Monthly Archives: December 2010

Counting on it

A child on a farm sees a plane fly overhead and dreams of a faraway place.  A traveler on the plane sees the farmhouse…and thinks of home.

– Carl Burns

It’s been so long now: 9 1/2 months.  Twice as long as I planned; the dream of a year off never quite taking flight.  Instead, I found myself thrust into another adventure altogether.  So blessed.

Since the day that I booked my ticket home, I’ve been doing a silent countdown, ticking off the passing weeks as each strode by.  I wouldn’t even allow myself to count out loud until I returned from Cuba, when suddenly it was just 6 weeks to go.  Then, my wonderful driver, David, and I began (he joined in my joy and anticipation as each day folded over in our shared calendar): 42 days till home.  33.  Just one more trip and then it’s 10 more days until…

I lamented to a friend that I have missed home terribly (he thought this blog never gave that away…really?).  I missed not the place, you understand; as much as I love Sydney, it was those who I love and not a place that has left me longing.  Mainly my mum and my dogs and the warm pleasure of being in my cosy house, sleeping in my own bed.  Of stretching out each weekend on the front verandah, meandering through the Herald, two loving collies at my feet.  The sounds of Lane Cove all about me.  Not a reggae beat to be heard.

I’ll spend just over 5 weeks in Sydney, and stop in New York and Washington DC on the way.  Catch-ups with friends and the Christmas menu are fast being settled.  After Australia Day, I return to the Caribbean, although I can only bring myself to commit to a fixed period.  As much as I hate the idea of leaving the project, I came for 3 months and so far have been here for nearly eight.  The open-ended transience of this life has at times been exhilarating; but at others been too much to bear.

As of today, the day I write, it’s just 7 days left.   QF 108.  9.35am on Tuesday 21 December.  The last few hundred metres of this marathon.  Almost time to exhale after a year of adventure.

Now, all of a sudden, it seems so very close I can almost reach out and touch it. 

Home.

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Soho Ho

The view from my room, downtown along 7th Avenue /Varick Street

I decided to splurge while staying in New York, and booked into the Trump Soho.

Whatever you may think of Donald Trump, what with That Hair, The Apprentice, and too too much gold everything at Trump Tower, I have to admit that this hotel really is fantastic.  It’s brilliantly located downtown, right on the cusp of Soho, TriBeCa, and the West Village, always a plus for any hotel.

The morning after (to give you an idea of scale, that bag is GI-NOR-MOUS)

The rooms are gorgeous, and come with complimentary water (which, along with free wi fi is one of my favourite things) and a complimentary Nespresso machine so I can nurse myself awake in the mornings.  There is even one button that you use to switch off all the lights in the room, along with millions of electrical outlets.  Oh, yes, someone has really thought about all this.

But I must say that the service is something else.  Once you have booked, you receive an email linking you to all sorts of services, including your very own pillow menu.  On the day before you check out, they call you and ask if they can do anything like schedule a wake-up call or print out your boarding pass for you.  But, best of all, on checking in again after my DC visit, I was upgraded to a marvellous suite.

The glorious bathroom (bigger than some hotel rooms in NYC)

So, although I could hit you with the standard snaps of New York, I figured…naahhhh…here’s the suite instead.  Fingers crossed I get lucky twice this visit and score my upgrade to First Class on my flight home tonight 😉

A perfect morning view

Flight.  Home.  Tonight.  Now, THAT’s bliss.

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Behaving myself in the nation’s capital

Whizzing along on the Acela Express

In another terrible twist to my 2010 story, I am spending a few days in New York, enjoying my favourite town, and finishing up my Christmas shopping.  After a day of running around the city, and two nights of interrupted sleep, I’m up at 5.30am on Friday to catch the 7.00am Acela Express train to Washington DC, where Rodney has arranged meetings for me to attend.

The Acela Express is under 3 hours, and we travel through New Jersey, Philadelphia and Baltimore (where my head madly pivots trying to spot any of the locations in The Wire). 

Hello, Rodney!

Rodney (who is the Aussie World Bank dude referred to in my April post) is a total sweetie and comes to collect me from Union Station. 

Inside the magnificent Union Station

The station is a marvellous affair and is today resplendent in tasteful Christmas decorations including enormous wreaths strung up high around soaring domed ceilings.  I think it might even beat New York’s Grand Central station, mainly because of the sense of open-ness and the light that streams in, but I’m not sure…

Rodney leads me to the metro, and I trot along behind him, dragging my bag, onto the train and then along DC’s streets (K Street, past the Pres’s street, Pennsylvania Avenue) to the Lombardy Hotel where I drop off my bad before meetings.

Sub-text: behave yourself

We are off to see the IMF at 11.00am, and then at 12.30pm, I have a lunch meeting in the World Bank cafeteria.  Each place has stern looking security (the IMF guard glares at me incredulously: “How many cell phones do you have?”  Err…2 cameras and 2 cell phones in my handbag…despite this unruly commitment to technology, they let me in anyway.

They let me in!

With 10,000 staff, the World Bank is, Rodney informs me, Washington DC’s second largest employer after the US Government.  The IMF has 2.500 staff.  On the outside, the buildings are plan-looking and low-rise only compared to New York. 

You see, I really WAS in DC

After a busy morning, I snooze before a delightful dinner with Rodney and his wife, before it’s a night of real sleep and then back to New York on Saturday morning.  Lucky I’d been to DC before, and saw many sights.  Luckily I could at least grab a snapshot of the Capitol Building from Union Station as I left.  😉

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Cigar country

Monday took me on a tour to Pinar del Rio, the region to Havana’s west, famous for making the best tobacco in Cuba and a town called Vinales. 

Familiar transportation in Pinar del Rio. I did spot quite a few of the oxen-drawn carriages but never had the camera ready. Boo!

My buddy, Anna-Marie (who you may remember I met in a frustrating 2-day Athens to Santorini travel adventure), has spent a lot of time in Cuba, and recommended the region for a day trip.  I am not normally one for tours, but some places lend themselves to submitting your independent self to the comfort of an air-conditioned bus and someone else’s itinerary.

A prehistoric painting from the 1960's

Pinar del Rio is less than 3 hours from Havana, and our first stop is at the Prehistoric Mural.  From the name, one could easily expect some kind of indigenous cave painting, resplendent with stick figure men chasing ancient buffalo.   Oh no, I’m sorry but you are in Castro’s Cuba (albeit Raoul not Fidel these days) so what greets our merry band of travellers is a large mural painted on the side of a rocky hill, comprised of dinosaurs and other ancient beings.  This was commissioned by Castro in the 1960’s (no doubt to somehow demonstrate the greatness of the revolution), and even though it took several years to complete, truly surpasses all the lame sights I have ever encountered.

Some of the hills that the Pinar del Rio region is famous for

The banality of the site itself was more than compensated for by the place was home to the best pina coladas I’ve had (Pinar del Colada?).  I had to ask for the recipe: it turns out that they put powdered milk in!  (In case you wish to try this at home, it’s fresh pineapple, sugar, powdered milk, coconut milk, and ice.  Blend all this and add rum to suit your taste; I preferred to leave the rum out)

Drying tobacco leaves

We visited one of a number of state-run cigar factories.  Unfortunately – who knows why – you cannot take cameras in.  Essentially, the various stages in the cigar-making process are laid out in various rooms, from the selection of leaves, which have their inner stem expertly removed, to the insertion of the cigar into the ring and the collation into boxes.  In the main workroom, workers sat side by side, around 5 in each row for 13 or so rows.  Each person is given one of a number of different cigars to make, which mainly vary based on density and size, ranging from a skinny cigarette-sized version to a monster Monica Lewinsky one.

Our farmer

As you would expect, the workers work efficiently, but there is certainly no-one standing over them with a whip, and they seemed content enough.  The cigars are placed in a testing chamber, where air is flushed through the cigar to test that it is the correct density, and those that fail the quality test are discarded.  Each week, every worker is given 3 cigars for their own use.

Afterwards, we visited a tobacco farm where the farmer demonstrated cigar-rolling for us to take snaps of, and everyone received their very own cigar!  A few people lit up, yes even in a dimly-lit barn, causing a few of us to choke or evacuate.  As for me, I just busied myself with taking photos of the farm, which you can expect was full of photo opps.

On our way back to Havana, we stopped for a quick cave walk and boat ride before a terrific pork lunch, before another photo opp over the gorgeous valley.

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New friends and the Malecon

Pepe and Ana

My next few days are spent wandering around Havana.  On Sunday, I visit Vedado, the geographical centre of the city, where the majority of music joints are, as is the centre of Havana’s life.  My destination is Ana’s place.  Ana is rated No 1 on Trip Advisor in Havana and although she could not accommodate me in her home since she was full, she gave me some helpful advice and invited me around for coffee to talk about travelling in the countryside. 

My new friends from Slovenia, after a month in Cuba

A quick cab ride, and I find Ana and her husband, Pepe, on the street in front of their home.  They are incredibly welcoming.  Shortly after I arrive, two girls from Slovenia, who have just spent a month travelling in Cuba, arrive back, loaded with gigantic back packs.  We sit and enjoy coffee and a chat as Ana contacts the local family who the girls will stay with.  Ana is fortunate: she has access to email, and her famous hospitality ensures her No 1 rating and a constant flow of business, and she happily passes the overflow onto friends in the neighbourhood who she knows will look after their guests.

In order to thank Ana for providing me with advice, I ask if there is anything I can bring her from Miami.  Her response: toothpaste.

I hand over 4 large tubes of toothpaste, and Ana explains that it is very difficult to find in Cuba.  Often, travellers will leave some behind for her.  However, along with many other day to day items – like soap – toothpaste is rationed. 

Cut-out image of Che at Revolutionary Square

After my visit, I am taken by (illegal) taxi (a friend of Ana’s) to Revolutionary Square.  Despite its name and the images of Che Guevara and Jose Marti overlooking proceedings, it was originally built by Batiste, who was overthrown in the revolution and adopted by Castro, who has delivered many a speech here. 

"Turn Back!"

The place seems a tad deserted, but undeterred I meander up the ramp to the main part of the square.  A guard calls out to me from the top: “Turn back”.  When given such instructions, I can tend to keep walking and so he had to call out again and gives me a pleading “Please just do what you are told”-type gesture.  I had hoped that perhaps I had done something a little naughty, but it turns out the place was just closed on a Sunday.

The line outside Coppelia. Even ice cream is not worth the wait (I ended up on a tour with the man in the blue shirt and his wife in the pink top 2 days later)

After lunch, I try to get an ice cream from Copeliathe famous ice cream place in Vedado.  There are three different lines into this place, all with different menus, and one of which is for local pesos only (not the convertible pesos I carry, which are worth 25 times more).  As much as I adore ice cream, the lines were enormous and I walked on.

Trumpeting on the Malecon

Rather than jump into a cab, I embarked on the long walk down the Malecon, the famous waterfront pathway that wraps around the city. 

The Capitolio (right) struts its stuff above the city

The dome of the Capitolio, supposedly based on the US Capitol building, gleams over the city, and walkers stride past.  Locals sit along the sea wall and a cool breeze breaks through the strong afternoon sun.

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Change

The pulse of change is everywhere, like a fresh burst of oxygen breathed in by the island.  Each weekday afternoon, just before 5pm, I race the sun to the water’s edge for my swim as night descends earlier, darkness closes upon the beach by 6pm.  

As I swim, the water has calmed down: Hurricane season has officially ended and you can feel the collective sigh of relief.  The region got through without too much damage in St Kitts, although while I was in Cuba, St Lucia and St Vincent were smashed by Hurricane Tomas and 14 sadly died on St Lucia. 

My beach: South Frigate Bay

Winter drifts across the Caribbean, bringing more tourists who flee the icy winters of the US, Canada and Europe, and the relief of cooler weather accompanying bright and brilliant days.  Cruise ships pile into the harbour, pouring out snappers in their thousands who overrun my little island and stomp all over my beach.  I smile in my knowledge that, once again, the snappers are busy gaining impressions of a place which I am fortunate enough to have become part of, and wonder if I will ever be forced to cruise rather than to travel by lingering and exploration.  Some day, probably.

The average temperature for St Kitts doesn’t vary much throughout the year: 26-31 degrees, with little variation way above or below the averages.  The trade winds cool off summer, but in winter they make things positively chilly.  When I emerge from my afternoon swims, after watching a ship depart and the sun drop beneath the horizon, I am positively cold, something I never expected here. 

I, too, feel the change: soon, at last, even though just for a little while, I will be home.

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Dance

Walking along Calle Obispo (the main shopping street in Old Havana), predictable Cuban music (a la the Buena Vista Social Club, legends in Cuba) leaks from every tourist joint.  It’s well known that the tourists hang in Havana Vieja, and the locals are all west of the Capitolio.   However, despite this, Havana has an energy all of its own; life is everywhere; music and dance seeps from its pores.

Passing one bar on a corner, a crowd gathers and music throbs onto the street.  A toned, gorgeous woman with long, dark hair, totally pulling off the short skirt and high heels combo, moves as if part of the music, her voice booming across the bar.   The band’s front man is a hilarious, sweaty dude, singing and dancing and pulling faces that makes the punters laugh. The crowd collectively bounces. 

I video them, and when I put my camera down, the clown dances over to me, singing and making faces.  I shimmy on cue, and, for a fleeting moment to the applause of the crowd, join the show.  He juts his cheek to me for a kiss (to which I comply) and I immediately buy their CD. 

I’m soon to be upstaged; an old woman grabs a bystander and starts to strut her stuff.  She must be in her 70’s but Cubans dance like they breathe: from birth and the rhythym pulsates through the crowded bar.

Another of Cuba's curiosities: lining up outside the phone store, Telecell

Later in the day, realising I’ll soon be out of pesos, I visit the bank.  Cuba has systems that are odd at best; it’s best to turn up expecting everything to operate weirdly or you will be greeted only by disappointment.  Instead of allowing customers to wait in the bank, we must instead line up outside and a man at the door lets one in as one leaves.  The mobile phone company at which I want to buy a SIM card operates the same, but in a slightly more unclear line.  Locals who arrive on the line ask “Ultimo?” (who is last?), the person owns up, and you know who you are meant to walk in behind.

It is the end of my first full day, and although I know I should visit some music place, I am content to relax without dinner and watch more Entourage, happy in the knowledge that my visit to Cuba has been anything but a mistake.

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