Author Archives: Jan

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We have just embarked on a seven-week journey around Eastern Europe and North Africa; we feel privileged to have the opportunity to experience new cultures and cuisines.

We spent eight days in Poland, where we enjoyed visiting Krakow, Warsaw, and Gdansk. Our favorites were Krakow and Gdansk.  Instead of a popular view of Poland being a dour land of older ladies in head scarves sweeping their fireplaces, the Poland we visited was young, alive and vibrant. Along the way we tasted many new Polish delicacies.

First Course: Soup

Warm and hearty soup is central to the Polish cuisine. One day in Krakow, we visited a “Milk Bar” -- an inexpensive, no-frills cafeteria style restaurant that used to be subsidized by the government during the Communist era. Here we tried: Zurek--a white soup from a sourdough base that included a hard boiled egg and sausage and Barszcz, otherwise known as Borscht--a clear tangy, beet soup. Both were pretty good, but basic. Later in our trip, at the Gdansk Solidarity Museum, we elevated our soup game by trying Carrot and Orange Creme soup. This was definitely more gourmet than the first soups we tried!

Pierogi Paradise

Pierogi are ravioli-like dumplings that come in all shapes and sizes. We tried a combo platter in Warsaw, which included Potato, Duck, Cheese, and Spinach.

Our favorites are the Russian Pierogi--which are not Russian at all, but are filled with a mixture of boiled potatoes mixed with quark (a type of cheese) and seasoned with salt and pepper  They are served with fried onions (sometimes crispy … sometimes sauteed.) Yum!  Some of the pierogi we tried were light and delicate; others were more dense. The thickness of the dough was inversely correlated to the quality of the restaurant!

And, on the potato front… they are everywhere!  Boiled, baked, mashed, fried.  The magazine on the LOT Polish airline even included an article titled, “22 ways to eat potatoes”. Potato doughnuts, anyone?

Traditional Dishes

We also dined on several traditional entrees: Beef Cheeks with wine sauce  and Pig Knuckle. Both were delicious. Sometimes they were served with an extra flair, including a flower!

And, we tried a few more unusual dishes -- Bigos , a sauerkraut stew cooked with meat (surprisingly tasty) and Golabki, cabbage stuffed with meat and rice.

 

Dinner of the Knights

For Ed’s birthday, we celebrated at a Krakow restaurant in a medieval cellar. Here we dined in the style of the Knights of the middle ages. Wild boar.  Lamb chops. Goose carpaccio. Clear chicken soup that the bride and groom drink on their wedding night. And, Chilean wine that had a label printed in Polish. (Who knew that Chilean wineries can customize their wines this way?)

Lots of Other Cuisines

Lest you think that Poland only offers traditional dishes with lots of potatoes, we also enjoyed seeing the emerging “foodie culture”.  We were surprised to see the variety or restaurants, many with inventive names.

 

Since Gdansk is along the waterfront, the seafood was fresh and delightful (with potatoes, of course).

And, we enjoyed Beef Bourguignon at Correze, a local French restaurant named for a department in southwestern France we had not heard of previously.

To Top it Off:  Vodka!

We tried many types of artisanal vodka (wodka), which was often served as a “bonus drink” with the check. Here’s our (not-too-scientific) analysis:  Ginger -- very strong, tastes like a huge portion of candied ginger; Blackberry -- tastes like cough syrup; Pear -- not too “true” of a flavor; Mint -- nice and subtle; Hazelnut -- not too sweet and our favorite!

As they say in Poland, Na zdrowie! (Cheers!)

During the last week of March, my mother and I took our second trip to Cuba.  Previously, we followed Ernest Hemingway's footsteps.  This time, we followed another famous "Ernest": Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Che is beloved by the Cuban people and his picture is everywhere!

In Santa Clara, we paid our respects at Che’s mausoleum – a reverent spot hosting an eternal flame. The nearby museum displays his white medical coat, baby pictures, his report card from elementary school in Argentina, and his many weapons. All the photos on the wall showed him as a handsome and charismatic leader. And his statue towers over the city.

Also, this train museum marks the spot where Che and his troops derailed a train used by Batista’s soldiers. This battle marked the beginning of Che’s revolutionary victories.

And, a monument on top of a hilltop celebrates the Battle of Santa Clara and the July 26 Revolutionary movement, led by Che and Castro.

On our last trip, we visited Cueva de las Portales, the cave where Che led his band of revolutionaries during the 1966 Cuban Missile Crisis. We hiked in this cave, with the expert supervision of a local guide. We saw the creaky bed where Che slept and the phone that Che used to direct his troops.

Reflections on My Cuban Travels

As a fortunate three-time traveler to Cuba in less than 16 months, I've noticed some changes and similarities.

What Costs Less?

Airfare from the US is now much cheaper. Previously, we paid approximately $400 per person to take a 1 hour charter round trip from Miami to Havana. This trip, our direct flight on JetBlue from Ft Lauderdale to Camaguey was $89 per person. Nice.

What Costs More?

With the explosion of AirBnB across the island, you can now book Casa Particulares in every community in advance. What used to cost $20 - $30 per night, now runs $30 - $45 night plus a $9 AirBnB service charge.  In the past, to book a casa in advance, I’ve sent money to bank accounts in Italy and the Netherlands through many different cash transfer services. This time, I booked with VISA on my AirBnB account. Since my picture is on my AirBnB account, everyone said, “Hola Jan” when I knocked on the door. The service was very personal, and the prices are still reasonable.

What’s the Same?

Restaurant entrees still ranged between $4 (shrimp at a local café in Santa Clara that was recommended by a local) and $18 (4-course meal at a restaurant that is frequented by tour groups overlooking the water at the tip of Cienfuegos.) Prices may be higher in Havana, but we didn't go there this trip.

Car rental is still expensive. This time I booked with Rex, the premium agency, and our car was fine (except that sometimes it would stall when I was going slow in an intersection.) At least the trunk and doors all locked (which was different from the car we had from a cheaper agency last time.)

The people are still gracious and friendly. We had some delightful “people to people” encounters – including this mother/son duo who invited us into their tiny two room apartment for coffee.

And these gals who leaned over our car to give directions. (They even gave us a gift!)

In Trinidad, when this man at a neighboring table heard that mama is 94 years old, he bought us a second round of mojitos and joined us for the photo.

Although the majority of the tourists sill come in groups, we did meet several American couples and families who were traveling on their own. They had checked the “people to people” or “humanitarian” boxes on the Cuban visa form.

Cuba is still welcoming, wonderful, and a bit wild. The '57 Chevys bring back memories; the rum flows freely; the traffic is sparse; and most of all the people greeted us with open arms and gracious hospitality.

It was another fabulous trip.  I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to share this time with my mom and the many Cubans we met along the way. Viva Cuba!

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Sri Lanka embraces its long history as the “pearl of the Indian Ocean”. It has had its share of rulers (Dutch, Portuguese, British), but now celebrated its 69th year of independence on February 4, 2017 (while we were there). Tradition and history lurk around every corner, and since the end of the civil war in 2009, modernization has been on the rise.

Tea Time!

During our recent visit we stayed in two tea plantations and hiked among the tea plants. In Dikiya we stayed in a Governor’s Mansion that was visited by Queen Elizabeth in the 50's.

At this beautiful tea plantation, local women pick the fresh tea leaves in a methodical and organized fashion. We learned that each plant can be ready for picking every six days. The ladies work in groups – each picks her own row, selecting the freshest and newest leaves. They pick the bright green leaves on the top of the plant, leaving a spot for new growth to come.

 

The picking process has been the same for over 100 years. The ladies pick approximately 7 kilos per shift, and carry the bags of leaves on the back of their heads. It is a social endeavor – the ladies talk and laugh together while picking, and they receive frequent breaks for tea-time.

But now there is a modern twist. At the weighing station, the foreman uses a smart phone to scan the picker’s ID Card and register her in his database. Then he weighs her load and enters it on the phone. We don’t know if it’s beamed to the cloud immediately, but somewhere the “payroll department” receives it. The ladies earn $7 – 10 per day, depending on their productivity in picking.

Another of our plantation accommodations was on a hilltop, nestled among 125-year-old tea plants. The road to get there was so old and rutted that it could not accommodate a regular tourist van. Instead, we were shuttled up the 3 km mountain road in a trusty Land Rover. Most locals walked up and down the hill, but those who could afford it used the dependable tuk tuk.

The ladies used the same picking and tea-carrying methodology.

And, this plantation’s modern twist was… an infinity pool!

Colombo – Old and New

The Dutch Hospital in Colombo is considered to be one of the oldest buildings in Colombo. Recorded as early as 1681, it has housed a hospital and a police station. It’s a beautiful building with Dutch-style architecture, and is steeped in history. The 50-cm thick walls keep out the heat and humidity. Old illustrations show patients on mats and mattresses. (It’s doubtful that the food was very good back then …)

Now … it’s been restored and hosts several gourmet restaurants. One of them, The Ministry of Crab, is rated one of the top 50 restaurants in Asia. We enjoyed dinner with our traveling companions, even though the restaurant charges New York prices! Keep Calm and Crab On!

At Colombo’s Independence Day Parade (held on Feb 2, 3, and 4), the traditional falcon-handlers were showing off their prowess in front of the Galle Face Hotel.

Traditional bands and drum cores marched through the streets with a huge show of military pride.

And, with a nod to the modern, the parade also included PT-boats, missiles and drones!

The Galle Face Hotel is the grand-dame of Asian hotels. Built in 1854, it has hosted celebrities from Arthur Conan Doyle to Scarlet Johansson. Now it’s a gracious, elegant respite with lovely restaurants and vistas. A marching brigade plays bagpipes at sundown and marches to lower the Sri Lankan flag. The pool is delightful and the Gin & Tonics are plentiful.

However, we saw that they were dredging the area to the right of the hotel (on the Galle Face Green). A Chinese company is developing an entire marina, complete with Hotel and Casino. Yikes! This is not the type of modernization that we would favor. Hopefully it won’t wreck the peace and tranquility of the lovely hotel.

Ancient Cities

Due to UNESCO World Heritage status, the ancient 5th Century AD palace of Sigiriya has been maintained by archeologists. Nestled atop a steep rock, there are the foundations of palaces, throne rooms, gardens and swimming pools.

While climbing down the rock, we watched a cobra snake charmer do his “magic”! Nothing modern here.

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa, from 13th Century, once hosted 20,000 residents but has been abandoned for 900 years. Beautiful ruins and statues still grace the area.

Yet, even near this ancient area, we stayed at a modernist, exciting hotel designed by Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa. It has only 141 rooms but boasts one of the longest hotel corridors in the world. We almost reached our 10,000 steps on our Fitbits by walking to and from breakfast!

Riding the Rails

One area that has not been modernized is Sri Lanka’s train system. It is still reliable, heavily used, and a bit slow. The passing lanes are still monitored manually by a conductor.

And each station is a period-piece.

But the ride through the tea fields was beautiful and we arrived safely to our destination.  Luckily we didn't need the "travelling repair van".

Another Old and New City

On our trip back to the US, we stopped for a 36-hour layover in Singapore. This city-state exemplifies the exquisite combination of old and new. The Raffles Hotel is still a gracious queen of civility nestled among high rises.

And the Singapore Sling, a traditional delicious concoction that originated at this hotel, is served with grace … but once again, at New York prices.

The "Slings" allowed us to conclude our trip with a (albeit pricey) toast to this wonderful adventure!

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In late January, Ed and I spent twelve days exploring Tamil Nadu, India's southern-most state covering 800 miles of coastline along the Bay of Bengal. It hosts 77 million people and many temples from the 6th to the 9th Century. We enjoyed the massive temple complexes with brightly colored Gopurams (gates).

Our favorite was Brihadiswara, which reminded us of Angkor Wat. Not even a day of rain could dampen the spirits of our traveling group that includes ourselves and two other couples: Barbara Sharp & Todd Sack, and Inge & Scott Baker.  (Note that temple visiting is a barefoot endeavor!)

Also, several non-temple experiences stood out.

One Million Protesters

On our first day in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu formerly known as Madras, we noticed that there was tons of traffic—stopped in gridlock. Our guide explained that over one million people had been protesting along the beachfront because the Indian government had banned a beloved Tamil traditional celebration—the Jallikattu. This traditional celebration involves running after bulls and trying to grab them. PETA and other western organizations had lobbied the Indian government to cancel this because it was harmful to the bulls. And, the Supreme Court had banned it for the last three years. However, this month, in a show of national pride, and a desire for the community to control its destiny, the protesters shouted “No! It’s our tradition and we don’t need Westerners telling us what to do!”

The protests were loud, and the TV news showed they were a bit violent.

Our experience was traffic gridlock–and police presence everywhere.

After six days of protests, the government backed down, decided to allow the Jallikattu, and dropped all charges against the protestors. After the days of gridlock, traffic flowed smoothly as we left the city.

In the Midst of the Jallikattu

As we were driving to Madurai—home of a huge temple complex—we were surrounded by throngs of motorcycles, each with three men aboard. Most were young; all were helmet-less.

Our driver explained that they were headed to … the Jallikattu! Every so often, we encountered a bull, either in a truck bed, on a cart, pulling a cart, or walking along the road with his master.

When we arrived near some open fields, we observed thousands of men (and very few women) who were ready for the bull running. In the other direction, a slew of local government officials sped by in their motorcade to open the festivities. We were able to stop and get close to a bull. Each village brought their own bull for the festivities. Everyone was in good spirits and ready for action.

We later learned that 37 people were injured during the Jallikattu in Madurai. No word about any animals being injured.

Our First Hindu Wedding

In the midst of a Hindu temple, we stumbled upon a beautiful wedding ceremony. This couple, who was meeting for the second time, was married by a Hindu priest. After the ceremony, the groom placed a ring on the bride’s toe – indicating that she was now a married woman.

After the ceremony, Scott and a Japanese tourist joined in the wedding party photos. Talk about a nice groomsman in a hat!

Meditating near the “MatriMandir”

One of the stranger places we visited was Auroville—a community of 550 residents based on the principles of yoga, philosophy, and spirituality. Founded in the late 60’s, Auroville was envisioned as a “futuristic international city, where people of goodwill would live together in peace.” It attracts residents who are in “search of enlightenment without the trappings of traditional religion.”

The town claims it’s not a “tourist destination”, but instead a “spiritual location”. Every day, they invite 150 guests to meditate with them for 45 minutes of silence. Unfortunately, we were too late to register for the meditation, but we were able to view a film of the meditation “globe” and later we walked to the vista point overlooking the MatriMander.

This globe reminded us of the spaceship in the recent movie, Arrival. Others thought it looked like a golden golf ball.

We were able to see a model of what the globe looks like on the inside.  The hole in the top projects sunlight into the white-carpeted space.

Since we couldn’t join the group meditation, we had to settle for our own private meditation… in the van!  (It didn't last 45 minutes...)

Rejuvenating Ayuervedic Massage

Another first was the Ayuervedic foot massage at a spa near the beach. Ed had a male masseuse.  Mine was female. The masseuse gave us a 1” strip of cloth on a string around our waist to cover our “privates” and then set a towel down on a gym mat. We laid down on this towel, and the masseuse held on to a string suspended above us and proceeded to massage every nook and cranny of our body using one of his or her feet.  She balanced on the other foot and held on to the string. First face up. Then, face down. Every so often, she dribbled oil on us and continued her relentless pursuit to cover every inch! This massage also included more oil dribbled on our heads and some more traditional massage on a massage table where the masseuse used her hands. At the end of the 90 minutes, we were very relaxed and rejuvenated!  Photo disclaimer:  Nice butt, but this is not Ed ... it's an online pic!  No cameras were allowed in our rooms.

Yoga on the Terrace

Experiencing the 7:00 AM yoga class with the Naral, the Indian yogi, was a treat. He led a group of about ten guests (including Inge and me) through many of the traditional poses and breathing exercises. (His voice and accent sounded just like Depak Chopra on the Oprah/Depak meditation tapes.) The meditation was punctuated by the morning “caw-caw” of local birds and the faint hint of the waves crashing on the beach.

Other Colorful Characters

With the variety of cultures and religions present in Tamil Nadu, colorful characters were everywhere.  Including, a man in orange and a police captain in Pondicherry,

and a cute girl at Mamallaparum.

When we saw this ancient elephant at Mamallaparum,  we decided to "assume our favorite position".

A First for Us!

Ed and I have to admit that we hadn’t heard of Tamil Nadu until our friend Todd suggested that we come here prior to our journey to SriLanka. It is not usually a tourist’s first introduction to India, but it was for us! And what a wonderful introduction…

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Mama and I are now back in the USA (and back online) after an amazing journey to Cuba.  We had a wonderful time following in Papa Hemingway’s footsteps.

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For the first two nights in Havana, We stayed at the Hotel Ambos Munos, the hotel where Papa lived in room 511. Here he wrote A Farewell to Arms. The hotel lobby is adorned with his photos, and is a "must-see stop" on the tourist walking tour.  Guests of every nationality stopped by to pay homage to the writer.

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Room 511 is now a museum, and it remains just as Papa left it.

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We learned that Papa liked his bed in the corner, so he could feel “Havana’s sun on his face” when he woke up.

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I’m not sure anything in the room has been changed since the hotel was built. Our room was on the 4th floor, almost directly beneath Papa's room, so we shared the same view. Luckily, our room had been slightly buffed up, so it was quite comfortable.

The original 1921 elevator that transported Papa to Room 511 is currently out of order, so most guests climbed the stairs to their rooms. But, since I was traveling with a “senior citizen”, we were allowed to use the Service Elevator. We learned how to negotiate through the maze of the kitchen to reach the small elevator. Often we traveled with the staff.

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In Havana, I (once again) sampled Papa’s favorite drinks at the famous watering holes. A mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio:

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And a daiquiri at La Floridita, where a bronze of Papa sits at the bar:img_2493

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A highlight was the tour of Finca Vigia, Papa’s house in a suburb of Havana. He moved here from the Hotel Ambos Munos. We had a hard time finding the house, as signage in Cuba is quite limited. We found that one of the best ways of navigating was to pick up a local hitchhiker, who often could direct us to our destination.

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We peeked through the windows and felt like we were flies on the wall. Had Papa just left his glasses on the table to go into the other room?

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p1130106We especially enjoyed the “up close and personal” walk around the Pilar, the boat which was the protagonist of Hemingway’s Boat. We could imagine the many antics and adventures enjoyed by Papa during his 20 year tenure in Cuba.

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So Papa, thanks for the memories and inspiration for these great trips!  Mama and I had a fabulous experience and feel very fortunate that we could share this week together.

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First a few definitions:

Papa = Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)

Mama = Virginia Swanberg, born 1923 (and ageless!)

Me = your blogger, Jan Swanberg   (age not disclosed)

Mama and I are writing this post from the San Francisco airport. Tomorrow, we are en route to Havana, Cuba, traveling as journalists ready to follow in Papa Hemingway’s Cuban footsteps.  (Hopefully Hurricane Matthew won't inhibit our traveling style.  We have ponchos and umbrellas and are ready for a wet week.)  Prior to this Cuba trip, Mama and I each took our own journey with Papa. Little did we know that each step was preparation for this Cuban visit.

Visiting Papa’s Florida Haunts:

In March 2013, Mama and I visited Papa’s favorite bars and his house in Key West Florida.

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The “Papa look-alike” guide provided colorful commentary on our tour.

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We saw some of the descendents of his 6-toed cats, including a grave markers where his famous-named cats are buried.

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The garden even included a fountain made out of a urinal from Papa’s favorite bar.

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Mama and I posed at the monument for the closest point to Cuba, not knowing that we would end up in Cuba 3 ½ years later.

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Learning About Papa’s Boat

In preparation for this trip and for our own mini-book group, Mama and I each read Hemingway’s Boat, by Paul Hendrickson. This 2011 award-winning biography presents the Pilar (the name of his boat that is preserved in Havana) as a metaphor for many of the writer’s struggles, successes, and personal failures. Fascinating!   We plan to see this boat in a few days.

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Savoring Papa’s Ketchum History

Papa came to Ketchum, Idaho starting in 1939.  He purchased a house in the late ‘50s and considered Ketchum his final home. This summer, as part of the Ketchum, Idaho “Community Library LitWalk” on August 21, Ed and I heard Papa’s granddaughter, Mariel Hemingway, read from her books and speak about the difficulties living with the Hemingway name. She is beautiful, well spoken and beloved by the community. (In 2013 at the Sun Valley Film Festival, we heard her introduce her documentary about her family’s history of suicide and mental illness. Very moving.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Running_from_Crazy

At the LitWalk, I entered a Hemingway raffle, and later found out that I’d won the grand prize! The prize included a tour of Papa’s Ketchum home (normally closed to the public), a dinner at Hemingway's table at Michel’s Christiana restaurant  and some other goodies.   Nice!

The tour of the Ketchum home was special, as we were hosted by our Librarian extraordinaire, Jenny Davidson, and the library’s director of Philanthropy, Carter Hedberg. We can’t post interior pictures because it is closed to the public, but the furniture and décor were classic mid-Century. The house was constructed to resemble the Sun Valley Lodge and has amazing views. It's currently owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed by the Ketchum Community Library.

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Ed and I enjoyed the dinner at Michel’s Christiana restaurant (and were glad it was not our last!) We sat at the Hemingway table, where Papa had his last meal, before returning home and committing suicide (in the foyer of the house we visited above.)

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In Hemingway’s Boat, I learned that “Next to fishing, shooting was the supreme outdoor Hemingway manly value.”  So, this summer (to further channel my “inner Hemingway”), I tried  trout fishing for the first time, courtesy of our friends, Todd and Barbara.

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And, I tried trap shooting (!) courtesy of a pass from my Library LitWalk winnings.

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Although I can see myself fishing in the future, I think I am “one and done” for the gun range.

In early September, Ed and I participated in the Community Library’s Hemingway Festival, where we enjoyed a guided walking tour of the Silver Creek preserve, where Hemingway loved to fish.  This picture of Papa and one of his sons was the featured at the Festival.

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We visited the bridge at Silver Creek where this picture was taken.

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We saw local Hemingway artifacts at the Sun Valley Museum of History, and heard a moving talk by Jed Gray, a local Ketchum resident who knew Papa.  As a child,  Jed learned to hunt and fish by Papa's side, as Papa was his parents' friend.  Jed told us that Papa would read "Old Man and the Sea" to him as a bedtime story. (!) And, Jed showed us how Papa taught him to drink wine from a boda bag. (It didn't matter that Jed was only 12 years old at the time!)

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To come full circle, in late September, Ed and I visited the Nobel Prize museum in Stockholm, Sweden, where we  paid tribute to Papa and his 1952 Nobel Prize for Literature.

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At the museum, you can buy bookends with his likeness or a Hemingway cookbook!

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We feel honored to be able to travel in Papa's footsteps.  Now, Mama and I are headed for Havana. We're at SFO and will stay in Miami tonight.

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Our next post will be from Cuba, Internet willing! Stay tuned.

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The field is longer than one and a half football fields…

The target is smaller a baseball strike zone…

Onlookers talk loudly and dance…

Yet these skilled archers hit the bulls-eye regularly!

Welcome to Bhutanese Archery – the national sport of this peaceful Buddhist Kingdom. During the first week of our two-week journey through beautiful Bhutan, we’ve had the privilege of watching two archery matches. (We joined the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at another match during the second week ... but more on that one in another post!)

In Thimpu, the capital city, we stumbled upon a local match being played near the National Olympic Center.

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The match was at Changlimithang Stadium, one of the Kingdom's most prominent archery fields. Using traditional bamboo bows these skilled marksmen aim and release their arrows towards a target 145 -150 meters (about 476 feet) away. The targets are approximately three foot high by one foot wide with a circle in the middle is about nine inch diameter. Yet despite gusty breezes these amazing athletes manage to hit the target regularly.

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Team size can vary, but in Thimpu, each team had ten players – five at each end. The teams took turns aiming and shooting at the target. The scoring was three points for a bulls-eye, two points for hitting the surrounding wood, and one point for landing within an arrows-length from the target.

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Since this is the national sport, players take time off from work for a match – no questions asked. Our guide, Kunzang, explained that these players were middle-class taxi drivers and shop keepers, since they were using the traditional bamboo bows and arrows. Wealthier archers use carbon-fiber bows. Tradition dictates that the players wear the national dress (the “Gho”) and communicate only in Dzongkha, the native tongue, despite the fact that virtually everyone below age 40 in Bhutan speaks English.

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When a team member hits the target, the fun begins; team members on both ends break into dance while singing traditional Bhutanese songs. Our guide explained that sometimes the songs are prescribed and sometimes the players randomly select them. If a marksman hits the target on the first arrow a rough translation for the prescribed song is: “Praying for blessings on this match”. And, when one player hits the target directly after an opponent hits the target the song is something like, “Hooray, my shot just nullified your previous shot!”. (Pardon to Dzongkha purists for these loose translations.)

Since the target is so far away, the players use colored banners to communicate with their teammates from the other end. For example, they will wave the white banner to the right of the target if the arrow lands to the right. And, they loudly yell suggestions to their teammates on how to improve their shot the next time.

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Archery takes incredible upper body strength and accuracy. A single centimeter adjustment in the release results in a meter difference by the time an arrow hits the target. These men have been playing since childhood and their enthusiasm for the game radiates.

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As the archers take their turns, teammates and rivals stand talking around them, talking and sometimes checking email on their mobile phones. The atmosphere is congenial; today’s teammate may be tomorrow’s rival. Onlookers watch from the sidelines. When archers use bamboo bows, teammates on the other end stand close to the target and only move aside if the oncoming arrow is coming directly at them; with carbon bows, teammates stand further away since the arrow arrives quicker and with greater force.

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Archery is the only sport where Bhutan fields an Olympic team. But the Olympic field is only 70 meters long and the competitors use carbon bows. So, Bhutan hasn’t won a medal yet; however, if the field were 145 meters, the Bhutanese would take home Gold every time!

In Bumtang, a city about 180 miles from Thimpu, we watched our second match. This time it was the championship match of a local tournament where competitors used carbon bows and arrows. (Ironically, the carbon bows are made in the USA and cost between $1000 and $1600. In the USA, these bows are used for hunting, but the Bhutanese people abhor killing.)

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Since the equipment is so expensive, the players in the Bumtang match were wealthier than the players in Thimpu. Despite the expense, we were told the archery tournament played an important social role in the community bringing together men of many walks of life who would not normally socialize.

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The tournament started with 150 players, and this was the final round. As a championship match, it was much more elaborate, complete with flags, prizes, and a viewing box for the Governor and Head Monk of the district. There were three teams with five players each. Members of the three teams wore identifying sashes – blue, yellow, red – with numbers specifying their order of play. There was even a master of ceremonies who enthusiastically announced each player over a loud speaker. Each time a player hit the target, he received a colored sash for his belt.

For this tournament, the match was 17 rounds long, and took a complete morning. (We only watched two rounds – one from each end.) Sometimes in the villages, people play all day long – from 9 to 5.  Carbon bows are very elaborate; it takes a lot of strength, concentration and coordination to pull, aim and release the arrow. And the arrow reaches the target area in the blink of an eye.

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The Governor alternated between his roles as a team member and public official; between turns he sat in the viewing box alongside the Head Monk from the district. Monks don’t play archery, but they enjoy watching.

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A group of local women sang and danced in a circle in front of the viewing box. Meanwhile dogs lay in the center of the archery field, oblivious to arrows flying overhead.

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The head referee meticulously recorded the box scores on the official score sheet.

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The manager of the Kaila guesthouse where we stayed was the captain of the yellow team. He exhibited Zen-like concentration and was rewarded with numerous bulls-eyes.

Since these were the top 15 players in the tournament, all received prizes.

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Later at dinner we heard that Kaila’s team won the tournament and Kaila, himself, was the individual who scored the most points so he was able to bring home the trophy. We celebrated (with a Red Panda beer) like proud relatives.

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Since we were so intrigued with Bhutanese Archery, we decided to don traditional garb and give it a try.  At the risk of appearing ridiculous, we had to celebrate our bulls-eye (even if it wasn't from 145 meters.)

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We’re now back in San Francisco, after a whirlwind Cuban adventure. On our last night, we visited the Tropicana – Havana’s premier cabaret and nightclub which has operated for over 75 years.

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The gigantic cast of this extravaganza was talented and beautiful. They surrounded us on all sides – on the stage, up in the air and on both sides of our seats. Most of the gals (5’10”” and around 110 pounds) wore costumes that were as colorful as they were miniscule!

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Ed was able to get up close and personal with this showgal, as he “researched” the fabric and sewing in her outfit.

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The singers blasted out the Cuban hits, while the live orchestra provided a lively beat. The gymnasts performed expertly and wowed the crowd.

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We arrived at the Tropicana by taxi – this time it was a ’57 Cadillac, complete with tail fins.

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On the way home, we actually rode in a yellow cab – a new model fiat that had A/C! When we told this driver we were from SF, he said, “oh, there is so much opportunity there.”

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So, adios Cuba! Thanks for the fabulous experience. We loved the art, architecture and the famous graffiti.

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When we play our CDs at home, we remember the music resonating from every corner.

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Ed expertly drove the rental car without any hiccups.

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And Jan negotiated lodging and dining in Español, and managed our CUCs.

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Traveling independently was fabulous. A NY Times article published on 12/16, included this question, “Can any American citizen visit Cuba now?” Here’s the response:

“As long as the trip falls within one of 12 purposes, Americans can go to Cuba without having to apply for permission, in the form of a license, from the government. The 12 categories of legal travel include visits to close relatives, academic programs for which students receive credits, professional research, journalistic or religious activities and participation in public performances or sports competitions. As Robert Muse, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in U.S.-Cuba related law, put it: If somebody wishes to travel to Cuba and they “can’t think up a way to fit into those categories, they are not trying."

So, if a trip to Cuba is in your future, we’re happy to share more details to anyone interested in conducting a research or journalistic expedition.P1110759

This is our final post about Cuba.  We wish all our readers Happy Holidays and we'll see you when we're on our next adventure in 2016.

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In Cuba, we were able to rent a car -- a 2010 Renault (not a 48 Chevy!) to drive around the country and visit villages, colonial cities, and historical landmarks.  We were glad that we had booked in advance, since we heard that all rentals were sold out until the end of January.  This gave us ultimate flexiblity, as we were able to plan our days on the fly. We visited  many interesting places, including this fort from the 1500s!

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The original AirB&B lives in Cuba! But, when you think of a B&B, please don’t visualize a charming Vermont inn with four-poster beds and thick down comforters. Instead, the “casa particular” is a spare room (with private bath) in someone’s home.  Renting a room for one night can bring in as much income as the typical salary for an entire month! We did not have any reservations for the “casas”, but some are now listed on AirB&B and accept reservations by email. Since there are no credit cards in Cuba, we heard that landlords sometimes give away a reserved room if someone else shows up with cash in hand.

The landlady network is robust! In Cienfuegos when the first casa was full, the gracious landlady called around to her network of friends to find us a room. When these were all “occupado”, she jumped in our car and drove around with us, asking the locals whose room might be free. After ten minutes of driving through a scenic part of the city, we landed at Casa de Nancy, where Nancy welcomed us with open arms. (This was one of our more basic accommodations.)

The typical room costs 25 CUC ($30). Breakfast is an additional five CUC per person. We think that the breakfast revenue is taxed differently, since no official receipts were needed for this transaction. For the room, we had to register in a logbook, complete with our passport number and Cuban visa.

The rooms and bathrooms ranged from very basic to quite spacious. Some mattresses were from 1940. Others were a bit more plush. We definitely had to bring our own pillow, soap and toiletries. At the end of our stay, we gave our hostess a bag of toiletries and health supplies (q-tips, lotion, shampoo, floss, etc.) that we had purchased at Walgreens in SF. All the hostesses appreciated this, as it is impossible to purchase niceties in Cuba.

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Many casa particulars are listed on a “Cuba Junky” app, which we purchased for our phone for $2.99 on iTunes. It’s managed by a Dutch entrepreneur and lists many casas alphabetically by city, even though it’s impossible to bookmark ones that look good and/or correlate their locations on an integrated map. We had to manually put marks on the map in the guidebook or else just look around as we drove. Very quickly we learned that a mobile travel app is somewhat useless without Internet access.

We also stayed in four different hotels, booked in advance with a credit card through the Cuba Travel Network website. Our favorite in Havana was the Hotel Raquel, a 1910 lovely, with original details and a glorious atrium. We appreciated the Jewish heritage of this hotel. Our room was even named “David”! Each room had a mezuzah on the door frame and there was a working menorah in the lobby to recognize Hanukkah.

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We enjoyed many delicious meals at Paladars, which are private homes turned into restaurants. This is a fairly new phenomenon, as in the past all restaurants were run by the state. Ropa Vieja – shredded meat (lamb or beef) that has simmered for hours became one of our favorite dishes. Grilled shrimp and lobster tail was also yummy, as were the black beans and rice. The restaurant economy is in CUC and is targeted at tourists. A typical Cuban cannot afford any of these prices – instead, locals seem to rely on very basic pizza from corner stalls and fruit from local vendors. They purchase their staples (when available) from government run shops, which often are not well stocked. Also, some locales indicate that they charge for meals in “mondea nacional”, the local peso, which is worth far less that the CUC (convertible peso).

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Sometimes the "pickin's" were pretty sparse in the stores.

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Standing in line is a way of life for most Cubans.  People have to wait to buy groceries, pharmaceuticals, and ice cream!

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In fact, there are lines all over Cuba.  Lines of bicycle taxis:

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Vintage cars:

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And school kids!

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On the Autopista (National Highway), we were often the only car as locals cannot afford either cars or gasoline.  Once in a while, we encountered other vehicles:

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In many towns, the horse cart is still the preferred means of transportation.

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And in the lush tobacco growing regions, horses and oxen perform the major farm duties.

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It was definitely a "blast from the past".  The horse transportation reminded Ed of rural Brazil in 1970.  With our car, the driving was easy although road signs were sparse. As Cuba opens up to the world, this will probably be changing rapidly.

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Devotes of Ernest Hemingway can walk in his footsteps on a trail that runs through Havana, into the suburbs, and through the northern islands.

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His home – Finca Vigia – in a Havana suburb, looks just as he left it, complete with the original Life magazines, eyeglasses on the nightstand by his bed, and a Picasso bas-relief that he purchased in 1969 for 150 French Francs. Many of the conquests from his African safaris adorn the walls.

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Although tourists cannot go inside the home, knowledgeable guides informed us about the details of each room, as we looked through the open doors and windows. We can see why this site is closed during a rainstorm, as the open windows leave the interior very exposed to the elements. (One guest bemoaned that the heat and humidity will wreck this history … but the guide noted that there were no funds to install A/C or heaters.)

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We sampled the “wares” at his favorite watering holes – for example, daiquiris (double rum, no sugar) at El Floradita.

As described in Islands in the Stream, (which Jan read on this trip), his likeness is positioned at the bar “in a corner with his back to the bar so he could see who was entering”. (Note the pic of Fidel over his shoulder.)

As part of our "research" into his Havana habits, we enjoyed the mojitos at La Bodegita del Medio, another favorite haunt. (Leslie noted that this was part of the "cocktail beat".) We met these CPAs from Guadalajara who invited us to visit them in Mexico next time we’re in town!  If you’re wondering where Jan’s hat is … she left it at the hotel!

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In his own words, Papa describes his "fav " beverages:

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Since Hemingway also lived in Ketchum, Idaho, we feel somewhat of a bond with “Papa”. Prior to this trip, we paid respects to his grave, which is just down the street our vacation house. So, Papa thanks for letting us peer into your life. You left quite a legacy!

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