Throwback Travel: Morning at the Marina & A Cuban Birthday

2016-03-31 10.06.19

**NOTE to READERS: The following describes a trip which took place in March and early April, 2016.

Thursday, March 31, 2016.

We’re at the marina for an arranged boat ride around the bay.

But I’m not really feeling that hot.

I suspect that I haven’t actually recovered from the hangover I had earlier in the week. I’ve downed a Pepto-Bismol tablet to try and soldier through the day.

I sit next to Joe’s mom Claire, who must have seen my face and asks how I’m feeling. Apparently she and Joe also haven’t been feeling that hot, either.

That doesn’t stop us from doing our best to enjoy the morning.

The sun’s strong, but luckily the boat’s covered. As we cut through the water, we lean over the side and spot jellyfish of varying sizes bobbing just beneath the surface.

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We pass houses dotting the shore, and a man in his small boat, perhaps returning from a fishing expedition.

Some of the Aussies stretch out on the nose of the boat. Santana assumes his normal position – separate from the group, keeping to himself.

An hour to 90 minutes later, we return to the marina.

As we leave the boat, Santana says, oh, by the way, our driver has taken our bus in for repairs. It’s apparently leaking oil, so we won’t see the bus until much later. If we want to return to our casas, well, we’re on our own.

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We don’t have an issue with the bus needing repairs or maintenance. It just would have been nice if we were TOLD about it.

Some of us are like, “You can’t do that!” And poor Anick’s in a panic – she’s left her belongings on the bus.

We have no choice but to cool our heels in the marina’s restaurant until the bus returns. But while we wait, Jana catches wind that today happens to be Anick’s birthday. So to cheer her up, we sing her Happy Birthday, which causes her to tear up a little.

The bus eventually returns and with the exception of one of the other Aussie couples (Jeff and Heather), we pile on the bus and return to the part of town we’re staying in.

Jana and walk back to the casa for an afternoon siesta … but when we knock, no one answers. And we don’t have a spare key. We were never given one. Huh.

So there we are on the street, both varying degrees of grumpy. I would suggest going back into town to kill some time, but I know Jana isn’t having any of it, and frankly, I’m too pooped to entertain the idea.

We walk down the street to the “home base” casa for help. Someone we don’t recognize lets us inside, and when we try to explain the situation (with our lack of Spanish), they motion for us to sit on the porch while they grab the lady who runs the place.

She emerges and we explain that we can’t reach Gilberto. She makes a call and finds out he is home – he’s doing some work on the roof, so he didn’t hear the doorbell. He comes to meet us several minutes later.

We spend our afternoon alternately sprawled out on our beds napping, or getting in some quiet time on the terrace.

This evening’s group plans involve dinner, but we start over at Lieven and Anick’s casa for a pre-dinner drink.

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Their accommodations come complete with a big patio/terrace area – complete with a bar … and two local guys running said bar.

They ham it up with us, dancing with Anick and Ian.

Ian, actually, is entertained by one of the guys, who’s this super-tall stringbean of a man wearing a brimmed straw hat and an apron.

We also make sure we mark Anick’s birthday with a bit of cake, and then it’s off to dinner.

As you know from reading the posts so far, our fearless trip leader Santana isn’t exactly in the habit of telling us what we’re doing.

So keeping consistent, he hasn’t told us where we’re going for dinner … And we pull up to the restaurant where most of us had lunch yesterday.

At this point in the trip, a lot of us have compared notes about Santana’s job performance, so when we arrive, a bunch of us look at each other and start cheering and high-fiving as an inside joke.

(I’m positive that salty Santana is probably thinking we’ve well and truly lost our minds.)

Instead of heading to the back like we did the first time, we’re crammed into the second small dining room from the front entrance. And where, oh where, is Santana? In another room away from view. That is, if he is even still there. Who even knows at this point?

Unlike lunch, dinner appears to be a prix fixe menu which includes salad, banana chips (which I don’t gorge on this time) and a main plate with a selection of meats.

We’re bussed back to the “home base” casa, and from there, we return to the enormous terrace at Lieven and Anick’s homestay. Jana’s not feeling well, so she goes home early. The rest of us hang out and eat second helpings of Anick’s birthday cake.

The night winds down, and I start to walk home, I hesitate, because I’m directionally challenged – particularly at night – and forget which way to turn. Joe offers to walk me home, and Sue and Ian offer to come along.

They kindly wait until Gilberto lets me in, and they wave goodnight. Gilberto – my dad away from home – waves back.

I find it kind of funny, but it’s nice to know there’s someone looking out for me. Touching, actually.

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Photos posted above are mine. Please don’t re-post without permission.

Throwback Travel: City by the Bay

2016-03-30 10.52.38**NOTE to READERS: The following describes a trip which took place in March and early April, 2016. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016.

My morning starts with momentary panic.

I can’t find the bus pick-up spot — or the rest of my group. This is the nightmare scenario I’ve dreamt about as a schoolkid, where I arrive just as the bus pulls away. Ugh!

Luckily, I find them – but just as I do, I take a tumble and fall into the street. It’s that kind of a morning.

We arrive in Cienfuegos mid-morning, and top of the agenda is an orientation tour. Like, the closest thing we’ve had to a real one so far.

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We begin in front of a statue of famed musician Benny Moré (above), and are given a very brief backstory. We’re taken through the main shopping district, right into Cienfuegos’ main square.

Much like Trinidad – perhaps even more so – well-preserved Spanish Colonial buildings line the perimeter of the park in the town’s centre. Cienfuegos has its own Arch of Triumph (the Arco di Triunfo), built  to commemorate Cuban independence.

When our group’s finally cut loose for free time, Jana and I start our sightseeing in a building near one corner of the central park, with a tower overlooking the town.

2016-03-30 11.17.16We discover that it’s currently undergoing repairs and renovation to restore it to its previous glory.

You can still see evidence of the intricate handiwork of decades past – the floor, the crown mouldings around the ceilings. It’s so pretty.

On the terrace, the sun beats down as we look out over the city below.

We then enter the tower’s base. It’s big enough that six or seven people at a time should fit (although there are currently more than that inside).

Only one person at a time can stand up in – and look out of – the very top of the tower.

I sit that part out because (1) I dislike heights, and (2) after my morning tumble, I’m not in the mood to press my luck.

2016-03-30 11.40.45Back down at street level, we wander over the Teatro Terry, the inside of which you’re apparently not supposed to take pictures of, unless you’re willing to pay 5 CUC.

The key words being, “not supposed to”.

I appreciate the craftmanship of the seating, the handiwork of the ornate ceiling, and the huge face mural/relief above the enormous stage.

The group eventually reconvenes with Santana, and we’re driven to home base for our local casa assignments.

Jana and I are placed with a man named Gilberto. He doesn’t really speak English, but each of us figure out what the other’s saying, so it’s all good. And just like Julitza back in Trinidad, our host is super-friendly.

We’re led through a small room to our bedroom in the back of the casa and Gilberto walks us through perhaps the best accommodations we’ve had so far on this trip. We have access to the front balcony (if we want), a front room complete with a fridge stocked with water, cola and beer … working air-con AND a fan, the best shower set-up to date, and …

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This back terrace. It is SO. CUTE.

If we were accidentally stranded in Cienfuegos for an extra day, I wouldn’t be mad. At ALL.

Dropping off our bags (and picking our jaws up off the floor), we thank Gilberto and return to the “home base” casa to meet some of the others for lunch.

2016-03-30 13.24.37One of the ladies flags down a horse-drawn taxi for us, which we pile into.

A few blocks later, however, we realize that Lieven literally hanging off the back of the cart probably isn’t a safe idea, so we call a second horse-taxi for us and split into two groups. Lieven even gets to take the reins of the second cart for a short distance.

What else can Lieven do, we ask jokingly. Anick quips, “I can’t tell you that.”

We arrive at a place near the promenade called Restaurante Bahia. Because of the place’s dimensions, we have to sidle through a couple of tiny, dining rooms, down a narrow hallway, and through a set of very stiff-moving, saloon-style doors, to a room in the back.

The food’s delicious, and waaaaaay too much. There’s a salad, an enormous plate of savoury banana chips (and I say this as someone who doesn’t like bananas), and a really tasty plate with fish. By the time my caipirinha (not a Cuban drink) arrives, I’m too stuffed to enjoy it.

2016-03-30 15.46.49A group of us decide to visit Cienfuegos’ botanical gardens after lunch to burn off some of this food. Charlie’s parents (Colin and Andrea) are up for the excursion; Charlie, not feeling very well, sits this one out.

Following some awkward fare negotiations, we catch two taxis to the gardens.

On the grounds, we walk down a well-worn path, past some enormous bamboo trees and these massive palm trees. Charlie’s dad, Colin, is able to access a GPS map of the path we’re taking, so as not to get lost.

It’s the middle of the afternoon, and it’s blazing hot. We gladly take shade wherever we can find it, because the heat in those open-wide spaces is intense.

The gardens close at 5 p.m., so (fortunately) we don’t wander around for hours on end. To be honest, it’s not what Jana or I expect. It seems like less of a botanical garden and more of a huge park. And it’s a bit underwhelming. But perhaps we didn’t visit a showstopping section of the gardens, I dunno.

2016-03-30 18.54.02After a brief break at the casa, Jana and I catch a horse-taxi down to the group outing at a bar near the water.

The sun’s started to fade, and despite the residual heat, we catch a nice breeze as we pass neighbourhood after neighbourhood, Latin music blaring from the radio.

A few blocks short of our destination, the driver slows to a stop. He eventually explains to us that he can’t enter the street we need to access the bar, so we walk the rest of the way.

2016-03-30 19.11.18We arrive at the Palacio de Valle, this villa by the water in the Punta Gorda neighbourhood of Cienfuegos. It’s a massive, but beautiful, building (at least to me).

Jana and I reach the rooftop to find everyone else (sans Santana) assembled. We’re out in the open, with two nearby gazebos and awesome views overlooking the water. Overhead, clouds start to gather.

We’re relaxed and enjoying our drinks when the sky suddenly darkens, releasing a smattering of raindrops. The wind picks up, and we take cover under one of the gazebos, the wind blowing at our backs.

Tonight, some of us plan to stay for dinner, while the rest will bounce. But they change their minds when they try to leave and are met with wind whipping palm trees back and forth, and a torrent of rain.

I sit with Sue, Ian, Colin and Andrea for dinner, while everyone else is nearby. It’s certainly a different dynamic, being the youngest person at the “adults” table. Nothing wrong with that – it’s just lots of talk of vacations and pensions, only one of which I can really relate to.

The rain lets up by the end of dinner, so Jana and I catch a rickshaw back to the casa. I’m happy for a quiet end to our evening. I’m kind of wiped.

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Photos posted are mine. Please do not re-post without my permission.