Land Cruisers Part II

We are back in Grenada after our 3 months sojourn in the UK, Antwerp and Amsterdam. We owe a big thanks to our pals Charlotte and James for letting us base out of their lovely riverside flat in Inverness while in Scotland.  

Gorgeous view of the River Ness from the apartment in Inverness

Gorgeous view of the River Ness from the apartment in Inverness

We really have to pay it forward with the cruising community after Charlotte and James’ generosity and Julie and Ken introducing us to the housesitting service that let us stay abroad for so long without breaking the bank (and letting Mary get her dog fix – and cat and chicken fix). 

We left England to spend a considerable amount of time in Scotland, starting off with a bang in Edinburgh.  Arriving just in time for the Fringe Festival, lauded as the world’s largest arts festival.  Everyone should head there for it at least once.  You can walk around the historic city and drop into a comedy show, theatrical, music, film, or any number of other performances whenever they strike your fancy.  

Next up was a trip to the highland capital city of Inverness.  The Scotland highlands reminds us of Tahoe with conifer-covered hills and mountains and open countryside.  Except here there is the odd abandoned castle off in the distance.  We’ve seen enough old castles and manors to last a lifetime, but we love learning about the history and occupants of each one.  The Scotland National Trust does a great job of preserving the history as well as the buildings.  And to Pete’s delight the Whisky trail led him to single malt Scotch heaven.

When we finished with our house sits, we set off to explore the western shore of northern Scotland.  Driving the North Coast 500 was a trip on the beautiful open roads.  Just be sure to bring your cojones because the roads are narrow, often even single track, and twisty with blind corners.  Oh, and with sheep roaming free.  The roads and weather were so gorgeous Pete wished he was back on the Ducati.  We made it all way round from Loch Ness up to John O’Groats (we had to go there just because of that name) and then back to Inverness to catch our breath.

Our trip didn’t end here, but our camera did.  Sadly hundreds of photos were lost to the technology gods.  So you’ll have to imagine and hopefully see for yourself one day the exciting city of Glasgow, Northern England, Wales, Antwerp and Amsterdam.  Here are a few snaps from the phone. 

It was the perfect break from 3 years on the boat and definitely a much needed change of scenery, proving to us that one can even get tired of tropical islands and variety is indeed the spice of life.  Bring on Season #4…

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Land Crusiers

We are in the UK taking a break from the boat (and the heat) in Grenada.  We will be here for about 3 months and to make it affordable we are house/pet sitting for people who are away on vacation.  It is a wonderful way to experience a country, allowing the spirit of the place to seep in and avoiding the pressure to be on the tourist superhighway – which, in our experience leads to museum fatigue, information overload and the occasional argument with Google maps and each other.  

After a few days in London, our first gig was for a charming couple in rural Hampshire.  Living in a lovely old country home and taking care of two sweet old cocker spaniels was a glorious way to start. Funny thing was they went Greece to have a sailing vacation, so we felt as though we had switched lives for a week.  

We especially like England’s tradition of public footpaths, byways and bridleways, which preserve the public’s right of access across private lands, complete with stiles to allow human and dog to get over fences without letting livestock escape.  Wish we had such paths in the US. 

After Hampshire, we were off to a charming village in Buckinghamshire and then back for more city life in London.

Anyway, just a short note to let y’all know what we are up to. Cheerio for now.

Haiti

We took a side trip to Haiti from the Turks & Caicos. New friends, Ben and Chloe, wonderful people we met in Providenciales, run Caicu Naniki travel agency and specialize in trips to Haiti. Earlier we debated sailing the boat to Haiti around its western edge and underneath to get to the Dominican Republic. Although it is said to be a calmer route, it is significantly longer than sailing directly from the Turks & Caicos to the northern shore of the Dominican Republic bypassing Haiti altogether. That, together with the fact that our boat would not be insured while in Haiti, drove us to choose the latter route. So we were really glad to get an opportunity to go to Haiti anyway. It was just a short trip for 3 nights but it felt like being transported to another world and time. 

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Living large in our private jet to Haiti, okay okay, so maybe it wasn’t a lear jet but we were the only passengers.

Haiti is a beautiful, mountainous country. It is little developed and as the plane swooped in we saw green hills as far as the eye could see. The people of Haiti are quite special, particularly given the hardships of their life.

Stunning to look at, they stand tall and look you in the eye when addressing you. They have a sweet, slightly shy personality and are always willing to help out. Every wave or “bonjour” is met with a smile and a return salutation. They speak a version of creole that is completely unintelligible to us, but also speak French and quite a few speak English. So communication was not really a problem, especially since Charlotte and James speak some French.

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Colorful loto kiosks everywhere

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Colorful dress

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Colorful music

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Colorful kids

We were picked up by Dominique, who served as our ever-patient guide and driver. She is a dentist by training and has many and varied interests, but took time out of her busy days to help us. She seems to know everything about Haiti and we couldn’t have done this trip without her.

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Dominique the only smart one who took a ride up the steep hill to the Citadel.

Their lives are very hard, however. The country is the poorest in the western hemisphere. There are none of the comforts that we take for granted back home. Refuse collection is a problem and the people live amidst appalling amounts of waste.

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The UN and various NGO’s are there, but it is not clear what they are doing. The locals call them “turistas” because they can most often be found at the nicer resorts having a grand time. We don’t know the facts, but did see UN soldiers staying, drinking and eating at our beach resort. However, we did see them patrolling the street also. We just think the country needs better aid in terms of major systems – water, sewer, garbage collection, security, etc. DSC_1770

We stayed around Cap Hatien, the northern capital. We did not travel to Port au Prince, the capital as it is quite a way south and west. We did travel to the Citadel, built by 20,000 laborers from 1804 to 1820. It’s quite impressive, considering that the sovereign “Republic of Haiti” was established on January 1, 1804 as the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, the second republic in the Americas, the only nation in the western hemisphere to have defeated three European superpowers (Britain, France and Spain), and the only nation in the world established as a result of a successful slave revolt. Henri Christophe, emperor of the newly free country’s northern half, decided it needed forts to defend itself from the French and enemies to the south, and the Citadel is the centerpiece of it. It’s a magnificent fort and seems truly impregnable. It is well preserved, including the many armaments scattered about.

DSC_1556Most of our pictures have a small caption embedded in them. But this simple picture has a story that we have to tell. There was smoke and the sound of drumming coming from this little settlement. Danny, our guide at the Citadel – well not really a guide, but a guy who attached himself to us and through persistence proved valuable to us – informed us that it is voodoo being practiced. He told us that one time a man brought his cow to the voodoo priest to be sacrificed. The priest told the man to do it himself. The man thought he was stabbing the cow with a machete but he was really stabbing himself. He was under a spell and thought he had a cow with him when he was actually alone. It was a creepy story.

 

Anyway, Cap Hatien is a feast for the eyes. We could not get enough of just looking around at the city, its citizens and scenery. We took about a billion photos and thought we’d share some with you.

We all need to learn how to balance like these lovely ladies.

Cuba, So Close, Yet So Far Away

We wanted to travel to Cuba before the Americans started flooding in, so along with our pals Charlotte and James we embarked on a 10-day educational trip.

Bienvenido a Cuba Pedro, Jaime y Carlota.

We know that America-Cuba relations can be a hot button topic, so we used this trip to educate and not debate. The key for us was to take a cue from the Cuban people who separate politics from people.

I just love this lady enjoying the day in the park with her amigos

Anyone who can rock a turban is aces with me.

Excuse me, there is a chicken on your head.

Excuse me, there is a chicken on your head.

Initial Impressions.  Cubans love Americans and readily put politics aside to get to know you as a person.  In fact, politics does not even enter into a personal interaction with Cubans.  What a refreshing attitude.  And if indeed some political issues were discussed they were not met with the vitriol that always seems to bubble up in the States.  The people of Cuba are the heart and soul of the country.  They are warm and welcoming, intelligent, funny and delightful.

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Always greeted by waves and smiles.

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All the children were friendly, curious and full of giggles.

Hemingway house dog welcoming Mary and Charlotte.

Hemingway house dog welcoming Mary and Charlotte.

Honestly, we were not sure what to expect from a country that mainly has been presented to us as either the romanticized playground of the 1950s jet set or a repressed society full of people willing to risk their lives to achieve freedom.

Hotel National

Hotel Nacional De Cuba, host to everyone from Winston Churchill to Frank Sinatra, Eartha Kitt and Lucky Luciano.

Would people speak to us, were they allowed to speak to us, did they have toilet paper?You laugh, but so many people told us to bring our own, so we did.  And then our Cuban friend laughed at us because they have TP.   LOL.

Pete and his new friend enjoying a Cuban coffee

Pete and Señora enjoying a Cuban coffee. No need to worry, everyone spoke to us and were patient with our Spanish and practiced their English.

Our new amigo Olexis.  Always happy to answer all our questions and laugh at us for bringing our own toilet paper

Our new amigo Olexis. Always happy to answer all our questions and laugh at us for bringing our own toilet paper.

So many of our preconceived notions were way off, while many were confirmed and some things never quite explained. We just took it all in, which is easy to do because everywhere you look the colors, the architecture, the people always are interesting.  Click here for even more photos.

Musicians on the streets of Trinidad

Musicians on the streets of the historic city of Trinidad. We must have heard the song “Guantanamera” a million times from every band, street musician and radio. But we did learn the song is about a girl from Guantánamo. Seems so obvious now.

Cigar lady

Who says ladies don’t smoke cigars.

Man and bike

Recycle, refurbish or restore is the name of the game.

Initiates in the Santería religion are required to wear white clothing for a year, and they always carry a white umbrella.

Initiates in the Santería religion are required to wear white clothing for a year, and they always carry a white umbrella.

dominoes

Dominoes is a way of life.

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You are not allowed to take photos of the cigar workers, but this is the lobby of one of the many working cigar factories in Havana. Workers train for 9 months to learn how to roll the perfect cigar. Most workers were in their twenties and thirties as older workers develop carpal tunnel from the repetitive motions.

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Souvenir shops with pro-Cuba items and images of Che abound.

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Just an interesting shot.

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Lovely pedestrian walkway in Havana.

If there is one thing the world seems to agree upon and that is Earnest Hemingway.  His home stays as is the day he left Havana.

If there is one personality the world seems to admire, that is Earnest Hemingway. His home is as the day he left Havana.

There are some 4 star hotels in Cuba’s larger cities that have the same luxuries as those you’d find anywhere else.  But they are completely disconnected from everyday life on the island.  Rich little tourist islands in a sea of poverty.

Iberostar Hotel

Iberostar Hotel

For example, we stayed in an Iberostar hotel our first two nights in Havana to acclimate a bit.  They had cable TV, including CNN, BBC, HBO and the other usual channels.  This caused us to be surprised that media consumption in Cuba was not that much different from our own.  Is there anywhere in the world that doesn’t have “The Big Bang Theory” on constantly?   It was only later we learned that these TV channels are limited to international hotels.  For everyday Cubans, the country offers two local TV news channels – both government owned – and one international news channel. Guess where that one is from? … Venezuela.

On line for media?  Food? To pay a bill?  Folks waiting on line is commonplace.

On line for media? Food? To pay a bill? Folks waiting on lines is commonplace.

Internet access is virtually non-existent. It exists in a few college areas and certain other designated spots, and is censored, expensive and slow.   But the people are resourceful. They know all the international pop culture references. We found out that this is due to one of the many ingenious black market practices that exist here. There is a service they call “The Package” or “The Terrabyte”. On a weekly basis copies of current popular TV shows, movies, magazines, etc. that have been accessed via satellite are made available to locals in kiosks around the country. Memory sticks and drives are filled a la carte with whatever media the customer desires.   So people in both the cities and countryside knew about “Breaking Bad”, “Game of Thrones” and those ubiquitous Kardashians.

Cuban countryside

Cuban countryside

Sierra del Escambray mountains

Sierra del Escambray mountains

Cuba is a country of contradictions.  The countryside is beautiful and largely undeveloped. But this is mainly due to the lack of investment funds available and red tape for development anywhere.  Refreshingly there is almost no litter along the roads, but we learned this is because everything that can be recycled is recycled.

Wide open undeveloped land.

Wide open undeveloped land.

Due to its expense there is very little disposable plastic waste.  Many items are still sold in glass and metal containers.

1950s car

Touring Havana in 1950’s convertible

Cubans are pros at making the best of what they have.  Just look at all those old American cars.  Yeah, they are here – lots of them.  They’ve kept these cars running and passed them down from generation to generation for 50 or 60 years.  We assumed they were kind of a tourist gimmick, preserved for some propaganda reason. But there are TONS of them all over the island in varying states of repair, from glistening perfection to hideous, smoking beasts with more bondo than sheet metal.

colorful cars

Taxis lined up.

Along with all the classic 1950s American cars are lots of 19? motorcycles with sidecars

Along with all the classic 1950s American cars are lots of old motorcycles, most with sidecars.

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Cars on Paseo de Marti.

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Old Chevy now a taxi. The driver installed his own homebrew air conditioning.

Interestingly, the cars trace the historical ups and downs of Cuba. All those old American cars from the 50’s (none from the 60’s as the revolution happened in ’59 and that is the last model year present) represent the heyday of American involvement with Cuba and their abrupt end in 1959 tracks the end of the US presence here.

Blue Car

Then there are Russian cars, mostly Ladas; these are from the ‘70’ and ‘80s but they also abruptly disappear in the mid-1980’s when the fall of the Soviet Union caused Russia to drop Cuba like a hot potato.  They did not hold up as well as the old American cars, probably because the Cubans do not value them like those old US warhorses.  The Russian cars are taxis or just old beaters now.

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This is a Lada.

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Ladas look like they are from the 60’s but are really from the 80’s.

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Cool looking Skoda – from Czechoslovakia, when there was a Czechoslovakia.

The exit of the Russians ushered in a decade of extreme hardship for the Cuban people.  We were told horrible stories about people eating potatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner; going without shoes for an entire year, and other tales of desperation.  And that, too, is evidenced in the Cuban cars – there are generally none from the ’90s to be found anywhere in the country.   Now, there is a steady trickle of unfamiliar Chinese and Korean cars showing up in Cuba, as those countries seek a toehold in this potentially lucrative market.

The people are poor.  I mean, we saw these kids in the city of Cienfuegos playing baseball in the street with a stick as a bat and a rock wrapped in a sock as the ball. This is right out of a Hollywood script.  How we wish we had a bag of baseballs to hand them.

Cienfuegos baseball game.

Cienfuegos baseball game – he missed; that thing behind him is the ball – a rock wrapped in a sock.

They had to call timeout whenever the “ball” unraveled. But they were having a grand time. In most of the rural villages there were more people getting around by horse and cart or just horse and saddle than by cars or trucks.  Yet you sensed no resentment, envy or covetousness.

Family on horse and cart

Family on horse and cart.

Man on horse and cart

Man on horse and cart.

horse and carts

Parking lot.

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No horse, so he walks.

men on cartDespite the hardships caused by US government policies, the people unanimously welcome Americans and are eagerly looking forward to renewed relations. Even though Cuba was a Soviet client state for decades, most people will scoff at Russians and readily align themselves with the US. When Barack Obama first announced thawing relations with Cuba, we, and I think a lot of Americans, thought – “Oh, well that’s a surprise. OK, the sanctions regime didn’t seem to work so lets give this a shot” and then went about our day. In Cuba, despite the government’s cool negotiations with the Americans, it is a day of national celebration for ordinary people, sort of an unsanctioned holiday.   It’s so prominent that it has its own nickname – D17, for December 17 – the day of Obama’s announcement.

One has to admit that the communist regime in some respects has performed well for its citizens. Free education for all has resulted in an astoundingly high literacy rate. Subsidized healthcare means people are healthy and treated well.   And racism seems to be non-existent.  Although skin shades are as diverse as in the US, it never seems to make the slightest difference.

All school children wear uniforms

Everyone is given a free education pre-school to university.

Campus of the University of Havana

Campus of the University of Havana – stunningly beautiful grounds and buildings.

As mentioned above, somehow the population seems in general to be a happy lot despite the fact that they are well aware of their poverty.

Havana's Malecón is a hang out place for all.

Havana’s Malecón is a free hang out place for all.

Cubans love to dance.

Cubans love to dance and always welcome everyone to bust a move.

It’s very unlike some other Caribbean countries where tourists seem envied and can be treated badly. Cubans greet each other with hellos and jokes all day long, whether they know each other or not.   However, in other regards, communism has clearly failed its people. man in windowCuba has lagged far behind the rest of the developed world in the past 50 years. This is plain from the obvious longing of the everyday Cubans for some of the comforts of life in the more developed world. Cuba was clearly a thriving country in the first half of the 20th century, evidenced by gorgeous architecture all over Havana and other cities.

Cruising the streets of Havana

Cruising the streets of Havana.

Some homes look like they could be in Miami

Some homes look like they could be in Miami.

Others look like New Orleans

Others look like New Orleans.

Cienfuegos shopping promenade

Cienfuegos shopping promenade, said to be the Paris of Cuba.

colorful sidestreet

Rooftops of Trinidad

Rooftops of Trinidad

Yet many of these buildings are now crumbling ruins due to neglect from a lack of money to preserve them. And architecture from the period after the revolution (what little there is) is stark, forbidding and cheerless – it reminds one of Soviet buildings from the Cold War era.  There seems to be very little economic progress that occurred after 1959.  Food items are still rationed.  Commerce is tightly controlled and anemic.  The nonchalant acceptance of the lack of basic freedoms, like free speech, freedom of religion, travel and association surprises the Westerner.  Yet there are signs that slow progress is being made.

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People live in these crumbling buildings

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patched house torn up street

Propaganda.  One of the interesting things about communist countries is the prevalence of propaganda.  It seems so foreign to those of us steeped in commercial advertising (although it is becoming more prevalent at home these days).  There are few if any billboards on the roads of Cuba, but this is only because they are not allowed. The billboards you do see are typically government propaganda praising the heroism of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Raoul Castro (in that order – Che is much more popular than Fidel, I guess it is true what they say, “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse!”).

Cienfuegos, Fidel and Che

Cienfuegos, Fidel and Che

Che monument

Che monument

Che billboard

Roughly translated, “Knight without reproach and without fear”.

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“The Revolution will move ahead”

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“Socialism or death”

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“Until Victory, Always!”

Endless supply of books on Che and the revolution

Endless supply of books on Che and the revolution

The Museum of the Revolution is a striking example of this.  Its a fascinating collection of artifacts and information about the revolution.  We weren’t aware just how long and hard Fidel and his cohorts toiled to bring about change. Peter Cuban flag

“US leaders and their lackeys” LOL

Revolution Museum

Revolution Museum appropriately housed in the former presidential palace.

However, the museum is not sparing in its condemnation of “imperialists aggressors” who conspired to stunt the heroic revolution.

Rincón de los cretinos

Rincón de los cretinos “cretin corner”.

Propaganda is not limited to the players of the revolution though.  Jose Marti, who was a writer and symbol for Cuba’s independence from Spain in the 19th century, is always referred to by the honorific “Our National Hero Jose Marti”, never just Jose Marti.

Jose Marti

Cuban National Hero Jose Marti

It sounds so odd but flows so easily from Cubans that you guess it had to be drilled into everyone during schooling.  Anyway, the propaganda is all very amusing but of little importance to Cubans, who seem to want to look forward instead of dwell on the past.  It seems that with the government’s slow weakening, people express their opinions fairly freely (although there is the odd, suspicious look around for eavesdroppers before criticisms are delivered) and the general outlook is to get on with life.  Cubans don’t want to condemn the revolution; they seem to want it to just slide quietly into history.

Don’t they all want to defect?  Not anymore. We would say that the majority of people we spoke to would want to immigrate to the US, but the desire to do so is not so desperate anymore. Most would prefer more economic opportunities in Cuba so they could live a more comfortable life at home.  Cuba has softened its travel restrictions a bit lately and some people are able to go abroad.  However, due to historical restrictions, there are nearly no boats on the water and Cubans have generally lost their maritime heritage.

Derelict fishing boat in Cienfuegos harbor

Derelict fishing boat in Cienfuegos harbor.

It’s odd to look out over a beautiful bay and not see boats zipping around because Cubans are still not allowed to own, or even go on, a boat.

We went diving in the Bay of Pigs,  no dive boats here, just stepped off the end of this dock.

We went diving in “Bahía de Cochinos” or Bay of Pigs, yes that Bay of Pigs. No dive boats here, just stepped off the end of this dock and were met by thousand of fish and pristine coral reef. The most fish we have seen in all the Caribbean.

Diving

Dive center was a repurposed bus.  Our dive guide was a Cuban special forces commando and one of the best guides we've ever had

Dive center was a repurposed bus. Our dive guide was a Cuban special forces commando and one of the best guides we’ve ever had

When we visited an old yacht club with foreign boats moored at the dock, our guide stopped at the edge of the dock and said he could go no further. He is not allowed to go anywhere near boats. In fact he said this was the closest he had ever been to a boat in his life.

Old Yacht Club

Old Yacht Club

Charter boats for foreign visitors

Charter boats for foreign visitors

CUCs and CUPs, Paladars and Casa Particulars. They have a strange monetary system where locals use CUP (cuban peso)  and foreigners use CUC (convertible peso). A CUC is worth about 24 CUPs, yet this is not reflected in prices. Cubans pay a lot less for items than a foreigner does.  For example, we went to a baseball game (they are just as fanatic about it as the most die-hard fans in the US), and we paid 3 CUCs for a ticket while our Cuban friend paid 3 CUPs – 24 times less.  (So that is $3 for us and 13¢ for locals – for a playoff game non the less).

We were thrilled to take Olexis' to his first professional baseball game.  The  Havana Industrials  in the playoffs (they lost)

We were thrilled to take Olexis to his first professional baseball game. The Havana Industriales in the playoffs (they lost).

Not everything is priced as 1 CUP to 1 CUC, however, and sometimes there does not seem to be any relationship between the two prices for the same good.

One day we decided to go to Coppelia, Cuba’s famous ice cream parlor.

Locals waiting on line for ice cream at Coppelia.

Locals waiting on line for ice cream at Coppelia.

We were told that the lines could be long and were prepared to wait. However, when we got on the line, people from the ice cream store rushed over to us, confirmed that we were not Cubans and immediately took us to a special room for foreigners. We were the only ones in the room and were quickly served while many locals continued to wait on line.

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Getting ready for ice cream in exile.

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Coppelia was opened by the Cuban government in 1966 so Cubans could enjoy an ice cream treat.

I am sure our prices were a multiple of what the Cubans paid, but we didn’t care about that. We regretted not being able to enjoy the ice cream among the local crowd.  It was odd to be sequestered in a private room and treated differently than everyone else.

Pete thought he was getting a bargain $8 haircut, but as he walked out noticed the price list for locals as 83¢   LOL

Pete paid $8 for this haircut, but as he walked out noticed the price for locals was 83¢. LOL

Like their money, commercial life in Cuba runs on two tracks.  There are government run hotels, restaurants and shops.  These are usually clean, poorly stocked and bereft of customers.  Then there are private versions of the same (even private businesses have to give 51% profit to the government, except private shops, because those are not legal yet). Casa Particulars are private hotels and inns that started as black market places to stay and have recently been permitted by the government.

Exterior of Cienfuegos casa particular

Exterior of Cienfuegos casa particular.

Interior common room of  Cienfuegos casa particular

Interior common room of Cienfuegos casa particular.

Exterior of Havana casa particular

Exterior of Havana casa particular.

Pete enjoying the view with our casa particular host Skylar

Pete enjoying the view with our casa particular host Skylar.

Beautiful corridor to the rooms of Casa Habana

Beautiful corridor to the rooms of Casa Habana.

Room at  Casa Habana, just love that old tile

Room at Casa Habana, just love that old tile.

Roof deck

Roof deck “secret bar” at Casa Habana one of our casa particulars.

They run the gamut from Grandma Luisa’s old room in the back of the house to clean, well-run multiple room inns.  They all come with breakfast – oddly always the same breakfast no matter where you are. And can range from luxurious to bring-your-own-toilet-seat.  Its the same with restaurants.

Private restaurant in back of owner's home

Private restaurant in back of owner’s home

Cafe Laurent

Cafe Laurent in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana

countryside restaurant

countryside paladar

Outdoor kitchen

Outdoor kitchen

Paladars started as secret private places to buy a meal.  Now they are permitted, and regulated of course, and can be found everywhere.  They range from home cooking in someone’s house to trendy eateries with Cuba’s version of hipsters running around.

O'Reilly 304 (street address) could easily be in San Francisco

“O’Reilly 304” paladar could easily be in San Francisco

For restaurants, think of the government-run versions as old, expensive big-city eateries that are resting on their laurels and paladars as the new little restaurant that everyone is talking about.  We went to the paladars the majority of the time.  For shops its a little different.  From what we could learn, private shops are not yet permitted and, indeed, are still cracked down upon.  However, there are ration shops where things are quite cheap and people can buy their ration of subsidized egg, milk, bread, etc.  Then there are government-run shops that are not ration shops where people can spend their excess cash for other things.

Ummm, I don't think this is a government run gas station

Ummm, I don’t think this is a government run gas station

Finally, there are clandestine shops and black markets where you can get some things that you just must have.  Pete was ushered through a family’s living room, a bedroom, the kitchen where a daughter was peeling beets, and finally to another bedroom to be shown a duffel bag of cigars for sale.  Its all very confusing but shows how ingenuity squeezes through somehow no matter what the government does.

Pete and James enjoying their Cuban cigars

Pete and James enjoying their Cuban cigars

That’s it.  CUBA, we loved it!  With relations with the US thawing at a rapid rate, Cubans have a real task on their hands to grasp the benefits of an improved economy without spoiling the unique and timeless beauty that 50 years of communism have, inadvertently or not, preserved.  Note there is not a single KFC, McDonalds or CVS in any of the pictures we posted.  We hope the country can manage the coming change in a manner that allows people improved lives but that also keeps it that way.  They have a delicate and graceful culture that we can all benefit from.  We have so many photos from our trip. If you’d like to see more click here.

aerial Havana

Here is to a bright future for Cuba.

You say you haven’t seen enough Cuban dog photos? Ok, ok, click here for more.     And thanks Charlotte and James for sharing some of your photos.

Bogotá Bound

I’ve heard stories about Colombia all my life. Not the drug riddled danger zone of the 80’s & 90’s, but tales of living in a foreign land from my grandparents and aunt Lynn who lived there from 1959-1965.

My mom, aunt Lynn and grandfather in Bogotá 1959

My mom, aunt Lynn and Johnny Cash…um… I mean my grandfather… in Bogotá 1959

My grandfather was a manager at Owens Illinois Glass Company and went first to Bogotá and then to Medellín to build glass plants.   He was a captivating storyteller and would have us all in stitches about the crazy characters at work and their resourceful ways to fix almost anything.  I remember his story of the time he foiled the plan of a robber trying to steal their washing machine by hoisting it over their outer wall with a getaway cab waiting.  I lament that my grandfather isn’t alive to hear about our adventures on Neko, he would have loved it.   I find myself thinking about my grandparents a lot during our cruising and now relate to the obstacles they faced living in a foreign land.  Living in 1960’s Colombia without internet and with revolution always looming was definitely a greater hardship than traveling by sailboat with modern technology, but there are many similarities.   I remember my grandmother telling me how shopping for groceries became a whole day’s adventure and how she had to wash all the vegetables with bleach (Been there, done that).   And how she got by with only rudimentary Spanish thanks to the kindness and patience of the Colombian folks (hmmm…sounds familiar). They tried new foods, made new friends and turned what sometimes were difficult and frustrating times into positive lifelong memories. I cherish that example they set for me and I try to remember their great attitudes when we struggle with bureaucratic red tape, language barriers and improvised boat repairs.

My aunt, mom, family friends and grandmother up on Monserrate

My aunt, mom, family friends and grandmother up on Monserrate, 1959   Note everyone in skirts and dresses because it was forbidden for ladies to wear pants.

 

Enjoying the view up on Monserrate

56 years later, Peter and I enjoying the same view up on Monserrate, 10,000 feet above sea level (note the outerwear – our thin blood was not ready for this cold).

One of our objectives all along was to get to Colombia to honor their pioneering spirit. So as Peter and I found extra time during the rainy season, we decided to hop a plane to Bogotá.  Although it’s 50+ years from when my grandparents lived there, it was fun to see some of the things I had heard about. With great guidance from my Aunt Lynn and my Mom (who didn’t live there but visited enough to remember details), we set out to see what was still there and what had changed.

Grandparents house in 1960

Grandparents house in 1960

Their house is no longer there, but it seems they have kept the retaining walls

Their house is no longer there, but it seems they have kept the stone retaining walls

This is the spot where their house stood, now an apartment building

This is the spot where their house stood.

 

Sadly the house they lived in was torn down and replaced by a swank apartment building, but It does seem that the old stone retaining wall remains.  Peter and I had fun playing detective and finding their old, but much-changed neighborhood. I was hoping to see some 80 year old woman walking down the street who would have remembered them, but my life is not a movie, so off we went to explore the rest of of the city.   And what a vibrant city it is.

 

 

As always, click on a picture in the gallery below to rotate through the images.

 

A Side of Guatemala

What do you do when you have extra time in El Salvador?  You rent a mini van with a bunch of your pals and drive the 5 hours to Guatemala.  (Note to all travelers in Central America, however long they say a trip will take, add 3 hours).   You breeze through the boarder crossing, so easy a dog can do it.

Guatemala border crossing.  I got in trouble for taking this photo, but I needed to get a shot of that dog.

Guatemala border crossing. I got in trouble by the authorities for taking this photo, but I needed to get a shot of that dog.

Then you hold your breath while driving across the El Salvador-Guatemala border bridge under repair.

No need to close the bridge, for repairs, just drive on through.

No need to close the bridge during repairs, just drive on through.

You are amazed at how huge and modern Guatemala City is.

Guatemala City

Guatemala City

You rent an over the top house, party with your friends and of course order delicious Chinese food.

Beautiful home we rented just outside Antigua, Guatemala

Beautiful home we rented just outside Antigua, Guatemala

Mike photo bombs Rob and Rose

Mike photo bombs Rob and Rose

Chinese dinner and they delivered!

Chinese dinner and they delivered!   Travel fun with our friends Ken and Julie (Kia Ora), Paul and Janet (Talos IV), Rob and Rose (R&R Kedger) and Mike and Holly (Wanuskewin)

You hang on for dear life as you take the local bus into town.  Minimum speed 70mph

Bus ride into Antigua

The fast and the furious, I mean the bus ride into Antigua

You enjoy a beautiful day exploring the Spanish baroque style 16th-century buildings, churches, cobble-stoned streets and the many ruins throughout Antigua.   Earthquakes have destroyed many structures, but they’ve done a wonderful job preserving the ruins and even incorporating them into functioning businesses.   DSCN2392 DSCN2428DSCN2413 DSCN2410 DSCN2403 DSCN240120140321_104159

 

design created with colored rice

design created with colored rice

 

Central Park

Central Park

If you are Peter, you jump out from a dark corner of the catacombs and scare teenage kids on a field trip.

Catacombs under

Catacombs under Santo Domingo

You renew your wedding vows…

Just kidding

Just kidding

But you do crash a wedding at Santo Domingo, which was an old monastery that they’ve repurposed into a museum and hotel.  The old alter which was destroyed in an earthquake is now used for special events.

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Fellow wedding crashers Mike and Holly

Fellow wedding crashers Mike and Holly

Take a 2 hour coffee break, because Peter and Mike found this woman who was a coffee guru.

Peter and Mike in coffee nirvana

Peter and Mike in coffee nirvana

You take a beautiful drive to Lake Atitlan.  A bit too touristy but stunning countryside and the opportunity to see the colorfully dressed indigenous people.

Guatemalan countryside

Guatemalan countryside

 

Atitlan

Lake Atitlan

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Traditional clothing worn everyday. And yes, the weather was cool enough for sweaters!!

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The men dress in vibrant colors too.

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Locals crossing at low tide

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Indigenous ladies of Guatemala

Indigenous ladies of Guatemala

You marvel at the vibrant and exuberant colors of the cemeteries.   Families think of the afterlife as something to celebrate, so why not make the graveyards a cheerful place.

Graveyard looks like a small city

Graveyard looks like a small city

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DSCN2553And you are so thankful you have the opportunity to explore another fascinating country.

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Let’s Rally

When we first started this trip, I envisioned sipping cold beers on the beaches of Mexico, then sailing to Costa Rica for eco-everything, anchoring off a remote island or two, going through the Panama Canal and finally to the holy grail of clear waters – the Caribbean.   But there are four, yes, four other countries between Mexico and Costa Rica.  The “forgotten middle” as some call it.

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Neko heading to El Salvador

And I’ll admit it, El Salvador was not at the top or even on my list of must-see countries.  There are a lot of reasons boaters don’t stop places; too much crime, too expensive, too big a headache to check in, too few places to stop and on and on.  El Salvador’s main strike against it with boaters is that its entry is too “scary”.  (See crossing sand bar post) But after hearing others (that’s you Torben and Judy) say it was no big deal and that the El Salvador Rally was worth checking out, we decided to take the chance, put on our big boy pants, cross the bar and see what “the savior” had to offer.   And indeed, unlikely as it sounds, Neko was “saved” with fixes to our hydraulic steering and generator by helpful craftsmen in El Salvador.  And we were saved from missing out on a fascinating country.  Outdoor fun, indoor fun, city life, country life and sea life, what a mix.

Boquerón

Boquerón, one of El Salvador’s 22 volcanoes

Joya de Cerén

Joya de Cerén, is an archaeological site of a Maya farming village preserved remarkably intact under layers of volcanic ash. The “Pompeii of the Americas”

apron

The El Salvadorian ladies love their frilly aprons and can balance anything on their heads.

fish market

Fish market in Libertad

Iglesia el Rosario

Iglesia el Rosario, looks like a cement airplane hanger on the outside, but inside…

rosario church

Iglesia el Rosario interior. The sunlight coming through the windows changes throughout the day creating a stunning natural light show.  It has been a zillion years since Peter’s last confession, but he broke into this church so we could see the inside. It was well worth it and I’ll have him say 5 Hail Marys.

We spent a month meeting fantastic new friends,

Sweet Jan.  Lucy's best new pal!

Sweet Jan. Lucy’s best new pal!

learning that El Salvador is a proud country that is moving beyond their civil war (that was 20 years ago folks) DSCN2651

Crazy night at Che bar.  The bartender and his friend are both children of Guerrilla fighters during the civil war.  Their mom and dad.

Crazy night at Che bar. The bartender and his friend are both children of Guerrilla fighters, both their dads and moms.

DSCN2657and enjoyed exploring both El Salvador and neighboring Guatemala (see Guatemala post).  Because of their close proximity to each other and the fact you get a four country visa, land travel between Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua is relatively easy.

Indigenous ladies of Guatemala

Indigenous ladies of Guatemala

To all you fellow boaters out there thinking of doing the El Salvador Rally – give it a shot.  It is VERY informal and chill.  No need for morning nets, just wander up to the bar or pool and see what’s what.  I liked the fact there were only about 20 boats at any given time, allowing you to actually know everyone.

With Mike and Holly in the colonial town of Suchitoto

With Mike and Holly in the colonial town of Suchitoto

El Salvadorian artist, Llort's gallery.

El Salvadorian artist, Fernando Llort’s gallery.

 

I jumped in a fountain to save a dog!

I jumped in a fountain to save a dog!

 

Learning about indigo tie dying from women's artist coop

Learning about indigo tie dying from women’s artist coop

Indigo tie dying with Rose

Indigo tie dying with Rose

Cooling off the pool with ice blocks.  You'd think we were kids in a candy store.

Cooling off the pool with ice blocks. You’d think we were kids in a candy store.

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dork

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Dinghy raft up

Dinghy raft up

Suchitoto

Rally crew in Suchitoto

Peter getting neck message.  Wait!  What???

Peter getting neck massage. Wait! What???

Funky tree house room we stayed in during trip to Juaya

Funky tree house room we stayed in during trip to Juayua. It was a great place and especially enjoyed the cool weather up in the mountains.

Jayua food festival

Juayua food festival

Zip lining through the jungle

Zip lining through the jungle.  See zip line post

The laid back attitude of Bill and Jean (rally organizers) created a no pressure atmosphere for participating as much or as little as you desire.  We did both planned activities and explored on our own.  For god sake, if anything go for the $1 beer 😉

Bye to all our Rally pals

Bye to all our Rally pals

Costa Rica, here we come.

Costa Rica, here we come.