Havana is a ruinous city, like an old prostitute covered in too much makeup to hide the pain and suffering, but yet resilient and full of life. The crumbling facades of the wedding cake villas and opulent palaces of the former sugar barons and casino moguls, of the corrupt regimes before the revolution, bear witness to the ravages of time, decay and lack of money. Sixty years of neglect, coupled with numerous hurricanes and the salty fecundity of the climate is not a recipe for a well functioning infrastructure.
In October 2018, ten of us, cousins and spouses, ventured on a two-week trip to South Africa, organized by our youngest cousin, who grew up in South Africa. We took an overnight flight from Zurich, and arrived 9 hours later in Johannesburg where we were whisked off to the Johannesburg Country Club, a left over cluster of old manors and lounges from the Brits, sprawled over a few acres of groomed gardens and surrounded by a ten foot high wall, topped with electric security wires. Over a scrumptious, extended lunch we were treated to a bit of history from our cousin who loved this country of his birth with a natural passion and he also knew that we were curious and keen to know where we were.
The LNG powered ferry from Tallinn, Estonia, to Helsinki takes two and a half hours and is a glitzy, floating restaurant, lounge, bar and garden patio with several large TV’s, a kids era, a live band and a whole floor dedicated to shopping. You can buy a fancy watch or designer clothes while drinking a glass of champagne. Living in a ferry dependent community as we are here on the Sunshine Coast, this was a jaw dropping luxury cruise compared to the old rusty and creaky, diesel powered boats plying the waters of B.C. Mind you that crossing cost $ 50.- p/person as in compare to $ 17.- or free for seniors during the week.
Before we embarked on our Baltic holiday this June we watched ‘The Singing Revolution’, an Estonian documentary chronicling the subsequent occupations by Tsarists, then the USSR followed by Nazi Germany and back to the Soviets. The only weapon the Estonians brandished in their ongoing protest against the tyranny of the occupiers were their song festivals. Over a hundred thousand Estonians gathered to belt out patriotic songs led by conductors and dozens of united choirs, embraced by old and young. In August 1989, these singing protests culminated in a human chain, two million people holding hands, 630 km long, linking the three Baltic states from Tallinn in Estonia to Riga in Latvia all the way to Vilnius in Lithuania. This was before Facebook or smart phones. Two years later Estonia declared formal independence during the Soviet military coup against Gorbachev, when Yelstsin, standing on a tank, dissolved the USSR. The film culminated in the heroic feat of two policemen defending the TV tower in Tallinn, against the Russian tanks who retreated when their command structure broke down.
Where the rich come to play
And the poor come to pay.
As soon as you step into the arrival and departure lounge the mechanical whirring, dinging and ringing of the ubiquitous slot machines permeates the atmosphere like everywhere in Las Vegas. This soundscape of gaming lures the masses to sit in front of, and feed money into, these blinking and clanging automated gaming terminals, depicting in bright neon lit screens various cartoon like scenes of fantasy themes, television and Hollywood icons. Casinos are at the heart of Las Vegas and they are the foundation on which this city has been built on and is still supporting thousands of jobs and the 150’000 hotel rooms. In this mirage in the desert you can go from the Coliseum in Rome to the Eifel tower in Paris to the canals and palaces of Venice, the roller coaster and Greenwich Village in New York or enter the pyramid in Luxor by just crossing Las Vegas Boulevard on one of the many elevated and escalator equipped crosswalks.
Seventy years ago Las Vegas was just a dusty old western village where today Freemont Street is covered by the ‘world’s largest’ video screen. This section features zip-lines under the video canopy with hourly visual effect shows to 80ies rock music like The Who or Heart. Its’ gaudily lit casinos and restaurants are older and a bit seedier then the glitzy new palaces on the strip, with lots of freaky performers at street level entertaining the crowds for spare change. Restaurants like ‘The Heart Attack Grill’ where 350lbs eat for free can be found here.
As soon as we walked off the plane into the airport in San Jose I felt comfortable because the floor tiles were shiny and polished, the air conditioning worked and the walls were not peeling paint but were displaying scenes of the country we were about to visit. Everybody smiled, from the customs officer to the taxi driver who delivered us to our hotel for less than we expected to pay without any haggling or confusion. “Welcome to Costa Rica,” everybody said, because it was obvious that we were newbies with our pale northern tans, our tagged luggage and lack of common currency. No matter, US dollars were pretty well equal modes of payment like the local Colones and accepted everywhere. We were not used to think in terms of tens of thousands for a meal and it took a mental adjustment to figure in the local currency, which basically was 500 Colones to every US dollar, mas or menos.
As in most points of view there are several, depending of where the viewer stands. It can be a wide panoramic view or a revealing close up, the bird’s eye or the dark underbelly view. Also there are usually two sides to an issue, two sides of the same coin. In order to do my Mexico impressions justice I need to break them up, into at least two categories: the touristy one, which is for the most part a surface experience, visual and sensual, maybe spiritual, set apart from the culture I drop into, like looking into a house through a window. The second part is more visceral, like being in the house, invited into the peoples lives, listening, watching, participating and seeing their culture through their eyes rather than mine. It’s a more immersed point of view, which has to take into account some unpleasant realities like politics, poverty, inequalities and other limitations.
Parzcuaro is the popular Pueblo Magico, nestled along the shallow lake by the same name amidst the volcanoes in the heart of Michoacan, located on the Tierra Alta Plateau at 2300m in central Mexico. The present town dates back to the 16th century and features the second largest colonial plaza in Mexico. It’s long been a favourite destination of mine, ever since 1984, when I first drove into the town. (in a 1962 Ford Galaxy 2-door hardtop, pulling a tent trailer with both kids (4+5) on a piece of plywood with some blankets and toys in the back seat). Patzcuaro has changed little in the past few centuries, let alone in the past 30 years. More taxis, collectivos (mini vans) and cars clog the cobble stoned streets, and today cappuccinos, pizzas and Internet are available everywhere.
Puerto Penasco, or as it is better known, Rocky Point is just a two hour drive south of Ajo, Arizona or can also be reached by a new road from Yuma. It is also referred to as Phoenix’s beach since it is only 4 hours from that 4 million plus city. Puerto Penasco is in the Sonora desert at the northern apex of one of the most fertile bodies of water anywhere: the Sea of Cortez also known as the Gulf of California.
We first drove through Rocky Point some 20 years ago and only remember a feast of local shrimp and lobster in a noisy bar perched atop a rocky outcropping and a crowded RV park across the road. Not much else. This time around we were guests of our friends who rented a luxury apartment for a discount price at a sprawling upscale development called Sandy Beach west of the original town and harbour. Up to sixteen stories high, several of those condo developments clustered along the shallow beach, guarded on all sides by security check points with guard shacks and guards armed with walky-talkies and clad in snazzy khaki uniforms. Hundreds of these high end condos built in the past 20 years sprawl along the sandy beach, all equipped with gourmet kitchens, rain showers and flat screen TV’s with several heated pools (replete with pool bars) and hundreds of lounge chairs spread throughout the manicured compounds, surrounded by golf course and dune buggy tracks. Very deluxe and very much affluent Americana and nothing to do with Mexico apart from the soil they are built on. Some of the buildings were abandoned in the 2008 crash waiting patiently for a developer from up north to finish them. I spent most of my week reclining on a lounge chair under an umbrella behind a rope separating the haves from the have-nots, watching the endless parade of local peddlers go by trying to sell anything from a song to a massage, from mangos to jewellery, from hammocks to hats.
We were ready and primed for the much anticipated and promoted Carriacou Carnival, famous all over the windward Islands for it’s authenticity and fervour. This is not Rio, New Orleans or Cologne, it’s only a small island at the bottom of the Caribbean. Carnival officially takes place on the two days before Ash Wednesday, but starts weeks ahead with several village ‘roadshows’, meaning all night street parties with massive boom-boxes and beer and rum fuelled revellers. On the days leading up to the epic weekend hundreds of ‘foreigners’ (people from the ‘mainland’, Grenada, and other nearby Islands including Trinidad, as opposed to us tourists who are welcome here) as well as ex-pats from England, the US and Canada, come to this tranquil Island for the festivities, turning it into a party mayhem haven. The daily ferry from Grenada was overloaded with standing room only, and many of the beer swilling passengers hanging over the railings in the rough seas.
It’s been over a year ago since all this happened. It seems longer somehow, far away from the present. Those were intense days, which we came through unscathed and intact but somehow, something subtle has changed. We are not as adventurous and ambivalent about travel in uncharted places as we were. It reminds me of a bad fall while skiing, what they call a ragdoll descent. I didn’t break anything but my spirit and even though I still ski, I am not the fearless skier I once was.
We would wake up in the middle of the night and stare into space, reliving those moments when our normal lives were suddenly turned upside down, hanging in the balance between living and dying. It took several months and many retellings, mixed in with a good portion of denial and bravado to normalize our equilibrium.
We are more wary now when we encounter strange cultures, maybe more careful when we meet strangers, more reserved even. We chose not to drive our van to Mexico, as we had planned and took a flight instead. We are somewhat damaged goods when it comes to adventure travel. I insisted that this incident is separate, unique and cannot rule our lives forward. It has to stand alone and be compartmentalized and yet, something lingers on at the back of our minds.
Carriacou is not the biggest but the most precious little pearl in the Caribbean necklace.
The small Caribbean Island nation of Greneda is made up of three islands: Greneda, the largest one, Carriacou, a two hour ferry ride from St. Georges (capital of Grenada) and Petit Martinique, a further two hours by a smaller ferry from Carriaccou. Grenada declared it’s independence from the British Empire in 1974, and the elected Prime minister was usurped by a Cuban supported armed revolution in 1979 lead by Maurice Bishop who was himself toppled and then executed by his former co-revolutionary in 1983. A subsequent military coup resulted in ‘Operation Urgent Fury’, a US led invasion under Reagon to stop ‘the domino of commies’. The invaders bombed a mental hospital, mistaking it for a military fortress, killing 18 patients, one of which was Ricky’s mother. Ricky was our tour guide, who had a cynical view of the American conquest of his Island. These events were later immortalized in the 1986 movie ‘Heartbreak Hill’, by Clint Eastwood. Ever since the ‘liberation’ Grenada has struggled to attain some kind of modern status in this competitive world, relying on the World Bank and some generous donor nations. Mother nature interfered In 2004 when Hurricane Ivan destroyed 85% of Grenada’s structures and the entire Nutmeg Crop, followed in 2005 by Hurricane Emily which ravaged the island’s north end.
Our Morocco trip was intense because my cousin Bettina who lives on the outskirts of Marrakech had put together a very ambitious program for the 6 of us which led us through a myriad of old casbahs (ancient, fortified clay burgs) off the main roads and to a different town almost every day. For the first 3 days we roomed in a luxurious riad (hotel) within the old town center of Marrakesh. It featured an enclosed court yard, a small swimming pool, spacious rooms decorated with local carpets and weavings and a lofty rooftop terrace overlooking the tiled, cluttered roofs of the old city. Naturally there was a minaret close by equipped with large speakers which blared forth 5 times a day, calling Adhan in zealous live broadcasts by a caller who desperately needed voice lessons.
We’ve been In Volterra a week, just chilling out in our small, vaulted apartment within the 3000 year old fortified Etruscan hill town. We wander the narrow cobbled streets between old palaces, castles and towers, soaking up the medieval atmosphere while sipping the house wine in our favorite wine bar just up the alley. Our apartment is about 50 feet inside one of the original city gates.
Italians are social animals and there isn’t a wine bar or coffee shop which isn’t buzzing with loudly patrons. It’ fun and lively and the history on every corner is stimulating and brutal in it’s excesses of subsequent sackings, sieges and carnage at the hands of the Romans, Florentines, Lorenzo de Medici or the black death which wiped out an unprecedented 50% to 80% of the population around here.
As soon as you arrive at the Zurich Airport you will be directed to a shuttle to the main terminal and during the short ride subjected to typical Swiss sounds like the alphorn, jodeling , cowbells and yes, the muuhing of a cow. When you exit into the shopping centre like terminal you are immediately greeted by gigantic posters of watches worn by such local celebrities as Federer and Piccard.
The Swiss are known for their punctuality, their cleanliness, their politeness and yes, they do have humour. If the train is a minute late then it’s due to a nuclear disaster or a major calamity of that order. The train is never late and it leaves exactly on the time posted. Large white clocks on every platform tell the exact time, synchronized with all the wristwatches of the passengers, who can be counted on to check their Omega’s, Rado’s or Tissot’s for possible time shifts the second the train pulls into the station.
Where is the Sunshine Coast ?
A 40 min ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver.
Ah yeah. It’s on the island ?
No it’s not. The Sunshine Coast is a 170km stretch of coastline on the Straight of Georgia along the mainland and the ferry goes to Langdale, which is across the Howe Sound. There is no road – as of yet !
And why is it called the Sunshine Coast ?