Cuba Diary #2: Havana

Havana is a city of contrast. It’s the contrast between the constant noise of traffic and the tranquility of people chatting to each other from their doorways, between the grandeur of Parque Central and the crumbling buildings of Habana Centro, between the historical Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and the bustling new town, Vedado. It’s hard to fall in love with, but it has a charm that sneaks up on you and draws you in.

We spent 4 days in Havana, 3 when we first arrived and 1 before our flight back. For the first 3 days, we stayed at Carlos Palace. It is right on the edge of Habana Centro and Vedado, so it has the best of both worlds – quiet and still within walking distance of everything. The host, Cary, doesn’t speak English, but she is very warm and helpful – she picked us up at the airport, took us to get our money exchanged, and generally treated us like two visiting nieces.

After checking in, we walked to the center of Havana, both to beat jetlag and to orient ourselves with the city. The walk took us right through Centro Habana. I wouldn’t recommend it for your first day in Havana, because it is not the touristy part of town and can look a bit rough (though never unsafe). The buildings are rundown and the streets are filled with exhaust fumes. On the other hand, you get to see the real side of Havana and how the locals live, which is great.

Cuba still has a food ration system, so we saw a lot of locals queuing up for their daily rations. It must be a strange sight to the average Western tourist, but for us Vietnamese, it’s just like traveling back in time to Vietnam during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

That doesn’t mean that everything was rationed – we also passed a market place, and there were plenty of carts selling fruits and vegetables on the streets.

Finally, we stumbled upon Parque Central, the main hub of Havana, where most of the grand buildings are located. It was quite something to come out of the Centro area and see these buildings gleaming in the sunset.

The next day, we went on a more proper walking tour of Habana Vieja. My friend knows a Vietnamese student studying journalism in Havana, so we got ourselves a guide. We saw El Capitolio (sadly still under renovation and not yet open to the public), took a tour of the Alicia Alonso Theater (we wanted to see a ballet there – Cuba ballet dancers are renown worldwide – but the shows are only during the weekend), poked around in the Museum of Fine Arts, and walked to the four squares of Habana Vieja – Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral, and Plaza de San Francisco.

A tree growing out of an abandoned building right behind El Capitolio

The exterior of the Alicia Alonso Theater

And the interior, with a statue of Alicia Alonso herself

The Spanish influence is much clearer in the architecture of Habana Vieja, but you never forget you’re in Cuba thanks to the sound of music everywhere and the women dressed in colorful traditional garbs posing at every corner.

Of course we had to be touristy and took a photo with them

Havana Cathedral

A famous Hemingway haunt. But it was thronged with tourists so we didn’t go in

School kids walking through Plaza de Armas

Me conversing with Frederic Chopin (so random?) on Plaza de San Francisco

On Parque Central, we also met a nice man working a homemade pinhole camera and had him take a photo of us. For 2 CUC, it’s truly a one-of-a-kind souvenir!

On our third day, we did the touristy thing and went on a classic car tour, which we booked on Airbnb for convenience’s sake (we knew the guide speaks English and it saves us from having to bargain with the driver, like we would if we just picked a car on the street.) The tour took us to places that we would not be able to walk to – Hotel Nacional, Plaza de la Revolucion, Parque Almendares (a riverside urban forest), El Morro castle, and the statue of Christ of Havana across the bay – and was a great lesson about the history of Havana.

Our car – it may not be as pretty as a pink convertible, but it feels more authentic

Crayola cars lining up on Plaza de la Revolucion

Hotel Nacional

Parque Almendares looks like something out of “Pan’s Labyrinth”

Panorama view of Havana from across the bay

Me braving the height for a photo at El Morro

The guide and driver were also super obliging – they drove us to a restaurant for lunch, waited for us, and later dropped us off at Coppelia, a famous ice cream parlor chain in Cuba.

Chocolate and orange-pineapple ice cream. Yum!

When we came back to Havana before our flight home, we decided to stay closer to Habana Centro for easier souvenir shopping. Our casa is in a beautiful, spacious colonial building, and we quite enjoyed waking up to the hustle and bustle of Habana Centro in the morning.

There are still a few things I would’ve liked to do and to see (watch the cannon ceremony at El Morro at 9 PM, go to Fusterlandia, a neighborhood-turned-folk art gallery, and watch sunset over Havana from across the bay), but we didn’t feel like rushing things on the last day, so instead we just took it easy, walked along the Malecon, picked up some souvenirs, and returned to the casa early to pack.

The Russian Orthodox Church – one of the more striking buildings facing the Malecon

Car-watching along the Malecon

Hey, you have to leave something for next time, right? Because I certainly hope there will be a next time, some day.


SIA: Primavera

It’s time for another SIA challenge, and the inspiration is the sculpture “Primavera” by Cuban artist Rafael San Juan:

We have a good mix of outfits, so let’s get started! First up is Nancy, who is back with a combination of “soft” and “strong” between her pleated skirt and knitted sweater. The sweater’s shoulders are even ripped, sort of like the statue:

Up next is Mike, who took inspiration from the title of the statue rather than the statue itself. As long as it works, I say:

Our co-host Jen goes above and beyond as usual, starting with the color (brown/bronze/green) and finishing with the hard lines vs. soft curves in her accessories, outfit, outerwear, and background:

Our co-host Erin also chose a brown-black-blue color pallette, and her poncho is to reflect the lines and the deconstructed aspect of the statue:

Finally, here’s me. It’s interesting that we all went with green/blue in our outfits – is it because of the background in my photo?

And that wraps up another fun SIA challenge. It’s Erin’s turn to host next week, and don’t forget to check on Monday to see what she picks!

Blue Spring

For this week’s SIA, inspired by the “Primavera” sculpture by Cuban artist Rafael San Juan, I knew that I wasn’t going to be literal about it, only that I was going to wear my leather jacket – it’s my go-to “edgy” piece. But then I remembered that I do have a butterfly-printed shirt (well, bird-and-butterfly), which is perfect for the butterfly crown of the statue. I topped it off with my copper flower brooch because it looks kinda similar to the material of the statue, and thus, my oufit is complete. As it turns out, it’s a more literal interpretation than I’d expected, but that’s not a bad thing at all.

You still have until tomorrow to send me your outfits if you haven’t already, and don’t forget to come back on Wednesday for the round-up post!

St. Patrick’s Day

A few housekeeping notes first: I’m keeping my Cuba travel post to one per week because 1) it takes a long time to write one of those posts and assemble all the pictures so I just don’t have the time to write more; 2) I don’t want to overload the blog with too many travel posts at once; and 3) I want to drag it out so I can relive the trip for as long as possible.

Also, until I’m done with the travel posts, I will try to maintain at least one outfit post per week, and this week, here’s a green outfit, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day:

I got this sweater from the boys’ section of the store, can you believe it? Apparently I wasn’t the only one that set my eyes on it either, because when I brought it to the check-out counter, several ladies in line asked where I saw it and were really disappointed to learn it was the only one left.

I didn’t wear this specifically for St. Patrick’s Day – this outfit was from a while ago, and I think I was subconsciously influenced by Link from The Legend of Zelda – but St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, so it’s perfect, isn’t it?

Cuba Diary #1: First Impressions

While I was planning for the Cuba trip, sometimes I had to wonder why I chose to go there. After all, Cuba is best known for its cigars, rum, salsa, and beaches, but I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t dance, and I don’t swim, so what is there to do in Cuba?

The answer is, a whole lot. During our 10 days in Cuba, we have gone on city tours and nature hikes, ridden in classic cars and on horses, chased the sunset from the mountains to the beach, and seen the faded grandeur of the cities, the tranquility of the countryside, and the untamed beauty of the jungle. It is truly a marvelous country, and my photos and words cannot do it justice.

These pink cars are only used for tours. Everyday cars are a lot less flashy

Our itinerary is Havana (3 days) – Viñales (2 days) – Cienfuegos (2 days) – Trinidad (2 days) – Havana (1 day). While I would’ve liked to stay for a little longer, I think this is a good amount of time to get to know Cuba. If you want to relax more or spend more time at the beach (we only went to the beach once), 2 full weeks would be my recommendation.

Onto the technical side of things, there are plenty of Cuba travel guides online already, so I’m not going to get too much into that, only to give you my own experience:

– Accommodations: casa particular (private home) is the way to go. Don’t bother with the hotels. I mean, why would you, when you can stay at places like these?

Our casa in Havana

Our casa in Trinidad

Most of the casas are available on Airbnb so we booked ahead to save time, but if you’re in the mood for an adventure (and you should be while in Cuba), you can just show up to a town, look for a house with this symbol on its door and ask if there’s a room available. The price is by room, not by bed, so it’s best to travel with a friend.

Casas also provide meals (though usually not included in the price). We ate breakfast every day at our casas. It’s a huge amount of food – fresh fruits, pastries, bread, butter, jam, juices, tea or coffee, and eggs cooked to order – all for $5/person, and delicious. The casa hosts are more than happy to help you with anything you need; just ask!

Breakfast at one of our casas

– Money: yes, Cuba has two currencies, the peso nacional (CUP) and peso convertible (CUC). 1 CUC = 1 USD, and 25 CUP = 1 CUC, roughly. Yes, tourists can use CUP, but I find that small CUC changes can do just as well, so keep them on hand for things like entrance fees, taxi rides, street foods, and tips. Our budget came to about $50/person/day, including accommodations.

– Getting around: the casas we picked are all close to the centers of towns, which means we walked everywhere, except for one taxi ride in Cienfuegos when we were caught in the rain. From city to city, there is the Viazul bus, but we just took shared taxis with other travelers going to the same destination. It’s much easier (the casa hosts can book it for you), quicker, and costs about the same as the bus.

Our life-saving taxi in Cienfuegos

– Food: traditional Cuban food may be unimaginative – just meat or fish, usually grilled, with rice and some raw vegetables – but it’s very filling. In fact, the portion is so big that we just ordered one starter and one main dish and split it (that saved us plenty of money!) There are also street foods like “peso” pizzas (so called because they’re so cheap), ice-creams, fried tortillas, and churros (which we tried, delicious).

Churros and a “peso” pizza place – the prices are in CUP

This guy was selling pulled pork sandwiches for $1 each!

– Internet: there is no free wi-fi in Cuba. You buy an Internet card and log in at a hotspot. You can always find a hotspot whenever you see a bunch of people gather in one place glued to their phones and computers, and there are usually some guys nearby offering you Internet cards. We bought our cards from one of these guys for 2 CUC/1-hour card (the normal price is 1.5 CUC, but you have to stand in line.) During our trip, we only used up two cards each, mostly to email home to let our parents know we were still alive.

A wi-fi park in Havana

I quite enjoyed being unplugged and realized how much time I was wasting on social media and all that nonsense. That’s another thing I love about this trip. Elsewhere, you have to make an effort to stay disconnected from the rest of the world, but here, life is so slow-paced that you can really focus on the experience.

– Other tidbits: English speakers are easy to find, but knowing basic Spanish definitely helps. I did a course on Duolingo, and even though I couldn’t have a conversation with the locals, I could kinda tell what they were saying.

In touristy places, you will encounter touts offering you everything from tours to taxi rides to discount priced cigars, but a firm “No, gracias” and they’ll leave you alone. We never had any problem. It is perfectly safe, and the people are friendly and always quick to say hello.

More details and photos to come in later posts!

SIA Inspiration: Rafael San Juan

It’s again my turn to curate SIA, and here’s my pick:

This striking sculpture is called “Primavera” (Spring), and it’s installed on the Malecón, the seafront drive of Havana, for the city’s 12th Biennial of Arts in 2015. Made from recycled steel and inspired by the movements of the Cuban ballet dancers, it is to honor the strength and spirit of Cuban women. My friend and I saw it on our last day in Havana, and it struck me as the perfect choice for SIA, since it is appropriate for both International Women’s Month and the spring season. Plus, it allows for a wider range of interpretation – there is no color scheme to adhere to, while the contrast between the hardness of the material and the softness of the curves and the butterflies would also be interesting to interpret in an outfit.

You can learn more about the sculpture and see more photos of it in this article and this interview of the artist. Don’t forget to send me your outfits by next Tuesday, March 20th. Enjoy!

A Distant Memory

I’m still sorting through my Cuba photos (1500+ of them!!!) so the travel posts will have to wait. In the meanwhile, here is a straggler of an outfit post. This was from back in early February, I think? I didn’t even remember which sweater I was wearing underneath the coat. But it was definitely during one of our worst cold snaps. The weather is warming up fast now and bundled-up outfits like this are definitely a thing of the past. All of these items have been put away for next winter. Still, you guys know me. I’d take that kind of cold over summer heat any time, so I’m still trying to hold on to winter for as long as I could.