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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Throwback Travel: Morning at the Marina & A Cuban Birthday

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**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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Throwback Travel: Hot Garbage Beach Day

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

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Tuesday, March 29th, 2016.

I wake up. And I feel teeeeeerrible.

The first words that come to mind are “hot garbage”.

Jana is also quite wrecked.

We start trying to psyche ourselves up – and each other – to get out of bed and get dressed. But it’s a struggle.

This is our one day to get to the beach. We CANNOT spend it in bed.

We rise, shakily. Once dressed, we gingerly head downstairs to the breakfast table – an hour later than planned.

And this is when I start feeling especially bad.

Julitza has put out this amazing spread – a huge fruit plate. Baby bananas. Bread. Buns. Cheese and meat. Even these little pastries and cupcakes (without frosting, but still). CUPCAKES, FAM.

Jana can barely even look at the food. I make myself eat something (to ease the hangover, but also to ease my guilt), and convince Jana to at least take a couple of bites of something. All this, while our hostesses giggle at us. (If I was in their shoes, I’d do the exact same thing.)

We take a little food to go and meet up with the Belgians and two Tasmanian girls, Em and Alana, and find a taxi that can fit all six of us, for 10 CUCs.

This man’s vehicle is old. Like, ancient. To get the radio to play, he has to take his key OUT of the ignition, use said key to turn on the radio/activate the USB port that plays music, then stick the key BACK in the ignition.

If McGyver (were real and) needed someone to meet his match, he’d need only to come to Cuba and meet one of these guys.

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At Ancón Beach, it’s good – so good – to just stretch out on a long chair under a shady tree and just relax, or wade around in the warm water. I can’t speak for Jana, but my hangover begins to loosen its grip.

We leave the beach around 3:30 p.m. A couple of hours later, we leave our casa to wander around “downtown” Trinidad before meeting the group.

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The town is a UNESCO World Heritage site – designated as such since 1988.

The bright, cheery colours of the Spanish Colonial buildings help bring the town to life, and highlight its pretty architecture.

We all start appearing on the steps outside the music house around 6:30.

But we don’t immediately go to dinner – there are pre-dinner mojitos involved, which drags things out a bit longer.

By this point, Jana’s gone from hung over to hangry.

The group eventually gets moving and – after a couple of wrong turns – we arrive at a rooftop restaurant with a nice view of Trinidad below. Dinner tonight is a nice shrimp dish, and I’ve ordered a daiquiri (yes, I’m also surprised I have the fortitude to do this), but it’s taking a dog’s age to appear at the table.

The house band for the evening starts playing. There’s some good-natured ribbing between Joe, Jana, Em, Alana and I, over which band member’s the most attractive, and whether Joe can charm them. He actually gets up and is grooving/swaying alongside the band, which is hilarious to see. (You have to be there.)

Then Joe grabs my hand to get up and dance. Because the rooftop isn’t very big, and our table is huge, I’m fully wedged in my seat with my shoulder bag across my body, and it takes me a good 30 seconds to disengage from the table.

It is easily the tiniest possible space for dancing. Sue and Ian also decide to get up and try out their dancing skills on the cramped floor. It’s fun, but a bit too cozy. I have nightmares of crashing into the stage and taking out the band. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen.

The group settles their bills, and Jana tells me she’s going back to the casa – the hangover’s taken its toll and she’s not feeling well.

As we descend the steep staircase to ground level, Joe (perhaps half-jokingly) asks if anyone wants to go for drinks.

I say, “Sure!”

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see I’ve stopped him in his tracks. I suppose, considering how bad I said I felt earlier, he’s almost taken aback.

He says, “Really?”

“Yup!” I say, making my way down the steps.

If Australians are known for their ability to drink, then some of us Canadians should be known for our ability to rally. (And when we put our minds to it, boy, can we rally.)

Sue, Ian, Joe and I go to this venue, perhaps hoping to get in a bit of dancing, and catch the tail-end of the performance taking place. While Joe grabs drinks, I finally get a chance to chat with Sue and Ian, who I’ve only seen in passing up until now. They’re from Miami – a suburb on Australia’s Gold Coast, and they chat a little bit about their hometown.

As the musical acts change onstage, it’s clear it’s not a venue where much dancing is going to happen, so after a while, we bounce.

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Sue and Ian turn in for the night, while Joe and I decide to grab one more drink and wander around.

We go back to the music house near the centre of town, only to find out the musical act performing has just finished playing. So we sit on the steps and chat – mainly comparing notes about what we could remember from the night before.

I spot the couple from the salsa club, pointing them out to Joe. We go up to them and Joe talks to them for a moment – turns out he’s pretty proficient in conversational Spanish, which is winning over the locals he’s been talking to – before asking for a photo.

We hang around a bit longer, dancing a little to the music blaring over the sound system, before calling it a night. Joe – beer in hand – kindly walks me back to my casa, where Julitza (like a mom away from home) is waiting up, to let me inside.

And with that, our short time in Trinidad has come to a close. Next stop: Cienfuegos.

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

Throwback Travel: A Little Salsa, A Lot of Drinks

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

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Monday, March 28, 2016.

Part Two.

Okay. So, Trinidad.

Our salsa lesson takes place only a few doors down from the “home-base” casa.

It’s fun! Learning the basic steps is a breeze, but it’s when we start learning the basic turns, that I start tripping up (almost literally).

I’m not the only one, though. Aussie couple Ian and Sue (the pair in their late 50s), are hilarious to watch as they bump into each other. They’re also not taking it seriously. At one point, the instructor pokes fun at Sue, and she (playfully?) flips him the bird. Others – like Joe and his mom, Claire – seem like naturals. Like, they’re really good.

By the time we’re tested on our moves, the hour-long lesson is over. I’m sweating profusely from the heat. We head our separate ways to take a breather and freshen up for the evening. I change into a sundress in hopes of cooling off.

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Santana’s plan this evening – such as it is – is that we go for a group dinner and drinks with him, then meet the next morning for an orientation walk.

The group asks Santana if it’s possible to do the walk this evening instead, so we can (1) get our bearings, and (2) maximize our free time tomorrow, whether it’s to hit the beach, visit the national park or explore the town at our leisure, then re-convene for the big group dinner in the evening.

Santana agrees to our group’s request. Very. Reluctantly.

So we start our orientation walk, but – HUGE SURPRISE – our fearless leader doesn’t give us a whole lot of information about the town centre, or tips on things to see and do, aside from maybe a local music house. This is, I think, when people start noticing something’s a bit off with Santana, and they start asking questions.

After our “orientation”, we go for drinks at Bar Chanchancera, inviting Santana to join us. But he’s being a bit moody. It appears at first that he’s not going to join us. He may not even come to dinner the next night. Tour-mate Joe – a really easy-going dude – starts chatting with him to smooth things over, turning on the charm to try and change his mind.

I think it kind of works in the end. We all agree to meet for dinner the next evening – picking a place in the town square, close to a mojito bar which boasts “the best mojitos”. (Santana’s words? The bar’s? I don’t quite remember.) And, miraculously, the whole group heads to Bar Chanchancera. A band’s playing and the drinks are surprisingly tasty.

Santana’s there, but doesn’t really sit that close to us. And in fact, he takes off shortly afterwards.

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After a round, the larger group breaks up for the evening. Jana, Lieven, Anick and I decide to make it a night on the town – we’re kind of looking to try out our newly-learned (basic) salsa moves, and are just generally excited to know we can sleep in and will have a full day to ourselves. (Joe’s going to join us, but will catch up with us after he walks his mom, Claire, home.)

The four of us walk through the town – me grabbing an ice cream cone for “dinner” – and head for the salsa bar. It’s fairly empty when we arrive. But about half an hour later people just start streaming in.

And then, the dancing starts.

Early on, Lieven and Anick are just half-dancing, half-swaying to the music. But then the locals start filling the dance floor. And of course, they’re good. Really good.

Salsa dancing – partnered dancing, really, but especially anything involving turning – gives me the figurative sweats, the way double-dutch used to as a kid. So a huge part of me is content just to people-watch as the dancers spin by for the rest of the evening.

But just before the live band (same band from the other bar, as it turns out) starts to play, one of the local men – who’s there with his girlfriend, a pretty lady dressed all in white (she practices Santería) – pulls me up to dance.

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I think it’s apparent to him that I’m not a proficient dancer.

But that’s okay – he patiently goes through the moves with me, and then off we go.

And I have to say as a beginner, it’s not bad! Soon after, the others – including Jana and Joe, who’s just arrived – are pulled onto the floor for a spin.

We leave the bar around perhaps 1 a.m. I don’t fully remember, because we’ve had a number of drinks at this point. We all head over to a late-night place, where Joe proceeds to buy us another round of drinks. I’m personally so hammered, I barely make a dent in my beer – even as Joe orders a subsequent round.

There’s talk of political issues, and an opinion or two emerges that surprises me. Our voice grow loud enough for one of the staff to come over and scold us.

We eventually call it a night, giggling and stumbling along the cobblestone streets, and parting ways for our respective casas.

And our dear, sweet hostess Julitza is waiting up for us, asking if we’re all right. (I feel bad about keeping her up late.) We say we’re fine, and amble up to bed.

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

Throwback Travel: Trip to the Centre

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

Sunday, March 27th, 2016.

2016-03-27 12.48.39I meet a few other members of my tour group briefly at breakfast – among them, a mother-son duo from Australia – but don’t really get into deep conversation, because we’re supposed to leave at 8:45 a.m. for Santa Clara. And while I can’t speak for the others, I’m not fully functional before 9 a.m., anyhow.

I unfortunately hold up the group by several minutes because I realize that I’m missing my yellow fleece sweater and have to return to the casa for it. (Way to go, ding-dong.) For this, I thank my trip leader – nicknamed “Santana” – who lets me go back to look for it. (But more about him later.)

First stop of the day is a monument to Che Guevara (in Villa Clara province) and the adjoining mausoleum.

(Blogger’s note: knowing how contentious politics in Cuba are, even today, what I describe below are observations, not editorializing.)

The sun is blazing hot. The statue of Che is enormous, and doesn’t really provide any shade. We’re told its sculptor constructed it with its back to Santa Clara, because Che was Argentinian. Around it are walls with etchings of other revolutionary fighters, including one stone slab etched with Che Guevara’s last letter to Fidel Castro.

The short, squat building next to the statue is the mausoleum – dedicated to Che and some of his fellow fighters, as well as a sort of small museum describing his life. Some parts of the exhibit are translated into English – particularly the items on display – but others are only in Spanish.

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For lunch, we head into Santa Clara to a buffet restaurant called “El Quijote”.

It’s quite good – so much food, and so many sweets (which I try – and don’t quite succeed – to keep to a minimum).

In Santa Clara proper, we get a bit of a walking orientation/historical explanation of the town. Well, sort of. Santana isn’t entirely giving us a full talk.

At our local casas, we’re assigned our rooms, and Jana and I get to bunk together, which is nice.*

2016-03-27 17.11.35Our casa is super-cute … if a wee bit pink.

Like, princess-bubble-gum pink – right down to the shower curtain.

Our host (and his cute little dog) meets us with “welcome” glasses of juice to cool off.

After a couple of hours to ourselves to unwind, it’s dinner time!

But – in what will turn into an underlying theme during this trip – there’s confusion over dinner plans.

Santana wants the group to have dinner together at this one restaurant he’s recommended. But only part of the group agrees to reservations. The other part of the group – which includes Jana, me, and a Belgian couple, Lieven and Anick – want to head to a rooftop bar at a hotel in the town square.

And Santana? Well, he isn’t happy about it.**

I personally find his reaction kind of odd, as I’ve been on other tours where people make their own plans separate from the group without much fuss. But I put it out of my mind, and our quartet heads for the square.

Our plans for drinks, however, are foiled: turns out the hotel bar is closed. A local tries to lure us to this hole-in-the-wall, but we don’t take the bait. We wander instead into a local joint with a balcony that overlooks the square. But there’s not much there – and the locals don’t look at us (mostly the others) terribly fondly.

So we end up at this upper-storey fast-food place, where we chat over mojitos, beer, burgers and sandwiches. The food and conversation are what the four of us all really need on our first real evening of our tour.

Jana and I are back in our casa room at a respectable hour, lulled to sleep by the coolness of our air-conditioned room.

Tomorrow, we head to Trinidad – the town, not the island. (I’m not that rich, guys.)

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Photos taken are mine. Please do not re-use without permission. 

* Our pairing up almost didn’t happen. Jana is originally supposed to bunk with another traveller – a Brit named Charlie. But because of the confusion and disorganization at the start of the trip, Charlie’s ended up with her parents … for the duration of the trip.

** Talking amongst ourselves later, we surmise that Santana has an arrangement whereby he brings his tour groups to certain businesses in exchange for some sort of commission. Or maybe they get the commission? I’m not sure.