Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A most disappointing ice cream trip Day 3---Havana

After our delectable breakfast, we set out to explore the streets of Havana.  Our first stop was the

Museum of the Revolution.  We'd walked past it a couple times looking for dinner and stuff so it was easy to navigate.

The museum was interesting.  We'd soon find that the user design of Cuban museums is specifically for Spanish speakers.  About half of the exhibitions had English translations (badly) and there were no signs telling you where to go, only docents that yammered on in Spanish.

We were particularly interested in all the mentions of American aggression and contributions to the success of the revolution.  Take for example a mural of American presidents, one depicting George W. with a Nazi hat. It's always interesting to see history told from a different perspective, similar to when I went to the War Museum in Vietnam or Jeff went to the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki.

While we were going through the museum, we noticed some people gathering in the courtyard outside, including military men/women in dress uniforms.  So we found a window to hang out of (yes, no a/c in the museums, just windows) and watch the spectacle below.  From what we could gather, it was some sort of awards ceremony for workers.  We couldn't understand any of the Spanish but got a glimpse at a few of the awards given out.  You can see most of the event with a military ceremony, singing, and awards giving at the end of the blog.

After the museum, we walked over to the cathedral. We'd been outside the cathedral a few times, but it was always locked.  Luckily this time it was open.  I was VERY pleased that there were wraps that people were given if their shorts were too short.  The cathedral also emphasized the prayerful nature of being in church.

That being said, it was a gorgeous church.  The chandelier over the altar gave a regal sense to the altar, a reminder that Jesus, Lord of All, is present there at Mass.  The art in the church and statues, like the church we went into on Day 1 was also beautiful.

And then we walked some more.  The plan was to go to a boat ferry and take it over to the castle on the other side of the bay.  We got distracted though by another church.  Jeff's learning the wanderer nature and said we should peak in.  Turns out, it's no longer a Catholic Church, but the museum of religious art---and by religious, they meant Catholic.

I can't tell you how weird it was to walk through an old Franciscan church and see Catholic items as
memories of days gone by.  I've been to museums that had a few pieces or a section of church-stuff but it was really weird to be in an old church, which is now used for concerts and shows.

That being said...I sure am glad I took a few years of Spanish.  It came in so useful during our trip.  Without signs pointing you places, you have to ask for help a lot.  The docents at this museum kept saying it wasn't over and we could go up.  Finally she showed me the door cause I didn't get much further with the Spanish language.  And up we went.  Up and up and up.  I have never been so high in a bell tower before and the views were perfect.  It also had a LOT more breeze than the museum did so I didn't want to go down the stairs for a bit.

We had noticed on our map a Mother Theresa garden by the church, so I asked someone and they told us to walk outside.  I just misunderstood the direction and so we went the loooooong way.  Which turned out to be fine because next to the church, there's a tiny chapel.  We ducked inside and were surprised to find it was an Orthodox church, still in operation. When we went back outside, we noticed the sign that said Castro gave the church to the Greek Orthodox Church as a sign of good will.

We did find the Mother Theresa garden.  It was just a simple little statue near the entrance of the Orthodox church.  Id didn't realize she had come to Cuba and spoken with Castro and convinced him to allow the Missionaries of Charity to operate in Cuba.

It was starting to look like rain (again) and I was hungry (surprise) so we ducked into a restaurant for a snack and water (lots of water).  While we were there it did rain, but it cleared up pretty quick.  Since the weather still looked spotty, we nixed the boat ride and castle and decided to stay on foot, near restaurants and stuff. and we set back out again.  Next stop: The Rum Museum!

And so we set out again, winding our way through Havana.  And at the end of the street, on the right, we find...a church.  Surprise!  This is not the rum museum.  But what the heck, we'll see what it looks like...and surprise, it's another Orthodox church, this one Russian Orthodox.

We finally make it to the Rum Museum and get there about 30 minutes before the next English tour.  So we spent some time in the store looking at rum, but mostly enjoying the very cold air conditioning---our first taste of cool air all day.

The tour was good and our tour guide spoke the best English we heard the whole trip.  Learning about
the history of slavery in Cuba was very interesting.  Most of the tour focused on the process of rum making.

After the museum, we went back to the casa and took a nap.  Havana is very walkable, but we'd already walked at least 3 miles and we were staring down a 2 mile round trip walk for our dinner plans in Vedado.

We planned to walk down the Malecon to Vedado and head towards the ice cream park, Coppelia.  I
knew it was a more residential area, but we had some trouble finding a restaurant.  And then it rained---a lot---so we took cover at a bus stop with lots of other pedestrians.   We ended up eating at a paladar called Don Quinote, turned out to be one of the best paladars in the neighborhood.   We both got chicken, but one fried and one grilled and split it.  So delicious.

 View from the paladar   

So Coppelia.  We were expecting lines.  We were expecting lots of ice cream flavors (although every

board we saw walking up had different lists of available flavors.  What we didn't expect was only being allowed to use CUC in a bunker-type room with only chocolate and vanilla available.  The guy wouldn't even let us get two scoops---only one for Jeff and I to share.  Apparently only people with pesos get to eat upstairs in the pavillion where it seemed lots of fun.

On the positive side, we met a couple from Boston who had just arrived that day.  They were up for a little more exploration so we walked over the the
National Hotel and enjoyed some cocktails on the porch serenaded by much mellower Cuban music than yesterday.  Around 9:30, we decided to head over to the Jazz Club.  It's well-known in Havana for stellar shows and we were all interested in good seats.  For 10 CUC, you get in and get 2 free drinks.  After that the drinks were super cheap.  And the music was incredible. It was well worth a cover to get in.  Our only qualm was it was SO cold.

We took a really long walk back to the casa...and called it a night.

The ceremony outside the Museum of the Revolution:

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Stories from our Cuban guide Day 2-Vinales

On Day 2 of our time in Havana, Jeff and I decided to check out Vinales, the countryside where tobacco is grown for the famous Cuban cigars. We also wanted some time to talk with real Cubans so we booked a roundtrip tour with an English-speaking guide.

I think we learned more about Cuba talking to him than I could ever from reading a guide book and it was well worth the expensive trip.

Before we go on to learn about Vinales---check out this breakfast we got every morning for 5 CUC!  Not pictured are the fresh fruit smoothies and all the fresh fruit you could ask for.  Mangoes in the Caribbean are just amazing.  Our Casa also had a half hour of free wifi access every morning, which was nice for telling our mothers we were still alive!

Our trip to Vinales started at 7:30 a.m. with a classic car for the 2.5 hour drive.  Despite the car's age (and failing shocks), it had some sweet upgrades to the radio and sound system!

 The roads in Cuba are pretty good and even in the middle of nowhere country roads, there are well-kept gardens in the median of the highway. There were also many many cops on the roads.  We asked our guide about them and he said they write tickets for not wearing seat belts and speeding, but also "stupid stuff" and didn't continue.  There were a few times during the conversations where Jeff and I couldn't figure out if he was being critical of the Cuban lifestyle or if he didn't realize how critical it sounded to our American ears.

While we were driving into Vinales, I noticed many of the farmers don't have modern equipment and are using livestock to drive plows.  Our guide said that many tobacco farmers make agreements with the government to sell more than the mandatory 90% of their crops in trade for better equipment for the farms.  

Many of the rural houses are still suffering from the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew last year.  We noticed that many homes don't have windows, only wooden shutters.  Our guide said that Matthew devastated parts of the country and the government doesn't have the money to repair them.

Our first view of Vinales was from a lookout attached to the region's premiere hotel.  Later, the guide would tell us it used to be a small place. After the "triumph of the revolution" (a phrase used frequently to mark time), Castro visited Vinales and noticed the hotel's stellar view of the valley.  He suggested to the owner that the government buy the land and build a much larger spa.  I don't think in the days after the revolution one could say no to a suggestion from Castro.
Not a bad view!

The first activity was the underground caverns.  They were discovered by a local farmer and nationalized for tourism purposes after the revolution.  There was a short hike and then about a 15 minute boat ride where the guides pointed out different rock formations and their shapes.

After that, we went to one of the tobacco sorting warehouses.  Learning about all the different tobacco processes really made me appreciate the price of a Cuban cigar.  It's mostly done by hand and requires a lot of time to allow the leaves to dry and ferment at various points in the process.  At the warehouse, women (only women work here) make about 380 pesos a month---which is as much as we spent on 3 drinks at the bar the day before. However, the child care is free and they are usually compensated with housing as well.  They get bonuses in CUC (worth 27 pesos) if they exceed the 6 kilo a week requirement for sorting.  Shockingly, everything is tracked by paper and pen there were no computers in any of the warehouses or farms for tracking tobacco types, quantities, or processes.
The warehouse is large and hot.
Tobacco has to be fermented to get color + flavor
The sorting process requires a lot of attention to detail
Post sorting it has to ferment a second time.

The restaurant we had lunch at was a self-sustaining farm.  It uses about 90% of its produce for the
My lunch time view
restaurant and donates 10% to local schools.  The grounds were breathtaking rows of gardening.  The amount of work to keep it is probably insane.  And the view for lunch was A+.

Lunch was massive.  We ate and ate and ate some more.  There were three different kinds of meat, assortments of veggies, and a delicious veggie soup.  Every time we thought we were done, they brought something new!  The food was delicious we tried a few things for the first time like taro root and candied papaya.  We left ready for a nap (although partially probably due to a healthy dose of Vitamin R).

During lunch, we had quite a few interesting conversations.  Religion is a touchy subject in Cuba.  Catholicism is on the decline while many protestant groups are growing. Younger Cubans like the Pentecostal services because of the music and vibrancy.  Surprisingly, Jehovah Witness and Seventh Day
Vitamin R
Adventists are also growing in Cuba.  The Jehovahs don't honor the flag or anthem or pledge and it is a touchy subject with the government, but they're mostly left alone.

Cubans aren't allowed to kill cows.  The guide joked that it's better to kill your husband or wife to kill a cow because you'll go to prison longer for the latter.  Cubans can get beef on the private market (it's imported), but they have to maintain proof of purchase in case their home is inspected.  Apparently inspections are fairly common.

So much food!
Our guide used to teach high school English classes, but he said it was very difficult.  Most students didn't want to learn English and he only made 7 CUC (or 189 pesos---around half the tobacco warehouse ladies).  He quit teaching and eventually became a tour guide (significantly more profitable).  Our tip exceeded his monthly government salary.  Before he became an English teacher, Cubans learned Russian as their second language,
but one day Castro decided they "must learn the language of our enemies".

Now that the tourism industry is picking up in Cuba, the guide said he often meets students who now wish they had paid more attention in English class because the best way to make money is in the tourism industry.  He said every month there are less government employees because people find ways to be involved with tourism.
Walking up to the storehouse for tobacco

After lunch, we went to the actual tobacco farm.  One of the farmers gave us the run down on what

happens to tobacco after it is harvested. He greeted us with "So are you here to learn about Cuba or to escape Trump?" We learned that farmers HAVE to sell 90% of their tobacco crops to the government.  The other 10% is for personal use (this guy smoke 3-8 cigars a day).  They aren't allowed to sell them outside of their local area either.

When we were done with the learning, he showed us how to properly roll a cigar.  We then got to smoke one that had spent some time drying.  They were delicious!  The Dutch guys that joined our tour didn't like the cigars at all though.

The second to last stop in Vinales was a botanical garden, started in 1919 by a pair of sisters.  They
Weird, old, one of a kind plant.
kept cultivating the land into a sort of museum of local plants.  There are a few extremely rare species, including one plant that has never been identified anywhere else.
View from the garden.

Lastly, we visited the Mural de la Prehistoria. Don't let the name fool you, the mural was designed in
1961 and took 18 people 4 years to complete.  It is 120 m long and pretty incredible.  The artist was a student of Diego Rivera, a neat little Detroit connection.

We departed from our guide in downtown Vinales.  He told us that he now realizes our governments are both stupid.  Working with Americans he sees how our two people can get along and that there's no real "enemy" among us.  It was an interesting (and bold) statement.

On the way back to Havana it started to pour.  Turns out the roads there don't have very good
drainage so they almost instantaneously flood.  Also turns out the car we were in had a hole in the floor boards and my feet got splashed a few times.  The view from our casa when we got back looked like a black and white filter had been dropped on the sea.

We waited out the storm for a little bit and once the sky cleared, took back out to the streets of Havana to find dinner.  We were looking for a paladar, or a privately-owned restaurant.  We found a group of about 5 tucked into a little side street and sat down outside.  The waiter told us proudly his aunt was cooking tonight and if we didn't like anything it would be free.  Well, there were things we didn't like about Cuba, but food was never one of them! It was delicious and thankfully it didn't rain more than a few sprinkles on us since we were outside with no umbrellas.
After the storm.
Our patio seats!

After dinner, we started a little bar crawl.  We would just wander down streets until we heard some live Cuban music and duck in for a daiquiri or mojito.  After a drink, we'd wander to the next place.  We stayed in one bar for more than one drink though because the rain started pouring again!

I love Cuban music.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Cuban Churches and Bars! Day 1-Havana

We landed in Havana around 2:45.  Customs was a breeze---Cubans want our money.  And shuffled out to the baggage claim.  And thus began the first test of my Spanish.  Thirty minutes later---no bags.  So I asked someone and they're like wrong side!  So we walked back through customs and exited the other direction and no one batted an eye.

So we get to our taxi and exchanged money in a hotel.  Hotels aren't official money exchanges and they just took our Canadian dollars and gave us Cuban Convertible Pesos (or CUCs).  It was super bizarre, but we did the math and it checked out.

In Cuba, the government-owned (and now some privately owned) hotels are EXPENSIVE.  Most
people stay in Casa Particulars, much more similar to AirBNB or a bed and breakfast.  Ours was on the expensive end at 40CUC a night, but the view was amazing.  I would have paid 50 or 60 for that place and felt like I was getting a deal.

We were located on the Malecon, with a clear view of the whole Havana coastline.  Malecon is a 6 km (just under 4 miles).  It's filled with pedestrians, restaurants on the not seaside side, and also a 6 lane road!

Once we did our check-in business, we set out to start exploring.  Our first mission was to make a reservation at Havana61 located, predictable, at 61 Havana St.  Our casa owner mentioned it was delicious so we took him up on the offer (plus he might've mentioned air conditioning and we were already hot!).

Our first impressions of Havana were...weird. Our casa's building was well-maintained.  The street was beautiful.  But turn the corner down a side street and facades were crumbling and the most distinct scent was rotting trash.  I read in a travel blog that Havana is a city full of contradictions and conflicts and it is so obvious from the very start.

As we wandered the streets we stumbled on a church in a plaza.  We later found it is located on "Angel Hill" and called Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio.  It is where Félix Varela and José Martí were baptized.  Later on, we walked by the cathedral.  It was very odd to us that no churches had posted Mass times, which was disappointing.  And since we didn't have Internet, we couldn't look it up and see if there was a Mass we could attend!

At El Floridita, we were entranced by (1) the daiquiri making efficiency and (2) the Cuban music.  The waiters at the bar made about 20 daiquiris at a time and were pretty much constantly making them.  The Cuban singer at the bar was incredible.  Her voice carried so far without a microphone and it turned out that was a feature of Cuban music we found throughout our stay.  The vocals tended to be crystal clear and LOUD.  But it was so very good.


By the time we were done wandering through churches and bars, it was time for dinner.  We had, at this point, been walking around for about 4 hours.  So naturally, use of the toilets was a little bit of a priority.

"Do you have a bathroom?"

"Why yes, but there's a small problem."

Jeff and I look perplexed.

"There's no water in this area of town."

And the waiter walked away.  No joke.  If we didn't already have some of our food, I think we might have left!  A Canadian couple sat next to us and we found out that Havana61 is the #2 ranked restaraunt in Havana.  Like I said before, it's a place of contradictions.

Our dinner was astoundingly good.  I tried ropa vieja for the first time (and loved it so much I'm
testing my hand at a recipe for it tomorrow!).  Even better than my ropa vieja or Jeff's pork was dessert---fried plantains.  I fell in love with plantains on our honeymoon and these were infinitely better.  Warm and crunchy and perfection.  I would go back to Cuba JUST for those plantains again.

On our way back to the casa, we realized that there were a lot more police/military/security guards hanging around than there would be in, say, downtown NYC.  Not sure if it was for the safety of tourists or a more a show of strength for the communist regime.

It wasn't too late, but we were exhausted (our flight left at 7:30 am from DTW).  So we just headed back to the casa and watched the sunset.  "just" meaning I watched one of the most beautiful sunsets of my life sipping beer and wine and sitting across for my wonderful husband!

Also notable---this was the first night in our marriage that Jeff fell asleep before me.  The 5 am alarm bothered him more than me!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Day 17...or the day I almost got thrown out of the War museum

Sometimes, I exaggerate...but you'll see.

Walking around with communist stuff everywhere is odd
Today was a museum day.  Ho Chi Minh City is full of them and I wanted to see more of the

communist's perspective on the Vietnam War.  However, all of these museums have super weird opening times and these all happened to close for an hour and a half for lunch.  Since I didn't want to walk all the way there, visit one museum and be stuck for an hour and a half waiting for the others to open, I hung out for a few hours at the hostel and got to chat with Jeff, which was lovely as always!  I walked the 40 minutes to the museum as when I showed up, it started POURING!  I made a gamble on this trip that rainy season

First, I went to the War Remnants Museum.  It's really odd to walk into a museum in Vietnam and be surrounded by U.S. military vehicles and planes, but that's exactly what happens when you walk into the War Remnants museum!

Odd to see the Declaration of Independence used to chastise against a war
The museum is huge, three stories, and filled with a lot of good information, but is very very one sided. It was odd to see the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army being referred to as the "Liberation Army."  The perspective that France and the U.S. were colonizing and conquering the country for brutal reasons was very different than our perspective of trying to help South Vietnam remain free and spread that democracy to North Vietnam.  The idea that fighting the U.S. as dissidents was for "national salvation" struck me particularly hard. It was really strange to think about how committed the communists were to their cause...I mean I always knew that, but to see it and understand it more from their perspective was quite striking.

Another part of the museum showed the effects both in Vietnam and the U.S. of Agent Orange. There were any pictures of kids with birth defects that were really difficult to look at. There was a small tour group of grade school kids and one of the boys walked away and told his female classmate to be careful because the pictures are "scary."  And they were. It's terrible to know that we inflicted that kind of long-term damage to Americans and Vietnamese.

My rule-breaking photo
After the museum, I walked through the courtyards and checked out all the military vehicles. I
couldn't do it on my way in since it was raining. At one point, I decided to take out my Hooligans for Heroes scarf and asked someone to take my picture. She snapped a shot as a guard was running right in front of me to yell at another small group of people taking pictures with a sign. I gathered that pictures with signs weren't allowed from his broken English and kind of stuffed everything back in my purse really fast and walked away.  Luckily, they didn't catch me!

After the war museum, I went to the Reunification Palace, or Indepedence Palace.  It was the former
The Palace
home of the South Vietnam president and a place where American advisors met frequently.  Now, it's used for big cultural events.  After the fall of Saigon, the Palace was renamed to the Reunification Palace and underwent some renovations to repair damages from bombing.

After the museum, I went to Mass!  It was in a huge auditorium with SEVEN priests, including a bishop from the Phillipines.  The Mass was lovely and the bishop's sermon was really beautiful.  Behind me, there was a girl by herself that I noticed was crying quite a bit.  I've spent my fair share of time crying by myself in churches in different countries so I stopped her after Mass and offered to get dinner so she could talk.  She turned out to be Vietnamese and nothing in particular was wrong, but she was just very moved by Mass!  It was a really nice dinner and I learned more about Vietnam first hand, which is always cool.

Bonus Pictures
The Conference Hall where many big and important receptions were held

The view from the top of the palace

A shooting range for the president!

Where the palace was bombed during the Vietnam War

The Archdiocese's complex is gigantic

A surprise visit from the bishop!