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                                               Cuba is Calling: 

                              Time to Experience the Island's Unique Cultural Heritage

                                                   November 27-December 3, 2017 

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If you are itching to go to Cuba, check out this article by Cynthia Drescher that appeared in Condé Nast Traveler.

We named Cuba one of Condé Nast Traveler’s top 15 places to go in 2015, and now that airlines and tour organizations have finally wrapped their heads around the new regulations (or, rather, lack thereof), it's clearer than ever that now is the time to travel to Cuba. But how to get there?

Full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resumed on April 10, 2016 and the six-story building off Havana’s Malecón esplanade that was once the U.S. embassy (and is now the U.S. Interests Section) is primed to reclaim its status after 54 years. Tourism infrastructure catering to U.S. travelers is next, but flights from the U.S. to Cuba are hardly new.

Bloomberg Business reports that, every month, "hundreds of people from the 12 categories of travelers cleared for trips to Cuba fly to the island. In January, about 250 flights took off from the U.S. to Cuba and 193 Cuba-bound planes flew last month, according to industry-data tracker MasFlight."

Currently all Cuba-bound flights originating in the United States are charter flight operations, their seats solely booked through tour companies. Flights which originate elsewhere, such as in Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean, may be booked directly with the airline. No matter how a U.S. citizen organizes air travel to Cuba, however, they still must have a justifiable rationale for the visit.

So, how does one go about fitting into one of the 12 categories? The White House’s official blog announced that U.S. citizens who want to travel to Cuba will still need to fall under the umbrella of “Purposeful Travel,” so tanning on the beaches of Varadero or drinking a Cuba Libre in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional are not yet valid reasons to book that ticket. The goal as stated by the White House is, after all, to "increase people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities.”

The 12 categories of approved U.S. traveler to Cuba are:

  • Family visits
  • Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, or intergovernmental organizations
  • Journalistic activity
  • Professional research and/or meetings
  • Educational activities
  • Religious activities
  • Public performance (as a performer)
  • Clinics, workshops, athletics, or other competitions and exhibitions
  • Support for the Cuban people or humanitarian projects
  • Activities of private foundations or institutes
  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  • Authorized export transactions

While the relaxed regulations mean travelers may simply decide for themselves if they qualify for one of these categories, they should be prepared to provide proof if and when requested. For example, a U.S. traveler decides to book a Cuba trip, but must have a rationalization for the visit, such as being a musician intent on hearing Cuban music in order to incorporate the style into one's own compositions, or, as a chef "researching" regional cuisines of the island nation.

Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com, was one of the first American tourists to arrive in Cuba after the relaxation of relations on January 16. He decided to travel under the "journalistic activity" provision, as he would be writing about the trip. “I booked [the flight] at, like, at 4 p.m. and arrived in Havana at 12:30 a.m., 30 minutes after the new rules were in place, so there was still some confusion,” said Kelly. “Procuring my visa took literally a $20 bill and a smile from a Cayman Airways ticket agent; [Cuban immigration] didn't even ask for the reason for my visit when going through. They saw the tourist visa and asked if i wanted a stamp and I was in.” He even Instagrammed the customs form.

If, like Kelly, you’re anxious to get down to Cuba as soon as possible, there are organized tours with tour operators.

For the original report go to http://www.cntraveler.com/stories/2015-03-20/how-to-fly-to-cuba-right-now

cuba1More travelers are now going to Cuba. Nearly half a million travelers now go from the United States to Cuba every year to the once-forbidden island.  The island is not as isolated from its American neighbors than as it used to be.  Damien Cave tells us in this article for The New York Times who gets to go and how:

Wading through the licensing requirements from the United States Treasury Department, which oversees the trade embargo that has more or less kept Cuba off limits since the early ’60s, reveals that not all American visitors are created equal. Depending on who you are, Cuba can be as open as any other Caribbean island — or it can be a restricted destination that could cost you thousands of dollars in fines. Here is a quick rundown on how American travelers get to Cuba, presented in order from the least restrictive options to the most.

Revisit Your Family Tree

Americans with a “close relative” in Cuba are free to come and go as often as they wish, and do not need to ask in advance for a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, which enforces the embargo. They travel instead under a general license, and are not subject to the $188 a day spending cap and the limited travel itineraries that other United States citizens face in Cuba. The definition of close relative is broad: OFAC defines it as “any individual related to a person by blood, marriage, or adoption who is no more than three generations removed from that person or from a common ancestor with that person.” So even if you aren’t Cuban but one of your spouse’s grandparents is, you may qualify.

But there are some limitations: travelers and the company they book their trip through are responsible for proving, if asked, that they meet the requirement. To do so, most of the people who qualified and flew from the United States to Cuba last year used a Treasury-approved “travel service provider” and then just signed an affidavit affirming that they have a close relative on the island. Once there, they can roam about as much as they please.

Pray on It

People who work with churches or religious groups on the island can travel under a general license as well, but only if they have the necessary proof that their trip is not tourism. That means travelers with church groups who are flying from the United States must carry with them (and give their travel providers a copy of) a letter confirming they are members or staff members of the organization and are traveling under its auspices to engage in religious activities in Cuba. Carrying an itinerary proving that is also a good idea. Spending limits still apply, and religious travel requires a religious visa from Cuba too. Many companies, like Marazul in Miami, offer to help obtain one.

Take a Look at Your Résumé

Travelers doing professional work or research also qualify for a general license, but that, too, requires some paperwork and comes with limitations. Academics doing research in Cuba, for example, are generally expected to have (and to show to travel providers or American customs officials, if they ask upon return) a copy of their C.V., published research relevant to what they’re studying in Cuba, and an itinerary of whom they are going to meet, or have met, with locations and times. Academic research must also be “noncommercial.” In other words, don’t go with the idea of starting a business working with Cuban cancer researchers. And fun cannot be the goal. Treasury Department guidelines specifically note this example: “A group of architects wants to arrange a sightseeing trip to view the architecture of Old Havana. This does not constitute research and would not qualify for a license since it constitutes travel for personal satisfaction only.”

Journalists, whether traveling with or without an official press visa from the Cuban government, get off a little easier. They are generally expected to carry published articles, a business card or a press pass if they are on the staff of a major media organization, and/or — in the case of freelancers — a letter from an editor asserting the journalist is on assignment. If you’re a doctor or other professional attending a conference, make sure that it is one held by an “international professional organization, institution or association.” The gatherings cannot be hosted by the Cuban government, or by an American organization.

Go Back to School

Several American universities now offer their students programs that include either short trips to Cuba or a semester abroad at Cuban universities. Some of the programs are limited to enrolled students, or small in number — Burlington College has a license for 15 students to study at the University of Havana — but open-enrollment programs for studying Spanish in Cuba are also expanding. Spanish Studies Abroad, an independent language institute, recently received an OFAC license that would allow American students to receive college credit for learning Spanish in Cuba, although it requires some extra homework. To ensure that they do not go beyond lawful spending limits, students must retain records related to all travel transactions on the island for five years.

Try Visiting People

“People to people” tours are the way to go for everyone who does not have family on the island or a specific job to do in Cuba. To be legal, the trips must be educational in nature, with a focus on interaction with everyday Cubans as opposed to the government. The groups that put the tours together will have received approval from the Treasury Department only after filing reams of paperwork explaining the reasoning behind their itineraries, but for interested travelers, the barriers to entry are low. Those eager to get to Cuba just have to pay, and agree to take part in a busy, highly organized tour with very little free time.

Embargo-Flouting

This is not a method that we recommend. Hundreds of Americans — maybe thousands — go to Cuba every year by flying through a third country, usually the Bahamas, Mexico or Canada. Cuban immigration officials, eager to welcome visitors and their dollars, rarely if ever stamp American passports, so it is possible to have an unrestricted visit. But it’s not a wise idea. While traveling to Cuba is not itself illegal, the moment you buy your first drink, you’ve broken the law. Paying for anything at all means that you’ve violated the embargo and risk fines of up to $250,000. And if you lie to United States customs officials to hide your trip to Cuba upon re-entry, you will be violating a whole different set of federal laws that have nothing to do with the embargo. Tourists are rarely penalized for violating the embargo — the Obama administration has focused its enforcement efforts on businesses — but those bold or dumb enough to try to smuggle home a few Cuban cigars shouldn’t expect to get away without a hassle and some serious legal bills.

For the original report go to http://travel.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/travel/cuba-doing-it-your-way.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

barbados church Hiking isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when I hear the word ‘Barbados’. Like most, I envision white sand beaches shaded by palm trees, along a coast of turquoise water. Beaches abound, but I was determined this time around my visit would include something different, that no honeymooner, retired vacationer, or even locals might not know about. Going on an early Sunday morning hike with a cousin provided just that. I discovered there is much more to Barbados when you go further up and further in.

Our day got off to a rocky start. I woke up late, which put us behind schedule and my cousin in a foul mood. We left my aunt’s house and sped down the desolate and narrow roads of Christ Church to arrive in St. John, nearly missing the 6am ‘6 mile stop and stare tour’ departure time. As we arrived in the parking lot of our group of 15 people had just set out, and had to run to catch up to them. It was an eclectic group; there was the father with his three young sons, all wearing taqiyah, or prayer caps. As he walked they followed dutifully behind, like little ducklings all in a row. There were the two women who mentioned they were on the hike as way to get back in shape. The older British couple and their adult children on a family vacation and a few others. Then there were those who, like me, wanted to explore Barbados, but not in the typical touristy way. Our guides, 2 friendly local men in headbands, held makeshift walking sticks and casually shuffled along, as if out for a morning stroll.

Barbados has long had the reputation of being ‘a flat island’ in the Caribbean. People from other parts of the English West Indies love to tease Bajans (colloquial for Barbadians) about this, using their own island’s natural mountainous beauty as bragging rights. But they would soon change their tune if not too out of breath after the trek led by our guides who, I discovered, may have been nearly twice my age, but also twice as in shape. They took us through fields of sugar cane that towered above our heads, up steep hills with old windmills and down through slippery gullies with rocky terrain.Barbados View from Parish of St-John

It all culminated in reaching the highest point after our 3 hour journey: St John’s Parish Church. From the grounds of this gothic style church built in 1836, we witnessed the break of dawn from a cliff overlooking the east coast of the Atlantic as the sun glistened over sea and sand, rooftops and treetops for miles around. Embarking on this free adventure made me feel as if I got to know the real Barbados, not the one made up of sun umbrellas hammocks and colorful drinks on the shoreline. I discovered the beauty doesn’t stop at the beach. Put down the rum punch, leave the coastline behind, and delve into the island’s interior and you’ll find out it’s been hiding a secret right under its tropical sun.

Tours depart every Sunday from different locations around Barbados at 6 am, 3:30pm or 5:30pm and last roughly 3 hours. They vary in intensity and are divided into categories based on hikers’ experience levels. All hikes are free, but Hike Barbados gladly accepts donations to help preserve the environment through the Barbados National Trust

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              san_Basillio       The village of San Basilio de Palenque lies about 40 kilometers south of Cartagena in Colombia, South America. The people of this traditional Africa-like village, founded centuries ago by runaway slaves, live off the land, just like they did on the African continent. Their homes are made of straw, mud and cow dung. Electricity arrived in the 1970s as a government gift in recognition of the former world boxing champion Antonio Cervantes, better known as Kid Pambelé who was born here. Radio and television came soon after electricity. There is also a schoolhouse, named in honor of of the liberator of this village name Benko Biohó, which even has an Internet connection.
      The San Basilio de Palenque vilagers' ancestors survived capture in Africa, the passage by ship to Cartagena, and were strong enough to escape and live on their own for centuries. The Colombian government takes some pride in this village because the people here were the first to free themselves from Spanish rule long before the nation we now know as Colombia did. I say “some pride” because the Colombian government is not doing much else for this town.
           I entered the village on the back of a motorbike and was dropped off at a restaurant across the street from Benko Bioho Square, containing the statue of the legendary liberator Benko Bioho. I had the traditional village meal of fish, rice, and plantains before my tour guide Carlos arrived . As Carlos escorted me around the village explaining its history and today's lifestyle, I kept wondering to myself, why don't these people capitalize on the growing interest in this village? The place is pretty, the weather is wonderful,and the village is peaceful with a lot to learn about the culture. I know, for myself, I would have loved to have taken home some souvenirs, like CDs of local artists, village post cards, or artifacts. I asked Carlos about this and he didn't give me much of an answer.   bill_smith_article
When I left the village and boarded a bus headed back to Cartagena, I saw two white women (I don't know if they were Americans or from another continent), hopping on the back of a motorbike, like I did, heading for San Basilio de Palenque. I was sure that this little African village in Colombia has money making potential to become a tourist attraction


seychelles_kitty_popeMy unbelievable, luxurious trip to Seychelles by way of Dubai


How excited I was to be headed to Seychelles for the 2011 International Carnival in Victoria. I could not wait to visit the African island in the Indian Ocean that is quickly becoming the new global hot spot. But to top off this vacation escape, I was going to this tropical paradise by way of Dubai.  My chance had finally arrived to visit the modern, most desirable tourist destination city of Dubai, known for being over-the-top in every way.   Dubai and Seychelles are two places that I’ve heard so much about and longed to experience.  Now I would be doing them both in the same trip. This was my two- for- one vacation of a life time!  Oh my God, this was as good as it gets.

The whole trip was exciting, proving to be beyond my wildest vacation fantasy. To begin with, I flew to Dubai on Emirates Airlines, the most luxurious airline there is. The aircraft was so chic and plush.  Riding in coach, I really felt like a queen in first class on my way there. I had to remind myself that I was in coach as I wondered what more could be in first class that I did not already have at my finger tips in coach. There was plenty of leg room, reclining seats that went way back, far enough to get a good night’s sleep.  Just as I thought there could not be anything more for a comfortable flight, I was upgraded to first class for my return trip. Emirates’ first class is a trip made in heaven!  On my departure trip to Seychelles, I spent a day in Dubai to get a sneak peek at the beautiful city that I would see more of on my return trip.

seychellles_paradeI arrived safely in Seychelles where you could smell the beauty of the island and waters getting off the plane.  I immediately noticed the comfort of the island’s climate, and I felt so relaxed breathing in the fresh air of this new tropical hot spot where the temperature seemed almost perfect. I observed the country side of luscious rolling hills, majestic mountains and greenest greenery as I rode down the winding roads to my hotel. I caught glimpses of the inviting white sand beaches that seemed to be flirting with me as I  arrived at my hotel that turned out not to be a hotel. It was a precious secluded villa, the Carana Hilltop located right across from the seductive white sand beaches.  Shaded by coconut palms and all kinds of fruit trees, with the stunning mountains and tropical forest as the backdrop, this was more like a home away from home, and the perfect base for me to explore the island and experience the Creole culture at my own pace.  I was all set to do Seychelles and its first multicultural carnival.

Seychelles is indeed multicultural with a melting pot of people from various ethnicities, customs, and traditions, who all came together to settle and build it, and the revisit to its multi-ethnic origins with the "Carnaval International de Victoria" proved to be a real treat. The grand opening took place the afternoon in the center of Victoria where visiting dignitaries, representing various participating countries were present to witness the official launch of the carnival.  Later that day we attended an official press conference where all the dignitaries and notables attended, including American legendary songstress Dionne Warwick, who was a presenter. Speaking also was Majid Al Mualla, a vice-president of Emirates Airlines whom I wanted to run up and hug and thank for my glorious flight.  I managed to keep my composure when I met him and only mentioned that I had wonderful flight. Even though I told him it was not necessary, he went ahead and upgraded my return flight to first class! My trip of a lifetime was getting better by the moment!

The three-day carnival started with large, open, alfresco restaurant-styled activities where the capital city of Victoria was turned into an entertainment venue with music and food from around the world. That evening a program on stage around the clock in the middle of Victoria took place with speakers, singers, dancers and performers from the various visiting countries participating. Speakers included Seychelles’ president, tourism officials and Warwick. The performers from all over really rocked the stage. One performer, Lima Calibo, was really sensational.  A soca darling from Trinidad, she danced and sang while waving her red, white and black flag back and forth.  Soliciting the crowd to join in, a group of little children did go up on stage and had a great time jumping and waving with her. Another group London’s Notting Hill Steel Pan Band really put on a show!

I got up early the next morning for a little downtime before the grand carnival parade.  I meditated on my balcony in the midst of palm trees, scenic views of the mountains, and the peaceful sound of the birds, enjoying the stillness of the moment in what must be God’s most tranquil and refreshing place on earth. I could reach out and pluck an avocado or any fruit I wanted from my balcony which I did as an appetizer before breakfast. I seemed to have stepped into another world when I arrived for the parade in Victoria where everything was lively and upbeat in contrast to the peaceful moments of meditation on my balcony. There was a special section for VIP’s and media with the comforts of shade and bottled water, where I sat near Seychelles’ President James Michel and other dignitaries. Seated there also was Ms. Warwick whom I got to chat with while waiting.   

There was excitement everywhere as the spirit of the carnival was upon the local islanders and visitors alike.  The parade began with exhilarating music and carnival dance. Then came unique floats representing China, Korea, Indonesia to Hawaii, UK, France, Italy, Brazil and the African countries of Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zanzibar and South Africa. The nearby Indian Ocean islands of La Reunion and Madagascar also participated with distinguished, beautiful colorful floats as did the European Union who showed off their member states by flying a flag from each country. It was later confirmed this float parade had the largest gathering of spectators ever in Seychelles. After the parade everyone just hung out and enjoyed the festivities, street parties and bands until the wee hours of the night. The final day was Family Fun Day where we got to walk around the city, enjoy more festive activities and immerse ourselves in the Creole culture of Seychelles.

dubai_kitty_popeWhen it was time to leave, the only thing that pulled me away from Seychelles was the idea of seeing more of Dubai. When I got to the airport in Dubai, which looked more like an upscale gigantic shopping mall, my wounds as a result of pulling away from Seychelles were immediately healed. I really loved walking around this modern day airport, window shopping and watching people, who acted more like they were shopping than having to catch a flight. I was given first class treatment by Emirates Airlines who picked me up and took me to their fabulous hotel. I did a tour of the city with Arabian Adventures, who also offers Safari Cruises, dining among the dunes and camel riding. The city of Dubai is unbelievably beautiful and modern with majestic architect, unique skyscrapers and everything else. When I returned home and was asked about Dubai, the only response that I could give was, ‘It was incredibly indescribable, you’ll just have to go.’  And yes, you’ll just have to go, too.

Going to Seychelles by way of Dubai is a must-take vacation. Rest assured that you’ll get  more than what you bargained for when you take it. And you can take it because this travel route has been made more readily available as Seychelles and Emirates Airlines have come up with a packaged deal that you simply cannot refuse. Seychelles Tourism Board CEO Alain St. Ange once said that he was sure that journalists would become ambassadors for the islands after a visit. And you know what, he was right. I am now a self-proclaimed ambassador for Seychelles, and Dubai, too. After one visit, you will become an ambassador, also. I guarantee it.

kitty_and_ele_va_beachMid-Atlantic City is still among nation’s best for fun-in-the-sun.

Spring has sprung with warming temperatures and summer just around the corner.  When it comes to beach vacations, why not go to one of the best?  Virginia Beach is an award-winning beach where you will find one of America’s best boardwalks with oceanfront resorts and hotels to meet your every need. The beach city is also an ideal place for meetings and conferences. So much so that the African American Travel Conference (AATC) chose this magnificent city as the place for their national meeting this year. Who wouldn’t want to have their conference in a city where you can experience all types of beach pleasures and delightful entertainment to top off business meetings?

la_bomba

With its decidedly Latin flavor, Puerto Rico might seem an odd choice for travelers seeking Caribbean cultural connections to Africa. After all, the history of La Isla del Encanto is dominated by nearly 400 years of Spanish rule, exemplified today in such notable historical monuments as El Morro, El Paseo de la Princesa and many others.

Just as is the case in the rest of the Caribbean, though, slaves were brought from Africa to Puerto Rico’s shores in the 1600′s, leaving an indelible mark on the island’s culture that still exists today. Among the strongest examples of African Heritage in Puerto Rico is la bomba, a distinctive percussion-driven musical form often mentioned alongside its close musical cousin, La Plena, which also has roots in Africa.

Let’s do Cuba!

cuba_dance_folk_kidsBig changes are happening with Cuba travel. The BP oil spill has not impacted Cuba. Many more Americans will finally be able to visit the island as President Obama is set to relax prohibitions soon. His new rules will mean hundreds of thousands more visitors flooding into Cuba. But, there is no need to wait for changes from Washington and be left out  if there are overbooked tours and too few rooms and services. If you're engaged in education, healthcare, law, architecture, the arts, and many other professions, you can go now, on a license and without complications.

Cuba Education Tours assist at every stage. With an official status on the island, the tour programs get priority treatment after ten years of stellar relations with Cuba. Cubans are eager to meet you and make friends with their northern cousins. Cuban Education Tours can help you discover with peace of mind on safe, legal, quality programs organized by Cuban, Canadian and American experts. No other destination beats the fun and friendship found in Cuba!

PICT8

I didn’t know what to expect. I was paranoid about being bitten by a bug, any bug and contracting malaria. Lord Jesus, help me, I muttered every other minute of the day as the time drew near for me to board that long flight to Ghana.  I was nervous and excited and curious.  It was 2007 and my first trip to the 'Motherland.'  Though I could tell them a few things about our collective histories, there was nothing anyone could have possibly said to prepare me for the experience I shall not soon forget.

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