Author Archives: JV

Cuba 2008

Upon hearing about Fidel Castro’s death, I revisited photos from my time in Cuba. Here are a few favorites to commemorate Castro’s reign.

From February 19, 2008 the day Castro’s letter announcing his intent to resign was published in Granma:

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Other captures from around Havana:

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capitolio

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Tips for the solo, younger female traveler, for real.

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An alley in Brussels

Yesterday I came across the NYT’s compiled take on the ever-enduring question of how to travel safely by yourself as a young woman. Some of it I think is useful and invariably true: it helps to dress like a local to some degree and furthermore to know the local mores. For example, in many parts of Japan, tattoos are taboo and can get you kicked out of an onsen or any place with shared showers. Similarly, if you are traveling in a more conservative country, it will save you a lot of hassle to keep your shoulders covered and, in some cases, your knees as well.

I also think the article does well to suggest having an itinerary, but not so much because without one you “risk wandering into areas where you shouldn’t go.” Having at least one destination when you walk out the door will lead you to a specific neighborhood and give you a point of reference for the day. Depending on how big the city is, this is an easy way to explore different neighborhoods without ending up lost or overwhelmed because you’re trying to cover too much. Ultimately, your time will dictate how leisurely you can plan, but in general, having destinations is crucial to – at the very least – not appearing lost, and I’d hope, to opening up the landscape piece by piece.

Moving on —

Practically everything else in the NYT article struck me as patently unachievable and even undesirable for any young woman who’s not traveling with a big budget or cushy savings. Splurge on my hotel? HA! I’ve never booked a hotel as a solo female traveler. For one, if I can afford to splurge, I don’t enjoy doing so on things I can’t enjoy with other people. And for two, I actually like meeting people from the place and prefer to stay with someone who is local, or if all else fails meet a fellow traveler in a hostel. This leads me to my first addendum to the NYT article, and what follows is a handful of tips that I hope will be a bit more realistic for the younger traveling woman.

      1. Meet and hang out with locals. Honestly, this is probably the single most important thing you can do for your safety (and your enjoyment). By hanging with someone who is familiar with the place, you will not worry so much about stumbling into a shady alley or a bad restaurant. A lot of people are averse to couchsurfing but I almost always find my way back to couchsurfing when I’m traveling alone. Even if you’re not comfortable crashing at someone’s place, you can always join one of the organized activities or meet up with someone who shares your interests for a reliably noncommital coffee. Keyword search is key. Don’t be afraid to use it. (I often try my luck with “queer” or “lgbt” which, in many places, drastically narrows the options to people I’m more likely to feel comfortable around).
      2. Always have your route figured out before you leave the coveted wifi at your hotel / hostel / homestay. Depending on where, and for how long, you’re traveling, chances are you won’t have internet on your phone.  As noted earlier, it’s nice to have at least one solid destination when you leave your home base and 2 or 3 ideas for things in the neighborhood to do after. Whether you’re walking or taking transit, always look up the map beforehand. Even if Google Maps can’t connect to the internet while you’re out, GPS will still be creepily, accurately tracking you. So pull up the exact route, take screenshots if you are nervous of accidentally clicking something within the app, and check back periodically to see if your blue dot is on course.
      3. Try to avoid accepting things from men. This is not the NYT so I can keep it 100. To make things easier for yourself, try to very politely decline things men offer you — a drink, food, ride, anything. Of course, this is a broad generalization, and the appropriate thing to do may vary somewhat based on local custom. A quick-ish anecdote: A couple of years ago, I was on a bus from Cairo to a smaller, more rural city in the south of Egypt called Aswan. The bus was packed.

        The gentleman seated next to me took out a weathered bottle filled with some kind of sugary orange drink and offered me some. I knew only the barest of Arabic so I used a lot of gestures to communicate that I was extremely grateful for the offer – a couple of slight head bows, a gentle double hand wave, a big smile – but no thank you. He smiled back, gave a brief head nod, and held the drink out a centimeter further in my direction. I repeated; he answered.

        After two or three rounds of this, I did some quick calculus. I could: A. keep doing this exercise till I had carpal tunnel in my neck, B. very slowly redirect my attention to the monotonous desert landscape rolling by, or C. accept the beverage. I’m the kind of person who does the things people say not to do when you’re traveling alone in an unfamiliar place. So I accepted the drink. I took what I hope was a very discreetly small sip and handed it back, thanking him very much. He then took several gulps which of course was my official cue that I was not on the verge of death.

        I share this story to highlight a time when it made sense to accept an offer from a strange man. In fact, after accepting multiple bottles of water, cups of tea, and paper cones of chickpeas on a sixteen hour train ride from Aswan back to Cairo, I realized that in Egypt, offering people things — however random or small — is a common gesture of welcome. Even if you only take the tiniest sample of whatever is offered, it is better than risking offense or being profoundly rude by declining.

        That said, avoid it unless you are truly getting to know a person. Otherwise, accepting things from random men can, as most of us already know, lead to other unwanted advances. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t socialize with men you don’t know. I’ve met and stayed with people of various genders when I’ve traveled and have had positive experiences with some who identify as men. The nub is to just keep aware that to accept something from a man can mean different things in different cultures — with some differences less apparent than others.

Why I Will Always Choose Marseille Over Paris

I wanted to learn French in Dakar. Then ebola broke out more quickly than anyone was used to. I don’t like to let scares impact my travel choices, but this time I paid heed. Ebola seemed a bit too serious if contracted so I decided to learn French in Marseille instead.

I’d been to Marseille before. It’s an enchanting, confusing place. Very much Mediterranean and still very much French. The food is exquisite, any wine is guaranteed to be wildly drinkable, at the very least, and the folks are — perhaps surprisingly — warm. The streets are overflowing with people, which, in a typical North American city might feel a bit suffocating but in Marseille feels dreadfully alive. I love Marseille and I will always choose it over Paris.

Why? you ask.

Some aspects are simple. The sun is out, the shore is afoot, and the streets are in your face. More, the people are as fresh as the salt from the sea. The jagged cliffs accentuate the bare sun bathers, the occasionally rude fighting for entry to the bus, and the overpriced boardwalk fare. The myth of the incomparable bouillabaisse floats through the air like the smell of oars and the mischievous giggles from the shadows of Le Panier. It doesn’t rival Paris in culture and experience; it’s another world entirely. Another country. Just a day trip from St. Paul de Vence where James Baldwin lived and died. A stone’s throw from Nice which most would be advised to avoid except to amble through the wonderfully affectionate Matisse museum. A short train from Antibes, Cannes, and even Barcelona for those with a bit more time and wider aspirations.

I wish to say very little about Paris lest I give the impression it’s a terrible place. It’s fine after all and I understand the romance over the city with the whole of my heart. But Marseille is a monster on its own; a dirty, sun-bleached monster made to be reckoned with.

Epic Journey 1, or Flights, Ferries, and Buses through Europe and Africa

I don’t know if I can get into details right now, but I did an epic journey last year that I didn’t quite write about.

Croatia

Croatian coast on the bus ride from Split to Dubrovnik

The basics are as follows:

Flew into Brussels via Copenhagen. TGV train from Brussels to Marseille. This is a beautiful ride but the speed obscured the experience a bit. I’m also used to the US’s very slow and inefficient trains however. Flight from Marseille to Zadar. Bus to Split. Bus to Dubrovnik. Carpool to Kotor to Tivat. 3 days on a yacht (of special note). Carpool to Tirana where the pollution gave me a throat ache. Bus to Athens: huge mistake! Crowded. Only non-local. Only person of color. All of this, luckily, made me a friend or two but mostly made for a wildly uncomfortable 14 hour ordeal. Never again.

Flight to Cairo which was the first time my ears got plugged on a plane since I was of single numeric age. Bus to Luxor: another mistake! Long! Not scenic! Train to Aswan. Train back to Cairo. Flight to Istanbul where it was superrr cold and the food was shockingly unimpressive. Flight to Madrid. Overnight train to Lisbon. Train to Porto, home of port (nuff said). Flight to Barcelona (god bless Ryanair). Overnight train on Spain’s TRENHOTEL to Granada. Train to Algeciras. Ferry to Tangier: fun! Worth it! Highly recommend! Train to Fez. 1 night in mold-infested room. 2 nights in luxuriously-priced riad with accordingly comfy bed and la-di-da manager. Flight to Marseille. Train to Brussels. Depart for the good ol’ US of A, with a layover in CPH.

I will say more, I’m just not sure when. In the meantime, if you, dear readers, are interested in anything in particular, give me a shout.

Things to Try: Beer + Sprite in Prague

In which I suggest a thing to try in a place.

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Staropramen is the Czech beer I see most often in the states, and it’s also omnipresent in Prague. It seemed to be on tap everywhere. We were literally drinking probably every 500 steps – on a hill, in a garden, at a cafe, and so on.

It was hot and my host suggested trying what is, according to him, a popular drink in Prague. This entailed asking the bartender to add Sprite to my beer. I’ve since heard from other people, including those from the CR, that this is a bad look. But, to each his own; it was hot and I found it fun and refreshing despite disliking soda on its own.

Something to try, or at least to ask about, if you’re in Prague.

(Excuse my measly stock photo. My trip to Prague predated the ubiquity of high quality phone cameras and attendant photo obligations.)

The basics on traveling in Egypt.

There’s a lot I could say about Egypt, and hopefully, a lot I will say about Egypt. But for now I’ll just run through the basics in the hopes of helping anyone planning or hoping to travel there.

Giza Pyramids

While I was in Egypt the exchange rate was about 1 USD = 7 LE. When it came to paying for things, my shortcuts were to think of 35 Egyptian pounds as equaling about 5 dollars and 100 Egyptian pounds as equaling about 15 dollars. Since we’re just meeting, you should know that I gauge the value of money and things based on what kind of food that money or thing can get me. So, for 35 pounds, I could get a decent meal of, for example, chicken and fries with a small salad. For 100 pounds, I could get a very lovely meal of, for example, leg of lamb, with appetizers, fresh-squeezed juice (as alcohol is hard to come by in many restaurants), and dessert.

Despite the favorable exchange rate, Egypt still managed not to be cheap. This is not just because tourists pay officially higher prices for most attractions. It’s also – and perhaps mainly – because everything costs money in Egypt and if you are from the West, things will cost you a lot more money. In general, tourists can expect to pay at least three times more than the “local” price for anything from cab rides to a bottle of water to a camel ride at the pyramids. Add to this the constant requests for tips, possibility of having money stolen, and probability that someone will give you the incorrect change for something, and the reach of your wallet is suddenly half as far as you’d initially estimated.

All of that said, Egypt is unequivocally worth it.

Getting around

The metro is, in my experience, mostly efficient even if it’s always crowded. It costs 1 LE one-way and though there’s a lot of inconsistency between maps and station names, it is manageable. On each train, there is at least one designated “ladies” car, which I always made it a point to find. I never took the inner-city bus but got the impression that it’s mostly manageable as well, as long as there’s no rain to interrupt the flow of things.

I took a 9-hour long distance bus from Cairo to Luxor which I do not recommend. It was cramped and while the prospect of looking out the window to find endless desert may sound enticing, it was actually quite boring. There were also many smells. Instead, I’d recommend taking one of the air-conditioned daytime express trains. The train travels parallel to the Nile River for much of the Cairo-Luxor-Aswan route, so the view features a plush, green landscape and small towns along the way. You can buy tickets for the train online but they’ll be more expensive than if you get a local friend to buy in the station. You could also check the times online and walk into a station, board the train, and pay once you’re on a train.

If you attempt to ask someone about these day trains at the station, they will likely tell you that your only option is the Watania overnight train, which is specifically for tourists. On the night train, you must buy a bed and it costs $100 per person in a double cabin and $120 for a single, both with in-cabin breakfast and dinner included. In my very humble opinion, there is no way the cost is worth it.

There are also the “very local” trains, which have no central air, no schedule and in many cases, no windows. This is the train I hastily walked onto when I was tired of trying to find other ways to get back to Cairo from Luxor. Though it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I would never suggest a friend do this unless they were going just a short distance. My ride was around 16 hours and was supremely uncomfortable.

Lastly, when in the cities, walking is a great option. Cabs, too, will be generally affordable though it’s better to agree on a price beforehand or to insist that the meter be used.

What to do

The Giza pyramids are more mind-blowing than you can imagine. Abu Simbel, in the south of Egypt near Aswan, is also awe-inspiring. The Egyptian Museum – though a bit overwhelming due to its size – is one of my favorite museums to date and worth more than one visit if you have the time. I also found the Suffi dance in Coptic Cairo to be a joyous experience, and would recommend it to anyone who appreciates live music, movement or bright colors. I arrived at a performance in the Wikalat Al Ghouri courtyard at 7:00pm and was pressed to find a floor seat, so it’s probably best to stop by earlier in the day to purchase a ticket (35 LE for tourists) or at least find out the showtime. If you’re at all interested in history, race relations, and/or black and African civilizations, a trip to a Nubian village in southern Egypt is also completely necessary.* These were my favorite things, though, of course there are plenty more options.

Nubian Wedding

Nubian Wedding

Where to stay

I found hostels in Egypt to be well-priced, mostly in the $5-15/night range depending on the city and your room preference. I expect that hotels are also reasonable, though, from what I’ve read, their quality can vary drastically. Keep in mind too that because tourism has declined since the 2011 “Revolution” – or “coup” depending on who you talk to – prices may be lower or more negotiable than usual in certain places.

“Do I need a guide?”

No. But you will probably find yourself paying for a few tours. For example, Abu Simbel is about a 3-hour ride from Aswan. Unless you want to hire a car, you will likely pay around $15-50 to take a shared ride out there. You should be able to inquire about these tickets in any hotel lobby, and the tours usually leave around 3 AM and return around noon.

Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel

Traveling as a [fill-in-the-blank]

As a clearly-not-from-there, black, sometimes gender noncomforming woman walking around in Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan, I experienced a lot of harassment. I consider myself lucky that I couldn’t understand much of what was said to me in Arabic since I expect a good chunk of it was racially and/or sexually charged. Nonetheless, the constant requests for my attention got old fast. By the end, I found I got the best results when I ignored people completely – no turning of head or response at all. I also found that, in the south, I had an easier time when I borrowed a friends scarf and wrapped my head. This enabled me to blend in well enough and warded off the usual calls of “Rasta!” “Jamaica!” “Sister!” “My color!” and “Felucca?” I admittedly found it disheartening that I had to tune everyone out as I walked the streets, but it truly seemed like the only way to ensure I didn’t end each day completely heartbroken and exhausted.

That’s all for now. Feel free to send specific questions to me at my email address. And you can find more photos on my Instagram, which is insistently without a theme but is occasionally about travel.

*E-mail me for specific recommendations and contact info.

My 2 cent on Marseille.

Photo I took of Vieux Port, Marseille

Photo I took of Vieux Port, Marseille

I feel compelled to give some semblance of cents on Marseille since it’s the place I’m calling home right now. The lady in the boulangerie told me Marseille is “the new Chicago” because the city has a lot of murder and crime. Fortunately or not, I can’t quite speak to that. Marseille doesn’t have nearly the same industrial (read: desolate) feel as the US cities it’s often compared to, namely Chicago and Detroit. I guess there’s a mafia scene here since that’s what I keep hearing. They must be doing a great job keeping it underground.

While I wouldn’t describe Marseille as particularly gritty, it is incredibly harsh. It smells like any combination of trash, sewer, and rotting corpse at every turn; there’s dog shit everywhere; and the whole city is under construction. One of my first years in New York, a friend scolded me for wearing headphones on my walk to and from class. “You’re going to leave the city not knowing what it sounds like,” she half-asked. Admittedly, I found the suggestion profoundly obnoxious at the time, but somehow it’s stuck with me and I tend not to listen to music when I walk in new places. After a week in Marseille though, I realized that music drastically improved the quality of my daily 90 minute walk. Getting to and from places in Marseille is already an obstacle course – you’re dodging cars, bulldozers, super rude French people, dog shit, and trash all over the place. Mouthing along to Future is the least one can do.

There are a lot of other things I could say about Marseille. It’s great in a lot of ways – access to the sea, good weather most of the year, immigrants, occasional really nice French people, food, wine, mountains.. It’s a hypnotizing place, in a way that I can’t quite pin down as ultimately grounding or slightly traumatizing, and I think that’s part of why I maintain a fondness for it.