Cuba on the Fly

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La Mujer Cubana.

It was mostly a last minute thing: fly to Cuba, eat street food, listen to music then get back home before -45 got the chance to close the US borders on us. As plans went, it was pretty thin, but it all worked out. A quick Southwest flight landed me and my travel partner/super friend, Angela, in Havana at hot o’ clock in the morning, plopped down into the colorful unfamiliar.

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Abandonado.

One Airbnb host conversation later, we had water in our travel backpack and were strolling through the streets trying to get our bearings. The things we now know:

Change your US dollars to Euros (at home) then change the Euros to CUC’s once you arrive in Cuba. The better exchange rate for Euros is so worth it. And get CUC’s in the smallest bills possible if given a choice.

1 CUC = 25 local pesos. Always get the price of EVERYTHING in CUC before you get the pizza/cab/service. Financial shanking will occur.

For me, Havana was an interesting mixture of the vibrant now and haunting remnants of a glorious past. The men and women in tight jeans with their lightning fast Spanish, ever-present cigarettes, and willingness to help. Young folks passing out flyers for parties on the street and telling you to “check the Facebook or IG page for more info.” The buildings that were once majestic and awe-inspiring but now have old paint curled up on their faded facades and laundry hanging from their high windows.

The food was nothing to write home about but Arca de Noé (660 Avenida 23) can have my babies any day of the week. One of the simplest ways this dulceria got my heart? – they had their prices listed in both local pesos and CUC’s. No guess work. No wondering if you’re getting the “special tourist price.” Plus amazeballs desserts.

For more to do that doesn’t involve eating, take the ferries from Old Havana to Regla and Casablanca. The fare was cheap AF (less than .10 CUC’s) and the ride was short. The church in Regla, just outside the ferry exit on the left, has a black virgin with a white baby Jesus sitting on her lap. And that’s pretty much it for the town. As long as you’re there though, take some nice pics of some gorgeous windows and buildings, and some stuff you’ve only ever seen in old movies.

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Corn!

In Casablanca, we ran into some hard core skateboarders who ripped down the hill like they had wings. Plus a massive statue of Jesus high on a hill that would scare you shitless if you weren’t expecting him. That hilltop also offers a pretty view of Havana. Near or in the ferry terminal, try the boiled corn with all the toppings ($0.25 or $0.50 CUC’s). Soooooo goooood!

SN: Cuba is no Italy, but there is inexplicably “pizza” everywhere.

After Havana, Angela and I hopped on a Viazul bus to Cienfuegos. There’s not much to do in the town except talk to Delia (our groovy Airbnb host of Hostal Delia y Nelson), eat cheese sandwiches, and go to the beach. But we enjoyed the hell out of it.

Don’t bother going to the 24-hour dulceria on Calle 41 near the park unless you want some reasonably priced sparkling or regular water. The desserts there will seriously make you regret your life choices. On the other side of the park, however, is a tasty heaven. A tiny little place has sandwiches for an equally tiny amount of CUC’s (two ham and cheese sandwiches, hold the ham, cost us 1 CUC).

A couple of days later, we took another Viazul (after a frustrating wait in the hot sun for two hours) to Trinidad. The town is gorgeous and we spotted the bell tower there on some tourist posters while at the airport. If you’re into souvenirs, this is a good place to get them—a funky cloth doll that turned upside down to become black or white almost went home with me before I realized I had no money.

Food-wise, Angela just about wrote love poems to Restaurante Marin Villafuerte. She enjoyed the white fish in garlic sauce like no one has loved fish with garlic sauce ever or since. Each entree came with a drink, by the way. The mojito wasn’t bad.

We walked around the city of Trinidad, checked our email on the famous stairs, avoided copious invitations to buy horseback tours to the waterfalls and sugar plantation, and met some guys in a jazz band who allowed us to watch them practice. One night, I tried Nutella crepes at the two side-by-side crepe and ice cream shops not far from Marin Villafuerte. One was good but too small, the other was too thick and not delicious enough. If they’d had a third shop nearby, I have hopes that my Nutella crepe would have been just right.

Biggest tip: Get an Airbnb or casa particular with a rooftop terrace. The city is PRETTY.

Our Airbnb in Trinidad was nice enough. Windowless but it had a fab rooftop terrace with a view of the city. The biggest drawback of the place was Linda. She was a black and white dog (boxer mix?) with creepy human-looking eyes who wouldn’t stop growling at us. Luckily, she couldn’t or didn’t want to climb stairs.

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Honey cake? Whatever it was, super delish.

Another tip: If you go to the beach in Trinidad, go during the week. The beach was packed during our weekend excursion and folks dropped trash literally where they sat. Angela and I took in the sun, swam, and read our books under a groovy little palapa for a good few hours until a dirty plastic bag rolled over our faces and basically forced us to call it a day.

A couple of days of cobblestoned street fun and we were ready to go. We got into a taxi and headed toward Havana. My one sadness is that we weren’t able to stop by Arca de Noé on the way to the airport and get one last bite of goodness for the flight home. My taste buds are still crying.

Namibia was incredible…

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There isn’t a lot I can say about the country without gushing except I wish I’d spent more time there. The decision to go was a last minute one after a camping trip in South Africa fell through. A hidden blessing.

The Namib Desert was amazing! Such beauty stretched out to make me feel both small and large at the same time. If I figure out my YouTube page, I’ll post a link to a video from on top of Dune 45 soon.

XOXOX

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Renewal – A Writing Retreat in Jamaica

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Jamaica is where Bliss was born.

I don’t mean just the character from my bestselling debut novel of the same name, but also the book itself. Although I wrote Bliss in the United States, the inspiration for its character and places, its emotion and its conflicts, all came from Jamaica. The book isn’t about an ideal person or an ideal place. Instead, it’s about beauty and struggle, facing the fears within all of us, and it’s about triumph. In short, it is about my island home. This home and its treasures are what I hope to share with those who come to The Renewal Retreat in October of this year.

Even without memory to further stir the coals of creativity, visitors to Jamaica find it to be a place of vibrant traditions, unforgettable artistry, and incomparable inspiration. It isn’t just the beauty of the island, it’s also the country’s rebellious Maroon past, the way incredible wealth sits beside great want, and it’s about dark nights that seem impenetrable until you dare to walk out into them.

The entire world has heard of Bob Marley, Blue Mountain coffee, and of Stella getting her groove back. Allow Kensington, Jamaica to serve as your muse, as your Renewal.

Register for Renewal: http://bit.ly/218X6ps
Make your Deposit for Renewal: http://bit.ly/1VoU3Yu
More information about Renewal: http://bit.ly/22u4FHQ

 

Who Knew: The Laid Back and Necessary — Renewal: A Retreat for Writers

Once I decided to let the vibe of Jamaica have its way , I found myself experiencing the authenticity of the country. Every sound, every taste reminded me that I was away from home, away from my every day. I loosened up and the simplicity of sky and water, bush and sand, created a connection between […]

via Who Knew: The Laid Back and Necessary — Renewal: A Retreat for Writers

Of Tampon Strings and Phlegm


Today is my last beach day, or at least it should/could be. I’ve been debating whether or not to get up early tomorrow to watch the sunrise then catch a quick dip before heading to the airport.
In the last couple of days, I’ve been besieged by a cold and a period, dread enemies of travel. Still, I was determined to get in a few hours on Patong Beach and before it got too crowded with jet ski guys and charter boats setting up for business. And of course half of Europe coming down for a swim.
The trick is to apparently hit the beach by around 7 am and get in your fun by 9. It’s 8:42 and where before I had no one near my blanket for dozens of feet, now I have a family of Russians practically reading over my shoulder.
The sun is drying the saltwater from my skin. Once that’s done, off to find food.

Jacuzzi related injuries and other not-quite disasters on the road

 Koh Samui has been incredible. Not just because the island is beautiful (which it is) or that the food is delicious (so much yum!) but because of the wonderful people who made me feel SO welcomed. Karen, Max and Kate (Aroonphad), goddesses on earth, made my time on the island absolutely magical. And I’m not just saying this because they fed me.
It was absolutely perfect that on the last night with them, instead of going out to see “lady boys” perform on stage in a nearby club, we put on our bathing suits to swim in the jade-tiled pool and float with sun-warmed water at our backs while above, the stars came out to glitter and seduce like they themselves were on stage.
The fact that later that night, I almost took out my kneecap getting into the jacuzzi is incidental.
Beautiful rainy days.

My Mango Sticky Rice Diet and other excesses

  20 baht food items ruined my life in Chiang Mai. If it cost 20 baht and was vaguely edible, I would gleefully shove it into my face. The only exception was the 40 baht mango sticky rice from the delightfully mean lady with the porcupine mole in the morning market. 

She has my heart still.

Journal of a Bangkok Bus Trip

  

When the sign at the front of the promised Deluxe bus with cool a/c, wifi, and “toiltel,” read “NO Wifi Now Repair,” it should have been my warning. But even if it had been my warning, how should one heed such a sign in the middle of Thailand with bus, plane, and hostel tickets already booked? 
The bus ride started off fine enough with the double decker bus floating through Chiang Mai like an old, old ship. Sure, there were more modern and better equipped buses passing us on the highway, but the point was to get us to Bangkok not make sure our devices were charged and ready to stream Netflix. 
Then about a half an hour into the ride, the bus picked up a little speed. Then a lot of speed. Remember, double decker. 
The bus barreled over several pot holes. It sailed around tight corners. I thought we were going to tip over.
At least get us to Bangkok in one piece, I kept thinking. 

So, I reclined my seat, pulled the blanket over my head and tried to sleep. If I didn’t see us tip over then hopefully the death would be quick and/or painless. Just get us to Bangkok.
Somehow I managed to sleep. At some point, my bladder woke me up. After spending the better part of the day in a coffee shop swilling Thai iced tea and the occasional fancy coffee, I needed to empty out. Keeping the gleeful sign of “toiltels” in mind, I go hunting. 
What I found was a tiny room, an aluminum bowl, and two buckets. No toilet paper. No running water. And a smell I hope never to experience again. After much maneuvering while pitching back and forth (remember speeding double decker bus) in a small and smelly room with two nearly full buckets and a wad of napkins taken from a distant coffee shop, I managed to pee. Then scrambled back to my seat and crawled under my blanket in hopes of dismissing the whole experience as some miserable nightmare induced by the lack of Internet.
I woke up a few hours into the ride to us stopping for “dinner.” 😐 It was literally the worst food I’ve ever had in Bangkok. The absolute worst. Fish balls in thrice-used dish water with two limp noodles and a demand for payment in the form of our food vouchers. A reminder for next time: Get snacks before the bus ride.

After another half hour, we all get back on the bus. The bus starts up and drives from the plaza. Three minutes later, the bus pulls over in the gravel and stops. 
It idles, then the driver cuts off the engine. Minutes pass in disquiet. The driver and conductor are speaking in Thai and none of the passengers know what’s going on. 
Did we leave a passenger behind? Is the engine compromised? Did the driver need to piss?
The engine gets turned on and then off a couple of times. More conversation. More disquiet. I think with longing about the 6,600 baht ($200) one way ticket I sneered at before getting on the 600 baht ($18) bus. More speculation from my seat neighbor, Jon. He, mildly disaster prone, accepts the blame for our circumstances. His karma or something. 
How will we get to Bangkok? I’m questioning all my life decisions at this point.
Then, the engine heaves to life again. This time, the bus moves gently into motion. We sail carefully off the gravel shoulder and back toward the highway. No explanation. Maybe the driver ate the “food” and had to urgently take care of the results of his bad decision. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll get to Bangkok.

A reminder for next time: pay the extra money for the plane. Maybe.

Aruba, the first day.

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I’ve never been to a Dutch island before. The people don’t look how I’ve maybe subconsciously trained myself to think island people are supposed to look. Maybe that should be my next thing, visiting different islands around the world. Unsettle my expectations.
The airport reminded me, oddly, of Naples, Italy, my visit there last year that left me feeling slightly unmoored, waiting outside the small airport for someone to pick me up who I was not sure I would recognize. Angela and I accosted every lone female at the airport, asking with a quiet air of desperation if she was Agnes. 

The third time, we got lucky when we spotted a thin Norwegian looking woman, blonde and long legged in a constantly moving scattering of brown and beige people speaking a wonderful mix of patois, Papiamento, English, Dutch, and other languages I didn’t recognize.
Agnes was sweet and charming, looked young and hopeful, like those kids who leave college or high school for a summer living in their backpacks. But later we find she is a mother of two, married and looking forward to a vacation with her husband to Suriname, their first in five years.
We head off to the airbnb guest house, driving through dry heat, the wind grabbing at us, Agnes’s pleasant chatter as I stare at the people we pass, thinking this is an odd Caribbean island. No mangoes. No velvet black skin. It would take some getting used to. And I was ready.

Started in Atlanta now I’m here

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Everything moved at the speed of slow this morning. After getting up three minutes before my 3 am alarm, I breezed through a shower and airport ride only to wait for about an hour with Angela to get checked in for our flight. We got to the airport in plenty of time, but after all the waiting and there being only one person dealing with checked luggage and international boarding passes, Angela and I had to RUN to security. Only to wait for the inexplicably tardy “plane train.” Then we rushed to our gate to the nightmarish sound of “this is the final boarding call…” But we made the flight and Angela got to nap.