Throwback Travel: A Bleachy Havana Night

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

2016-04-01 18.41.23Friday, April 1, 2016.

Part Two.

For our last night in town, Santana’s organized a dinner.

We pile onto the bus and drive to this nice restaurant where our meal includes musical entertainment, dim mood lighting and lobster.

Talking amongst ourselves, some of us are suspicious. We think the dinner is Santana’s way of buttering us up for a good end-of-trip tip, despite his slightly ridiculous demeanour almost the entire time.

Jana’s already decided she’s not giving him a thing. Same with Sue, to whom Santana spoke to quite rudely early on. I’m still on the fence. I don’t dispute he’s been a crap leader, but there were a couple moments where he wasn’t completely terrible. Eh. I’ll decide later.

Towards the end of dinner, part of the group plans to walk to another establishment for goodbye drinks. So afterwards, we pile back on to the bus, which drives us to another neighbourhood and stops to drop off part of the group.

One by one, those of us departing shake Santana’s hand and say our goodbyes. He doesn’t get a single tip.

Led by Joe and Claire, our band of tourists wind our way through the streets to an open square – which is bustling – and the bar they recommend.

I’m still full from dinner, but give in to a beer. Of course, a full belly means a few trips to the ladies’ room. I wouldn’t mention this mundane detail, except for one thing.

On my second or third trip to the restroom, I’m looking for soap to wash my hands, and can’t find a dispenser. In my haze, I notice a tinted plastic bottle with liquid, which I naturally assume to be watered-down liquid soap.

I pour some onto my hands … and I don’t realize my mistake until about five seconds later, when the unmistakeable smell of bleach hits my nostrils.

Yep. Bleachy water. All over my hands.

I start panicking because (1) bleach and (2) the group’s about to leave the bar at any moment. I do what I can to rinse my hands for a couple of minutes, but the stench is STILL THERE.

So I spend a good chunk of our group’s departure from the bar doing a terrible job of acting casual while periodically dousing my hands with bottled water and flapping them like a Muppet.

Jana, Claire and Joe and I walk back to the casa that we’re sharing (as it turns out), and we chatted a bit before saying our goodnights – and for me, goodbye. I’ll be the first to leave for the airport, in the wee hours of the morning.

****************************************************

Jana and I say we’ll keep in touch (but really, I’m the only one emailing for the first little bit). Six weeks or so after our adventure in Cuba, she takes off on a another trip — this time, to Sri Lanka. (Guess her stressful job has some perks.)

I have had an email exchange with Anick and Lieven, but life has picked up again, so I haven’t really kept it up. The person I’ve probably had the most correspondence with is Joe – 16-hour time difference and all.

One other thing:

Back in Toronto, I visit the travel agency where I booked my trip, and fill them in on my experience in great verbal detail. They ask me to email them my comments, which they send to the tour operator’s regional manager.

I’m guessing that enough of my fellow trip-mates complain to the tour operator, that they got the message – Santana is removed from the tour.

I get a small bit of compensation, which I can put towards a trip in the next couple of years.

We’ll see.

________________________________________________________

And that’s what happened to me in Cuba over Easter in 2016. I hope you enjoyed my posts!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta go pack — I’ve leaving the country on vacation, and I cannot wait!

Maybe I’ll do this again sometime. But until then, feel free to read about this trip, or any of my previous posts! Thanks for reading.

 

Still photo posted above is mine. Please don’t re-post without my permission. 

 

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Throwback Travel: Back to Havana

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

2016-04-01 12.27.56

Friday, April 1, 2016.

Part One. 

We depart Cienfuegos relatively early for our return trip to Havana. But this road trip goes a little differently.

Slightly fed up with the lack of educational information we’ve gotten from Santana over the course of the past week, Jeff – one of the older Aussies on the trip – has compiled a bunch of basic questions about Cuba.

And as we board the bus for Havana, he hands our intrepid trip leader the slip of paper with the questions.

Julia Louis Dreyfus Booya GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

So for part of our road trip, Santana finally entertains some of us nerds by answering questions about government, language, culture, employment and so on.

ALL THE BASICS HE SHOULD HAVE COVERED LAST. WEEK.

And when he was through, we all turned to Jeff and gave him his props.

Season 6 Applause GIF by The Goldbergs - Find & Share on GIPHY

We’re in Havana proper by early afternoon and immediately deal with sorting out our accommodations one last time. After which, part of the group who hasn’t seen Havana will do a tour with Santana, while those of us who have will spend that time on our own.

While we’re waiting, another tour (same company, different trip) passes through the vicinity. We cross paths with their trip leader, and even though our interaction is brief, deep down I’m envious, because he doesn’t seem like a douchebag. Why didn’t we get him?!

Jana and I are placed in a homestay a couple of streets down from home base. Our hostess is a lovely older lady who speaks no English. She shows us our rooms, and the bathroom which we’ll be sharing with another couple who will show up later.

Unlike the homestays in Santa Clara, Trinidad and Cienfuegos, this place is a bit smaller, and it’s much more worn down – it’s definitely seen better days.

After taking a breather, Jana and I go in search of lunch, after which we’ve tentatively planned to check out New Havana. We weave our way through the crowds and try queuing at a to-go pizza place … but between the long wait and realizing we’d have to convert our cash from tourist to local pesos, we change our minds, mulling over what to do next.

We remember passing a guy on the streets moments before, trying to get us to come into his restaurant … and we cave and double back — we’re too hungry to be picky. He quotes us a price for pizza and a drink, which sounds reasonable to us.

2016-04-01 12.31.16We’re led to a table on the upper level, near a window and the bar. Except for a couple of Chinese tourists seated a few tables away, this place is pretty empty. A TV sitting on a corner of the bar plays music video after music video of the same Latin pop artist, each a different cheesy scenario of the video’s main character romancing the long-haired, leggy love interest.

We get our pizza and drinks and enjoy the sunlight streaming through the window. I gaze at the crumbling building across the street, a flag sticking out one of its windows.

This part I don’t quite remember, but sometime between us finishing our meals and asking for our bills, the server comes over, asking if I could switch a 5-peso bill for a Canadian $5 bill he’s holding. I do so reluctantly, suspicious of the bill. (Blogger’s note: the thought crossed my mind as to whether the bill was counterfeit. Luckily, it wasn’t.)

The bill arrives, and from the looks of things, the total on the bill is NOT what we were quoted on the sidewalk outside.

The old tourist-price swindle.

Jana is (obviously and understandably) mad. I’m really annoyed.

We pay our bill, and as we step out in the street, we see the guy who lured us here, apparently trying to attract more business. I can’t recall exactly what he says to us, but I believe he tries to thank us for coming, at which point Jana says we WON’T be returning and ends the conversation by saying, “YOU are a liar”, turning on her heel as we head back toward the casa.

Our plans to check out New Havana evaporate by the time we return indoors and turn on the A/C.

********************************************

After our afternoon naps, we’re sitting on our beds chatting, when I hear a muffled buzzing nearby … which sounds a lot like my cellphone.

One thing I haven’t really talked about in these entries is the wi-fi access in Cuba. At the time I’m visiting, it’s spotty at best. (In fact, right around the time I’m visiting, Google has opened its first online technology centre in Cuba – right in Havana – allowing 40 people at a time access to higher speed internet.) In other Cuban cities – not just Havana – it’s not unusual to see people in town squares or small parks trying to get reception to use their phones, because those are where the wi-fi hotspots are.

Early on in my trip, I foolishly try using my cell, but it’s in vain. It pretty much hasn’t worked the entire time I’ve been here.

Except for this particular moment.

I fish it out of my backpack … and hear the message from my dentist’s office all the way back in Toronto regarding an upcoming appointment.

So in the most unassuming of casas, I’ve found the ONE solid pocket of phone reception, on the last day of my trip. So I do the first thing that comes to mind: I phone home.

______________________________________________

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doing The Things 2017: Goin’ Places

It’s no secret that – if I have the time and funds – I enjoy travelling.

Last March, I visited Cuba (just after about-to-be-former President Obama, but around the time of the big Rolling Stones concert in Havana), touring the central part of the island with a small group.

Despite the crappy trip manager in charge of our group, it was a fun experience, and I appreciated both Havana and the smaller towns I had the privilege imag0897.jpgof visiting.

My next trip wasn’t until November, when I spent a weekend in Montreal – with a huge group of people I knew – for a friend’s birthday.

I’d been a couple of times before, but this time was different. It was my first time visiting Montreal in the fall. And we arrived the day after folks learned that Leonard Cohen died, so you could just sense the mood in the crisp November air.

It had been 13 years since my last visit,  but this felt like the first time that I actually walked around and took in my surroundings.

Which brings me to right now.

For the last couple of years or so, I always want my ideal travel intentions to be trips that take me out of the city, out of the province, and out of the country (not necessarily on the same trip).

So, I’m getting off to a running start in 2017.

On Friday, while events unfold south of the border, a group of friends and I are hot-footing it to Montreal.

Yes, I was just there. But months before my friend’s birthday plans – at my last birthday – I had already decided I’d be celebrating my 40th birthday differently.

Admittedly, I’ve found the whole planning/reserving process for accommodations and restaurants stressful. I’m used to organizing travel plans for myself. But I hope from here on in, it’ll be fun and easy.

Then about three weeks after that, I’ll be headed to Asia for a two-week tour. And by “Asia”, I only mean one country, which I’ll reveal later. But it’s somewhere that’s been on my travel list for at least 15 years. Let’s see how I handle finally being there.

As for my out-of-town adventure? We’ll see what the year brings. I’d love to check out an area like Prince Edward County, but where I’ll end up is anyone’s guess.

What are your travel plans for 2017? Will you be staying local? Are you knocking any destinations off your “to-go” list? Planning any road trips? I’d love to hear what you’ve got in the works!

**Photos posted above are mine. Please don’t use without permission.

 

 

 

Who’s THIS Guy?

Several days before I arrived in Jamaica, my aunt (who’s currently staying with one of my cousins in the US) had her house in Montego Bay broken into.

It’s the first time my aunt’s house was ever broken into, in an area where this type of thing isn’t unusual. But whomever they were (and my aunt claims she knows who did it), they made a point of  leaving their mark.

Like, for example, taking her TV. And her refrigerator.

Earlier in my visit, Kaye and I dropped by the house to see the mess left behind. When we entered the front yard, there was a bottle of cooking oil lying in the grass.

Inside, a dining room chair sat at an awkward angle on the living room sofa — they’d used it to break a few slats of glass in the window looking out onto the verandah.

In her bedroom, drawers were pulled out and emptied. Various articles of clothing, undergarments and papers lay in a pile on the floor.

Fast forward a few days, and we’ve returned (with Uncle Eucline) to the house, because the welder and a couple of tradesmen are coming to (a) fix the bolt on the security gate that had been pried open during the robbery, and (b) fit the window overlooking the verandah with its own set of security bars.

Around the time we’re there, a woman from up the street stops by – her name’s Honey, and she’s a long-time family friend. (Apparently I met her when I was really young.)

As we sit inside the house to keep Kaye company while the tradesmen work, I grow bored and start wandering. I peer inside the kitchen. It’s much smaller than I remember (amazing how one’s memory makes everything bigger), and it’s dark.

2015-07-27 15.44.05I return to the living room, looking at a few photos upended by the break-in.

There’s a photo of my late grandfather as I remember him, sitting in profile on his verandah. There are other photos of my cousins at a much younger age.

I eventually enter my aunt’s bedroom. Other than the mess on the floor, it looks a bit sparse. I peer into her closet – which isn’t wide as it is a bit long – and see all the various objects – sheets, blankets, and I think a hat or two. It smells a bit musty.

I step out, and before I know it, I’m bent over, rummaging through the mess on the ground.

2015-07-27 16.10.58This woman keeps everything, I think to myself. Old immunization records, invoices of different types, and even the odd old photos of my cousins.

I open and close a couple of the empty drawers of my aunt’s dresser … and shoved in the corners of one of them, I come across a couple of dog-eared photos.

One of them was a photo of me at three and a half months old, apparently “blowing bubbles”, according to the description in my mom’s handwriting.

And then, there’s THIS one.

2015-07-27 16.10.28-2You have to understand, my family doesn’t have old black-and-white photos of immediate OR extended family members.

And the oldest photos I’ve ever seen were when I was in Jamaica 22 years ago, at my grandfather’s house. They were colourized portraits from the 1950s — one of him, and one with his wife (who’s also since passed away).

But this. I look into the face of the well-dressed young man in the picture – specifically his lips – and goosebumps go up my arm.

I have a very strong hunch I know exactly who this is, but there’s really only one person who might be able to tell me – and right now she’s in Toronto.

I really, REALLY want to put this photo in my purse. But given what’s been taken from this house already – and knowing how much my aunt like holding onto stuff – I resist the urge, snap an image on my phone and return it to its (undignified) home.

*************************************************************

I return home on July 28th, and visit my mother a few days later.

We’re in her living room chatting away, when I bring up finding the two photos … and that’s when I bring them up on my phone and show her.

Upon seeing the second photo, she gives a smile and says, “Yep. That’s my daddy.”

**************************************************************

My trip to Jamaica was a sweltering whirlwind. But I was glad I managed to do it and to see some of my family.

I still have questions. And who knows if I’ll ever get them answered. But it’s a start.

And if I’m lucky to visit Jamaica again, I hope I don’t wait so long next time, and that I get to see even more of my ancestral home and family.

*Photos taken are mine. Please don’t use without my permission. Not for commercial use.

A Couple Hours in Negril

Monday, July 27th.

IMAG0399“D, get up.”

It’s 6:34 a.m. Guess we’re leaving fairly early for Negril. Although, it would’ve been nice to have known that the night before.

K kindly fixes me breakfast (scrambled egg, sardines and dumplings), and we’re out the door just before 8 a.m.

We pick up Uncle Eucline on the way at a nearby gas station, and off we go, reaching Negril by about 9:30 a.m.

K and Eucline want to take me to Rick’s Cafe (which I vaguely remember visiting back in 1993), but when we arrive, we discover it’s closed. Turns out they open the bar until 12 p.m. and close at 10 p.m.

That’s unfortunate for us, but good for the dozens and dozens of smaller bars in that area that rely on the visitor and tourist traffic for their business. Oh well. Another time.

Next stop: one of the aforementioned bars, owned by one of K’s friends. We have a bit of trouble finding it – it’s so small, it’s wedged between another bar (whose exterior sort of resembles a boat), and another building that’s boarded up.

Beer and liquor bottles of all shapes and sizes line the shelf above the bar. Overhead, a TV plays an American daytime talk show.

The open rear door reveals a view of the rocks, and the water just beyond. Walking out to the back, there’s gravel and wooden beams — the bare outline of an addition K’s friend has plans to build.

IMAG0397Looking out across the water, I can see the various bars and other buildings lining the shore. Even over here, the water is relatively clear and a greenish-blue. The sun is beating down on my neck and shoulders, so I head back inside for a bit.

We eventually leave and – on our uncle’s suggestion – try a resort just down the road. When we drive up the driveway and reach the front gate, we’re faced with something we didn’t anticipate: having to pay $15 US apiece to enter resort property, sit on the beach, and for me to go into the water.

The cost of leisure, I suppose.

My uncle – who has worked in the hospitality business – tries to negotiate with the man at the front gate, but the guy holds firm. After some momentary waffling, we decide to pay and go inside. We’ll get a nice view of the beach, have some lunch and leave.

While in the main lobby, K asks me to inquire about a towel. I approach the reception desk and ask.

“You can buy one at the gift shop,” the desk clerk says in a half-sing-song, completely unhelpful, tone of voice, referring to the building just next door.

Good thing I packed my own.

I go to one of the changing rooms and don my swimsuit (to the nearby soundtrack of a woman severely scolding her misbehaving child).

IMAG0416While K and Uncle Eucline recline on chairs under the shade of a small gazebo, I wade into the warm, clear water. The sky’s an impossible shade of blue.

About 10 minutes in, I spot a dark object gliding through the water. A sting-ray. I stand upright, watching it pass by.

We have a delicious beach-side lunch of jerk chicken, rice and peas and salad.

Then, it’s out of my swimsuit, and back on the road to Montego Bay — K has to go to her mother (my aunt)’s house so she can let in a local welder to repair the security gate pried open by thieves almost a week and a half before …

But not before we make a couple of stops along the way. First, a local school in Sandy Bay, where I believe K taught at some point. Then, we stop in to see one of Uncle Eucline’s younger brothers.

Over glasses of lemonade, we learn his brother (whose name I never learn) is recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumour. Looking at him now, seemingly robust and in great spirits, you wouldn’t have known it. And —  understandably — he gives Eucline a lecture about giving up drinking and smoking. I know he’s doing it out of love, but I’m not sure Eucline’s having much of it.

Before we know it, we’re at my aunt’s house, picking mangoes and waiting for the welder to arrive. But it won’t be a completely tedious visit.

(Photos taken are mine. Please do not use without permission.)

A Lot of Church

Sunday, July 26th.

Full disclosure: I’m not a church-goer.

Do I believe in a higher power? Yes. But that’s my personal belief. And I have a very … ambivalent relationship with organized religion.

However, because of my experiences in attending two different church sects in my youth, I try to be understanding and respectful when it comes to people’s religious beliefs, and their right to worship.

So when I was hastily planning my trip, I knew, in the back of my mind, that a trip to church with my cousin would likely happen. As I panicked over what to pack, and voiced my concerns to my mom, she said to me, “I’m sure you won’t have to go to church, if you don’t want to.”

Wrong. So. Wrong.

For folks who are of West Indian (or even African-American) descent, you’ll understand what I’m about to say. But to anyone else: in the Caribbean (and in this case, Jamaica) church is a serious business. And they can be equally as serious about their church attire.

It’s not just about putting on a dress, versus pants. It’s wearing stuff that other people might reserve for a special occasion, like a wedding.

Sometimes, there are hats involved. Not fascinators. HATS.

If there is such a thing as “church hat swagger”, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Of course, I listened to my mom, and only packed a sundress.

The subject of a church outfit briefly came up early in the trip, but didn’t go very far. But when it finally reared its ugly head on Saturday, K had to lend me an outfit.

Although she didn’t say anything, I don’t think she wasn’t terribly impressed – she told me, “You must always carry something casual as well as formal.”  (I also overheard her talking to her friend and mentioning how I didn’t bring any church outfits. Lesson noted and learned.)

In the end, she lent me a tight, black, knit dress, a pair of pointy-toed shoes and some jewellery to match. This was going to be an interesting ensemble to wear in the heat.

**********************************************************************

One of K’s friends picks us up and drives us over to the Moravian church around the corner from my (absent) aunt’s house.

Unlike church services in my youth — and despite the oppressive heat — this one keeps my attention, and keeps me awake. It’s a nice service, and the small congregation seems lovely. It’s also fairly brief at, 90 minutes in length.

Minutes after the service ends, there’s no dallying — there’s another church-related event happening in St. Elizabeth parish. One of the former pastors of K’s church is being ordained as a bishop in a special event/service. And we’re going.

I will tell you one thing about the drive down: it’s probably the coolest I’ve been, for the longest period of time, during this entire trip. It’s downright heavenly. I gaze at the scenery as we pass through town after town. I close my eyes …

And when I open them, we’re driving under a shady tunnel of trees, with fields beyond them. Turns out, we’re passing through Holland Bamboo.

A little while later, we arrive at the church, in the town of Santa Cruz.

It’s two levels, with a sizeable upper level for those members of the congregation who can’t get a seat in one of the pews on the main level. Inside, the overhead fans – all 10 of them – are whirring away. The only thing it shares with the one back in Montego Bay are those hard, unforgiving wooden pews.

And people are dressed to the hilt. Dress of all styles and colours. Heels of all heights. Hats of all sizes.

There isn’t a free seat anywhere. K and I are crammed into a pew like sardines; the black knit dress clings to me like a small child.

Forty-five minutes after we arrive, the service begins. There are two choirs on this occasion – a senior choir that sings the hymns for most of the church program, and a youth choir.

The presiding bishop speaks for a good 45 minutes before the man of the hour is officially ordained. All in, the ceremony lasts about two and a half hours.

After a restroom break and some refreshments, we eventually leave for home.

The trip back seems to take longer than the one to St. Elizabeth. There’s a brief roadside stop so one of the passengers can buy some fried shrimp. And it’s gotten dark.

As we approach the city limits, K asks for us to be dropped off in town so we can catch a taxi home.

We have plans to go to Negril tomorrow morning, but K and I haven’t really talked about what time we’re leaving. When we finally reach home, she’s so exhausted, she makes a cup of tea and goes straight to bed.

I guess we’ll figure it out when we get up tomorrow.

A Little Fish, A Little Beach

Saturday, July 25th.

The last several days have been comparatively quiet – and hotter than I can ever remember.

On Thursday, I accompanied K on an assignment outside of town. She’s a teacher who’s well-known for her literacy training, and she was asked to give a special presentation to a group of local children and their parents. It was cool seeing her in her element, trying to engage the kids and parents and interacting with them. I could see why a lot of kids might want her as their teacher!

After, there were some games for the kids and parents, followed by refreshments. Unfortunately, the sinus problems that had been plaguing K the last couple of days (probably due to the heat) started taking their toll. When we eventually returned home, and she headed straight to bed.

Friday was a late start, but we braved the heat once again as my cousin ran more errands. Later in the day, we dropped by Uncle Eucline’s house again to visit for a bit, then headed up to Uncle Egton’s place for a second visit.

2015-07-24 18.19.29This time around, we actually spend enough time that I can snap some photos around his lovely property — and get eaten alive by mosquitoes in the process. (The one part of visiting Jamaica I always dread.)

We returned Uncle Eucline to his home, then drove to a seafood place for some fish.

2015-07-24 19.48.13When it came time to order, I asked for some escovitch – fried, well-seasoned, and spicy fish – with vegetables, breaded, fried bammy and rice.

K said that steamed fish would have been much better. And at first, I thought it was because she preferred healthy meals. But I understood better when I tried to separate the meat from the bones — it became a part-time job!

We order a second fish, but after eating the previous one, I barely made a dent. Full of food, we pack it up and leave.

*******************************************************

“K, it’s ten minutes to six.”

My cousin rolls over, and softly laughing. I think she wanted to sleep in, and was hoping that I’d want to do the same.

Nope.

I’ve been looking forward to this ever since she mentioned earlier in the week. Plus, K said she liked to go to the beach to swim early on Saturday mornings, before it got too hot.

2015-07-25 07.07.27By the time we get our act together and get down to the small local beach — near Montego Bay’s “Hip Strip” — it’s close to 7:30. A bunch of people had the same idea — they’re already in the water.

We bathe, K runs into a couple of people she knows (fellow educators, I think), and she collects rocks for her garden, while tiny fish whiz past our ankles. After an hour, we’re back in K’s car, heading home.

Today, we had hoped to go to Negril, but things don’t work out. So as soon as we get home, K goes back to sleep, leaving me hang out around the house.

In addition to the mosquito bites starting to itch like crazy, I notice this crazy rash running down the right side of my neck to my right clavicle. I briefly panic, because I know that chikagunya is an issue down here. The last thing I need — on top of sweating non-stop — is to come down with a mosquito-borne illness. I’m hoping that it’s just a heat rash.

When K gets up, we head out for more errands. On our way down, we stop by this man’s house – he’s got a stand for selling jelly coconuts. Standing under the shade of one of the trees in his front yard, we pass a coconut back and forth to drink the water, then the coconut is chopped in half and the man hack makeshift “spoons” out of the outer shell so we can eat the jelly.

As we stand there, we find out the coconut jelly man actually lives in Canada part of the year – Montreal, to be exact. He’s been living there for 45 years! Go figure.

Later in the evening, I tag along with K to an evening meeting at her church.

The overhead fans aren’t working, and despite all the open doors, the air inside the sanctuary is hot and stuffy. The small choir pews we’re sitting in are so hard — there’s no cushioning whatsoever. If the intended effect is to make one sit at attention, it’s not working.

As the small group makes its way through its agenda, I’m fighting to stay awake (due to the heat) and K – still having sinus troubles – has quietly nodded off.  There were refreshments after, which perked me up, but I’m sure unsettled K a bit.

With that meeting done, it’s back home and just about time to sleep.

Sunday’s going to be a long day.