Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

The Kanheri Caves of Mumbai, India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Rajesh and I choke along the highway in his rickshaw, breathing in the air pollution as we zip past the slums bordering the highway. I probably should have taken a taxi, but driving in a rickshaw is so much more fun with the noise, the air, the essence of Mumbai right in my face. I lean out the open door and try to photograph what I see while clinging onto my camera, my backpack and my life in the precarious frame of his vehicle.

Mumbai, India

Mumbai, India

The traffic heading south is at full stop — everyone trying to get to work — while we head north, away from the jam. I expect the drive toward Sanjay Gandhi National Park to be easy and green, with signs that we’re heading toward nature. But nothing in Mumbai is easy or green. The ragged edge of life extends as far as I can see. We make a crowded right turn off the highway to the park entrance.

Through the gates, I finally find the peace and quiet of nature which is interrupted by a driver who wants to charge me 2,500 rupees to drive me 10 minutes farther up the road to the Kanheri Caves. He assumes I don’t know there’s an hourly public bus for far less money, but with the sun rising fast I decide I’d rather go now than wait for it. I negotiate to 1,000 rupees and we’re on our way. Ten minutes up the dirt road we arrive at the ticket booth where I climb the stairs to the caves.

The Kanheri Caves are among the oldest in India, used for Buddhist life and meditation from the first century B.C. to the tenth century A.D. Carved from the basalt of the surrounding hills, the caves are surprisingly angular in design with simple stone benches cut along the interior walls of many of them. Several caves have columns at the entrance and beautifully carved figures posed in various mudras.

The Kanheri site holds 109 caves, each numbered with a stencil outside the entrance. Cave 3 is a prayer hall, with remnants of a stupa in front of it and a smaller cave to the left of it.

Walking up to the entrance of Cave 3, I’m struck by the size of the columns and figures at the doorway. I feel tiny — reminiscent of the feeling I had when I walked into St. Paul’s cathedral in Rome. To the left and right, larger-than-life Buddhist figures watch over the entrance.

For the moment, I have the prayer hall to myself. I feel a sense of awe and a sense of loss at the same time. It’s clear this was once a very significant space and it hums with the subtle energy of a dying life force, but a few bits of trash on the ground and noisy tourists approaching the entrance interrupt the reverence this prayer hall deserves.

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

I wait in the hall until I’m alone again in silence. I wish I knew more about what happened here, how long it took to carve the prayer hall, how the design originated, who carved the columns, what the purpose was of the notches on the ceiling. It’s a maddening paradox that today we so easily record such endless, useless details — what we ate for lunch, which handbag we bought over the weekend — but here, old and vital details are lost. Historic places like this hold incredible stories we’ll never, ever know.

Outside the prayer hall, I climb the steps up the hill toward the other caves. Mumbai’s skyline pokes above the treetops behind a veil of pollution.

View from atop the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

View from atop the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Hilltop path at the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Hilltop path at the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

I reach the next caves which are carved on the right and left banks of a natural ravine between two hills. An archaeological team is repairing a walkway next to a series of irrigation chambers leading downhill to larger cisterns. I try to ask questions about what exactly these holes in the ground might have been used for but we share no common language.

One of the men on the team recognizes my curiosity and manages to communicate to me that there’s a painting inside the cave where he’s working. He waves me toward the interior and points to the ceiling.

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

It’s very dark but I can just make out the lines and shading of the art. I sit on the ground, put my elbows on my knees and point my camera up. I adjust my camera settings. Since I don’t have a tripod, I exhale and hold as still as possible as I try to capture a clear image without using a flash. After a few tries, I get a decent shot and discover that the painting is done in tints of red, probably with madder root. And it’s just pretty amazing to be sitting here looking at someone’s skill and creativity from hundreds — or maybe even thousands — of years ago.

I thank the man as I leave the cave and turn my attention across the ravine. Deep and square, more caves lead to more mysterious chambers inside. I take in as much as I can for the speck of time I’m at Kanheri, in awe that these ancient caves have been sitting here quietly through world empires, dictators and revolutions… old and new.

Miscellaneous Travel

Streets and Markets of Mumbai

Crawford Market, Mumbai

Crawford Market, Mumbai

Our taxi stops in the middle of traffic and we step out into the mayhem of Mumbai at rush hour. Across the pulsing artery of cars and pedestrians, I see the ruddy stone exterior of Crawford Market with its clock tower silhouetted against the hazy blue sky.

Crawford Market opened in 1865 and in 1882 it was the first building in the city to be lit by electricity. The market goes by two names : Crawford Market (the original name, after Bombay’s first Municipal Commissioner Arthur Crawford) as well as  Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market (the current name, after Indian activist and social reformer Mahatma Jyotiba Phule).

There’s a bust across from a small shop in the market where we stop to buy water. I have no idea what the inscription on the bust says, but I think this is Mr. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule himself.

The order and color of Crawford Market is a nice relief from the chaos just outside the entrance. Fruit is arranged in piles, big and small. A pineapple vendor is totally surrounded. Which ones are new? Which ones are old? It’s a secret only he knows. The watermelons are bright green and stacked with such precision it seems like removing one would release the whole pile into a rolling mess.

Betel nut seller, Crawford Market, Mumbai

Betel nut seller, Crawford Market, Mumbai

Behind the fruit stalls, the betel nut seller sits on a stone step with his basket full of concoctions. He’s a willing subject when I motion with my camera so I crouch down and see the leaves, the white lime residue and the intensity of his stare. Even now as I edit these photos, I’m struck by the directness — not only in his eyes but in the eyes of a number of men in these photographs. Sometimes people smile with uneasiness when photographed, but in Mumbai there is fearlessness… a willingness to engage. He asks to see the photo and is happy with the result.

I watch the porters who work for hire carrying heavy loads for shoppers and shopkeepers. Dressed in plaid sarongs and sandals, they come and go with their big circular baskets — hoisted up high with one hand, placed on the top of the head or at rest on the ground.

Crawford Market, Mumbai

Crawford Market, Mumbai

In between loads, the porters hang out together. Maybe he’s checking the score of the cricket match.

This is a spice market, too, where we find jar after jar of exotic smelling masala and curry powders. There is no such thing as a teaspoon here. The spice sellers place heaping scoops in shallow dishes and we inhale the complexity: vindaloo curry, chicken tikka masala, green curry, madras medium curry, tandoori chicken masala, hot curry and even just “normal curry.” And then there’s the Special Spice King Masala 96 — a proprietary blend. With their intense, earthy hues, the spice powders look as rich and powerful as they smell.

We leave Crawford Market. The displays of fruits and vegetables continue on the street. We wander through Mangaldas textile market (where a female officer warns me that I can’t take photos) and emerge on the other side. Cows wander the street, a guy roasts peanuts over a fire on a wooden cart, and another guy stirs the pot… making big swoops with his ladle through a steaming pot of dahl while he stares at me with all the intensity of Mumbai.

Flower Market, Mumbai

Flower Market, Mumbai

Big, beautiful baskets of color greet us at the flower market. We duck into a narrow alley where men sit on elevated platforms, fulfilling orders for customers. They string flowers together in fragrant garlands used for festivals, marriages, rituals and to honor deities at temples.

Bees buzz around the piles of blossoms, the aroma of jasmine lingers in the air and life in Mumbai carries on.

Selling Roses at the Flower Market, Mumbai

Selling Roses at the Flower Market, Mumbai

Miscellaneous Photography
Maldives

My Top 12 Travel Experiences by Month

Happy New Year everyone!

Thinking about where to go in 2017? Here are my top twelve travel experiences (ever, not just this year) by month. I hope you find some ideas among these journeys. Thank you all so much for reading, following, commenting and being such an inspirational community!

January: Finding Zen in the Maldives

If you want to forget about everything except the horizon in front of you, this might be the place. Yes, it’s painfully expensive but if you can get to the Maldives you’ll find every tint and shade of blue within an intense peacefulness that will inspire you to do nothing but stare at the view, put your toes in the sand and maybe swim around with the resident tropical fish.

***

February: Longtail Boating Through the Canals of Bangkok

This was a short but sweet experience that I’d love to repeat someday. Hop in a longtail boat at the edge of the Chao Praya and ask your captain to take you on a tour of the canals of Bangkok. You’ll get to see a different side of the city with a much less frenetic pace from a cool and relaxing perspective. Don’t forget to stop at the floating market for a bite to eat.

***

March: Touring Bagan’s Temples by Horse Cart

If you like history and architecture, you’ll love Bagan. The landscape is crisscrossed with paths from one ancient temple to the next. A good local guide with a horse cart can take you to the most notable temples, or you can follow your whim by looking for spires and biking your way around. It would take months to see them all, but don’t miss the Shwezigon Pagoda — covered in gold and by far the most opulent.

***

April: Safari in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is one of my favorite destinations of all time. With temples, history, tea country, train rides through the hills, lush jungles, pristine beaches, friendly locals and abundant wildlife, Sri Lanka has a rare combination of everything that makes traveling wonderful. My favorite experience was a three-day safari at Yala National Park with its incredible diversity — elephants, sloth bears, water buffalo, deer, wild boars, foxes, crocodiles, hornbills, and leopards that are bigger in size and more densely populated than anywhere else on the planet.

***

May: Chasing Waterfalls in Yosemite National Park

When the snow stops and the spring sun shines, Yosemite National Park is in its prime. Venture to the valley floor where you’ll feel like a tiny human in the context of the thousands of years of geology surrounding you. Yosemite’s waterfalls — Upper Yosemite, Lower Yosemite, Bridalveil, Nevada and Vernal among them — usually reach peak flow in May. From the road, from the trail and from Glacier Point especially, they are spectacular in their power and beauty. Just don’t get too close!

***

June: A Homestay in Borneo

Saloma shares her family home with anyone seeking an authentic experience in the jungle of Borneo. We spent a few days with Saloma and marveled at her way of life and knowledge of the land. From cooking rice in a stalk of bamboo, to foraging for plants and enjoying a barbecue lunch in a hut deep in the jungle, to walking through a longhouse and meeting the neighbors, this homestay was a direct connection with a way of life unfamiliar to us but hundreds of years old in tradition. Saloma is a real-life Queen of the Jungle.

***

July: Following the Tour de France Through the Alps

Fly into Geneva, rent a car or a camper, buy some wine and cheese and hit the road into the Alps. The Tour de France is a road trip party with people from all over the world. It’s so much fun that loving the sport of cycling isn’t even necessary (but it does help). There’s a lot of waiting around partying and when the péloton finally shows up it blows past in a matter of minutes. But seeing all the pretty French villages on the route, being able to camp anywhere you want, having cheese and wine every afternoon and and doing it all over again the next day … Mon dieu! C‘est magnifique!

Runner-up for July: Carnaval in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

***

August: Car Camping Through Italy

Che cazzo! I don’t have any photos of this trip since it happened way back in 2001. But if you’re looking for slow travel through Italy, car camping might just be the thing. We rented a car in Milan, drove to Florence and Rome, cut east to Francavilla, stopped in Vieste and ended the trip in Bari (before catching the ferry to Greece). We car camped the whole way, astounded by the comfort of the campgrounds — many with markets, pools, laundry facilities and restaurants. Among the best was camping on the beach in Vieste (aerobics every day at 4:00) and our spectacular campsite across the river in Florence (best view of the Duomo anywhere). Why August? Nearly all the shops and restaurants of Italy are closed in August since everyone is on vacation, but this means you’ll be immersed in local culture, make new friends and see the refined art of Italian family camping. Quite an experience — just make your campsite reservations well ahead of time.

***

September: Trekking Nepal’s Khumbu Valley

This is a true journey of a lifetime. Trekking farther into the Himalayas each day gets progressively harder and being in tune with your body is especially important. Each step and each breath gets you closer to Mount Everest and on some mornings those are the only two things you can even think about. But when you crest that mountain and see that view of Everest from Kala Patthar, there is nothing like it in the world. Mother Nature sits right in front of you with a greeting that took millions of years to get to you.

***

October: Seeing the Fall Colors from a Ryokan in Kyoto

Japan is art. There’s no other way to describe it. Immerse yourself in the composition by staying at an authentic ryoken and venturing around Kyoto’s many landmarks and gardens to see the bamboo forests and changing colors of fall. We stayed at Seikoro Ryokan and loved every minute of our stay. From the tatami mats to the sliding screen doors to the unknown dishes of our Japanese breakfast, it was a visit that has inspired us to return to Japan whenever we can to unlock the meanings of its many customs and traditions.

***

November: Touring Sa Pa’s Weekend Markets

If you want to find culture then find the night train from Hanoi to Sa Pa. Plan your visit around the weekend so you’ll be there for the market when minority hill tribes come down into Sa Pa from their surrounding mountain communities. Textiles, clothing, embroidery, beading and color give subtle clues to hill tribe identity. One of our best experiences was sharing a beer and hot bowls of pho with a hill tribe woman at the main market. And discovering the sewing shop and buying a quilt and a custom pair of pants — made overnight. Visiting Bac Ha, the Sunday market in the neighboring village, takes the whole experience to the next level.

***

December: Desert Camping in Oman

December had a close runner-up: Christmas markets in Germany. Whether you sip glühwein while eating a bratwurst and shopping for ornaments, or drive your 4WD vehicle into the uncharted desert to drink Omani coffee and do some sand dune sledding, you can’t go wrong. Both experiences are unique, memorable and evoke a sense of place that won’t be forgotten. I still think about Oman’s desert silence, the unexpected cold of the morning, the sunsets and shadows, and the feeling of being very far away from everything.

***

Wherever you are in 2017, I hope you find yourself in love — with life, with yourself, with each other, with the world, with the kindness and beauty that persists and will always be there for discovery. Happy New Year!

Miscellaneous Travel

Short Stories from Mumbai

Gate of India, Mumbai

Gate of India, Mumbai

Last month, spending ten days in Mumbai left such a powerful lasting impression that I haven’t written a word here since I returned. Not since Peru in 1999 and Cambodia in 2010 has a destination left me so deep in thought, so totally at a loss for words. The emotions I feel and the questions I have alternate between hope and despair. I would guess that if you’ve spent any time in Mumbai you might feel the same. Mumbai is undeniably a productive and thriving city, rich in culture and humanity. But the pace of its growth and the dire state of its infrastructure is a foreboding juxtaposition.

Traveling through a metropolitan area with more than 20 million people shoves all the associated problems right in your face — transportation, jobs, waste, sanitation and pollution among them. I couldn’t help but compare and contrast Mumbai with Tokyo — a larger city with a far more robust infrastructure accommodating a metropolitan population of more than 38 million. These are two of the world’s largest cities but they are vastly different in their complexions. Tokyo is clean and efficient, with an underlying etiquette that maintains control. Mumbai is dirty and loud, with a relentless bustle that cannot be avoided. But in the middle of it all, glimpses of beauty are everywhere — like the architecture of Victoria Terminus or the care taken in displaying a basket of vegetables.

Streets of Mumbai, India

Streets of Mumbai, India

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness…” I think travel is also fatal to judgement. For everything I saw and experienced in Mumbai, I have no judgement. I think the people of Mumbai are doing the very best they can in the conditions they’re living in, some of which are heartbreaking. The people I met were lovely — curious, engaging, gracious and smiling. And they’re brilliant at dealing with horrendous traffic (and an unexpected currency crisis!) with grace and compromise. Try taking a taxi from the Gate of India to Powai around 7:00 p.m. (with no small change!) and you’ll see what I mean.

From the broadest perspective, Mumbai scared me. At the closest interactions, Mumbai endeared me. These are the short stories in between.

***

Finding Myself in Dharavi

If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, you probably know of Dharavi — Mumbai’s largest slum and one of the most densely populated places on the planet with between 700,000 to 1,000,000 residents in less than one square mile (2.1 sq. km). I toured some of Dharavi with Reality Tours. (Their tour is not for photography, only for education and they give back to Dharavi through Reality Gives.) At first thought, touring a slum might seem sad and exploitive but seeing Dharavi was one of the most enlightening experiences for me in Mumbai. Dharavi hums with productivity — from recycling (plastic mostly, sorted by color and melted into pellets) to pottery to the production of nearly all the poppadoms served in Mumbai. Trash is a huge problem in Mumbai and, were it not for the recycling happening in Dharavi, I can’t imagine how much worse it would be.

People living and working in Dharavi come from all over India, in search of good jobs and wages they can send home. The economic output of Dharavi is more than USD $500 million annually. Hazardous working conditions leave a lot to be desired, but many jobs in Dharavi are coveted and kept in the family. For instance, if a man from Himal Pradesh who works in scrap metal suddenly needs to go home, he’ll send a family member to take his place until he can return.

Upon seeing Dharavi, I saw hope along with the universal human desire for a decent life no matter the challenges. As Maya Angelou said, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

***

Dhobi Ghat

Proof that there is order to the chaos of Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is the city’s largest manually powered laundromat. Viewed from a bridge at the south side, Dhobi Ghat is a maze of concrete washing pens and a patchwork of sheets and clothing hanging out to dry. The complex is as fascinating for its size and function as it is for the life and labor within its walls. Kids play in the water, a dhobi brushes his teeth, mom watches the baby and somehow all those sheets and towels — sorted by color and washed by hand — find their way back to all the hotels and hospitals where they came from.

***

Photos at the Jain Temple

I stood in central Mumbai, admiring the detail of a new Jain temple constructed entirely of marble. Photos were not allowed, so I just stared for a few minutes while thinking about Jainism — all new to me. One of the main teachings of Jainism is non-violence, or ahimsa. Jains are strict vegetarians and also avoid eating root vegetables because they believe removing a plant by its root inflicts harm. Jains also try not to harm insects and even avoid traveling at night because if you can’t see insects, you can’t avoid harming them.

The man overseeing the temple must have appreciated my interest because he motioned that it was okay for me to take photographs. Sweet! But really, he mostly wanted me to take a photo of him and his buddies — some of whom were more willing than others. But the interest in having your picture taken? That’s also a pretty universal human desire. And if you can share the result in the display of your DSLR… even better.

***

Funny with Sunny

Sunny was my guide through Dharavi and I also  booked a private walking tour with him so I wouldn’t get lost in the mayhem of Mumbai while shooting photos. After a few hours at the Crawford Market (next post), flower market, sari market and seeing all the cows at Bombay Panjrapole, we hopped a cab back to our starting point. The taxi driver was super chatty (in Hindi), telling Sunny all about the drama of driving a taxi. Sunny turned to me and told me that his father is a taxi driver so he already knew all about this subject, so I taught Sunny a new English phrase: preaching to the choir.

The taxi driver turned his attention to me — “Madam” — in the backseat. He asked Sunny where I was from, then continued with a curious string of questions about Madam translated by Sunny. Are there trees where Madam is from? Do they grow crops where Madam is from? Does Madam eat rice? Do they grow rice where Madam is from? Most of it is imported, I told Sunny — an unexpected answer.

The driver was excited to have a translator in the car — he couldn’t speak much English or communicate with any tourists. He told Sunny that his conversations usually consisted of two sentences: How much to Colaba? Okay, go to Colaba. He told Sunny he wanted me to speak some Hindi so I read Sunny’s Hindi phrase card and did my best to get it right. We all had a good laugh.

***

Rajesh and the Rickshaw Rides

Upon walking down the driveway of the hotel on my first full day in Mumbai, a rickshaw driver stopped me and asked me where I was going.

“Down to the main street and turning right into the neighborhood.” I could see the neighborhood from my hotel room. It looked questionable but so did everything in Mumbai.

He pointed to his face and made a circle with his finger.

“You are white. Don’t go there.”

I had promised everyone that I would be careful in Mumbai and heed any warnings. This was a warning. Whether it was just to get me to ride in his rickshaw, I’ll never know. But I found out later that this driver — Rajesh — lived in that neighborhood so perhaps he was right in telling me to stay away.

Rajesh took me roundtrip to a more acceptable neighborhood (by his standards) and I took his number when I got back to the hotel. A couple days later I texted him about going to the Khaneri Caves (post coming soon). With rupees in such short supply, I negotiated in Canadian dollars and he picked me up the next morning. The caves were exceptional and when he dropped me back at the hotel I handed him two twenty dollar bills — the $35 we had agreed on, plus a tip for waiting for me throughout the five hour excursion.

Later that day I got a text.

“mam one peypar is crek.”

One of the plastic twenty dollar bills had a crack in it.

“Put clear tape one side. No problem in Canada.” I was flashing back to Myanmar where only pristine, crisp U.S. bills had been accepted when we were there. One tear or blemish rendered the bills unacceptable.

“ok mam i chak.”

“If problem, come back. I have only one more paper but can exchange with you.”

“okay mam i chak.then messages you.”

“OK. Leaving early morning for Goa!”

I didn’t want to leave him hanging. But the clear tape must have worked because I didn’t hear back from him until a week later.

“mam you back in mumbai?”

“Back in Canada!”

“mam any job in canada for me?”

***

 

Miscellaneous
Buchart Gardens

Pure Color at Butchart Gardens

An October afternoon at Butchart Gardens, in photos. Heavenly! Are words even necessary? Not really, other than mentioning that Butchart Gardens is just outside Victoria on Vancouver Island. Trails lead through 55 acres of trees, plants and flowers, still cared for by the Butchart family more than 100 years after Jennie Butchart transformed the former limestone quarry into a complex of gardens with regional themes. And the dahlias! My favorite part — a perfect blend of art and science in every bloom. Enjoy!

Miscellaneous Photography

History, a Photograph and the View Over Guantánamo

Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

The song accompanying this post is Guantanamera performed by Manos Libres, a musical group we loved in La Habana Vieja. Guantanamera is one of the most well-known songs of Cuba — played every day, all over the island — with lyrics by Cuban writer and national hero José Martí. With this post we’ve come full circle — from Carnaval in Santiago de Cuba, to Havana, to Trinidad, and now back to Santiago de Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba ambles down the hill toward the port. The view from above is stunning in every direction — ocean, mountains, and a mishmash of architecture with a collective appearance that doesn’t immediately communicate its location. This could be the view in quite a few cities around the world. But the accompanying rum, searing heat and ever-present music reveal its identity as unmistakably Cuban.

We’re staying in an elegant casa particular in the Vista Alegre neighborhood outside downtown. The grand dame of the house is Bérta — a highly successful, retired arts educator in her eighties. The home is quietly welcoming, just like Bérta who stands to greet us upon arrival. She speaks a bit of English and seems happy to be hosting travelers from all over the world.

Bérta’s daughter Nani and son-in-law Reynaldo run the guest house business, among their other pursuits which include writing about and documenting Cuban history. Their office is a treasure trove of preserved newspapers from many important days in Cuban history. In the hall outside our bedroom, moments of the Revolucion hang on the walls in frames, frozen in time.

In one frame: Buscan al Camilo — Searching for Camilo, the headline from October, 1959. Camilo Cienfuegos, a key figure of the Granma expedition and Revolucion, went missing on a night flight to Havana. He was never found.

In another frame: Proclamado Presidente El Dr. Urrutia with a photo below of Fidel Castro. Urrutia was proclaimed president of Cuba in January, 1959 and served for six months before resigning due to disagreements with then Prime Minister Fidel Castro. If this home and its archives could talk, and if I knew more Spanish, there would be epic stories to uncover here.

We stay at Berta’s casa particular for two nights and then move on to another one a few streets away. At the next casa particular, we meet our hosts Oti and Adalberto. Through Adalberto’s very limited English (and a Google search later when I return from the trip), I learn that he’s a former colonel of the Guantánamo Frontier Brigade, who studied in Russia many years ago. And his wife Oti? She was in the Cuban army as well — and looks like she could totally kick some ass. But Adalberto is irresistibly gentle in his old age, with soft hands the size of baseball gloves. We ask to eat dinner at the house one night so he proceeds to cut plantains from the tree, scale a fish, fire up the charcoal barbecue and roast the fish on top of the plantains. He serves the fish with a magnificent marinade — some magical creation of garlic, lemon, oil and Cuban miracle spice — that is better than any marinade I’ve ever tasted. Unfortunately, the recipe is lost in translation, to remain captive in Cuba.

I laugh when Adalberto pantomimes later that making the fish dinner for us gave him a few new gray hairs. He’s new to this casa particular business but seems entertained enough to give it a chance. He asks what he can do better. Nothing, Señor. You have done plenty.

While we’re in Santiago de Cuba, we make a day trip to climb 450 steps up Gran Piedra — one of the biggest rocks in the world. Its weight is estimated at 63,000 tons and you can stand right on top of it for a panoramic view of the entire southern end of Cuba. On a clear night, they say you can even see the lights of Haiti.

Getting to Gran Piedra requires a really good vehicle because the road is steep and rough. Nani helps us locate just the guy we need. He owns a truck made by Willys-Overland, an old American car company that used to make military vehicles. Our driver pulls up with his vintage ride and we’re off to Gran Piedra, through verdant fields and up the mountain, passing a few cars that have overheated along the way. He drops us at the hut where we pay a small fee and begin the short climb to the top.

At the base of the final staircase to Gran Piedra, I buy a few bracelets from a father and son. We continue to the top of the rock where we find another couple of vendors selling their crafts in what is one of the most splendid settings you could wish for on a clear day. We’re lucky to have missed the fog. The lush, green hills fall away from us in every direction, the clouds are suspended like pillows and we can see all the way to the coastline where bright white crescents of sand look like little slivers of deserted paradise.

With so much beauty in every direction, it is difficult to fathom that Guantánamo Bay — the American prison — lies just beyond the hills to the southeast of us. We’re essentially looking right over it from where we’re standing. With such dark history, my mind expects to see a shadow, some kind of ugliness, some malevolent indicator of its location on the view in front of us. But here, the darkness of history has no power against the beauty of nature and all we can see is infinite blue and green.

Gran Piedra, Guantánamo Province

Gran Piedra, Guantánamo Province

We descend Gran Piedra, wave goodbye to one of the women at the top, and depart with the experience of having seen beauty and history in an evocative duet. It seems like every step we take in Cuba is accompanied by this pairing, which I think is what has made Cuba so compelling to me in the span of 12 days. History is always just right there at the surface.

Padre Pico Steps, Santiago de Cuba

Padre Pico Steps, Santiago de Cuba

Back in downtown Santiago de Cuba, we meander down the hill from Parque Céspedes to the Padre Pico steps. This is where Fidel Castro fired the first shots in his movement against two-time President of Cuba Fulgencio Batista. Batista was the incumbent until he was ousted by forces of the Revolucion — led by Che Guevarra — on January 1, 1959. Not far from the top of the Padre Pico steps is the childhood home of Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro's childhood home

Fidel Castro’s childhood home

A brick and mortar path leads to the home’s simple square facade. Pastel tints of pink and yellow seem a thousand shades away from a man we’ve seen in a lot of army green. The home shows no signs of life but an elderly woman sits on the front porch of the adjoining home, as a little boy looks at us over its railing. J gives him a toy Matchbox car. He is over the moon.

A few men (landscapers?) linger in the front yard of the woman’s home, enjoying the shade of the flame tree. One of them asks me for a ballpoint pen. He is delighted when I present him with the one, very nice, extra ballpoint pen I have with me that, for some reason, I placed in my backpack right before I departed for Cuba. The pen has found its more appreciative new owner. Small gifts go a really long way in this country.

While I’m taking photos, J strikes up a Spanish/English/charade conversation with the woman on the front porch. She presents J with a photograph from many years ago when Fidel Castro returned here to his former home. This woman is about the same age as Castro is today (90) and her children are pictured in the photograph. From what we can gather, this woman has lived here her whole life and was Fidel Castro’s childhood neighbor. Guantanamera!

We are reminded yet again that Cuban history is right there at the surface, alive and well, waiting to be discovered by whoever seeks it out.

***

I’m sad to be wrapping up my stories of Cuba. I hope you’ve enjoyed them, lingered over them, like a good Cuban cigar.

Miscellaneous Travel
Trinidad, Cuba

Postcards From Trinidad

Trinidad, Cuba

The song accompanying this post is Hasta Siempre Comandante performed by Dúo Real, a guitar duo we listened to while dining on the outdoor deck at La Ceiba in Trinidad.

After Havana and Santiago de Cuba, we venture to Trinidad on another long ride through the countryside. Acres and acres of corn and sugarcane fields surround us on the road to the west coast. A few stops for lunch and coffee along the route allow us to see a way of life still rooted in the last century.

After experiencing the magnetism of Havana and the enthusiasm of Santiago de Cuba, venturing to Trinidad brings the chance to see another identity within this island full of personality. In the context of these three Cuban cities, we find Trinidad is the introvert — less inclined to chat us up with life and music on the street; more inclined to leave a lasting impression through quiet color and beauty.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad feels subdued, almost suburban, with mostly single-story shops and cobblestone streets that are easily explored on foot. The town is a UNESCO world heritage site with well-preserved architecture on a smaller, simpler scale than Havana. Trinidad is a big draw for tourism and it seems like we see more tourists here than we do anywhere else. This is good and bad — it may feel slightly more crowded than other towns, but Trinidad is accustomed to entertaining guests so there are lots of shops and restaurants to explore.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

The heart of Trinidad is the Plaza Mayor and the Church of the Holy Trinity. A wide stone staircase next to the church feels like Cuba’s version of the Spanish Steps — a social meeting point where you can grab some shade under a tree or a mojito from the bar on the corner.

The Church and Monastery of Saint Francis draw people up to the bell tower to have a look over Trinidad. As we discover on a morning walk, there are other, less crowded places to see the town from up above. We wander into a gallery where a volunteer guide shows us to the roof.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

Exploring Trinidad is less about what there is to do and more about what there is to see. It is one of the most visually expressive towns I’ve ever been to … where the color of a classic car may match the color of the home where it’s parked. Every photo is a postcard and the color combinations of the buildings enlighten my opinion of what goes together and what doesn’t. Everything here just seems to work. It even seems like the people who live here have subconsciously adopted this unique color blocking in the way they dress. Their shirts and pants give an extra dab of tertiary color to the streetscape.

We explore the markets around town, with embroidered tablecloths, woodcarvings, fans, jewelry and ubiquitous Che Guevara t-shirts for sale. We make a trade at one of the stalls — two carved wooden hummingbirds in exchange for J’s sunglasses.

We’ve come to realize that hats, sunglasses and pens — especially pens — are sought after all over Cuba. Here in Trinidad, I pass a home on a morning walk and the two elderly residents look at me from their front door while emphatically gesturing as if they’re writing on paper. I reach in my bag and give them a pen. They are elated with this simple gift. On an afternoon walk on the outskirts of Trinidad, a man asks J if he can have his hat. Sure! We have more hats. You take this one. Thumbs up and big smiles all around.

Trinidad, Cuba

Morning music in Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad has music, too. We are in Cuba, after all. The music here is a little more country, a little less rock and roll. The act of getting together to play and enjoy the time seems almost more important than the music itself.

Trinidad is a coastal city and in our research of it we find a few suggestions about visiting its outer-lying beaches. One beach is near town and the other — Playa Ancón — is a longer taxi ride away. We go to both. As with everything in Cuba, there isn’t much information about what we’ll find at these beaches. But as with everything in Cuba, the adventure is usually worth it. Here’s our discovery at Playa Ancón. I’ll let you decide whether or not it’s worth it. In the meantime … hasta luego, mis amigos! I’ll be in the water.

***

Next post: The View Over Guantánamo

Culture Miscellaneous Travel

Leaving My Heart in Havana

Havana, Cuba

The song accompanying this post is Besos Discretos performed by Fusión Caribe, a fantastic band on the streets of Havana. Video follows below.

We arrive in darkness around midnight, packed in a taxi, creeping along a narrow street in La Habana Vieja. Our driver speaks very little English, but stopping and turning off the engine is a pretty clear indication that we’ve arrived at our casa particular. Our host meets us on the street and shows us into the building. We climb five flights of stairs and enter the tall wooden door to our apartment.

Even though I’ve seen the photos online, our casa particular unexpectedly sweeps me up in its aura, with its decorative floor tiles and unreachable high ceilings. The photos on the wall offer a few hints about the history of the neighborhood over the past decades. The gold chandelier looks cherished but forgotten. The refrigerator is a relic. The parlor doors swing open to the warm night air and the balcony looks out on a street where thousands of days and nights and people have come and gone in Havana. This place has so many stories to tell.

We sleep and wake up the next morning to music. It’s a fusion of sounds coming from all over — below us, out front, out back. The combined rhythms eventually pull me out of bed. No one seems to mind the noise. This is just how Cuba wakes up in the morning. I follow the strongest beat to the back of the apartment and look out from the open air dining area where I’m greeted by a bright yellow wall against a blue sky. How curious that someone has felt strongly enough to paint half a wall in such a magnetic color in such an unusual location. Like the morning music, it’s another clue about the spirit of Cuba.

View across the street in Havana

View across the street in Havana

As the morning goes on I become a dance partner with the balcony overlooking the street, where the neighborhood has come to life. Outside, inside, outside, inside… I unpack in the bedroom while taking quick little breaks to see who and what is passing by below. I see I’m not the only dancer. Everyone with a balcony has mastered this same choreography. Outside, inside. Inquire, retreat.

Havana, Cuba

Firewood delivery at the Italian café

Our casa particular is located across the street from a wonderful little Italian café where we enjoy coffee, breakfast and a warm welcome to the neighborhood. An old Ford Model T pulls up with a delivery of firewood for the café’s pizza oven. The scene in front of me probably doesn’t look all that different now than it would have in the 1930s.

Havana, Cuba

We walk to the malecón where the road and the seawall extend for several miles in a graceful curve on the north side of the city. The heat and sun are as intense as the blue of the sky and the colors of the cars driving by. These classic cars are everywhere, inspiring our constant speculation about make, model and year. It seems almost miraculous that so many are still running and in pretty great shape (the exteriors, at least) some fifty+ years since manufacture.

A tiny vintage cab shuttles us over to the cerveceria near the ferry terminal and art market. It’s our first of many experiences with live music, beer and cigars. In this heat, a cold beer tastes really good. We hang out for a couple hours and continue our walk around the city.

Most of the architecture of Havana is in dire need of restorative attention, but the remaining beauty offers tantalizing hints at how incredible this city must have been in its heyday in the early to mid-1900s. During that time, Cuba was enjoying freedom from former rule by Spain and relations between Cuba and the U.S. were functional. Havana flourished from a boom in tourism and foreign investment, but the growth of casinos and nightclubs brought gambling, prostitution and organized crime. This, along with repeated upheavals within the government, meant that the years leading up to the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s were prosperous but challenging.

Shortly after the Revolution and introduction of communism, foreign-owned assets were expropriated and the U.S. embargo began. Cuba set off on a new path, independent of the sources of its previous economic success. The country stagnated and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union further degraded the economy. Cuba found itself trapped in time, with no way to move forward.

Havana’s streets tell the whole story — with plazas and churches from the 1700s alongside formerly beautiful buildings left unprotected from the clutch of age. With pastel colors and Spanish Colonial features, some streets resemble an unlikely mash-up between Prague and Cuzco. Other streets are rough and decaying but there’s always at least one friendly face peeking out from a window or a doorway. In some cases, the face we see belongs to Che Guevara. His visage is everywhere and it seems he’s the most endeared figure of the Revolution.

Havana, Cuba

Plaza de San Francisco

We come to the Plaza de San Francisco and the rain begins to pour down. We rush into Restaurante Café del Oriente and feel like we’ve suddenly stepped 75 years back in time. The grit is gone and we’ve found Havana’s old opulence in this cafe’s enormous columns, Baroque crown moulding, and marble and brass bar. A young man plays a grand piano in the corner. He reads the crowd and spices things up with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody thrown in among the usual piano classics.

Havana27

The rain passes in an hour, leaving the city with a dull and dirty glow. We walk back toward our casa particular as life returns to the streets after the storm. J stops for a haircut at the local barbershop — a tradition he follows in every country we visit. He never knows what he’s gonna get, but this guy in Havana does a better job than anyone in any other country. For 10 bucks.

Havana, Cuba

We get to the casa particular and I’m sucked back into the allure of the balcony, and Havana in general. The afternoon turns to evening, I watch the world go by and I wonder why we waited so long to bypass the border and come to Cuba. As Americans, the story we hear is that Cuba is barely getting by without us … unable to really prosper without the support of its biggest neighbor. Certainly, the Cuban people do face a lot of challenges but in the one day I’ve been in Havana I’ve seen happiness, warmth, gratitude, ingenuity and prosperity. It is far from destitute and the people here have pride, energy and determination. Cuba is not a country of people sitting idle with their hands out wondering when help is going to arrive.

Our sweet old ride in Havana

Our sweet old ride in Havana

The next two days take us even deeper into the heart of Havana. We hire a driver with a classic car to take us to the sights outside of La Habana Vieja. The Hotel Nacional sits along the malecón, overlooking the ocean. Our guide tells us it’s the first time in decades that the Cuban and American flags are able to hang side-by-side at the entrance, thanks to the diplomacy of Raúl Castro and Barack Obama. Everyone we talk to about the recent political developments is happy the two nations are reconciling.

We stop at the Plaza de la Revolución — an enormous and featureless plot of pavement for important gatherings in Havana. Fidel Castro and Pope Francis have both spoken here. To the north, Che is memorialized in a steel line drawing on the side of the Ministry of Interior. The tower on the south side of the plaza is a memorial for José Martí, an intellectual who inspired Cuba’s independence from Spain. It’s fascinating to me that this island nation of just 12 million people has been the source of such dramatic history over the past 150 years — colonial rule, independence, revolts, the Revolution, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. embargo, and the saga of Guantanamo Bay. Maybe it’s that the principle characters of Cuba’s biography have been such dramatic figures themselves and geography has unavoidably provided the stage.

Except for the book market, where these history lessons are lined up on the shelves, Havana has a peaceful demeanor that belies its tumultuous past. Business on the streets seems to be doing okay. People are selling what they can to make a living — fruit, coconuts, cleaning supplies, vintage books and magazines (Nat Geo from 1923, anyone?), and even vinegar and cooking oils in recycled bottles that have been sealed up with packing tape. Stores, on the other hand, lack any proof that basic household needs can be reliably purchased. Shelves are empty except for canned tomatoes, cooking oil, baby formula and rum. Lots of rum. Necessity has forced the invention of the thriving economy we see on the street.

Havana, Cuba

We come across a group of guys playing a fierce game of dominoes around a nicely crafted table outside an apartment building. We watch and learn, and I love that they’re not at all bothered by our curiosity. I turn to look down the street and a classic car is coming toward us. But the driver sees some friends on the sidewalk, so he just parks the car and everyone enjoys a quick catch-up on the side of the street. It is Sunday afternoon in Havana.

I can’t keep writing about Cuba if I don’t start writing about the music. The two go hand-in-hand. Never before have I been to a country where sound is such an integral part of the identity of a nation. In the handful of days we spend in Havana, we have the pleasure of hearing no less than nine groups performing on the streets and in the restaurants. Music is everywhere. It seems like everyone sings or plays an instrument, and we see a couple of the best musicians around town accompanying different bands at different times of the day.

When the maracas get shaking and the bongos start banging, the rhythm of Cuba comes alive and street corners come to a standstill as everyone gathers to enjoy the music. The musicians themselves can’t resist the call to move. Their feet, their hips, their wrists … everything moves with a little bit of flare and swirl that is uniquely Cuban. Happiness radiates. Music might be the one thing — the most enduring thing — that has carried the country through history and escaped the turmoil and economic hardship. No wonder it’s such a big part of life.

Havana, Cuba

The one and only Coronet

On our last night in Havana, J chooses one more classic car for a final spin around the city — a big, beautiful, burgundy, convertible Coronet. The only one in the entire country. As we take a look at the car, we get to know the family who owns it. The father is the driver and the son-in-law, who speaks perfect English, is the tour guide. Ingenuity meets opportunity.

We cast aside the tour map and tell the guys we just want to cruise around for an hour. The son-in-law replies, “Ooooh, you want to cruuuuuuuuze! I get it!”

We all pile into the car and dad starts the engine with a big smile. I think he’s just as excited as we are to go drive around. He pulls away from the rainbow of classic cars parked near the capitol building. We go slow. We cruuuuze. We drive 20 miles an hour as the sun sets beyond the malecón, and we couldn’t be happier seeing Havana one more time from The Coronet. It’s an experience we’ll never forget — an experience found only in Cuba.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been completely enraptured by a city but Havana has all the elements that make it happen — history, art, architecture, beauty, kind people, heart, heat, spirit and music … so much music. And the food? It’s okay. There is a lot of lobster so it could be worse. But let’s just say … the food is poised for its own revolution.

I’ll raise a mojito and toast to that, as I run out to the balcony one last time and say goodbye to Havana. I already can’t wait to come back.

Above: Fusión Caribe performing in Havana, Cuba

***

Next post: Trinidad

Previous post: Carnaval: Into the Heart of Cuba

Experience