Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Howdy y'all!!!

working on a new blog that will be more cohesive than this one. That's part of the problem with the sporadic updating.

I will announce the new URL coming up very soon.

I will be focusing on being more Lonely Planet-ish, and de-focusing on any story telling.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010




I would like to say how invaluable the following resources can be:


I have used both, many times, to great advantage. They are nicely designed and user-friendly.

I have used Kayak.com many times, and I have to say that Expedia often beats Kayak's deals, even though Kayak.com is a site aggregator that INCLUDES Expedia in its price-search engine.

Apparently, Expedia keeps some of the best deals for itself.

Expedia is also a great way to book flight/package deals.

But beware: I would highly suggest that you do NOT try to save money by booking hotels far outside the city center (30 minutes absolute max, and don't believe any hotel reviews...do the math yourself). You can burn a lot of time on the trains going back and forth to your hotel, and, of course, returning to your hotel, midday, to relax for an hour is almost out of the question because you will burn yet MORE time in transit.

It is always worth it to spend the extra money to have a hotel that is somewhat close to the city center.

I will probably never book a hotel far from the city center again. But that's just me.

Do the math and compare the Expedia package against booking the flight with Expedia, and the hotel with Hotels.com or a similar hotel discount site. Sometimes package deals will not help you because they're filled with hotels that are far from the city center. These provide the best deals for Expedia, but not necessarily for YOU.


The currency in Spain is the Euro.

It has fluctuated wildly in the past year. If the exchange rate from the Euro to the U.S. dollar is around 1.6, it is going to put a real hurting on your wallet.

At that exchange rate, EVERY time you take out $300 Euros from the ATM in Europe, it will show up on your U.S. bank statement as a withdrawal somewhere in the ballpark of $400.00 U.S. dollars. That's pretty harsh.

Fortunately, it's at about 1.23 right now which is fantastic, relatively speaking.

Great site for currency exchange updates:



My best travel tip of all time:

You can use this tip and ignore the rest that I've written, here, and I would feel fine about it.

ALWAYS, ALWAYS bring $250.00-$500.00 U.S. dollars with you on ANY international trip.

I would suggest making it $500 U.S. per person.

I have been in some sticky situations where I didn't obey this rule. Having my card cut off in Rio was one of them.

The other one was: I was in Buenos Aires, and the ATMs sometimes have problems there. But you know what DOES work? Cash, my friend. ATMs sometimes have problems in the most Westernized of countries.

Also, save 50% or more over a hotel by renting someone's apartment. But you know what you'll need to do that? Cash. Upfront. In full.

Cash always works.


May/June is a GREAT time to come to Barcelona, weather-wise.

Starting in July, it gets HOT!


Have a few Euros on you when you arrive at the airport at Barcelona.

50 Euros per person should be more than enough, if you can wait to get into town to use an ATM, and you are taking the metro instead of a cab.

The metro is really nice in Barcelona. There is no reason to take a cab from the airport, unless you are a business traveler or you have 18 pieces of luggage. And if you do take a cab from the airport it will be about $50 U.S. dollars, at least. Maybe more like $70 U.S.

If you can help it, NEVER use currency exchange booths of any kind, ESPECIALLY the ones that say "NO COMMISSION". Do not believe the "NO COMMISSION". They will really scalp the heck out of you on the exchange rate.

Use an ATM to get your Euros (as opposed to the Exchange Booths mentioned above), preferably in somewhat large amounts because your bank will charge you each time you withdraw money. Withdrawing money from the ATM continues to be the best exchange rate you can get. A bank is also a good place to do it as a general rule--the ONLY place you should do it besides an ATM--but in Spain they often won't let you unless you have an account at the bank.

Your best bet (if you can't use an ATM) is a bank on the swanky and famous avenue: Passeig de Gràcia, where some banks will allow strangers to walk in and exchange money.

ATMs are somewhat hard to find in the Barcelona airport. Granted I didn't look super hard but I didn't see one anywhere.


If you have Bank of America (and other banks, too, perhaps) and you have longer or shorter than a 4 digit PIN for your bank account card, you want the ATMS at "Santander" Bank (They have a bright red sign and many, many locations) and Santander's ATM machines often say "Telebanco" and have a different name/logo than the bank itself. This is fine. That's the one you want.

Those ATMs will work even if you have a 6 digit PIN. Some ATMs in Barcelona, (and Europe in general), ONLY work if you have a 4 digit PIN.

And by the way if your PIN is a word that you use to remember the PIN, make sure you memorize the number equivalent of that word because the ATMS in Barcelona will only have numbers on them...they don't write the letters underneath the numbers like we do in the States.


Never book a hotel more than 20 minutes outside the city center.

You will burn a ton of time on trains, and you will probably regret it, and you will not be able to return to your hotel during the day and rest if you need to. And, trust me, it's gets freakin HOT in Barcelona in the summertime. Taking an occasional break at your hotel to regroup is one of the things you need, in my opinion.


The Hotel Rating system in Europe is NOT the same as the U.S. Beware. 4 stars means 3 stars. That still means "fairly nice" to "nice". 3 stars could get slightly dicey.


Bring 2-3 adapters, one of them being a Surge Protector/adapter, the other two just being straight up simple adapters for iPods and other gadgets that are friendly with different voltage levels. It will get annoying not being able to charge more than one thing at a time. Getting two, or even three, is worth the money in my opinion.

The following page will help clear up the converter/surge protector/adapter confusion. They are also a good company, I think. I have purchased the All-In-One Surge Protector from them, used it on numerous trips in South America and Europe and it works great.



Right out of the gate, if you have 2 or more days in Barcelona get the T-10, Zone 1 metro pass. It will save you some bucks on the metro, and you'll be on the metro a lot.

Metro goes till midnight, but later on Friday and Sat.

I was very surprised by how early the metro closes on weekdays in this "party town". Yes, they like to party in Barcelona. I'll admit that. But their reputation is somewhat undeserved. It is extremely common for people to stay out till 5 or 6am in Buenos Aires, for example. The streets of Barcelona during the weekdays start emptying out at 2am. I was really surprised. And La Rambla, one of the most major avenues in all of Barcelona can be positively EMPTY by 3am.

Buses go till quite late and are very nice, actually. Tons of buses leave from Placa Catalunya (top of La Rambla meaning the part of La Rambla AWAY from the water) at all times.


Vegetarians and high blood pressure peeps, beware! Meat and LOTS and LOTS of salt are the law in Barcelona.


BE PREPARED in BARCELONA...for some slightly chilly service in restaurants and cafes. Nothing to worry about, but if you are expecting warm service everywhere you go, you have visited the wrong city.

If you stick to very westernized places like Hotel Omm, the W hotel, etc, of course you're unlikely to experience cold service...that's another thing altogether. But if you go all over Barcelona like we did, trust me, you will experience a chilliness in service from time to time.

On the other hand, to be fair, once I made attempts to butter them up, or make a joke, or ask them about themselves, they warmed up pretty nicely.

It is also only fair to say that my rudimentary Spanish for restaurants and shops is only passable. By no means terrible, mind you, but barely passable...so that certainly can't have helped.


Leaving Barcelona by plane, DO NOT get your terminal wrong. You might miss your plane.

There is a big sign when you get off the train at the "Airport" station indicated which airlines belong to which Terminals (1 or 2). Double check the sign.



Sagrada Familia

One of Spain's greatest landmarks, and widely considered the master-work of renowned architect Antoni Gaudi is one of Spain's top tourist attractions. Gaudi devoted the last fifteen years of his life, entirely, to the project.

It was a slight disappointment because of the ubiquitous contruction everywhere on and around the building.

Despite the eye-sore construction, it's the sort of arresting visual feast of Neo-Gothic meets Art Nouveau architecture that is not, under any circumstances, to be missed. Get your fix of beautifully chiseled Christian symbolism at every turn.

This is a must see.


La Pedrera, Eixample district.

The building is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site "Works of Antoni Gaudí".

An entire apartment building designed by Gaudi, it undulates and dazzles with architectural innovation and flair.

If you are not familiar with the art and architecture of Gaudi, you will fall in love with him on this trip.

This is a must see.


Park Guell (designed by Gaudi), Metro stop: Lesseps

This park is quite large and has many different, interesting architectural features.

It also has a great view of Barcelona from the vibrantly tiled, serpentine wall that defines the upper perimeter.

This is a must see.


Casa Batllo, Eixample district (if time constraints make you choose between Casa Batllo and "La Pedrera" choose Casa Batllo)

Literally translated, "House of Bones".

Casa Batllo is a multi-story home with a stunning rooftop (affording 360 views of Barcelona) by Gaudi, originally designed for a middle-class family, surprisingly.

The whole building plays, superbly, with light, undulating structures of glass, wood and plaster, and vibrant textile work, functional design touches (such as ventillation grates carved into the wood of window frames)...it was one of the highlights of this trip.

Casa Batllo will set you back 20 Euros a piece, but if you have an interest in art and architecture, it is unquestionably worth it.

This is an absolute must-see.



Arguably, the best views of Barcelona, (at over 500 meters high), at this beautiful old church with an amusement park. I know, weird, right?

There is a cantilever ride at the amusement park that looks positively terrifying. Didn't do it.

This is a must see.


The Magic Fountain, Placa D'Espagne

The Magic Fountain at Placa D'Espangne only "performs" on the weekends. Check it out for a fountain, light, and music show!

In fact, if you're around La Barcolonetta (the beach and shore area) take the cable car!

A borderline must-see.



if you want to see a BULLFIGHT they are only on Sundays at 6pm, so you have a narrow window to experience that one.


Barcelona Aquarium, La Barcolonetta

If you have more than 7 days in town, do it. See sharks, up close and personal, as they swagger thru the overhead, glass arches of aquarium tunnels!

See sharks, seahorses, electric neon purple surgeonfish, and vibrant sapphire devils!

I was wowed by this place, but maybe not quite a "must see".


The Main Post Office of Barcelona, near La Barcolonetta

The vestibule of the Main Post Office in Barcelona is decorated with frescos by Catalonian mural painters from the first half of the 20th century.

Nicest post office I've ever seen. It's almost ridiculous that people actually send off their mail in a place like this.



Moovida, Hotel Omm, Eixample district

Perfect after a hard day of snapping endless pics at Gaudi's houses on Passage de Gracia. Unwind in swankness!

It is not easy to make a fantastic Bloody Mary, but they did. All drinks here are likely to be top notch.

Watch the beautiful and well-heeled saunter by in this mod-designed hotel bar/resto.

There is no dress code. Not cheap, certainly, but not expensive for Barcelona.

Live music (and good) on Thursdays, late afternoon.

Expensive as hell restaurant "Moo" adjoins Moovida. Give it a try if your wallet dares.


Eclipse Bar, 27th floor of the W Hotel, La Barcolonetta (shoreline)

Eclipse on the 27th floor of the W hotel has sweeping views of the shoreline and city of Barcelona. Dress for success, baby.

The service is somewhat lacking, but you don't really care. Expensive.

Informal but sporty dress from 7-9pm. After 9pm, you better be looking GOOD or you ain't welcome there, even if there is no line at the elevator.

But...good news! The lobby bar is very stylish, mod, interesting, (think black onyx fireplace, coral theme, candles strewn about playfully, and mood lighting that changes intermittently) and doors go right out to the patio/beach/water. Open till at least 1am.

The bartenders are variable. Some are superb, some were actually terrible, but the service was always warm, timely and it's kind of an LA scene.


Mirablau at Tibadabo (won Frommer's "Best View from a bar in Barcelona" award)

Danzatoria Tibidabo

The views from these stylish bars (500 meters above Barcelona) are supposed to be almost unreal.

I have a feeling they are must-sees, but I didn't go.

One of the only things in Barcelona that I really wanted to see, but didn't.


GIMLET, La Ribera district

This is necessary for a pre-dinner drink, one night.

Some of the best prepared cocktails in Barcelona and feel like you stepped into a Ed Hopper painting crossed with a Humphrey Bogart movie.



Siddartha on Avinyo Avenue (small street): kinda cool, morracan decor, kinda goth.

This place would really be cool if they didn't play MC Hammer and very bad, random rap.

It's just not that kinda place dude....don't do that. Still, you are at ground zero of the (GOOD) touristy part off of La Rambla, but yet slightly removed and it's chill on this street. Even with the really bad music, I think I would come back to this place. Only for drinks tho...not to eat.


Schilling, Ave Ferran off of La Rambla

Awesome vibe to the bar, terrific music, lively, all ages which surprised me, plenty of Americans, but lots of locals too.

Red velvet chairs, good seating at the tables, excellent drinks, cheap tapas (as per usual), good people watching, lots of smoking going on (beware).

This bar is not particularly special (or maybe it is), but it was one of my favorite bars in Barcelona for tapas and/or drinks.


Hard Rock Cafe, Barcelona

Didn't do a thing for me, but pleasant enough, somewhat cool-looking, friendly staff, lots of tables, very big bar.


Bar at Hotel Arts, Barcelonnetta

Outrageously expensive, and for the life of me, I can't figure out why. No great design, and it's a frat/businessman's hangout, at least from my one visit. And it's on the first floor of the hotel which is situated on the water. Really? A view of something other than the valet area might have been nice for such an expensive, (supposedly) super-trendy hotel.



Recommended from bartender at Gimlet, but didn't get a chance to go:

Dry Martini Bar
Solo Lounge



Pans & Co., Fast Food, locations everywhere.

You know for a fast food chain....pretty good bang for your buck. Mostly sandwiches.


Casa Calvet, Eixample District. (Top Pick)

Make sure you book 48 hours in advance. You can book online, too.

Casa Calvet (for dinner in a Gaudi designed building and supposed to be 3.5 star food)

Sited from Wiki: "Gaudí scholars agree that this building is the most conventional of his works, partly because it had to be squeezed in between older structures and partly because it was sited in one of the most elegant sections of Barcelona."

This is Antoni Gaudi's first apartment building design, AND the first building in Barcelona to feature an elevator!

What a romantic place to have dinner!

Beautiful stained glass window, gorgeous white brick interior, Persian carpets throughout. Dark wood-carved partitions on the perimeter provide just enough feeling of privacy while still being able to enjoy the atmosphere.

The food and service were sumptuous/impeccable. Actually, it was one of my favorite dinners I've ever had in my life. We had the "Tasting Menu" which featured small portions of many different items.

Quite expensive. Not completely ridiculous, though.


Moovida at Hotel Omm, L'Eixample District, Rosello 265 (Top Pick)

Words cannot express how much I loved the design, food, service, people watching at the resto-cafe MOOVIDA at the OMM HOTEL right near one of my favorite sights in Barcelona: Gaudi's Batlla House. I'm now afraid I've definitely built it up too much.

I highly recommend the Carpaccio. I had to go there TWICE for it. Holy smokes!

MOOVIDA is not expensive at all (but it looks like it is).

Hotel Omm, on the other hand, will cost you a GRIP for a room.


El Paraigua at Placa Sant Miquel near Placa Jaume (Top Pick, but don't expect too much, you'll see what I mean)

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh, the Salmon tapas....ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Tasty. Carpaccio also excellent.

Take the outside seating. An oasis in the midst of tourist mayhem.

This place has excellent quality tapas, drinks, good service.

I really love Placa Sant Miquel. There's not much to it, but i think you will see what I mean.


The Attic, La Rambla

Nice design, bright orange walls, windows looking out onto the crowd strolling La Rambla, mediocre (but not bad) service, nice tables, lots of tourists there, somewhat expensive.

INCREDIBLE pasta salad.

The rest of the food was merely tasty but not great. A smattering of Euro douchebags, but I didn't mind because it's heavily mixed with quiet couples just enjoying a nice meal.

I would recommend even though it sounds like I wouldn't.


La Tagliatella (this is a TOP PICK), L'Eixample District

Beautiful Italian restaurant where everything just feels good and right.

The food here went beyond delicious into the realm of highly creative.

The seafood salad with shrimp, salmon, anchovies, and crab meat, corn was absolutely WOW!

Not expensive.


El Cafe de Ferran, Ave Ferran near Placa St. Jaume

This place is a bit old wordly, actually reminded of cafes in Cairo just a bit.

The upstairs is the place to sit. Great food, decent service, gorgeous wood carved ceiling. Actually, walk in there and check out that ceiling, regardless.

I would suggest the Sangria with Cava (instead of non-sparkling wine). It was delicious, and a new discovery for me. That was Marisa's suggestion. Well done, baby!

The Jarra Sangria Cava. Meaning a big Jar that you can share is 10 Euros...that's four glasses (at least). Barcelona is way cheaper than Paris for food and drink. This place was quite tasty and it was 24 Euros for 3 tapas and the huge jar of sangria.


Melic de Gotic, Ave Montsio near La Rambla

Melic de Gotic near 4cats cafe.

Great food, great service, really cool history to the place.

I would definitely go back here.


Caputxes, Ave Ferran and, also, La Rambla.

There's a couple of these places on La Rambla. They look fairly inviting. They are really expensive compared to their competitiors and so so food. Skip it.


Orio, Ave Ferran 38

What a spot they have! An oasis in the midst of mayhem. Unless you want to be in the sunshine.

Very pricey. Totally variable service, sometimes quite bad.

The food is excellent and so is the wine selection. Not the best bang for your buck, but tucked away and quiet off of the major thoroughfare of Ave. Ferran. Tough call.


4Cats, Ave Montsio near La Rambla

4Cats cafe where Picasso and the art/philososphy boys used to hang out every night while in Barcelona.

I'm on the fence about this one. It is quite cool, but overrated in my opinion. The coffee was excellent.

Still, I guess it might be one of those places you have to see in Barcelona.


Ambos Mundos, Placa Reial, La Rambla and Ave. Ferran

Excellent service, plentiful and good tapas menu, fairly cheap, and good place for some chilly Sangria and people watching!

Watch your camera and your wallet in this very touristy square.



Dali Museum (slightly dissapointing, but a must-see)

You take a RENFE train to get there from Barcelona. It will say "Cerbere" on the train. Cerbere is the (final) destination and Figueres, the town where the Dali Museum is, is on the way.

Get the "Express train" (not listed as such) that avoids most of the stops along the way. Look for the one on the train timetable that skips some of the stops.

You will cut your trip time in half. And you will want to do so because most rides on the RENFE train kinda suck. Super boring in terms of scenery, and sometimes slow.

There are not many of Dali's great paintings at this museum and that is an UNDERSTATEMENT. Still, it's pretty rewarding, and Figueres is quite nice, I thought.

Your ticket to the Dali Museum will include an entry to the Dali Jewels Museum. I would check it out. There are some stunning pieces of jewelry in there.


Museu Nacional D'art Catalunya, Placa Espagne (Must see if you're a museum lover)

In fact, if you're around La Barceloneta (the shore of Barcelona) take the cable car to Placa D'Espagne!

Placa D'Espagne is just gorgeous and a great place for this important museum with escalators OUTSIDE to take you to the foot of the museum.

It would take 2 days to go thru it filled with tons of Gothic and Byzantine art. But, luckily, your ticket is GOOD FOR TWO DAYS!

The Magic Fountain right nearby only goes on the weekends. Check it out for a fountain, light, and music show!


MACBA, Museu d'art Contemporani de Barcelona.

Worst contemporary art museum I've ever seen. Ever. And not cheap.

How do you have 50 pieces by world famous artist (and one of my faves), Bruce Nauman, and they're all TERRIBLE?!?!

The permanent collection was mediocre and that's a kind review.

They advertise as having Basquiats and Paul Klee's (also one of my faves) and they do not. Nor are they on loan at present.

The architecture (by Richard Meier) is fantastic, however, and almsot worth it just for that.


Mussee Picasso (Must-see)

Mussee Picasso. Not to be missed the Rose and Blue period stuff has some amazing pieces.

There are a lot of early sketches around too which I quite enjoyed.



Sitges is a really beautiful, charming beach town with tons of cool shops and people with serious money.

I'd say it's skippable though. It just didn't strike me as worth the trip if you only have one week or so. It was worth it for us (barely) because Corpus Christi (once a year in late June) is a noteworthy and major event, there.

But still. I don't really see what all the fuss is about. It's (perhaps) the top gay resort town in all of Spain. Well, like I said..it is quite nice. But, man, there are a freaking TON of old people. But maybe that was just because of the Corpus Christi festival.

I don't think I've ever seen so many people over 65 in one place at one time before. LA really does warp your perception of the world in a lot of ways.

Another note: Coming back from Sitges to Barcelona you want any train that says EST de Franca. It will head right into the city center. But this was a bit hard to figure out.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Rio, Part One.

As night fell on the sparkling city of Rio, the elevator doors opened, and I approached the empty bar at the, (aptly named!), Bar D'Hotel. I was looking for something.

I believe that something was called 'trouble', if memory serves.

Glancing to my right, outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, lay a perfect sliver of Ipanema Beach with loaves of sugary mountains jutting into the dark-red sky from the depths of the ocean below. The last of the volleyball players, perfectly chiseled silhouettes at this point, were packing up and leaving for a night of dancing and debauchery.

I could almost hear the waves crashing below, but the window glass was too thick for that. Even without the sound effects, one had to admit that God broke the mold when he made Rio. Somewhere in the distance, Christ the Redeemer, with his protective, massive, and outstretched stony arms, nodded in agreement as he kept watch over his beloved Cariocas.

Bar D'Hotel was listed in the Lonely Planet as one of the hippest bars in Rio, but not THE hippest. That honor went to an establishment just down the street named "Bar Londra". Bar Londra, on a good night, was $40 US dollars just for entry. That's pretty damned obscene in a city where that amount of money is more like a monthly salary. Hell, even LA didn't really have bars like that!

But this particular bar where I began my evening was the soiree of choice for soap actresses, reality TV stars, successful business men, and of course: models. And let me tell you something about the models in Rio: they do NOT look bad. Very, very, very not bad.

My attention returned to the laminated drink menu on the bar in front of me.

"How are you tonight?" the bartender asked me in heavily accented English while polishing a glass.

Thank God, I thought to myself. Somebody in Rio speaks English. It had been two entire days of near-silence. Portuguese is not an easy language to learn.

"Fine, thanks. You speak English?" I asked hopefully.

"A little bit. I can get by." he said with a smile. "What would you like to drink?"

I pretended to think long and hard about it.

"I think it's going to have to be a Caipirinha."

"Good choice!" he replied, as a nod to the signature drink of Rio.

A word to the wise: a Caipirinha is made from Cachaça which differs greatly from rum. Cachaca is made from fermented sugarcane whereas most rum is made from molasses. A few of these drinks will have most people speaking in tongues. In any case, it's a fact worth remembering when you find yourself in Rio with a lot of time on your hands. Which...will be EVERY time you find yourself in Rio.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What Could Go Wrong in Cuba??

What Could Go Wrong in Cuba? Short Story in mini portions:

  • Cuba, Part 1

  • Cuba, Part 2

  • Cuba, Part 3

  • Cuba, Part 4

  • Cuba, Part 5

  • Cuba, Part 6

  • Cuba, Part 7

  • Cuba, Part 8

  • Cuba, Part 9

  • Cuba, Part 10

  • Cuba, Part 11

  • Cuba, Part 12


    Wednesday, January 06, 2010

    Cuba, Part 12

    Our motorbikes did playful and sharp figure eights as the endless fields moved past us. We pegged our speedometers, as we rode into the hot, Cuban sun and between the towering limestone cliffs.

    A feeling of absolute freedom surrounded us--riding the scooters thru the Cuban countryside--hundreds of miles from Havana. To say we were in the middle of nowhere was an understatement!

    There were no cars passing us, no people, no buildings, no stores. There was no worrying about bills, or dental visits, or cameras on top of stoplights, or drinking in public. There was no "keeping up with the Joneses" because all the "Joneses" helped each others' families build the houses where they all lived and raised their children. Besides, all the Joneses had the exact same stuff.

    Everything seemed simple and healthy. That wasn't the whole truth, of course, (not by a longshot), but that's the way it seemed that day. On this particular road, nothing was overtly different from, say, many pastoral settings in the United States, but somehow we seemed very far away indeed.

    I turned my wrist and slowed my bike down in front of a farm with a huge plot of land and a dilapidated shed of corrugated aluminum, and Danielle followed suit.

    I put the bike on its kick-stand, removed my helmet, and surveyed the land around us.

    Danielle put her bike on the other side of the rode and hopped off.

    "Why are we stopping?" she asked.

    "I'm not sure. I just wanted to take everything in for a minute. JESUS CHRIST we're in CUBA!"

    Danielle laughed. It never got old.

    "Yeah, it still seems pretty crazy, actually!" she admitted.

    It did feel crazy. My first trip out of the U.S. I had never been to Canada, even, and my very first trip I break the law just by going there. I don't know if it was the thrill of getting away with something, or if it was just being on a great trip of any kind, or maybe Cuba really was just that exciting. But a feeling of invincibility pervaded at the moment. I had the feeling that the entire world was my oyster and that this was the very beginning...that something significant in my life was taking place...that feeling you get when you have butterflies in your stomach, but there is no discernible reason for it. You can just feel that something is happening where you will be forever changed.

    The sound of buzzing insects was all around us, and now that we were stopped, we became targets. Far off in the distance I could hear a tractor, but I could hear no traffic on our road, whatsoever. We had passed three cars the entire time. I could feel the beginnings of a potentially serious sunburn now that we were still.

    "We are gonna be BURNED when we get back," I said.

    "Yep. Did you bring any suntan lotion?"

    "Sorry. I forgot. Damn it!"

    "It's alright. I don't think it will be that bad."

    I hoped she was right.

    "Alright, let's hop back on," I suggested.

    "Let's do it!" Danielle said.

    We sped off as fast as we could go, completely forgetting about the previous houseguest who had flipped over his bike and lost a couple of teeth in the process, and had to immediately fly back to the States. I did have the momentary thought that if one of the bikes broke down, it was going to be a looooooong night, but luckily they were well-maintained.

    Eventually, we turned around and headed back to town, and a strange lull overcame the both of us. We were no longer yelling back and forth while driving, nor pointing to things in the distance. I was completely inside my head about something on the way back. The dull buzz of the motor, the trees swishing by, and the warm weather, all had a hypnotizing effect. Occasionally, I would look over at Danielle and she seemed to be having a similar experience. I wondered what she was thinking about before returning to my own train of thoughts which carried us both back to the motorbike vendor under the large canvas umbrella.

    We stood the bikes up near him, and he approached us with a smile.

    "How was it?"

    "It was fantastic," I relayed truthfully.

    "Yes, it really was," Danielle agreed happily.

    Uh oh.

    She was a little pink, as I looked at her face and shoulders more closely. She had a burn on her face except where her eyeglasses were. It didn't look terribly bad, tho. The back of my own shoulders were smarting a bit.

    "Good, good!" the vendor exclaimed. "Well, it will come to thirty for the bikes." he reminded us.

    I opened up my backpack, where my store of cash was and got thirty dollars. To my surprise, I noted that there was exactly thirty dollars in the little pocket, but I didn't see any other bills. I wasn't overly worried...I just figured I'd put the rest of the money in the other pouch of my backpack and handed the man his thirty dollars.

    "Thanks a lot," I said, and we were off...headed back toward the guesthouse.

    "Wait..." I said to Danielle, "...let's go to that park bench over there. I want to check something."

    "OK," Danielle agreed.

    We sat at the bench in a nice, empty plaza and I began rummaging thru all the pockets of my backpack. I was zipping and unzipping tons of zippers looking for the rest of our money.

    "Is everything OK?" Danielle asked, slightly worried.

    "I can't find our money," I said, still moving my hands frantically around each pocket.

    I stopped what I was doing for a moment and my mind started retracing all my recent steps. I thought about when we stopped with our bikes in the middle of the road. But I hadn't even opened my backpack, then. I thought about when we were back at the guesthouse. Had I put the money in a pair of shoes or something, and forgotten that I'd hid it? No. I'd taken the passports and the money as I had done the whole trip.

    Now a really sick feeling was forming in the pit of my stomach and in a fit of frustration I opened all the zippers on the backpack and shook it upside down, repeatedly, as hard as I could so that all the contents would fall out.

    A bunch of items came out, including my Lonely Planet guide, but no cash.

    "Oh my God," Danielle exclaimed realizing the gravity of the discovery.

    The tone of her voice sent a shiver down my spine, so I tried to console her.

    "Now wait a minute....just wait a minute....don't panic yet. I might have left it at the house. It's going to be alright. Seriously, don't start worrying yet."

    "Jesus, what are we going to do if it's gone!"

    "Let's cross that bridge when we come to it." I said.

    "OK," she agreed, calming slightly.

    I put the contents back in the bag and verified for the third time, that the cash was indeed gone. As I went to place the Lonely Planet guidebook back in the bag, I flipped thru all the pages, while holding it upside down by its spine, and a twenty dollar bill fell out and fluttered to the ground!

    I had forgotten about that one! I stashed an emergency twenty in the guidebook just in case when we'd left the house in Los Angeles.

    Well at least we had twenty dollars.

    But I was really worried. In fact, I was about two steps from a full-blown panic.

    Just the cost of leaving the airport in Havana, alone, was thirty dollars, and we had six days left in Cuba!

    My stomach started to feel upset and heavy, as we walked back to the guesthouse.

    What would we say to our hosts? How would we eat? How would we get back to Havana? How would we come up with the airport exit fee? How would we explain that we didn't have any money, when our hair and faces looked exactly like we'd been on expensive motorbikes for the last four hours?

    Jesus, we were in trouble if there was no money back at the house. And with that thought my stomach started to rumble with hunger...


    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    Cuba, Part 11

    Danielle and I stepped off the bus with our suitcases and into the hot sun.

    We arrived in Vinales, Cuba in a small sea of signs held up by Cubans indicating rooms for rent. It was impossible to make our way thru the throng of people without multiple solicitations being shouted all around us.

    My eyes stopped on a heavyset man with a thick mustache and a pastel t-shirt, holding up a sign on the periphery of the crowd. I liked him on sight, and he was advertising a room for $25 US dollars per night which seemed to be the going rate, including meals.

    "Let's go talk to that guy," I said to Danielle, pointing at him.

    As we approached him, I realized how relaxed he was compared to everyone else in the crowd. There was something comforting and trustworthy about him. Not that I was particularly worried about anything, but it helped in the decision-making process.

    "Hello, how are you?" he asked the both of us as we approached.

    "We're good! Our bus broke down on the way here, but it was a nice ride from Havana other than that," I replied. For some reason the bus braking down had really hurt my mood earlier in the day, but Danielle added some levity to the situation and improved it somehow.

    "How long are you staying in Vinales?"

    "Five our six days," I replied.

    "Oh, that's good! I'm Paulo. I have a nice home and my wife is a great cook! Would you like to see it?"

    I looked at Danielle and could see she liked Paulo, too. We introduced ourselves.

    "Yes, we would!"

    "OK, let's go! I'm just a few streets from here."

    We walked alongside the man, rolling our suitcases thru the dusty road. We took a right turn, and things became distinctly more rural. There were orderly rows of small, colorful homes on the dusty streets. I was admiring what a fine day it was when a piercing animal cry down the road raised the back of the hairs on my neck.

    Three men were carrying a pig, upside down, with its feet tied to a large piece of timber. The shrill bleats from the pig were so loud I would have covered my ears if I weren't pulling my suitcase. It was physically jarring. As the men came closer with the pig it got even worse. This was just a normal everyday event here. The pig was being taken to slaughter and it was fighting back with the only thing it had left: its voice. It was the kind of thing that could turn a person into a vegetarian. Just an ordinary event. That's how we get ham and pork and bacon, after all, but it's interesting how something so basic and simple becomes an indelible event in the mind of pampered Westerners. It made me quite sad for the pig. Not sad enough to quit eating bacon, but sad nonetheless.

    We heard the pig all the way down the road, on our way to Paulo's home. When we arrived, I saw that his street was very similar to the four others that we had passed, but just a tad greener in the front yards with more trees.

    Paulo's house was light blue and had a large front porch with a bench swing, where his wife and two sons were sitting, expecting the arrival of new tenants.

    Paulo had an attractive wife named Estelle who was several inches taller than him. His older son Carlos was eighteen years old, a very handsome kid, and the younger son, Teo, was five.

    We pulled our stuff into the living room and noticed the house was nice inside and immaculate. Paulo showed us our room which was very basic with a large bed and dresser/mirror and we had our own bathroom.

    "What do you think?" Paulo asked.

    "We'll take it," I said with a handshake. I went to reach for my wallet, but Paulo stopped me.

    "We can take care of that later. Let's get you two something to eat!"

    We unpacked our things, walked into the living room-which adjoined the kitchen-and we could see that Estelle was already busy in the kitchen. There were a lot of lacy place mats on all the tables and a huge boombox on the long table next to the dining room. It felt nice and welcoming in the house and you could tell it was a good family just by looking at everything and how it was arranged. Pictures of the family were everywhere.

    On the dining room table lay a guestbook of all the people who had every stayed there, and we were asked if we'd like to sign in. In the guestbook, all the previous tenants had put little stories of how their stay in Vinales went. One couple had a story of how they had rented motorbikes to ride thru the long, country roads that cut through the picturesque limestone cliffsides. The guy had taken a very bad spill and had to fly home with some teeth missing. Oddly, the story made me want to rent a motorbike--an idea I hadn't thought of. I vowed to watch the road carefully if we decided to do it.

    Estelle made a very nice meal of rice, beans, pork, and fruit and it was arranged on our plates very artistically. We tried to curb ourselves from eating ravenously, but it was hard. We'd had a long bus ride.

    After a nice conversation with Estelle, we decided to venture out into town and rent a couple of the motorbikes we'd read about. We found the guy on the side of the main road, under a large canvas umbrella, and to our surprise, all the bikes were brand new. There were about ten of them, mostly red and yellow. We left our drivers licenses with the owner and didn't even have to pay in advance. I thought that was strange. The guy trusted us with the brand new mopeds with just driver's licenses which were totally worthless. Perhaps he'd seen us drag our luggage over to Paulo's and figured we would have to come back. Or perhaps a tank of gas couldn't really get us anywhere urban from here.

    Danielle and I got outfitted with some helmets and we were grinning from ear to ear. This was going to be really fun! We got started on the bikes and turned off onto a paved road which unfolded into completely unspoiled countryside. The towering limestone cliffs alongside the road were stunning. I pulled the throttle on my bike and found that it could go around 50 miles per hour. We gunned them for a little bit, Danielle and I racing down the smooth, paved road and deeper into farmland. There were no interesting turnoffs so it would easy to find our way back to town.....


    Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    Cuba, Part 10


    Seven days and seven nights passed quickly in Havana before Danielle and I were off, by air conditioned bus, to a small tourist town named Vinales about 100 miles due East of the spot where we were deposited initially.

    Vinales was nestled inside the lush and verdant valley of Pinar Del Rio, which was well known for its prime tobacco growing properties. And tobacco meant Cuban cigars! But the thing about Vinales, in particular, was that it had these dramatic limestone mountains jutting out of the earth like rounded teeth with pockmarks. These formations broke thru the terrain, or maybe they were set there purposefully, obese carnacs, by mischievous and playful Gods who were now long gone.

    These protruding rock formations were famous for housing obscenely large colonies of bats. Shortly after dawn, if one had keen eyes, it was possible to spot a massive cloud of bats fleeing their elevated penthouse caves, in a cacophony of screeches, to feast for the night.

    Danielle and I had heard about all this in Havana, and we knew we had to see it for ourselves. Vinales had captured our imaginations from the first word.

    Our bus arrived in Vinales in front of a general store, not unlike one that may have been in an old Western town except that the colors were pastel as opposed to unfinished wood. The colors and the manner in which the buildings that lined the main street were painted, gave them an almost dollhouse-like quality. However, everything was too dusty and plain to be called "quaint" by any stretch. We couldn't see the entirety of the general store very well because a large crowd of people pushed up against the bus, all the way from the porch of the general store, and most of them held hand-written signs above their head. Very quickly we realized that the majority of the people were trying to sell a room in their home for the night or longer periods depending on the needs of a particular tourist. The signs ranged between 20 and 30 dollars per night and all the prices were written as "U.S. dollars" which I found interesting.

    One sign advertised a "Luxury Villa" just down the road. Really? A luxury villa? From a cursory examination through different windows around the bus, it appeared that Vinales was the most rudimentary of farm towns. A pitstop with running water. Every single edifice was a one story, small home or home-turned-business with a porch. They all looked pretty much the same. The main street, itself, was just a wide path of dry, cracked dirt. I saw horse droppings along the far side of the rode. I doubted there was even one clothing store, here. Not even a place to purchase a hat to shield us from the hot sun. Not that we needed one, anyway.

    Could this be the place that everyone, when visiting Cuba, "had to see"?!

    But, as we were about to find out, things could change for the worse very quickly in Cuba, even in a place like Vinales.