May 2011

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Bloodies for all

Sharla brings back my first--but not my last--mimosa of the day. Photo by David Lansing.

Sharla, my personal onboard attendant, introduces herself to me and asks me if there’s anything she can do for me.

“Where do we begin?” I say. She laughs. “Actually, there are two things you can do,” I tell her. “Laugh at all of my jokes and keep my glass full.”

“Easy enough,” she says. “I’ll even tell you how handsome you are, if it helps.”

“That would be lovely.”

Sharla goes off to fetch me a fresh mimosa. Right behind her is Antoine, another of my personal attendants, pushing a cart laden with still-hot blueberry scones as well as fresh coffee.

Actually, neither Sharla nor Antoine are here solely for my pleasure. Some 66 passengers are accomodated on the upper level of our double-decker car with its Plexiglas-topped canopy and Sharla and Antoine, along with Alicia, are here to keep us as happy as hibernating bears. But they’re so attuned to what’s going on around them that I can hardly finish one mimosa before another is in my hand.

Antoine, who has a dry, witty sense of humor, has informed us that the dining car below us seats about 36 passengers at a time so our car is broken up into two dining groups and the group in the front of the coach has already been invited downstairs for breakfast. Not to worry, Antoine tells us. While they’re dining, we’ll be treated to fresh scones, coffee, juice, and, of course, champagne. Or a cocktail if we feel like it. Surprising me a bit, one or two writers in our group ask for Bloody Marys. Antoine brings them back and they look so inviting that it’s decided to get a round of Bloodies for everyone. And why not? Who wants to drink alone on such a lovely morning?

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Early morning sun glints off a Rocky Mountaineer coach as we board in Vancouver. Photo by David Lansing.

I don’t mind getting up early but I prefer it if there’s at least a suggestion of light in the sky when I roll out of bed, which there was not when my alarm went off shortly before five. I don’t know why I got up so early; the itinerary said we were meeting in the hotel lobby around 6:30. I could have gotten up at 5:30 and still had time to shower and make it down there an hour later. Could have gotten up at six if I skipped the shower (always a bad idea).

Anyway, there I was in the hotel lobby at 6:20. And do you think anyone else was down there besides the night clerk? Negative. So I checked out and asked if there was someplace within walking distance where I could get coffee. I was told a Starbucks was only a couple of blocks down Beatty Street. It was still dark enough out that the streetlights were still on. I passed by a few homeless people sleeping in doorways, young women hurrying to the bus stop, vendors unloading this and that from the backs of small trucks.

By the time I got back to the hotel with my grande extra-hot latte, most of the others were down in the lobby in various stages of early-morning malaise, some looking like they’d only gotten a few hours of sleep last night, others like they hadn’t slept at all.

Michael Collin, looking like a preppy lumberjack in a red and black buffalo check Woolrich shirt-jacket (this trip is being partially hosted by Woolrich), was handing out tickets for the Rocky Mountaineer, the scenic train that runs from Vancouver to Banff and Calgary. We were headed for Banff.

Michael rounded up a couple of taxis for us and we headed for the train station. Getting checked in was easy (it reminded me of the way airline travel used to be before we all went crazy with security) and the porters took our bags and disappeared with them, and shortly after seven we were invited to step aboard our Goldleaf dome coach where a young attendant in a crisp white blouse and navy blue vest offered me a glass of champagne which, to me, is always the proper way to start any journey—particularly if it’s at seven in the morning.

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New travels

I’m in travel mode for the next few days. Beginning on Monday, I’m going to write about a train trip I took through the Canadian Rockies last fall. I didn’t write about it then because, well, I was on the last Rocky Mountaineer trip to Banff for the season and what’s the point of writing about a trip that people can’t go on? Anyway, that trip was in the middle of October so if some of the photography looks rather fall-ish, that’s the reason why.

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The end of the line

We got on the ferry and the boat pulled away from Casa Blanca. I don’t know what you imagine a ferry boat to be like but I’m sure this one was nothing like what you’d imagine. It was really like a floating subway car without any seats on it. It was boxy and made of metal and very hot inside. You got on the boat and everyone quickly maneuvered to get near one of the open windows to catch the breeze. I went to the end of the boat facing Havana so I could look out the window across the water. A young woman and her son did the same. The boy looked a little ill, perhaps just from the heat, so I made room for him so his mother could bring his face to the window and fan him with her hand.

The boy stayed very close to his mother but was quite curious about me. He would look at my face and then down at the camera slung around my neck. I smiled at him and asked him what his name was. He looked at his mother and she nodded and he said, “Miguel.” I told him my name. I asked him if he spoke English. Again he looked at his mother. His mother said he didn’t but she did, a little bit. I asked her if it would be okay if her son used my camera to take a couple of photos. She said yes and then shooed him over to me.

I handed the boy my camera, showed him where the shutter button was and how to hold it, and told him to take some photos of his mother. He shot one and I showed him how to look at it on the LCD screen on the back of the camera. He smiled, his eyes getting big. Then he took the camera and shot several more photos of his mother. We looked at them together and he picked out the one he liked best and then he took the camera over to his mother and showed her the photos he had taken.

She smiled. She was a pretty woman with reddish brown hair and a pink top and large sunglasses. She seemed very protective of her son. I asked her if I could take a photo of the two of them together and she nodded. After I took the pictures, the boy came over to look at them. He really liked one in particular, a shot where he is half in shade and his mom has an arm draped across his chest. I asked the mom if she got e-mail or had a way to get the photo if I sent it to her. She said no. I asked her if she had a relative or someone in a work place that could get it. “It’s not possible,” she said, looking down, and I didn’t know if she meant it wasn’t possible because she didn’t have any access to a computer or because it would be bad to get this photo from an American. I felt bad about it. It was a nice photo and obviously the mom and the boy were very close and I would have liked for them to have this memory of our ferry crossing from Casa Blanca to Havana, but as she said, it was not possible.

The ferry boat pulled up to the harbor and everyone hurried to get off. The boy and his mom got off ahead of me. I watched them cross the busy Avenue del Puerto, dodging the fast-moving traffic, and walk quickly up the street, the young woman always with one arm on the boy to guide him. Near the Hotel Valencia, the boy turned his head to look back. I gave him a short wave and he waved back. Then they disappeared up a side street and I did not see them again.

At the Plaza de Armas, we caught a taxi back to the hotel. I went for a swim and watched the sun set over Havana and then I went back to my room to shower and change for dinner. It was our last night in Havana. Tomorrow morning we would take a taxi to the airport and by noon or so we’d be back in Cancun. The Cuba trip was over.

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To the Che museum

The very modest Che museum in Casa Blanca. Photo by David Lansing.

We hadn’t ordered lunch yet at La Terraza because we were still waiting for Greg. We were enjoying the Cuban music and the cold Cristal beers and the sea breeze coming in from the bay and there was no hurry about anything. But then our driver, who had been sitting in the Impala beneath the shade of a thin tree by the plaza, came into the restaurant and respectfully told us that he could not stay any longer. He reminded us that he had told us when we rented the car that he had to be back in Havana by three and since it was now after two-thirty, he had to go. He was sorry. It was not something he liked to do, but there it was.

So we paid him the money we owed him, giving him a generous tip to let him know there were no hard feelings on our part, and went back to our lunch. At this point we weren’t sure if Greg was going to join us or not so we went ahead and ordered, getting a couple of dishes we could pass around, like the seafood paella and an octopus dish, plus some shrimp. Just as our food was being served, Greg came in. He pointed at one of the dishes, not bothering with the menu, and asked the waiter for the same thing. It was a very pleasant afternoon.

As we were paying our bill, we asked the waiter to call a taxi for us. He said it would be a few minutes. When it came, it was a small car, not nearly big enough for all six of us. Hardy asked the waiter to get us another taxi but he said this one was the only one available. So we decided that I would go with Cam and Nick and then the taxi driver would come back to the restaurant to pick up the rest of the group. We were headed for Casa Blanca, the little village on the other side of the Bay of Havana known for its 60-foot-tall marble statue of Christ and for the Che museum. The taxi driver dropped us off near the Christ statue and we walked down the hill to the Che museum.

There is very little to say about the Che museum because there is very little in the Che museum. Almost everything in it, from his bedroom scene to his office, is reproductions of furniture and material from old photos. He was a dentist so one display case has “dentist tools of the period.” Not Che’s tools, mind you, but just some nasty looking pliers and probes from the 50s. We went through the whole house in about ten minutes and then we sat on the tiled roof of the museum, looking out over the harbor and across the water to Havana Viejo, waiting for the others to arrive. They too went through the museum quickly and then we took a few photos in front of the Christ statue before walking down the hill towards Casa Blanca. There were some kids playing soccer in a playground next to a church. When they saw us walking by, several of the younger kids ran over, their hands out, asking us for candy or gum. We didn’t have anything to give them. They followed us for a little while, like stray dogs, before turning around and running back up the hill.

At the bottom of the hill was a small ferry building. The guards checked our bags and let us pass through. We sat in the humid dark hallway with about half a dozen other travelers, all locals, waiting for the ferry to come back from Havana. It was so hot and humid in the ferry building that all I could think about was getting back to the hotel and taking a swim in the rooftop pool. We had talked of maybe walking back to the hotel through old Havana but that was before going to Cojimar and the Che museum and walking down the hill to Casa Blanca. Now everyone was tired and hot and just wanted to go back to the hotel. It had been a very long afternoon.

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