Tag Archives: Havana

Bringing the Goods Back Home

When you have to dig through your closet to find buried souvenirs, what’s the point? We are firm believers that the best souvenirs are the ones you see every day. They become a part of your day-to-day life, sparking memories and conversation. Here, we list a few of our favorites.

A hideous coin purse, Buenos Aires


Argentine coin purse in a popular fabric, by Tara for TKGO


The Argentinean bus system is notorious for its impractical requirement that coins — not bills or any special reload-able transit card — be used as bus fare. As a result, dense areas like Buenos Aires have a serious shortage of monedas. In order to better hoard bus fare, porteños, or residents of Buenos Aires, often carry coin purses. Although today my coin purse is considerably more full of unwanted American change, it’s an everyday reminder of my former lifestyle. –Tara

Canvas painting, Cuba


Canvas painting from Havana, photo by Karina for TKGO


Cuba has a vibrant art scene, and the main feria in Havana is the selling ground for many aspiring artists in the country. When I visited Cuba last March, I was overwhelmed by the multitude of artwork, but as soon as I passed this canvas painting, I was immediately drawn to its colorful representation of a Havana city block. (In fact, I bought a similar one for my parents, too.) No matter where I live over the years, I’ll have this hanging. –Karina

Beach blanket, Rio de Janeiro


The Brazilian flag adorns this lightweight beach blanket, popular in Rio, by Tara for TKGO


In Brazil, it’s too hot to roast on a cotton Mickey Mouse towel. Instead, beachgoers buy an inexpensive viscose blanket (made in Indonesia) from salespeople roaming the beach. They’re hand-dyed in tons of designs and colors. Of course, I chose the Brazilian flag, but was comforted by my touristy decision when I noticed the design is popular among Brazilians, too. I still have it and prefer this cooler option to a towel at the beach. –Tara

Earrings, Costa Rica


Earrings from Costa Rica, photo by Karina for TKGO


Jewelry is one of my go-to souvenir categories; I love how it allows you to wear and represent your travels subtly. (What I mean is, it’s not as tacky as a t-shirt!) I like to pick hand-crafted goods from a market that locals frequent. One pair of earrings I picked up in Costa Rica is in my regular rotation of favorites. They’re simple, yet have character, and I get compliments on them regularly. When people ask where I purchased them, I love saying they’re from Costa Rica and made of dyed cow bone. That’s not the department store or Forever 21 answer anyone’s expecting to hear. –Karina

Have you found any good souvenirs? Share with us in the comments section!

Tara and Karina for TKGO

Calle 13 Gets Political in Cuba, U.S.

A coalition of musical artists ranging in genre, age and nationality dubbed The Sound Strike is boycotting performances in Arizona to protest the state’s SB 1070 bill, the country’s strictest anti-immigration law. Under the bill, which governor Jan Brewer signed in late April, law officials can detain anyone they suspect is an illegal immigrant. The law has outraged many, including President Obama and the high-profile artists constituting The Sound Strike, such as Kanye West, Sonic Youth and Calle 13.

Puerto Rican reggaeton duo Calle 13 doesn’t shy from using their music and prominence to make political statements, whether stateside or internationally. While visiting Cuba this past March, my week-long trip fortuitously overlapped with a massive, free Calle 13 concert in the heart of Havana. The group performed on a stage with their backs to the U.S. Interest Section, which is the American embassy substitute in the country and rests on Swiss property. Shops closed and work days concluded early for the concert, and Calle 13 made a handful of remarks about U.S.-Cuban relations throughout their performance.

The U.S. Interest Section, and Cuban flag poles blocking it, by Karina for TKGO

Where Calle 13 performed, by Karina for TKGO

Despite policy differences and the politically-charged setting, all of us Americans in attendance found the Cubans we interacted with to be super friendly and welcoming. Music is a powerful tool, whether to cross boundaries or make statements. Check out some clips from the concert in the video below.

Karina for TKGO

Cuban Paladar Dinner

A common question I get since returning from Cuba is, “How was the food?!”

You know, I say, Cuba isn’t really revered for its food. Menus are heavy on rice, beans and meat, and dishes aren’t too adventurous flavor-wise. The food was fine, though, and most of the time solidly good, especially at restaurants like Bodeguita del Medio and El Aljibe. That is, except for one of the most deliciously unreal meals of my life.

Cocina de Lilliam is perhaps the most famous paladar in Cuba. A paladar is a small, privately-owned, family-run (and operated from the family’s home) restaurant. After the fall of the USSR and drop-off of Soviet subsidies, Fidel enacted a law that allowed small, privately-owned restaurants (paladares) to exist. Tourism money talks, even in a Communist country.

Lilliam Dominguez runs the paladar out of her sprawling Miramar home (the Havana neighborhood with old mansions from the days of Batista), and all of the tables sit on a picturesque outdoor patio surrounded by lush plants. After hearing our guide rave about Lilliam’s cooking, a group of about 12 of us knew we needed to go. Because of the size of our group, Lilliam offered us a special meal: for a flat group price, she would bring us out dish after dish of her choice; no menu, no options. Since some of the best meals I’ve had have resulted from just letting chefs go at it and plates come, I was salivating even before sitting down.

Below is a photo gallery of some shots from our epic, hours-long meal, where moist, garlicky homemade breads and sauces, crispy fried tarragon and a sweet stew with lamb so tender it broke apart at the touch of a fork preceded plates of lightly citrus grilled tilapia, mashed sweet potato and cheesy chicken-peach crepes. (Plus what seemed like hundreds more dishes.) If you think I’m a little short on photos, I apologize. I was a little preoccupied savoring an unparalleled meal. Buen provecho!

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Karina for TKGO

Baseball in Cuba

Q: How do you write and say “homerun” in Spanish?

A: Jonrón, pronounced “hone-run.”

Of all the experiences I went to Cuba hoping to have, attending a baseball game topped the list. Cubans are crazy about their national sport, and despite my — I’ll admit it — general ambivalence toward the game in the U.S., I knew it would be unlike any sporting event stateside. Plus, I think my visit would have felt incomplete without witnessing such a central aspect of Cuban culture.

Our timing couldn’t have been more perfect; we arrived on the island just as the 2010 Campeonato, the annual Cuban baseball championship, was gearing up to start. This year the opposing teams were the Industriales of Havana (who ended up winning the seven-game series) and Villa Clara from Santa Clara. Magically, our tour guide finagled for us to squeeze in for a few innings of one of the sold-out championship games during our stint in Santa Clara. “They are visiting Cuba from Canada and all they came here to do is see a baseball game! You’ll break their hearts if they can’t go in!” he begged the guards.

The energy and intensity in the stadium was unrivaled. Villa Clara fans cheered as though they never had before every time a new orange-clad batter stepped up to the plate, horns sounded nonstop and drums pounded throughout — and this was only the first half of the game.

I captured some scenes from the game in the video below, including our walk into the stadium (yes, that is an American wearing the Yankees shirt in front of me) with everyone unabashedly sizing us up, the “beating” of a stuffed lioness — a lion is the Industriales‘ mascot — and a good-natured memorabilia exchange between two rival fans.

Karina for TKGO

Back from Cuba

One week, four flights, 450+ pictures and about 12 shot videos later, I’m back from Cuba. It was an incredible experience, but I know I will be processing everything — what I saw, tried, learned and the conversations I shared with Cubans, our tour guide and others on the trip — for a long time.

What was, and is still, most salient to me are all the contradictions I realized, learned about and noticed. Cuba is a country where most bellhops make more money than brain surgeons. Havana is beautiful, vibrant and majestic, but it’s decrepit. Music is everywhere; the culture is palpable, yet the streets are practically empty at night because people cannot afford to go out. No one will hesitate to pour you a Cuba Libre (rum and Coke) from their bottles, but many others on the street or in restrooms will ask you outright for money, handouts, anything, because they need it. Cubans’ news and information is government-controlled and only 2 percent of the country has Internet, yet pretty much everyone launched into a discussion with me (in English, mind you) about Barack Obama’s happenings and updates on the Yankees baseball team.

Even when I look back on my hundreds of pictures, I know they don’t even begin capture what Cuba really is, all of the layers and sides to the story. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll update the blog with thematic posts in attempt to offer a better, fuller sense of Cuba. Look for upcoming video from a baseball game, a briefing about tourism and my dinner at a paladar, a post about music, including video from stumbled-upon performances to a (free) Calle Trece concert in front of the U.S. Interest Section and a Buena Vista Social Club performance.

For now, here is a selection of photos I took during my trip that I think serve as appropriate introduction to Cuba.


osé Martí Airport in Havana, Cuba

osé Martí Airport in Havana has a building solely for flights from the U.S. (which are much more frequent now that Obama is President and lifted many of Bush's restrictions). Here, Cubans wait for friends and family to arrive

Cars in Havana, Cuba

Cars in Cuba are old. Any nice, new cars most likely belong to diplomats, and a different color license plate will designate this

Buildings in Old Havana

In Old Havana, restored buildings frame a decaying one

Ration store in Havana, Cuba

A ration store in Cuba, where Cubans pick up their government-allotted food

Baseball is everywhere in Cuba

Che Guevara Memorial in Santa Clara, Cuba

"We want you to be like Che" reads a billboard at the Che Guevara Memorial in Santa Clara, Cuba

A scene in Havana on Calle Obispo, a main street

Karina for TKGO