viva la cuba libre!

despite it's rocky start, our cuba vacation can now be declared an unequivocal success!  what an amazing country.  i highly recommend it.  as i recently stated in an email to a friend, havana feels like africa, but looks like europe, only it's friendlier, cheaper, dirtier and there's live music on every corner.

we arrived at our case particulare late in the evening.  despite the hour, or perhaps because of it, the streets were thumping.  restaurants were overflowing and groups of habaneros loitered everywhere, eyeing our taxi and making jokes or giving friendly waves.

we rented a room in a private home in the old part of havana for 4 nights.  the house was apparently owned by a physician, but as he was away at a conference we never met him.  one other room in the house was rented as well, but we never saw the guests.  at $30/night we enjoyed the entire space to ourselves for all 4 days.

my favourite feature was the balcony, offering an anonymous view of daily life in havana.  the living room and dining room were beautifully decorated and featured voluminous 15 foot ceilings.

our bedroom was sparsely decorated but functional.  the only downside was the old school spring mattress that had certainly seem more comfortable days.  after the first night, kylie moved to the secondary foam mattress and i had the springs to myself.  don't worry, this was not due to any excess marital discord.

in the 2 weeks before our departure for cuba, i could be witnessed striding the forest trails near our house with ty running in front and niko crashing through the bush, while muttering, "no quiero comere aqui, pero quiero babere algo por favor"  (i don't want to eat here, but i would like to drink something please).  no, i was not delirious from dehydration.  rather i was embarking on a short pimsleur spanish course, and i'm sure glad i did.  we were surprised at the large proportion of people in the tourist industry who did not speak any english.  (the neighbour lady who managed our case particulare for example).  for the most part we were able to get by with kindergarten spanish sprinkled with french words embellished with an exuberant spanish accent.

our first night in havana was valentines day.  we found a dream location for dinner in cathedral square, featuring 5 separate restaurants in one ex-palace, an art gallery and of course a cathedral.  it seemed as though a documentary was being shot there in the evening, as someone helpfully erected lighting making for a photographer's dream setting.

the next few days were spent reigniting our old travel m.o.  which has not been operational since we had ty.  basically, kylie and i walk around a lot, turning corners depending on which way looks interesting and consulting maps only when thoroughly lost.  for the most part we eschew museums and i CANNOT STAND guided tours.  i get twitchy and irritated within 30 seconds and soon find myself confronted by AK 47 toting guards when i veer suddenly into unguided territory (bad experiences in egyptian tombs, where guides are occasionally mandatory).

this mode of tourism makes for more of the random memorable moments involving meetings with locals and unexpected delicious finds.  it can also mean occasionally going hungry when mealtimes are missed, or thirsty when safe water is difficult to find.  to kylie's extreme credit, she was game for this type of touring despite being almost 7 months pregnant.  we took lots of breaks in parks and cafes, and stopped for more cappuccinos than we have previously, but this being a week trip instead of a 4 month trip, our budget could absorb the hit.

this brings me to my next point.  one which i would like to make emphatically.  anyone you have heard complain about the food in cuba has never been to havana.  the food in western style all inclusive beach resorts which are located in cuba probably deserves its poor reputation, but THE FOOD IN HAVANA IS AMAZING!  restaurants are reasonably priced and cafes are downright cheap.    3 course meals with multiple drinks can be had for the price of an entree at earls.

foamy cappuccinos are $1-2 and tasty pastries are in the 20-50 cent range.  as a general rule, we ate cheap for breakfast, had multiple pastries and coffee for lunch and went all out for dinner. 

serendipitous discoveries such as aztec style drinking chocolate pulled us through our occasional episodes of hypoglycaemia.  we avoided meat except at the higher end restaurants (chris h. our intestines thank you for this valuable lesson) and didn't get sick at all.

another wonderful thing about the meals in cuba is that most of them come with music!  as mentioned, live music is everywhere.  in any given crowd, 3 people are carrying instruments.  we saw some flamenco and bopped to a band fronted by the piano player for the buena vista social club.

i even got to have a bit of a jam session with some wandering troubadours in a park.  their gregarious front man, skilled in the art of wooing tourists extemporized a song including lines such as, "stephen harper, your prime minister, he is from calgary.  it is far from vancouver, where they care about trees."

one of the aspects of cuba that attracted me was the profusion of 1950s american cars.

they are everywhere and in all states of repair, from beautifully restored hotrods with aftermarket rims and exhaust systems to oil belching rust buckets to sidewalk blocking derelict wrecks with 4 flat tires.

the era of the classic car is coming to an end in cuba however.  up until last year, no one except government functionaries or commercial drivers was allowed to buy a vehicle made after 1959 (the year of the revolution).
this rule is being relaxed, and the dying fleet of oldsmobiles, buicks and mercuries is slowly being replaced with ladas and kias, a change that is good for the respiratory system, but bad for photographers.

another aspect of cuban culture that struck us visually was the plethora of super cute female police officers and security guards in uniforms complemented by fishnet stockings.  in canada, the only time a female police officer could get away with this would be if they were involved in a covert prostitution sting.  in havana it seems to be the norm.
one morning i was walking around our neighbourhood while kylie slept in and came around a corner only to be brought up short by a 6 foot tall black policewoman sporting a flaming afro, fishnet stockings with legs to match, and a gun.  i briefly considered getting arrested.

to reinforce the central theme of this blogpost: havana is awesome.  in february the weather is perfect, the accommodations are cheap, the food is tasty and the people are friendly.  there are certainly the inevitable touts, but they are much less persistent than their african counterparts and much more pleasant.  enduring their pitches for cheap cigars is preferable to eating resort food and being bundled on and off tourist buses while being told what to look at and where to take pictures.  havana is an independent travellers dream.

speaking of resorts though, next up: playa sirena on cayo largo.
viva la cuba libre!


unexpected toronto trip

we are currently sitting in pearson airport watching the snow fall and the planes getting de-iced.  we are on our way to havana, cuba!

unfortunately, we were supposed to be there yesterday, but our air canada flight from calgary was delayed and we missed our connection to havana.  actually we were standing in pearson airport when our flight to havana took off with 31 empty seats, but they didnt wait for us.  i guess it was cheaper for them to book us a night in a hotel with an outdoor pool and give us $15 dinner vouchers for a restaurant where the cheapest meal was $30.

i won't complain anymore here (or maybe just about the cold) as really our life is pretty sweet, and we are still going to cuba, but feel free to look up our complaint on the air canada facebook wall and like it.  ;-)  there was an article in today's globe and mail saying that the only way to get any action from air canada is to rage against them on social media

so what does one do when one is stuck at the airport in toronto instead of drinking rum at an outdoor music club in havana?  we decided to make the best of it and head downtown to walk down young street, go out for a nice meal and check out the CN tower.

this seems like a good time to admit that since moving to the fraser valley, kylie and i have really become cold wimps.  of course it didnt help that we had packed for a tropical climate, and that i shaved my head a few days ago.  we were wearing raincoats (kylie wasnt even going to bring that until i encouraged her to) and no toques.  it was only -10, but walking downtown we felt like we were about to die from exposure.  we evolved a strategy involving ducking into every open shop and pretending to look around.  really i was just looking for a toque to buy, but all the clothing stores were closed.

we had a fantastic meal at "la mexicana" on young.  me gusta la mexicana!  thanks shareen for suggesting the urbanspoon app.  it was fun to try out my spanish on the waiter and he responded very positively.  he seemed to really appreciate it.  so much for stuck up torontonians!

after that we descended into the murky depths of the TTC and navigated our way to union station and the CN tower.  unfortunately our nikon is currently in the bowels of pearson airport and our funky pics of nighttime toronto are inaccessible.  our only proof of our time at "the top of the world" is a picture kylie took through the floor with her phone.

the view from the CN tower is pretty amazing.  it is crazy to look waaaay down at 50 story high rises like they're made of lego.

the staff at the tower and the other tourists were all very friendly and we had some good laughs walking with strangers on the glass floor 400m in the air.  after descending we returned to the great outdoors (the fabled "skywalk" is closed for no obvious reason until 2013) and dodged through as many buildings as we could on our way back to the TTC.  it is amazing how many different ethnicities there are riding the toronto subway!  also, i was really happy about all the mixed race couples we saw.  in 100 years all of toronto will be a light shade of brown.

after using our dinner vouchers for midnight room service we retired for the night.  today we (hopefully) successfully got onto a flight to havana which should see us winging through the skies to feel the warm cobblestones beneath our sandalled feet by tonight.  yippeee!  (did i mention that ty is having a great time with the grandparents?  safely and solidly not in cuba!)

me gusta cuba!  no me gusta air canada!


50mm prime

 after dreaming about it for over a year, i finally subjugated my dutch heritage enough to go out an buy a new lens for our nikon.  if i can take pictures this fun in my kitchen, imagine the possibilities in havana!



after a 15 year hiatus, i have decided to take up skiing again.  i forgot how much i love it.  growing up, my parents were very supportive of me hurtling downhill on 2 slabs of wood.  i got out quite a bit in the winter.  when the temperature started to move below zero, my dad would make me do wall sits in the basement to strengthen my quads.  the two of us would get up early in the morning and make hot chocolate to drink on the way to the hill.  after a bowl of oatmeal we were off into the dawn.  no drive through breakfasts for our family!  my dad skied on these crazy skinny 210s with maple leafs on the tips.  on saturdays i would be dropped off at 6:00 to take the sears ski bus to fernie (back when the boomerang triple was THE chair to ride).  the ski bus included a lesson, for which i was always paired with our neighbour brynn, who was a foot shorter than me (this made for painful T bar rides).  add in a few school trips and i got quite a bit of skiing done in a season.

an abrupt change happened in grade 12 when my parents very reasonably declared that since i had a job and a drivers license, if i wanted to ski on my own, i would have to pay on my own.  those who know me well will not be surprised to learn that i have been skiing approximately 3 times since then.

that all changed when our old friends gary and pam invited us to stay with them for a few days at silverstar.  we havent seen them in years, and the chance to reconnect with them and their kids was too much to pass up.  gary is the grumpy looking guy in the middle, and his beautiful wife pam is standing in front of him.  their kids, mikaela, thomas, daniel and brayden are on the right.
 silverstar is a large and varied hill with tonnes of steep mogul runs.  3 days of skiing in a row was exactly what i needed to reawaken old muscle memory and start to regain some of the skill my parents encouraged.  i spent the first day skiing blues and blacks with gary and pam and their son thomas, who led me down supertight luge tracks with surprise jumps at the end.

once i had found my balance, the second and third days were dedicated to double black diamonds.  i love steep moguls, and silverstar has these in plenty.  having just switched to newfangled parabolic skis i was amazed at how easily they whipped around tight corners.  it helps that they are 20cm shorter than my old straight skis.  the last time i went skiing was 2 years ago with fraser, and the liftees were making fun of my skis.  i didnt know i was that old.

 it was great to hang out with gary in the hottub, and have coffee with pam in the morning.  their kids are all interesting and fun, and they all enjoyed entertaining ty, which made our time there much more enjoyable.  kylie borrowed pam's equipment and went out for a few runs.  the only downside was that ty was so excited to play with his new friends that he woke up at 4:30 every morning!  although we shared morning duties, kylie was pretty tired by the end of our stay.

thanks gary, pam and family for being great ski hosts and sharing your chalet with a noisy toddler!
this season has seen record snowfalls at mt baker, just across the border.  i had never skied there before but couldnt resist all the amazing snow reports.   the drive to the hill was surprisingly short.  i had no idea it was so close.  there was 7 inches of new snow and it snowed hard all morning, filling in existing tracks and making for an amazing powder day.
baker is not a huge hill, but it's all steep and there are some great tree runs.  it was awesome to explore by myself, but i look forward to going back with friends so i can ski a bit more aggressively.

i dont think i'll be skiing as much as when i was growing up, as an entire day away is hard on kylie, but hopefully there will be a bit more snow this season.  ski touring beckons as well.  there are some great options very close to chilliwack and i have some good friends with lots of backcountry experience.  yay snow!