On La Habana

Click for either background music or watch to get a feel

Note: There is a lot in this post. The more you read, the more images you see, and the more links you follow, the more you will learn. Then again, I understand time is a limitation. Enjoy however you can. 

 

We Baby Boomers remember images of a fun-loving Havana from the 1950s movies. We also remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. Given the latter and the almost 60-year trade and travel embargo, I never imagined visiting Havana, Cuba.

 

While approaching the city, I was anxious with anticipation. The thought of a time gone by with a sea of vintage American cars. A place caught in a time warp. A place of disrepair from years of neglect. A place with unhappy people from years of suppression and poverty.

 

Pulling into the cruise terminal, I was struck by the two adjacent terminals appearing as weathered, empty shells of what they once were.

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I expected vintage cars dominating the roads. Yes, they are present – but most serve as taxis and tour vehicles, which are primarily visible when cruise ships are in port. Yes – old cars (clunkers) are present – but I see them at home. Yet in Havana, I also saw newer cars and vans. After all, do you think the European and Asian automakers are going to stay away just because the US automakers did?

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For our brief stay (10 AM – 5 PM), we spent most of our time on a walking tour of La Habana Vieja – Old Havana.

 

Old Havana allows visitors to engage with colonial Spain. Its narrow streets (many are closed to traffic), pleasant plazas, grand architecture, and an array of colors transports visitors into the past. Shops, vendors, music, and places of work allow visitors to engage with today’s Havana.

Old Havana’s colonial architecture is grand and serves as a sign of its prosperous past. The buildings drew me to Havana’s heart. After all, I love “old city” sectors – especially in Europe – and Old Havana has an Old World feel. Although worn buildings serve as a reminder of the past 60 years, renovations and fresh coats of paint delivered a sense of hope for the city and its people.

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We went into one pharmacy that I would not have known what it was if it wasn’t for the guide.

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Travelling in Florence, Italy about five years ago taught me something very important that has stayed with me when I travel – Look Up! Because people’s eyes tend to focus on eye level, especially looking into store windows, many never see the fabulous sights found above. If you ever visit Havana, look up!

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Havana does have a combination of oddities and time warp.

  • US Credit Cards and ATM cards are not accepted!!!

    Look around for the oddity in this image

  • Visitors cannot receive Cuban Currency in advance!

Tourists have a different currency than the locals. I have no idea how that is managed within its society! CUPs (Cuban Pesos) are for the locals. It’s bills have images of people on them. CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos), for the tourists, are obtained just outside the port of entry for a modest 15% exchange rate. CUC bills display images of monuments – so when receiving change after a payment, I always checked the bills because the two currencies are not equal.

Travellers may convert CUCs for currencies when leaving for another 15%. Because I don’t believe British Pound Sterling, Euros, and Canadian Dollars have as steep of an exchange fee – if at all! We came home with a 10 CUCs that we planned to give to a friend who is visiting Cuba in November. A win-win would be to sell them to her for $10 – but what the heck! However, President Trump’s latest travel restrictions changed her cruise itinerary, so she’s not going.

Cubans are economically poor. I could see it in some neighborhoods seen from the ship. Wages are low for most jobs. However, Cuban culture is rich and the people show their pride in their dress, music, food, services, and interactions. I saw and encountered a lot of kindness.

I also noticed that Cubans embrace their past, deal with the present, and are hopeful for their future.

Not only was Havana better than I expected, the sights, sounds, and people collectively worked in sync to captured my heart – so yes – I would be willing to return – well, if the travel door reopens.

I wonder what lies ahead for the nation and its people. Time will tell. For now, it seems capitalism is slowly working into society. Its Communist Party still runs the country, and I didn’t not see signs of that changing.

As the ship departed the port, I again look at those two weathered, gutted terminals – but this time I smiled because I was thinking that they are now being renovated in order to increase the number of spots for cruise ships from 2 to 6 – therefore a sense Cuba is ready to embrace the world – maybe even the US. On the other hand, the current administration wants to keep us distant. Would you want to miss sights like this?

 

Enjoy this 3-minute video of Old Havana by National Geographic

 

We recently saw Cuba, a new IMAX film, during a visit our museum center. The trailer is below.

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On Springtime Blooms Return

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For we in the northern hemisphere, spring is the air – so flowers are plants are showing signs of life and flowers have burst forth for the underground bulb from it’s winter sleep. Although I didn’t sleep in the winter, I have been on blog break since late March – so hey – this post has nothing to do with flowers – but just an analogy marking my return to posting.

Image from 123vectors.com

Because I had a Pause Button, it’s time to restart. I usually use this after a break, but I couldn’t resist the opening bloom analogy.

I did take some time during break to continuing editing the future beach walks that is, the ones I wrote this past winter. They are far enough along to restart the series soon.

Spring also means the time to ramp up golf season. I’m behind on my pre-season routine, but that’s OK because I’m not a fanatic. I simple enjoy playing the game.

News from the Mueller Report came forth shortly after starting the blog break. I considered having a special post, but decided it was not worth my time and effort. After all, it seems the report has gone like I anticipated – and the party faithful on both sides of the aisle are demonstrating predictable behavior that favors a party-first mantra over what is best for the country. Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani continues to demonstrate that Disney would never hire him because he beyond goofy.

Washington is so messed up, I’m not convinced the Founding Fathers could help. Then again, that would be interesting to hear their take.

Sometimes I take blog breaks because of travel plans – but not always. After all, a blog break within one’s normal routine is also important. Then again, I’ve been gone long enough that both are possible. OK – I’ll spill the beans. We cruised from San Diego to Miami on Oceania Cruise Line’s Regatta.

 

Here are a few thoughts about the ports

  • San Diego – A beautiful city
  • Mexico (Cabo San Lucas & Acapulco) – Overrated
  • Guatemala (Puerto Quetzal) – Antigua is a special place
  • Nicaragua (Corinto) – Second poorest country in the America’s (behind Haiti)
  • Costa Rica (Puntarenas) – Pick you eco-tour
  • Panama Canal (cruising) – An engineering marvel
  • Cartagena (Columbia) – Beautiful Old City, vendors abundant and bothersome
  • Havana (Cuba) – Unquestionably my favorite stop

To help reset the Start button, here’s a song that we heard a lot on the cruise.

On Belfast

I describe Belfast, Northern Ireland as beautiful, interesting, and gut-wrenching – and we were only there for a part of one day. On one end is the natural beauty, architecture, vibrancy, and history – and the other end The Troubles – the Northern Ireland Conflict (1968-1998).

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Belfast’s history is long and complicated. With its Bronze Age beginnings on the hills above, Belfast formed as a small settlement along the River Farset near where the river joins the River Lagan very close to its mouth at the Irish Sea.

A castle stood along the river during the Middle Ages. After a fire (1708), the owners rebuilt on a slope above the city where it still stands today.

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Today, Castle Street serves as a reminder of the original while the River Farset is enclosed below High Street.

Belfast’s population boomed during the mid-to-late 1800s as industry flourished: leading the way were processing tobacco from the New World, shipbuilding, rope making, and producing linen. Those industries are gone today, but toasts of its past remain – including the Titanic Museum located on the shipyard that built the Titanic.

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We took the Belfast Free Walking Tour – a 3-hour walk with a guide who encourage at the end. (We’ve done these in a few other European cities). Our guide was a local, and old enough to know The Troubles. He holds hope in today’s young generation because they are the first generation in 150 years that have not been involved in conflict.

Issues around The Troubles still simmer.  Physical scars still exist. Over 90% of children still attend segregated schools. Inhabitants are still divided by physical walls. The Peace Wall- which is anything but peaceful looking – still has gates that open and close daily. Politically-motivated murals decorate the wall. Memorials dot the neighborhood serving as a constant reminder of the past and the divisions.

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Since the Good Friday Agreement (1998), Belfast has undergone a social, economic, and cultural transformation.

Belfast is known for its many murals that tell its story – many (possibly most) are politically based. For mural enthusiasts, Belfast is a wonderland.

The Cathedral Quarter contains a courtyard (Commercial Court) that is a wall-to-wall-to-wall collage of images. Simply awesome! Although I hope to feature this area in its own post, here’s an interactive video allowing viewers to click-and-drag the image for a 360 degree view. The beginning includes some instructions, but not how to rotate the image.

FYI: Games of Thrones fans know Belfast as an important location for the show .. and yes, special tours exist.

Thanks to the Free Walking Tour and one of the hop-on hop-off bus lines, we saw and learned a lot in our short time in Belfast – a fascinating but gut-wrenching place. From the range of emotions of Titanic and The Troubles to the pride of its own as flutist James Galway, philosopher/author CS Lewis, and musician Van Morrison.

Here’s a promo video from one of the tour lines that will take you throughout the city.

I end with this song and video by Simple Minds (from Scotland) – Belfast Child – as it haunts me in a way Belfast did.

Next stop: The Scottish Highlands

For other posts about our time in the British Isles, click here.

On a Box Now Checked

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Some people call it a bucket list – others prefer to say wish list, dream destination, or whatever. On 23 August 2015 I posted about a place that was on both mine and my wife’s list. After monitoring the website at various points before our journey, on Wednesday, the 9th of August 2017, we checked the box.

About a month earlier at the golf club where I work, I met an English couple who were new members. I told him about our upcoming trip, including our plans for this location – to which he replied, Why? Once I mentioned the reason, his inquisitive frowning face changed to a smile.

We planned the day in advance. We knew when the ship docked in Liverpool, the location and distance to the train station, the train schedule, return times, and the essential information about our destination. We were on a mission for our time of dancing on one of the most famous ballroom floors in the world – the Blackpool Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, England.

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Blackpool is on England’s west coast, about a 90-minute train ride to the north from Liverpool. It’s a seaside resort that is very popular with commoners. Madame Tussauds, water parks, a carnival atmosphere, and more aren’t on my favorite things list, but the famed ballroom was our attraction.

Given the floor, the historic significance, and the ornate surrounding – absolutely Bucket List for us. Our ticket included a 90-minute tea with sandwiches, fruit, and tarts.

Image from Blackpool Tower website

Architectural elegance and charm from a time that has past define the Tower Ballroom (which dates back to 1894).

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Surrounding the large floor were the organists on a stage at one end; tables to sit at the opposite end; and settings for tea along one side.

Dancing to an organist (instead of recorded music) was a new experience. Two organists shared the duties, so music was continuous. One organ, the mighty Wurlitzer, makes a grand entrance being lifted to the stage from below … then lowers out of sight when the player’s shift concludes.

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We already knew to expect a different style of ballroom dance at Blackpool (American vs. International). Amazingly, for at least the first three dances we simply sat at our table thinking, We can’t do that! We never get a chance to dance because everyone on the floor is doing the same thing … the same steps/pattern.

I approached a couple near our table about what we were observing. They explained that the English and many Europeans dance sequences, which are set patterns that every does. The clue would be to listen to the organist because he would announce the name of the sequence and dance, so we should listen for the terms traditional or ballroom that will signal an non-sequence dance.

Sequences are fun to watch, but not if you are there to dance and you don’t know the sequence! We were surprised by the number of sequences … and dancers sat down if they didn’t know the sequence.

This is the Engagement Waltz.

We finally made it on the floor … and the first thing that we noticed was the amount spring in the floor – especially in the center. Our tea-table was almost in the center, and the movement made photography difficult – and of course I started wondering about potential motion sickness. Yes – the movement was that noticeable!

We stayed for almost 4 hours, and we were glad to check the box on our Bucket List. With the ship departing at 8 pm, we were fortunate to have a few hours in Liverpool (the previous post).

Here’s a short (90-second) promotional video showing the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. Enjoy … and you notice sequence dancing.

Next stop: Belfast, Northern Ireland

For other posts about our time in the British Isles, click here.

My past post about Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom

On the Liverpool

Founded in 1207 along the River Mersey, Liuerpool (meaning thick/muddy creek) grew from a fishing village to an important location for the English military, an important seaport in the 1600s regarding trading with the new world, followed by an important industrial center.

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Today’s Liverpool is a vibrant center of culture and urban rebirth that also embraces its heritage. After all, look who we saw along the waterfront. Sorry to say that we missed their local tour that includes real places as Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields, their childhood homes, and more.

Today’s downtown is a modernized center popularized by Liverpool history with music, the arts, and nightlife. The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Searchers, A Flock of Seagulls, and others are rooted in Liverpool’s fabric and heritage.The area around Temple Court, Mathew Street, and Ramford Square is highlighted with music venues, historic landmarks, and other stores boosting its heritage.

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City Center is multiple-block, pedestrian shopping area with a wide variety of stores a short distance away – and not far from the waterfront and the cruise terminal. Today’s waterfront bustles with food, entertainment, shopping, hotels, amusement, and museums.

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… and yes – including a ferry to cross the Mersey.

For other posts about our time in the British Isles, click here.

Next post is a surprise. Hmmmm … Wonder what/where?

On a Big Apple Dawn

After an evening of dinner, a show, and some dancing, we returned to our cabin for the final night …
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… only to rise early for the special treat from the deck to the east …
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… but the show we came to see was to the west …
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… as we approached the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge …
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… which the ship cleared with a little to spare …
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… to eventually dock on the New Jersey of the river with a wonderful view of Lady Liberty and the Manhattan skyline featuring One World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, and the morning clouds getting ready to make a break.
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From the dock, our return home started as we went directly to the airport, so we couldn’t connect with NYC area bloggers as Lame, Guapo, Kay, and Weebs. But if you are late joining this trip, click here to get you to the start, plus each post will end with the next stop.

On an Explorer

Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and Vasco da Gama are a few of the early European explorers. but this post is not about any of them because the day after arriving in Quebec City, we joined another explorer – Royal Caribbean’s (RCCL) Explorer of the Seas.

This 1025 ft (312.4 m) explorer is part of RCCL Voyager Class capable of carrying 3,114 passengers and almost 1,200 crew. Our trip was about 96% capacity.

When in port, we spend much time seeing sites and walking. Our evenings following a pattern of dinner, theater entertainment, then dancing – but the dance floors on this ship were a negative. Enjoy some pics of the ship.

Explorer of the Seas

Explorer of the Seas

Beautiful main dining room named after famous explorer

Beautiful main dining room named after famous explorers

1,350 capacity theater

1,350-seat capacity theater

900 seat ice rink

900-seat ice rink

ProminadeAbove

4-story Main Street Promenade for shopping, eating, drinking, and gathering

Some rooms overlook Main Street

Some rooms overlook Main Street

A not-for-me climbing wall

A not-for-me climbing wall

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The top deck (from ship-technology.com)

The top deck (from ship-technology.com)

Find out where this trip went.

For additional information about Explorer of the Seas