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Cubans: The Friendliest People on Earth? May 19, 2015

Posted by Afflatus in Uncategorized.
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On December 19, 2014, I flew from Miami to Habana, Cuba, in a charter plane on a trip led by Insight Cuba, an American non-profit that leads legal but expensive tourist trips to Cuba in full compliance with U.S. O.F.A.C. Treasury Department regulations.

This trip was very special for me. I departed two days after my last law school exam of the semester, and I was traveling alongside two of my favorite travel companions: my lovely parents! The trip was also special for another reason: we were departing two days after President Obama and Raul Castro announced their historic agreement to normalize diplomatic relations and begin the long road to U.S.-Cuba friendship.

Cuba -- an alluring paradise awaits!

Cuba — an alluring paradise awaits!

The trip was wonderful and exceeded my expectations in all regards. I spoke Spanish all day, played pick-up futbol* every day, and learned about the political, socio-economic, and cultural issues in Cuba as we met with artists, professors, young people, and civic society actors, et al. Upon my return to the States, I drafted the following blog post, which I am only now getting around to finalizing. Of all the things in Cuba that left me completely incredulous, I was particularly blown away by the friendliness of the Cuban people.

The friendliness of the Cuban people is hard to overstate; their friendliness — to each other, and to tourists — reflects the best of humanity. I’ve traveled far and wide, and travelers often say “the people in [X country] are so friendly” or “they are the friendliest people in the world.” I’ve said the latter superlative myself, probably about Peruvians in 2008, then South Africans in 2010, then Nicaraguans in 2013, and then the Thai in 2014 (where a cab driver gave me his banana once it became clear we were going to be sitting in traffic for the next hour or two due to political protests).

I thought the superlative of “friendliest people in the world” was true every time I said it, but now it really think Cuba tops them all! Two particular moments from my Cuba trip left me and my-cynical-self in near-disbelief at the extent of the Cuban kindness.

One time, as our group was trying to cross a road, only 5 of us had time to cross before a car came whirring around the bend. As cautious, American pedestrians in a foreign country, we stopped to allow the car to pass. But, as we looked up, the car had in fact slammed on his breaks to allow some of us to cross. Upon realizing there were many more of us, he happily shifted into neutral, smiled, and waved us all across as the remaining thirty tourists (largely elderly) ambled across the road. Cars piled up behind him. But no honks, just patience. Imagine this scene in New York City, where horn blare ad nauseam. Since when do cars go to this length for pedestrians!? The whole street crossing only took about two minutes, but a driver who previously had been driving quite fast transformed into a patient, smiling Cuban host. For me, this moment reflects the welcoming hospitality of the Cuban people to tourists.

Cigars taste better while walking and relaxing in the pastoral Veñales, Pinar del Rio -- the epicenter of the Cuban cigar trade.

Cigars taste better while walking and relaxing in the pastoral Veñales, Pinar del Rio — the epicenter of the Cuban cigar trade.

The second moment was when my father and I were walking in a dark, poor-looking neighborhood at about 10pm, yet we felt absolutely no risk of theft or other crime. People looked at us, curiously, from the shadows of their stoops and as they strolled by us. My father and I didn’t know exactly where we were, having only a vague sense of how to get where we were going. We were both carrying iPhones — each worth more than 1 year’s salary of the average Cuban — as well as some cash (in U.S. dollars, not the local currency for Cubans, pesos**). Regardless, I was virtually certain that we were completely safe. And I was right. Ultimately, I asked and received directions three times from strangers who smiled and warmly touched my arm as they explained where to go. Having had the fortune to travel to over 25 foreign countries, I’ve never felt so safe anywhere as I did in Cuba. The reasons for the amazingly low crime rates in Cuba are complex and multi-faceted — a subject I would love to write about when the time presents itself.

In conclusion, it doesn’t matter which country’s people are truly “the friendliest.” People all across the world represent the best of humanity — kindness, compassion, and service. Love. Traveling reminds us of the common threads that bind all of us humans together, regardless of nationality, skin color, religion, or creed.

*Baseball, not soccer (futbol) is the preferred sport in Cuba, but soccer is catching on!

**Cuba has two currencies — perhaps the height of the cuban idiosyncrasies — one, pegged to the USD, is for tourists and others who work in the tourist sector, and the other is for locals or those that work for state-run enterprises, which is still something like 70% of the economy. Apparently, the government is planning to phase out the two currencies and switch to a more sane, less-distorting currency model.

Here are some additional photos I took from my trip. As with the above photo, all rights are reserved:

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Mom and I trying to look cool. Top right could be from the 1950’s, but it’s just a typical scene in Cuba 2015.

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Me with a super friendly guy hanging out outside the state-run marketplace. I HAD to talk to him because of his outfit. We hit it off.

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Me with our trusty guide, Rene, (R) and our amazing bus driver, Lazaro (L). Great guys. I hope they are well!

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Random cab driver who agreed to pose with his car. The model and year he recited to me with gusto!

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Two women, showing typical Cuban pride and joy. Haircuts are less than 40 cents (USD).

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Vanales, where the best tobacco in the world comes from (sorry Winston-Salem). These rock formations — called Magotes — are rich in minerals that have seeped into the soil over thousands of years, creating the most fertile soil. The word “Cuba” itself means fertile land, in some native language that proceeded Spanish.

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Love my mother. She’s cooler than I’ll ever be.

Downtown Habana.

Downtown Habana.

The Malecón in Havana -- picturesque, historic, and the essential Cuban communal hang-out spot. This twenty foot wide esplanade rests between the city's main thoroughfare for cars and the island's northern coast with the Florida Strait. The Malecón runs for 5 miles and at night becomes FILLED with fisherman, families, friends, and lovers. Strolling down the Malecón on our last night in Cuba, my dad and I were lucky enough to catch a magnificent sunset. I, of course, had to bust out a handstand.

The Malecón in Havana — picturesque, historic, and the essential Cuban communal hang-out spot. This twenty foot wide esplanade rests between the city’s main thoroughfare for cars and the island’s northern coast with the Florida Strait. The Malecón runs for 5 miles and at night becomes FILLED with fisherman, families, friends, and lovers. Strolling down the Malecón on our last night in Cuba, my dad and I were lucky enough to catch a magnificent sunset. I, of course, had to bust out a handstand.

Love Chess: A Game That Builds Great Skills May 18, 2015

Posted by Afflatus in Uncategorized.
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Chess is a wonderful game! At once pleasurable and edifying, chess teaches important life skills: concentration, cost-benefit analysis, decision-making, thoroughness, and composure. Chess, like so many great games, brings out the best in the human mind! I hope to remain a lifelong player.

The complexity of the game is apparent. Chess challenges players with an almost infinite number of possible combinations of moves; so a chess player will face novel and complex positions in the opening, middle-game, and end-game situations.

More specifically, though, chess develops skills such as concentration, practicing cost-benefit analysis, and shrewd decision-making ability. A good chess player must understand the strengths and weaknesses of each player’s position — at every stage in the game. And there are multiple moving parts, making constant reevaluation necessary.

Knight attack!!!

Knight attack!!!

These skills play out in both a tactical and strategic manner. In many positions, an opponent’s move presents a problem that must be immediately addressed. In a timed game, it’s imperative to quickly isolate the problem at hand, discern various alternatives to address that problem, analyze the pros and cons of each alternative, and finally to select the best one (a process that may take place in as few as 5 seconds). But these tactical considerations should not be simply reactive; instead, each move should fit into the larger strategy of checkmating the opponent’s king. A good player retains simultaneous focus on both the tactical and strategic front — a challenging task!

Finally, chess teaches thoroughness and composure. Even after a player believes she has selected a great move, it is critical for her to thoroughly analyze possible counter-moves the opponent may make. In addition, she should consider potential weaknesses the move may spawn — a step easily overlooked. Chess also teaches a player to emotionally adjust to a bad situation. After I make a mistake, I try to regain my composure, control what I still can, and move forward with renewed rigor.

Attentiveness, cost-benefit analysis, decision-making ability, thoroughness, and composure: these are important skills for lawyers, indeed for all professionals. I hope to continue developing these skills, and I’m convinced chess can help.