and more Havana

Today at dance class my Ahmed was booked so I had a new instructor, Abelardo, who couldn’t remember my name so called me Baby.  (no one puts Baby in a corner – Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing). For the second hour we did Casino de Rueda with all of us, it’s a circular dance where a caller decides the moves and you switch partners all the time.  The guys were performing, sliding into the middle like into home plate, shouting and singing, it was lots of fun.

Back on our patio with a beer to recuperate, then lunch at a great paladar named 304 O’Reilly (pronounced oh rrelly), and a walk along the Malecon to the huge indoor artisan market.

Back at the casa, our host Idania’s daughter and family living in Miami have come for a visit, and Idania and others were having their hair, nails and makeup done.  This place is kind of like Keeping up with the Kardashians Cuban style, with many characters coming and going –  Tania the house manager, the cleaning lady who is constantly scrubbing the tiles, the server, Adonis the Santerian priest (is it voodoo?) who acts as a translator, Ray (as in ray of sunshine), a young guy with pink hair who speaks seven languages, and various others.  We’re apparently supposed to have a gift for the casa mama Idania, who drips in gold, and we planned to leave some of my clothes for some locals, but her staff dresses better than we do!

We took a cab to Fabrica de Artes, an old factory made into an art and club space, where we had some food and saw a bit of an afro dance performance.  You got a card when you entered, then when you bought food or drinks $ were added.  When we went to leave, expecting to pay at the exit, we were told to go back inside through the maze to the payment spot.  Cuban logic.

Our last day of dance lessons the next day.  I got Ahmed back, and at the end we did a couple of songs with rueda changing partners.  I had been told to have a present for your instructor, so I gave him a belt bag that I put $10 in, but that was awkward, not sure I would do it again?DSC02957

We found another nice lunch spot, then found a pink 50’s Chevy convertible taxi to drive along the Malecon to Hotel Nacional for a mojito on the lawns.

The old cars are prized possessions of the locals, and most are kept in pristine condition.  This is because after the revolution, cars brought to the island have been owned by the government.  A blue convertible was waiting for our trip back to old Havana, so I asked if we could stop along the Malecon for photos like everyone else seemed to be doing.

The driver told us about Buena Vista Social Club playing tonight in a theatre not far from our casa, he could get us cheaper tickets (but we ended up paying more as usual).  They are a band formed in the 50’s, made famous when discovered by an American in the 90’s who made a movie about them.

The backing band and the dozen or so talented (and very experienced!) singers played for a couple of hours, the main vocalist for each song weaving through the crowd, then we got up to be their backup dancers, now on the resume.

I was hoping but not expecting to see the headliner on the playbill, Juana, 93 year old cabaret singer who starred in my late hero Anthony Bourdain’s show on Havana.  (He also went to Fabrica de Artes).  I got the impression from the show that she just shows up when she feels like it, as she should at that age! She must not have felt like it that night.

The next morning I presented Idania with the gift I had brought, fancy lip glosses, which seemed silly since she doesn’t seem to be lacking in anything.  Two of my group are headed to Varadero for a few days on the beach.  We had arranged with Tania for an old car taxi for 120 CUCs to Varadero airport, a couple of hours away, where flight connections are much better.

Hasta pronto Havana hope to see you again soon!

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more Havana

Back at the dance studio, another 2 hours of casino (Cuban salsa, named after the dance halls where it originated in the 1950s).  I’m starting to get it, and got a bunch of thumbs up, Eso!s (that’s it!) and Agua!s (water?? or also good, or that’s it, apparently) and even a few I love you Lynn!s from Ahmed.

Back at the casa again, we sat on the deck for a bit of sun.  It was kind of cool and cloudy for the first couple of days after the tornado, but now it’s perfect sunny weather.

We had lunch at a cheap corner bar, with a great salsa band, and locals dancing in the streets, attracting a crowd of cruise ship tourists take pictures.

After that we wandered around in old Havana, checking out Plaza Vieja, and seeing a little of the seedier side of the area just a block off the main street we are staying on.  By seedier I just mean more run down.  Crime is almost unheard of here, but scam artists abound.  Kind hearted foreigners are at a disadvantage so I’m safe. 🙂

Tonight, the dance school has a salsa night at Industria 8 (many places are just named for their street address).  We got there early to score a table in this small basement space.  Some amazing dancing was going on, I felt totally inadequate.  Everyone here is well-dressed, some flashing serious gold jewellery.  Some of the music was so fast that I was just stomping around trying to keep up.  Later in the night some of the instructors took the stage to lead kizomba, bachata, and salsa steps.


Off to school again in the morning.  This time Ahmed lamented “Where has my Lynn gone?”  but I quickly got back on track to keep him happy and singing while we danced.

After recharging on the patio back at the casa, the girls walked to the Inglaterra Hotel nearby where we purchases tickets to the Tropicana show that night ($85 US).  After lunch on a street more local than touristy, we checked out the National Theatre where their world class ballet company is performing Swan Lake, and the massive Capitol building.

We freshened up and got into our “formal” attire as advised by the ticket seller, and set off for the 80 year old Tropicana show.  Loads of tour buses were arriving from cruise ships, we felt underdressed and relatively young.  At our second level table in the open air venue we got a glass of sparkly wine, a bottle of rum with coke and ice, and peanuts to get us through the show.  The dancers are uniformly tall and slim, girls and guys, one who jumped backwards over another guy’s head while doing splits.  The best part was the fantastic outfits with headgear to match.  Amazing show!


















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Havana continued

In the mornings we had breakfast on the patio.  Rooms are 35 CUC per night, plus 5 CUC for a hearty breakfast.

We walked a few blocks to Casa del Son for our lessons.  I’m with Ahmed, and two of the others and their instructors, all in the same room.  So fun, the instructors are all great, very well trained.  I had to make several adjustments to my LA salsa style.  After that we went back to the casa to regroup, went for a nice outdoor lunch, and stopped in the Revolution Museum and Granma memorial (the Granma was the yacht that was used by Fidel Castro to transport 82 fighters of the Cuban Revolution from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 to overthrow the regime of  Batista).

We returned to the casa along the Prado.DSC02795.JPG

We are definitely seeing the very nicest parts of Havana and Cuba.

After dinner on a terrace with a salsa band playing, we got an old car taxi to drive along the Malecon to 1830 Club, a well known outdoor salsa venue, in the Miramar area of town.


We returned from there in another old taxi, not nearly as well maintained, with no springs in the seats and open windows to try to spare us from the gas fumes.

On return to the casa, I was excited to discover that I had running water in my room!

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I’ve been to Cuba and Havana twice before, 10 years ago and 3 years ago.  I found it to be a strange place, with reliable disorganization, some really bad food, and dancing everywhere.  When asked about returning, I said well it’s not my favourite place….but this time it’s a dance trip!

My connecting flight to Toronto was delayed, then the flight to Havana was delayed a couple of hours, so I arrived with two friends around 3:30 am at the airport.  After waiting for bags and changing money (Cuban pesos aren’t sold outside of Cuba) we found a handsome cabbie who drove us through strangely dark streets and fallen trees.  After entering Havana Vieja (old Havana) and turning through narrow unlit streets, he announced that we had arrived at our destination, a casa that we had had to book for just one night since our residence for the next week wasn’t available.  After knocking and phone calls, the casa mama showed up at the door.

We were in the aftermath of a rare tornado that caused great devastation and death in Havana and other parts of Cuba.  Power was out over most of the city.  My room had no windows so a headlamp was useful.  I got to sleep around 5:30 am.

The next morning we went downstairs to where the casa mama was watching a ceremony on tv, with cannons fired, which we could also hear echoing in the streets, since it was just a few blocks away.  I learned it was an annual parade celebrating the revolution, and I guess nothing stops celebrating the revolution – that happened in 1959!DSC02748

After a bit of a discussion about the cost of the rooms (my friends had understood she wanted $75 each, I couldn’t believe it so argued, turned out she wanted $35!) the casa mama led us to Casa Idania, just on the next block, Obispo, the main pedestrian street in Old Havana.

This casa is spectacular compared to any other casa I’ve seen in Cuba, with a casa mama straight out of the fashion pages.


We found lunch at a paladar (locally owned restaurant, as opposed to the government owned restaurants that used to dominate the available options) that had fantastic flavorful food, what a great surprise!  Paladares have been allowed to open more in the last few years and have foreign-influenced chefs who are taking Cuba away from the bland food it’s well known for.  Goodbye rice and beans.

After lunch we wandered to the Malecon, the seawall, checked out a couple of Hemingway’s famous haunts that are constantly packed with tourists, and then stopped at outdoor spot for a drink.  A great salsa band set up right beside us.  We hardly noticed the guitar player on his break strumming right behind us since our mojitos and caipirinhas were just a little strong 🙂DSC02768

Back at the casa we met up with another friend from Gatineau, then walked down the street to a Russian restaurant with an all-girl band for dinner.DSC02777

I hoped for a shower before bed but…in the aftermath of the tornado, no water in my upstairs room.  Not a big deal for showers, since my friends down a floor have working water, but toilets are another thing altogether.

Dance lessons start in the morning!!!!!

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We travelled by train through the Carpathian Mountains to Bucharest, a city of 8 million.  It’s quite a contrast to the other places we have seen in Romania.  It’s unkempt and uncared for, with angry graffiti and parks filled with weeds to complement the massive Communist era buildings.

We went for a tour of the Palace of Parliament, the second largest government building in the world, after the Pentagon.  It was built under the direction of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1980’s but has never been finished. It has 1100 rooms decorated with chandeliers and gold. A palace nearby was also built for his wife and second in charge Elena. This was all being built while the people lined up for bread.

The building has 20 floors including 8 underground. The floors beneath included a nuclear bunker and a route to the airport in case of a revolution. All this caution didn’t help him when the revolution came in 1989. He and Elena were captured by the army and executed on Christmas Day, 1989.

We then went on a walking tour of the highlights of downtown Bucharest and its recent history. Communism means the state comes before anything else including the church, but Ceausescu knew how important the church was to Romanians, so he moved the churches to be hidden by the state buildings.

The “old town”, and many of the statues surrounding it, are actually only about a decade old. All the other capitals in Europe have them, so they were added here.

Bucharest is the earthquake capital of Europe. An apartment building crumbling from neglect stands next to a new luxury hotel that has been abandoned because the apartments will likely collapse in the next earthquake.

Revolution Square has a damaged memorial to the hundreds of people who died in the revolution. It stands in front of the balcony where Ceasescu last spoke before his attempted escape.

The whole downtown was just a little depressing.

I had an extra day here but it was a Monday and attractions were closed, including the Ceasescu mansion that I would have liked to see.

Leaving Romania by plane the following day, I sat next to a tall soft spoken young guy who asked if he could think with me. I didn’t understand at first, but he wanted to help me solve the sudoku game I had on my iPad. After some futile thinking together, I started asking him questions, slowly drawing out his story. He played sudoku with his grandfather, was on his way to Germany to play table tennis, was a European champion in 2016, would be at the Buenos Aires youth olympics in October, and hoped to play in the Olympics in 2020. He is from Constanta, Romania. I will watch for him!

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Bran Castle and Brasov

We left a previous century in Viscri to join a traffic jam going to Bran Castle. Vlad the Impaler may or may not have stopped here once, but it’s known as Dracula’s castle. It’s very popular, with tours for Halloween and princes from the Middle East renting it for parties. It was hard to move inside the castle for all the tourists, and even in the many shops outside.

We got through the traffic to the nearby town of Brasov. It has a beautiful town square where our hotel is located.

There is a funicular up the hill to the Hollywood style town sign, and the area where Vlad impaled 40 noblemen in the 15th century.

We toured around on foot to see the castle and old walls, then had the evening free to check out the upscale shopping and dining, and have a drink outside the hotel with a heater and blanket.

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Sighisoara and Viscri

We travelled into the Transylvania area, through hills and forests. We stopped in Bistrita for lunch, where the Roma or gypsies were making themselves known. They were the last of the Asian people to migrate to Europe, were originally enslaved, then freed with nothing and nowhere to go, without status or citizenship. I bought a pasty for lunch while a gypsy with babe in arms touched my arm to beg for it.

On to Sighisoara, a picturesque medieval hilltop town with pastel homes and cobblestones. Its claim to fame is that Vlad Tepes, of the Dragul family, was born here. He became known as Vlad the Impaler, sticking his enemies on spikes but missing vital organs so they died slowly. Somehow Bram Stoker picked a version of the family name for his book the Legend of Dracula, and an industry was born.

I went into the building where he was born, somehow surprising the guy rushing to jump into a coffin and say boo. Just a little cheesy. Shops all around the small old town sell Dracula kitsch, so I bought a t-shirt.

A few of us hiked to a restaurant overlooking the town with great views at sunset.

The next day we went by van over dirt roads with detours to Viscri, an old Saxon preserved town. It was deserted, then recently restored, helped by Prince Charles who bought a home here.

My room is in a restored building with ancient furniture, a brand new jacuzzi shower with a swallow nest above it, and sheep in the yard.

We checked out the Saxon castle and church with museum, then used local transportation (horse and cart) to visit the town blacksmith and bricklayer. It’s like living a century or two ago.

Our dinner was outdoors at the home of one of the 15 Saxons left in the village. Schnapps and almost drinkable wine was supplied along with the cabbage rolls leading to some funny pictures.

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Eger and Maramures

We took a tram then train to Eger, in wine country, and stayed in a pension, a local home made into suites. I lost the coin toss, so I could choose either the bed in a dark cubbyhole behind the bedroom door, or the bed in the kitchen by the balcony. Kitchen it is!

We walked around the town, which is the centre of traditional Hungary, where the first Magyars came from Asia and settled. The Hungarian language is known as Magyar. It’s a small city but has massive churches and a castle. Lunch was goulash and lemonade, which is made with many flavours in Hungary.

After a supermarket dinner and a quick shower where my clothes got soaked while lying on the floor, we set off for a short walk out of town to the Valley of Beautiful Women. Here there are several vineyards with wine tasting. We were fed glassfuls of a dozen different wines, mostly crap, by a couple of funny local ladies. The region is famous for its red wine known as Bulls Blood, and it was the best wine we had. Two were pretty much undrinkable but it’s all about the experience I guess. I bought a huge plastic bottle of white wine for about $6 to share later.

The next day was a long van ride into Romania. We stopped in Debrecen, the second largest city in Hungary, then across the border. We needed to show passports even though that’s not necessary in the Schengen region of Europe but some countries have instituted border checks again because of all the refugees from Syria over the last few years. We are in the Maramures area, shared with Ukraine, and travelled along the border with Ukraine to the north.

Here in a small town named Vadu Izer we have a stay in a big chalet style home that fits most of our group of 13 including our tour leader Mike. He’s British, lived in Vietnam for several years, where among other things he did standup comedy. This is helpful in a group with a demanding woman, Lorraine, and her husband who plays a supporting role.

At the home stay we had massive meals with lots of tiny cabbage rolls, and locally sourced ingredients for everything, including the local firewater known as palinka.

The next day we were met by our local guide Victor. His tour in this area took us to a monastery in the hills, then an old wooden church, and a palinka (or schnapps) home brewery. Here this massive man surprised us by pulling out a violin and playing songs from our countries while the little old brewery owner banged a drum once in a while.

We went into an old communist prison, now a museum, where many Romanians were held or died, where we mostly looked at pictures since explanations were in Romanian. But, the language is a Latin language like Spanish or Italian, with some similar words, so it’s not too hard to make out some of it. This is a great contrast to Hungary, where the language is unlike any other and might be unintelligible even to Hungarians!

Then the Happy Cemetary, where colourful wooden tombstones decorate the graves, with paintings and descriptions of the person, sometimes including how they died. I won a contest to find a tombstone of someone who had been hit by a train. Fun in the graveyard.

Our laundry had been done for a few lei apiece, and was hanging randomly in the yard when we got back to our home stay. We needed to sort through the underwear to find our own which was a little weird. I’m still missing underwear!

Some of us walked down the road to the bar, where a big beer costs 3 lei, or $1, and then had cabbage rolls for dinner.

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Budapest to Bucharest

Budapest in September is beautiful! I was last here in May 2010 and didn’t see much because of driving rain that turned your umbrella inside out. This time it’s around 25, sunny and green.

After a day to get on the right time zone, I met my tour group. We went to a street festival with dozens of food trucks for dinner, then to the Jewish quarter to a ruin bar.

Szimpla Kert was the first of these popular clubs, built into abandoned buildings and decorated with thrift store furniture, cars, or whatever, then just add a few bars and bouncers at the door to control the lineups.

The next morning our Intrepid tour leader took us for a walking tour of the Pest side of the Danube river. The city was once two cities, the other part obviously named Buda.

Along the river is a monument of 60 pairs of 1940s style shoes, commemorating the Jews of the city who were taken to the riverbank, made to take off their shoes since they were in short supply, and shot in the back of the head to fall into the river, during the Second World War.

There were some tourists here smiling and posing for pictures with the shoes and unfortunately one of them made it into my photo.

The shoe monument is close to the parliament building, 3rd largest in the world after the Pentagon and the palace of parliament in Bucharest. It’s modelled after Westminster Abbey in London.

A new friend and I crossed the Chain Bridge across the Danube to the Buda side, where we saw the castle, St Matthias church with a roof that looks like it’s crocheted, and Fisherman’s Bastion, a lookout point with fairytale turrets.

On to one more stop in Hungary the next day.

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We had an 8 or 9 hour ride along winding roads through mountains to the coast to our final stop. 20180327_182750 Surprise, we are staying in Puerto Angel, a port town close to the beach towns of Zipolite and Mazunte, where we were supposed to be staying.  The dive hotel here is the only accommodation for miles due to the Easter holiday and an obvious failure to book ahead by the tour company (Intrepid Travel, who has agreed to a partial refund of the tour price after a month to review my complaint).  I’m pretty low maintenance, but I have my limits and this hotel went below them.20180330_091746

In the morning we had a ceviche cooking class while drinking beer to keep cool.  Fish chunks are marinated in lime juice for 20 minutes, then added to onions, tomatoes and a few other things for this dish.DSC01677

We caught a taxi to Zipolite, stopping to check out the nude beach,DSC01686 yikes sorry that turned out way nuder than it looked when I added it, then jumped in a truck collectivo with people piling in all the way to Mazunte.DSC01687The towns aren’t far apart but the winding roads mean a half hour journey.

Mazunte is an undeveloped hippie type beach town with a beautiful beach framed with gigantic rocks. DSC01690It’s filled with earring and tshirt shops, and cute little restaurants and bars.  There’s also a turtle conservation centre. DSC01701 There are  eight types of sea turtles, and all but one of them are native to Mexico. We spent some time there, stopped for a drinks, then watched a bunch of guys playing football (soccer) on the beach.  Most of the tourists here are Mexican.

Very early the next morning our fishing expedition left from the bay in Puerto Angel.  We learned that Pepe the tour leader had never had a fish caught with his groups here.  The lone fishing pole was almost forgotten, but Ulysses the 11 year old son of the boatman ran back to get it at the last minute.  I was closest so as we motored out to sea I was asked to hold it so I said sure.  Not much later the line was pulling so I squealed a bit, Ulysses helped me with the reel, and it turned out to be a fine skipjack that could have been used for ceviche! DSC01706

The real point of the boat trip was to see humpback whales.  We found a couple who breached many times as we followed not too close by.  And we found a deserted cove where we jumped in for a swim.  We could also have jumped from a rock but instead watched Ulysses do that.DSC01713

Back at the hotel I crashed for a couple of hours, then went to the beach where we settled in at a shady restaurant.  I went for a dip to cool off, and was pulled out by the tide then dropped in the sand, almost losing my suit!  The beaches around here are not great for swimming.

For dinner that night we taxied to Zipolite, where now everyone we saw was clothed. DSC01716 We were dropped in the street and left to walk along dark trails to suddenly come upon a really cool open air restaurant with amazing food.DSC01719

Back at the dive hotel, all I want to do is sleep, the heat is exhausting.

The next morning we had a 1 1/2 hour taxi to the tiny Puerto Escondido airport for return to Mexico City, an hour and a half flight.  The city is covered in a haze of smog as usual.

And back to Canada where this morning at home, April 1, it was -29 with windchill.  I might not mind that now but only for a day or so!

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