Viñales

Viñales was the highlight of our trip to Cuba. The hustle and bustle of La Habana is fascinating and exciting but the peace & quiet and natural beauty of Viñales' "Valley of Silence" really appealed to the "cruiser" side of Rufus & I. We joined Charlette and Ben (the Kiwis from our casa) on the 3hr bus ride south west from Havana city to the Pinar del Rio province to experience something a little different. 

We arrived in the afternoon and decided to take it easy for the rest of the day. I somehow managed to overdose on some really rich hot chocolate at the Chocolate Museum, in Habana Vieja, the day before (Ben MADE me drink 2 cups) so I had to sleep off the cream & cocoa hangover while the rest walked into town and had a delicious dinner without me...

The next day our casa host organised a guided horseback tour to a local organic tobacco farm. This, my friends, was so much flippen fun! Hannah and Louis (the other Kiwis from the casa in Havana) had done this a week before and recommended the tour to us. The last time I got on a horse was in Primary school (I think) and it didn't end well so if I could manage to stay upright and have an awesome time, without doing myself or the horse grievous bodily harm, ANYONE can!

We were collected from our casa in a non-vintage-rattled-like-it-might-fall-apart-didnt-have-any-interior-panneling-sagging-ceiling kind of car and got deposited on the roadside about 10min drive outside of town. Our guide met us at the car and ushered us across the street to a dirt side road where our trusty steeds, Piña Colada, Cuba Libre, Mojito and Canchánchara (do you notice the subtle cocktail theme?) were ready and waiting for us.

Our horses were well trained and our guide was friendly and informative - he insisted on helping Charlette and I on and off our horses at every stop we made... very hands on. He pointed out all the interesting plant life, sang a few songs and invited us to join his dancing classes in the town square - cowboy by day, dance teacher by night. We wondered through the farmlands, visited a coffee plantation where we had a mini demo and tasting (ironically this was the only bad coffee we had in Cuba), explored a interesting cave system and had a lot of fun learning what our horses could do.

The last stop was the tobacco farm where we learned about the traditional organic farming methods. The farmer told us that 90% of his harvest goes directly to the government for the production of the famous "Cuban" cigars. He is paid a set rate for that 90%, not much apparently, and the remaining 10% he is free to do with as he pleases. He obviously uses his share to sell to us friendly tourists and he doesn't seem to be doing too badly from it because he was wearing a new outfit, nice leather shoes, an expensive looking hat and some valuable gold accessories.

The tobacco/cigar tour was interesting but the horse riding was the best part and we would do it again just for that. Rufus now wants to get his own horse and ride everywhere he can... a little difficult when you live and work on a yacht. Who knows though, maybe thats part of the next adventure in our future - horses and farmland somewhere in Central America! 

fist time back on a horse in more than 20 years... 

Ben getting comfy on his trusty steed

Our guide pointing out the tobacco plantations

like ducks in a row

Charlette's horse did not like mine and kept me at the back of the line for most of the trip... Equine politics!

Valle del Silencio

The farmer explaining his process

the finished product - we each took a pack home

rolling our cigars

the organic tobacco leaves ready to be turned into "Cubans"

Charlette was a natural

my (not so) sexy smoking face...

traditional farming methods are still widely practiced

the boys - so chuffed with their horses and their cigars

cigar selfie with Mojito and Canchánchara

Ben & Charlette (with our guide in the back) on the ride home with Pina Colada and Cuba Libre

Cuba continued

La Habana Vieja, or Old Habana, is exactly what it's title suggests, the oldest part of the city. Over the course of two days we explored the area with our new friends from the casa. A lot of the buildings are run down and in need of some serious TLC but the government seems to be investing in the rehabilitation of a select few grand hotels and ateliers .

There are areas which are more commercial, and crowded with tourists, but there are also quieter areas where trendy little bars and restaurants have started to spring up in between the dilapidated private residential buildings. Not everything is frozen in the 50s - there are quite a few brand new vehicles on the roads and Havana has its fair share of hipsters... but the vintage Cadillacs and grand old buildings are far more interesting to photograph ;)

Charlette & Ben

I'm not quite sure how to caption this...

Kiwis + Saffas = Beer. at a restaurant in Plaza Vieja you can have it "on tap" at your table

it didn't last long...

Plaza Vieja in the Old Town

this photo doesn't capture the grandeur of this place - I should have taken some of the interior, seriously impressive.

lunch time: cigars, wine and Chloe dancing

beer at the harbour art market

Chloe

Samy & Chloe

Shocking Endings and New Beginnings

The initial purpose of this blog was to keep our family informed and involved in our travels. It's the easiest, fastest way to reach everyone. The most frequent comment we get from friends and family is: "We can never keep track of you two!".

And it's the truth. Rufus and I have an unpredictable life together, we enjoy the excitement of not always knowing what is around the corner and not always being able to plan things.  In all honesty, who can successfully and accurately plan every detail of their future?! No one, ever. We have just actively chosen to embrace that uncertainty rather than fight it. We do still dream (a lot, about many things) and enjoy planning how to execute those dreams but we are happy to accept the changes, and adapt accordingly, when life throws them at us.

But this month, for the first time in years, we are finding it exceptionally difficult to accept the "curve ball" that has shattered our lives. Rufus' mom was diagnosed with Leukemia, not even 2 months ago and, in the early hours of March 7th, she suddenly passed away. She had just completed her first round of chemo and was technically in remission but her white blood cell count was too low and, after contracting a nasty infection in the hospital, she died in Constantiaberg MediClinic ICU of septicaemia.

After the initial shock, confusion, anger and devastation we are reminded every day, through each member of our family, what Rynette taught us about how she wanted us to live our lives: LOVE and LIFE in everything we do, think and say.

Just over 7 years ago, when Rufus and I got engaged, Rynette promised to accept me and love me unconditionally, as her own biological daughter, not just her daughter-in-law or Rufus' wife. That is by no means and easy promise to make, never mind actually carrying through with it (especially since we didn't know each other very well at the time) but she made good on her promise. We became extremely close, both on a mother-daughter level and as great friends. She carried me (and Rufus) through terribly tough times in my life and lived every word she preached to me, and every one else in her life. She lived love, she lived grace, she lived humility, she lived forgiveness, she lived joy, she lived generosity. She lived LIFE.

She adored reading our blog and pestered me every time we SKYPEd or Whats App'd about updating it with our most recent activities . She never got to see all the blog posts I haven't yet done because I thought I had all the time in the world to do them "later", when I had "more time". We obviously don't always have limitless time to put things off. Ma was 55 when she passed away. She was supposed to live at least another 50 years to see her dream home, that Rufus is building for her, to be "Oumie" to our children and to be a mother to Cherie on her wedding day... One thing we did always make time for was to let Ma know that we loved her and we appreciated her and we valued her, and the time we shared with her. We are truly truly grateful for that.

Ma dreamed of us eventually turning this blog into a book of our world travels. We can't do that if I don't stop being lazy and putting the posts off. So this is a promise not to procrastinate anymore. This is a promise to make another one of Rynette's dreams for us a reality. Even if we don't publish the book we will start regularly posting again so that the rest of our family and friends can "keep up" with us ;)

From today we promise not to put things off anymore, Mamma. Ons is vreeslik lief vir jou. Die Skirries x

Rynette at our family farewell in Saldanha, September 2012, before we set sail across the Atlantic with Melody.

Rufus' dad, Boris, Rynette, Rufus and I.  Photo Credit: Cherie Brand

Rufus, Ma and Cherie (Rufus' sister).  Photo credit: Vivian Botha

Pa, Ma, Rufus & Cherie. Photo Credit: Vivian Botha

SAN CRISTOBAL

When we finally got through Cuban immigration (apparently EVERYONE from the African continent has Ebola, according to all the non African countries we have visited in the last year) , we immediately set about organising a taxi to our casa (which we had not yet booked...). A couple of friendly Kiwis (also known as New Zealanders) overheard us and asked to split the cab.

We ended up staying at the same casa and making friends with the rest of the residents there - more Kiwis and a French/Moroccan couple. The second night in Havana we all went out to dinner together. Our casa hosts booked us a table at San Cristobal Paladar. A paladar "is a term used in Cuba to refer to privately owned restaurants, mostly family-run. About 2 years ago the state started allowing privately run businesses and these paladars are a great, more authentic, alternative to the rather touristy (and expensive) state run restaurants. 

This paladar is on the higher end of the local scale (they only accept CUC for example, the tourist only currency) and when we arrived we were ushered into our own cosy private dining room.

The owner/chef prepared delicious food (again, no photos because it was so good and we were too busy licking our plates clean) and the service was truly fantastic. After dinner the men were served cigars (which obviously annoyed the women at the table)and we all got shots of locally made rum (the men's shots were larger than the women's... coincidence?) - all on the house.

The building used to be a private residence and now the ground floor houses the restaurant, All the walls in the high ceilinged rooms are covered in vintage photos, paintings and prints from Cuba's heyday, when it was still the "Jewel of the Caribbean". In between all the artwork is an extensive collection of vintage clocks, from across the globe, which we found out later is the biggest private collection in the world.

Rufus and I are not known for our heavy drinking, partying and late nights - 9pm is'nt called "cruiser's midnight" for nothing. This evening however we were the last guests to leave, walking home at about 2am. The best part for me was, and this is how you know you are in good company, conversation was so good and so natural that we hardly realised how fast the time passed, none of us were tired and no one had more than 2 drinks the whole evening!

Good food, good people, good memories.

the entrance to the restaurant

outdoor dining area & some of the clocks from the owner's collection

vintage posters

original crystal chandeliers

our private dining room - on the left: Charlette, Ben, me, Chloe. on the right: Louis, Hannah, Rufus & Sami. 

our private dining room - on the left: Charlette, Ben, me, Chloe. on the right: Louis, Hannah, Rufus & Sami. 

Louis (also known as Fidel) and his wife Hannah - the crazierst of the Kiwis (in the best way possible!)

desert: leche frito

desert: leche frito

rum & coffee - great way to end a meal

Ben (pronounced "bin" ) & Charlette - the (slightly) more normal "airport" Kiwis

the boys getting lit up

complimentary cigar service after dinner

feeling ridiculous with my first real cuban

feeling ridiculous with my first real cuban

Chloe and I trying to look elegant with our cigars - it's a lot easier for French women I discovered

Chloe and I trying to look elegant with our cigars - it's a lot easier for French women I discovered

boys and their cigars...

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we were so special that we had two waiters ;)

we were so special that we had two waiters ;)

 

 

CUBA LIBRE!

Over the December holidays we were planning on returning to South Africa for my best friend's wedding. It turns out that flights across the Atlantic, to and from Belize, are astronomically expensive over the December holiday peak season. 

We had already paid for a flight from NYC to Cape Town, but the return and connecting flight from Belize to New York were so expensive we had to give up on our trip home. We had already scheduled with our company that we would be taking those two weeks off, before we even started this job, so we didn't have any work booked during that time. We had to make a plan to do something with ourselves since we don't have a place to stay in Belize, other than the boats that we work on.

Belize is rated as the most expensive country in Central America so we decided to save some money on accommodation etc and visit a more cost effective destination. Cuba has been in my top 5 list of destinations for years and when we found out that Havana is only a short plane ride from Mexico (Belize's neighbour) we decided on the spur of the moment to visit Cuba!

The day after our final charter we hopped on a bus to Mexico, straight to Cancun International Airport. We hadn't had enough time to book a flight in advance so we took a chance and waited 8hrs  at the airline desk to try our luck. Fortunately we managed to secure two of the last four tickets to Havana that day!

Words do not do this island justice. All the photos on the internet cannot capture the energy and charisma of this country, and it's people. It is not at all what you would think it is but, at the same time, it is also everything you hear and read about.

Note: all of these photos were taken by myself and Rufus in Central Havana

Habana Centro: this sweet lady was stoked to get her photo taken

Habana Centro: bicycle taxis waiting for their next passangers

Habana Centro: one of the streets near our firts casa

Habana Centro: colour coordination

on our way to book bus tickets to Vinjales

banana car

images of Che Guevara can be found everywhere in Havana

Habana Centro: view from a Coco taxi

Habana Centro: classic car line up

Habana Centro: 34 seconds left till the green light

Coco taxi

morning traffic in Central Havana

so many motorbikes with side cars in Havana

bicycle taxi on the move

Plaza de la Revolucion - Che Gevara & Camilo Cienfuegos

"Hasta la Victoria Siempre". Che Guevara

Jose Marti Memorial

inside a Coco taxi

looking out the back "window" of a Coco taxi