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Cuba told in pictures and prose (Part 3)

This is the third and final instalment on my Cuba series, covering a trip I took with my friend, Darcy. If you haven’t read from the beginning, feel free to hop over to Part 1 and Part 2 first.

I’ve already touched on many of Havana’s landmarks, so this post will focus on Cuba’s people, Ernest Hemingway, and conclude with some interesting Cuban facts.

What does it mean to be Cuban and what’s with those names?

Cuban culture and history are more eclectic than I realized. The majority of Cubans come from Spanish and African descent, also influenced by the slave trade. The white population is still the majority, followed by a large percentage who are mulatto (a blend of races), then blacks, and then a small Asian group.

Here we are with Mayrene, a beautiful woman who graced us with her friendship.

Yanetsis, Yanquiel, Hanoi … just some of the other exotic names of Cubans we met.

How were these names derived?

In pre-revolutionary Cuba, parents chose more traditional, Spanish-language names like Javier, Manuel, or Maria. Post revolution, the preference for unusual names came from a couple of sources.

  1. A departure from the country’s Spanish Roman Catholic heritage meant parents moved away from biblical names.
  2. Naming their children was one of the few creative freedoms Cubans had, a way to exert their power in a country where the state controlled everything else.

Interesting fact: In the 1970s, imaginations really went wild. That’s when the letter Y, rarely used in Spanish names, became a hit with parents. (It may have also been influenced by the Soviet Union and their names like Yevgeni and Yuri.). Even so-called normal names were hijacked. Janet became Yanet, and indeed, we met a woman named Yanet at our hotel!

Preparing for a milestone anniversary

In 2019, Havana will celebrate the 500th anniversary of its founding by Spanish settlers on November 16, 1519. In preparation for the big day, the city has been restoring more than 600 buildings, streets, and complexes in its historical district.

Small details such as this mailbox make the streets unique.

Cobbled, car-free Calle Mercaderes (Merchant’s Street) has been extensively restored.

This 300 square meter mural on Mercaderes Street depicts 67 outstanding figures from Cuban history and the arts.

Calle Mercaderes is also characterized by its restored shops, including one of its most famous — Habana 1791, a perfume shop where attendants help you design your own scent. Housed in a beautifully refurbished neoclassical building, Habana 1791 offers its perfumes in bottles handcrafted by Cuban artisans.

 

Ernest Hemingway in Havana

Hemingway first visited Cuba in 1928 while on a layover traveling to Spain. He arrived with his family from Key West, which was his home at the time. They stopped in Havana for three days awaiting their ship to sail and stayed at the Hotel Ambos Mundos.

Hemingway next visited Cuba again four years later.

Located close to Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, Hotel Ambos Mundos was built in 1924. A room on the top (5th) floor became Hemingway’s first home in Cuba when he returned in 1932.

The hotel lobby features walls framed with photographs dedicated to Hemingway.

We took an old-style elevator up five floors to Hemingway’s room.

Darcy checks out the directory of rooms on the fifth floor.

 Room 511 is now a museum with a nominal entry fee.

 

From 1932 to mid-1939, Hemingway rented the single room for $1.50 per night.

 

Hemingway started writing his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls here in March 1939.

The room is triangular with windows that look out onto the rooftops of Old Havana and the sea. I imagined Hemingway enjoyed the street sounds below and the smell of the ocean while typing away at his desk.
Something about being near his typewriter made me weepy.

 

More pictures and memorabilia can be found in the hallways on the fifth floor. Here is a leg from one of Hemingway’s writing desks.

 

Hemingway finally checked out of Hotel Ambos Mundos in 1939 after he purchased a more permanent residence at Finca Vigia. He lived at the 9-acre estate with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn for a time until their divorce. In 1945, he married his last wife, Mary Welsh and Finca Vigia became their winter residence for the next fifteen years.

 

Located ten miles east of Havana in the working-class hamlet of San Francisco de Paula, Finca Vigia means “Lookout Farm.” Hemingway purchased the home in 1940 for $12,500.
Cubans have always respected Hemingway’s choice to live in the modest town, amongst the people he fished with.
The library housed Hemingway’s desk, curved like a boomerang. He wrote in longhand here or standing up at his typewriter.

He wrote most of For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea while living here.

The house shows off Hemingway’s trophies from his hunting and fishing expeditions.

On the wall behind the door, Hemingway obsessively scribbled down his daily weight from 1955 to 1960 when his health was failing from diabetes, cirrhosis, and high blood pressure.

Over 9000 books filled every room of the house except the dining room.

Hemingway was an avid swimmer.

Despite his machismo, Hemingway had a soft spot for cats. Tombstones of four of his more than 25 cats are found across the pool.

Hemingway purchased the fishing boat Pilar in April 1934. “Pilar” was a nickname for Hemingway’s second wife Pauline and also the name of the female leader in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Trellis-shaped patio at the front of the house.

The two-storey guest house is closed for renovations. Past guests included Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, and Ava Gardner.
 
My feelings on Hemingway: 

Both Darcy and I are writers, and our fascination to see everything Hemingway is because most writers are curious about other writers. How did he live? What made him great? What can we learn from him?

Sure, we can glean a lot from Hemingway through his work; we can even delve into his personal life, but there is something unexplainable about standing in a room where he used to sleep, brushing up against his desk, or staring out a window he once looked through.

It’s visceral.

There are several photos taken of me where I appeared teary-eyed while in his room at Ambos Mundos. I have not included them here and initially couldn’t understand the sadness.

Now I know.

It’s that sense of reverence for someone who has given so much despite suffering a great deal toward the end of his life. It’s that Hemingway’s incredible literary skills did not make him any less vulnerable and imperfect as a man. He had four wives and countless affairs. He drank heavily. He hunted. None of these traits is attractive to me, and yet, nothing would’ve stopped me from wanting to know him.

Like I said, it’s visceral.

Five facts you may not know about Cuba

It is mandatory for government vehicles to pick up hitchhikers. I mentioned this in my second post.

It started after the “Special Period” (the collapse of the Soviet Union), a time of economic hardship from 1989 until the late 1990s. A general breakdown in transportation meant once-reliable buses began to arrive several hours late, and then not at all. As a result, the Cuban government had to deal with deteriorating public transit. Nationalized hitchhiking was one solution and it continues today.

Only 5% of Cubans have access to the uncensored, open Internet. It’s an expensive chunk of their earnings, costing $2/hour when the average monthly income is only $25. In many areas in Havana, we saw people huddled around “hot spots” to check their Internet.

Cuba is one of two countries where Coca-Cola cannot be bought or sold. The other is North Korea.

Blowing your nose in public is considered extremely rude. I learned this firsthand from our guide in Havana. I had a slight cold and was blowing my nose in his car when he told me. I was mortified! I had to excuse myself and find a private place to do it thereafter even though he gave me a pass.

Ernest Hemingway worked as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star (then known as the Toronto Daily Star) from 1920 – 1924. He would later incorporate some of his pieces into his fiction.

Cubans make for easy friends 

We loved our time in Cuba because of the people, and it’s a big reason for why we would return. There are many others not pictured here but thank you to everyone who made our stay so special!

Humberto took care of us on the beach.

 

Guzman filled up our brandy at Xanadu Mansion.

 

Big hugs to Luisito and Mayara for their smiles and kindness.

 

Until next time, Cuba. We miss you already.

~eden

 

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Cuba told in pictures and prose (Part 2)

This is part two of a three-part series on Cuba. If you missed the first one, you can read it here.

I’m currently back in the deep freeze of Toronto, but it wasn’t long ago that Darcy and I felt the heat of the sun on our cheeks. Here we were on the balcony of our room with the ocean behind us. Ahh … what a wonderful sound that was!

In part one, I covered three of the four plazas in Havana. The last one is Plaza Vieja.

This plaza was originally called Plaza Nueva (New Square). It emerged in 1559 as Havana’s third open space after Plaza de Armas and Plaza de San Francisco. Plaza Vieja was the site of executions, processions, bullfights, and fiestas, all witnessed by Havana’s wealthiest citizens, who looked on from their balconies.

The urban architecture of Plaza Vieja is represented by colonial buildings and has always been a residential rather than a military, religious or administrative space.

Early 20th-century art nouveau buildings are also part of Plaza Vieja.

A work called “Viaje Fantástico” by Roberto Fabelo is found in the centre of the square. The figure, made of bronze, was donated by the 2004 National Arts Award winner. Our guide, Blexie did not know the history behind the monument, but it appears it was placed in the square in 2012.

I loved the piece immediately. A naked woman wearing only heels sits atop a rooster. What’s not to like, really?

She is unashamed of her nakedness, and she seems quite happy riding a cock. That she carries a fork is perhaps a symbol of her voracious appetite.

This is just my interpretation, of course. 😉

What is yours?

Cuba’s unique car culture

Cuba is known for its vintage cars, and there is an estimated 60,000 American cars still driving through the streets. Since 1959, when Fidel Castro assumed power, the majority of Cubans were forbidden to import foreign cars and parts. So, for almost 60 years, Cubans have played the role of Dr. Frankenstein, pulling parts from old American cars and replacing them with custom parts to keep their vehicles on the road.

There are no “new car dealerships” in Cuba as we know it. Cars are resold privately or passed down from one family member to another.

Interesting fact: The shortage of cars and public transportation has made hitchhiking a must in Cuba. We saw many hitchhikers along the way when going to and coming back from Havana. It is expected that “non-taxi” vehicles must pick up people needing rides. Hitchhiking is considered a safe way to travel.

I know little about cars. For me, it’s a mode of transportation to go from point A to B. Still, I can appreciate the beauty of an American car that has lasted for more than 50 years.

On any given street, you can see a Skittles bag of shiny chrome and its proud owners standing nearby.

Red, pink, and purple? Why not?!

Darcy liked the red convertible!

This shiny green car was my favourite. We drove in it for a short trip before switching to the blue and white Ford in the background. I liked the car because I own a dress that very same colour. 😉

John Lennon in Havana and the Beatles Bar in Varadero

When Beatlemania swept the world, Cuba resisted. Fidel Castro banned Beatles music in 1964 in an attempt to stamp out decadent, capitalist influences. But in 2000, Castro unveiled a bronze statue of John Lennon on a park bench, while Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love” played in the background. The ceremony took place on the twentieth anniversary of Lennon’s death.

Castro’s change of tune resulted from re-imagining Lennon as a political dissident and revolutionary. The statue, which captures Lennon in his long-haired, anti-war activism years, sits on a bench in John Lennon Park. Its iconic circular-rimmed glasses have been stolen so often that a guard now stands nearby holding them, poised to place them on the statue’s face when visitors approach. (The guard did so for my picture, too!).

We also went into downtown Varadero where there is an entire club dedicated to the Beatles. We didn’t stay for a set but snapped a picture of the fab four. They all looked oddly disproportionate. Still, the best likeness was John.

Gran Teatro de La Habana

Across from Parque Central, the Tacón Theater was inaugurated in April, 1838. At the time, this was Havana’s most important theatre, known for its elegance, comfort, and exceptional technical abilities.

Years later, in 1914, the theatre and the buildings around it were purchased to build the Centro Gallego, which took up the entire block. Inside, the old Tacón Theater was remodeled, integrating it with the new elements.

The façades of the building are decorated with sculptures, stone adornments, marble and bronze works. The front features four groups of sculptures in white marble representing charity, education, music, and theatre.

Today, the theatre is home to the Cuban National Ballet, and on its main stage, to the International Ballet Festival of Havana.

Introducing Ernest Hemingway 

While in Havana, both Darcy and I wanted to experience as much of Hemingway as possible. It wasn’t easy for our guide to squeeze it all in. We had to sacrifice a traditional Cuban lunch to do so, but it was definitely worth it.

La Bodeguita del Medio is a restaurant-bar opened in 1942 and is famous for its celebrity clientele. Pablo Neruda, Salvador Allende, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are cited amongst its patrons. It also lays claim to being the birthplace of the Mojito.

We walked in and a live band was playing to a packed house. The place has both spirit and history, evidenced by the graffiti and memorabilia.

According to the founder of the bar, Ernest Hemingway was not a regular, but there is a framed inscription that reads “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita” attributed to Hemingway.

El Floridita is a historic restaurant and cocktail bar, famous for its daiquiris and for being a favourite hangout for Hemingway.

Other famous customers included poet, Ezra Pound and British novelist, Graham Greene, author of Our Man in Havana (written the year before the Revolution).

The bar is located a short walk from the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway maintained a room. Today, El Floridita contains many memorabilia of the author, and in 2003, a life-size bronze statue by Cuban artist, José Villa Soberón was created of Hemingway slouched at the corner of the bar.

I hope you enjoyed this second part of Cuba told in pictures and prose. I will post the last instalment later this week, which will focus on Hemingway, some of Cuba’s people and customs, and things you may not have known about Cuba.

As always, thanks for reading. 

~eden

Update: 

The series is complete. You can now read Part 1 and Part 3.

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Guantanamera and Cuba told in pictures and prose (Part 1)

This week, I’m taking a break from my usual music blog where I showcase a song that influences my writing.

Instead, today’s music post highlights Cuba.

When the temperature dipped below -20C the first week of January, my good friend, Darcy and I desperately wanted to escape the cold. Within days of thinking about it, we booked a resort in Varadero, Cuba, best known for its white, sandy beaches. Only a three and a half hour flight away, and we’d be exchanging boots, hats, and scarves for bikinis!

Before the trip, we picked up a few things

I was in Cuba more than twenty-five years ago, and after speaking to a native Cuban, things had not changed much economically for the people living there. They are still in need of basic essentials like personal hygiene products, women’s stockings, children’s school supplies, and simple treats like chocolate. 

We bought ketchup for our guide in Havana because we knew he loved Heinz and it wasn’t available in Cuba!

Darcy and I packed lightly for ourselves and topped up our luggage with necessities to give away. The Cubans are a proud people (especially the men). They don’t need our charity, so it’s important to connect with someone before “gifting” anything. Our desire was to be helpful, not patronizing. Throughout the trip, we met wonderful people who opened up about themselves and their families. It allowed us to personalize what we gave away.

Day One and we were already in trouble 

Neither of us is much for following rules, so we skipped the resort “orientation” (I HATE those things) and decided to take a long walk our first day. Varadero Beach stretches 20km, but from our hotel, it is not a continuous path. At times, we had to weave in and out of other properties to find our way back down to the beach. It wasn’t a problem and actually allowed us to see different hotels along the way.

We walked for almost two hours before we decided to turn back.

That’s when we ran into a small problem, in the form of a Cuban security guard.

We had seen him earlier in the day when we passed him. We even commented on how odd it was that he was sitting under a little grass hut about 5 meters (15 feet) in from the main path. He seemed in the middle of nowhere.

What could he be guarding?

Well … we soon learned he was keeping an eye out for trespassers, and we were on a private boardwalk belonging to some exclusive resort nearby. When he approached us and said we could not walk the short distance to get back on the beach, we were dumbfounded.

We had taken that very path earlier, we told him.

He shook his head and said “No, you cannot go this way.”

“But … we want to get off your property,” I said. We explained we just wanted to go back the same way we came.

Our efforts to reason with him in our broken Spanish proved futile.

He refused to let us pass.

We were not happy that he re-directed us inland to find another route back. Also, I must confess I’m directionally challenged. I got lost almost immediately once we did a few twists and turns. Darcy fared better, but in the end, neither of us wanted to walk on dusty roads to return to our hotel. We came all the way from freezing Canada to walk on the beach, and damn it, that’s what we were going to do!

We explained our plight to an official of the resort that owned the “private boardwalk,” and he pointed us in the right direction.

Off we went again—toward the beach and that security guard.

Only this time, we were determined to get by him no matter what. We psyched each other up and jokingly said we could take him if we had to.

By the time we got on the path again, we hoped he might have changed shifts or was facing a different direction so he wouldn’t see us. We even tried sneaking by on the rocky surface behind him, ducking behind boulders, but … no luck.

He saw us and walked in our direction, wagging a finger and shaking his head. I felt like a child being reprimanded. He demanded we follow him back toward his grass hut.

We refused.

He stomped his foot and gave a curt gesture with his hand to follow him.

We did not budge.

He drew a walkie-talkie from his holster and spoke to someone, then commanded again that we follow him.

We defiantly stood our ground.

Exasperated, he turned and slowly walked back to his hut. We contemplated making a run for it.

The only thing that stopped us was thinking he might be armed. Neither of us remembered seeing if he carried a gun. As illogical as it sounded, we thought he might chase us and shoot us in the back. We just did not know.

Finally, the guard returned carrying a big notebook. Most of the pages were empty. He asked for our names and the particulars of where we were staying. Darcy even wrote down everything for him. He returned to his hut and replaced the book, spoke on his walkie talkie again, and then came back to us.

“Come,” he said, motioning again for us to follow him.

This time, we complied. We even thanked him for personally escorting us the 10 meters it took to get us off the property.

Freedom!

Later we learned the orientation (had we attended) would have informed us not to go on certain private properties, but hey … then I wouldn’t have this story to tell you!

Thankfully, this was the view from our room, and it’s not from inside a Cuban jail cell!

Xanadu Mansion

We were able to walk up to the top of the peninsula from our resort to Xanadu Mansion, an estate built in the 1930s. The home belonged to American millionaire, Irénée du Pont. Now, it’s a hotel with a beautiful old-style bar on the third floor.

The mansion was still undergoing renovation after Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017.

The view was spectacular, but all the windows of the bar had to be replaced and reinforced after Irma.

We sipped brandy at the bar. It was 11am, but I had a sore throat … really!

Exploring Havana in a vintage car

We booked a full-day tour of Havana, which is a two-hour drive from Varadero. I connected with Blexie (a Cuban professor turned tour guide) before we left Canada and set up a date.

Blexie’s English is impeccable as he was trained as a translator. He explained that workers in the tourist industry are among some of the best paid employees because they are able to earn tips. Government workers, lawyers/doctors paid by the state, even professors only earn an average of $25.00 CAD/month. Both he and his wife are University educated, and yet, they work in the service/tourism industry.

To put earnings in perspective, Cubans receive free healthcare and education, as well as minimally subsidized living expenses, but it is still a struggle to make ends meet. Many Cubans have jobs on the side, and many more have become self-employed. Although there are government restrictions on self-employed workers, the earnings potential is considerably more than state salaries.

With Blexie and his driver Lou.

Our car hid an Ontario, Canada license plate beneath the Cuban one!

Before arriving in Havana, we stopped at the Bridge of Bacunayagua, the tallest in Cuba standing at 110 meters. It was inaugurated in September 1959 and crosses the canyon. That’s it behind us on a windy start to our day.

Old Havana is where most of the tourists spend their time. It’s full of interesting architecture with many of the main attractions concentrated around four plazas. I will cover three of them here and the last one in a subsequent post.

The picturesque Plaza de San Francisco is directly across from the port.

Formerly a small inlet opening directly to the bay, the plaza was first laid out in 1575 when the land was drained. From the start it was a market where goods were unloaded, bought, and sold. That included the purchase and sale of slaves.

The spacious cobbled square, which was fully restored in the 1990s, takes its name from the Franciscan convent built there.

Orphans were placed inside the tiny doorway in the wall. Loosely translated, the sign says: My father and my mother abandoned me to be taken in by the charitable souls inside.

In the late 17th century and 18th centuries, many wealthy nobles built their homes on the cobbled plaza. Eventually, the marketplace moved to Plaza Vieja after noise complaints from the residents and the convent’s monks.

Street scene around Plaza de San Francisco.

The oldest square in Old Havana and the site where the city was founded is Plaza de Armas. In colonial times, it was the site of military parades, musical concerts and formal evening promenades, and it maintained its political and administrative role until the mid-20th century.

In the center of the square is Parque Céspedes, pinned by a white marble statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, initiator of the Cuban wars of independence and Father of the Homeland.

The square is lush with palm trees and other tropical plants, while the perimeter is lined with elegant Baroque buildings. Cuba’s national tree, the royal palm, is distinguished by its trunk which looks like it’s made of cement.

Nearby is the 18th-century baroque Palacio de los Capitanes Generales—the former governor’s palace, fronted by a street made from wooden tiles instead of cobblestones. The governor of the time found it too noisy! 

Today, the building houses the Museo de la Ciudad, dedicated to the city’s history.

The Castillo de la Real Fuerza is a fort on the western side of the harbour bordering the Plaza de Armas. It was originally built to defend against pirate attacks.

To the east of the square is El Templete, a 19th-century, Greek-style Neoclassical temple marking the legendary spot where Havana was founded in 1519. The monument was erected in 1828 and inside hangs three large canvases. They represent the first mass, the first town council, and the blessing of the site by aristocracy and high officials of the colonial government.

The works were created by French painter Jean Baptiste Vermay, whose remains and those of his wife are in the interior in a cenotaph.

Darcy swore one of the aristocrats in the centre canvas looked like John Lennon, and I’d have to agree!

Plaza de la Catedral showcases Cuban baroque architecture, including the Catedral de la Habana (also known as Cathedral of Havana San Cristobal).

It is the newest of the four squares in the Old Town, with its present layout dating back to the 18th century.

Inside the asymmetrical cathedral.

Ornate altar.

In and around Plaza de la Catedral.

In Spanish, “Guantanamera” is the feminine form of  from Guantánamo as in a woman from Guantánamo. It’s considered the definitive patriotic song of Cuba, especially when its lyrics are adapted from Cuban poet, José Julián Martí Pérez. Enjoy the song by Cuban musicians from around the world.

In the next post, I will explore the final plaza – Plaza Vieja. And of course, I haven’t even touched on Ernest Hemingway. Hope you’re having a great week so far.

~eden

Update: 

The series is complete. You can now read Part 2 and Part 3.

 

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Bali told in pictures and prose and Mount Agung finally erupts!

I just returned from Bali and had an amazing time. I wrote about my adventure last year, following a trip to the Indonesian island nearly three decades after I first set foot on it.

As good fortune would have it, I was able to go back this year and provide a recap of my journey below.

Before the trip, there was Mt. Agung

As was the case last October, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was the impetus for the trip. I booked my festival tickets in the summer to take advantage of an early bird price for the five-day event. I looked forward to leaving the cool summer of Toronto for warmer climes, but before I could even think of getting on that plane, a hiccup by the name of Mt. Agung emerged, more than a hiccup really. Mt. Agung is a volcano and also the highest point in Bali. It had shown signs of erupting around early September, a month before my trip. The last time it erupted was 1963, killing more than 1000 people. Back then, there was no forewarning. This time, however, the warnings ramped up fast and furious. On a scale of 1-4 severity, Mt. Agung was classified “4” and slapped with a twelve-kilometer exclusion zone around the mountain.

Getty Images

The governor issued a state of emergency at the end of September, and scientists speculated daily about when the volcano would blow.

Tourists were cancelling their trips.

There was a heightened sense of panic when another volcano (Mt. Sinabung) erupted in proximity to Mt. Agung, killing ten people.

Mt. Agung continued to spew smoke leading up to my trip, causing tremors in surrounding areas. It led to the evacuation of more than 180,000 people.

The Canadian government issued a travel advisory about Bali and the potential danger of Mt. Agung, but it did not outright say “DO NOT GO.”

I knew how much the Balinese depended on tourism, especially during the time I was going — their rainy and low season. After weighing my options, I decided the risk to me was small. I was staying outside the exclusion zone anyway, so worst case scenario would be if the volcano erupted as I was flying into Bali. The volcanic ash would disrupt air traffic and likely reroute my plane, but what were the chances of that happening?

Ultimately, I did not want to cancel my trip, so I rationalized it in my favour (With logic involved, of course!).

A farmer tends to his land at the base of Mt. Agung – Getty: Bay Ismoyo

It’s old news now, but Mt. Agung never did erupt while I was there. Not only that, a week after I arrived, authorities lowered the alert level from 4 to 3 due to a decrease in volcanic activity.

UPDATE NOVEMBER 21

Today, I just learned Mt. Agung has finally erupted. I started writing this post a few nights ago, so how things can change! The good news is the eruption is small. There are no new evacuations and the airport remains opened. I am relieved and will stay tuned.

A cloud of ash rising from Mt. Agung Nov 21st. (BNPB Indonesia)

Hopefully, the evacuees will be able to return to their homes soon, and no new eruptions will occur.

UPDATE NOVEMBER 26

Mt. Agung has erupted again and now the aviation warning in Bali is RED. The Lombok airport is now closed. This means a larger eruption is imminent or underway with significant emission of ash into the atmosphere. 😦

UPDATE NOVEMBER 27

Ngurah Rai, the international airport has closed in Bali and stranded thousands of travellers. The warning for Mt. Agung is back up to its highest level as more ash spews into the atmosphere. Once again, we are hearing of a major and imminent eruption.

UPDATE NOVEMBER 28

Bali’s international airport remains closed, and Mount Agung is showing increasing signs of a possible full-scale eruption.

Kuta for Green Tea and Poppies

My first stop in Bali was Kuta, a beach and resort area in southern Bali and one of its first tourist spots.

Kuta beach at dawn

Kuta was also the site of two terrorist bombings—one in October, 2002 and another in October, 2005. Over 225 people died as a result of the two attacks. Thankfully, it has not had another incident since.

Kuta remains best known for its party-centric atmosphere and unrivalled sunsets. With a long broad Indian Ocean beach-front, it is also a surfer’s paradise.

Kuta beach aka Sunset beach

I would not normally have made a stop in Kuta, but I was there on a mission—green tea!

If you recall, I fell in love with a particular green tea, Ohkuraen, which I am addicted to! I found it at a bakery near my hotel in Ubud last year and bought three bags to take home. When I returned to Toronto, I contacted the company and connected with their foreign shipper. She and I are now friends after I ordered a large supply of teas from their plant in Japan. It should have lasted me a couple of years. It did not even last me one!

Because they don’t sell their teas in Canada, I knew I had to make a trip to buy a large supply of it while in Bali, one of their main importers.

My friend in Japan connected me with Grand Lucky Supermarket in Kuta, and I messaged the store to ensure they would be fully stocked while I was there. The manager actually emailed me pictures to ensure we were talking about the right brand! Considering I was travelling nearly 16,000 km to buy the tea, I really appreciated his diligence and attention to detail! 

In the end, I didn’t quite empty their shelves of the tea, but I bought a lot. Hopefully they last me another year—at least. Many thanks to Kimie and Grand Lucky Supermarket for their wonderful help!

* * * *

Poppies Cottages is an institution in Kuta. It’s a reasonably priced hotel that has been around since 1973. Thatch-roofed cottages are nestled in gardens of hibiscus, jasmine, and frangipani. It’s an oasis away from the noisy, busy streets of Kuta and is charming as can be.

Poppies restaurant

One morning, I went for a walk along the beach and there were runners getting ready for a marathon. It wasn’t even 6AM yet. Below is a picture which shows the start of the race against the backdrop of the Bali bombing memorial. The memorial is made of stone, set with a large marble plaque and bears the names and nationalities of each of those killed. It is flanked by the national flags of the victims.

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Tirta Gangga

After leaving Kuta and before heading to Ubud, I took a side trip to Tirta Gangga – a royal water palace in East Bali. At the time, there was concern about whether Mt. Agung might erupt. I was heading toward the volcano, not away from it for this trip.

Along with the gardens, there is a hotel and a restaurant on the grounds, and the complex is perched on the south-eastern slope of Mount Agung.

Tirta Gangga also saw a series of restorations following the destructive ash from the 1963 Mount Agung eruption.

A little background about Tirta Gangga, it was built in 1946 during the reign of the late raja of Karangasem, Anak Agung Anglurah Ketut Karangasem (1887 – 1966). The lavish water gardens owned by the royal Karangasem family feature 1.2 hectares of pools, ponds and fountains surrounded by neatly cut lawns adorned with stepping stones, ornate statues, koi, and tropical gardens.

While I was there, Mt. Agung loomed over the palace behind a ribbon of clouds. Though it appeared extremely close, it was at least 18-20 kilometres outside the exclusion zone.

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Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

Beautiful Balinese greeters of the festival

Among the international authors at the festival were:

Simon Armitage, British poet, punker, and part-time Oxford Professor of Poetry.

Canadian Madeleine Thien, winner of the Giller Prize and Booker short-listed author for Do Not Say We Have Nothing. 

Simon Winchester, British author of non-fiction texts including: The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.

Jung Chang, Chinese-born British author, best known for her family autobiography Wild Swans.

Ian Rankin, Scottish crime fiction author of the Inspector Rebus novels.

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I really enjoyed my time at the festival this year. Aside from the great line-up of authors, I had a sense of familiarity with the event, which made navigating the different venues an easier process.

At the start of each panel, an announcement was made for evacuation procedures should Mt. Agung erupt. Even with the prospect of a natural disaster, a sense of calm and joy pervaded the atmosphere. From festival organizers to authors to readers to volunteers, everyone seemed happy to be there.

Bravo to Janet DeNeefe, founder of the festival—in its 14th year and going strong!

A side trip to the Neka Art Museum one afternoon also made the list for me. You’ll see I shared the space with some loud, feathery creatures!

My outfit matched the signage!

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♥ Ubud 

All I can say is the weather this year in Ubud was fantastic. There was only a few hours of rain during the night while I slept, otherwise, it was sunny and hot the entire time. Amazing clear skies and warm, humid air lasted from dawn until late into the night.

For the sake of posting this blog in a timely fashion, I will end it here with a few more pictures. Ubud is an experience, and there is nothing that can convey it like actually being there. I’m addicted to the sights and sounds and smells, so much so, that I did not take many pictures. I didn’t want to spend time capturing the moment when I could be living it. I’m not much for selfies, and Instagram and I don’t quite get along.

Regardless, I am happy for a few photos of my trip to share with you and hope you’ve enjoyed taking this journey with me. 😀

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3 things I’ve learned from writing

1. The process of writing means more to me than the finished product.

I’ve gone back to reading several of my old works. Admittedly, some pieces are cringeworthy; others still resonate true today. This comes as no surprise, really. The familiarity of what I’m reading allows me to bypass the story and concentrate on elements of craft. I see things differently than when I first published in 2011.

When I was a non-writing reader, the rules of grammar and punctuation only came to light if I saw an obvious error. Poor sentence structure, the overuse of adverbs, word repetition, etc., were but fleeting impressions.

Now, I’m more focused on how a sentence can be improved upon. This is probably why writers are advised to read — a lot. We feed off and learn from the writing of better authors.

Although completion of a short story, novella, or novel is cause for celebration once it’s published, it is no longer mine. The process of writing is what is important from a learning perspective, and remaining attached to a story after it’s made public serves no purpose.

2. The more I write, the more I learn about others and the less I know about myself.

Writing fiction demands that I look at the world through the lens of others, to inhabit my characters in order write their stories.

By gaining insight into others, I’ve discovered how little I know about myself.

Allow me to explain.

Because I must expand my imagination to write fiction, I sometimes question if it is truly me who comes up with the stories. In the genre of mystery and suspense, I’ve researched by reading a lot of true crime. It’s not surprising I’ve filled my mind with some awful images. That I am also a news junkie only adds to the chaos inside my head.

It’s great for fiction, but not so good for maintaining daily calm.

To stay grounded, I meditate and do yoga. In meditation, all kinds of thoughts come up. I simply observe them, attaching neither good nor bad feelings toward them. Acceptance of these thoughts trains my mind to stay calm and be in the moment. This translates to a more easygoing manner outside of meditation, and hopefully, more awareness.

Yoga serves to strengthen my physical being, which is intimately connected to the mind.

To create believable characters, it’s necessary to nurture them to behave in a way that might be contrary to my own behaviour. The important thing is staying true to myself when I’m not in my fictional world.

3. Writing can be all encompassing.

Writing absorbs me when I’m “in the zone.” At these times, I don’t need food or sleep, and I avoid all distractions. My only purpose is to ride the creative wave for as long as it will take me and as far as it will go.

It doesn’t happen too often, but it’s an amazing feeling when it does.

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What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from writing? Please feel free to share. 🙂

XX

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