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!


Book Reviews: February 2018

Because I couldn’t post this in February due to a lack of Internet access in Cuba, here is a belated book review.

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker:

I’m always on the lookout for more books about language and linguistics, so when Steven Pinker’s name came up in John McWhorter’s Words on the Move, I decided to check out his books. If Words on the Move deals with the social and historical development of English, then this one focuses more on the neurological and psychological aspects of language (not just English). It’s fascinating, but I have to admit that some parts are too technical for me and I found myself not retaining a single word after reading several pages. It probably didn’t help that I always read this before bed. It’s not really a bedtime sort of book. Still, a great book if you’re interested in linguistics. 4/5

Vietnamese Festivals by Nguyen Van Huyen:

This collection of essays was written in French during the 1940’s by one of Vietnam’s leading historians and folklorist, and later translated into Vietnamese. It offers a wonderful look into the traditional festivals of Vietnam, most of which are still celebrated today, though some of the traditions are now lost or their meanings have become obscure. My only criticism is that it’s a collection of essays, so some of the information tends to be repeated. 4/5

The Spy by Paolo Coelho:

I knew this was going to be disappointing even before I read it, because I was hoping for a biographical novel about Mata Hari and this is too thin. But I read it anyway, figuring that even if it doesn’t give me all the details about Mata Hari’s life, then at least it could give me some sort of insights into her personality. The book, a series of letters from Mata Hari to her lawyer, is certainly supposed to do that, but it doesn’t. It tries to depict Mata Hari as a tragic figure who just wanted to be an independent woman, and that proved to be her downfall, but I don’t sympathize with her character or have any investment in her life. The book is simply too truncated to leave any kind of resonance. 1/5

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson:

This is the book I read during my Cuba trip – non-fictions are best travel read, I find, because you can pick it up and put it down anytime you want. Subtitled “More Notes from a Small Island”, this details more of Bryson’s travel around the British isle. It may not be funny as the first Notes from a Small Island, but I still really enjoyed it, because I identify with Bill Bryson as a traveler (like me, he always seeks out the museums in every town he visits and grumbles about the prices of everything). 4/5

So that’s my books for February. What have you read?


I’m back from my Cuba trip! There are a massive amount of photos to sort through, and I’m still recovering from the looooong flights, but rest assure that there will be a lot of travel posts in the upcoming weeks. In the meantime, here is a teaser and an SIA post, all in one.

Before I left for my trip, I asked Jen to send me the inspiration for the upcoming challenge so I could plan ahead. The inspiration, which is the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray, turns out to be perfect, as I was traveling with a friend, so I decided to recreate the painting if we could.

We finally got a chance to take the photo at our casa (homestay) in Trinidad, as it has a nice little cove with plants and chairs. There wasn’t a plate of fruit for us to use as props, so we had to make do with an ashtray, but it looks pretty close, doesn’t it? Here are some more photos of my full outfit during our sightseeing of the town:

Don’t forget to check Jen’s blog for the full round-up on Wednesday!

Wanderlust Tag

I found this “Wanderlust Tag” a while ago when I was preparing for my trip. Since I’m traveling but don’t want to keep the blog on complete radio silence, I thought it would be fun to answer these questions and take a look back at my travels:

Where was your first plane to? Well, technically, my first plane was to Siberia when my mom was pregnant with me. But that doesn’t count, does it? The first plane trip I could actually remember was to Hue (the former capital of Vietnam) and Da Nang when I was in… 7th grade, I think?

A beach in Da Nang

Where have you travelled to that you would love to travel again? The UK. The short time I was there wasn’t enough to satisfy the Anglophile in me. I’d love to see more of Wales and Scotland, and especially the Cotswold,  which I haven’t done justice. Other than that, I’d want to go back to Iceland, Venice, and maybe Singapore too.

Cotswolds cottages

You’re leaving tomorrow, money is no object, where are you going? Oh boy. Where wouldn’t I go? But on top of my list is the Trans-Siberian railway. My parents took it when they traveled to their universities in Germany in the 1970’s, and it sounds so fascinating to me. Plus I’ve always loved traveling by train. I’d love to go to Japan too. Or Australia. Or back to Iceland to see the Northern Lights.

Preferred method of travel; planes, trains or cars? Train (see above). I don’t mind flying much, but I get so bored, especially on long flights. Driving is OK for short distances. Train, for me, combines the best of both worlds: you can move around a bit, it can cover longer distances, and you can see the views at the same time. Hence my dream of traveling the Trans-Siberian railway.

Favorite travel website? Travel Fashion Girl. For other travel resources, I can search around and gather all the best information and advice, but for packing lists, I only trust Travel Fashion Girl. They have suggested packing lists for almost any destination in any type of weather, which is great for a chronic over-packer like me!

Where would you travel to just eat the food? I’m not a foodie traveller so I don’t really care, but maybe Korea or Taiwan. I was going to add Japan as well, but then I would travel to Japan for so much more than just the food.

A cheese stall at the Markthal in Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Is there a place you would never go again? Milan. I’m not a very demanding traveler – there is usually something that can interest me, but honestly there was nothing about Milan that makes me want to see it again. Not the scenery, not the food, and certainly not the transportation!

Can you recite your passport number from memory if asked? Yes (after all the visa applications!)

Do you prefer the Window, Aisle, or Middle seat? Window for short flights, aisle for long (who wants the middle seat anyway?!)

A rare window-seat photo I took during my trip to Da Lat

How do you pass the time on the air plane? Watch movies. Try to sleep. Read. Stretch. You know, the usual.

Now, I’ve been dancing around my trip long enough, so I think it’s time to finally reveal it: I’M GOING TO CUBA!!! Or, rather, by the time this post goes live, I’m already in Cuba. It’s going to be very exciting, and I can’t wait to tell you guys all about it! See you soon!

Year Of The Dog

Happy Lunar New Year! It’s the Year of the Dog, so here is a picture of my dog looking all prim and proper and not her usual goofy self:

And some shots of the celebration and decorations:

My grandma’s house, decorated with the traditional kumquat tree

Traditional altar at my grandma’s house – the sugar canes are supposed to be walking sticks for the spirits of our ancestors

Chưng cakes ready to be boiled

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have food to eat and packing to do. There will be SIA posts up next week, so stay tuned!

Book Reviews: December 2017 – January 2018

I actually didn’t read any new books in January, I just reread Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (and rewatched the mini series) and The Ladies of Grace Adieu (by the same author), so here are the books I read in December:

Words on the Move by John McWhorter:

I’m always interested in linguistics and entymology, but there are so many books on the subject that I don’t know where to start. My friend Debbi actually recommended another book by John McWhorter (The Power of Babel), but I haven’t been able to find it, so I read this one instead. It’s about the development of English and basically why you shouldn’t make fun of people for saying “irregardless”, because a lot of words started out very different from what they are now. It looks into meanings, pronunciations, compound words, and grammar, to show how English have changed over the course of history. It’s very interesting, but I would still judge people who say “could care less” and “hold down the fort” though. 4/5

The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr:

This is the second book in the series that starts with The Alienist (which was just adapted into a mini-series with Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans, and Dakota Fanning), which revolves around a psychiatrist, Dr. Kreizler, and his friends – a reporter, a female private detective, and two police officers with some newfangled ideas about criminology – as they investigate crimes in fin de siècle New York. This one sees them investigating a kidnapping, which them to confront a dangerous and manipulative woman. I quite enjoyed the first one, but this, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as good. The crimes are not as horrifying as the serial murders in The Alienist (despite every attempt to sensationalize it), the antagonist is not as fascinating, and the pacing is very slow. The last 100 pages or so are OK, but the first 600 just drags. Plus, the writing has a tendency to replace “that” with “what” (as in, “It’s the cake what I want” instead of “It’s the cake that I want”) because the narrator is supposed to be working-class, which gets really annoying. 2/5

The Circle by Dave Eggers:

I’ve heard a few people saying that they decided to cut down on their online presence after reading this techno thriller, so I decided to give it a go. Well, after reading it, I have to say I don’t see what the big deal is. The story, which revolves around a young woman getting a job at a powerful tech company called The Circle and getting swept up in its plan for world domination, is supposed to be a cautionary tale about our dependence on technology and social media, but I just don’t buy it. For one thing, this company is so obviously sinister that I can’t believe people would be OK with any of its inventions. You would expect it to brainwash people gradually by convincing them of the small things first, right? Not here. In one of the early scenes, the company announces its plan to install tiny, undetectable cameras around the world and everybody just cheers like it’s the best thing in the world. WTF?

Two, the main character is a complete doormat. In stories like this, either she would start out a skeptic and end up getting brainwashed by the company, or she starts out as a believer and end up realizing the darker side of the company. But nope. She starts out thinking The Circle is the best and at the end (spoiler) still thinks it is the best. She doesn’t go through any changes, so the entire story is rendered pointless.

Now I know why the movie adaptation flopped so terribly despite a solid cast. It’s not their fault. The story just sucks. Do yourself a favor and just watch Black Mirror instead. 1/5

Anyway, that’s me. If you want to see more book reviews, check out my friend Mike’s blog.

Adventures In Sketching III

It’s been a while since I touched my watercolor set, but here is the last batch of sketches that I did a couple of months ago. They’re of a looser style than my previous ones, which I prefer – I’m not great at drawing, so with this style, I can just lightly sketch the outline and go right in with the watercolors. As usual, they’re based upon my photos.

A flower stall in Amsterdam

Singapore’s Chinatown

A beach in Batam, Indonesia

A house in the Cotswolds and the path in front of our house (what it used to be, anyway. Now there are apartment blocks on both sides)

I’ve been wanting to get back to sketching for a while now, because work has been so busy that I want something to relieve the stress. The problem is, because I’m so busy, I just can’t seem to find the time to actually sit down and sketch. I guess I have to make the time instead of just telling myself “Next weekend…”