Fusterland

One of my favorite parts of these journalism trips is getting to latch on to the students’ story ideas. I’m sort of the “video guy” on the trip, along with my friend and graduate student Zach. That means I get to tag along with students to film their interviews and make a video accompanying their articles. Some of my most treasured memories come from these types of experiences, like meeting a sword maker with Alex in Toledo, Spain or visiting a self-sufficient mental hospital with Bridget in Thessaloniki.

Last week, Chris and Milton let me tag along with them to interview former Cuban baseball captain Carlos Tabares. Tabares is a huge deal here in Cuba, and turned down multiple offers to play in the MLB during his career. It was absolutely surreal sitting in his living room and watching a documentary about him…with him. We’ve also spoken with the sportscaster who used to announce his games, and today made plans to talk to some kids that are learning to play baseball. It’s been a great time getting involved in the baseball world here, and I’m really excited to produce the video.

The other “video person” on the trip is Annina, who is actually a business major with a minor in video. I got to help her out with a video she’s making on Fusterland, a series of houses in Havana that have been completely covered in mosaics by the artist Jose Fuster. He started with his house, and over the years the entire block has been taken over by painted tiles. We got extremely lucky and waltzed in to his house, met his childhood friend, who told us we had five minutes to interview Fuster on camera. Luckily he was extremely nice and gave us the time for a solid interview. We spent the rest of the day talking to other artists in the neighborhood, who have sprouted up thanks to the inspiration Fuster has given them. It was a great look into the lives of the people who make up the town, in a place that’s normally seen as just a tourist trap. It’s easy to see why tourists flock there, though. I mean look at these photos.

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Trinidad…Wow

We had our first overnight excursion this past weekend to Trinidad, on the eastern side of the island. To say it was a great experience would be boring and would also really undersell how much I loved it. It was easily my favorite time of the trip so far, and I got Cuban poison ivy during it so that should tell you something. More on that later.

Part of what made the trip so fun was that we got to stay in homestays. I loved living in a homestay during my time in Barcelona in 2015, along with my current roommate to this day, Alex. It really lets you get to know the people of the place you’re living in and taste their homecooked and usually delicious food. This time was no exception, as the guy who ran our homestay, Camilo, was an awesome person. On our second night there, he causally asked if we liked video games. An hour and a half filled with discussion of every possible game we could think of later, he was showing us his gaming computer that he built himself. He and a bunch of guys from the community had set up a server to play games locally with each other, each with their own nickname like Rambo or Ghost. Our friendship secured, he gave us some complimentary Cuban cigars.

As if that wasn’t enough, he was also the owner of one of the cutest puppies I’ve ever seen (well behind Scout though). He also had a really cute four-year-old daughter named Vanessa and an albino rabbit. Here are some photos of my homestay roomies, Alejandro (who we all call Castro) and Irvin, with their new friends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The trip also had our first trip to the beach, my first time seeing a salsa band in person, a club at the bottom of a cave, and some incredible views from the top of mountains. Sunday, we hiked to a waterfall a little outside the city. When I swam underneath the caves behind the waterfall, there were bats flying around above me. It was a surreal experience. Somewhere along the way, I came into contact with some guao (hilariously pronounced WOW) and have a rash on the back of both my thighs.

The waiting room at the Cuban hospital.

I got to experience the Cuban medical system firsthand, and it was honestly pretty impressive. I didn’t have to pay for anything, didn’t have to trek to a pharmacy after getting my prescription and so far the treatment is working well. My past experiences with poison ivy had me scared that it would quickly take over my whole body, but it seems to be receding. Instead of showing you a picture of that, check out some pics from an awesome weekend.

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Cuba Chrome

Havana has classic 1950s American cars everywhere. That is the one thing I knew about Cuba before I started doing some reading for this trip. It’s clearly seen here as a big draw for tourists, as a driving tour in a 50s convertible was the very first activity we did upon arrival. What I didn’t realize, though, is that they’re very much a part of life for everyday Cubans. People use them as taxis and many have them as their own personal cars.

The convertible we toured in on our first day. As you can see it’s also a taxi. 

Driving and fixing up these cars is a big part of the culture, as I saw while helping film for a piece that Paxtyn and Kaitlyn are working on about mechanics. Paxtyn and I visited the Havana Car Club and interviewed the president (in Spanish without a translator which was a minor miracle) and his son. These guys drive their cars to a bar, hang out, drink and talk cars. As the president’s son said, it’s a way for them to share their craziness (about cars) together.

As you can imagine it’s incredibly hard for Cubans to get parts for these antique cars. When we asked the club members about talking to someone who made parts for the cars, they unanimously nominated a guy sitting at the bar. In 2011 Discovery Channel made an eight-part documentary about the club called “Cuba Chrome” and this guy, we were told, was the star.

The next day we met him at his home, and it was clear why he stole the show. A neon green Ford Thunderbird sitting out front was the first sign we were in the right place. Across the street there was a 1929 Ford Model A. The “magician,” as he’s called, smiled as he took the tarp off a 1926 Ford that sits right in front of his house. I think he could tell I’d never seen a car that old up close. The thing measured its output in AMPERES for God’s sake. I don’t even know what those are. We had a great interview where he described the difficulty of customizing screws and gaskets to fit cars from almost a hundred years ago. It was one of those experiences I’ll never forget. Look out for Paxtyn and Kaitlyn’s video, which will put the Discovery Channel’s to shame.

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Art and Revolution

Our first class visit was to the Cuban Museum of Revolution and it lived up to its striking name. There were tanks and planes used by Che and Castro in the revolutionary wars scattered around the building. The museum actually used to be the seat of the Cuban presidents. At one spot you can see bullet holes still in the walls from an uprising that took place years ago. It was really interesting to get a glimpse into the Cuban perspective on the revolution that made the country what it is today.

Cuban identity can also shines through in the art, as we’ve seen from the few galleries we’ve had the chance to visit. The first was a space in downtown Havana that displayed some recent abstract Cuban art. As my more attentive readers will remember, I am not the biggest fan of abstract art, mainly because I don’t “get” it and the confusion frustrates me. This gallery did have one section that I enjoyed though, which was a collage of different newspapers from around the world, each covered in strands of string so that the words could barely be read. Even I could grasp that it was about censorship. It looked nice, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next was a surreal-looking studio in Las Terrazas. The studio overlooks a beautiful lake and is surrounded by greenery. If it was in a movie I would have said it was a little on the nose. The art was interesting, but did seem a little bit like it was intended for tourists to buy it. The John Lennon/Che combination photo in particular had that feel to it.

Today, we visited my favorite art studio by far, mainly because of the artist himself. Don’t get me wrong, the art was beautiful and thought-provoking. But the artist really stole the show with how intelligent and well-spoken he was. I’m actually going to be making a short video profile next week when I go back to have a sit-down interview with him. Stay tuned for that, but for now enjoy some of his art.

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Kicking Off Cuba

Full disclosure: I’ve been in Cuba for a week now. I’ve been behind on my blogging because Internet isn’t readily available at the house I’m staying in (along with all the students on the trip). In Cuba Internet is only accessible in hotel lobbies and “Wifi parks” which are basically just public parks where you can pick up a signal. You can usually tell them apart from regular parks by the group of Cubans hanging out staring at their phones. I can deal with the lack of connection at the house though, because it is GORGEOUS. I mean look at this.

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One of our first trips was to the Cuban Museum of Revolution, but I’ll get into that in a separate post about museums and art galleries (try to contain your excitement). What I will get into is our excursion this weekend to Las Terrazas, or “The Terraces.” This was truly one of the most beautiful and different places I’ve ever seen. It’s an eco-tourism community, filled with tons of different plants and animals. It started in the 60s, when the Cuban government united a group of people living in poverty in the mountains. Together, they planted millions of crops and created enough of an economy to start their own community. Those families’ descendants are the residents of the community today.

The backstory is cool enough, but the sights were also unreal. We climbed to the top of a mountain to see an old French coffee plantation and took in the view. A group of us even got to zipline down. I faced my previously discussed butt-tingles and joined in, and it was well worth it. Check it out.

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Tingles

The last week has been nonstop travel and I could not be happier about it. After a quick walk around Frankfurt, my mom and I headed out to Lucerne, Switzerland to start our mini-vacation. Lucerne is definitely a tourist location, which I thought was strange because I had never heard of it before my mom told me we were going there. Clearly I’m not as worldly or cultured as I think I am. There’s a reason it’s a tourist stomping ground–the whole city was walkable in a day and every part of it was impressive.

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My first impression of Switzerland was actually their money. They don’t use euros, they use Swiss francs. It’s really cool looking and colorful, and the coins make absolutely no sense. The half-franc, what is basically 50 cents, is smaller than the 10 cent coin. Why? Maybe it’s to distract you from how RIDICULOUSLY expensive everything is in Switzerland. Our cab driver today basically apologized on behalf of his country for the prices here. It’s the problem with having a good economy, he said. Nice problem to have.

I really can’t complain, though because I’m not paying for anything, my mom is Switzerland is an incredibly beautiful place. Lucerne was nice, but our trek up to the Swiss Alps blew it out of the water. I’ve seen a lot of great views in my life, but I was consistently awestruck walking by the snow peaks of the Alps. We stayed in the small town of Murren, 5,000 feet up in the mountains. If you’ve read my blog or been around me in high-up places, you know my battle with butt tingles. It’s an uncontrollable reaction I have to heights. It’s not fear (it probably is) it’s just an uncomfortable feeling that I have to live with. Butt trust me, it was well worth it for the experiences I got this week.

Yesterday, we took a cable car up to a peak and hiked 4,000 feet back down to the town, Wengen, that we left from. That hike was equal parts fun, tiring and completely zen. Everything was quiet, the weather was perfect, and the fields of flowers surrounding us contrasted with the giant snowy masses around them took my breath away more than the altitude did. My mom definitely enjoyed herself and I could tell because she was taking photos of everything. Literally. She stopped for five minutes trying to get a photo of a singular butterfly. It flew away and she called it something I can’t repeat here. Here’s another slideshow.

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The views during that hike were unbelievable. Pictures really don’t do the scale of the mountains justice. We kept saying that it looked painted on, and it really does. It looks like a trick that Wiley Coyote tries to pull on the Roadrunner. You keep expecting to run into the wall but you never do. I took some time-lapses of clouds around the mountains, and I think those do a decent job of showing just how small they make you feel. Check them out.

Whirlwind

Settle in, this is a long one. Believe it or not, I was actually too busy to blog this week. Everyone needed to finish up their final stories in Athens, and I saddled myself with probably more video work than I could realistically handle. But like most things that require a lot of effort, this week was certainly worthwhile. We posted some great stories, from the state of healthcare for refugee mothers, to startups budding up across Greece (one of the few bright spots in the Greek economy according to one journalist who came to speak with our class), to the plight of endangered sea turtles.  There are still more to come, including the feature piece on the refugee crisis. I did a video for that as well, but I won’t share it here until it’s posted on our site, which you can check out here by the way.

Quick look at me trying to keep my eyes open this week.

This week also took me to some incredibly unique places, that I never would have seen on any brochure. That was actually the mantra of the first interesting person I met this week, John “Brady” Kiesling. He is a former U.S. diplomat who retired over his concerns about the legitimacy of our entry into war Iraq in 2003 (good call, Brady). He now has invented an app called ToposText, that shows users the history of where they are standing right from their smartphone–no brochure necessary. He took Mike and I up to the Pnyx, the place where democratic meetings used to held in ancient Greece. It had an awesome view of the Acropolis and the city, but he said most people don’t go there because it’s not on the usual tourist checklist. Panorama. 

Next up was a trip to Sepolia, a neighborhood of Athens where NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo (I’m a pro at spelling this now) grew up. There is a court there dedicated to him, with his image painted across the entirety of it. Brandon, Theo and I talked to a bunch of the kids playing there about their favorite players and teams. We also got to meet the scout who discovered the “Greek Freak” and interviewed him at our hotel. Brandon’s story on Giannis and the neighborhood is awesome, and is also up on our site.

Then on Saturday, Bridget and I paid a visit to Ergastiri, a training facility for people with mental disabilities. The residents there are put into classes and taught to make their own products: cookies, pasta, rugs, soap, gifts, ceramics, you name it. It was a beautiful facility and it pained me to remember that we were there because the Greek government hasn’t been able to pay facilities like it for well over a year. Story and video on that still to come.

Residents of Ergastiri working looms to make rugs.

Finally, I also got in some interviews for my personal project, which is a video on the Exarchia neighborhood of Greece and the street art there. The neighborhood is known for its rebellious and anarchist spirit…and its great street art. I’ll save most of the description for the video (which I’ll post on here later when I find the time to edit it) but the coolest part of making it was meeting the street artist Cacao Rocks.

Some street art by Cacao Rocks outside his studio.

Just like that, another dialogue is over. It was as much fun as I thought it would be, but also more challenging than I expected. I went out of my comfort zone a lot and I’m really happy I did (Carlene even said I wasn’t lazy!). One thing that never changes throughout these trips is my love of seeing new places and meeting new people. I’ll keep the blog up as I travel through Switzerland in the coming week, but I can’t think of three better pictures to post to officially end this dialogue.

Click to enlarge and have nightmares.

 

 

When it rains, it hails

At least in Athens it does. Yesterday I went to get some lunch after taking a break from cutting down Arabic interviews for an upcoming piece on the refugee crisis on the mainland of Greece. I went to McDonald’s. Yeah, I said it. I would say something about how each McDonald’s in a different country has it’s own feel and I wanted to see what it was like…but I passed over the “Greek Mac” and went for a quarter-pounder with cheese and fries. I’ve eaten a lot of Greek food, so judge away, I’ll be alright.

On the way back, the Greek gods seemingly wanted to punish me for my American lunch choice, and it started raining. I was not prepared for this in the slightest, so I took shelter under the library a few blocks from our hotel. At first I was pissed because my shoes were ruined and my pants were soaked through, but as I looked out on the square I realized I actually had a great view. As the good little videographer I am, I took a time-lapse video which you can see here, as well as a riveting close-up on the hail that was coming down with the rain. What started out as a negative ended up being a pretty cool experience.

That’s starting to happen a lot on this trip. On Saturday, I was excited for the whole group to visit an island for a beach day, which we missed out on in Thessaloniki because of the rain. It started out looking like a disaster, as we struggled to get ferry tickets and were looking at a lot of cloud cover. When we got to the shore, the beach we could see looked meager to say the least. But after consulting some maps and following Ellie’s leadership, we made it to a really nice beach and had a great day. I was so happy about the sun coming out that I soaked it in probably a little too much and have a nasty sunburn. But guess what? That burn is going to be a tan (and possibly skin cancer down the line but we’ll ignore that for the sake of this analogy). Negative to positive.

On Sunday I had decided to wake up early to go to a mass with Bridget. I woke up feeling like every bit of my skin was on fire and really regretted the decision. But once we got there that regret flew off me like a piece of peeling skin. The church was gorgeous, and the priests were decked out in ridiculously elegant clothes and had extravagant facial hair to match it. There was a chorus of about twenty men singing ancient hymns, and it wasn’t hard for me to imagine Greeks having mass hundreds of years ago.

It’s around this time that everyone starts to get stressed out, including me. Students start chirping me that I don’t do anything, deadlines are being imposed and everyone’s realizing that we only have single-digit days left in this great place and they might not get to fully experience it. While my main job is to do a head count to 19, I also like to make sure everyone gets a positive experience out of this trip, and doesn’t come away seeing it as a wholly stressful time or worse, a waste of time. I’m still friends with people I grew close with on these trips (shoutout to commenter Gina-Maria), I’m living with my roommate from my first time as a TA and I still show the work I did abroad to employers and they’re always usually impressed. It probably doesn’t sound great coming from me because I don’t have to write stories like the students do, but I was in their shoes not too long ago and I know how it feels. To complete the shitty analogy, the burn will wear off and everyone will probably be craving the Greek sun once we’re back in our normal lives for a little while. So let’s put on some sunscreen and get through this week.

Gallery: Acropolis Visit

A selection of photos from our visit to the Acropolis and Acropolis museum (here you go Mom and Dad):

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The Road to Athens

I’m in Athens. It’s been a busy past few days and we’ve been on the road for quite a while. The drive from Thessaloniki to Athens spans basically the entire country from north to south, so it was a long one. The stops along the way made it worth it and then some, though.

First up was Meteora, an area that used to be a giant lake but has since drained out and left gigantic stone pillars standing in the middle of a valley. Sprouting up from these pillars are monasteries, some built as early as the 14th century. The architecture is incredible, it looks like the buildings are growing straight out of the rocks. The inside of the monasteries are just as impressive, and standing in them and looking out at the view was nothing short of a humbling experience.

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Next up was Delphi, the site of the ancient Oracle of Delphi. We were told by our enthusiastic tour guide that the Oracle was really just an elaborate con, used by the wisemen of the time to exert their influence over everyone from the average person wondering who they should marry to kings questioning whether they should enter a war with another city-state.

As disappointing as it was to learn that the Oracle couldn’t really tell the future, the fact that Delphi was considered the center of the universe by many ancient Greeks was not a myth. The history of the city was really interesting, as were many of the artifacts on display in the museum(in which I didn’t get yelled at or even scolded…progress). Delphi also boasted some nice views, although they weren’t quite Meteoric.

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So now I’m in Athens. I’ve been here once before with my family when I was in middle school, but I’m not recognizing much other than the Acropolis. Thessaloniki was a great city, but Athens is quickly coming for the top spot in my book. It’s bustling, covered in art and filled with shops and restaurants. The combination of modern life with ancient history makes this place truly unique. It’s tough to beat being able to look up and see the Parthenon illuminated on your casual walk to dinner. The view from our hotel rooftop isn’t bad either.

Parthenon lit up in the distance.

View of the Parthenon from our hotel.