Tag Archives: Havana

Watch. Listen. Learn. Cuba 10: Afterthoughts and Reflections

Six months later.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Horse drawnAs has happened with other places I have visited, since our trip to Cuba the name of a familiar Cuban location in a news headline immediately attracts my attention. And with Barack Obama’s historic visit to Havana in March of this year, there has been no shortage of media coverage about Cuba since Arnie and I returned from our trip six months ago. There have been news stories (e.g. Shaquille O’Neal Lands in Havana to teach basketball as sports envoy, 7 News Miami, June 24, 2016; Harlem/Havana Cultural Exchange: First Ever Festival Celebrating Two Legendary Cities Announced, June 26, 2016, LA Times), travel items (“Canadian Tourism in Cuba: Will American Travellers Affect the Experience?” CBC, Feb. 2016) and opinion pieces (“Cuba For Sale,” The Guardian, Feb. 2016).

Social Conscience and/or Capitalism

One of the best items on the subject of Cuba that I’ve come across is a long piece written by Stephanie Nolan and published in The Globe and Mail on January 9, 2016. “A Cuban Revolution and the Stark Divide Between Rich and Poor” is an in-depth look at the economic, social, political, and even philosophical issues that are the subject of much discussion in Cuba as the American boycott of the country comes to an end. Nolen, a foreign correspondent with The Globe and Mail, is an outstanding writer and for many years I have found myself fascinated by articles she’s written about whatever topic she has chosen to investigate. (Notable among these was a series entitled Breaking Caste, which appeared after my trip to India.)

Nolen’s essay about Cuba reflects what we saw and heard when we were there, and expands on what has happened to the country since it was plunged into economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago. Today, the black market combined with new, legally sanctioned forms of enterprise are gradually changing the economic picture, but as one Havanan told Nolen, “Some people are getting very rich, and a lot of people are still very poor.”

The situation is complex. Nolen reports on a story she heard about a family that went to a bank to get a loan to help make things easier because they have a disabled child. The bank said they should just take the money and not pay it back. “There is still, today,” Nolen writes, “a strong social consensus about the role of the state in protecting the vulnerable.” But others she interviewed questioned how long that would last.

Nolen says, “The generacion historica, as the Castros and their former guerrillas at the top of government are known, have had a moral legitimacy and an ethical purity that have made Cubans willing to tolerate much from them.[…] There is real debate whether others will share their crystalline ideological purity.”

What comes next?

A lot of people express the desire to “get to Cuba before it changes,” by which they normally mean before the Cuban culture is overwhelmed by that of the Americans. I must admit that the timing of our holiday reflected this concern as well. However, before I went to Cuba, I thought that the impeding American invasion would be a wholly bad thing. I don’t think that any more.

Most of the Cuban people are very poor, and the influx of U.S. dollars is going to make an enormous difference to them. I hope that in the long term the U.S. influence will also cause the powers that be in Cuba to address the human rights issues that Obama raised when he was there.

In addition, with any luck, soon Cubans will have affordable access to the internet from their homes as well as from city squares, and in other ways will be able to join the 21st century – for all that is good and bad about it. However, individual Cubans with whom we talked were very concerned about preserving their culture in the face of American tourism and investment, and I can only wish them success in that regard. Cuba is a wonderful, richly textured and interesting country, and I would love for future generations to be able to get a taste of the way it is today.

Of Horses and Patio Furniture

Several people have asked me “What was the best part of your trip to Cuba?” but I can’t make a choice like that. From the Bay of Pigs to our tour of the Che Guevara monument to Viñales to the salsa dancing, it was all great, and I’d happily do it all again. Our hosts, our tour guides and our travelling companions were all wonderful, which enhanced the whole experience.

If I were forced to choose one “best thing” about the trip, it would be the Cuban people. We felt safe all the time, even in Havana but particularly in the smaller cities, and everyone we talked to was kind and helpful and – especially – cheerful. Despite all of their deprivations and hardships and shortages, and the run-down appearance of so many of their buildings, it is a pleasure to listen to their voices rising and falling as they talk to one another and laugh together. I know that there is misery everywhere, and I know that Cuba has lots of it, but the only other place I’ve ever been where everyone at least sounded as happy and as interested in the world as they do in Cuba has been in New York City.

A couple of additional, final, unrelated and irrelevant notes:

  • Although I loved all the old cars in Cuba, as everyone else does, I also enjoyed the many non-automated forms of transport still in use in Cuba, from horses to horse-drawn carriages to human-powered bicycle taxis.
  • Cuba has the heaviest outdoor furniture we have ever encountered anywhere. It is not just that it is made of metal, it is such heavy metal that it is almost impossible to move a chair even the few inches required to bring yourself closer to a patio table. I am certain that these items of furniture are not only theft-resistant, but also impervious to hurricanes.


With this post, I conclude my musings on Cuba – with regret but also with relief: I had no idea it would take me this long to get around to completing the story of our trip! Thanks for sticking with me, Dan (and anyone else who is still following).

I am eager to get started on our next adventure: all details still TBA. Stay tuned.

Watch. Listen. Learn. Cuba 8: Havana

Motor City Boogie, Havana Style

Sunday, January 10, 2016

On our last morning on the official tour, we packed everything up, left it at our casa to collect it later, and met the group at the Hotel Ingleterra for our car excursion through the city.  At the hotel, I was told, they were filming an episode of House of Lies. If I’d ever watched the series, I might have recognized someone famous, but I hadn’t and I didn’t. However, one of our group said that Kirsten Bell was there.

Four classic cars had been booked for our Havana tour and we happily climbed into them. Ours was a red 1955 Ford Victoria with a 5-litre V8 engine.  The driver told us that the 61-year-old vehicle had been owned originally by his grandfather, then his father, and now it was his. He told us that the entire engine had been replaced, and that it used 20 litres of gas per 100 km.

For the car buffs among you, I am including an assortment of photos of a few of the old American cars we saw that day. We saw other cars on other days: they are not only in Havana but everywhere in Cuba.

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We saw a different side of Cuba as we toured in our convertible beneath spreading deciduous trees through neighbourhoods of middle-class homes in “new Havana.” We drove by the Colon Cemetery (1876) which is historically significant for the range of people who are interred there, as well as for the architecture of its tombs and memorials. I’d have loved to have looked around in there for a while, but we didn’t have time. I understand that it accommodates over a million deceased people and is now full. However, it is still a popular destination, so many of those who have been buried there for a while (three or four years) have to be disinterred and stored elsewhere to make room for the newcomers. I also understand that a lot of the tombs have been desecrated or are in disrepair, especially those belonging to families in exile.

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We stopped at the Plaza de la Revolución, which is surrounded by governmental and cultural buildings, to take photos of the huge metal depictions of the faces of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, and the José Martí Memorial (109 m tall). The square is 72,000 metres square, and is used for large political gatherings. Fidel Castro (or now his brother Raúl) address Cubans in this plaza at least twice a year.

Our next stop was a lovely park named Parque Almendares, also known as Bosque de la Habana (Havana’s forest). We wandered along the edge of the river and enjoyed the overwhelmingly lovely greenery, but we were warned to keep our eyes open for the remains from chicken sacrifices and other unsavoury litter as voodoo is a big thing among some of the park regulars. The area is gradually being restored and revived as part of the Gran Parque Metropolitano network that will offer safe outdoor activities for people of all ages. It is a truly lovely spot.

After parting for the final time from our group at the Hotel National, we wandered down the famous Havana Malecón (the word means “pier,” and the street’s official name is the Avenida de Maceo). The street, promenade and and seawall – which features in every film about Havana, often during storms when waves crash up against the wall and into the streets – stretches for 8 km along the coast. (For information on the bare flagpoles, read this article.)

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As the scheduled time for our departure from Havana approached, we caught a bicycle taxi back to our casa, collected our suitcases, and took a cab with another couple to Varadero There, we would spend our last two days in Cuba at an all-inclusive – mostly under gentle medical supervision.


Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 7: Viñales to Havana. Part 2)

Caves, Cocktails and Cannons (Part 2)

Saturday, January 9, 2016


Rations A Necessity

Our next stop was the Bodega la Caridad Consejo Popular. This is one of the stores most Cubans visit every month to pick up limited quantities of certain foods at reduced rates.  Since the average income for Cubans in 2012 was about USD 22 per month, these rations – which were introduced in 1962 – remain a necessary part of life. The rations are not extensive and they are certainly not luxurious: they often represent the difference between eating and not eating. They include, for example, six pounds each of rice and sugar per person per month, 15 lb. of flour, a dozen eggs (in certain months), 20 oz. of beans, etc. Children under 7 are also allocated a litre of milk. Other rationed products, including meat and cooking fuels, are available elsewhere. Although Cubans are able (when they have the money) to buy products in the public market, and Cuba apparently has a thriving black market, a visit to this bodega brought home to me the reality of daily life faced by most Cuban families.

The Gentleman of Paris

IMG_2839San Francisco Plaza, named after the church and monastery next it (Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asís), was the next stop on the tour. The church itself was built in the 1600s, and was occupied by several different religious orders until it was taken over by the Spanish governors in 1841. It is now a concert hall.

The statue of a saint named Junipero Serra next to the Basilica gave me the creeps, but I loved a more secular statue in the square entitled “The Gentleman of Paris” (“El Caballero de Paris”), which depicts a beloved homeless eccentric of Havana. Here is what our guide told us about him, embellished by a bit of online research –

José María López Lledín was born in 1899 in Spain. When he was twelve, he came to Cuba to live with an uncle, and he worked at odd jobs for the next fifteen years. But then he “lost his mind” and became convinced that he was a gentleman from Paris. For the next few decades he wandered the streets of Havana, and became popular with people who came to know him. When he was arrested or hospitalized by the authorities, as happened fairly often, his fans would insist he be released.

A cubagenweb.com entry about him says,

“He was of medium height, less than 6 feet. He sported long unkempt dark brown hair and beard, with a few white hairs. His fingernails were long and twisted from not being cut in many years. He always dressed in black, covered with a black cloak, even in the summer heat. He always carried a portfolio with papers and a bag where he carried his belongings.

“He was a gentle man who would appear in the most unlikely places at the most unpredictable times, although he visited many places on a regular schedule. He would walk the streets and ride the buses in Habana greeting everyone and discussing his philosophy of life, religion, politics and current events with everyone that crossed his path.”

On one occasion when he was offered money for appearing on a television program, Lledín responded that “Neither my feelings nor my high position allow me to accept this money. I give it to Bigote de Gato for a party that he will give in his establishment.” Lledín reminds me of the old caballero in our novel, The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid, which is probably why I was so taken by his story.

Street performers

Street performers near Plaza Vieja

In 1977, Lledín was permanently hospitalized due to his failing health. Tests conducted then indicated that he did not suffer from illusions, despite the fact that since the 1920s he had been maintaining that he was a gentleman from Paris – a city he had never visited in reality.

It is considered good luck – bringing prosperity to all (and virility to men) among other benefits – to place one hand on the statue’s beard, hold his left index finger with your other hand, and simultaneously step on his left foot. The brass of the statue, which was created by José Villa Soberón and erected in 2001, is worn where visitors have sought his assistance to improve their lots.

Viaje Fantástico

Our final stop on our Havana tour was the square nearest our casa, the Plaza Veija, and there we discussed another sculpture about which Arnie and I had been wondering since we’d first seen it on our arrival in Havana the previous Sunday.

The sculpture is entitled Viaje Fantástico, and it was created by the Cuban artist Roberto Fabelo. In English, there are a lot of potential interpretations of the artwork, from the association with a certain English nursery rhyme to the name of the piece of cutlery the woman is holding in her hand. I am pretty sure that our group managed to think of all of them. However, Fabelo is not English, he is Cuban, and therefore (I assume) Spanish-speaking. His surrealistic paintings and sculptures often involve women and birds. So all of our conjectures were probably quite wrong. It’s a great sculpture no matter what it means. (I have recently learned that there is a duplicate of this sculpture in Miami.)

Our group would disperse the following day, after a tour of Havana by Old Cuban-American Car. For our final dinner we enjoyed a superb meal together at a rooftop restaurant in Old Havana.

Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 7: Viñales to Havana. Part 1)

Caves, Cocktails and Cannons (Part 1)

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Viñales is home to the most extensive cave system in Cuba and before we left the area we had the opportunity to visit the Cueva del Indio (Cave of the Indian) about five kilometres north of Viñales town, in the Parque Nacional Viñales. A note in Lonely Planet says that the cave was an “ancient indigenous dwelling rediscovered in the 1920s.”

Before we entered the cave itself, we had the opportunity to see a display of objects that have been used for centuries by indigenous people of Cuba. Members of our group were particularly taken with the conches, which made a keening sound when you blew into them.

We then entered the cave and walked along a narrow passage to a waterway. There, a motorboat took groups of ten or twelve from a small dock through the cave and out to a landing on the other side. It was a short trip but memorable. There were (of course) bats but (of course) I couldn’t get a photo of them.


Havana: A walking tour

IMG_3680We arrived in Havana in the early afternoon and had time to check into our casa particulares (the same one we had stayed at the previous Sunday night) before heading out in a bicycle cab to join the group for a walking tour of the city.


Drivers await hires near the Inglaterra

We had wandered around old Havana on our own the previous Sunday, but we learned a good deal more when we had someone to explain what we were looking at. To list everything we saw on the two-hour walk, which included Havana’s five major plazas among other attractions, would make this a very very long entry, and it is already going to be quite long. So instead, below and in the next post I’ll give you what I thought were the most interesting highlights.

The Most Interesting Highlights


Hotel Inglaterra

We met our guide Manny and most of the rest of the group at the Hotel Inglaterra, near the National Capitol Building which marks the centre of Havana. Completed in 1926, El Capitolio was built with the US capitol building in mind, however, as Manny explained with pride, the one in Havana is six metres taller than the one in the US. El Capitolio housed government activities until the Cuban revolution in 1959. Like many many notable buildings in Havana, it is now being reconstructed, and when it is finished it will again become the seat of the National Assembly.


Hotel Manzana

We then walked past the Saratoga – the most expensive hotel in Cuba – and the Gran Teatro de La Habana and into Central Park (“where they argue loudly about baseball”).  Nearby, a hotel (the Manzana), currently under reconstruction, features bullet holes incurred during the Revolution.

Obispo Street

Obispo Street

We set off down Havana’s famous Obispo Street (where no smoking is allowed), walking past one of Hemingway’s favourite haunts — the Floridita bar – where a few years ago, in honour of what would have been the author’s 113th birthday, the owners blended 27 bottles of rum with proportional amounts of the other requisite ingredients to make the biggest daiquiri in the world.


Our next stop was Cathedral Plaza, which was lovely, spacious and  – save for a few young boys playing soccer – nearly deserted. Manny told us that this neighbourhood – built on what was originally swampland – has some of the best restaurants in Havana, and that the Doña Eutimia tops the list. The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception is also on the square and, just to bring things full circle, the Bodeguita del Medio – Hemingway’s favourite stop for a mojito. (For an alcoholic, it seems to me, Ernest was pretty particular about where he drank what.)

Where There Were Pirates (long long ago)

Havana used to be the most attacked city in the world, with pirates from everywhere descending on the harbour with greed in their eyes. Around 1600 the Spanish decided to fortify, and the remains of the resulting battlements can be IMG_0428seen at Parque Histórico Morro y Cabaña. During the Colonial era, every night at nine a cannon was fired from the fortification to announce the city’s curfew, and the traditional continues at the Cabaña Fortress today – although (one can assume from accounts of the nightlife in Havana) now it is ceremonial only. Near to the remains of the fort, there is also a display of boats that have been retrieved from the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, a warning to others who – like the boats’ original owners – might be tempted to flee the island.

IMG_0438We moved on to the Plaza del Armas, which is well known for its hundreds of local vendors of old books, antiques, and artworks (and the typical scenes of men playing chess). On the eastern side of the plaza is the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, the former residence of the governors (capitans) of Havana, and current home of the Museum of the City (Museo de la Ciudad). A part of the street itself is made of wood, rather than stone; it was re-surfaced in response to complaints from visitors at nearby hotels about the sounds of horses’ shoes clip-clopping on the cobbles.


(to be continued)

Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 2: Bay of Pigs & Cienfuegos)

Waiting for…. everything

Monday, January 4, 2016


Havana street

After breakfasts at our various casas in Havana (breakfasts typically included eggs, ham, bread, coffee, pineapple or guava juice, and a plate of fruit including papaya, guava and bananas), the group started the day off with a meeting. Our friendly, knowledgeable and handsome leader Manolo (You’re welcome, Manny 🙂 ) outlined the next few days of our itinerary and explained some of the protocols and vagaries of travel in Cuba. Patience is required here, he stressed. He also warned us that there would be lineups for everything.

We then met Ariel our bus driver for the week, and loaded our luggage and ourselves into our clean and comfortable minibus.

We didn’t have to wait long to learn the truth of Manny’s warnings.


Arnie heads for the bus

Before our bus had even left Havana, we discovered two things of which Cuba has shortages, both of which every member of our group needed right away – i.e., before we hit the road. The first was bottled water, and the second was Cuban money. We spent almost two hours waiting for the members of our group to extract enough CUCs from various exchange offices and ATMs (cajeros automáticos) to get through the week in case we don’t have access again when we are on the road.

The first place we went to had run out of money. The second had very long lineups. Various members of our group were trying (not always successfully) to exchange Canadian dollars, British pounds, Euros, Yen, Australian dollars and NZ money so it took a very long time. On the upside, across the street from the bank was a bar where we were able to buy a few bottles of water (1 CUC per bottle) and use the bathroom.

(Note: Almost everywhere in Cuba, you have to “Pay to Pee,” but not in places where you are a customer. I generally left 25 centavos but sometimes bathroom attendants got more if I didn’t have small change. In return, they gave me a couple of thin pieces of toilet paper. As in many other countries, in Cuba toilet paper does not go in the toilets: there is always a wastebasket nearby where it is supposed to go instead. It’s a hard habit to break, letting go of that piece of tissue after you’ve used it, but now I’ve learned the new system so well that back in Toronto I am still looking for the wastebasket.)

Bay of Pigs

By now far behind schedule, we set off through the rain toward the Playa Girón, a beach on the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos). There, some of our group went for a swim in the bay, and the rest of us walked back about fifty yards from the highway to a cenote, which is a cave that has collapsed and then filled with water (photos below). The pool in the cenote was clear, and colourful tropical fishes swam about in it. I recognized an angel fish but I have no idea what the names were of the others.

Our guide Manolo and a royal palm

Our guide Manolo extols the virtues of the royal palm

Manolo briefly recounted the story of the Cuban Revolution of 1953-59 and the invasion of the Bay of Pigs (1961) from the Cuban perspective, which is pretty much the same perspective as what I’ve read on Wikipedia (i.e. Cuba good, America bad) so I won’t bother retelling it here. But it was an amazing experience to be told the story of how the Cubans withstood the invasion at the Bay of Pigs when you are actually at the Bay of Pigs. Inspiring.

As well as being an historically significant site, the Bay of Pigs is renowned for its scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities. The water is incredibly clear. On the day we were there, there were very few people in the water – possibly because it was raining and the diving shop was closed.

Soon after we left the Playa Girón (“playa” means “beach”), we stopped for “lunch.” We arrived around 3 p.m. and didn’t finish eating until about 5. Manny grew impatient with this wait, but the rest of us were pretty laid back about it. We had picked up cookies and other snacks at one of our bathroom breaks, so it wasn’t like we were starving. The long, long wait gave us a chance to get to know our fellow travellers a little better. As always, one of the advantages of group travel is the people in the group itself, and what you learn from them.

In the long run, our lunch/supper  – ultimately quite tasty and filling – proved an excellent way to save money, as we didn’t need dinner that day. 


We arrived in the city of Cienfuegos at about 7 p.m., and since it was too dark to do a walking tour of the city and no one was hungry, we were dropped off at our various casas particulares. Ours was a small comfortable room with a full bathroom which (to our mystification) locked from the outside. The host was wonderfully welcoming and very encouraging about having a conversation with us in Spanish. I quickly learned the limits of my knowledge of Spanish as we tried to actually answer her questions about ourselves and figure out what she told us about herself. But we eventually got the gist of most of it. I think.

When we registered at each of the casas, the owners wrote down our names and passport numbers, home address, and the dates on which we were checking in and out, and then asked us to sign the entry in the register before giving us the keys. I think the government has a long arm when it comes to accountability in Cuba.

After depositing our suitcases, Arnie and I walked to Cienfuegos’s malecón (pier/waterfrontand found ourselves some ice cream, then walked along the promenade for a while. We then went back to our room and watched ER with Spanish subtitles on a small television set. (The show was no more impressive than it is without the subtitles.)

Cuban television has no commercials, and most of the channels feature educational programs.

Despite having spent a lot of the day on the bus, our brains were overloaded, and we had no trouble falling asleep.


Note re the photo gallery below: hover over images to see captions; click on images to see larger versions.



Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 1: Havana)

Arrival in Havana

Sunday, January 3, 2016

View from roof of Lonja de Comerica

View from roof of Lonja del Comercio, Old Havana, Cuba

Note to readers: I am posting this first instalment of our Cuban adventure on Thursday, Jan. 14  from Toronto, where we have now safely returned after a fantastic trip. I have been trying to post to this blog since the day after we arrived in Cuba, but internet access in Cuba is extremely difficult – as I will explain later. In the meantime, please keep in mind that the events described in this post happened more than a week ago.

I’ve invited the others who were on our tour to contribute photos or their two centavos’ worth, or to correct any errors I should happen to make (which is extremely unlikely, as they all know. <– joke). It was another great group! On both this trip and the one to India, I’ve been very fortunate in my travelling companions.

I will post the rest of the entries as I have time to finish writing them in the next few days/weeks, so if you enjoy this post, and want to read about the rest of the trip, please subscribe to the blog and stand by…. 


IMG_4329After a smooth flight on a Sunwing plane that we figure was originally owned by a Czech airline (see image to the right), we arrived at the Varadero airport at about 9:30 a.m. this morning (Jan. 3). We cleared customs with no problems, then changed some money into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs, which everyone calls “kooks”). CUCs are one of two kinds of Cuban money; each CUC is equal in value to approximately one USD. There are also Cuban pesos (CUPs), which look a little different from CUCs (they have photos of revolutionary leaders on them rather than monuments) and one of them is worth about 1/25 of a CUC. Cubans use mostly CUPs, travellers use mostly CUCs. So it can get complicated. When you don’t know the difference, as most newcomers don’t, opportunities proliferate for getting ripped off by paying for something in CUCs and getting change in CUPs: i.e., getting 1/25 of the change you are actually due. (Update: No one ever tried to pull this trick on us.)

IMG_3377We then caught a Transgaviota bus from the airport to Havana. At 25 CUCs, it was 15 CUCs more expensive than a local Viazul bus, but we got a running commentary from the driver’s assistant and the bus took us right to Old Havana (Vieja Habana), where our first casa particulare (B&B) was located, rather than to the bus station where we’d have needed to find a taxi.

Our first view of the Atlantic from Cuba, at a stop on the highway between Varadero and Havana

Our first view of the Atlantic Ocean from Cuba, at a stop on the highway between Varadero and Havana

On the bus trip, we learned some very interesting things about Cuba from our guide (who had a dry sense of humour). He told us that:

  • There are 11 million people in Cuba. “Two million of them live in Havana. Eight million of them work for the police. This is a very safe country.”
  • In Cuba, there is free education, free health care and women receive one year of maternity leave
  • Cubans don’t swim in the ocean except in July and August.They find the air and water too cold at this time of year for swimming
  • In season at this time of year are guava, coconuts, lobster and papaya
  • There are no poisonous (I think he meant “venomous”) animals in Cuba
  • This is the high season for visitors. There is almost no accommodation available anywhere at this time of year, unless you have already booked it.
  • The tocororo is the national bird. It is very hard to find. It is the national bird because its colours are the same as the Cuban flag. (Note: We did see a tocororo later in the week, and Arnie got a great photo of it! Stay tuned.)

Our first encounter with an old American car in Cuba. Note (typical) location of driver.

The most interesting fact that this guide told us was that if you kill a cow you can go to jail for twenty years. The Internet offers other reasons (and jail terms), but our bus guide told us that it was because the cow saved the country in the late 1990s when there was almost no food in Cuba – keeping many important people alive, including mothers, old people and children  – and so cows are respected and well treated.

Soon after the guide had told us this fact, I asked him what the large birds were that were flying around outside the bus. It turned out they were turkey vultures, as I had suspected, but instead of answering me directly, he told me that the birds were employees of the police department. He explained that if someone does kill a cow illegally, they must bury the bones very deeply. If they do not, the turkey vultures will circle around the spot where the cow has been buried and then the police will follow the turkey vultures to the scene of the crime.

The bus was not able to drive into Old Havana because of the size of the vehicle and the narrowness of the streets, but we were dropped about two blocks from our casa. Our room wasn’t ready so we left our luggage (four floors up! Fortunately our hosts were strong young men who carried everything up for us) and we had a late lunch then wandered around Old Havana for an hour or so. One of the highlights of our stroll was a view of the city from the top of the building on the old square (Plaza Vieja), where I took way too many photos.


Pierre! What are you doing here?

After a nap we met our group and our group leader, Manolo (Manny). There are about 12 of us in the group. Arnie and I are the only two from Canada. The others come from Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and England, and their ages range from early twenties to almost ancient (us).  We went for a delicious North-American type dinner at a restaurant in Old Havana (I think it was Ivan Chef Gusto. Is that correct? Manny? Anyone?).

While we were waiting for our dinners to be served (you have to wait for everything in Cuba, especially meals) I looked up, and what should I see high on the wall above us, but a poster featuring Pierre Elliott Trudeau! I felt right at home.

Photo gallery, Day One, January 3, Old Havana

We’re Going to Cuba!

¡Hola Cuba!

I am very happy to announce that my (new) husband and I are embarking on my next (also his next, but our first) adventure early in January, 2016. We are going to Cuba! I have always wanted to go there, and now that Cuba and the USA have re-established diplomatic relations, I want to get there before the improving trade situation allows the export of whatever makes Cuba Cuba (which I have some theories about already, but no real knowledge), and the import of what does not. I hope that in the long run, the détente is going to be good for the average Cuban, but as Canadians well know, exposure to our powerful neighbour to the south (and Cuba’s north) can overwhelm what makes a nation distinctive.

As was the case with my trip to India, I will start by reading about the country I am about to visit: the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba is waiting for me at the post office as I write this. I am also brushing up on my Spanish, using an app called Duolingo. I have taken Spanish before – many times, in fact. I studied it at university for a year, and have taken conversational Spanish classes a couple of times since then. I am not sure how Cuban Spanish varies from that of other Spanish-speaking countries (of which, so far, I’ve visited only Mexico), but I will probably find out and write a post about it. In the meantime I am learning such useful terms as “The monkey sleeps above the parrots,” and “I eat in the basement,” which I am sure I will be using regularly on my trip.

I found the tour we are taking online at Responsible Travel, as I did with the India tour. Responsible Travel is dedicated to directing travellers to small, local travel companies that work to improve or at least contribute to the sustainability of the countries in which they are located. We have chosen a small-group tour from Locally Sourced Cuba, that involves local modes of transport, and accommodation with Cuban families at casas particulares.

My husband’s experience with travel has mostly involved renting a car, staying in hotels, and driving around at his own pace, so this will be a new approach for him.

We are leaving in early January, and we will be travelling for ten days. The actual tour leaves from Havana and includes the cities of Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santa Clara, and Vinales, before returning to Havana. At that point we will go to Varadero on our own for a few days of sun. I learned on my last trip that the perfect way to end an intensive tour is to take some time for total relaxation before returning home. That will give us some time to process everything we’ve seen (and allow me to catch up on my blog posts).

I gather that internet access is almost non-existent in most places in Cuba, so although I will be writing about each day’s travel, I have no idea when I’ll be able to post my various installments. Perhaps not until I get home.

All that is still a long way in the future. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping you posted on my preparations.