Tag Archives: international travel

Remembering the Cuba I Visited

Last year while walking underground through Montreal’s subway tunnels, I became extremely jealous of Canadians. I’ve always liked them but now I suddenly resented them. There, plastered before us while we waited in sub-zero temperatures for our train was a massive ad promoting a sunny beach vacation in Cuba.

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The ad displayed the usual eye-catching tropical hues of blues and oranges and yellows. I wanted to walk right into that poster. I wanted what the Canadians had, the freedom to pack sunscreen, fly directly to Havana, bask on Cuba’s pristine beaches, shimmy to bachata music in the streets of Havana, dine on “Moros y Cristianos” and slippery pork sandwiches, and buy whatever else fancied them without worrying about not having purchase power.




It wasn’t that way when Mike and I went to Cuba in 2003. We flew through Cancun. Our connecting flights on Air Mexicana were purchased in Mexico. We arrived at 1 am in pitch dark. There were Che Guevara posters and murals everywhere. Everyone smiled and no one stamped our passports. Without credit cards or any access to our money, we had to make the cash stashed in our various pockets last the week. No splurging. We counted pennies and mojitos (just one per meal to stay within budget). What we didn’t account for was that the beachfront hotel where we were supposed to stay had gone out of business. Our cab driver, a young sympathetic guy who actually carried a cell phone, took us to another beachfront hotel that cost a bit more. We could swing it, but it would be tight. And it was. But what a week.

What I remember most about Cuba is its unblemished beaches, sand so white and fluffy it looked like fresh snow fall. The water was that distinct Caribbean blue you can’t find anywhere else in the world. This was the cleanest beach I had ever seen and covered with Canadians and Germans sprawled out on towels and blankets. I remember the fully-suited guards surveying the water with their binoculars, strolling the sand. One came up to me to inform me in rapid Spanish to close up my purse. I remember a beach vendor selling Pringles potato chips, that the beer was about $1, that old men really do play chess all day in Havana, that the chicken dishes I ate in Cuba tasted very chewy and stringy, and that the coffee was phenomenal and made me want to pull up a chair next to those abuelos, sip coffee and play chess til the sun went down.

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Today’s news from President Obama brought this all back. I never understood this mid-century trade embargo with Cuba and it appears millions of others never did either. We always kept trade going with China despite their human rights record while this bizarre, dysfunctional relationship with an island nation 90 miles from US borders needlessly withered. Meanwhile, the Cubans developed a kind of perseverance and resilience and resourcefulness that can only grow from living without, raising generations of MacGyvers who can readily take a bunch of random objects like a battery, an old toothbrush and a spare tire and make a functioning machine. Seriously, you won’t find a better mechanic on the planet than those tinkering in Cuba.

I want US-Cuba relations to normalize, if that’s the word we’re going to use, but at the same time I don’t want Cuba to become the next Punta Cana pit stop. What will the “new normal” with Cuba look like? Las Vegas in the Caribbean? I was drawn to Cuba while walking around Vienna in 2002; I saw a magazine cover story about Havana’s colonial architecture crumbling. Cuba did not have the money to preserve its own history and its yellowed, cracked buildings were slowly collapsing with age. I traveled to Havana as a journalist the following year because I wanted to see what might not be visible for much longer: 17th century architecture, those 1950s classic cars, streets free of McDonalds and Starbucks. You know how hard it is to travel the world and not trip over an American retailer? I’ve only visited two places so far where I didn’t have American capitalism in my face: Isla Isabela in the Galapagos and Cuba. Cuba is old and beautiful and I want it to stay old and beautiful, though I know that’s an unfair demand. Yet, still I worry about what’s going to happen now. American corporate sugar daddies were just waiting for this moment, for a new generation of leaders to scratch their heads and ask “does anyone recall what we were fighting about?”. Economic prosperity is for everyone everywhere, but I’ll selfishly admit here on the Internet: I hope Cuba says no thanks, or at least doesn’t permit American businesses to overrun what makes Cuba so Cuban.

So how did I leave things with Cuba? Money was squeaky that week, but Mike and I made it back to Mexico with 15 cents to spare. By the time our six days were up, we had just enough money to cover a cheap lunch at the airport, which was a sandwich and an ice cream that we split, plus our airport departure tax for two. I had to pee before boarding, so I went to an airport bathroom and bought some single-ply toilet paper from the attendant because the stalls didn’t provide freebies. Mike thought that was a bit of a binge–that I’ve gone in the woods without toilet paper before–why did I have to blow money on some wipes now? But I just couldn’t fly back to Mexico feeling that way so I gave the attendant the coins I had left in my pocket and she gave me back 15 cents because I had overpaid her. Flushing my last bit of spare change now didn’t feel so hard. We left Cuba with 15 cents between the two of us, which was 15 cents more than what I expected to leave with so I felt like a winner walking out of a casino. About two hours later when we were settled into our hotel at Cancun, we ordered a massive dinner, too many daiquiris and charged it to our credit card. We were back in full capitalistic action with that youthful feeling that anything in the world was ours again if we could afford it. But I admit, feeling broke in Cuba gave me a bit of a thrill. Now with the embargo set to lift, American tourists can buy all the toilet paper in Cuba they want, wiping without worry, but they won’t appreciate it the way we travelers did under the embargo.



Japan Part 3 – Tokyo, the Cleanest, Safest Place on the Planet

I like contrasts so it should come as no surprise that I booked a five-star, $600 per night hotel for our weekend in Tokyo and then spent the weekend searching for free things to do. This wasn’t hard given Tokyo’s plethora of immaculately kept public city parks and gardens. Tokyo IS the First World, folks. The United States has a long ways to go to catch up to Japanese efficiency, cleanliness and orderliness, which can be found in abundance throughout city parks, the subway system, restaurants, shops and public bathrooms, and that’s just the beginning. Even Tsukiji Fish Market wasn’t as gross as you would expect considering all the vital organs getting tossed about. New York City has a lot going for it, but Tokyo buzzes with 13 million people and yet I didn’t see a scrap of food or an emptied condom wrapper lying on the sidewalk or along the train platforms (I have nearly stepped on both along the Jersey Shore). Let’s put it this way: I won’t wear flip-flops in New York City, but I’d walk barefoot around Tokyo. I could gush senselessly about Japan’s toilet technology–their porcelain buses are superior to American cars. Even public bathrooms had warmed seats.

We stayed at the Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel near Shinjuku Station not because a decade earlier that’s where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson filmed Lost in Translation, but because the hotel has one of the best pool views in the world, according to Travel and Leisure. I’m a hotel pool junkie and base hotel choices not just on price or location, but on the quality of its pool. The 20-meter “sky” pool at Park Hyatt Tokyo was amazing, although you can’t see Mount Fuji while swimming in the water. You need to get out of the pool and, bam! there’s Mount Fuji staring you down from about 60 miles away. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of this magnificent mountain. The only other people I saw at the pool were middle-aged Western male executives getting in a workout while I did a half hour worth of strokes in my bikini. Total bliss.



While enjoying five-star amenities (we get what the fifth star stands for–unparalleled awesomeness), we sought free family-friendly fun around Tokyo. Five words: public parks and window shopping. Neither costs much except the squeaky-clean subway ride to get around, and both yield plenty of cultural stimulation. Our hotel and a nearby playground provided a lot to see and do without going very far, plus even our room had a view of the great mountain, which made the hotel even more worthwhile. After poking around the hotel area, we ventured farther afield to a number of parks and shops.






Tokyo Tower and the aquarium in its “basement” below the foundation aren’t free, but adjacent Shiba Park costs nothing. Statues of “Jizbosatusu,” said to protect the souls of stillborn children, line the grounds. It’s spooky, yet peaceful and pretty, like many cemeteries even though no one is buried here (that we know of). The statues are decorated with knitted caps and baby clothes, and many hold pinwheels that spin in the breeze. Zojo-ji temple, a Buddhist temple, stands near the rows of statues and gardens. Walk in, make a donation, light incense and say a prayer. We did.







Ueno Park is Tokyo’s oldest public park, created in 1873. It is near Ueno Station and home to temples, ponds, water fountains, nearly 9,000 different types of trees, hundreds of plants and flowers, and several cultural institutions including art, science and natural history museums. Ueno Park embodied Japanese austerity and botanical whimsy, with cherry blossom boughs waving to people from everywhere. You could easily spend a day there, but since we only had three days in Tokyo, we breezed through Ueno Park and Tokyo National Museum in about two hours, plus our feet were sore. We perked up with ice cream for about $3 USD that came in cool Japanese flavors, like sweet potato, cherry blossom, and green tea, in addition to traditional chocolate and vanilla.






Around downtown Tokyo…not sure how dreamy this shop is for ladies since it was closed.



Everyone’s favorite mutant lizard can be found in another hygienic city park near a Starbucks and a bridal shop selling white Western-style gowns.


There’s plenty to look at around Tokyo, especially the people watching and fashion. Shopping opportunities are boundless. When it comes to priorities, it’s “shopping for clothes, food, and then paying for housing,” says a friend of Mike’s, who has been living the ex-pat life in Tokyo for the past decade. You can wander all over Tokyo, not spend any yen, and return feeling visually overwhelmed, from the colorful, never dull Tsukiji Fish Market…



…to posh department stores that are equally colorful.


You will find tons of color as well as funky mushrooms at KiddyLand toy store, a strange, hypnotic, noisy place.



And, of course, Hello Kitty, hawks everything from doughnuts to attitude, because next to Godzilla, she rules.