North America · 6 Days · 48 Moments · January 2017

miss maggie's adventure in cuba


26 January 2017

Last night -mojitos and jazz! Uber awesome performance.
My favorite restaurant in Havana, Los Naranjos. Newish restaurant from about two years ago. Service and mojitos were impeccable. Food was incredibly delicious too. But I fell madly in love with the decor. I spoke to the owner who is super sweet and gave me a tour of the house (of which the restaurant is a part). He lives there with his family. Four years ago, the house was shoddy and in a terrible state of disrepair. He slowly fixed it up over a couple of years and it now is gorgeous. Large heavy furniture from Russia from the 1950s. Classic antiques and artwork. The bar is both classic yet modern. The entrance feels like an Old Havana Nights entrance (from which you need to walk up a few flights of stairs). A must visit for Havana visitors.
Went back to Old Havana in search of art work. Stopped by La Floridita, which Hemingway claims has the best daiquiri. Fell in love with ernesto villaneuva morera works. His father in law curates the studio and we had an amazing conversation about his son in law, his collections, where in the world his work is shown, and his family. There was some language barriers, but I could feel the warmth and excitement and I felt so happy to meet him and learn more about the art. unfortunately I was totally priced out ... but one can dream years later! :)
Visited a practice session of a local dance troupe in Havana. Very creative. Mixture of using drum sticks to create beats and rhythms and tap shoes and props such as chairs (with moves of course). Loved both the dance and the background art!!!! ❀️
Visit to Las Terrazas, a small community and nature reserve, founded around 1971 and located in the Sierra del Rosario mountains and designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1984. The nature reserve includes forest that was planted on the surrounding (deforested) hills by building terraces to avoid erosion. Also met with and visited studio of Cuban artist Jorge Perez Duporte who lives in the community.
Back to the hotel at pinar del rio (town) ....

25 January 2017

Stroll through the town of Vinales.
Lunch at Finca Paraiso. Gorgeous views.
More from the little hike up to the farm....
Visited tobacco farm and spoke with farmer to get a sense of his life. He kindly demonstrated his rolling of a cigar. Bought a pack afterward :)
Stopped first to see Vinales Valley from the top :)
Enjoyed the morning sunrise from the balcony.

24 January 2017

Stopped by a local grocery store (none of the restaurants in town seemed appealing). Bought a box of corn flakes plus chocolate strips. Ate three quarters of the box even though it was nasty (tasted just like cardboard ... even the chocolate bits haha!!). Tried to find all the chocolate bits inbox to eat those only. Fail Back to the hotel. No hot water. Only a trickle of water coming out of shower. Was freezing coming out. Hair was crusty from shampoo not being rinsed out. Checked the mattress for bed bugs. Thankfully found no markings. Room reeked of cigar smoke. Turned on AC (hey it had AC!) which was great to drown out some sounds. Car alarms going off on the side streets to which my room windows faced. AC started rattling and became very noisy, thankfully drowning out more noise. Became freezing in room though. Wore leggings and my pair of pajama pants and two pairs of socks. Wore tank top, two long sleeved shirts and sweatshirt on top. lol. Then took an ambien and went to bed. :)
I explored the town Pinar del Rio on my own by wandering around and got some amazing super colorful shots. I veered off the main roads into alleys and side streets. There, there were no CUCs no more ... rather food, drinks and other items were only to be bought in CUPs. I got many cat calls and comments as I walked through town -- I'm sure many rarely see an Asian/American girl walk through. At some point, this guy actually followed me quite a ways despite my firmly saying "No" several times and lost my friendly demeanor. I just put on my NY power walk and got back on the main road. I am sure he meant no harm, but it started to get annoying. Love the buildings in this cute little town though. Not much in terms of restaurants and bars.
When we got into town, we stopped by an art gallery of Pedro Pablo Oliva. This artist makes several paintings of Fidel Castro often with political and social commentary (not usually in a positive light). It is a tiny gallery butte paintings are light whimsical odd and humorous - I really liked them. His daughter was the curator of the gallery. Super sweet, well dressed. I felt bad as she almost passed out twice from dizziness. She later had a drink of water and spent over an hour discussing one large complex panting-- really interesting to hear about the background of the painting and history of Cuba. Wish I could, but we weren't allowed to take pics.
Next we went to the area of the farm community and visited their tiny merchandise store. Each individual receives government rations. I cannot believe how folks are able to survive on this. Indeed most Cubans often have to take more than one job in order to supplement their income and food for survival. More farm animals, including mom chickens and their baby chicks - adorbs.
The horses (with some wandering oxen who trotted by). This farm also has an area for cock fighting. Apparently this is banned by Cuba but it is still a widespread practice... as the Cubans say, you can't kill a tradition. I am a bit confused by whether the cocks fight to the death. When asked, the local farmers told me that yes, they do fight to the death. Later on, however, I heard that they do not fight to the death. As soon as one cock runs away or gets injured, the fight stops. I am not sure if that is any better, but my guess is the reality is that they fight to the death. Very sad.
We stopped by a farm where horses are raised. In Cuba it is apparently illegal (with potential imprisonment of 20 years) to kill a cow or a horse. (ok to kill pigs ... more on that later) We walked about one km to where the horses were and they showed the various stallions they had (a man dressed like a cowboy went to get and show them and calm them down)
I was worried last night that, because of the flooding, we might be stuck at the hotel for a day and miss a day out in pinar del rio, which I have very much been looking forward to. Great luck! When I woke up, much of the flooding had subsided. Sadly, people's houses and belongings were ruined. I saw folks pumping water out of their basements and sweeping the water from their houses with brooms. I later learned that these storms (where waves topple over the malecon walls) are quite rare -- a local person told me maybe once every ten years. Headed out to the pinar del rio region, driving by miramar (where there are gorgeous mansions and where many ambassadors live ... on fifth avenue - felt like Beverly Hills). PDR is the most western part of Cuba that is known for producing tobacco. The ride was about three hours -- I fell asleep since I always pass out in cars, with Marlon playing ... Bailando again ... this time in the Enrique Spanish (not Spanglish) version haha. Rest stop.

23 January 2017

Forty five minutes later it has gotten worse. My friends Jerry and Marsha were planning to get a ride in an old car this evening, followed by dinner at El cocinero and gen a visit at Fabrice de Arte Cubano ... but NO!!! Not cabs can get even near the hotel. You'd have to swim through to catch a cab (ew) and if you saw my video you'd be able to witness the speed at which the water is flowing ... so it's a night in at the hotel. Luckily I'm using the time to update this blog and catch some reading and recover a bit from some stomach issues 😁
Had to take a back way back to hotel because of flooding - its gotten bad!! People in water up to their shins. I mean, not to be OCD, but I'm sure that water is teaming with bacteria and viruses - ew.
Had to take a back way back to hotel because of flooding - its gotten bad!! People in water up to their shins. I mean, not to be OCD, but I'm sure that water is teaming with bacteria and viruses - ew.
More Hemingway house shots. More pool house shots and photos (from the pool house changing rooms) as well as an exterior shot of his guesthouse.
More Hemingway house. Includes views from his tower where he got inspiration and his pool house and pet cemetery.
More Hemingway home. You can't really see it, but in one of the pics you see EH had a jar of preserved frog next to a jar of preserved bat. So amazing and bizarre. And in another, you see a (REAL!!!) Picasso... and a stuffed cheetah staring at it. Wonder.
The most anticipated part of my day. Visiting Ernest Hemingway's home. The man has got real f*cken style and weirdness - I love it! Apparently everything in his home is exactly arranged how EH left it. Visitors can't go in - can only look through windows. Unfortunately, because it was raining a bit, the windows were closed. Still did my best to get some interior shots. The man loves animal heads and stuffed animals. Amazing. Want to take a trip inside his head if he were still alive.
Lunch at Nazdarovie, which serves legit former Soviet Union food. Food and service quite frankly sort of sucked. Espresso was good. So was decor. Loved how it was on the Malecon, unmarked. Like going to someone's home. Had to walk up five flights of stairs and you walk into this totally decked out former USSR place with Russian techno playing. Haha. Guess it was good to "experience" the former Soviet influence on Cuba. No patrons speaking Spanish (or English). Other patrons spoke Russian (I think... not Spanish or English ... and they looked Eastern European). On way out, saw how the waves and Malecon were getting worse. Took a vid - wish I could upload on this app ... was pretty wild. 🌊
I kept wandering and ran into a wonderful man strumming along and playing music on the streets (ok for tourists, really). Loved getting a shot of him in the moment. I then stumbled into a wonderful art gallery which I'm punching myself for not getting the name of. Had amazing sculptures, jewelry and paintings. Had a special exhibit on the topic of which were heels. I absolutely loved he piece made of pencils! I saw a painting that I really wanted but alas I did not have enough CUCs on me then. UGH. It's around the corner from Don Eutemia and the Taller Experimental de Grafica de la Habana -- pretty cool because not only can you buy prints from contemporary local artists but you also see them working on their current pieces! So cool!!
Then visited Plaza de Armes and then had some time to roam about. Plaza de Armas was built in the 1600s and was used for military exercises up until the mid-1700s. It subsequently changed and became popular amongst wealthy Havana citizens and attracted people who wanted to enjoy carriage rides around the area. I then wandered first to La Bodeguita del Medio, one of Hemingway's fave bars (other being La Floridita, which a friend recommended for daiquiris) ... according to him it was THE place for mojitos. La Bodeguita del Medio has the feel of the local crowd - a real bar, serving traditional cuban food. Located on Calle Empedrado the building is covered in graffiti - much of it saluting Hemingway and Cuba....
Hotel Ambos Mundos - in Old Havana - where Ernest Hemingway used to live prior to his moving out of Old Havana into his sweet house (see the pics to come). Loved the bar. I'm sure he did too (the version back then).
Plaza vieja in Old Havana -- once known as Plaza Nueva, or β€œNew Square”. The plaza, laid out in 1559, lost its name and role as the main public gathering place after Plaza de Armas was widened in the 19th century.
Took a short ferry ride from Casablanca to Old Havana. Despite the choppy waves and high winds, the ride into the harbor was surprisingly smooth (and fast). Started off with Plaza de San Francisco (which, I am sure you can guess, is across from the port of San Francisco! πŸ˜‹). Includes Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis. Built from 1580-1591, it features a 42 metre high bell tower and contains the remains of influential Havana citizens. Also includes "El Caballero de Paris" statue by Jose Maria Lopez-Lledin. The metal statue's beard has been polished over the years by the hands of tourists and seekers of good luck.
Started the morning by driving through the tunnel to see Casablanca for some stunning views of Havana. You can see the strong waves tumbling ashore.
Woke up to this scene. Waves tumbling over the Malecon sea wall. Thought it was cool, beautiful, strong and powerful. Little did I know it would become worse throughout the day....

22 January 2017

Another pre-dinner walk on the Malecon. Caught a shot of the Hotel Nacional from behind. πŸ˜‰ Will try to squeeze in a drink there at some point. Got in a couple of Cuba flag shots too. πŸ‡¨πŸ‡Ί And I was trying to capture the power of the tide crashing against the Malecon walls (akin to the geysers I saw in Iceland!), but my timing didn't seem to mesh and I lost patience. It was pretty cool. 😎
Learning is fun and all, but sometimes dumbing out and blanking out is as well 😜
Visited Muraleando, an incredibly impressive community art project in Havana. Cleaned up a dirty area of the city piled with trash and created a cultural community for art and music -- children can foster their artistic dreams (includes special program for children with Down syndrome as well). We were lucky to have a band who has worked with the community perform for us with two little girls confidently show us their moves they are learning -- got a snapshot with their kind, warm, gentle dance teacher. πŸ™πŸΌ
Visited Finca La Yoandra, an organic farm a little less than thirty minutes west of Old Havana -- where we toured the farm and had lunch. Example of Cuba's urban agriculture movement. Included trees bearing various fruit ranging from Apple (in Havana??) to starfruit to spiky grapefruit and a wide-girthed African tree (Baobab) and pretty flowers and art and music.
And lots of old cars at the Plaza ....
Started off the morning by visiting Plaza de la Revolucion-- where many political rallies have taken place (including where Fidel Castro enjoyed making speeches ... Fidel Castro addressed more than a million Cubans on many occasions). Pope John Paul II, was here in 1998, and Pope Francis in 2015. Jose Marti memorial is most eye-catching. He is still revered as a national hero. Not a socialist, but very anti-imperialist. He remains a symbol for Cuba's bid for independence against Spain in the 1800s. Also includes Ministry of Interior building (Che Guavera) and Ministry of Communications (Camile Cienfuegos- also a revolutionary).
Met with a professor at the University of Havana today who teaches social psychology. Incredibly fascinating and thrilling way to start the morning. She gave us the real scoop. I love this stuff! Spoke about current life as a local, how survival is key, and way of life living on this isolated island. CUP vs CUC. A professor makes about 300 CUC per year! A doctor makes about 500-600 CUC per year! Tourism is now an industry where you can make the big bucks. So you see teachers and other professionals leaving their professions for tourism (like my guide Marlon - he was a teacher who, a few years ago, left to become a guide). Cubans, such as herself, often have side gigs to get tips to make ends meet. She confirmed my experience yesterday at the grocery store (the part where I waited in line for 42 mins to buy two bottles of water) and the fact that there isn't much food to buy!!! And it's not healthy. It's basically water, booze, soda, some canned food, some canned baby food, and crackers

21 January 2017

Headed out to dinner in Old Havana, to have dinner at El Figaro at Barber's Alley. El Fígaro, located in Barbers Alley, not only assures that its visitors will find hairless food (so says its slogan), but also, that they will find a cuisine that is stylized, glamorous and has the seal of the Smith family. The grandson of famous and several times award winning chef Gilberto Smith, has the same name of his grandfather and similar talents. Had a super fun meal and drinks topped with cigar smoking (I skipped) and rum tasting (I partook of course) -- Havana Club (Cuban government owned version, not Bacardi owned) with these amazing bitters that help carry out the HC7 flavor - apparently only available to brand ambassadors. Manufactured in Germany for use in Cuba. I will find a way to find more.... 😁
Came back out before dinner to see the sun set (one of my favorite moments of each day). πŸŒ…
Took a detour when I saw the US Embassy (which I understand closed down from 1961-77 due to the breakdown of US-Cuba relations, then reopened with limited ops under Carter ... primarily to help locals get to US to see families ... of course in July 2015 it fully opened when Obama and Raul Castro restored diplomatic connections ... who knows what will happen in years to come ... I digress) and then to explore the more residential parts of the neighborhood of Vedado. My understanding is that this neighborhood is hip and has a vibrant gay community. It was gorgeous - lot of broken down homes in process of being rebuilt, but you could sense the glory that once stood.
Took a leisurely stroll along the Malecon to explore Vedado a bit along via the coastline walkway. It's an esplanade / sea wall that stretches about 8 km along the Havana coastline. Usually see locals hanging out on it drinking cervesas after the sunset (so heat is more bearable). They sit on the walls (the wall is known as Havana's longest bench).
Wow I feel like I've been transported back (decades) in time. πŸ˜‰
After going back to the gate because of two passengers' desire to deplane (and when we were back at gate they apparently changed their minds to re-plane), JetBlue decided to wait for passengers who had delayed transfers. So we took off about an hour late. Impressed we were able to make up some time in air and landed at decent time. Thanks to Michelle's advice, I consolidated heavily and did not check in bags (have heard can take 2-3 hrs to wait for bags and "nobody gives a shit" in Havana). Unexpectedly, got through customs in 6 minutes and was through the checkpoints in 5 additional minutes - awesome. Exchanged USD for CUC outside (was too late in getting the memo re USD tax). Got a taxi and headed to hotel. Love the Caribbean outdoor vibe with old cars. People at airport were extremely friendly despite my embarrassingly deficient Spanish skills. Smiles go a long way. 😁
Sitting at terminal waiting to board flight. For some reason, I thought it would take hours to check in (can't check in online or at airport kiosk due to Cuba-US travel restrictions). So, I woke up at 4 for a super quick workout and shower, and arrived at JFK by 530. JetBlue was a madhouse with seemingly never-ending queues. However, went to ground level for "special" check in -- no line (probably because I was three hours early!!!) -- and got my ticket in five minutes. Very little questioning, likely because I'm attending a well-established people-to-people tour. Went through the TSA Pre-Check line in 7 minutes. At gate and have about two and a half hours to kill. Don't really want to get breakfast since I didn't bring any CCs or bank cards and only have $100 bills. So, had two Kind bars instead, read through travel docs/tips, learned some basic Spanish phrases, and will now read my Bacardi book -- been meaning to pick it up since 2008 ... happy to finally get around to it.