Thursday, January 11, 2018

Bay of Pigs

We didn't know exactly what to expect when we arrived in Cuba.  But, it wasn't getting off the plane from Mexico and being subjected to another security check before we'd even collected our bags.  Which didn't any make sense.  Turns out, not much does in Cuba.  Of course I didn't know that yet.  When we arrived, I was still hoping to have authentic Cuban cuisine and comparing a Cuban sandwich actually made in Cuba to the ones I used to eat when I lived in Miami.  Plus, I'd gotten two Cuban cookbooks as a gift from a friend earlier in the month, whetting my appetite even more. But, I was in for a rude awakening.

Luckily, that awakening didn't have anything to do with our accommodations that I'd booked on Airbnb.  Our host was there to greet us.  As were out next door neighbors, part of the tight knit unofficial Cuban neighborhood watch program, who were party prepping for their grandson's first birthday that evening, which we were invited to before we even set foot in the apartment.  (My husband ended up going to the party, doing rum shots, dancing with grandma and returned home with icing from the cake on the back of his shorts.) The apartment exceeded my expectations.  Complete with a balcony; the perfect perch from which to watch the bustling neighborhood below.  Without TV and wifi, this was our entertainment for 5 days.

We rented an apartment as opposed to staying in a hotel for two reasons: first, to get a feel for what it's like to live there and second, because we're cheap; so we try to save on food costs by eating at least one meal in.  Plus, I love to go to grocery stores in foreign countries.  It reveals a lot about the way people really live.  But, I wasn't quite prepared for what I found.

When we walked to the neighborhood grocery store, there was a long line of people waiting outside.  Apparently, they only let a limited number of people in at a time to prevent shoplifting.  When our turn did come up, I was told I couldn't go in with my bag.  So, I left it with my oldest son who waited outside the store while the rest of us scurried to collect the basics for breakfast.  This is the thing...while the store is full of food, there aren't many food choices at all.  There were three kinds of cereal and only, one brand of olive oil and boxed shelf milk instead of fresh.  And there were no eggs, yogurt or butter.   Thank god they had coffee.  And a bakery right across the street from our apartment to get bread in the morning.  Albeit one kind of bread, in the form of a roll or a baguette, lacking crustiness and flavor.  Making me even more grateful that there was jam.

While we were walking the streets of Havana looking at the colonial architecture, classic cars and crumbled buildings (approximately 300 buildings collapse a year in Cuba), we saw people carrying eggs.  But, where were they buying them?  It was on the second day we spotted them stacked up inside an otherwise abandoned looking building.  When we walked up to the open window adjacent to the sidewalk, we inquired how much they were with the clerk.  But, they weren't selling them. They were eggs for the Cuban people with ration cards. Welcome to Socialism.  Then he told us to come inside.  Where he sold us the eggs and told us to conceal them while we walked back to the apartment.  Welcome to the Capitalist Socialism that really runs Cuba since that the Russians stopped subsidizing the country for millions of dollars a day when the Soviet Union disbanded in the 90's.  Where a lot of the population seeks opportunities to make money on the side to put some pork on the table occasionally with their ration rice and beans, eggs and bread.  Not to mention, buying shoes which are very expensive, which is probably why I noticed the locals noticing my sneakers everywhere we walked.

I'd found that the Cuban cuisine I longed for doesn't exist in Cuba because most people don't have the ingredients to make it.
But, the mojitos are excellent. 

I was on the balcony eating breakfast, watching the buzz of the neighborhood.  The old lady selling plastic bags in front of the bakery.  The constant stream of people using the payphone next to the bakery.  And the early morning deliveries being made to the food stalls sandwiched between a collapsed building and the bakery.

The pigs were getting delivered.  In a dirty truck.  And that's when things started to make sense.  While we didn't get any exciting Cuban cuisine in Cuba, we did all get E. coli.  I can't say for certain that we all contracted it from eating ham sandwiches, because I can't say with absolute certainty it was the ham.  But, after witnessing our own bay of pigs, it did seem likely.  (Bay also means the position of one unable to retreat and forced to face danger.  Just let me have this, ok?)  What I do know with certainty, because the lab confirmed it, is that we had 3 different strains of bacteria. 

So, as we were on a plane back to Mexico praying for the seatbelt sign to go off so I could get to the toilet in time, I was singing that Havana song that's so popular right now in my head.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Everyday We're Bustling

We'd been in Mexico for a few days.  Staying in hostels, eating spicy Mexican food washed down with margaritas and taking public transportation.  Which is a dangerous combination when you think about it.  Riding on a public bus 2 hours inland to see Chichen Itza after a couple of cups of black coffee and some eggs smothered in a nice spicy burrito sauce.  What if I shit my pants?  It was a constant worry that only got worse as the trip went on.  But, on this particular bus ride, I was spared.  The kid a few rows back from me was not, apparently.  And apparently, he didn't have a change of clothes either.  But, no worries, in a couple days and another bus ride we'd be back beach side in Tulum where my husband had rented a car.  

Yup, a 1980 VW bus.  That wasn't running when we arrived.  It needed a new starter that was supposed to arrive in the mail that day and then all they had to do  just was install it.  Déjà vu!  If I know anything about old VW cars, (and I'd say having two in my driveway, one of which hasn't run in 3 years, qualifies me as an expert) it's that nothing "just" anythings.  Ever.  I knew where this was going.  Nowhere.  My husband, ever the optimist, hadn't given up hope that it would be driveable in a day or so.  It wasn't.  So finally, to see more Mayan temples and cenotes (limestone swimming holes sometimes linked to an active cave system) that were off the beaten path, we rented a minivan for 24 hours.

It was so easy to rent.  They even delivered it right to our hostel.  Not only did it work and fit our whole family of 6 comfortably with air conditioning, when it came to getting extra insurance on it (which we usually decline), the rental agent even reduced the price on that.  How could we refuse?  So, we drove that over insured Town and Country straight out of town and into the countryside to escape the insufferable tourists.  Which of course is impossible when you are also an insufferable tourist.

The stairs descending to the cenote.
Bonus: No sunscreen necessary.
(And this is the second time we've swum in a cave with bats if we're keeping score.)  
The next morning was Christmas.  So, we drive to the beach, rented a boat and went snorkeling on what our guide claimed was the second largest coral reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef.  We managed to get back into town just in time to return the car exactly 24 hours after we rented it.  And exactly an hour after we returned the car, my husband received a message from the car rental agent that rented it to us.  "Would [sic] be so kind to come a moment to the office I want to check a detail with you"  Oh shit, what could it be?

The kids stayed in the hostel left to their devices, overdosing on wifi that they wouldn't have when we got to Cuba, while my husband and I walked to the car rental office.  Where Miguel (the rental car agent) greeted us with a photo and a paper.  The photo is of damage to the front end of the minivan we just rented.  WTF?  My heart started racing. "We won't charge you anything.  Just sign the paper and tell us how it happened", he pleaded.

Except, we know the damage didn't happen during the 24 hours we had the car.  But, how do we prove that?  And that's when it all starts to make sense.  The photo was a close up of the damage.  There was no license place to prove it was actually the car we drove.  It could've been any gray minivan from last week or last year even.  Then, they wanted us to sign a blank paper detailing what happened to the car or that nothing happened to the car (and they'd conveniently fill out the rest for us later).  And the discounted insurance?  This was all an insurance scam from the start.

We didn't have to prove we didn't do the damage to the car, they had to prove we did.  Plus, we had an insurance policy of our own, we'd paid with a credit card.  So, we could simply call and have any extra charges reported and taken off our bill should they appear after the fact.  (My husband also secretly video recorded the conversation with Miguel.)  That's when we abruptly ended the conversation and walked out of the office.  The next day we headed to Havana.   

Friday, January 5, 2018

Hostile Showers

There is always one question that begs to be answered when you travel.  And that question is...WTF is with the shower?  Because everywhere you go, the showers are all different.  Although, the frustration of how to operate the shower is the same.  But, compound that frustration if you're staying at a hostel instead of a hotel.

When you're at a hotel, you have your own shower, in your own bathroom with a lock guaranteeing privacy even.  While staying at a hostel is like living in a college dormitory again.   If I get up at 7:00am will there be any showers available?  Or will I have to wait in line in my pajamas and flip flops with sleep in my eyes and morning breath, my arms heaped full with a towel, my clothes (underwear and bra discreetly tucked in between so they aren't on display), soap, shampoo, conditioner and razor?  And perhaps the most important question...will there be any hot water left?  Which is why I get up at least a half an hour to an hour earlier than I need to just to ensure I actually get a (hopefully hot) shower.  I mean, I'm already sleeping on a bunk bed and sharing a bedroom with 5 other people, this is my only opportunity for solitude the whole day, I'm damn sure gonna take it.

Then, there you are in the shower, taking off your clothes wondering where the hell do I put them?  There's one hook and at least 6 items that need to be hung up.  Including the towel.  And it's too small of a hook to pile them all on top of each other.  So, the clean underwear you worked so hard to covertly get into the shower stall is now hung over the top of the shower stall door with the rest of your clothes, splayed out for all to see.  And while your plan was to keep the flip flops on so you don't get a fungal infection from the shower as a souvenir of your trip, you had to take them off to get your pj bottoms off.  Which means you're already contaminated.  So screw it.  Do you know how slippery it is to take a shower with flip flops on anyway?  Risking athlete's foot is a better trade off than chancing a herniated disc in your spine.

This is when you realize you haven't used the toilet yet.  And you really, really need to pee.  So, you take the towel off the hook, wrap it around your naked body and trade the shower stall for a toilet stall, which is really a pain in the ass.  Which gets you to many people are too lazy to get out of the shower stall and pee right there in the shower?  The communal shower you're standing in now with bare feet.  You rush to turn on the shower.  But, nothing is happening.  No water is coming out at all, not even cold.  And you've turned all the dials.  WTF is with the shower?  So, you get out of the shower, wrap the towel around yourself to check to see if the empty shower stall next door works.  And it doesn't either.  OMG...WTF?  So you check another one.  You don't know what you did, but it works!  But, now you have to move all your stuff over to the new stall.  In your towel.  And hope it doesn't fall off while your hands are full during the transfer process. Because that would be precisely the time that someone walks into the bathroom to witness the spectacle.

It's all going to pay off now though because you've got a shower that works!  In fact it works so well, that the shower head sprays clear to the shower door and soaks the towel that you've hung on the hook.  WTF...this hostel shower is utterly hostile!  And now, so am I because this is how I spent my 5 minutes of peace and quiet for the day.  

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Vacations are No Vacation

A gorgeous resort in Cancun we won't be staying at.
So, are you going anywhere for the holidays?  She asked.  We're going to Cancun and Cuba.  Oh I've been to'll love it! What resort are you staying at?  We're not staying in a resort.  And we're not actually even staying in Cancun. We're travelling around and staying in Airbnbs and hostels.  Be careful, I've heard it's dangerous outside of the resorts in Mexico!  Are you taking your kids?  Yes.  All of them?  We did consider leaving some of them at home, but it being over Christmas and all...yes...we're bringing all four teenagers.  Wow, what a trip!'s always a trip, trust me.

Not only do we travel on the cheap; it's also the way we prefer to travel.  (Ok, my husband and I prefer gritty, adventure travel.  Our kids would probably prefer an all inclusive 5 star resort if they had a say.  But, they don't.)

It begins before we even leave the house.  We'll be moving around a lot and you've got one bag so pack light.  We may not have access to laundry facilities to wash clothes so don't forget to pack enough socks and underwear.  And for god's sake pack (and use) deodorant!  Oh...and a toothbrush.  

We prefer to stay in apartments with a kitchen so we can cook breakfast and dinner, reducing our costs by only eating out once a day.  Which is a bonus for me because I love to check out the grocery store and see the different foods indigenous to that country.  In Australia Campbell's sells cans of condensed pumpkin soup.  And in Morocco they sell chopped up pumpkin that sits out unrefrigerated all day swarming with flies.  Not only that, we also eat street food.  And boat food (think food truck, but on a boat).  Which is how we got food poisoning in Thailand a few years ago (yes, ALL of us) and how I acquired a parasite who attempted to hitchhike home with me, all snuggled up in my intestines from Vietnam last year.  He was really comfy, I was not.

We've done pretty well on accommodations if you like being covered in mud sleeping in the rain forest in a farmhouse without windows to keep the swarms of mosquitoes out like we did in Costa Rica.  Or a couple of years ago when we camped in Patagonia in the rain, which then turned to snow because of course it did.  We've slept on the floor of a stranger's house we didn't even share a language with in Morocco.  And we've also slept in a tent on safari in Botswana with a lion outside.   That last one was particularly adrenaline filled.  Not to mention the time we got scammed out of a place to stay and stranded at the Sheffield Airport in the middle of the night when we were traveling to London.  But, that seems civilized in comparison to the others.

At this point, you may have figured out that we don't spend our vacation actually relaxing.  Sitting on the beach sipping fruity drinks constitutes a half day of the trip, at most.  In fact, our trips are utterly exhausting.  Like hiking to and swimming into one of the biggest caves in the world with a spelunking light and bats flying over head.  Or traveling to Egypt after the revolution when the US had issued a travel warning because the country was ruled by martial law; then getting caught in the middle of a protest.  (And yes, we are aware that there is a US Travel Warning for Cuba at the moment.)

So, this is the part where I tell you that I'm taking a couple of weeks off writing to go have an adventure.  What could possibly go wrong?  I'll be back to tell you in 2018.  Happy holidays to you and yours!  (If you're interested in reading about some of our other adventures, our trips are categorized by country in the labels section of my blog located on the right hand side.  Keep scrolling down.)

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Season's Eatings

Directly after pumpkin-spice-flavored-everything season begins the peppermint-flavored-everything-season.  You'll know this when you shop at Trader Joe's and the cashier finds a subtle way to bring up the conversion from pumpkin season to peppermint season.  "I see you like our know what's nothing like apples are our Candy Candy Joe Joe's (generic Oreos with candy cane bits in the filling).  Have you tried them?  They are seriously so good!"  Seriously...does Trader Joe's withhold cashier's paychecks if they don't talk up their products or what?  Because every cashier does this every time I shop there.

Not all of the season's eatings are tasty. 
In fact, some are downright disgusting.

Like candy canes.  Yeah, I said it.  I think it's fairly obvious that the best uses of mint are in toothpaste, gum, lip balm and mojitos.  Because eating anything peppermint is like eating an arctic gust of air: cold and unsatisfying.  And now, not only do candy canes come in peppermint, but they also come in every other conceivable (and inconceivable) flavor.  Including:  fruit, bacon, sriracha, gravy and wasabi.  Thus, elevating candy canes to an even higher level on the disgusting scale.

Every year when I see fruitcake in the stores I wonder who in the hell buys that crap.  And yet someone does because there wouldn't be a supply of fruitcake in the stores if there wasn't a demand.  With all the Christmas cookies, English toffee and other delicious holiday treats out there in the world, who would waste a shitload of calories consuming fruitcake?  In fact why do dried fruits like raisins exist at all?  Never send a raisin to do the job of a perfectly capable (and superior) chocolate chip!

Did you ever receive one of those Hickory Farms gift boxes from your boss?  Wait...meat and cheese  products needed to be refrigerated.  How come this gift box sits on an unrefrigerated shelf?  Also, how long ago were these mystery meats and cheeses packaged?  And do they in fact contain any real meat or cheese?  How long is it's shelf life?  If they don't sell this Christmas do they recycle it and put it on the shelf to sell again the next Christmas?  It's just occurred to me that the easiest and cheapest way to instantly become a Doomsday Prepper would be to collect all the unwanted Hickory Farms gift boxes from your friends and family and you'd be set for years.  And if you collected all the fruitcake you'd even have dessert.

There are two types of people in the world:  those who like eggnog and those who know that those people are wrong.  It's not that it's a beverage made with raw eggs that makes it gross.  Although that is revolting.  The worst thing about it is that it's so thick it's like drinking gravy.  But instead of meat flavored gravy it's a cold, raw egg gravy with a little nutmeg in it.  I suppose it would be more tasty if you had a spiked version with some rum in it.  But on second thought, why not just take the rum, add some coke and sprinkle some nutmeg on top?  It probably tastes a lot better that way.  And BONUS, it's just half the calories so you have more room for Christmas cookies and English toffee now!  You're welcome!

And Happy Season's Eatings to you! 
P.S. Don't forget to stock up on antacids.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Tropical Depression

Every year over the kids' Christmas break from school we take a family vacation.  Which is more of an international, off the beaten path adventure.  My husband voted that we take a break this year and stay home.  Because how we travel is anything but relaxing.  But, I pleaded with him that this may be the last year that we're all together as our boys are now adults.  Technically, according to the law anyhow.  It was after we found cheap air fare that he (reluctantly) acquiesced.  Cheap tickets to Puerto Rico.  We don't even need passports! And hurricane season is over in December!  This is going to be the easiest vacation ever!  (Yes, I actually said that.)  Of course, the next week after we bought those tickets, Hurricane Maria obliterated the island.  Putting us in a tropical depression.

Turns out, we were more delusional than we were depressed.  Because we sat on those tickets for two months.  Maybe they'd have electricity and clean water by December.  They still have gorgeous beaches we could visit and spend money which would (indistinguishably) help their economy.  Or maybe we could go and volunteer our time in the relief effort.  We didn't want to abandon Puerto Rico, especially when Trump already had.  But, short of us arriving at the San Juan airport bearing federal aid, there wasn't much we could do.

The final decision came after my husband spoke with someone with family in Puerto Rico.  Not only is there still not electricity and clean water on most of island, but the beaches are contaminated with waste.  The hotels are full of people left homeless by the hurricane and relief workers who flew in to help them.  Many restaurants are only open during the day, because evenings without electricity lend themselves to crime.  And debris and garbage line the streets making it's a breeding ground for disease.  It doesn't get more depressing for the people of Puerto Rico.  And that's when we made the decision to change our travel plans.  After making donations to World Central Kitchen and UNICEF, which would help more people there then we ever could.

In the wake of all the suffering in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the world, I feel guilty that our tropical depression story has a happy ending.  Or at least I think it does.  Because we're still in the midst of planning our trip to Cancun and then on to Cuba.  (And no, we won't be staying in a resort.  But, we may be renting a VW van.)   That is of course, if Trump doesn't reinstate the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba as he's threatening to do.  Which, with this administration, could happen at any day at any time.

How does the story end?
Will this tropical depression be lifted?
Stay tuned...

In the meantime:
Check out the good work done by World Central Kitchen and consider making a donation to help feed the hungry people in Puerto Rico (and elsewhere around the world) here.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Once a Year

It happens once a year.  Thanksgiving.  Holiday parties.  I wear a dress and heels and try to balance a heaping plate full of food at the buffet line while maintaining a smile and polite small talk at my husband's Christmas party without twisting my ankle, falling or spilling food.  This is my Olympics, people!  And it's another reason why I hate the holiday's extremely social.  While I am extremely antisocial with a side of social anxiety.

During the bustling holiday festivities, you'll run into almost everyone you know.  Including the people you hardly know because you only see them once a year.  You'll see their vaguely face and think, who the hell are you?  But since you can't say that, that's when I'll introduce myself.  For the 5th year in a row.  Oops.  Well, that was really embarrassing.  Especially when someone knows things about you and your life and you don't know anything about theirs.  Which would be okay if I was good at making conversation from scratch.  However, I assure you, I am not!  But, I can make things awkward from scratch though.

Then there are the people that you do recognize and think, wow, they've really aged!   How did that happen in only a year?  Then they pull out their phone to show me pictures of their grandchildren.  And I step back.  "Is that a boy or a girl?  Can you expand that photo?  No?  Hold on...let me get my reading glasses from my purse."  And that's when I see them.  While I have my arm stretched out holding someone else's phone, with my reading glasses on...the age spots on my hands.  Maybe I think I'm not aging because I can't actually see myself all that well.  I've bathed myself in that flattering soft focus lens that they use on Elizabeth Taylor in that White Diamonds commercial.

Right after this is when the mismatched couple approaches.  Oh, you know the one I'm talking about. That couple that you can't figure out how they ever got together in the first place because one is exceedingly more attractive, intelligent and witty than the other one.  In fact, they don't seem compatible in any way.  But, yet,they've been together for years.  And you just want to inquire about the elephant in the room...which is the invisible bond that holds them together.  What is it?  While simultaneously staging an intervention.  Have you considered a trial separation?  Which is probably what people think about my husband (the life of the party) and me (the party pooper).  Why is he with her? He's so laid back and she's so pretentious!

Then there's the person you know stuff about. That you don't even want to know. But, someone you barely know told you a secret about them years ago and now every year when you see this person at that annual party, it's all you can think about. And the whole night I'm thinking, whatever you do, do NOT blurt out their secret! Or talk about any topic in any way related to it.  Which of course, then is all I can think about. (This party is coming up for me in a couple weeks and since I'm writing this, I've already started thinking about what not to say. But, I still have no idea what TO say to this person because I don't really know them, although I do know some very personal things about them.)

Thank god the holidays only happen once a year!


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