(Northern) Lights, Camera, Action!

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Third time lucky? Sue and I were certainly hoping so as we blearily pulled on our way-too-warm-for London-winter puffy coats at 4AM, and dragged our bags to the waiting taxi. This would be the third consecutive year that we were to venture to the Arctic Circle in search of the Aurora Borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights. The previous winters, we had travelled to Norway and Sweden, where we did encounter teases of nature’s awesome night time light display, but although the trips were very enjoyable, they hadn’t satisfied the desire, the lust, the need to experience this incredible natural phenomenon in its full glory.

So here we were, in mid-December, creeping towards the shortest day of the year, venturing north once again. We chose Sweden, but this time a different location: Abisko, in Swedish Lapland. This tiny village and adjacent National Park is known as one of the best places in the world to spot the lights due to its location in the middle of the Auroral Oval, and the generally clear weather conditions, both important factors in Aurora spotting. Abisko also boasts the Aurora Sky Station, a mountaintop destination that, at 900 metres, offers amazing viewing. But more on that later. First we had to get there.

The flight portion of our trip was fine. There’s really something to be said for travelling at an ungodly hour during an off-peak time of year. The airport was a breeze, and our first leg to Stockholm was practically empty. It left us wondering if budget airline Norwegian could even be making a profit on this flight. Perhaps they sold enough crisps and instant coffee to break even. After a brief stopover in Arlanda, we boarded a much fuller flight to Kiruna, a city literally on the move (and home to the famed ice hotel). Whereas the scenery flying into Stockholm was grey with only a smattering of snow on the ground, the area around Kiruna was a winter wonderland, a veritable sea of white. Unfortunately, the sky did not look so inviting. In fact, we were quite concerned as the local forecast was clouds, snow, more clouds, and even more snow. Not conducive at all to sky-watching. But we couldn’t back out now, so we hoped for the best.

By the time we picked up our rental car at the airport, it was nearly 2pm, and already pretty much dark. At this time of year so far north, a few hours of light a day is all we were going to get. When planning the trip, we actually considered this a potential benefit, as it meant more night time in which to see the Aurora. However, the reality is that it’s unlikely to see the lights until ‘proper night time’ anyway, so we were left with much of the day to spend in the dark. Therefore we were going to need lots of food and drink!

We’ve travelled a lot in Norway and Sweden, so learned a long time ago that self-catering is the way to go when travelling here. Restaurants are usually very pricey and not terribly good value, and booze, when you can get it, is shockingly expensive. I mention ‘when you can get it’ because we only remembered when hitting the supermarket in Kiruna, that you are only able to purchase wine and spirits in special state-owned stores called Systembolaget. Fortunately, with the help of our old friend Google, we were able to track down the town boozery, and stock up on enough red wine for the trip.

The drive from Kiruna to Abisko, whilst only about 100kms, turned out to be a bit hairy, with icy roads, occasionally blinding snow, and a moose that fortunately just got across the road before I had to seriously test the anti-lock brakes. We passed another car that hadn’t been so lucky, but at least a passing truck was giving them a hand pulling them out of a snowbank. Needless to say we were very relieved when finally arriving intact at the Abisko hostel (oddly named Abisko.net) where we were to spend the next four nights. We had been fairly ambivalent about accommodation prior to the trip, as the small handful of options in town had some quite mixed reviews. In the end we settled on the hostel as, at least if we were going to have pretty basic accommodation, we wouldn’t be paying through the nose for it. In the end we were very happy with our decision. The staff was super friendly and helpful, we had a private room with a toilet, the kitchen was reasonably well equipped (though I always bring my own sharp knife when self catering) and, perhaps most importantly, they gave us warm snowsuits, boots and mittens!  As the temperature was forecast to be -2C to -14C, we would be practically living in these.

A short recce around town clarified that Abisko was truly a one-horse town…assuming that horse could wear reindeer skins and thermal underwear all winter. It was cold! And not a human in sight. This was fine with us, though, as it was nature we came here to see, not people. We couldn’t avoid them at the hostel, though. When making dinner (which seemed to be quite a gourmet standard compared to the frozen pizzas everyone else was eating), we encountered a number of our fellow tourists. It seemed that nearly every guest was either American or Chinese. A little odd, although I suppose somewhat understandable given the size of both countries’ populations.

Afterwards it was time for our first Aurora hunt. We bundled up, and trudged across town to the lakeside, where supposedly viewing was good when the lights were shining. Lo and behold, the clouds of earlier dissipated, the stars came out, and brought with them our first Aurora sighting of the trip. Yes! We hung about for an hour or so, snapping oodles of pictures, trying to remember how to work the camera that we last used the previous winter in Norway. Experimenting with various ISOs, shutter speeds, etc., all the while trying to keep my fingers from getting frostbite. The convertible mittens/fingerless gloves Sue bought me last year worked well, but could only do so much. What I really needed was to stick my hands in the sliced-open belly of a dead tauntaun. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the Star Wars reference)

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I should stop here and say a few things about the Aurora Borealis. The lights are formed by collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere, and are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as Aurora Borealis in the north and Aurora Australis in the south. Auroral displays can appear in many colours, depending on the types of particles. Green is the most common, caused by oxygen molecules.

It’s also worth noting, as people always ask, that the experience of seeing the lights with the naked eye is different from what comes out on film. When the activity is strong, you can see the lights ‘dance’ as they shift and pulsate, but the colours seen are rarely as intense as they appear on photographs. They are fainter, and more greyish/white. Still magical, though. And there’s the added surprise, when after 30 or so seconds, the beautifully coloured Aurora appears in the viewfinder and you know you got the shot!

The next morning was to be our dogsledding experience, which we had arranged with the hostel, as they own their own dogs and sleds. We had a wonderful time dogsledding on our previous Sweden trip, so were looking forward to it. We were slightly nervous, though, as some other guests had said they had fallen off the sleds repeatedly in their go at it the previous day. Ah well, if we were going to fall, at least it should be on to soft snow.

There were 12 guests for sledding – quite a big group – and we were each to get our own sled, so it took some time rounding up the 48 huskies required and harnessing them to the sleds. In teams of 4 to a sled, they needed to be arranged in a specific way so as not to try to fight or fuck each other as we were sledding. To prevent the latter, most of the teams were single sex. As it would turn out, the female teams tended to be the fastest. Girl power!

We were all in a line, brakes firmly applied as the dogs were really raring to go. When given the go-ahead from the staff, we were off. Almost immediately, a driverless sled shot past. The girl behind me had apparently fallen off right at the start, but the dogs had no interest in waiting for her to get back on, so dashed on ahead. This didn’t bode well, but as it turned out, this was to be the only separation of sled and rider for the trip.

We spent the next hour and a half zipping along the trail through the beautifully peaceful snowy woods. One of the great things about dogsledding is the absence of noisy vehicles you would have if you were, say, snowmobiling. Kind of akin to sailing vs. motorboating. It really makes you feel at one with nature.

Sue was riding ahead of me, and her enthusiastic team of bitches (can I say that?) kept running right up behind the rider in front of her, so she had to apply the brakes frequently. Therefore, we were never quite able to build up the head of steam we had in our previous sledding experience two years previously. Also, because there was only one person per sled, the sleds were lighter and less stable, so we had to brake more going around turns and down hills. Still, it was great fun. Pretty hard work, too, holding on for dear life, operating the (very!) manual brakes with our feet, and helping the dogs up hills by pushing along with our legs. When we returned to the kennel, we got to bring the dogs back to their pens, unharness them, have a little cuddle, and get in some photo ops. All in all, a good morning.

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We spent the remainder of the day lunching and then exploring the outskirts of the village. The latter was much slower going than expected as walking in our super heavy (but very warm!) snow boots felt like we were wearing ankle weights. We hiked to the edge of the National Park, but as it was mid-afternoon, we were losing the daylight, so decided to save the park for the next day, and head back to the room for some warmth and to catch up on some videos.

After another gourmet-by-hostel-standards-dinner, we indulged in a Scandinavian institution: the sauna. The word sauna is of Finnish origin, and the Finns are perhaps the most obsessed with them. Supposedly most Finnish embassies, even in hot countries in the Middle East, are equipped with saunas. Not sure how nice a sauna in Saudi Arabia would be, but hey, I’m not Finnish so who am I to say?

Though not quite as ubiquitous, saunas can still be found around the rest of Scandinavia, and we were fortunate that our hostel had their own. They run it quite strictly: showers before entering are required, your own towels and swimsuits are forbidden, no bare bums on the benches, etc. And in proper Scandi style, use of any towels other than to sit on are discouraged. So essentially you’ve got a mixed-sex nude sauna. Shyer people (and never-nudes!) can rent a towel to wrap around, but many people didn’t seem to bother.  The best – and perhaps worst as well – part of the experience was running outside every 15 minutes or so to roll in, or throw snow all over oneself. An intense experience, but one that left us incredibly relaxed afterwards. Supposedly good for the immune system too!

That night we once again ventured out in search of the Aurora. We did see a little activity, but not enough to keep us outdoors in the bitter cold. The following evening was to be our big night out at the Sky Station, and we were banking on some quality viewing, so decided to save our fingertips for then. So back to the room for more wine and videos!

Friday was new moon day, particularly good for Aurora spotting, as there is minimal moonlight to obscure your view. That said, it’s a misconception that you can’t see the lights when there’s a large, or even full moon. The real enemies are clouds and, much to our chagrin, they were out in great numbers again. The weather forecast for the evening didn’t look brilliant either, but one thing we’d learned in our brief stay in Abisko so far was that the weather could change quite quickly, sometimes for the better, so we weren’t panicking yet.

We spent the (vaguely) sunlit portion of the day hiking through the National Park, along the snow-covered Kungsleden trail. King’s Trail in English, it runs about 440 kms from Abisko in the North to Hemavan in the South. It’s a popular through-hike route, but not so much this time of year. Still, the snow-covered woods lit by the pink twilight, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, were beautiful, so we spent a couple of hours enjoying traipsing through the winter wonderland.

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That evening we scraped the ice and snow off our rental car and drove the whopping 3 kms to the National Park to the lower base of the Aurora Sky Station. Here’s where guests get kitted up in extreme cold weather gear to board the chairlift for the 20 minute ride up to the 900m high upper station. We already had our snow suits from the hostel so we didn’t need to take advantage of this, but it’s important to be prepared as there are no cozy gondolas here, or even one of those pull-down covers some ski lifts have. This is a proper old school, fully exposed chair lift, and, given that it was about -10C, those 20 minutes could seem like an eternity if one was underdressed. Fortunately we weren’t, and there wasn’t much wind, so our ride up was quite peaceful and pleasant.

Arriving at the top, there was no Aurora activity visible through the clouds so we went inside to get the lay of the land. We had opted to splash out on the exclusive dinner offered at the station partly in celebration of our anniversary, and partly because, if the weather turned out miserable, and we couldn’t see the lights, at least we would have a bang-up meal to show for the evening. We stripped off some of our layers, and were treated to a welcome cocktail of warm lingonberry juice with vodka. A perfect way to take the chill off, but just as soon as the last of the drinks were sliding down our gullets, somebody came inside and informed us that there was some Aurora action happening outside. Thinking it would be too slow to fully kit back up again, we grabbed hats and gloves and dashed outside. Lo and behold, the now familiar electric green was dancing right above us. Cool! I was fumbling to open my tripod and get the camera settings right, so didn’t really get much in the way of photos by the time the lights faded, but it was good to see that there was activity happening, and that, if we got some more clear skies that evening, we were likely to be in luck. So back inside for the start of our four course gourmet dinner.

And gourmet it was. As we had hoped, the menu was a modern twist on some Nordic classics. For starters there was cured arctic char (similar to smoked salmon) on crisp bread with pickled onion and scallop cream. This was followed by a scrummy mushroom soup with juniper fried pork and pickled chanterelles. The main consisted of topside of moose with potato puree, black kale and sea buckthorn sauce. The dessert was vanilla pannacotta with cloudberry cream and chocolate crisp. Yum! I should also mention that everything was prepared in a tiny open kitchen with minimal supplies, not even any running water! Pretty impressive.

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All through the meal, we were peering out the window, checking the station webcam, and occasionally peeking out the door to see if there were any lights action happening. But, in the middle of the main course, the waiter informed us all that we might want to get our gear on, as there was definitely something outside worth seeing. So we did, and boy, was it! The sky directly above us was on fire, bright green beams dancing across the sky. They felt so close we could practically touch them. One of the local guides said this was an extremely powerful display, one of the best he had seen. We were ecstatic. Months before we had taken a punt on booking our sky station trip for this evening, and our timing couldn’t have been any better. The Aurora was magical. After all these years, we were finally experiencing the Northern Lights as we had dreamed of.

I was snapping away furiously, or at least as fast as one can when having to wait 30 seconds between shots. The lights were actually moving so fast at times that the slow shutter speed caused quite a blurring out of the patterns, creating some rather impressionistic photos. Plus, the red lights shining out from the station gave a colorful contrast to the electric green of the oxygen particles. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the Geminid Meteor shower was at its peak, so there were also occasional shooting stars skating across the sky. I’m always torn at moments like this between getting the shot and enjoying the views with my eyes. Ultimately I settled for doing a bit of both. Eventually the lights faded a little, and we returned to our now lukewarm, but still delicious, filets of moose.

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After dessert we headed back outside for more fab lights action. Perhaps not quite as intense as the ‘main course’ show, but still beautiful and satisfying. By this point the station had opened up to the general public – diners can arrive three hours earlier than standard visitors – so lots of people were milling about. There are limited tickets sold each night, though, so it never gets too crowded. We stayed for a while longer, and finally headed back down the chairlift around 11PM, as the clouds had rolled in so there was nothing much to see anymore. We were still buzzing from the experience by the time we reached the hostel and crawled into bed.

For our last full day in Lapland we decided to try our hands (and legs…and feet) at cross country skiing. We had done this a couple of times before, but were still pretty green. The hostel provided free skis and boots (another plus of staying here!), and there was a skiing trail right in town, so all very easy. We spent an hour or so sliding around the snow, working up quite a sweat and an appetite for our last hostel lunch of the trip. We agreed that if we lived in such a climate, cross country skiing would definitely have to be a main form of exercise during the winter. But we would most certainly need to learn how to go down hills properly!

After dinner we hit the sauna again. This too, is something I could really get used to. Feeling calmed and refreshed, we ventured out for our final evening of Aurora spotting on the trip. Once again we were rewarded with good activity, and some good photos to show for it. For some reason, I didn’t feel the cold much that night. Perhaps it was the residual effect of the sauna. Or perhaps just the warmth of contentment.

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Sunday morning brought the brightest sunlight we’d encounter on the entire trip, so I used the opportunity to shoot some pics of the village and its surrounds. Then we packed up and drove back to Kiruna, guided by the pink-orange dawn light seamlessly transitioning to red twilight skies. Although we could have easily stayed longer, we were extremely satisfied, having achieved all we’d hoped to on this arctic adventure. As it turned out, three was indeed the magic number. But I’m still looking forward to four…and five…and beyond.

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The Lamb Lies Down on Moxon Street

Just a quick one here on what’s probably my favourite meat: Lamb (Okay, maybe bacon aside, but IMHO that porky goodness occupies its own space in the carnivore’s universe!)

For my wife Sue’s birthday, I gave her a butchery course at the Ginger Pig here in London. Some of you may be thinking, ‘Gee, that’s not a very romantic gift.’ Maybe not, but trust me, she liked it. And I did, too, as I got to go along on the 2nd voucher I bought. Woo!

The Ginger Pig is well-known for selling excellent quality meat from its seven London retail locations. The course was being run out of their Moxon Street location in Marylebone, an area filled with ridiculously chichi shops displaying 5 items of clothes, priceless antiques, or Rolls Royces. There’s even a shop dedicated solely to buttons! Fortunately, the butcher shop was down to earth, and not snooty in the slightest.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by a lamb carcass laid out on an enormous butcher block. Fortunately, it appeared we would not need to first hunt down and slaughter the evening’s subject. That was a relief.

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Our tutor for the evening, a proper old school London butcher named Perry, gave us the lowdown on what we were to expect. We were to learn all the different cuts that make up the lamb, then try our hand at some butchery techniques, followed by a big old meal of, yeah, you guessed it, lamb. Sounded good to me!

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And good it was. Perry proceeded to carve up the carcass into its multitude of cuts, encouraging the students to try a cut here and there. We learned a little about knife technique, using the sharpest knives I have ever encountered. Good thing we were provided with a sparkly safety glove. A little reminiscent of Michael Jackson, though I couldn’t imagine him ever doing this. Of course, there was the ubiquitous meat saw as well, not at all dissimilar to the metal-cutting hacksaws I’ve got in my tool box at home. Sue even got to have a go with it, practising her ovine surgery skills.

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Eventually the entire lamb was broken down into all of its cuts. In addition to the familiar leg, shoulder, chops and rack, we learned about some of the often overlooked cheaper cuts which are delicious when slow cooked, such as the scrag end (neck) and breast. The latter is apparently best cooked up similarly to a pork belly. I’ll definitely be giving this a try sometime soon!

Then the class had the amusing task of trying to put the whole carcass back together, a real 3D meat jigsaw puzzle, and not as easy as you might think!

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For the final educational portion of the class, each student was given a massive lamb shoulder, and the directive to bone it, ideally without making a complete mess. Again, more of a  challenge than you might expect, particularly as the shoulder blade is completely hidden within the flesh, creating quite a meticulous procedure to remove it without cutting the whole shoulder in half. But in the end we managed it.

To be honest, I found that easier than the final step, which was to roll and tie it up. I realised years ago, when taking a sailing class, that knots are not my strong point, and this was strongly reinforced as I struggled mightily to bind it up. But Sue gave me a hand after she finished hers, and we were gifted our massive lamb shoulders to take home with us. 3 kgs without the bones, and a usual price tag of £50 each!

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For the grand finale it was time to eat! Huge trays of slow-cooked lamb shoulder and shanks were brought out to us, along with lovely buttery mash and, most appreciated, numerous bottles of red wine, which flowed down oh so nicely.

Stuffed and tipsy, we packed up our carnivore swag, which also included several kilos of lamb bones destined for our stock pot, and dragged ourselves home. Good thing we love lamb as we wound up eating it for the rest of the week!

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Explosion in the vegetable aisle! In praise of the BIG ASS salad

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Real men don’t eat salad. But if they did, they’d eat BIG ASS salads. Side salads? Pfft. Let’s face it, when eating out, if you get a choice of sides, say fries or salad, are you really going to pick the salad? No siree, fries all the way. And for a starter, who orders a salad? Okay, I admit, I’m a bit of a sucker for anything with cheese in it, so a beetroot and goat cheese salad or mozzarella, basil and tomato, yeah I could do that. But a green salad? Highly unlikely.

Given these views, you might be surprised to learn that I’ve eaten pretty much the same thing every day for the past year or so that I’ve lunched at home. And being that, as of this writing,  I’ve been between jobs for quite a long time, that is a lot of lunches! Could it be? Well, given the title of this piece, I think it’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this. Yes folks, my daily lunch is none other than a salad. But let’s be clear, these are big ass salads that I’m talking here. Perhaps even BIG ASS salads, but for the sake of not having to hit the caps lock key any more than I have to, let’s just leave that as ‘big ass’, shall we?

Part of the reason for this (some might say) extreme salad consumption is that I went low carb towards the end of 2015, so I needed an alternative to the typical sandwich ritual that so many of us share. Then I found out I was sensitive (intolerant? foodist, even?) to gluten, furthering my need for a sarnie substitute. Enter the big ass salad.

One of the biggest knocks on salads is that they’re not filling. Surely you’ll be hungry an hour after eating one, right? Well, maybe, but honestly, I’m pretty much hungry an hour after I eat most anything. There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as a massive steak and chips (especially in Argentina!), an entire New York pizza pie, and anything and everything at Thanksgiving.  The important thing to note is that a big ass salad, with the proper ingredients, can be filling, satisfying, and – though you may not care – healthy.

For me, the keys to a successful big salad are the two Vs: volume and variety. This is a big ass salad after all – emphasis on the big – so naturally it needs volume. I like my salads to go to 11, piled high on the plate and spilling over the edges. Remember, this thing’s gotta fill you up!

The old adage ‘variety is the spice of life’ has never been more apt. For me, a successful big salad needs to have at least 10 ingredients. Why 10? I suppose keeping with the Spinal Tap reference, I could say 11, but that’s just getting a bit silly, so I’m sticking with 10.

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First there are the staple veggies:

  • leaves – Whatever you like. Lettuce, rocket/arugula, baby spinach, watercress, etc. Whatever you prefer. I often keep multiple types on hand, and use a mix.
  • tomatoes – I prefer cherry, baby plum or grape, as they’re sweeter and tend to have more flavour than the big ones, particularly the supermarket variety.
  • carrots – I usually grate one in as it’s easier to pick the pieces up with a fork unless you can slice them super thin.
  • beetroot – I always have some of the packaged cooked ones around, as they’re really simple to use. Forget about cooking them from scratch unless you’ve got some time, as they take forever.
  • cucumber – My wife hates these, so I only use them if the salad’s just for me.
  • avocado – Gotta be ripe! Nothing worse than a rock hard avo. We always have a few in different stages of ripeness so there’s usually a ripe one on hand when it’s needed.
  • spring onions – Get a little zing with some spring. Scallions to us Yanks.
  • peppers – Red, yellow and orange are sweeter than green, so my preference.
  • radishes – These are great to add a little peppery crunch. They seem to keep a nice long time in the fridge too.

Then there’s the protein. This is key for a big ass salad, otherwise, let’s be honest, it’s just rabbit food. Depending on your tastes, you can go loads of different ways with this. Some ideas are:

  • tinned fish – I like tuna, but sardines, mackerel, etc. also work. Tinned salmon is usually the wild kind, so that’s a good option as well.  In fact, any tinned seafood or fish can be used.
  • smoked salmon – This always feels very civilised! The nice thing about the thinly sliced packages is that you can keep emergency supplies in the freezer, and thaw them out in a couple of minutes by sitting them in hot water.
  • fresh meat or fish – Fry up a thin steak or nice piece of fish, slice it up, and you’re good to go.
  • leftover meat – Yesterday’s roast chicken, beef or lamb, shredded  or cubed, works a treat.
  • bacon – Yeah baby! The meat product you hate to love, but you know you do! (sorry vegetarians, more for us) Get good quality bacon. I go for cuts without sugar whenever I can.
  • hard boiled eggs – A great option for vegetarians and carnivores alike. So much nutrition packed into these things. We always have a few boiled eggs at the ready in the fridge, but they’re quick to make if you haven’t planned in advance. Often I’ll add an egg in addition to another protein.
  • cheese – Another vegetarian staple. I don’t know how you vegans live without it! Cube up some cheddar, crumble some feta, shave some parmesan, take your pick. I’ve never met a cheese I didn’t like. (Though I confess that I’ve never tried Casu Marzu  – Sardinian maggot cheese – and don’t know if I would.)

The fun stuff, the extras that give your big salad extra flavour and/or texture

  • nuts – The captains of crunch! I find walnuts tend to go particularly well, but use whatever you like.
  • sun dried tomatoes – Tomatoes taken to a whole new level. These are so ridiculously flavourful, just a few chopped up will go a long way.
  • olives – Aaaah, concentrated salty goodness!
  • beans – Chickpeas, lentils, red or black beans can add body and flavour (not to mention gas).

The good (for you), the bad and the ugly. These are optional ingredients that I tend to primarily add for their nutritional benefit. In actuality, though, they can taste pretty nice.

  • seaweed – A bit of an acquired taste, but can add a good touch of seafoody saltiness. There are a number of different types you can choose from such as dulse, wakame and sea spaghetti. If it’s dried, make sure to soak it first to soften it up.
  • sprouts – These also come in a variety of types: alfalfa, lentil, even quinoa and broccoli. I like to add a handful of these, as they’re really nutritious.
  • sauerkraut – I know this sounds weird, but I actually make my own kraut at home, as the fresh stuff (not the kind you buy in the supermarket) is a natural probiotic, so good for your gut!
  • Seeds – Some of these little guys, particularly pumpkin, flax, chia and hemp, are high in Omega 3s, as well as adding a bit of crunch.

Finally, the dressing. An absolute essential, a good dressing ties the whole salad together without overpowering it. My golden rule with dressing is NO BOTTLES! Store-bought dressing is nearly always filled with sugar and other crap you neither want nor need. And it’s bloody easy to make your own! I tend to go for a simple oil and vinegar concoction, with a 2:1 ratio of oil to vinegar. I use extra virgin olive oil with sherry, balsamic or red wine vinegar, depending on my mood. Sometimes I’ll use lemon juice in place of the vinegar, which works particularly nice with fish and seafood salads. You can easily play around with dressings, adding other ingredients such as fresh herbs (especially basil!) mustard, soy sauce, a bit of mayonnaise for creaminess, etc. Oh, and don’t forget the salt and pepper, or even the coolest salad could wind up bland.

When preparing the salad, I like to chop or grate the ingredients up quite fine, adding them to a big bowl as I go. Then I pour in the dressing, toss it all up, and scoop it onto a plate. A big plate. And there you have it, the big as salad: a tasty, filling and healthful meal that just happens to look like an explosion in the vegetable aisle. Enjoy!

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Sharks and Mojitos in Cuba

Note: This trip was in Oct/Nov 2014, before the ‘thawing’ of US and Cuban relations

Leading up to our two week land/sea trip to Cuba, I must confess I was a little intimidated. Partly because we hadn’t dived (or is it ‘dove’?) for several years, and my last two experiences saw me getting major headaches, tooth pain and minor panic attacks; partly because I envisioned impoverished Cubans swarming around us, trying to sell, beg and scam us for two whole weeks. Well, probably not on the dive boat…but you never know!

The flight on Virgin was fine, though to my mind they seemed a little stingier on the wine than BA on long haul. Who knows, maybe it’s changed everywhere. Having never flown on Virgin, I guess I envisioned it as more of a luxury airline as opposed to the bog-standard cattle class that most other airlines offer. At least I couldn’t complain about the movie selection.

Our first taste of Cuba was the lovely warm evening air when we debarked. The second was arriving to 19 separate long immigration queues. This did not look good. We headed to one on the far end which looked marginally shorter, hoping we’d get lucky and it would be a fast mover. But Lady Luck seemed to side with nobody that night, as none of the queues appeared to move even a fraction for around 20 minutes. And after that we would do the occasional shuffle forward at the speed of fingernail growth. And did I mention it was hot? No A/C here despite the several huge units on the wall. “Welcome to Cuba, now suffer with the rest of us”, they seemed to say. Sue calculated each person was taking two minutes at the desk. That doesn’t seem too bad, but with a bunch of people still in front of us, we knew this would take a while. Nearly an hour and a half later, we were right at the front when a couple with a baby dragged themselves and their collection of nappies, toys, and various other carry-on paraphernalia, up to the front, seemingly convinced that having a baby,  even a happily sleeping one, gives one carte blanche to cut the queue. We began to grumble under our breaths, and were considering parent-icide until one of the guards put them at the front of the next queue over. So at least we weren’t going to start the trip in a Cuban prison jailed for murder.

We finally made it through, only to encounter another queue, this time to go through a screener and metal detector. To get OUT of the airport. How bizarre. And then to actually get out of the terminal, we had to hand over forms which they hadn’t given us. A harbinger of Cuban bureaucracy to come, perhaps? But we filled them in and headed out to find a money changer and a ride. There didn’t appear to be any Cambio in the terminal, which was baffling considering foreign currency is next-to-useless here. But it turns out, the office was outside. Of course, where else would you expect it to be? So we changed some squidz for CUCs, got a taxi, and headed into Havana.

A quick note on Cuban currency: The country operates a dual currency system. Locals use Cuban Pesos, whilst the tourist economy is all in Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUCs. CUCs are pegged to the US Dollar. For more information on how this all works, check out this TripAdvisor post.

By this time, we were fairly knackered from the flight and immigration hell, but I enjoyed the ride as it gave me my first taste of the Cuba car scene: a bizarre melange of 50’s American cars – some dilapidated, some pristine – boxy Ladas (did they ever produce any that looked at all different?)  and various ‘chicken bus’ collectivos, pickup trucks, etc.

We were finally deposited outside our hotel on the Malecón, to encounter our second problem: There was no room for us. The manager was very nice, and went through a long-winded, detailed explanation as to why our room wasn’t available, but assured us that we were going to be put up in an even better hotel, a 5-star one. Sue was a little antsy, having read accounts of people being moved to crummy hotels, but this time the Lady showed her face as, we were eventually piled into another taxi and carted to the famous Havana landmark, the Hotel Nacional. In fact, this was the hotel where Sue and Camille used to come for drinks and a taste of faded luxury when she was last in Cuba some 16 or so years before!

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Hotel Nacional

We checked in, and wandered the 7th floor for ages trying to locate our room in the Shining-esque corridors before finally finding it and settling in. Nothing amazing inside, but we were still pretty chuffed to be there. First order of business was to check out the grounds a little before tucking in to some sandwiches and drinks on the terrace bar. A band consisting of 4 chicas and one old dude set up next to us and played some tunes, a number from the Buena Vista Social Club, including the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Chan Chan, which we later read had become the second-most played song in Cuba. I assumed the first was Guantanamera.

The seesaw of luck swung against us again, as we discovered that our camera had a mechanical problem, and wouldn’t work. Argh! Fortunately we had our iPhones, but it was evident that we weren’t going to get any stunning photos on this trip. Our camera phones were functional, but needed pretty ideal conditions to take real quality snaps.

The next morning we were up at the crack, thanks to the time difference. In fact, it was still dark when I got out of bed. We explored the hotel grounds, beautifully located on a hill overlooking the Malecón, and then hit the Malecón itself for a pre-breakfast stroll. There were quite a few joggers, which surprised me a little, but then again, per capita, Cuba is one of, if not the best, sporting nations in the world, so I probably shouldn’t have been.

We wandered through the morning rush hour in the streets of Vedado, watching people pile in and out of decrepit buses and equally decrepit 50’s collectivos on their way to work. I started to get a sense of the incredible eclectic architecture style that dominates Havana. Art deco, Art Nouveau, Spanish Colonial, Neoclassical, 50’s American kitsch and Soviet Brutalism were all on display, mostly fairly dilapidated, but with occasional intact examples. And no one bothered us at all! Que sorpresa.

Desayuno at the Nacional was a mammoth buffet of mediocre oddball food. Very little looked particularly appetising (or remotely healthy, for that matter!), so we made due with watery scrambled eggs and coffee. At least the latter was good! After the resident barista fucked off, I found a dispenser labelled ‘cuban coffee’, which turned out to be delicious, and piqued our curiosity as to the secret ingredient, as it almost tasted spiced. We never did find out, but our coffee throughout the trip was pretty consistently excellent.

We spent the rest of the day exploring Vedado, the sprawling neighbourhood which, in its day, was where the mafioso set up shop. Amusingly, when Fidel and the revolución took Havana, they set up shop in suite 2324 of the Hilton Hotel, now monikered Havana Libre for the whole city to see.

We hiked to the grand Plaza de la Revolución, with its huge tower and sculpture of Jose Marti, soon to become easily recognisable due to his prominently receding hairline. Two nearby buildings had huge sculpted murals of Che and Camilo Cienfuegos, who along with Marti, are ubiquitous presences throughout Cuba. Much more than Fidel, as it turned out, because he’s still alive, whilst the others are martyrs. Lord only knows how many images of Fidel will sprout up when he kicks the bucket.

We also visited the Necropolis Cristobal Colon, somewhat similar to the cemetery in Recoleta, Buenos Aires, though perhaps not quite as immense. A local kid ‘guided’ us to the entrance, which turned out to be a back way, and we bought tickets off a security guard. As we walked in, Sue notedthat the tickets appeared used. Clearly, the locals were trying to get a little of the destined-for-the-state tourism CUCs for themselves. To be honest, atypically, we were quite okay with this. The people here have so little, and they aren’t charging any more than we’d pay at the ‘real’ entrance, so why not? The government’s already getting a bunch of our money, and these little bits could make a huge difference to the locals. We wandered around for a while by ourselves, until an old maintenance man started giving us an impromptu tour, pointing out some of the more famous graves including singer Ibrahim Ferrer’s, which we never would have spotted ourselves. We were quite happy to lay a few CUCs on him afterwards.

Heading back towards the Malecon, we managed to find Parque John Lennon, with a statue of the man himself on a park bench. Tourists sit next to it to pose for photos, as we did, but out of nowhere jumped a local who popped some glasses on the statue, and tried to give Sue a piece of cardboard to sit on. This, I felt, was not worth a propina (tip). Perhaps I was being unreasonable.

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Lennon, not Lenin

We tried to have a drink in Meyer Lansky’s Riviera Hotel, which looked exactly like I imagined it did back in the 50’s. All LA/Vegas/Miami style. But the music was too loud and too shit, and we waited ages for a waiter to show up, so when none did, we buggered off for a coffee at a local cafe/bar. The 3D Bar actually appeared to have WiFi, an extreme rarity in Cuba, as we’d come to discover. I couldn’t get it to work for me, but Sue actually managed to send an email…we think.

Meandered back to the hotel, where we decided to take advantage of the luxury and hit the pool for the rest of the afternoon. We figured it was going to be a ‘hard working’ holiday, so good to get in some chill time when we could. A sandwich, daiquiri and mojito passed for lunch, or at least something to tide us over to dinner.

Speaking of, we decided to venture out for our first big night on the town. In actuality, we were expected to be picked up at 4:00am to be bussed down to the port for the dive portion of our trip, so a calm dinner and early bedtime was in order. We went to a nearby paladar, supposedly Antony Worrell Thompson’s fave in Havana. It was good basic fare, the first of many a ropa vieja. Named for old clothes, but actually tasty shredded beef stew, this quickly became my favourite Cuban dish. The meal also contained our first and last avocado of the trip. Despite seeing loads of street vendors selling massive aguacates, we would never come across one on a menu for the duration.

Up at an ungodly hour, and downstairs to wait for the coach. We were still slightly nervous about it arriving at the Nacional rather than our original hotel, despite several voicemails from the manager indicating it would. Eventually it turned up, much to our relief, and we climbed aboard. Unsurprisingly, all the other passengers were completely crashed out. Our ‘guide’ for this portion of the ‘tour’ informed us the trip would be about 6 hours, with 2 or 3 pit stops. Seemed like a long time, but what can you do?

Dawn was just breaking when we arrived at the first rest stop. There we discovered that all of the other passengers were Spanish, with the sole exception being one Frenchman (or so we were told). This surprised me, having rarely, if ever, encountering Spanish divers on previous trips. Ah well, at least we’d be forced to practice our Spanish a lot on the trip. By the second rest stop, we were only about an hour away, and the day was in full swing. Despite that, the roads were still mostly devoid of cars. The horse and carts were slowing us down, though, as our drivers were being surprisingly sane and respectful of them, as well as the cyclists tootling along on their dilapidated devices. We enjoyed fresh pina coladas (sans rum) at the rest stop, the special not-so-secret ingredient being cinnamon. Yum.

We finally arrived in Jucaro, a dusty little port that is the jumping off point for the Jardines de la Reina, purportedly the best diving in Cuba, and our home for the next week. Just before we left for Cuba, the tour company that had arranged the dive trip emailed us that we would be getting upgraded to the floating hotel, the Tortuga. However, when arriving at Jucaro, we were told that we were on Caballones, the boat we had originally booked. Not the end of the world, although we had psyched ourselves up for the ‘luxury’ of the floating hotel. But then they told us we were on La Reina, which was an even smaller boat. At this point I was not happy. A week on a dinky little tub was not what I was hoping for. But, being Cuba, what could you do? So we boarded the boat and hoped for the best. As it turned out, it was probably actually the best of all the options. There were only three other divers, the ‘Frenchman’ from our bus (who turned out to be Quebecois), Francois, and a German/Korean couple, Jochem and Suji, all really nice. Yes, the boat was small and didn’t have a great array of options for lounging, but being with a small dive group of good people was more important. And, as we discovered later, the Tortuga was filled with a huge group of scary Russians. So in the end we did all right!

There was to be no diving that day, as we had a 5 hour trip out to the archipelago that is the Jardines de la Reina, so too late by the time we’d arrive. So we read and chilled on the journey out, had a drink and a decent dinner, and then early to bed. The next day we had our checkout dive, where I relieved to find that I had no issues. On the second dive, I had a brief panicky moment descending, but was then fine for the rest of the dive and the trip. And, importantly, NO HEADACHES! We quickly learned why there were so many curious sharks around on most of the dives. Feeding is commonplace. Pretty much on every dive, in fact. The typical profile was to descend to around 15-20 metres and hang out around a coral head. Joel, the DM (or his trusty assistant) would tie down a metal box and wait a bit as the sharks gathered around checking it out. Then he’d open it, and the sharks (and groupers) would circle about and dive in to try and grab some fish out of the box when they deemed it safe. The problem was the boxes were all quite small, so these big 1.5 – 2 metre Caribbean Reef Sharks had a tough time getting their big heads inside. But eventually the deed would get done, sometimes with the DM having to dump the remaining fish carcases out of the box so the sharks could get them. Or sometimes the grouper would dive in and nab the fish quicker than the sharks. After the box was emptied we’d carry on swimming around the reef for the rest of the dive, usually with a number of sharks hanging about, likely in case more food happened to magically materialise.

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Tiberones!

The reefs were healthy. Nice coral and fish life,  though nothing spectacular on either of those fronts. The sharks were the real draw, and they were plentiful. The other divers were decent, which was good, so most of our dives lasted around an hour. Francois would typically be down towards the bottom, snapping away on his camera.  Nobody had any problems, surely a relief to Joel.

We did 3 dives a day for the week, with plenty of lounging and lazing in between. Food was plentiful and pretty good. There was much repeating of ingredients, but mostly that was okay for a week. The running joke, though, was the papaya, which at our first breakfast was deemed to be ‘a little vomity’, and despite none of us touching it for the week, it still arrived on every fruit platter. The saving grace for it was that we were sometimes served it as juice, blended up with ice, and that was pretty good. On the fruit front, we were disappointed not to have any mango. But as it turned out, mango season was over, and therefore we encountered none for the entire trip.  Also annoying was the lack of avocados.

One thing we did encounter a lot, though, albeit mostly on our plates not in the sea, was lobster. One day the crew came back with a whole box of lobsters they caught. I assume/hope they’re allowed to fish for them in the park. So we had some yummy langosta for dinner a couple of nights. Sue counted four lobster dinners in a row for her, but that was partly on the boat, partly in Trinidad. We also had some lovely fresh fish. In fact, I think I ate more fish that week than in total the past 6 months in London! Poor Francois is allergic to all fish and shellfish, so had to make do with pork, pork, pork, pork, and some chicken. He didn’t complain about it at all, though. A good natured chap.

The weather was quite windy all week, so we hadn’t been able to sail across the channel to visit the silky sharks, but one day it died down enough for this. Pretty cool out in the blue surrounded by circling silkys. It could’ve been intimidating, but I suppose by this point we were so used to diving with sharks here that there was no nervousness. Not that Sue is ever really nervous about sharks anyway. Towards the end of one dive, Joel actually grabbed a silky by the tail and turned it upside down, putting it into a trance-like state. We were then able to swim up and get a feel of its skin – not nearly as rough as I thought it’d be.

The trip also introduced us to Nino, the local croc, a regular visitor to one of the mooring sites. He was nowhere near as big as the salties we saw in Oz, but still pretty cool. His regular meal from the boat crews was chicken. I wondered if Francois was upset to see his non-fish food option going overboard to feed the little bugger. To be honest, Nino probably enjoyed it more than Francois would have. The last night involved more rum than usual and some attempts at salsa/ swinging that left Sue with a severed right toenail after sliding into the side of the deck.  Fortunately the rum anaesthetic made the injury less painful.

The funny thing about liveaboards is that you tend to really start getting into a rhythm as the trips are coming to an end. So I was a bit sad when we were packing up our gear, but at least we wouldn’t be going home just yet. We still had another week on land. But now we would have to seek out our own food, decide when to wake up, choose our own itinerary for the day. Oh, such hardships. When La Reina arrived back in Jucaro, we bid adios to the crew and our dive buddies. We were slightly nervous that the taxi we had ordered weeks ago wouldn’t be there, but after a short wait it arrived, and we were off to Trinidad.

The taxi was comfortable, and offered a chance for a bit more sightseeing, albeit if on the go. Once again, our driver drove very sanely and respectful to the cyclists and horse and carts. So unusual for the developing world! It was a few hours to Trinidad, and when we finally arrived, we were in the middle of a tropical shower. The driver eventually found our casa, though when he rang the bell and no one arrived for some time, we held our breaths just a little bit. Finally, our host Johan answered the door. Whew. He was immediately terribly apologetic for the issues we had experienced trying to sort out the transfer, as we had initially tried to book a cab through him, but been unable to confirm it, with the taxi driver no longer responding to our emails. We tried to convince him that it was no problem, as the 2nd cab company that we had contacted had just got us there fine, but he still seemed to feel a little bad about it.

When we finally got the lowdown from Johan about how Internet access works in Cuba, we totally understood. Apparently, most people don’t have their own Internet access and have to rely on expensive Internet cafes which often have long queues. Some business owners and students are occasionally allowed their own access, and many students make a bit on the side by selling their access to other people less fortunate. Johan was one of the latter, so had to make do with sorting out the casa business in big chunks every few days when he could finally get online. Pretty tricky when you’re trying to set up a business in a competitive space. And competitive it is, with hundreds of casas in Trinidad alone.

But what Johan had on his side was a lovely house with two very nice little rooms on the garden, each en suite and tastefully decorated. We soon met Johan’s wife Cristal and young son, who had a fondness for tromping around in his father’s giant shoes claiming to be Gato en Botas, or Puss in Boots. We also met Sally and Musa, the house dog and cat, who quickly befriended us. The former was a lovable short legged mutt, as most of the canines in Trinidad appeared to be, and the latter, a super skinny, slightly manky-faced puss who was very sweet and would jump on my lap and knead furiously each morning.

Gato en Botas

Trinidad turned out to be quite a relaxed little city. Very little aggro, just the ubiquitous cigar and taxi touts, easily dismissed with a “no gracias”. The old city centre is still very much of the Spanish colonial style, with it’s pastel coloured low-rise houses and truly wonky cobbled streets, with vaqueros on horseback ambling through the centre. (High heelers beware!) Lots of funky little restaurants and bars, nearly every one containing some form of live music or another. “Chan Chan” and its Bueno Vista Social Club companions again reigned supreme, and I was worried we’d hate it by the end of the trip. Fortunately that hasn’t turned out to be the case.

The main music clubs in the centre were all clustered around a junction at the central Plaza, and in fact La Casa de Musica’s musicians played outside on stairs adjacent to the church so if there was music playing you liked, one could just cop a seat on the stairs and listen – no cover or minimum required. There was even a takeaway mojito and pina colada kiosk to keep stair-sitters sozzled. Guay! Sadly, there never seemed to be any music all that compelling when we were near the plaza, so we didn’t really really enjoy this al fresco entertainment as much as we’d hoped.

Aside from a mediocre ice cream and milkshake (with powdered milk!) when we first arrived, we ate and drank well in Trinidad. Johan recommended a couple of good cheap restaurants, and the others we found on our own were tasty as well. We spent one evening in La Botija, good tapas and live music where they ventured outside the Cuban ouvre to include Amy Winehouse.  One night he even cooked us a yummy lobster with pesto. Muy rico! Everything was of course washed down with fine mojitos and beer. Alcohol was pretty much the cheapest thing in Cuba, with a glass of rum costing about 80 cents. Mojitos were slightly dearer at around $US3, but they were always artfully prepared, and never too sweet, a point bartenders in London and New York could take a lesson from!

There weren’t a ton of tourist attractions in Trinidad other than wandering the streets and soaking up the atmosphere. We did arrange, on Johan’s recommendation, a guided tour of the Valle de Ingenios, a UNESCO World Heritage area containing the remains of the big sugarcane plantations that fueled the Spanish slave trade, and led Trinidad to be one of the world’s richest and most important cities during this period.

But first, a visit to the Parque el Cubano, a protected park a few kms out of town. Jochem and Suji had mentioned this was a nice place to get out into nature, do a little hiking and go for a swim. We got there in typical Cuban style, in an old green Chevy, all original, according to the owner. There was a large tour group when we arrived, but we quickly outpaced them, heading into the jungle along the path. It was lovely and peaceful, and the tree cover kept it from getting too hot. We did work up a sweat, though, and when we got to the main swimming hole, there was no doubt that we were going in! Unfortunately we weren’t there early enough to have the pool to ourselves, as Jochem and Suji had, but when we swam out to the waterfall, and then underneath it, we were in a cool cave with nobody else. Nobody human, that is. The cave was filled with bats, and not sleeping during the day, as one might expect. Good thing we’re fond of these freaky creatures.

After a bit of a drying off, we decided to walk up beside the waterfall. Unfortunately the path, which was super steep and a bit slippery, was slowly disappearing into the dense foliage. Despite having previously heard otherwise, we decided that it wasn’t a path anymore, but just a dried stream/waterfall, so turned around to head back. Descending turned out to be even trickier given the slippery incline. I was focusing on Sue, or rather her poor mashed toe, when I slipped and went head over heels sprawling on the ground. The pain was intense, and I froze for a few minutes to let the shock wear off. I had landed hard on my back, but it seemed okay. My left hand seemed to take the brunt of the fall, and it clearly wasn’t. Gingerly, we made it back down to the swimming hole, where we were able to get my wedding ring off – with the aid of some suncream – and switch hands in case my left swelled up. There was no way I was going to have to get it cut off and lose yet another ring!

Note: My original wedding ring was ripped off my finger in a class 5 Ugandan rapid, thus sacrificed to the Nile River gods.

We hiked back to the main entrance, had a drink, and iced my hand before climbing back in our green chauffeured Chevy and heading back into town. At the casa, Sue checked out my hand, and confirmed that nothing was badly out of place. I was torn between sampling the famous Cuban healthcare system and riding it out. In the end, I decided to just let Sue tape it up, as we figured that’s probably all a doctor would have done. It hurt, but we had plenty of Cocodamol and rum to keep the pain at bay.

Medicamentos Cubanos

The next day was to be our guided tour of the Valle de Ingenios. We met our guide, Johan’s friend Francis. He was very nice, and spoke excellent English, but I had this sneaking suspicion that he perhaps used to be a woman. At the end of the day, Sue confided that she thought the same. Regardless, he was a very interesting and knowledgeable person. A political cartoonist by trade (going under the name Ramses), he knew lots of history, both Cuban and international. We drove through the valley stopping at several sites that were formerly sugar cane plantations, and got the lowdown on the sugar cane industry, and in particular, the slave trade that fueled it. Grim, but fascinating stuff, particularly how the slave owners started ‘breeding’ their possessions (or more generously, ‘allowing them to have families’) when slavery was starting to lose favour internationally, and the introduction of the Dutch ships that allowed instant dumping of their ‘cargo’ should they be approached by anti-slavery British vessels.

Francis also gave us lots of insider information about life in Cuba. He loves his country, but also realises the problems facing it. We agreed that doctors earning 15USD$ a month when a tourist taxi driver earns that in an hour was just wrong. He did inform us, though, that doctors often get opportunities to work abroad and make more money. “Two sides to every story”, seemingly the modus operandi of Cuba.

After a chill few days in Trinidad, it was time to head back to Havana. We had previously gone to the bus station to get tickets, but in typical Cuban fashion, one of the ticket sellers suggested we take a taxi instead, as it would be the same price and a lot faster. Why not, we figured. Worth a try and part of the adventure. There was some nervousness in the back of our minds that the taxi driver wouldn’t show up on the day, but lo and behold, he was even early. When there’s money to be made, the Cubans don’t fuck around!

Unfortunately, it turns out we had to share the ride with two other people. And it was not a big car. With some pushing and stuffing and creative space making, the driver managed to get all of the luggage in the boot – no small feat considering our two big suitcases. One other backpack in there belonged to a British girl who was on the first leg of a round the world adventure. Jealous! It turned out that she worked for Deloitte, and Sue and her spent most of the trip talking about her former employer, tax, etc., so that worked out fine. The ride was a little cramped, but not too bad. And much faster than the bus would have been. This was partly due to the driver being a bit of a leadfoot. In stark contrast to all of our previous drivers in Cuba, he drove aggressively and impatiently. Not too insane, but more typical of third world motoring etiquette.

We arrived in Havana in about 4 hours, and managed to find our casa, Yadillis and Joel. In contrast to the chilled out Spanish colonial vibe of the area we stayed in Trinidad, the Centro where the casa was located looked a bit like a war zone. Our hosts were lovely, but they did give us a pretty serious warning about going out with money, passports, etc. Even said Sue shouldn’t carry her shoulder bag, which seemed odd as it would be pretty hard to do a snatch and grab of it. We were hoping that they were over-egging the crime issue a little and being extra cautious because some tourists are just bloody clueless about these sorts of things.

After settling in to our room, we hit the town. Right off the bat we got a lot more aggro than in Trinidad. This was more what I expected. We were hungry, so sat down in the terrace outside the Hotel Ingleterra, as we thought a big grand old place like this should be able to do us a half decent little lunch. But we waited and waited for a waiter even to bring us a menu, and saw another couple who were already there still waiting impatiently as well. This didn’t bode well, so we moved on to Havana Vieja, the old town. Wandering down the jam packed pedestrian main street of the area, passing loads of bars, but no decent looking restaurants, hunger finally took over, and we ducked into an old fashioned state-run restaurant, the Europa. It looked as though it hadn’t changed much in forty or fifty years. The service turned out to be so dire, it was actually pretty funny, so enjoyable in a slightly Fawlty Towers kind’ve way. The food wasn’t very good, either, but at least it was cheap and it sated our hunger. Overall Vieja is very cool, with amazing examples of all architecture from the Spanish colonial onwards.  It is all in different states of restoration with currently half the streets being dug up to replace the water mains. Three were far more tourists in this part of town and more hassle.  But the interiors of the bars and shops were great mostly directly out of the 30s, 40s & 50s.  Overall the vibe was great, much more relaxed than home and really nice to be somewhere that’s not plastered with advertising and branding. It makes you realise how corporations have taken over the public spaces in so much of the world.

We decided that, since we spent our previous stay pretty much in Vedado, we’d focus on Vieja for this leg. That said, there were a few good restaurants in the dingy Centro, so we wound up eating closer to home a couple of nights. One of these cool restaurants was billed as Swedish-Cuban fusion. The decor was super funky, complete with armchairs suspended on the wall. Tasty food, too, though Sue had perhaps the only disappointing Mojito of the trip there. We also had a great dinner at the Basque restaurant on Malecon near the casa.

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A bit of Scandi style in Havana. Ikea it aint!

Most of the days here we spent just wandering around, soaking in the sites and the flavour, not to mention the mojitos. (I mostly stuck to beer, though, as the mojitos went down way too fast for me!) Again, the cars and architecture were highlights. In particular, the Edificio Bacardi, a stunning example of Art Deco design. The exterior and lobby were immaculate examples of the more ornate Deco style. We gave the lobby attendant a couple of CUCs to get the lift up to the tower, but found the interior up there seriously crumbling and not at all in keeping with the rest of the building. But there were great views around the city. Coming down, we found that the lifts had stopped working, so had to walk the nine or so flights. At least it was going down. Some of the locals coming up the stairs seemed pretty worse for wear. Clearly not all Cubans are athletes!

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Edificio Bacardi

We visited the Museum de la Revolucion, in a grand old building, apparently decorated by Tiffanys, that used to be the Presidential Palace. However,  the grand ballroom was under restoration, so the chandeliers and other finery were covered up. Typical for us! The museum was a bit of a mixed bag. Lots of photos; bits and bobs (shoes, etc.) belonging to Che, Fidel and the other revolutionaries; ‘glorious’ propaganda about the revolution and the country’s achievements afterwards; the Granma memorial, containing the actual yacht that the 80 revolutionaries sailed to Cuba on;  a number of vehicles used in the revolution and pieces of an American U2 spy plane shot down by Cuba. It was a little overpriced for what it was, but we figured we had to see at least one museum here.

We realised that our money wasn’t going to last the whole trip. It didn’t seem that things were that expensive, but somehow we had blown through most of our cash.  However we went to the nearby ATM with our HSBC card and were able to get more CUCs out, no problem. A big relief.

We took the local ferry across the bay to the Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana. Walked up the hill past the giant Jesus Christo, amused that, with the positioning of his hands, we thought he really should have been holding a cigar and a mojito. When in Rome, after all. Past by a large military barracks and then the Cuban Missile Crisis Museum. The latter had some examples of the actual missiles placed by the Soviet Union that brought the US and USSR to the brink of war. Plus, more U2 plane pieces. The Castillo is an enormous Spanish Colonial fort, apparently the third largest in the Americas, that was the site the capture of Havana by British forces in 1762. It also saw action in the revolution, as Che used it as headquarters for his post-revolutionary tribunals and executions. There were few other tourists there, so walking through the fort grounds was very peaceful. Hot, though! So after a while, we snagged an old Chevy (of course) to drive us back to the city and a leisurely lunch at the Neruda bar on the Malecon.

Sue da bomb

On our final day in Cuba, we took an hour to finally take a tour of the city in a classic convertible. We had been debating it, as it was pretty pricey for what it was, but it did seem like the thing to do, so what the hell? We sized up the various cars, the coolest being more expensive, and settled on a ‘52 (I think) cherry red Chevy. Maybe not as cool as the pink Caddy with bar in the back, but cheaper and available, unlike that one. Plus, I would have been compelled to sing Bruce Springsteen the whole way in the Caddy, and Sue would have killed me by the end. The ride was good fun. There’s a pretty standard route taken by all the cars, stopping at key locations for  photo ops. The nice thing is that we got to visit some different areas, like a beautiful lushly-vegetated park in a quiet hilly section of town. We also swung through Miramar, a more upmarket part of town. Pity we didn’t have one more day, as it would have been nice to spend a day out here. Next time.

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Cherry!

So then it was time to go home. Two weeks had flown by. We taxied to the airport where we spent our remaining CUCs on rum and sleeping pills (breakfast of champions!).  We were particularly pleased about the latter as we had heard you could buy Valium over the counter at Cuban pharmacies, but failed each time.

Adios Cuba. Hasta la vista!