Theme 33: CUBA DIARY. The Age of Decadence

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When the strict US travel ban was lifted and major airlines opened direct flights to Havana from American cities like New York and Miami in the fall of 2016, a lot of digital influencers, journalists and celebrities rushed to the “forbidden land”. Seen-it-all, been-everywhere voyagers were excited to explore a country famous for its rich history and slightly sinful indulgences. High quality delicious cigars accompanied by creamy, caffeine-heavy cortado shots, topped with delicious Mojitos, and of course Cuban rum, clouded dreams of all hedonists in America.

Havana has never really tickled my imagination the way it did that of Americans’. In fact, all I knew about Cuba was that it was a communist country with a pirate-y past. The other details of its history were conveniently obscured during my post-USSR education. As a citizen of Azerbaijan (which used to be a part of the Soviet Union until 1991!) I could always visit Cuba without any restrictions; it didn’t bear that forbidden-fruit-attractiveness to me. However, I am a curious little creature, and upon reading some great written pieces in travel journals, blogs and a couple of Wikipedia articles, I told my husband that maybe, one day we should add Cuba to our never-ending bucket list. Little that I knew that Ben, as many Americans, was immediately smitten with the idea of enjoying an unlimited supply of cigars and rum on a practically virgin beach with turquoise blue water. He booked the tickets the next day and we set sail into the [relatively] unknown.

Elated by stories of Cuba’s glory days and multiple Instagram photos filled with the colourful streets of Cuba, on the 1st of July, my squad, consisting of my irreplaceable husband, fellow blogger and friend Olga and her boyfriend Frank, was standing outside the very Communist Red José Martí International Airport. Strict passport control and an additional baggage scan was not something I am used to, but everything went smoothly. Be prepared, Cuban border control will ask you if you have recently been to Africa. To be honest, I am not sure WHAT they do when someone says yes (do they send you back, do they force a medical exam, do they just ask and don’t really care about your answer?), but just in case, make sure you don’t visit Africa a month prior your arrival to Cuba.

The first thing that hit us when we left the airport is how hot, loud and energetic Cuba is. Be prepared to be attacked by very friendly taxi drivers who will shout their prices as if it was the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. Bargaining in Cuba is practically a national sport, and if you don’t want to get fooled, try to politely haggle the prices down. The only time battling for a cheaper price is unnecessary is at the airport, as we all know how tired you are after a flight, and getting to the hotel is more important.

The ride to our hotel in Old Havana was fascinating in so many ways! Even though I had seen a lot of photographs of Havana, and heard my blogger friends’ impressions of their trips to Cuba (which were not always favourable), I walked into this country with an open mind and heart, and trust me, that is the best way to travel to ANY destination. Very specific expectations and unreasonable high-hopes can cause disappointment and ruin trips. If you are travelling to Havana and expecting to have all the luxuries of modern resorts, all the items and products that you assume are commodities, and don’t have anyone in your travelling group who speaks Spanish (or at least is very very good at humming Despasito and at meaningful hand gestures) don’t waste your time.

Why is that, you ask? Good question.

The USA imposed (and still imposing, although it eased up in recent years!) an embargo on Cuba for more than 50 years, which means a complete and harsh trade ban. Moreover, Cuba became a communist country in 1965, which didn’t help its economy growth either. To give you a few examples of what it means to the country and its citizens, please read further.

The people of Cuba were not allowed to buy or sell their property until just a few years ago; Cubans were not allowed to have cell phones, computers or DVDs until 2008, many still have never even used Internet, and the average salary is under $30. There is NO freedom of speech, and even those few lucky ones who get to “surf” the internet face severe online censorship.

So let me ask you again: Does a meaningful vacation for you translate into mornings at luxury spas, shopping sprees at Rodeo Drive-esque streets, 5-course meals by chef Lawrence Blah Blah Michelin Gordon Blah Ratatouille and such? Then, scroll to another page, forget about Cuba for a few years until globalisation ruins [i mean brings!] Starbucks, Forever 21 and KFC to the country.

But if your heart pumps faster when you think of discoveries, adventures and untold stories, congratulations! You are my friend forever. Let’s continue!

Where were we? Ah, yes, we just got into the cab at the airport. I greedily inhaled hot and heavy Havana air, and peered out of the window like a happy puppy on our way to the Saratoga Hotel where we were going to stay for a week. Our driver ended up being a singer at the popular new Cuban hangout Fabrica de Arte, and sang Rick James’s Superfreak surprisingly well, and put us in a dancing mood.

When we arrived at the The Saratoga Hotel, we were greeted with delicious cocktails and great service straight away. The hotel is one of the most luxurious ones in Havana, and it has hosted such celebrities like Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

Ben and I had a beautiful suite with a balcony overlooking Havana’s Parque de la Fraternidad and the glorious El Capitolio, which is as much an iconic symbol of Havana as Tour d’Eiffel is to Paris! The Saratoga Hotel has a great rooftop pool with a little bar, a great view and perfect tanning spots. As I mentioned previously, I didn’t expect any lavishness from Havana, so everything at our hotel pleasantly surprised me.

Of course after we relaxed by the pool, we were itching to explore the city. There is no doubt that the first thing that catches everyone’s eyes are cars. Gorgeous classic cars from later 40s and 50s are everywhere! For a person who went to vintage cars shows in England for several years in a row (oh, how I hunted for tickets!), it was quite special. And we are allowed to ride in them?! And they cost as much as regular cabs?! My mind was blown, and I truly felt like I was immersed in the 50s when we got to drive around in convertible classic cars of all sorts of bright, pastel colors.

After my initial infatuation with vintage cars, I looked around and… couldn’t take my eyes off the impossibly beautiful architecture so wildly juxtaposed to poverty-ridden corners. I have never seen a place more decadent than Havana. The city is like a dusty jewelry box full of gems that shine as bright as ever, and are just waiting to be re-discovered. There are abandoned castles transformed into restaurants with grand chandeliers, half-destroyed walls and amazingly intricate doors. Untouched, decaying, but still glorious in its awareness of its former beauty.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Havana became arguably more fashionable than Monaco and Cannes combined. It was prosperous, flourishing, swimming in an abundance riches. Cuba was a country with a grand middle-class; it was filled with prosperous entrepreneurs, glamorous starlets and powerful gangsters. Cuba was the fifth country in the world to have a railroad, and had some of the most luxurious theatres, mansions and estates in the world. The fascination with “The Paris of the Antilles” seemed to be endless.

Until it ended. With the embargo and all that (read above). The last 50 years have been hard on Cuba, but I saw the raw beauty of Havana with all its deteriorating villas, classic sculptures, magnificent cultural monuments, and of course its people. Full of energy, chatter, and an eagerness to help, to work, to make a change.

I walked the streets of Havana that whispered passionate stories and screamed about historical occurrences, like they were pages of a book. A book so old, so rusty and yellowed, that not a lot of people would give it any time out of their day, but a book with a truly rare story that only those who seeks it can find.

P.S. This article might have ended being more poetic than I anticipated, but that is what fiction writing does to you (yes, I am still writing my novel!) My next post will have less nostalgia, and more of FACTS, LOCATIONS and USEFUL TIPS for those who plan to travel to CUBA.

For now, I bid you adieu, my friends, but already excited to see you in my next post!

Theme 32: Boho Chic. Festival Vibes in the City

California Moonrise review. Amazing clothes boho chic

For a while I wanted to get a long cardigan, but couldn't find what I really liked. Luckily I received this absolutely beautiful long knitted crochet cardigan from California Moonrise, and I am embarrassed to say that I wear it pretty much every day with everything now!

Pictures on their website doesn't even give it a justice. The cardigan is very comfy, but stylish and can be as easily worn with shorts and jeans as with a swimsuit or as a warm throw at home. Recently I have been writing in outdoors cafes a lot, and because it is still chilly in New York, I love throwing this cardigan over basic tops and tshirts. 

For this look, shot by my favorite NYC Photographer Dennis, I styled California Moonrise cardigan with white jeans, silky top with lacey details, added some black accessories and of course wore my cowboy hat that I seem to not take off since Coachella :)

Ulia ali wearing California Moonrise. Blogger collaboration.
Cardigan knitted crochet by California Moonrise. 2017
Crochet cardigan. Boho chic
Boho chic in Dumbo
Boho chic style

Get my Crochet Cardigan here! (on SALE NOW)


Theme 32: Boho Chic. My California Moonrise Lookbook

Calirfornia Moonrise Review

California Moonrise is a brand that I have discovered just recently. To be honest I have never been a huge fan of bohemian and classic festival looks, but California Moonrise surprised me with their quality and original designs. Almost all the clothes I have received are even better looking in person than on their website! There are many little details like tassels, intricate embroidery and beautiful prints which completely blew me away.

I have shot this gorgeous dress in a New York Botanical Garden, and tomorrow I will show you another look with California Moonrise.

Cherry blossom in NYC by Ulia Ali in California Moonrise dress.
Ulia Ali for California Moonrise
Blogger photoshoot in NYC Botanical Garden.

SHOP MY LOOK AND SIMILAR (all under $90)


Theme 31: Coachella 2017. Outfits, parties and celebrities sightseeing.

Coachella Outfits 2017 of Ulia Ali. Fashion and lifestyle blogger.

If you have never been to Coachella, I suggest you to add it to your bucket list! I have been to a few festivals in the UK and the Unites States before, and almost always been very lucky to have premium tickets, and a group of fun friends with me, however NOTHING came even close to Coachella.

I won't lie, Coachella IS EXPENSIVE even if you get general admission tickets and stay in your own tent. But if you like comfort, want to see concerts and your favorite celebrities in their natural habitat, I suggest you splurge on more expensive tickets and fancy hotels. Luckily, Ben with the help of the great SPG Moments team organized a very well-planned, luxurious and pleasant festival trip as a part for our 1-year anniversary.

Hospitality Tent Coachella 2017
Polaroids from Coachella Festival
Couple at Coachella
Amex Platinum House at Palm Springs. Le Parker Hotel.

After spending a couple of days in Los Angeles (I will show you some beautiful pictures we took there in the next post!), we drove to Palm Springs, where we had the most awesome 'Coachella Pad' I could dream of: a beautiful suite at Le Parker Meridien Hotel. Moreover, SPG Moments were able to get us Artist & Guest Coachella wristbands that rarely go on sale for the general public and are quite hard to get. Those tickets grant you access to almost every area on the Coachella grounds, including the Artists area (where all the celebrities hang out), and most importantly you get access to the front row at EVERY concert. 

What amazed me is how well the whole festival was organized and perfectly orchestrated! I can't even imagine how much work it takes organizers to pull off an event on such a grand scale EVERY SINGLE YEAR.

Coachella 2017. Beautiful Sky

We didn't spend much time in the general admission area as it was way too overwhelming and busy for us, but I was happy with every little detail in the more exclusive areas. A plethora of delicious food choices in the VIP area, clean bathrooms, the most stunning men and women in exotic or just very stylish outfits around me, enjoying themselves, positivity and love spread all over; it was just like finding a little paradise on Earth. Maybe I was lucky, but I didn’t see any drunk or high people, or crazy behavior (well, almost none :)), and the Festival felt like just this one big, happy place with amazing music.

Coachella outfit-ulia-ali
Coachella Festival Look. Custom denim shirt.

A lot of people are interested in what celebrities I saw at Coachella and if it’s true that they are all around you. I can tell you, it is true and you will definitely be around some sort of celebrity, whether it’s a favorite blogger of yours, Victoria's Secret model or Kendall Jenner, even if you stay in the General Admission area. 

I was skeptical about seeing anyone the first day, but when I was scanning my ticket to enter Coachella, my wrist band (which is your ticket) took a minute to scan, and I felt bad for the guy behind me who seemed to be impatient to get in. It ended up being A$AP Rocky and his crew. After that it was just a blur of different famous people like Drake walking by, the Jenner sisters sipping on their cocktails, Michelle Rodrigues talking loudly to her friends, and being quite unrecognisable in her huge shades, Katy Perry who is surprisingly very tiny, but amazingly gorgeous. I don't really follow celebrity culture, so I was talking/asking this beautiful blonde with a pixie haircut about a cart (the Coachella grounds are so huge, you can actually wait for a cart to take you), and was wondering why she has such a huge entourage, and then realised that it was Katy. It was quite a funny moment :)

Another person we were excited to chat with was Patrick J. Adams (Mike Ross from Suits). I didn't take any pictures with anyone because I believe it is more fun to actually take time to chat with people you admire seeing on screen and get to know their real personalities. They are all just humans (maybe more talented and good looking, but definitely just humans) and want to enjoy themselves. Ask yourself if you would really like to be asked to pose for a picture by strangers every time you go out? 

So by all means go to Coachella and stare at famous people as long as you want, but don't go there hoping to take selfies with Kardashians.

I will take my own selfie, thank you! :)

I will take my own selfie, thank you! :)

Coachella is famous for its amazing concerts and a variety of widely-loved artists. This year there were more than 250 artists with Lady Gaga, Radiohead, and Kendrick Lamar as headliners, however Ben and I were most excited about Hans Zimmer! He is one of of my favorite composers of all time, and being in the first row, right in front of the stage and listening to him and a wonderful orchestra of talented musicians play his music from Inception, The Lion King, Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean was so magical, I even teared up at the end. Pharell Williams also made a surprise appearance at Hans Zimmer's concert, which I was pretty stoked about.

First row at Hans Zimmer!

First row at Hans Zimmer!

By the way, if you are an influencer or just a very friendly person, chances are you won't just be hanging out at Coachella during the festival weekends. Coachella is almost like a major Fashion Week, with tons of pool parties, big brands' collection launches and promo-events. Without even planning anything ahead, I ended up being invited to tons of exciting events and parties, including big Amex Platinum House event and Popsugar party. So make sure you bring a LOT of outfits. I had to change probably five times a day (sometimes in a car!), and by the end of day 3 I was so exhausted I almost got sick :)

Ulia Ali
Le Parker Meridien
Saguaro Hotel in Palm Springs.
Hot Meshki silver dress. Transparent sparkling silver dress.

Для моих русскоязычных читателей:


Коачелла - один из самых популярных музыкальных фестивалей в мире. Фестиваль проходит в апреле в два трехдневных этапа (пятница-воскресенье) с разницей в неделю. На Коачелле очень много грандиозных сцен и различных тентов,  что означает что на территории фестиваля в одно и то же время идет несколько концертов и шоу! На одном Weekend'e выступает более 250 очень популярных и знаменитых музыкантов. То есть пока вы смотрите как отжигает Lady Gaga, на другой сцене играет какой-нибудь потрясающий модный DJ,  а в отдалении еще читает реп Drake. Не буду врать,  иногда мы с мужем разрывались не зная на какой именно концерт сходить,  но у нас похожий вкус, так что проблем не возникло.

Коачелла занимает огромную территорию в более 40 гектар, так что переходить от сцены к сцене занимает немалое количество времени, но к счастью если вы обладатель браслета-билета для артистов или VIP зоны,  то вас могут катать по территории специальные гольф-карты с водителями. 

Кстати о билетах, на Коачеллу не так-то легко попасть! Билеты раскупают в считанные часы после релиза (обычно за более чем полугода до фестиваля),  и многим приходится находить перекупщиков или находить какие-то контакты в музыкальной сфере.

Фестиваль для многих из стран СНГ звучит как какой-то дешевый концерт с морем алкоголя,  ночевкой в сыром тенте и прочими "прелестями". На самом деле обычные билеты и место для вашей собственной палатки на специально приспособленной территории фестиваля далеко не дешевые.  Cамый дешевый билет стоит $400 + если хотите поставить свою собственную палатку,  придется платить $60 за то что занимаете место. Прибавьте к этому транспорт (Коачелла находится в часу езды от Palm Springs и почти 3 часа от Лос-Анджелеса), питание и прочее и вы получите довольно внушительную сумму. 

Билеты-браслеты, кстати, значительно отличаются друг от друга. На каждый weekend Коачелла разные по значимости билеты имеют разный цвет. Всего около 4 разновидностей браслетов (к моему сведению): обычные (самые дешевые и есть доступ только к общим зонам), VIP билеты (есть доступ к VIP зонам с большим количеством вкусной еды,  магазинчиков, более свободные бары, рестораны,  больше туалетов + в этой зоне чаще всего тусуются блоггеры и захаживают знаменитости.  Вся VIP зона очень приятная и люди тут все как на подбор красивые,  аккуратные и не ведут себя как сумасшедшие. Здесь более так скажем чинно и благородно чем в Общей Зоне).

Так же есть билеты-браслеты для Звезд и их Гостей и они дают доступ практически ко всему что есть на всей территории Coachella, и вдобавок к VIP зоне с такими билетами можно пройти к зоне где отдыхают знаменитости, их друзья и родственники, приватным садам и озеру, на берегу, которого можно заметить целующихся звездных парочек. Такие билеты обычно практически не продаются, и их можно получить только если ты звезда,  знаешь кого-то важного в музыкальной индустрии или/и готов заплатить за один билет более $3000. Нам с Беном повезло, потому что он приобрел именно такой вот билет через SPG Moments, так как он давно уже член  SPG. С такими билетами у вас просто 0 шансов уйти НЕ УВИДЕВ какую-нибудь звезду первой величины.  Так и мне удалось поболтать с Кэти Перри, которую я в первые секунды разговора даже и не узнала, увидеть сестер Дженнерс попивающих коктейли, толкаться в очереди с ну очень маленькой,  но очень громкой Мишель Родригес, и завести разговор c Патриком Адамсом (Майк Росс из сериала SUITS). Больше всего меня порадовало то,  что с этими билетами можно пройти в огороженную зону прямо перед сценой, и практически каждый концерт мы стояли в первых рядах,  а на Hans Zimmer'a мы пришли пораньше и вообще стояли первые прям перед сценой. 

Так же есть билеты для организаторов фестиваля и людей следящих за тем,  чтобы фестиваль работал как часы. 

Если вы блоггер или просто очень активная и дружелюбная личность, то не думайте,  что вот так вот концертами и отделаетесь :) Фестиваль Коачелла - это ужа почти как Неделя Моды в Париже или в Нью-Йорке с модными брендами устраивающими пресс-релизы, громкие пляжные вечеринки со своим списком именитых звезд и всякие показы новых коллекций за пределами Фестиваля, чаще в Palm Springs. В конце weekend'a Коачелла я просто валилась с ног и чуть не заболела! Это потрясающий опыт и очень благотворно влияет на работу если вы digital influencer, но ужасно изматывает.

Кстати,  если вы все же решились накопить денег и поехать на этот потрясающий фестиваль, бронируйте отель заранее! Отели обычно во время проведения фестиваля просто упомрачительно дорогие,  а если вы хотите остаться в хорошем отеле в  Palm Springs,  то приготовьтесь к небольшому разрыву сердца от увиденной цены :D Для экономии советую посмотреть на сьемные квартиры на AirBnb.

Не стесняйтесь задавать вопросы! Я с удовольствием отвечу. 
 

If you want to see more of our Coachella adventures, subscribe to my new YOUTUBE channel!

I have already uploaded 2 Coachella videos, and part 3 is coming out soon, so make sure you don't miss it! 


Theme 31: Coachella 2017. Best Coachella Outfits Weekend 1

Festival Fashion Goals. Best Coachella outfits 2017.

I just came back from my first ever Coachella festival, and it was absolutely amazing! I will tell you more about my personal experiences and give you tips on Palm Springs and the festival in the next post, but for now please enjoy my curated selection of the BEST COACHELLA OUTFITS of 2017 (Weekend 1). 

Blogger Ulia Ali (me!) at Coachella festival 2017. Look 1, Day 1.

Blogger Ulia Ali (me!) at Coachella festival 2017. Look 1, Day 1.

Blogger Negin Mirsalehi. Festival look. I love her hairstyle on this one!

Blogger Negin Mirsalehi. Festival look. I love her hairstyle on this one!

Taylor Hill and Lais Ribeiro

Taylor Hill and Lais Ribeiro

Jourdan Dunn and Sigail Currie at Coachella 2017

Jourdan Dunn and Sigail Currie at Coachella 2017

Chiara Ferragni in a very cute dress enjoying Coachella 2017.

Chiara Ferragni in a very cute dress enjoying Coachella 2017.

Valentina Ferragni in a cute Tommy Hillfiger Coachella look. 

Valentina Ferragni in a cute Tommy Hillfiger Coachella look. 

Emily Ratajkowski and Alexis Ren

Emily Ratajkowski and Alexis Ren

Ulia Ali at Popsugar's amazing Coachella pool party. Cabana Club, Palm Springs.

Ulia Ali at Popsugar's amazing Coachella pool party. Cabana Club, Palm Springs.

Evelina in her pretty Coachella outfit.

Evelina in her pretty Coachella outfit.

Jessica Wang's Coachella Outfit 2017.

Jessica Wang's Coachella Outfit 2017.

@tamilynichi1, @meg_legs and @uliaali at Amex Platinum Party, Parker Hotel, Palm Springs. Coachella 2017.

@tamilynichi1@meg_legs and @uliaali at Amex Platinum Party, Parker Hotel, Palm Springs. Coachella 2017.

Beautiful Meg at American Express Party during Coachella festival.

Beautiful Meg at American Express Party during Coachella festival.

Maja Malnar with another Azerbaijani born blogger (yay!) Ruslana Gee. Coachella Looks 2017.

Maja Malnar with another Azerbaijani born blogger (yay!) Ruslana Gee. Coachella Looks 2017.

Xenia Van Der Woodsen at Coachella. I love her look!

Xenia Van Der Woodsen at Coachella. I love her look!

Beautiful actress Hailee Steinfeld's sexy Coachella outfit.

Beautiful actress Hailee Steinfeld's sexy Coachella outfit.

Beautiful Mary Leest. One of the best Coachella looks of 2017.

Beautiful Mary Leest. One of the best Coachella looks of 2017.

Hottie Sophia Miacova's festival outfit definitely belongs to the list of the Best Coachella looks.

Hottie Sophia Miacova's festival outfit definitely belongs to the list of the Best Coachella looks.

JULIE SARIÑANA aka @sincerelyjules at Coachella 2017 festival. One of the best classic Chella looks.

JULIE SARIÑANA aka @sincerelyjules at Coachella 2017 festival. One of the best classic Chella looks.

Josephine Skriver and Elsa Hosk in Indio for Coachella 2017.

Josephine Skriver and Elsa Hosk in Indio for Coachella 2017.

Best Coachella 2017 Outfits. Festival Fashion!