My book launch

book signingThis past weekend I published Breakfast in Bimini, and had a booth at the West Palm Beach Boat Show.  I ordered twenty paperbacks and designed bookmarks for distribution during the event. A few days prior to the show, I learned the books weren’t scheduled for delivery until the following week, and the printer didn’t get my final email approving the promo handouts.  To top off this wonderful day, my computer was hacked and a virus took over.  After many hours troubleshooting, I  reverted back to a previous version of Windows 8.

The night prior to the show opening, both the books and bookmarks arrived at my door. Luck switched in my favor.  I went strong for two days, selling some books and passing out plenty of info on my novel and website.  I received a mention on our local county station who also re-tweeted my book signing booth photo and links.  I met plenty of valuable contacts, but received dubious stares from others.  I always smiled and invited them to take my card.  The third day, I took a more relaxed approach, disappearing from my booth a bit more than desirable.

“You’re a bad exhibitor,”  the show promoter said at my lack of presence on the final day.

This promoter also happened to be my husband, so I took it with a grain of salt.

“I have a better understanding of what exhibitors go through,” I admitted.  “The ups and downs of a three-day show.  Slow at times, busy at others.  And dealing with people all day.  Some are super nice, some what to chat too long, and others just simply ignored me when I greeted them.”

BreakfastInBimini-AmazonMy book is now available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback and also on my website sierramichaels.com

Breakfast In Bimini shows up immediately during a search as the only book followed by products offered for breakfast in a bikini. These are mostly detox products.  I had to laugh.

 

Viva Cuba Libre

We left Havana in our rental car for a two night stay in Ceinfuegos, a three-hour drive southeast to a coastal town.  As we left the city we passed the port, and realized we somehow missed one of the most touristy areas, complete with a cruise ship. Somewhat shocked, I glanced past a few buildings and recognized the Plaza de Armas where we lunched just a few days prior.  It’s one of the downfalls of exploring on our own armed with only a map and a guide book.  I had wanted to ride the hop on/off bus, but decided against it without the security of credit card access for Americans. For me it’s a valid reason to return to Havana by the end of the year.

As we searched for the Autopista entry ramp, we got lost in a shady part of town.  I watched locals pick through trash and gaze at us, the crazy tourists driving in circles. With the help of our iPad GPS map we finally found it, although in a roundabout way and no noticeable signs. Hitchhikers stood on the side of the highway, hands extended with pesos or bananas in exchange for a ride.

horse cart freewayWe passed horse-drawn carriages carrying wood and supplies, trucks packed with agricultural labor workers, skinny cows, goats, and revolution signs displaying Fidel’s picture and occasionally Fidel and Chavez in unity.  I felt like the revolution was still occurring, although it’s been 57 years. We dodged a few potholes and stopped at a roadside grill for a bite to eat.  My husband enjoyed a grilled ham and cheese sandwich for a few pesos while I opted for my pre-packed American protein bar.  The bathroom was the typical toilet no seat, sit on the rim or squat and bring your own tissue.  I was prepared.

ceinfregosOur open-aired Jagua hotel was a welcomed gem on the outskirts of the city.  We spent a relaxing evening strolling the neighborhood and our hotel.  They offered a buffet dinner, and although average it was perfect for our mood.  As always I was craving veggies and nibbles of bread and cheese. Oh, and the sinful cake and ice cream.

We enjoyed live Rumba at the outdoor bar.  The cuba bandband didn’t  really interact with the audience, so I went on stage and danced with the aging singer. He seemed thrilled and I tipped him at the end of the night.  The following evening he reached out to the crowd choosing a lady or two to join him for a dance. Perhaps I taught him a thing or two about American tourists, allowing him to profit more.

I explored the town a bit more during my morning run.  It seemed quaint but nothing noteworthy, except I was still in Cuba and loving every moment.  We’d spend the day in Trinidad, a short one hour drive through hills and along the coast to a well-preserved colonial town.  The two-lane highway seemed like a rollercoaster at first, winding up and down hills and around corners.  As I was reading my Lonely Planet guide and not paying attention, my husband screamed “Land Crabs.”

crabsI glanced up and thousands of crabs were crossing the road, getting crushed in the process.  There was no stopping the massacre.  Traffic in front of us mulled through them, and we couldn’t stop.  I felt every crunch and cringed.  For this vegetarian it was a nightmare.  It smelled of death.

My husband was equally mortified and he said, “They’re raising their claws in defense.”  He tried to swerve, but it didn’t matter.

trinidad4We parked in town and walked along cobble stone streets.  Cute artist shops lined the road alongside open-aired homes.  Many had TV’s and basic furniture, but they seemed small.  We found our way to Plaza Mayor, the cultural trinidad3center.  It was filled with music, greenery, arts and crafts markets, and plenty of privately owned restaurants.

pirate

I spotted an interesting pirate statue and asked my partner to take a photo of me standing next to it.  He moved.

“Holy crap, you had me fooled.”

He stood for a photo and kissed my hand.

trinidad2We wandered around town browsing artistic souvenirs and strolled through an archaeological museum.  Lunch on a balcony above live music was superb. We weren’t in a hurry, and Trinidad had a good vibe.  It wasn’t as crowded as I expected, or as it should be for such an interesting town.

Back in Cienfuegos we met a friendly Cuban lady who exchanged some Cuban pesos for an American dollar.  I wanted to take home local currency since the government was in the process of unifying the two currencies and switching everyone to convertible pesos.  I also gave her lotions and shampoo I no longer needed since we were leaving the following morning.  We had to plan our trip carefully to make it back to the Havana airport for a noon departure.

The first three hours of driving was uneventful.  Then our directions took us through a small but busy town with unmarked roads, a sketchy GPS, and a rental car about to break down.  We could see the runway, finally finding our way to terminal 2.  We parked, gave an employee our keys, and hurried to check-in.  Our flight was leaving in less than an hour and the line was long.  I waited among the crowd as my husband returned to CubaCar to collect our deposit.

The boarding process aboard Havana Air was chaotic and lacked any reasonable procedure.  It’s the norm, I learned from a Cuban-American who worked at the US embassy.  We departed a half hour late, with no pesos left except for my Cuban souvenirs.  The adventure was well worth it and we were back in Miami forty-five minutes later, with a renewed sense of the Cuba Vibre.

 

 

Viva Havana

We booked Havana Air for our first visit to Cuba, flying from Miami to Havana for a brief 45  minute flight.  At the time of booking, I didn’t realize it was part of the new Eastern Airlines until check-in. A group purchased the once famed but defunct airline’s intellectual property including their trademarks.  The flight was full and check in slow since most of the flight consisted of Cubans carrying 8-10 bags of goods they couldn’t buy in Havana.  Fashionable clothes, shoes and food, all having to be weighed for the flight.  My husband and I carried only our carry-on, weighing less than 20 lbs.

In Havana, it took us an hour and a half to clear customs, wait for our prearranged rental car and change money.  We arrived with Canadian currency for a better exchange rate since it’s a 10% penalty for American dollars.  We also had to leave the rental company an extra $250 deposit we weren’t expecting.

Our Hotel Habana Libre, sat in the heart of Havana near the Malecon.  It’s a high-rise full of character and history. Once the Havana Hilton, nine months after it opened Castro’s revolutionaries took it over and Fidel ruled the country from a suite on the 24th floor.  The leader’s pictures and propaganda are documented in the lobby, near the bar where we sat for our first mojito.  This refreshing rum drink became my drink of choice for the rest of our trip.

car classicMy immediate impression of Havana, it’s unlike anywhere I’ve been.  A city stuck in time with antique cars, beautiful but dilapidated buildings, and bustling with locals and tourists. The air smelled of diesel and gas outside and cigars and dust inside the hotel. Horns and music blared on the streets. People gathered near a TV/media building to access the internet on their smart phones and tablets.  It had a good and positive vibe.

 

We had dinner just two blocks away at a local joint recommended by Anthony Bourdain called Los Amigos. It was a small place but it had good cuban food and a nice ambience.

embassyThe following morning I ran along the Malecon, a historic stone sea wall.  The United States Embassy majestically greeted me as I began my trot.  Men fished off the wall, lovers walked holding hands, and fellow joggers and bikers passed by.  I grinned and danced around dents in the pavement.  Most smiled back, while a few mimicked my movements. A stone fort-like fort restaurantbuilding turned restaurant signaled the end of the Malecon, and my turnaround point.

We spent the afternoon walking the narrow streets of Habana Vieja.  We explored shops, bars, plazas, churches, and street art.  We had an average lunch at a restaurant in Plaza De Armas. The location was great for people watching, but the food pretty bland. Stray dogs and cats gathered around the tables for scraps.  The cats didn’t mind pieces of my soggy pizza, but the dogs were a bit more picky. I didn’t blame them, since I was also unimpressed.  Hopefully they were just well fed.

20160416_142700_resizedWe checked out two random wooden boats slightly bigger than a canoe.  A local in overhauls was busy working on one of them.  With the help of a translator, my husband had a fishing conversation with him. They discussed types of fish he caught, methods used, and while laughing they exchanged fishing stories.

floridaambos hotel signstreet 1

We walked down Calle Mercaderes and Obispo, stopping to admire the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway lived and wrote between 1932-1939 in room 511. We also visited a few places where he drank, including the famed Floridita. While having mojitos at Cafe Paris, we watched dancers on stilts perform a traditional dance.

fortfort1fort2

We drove through a tunnel arriving on the other side of the harbor at Castillo del Morro, and learned about the British invasion of Havana.  The view of the city from there was amazing.  We parked out front and meandered through the exhibits, all written in Spanish, but we figured out the gist of it.

dancersWe unknowingly chose a state-run restaurant for dinner. Although the menu looked promising the food was horrible.  I laughed myself into tears over how someone could mess up pasta with olive oil.  Well they certainly did.  A late night dance performance at our hotel saved the evening.

buildingMy morning run along the Malecon in the other direction towards central Havana provided stunning views and I had a perpetual grin for five blissful miles.  A wave crashed over the seawall and left me drenched, so I crossed the street and ran alongside a quiet stretch of buildings until I noticed large chunks of rubble on the sidewalk.  I imagined one of them falling off the building onto my head, but I took the risk.

marinaWe drove a half-hour outside of town to the Hemingway Marina.  The drive was along a beautiful neighborhood and the Marina itself was pleasant but quiet without much to do. A restaurant back along the Malecon had decent local cuisine and live music. By now we started to me musicrealize if we ran out of pesos we’d be screwed since our American credit cards didn’t work in Cuba.  For me, becoming stranded and cashless became a big fear and we budgeted accordingly.

hamelA drive through Chinatown proved there really weren’t any Asians left in Cuba as they fled at the first mention of Communism.  An a cute artistic area with Afro-Cuban roots called Callejon de Hamel was full of murals, rumba, Santeria, cafe’s, and culture-seeking tourists.

We visited the historic Hotel National for a hotel national
mojito or two and awaited the firing of the canons at 5:00 each day, except Sunday.  Well our visit was on Sunday, but we did learn about the missile crisis and the history of who stayed there including Lucky Luciano, Frank Sinatra, Vladimir Putin, and Winston Churchill.

The following day, we left Havana for a three-hour drive to Cienfuego’s for a few nights. Next week I’ll blog about our experience there.

Pirates, the Pope and the Crown

I find the colonization and trade patterns of the new world extremely fascinating.  I recently learned a few fun and interesting facts, somewhat generalizing some history below in the sake of making it simple.

spanish flagThe pope acting on behalf of God granted Spain the entire western hemisphere, with the exception of Brazil which he bequeathed to Portugal. In the late 15th Century, just a year after Columbus “discovered” America, one man increased Spain’s real estate 80 times it’s size.  The Spanish couldn’t possibly defend such a huge chunk of land so they ignored anything north of Virginia, allowing French and English  settlements along the east coast in North America.

Spain also had huge problems securing land and precious goods in the Caribbean. The English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese all wanted a piece of the action, each dominating  and conquering different islands throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Jamaica, Haiti, and Nassau were all strategic and sought after seaports. Since the royal navies were engaged in what seems like constant warfare, they encouraged, financially supported, and legally backed privateers. Robbing enemies boosted the colonial economy and helped finance their war efforts.

So what’s the difference between a privateer and pirate?

privateersPrivateers were licensed to attack enemy ships for a percentage of the plunder. They were like private contractors who profited during times of war.  In periods of peace, they became desperate and turned towards piracy, capturing and looting any ship they could.  Pirates is a generic definition referring to anyone who uses the sea to commit theft.  So privateers are basically legal pirates.

spanish galleonBetween the 16th-18th century Spain was often a target of theft since they manipulated and controlled trade routes.  By the early 18th century, Spain had three highly armed treasure fleets with 30-90 vessels. Two of these fleets sailed every spring across the Atlantic from Seville, Spain to the new world.  The ships hulls  were filled with soldiers, weapons, wine and European goods needed in the American colonies.  The New Spain fleet sailed to Veracruz, Mexico and loaded gold, silver and goods from a third Manila Fleet bringing porcelain, silk and other products back from Asia. The Tierre Firme fleet headed to Cartagena, Columbia to collect millions in silver and other goods from various ports.  The two ships met up in Havana, Cuba and sailed together through the Straits of Florida back to Spain loaded with treasure.

treasure fleet 2Hurricanes were also a threat to these fleets, the worst occurring in 1622, 1715, 1733 and 1750.  The remains of the 1715 fleet is one of the most sought after among treasure hunters.  The fleet departed Havana on July 24th. The first five days were uneventful with the six day bringing large swells and early signs of a tropical storm.  By 2:00 am on July 31st, a hurricane hit at full force destroying the entire fleet with the exception of the Grifon, which is believed to have survived the devastation by defiantly staying one-half point farther northeast than the rest of the ships.  The fleet had no chance and were smashed against the Florida shoals, south of Cape Canaveral.  In total, over seven hundred lives were lost, eleven ships destroyed and more than 14 million pesos of registered treasure submerged.

Seamen also had to deal with diseases such as scurvy, the plague, malaria and typhus. Their ships often corroded from the salt air and it was difficult to get replacement parts. This is still true today, and living in the Bahamas a personal nuisance.  Our golf carts and boats are constantly breaking and corroding due to the harsh saline environment.

 

 

 

 

What’s your word for 2016?

I saw an news story last week about a company posting a challenge, pick one word representing your life or the positive changes you want to happen over the next year.  It can only be one word, and this word becomes your focus for the new year.  Their website sells jewelry as a trendy reminder of your commitment and they offer other products for inspiration.

positive 5I like this idea, and it has roots in the older practice of Buddhism and different forms of yoga and meditation.  For the past few years every morning before getting out of bed, I pick a mantra.  A positive word or a phrase to think about daily.  I write it on my apple-shaped chalkboard in the kitchen as a reminder.  I find myself repeating some basic mantras.

 

gratefulDuring the holidays, grateful comes up often. I am grateful for…,  I insert different things throughout the day.  Thankful and blessed, also flood my mind this time of year.

 

mindfulBe mindful consistently comes up as one of my mantras throughout the year.  What is mindfulness?  It’s observing your own thoughts, feelings and actions.  We often react without thinking or really knowing why.  In our busy lives, many of us are on autopilot. Mindfulness is the state of being conscious and in the present moment. Without judgement you simply scan your internal monologue, associated feelings, and surrounding environment.

Other words I’ve used this year include: strength, compassion, love, kindness, success, health, peace and various phrases to enrich my life and those around me.  If I had to chose just one word, it would be mindfulness, because it’s such a powerful word and practice. At times it seems almost impossible to achieve full awareness, but I’ve come a long way.  I’ve also experienced the proven physical and mental benefits of positive thinking, and living in the present. That doesn’t mean don’t plan for the future or share memories of the past, just take time for the present moment.

positive 4

So what’s your word or phrase for the new year?  Use that word to guide you over the next year and it’s never too soon to begin. Continue reading

My New Website www.sierramichaels.com

headshot 1Finally, I’m able to create and edit my website.   For years I found my web design host user unfriendly and frustrating, so I procrastinated and ignored it, unwilling to tackle a time-consuming project of changing the content on my site.  I had to write code, struggle to access my password and I was unable to find online help.  After many phone calls and emailing a scan of my driver’s license,I gained back ownership of my domain. Danica Patrick you can have your sponsor.

A friend introduced me to an easy to use website builder. I don’t have to depend on others to update content or design. Right now it’s simple, but I can change it as needed and learn in the process.  I look forward to developing my site along the way as I get my novel Breakfast for Bimini ready for publishing.

I welcome feedback and insight.  Please check out my website at:  www.sierramichaels.com

Sierra

Alaska Cruise- The Inside Passage

alaska rail I’d heard a cruise is the best way to see the beauty and glory of Alaska, a true adventure in this rugged and often frozen land. From Talkeetna, just outside Denali, we took the Alaska railroad directly to our ship waiting near Anchorage. Our history filled ride included fun facts, games, cocktails, lunch and a spontaneous cigarette break with the train conductor on the side of the tracks. We were waiting for the ship’s customs crew to board, so my husband and I disembarked with him for a quick smoke.  The ride looked pretty, but not breathtaking like I expected.

The first two days at sea we enjoyed a scenic cruise across the Gulf of Alaska to Yakutat Bay and the famed Hubbard Glacier. From a distance the massive Glacier emitted vivid shades of turquoise, but I didn’t feel up close and personal with my first glacier experience.  After admiring the outside beauty we explored our ship, the Star Princess.  The outside decks were windy, cold and drizzly while the inside bars were toasty, lively and jovial.  We found our preferred drinking spot with music and a view.  Spiked apple cider became my Alaska cruise ship drink.

glacierThe following day we cruised Glacier Bay National Park with its scenic natural beauty.  Unlike the previous day, Lamplugh Glacier took my breath away.  Awe inspiring off our stern I could see its height, depth and complexity.  We watched glacier calving several times where chunks of ice plunged into the sea, hearing it splash minutes after.  The glacier’s height towered above our fourteen-floored ship.  The captain performed a slow 360 degree turn as I admired it from the bow, the starboard side and our port side balcony.

The next morning our captain announced. “Attention ladies and gentlemen.  I regret to tell you we are unable to port in Skagway.  Winds are exceeding 50 miles an hour and we made three attempts.  We are now heading to Juneau for a late afternoon arrival.”

Ugh.  I was eager to disembark the ship and explore Skagway.  I even planned an early run in the quaint town.  I later learned from another passenger who was awake at 5:00 am, that the ship was leaning to one side. Later in the afternoon I met a crew member who was aboard the Costa Concordia when it sank.

“At the captain’s last attempt, the boat was listing.” He said, taking a long draw from his cigarette. “I was on the Concordia when it ran aground.”

“Oh, better safe than sorry.”  I said.

“It’s the first time in two years we’ve missed port.  Very unusual.”  His eyes appeared full of grief and regret.

Late afternoon I watched an eagle soar off the stern as we pulled into Juneau.  Our unexpected arrival left us without a dock, so we anchored using tenders to shuffle passengers to port.

Tourist shops littered main street, so my husband and I explored side streets to get away from Princess owned shops. I try to find beauty in everything but the capital had little to offer. We stumbled upon a historic bar resembling a brothel.  It had character so we had a few beers prior to returning to our ship.

whaleThe next day they canceled our anticipated helicopter sled dog expedition , leaving us to scramble for an excursion.   We quickly booked a whale sightseeing tour. We watched  humpbacks play and breach in the Pacific Ocean, majestically waving a fin or flipping a tail.  They were simply amazing, making our stop in Juneau worthwhile. whale 2

katchicanKetchikan was the cutest town we visited, but then again we only had two ports in Alaska.  The town had a nice layout, totem poles decorated the town and it had plenty of excursions.  It seemed like the seaplane capital of the world, so we choose a floatplane, bear sightseeing air adventure. A true bush pilot, our captain flew just above the tree tops, dipped into valleys and avoided fishing nets while landing on a lake where we quietly waited for a bear sighting.  Standing alongside the pilot on one of the floats, I watched an eagle perched in a tree.  We waited as dead salmon floated by, the other four passengers still sitting in the plane.  A mother and cub black bear came to the water’s edge and then quickly disappeared.alaska-seaplane-tours

“We’re stuck on the rocks.” The pilot said attempting to take off.  “We need to wait for the tide to come in.”

“What?  That could take a while.”  My husband said.  “Let’s get out and push, it will also lighten the load.”

The two of them pushed us away from shore and within no time we were airborne, soaring above trees with steep turns and an open window allowing cold air to fill the cockpit.

That evening my husband’s forehead radiated extreme heat, so I called the ship’s doctor.  His temperature read 102 degrees and they tested him for flu.

“You have type A influenza, and we need to quarantine you for 24 hours.  That means you can’t leave you’re room and nobody can enter your room.”

At that moment he was so ill he didn’t seem to care.  But he asked, “How many people are quarantined?

“Over a hundred.”

They gave both of us medicine.  Since I was exposed, but not sick I had to take medicine although I was free to come and go.  I’d be his slave for the next 24 hours.

“It was the cold air that did me in.” He said, referring to the open cockpit window.

His quarantine lasted until the night before disembarkation in Vancouver. By that time he was feeling better and had cabin fever while I made friends with the bartenders.  I checked his progress regularly, bringing him drinks and room service.  It’s no fun being sick on a cruise, unable to leave your room.  Equally as frustrated, I quickly became bored without a partner.

Vancouver was simply amazing and my favorite city along our cruise. We stayed three extra days, a welcomed and lovely part of our adventure.  We rode bikes, visited farmer’s markets, strolled the park and enjoyed our rooftop view of the city.

Would I recommend visiting Alaska?

Absolutely.  It has so much natural beauty and plenty to see, but I think it’s a matter a travel style.  I’m a land lover and I don’t like days at sea without a port on someone else’s agenda.  If you like the cruising lifestyle then it’s a great way to experience Alaska.  I’d prefer to travel this great state by RV or small airplane adventure with plenty of time.

Leaving Vancouver we were singled out for extra inspection in U.S. customs and immigration.  After an hour of waiting and watching the clock in a separate room they called us for questioning.  I realized our plane had left.

“Why do you have so many stamps to the Bahamas?”

“We own a place in Bimini, and as pilots it’s a quick 20 minute flight.”

It was a long two-day flight home due to our flight rescheduling. Once home, I had a comfortable and peaceful night, but knew the hassles of travel would not stop me from planning our next adventure.