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.

 

 

Fall is in the air, Northern Georgia

tree

 

Fall is my favorite time of year along the eastern coast of the USA, with a change in temperature, foliage and festivities.  I took a week to admire and appreciate this yearly change of seasons in the northern Georgia mountains.  A hike in nature revealed its beauty after a day of chilly deluge with radiant earthly colors and cool crisp air.  The trail was soft and spongy from pine needles and the previous day’s rain.  Yellow, red, brown and unturned green maple leaves scenically littered the path while other leaves endlessly floated in the wind. Sourwood and dogwood trees were equally colorful and abundant. Soggy chocolate-brown pine cones and sturdier acorns appeared on parts of the trail, some broken, others in tact.  I imagined squirrels stockpiling for the winter, but I didn’t see a single animal large or small. A burbling creek ebbed and flowed, sometimes growing louder, other times just whispering in the distance.  I crossed over the creek via wooden tree planks on a few occasions, paralleling it during the most of my walk while meandering past boulders and tranquil Raven_Cliff_Falls_GAvalleys.  Ancient tree roots sprouted through the organic trail, well-worn and glossed over like a penny rubbed too much for good luck.   The air was fresh, clean, oxygenated, and slightly petrichor. The trail ends in a grand finale, a hill of slippery boulders flanked by a gigantic granite rock split in two with a waterfall splashing and cascading to the bottom.  I cautiously climbed the smaller rocks to the top of the waterfall, admiring for a brief moment its magnificent beauty.

Fall in the alpine village of Helen means Oktoberfest, one of the longest and largest Bavarian festivals held in the United States.  Crowds flock to the quaint town to celebrate from September 17 to November 1st.  Weekends are packed with beer drinkers sporting traditional Bavarian hats called Tirolerhüte, many exhibiting pewter pins based on personal interest and cities they have visited.  A man with many pins is either well-travelled, very active, or just a tourist collecting pins for Oktoberfest.  Woman also wear these hats in the United States, but it’s not traditional garb.  If you want to stick to custom, their outfit consist of a tight-fitting white Dirndl dress and blouse showing ample cleavage.  An apron wrapped around the dress with a bow tied on front and flat shoes complete the outfit.

octoberfestThe festhalle housing the main event was full of people, beer, bratwurst, pretzels and dancing to live music. First on our minds was buying a stein full of Oktoberfest Warsteiner which we accomplished immediately.  After securing a seat at the common long tables, food was next on our agenda.  For a vegetarian that means a pretzel at this event and a bratwurst for my husband.  Beer would be my nourishment for the evening since the pretzel was dry and less enticing and flavorful than the beer, although the beer cheese dip helped the dehydrated dough.  Apparently fine cuisine was not the strongpoint of the popular festhalle, but music and socializing was the highlight.  The band, people watching and making friends beat out the lack of flavorful fare, but well worth it.  Although I love a good meal , it’s not  always my top priority.  At the end of the night I was singing and dancing to Rocky Top and doing the chicken dance thanks to Warsteiner and a lack of vegetarian options.

The next few days we explored the many pop-up tents housing beer gardens and festivities surrounding Oktoberfest.  Every major venue had their own personal tent and talent for the occasion.  One thing that stuck out in my mind was the ubiquity of boots among females, an appreciation I held being a lover of a good pair of boots.  My husband and I made a game of it, him not noticing the Northern Georgia boot culture until I pointed it out, and then he could not stop noticing it, almost becoming obsessed.  We started taking pictures of the various boots and he approached one couple.

“My wife loves your boots.  Can I take a picture?
The boyfriend almost fell over, “Your wife loves her boobs?”
“No, Boots. Not boobs.  Don’t get too excited.”

We laughed and took a picture along with photos of ten other boots.  Oktoberfest in Helen, the boot culture.  I better find a good pair.

bootsboots 7boots 6

boots 4   boots2

 

Breakfast in Bimini excerpt

end of world barDark in comparison to the bright sun outside, the rustic tavern displayed writing all over wood panel walls, underwear hanging above, and signed currency from many countries taped on a panel behind the bar. Names of boats and fishing teams, individuals with dates they visited, relationships broadcasted, love proclaimed.

“Interesting,” I mumbled.

My name’s in here,” Luke announced.

“My underwear’s on the ceiling,” Russ challenged. I looked up searching for the camouflage boxers I saw earlier on the trip. It was mostly ladies thongs, but boxers also hung from above like a flag revealing a conquest. My eyes shifted to one distinguished pair depicting a skull and crossbones with a patch over the eye, the typical Jolly Roger avatar faded and exposed on a single pair of boxers. I briefly thought of Jeff and his treasure hunting Davy Jones yacht, wondering if he’d left his mark in this bar. I continued scanning for Russ’s undies, my gaze landing on a pair representing the confederate flag. It was integrated with a rainbow of woman’s thongs. Blue, black, pick, multicolored, green and purple.

“That’s yours,” I pointed to the pair hanging in the distance. “The confederate flag, cowboy.”

“Damn, you’re good Kelly. But wrong. I wouldn’t give up a pair that nice.” He turned his stool in the opposite direction, pointing to a plain tan pair with grey scribbling’s. “Those are mine from 2001, during a wild fishing trip.”

“So you let people sign your ass while wearing them, or afterwards?” I asked, giggling at the thought of Russ running around the bar in his undies asking for autographs.

“On of course. A bunch of drunk girls in the bar signing my ass. Nothing on the front, I’m not that type of guy.”

I choked on my drink, spraying a mist of beer while laughing. “Oh, I could imagine.” Glancing at Luke, “So no undies on the ceiling for you, sweetie?”

Smirking, “No just a signature of my name and year, somewhere around here.” He searched the tavern, eyes scanning for a hint of recognition and then handing me a black sharpie, one of many sitting atop the bar. “Make your mark,” he said pragmatically.

Eagerly grabbing the sharpie and searching for an empty section to claim as my own, I noticed fainter scratching’s were written over with darker, fresher markings. I avoided busy walls and found a corner behind a speaker and wrote, Kelly and Luke, Breakfast in Bimini, 2011. Satisfied with my scribbling’s, I joined the two men sitting on bar stools, gulping a slightly stronger Kalik Gold.

“Ok, now the undies,” Russ blurted out, wickedly grinning.

“And I can do a shot from your belly button,” Luke added with an equally sinful grin. “It’s tradition in this bar.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” I addressed both of them with a smiling gaze. “But I’d have to say, this place definitely has character.”

compleat angler 1“You might change your mind after a few of these,” Luke said, handing me a Kalik Gold to go. Walking the streets of Bimini with a drink in hand is also tradition, ambling to our next stop, lunch at the Big Game Club. During our short walk to the restaurant we sauntered past some ruins stopping for a moment of nostalgia. Luke and Russ both filled me in on the colorful history the Compleat Angler. Ernest Hemingway was perhaps the most notable resident that slept, drank, and wrote at the Angler, but so did Jimmy Buffett, presidential hopeful Gary Hart got caught messing around at the bar and hotel, Matt Damon was spotted there and the less famous Russ and Luke with their past debauchery. Built in the 1930’s it was once the staging area for rum-runners during the prohibition. Prior to its fiery destruction just five years ago, it housed a small yet unique Hemingway museum and it was full of fishing pictures from every decade since the thirty’s. On any given weekend the bar was packed with drunken tourists and locals listening to live music from Stevie S while socializing, sometimes getting downright crazy. The two compared their most memorable stories, with passionate sinful laughs. I longed to have the same memory of the Compleat Angler. Now only a brick fireplace stood in the center of boulders outlining the three rooms and an outside patio. An A-frame wooden sign over a stone archway read The Compleat Angler, a reminder of its humble yet ornate vibrant past.

“How did it burn down and do you think they’ll rebuild it?” I asked.

The two chortled in unison as we continued strolling to the Big Game Club. “The fire was questionable, the owner was the only one who died. All the Hemingway memorabilia was destroyed. Lots of gossip about foul play, but no arrest were made.”

“If it was that popular, will they rebuild?”

Luke took a swig from his beer as we continued along King’s Road. “It’s the Bahamas, nothing much gets done around here.”

 

Unfamilar Creatures

helen mtsI was recently thrown into another adventure, and as always welcomed the challenge.  A friend of mine had financial issues with a property at a popular vacation destination in Helen, Georgia.  With her at the verge of a short sale, my husband and I advised her to take the chance furnishing the property and listing it as a Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO).  Being unfamiliar and non-computer literate she gave us a blank look.  After explaining the details we offered our help.  Having several properties listed on VRBO, my hubby decided to take charge, enlisting us as masters of the endeavour.  And we only had one week to get the place ready prior to Memorial Day, the beginning of “the season.”

The previous night we loaded up an open-air car trailer with her spare household goods. Wrapping the furniture in cellophane then strapping it down was not the ideal situation, but I went with the flow. Why couldn’t we just rent a U-Haul like normal people?  For the first 50 miles the furniture shifted and we had to pull over and check the stability.  I watched the cellophane getting torn up in the wind, whipping around in the rear-view mirror.   We could have easily blended into the set of the Beverly Hillbillies.  The bluegrass ballad played through my head as we began our journey out of Florida into the Georgia mountains.

Our thirteen hour drive was split between two days with a stopover at a friend’s house in Jacksonville.  Arriving in Helen the following day around 5:00 we almost lost the cargo within the last half mile as we climbed a 45 degree slope.  Two pre-arranged helpers greeted us.  They had their work cut out for them with three flights of stairs, as did I over the next few days.

Inside the house, the younger teenage mover, with blonde hair, sullen eyes and sweaty six-pack abs pointed to the back slider.  “Ma’am, have you seen one of these before.”

I inched closer to the door, examining the small spider on the other side of the glass.  “Well, I’ve seen spiders.”  I looked at the kid.  “It’s not a brown recluse, is it?”

“Yes Ma’am.”  He grabbed a large wood pole, slid outside and crushed the spider.  It didn’t go easily, spinning down its web like a mini Spider-Man meeting its end.

I shivered.  Several years ago, only twenty miles from our current location, my husband was admitted to the ER from what we believed to be a brown recluse spider bite.  He blew up like the Pillsbury Dough Boy and little Target signs appeared all over his body.  I researched the spider extensively and I was very much aware of the damage the little critter could do.

Minutes later hubby was assembling the cable hookup as I was unpacking boxes of plates and cups.  I noticed a tiny scorpion scoot across the empty room.

“Honey, can you step on the scorpion?”  I calmly asked.

His eyes widened as I pointed to the creature.  After two attempts another danger was removed from the house.  I was more concerned that something would hurt my dog or husband as I was OK with nature but certainly not immune.  I try not to kill things, but a home should be safe.  If it’s outside, so be it, I’ll go inside.  Thoughts of my one other encounter with a scorpion crossed my mind.  I was excavating in the California desert as a field Archaeologist.  I left my backpack unzipped in the bush for most of the afternoon.  As luck had it when I went to retrieve something from my backpack I witnessed a black scorpion on my bag inching it way towards the opened zipper.  I kicked it off my pack and till this day I never leave anything unzipped in nature or in strange rooms.  A lesson learned.

Over the course of a few days I got buzzed by hefty wood bees sounding like helicopters.  I’d duck down as if I was in a war zone.  During one of these episodes my dog went into a frenzy as I hastily opened the back door for her safety, since she’s allergic to bees. During our walks she’d gingerly walk in the fallen leaves, until a leaf jumped back at her.  She kept sniffing as it repeatedly jumped. She was more sceptical to the change in environment than I was.

English: Male Luna Moth (Actias luna)

On one day, a moth the size and color of a small palm leaf hung out on the balcony all day.  I later learned it was an endangered Luna moth.  Living only for a week, its only purpose is to mate. Since it has no mouth, it can’t eat.  Next to this stunning creature sat a normal sized grey moth and I silently giggled at the thought of her reproducing with the normal unattractive one.  Hell if your endangered and only have a week, why not?

Most of our time involved tracking down used furniture and basic necessities for a large four bedroom house. Thrift stores, yard sales, Wal-Mart and Home Depot, all a good distance from Helen, were part of our repertoire.  At the end of the week everything came together beautifully with a charming mountain home complete with picturesque views and everything one could need for a mountain getaway.  As we drove back to Florida, we listed the house for our friend online.  And I had renewed view of nature and all its funny unusual forms.

My friend who owned the house asked, “Did you at least get some time to enjoy yourself?”

“Ah yes,” I beamed.  “I love mountain running and I experienced it every morning.”

My thighs and butt screamed, but I loved the challenge and my time with nature not freaking out about the creatures that somehow in my mind could attack my dog or partner.

50 shades of grey, Yosemite style

Engulfed by cool crisp air, granite cliffs, pine trees, and a trickling brook in Yosemite National Forest during mid-October is breathtaking.  Going for a morning run in this forest, simply divine. Unlike the camping I did in my youth, we stayed at a decent hotel just minutes outside the park, along the Merced river.  My jog paralleled the river and the road, an easier choice than running up a trail, and a wiser one for this flat land runner accustomed to Florida terrain. My challenge would come later in the trip.  Leaving my i-pod behind, I listened to nature and the slight sound of trickling water.  The rising sun hit granite cliffs  reveling a spectrum of colors.  Fifty shades of grey played off the granite, mottled with yellow, green and chocolate hues.  A scene I could capture in my mind but not in a photo.

I stumbled upon a historic railroad station with a single caboose resting for a half-century on the rail. Stopping in awe, I briefly contemplated this great area within the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Driving through Yosemite and the Tioga Pass flashbacks  flooded my thoughts. Passing El Capitan and Half Dome I recalled my first camping trip with my best friend at the time, Lynda.  I was twenty-two years old and had just returned from China.  My BFF wanted to visit Yosemite prior to moving to Utah, a decision she’d made while I was exploring her part of the world.  Still dazed from my international travels we set out to rent a tent and camp the following day in Yosemite Valley.  Arriving with no permit, no plans and just a few pillows and sheets we learned quickly what camping in the mountains was about.  Nothing like learning the hard way, first hand.  Struggling to assemble our tent, a nearby camper offered a helping hand.  Once assembled, he glanced in our tent and snorted.  “Don’t you have sleeping bags?”

Lynda and I glanced at each other, “No.” We responded in unison with not a care in the world.

“Well, you’re going to need them,”  he said with confidence.  “It gets down to 30 degrees here at night.  I used to be a ranger here, so I know what I’m talking about.”

I smiled at the stranger, not realizing what that meant then unconsciously winked at my friend.  “Hey let’s try out our tent.”

We giggled while testing our pillows and sheets, then joined the ex-ranger near the picnic bench for a cold beer and some snacks we packed.  “I’m serious about the weather.”  He pointed to his Honda Civic, “I have extra blankets if you want them.”

Once the sun had set the air-cooled, and we needed blankets as our newfound friend warned us.  Over that weekend we hiked many trails.  I fell at Yosemite Falls fracturing  my tailbone and bruising my entire left butt cheek. We videotaped the bruise, the visiting coyote at the campground and the silliness we were back then.  We were fortunate to watch a major meteor shower in the strawberry fields with hundreds of other campers including ex-ranger.  Friendships and great memories were made that continue to this day. Years later, I was briefly engaged to the ex-ranger, and Lynda is still my friend although we are thousands of miles apart.  It’s amazing what nature can bring together including everlasting relationships, unparalleled memories lasting a lifetime, and desirable innocence combined with inexperience.  Simply heavenly with earthly splendor and all its blemishes.

My husband and I left Yosemite Valley on our eastward journey as my fascination continued.  Redwoods lined the road along with dwarf yellow and green beauties. I tried to read some park brochures but the flashing sun shining through the trees was like a strobe light.  I felt like I was trying to study in a nightclub.  A spontaneous lake appeared encircled by mountains winding through Tioga Pass.  Suddenly, cliffs appeared dropping thousands of feet without vegetation.  An instantaneous sweat covered my hands and feet, an unwelcome and uncontrollable response.  A drop-off immediately to my right with no rails.  I used to twist around these mountains in my convertible with no worries, I remembered.  I couldn’t control the sudden onslaught of sweat as I tried to admire the splendor without fear.  I yearned for my youth.

“Slow down,” I blurted out.  The pine trees transformed into a moonscape with an elevation difference of about 2,000 feet.  The cliffs subsided as did my instant sweating.   Fifty shades of grey continued as the cliffs and boulders transformed the landscape from green to dramatic rock.  Granite, I concluded from my distance education at UCLA.

A sign informed us that we were in the Inyo National Forest.  I’ve been here before, I recalled.  But when and why do I know this National Park? I soon realized it incorporated the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Mono Lake, Mt. Whitney and Mammoth Lakes.  It’s considered the “dwelling place of the great spirit,” and my old play grounds with the ex-ranger.

My week had just begun.

countryside to city

Flying into the DC area is always exciting.  Not only are you dealing with three busy airports but also restricted airspace with strange passages and rude Air Traffic Controllers.  It makes flying interesting especially when you throw in a broken autopilot and turbulence.  It was a short two-legged flight compared to our previous trip to the Outer Banks.  Within no time we were unpacking our bags at a relative’s farm in Maryland.

I’d forgotten the sounds of the countryside during the summer.  Quietness followed by bird chirps, moo’s and a strange bull crying for a mate.  Large bee’s were buzzing about so I kept a close eye on my bee-chomping dog, Yoda.  She was being followed by two curious large poodles.  In the evening all three dogs would run up and down the fence chasing  horses.  I could imagine the horses laughing at her, especially when she would run up, bark, then run away.  She’s the size of a cat but thinks she’s a tiger.

Jogging in the morning was heavenly.  I was alone on the country road lined with tree’s.  I didn’t need my ipod, the quiet run calmed my overly busy mind.  A few deers startled me and I reacted as if a bear was facing me.  I laughed at my concern.  This city girl definitely needed some time in the country.  The hills were a welcomed challenge.  The cool morning air was refreshing.  I could run for hours, but I limited myself to just one.

After a few days of R&R my husband and I decided to visit Manhattan for a few nights in the city.  We booked a posh dog-friendly hotel near Central Park and 5th Ave.  I wanted to fly our plane but my husband’s response was, “I’m not flying anywhere around JFK.”

We crossed several bridges and went through the Lincoln tunnel.  As we were in the tunnel I realized that I despise tunnels, even more so than bridges.  Thoughts of getting stuck traversed my mind.  “We are 70 feet below the Hudson,” my husband stated.

We had an excellent dinner followed by Times Square.  The madness.  The lights.  Tons of people. 

I got rained on during my morning run, but I didn’t care I wanted to run in Central Park.  I had an excellent jog, unlike my husband and dog’s walk.  As I was finishing I saw both of them drenched and pathetic looking.  They hid under a few structures but got kicked out. Then a bus drenched them curbside.  Yoda was not liking the city.

We did the typical tourist day, trying to fit in as much as we could.  Sight-seeing and shopping followed by more good food and drink.  Chinatown, Little Italy, WTC, Rockefeller Center, Brooklyn Bridge and hustle and bustle.  A day was not enough but it was all we could do on our schedule.

 The smells and sounds of the city overwhelmed my dog.  She didn’t go to the bathroom in over a day, until I stuck her in the planter on our terrace. They had pet psychological services available through the hotel, I guess NYC dogs need that.  Not my little Diva.