Cuba I: Santiago — A City of Rhythms

Sitting on the tarmac in Miami on Sun Country Airlines flight #67 bound for Santiago de Cuba in mid-August, I was giddy with excitement and anticipation with the long-anticipated trip to this neighboring island country, long off-limits to most Americans. My partner Rick and I were fortunate that our friend Alan from San Francisco, whose Cuban partner, since passed, still travels to Havana to visit his ‘in-laws.’ As a visitor with a ‘Family’ designation, he is permitted to take two companions with him. Lucky us! Ten days to explore this home of Fidel Castro’s Revolucion, and in the middle of steamy summer, no less!

Umberto, our driver for the next six days, picked us up at the airport to take us to our casa particular (a system of private accommodations roughly equivalent to Air B&B), eschewing our usual hotel accommodations for staying in people’s homes to have a more authentic experience and learn more about this enigmatic country.Our host Jose’s apartment was located just down the street from Parque Cespedes, the city’s main central square, lined with some of Santiago’s most prominent and beautiful buildings.

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Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city, sits on the eastern tip of this 800-mile long island, with Havana at its western end.  Santiago’s closest island neighbors are Jamaica and Haiti, so with its predominant African influence, this architecturally diverse and interesting city throbs with the beats of congo and salsa music.  Santiago celebrated its 500th anniversary of its founding this year, as several other towns and cities in Cuba have done, so we were greeted with many freshly and brightly-painted and rehabilitated public buildings and houses.20150810-20150810-DSC_0682

After exchanging our dollars for the Cuban tourist currency called CUCs (value roughly pegged to the U.S. dollar) in a private home in one of the neighborhoods (the local black market), Jorge, an acquaintance of Alan’s, took us to dinner to a very attractive paladar – a privately owned restaurant (these have been permitted in the last few years) in a once-elegant residential neighborhood , where a semi-classical quartet played local and international music. When finished, Jorge asked, “Are you interested in going to a nightclub?” Dead tired, we eagerly said, “Yes!”

The Tropicana — what a thrilling experience!   We sat at linen-covered tables under the stars in front of an immense stage with a 10-piece Latin band, complete with a brass ensemble. A line-up of full-throated singers belted out popular Latin tunes in turn, while 60 stunningly-dressed, scantily-clad male and female dancers, in feathered regalia and headdresses paraded on and off stage and among the tables. I swear I saw the ghost of Ricky Ricardo and his band performing “Babalu.

The next day — HOT!! A wall of steamy heat surrounded us everyday in Cuba by late morning. Consequently, Cubans dress accordingly. Combine the heat, the bare essentials in clothing, and the ever-present rhythms, and I finally experienced what the term ‘sultry’ means.DSC_0426

Another emblematic symbol of Cuban culture is the image of the 1950s high style American automobiles. Enhancing the frozen-in-time sense about Cuba, these cars were very popular in the era before the 1959 revolution. We got a small taste in Santiago of what we would later see by the hundreds in Havana of the stylishly designed beauties, many which have become taxis.20150809-20150809-DSC_0461

Throughout Cuba, people were friendly and curious, especially when they discovered we were Americanos. Even short interactions were fun.  20150809-20150809-DSC_0472On the flipside, often friendliness turned into solicitations, and in this land of few luxuries and low wages or no steady income, people are creative in their efforts to make extra money from tourists. (Yes, in cities we saw many tourists. The rest of the world can visit Cuba. Only U.S. citizens have not in general, until more recently.)

We spent a day touring historic sites in the the outskirts of Santiago. Among them, we visited the Unesco World Heritage site of Castillo de San Pedro del Morro, one of the best preserved 17th century Spanish forts overlooking the Caribbean. 20150810-20150810-DSC_0614At the Cemetario de Santa Ifengia, with its acres of closely placed ornate masoleums and tombs for as far as we could see, we caught a goose-stepped changing of the guard that watches over the tomb of Jose Marti, Cuba’s literary national hero and revolutionary.DSC_054320150810-20150810-DSC_0583 The Cemetario contains the remains of Cuba’s rich and famous (it’s where Fidel wants to be buried). The monumental Plaza de la Revolucion, with its huge machetes of steel thrusting out of the plaza floor, pays homage to the city’s 19th century war hero, Antonio Maceo, whose bronze edifice sits proudly on his steed.DSC_0476

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The morning before we left to begin our cross-country road trip, I got up early to sit in the Parque Cespedes to write in my journal. Immediately I was approached by Samosa, a heavy-set man in his mid-thirties, who wanted me to look at and, of course, purchase his drawings. I resisted my impulse to make him go away, deciding that engaging this man was the point of traveling. And I’m so glad I did. He told me of his life, its severity I didn’t doubt, his time in art school, his now-deceased father who was an amateur photographer who left him boxes of photos taken when Samosa was growing up.  I wished I could have seen them.  Of course, I bought one of his drawings for 10 CUCs and he gave me a second one.

At that point, he hailed two men sitting on a bench across the walkway, and Alberto and Raul joined us to chat. A man in his mid-60s, Alberto, in his white tam, white collared shirt and chino pants, is a local troubadour singing with a group of friends every night in a nearby plaza. He carried two bandaged maracas, and I asked him to sing a song. And what a song he sang, 20150810-20150810-DSC_0721with his beautiful, raspy voice soaring across the square, Samosa and Raul joining periodically in refrain, as others gathered around us for the performance, and I happily snapped away. I graced his cap he extended with a thank you bill when he finished. This was the Cuba I didn’t know I was looking for.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Cities, Cuba, Cuba, History, Photography, Road Trip | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Myanmar — Part II: Inle Lake

Located in Shan State, Inle Lake is a sprawling 45 square-mile (116 sq. kilometers) shallow body of water, whose shores are dotted with four towns and many villages. Fishing, hydroponic farming, weaving, and silversmithing are among the main industries in the region. Shan State is home to many ethnic minorities in Myanmar — Shan, Chinese, Thai, Mongol, and Indian. In recent times, there has been ethnic fighting with the dominant Burmese, but at this point, things are peaceful.

Our guide Thet Thet picked us up at the airport, and we drove an hour to the town of Nuang Sheve, where we would board our long-boat to settle in at the stunning and atmospheric Inle Princess Resort.  It was Friday, and we were fortunate to find the traveling market that circulates among five towns and villages in full operation when we arrived — an exhiliarating introduction to local culture as we wandered through the marketplace, stooped over under the plastic tarps that protected sellers and buyers from the sun.20150109-DSC_0961   20150109-DSC_0970From stalls, stands, and blankets laid on the ground, produce, meats, live fish, filleted rats, spices, sweets, flowers, powders, household goods — all these sights and smells intoxicated our senses.  People were especially friendly and welcoming, and it confirmed that this segment of our journey would be especially exciting.

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20150109-DSC_0002For two days, we traveled about in a long boat, a canoe-like vessel about thirty feet long, which held the four of us seated one behind each other, our guide and the pilot, skimming across the broad lake surrounded by tree-covered mountains.  We saw fishermen move about with one leg wrapped around an oar and slap the water with paddles to scare fish into their conical nets; we chugged up and down “streets” of water in fishing villages built on stilts; and we watched farmers harvest squash and tomatoes from trellises perched atop rows of floating plant masses anchored to the lake bed with long bamboo poles.

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Pulling up to the village of Phaung Daw Do, we devoured our first authentic local cuisine (my favorite — cauliflower and peas in ginger and garlic and an avocado milkshake).  Across from our restaurant was the town’s pagoda housing five historic Buddhas rescued from the lake bottom and now globular in form from centuries of gold leaf applied to them as part of rituals.20150109-DSC_0152

Workrooms with craftspeople creating works of art at silversmith and silk weaving shops successfully tempted us to buy. We watched the Pa Daong women at their looms, wearing stacks of gold rings around their necks, wrists, ankles, and knees.

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Plying the water back to our hotel as the sun set in the stiff chilly breeze, I was amazed that the pilot could find his way in the dark through narrow channels of tall grasses, clogged with water hyacinths. But we returned to our rooms where a fire was blazing in the fireplace. We were thrilled with the adventures of our two days on Inle Lake, an extraordinary experience.  The next morning, it was off to Bagan by plane.

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Myanmar: Yangon

Minga la ba!  That’s ‘hello’ in Burmese, our guide taught us immediately when he picked us up from the Yangon airport.  Our friends Eva and Suresh were arriving late in the evening, so once settled in our hotel, Rick and I set out to explore this one-time capital of British-occupied Burma from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries when it was called Rangoon.

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Once considered the “garden city of southeast Asia,” prospering under British rule until independence in 1948, the last fifty years of isolationist military junta rule has impoverished Yangon and the country.  In the last decade, the government has slowly been opening up the country to international relations and investment, if not democracy, and conditions are improving.  It’s truly a developing country, yet filled with exotic culture and jaw-dropping sights for westerners.  What I came to appreciate over the next twelve days was a kindness and openness of the people in this surprising country, now named Myanmar.

Although Yangon’s infrastructure is underdeveloped compared to that of many other major Southeast Asian cities,  it has the largest number of European colonial buildings in the region today.  I enjoy seeing the architectural marriage of western and eastern design, and Yangon did not disappoint, with some gems of grand old buildings being refurbished and polished, while others continue to mold and crumble.  Tea in the British-era elegant Strand Hotel seemed like an experience from time gone by.

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The next day we toured the grand centerpiece of the city — 325 foot tall (99 meters) Schwedagon Pagoda that sits atop Singuttara Hill, dazzling gold-plated in the sunlight and visible from miles around, and crowned with an ‘umbrella’ studded with 8000 diamonds and rubies.    It is the center of Myanmar religious culture, representing 2500 years of architecture, sculpture, and arts.

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A huge marble complex surrounding the Pagoda contains hundreds of  stupas, statues, and temples for worship and meditation.   The days of the week have planetary posts, each with a different representative image, and devotees offer flowers and prayer flags and pour water on the images with a prayer and a wish. It’s very important to know the day of the week of one’s birth, as it determines one’s nature and place in the world.  At Saturday’s post, I had to pour way too many cups of water over the image for every year since I was born.

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One temple was filled with young nuns, some praying and others being just like any other girls, chatting and laughing.  At another site in our tour of Buddhist sites, we visited Chauk That Gyi Pagoda to see the 213 foot (65 meter) reclining Buddha.

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Yangon deserved more time to explore its richness, but the next morning we boarded a prop jet to take us to Inle Lake in central Myanmar.

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