27 September 2011

"Habana Bound" - we've saved you a seat

Cuba, April 2008 (Varadero, Part IV)

"Beep-Beep-Beep-BEEP-BEEPPP" ... Yay, you're awake?  Great!!  Sorry about the alarm beeping, but you've got to get up ... we've got ourselves a bus to catch. :)

First things first, breakfast out on the lobby terrace which will include Melia's delicious cafe latte (MMM, so yummy).  Then dress, pack and let's meet in the lobby before 7:45 a.m. Don't worry, we saved you a seat!  And don't rush, the bus won't be on time anyway ("Late Bus?! ... No Problem" ha-ha).  Oh, how I love this carefree, relaxed lifestyle.

Our journey led us quickly out of Varadero and onto the highway through the province of Matanzas.  We passed a few smaller towns before arriving at our destination a seemingly short 2.5 hours later, the Nation’s Capital, Havana.  I remembered from talking to many of the staff, that most people who worked in Varadero actually live in Matanzas.  The transit system would take them back and forth, 7 days a week, along this same highway. The landscape for the duration was colourful, friendly, not overcrowded and not at all heartbreaking.

Our tour bus was luxurious, especially compared to the local transit.  Leg room, seats that reclined, air conditioning, large personal windows complete with curtains!  Myrna was our tour guide. Her voice was sharp; with a very distinct Spanish accent (it was wonderful).  And while I fought strong urges of sleep (vehicle rides tend to make me surrender to the sandman), her commentary on all the nouns (persons, places and things) as we drove by forced my eyes to stay open, I'd hate to miss anything. What a history lesson, what a beautiful Country.  Of all the things I thought I knew, I honestly knew nothing of Cuba.

Our itinerary was revealed long before arriving.  Myrna told us that Havana was divided into 'new and old', we'd be exploring both.  We'd be visiting the Capital Building (a government building, similar to Canada's Parliament building or the White House in the USA), having lunch on the 32nd floor of a hotel, a walk-about in Revolution Square, visiting the Cemetario de Colon (The Christopher Columbus Cemetary)a walking tour of old Havana and before heading back, she'd let us venture into the City on our own for an hour.  YAY!!  We instantly decided that we'd make our way to the enormous market, stopping where ever we wished along the way.  

I hope you're ready?!  In an effort to bring you on this trip, to really make you feel a part of it, I'm currently working on  creating a short clip composed of pictures, videos and music of the highlights from the things we saw and did.  When visiting Cuba, it's well worth your day to visit Havana.   The culture there, the Cuban friendliness, the sights and sounds, the history ... you can’t come close to seeing it all in one day, stay for two or three.

Welcome to Havana!!  This Capital city has a total of 20% of the Country's entire population living here (that's a total of 2.1 million people living in Havana). It was a perfect balance of old and new:  the architecture, statues and even the cars ... there were so many 'old' cars in Cuba, all of them in mint condition.  One important thing to tell you (just as the bus comes to a halt), "pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way in Cuba".  Thank you Myrna ... you weren't kidding.

this will eventually be your link -> Here, see Havana for yourself 
(Coming soon:  an adventure video, vicariously exploring Cuba's Capital with Holiday Heidi)

What an incredible day.  About 5 o'clock we loaded back on the bus to return to Varadero. The solitude experienced this time around wasn't because anyone was sleeping, but more because all eyes were still gazing out the windows at scenic Cuba and everyone was trying to absorb all the information and exchanges that had occurred throughout their day.  What a place.

The bus pulled up just before 7 p.m. to our front lobby.  With dinner reservations for 9, this was perfect timing. I did mention that there were a few local staffers that had paid a bit more attention to me than the rest?!  ... See, while Quinn was sick the first few days, I spent a great deal of time at the lobby bar talking to Duardo.   Nice guy.  I did mention to him a few days back that we'd be going to Havana for the day on Friday. Yes, yes I did.

...walking through the lobby I felt a little sluggish.  Hmmm ... a little ... weird.  This would be normal for me after travelling by bus and not sleeping ...  but it felt different ... kind of weak .. hmmm.

As we walked toward our room we passed by the lobby bar, Duardo immediately beckoned for us to come over to the patio.  Once there, he greeted us both with half hugs and cheek kisses and welcomed us back. He then looks at me and says "I didn't realize you'd be gone so long today" as he proceeded to take our beverage orders.  We chatted for a moment, told him how much we loved our trip Havana, what we saw and what did and explained that we now had to rush to make our dinner reservations.  He then offered to bring our drinks to our room as soon as he was free. Perfect. Mind you, this isn't a normal service provided ...whew, special treatment.

Still feeling slightly 'off', I answered the door about 20 minutes later. With no surprise, there was Duardo but not only was he carrying our drinks, he stretched out his arm and handed me a large bouquet of flowers. Well there, that's a surprise!  These weren't just any flowers either! Oh no, these beauties were handpicked from all the flower pots and arrangements he would have passed by while walking from the lobby to our room! Hahahah.  Crazy. :)

But wait that wasn't all.  Duardo now looks at me, takes my hands, opens them, puts a ball of paper in them, and whispers "while you were in Havana."  ... I'm speechless and unable to make eye contact  "what is this" I ask ... "I'm off at 11 p.m." he says, as clasps my hands shut.  ... I don't say a word.

Duardo and I are still standing in the door.  He smiles, lets go of my hands, turns away and starts to skip down the corridor "11 p.m., I'm off work at 11." ... what just happened?!  What?!  *smiling and shaking my head* What?! Completely stunned, I turn kicking the door shut with my foot behind me and stare blankly as I set everything on the sofa, including myself.

Honestly, I wouldn't have seen Duardo at 11 p.m. anyhow ... but the events of the rest of my evening would ensure that I wouldn't see him, or anyone else in Cuba for the remainder of my stay. :(

I love anticipation, don't you? ... It'll be worth the wait :)  I'll be back soon to share the rest of our Havana Day.  What a memorable day ... from start to finish.  The next post entitled "Of Love or Peanuts...Dear Cuba, I must go Home" I'll tell you of our dinner reservation and how our brief time with Heidy that night came to a sudden  halt.  How being captive in your room isn't pleasurable, not for one day, worse if it's two and horrible when you're convinced you're not going to make it out at all. :(   And you're probably curious as to what Duardo gifted me in that paper ball. ... I can't wait for you to join me on this adventure.  CANNOT WAIT :)
- - - 

The results from the Weekly Survey Question:  how would you rate your bartering skills?
42% Excellent (always feel as thought you've achieved the best price)
29% Not bad / Not good
23% Terrible (always feel like you've paid way too much)
06% of you have never bartered.

I wouldn't necessarily say that I faired so well with the bartering system this trip.  I did do a lot better once we were in the Market setting and not just randomly on the street.  This pretty girl here normally only charges one peso for a picture with her in her pretty dress, yet somehow my price (of which I paid) was 5 pesos. lol. 

Share your comments, your stories, your travel advice etc. in the section below (comments or reaction section) and give your answer to the weekly survey (top right of the blog page).  No sign up necessary, just a simple click :) A little shy?!  Why not EMAIL me?

~Holiday Heidi

8 September 2011

I'll write - you read and together we'll travel :)

Today (the 8th of September) will mark the seventh month anniversary of when I started to bring you along on my travel adventures.  I am humbled, surprised and excited at how much support and interest you have shown.  I have posted a total of 21 blogs thus far (I try to post once per week).  Those posts have been opened in 38 countries around the world and collectively viewed a total of 5535 times.  I thank you.

Blogger.com keeps a log of the statistics on my blog.  They're complete with graphs, charts and percentages (all for free).  I can check:  "now, daily, weekly, monthly and all time" on things like "Overview, Posts, Traffic and Audience".  I love following the stats, mainly for two reasons.  One, because I'm curious to see who and from where.  And second, because every time I check I am more astonished by what I see.

While I have met a few of you from some of the places (all shown in the picture above), I don't have my own friends in each country listed (not yet anyhow).  Thank you for sharing with your friends, I'm more than happy to bring them along on the adventure too!! 

I will continue to write ... it's fun to know that you're packing your bags and coming with me!  Feel free to answer this week's weekly survey question, leave a comment and/or send me an email:  holidayheidi@hotmail.ca.  

~Holiday Heidi

1 September 2011

A Cuban Experience

Cuba, April 2008 (Varadero, Part III)

To maximize this Cuban experience, I'll have to ask that you leave the mesmerizing beaches of Varadero where I left you in Part II, just for a minute, while I share these less adventurous bits of information with you.

The currency in Cuba is the CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos or ‘tourist pesos’). You can only purchase them once you get there (there are lots of conversion websites for you to search on Google if you're interested in knowing the exchange rate).  The rates did vary every day (slightly) but we were lucky enough that our resort did the exchange on site. 
Feel like getting out?  Cuba is incredibly safe.  Taxis are very cheap and very efficient and there's also Double-Decked tour buses that make several stops along the Varadero peninsula (for really cheap).

And after it was too late for me to check this place out, I did learn of Calle 64 in town.  It's the disco where everyone, vacationers and locals, meet in Varadero for music, cervezas (at a cost, because it's not all-inclusive once you leave resort) and dancing (open every night for your entertainment...or so I'm told). *sigh*

As part of our trip, we had to make a one day trip to visit five other resorts.  This one day adventure to the Melia chain of accommodations was absolutely incredible.  We saw Cuba's only golf course, took the "tram train" between three resorts (it's a free trolley service for those staying in the Melia family of close proximity), tried fresh coconut, ate lunch with the nicest guy at the Tryp resort (his name started with"Y" but I couldn't pronounce it, he was super nice and so informative) and listened to numerous live bands playing authentic Cuban music.   Just like this one...

Here's a little Cuban Flavour for you :) 

After visiting the final resort (Paradisus Princesa del Mar), I vowed that should I ever marry, Cuba would be the place we honeymoon -everything about this place is romantic!  Then top it off with a five star spa-cation!? Yes, why wouldn't you? In my opinion, every couple needs to visit "postcard Cuba" for starting (or rekindling) their love.

Of the many things that I learned, I'm still astonished that males (optional for women) had to join the military for 2 years at the age of 18 and that everyone in Cuba could attend university (everyone was so well educated). Most would choose tourism studies and languages over degrees for medical doctors (this would pay the same upon completion, but doctors wouldn't receive gratuities, crazy eh?). 

And for the first time in history, Cubans would just now be able to vacation and stay in the same hotels and resorts as those visiting from all over the world (except for residents of the United States, who unfortunately still aren't permitted to visit as history will tell you) had been enjoying for years and years.

There were times when I wondered if Quinn and I were the only English speaking visitors there (aside from the staff, I'm pretty certain we were).  This makes it a wee bit difficult to make new friends.  Although we did meet a really nice couple from Quebec (who were bilingual).

I don't ever recall in my whole life seeing so many Speedos ("I wear short shorts" hahah) in one central area, as I did on those beaches!  They seemed to have formed their own club and any male wearing a black Speedo could join, but they had to be interested in playing bocce ball. :) Seems I'd always find myself in the front row once the game started (how does this happen?  Come on, I was seated there first...I didn’t relocate either lol).

I found the food to be delicious ... but I eat anything with few complaints regardless. The customer service was amazing.  I smile as I remember the security guards, front lobby desk attendants, bartenders, our servers and those booking our excursions with Cubanana Tours, all of them were amazing!  My Cuban "Heidy" was so genuine and friendly.  She and I kept in touch for the longest time after I returned home (I hope to reunite with her again one day).  

Heidy was no different than any of the others we spoke to who worked here, most could really speak five (or more) languages.  How incredible!!  The results from the Weekly Survey Question:  how many languages do you speak?  72% of you are the same as me, only able to communicate in one language.  As for the rest of you, 16% of you speak (or attempt to) 2-3 languages, while 12% of you are fully bilingual.  How wonderful! The more languages you can speak obviously means the more friends you have the potential to make. I'm so envious.

During this vacation, I did learn how to dance the merengue on the beach (which was very entertaining).  I enjoyed trying the dancing as much as the frozen mojito drinks (fresh mint, rum, sugar, lime and club soda) of which I had waited all week before trying...what the?!

Both were about as dangerous and fun as the thousands of Cuban cigars I puffed on all week long.

Gosh, you only have to be away on vacation to realize how fast seven days can go by.  Quinn and I had decided early in the week that we'd like to take the tour to Habana (most know it was "Havana", Cuba's Capital).  We booked with a very cheerful and happy Isabella (from Cubanana Tours).  She was very excited to be sending us out to experience the sights and sounds of the Capital and explore Cuba's terrain during our two hour bus ride to get there. 

The next post entitled "Habana Bound - we've saved your seat" will conclude our Cuban adventure.  I hope you're ready for a slightly rough (yet interesting) ride until we get back home ;)

Share your comments, your stories, your travel advice etc. in the section below (comments or reaction section) and give your answer to the weekly survey (top right of the blog page).  No sign up necessary, just a simple click :)  A little shy?!  Why not send me an email instead: holidayheidi@hotmail.ca

~Holiday Heidi