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Apr '17

Status Report: Alaska MVP Gold

Well, three and a half months of being on planes has brought me to MVP Gold status on Alaska Airlines:

It actually took one more roundtrip that I was expecting as they credited my Seattle to Havana trip as a direct route, even though it stopped in Los Angles.

Another bonus to hitting Gold is the addition of four Guest Upgrades at time of booking, assuming space is available. I like a guaranteed First Class seat for the price of economy! If I manage to rack up another 34,203 miles this year I’ll hit their top level of MVP Gold 75K – meaning four more Guest Upgrades, lounge passes to give out to my friends (since I have a lounge membership), and better upgrade availability.

I’ve got a couple of long trips coming up – Mid-May is Seattle to New York, catch the train to New Orleans, fly home (4,496 flight miles) and an August trip to Kauai (5,396 flight miles). Dang, and I have that $125 voucher to use – maybe I’ll just go out and book another flight. And it IS Tuesday, the day Alaska announces what’s on sale for the week.

Sadly, I couldn’t find anything, maybe I should hit up DancingBear for a trip to Kentucky in July.

And because it’s the season, the overgrown front yard:

That would be my out of control rosemary “tree” to the left, and tons of tulips.

Had the top down for the last couple of days. YAHOO!


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Apr '17

Trip Report: Vegas, Baby!

Sometimes you just need a little guaranteed sun. In my case, that meant a two-day getaway to Vegas. Flights were reasonable ($160), and I used points for a 2-bedroom (overkill), and the rental car, all in, was $51 for the two days.

In exchange for a cheap airfare, that meant crappy flight times, which also means a better chance of an upgrade (which I got).

Interesting sign in front of the Alaska Lounge – and I’ve been seeing them at Alaska’s Lounges in other cities as well:

This is interesting in that when they are busy, they aren’t even letter Day Pass holders in – which since I still have three day passes that I don’t personally need since I have a membership, I give them to friends who are travelling out of Sea-Tac.

Even though it was a late afternoon flight, still started with my ritual Sparkling Wine with a touch of Cranberry in it. If you need to see what it looks like, there are dozens of pictures in posts over the years.

As many of you know, I always show up super early on flights days to milk as much value out of my lounge membership. Today it was a good thing I did:

Yep, they moved my departure time FORWARD by 10 minutes because of expected headwinds. Never seen that happen before.

What on the schedule was listed as a “snack”, looked more like dinner to me:

Leaving early meant that we got to Vegas pretty much on time so it was pick up the luggage, drag it to the rental car bus, and pick up by “compact or bigger” rental car which happened to be a striped down Nissan Altima.

When I say “striped down”, hand crank windows:

No power locks (which meant hand lock each door), and not even a key unlock on the passenger side. On a car with 14,000 miles on it.

I was surprised that it even had cruise control! But it got me to the condo:

With a huge master bath:

Too bad I didn’t check the exposure on the living room shot, sigh.

But you get the idea.

Oh, and on the way to the condo from the car rental place, I picked up supplies for the stay, and to bring home:

This is what $62 gets in at the Total Wine and Beverage store in Vegas. Those half gallons in Washington State would be $36 EACH. I almost went out and bought an extra suitcase to bring home more.

The basic reason for the trip (besides a booze run) was pool time, and the pool here, while small, has sun.

That is actually the view out the front door above.

And the view from my tiny deck at the back of the condo:

There are even three shared barbeques down by the pool.

With gas shut off timers – never seen that before. Great idea.


Made for a nice meal:

Checkout day was upon me, with a LATE 10:40pm flight (again, upgraded), but I’d scheduled a 12:30 Owner Torture Session, which wasn’t a torturous as many. 45 minutes and I came away with a $100 AMEX card (to go with the $25 one from my update at Blaine a couple of weeks ago), $25 worth of dining credit on the strip, and 1000 Wyndham Rewards points. And it was a great way to kill an hour.

Next up was a little plane spotting – Vegas has a designated area for aviation junkies like me to watch planes come and go. They even had a low power FM station that you could listen to air traffic control:

That is actually a Virgin Atlantic 747-400 landing.

Next, headed to the strip to look around – geez, Vegas is a depressing show of humanity. Most of the casinos now charge for parking, but eventually wound up at Planet Hollywood which doesn’t, and wound my way through the shopping area, then the casino, to check on one of the places to use my voucher. Man, the signage in casinos is poor.

Wasn’t quite hungry yet (the Owner Torture Session included a late breakfast), and $15 for a burger at Gordon Ramsey’s place seemed a bit much, but the waste of natural gas was amusing.

Sensory overload is what the strip is to me – went back to the car and headed to The Rio in search of a place to eat not engulfed in the den of drunk people and blaring music.

Found the American Bar and Grill at the far end of yet more shopping and casino areas (smoking is still allowed, FYI) and asked for a seat farthest away from the action:

When this arrived, I felt so much better:

And it being Vegas, even the starters were on the large size.

Yes, those mini burgers are stacked on onion rings.

I’d driven by the famous “Welcome to Las Vegas” a couple of times today, but it was always mobbed, on the way to the airport, it was a little less mobbed so I pulled in. Decided a “selfie” was better than standing in line to wait for a turn in front of the sign.

Maybe I should have walked to the other side where is says “Leaving Las Vegas, Come Again” But, in truth, the sign in the terminal area is just as nice:

Speaking of the terminal, I love this sign above one of the few pay phones left in existence – talk about a SCAM to use your credit card to make a call:

That’s almost like the costs they charge prisoners for calls from the jail.

High tech gates at McCarran.

And a close-up of maybe why – seems the gates run a version of embedded Windows and the one of the left obviously has crashed:

Sadly, I did not get to ride Minnie all the way home, these was the Seattle flight before mine:

There you have it, just a run for sun, a run for miles (this will put me at MVP Gold through the end of 2018), and a way to get out of the house.


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Apr '17

Trip Report: Japan, The Long Way Home

Up at five, out of the house at six to catch the train, seven at the airport waiting for the ticket counter to open for the long way home. The way? Nagoya to Seoul to Los Angeles to Seattle. This is the routing you get when you want to fly out of a minor city to a minor city on 112,500 miles and $85 in taxes and fees.

At least Korean Air has a lounge at Nagoya:

Small, limited selection:

But a fancy toilet (yes, the Japanese are obsessed with clean booties):

But soon enough my plane is here (777-300):

And I get settled into my seat for the two plus hour flight from Nagoya to Seoul:

The cool thing is that you can electrically raise a divider between you and the person next to you in the center:

Yes, I’m watching One Flew Over The Cookoo’s Nest, though I realized that it’s a long movie and I wouldn’t be able to finish, so I postponed that to my next flight and settled for sitcoms.

This will give you an idea of the cabin layout:

And having the seat next to me in business, I chose to keep the screen down and use the neighbors table for my over flow.

Soon, breakfast was served – I opted for the Western Style which apparently means starting with cocktails:

And that is Plum Wine to the right – why not!

There was an additional course of fresh fruit that I passed on…there is a lounge awaiting me at Inchon, Seoul, South Korea, still a military base for the US where I here it’s possible to play 18 holes of gold WITHIN the security perimeter. I’ve been here a couple of times on layovers – if you have a really long one they will give you a city tour!

Mine was short, so I just got the “floor show” on the way to the lounge:

Even if you don’t have lounge access (this was my first time), there is tons of stuff to do inside the airport – day rooms to sleep, massage places, quiet sushi joints, the works.

Because I use my miles for a Business Class ticket (which I recommend EVERYONE saving their miles for a ride up front), lounge access is included – and a nice lounge it is. Massive because it is a major hub:

There are multiple food stands and tons of seating.

But soon enough, it’s time to get on my plane – I’d forgotten that the Seoul-Los Angeles route is on a A380-800 (though I don’t think they ever did a -900 or -1000):

Though, oddly, I don’t think the seats were as nice:

And once again I had the seat next to me open – Business Class was less than 50% full – actually, I had an entire row to myself, right in front of the bar. How appropriate. More on THAT later as it isn’t open for takeoff/landing. Here is what the back section of Business Class looks like:

And me, taking off!

And with the seat as flat as it could go after takeoff:

Oddly enough, lay flat is lumpy – better off in “Barcalounger” position. And a first for my recent Asian airlines experiences – champagne before takeoff, albeit a thimble full (apparently Korean has a reputation for being miserly with the drinks):

Once we were up, the food started coming – I love the stainless-steel chopsticks:

And then it was time to hit the bar at the rear of the A380 – not as fancy as the one on Emirates – but what the hell, we are on an airplane:

I like to point out what is built into the wall – a martini glass holder where there are brackets to keep the martini glasses handy:

Which is handy because they serve “stemware” drinks back here:

Made from scratch:

Let’s not forget snacks with round two….

There is even enough room to stretch out:

Back to the seat for breakfast number two…

And a final tour around the upper deck (never did go downstairs (there is the grand staircase in the front and a circular one in the rear, beyond the galley):

There is another self-service bar in the front (which I didn’t know about):

Abd a seriously LARGE bathroom. Maybe I’ll stay need to front next time:

Got into Los Angeles on time…a little after ten in the morning, got through Immigration and Customs (after a little luggage delay) and headed to the Alaska Lounge for my three-hour layover.

Sadly, the three hours turned into seven hours because of a mechanical delay with our plane earlier in the day. The upside? Even before I’d boarded I had a note from Alaska promising a $125 certificate off future travel. Now that’s PROACTIVE (listen up UNITED). It’s times like this that being able to hang out in a lounge with free food and drinks and wi-fi make the difference between a cranky passenger and a resigned one.

Home later than I wanted, but no work in the morning, so all is good, and I’m $125 richer. Apparently, I was exhausted as there are no pictures after the Korean Air flight.

[? ? ?]

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Apr '17

Trip Report: Nagoya, Days Two & Three

After my first day running myself ragged (OK, Julian was literally dragging me), I decided for a light day of exploring the neighborhood after Julian left for work around eleven. Explored the Japanese version of Home Depot, shopped for whiskey to pack in my bag (and in my belly), got snacks for the day from the huge AEON supermarket a couple of blocks away, did an initial pass at the 100 Yen store (that would be The Ninety-Cent Store in the US).

I was a little amazed to find this on the shelf of the grocery store:

I can’t even find caffeine free diet Coke in Canada!

Julian got home around ten and we started fixing a traditional Japanese dinner, which, for some reason I didn’t take any pictures of – maybe we were drinking, chatting, and having WAY too much fun.

So, it’s one in the morning and Julian wants to go on a walk, or it might have been midnight, I know it was late, and I wasn’t a fan of the idea, but he finally wore me down and off we went for a walk along the river.

Here is a nighttime view from his apartment:

And from our little evening walk:

Yep, the cherry blossoms are in full glory…

He is looking like the devil, which is how I felt about him when he dragged me out for a walk – my legs still feeling yesterday’s adventures.

As it turned out, the walk helped Julian not feel as bad the next morning, though he was still running slow. Me, I slept in and spent another day exploring the neighborhood, finalizing purchases at the 90 Cent Store and getting ready for a full evening…again!

The plan was that I was to meet Julian’s friend Yousuke for Hanami, the cherry blossom viewing party where everyone sits in a park, eating and drinking all day long. Off to the subway go I, and as tempting as it was to stop in for a bit, I didn’t:

Missed the first train by seconds when the sliding gates tried to eat me:

One train to Komaki to meet Yousuke (and pick up some snacks and drink for the park), three trains later we are back in Nagoya in a different direction. Yousuke probably should have picked up his snacks in Komaki because every convenience store in the direction of the part was MOBBED.

Then there was the challenge of finding his friends among the thousands of people enjoying the festival – these shots should give you an idea of the crowds and the blossoms.

Our group:

And part of the pile of shared food:

Imagine acre after acre of people hanging out with their friends eating/drinking/chatting for hours on end.

With that many people to say goodbye, we didn’t get back to Komaki to meet Julian until after ten (he gets off at nine) so we could all go out and cook our own meals.

That would be Yousuke on the right.

So, the reason that Julian works so late Tuesday through Saturday is that he is an English As A Second Language (ESL) teacher – who is even featured in his companies advertising (yes, they charge people more to have white people from the US teaching them).

Of course, we got home WAY later than I wanted since I have to be up at five to catch my flight home – this might be PART of the problem.

Yep, that’s a little recycling to take out.

Not looking forward to the early departure in the morning.


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Apr '17

Trip Report: Nagoya, Day One

Thanks to TackyT-ShirtPrincess, I have a link to the international coverage of the festival I attended in Kawasaki. CLICK HERE. Should I return next spring, I think I’d go back to the one in Komaki (always on March 15th – Kawasaki’s is always the first Sunday in April) as the crowds are smaller and the phallus’ bigger.

Guess that I really SHOULD show you the shirt I got her – even though it will ruin the surprise since she hasn’t gotten it yet:

With that little additional information about Kanamara, we need to get ourselves south to Nagoya on the Shinkansen, which means a couple of different trains to pick it up in Yokohama.

Yep – during the morning commute. But we made it.

And soon, the little lady with the cart came around. I picked a lovely Australian Red to go with my egg salad sandwich on blindingly white bread:

The trains are definitely high-tech – they even come with instructions on how to use the toilet:

Don’t squat on the rim, don’t put your poop stained toilet paper in the trash can, and wave your hand around to flush.

To give you an idea of how quick the train is – here’s a short video:

All that speed made me thirsty, so when the trolley lady came by, it was time for another round:

Arriving at Nagoya’s Central Station, changed to the local train, where there was even a sign on the train advertising the wine TokyoDave and Mitsio drank while we were in Tokyo:

Arriving at Julian’s place, I see he’s stocked up in preparation of my visit:

Though we might have to hit the grocery store for some of their 3 to 5 liter bottles:

His new place (since my last visit) is a definite step up – on the 13th floor with a nice view:

And the insides are nice as well!

You can see his previous place in this POST.

No rest for the wicked (guess that would be me), so after dropping our bags, it’s off to a Japanese Curry restaurant:

I even had a beer – yes, me!

Since this is Julian’s last day off before returning to work – off we go Inuyama Castle – more trains, more walking:

And after six or seven flights of “ship stairs”, we get (me, huffing and puffing) to the top to see the view:

Walked back to the station to use the facilities…luckily, no need for this one:

At least there was toilet paper.

But wait, there is MORE! Appetizers at home.

Before heading out to conveyor sushi! Where you order by tablet.

And get your own hot water for tea:

With food coming on Shinkansen and belts:

And a little video

And in the end, you pay by the stack of plates, by color:

Long day, longer…wait – karaoke!

In my(previous) world, karaoke is something done at a bar with people fighting over a microphone. Apparently in Japan, it’s something experienced with friends in a private reserved room with free unlimited booze.

This is a favorite of Julian:

Free drinks (with room rent) help Uncle Markie get into the spirit:

Julian filmed a small (thankfully) segment when the liquor took over:

A seriously long night. I’m thinking of sleeping in.


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Apr '17

Trip Report: Japan – Tokyo

TokyoDave and I arrived from the train station to a living room full of teenagers – apparently, there were twice as many (eight) earlier. In the living room on a tabletop cooker they had been making quesadillas and smores – yes, these are international school students. Sarah’s (TokyoDave’s number two daughter) red-haired boyfriend is half Japanese, half Argentine. Definitely a mixed crowd where English was the major language. And like teens everywhere, more food was needed:

Yep – they send Mitzio (TokyoDave’s wife) to the Dominos store because you get an extra pizza if you pick it up rather than have it delivered. Thankfully she also picked up a bag of ice for cocktails.

It was a long evening of catching up, noshing on various bits and bobs, a bottle of red wine was opened to go with the dutyfree whiskey I brought. Spanish, El Diablo something. Didn’t try it but it was finished by the morning.

Julian showed up from Nagoya in the morning – only getting a little lost needing TokyoDave to fetch him from the Family Mart (the 7-11 of Japan, except that 7-11’s are EVERYWHERE in Japan). Soon we were off to Kawasaki for the Kanamara Festival. Basically, it’s a Penis Festival – like the one that I went to two years ago in Komaki.

Police had closed off streets:

And the crowds were massive – much larger than the festival in Komaki.

With lots of people in costume:

And then the parade of penises started:

But a still photo doesn’t do it justice – how about a video!

And there were more “floats”….

This one was carried by and donated to the local temple by local drag queens:

Yet, more dongs…

And dress-up:

It turned into a family event with TokyoDave’s wife and daughter meeting up with us, though it’s only Julian, Sarah, and I in this shot.

Sarah and I are eating chocolate dipped penis’ (banana on a stick), while Julian is holding up his “mini-me”.

Eventually, we ended up at one of the two temples (starting and ending):

When the “honored guest” (that would be me) was ask about lunch, my request was not for street/stall food, but a sit-down restaurant to get away from the crowds (and, frankly, to sit down). We ended up at t noodle joint.

You order and pay at the hostess station, they give you tickets to place on the table. Want drinks? Step up to the vending machine for more tickets:

I opted for the sparking sake:

Soon, it was time to head back to TokyoDave at Mitzio’s house and relax:

And have a little late dinner.

For tomorrow Julian and I head to Nagoya.


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Apr '17

Trip Report: Tokyo Bound

I’m actually taking a weekend off leaving Jim in charge – like he is even when I am working the weekend. Destination? Tokyo to visit my ex, his wife, and daughter for a couple of days, then down to Nagoya to visit Julian.

But first, I have to get there, which means a stop in the Alaska Lounge:

Breakfast of champions!

Saw the combo Alaska/Virgin plane that was damaged several weeks ago in an “airport incident“. Fortunately, not my airplane.

Several days ago, I’d gotten an email from Alaska Airlines saying that they had upgraded me on my flight from Seattle to Vancouver. In the back, there isn’t even enough time for a beverage service. In the front, we got one quick round in the half hour flight. It was nice to even get an upgrade on a frequent flyer award ticket. Even got my favorite seat, 1C.

When I checked in back in Seattle, they were able to check my bag in all the way to Tokyo, but not give me a boarding pass for my connecting Japan Airlines ticket. Got to Vancouver, and while the plane had arrived, there, the gate area was locked up. Wandered the airport a bit and finally decided to go to the lounge that Alaska partners with in Vancouver – which turns out to only work if you are flying to the states, or, as it turns out, connecting to the Japan Airlines flight. Yahoo! More free food.

My newspaper fortune (VERY appropriate):

My plane (787-8):

My seat:

The bidet controls in the lavatory (yes, a bidet on a plane – better than a snake):

And then the food started coming (and coming). It IS business class, after all:

Somehow, I forgot to take a picture of the “starter” course which was shrimp, lox, foie gras (and tasty). Then before landing (after my third movie), they served us another lunch:

Upper left is VERY unusual version of Paella.

I went for the Western Meal option since I’ll be in Japan all week and this will be my last chance. Here were the menu options:

And let’s not forget the drinks!

My thoughts on Japan Airlines Business Class:

  • Last generation seats, not completely lay flat
  • A little stingy on the alcohol
  • A little too “formal” attitude for my taste
  • Food was good, but not over the top

But considering my round-trip ticket was 112,500 miles and $85, I can’t complain too much.

Arrived in Tokyo to an airfield taxi stand – meaning down the stairs and into a bus to the terminal. Fairly quick transit through immigration and customs, and soon enough I was on the Narita Express bound for Shinagawa Station where TokyoDave would meet me and get me the rest of the way to his house:

The train into town was an hour, and the remaining legs with TokyoDave another half hour.

We’ll pick up the story tomorrow, but at least I made it in to Tokyo in one piece.

[? ? ?]

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Apr '17

Trip Report: Spring Break For Jonathan

This week just a quick little trip a couple of hours north to celebrate Jonathan’s Spring Break at the WorldMark Blaine.

Nice little two-bedroom place:

With a pretty nice view…

Our room would be one floor down, right hand balcony:

And even a rarely used lounge (at least in the times I’ve visited this property):

To me, the downside of this place is that the decks don’t have BBQs – just a couple of shared ones outside the lounge:

Marinated chicken thighs the first night. Pork loin the second night. Pretty much cooked all the meals in. The second night the wind had kicked up so I had to use the grill cover to block the howling wind from blowing out the flames.

You can see what the wind was doing to the bay…

And I was definitely bundled up…

But the end result was worth it! We even did our breakfast’s in… scrambled eggs, bacon, fried risotto cakes.

All too soon it was time to return to Seattle, somebody (that would be me) is leaving the country Friday, but it was a fun little quick holiday.

[? ? ?]

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Mar '17

Scholarship Reading: This Year’s Numbers

Every year around this time I invite friends//family over to read scholarship applications for The Mark Stephen Souder Scholarship for Information Dissemination (they wouldn’t except Academic Mediocrity).

When I say “over”, I mean to the Camlin in downtown Seattle across from the Paramount.

This year, sadly, we are just in a two-bedroom suite:

And we did work. Thank you Randy for the first two shots!

Here is a graph of the results:

Pretty amazing that 10 people read 15 scholarships and it’s basically the same curve, no matter how hard/soft you grade.

Sadly, no stay over guests in the REALLY nice unit:

For next year, I’ve booked the two-bedroom with the outdoor patio for my smoking friends.

[? ? ?]

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Mar '17

Shop Report: New Wine Bag Racks

Between trips for two weeks is no reason to not keep busy – though I took the measurements for this racks in November, so maybe I’m not the quickest at execution.

I’ve been wanting to put together some racks to hold wine bags behind the counter at the shop – previously we had them on hooks, and they were always getting tangled up, so a solution was needed.

Time to head to the garage and start cutting down wood to make the racks. The source? The wooden tops to wine boxes from some of the French wines we sell.

In process. Thank Harbor Freight for the corner clamps (used to make picture frames) and a pin-nailer to actually get nails into ¼” pine:

And the finished product:

Yep, pre-drilled the mounting screws with finish washers on them to match the rest of the racking in the shop (ALSO all made in my shop).

With Jim on holiday in cozy Corvallis, I installed them on Friday…

While I was at it I redid the 2-bottle bag hanger (upper left), though I’m tempted to put the same kind of rack, though the wooden box tops aren’t long enough…will ponder.

So, if you are in the neighborhood, check out Madrona Wine Merchants.

[? ? ?]

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Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Last Post (Honest!)

Totally forgot about this video clip of driving in Havana that I took – enjoy!

Well, that’s it (finally) for my Cuban Adventure.


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Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Architecture

The final installment of Cuba! Just to give you an idea, this starts with one of the most appropriate traffic bollards for an old colonial city, followed by a chat about the wastefulness of taxpayer dollars for large one-use stadiums, followed by some random shots of old buildings in Old Havana.

Off to the bollards we go. Bollards?

bollard is a sturdy, short, vertical post. Although it originally described a post on a ship or quay used principally for mooring boats, the word is now used to describe posts installed to control road traffic and posts designed to prevent ram raiding and car ramming attacks.

Thanks Wikipedia!

These are some of the most creative bollards I’ve seen (though the phallic ones in Amsterdam are cute):

Oh, and in the background, was Batista’s private rail car (and Gema and Alain to the right):

Sadly, I can’t find out much about its history, and why it’s on a back alley.

But now onto useless municipal/state financed sports arenas…China is tightlipped about the “Birds Nest” and other huge stadiums (at least they have the population!), and Greece is still trying to deal with their Olympic stadium complex – there are countless other examples (guessing Sochi would be among them). These are a couple of “drive by” shots of the stadium in Havana that hasn’t been used since the Pan America Games in 1991.

I did notice that they reused the night lighting!

But it seats 50,000 people, and even though it was renovated in 2008 with artificial turf, according to Wikipedia: “It served as the site of an episode of the American version of Top Gear in 2016. The episode showed the stadium in disrepair and mostly abandoned.” The renovation was a “last ditch” effort to make it useful.

Oddly enough, the Times of India has a great ARTICLE that you can scroll through (rather than “click-bait” through).

And now, just some random shots of old pretty buildings in Old Havana:

And I’m not sure why there is a museum about my birthday, but….

Turns out it is The Second Occupation of Cuba. A fascinating bit of Cuba-US relations.

And with that, I’ll sign off the “Cuba Adventure” reports, and go to bed. I need to starting thinking about packing for Japan.


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Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Cars!

Before I started this trip, everybody said, “Take pictures of all the cool cars!”

And I did – for the first couple of days, and then I ran out of 1’s and 0’s and had to move some phone images to the laptop. My joke is that every FOURTH car is an old American car, every THIRD car is an old Soviet car (mostly Ladas). The rest are trucks or more modern cars.

Here are some of the category THREE and FOUR:

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Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Cars!

Before I started this trip, everybody said, “Take pictures of all the cool cars!”

And I did – for the first couple of days, and then I ran out of 1’s and 0’s and had to move some phone images to the laptop. My joke is that every FOURTH car is an old American car, every THIRD car is an old Soviet car (mostly Ladas). The rest are trucks or more modern cars.

Here are some of the category THREE and FOUR:

Think I might have maxed out the number of pictures I can have in a post – luckily, I culled a couple and hopefully this will post!

But please notice – either in the cities or in the countryside, old cars in various stages of restoration are everyday drivers.

Tomorrow, architecture!


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Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, The People

This post is basically just random photos of people in Cuba to give you a feel for our visit to Cuba.

So, that’s it for today – just a bunch of random people pictures. Stay tuned for a long post of automobile pictures and a short architectural post.


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Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Headed Home

And, once again, I hand the floor over to Rache:

The days of ending an adventure are a mixture of sadness and goodbyes with the anticipation of getting home and comfortable back in the routine. I know Li’l Miss loves the routine time. I’m excited to see her.

Once again, I was the first to arise. I have become accustomed being the one to rid the kitchen of the morning lizards. Thankfully, just turning on the lights takes care of most the evictions. And even more thankfully, my bravery (meaning lack thereof) was not tested with a defiant one.

Tekita once again provided a hearty breakfast. What made this morning unique was the house bustling with people. Alain’s father arrived with some groceries. His mother arrived from a different direction. I was relieved to see her because she had been having back pain issues. Alain’s friends arrived. And contractors arrived. They were doing work beyond the patio to the area of the backyard where the banana trees grow.

Breakfast was also unique in that there was a little ceremony in the dining room. You see, Alain and the others are believers in an Afro-Cuban religion [Markie note: Santeria]. I don’t know a lot about it, but it came from Africa and their deities were given Christian names (like Saint Michael) in the 17th century as a way to avoid being punished by the slave owners. When the owners saw the slaves praising the names of Christian saints, they assumed that the slaves had embraced Christianity. Not so. The slaves gave the deities Christian names to avoid beatings and whippings. Smart, those slaves. Anyway, while Markie and I were at the table dining on scrambled eggs, a mat was put down next to Markie by the shrine, a visitor laid face down on it and Alain did some sort of ritual. It was short but powerful. Alain is somewhat of an authority on the Afro-Cuban religion and was to speak at the conference in New York City last year except his visa was denied by the US Embassy in Havana. Only his partner Luis was allowed to attend, where I met him and attended some of the sessions at the conference. As Alain Ramirez. I’m so glad I kept that name tag because Alain was visibly moved when I handed him the lanyard a few days before. 

Gema arrived early enough to take me for a little walk to the sea. Markie opted to pack (which I had already done). The Alamar neighborhood was built right at the beginning of Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union. All the houses are the same design although each occupant makes their individual homes all unique so Alain’s neighborhood does not seem monotonous. I must say his home is among the tidiest and maintained. There are also massive apartment buildings (again, Soviet era) that are not maintained on the exterior. Alamar is on the east side of Havana, has a population of about 200,000 and has exactly two unreliable Wi-Fi hotspots in public parks. That’s why you didn’t hear from me on this trip.

Anyway, as we walked towards the sea, Gema’s dad drove around the corner. She was happy to see her dad, who has Parkinson’s and I must say his driving was much steadier than his physical condition. I’ve met that man twice and he has a constant smile. Even tho’ they live in the city, they raise goats, chickens, turtles, and I’m not sure what else. When I was first at their house, a farmer was picking up some young animals to take to a farm. A good little side business I would imagine. 

Markie here:

Too bad I didn’t get the camera out sooner, all I caught were the last two goats (out of four) to go into the trunk of a farmer’s car along with a bag of chickens and a bag of pheasants – all live, and all headed to be fattened up on another families’ farm. Surreal to see this in a suburban neighborhood.

Back to Rache:

OK, so finally we get to the sea. It’s not a beach, because it’s all jagged rocks. Leave it to the Soviets to build a beach front with no sand. The decayed remnants of two concessions booths and an entrance to a bomb shelter were all that is visible. Gema was saying that the shelter, now sealed off, was an entire city with huge kitchens and even a movie theater. The Soviets built Alamar for Russians and they were going to protect them from the US.  Anyway, the views are beautiful, the water very clear, and the air fresh. No pollution from car fumes at all. My flip flops were not sturdy enough and they slipped on the uneven, jagged rocks where I have a little scrape (bled a bit) on my foot to remind me of my time at a Soviet beach. 

Gema and I returned home. I quickly showered and soon we were off. Now some of you know that I pack school supplies (and toys) and try to find schools and it’s that are needy. I had informed Alain of my practice and he contacted a local school director who said that donations had to be handled through the Ministry of Education. We had made plans to drop off the supplies at the ministry on the way to the airport. But when I serendipitously found Escuela Primaria José Marti in Old Havana, Alain worked magic on the director and she was more than happy to not involve the ministry. So back to Old Havana and back to “my school.” We went up a flight of stairs to the principal’s office. It was stifling hot and I’m glad I had my wash cloth used as a sweat dauber. I unpacked an overflowing Trader Joe’s bag full of supplies and she was very happy. The director informed Gema that some schools have “Spanish godfathers” but here in the poor area of Havana, there are no such things. Anyway, I have offered to become ‘The Godfather of Escuela Primario José Marti.’ [Since being home, the school director and I have been in email contact. I may be hitting you up for school supplies one of these days.] Nothing would make me happier than to help support kids in poverty. And to have visited the school and met with the director makes it even more personal. I am still filled with so much emotion. The director took my email address (she couldn’t remember her address since she rarely uses it) and will write me. Gema informed her that I have access to Google Translate. And we left. In my wildest imagination, I never came up with a scenario like this where I actually have the opportunity to “adopt” a school. This was the most emotional part of the trip for me.

Then it was off to the airport (José Marti International —- that guy is a major figure in Cuban revolutionary history). At the curb, we started to say our goodbyes when all of a sudden Gema burst into sobbing tears, having a difficult time saying ‘goodbyes.’ And I felt the same but held it together a bit more than she did. In such a short time, we had developed such a strong, emotional connection and we didn’t want it to end. Alain, Gema, Markie, and I all embraced and wiped tears. And then Markie and I left to enter the terminal. I turned back two or three times to get an additional goodbye wave in but that act just sort of prolonged the goodbye tears.

You guys, this was one hell of an adventure. Once again, the love, joy, and compassion of the Cuban people were on constant display. The warmth of the people is not allowed to be shared with us here in America. If the damn governments of both the U.S. and Cuba would get out of the way so people to people diplomacy would kick in, I think it would be a wonderful opportunity for Cuba to once and forever be free from the burden of foreign influence that has plagued this island since 1492. 

Markie here:

When the check-in counter finally opens (Alaska site says arrive 4 hours before, but the counter doesn’t open until 3.5 hours before, oddly, like our outbound flight) I quickly weigh our bags, Rache’s now empty of school materials, much of with he’d packed in a spare duffel bag I gave him at the beginning, but it’s still telling of how we travel.

My checked bag (in kilograms):

Rache’s checked bag (in kilograms):

And for some reason, we weren’t able to carry on “White Weapons”. Weapons white guys use? Or “Tough Objects”. Splain it Ricky (a nod to Ricky Ricardo, the legendary Cuban showman married to Lucille Ball.

While there is a lounge at the airport, the reviews I’ve read on The Points Guy, don’t have terribly nice things to say about it. We hung out in the terminal, had a ham and cheese, a couple of Cuba Libre (second one on the house because of an ass grabbing incident that for once, didn’t involve us).

Our plane arrives, the cleaners and security arrive, we eventually board:

Nope, there are no sky bridges at the airport.

One of the ways I talked Rache into joining me at the last minute on this trip (10 days before) is that I offered to give him some of my Gold Upgrades so he could sit up front with me (though he sleeps so easily on long plane flights it might not have made a difference). Don’t we look comfortable?

And soon, the food and booze start flying….

The full menu:

I went for the chicken…

Got through Immigration and Customs in Los Angeles with no problems even with both of us having Cuban Booze and Cigars.

Caught a couple of more cocktails in the Alaska Lounge in LA before our flight home which was schedule to arrive at 2:30am, putting us back at the house around 3:30 – where we both had a nightcap before bed to shake off the effects of flying all day.

Rache was gone by the time I was up, having swapped shifts with Jimmie so I didn’t have to be at the shop until 1:30pm – actually got a full night’s sleep!

There will be a couple of more Cuban Adventure posts with stuff that didn’t get enough attention – people, cars, architecture.

Until then…


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Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Part 4

Take it away Rache (I’ll just add pictures!):

Markie’s and my last full day in Cuba was certainly filled with wonderful experiences. This entire trip has been just one amazing experience after another. 

After another amazing breakfast, were sped off in Frank’s new sedan. Smaller than the big old cars, it’s certainly more reliable. And Frank is a friendly, masterful driver. 

Our first stop was at the Museum of the Revolution. It’s in the former presidential palace. Batista was the last resident prior to the Revolution. I had been here in 2015 with the “Christmas Quintet.” We ambled along and read some of the descriptions. This time, Gema secured a guide. Alina only spoke Spanish, but Gema translated. I must tell you, Gema gets more confident and competent each day. She could easily communicate very well if and when she travels to the US. Anyway, I certainly came away with a much better understanding of the history after our tour. And we spent some time out back where Granma is housed, along with several very important military objects that are just out in the open. Including the one and only remaining plane called “Marina.” Also included was the type of missile that shot down the US spy plane in October 1962 and the remains of the fuselage of the spy plane. There is an eternal flame that honors Cuba’s “New Patriots.” It was lit by Fidel on April 19, 1989.  You know, it’s pretty interesting seeing international perspectives from different eyes. Again, it seems to me that governments are more the problem than the solutions in so many instances.

After the museum, we took a walking tour. Our first destination was the Capitolio. It’s a small replica of our Capitol in D.C. It was begun way before the revolution and it’s being completed now. The Cuban parliament will move there upon completion.

Next was a brief walk by of Central Park. Think of it as a plaza but surrounded by streets instead of buildings. It’s small and is famous for guys arguing about baseball (and other topics) during the day and at night is a place for hooking up with certain people of pleasure. A “Pay to Play” sort of deal. You can use your imagination to fill in the details.

We were running out of fuel rapidly by the time we reached the cathedral so we had a bit of a refreshment outside overlooking the house of worship. Markie and I had a daiquiri while Gema and Alain each opted for colas. There was even live music.

After a brief “look-see” in the cathedral…

Oh, we stepped into the bar Floridita, home of the daiquiri and made famous by Hemingway. The place was crazy busy so we walked in and out.

As we were hoofing our way on the narrow streets of Old Havana towards our final destination in the city when a most serendipitous event occurred. We walked past an elementary school just as the kids were readying to eat lunch. The door was open and I gazed in, looking at the uniformly uniformed students and admiring the teachers. Gema asked the person at the front door if we could see. “Yes, but not photos.”  Esquela Primaria José Marti is my kind of school. It serves kids from very poor families from the neighborhood. I was able to view the center hallway and then the cafeteria. The cook was washing the metal trays before the next group of kids entered. You know, school energy everywhere is similar.

So, as Markie, Gema, and I were looking around, Alain was asking if they took donations of supplies. I brought a whole bunch of things, from playground balls to Fiskar scissors, pencils, colored, pencils, crayons, sharpeners and I don’t know what all else. Before our arrival, Gema had inquired at a school near where she lives if they could accept donations. They said they would have to go through the Ministry of Education. Well, at José Marti, they were eager to bypass that step. So today, on our way to the airport, we’re going to briefly stop back at the school and drop off the supplies. And in a gesture typical of folks in poverty (at least what I’ve observed), the school is going to share the supplies with another school that is close by. To me, dealing directly with a school is so much better than going through some damn bureaucracy. 

After that brief stop, we continued without interruption to the Havana Club Rum Museum. We arrived with about 15 minutes before the English language tour so we were able to sit for a quick Cuba Libre (rum and coke). The tour was about 35 minutes and was very informative. And of course, a sample of 7-year old rum was waiting for us at the conclusion of the tour. 

Then it was back to the house for lunch. Don’t kid yourselves, it was a feast. Yucca, chicken, red beans and rice (a change from the usual black beans), and salad filled the table. So tasty. I used to say that “Cuban food” and “food in Cuba” are two different things. Finding home cooked meals like this in Cuba has increased my appreciation of “Cuban food in Cuba” to near god-like status. So good.

After a brief pause, we walked over to a busier boulevard and hailed a cab. We were off to the beach I had visited in December 2015. We also experienced a bit of relativity. First of all, it was a ‘red flag’ day so no swimming.  The wind was pretty strong. I was basking in the warmth of the water and air while Alain and Gema were huddled with towels around them. They had no intention of dipping their toes in the ‘freezing’ water. They endured and I savored until Markie broke the tie and opted to go back home. I can never get enough beach time. What seemed chilly for Alain and Gema seemed very warm to me. 

We had lots of time to relax before a meal of leftovers and Alain’s insanely delicious malanga fries. Those things are addictive, especially dipped in delicious Cuban honey. Oh man.

This is a most welcoming house. Alain’s friends arrive and seem a part of the family. I feel beyond honored that their casa and hearts opened themselves to Markie and me. This has truly been a blessing that I feel lucky to have experienced. 

Markie here:

This was an incredible bit of luck to find as generous a host at Alain and his extended family. Tomorrow morning will be our last chance to explore before heading home in the afternoon.

[? ? ?]

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Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Part 3

Through the process of writing, editing Rach’s comments, add pictures, I’m still blown away by the experience of our days in Cuba. Reminds to write another thank you note to our host and extended family.

Back to Rache:

After another hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, mango juice, fresh papaya, cheese and ham, our driver Frank was ready for us to begin our day. Gema had arranged for someone to cover her work, so she was able to join us.

Our first stop was the Muséo Hemingway. This was house he lived in. While we couldn’t go in since it has remained how he left it, there were several doors and windows open with easy viewing of the different rooms. That man loved his books and mounted animal heads.

Mark here: And even Poppa’s Pooper…

If you look closely you can even see what appears to be weight measurement on the wall:

Back to Rache:

We were also able to ascend the tower. The first floor was where his sick cats would be treated, the second floor was where he wrote and the third floor was sort of an observation level where Papa could view his beautiful La Habana. This was a lovely mansion that has been preserved in its pre-revolutionary grandeur. 

The grounds also had a cemetery for his dogs – Black, Negrita, Linda, and Neron.  Where the tennis court once stood now stands Hemingway’s fishing boat, the Pilar, which was registered out of Key West. It was named after a secret lover’s nickname. The Pilar is significantly more substantial than that of the Old Man and the Sea.

We traveled through a very seedy area of town (San Miguel, wouldn’t you know) to get to Revolution Square.  The square noted for its giant tower honoring José Marti and of the huge likenesses of Ché and Camilo

Gema, Alain, and I opted to go to the top of the tower while Markie was happy taking photos of classic cars with Frank joining him. The top of the tower gave us perfect views of the entire city and beyond. You know, from a distance, poverty doesn’t seem to exist. Maybe it’s good to get up close and personal once in a while. Regardless, there is definitely beauty amongst the hovels.

Markie here:

By this point in the trip, my right knee was starting to get a little cranky, and the thought of all those steps made me winch. And I am an old car fan (as is our driver Frank). I’ve just put one group picture in as at some point there will be an entire car post:

Back to Rache:

Next we made a brief stop at John Lennon Square. Markie had an opportunity to pose with the Beattle. Unlike when I was last here, there wasn’t a guy there offering to ‘rent’ out glasses to adorn John’s face. There was an official in uniform who provided glasses at no charge. The regime has its advantages. I also noted the restaurant where Frank, Ron, Michael and I had a delightful lunch. 

Our tour of the city progressed to University of Havana where Gema attends. It is so beautiful with classic architecture and cute young students. The place feels like any other university I’ve visited (or attended) and it’s during these visits that I wish I could live my college years again. I love the energy these academic palaces emit. Powerful places, these are. 

We had worked up an appetite so off we were to sample paladar food. Fonda La Paila is about a block from Habana Libre (formerly the Hilton) and about a light year away from the quality of its food and atmosphere. This place just rocks. It’s open air, covered of course, and is a place that begs to be returned to again and again. It’s a place where chickens peck around your feet before the food arrives and where cats beg when lunch is served. OMG!  The food was superb. And of course, in true Cuban fashion, the portions were huge. Along with pork and onions were salad, Moros y Cristianos, and boiled sweet potatoes. Along with a couple Cuba Libre (Rum and Cola). This place rocked. For the five of us, the total was 56 CUC, less than in the touristy valley the day before. This is what Cuba is all about. Oh, and it was where I taught Gema and Alain about the concept of “doggie bags.” The waiter provided two plastic bags for the leftovers.

Our first stop in Old Havana was thwarted by Women’s Day. The Rum Museum was closed for the holiday so we will have to return. It may be a good thing as a cruise ship had arrived and there were swarms of tourists around. 

Mark here:

Rache forgot to mention that while the museum was not open, the bar attached to the museum was open (and we should have stayed for a drink and listened to the music:

Back to Rache:

We were successful afterwards however. We ascended to the Camera Obscura where we were able to see a 360º view of the city complete with a humorous presentation in Spanish and English. I’d recommend this rather obscure site.

By now the time was 4:00 PM and Gema had an event to attend in an hour. We were all dragging a bit so we came home to reboot and relax. 

Once home, Alain, a friend, Markie and I watched the critically acclaimed movie “Viva.” It was filmed in Cuba but it was not shown here. It brought a tear to Markie’s and my eye.

During the time without Gema, there was a bit of confusion. What Markie and I took to mean that dinner would be served after our final visit, it was actually served an hour before the visit. So much for a nap. I must tell you, while the food at restaurants have been excellent, Tekita knocks food out of the park. She is just amazing. And she runs a mean ship as well. When Alain came to the table as Markie and I were finishing our breakfast this morning, she informed Alain that she wouldn’t cook breakfast for him because he was getting too fat. That I could be as fat as Alain. Regardless, he didn’t get breakfast. It was Women’s Day after all. Anyway, if she ends up missing from Cuba when our plane departs, her room is waiting for me back at my casa by the mar. 

Mark here:

I have to add a most amusing picture – it is us giving Alain’s partner Luis’ mother a ride back to her apartment block – on Alain’s lap!

Back to Rache:

Our final adventure of the day came at 8 PM when Frank arrived and drove us to Moro Castle. Prior to the nightly ceremony, we had time to visit the Ché Museum and we actually got to step into his office. Very cool. One interesting note is that museums are rather relaxed in Cuba. For instance, there are some postcards Ché wrote from Africa. And they are just tacked on a board where folks can actually touch them — like I did.

The nightly ceremony began soon, leading to the firing of the canon at 9 PM. This  ritual goes back to early colonial time when the canon signaled that everyone should be within the castle walls so that pirates wouldn’t kill them. The ceremony was very nice. Gema explained what was happening while the colonial soldiers were drumming and marching by prior to the BOOM! The event was well attended — there was a cruise ship in town after all. This was a sweet event and was on my list of things to do. 

After the event, the crowd leisurely dispersed. As we drove home, we passed Ché’s home (it was dark) and passed through the neighborhood of Casablanca. It was a nice area.

Once home, I joined Markie in a nightly cocktail before retiring to my best night’s sleep here yet. I am reminded of the phrase, “This will make you feel better as you’re getting better.” Someone famous said that. 

Mark here:

As you can well guess, I had more than one nightly cocktail.


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Mar '17

Trip Report: Cuban Adventure, Part 2

One of the really nice things about travelling with Rache is the difference in our time zones. He’s the early riser, I’m the night owl. Needless to say, I was the last on out of bed this morning,

I’ll let Rache start the story:

Before I get started, I must say that Alain, his housekeeper Tekita, and Alain’s goddaughter Gema (aka translator) are amazing. AMAZING!  They are treating Markie and me like royalty.  I have never experienced such gracious hospitality. As a person who likes to be the nurturer, it has been initially difficult to accept such a lovely, genuine welcome into a lovely home. With that said, when you come to visit me, I will prepare your first drink and then you’re on your own LOL!

Yesterday started fairly early. Tekita and I were the first to arise. I was preparing to shower about the time she handed me a cup of delicious Cuban coffee. She also said something about “agua caliente” which I of course misunderstood it to mean that the coffee was hot. Long story longer, I had a cold shower as the water she heated on the stove for my shower was instead used by Markie. Yep, no hot running water. Tomorrow I’ll know.

Tekita prepared a breakfast of scrambled eggs with bacon and onions, mango juice, ham, cheese, roll, and a banana from the tree in the backyard. We could’ve had some flan from the previous night’s dinner but we had no room in the tummy.

Mark here again….while the eggs were DELCIOUS, and what I usually have some variation of at home, Uncle Markie’s stomach wasn’t having much of it. My first worry was that I’d picked up a bug from the ice in last night’s drinks, but 12 hours is a little quick for gastrointestinal stuff to happen in me – the world traveler with enough flora and fauna in his system that make me reluctant to take antibiotics because they would kill the good stuff along with the bad. What I should have done is make a ham and cheese sandwich for the road. Alas, I didn’t have that forethought.

And now back to Rache:

We drove 2.5 hours out to Valle de Vinales. We passed sugar cane and tobacco fields once out in the country. It appears to be both a national park where people live, work, grow tobacco, etc. And some amazing views. Think of it almost like a tropical Monument Valley Tribal Park and you’ll sort of get the idea. Along the way, we stopped at a Centro Turístco Las Barrigonas which is along the Ruta del Tabaco (I bet you didn’t know you could read Spanish).

There we frolicked amongst a mother pig and her piglets. They were enjoying a dip in a pond near a tobacco field.  Alain is one of those gentle souls who cares for and respects animals. When he discovered the sow was not within reach of greens to nibble, he picked some for her.

Now, roadside rest areas are a little different in Cuba. Piña Coladas are sold and you get to pour how much rum you want into the cocktail.

Mark here again — at this point I have to add that Rache’s suggestion of a Pina Colada was PERFECT for my stomach, which after several hours of weaving/dodging/bouncing on major Cuban highways squished side-to-side like happy sardines in the back of our Chinese Geely motorcar was as welcome to my tummy as was just getting out of the car. Here is a picture of our touring car, though, technically, was taken a day later at a gas station (.90 CUC per liter, FYI, which is basically a USD per liter). The car was nearly new, with seating for three in the back and two in the front.

Back to Rache:

It was delicious. Before we took off, I said hello to a couple beasts of burden pulling a cart.

FYI: It’s not uncommon to see horse and “buggies” trotting down the road, even on the freeway shoulder.

Back to Rache:

Gema told us as we were approaching the valley and that we were in an area that had been hit hard with natural disasters. People lost almost everything and were trying to rebuild their homes and lives as best they could.

Our next stop was near the Hotel Horizonte Los Jazme. which overlooked the valley. The view was so beautiful that tears welled in my eyes. Wonderful piña coladas are served here as well.

Before we drove down to the valley, we made reservations at a restaurant. To speed things up when we came back to eat later in the afternoon, we chose our protein. Options were pork, chicken (my choice), and fish. Near where we parked, there was a hand cranked cane juicer for drinks. I love this type of rustic.

Our first stop was at a small tobacco farm. We were given a presentation (in a tobacco barn) on how tobacco is grown, nurtured, and cured. The seeds are tiny little things.  Everything is organic at the farm. We then ventured over to a little pavilion where we were given a lesson on how to roll cigars. And of course, we were able to purchase organic, hand rolled cigars at the farm. They are wrapped in palm fronds as a preservative. Factory cigars have additives (some harmless, others uncertain) once the organic tobacco reaches their processing.  Still, a Montecristo No. 2 is hard to beat. After all, it was the number one cigar in the world in 2013.  And as an aside, the Montecristo uses leaves from the top, middle, and bottom parts of the plant. Each area of the plant has its own distinctive flavor and quality.

Next we went to Cuevas de Santo Tomas (St Thomas’ Cave). I enjoy caves a lot. The cave was “electrified” by Fidel and it so it was able to accommodate tourists. There were some beautiful mineral formations in the cave. One of the unique features of the cave is that a river runs through it. And yes, we got to take a boat ride in the cave until it narrowed too much for us to pass. We turned around and then were surprised by an opening that lead to a small pool in the river just before the waterfall. It was dramatic.

It was here that we offloaded. Gema and Alain opted to ride a water buffalo while I decided to give the beast of burden a break. Even beasts of burden have their limits.

We stopped briefly at a cave entrance that was also a bar. It seemed quite inauthentic so we didn’t pay the 5 CUC to enter. Still, there was interesting history regarding the slave trade at that cave. “Its primary function is to show the living conditions of the Maroons, slaves who escaped from the barracks of the mills, fleeing ranchers games and took refuge in the goodness of the caves and mountains of this prodigious nature.” [Please note that I am amused by the translation but not by the harrowing existence of the slaves.]

Our last stop before lunch was the giant Mural de la Prehistoria. It was very colorful and huge, if not quite historically accurate. And it was here that I had my first Cristal (Cuban beer) of the trip. [Mark: the “tourist fee” of 3 CUC included a drink coupon—I had a Cuba Libre]. It was refreshing. The scenery in the entire valley is absolutely gorgeous, what with the vibrant shades of green from the various plant life. The dramatic plant covered rock formations make this place a magical place on Earth.

At lunch, Markie, the driver Frank and I had the barbecued chicken while Alain and Gema opted for the barbecued pork. Along with our mains, came banana chips, yucca, salad, Moros y Cristianoss, plus white rice and black beans, and probably some other goodness that I’m forgetting, plus multiple beverages. The bill was 68 CUC, which is about $76.00 USD. For all five of us. I think Alain was worried if we thought it was too expensive since it was in a tourist area. Uh, not a chance on that. $15.00 each for a feast such as ours was a bargain at twice the price.

Full and content from this amazing meal, we all napped in the car on the way back to Havana. Well, I’m assuming Frank did not doze off. As we neared the city, Frank opted for a slight detour that took us into Miramar, the west part of Havana and where I stayed with the others during Christmas 2015. We passed multiple embassies (including the iconic Russian embassy), and several places were most familiar as we drove down 5th Avenue heading for the Malecon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malecón,_Havana)

While we had a couple rain showers, it didn’t seem too windy to me. However, something was making the sea angry as waves broke over the seawall and onto the boulevard as we drove on the Malecon. I never saw that before. Obviously, not many people were hanging out at this usually busy hang out, especially for young people. Seriously, cars were getting doused just like cars along the Columbia River east of the tunnel out of Chinook during a dicey storm and high tide. I was impressed.

We arrived home (well, Markie and I were sure made to feel like home) here in Alamar and we unpacked our “happy sardine” bodies out of the car. Frank was paid for the day’s journey and it was well worth the cost.  The day was so remarkable in all ways.

Family was here and were enjoying themselves. That gave Markie and me a chance to review our wonderful day on the back patio. And for me to play with the dogs. When family had left, Alain came out back and showed us the turtle pond out beyond the banana tree. He has two turtles.

I was still full from lunch (which was served about 4:30 PM) so went to bed early. Markie stayed up for a while after that I imagine. I certainly slept with a smile on my face after experiencing the beautiful Valle de Vinales. Feeling extremely lucky.

Tekita was kind enough to make Alain a little treat before bedtime…the rolls, ham, cheese from breakfast – what I should have had with me in the car on the way down!

Nice sandwiches to go with my Jack Daniels (not my first choice, but it was what Duty Free at LAX had. I brought one for me, and one for Alain:

Soon, I went to bed myself – it was a LONG day.


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Mar '17

Trip Report: Havana Bound

When you have to be at the airport at 3:30am, of course you should throw a dinner party the night before:

Don’t we look awake in the Uber the next morning – which for some reason was also carrying a large load of flowers:

The Alaska Lounge doesn’t open until 5am, which is when our flight departs, so nothing to do but hang out in the terminal until we can settle in our lovely first class seats. I used a handful (assuming one was missing a finger) of Guest Upgrades.

And before long it was time for breakfast:

And now I’ll turn it over to Rache for this tag team post:

Markie’s and my flight to LA took off right on time. It was a full flight and all went smoothly. Even tho’ the same jet was used from the LAX to Havana, we all left the plane and took all our belongings as it was cleaned. You can tell that there are a few kinks to work out as there was one stamp that was left off our boarding passes. That stamp is verification that Alaska Airlines took in our money that is part of the proof that we paid health insurance for the time we are in Cuba. I now have a better understanding what it’s like to get a stamp on one’s paper and I wish to apologize to all my kids for failing miserably in consistently getting stamps on their papers. 

This would be the stamp:

For some reason, we were served a second (and slightly larger) breakfast on the Los Angeles to Havana portion:

And back to Rache:

After the clog and only slight delay, we were off and actually made up time in the sky so that we landed at José Marti International a bit early. One must remember that the second you land in Cuba, there is a time transformation. It’s not like time stands still, but almost. Island Time.

Our bags took almost forever in getting to the terminal. Mercy. Markie’s bag was taken off the conveyor and mine ended up on a conveyor with another flight. Terminal 2 is small enough that it doesn’t make a difference. However, content in the luggage does make a difference. As always, I packed a whole lot of school supplies. This time, I also packed herbs, spices, flavorings, tons of chocolate, toys, etc. I inspired Markie in this endeavor and he brought six old cell phones. Mistake. We were separated, bags gone through, and we were somewhat interrogated. Markie was being asked why he was bringing in so many phones and I was being asked why I had a power converter (220v to 110v) that included several USB jacks. And I was also being asked why Markie was binging in so many phones. I am not sure if he was asked why I had the power converter [UM: they did not].

Regardless, we were almost the last ones out of the terminal. That stressed us because Alain (our host), the interpreter (his goddaughter), and the driver were supposed to meet us. And here is where “Island Time” needs to be remembered. They had called for a ride. The driver of the ’55 Chevy arrived at Alain’s home at the time they were supposed to meet us at the airport, so they were stressing as much as Markie and I were. They were sure we had left without them. As luck would have it, Alain had a photo of me on his phone so he asked security to check to see if I was in the terminal. I was – having the content of my luggage examined and being questioned. This is done unlike Peru, which takes us to a back room. This questioning is done out in the open in Terminal 2. Alain and Gema’s stress, was lessened once they knew we were in the terminal, but Markie and I didn’t’ know that so we were still stressing.

Long story longer, Markie and I were reunited, we each had to pay a $14.00 fine, and we escaped the clutches of Cuban security and greeted warmly with hugs and kisses from Alain and his goddaughter/translator. The driver loaded our bags and we were on our way.

Alain lives on the east side of Havana, in a former Soviet area called a Alamar. It seems like a lovely area but it was getting dark as we arrived. 

Tekita (cook/maid/house manager) made us a very festive meal with traditional Cuban food. black beans and rice, salad (shredded cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, beets, mild peppers), malanga fries with honey (fritura de malanga con miel). Oh, the main protein was lobster! The huge meal was topped with flan and strawberry ice cream (copa lolita). Stuffed over the top [UM:we both were]. 

And there was even Cuban white wine:

While Cuba DOES have a wine industry, most of their wine is imported from either Spain or South America. If you are interested in the growing wine industry in Cuba, CLICK HERE for and overview of the industry – makes me want to go to the Cuban Wine Show (Festival International del Vino) in October.

And now back to Rache:

We chatted for a bit, Alain and Gema (goddaughter/translator) had a friend who exchanged our money and soon we were off to bed. Markie and I both have our own rooms.

The house is lovely and I’ll describe it more as the week progresses. Besides a parrot (and a lizard), there are two dogs. And that’s important because when I was in Peru, I felt sad that I didn’t have anything to give all the stray dogs in that entire country. so yes, this time, I brought dog treats. I now have two best friends forever in Cachito (dachshund) and Kiara (husky mix).

I did stay up after Michael went to bed, but not for long – I was “running on fumes” as they say.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s adventure.



2 Responses to “Trip Report: Havana Bound”

  1. Conan Says:

    My brother just got back and he said he got screwed at ever turn. Had to convert to Euros then to Cup’s. (koops) His lobster tail was stuffed w/chicken and when he bought cigars he ordered 5 (around $80.00US) and when he got back to where he was staying he opened the bag and there were only 4. He and wife were gouged at every turn, Taxi rides, elevator rides you name it they were taken advantage of.

  2. UncleMarkie Says:

    WOW. Totally different experience than ours, but we were also travelling with locals.

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