Unlike the impromptu long weekend in Cuba, this is a trip we booked right after we got back from our honeymoon in Italy last May. Our hope is to do a trip somewhere different every year, and start planning it as soon as we get back from the one before. I'd like to get our money's worth from the global traveler's passes we applied for. We'll be gone a week, and I'll be back around after I catch my breath on our return. Hasta pronto, mis amigos!
In our neck of the woods, February is so variable. Some days it's absolutely lovely and I stay out in the yard for hours, weeding and cutting back plants in preparation for growth. Other days it is freezing or raining ad I just want to cuddle inside where it's warm. It was chilly on Saturday night, when we stepped out to see the penumbral equinox that was supposed to be visible. It looked pretty much like a regular full moon to me.
Earlier that day, we set out on an overcast day to go to the UU book sale rather than making our usual library run. The youngest daughter is generally resistant to an early start on a weekend but she was no match for me jumping on her bed, rubbing her face with my cold hands and yelling, "Book sale! Book sale!" She was giggling and out of bed in no time. I came home with a stack of dollar paperback novels, my husband got a couple of story collections, and our daughter got a couple of books and a couple of puzzles, one of which we've made a solid start on.
I have been on a reading kick lately. Succumbing to the peer pressure of my sister and brother-in-law's reading challenge on Goodreads, I set my goal for 52 books this year. I'm on my 13th, so I am way ahead of the game. But I know once winter has passed, that will slow down. Already, spring is moving in.
On a trip to Lexington a year or so ago, we saw a Little Free Library while we were walking. Not long after, another in Asheville and then another here in town. The idea is that people can take books they want and leave others they have already read. We were intrigued and decided our neighborhood needed one. So in the fall, we started researching ideas and got to work.
My husband drew up the plans and did the carpentry. We decided to make ours look like a cottage.
Once the boards were cut and sanded, I started priming and then painting.
The walls I painted the same sunny yellow of our interior garage door and I stained the horizontal surfaces to look like hardwood floors.
I picked out a light gray in an exterior paint and then cut strips of balsa wood and glued them on to make window frames.
After a failed experiment with foam sheet tiles, I punted that idea and mixed white, gray and black paint to make a roof color that would be variegated like shingles.
We may have gone overboard on the details, but in for a penny, in for a pound. Which is why I painted in window panes and even put windows in the back. My husband made sure to make the thing as weatherproof as possible, caulking all the seams, making the roof have an overhang, and adding a ridge cover.
The door is a work of art - plexiglass set into wood, with a sealant and a latch above the door knob. I painted it the same red as our own front door and made a little sign for it.
My husband added on the fencing and columns and steps I'd painted. We stocked it with books we found in the free book bin and with others of our own we'd already read.
The most fun for me was going to a crafts store for the plants and animals. I bought a couple of bunches of fake greenery and flowers and cut them up to make potted plants (set into slices of cork from wine bottles), and put in artificial grass. I found a little ginger cat that I painted black with a white spot on her neck to match our cat Hodr. I added a bird house by the front door and glued on a little squirrel on the roof in honor of the squirrels that are always galloping across ours.
Our next door neighbor helped my husband install it this weekend into a triangle of public land that another neighbor maintains. The neighbor who helped with the installation is working on the children's version, which will go in next to it on a shorter post. We've already heard from several neighbors who are very pleased and already books have been exchanged. As for us, we keep finding reasons to walk or drive by it.
I have to say, I have a knack for finding neat places to stay when we travel. I'd read that in Cuba many people converted their homes to rent out a room or so, basically operating as very small B&Bs. I found one located in central Havana, within easy walking distance of the historic part of the city.
The homes are essentially very old townhouses, probably built in the early 1800's. Our room, with a bathroom, was a mere $38 a night.
We were met at the door and handed a key, then lead up a narrow marble staircase to the second floor.
Although there were blankets in the dresser, we used only the sheet at night. It was so pleasant we never turned on the air conditioning unit. Instead, we left the windows open and slept under the ceiling fan.
It helped that the ceilings were insanely high. That exceedingly narrow door was our bathroom. We weren't quite sure how the hot water worked, but the lukewarm showers we took were actually lovely after a day in the sun. On the other side of the room was a wardrobe with a handle placed so high that I could only reach it on tiptoes.
Down the open-air hall was a little sitting room and beyond it, a dining room.
Breakfasts were cooked in a tiny kitchen area to the side, and the balcony doors stayed open to let in air and light.
Our hosts made us omelets, a plate of fresh fruit, fruit smoothies and rolls with butter and guava jam. We were offered hot water to lessen the strength of the dark Cuban coffee, but both of us liked it as it was (and bought some at the airport to bring home).
Both days we'd step outside early to walk around a bit before eating. The second morning, a man tried to talk us into having a mojito before breakfast.
I also liked to stand on the balcony and watch the neighborhood come to life. I like the little girl in her fairy costume and the young woman nursing her baby in a doorway.
This bizarre hairless dog lived on a balcony across from us. He was as intrigued by the goings-on in the street as I was.
Often women would scrub or sweep the sidewalks in front of their homes.
Had I seen photos of the decay of the buildings all around us on our street, I might not have booked a room. We'd have missed out.
Away from the tourist crowds, there was not a fancy restaurant or souvenir shop in sight. Our hosts, Guillermo and Tamara, spoke virtually no English, which was true for most of the neighborhood residents. They were gracious and kind to us, and patient with our broken Spanish. Just for a few days we were immersed in the lives of Habañeros. We stayed in the real Havana, and I'm glad we did.
Before we left Cuba, we had to spend a little more time along the Malecón. We'd ridden in a vintage American car taxi and a frightening bicycle taxi and now I wanted to try one of the little bubble taxis. Just because they are so freaking cute.
They are basically a plastic egg powered by a motorcycle. Note that our driver has a helmet but we do not.
We'd actually walked along the Malecón earlier that morning and discovered that it was not a great time to be there. It was drizzling and the wind was whipping the water up and over the seawall. The construction of the wall began in 1901, in an effort to protect the ocean-front road.
Pretty soon my hair looked like this.
As you can imagine, the waves chased nearly everyone away and the street was deserted. Neither a single car nor a pedestrian to be seen. Except us, because we're lunatics.
You can see how the frequent sea water spray contributes to the erosion of the buildings.
Even a block back, the wind and salt water made the going a little tough. But the sun was starting to come out and we headed back after the festival.
The Malecón is officially named the Avenida de Maceo, although no one calls it that. In good weather it is a social hub for the city. We stopped at this little waterside park and I found a small hunk of marble on the ground near the statue of Antonio Maceo. A veteran of 900 battles, this black solider was wounded 25 times and is a war hero who fought for independence from Spain's colonial rule of Cuba. I brought it and a home-made fishing weight I found back with me to make a Christmas ornament.
Once the sun was out, so were the people. Forget a formal field, it was time for a little game of fútbol.
The avenue is lined with elegant 18th and 19th century buildings facing the straights of Florida.
Los Baños de Malecón, the public baths, were carved from the rock to allow people to bathe in the warm seawater. At the time they were built, they were strictly segregated by gender and race.
Although it was a little cool to be in the water that day, we saw people fishing and also these old guys taking in the sun.
When it was warmer on an earlier day, we also spent a little time strolling on the promenade and enjoying the sun.
Before I wrap up with a post about our B&B, I leave you with this view of the Malecón when it's windy:
On Sunday we decided to head out on foot to Havana's Chinatown. El Barrio Chino de la Habana begins with an ornate entry way. In the foreground is one of the scary bicycle taxis we'd ridden home in the previous night. This neighborhood began in the mid-1800's with the immigration of Cantonese and Hakka workers from China, who came to labor in the sugarcane fields. Some 120,000 men came here to work. And only men - women were not brought over and many of the men saved to buy a slave and then marry her.
We saw many ornate buildings with pagoda-like features. As we walked, a friendly local person chatted for a bit and expressed her appreciation for the fact that we were willing to get to know "the real Havana, MY Havana."
Many buildings had their original signs in Chinese. What we did NOT see, however, were any Chinese people. Apparently, most of the Cuban-Chinese fled when Castro took power and appropriated their businesses.
We never once saw a police officer actually do anything but stand and chat. Given the pleasant weather, it strikes me as not a bad gig.
Our dining room is painted a buttery yellow and I would have an endless supply of beautiful yellow flowers for it if I lived in Havana.
The original population of the barrio may have been Asian, but the building colors are pure Caribbean.
In my reading about Cuba prior to our trip, I learned that people who dress in head-to-toe white are novitiates to the religion of Santería. The African slaves brought Regla de Ocha with them from West Africa and it persists, in spite of the official disapproval of all religion. Santería is the Spanish name for the worship of spirits or saints. Most Afro-Cubans see no contradiction in the syncretic practice of both Catholicism and the ancient Yoruban religion.
With that knowledge in hand, we were eager to check out the center of Afro-Cuban culture in Havana at Hamel Alley. We walked from Chinatown to the Cayo Hueso neighborhood close to Vedado, to find the Callejón de Hamel.
The Alley holds the art studio of Salvador Gonzales Escalona, whose murals adorn the walls of the narrow street.
In addition to this friendly cat, we soon had a local person attach himself to us. He started to tell us about a marble bust in the garden but we surprised him by simultaneously saying "Martí!" Hey, it was our third day, we knew a thing or two.
When he began talking about Changó, I said, "Sure, the god of fire." That one seemed to delight him and he urged me to get a photo sitting on Changó's chair. So yeah, that's me, Quaker pacifist perched on the war god's throne.
We bought a CD of local rumba music and moved on through the growing crowd.
While we waited for the music to start up, my husband bellied up to the bar to get us a couple of rums. Sadly, they had only clear rum available, which I find rather bland.
No matter, there was music. A rumba group plays here every Sunday to an appreciative audience.
Musicians and dancers. It was fun to watch, but we had more to see on our last day and we had to move on.