A Walk Through Cementerio Cristobal Colón

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Cementerio Cristobal Colón was built from 1871-1886. Spanish architect Calixto de Loira based the design on a Roman military camp. The cemetery is a final resting place for many notable people in Cuban history and culture such as  Alejo Carpentier who was novelist and one of the first writers of magical realism, and Ibrahim Ferrer of the Buena Vista Social Club.

I spent an entire afternoon wandering through 140 acres of the mausoleums and family vaults, many of which looked like ornate castles to the dead. Many may find cemeteries a bit spooky and macabre, but it is a relaxing place for those who want to go on a quiet stroll. Here you will find that the graves are designed in a wide range of styles, such as neoclassical, Art Deco and baroque. My favorite details from the cemetery are the facial expressions and gestures of the statues. Maybe you’ll get inspired to design your own home for the afterlife.

Entrance is 5 CUC, and the security guards are friendly and helpful if you get lost. The cemetery is located between Calle Zapata and Calle 12, and is open everyday between 8AM-5PM.

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El Nicho, Jewel of The Sierra Escambray

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El Nicho is a waterfall located in Cienfuegos Province, or “La Perla del Sur” about 250 km south of Havana. Nestled high up in the Sierra Escambray mountains, it is a two hour drive filled with various twists and turns. I shared a taxi with two other people. It came out to 40 CUC for all three of us to and from El Nicho.  The entrance fee into El Nicho is 9CUC.

I wish I remembered our driver’s name because he went above and beyond the call of duty. He made little stops where we picked guavas and coffee beans, and stopped at a little pueblo where we bought sandwiches for lunch. He is also a big fan of CSI and other suspenseful detective shows.

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El Nicho is an easy, short hike with great views of the Río Habanilla and naturaleza cubana, and a great place to swim.

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Cuba for Cheapskates

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Travel restrictions to Cuba are now a bit more relaxed for those of us residing in Gringolandia. Yet, if you are a U.S. citizen, your trip must fall under a list of 12 categories if you want to travel the legal way.   The following are some tips and things I learned from my trip.

Plan Before you Leave

I am no stranger to traveling solo in Latin America, but I started researching and planning my trip to Cuba at least two months before I actually arrived. In previous backpacking trips, I looked at maps, decided which cities I wanted to visit, boarded a plane or a bus and looked for a place to stay. Yes, my lack of foresight may lower your opinion of me, but in my defense, it was a great time. I never made any reservations at a hostel, and cheap yet delicious street food was readily available. Cuba is a different story. If you go without doing your research, you might find yourself in a tough situation when it comes to money, supplies and cultural norms. With that said, if you speak little to no Spanish you are at a great disadvantage. Many Cubans speak English, but you will most likely be overcharged for food.

Remember that because of the embargo anything you can easily buy at Rite Aid may not be readily available in Cuba. Pack everything you think that you might need: antacids, soap, pain killers, toothpaste, lotion etc. Anyone on special diets should pack non-perishable food.

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Flights

At the time, direct flights were not leaving out of Los Angeles, so I flew from Mexico City to  Havana on Cubana de Aviación. Cubana has recieved mixed reviews about trip cancellations and delays, but both of my flights to and from Cuba were without incident and I would fly Cubana again. Cubana is owned by the Cuban government and has been in operation for over 80 years. On both flights, the cabin crew served ham sandwiches wrapped in tin foil, so if you are expecting fancy service with a smile and in-flight entertainment, maybe it is best to book flights elsewhere. The aircraft itself is pretty up to date. The flight from Mexico City was on an Airbus, while the flight from Cuba was on a Russian Tupolev which was exciting because of the white smoke coming out of the plane’s air conditioning system. The smoke happens because of Cuba’s high humidity, and stopped after take-off.

Before boarding your flight to Cuba, you will have to buy a tourist visa for $25 at the airline check-in counter. Your tourist visa is a slip of paper that is stamped before you are able to roam about the country. I took good care not to lose it, so good luck if you lose yours. I do not know what will happen to you.

After arriving in Havana, expect to pay about 20 CUC for a taxi from the airport.

Money and Currency

Forget about using American Express or debit cards issued by banks in the United States because in Cuba they will not work. All the money you will need while in Cuba must be brought in cash. Let that sink in for a moment. It would really suck if you show up with just your credit cards to find that you are stranded without a way to pay for basic necessities. Book your reservations at the hotel or casa particular before your trip, and research entrance fees for any national parks and museums that you plan on visiting so that you can create a budget.

Now is your time to get creative with hiding your money. I admit, I had some anxiety over carrying all the cash I needed for my trip for 10 whole days, but I made full use of my money belt by strapping it around my thigh. Before I left the States, I found these useful pair of underwear with hidden pockets that are the perfect size for a passport, credit card and cash. I used them as shorts to go under my skirts.

Cuba has two currencies: the peso cubano (CUP), which is used mainly by the Cubans, and the peso convertible (CUC), which is used by tourists. You will pay for most things using the peso convertible, but it is wise to change some of your CUC for pesos cubanos, that way you will be able to take public transportation and buy street food which is way cheaper than riding in taxis or eating at touristy restaurants. At the time of my trip, 1 US Dollar was equal to 1 CUC, and 1 CUC was about 25 CUP.  Remember that exchanging US currency carries an extra 10% tax, so it is best to change your money into Euros. Here is a useful website with everything you need to know about Cuban currency. Euros have the best exchange rate, with US dollars having the worst. US currency has a 10% penalty when changing money in Cuba. There are exchange houses called CADECAs all over Cuba.

Where to Stay

There is no shortage of hotels in Cuba, but if you want to hang out with the locals, a casa particular is the way to go. They are also cheaper than a night in a hotel. Casa particulares are owned and operated by Cuban families who have a license from the government to rent out rooms in their homes. They usually have a blue anchor symbol hanging outside of their entrance. Since I went in September in the middle of hurricane season, I paid 20 CUC per night. The price often includes breakfast, and your hosts will have the inside scoop on the cheapest places to eat and what to see. The concept of youth hostels where a bunch of people share a dorm style room does not exist in Cuba, but if you meet travel buddies, you can split the cost of a room in a casa particular.

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Food

Cuba is not a foodie destination. If you are a vegetarian, you will have a hard time, but you can survive off of rice and beans.  Restaurants in touristy areas offer expensive but not very good food. Ham and cheese sandwiches are readily available, and if you walk around, you can usually find someone selling fresh mango juice. Family run restaurants called paladares are great options for delicious homemade Cuban fare, and you will usually be eating in the living room of someone’s house. Paladar comes from a Brazilian telenovela about a woman who runs a restuarant. I highly recommend El Helecho in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. It’s a cute little house decorated with delicate porcelain knick knacks, ferns (hence the name), and the ropa vieja is para chuparse los dedos. 

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Menu for a sandwich stand in El Vedado

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Interior of El Helecho

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I don’t remember what street this was one, but this man hooked it up with a slab of ham cooked in garlic and various other delicious tidbits with a side of salsa picante.

Internet 

I know a lot of you like to post selfies on Instagram, but you’ll have to give it a rest in Cuba. It’s great to take a break from the web, but you’ll also want to send a quick email to let the folks back home know you’re safe. Most homes do not have free WiFi, but your casa host can point you to the nearest ETECSA office, which sells internet cards that you scratch off to reveal a WiFi password. In most major plazas around Cuba, you will find groups of people typing away on their laptops or Skyping on their tablets. These cost 2CUC, but make sure to go early, because people buy multiple cards to sell on the black market for higher prices.  Internet is also available at some hotels, but it is more expensive and the connection is slower. Please note that lines do not exist in Cuba. Instead, you will see crowds of people in no particular order waiting their turn. Instead, ask someone “¿Quien fue el último?” or “who was last?”

Returning to the States

I traveled without a license and was stopped by a U.S. immigration officer  when I returned to the States. Noticing that I only had Mexico stamped in my passport, he asked if I had been anywhere else, so I spilled the beans. He let me go after emptying out my backpack and questioning me about my trip.

There you have it. If you have any questions, let me know so I can update this post with that information.

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De México a la Habana

When Obama announced that he was easing travel restrictions to Cuba, I figured I better hop on a plane fast before all the gringos rush over with their Hawaiian print shirts and snotty children. I went to Cuba by way of Mexico City, but I got a taste of Cuba before even landing in Cuba. I arrived early for my 6AM flight to Havana with legañas and sleep still heavy on my eyelids. I had gone three nights straight of dancing salsa and kizomba in Mexico City, and didn’t get any sleep the night before my flight. It was too early for fluorescent lighting, so most of the check-in area was dark. There was a group of Cubans waiting near the Cubana de Aviación ticket counter with luggage, and giant bundles and boxes wrapped in plastic. There were tires stacked on luggage dollies, and people resting on air conditioners and trash bags bulging with clothes. They were bringing items that are hard to find in Cuba because of the embargo. I only brought two backpacks; one with wheels that I used as a nerd in high school, and a smaller one used as a carry on. I was obviously out of place. At that time, I was also the only foreigner waiting in line for a tourist visa to Cuba, which are purchased right next to the check-in counter.

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“Excuse me, amiga, I was wondering if you could do me a favor,” said this man, who obviously picked up on my extranjera-ness. He was short and wearing a button down shirt. He didn’t look threatening. “You see it’s hard for us to find a lot of stuff por temas del bloqueo, and I was wondering if you could check in some of my stuff with your luggage. I’ll even show you what’s inside my case.”

 “I understand, but I don’t feel comfortable,” I said.

 “Okay,” he said. “Piensalo. I’ll come back later to make sure.”

 The man left, and came back again a few minutes later. The counter still hadn’t opened for check-in, and there still wasn’t anybody selling tourist visas.

 “¿Te vas a Cuba sola?” he asked.

“No, I’m meeting a friend there,” I lied. At first I hoped that maybe he had forgotten about his luggage scheme and was just trying to make small talk.

“Cuba doesn’t have food that you Mexicans are used to,” he said. “I hope you brought your tortillas and salsa picante.”

“Of course,” I replied.

Amiga, listen, I can introduce you to my friends, they’re on the same flight. Your maleta isn’t even that big. You won’t get in trouble, I promise.” He pointed to two women chatting who didn’t even take any notice of him.

“No. Lo siento,” I said. I gave a smile as if to say, “Don’t take it personal, bro.”

He left. A this point I sat down on one backpack on the airport floor, and positioned my high school nerd backpack under my head. Of course, I didn’t fall asleep because I didn’t want some weirdo to slip my money and passport out of my purse. I tried to find WiFi with my cell phone and took inventory of the foreign otherness I was giving off. My biggest mistake was wearing black MC Hammer pants. The other women were dressed and ready to fly from Mexico City’s crisp high altitude and into Havana’s heat and humidity with beaded leather sandals and bright colored dresses or dark skinny jeans. They also wore neatly applied eyeliner while I had lazily brushed teeth and a messy ponytail. For early morning flights, I am unfortunately a shoe-in for the show What Not to Wear. The man came back.

Amiga, do you already have a plan of what you want to see in Cuba?”

“Yes,” I said. I was thinking, “Great, now this viejo wants to sell me a tour package.”

You can’t miss Viñales, and Varadero is a beautiful beach,” he said.

“Yes, I’ve heard,” I said.

“I’m friends with security, so it wouldn’t be a problem for you to carry my stuff.”

I rolled my eyes and gave an exaggerated sigh. I didn’t want to come off as another insensitive foreigner, but it was time for me to sacar pecho and be assertive.

Señor, I already said no. I’m not taking anything that belongs to you.”

He smiled, thanked me, and walked away. The visa line finally opened, and I was the first foreigner there, so I paid my 25USD and checked in my nerdy backpack. Behind me was a priest, who tapped me on the shoulder to ask if I was in line for a tourist visa as well, and a married couple who spoke neither Spanish or English.

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When it was time to board my flight, I didn’t see the man who wanted me to hold his stuff. After takeoff, I managed about an hour of sleep. Another hour later the plane began its descent into what looked like an emerald surrounded by water.

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Sandra Cisneros: Leyenda Literaria

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Whatever book you’re excited about, that’s your prescription.-Sandra Cisneros

This year I had the best Halloween and Día de los Muertos ever. Not only did I see Sandra Cisneros discuss and sign her book A House of My Own at the Los Angeles Central Library, but I also got to see her ofrenda dedicated to her mother, Elvira Cordero, at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA).

In her conversation with Reyna Grande at the library, Sandra really kept the audience engaged with her sense of humor and anecdotes. She said she ‘was such a pendeja’ when she was younger, and how difficult it is for Chicano literature to be accepted in the United States and Mexico. She also called books “prescriptions,” because one book that helps and inspires one person might not do the same for the next. After the discussion, and as I went for my turn to have my book signed, I didn’t know what to say. I was standing in line with about 100 people, and she probably wanted to rush back to her hotel for a bubble bath. I just said thank you, and she told me she liked my vintage cat eye glasses.

I went to the MOLAA event with Roy Martinez, the talented artist behind Lambe Culo. The event was sold out, but he had an extra ticket. Since the reading and ofrenda exhibit fell on Halloween, and because we wanted Sandra to notice us, we decided to dress up. Roy went as the punk version of Frida Kahlo, complete with a dog collar, rebozo, and Frida’s signature hair flowers. I dressed as bruja Selena, with a black bustier with cat ears on the chichis, and leggings. We were the only ones dressed up, except for a Frida Kahlo baby and one person who had her face painted.

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Luckily, we found seats in the front row, and decided to wait until the 100+ line of Sandra fans died down to get our books signed. We watched and saw how everyone was having these little moments with Sandra. They cried, laughed, and took selfies. While we were waiting, we talked about what we would say to Sandra:

” Do you think you’ll faint?”

“I won’t say anything, I’m bad at small talk.”

“La invitamos a los tacos.”

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When we finally met her, she smiled and told us we looked cute in our costumes, and that she was looking at us as we were sitting in the front row, waiting for the book signing line to die down. I finally told her that she was the reason I continue writing, even when I felt I wasn’t good enough. I had her sign my copy of Caramelo, because every time I open that book, I am always inspired to write, even if it’s just a paragraph or a line of memory. One could say that it is a multigenerational story that follows the characters from Chicago, Mexico City, and Texas, but it is so much more than that. Celaya, the main character,gets teased by her brothers, discovers her father’s infidelity, gets teased for not being Mexican enough, and learns why her Awful Grandmother is so awful.  Caramelo taught me that navigating two cultures is a story worth telling, gave me new appreciation for rebozos, and was the reason why I chowed down on panuchos at Cafe de Tacuba in Mexico City this summer. Sandra taught me that a brown woman’s voice has value, and no matter how isolated you may feel, there is probably someone out there who shares your story.

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Vegetarian Empanadas de Pino

Empanadas are little delicious portable pockets of goodness found throughout Latin America and come in a variety of flavors. I love the pineapple filled sweet varieties, and they are also savory with basil and gooey mozzarella cheese, but you have to know how not to melt the cheese too much.
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Chilean empanadas de pino are filled with raisins,onions,olives,hard boiled eggs, and ground beef. Though vegetarian fare was a little more difficult to find while I was studying in Chile, it was easy to find street vendors selling homemade veggie burgers and veggie empanadas at the university.

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I first learned how to make empanadas and the art of repulge (folding over the edges by hand) in Argentina. Some people fold their empanadas over using a fork, but not this lady.

For these empanadas you will need:

2 packets of pre-made empanada shells, available at any Latin American grocery

2 packets of ground veggie meat

2 onions, chopped

6 cloves of garlic

3 hard boiled eggs, chopped

1 cup of raisins

1 can of pitted olives

1 tbsp. Oregano

2 tbsp. Cumin

Salt and pepper

1. Cook the onions and garlic in vegetable oil until softened.

2. Stir in the veggie meat, cumin, and oregano. Cook for about 10 minutes.

3. Add raisins and eggs and stir until raisins are evenly mixed in with the veggie meat.

3. Insert a spoonful of the filling into the empanada shell, leaving just enough space to close the edges of the shell.

4. Twist and fold over edges of the empanada shell.

5. Bake at 375 for 15 minutes, or until dough is golden brown.

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A Kawaii Kitty Celebration: Hello Kitty Con 2014

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Like many Hello Kitty fans, I’ve been collecting Hello Kitty since I was a child. I remember one of my older cousins giving a red and purple Hello Kitty scratch-and-sniff stationary set that came in a red drawstring purse. I vowed to save my grape scented paper for special occasions, which meant it was never used. On my elementary school playground, friendships were forged and alliances broken with the giving of Hello Kitty pencils and erasers. Now, as a woman in my late 20s, Hello Kitty still makes me happy, and will never be too old to revel in Hello Kitty’s cuteness.

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This weekend, the world’s most stylish cartoon cat who really isn’t a cat celebrated her 40th birthday in Downtown LA with the first ever Hello Kitty Convention. Although I do read a couple of comic books, I have never been to any type of fan convention, but this weekend I was more than willing to wake up at 6 AM and wait in line with my fellow fans in honor of the fabulous feline.  The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA and the Japanese American National Museum were stocked with artwork, vintage Hello Kitty toys, exclusive sweets from the Hello Kitty Cafe, and creative cosplayers.

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Appointment times for the Hello Kitty Tattoo Parlor were given away by 11 AM, and I didn’t get to meet Yuko Yamaguchi, HK Designer, but I enjoyed the colorful Hello Kitty inspired fashions.

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Everybody seemed eager to get their hands on some limited edition loot. I definitely didn’t go home without my red limited-edition backpack, that has ears and Hello Kitty’s trademark red bow, Hello Kitty Con t-shirt, Hello Kitty Geisha plush, and a Hello Kitty 40th birthday pillow. There were so many cute collectibles available only at the Con, but luckily I was able to limit my purchases to a few items. I am glad I went early, because wait times to enter the pop-up shop were as long as three hours as the day wore on.

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The crowd was quite friendly, and many people bonded in line over their shared love of kitty kitsch. The people who I talked to while in the line included a woman from Australia who had various anime tattoos, a college student from Stockton who had purchased passes for the whole weekend in order to get a free tattoo, and a U.S. army veteran from Colorado.

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I was especially excited to see the Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum. Christine Yano, PhD, author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific and Jamie Rivadeneira, founder and owner of the boutique Japan LA curated this exhibit dedicated to the empress of kawaii. The exhibit features more Hello Kitty inspired art, a collection of images from Hello Kitty’s first appearance in 1976 to the present, rare products, and fashions worn by the likes of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.

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Happy birthday Hello Kitty, thanks for making us purr.

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Vintage Goodies at A Current Affair

Last Saturday, pop-up marketplace  A Current Affair brought together over 50 vintage apparel and jewelry dealers under one roof at the Cooper Design Space in Downtown Los Angeles.  It seems as though one has to sift through a lot of trash at the usual vintage/thrift store(which can be fun), but everything for sale was beautiful and in good condition.  I would have liked to have seen more dresses from the 1950s, as I have been looking for an Alfred Shaheen ensemble for quite some time. Nasty Gal Founder and CEO Sophia Amoruso was on hand curating 10 different outfits from the various wares on sale, and it was cool to walk around and get style inspiration from the vendors.

The place was heavy on the sequins, embroidery, and a lot of flowing, boho, Stevie Nicks style tunics and robes. A wide variety of designer items, such as Jean Paul Gaultier bustiers and silk suits by Nicole Miller were also for sale. Rose Bowl Flea Market regular Allyn Scura was also there, and I have been wearing one of their vintage cat eye frames for a few years now.  As for the shoppers, black floppy hats were the accessory of the moment. The next event is December 6, so mark your calendars.

Below are some of the items that caught my eye.

 

One of Sophia Amoruso's looks. I like this jacket. The torso has a leather corset design.

One of Sophia Amoruso’s looks. I like this jacket. The torso has a leather corset design.

 

Those black cowboy boots with the yellow flower design stand out.

Those black cowboy boots with the yellow flower design stand out.

 

There was a lot of denim for sale, like this set. Check out the Indiana Jones style hats in the back.

There was a lot of denim for sale, like this set. Check out the Indiana Jones style hats in the back.

 

Dapper hats and oxfords, silver and sparkly go go boots.

Dapper hats and oxfords, silver and sparkly go go boots.

 

Add some flair to those boring khakis with these orange furry boots.

Add some flair to those boring khakis with these orange furry boots.

 

Another Sophia Amoruso look: Tuxedo jacket with floor-length coattails and a dreamy off-white gown.

Another Sophia Amoruso look: Tuxedo jacket with floor-length coattails and a dreamy off-white gown.

 

A display of chunky belts and leather shoes.

A display of chunky belts and little shoes.

 

And Joan Collins wept: a Bill Blass jacket with sequins and shoulder pads.

And Joan Collins wept: a Bill Blass jacket with shoulder pads and covered in sequins.

 

Close-up of a robe. Shoppers were all about these hippie, floor length pieces, but i prefer something with more shape. Nice embroidery.

Close-up of a robe. Shoppers were all about these hippie, floor length pieces, but I prefer something with more shape.

 

A one-eyed puppy keeping his good eye out for something fabulous.

This puppy keeping his good eye out for something fabulous.

 

 

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Beauty and Terror in ‘The Island of Excess Love’ by Francesca Lia Block

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Take a post-apocalyptic voyage with Francesca Lia Block’s dark yet enchanting teen novel, The Island of Excess Love. In this follow up to Love in the Time of Global Warming, Block immerses us into  Penelope’s world of crystal palaces, dangerous winged women and deception with her trademark heavenly prose.  Penelope, who lost her eye fighting a giant in the previous book, her brother Venice,friends Ash, Ez, and her boyfriend Hex leave their pink house, and board a ghost ship headed for The Island of Excess Love, where they are taken in by the King who creates illusions of the things they miss from before their lives were destroyed.

While the previous book is loosely based on The Odyssey, Penelope uses The Aeneid as a guide to the strange creatures and situations that happen in the sequel.Throughout the novel, Penelope and her friends must triumph over disaster as their loyalty and love for each other is tested; the ship causes violent hallucinations about the monsters from the past, Penelope becomes pregnant after the King bewitches her into his bed, while Hex must decide if he wants to help his friends or save himself after learning of Penelope’s infidelity.

Mythology enthusiasts can spot the references to Orpheus, Hades, and the blind prophet Tiresias, embodied in Penelope. Readers who are not well versed in the classics can still follow along, but why wouldn’t Block’s magical tale inspire you to pick up an epic or two?

 

 

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Malena Pichot una loca de mierda

I first heard of Malena Pichot when I was living in Argentina, and since then I have continued to watch her hilarious sketches and stand up. The clip “Piropos en la calle”, a sardonic look at street harassment, where instead of having an adverse reaction to catcalls, Malena smiles and treats them as tokens of appreciation for her beauty. Her witty take on machista culture, pokes fun at the upside down world we live in, and laugh at the narrow roles in which women are placed.

With various social media platforms giving rise to over sharing with the click of a button, Pichot became YouTube famous after being dumped and ranting and raving about it with a series of videos called La loca de mierda (The Fucking Crazy Woman). She took the crazy ex-girlfriend trope and ran with it. In her videos, she calls her ex boyfriend at odd hours, and imagines him doing the nasty with his new girlfriend. Her series became a hit, when in 2009 La loca de mierda found a wider audience on the MTV Latin America website.

Pichot’s sketch comedy segment for the show Duro de domar, called Cualca!  had me rolling in the floor laughing. She has a knack for poking fun at dark and taboo subject matter. In 2013 the Cualca! team which included Julian Kartun, Charo Lopez, Julian Doregger, and Julian Lucero starred in the show Por ahora, which ran for 13 episodes and follows a group of friends living in Buenos Aires. In my favorite episode, Norma and Josefina are not at all excited when their friend Norma enthusiastically announce that she is getting married. In true Daria Mrogendorffer fashion, Norma hasn’t forgotten that Sandra owes her 5,000 pesos. At the wedding, they discover that Sandra is having an affair with her boss, cause Sandra’s sister to have a breakdown, and witness Sandra’s husband become paralyzed after being tossed in the air by his friends.

Pichot also wrote and starred in a mini series called Jorge.

If you find yourself in Argentina, hopefully you have a chance to see Malena Pichot live. 

 

 

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