A Particular House


Everything in Cuba is owned and operated by the government. However there is one area where there has been some softening on this hardline stance:  Sleeping and eating. Over the past few years the government has started to allow private citizens to rent out rooms in their homes to tourists these are called a “casa particular.”  Likewise there are a smattering of private restaurants called “paladars.”  I imagine that both of these types of establishments are priced way beyond what the typical Cuban could afford, but we found them reasonable and certainly several notches above the bleak, Soviet style alternatives.

Our first stop was in Havana where we stayed with a woman named Marie.  She spoke very little English and certainly is trusting since she gave us keys to her home to come an go as we pleased. Of the four places we stayed, this one felt most like being a guest in someone’s home.

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Casa de Marie, Havana

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Casa de Marie, Havana

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Casa de Marie, Havana

The next stop was in Cienfuegos where we stayed with Jorge and Alicia.  Their casa particular was set up nearly like a motel, very different from Marie’s house in Havana. While it afforded more privacy, we didn’t find it “particularly” appealing.  It was here that we learned of Fidel Castro’s death.

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Casa de Jorge y Alicia, Cienfuegos

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Casa de Jorge y Alicia, Cienfuegos

Perhaps our favorite place to stay was in Trinidad with an energetic woman named Eloida.  Like at Marie’s we were actually staying in the house proper. It was here that we learned how convenient it is to have meals other than breakfast at the casa.

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Casa de Eloida, Trinidad

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Casa de Eloida, Trinidad

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Casa de Eloida, Trinidad

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Casa de Eloida, Trinidad

And finally we stay with a comedienne named Lachina in Varadero.

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Casa de Lachina, Varadero

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Casa de Lachina, Varadero

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Casa de Lachina, Varadero

Paladars

We ate at several of the private restaurants called paladars.  Perhaps the most memorable was La Guarida in Havana where we celebrated Amanda’s birthday. The entrance was most striking.  It was through a dilapidated, buy elegant, old building that was in the process of being refurbished.

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Entrance to La Guarida, Havana.

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La Guarida, Havana.

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La Guarida, Havana. Happy birthday Amanda!

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Paladar, Vinales.

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The kitchen at the paladar in Vinales. They cook with wood fires!

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A paladar in the country, Vinales.

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Eaten at a paladar in Trinidad

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A paladar in Trinidad

This will be my last post from Cuba. So, where to next?  My life is a trip!

Trinidad de Cuba


dsc01412As I look back on my trip to Cuba I have to say that the town of Trinidad has to perhaps be the most memorable locale of the entire trip.  Havana certainly has its allure; the buzz of 1950s traffic, miles and miles of dilapidated grand buildings still in use, prime examples of architecture from multiple centuries, etc. But it was the place called Trinidad de Cuba that captured my heart.

While the clock stopped in 1959 in the rest of Cuba, it stopped in Trinidad in 1850.  The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is widely considered the best preserved colonial town in all the Americas. The whole town is an outdoor museum. At times the original cobble stone streets can be coffin-quiet with the only sound being the clop clop of horses hooves or the sing-songy sound of old men selling bread or fruit from bicycles.

Trinidad is also known for the music that wafts from many doorways and “casas de musica.”  Alas because of Fidel Castro’s death the night before we went to Trinidad (and the resulting moratorium on music for nine days of the official morning period nationwide) we did not get to experience this aspect of Trinidad.  But it’s magical all the same.  Take a look.dsc01383 dsc01386 dsc01397 dsc01398 dsc01399 dsc01400 dsc01409 dsc01411 dsc01413 dsc01414 dsc01416 dsc01417 dsc01419 dsc01420 dsc01421 dsc01422 dsc01424 dsc01425 dsc01426 dsc01434 dsc01436 dsc01439 dsc01441 dsc01443 dsc01444 dsc01446 dsc01448 dsc01453 dsc01454 dsc01455 dsc01457 dsc01467

Yank Tanks


No blog about Cuba would be complete without a mention of the ancient American cars that are still on the road here.  They are all pre 1960 with a few Soviet Union cars from the 1970s thrown in.  These are not the possessions of classic car collectors, but rather the primary means of transportation for people who use, and reuse, EVERYTHING out of necessity.

They are a real part of Cuba.

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This is the car that picked us up at the airport in Havana. It was just serendipity that we saw it on the highway on the way to Vinales!

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No Es Facil


I saw so many of the wonderful US cars that are pre-1959. So many in fact that they will have their own blog post!

I saw so many of the wonderful US cars that are pre-1959. So many in fact that they will have their own blog post!

 No es facil.  It ain’t easy.  You quickly see the evidence of this when you step off the plane in Havana, Cuba.  Lines are long and unorganized for immigration.  Baggage claim is absolute chaos.  Since many goods are simply not available here, those Cubans who are allowed to travel abroad stock up for Armageddon.  I saw the strangest things coming off the luggage carousel:  A complete set of four tires, packages of toilet paper so big they belonged on a pallet rather than a luggage cart, and yes, I literally saw a kitchen sink along with a whole plethora of small kitchen appliances. It was truly a bazaar of goods.
Havana

Havana

 

If God ever needed a mechanic, I’m convinced he would look in Cuba. It is really incredible the ingenuity these people must possess just to get by in day-to-day life.  The things that most of us take for granted simply are not available here.  I won’t really describe what I saw here as poverty. Everyone is well fed, has excellent health care, can go to university for free, and have their basic needs met. When luxury items are available they are priced way out of the range that the typical Cuban can afford.  While this can be extremely interesting from a foreigner’s point of view, I sense that it can feel rather bleak to the average Cuban.
The economic woes of Cuba are a relatively recent phenomenon. For those of you who are too young to remember it comes down to the trade embargo against Cuba in place since 1959. It seems the government of the United States was not too keen on the revolution led Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in that same year. And just a few years later when the US government placed nuclear missiles in Turkey aimed right at Moscow, the USSR became friendly with the socialist government of Cuba and placed their own missiles here. That didn’t go over too well in Washington D.C. either.
This has resulted in an entire country frozen in a moment of time.
You want a bottle of water, there’s one brand. A cola, it’s the same.  You want to use the Internet.  Good luck and be sure to pray to bandwidth gods and hope you’re near to one of the parks that are the only access points in the country.
People "lined up" at the few offices where Internet cards can be purchased for about $2.00/hour. The offices are never open but you can always find someone nearby willing to sell a card for $3 or $4/hour. Now just find a park where there is access.

People “lined up” at the few offices where Internet cards can be purchased for about $2.00/hour. The offices are never open but you can always find someone nearby willing to sell a card for $3 or $4/hour. Now just find a park where there is access.

 

 You won’t find homelessness here as everyone is provided for.  This was assured in 1959 when Fidel Castro and a ragtag bunch of revolutionaries changed Cuba forever.  Even though Fidel wasn’t technically in power while I was here, it was then that he chose to die.  This will have a profound effect on the country but the jury is still out on just what kind of effect it will have.  As an American it was difficult not to be embarrassed at how we as a nation have treated the Cuban people.  In Havana all the world’s embassies were flying at half staff in observance of Fidel’s passing.  Not the shiny new US embassy though.  It was full mast.
dsc01278President Obama gave the Cubans hope with his recent state visit here.  All over Cuba you see posters of him with the caption:  “Yes we came.”  However they are incredibly fearful of the President Elect and perhaps rightfully so. They’ve endured decades of hardship and were just beginning to have so hope of softer relations between them and the giant 90 miles off their northern coast.
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I’m glad I came when I did.  It is obvious that already increasing tourism from the US is fracturing Cuba’s delicate tourism infrastructure.  When leaving Havana yesterday I saw a Delta and JetBlue aircraft parked at gates.  I know that United and American Airlines are also adding flights. Cuba is a wonderful portrait of the human race struggling to get by in a modern world.  Or in their case a not so modern world.  I’ll try to dive deeper into this over a series of futures posts here.

Ciudad de Mexico!


Beautiful architecture

Beautiful architecture

This is my first time to Mexico City and I must admit that I find it really surprising. The first thing that surprises me is how cold it can be here. At over 7,000 feet above sea level don’t let the latitude fool you. The second thing that surprised me is how clean everything is. It is a very desirable and cosmopolitan city. It’s one of the largest in the world, and frankly, they’re not real fond of Donald Trump here.

dsc01034But this is just a stopover for us, as we’re on our way to Havana tomorrow morning.  We hear that finding an Internet connection is nigh on impossible there so I may not be able to post until we return to Mexico City in about two weeks.  But if it is possible, I will.

In the meantime, enjoy these photos from around this exciting and vibrant city.

A beautiful old post office.

A beautiful old post office.

A stunning post office.

A stunning post office.

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The most incredible bakery I've ever been in.

The most incredible bakery I’ve ever been in.

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Aztec cultural dance on the street.

Aztec cultural dance on the street.

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La Condesa neighborhood.

La Condesa neighborhood.

Frankly Sintra


Sintra from above.

Sintra from above.

About 45 minutes either by car or train from central Lisbon is the ancient little town of Sintra. I only got to spend two nights there but the allure becomes readily apparent.  Most tourists experience this quait little town as a day trip from Lisbon. But I think arriving midafternoon and spending a couple nights here is the way to go.

Once the Lisboans leave, it’s simply a delight. And as a matter of fact, it’s a great place to leave! You can get to the Lisbon airport just about as easily as from the center of Lisbon, especially on the weekends.  They’re sacred here in the EU (take that UK).

The center of Sintra from the National Palace.

The center of Sintra from the National Palace.

Spend your first afternoon getting to the hotel, maybe a late lunch, walk around town, chill out a little, plan an attack on the two main tourist sites, and finally have a good (albeit touristy) dinner in the center.

Spend your first afternoon getting to the hotel, maybe a late lunch, walk around town, chill out a little, plan an attack on the two main tourist sites, and finally have a good (albeit touristy) dinner in the center.

On your full day here see The Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle at the very least, add the National Palace if you have time.  Of the three the Moorish Castle is the most important (and interesting in my opinion) site.  The Pena Palace is a turn of the 20th century playboy mansion. I reckon. As I get older, anything after 1500 just seems too recent. But to fully disclose, Joan and I didn’t visit the National Palace, we opted for a café table with port and chocolate (and stuff like that there) instead.

The Pena Palace is lovely...to some.

The Pena Palace is lovely…to some.

Portugal really surprised me.  The people there were the warmest, most fun loving people I’ve encountered in a long time.  The food tastes Spanish, and the language sounds vaguely like French, but the place is undeniably Portugal.

Maybe a good idea for the first afternoon in Sintra. Just get with it.

Maybe a good idea for the first afternoon in Sintra. Just get with it.

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He just nailed the Portuguese in the Brazilian songs he sang. How'd he do that?

He just nailed the Portuguese lyrics in the Brazilian songs he sang. How’d he do that?

 

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No, really. I don't mind travelling alone.

No, really. I don’t mind travelling alone.

 

 

 

 

O Porto!


View from my hotel room.

View from my hotel room.

We left Lisbon’s Apolonia train station at noon and by 2:45pm we were in Portugal’s second largest city, Oporto (or simply Porto to the locals). I have only been here a few hours and have only had time to take a quick look around to orient myself, but it immediately becomes obvious that this city is a visual delight! Here’s just a taste to show you what I mean.

Another view from my hotel room.

Another view from my hotel room.

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Yes, this is where Port wine comes from.

Yes, this is where Port wine comes from.

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The Sao Bento train station in central Porto has an astounding collection of ceramic tile murals. The are truly stunning.

The Sao Bento train station in central Porto has an astounding collection of ceramic tile murals. The are truly stunning.

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