Workshop Announcement: How to Report on Cuba

What started as Facebook venting about my frustration with the majority of reporting on/about Cuba has turned into what’s going to be a powerhouse workshop offered live in NYC on April 27 with my friend and colleague, Conner Gorry, who has lived in Cuba for more than a decade.

More details coming soon (we’ll post them all here), but for now, mark your calendars and spread the word. Space is going to be limited!Save the Date

How to Make Desnuda’s Smoked Lapsang Souchong Oysters: Video

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Video: Francisco Collazo
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Over at The Latin Kitchen, the editors have just published my article about Chef Dominic Martinez’s lapsang souchong smoked oysters. The piece is part of their series “The Dish,” in which well-known chefs explain how they make a signature dish.

The oysters are surprisingly easy to make, but the description of one key element–the smoker–may leave something to be desired for visual learners. Here, then, is a video of Chef Martinez, in which he offers show-and-tell instructions. Thanks to Francisco, who also translated the piece into español for his site, for shooting the video.

Travel hack: How to rent a car after losing your driver’s license

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo

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Maybe we could've caught a ride with these friendly folks.

It was 3 PM when we landed in Honolulu. A three hour flight from New York to Dallas had been followed by an eight hour flight from Dallas to Honolulu with our almost-two year old, whose diaper was sagging with fresh poop just as we stepped off the Hertz shuttle. To say we were tired and short-tempered was an understatement.

Even before I reached into the pocket of my new cargo pants, I knew my driver’s license was gone. Earlier in the day, I’d made a mental note that I needed to move it back into my wallet after we’d cleared airport security screening, but I forgot, distracted by other items that needed to be picked up and repacked– the laptop, camera gear, iPhones. How could I rent a car without my driver’s license?

I explained the situation to the Hertz agent, who was resolute: company policy wouldn’t let me pay for the car and let Francisco drive it unless I could produce my license, too. “But I can’t,” I explained. “It fell out of my pocket. It’s gone.” She insisted there was nothing I could do, so I stepped outside to fume and figure out a Plan B.

Hint: Your two-year old child is not Plan B.

After losing my license 4,000+ miles, 12+ hours, and several hours from home, here’s my advice on what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation:

1. Prepare before you leave home.
As much as we travel, we’ve only recently become responsible about packing important documents and making sure these are in our carry-on. If you’re traveling with your partner and you have different last names, it’s especially important to bring copies of your driver’s license, secondary ID (such as passport), and, if you have a child, his/her birth certificate. It’s best to have hard copies of these, but if you’re unable or unwilling to do that, then take a photo or scan a copy and send it to your mobile. Fortunately, I had a photo of my driver’s license on my phone. That didn’t help me rent the car… but it did help me file a police report.

2. Call the airline.
Though it’s unlikely anyone will find your license on a plane– after all, the turn around time from landing to take-off is short these days and cleaning crews (if there’s one at all) do the most cursory of searches– you should call the Lost and Found office of the airline at each airport you passed through in transit. Leave your name and phone number so they can call you if your license is found.

3. Ask to speak with the rental car agency manager.
Line staff can do little to help you in a situation like a lost license. You’ll need to speak to a manager, who is the only person on site who has the authority to sign off on a policy override. If you rent regularly from the same company, it may be worth mentioning that (it may also be time to consider one of the rental loyalty programs).

4. File a police report.
Ask the car rental agency to assist you with filing a police report; the nearest precinct may actually be located in the airport or on airport grounds. Even if you think the airline might recover your license, go ahead and file the police report. Most car rental agencies’ managers won’t override company policy and allow you to rent without a license unless you have a police report in hand. Also, if you don’t recover your license, you’ll likely need the police report to get a replacement license when you get home.

5. Don’t freak out.
There’s almost always a Plan B. Though the manager of the Hertz office at the Honolulu airport did override company policy and allow us to rent the car we’d reserved, we would have been just fine without the car, too. Find out what public transportation is nearby, how much a taxi would cost from the airport to your destination, whether the place you’re staying at has a shuttle service, or whether–if push comes to shove–the car rental agency can drive you to the place you’re staying (which Hertz reps said they’d do if our rental didn’t work out).

Got a travel hack you want to share? Tell us in the comments.

How to Write a Book Review

I’m in the midst of working on a few book reviews– Daina Chaviano’s The Island of Eternal Love,
David Lida’s First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century, Kiss the Hand You Cannot Sever by Adrienne Brady, and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer by popular travel writer, Rolf Potts– so I’ve got book reviews on my mind.

In an earlier article, I explained how you can request review copies. In this article, I explain how one writes a book review, focusing primarily on identifying the criteria you should take into consideration while reading the book you’ll be reviewing.

As with any genre, the more you read book reviews, the better you’re likely to become at writing reviews.

One of my secret pleasures is reading New York Times Book Review each Sunday. The reviewers–writers themselves, and likely just as sensitive as their subjects– are never ambivalent: they lavish praise or heap criticism on authors in full page meditations… and I must admit that I’ve kept this particular pleasure secret until now because I find the critical reviews especially appealing.

Why?

Well, because a good review is, like any good writing, cognizant of what words mean, how they should be treated, and what we, as readers, should expect of them, how we should feel after we take them in and turn them over like a prism in the light. When a book possesses shortcomings, book reviewers call authors on the gaps in their work and demand that they do better. I like reading the reviews because I’d like to think they make me a better writer and editor…and a better book reviewer.

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Reading a book in order to write a review requires a bit more attention and purpose than you’d devote as a casual reader. When reading in order to review you want to take the following ideas into account:

What is the subject of the book? And in answering that question, you need to ask another: What has already been written about the same subject? How will this author expand the reader’s understanding of the subject (if it’s been written about extensively before)? Does the author offer new insights or an innovative articulation of an already well-treated subject?

What is the author’s background? What makes the author uniquely qualified to write about the subject? What has the author written before? The answers to these questions vary in their relative importance depending on the genre, but are worth asking when approaching any book.

You don’t necessarily need to share the author’s background with the reader of your review. Sometimes, though, doing so is particularly appropriate. Consider, for example, David Kamp’s introduction to his review of Jules Feiffer’s Explainers, published last weekend in the Times:

“At this point, there’s an entire generation of parents and kids who know Jules Feiffer solely as a children’s book author…. It’s been eight years since he stopped doing his weekly syndicated comic strip for grown ups….”

All this information sets the reader up for a comparison of Feiffer’s new book, an anthology of 10 years worth of his work, to his existing body of work, providing the reader with useful information.

What does the author establish as the thesis (for non-fiction) or the narrative hook (for fiction)? And then, does the author fulfill the promise implied by that thesis or hook?

As the reviewer, you may wish to even lead into the review with your own summation of the narrative hook…without spoiling the plot and its resolution, of course! Take for instance, Andrew Miller’s review of Jose Saramago’s novel, Blindness:

“Traffic at a red light. The lights change, the cars move off, all except one that remains blocking the middle lane. A man inside is shouting the same three words again and again: ‘I am blind.’ Distraught, he is accompanied to his home by a kindly stranger. But this good Samaritan is also a car thief. Having taken the blind man home, he steals his car. A short time later he too is blind.”

While Miller could have opened his review by saying, “Saramago’s novel is about a whole town that goes blind, save one person,” this opening is far more engaging and interesting.

Finally, you’ll need to consider:

How well does the author write? Authors with a particularly unique narrative style might deserve special mention. I like Jennifer Egan’s description of Jim Harrison’s writing in her recent review of Harrison’s novel, The English Major:

“Jim Harrison’s writing is oddly mysterious. His prose style is plain, even flat. His sentences unspool casually, and are often comma-free to the point of sounding almost hapless.”

The reader of Egan’s review is preparing for a withering commentary about Harrison’s novel.

And then, she makes an abrupt turn:

“Yet they fuse on the page with a power and a blunt beauty whose mechanics are difficult to trace even when you look closely.”

Egan goes on to call Harrison’s writing style a “straw-to-gold technique” that characterizes his work. Egan isn’t just sharing her opinion about Harrison’s writing; she’s helping the reader of her review to approach Harrison’s style and access it in a new way.

Miller’s review of Saramago’s novel is similarly adept at preparing the reader for Saramago’s inimitable style–one which is often frustrating to readers new to the Portuguese writer’s work. Miller wrote:

“The prose, with its minimal punctuation, its flickering of tense and subject so that we glide between first and third person, between stream of consciousness and wry objectivity… takes a page or two for the reader to settle into…; the denseness of the long polyphonic paragraphs appears slightly daunting at the first encounter. Soon, however, we are caught up by the sheer momentum of the narrative. The unencumbered language hurries us forward at such a pace it is difficult to do justice to the subtlety and occasional beauty of its architecture, as if we were driving headlong through a great city at night.”

Miller’s review is almost as lyrical as Saramago’s novel, and if I hadn’t read it already, I’d be headed off to the library to check it out.

Does the book review ultimately reflect the reviewer’s own literary preferences and prejudices? Of course. But by paying attention to these basic criteria, you have a point of departure for your reviews, and a set of standards to which your readers can hold you, just as you have done with the author whose work you’re reviewing.

Now get reading!

Photo: swiv (Flickr creative commons)

From A to Z: Guide to Getting Around by Taxi in Mexico City

[English version; Version en espanol abajo]
Text & Photos by: Francisco Collazo
Translation: Julie Schwietert Collazo
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Besides the statue of the Angel located on Avenida Reforma, there’s another stamp that distinguishes Mexico City from any other metropolis: the two-door Volkswagen taxis, or Beetles. One can say with total certainty that the Beetle taxis have been a part of the city’s landscape for years, and they’re what come to mind when I think of this city.

Behind the wheel of each taxi, there’s a different driver with a differen story of the city. Mexico City is an expansive, cosmpolitan center with vibrant commerce and banks of all types. It was here where the Olympics were held in 1968, before Atlanta, before Beijing. To know this city completely, you’d need more than one life. Unless you’re a taxi driver: they know this city like the palm of their hand and navigate through her traffic with ease.

There are plenty of stories about the Beetles. Some people talk about them with nostalgia; others speak of them with disgust, each with his own reasons. The Beetles have been the protagonists in movies, TV shows, tourist brochures. They have also, however, been the setting for assaults and accidents, making news headlines.

Today, the Beetles are seen with less frequency on the city’s streets. The government has proposed to replace the Beetles with new four-door cars–Nissans, Chevrolets, & Suzukis–thinking that these are safer and have greater capacity for luggage. The departure of the Volkswagen factory in Mexico due to debt and other financial problems accelerated the push to introduce a new system. Nonetheless, many drivers of the Beetle taxis signal that their “mileage is much better, the cars are easier to repair, and the cost of pieces is a fraction of the price for those of other cars that are now running the city.”

Some drivers complain that as early as next year the Beetle taxis will no longer be allowed to operate. One driver, Jorge, told me that he will have to buy a new taxi, one with four doors. “And the government doesn’t give any economic incentive to buy and replace this one,” he said. Many of the drivers with whom I have spoken mentioned that they believe the elimination of the Beetle taxis is a government strategy to reduce the total number of vehicles in the city, as traffic congestion is a serious problem here.

On the other hand, the concerns of the government are legitimate, at least with respect to the point made about the safety problem of Beetles. The Beetles lack seatbelts. The front passenger seat is missing; in the event of an accident, a person could become a projectile soaring out the windshield. In short, the Beetles are low to the ground and are fragile compared to heavier vehicles and buses.

The authorities have been compelled to implement different strategies to control the illegal taxis that are used for robberies and other criminal acts. One of these strategies of control was to create a new taxi identification system periodically, though the implementation and enforcement have been difficult.

Every change requires time to be implemented, but before everyone adjusts to the new system, authorities discover that there are already illegal taxis back in the street with new license plates and identification. “The solution has always been worse than the problem,” said Carlos, another Mexico City taxi driver, when I asked him why his license plate and registration begin with the letter “L.” He tells us that before, “L” was the letter that designated his type of taxi, “but later, the government decided to use the letter ‘A’ and then ‘B’ in an effort to eradicate piracy.”

Later, when I ask Carlos what I should do to determine whether a taxi is legal or illegal, he tells me that I should check the license plate carefully: if it is white, then it’s an official taxi. If the plate is a coffee color, then it’s not registered as an official taxi with the city’s Taxi Commission…. and if “you’re mugged or something happens, well then they can’t identify the taxi.”

My curiosity about the taxis began not with nostalgia or even any particular interest, but rather after reading an article on a blog by a Mexico City writer in which he recommended taking “secure” taxis. In his article, the writer described an incident in which a friend who was visiting town was assaulted and robbed of his money, credit card, and other valuables when he was getting into a taxi near the statue of the Angel on Avenida Reforma. In response, he decided to write an article in order to prevent a similar incident from happening to others.

He said: You should be sure that the taxis’ license plates start with the letter “A” or “B” before their registration number; that they have a registration card with the driver’s photo on the dashboard; among other recommendations. For me, this was a message that was both strong and personal: in all my time in Mexico City, I’d never paid attention to any of these details. I only checked the sign that said “Libre” (available) and that was all I needed to know to get from Point A to Point B without problem.

Today, it’s not the same. I’m not paralyzed by fear, but I am more alert and cautious. After the incident I read about, we’ve learned that there is more than one way to cheat a client. Now, when we get in a taxi, we ask that the driver use the meter. When a driver attempts not to use the meter and asks what we’ve been charged before to go to the same destination, he states an elevated price if we say we haven’t been there. That’s when we tell him to stop and we get out. This happens because the meter is close to the gear shift and is often difficult to see, particularly at night. It’s impossible for me to get in a taxi now without noticing whether the license plate has an “A” or “B,” whether the plate is white, and whether the glass is tinted, whether the taxi has a meter, and whether the driver is polite and friendly, whether the doors open and close from outside, that he takes the route that I know… but even with all of these precautions, nothing’s 100% safe. Here, nothing is. Just like nothing’s 100% safe anywhere.

In an effort to protect myself, I keep in mind that it’s not just the letters “A” and “B,” but everything–from A to Z–before shouting, “Taxi!”

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[version en espanol]
Texto y Fotos por Francisco Collazo
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Aparte de la estatua del Angel localizada en la Avenida Reforma en la ciudad de Mexico hay otro sello que distingue a la ciudad de una manera muy religiosa: los taxis Volkswagen de dos puertas o “Beetle” como son conocidos tambien. Se puede decir con toda seguridad que ellos han sido parte de la geografia de la ciudad desde tiempos remotos, o por menos lo que recuerdo cuando pienso en esta ciudad. Cada uno guiado por un chofer diferente con una historia distinta de la ciudad. Ciudad de Mexico es una ciudad muy grande y cosmopolitan con un comercio vibrante, bancos de todo tipo y cuna de los juegos olimpicos en 1968 primero que Atlanta y Beijing. Una ciudad que para conocerla completa uno necesitaria mas de una vida. Sin embargo mucho de estos choferes se la conocen como la palma de su mano y navegan sobre ella con facilidad y destreza.

De los Beetles hay muchas leyendas. Unos se refieren con nolstagia y otros los aborrecen y detestan por diferentes razones. Han sido protagonistas principales en peliculas, novelas, folletos turisticos, de la misma manera que han sido escenarios de asaltos y accidentes que alcanzaron los medios de informaciones principales de la ciudad. Hoy se ven con menos frecuencia corriendo por sus calles. La ciudad se propone reemplazarlos por carros nuevos de cuatro puertas que se esperan sean mas seguros y con capacidad para la trasportacion con equipaje: Nissan, Chevrolet, Suzuki. La salida de su fabricantes en Mexico por deudas adquiridas y otras informalidades han acelerado este proceso a una velocidad impresionante. Sin embargo, muchos de los choferes de los Beetles senalan que “su millaje es mucho mejor, faciles de reparar y el costo de sus piezas se pueden encontrar a fraccion del precio de los otro carros que ya han comenzado sus servicios en la ciudad.” Asi me lo dijo Jorge, un chofer de Beetle.

Algunos choferes se quejan de que el proximo ano ya no les permitiran operarlos y tendrian que comprar uno de estos carros de cuatro puertas donde el gobierno no le dara ninguna ayuda o incentivo economico para la adquisicion y reemplazo de este. Muchos de los choferes temen que es una estrategia del gobierno para eliminar de esta manera el exceso de automoviles en la ciudad.

Por otra parte, las preocupaciones del gobierno son muy legitimas en cuanto a la inseguridad de los Beetles se refiere: carecen de cinturones de seguridad, la ausencia del asiento delantero al lado del chofer permitira en un accidente que la persona salga como un proyectil por el cristal delantero, muy bajos y fragiles comparados a los vehiculos y camiones (como les llaman a los buses) que hoy transitan por la ciudad. Las autoridades han tenido que implementar diferentes formas para controlar el flujo de estos taxis ilegales que se utilizaban para lucro y actos fraudulentos, asi como para la comision de crimen por toda la ciudad. Una de esas medidas de control fue crear un sistema de identificacion nueva cada cierto tiempo, pero fue dificil. Cada cambio necesitaba tiempo para establecerse y no se implementaba el nuevo sistema cuando se descubrian que ya habian taxis ilegales con las placas e identificaciones nuevas las (mismas que se crearon para detener el fraude y la ilegalidad) y asi sucesivamente. La solucion fue peor que el problema segun nos informa Carlos, un taxista de la Ciudad de Mexico cuando le pregunto por que su placa y registracion comienza con la letra “L”. El nos dice que antes esa era la letra con que se designo a estos tipos de taxis… “pero que despues el gobierno decidio por la letra “A” y mas tarde la “B” en un esfuerzo para eradicar la pirateria.” Luego, cuando le pregunto que debo hacer para saber si es un taxi legal o ilegal me informa que debo fijarme en la placa: si es blanca, es un taxi “oficial”; si es carmelita, no esta registrado de la misma manera porque es “propio,” es decir pagaron por una licencia para operar, pero no llevan otra identificacion oficial por parte de la comision de taxis de la ciudad y ………”si te atracan o te pasa algo no los puedes identificar.”

Mi curiosidad con ellos empieza no por la nostagia ni por interes en ellos, o por el hecho que vivo en esta ciudad y me muevo en estos taxis, sino por haber leido un articulo en unas de las paginas electronicas de la Ciudad de Mexico donde el autor daba una recomendacion para tomar un taxi seguro. En su articulo el autor describe que un amigo suyo que estaba de visita lo habian asaltado despojandolo de su dinero, tarjeta de credito y demas valores cuando abordo uno de estos taxis cerca de la estatua de la Angel en la Avenida Reforma y en respuesta decidio escribir ese articulo para prevenir que esto le sucediera a otros. Decia: debemos cerciorarnos que estos lleven una letra “A” o “B” delante su numero de registracion y lleven en la ventana una registracion con foto del chofer operando el auto entre otras cosas. Este fue un mensaje fuerte y personal para mi; en todo este tiempo en Mexico nunca me fije en estos detalles. Solo veia el letrero de “Taxi Libre” y eso era todo lo que necesitaba para alquilarlo sin preocupacion o problema.

Hoy ya no es asi. No estoy paralizado por el miedo, pero si estoy mas alerta y precavido. Despues de este incidente hemos comprobado que si existe mas de una manera de enganar al cliente. Cuando abordamos un taxi le pedimos que nos de la tarifa de taximetro y que opere con el. Muchas veces cuando no los operan y nos preguntan que cuantos nos han cobrado anteriormente para ajustar un precio, cuando decimos que nunca hemos estado alli nos dan cifras exageradas y es entonces que les ordenamos que se detenga y nos deje salir. Esto sucede porque muchas veces los taximetros se encuentran localizados cerca del mecanismo de cambio de velocidad y muy dificil de verlos desde afuera y de noche. Es imposible montarme en un taxi en la Ciudad de Mexico sin estar antes seguro que la letra “A” o “B” esten delante de la registracion, que su placa sea blanca y que no tenga cristales ahumados, que tenga taximetro y que el chofer sea amistoso, y que las puertas abran y cierren desde afuera, que tome el sitio que conozco, pero esto no es cien por ciento seguro, aqui nada lo es, como en ninguna otra parte.

En un intento por protegerme tengo en cuenta no solo las letras “A” y “B” pero todo, desde la “A” hasta la “Z” antes de gritar……Taxi!