Home From Away

Two weeks away ended late last night with surreal familiarity of coming home. We’ve done this enough to know how dreary Vancouver is after time away. Wisely, my husband softened transition from 11 days in Cuba with 3 in Toronto for Caribana before flying home. Caribana, the largest Caribbean Festival in North America helped, but didn’t cure longing for Cuba.

I’ll need a few days to process Cuban ponders – three cities, over 1,000 kilometers by taxi between them, hundreds of kilometers walked along cobblestone streets – a lot to digest.

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Carnival in Santiago de Cuba

Valle de la Prehistoria, a sprawling 60s era theme park located in Parque de Baconao, twenty Km outside Santiago de Cuba.


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Changing of the guard at Castro’s grave in Santiago de Cuba.

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Fusterlandia – https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/fusterlandia

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Cuba Calling….

Ah vacation, weeks of planning, simmering expectation and promise about to become reality. This time next week we’ll be in Havana at Mercure Sevilla (pictured below)

Three nights in Havana, a flight to Santiago de Cuba later, four nights at Casa Granda to experience Carnival.

Next we hire a driver to take us to Trinidad de Cuba, a distance of roughly 600 Km. The fact we have to spend 3 nights at “all inclusive” pictured below, is over shadowed by adventure of driving there.

Time to hire another driver, back to Havana for two nights at Estancia Bohemia –

From Havana, a flight to Toronto for Caribana –

Home on August 4th.

Words fail to describe how much Notes needs a vacation. I’m exhausted, Cuba promises to put everything right.

Stones Rock Havana

Oh to be in Havana tonight – shoulder to shoulder with over 200,000 spectators at Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana baseball stadium, witness to a free concert by the Rolling Stones.

The Stones released their first album in 1964, two years after the Cuban missile crisis, five years after the revolution in 1959. Considered diversionismo ideologico ( ideological divergence ) by a regime unwilling to tolerate influence of enemy culture, the Stones joined Elvis Presley and the Beatles, headlining an official list banning all foreign rock music. ( One notable exception – approval of John Lennon’s 1971 release, Power To The People. Lennon has a park named after him in Havana, complete with his statue ).

News of Stones in Havana didn’t find me until yesterday. first reaction dropped a jaw, followed by pining for a stolen heart. No time to ponder implications – too busy walking streets, lost in the heartbeat of Havana night, vignettes of musical expression erupting around every corner. My only thought – kick ass Havana, better late than never.

Morning arrived with bag of squirrels cacophony – Cuba deserves more than a knee jerk “kick ass, better late than never” or media fawning over “iconic” historical concerts, akin to David Bowie at the Berlin Wall in 1987, or Wham in China, 1985. No argument on iconic, without question hundreds of thousands packing a baseball stadium in Havana for a Stones concert, warrants that designation. Worrisome resides in perspective, call it media spin whirling about translation of iconic.

Regardless of opinion’s nationality or political affiliation, we mustn’t forget the Cuban people. Personal experience left indelible marks, a life altering view of tenacity, perseverance, creativity and resourcefulness. Despite oppression and civil rights violations, remember people whose fortitude fill the night with music. Music monitored by government, musicians arrested for subversive lyrics, artists who dare not stand in line for the Stones because they fear detention.

This concert straddles a full spectrum of intent, in time meaning will show itself. Until then, honour the people of Cuba. Ignore sniveling right wing quips promoting cultural arrogance and blanket assumption of robotic communist conformity. Nip the bud of tiresome debate over ulterior motives, scold yourselves for thinking a concert might erase Cuban woes. Allow the Stones to rock Havana, and let chips fall where they may.


The Gatekeeper of Colon

Cementario Colon in Havanna, Cuba epitomizes inexplicable reason why cemetaries shouldn’t be ignored. Irrefutable historical markers, poignant headstones, tender offerings of faded flowers, family plots – telling, powerful reminders of lives lost in time.

We approached Colon with anticipation, undaunted by closed gates, encouraged by voices in the gatehouse. It was late afternoon, my husband managed to negotiate entrance. Unencumbered by expectation, void of tour book jibber-jabber, we entered as blank slates on a mission of discovery.

Enormity of Colon eludes description. Past the gates each of us picked solitary paths through the labyrinth. Five, ten minutes passed. Minutes filled with wonder at the stark beauty of monuments to the dead, time needed to get our bearings. Gradually we walked out of ourselves, ready to share our experience as a group. Instructed by unseen forces, six of us stood together in the heart of Colon.

I know we were alone. Colon had closed for the evening – six of us roaming 140 acres, meandering past lives of a million souls. One of the largest cemeteries in the world, yet unlike any I’d visited. A stark contrast to Pere Lachaise in Paris where markers for Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Proust, Sartre, Chopin and Jim Morrison lay sprinkled between everyday lives. Inhabitants of Colon were equal – elaborate mausoleums no different from modest grave stones. I felt the presence of tenderness, stoic determination and forgotten history. Cuba’s impact on my perspective solidified.

I’m pretty sure the dog approached us before the gatekeeper. In hindsight, it’s entirely possible both were wise enough to give us time to settle in, knowing exactly when to reveal themselves. We named the dog “Salchipapa” (after a Latin American street food that’s essentially french fries with cut up wieners). Salchipapa wasn’t cute – an obvious stray,  with good sense to know manners went a lot farther than attitude. My son tossed her pieces of his sandwich (for the life of me I can’t recall why he had a sandwich in the middle of a graveyard), instead of inhaling good fortune – Salchipapa buried them. Without exception every morsel politely tucked away – as if the shame of her situation was too much to bear.

The gatekeeper’s methodical approach alarmed me at first. Certain he’d had enough after hours annoyance, steeling myself for insistence we make our way to the exit. Not ready to leave, I shot my husband a wordless plea to “negotiate” a little more time. Gatekeeper didn’t speak a word of English, our collective Spanish amounted to our children taking a year of Spanish in high school and phrases from a Lonely Planet guide book. Turns out we didn’t need a common language – this wasn’t gatekeeper’s first dance.

Gatekeeper appointed himself our tour guide. We didn’t feel coerced or hustled. Beneath his gruff exterior, gatekeeper was a proud man. His eyes smiled as he led us on a erratic journey through Cuba’s past. The world Domino champion, a woman you say? Famous baseball player, a revolutionary hero – you’re doing great gatekeeper, we understand. She and her baby died in childbirth? The baby was buried at her feet, yet the body was found in her arms when exhumed years later – holy crap gatekeeper, that’s incredible.This woman’s dog lay at her grave, refusing to budge until it too perished and now rests alongside her?  Remarkable.

Gatekeeper stops at a grave. Not certain if he’s had enough of the relentless heat, or decided it’s long past dinner, I’m watching for clues when I swear I caught that split second inspiration took hold. Gatekeeper started to sing. Salchipapa the only living witness as seven people sang and danced on the dusty avenue next to the grave of Jose Fernandez Diaz, the man responsible for Cuba’s best known song, Guantanamera. Gatekeeper was too busy grinning while tapping out  beats to mind  us singing the same line over and over again.

Silent, mutual understanding passed between us, it was time to let gatekeeper go home for dinner. Salchipapa followed us to the gate – oblivious to our silly grins or soft humming of Guantanamera, simply making sure it was safe to exhume dinner. Regardless of  amount, money couldn’t express how Gatekeeper enriched our lives. Pleased with our attempt, unaware of the gift bestowed upon us, we parted ways.

Every so often, the lucky traveler finds a “Gatekeeper of Colon”. These are the moments I travel for. Cuba is remarkable place – our time with the Gatekeeper of Colon solidified its place in my heart. Last year I wrote this short post on Cuba….





Cuba on My Mind

I’ve been feeling rather grumpy lately, and just figured out why; I have Cuba on my mind. Not the “all-inclusive” this beach could be anywhere in the world Cuba – I need the living, heart pounding, take your breath away Cuba. The Cuba that prompted my son to ask how people with so little could be filled with such joy.

Havana is like no other place I’ve travelled. Evidence of the revolution; images of Lenin and Che Guevara , bullet scars, socialist slogans, and meandering lines of residents waiting patiently outside government stores for state supplied rations of rice, beans, and rum – are nothing more than a small chapter in Cuban history. A 16th century Spanish fort stands guard over Havana’s harbour; the shells of giant sea turtles float in the murky waters surrounding it, centuries old refuse alluding to lavish meals of Spanish rule. Taxi stands filled with pre 1959 American cars compete with horse drawn carriages for tourist dollars. Remarkably clean streets do little to hide the crumbling façades of Spanish colonial occupation. Gorgeous building held together with chicken wire and cinder blocks. Ballerinas from the National Ballet spill onto the street, mindful of the broken pavement and uneven curbs. Open air markets filled with books, soviet era propaganda, old movie posters, and art. A meal of chicken, potatoes, and beer for $2.00 as night falls and the air fills with music.

Cuba stole my heart and I need to go back. I long to be stuck in time, surrounded by remarkable people who when given lemons made lemonade. People who persevered, improvised, and never forgot how to laugh and sing. I don’t for a second believe life is all roses, but know Cuba is a special place with people I admire. At the moment my only wish is to fly to Havana, get on an ancient train complete with a roll of toilet paper and coffee mug as none are provided, and travel the 500 miles to Santiago de Cuba. The train will likely break down along the way stranding travellers for hours, hopefully days. I can’t think of anything I would rather do. I have Cuba on my mind.

108 Billion

According to the Population Research Bureau, the best guess as to how many people have lived on earth is 108 billion.


I don’t handle death well; funerals turn me to jello. Working in the hospitality industry I’ve run dozens of “celebration of life” ceremonies. Without exception I find myself weeping for people I didn’t even know. I busy myself by setting aside plates of food for the distraught family, or giving orders to my staff. I have an arsenal of tricks up my sleeve to drown out the testimonials and stories.

The oddest thing is; I love cemeteries.

Pere-Lachaise in Paris is considered the most visited cemetery in the world next to Arlington. We arrived at dusk, just before closing on a cold December evening. I was certain my husband and I were the only people there. Undaunted we set out; Chopin, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde; around every corner monuments to remarkable people. Signs pointed in the direction of famous graves but my attention was drawn to the lives of those I didn’t know. Inscriptions etched in stone all that remained of thousands of hopes and dreams. Tidy graves adorned with fresh flowers contrasted by crumbling markers of those no one remembered. With daylight long gone and danger of falling into sunken graves a consideration, we walked up one last hill. A security guard stood watch in a clearing; it was the grave of Jim Morrison. A woman sat beside the marker, after a moment she looked up and spoke to us. She was American, and told us this visit had been a life long dream. She seemed so sad, her despair haunts me to this day.

Cristobal Colon cemetery in Havana houses over 2 million souls. Arriving at closing time, we paid a guard to let us in. Appointing himself our unofficial tour guide, we wandered for two of the happiest hours of my life. Somehow his lack of English and our lack of Spanish found a middle ground. So many stories; the grave of the woman buried with her dog, who stayed by her side for 10 days after she died. The world Domino champion, who he proudly told us was a woman. Musicians, writers, politicians, nestled amongst people whose only legacy was the marker on their grave.

Cemeteries are more poetic than any book you could read. They have substance and meaning; the place you need to go if you truly want to learn about the places you visit.

Jim Morrison’s grave – Pere-Lachaise, Paris