Lazy Days

We’ve spent the last 5 days in Lisbon and, to be honest, it’s been a bit of a weird time.  It feels like the couple of months in the States suddenly crept up and bit us on the arse – we are both knackered!  For whatever reason the 6 hour time difference between New York and Lisbon has been particularly brutal, and we’ve both been awake until the early hours of the morning and then wanting to sleep until lunchtime.  Safe to say that the pace of life has dramatically slowed as a result, and we’ve spent a lot of time just mooching about in our neighbourhood and hanging out.  Sometimes I feel a bit guilty that we’re not making the most out of every day, but Campbell reminds me that we’re away for a whole year and that it’s not humanly possible to “live life to the max” (or insert other inspirational soft drink slogan) every single day.

Anyway, back to Lisbon.  We arrived here at 6 am on Friday.  We already knew that we couldn’t check into our apartment until 4 pm, so had the unenviable task of trying to kill 10 hours having already been awake for over 24.  We found a place to store our luggage and then walked the streets like zombies for a little bit trying to spend as little as possible to stay at a cafe as long as possible and bludge the free Wifi.  We knew that would only work for so long, so had planned ahead and booked a free walking tour around central Lisbon (thanks Kay-Anne for the recommendation).

P1020944.JPG

The tour was a godsend, not only because it killed 3 hours, but also because it gave us some much-needed background for our stay (both of us having accidentally on purpose forgotten to study up on Portuguese history).  Our guide, Francisco, was a Portuguese history graduate who was very passionate about his country, but also very honest about its history and its strengths and weaknesses.  We learnt that Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Europe (older than Rome, London and Paris), that a severe earthquake in 1755 destroyed almost the entire city, that Portugal has a history of lurching from economic prosperity to extreme hardship due to a love of ‘get rich quick’ schemes that inevitably fail, and that one of Portugal’s major exports is cork (one third of all corked bottles of wine in the world have a cork made in Portugal).

Francisco also helped us start to navigate the windy, hilly and extremely confusing Lisbon street layout.  Lisbon is a very cool city – it has the lovely cobbled streets and architecture that you might expect of a European city, but it also has a very modern and slightly edgy undercurrent.  There’s a distinct anti-establishment vibe here, which comes through in the street art that peppers the city and certain pockets of homes/people that you wander past.  It feels like there’s a lot going on under the surface here, in a good way.  The food scene, in particular, is really exploding, which means that I’ve been dragging Campbell from place to place to make sure we sample some of the stuff on offer – like this life-changing eclair.  There are no words for how amazing it was.  I only wish I hadn’t agreed to share it with Campbell.

P1030003

It was well worth the wait (and being awake for 36 hours straight) when we finally got to check into our apartment.  It is super cool- very modern, outdoor balconies, spacious and really handy to everything we need.  The only downside would be the bathroom, which is a little bit compact for statuesque individuals such as ourselves.  Campbell describes taking a wee as the equivalent of being a giraffe at the watering hole, and he’s not far off (don’t worry this isn’t a live action shot!).

P1020996

We’ve also had to get our heads around using our very public washing line – nothing quite like hanging your “smalls” (or not so smalls) out the window of a busy pedestrian thoroughfare.

On the plus side, being located on a busy street means we’ve got to see a bit of action we wouldn’t have otherwise – like this charming lady taking a wee behind a car (hey, we’ve all been there), and this poor Brit girl making an absolute hash of parallel parking.  In the end she totally lost her shit and a local had to come and move her car for her.  He was ruthless and her rental car now needs a new clutch.

We enjoyed our first tour with Francisco so much that we signed up for a second tour with him on day 2.  This time we explored Alfama – the only area of Lisbon that was not destroyed in the 1755 earthquake.  Because of this, Alfama has completely different architecture and a different layout to the rest of Lisbon, and is the domain of Lisbon’s older population.  It was another great tour.  This time Francisco arranged for us to try some illegal home-brew liquor made by a lovely lady who took a break from watching the soaps to serve us shots from her kitchen window.  The drink is Ginjinha, made from sour cherries infused with alcohol and spices.  It smells like Christmas cake and burns on the way down.

When we haven’t been mooching about over the last few days, we’ve found time to visit the neighbourhood of Belem, which is home to the Belem Tower, the Jeronimos Monastery and Pasteis de Belem, which makes the famous Portuguese egg tartlet.  Word on the street is that only 7 people know the recipe for the tart, and I’d give my right arm for it.  They are delicious.  Portuguese people have a major sweet tooth and there are amazing bakeries and cake shops dotted all around the city.  Everything is sugary and creamy and ready and willing to take up residence on your upper thighs.

P1030025

Today was our last day, and we were up bright and early (i.e. pre-lunchtime) to take the train to Sintra.  Sintra is a town about 40 mins from the centre of Lisbon.  It is set against the Sintra mountains and is surrounded by beautiful forests and numerous castles and places formerly inhabited by various nobles.  It is an incredibly busy tourist spot and was absolutely heaving when we arrived.  We decided to visit just two of the castles on offer – the Moors Castle (a fortress which dates back to the 10th Century) and the Pena Palace (a Romanticist style castle, and the star of the show as far as Sintra’s concerned).  Both places were really beautiful in their own way, but it’s true that there is only so much castle action a person can take in one day.  It will be interesting to see how our enthusiasm levels for castles diminishes as our time in Europe progresses.

P1030059

P1030100

At this point in our travels, we are relieved that there seems be a very low expectation that tourists will speak any Portuguese.  When we first met Francisco he said that he would be pleased if we could all pronounce his name at the end of the tour – to which I rolled my eyes and thought ‘ummm d’uh, I can read your bloody name tag.’  My bad.  The thing here is that nothing in Portuguese is pronounced the way it’s spelt.  It seems like they forget to pronounce half the letters, and then add in a whole bunch of new letters that aren’t there – especially ‘hs’.  Those little buggers are everywhere (for example).  The weird thing is that all that shhhhing makes everything sound strangely seductive.  Even the woman/robot announcing the next station on the train today sounded like a total minx.

Tomorrow we leave for Porto where, hopefully, our mojo will return.  If not, Geordie Shore is on MTV here, so we’re still winning.

P1030069.JPG

A&C

XX

New York: Summer in the City

We have just wrapped up the American leg of our journey with a week in New York, and it has been an absolute blast.  New York is great- there’s tons to do, it’s easy to get around and there’s a constant buzz in the air.  Our neighbourhood on the Upper West Side was also perfect for us.  A little bit out of the tourist madness of Time Square, but still full of great sights, food and entertainment.  Of all the cities we have visited in the States, it would be up there as one of our favourites.  Campbell is less convinced than I am that it is livable, so we will be carrying on our journey to Portugal this evening.

P1020560

P1020556

Accommodation in New York is nose-bleed expensive (especially for a whole week), so we ended up renting a room in the apartment of a Dutch family (Mum, Dad, toddler, baby, schnauzer and siamese).  The experience was an interesting one.  The room itself was great – big, private bathroom, view out over Manhattan – but sharing someone else’s home is not something we were overly comfortable with.  Living with a family also added a different dynamic.  The toddler, Joy, (an aspirational name, rather than one reflecting current temperament)  was prone to 7 am temper tantrums and also bedtime shouting matches with her Mother.  These were held in Dutch and right outside our bedroom door.

Our room was also shy a TV.  I know you might think it’s lame to want a TV on holiday but, after a long day of pounding the pavement, sometimes you just want to switch on and switch off.  Our entertainment worries were over though, when we spotted this wee gem on the bedroom wall.  You can only imagine how many hours we spent trying to figure out how the hell this painting could be worth US$25,000.  Wonderful entertainment for all.

P1020779

P1020780

When we weren’t honing our artistic eye, we were out and about ticking off the following (in no particular order): Top of The Rock, the Natural History Museum, Grand Central Station, NY Public Library, Broadway, Central Park, the 9/11 Memorial, Staten Island Ferry, a couple of rows about nothing, a night ferry cruise, the Museum of Modern Art, and the High Line.  Rather than a blow-by-blow account (“and then we went here, and then we went there . . . “) here’s a recap of some of our highlights, lowlights and takeaway points.

P1020567

P1020706

Broadway:  It wasn’t until we’d already bought tickets to see School of Rock that Campbell mentioned that he’d never been to a musical before.  It quickly became apparent that he really had no idea what he was in for (“They don’t actually sing all the time, do they?!”).  At one point I looked across at him and realised that he was doing the same weird wince/grimace from the “It’s a Small World Ride” at Disneyland, which makes sense since both things involved a lot of small people singing and dancing their hearts out.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

P1020716

P1020718

Museums:  So it turns out that we actually don’t like museums or art galleries.  It doesn’t matter how highly ranked they are on Tripadvisor, we just find them a bit boring.  We went along to the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (both “must sees”) and really didn’t get much out of either.  At the very least, I was hoping to see the exhibit at the Natural History Museum where Ross and Rachel got it on during that episode of Friends, but we couldn’t even find that.  We did find this little gadget though, which was a personal highlight after months of eating burger and fries (please don’t do the conversion – it’s not pretty!). The Museum of Modern Art was very much the same – a unicycle covered in feathers and nailed to a plank of wood just doesn’t really float our boat.

P1020624

9/11:  One big exception to the above, was the 9/11 Museum.  We both thoroughly enjoyed this, and would highly recommend it for anyone visiting New York.  It is, of course, a sombre experience, but also a very moving one.

Food:  The food scene in New York is amazing.  You can get pretty much anything you want, anytime you want.  Campbell lost his appetite about mid-way through the week (he actually had a fruit cup for dinner one night, which had me rethinking the likelihood this marriage will last), but I charged on bravely and have been making my way round the city like Pac Man.  Campbell is now feeling better and had a huge burger for lunch, so natural order has been restored.

P1020634

Central Park:  Yesterday was our last full day and we decided to rent bikes and cycle around Central Park.  Central Park is a really amazing area, not least because it is smack bang in the middle of one of the most densely populated areas in the world.  There are lakes, castles, fields, sport grounds, boating ponds and lots and lots of people.  It was really nice to get back on the bikes (our bums nicely calloused after Cuba) and off the streets.

P1020775

P1020757

Random New York things:  There’s so much happening in New York that random things just pop up all the time.  Like when Campbell got asked to arm wrestle a girl in the street, or when we stumbled across a wedding in Grand Central Station.  Campbell also had a haircut at an Orthodox Jewish barber, which he tells me was the best haircut he’s ever had.

P1020660

P1020571

We are leaving New York tonight ready to take on Europe.  Our time in the States has been amazing, but we are ready to move on.  I don’t think you can ever say that you have “done” a country, but we have certainly done what we came to do – see some of the big sights, and tick a few things off the bucket list.  We’re ready to head off and take on our next adventure.

P1020841.JPG

A&C

XX

 

 

Take me to the April-ish sun in Cuba

PART ONE:  I WANT TO RIDE MY BICYCLE, I WANT TO RIDE MY BIKE . . . 

We have just finished our first organised tour of the trip – a cycling tour of Cuba.  The tour ran for seven days in total, and we cycled on five of those days.  Altogether we cycled 150km with distances on each day ranging from 15km to 65km.  This might not sound like much (people cycle longer in one day doing the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge), but Cuba introduced some other challenges into the mix – roads dominated by horrendous potholes, bikes with no suspension and temperatures that never dipped below 30 degrees.  The heat, in particular, was a real battle – I haven’t sweated so much since Helen and I tried hot yoga and I made the disturbing discovery that it is possible to sweat from your ear lobes.

P1020307

The tour was run by Andry, a charming and slightly mysterious leader with buns of steel.  Like most Cuban men, Andry was a bit of a looker.  Campbell described him (totally unprompted) as a cross between David Beckham and Christiano Ronaldo.  He’s the one in the red top.  Andry is fiercely Cuban and shared with us a lot of what he loves about his country and his view on Cuba’s colourful history.  My lasting memory of Andry will be his morning briefing sessions where, without fail, he would tell us that the terrain for that day would be flat, while at the same time making a gesture like a rollercoaster,  The gesture was always more accurate than his description.

Andry was helped out by Victor, a tour leader in training.  Victor was a welcome addition to the group, partly because he looked like a Greek God and partly because of his wicked sense of humour. Victor was often charged with riding with the last cyclist in the pack, which probably didn’t always incentivise the girls to try their hardest.

Lastly, we had our driver, Raoul.  Andry warned us on the first day that Cuban drivers are crazy, but that seemed to be mainly a reference to Raoul.  Raoul drove the support bus that ferried us from place to place and kept watch on the last cyclist, or anyone who might need a break.  Being the last cyclist was an unenviable position, particularly since Raoul had some issues with the concept of personal space and would drive the bus about 5m behind the last cyclist while blasting Cuban pop music from his iPad. Raoul’s driving did a pretty good job of counter-balancing the “Victor effect” and meant that we all worked hard not to end up dawdling behind the pack.

Day 1:  Our flight from Orlando made it to Cuba on time, but we encountered all sorts of headaches at Havana Airport.  Welcome to Cuban time -it took us one and a half hours to get our bags off the plane and the same again to buy our Cuban currency.  You cannot buy Cuban currency outside of Cuba, so practically every tourist that arrives in the country needs to buy currency at the Airport so that they can pay for a taxi into town.  The lines are ridiculous, but there really isn’t much choice but to suck it up. On top of this, our bags had received attention by security and the locks had been cut along with some compartments of our luggage.

We missed the welcome meeting for the tour, but thankfully arrived just in time to join everybody for a welcome dinner.  We quickly sniffed out “our people” from the group (i.e. those making a beeline for the bar – you know who you are!) and settled into getting to know everybody.  Our group had a good range of people – four Canadians, three Brits, four Germans, two Norwegians and one Irish.  Amongst that lot we had a poet, a park ranger, a banker, an accountant, a doctor, a photo editor, and a teacher, and an age range of 29 to 60-something.

Our casa (Cuban homestay/BnB) for the evening was very simple (it’s the pink building by the car), but had everything we needed, and introduced us to the world of the delicate Cuban plumbing system.  Over here you have to put your loo paper in the rubbish bin instead of flushing it.  It’s often BYO paper as well, or you pay a lady sitting at the entrance to the toilet depending on how much paper you think you’ll need (i.e four sheets for a number one and eight sheets for a number two). This is not the place for the urge to take you spontaneously, or to randomly decide to upsize from a number one to a number two.

IMG_0725

Day 2:  The group came back together in the morning and we boarded our amazing chariot for the trip – a full size bus customised with room for the bikes on one side and room for us on the other.  We made our way through Havana to a hotel on the outskirts where our bikes were loaded.  The hotel was an unusual place – a little like a resort that time forgot, with mouldy old sun loungers and crumbling buildings.  It didn’t have any of the charm of the casas we’d all stayed in the night before.  If it weren’t for the tourists milling about you could be forgiven for thinking the place had been abandoned.

We had a long spell in the bus after picking up the bikes, as we made our way into the countryside and the village of Vinales.  The Cuban countryside is absolutely stunning – there is the lush green of the plants, the burnt red soil of the tobacco plantations, massive “pregnant” palms, farmers rushing by on horse and cart, children waving out and yelling “hola” and the rainbow of different coloured homes.  In the afternoon we rode for 15km, so that Andry could see us in action and get a sense of what he had to work with.  It also gave us an opportunity to see what we would be in for – lots of sweating and chafing from what we could tell.

P1020073

Andry had organised a wonderful lunch for us at a restaurant overlooking the countryside.  There is not a great deal of variety in the food here, (chicken, pork, fish, beans, rice, soup) but what we have had has been wholesome, seasonal and really tasty.  We wound up the day at a lovely resort, which even had a pool.  Despite the colour of the water (which we chose to attribute to anti-aging natural minerals) we took the plunge with Cuba Libre in hand.  We finished day two feeling like the tour was going to shape up to be a real highlight of our trip. Already we know that we would not be seeing and experiencing the things we have if we’d been travelling solo.

P1020088

P1020099

Day 3: Today we cycled 65km from Vinales to Aguas Clara, a beautiful white sand beach.  It was the longest day of the cycle and we all wanted to get it over and done with.  We hit the road at 8.30 am and made our way through the countryside, finally arriving at the beach just after 1 pm.  It definitely wasn’t fitness that got us through today (although Campbell often led the pack and made it look easy), but sheer stubbornness and a healthy dose of pride.  A big shout-out also has to go to Amy Bodden who hooked me up with a pair of padded bike shorts before the trip.  Not exactly high on the glamour scale, but they literally saved my arse.

The whole group was on a high when we finally made it to the beach.  The picnic lunch we got on arrival was ok, but the standout was the pina coladas from the beach bar made with real coconut cream and loads of rum (the group ranked them in the top three pina coladas drunk during the trip, which is saying something given the number that were consumed!).  Three drinks later, the ride was a distant memory and we were all totally blissed out floating around in the shallows.  We had the afternoon to enjoy the beach and then we were back on the bus to our hotel for the night.  The two hour bus trip was the final nail in the coffin for most of us – we battled through dinner and were all in bed by about 9 pm.

P1020136

Day 4:  We were back on the bikes this morning tackling a moderate 35km.  The distance compared to yesterday was a welcome relief, and the cycling was broken up with a few other activities.  After our first ten km we stopped to visit a cave and underwater river system, complete with a quick spin on a boat and a sample of sugar cane juice pressed by the locals while we waited.

P1020172

We cycled the last 25km almost continuously with just a few drink and photo stops on the ways.  Andry was great about letting us cycle at our own pace and taking breaks when we needed them, although you’d hear him yelling “Vamos!” if he thought we were dragging the chain.  It was an incredibly hot afternoon with a head wind that made it feel like you were in a sauna and some long, grinding, inclines.

P1020198

The pay-off was the amazing lunch that Andry had organised for us at Luisa’s farm.  Andry was very passionate about showing us all aspects of Cuban life and wanted us to see how hard life can be in rural communities.  Luisa is a 66-year-old widow, who almost single-handedly runs the farm she inherited from her grandparents – she tends to the animals, grows and roasts the coffee beans and plants and prepares the tobacco leaves that she sells to the Cuban Government.  Luisa welcomed us with open arms and big kisses and served us up an amazing traditional lunch, followed by a tour of her farm.  Luisa had tons of personality and we had heaps of fun hanging out with her even though she couldn’t speak a word of English.  By the end of the day she was trying to marry the single girls off to her son, who took a particular shine to one member of the group and was verging on a formal proposal.

P1020257

Our visit to the farm gave us a chance to see another side of Cuban life, including Luisa’s very basic toilet facilities.  I almost made a fatal mistake when using the long drop when I thought that the bucket of paper in the corner was clean and to be used for wiping, only to discover (about a centimetre before it was too late) that the container actually contained used paper.  Gross!

We spent the night at a “resort” in Pinar del Rio and managed to convince Andry and Victor to take us into town to see the nightlife.  It turns out that Cubans don’t hit the town till about midnight and none of us really had the stamina to stay up that late, but we got through a few more pina coladas and had a few laughs.

P1020247

Day 5:  Most of us were feeling a bit dusty today after our big night out, so thankfully we weren’t hitting the bikes straight away.  First stop was a visit to a tobacco factory where we could see the process of rolling Cuban cigars.  Security is really tight at these places and we weren’t able to take any photos, but it was incredible to watch.  We were blown away by how simple the process actually is and the fact that there really doesn’t seem to be any secret to protect – the cigars are rolled, pressed, capped, checked and wrapped and that’s it.  There is no secret ingredient, or technique  The majority of employees in the factory are quite young, which is apparently a key job requirement when you need to make at least 200 cigars a day.

We followed our visit with a trip to a rum distillery and had shots for breakfast (a bit of a struggle for some).  We also had the chance to buy some cigars.  I bought cigarillos designed for ladies, mainly because I liked the packaging, but also because the woman promised they would make me look sexy.  I’ll let you know how that goes (assuming I can get them through US customs).

P1020116

We hit the bikes in the afternoon and needed to cover 25km.  The midday heat was almost unbearable – the tar on the road was melting, so that any time you stopped it would stick to your shoes, which would stick to your pedals and literally leave you stuck on your bike.  We knew we were up against it when the locals started coming out of their homes to point and stare at the crazy tourists.  Our reward at the end of the day was a nice hotel, with a pool and working showers (yay!).  Victor also took us to a waterfall where we could swim in fresh water pools and enjoy a beer.

P1020068

Day 6:  Today was the day we had all been dreading – our last day on the bikes and the day we had to tackle “the hill of death”, a two km uphill stretch.  Andry had warned us about the hill from the first day, but it still crept up and kicked our arse.  About half the group (ourselves included) had to stop and walk a section of the hill, which just seemed to go on, and on, and on.  There were times when I was convinced I could crawl up the hill faster than I could cycle.

We finished the day in Las Terrazas, a fully autonomous and self-sufficient township of approximately 2,000 people.  The townspeople receive no assistance from the government and are not required to pay a portion of the proceeds of their farming activities to the government.  It is the only community of its type in Cuba.  Andry had arranged for us to have a coffee tasting session at a local cafe.  We all gorged ourselves working our way through the coffee menu, which was incredible – the best we have had since leaving New Zealand.  The coffee shot with rum was a particular hit.  After a lunch of Cuban pizzas (basic, but carby and delicious), we opted (the rum obviously having kicked in) to cycle another four km to a swimming hole where we spent the afternoon drinking beers and cooling off.  Everybody was on a high from finishing the cycle, and it was the perfect way to wrap up the day.

P1020355

P1020359

P1020361

Our accommodation in the evening was the most luxurious of the trip and everybody was keen to celebrate in the evening with pina coladas, cuba libre and beers.  We were treated to live music in the bar and a group of us were dragged up to test our rumba skills.  Even Campbell treated the crowd to his lady-killer moves (called this not because the ladies can’t resist, but because if you get in the way he will literally knock your block off).

unspecified

File May 31, 2 46 01 PM

image

Day 7:  This was the last day of the trip and we spent it in Havana itself.  We did a walking tour with Andry during the morning and got to see Revolution Square (home to some of Cuba’s key government departments) and some of Old Havana’s beautiful plazas and landmarks.  Old Havana is full of cobbled streets, crumbling buildings and, above all else, atmosphere. There is always people on the street and music in the air, and it is a lovely place to get lost.  I was really surprised to see modern art displays in some of the squares, which are part of efforts to rejuvenate Old Havana and promote use of the public spaces.

P1020382

P1020408

P1020400

P1020490

After an amazing seafood lunch, we had the afternoon to explore by ourselves.  We met up in the evening for one last dinner as a group, and to say our final goodbyes.  After a week together it was sad to see everyone go, but most had other adventures in Cuba to look forward to.  We had an absolute blast on our tour, both because of the people and the authentic experience we got to be a part of.  Cuba is a mind-blowingly beautiful country, and the people are a testament to making the best of what you’ve got.

File May 31, 2 23 16 PM

File May 31, 2 22 53 PM

PART TWO: CUBA DUPA

We had four days in Havana by ourselves after the tour.  We opted to move out of Old Havana and head to the neighbourhood of Vedado.  Vedado is a more residential area that is home to Havana University and extends down to the water and the Malecon (an eight km coastal walkway that joins up with Old Havana).  It is a totally different landscape here – wide leafy streets, old mansions and lots of parks and restaurants.  We have had a very sedate few days – wandering the streets, eating out and a day poolside at the Hotel Nacional.

P1020466

The slower pace has also given us a chance to take in a bit more about Cuba and the people:

  • Fashion:  Cubans are incredibly fashion-conscious and their tastes veer towards the tight, bright, cropped and blingy.  A lot of the uniforms (including school uniforms) are pretty risqué – think Britney Spears “Hit Me Baby One More Time”.  The women working at Customs also looked like raunchy versions of the Crocodile Hunter’s wife, complete with super tight khaki shirts and fishnet tights.
  • Heat:  It is bloody hot here, and it is impossible not to look like a sweaty beast all of the time.  I have been sporting a permanent sweat mo since we touched down, and salty pirate eyebrows by the end of each day.  It is disgusting.  Campbell is faring slightly better, but by the end of the day we’re both ready to get back to our casa, crank the AC and swan round in our undies for a bit.

P1020441

  • Food:  We had been warned that Cuban food was bland, and not much to get excited about, but that hasn’t really been our experience.  That’s probably due in large part to Andry and the effort he went to make sure we got to sample quality local food, but even the food we’ve eaten in the last few days has been good. On Monday we lined up to get into Dona Eutemia, a traditional Cuban Paladar.  The food was amazing – shrimp, fish, lamb and chicken skewers, and cheap as chips.
  • Hustlers:  We have seen very few Cubans begging in the streets, but the people here do know the value of a good-humoured hustle.  You need to keep your wits about you
    or, before you know it, you’re being man-handled into having a photo with a woman in traditional dress, having a cigar saturated with someone else’s spit shoved into your gob and being asked for five CUCs.  Cheese!

P1020485

  • Wifi:  There is extremely limited internet access in Cuba.  The only spots to find it are at the large hotels, and a few random places around town.  You know when you’ve stumbled across a wifi spot by the groups of locals clustered around on their phones.  On the whole, it’s been great to have a break from the internet, but it’s also made us realise how dependent we are on it.  We’ve had a couple of hairy moments desperately trying to find internet to confirm flights and hotel reservations.

P1020488

We are both sad to be leaving Cuba.  It has been the undeniable rockstar of the trip so far, and we feel like we have only just scratched the service of what it has to offer.  Hopefully we will have a chance to come back and see more before Ronald McDonald takes over.

IMG_0740

A&C

XX

 

Bienvenidos a Miami

I absolutely loved Miami.  Campbell liked it, but I fricken loved it.  I decided this within about half an hour of touching down and, after a few days, Miami is still up there as one of my favourite places from the trip so far.  Our time there was super relaxing, consisting mainly of lying on the beach, or beside the pool.  It was great to have a few days with no set plans, or activities.  We could have easily stayed longer.

P1020028

I didn’t know much about Miami before we arrived.  I had an overall picture based primarily on the music video for Will Smith’s epic party anthem “Miami and episodes of CSI Miami.   It turns out that both sources give a fairly accurate impression.  Miami is beachy (but stylish), touristy (but not overly trashy) and beautiful (in an understated kinda way – Miami has more art deco buildings than any other city in the world).  I guess this explains why it is also the sixth most popular city for high net worth individuals to live in.  We have seen more hot bods, beautiful people and fast cars in our three days in Miami than the entire rest of the trip.

P1020042

P1020044

I say all of this even though Wednesday was a blow-out, leading to a total dummy spit on my behalf.  It was our sixth straight day of rain – the streets were flooded, (shin deep in places) the beach was off limits, our clothes and shoes were saturated and I was so over it!  After a bit of a pity party (attendee: me) we decided to make the best of the day and headed to the movies.  Again, our Walmart jackets were no match for the weather.  By the time we got to the cinema we had to commandeer the entire back row to lay out our jackets, jerseys, umbrella and shoes to dry off.  On the plus side, I wore a black t.shirt under my jacket, The Jungle Book is great and the rain decided to stop during the movie (it did start again the minute we decided to pop out for dinner, but I’d had a few drinks by then and my mood had significantly improved).

P1020033

P1020035

We were up bright and early yesterday to make the most of the end of the rain, but before we hit the beach, we decided to hit the fitness centre at our hotel.  I don’t know if it’s the lighting in our hotel room, or seeing all those gorgeous people prancing around in bikinis, but the physical toll of our recent diet of beer and burgers  is becoming apparent.  My thighs have taken on the consistency of the guacamole of which I’ve become so fond, and elsewhere things that used to vaguely resemble a six pack are rapidly turning into a keg.  None of that seems to matter here though – there are people on the beach of every shape and size and people ooze the kind of body confidence lots of us would like to have.  It doesn’t matter how big your arse is – if you want to wear a g-string bikini, or smuggle your meat and two veg into speedos, fill your boots!

P1020048

To be fair, it probably was time for us to hit the gym anyway – we join a cycling tour of Cuba in a couple of days (two days on the cross-trainer will be enough prep, right?).  We’re not entirely sure what to expect from the cycling trip – the brochure showed young hip people cycling through the countryside with no helmets and no worries, but I have the sneaky suspicion we could find ourselves joining a group of middle-aged Harry hard-out cycling enthusiasts (in which case I have signed up to tour Cuba with half the male partners from work)!  The MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) factor is a concern, but we are both really excited to get to Cuba and see what we’re in for.  It will be especially nice to have somebody else do the organising for a week or so – I’m a bit over that too.

Tonight we find ourselves in Orlando, waiting for our flight to Cuba tomorrow.  We arranged a shuttle up here from Miami, but it wasn’t quite what we expected.  Everybody in the van (including the driver) was Mexican and spoke Spanish almost exclusively.  Once they realised we didn’t speak Spanish, they shoved us in the backseats (with our knees around our ears) and preceded to ignore us for the rest of the trip.  There was obviously some form of Mexican emergency taking place as well, which required our driver (Hernando) to frequently yell at the other passengers, and for them to yell at him, and then for them all to make multiple phone calls and yell at people down the phone.  The only plus side to all the yelling was that it helped to drown out the latino-pop music that Hernando insisted on cranking for the best part of the journey.  Still, we made it in one piece.

It’s likely that we’ll be offline for the majority of our time in Cuba – apparently the internet isn’t quite up to the same standard as here in the US.  Expect a lengthy blog about our tour when we get the chance.

A&C

XX

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Orleans/Mississippi: Southern Man

I’m not going to lie, we were a bit scared about going to New Orleans.  We’d already had a near-miss with the accommodation when we discovered that the apartment I had booked was in a suburb at the centre of a gang war (as evidenced by the high number of tiny “bullet” and “sniper” logos on the Crime Rate per Suburb map I happened to stumble across).  Even with that all behind us and new accommodation sorted, we were on edge.  We had received multiple warnings about watching ourselves in New Orleans from family, friends and pretty much everybody else we bumped into who knew we were visiting the area.  The heavy Police presence when we touched down in New Orleans Airport seemed to confirm the words of caution.

As it turned out, we were just fine. We ended up staying in the thick of the French Quarter with the thousands of other tourists who had descended on the city for the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival.  Our first full day in the city was spent wandering through the streets and visiting some of the major sites – Jackson Square, the French Market, the River Walk (where a woman was playing an organ on the top of a paddle steamer and looked to be powered by the steam boat itself; as you do!), Frenchmen St and Bourbon St.  I also made Campbell queue for beignets at the iconic Du Monde Cafe.  I have wanted to eat the donuts from here since I saw them on the movie “Chef” and, despite the 20 minute wait, they did not disappoint.  Even Campbell was chuffed with his bag of donuts (we got separate bags given my policy of not sharing food where possible).

P1010892

P1010887

New Orleans is an interesting place – equal parts seedy and beautiful.  The best parts of it were found by looking up past the tacky neon signs and daiquiri bars, to the beautiful architecture, balconies and rooftop gardens.  We also got to see the amazing homes in the Garden District when we rode the St Charles streetcar – the longest continually running street car in the world.  There are a number of celebrities who live in the area, including Sandra Bullock and John Goodman.  According to the locals we spoke to, celebrities like living in New Orleans because “nobody gives a shit that they’re here or pays them any attention”.  Apparently in New Orleans it’s old money that counts not flashy Hollywood types.

P1010948

P1010960

The weather during our stay was absolutely horrendous – it rained almost continually and by Saturday afternoon the streets were flooded.  We rugged up on Saturday night and ventured out for dinner despite the weather.  We decided to treat ourselves to an authentic Cajun dinner – catfish, bbq shrimp, fried oysters, hush puppies, seafood gumbo, red beans and rice with sausage ,and crawfish etoufee – all topped off with a strawberry daiquiri.  The food was amazing, but perhaps a little hard on the system judging by the work-out the bathroom’s been getting since then!

Sunday morning we were off to Jazz Fest.  We didn’t have high hopes for the day (the festival had been called off early on Saturday due to fears that performers on the main stages would get struck by lightning), but we’d paid for our tickets and we were damn well going!   As predicted, it poured with rain all day long.  The festival plays host to a number of different musical genres and artists who are world-famous, and those just starting out.  We spent the majority of our time in the jazz and blues tents (out of the rain) and also the gospel tent, which was my surprise favourite.  It’s hard not to join in the happy clappy action when the music is so uplifting (no comment on the lyrics) and the people are so excited to be performing it.

P1010920

We wrapped up the day by waiting in the pouring rain to hear Neil Young play.  We battled it out for close to an hour, by which time it was apparent he wasn’t going to play the classics we’d come to hear and was going to continue thrashing his new album with a band who looked like his grandsons.  We decided to call it a day.  We almost got hit by lightening on our way back to our shuttle (it struck about a hundred metres down the road, but was close enough to rattle our bones and prompt the man behind us to hit the deck and require an immediate undy change).  All in all a pretty fitting end to a day dominated by the weather.  Cheers!

P1010922

Lessons from our time in New Orleans:

  • According to the locals you can do anything in New Orleans from the waist up.  We didn’t test that theory, but saw plenty of others giving it a nudge.
  • Pace yourself on the local food.  Our stomachs are not cut out for it.  This does not bode well for India.
  • Do not wear a white t.shirt under a Walmart raincoat.  Walmart raincoats are not actually waterproof and, when the rain soaks through your jacket, you will be left unable to take it off for fear of being mistaken for a contestant in a wet t.shirt competition.

Yesterday we said ‘goodbye’ to New Orleans and picked up a car (Kelly the Kia) for the two hour drive to Gulfport, Mississippi.  It was great drive characterised by bayou, trailer parks, pawn shops and turtles on the road.  Gulfport and the surrounding towns are beautiful fishing communities peppered with amazing homes and working ports and marinas.  It is where I imagine Forrest Gump would moor “Jenny” when he and Lieutenant Dan were taking a break from shrimping.

P1010961

P1010968

Next stop, Miami!

A&C

XX