Saturday, February 23, 2008

Getting closer

Adrian still doesn't have a new contract started so I've been freaking out about our plans and budget - particularly since I'm headed to London at the end of March. 

A month ago that seemed like a good way to use up my vacation time. A month ago I also thought the flight would be free thanks to air miles. D'oh. I didn't read the small print which limited my gift certificates to holidays not travel. So I'm stuck with AirTransat. Hating them as much as I do, I've paid for the upgrade to their club class ($600 cha-ching or six days of rtw travel, ouch). Hopefully, comfy seats and free booze will offset my hatred.  

While I'm in London, I may try to visit another friend in Amsterdam if money allows. But he's already warned me that he may be moving to Barcelona which is a longer and more expensive flight so it's looking increasingly iffy.

Anyhow here's the budget update promised. 

And where are we now?

location: Toronto
savings: $10,700
ETD: November 15, 2008

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Lazy days ahead, music in my head

January 29, 2008 - Playas del Este
What to do with our last day? Do we head back into Havana? Or does the beach win? The decision was made; it was time for our trip to come full circle. We'd started off on the beach, reading, swimming and hanging out and that's how we ended the trip. 

We stocked up on beer and treats from the local store and camped out on the beach for the whole day kept company but a bunch of birds. As our bus pick up time approached we headed back in to change by the hotel pool. The pool wasn't as creepy looking down below as it was up above but with only 3 people enjoying it, we weren't the only ones scared by it. 

We got on the and headed to Varadero as the sun set. The airport was even worse than I remembered - a grotty place full of people I hate. Girls with corn rows and sun burnt scalps, guys wearing their sunglasses at night. At the check in counter a guy was yelling at the staff who were trying to charge him for his grossly overweight luggage. He accused them of trying to pocket the money for themselves and said if they wanted his money they should just ask for it. He screamed that flies all the time and knows that internationally he can have 75 kilos worth of luggage. Oh yeah, dipsh*t? If you fly so much you should also know that charters have a lower limit because lower weight allowances = lower fuel = cheaper costs. I just wanted to throttle the prick. But I also wanted to sit down. About  this time I realize i probably had too much sun - I was burning and cold at the same time and feeling nauseous. 

The hell that was the airport didn't get better once we passed security. A flight to Regina was delayed and a large portion of its passengers were getting loaded in the restaurant, playing country and western music on a boom box. Passengers was piled up on top of each other in a boarding area that had plenty of gates but few seats. 

Thankfully, the plane was early and we were soon sitting in our seats - next to the female companion of the dipsh*t at check in. Luckily he was seated far from her, and she was far quieter than him.  Wow I sound cranky don't I. Perhaps this is because our trip was coming to an end. Boo!!! Or perhaps it is because by the time we got home it was 2:30am. I logged into my email, and discovered I had to be at work for a 10am meeting. So without a moment to reflect and relive our trip, I was thrown back into work as if the trip never happened. Rather than curing my travel addiction, it made it worse and I look forward to the day when I don't have to think about work again. Yay!!!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Viva la revolucion

January 28, 2008 - Havana
We were headed back into Havana again - but into the newer sections of centro Havana and Vedado. It was another day of chasing che with stops at the Museo de la Revloucion and Plaza de la Revolucion on our to do list.  

When the shuttle bus let us off, I immediately noticed a big difference in the city. Today was Monday and traffic was much heavier.  Getting off the free shuttle we struggled to cross streets and get to the Prado. In SE Asia, we learned that in crazy traffic you just start walking and people drive around you. This wasn't the case in Cuba - so don't try it. But there also weren't any traffic lights. In the end it was patience that got us across the roads. 

A few blocks down the Prado was the old presidential palace that now housed the Museo de la Revolucion. It was a stunning building both outside and in, complete with ceiling by Tiffany and frescos by great artists. The saying goes that between your story and mine lies the truth. And I remembered that as we walked through the three floors of displays; it reminded me of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City - lots of propaganda (obvious and only slightly subtler) but less dogmatic than in Vietnam.  I was amazed to read how the US "interference" in Cuba went back over two hundred years when Jefferson tried to buy the island from Spain. The long history certainly provided context for the revolution but still didn't justify Fidel's obvious hatred for all things American. As we continued through the museum, I realised how much my knowledge of Cuba was dictated by American views even when diluted through the Canadian media. Just as my expectations of Cuba had been heavily tainted by American views so had my history. There was so much that I wasn't aware of and so much more that had only ever been glossed over. And with the context provided to make history more comprehensible, I want to read more about US and Cuban relations. 

We spent over spent over two hours reading everything and taking it all in and soon my back and feet were beginning to ache. We exited the museum to check out the heavily guarded Granma pavillion where the Granma yacht that carried Fidel and his revolutionaries was housed. However, I wasn't allowed in because I was carrying a bag.  I didn't mind so I turned the camera over to Adrian. He returned happy but confirming that I really didn't miss anything - especially since the pavillion was glass and I could see the yacht from where I was standing.
We continued up the Prado into a grittier Havana than we'd seen the day before. It felt less touched and there were definitely more hustlers here than we'd seen before. Nestled in amongst all of it was the art deco Bacardi building. We slipped inside for overpriced sandwiches and a cold drink in the small cafe on the second floor. Then headed back up the Prado to the Congresso. 

Despite the area being rawer than old Havana, this is where many 5 star hotels were situated as well as the Gran Teatro. And the hustlers not arguing about baseball in the Hot Corner flocked to us trying to sell us cigars, tours or simply to ask for money. As we passed the tour busses lined up outside the Congresso, the hustlers were like swarms of gnats. However, they weren't very persistent and left when we said no. The Congresso was not just based on the US Capitol building it appeared to be a replica, particularly ironic after the rhetoric we'd been fed at the museum earlier. 

Quick to escape the hustlers, we slipped into a cigar factory. The place appeared frozen in time for the last 80 years. No tours were allowed. But the store on the ground floor had a woman hand-rolling cigars apparently for our amusement. She kept going until I took a photo then she stopped for a smoke break and to make a phone call. We hung out in the store and Adrian picked out a small box of cigars. As we were about to leave, a posh british couple entered and tried to purchase cigars but wouldn't listen to the saleman as he explained the pricing - like 10% fee for using credit cards, that the cuban peso is worth more than the american dollar, not less. I thought perhaps the older couple didn't understand his accent so I tried to help but apparently they weren't deaf just arrogant. So Adrian and I left them to fend for themselves. 

Back outside, we let our eyes readjust to the bright sunshine before attempting to cross the crazy downtown streets. We headed west on Avenida Bolivar towards the Plaza de la Revolucion. We popped into a store to buy some water and ice cream for the hot walk. It was obvious that we were way off the tourist track when the cashier had to pull out a dusty booklet to look up the convertible peso costs of everything. Although this was far from the tourist track, it felt very safe. The infamous camel buses whizzed past us packed to the gills and like everything else we'd seen in Cuba, they might be ugly, but they worked. 

After walking for 45 minutes along the city streets, we finally arrived at the plaza. Essentially, a concrete parking lot with the Jose Marti monument jutting out of the middle. The plaza was lined with government buildings and it was on one that we spotted the famous mural of Che. We had chased Che but with time ticking away and a long walk back, there would be no chasing Fidel that day.

On the way back we walked through the university campus and hospital. It was a leafy, almost suburban area with lovely old houses and lots of shade to protect us from the sun. On the other side of the campus was Vedado with it's modern hotels and glitzy signs. After the 10 km walk so far, our aching feet told us to skip the US Interests building and head straight to the Hotel Nacional instead. It reminded me a lot of the National Hotel in Miami and I wondered who copied whom. This was the site where the American gangsters held their infamous summiton how to take over Cuba. In keeping with the history, Adrian and I planted ourselves at the bar overlooking the Malecon and enjoyed a round of mojitos, piña coladas and cigars

Time slipped by and we had cut it very close to catch the cab. Thankfully we were at a hotel where a fleet of mercedes cabs waited for fares. We hoped in to one and were dropped off at the bus just in time to get back to the hotel. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Celebrity sightings in old havana

January 27, 2008 - Havana
We rolled out of bed in time to have breakfast and catch the free shuttle bus into Havana. It dropped us off along the Malecon. But where along the Malecon? Pulling out the Lonely Planet and looking around and around didn't help. So Adrian and I just started walking, hoping that eventually we'd find a sign or landmark that would point us to the Plaza del Catedral. We stopped to get our bearings we realised we were in the Plaza - the starting point of the old Havana walking tour in Lonely Planet. 

It was a small cobblestone plaza flanked by the cathedral, and beautiful old colonial buildings. We ducked inside the cathedral to check it out just as mass was beginning. The crowd was mostly locals with the occasional tourist popping in. Two that caught our attention were heavily bandaged and limping, Adrian and I wondered if they had been in the bus accident we had seen on our first day way heading to the hotel. Rather than stare at them, we quietly left the Spanish mass after 30 minutes to continue on the walking tour. We didn't get more than a few steps when Adrian spotted a cafe. 

"Coffee." he announced. It was a good call. The cafe was El Pacho and gave us a great views to take in the plaza. There was the post office with its unique post office box. A band playing in front of a museum. And beautiful balconies looking over the square. After getting caffeinated, we continued on the walking tour. I love the Lonely Planet walking tours - they're perfect if you don't have a lot of time. They give you a taste of the city so you feel comfortable getting around on your own. Usually. This time, the many tiny streets and alleys got us a little turned around. And just when I was going to through my book, a woman began tugging at my arm. She pointed to my guidebook and when I didn't respond, she lead me towards a little old man sitting on a bench. Again she pointed to the guidebook and then at the little old man. Guidebook. Man. Guidebook. Man. Click. It was the man from the cover photo of LP Cuba there in the flesh- our first celebrity. 

"Como se llama señor?" I asked in my limited Spanish, hoping his response would be just as simple.

"Reinaldo." So far so good.

"Encantado señor. Una photo por favor?"

"Si". They didn't cover celebrity spotting in my online spanish course so I didn't know how to ask for his autograph. But I did get a photo to mark my first ever celebrity meeting. 

Next we dropped into the City Museum - another gorgeous colonial stone building with a beautiful inner courtyard complete with peacocks. The displays themselves were okay but many of the rooms seemed to be off limits. When a matron ushered us into one of the closed rooms, it dawned on me that the doors were closed to keep the air conditioning in. The matron talked a mile a minute in Spanish motioning to random flags and portraits hanging in her rooms and trying to give us the history of everything. She tried talking to Adrian but gave up when he started making shooting noises while near a cannon. 

When we came out of the museum, it took a while for our eyes to adjust so we relaxed in the leafy park in the middle of the plaza. I took a group photo for a group of Spanish tourists while Adrian started talking to an old man who spoke amazing English. He was 90 and a musician who'd travelled all over the world playing music. He showed us yellowed newspaper articles that documented his travels. And told us about his recent cataract surgery which made him feel like he was 19 again. It started to lightly rain so we said our goodbyes and continued on the walking tour. 

We passed a small group of revellers dressed up and walking on stilts just as the skies really opened. So we ducked into a swanky hotel - that's the great thing about being an obvious tourist, no one kicks you out of hotel even when it's way out of your price range. We hung out under pictures of Fidel and waited out the rain then continued the tour. We soon found ourselves in line at el Museo del Chocolat. It's not really a museum but rather a little cafe that serves nothing but chocolate. 

The line-up was mostly Cubans except for us, until a group of european girls walked up. They went right to the front of the line and tried to get in without waiting. Thankfully, the person at the door was having none of it and motioned for those in line to come in before them. We sat at a table in the corner and were handed a menu. It was exactly three item long; There was hot chocolate, hot chocolate mayan style and cold chocolate all only 50 centavos each. Adrian and I each enjoyed a hot chocolate - they were pure melted chocolate. Delicious. 

Fuelled by the sugar, we walked on to Plaza Viejo. It was a larger plaza that until recently was home to a giant parking lot. Thankfully, the plaza was being rejuvenated with every other building under construction hoarding. Actually most of old Havana seemed to be under hoarding. The construction was funded by tourist dollars, half of which goes into renovation, a quarter to social programs, and the final quarter to new build. To get a look at all the work, we went up the elevator of the camera obscura. The 360 views of Havana were nice but when we looked down we spotted something even nicer - a lively bar. We made a beeline for the bar, thirsty for one of the huge beer bongs that people were drinking. However, they held two pitchers of beer and we still had a lot of walking upright to do so we settled for a glass each. 

The bar was the end of the walking tour so we went off in a new direction and saw a different side of old havana. Here the buildings were mostly untouched and crumbling. I saw an open door and poked my head in to see what the inside looked like. There was no light but I could see a huge sweeping staircase half covered in vines and crumbling plaster. Supposedly 75% of the living conditions in Havana were like this. Yet it didn't feel as poor as other places we had travelled just very rundown. In the midst of the rough and ready section of the city we stumbled across a beautiful art nouveau hotel. As we stood there gawking at it, a member of the staff waved us inside and showed us around. The lobby was beautiful but empty with a stained glass ceiling three floors up. The man lead us to the elevator and we went up to the top floor and got the same view as we had in the camera obscura - but without the 2 peso charge. Eventually, we pulled ourselves away from the hotel. We turned down random streets, walking by men working on old cars and kids playing pickup baseball. It felt like a completely different city.

I feared we were getting lost but soon the shops selling cigars, miniature old cars and mass produced paintings were getting thick again and I knew we were back on the tourist track. Finally, we found our way to the Malecon. We had 20 minutes before the bus arrived so we started walking around the inner harbour across from the fort and lighthouse. However, the Malecon is quite long and we didn't get out of the harbour before we had to turn back. 

We hopped on the bus and were back at the Concrete Monstrosity™ in time for dinner. We loaded up with an armful of free drinks but enjoyed them in our room instead anxious to get out of the lobby's soulless atmosphere. 

Friday, February 8, 2008

Russians are crazy

January 26, 2008 - Cayo Largo
When I booked our trip to Chase Che, I got caught up in the moment and booked another tour immediately afterwards. Despite the good times and good people on the last tour, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. But alas, the next morning we were off to Cayo Largo, starting at.... 5am!!!

Jarred awake by the hotel wake up call, I poked and prodded Adrian to get him moving too. We shuggishly packed our bags for a day on the water. It was then that Adrian realized he'd lost his sunglasses, most likely left on the bus. I think we were both too tired to be upset and simply chalked it up as a travel expense.

At 5:15 our ride arrived; unlike our other tour there was no bus and no tour guide, just a taxi and a driver who spoke English like I spoke Spanish - in other words, very poorly. He was attempted to communicate something to us and gave me a piece of paper with an address. 

Him: blahblahblahgrafasblahblahblahblah yes?

Me: no entiendo, hable mas gazpacho señor? (what I wanted with vegetable soup I don't know)

Him: blah.blah.blah.grafas.blah.blah.blah.

Me: repita por favor.

We went back and forth for 10 minutes, and eventually, something clicked in my head. Grafas. Sunglasses! The tour company had Adrian's sunglasses and we could pick them up at the Havana address on the paper. Well at least I think that's what he said. I looked at the paper but had no idea where in Havana the address was. But the driver pointed it out on the Lonely Planet map for me. With that mystery solved, he ushered us into the taxi and began driving. Adrian and I had no idea where we were going. And our driver couldn't explain much. I noticed signs that said Havana. But still didn't know what was going on until the driver pulled into a very small terminal at Jose Marti airport. He let us out and drove away without any further explanation. 

So there we were at an airport, with no tickets, no flight times and no idea where we supposed to go. There were lineups at all the check in counters but no Cubatur signs. hmm... I checked the departure boards and saw that there is a flight to Cayo Largo at 7. Oh and there's another at 8. And another at 9. And every hour. Oh dear.

I approached the information desk and handed my receipt to the woman behind the desk.

"Donde?" I asked. 

She looked at the paper, shrugged and gave it back to me. 

"No, where do we go" I asked in English, slower and probably louder. 

"Blahblahblahblahgrafasblahblah" She replied with an annoyed look. 

Grafas? I looked at the paper in my hand and realized I'd given her the address where Adrian had to pick up his sunglasses in Havana. Oops. I pulled out the receipt and tried again. The woman merely waved in the direction of the check in counters and gave me back the receipt in a way that let me know we were dismissed. 

We walked in the direction she pointed. There were people with suitcases milling around but no one that looked like a tour guide. Adrian and I found a seat and waited not knowing what else to do. I think we both zoned for half an hour and only snapped out of it when I heard someone calling "Ahdrayahn? Ahdrayahn?" Could that be us? I ran in the direction of the voice. A woman grabbed the passports out of my hands and then handed me two blank boarding passes, then continued to call out names. 

Dismissed once again and still clueless, we went through security only to find ourselves in a cramped boarding area chock full of people. Flights were called out - Guantanamo, Holguin, Cayo Coco, but no Cayo Largo. 30 minutes passed, then 45, when we heard an announcement "blahblahblahAhdrayahnWiyamsblahblahblahsecurity". We ignored it since that wasn't either of us but how many Adrians could there be in the airport? The announcement was made 3 more times, each time more urgent and each time ignored by us. Then a beefy, impatient security guy nabbed Adrian and demanded that he come with him - I wasn't invited  and no explanation was provided. As they disappeared one hundred different thoughts ran through my head and many of them involving rubber gloves and duct tape. But 15 minutes later Adrian reappeared. Since Adrian speaks no Spanish he's still not sure what they wanted except it had to do with his luggage. He explained that we didn't have any and they let him go. Weird. 

At 8:30, there was a boarding call for Cayo Largo. I had no idea if this was our flight but I figured if it wasn't they'd tell us and perhaps even let us know which one was. But they let us on the plane with our blank boarding passes. And we were off for the 30 minutes flight south to Cayo Largo. 

We flew past Havana and over the Caribbean Sea - the water was so clear we could see the reefs below the surface. When we disembarked at Cayo Largo airport, we were still clueless about where we were going. I spotted the woman who had handed me the boarding passes at the Havana airport and followed her. She got on a tour bus full of other non-Cubans and didn't kick us off. The doors closed and we began to drive off; Adrian and I hoped we were in the right spot. 

5 minutes later the bus driver let everyone off at a small marina. But no one had yet to tell us what was going on. I could see the boarding pass woman talking to other people from the bus; they were having long animated conversations and laughing and joking with each other. After what seemed like an eternity she approached Adrian and I.

"I have your sunglasses" She said. And she pulled them out from her bag. 

"You're from the tour?" I asked.

"Yes, I am Marcia, the guide. We are waiting for another group of people before we go - they missed their flight. And then we will go on the boat. You are the only ones who speak English. I will be speaking in Spanish and French but then I will come over and tell you. Okay?"

With Adrian's sunglasses returned, and the lack of communication explained, I felt one hundred times better and could take in the surroundings. We were at one of those typical resorts you see in brochures - nothing like the Concrete Monstrosity™ and nothing like the rest of Cuban we had seen in our first two days. It also wasn't what I was expecting. In my head we were flying to some secluded nature reserve. But I shouldn't have been surprised. Cayo Largo is an island in the archipelago off the southern coast of Cuba. Essentially, it's a sand bar built up with luxury resorts all taking advantage of the miles of sandy beaches. No locals really live there, except for those who work on the resort. So Cayo Largo itself is more like Cayo Touristo.

30 minutes later when the other tourists eventually pulled up, I really questionned what we had signed up for. The new arrivals were mostly Russian and young. and already drunk. As Marcia and the other guide explained the daily itinerary in Russian, Spanish, French and finally English, I realized this wasn't a nature safari; it was a booze cruise. Oh well, when with Russians do as the Russians do - drink. Sure it was 9:30 but we'd already been up for 5 hours. On the boat the Russians immediately stripped down to their lamé bikinis and animal print speedos and started what would be an entire day of photographic exercises. The girls' poses were the sort that needed 1-900 phone number slapped across them. This was going to be a very interesting day.

Our first stop was Iguana Island - essentially a volcanic reef jotting out of the sea and home to a healthy population of iguanas. I thought the posing might stop here but obviously the Russians had connections with niche iguana fetish websites. The island looked like some sort of moonscape and my flipflops were no match for the jagged rocks. I walked as far as I could before turning back to the dock where 6 more boats were lined up with daytrippers. I followed the lead of the iguanas and chilled out, thankfully the Russians didn't pose for any photos with me. 

After 15 minutes we were herded back on the boat and headed to the swimming pool. It was an incredibly shallow part of the sea about 1 metre deep that stretched out for 1 kilometre. There was a sand bar in the middle of it. I didn't want to risk bringing my camera out to the photos but the Russians didn't share my concern and made the tough slog through the water to the sand bar for more poses. Adrian and I stayed close to the boat enjoying the warm shallow and crystal clear water. Once back on the boat, we tucked into fresh lobster while we motored to the next stop.  

When everyone was finished, the crew gathered up the empty lobster shells and began handing out snorkeling equipment. The boat stopped in the middle of a coral reef for us to explore. Neither Adrian nor I had been snorkeling before, and (what a surprise) the crew wasn't interested in teaching. So I thought I'd try to teach Adrian and myself how to do it. I started with the masks. I slipped mine over my nose face and floated face down in the water. Wow! The fish were unbelievable. The crew threw the lobster shells in the water and schools of colourful fish would swoop in for the snack. Unfortunately, Adrian couldn't get the hang of breathing through his mouth and was getting a bit freaked out. He took the mask off and just floated next to the boat where a Russian boy and his non-porn star parents were hanging out. 

I usually get freaked out swimming in the ocean and thinking about all the fish swimming beneath the surface but actually seeing them under the water didn't bother me at all. Even when the fish swarmed the lobster shells and it looked like a scene from Piraña: the Movie or The Toy, I still enjoyed it. Snorkeling is now a must do for me and maybe even scuba diving. But after an hour it was back on the boat.

We arrived at Playa Sirena where a buffet lunch and another open bar were waiting. The rest of the afternoon was to be spent on the beach doing nothing. Adrian and I quickly realised that the open bar was about 500 metres from the beach. We weighed our options - free booze versus beach sloth. Sloth won out so we claimed our quiet stretch of sand away from the russian calisthenics and decided to fork out the cash for beach bar service. We spent hours in the sun and sea, sipping mojitos and piña coladas until the sun got low on the horizon. 

We showered the salt off our skin and attempted to dry off in the sun (I hadn't packed towels or a change of clothes) while waiting back at the restaurant for the boat to pick us up. The Russians were already there, taking photos while wearing turtle shells and doing the splits. What ever picture you have in your head, is close but push it just a little bit further. A staff member came up to us and simply said "russians are crazy" before walking off shaking his head. 

Fortunately, our trip back wasn't crazy. And we arrived at The Concrete Monstrosity™ at 9pm tired, cold but relaxed and ready to start the non-tour portion of our time in Cuba.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Chasing Che

January 23, 2008 - Playas del Este
Adrian and I only had two must do's on our agenda. See Havana. And chase Che Guevara.
You see ever since our trip to Buenos Aires, 8 years ago, Adrian has been somewhat obsessed with Che Guevara. Why? I'm not sure and I don't think Adrian is either. But slowly we've been tracing his footsteps around the world, by accident. First to BA then to Peru and now to Cuba. We can only hope that our trip to Bolivia will end better than his.

In Cuba, chasing Che meant a pilgrimage to Santa Clara, but how to get there was our problem. Car rentals were $300. Buses took at least 7 hours. And both of these options were not working with our time and money limitations. Thankfully, we were staying at a resort.

The next morning we had our first pass at the buffet and met with the tour rep. We were accompanied by the same haggard looking man who'd stumbled off the bus with us the night before. He made sure we knew this was his fifth trip to the Tropicoco and he wanted to drink. Considering the place has the atmosphere of a prison, I can understand the need for alcohol at 10am. But I didn't understand his need to brag about his previous stays. In an attempt to show his superior knowledge, he kept interrupting the tour rep which meant she had to repeat everything twice. By the end of it I think she was deliberately talking very slowly about unimportant hotel features just to annoy him as much he was annoying us.

Before she arrived, I'd picked up a brochure of tours. They had an all-inclusive two day tour of Trinidad, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Sancti Spiritus for $150. This seemed like a good deal. Unfortunately, the tour had already left that morning. But the tour guide helped us book with another company. We also signed up for a day trip to Cayo Largo the day after. $600 later we were headed to the beach.

That's right I sat in the sun, tempting fate with only my 30 SPF sunblock between me and certain blisters. It was just what Adrian and I needed a day of doing nothing. I brought a book with me and didn't touch it. Instead I just sat back and enjoyed figuring out the religion of many of the men on the beach a very easy task due to the high speedo ratio on the beach. In fact Adrian was one of a handful of men not wearing tiny pants - it had the effect of making his shorts looking more ridiculous than the fat old men in banana hammocks.

Needless to say we skipped lunch, preferring to munch cuban cheesie wotsits on the beach and drink watered down piña coladas. Very watery, as in we both needed to pee. Unfortunately, there was no loo on the beach and our hotel room seemed oh so far away. So we did what we had to do. We ventured into the sea. Now don't waggle your finger at me. There are millions of fish and other animals that pee in the sea every day so our 4 piña coladas were no big deal. I'm sure we weren't the only ones.

We stayed on the sand until 6, had dinner and some drinks before packing our overnight bag and turning in preparing for our two days of Che Chasing.

January 24, 2008 - Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus
I woke up at 6 am the next morning and watched the news while packing. Saw that Heath Ledger had died. There's something odd about being far away from home and seeing breaking news stories on CNN or BBC. They feel bigger than they actually are. I guess because they're not buried in the day-to-day chaos. But I digress...

The bus picked us up promptly at 8:15. Getting on I scanned the crowd and guessed the average age was 50. We picked our seats at the back and braced ourselves for the hell that is a packaged tour. Our oh-so enthusiastic tour guide, Rita, pointed out that there was a mix of Spaniards, French, Russian, German, Ukrainian and Australian folks in the group. In other words, there wasn't going to be a lot of chitchat between all of us. Introductions out of the way, we set off.

My worst fears about the package tour were coming true when after a couple of hours on the road we stopped at a roadside park/cafe/zoo/bar/campground for a morning refreshment. But Rita was almost apologetic when she warned us to stay away from the man selling tickets to win rum ("i've never seen anyone win, ever"), pointed out the washrooms, and where to get a tasty cup of coffee. She also walked to the back and apologized for her English explaining it was her 4th language. (frankly it was much better than many people's first) and introduced us to the other native English speaker on the bus: Ben, a young australian traveling around the world.
The three of us wondered aimlessly around the park, trying not to make eye contact with the rum seller, or the cigar seller, or the cd sellers, or the craft sellers.

Soon enough it was time to head out on the road. We spent the next couple of hours chatting with Ben about travelling and looking out the window at the political billboards that dotted the roadway. 

Along the road people were hanging out and waiting. Rita explained that they were waiting for a ride. Because public transportation is scarce, people wait by the side of the road for a ride share. Government vehicles are required to stop and take as many people as they have room room. It's sanctioned hitchhiking. Pretty cool and made me wish that something like this existed elsewhere particularly in Canada. In the winter. When I'm freeing my ass off at a bus stop. 

Within a couple of hours we reached Santa Clara - the epicentre of che chasing. Our first stop was the train memorial, site of Che's bulldozer battle with an army supply train. The museum in the train was tiny and with the arrival of another tour bus it was quickly overrun. Adrian giggled with glee as he climbed over, around and under the train taking it all in in the allotted time while I chilled outside enjoying another non-winter winter's day. Before I started to get burned we were herded back on the bus for our next stop.

The bus dropped us off in the main plaza of Santa Clara. The problem with plazas is once you've seen one you've seen them all. And in Peru we'd seen about 15. So while the rest of the tour took off around the plaza, Adrian and I chilled in the shady park. There was a theatre, an old building that was being restoredprovincial government buildingsand another theatre. Oh and there was a fountain of a boy holding a leaky boot, which a guy in the park turned on when we sat down near by and then off as soon as we got up to leave. While we were sitting there we were immediately approached by two guys who wanted to sell us some cigars. Unlike touts we've encountered elsewhere, they were pretty chill. Even when we said no to the cigars they stopped with us and chatted until they had to go back to work at the cigar factory.

Ben reappeared and then the rest of the tour group and was time to get back on the bus. We stopped at a tourist buffet for lunch complete with free beer so I pulled out the camera to add another beer shot to our collection. We were soon joined by Michael, a German consular services employee who was in Cuba on vacation while he awaited notification where he would be stationed next. Both he and Ben had been in Cuba longer than us and shared lots of tidbits. 

After lunch we headed to the Che memorial and mausoleum. Adrian was in the holy land. Giant Che kept watch over an empty plaza. Around the back (no pictures allowed) was Che's mausoleum. Just recently, the Cuban government had repatriated his body from Bolivia as well as that of his fallen comrades. And they were laid to rest in the memorial. Next door there was also a small but extensive museum devoted to the life and times of Guevera - Adrian and Rita had an informal Che factoid competition with Ben, Michael and I caught in the middle of their onslaught. Rita gave up on Adrian and decided to point out to me just how guapo Che was. I agree Rita - he was rather dishy.

Since it was about one million degrees in the concrete plaza, I was quite happy to get back on the bus. The heat had zonked everyone out so Rita was quiet as we drove through the countryside past sugar cane fields, past more political billboards and hitchhiking posts, toward our next stop Sancti Spiritus. 

It was getting late in the afternoon as we pulled up in Sancti Spiritus, a sleepy town where we would be spending the night. It was also getting rather cloudy. Rita took us around the town, through the main plaza, down tight streets where dogs slept in front of shuttered windows, past a second hand shop that had the latest alarm clocks on display, through a market, around beautiful old cars, down tighter streets (remember this), cutting through a pickup game of baseball, and finally stopping at a bar on the river bank.

That's right a bar. Which meant another beer for Ben, Michael, Adrian and I. But I swear it was purely educational since the bar overlooked Cuba's oldest bridge. Finally, the clouds opened and it poured so we hung out until the rain passed. By the time it was clear, it was also dark. Not a problem for us as we found the bus easily. However, the bus driver wasn't so lucky. 

Remember those really tight narrow streets I was talking about earlier. Well apparently the bus driver didn't. While attempting a 378 point turn to get us out of Sancti Spiritus, the driver didn't notice the street sing pushing on the bus window between Ben and I's heads. We also didn't notice the ominous creaking sinking-titanic sounds it was making. Nor did he register Ben shouts of "the window is going to break". Until of course it was too late. 

Suddenly an intricate spider web pattern spread across the window. It stayed in place for what seemed like an eternity - which gave Adrian, Ben and I time to jump out of our seats and across the aisle - before crumbling into a thousand million trillion pieces

Despite the Curious Incident of the Bus in the Night (or CIBN for short), the bus driver didn't stop, flinch, look back or acknowledge the CIBN and eventually made his way out of the Sancti Spiritus and on to the highway. 

Adrian, Ben, Michael and I looked at each other in awe as the wind from the now empty window tussled our hair. But no one else seemed to notice. 

It was only when we stopped at our accommodation for the night that Rita and the bus driver came back to inspect the damage, followed by every other person on the tour and their cameras. We were quickly ushered into the checkout with a shrug of the shoulders and offer of cuba libres. 

The CIBN would be replayed second by second over the buffet dinner and many beers by Adrian, Ben, Michael and myself. And managed to upstage the evening entertainment provided by the hotel. Of course considering the entertainment was some guy with a mullet pony tail doing magic tricks and riding a unicycle it wasn't that hard. 

January 25, 2008 - Trinidad and Cienfuegos
The next morning we set off for the next two stops on our tour - Trinidad and Cienfuegos. The broken window from the CIBN had been half-covered in cardboard and the curtains pulled across to disguise the damage. That lasted for about 15 minutes before getting blown out on the highway. No worries it meant fresh air on the bus and great views of the countryside around the Sierra del Escambray. 

After about two hours on the road, the bus pulled into an old sugar mill in Manaca Iznaga - just outside of Trinidad. The mill still had a watch tower that could be climbed so of course before I could blink the boys were running up the stairs to take in the same views the foreman would have had of the sugar cane fields where the slaves worked. I stayed firmly on the ground and checked out the handmade linen on display in the wind and the manor house which was now a simple tourist shop. 

Soon we were back on the bus and pulling into Trinidad. Trinidad is one of those post card cities of Cuba. A small colourful colonial town that seems perfectly preserved. There aren't any sites to search out, instead, the whole town is something to take in. It reminded my a lot of Cusco in Peru but unlike Cusco I actually wanted to stay there longer. 

Rita took us on a walking tour around the town, over cobblestone streets and around the the main plaza. She then took us on a tour of an old colonial house of a former wealthy landowner in the area - it's now a museum full of pretty nice things, however, I thought the views from the top floor was the best part. 

Next we stopped in the church before heading for a music break at one of the many cafes in town. Rita tried her best to get everyone to dance. The music was awesome so I was content to sit and take in the show Rita and the band where putting on. By  this time, Ben and Adrian were plotting something else. Both had seen a club mentioned in the Lonely Planet that was built in a cave and despite it being the morning they were determined to find it. 

Michael and I tried to talk them out of it over drinks at the Canchanchara and later during lunch. "you don't know where it is" "it won't be open" "we don't have time". We thought they were over it. We had lunch serenaded by more musicians. Ben sat and talked to Rita for 30 minutes about politics. And Adrian and I probed Michael on his experiences living in China and Turkey. Suddenly Ben appeared, turned to Adrian and said "let's go". Before Michael and I could object, they were off. It was only minutes later that Rita appeared to gather us all up for the ride to Cienfuegos. 

"But Adrian and Ben, they just left to go to the cave club," I panicked.

"What!? I told Ben it was too far. I thought he was a good boy. He promised," replied Rita before launching into a stream of Spanish that wasn't in my dictionary or most polite conversation. 

Michael ran off to try and track the boys down not knowing what direction the mythical cave club was in. He came back a few minutes later when everyone was on the bus. Rita requested a volunteer to wait for them while we transferred our luggage to a new bus. I tried to volunteer but Rita refused telling me my husband was not my fault. And it seemed that the trip of chasing Che had turned into chasing Adrian and Ben. 

After 20 minutes of waiting, the Russians and Ukrainians were revolting; they no longer wanted to stay with the tour and were going to catch a bus back to Havana themselves. Rita tried to convince them to stay but their lack of any of the 4 languages Rita spoke and her lack of either Russian or Ukrainian meant an unsuccessful negotiation - the mutineers had bought bus tickets to head back on their own. Finally 10 minutes later, Adrian and Ben appeared unaware of the grief they had caused. We set off  three people less, on a new bus headed to a new city. 

I gave Adrian the old stink eye for the journey to Cienfuegos. Unfortunately, I think Ben was more affected by it. Sorry Ben. Good thing it wasn't that far away. 

Our first stop in the city was an old stretch on the Bay lined with beautiful old colonial mansions. We were let out for a quick pit stop at one which had been converted into a restaurant. Michael, Ben and Adrian wandered off, perhaps still a little apprehensive of me while I walked over to the malecon to take in the view of the bay. I had one of my toy cameras on my wrist which caught the attention of a guy hanging out on the sea wall. He laughed at it and wanted to know why I had a toy with me. When I explained that it worked and took four pictures in one, he immediately wanted one. So I took a shot. He motioned that he wanted to see it and I had to explain that it was film. He looked disappointed so I took out my digital and got another shot of him. He was quite pleased with how he looked and gave me his address to mail him a copy of the shots. Here it is Luis. When I develop the film in the toy camera I'll send you your copies. 

By now the bus had pulled up and we were back on it and driving into the city. After the rest of our trip, Cienfuegos seemed a bit anticlimactic. We walked along a prado to the plaza which was like other plazas; there was a church, some government offices, a theatre, and a college set around a square. It was nice enough but I'm glad we didn't stop there overnight. 

Back on the bus, we drove back to the hotel. It was a 3 hour drive in the dark. So Adrian pulled out his PSP to kill some zombies and I put on my iPod. Just before Havana we exchanged contact info with Michael and Ben and wished them luck on both of their travels - hopefully with no more Curious Incidents of Buses in the Night. Who knows maybe we'll cross paths again some day.

It was after 9pm when the bus pulled up to the Concrete Monstrosity™. We quickly said our goodbyes and grabbed all our belongings from the dark bus (or so we thought) and went right to bed exhausted from a very full two days. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Staging an intervention

Hi my name is Liz and I am a travel addict.

Adrian and I have had a moratorium in place on travel while we save for our planned round the world adventure (from this point forward known as the Big One). However, we are addicts and we had a relapse. 

It's been 6 months since we've been anywhere and over 13 months since we've been on a real trip and it's another 9 months until we leave on the Big One. So we looked at some prices did some math and chose Cuba. I know, I know, what's a melanin-challenged girl doing chasing the sun? Well, sunburns are my childbirth - the hurt like hell but as time passes I forget the pain and just remember the good times. Plus, it's minus one bazillion in Toronto so a sunburn seems more desirable than frostbite. 

We checked the usual suspects on the net - itravel2000, redtag, selloffvacations, exit - finally finding a $600 all inclusive just outside of Havana, far away from the tourist hell, i mean mecca of Varadero. 

So on January 22 we left for a week. Yes, that also happens to be Adrian's birthday. Good thing, since I'd forgotten to buy a card but could tell him that this trip was my present to him. (phew, that was quick thinking). Here's our day-by-day. Oh and this is going to take forever, so be patient. 

January 22, 2008 - Toronto to Playas del Este
I haven't flown on a charter in probably 10 years. And the last time I stayed at a resort was 5 years ago in West Africa. Not because I'm a snob but because I'm cheap. I've found regular airlines to be just as cheap and with better flight times than charters and resorts often more expensive than going on your own. However time was also a factor so here we were about to fly a charter to an all-inclusive resort. 

I'm not sure what I was expecting in Cuba. Bread line-ups, miserable people, poverty, pushy folks who'd do anything for a bit of money. Guess what, it wasn't like I expected, except of course for our hotel. After 7 hours of travel time (1 hour to the airport, 3.5 hour uneventful flight, 1.5 hours on a bus), we arrived at the Concrete Monstrocity™, known in tourist brochures as Hotel Tropicoco. 

In the unflattering midnight light, it was less tropical paradise and more soviet hospital (most fitting since it was used as a convalescent centre for Venezuelan eye surgery patients last year) - completely devoid of all personality. I wish I could say it looked better in the daylight but that would be a lie - we weren't surprised by it's lack of style. But who cares - we were only 20 minutes outside of Havana which was what we came for not the resort. 

And when you're trying to cure a travel addiction, it helps if the relapse isn't comfortable. 

Friday, February 1, 2008


adjusting my mirror, checking my blind spot, signal and pull out...

I've never blogged before. I've never kept a diary. But I do write. A lot. Because I'm a writer. But hopefully by November 2008, I'll be unemployed. That's right I hope to be unemployed. 

Adrian and I are saving fast and furiously to take off and travel the world.

Of course certain things keep getting in the way. Like Adrian needing a job. Going to Cuba for a much needed vacation. Using up vacation time to visit friends in London and Amsterdam. But I've still got the eyes on the prize. But more on that later. 

Perhaps you're wondering why we're going. The short answer is why not. Both of us love travelling. We love the chaos of trying to figure out bus routes and meals and accommodation when you can't read the alphabet let alone speak the language. And our meagre vacation time has made it difficult to see as much of the world as we've hoped - although many would disagree. 

We've been to Ireland, Buenos Aires, Tunisia, Gambia, Moscow, India, Bangkok, Shanghai, Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh City, Paris, Cuba, many places in the US, and of course the UK and Canada. And every time we have to come back we get depressed and spend weeks talking about how great it would be to just keep travelling. Finally we actually stopped just talking about it and just started doing something about it.

So in June 2007, we did some calculations and by we I mean me (although adrian is an accountant, he hates doing our finances). And quickly discovered that leaving in January 2008 was not going to happen. The dreaded albatrosses known as student loans were just too big. in the words of Pepe le Pew, le sigh. But those same calculations also showed us that by January 2008 we could pay off our student loans - all $35,000 of them, 7 years ahead of schedule. And we still managed to sock away a bit of cash for the big trip. We're pretty chuffed too. 

Now with 9 months to go, I've started this blog to write a little a bit about our planning and preparations but also to get used to this whole blogging thing. And this is the place where we'll be writing about our adventures. That should be easy right? I'm a writer. Unfortunately, coming home to write this blog after writing all day is sometimes hard, hopefully it will be a lot easier once we're on the road. And this whole html blogging stuff is new to me. Hence the title of this post. So be patient. I'm learning. But I'm almost ready to take the "L" off the back windscreen.

And where are we now? 

location: Toronto
savings: $8500
ETD: November 15, 2008