It's News to Me

I had to switch hotels today. I didn’t want to as the Estelar Blue is wonderful and equal to what would be a four-star hotel in the U.S. And no, I’m not a rockstar who got drunk, smashed the headboard, threw a TV out the window and was banned from the place. I got a smokin’ deal on this place due to a combination of Orbitz coupons and the nights I was staying. This hotel is in a business area just around the corner from a conference center so, unlike many hotels, the Estelar Blue is less expensive on the weekends than during the week. Now that the new week is here, they have no room and, even if they did, the price would double.
I catch a cab over to my new digs at the Hotel Lomas 10. It’s not only new to me, but new this year and it seems that nobody has heard of it. This does not bode well for me. While still in the La Pablado area, it’s about 1.5 kilometers from Estelar Blue. Though not quite as high class as the last one, they are friendly as I walk in and seem incredibly eager to please. A nice lady walks me to my room, spending a few minutes to take inventory of the minibar, gives me the number to call reception should I need it, and leaves me to enjoy the city view as advertised on the website. As I open the curtains, besides a couple of nice buildings in the distance and a few somewhat run down houses below, there are two guys hanging from ropes directly outside. It seems like they’re still working on the outside of the building and, while my room in Minca had a big spider (I wonder if Tarantulina Jolie misses me), this one comes with Spiderman and guest.
I quickly head out to explore my new neighborhood, walking down the sidewalk along the steep road. Medellin is a city of hills and you don’t so much walk it as you hike it. Still, between the various means of public transportation which we spoke of in “When Good Triumphs Over Evil” and the inexpensive taxis and Uber (yup, it’s here), there’s usually an option should you become tired.
As I reach the bottom of the hill, I turn right and walk past a cigar bar (I like this neighborhood) and a bunch of restaurants before coming across what looks like the office of a newspaper. It’s called El Espectador, and the newspapers hanging in their window, one with Donald Trump on the front, catch my eye. Wanting to know more about what they’re reporting and the general feel in Colombia regarding current U.S. and Venezuelan politics, I walk in and ask the woman sitting at the desk, “Habla Ingles?” She smiles and says no, but indicates that I should walk upstairs. Upstairs I find an area with four desks and a bunch of helpful people who call over a colleague to assist.
Fabian, an energetic twenty-something gentleman comes over and I explain why I just sort of randomly showed up. (Didn’t even bring a bottle of wine.) He welcomes me and invites me downstairs to talk. Fabian works in sales and explains that El Espectador, an opinion paper, is the oldest newspaper in Colombia. He shows me some of their online stories and then tells me more of his.
He was living in Cali with his wife, who had just given birth to a baby boy, when a gang associated with Fabianthe FARC came to him, hit him with a gun, and threatened that, if he didn’t pay extortion money, they would kill his son. Wasting no time, he told his wife that she had to leave with the five-day-old baby. They came to Medellin where Fabian soon joined them. Though he had been an office worker, the only job he could get was in construction. He didn’t have the proper certificate to work in that field but was hired anyway. After a little while, the paychecks stopped coming. The owner kept telling him he would be paid the following week but, after three months without pay, and a wife and baby to support, well, he had to find something else. He eventually landed a job at El Espectador and is now one of their top sales people.
We chat for an hour and Fabian contacts his friend Marcella who agrees to show me around a bit tomorrow. He also invites me to an event honoring the 130th anniversary of the newspaper. I’ve talked about how nice the people of St. John’s, Newfoundland are, out-niced only by the Irish; Colombians give both a run for their money.
I wander around my neighborhood window-shopping and stopping in a church before walking to Parque Lleras. I have no idea what this park is like and have never heard of it but it turns out to be a great area with just a few street vendors selling artwork and jewelry, and more than a few restaurants selling food and drink. I settle in a seat at the Basílica (not another church but a restaurant and bar) where I proceed to write while getting a little tipsy on pisco sours and ceviche. I subscribe to the writer’s creed, write drunk, edit sober. As the happy-hour is 3-for-1 and I’m already a little drunk it would be shameful not to claim that third drink (mom always told me that I shouldn’t waste because children in Africa have no cocktails – or something like that)  so I order a beer and, soon enough, am on my way.
 
The following day I meet Fabian’s friend Marcela at the office of El Espectador. Our plan is to walk Me and Marcelaaround the city so she can show me some different areas but, get two women talking and, well, we drink coffee and talk in the office for an hour-or-two. Marcela is an engineer who teaches STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). As Fabian puts it, she’s beautiful and smart. Eventually, we leave the office and walk along the streets of Medellin, past Parque Lleras and over towards Oviedo Mall. In my opinion, Medellin has some things in common with Kuala Lumpur; both have wonderful and unique mass-transit systems and both have an abundance of very modern malls.
Marcella and I say goodbye in order to go back to our respective abodes in order to freshen up, Mayor of Medellinattempting to make ourselves look beautiful before catch taxis to the Museo de Antioquia where the 130th-anniversary celebration for El Espectador is being held. Traffic is terrible and I arrive forty-minutes late. Still, the presentation begins just after I arrive. First to speak is Federico Gutiérrez, the mayor of Medellin. He’s very well-respected and, oh yes, he’s easy on the eyes. He speaks in Spanish and I have no idea what he’s saying but I enjoy looking at him. Marcela eventually shows up during a question and answer session with some of the editors of the paper.StatementSoon, the official part ends and we walk across the way to a display of some of El Espectador’s covers throughout their 130-year history. They’re divided into the triumphs and tragedies of the past 130 years Tragedyand it’s riveting looking at the 100-year-old headlines and photos in Colombia. Drinking wine in the courtyard for just a few minutes before a giant thunderstorm arrives we move the party inside. We spend a few hours meeting Fabian’s workmates, some of whom are in sales, some work as assistants, and others are reporters. Oh, and FYI – they think Trump is crazy. The wine continues to flow and hors d’oeuvre are served while we laugh and sing to a violinist and saxophonist who now stroll around inside playing some familiar tunes (New York, New York anyone?).
It is a great night with locals who I now call friends.
Office Party
 
Tomorrow – leaving Medellin to find coffee.
 
 

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition

Are you awake yet? Yeh, me neither. I didn’t sleep well for an unexpected reason. I was freezing. Luis got the air conditioning working in my room so well that, save for turning it off, I couldn’t figure out how to make it warmer. And when I turned it off, within five minutes I was dripping with sweat. Yup, just call me Goldilocks. Or perhaps, due to my Jewish heritage, you can call me Golda Lox.
Well, today’s plan for Golda Lox is to take a walking tour. As I’ve done in the past, I choose a free walking tour as I’ve had generally good luck with them. (You may remember that I took them in Ireland, Portland, and Mexico, which was only free because my friend Stewart took me on one.) These aren’t exactly free as a tip for what you think the tour was worth is expected. Still, because the guide is actually working for their pay, these tend to be very good.
Natalia at my bed and breakfast booked this for me through Free Tour Cartagena and I walk the fifteen-minutes to Santa Theresa Square where I meet my guide, Edgar and about twenty-five other tourists from different countries (though at least half of the group seem to be from The Netherlands).
We begin with Edgar having everyone introduce themselves and say where they’re from. This question gets more and more difficult for me with my most common answer being, “Everywhere.” This tends to either confuse or lead to more questions yet, when I say the U.S. – I don’t say America as some in other parts of North America take offense saying, “I’m American too. North American!” (whatever) – I’m then asked where. As each of us answer, Edgar names the capital of each country or state we’re from. Impressive.We begin walking to our first stop, the statue of India Catalina. An indigenous woman, she was abducted by the Spanish in the 1500’s and, after learning Spanish and converting to Catholicism, forced to become an interpreter for the native tribes. Her figure is now a symbol of Colombia and her statuette is awarded each year at the Colombian Film Festival. As Edgar explains, she’s basically a cross between the Oscar and Pocahontas.StatueWe continue on to various sites including the statue of Pedro Cabrera, a Jesuit priest who made many Priest Scultureenemies due to his stand against slavery, and to the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, also known as the San Pedro Church. An impressive structure, it’s made more impressive by the seven-or-so sculptures depicting the everyday lives of Colombians getting haircuts and playing games.
Chess PlayersWe then stop by the Customs House where we see a loud gathering of men with motorcycle helmets and police standing around. The men are motorcycle taxi drivers who have recently been prevented from working in certain neighborhoods as motorcycle thievery has been on the rise there. Motorcycles speed past people walking on the sidewalk and grab their bags off their shoulders before speeding away. The drivers argue that their work should have to suffer due to criminals who drive the same type of vehicles. The protest is peaceful and the drivers eventually disperse.

Slave Ship
Slave Ship model from Historical Museum

 
Another stop is the Plaza de los Coches, an important location of the slave trade. This is where slaves brought from Africa would be offloaded from the ships and sold often brought to other countries in the Americas.
Slave Sale
Slave sales as depicted in model at Historical Museum

 
I’ve learned some things about Colombia on this tour including that there was once one once one country named Grand Colombia which consisted of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, but I learned more about other countries and other participants. There were a lot of questions on this tour but less answers.
After the tour ends, I grab some lunch at a local healthy fast food restaurant before trying to increase my understanding of Cartagena and Colombia by visiting the Palace of the Inquisition and Historical Museum. As I enter, I witness another protest, this time a silent one in the form of signs. It seems the Museum is now offering a self-guided tour in the form of an app for your phone for which they supply headphones (or use your own). They’ve also written some (not all) of the commentary on signs. This means there’s no need for guides and the signs covering the sidewalk outside the museum are in Spanish and English and make clear the guides’ viewpoint. When I ask the museum staff about it, they explain that the guides were always paid directly by the tourists but never had a fixed price so it changed depending on what the guides felt they could get and taxes paid were questionable. I understand that I’m only hearing one side of the argument but, as the guides aren’t here to ask, I’ll go with that story.
The museum is not the best and not the worst historical museum I’ve visited. In fact, I finally start to understand more of the history of this place; from the indigenous tribes to the inquisition (those were some crazy times) to the slave trade, it’s all here.
As I find out more, I’m becoming fascinated by the inquisition and how so much of what’s happening today is relatable. No, we’re not torturing people with iron pieces which dig into one’s collarbone and chin if one moves. Or developing tools to tear off a woman’s breasts (I can’t even) –  at least in the U.S., but we are judging people based on their ethnicity, heritage, and religion.
I leave the museum finally feeling like I understand a bit more of Cartagena, and I head back to shower the layers of sunscreen, sweat, dirt, and more sweat off of me (feeling very attractive).
I stop to enjoy some street musicians in Simon Bolivar Square. A little girl stands in front, entranced by the musicians and I’m entranced by her.
Street MusiciansAfter a cool shower (the hotel says they have hot water and I experienced it for two-full-minutes last night. None today) I head out to one of the many squares to have dinner outside in the breezy night air. Though there are no available tables, the restaurant manager, eager to please, quickly takes care of that as I soon see him carrying a square, four-seater table outside and setting it beside other tables. A chair appears and voila, I now have a seat.
I order a Carne Asada (a delicious marinated flank steak) and some wine, when a street vendor approaches. He sells beaded necklaces and bracelets and, though I tell him I’m not interested, he sits on the ledge next to me and strings a variety of small, colorful stones onto a nylon wire. He then offers it to me for no charge which I politely decline as I understand that it’s expected that I’ll purchase one of his others. He insists, telling me it’s from his “Corazon.” After much declining and insisting, I gratefully accept it. Using my crappy Spanish, we speak about Colombia and just generally chit-chat. As a police officer strolls by – the police act as security guards for many public areas like the many squares – he tells me he’ll return shortly. True to his word, he comes back with a supply of very pretty necklaces and bracelets for sale which, true to my word, I decline.
BikerFull or beef and wine, I take the short walk, about five minutes, back to my hotel. On the way, I purchase two Cohiba cigars from a street vendor. I began to enjoy a good Cuban cigar during my first visit to Cuba and enjoy one every once in a while when I can find them. When I arrive at the hotel, I offer Luis, the night desk guy one to smoke with me. He explains that he doesn’t smoke, but we stand outside the door (no smoking anywhere on property) and chat while I smoke. After a while, he goes inside and a man rides up on his bicycle carrying a chair on his head. He places the chair on the sidewalk in front of the next door and asks, in Spanish, if I’m smoking a cigar.
“Yes,” I answer.
“It reminds me of my grandfather,” he says in Spanish.
He tells me that his grandfather used to smoke them and it smelling it gives him a good memory. I offer him my extra cigar and he declines. “My grandfather smoked them but if I picked on up, he would take off his belt and whip me. He didn’t want me to smoke.”
I soon extinguish what’s left of my cigar and head up to bed.
 
Tomorrow – The Bizarre Bazurto
 

Cuban Culture – Music, Art and Tobacco

The following is a condensed commentary of the rest of the week in Cuba. Please don’t get the impression that you can do all of this in one day because, well, that’s just silly talk.

We spend our first full day in Havana exploring some of the streets with a local architect. Yup, many jobs, such as architects, pay so poorly that they take high-paying jobs in tourism. (Hmmm, perhaps I’m living in Architecturethe wrong country.) From Spanish-Moorish, to Baroque (which I tend to be), to Gallic, to Art Deco, Cuba’s architecture is as interesting as its people. Daniel, our guide, who bears a striking resemblance to Javier Bardem, is obviously passionate about the architecture, and his opinions, which makes for a great couple of hours. He shows a bit of disgust when pointing out one of the modern buildings which includes one large level of floor-to-ceiling windows. “With Havana’s sunny climate, this makes no sense,” he tells us. Oh, but even worse is the stairway he points out. It leads from street-level to the entrance of the building. The issue is, there are double glass doors at the building’s entrance, but the metal rail lining the stairway ends in the middle of the second door, rendering it useless. I wonder if this was a mistake or, perhaps, done purposely by the architects to express their dissatisfaction with the pay.

CarsAlso in Havana, we take advantage of a beautifully sunny day and enjoy a ride through the bustling city in gumball colored, antique cars. It feels a bit like Isadora Duncan meets of American Graffiti. Thankful I left my scarf back at the hotel, we stop at the house/studio of Jose Rodriguez Fuster. Fuster is known as the Picasso of the Caribbean, and his place is in an artists’ community which resembles all of the great Gaudi works spread throughout Barcelona, condensed in a one-block area. Between the cars in which we arrive and the brightly colored mosaics throughout, it’s as if Rainbow Bright vomited over the entire area.

MosaicYes, Cuba is full of art, music, and color and we see it all. While in Havana, we pay a visit to the Muraleando Community Project. In this formerly crime-ridden community, two artists began teaching workshops. When people had something Mosaicto do other than commit crimes, well, the crime rate dropped. Where once was graffiti, there are now beautiful murals. And where once the youth created a crime problem, they now create art. The community meets every few weeks to share new and creative ideas. Oh, and there’s music. I find it impossible to sit still when the fantastic singer, accompanied by a four-piece band, begins singing classic and modern Cuban songs, and my entire group is up dancing with me.

We’re lucky enough to enjoy a variety of Cuban music, including a wonderful classical music performance by a full orchestra at the Ermita de Montserrate, a former church, now a concert hall, located on top of a hill with beautiful views over the city of Matanzas. While in Matanzas, we also visit a school of music and art with students are chosen to attend due to a recognized ability in dance, singing or playing an instrument. Former students often go on to careers in the arts and we’re lucky enough to enjoy a performance by these up-and-coming artists. On the other end of the spectrum, we visit a senior center which provides us with, not only an insight into the Cuban social welfare system but some more music and dancing.Cuba - Tobacco drying

Perhaps my favorite day is one which brings us out of the city and into the tobacco fields. No, we don’t pick tobacco, but we do smoke a lot of it. We meet the ninety-year-old owner (“The same age as Fidel,” he says), see how the famous Cuban tobacco is grown as well as the drying and rolling process. I learn how to properly smoke a cigar (for god sakes, don’t inhale) and, even better, how to dip it in Cuban coffee and rum. Yes, we smoke our drinks. We then proceed to the organic farm where we enjoy a lunch of freshly picked. . . everything. . . while sitting on the porch overlooking the fields. This area, the Viñales Valley, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and shows the diversity between the busy Cuban cities, the small, traditional towns, and the escapes to nature.

Organic FarmAfter our day visiting Santa Clara, we’re scheduled to stay in Remedios, a town about forty-five minutes away, but with a slightly better selection of group accommodations. This is new to my company as, while they’d previously stayed in Santa Clara, the one hotel available for groups was, well, somewhere I might have stayed in Asia during my budget crunch. Still, being Cuba, the only thing you can count on is uncertainty. While Jorge, the guide, had tried to confirm which hotel we’ll be staying in, this proves more difficult than putting on your skinny jeans after you’ve been on a cruise and they’ve been washed. Finally, at 11:00am the morning of our stay, we received our hotel confirmation.

After a long day of touring, we arrive at the hotel in Remedios only to be told there’s no room at the inn (Jesus Christ!). We’re told to proceed to the hotel at the other end of the square. When we arrive at the Hotel Barcelona, they welcome us with Mojitos (the tradition continues) and collect everybody’s passports. While other hotels accepted my passport list, this one makes copies of everybody’s passports, which takes some time. As I’m traveling with such a great group of people, they don’t seem to mind the delay and sit on the sofas and barstools in the small lobby and bar enjoying some more cocktails during the wait. Finally, rooms are issued and the two porters work very hard to carry everyone’s bags to their rooms. (This hotel has four floors and no elevators.)

After freshening up, I meet the group in the hotel courtyard, just off the lobby, for dinner. Everyone received a welcome bottle of wine in Havana and most bring their bottles down to dinner with them. The band is playing (there’s always a band in Cuba), the wine and mojitos are flowing, cigars are burning, and we seem to be the only ones in the hotel. We enjoy a nice combo. Buffet & served dinner and, before you know it, most of my group, along with the hotel staff, are dancing a conga-line through the courtyard and into the lobby. By 1:00am there are empty wine bottles and half-smoked cigars scattered throughout. This was one of the more memorable nights of the trip in, what would become known as, “The Frat House.”

The next night we stay at the beautiful beach resort town of Varadero. Varadero is not a place where Cubans live. It’s strictly a resort town where Canadians and Europeans (and soon to be many Americans) vacation. Sure, I have a one-bedroom suite overlooking the ocean, yet I still miss the energy and traditional feel that was Remedios. And I’m not alone. This great group of people I’m traveling with express their preference for our “Frat House.” Still, this Varadero hotel is quite lovely and we enjoy a nice evening of drinks and dinner.

Revolutionaries

Hemingway
Papa’s Typewriter

We head back to Havana seeing more monuments to Che and the Revolutionaries (yes, definitely the name of my band should I ever form one) and have a few more Cuban experiences. We take a bit of time visiting Ernest Hemingway’s House. Hemingway lived in Cuba, on and off, from 1939 to 1960, and it’ where he did some of his finest writing, including The Old Man and the Sea. While you can’t actually enter the house, you can look through the wide doors and large windows to see life through “Papa’s” eyes. The air seems fresher in this house on a hilltop and this writer is inspired.

Hemingway's House

One of our final visits is to a community project for children and young people with Down Syndrome. There is, of course, music and dancing, always with my group joining in. But these are some amazing artists too. They’ve developed a specific style of art using carved printing plates. Their artwork has been featured at international showings and won awards. One of the artists is a former Olympic gold medal winner and we have an emotional surprise moment as he shakes hands with a gentleman in my group who is also a former Olympian. (Both are runners.)

DancersI’m honored to be one who experienced Cuba before, as most expect, it changes completely due to America opening the doors. Again, Cuba never closed its doors and the expected changes do not mean that Cuba will no longer be a Communist nation. It’s simply that, perhaps, America has decided to accept communism in other countries. Whatever the case, I hope Cuba doesn’t change everything. They must concentrate hard on retaining their rich culture and friendly, welcoming attitude.

I’ll be taking just a bit of time off to explore Canada with a new company and to sit in one of my favorite places, St. John’s, Newfoundland (aka, the first Drop Me Anywhere location. You can read about it here), to do some work on my book. I look forward to telling you a bit about where I’ve been staying for the last 3 weeks (another revisit) and explaining the challenges of getting even the simplest of things done while being location independent.

Viva La Revolucion

Immediately after landing at José Martí Airport, the main international airport in Cuba, and after waiting in the VIP lounge while are bags are loaded onto carts by porters – it sounds fancier than it is as the VIP lounge only really offers a place for the group to stay together, have a somewhat cleaner bathroom experience than the main airport bathrooms (not saying much) and munch on some dry small sandwiches and drink a little booze (ok, it might be worth it) – we head out to the bus. We meet our guide Jorge Jorge; yup, that’s his first and his last name (so nice they named him twice). Jorge Jorge will be with us for the next week, as will our driver Osmani, who we’ll pick up later. (No, I’m not driving; until then we’ll have a temporary driver for half the day.) Jorge, Osmani and I will be a team and will collaborate to make this a memorable trip (in a good way) for our passengers, who have paid good money to be here.

Che Guevara
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

We drive directly to Revolution Square, the location of Fidel Castro’s lengthy speeches – the longest one lasted seven-hours and ten-minutes minutes – (random fact – Fidel holds the Guinness World Record for giving the longest speech ever before the United Nations – four-hours and twenty-nine minutes) – where we see large installations of the outlines of the portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, heroes of the revolution. We will see many more statues, portraits, photos and monuments dedicated to Che Guevara yet, as many of us will notice, few such monuments for Fidel Castro. Our guide explains that Che is held as such a hero in Cuba for a few reasons. First, he died young, which gave him martyr status. Second, he wasn’t from Cuba. Che was born in Argentina and joined Cuban revolutionaries, including Fidel Castro, to fight to get out from under the control of the dictator Fulgencio Batista (aah, the irony). Finally, we’re told that Fidel doesn’t particularly like having his image plastered everywhere. I will leave the believability of this up to you. (He seemed to enjoy his long speeches with tens-of-thousands in attendance).
CarIt’s in Revolution Square where we get our first view of the 1950’s cars which have become synonymous with transportation in Cuba. There are two different kinds of these cars here; there are the old beaters which are in definite need of a good paint job, a la Greased Lightning. The other kind, which, at least at this location, outnumber the beaters, are the bright-colored, polished to a near mirror sparkling shine, classics. These shiny ones usually double as taxis for hire. There is one thing the two kinds have in common; while they’re distinctly American on the outside, they’re pure Russian on the inside, with most sporting Soviet-made engines from the good old days.
Another note in the rough political history of U.S.-Cuba relations: Cuba wasn’t all that bothered when America first enacted the embargo – note that it’s officially an economic embargo placed on Cuba by the U.S Treasury Dept. – as the Soviet Union, their communist friend, supported them, both militarily and financially. This was during the cold war and it fell under the enemy of my enemy is my friend. That worked out fine for Cuba. That is until 1991, when the Soviet Union fell. Russia could barely support itself and, therefore, Cuba was left in the lurch. This is the period which Cubans call the “Special Period.” Special meaning, ‘Oh my goodness, what happened to all the toilet paper’ amongst other things. While most other counties have continued to have fine relations with Cuba, and Canadians and Europeans travel there regularly for vacation, it is still a communist country and there is still food rationing. Citizens receive tickets which allow them to stock up once a month. If, as expected, the U.S. continues to relax and even eliminate the embargo, Cuba will remain communist and, while the extra tourism and trade money, and the mass exposure to its democratic neighbors who live only ninety-miles away (think about that – it’s around the same distance from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, and less than the distance from LA to Santa Barbara or Bakersfield) will certainly change things, for the immediate future, and for the average citizen, there will be much which remains the same.
MuseumWe spend the next forty-minutes checking out the Museum of the Revolution where we see old photos, guns, uniforms and other personal items belonging to the revolutionaries. The museum is
Bullet Holes
Notice the bullet holes.

housed in the old palace, which the revolutionaries attacked on July 26, 1953, and where bullet holes can still be seen along the stairway.
We depart the museum for the Hotel Nacional de Cuba to grab a welcome cocktail (there will be many welcome cocktails on this trip) and raise our fists declaring “Viva la revolucion!” The Nacional is the one of the most famous and historic properties in Havana. Opened in 1930, it has hosted Eva Gardner, Errol Flynn, Nelson Rockefeller, Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, Benicio del Toro, mafia king Meyer Lansky, and more. In 1957 Nat King Cole stayed there after first being denied a room, along with Josephine Baker, due to race issues. Oh, and, our hero, Che Guevara also stayed here. Viva la Revolucion!
I stay behind to the check group into the hotel and catch up on paperwork while the group stops at the cemetery (they saw dead people). On returning, everyone has a chance to stop by their rooms and Restaurantfreshen-up before meeting for some more welcome cocktails in the beautiful garden area. We head into our first group dinner in Comedor de Aguiar, the hotel restaurant, which is beautiful to look at and makes me feel as if I’m sitting in 1940’s Cuba and almost any one of the above- mentioned celebrities might, at any moment, walk past (please let it be Errol Flynn). Still, this is a government hotel which means a government restaurant. While workers at government restaurants are government employees (just as if they worked at the social security office or the DMV), Paladars are private restaurants. Most government restaurants aren’t known for the food quality and our dry chicken breast proves this to be true. Still, this is a great group who appreciates that we’ll be experiencing the many varieties of food, accommodations, transportation and cultural experiences which Cuba has to offer.
Coming next – sites, sounds, and people of Cuba.

The Good, the Bad, and the Thank-you's – New Zealand

Dead BirdFrank the DogIt’s time to close-out these New Zealand posts. But first, have you voted for the next location? Only a week left so please do it here! I’ll spend a bit more time here as, now that I’ve left Frank, The Dog, I’m staying with a cat named Solie, fourteen sheep, and a dead bird (Solie brought me a present this morning). Anyway, this is where I tell you what was good about New Zealand, and more specifically Auckland), what was bad, and who I need to thank for helping me along the way. I’ll also provide all of the links which I’ve listed, all gathered into one handy package, as well as the budget so, if you choose to do a similar trip, you’ll have an idea about what it might cost. This is a great one to bookmark.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering where the volunteer project is, well, I’m still looking. I’ve run into challenges with agencies answering my correspondence as well as allowing one-off volunteering as opposed to a longer-tem commitment. I’ll continue to search and will write about any I find on www.Rebel-With-A-Cause.org as well as letting you know on the Drop Me Anywhere social media accounts, so be sure to follow.
The Good­
New Zealand BeautyThe scenery – Yup, it’s just beautiful. Lush, green hills dotted with trees which seem to be the elusive Truffula Trees from Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. It looks a lot like Hawaii (only colder). Sheep dot the hills and pastures like lint on a sweater and fat cows roam the wide-open farmland. It’s just gorgeous.
They speak English! Yeh, I know that sounds, oh so American but, after four-months in Asia, as well as Hungary and Germany before that, sometimes there can be communication challenges. While my Spanish came in handy in Germany (what?), it’s still much easier if everyone speaks English. Still, Kiwi English can sometimes sound like a whole different language. And the accent is somewhere between Australian and South African.
Lake Taupo
Taupo and Rotorua – Lake Taupo, the largest lake, (by surface area) in New Zealand, is just incredible and would be a great place to vacation in the summer. Across the lake, you’ll have a great view of Mt. Taranaki, Mt. Fuji’s New Zealand Doppelganger, while enjoying a coffee, or beer, in this beach-side town. And if Waterfalladventure is what you’re after, well then, name your adventure sport and, between Taupo and Rotorua, well, if you can’t find it, there’s no such thing. Skydiving, bungee-jumping, zip-lining, skiing, snowboarding, white-water rafting, abseiling (repelling), Zipliningzorbing (flying down a hill inside an air-filled ball with absolutely no control as to where you go. Hey wait, that’s just like Drop Me Anywhere!), helicopter rides, hiking, four-wheeling, giant swings, parasailing, mountain biking, sledging (kind of like body surfing through the rapids on a river), jet-boating, paddle boarding, and, well, if you haven’t died yet, I’m sure you’ll find even more. Yeh, you should come.
Black Water Rafting – Okay, so you won’t find this one in Taupo or Rotorua but it’s still pretty awesome and you should try it.GlowwormsAbout New Zealand Car Rental – Lack of new car smell is a small price to pay for, well, a rental car for a small price. While an older wine will cost you a bundle, an older car will save you some cash to help fund your gas money.
The people – New Zealanders like to talk about “Kiwi Hospitality” and yes, for the most part, they’re nice. They’re not nearly as nice as the Irish, or the folks in St. John’s Newfoundland, but most of the Disney princesses aren’t even as nice as them.
The Bad
The heating – What the F@#$? Seriously, is it to make people appreciate summertime more? It’s the twenty-first century. I’m not asking for jet-packs or teleportation, just a simple unit which heats a house, no matter what room you’re in, and allows you to use your laptop to for writing as opposed to embracing it for its heat, like a child hugging his teddy-bear. I’m sheep-sitting while using a wood-burning stove and hot-water bottle to ward off hypothermia; I’m friggin’ Laura Ingalls Wilder!
The prices – It’s not that it’s outrageously expensive; it’s just that I’m coming from a few months in Southeast Asia and well, it’s like three-times the price.
Friday – No, not the day of the week. When you’re traveling, you lose track of time so Friday, the day of the week, is just like Monday or Thursday or Sunday (well, in some countries pharmacies are closed on Sundays so, if you need Tampons, you should maybe plan ahead) and the day of the week matters not. I’m talking about My Man Friday who, although he was English and not Kiwi, will always be a part of the New Zealand memories, and who turned into that wonderful Steve Martin movie, The Jerk (read about the end of that in Sleeping With the Enemy). After what was sometimes a trying time in Asia, as well as coping with the loneliness on the road, I was looking forward to a soft place to land, as well as seeing the same person for more than one day; this was a major disappointment and a girl deserves to be treated better.
The Thank-you’s
Frank teh DogThanks to Frank, The Dog, and Solie, the cat’s (and the sheep’s) parents for allowing me to spend time in your homes and with your fuzzy family members. Staying free of charge is a huge benefit when traveling full-time; but, as I mentioned, it can get lonely and, even if I don’t see the same person for more than a day, seeing the same dog, cat, or even sheep, can be quite comforting. And they’ve been much more considerate than Friday.
SeussThanks to Rotorua Canopy Tours, The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, Kiwi Paka Accommodations, The National Youth Children’s Theatre, The Auckland War Memorial Museum and The New Zealand Maritime Museum for comps and discounts which allowed me to experience your wonderful and unique offerings. And while I truly appreciate it, dear readers, rest assured that any comps or discounts never guarantee a positive review. Nope, I just can’t lie. (See the links below.)
Thanks to those at home who have helped me take care of some of the business of having a previous life back there while I’m across the world. It’s a tough balance and, while I often fall, you’re my knee and elbow pads, along with my helmet which keep me from getting too banged up.
Thank you to you, my dear and loyal Virtual Travel Buddies. I appreciate you telling me where to go, and traveling along with me. I appreciate it when you read, share and comment. You have no idea how much you comments (or even just clicking on and reading my article) lifts me up. And being called the Taylor Swift of blogging, well, while I was just hoping for an adventure, knowing it wasn’t a Love Story, I thought Everything Has Changed, and why did he have to be so Mean? It left me with a Blank Space and your comments helped me to (all together now) Shake it Off!
The Next Vote!
The Budget
Flights – $31.70 + 25,000 American Airlines Frequent Flyer Miles used for Malaysia Airlines flight
Accommodations – $573.45 – 17 days staying free while house/pet sitting (camper van under transportation).
Food – $683.57 – It’s less expensive to buy groceries and cook while in a campervan, house sitting and at an AirBnB if they’ll allow you to use the kitchen.
Transportation – $1238.99 – Includes buses, ferries, 7 night’s camper van (we paid for all nights though we returned early), 19 days rental car.
Admissions and Activities – $256.31 – cost listed includes actual prices of activities which were comped or discounted for media.
Wireless access – $100.00
Total – $2884.02
The Links
Accommodations
AirBnB
HouseCareers
Kiwi Paka Accommodation
Trusted Housesitters
Activities
Aotea Center
Auckland War Memorial Museum
Legendary Black Water Rafting Company
National Youth Theatre Company
New Zealand Maritime Museum
Rotorua Canopy Tours
Wairakei Terraces
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Yoga Tree
Airlines
Malaysia Airlines
Car, Camper Rentals and Transportation
About New Zealand Rental Cars
Apex Car Rentals
Fullers Ferry
Maui Camper Vans
Super Shuttle
Restaurants
Blue Breeze Inn
Cable Bay Vineyards
The Crew Club
Curly’s Bar
Father Ted’s
Fenice
Mudbrick Winery
Ponsonby Central
Toru
Waimauku Foodstation
Miscellaneous
2 Degrees Wireless
Decked Out Yachting
Forest Restoration Project
Inner Link Bus
New Zealand tourism website
Waiheke

War Memorials and Wineries

Today, I hop on good ol’ bus #20 to head to the Auckland War Memorial Museum. I’m not positive of the best route, but I know the general direction I want to go in and I just love leaving time to get lost as that’s when I tend to find the best adventures. As I board, I ask the driver if this is the best way to get to the museum and she and another gentleman instruct me to hop off at the next stop and take the Inner Link Bus. The Inner and Outer Link buses do a full-circle route which hits some of the most popular areas close by. At NZ$2.50, they cost the same as the regular public buses.
It takes a while but, eventually, I arrive at the museum. Here’s a hint, if you take the Inner Link bus, get off at the Museum stop or at the Hospital stop, whichever comes first, as the walk is about equidistant and Maorithere’s no need to do the whole ride around the loop if you’re already there. I walk into the museum and collect my ticket. I plan to wander around the museum on my own (tours are available), but first, take in the Māori cultural performance. As I arrive just fifteen-minutes before the next performance, I wait in the Special Exhibitions Hall and hang with the half-naked Māori men because, well, do I really need a reason to hang with the half-naked Maori men? After a few minutes, the ladies appear (damn) and invite us into the performance room.
The thirty-minute narrated show provides a taste of traditional Māori song and dance. There are traditional rhythmic instruments, songs and chants, and a traditional Haka (or warrior dance), which has become popular with some college sports teams. If you come to this museum, you might want to add this to your day. I leave the naked men behinds, uh, no wait, I leave the naked men behind and set off to explore the museum.
The museum is divided between three floors with the ground floor concentrating New Zealand living and settlement. The first floor (or second floor for us Americans) concentrates on the natural part of New Zealand including oceans, land and volcanoes, and the top floor contains wartime history and memorials.
DressI stroll through the bottom floor enjoying stories of sailors and settlers, and a look at fashion and furniture. New Zealand is a young country, so much of this concentrates on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I move on to the first floor where I see some sharkgreat white sharks and enjoy a cool presentation on volcanoes. The volcano presentation has me taking a seat on the sofa of a living-room set. The door closes and the TV comes on. It’s a special report on a volcano eruption threat in Auckland Harbour. It’s all fake, of course, but I’m not sure it’s appropriate for the four year-old sitting next to me. I whisper to the mom, “He knows this isn’t real, right?” She assures me that he does but I still expect him to be waking up mom screaming about volcanoes tonight. Soon the large screen in front of us shows rocks and water spurting out of the harbor and the floor begins shaking. The cloud of ash, soot and rocks fills the screen and even if the four-year old doesn’t, I’m sure I’ll have nightmares of erupting volcanoes tonight.
I head upstairs where I learn of New Zealand’s involvement in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. (This one is surprising to me as I never really thought about New Zealand in Vietnam.) There are memorials to soldiers lost in battle, as well as individual stories of local heroes.
Finished with the museum, I step outside and catch the Inner Link bus back to Ponsonby, which is the area just next to where I’m staying. Ponsonby is a suburb of Auckland and Ponsonby Road has some great dessertbars, restaurants and shops. I step off the bus and stop at Blue Breeze Inn for a drink and a bite to eat. I decide to skip dinner and go straight for drinks and dessert, so I order up a nice glass of red wine and the Choc Pot. I’m sitting in an enclosed porch area which has great views of the street for people-watching. Red wine, chocolate and people-watching, what could be better? While I enjoy the wine, the Choc Pot, it’s just a bit too chocolatey (I never knew there was such a thing), but now I’m set for chocolate for at least another week. I head back to the AirBnb and chat with Ruth, the owner, and her kids for a bit as it’s been a couple of days since we’ve caught up.
I wake up in the morning and catch the #20 bus down to the ferry terminal. I’m heading to Waiheke, an island filled with vineyards and wineries. There are a couple of ferries and I jump on the Fullers ferry for sailboatthe half-hour ride to Waiheke. The ride lasts a bit long as the captain comes on the speaker and announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, you may have noticed that we’ve come to a stop as another vessel has put out a distress call due to a medical emergency on board and we’re going to see if we can help (ooh, we’re like Mighty Mouse – “Here I come to save the day!”). The ferry turns around and, out the window we see a sailboat with a few people, one of whom is in obvious distress. While I got a late start and really just want to get to Waiheke, some things take precedence. We spend a few minutes wondering if we’ll be taking them in board and heading back to Auckland Harbour when a police boat appears and our engines are, once again, fired up as we make our way to Waiheke.
When we finally arrive and I step off and head over towards the right where I’ve been told there are some wineries within walking distance. I stop by a car/scooter rental to inquire as to scooter rental rates which, at NZ$50 (US$33.50) are too high for my blood (Toto, we’re not in Asia any more) and also, probably not a great idea to attempt while wine tasting.
PathThere’s a hiking path lined with beautiful flora and fauna hiding just behind the car rental which takes me past hillside vineyards and, after fifteen-minutes, leads to Cable Bay Vineyards. I plunk my NZ$10 down and, in return, will get to try five varieties of wine. I begin with a Sauvignon Blanc, which I take out into the plastic-enclosed dining porch to enjoy the beautifully sunny, yet crisp, winter day. The porch sits on a hillside overlooking a lovely landscaped lawn with the sea in the distance. As Winery viewI’ve chosen to sit outside instead of in the tasting room, I must walk up to the bar for each new taste. I think of this as my field sobriety test and, if I can walk the straight line inside, I get to have another taste (because there’s wine, I walk the line – thanks to Johnny Cash)). I do this four times and, after I’m sufficiently convinced that I’m still fairly sober, I take a quick tour of the rest of the place before heading out for another fifteen-minute walk up to Mudbrick Winery, where I throw another NZ$10 down on the counter and am served another five-tastes of some fine fermented beverages.
I sit outside here, once again, admiring the view, which means I do the sobriety walk four more times before deciding that some food might be in order. As the food at the winery can be a bit pricey, and I want to stop by Oneroa, the main town on Waiheke, I walk fifteen-minutes down the hill and grab a bite of ravioli at Fenice. The ravioli is good, but nothing special, but the wood-burning fireplace is just what I need as the sun begins to set and the air starts to chill.
Winery ViewI catch the bus out front down to the ferry terminal where I meet a lovely family from the U.S. We climb aboard the ferry and chat the entire way. They ask to take photos with me so they’ll have them when I’m famous (from their mouth to god’s ears) and, as we dock, we say our good-nights. I walk over to the downtown transportation depot and grab the #20 back to my AirBnB. Two buses and a ferry following wine tasting and I don’t get lost; a successful day.

To See the Sea in Auckland

After arriving in Auckland following what might be the worst road-trip I’ve experienced, I spend the next day in, catching up on work, checking out what fun things there might be to do in Auckland (remember, I don’t plan, so I haven’t researched), and recovering from recent events. It’s important to take some days to relax and catch up on your life when you’re traveling long-term. I generally do this in those “in-between” locations which I’ve spoken of but, there’s been a lot to catch up on lately and I got a bit behind during the days spent in the camper van. Ruth, the owner of my AirBnB, dropped me off at the grocery store the previous night so I could pick up a few things, so, after working and catching up on my life for most of the day, I cook up some nice fish, veggies and sweet potatoes (a New Zealand favorite). Cooking for myself is a treat as I get so little chance to do it.
I wake up in the morning ready to take on the world (okay, perhaps not the world, but Auckland, at least). Ruth drops me in town near what’s known as the Viaduct, an area on the waterfront with many restaurants, bars and cafes, as well as a fish market. It’s early and I stop by a local place for coffee and breakfast. People are sitting outside and, as it’s about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius), I decide Aucklanders are crazy. Still, I’ve just come from nearly four-months in Southeast Asia so, perhaps, I simply have blood as thick as a scotch and soda with melted ice (for god sakes, just drink the scotch straight up).
Following a lovely breakie, I stroll down the wharf admiring the glamorous yachts which are docked along the quay. I speak with a couple of the crew members who explain that the ones in front of me are the Yachtpersonal yachts of private owners (read – really rich people) who have them simply for their own enjoyment (and to pick up women, I’m sure). Captain Dave offers to take me on a tour of a couple of the yachts which the company he works for, Decked Out Yachting, charters for day and multi-day trips. He opens the gate for me and we walk down to the yacht Corybas. Built in 2010, this yacht has old-school wooden touches updated in modern design. It sleeps six passengers plus a crew of two to four, depending on the clients’ needs. Dave took this one down to the Fjordlands for three-months with a client. It’s beautiful and I think I would have been much better off with a man inviting me for a trip on Corybas instead of Camper van Beethoven. We move on to check-out L’Affaire (I wonder about the origin of the name). This one is older (built in 1993 and sleeps up to nine guests) and has less personality, but is comfortable. It has a living room with sofas and a TV, a dining room set which would look nice in my house (I never did buy one for my dining room), four bathrooms, and many areas to sit and eat, or enjoy some cocktails. After a while, Don must go meet some delivery people and I must leave the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to go in search of The Real World – Auckland.
CannonI walk across the small pedestrian drawbridge and into the Maritime Museum. The museum celebrates the long history New Zealand, and more specifically Auckland, has with the sea. Before heading inside, I step out onto the pier to watch the midday cannon being fired. While the school-group standing on the pier seems to be excited by the loud boom and smoke which follows, I would find it much more exciting if there were maybe a certain rude Englishman standing in front of it (see Sleeping With the Enemy); but I digress.
The first area I come across upon entering is the theatre. As there’s a sign on the door saying something like “Closed to the public – Only for special groups,” I walk inside, take a seat. (I’m special, right?), and watch a video telling of the Māori and their boats.
BoatIn the next area, I learn all about the various boats used by the indigenous population, including the Māori canoes called Waka (I can only think this might also be the name of Fozzy Bear’s canoe – waka-waka). I find it amazing that the Māori memorized their routes (I can’t even remember where I put my keys) and even helped with this by turning them into song.
My Key Song (set to the tune of Let It G)o:
Where’d they go? Where’d they go? I can’t find my keys no more.
Where’d they go? Where’d they go? I had them when I walked in the door.)    
I continue on to read about Captain Cook’s journeys before entering New Beginnings, a section which describes the immigrant experience of coming to New Zealand. It’s set up very much like the German CabinEmigration Center in Bremerhaven (read Emigration, Immigration and Climatization) and, as I enter through the doorway, the wooden floors below me begin to move as if I’m on a rocking boat (perhaps I need to cut out that morning cocktail). In front of me I see a staged cabin, filled with bunk-beds and various personal items which might belong to an emigrant family crossing the ocean in the early nineteenth-century to begin their new lives in distant lands. I move on to view rooms from the early twentieth-century before entering the next display about whaling and ferries.
Next, it’s up to the top floor where I see Black Magic, the boat which won the 1995 America’s Cup for the New Zealand team. Captained by Sir Peter Blake, this holds huge national pride for New Zealanders and brought great respect to New Zealand’s yachting community. I walk through the displays to learn that, tragically, in 2001, Blake was killed by armed intruders while his boat was anchored at the mouth of the Amazon.YachtThe rest of the museum includes the Edmiston Gallery, which houses paintings of ferries, ship models and, my favorites, figureheads from the bows of ships.Next is the Kiwis and the Coast display with a model of a throwback beach house, a navigation room and fishing industry room.
sailboatAfter an hour-and-a-half enjoying the museum, I walk onto the pier outside and board a sailing boat which takes me on a one-hour cruise around Auckland Harbour. We’re offered traditional yellow-fishermen’s coats to wear which I accept (though it’s a shame to cover up my pretty new red coat which I had made in Vietnam).
sailboatCaptain Peter does a safety briefing before we set-sail to discover new lands (or perhaps simply a great familyview of Auckland). I sit and talk with an American family here in vacation, as well as a large group of Korean students who, like most people I met in Asia, just want to speak English and get their photo taken with westerners. The yellow fishing jacket keeps me surprisingly warm until the rain begins to fall and, though it also keeps me dry, I’m ready for some hot cocoa when we arrive back at the pier.
I stop in The Crew Club, a restaurant on the pier to grab some hot cocoa and Wifi where I map out my return bus trip on the AT app., the app. for Auckland transportation which I’ve downloaded on my iPhone (Google Maps is also handy for this). I walk over to the bus stop which, for the low-low-price of NZ$2.50, and a combined walking and bus trip of thirty-two minutes, leads me back to my AIrBnB to warm-up and wash-up for a girl’s night out.
Tomorrow – Wine, Women and Song.

Communism and the Common People

After returning to Hanoi from my overnight in Halong Bay, I grab my suitcase and move to the Tu Linh Legend Hotel, which was recommended to me by a couple I met on the airport shuttle in Hoi An. I’ve found the personal recommendations much more reliable than the reviews on the various travel sites, as many of those are written by people paid by the hotel owner. Many of the negative reviews are by their competition. I tend to disregard the first few reviews as well as those which are supposedly written by people from countries where English is the native language, yet incorrect terms or grammar are used. A huge indicator for me is when they say “the staffs were great.” I also judge men by their grammar and could never date someone who doesn’t understand the difference between their, there and they’re.) The price at the Tu Linh Legend is $12 less per night and the staffs (ha!) at the Moon View 2, while nice, speak little English and have no idea what I’m talking about when I asked for directions to “the prison,” a major tourist site. I spend the evening in, relaxing from an early few days. (Heck, all of Vietnam has been early as they generally wake by about 5:30 am and are not quiet people.) In the morning, I head out to find that prison I spoke of. It’s called Hoa Lo and more famously known as the Hanoi Hilton, where many American pilots, including Arizona Senator John McCain were held after being shot down in, what I now know as, the American War (see previous article Happy Birthday in Halong Bay). Hanoi HiltonI pay my 15,000 Dong entrance fee (about US$0.70) and walk in. Built in 1896 by French colonists, Hoa Lo was a trade village which became a prison to revolutionary soldiers. Most of the bottom floor is dedicated to showing the harsh conditions the Vietnamese revolutionaries lived under. It shows torture devices, rooms filled with mannequins in shackles, and even a guillotine supposedly used to execute those condemned to death. It’s a sad and miserable place and I learn more about Vietnamese history. I head to more rooms where we get into the era of the 1960’s and 70’s. From 5 August, 1963 until 29 March, 1973, Hoa Lo housed captured U.S. pilots. Housed might be the wrong term as this is where they were confined and, often, tortured. The crazy thing here is that this small area dedicated to this part of the history of Hoa Lo is one big lie. John McCainI first see a display of items confiscated from the captured American pilots; there’s Vicks Cough Drops, a toothbrush, cigarettes and other daily items. Also on display are pieces of clothing, including one in a large case which purports to be the flight uniform of John McCain, along with his parachute. Moving through the room I view displays of nice, leather shoes, a leather carry-on bag and a few smaller items which are described as, “items given to American pilots by the Hanoi HiltonVietnamese government when they were returned to America.” Also shown are videos and photos of the captured pilots receiving souvenirs to take home to America (aw, parting gifts, how sweet). There are photos and videos of smiling, captured Americans playing pool and chess, with captions explaining how pilots enjoyed wonderful Christmases and excellent food. How amazing that the infamous Hanoi Hilton was really an all-inclusive resort. The only thing left out is the daily massages. I walk through while saying out loud, “Oh my god, oh my god!” While I don’t believe America should have been in Vietnam in the first place, soldiers were tortured and Hoa Lo was infamous for it’s terrible conditions and torture of its captives. This place is a real juxtaposition of my experiences in Germany where museums and historical sites are dedicated to telling the whole, horrible truth. I’ve never experienced a place filled with such propaganda. Hanoi HiltonI leave Hoa Lo disturbed that these lies are believed by the Vietnamese, as outside information can be somewhat limited due to the communist government. GardensI head next to the Văn Miếu, the Temple of Literature. Built in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius, the temple grounds are divided into five courtyards, with decorative arches separating each, as well as gardens Temple of Literatureand statues in between. At the end is the altar-filled Pagoda where people have left offerings (mainly boxes of cheese wafers, which makes it look much like corporate sponsorship). There’s a university inside which was built in 1076 and has produced 1,307 graduates who have passed the set of eighty-two Royal Exams. The sign inside the pagoda explains Confucianism as this: “In brief, a theory on ethical behavior of a gentleman: educating the self, organizing the family, governing the state, and ruling all nations.” I think Confucius might have had something there. Temple of LiteratureAfter touring the Pagoda, I wait out front to meet Yen. You might remember that I met thirteen year-old Yen and her family in Da Nang while visiting Ba Na Hills. They adopted me and turned, what could have been a very bad day, into a fabulous one. They were on vacation then but, as they live in Hanoi, we’ve arranged to meet up. Vietnamese FamilyBefore long, Yen, her mother, and her four teenage cousins appear. We do introductions and hug and
they invite me to their house. We follow Son, Yen’s mom, to the bus stop where we take the twenty-minute bus-ride to their neighborhood, before walking another ten-minutes to their house. On the way, we stop at Yen’s aunt’s tailor shop as well as her other aunt’s clothing shop. We enter the house on the bottom floor, walk upstairs to the kitchen and up another flight to the patio and sitting room. There’s an altar with incense and photos of Yen’s grandmother, grandfathers and a brother who died at ten years-old. I’m introduced to their cat, Meow, their dog, Bee, some birds and some fish. Oh, and there are the chickens, but they have no names except, Lunch and Dinner. I’m also introduced to Yen’s father. We sit and drink herbal tea while getting to know each other better.
After a while, the teenagers suggest that they show me the marketplace. It’s about a five minute-walk and, like most of the marketplaces I’ve been in Vietnam, it has just about anything you could want, all decorated with designer labels (though, in my experience, many will fall apart within a month). This is really just me and some teenagers going to the mall; some things are universal. TeenagersI ask the girls if I can buy them ice cream and, as we walk down the street we’re joined by another cousin (a boy). We find a place which serves prepackaged ice-cream bars from a cooler and take a seat at one of the tiny plastic tables out front. We chat about many things – what they want to do when they get older, their plans for the summer, famous people – and this is where I see great differences from other teenagers I’ve met around the world. When one girl says she wants to be a rap star when she’s older, and she also loves California, mostly because of Hollywood stars, I as if she likes Eminem. She’s never heard of him. I name a few more singers; some, like Taylor Swift and Michael Jackson, they know. Others like U2 and Adele, they’ve never heard of. I play some of the music on my iPhone and we all rock to Taylor Swift and One Direction. I ask the name of some famous people here in Vietnam and the first answer given by all is Ho Chi Minh. Wow. I ask for more and they tell me Vo Nguyen Giap. When I ask who that is they tell me he’s a famous general. Oh, wow. This is not the answer I expected. Eiffel TowerNone of the teens have ever been out of Vietnam nor do they have a great desire to travel anywhere else, yet they do point out an electrical tower commenting that it looks like the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Eventually it’s time to say goodbye and they lead me to the bus stop where I board the #2 bus and ask the money-taker guy to let me know when we’re near the Temple of Literature. I step off and begin walking back to my hotel when I decide to stop for a bite of street-food and a beer. As I sit, three men invite me to join them and share their food. We eat, drink beer and chat while the sun sets. They’re impressed with the fact that I’m a woman traveling alone and that I’ll try all of the food they offer. They work for an insurance company for the military. One used to work in a business which meant traveling outside the country for conventions. He’s one of the few Vietnamese I’ve met who has traveled outside of Vietnam, as most don’t have the money and some can’t get visas. (One person in the south told me it’s because America won’t issue visitors visas to Vietnamese. I explained that it wasn’t true and American would issue a visa for a visit, but he wouldn’t believe me.) He tells me that, at some point, he was told he must work for this insurance company.
We talk about the difficulty of Vietnamese getting travel visas and, eventually, he says something in broken English like, “You’re not secret?”
I squint my eyes and ask him to repeat it. He does and I still don’t understand.
“Like CIA. You’re not secret police?” he says. “Because if you are, I’m in trouble.”
“Um, me? No, I’m just a travel writer.”
“Oh, good,” he says.
We continue to drink our beer, chat, and enjoy learning about each other’s cultures. I attempt to pay, and they refuse. Truly an enlightening day. Next up, The Good, the Bad, and the Thank-you’s

Welcome Home

I was a child of the 1970’s. During my young childhood, in Oak Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, while race-riots were erupting around, and protests about a war far, far away were turning violent, my parents, and most of those of my friends, kept us protected from the harsh realities of the times. We rode our bikes, played Rain on the Roof (a ball game) and our biggest problem was that our older sister’s bedtime was later than ours. Today, I get to see what it was like for others, including children my age, in this land far away.

MuseumTony, the former Vietnamese soldier and current pedicab driver drops me off at the War Remnants Museum. I pay the 15,000 Dong Fee (about US$0.69) and head inside. I enter the ground floor to a photo display which shows all of the countries which were against U.S. involvement. The display continues with photos of Vietnamese and U.S. government delegations meeting at various times throughout the 1960’s and 70’s.

Agent Orange

I continue on through the other three floors of the museum. Most of the museum is a captioned photo archive with various objects, or as the museum is called, “remnants,” scattered throughout. There’s a collection of photos showing the immediate, as well as long-term, generational effects of Agent Orange and other chemicals. (For those who aren’t clear on it, Agent Orange and other chemicals were used by the U.S. to destroy the jungles which gave cover to the enemy). There are still children born today with birth defects which are being blamed on the use of the chemicals some forty-years ago.

There are rooms containing displays of weapons, and stories of specific U.S. soldiers who committed Vietnam - Museum Bombsatrocities (such as My Lai), as well as a few of U.S. soldiers who did good things. There are, of course, displays about Vietnamese heroes and martyrs. There are propaganda posters such as the cartoon-one with the caption, “Posters appealed to the Vietnamese people to help American pilots” (oh, I highly doubt it). I understand that much of what I see here, as well as in other areas of Vietnam, is incredibly one-sided and filled with propaganda. Still, it’s important to understand what information people get in any country tends to be slanted, but also forms their views. There are bits, or, in some cases more than bits, of truth in it.

Propaganda ComicThere’s also an incredibly touching display on international war photographers, many of whom lost their lives in this war. There’s respect given to them, whether they be Vietnamese, Japanese, French or American. After all, it was these photographers who shared the horrible tragedy that was happening.

As I walk through the museum, I find myself both saddened and outraged at the violence, waste and lies involved in the tragedy that was the Vietnam War or, as it’s called here, the Indochina War. I also find myself even more grateful to those American soldiers who were involved in this tragedy, as many simply found themselves in a no-win situation with no clear way out. As I view some displays, I have the urge to pound on the wall and scream at the horrible waste it all was.

HelicopterVietnam - Museum TankI exit the museum into the courtyard where helicopters, airplanes and other larger military equipment belonging to both Vietnam and America are parked. While interesting for a woman, I’m sure this part is near nirvana for many gear-heads.

After approximately three-hours in the museum, I head back to my hotel. I’m physically and emotionally exhausted and decide to have a night in. After a little work, I run down the street to a bakery and grab some various bread-based items to hold me until breakfast the next morning.

Plastic FruitIn the morning I awake and head to the ninth-floor for breakfast. As was my experience yesterday, breakfast is uninspired (it’s really bad). I grab a sunny-side up egg whose sun has set a long ago, and scrape an unnaturally red colored sausage from the chafing dish which it has now fused with. I decide the whole apples and oranges sitting on the top are my best bet, but when I pick them up, they’re hollow. It’s bad when the plastic fruit is the most appetizing thing on the buffet. I ask for coffee as the coffee pot is empty. The attendant says he’ll take care of it and, twenty-minutes later, he’s brewed another four whole cups.

I head back to my room to pack as I’m moving to new hotel today. At about the same cost, it’s in an area with many more restaurants and cafes, and is just down the street from the market. It’s also a block away from the Paradise Boutique Hotel, which I’ll be moving into later in the week but can’t afford too many nights at.

I ask the hotel to call a taxi and, as I enter, I feel more prepared. I’ve Google-Mapped the directions and show the taxi driver. It turns out, he needs them as he hasn’t a clue where he’s going. We navigate the ten-minute ride together (taxi-rides here are a team effort if you don’t want to be cheated) and arrive at the address. Unfortunately, I’ve used the address on the receipt I was given yesterday when I found the hotel while walking and put down a deposit. The address on the receipt is for the other location of this hotel group. I hand the man the business card of the Paradise Hotel as I know my new hotel is just a block away. He drops me at the Paradise Hotel and I walk with my bags. I’m just happy that he didn’t ask me for more money than the meter read. This is my definition of success.

PalaceAfter checking into the hotel, I head out to explore the Reunification Palace. This building was where the president lived and worked prior to the end of the war. Its ninety-five rooms cover 20,000 square meters. From the outside it looks like an office building while, on the inside, it looks like an office building. To be fair, the Vietnam - Palace Phoneshallways look like an office building, but the meeting rooms are more ornately decorated with pretty (not beautiful, but pretty) chandeliers and nice artwork. There are conference and dining rooms for meeting dignitaries. One of these rooms, with a collection of important looking telephones, was used for a meeting between the Vietnamese president, his senior officers, and U.S. advisers on April 3, 1975 as they tried to find a solution for what was becoming clear, would be a loss to the North Vietnamese. There’s also a room where Henry Kissinger met with President Thiêu to persuade him to accept the terms of the Paris Peace Accord.

Conference RoomAs I walk through, a thunderstorm has begun raging outside and it feels a bit like a movie, with the booming sounds providing a sense of foreboding for what was to come.

President's officeI continue on to see the former presidential office (not nearly as impressive as the Oval Office) and the living quarters which are comparable to my current $33 per night hotel room. I walk through the kitchen where signs brag about the “state-of-the-art” equipment which, I’d guess, wasn’t even state-of-the-art in the 1960’s.

Bedroom
President’s bedroom in the bunker

I get a look at the bunker below the palace and walk through the presidential office, communications room, presidential sleeping quarters and other rooms. I agree with the comments I hear of how it must have been difficult running a war from down here as it’s dim, cramped and, with no air conditioning, sweltering.

Bunker Office
Bunker Office

As I’m walking out of the bunker, I hear some Americans speaking with their local guide while pointing to a map and indicating where they’ll visit in the next few days. I approach them to chat about their planned travels as I sense there’s more to the story. It turns out, their father, who is traveling with them but not in the palace today, is a Vietnam veteran and has experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They’ve come as a family to try to find him some peace. They’ll travel to the city where he fought, in hopes of him “coming to terms with it.” Yes, the war changed both Vietnam as well as America. I wish them peace of their future travels and head back to my hotel.

Tomorrow, a night at the market.

*Note – as per reader requests, I’m attempting to include many photos in these posts. While I love the power of words, I also understand the curiosity of Vietnam and will do my best to describe the place in both words and photos.

Have you voted our next locations? Well do it again. This is an interactive project so please do your part by voting. VOTE HERE

Jungle Spice

The plan for today is to tour Old Goa with Elvis (the friend of the friend) and his brother Elston. I believe I’ve mentioned that I used to work on board cruise ships, and Elvis and Elston both currently do (as do many Goans). They’re from Goa and both happen to be home on vacation and have kindly offered to show me around. I stop by the outdoor breakfast area and order up a cheese omelet, some toast, fresh fruit and coffee (breakfast is included).

At 9:00 Indian time (that’s 9:30 real time, which works for me as the hard Indian bed has, once again, robbed me of a good night’s sleep) Elvis and Elston arrive and we head out to explore Old Goa.

Constructed in the 15th century, it served as capital of Portuguese India from the 16th century until its near abandonment in the 18th century due to a plague. Still, some remained and Goa gained its independence from the Portuguese in 1961 and became fully part of India. In 1986, Old Goa was named a UNESO World Heritage Site.

ChurchWe stop first at the Bom Basilica where we see relics of days gone by. It’s difficult to see inside the religious service area as there seems to be a confirmation going on, but it looks beautiful. Due to the Portuguese influence, there are many Christians in Goa and, therefore, many churches. The Portuguese influence can also be seen in the architecture, décor and artwork.

Next, we make a stop at the archaeological museum which, while small (with no air conditioning) houses some spectacular relics displaying the intricate carving work which I’ve grown accustomed to in India. The second floor displays large portraits former Goan leaders which remind me of many of the portrait galleries I saw in Europe.

JungleNext we head over to the Sahakari Spice Farm. After just a bit of trouble finding it (thanks Google Maps!) we arrive. Elston parks the car while Elvis steps outside to be sure he’s not parking under a tree with hanging coconuts which might fall onto the car. We walk up the road lined with beautiful palm trees, cross a bridge and are welcomed with flower leis as well as me receiving a traditional red Spice Jungledot on my forehead. We’re invited into circular enclosures to take a seat and enjoy some spiced tea and crackers. After a few minutes, our guide, (who I nickname “Jungle Spice,” the forgotten Spice Girl) invites a group of us to walk with her into the jungle. She shows us different plants and explains which spice they produce, how they’re harvested, what the spice is used for – both for cooking and health benefits – as well as how expensive it is. We eventually walk to a tall palm tree where we’re given a demonstration on how to climb up to harvest its fruit as well as being invited to make our best attempt at climbing it (some in our group try; myself, Elvis and Elston offer moral support).

ElephantAs “Jungle Spice” explains the uses of one plant, an elephant walks by. . . uh, yeh, an elephant walks by. It turns out that a slow walk for an elephant is a fast walk for a person due to their long gate. I’m not sure it’s safe to run after an elephant so, at the end of the tour as we’re invited to lunch, Elston and I take a detour through the jungle and head down to the river to watch the elephant enjoy the water with a guest on her back. She stands for photos looking a bit bored. I get closer for a photo as she turns towards me and, in slow motion in what seems like a 3D movie, her trunk moves towards me. I’m sure she’s going to suck my camera up into her truck and I back away, stumbling slightly over a rock. Enough elephant for the day, we head back to the lunch area.

ElvisBefore entering, our guide, J.S. (we’re on a first initial basis now) has us stand by a small put from which she produces a ladle filled with a spice-spiked water which she pours down our spines. It smells like lemongrass and is really refreshing on the hot day. We head up to the buffet, with Elvis and Elston explaining to me what these local dishes are. While the food is great, the vanilla ice cream served at the end might just be the tastiest thing on this hot day.

The boys drop me at my hotel where I freshen up a bit before dinner. At 8:00 Indian time (8:20 for everyone else) they stop by and I climb into the car with the two of them, and meet Elston’s Dinnergirlfriend, Jessie, who is joining us tonight. Ten minutes later, we pull up to a Dinner lightsbeautifully lit beach restaurant call Zee-Bop where we sit in the large, covered seating area under twinkle-lights and other hanging lamps, with our feet in the sand. We order drinks and Elvis chooses some tasty appetizers for us to share. Following those, Elston chooses his favorite dishes for us to try as we order one more round of drinks. The waves crash near us and the atmosphere, food, and company are perfect.At 11:00, we head back. I thank the boys for a wonderful day and evening. I’m definitely a southern girl in that I enjoy south/central India much more than the big cities of the north.

Tomorrow, one last day in India and a flight out.

Don’t forget to vote for the next Drop Me Anywhere location! Vote here!