To Cuba, and why we love it

I don’t know whether it’s the architecture, the burst of vibrant colors, the Caribbean climate or the warmth of its people, singing and dancing every chance they get, but Cuba, the alligator shaped island just 90 miles South of Florida, is the most captivating place I’ve ever been. And I don’t say this because everyone else does. It just is.


My love affair started in 2014, when as an American citizen, I joined a people-to-people tour journeying from Havana all the way to Guantanamo, the easternmost province. Despite initial doubts, the structured tour afforded me the opportunity to meet some incredible artists and communities I wouldn’t have otherwise met as a tourist: music students, ballet dancers, cuentapropistas (Cuba’s self-employed entrepreneurs) and more; the common thread, unrelenting passion. It was an intense 13 days that opened my eyes to the magic of Cuba and the intricacies of its history, starting with the allure of Havana and on to the artists of Camagüey, the Afro-Cuban vibe of Santiago de Cuba, and lush remoteness of Baracoa.


This summer, as Cuba further nurtured diplomatic relations with the United States, I excitedly returned to the island. This time, I traveled west to Pinar del Rio, and then on to Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Bay of Pigs. The biggest difference, aside from the changes occurring on the Caribbean nation, was entering with my Romanian passport. I wanted a different perspective, which proved just as valuable. While I missed some of the first-hand interaction with Cuban communities on my previous visit, this time around I was free to go wherever I wanted, whichever beach or museum. I stayed in casas particulares (privately-owned houses open for tourists) instead of hotels. I went local, still, in a different way. I loved the mogotes (limestone formations) and guajiros (farmers) of Viñales and swimming in the Bay of Pigs. Looking back, this trip was just as rich as my first.


But most importantly, I realized that regardless of my passport or the two eventful years that passed, Cuba remained in essence the same: vibrant, welcoming and wholehearted. Yes, there’s some real change to be seen: better, cheaper Wi-Fi in hotspots around the country, landmarks refurbished, new hotel sites and ever-booming tourism. Frenzied energy is palpable on the streets of Havana, and so are higher prices. But Cuba, at its core, with all its controversies and irresistible pull, won’t be changing any time soon. Go now, go whenever. Cuba is, and will remain, unrelenting passion.

Five things to learn from the Swedes

Let’s be clear. Whatever pretty picture you have in your mind about Sweden – you know – blue-eyed blondes living in a well-oiled harmonious society singing ABBA tunes and shopping at IKEA, is well … partially true. But to my surprise this past July, Swedes can teach us a thing or two about slow living, a concept well engrained in the Swedish society. Read on, this Nordic country is more diverse than you’d think.

Fika, a staple of Swedish life


If there’s one word you should learn first, and learn quickly, that’s Fika. Loosely translated into “having coffee,” Fika is never too far away in Sweden. Unless you’re Dutch or Finish, Swedes drink more coffee than you. That’s a fact. Swedes love their coffee (or tea), and while this is not big news in itself, the philosophy behind it is. A long observed social custom meant to be shared with friends and colleagues twice a day, Fika encourages to make time for a break. Somewhat baffling for a first-time visitor to break for coffee and cake already at 10am, not long after breakfast, and again around 4pm, this custom extends to corporate culture, where mandatory Fika breaks are the norm. Suffice it to say, there isn’t much coffee to go in Sweden.

Beyond the meatballs


Swedish food equals meatballs, you might think. Wrong. While meatballs in Sweden are common on most menus, so is fish and other organic foods. Often expensive when compared to the U.S. (or any nation for that matter, except for its Nordic neighbors), the variety and quality of food is impressive. Salmon, for instance, is abundant, and always delicious. I’ve had it for breakfast (accompanied by cress), for lunch on top of quinoa and fresh greens, in masterfully arranged appetizers, and for dinner. The variety of bread took me by surprise, while the cult of waffles for breakfast is observed as religiously as Fika. And then, there’s the ice cream. Judging by the inescapable queues, Swedes love their ice cream.

Design is everywhere


If you’re like anything me, you go cray cray for design. Well, you’re definitely in the right place for it in Sweden. The Stockholm subway alone is said to be the world’s longest art exhibit. Why? Because some 90 of the 100 subway stations have been painted, and decorated with sculptures, mosaics, engravings and much more by over 150 artists, which means, for a meager subway ticket alone, you can spend hours exploring this gem of underground art. And this is just the beginning. For modern art, head to Moderna Museet, and for the latest designers showcase, to Designtorget.

Idyllic nature and island hopping


Starting with Stockholm, a city laid out on 14 islands (one-third water, one-third construction, and one-third green spaces), it’s evident nature plays a big role in Sweden. Aside from the capital, known for its high environmental standards, the countryside is pure Swedish idyll – endless pine forests and tranquil creeks, with picturesque villages sprinkled with Falu red wooden houses. But it doesn’t stop here. Head in any one way for long enough and you’ll reach an archipelago. A favorite for locals during the summer, this is Swedish life at its very best. Despite their popularity and easy access by ferry, some islands, like Idö in the Västervik Archipelago, only count five residents.

Quality of life


Often included in round-ups of best countries to live in, there are definitely several factors that contribute to its merits. Besides the free healthcare and education that as an American, can make you green with envy, navigating through Sweden is easy and worry-free. Bathrooms are unisex, credit cards can be used for as little as buying few stamps, and jaywalking is permitted, granted you decide it’s safe to do so. And then there’s allemannsrett (translated into “every man’s right”), essentially granting the legal right to access private land to wander freely through forests and parks, pick berries and what not, including to camp and make a fire (with great caution). The Swedes are on to something, and we want some of it!

Jumbo Stay: Sleeping on the runway

First thing I thought when booking my incoming 11PM flight into Arlanda Airport in Stockholm was how I wasn’t looking forward to a late-night long commute. Luckily, the feeling didn’t linger for long. Off I got from the aircraft, carry-on in tow, and on to the next. Not to fly, but sleep.

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Open since January 2009, Jumbo Stay at Arlanda Airport, “one of the world’s coolest stays,” as the website so merrily claims, comes at the rescue of weary travelers like myself. Landing close to midnight and with energy on the low, spending the night on-board a real jumbo jet gave me a much bigger kick than hauling myself all the way into town.

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If I had only pushed the button for my stop… I hurriedly get off the free ALFA transfer bus, a station too late, crisscrossing questionable lawns to make my way back to the previous stop. The alternative would have been to wait it out, comfortably seated touring all terminals, but not unlike what I wanted to avoid in the first place – thanks but no thanks. Finally, the inescapable creature loomed on the horizon. I had doubts all along of how cool this would actually be, but now that I was looking at it, it did look the part. A Boeing 747-212B converted into upmarket hostel, the gigantic airliner once hopelessly parked, and unused, in the airport parking lot, emerges daunting, dimly lit, stretching out into the twilight of the Swedish night.

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Already past midnight, I make my way up to the reception area. A minute after I realize the elevator only works with the button continuously pushed down, I reach the top and open the glass door. I check-in uneventfully, and release a sigh of relief. The free Wi-Fi included works perfectly.

Aside from the lounge, to the left of the reception desk, casual yet stylish, a hint of a Mad Men-ish vibe thanks to the bright orange stools arranged around white tables, complete with a TV, stocked refrigerators and a self-service coffee machine, the rest of the cabin feels rather sterile. Just a long hallway, mostly white, with rooms on each side of the aisle (33 rooms in total). Convenience is evident once again, coziness is not; it was envisioned as a budget-hotel alternative by owner Oscar Diös (at least for Scandinavian standards) for late night arrivals, like myself, or early morning departures. And indeed it was.

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The single room I spend the night in includes two twin bunk beds (with a ladder for the upper), neatly arranged. Don’t expect any drinks, side tables, storage space, because there aren’t any. Just imagine your otherwise economy seats pulled out and made into a sleeping quarter. This is still more spacious. There are towels provided, thankfully, as I didn’t bring any. There is also a lamp, which slightly blinds me at 1AM when I get to sleep, and a flat-screen TV high up on the wall. Orange curtains, in agreement to the lounge stools, provide the only splash of color, behind which four passenger windows reveal the exterior, finally dark.

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Excluding the no frills ambiance, I sleep well through the night. Besides the sound of the central air conditioning, no other noise disturbs me, certainly not one of airplanes coming and going. I did hear the neighboring passengers toss and turn, so do pack your earplugs, and eye mask for that matter, as in no time in this part of the world during summer, there will be light again. The bathroom is shared (a single bed ensuite will cost you some 475 Kroner more, that’s $55 more), but only partially. Forget the usual hostel bathroom, with few showers lined up, one next to each here. Here, you get your own shower cabin, toilet and sink, which for a non-hostel lover like myself, feels a-ok. You just have to walk down to the rear for it. I steered clear from the clunky common washbasin made of aluminum all the way in the back, uninviting, even intimidating.

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Of course, there are also few luxurious options at Jumbo Stay, if one can call them that. The Double Bed Black Box Ensuite is most design forward and comfort friendly, while the innovative Cockpit Suite is exactly that, innovative but nothing more. Besides the ample terrace available for this suite alone, and the unique views that come along with it, the double bed parked where the once pilots sat is rather unnerving, giving the impression of a locked-in space. From the terrace, two engine rooms with a private entrance can be seen, a unique thrill for the aviation geeks but otherwise a laudable exercise of claustrophobia.

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The next morning, I have breakfast in the same bar/café lounge with orange stools (equally uncomfortable), a surprisingly generous offering of cold cuts, eggs and few types of cereal and fruit, included for all private rooms (dormitory guests can purchase it for some $7). Aviation fans can revel in the memorabilia hanging on the wall – posters of the jumbo’s historical journey – from its first flight in 1976, delivered to Singapore Airlines, registered 9V-SQE, to Pan Am as N727PA Clipper Belle of the Sky in 1984, to Swedish Transjet Airways in 2002. Plenty more in between attests to its long, bumpy ride until opening as Jumbo Hostel in 2009.

These days, it’s the opposite of bumpy. It’s unique, convenient and true to its Swedishness. I see a Shoes Off sign as I finally make my way out and into town. A nice custom when entering a Swedish house – too bad it wasn’t more visible, or made vocal, for bleary-eyed late arrival occupants.