The Long Way to Santiago de Cuba

Somewhere between Havana and Santiago de Cuba

Somewhere between Havana and Santiago de Cuba

Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together.
This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you as we get through the pandemic.

July 6th, 2020

After yesterday’s tour of Havana, we’re headed all the way south to Santiago de Cuba. Today we’ll go by magic carpet, but my journey there in 2016 wasn’t quite so easy.

It was July ~ the peak month of domestic travel in Cuba. Going by air was impossible (sold out far in advance) and undesirable (communist-era planes that haven’t been well maintained). Trains were infrequent, if they ran at all. Buses were packed with people and made infinite stops along the way. Our last best option was to take a taxi 565 miles (910 kilometres) all the way to Santiago de Cuba.

The owner of our casa particular helped us arrange said taxi after much discussion about price and vehicle (large and comfortable, please). In the end I think we agreed to $100 for the journey, divided among the four of us (we were traveling with two close friends). Not a bad price for a journey by land across the ENTIRE island of Cuba.

Havana to Santiago de Cuba

Havana to Santiago de Cuba

The taxi arrived in the dark at 6:00 a.m. We spotted the NOT-so-large vehicle from the balcony. Immediate, fervent discussion began about what we were going to do. Should we go? Should we bail? Would we make it? Would we fit? Would we hate each other at the end? After negotiating through a yes, a no, several maybes and a dash of ambivalence, we agreed to go as far as Sancti Spiritus, where we could bail out to Trinidad if we really needed to. We took our bags downstairs, squished them into the trunk and then squished ourselves into the tiny taxi to the other end of Cuba.

Our driver was an older guy, partially blind, but he knew the route like the back of his hand. I was in the back seat sandwiched in the middle, with my feet on the hump near the console. My direct view out the windshield was a tiny reward for folding my body like origami. Away we went in silence with the sun rising, the AC only whispering, and the summer heat increasing with every mile. All I remember is countless potholes, miles of sugarcane and a brief stop for lunch and a coffee.

After 7:00 p.m., we finally arrived in Santiago de Cuba.

Elapsed Time: More than 13 HOURS
Average Speed: A whopping 43 miles per hour (70 kilometres per hour)
Cost: $100 USD or $7.69 per hour
Travel Memory: Priceless

So, maybe you’re asking yourself … why was it so important to get to Santiago de Cuba? Well, find your feather boa because I have more about that tomorrow!

Until then,
Kelly

Local Color Road Trip Daily Dose of Beauty

Repost of the Day: Leaving My Heart in Havana

Repost of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together.
This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you as we get through the pandemic.

July 5th 2020

I had intended to post this yesterday but because it was Independence Day in the U.S., I stepped away for the day. I think it’s fair to say that many of us Americans find ourselves in deep contemplation about the state of the country ~ an unusual mindset for the summer holiday and not one that lends itself to celebration. I’m grateful for the freedoms and opportunities we enjoy, but at what cost and why not for everyone?

Today we’re in Havana. I’m reposting my story from August 2016 about first impressions, lasting impressions and all the discoveries in between. I broke U.S. law and visited Cuba by way of arrival from Toronto … and loved every minute. I hope you do, too.

More tomorrow,
Kelly

***

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. A fusion of sounds comes 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 how it’s going to turn out, but this shop owner 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 often 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 face economic 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.

Our sweet old ride in Havana

Our sweet old ride in Havana

The next two days take us 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. The people we talk to about recent political developments are 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 (National Geographic from 1923), 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, welcomed with 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

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Havana’s Malecón

Havana's Malecón

Havana’s Malecón

Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together.
This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you as we get through the pandemic.

July 3rd 2020

Today we’re in Havana strolling along the malecón ~ the wide boulevard separating the city from the ocean. The malecón stretches for five miles in a graceful arc along the north edge of Havana. It’s a wonderful walk to see the character of the city, which hasn’t changed that much in the past 95 years – even the streetlights are the same circular design. But Havana feels stuck in the middle between an opulent past – visible in the architecture and thought of this beautiful promenade – and the promise of the future in how cosmopolitan this oceanfront walk could be in the context of the world.

Havana's Malecón

Havana’s Malecón

Havana's Malecón

Havana’s Malecón

At the east end of the malecón we find Castillo San Salvador de la Punta, a fortress built to protect Havana, completed in the early 1600s.

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta

Looking south while walking the malecón, we see views into old Havana with its street art and elegant decay.

Art along the Malecón

Art along the Malecón

Into the city streets from the Malecón

Into the city streets from the Malecón

Tomorrow I’ll repost my story from 2016 about first impressions and the spirit of this city suspended in time.

Until then,
Kelly

Sculpture along the Malecón

Sculpture along the Malecón

Havana's Malecón

Havana’s Malecón

Havana's Malecón

Havana’s Malecón

Architecture Beauty Daily Dose of Beauty Local Color
Cuba

On Wheels in Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together.
This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you as we get through the pandemic.

July 2nd, 2020

From Guantánamo, we’re starting our journey into the heart of Cuba. Some of the most defining visuals of the country are the mixed modes of transport, coming and going, sharing the roads.

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

 

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba’s automobiles are in surprisingly good condition considering imports from the U.S. stopped in 1960, leaving the country suspended in time with thousands of what are now classic cars. Refurbished and repainted, they still run and can be a good source of income for owners who give tours around Havana. But then again, good old fashioned horsepower has never gone out of style.

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

More tomorrow from Havana,
Kelly

Cuba

Cuba

Beauty Daily Dose of Beauty Local Color

View over Guantánamo

Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together.
This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you as we get through the pandemic.

July 1st, 2020

A couple of you guessed correctly yesterday ~ we have, indeed, arrived in Cuba. Was it the food that gave it away? Maybe I was too harsh. We’ll talk more about the food later. Right now, we’re standing atop Gran Piedra (Great Rock) looking east over Guantánamo, Cuba. Gran Piedra is an enormous boulder (63,000 tons) at just over 4,000 feet in elevation, with more than 400 steps leading to the top of it.

As an American, I’ve heard many things throughout my life about Guantánamo Bay in the context of politics and history. What surprised me most about coming here was that it in no way matched what I had imagined Guantánamo might look like. I’m not sure what I expected but it wasn’t beautiful rolling hills of green and a bright blue sky.

Travel is always enlightening. It presents the opportunity to research, learn and see for yourself. But even by doing that, sometimes it’s still not possible to reconcile the view you see with the history you know.

More from Cuba tomorrow,
Kelly

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Arrival

Where are we?

Where are we?

Photo of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together.
This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you as we get through the pandemic.

June 30th 2020

Our magic carpet is coming in for a landing over mountains of deep green. We’re starting a new month in a new destination ~ one that I visited during the month of July. I won’t give you too many clues … I’ll just say that for a small country this place has played a big role in political history yet remains somewhat undiscovered.

Still guessing? Here’s another clue:

The food is bad, the drinks are strong and the culture is deep.

For a couple of you out there, that definitely gave it away. For anyone who initially guessed Mexico, think again because Mexican food is among the world’s best so that’s not where we are!

See you tomorrow with the answer, along with more fun and photos.
Kelly

Beauty Daily Dose of Beauty Outdoors

Sunset from Mount Popa, Myanmar

Sunset over Taung Kalat Monastery

Sunset over Taung Kalat Monastery

Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together.
The series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying safe at home.

June 29th, 2020

About an hour from Bagan we’ve arrived at Mount Popa National Park, the site of an extinct volcano. The landscape rises to Popa’s summit at 1,518 meters/4,981 feet. It’s a pretty sight but understandably overshadowed by the surprising feature sitting atop the volcanic plug to the west. A volcanic plug forms when molten rock rises from a volcanic vent and hardens, creating a neck or plug.

Taung Kalat Monastery

Taung Kalat Monastery

Seven hundred seventy-seven steps lead up the side of the plug to Taung Kalat monastery, a gleaming complex of gold spires with a panoramic view above Myanmar. It is a major site of nat or spirit energy and worship in Myanmar. The experience of climbing up for the view is memorable (watch out for the monkeys) but equally enjoyable is seeing the monastery at eye-level from nearby Popa Mountain Resort. Tucked into the jungle of Popa’s hillside, the resort is a remarkable spot to spend a night, watch the light change around the monastery and contemplate the process of building at such a precarious location. In some ways, Taung Kalat feels like Myanmar’s equivalent to Tiger’s Nest.

Pack your bags. Tomorrow, the magic carpet flies on to its next destination. Are you coming along? I hope so!

Until then,
Kelly

***

This post is part of this week’s Lens-Artists photo challenge found here.

Beauty Daily Dose of Beauty Local Color

A Weekend Walk Through Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon, Myanmar

Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together.
This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you as we shelter in place.

June 28th, 2020

After yesterday’s quiet visit with the reclining Buddha, today we’re walking into the weekend bustle of Yangon.

Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon, Myanmar

In so many cities of the world, a walk through the streets is a walk past glassy storefronts and closed doors. Not so with Yangon. This city feels inside-out, spilling onto the streets with energy and life that can’t be contained. Yangon’s worn and tired buildings show decades of distress, but beauty shines through everywhere you look. Walking brings you immediately in touch with all of it – sights, sounds, smells, discoveries down every street and welcoming people living life in the city.

Tomorrow … the mountaintop sunset I promised you yesterday!

Until then,
Kelly

Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon, Myanmar

Architecture Beauty