Category: Culture

This Is A Picture Of The Very First Starbucks

very first starbucks

Although I didn’t know it was at the time, this grainy photo of the original Starbucks is one of the worst, but first, from before foXnoMad was even a concept. For some reason taking a picture of every Starbucks I came across (and/or Bill Gates) became a personal photographic scavenger hunt.

Across from the Pike Place Market, I noticed an odd Starbucks, with the wrong logo and colors. Shutter, click, snap. It wasn’t until seeing another picture of it years later did I realize this was the first Starbucks. In terms of multinational coffeehouse sightseeing, I had taken a picture of the Great Pyramids without knowing it.

The first Starbucks opened on March 31, 1971, but didn’t sell coffee to drink, but the beans themselves. Obviously things worked out from there since old or new, there always seems to be a line out the door.

Cuba Is Not What You Think It Is

havana cuba tourists

There’s a romanticism behind most revolutions, particularly those associated with the now iconic images of Che Guevara. In 2015, a record number of tourists (nearly 3.1 million) visited Cuba, sharing stories online of brightly colored buildings with photos of rebellious ladies in their 60s smoking cigars. The allure of a place stuck in time and misconception, is one of the reasons many, including myself, travel to Cuba in the first place.

Lifted Upon Landing

The passport control in Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport is in a poorly lit hall, immediately behind what is a conspicuous search of carry-on bags. (There’s a detailed list of things you can’t bring into Cuba on the immigration form.) But the friendly, if not slightly bored, faces of the passport control officers puts you at ease. Calmly you’ll walk out into the madness that is the arrivals hall, eventually finding the long, confused line to exchange currency. (The much shorter one is upstairs at departures.) Cuba has two types of currency, one for locals the Cuban Peso (CUP), the other, Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) for tourists. The rate is 25 CUP for 1 CUC.

havana square cuba

Cash in hand, you can see the faces of tourists from all parts of the world light up at the sight of the 1950s Chevy’s lined up as taxis, some colorful, others with fading paint. The car’s seats are boldly taped together, the doors missing interiors, but it’s amazing the vehicles are running as well as they do.

Strict Side Market

Surprisingly, Airbnb is an option in Havana, but you’ll have a less expensive stay at a casa particular. Basically, casa particulares are apartment rooms or sections of homes for rent, since law requires the owner stay on the premises. The particular place in Havana I stayed was an entire apartment floor with multiple rooms, spacious enough for 10 people comfortably.

cuba casa particular

A walk around the street below, the first person I meet is a man asking if I can help carry his bag. Travel scam warnings light up in my head but I do anyway, to see where this is going. Apparently, it’s going about 25 meters because he goes left but before he does, gives me a shot of the rum I was carrying. It’s 9:15 am. Cuba is both confusing, yet convincing, that things are certainly not what they seemed to be.

Many other Cubans are curious, striking up conversations, usually ending with some kind of veiled offer to get whatever (the wink, wink kind) you might want. The first thing that comes to mind is a bottle of water.

Stopped In Time

The heart of downtown Havana is either a rustic rebel against all the nation is deprived of or decades old buildings visibly falling apart despite any contrary effort. People in poverty, including plenty of grandmothers posing with cigars, for a price. The smiles quickly vanish after the photo is snapped or you decline a picture in the first place. Seeing those pictures isn’t ever the same afterward.

old havana

Lunch at Variedades Obispo, a local chicken and rice cafeteria hall, becomes a thought provoking internal debate on Cuba’s food rationing system. People are in a long line for eggs – 5 per month is the allowance – probably the reason small shops aren’t common; there aren’t many local shoppers.

Variedades Obispo

Half-century old cars breakdown. A lot. Those polished, bright, shiny ones you often see in pictures are kept in pristine condition and parked right where tourists can hop in, for $20-30 US dollars, depending on your negotiating skills. Most of the others on the road exhale large plumes of dark smoke, but the ride is still fun, because they often have excellent speakers with good music blasting. Making the most out of the situation is what you see much of in Cuba.

No Time To Scratch Your Head

If there ever were a ride that could symbolize what Cuba is or isn’t, it’s definitely the bright red, double-decker, Habana Hop On Hop Off Bus. What’s an ordinary tour wagon in most major cities, in Havana, the bus an entertaining speedy race around corners at speeds with just enough forward momentum to prevent the vehicle from tipping over. (Watch out if you’re on the sidewalk.) Branches hang low – and I’m serious – if you sit on the top floor without paying attention the best case scenario could be a concussion.

cuba taxi chevy

Some stops are typical: squares, and famous sights but many are big hotels. Aside from housing many tourists, these hotels are pretty much the only places (at least in Havana), where you can find an Internet connection. (And bottled water.) Controlled by access cards that cost about $2 USD for an hour of Internet connectivity, which is, surprisingly uncensored. Many Cubans sit outside of the hotels during the cooler evening temperatures, warming the air with the soft blue glow of their mobile phones. An indication, among many things, that even official salaries aren’t official.

At the end of the wild ride you’re once again slowed to a halt with a confusing reality. An empty Plaza de la Revolucion, with Che Guevara’s determined image looking down. You can’t help but wonder, is this Cuba what he and so many other revolutionaries, romantics, envisioned?

plaza de revolucion cuba

As a traveler it’s difficult to make judgements about something as complex as a society in a short visit. What you see are snapshots from a movie that’s been running for decades. Your Cuban story is colored by critic reviews, and following the advice you’re strongly recommended, talking politics might pose significant problems for everyone involved in the conversation. In a place that prides itself in planning, you appreciate how many long-lived people seem to benefit from an effective and efficient healthcare system. Conversely, the obvious poverty makes you wonder where the lines of premeditation were drawn on who and why.

Cuba isn’t what you think it is. Cuba is not what I think it is. There are very experienced journalists with enlightened insights on Cuba. What I know is what I don’t; a lesson Cuba can teach many of us.

These Sniper Bullet Holes Show How Far Sarajevo Has Come From The Bosnian War

sarajevo sniper bullets

Modern Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a small Balkan city sprinkled with cafes full of stylishly dressed young people. Nearly a quarter of the population is under the age of 25, meaning many were born after the 1992-1995 Bosnian War and as a visitor, you’ll have a hard time believing Sarajevo was under siege for nearly 4 years.

A Generation Lost

I speak with ‘Abdulah’, who leads several tours around the city focusing on Sarajevo’s history of conflict. Abdulah was 8 years old when the war began. He works as a tour leader because he doesn’t want anyone to forget or be ignorant about what happened in Sarajevo – the site of the first genocide in Europe since World War II. Also, he sheepishly admits, because he has no formal education. Abdulah’s primary school years were spent helping to smuggle grains into Sarajevo through the Sarajevo Tunnel, a 1,650 foot (500 meter) long underground passage beneath no-man’s land.

sarajevo tunnel museum

You can visit parts of the Sarajevo Tunnel, open as a museum for around $5.50 USD, open most days of the week.

Sarajevo Roses

He tells us Sarajevo has made a lot of progress in healing but if you look close enough, you’ll see scars from of the war throughout the city. As we walk along the Miljacka River, he notes the small potholes in the pavement filled with red resin, marking bomb craters where people were killed during the conflict.

sarajevo red roses

The paint is nearly faded. There used to be many more but as the years have gone on, newly poured asphalt for reconstruction has replaced these reminders of those lost.

Sniper Alley

Across the river’s waters is the bright, awkwardly yellow Olympic Hotel Holiday Sarajevo. Like Sarajevo’s abandoned Olympic bobsled track, the Holiday Inn was originally built for the 1984 games; later becoming a refuge for journalists covering the war. Walking by it, you’re now in what was known as Sniper Alley. The surrounding mountains as well as high-rise buildings made for ideal sniping locations, the result of which was over 1,000 people wounded, more than 200 killed.

sarajevo holiday inn

Crossing the Vrbanja Bridge, Abdulah tells the story locally known as Romeo and Juliet. In May 1993, deals made with the local government were supposed to grant two lovers safe passage out of Sarajevo. On a bright afternoon day, Bosko Brkic and his girlfriend, Admira Ismic, confidently walked across the Vrbanja Bridge. Halfway across, Brkic, a Serbian, was shot and killed by sniper fire. His wounded love, Admira, a Muslim, died by his side. For 8 days, their bodies laid there, both Muslim and Serbian sides not willing to make the dangerous walk to gather the bodies.

Miljacka river

Facing the Vrbanja Bridge is an apartment building, notable for the bullet holes that dot its exterior. This apartment, the very first photo in this post, like many of the other scars of the Bosnian War isn’t a museum piece. Simply, an apartment building where people still live. For some reason it’s the most jarring of all the war reminders. Perhaps because people live there now, it’s easier to imagine ourselves there today.

sarajevo cafes

You may be wondering if Sarajevo is safe to visit though after a short time in one of the best cities in the world to visit, be surprised anyone even asks the question. How fast Sarajevo has changed is remarkable given its recent history but also a powerful reminder of how quickly any peace can be lost.

The Starfleet Academy Experience In New York City Is Federation Utopia For Trekkies

starfleet academy experience intrepid

There are a lot of geeky reasons to travel so when I heard about the interactive Starfleet Academy Experience on board the Intrepid Museum in New York City, I knew I had to make it a part of my annual convention pilgrimage. The Starfleet Academy Experience (SAE) was anything but disappointing but be warned, you’ve got to be one step beyond a casual Star Trek fan to truly enjoy the exhibit.

starfleet academy experience intrepid museum

What The Heck Is A Starfleet Academy Experience?

Well timed with Star Trek Missions, the first major Trek convention in New York City in a very long time, the long standing Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum has opened a (very) interactive exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the original show through October 31, 2016.

Essentially, the exhibit is broken down into the major fields of study seen on Star Trek, from tactical to communications. Your progress is tracked by a wrist band that digitally updates your own personal voyage through Starfleet Academy. The first stop is in medical, where you’re asked to scan an injured Klingon, and diagnose his condition based on a number of tricorder readings.

starfleet medical

You make your way through the individual areas, taking 30 second touchscreen tests, learning a lot of sci-fi and science along the way. The creators of SAE put in a lot of thought to make every section interactive but different so it doesn’t get boring.

Beam Yourself Up

Admittedly, I did not expect stepping onto a transporter and watching myself beam up would be nearly as fun as it was. Or plotting a course for the Enterprise around 6 or 7 astronomical phenomena on a touchscreen the size of a large television. The longest line was for phaser practice (basically a one-person arcade shooter) which, if you’re pressed for time, can be skipped without regret.

You’ll learn a few phrases and be tested on your Klingon pronunciation as well. (If you really want to try your skills, read this post I wrote entirely in Klingon.) All of this taking place in a large area built to look like the halls of the Enterprise from The Next Generation. The effort on creating the look, feel, as well as appeal to casual and hardcore Trek fans is noticeable.

Sit In The Captain’s Chair

Given that the entrance fee is $25 (or $35 if you don’t want to be forced to visit at a scheduled time) the extensiveness of the Starfleet Academy Experience is appreciated. As you make your way toward graduation, which takes about an hour if not more, you’re welcomed with a recreation of the Enterprise bridge where you take the Kobayashi Maru test. Then, pose for countless photos in the captain’s chair, helm, security, engineering stations… and again, depending on your enthusiasm.

starfleet academy experience bridge

On the way out, you scan your wristband on last time to get your Academy results, plus a read out of the starship positions you’re best cut out for. You can have that, as well as your transporter video emailed directly to you. The Starfleet Academy Experience is open 10am-7pm daily, through October 31st. I recommend arriving early, then purchasing tickets to visit the Intrepid Museum itself, on the aircraft carrier by the same name.

You Don’t Know You Like Belgrade Yet, But You Do

belgrade serbia Skadarlija

Serbia’s capital city is like an intimidating uncle you barely know who’s rough around the edges but when he visits is so interesting, you want to endear yourself to. For most people around the world, still, Balkan cities conjure up greying men with stern faces and apartment buildings dotted by bullet holes. And still, there are plenty of beer bellied 40 year-olds proudly packing man purses and old Communist apartment blocks that needed new pain a century ago, but now they’re filled with vegan food and jiu-jitsu schools that have nearly as many female fighters as men.

Belgrade is, like most Balkan capitals, surprisingly modern, if not a little weird, with Internet that’s faster than most anything in the West, offering the quiet, night, or high life depending on your preference and budget.

Getting Around The Not-So-Obvious

I’m often asked whether or not people in the Balkans speak English, or if there are ATMs in the major cities. To sum up, everyone under 35 (and a good portion of those older) speak English so accent-less it’s nearly distracting. There are ATMs everywhere, but many prefer to pay with credit cards, and half the population walks around hunched over the addicting glow of a cell phone.

belgrade serbia streets roads

  • How To Arrive Internationally – Flying is by far the easiest method, as train routes from nearby countries are very limited. Renting a car from other Serbian cities is a possibility, but nearly all rental companies won’t let you cross national borders, at least in this region of the world.

There are parts of town you want to avoid and you should order your taxi from this number to avoid getting ripped off. In all, not perfect, but modern, and very familiar to most people who’ve seen Europe, America, or similar.

Meat To Vegan Spectrum

Traditional Serbian food is hearty meats, with lots of heavy sides like beans, creamy salads, and other dishes that make you feel happy when it’s frosty outside.

gradska restaurant belgrade serbia

One of the best places in Belgrade to try home-cooked, traditional Serbian food is Gradska.

A 20 minute walk from central Belgrade, it’s location is so inconspicuous that you’ll doubt you’re headed in the right direction, no matter what your GPS says. (Getting a local SIM card for phone and Internet access is easily done from one of the small corner shops around town.) The waiters are very friendly, recommending what’s been cooked up fresh that evening (take their suggestion, trust me).

radost restaurant belgrade serbia

  • Radost – On the other side of town is Radost, a restaurant which is a reflection of the growing Balkan obsession with sugar-free deserts, vegan dishes, and alternative health-foods.

The Balkan version of veganism isn’t a militant one or the type where people restrict themselves to a diet which constantly makes them cranky. In Belgrade for example, people go out for a vegan meal occasionally but most don’t necessarily adhere to the lifestyle. Probably due to this softer attitude, many younger Serbians are open to the idea of going out for a vegan meal, since vegan and health-conscious options are often integrated into the menus of mainstream restaurants. Meat lovers might not drop buttered pork for pumpkin soup or beet burgers permanently but a craving could crop up occasionally after a trip to Radost. The coffee is also great, with or without soy creamer.

Stroll Scene Is Strong

During my time in Ukraine, I met with a local expert on Ukrainian history, who mentioned once that eastern Europeans love to walk stroll, particularly on Sundays, looking into shops they have no intention of buying from. I have found this to be true from Romania to as far as Albania, Serbia being no exception.

belgrade national assembly

  • Skadarlija – Plenty of small cafes, pubs, and restaurants like Tri Sesira if you’re looking for Serbian favorites in large portions. You’ll find a local fruit market at the end of the street near the tramway rails. Good for produce shopping if you’re staying in an Airbnb with a kitchen. (Prices for accommodation of moderately priced hotels are about the same as local apartment rentals.)

tri sisera belgrade serbia

To work off the food, or work up another appetite, a hike up to the Kalemegdan (Belgrade Fortress) is worth the the views of the city and where the Danube and Sava rivers meet.

belgrade fortress

Many places around the world are a mix of “old and new” but Belgrade is a mix of really old, less old, new, and upcoming, under a microscope.

Surprising Less

Training at the Gracie Barra academy, where I was warmly welcomed during my time in Belgrade, the instructor asks if I’ve ever seen this many women in a jiu-jitsu class. He takes pride in the fact that his school has opened up a very male dominated sport to so many women and children as well. Walking out of the class after a training session I hear a band practicing heavy metal in one of the large rooms nearby, echoing off the halls. All of this takes place in the mostly abandoned BIGZ building, the former headquarters and printing press of National Printing Institution of Yugoslavia. From Communism to choke holds, Belgrade isn’t taking the conventional road to modernity.

gracie barra belgrade

Belgrade is making its own path, while retaining Serbian culture with a toughness cultivated over a history of harsh winters, wars, and general hard times. Frankly, Belgrade is cool. Like much of the Balkans, staring at you with a strong, straight face, you’ll have to earn your smiles. Once you figure out how though, you’ll leave feeling a part of the group.

Be Sure To Do This Before Visiting The Tesla Museum In Belgrade, Serbia

nikola tesla museum blegrade serbia

One place you really shouldn’t miss while you’re in Belgrade, Serbia, is the Nikola Tesla Museum. The Tesla Museum is an interactive experience about Tesla’s past as well as our technological future. A history about one of the world’s greatest minds you won’t be able to truly appreciate if you don’t call ahead to the museum first.

Who Was Tesla?

There aren’t enough science museums in the world and while old rocks or abstract paintings are mildly compelling to look at for a moment, watching a group of visitors hold up florescent lights being lit by wireless electricity is something hard to forget. Summing up the engineer Tesla is something one line of text can’t do but if you’re using a laptop right now that’s plugged into the wall, using wifi, sitting under florescent lights, and have ever used a remote control, you can thank Nikola Tesla.

Tesla was born in 1856 to Serbian parents in Smiljan (now in modern-day Croatia), later moving to the United States to work with Thomas Edison. Despite only spending a day of his life in Belgrade, the (then) Yugoslavian government established the Nikola Tesla Museum 9 years after his death. All of his belongings in the U.S. were sent by his nephew to the small building, now the museum, along with Tesla’s ashes.

nikola tesla ashes

I learned a lot more and if you’re particularly interested in the technical details of Tesla’s accomplishments, you should definitely take one of the offered tours.

Call Ahead To Take Advantage Of The Tours

The tours, where you can actually play with wireless electricity, are offered in different languages at varying times throughout the museum’s hours, 10am-6pm, open all days except Monday. You need to call ahead to join an English tour (ideally the day before or latest morning of) since the tour times change daily and aren’t listed on the Tesla Museum website.

tesla museum belgrade

  • Nikola Tesla Museum Tour Phone Number: +381 (0) 11 24 33 886

I made the mistake of just showing up, where I hopped on to the Serbian tour. The guide was very patient and translated everything for me but noted it’s not his preferred tour method. English tours are 500 Serbian dinar (~$4.50 USD), lasting 30-40 minutes.

A Museum Worth Visiting

I can’t recommend the Tesla Museum enough to see how far wireless technology has come yet at the same time, how much further ahead we could be. (Why the hell are we still charging everything with wires?) The tour guides are very informed – frankly passionate – about Tesla and the science of his accomplishments. Getting to the Nikola Tesla Museum is simple either by taxi or a 20 minute walk from most parts of interest around town. Just don’t forget to call ahead for the English tour times.

Edit: Additionally, reader Clabbe notes that the Tesla Museum is not state funded so relies on tour and souvenir sales to keep running. Another good reason to join one of the tours.

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About Anil Polat

foxnomad aboutI'm the blogger and computer security engineer who writes foXnoMad while on a journey to visit every country in the world. I'll show you the tips, tricks, and tech you can use to travel smarter. Read More

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