12 Things You Need to Know Before You Travel to Cuba (Legally)

Although diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba have been restored, US citizens and permanent residents are still prohibited from traveling to Cuba for purely tourism purposes.  You may, however, travel to Cuba under a general license if your travel falls within one of the 12 categories of authorized travel and no prior application is required.  For most people, educational activities, religious activities, support for the Cuban people, and humanitarian projects are the most appropriate categories to get there. Here are 12 things you should know before you go.

Cuba

  1. GETTING THERE

Several companies offer organized People to People tours for Americans. However, they tend to be pricey and the schedules are very regimented. Those willing to make their own arrangements and craft their own itineraries can save a bundle.

Commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuba have not yet resumed, so the only options are charter flights from the U.S. or connecting flights through Mexico and other Caribbean countries. Copa, Jet Blue, Interjet, Aeromexico, and Cubana all offer flights to Havana.

  1. VISA

You need a visa to enter Cuba but they’re easy to obtain. I got mine at the airport in Cancun for only $20.00. If you travel by charter, the airline will handle your visa arrangements for an additional $80 to $90. You have to fill out a form declaring that your travel falls under one of the 12 authorized categories.

  1. MONEY

US-based credit cards don’t yet work in Cuba so Americans have to pay cash for everything. Cuba has two official currencies – the convertible peso or CUC (pronounced “kook”), which is mostly used by foreigners, and the Cuban peso or CUP (also known as “moneda nacional”), which is mostly used by Cubans. The conversion between CUC and CUP is 1 CUC = 25 CUP. The CUC is pegged at par with the US Dollar (USD). But there is a 10% penalty (due to the US embargo) and a 3% service charge when exchanging USD to CUC, so effectively 1 USD = .87 CUC.  In order to avoid the 10 % penalty, some visitors exchange their USD to Euros before arriving.

Currency can be exchanged at banks or cadecas (exchange houses), but expect a wait because lines are usually long. Some hotels will also exchange currency (and you avoid the long lines). Make sure to request small bills because most people and businesses cannot make change for larger bills. Do not exchange money with strangers on the street, as some are known to peddle counterfeit bills.

  1. WHERE TO STAY

If you want an authentic Cuban experience, staying at a Casa Particular (Casa for short) is the way to go. A Casa is a private family establishment that offers paid lodging, typically costing $20 to $75 per night. Breakfast may be included and many also offer lunch and dinner for an additional fee. I stayed in a private room with an amazing family that treated me like their daughter. I highly recommend it.

There are various types of Casas, including private rooms, apartments, or entire houses. Cuba Junky has a full list with photos and descriptions, and AirBnb also recently started to list Casas on its site.  If you prefer hotels, La Habana guide has a comprehensive list of hotels in Havana and surrounding suburbs.

  1. WHERE TO EAT

Cuba is not a culinary haven, but you can find some good meals at both government-run and private restaurants (aka paladares). Two of my favorite paladares were Habana 61 and 304 O’Reilly, both of which share the same name as their address.  To eat on the cheap, try a government subsidized eatery or street food stall. Pizza, ham sandwiches, and a variety of fried fritters are popular fast food items.

6.  TRANSPORTATION

Havana is very easy to navigate on foot and walking is the best way to get oriented to the city. But if you choose not to walk, the Havana Hop On Hop Off bus is the cheapest and easiest way to see most of the city in a day, at only 5 CUC per person. The tour bus operates from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, on a half hour schedule. The bus often runs on Cuban time (in other words, late), so patience is needed. You can catch the bus at Parque Central in Old Havana.

Taxis are also a popular way to move about the city. There are several types, including bicycle taxis (aka bici-taxis), coco taxis, collectivos (shared taxis), and Cuba taxis. If you speak Spanish, you will have a huge advantage in hailing taxis. If not, be ready to negotiate and be sure to agree on a price before you enter the cab.

For inter-country travel, the Viazul bus is a good way to explore the island. Tickets can be purchased in advance via credit card on the Viazul website or in person at the bus station.  Even with an online reservation, you must arrive at the bus station at least one hour before departure to secure an actual ticket.  You should plan to buy tickets in advance, as popular locations often sell out.  The bus is notoriously cold (think meat freezer), so make sure to layer and bring a blanket.

7.  PHONE/INTERNET

Expect to be off the grid for most of your time in Cuba. Tourists cannot buy Sim cards for their cell phones, and thus far Verizon is the only US carrier to offer roaming. Another option is a world phone, but rates are pricey.

Tourists can access Wi-Fi by purchasing Wi-Fi cards at ETECSA offices or hotels. Wi-Fi is available only at certain hotels, which are easy to locate by the large groups of people standing outside on their cell phones. Wi-Fi can be spotty and slow, so don’t expect regular access.

8.  AFRO-CUBAN MUSIC/RELIGION

With roots in Afro Cuban religion, Rumba is synonymous with Cuba (Rumba can collectively refer to the music, dance, and party). One of the best places to see it is at Callejon de Hammel  in Centro Havana. Every Sunday from 12 to 3pm, there is a Rumba with music, dancing, singing and religious celebration. Both tourists and locals attend and it is non-stop action.  Arrive early to secure a good spot since it’s standing room only.

  1. RUM

Cuba is home to two popular drinks – the Mojito and the Cuba Libre – both of which are made with rum. Havana Club and Santiago de Cuba are two popular Cuban rum brands and both are delicious and very reasonably priced. The Havana Club Museum in Havana offers tours and rum tastings for 7 CUC.

  1. CIGARS

True cigar aficionados will want to visit the tobacco farms, cigar factories, and panoramic sights in Vinales. It’s only a 1.5 to 2 hour ride from Havana and can be easily done as a day or overnight trip. For those who want to stay put in Havana, you can still see cigars being hand-rolled at the Hostal Conde de Villanueva. They sell an unbranded house cigar, as well as Cohiba and other popular name brands.

Cigars are a big hustle in Cuba. People will constantly approach you on the street purporting to sell authentic cigars at a discount.  Buy at your own risk.  Another tourist shared a story of a friend who purchased a case of cigars from a street vendor, only to find they were dry rotted and full of insects when she got home.  Moral of the story – look before you buy.

  1. TOILET PAPER

Cubans are experts at doing more with less. Most public locations have a bathroom attendant who rations out small pieces of toilet paper in exchange for coins (typically .25 or .30 CUC). But some places have nothing.  For the ladies, I recommend packing a roll of toilet paper in your luggage and carrying some in your purse, just in case.

12.  GIFTS

You may want to bring small gifts for Cubans who are especially friendly or helpful to you. Many Cubans don’t have easy access to items we take for granted, like memory sticks, lip balm, feminine products, and other toiletries.  Another popular item is gum (sugar-free is probably best).  Three separate times Cubans asked me if I had gum and I learned they don’t have it there anymore.  I gave a piece to an older man, who chewed and savored it like it was a piece of steak (as he reminisced on the old days when Cuba had American gum).  It was truly a lesson in learning to appreciate the small things.

Do you have any tips about Cuba? Please share them below.

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My First Impressions of Cuba

I’ve been wanting to go to Cuba for years. So when President Obama announced in December 2014 that the United States was restoring diplomatic relations, Cuba quickly jumped to the top of my travel bucket list for 2015. After much research and planning, I finally made it there in December. It was everything I could have asked for and more. Cuba made me think about life, family, community, politics, and economics more than any trip I’ve ever taken.

El Morro, Havana

El Morro, Havana

Although it’s just 90 miles from the USA, Cuba is like a different world. The Afro-Cuban music and culture is amazing. Classic cars rule the road. There are no U.S. corporations – no fast food establishments, no big box stores, no chain restaurants, no Starbucks. The buildings are weathered, but the architecture is beautiful, with strong Spanish influences. And instead of company ads, the billboards all have political messages. Politics aside, it was a refreshing change from the bombardment of corporate marketing in the U.S.

Political sign

Political sign in Santiago de Cuba. Translation: Rebellious yesterday, hospitable today, heroic always

This was my first visit to a communist country, and I was curious and asked plenty of questions. I generally found people willing and anxious to discuss Cuba’s past, present and future. I listened with dismay (and a bit of shame) as they shared stories of their struggles during the Special Period, when the double whammy of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the U.S. embargo nearly crippled Cuba’s economy. Famine was common and people were forced to subsist on rations that were about 1/5th of their prior food consumption. Power outages were the norm, often lasting 15 to 20 hours a day. One man relayed his story with a sense of pride, saying that Cuba’s survival was proof that Cubans could withstand anything. Another taxi driver revealed that he had to sell his car and nearly everything that he owned to support his family during the Special Period. Twenty-five years later, he leases his taxi and still has not been able to purchase another car of his own. He sorely wants to leave Cuba.

Havana street art

Havana street art

Interestingly, no one complained about a lack of liberty or personal freedoms. The overwhelming grievance was that wages were too low and the government needed to do more to improve the economic condition of the people. Although most Cubans are well educated (tuition is free), many are unemployed. For those with jobs, the average wage is only 20-25 CUC per month (equal to $20-25 USD). For professionals with advanced degrees, like an accountant or lawyer, the average wage is $50-55 CUC per month. Even physicians only earn 75 CUC per month. Many professionals moonlight as taxi drivers to earn extra income, mostly from tourists. Some have even quit their jobs because they earn more money in the lucrative tourist industry. I suspect this phenomenon will only get worse as more American tourists arrive, because we are largely viewed as rich and able to spend lots of money.

El Morro, Havana

El Morro, Havana

I left Cuba with the view that the Cuban people were the true pawns in this century long tiff between the U.S.A. and Cuba. Despite it all, they are incredibly welcoming to Americans and excited for what the future holds. I encourage you to go and see for yourself.  Click here for helpful trip planning tips.

Have you traveled to Cuba? If so, what did you think about the social and economic situation? Share your comments below.

 

 

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Farewell 2015, Hello 2016

As 2015 draws to a close, I find myself reminiscing on my year in travel and recounting my progress on my bucket list. I once had a goal to take one big international trip per year. This year I visited seven countries and 21 cities on three continents – my biggest travel year yet. I also finally took that DNA test to determine my ancestral lineage and I’m anxiously anticipating the results. I’m sure I’ll be adding some new countries to the bucket list based on the findings. Until then, here’s a recap of my travels in 2015:

I started off the year with a road trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I hung out with family, ate plenty of shrimp, beignets and gumbo, collected lots of beads, and even snagged a coveted coconut at the Zulu parade.

Collecting beads at Mardi Gras

Me collecting beads at Mardi Gras

Thanks to a $178 glitch fare on Etihad Airlines, I touched down on the Asian continent for the first time with visits to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I rode to the top of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper, wore an abaya for the first time, and toured the magnificent Grand Mosque. This was my first foray into the Middle East and it surprisingly had me yearning to see more.

Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa

Me at the top of the Burj Khalifa

Me at the top of the Burj Khalifa

Me in an abaya at the Grand Mosque

Me in an abaya at the Grand Mosque

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

I also returned to the Motherland thanks to the Etihad glitch, with visits to four countries in southern Africa. I attended the Cape Town Jazz Festival, hung out on Durban’s Golden Mile, visited Nelson Mandela’s childhood home and final resting  place, drove the Panorama Route, and delighted in the animals at Kruger National Park in South Africa. I rode the infamous Sani Pass, went pony trekking, and stayed in a village in the mountains of Lesotho. I saw the Fish River Canyon, went sand boarding for the first time, and climbed a 260-foot sand dune in Namibia. And I trekked to Mantenga Falls and Ezulwini Valley in Swaziland. It all made me love Africa even more.

Table Mountain views

Table Mountain views, South Africa

Mantenga Nature Reserve

Mantenga Nature Reserve, Swaziland

Fish River Canyon, Namibia

Fish River Canyon, Namibia

The highest pub in Africa

The highest pub in Africa, Lesotho

I stayed stateside over the summer, with visits to Navajo country and the Big Apple. I shot plenty of pictures at Antelope Canyon and Lake Powell in Arizona, but photographs just don’t do them justice.  The entire area is nothing short of beautiful and amazing.  If you haven’t yet been, you ought to. I also made a quick run to Brooklyn and was able to take in the Atlantic Antic Festival. As always, I marveled in the frenetic pace and the diversity of New York.

Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

Lake Powell

Lake Powell

Page

Mountain views in Page, AZ

I ended the year with a visit to Cuba – the one place I’ve wanted to see for years, but never thought I’d be able to due to the US embargo. As a lover of Afro-Cuban music and salsa dancing, Cuba was everything I hoped for and more. I pray that the thawing of US-Cuba relations will lead to increased prosperity and opportunity for the Cuban people, who are some of the nicest folks on the planet.

El Morro, Santiago de Cuba

El Morro, Santiago de Cuba

Rumba at Callejon de Hammel, Havana

Rumba at Callejon de Hammel, Havana

Rumba at Callejon de Hammel, Havana

Rumba at Callejon de Hammel, Havana

Me and a 1953 Chevy

Me and a 1953 Chevy

I haven’t yet finalized my travel plans for 2016, but Machu Picchu, Thailand and East Africa are all on my radar. I’ll also be writing more and sharing more travel deals and trip planning tips. Here’s to wishing you a Happy New Year and more passport stamps in 2016.

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The Nelson Mandela Route

I’ve always been fascinated by Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s freedom struggle. So when I learned about the Nelson Mandela Route, which allows visitors to essentially “follow his steps” from the Eastern Cape to Robben Island, I modified my itinerary so I could partake in this drive.  The Route starts in King William’s Town, which began as a London-based Missionary Station in 1826 and provides a backdrop to early European influences in a struggle region of British, Boer and Xhosa conflicts. The town’s Amathole Museum has a Xhosa Gallery, Missionary Museum and German Settlers display.  Anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko is also buried there.  From King William’s Town, the route goes through Bhisho, the home of the provincial government, where it leads to the N2 and on to the Nelson Mandela Museum, which is spread across three locations in Mthatha, Qunu and Mveso.  From there the Route goes to several sites in Johannesburg, before ending at Robben Island in Cape Town.

The Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu

The Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu

Nelson Mandela Museum

Nelson Mandela Museum

I started my drive on the N2 and headed to Mthatha, the second stop on the Route. I had intended on going to the Bhunga Building, which houses a display reflecting Mandela’s life and times, as well as thousands of gifts and artifacts that he received from presidents, groups and individuals.  Unfortunately, that museum was closed for renovations.  So instead, I headed straight to Qunu, approximately 20 minutes south. I had pre-arranged a full-day tour and was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at the large, beautiful complex.  After passing through security, I met my tour guide, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Mandela (I later learned he was a relative). We walked the grounds, while he explained the site’s history and showed me the on-site conference facility, restaurant, hotel, souvenir shop, and museum.  I wasn’t very impressed with the museum, which basically consisted of wall placards with excerpts from Mandela’s book “Long Walk to Freedom”. (I’ve read the book so I’d seen them all before)

The rock slide

The rock slide

Mandela's house

Mandela’s house

But the highlight for me was the actual tour. We drove in my vehicle, starting off in the village of Qunu, where Mandela was raised.   We saw the remains of his primary school, the large rock where he used to slide as a kid, the family graveyard where his son, daughter and parents are buried, and his most recent home, which is the largest and most modern one in town. He’s buried on the grounds, which are gated/fenced and closed to the public.  We couldn’t get close, but he showed me the general vicinity from afar.  Next, we headed to Mveso, where Mandela was born.  We saw the site of his childhood home and the land where his family grazed cattle.  There’s also a thatched open-air museum with photo exhibits depicting significant moments in Mandela’s life.

The Tree

The Tree

Mandela and Justice's rondavel

Mandela and Justice’s rondavel

Inside the rondavel

Inside the rondavel

From there, we headed to the Great Palace at Mqhekezweni, where Mandela went to live at age nine after his father died. “Great” is in the eye of the beholder, because the site itself hardly conforms to the common image of a palace  (it’s small, ruggedly inaccessible and difficult to reach by car).  But, it was here that Mandela was molded into the man who would become South Africa’s most famous revolutionary and freedom fighter, so in that sense it is a great place.  And I was awestruck to be there, as Mandela speaks highly of his formative years there in Long Walk to Freedom. I saw the large tree where Mandela’s father figure, Regent King Jongintaba Dalindyebo , held tribal meetings. It still stands strong and majestic, just as he described. I went inside the rondavel where Mandela lived with his cousin Justice.  And I saw the church where Mandela was baptized.  I was guided around the palace grounds by Jongintaba’s grandson, who jokingly told me I should move there and find a royal husband.  My tour ended there about five hours after it started and I took the long, bumpy road back to the N2 and on to my next stop – Cape Town via the Wild Coast and Garden Route.

My guides

My guides

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My Village Experience in Lesotho – Day Two

On Day 2 , I woke up around 7:00 am, refreshed and ready to start a new day in Lesotho. I made up my bed, then headed outside to the water spigot to wash my face and brush my teeth, and reluctantly use the outhouse (I must admit that was the least favorite part of my visit). I looked out at the river and briefly contemplated going down, but the idea of taking a nude bath out in the open in cold river water just didn’t appeal to me. I snickered at my spoiled American self and decided to wait until I got back to a real shower that evening.

The village chickens

The village chickens

Our hosts had already been up preparing our morning meal and it was ready to go by the time we were done with grooming. We had homemade bread with butter and jam, boiled eggs (freshly laid by the village chickens), and coffee and tea. After breakfast, we sat around relaxing while waiting to go pony trekking. In the absence of working cell phones and computers, we had to talk to each other for entertainment. It reminded me of a time when we weren’t so attached to social media.

Me riding a Basotho pony

Me riding a Basotho pony

Our two guides finally arrived around 10:00 a.m. with six Basotho ponies. Although Basotho ponies are characteristically smaller than horses, I still had some difficulty with mounting (after all, I’m only 5’1″). After several attempts and a bit of assistance, I finally made it up on the saddle. Following a quick briefing on the pony’s disposition and how to maneuver the reigns, we took off headed on a trail up the mountains. I was nervous at first, as this was my first horseback ride, but I quickly relaxed and savored the feeling of complete freedom and exhilaration. It’s true that pony trekking is the best way to see Lesotho.

Beautiful views

Beautiful views

The ponies effortlessly climbed up and down the mountains dodging narrow trails, loose rocks, and rugged terrain. As if the views from the ground weren’t beautiful enough, the views from the mountain tops were just breathtaking. We rode for more than 2 hours, visiting several new villages along the way and getting a bird’s eye view of how the Basotho people live. The people were friendly and welcoming despite our unexpected intrusion into their space. The kids were especially excited to see visitors and ran alongside us waving and screaming hi.

Basotho children

Basotho children

Our guide and his helper

Our guide and his helper

We returned to our village around 12:30 p.m. Some younger kids had come by to assist with the ponies. We chatted about the ride and showed them photos on our digital cameras. They were fascinated by the ability to instantly see pictures, and of course, they wanted us to snap their photos too. By then, we had built up an appetite and were glad lunch was ready. Our hosts had prepared fried chicken, rice with red sauce, carrots with onions and peppers, and potatoes, all of which was fresh and delicious.

Lunch

Lunch

After lunch, we walked to a nearby village to visit a sangoma (medicine healer), who surprisingly was a woman. She greeted us and welcomed us into her hut, after we removed our shoes which we left at the front door. The sangoma spoke limited English so our host, Mankune, translated for us. While Mankune explained the role of sangomas in Basotho culture, the sangoma stepped outside the hut to change into her ancestral garb, which included a cape, a fur hat, a beaded wig, a whistle, shell arm and ankle bracelets, and shell necklaces wrapped around her upper torso. When she returned, she set up a makeshift altar with candles, incense and a bottle of water. While her grandson played the drum, she sang, danced, chanted and said several prayers in an effort to channel the ancestors for our readings. Once she completed her ritual, she had all of us exit the hut and return one at a time for individual readings.

Altar

The altar

The sangoma

The sangoma

I went third and entered the hut with 20 rand (approximately $1.75 at that time), which I placed near the “altar”. She blessed the money as an offering to the ancestors, who she said provide her with advice, guidance, and the ability to interpret dreams. She said a prayer for me, then told me I would be healthy and I would be married and have two children in the future. She also said I would meet my husband in the USA, we would start a business together, and then we would move abroad. After my reading was done, I said Kealebua (thank you in Sesotho) and exited the hut. The sangoma’s grandkids were outside waiting and we talked and played until she was done. After she finished her last reading, she let me wear one of her fur hats and we took photos together before saying farewell.

Me and the sangoma

Me and the sangoma

We returned to our village, packed up, and said goodbye to Mankune and her family before heading out in late afternoon. On the way back to the Lesotho border, we stopped for a drink at the Sani Mountain Lodge, the highest pub in Africa at 2874 meters (9429 feet). Unfortunately, a thick cloud cover had descended on the lodge, completely obscuring what I was told are fabulous views from their deck. That same cloud cover made our return ride on the Sani Pass a bit harrowing, as the visibility was near zero for the first 20 minutes. Thankfully, it cleared up once we got to lower elevations and we made it back safely to our hotel in time for dinner (and a hot shower).

Me at the highest pub in Africa

Me at the highest pub in Africa

The Pub bar

The Pub bar

Clouds on the Sani Pass

Cloud cover on the Sani Pass

Have you ever visited Lesotho? If so, what did you think?  Please share your comments below.

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My Village Experience in Lesotho – Day One

My last post ended at the Lesotho border after an adventure on the Sani Pass. Once we crossed into Lesotho, I felt like I had traveled back 100 years in time. It was largely rural, with big open fields and no modern buildings. The mountain terrain was breathtaking and the air was noticeably pure and pollution-free. I sucked in several deep breaths and marveled in it, realizing just how accustomed we’ve become to pollution. We drove past farmers tending to crops and shepherds herding goats and sheep. I was surprised to see Chinese construction trucks and workers installing a massive tar road throughout the country. It was a stark contrast to the rondavels and shepherds dressed in traditional Basotho hats and blankets.

Basotho rondavels

Basotho rondavels

Young Basotho shepherds

Young Basotho shepherds

Shepherd herding sheep

Shepherd herding sheep

About 45 minutes later, we drove up to the village and were introduced to our host, MaNkune (pronounced Ma – IN – ku – nee) and her family. We had learned a few words of Sesoto on the ride over, so we greeted them with Dumela, the Sesoto word for Hello. Lucky for us, MaNkune spoke English in addition to her native language so we didn’t have to struggle too much. After exchanging pleasantries, she showed us the hut that would be our home for the next two days. It had been specially built for guests, so it was larger than their normal huts. It was also constructed of mud and concrete, rather than the usual mixture of mud and cow dung, to improve its durability. There was a dormitory-style bedroom with 4 bunk beds, a small living room with sofas and a chair, a dining room with a buffet table, china cabinet, a round table and chairs, and a meal preparation room. Noticeably absent was a bathroom, electricity and running water.

Next, we were shown the outhouse which served as our bathroom. It was constructed of corrugated tin and had a long drop toilet. This was my first experience with an outdoor toilet and I was glad it at least had a seat cover so I wouldn’t fall down the 10 foot hole. Close to the outhouse, was a 5-gallon water bottle with a spigot, which was used for hand washing, teeth brushing, or other personal needs. MaNkune told us that if we wanted to bathe, we could go down to the nearby river. There were other kids and adults already there washing clothes. I guess I’m more of a prude than I thought, because I quickly decided that I probably would not be bathing there.

Our village

Our village

The Long Drop toilet

The Long Drop toilet

Locals washing clothes in the river

Locals washing clothes in the river

Later, we took a walking tour of nearby highland villages to get a firsthand view of how the Basoto people live. We greeted residents who were out and about, especially the kids who were excited to see us, and were amazed at how they live nestled in the mountains. Next, we were taken to the women’s gathering hut. We met with about 10 ladies who shared their cultural practices and displayed some of their artifacts and crafts. They explained how they meet as a group to do women’s chores, usually related to the preparation of food. They showed us how to grind dry corn kernels by hand with large rocks, all while dancing in their seats and singing traditional songs to kill the monotony. They let us join in, and let me tell you, it definitely required some muscle work.

Highland villages

Highland villages

Young Basotho children

Young Basotho children

Woman with Basotho hat

Woman with Basotho hat

Me grinding corn into maize meal

Me grinding corn into maize meal

After the cultural presentation, we returned to our hut to relax. MaNkune and other female family members had started prepping for dinner. Since they don’t have electricity or stoves, they cook over an open fire in outdoor kitchen. As they prepared the meal, we were treated to a traditional dance show by some of the village men and women. First, the women performed their traditional dance with skirts made of grass and bottle tops. They sang and shook their hips, making musical sounds with their skirts. I tried it myself and learned it wasn’t as easy as it looked; those skirts are heavy!  Next, the men did a gumboot dance with accompanying music played by two young men with a sekhankula, a handmade violin-like instrument. By the time the show ended, it was dark outside and time for dinner.

Female traditional dancers

Female traditional dancers

Me trying at the traditional dance

Me giving the traditional dance a try

Men doing the gumboot dance

Men doing the gumboot dance

We had dinner by candlelight inside our hut. We ate sausage, pap (a corn porridge) topped with a tomato sauce with peppers and onions, potatoes and greens. Everything was fresh, tasty and flavorful. After dinner we drank tea and coffee, and talked about our respective countries and travels, before finally settling in to bed around 9:00 pm. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sleep, but to my surprise I slept like a baby through the night. The funny thing is that even without the creature comforts I’m used to, I felt a sense of peace and relaxation there, like all of life’s stressors were gone.

Outdoor kitchen

Outdoor kitchen

Dinner

Dinner

Dinner

Dinner

Stay tuned for Day 2

 

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My Sani Pass Adventure

After Durban, I hit the road and headed west on my way to the Drakensberg region in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). After 3 hours I made it to Himeville, where I spent the night before my next-day adventure on the Sani Pass. With a climb of 4,370 vertical feet and a summit altitude of 9400 feet, it’s been said that the Sani Pass is the mother of all South African mountain passes. After experiencing it firsthand, I’d have to agree.

The Sani Pass

The Sani Pass

Connecting KZN and the landlocked mountain kingdom of Lesotho, the Sani Pass is not for the faint of heart (or those with a tendency for motion sickness). It’s a bumpy, twisting, turning and sometimes scary ride on a narrow dirt gravel road through the steep slopes of the Drakensberg mountain range.  With that being said, the views are incredible and worth every minute of the ride.

4x4 Drakensberg Adventures

4×4 Drakensberg Adventures

I took a 2-day trip to Eastern Lesotho with Drakensberg Adventures. Our group of 5 loaded into a 4×4 around 9:30 am and started our trek up the Sani Pass. At first it seemed easy enough, but the gravel road progressively narrowed and grew bumpier, jostling us around and giving us an “African massage”  as our tour guide affectionately called it. In about 30 minutes we arrived at the South African border post, where we exited the truck to receive our passport departure stamps. There we learned we had another 2 hours before we arrived at the Lesotho border. This was where the fun began.

Khomazana River Valley

Khomazana River Valley

Waterfalls

Waterfalls

We drove for about an hour, passing numerous waterfalls and expansive views of the Khomazana river valley.  We also learned about the geology of the mountains, the native birds and animals, and the multitude of flora and fauna in the area.  I took tons of photos, but as hard as I tried, my camera lens just could not capture the vastness and sheer beauty of the scenery. You really have to see it with your own eyes to appreciate the magnitude.  We stopped for lunch around 11:30 am, taking in the views and enjoying the peace and serenity.

Me enjoying the view

Me enjoying the view

 

Almost at the Sani Top

Almost at the Sani Top

The last 30 minutes was the scariest part of the drive.  We rounded a series of hairpin turns and steep climbs at the edge of the mountain. The gravel road was most narrow here, requiring 100% concentration and skill. At this point, I thanked myself that I’d had the good sense not to attempt this drive on my own. Our driver, who was born and raised in Lesotho, said he’d driven the Sani Pass hundreds of times so it was like second nature to him.  He got us up to the final summit with no problem and we finally arrived at the Sani Top nearly 3 hours after we’d started.  After a quick stop at the Lesotho border post to have our passports stamped, we were on our way to the Matsoaing village which would be our home for the next two days.

Check out this video by Mountain Passes of South Africa for a firsthand view of the ride.

Car wrecked on the Sani Pass

Car wrecked on the Sani Pass

Have you driven or rode on the Sani Pass?  What did you think?  Share your comments below.

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African Art at the Phansi Musuem

I arrived at Durban’s King Shaka airport on a hot and sunny afternoon, fully expecting to check into my hotel and head straight to the beach on the Golden Mile. To my dismay, by the time I settled into my room two hours later, the sky had turned a dark shade of gray, and stayed that way for the next three days. My plans to beach bum and swim in the warm Indian Ocean having been dashed by rainy weather, my next mission was to find an interesting indoor activity. Enter Plan B – the Phansi Museum.

Phansi Museum

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Phansi Museum

The Phansi Museum opened in 2000, initially located in the basement rooms of Roberts House, a Victorian national monument in Glenwood, Durban. The name ‘Phansi” (which means below in isiZulu and is traditionally known as the realm of the ancestors) was inspired by its location. It has since expanded to three floors and now houses one of the biggest and most spectacular collections of traditional African arts, crafts and artifacts in the world.

Phansi Museum

Phansi MuseumNot quite like a traditional museum, all tours are individual and by appointment only. My tour guide, Phumzile Nkosi, escorted me around the museum for an hour and shared information about the history of the various pieces. As a lover of African art, I was completely fascinated and secretly wishing I could have some of the pieces for my personal collection.

Phansi Museum

Phansi Museum

Phansi Museum

Phansi Museum

Phansi Museum

The Phansi Museum collection includes Zulu, Xhosa, Shangaan and Ndebele beadwork, telephone-wire baskets, carved wooden meat platters and milk pails, memory cloths, ceramic beer pots, snuff spoons, containers, pipes, walking sticks, and wood carvings, some dating back to the 1800s. The top floor houses the grand finale – 30 life-size marionettes dressed and adorned in full ceremonial attire from various regions and cultures of southern Africa.

Phansi Museum

Phansi MuseumIf you are in Durban, the Phansi Museum is not to be missed.  With an entrance fee of only 40 rand (approximately $3.50 USD at time of writing), it’s one of the best deals in town.

More photos

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Maboneng Street Art in Photos

My solo tour of southern Africa started in Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct, a privately developed urban neighborhood on the east side of Joburg’s CBD. Reminiscent of my hometown Detroit, this inner city community is coming back from years of decay and it’s doing so in a big way.

Maboneng

Maboneng, which means “Place of Light” in the Sesotho language, is home to apartment buildings, offices, a museum, a hotel (12 Decades Hotel), and a hostel (Curiocity Backpackers), as well as a variety of retail shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. With live stand-up comedy shows, art galleries, live theater, and cinema movies, it’s easy to find something to do in the neighborhood. I was especially impressed with Market on Main, a weekly Sunday market featuring music, regional food, local clothing and art designs, and a diverse crowd of South African city dwellers.

Maboneng

But I was most fascinated by the street art that can be found all around Maboneng – on the side of buildings, on freeway overpasses, and on retaining walls. I later learned this awesome art was courtesy of the I ART JOBURG project featuring local and international artists. Created as a means to beautify and uplift the area, the stunning detail and intricacy of the artwork is amazing.

Maboneng

Maboneng

Maboneng

Maboneng

Maboneng

Maboneng

Maboneng

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Maboneng

Demeaned as graffiti and often criminally punished as vandalism in the United States, it was refreshing to see this art form embraced as the artistic expression of the community residents. In my opinion, it’s symbolic of the grit and vibrancy of the community. Long live #Maboneng.

Have you visited Maboneng? What did you think about the street art?  Does it add to or detract from the community? Share your comments below.

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Six Things I Learned Driving Across South Africa

On Christmas day last year, I scored an amazing glitch fare of $278 to Johannesburg, South Africa. Soon after, I started making plans for an extended trip back to the Motherland. I decided to visit South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland. Once I mapped out the places I wanted to go in South Africa and looked at airline schedules for inter-country flights, it quickly became clear that logistical challenges would make the trek easier by car. Now I’m admittedly not a fan of long road trips. Years of airline travel has made me spoiled (why drive 15 hours when I can get there in 2 on a plane) and anything more than 4 hours is sure to bring a frown to my face. So while the initial thought of driving across South Africa was not especially pleasant, after a bit of contemplation I sucked it up and decided to take the plunge.

Golden Mile, Durban, South Africa

Last week I took an epic solo road trip across South Africa, driving more than 1,000 miles from Durban to Cape Town. Along the way, I visited the Drakensberg/Sani Pass, Lesotho, Qunu (where Nelson Mandela was raised), Chintsa (on the Wild Coast), and Port Elizabeth (on the Sunshine Coast), before driving the coastal Garden Route down to Cape Town. The trip allowed me to see South Africa in all of its glorious splendor and to see the daily lives of South Africans.  I also learned six important truths about the country.

1.  South Africa is a vast, diverse country

South Africa is the 9th largest country in Africa, with a land mass of 471,000 miles. It has vibrant, modern cities with trendy restaurants, casinos, and entertainment. It abounds with beaches, winelands, and wild animals (Can you say the Big 5). It also is largely rural with tons of green rolling hills and majestic mountains sure to captivate any nature lover. In short, there is something to suit everybody. And speaking of diversity, they don’t call South Africa the Rainbow Nation for nothing. The people are just as diverse as the landscape, with 11 official languages and a variety of cultures. You’ll find blacks, whites, coloureds (mixed race in South African parlance), and Indians here, with more concentrations in certain areas (like Indians in Durban, whites in Cape Town, and blacks in Soweto).

2.  South Africans drive on the “wrong” side of the road

OK, that’s a joke. Seriously though, while Americans drive left steering wheel vehicles on the right side of the road, South Africans drive right steering wheel vehicles on the left side of the road. Driving was tricky because I had to constantly remember to stay left and think about where to turn, tasks that come instinctively when I’m driving at home. And more than once I walked to the left front side of car forgetting that the driver’s side was on the right.

3.  South Africans have a need for speed

I thought Americans were bad when it comes to speeding and risky driving, but I think South Africans win the prize. Speed limits seemed to be optional despite traffic camera signs everywhere and signs warning of high accident zones. Drivers thought nothing of overtaking/passing other cars with limited sight ahead. Even steep mountain curves were no obstacle for these speed demons. I saw several near head-on collisions and even a near vehicle/cow collision (See #4).

4.  South African roads and highways are to be shared by cars, people and animals

The highways are not restricted to vehicles, so you may encounter people walking along the narrow shoulder or even cows, goats or sheep crossing the roadway. I quickly learned you must always pay attention to the road because you never know who or what you may encounter. Take your eyes off the road for a second and you could have a major catastrophe on your hands.

South Africa

5.  Hitchhiking is commonplace in South Africa

Many South Africans in villages and rural areas do not have vehicles, so they either catch mini-taxis or thumb a ride with a stranger. While I’d never pick up a hitchhiker at home, I picked up an elderly Xhosa lady in Qunu and gave her a ride from her village to the main road. She offered me R50 (approximately $4.50 USD at time of writing), which I politely declined. Her smile and obvious excitement at scoring a free ride was enough to make my day. Besides, I also believe in karma. I hope someone returns the favor one day if I’m a senior in need of help.

6.  Post-apartheid, South Africa still has prevalent poverty and inequality

South Africa has a burgeoning black middle class, but 21 years later the harsh aftermath of apartheid can still be seen in the daily lives of the majority. As I traversed the country, it was hard not to notice the extreme inequality between black and white South Africans. I saw a lot of luxury vehicles (BMW, Mercedes Benz, Range Rover) mostly driven by whites, while most blacks walked to and from work or other activities of daily living. Similarly, I saw beautiful waterfront homes (in mostly white areas), while many blacks lived in townships or rural villages with no indoor plumbing or electricity. The juxtaposition was striking and it was the one down point of my adventure. While I (and many others) had hoped South Africa’s new democracy would usher in a new era of social and economic freedom, in fact, some studies suggest that South Africa is more unequal since the fall of apartheid. I don’t know the answers, but it’s an issue that sorely needs to be addressed. Hopefully with continued progress, South Africa will achieve the true freedom and equality that Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters fought for.

Table Mountain, Cape, Town, South Africa

Have you ever taken a road trip in a foreign country? What did you see and learn? Share your comments below.

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