Weekly Photo Challenge: Dialogue

Posted: August 29, 2014 by jennroig in Chronicles, English, Photography, Travels

This week’s photo challenge, as posted by The Daily Post, is “Dialogue”. And a great one indeed!

(c)jennroig, Parque del Retiro, Madrid, Spain, 2010

(c)jennroig, Parque del Retiro, Madrid, Spain, 2010

This shot was taken on the spring of 2010 in Madrid, Spain. There’s this big park in the heart of the city -Parque del Retiro- where I found this particular frame. I liked it because it was a harmonic ensemble of nature and human work; because it was an obvious evidence of the human need to control chaos, and still chaos hits us back; and because it was a breeze of color in an otherwise quite gray day.

Today, I believe it fits perfectly in that definition of dialogue: “When it comes to photography, dialogue can be perceived as a consensual interaction between two images.”

Texture is the theme for this week’s photo challenge.

I took this shot on Mount Etna, Sicily, on June 2010. Over that field of solidified magma, where I was having a hard time walking, trying to keep the guide’s pace, I found that fragment of broken mirror, sharply reflecting the sunlight. I remember I wondered why was that mirror there, of all places, in the middle of a field of dry volcanic lava. It also created a sharp contrast of textures.

(c)jennroig. Mount Etna, Sicily, 2010

(c) jennroig. Mount Etna, Sicily, 2010

Not all the times, and definitely not at first sight, but from certain angles and under a sort of nostalgic mood, Catania did remind me of Havana.

(c) jennroig, Catania, Sicily, June 2010

(c) jennroig, Catania, Sicily, June 2010

The choice of Catania was a matter of time and budget constraints, but it was also about dreams and good luck. I was in Europe at the beginning of the summer of 2010, to kick-start that long vacation of three months, a break between the sprint that was the winter semester in Amsterdam and what it would be my German marathon to complete my master’s research project. Still in Amsterdam, I knew that I wanted to feel some southern European warm before embracing the German weather. When I told about it to a very good friend, we dreamed of a longer journey that would take us from Rome to Sicily and then to the Greek Islands. But then the Euro crisis was starting, and as I can actually communicate in Italian but neither of us knew a word in Greek, we ended up deciding to spend our four days in Sicily.

catania plaza

Catania, Piazza Duomo

Catania is the second largest city in Sicily, after Palermo, the island’s capital. We could have picked Palermo and it would have probably made a great experience as well. But Palermo is over the North Western Coast while Catania is located in the middle of the Eastern coast, so maybe we stuck with it because of the original thought of Greece… maybe that mood stayed with us… or maybe it was because it’s closer to Mount Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe… or maybe it was just cheaper. I can’t really remember now.

We arrived there early in the morning, after a night journey that took us from from Rome to Sicily by train. Note: The Strait of Messina separates Italy from Sicily. As much as I can tell, there is no bridge yet connecting both sides of the country, and for sure there wasn’t any by then. But we didn’t need to leave our seats to board any ship, which makes me think there might be pretty gigantic ferries there. Or they separate the wagons… Any case, the mystery still haunts me today.

We arrived early, still hours away from the time when we could take over our beds on the B&B we had booked. But the owner was nice enough as to receive us, store our luggage and recommend us a great place to have a Sicilian breakfast.

When in Sicily, no matter at what time, make sure you’ll have a granita. And you can’t miss the oranges.

Roman, Arabic and Spanish heritage

catania 2

At different times in History, Catania has been dominated by culturally diverse powers. It was a Greek colony, part of the Roman empire, known as Medinat-Al-Fil during the emirate of Sicily and a member of the Crown of Aragon before the Spanish Empire would unified and claimed it as part of its territories. Only by the early 19th century Sicily -thus Catania- started to push toward the Italian unification, but it had to wait until 1960 when Garibaldi finally came to make it happen. Then Sicily joined the rest of the country.

aldabaDue to its proximity to Mount Etna, the volcanic eruptions have caused wreckage in the area on many occasions, so not every cultural legacy is as visible on the architecture and arts. Though the Spanish, the Arabic and the Roman influences are easy to notice in the streets and buildings of the city.

Maniglie in Italian; Aldabas in Havana

Maniglie in Italian; Aldabas in Havana

Besides the sculpture of the elephant -made of lava- that is part of the monument in Piazza Duomo and was supposed to protect the city against calamities, a visible Arabic influence is the “Aldabas“, as Cubans call it. Italians call it “maniglie” to those handlers for front doors, but if it’s ornamented with some human or animal figure, it is a legacy from the period of Islamic domain over Southern Italy and the Iberian peninsula.

On the other hand, to put it mildly, the Roman remains are in your face, once you are walking around the streets of the city. The biggest testimony is the amphitheater and the ruins of the town that Catania used to be on ancient Roman and maybe Greek times. It is such a pity that the ruins are not taken care of as they should be.

anfiteatro

Obviously Catholicism makes up for another huge part of the cultural influences in Catania. There are many churches representing different periods in time and styles. As in the rest of Italy, just turning around a corner can make you find a building centuries old with a great story inside, and a storyteller eager to tell it.

catolicismo

My favorite, in fact, wasn’t the cathedral at Piazza Duomo. It was a smaller one, that I found so similar to the church that I used to visit back in my hometown.

chiesa

Now that I see it better, and I actually think about it, maybe it’s no similar at all. Maybe there’s little to no relation between this arty church in Catania and that old church in my memory. But that’s the thing with memory, right? It starts losing shapes and tones with years, it gets selective and irrational and it takes the most unexpected paths to bring feelings along.

If ever in Sicily, I recommend paying a visit to Catania. It is so close to wonders – both Human and natural – such as Mount Etna and the beaches of Taormina, and Syracuse, with many choices of public transport to do those short trips. The food is great, the people are endearing, the colors are awesome. And from the harbor there are ferries going to the Greek Islands, so you could make that Greek Dream to come true.

I confess it, I have some unresolved issues with Amsterdam. Although I lived there for a semester in 2010, from January to June, I didn’t manage to figure out my feelings for the city. So let’s try to break this down.

The landscape

(c) Giulio Cesaroni. Dam Square, Amsterdam, 2010

(c) Giulio Cesaroni. Dam Square, Amsterdam, 2010

Yes, Amsterdam is massive. It’s a mix of history, modernity, great architecture and engineering. A great evidence of how much mankind can accomplish. Have you heard the saying that “God created the Earth but the Dutch created the Netherlands”? Well, Amsterdam would be the exact embodiment of that statement. adam (6)

adam (5)As soon as you are there, before you’ll actually get to the Red District, the canals will be the first thing that catches your eyes. The second will be the bridges, especially the older ones that still work and are elevated to grant pass to the boats. I found interesting that, for a society that seemed to be in a hurry almost all the time, no one seemed upset waiting for the bridge to come down again.

Amsterdam is below the sea level, a city stolen from Poseidon. There has to be persistent supervision to all the infrastructure of bridges, canals, dams, harbors and the port. I guess this could be a reason why so many Dutch I met were so organized and good at planning.

In general, the infrastructure is great. From technology to public transport, everything seemed state of the art. Everything except for the architecture. The city is packed with these tall, skinny buildings that clearly show a sort of Lutheran style -beautiful but solemn and sober. The structures are so old that need that metallic reinforcement between stores. Some buildings are leaning over the next one, because the foundations are not strong and have changed with time. A clear evidence that is a city build over the water.

adam (9)

Even if buildings are leaning, and corpses of dead people need to be taken out through the windows because there’s no way to carry them down the stairs, rents in Amsterdam are easily among the most expensive in Europe, which is a lot to say in a continent that also includes Copenhagen, Paris, London and Hamburg…

If you are dreaming with a season living on one of those lovely boat-houses, I’ll recommend you to make sure you’ll dispose of a deep pocket.

adam (2)

What to do

Once in Amsterdam, there are of course some must-go places. The Van Gogh Museum comes to mind and the branch of the Hermitage; the “Bloemenmarkt” or Flower Market; The Anna Frank House if interested on the topic and the suffering; the local Chinatown is over Zeedijk Street, close to the train station, though there is a lot of Thai, Korean and other Asian cultures mixed there, not just Chinese; for shopping I’d recommend Kalvertoren; the Red District is over both Oudezijds Streets.

Oh! For a surrealist experience, don’t miss Paradiso, an ex church building turned into “sanctuary for the creatures of the night”.queen day (1)

Another “healthier” choice is heading to the city parks, in case you are simply a daylight person.

queen dayQueen’s Day used to be on April, celebrating Queen Beatrix birthday. You will have to check whether the Dutch keep the holiday or moved it match the current King’s B-day. Either way, there are no other days like those to party hard in the city.

Amsterdam is actually a really overcrowded city with over 780,000 inhabitants in a very small area. On Queen’s Night and following Day everybody goes out to parade, dance, smoke, drink, and eventually lay around under the sun or drunk in an alley or rather by the side of a canal.

Transportation

The public transportation system includes a metro system that covers a limited area -very narrow space where there are no canals-, buses and trams inside the city and trains that connect to suburbia and neighboring towns such as Hilversum or cities such as Haarlem. Everything runs punctual. But the farther you are from downtown, the less convenient it is to use it.

Imagine Amsterdam as a series of rings sharing the same center: the port that is close to the train station. That’s also the main spot to catch buses and trams. The different routs tend to follow lines that are like radius of the rings: so the wider the arch connecting the radius, the wider the distance between routes and stations. That is why, if you are planning to visit, you should consider renting a bicycle instead of a car or resorting to public transport.

Seasonal amusement park at Dam Square, the heart of the city, to celebrate the spring

Seasonal amusement park at Dam Square, the heart of the city, to celebrate the spring

I loved that it is a city made for boats, bikes and pedestrians. Going around in a car gets to be not only impractical, but a real nightmare. But I hated its very humid weather, the constant rain in the winter.

But I admit, when eventually the sun decides to shine, outside is the place to be.

Amsterdam, March, 2010.

Amsterdam, March, 2010.

I also hated the city’s double standards. Prostitution is legal, but you would probably have a hard time finding any Dutch prostitute. The Red District feeds from human traffic, and those are the bodies in display behind the glasses. If you haven’t yet seen this ad for Stop the Traffik, do it now. A sharp irony is that the Red district is located one block away from the University van Amsterdam’s building where I attended my second semester as visiting MA student. UvA is among the most important centers of knowledge in Europe and probably the world. I can’t decide if this is real open mindedness or simple double standards.

Marihuana is sold legally in coffee shops and “soft drugs” are allowed to be consumed in student dorms, but the authorities aren’t granting any new licenses to open new coffee shops and they are actually using any pretext to shutdown the existing ones. In the surface is beautifully diverse, a cosmopolitan dream, but underground xenophobic feelings are polluting the air, water and soil. The name of Geert Wilders and the Party of Freedom comes to mind.

adam (7)Historically and culturally, The Netherlands are very influenced, and a lot can be explained and understood, by something called “Pillarisation“.

The pillars are four, segmenting people according ideology or religion. Catholics, Protestants, Social-Democratics and then Socialists. Back in time, a catholic would only read a catholic newspaper, purchase from a catholic business and employ catholic services. The same pattern would repeat in the rest of the groups. That explains a lot today’s political system and media in The Netherlands, to mention very visible elements.

According Wikipedia: “The development of pillarisation in the Netherlands was favoured by the emancipation of working and lower-middle classes on the one hand, and the execution of elite control on the other hand. The emancipation of the working class led to the establishment of socialist parties, trade unions, media, cooperative shops and collectively organised leisure activities. This “full care” of the socialist movement for its members existed similarly in other European countries. The emancipation of the conservative and often strongly religious lower-middle class fostered the emergence of the Protestant pillar. While the Dutch bourgeoisie was rather liberal and adhered to “enlightened” Protestantism, a large part of the lower middle class embraced a more orthodox Calvinist theology taught by preacher and politician Abraham Kuyper.”

Don’t get me wrong. I can see the wonders, peculiarities and greatness of Amsterdam. Still, I am not its advocate. Maybe it’s the best choice for a sudden, quick visit, but spending time there leaves a certain sense of otherness. There are so many people there, so many tourists in the way of locals, so many newcomers from so many corners of the world, that somehow the city has become a hostile playground where everyone could fit, but it is difficult to belong. adam (10)

Luego de meses con la tarjeta verde (green card) o residencia permanente legal (Legal Permanent Resident Card) descansando entre mis documentos, ya va siendo hora que me anime a subir este post, en plan de servicio público.

Este post está dirigido a todos los cubanos que a partir de ahora necesiten llenar estas planillas, juntar los documentos, y están aturdidos y mareados porque todos los quieren mandar a lugares, aconsejar, y ya los tienen al borde del ataque histérico. Este es el camino que hay que seguir, en tanto funcionó bien para mí, y ojo que lo preparé por mi cuenta, no le pagué a nadie y todo me fluyó perfectamente.

Lo primero es la planilla: la I-485

Siga el link, descargue el documento a su computadora, y puede llenarlo digitalmente, sin necesidad de imprimirlo hasta el final cuando sólo precisa firmarlo, en tinta negra, y con suerte su firma queda en ese rectángulo minúsculo.

Llenar el contenido honestamente no tiene ciencia. En internet hay mil foros con toda la información necesaria, si tiene dudas con el inglés use Google translator, y si tiene dudas en alguna casilla, siéntase libre de contactarme en Twitter, le doy permiso: @jennroig

Por cierto, la planilla viene con sus propias instrucciones, que lo dejan absolutamente todo claro: son estas.

(Guarde la planilla llena, le servirá luego si quiere seguir el proceso de naturalización).

Va a necesitar 1070 dólares para enviar con su aplicación, eso o aplicar por bajos recursos para lo cual no puedo ayudarle, porque no viví la experiencia. El dinero lo puede pasar por cheques o los llamados money orders, lo cual es probablemente su alternativa más viable. En USPS se consiguen a mejor precio que en Western Union, si es que no vive cerca de ningún Amscot.

Los documentos:

- Examen Médico: asegúrese que es un médico registrado, y no un estafador. El gobierno provee un servicio para localizar a los doctores apropiados con oficina en las inmediaciones de su código postal: es este link.

- Dos fotos con determinadas características, pero en cualquier CVS o Walgreen puede ir, y explicar al fotógrafo para qué necesita las fotos, ellos saben los detalles.

- Prueba de su nacimiento en Cuba: acá las instrucciones se abren a interpretaciones. Y el documento que use usted, variará según la forma en que llegó a EEUU. Pero mi consejo es que proporcione de cuanta evidencia disponga: certificado de nacimiento, copia del pasaporte, documento de viaje que pueda tener.

- Traducción: No escuche las anécdotas de quién pueda sugerirle que no hace falta traducir nada. El mundo es grande, las historias de cubanos muy variadas, y puede haber quien efectivamente haya hecho sus trámites sin necesitar las traducciones, por lo menos del certificado de nacimiento. Pero no tome el riesgo, no vale la pena. Consiga un servicio de traducción decente, que de paso incluya servicios notariales. Los documentos son caros, no arriesgue atrasos.

- Police clearance o background check: es básicamente lo mismo, un documento que debe conseguir en la policía de acá, no pierda el tiempo pidiendo nada a sus familiares en Cuba. No cuesta casi nada, y es una hoja que sencillamente dice que usted no tiene delitos ni cuentas pendientes -en tanto este sea el caso. Una vez más, busque en Google qué estación es la que ofrece esos servicios, porque no todas los brindan.

- Debe también llenar la G-325

Ya está. No hay más misterios. Asegúrese de que su dirección sea estable, de confianza, y no la cambie hasta tener la residencia.

Cuando envíe sus documentos, verifique la dirección donde los debe enviar en este link. Verifique, no copie de una la misma dirección a la cual la mandó alguien más. Las cosas cambian, las oficinas se pueden relocalizar. Asegúrese de que está siguiendo un procedimiento en vigencia.

Pasados algunos días le enviarán cartas oficiales con unas numeraciones. Puede usar esos números que hasta ahora comienzan con MSC para chequear el estatus de su caso en este link.

Le mandarán a seguido una citación para sus huellas digitales. Asegúrese de no perderla, sólo entonces la aplicación se considera completa. A partir de entonces será cuestión de esperar.

F&$% Music, and Love, and Mathematics… Chocolate is the real Universal Language. It doesn’t matter who we are or where do we come from, we can like each other like brothers and sisters if we share some delicious chocolate. With chocolate, there will be peace and love.

So, let’s agree that chocolate is the best content ever, inside any container, no matter the shape, no matter the price, no matter the size. Yes… size is irrelevant to chocolate.

And where do chocolate and magic merge? Well, in Seattle, there’s this little store at Pike Place Market: Chukar Cherries. Forget the Cherries and focus on its chocolate, if you ever get there. It’s heaven melting in your mouth.

(c)jennroig - Chukar Cherries Store at Seattle's Pike Place Market

(c)jennroig – Chukar Cherries Store at Seattle’s Pike Place Market

Thus, this is my version of this Week’s Photo Challenge theme: Containers.

Have a blast!

Make no mistake: Cuba is a poor country. The situation is not as desperate as it can be in some African failed states, or some of the poorest countries in Latin America, but for sure the Cuban economy is in bad shape. Still, the Cuban passport is insanely pricey, considering the average salary of USD 20/month.

Cubans who live in Cuba must pay 100 CUC to request a new passport or to renew it.

Theoretically,1  CUC = 1 USD. Thus you may find many online currency converters telling that. However, CUC can only be exchanged inside the island, the actual rate being 1USD = 0,80 CUC. So, in real life, we are talking about USD 125. But let’s calculate according the official numbers and pretend that it’s 100 USD.

In comparison, US passport costs 165 and it’s valid for 10 years. The Australian passport costs AUD 244 (USD 229) also valid for 10 years. I have learned that some countries, such as New Zealand, issue passports only valid for five years, where it costs NZD 134 (USD 116). There’s actually an interesting debate in NZ about this five years validity and how citizens are paying a lot more than other countries for the document. Still, they don’t spend in five years more than Cubans spend in six.

Compared to emerging economies, specifically Latin American economies, Cuba is supposed to have the second most expensive passport. Chile is said to have the most expensive document of the region, as reported by Chilean publication La Tercera. However, that news item dates back to May 2013. By now, those CLP 48,900.00 represent USD 86. Cuba’s CUC doesn’t flow because its value is fixed by the government. So, Cuba’s no longer the up-runner but the champion.

This is how the extensions (prórrogas) look like

This is how the extensions (prórrogas) look like

That’s not it. The passport expires every six years, but every two years, for some random reason I can only imagine responds to the government’s desperate need for cash, the passport needs an extension, which costs 20 CUC/USD. Two extensions are required, so make it 40.

By the end of a 6 years period, Cubans have paid 140 CUC/USD for a passport that doesn’t rank high in the global ranking of passports. According an infographic that circulated the Web a while ago, Cubans have access forto 61 countries, either without need f visa, or with a visa granted on entry. According this other ranking, Cuba ranks 111 out of 221 nation-states.

Sure, you could need a passport to go out once in a life time, or travel every six year with a new passport and skip paying the extensions -and make it worthwhile because it’s a great price to pay. But in general, that’s not what usually happens. A passport is such a huge investment, that an individual would only consider it given very specific, heavy reasons, such as living permanently out of the country with a spouse or with a work contract, going out as student for some postgraduate program, or going out as some foreigner’s fiance or a tourist, again with plans to not coming back.

Historic Diaspora – Recent migration patterns

Cuba has always been a nation in diaspora, probably since the moment it conceived itself as nation, as a separate entity distinct from the Spanish Metropolis. There have been historical Cuban communities in cities in the United States, France, Dominican Republic, Spain, Puerto Rico… However, since the early 60’s Cubans have been leaking out of homeland in a steady trend, which skyrocketed since the 90’s. Reuters reported in July 2013 that “The number of Cubans leaving their country [reached] levels not seen since 1994 when tens of thousands took to the sea in makeshift rafts and rickety boats”. According the annual demographic report for 2012 that Reuters referred to, “46,662 Cubans migrated permanently in 2012, the largest annual figure since more than 47,000 left the communist-ruled island in 1994 after what international observers dubbed the ‘Rafter Crisis’.”

All those tens of thousands -maybe a few millions- Cubans that were born in the island but are living elsewhere, every time they want to visit their homeland, they need to travel with a Cuban passport. For them, the same requirements apply: there’s a fee for renewal plus the fee for both extensions. There’s no unique amount, each consulate has determined prices to its various services.

In fact, I always suspected Cubans had to pay for one of the most expensive passports in the world, but never before I had taken the time to research and make the maths. Today I did it, and this is evidence.

Country First Time & Renewal Fees (USD) Extension (USD) Total (USD)/6 years
USA 375 180 735
Australia 356 178 712
Canada 298 149 596
Brazil 293 134 561
Japan 276 138 552
Denmark 253 127 507
Germany 250 121 492
The Netherlands 243 121 485
Spain 243 121 485
Finland 243 121 485
Egypt 243 121 485
China 238 119 476
Russia 241 113 467
Argentina 245 110 465
Mexico 216 108 432
Ecuador 206 100 406
Chile 200 100 400
Cuba 100 20 140

There are a few facts that will, or should, catch your eye:

Prices is the United States are far higher than in any other place. Go figure the reason.

Chilean prices are lower than other Latin American countries, even though they are all closer to Mexico, where the passport is elaborated. FYI there are some countries where Cuban passports can be issued outside Cuba, I’m aware it’s France for Europe and Mexico for South and Central America.

Denmark’s prices are the highest of the list, but everything is expensive in Denmark anyway. I bet numbers for Norway and Sweden must crazy as well, but not close to the USA.

In 20 years, an American will spend USD 330 while a Cuban have spent USD 2450. In the case that Cuban have naturalized, then you add the price of the American passport.

Bringing context to the table

- I converted all local currencies using Oanda’s currency converter. Values correspond to 07/20/2014.

- I picked the countries using data available on the website www.cubadiplomatica.cu

- My selection is random. I researched data about countries where I have lived, or I have visited, or I know of some Cuban friend or colleague living over there.

- To better visualize the differences, go to this chart in Datawrapper.

Finally, one last thing. Why does love makes the passport even more expensive?

Once a Cuban leaves his or her country, there is no actual need for extensions. No other country in the world demands it, and I have seen confusion in the faces of immigration officers from different countries when examining my passport. They don’t really get it, but as it’s any of their business, they move on. The only reasons why Cubans in the USA spend more than 700 dollars, Cubans in Canada pay almost 600 and those in Brazil pay 561 for that document, within a six years period, it’s out of love and longing for their families that remain back in Cuba. There’s no other explanation.