Cuba: Getting to Santiago… Without Losing It!

2000:  When I think of Santiago de Cuba, a few things come to mind. First, its contribution to the arts: it is the birthplace of legendary Cubans such as Desi Arnaz, José Martí (a great writer, poet and a revolutionary known as the ‘Apostle of Cuban Independence’) and Compay Segundo; it is also the birthplace of Trova music, as well as home to the world famous Casa de la Trova. Second, I think of the history of the city: the second largest city in Cuba, it being one of the oldest settlements in Cuba, the still beautiful fort, Castillo del Morro, looking over a cliff to the sea, and the role the city played in the revolution, known as the 26 July movement. Third, I think of a certain Russian plane and a hysterical two-hour flight. Vidal sold tours to his clients to many places around Cuba, including a day trip to Santiago by plane. Naturally, we had to experience it ourselves, and were we ever glad we did. It was historical, and hysterical.

Vidal hated to fly. When we got to the Varadero airport and saw the small, ancient Russian Aeroflot propeller plane we were about to get on, he was ready to turn around, but he did not. There were eight of us; we were to be met in Santiago by our tour guide. We sat up front, a loud propeller right outside our window (quite possibly duct-taped), the emergency door was on our left with full instructions and we had a close-up and personal view of the cockpit. But let’s get back to the emergency door instructions. They were in Spanish and translated into something that resembled English, but which made no sense whatsoever. I read it, giggled, guffawed and nearly choked on my own laughter; Vidal looked at me like I was crazy at first until he read it, and followed suit.




I do believe the last line has a major typo. I am convinced they meant to say, ‘Without LOSING it, pull the hatch’; I know I certainly came close to losing it when I read it! We would occasionally stop to breath, wipe our tears and desperately hold our stomachs in for fear we had each bust a gut, only to fall back into fits of laughter for pretty much the entire two-hour flight to the southeastern part of Cuba, a stone’s throw away from GTMO Bay. At least it was that close to it on the map.

We arrived, met our guide, and we all headed out, thankfully, by bus. We visited many places in the city, first going to the Castillo del Morro. Built in the 17th century to protect the city from pirates, it was a marvelous structure which almost looked Greek to me, as the backdrop of the Caribbean looked more like the Mediterranean with its shade of blue. We also visited the center of the city, marveling at the colonial architecture; although not exactly in the best shape, it seemed some of the buildings of Santiago were better maintained than those of Havana. Or maybe it was just the area we were taken to on the tour, I am not sure.

We went by the Caney rum factory, built by the Bacardi family for its rum (the grand exterior still bears the name); the Bacardi family took its name and fled the country right before Castro started to nationalize all businesses and property. We toured the Plaza de la Revolución; a huge monument dedicated to Antonio Maceo- the ‘Bronze Titan’ hero of the Cuban independence wars, showing him on a horse reared on its hind legs and 23 machetes coming up out of the ground. We went up to a rooftop to view downtown Santiago and its magnificent cathedral from above, and went to a 4-star hotel for lunch. The latter part we could have done without; as hot as it was, I did not care about seeing a hotel that had no historical significance whatsoever and had no desire to swim; I would have preferred that extra time to have stayed in the city, to have eaten near La Casa de la Trova so we could have time to see it. As it was, our guide took us past the famous home of trova music and the museum of the Carnival, we only had time to snap a photo (he rushed us to do that), and we were off to see the military barracks, still riddled with bullet holes from the famous 26 July Movement, otherwise known as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. We toured the cemetery, where many illustrious Cubans were buried, the most important (to me) being José Martí. The last part of our tour was of the mercado; I was at least excited about that, hoping to see how different it would be. It was larger than the mercado in Cárdenas for sure, but not a whole lot more to offer. I did pick up a few veggies I had not seen in Cárdenas, so I was happy.

In the end, I was disappointed in the tour, partly due to the guide, but mostly because I had wanted more focus on the music that I loved. Maybe I am not the typical tourist and the typical tourist just does not care, but seriously- why program a tour to spend more time in a silly place such as a hotel, and leave out a place that is has so much significance to the recent history of Cuba? What, after all, are Cubans, if not inextricably intertwined with their music? Okay, so maybe La Trova does not allow tours within, but what’s to stop tourists from going in to have a cold drink, even if it’s just a soda? I would have even skipped the mercado for that!

So, we headed back to the airport, helped give the propellers a spin to get it going, gave it a push down the runway before running to get on board, and promising the pilot not to laugh so hard this time around.

  • Excerpt from: What’s a Taco Doing on the Forbidden Island? Taco’s Adventures in Cuba, Chapter  5

Tulúm Rediscovered

Archaeology has always fascinated me. Stories of mysterious ancient civilizations and their fascinating architecture has always made me want to grab my pick and machete and go exploring. Thanks to my Uncle Fred and Aunt Barb for allowing me to join their Cancun family vacation back in the ‘80s, I was able to fulfill that dream (minus the pick and machete, of course) in our visits to Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Tulúm, where we climbed and explored up close every building there. I have since then, on my later visits to the area, twice visited Chichén Itzá and Tulúm as well as several other archaeological sites within Mexico; Tulúm remaining at the top of my list of favorites. What could be more thrilling to this Archaeologist Wannabe than an ancient city nestled in the Mayan jungle on top of a limestone cliff, with a magnificent view of the blues and greens of the Caribbean below? Continue reading

Oscillated Turkeys, A Cookie-Eating Tejon and a Barrelful of Monkeys: Tikal, Guatemala

We tried to be backpackers, really we did. But we drew the line at not using deodorant.

 We are not backpackers. We had never even tried it before this trip.  But we both loved an adventure, loved to travel, experience new places, try new food, explore other cultures. We had the dream to go to Europe one day, but our Mexican salaries made that a bit out of our price range – backpacking or other. We had read about so many people backpacking around Europe on a budget, and wondered if that was for us. So with that in mind for the future as well as our budget for the present, we got the idea that we should try a backpacking vacation.  We were in the Riviera Maya at the time, right at Belize’s doorstep; how could we NOT? Continue reading

Rubber Legs and Ruins: Conquering Cobá

July, 2003. I got up bright and early, ready for Cobá. I had asked the bus driver on the way back from Tulúm about the bus schedule to Cobá; he told me that they left the town of Tulúm at 7:00am. So at 6:40am, I was outside our hotel, waiting to catch a combi to Tulúm.   A bus stopped first, with “Valladolid” written on it, and I asked if he stopped at Cobá. Wouldn’t ya know it – it did!  So, off I went, on my way to Cobá! I lathered up with repellent along the way; those nasty mosquitoes weren’t going to slow me down that day!

At 7:45, I was dropped off three blocks away from the entrance to the ruins; the driver told me the first bus back to Tulúm was at 11:00. The ruins opened at 8:00, so I walked slowly, eating my sandwich along the way. I was not only the first one in, the tricycle taxis had not even arrived to set up their stand within.   This was great! I was alone to explore the jungle paths, in search of spider monkeys and whatnot. I walked at a snail’s pace, trying not to make noise, listening to the sounds of God’s creatures all around me. Continue reading

The Perfect Plop

There is something so satisfying about a good, heartfelt plop. Coming home at the end of a stressful day, kicking off your shoes and throwing yourself/ plopping on your comfy bed. “Ahhh!”, your entire body says cheerfully!

A cat plop is something like that, only better. It’s the feline version of a happy dance. A cat plop signifies a deliriously happy feline. Maybe kitty was eating an entire freshly caught fish or a can of tuna, or simply the fact that Mommy and Daddy are home, and said kitty is happy. PLOP! – is the happy sound that precious furry body makes as kitty enthusiastically throws him/herself down, purring loudly for all to hear. It’s usually followed by a bit of a body twist, as if the bed/couch/floor is part of the plan, giving kitty a back massage. Some cats plop more than others. Simba, she had it mastered as a kitten.

When Simba and Guerita were kittens, it took Simba longer than it did Guerita to adjust to us and their new home. Guerita trusted us within days, walked around with her tail up; it took Simba a couple of weeks to feel at home. They had their own room and they had each other, and they had Mommy and Daddy time.

It was during that Mommy and Daddy time that Simba began to plop. She would jump up on our bed – which was supposed to be a no-no, but when we saw that she just wanted to get in front of the fan, we relented. She caught on that it was okay, so she continued to jump on the bed – but added an audible “plop” to it! She was officially our Little Plopper!
As Simba was the introvert of the kitties, it was only through her plops that we truly ever knew how content she was. And she plopped quite often! I remember when Simba snuck out of the house and got herself pregnant. My mother-in-law told me that afternoon that she had been asleep in her bed that morning. She heard a loud plop, looked at the foot of her bed, and there was Simba! That was a laugh out loud moment; although my mother-in-law had never been privy to our Simba plop stories, as soon as she said “plop”, I already knew the end of the story!

She mostly plopped for Daddy, but she plopped for me as well. she also reserved happy plops for when her Weeta came to town.

Simba was the Queen of Plops to the end. On her last night with us, she was too weak to walk. but that night, she wiggled her body up to mine, then wiggled her way over to snuggle up to Vidal- all night long. Although she no longer had the strength to pick herself up to stand, let alone plop- we knew that was what she was doing. she was giving us her final plops; letting us know how happy her life had been, and how much she loved us.

Truly our little Simba was the Plopmeister herself; the Queen of Plops. Now she is plopping away- her own “happy dance” in heaven, teaching all the other kitties how to truly express their joy!

You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy… Psalm 30:11


I’m soooooo happy!!!





Road Trip, 1987 – Adventures with Ma: Finding our Roots in Chavinda, Michoacán

The Great Bus Ride

Early the next morning, we headed to the bus terminal for the next part of our journey: Zamora, Michoacán. We had been told to take a first class bus on either the Estrella de Oro or the Estrella Blanca bus.  Cousin Lu had warned us against taking the second or third class buses, as we would be riding with the chickens, according to her. We were also told those would be the quickest, as the other buses made lots of stops. The terminal was huge, the bus was very comfortable. We sat back and relaxed for the ride, I had the window and Ma had the aisle.  The bus departed promptly at 9:00am, out of the parking lot, onto the street, around the corner… and broke down with a flat tire.  It took about 5 minutes for us to find out what had happened, as the bus had just stopped moving.  I remember looking down and seeing the driver standing by the side of the bus, casually smoking a cigarette, as if just taking a break.  An hour later, we were off.  The drive was peaceful, the occasional slow-moving vehicle slowed us down to a crawl at times, until the bus driver yanked the wheel and pulled a Speedy Gonzalez and passed around it. Ma occupied her time by chatting with a very nice university student from Uruapan with a nice, almost angelic face, who sat across the aisle from her. A couple of backpackers joined in the conversation. As it was too difficult for me to lean over and be part of the conversation and not wanting to be rude by asking everyone to repeat themselves, I occupied my time by staring out the window, enjoying the scenery and taking the occasional photo to prove we had been there.  All would turn out blurry with a green tint from the window, making it seem more likely that we had been on a bus on Mars.

 We drove through the countryside and past small towns… well, sort of.  Continue reading

A Pile of Rocks In The Middle of a Field on the Side of the Road: The Dominoes of Stonehenge


June 4, 2004.  There were only a few Must Sees for our England portion of our Europe trip; quality time with Naomi was #1 on that list, anything else was just whipped cream on the banana split. London came in second, with Stonehenge (okay, and eat fish and chips, too) not far behind. As it turned out, we would get to see both places with Naomi, putting the cherry on top of the whipped cream on the banana split (and served with fish and chips). I have often said that most people really don’t take advantage of what is at their backdoor. While that is not necessarily true for everyone, I have heard many people say that often tourists knew more about their city then they did, as more often than not, tourists do a bit of research on where they are going before they get there- I’m referring to educated tourists and not the Ugly American tourist who have given the rest of us a bad name. It seems to be that when you grow up surrounded by so much cultural heritage, that you become blind to it. Naomi had stressed to me that she was not much into culture/history the way I was; she was quite aware that I could be something of a history addict. Having been born and raised in a city less than 200 years old, it is really no wonder that I was starved to be wandering around a land which had thousands of years of history. I have wandered around ancient Mexico; I was ready for the Old World. I don’t expect others to share my enthusiasm for history, but it is a treasure when they humor me; Naomi was willing to go with us to Stonehenge and get a little cultured with us. Continue reading