downwards from there: “Outside the workplace, without smartphones as a distraction, and with free time forcibly laid before them, people started talking to one another more; they walked in parks, enjoyed the outdoors.”

Then, the Coup De Grâce“Interest in reading surged. It was heartwarming to see restless kids and adults embracing dusty books and magazines. Spontaneous conversation with strangers surged […] Conversations were lively, as they had been in the days before social media. That old thing called family dinner lasted longer. Without interruptions, it felt as though people were more caring, more available to each other.”

Well, the jury’s not yet out on all of this. I know for many people, having dinner with their family is the equivalent of getting a nightly root canal, but later on in life you’ll miss those conversation you used to have with Grandpa about the “War Years”.

But besides the lack of inebriation and club hookups, an internet/social media shutdown could actually be good for society. You might actually improve your witty repartee with the ladies (although they’ll probably be more interested in fighting for democracy than giving you a blowjob). Furthermore, you might just start chatting with your next door neighbors and taking in nature.

As the journalist noted in his editorial, if the government had actually wanted to carry on with their dictatorship and not have young people rise up against it, they should have simply left the internet on. Most people would have just continued watching pornography, WhatsApping and YouTubing. Although we shouldn’t ever need an internet shutdown to pick up a book or start talking to strangers at the local pub. So when the Zombie Apocalypse hits, we will all just have to go back to talking to each other, playing acoustic instruments and killing zombies. Like back in the good old days…

What about you: would a world without internet be a nightmare or a blessing? What would you do with your time instead?

Interview With A Hippie Revolutionary!

Perhaps your impressions of Hippies are solely of narcissistic Baby Boomers with flowers in their hair, getting high at Woodstock, playing the pan pipe and living in a treehouse? Only to then sell out and become Reagan voting Yuppies? I’m sure there’s truth to every stereotype, and a few of the Hippie counterculture can certainly be ridiculed as such. But there were certainly others who talked the talk and walked the walk when it came to Civil Rights and the Anti War Movement.

This week, I interview Yvonne Madera Jaffe. She’s known me since I was a kid, and is truly a VERY inspiring person. You could call her my “Hippie Godmother” (at least I think of her that way). Since a lot of this blog concerns alternative cultures and different ways of living, I tried to find someone I knew who could better explain to me the heady times of the 1960’s and what that was really all about.

The Sixties happened before I was born. I always loved the music of the Beatles, Cream and Jimi Hendrix. but of course it’s difficult to know what it was like when I was never there myself. Hell, I even went to high school in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco: Ground Zero of the The Flower Power movement and the Summer Of Love. But what the heck was all that about anyway? What exactly was the philosophy behind all of these folks and their legacy? And most importantly: if your remember the Sixties, were ever really there??

Well brothers and sisters, prepare to open your narrow, little, square minds and have it completely blown wide open by someone who was there in full and dedicated her life to making the world a better place- even at the very real risk of death and injury to herself. Indeed, a lot of us complain and talk about change (count me in on that), but very few of us actually go out and make it happen for real. From becoming a Freedom Rider in Selma, Alabama and meeting Martin Luther King Jr., to working in social activism for most of her life, Yvonne should be an inspiration to us all. In this interview, she tells me about her experiences as a young woman at the height of the 1960s. You’re gonna hear it all: from Free Love, to Owsley LSD, to race riots, to what lessons, both Positive and Negative, younger generations can learn from their Hippie forebears:

Interview With A Hippie Revolutionary!


 

Comments? Has your impression of Hippies been changed by this interview?

Searching For The Perfect Cafe…

Jean Béraud (1849–1935) ~ Au Café

Was there ever a better place invented to spend your time than a traditional cafe? As quoted by the French Revolutionary politician, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, cafes were “the ordinary refuge of the idler and the shelter of the indigent”. The refuge of the idler, I like the sound of that. Idling: a rather underrated activity these days in our hyperconnected, need it now world. And from time to time, we all need a refuge from the madness.

By their very nature, cafes welcome us to come inside, order a steaming cup of joe, and no further action needs to be taken. You are free to stay there for hours. One can write, read the paper, people watch, strike up a conversation with our neighbors- or simply daydream and watch the world go by. Despite the liquid, brown-colored stimulants sold within, a good cafe beckons me to slow the fuck down and simply BE. Time to take time for oneself and think one’s own thoughts. Heresy, I know…

From the Middle East, to Vienna to Little Italy, how many great works of literature, political parties, verses of poetry, torrid love affairs and dastardly plots of intrigue have been hatched out of the great cafes of the world? Countless influential counterculture and artistic movements throughout history were incubated in warm cafes in the capitals of the world, and hopefully they continue to do so today. Caffeine stimulates the mind and inspires the soul.

Our wives have no idea what we do all day…

And cafes are by their nature cheap, and therefore egalitarian. Unlike a snooty cocktail lounge or nightclub, a cup of coffee shouldn’t cost you more than a few bucks, pounds or euros: giving you an excuse to get of your house and catch a breath of fresh air. No one cares how you dress or if you’re cool enough. Nor do I ever feel like a cow on a conveyer belt in a good coffeehouse: rushed in to consume something and then rushed out. Indeed, its an implicit understanding that you’re free to stay as long as you like and nurse that espresso till kingdom come (within reason).

So what makes a great cafe? For me, Cafe Trieste in North Beach, San Francisco is a timeless classic. Warm, family run, independent and welcoming. Purportedly, Trieste was the first cafe to serve espresso on the West Coast, and was an artistic hub for much of the Beat Generation during the 50s and 60s. On Saturdays, the owner, Giovanni Giotta, sang opera with his family for patrons. Though Giovanni has passed on, his descendants still perform traditional music for the public. Where would we be without the Italians, I ask you?

Far from the soulless, mass marketed coffeehouses that plague our suburban hellscapes, cafes like Trieste are perhaps a dying breed. Very few people staring vacantly into their laptops or droning on about asinine topics of conversation on their smartphones here. Like a good pub, it’s an extension of your living room- and if you’re a down and out musician, it might just be your only living room. Or at least, a helluva lot better than the one you have that’s current being used as your housemate’s boyfriend’s crash pad.

Here’s some photos I took of Trieste on a recent foray into the City on a Wednesday night:

It’s an appropriately Old World kind of place. Worn wood and colors of burgundy, tan and chocolate. And of course the cappuccino is as good as it gets.

A massive collage of photos and memorabilia adorns the walls. Speaking of which, those walls were probably white when the place opened, but decades of tobacco smoke created the sepia toned patina we see today. I hope the owners never repaint anything.

A nice mural depicting traditional life in the founder’s home country. I think that’s a photo of him in the bottom right hand corner.

And what cozy, living room type environment with be complete without a jukebox and an old school, pot bellied stove? Does this thing still work? This place is just timeless.

In any case, in your next free moment, get yo ass down to your local independent coffeeshop. Bring a book, a sketchpad, I’ll even permit you the use of your laptop if you really have to. Create something truly great, or simply watch the world go by. Long Live The Cafe!

Where’s your perfect coffeehouse and why?

Do Beatles Still Matter Today?

(Photo Credit: Nonna Store via Flickr)

Ever since I was a kid, some of my earliest memories were the strains of the Fab Four echoing in my ears. My parents were definitely Beatlemaniacs throughout the 1960s (along with the Rolling Stones, Cream and other great rock bands). Not so much the silly pop stuff the Beatles made when they first became successful, but the dark, complex, spaced-out rock music they made towards the middle and end of their career. The music that transformed how we view popular music as serious art, and not just another passing fad for screaming female tweens. Their strange blend of Indian, Classical, American Rock, Psychedelia and Victorian Music Hall is still both modern and old, challenging yet accessible, futuristic yet timeless.

I remember that my favorite cartoon to watch as a kid was the animated Beatles Yellow Submarine movie. If you’ve ever tried watching this film as an adult, you have to assume that those guys were on some serious LSD when they made it. That thing’s a drug-induced mess, all set to to the far out tunes of their late Sixties albums. I must have watched this thing over and over again: hypnotized by the colorful lightshow, the Good vs Evil storyline and the passionate yet trippy music. Truth be told, it probably warped my fragile, and as of then, unformed little infant mind. But hey: it made me into the warped adult I am today!

I was once backpacking through God-knows-where in a small town in Bolivia. I mean, this was some stopover in the high Andes desert, as remote a location on Earth as could be. The houses looked like they were made from mud. At a lunch cafe, as I paid the young girl waitress, she friendly asked me where I was from. We chatted a bit in my crappy Spanish and I told her I was born in England. Instantly, her eyes lit up and said she couldn’t believe that I was someone who came from the same country as the Beatles!

This was a girl who was probably born in the 90s. She told me that her room was full of Beatles posters and she was always trying to get translations of their lyrics into Spanish so she could better understand what they were talking about. We talked about why she liked them so much, and we both agreed that their music represented something positive for all humankind. Something that all people, no matter what country or culture they come from, should be able to relate to; the strands that connect us all. How does music from decades ago still resonate between two people (who could not have been further apart in culture, geography and socioeconomic class)?

Ultimately, why do the Beatles still matter? It was only just a few months ago that the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turned 50 years old. My dad told me that he, and everyone he knew, could remember where they were, and what they were doing on the exact day a new Beatles album came out. They were that culturally relevant in their time. I can’t think of too many artists these days that are viewed by an entire generation as so important. Sure, Justin Bieber sells a lot of records and is super famous right now, but will young people still remember him and be listening to his music Half A Century later? I doubt it.

In my mind, more than just about any other group of musicians over the years, the Beatles embody a message of Universal Truth and a hopeful vision for all humanity. The simple, yet strangely neglected, idea that Love, Music, Positivity, Beauty, and Divine Consciousness can triumph over the forces of Hate and Ignorance.

Maybe this all just seems naive, and I think it’s important not to revel in nostalgia for a long-ago past, but maybe these are values are worth holding onto in a chaotic, violent, and so often a negative world. I think they still do mean something important, at least to me, and I believe that they mean something to many other people the world over too, even to young cafe waitresses in some podunk town in the Bolivian desert. I hope that one day if I have kids, they’ll also get to grow up listening to and understanding what the Beatles have to say.

“Each Day Just Goes So Fast,
You Turn Around It’s Past,
You Won’t Find Time
To Hang A Sign On Me…”

– Love To You (Revolver, 1966)

Will Love, Positivity and Universal Truth rule the day? Is this life only to live in pain and fear, or there a vision of something deeper and better that we can all aspire to? What music has influenced your life ?

How Trainspotting Hits the Nail On The Head…

(Photo Credit: Train Photos via Flickr)

Now 20 years old and with a sequel that just came out, the book and subsequent film Trainspotting, deserves a second look. Trainspotting follows a motley bunch of thieves, junkies, hooligans and other assorted lowlifes in the gritty underbelly of Edinburgh, Scotland. Both the book and film are written & spoken in a thick as porridge Scots dialect, and even after having studied in Scotland for a year, I still have trouble understanding certain lines in the movie (unless I concentrate really hard).

A nihilistic, scatalogical, social satire of Post-Thatcher Britain and the struggles faced by working class youth, Trainspotting is a far cry from the Hugh Grant/Notting Hill/Downton Abbey/tea-with-the-Queen at Buckingham Palace bullshit stereotype that most foreigners probably have of the UK. Truth be told, there’s plenty of broken communities and people without hope strewn across the country: ghetto housing conditions, few economic prospects across multiple generations and the lure of drugs and alcohol to dull the pain. How much have things really gotten better since Irving Welsh’s novel picked this scab open in the early Nineties?

Of course the famous quote used from the movie is a brilliant takedown of the banality of modern life:

“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself.

Choose your future. Choose life.”

Ewan McGregor’s character, Rent Boy, then goes on to ask the question: “But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life… I chose something else… And the reasons- there are no reasons: who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?” Not that I would ever want to use heroin, but I can’t say I want to choose the kind of boring life (or future) encapsulated in his opening speech either. Matching luggage sets? Do people still but that sort of thing? And don’t forget the electric tin opener while you’re at it.

 “Choose Life” is supremely ironic, as it basically suggests that there really are no choices for you at all: just accept what’s given to you, buy the things you’re supposed to, work the job you’re supposed to do, push out 2.5 children and then die. That’s it. But hey, it delivers on the contentment factor. Renton and his drug-addicted associates somehow think they are rebellion personified as they choose to not choose all these materialist trappings of a complacent bourgeois life. But then again, heroin is just a prison of it’s own and a particularly nasty one at that.

I don’t think the film glamorizes drugs at all, and I hope it scared a few would-be romantics from ever trying it, though there’s always going to be a contingent of rock-stars and artists that tend to go overboard on the excess factor. Either way, it seems as though we’re forced to choose: an empty, monotonous future, or overdosing on smack, or even worse, dying of HIV in a squat somewhere on the outskirts of town. A pretty damn bleak view of things if you ask me. But hey, that why I love the cynical Scots attitude: we’re all going to die anyway, so you might as well party as much as possible and have a laugh while you’re at it.

At the end of the book and film, Renton does end up getting clean off of heroin (maybe), and after ripping off his best mates, apparently sets out to mold a new sell-out life for himself:

“Now I’m cleaning up and I’m moving on, going straight and choosing life. I’m looking forward to it already. I’m gonna be just like you. The job, the family, the fucking big television. The washing machine, the car, the compact disc and electric tin opener, good health, low cholesterol, dental insurance, mortgage, starter home, leisure wear, luggage, three piece suite, DIY, game shows, junk food, children, walks in the park, nine to five, good at golf, washing the car, choice of sweaters, family Christmas, indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing gutters, getting by, looking ahead, the day you die.”

So do we have a choice at all in the matter? Is it all just accepting what society hands us on a platter and we just have to choke it down as our lot in life? Is somehow the spiritually bankrupt accumulation of material things all we can really look forward to if we don’t choose to be a homeless loser? What is the alternative life we could be living? Is there a middle ground between square complacency and being a miserable drug addict on the margins of society? I don’t intend to follow the Trainspotting model thanks very much, but I’m glad it’s a movie that makes me think.

If You Had a Time Machine, Where Would You Go?

Lets face it, if any of you have been reading this blog so far, it should be starting to become blatantly obvious that I have a major infatuation with nostalgia and the past. From Sixties Rock Stars to 19th Century artistic movements, my vision always seems to refer back to a more romanticized time where things were “better/more passionate/more interesting/more authentic/more beautiful” etc etc. Perhaps this is just the trap that many of us humans just fall in to. Our childhoods always seemed like they were “happier times”, even though in the moment, they may have very well not been happy at all. With the passage of time however, I think it just becomes a natural tendency for most people to see everything that transpired before us through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

Case in point: one of my favorite movies: Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen. Though strangely miscast with Owen Wilson (probably playing the part that a young Woody Allen would have inhabited had he made the film 20 years earlier), Midnight follows the time-travelling adventures of a rather goofy American writer. After wandering through Paris at night, he finds, almost Narnia-like, a dark street corner where an antique motor car will pick him up at exactly midnight to be spirited away to 1920’s Paris.

There, he cavorts with his literary and artistic idols of the Lost Generation at wild late night parties in the cafe’s and gleaming brassieres of yore. Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Salvador Dali and F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald. Who the fuck wouldn’t want to do that for an evening out?? Alright, maybe some really boring people don’t like Paris or Time Travel, but for me, I’d dress up in my finest vintage suit, pop open a bottle of champagne with Django Reinhardt in a West Bank jazz club, then maybe try to seduce Josephine Baker while I’m at it- that is if her cheetah on a chain didn’t maul me to death first.

(Jean Béraud- La Rue de la Paix, via Wikimedia Commons)

Wilson’s character returns night after night to the same street corner, only to be picked up again by the antique car. In fact, he’s enjoying living in his fantasy of the past even more than his stressful, prosaic one in the present where his in-laws are boors and his marriage is falling apart. On one of his visits back in time, he meets a beautiful young Parisian woman, Adriana, and is instantly besotted. Wilson is almost ready to stay behind in Art Deco Paris forever; never to return to his previous life in the modern day.

However, in the most interesting scene in the film, the pair are walking around at night in the 20s, and encounter an antique, horse-drawn carriage waiting for them in the streets. They hop on for a ride, and soon find themselves riding through the gaslamp-lit streets of 1880s Paris- even further back in time. Wilson and Adriana meet up at a cafe and share some absinthe alongside Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin. Adriana exclaims her passion for the earlier “Golden Age” era of the Belle Epoque. To her, the arts, literature, culture and Paris itself were better and more real. Degas, Gauguin and Lautrec express their disdain for their modern era and wax nostalgic about Italy during the Renaissance. When it’s time to leave, Adriana simply can’t- unable to leave her idealized Bohemia of the Belle Epoque behind, she decides to stay in the 1880s, leaving Wilson to take his horse and carriage back to the “future” of the 1920s. Heartbroken, he decides to finally make his way back to his grey reality of the modern world.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Midnight is obviously centered around our nostalgia for a romanticized past. I’m sure Paris in the 1920’s was no cake walk for a large majority of its citizens. It was probably a shithole. Most people lived in cramped tenement apartments with no central heating or hot running water. Bathrooms were most likely down the hall and shared with your neighbors. Diseases like tuberculosis and polio were still not well understood and life expectancy was far shorter than today. The streets probably smelled like old urine. Actually, the last time I went to Paris, the streets still smelled like old urine- at least that much hasn’t changed.

Fast forward another 10 years, and war and fascism was rearing it’s ugly head all over Europe. In short, if you were a rich American expatriate like F. Scott Fitzgerald, life was a neverending series of fancy parties and glamorous dinners. For the average Parisian, life was probably, well… just life. In retrospect, there probably never were any “Good Old Days”. Maybe we should all just try to recognize the brilliance of our own days and make the best of them with the time that we have.

You know what’s great about Midnight in Paris though? A year after the film came out, my Uncle took a trip to Paris and said groups of people would dress in up in Art Deco costumes and have a party every Saturday night on the same steps where Owen Wilson would get picked up. At midnight they’d all cheer and toast with champagne. I don’t know if folks still do this at that location (can any Parisian readers attest to this?), but damn, that sounds like a crowd right up my alley!

So, if you had a time machine: where would you go? Is there an artistic subculture you’d like to go back in time and experience?

Are We All Just Deluded Chimpanzees?

(Photo Credit: Ted Van Pelt via Flickr)

“Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money!” 

-George Carlin

I was just revisiting some George Carlin standup videos on YouTube recently. I think I’ve begun another one of my posts using his quotes. Check Carlin out if you’ve never had the chance. Like his contemporary, Richard Pryor, he’s both a very funny comedian and thought provoking at the same time. As the “Dean Of Counterculture Comedians” (as a newspaper once labeled him), Carlin always encouraged his audience to think for themselves and question the powers that be. In this case, his target was organized religion.

If you consider yourself a Freethinker, a Bohemian, a Hippie, a Goth, a Punk, a Hip Hop poet, a Rebel, a whatever… (who needs labels, right?) probably organized religion is not going to sit too well with you and your stunningly perceptive mind. I know for myself, I’m someone who doesn’t accept the easy answers in life. Maybe the Bible or the Torah are exactly the final word on God, Existence and the Afterlife. But I just can’t accept that it’s all laid out for my mind like a cushy, plush red carpet. I only need to stroll along the velvet-roped path to end all my doubts, questions and worries. The easier the answer is to the Big Questions, the more I question the simple convenience of those answers.

Neither can I accept the powerful institutions that grow up around religion and how that they, and they alone, hold the keys to all these big answers. Some crusty old white dudes in Rome, surrounded by gold, palaces and paintings by Renaissance Masters can communicate with God in some sort of special way and pretend to know His plan alone (and gays and women can stay in their place). Don’t even get me started in on Islam: some crusty old Middle-Eastern dudes surrounded by gold, palaces and Mercedes-Benzes forbid us to drink alcohol, fornicate and satirize religion (and gays and women can stay in their place).

Sorry, I just don’t get it. What’s the appeal? What is it about religion and the DENIAL of pleasure? The more you abstain from in this worldly life, the higher in rank one becomes in the eyes of so many organized religions cults. I’ll enjoy my glass of aged whiskey before bed thank you very much, and highly doubt that when I die, if there is a sentient God, He/She is going to be very concerned about how much bacon I ate, or some sloppy one night stand I had in college.

I’m not knocking Personal Spirituality: many people in times of hardship take comfort in believing in a higher purpose to their lives. If staring up at night sky and marveling at the vastness of the universe inspires you (I know it does me), then all the power to you. But Thinking For Yourself– now there’s a novel idea. Question authority wherever you find it, and do what pleases you in this lifetime- as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Live your life the way you feel it should be lived.

You only have one chance to get it right and once you’re gone- you’re gone. Even if you ascend onwards to some higher plane of existence, you’re not coming back to this one in the same way. So, enjoy your days while you have them. Stop denying what you’d love to do in your life out of fear of violent retribution by some Invisible Sky Wizard invented by illiterate desert sheepherders 2000 years ago. Drink a bottle of red wine and fornicate in a public park. Besides getting arrested, I guarantee nothing really bad is going to happen to you. There is no Universal Truth folks (except, of course, every word that I’ve ever written in this blog).

With all the violence being committed in the name of religion in today’s world (and throughout human history for that matter), maybe it’s time we took a step back from all this primitive barbarity and the justification behind it based on unverifiable emotions and feelings… Just sayin’.

What do you think? Are we all just deluded chimpanzees denying ourselves meaning in this lifetime?

Is It OK To Be Lazy?

I remember a conversation I had with an English teaching co-worker in Brazil. He had just broken up with his fiancé in Sao Paulo, and had decided to rapidly quit his job at our school and move to another city in the South of the country where he could be closer to his family (he was half-British/half-Brazilian). I suggested that when he arrived at the city where his parents lived, he could try opening up his own English school; be his own boss etc. His answer left me somewhat dumbstruck:

“I’m a lazy person, Greg- I’m not ashamed of it. Its how I am. I just wouldn’t want to put all that effort into something like running my own business.”

He said it in all seriousness, without a trace of irony in his voice. Clearly, he knew his own personality to a tee- and had no hesitation in expressing it in straightforward terms. ZFG: Zero Fucks Given. It almost made my jaw-drop to hear someone say that without apologies. In fact I admire him for it: it was almost a revelation to hear.

I think a lot of people, particularly in American culture, would actually be quite ashamed to openly label themselves a lazy person. It’s probably the greatest, cardinal sin in our society: Idleness and lack of ambition. Ask people what they did with their weekends, and they often reply enthusiastically: “Oh, Busy!” with this burnt-out hysterical smile on their face. As if it was a boast- the greatest accomplishment of their week.

Probably this mindset was inherited from those really unhip Puritans. They were so uptight, even England got sick of them and kicked them out. I mean really, how can a country founded by religious fundamentalists who hated music, dancing, drunkenness, fun, fornication and socialization between the sexes be good for anyone? (And that means you too, ISIS Caliphate) Lets build some barns and pray all day, holy crap. I wouldn’t have lasted a day in that colony. Probably would have been better if they had all just starved to death at Plymouth Rock and the Irish had built a pub on it’s ruins. Then invited the local Indians around for pints and a game of darts.

I know, I know, we can’t avoid work: but neither should we avoid relaxation, playtime, fun and idleness. In fact, I do like working, and will work hard, if it’s something I care about or fascinates me (like writing this blog for instance). I do also make it a point to exercise 4 times a week. However, there seems to be a tendency, a decidely modern one at that, that lauds being busy for the mere sake of it. If you’re not running around like a chicken with your head cut off, there’s something undefinably wrong with you. You’re a bum! Well, maybe there’s something undecidedly wrong with our own culture?

Take a comparison between the UK and the USA. Although, both countries have relatively similar bad habits (drinking, smoking, greasy food), the Brits have far lower rates of diabetes, heart attacks, hypertension, strokes and cancer. How can this be? Some might argue that the defining difference (although the Brits also guarantee heath care regardless of economic ability to pay) have far less working hours and far more vacation time. In fact, it’s guaranteed by law. Here’s a screen shot from the benefits section of the McDonald’s website in the UK:

Ouch- that’s kind of like a slap in the face if you’re American. How much holiday/rest time do American fast food workers receive? None? “Oh, you were diagnosed with a brain tumor today? Come in to work or you’re fired”.

Or maybe we could adopt the Japanese model, where they literally have a term called Karōshi (過労死): “overwork death”. Young men who apparently should be in the prime of health, slipping into a coma at the job and never waking up. WTF?!? Don’t worry, his bosses found someone else to take his place on the assembly line the next day. His sacrifice will never be forgotten by the Toyota Board of Directors.

In any case, maybe it’s time we all slowed down a bit. Don’t feel guilty about not being busy all the damn time. Take time for YOU. Get enough goddamn sleep per night- it’s actually bad for your health not to. Your brain will literally start to eat itself without enough rest. Fill your downtime with hobbies, activities, passions, interests, friends and family. Before you “Karoshi”. Work isn’t everything you know…

How To Survive A Hurricane In Cuba (Part 3): Logistics

Sunset Over Trinidad

As I’ve mentioned before, Cuba is a funny place: they march to the beat of their own conga drum, for better or for worse. You can follow the death-defying narrative of this trip in Part 1 and Part 2. This can however be a little problematic for first time travelers going there, especially Americans who are now just getting to take advantage of the newfound Glasnost- or for however long that lasts. This post is for pure logistics of how to get here, what to bring, money, how to get around, and dealing with immigration matters (particularly for Americans and those on Green Cards). And just a heads up: I’m not receiving any affiliate or referral income for any of the below links, they’re just the one’s we used or were recommended to us.

Getting Here:

We used Skyscanner to buy our tickets. The prices from the San Francisco in September were very reasonable: $350 per person roundtrip, with a layover in Mexico City. Bear in mind though that our tickets were purchased in the low season. There are (for now) direct flights to Havana from Miami, New York and Charlotte, among others. You will have to choose what category of Tourist Visa you’ll be visiting Cuba under. More on that later, but most people choose the rather vague “Support For The Cuban People”. Just select one and try to be consistent about it.

What To Bring:

This was probably the most challenging area you’ll have to deal with. Most products you’re used to easily obtaining in your own country just aren’t commonplace in Cuba. Hell, there’s hardly any stores at all on the street anyway. Do you really want to spend 3-4 hours of your vacation wandering around Havana in 95 degree heat trying to find this stuff? Me neither.

For me, I’m very a fair skinned, ginger freckle face: copious SPF 50+ sunscreen is a must for me in countries with strong sun. My wife has a long, thick mop of mixed/afro/curly hair: for her, quality shampoos and conditioners are just a daily part of life. So we just had to plan on the fact that these products wouldn’t be sold on normal store shelves during our trip, they had to be brought from home.

Ideally, we would have liked just to have brought only lighter carryons into the cabin of the plane and not dealt with baggage claims at all in Havana Airport. I can attest personally that it took 1.5 hours to get our bag in a dark, low-ceilinged, sweltering hot claim area. It was exhausting and would be even worse for someone older or with small children. Welcome to Revolutionary Communist efficiency!

I would say the lifesavers for us were the following items:

  • Toothpaste
  • Sunblock
  • Microfiber Towels (they dry easily)
  • Deodorant
  • Skin Moisturizer
  • Condoms/Birth Control
  • Tampons/Pads
  • Wet Wipes
  • Antibacterial Hand Gel
  • Kleenex (quite a few packs)
  • Head Mounted Flashlight
  • Color Photocopies Of Your Passports
  • Money Belt
  • Sun Hat
  • Sunglasses

I would say specifically the Kleenex was highly important. Often, you’ll pay $1CUC simply to use the bathroom somewhere and they don’t even have toilet paper there (so what did you just pay for?!?) We seriously tried to buy toilet paper in Cuba. Not once, I’m not even kidding, did we ever see it anywhere for sale. So, you have been warned in advance.

The headlamp was also great for reading at night, particularly when we lost power for 4 days during Hurricane Irma: a lifesaver when there’s nothing else to do. Copies of your passports are highly important, especially if you lose them, and also Cuban’s may often ask you for ID when using a hotel pool or renting snorkel masks etc. The money belt was also a must as we were traveling with $3000 worth of cash. Losing it or having it stolen was not an option in a country where our American-based debit cards would not function. If you lose your cash, you’re up a creek without a paddle!

Health Insurance:

We kept reading and hearing about the need to buy traveller’s health insurance before going to Cuba. I have a few friends who go regularly, and they said it was never an issue. On their advice, we didn’t bother purchasing any. But when we arrived at the airport, there was a desk just after passport control with two rather tarty-looking nurses (black fishnet stockings and stiletto heels) stopping some tourists at random. I assumed this was an inquiry about if they had insurance or not. Apparently if you don’t have it, you have to buy the Cuban version there at the airport. I just pretended I didn’t see them and walked right past. If you want be safe, try World Nomads and print out a copy to bring with you.

Money:

Cuban Tourist Currency

This is another uniquely confusing aspect of Cuban life that took a bit of creative thinking to get used to. There are 2 forms of currency in Cuba: CUP’s are for the locals, though you can try to exchange it. It is very low in value, but you can use it to pay for small things like ice cream and local bus rides. CUC’s “Convertible Pesos” are for tourists. At this time of writing, its value was a little over the Dollar, but less than the Euro. As a tourist, you’ll probably only ever deal in CUC’s and you can exchange them just outside the front doors of the airport before you catch a taxi into Havana. On the streets, branches of “Cadeca” money exchanges are another option. I found them to be air conditioned, clean and professional.

Since we could not use our American based debit or credit cards nor Greenbacks in Cuba, we had to bring in foreign currency and then change it there. We opted for Canadian Dollars, but Euros and Pounds Sterling are also good. We had to bring it all in cash, which I did not like, all $3000 worth for 2 1/2 weeks. We converted the 1st half at the airport and the second half in Trinidad at a Cadeca branch. Plan on dividing some of the money between different places on your person and in your bags: in case you lose it, you don’t want to lose it all! All in all, we spent almost all of that money, and I didn’t feel we were going buck wild on the spending. A few fancy dinners, 4-5 drinks per day, taxi rides, 30-40 CUC per day for homestay accommodation. It adds up fast and is certainly far more expensive than Mexico.

Where to Stay:

Casa Particular with Blue & White Icon (Photo by momo)

You have to have an address for where you will first stay when you arrive. After that, its fair game. We chose AirBnB for a private apartment for our first 5 nights in Havana. It was pretty convenient and simple to arrange. Though I’ve had issues with AirBnB before in the States, I think Cuban’s reliance on these new platforms brings in a livelihood they have never had before. I wasn’t too worried about our Cuban hosts canceling on us at the last minute.

As our stay with our hosts came to an end, they inquired where we would be going to next. They were more than happy to call ahead to a friend’s casa particular (homestay) over in Varadero and reserve it for us. In fact, all of our hosts did this for us, so it simply became an ongoing chain of referrals. Honestly though, there are so many casa particulares in every Cuban town, you could just simply show up and find one within the first few minutes of walking down the street with a suitcase in your hand. The street touts will almost fight each other for your business.

I liked the aspect of the homestay accommodation in Cuba. So much is done differently there, that the hosts always went out of their way to call a taxi for us, arrange a tour, set up our next place to stay etc etc. They made things easy (though I realize they were all probably getting a small commission every time they did this). So, dust off your high school Espanol and bust out of the all inclusive resort my friends- you won’t regret it.

Getting Around Inside Cuba:

Cuba ain’t exactly the most efficient place in world, and public transport is no exception. Let’s take the example of the intercity bus company, ViaAzul. To simply get the ViaAzul bus from say Havana to Varadero (about 2 hours away), you’d have to buy the bus ticket at least 1 day in advance. There are no other offices in Havana where you can buy a ticket for these buses, you have to take a taxi to the bus station on the periphery of Havana, near the airport, and buy your ticket there. Then take a taxi back to your hotel. Then on the day of your journey, you need to take a taxi again to the bus station, travel, and then taxi again to wherever you are staying in the next city.

For all this hassle and rather pricey taxi rides (3x $10 taxi rides in Havana to accomplish your bus travel), you might just be better off taking private cars for the same price- especially if you are traveling in a group. Luckily we were in a group of three, but if you’re even remotely sociable, you should be able to meet other travelers going your way. There are sometimes even taxi drivers standing in front of the bus stations simply offering “Taxi Collectivo: Havana, Varadero, Cienfuegos etc” before you go in. If you can get four riders, negotiate with him for a fair price. It’ll save you both a crap load of time, as well as often money.

Immigration (Coming Home):

This is just for American travelers and Foreign Nationals with Green Card residency in the US. All other nationalities don’t have to worry about the below categories, though you may still have to purchase a travel visa to enter Cuba. Check your local Consulate or Travel agency to be sure.

For Yanks, you have to buy a “Tourist Card” before you board the plane for Havana. Honestly, this just seems like a bureaucratic formality at this point. We bought ours at the “I” information desk next our the departure gate at Mexico City airport. It cost $20 per person and was simple as cake. But try to be consistent in what you decide to select. Don’t say you’re coming in on a Mormon Mission and then spend your time dancing salsa and cavorting with the local talent (not that that’s wrong or anything). The categories are:

  • Family visits
  • Official business or the US government, foreign government and certain intergovernmental organizations
  • Journalistic activity
  • Professional research
  • Educational activities
  • Religious activities
  • Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions
  • Support for the Cuban people
  • Humanitarian projects
  • Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  • Exportation, importation or transmission of information or informational materials
  • Certain export transactions

When arriving in Havana, I heard that the immigration agents would simply stamp the Tourist Card and leave my American passport blank, but they quickly stamped it without asking. Oh well. Keep the Tourist Card with you for your whole trip, they’ll want it back before you board your flight home.

Here It Is: A Cuban Stamp In My Passport. Come Get Me, Yankee Imperialistas!

Upon returning back to the States, I got no guff from CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) agents. They did ask me if I was bringing in any alcohol or tobacco products. I did say I’d bought about $40 bucks worth of cigars. “Cuban’s?” he asked, arching an eyebrow inquisitively. “Yeah”, I said, “but I got ’em at Duty Free”. “Well, be careful: there’s a lot of fakes out there”, he replied. Seems like he knew where I’d gone, but I don’t even think he looked at the stamps in my passport. In any case, you are allowed to legally bring in up to $100 worth of rum and cigars now from Cuba.

In my wife’s case, she’s a Brazilian passport holder living in the US on a Green Card. So although there are no restrictions on Brazilians traveling to Cuba, the US government treats GC holders the same as a normal US Citizen who wants to go there. Upon returning, they definitely scrutinized her a lot more than me. We agreed the best policy was to have her category and justification worked out beforehand, and to simply be forthright regarding her travel history if asked. The agent did ask her where she’d been and when she replied Cuba, they asked her about 3-4 more questions about what she’d done there and why. That was all. Just don’t try to bullshit the CBP Officers: they don’t appreciate it and can certainly make trouble for you if you are not a citizen.

I Think That About Covers It. Let Me Know If You Have Any Other Questions!