Cuba Journal Post #4

These are excerpts from the journal I kept while traveling in Cuba

April 18, 2017 – Viñales

Before taking a big walk in the valley, we went to the Cadeca early to change the last bit of our money. When we arrived there was already a line, and after a few minutes it opened but we were told they didn’t have CUC yet… there was much confusion, but we sat tight in line and ten minutes later we were ready to go. Sheena went to the Cubanacan (government tourist agency) office while I waited and go bus tickets for the next day to Havana. There is a feeling here that we should support enterprising Cubans and not government companies like Cubanacan. It’s difficult to know the affect. Money changes so many hands in the collective taxi market and I never know who benefits most.

This theme came up again later on the tour when we visited a coffee plantation and a tobacco farmer. The government took 30% and 90%, respectively, of the product to sell abroad and allowed the remainder to be sold locally by the farmers. The farmers lives have improved since they have been allowed to sell their own product, we were told. It’s not hard to see why because the coffee and cigars were expensive! $3 CUC each for the 10% of product the tobacco farmers could sell. But of course this is quite cheap when compared to stores and totally natural (no chemicals). If I wanted cigars I would buy them here. It seems to make sense to support the farmers in this case, even though profits from government sales go to social benefits like schools and daycare… both seem good. Who benefits from Cubanacan profits? Probably the Cuban people, through social benefits. And we prefer the bus over collectivo taxis!

The hike was a good one, with a great local guide named Changa (an apodo). He knew everyone and was very chatty. We asked a lot of questions and got some great Spanish practice! The valley is beautiful and it’s obvious why this place is so popular. The amount of people out in groups on horses was incredible. The horses looked pretty skinny and we asked Changa about this. He said there wasn’t much to eat for horses during the dry season, but not to worry because the rainy season was just starting!


We walked for hours in the hot sun, taking breaks at the fincas, happy for the shade. A worker at the coffee farm has a dad in Portland, OR and he was excited to talk to people from the region. Everyone is excited to talk to us. We speak Spanish and the USA is very interesting to Cubans. Many of them would like to visit. We have asked several people about the changing relationship with the USA and they say they are happy it is happening. The Danish girl asked yesterday during the taxi ride about if there was any hostility toward us. The answer is a huge no. It has been so warm and full of curiosity. Someone told us “La gente es gente, politicos son otra cosa.” Cubans are also proud of the things they do well. They know it is safe here, that social services are great. They want more freedom and money, but they like (or seem to like) Cuba. It is always a good conversation to have. Yet, we learned that the coffee worker’s father went to the USA illegally. It’s like there is this specter overhead of the desire to go so badly. Hope for change is high.

We have seen a lot of animal life in this area. It reminds us of the Colca Canyon or something. Chickens everywhere. Pigs and piglets. Cows, horses, oxen (to plow fields!). A large rodent called a jutia. The plants are great too, with the majestic ceiba tree a favorite.


The rainy season seems to have officially started. We don’t like it, but all the locals are happy. It was a long, dry winter. Rain is always good for farmers. It’s funny to hear the locals all mention the rain in passing. Changa said something to half the people he talked with on the trail. It makes things interesting and reminds us of Colombia. Cuba in general reminds us of Colombia. The people, the music, the landscape (in places). The food, sometimes.

We had a nice time last night chatting with a local “tres” guitar player in the plaza before dinner. We made plans to meet up later, but we made them loose enough and maybe he bailed in the end because we never saw him. I had steel guitar strings in my pocket (given to me by another tourist, meant to be a gift) so it was really too bad! We watched a live band and a bunch of locals and tourists dance salsa for about an hour.

April 19 – Travel to Havana

A tough travel day today. Are there any easy ones in Cuba? We took the Cubanacan bus, leaving in the afternoon, so we had a half day to kill. This seems difficult in the hot and humid climate. Not the first time we have done this, but should be the last… it’s better to take an early ride and get somewhere quickly, with lodging already prepared. Instead we’re booted out of the room and have to putter about town for a number of hours. That wasn’t awful today. We took a cab up to a lookout and then walked back to town. We had a nice lunch and then picked up our bags and waited for the bus.

Of course we were too early and it was hot and the bus was late… Then a young girl puked on the bus 30 minutes into the ride and the bus smelled awful the rest of the journey. That almost did Sheena in as well. Since it was a bus run by a tourist agency, it made stops at all the big hotels, slowing things down and taking about 4.5 hours in the end. We wished we had chosen a taxi for the journey and avoided all the hassle. 

April 20

Today we took a cab to Vedado to photograph some buildings. When we got into the taxi the driver berated us. When searching for a taxi we had been approached by a Cuban who asked if we needed one. We said yes, but that we needed a car. We told him the address and he said there was no way he could take us because he only had a bici taxi… but then he continued to be very helpful and run everywhere trying to get us a taxi. We didn’t realize, but he would demand a tip from the driver. The driver was pissed about that and yelled at us for about 2 minutes! He turned out to be a very friendly and jovial guy who knew all the policemen he passed. We learned a lot from this guy. He said he had to be friends with certain cops so that he could name drop them if a policeman every tried to get a tip off of him.


While in Vedado we stopped at the famous ice cream shop, Copellia. We were immediately confronted by a security guard and asked what currency we had. We thought it might be more correct for us to say and pay in CUC, so that’s what we did. Unfortunately, we were then directed to a small little room with weak A/C where we had to order. There were only 5 other people in that area, even though the place was bustling with Cubans. We felt tricked and disappointed, especially because the ice cream was served in bowls and we had to sit there and eat it. We were put in a little tourist box.

Later on we stopped by Rodney and Laura’s house. Only Laura was around but we had so much fun catching up with her and telling stories from the trip. She got excited about the architect of the building we went to go check out (Antonio Quintana). She also told us about some of the shortages the country goes through. Right now it’s hard to find toilet paper and there’s no cheese. She told us a funny saying that people say because of the toilet paper shortages, when Cubans have to use newspaper instead: “Even the assholes here are educated!”

April 21

We have lucked out and get to stay in the apartment until leaving for the airport, as there are no other guests tonight. Marley came early and cooked us another great breakfast. She is cheerful, chatty and eager to please her guests. It’s really a wonderful stay at the end of our trip. We had cheese with breakfast today, but it was bland. Marley apologized, saying it was all she could find! I hope she didn’t go through too much trouble to get it for us…

We are ready to be going home. It has been a good trip, but exhausting. The climate especially, but also the mosquitoes and transportation has been difficult. But the trip has also been a success in many ways. Our Spanish was extremely useful and we had many wonderful interactions with Cubans.  They are certainly very open and friendly and up there with Colombians. It is also nice to be taken care of while traveling, which often doesn’t happen in Latin America. We learned a lot about this country; a place where there is always something interesting to learn.




Cuba Journal Post #3

These are excerpts from the journal I kept while traveling in Cuba

April 13, 2017 – Travel to Cienfuegos

Today is a waiting day – the worst kind of travel day. We wait around until 4:30pm for the Viazul bus to Cienfuegos. It is kind of a wasted day and is fairly awful. We feel like we are bothering the casa owner, as we come in every few hours to use the bathroom. We don’t really have a place to be. We go to the plaza with all of our stuff to be out of the way. We eat a pretty terrible lunch in a local place nearby. We go to the bus station early and sit around waiting for our bus to arrive. We don’t have tickets and are repeatedly told this isn’t a problem, that there are always seats and we just pay on board. Finally the bus does arrive and there are seats and we pay on board.

We arrive in Cienfuegos after the Viazul office closes, so we won’t be able to buy tickets for the next day. We walk to our casa, which is run by the eccentric Wenceslao. He is Polish or some combination of eastern European, but also Cuban. He seems to have traveled everywhere and speaks many languages. This is so uncommon for a Cuban. We ask more and learn that he has dual Spanish citizenship. He worked in hospitality. We have a great dinner in his casa, but are a little put out by his eccentricities. Still, he is nice and the place is nice and there aren’t many mosquitoes. Not a great day all around. We walk around a little before going to bed. I’m struck by the wide sidewalks and the pedestrian streets leading to the main plaza. It seems like a better place for pedestrians than most cities in Cuba. We leave so early we have no time to explore further.

April 14 – Travel to Playa Larga

We went to the bus station in the morning in Cienfuegos to try and get on the 8 am bus to Playa Larga. It was coming from Trinidad though, so that meant it was completely booked up. Once we found out there was no room, we negotiated a taxi colectivo with a German couple that was also trying to get on the bus. We got a pretty good price, $50 CUC for everyone. They didn’t speak any Spanish, so they were very glad to have the help. We hung out with them some more on the beach in the afternoon in Playa Larga and they were very nice. They were getting married soon and were planning their honeymoon in the USA. We gave our info and told them to look us up if they come to Seattle. Funny how you are forced to hang out with people and then you end up liking them and being glad for it. This happened with the Dutch couple and the Spanish couple, and now these guys.


Playa Larga is much more relaxed than other places. The roads are mostly dirt, and there are few buildings over one story. At the moment, there are some Cubans on the corner playing guitar, which is nice. 

April 15 – Snorkeling in the Bay of Pigs

An excursion to the beaches for snorkeling today. We (the tourists in town) piled into an old French school bus and took a rickety ride through town. The snorkel gear was very patchwork with Sheena’s flippers repaired with bits of tire sewn to mend tears. But is all worked great! Very representative of many things in this country. The snorkeling was also great! Lots of coral islands filled with fish. Went to tow different sites and had a fantastic morning.

On the way home stopped for lunch in town. We had castilla de cerdo, and Sheena’s half comically slipped off her plate and onto the floor! There was no hiding what had happened and they brought us a little more… it was super funny and embarrassing. The waiter said that it could happen to anyone! We hate to waste food here, as it feels like it’s so hard to come by.

Interrupted by a huge rain storm just now! Very heave and lasting 10 minutes maybe. Being back in the tropics, and in small towns, reminds us of Concepcion, Bolivia.

April 16 – Cienega Zapata National Park

Well, Marilyn and her husband, who love to take care of us here, really made us nervous this morning, heading to the national park. We came out of our room in shorts and crappy shoes and they thought we would die quickly from mosquitoes on the trail! We hurried off with an extra long shirt and thought bad thoughts about our decision to enter the park… but Sheena’s “yes” decision making came out ahead yet again. We had a great time and it was a successful outing.

We arrived about 8 am at the national park office, as directed the previous day, and waited a little while to see if anyone else would show up to share a taxi colectivo with us to the park entrance. Unfortunately, everyone else who showed up already had a vehicle, so we climbed into a wreck of a 1955 Cadillac and rattled up the road. It was a short journey thank goodness. We had dust and water coming through the holes in the floor, and I couldn’t sit all the way back in the seat, as I would hit my head on the ceiling. The seat was a makeshift thing, bolted into the metal floor and was only 6 inches deep. Truly, this was the worst car we had been in so far.


The walk around the savanna was extremely interesting. The guide was knowledgeable, and excited. He really liked this tiny bird (a tody) and kept using a recording to try and attract one for us to see. We also saw owls, hawks, and lots of “rare and local” species like some kind of woodpecker and the pygmy owl and a dove of some kind. The national bird of Cuba, the tocororo, was the most beautiful, with a great looking tail feather.

The afternoon was spent on the dirty little beach a few steps from our lodging. There was a great rainstorm again tonight. I watched it over the patio, looking across the road and into the open door of the neighbor’s house. Their TV is turned on to baseball. There are fluorescent lights on the porch and the light of the TV from the open door. The rain is just pouring down. It feels strangely familiar, like some kind of classic Latin American scene.

Earlier tonight we went for a walk and were on the main road when our host’s son called out from the balcony of a new house. He invited us up and explained that the new house would have 8 rooms for guests and that they were selling the existing house. We were led to each of the rooms to inspect. He was very proud of the new construction and said it would be open this time next year. It was surely a bigger house, and would probably be better, but a little further from the beach than the existing house. An interesting symbol of hopes for the future here.

April 17 – Travel to Viñales

We had a long way to go to get to Viñales from Playa Larga. Our old Ford car arrived around 9:30 am with a nice Dutch couple. We had a good time getting to know them and Sheena chatting away with the driver up front. When we arrived at Havana chaos broke out. The new driver (we switched cars on the side of the highway) didn’t know that the Dutch couple was going to Las Terrazas. We went through that uniquely Cuban confusion of drivers calling other drivers and trying to figure out what the hell is going on . Finally it was confirmed that they had paid for Las Terrazas but the driver wouldn’t go (it was 30 km extra on bad roads). He would drop them on the side of the highway with $5 CUC each for the remainder of the ride. The Dutch couple didn’t speak a word of Spanish and their English was (surprisingly) not great. We had to act as translators for all of this, and they were understandably very nervous. We assured them that the driver would drop them off at the “entrance” to Las Terrazas, and that all cars passing them, turning off the national highway, would be going that way. Hopefully the $10 CUC was enough of an enticement!

We transferred all the baggage to a big van and piled in with 5 couples total. There was the Dutch couple, us, two British couples (one old and one young) and a Danish couple. Sheena and I were the only ones who spoke any Spanish. At this point it was 170 km to Viñales from Havana. For some reason Sheena thought it was only one more hour, so she was pretty surprised. The van did not have air conditioning and wasn’t all that comfortable, so we missed the small Ford immediately. The other couples had transferred from a different car, but they hadn’t even been together the whole journey. It seems that one of the couple’s was on their third car. I can’t imagine this if I didn’t speak the language!

The Dutch couple were dropped off and we wished them luck! We didn’t get their contact information, so we’ll never know how that rest of the trip went. There was a little shelter beside the road, so at least they could wait in the shade. When we arrived in Viñales more hilarity ensued. The driver asks for the address of everyone’s lodging and all the cards are passed up front. It turns out that the elderly British couple are booked into a casa in Puerto Esperanza, which might be in Viñales province… They were totally confused and to make matters worse, Sheena and I were the first to be dropped off, so we just grabbed our bags and left them without an interpreter! Ha, that would have been a fourth taxi ride for them on the day… tough day.

Our casa was very nearby and we met Estela and were quite happy with the big room that appeared to have very few mosquitoes. A big rainstorm (first of the season in Viñales, we’re told) shut us in the room for 1.5 hours, but we were so tired from the journey it didn’t matter much.

In the evening we walked through town to explore and stopped at the Cadeca (money exchange), which was closed. We chatted with the security guard for a minute and he was surprised to learn that we could not use our bank cards at ATMs in Cuba. He didn’t think that was true (something we weren’t willing to test), and said “everyone thinks there’s conflict between the USA and Cuba, but the only conflict is the language.”

Cuba Journal Post #2

These are excerpts from the journal I kept while traveling in Cuba.

April 9, 2017 – Trinidad

So far, our taxi drivers are all young guys with newer cars and they all drive them much too fast. We speed down the highway, passing horse-drawn buggies and bicycles. There is loud music and funny decorative features on the cars, like LCD screens where rear-view mirrors should be, or Apple logos cut out of window tinting. The beach outside Trinidad (Playa Ancon) is very nice but there is a lack of services out here. We go swimming in the ocean every time we need to pee. There isn’t much food and we almost leave early, but finally some young guys selling “pizza” pass by. The dough is nice, but then it’s just bits of cheese and some red sauce on top. Still, we are so hungry we pay for a few pizzas and stay longer.


April 10

We wake up early and go search for a car to take us to El Cubano nature reserve, where we will hike to a waterfall and swim. We look for an older driver with a slower car! We find one and it’s generally great, though much more smelly than the newer ones. The driver is nice and drives very slow, mostly to protect the condition of the car on the dirt road. It is a 1957 Hillman, and we learn that the driver owns it. He guesses that the young drivers we had previously did not own their own cars, which might be why they didn’t seem to take care of them very well. We ask about gas prices and learn that it is not so cheap and is a major expenditure for drivers.

In the afternoon we go visit William and Noemi in their house. They are very friendly and nice people. They probably did not expect us to take them up on the offer to come over! We enjoy spending time in the houses with the owners. We did this a lot in Havana as well, and it’s nice to hangout and chat and learn and practice Spanish. Many of the tourists have a shorter trip and are always out doing activities and hardly get to know the owners. Or they don’t speak much of the language… Noemi is cleaning mostly, but she pops into the conversation every once in awhile. William brings us some more Cuba Libres, though thankfully less strong this time! We play ukulele for them and they are super impressed and really happy to have the music. We are shy about it and say that we aren’t very good, which is true, but we do know a few songs now, and Sheena’s singing is always impressive. We like to play for them. It feels like something small to give back in the house.


We walk around the Plaza in the evening and finally find out where all the tourists go at night! Our house is at the lower edge of town and it’s a trek to make it up here, but this is where all the music venues are. They don’t really get going until later and so we don’t actually stay around to see how good they are. The only night we stayed out late was when waiting to eat in one of the popular restaurants. We kept being told that we were next, and then suddenly we were being sat with another couple and it was 10:30pm. Luckily that couple turned out to be quite nice and we had an excellent meal that lasted until midnight. On that night we just went home to bed as well, so we never visited any of the bars…

April 11 – Travel to Remedios

We finally take the infamous Viazul bus. Not infamous for any reason except that our friends who visited before never took it, so no one really knew how it was. We were really interested in taking the bus, since that is how we traveled all through South America, and since it was likely more comfortable than the taxi colectivos. Also, it was cheaper. In the end there’s not really much to report about how the bus experience went. It was pretty much just like buses in Ecuador, which is very typical of Latin America. It was quiet and smooth and ran mostly on time.

The problem with transportation here seems to be that there are too few options. The taxi colectivos are filling a void left by the government bus service. There are three different sets of buses on the road, and you see them just about everywhere, but still there’s not really enough. The national bus lines are very difficult for Cubans to take. We heard that you have to get on a waiting list for most of them that is up to 3 months long. They are very cheap for Cubans, but you must wait. They are not an option for tourists. Then there is Viazul which seems to sell out a few days in advance because there are only a couple buses leaving each day. There are probably thousands of tourists arriving in Trinidad each day, but only two Viazul buses serve the city, so only about 60 can come in that way. The third type of buses are the private tour groups. You see these everywhere and it’s kind of maddening because you cannot take one as a backpacker. These are the Transgaviota, or Transtur buses. Again, the taxi colectivos fill the gap for tourists traveling on their own, and a complicated private system has formed to serve the market.


Central plaza in Remedios

At times, driving along the more rural roads (off the national highway), it feels as if there is really only one travel lane. We drive mostly straddling the center line, and only move over into our lane when there is an oncoming car. We stay in the center because the pavement is better, but also because there are many bicyclists, horse drawn buggies, and motorcycles that move slower on the sides of the pavement. There really aren’t that many roads here, so everyone uses the same one to travel between towns.

In Remedios we find Yudiel, Rodney’s cousin, without much effort. He’s a nice guy, who looks nothing like Rodney. He works for a car rental/travel agency on the plaza and he set up lodging for us when Laura called a few days before. He walks us to the other side of the plaza to a casa right on the edge. The room is nice, though small. It is also full of mosquitoes. This is pretty unfortunate, especially because the ceiling is so high it is hard to kill them… The town is nice and immediately has a different feel. Trinidad was very touristy and it felt like that. Havana was extremely chaotic. This is quaint. People smile and say hello. There aren’t many tourists in town, so perhaps they know all about us already. We go to the post office to buy a WiFi card and are directed to someone’s house across the street. We knock and no one answers, but then the women is coming up the street and so she opens up her house and invites us in and sells us one internet card. We also run into the Spanish couple on the street, who we will share the cab with tomorrow. They find us from Yudiel’s description (un flaco y una china). We laugh and think that’s about all people need in this town to find us. We later learn that Yudiel practically forced the Spanish couple into sharing a taxi with us for the visit to Cayo Santa Maria. When Laura called him and asked for him to find another couple to share costs, he was clearly motivated. We had a lot of fun relating our different experiences leading up to the outing with the Spanish couple.


It seems like a pretty open ended definition

Tonight is our first dinner in one of the casas, since the food options aren’t great here. It starts with soup, and then a large main plate (fish, chicken, beef or pork) with rice and beans and salad. The salad, as we find out, is always cucumbers, tomato, cabbage and green beans. The green beans must be canned because they are always the same, and always soft and flavorless. We use oil and vinegar and salt to make the salad palatable. I eat the green beans, as I miss greens already. Sheena takes care of the tomatoes usually. The chicken is very good and the proportions are giant.

April 12 – Day trip to Cayo Santa Maria

We shared a taxi with our new Spanish friends (Pilar and Jaime) and really had a great day. I seem to catch most of what they say, but also, when it was just us 4, I think they slowed down a bit. When they were talking with the taxi driver, it was too fast with too many different accents! It was fun to spend a whole day talking in another language. I think we genuinely connected with them and had a lot of laughs. They were so nice and encouraging and funny and it was super fun.

The beach was very nice. We were warned that it was “primitive” with nothing at all, except shade structures of course! But then it turned out there were beach chairs too. And then it turned out that a hotel was only 500 meters up the beach where we could get cold beers for $1 CUC each. Ha! Latin American ideas of primitive should always be taken with a grain of salt. The water here is so clear and the sand is very white. Although as the tide goes out and the beach gets bigger, the waves and wind also kick up and it isn’t as nice. We stay for a few hours before heading back to the entrance to the park to meet up with the taxi driver. He drives an old Chevy, but one that has been replaced with mostly Nissan parts. He is nice and plays funny music videos for us. The music is a little loud but it’s just such a beautiful day we all have a great time. We go for lunch at the resort area down the street and then are able to sneak in another quick swim with some sweet talking by the Spanish couple. Otherwise we would have had to pay some more.


During lunch, the Spanish couple bring up the current USA political climate and we talk about that for the first time on the trip. We don’t know what’s happening at all, really. And it turns out to be not much anyway. The internet is spotty and not available in most places. You have to use an internet card and then it just doesn’t seem all that worthwhile. We have checked email once or twice, just to send notes that we are OK. Cubans seem bothered by the current political climate as well, though. They have told us, generally, that they are excited for improved relationships between the USA and Cuba, that it will mean good changes for the country. Our current president threatens that, and they don’t know what to think now. Cuba was described as being “al lado del mundo” to us, and that seems fitting.

We learned a bit of Spanish history concerning Cuba from Pilar and Jaime. How Spain traded Cuba for Florida with the English, and how Spanish leftists fled Spain after the civil war and immigrated to Cuba. How there were many Spanish immigrants who fought with Castro and were excited by the revolution. What an amazing amount of change only a few generations could experience! Supposedly the old man in the plaza selling peanuts fought under Che during the revolution. He then went to University, but was called up to go to Angola and fight in some conflict that Cuba was sending troops for. When he refused he was booted out of the University and lost a lot of privilege. This was the story he told Pilar and Jaime. Our bici-taxi driver told us the other day that he had served in Angola. We like to ask people if they have ever left the country. Because it is difficult to leave, and was even more so in the past, many people only left for government related causes. This man had been in Angola for two years! He spoke Portuguese fluently.

Conflict and great geopolitical strife has been historically low during my life. I guess I’ve been lulled into thinking that things are like this. More or less stable. It is amazing to be somewhere with such a varied history, a place that has experienced rapid change many times in a few generations. Suddenly, it seems like this is more normal than my own experience in the USA. I realize that the future could bring anything. Especially when thinking about our own current political situation.


Cuba Journal Post #1

These are excerpts from the journal I kept while traveling in Cuba.

April 6, 2017 – Arrival in Havana

There is a certain type of Latina women who we seem to meet while traveling. Funny, mothering, helpful, forceful. I’m reminded of our Peruvian friend Sarai as one such women, or many of the hostel staff throughout South America. We were greeted by just such a person when arriving at our lodging in Havana. Laura is the type you need when arriving in such a place. I feel dropped into chaos. Small tight streets, rubble on the pavement. Trash, pedicabs, stray dogs. Music, construction, conversations everywhere. It’s overwhelming. I landed with a headache that only grew until I was immobile on the casa bed. But in Laura we trust and she makes us feel good that we are here. It’s always hard at first, in Latin America, to feel good when you arrive. How many times have I second guessed the whole trip? Chile, Buenos Aires, Nicaragua. I know it will pass with time. I’m looking forward to that.


April 7

So much walking and so incredibly hot! It’s not so bad when in the shade or in the old part of the city, but we were crossing big streets choked with exhaust fumes and ducking over median islands and it was extremely exhausting. Our guide, Raynold, seemed completely indifferent to it. I wonder if he takes all of his clients on this route. I cannot imagine older couples taking the same path. The tour was tough but we did learn a lot about Cuba and Raynold’s life, the life of someone in the tourist industry. He has a geography degree, but can make many times more in the tourist industry. He actually felt that his degree set him back because it delayed his start to making money. His phone was stolen a day ago, which was weighing on him. We actually wanted his help booking some casas particulares in other towns, but in the end we got help from Laura because he was unresponsive. The phone is still a lifeline down here, regardless of internet access. Raynold said his rent was $100 CUC a month, which seemed like a lot. He said the average Cuban only makes $20 CUC per month at a government job (about the minimum salary). He could make about $25 CUC per day, but had to pay for a tourist license.

The classic cars are great. There are also many motorcycles, some with sidecars. They all spew exhaust. The humidity amplifies the gross and grimy feeling when walking around the city. We need more than one shower a day, and we are reminded of Cartegena, Colombia often. Just now, I heard a ton of music outside. I looked out the second story window and saw that a trash truck was picking up trash and had blocked the one-lane street so that all the vehicles behind had to wait. There were three or four pedicabs, and one of them was decked out with bright lights and was pumping music. It was all very disruptive and very normal. Somehow, our balcony doors (and the drone of the fan) keep most of the street noise out.


Rodney and Laura are doing some renovations in the casa. Laura joked that Cubans are always doing construction. I think it’s the truth! We see half finished buildings and people selling and transporting raw materials all over the city. In many ways, this isn’t that much different from the rest of Latin America, except that raw materials are much harder to come by here. Some other similarities: the sidewalks are full of holes, there is corrugated metal sheeting used to enclose work sites.

At the moment Rodney is negotiating the sale of some dremel tools and a length of what appears to be insulated wiring. The casa is full of random people who seem mostly to be there to do construction, sell, or buy something. Rodney pulled out great sacks of tourist key chains, the kind you see everywhere, and asked us to pick one out as a wedding gift. I was mostly surprised to see that he had so many thousands of key chains! Was he going to sell them to someone? How did he get them? There seems be a deal going on all the time in this city. It’s hard to know what or where.

April 6

A beach day which was well spent, though now I’m very sunburned! I have a horizontal stripe of a burn across my stomach that is quite funny (at least Laura found it hilarious). The beach was definitely a needed break. This city is relentless. It is so chaotic! People are seemingly always on the move and yet, always just hanging out on the street corner, doing nothing. I’ve never seen streets so full of activity and choked with groups just talking! While walking, we are passed by endless numbers of bici-taxis and cars and motorcycles, and people walking everywhere. Every street is a shared street, as the sidewalks are too narrow and too crumbled to be useful for pedestrians. Most of the scooters are electric, so they don’t make a sound and sneak up on you just as bicycles do.

We look into unfinished buildings, and maybe some old man is sitting there watching TV. Maybe a family is in a big room without walls, eating. We are usually asked if we want a taxi, followed by a list of possible destinations. Sheena is usually asked if she is Japanese or Chinese. People say, “do you speak English?” This might be the only English they know. It all seems designed to get you to stop for a second so they can try to extract money. But people are nice generally. When you engage first, they are taken aback slightly and smile, nod, give you a good day. People are on the balconies high above the street during the morning and evenings. The buildings are so tall and the streets so narrow that you can forget to look up. Watching the street from above is a joy.


Before dinner we have a long chat with Laura and Rodney about all-things Cuba related. We learn how they met (worked for the same government construction company – he as a mechanical engineer, she as an architect), where they have traveled (he to Italy once for work, but was sick with Dengue he claims he got from her! – She to Hainan Island, Italy, and Mexico by family connections and for work), how they got into the tourist industry (she started the casa; it was her aunt’s apartment; they started working together after getting married two years ago) and of course, how to say some bad words in Cuba (pinga means penis, but of course de pingado means either really great or really bad).

Laura and Rodney are big fans of the pizza in Cuba, and convinced us to try their favorite place, Los Asturianitos. We walk into the building on the ground floor and are directed up the steps by a well dressed host. We pass a sign and spur stairway for Los Nardos restaurant and continue past to the second floor. Walking through an open air walkway filled with A/C units (and extremely hot), we climb a second staircase and enter another restaurant called El Trofeo. We walk through the dining room, right past people enjoying their meal, and find a third staircase in the back of the place, with a small plaque directing us up to Los Asturianitos. A very pleasant dining space is located on the third floor and we enjoy some pretty decent pizza. We will have no better in the country.

April 7

We finally told Laura that we didn’t have lodging arranged for the rest of our trip and the situation with Raynold’s phone. She was so worried for us, so we started to worry as well! We thought Semana Santa wouldn’t be a big deal (as the country is predominantly not religious practicing), but apparently we were wrong. Apparently a lot of people take time off to travel during the week, and then during the following week as well, since it is a school holiday. We quickly made plans for the following two weeks of travel, going back and forth on the destinations and the order we would do things. Finally agreeing, Laura began to call everyone, exchanging pleasantries as she spoke with her contacts in other towns. It seemed that a lot of her guests arrive with ready made plans and she doesn’t have to do much work, but all casa owners have contacts in other towns and try to help you make reservations. We have heard that they will get kickbacks from referrals, and that sometimes the room will be more expensive when arranged for you by your casa owner. But we were so happy with our stay with Laura and Rodney, that we wanted to let them arrange things for us. We hoped they knew people who were great as well, and frankly, we were a little worried about the “good casas” being booked when we arrived in town. Laura joked that she was her guest’s internet in Cuba. We agreed that it is so much harder because there is no internet. You have to trust in someone else to figure things out for you. If you don’t speak Spanish, it seems that much more difficult.

April 8 – Travel to Trinidad

Construction continued in Laura and Rodney’s place, with a gas engine powered pressure cleaner for their water pipes being hauled up to the second floor and started up in the apartment. It was extremely loud in the closed space! The taxi arrived late and we were told that they had been some sort of cancellations that was causing a problem. We think it was a couple passengers that cancelled at the last minute, and they were trying to sort out how to get full cars to make the drive to Trinidad. We drove all over Havana for about an hour, with the driver and his fellow organizer frantically calling number after number in their phone. When they weren’t calling, the phone was ringing. We were looking for a different car, or maybe another passenger, and then we needed to find a driver for the car. It was all so confusing I had no idea what was happening. At one point we stopped at a casa and a couple came out, but then they got into a second car that appeared out of nowhere. Then both cars drove to another place and picked up a single person to get in the second car. Finally, we picked up a couple of Spanish girls, who crowded into our small car (shedding one of the organizers). A last stop was made to switch cars and drivers, and we ended up in a newer Geely sedan, that seemed to be an OK option. The driver then bragged that he could make up the delay and get us to Trinidad in only 3.5 hours! We proceeded to drive recklessly fast with loud reggaeton blasting the whole way and did indeed arrive in about 3.5 hours. It was terrible in most ways and we were a little shellshocked upon arrival. It felt like a very Latin American way to travel between two cities and maybe we should not have been all that surprised. We look forward to the opportunity to take the bus between two cities. We opted not to try this to get to Trinidad, as we were explained that you had to take a taxi to the bus station in Havana, as it was in the middle of nowhere (and intercity bus transportation is very complex and difficult; no marked stops, complicated routes, etc.) in order to buy your bus tickets, so that added about $30 CUC to the cost of the journey, and that pretty much made the shared taxi cheaper. There will be other opportunities to take the bus I believe.

I noticed how large and empty the 8-lane national highway felt leaving Havana. We weaved all over the four lanes, always searching for the smoothest piece of asphalt. This contributed greatly to the uncomfortable ride. Our GPS and app helped us find the hostel once we arrived in town. The drivers have a tendency to ask directions on the street and then learn about other casas that have vacancies (maybe an opportunity for a referral payment), and then take their passengers to that location instead. Without understanding Spanish, you could very easily end up at the wrong place and have no idea…

We walked into William and Noemi’s place, called Casa Indigus, and were immediately ushered into the beautiful and calm garden. We were so frazzled by the journey that we kind of just sat there in a daze and tried to talk with William. Shortly he “invited us” to a Cuba Libre, and it was one of the strongest we ever had! Or maybe we were just extremely dehydrated. In either case, we were buzzing pretty hard, pretty shortly after, and feeling a lot better about being in Trinidad. William and Noemi were very nice and we were sad not to be staying in their casa (it was full, so we were staying at a neighbor’s). Gladys’s place was a different picture entirely, as the house was half under construction! But our room was spacious and we got a private bath and it all seemed very nice to us. Gladys is extremely nice and she brought up some fresh juice once we were settled a little bit.


Hanging out with Noemi, William and Baloo

How to hike the Kalalau Trail, on the Na Pali coast (Kauai, HI)

We recently hiked the Kalalau Trail on Kauai, and were surprised to learn that several of our friends had done it only a few months before us. Since returning, many more acquaintances have asked questions because they too are planning a trip. Since there’s a lot of information out there, and we found some of it misleading, here’s a fact-heavy, quite-boring how-to guide (remember, it’s for posterity!).

The Hike

The first two miles of the trail are quite crowded. It’s a popular day hike out to the beach at Hanakapi’ai. There is a river to ford at this location (and there are several others further on) so we would recommend bringing Tevas. The trail is nice and wide for these first miles, but there were still several areas where the mud made the trail extremely slippery. It was slow going, and I remember feeling tired already once we reached the beach. Note: the beach at Hanakapi’ai has a really dangerous shore break, and no one should attempt to swim here…

Nice, wide trail up to Hanakapi’ai Beach

Thankfully, the trail gets much less crowded after leaving Hanakapi’ai, but conditions generally become more difficult. Vegetation crowds the trail, leaving your pants soaked (if it’s just rained) and making it hard to see your footing. The mud levels also increased dramatically. We recommend bringing gaitors to save your boots and long pants from becoming filthy.

The trail follows a pattern of rounding headlands (with spectacular valley views) and then meandering down into the valley to cross a stream. You get a break from mud at the headlands, and a nice cool breeze, but then you plunge back into the mud, humidity and bugs of the valley. This pattern continues between Hanakapi’ai Beach and the campsite at Hanakoa (mile 6). These are some tough miles in here, and amazingly, we only progressed at about 1 mile/hour for this section.

One of the many river valleys we passed through

We had originally planned to stay the night at Hanakoa (to break up the hike into two even days), but once we reached the campsite we quickly changed our minds. It looked like a giant mud pit, full of mosquitoes and no views to speak of. After negotiating a slippery river crossing, we reluctantly continued.

If you do some online research, you might hear about the “sketchy” trail section between miles 7 and 8. I read a lot about this, and was a little bit worried, but I’m here to say that if you have any backpacking experience you might wonder “what sketchy section?” There are some areas where you’re quite exposed (i.e. “crawler’s ledge”) and if you have a crippling fear of heights, this will cause you some stress, but the trail is always substantially wide and easy enough to negotiate. As a positive, the trail gets much less muddy after mile 7. The headlands start to block the weather coming out of the northeast, and everything is closer to dry than wet. This makes the “sketchy” section that much easier. What people should be planning for (and worried about) are those damn muddy miles between 2 and 6…

The view from mile 8

Mile 8 has a great campsite. Yes, it’s supposed to be a ranger-only site. Yes, there’s a giant “no camping” sign. But as you will probably learn, there is a lot of rule-breaking that goes on out on the trail, and you will certainly come across a fellow backpacker who has pitched his/her tent at this location. The helicopter pad offers a spectacular sunset location and we would recommend utilizing this spot to break up the hike in/out.

The trail continues to become much easier, and is almost entirely downhill between mile 9 and the Kalalau Beach (roughly mile 11, though there is some debate about this). The views here are amazing. If you can be on this section between 2 and 4 pm, you’ll be in photographers’ heaven. Kalalau Beach is equally stunning, sitting below the imposing shark fin cliffs of the Na Pali headland. There’s a great waterfall at the far end of the beach, perfect for your after-swim rinse.

Kalalau Beach

There are plenty of campsites along the beach and back in the trees. You will find some semi-permanent dwellings out here, and probably have an interesting conversation or two with the “residents.” They range from ex-military types to young hippies. But don’t let this worry you too much, the beach is large enough to have privacy. We did hear some stories about food/gear being stolen, but didn’t experience anything first-hand. Even so, it might be a good policy to keep things packed away when you’re not at your campsite.

While we didn’t know about this option at the time, it seems to be common knowledge that you can take a zodiac-type boat out from the Kalalau Beach. You need to be ready to go by 7 am, and have approximately $120 each, but that might strike some people as a good deal considering how much work it was to hike into the place. Many of our neighbors packed up their sites and were gone before we woke, leading us to believe that the zodiac was a popular option.

Typical trail section

As previously mentioned, there are quite a few shenanigans that go on out on the beach. Like other “must-see” hikes around the world (i.e. Torres del Paine National Park), there are plenty of ways to see things without any effort. Helicopters constantly buzz the camp area, circling above the cliffs. People deliver food and visitors via zodiac and seadoo during the day. An air-bnb listing was found for the Kalalau Beach… I firmly believe these things do not ruin the experience, but I also feel that if you go into the hike expecting them, they won’t bother you as much. So, happy trails and fair warning!

Permits and Gear

Technically, you need a permit to stay overnight on the Kalalau Trail. You can reserve these online with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.  Unlike the beach park camping permits, there was no system of checking the Kalalau Trail permits. No check points or rangers asked to see ours during any point of the hike, and we didn’t bother to hang it from out tent. There was a general sense that the trail was mostly neglected by authorities, with only maintenance crews coming out to the Kalalau Beach to clean up trash. I don’t want to recommend not getting a permit… but it’s something to consider.

None of the big box stores (i.e. Walmart) carry backpacking stove fuel canisters. There are a few places to buy them en route to the trailhead. We stopped at Kauai Kayak outside of Kapa’a, and bought the medium size for about $10.

Some notes on our return

This whole “coming back slowly” is working out very well. Maybe I’ll trademark that term, or build it into my advice for fellow travelers. The problem that most travelers are confronted with when coming back home is a feeling that nothing changed but them. And people get used to your reemergence much faster than you would like to believe. By making stops along our way home, we’ve artificially extended our return, and succeeded in making it feel more natural.

Bolt Bus is a super nice option that a lot of people should consider when traveling on the west coast (and east coast for that matter – I think that’s where it started). The buses are comfortable, with wifi and power outlets, and you can find really cheap fares. We paid only $7 each for a trip between Los Angeles and San Jose. That amounts to about $1/hr, or the same price we paid in Ecuador. Outside of Bolt Bus, inter-city options are sadly lacking, and complicated to sort out. I spent a lot of time figuring out Caltrain, BART, Golden Gate Transit and Sonoma County Transit schedules before eventually borrowing a friend’s car to get ourselves between San Jose and Santa Rosa… In South America, there would have been a direct bus, leaving every 30 minutes, for about $3.

A southern Californian sunset

Being in people’s homes is wonderful and fun. We like seeing how different people live. How they decorate. What size their home is. It shows what is important to them and I feel like I’m seeing a cross-section of America.

We have continued our trend of not doing much. We just sort of chill in people’s homes and chat and cook and hang out, really. It’s been nice. The prospect of having to get up early and do things all day doesn’t sound like much fun.

Siletz Bay, Lincoln City

Questions we’ve heard the most: Did you get into any dangerous situations? This is an easy answer: no. We never felt in danger in any way that you might be thinking in your head. I think it’s mostly because we spoke the language, and we’re too old to get blitzed in a new city and walk down a bad street… Did the trip change you/anything you got used to or liked during the trip that you will continue to do here? I’m not sure yet. Certainly we are overwhelmed with returning to the realities of western living (i.e. closets full of clothes, fast food). Maybe we’ll be able to hold onto that feeling, and continue to do with less. It doesn’t feel like that would be a bad goal.

Sheena on getting our stuff back: “it’s like we were given only a small scoop of ice cream every day for a whole year, and now we have a 20 scoop bowl in front of us.”

Where Schooner Creek joins the Pacific – Lincoln City


It’s been two-and-a-half weeks since we returned to the U.S., and with all the family functions, meeting up with friends, and more long-distance buses, I’ve hardly had time to really process the fact that we’ve been back. Our plan of traveling up the west coast slowly has proven to be a good way to transition back to “real life”, but I’ve been so busy and tired that I haven’t really given our homecoming much thought.

Of course, there is the constant undercurrent of stress related to those mundane, little details like finding a job, finding a new apartment, and figuring out how to navigate the incredibly complicated world of cellphone plans… but for the most part, it sort of feels like we’re still on the road (because we are!).

When I do find the time for a little reflection, it’s difficult to answer the existential questions that started lurking in my mind as soon as we bought our return flights four months ago. Will I have changed? In a good or bad way? Will I be content to resume normal life, or will I be afflicted with the consuming wanderlust that seems to make chronic travelers unhappy with an everyday existence? Will I be one of those insufferable people who drone endlessly on about “Down in South America…”? Will the transition make me wish for an escape to the carefree times of the trip? Or will I settle down quite happily back in Seattle?

Early on in our journey, I remember saying to Craig, “I hope this doesn’t change me in ways I don’t want to be changed.” Why was I so worried? Well, I loved living in Seattle, I loved my job and coworkers, and I loved hanging out with my friends. I really didn’t want the trip to mess with my bubble of contentment. But since I loved Craig more than all of those things, away we went. And although the realities of coming back keep me awake some nights, I don’t regret my decision to go on this crazy adventure with Craig, and I don’t think I ever will despite any changes it might have wrought. Besides, I can’t really say that traveling for a year didn’t have its perks!

But will my fear come true? Will everyday existence pall in comparison to one year of constant travel?

I’m sure it will at times. It does for everybody, even without a year of South American memories to compare it to. But on the whole, it’s been good to be back. It’s been wonderful to see my brand-new niece, and get to know her older sister a bit better. Lovely to see so many family and friends, who have all genuinely supported us through the year. Their continued generosity and care only reinforce the belief that there’s really nothing that can compare to the people that love and care for you. It’s been good for me to heighten my appreciation for them.

As for work, I’m strangely very interested in returning as soon as I can. It might be something that I’ll regret later, but I’ve honestly thought a lot about work while I’ve been gone, and I’ve missed the beauty of nursing. There is a lot of ugly in it too, though, and it’s definitely possible that I’ve been remembering my work through rose-colored glasses. Still, I’ve been lazing around South America for one whole year and it’ll be good to feel productive again, I think.

And then there are the many other things I look forward to that only have to do with the prospect of not moving to a new place every few days, and not living out of a backpack. I imagine unpacking my clothes and feeling as if I’ve just been on a huge shopping spree with no cost. I’m remembering all my books, DVDs, and yarn. I can’t wait to be back in my ‘hood, and knowing my city so well that I can name which bus to take from point A to point B without looking it up in a guidebook or asking a tourist office. Calling up a friend to go have a drink in a local bar is no longer a pipe dream. And we’ll be speaking English! All the time! After feeling unmoored for a year, the thought of being settled and having a routine again is intoxicating.

There will be changes. I can’t promise myself an entirely smooth transition. The possibility of disappointment, disillusions, and reverse culture-shock is still very present. We haven’t even reached Seattle quite yet, and there might be a lot of unpleasant surprises waiting for us there. But I went through that entire year in South America with a (sometimes misguided) sense of fierce optimism, and I’m hoping it won’t desert me here. After all, there’s a lot to look forward to in the Wongenberg future!

Fooling around with Ainsley Pi, the winner of The Cutest Niece on the Planet award for 2015, with an honorable mention in the Cheeks category.