A Dolphin Named Simba

This week, it will be 2 years ago that Simba left us for heaven. As she is always in our hearts, I want to share this old blog post from another summer in her honor, when we were across the country and found Simba’s seaworthy, fin-filled counterpart…

Cancun; Summer, 2002. The day started out beautifully: a nice, sunny day; only a few clouds on the horizon.  We had spent the night at Vidal’s brother Ricardo’s house, enjoying a lovely family evening together; we had 10:00am reservations to swim with dolphins in Cancun’s Interactive Aquarium.  The company Vidal worked for was just starting to promote this excursion, and we wanted to see the difference between it and the program we experienced the year before.  Okay, any excuse to swim with dolphins, right?

 We arrived at 9:30am; nobody was at the ticket window.  Someone finally showed up to let us in at 9:50. There were four sections of the aquarium; the first we saw was the indoor aquarium, which reminded me of a tiny version of Shedd Aquarium, one of our favorite places to visit in my hometown Chicago.  From there, we were led outside past a raised pool with clear sides; inside of it were turtles, sand sharks and manta rays.  Just past that was a huge pool with six dolphins playing; a big row of bleachers faced the pool and the lagoon as a beautiful backdrop.  We were directed to go up to the bleachers, where the lot of us we would be split up into 3 groups: Education only, education & show, and education, show & play; we were in the latter.

As the trainers were setting up, we watched the dolphins play- swimming in circles, biting each other, jumping together, smiling.  One of the trainers got into the middle of the pool, pulling out a plastic ‘wall’ to section off the pool.  He whistled for some of the dolphins to go to the other side, but they all went, looking at him as they swam past, and it looked like they were laughing at him.   He motioned for a few of them to go back to the other side; again, they all went. This repeated three times before another trainer jumped in and split the party up appropriately.  Just as he almost got the wall closed, one dolphin raced back to the other side and he (the trainer, not the dolphin) yelled, “Simba!”  I knew Simba was just laughing at him, seriously! Simba pulled that same stunt a few more times… All the while I was thinking of our own Simba, our precious kitty back home, who had the exact same personality; how many times had I told our Simba to get out of our room only to race back in the door a second before I shut it all the way, back when she was a kitten…  In the end, Simba the dolphin was allowed to stay on her preferred side and another dolphin was asked to leave.

We got into our group of six. After a brief education of Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins and what we would be doing, we jumped into the freezing cold salt water pool and got into circles, where we would let the dolphins come and get to know us.  The first dolphin came around, and seemed to just loved Vidal – slowing down and snuggling up to him on every round it made around the circle. The trainer talked to it and we found out it was Simba. I was not surprised – our kitty Simba has always been a Daddy’s little girl! The other two dolphins assigned to our group came around next. We took a few minutes to pose for the obligatory pictures (dolphin hug and kiss), and then went back into our circle.  This time, Vidal was on the other side. Simba came around, but this time she got cozy with the person in Vidal’s old spot… I saw her turn her head to the trainer- who was right behind that person, and we watched Simba beg him for fish… Vidal laughed and said it was not that dolphin Simba liked him, but that she wanted fish. I disagreed.  Our Simba was also a foodaholic, doing anything to get a treat (stealing and opening a bag of food by herself was not beneath her); so this Simba’s actions came as no surprise.  But, just like our Simba, Simba the dolphin did return once again to get all huggy with Vidal, despite his distance from the food!

Next, we got onto a platform with all of the groups combined to learn about a dolphin’s nose, mouth, teeth, spout, skin and belly, and how to listen to them talk.  That was fascinating!  We splashed water at them and they splashed back; I was thankful that we did not do the bouncing ball on the dolphin’s nose trick.  Next, the divider wall was opened for the final part of the show: the Foot Push. I have to say, even though that seems like such a typical parlor trick with dolphins, it really is cool. One at a time, each person swims out to a designated spot, belly down, arms out, legs behind and toes pointed downward.  Two dolphins come around, each placing their nose on the middle of one of your feet, and off you go!  Unlike our experience the year before, we had an insider’s tip: arch your back to rise up above the water. It really made quite a difference, as it made it feel more like we were flying across the pool- it was so awesome!

Afterwards, we found the fourth section of the aquarium: a huge tank, two floors high with lot of fish, including sharks and barracudas.  We went down a level for a better look up at it.  There was a sunken ship at the bottom with fish swimming in and out; the sharks swam ominously close to the plate glass protecting us from it, glaring with their deadly, lifeless eyes. The barracuda hung out above near the top of the tank, fangs hanging out, like a gang of thieves ready to pounce on its unsuspecting prey.  Something caught my eye at the bottom of the tank, slithering out of the sunken ship… an orange head, attached to a very long body: a huge sea serpent.  It looked phony, like a bizarre Loch Ness Monster in a really tacky ‘B’ movie. It moved slowly and was pretty freaky looking.  While the proximity of the sharks did not freak me out in the least, the sea serpent definitely did. It was just plain creepy.  Although we were not allowed to take pictures, I was already dead set against doing so; a sneaking suspicion telling me that if I looked away for a second to get my camera out, that freaky serpent would break through the plate of glass between us and swallow me whole.  Suddenly, it slithered backward quickly back into the ship, just as quickly as it had appeared.  At that moment, a small enclosed tank was being lowered from above into the aquarium, with people inside.  Part of the ‘fun’ one could have at this aquarium was to partake in feeding the sharks, up close and personal, for only $70 USD!  The aquarium’s swim with the dolphins program cost between $150-200 USD (at that time in 2003), depending on which program you chose.  The high cost was in part due to the high cost of maintenance required for the dolphins, and part to keep the crowds at a reasonable number.  But feeding sharks, well let’s face it, if you don’t follow the rules, you become shark food yourself, and therefore the aquarium pays less for maintaining the sharks. Keeping that program’s numbers down to a reasonable crowd did NOT seem like a problem – how many people seriously were going to line up to take part in that? As it was, it was not this Taco’s cup of tea, and thank God, it was not Vidal’s, either…

The aquarium had a restaurant on the top level.  It faced the dolphin pool and lagoon; the back wall was the shark/barracuda aquarium.  We struck up a conversation with a nice elderly American couple next to us, who told us they had just retired to Belize.  They told us there was an enticing retirement program there with lots of benefits, and that a beachfront house cost only $400 USD per month.  Wow!  We were just about to leave the restaurant to go wandering Cancun’s malls, when they told us a hurricane was headed toward Belize (six hours south) and was supposed to hit the next morning; they were worried they would have to leave their Cancun time share that day to head back to board up their house. We looked outside, and saw dark threatening clouds rolling in… We decided Cancun’s malls and a cheeseburger in paradise could wait for another day, and to head back to Ricardo’s house right away.  The second we stepped foot on the parking lot, the wind picked up furiously, a cloud burst and the rain crashed down upon us.  Once we got to his house, Ricardo advised us it was not yet a hurricane and it was still way out at sea, but it would be best to go back to our hotel, just in case the tropical storm turned into a hurricane and/or crossed our path.  So, we hit the road, with a prayer to keep us safe… The rain had already stopped by the time we got to Ricardo’s house, and thanks to God, the wind did not pick up at all on our 1.5 hour ride back and the rain was minimal (the storm ended up turning its path, bypassing Belize and us, later hitting Texas instead).  While our day of fun was cut off early, we were blessed with an awesome time with Simba and the other wonderful dolphins, and were blessed with a spectacular painter show of clouds the whole drive back… the Lord’s canvas, indeed it was!

2003 DELF CH 20004

  • Excerpt from Seems Like Old Times: Returning to Frolic in Mayaland, Chapter 2
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Mother’s Day Trip to Oaxaca

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Here in Mexico, Mother’s Day is always on May 10, no matter what day of the week it falls on. What a perfect time to post this, in honor of our mothers and this wonderful trip we had with them, 22 years ago!

In 1997, Mom came to visit me at the beginning of May. I was still working for Apple Vacations, so she stayed with me at the Dorado Pacifico.  As she would be there for Mother’s Day and she was to meet Vidal’s mother for the first time, Vidal and I decided we would treat our mothers to a Mother’s Day trip to Oaxaca, the capital of the state of the same name.  For some people, that spells disaster – putting two future mother-in-laws together for the first time and expecting them to spend 5 days together right away, but we knew it would be a perfect fit.  And it was, indeed. Continue reading

Tracing My Roots in Denmark: Thompson-Thomsen Traits, a Bit of Heritage, Vikings, & a Bonfire

Today would have been my dad’s 82nd birthday. It was because of him that we had so much information on our family; Dad was the reason we went to Denmark.  So, in celebration of my dad, here’s a bit of our trip to Denmark as written in the original blog.  **Click on photos for more details!

THERE CAN NEVER BE TOO MANY THOMSENS… OR COUSINS NAMED EVA!

Wednesday, June 23, 2004. It was our first full day in Denmark; we were staying at my cousin Merete’s house, whom we had just met. We woke up at 7:30am to the delicious smell of coffee; breakfast consisted of cold cuts, cheeses, breads, jams and more coffee… I am full just writing about the delicious food we tried there! Anette (Merete’s English-speaking daughter) had to work, so we were on our own with translations; but it was never a problem (my Danish blood finally having kicked in). People started arriving to wonder at the New Thomsen From Afar. The first arrivals were more cousins, including Merete’s sister Eva… I must add here that I have about 1 million five hundred and seventy-three thousand six hundred and forty-eight cousins named Eva on my Mom’s side, so what was one more cousin Eva to this gal? Shortly after, cousin Otto arrived with his sweet wife Nancy, who loved to talk to us but did not speak a word of English. Otto however did speak a bit of English; he was to be our official tour guide, and better yet- our family historian.

15 MINUTES OF DANISH FAME

Eva, Otto and Nancy were followed by the Press conference at 9:30am. What? Yes, the Press got wind of another Thomsen/Thompson in town with her Mexican hubby and an interview, with photographer and all, was to be held over coffee. The truth, Merete had called the press to put in an ad to inquire about any relatives on my non-Thomsen great grandmother’s side, but none had responded; the reporter however thought it would be a great addition to his CV and we interviewed away. Looking back, either he spoke great English or my Danish blood had kicked in (maybe it was the awesomely strong coffee?). I do not recall the name of the newspaper, but certainly it was something like the Danish coverage of Time Magazine…

Demark Day 2 interview

The interview; see article below!

WE ARE DEFINITELY RELATED

After our famous journalist left (to later win fame and a Pulitzer Prize on his Thomsen article), the cousins gathered around the dining room table to look over photo albums and the huge family tree that took up the entire dining room table – twice over- that Otto had done for a family reunion a few years back. I felt special there because of my dad; they all knew who Jack Thompson was, the one who filled in the ‘Rest of the Thomsen Story’ from across the Atlantic, and our misspelled surname was forgiven. As I looked on with my cousins at the photo albums filled with photos over a hundred years old and seeing how they were presented, a familiarity came over me; Vidal sensed it, too. It was not hard to see where I got so many of my traits from; I may not speak the same language as these Thomsens, I may spell our surname differently, but I saw in my cousins- especially Otto- so many of the same traits I remembered of my grandfather, my dad and my Uncle Fred. None of them had ever met; my grandfather, Dad and my uncle had grown up in Chicago and had never been to Denmark, so nothing could point to environmental learning. It was in certain mannerisms, humor, and most definitely in the photo albums and journaling that were so much a part of me as they were to them. Otto pulled out a clipping of the passing of my great-great grandfather; as we looked on (Vidal videotaped this as documented proof), I decided I would translate it; did a pretty decent job at figuring it out, I must say. That Danish blood thing really works, you know!

WHAT DID THEY SAY?

The Danish language-had really thrown me off. I had fully expected a guttural German sound, but what I heard took me by surprise; it was a beautiful language, sounding a bit like Scottish to me (Japanese to Vidal’s more untrained ear), other times like a Southerner speaking backwards. There had been moments when I understood, others when I got totally lost by focusing on certain unusual sounds made (i.e.: a gasp at the end of a sentence) and nothing on the words themselves.

TO DENMARK, WITH LOVE

There were many photos and letters sent by the American Thompsons, two of such stuck out; Cousin Tom from Nebraska (which was how I had always heard him called), and Lily – my great aunt; my most favorite person growing up. Lily had passed away about 8 years back; she had still communicated with Merete’s mother until not long before that. They had lots of photos of Lily and Cousin Tom from Nebraska; it was a thrill for me to be able to tell them who was who in some of the photos and see once again photos of my grandparent’s old house, which had once been that of my great grandparents.

Denmark Day 2 pics sent to DMK

A few photos sent from USA to Denmark

WHO ARE WE?  THE DANISH THOMSEN FAMILY TREE

We studied more in-depth Otto’s Danish family tree, the starting point of which was the first generation of Thomsens. Prior to that, the last names meant ‘the son or daughter of the first name of their father’ (i.e.: Grave’s son would have the last name Gravesen and his daughter would have the last name Gravesdatter). Otto told us that he himself had changed his name to Møller (Miller), as there were so many Thomsens in Denmark, and it was a way of keeping the Thomsen Miller tradition as part of the family. Interesting, my grandfather had pretty much done the same; although his name was never legally changed, he was known more as Harry Miller than Harry Thompson. My great grandfather, Peter Thomsen (son of Thom) was one of 7 siblings; that was how we were all connected, as Lois, as were the Denmark cousins, were descendants of my great grandfather’s siblings. In the family tree was a photo of a farm; the house that my great-great grandmother built; named ‘Søvang’, which interestingly enough, translated to ‘seawater’. Otto told us the story of how my great-great-grandfather bought the land in Sjørring which included a lake, then he drained the lake, but nobody knew why. He then started to build a farmhouse, but fell in, then later died of pneumonia (I may have lost something in my translation); my great-grandmother then took up the task of building the family home (on an different part of the land). It no longer belonged to the family; Otto was the last to have owned it. He sold it in the seventies; but he was on friendly terms with the current owners who were more than happy to have us come by to have a look around! So, after a 12:30pm break for coffee and cake, we headed off by 1:00pm in the rain in a parade of 2 cars, not far away to see the former family farm.

UPON US ALL, A LITTLE RAIN MUST FALL

Vidal and I went with Otto and Merete; his wife Mary followed with Eva. There were the typical Danish (as opposed to Chinese) windmills all around, and it was quite windy. It was unfortunately raining heavily, and my photos turned out very poor as a reflection of that (and possibly a bad roll of film). However, we had the good sense to borrow a friend’s camcorder for the trip, and have those lovely memories on film… but as we had not had the good sense to inquire of our friends how to operate said camcorder, most of our footage has the lovely title ‘NUESTRO NUEVO BEBE’ -our new baby imprinted on it, as it was not until the second month of our trip that I figured to how to remove it!

MY GREAT-GREAT GRANDMOTHER WAS A BUILDER, WHAT DID YOURS DO?

We met the owner, who welcomed us with open arms and allowed us to wander the grounds. It was strange yet comforting, as cold and windy as it was, to walk the grounds of where my ancestors came. Otto, who doubled as our tour guide, pointed out where the lake had once been- there had been an island in it; it was now just an open rolling field of green which seemed to go on for miles. My great-great grandfather had started to build (or at least dig) a foundation for the house he was to build 100 meters from where the house my great-great grandmother actually built, but he was not sure exactly where that original foundation was. He pointed out the two original milling wheels near the barn, then we walked to the rear of the house to see the garden, at which pointed Otto pointed out that the rear of the house was completely unchanged since my great-great grandmother had built it in 1880… I stood there shocked, his words echoing in my head; the realization of what he said sinking in: The original house still stood. I was shocked, as I had heard it had burned down in the 1950s. No, I was told, only the barn had burned down, the house was still there, and we were looking at it.

SØVANG-SJØRRING The house was long; white painted brick; 2 stories high. I have no idea how many rooms, but I did count 10 windows across, whatever that tells us. While the new owner was very sweet and by no means did she make us feel anything but comfortable, I did not feel right imposing on her to see the inside. As it was, I had felt as if I were intruding by stepping into the huge barn with its doors wide open. So, I have no idea what the inside of the house looked like, and there was no sane reason to think it would be anywhere near the way my great-great grandmother had it, so best to leave it to my imagination. As t was, the rain was pouring down so hard we were drowning and it would not be proper to ask to be invited inside to drip upon their floor; the fact that I was able at all to walk the land once owned by my great-great grandparents and gaze upon their work was a thrill in itself.

SJØRRING VOLDE: ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS A VIKING CASTLE HERE

We got in the cars and a mile or so down, stopped off the road to take a look at a mound. A sign in front of it claimed it was Sjørring Volde, the former grounds of an old Viking castle with a moat. Basically we were looking at a clearing with a large mound in the middle; it looked as if someone had dug a ditch all around it. The castle was now nonexistent (wood castles were not built to last long a thousand years ago), but what looked like a picnic bench sat on top where the castle once stood- or maybe it was the Vikings’ table- just made out of more sturdy wood? With a good imagination (which yes, I have been blessed with), one could visualize the moat where the ditch was (did my ancestors drain that, as well?) and a small but fearsome castle on the mound itself. There was a sign in both Danish (imagine that) and English (for my benefit, thank you) explaining what we were looking at. Otto pointed out that the sign had a map of the immediate area showing 2 lakes, although both had been drained by 1878; one of which was the one my great-great grandfather drained. Guess they hadn’t updated the sign in 100 years or so? In the interest of time, I took a photo of it to study later, not knowing my film was bad; my internet research came up with a handful of sites in Danish, but my Danish language skills had sadly disappeared once I returned to the other side of the Atlantic…

SJØRRING KIRKE: THE CHURCH ON THE HILL

Our next stop was the Sjørring kirke (church) dating from 1100 with its small graveyard; perched upon a hill. I saw no town around it (although the pouring rain may have blotted it out and I missed it); Otto pointed out where we could see our old family land from above (through the sheets of rain, that is). Amongst the famous people married in that quaint church were Merete and Peter, Otto and Mary, and my great grandparents. Otto and Merete pointed out family grave markers such as their mutual grandfather Johannes; but the oldest ones such as that of my great-great-grandparents had been removed, and only more recent ones remained. The church itself was very simple but beautiful with wooden beams, painted pews and chandeliers. To the rear of the church graveyard was an ancient Roman granite grave marker, supposedly of a Roman bishop.

TINGSTRUP & THISTED: EARLIER THOMSEN STOMPING GROUNDS

We made a quick stop at the very tiny village of Tingstrup (through the pouring rain, it seemed to have a grand total of something like 8 houses), where my great grandfather was born, and an old school that Otto said possibly my great grandfather attended. When Otto had heard I was coming to visit, he had researched to find out more about my great grandfather; our first stop in Thisted was to see the building which had been my great grandfather’s last residence before sailing to the USA. It looked like an old building one might see in Chicago; I hoped that would have made my great-grandparents feel more at home when they arrived there. We then walked over to the 12th century church, where many of our Thomsen ancestors had been baptized and married. The church was larger than the one in Sjørring, but similar in that its beauty was its simplicity. We passed the 1st house Otto and Nancy had built. I did ask the favor of stopping at the local tourist board so I could personally meet and thank Anke, the kind lady who had helped track down my newly found family. Sadly, the rain was coming down too hard for us to truly see Thisted, so we said goodbye to the town of my ancestors and headed to our next stop…

NØRRE VORUPØR: THE WINDY BEACH

We headed to the North Sea for the last stop of the tour, Nørre Vorupør, famous for windsurfing now and previously for its boat building yard. There were beautiful dunes nearby; we parked in front of what looked like a cute pub. The shore was dotted with beached fishing boats, and we watched a huge boat make its way in. The rain was heavy, the wind was relentless. Even so, once we reached the beach I had to go touch the sea; not just to say I did it, but to see how cold the water was. Slowly, I made my way down the steep beach (only fell once!) and clumsily bent over to put my hand in. Cold, but not ice cold as it had been in Switzerland. The beach had big crab shells scattered here and there; the wind was so strong that I had a hard time walking back up from the beach, all the while wondering, “Did my Viking ancestors sail by or sail off from here? Did they adjust easier to the Windy City winters because of this climate?”

SANKT HANS AFTEN: HOW TO BUILD A BONFIRE AND SEND THAT WITCH HOME!

Back to Merete’s house by 5:00pm for coffee and cake and to get ready for the midsummer bonfire that would commence at 9:00pm. More cousins were there to meet us and to join in the bonfire fun. Anette had explained the bonfire to us the day before; but Otto refreshed our memory on the way over. If I got it right: ‘Sankt Hans Aften’, or St. John’s Eve, is an ancient tradition that has changed over the centuries. Since the time of the Vikings, each town built a great bonfire, put a witch made of straw on the top, and then burned the bonfire and the witch, sending her soul to her mountain in Bloksbjerg, Germany to bother them no more. So we went to see the local Snedsted bonfire. Lots of people had already gathered in the nonstop rain; the pile they were about to burn was about 12 feet high with the “witch” sticking out from the top. Mind you, it had been raining hard, nonstop all day long, and the pile had been there since the previous night. Vidal and I wondered – how on earth they planned to get the fire going? Minor detail; we Danes do not give up, we give no quarter; we push on. The crowds gathered; there were children running around; I thought to myself that if that had been in the USA, cops would be all over the place to shut it down for safety issues and people would be sued, skinned alive and thrown in a cell for letting kids get that close to a fire with no safety fence around them or fireproof clothing on their backs. A handful of kids of various ages had their own campfire going and were busy baking some sort of bread on a stick over their fire, a safe 30 yards from the Big Bonfire. Otto did explain to me what they were doing and told me the name of the bread, but unfortunately by the time I wrote in my journal later that night, it had escaped me, as did the name of the beautiful bushes with lovely white flowers near the bonfire grounds which Otto told us were used to make tea and wine.

SNAP CRACKLE AND POP THE DANISH WAY

The adults tried to start the fire ‘normally’, but it just wouldn’t take. Someone went off on a motorcycle, came back with a couple jugs of gasoline, and poured it onto the pile. They tried to light it again, but it just smoked. Someone else came up with another idea… When all else fails, bring out the blow torch! We are a DETERMINED people; we WILL get this fire going, we WILL send that witch away, she will NOT bother our town! The blow torch blew, the fire started with a WHOOSH and the pile started to snap, crackle and pop, but it was not enough to blow that witch back to Germany. So, out came a second blowtorch and with the Power of Two, the bonfire was ablaze and so was the witch, hissing and cracking and eerily whistling away with green smoke. The deed was done; mission accomplished. We headed back to the house; Peter surprised Vidal there by bringing home some oysters he caught that day. Vidal put on a show for the family as he spent about 30 minutes trying to figure out how to open the oysters. No one in the family liked oysters, so he was on his own; but all thoroughly enjoyed being amused by him trying to figure out how to open them!

 

 

 

Thisted: http://www.thy.dk/turistbureauerne/thisted/ Sjørring Volde Viking ruins: http://www.visitdenmark.com/danmark/da-dk/menu/turist/oplevelser/attraktioner/Oldtidsminderogruiner/produktside/gdk002587/en-gb/sjoerring-volde.htm Nørre Vorupør: http://www.sologstrand.com/holiday-denmark/north-west-jutland/vorupoer.htm

– Excerpt from: A Pile of Rocks on the Side of the Road: Taco’s European Adventures, Chapter  12

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.

BREAKING WIRED IT PULL

HANDCUFF UNTIL THE IT COLLIDE

AND WITHOUT LOOSING IT PULL THE HATCH

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