Friday, March 25, 2016

Cuba Connection Part III

Sleek American cars from the 1950’s weave through Havana’s thick traffic - their flashy chrome and deep colors in bright contrast to the drab Russian Ladas that make up most of the Cuban car population. And just like on the postcards these beauties hum along the Malacon filled with exuberant tourists snapping selfies in convertibles and gawking out the windows of beefy '56 Chevys.

For the past 55 years locals have been creating custom parts to keep their vintage cars on the road.
However a ride in one of those beauties will cost you $40 an hour. The rest of the taxi options are a little less glamorous, but certainly more affordable. You can still catch a ride in an old classic, because there are plenty of them around - they just haven’t had the good fortune of being restored. But just like their more glamorous brethren their gas guzzling engines have been replaced with diesel engines, and whether they are rusted and rumbling or straight from the set of Grease, they all belch stinky black exhaust.

Off we go in a Coco Taxi - other than walking this was our favorite way get around in Havana.
We rode in a few of those faded ladies, and a few Ladas that we weren’t sure would get us home before their last last gasp. But our favorite ride around town was the Coco Taxi. A round yellow cocoon bolted to a Vespa with a top speed of 25 miles an hour. We even took Cocos the entire 5 miles from the center of Havana to our casa, although they had to let us out at the bottom of the final steep hill - it was just too much for their overworked 150 cc engines. The downside of the open air ride was being blasted by exhaust fumes from all sides, and the even bumpier ride over pothole-riddled side streets.

On our last day in Havana, Mari, one of the favorite Casa Ortega drivers took us to the Viazul bus station to buy tickets to Cardenas, our next destination city. It is about a four hour trip east of Havana near the famous Varadero beaches. He waited while we stood in line (there are always lines in Cuba) to purchase tickets. We were nervous about what the Cuban version of a luxury bus might be, but they were fine. We were all set to leave early the next morning.

Surprisingly nice buses get you quickly and affordably around the island.
When we shared our plans with our host a look of concern crossed her face. It turned out we had purchased tickets to the wrong destination. We were close, but quite a distance from where we needed to go. Mari to the rescue! He picked us up the next day, and after some negotiation and a bit of cash was exchanged, our bus driver agreed to make sure we were dropped at the right station and he would find a taxi to take us the rest of the way. Late in the day we arrived in Cardenas at Hostal Relax, our second Airbnb.

Booking Airbnbs in Cuba was an adventure as I explained in the previous blog. I am sure it will get easier as the process improves and the Internet becomes more widely available. But we were early adopters so communication including cell phone usage was off the table. Because there isn’t any Internet, and as near as we could tell, we wouldn’t be able to get SIM cards for our phones like we’ve done it other countries, we couldn’t communicate easily with our hosts or anyone else on planet earth.

Laundry day across the street from our Airbnb in Cardenas
Even though we had this airbnb booked, and we’d received a confirmation, our arrival details were a bit loose. Our taxi dropped us at the door facing the almost dusty abandoned main street of Cardenas. There was no answer to our continued knocking (and eventual pounding) on the door. That is disconcerting... no matter where you are! Finally the housekeeper heard us and ushered us inside.

The hosts arrived shortly thereafter and they were a spirited pair in their late 50s. Susan is Canadian and just recently settled in Cardenas with her Cuban husband Orlando. He was great fun - a former boxer who spoke a fair amount of English and loves to cook. A bonus for us. They are new to Airbnb and did their very best to make our stay special. Here's the link:

Special treatment for Valentine's Day!
When we initially booked this place we thought we were closer to Varadero, a very popular beach resort town, when in fact were at least a 20 minute taxi ride away. As it turned out however, the sleepy little town of Cardenas offered a “slice of Cuban life” experience we wouldn't have had otherwise.

I am captivated by wrought iron in any form! Here's a dazzling door on an otherwise bleak street.
We did spend a day in Varadero, and the beaches were beautiful, the hotels were glitzy, the restaurants were full and the streets were crowded with tourists. If you flew into Varadero, hopped on an air-conditioned coach to arrive at your all-inclusive beach resort, you might think Cuba is just another lovely Caribbean destination. I am glad we made ended up where we did.

For one thing, two blocks from our Airbnb a huge, dilapidated rum factory, that actually looked abandoned, wafted a sweet, “intoxicating” perfume over the neighborhood most afternoons.

Havana Club rum was cheap and plentiful. Unlike a lot of other sustanance!
The most common means of public transportation were horse drawn buggies. The most common place to take this form of transportation was to the main plaza, the only place in town where there was an Internet signal.

A horse named Uber!
Once again we found very little in the way of food supplies or other provisions. There was a Sunday market across from the church we attended where it seemed most everyone stocked up on produce and meat for the week. It was also the place to wear your Sunday best, drink rum in the shade and gossip with your neighbors. Without the Internet, this was where you got your news.

The Sunday market was a parking lot full of trucks with goods sold from the back
On other days, old men trudged along the streets in the early hours of the morning selling bread from push carts. Later in the day, younger men hawked onions and garlic and occasionally fresh fish. There was one grocery store for locals where they collected their weekly rations. The other store, where foreigners could shop, offered Coca Cola and Pringles (don’t ask me why, but those two American staples were everywhere in Cuba!), canned goods, rice, beans, beer, rum, and a small selection of tired fruit and vegetables. Dotted throughout town were kiosks made from old shipping containers. There you could peek past the counter where the owner served up sweets, toiletries, snacks, cigars and, of course, beer and rum.

Beer on tap at your table. A popular way to spend an afternoon.
Beer, rum and thankfully, ice cream could always be found.
Sadly, we had to say goodbye to Orlando and his backyard barbecue and head to our next destination. The historic town of Trinidad. We had heard great things about this UNESCO protected city. We boarded our comfortable bus and settled in for the four hour ride.

A mural in Trinidad that I captured just as a woman in tears walked by.
Our host had arranged for a taxi to meet us at the central bus station so thankfully we were able to avoid the pack of drivers swarming the bus looking for a fare. We piled into a rusty red taxi and with Elton John hits blaring in our ears we jostled our way out of town and down a country lane to the tiny beach town of La Boca.

Michael was anamoured with our taxi. Eventually he had to give it back.
Our lovely, very tiny host Kiwi and her mother.
There we were greeting by our host Kiwi, a petite woman with a great smile and excellent English, wish we came to appreciate. We were also welcomed by her mother, her cousin and my soon to be shadow, her five year old niece. Oh, and a dog, a cat, a parrot and about 40 chickens including a rooster, several hens and dozens of chicks who were "free range" to the point they could wander into your room if you didn't keep the door closed. Here's the link:

Just a few of the many, many chickens that ruled the roost at Casa Jardin.
After settling in, we knew we wouldn't be spending too much time in our room due to the glaring lights, Flamingo pink walls, and a bathroom without a door (that's twice so far) so we headed to the courtyard to read for a bit. It was at that moment we discovered we must have left Michael's Kindle on the bus! This was cause for complete panic because we were at the end of the earth in a small house with little to do beyond reading our backlog of books.

Kiwi jumped into action and called our taxi driver who was back in Trinidad. He rushed to the bus station and luckily, our bus was still there. He spoke to the driver and they searched the bus but couldn't find the Kindle. Kiwi said unfortunately in Cuba, if someone had found it - even if they weren't sure what it was, they would try to sell it for a few pesos. We decided not to give up and took so Kiwi called the driver and back and we raced into the city again to look for ourselves. It was a tense ride - Michael was as near to tears as I've seen him on the whole trip - especially since he was two-thirds through a great book and there would be no way to replace a Kindle until we were back in the states two weeks later.

Losing your Kindle was almost as bad as  losing your phone, wallet or passport!
Amazingly, our bus was still there but was it was loaded with passengers with the engine idling and ready for departure. The driver was not keen on having his bus rummaged through again - but we were determined. We searched our seats and the surrounding areas and questioned the passengers and the drivers. In the end, all we could do was file a useless Lost Property report. As I was working on that, Michael took one last look. I heard a whoop and looked up to see him salsa dancing with his kindle held high! Because it has a blue cover, and the bus seats were blue, no one saw that it had slipped sideways deep between our two seats. There is a God.

This was the part of the beach we could walk to from our Airbnb.
This was the part of the beach you could stretch out on just a short cab ride away.
Now that the Kindle drama was behind us we were ready to settle into Casa Jardin. We could in fact, walk to the beach from our casa. It wasn't at "the pretty end" but still, you could catch the sea air and there were a couple of restaurants, and although our room was a little scary, the courtyard was pleasant and the family was attentive but also discreet.

Aarne (with two A's) and Anita, our delightful Airbnb mates.
Things changed later in the day when a young couple from Los Angeles arrived - also booked for four nights in this quirky little house. We've always had an entire home to ourselves before coming to Cuba, and we were just getting used to living with hosts. Now we would be sharing the courtyard and having meals with strangers, and there really wasn't anywhere else to go since both of our rooms opened directly into the common space. We looked at each other warily and made our introductions. They went to their room - and just like us, made a quick exit. Their paint color was even more garish that ours! From that moment on we became friends and without their company, our stay in Trinidad would have been far less enjoyable.

This was one big delicious fish! It tasted better than it looks.
We had many things in common with Aarne and Anita, even with our 30 year age difference. We had some great home-cooked meals together in the evenings when Kiwi and her mom served whole grilled fish fresh from the neighbors boat, pumpkin soup, crisp salads, piles of fruit and homemade custards. Breakfasts were just as good. We taught them to play dominoes and we spend time together in Trinidad. Aarne is a senior producer for NBC News and had great stories about the on-air talent and interesting behind-the-scenes tales about news he's covered around the world. Anita works for a fast growing start-up that delivers organic groceries to your door.

Our stay with this family and with our new friends was a highlight of our Cuban adventure.
The other new love in my life was Kiwi's niece Zyolita. I must give off a certain "grandmotherly"vibe because I was on her radar from the minute we arrived. Although we couldn't communicate with words, we formed a great bond and spent time drawing together. I drew many Disney princesses for her to color and paint and left behind my watercolor set as a gift.

My new little friend Zyolita - a big fan of Disney Princesses!
Zyolita and her mother and I admiring her painting skills.
Between the menagerie, our new friends, a sweet little girl, sublime fish dinners, and the faded beauty of a grand city, our time in Trinidad was one of the highlights of our trip so far.

Everywhere I looked in Trinidad there was another stunning photo to be taken.
When we first arrived in Havana, I was overwhelmed by the poverty and the tragic state of the city. I said to Michael that I didn't think there was a magic wand big enough to solve their many problems and restore this beautiful country to it's former glory. But as we traveled deeper into the country, the magic did started to happen. And it is all about the people. They have a resilience that is humbling and seem happy to live one day at a time, shrugging off the hardship. They were friendly and open and were very keen to welcome American visitors. And the music seemed to never stop. Ten days to go... and the beat goes on.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Cuba Connection Part II

Last November Michael and I gave a 15 minute talk on a rock-star-status stage in Paris to 5,000 Airbnb hosts about our Senior Nomad adventures. As I described in an earlier blog, the effort to come up with a presentation for the Airbnb Open we could do together without ending our marriage was a challenging one. But we did it and the marriage survived.
Under the lights and on the big screen in Paris.
We felt an immediate connection to another married couple under the same pressure. They were part of Airbnb’s big announcement about their ever-growing presence in Cuba. Sylvio and Julia Ortega own a beautiful ten-room hostal in Havana and they were there to enthusiastically invite all of us to visit. They too, had the giant stage to themselves. The difference was only one of them spoke English, so Julia was not only sharing her side of their story, she was translating for Sylvio as well. I am not sure if that made for extra anxiety or if it might have been to her advantage.
We were happy to continue our Airbnb-lifestyle in Cuba!
We quickly bonded around our shared experience, and now that we could visit Cuba on our own and continue Airbnb-based lifestyle we made plans to visit them as soon as possible.
During the holidays we planned a three week visit for early February. We knew we’d spend our first week in Havana with the Ortegas, and from there we put together an itinerary that would give us a good overview of the island by using The Lonely Planet, travel blogs and advice from friends who had been there.
We used Lonely Planet to help us with our itinerary.
As we close in on our 100th Airbnb, we consider ourselves to be experts at using the website, but trying to book rentals in a communist country with little or no Internet access added a layer of complexity we hadn’t expected. 
You'll find many Airbnb choices in Cuba. Just be patient.
In some cases the Airbnb's we wanted were booked. Or were they? Because the internet is not available (as in banned) to individuals in their homes, ordinary Cubans gain access to the internet by standing in long lines to buy 1/2 hour or 1 hour scratch cards with a temporary user and password number on the back. Then they have to find a public park with a wifi signal (generously provided by the government) to use their cell-phone, or the rare laptop, to connect. Or, they can stand in even longer lines and pay to use a computer terminal at a government controlled internet station.
Near the park where there is wifi available. It's a social affair.
Most Airbnb hosts count on friends or relatives in other countries to field booking requests. Their contact then calls them to see if they have availability, because many of the private homes, or "casa particulars" as they are known, are also rented through European sites or a knock at their door by a tourist. The owner responds to the query, updates the calendar, and then the intermediary gets back to the interested party to see if they still want to book through Airbnb! It took longer that usual to find out if we had a booking or not. In the end we found five places that looked good. More on those as the story unfolds. Here's a link to a site with good information about Airbnb in Cuba:

We arrived in Havana on February 5th for a seven night stay at Casa Rosa Ortega and it was great to be reunited with Sylvio and Julia. They run a beautiful "hostal" - in Latin lingo that means their property is not a private home, but not a hotel either. There are ten rooms for rent on a property they own, and they offer food to lodgers and locals. Each morning we were served a delicious complimentary breakfast in the covered cabana, with lunch and dinner available upon request, and a bar open all hours. Our hosts were gracious and the staff couldn’t do enough for us.
The courtyard at Casa Rosa Ortega. Our room is on the right behind the table.
The cabana where you can meet other guests or play a quiet game of backgammon in the corner.
After two additional weeks in places that paled in comparison, and witnessing just how difficult it is to get goods in Cuba, we came to admire this couple all the more for their intrepid spirit and creativity. If you get to Cuba, do your best to stay in this rare oasis in the gritty city of Havana. Here's the listing:
A wonderful day at the Market with our host Julia
Early one morning Julia took me along on the daily market run. I am so glad she did because I was curious about how they managed to feed so many people based on the limited number of grocery stores or markets we’d seen - and most of those had very little to offer. Procuring anything in Cuba is challenging, but getting enough food can become an all day affair. Rum and beer however, are plentiful and cheap.
We headed to Julia's favorite fresh market for fruit and vegetables. There are no parking meters and parking lots are rare in Cuba, so for a good ten minutes we navigated the potholed side-streets around the market looking for a "human" parking meter. That would be a person holding a space with a couple of vegetable crates. You paid him a few pesos to squeeze into his space and he kept an eye on your car. There were a lot of these "meter men" around the market - and once I understood what they were doing, I noticed them all over Havana.
Paying homage to the keeper of the plastic bags at at the entrance of the market.
Our first stop at the market was to spend a few pesos to purchase a dozen plastic bags from the stern woman who sat squarely at the entrance. Sort of like using bathrooms here, If you want toilet paper, it's going to cost you.
Every day Julia gathers most of the requirements to make a full breakfast for up to 20 guests, as well as offering lunch and dinner on request. She goes to different markets depending on what she needs. The market we were going to had the nicest produce in her opinion - and since she had me in tow, she didn't want to expose me to the less pleasant parts of her daily shopping blitz.
Julia working hard to get the best of the best for all of us back at at the casa.
The market itself wasn't large but their were piles of impeccably fresh local produce on offer. We moved briskly down the narrow aisles, stopping at stalls where Julia is a regular. There was a lot of cheerful bantering and bargaining and it was fun to watch. We filled our bags with tiny bananas that were twice as flavorful as any I've ever had, ripe papayas, oranges, pineapple, avocados the size of a cantaloupe, fresh peppers of every size, gnarly tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs. The best moment was when Julia had a vendor insert a coring device deep into the flesh of a melon an pull out a sample so she see it was ripe all the way through.
Julia was frustrated over the lack of a few key ingredients that meant we'd have to go elsewhere to find. Apparently this happens often, and Cubans just shrug it off as part of daily life. As we went to different markets in search of meat, eggs and bread Julia would buy extra condiments and other staples that might not be in the same shop the next day. Another staff person was out collecting beverages and household supplies. It takes a coordinated team effort that includes staff and Julia's father to be continually on the prowl for provisions. And they have to do it every day.
This is an example of the store shelves we saw in Havana.
Ordinary Cubans receive monthly rations but they are meager and they to spend a great deal of time finding food as well. Here's a good article from the Guardian about the food situation in Cuba:
A mansion in ruins just down the street from where we were staying in Havana.

A classic car waiting for some love. Most have been retrofitted with polluting diesel engines.
Our experience of Havana outside of our beautiful casa was a further lesson in the harsh reality of life in Cuba. Casa Ortega is about a 15 minute cab ride from the center of Havana, so we were staying in a typical neighborhood where few tourists would ever see. Just outside our front gate we were immediately surrounded by once-elegant homes now in ruins. But those ruins are occupied - you can tell by the laundry hung on lines outside and we could see families inside darkened doorways. The poverty was palpable.
A street just a block from our house in Havana.
The streets were so full of kitchen table sized pot holes and that our taxi drivers reduced their speed to a crawl and cautiously wove from side to side to navigate around very dangerous conditions. Working street lights are a thing of the future so driving at night was even more difficult.
One of our favorite experiences was riding in these puttering little Coco taxis.
Michael at the famous Hotel National in Havana where we found a fast Internet connection.
Where is the Cuba everyone should see before it changes? On the margins, not in the touristic center. We did visit the old city, and walked the Malicon and saw plenty of shiny classic cars from the 1950's. We saw the statues and the tributes to Che. We danced to the beat and we could see that cigars are a necessity of life. And we met many wonderful people who were glad to see Americans. However, once you leave the postcard perfect center, or the beach resorts, you will find a harsher reality. And that is the Cuba worth experiencing now.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Cuba Connection

We got to Cuba thanks to to a tip from Airbnb that put us in touch with an Amazon-like super model disguised as a travel agent. Her name is Antoinette. Just like her Cuban mother, she has been wearing 6” heels since she was thirteen and she doesn’t take them off until she goes to bed. And now she runs her mother’s travel agency in Miami serving Americans traveling to Cuba. She helped us with everything we needed for the trip other than booking our Airbnbs.

Connecting with Antoinette in the departure lounge at the Miami airport.
Her thick black ponytail whipped side to side as she took catwalk-worthy strides towards us at at the Miami Airport at check-in for our flight to Havana. She had our tickets, our visas (traveling as “journalists”), our health insurance documents and a whole bunch of advice about traveling to Cuba.

The lovely Antionette. The agency does not have a website - but you can give them a call.
If you get the urge to visit Cuba, and you are willing to travel from Miami (the cheapest and easiest US departure point as I write this) give Marianao Travel a call at (305) 331-3002. Tell her the Senior Nomads sent you!
Down to one bag for our trip to Cuba. It will be an experiment in traveling with less.
Because of the unknowns of traveling to Cuba, including getting around once we arrived, we decided to consolidate our worldly goods into just one of our two large suitcases. We basically took our warm weather clothes and stuffed them into one bag (along with our trusty pillows, of course). Then crammed coats, heavy shoes, pants, sweaters, books, anything to do with cooking (since wouldn’t be doing any of that), and other non-essentials into the other bag. After some negotiation, we were able to stow it with the Bell Captain at the Sheraton Miami Airport while we were in Cuba. It all made sense because when we got back to Cub in three weeks, we planned on spending the night at the Sheraton.

A typical load of who-knows-what heading to Havana working around the embargo.
Now we see why people spend $20. a bag to get them wrapped in plastic at the airport
Unloading at the other end in Havana. Our suitcase is in there somewhere!
While Antoinette helped us check-in we couldn’t help noticing our luggage didn’t match most everything else that was heading for the belly of our chartered plane. Baggage check-in looked like a long line at Costco. There were a few tourists like us of course, with normal suitcases, but everyone else had mounds of cheap bags swaddled in multiple layers of blue plastic wrap to keep them from breaking open. We couldn’t tell what was underneath most of that wrapping but it was easy to recognize boxes containing flat screen TV’s, computers, a vacuum cleaner, a car seat, and, yes...a kitchen sink. Antoinette told us the charter airlines make their money on the freight hauled to Cuba by friends and relatives, not the passenger tickets. We could certainly see how that could be true!

Happy to be in a taxi heading to our first Airbnb in Havana!
We arrived in Havana a little late, custom clearance was slow, and of course getting our luggage separated out from the plastic wrapped booty took some time. We were hot and tired and very glad to see a young taxi driver holding a sign with "Campbell" scrawled on it waiting outside the departure gates.
I loved this upbeat image! We can't wait to see what the real Cuba is all about.
Cuba has been on our travel wish list for some time. We moved it up the Senior Nomads itinerary after learning Airbnb had opened listings there, and because we met Airbnb Super Hosts Sylvio and Julia Ortega at the Airbnb Open in Paris last November. Their home in Havana was our first stop on our three week tour of Cuba. I’ll start with our arrival at the door of Casa Rosa Ortega next!

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads