Friday, 31 January 2014

Here we go again (What if it was CNY and no one showed up)

Note: I did not steel this picture. I'm only involuntarily advertising for them ;-)
I am fortunate in that the waitress at the Vietnamese restaurant around the corner has been greeting me with "Happy New Year" already all day yesterday.  When I pointed out that the Chinese New Year would only begin today on Friday, she said "Ya, but New Year EVE NOW !!".

I say that I am fortunate in that because there are few other hints in this city where a LARGE percentage of people are of Asian origin. Stats Canada/Wikipedia list 17% of the Greater Vancouver Area (2.5 Million people) as of Chinese ethnicity and ~25% as of East and South-East Asian ethnicity.  You'd think Google, who change their colours at the drop of a hat for about any weird significant or insignificant date would have a  horse doodle. Alas NO, at least not at 7:45 am PST:

Google Calendar maybe?  No, not either.

There is one exception though. Grandma knew already yesterday that it would be Chinese New Year today.  Did I tell her?  No, she knew it from another source. She knew from  the free calendar that a real estate agent active in her neighbourhood had dropped off.  

But it could be worse. Like last year, when Chinese New Year was the date for the very first occurrence of the freshly minted new BC holiday.  What an honour for Asians in BC and what an acknowledgment of their numbers and accomplishments, you think? 
Nope, the new holiday was called Family Day, and someone had the stunning cultural sensitivity to inaugurate it on CNY.

Anyhoo, if you're a horse, do wear something red every day this year, to remind you that this is your year and that you better make something special out of it, because you'll have to wait 12 years for the next one.  Crazy superstition, you say?    Worked for me ;-)

p.s. There is a Chinese New Year Parade in Vancouver's Chinatown on the coming Sunday. And if the weather forecaster is to be trusted, it actually will be a Sun Day.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Pelican Brief (Neither brief nor with Julia Roberts)


What's that in the sky in Varadero? I was certain it's neither a plane nor Superman! But what?  A bald eagle?  A giant seagull? A vulture?

A UFO!


not my pic
At this point it is useful to have been a young student in Germany. This is one of Grandma's fountain pens:


Not my pic
And the one I wrote with when I was 7 kind of looked like this.






And they are made by a company called Pelikan and all bear this Logo:





See the connection?  Unless the fountain pen maker got his Logo confused, these are Pelicans !


On the next day the water is flat as a mirror.  Perfect for a performance of Swan Lake, or should that be a new ballet by the name of Pelican Beach? Here is the basic choreography:

Pas de Deux:
Menage a trois

Pas de Quatre (Double Pas de deux?):

Change positions:

OOps. Back to rehearsals!




They're still there in the afternoon practicing their synchronized flying:



Everyone seems to be after the fish:





Over time I get the gist of zooming the camera and following the flying birds. Somewhat like Grandpa did as a 15 year old with his anti-aircraft gun in Germany trying to track bombers flying over his hometown.




This is when I learn something new (always FUN!).  Fortunately for Grandpa, the bombers in the sky above him were not dive bombers. But pelicans are:






Someone in a plane lost a rubber chicken?


Got the fish?


Monday, 27 January 2014

I'm back in the USSR

One could get that impression when one only considers the temperatures and the treatment one gets from Canada Customs & Immigration.  But when I was 20, I was getting that same treatment from German Police. It was a Hate at first sight relationship.

When the lovely non-smiling Immigration Official (1 out of 6 working in the ~20 available booths at Vancouver airport; you can imagine the lineup; and she was grumpy at me even without me saying something like "So many lovely green booths, and almost all of them are empty") asked me whether I went Cuba alone, I told her 'No, all the other people in the plane came with me'. That kind of set the tone for the rest of the conversation ;-)  In return she left me speechless when she asked me "What did you do in Cuba?".                "Walked, swam, ate, slept, walked, ate slept, and repeated that 7 times" apparently was the right answer of the day, because I did not get to visit her lovely Bag-Searching colleagues.

The weather is actually sunny and I get the driver's seat in the Skytrain ;-)

By the next day, the weather gods must have figured out that I'm back, because the 'sunny' day is only sunny on top of Grouse Mountain and in the far reaches of East Van, but in the areas where I ride my bike, all I see is FOG. Thanks again, Mr. Weatherman !


North Van

Lions Gate Bridge

Bridge to nowhere

North Shore mountain peaks in the sun

Stanley Park


Coal Harbour

Thursday, 23 January 2014

NOT pretty in pink (or The Emperor's sun-transmitting clothes)

I did not know that it was possible to get a sunburn while wearing a shirt.  But it evidently is so, as the non-pink area in the middle of my back testifies to, which was protected by the backpack while I was traversing Havana Harbour on ferry & foot.  But quite a lot of other parts that were ALWAYS covered by a shirt, greeted me in pink this morning after already sending strange signals to my brain last night whenever sleeping put pressure on them.

Ah well. It'll be a tan tomorrow.

I am surprised:  The speed of internet available in Cuba has much improved.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

La Habana on foot & ferry (El Morro & Fancy Ferry)

I wake up at 6 am even without alarm clock, stagger down to the bar to get my much-needed morning caffeine boost, where both my good Spanish (it sucks, but it says a lot about the linguistic efforts of the other guests) and something else (je ne sais quoi) are flattered by the bar tendresses.

The tour bus is late by 20 minutes (never expect a bus to be on time here). 45 minutes later we stop at the obligatory tourist trap. A roadside establishment serving Pina Colada for CUC 2.50. But the Pina Colada is truly excellent and one can add as much rum as one wants to ;-)  A picture of the pina bar would just be cluttered with fat tourists, so here is a picture parked right next door (next tree?):

I did not actually book the complete 'Colonial Havana' tour, but only bought myself passage in the bus back and forth. This still costs me 40 CUC, about half of the complete tour price, but I get to listen to another illuminating commentary of the tour guide during the bus ride.  The first touristy stop of the bus is at El Moro (El Castillo de los tres reyes de moro in La Habana is an OLD castle at the entrance to the harbor), which would have been my private destination anyway.  This  saves me from having to take the ferry to El Morro from downtown and then having to go back to where I came from ! The bus driver tells me to meet the bus again at 4 pm at the HORRIBLE tourist trap market at the other side of the harbour, where most tourists get dumped to spend some more money. But at least I know well where it is.

The rest of my tour group doing the tour
I see my tour group stomp along towards the main castle entrance, but I head the other way, towards the ocean and the wall breached by a mine of the British ages ago (16??)


The breach is on the back left. See those OLD STAIRS going down in the right foreground?


Yes, these ones ;-)
I am not as vertigo-free as when I was younger, so I cling tightly to the wall that is away from the ABYSS.
I made it down alive !



After I climb out of the moat by the same scary 400 year old stairs, I get to where the tour group probably went right away:  The usual market stands clinging to the fortress and revealing a first glimpse of Havana in the distance.





I would not want to be an enemy ship trying to get trough there in the old days




Again:, running through here as an enemy is not my cup o'tea
It is quite windy today, which means I should not get too hot on my walk. But it also means that the waves present a spectacular show along El Malecon, the sea wall.
Taken from the El Morro side


But even on the El Morro side it's splashy and one of those droplets is probably responsible for a lens smudge in the following pics






While the waves are doing their thing on the Havana side,












I start walking away from El Morro towards La Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana.  The nice green hills are part of its land-side defenses.



Havana on the left & El Morro in the top right
This walk takes me in between the old Fortalza (skirting the water for about 2 km) and a 1800s army base that is still in use. I know better than to take pictures of the Cuban Military. Ever since the Bay of Pigs, these guys are paranoid for a reason.  Along the way is an exhibit of the old Soviet missiles that caused the Cuban Missile Crisis (I'll dig up some pics from the last time I walked this way). 
Finally, I see the sight that announces that I am getting closer to my destination.
Of course there are market stands for tourists at the base of this.  Despite the wind, I started to sweat, so I decide to buy a straw hat to prevent being scalped alive.  The Cuban stand owner engages in the usual sales chit chat (C: Where are you from?  CK: Canada. C: Oh, I have a friend in Montreal!, bla bla).  I try on the hat and deform the rim and he says "Oh, just like Al Capone". I'm not sure how Al Capone molded his hats and I'm pretty sure neither does my Cuban seller. But he offers me the straw hat for CUC 10, with the explicit information "Americans pay CUC 15!". I tell him that just yesterday I saw the same hat for CUC 5. He then offers it to me for 7. In the end I get it for 6, because I don't want to haggle over it all day. But I flatter him that with his extortionate prices he is much more like Al Capone than I. 


View from Jesus' feet




This is the harbour that the narrow passage protects

Old Havana


My left foot and the shadow of my new hat ;-)


Now I just have to walk downhill  to get to a ferry that will take me across


A note on taking the ferry:  Cubans pay 10 Centavos, which is roughly the equivalent of 0.5 Candian CENTS. I know because that's what I paid ~ 13 years ago.  Of course, the ferry guy has gotten smarter with the rest of Cuba. The ferry ride (one way) now costs 2 CUC (~CDN 2.10).   And don't try to pretend that you're a Cuban!  Boarding the ferry, which gets VERY LITTLE tourist traffic, because none of the tours include it, I can spot the actual tourists on board instantly. 
Another note on taking the ferry:  Your bags will be searched. Someone might wave a metal detector around your contour. This is even more hilarious after you have seen the actual picture of the ferries!  But ever since some armed Cubans had the idea of hijacking one of those ferries to take them to Florida (the Cuban Navy killed that idea), the Cubans are protective of their Havana Harbour Ferries ;-)

Fancy Weld-Work prevents me from drowning myself


The inside

The view


The blue thing sticks out into the harbour and has a restaurant at its tip. I will eat there later


Old harbour warehouses.


I did say OLD ;-)

Immediately after I debark, I am facing this.  This orthodox-looking thingy was here definitely before the Soviets !




This city definitely has more than old cannons than it knows what to do with !




The restaurant on the blue sticky-outy pier


The View the other way (long focal length)


Some kind of soggy Paella, with LOTS of fish & lobster and yummy taste (NO HAY vino blanco!)


The side of 'Casablanca' where I came from (Jesus on the hill)

After lunch I start walking towards El Malecon (sea-ward). I half think I might take another old convertible taxi to take me along the promenade and I want to get to where those waves are crashing over the wall.



Wave-wise I get everything I was looking for ;-)





I start walking back for two reasons: Cubans on the hunt for CUCs, but more importantly because I have bladder of a 5 year old.
For about $10, you can be driven around for ~20 minutes (Did that last year ;-)


Yes that is the ferry with those people behind bars ;-)


Back at the restaurant, I have dessert (Mango ice cream) & yet another glass of wine

After that I start heading towards the tacky tourist market to make my 4 pm appointment with the bus.




Along the way, walk by the ferry terminal (hut, more like it ;-) again and snap some pics of the ferries
Remember all that whining about the BC Fast Cat ferries?


No one is whining here, they are just happy to have a ferry
When I look for the source of vicious whistling I see someone in a uniform waving his finger at me, indicating that I better stop taking pictures of the ferries.  Top Secret information apparently, but I'm sure Google Maps has much better information ;-)

I get whistled again after I walk over the grass on the left to take this picture.  The whistlers are standing behind a rope behind me when I'm taking this picture.  Obviously (yeah right) I entered a roped-off area without authorization.  I'm speechless but manage to tell them in English to put a rope all around the area if they don't want people to walk in.  The whistlers stay in their spot and during the next hour I see them whistling at other 'trespassers'.  This is Cuba:  Ordering 3 guys to keep people out of an area is cheaper and easier to install rope all around that area ;-)



I arrive at the 'mercado horrible' at 3:50 pm. My bus is nowhere to be found!  Not a good feeling, I walk all along the long street where all the many many buses park after dumping their loads and don't see my bus number.  Three more walks later it is 4:50 pm and I start to think about panicking because I still have not found the bus. That it has not arrived yet is very unlikely since that would put the arrival time back in Varadero at quite a late hour.  More likely that I somehow missed it and it left without me ! How do I get back to Varadero?  Normal Taxi cabs don't go that far.  It will be dark soon!  I start seeing just taking a hotel room in Havana for the night as the best solution.
Another one

But before doing that I check with the tour guide of another tour bus whether he knows the whereabouts of my bus.  He tells me not to leave my spot and says the bus will come for me soon. 

The bus finally arrives at 5:15. Of course, if I stay where I am, it will never see me, so – since I am convinced that I missed it the first time – I run down the street alongside the bus with the hitchhiker’s thumb out and preparing to apologize to the bus passengers that they had to wait for me.  NOPE. They are just arriving!  Which means another 30 minutes at the horrible market. 

 Imagine standing on a street darkened by the exhaust gases of many modern buses and even more numerous vehicles with ancient internal combustion engines. Add to that constant HONKING because the drop-off corner can’t handle that many buses at once. Add to that the chubby women with BRIGHT-PINK fat rolls squeezing out of their tops continuously chattering about the CRAP they just bought. And don’t forget 10 year old Cubans circling the crowds, putting on sad starving faces, to earn in an hour as much as their parents in a month.

We get back to the hotel at 7:55. After a quick dinner and telephone call to grandma, I start lathering lotion on my pink bits. And there are a lot of them. Seems the sun burnt me through a black shirt. The only bit on my back that is still a normal colour is the one that was covered by my backpack. Maybe I should not attend the Jeep Safari tomorrow? I’m seriously giving that some thought, not the least because today was a bit hectic for my taste.

Dinner is OK and I eat too much just because I am exhausted. Having walked all day, I decide to take the elevator. BAD MOVE. The elevator quickly fills up with people of a definite un-angular body type, and before I even get to step into the entrance onto the elevator platform, the elevator starts beeping threateningly and the probably most overweight person in the elevator starts shouting “TOO MUCH WEIGHT, TOO MUCH WEIGHT”. I wouldn’t even have known the meaning of that elevator weight warning sound, and I don't think the shouter was aware of his own pun.