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Equador & Cuba Various

Seans Musings- Brace Yourself... 20 days worth of updates in one hit!

27th October
Hi family and friends we are now in Quito again with our friends Jose and Valeria. Long day with two flights (kids definately have had enough for today...as have we!) We are here for one night before flying to Lima, Peru. Trust you and yours are all well, we are tired, a little travel weary but well, :-) Sean.

October 22nd: Vinales: 2hrs drive from Havanna
Well the tiny hormida (ant) of Vinales has made it quite clear that he does not like us Kiwis. After biting Brodin on the arm and dispatching him to tears his mates then did the same thing to Daisy except they caused a hell lot more pain. Double dosing paracetymol, apply paw paw cream and giving an oral antihistamine all failed to reduce the pain. Such were the cries and rapid the inflamation we thought some nasty spider had bit her. Eventually solved by some hydrocortosol cream from the pharmacy, instant relief apparently. Despite telling us that there is no treatment for this bit in Cuba our Casa Particular host did do something right by dispatching her son to spray for ants.

On the personal from I've resolved to keep out of the sun and eat nothing but boiled eggs and bread in an attempt to get over the diarrhoea which has had the better of me these past four days. On the upside I have plenty of time to update this blog ready for upload when we next get access to the internet!

Rach and Clare have just returned from exploring the area. Apparently the kids now know where tobacco comes from and can roll their own cigars. (Sorry Mum!)

Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you about another scam we have discovered which caused us some stress on our 7-8 hr drive to Vinales, two hours north-ish west of Havanna. SO the deal here when you hire a car is that you have to fill the tank when you first pick up the car. So in goes 42L on our fairly modern 2L vehicle. Interestingly, and not surprisingly for Cuba, the odo does not work. An estimated 300kms later the fuel light is on...shit we are a long way from any petrol station and the map provided by the car rental place is proving unreliable when it comes to the location of petrol stations. As you can imagine the stress level in the car rises the more kms we travel. We reduce our speed to reduce consumption. Turning the air-con off to save fuel is discussed. Its decided that we should stay on the autopista and not stray into one of the smaller towns as there is more traffic on the motorway and so more chances of help should the car conk out. Eventually after a few bad turns and several Donde Gasolina?'s later we find a petrol station and fill up with 24L.....Hang on.....we drove for ages on the empty yellow light and the tank is not even half empty! The penny drops. This is a country where the cost of petrol is very high relative to their incomes. The rental agent has tampered with the car to encourage you the unsuspecting tourist to return the car with the tank at least half full!

October 21st: Trinidad
Well what a shock Clare and Rach got when they recieved the bill from our Casa Particular Hosts. The charge ($35CUC) for doing some of our washing was more than one nights accommodation $25CUC per room! The girls negotiated it down to $15 which was still three times more than what it cost at the last place. Unfortunately this has soured what has been a pretty average experience at Casa Felix (Calle Lino Perez) which is best to be avoided. Its sad that the desire for money has corrupted so many of our interactions with the Cuban people.

October 20th: Trinidad
What a neat experience it was to witness all the locals parading themselves at night time around their local plaza dressed in their best. Kids only a couple of years old are to be seen being shown off by their parents at nine o'clock at night.

October 19th: Trinidad
I am writing this after having spent the morning purging my body of whatever nasty bug I somehow ingested. Its possible I was in the sun too long yesterday or perhaps it was the fish for lunch? Regardless I've lost day. I feel week. Gastrolite is the second most disgusting thing I have tasted, second only to the Cuban dessert we tried last night. It came in a little saucer of very sweet jam with a slice of warm cheese stitting in it.

October 18th: Trinidad: La Vega Hacienda Horse Ranch
We find ourselves in Trinidad, after a rapid and safe trip via a modern private taxi yesterday. After doing the costal beach resort thing for an hour or two the boredom sets in and so Rach convinces us to take a risk and hire a "taxi" (more on that later) to La Vega Hacienda (horse ranch) recommended in our LP Guide. As luck would have it does have someone home. We eat at the sole restaurant which serves average food but does have a gentle sea breeze and ugly but interesting and friendly gheckos for the kids to amuse themselves with.

Then what follows is the highlight of my time here in Cuba. A man appears with three horses, saddles them up and then we are off for a 40min ride through bush, streams and mangroves to a small beach lagoon (20metres accross) bounded by rocky outcrops. On go the snorkelling gear and we are in tropical fish heaven for close to an hour in full sun before mounting the horses again to return, or so we thought. Instead we take a turn to Agua Dulce Cascades (Sweet water, waterfall) where the kids and I get in for a relatively cool (the water was warm but not as warm as the sea or air) dip. Absolute magic. Our horse man did not speak any English but was friendly, patient, helpful and unlike just about everyone else we have encountered in Cuba so far did not attempt to scam us. The pre-agreed price was $4CUC per horse (=$4USD)...we certainly did not expect a three hour adventure. We decided to give him $20CUC and encouraged Brodin to give away his snorkelling gear (which he did) to his son who was of a similiar age and who we met at the waterfall. The smile told all.

Unfortunately we discovered on the return leg whilst in the car that our taxi driver was drunk...

October 17th: Santa Clara
Wow this town has a great feel. Its heart is Parque Vidal, a plaza where everyone seems to meet and thanks to a cultural festival has free performances (dance, music) on every day. The people are better dressed and look happier and healthier (as do the animals)

than their Havanna counterparts. We also see evidence of healthcare here. People with crutches, people using sign language and walking sticks for the blind. Our taxi driver tells me that the income disparity is small here and that it is rich in culture. Of the few countries I've been to in the world these two factors show up time and time again. They seem to be essential to community happiness and wellbeing.

Sadly though we get frequently approached by two beggars which does not make sense here as every Cubano has a food ration. Sadly I read that some have quit their jobs as they can make more money begging or scamming tourists.

Last night Clare (Rachels friend who has joined us for the Cuba bit) and I discovered a free concert off the square. We listened to two choirs. The rythms I've not heard before and the harmony incredible.

October 16th: Santa Clara Cuba
Our accommodation is amazing here and is the same price per room ($25CUC) as the other places we have stayed. The front door opens onto a colonial courtyard with water fountain and palms. The four rooms form a perimeter on one side with a kitchen at the end and block wall with climbers on the other. Beautiful furniture, chandelliers, pottery and paintings. Managers Carmen and Obregon have a superb service ethic and I strongly recommend their Casa Particular. Their family has the two front rooms. Best place we have stayed yet and less than 5 mins walk to the central plaza. [Holly and Andrew the details are: Hostel Autenica Pergola, Luis Estevez #61 e/ (means between Independencia Boulevard and Marti]

October 15th: October: Playa Larga (Beach) Cuba
I am glad to say that we are out of Havanna. If I'm completely honest about it, while I like the market, some restaurants and Plaz de Armas, I don't like what I've experienced in Havanna. I could not live here. The touts are seemingly constant. As Rachel's friend Clare put it "Everyone seems to be out to make a buck off you" Everywhere we go we are watched and approached and pressured to buy something or pay for some service. Everyone wants to be your friend (super friendly) and then quickly turn sour once you say no to whatever it is they are selling.

In stark contast Playa Larga is a relaxed costal fishing town. Pity about the noisy hound dog next door who successfully gets the beach dogs barking overnight. Fairly average Casa Particular (the owner does not live onsite so its really just a house for rent) but the breakfast lady had a great sense of humour. The water is warm with the occassional jelly fish unfortunately for poor Daisy who was stung on her tummy. Glad I brought the bottle of paracetemol.

Got two hours off to myself snorkelling at Cueva de los Peces a 20 min drive from our Casa, marvellous! Crystal clear water 5m deep accessible straight from the costal edge, no beach to navigate...live coral, parrot fish, tetra neons.....just like swimming in an aquarium!

October 14th: Havanna Cuba: Over trusting Kiwis
Scammed again! Short changed by a rude agressive taxi driver. As soon as I started inspecting the change (it was dark and no lighting) the taxi driver reached in for a forcefull handshake diverting my attention long enough to make his getaway. Expected change $5CUC, actual change $5Pesos which is equivalent to 1/5th $CUC!

The other common scam we are getting caught out by is being overcharged (sugar water, mohitos...etc) when you fail to ask the price first. Friendly staff and nice surroundings in restaurants tend to lull us into a false sense of security. At
one restaurant the staff returned our $50CUC note saying that it had a tear in it and could not accept it. They would however accept Canadian dollars, US or Euro but not credit cards. The rates for the other currencies were (unusually) stated on the menu. Given that it came fresh from an ATM we believe that they tore the note in the hope that we would cough up another currency with a less than favourable exchange rate. Later that night I did wonder if the torn note they had handed us was a counterfeit! Fortunately not as it turned out.

October 13th: Havanna Cuba
On departing the San Jose Market (best place in my opinion to buy art) turned out the driver of our 1953 Chevrolet was a young avionics engineer made redundant 2 years earlier by the "anti-inflation measures" With four positions reduced to one the three youngest were left to find new work...hence why he became a taxi driver. In the safety of the car (no other ears listening) he explained that jobs are given to those who are oldest and have the most senior connections. The implication was that skill and hard work had nothing to do with it!

October 12th: Havanna Cuba
Cuba certainly is an interest contradiction in many ways. For all I have read about how Cubanos perceive America to be the cause of all their woes they appear to embrace American culture. While I am writing this from our Casa Particular (Villa Azul, Curazao#24 entre Luz y Acosta, Habanna Vieja) someone has Madonna blaring from their sterio. Many have access to American TV and DVDs. Many restaurants have 80s pop music videos playing which is a shame as it ruins the atmosphere in my opinion. While on a short tour by horse and carriage (Daisy and Brodin loved it...Daisy's smile said it all) the unexpected guide (a friend of the driver who we thought had just joined for the ride) pointed out the Opulent Spanish Embassy. When asked how can they celebrate kicking out the Spaniards and still have a Spanish Embassy he just shrugged his shoulders.

Our host Graysis (Gracie) is fantastic by the way. I recommend this Casa Particular (you live in their house, fortunately we have our own lounge, bathroom and two bedrooms, own keys) due to the host, its location, space, clean rooms and while keeping in mind how hard it is for Cubanos to access supplies wonderful breakfasts. We found the noisy air conditioning drowned out the nightime neighbourhood noise perfectly. Its a 15/20min walk or $2CUC by bici-taxi to the Malecon (waterfront) and $3CUC by bici/-taxi to Plaza de Armas.

October 11th: Havanna, Cuba
Daisy and Sean suffering from heat exhaustion. Daisy not eating at all. Sean skipped lunch to crash out for a three hour sleep in the afternoon and would have kept sleeping if were not for Rach waking him up! Daisy still drinking water but bit of a worry as does not appear to be enough. Guesssing its 40 deg and 90% plus humidity. The prickly sensation all over and red spots has Sean wondering if he is going to cope in Cuba.

October 10th: Havanna, Cuba.
Returning Cubanos cheer when the plane takes off. Puff of smoke from left engine prior to take off bit of a worry as is the hand sketch on cabin exterior describing the details for a replacement panel. Cubanos start singing, the vino (not supplied by the airline) is flowing....and the Cubanos start dancing at the back of the plane! On arrival we are welcomed by 40 deg heat with 99% humidity. A loooong day with Daisy throwing up four times (two good catches by Sean) at the airport. Up at 3:30am, finishing with a long late walk and surpising good Cenar (lite meal) from a wee outdoor cafe on a cobbled street one block back from the waterfront.

This update brought to you by Sean.

Posted by Fletchers 16:55 Comments (1)

Sweet Random Things That Have Happened

Update by Sean

Sweet things that have happened, in brief:

October 10th
In Havanna Cuba, while on a slow walk through a residential neighbourhood from our accommodation (picture crumbling brick and concrete four story buildings surrounding you on all sides) a random couple strike up a conversation. Turns out she is an English Teacher. Uncharacteristically they do not try to sell us anything and offer their straw hats to the kids...for keeps! We politely decline. After a friendly chat they wish us well on our travels and we part ways. This interaction was welcome relief from the countless Thailand style sales attempts. (Post-script: our booking agent tells us that they are probably still con-artists. The couple with one as an English teacher is a common gag apparently. They be-friend you and then several hours later attempt to swindle you in some way!)

October 9th
In Quito airport around 4am a kind lady offers Sean her tissues after he catches Daisy's vomit right in front of her! Sean gets to repeat "the catch of the day" only one hour later as we walk onto the plane. Poor Daisy, the early start (and possibly high altitude) was hard on her.

October 8th
In Quito, after completing a seek and buy mission at the El Condado Mega Shopping Mall Sean exited the Mall to find that it was pouring down with rain. Given that he had bought Cenar (a lite dinner) for the family the only available option was to hail a taxi in the rain. He ventured out behind a lady with an umbrella who after five minutes or so manages to secure a taxi. Looking behind her she sees a smiling Sean soaking wet with his arm extended in an attempt to get a taxi...she smiles back and gives him the taxi!

October 7th
At Mindo Gardens, two hours drive from Quito. Our host Rodrigo offers herbal tea and (requested by Rachel) vegetable soup "on the house" after Rach spent 24hrs throwing up and in bed. Bit of a vomitous trip that one with Daisy hurling in the car five minutes before we arrive. Fortunately she told us first and Rach got the bag out in time. Given the seemingly never ending switchbacks, hair-pin corners, steep climbs and declines as Jose navigated the car through numerous craters its not surprising that three of the kids felt sick.

Our hosts and new friends Valeria and Jose in Quito. Its not possible to find better hosts. Imagine opening your home for 5 days at a time, twice, to four strangers comprising of two adults and two kids. Especially when you have a 3 and five year old of your own and your guests speak another language! Valeria and Jose have given us the sense of connection and insight which would not have been possible otherwise. This is what has been missing from our previous trips.

Ever helpful and on hand to share knowledge about their country. Everything from tips on prices for taxis, calling taxis, obtaining antibiotics for Rach, numerous phone calls for accommodation bookings, recommending awesome places to visit (Mindo Gardens was one), surprise gifts (T shirts for the kids and snacks), safety warnings, to in depth discussions on every imaginable topic. Valeria's excellent English made it very easy for us and her willingness to answer Espanol questions and correct us has improved our Espanol.

Not to mention the constant insistence that they pay for everything. We had to cleverly find a way to pay. In the end it became a sport to see who could sneak up to the cashier to pay first. At one restaurant Jose penned us in with a chair to slow us down! Whenever we did succeed in paying Valeria would say "you really shouldn't have Sean, you really shouldn't..." If Jose and Sean got to the cashier at the same time Jose would stare Sean down and in a firm voice say that he insisted that he pay and would Sean "PLEASE sit down"! The finale occured at Mindo Gardens where on arrival Sean spoke to the Manager and insisted that he not allow any of our party to pay...the bill was to be added to the room bill. Boy did Jose get a surprise when he disappeared to attempt to pay the bill!

Jose and Valeria, if you happen to read this blog, thankyou for your hospitality, you guys are awesome! We hope that you come to New Zealand and we get to host you one day.

This update brought to you by Sean.

Posted by Fletchers 16:45 Comments (0)

Havana heat!


View South America and Cuba on Fletchers's travel map.

Well Cuba has been a bit of an eye opener. I finally managed to track down internet access after fighting through a crowd of people, albeit not wireless - what do even call that? i think I have forgotten the name of internet that requires a connection via a cable. Possibly this alo requires a telephone port.
Havana hit us like an assault to be honest. The heat was unbearable. The touts constantly harrassing us, offering taxis, bicitaxis, cocotaxis, horsedrawn cart rides, I swear I could have acquired a piggyback ride if I was prepared to give someone a dollar! The resturaunt touts are out blocking your path, trying to entice you in, whether it is meal time or not, offering mojitos at 11am. It is a real shame as without the constant harrassing, Havana would be the most amazing city. There are two areas that have been beautifully restored to their former glory and the buildings and plazas are truly beautiful. One or two blocks back however you meet the rue Havan which is the part that I loved. The dilapidated houses, some of which you can just picture how beautiful they would have been in their hayday, now dirty, crumbling, leaking with balconies where locals stand to watch the world go by (I'm not sure I would stand on some of them!). People sitting in doorways, especially the elderly. Kids playing marbles in the streets. There are very few cars in Cuba (with an abundance of 1950s American cars - it's true they actually are everywhere! And not just for tourists and postcards) so people walk down the streets and any vehicles have to toot and wait til people make way for them. Life appears very laid back and relaxed. There is no sign of hunger here, despite the desperate situation of the 1990s. The majority of people are slightly overweight, although to be fair, it is far too hot to exercise and I am beginning to realise the pointlessness of me bringing my running gear.
In Cuba we have learnt that you should not believe what guide books tell you. Cuba has surprised us. But then I guess there is no way to adequately describe her. Whilst some surprises have bee pleasant others have not. We have so far been ripped off by a taxi driver who gave us change in the local peso instead of the convertible in the dark of night - (25c NZ instead of $6NZ equivelants). Daisy had her flippers stolen when she took her eyes off them on the beach for 20 seconds - another boy pointed to a house and suggested we ask there. Sure enough a little boy had taken them and the mother sheepishly handed them over - I suspect he was encouraged by her to take them. These experiences do sour your impressions of the place, sadly.
However we are managing to find the best Mojitos in each area, discovering that not all mojitos are created equally. My friend Clare from the UK is assisting me with this task. It has been great to have a friend along with us, however, Sean has been asked by several men if I am his wife and if Clare is his girlfriend!! It appears Cubans are quite liberal! We even got asked if Brodin was Clare's son due to his eye colour being similar to hers! Sean insists that more than one woman is too difficult, "mas problemo!"" creating รค headache, as I slap him across the head!
We will post photos when we have wifi again I expect, which will be at the end of the month.
Ciao for now.
Rachel

Posted by Fletchers 07:22 Archived in Cuba Comments (1)

Cuba in context


View South America and Cuba on Fletchers's travel map.

So what's the deal with Cuba anyway? We all kind of know there is some kind of controversy surrounding the socio-political situation in Cuba, but if you are like me a few months ago you probably don't really get what it's all about. Something to do with communism and a guy called Fidel. And wasn't there some heroic dude called Che Guevara involved somewhere? What did he do anyway?
It was suggested by a few people that we should include Cuba to our itinaray for this trip, so i began doing a bit of research. Which led to a bit more reading, which led to yet another book. And it is really fascinating - well I thnk so, but then I am quite politiclly minded. So here is my lay history of Cuba as I understand it. Feel free to correct me on anything if I get it wrong as I am doing this from memory from my readings over the last few months at home.
Cuba had some indiginous people from way back, then they were invaded by the Spaniards in the 1500s. Somewhere along the line they began growing sugar on the island and they became a major player in the world slave trade, particularly in the 1700s. At some stage in the 1800s I believe the slaves acheived freedom and add to the diversity of culture in Cuba today.
In the early 1900s, Cuba, in particular Havana, the capital city, became a haven for the Mafia and money laundering. Mansions were built along Havana's waterfront by wealthy ex-pats from the USA and Europe. The disparity between wealth and poverty was huge and crime, drugs and prostitution were rife. A great place to party and holiday if you had money, apparently. Ernest Hemmingway bought a house there and spent much of his time there. Cuba was governed by the dictator Bapista who was embezzling millions along with his cronies and bribery and corruption were a way of life.
Along came some idealists. A medical student named Ernesto Guevara, known as 'Che' from Argentina had travelled South America on a motorcycle and was appalled by the disparity between the wealthy and poor and in particular the lack of medical careprovided to the poor, mainly indigenous people he met on his travels. He eventually met a guy named Raul Castro who introduced Che to his older brother Fidel Castro, a young revolutionary in Cuba. Together Fidel and Che developed and trained a group of revolutionaries who believed that change was possible and desireable in Cuba. On New Years Eve 1959 they attacked and won, overtaking the government. I don't know the details but it sounds like Batista was too busy swindling and partying to do much about it. Anyway, Fidel took over presidency of Cuba with Che and brother Raul as his right hand men. Eventually Che became disheartened and left Cuba to promote revolutionism in other parts of South America. He was eventually assasinated by CIA operatives in the late 60s in Bolivia. He has been somewhat matyred ever since. Fidel for his part, evicted batsta, who left with millions of Cuba's money, along with the drug and mafia lords. His aim was to clean up Havana and Cuba and he implemented a socialist policy where the Government paid a low wage to everyone and provided all the necessary requirements for living. He provided free education, free health care, he converted the mansions and hotels into apartment buildngs to house multiple families, particularly those struggling to survive in the rural areas. Indoing so he created a class-less society. Doctors and lawyers were essentially paid the same as bus drivers and street cleaners. Understandably the wealthy in Cuba were not happy and many fled to Miami, Florida, where they still live today, continuing their anti-castro vocalisations.
In converting Cuba to a socialist regime, Fidel's government took over all private industry. As there were numerous American businesses in Cuba at the time, the USA was not happy and the USA government began imposing sanctions on Cuba, insisting that they move away from the socialist structure and allow American industry in Cuba, or at least pay compensation to them for the appropriation of their industries. For example, Bicardi, an American company set up using the bi-product of the sugar refineries to make white rum in Cuba, was taken over. A legal fight ensued whereby Bicardi won the right to retain their trading name in order to set up elsewhere and Fidel's white rum business hence was named Havana Club. The economic sanctions on Cuba from the USA which had been it's major trading partner given it's close proximity, caused Cuba significant hardship - which was the intention. However Fidel did not bow to the pressure. In fact it worked against the USA as while the people fell upon hard times, Fidel was able to blame the USA for this, turning the people more and more anti-USA and pro-Fidel. During this period, Fidel formed links with the Soviet Union, which was during the cold war between the Soviets and the USA. (And was under pressure from the Soviets that Fidel eventually labelled his political system as Communist). In exchange for petrol and many other goods that were much needed, Fidel agreed to the Soviets building a nuclear misile base in cuba. Right on the USA's back door step. Well, didn't big brother poo their red, blue and white pants then!? This has become known as the "Cuban Misile Crises". The USA then put much pressure on the Cuban's to cut ties with the Soviets and get rid of the misile base. In short, a couple of invasion attempts by the USA on Cuba that failed, a few planes shot down, etc etc. THen the 90s hit along with the crash n the Soviet economy. This meant that the Soviet Union was no longer able to prop up the Cuban economy and they pulled out altogether.
With no ability to import much needed resources such as petrol, Cuba was in crisis. They had no way to transport meat and vegetables form the country to the city and their people were starving. In a briliant initiative to increase self-reliance, they converted much of the roads into vegetable gardens for communal use. Afteral, nobody was using cars as they had no petrol! The resourcefulness of the Cuban's, their ability to pull together an work out a means of being a fully sustainable country, surviving without any importations is something that has been held up as a model around the world.
The sanctions of the USA continue 50 odd years later. The USA refuses to trade with Cuba, including providing medical resources developed in the USA. USA treasury law, rather than a federal law, states that no USA money can eneter into the Cuban economy as this supports the Cuban government. American citizens are not allowed to travel to Cuba and if they are caught doing so they incur huge fines. This has huge repercusions for Cuba as imports from elsewhere are incredibly costly due to the distance required to transport. The USA refuses to trade with other countries who trade with Cuba. Hence only those bold and economincally independent enough can afford to trade wih Cuba. So far Venezuela and Israel are the only ones prepared to do so. Such is the influence of the USA.
How this impacts on Cuba today, we are about to find out. A country with no McDonalds. Surely this is my Havana.
By Rachel.

Posted by Fletchers 09:23 Archived in Cuba Comments (2)

Mindo Gardens, Ecuador

Heaven on Earth, by Sean

If there is heaven on earth, then surely it can be found at Mindo Gardens in Ecuador.

After watching the hummingbirds for countless hours I can see the inspiration for the Disney Fairy...countless sketches of which can be found in the Mindo Gardens visitors book. I've chucked in a few pics of Brodes and I "Zip-linning" ...basically a big kids flying fox...definately the highlight of our day!!!! (Poor Daisy was not impressed as she really wanted to go too) I wont mention the 24hrs Rach spent puking her guts out....

Up at 3:30am to travel to airport...to go to Cuba...wish us luck!!!!! Probably no internet for the next 17 days folks,
hope you and yours are all well,
Sean.

Blue hummingbird

Blue hummingbird

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Posted by Fletchers 19:57 Comments (1)

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