Fascinating Havana

Fascinating Havana

Fascinating Havana

By Kai Rambow

 

Licking a delicious mojito sorbet was just one of many contrasts that make Havana fascinating.  We were snacking at a private ice cream shop, thanks to our tour guide.  To really discover Cuba, learn the story behind the story – it’s fascinating.

Havana is much more than old cars.  Despite major challenges in getting parts and supplies, many classic cars are in beautiful condition.  If all the historic buildings were restored, people all over the world would be flocking to visit Havana.

The contrast between restored buildings and dilapidated buildings next door is stark. After the revolution, people were allowed to keep two properties: one in the city and one in the country.  The rest were confiscated by the state.

One property in the city did not mean an entire building. For example, one home, a three-story building would be divided into three apartments.  Just divided: no additions (think communal bathrooms), no upgrades – nothing, just divided spaces.

Some families would have money for maintenance, others would not, resulting in no maintenance being done at all. It’s ironic that in a socialist system, no HOA and no collective maintenance exists. The result: run-down buildings, many of which require major restoration work.

Socialism vs Capitalism 

There is an absolutely fascinating system in place for small businesses.  There are restaurants throughout Havana. Getting reliable supplies is a challenge. A restaurant may have a menu, but if short on supplies they will simply inform you an item is not available that day.

When the Cuban government allowed some private enterprise, they set things up to the state’s advantage. The state actually owns and operates restaurants at a competitive advantage. State run restaurants are able to buy wholesale and set up in prime locations. Private restaurants must buy supplies at retail prices from state run grocery stores. They cannot even get a discount based on volume. The last challenge: the state-run restaurants pay no taxes; private restaurants pay hefty taxes. Here’s the great news: despite these obstacles, private restaurants are flourishing.

How can you spot the difference? A restaurant in a great corner location, offering comfort food, such as pizza is government owned and operated. A restaurant on a side street with mostly locals will probably be private.

My mojito sorbet was a first-rate product in a little private ice cream shop. Want to really help Cubans?  Let your guide know that you know the difference, and ask for a really good private restaurant.

 

Cuba Again?

This first trip to Cuba was enlightening. The obvious is hundreds of years of history, deep cultural roots and tasty food. Add in being more beautiful than imagined, more fascinating than thought possible with wonderful people and I would not only recommend a cruise here, but will take the opportunity to revisit in the future.

 

Tips for a Great Trip

Invest in Private Tour: In Havana you have three options: Take a cruise ship excursion;  use the hop-on-hop-off bus tour; or hire a private guide.  Havana is a 500-year-old city with narrow streets; a bus tour will drive past major sites.  If you really want to learn about Havana and Cuban life, a private guide is worth the investment.  Develop rapport, ask great questions and gain insights you simply can’t with the other options.

Our private tour involved walking large sections of Old Havana and included two hours touring in a classic convertible. Tip: Maybe you need a stop for a quick bite, but leave any shopping until after your tour.

Booked with Cubaoutings Tours. Payment was in CUCs upon conclusion of tour. Note: Even with tips, this was less expensive than the cruise ship shore excursions.

Water and Snacks: Be sure to take water, you’ll need it. Cuban authorities will let you take water, if they are in unopened bottles.  Snacks, also in sealed packages, are permitted as well.  Both can be helpful.  The walking is not strenuous, but covers quite a bit of ground.  If temperatures are hot, you’ll need the water and snacks.

Special thanks to Jayne Kirse and Teresa Olson at Sun City Center Travelworld, for their invaluable assistance.

 

Cubaoutings Tours Company

www.cubaoutings.com

Helad’oro La Habana

(ice cream / sorbet)

Calle Aguiar No. 206e

Empedrado y Tejadillo

La Habana Vieja

Tel: 56236942

 

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This is Cuba? – See More, Experience More

This is Cuba? – See More, Experience More

This is Cuba? – See More, Experience More

By Kai Rambow

 

The wind whispering through the trees. Water rippling, cascading down the mountain. This is Cuba? It is – if you venture beyond the cities. We opted to explore one of Cuba’s national parks, El Nico.

El Nico showcases Cuba’s natural beauty with a surprising variety of waterfalls and wonderful views.  This tour is not for everyone.  It involved hiking up very steep inclines and slippery conditions, even in some dry places.  If you have the physical ability, it is rewarding.  In an attempt to get a photo, I ended up in the water.  Camera landed safely in a dry spot; I was completely wet and still had a great time.

Note: There are other easier, great tour options to colonial Trinidad or in Cienfuegos itself.

Mention Cuba and people think of Havana. However, there is much more. It’s easy to forget that Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, seventeenth largest in the world and longer than Florida.

Passing through non-tourist towns and the countryside provided a glimpse into more of Cuba.  For example, as we passed through one town we noticed several taxis that were horse drawn carriages. There are 12 million people in Cuba, but only 2 million cars. There is a bus system, but hiring a private car, bicycling or walking are common options. This was much more noticeable driving through the countryside than it was in the city.

Having the opportunity to see beyond the historic sites and experience the natural beauty of Cuba was a captivating adventure.

 

Tips for a Great Trip

Take a Cruise: The easiest way to visit Cuba is by cruise ship. One very adventurous passenger had done a land trip staying at B&Bs. The B&Bs had no air conditioning and communal bathrooms. After sightseeing all day, returning to creature comforts on your ship is probably a preferable travel option.

Cruise options now range from just a few days stopping only in Havana to eight day cruises with three stops in Cuba. One consideration: in some stops tenders are used to transport passengers ashore.

Pack Patience: If you’ve cruised before, you may be used to simply walking off the ship. Every port in Cuba required us to clear customs. This takes some time, so you will need to be patient.

Work with a Travel Agent: Traveling to Cuba is new, and there are several questions you’ll have. For example, when experiencing difficulty booking this excursion, our agent directed us to an alternative.

Cruise Tours vs. Private Tours: Cuban tour companies have adapted quickly to meet American preferences. They now use modern buses complete with air conditioning and a toilet on board.

Private tour companies often use air conditioned cars with a driver and tour guide. This is a more intimate experience, and can be customized to meet your interests. The key on a private tour is to ask good questions about daily life to learn more about Cuba.

Visas: One advantage of cruising is your visa can be easily processed by the cruise line. They’ll provide you with the paperwork and charge the fee to your onboard account.

Money: US dollars are not accepted in Cuba. After clearing customs, there are money exchangers. The rate is fixed and you will be given Cuban convertible pesos or CUCs (CUC$).  These are different than currency used by Cubans. CUCs have pictures of famous monuments or buildings. Local currency has pictures of famous people. Be sure to check you have received the right currency. Tip: Attend the briefing on board ship to know what to expect.

Shore Excursions: Recommend booking well in advance. Was too late booking, so booked private tour with Caribbean Pearl Tours. Tour was paid in advance through website. Only needed CUCs for snacks and tips.

Special thanks to Jayne Kirse, Manager at Sun City Center Travelworld, for her invaluable assistance.

 

Caribbean Pearl Tours

www.caribbeanpearltours.com

Indulge in the South Pacific at Selby Gardens

Indulge in the South Pacific at Selby Gardens

Indulge in the South Pacific at Selby Gardens

By Kai Rambow

 

Your sensory adventure to the South Pacific starts the moment you arrive.  Tikis, tapa cloth and a bamboo ceiling greet visitors at the entrance.  The primitive symbols are an inviting introduction celebrating Selby Gardens’ interdisciplinary exhibit featuring Gauguin.  Lovely surprises await, including seldom seen prints by Gauguin.

Displays are deceivingly simple in appearance; masterfully complex in design.  In the conservatory, dug-out canoes are symbolic of the main transportation for islanders in Tahiti and the Marquesas.  These canoes hold beautiful, tropical flowers and plants – and are the conduit for a waterfall.  If you look at this from different vantage points and distances, you’ll experience the same waterfall a few different ways.

Farther along you’ll spot red plants in a circle.  Use your imagination a little and you’ll see it represents a fire pit.  A giant tiki towards the end gives a different impression depending on where you stand.  Have fun looking at everything in the conservatory from different vantage points.

 

The Gardens

A garden map with tiki symbols will help you locate all the Gauguin related displays.  Some are immediately obvious; others require a little more observation.  The koi pond, one of the most serene places at Selby, at first looks the same but has a sizable canoe with flowers.

The fishing village looks like you’re in the South Pacific.  This iconic display was completely transformed with coconut trees and sugar-white sand.  Take your picture here and tell all your friends you’ve travelled to Tahiti.

 

Gauguin’s Prints

Gauguin paintings are rarely seen in a collective exhibition.  Owners are very reluctant to loan their work(s).  Selby Gardens has managed to pull together a dozen prints by Gauguin.

Sometimes sketches or prints feel like a semi-finished work.  Not so with Gauguin’s prints; many are as evocative as his paintings.  Take some time to really look at each print; spend more time with those that resonate with you.  You’ll find these at the Payne Mansion.

Selby Gardens has once again created an exhibit that is both thoughtful and fun.  Remember good walking shoes, sunscreen, sunglasses and your camera.  Gauguin runs until June 30.  Open 10 to 5 daily.  Plan on arriving early to get a parking spot and walk the grounds in good temperatures.

Michael’s on East has once again created a tasty menu inspired by Gauguin’s life and work.  The Café and a food truck have different selections, so you might want to check both menus before deciding where to refuel.

 

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

900 South Palm Avenue

Sarasota, Florida

(941) 366-5731

www.selby.org

Magritte & Dali

Magritte & Dali

Magritte & Dali

By Kai Rambow

 

Two of the best known surrealist painters, side by side. Magritte and Dali, knew each other, shared ideas with each other, and painted with similar themes.

This thought-provoking exhibit is worth seeing – and experiencing (more on this in a bit).  The key, as always, is to get an audio guide.  It’s included with your admission and enables you to know what you’re looking at, and what to examine more closely.  This is particularly important since Dali painted many double images.

Dali paintings, part of the collection but not regularly displayed, are part of this exhibit.  Most of the Magritte paintings are on loan from Belgium.  At the end are two interactive displays.

In the Cloud Room, you’ll be surrounded by moving clouds all around you. It is a semi-surreal experience. Right after is an interactive surrealist art experience. A camera captures your image and then projects you into paintings by both artists.

This is a little tricky to do. Tip: Carefully read the instructions posted on the wall.  Next, watch others try to capture their image. When you think you know what to do, try it. The most challenging part is moving your hand over the camera icon to “click” the camera.  Once the numbers start to count down, you’ll have about two seconds to pose.  It is probably easier to have someone else take your photo in the painting as the image only pops up for about three seconds.  Most important: enjoy the art and have fun.

 

Magritte & Dali

Until May 19, 2019

Dali Museum

1 Dali Blvd.

St. Petersburg, FL  33701

(727) 823-3767

www.thedali.org

 

 

Photo: You can be a part of this exhibit. After taking a picture, your image will be projected into surrealist art.

Sarasota Circus Soars – and Sings

Sarasota Circus Soars – and Sings

Sarasota Circus Soars – and Sings

By Kai Rambow

 

The sound reminds you of the best surround sound music system in a theater – except it is live.  This is one of two great experiences at the Sarasota Circus.

 

Circus Sarasota’s Rich Traditions

This circus has everything you remember except for performances with animals.  Astonishing body contortions, amazing skills and comic relief in between acts.  It is a rich, traditional experience not to be missed.

Performers have intriguing backgrounds, beyond their biographies.  Here’s a sampling:  Ringmaster Joseph Bauer was impressively dressed when I interviewed him.   This, it turned out, was his “casual” dress.  “No one gets to see what I wear in the ring until I step into the ring,” asserted this enthusiastic performer.

 

 

Bauer first performed at age six in Osaka, Japan.  His parents came to America to perform with the Ringling Brothers.  Their sway pole act took them all over the world.  “We were in Japan for three months. My parents said, ‘You can’t just stand around.’  I started with my one trick of doing a handstand on my dad’s outstretched arm.  Then I started doing my own acts, including a motorcycle on a high wire.  I would always watch and admire the ringmasters.  You have to have a commanding presence – and you don’t have to be flipping around in the air.”

Bauer would introduce the ringmaster and ended up becoming one when he needed to fill in one day.  “I’ve been doing it ever since.  I’m glad the guy didn’t show up.”  Bauer has loved being the ringmaster for 30 years.

AJ Silver, from the Bronx, started as a professional trick rider.  “As a boy, I had dreams of running away with the circus,” – and he did.  “After college, I found mentors, trained and became a professional rodeo performer.”  Opportunities opened for Silver to perform in circuses and he has now performed all over the world.  “I do a western act and pay tribute to the cowboy.”  Silver has performed in many rodeos in Florida, but 2018 was his first performance in Sarasota.  “I love show business, and you can’t get more show business than the circus.”

 

 

Cirque des Voix

The name is French, meaning Circus of the Voices.  One hundred choral performers and an orchestra provide live accompaniment for circus performers.  The surround sound effect is powerful.

The first performer, from Brazil, contorted his body into the shape of a pretzel, or close enough.  The speed of his body changes made this impressive act seem like it was on steroids.  The last performer was Kurt Wallenda of the famous Wallenda family performing a high wire act.

 

 

Recommendations

Circus Sarasota presents a wonderful family opportunity to experience a rich American tradition.  Cirque des Voix is a new way to experience the circus.  Both have top performers with renowned international reputations.  Note:  Performances vary each year.  The examples here may not be performing in this year’s circuses.

 

 

Tips for a Great Trip

Comfort: This is under the “big top.”  It is a large tent.  If the weather is warm, expect it to be warm in the tent. Air conditioning, introduced last year, helps a little.

Directions: Circus Sarasota is right beside University Town Center shopping mall in Sarasota.  Tickets range from $15 to $55; parking is $5.

Tickets:  Can be purchased online and picked up 30 minutes before each show.

After Show Treat:  Close by is C’est la Vie, a French bakery at 8527 Cooper Creek Blvd. (941) 355-2323.

 

Sarasota Circus

February 15 – March 10

Cirque des Voix

March 22 – March 24

941.355.9805

www.circusarts.org

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