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Notes from Asheville

A town that has more art deco than brutalism — the largest piece of concrete in sight was a modestly sized skate park — is my kind of town. It is at once frozen in time (picture unsupervised tweens riding bicycles and scooters down a quiet tree-lined street) and progressive (in the American sense of having more crystal shops than chain stores and more rainbows than stars’n’stripes posted on storefronts). It is also, for someone who has spent the last 12 years in the Baltimore-DC area, noticeably white, but note more so than would be expected from any place in North Carolina.1

Biltmore is as impressive as you would expect a 250-room house to be, but also shows how much better our lives are compared to the richest of the early 20th century rich. Yes, your 23,000-book library with wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling bookcases is beautiful, but even a person living on the street has access to more books than that from a device in their pocket. Never mind the demands of heating, cleaning, and maintaining the beast. No wonder then that the owners turned it into an amusement park instead of continuing to live there.

A few more observations:

  • Farm Burger is a Southern fast food chain a few notches above Shake Shack that in addition to pretty good beef and incredible vegan burgers also serves roasted bone marrow. The only thing missing was sweetbreads.
  • There are too many hills for it to be a biking town yet there were many people on bicycles. Having mostly narrow, slow-traffic streets downtown helps.
  • There are not one but two interstate highways that bisect the city, but unlike Baltimore’s idiotic I-83 that destroyed many neighborhoods and ruined the city’s walkability, there are plenty of ways to cross the I-240 on foot. Here, having hills actually helped as the highway is in many places nestled between two slopes.
  • Its largest neighbors are Knoxville (approx. 2 hours away), Charlotte (same) and Atlanta (3 and a half). That is… too far away for too little, perhaps?
  • But was the 7+ hour drive from DC worth it? Hell, yes.

  1. The same cannot be said about another picture-perfect town, Frederick, which is distinctly unlike its home state of Maryland. Note, however, that only one of these two states had segregation of some kind in this century. 

Notes from West Virginia

It was the middle of another heat dome week, but the morning was cool enough to require long sleeves. The grass — freshly cut, of course — was covered in dew. In less than 20 minutes one could see sitting on the front porch: several hummingbirds battling around a feeder, two deer grazing just off the gravel driveway, a wild turkey, a rabbit, several blue jays and cardinals; I half-expected Snow White to skip down the forest path and burst into song.

The Broadband internet in West Virginia is not great, but it’s not terrible either. Why are there only 2 million people in this state?

Notes from the beach

  • Southwest Florida is better for a short family vacation than Maui, conditional on the family not owning a private jet.
  • Florida sand is superior to Maryland and Delaware sand. For one, it doesn’t collapse as easily; second, it is much easier to clean; third, on Sanibel and Captiva islands it is mostly made of quartz and broken down shells and is there anything cooler than that?1
  • More bird diversity makes for happier humans and while D.C. has a respectable population of birds, it doesn’t come close to Florida with the ospreys and the fish hawks, brown pelicans and roseate spoonbills, white ibises and snowy egrets, sanderlings and sandpipers, woodpeckers both pileated and downy, and not a robin in sight.2
  • Is it just me or is sunscreen really so much better now than it was 30 years ago? With UPF swimwear you need less of it anyway, and the little that you do need is easier to apply, lasts longer, and just works better than whatever smelly Coppertone slurry we used in the 90s.
  • Beach towels are useless.
  • Spending a week in a zip code with no Instacart, no DoorDash, no Uber or Lyft or ad hoc taxis of any kind was refreshing, but I wouldn’t recommend it long-term. Although there was still Amazon next-day delivery and plenty of UPS trucks, so not all was lost.
  • Physical books continue being better than e-books; the calculation will change for me as soon as e-book readers solve quick note entry — emphasis on quick.
  • Where are all the Nightingales is a great way to start the day, on or off the beach.

  1. Sure, volcanic sand sounds cool, but have you tried washing off the glossy black detritus? Not to mention it is much sharper. 

  2. Although maybe a few too many common grackles. 


I’m 12 and the family is taking a summer vacation in sunny Pomorie, Bulgaria. It’s on the Black Sea. The ~400-mile drive in my father’s VW Golf (Mk2) takes close to 12 hours, border check and an interlude in Sophia included. It feels longer: it’s a 3-door hatchback and I’m sharing the back seat with my brother and a suitcase. There are enough groceries in the trunk to last us a week.

We arrive in the early morning and look for a place to stay. Airbnb is 16 years away, but there are vacancy signs posted on private residences all around town. We find one that’s half-built: gray building blocks still visible on the outside and concrete stairs with no railings, but the rooms are actually quite nice and the apartment is self-contained. The owner-slash-proprietor is financing the finishing touches by renting it out. My father approves.

The weather is nice and the beach is crowded. I have a perpetual sunburn. We visit Burgas and Nessebar. Dad almost gets scammed out of all of our German marks by a street money changer. I get a photo taken with a yellow-white python around my neck. We eat at home and take evening strolls up and down what goes for a boardwalk in Pomorie. We ocasionally catch a glimpse of live music from accross a hedge. A few people climb a hillock to watch the concert. I try it once and climb right back down: do I want to spend the evening listening to a Boney M. tribute band?

The drive back through Bulgaria feels faster, but that’s because Dad is speeding. We get caught and the policeman pencils something in on a lemon-yellow card. The next time we stop for gas Dad tries to erase it. He succeeds but the card is now a paler yellow where the marking used to be. They notice this at the border and we stay an extra few hours until they let us through. But then we’re in Serbia and close to home and soon I’ll get back to playing Civilization II and Duke Nukem 3D and Quest for Glory IV so who cares what happened and how we got out of it?

It’s 2019 and I’m the Dad. The family is taking an early summer vacation in sunny Wailea. It’s on Maui. My wife and I take two new credit cards to get enough points to get three tickets for the four of us. A week before the trip we realize I can’t have a 35-pound toddler on me for two 5-hour flights and we buy the fourth ticket. The airline charges for food, so we stock up on snacks to bring on board; I have a Costco membership card in my wallet.

We are in a one-bedrom two-bathroom condo that is bigger than my family home in Serbia. A decorative bowl full of glass balls greets us in the hallway; a large ceramic vase is next to our bed. My wife glances at our jet-lagged toddler, then at me, and I spend the next half-hour lifting fragile items up on top of kitchen cabinets. I go to bed around midnight, which is 6am Eastern Time.

The condo sits next to a golf course and some tennis courts. I don’t play either. There are five beaches within 5 minutes’ driving distance. They are virtually empty save for one, which has a steady stream of snorklers and divers parading up and down. The Costco-chosen guidebook says it’s the best spot on Maui for snorkling lessons, but 18-month-olds can’t snorkle.

The older sibling collects seashells and runs away from waves and builds puddles for the younger one to jump on. She chats up the adults and can carry a conversation better than her dad. We all wear UPF shirts and go through five bottles of Coppertone. We visit Lahaina and Paia and Kihei. We eat at home and take evening strolls through beachside resorts. There are Luaus on every night. The one at the Marriott is there for all to see from a public walkway. It’s the one we attend one night — the pork is good. There is audience participation: children learn the hula, adults blow into a conch shell; one man proposes to his fiance while up on the stage, in front of all us people — it’s a bit corny.

We wake up at 3am and wake up the kids at 4 to drive up a mountain top to see the sunrise. It is 10°C and colder with wind chill, and the sunrise lasts for all of five minutes; the children are not impressed. The other 100 people looking at it seem quite happy. One man proposes to his fiance, on top of that inactive volcano, in front of all us people — it’s quite romantic.

We sign up for an 8-hour van ride up and down a rainforest highway. It takes 12 hours. We are sitting all the way in the back: the older one is sick but doesn’t vomit, the younger one doesn’t say anything but vomits twice. It’s mostly juice and water and doesn’t smell like acid at all so we wipe it up with tissues and wet wipes and don’t ask the driver to stop. The young couple in front of us asks for more air.

The last flight back is a red-eye and the younger one screams for the first hour of the last leg of the journey because i don’t let her play with the restroom faucet. The attendents are out serving drinks so we let her roll around in the back of the plane, head close to the emergency exit door which I eye nervously. They serve us apple juice which she drinks and falls asleep. The older one is excited: there is an Amazon delivery of one toy or another waiting for her back home. She is still tired enough to be sleeping when the plane catches turbulence — the last 3 hours are bumpy. I watch a movie and try to fall asleep.

Maui, more impressions

  • Top four South Maui beaches, best one first: Po’olenalena, Keawakapu (a close second), Wailea (only in the afternoons), Mokapu.
  • Top guide book is Maui Revealed. NB: Hotel/lodging information is on their app (‎Hawaii Revealed), and that part of the app is free.
  • Top place for shopping is Paia, especially if you’re into that 21st century hippie aesthetic that’s popular with Instagram influencers these days (though mine being aware of it means it won’t be popular for much longer).
  • There is a notable absence of panhandlers. If there are any homeless, they are indistinguishable from a certain type of tourist. Locals are indifferent to appreciative of your business, but they don’t go out of their way to get you to pay for stuff (which is unlike any other tropical/Mediterranean island I’ve been to, but then again I haven’t been to many).
  • The sand sticks to anything and everything. There’s enough of it in the car that I’ll happily pay any extra cleaning fees the rental agency will surely charge.
  • Prices at low and mid-scale restaurants are same or just slightly higher than D.C. This does not bode well for D.C.
  • There are more veterinarian than human hospitals on Maui.
  • The one general hospital on the island is Keiser’s Maui Memorial Medical Center. It looks like they have a heme/onc service with an infusion center, so don’t think I haven’t thought about it.
  • Only two days left.

Maui first impressions

  • I used to say Maryland was the best U.S. state. I’d like to change that to the best continental state. I don’t know about the rest of Hawai’i but Maui is spectacular. That 50th star should be gold.
  • This is why: there are so many things to do on the island that many visitors get a FOMO-induced urge to do as much as possible. That leaves the wonderful beaches mostly empty during the weekdays, when the locals are working, and quite bearable (compared to the Montenegrin beaches of my youth) on weekends.
  • There are at least five kid-friendly beaches within a 5-minute drive from our condo. One is a go-to for snorkeling, one if full of sea turtles for those who enjoy swimming around them (which should be everyone with a heart), one is looong, peaceful, with shallow water no waves, excellent shade, and also an occasional turtle (swimming with sea turtles naturally being better when you didn’t even expect to find them).
  • The road to Hana” would be a great find if you had some business to do in Hana, then stumbled into seeing a few waterfalls and making a pit stop at a black sand beach. It’s overrated otherwise, and the poor residents of Hana and central Maui have to deal with droves of slow-moving tourist vehicles looking for the next instagrammable moment.
  • Hana highway is also the home to the best vegan ice cream I’ve ever had, so there’s that.
  • No, I’m not vegan. Kalua pork is too good.
  • Each new state I visit means I get to learn more about American exceptionalism. The story of Hawai’i’s annexation taught me that it’s OK for a private corporation to hold the ruler of an independent nation hostage in order to control the said nation’s resources, as long as the corporation is American and the nation is not European.
  • Yes I’ll keep writing Hawai’i.
  • It’s also OK to ban the native language and culture well into the 20th century. Safeway came to the islands well before the Hawaiian language was legal again.
  • Having said that, there is now also a Walmart and — crucially — a Costco on Maui. Prices are the same or lower than in D.C. That is how you conquer a nation, Serbia.

To Cuba and back

Finishing up our world tour/airplane passenger torture project1 was a trip from Baltimore to Havana, via Cancun. Before you scream Embargo!, neither my wife nor I are American citizens. Our daughter is, but it is fortunately not illegal for US citizens to visit Cuba as long as they don’t spend any money there, at least according to America’s most esteemed journal of law, medicine and gastronomy.

If for whatever reason you want to travel to Cuba from the East coast, you might find our experience helpful.

The flight

We took the United flight from Dulles to Cancun, went through Mexican customs and immigration, then took the Cubana flight to Havana after checking in again. Inbound, layover time was more than 3 hours so we could have comfortably checked a bag or two for those large bottles of sunscreen and other essential liquids. The trip back, however, was tight at 1h 55min, so we decided not to risk waisting time at baggage claim, and only brought carry-ons.

In retrospect, it was half of a good move. On the way back, going through customs, immigration, then walking from Cancun’s Terminal 2 to Terminal 3 and checking in for the flight to Dulles is barely manageable in those 90-ish minutes after leaving the plane. However, we could—and should—have checked one of the carry-ons on the inbound flight, as sunscreen, diaper cream, and other toiletries are ridiculously expensive in Havana.

NB: You can easily walk from Cancun’s Terminal 2 Arrivals to Terminal 3 Departures (or 3 -> 2 inbound). There is a shuttle that leaves every 30 minutes and goes Parking -> T1 -> T2 -> T3 -> Parking. The Cancun airport staff told us it would take us 25 minutes to walk from T2 to T3—and that it would take the shuttle at least as much since it makes those other stops—but hey! there’s this van that magically appeared which would drive us to T3 for the low low price of $20. Google maps said it’s less than a kilometer between terminals 2 and 3 so we smiled politely and walked away. It took us—three adults with a carry-on and a large shoulder bag each, plus a toddler in tow—less than 10 minutes. Kudos to United for letting us skip the long check-in line and making it to our flight without issues.


Serbian citizens don’t require a visa, but Dora had only her US passport. We got her a visa in Cancun at check-in for 20 euros.

Cuban entry stamp is bright pink. They asked us before putting one in Dora’s passport, so I can only assume they occasionally get US citizens who’d rather not have their passports stamped for whatever reason (cough, cough). The visa also gets stamped, so there is still proof of entry.

There were no issues going back through Dulles. The customs form asks you which countries you visited on the trip, so we did write we were in Cuba. The immigration officer at Dulles just asked if we were bringing any cigars back with us—of course not, we hadn’t even smoked any while there!—and finished the fingerprinting in record time.


Bring euros, and bring more than you expect. You can convert USD to convertible pesos (CUC) in any exchange office, but with their rates it’s better to change dollars to euros in your own bank, then change euros to CUC once in Cuba. Also, convert some CUC to the peso nacional (CUP), if only for the ridiculously cheap ice cream you can buy on the street.

As for how much to bring, count on at least $20/person/day, not including the room or the 25 CUC exit tax. This would cover lunch, dinner, and a daily trip to the beach or a visit to a museum, monument, etc. Since you cannot use American credit/debit cards anywhere on the island, it pays to take more than you think you would need.


The highlight of the trip! We booked this room on, and could not be happier with how it turned out. Centro Habana, the neighborhood it’s in, is definitely not for everyone—very safe, like the rest of Cuba, but also with dog poop and open trash cans everywhere you turn2. Our casa particular was the opposite—clean, well-maintained, gaudy, but cute. Between our large air-conditioned room, the patio, and the open rooftop terrace, we could easily have spent a couple of days just hanging out there chatting with the friendly hosts.


Don’t count on being able to get online at any point. We tried checking in online a day before the trip back, but none of the Havana Vieja hotels we tried had any prepaid cards available. Even if they had, there are no printers to print a boarding pass. Unless you’re staying in a hotel, don’t even think about wi-fi. Just bring a good book or two.

So, if someone’s vacations response email tells you they’re going to Cuba, don’t count on them having any access, no matter what some self-important douche bag tells you.


The only resource we used—and we used it multiple times per day—was the Havana Good Time iPhone app. Some of the information on working hours and prices is slightly outdated, but it is all still relevant, and it comes with an offline map of Havana that is—duh—much easier to carry around than the paper version.

Other DOs and DON’Ts

  • Do take the Havana tour double decker bus at least once.
  • Do go to the Revolution Museum—the clunky propagandist English translations alone are worth the 8 CUC admission fee.
  • Do try the excellent Coppelito ice cream.
  • Don’t waste an hour standing in line to pay for it with CUP—support their economy, and pay for it in hard currency like the tourist you’re pretending not to be.
  • Don’t give any CUC to street performers, especially the kind that chases you down the street with a guitar.
  • Do throw CUP at them.
  • Don’t drink the tap water.

  1. The torture device being our 19-month-old girl—or rather, her vocal cords. 

  2. I could say the same about the part of Naples we stayed in this January. In fact, with laundry out in the open and being able to peek into people’s living rooms from ground level it looked very much like Naples, just with wider streets. 

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