A few days after peeing on a stick, I cringed when I realized that appeasing pregnancy cravings in Tonga would be like trying to sail a yacht down Montana’s Blackfoot River. In other words, I had a snowball’s chance in hell of fulfilling my food fantasies in this remote island nation.
Luckily, I’ve already had nine months of practice denying food cravings. When you’re floating 2,000 miles from the nearest grocery store in the middle of the biggest ocean on the planet, you become adept at mind control. At forcibly changing the subject in your subconscious. At ignoring vibrant images of sumptuous and delicious dishes that are well beyond reach.
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A few weeks ago, just before dinner with some friends on Fetoko Island, I heard Rob telling hunting stories. He was re-enacting past elk kills, and explaining how he stalked ungulates through misty Montana mountains each fall. I suddenly realized it was opening day of hunting season back home. Rob was probably a bit nostalgic — no deer or elk to shoot in Vava’u.
The next day, we left for a party on Mounu Island in the southern part of the Vava’u group. “It’s probably the best island in Vava’u,” Ben told us. I think he’s right. Mounu is owned by the Bowe family, palangis who started the very first whale swim business. In fact, they helped write the rules that allow people to swim with whales here in Tonga, which is one of only three countries where humans can swim beside these magical mega-mammals. The Bowes leased Mounu and run an exclusive resort on the sandy beaches. Check out the sperm whale bones that washed up this last month.
Their daughter, Kirsty, had her 40th birthday party on Mounu, and we managed to snag an invite. Rob and I set up our borrowed tent and yoga-mat-sleeping-pads, and promptly joined in the dancing and water fun. Little did we know that The Great Goat Hunt of 2013 was in store for Day 2.
Kirsty decided we should divide into teams of four, and head across to Ovalau, the deserted island just across from Mounu. Ovalau has a lot of goats. Too many, according to the Tongans, who agreed we should get a couple for dinner. Rob was psyched. So was I, actually…sounded like a hilarious adventure, and I always prefer eating local free-range meat.
Our team: Rob, me, Billy and Leonati. Billy is the lead ukelele player in our band, Riff Raff, and grew up performing in circuses all over Europe. Leonati is a native of Vava’u, loves to eat any type of animal, and has worked on Mounu for several years. We were the dream team.
Once ashore on Ovalau, the teams split up. The only rules: no guns allowed, and the first team that arrived with a goat wins. The dream team moved fast through the thick undergrowth, heading toward the eastern shore of the island. Rob wore perfect hunting attire: tight Speedos with a hole in the butt and a bright white shirt. Billy came a close second: long jeans, broken shoes with a flapping sole, and a button down shirt. I had faith.
Here’s how The Great Goat Hunt went down:
1) We heard the goats mewing close by. The men split up and moved fast (and not noiselessly) through the trees (which is when I lost them and wandered aimlessly for about 10 minutes).
2) Rob, Billy and Leonati came upon two goats. “Which one should I get?” Rob called to Leonati, the goat hunting veteran. Leonati pointed at the plumpest one.
3) Rob tackled the goat. Billy pointed out the swollen teats, which meant she was pregnant. “Shit. Wrong choice.” They let her go.
4) The men began stalking once more, heading toward the cliffs against the sea where they could corner more goats.
5) Rob and Leonati came upon another goat and herded her against the rocks. They crept toward her slowly, until Leonati could reach out and grab her leg. Done.
6) Leonati promplty slit her throat. Rob found a branch and tied its legs around it.
7) I followed the blood trail until I came upon Billy and Rob flapping back through the woods carrying a dead goat. The dream team reunited for the trek to the beach.
The whole thing took about 14 minutes. Our team was the first back, though the other teams arrived quickly. One other team caught a goat, but brought it back alive and then decided to let it go when we already had one to eat. No need to be greedy. We stuffed the dead goat in a giant tupperware box and took the boat back across to Mounu. On the short ride, we saw a tiger shark swimming that could have eaten about 8 goats in one swallow. It was BIG.
Back home, Rob and I followed Leonati back into the bush, to see how he’d prepare the goat for our dinner. Turns out it’s easy: use a Tongan blowtorch (flaming palm fronds) to scorch off all the hair, gut it, then put it back on the stick-spit and roast for a couple of hours over a coconut-husk fire. Voila.
I can’t say that goat was my favorite meat to eat, but I appreciated the adventure. And The Great Goat Hunt soothed Rob’s hunting jitters out here in the tropics, far from Montana’s roaming elk.
I know, I know. What a totally alarming and inappropriate title, right? And way too close on the heels of the “Killing Coconuts” post. Don’t worry, though: we’re not psychopath fruit slayers. I’m simply referring to the word “rape” in French, not English. We still think coconuts are one of the best inventions on earth: tasty, nutritious, and useful for everything from curries to daquiris.
First, a funny story about how I learned the meaning of this French word (bringing my Fench vocabulary up to a grand total of 26 words). During a potluck on Bora Bora, Isabel asked Daniel what cheese he used in his delicious pasta dish. “I’m embarrassed to say it aloud,” said Daniel, the Aussie owner of 39-foot Beneteau called Red Sky Night. “I suppose you’ve probably seen the cheese in the markets anyway, though. It’s called ‘rape’ cheese.”
Isabel, a native French speaker from Canada who sails on Caribe, burst out laughing. “That means grated cheese, silly! It’s not a brand, it’s an adjective.” After she caught her breath, she patted his arm. “Don’t worry. When I first moved to Vancouver and was learning English, I used to ask my friends if they wanted me to ‘rape the cheese’ when I went for dinner, figuring it was the same verb.”
From then on, we made constant jokes about raping food. Nowhere was it more accurate a description than when we shredded a dozen coconuts on Compass Rose(y). Isabel’s partner, Gabriel, wanted to try out his nifty new coconut grater, which is what all the local Polynesians use to scrape the rich, nutty, delicious coconut meat from inside the shell. (The word for the grater here in Tonga is “hakalo.”) Once it’s shredded, you add some water and squeeze the meat through a cloth to make coconut milk. Like all new tools, the grater elicited the rapt interest of all the nearby males in the anchorage.
First, the men brainstormed a creative way to husk the nuts: a dinghy anchor wedged into a cleat so that the spokes impale the tough fibrous outer later. Next, they took turns raping the nuts into a fluffy white pile. Last, they cleaned up the big mess they made. The grater tool left oily residue, white flakes, and brown nut-dust all over the deck. The upshot, though: we made lots of politically incorrect jokes and we stocked up on coconut milk for the passage to the Cooks. We also had some killer rum daiquiris with fresh coco juice that night (which only served to make the jokes worse).
I was a gift from a husband to a wife. From the creator to the universe. From a woman to herself. From the crew to the captain. I was born as the bitter seeds of a sweet fruit harvested from a tropical tree. I traveled to Europe, where I matured alongside orange peel, sea salt, sugar, almonds.
Ripe and ready, dressed in shiny foil finery, I traveled back to my tropical roots. I was primed to be plucked from a stand where I enticed and cajoled and beckoned buyers. The husband bought me. So did the woman. I boarded a blue boat, floated out to sea, watched stars rotate and rise as we sailed west and south. I changed forms with the heat of the day and the cool of the night, melding to my foil dress.
Finally, finally, the woman undressed me. She peeled back the layers, lovingly stroked my oily sheen, longingly anticipated my bitter beginning and sweet additions. She broke me into pieces, shearing me into bite-size chunks. Naked. Dark. Ripe for the next transition.
I melted to coat teeth, tongue, throat. I flooded their senses with my age-old bittersweet tang. The captain and crew bade me many blessings of thanks for the gift of my chocolate.
Coconuts are my new favorite all-purpose fauna. Sure, I’ve always been a fan of coconut milk in my curry, and flakes in my cookies. But now I really appreciate how totally rad these tropical balls truly are. They’re like free, tasty mini-survival packs scattered within easy reach. If you’re thirsty, you grab a green one, bash off the stem with a rock, poke a stick in it, and voila: a liter of vitamin-rich water in a compact carrying case.
Hungry? Find a brown coconut in a tree or on the ground (just make sure it doesn’t have any holes that indicate a rat beat you to it). Slice through the dry outer husk and shuck it off, peeling away the fibers to reveal the hard nut inside. Poke a hole in one of the three circular seed indents, drink out what’s left of the water, smash the shell on a rock to divide it in half and voila: fatty, vitamin-rich white meat that satisfies your belly and makes your hair and skin shiny from the inside out.
We don’t even take water bottles hiking anymore. And at the occasional cruisers’ potluck on shore, Rob just shucks a few coconuts and chips out chunks of sweet white meat for everyone’s dessert. They store really well for passages, too. We put one in the fridge each day to have a cold drink, and used the meat shavings to liven up cookies or pancakes. We’ve also started making our own coconut milk for curry dinners by pouring boiling water through the shavings.
And then there’s the dried-out shells: Rob has a sweet new bowl that holds his above-average servings of food. I have a new bra that definitely covers my below-average serving of breasts. We both have things to bang together to make percussive noises when playing music.
The other day, a fellow cruiser asked for some help opening some brown coconuts he’d pulled out of the ocean. Rob handily shucked a few on shore. Later, the German sailor told a few others in his halting English, “That American boy is good at killing the coconuts. He must have killed a lot of them.” Indeed he has.
To recap: coconuts are the perfect fruit. Visit a tropical island near you soon to experience their full range of utility, simplicity, and overall awesomeness.
On one of our very first dates, Rob told me, “My dream is to have a house with a mango tree in the yard.” I replied that mangoes are my favorite fruit. There are no mangoes in Montana. So, we got married, quit our jobs, sold our stuff, packed a couple of bags and set off in search of these oval pods of gooey goodness. Thus began our mission for mangoes.
Sure, we also had designs on sailing, diving, exploring new horizons and absorbing new cultures. But let’s be clear — eating mangoes is at the top of our priority list. A perfect mango is one of life’s greatest pleasures. A combination of tart and sweet, firm but juicy, yellow-orange slippery joy wrapped in a smooth skin. It’s enough to fuel any expedition toward paradise.
So far, so good. After a mere 33-day sailing passage across the Pacific, we were rewarded with paradise in the Marquesas. Fruit literally dropped into our lap on these lush green isles: we tripped over coconuts, limes, papaya, grapefruit, passion fruit, bananas, oranges. And the mangoes. Oh, lordy, the mangoes. Bursting at the seams, dripping off branches, loaded tree limbs proffering dozens of species. Let the mission begin!
We walked through the community of Taiohae on Nuku Hiva, asking locals standing near the bursting trees if we could buy fruit. They laughed at us. Instead, the Marquesans filled our arms with free ripe orbs of all shapes. Grapefruit the size of small children. Buckets of limes. Bags and bags of mangoes. Our mission was so fruitful that Rob and I provisioned two boats and 10 people for a week. Plus, these encounters with the locals led to fascinating conversations, new friends, and a glimpse into a different way of life.
We sailed to Anaho Bay, Kayanos’ stern buried behind stalks of green bananas and swaying hammocks of fruit. After a week at anchor, we set off again on the mission, hiking from the beach into the mountains. Rob climbed trees and we shook and plucked to our hearts’ content, filling buckets and bags for the 500-mile four-day passage to the Tuamotus. Orange juicy pulp. Yellow tart circles of flesh. Smoothies and syrups and snacks and sauces.
We glut on mangoes, and all of their tropical fruity cousins. We feast on the sun-rich sugar. We savor the abundance of nature, and appreciate the immense generosity of the people who share its gifts. We will continue our mission for mangoes as we sail west, searching for the perfect bite, the perfect story, the perfect community, the perfect tree in the perfect spot that we can call home — even if only for a brief, sweet moment.
Feeding 7 people for 40 days requires roughly 1.5 feet of grocery receipts per person. It also pencils out to about $6 per person per day. Pretty cheap, right? Especially if you totally ignore the thousands of dollars spent on other parts of sailing a boat across the largest ocean on earth. The conundrum begins when you try and figure out what, exactly, to feed that many mouths for that many days.
I took on boat provisioning as my contribution to the pre-Canal-crossing preparations, while Rob worked on projects ranging from oil changes, to radio setup to repair jobs. This meant making sure we had quantities right, making lists, and checking with the family members on what foods worked for them or didn’t. It also meant careful monitoring of the teenage boys’ ability to consume vast amounts of snacks and dinner portions (and by teenage boys, I include my husband).
P.S.HAPPY 60TH BIRTHDAY, DAD! I LOVE YOU LOTS, AND MISS YOU. THANKS FOR TEACHING ME TO LOVE THE SEA.
First off, we needed a lot of rice. We brought 40 pounds of rice along, which will form the basis of Asian-fusion and Mexican-style style dinners roughly 4 nights a week. Other staples include tortillas (35 bags), beans (25 cans), flour for bread (10 lbs), eggs (30 dozen), and peanut butter (14 pounds). Most cruisers find that they eat more snacks than big meals, based on watch rotations, bouts of queasiness, or general heat-induced apathy toward food. We stocked up on easy edibles, including packets of oatmeal and mashed potatoes, popcorn, tuna cans, fruit rollups, nuts, olives, hummus, and some candy.
As for perishables — well, you don’t get them for long. Our refrigerated space is the size of one shelf in a normal fridge (and remember: 7 people for 40 days). Creativity is key for spicing up those rice and beans. This spice comes from seasoning packets and sauces and chutneys. And, for the first week or so, from all the fresh veggies and fruit we picked up in Panama City. Once the mushy stuff is gone (bananas, mangos, tomatoes, papaya, peppers), we’ll still have hardy produce for a bit (potatoes, coconuts, carrots, plantains, onions, apples, limes). After that, we start dumping in some of the 40+ cans of fruit and veggies I bought in Colon.
Some of the cool tricks I learned about provisioning:
– Boxed milk is irradiated and doesn’t need to be refrigerated until after you open it. We have 35 cartons onboard.
– Eggs stay good if you turn them every 3 days so the yolks don’t stick to the shell and get exposed to bacteria in the air.
– Pressure cookers are awesome for cooking all kinds of food, including fresh bread.
– It’s remarkable how much you can cram in a small space.
– Weevils can infest flour even when it’s double-bagged and in a sealed container.
– You can live on very little for a long time, but you can also make spectacular meals with much less than you think.
On this post-Thanksgiving Sunday, I am grateful for my sister, my parents, and my husband who are my best friends. I am grateful for the loving and close-knit circle of Missoula and Portland-based friends who are my family.
I am grateful for rainy walks by cold creeks, hot turkey soup, long soaks in wood-fired saunas, and dancing on the bar at Charlie B’s with my best girlfriends.
I am grateful for abundant food coupled with abundant creativity. I am grateful for the time to play music in the living room and make movies in the kitchen. I am grateful for gracious hosts, cuddly dogs chasing frisbees, laughing children doing animal dances, and Moscow Mules.
And I am grateful that Rob and I have the incredible opportunity to travel and explore the world in the coming year … even though this opportunity comes with the poignant cost of leaving all these beautiful things behind for a bit.
With the leave-taking a mere four months away, we decided to participate in Black Friday sales to gear-up for our travel adventures. Check out the recent purchases:
As the days get shorter and temperatures start dropping in Montana, my thoughts often turn to more tropical locations. This year, I already know where we are going, kind of. We’ll leave in April and head for somewhere between Hawaii and Australia. If you have the same inclinations and you’re looking for a place to visit this winter and need something closer to home, let me recommend a place that most Americans rarely consider: Cuba.
After reading the November 2012 issue of National Geographic featuring Cuba, I’ve been thinking about the island more recently. Despite what you may have been led to believe your entire life,Cuba is actually a safe, interesting, inexpensive and fairly simple place to get to. People from all over the world – and lots of them — visit Cuba every year. The northern coast is thronged with all-inclusive resorts and airports that whisk tourists, mostly Canadians, but also Western Europeans, Scandinavians, Russians and South Americans (in seeming order of regularity) in and out of the country for a dose of sun. This post details some of the finer points of traveling in Cuba and is written mostly for another type of traveler – for the people who are interested in experiencing the non-resort parts of the island, or least giving it a try.
Getting to Cuba
At present there are legit ways to get into Cuba, including via educational, religious and other activities. Check the US Department of State website for current regulations. But you can always do it the old fashioned way and just fly to Mexico. Usually, Cancun is easiest for hopping a flight to Havana, or you can travel through Canada. All of my research indicates that this is an extremely low priority for US Customs, that hundreds/thousand of Americans do it every year, and that they very rarely prosecute anyone, if they actually get caught, which is unlikely. Tickets from Cancun to Havana can be bought in advance through travel companies in Canada. There are also direct flights from Canada to many different cities in Cuba. If you’re in Montana, you could make your way to Calgary and fly directly to half a dozen Cuban cities. Plenty of cheap flights also go from Vancouver and Calgary. Don’t expect a new plane on Cubana Air, though. You’ll likely be treated to a 50-year-old Russian-style jet with signs in Spanish and Russian. If you fly through Mexico or Canada, they won’t stamp your passport in Cuba: you will pass through Cuban customs and be given a stamped piece of paper to keep in your passport. Don’t lose the paper. You will be asked for it often — Cuba likes to know where you are.
One of the first things people usually want to know about Cuba is whether to bring cash, credit or some other form of currency. But first the basics: Cuba has two systems of currency. The first is the Cuban Peso, which is, officially at least, reserved for the Cuban populace. It is the currency Cubans use to buy bread, ride the bus, and generally go about their daily lives. The second is the Convertible Peso or CUC$ (pronounced as “kooks”). The CUC$ is the tourist dollar, and it is basically set at a 1:1 exchange rate with the US dollar. If you are a tourist in Cuba, almost everything you buy or pay for will be in CUC$, with a few exceptions if you are an experienced and adventurous traveler. Cubans also use the CUC$ to buy more expensive items, like washer and dryers, furniture, etc. American dollars used to be an accepted form of currency in Cuba, but that ended in 2004 with the introduction of the CUC$.
As an American, you have a few options for maintaining cash flow in Cuba: 1) you can bring all your money in US dollars and exchange your money for CUC$; 2) you can bring travelers checks (double check on this); 3) you can get a travel debit/credit card from another country (US credit cards and ATM cards will not work in Cuba). If you bring cash or travelers checks, you will pay a heavy exchange fee – around 20% — and, of course, you will be carrying around a lot of money and risk losing it or getting it taken from you. Many Americans we know have chosen to go a different route, by getting a short- term bank card from another country.
One very reasonable option, at least recently, has been to use Caribbean Transfers (www.caribbeantransfers.com). Here is the basic process: you email or call the CT office and set up your preferred amount of money and time of transfer. Next, you then wire the money to the CT office. Then, you show up in the Havana airport with a card waiting for you that will work in just about any bank throughout the country. Never mind that the card will probably be waiting for you in an unmarked booth, and you might have to find the airport janitor to get the key. If this sounds scary, it is. But Cuba is a land of contradictions and where, ultimately, and sometimes in mysterious way, things do work, usually on time and in order (you just won’t know what’s going on in the meantime). If you’re still not convinced about wiring money, think about this: Cuban migrants send about $2 billion per year back to their friends and relatives in country – they have figured out a system to do this. Or just carry around a big wad of cash and be paranoid the whole time….
Places to Stay
If I were going to Cuba, I would stay in Casas Particulares without a doubt. These are private Cuban residences, marked by a blue anchor on the door or entrance, which host tourists in one or two rooms that have been officially sanctioned by Cuban authorities. Its very similar to a bed and breakfast, and for $15-25 CUC$ you can get a private room in a Cuban household. If you’re traveling with a spouse or partner, consider yourself lucky because the room price is usually fixed regardless of whether one or two people are staying for the night. Meals are usually extra (more on that later). Amenities can vary widely depending on time and place, but you may find yourself in a room with 10 foot ceilings and ceiling fans that opens out into a Spanish hacienda style courtyard with fruit trees and fountains, or you may find yourself in a Havana apartment where they park the car in the living room for the night and you have a room in a highrise overlooking the city. These are legit operations — the rooms are by and large very clean and respectable. The families that rent the rooms are extremely friendly, and willing to help you, teach you, feed you, and talk to you. The government, always watching, is very aware of who is staying at the Casas Particulares (families have to report to local authorities) and how they are treating visitors. Plus, Cubans pay a monthly fee of $400 CUC to the government for the right to rent out these rooms – they have a good reason to treat people well and keep people coming back.
This is the way to see Cuba. You can stay in hotels if you want, but they are much more expensive. But more than cheap, the Casas Particulares get you in the center of the action, and in Cuba there is always some kind of action — friends are stopping by, someone is playing music, and people are living. These Cubans will be your tour guides, your night watch, help desk, and information centers. If you need recommendations in advance, let me know, but it’s super easy to get around Cuba without any advance planning. Just ask your host family for a recommendation in the next place you’re visiting, and you will hear the fours words that sum up Cuban culture: “I have a friend…” (Note that this will probably cost you a small $3 to 5 finders fee, but it will just be tacked on to your next room rental and you’ll probably never even know about it.)
The food in Cuba is pretty easy to sum up: its not very good. This is probably one of the only drawbacks and likely one of the major misconceptions about the country. Cuban food is not the spicy, eclectic, seafood dish you ate at the Cuban fusion place in Miami last time you were there. Cuban food is ham and cheese sandwiches or rice with vegetables and chicken. That said, there are exceptions to the rule, and there are some ways to make your eating experience interesting and rewarding. There are basically four options:
Restaurants – Almost all of the restaurants in Cuba are run by the government, like everything else. These places will have different names, different décor and slightly different menus. But they’re basically the same. Try to avoid them when you can, though sometimes this will be the only option. The food is not good and the service usually stinks.
Paladares – Paladares are eating establishments in people’s private homes. They have been licensed by Cuban officials to sell food and look more or less like a restaurant. The good Paladares can be pretty crowded, for a good reason. The food is usually quite good and the service friendly. Some of these establishments can be hard to find and can be on the pricier side, but worth it.
Casas Particulares – As I mentioned previously, you can eat breakfast and dinner in the Casas Particulares for an extra fee. Breakfast will include fruit and juice, bread, eggs and some other treat. Dinner could include fish, shrimp, chicken or pork and then typically rice, bread, and vegetables. The meals are usually freshly prepared and served in good portions. You also get a chance to chat with family members and enjoy the surroundings. Breakfast usually runs about 4-5 CUC$ and dinner 7-8 CUC$.
Street food – Where else can you buy a personal pizza for forty cents or a small breakfast sandwich for a quarter? The list goes on and on: ice cream for ten cents, coffee for a nickel…. Street food is the essence of the Cuban experience: it’s fast, ubiquitous, cheap and you have to wait in line for it. Lines at pizza windows can reach dozens deep around lunchtime, and there seems to be a national obsession with ice cream (going to the national ice cream chain, Coppelia, is like going to a circus or sporting event). Most street food options will include a piece bread (think dinner roll) with sometime inside of it. The filling could be tortilla (egg), pasta (a kind of semi spicy paste), mayonesa (you guessed it) or hamerguesa (yep). It some coastal cities you can buy sandwiches with fried fish or shrimp in it, which is delightful. Other street food fare includes cake, juice and of course, pizza – which is basically just tomato sauce and some cheese on pizza dough.
Ok, now you had found a place to stay, gotten something to eat and you’re looking to move on. There are a few ways to tackle this next step.
Buses — Tourists generally take the Viazul bus line, which travels the well-trod routes between cities. You can buy tickets in advance at the Viazul bus depots or ask your host family to help, which they’ll probably be happy to do (for a small fee of course) The buses are modern, clean, generally on time and not terribly expensive. For some reason though, they blast the AC, and the buses can be extremely COLD. Be prepared. There are also local and regional bus lines that the Cubans ride. These are not really for tourists, but they’re much less expensive and have more options in terms of time and locations. If you speak Spanish pretty well and are willing to try to navigate this system, you might be able to utilize this option.
Taxis — Like everything else in Cuba, there is one system for tourists and one for locals. Tourist taxis are yellow, modern vehicles (Puegeot and Toyotae) with meters or set prices. Then there are the taxis for locals, which are the much photographed, older American vehicles (Fords and Chevys) that have probably been retrofitted with Korean or Japanese engines. You can ride in these taxis for a cheaper rate, but be discrete. These Cuban taxi drivers will be running a risk by taking you for a fare. They may even ask to drop you off around the corner from your destination, to try to stay low key. There are also bike taxis and coco taxis (literally a small, yellow coconut shaped pod) that can get you around in the major cities for a good rate.
Cars — Renting a car in Cuba is actually pretty straightforward. All of the car rental companies are state run, so you can generally rent for one way trips and the prices don’t fluctuate too much (their comparable to US prices). Driving is a different story. Roads in Cuba can be unmarked and their condition can change dramatically. Large potholes appear suddenly, as do cows, donkey carts, people, etc. Other vehicles may not have their lights on, either because they don’t work or because they don’t want to use them, and driving in cities can be confusing with roundabouts, one way streets, and other problems that are only avoided through local knowledge. It’s a great way to see the country, but be wary.
Hitchhike — You’ll see Cubans all over the roads looking for a ride, so learn how to compete. On a sidenote, picking up hitchhikers can help you navigate driving local streets if you end up renting a car.
Cuba is by far one of the most fascinating, welcoming and confusing places in the world. Stuck in a bastion of socialism, Cubans are some of the most capitalistic people you have ever met, because they have to be to survive. Whether it’s a small black market business, a tourist-oriented enterprise, or some scam with a family member overseas, Cubans are extremely entrepreneurial. Most Cubans have state jobs (although Cuba, in the midst of some economic problems, recently cut nearly a half million state employee positions). State jobs are low paying and not very fulfilling. That’s why many of the uniformed workers you will encounter are aloof and not very helpful. But get rid of the uniforms and Cubans are lively, friendly, and entertaining people. On the homefront, they will kiss you on both cheeks upon greeting, even if they’ve never met you before, and they speak Spanish rapidly, like they’re talking during a marble-eating contest.
Cubans are also very neat, well dressed people who follow the most recent music, fashion and media culture come out of the US. They like bright colors (yellow, red and white outfits seem in vogue recently) and have no problem with public displays of affection – with strangers, friends or loved ones. They also hate waiting in lines — probably because they do it all the time — and have developed some elaborate line protocols. If you need to get in line, just ask: “Quien es ultimo (Who is last)?”. You’ve then reserved your space in line, and you don’t really even need to stand there. People will just linger about until its their turn.
By and large, they also love Americans because, well, we’re not Canadians, which visit in hoards. Seriously, Cubans identify with the United States. The island is only 90 miles from Florida and everyone in Cuba, and I mean everyone, has an uncle, brother, niece or grandmother who live in Miami, or possibly California. They treat Americans with warmth and mutual respect, as they do most people. They like to practice English, make new friends, and foster a good reputation for their country and people.
Give Cuba a try. It won’t be the most straightforward to make travel arrangements, and it will take some effort to figure out the system once you’re there, but I’ll guarantee this: it will be unlike any place you’ve ever been and well worth any complications.
(Full disclosure: Cuba can be a very confusing place and relations with the US are ever changing, so any of the above information could change at any time. And I’ve certainly never been there…).
Two things I’ll miss when we sail into the sunset — girlfriends and walking.
Two things I won’t miss a bit — grey winters and biting-cold Montana wind.
This weekend I was lucky enough to soak in the good stuff and get outta the bad. On Friday afternoon, I hopped on a cheap Allegiant Air flight to San Francisco with two of my favorite ladies. We said goodbye to husbands, dogs, and children, escaping the frigid cloudy skies with giddy excitement. Last time I headed out of town time for quality girlfriend time with Joellen and Gillian was over 5 years ago, and I was psyched to hang with these two hot mamas for 4 days of city time fun.
First stop: our friend Melissa’s SUV outside of Oakland airport. Second stop: a giant (authentic!) margarita in the Mission district. Third stop: Sengalese food at Baobao, followed by a rockin’ dance party as dinner tables were cleared out from under us. “You dance crazy,” we heard, multiple times, from different patrons. True that. Not bad for the first few hours in the big city.
Thanks to our friends Andrew and Julie, we got to stay in a sweet apartment one block from the Presidio. While the mamas headed to yoga the next morning, I followed the siren call of salt water and ran to the beach. Now, if you know me at all, you know I only run when large predators are chasing me or I REALLY REALLY REALLY want to get somewhere fast.
As a landlocked beach girl, seeing the ocean after almost 6 months brings out my rusty running instincts. I spent the day tooling around beaches and marinas, watching fisherman, sailboats, and kiteboarders. Dreaming of the soon-to-come days when I’ll be staring at land from the water, instead of vice versa. Dreaming of the day when I will feel as urgent about getting to the shore as I now feel about getting to the water.
We drank champagne when we reunited, and hit the streets in search of Thai food. As the weekend wore on, we added Greek, Mexican, and Chinese to our cuisine, satiating those cultural cravings that itch like hell when you live in a town that specializes in burgers and beer (even if it IS exceptional meat and mircrobrews).
Speaking of cravings, we also filled our urban hiking cup to the brim. The best part about cities is that you can walk and walk and walk, and still see something new, vibrant, unique, or bizarre around every corner. I love that my girlfriends love walking as much as I do, and that we had the same chill exploratory agenda for the weekend.
On Sunday, we trekked over 8 miles, stopping to sample premium green tea, Vietnamese coffee, falafel, artwork, thrift stores, a brewery, a roller skate park, and — of course — beaches. The 3 of us all love the ocean, and you could tell: we cartwheeled near the water line, did headstands in the sand, and tried to absorb as much salt-water-laden goodness as our eyes, skin, and hearts could hold. These memories will feed us through the long Montana winter.
The highlight of our urban hike was walking the length of Golden Gate Park, where we had the pleasure of meeting these Barbies in a Boat. I’ll end here because — in a lot of ways — these 3 Barbies happily jetting around sunny San Francisco symbolize how I felt with Gillie and Jo this past weekend: carefree, fun, free, and easy.