‘Gogo’ means Grandmother in my language, IsiNdebele. I have learnt so much by just observing her. She is a woman I hold in high regard. This is a dedication to her from my self-published book, “Wonderings of a Seeker.”

Come and meet Awa, get your book signed and enjoy light refreshments. A reading will be followed by a Q & A session.

Wonderings of a Seeker has thought-provoking, vulnerable and refreshing observations drawn from the author’s life experience. In these reflections and stories, Awakhiwe Dlodlo has found lessons from everyday moments that, at times may seem mundane, yet they awaken one’s spirit.

Audreys Bookstore Event Link https://www.facebook.com/events/510644762831254/

After my trip to Cuba, I became very busy working on publishing my book “Wonderings of a Seeker,” that this article got moved to the back burner for months. However, travel is never old, so I am finally sharing my trip experience.

Topics:
Preparation

Hotel

Weather

Food

Money

Transport

Maps and Directions

Chocolate

Coffee

Cuban Cigars

Souvenirs

Guayabera

Hemingway’s Cuba

Exploring outside Havana

Al rededor de Habana – Around Havana

People Connections

I had been to Cuba with a group of friends in 2010 so I was getting an itch to see that place again. I find that there can be scheduling restrictions when you travel in a group. However, this time I travelled with my husband so I was excited for this experience. I want to share enough but not too much. I hope this can pique your interest but leave out a lot more, so that you can have your own authentic Cuban experience when you visit.

Taking in the sun in front of La Catedral de la Virgen Maria de la Concepcion Immaculada de La Habana (April 2010).
At Plaza de la Catedral in 2019.

Preparation

The thought of being in a foreign place where there is a language barrier really scares me. When I cannot communicate, I can feel helpless at times. The first time I visited Cuba, one of my friends could communicate in basic Spanish. I felt cushioned from the alienation that comes with foreign language environment. I wouldn’t have that language cushion this time. I decided to take Spanish lessons. This is something I like to do when I know I will be in a place for more than a week. Taking a language lesson immerses me in another culture. I find it builds the anticipation and excitement for the coming experience. 

I found a good tutor for one on one lessons. One hour a week for six weeks. I made progress even though I kept mixing up my Spanish with Italian; which I took before visiting Italy in 2012. Anyways, after six classes, it was my time to go into the real world and use my language skills.

Hotel

We had an all-inclusive hotel about 30 minutes’ drive from central Havana. I had stayed at a Casa Particular with my friends the first time. A Casa Particular is similar to Airbnb. The first time, I enjoyed staying amongst locals, observing the day to day way of life. One of my favourite times was when our host took our group to a party where locals met to dance, roast meat and drink. It was magical. The style of clothes was a throwback to the 50s, that gathering transported me to a different time. I looked for that same venue this time, but nobody knew the place I described.

However, the meal times at Casa Particular were restrictive. I like being able to sleep-in when I’m on vacation and eat whenever I wake up. So it was nice to be in an all-inclusive with access to food and drink 24/7. Bravo Arenal was a good choice. It was clean and had great service. Remember I told you I had been having trouble differentiating some words between Spanish and Italian, then the hotel happened to be Italian owned. Most staff members spoke Italian and there were mostly Italian speaking guests there, followed by French and a few English speakers. That just brought some confusion to my language compartments. Yes, I do have different compartments, some languages are in the same, depending on which ones I am more fluent than others.  My mind couldn’t digest well at first. I ended up going with the flow. I was able to use three languages, Spanish, Italian and French when ordering food. Sometimes in the same sentence. “S’il vous plait, un café con leche, grazie.” 

Hotel Bravo Arenal.

I truly wasn’t expecting to be in that situation after taking all those Spanish classes. I did insist though, in appropriate circumstances that I wanted to practise my Spanish. I say ‘appropriate’ because when I am learning a new language, I am slower; I wouldn’t want to get into that when I’m hopping into a taxi to rush out to catch a flight. When I communicated with staff at the reception or housekeeping, “Quiero practicar mi español, por favor” was in my daily vocabulary, requesting to practise my Spanish around the hotel.

Our hotel also had an array of organised activities. If you like having other people plan some of your excursions, all-inclusive hotels often cater to that. I’m not into group activities. Weather

Weather

In 2010, I visited in April and found it too hot. I couldn’t believe how comfortable my friends were. Basking in the sun to get a tan while I was chasing shade all day, siting under a tree or a  parasol on the beach. I found the air to be thick with humidity. It felt like I was breathing air in a sauna. This time, my visit was end of January to mid-February. The weather was perfect. It was warm and comfortable with temperatures ranging between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius. Out of the 15 days we spent in Cuba, only three of the days had rain. One day was a very rare and deadly tornado, the worst the island had seen in over 50 years. Sadly we learned that a few people had died. We stayed inside our hotel room all day watching movies, completely unaware that it wasn’t just a storm.

A street view from Plaza Vieja with El Capitolio Building showing at a distance.

Food

I was pleasantly surprised at how much better the food was this time as compared to when I was in Cuba in 2010. Back then, I had enjoyed the home cooked meals at the Casa Particular, but restaurant and hotel food had been mostly bland. It had not made any impression on me. This time was different. The food was delicious. Not only at our hotel, but every restaurant we sampled. This truly changed my previous negative perspective, to a positive one.

There were a lot more food options this time because the government gave licences to private homes to operate as restaurants. There are a lot of these family run restaurants around or Paladar and Paladares (plural), is what they call them. I recommend that anyone visiting Cuba or Havana to look out for them specifically. I found the ones located near the busy parts of Old Havana to be on the expensive side. Here are some of the restaurants and Paladeres sampled:

Mojito-Mojito Restaurant
I enjoyed the ambiance here. It’s close to the Plaza Vieja or the Old Town Square, only one block away. They have live music. I found the ambiance vibrant. As much as I was eager to speak Spanish, I did get to a point where my mind was fatigued. When you have been flooded with a foreign language that you are not yet proficient in, I tell you, it’s really refreshing to get to a place and communicate in a comfortable language.

Dancers take to the floor during a live performance at Mojito Mojito.

I have a habit of asking the name of the person who serves me when I go to restaurants. Our server was Janice (sounded like Yanice when she pronounced it).  She spoke good English. You have no idea how happy I was to hear her explain the menu for us in English. I ordered lamb stew with rice. It tasted like home cooked food. It was a perfect setting to end an evening. We even went back for a second experience and were not disappointed. The service was great.

La Familia
I had seafood and my husband had pork chops. It was tasty and the décor made me feel that I was on a boat deck. It’s warm and casual. There was a guitar player sitting near the back playing quietly, but beautifully.

Espacios Old Fashioned
The ambiance is artsy. Each table setting is different. They used pieces of furniture that wouldn’t normally be used as tables, like a sewing bench, it was a unique touch and it worked. I had chicken with the traditional rice and beans. If you want a hearty traditional Cuban meal, this is the place to check out.

Azucar Lounge
This is on a second floor of a building that has a courtyard. I love courtyards, so just going in there was a treat for me. We shared a platter of starters. We also ordered a Cuban sandwich with salad. I had a daiquiri. 

Their Daiquiris are a feast for the eye…the presentation is amazing. I also expected my daiquiri to taste out of this world but I wasn’t blown away. It might have had something to do with the leche flavor.

The Cuban sandwich at Donde Adrian on Consulado between Colon and Refugio Streets were much better, and only 50 cents. You walk to a window by the corner, buy a sandwich and eat it while you walk and it’s yummy!

The balcony at Azucar Lounge is a great spot as it overlooks Plaza Vieja.

I didn’t find food at Azucar something to write home about. However, the ambiance and the view is refreshing. The bathroom was clean and spacious and I didn’t have to pay anyone upon entering the bathroom, on top of being a patron at the restaurant, something we experienced at most places we went to eat at.

La Vitrola
I had grilled pork with rice and beans. The servings were huge. I appreciated their vinyl coasters. It’s little details like that, that we are meant to remember about places.

We went to La Vitrola with our guide and none of us finished our food. I decided to take all the leftover meat – pork, chicken and beef. I cut into small pieces and gave it as snacks to dogs and cats that I came across on the streets. 

Vistamar http://www.restaurantevistamar.com/en
We went here for the sunset view over the ocean. The main floor has indoor restaurant seating as well as few tables by the poolside. The upper floor has indoor restaurant seating as well, but also offers a terrace that overlooks the pool and has a beautiful ocean view. We sat on the terrace.

Sunset at Vistamar.

The ambiance gave me a Mediterranean feel. The furnishings are modern contemporary. If you love photos like me, or are hunting for a photo shoot location for a special occasion, this is a great place to do it!

Basking in the sunset at Vistamar.

The food was yummy and prices were reasonable. The terrace has the best lookout for sunsets. Although walk-ins are welcomed, it’s best to make reservations as the location is a little out of the way. It would be a bummer to get there and be turned away. 

Vistamar is a perfect venue for special occasions.

Mas Habana
This is where we had our last dinner. We had walked the Malecon at sunset before heading to Mas Habana. The food presentation, in my opinion was second best during the whole trip, compared to Vistamar. The taste did not disappoint either. The interior is a combination of exposed brick, plaster, wood and string lights. I felt as though we were in a factory that had been repurposed and turned into a loft style restaurant. Even though the space has high ceilings, it still felt warm and romantic.

Mas Habana has Ground and Mezzanine levels for dining.
Bar at Mas Habana.

Hotel Ingleterra  http://www.hotelinglaterra-cuba.com/
This hotel’s architecture and interior alone are exquisite. One can choose to sit from a few sections; the restaurant, the coffee shop or the terrace. I found this location to be central. 

At Central Park in front of Hotel Inglaterra.

Whether you want a short break from sightseeing and relax with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, even order a meal, it’s worth checking out.  I found it to be a convenient spot. The interiors are beautiful. It’s luxurious. There is a cafe and restaurant with good food and drinks. There is also a good wifi connection. They do run out of wifi cards though as I found out on two occasions.

Front street view of Hotel Inglaterra.

Money

There are two currencies in Cuba. All tourists use Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and locals use the Cuban Peso Nacional (CUP). The currency for tourists is equivalent to one American dollar. That means it’s more expensive changing from the Canadian dollar to CUC. We changed our Canadian dollar at the airport currency exchange. As well at our hotel reception. There are additional fess when exchanging currency and the Canadian dollar takes a big hit. We found one bank machine that would work with our cards, using the machine is the best way to avoid all the extra fees, but if you do travel with cash I recommend exchanging it at CADECA. There are only three in Havana, but this was the best rate available for exchanging cash.

Make sure to carry some small change in the local currency for tips, especially for using washrooms. Most of the restaurants, even when you are a customer, will have someone just outside the washroom entrance that will not let you in if you don’t tip. It was at times annoying when nature called and I went to use a washroom where I am a paying customer, but had no change. I had to promise to come back and pay. This happened on a few occasions. However, there were two places where I did not have to pay; Hotel Ingleterra and Azucar Lounge.

My bank card didn’t work at some bank machines but it always worked at the Banco de Credito y Comercio https://bit.ly/2Kbz1B2

Transport

We used the classic taxis for longer distance rides. One way trip from our hotel to Old Havana (Approx 25kms) cost $25 CUC for a hard-top, $30 to $35 CUC for a Convertible.

Sightseeing on foot all day can be tiring and hard on the feet. We would use Bicycle Rickshaws, they’re everywhere and they’re cheap.

Rickshaws are at every turn in Old Havana.

Maps and Directions

We had downloaded a CityApp map application but it took too long to upload and it would freeze or just disappear. It cost about 30 CUC. A few times, we found the places before it could upload. But then we discovered one called Maps.me. It turned out to be amazing and it was free!

Chocolate

I don’t have a sweet tooth, but my husband does. We found a chocolate museum where one can have hot or cold chocolate drinks. We had chocolate milkshakes. They’re quite good with a strong dark chocolate taste, not as sweet as we expected. Adjacent to the museum is a chocolate shop where you can buy milk and dark chocolates. I liked the dark chocolate with rum inside. A few times we passed by the chocolate shop and it was closed even though it was supposed to be open. Twice, we passed by and they had run out of chocolate, it’s very hit and miss. However, the chocolate is delicious and make great gifts. We picked up on a few boxes when they were in stock.

Museo del Chocolate. My palette is not so much for sweet things but I had an amazing chocolate shake at this place.

Coffee

Cuba is famous for their coffee. I am not much of a coffee buff.  My husband is a coffee connoisseur and he went crazy enjoying different forms of coffee drinks and desserts.  I am happy with one cup in the morning but even I ended up having a few cups a day.

The first coffee we bought, just as in the case of the cigars. A guy greeted us saying he remembered us from Bravo Arenal Hotel. He said his name was Juan and he worked security. He knew a friend who had coffee. We bought four packs of, “Café Turquino” We had asked Juan to join us for a drink and chatted about life with him. We also decided that if the coffee ends up being less expensive somewhere else, we will have no regrets. We figured that Sonia and Juan are in on a common tourist scam and they did not work at the hotel we were staying at. They must know someone who does, telling them what colour of wristbands the guests are wearing. They also spoke okay English so we believed them. Nobody seemed to know their names when we asked the hotel though. Even though we had a suspicion we were likely being scammed, the coffee was real and it wasn’t much money, so we were willing to roll the dice.

At Cafe el Escorial with Lucia, our guide.

There was good coffee everywhere we went, but the most memorable was at Café el  Escorial  http://cafeelescorial.restaurantwebexperts.com/. We ended up going there almost every day just for coffee. It was the first place we went to the moment we arrived in central Havana and at times we would go back at the end of the day before heading to the hotel.  I enjoyed a Bombon as a dessert.  It had a nice coffee kick to it and creamy at the same time, it was rich.

Café Bombón.

Café el  Escorial serves light eats but not big meals. If you like coffee, you can buy freshly roasted whole bean. They sellout fast! So you have to arrive first thing in the morning. We went there twice hoping to get some and they had already run out by 10:00 a.m. The third attempt my husband was the first in line and bought 3kgs. Café el  Escorial is perfect for people-watching around Plaza Vieja.

Cuban Cigars

A friend requested that we bring back a gift of cigars. Her husband collects them and has a humidifier. So we had that on our list. While walking downtown, a lady greeted us in English and mentioned that she had seen us at the Bravo Arenal (our hotel). She said her name was Sonia and she worked in housekeeping. She immediately asked if we had bought the cigars at the Cooperative. She explained that a Cooperative is a house where someone who works at a government cigar farm and that once a month they are given cigars they can take home to sell. This is a scam. If you read up on the internet, you will find all kinds of stories about this particular scam. The Only place to get Authentic Cuban Cigars is at a Government shop. There are four shops in Havana. We did fall for it though and bought one box of 10 cigars. Upon arrival at our hotel, we enquired about a Sonia and nobody knew her. Not only that, when they checked the box of cigars, we were told the seal wasn’t authentic. We later went to the government run store to buy cigars to bring back home.

A face that has many stories to tell.

Souvenirs

There is no scarcity of curio and souvenir shops in Havana. However, if you want to go under one roof for everything, from clothes to paintings, I suggest Mercado San Miguel. It is huge. We were there for a couple of hours. For the first half of walking around, the vendors didn’t bother us. The moment we started buying and carrying around the bags, it all changed. They got pushy and it got tiring to respond to one person several times. I made a decision to respond to a vendor once…out of respect that each one is doing their best to make a living. If a vendor kept insisting, I kept quiet and continued with my shopping. This is something I dread dealing with when I go to markets as a tourist.

Guayabera

Nothing says Cuba like a Guayabera shirt. You can find Cuban shirts at all kinds of places, including the Mercado San Miguel. However, if you prefer going to one small shop for that one thing you want, with guaranteed good quality, there is a shop inside Hotel Florida that carries them. 

There is also a renowned designer who can custom tailor one for you, that is, if you don’t mind splurging. E’ Nelson Collections is owned by Emiliano Nelson.

Where the magic happens.
Nelson puts finishing touches to my husband’s shirt.

He has made shirts for some members of the New York Philhamornic orchestra, Sting, Danny Glover and various political figures. You will not be disappointed. My husband got one made. It took two days for his order to be ready. Nelson is at 22 Villegas between Tejadillo and Emperado in Old Havana. Here is an article you can read about him and his craft.  https://www.thehogtownrake.com/?p=3060

Hemingway’s Cuba

I was first introduced to Ernest Hemingway’s writing through his book, “The Old Men and the Sea.” It was a gift from my Professor, Leo Gervais at Concordia University. Since then, I have enjoyed a few of Hemingway’s books. I had a day of visiting a few sites linked to his life in Cuba. Our first stop was his estate, Finca Vigia, just 20 minutes outside central Havana. It is a writer’s paradise for sure. It is surrounded by magnificent trees and all sorts of other vegetation.

Hemingway’s La Finca. The former guest house on the right is now being used as a workshop for repairs and local artists’ workspace.

I liked walking around the main house on the terrace under a canopy of vines with trellises.  The former Hemingway house is now a museum managed by the Cuban government. There is a small entrance fee. Visitors are not allowed to go inside the house but you get all perspectives of it through the open doors and windows. One of the curators even took a phone and snapped a few photos for us on sections that we couldn’t see. We showed our appreciation by tipping.

This canopy of vines is between the main house and the Observation Tower.
Inside the top level of the Observation Tower.

From Finca Vigia, we stopped in a small neighbourhood of Cojimar. This is where the fisherman in the “Old Man and the Sea” lives. In real life, there is a restaurant called “La Terazza” where it is said that Hemingway came to hang out with his friends after fishing trips. There are several photos and paintings of him on the wall and a small statue by the bar. We were allowed to come in as long as we ordered a drink. I even got to dance and play maracas with the band that was playing there.  Our driver then took us to see a monument dedicated to Hemingway near the fort of Cojimar. There is a concrete gazebo with a bronze bust of Hemingway facing the fort. There are a few artists’ shops along the main street and no shortage of paintings all about Hemingway.

Hemingway’s statue and a quote at La Terraza de Cojímar restaurant.

On the way out of Cojimar, we saw a small quaint white house where Hemingway’s boat captain lived. As we left the town, I had two thoughts, one was that they are surely milking the Hemingway connection to the town, but the second feeling that overwhelmed the first was that there is no doubt about how locals here feel about Hemingway. There is lots of love for this man in Cojimar. Even the way people talk about him, it is with great affection and respect.

Street view of El Floridita Restaurant
Bar area at El Floridita.

Back in central Havana, we went to EL Floridita, also made popular by Hemingway. I had heard that he liked the daiquiris at this place. There was nothing impressive or memorable about the one I ordered, but again, it may have been the flavour.

Exploring Outside Havana

We took a day to visit a tobacco farm and a coffee farm in Viñales, in the province of Pinar del Rio of Cuba. It took us 2.5 hours’ drive from central Havana. It was refreshing to be in the countryside. The landscape of hills and the red earth is breathtaking.

Tourists in a cart, opting for the old way of transportation for a local tour of the farms.

Our first stop was the tobacco farm where we got to learn about the organic farming and the process from planting to final product. They refer to the tobacco as organic because they do not use any chemicals or pesticides.

Farmer working the tobacco fields in Viñales.

They plant it by hand and harvest by hand. They cure the leaves in drying barns. You get to see it all, it is really worthwhile. The government takes 90 % of their production at a set price and leaves them 10 % which they are allowed to sell at whatever price they wish. The farmer termed this arrangement as “giving to the Revolution.” The only chemical added is by the Government. They add formaldehyde for all cigars produced for sale and export. This is to preserve the shelf life of the cigar.

Tobacco leaves left to dry inside a barn.

We got a demonstration on how to roll and light up a cigar and what makes a good cigar. Everyone was offered the opportunity to delight in taking puffs.  Apparently, a lot of Cubans do appreciate a gift of a cigar from the farms because they have become a treat as they are expensive for most locals to spend money on.

A tobacco farm in Viñales.

While we were visiting the tobacco farm, out of nowhere there were loud sputtering explosions in the sky right above us. Everyone was looking up, it sounded like a small plane engine exploding. We all were looking for a plane to come crashing down to earth. We really had no clue what it was. A few hours later when we got to the hotel and found out from the people who had followed the news that day. The explosions had come from a meteorite that had entered the earth’s atmosphere and was ripping through the sky. The meteor came to rest in the field of a farmer, not very far from the tobacco farm we had visited.

A man transports his goods on a wooden sled in Viñales.

We took a donkey cart from the tobacco farm to visit a nearby coffee farm. I didn’t know what a coffee plant looks like. I drink coffee at least once a day and there is more appreciation when you learn more about a product, how it is harvested and the process it goes through to end up with that distinct coffee taste and aroma. It was at the same farm that we learned about honey and guava rum produced in this region.

A coffee plant in Viñales.
Grinding coffee beans reminded me of home and maize grinding.

We also visited Cueva del Indio (A large cave). The vegetation around it is lush and beautiful. We took lots of photos of trees…we couldn’t resist. My husband and I love trees. There are steps as one enters the cave, which are a bit slippery, one has to take extra care descending. The path is electrically lit. We had planned to get to the end and get on the boat for a short ride inside the cave to the other side of the mountain, as most tourists do, but the queue was very long. It was estimated it would take an hour for us to get to the boat for a six minute ride.

At the entrance of Cueva del Indio.

We decided to skip the wait, as our guide told us it’s only a short walk to see where the boat exits the cave. Afterwards we were famished and headed to a restaurant for late lunch. We invited our guide and taxi driver to join us. The servings were huge and it was yummy, but we felt bad because there was so much food and we couldn’t eat most of it. So much food, even for the four of us.

Our last stop was at the high point where we could view the Viñales Valley. It’s just above Horizontes Los Jazmines hotel, along Highway 241, not too far from the visitor centre. This is a must for anyone passing through. Even if you don’t have time to visit inside Viñales, a quick stop for this amazing view is worth it. We returned to Havana after that. The roads are not for night travel; they are narrow and meandering with no lighting. We managed to get out of Pinar Del Rio before sundown.

Al Rededor De Habana – Around Havana

Another vantage point of Havana that we enjoyed was looking at it through Camera Obscura in Plaza Vieja. Camera Obscura is a periscope camera, the images are projected onto a screen in a dark little room on top of a tower and shows images of the city in real time. Even if you don’t care much for the Camera Obscura, the view of the city from the roof terrace is worth it. There is a small café and plenty of room to wander around.

It’s a moment like this that can take one back in time. I often feel as though I am in a movie scene when I’m in Havana.

Even though we enjoy doing our own sightseeing and discovering things intuitively, we decided to book a guided tour of Havana through a site with Cristina Molina Tours Email: maria.molina@nauta.cu  They have great reviews on TripAdvisor. We met our guide, Lucia at our favourite Café el Escorial. We discussed the itinerary over coffee and she wanted to know our expectations. Lucia knew the history of Havana very well. It made for an interesting tour.

Every Sunday morning, the Callejon de Hamel has a celebration steeped in the tradition of Santeria, a religion of African-Spaniard roots with lots of music and dance. One of the locals explained to me that there are some influences of Roman Catholicism and Yoruba traditional spiritual concepts, which are found in parts of Nigeria. The main area of the activities takes place within a couple of blocks in the Cayo Hueso neighbourhood, which have been transformed as a community centre. We went there a couple of hours early, prior to the celebrations to tour the area before the crowds arrived. The entrance is adorned with pieces of art. All the buildings are creatively ornamented with recycled materials turned into art pieces. There were bathtubs, bicycle wheels, toilet bowls, doors etc., all reworked and exhibited from different perspectives by Cuban Artist, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona. His house is on the street/alley that’s inside the community centre.

A resident of Callejon de Hamel awaits for Sunday celebrations to begin.

After touring the area we walked around the surrounding streets to explore and take photos for about an hour. Upon our return the place was packed, it was so crowded we had difficulty seeing the dancers and musicians performing. I had to raise up on my tip toes and lift my phone above the crowds to capture photos and video. There was drumming, singing and dancing with a lot of people wearing all-white. It’s an amazing space for snapping photos of local interactions. It’s between Calles Espada and Aramburu in Havana. 

If you are curious about the chemistry of creating fregrances, you have to go to La Perfumeria Habana 1791 on the corner of Mercaderes & Calle de la Oba-Pia. I was inspired from the moment I entered. The front of store is filled with several hand crafted beautifully coloured and uniquely shaped fregrance bottles (which I enjoy collecting). You know the types of shapes that look as though the bottle just came out of an ancient treasure box. In the back is where the laboratory is. This is where you can choose from a wide variety of ingredients to create your own unique fragrance. I wished their courtyard had chairs because I started imagining myself sitting out there reading or writing. That’s how much I was inspired by this space.

Inside La Perfumeria  Habana 1719 Museum.

I decided I would purchase a few gifts for friends. I thought carefully of each person, their personality, their characters and kinds of scents they would like. I began by playing around and trying different ingredients combinations to create a special and unique fragrance for each person. Then I selected a different handcrafted bottle to suit each person. The staff were amazing! They bottled up my creations and even wrapped them extremely securely for traveling.

People Connections

I truly treasure the moments when I can connect with some people during my travels. We had a few connections that happened organically and it made our time in Cuba much more enjoyable.

Music is part of the Culture in Cuba, it’s in the air just about everywhere. One evening as my husband and I strolled through the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Havana, we heard music echoing from a corner restaurant.  We were intrigued and decided to go check it out and have a snack and cold drink. 

With Janice.

I love to dance, I will get on my feet and move any chance I can get, and this place was no exception. The music was so infectious. We found out that one of the band members has played with some of the original members of Buena Vista Social Club. One of my favourite songs of theirs is “Chan Chan.” I explained how I loved this song and asked if they would play it. Not only did they perform the song, I was pleasantly surprised as they invited me to play the Maracas along with them. I truly enjoyed this experience.  

One afternoon as we walked into the café at Hotel Inglaterra, there was no table available, we decided we would wait. However, a young man sitting alone beckoned for us to share his table as there were free chairs. This is how we met Richard, who told us of other places we could see and most importantly, he referred my husband to his barber friend around the corner from the hotel. We had good conversations with Richard as we had our lunch.

My husband was relieved to find this barbershop.

Richard happened to be an English teacher, a tour guide, waiter, etc… We found out that a lot of people do take on more than one job so they can make money outside the positions they hold with the government. Richard also referred us to Arte Fabrica; a factory building turned into a club and exhibition hall. When we left Hotel Inglaterra, he walked us to the barbershop Salon Rojo which is appropriately decorated in red, for “rojo” in Spanish. This is where we met Amir, the barber. He was so good that my husband came back before the end of our vacation for another straight razor shave beard clean up.

An immersive experience at Arte Fabrica, a Nightclub and Museum with local art exhibits, live performances and several sections indoors that play different genres of music.

While having coffee at Café el Escorial, we asked our waiter what restaurant he could suggest where there was live music at supper. He told us a few places and also seemed to seek for confirmation of some details from a guy at the next table, who then gave us directions in English on how to find places being suggested. His English was the best out of all the people we had interacted with. “Is there any way we can hijack you so you can be our guide?” My husband asked the young man. This is how we met Emmanuel. He is a student of architecture. We exchanged contacts and a few days after, we met up. We had amazing times with Emmanuel. He was professional and fun.

With Emmanuel.

When we were scouting around for a classic taxi for the countryside trip, we were quoted between 360 CUC and 500 CUC for a return trip. But one taxi driver who happened to be dropping someone when we were ready to leave our hotel quoted us the cheapest. We latched on to him for all our trips. Pablo didn’t speak any English. Emmanuel organised and negotiated everything when conversations became deeper than my Spanish level. Because Pablo got a lot of business from us, he also went out of his way to give us the best service. After connecting with these two wonderful people, we spent most of our time in Cuba as a foursome. We also found out that Emmanuel had served in the Cuban army with Richard. We were walking in old Havana one afternoon when we met Richard while walking with Emmanuel. They greeted each other as close friends. It was a nice surprise for us.

With Pablo.

I had a nail emergency while sightseeing when my nail broke diagonally, causing me some discomfort. On our way to the taxis, we passed a house with a door that was ajar and I could see a table with everything nails. A lady came from the back and welcomed us in. While I got my nail fixed, her little girl took to me and came to sit on my lap. She showered me with kisses. It really took a long time for one nail to be fixed as her tools were very basic but my gratitude meter was high. For a few days after, I kept thinking of the lady and her little girl.

Getting my nail repaired and little Chonilla plays on.

It took two trials, tracking back to the streets we had walked to find her house. The first time she wasn’t home. When we finally found her and the little one, there was so much happiness being shared by people who didn’t know much about each other. With my basic Spanish and some Google help, we had a lovely conversation and wished each other good things in life. I left gifts, and when Chonilla (the little girl) got the teddy bear, her mom mentioned it happened to be her birthday. A perfect coincidence.

We gave most gifts to people we had shared moments with and those who had taken care of us at the hotel and those we connected with during our time in Havana. One of the most touching moments was when we made arrangements to meet up with a young lady we had met while she was serving at a restaurant. When we met her to give her gifts, she had brought me some gifts too. I have so many accessories but those gifts came from a genuine place of kindness and even if I never see her again, those pieces will always take me back to that moment.

Photo Gallery

Primavera sculpture of Cubano Rafael San Juan.
San Salvador de la Punta Fortress.
Sharing a joke with a flamboyantly dressed woman in Havana.
The majestic shade tree in Viñales.
A tuck shop.
A grand trunk tree near Miramar, Havana.
Hotel Raquel, Havana.
A fuzzy giant tree, Viñales.
Interesting entrance to La Máquina Cafeteria, Havana.
Gran Teatro de La Habana.
The iconic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Havana.
Sunset along the Malecon, Havana.

Cuba to me is one of those places that when you leave, you hope you can see it again. But then, there are so many places to see. May be someday, I will return.

Cuarteles Street, Havana.

“Yes, the future is here. But the past too is everywhere. The buildings, the cars, the gears of the whole system are still largely stuck in time.” – Anthony Bourdain.

All photographs by Scott Kezin @kezinimages.

I would like to share an excerpt from my book ‘Wonderings of a Seeker.’ It is a piece inspired and dedicated to my late aunt who was born on June 13. I thought it fitting to remember and honour her today.

Recently, a friend and colleague of mine lost her husband of 48 years. After some time away she had returned to work, one of our company’s business partners sent her a beautiful flower arrangement to express their condolences. My colleague was touched and loved the gift. She mentioned that she wished she could dry the flowers so she could preserve that arrangement as it looked for as long as possible.

As the weeks passed, she was unable to find a solution for drying the flowers. Soon they became brown and withered. I watched her pick at the pieces and throwing away only the rotting parts until there was just a few petals left.

However, when I initially heard her talk about the gesture and how much she loved the arrangement I suggested she take a photo while the flowers were still fresh. Remembering this I had an idea. So I asked her permission to take whatever was left home with me for the weekend . She agreed. I took the glass vase and what was left of the arrangement.

I went to Michaels, a craft store where they sell art supplies.  I found a section filled with artificial flowers. I used that image as my reference and tried my best to match artificial flowers to the original ones. When I got home I began. I cut off the stems, I carefully tucked the new artificial flowers into place, making it look as beautiful as the day she received them.

Glass bubble flowers

After the weekend upon my return to work, I delivered the new arrangement to my colleague. I saw tears in her eyes, tears of appreciation. She was so touched that she even offered to pay me. I was flattered so I thanked her and kindly refused. I had not done it to receive anything back. I was happy I took the time to try and restore something my friend appreciated. Especially something that reminds her of her beloved husband.

Do you have good things you enjoy doing for others? Even small things? My husband and I often pay for the bill of someone behind us at a coffee drive through at Tim Horton’s. It has also happened to me more than once, when I have arrive at the cashier’s window to pay, only to find that someone already paid my bill. I tell you, this always makes me feel that there is kindness all around us.

What do you give to others? something that brings you joy? It doesn’t even need to be something tangible, it might just be your time or some other way you do something that makes others feel special.

Please share.

With Love & Gratitude – Awa

There have been times when life has been so busy that I have felt like I’m caught up in a whirlwind and I am just trying to catch up…catch up to event invitations that I accepted, catch up to meeting friends and connecting; whether face to face, video calls, phone conversations, emails or texts. Then there is folding clothes after every laundry routine and ironing…yeah, my friends have expressed that I tend to iron more than most people they know. I even cringe when I see someone on the street with creased clothes. I feel like making an offer to iron what they’re wearing. Anyways, back to feeling like I’m in a whirlwind, I got to a point where I was tired of trying to catch my breath. I had to reassess.
Now, I mostly do not accept any invitations more than a week away, except if it’s a one in a lifetime kind of event like a wedding or graduation and so forth. There are times when I am organising an event or a group outing and there’s always one or two people who are constantly excited and talking about the event to come so much that I feel exhausted before the event arrives. It’s not that I don’t get excited about things. I will express my excitement the first time I hear about it or decide I am doing it. Then I plan. While I plan, I want to enjoy the process and details leading to the event. But if someone starts to tell me how they want to enjoy it and the things they want to do over and over…I start to feel as if they are giving me the experience prematurely then what’s the use of the actual experience? So I often tell those involved that they shouldn’t be surprised if I don’t talk about it, it does’t mean I am not excited, in fact I will have a genuine experience and fun at that occasion because I don’t put too much energy on the build up or create too many expectations in my head. I want to experience the actual occasion, what is and the moment.
Giving myself the opportunity to catch my breath means I’m also okay with doing the laundry in little bits and pieces. I am okay with coming home from work and not taking calls or texting and just be. I am okay with declining invitations even if it means I am home doing nothing, being with myself and being conscious of my breath, my thoughts and meditate or read or watch something funny and laugh out loud; alone or with my husband.
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Pacing myself in everything has made me more thankful by giving thoughts of gratitude in the now. I am constantly in gratitude for everything. I give gratitude for big things like how my life is surrounded by love, family and friends to the feeling I get when I enjoy the sun’s rays on my face or when I am having a glass of water or taking a shower, or when I eat and taste my food to when I tend to plants and flowers on the deck and I tell them that I am grateful for their beauty. I notice when a stranger does an act of kindness and I say “thank you” looking at them so they know I have acknowledged their gift to me.  The constant feeling of thankfulness makes me content and at peace.
As I thrive to be in a constant state of gratitude, I do get a little whirlwind now and then. There are times when a day just turns out to be a crappy one, notably, this happens more at work or when travelling and dealing with surprises in foreign places. I have learnt to take a moment to myself, breathe, then think of something that brings joy to my heart and I acknowledge gratitude for it. From there, I don’t dwell on the problem but I think of a solution. It all doesn’t feel like the end of the world after that. The most amazing part is that gratitude gives me more gifts in life that I keep being thankful for and the feeling of gratitude feels me with joy.
Happy Thanksgiving.

The first few years of my childhood in Zimbabwe were spent between two homes, one in the city of Bulawayo and another in the village of Lupane. During the times I spent in the village, I used to tag along with my mother or with a relative as we walked to the bus stop every Saturday to wait for fresh supplies of food that my father had sent to us from the city.

There were always other families waiting for their parcels as well. These were the only chances I would have to mingle and play with other kids before I started school. While all the families waited, there were lots of cars passing by, as this road led to one of the world’s wonders, the Victoria Falls.

Standing by a Baobab tree along Victoria Falls Road in 2014.
Standing by a Baobab tree along Victoria Falls Road in 2014.

We would wave at the travellers and they would smile and wave back. The most exciting part was when some of the passing tourists would toss out sweets and other goodies from their car window as they sped by. Usually it was the kids in the cars that would toss the treats.

This spiced things up and entertained us all while we waited at the roadside bus station. We would run to pick up the surprises with anticipation to see what it was that a stranger had decided to share. If there were not enough sweets, we would take them and place them on a rock and take a smaller stone to hammer the candy so it would break in tiny pieces and all the kids could share. Our excitement was not derived from hunger. We were all well provided for and healthy. For me, it was like strangers were sharing something of themselves with us.

Those moments in my childhood are some of my most cherished memories in the village that I have never forgotten. The last time I visited Victoria Falls, I passed by the very same road side bus station where these

With a sculptor selling beautiful creations from wood.
A sculptor shows off his beautiful wooden creations along Victoria Falls Road. 

memories were created. A feeling of nostalgia came over me. I shared with my fiancé my memories of this and we decided we would do the same; we would leave little tokens of appreciation to strangers along that road. We dropped packets of potato crisps, sweets and chocolate bars. At times we stopped to chat with vendors and even if we didn’t buy anything, we would leave some kind of gift for them. The last person we saw was a young boy who was running along the road going the opposite direction. He was going to the next village with a message. He was delighted to get a bag of potato crisps and a cold drink. I told him that I had grown up not too far from where we met him. He wished us well. My heart was filled with the joy that comes along with sharing little things with strangers.

When I started the Master Composter Recycler program, I didn’t know that I would learn so much more than recycling. Part of the program’s objective is to teach people not only to reduce waste but to also reuse. Composting is also part of reusing your food, yard waste and animal waste to turn it into food for the plants. Most importantly compost gives organic matter back to the earth and helps plants fight disease. It is a natural alternative to pesticides and herbicides.

Composting for Canada coverI was so surprised when I began to learn more and more about different ways of composting. There is so much to learn! One could write a book about this stuff….just like fellow Edmontonian Suzanne Lewis. Her book ‘Composting for Canada’ is quite handy and worth picking up if you’re considering composting.

There are so many ways of composting and you can decide what works for you, depending on your living conditions and whether you want your system indoors or outdoors, seasonally or all year round. In making your decision, you have to take into consideration the climate, especially the winters in Edmonton. 

The City of Edmonton does a great job of composting the waste that its own residents produce. You can buy compost from the City. If you think about it, what you are paying for is the waste you threw away. So perhaps it’s time you started your own composting. 

A good place to start is the John Janzen Nature Centre where they hold composting workshops. You can use the compost toilet while you are there. Happy Composting!