Cuba: belleza fuerte nacida en la síntesis de contrastes

It would take me a lifetime to adequately reflect on two weeks in Cuba. Thus, while I suspect that my peers and I may well spend the rest of our lives feeling the effects of this trip, I have neither the desire nor the means to articulate our experience or its impact.

(…and then this is the part where I have to attempt whatever I just refused to do, right?)

Regarding the title of this post: if you can’t really parse out Spanish and you A) have no access to a Spanish dictionary or B) don’t feel like leaping up to grab one or C) are so far gone and so comatose that you lack the will to hit up google translate–if this is the case, please double check to make sure you’re still breathing–or D) you do speak Spanish but my Spanish is crap and makes no sense……. then the title of my post was written with the intent of headlining the fact I found Cuba’s incredibly unique and compelling beauty to be rooted in contrasts.

This is immediately noticeable in traffic. We might be roaring down a boulevard in our oversize bus, and with the percussive force of Rumba rhythms rattling the windows and our teeth, trying to note our surroundings. The lanes are splattered with retro Cadillacs or Corvettes in eye-popping colors; any interstices between these cars are filled with dump-trucks, with men riding in back, drinking beers or sodas or holding shovels or just watching. And into the rush of this incredibly eclectic oncoming traffic rides a man on a two-wheel horse-drawn cart.

Somehow we find ourselves comfortable and at home while walking down streets in Havana, which, in any other environment, would not seem so prudent. We look to our left and there are multi-story buildings replete with frescoes, painted lavish shades of cyan, turquoise, mango, or rose. We look to our right, and on the opposite side of the street there are houses that look as if they’ve been partially burnt down; ragged windows embedded in scorched walls that stand in a yard full of dirt and rubbish. We peer inside the windows of crumbling, architectural masterpieces adorned with peeling paint and shot-up pillars; seemingly grimy exteriors that hide the modest pleasantries of home-life from unscrupulous eye: a woman hanging laundry on rickety balconies, the pulsating light of a TV, rugs on the floor, art on the walls, a  boy seated in a plastic chair swinging his feet. We have the pleasure of encountering affectionate, enthusiastic dogs of every known variety on the street and in people’s homes. We equally experience the leaden sadness of seeing dogs stumbling along with disjointed gaits, covered in flies and sores, and other dogs crawling off to die in the shade.

Life in Cuba is beautiful because it is unapologetically upfront, and you need not seek out any “authenticity” if you are willing to observe Cuban life without selective vision. Everything is there, regardless of whether or not you find certain aspects of it appealing. You don’t have to see the urban poverty if you don’t want to–there are plenty of prettier houses to look at. You don’t have to see rural poverty–you could look at the hills and put your iPod on shuffle. You don’t have to see money’s effects on people–you can delineate their interactions with you and your shared exchanges from their reality. You can delineate your treatment and perception of others from your own reality. Who did you see when you drove through that town: the cute little girls waving? the blown kisses? The kid raising his middle finger to your glossy bus? The old man who smiled, or the one who spat? Did you just embrace the sweetness because the resentment seemed too uncomfortable to look in the eye?

Cuba is challenging because it’s so giving. The culture literally offers itself up on every block of pavement and every stretch of dirt. It asks you to see so many similarities and fundamental human commonalities that you start wondering if you can say “Look at Cuba, it’s so beautiful; we’re all the same, aren’t we?” That’s the catch. If you don’t see and respect the differences, then you can’t really love the contrasts, and as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t love the contrasts, you don’t love Cuba.

If you espouse a love for Cuban life, revel in the countryside as you drive past.  If you look between the trees in an orchard, you might make out a few graves. No cemetery, no marble headstones, no cremation. White makeshift crosses and mounds nestled amid roots mark the places where people physically laid loved ones’ bodies to rest in the very land they had worked. If that doesn’t grip you as being one of the most alienating but compellingly human things you could lay eyes on, I’m not sure I could ever find a way to explain my experience of Cuba to you at all.

Peru so far..

Let me begin by saying that Peru maybe the most beautiful country on the planet. It has something geographically for everyone; beautiful coast to the west, the valleys and mountains of the Andes, and not to mention 60% of Peru is actually a part of the Amazon Jungle. I have spent the last two days in the Sacred Valley and it’s surrounding area. Narrow, winding, roads led us to Chincherro, Maras, and Urubamba, but it was a train yesterday that took us to Machu Picchu. Our guide Marco told us to look out the window at a certain part of the train ride where the landscape literally transforms from mountainous/alpine-y type forestry to jungle at the base of these massive mountains. I have taken about 250 photos since I have arrived to Peru, so here we go with some new landscape style photography.


We visited Chincherro on Sunday, and this is a scene of the local leaders (only the men) of the town doing their Sunday service. The women pictured to the right are their wives who listen in on the service.

This ancient Huaca was used as a ceremonial space, and it is commonly thought that if the people were to wish for good crops, soil, etc. they would gather in this space, face the land, and pray for it’s fertility. In general, Huacas are used to get in touch with the spirits of the earth such as the sun, wind, stars, etc.

This church was built in the 16th century by the Spanish when they conquered Peru. They very kindly built literally on top of the Incan infrastructures which is why there is an inconsistent divide between the white Spanish pavement and Incan masonry.

This is a street made of steps in Chincherro which proved to be very exhausting on our lungs at 10,000 ft. elevation.

This local woman (from whom we asked permission before we photographed) sold us that backpack in the local market of Chincherro (only open on Sundays)  where the merchants like to bargain with the customers. It is kind of like the Italian Market because they sell absolutely everything from food, fabrics, toys, etc. We learned some new words in the local language, Quechua, to help with the bargaining.

The next town we visited was Maras, which owns this salt mine. There are about 4,000 ponds in this area that uses water that has been running since 450 AD (and has never stopped since then) as a means to fill these ponds. Then in the dry season, when the water evaporates these ponds are left with crystal white residue which we know as table salt. Farmers will often carry 100 kilos of salt back to their town to sell. One more interesting fact is that if a man wants to marry a girl from the town, the family will give him a pond to take care of and depending how  well he maintains it, they will give him their permission to marry her.

This Incan ruin was used for farming different crops such as corn, potatoes, and flowers. They were able to make the circles look so perfect by having a man stand in the center, attached to another man by rope who would then walk in the circles to mark them (like a human compass).

This, of course, is the famous Machu Picchu citadel ruins being overlooked by the Wyana Picchu mountain. It was discovered by some American explorers in 1911, and had only been accessible through the Inca Trail for a very long time. In more recent days, they send buses of about 60-80 people up and down every few minutes. The three major parts of Machu Picchu are known to be the worship area, agricultural area, and urban area.

We have one more (hopefully less rainy) day in Machu Picchu, but tonight we take the train back to Urubamba where we will depart for Cusco, the last visit of my Senior Project.

~ Eden

Final Days in the Archipelago 

Since my last post, my parents and I continued on our pursuit through the beautiful (and pristine) Galapagos Islands, which came to its conclusion today 😦 . Again, I will be taking the pictorial approach with my favorite picture from each excursion.

We spent our first day back in society with people other than those on our boat, which was a little weird, honestly. We had spent the first five days completely immersed in nature, with no cellphone or internet connection to the outside world (we were shocked to find out it snowed today back at home). The streets of Santa Cruz Island (population 20,000) are narrow, but busy. The most interesting place however, was the fish market run by two locals, who were being badgered by hoards of sea lions and pelicans.

That afternoon, the naturalists took us to a remote farm in the country of Santa Cruz Island, where tortoises come to hang out. Pictured above is my 6’3″ dad acting as a size comparison to this massive tortoise.

On Wednesday morning we visited Post Office Bay, a famous site first created by English whalers who would leave mail in the barrel for other departing English whalers to pick up and deliver to the recipient. This became a tradition at the Galapagos, and people now leave post cards for whomever, and as soon as someone who lives around that area comes to the post office barrel, they pick it up and deliver it in person. The result is a new friend you can share your story/experience in the islands with. Enrique, one of our three naturalists, is pictured above explaining the bin.

This was all happening on the island of Floreana, the famous site of the “Galapagos Affair” in the 1920’s. This is a famous story of a dentist Dr.Ritter and his mistress Dore Strauch who went through extreme measures (i.e. pulling out their own teeth and then sharing a pair of dentures) to live on Floreana. Their paradise was interrupted by a baroness who came with two other men, and the whole thing ends up with death and disappearance throughout the party.

In the afternoon we visited Punta Cormorant where we witnessed a rarity that is a group of blue footed boobies diving into the water for fish (pictured above). After that we hiked to the sea turtle nesting grounds and watched close to the shoreline for baby stingrays.

Yesterday, we visited Santa Fe Island where we saw the most adorable sea lions I have seen in my life. They were all over the place and the aroma was quite… pungent. We observed one male sea lion instigating trouble among the others, because that is what they like to do when they are bored.

Our last excursion of the trip was on South Plaza. We observed the endemic (to that island) species of iguana, the Santa Fe land iguana. Along the cliffs there was a wind tunnel housing hundreds of different species of birds, among which were swallowed tailed gulls, blue footed boobies, nazca boobies, and shearwater birds.

This week has been truly incredible. It is so rare to see land virtually unscathed by humans. It will be very strange to go back home where wild animals will most times run away from everyone, even those without cameras, binoculars, etc. Right now we have an overnight stay in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and this time tomorrow we will be in the Sacred Valley of Peru. It has been a lot of fun learning how to use the massive 80-400mm lens, however I am looking forward to the change of photography pace using the wide angle landscape lens.


An Obsession That Clearly Surpasses My Own

Although I’ve been excited for my entire trip, there was one day in particular that I was especially eager for: Saturday, the day I would finally get to visit Tintagel, Arthur’s birthplace. The castle (which is now in ruins) is currently only open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays, so I actually shaped my entire itinerary around getting to the Cornish coast for the weekend.

After meeting Jo, the landlady/bartender at the local pub in Camelford (another supposed location of Camelot that’s about ten minutes from the coast), we knew the best way to get to the ruins: by parking at the top of the Glebe Cliff and walking down. The views were absolutely phenomenal, especially once we reached the castle itself and the sun came out. Since we were right at the sea—Tintagel Castle was built on this little peninsula off the coast of the rest of Tintagel, making it extremely defendable—it was even windier than the previous day, but it was worth it. In addition to being occupied between the 5th and 7th centuries during Arthur’s time, Tintagel had been used as a settlement for thousands of years, so we had the opportunity to see ruins from a variety of time periods.

IMG_1335 (This is the view walking to the ruins)

IMG_1358(Some of the ruins)

IMG_1392(This is the view from the very top, in the distance, the very tiny building is where we parked our car)

IMG_1427(This is the cove right at the ruins, the cave is called Merlin’s Cave)

Visiting the castle took our entire morning, but in the afternoon we visited another location that I had also been anticipating: King Arthur’s Great Halls. The Halls were created by Frederick Thomas Glasscock in the early 1930s and are decked out by specially made paintings by William Hatherell depicting scenes in Arthur’s life and 73 stunning glass windows made by Veronica Whall.

Our visits to the Halls began with a narrated light show of King Arthur’s life (based on the L’Morte D’Arthur version) before we were able to go into the Great Hall itself. There were paintings, stained glass windows, and suits of armor everywhere, as well as displays explaining various Arthurian facts. The Halls had their own Round Table, with the names of 12 knights carved into it, and many of the stained glass windows were the shields of various famous (and not-so well known) knights of Camelot.

IMG_1512 (The Great Hall part of the Halls)

My favorite part was how each stained glass window had a description, explaining the background information behind the symbol—particularly the histories of various knights. It was great to see the legends all compiled in one place; the Halls were the first and only place I visited to truly go into such detail and depth about the legends. It wasn’t merely a place that had been associated with Arthur, it was dedicated to Arthur and only made possible by Glasscock spending a small fortune.

Saturday also marked the last true ‘Arthurian’ day I would spend in England. Although my dad and I remained in England until Tuesday, the rest of our stops were only distantly associated with Arthur, and were basically just a way of breaking up the return journey to London. We stopped at Bath (a possible location of the Battle of Badon, Arthur’s 12th battle), Avebury Henge (a stone circle), and Marlborough (a supposed location of Merlin’s grave), before returning to London and flying home.


Tiny House: Update

Today marked the ninth day of the Tiny House Project.  It’s hard to believe that we started with a trailer just over a week ago and now we have all the walls and the roof up! With just two days to go, we are ready to work extra hard to get as close as we can to our goal. We would like to finish the whole exterior of the house including installing the windows and the door.  While some of us worked on the structure of the house, others worked on the interior; this is a work pattern we have been using since day one. One of the coolest things we have worked on for the inside of the house has been a countertop made out of live-edge wood. We started off by cutting the wood in half and running both halves through the planer. We then put the two pieces next to each other and worked on making them level. Now, the two pieces are joined, sanded and coated and we have our finished countertop for the house.

There was a moment today while we were working when I felt completely peaceful. This moment took place in the loft of the house (kind of like a skybed) where our guests would be sleeping. I climbed up and just sat there for ten minutes, my feet hanging off the side of the house. The wind was blowing in my face but all I could see was the clear blue sky. This moment made me realize how incredible this project is and how I will never get an experience like this again. We have had so much fun together that our 7-8 hour work days just fly by. So many people have come by to visit us including Teacher Sam, Teacher Paul and Teacher Karl. I hope many more people will come visit once it is finished! I will be sure to post tons of pictures on Thursday. Until then, we invite you to come to the Cabin and visit us!

Day 9


Hitting the Streets

In our matching Living Hope T-shirts we took to the streets of a township, Overcome, today to spread the word about the importance of hand washing and rehydration as they relate to the prevention and treatment of diarrhea. It was a powerful experience for our group to witness such poverty first hand.  We split up into smaller groups with local interns working with Living Hope (the faith-based NGO sponsoring the project) as well as similarly associated community members familiar with the people and streets of Overcome.  We were very well received by the residents who seemed appreciative of our presence and message.

I managed to sneak a pic, but for some reason it won’t upload. Rah!

More service tomorrow and an afternoon with kiddos in the after school program.

-T. Melissa


Galapagos Islands

I apologize for not writing, the boat we are staying on had broken Wifi for the first few days. We have done so much in our first few days of being here, so much that it would be hellish to read a massive paragraph about it. So, that being said, I will do a more pictorial approach to this choosing my favorite photograph that I have taken from each excursion we went on.

We arrived one hour late to the Galapagos, so the afternoon felt pretty rushed. When we arrived to North Seymore Island  however, time slowed down as we entered these animals’ habitat. Other animals we saw on this island included blue footed boobies, male/female frigate birds, land iguanas, and of course sea lions.

The next morning we left the ship at 7 a.m. for a coastline tour of Isabela Island. On this trip we saw the landscape of the cliffs of Isabela Island, clearly defined layers in the rock where you can see the land formation. Other than that there were sally-lightfoot crabs, marine iguanas, Galapagos penguins, sea turtles, and the swallowed tail gull pictured above.

We have been snorkeling everyday so far. I have been taking a lot of videos with the GoPro, but my dad captured this image of the sea turtle.

On the island of Isabela, in the afternoon we took a tour of the Island shore where we hiked along lava rock and dodged what had to be thousands of marine iguanas (one of which is pictured below taking a swim). On that island we saw lots of flightless cormorants, more blue-footed boobies, sea lions, sea turtles, and more species of crabs I was unable to identify. We were also able to get the rare experience of seeing a marine iguana hatchling in the wild.

The next day, we were on the island Fernandina where we were able to see the Giant Tortoise in the wild. The big guy pictured above was one we encountered on the trail. There weren’t many other species other than the Galapagos carpenter bee.

Yesterday, we were on the red sands of Rabida Island. We saw mockingbirds, cactus finch, medium brown finches, land iguanas, marine iguanas, oyster catchers, flycatcher birds, and the Galapagos dove (pictured above). In the afternoon my dad and I swam with some white tip reef sharks, manta rays, eagle rays, and lots of parrot fish.

In the afternoon we hiked up Cerro Dragon, where we saw many land iguanas, and a single flamingo, since the Galapagos is the only place in the world you can see a single flamingo.

Galapagos has been fantastic so far, and hopefully the internet on our boat will be fixed so I can share more pictures for the rest of our time here!


Finally Starting Our Service in South Africa!

We visited the community of Capricorn today. There we met interns working with Living Hope (a local faith based non-profit that provides supports for those struggling with addiction, HIV/AIDS, poverty, etc). We made portable hand washing stations which we will distribute to residents tomorrow in an effort to reduce the rates of diarrhea in the neighborhood. 

You start with an old soda bottle, drill two holes in the cap, insert a tube in one, fill bottle with water. Give it a gentle squeeze and gravity will help the water flow.  We also learned about the causes of diarrhea (contamination with fecal matter via flies and dirty hands, etc) and how to treat dehydration, especially in small children. 

Electrolyte mixture as prescribed by the department of health. 

Two of the guides going with us tomorrow role-played how to engage clients. 

The students are excited and nervous at the same time about the start of their service projects.  As the Service Coordinator it’s exciting to experience this part of our journey here together. 

It was a misty day and the winds picked up this afternoon. Here’s hoping the sun comes back tomorrow!

-T. Melissa

Archaeologists Would Make Great Body Builders

Wow, it’s been a long week! Lab night was a great success, though I learned while work does get done it’s more a social activity than work. But I met a lot of important people in the area, at least when it comes to archaeology, as well as a couple of other teens that have interned with The Foundation in the past, both my age. It’s always cool to meet people your age who have similar interests in common, especially if those things are a bit unusual. Wednesday  I had a morning at the office trying to track down a slave named Matilda who was bought by a family named the Robbins who ran a mill in Gloucester in the 1800s. It’s an unusual name for the time period so I’ve had some luck finding a trail, but unfortunately most of it is based on educated guessing rather than solid facts. I’m using Land tax records and property tax records crossed over with the information provided in the Robbins Ledger that I’ve been transcribing. The part that I think everyone including myself have been waiting for came on Thursday. You probably haven’t heard of Toddsbury unless you have lived in Gloucester County, VA. I definitely hadn’t. It’s supposedly the oldest working structure in Gloucester, a house that used to be a huge plantation established in 1652.20150312_172335 It’s on the banks of the York river on two sides and is absolutely stunning. It’s not often that people get to work on sites like this. Toddsbury, until Thursday, had never had any real archaeology done. The only reason we knew where to look was from a very undefined map drawn up when a brick foundation was discovered while workers were putting in a utility line some fifty years ago. We spent most of the first morning just trying to figure out how we were going to go about setting up Shovel Test Plots (one-by-one foot holes that go down until you reach subsoil, the water table or four feet, whichever comes first= STP.) 20150312_171317We went around randomly probing the ground in the area we believed to have the foundation struck by the utility workers. Throughout the first day I think our total count of STPs was 65. Thank God we had two volunteers that came down from Minnesota, as well as a girl named Mollie who volunteered with Fairfield last summer. Her family currently owns the house, and has for quite a while. Her grandmother came to visit us and spent lunch Thursday telling us about growing up there in the 1920s. Mollie and I had a lot to talk about as we traded off digging the STPs and shifting through the dirt that came out of the holes looking for artifacts. Funny thing about Mollie was that she almost went to Westtown! Anyway, as she and I sifted through endless piles of dirt finding pounds of brick and oyster shell, along with the more interesting pieces of pottery, rusted nails, and animal bones, Anna Hayden (intern manager and Archaeologist extraordinaire) struck solid brick on her first STP. That was the first of FIVE brick foundations that we found during the course of the day.20150313_151923 Just to make it clear, FIVE brick foundations in one day happens maybe once on a lifetime, if that. We had no idea the day would be so successful. Thursday we came back and started a test unit, in this case a five by five foot hole which we placed to cover two foundations which were only one foot apart. It was a beautiful and day very successful, and I really hope we can get back there before I leave. Saturday we were suppose to go to Walter Reed’s Birthplace but because of bad rain we canceled, so I ended up lying in bed trying not to move so my muscles wouldn’t hurt. Honestly Archaeologists would make great body builders. You may not think so just watching but try a day on the job and I promise you’ll be in pain by the end. But no pain, no discovery. Today my hosts, The Browns, and I went into Colonial Williamsburg to go see the Oyster Rick that had been built in the Brickyard. 20150315_130844An Oyster Rick is a structure made out of oyster shell and both wet and dry wood. When you light it the Oysters burn and at the right temperature turn into quick lime which is used to make mortar- basically what is used to bind the bricks together- no concrete necessary. Tomorrow it’s back to the office to do more research on Matilda and basically everyone else in Gloucester in 1855 and 1856. Wish me Luck!

Days 5-8

Day 5 (Thursday): We woke up early and went on a tour around Cape Town with the Sun Valley 5th graders. It was a fun and very relaxed morning. We got to see lots of different places in Cape Town, we visited a park, a beach, and a little waterside town. Getting to know the 5th graders was very fun; they are all very happy and upbeat children. It reminded me of what it was like to be that small wishing I could be older. When we finished with the tour we said goodbye to our new friends and went to another beach to learn how to body board! It was really fun, not everyone wanted to do it but five of us did and it was a blast. We had to have wetsuits because the water gets so cold this time of year but we couldn’t feel it at all. Learning to body board was incredibly difficult, but some of the teachers from Sun Valley had come and were helping to teach us. They were fantastic. After surfing we headed back to the B & B and to get ready for dinner. We went to a nice little local restaurant and had burgers, while listening to live music, which was really good I might add.

Day 6 (Friday):  Today was a day that Kwesi had been waiting for all trip. We went to Robben Island where Mandela and other political threats were held in prison during Apartheid. Before we went though, we hung around the waterfront and got to try lots of different meats like impala, ostrich, and zebra. They were all delicious and tasted like like different types of chicken. When we finished our lunch we boarded the boat to Robben Island.

Once on Robben Island, we had a tour on a bus given by a very entertaining guide who was able to keep the mood light despite the heaviness of what we were looking at.  After the bus tour we were given another tour of the actual prison by someone who had been imprisoned their himself. Because this tour was given by a previous prisoner it made it very real, and felt authentic, like history itself was standing in front of us. On the way back from the Island a few of us decided to stand on the front of the boat and watch as we approached Capetown, that is until we got splashed by huge waves. For dinner we went to Sun Valley where they were having a cookout and a camp out for their elementary students. We got to play soccer, and hang out with our little 5th graders again, it was really fun and a nice way to end a somewhat serious day.

Day 7 (Saturday): We left the bed and breakfast to move into our second location, the team house. It’s a beautiful building along the beach with very nice rooms and delicious food. It would fall somewhere between a hotel and a hostel. After unpacking we went out to a tourist market which had really great prices and got some more souvenir shopping in. When we finished and got back to the house had dinner and went for a nice sunset walk on the beach to end the day. The sunset was gorgeous and the beach was full of people walking their dogs.

Day 8 (Sunday): today was our last day of touristy type things before we start service, the real reason we’re here! We started our day of at Kristenbosch Botanical Gardens walking around, it was a beautiful sight and there was so much to see. Then we had lunch at a restaurant in the gardens called Moyo. Moyo had lots of delicious food, which was perfect because they had a all-you-can-eat buffet. They also had really cool singers who sang traditional African music to each individual table. Once lunch was finished we headed to our final destination which was Table Mountain. We rode up to the top in a cable car and saw amazing views of Cape Town from above, the view even stretched as far as Robben Island  on one side of the mountain there was a cloud spilling over onto us as we walked around ruining our view but giving us a nice little mist. It was really cool. When we finished at Table Mountain we went back to the house for dinner and a relaxing evening. The kids also took a 10 minute walk to a local pizza restaurant to check out some more local food and have a late night snack to end the night.