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Adventure — lifestyle

Havana: A City Of Sleeping Dogs

Top 7  tips

  1. Taxis (not including the classic American cars) are cheap and a great way to get info from the local drivers.
  2. The classic American cars are expensive but worth using once. I recommend the City tour.
  3. Havana is NOT cheap. Similar prices for eating out to Vancouver / Dublin.
  4. Havana is SAFE. There are severe consequences for crime against tourists.
  5. Renting a car should be organised with as much notice as possible. We tried renting two days before our planned journey and there was nothing available in the entire City.
  6. It makes things a LOT easier if you speak Spanish.
  7. Cash is essential – credit cards are generally not accepted.

Sunday

We booked our accommodation through Air Bnb which organized airport pick up for 35 CUC ($46 CAD / 31EUR). This was more expensive than what we paid on our return trip to the airport ($20 CUC) so when you consider that the CUC is more or less on a par with the American Dollar, that’s a big difference. (1CUC = $1.32CAD = 0.88EUR)

Cuba has two currencies, The CUP and the CUC. The CUC is specifically for tourists, so always be aware what you are parting with – at one point we had a disagreement with a waitress as she told us we paid with the local currency rather than the tourist currency. I assume she was correct and that we made a mistake but be aware of the difference and what you are using.

We were met at the airport by Mr. Omar, the owner of the apartment we were staying at. We had been advised to take out cash and change our money at the airport. There is nothing wrong with this plan but we had no problem taking out money from an ATM or changing cash in Havana.

We emerged from the airport in to the hot night air and changed our cash. Mr. Omar spoke no English like many people here so it is useful if you speak Spanish. He brought us to a sleeping driver in an ancient brown Lada and we headed to our Air BnB in Old Havana which took about forty minutes as Mr. Omar and the mysterious driver explained some of the landmarks.

Almost all of the buildings in Havana are old. They are stunning. Ancient and powerful. They bear the scars of time but stand proud, however some are in disrepair. It is encouraging to see restoration work underway on many of the buildings.

Typical Havana street scene

I always make a point to take pictures of impressive doors – there are so many in Havana

The other thing that struck me on the way from the airport was the cars. The regular cars are less loved but the old American classics seem to be the pride of the nation. They are in immaculate condition and most of them shine like they are new.

These old American cars cost between $50,000 $80,000 USD. This is an absolute fortune to locals

On arriving at our Air BnB, we were brought up a dimly lit stairway, through a hallway with cracks in the walls and exposed electrical cables and into our apartment which was clean and nicely furnished. The fridge was stacked with bottled water, beer and rum all for a reasonable price. Our bedroom was refreshingly cool with the air con. This turned out to be such a nice getaway in the heat of the middle of the day.

Monday

We arrived in the dark so, on waking it was nice to pull open the old style shutter doors onto our balcony which overlooks the cobbled stones / pavers of O’Rielly St. The view across the road presented two old, beautiful buildings.

As we walked through the streets we could see that construction and restoration work is rife everywhere. The buildings truly are a treasure here. I hope that tourism and western influence never cheapens the value of this City. At night time, the streets are alive with people and music, though it is difficult to find anything other than the traditional Cuban music which becomes repetitive after some time.

Locals are friendly in Havana, sometimes they have an ulterior motive like asking for cash or trying to sell something and sometimes they don’t. They one great thing about the Cuban people is that they can take no for an answer. If you do not want a taxi, do not want to eat in their restaurant or do not want to buy anything, they are happy to take no for an answer and will thank you. It can be easy in some countries to get frustrated with the constant hassle from vendors but here, be polite and you will receive politeness in return.

Evening came and we went to see the Buena Vista Social Club on the recommendation of a local man we met. I don’t remember the price (it was around $100 CAD / person). I remember it was not cheap but it was good food and great entertainers for a fixed price.

Tuesday

We decided to take a tour in a classic car. 50CUC ($66 CAD) for one hour. The driver was full of information and even though it was expensive, I would highly recommend it. I tried to haggle on the price, but that didn’t get me anywhere as there are so many tourists here to keep them in business.

I did NOT drive as the pic suggests

As the title suggests, Havana is a City of sleeping dogs – there are sleeping dogs EVERYWHERE so I we thought it would be a good idea to make a compilation

…..And…..some cats….

And more dogs……

It was refreshing to meet Benny, another Irish man who happened to be photographing the dogs also. He told us about the plaque on O’Reilly Street which written in Irish, English and Spanish about two island nations united in struggle. The name O’Reilly, comes from Alejandro O’Reilly, a mercenary who fought for the Spanish and led the Spaniards back into Havana after taking it back from a brief British occupation.

“Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope – Cuba and Ireland”

The locals always want to know where you are from and seem interested in Ireland. Almost all of them ask if you are from the North or the South, suggesting that they have an interest or knowledge in Irish politics, though I did not bring the conversation further. I did, however, find it interesting when I mentioned Che Guevara’s strong Irish roots, they were unaware. Maybe they want to keep their Argentinian / Irish hero all to themselves.

In the evening we walked the Malecon and came to a Fort. 2CUC to enter and it seemed like it would stay open all through the night. A peaceful area to get away from the hustle and bustle of Havana. The architecture of the Fort reminded me of the fort we visited in Kinsale on our honeymoon.

Wednesday

There are no yoga studios close to Old Havana, so it was self-practice for this part of the trip. It felt like a hot yoga session, even when I practiced in the morning. I sweated like Christy Moore pounding on a Bodhran.

Being a writer (aspiring) I wanted to visit Ernest Hemingway’s home. He lived here for around twenty years. The only Hemingway book I have read (so far) is The Old Man and The Sea, which is set in Cuba. I recommend it. It is an easy read.

Ernest Hemingway

We had thought about booking the Hemingway experience online on Air BnB. It sounded cool but cost more than $100CAD each so we decided to take a Taxi. The classic cars wanted to charge 80CUC each way which is outrageous, but we flagged another taxi, a tiny, 1988 Fiat Punto, driven by Alexis (one of the most talkative taxi drivers I have ever met).

Alexis offered to take us there for 20CUC ($26 CAD / 18EUR) or to take us there, hang around for an hour or more and take us back for 35CUC ($46 CAD / 31EUR). This was perfect, so we went with that. We also ended up booking him to take us back to the airport for 20CUC rather than the 35CUC we paid first time round, so it pays to make a few contacts and have a chat with the taxi drivers.

His car was less than luxurious and had no seat belts, so if you are ok with that you are onto a winner. He was extremely friendly. My Spanish is at a level where I only understood about 60% of what he said but that did not stop him. He told us that the classic cars can cost around 50,000 CUC. He has a passion for them and every classic car that past he would tell me the year and the make. Some dated back to the 1930s.

The drive took us about 45-50 minutes through another Municipality, into the Town on San Fransisco.

It seems Hemingway had a lavish life here. The house is beautiful and is more or less as he left it. He donated it to the people of Cuba. You cannot go inside, but everything is visible from the windows and you can walk the gardens. The restaurant next door is only ok and doesn’t have great vegetarian options, just like the restaurants in general (there is only so much vegetarian pizza you can eat).

The interior of Hemingway’s home

Part of the garden area at Hemingway’s home

In the evening time we took a ferry (2 CUC) across to Casa Blanca and walked up the hill to the statue of Jesus which is a great viewpoint for the City. There are also two forts on this side of the water to visit. Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabaña and Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro.

We only made it to Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabaña as it was late. It is huge, like a town inside. I can only imagine the bustle of activity among the Spanish soldiers stationed there when it was in use. There are many people selling tourist nick knacks but no pressure to buy. There is also a restaurant inside.

This side of the water is a completely different place to Havana. It is so much quieter, and it doesn’t feel like you are in a big City at all. I recommend visiting if you want a bit of peace and quiet.

It didn’t surprise me that there was a problem with the ferry for the return trip (I am told public transport is unreliable) – the lights were out so it wasn’t travelling. Situations like these are great examples of why you want to have some Spanish. We walked back up the hill a bit, just in time to grab the number 66 bus back to the City (0.5 CUC). A little slower than the boat at about forty minutes.

We listened to some music in La Plaza de Catedral when we got back as we watched some partiers dance in the square while they drank from a bottle of rum.

Thursday

We booked a day out on Air BnB and Jackson, our guide for the day, or Jocsan as he is correctly named, arrived to pick us up and we boarded a mini bus with the driver and his wife and mother in law tagging along for the ride with two other tourists from New York.

We had a 2.5-3 hour drive to Pinar Del Rio with a stop half way.

Our destination was on the outskirts of a small, quiet town with lots of rooms to rent to tourists. It would be a nice place to spend some more time. We got out of the minibus to have some rum and freshly squeezed sugar cane before a short tour through some big caves which ended in a boat ride through an underground river.

The next stop was the tobacco farm where Tomas (one of the workers) talked us through the process and showed us how to roll cigars. There was plenty of rum and cigars on offer to drink and smoke when we were there and also to buy. I bought 10 Cigars for 10 CUC ($13 CAD / 9 EUR). We also sat down for a drink with the owner of the farm, Benito Camejo Nodarse.

Benito Camejo Nodarse

The farm has been in this man’s family for five generations, he is the type of person I could sit down and have a pint with.

Again, there was no pressure to buy anything here and this was made clear by our tour guide before we arrived.

Tomas explained the manufacture process and demonstrated rolling a cigar which we smoked

Tobacco leaves

The tobacco drying shed

After the tobacco farm we mounted some horses (with no instruction whatsoever, though I am sure the horses know exactly where they are going and what they are doing) and headed into the fields for an hour or so where we eventually came to a farm to have more rum and a chat with the owners. They really do live the back2basics life with no electricity, the simple life on the farm. For me this is true freedom.

Our grim horse guide

We drank fresh squeezed sugar cane with…….more rum

Animal power seems to be favored over tractors in the country side

After lunch (with an amazing view) we headed back to Havana under a blood red moon as we listened to Michael Jackson play on the radio.

If you want to save some money, all of the above could quite easily be accessed without a tour guide or through a tour company if you rented your own car or even rented a driver or shared taxi. Apparently, this can be much cheaper than renting cars.

Friday

Time to get out of Dodge, Alexis, the same taxi driver who brought us to the Hemingway house picked us up bang on time (20 CUC to the airport) and that was the end of Havana. For me, five nights was more than enough. I think the City could be experienced in less, unless you intend to use it as a base for different day trips. If we are to visit Cuba again we will travel the country and make it less of a city visit.

Havana is truly a classical city, magical in a way with the old cars and buildings standing the test of time. Buildings built as they should be, to last hundreds of years, rather than what we see being erected today in Canada and cars from the 30s 40s and 50s still going strong. The buildings and cars are a testament to the people of Havana who have a though life. On first impressions it seems like they have it good until you dig a bit deeper and hear how difficult it is to make money, how infrequently they have electricity and how difficult it is to leave the country for something more. I sensed sadness in the voices of people when I innocently (foolishly in hindsight) asked if they had traveled to different countries.

Regardless, it is changing. You can see that, even from my perspective from a short visit and it will continue to change. I can only hope that the change will be for the better of the people and that they can keep the strong character which defines the city.

Peace,

George

 

P.S. Keep an eye out for my You Tube video when I return.

Toronto – A City Of Brick

I want to change up my style of blogging a little over the next couple of posts to give you the highlights of our month off to travel. First stop Toronto.

I have a fear of flying. Well not really. I used to, but what I do have a fear of, is being stuck in a small cylinder, cruising along at about 750kph at a height of 37,000 feet with three hundred or so other people.

I learned a long time ago that I can only deal with this for about three hours. The solution? Pop a sleeping pill. And I mean a proper prescription pill from the doctor, not some herbal remedy or melatonin. A good strong pill that will knock me the hell out. The result? A blissful flight where I’m out cold before we even take off and don’t wake for hours.

After landing, we took a train from Pearson Airport to Central Station (it’s quick and easy). From here we took a taxi to Liberty Village where we were staying with our friend Donna.

After breakfast, in an effort to practice Yoga as much as possible, we hit Pure Yoga. The studio has a cool vibe and offers (tough) hot yoga classes. I don’t usually practice hot yoga but enjoyed this for a change. I recommend this studio if you are staying in the Liberty village area.

Once we got ourselves in order we headed to the Art Gallery of Ontario which was showing an exhibition called Anthropocene. It is a photographic display of the permanent effects that humans are having on the planet. Future man made fossils or remnants which may outlive us as a race. The most stunning visual for me was the video of burning elephant tusks which had been collected over the years from poachers.

As darkness fell (across the land) we hit Casa Loma, an early twentieth century castle which done its best to scare the living hell out of us with a haunted house display. It is one of those haunted houses where you’re not entirely sure if its an actor or a dummy you are looking at until they come to life and give you a mild aneurism.

I highly recommended it if you are ever in Toronto around Halloween. It was a long line up but it moved quick. The journey through the castle took us about an hour and a half and brought us through an underground tunnel, across the street to finish in a separate building. The bar at the midway point was a welcome stop off also.

An ancient Jamaican taxi driver named Gordon Neville took us home as jazz music played in his cab and he recommended that I cuddle my “wo-man” when I got back. Or was his name Neville Gordon? Who knows. I love the random conversations like this with people who you will likely never see again.

The next day, Saturday brought us to yoga again, followed by a walk around the Kensington market area. It has great character and  diversity, I hope it will not be replaced by the poor-quality development that we see so much of in Vancouver.

 

 

The Burdock Lounge hosted Danial Champagne that night. He is a refreshingly humble Australian singer songwriter who is absolutely fantastic on the guitar.

Sunday, our last day in Toronto brought us through the Brickworks area a beautiful, quiet getaway in the Don Valley, clear from the hustle and bustle of the city but close enough to see the CN Tower on the skyline. Apparently, the history of Toronto can be told through the brown and red brick which presents itself to you everywhere throughout the City.

After this we explored the characteristic brick buildings and cobbled roads of the Distillery District where we had lunch in El Catrin. It was strange to wake up and walk to yoga at zero degrees knowing that it would be approximately thirty degrees at our next destination.

This was my third time to visit Toronto. It is too urban and vast for a country boy like me to live in but I don’t think I will ever tire of visiting here. Toronto’s defining feature, for me, is the character of the City, which shines strongly through the people, streets and buildings, brought together by the characteristic autumn shades of the yellow, red and brown brickwork found at every corner everywhere.

Hiking Trip: The West Lion, Vancouver

Hiking the West Lion, if I’m to be honest was a tale of hardship and ego. A beautiful hike nonetheless.

For those of you who are not familiar with the hiking offered in and around Vancouver, the West Lion is one of two peaks called The Lions, made up of, as you can maybe guess The West Lion and The East Lion.

I had been up here twice before but had never made it to the summit for different reasons. The East Lion is out of bounds as it is in a watershed and the West Lion is for experienced hikers / climbers only but the views are amazing from the plateau before the summit. I have let my ego get in the way before and gotten into dangerous situations while hiking so we were not going to attempt the summit unless it was safe.

We packed around 5 litres of water (between  two of us), sunscreen, a small first aid kit, bear spray and snacks. The first aid kit and bear spray may seem like overkill but they’re small, don’t take up space and could save your life. Just make sure you know how to use the bear spray and everything in your first aid kit and make sure your bear spray hasn’t expired.

 

It is a 15km round trip with 1,280m of elevation gain. If I ever do it again I would split it over 2 days as there are nice places to pitch a tent or just lie down with your sleeping bag.

We set out around 10 in the morning from the parking lot. Click here for the Google Maps location. We had to park further back at the elementary school as the parking lot was full. It is a pay parking lot, so bear that in mind.

We set out up a logging road, the trail is clearly marked all the way and it’s difficult to get lost, but I recommend using a GPS map on your phone like Topo Maps. It’s free and you can download the areas you need before you head out so you don’t have to rely on cell signal. Put your phone into flight mode and you should get most of the day out of it. I brought a battery charger just in case. Better still, know how to read a map and use a compass – people die every year in the local mountains and it is avoidable.

The trail generally gets steep after an hour or so and doesn’t really let up.

In the photo below you can see our destination, the flat, rocky outcrop to the right and the West Lion just left of that.

 

As you can see, once we got above the tree line, the views were spectacular, but that also meant that the sun was relentless.

We pressed on through the heat, making sure to take water breaks every fifteen minutes as it was approximately 31°C. We ate enough snacks along the way to keep the energy up.

 

Just before the approach to the plateau, close to the junction for the West Lion and Unnecessary Mountain (no point goin up there), after gaining around 1,200m in total the sun was taking its toll. My ego wouldn’t let me give up and I insisted that we press on. I wasn’t turning back but lucky enough after my next break I saw sense and we decided it was time to turn around.

Maybe we would have made it to the plateau, but I have found myself dehydrated, vomiting at the top of mountains before, with an unpleasant 6 hour hike down. We were taking no risks. It will be there next summer.

The journey down was long and slow and the flies were relentless all the way up and down. It was difficult to enjoy any rest. I remember at one stage, sitting on a rock with the sun beating down on me, covered in sweat and surrounded by flies. I didn’t even bother to beat them off as it was a waste of energy.

The fact that we managed to get through all of our water is a testament to the heat – Luckily there were numerous water sources available which were safe to drink.

It was not all bad, the views are absolutely amazing but be prepared for a long and challenging hike with lots of scrambling. Also, if you decide to do it in the height of summer, get up there early in the morning and beat the hot afternoon weather, or split the trip up into two days. I would imagine the views of the stars are amazing at night time. It is definitely on my list to spend the night up here.

Happy Hiking / Camping,

George

You Can. I Can. We Can. Learn to cook.

I don’t cook.

I can’t cook.

I never cooked.

Don’t, cant, never. Look at those words. Look at the negativity.

Recently I changed my outlook towards cooking.

I do cook.

I can cook.

I cook breakfast every week.



My friend Jerry Trimble tells me, never to use that word (can’t). Your brain hears it and your brain accepts it. Lets take it out of our vocabulary.

We CAN and WILL do anything we want to do.

Cooking is a small example but the principle applies to anything whether it be climbing Everest or cooking a pizza. We CAN do it and we WILL do it if we want to.

Opinions of people we trust are important but be careful with other people’s opinions. Some are not useful. Constructive feedback is important. Negative opinions are useless.

You CAN do whatever you want. Get advise, but be wary of the naysayers. Maybe even cut them out of your life. That’s seems extreme but there have been people in my life that I cut off because they were negative influences. Sometimes its ok to be selfish.

Go out and do what you want to do. Achieve what you want to achieve because you can and do not listen to the naysayers.

The person who says it is impossible should not interrupt the person doing it.

Anyway, back to the cooking, I used to have resistance then one day I decided I would cook breakfast once a month. This quickly became a weekly thing.

I started easy with scrambled eggs on toast from Gordon Ramsay’s YouTube channel and I blew myself away. I couldn’t believe it. Yes it was a simple recipe but so what. I put my all into it and did it again and again until I perfected it. Then I moved onto pancakes and then avocado toast. Gordon again. The pancakes are excellent but the avocado toast is probably the best avocado toast I have ever had. I am not writing here to brag, I simply followed the steps and used the ingredients, but I am here to show you that a man who never cooked regularly for about 35 years can whip up the most excellent food by just finding the right tools and instructions.



The same applies to anything. So go out and do it. What ever it is you want. Climb a mountain, travel the world, write a book, start a podcast, learn to memorize a deck of cards in random order. Whatever floats your boat, put the pieces in place and get out there and do it.

Say goodbye to the negative opinions and embrace the positivity. Most of all, have fun and do what you love.

Peace

George

Camping: The Simple Life or Is It?

Camping is a time to reconnect with nature, break away from the everyday routine, and disconnect from the world even only for the weekend. You bring what you absolutely need, and you survive on just the essentials. Shelter, food, warmth, fresh air, nature and sleep. After a camping trip you feel rested, refreshed and super excited for the next trip. Right? For me the above is everything I love about camping, the freedom from disarming yourself of all your possessions and accepting the fact you will not shower for 2 days, your hair will be a mess and you don’t have an idea how bad you look because there are no mirrors! Win win😉

Our favorite type of camping is backing our backpacks and heading off into the mountains to camp overnight in a peaceful campsite by a river, on a summit or under the trees. We have experienced some epic climbs and hiking trips and they never get old. We can get addicted to the feeling of climbing and camping very fast.

This weekend however we went car camping, we pulled into a camp site in Moncks Provincial Park and pitched our tent. We were there to celebrate our friend’s Birthday. It was a beautiful place, the sun was shining, birds singing, and it was such a lovely feeling to be outside all the time. We prepped all our meals in the open, read, ate, socialized, napped and sipped our drinks out in the open. The convenience of just pulling the car into your campsite after a tough week was nice too.

However, immediately the contrast between our campsite and our surrounding neighbor’s campsites was very apparent. As George was chasing after our little 2-man tent which blew away down the hill as he was reaching for the tent pins, I noticed how many massive RV’s there were in the campground. I swear they were larger than our apartment, our permanent residence! Lol! Outside these RV’s were rugs, lounge chairs, canopies for shade, fairy lights, decorations, and the best of all plants! I mean why do you need to bring plants when you are camping in a forest?! The time it takes to unpack and pack up these sites must be enormous.

Everyone has their own definition of camping, but I think most of us would agree that it is a time where we get to enjoy the outdoors and we leave behind the kitchen sink, not bring it with us. I feel we don’t need to take our household plants along for the ride either.

Maybe I am wrong (I am wrong a lot! Lol) but all these extra things that we bring with us are holding us back. It steals our time and our focus. We are spending too much time setting up the perfect camp, with the perfect lighting, the perfect furniture and the perfect grill and not enough time noticing where you are. You are missing the changing color of the sunlight on the trees, the movement of the clouds over the lake, the sound of the osprey overhead and the warmth of the campfire in front of you. Your precious time to become still and relax is stolen by material things that don’t belong in the forest in the first place.

Its just a thought and an observation I noticed this weekend. I am not perfect when it comes to leaving behind unnecessary material things when camping but when I start bringing my plants along with me I know I have gone too far!

Let me know your thoughts on what camping is for you.

Always a pleasure,

Chat soon.

Theresa x