Sunrise over South Bend, IN this morning.
Turns out Maria did forget about me.
Turns out Maria did forget about me.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved traveling; moving; watching blurry trees go by; seeing the sunset descend behind hills. I’d always like to imagine who lived in the houses that flew by, or who paved the roads that lay like little pen streaks on a green canvass. Whether from the passenger seat of a car, window seat of a jet plane or bench of a train — travel has enchanted me for as long as I can remember.
A few years ago — I can’t remember why — I researched the furtherest distance you could take Amtrak. “Cross-country” was my answer…from that moment, the idea of riding on a train for 2…maybe 3 days…just captivated me. I fell in love with the idea.
Finally, after countless trips cross-country, I was able to set aside some time for the trek of a lifetime (…which, come Thursday — may seem like a lifetime, but alas…). So, Monday morning at 11:11am, I boarded an Amtrak train bound for Washington, D.C. — with my final destination of Oceanside, California.
My 6 bags may have everything I need, but also weigh me down a bit….
The trip is 75 hours and 37 minutes; that’s 3 days and 37 minutes for those wondering (3 hour timezone change). Spanning well over 3,000 miles, the first leg of the journey took me to Washington, DC. I had a 3 hour layover in the nation’s capital, and then headed west on the “Capitol Limited Line” — a 18 hour train from Washington, DC to Chicago, IL….which I’m currently aboard. The train is scheduled to make 15 stops in ‘major’ cities such as Harpor’s Ferry, WV / Pittsburgh, PA / Cleveland, OH / South Bend, IN.
We’re set to arrive into Chicago this morning around 8:45AM. I’ll then have a 6-hour layover, and board the 42-hour behemoth known as the “Southwest Chief” — an Amtrak route that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, by way of Kansas City and Albuquerque.
I’m set to arrive into Los Angeles at 8AM Thursday morning, at which point I’ll take a regional rail 2 hours south to Oceanside, California — my final destination. A piece of cake, really.
I’m currently hurtling through Western PA atop the 2nd-level of an Amtrak diner car. I’m munching on some chicken wings and drinking a strong IPA — turns out, life on the rails isn’t all that bad.
But as I sit here, I’m beginning to reflect on the past 12 hours — the kickoff of this “train-treck,” which has already had a few bumps and hiccups.
PART 1: Philadelphia, PA to Washington, DC
My (loving, kind, awesome, generous) mother dropped me off at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, PA this morning at 10:53. My train was set to depart at 11:11 (which I took to be a pretty good omen), but upon walking into the terminal, I found out it was delayed by 30 minutes.
Keep in mind that at this time I had 6 bags with me…so moving around the train station was not my utmost priority (or ability). I stood on line, poised to be the first on the train and get a good seat. As it turns out, the Northeast Corridor is a popular rail route at noon on a Monday. Through some miracle I got all of my bags on the train, and found a seat jammed between the window and the knees of some fellow riders.
I’m not sure if Amtrak forgot if people actually had to sit in their seats, but they kinda goofed here on the whole legroom situation….good thing this leg of the trip was only 2 hours.
Longstory short, I forgot my phone charger, so I had to hit-up my newfound ‘friends’ (read: seat-partners) for a charge. After a restorative journey south, I got off the train and walked into (the stunningly beautiful) Washington Union Station — to realize I left a shopping bag with my food + drink on the train. I rain back and searched everywhere and couldn’t find it. After 10 minutes of searching on the hot, 90-degree train — turns out Amtrak doesn’t like to leave those things idling with the A/C on — I gave up and headed back to the terminal. On my way back, a very kind custodian stopped me and offered to help. She started asking around, and after about 5 minutes, she just reached inside the train and handed me the bag. I didn’t ask questions.
I quickly checked my bags in Union Station — which wasn’t a process I was really used to doing, but turns out is kinda fun, cheap and easy — and then got ready for Part 2 of the adventure.
PART 2: Washington, DC -> Chicago, IL
Naturally, I was the first to line up to board for the next train. I had learned my lesson on the first leg of the journey, and wasn’t willing to risk a bad seat on a trip 9x’s longer. But, as I excitedly walked across the train platform to board this double-deck beast, I was met by a conductor who gave me a seat-assignment. Turns out being first doesn’t get you very far in the world of Amtrak. Alas….I settled in, on the upper level, and pulled out my Chipotle which I had picked up in DC.
Now traditionally being assigned to an aisle seat would have made me very disgruntled. Those who know me, will know I take my seating preference (i.e. window seat) very seriously. But this train became the exception. The space between the seats is borderline ridiculous, and about 80% of the wall is windows. So really, the aisle is actually kind of a sweet deal because you have more space while still very easily being able to look out.
The view from the train as we explored western Maryland —
BUT, it got better. As we were leaving the city, they opened access to the lounge car, which is an entire car with massive windows, comfy seats and a bar…for, well, lounging. As soon as they opened it, I grabbed my bag and went over, staked out on a couch, and sat there as the landscape of western Maryland and West Virginia disappeared under a magnificent sunset. My poor seat mate, Maria, is probably wondering why I ran off 3 minutes into our journey to never return.
PART 3: Into the night
We just entered back into Pennsylvania….which is both funny, and frustrating. Pennsylvania is, as you may remember, is the state where I began today 12 hours ago (See below map). The scenes out the window have turned into a pitch black cloud, and the train has begun to fall asleep. The cafe is shut and the lounge has emptied. Assumedly, everyone has gone back to their beds and room suites — which means it’s time for me to head to the back of the train to my little reclining coach chair, and catch some Z’s….I hear they start serving french toast at 6AM, so I can’t be late!!
The trip in its full glory…..
I arrived home yesterday, and quite honestly, was a bit relieved. Thanks to Canada, I was able to use Toronto International as my bridge from Cuba to the USA.
In short, my legal status while in Cuba was questionable, and now that I’m safely home in the US, I’m comfortable saying that. I arrived into Cuba through a small airport in the south of the country, and spent the better part of an hour convincing officials that I was there as a tourist. Meanwhile, the US was fully aware, and supportive, of my travels provided I was working as a journalist….I guess it’s a good thing the two country’s don’t have good relations and communicate about such things…But at the end of the day, no rules were broken and I fulfilled my commitment to each government, respectively.
On a serious note, I’ll now fully disclose why I went to Cuba in the first place:
I traveled to Cuba to produce a short documentary on economic discrepancies in Cuba’s rapidly changing economy. Prior to traveling to Cuba, I had contacted interviewees and researched Cuban laws and history. I knew I would face some reluctance with any filming that might imply criticism of the government, but was unsure of how this would manifest itself.
I found a young man who was the perfect subject on my second day in Havana. Once he learned I was a journalist, he explained that he would not talk to me anymore… “You get to leave Cuba on Friday; I don’t!” he explained. He went on to tell me that he would be at risk if I were to include him in an article that might be construed as critical of the Cuban government. He told me stories of seeing Cuban nationals and foreign journalists being beaten and arrested for such acts.
After that conversation, I reconsidered how to move forward. From an ethical standpoint, I could not continue shooting and put my subjects at risk, so I abandoned my original film project. Instead I’ve produced “We Call That Hope.” I explored four major themes of life in Cuba through photos, videos and anonymous narratives to create an honest vision of Cuba.
While it’s easy to get caught up in politics and economics, I believe it is important to celebrate the Cuban people and acknowledge the wave of hope that has swept across the country in the past year. As I’ve shown in this blog over the past few posts, Cuba is quite different than the US, despite it’s close location, so I found these themes important and crucial to share. I’m not sure where I’m going to move forward with this, but that’s the exciting part. Here comes the editing….
(Edited Oct. 14, 2015)
I’m pleased to post the completed project; “We Call That Hope”
On Instagram: #OnTheStreetsOfCuba
As you walk down the streets of Havana, it’s hard to imagine Florida being a mere 100 miles to the north. Old cars fill the streets, the smell of gas, smoke and litter clouds the air and the sound of honking and music resounds off the buildings. It seems that the excessive temperatures is the biggest commonality between Havana and Miami.
In the past week, I’ve been fortunate enough to traverse across the country and meet a diverse group of people, and gain a wealth of knowledge. It’s amazing the pride that everybody I’ve met has for their country. Almost everyone is ecstatic when I tell them I am from “United States,” but after talking and getting to know each other, they remain patriotic to Cuba. I must admit; there is something majestic and appealing about the culture and spirit of this island.
On Monday afternoon, I spent about 75% of my cash money on a taxi ride. The debate is still on whether it was a product of bad translation, or effort to take advantage of a tourist. Because of the US’s embargo, US debit and credit cards don’t work in Cuba — therefore, I was left with $35 for the past 5 days. Out of that, I spent $20 on souvenirs. I bring this up because the exchange of money here has been fascinating to me since the day I arrived. There are two currencies in Cuba; the Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUC has a 1:1 exchange rate with the USD, while the CUP has a 25:1 exchange rate with the USD. To make it more confusing, stores are legally obligated to accept both leaving even the most experienced Cubans scratching their heads as they rifle through their wallets. Furthermore, there is a stark discrepancies in prices. Taxi fares, and most tourist items, are charged in CUC. A taxi across the city costs 15 CUC, or $15. Sounds about right for North America. However, food in “cafeterias” is much cheaper in comparison. A 10” personal pizza, or large hamburger, will cost around $10 CUP, or $.25USD. Since being here, I’ve spent about a total $5 on street food.
This is an interesting economy to me, which I will get into more once arriving back into the US… But in short, the average upper middle class Cuban makes about $40USD (40 CUC) a month; making a $.25 pizza about “normal.” Most tourist, or upper class entities, like taxis and restaurants operate mainly with the CUC and on an internationally-competetive price. Things such as street side vendors and pizza shops operate with mainly with CUP, for the “common man.” There is a bit of crossover, and much more history than I know now, but these are my initial observations.
As I prepare to leave tomorrow, I have mixed emotions. The promise of air-conditioning and unlimited water on the plane home sounds pretty amazing, as well as a homemade meal and my own bed. But, I have some reluctancy to leave Cuba. I feel that there is so much more to explore, and empty history books to fill (at least for myself), that I could stay here forever. While I feel that I have seen “everything” and accomplished what I wanted to see here, I know that there is still so much hidden in this fascinating land. While I cherish the past week here and everything I’ve seen, I cannot wait to return.
“You may pass. Welcome.” That phrase was like music to my ears as the glass doors slid open, and I stepped foot outside of the Antonio Maceo International Airport in Santiago de Cuba. That guard was the 6th person to check my passport and visa from the time I arrived at the airport in Haiti Thursday morning, to when I was officially in “Cuba.” It was quite the process.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I don’t like being told “no.” I can remember the first time I was told, “you can’t travel to Cuba.” I think it was that moment I became obsessed with traveling to the country. In a way, nothing is more motivating than being told no. So, after my time in Haiti I took the next logical step, and flew to Cuba. In just the first 2 days of my visit, I have seen so much and am excited to spend the next week here.
On Wednesday night, I learned that John Kerry would be raising the flag at the U.S. Embassy Friday morning, as it opened its doors in Havana for the first time since 1961. I had to be there. My flight from Haiti arrived into Santiago de Cuba at 1pm Thursday. Santiago de Cuba is in the southern tip of the island; a mere 16-hour bus ride from Havana. I got off the plane and got a taxi straight to the bus. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to tour around the city as much as I’d like, but I kept my eyes glued to the window of the bus, seeing much of the Cuban countryside as we cruised up the island.
The bus was an interesting place.
It was full to the brim with passengers, and had tv’s blasting Cuban pop music videos. As everyone settled in for the long haul, I saw a man pull out a bottle of rum and fill a glass. I didn’t think much of it. Then more and more people started doing the same thing. In a minute, I realized I was apparently one of the few people who didn’t “plan” for said bus ride. Soon enough some of my fellow passengers realized this, and in no time, we were all enjoying some Cuba Libres in the back of the bus.
We stopped for dinner (or breakfast in my case…) around 8pm, and then set off into the night. I had originally planned to take an overnight bus that would arrive in the mid-morning Friday, but I wanted to get to Havana early so I could go to the event at the embassy so I got on an earlier bus. Consequently, we arrived in Havana a little after 3am and I had no place to go. Some fellow passengers who were concerned for my well being, escorted me to the “casa particular’ where I would be staying the next night. They sat with me until 5am, and then left as it began to get light out. The hostess woke up at 7, and let me in. I had a brief breakfast of mangoes and passion fruit, and then ran to the embassy.
Being in Havana Friday and witnessing that historic event is hard to describe. The streets surrounding the embassy were crowded and filled with energy. Americans and Cubans stood together as they watched the beginning of a new era. Unable to resist, I produced a video of the event, which is a story in and of itself.
Internet in Cuba is hard to come by. You probably don’t think so by the quality of my writing, but it’s a miracle that you’re even reading this. Meaning; accessing the internet and uploading photos is not an easy task. I shot the video Friday morning and ran home to edit and upload it. I finished editing it by 12pm, and then traveled across the city to the best hotel in Havan, and bought 2 hours of wifi for the low price of $14. The wifi had an upload limit, so that didn’t work. I went to another hotel, but no luck. As it turns out, there’s a park next to where I’m staying that has better internet than any hotel – the only problem is that all of Havana knows this. The park is standing room only, as everyone with an electronic device is trying to connect. Subsequently, the connection is extremely slow. Around 9pm, I gave up trying to upload the video. I woke up at 6am Saturday morning and ran to the park, hoping I’d have the wifi to myself. To my surprise, the park was still busy with people trying to connect, but it was still dramatically faster than Friday night. I uploaded the video and am currently still working with various publications to get it published. In the meantime, it can be viewed on Vimeo:
Otherwise, life in Havana is incredible. The sights, colors and history are unparalleled. I can’t help but take a picture of all the old taxis, and every “old American” that drives by. I’m excited to spend the next 5 days traversing this city and documenting its immense character.
While after 4 weeks of being in the tropics I’m beginning to fall in love with palm trees and this ideal weather, the heat is beginning to be a bit excessive. Especially in Haiti. Being away from the coast, combined with the country’s lack of A/C and electricity, has made for a tiring week.
After an awesome, and restful, week in Miami and The Everglades, I made it to Haiti.
For me, Haiti is a special place. This is my third time traveling to Haiti, and each time I am amazed by the people of this island nation. From the second you step off the plane, you’re greeted with smiles and generosity; the latter of which can be overwhelming. I’ve been floored by the generosity and love of the Haitian people. It does not matter how much or how little they have, how big their house is – or if they even have one – they are welcoming and giving regardless: a humbling thing to witness to say the least.
I traveled to Haiti with a nonprofit organization, Let’s Share the Sun, to create a documentary film about their work in Haiti. They have been working in Haiti for the past 5 years, and work to install solar panels on school, hospitals and orphanages that otherwise would not have electricity. This trip,they were a group of 16. As journalist I try to keep a special bond between subjects and myself. I believe it’s a balance between staying objective and not entering into your own story, and treating “subjects” like humans, or and forming a relationship. This past week was special for me as I was able to find that perfect balance. By the end of the trip, I was considered a team member and part of the group, yet I was able to remain objective in my storytelling. Maybe it was the 30 hours in the van we spent together, but I’ve never felt so close to a group of people I’ve worked with before, and I’ll cherish that for a while.
I first traveled to Haiti in 2012, and was struck by what I saw. It had been over two years since the devastating earthquake in 2010, yet many people still lived in tents on the side of the road. It was hard for me. I was discouraged. It took me a while to process it all after I returned home. However, this trip was different. A team member of this trip, John Nagy, said it well: “My last trip in Haiti was full of sadness, but this trip is full of hope.” While the amount of poverty and suffering is still staggering, the improvements that have been made throughout the country are awe-inspiring. This time the people we met were not just thankful, but they were hopeful. They were hopeful that this way of life may change, and their beautiful country may reach its full potential.
On Saturday, we left the airport and traveled straight to St. Gabrielle’s school in Fountain, Haiti. After five, long hours in the car, we arrived shortly after sunset. We found the school because it was the only lit building in the town. As we drove down the road, houses sat in the dark and people used flashlights on their phones to walk, but there was a glimmering light when we arrived at a school. A light that Let’s Share the Sun Foundation (LSTSF) installed three years ago. Three years ago, they installed 6 solar panels on the roof of the school, which gave the school light and electricity for students to charge phones and flashlights. This year, LSTSF brought 26 new panels which will enable the school to create a computer lab, medical clinic and kitchen. St. Gabrielle’s school will now be one of the few, if not only, schools in Haiti with 24-hour electricity.
After being at the school for 5 minutes, it became clear that the electricity did more than power lights or cell phones. It powered the community. At 9pm on a Saturday, the school yard was full of people of all ages. Kids played soccer in the corner of the parking lot, some sat and read and others just stood and talked. The school had become the center of the community. Some students walk 2 hours a day to the school, but are driven by the promise of electricity and an education unmatched in the area.
Let’s Share the Sun Foundation works in a sustainable way by employing a fully functional team of Haitian electritians. 4 years ago they taught how to install and maintain the solar panels; now they manage. In this way, solar energy will continue to grow even when the foundation is not present in the country. Furthermore, the pride of the local workers was inspiring. They showed up at 6am and worked until 9pm, never taking a break other than to eat for a few minutes. Their work ethic and sense of purpose was a beautiful thing to capture.
As I prepare to leave this beautiful land, many things are running through my mind. While this trip was full of hope, there is still so much to be improved. As someone else on the trip put it, “Haiti is greatly improved, but there is still far too much suffering for 2015.” In the day and age, no one should have to wonder when they will eat next, or what 2-hour window their electricity will be turned on for that day. But working with such groups inspires me, as well as the Haitian people. Let’s Share the Sun Foundation’s selflessness and generosity is unparalleled.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll get on a plane and 20 minutes later I’ll be in another country. But it will be a world away. Less than 50 miles apart, yet so different. It may be easy to leave Haiti, but it will be impossible to forget what I’ve seen. But in a way, that’s the beauty of this job. How do I tell these stories full of overwhelming emotion and faith? How do I process it all? How do I capture its essence, and make the viewers feel said emotions?
As I planned my travels this summer I made sure to balance work and pleasure. I planned to travel to Hawaii in order to visit my older sister and her family who live in Honolulu. My niece and nephew (7 and 9 respectively) are growing up fast, and seeing them less than once a year is hard. My sister needed help watching the kids, while she prepared her classroom for the coming school year, so I offered my services. And so, my role as “soccer dad” began!
My sister lives in a high-rise condo in downtown Honolulu, just a few blocks from the ocean. My days consisted of going to beaches, swimming in the pool and (grocery) shopping. My nephew had soccer camp everyday, so after dropping him off at camp everyday, my niece and I would drive around and find something to do. We climbed mountains, had beachside picnics and ran errands for my sister.
While the week wasn’t as extravagant and wild as exploring the “Big Island,” it was more rewarding – both as an uncle, and as a “traveler.” As an uncle, I loved the time with my family and value the relationships I strengthened. As a traveler, I love immersing myself in a new area. I believe you experience a place on a whole new level when you “live” there, and not just visit. Meaning; you have a routine, you go off the beaten pat and you drive, shop and live like a local resident. I feel that it’s when you do this that you see what life is truly like, and not just what the tourism department wants you to see.
I also wanted to produce a film while out in The Pacific. While the time on The Big Island was great, I couldn’t let an opportunity of travel pass me by without producing a solid film. So, I decided to produce a piece for part of my passion project, The Timeless Artisans – a project started back in 2013. I found a man who makes custom, handmade surfboards on the North Shore of Oahu. I always look for people whose work represents their location and region, and saw no better match than that. One day, before the babysitting job started, I drove up to the North Shore and spent the afternoon with “JC.” JC had a little hut/shop near the edge of a small town. It was walking distance from the ocean, and surrounded by palm trees. JC walked me through the entire process and together we created a solid film piece — soon to be posted here.
The balance between work and pleasure in Hawaii was great, and was a nice transition from a seemingly slow summer into the coming weeks of shooting and editing…So, aloha Hawaii! Next stop is The Caribbean.