Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Weekend trip: Santa Fe

May 31, 2016
For Memorial Day, we flew to Santa Fe (thank Southwest companion pass!). The highlights: hiking at Tent Rocks and cocktails at Radish & Rye. The lowpoint: our cracked rental car windshield.

Hiking at Tent Rocks
tent rocks santa fe
tent rocks desert new mexico
Santa Fe Railyard District
Santa Fe Railyard District
Santa Fe Railyard District
santa fe church
- Steph

Camping trip: Sonoma Coast

May 26, 2016
For our first camping trip of the summer, we took the motorcycle up the Sonoma coast and camped at Salt Point State Park.

- Steph

Cuba trip: Stopover in Cancun

May 25, 2016
Start at the beginning of our trip to Cuba.

Then we were back in Cancun for one last night and day. We knew our way around this time, like where the airport ATM was located, which faux-security checkpoint en route to that ATM didn't really stop you if you just walked through, and what a reasonable price for a taxi from the bus station should be. ("So walk!" the first driver threatened when we rejected his price; one block later, the price magically dropped 25%.) We checked into the same hotel, ate another hearty lunch at the vegetarian place, Darma Cafe, next door (we ended up eating there three times), then hopped on a bus and went to the beach.

In the evening we walked through a plaza, which had a festival atmosphere in celebration of Benito Juarez's birthday. It was nice to see the "real" Cancun and not just the Vegas-like hotel strip (where most tourists stay, never having to speak Spanish or engage with Mexicans except as employees in the hotels). For dinner we went to a taco joint called Piknik, recommended on TripAdvisor specifically for their margaritas. (We had internet access again!) The tacos were very good, but our margaritas were surprisingly tasteless. We considered for a few moments whether to just accept them, but decided that, with their rave reviews, maybe it was a fluke. So Steph politely explained to the waiter that our margaritas really didn't taste like lime or tequila at all, maybe they made them wrong? And within a few minutes, we had two properly-made replacements, which were quite delicious.

The next morning was the last day of our trip, as well as my birthday. We had a good "completo de la casa" breakfast at Cafe Andrade, with eggs, tortillas, onion, pepper, etc (and a crazy hot sauce on the side). Then we took the bus back to the beach (the public Playa Chacmool). There were plastic beach chairs for rent for a "tip" + photo ID (as collateral). We had brought photocopies of our passports, not wanting to lose our real ones a few hours before our flight. The woman running the rental shop insisted that only the real thing would do. But Steph pulled off a masterful feat of Spanish negotiation, explaining that carrying our real passports was too risky, we had a flight in the evening, etc, promising to stay very close and return the chairs. Success!

The surf was really choppy - there was actually a surfer catching some nice waves - and we splashed around and body-surfed for a while, with the lifeguard advising us where to avoid rocks and drop-offs. (The Cancun coast is suffering severe erosion, and its beauty is sustained mostly by very costly repairs and sand restoration.) Then we sat on our hard-won chairs - Steph read 100 Years of Solitude, and I finally finished The Old Man and the Sea. (I had alternated between that short novel and Jon Lee Anderson's fantastic, 700-page biography of Che Guevara, which I am still only halfway through.)

On the bus back to the hotel, we were amused (and slightly embarassed) by a group of American tourists who needed a guide to use the public bus (to get from one point on the strip to another), had the guide pay for all of them, and then thanked the driver in English. A different kind of travel.

- Ben

On being tourists in Cuba

May 23, 2016
Start at the beginning of our trip to CubaWe've also compiled all our Havana recommendations into a printable map and guide.

I often wonder why certain trips turn out better than others. Why was traveling through Oregon on the motorcycle such a magical experience? Why was our trip to Mexico somewhat lackluster in comparison? What did we do differently? What should we adjust for future trips?

Planning our Cuba trip felt like a particularly high-stakes proposition. I had dreamed of going to Cuba for years, piling another layer of expectation onto the task. And Cuba is unquestionably on the cusp of huge change, so while we can return to Cuba in the future, we’ll never again see the Cuba of today, defined in large part by more than five decades of Castro brothers' rule and the U.S. embargo.

One of the first decisions we made was to stay in Havana for most of our trip. Our logic: We cared more about experiencing Cuban life and culture than about seeing all the sights. But when we talked to others who had visited Cuba, they vigorously questioned this decision. Havana is dirty and full of tourists, they said. Viñales is magical. Trinidad is a beautiful colonial town. We struggled with how much weight to give their opinions (the most common first-timer trip to Cuba is an eight-day journey to Havana, Viñales, Cienfuegos and Trinidad).

As with our Oregon trip, this was a case where we felt like we got it exactly right. If we had to do the trip all over again, there’s very little I would change. So why did we have such a great time?
  • If anything, we set our expectations too low. We expected the food to be bad, the streets to be dirty and filled to the brim with tourists. Knowing that I wouldn’t be happy with a diet of rice and beans, I spent a lot of time researching where I wanted to eat, and we ended up eating really well. Expectation successfully exceeded. Were the streets full of tourists? Yes in Habana Vieja, where we stayed for the first three nights. No in Habana Central, where we stayed for the next four. But Cubans live and work in even the most touristy areas. Habana Vieja was hardly a sanitized tourist zone.
  • We were admittedly nervous about how well our Spanish would hold up after three years of neglect. And the first day in Cancun, I could barely form my mouth into Spanish words. But I could understand much of what was said to us, and by the last days of the trip, we were successfully chattering in Spanish. And this is one of my favorite parts of traveling in Latin America — our Spanish is good enough that we don’t feel constantly stymied by a language barrier. We don’t feel like every conversation is transactional (which is easy when consistently ordering things, buying things, arranging things, etc). And I think this was also one of the biggest differences between us and other tourists. Obviously plenty of Americans and Europeans speak Spanish, but plenty don’t. I had to translate for an American guy in our casa as he tried to arrange a 5am taxi pickup. Even though plenty of people in Havana spoke English, we would have felt so much more detached from the place if we hadn’t spoken Spanish.
  • One consequence of living in Argentina is that we’re intimately familiar with what it’s like to live in Latin America. If someone in an official-ish capacity in the U.S. tells you that something isn’t possible, there’s a good chance that asking five more people isn’t going to change the answer. In Cuba (or Argentina), if someone tells you something’s not possible, go ask someone else. We met some other tourists who were frustrated by the fact that they didn’t have a working phone to make restaurant reservations. Get a phone card, we said. Tourists aren’t allowed to buy phone cards, they said. At which point, we burnished the phone card we had successfully purchased (we shared the code with them). Had we been denied a phone card at one store, we would have known to simply go to another.
  • Even though tourism to Cuba is growing rapidly, the number of Americans who have gone independently is still comparatively low. By law, U.S. citizens are not allowed to go to Cuba simply as “tourists” (i.e., no sitting on the beach) and up until earlier this month, any Americans on a “cultural” trip had to go as part of an approved tour group. We didn’t want to go as part of a tour, and hence we knew that all the planning would fall to us. By contrast, many other tourists were at the mercy of their tour guide. We talked to one couple who said their guide “didn’t know what to do with them” while Obama was in town. That sort of follow-the-leader tourism isn’t for us, and we were glad we got to carve out our own trip.
  • I’ve been making a conscious effort to slow down when we travel. On our first big trip together, we visited five countries in 17 days. Granted, we had a fantastic/amazing/unbeatable time, but some of my best memories from that trip were long nights sipping sangria in Barcelona, or lazy mornings in our hotel room. We could have skipped an entire destination (Prague, clearly) and still had a great trip. Now as I plan a trip, I try to focus on the overall experience and not worry about whether I’ve squished in every little sight (we didn’t see the Museumsinsel in Berlin, but, honestly, I’m fine with that). The downside is that if we don’t like a place, it can feel like we’re there for too long. But the upside is that if we do like a place — like Havana! — we really have a chance to soak it in. Most travelers we met spent between two and four days in Havana, and after hearing their impressions, I’m glad that we spent longer. If we had only stayed in Havana for two days, we easily would have been overwhelmed by the tourists and jingueros. But once we settled in, we were able to get past a lot of that and out into the less-touristy areas of the city.
  • And finally, we’re not naive. We met one American tourist who had no idea that Obama was arriving in the Cuba the same day as she was. We listened to another American tourist rant about the fact that she had paid $5 to a ride a public bus that only costs a few cents. I could only shake my head at some of these people and wonder, “How did you end up in Cuba?”

- Steph

Cuba: Propaganda Billboards

May 22, 2016
Start at the beginning of our trip to CubaWe've also compiled all our Havana recommendations into a printable map and guide.

There is no corporate advertising in Cuba, except the signs directly on storefronts.

There is tons of political propaganda, however. Images of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos are ubiquitous. Along the roads there are large billboards.

These are some of the signs we saw in Havana and driving to Viñales.

"Fatherland or death!"
"Health for all"
Fidel Castro in guerilla uniform with a rifle
"We continue in combat" – with Fidel Castro and the Granma,
the boat in which Castro's band landed/crashed in Cuba from Mexico.
"Only human will can save the world"
Fidel, "Fatherland or death, we will prevail!"
"The Party, a secure guarantee of the unity of the Cubans"
"This is the party of all the battles"
"Let's take care of nature"
"Faithful to our history"
"Revolution: A daily feat yesterday and today"
(with Fidel and Camilo Cienfuegos)
"The Revolution will continue forward"

- Ben

Cuba: Vinales

May 8, 2016
Start at the beginning of our trip to Cuba. This continues from HavanaWe've also compiled all our Havana recommendations into a printable map and guide.

On Friday, we went to Viñales, a tobacco-growing and cigar-rolling town 2.5 hours' drive from Havana. We went with a state-run tour group, not our usual M.O. (Steph had commented that "we get to be sheep" that way.) But we didn't want to take too much time away from Havana by staying overnight, the return bus left too early, and it seemed too risky to rely on finding a taxi driver willing to drive all the way back at night.

As it turned out, other than the excessively tourist-trap bits (like the first stop at a little shop where the tour guide turned into a cigar salesman), the excursion was fantastic. Our guide was a native Habanero, he spoke excellent English, and he repeated each part of his tour in both languages, which was good practice for us.

We learned that the word guajiro - a person from the Cuban countryside, as in the song Guajira Guantanamera - originated as a mispronunciation of the English "war hero" after the 1898 Spanish-American war in Cuba. (The internet says it originated in a native word for "squire," however, so who knows.)

We also learned that Viñales was named for grape vines, strange considering that there are no grape vines in Viñales (or wine production in Cuba at all). Apparently at some point in the 19th century, the Spanish did try to grow wine there. It didn't take long to realize that was a bad idea in the tropical climate, and they switched to tobacco, but the name stuck.

Casa Garay rum factory. Che Guevara and [19th-century Cuban hero] José Martí on the wall.

We stopped briefly at a rum factory, then visited a tobacco farm, where we learned about the crop, drying the leaves, and rolling cigars. Agriculture has been slightly liberalized over the last decade, but tobacco farmers are still required to sell 90% of their crop to the government at fixed prices. For most crops, it's 50%, but tobacco represents the "third-largest source of hard currency for Cuba," according to wikipedia.

We stopped at the mural de la prehistoria, a fairly mediocre giant mural supposedly depicting the evolution of life. The most interesting part by far were the DIY piña coladas. They're served without rum and and you're supposed to add as much as you want. Our guide said the proper technique was to pour in rum, take a sip, pour more rum, take a sip and so on. After a good lunch (Steph was happy that she got to eat all the vegetables because the other tourists were unwilling to eat raw vegetables), we took a boat ride through the Cueva del Indio, a cave with interesting geological patterns that the guide pretended were images of animals.

There were some very interesting moments on the excursion observing the local prejudices. There were "Indians" dancing in loinclothes for the tourists at the Cueva del Indio, and our guide assured us that "these are not real Indians, because they are beautiful, and real Indians were ugly." It's really interesting to see how colonial stereotypes still persist long after Spanish rule, and to compare the natives' experiences between different countries: In the U.S. the natives that survive still have somewhat distinctive sub-cultures, and are usually called "native Americans" rather than the misnomer "Indians"; in Argentina they were almost entirely annihilated and the little that is known about their culture comes from early colonists' accounts and the archeological record; in Cuba there are a few self-identified Taínos in the east, but the prevailing culture seems to have maintained the colonial attitude towards them. At the cigar factory, our guide reiterated several times that certain jobs were only available to women because of their "delicate hands." We were shown the different ways that men and women are supposed to hold cigars. And we were pretty sure he said - in Spanish and not in English - that black people aren't allowed to work in the cigar factories, with the reason being something about "artists." As Orwell said, even in socialism, some people "are more equal than others."

We made some friends on the Viñales tour, a couple from Greece living in London. On the bus back, we sat in adjacent rows, right behind the guide, and had a really interesting conversation. He told us stories about the ways people string together income in odd ways; about how the authorities tolerate the black market; about recording foreign TV and movies on [illegal] satellite dishes and selling them on hard drives; about the importance (and uneven distribution) of tourists' tips (which can make the difference between a good living as a tour guide and a crappy one as a school teacher). He shared his hopes for the future, very much wanting change and expecting to be able to use U.S. dollars as street cash at some point soon. We talked about Cuban history, and how Cubans perceive the U.S. invasion in the 1989 Spanish-American war.

One of the most interesting takeaways from our conversation was the way he saw the Cuban-American exiles as the real enemy. He had no anomosity toward Americans as a whole, or even recent American governments, but the exiles to him are living in the past, making unreasonable demands for their property lost in 1960, and are responsible for maintaining the U.S. embargo long after the Cold War ended (and he's undoubtedly not alone in this view). He also saw it, correctly, in partisan terms: Democrats are more friendly to Cubans in Cuba and Republicans are more friendly to the Cubans in Miami. I asked our guide if he thought there would ever be reconciliation, and he wasn't optimistic. The narrative he told - "they left 50 years ago, now three generations have lived in that house and the exiles say it's their house and want it back" - reminded me of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and The Lemon Tree.

Altogether, despite the silliness of much of it, the organized tour was very worthwhile, especially for those unofficial conversations with the guide.

- Ben (photos by Steph)