A Travellerspoint blog

New York City layover

13 hours in the city that never sleeps

sunny 20 °C

It was a strange feeling, leaving Billy and the Dominican Republic. I kissed Billy goodbye at the bus stop and traveled from Cabarete to Santo Domingo alone. I spent the afternoon with Billy's family, visiting his sister who was recovering from her terrible car accident that had happened while we were in Haiti. Billy's dad dropped me to the airport at around 10pm, and all of the cousins and nieces piled into the truck so see me off. It was a strange feeling leaving everyone I love behind, and not because they didn't want to come - especially in Billy's case. But because of the racist beaurocracy and false ideas of borders and frontiers that are put into place to segregate our 1 true race of humanity so that those with dark skin and no money are not granted the freedom to move around this one planet we all share. And yes, I say dark skin and no money without a comma. Because they are one thing, there were plenty of Dominicans on my flight to New York. And 98% of Dominicans have dark skin - but these ones had money and therefore a visa. It broke my heart.

I was nervous to go back to 'the first world.' I hadn't been back since I left Montana on my way to Mexico which is now over two years ago. My brief experience of a semi-first world country in Costa Rica had been shocking enough, and I knew of any where in the world - the USA really does do first world well and truly the best. They outshine it, if there was a number that came before 1, they would be that.

My mind began to pace, would I be ok? Would I start arguing in Spanish when the fruit vendor wouldn't sell me 5 mangos for $2. Would I remember how to wear proper shoes, and would I be able to afford to buy a pair when I landed? I couldn't remember what water I was able to drink from the tap - all of it or just some? Did I have enough money to last me a month, I mean the prices of things are always going up up up and I had been long gone for over 2 years.Most importantly what worried me (and I know my parents and Billy too) was how on earth was I going to remember to keep my head down in public and not get into political and revolutionary conversations with strangers in the street. It is certainly no secret that one of my most favourite things about living in Latin America is the taste of revolution in the air.

I took a deep breath and flew away in the night, grateful that I couldn't see down over my beloved island or out over the forever soul-calling Caribbean sea. I was fortunate to have a row of seats all to myself and as I knew I had a huge layover at JFK before arriving in Las Vegas, I decided to down and do what I usually do in difficult and unavoidable situations; I lay down and slept... the whole way to the first world.

As we began our descent, I woke up and opened my window shade to see a gorgeous sunrise. The silhouette of NYC lay ahead surrounded by the lights and colour reflecting off the water. I relaxed and saw it as a sign from the Universe that everything may be a little hectic for a while, but it would be ok. After all, trees stand patiently and tall and the sun continues to shine no matter where on earth we are. It's only the man things that change so drastically between countries. What really matters most of all and the things I carry with me - unconditional love, kindness, adventure, empathy, our damaged but oh-so-beautiful environment - exist everywhere.

With only a slight (expected) kerfuffle at immigration - my beating heart and I were efficiently stamped back to the first world.

The first difference hit me as soon as I got away from baggage claim - English. Everyone was speaking my native language! The signs were in English first and it was Spanish that was written underneath in smaller letters. Everyone greeted with a hello or a good morning instead of hola or buenos dias. Everytime I tried to squeeze past someone I would automatically say permiso instead of excuse me. Salud instead of bless you to strangers. Gracias instead of thank you. I recognised immediately that over my years in Latin America I had subconsciously adapted my "public language" to be understood by strangers.

I checked my bag into a locker as it was too early to check in to my next flight - and there is no longer straight through checked luggage when traveling through the USA - another change! I was super tired but I decided to make the most of my long stop over - and I hopped aboard the subway and made my way to Manhattan island.

I met a guy on the Subway who grew up in the Caribbean island of Antigua. We chatted the entire bumpy ride to the city, and we didn't wave goodbye until I found myself a cafe near times square and Broadway. The first things I noticed in the city were:
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- Very little trash and very clean streets
- It was COLD without the sun shining down as it was still too early for it to have rise about the skyscrapers (6am)
- There were very few people out and about, which is not how I had remembered NYC. I remembered being overwhelmed when I was 17 and had visited with my parents. Maybe I have become too accustomed to crazy busy Latin American cities?
- So many coffee shops. How I had missed a nice cosy coffee shop!
- Even without opening my mouth, people spoke spanish to me on the streets. Perhaps because of my Caribbean tan? Either way, it was odd.

I wandered my way slowly up past street markets who were setting up for their day, past coffee and sandwich carts, and enjoyed peering into the different windows of stores selling completely unnecessary items for ridiculous prices. I met a Dominican girl from the plane and we wandered around together for a while too.
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I decided the best place for me to go until the city opened it's doors would be central park. Immediately the sun shone down as I crossed the street away from the high rises. The beautiful park sprawled out in front of me and I wandered amongst the runners and the cyclists, the dogs and the yoga lovers, enjoying the prospects of beautiful day ahead of all of us.
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I found myself wandering back slowly as well, enjoying the newly opened market and some of my old favourite stores selling my new favourite things. I ate delicious food that wasn't beans rice and salad, but it was super expensive! I couldn't believe I parted with $20USD for a simple wrap, a yoghurt, and a fresh juice! That should have been no more than $4USD back in the DR - where the juice would have tasted freshier and tangier too!

I wandered until my feet ached, my travelers heart constantly desiring to see around the next corner. Until I realised that I would be stuck in the city of overpriced handbags and food if I didn't make my way to the subway stat! Thankfully I had nabbed a little airport info brochure which said the subway stations on them. I knew where I needed to go - I just didn't know how to get there. I asked a local cop, who pointed me in the right direction but told me it would be 6 avenues. And that the station I thought it was, wasn't actually it. I knew I needed to run. So run I did, despite the weird looks from everyone on the street. People all seemed to walk briskly or slowly. No one but me dared to run. I made it to the station (that was only 2 avenues and WAS the one I had thought it was) but I had just missed the quick train (Long Island Railroad)- and the next one wasn't for another 40 minutes. So I attempted the metro again - but I couldn't work out which direction I needed to go and it seems that no one really wanted to help me too much... Or that they didn't know either! And I couldn't find anyone official. I started to panic, even though I was trying to breathe calmly and not let that happen - when I saw the international symbol for travel; the airplane silhouette and an arrow beside a platform with a boarding carriage that also sported the same insignia. I clambered on, and crossed all fingers and toes as we bumped and stalled a million times towards JFK once more.

I made it to the airport, grabbed my bag, checked in, waited for an hour in security, to make it to my plane and be one of the last people on the flight. What luck !

Posted by chasingsummer 09:51 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Into Haiti

sunny 35 °C

We arrived back to Santo Domingo late, exhausted, and poor. My parents had already called the bank and had my credit card cancelled - but the money would not be refunded for some time to come. We knew our friends were planning to meet us in Santo Domingo to start our trek towards Haiti the very next day, and we were freaking out about what we were going to do! We knew most of our trip was staying with family and sleeping on beaches - but this was my first ever time entering a country with absolutely NO back up money. What if we got sick? What if we had an accident? What if we got into trouble? Billy at one point turned to me and said,
"Katy, I grew up in a house made of mud. I know what poor is, and this is not poor. We have to live each day for what it is, and let's go there and make the most of it."
I wasn't completely worry free, but we did have a few hundred euro left over from our time in Cuba as well as promises from our friends traveling with us that they wouldn't leave us stranded and begging on the side of a road anywhere.

The girls met us as planned in Santo Domingo and we headed straight down to Barahona where we then spent the night at the Batey. It was the weekend of elections, so of course the party was HUGE when Billy's uncle Tio Perez won mayor of the Batey for the second time with the opposition having barely a single vote.

The following morning, Enoc drove us all over to Barahona where we sat in a restaurant and tried to plan our next moves. We were all low on cash, we had no vehicle, the buses dont go all the way to Bahia de las Aguilas, and Barahona absolutely DOES NOT do rental cars - just in case you ever need one there, there are none. Of course, I was still without a phone as my replacement was in Cabarete so everyone but me sat on their phones using the free wifi as they tried to find an online solution. I didn't like sitting there doing nothing so I went down to the road and began to flag large jeeps down, asking if perhaps they wanted to loan them to us... more no's and deadens had us all feeling a little lost and hopeless - but we tried to keep morale high as Katietoo kept saying. We decided to go to the supermarket and to load up with our groceries for our time at the beach (and a much needed bottle of rum). We decided we would have to give public transport a try, to see how far we could make it and then take a taxi for the final stretch.

But, luck was on our side. We met a man with a huge van who promised us a ride all the way to paradise for $90USD - a steal, considering we were 6 of us! 13254282_1..615336851_n.jpgWe drank our rum on the bus and toasted many times to our great fortune

Stopping only to pee (many times) and chase goats for cuddles
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The lovely driver dropped us as close to the beach as he could, and we planned to walk the rest of the way - only to come face to face with our favorite beach security guard on his motorbike who drove us each down one by one to where we planned to sleep.
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Oh the luck of having friends everywhere in this country. It felt good to be back, I can't lie. Cuba was great, but it didn't have the same magic that I find here on every corner. Despite being broke, things were coming together and working out just fine - like Billy had said they would.13244821_1..479415980_n.jpg
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We set up our camp and spent the nights by the fire - and searching for turtles which sadly we didn't see this year.

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One of the things about being dropped at a beach in the absolute middle of nowhere is that there really is no idea of how to get back from the middle of nowhere. We knew that 4 of us would be continuing to Haiti, and that 2 would return through the Dominican side of the border to get back to Cabarete. But how we were going to do that was a mystery to all of us. People kept asking Billy and I what we thought we should do - possibly because we have been to the beach many times - and my response was always the same; "We worry about that when it is time to leave. For now we just enjoy paradise!"
When it was finally time to leave, we found a boat! Who promised us a ride and a hot cup of coffee on the other side - what luck!
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We enjoyed our coffee and a shower - the ones with the conch shells on the side of the ocean, yes parents you know the ones - and then magically we found a pick up truck to drive us all the way to the main road for the grand price of $50USD. Yes, over half of what we had paid to get to the beach on a four hour drive was to be paid for a 20 minute drive... but beggars certainly can't be choosers. Especially stranded beggars. So we all piled onto the back of the pick up truck to then be dumped at a military checkpoint on the side of the derelict main road. The guagua heading to the border of Haiti passed by seconds later, so our hasty goodbyes were called to Rachelle and Katietoo as the rest of us piled in and headed towards the border.

Again, we sat at the border town of Perdenales and discussed our next moves and loaded up on last minute supplies.
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We took a motorbike taxi to the border, got stamped out, and then crossed the friendship bridge over the river to Haiti. The same river where an old president of the Dominican Republic had thousands of Haitians killed and thrown into for ... well, no one really knows what for, being black I suppose. It was a haunting feeling, but the children from both sides of the border splashing and playing together in the cool water with the sun shining upon them did give a glimmer of hope that maybe the relations can improve one day.

Entry to Haiti was a little less formal. We were directed towards a large tree with two men playing checkers on a rickety table. From underneath the chess board he pulled out a black briefcase which contained all the necessary documents - receipts and a stamp. He overcharged each of us ($20 instead of $10) to enter Haiti - we know because the receipt says we paid $10, and with that we were in Haiti. The checkerboard was pulled out again, and we were instantly surrounded by 30 beautiful black faces wanting to be whatever it was we needed, for a small fee. And there, the universe stepped in again. Billy's cousin who had no idea we were coming across just so happened to be at the border that day. They began chatting, and sure enough even the guy who had stamped us in knew Billy's grandmother. The universe can be so sneaky and funny sometimes! But, it was fate. He needed to go the way we were headed. So he organized us enough motorbike taxis, and at the right price, so we could get all the way to the town where we could then take a shared jeep to Port au Prince.

Becca and I shared a motorbike as we drove for 2 hours towards the town of Thote. The road was vicious, with huge climbs, major bumps and holes in the road, but with a view like no other. We could see all all the way back to the Dominican Republic, and even to the beach where we had just been sleeping! It was amazing to finally be on the hills that we always stare at from Bahia de Las Aguilas and say "over there is Haiti." Now we were looking back and saying "over there is the Dominican Republic!"
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At one point, the hill was so steep (and our asses so full of chicken and rice) that we nearly tipped the bike. We felt the front wheel coming up off the ground, and our tiny skinny driver trying so hard to force it back down. I threw myself off and Becca thew herself forward at the exact same moment which had the bike touch both wheels safely again. Of course we couldn't stop laughing the entire rest of the way, even though from then on we had to walk up most of the hills as the driver was not happy to try again!

We finally made it to the town of Thote where we tried our Creole skills at ordering cold water, and we begged the local police station to let us use their toilet. We boarded a safari style jeep full of people and drove the whole way to Port au Prince over terrible roads but through beautiful forests. At one point the road was actually a dried up riverbed!

Everywhere we looked was poverty. The Dominican Republic is poor yes, but Haiti is next level poor. The infrastructure is even worse, there are more children in the street, there is hunger, there are people searching and walking hours to reach a bucket of water, and there is trash absolutely everywhere. We even saw a village of people living in the mountains near the border who's homes were cardboard tents. I have never in all of my travels seen anything like it.

We arrived finally into Port au Prince and it was dark. Night had fallen, we had lost an hour to the time difference, and we were hungry and tired. Billy's cousin Jean met us at the final stop and we piled out of the jeep with weary cramped legs but a feeling of excitement to finally be in Port au Prince. We had thought we were nearly there - but we were not. We had to traipse across the city using public transport for the others and with Billy and I clinging on tightly to the back of Jean on his motorbike. We finally made it to his house - a tiny bedroom with an ensuite - no kitchen, no living area, and no fan or electricity. Just two beds, about 20 buckets of water piled up along one wall, and his beautiful grinning wife and two young girls along the other. I felt the ripple of fear flow through each of us - but where we were going to sleep? Jean showed us all up to the roof top of his building - one that had the glimmering lights of the city and mountains all around us. The breeze was cool, and the ground was hard. It didn't matter, that's where we were going to be sleeping. We all lay down on the hard surface and laughed at the adventure of the day - and discussed how we were never going to sleep - when Jean returned with the newly torn up carpet from his apartment floor and blankets to lay down. We climbed onto them gratefully and slept our first night on a rooftop, underneath the stars, in the capital city of Port au Prince, Haiti.

The next day we looked a little around the city, but found it impossible to take photos. Every time we tried people would yell at us or make a grab for the camera. Haiti was not a country where people wanted to be photographed. I remembered back to a conversation with Samy, one of Billy's cousins who we had lived with in Santo Domingo. He had told me how after the earthquake, many people had taken many photos and then made money from them - money which was never shared or given back to the people of Haiti. So it has turned the locals away from photography, especially cameras held by blancs (what they call us white folk!)
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We spent a lot of our time in Port au Prince with Jean and other members of Billy's family. We moved to stay with a different cousin who had a large house and plenty of space for us all. We visited many different cousins and aunties, all who were so happy to see Billy and very kind to sit and practice my Creole with me.
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We went a couple of nights to a basketball game at the SWAT police station with Billy's cousin who is a member of the force. I had never really watched a basketball game before and I really enjoyed it - far more than baseball like the time Billy had dragged me along! I especially enjoyed choosing a team and watching as they won! Everyone was constantly staring at me, the only white girl in the crown who was cheering whole heartedly for a team of people she didn't know!

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We left Billy's family for the north of the country as Paula and Becca left for the south. Billy and I were running out of money quickly, and there were a few issues we had to deal with back at the castle in Cabarete. We made our way to Cap Haitian where we stayed in a gorgeous place - thanks to my parents who had used their credit card to save our butts since we couldn't book anywhere without a credit card/ money!

We met friends of ours who we had strangely gotten to know through instagram! They run a Haiti travel page through instagram and we had made contact in the months before our trip to Cuba. We met them in real life, and they were just incredible! They took us out for dinner and to dance compa one night, and then took us to the beautiful citadelle the following day.

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Sans Souci palace and the citadelle were most definitely the highlight of my time in Haiti. The palace was where the King and Queen lived. The remains of a swimming pool and beautiful gardens were still in the grounds, and the palace itself must have been beautiful once upon a time!
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The motorbike ride and the huge walk from the palace to the citadelle was intense! The steep hill took about 30 minutes to climb on motorbike, and then a further 45 minutes to walk through the jungle to get there. We had to pass mud and stick shacks, with people walking up the huge hill carrying their buckets of water too. It was heart wrenching to see them, yet they always waved and smiled with their huge white teeth shining brightly at us.
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The citadelle itself was once the giant fort that was built to protect the Queen and King in time of attack - but it was never finished. What was there though, was hugely impressive.

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We walked around, saw the canons, and watched as the clouds rolled in and took away the view over the mountains, the sea, and the city of Cap Haitian.

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On our way back we found a group of men playing bamboo style didgeridoos in the jungle. They found a flute from somewhere and presented it to me - so I joined the band!
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After our time at the palace and the fort, we walked with our friend Djimpson around the city of Cap Haitian. Kids everywhere seemed to pop out of the blue and want to take a photo with me!

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The trash situation broke me though, and I hope one day we are able to have a recycling school in Haiti.
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Returning to the Dominican Republic was a lot easier and only took about 5 hours - and 6 different modes of transportation. Coming back to the castle and all of our beautiful friends was wonderful, even though we had credit card situations to chase and a few issues at the castle. Traveling through Haiti and Cuba with Billy was so different and magical all at once. I am not used to traveling with anyone long term anymore so at times it was testing, but it was wonderful to share the special moments with someone - and warming to have him there to help each other through the hard times. Travel is never as easy and pretty as the photos but I have learned that going anyway - regardless of the money fears and the worries - always seems to work out just perfectly.

Posted by chasingsummer 06:07 Archived in Haiti Comments (0)

Viñales

caves, giant rocks, and credit card hacking...

sunny 30 °C

The journey from Trinidad to Viñales took about 8 hours in total - it was hot, sticky, and really uncomfortable. Poor Billy was hungry most of the way too, so it wasn't the easiest of transfers! However, as we began to get closer to our destination we started to see the huge limestone rocks that make the valley of Vinales so iconic.

We got off the bus and walked around the town in search of a place to stay. The view from of the mogotes (lime cliffs) were beautiful so we didn't want to stay in the town, even though every single house was a casa particular offering a cosy bed and a bite to eat. Instead we walked... and walked... with our bags until we found a casa particular closer to the view we had come to see.

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On our second day in town we headed out on a tour around the town. We went to see the Prehistoric Mural which TOTALLY tricked us. We thought it was going to be awesome indigenous artwork on a cliff... instead it was a mural of prehistoric times done by what looked like a 4 year old - Don't tell Cuba I said that though, because apparently it was done by a famous artist of theirs - oops!SAM_5121.jpg

The tour took us to a wonderful viewpoint where it felt as if the valley spread out before us had no end.SAM_5129.jpgSAM_5131.jpgSAM_5134.jpgSAM_5138.jpgSAM_5146.jpgSAM_5125.jpg

We went to the Indian Cave / Cueva del Indio which was far better than we were advised it would be. Yes, it was as touristic as everyone mentioned - with a huge line of people cueing up for the tiny boat ride on the inside, but the actual cave itself was beautiful!
And the river ride on the boat was amazing too, scary at times because the river was so tight and the driver wasn't going at snail pace!

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We headed to a tobacco farm to learn how Cuba makes their famous cigars. Vinales is the area where the best cigars in the entire world are made - so even though neither of us smoke, we thought we should go and have a look.
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The tobacco curing houses are really cool. Their roof covered leaves hang all the way down to the ground, and inside are racks and racks and racks of drying tobacco leaves.
SAM_5211.jpgSAM_5216.jpgSAM_5217.jpgOur guide was absolutely terrible - it was as if he had learnt a script in English but had learned it with total mispronunciation. I didn't understand a single word he said, and for some reason he was not happy to explain it to us in Spanish! So after our tour we still know very little about cigars or tobacco. But we had fun playing in the leaves which did smell delicious as they were cured with rum, vanilla, honey, and cinammon!

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The tour of course concludes with a free cigar smoking session and a hard sell by a true Cuban con-artist which we didn't partake in either much to their dismay...
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We asked our tour guide to take us to a river instead of seeing the inside of a party cave in the daylight. I am always happy to visit a party cave - when there is a party. But without the party, it held very little interest for us. So our driver kindly took us on a lovely drive through the countryside to a waterhole where we plunged straight into the cold water. Strangely, the government in Cuba does not allow private houses or casa particulares to have swimming pools. The ones that had once existed in our casa particular and that of our friends had both been sadly covered in with concrete. To be in a country with such dry and intense heat, without access to water was something Billy and I found very hard. So the swim in the river was an absolute treat, and the perfect way to end our day touring Vinales.

The following day we headed to what is the 2nd largest caving system in Latin America; Santo Tomaso Caves. This was not at all touristic like the Cueva del Indio and there were no paved walkways leading us through.
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We had to climb up a sheer rock face just to get into the entrance area, and then work our way through the caves in the pitch black using only our headlamps for light. In parts, the caves opened up to beautiful views of stalactites and stalagmites with pretty birds flying home to their babies.
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We headed back to Havana for our final nights before our flight, and on our very last day we decided to venture out to one of the nearby beaches. Again, we were slightly disappointed with the quality of the beach - probably because we live in paradise here in the Dominican Republic. All of the other travelers were lapping up the sunshine and the waves, and of course we had a great day... but it's hard when Bahia de las Aguilas is our benchmark for a beautiful beach!
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We walked around Havana one last time
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And ate our favorite 50cent meal at the Cuban only restaurant - without being nearly arrested this time!
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We boarded our plane and waved good bye to Cuba, flying over the most beautiful Caribbean Islands as we made our way back to Cuba. I even recognized my beloved Providencia far below and waved down sentimentally to my friends and the place where I had temporarily found true peace nearly 2 years ago now.

We landed in Panama, and I decided to check my bank balance because we needed to get ready for our immediate departure for Haiti. Cuba had been so expensive that we had used my credit card a few times, so we were worried about what money was left... And then up popped the screen - I was $3000 in debt! I checked my balance over and over again, not understanding how that could have happened. The internet was painfully slow and kept disconnecting, but finally the transaction list loaded enough for me to see... I had been hacked!

Posted by chasingsummer 05:22 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Trinidad, Cuba

The cutest town in Cuba

sunny 35 °C

While we were still in Havana, we heard there was a huge celebration for 2 things in Cuba on the 2nd of May. First up was the celebration for the international day of the worker, and second was the arrival of the first cruise ship from the United States since the revolution. We couldn't decide whether to stay and be apart of all the celebrations or to run far far away... It turned out that the best thing to do was run far away, even though Billy was gutted to have lost out on the opportunity to see Raul Castro from a distance at the workers celebrations!

We travelled in a shared taxi with a French couple all the way to the UNESCO protected, picturesque town of Trinidad.
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The ride took about 5 hours and again we were constantly amazed by how few people were driving on the roads. We stayed our first night at a casa particular that had been recommended to us, but we were really unhappy with the location and the constant hard sell being pushed on us by the owners in regards to buying only THEIR food, THEIR water, and organizing tours with THEIR people from the second we walked in the door. Billy was determined we wouldn't stay longer than the first night we agreed on, and he marched us off down the road in search of a better home for us.

We made our way to the beautiful cobbled streets and parks that lay in the center of the town, and Billy was immediately attracted to a beautiful casa particular right next to the central park, cathedral, and the casa de musica where we planned to begin our salsa classes the following day. He said he could feel the most positive energy coming from the home - and was quickly greeted warmly by the father of the household who shared the name Guido with Billy's own father in the Dominican Republic. We entered the home and quickly fell in love with Gisela who became our Cuban mother, Yalena our new sister, and Teetoo the cutest Pekingese puppy we have ever met. They allowed us to use their kitchen to cook so we could save money, and they gave us a very special rate to stay for a week. We moved the very next morning from our first casa to what would be our wonderful home in Trinidad.
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On one of our days in Trinidad, we walked around the town desperately trying to find fresh fruit, vegetables, and cooking items so we could cook for ourselves and save money on food. This was our first realization with just how little exists in Cuba and how expensive everything is that does exist. It took us about 5 hours walking around all of the streets to find:
8 eggs, 2 packets of pasta, tomato paste, onions (8 euros for 20 onions too by the way!), bread rolls, tomatos, plantains, bananas, cookies, and tuna.
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The supermarkets had nothing more than empty shelves with two or three items on them, and the easiest way to find ingredients was to ask around and find the houses with a door open, with people selling a few items on tiny tables. Each house would sell something different - eggs and beans in one, tomatoes and onions in another. Finding lettuce was impossible - until the next day when Billy went out for a run and returned carrying lettuce for me as if it was a bouquet of flowers - the most delicious bouquet I ever received!

We quickly realized with the price of ingredients versus the price of food in the shops, that we weren't about to save our money by cooking, and we were quite sad about it. We made a few sandwhiches and on one night we cooked for the whole family and ate together at their beautifully laid out table. Their plates were all antique and of the finest china, and their silverware was beautiful. It had been a long time since I had eaten off such beautiful finery and I was convinced that the food tasted better because of it. We were so touched and felt incredibly lucky when we were then woke up everyday to find breakfast was made for us and we were eating lobster in the evenings as well as enjoying family dinners together.

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It seemed that Guido and Gisela were the only people in Cuba who understood we were not rich tourists, rather 2 young people traveling from a neighboring Caribbean island that was even more impoverished than Cuba. We watched movies with them in their rooms, sat up at night drinking mojitos at night, watched football matches together, and talked for hours about the differing politics between Cuba and the Dominican Republic. We learned that to kill a cow in Cuba will serve you 25 years in prison, but to kill a human only serves 15. This is because the milk of the cow belongs to you, but the cow belongs to the government.
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On one of the days we took a shared taxi down to the local beach in Trinidad (randomly with the same people we arrived to Trinidad with!). We were not overly impressed with the beach itself as the water wasn't very blue, and it was very commercial - with a huge resort and lots of people selling overpriced snorkeling trips out to the reef. We had our own snorkels with us so we were able to snorkel around the shore line - and we were so pleased we did because saw hundreds of tiny fish swimming as a giant school, and we even saw a baby stingray!
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On another day (with a huge hangover) we went on a 6 hour horse riding trek through the valle de los ingenios and to visit a waterfall in the mountains. We got to stop off for a much needed coffee at what is now my all time favourite cafe in the world. The cafe itself has no walls and is just a wood fired stove top underneath a rickety roof surrounded by log seats and coffee cups. The coffee is made fresh to the strength you desire, and each cup is served with a piece of sugar cane and a free cigar. The owner/ barista also sings as he grinds the coffee beans before he brews them for you. It was fantastic!

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The waterfall and the view through the valley was beautiful too and it was quickly deemed as the best day of our time in Cuba.
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Most of the days we had salsa classes, and the price was adding up very quickly. We met a couple of guys while out dancing one night who seemed very interested in my cellphone. They were willing to pay exactly what our salsa classes were worth - and far more than what I would get if I tried to sell the phone back in the Dominican Republic. So I did it, I did a factory reset and sold my phone to pay for our dance classes!
Our salsa classes were held in the different courtyards of the casa de la musica and were an hour long each class. We paid for group classes but were lucky to have no one else in our group so we essentially had private classes for the cheaper price - stoked! Billy and I took a long time to pick up the basic steps and to be able to hear the music, which was so strange considering that we are both always dancing bachata and merengue at home.

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By night we would go out and practice dancing at the casa de la musica, and one night we met up with some new found friends of ours Jo and Christoph who we had first encountered at the beach. They had been on a crazy journey to retrieve their missing cellphone and we were out to celebrate the phones return - and did we celebrate or what!?! We instantly began throwing back the most disgustingly strong mojitos and daiquiris that we were stumbling as we tried our best to follow the steps to the salsa.
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The casa de la musica closed around 1am and we were left with no idea of what to do or where to go next - until we overheard people mentioning a party cave somewhere in the mountains above the town. We asked which direction to go, and began to stumble towards what we hoped would be an underground party. Just when we felt as if we were giving up hope and would never find it - we saw fairy lights and heard the cries of "$1 mojitos!" ... Party cave or no party cave, no one ever says no to a $1 mojito! Loaded up at the tiny little stall on the side of the cobbled street, we found ourselves on the path lit with more $1 mojito stalls heading right the way up in the direction of the party cave. We decided it would only be fair if we stopped and drank one mojito in each stall so as to not let any stall miss out on a little business...
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The cobbled street soon gave way to a jungle path, where again we felt as if we were going the wrong way... until at last we saw it... the entrance to the underground party cave where we would dance until our feet could dance no more!

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I have been in a lot of bars, clubs, and party places around the world - that is no secret. But, none have ever been as awesome as the party cave in trinidad. There were so many chambers, real dance floors underneath the stalactites, and multiple levels with fully functioning bars on each. There were VIP areas, a full chamber with male and female bathrooms, and large screens with music videos playing on them as laser lighting and disco balls glittered around the cave.

We were instantly greeted with the dance floor clearing as a group of sexy young Cuban men took over the dance floor with a dance presentation that turned out to be one of the strangest things I have ever seen. The men were playing drums with an almost voodoo-african beat, as they circled a table in the centre of the dance floor. They placed a young tourist on the table and gave her two glasses of water to hold high above her head. They continued to dance and chant as they edged their way closer and closer to the table... where 4 of the men on each corner then bent down and picked the table and the girl up - WITH ONLY THEIR TEETH! They spun her around the room for about 30 seconds and lifted the table higher without ever touching the table back to the ground or placing their hands on the table - it was SO strange! They also placed knives onto each other and walked over the knives, reminding Billy of the voodoo ceremonies performed by Haitian devotees in the community he grew up in.
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The days in Trinidad passed lazily as the afternoons were hot and the nights of dancing were long. We absolutely loved our family and left them with promises to help with their visa to visit us one day here in the Dominican Republic. Leaving was hard, but we knew our next destination of Vinales would be worth it :)

Posted by chasingsummer 07:31 Archived in Cuba Tagged beach cuba dance cave waterfall party unesco trinidad salsa mojito classes pueblo daiquiri casa_particular Comments (0)

Finally made it to Cuba

Billy's first plane ride and our magical time in Havana

sunny 30 °C

Despite my parents giving Billy and I money towards tickets for Christmas to go to Cuba, we had never found the ideal time to actually go. Billy and I were at a local pool bar in Cabarete when we decided to start placing some high stakes bets on the outcomes of our amateur games. We often settle an argument with a game of pool, so it isn't an uncommon thing. More often than not though, it is about who gets to give a massage or who will cook dinner. This day however, I decided to throw down the idea that if Billy lost we would go to Cuba for our anniversary. I don't know if he lost on purpose - because he certainly doesn't usually lose, but he lost...

So a few days later, we booked and paid for our tickets and began to prepare for what would be our first international travels together - and Billy's first time off the island and in an airplane EVER! I think everyone else was more excited for him than he was, either that or he was trying to be too nonchalant and cool about the whole thing. He did swiftly kick the guy out from the window seat that Billy had sweetly smiled for at checkin, and then proceed to stare out of the window as we headed to Cuba by way of Panama.

It was ridiculous to fly such a short distance, what would usually be a 2 hour flight, via Panama. It meant that we took nearly 11 hours to arrive! But by now I have well and truly learned cheap flights is a great way to keep costs low in order to spend longer on the road. We landed in Cuba with only a slight hiccup - they nearly didn't let Billy in! They called secondary immigration to interrogate him.... Oh, how I love you secondary immigration. You never cease to remind me of that day in LAX where I was kept away from my parents in an armed room with 40 illegal immigrants and Temuera Morrison who looked at me compassionately as he sighed "They always do this to us Maori's." Anyway, this wasn't quite as strict as the USA and he merely had his passport examined with a magnifying glass and was asked some strange questions in regards to his position in the Dominican Republic. We had to laugh when we asked why he was held up - apparently a threat for Zika. Strange they didn't stop me, considering we came from the same country and how I'm Miss low immunity and covered in a million mosquito scars - when Billy never gets bit (the bastard!). We had no accommodation booked (breaking my usual rule of always having the first night planned) but thankfully our friend had given us a local card with an apartment address scrawled across it which was what finally bought his way through customs and we came away smiling as the hot pink Cuban stamp was issued into both of our passports, the first of many to come for Billy I am sure.

The smelly and old fashioned airport gave insight into what we were to expect over the next 2.5 weeks - stale smoke mixed with government enforced weekly fumigation were the overwhelming scents in every shop, home, hotel, bar, restaurant, and business we entered. We were bustled out into the waiting area where a thousand taxis, shuttles, and vendors wanted our attention. We decided to stupidly put our trust into the first person we saw - who told us he would take us to a money exchange that had a line shorter than the one tailing around the arrivals lounge. He also said he would take us to a casa particular in the centre of the city. Pfft, first Cuban trap - he did neither of those. And then promptly took our 40 euro as well as collecting his commission for dropping us at an overpriced apartment that resembled a stark hospital room.

We woke up early the next morning, packed our bags, and found our own way to a cadeca (money exchange) that gave us a better price for our euros as well as had us meeting our first Cuban friend who spent the morning showing us a little bit around town - and collecting free food and drinks from us - as we made our way towards what was our new home in the city of Havana.
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We loved walking around and seeing the beautiful buildings and the crazy old cars. We kept turning around each and every corner and there were so many! It was interesting to be in Cuba during the time of change and growth that it is experiencing now. There were many new and modern cars amongst the old american gas guzzlers.
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On one of the days, we finally worked out how to take the local transport through havana without having to pay like a tourist. It took asking about 20 people before one kind man gave us a truthful answer. We got in the beautiful old car (albeit slightly beaten up, but still running far better than my beetle ever did!) and asked him to take us in the direction of the number 13... which we believed to be around Miramar area. We drove along the melanin (boardwalk in english I think? The road that goes along the sea...) and finally got out to a wealthy looking area of the suburbs. The driver pulled over, looked at us and shrugged "this is the end of my route." We looked at each other and back to him as he queried, "Where are you two going?" and I replied "Well, maybe this was a bad idea because we have no idea where we are going!" He roared with laughter and told us that it was surely not a bad idea as we were only 2 streets away from the National Fair of artesian products - what luck! So off we went, paid a fortune to get in - only to have our first encounter with how Cuba really survives on the bare minimums. There was hardly anything at the fair, huge parts of the convention centre were empty, and what was there was at an absolutely ridiculous price - as was the $16 euro entry price that we had to pay as non-nationals. We left quickly, and found the worlds largest ice creams and ate them in the super hot sunshine before hightailing it back to the city.

Another of our days in Cuba, we visited the Museum of the Revolution which we had promised my father we would definitely check out. Wow, what a bizarre place! Their version of the revolution, the way everything was written and the story being told was absolutely fascinating. We were super impressed also by the building itself and the artifacts - which even included Che Guevara's hat !
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We drank overpriced Daiquiri's at Floriditas - one of the top 7 most famous bars in the world due to being the birth place of the Daiquiri and the frequent hangout spot of writer Ernest Hemingway.
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I loved how the local people would dress up either themselves or their pets and pose for pictures - and ask ridiculous amounts of money for them! Billy and I got super sneaky at taking sly photos and then just dropping a few local pesos into their collection baskets instead.

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We walked and walked and walked around Havana for what felt like years - but really was only 4 or 5 days. We refused to take taxis anywhere because they were so expensive, so we walked everywhere instead. It was great though because it meant we could stop where we wanted to take photos, to dance to live music in the parks, to browse through bookshops, and to partake in the local attractions.
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We even found an airgun shooting range where we could aim and fire at a range of different targets. I shot every single one of mine, and Billy even shot one of his so well that the target flipped off and fell to the ground! SAM_4792.jpgSAM_4791.jpg

We saw the camera obscura which is a weird contraption that uses mirrors and light refraction to show a live picture of the city on a huge disk inside an entirely dark room. I found it fascinating, especially because one of my favorite books as a child was called the Camera Obscura and I had always wanted to see one. There are only 5 in the entire world, so I jumped at the chance!
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We were super surprised by a few things in regards to our initial time in Cuba.

1. You are either Cuban or you are not. Speaking Spanish doesn't mean you get a discount on anything, which was a huge shock for me as my bilingualism has always served me ridiculously well as I have traveled my way through Latin America. Billy being a native speaker and from the neighboring Caribbean island made no difference either. We had to pay the full tourist prices pretty much everywhere we went.

2. The racism and the attitudes of the local people towards us was practically nonexistent. In the Dominican Republic - which I often refer to as the most racist country I have ever traveled to - it is almost impossible to walk down the street without people abusing us or racially profiling either of us. Billy of course is too black because of his Haitian/ African heritage, and I am the color of the tourist - which means I have (supposed) money and am to be worshipped, ridiculed, and extorted all at once. However, in Cuba this attitude didn't seem to exist. We could walk down the streets hand in hand and people barely even noticed us - let alone stare and then yell abuse! Billy of course knows nothing except the attitudes of the country he has grown up in, so for him it was a blissful insight to what life might be like in New Zealand if we ever do make the move home.

3. The difference between the local prices and the tourist prices were EXORBITANT! Trying to understand the two different currencies was something that took me a few days to wrap my head around, let alone poor Billy who had never worked in a new currency at all ! We had fistfuls of both local and tourist pesos and were forever confusing the two.

4. Most of the nice old cars are there for tourism. The really preserved and maintained ones work as private taxi and touring cars available for private hire (for nearly 60 euros an hour!!!). The older and less maintained ones are used as local transport which we took out to the artesian fair. Private cars seemed to be all newer models. Yet there were hardly ANY cars on the road when traveling between towns. It was very strange to see such wide and empty roads with no one traveling upon themSAM_4637.jpg
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5. The food really wasn't as bad as we were advised. Perhaps we had expected worse? Perhaps we are too used to Dominican food which can often be lacking in spices and taste - think never ending rice, beans, and chicken! The cheapest street food was mostly pizza and spaghetti which came with the saltiest, stringiest, oiliest cheese we know - and which we got very addicted to after initially hating it! And we got addicted to fresh churros with cinnamon and brown sugar !
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6. Everything is Cuban made. And if it isn't, it is is practically unaffordable. Most things have the same label or come from the same place - and you realize they are the communist version. Eg, you can only buy one brand of bottled water or soda etc.

7. The best drink in the entire world is Malta Bucanero - malted drink that is not too sweet and not too malta-ry. The best drink to cool you down during a super hot day in the Cuban sunshine. We must have drunk one each and every single day for our entire vacation!
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8. For a country that is so "un visited" they are certainly VERY set up for tourism. Official bus stations just for tourists to travel upon, official tours and treks in each town, hop on and hop off bus systems, home stays (casa particulares) where your details are registered everyday with the government to keep an eye on you, everything having two prices, and of course laws about keeping tourists and locals separate. Billy even nearly got arrested one day for walking with me as we entered our favorite locals only (shh, don't tell anyone we weren't local) breakfast spot. We had worked out how we could get 4 egg buns, 2 coffees and 2 juices for just 1 euro. He was suddenly surrounded by questions from 3 policemen while a further few waited at the door and on the street. All Billy had to do was say "Buenos dias" for the lead officer to speak into his walky-talky and tell his backup that "it doesn't matter, stand down - he is a foreigner too like her..." We did of course think that was super exciting to have nearly been arrested for being together!

9. The propaganda and patriotism is EVERYWHERE! Reminders of the revolution and encouragement for socialistic practices are painted beautifully on most public spaces.
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10. It was in Havana that we took our most favourite photo of our trip :

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Posted by chasingsummer 12:01 Archived in Cuba Tagged walking city fun havana hot adventures touring exploring old_cars Comments (0)

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