Friday, April 27, 2018

Traveling to Havana, Cuba

Having been there and back again, we highly recommend visiting Cuba, even under current U.S. travel restrictions. 

READING: Check out your local library for travel books on Cuba. We read a bunch, and brought with us Fodor's and Lonely Planet (I used 2015, but the updated version is here).

FOCUS: Decide what kind of trip you want to do. Food? Rum? Cigars? Dancing? Historical? We picked a tour with OnCuba Travel that focused on food. They were even willing to work with us on price and cut off the last day of the Yuca & Mojito trip so that we could afford it. The reality is that tours are easiest for foreigners these days because so few Cuban businesses are online, and then at least you know you met visa requirements in case you are audited.

REGULATIONS: Speaking of tours, OnCuba was great about obtaining our plane tickets, sending us our visas, and arranging our internet cards so we wouldn't have to spend time on our vacation standing in line. The visas were a concern for me as a rule-following lawyer, but we filled them out and I'm not even sure that Cuban customs does anything with them.

TIPPING / CASH: The one thing I wish OnCuba had prepared us for is how much currency to bring and what to tip our guide, driver, casa particular host, restaurants, etc. Because there are few ATMs and I'm not even sure they work with American bank cards, you really have to bring a ton of currency with you, probably about $50 each day or more, depending on how many souvenirs you want to bring, and you have to prepare in advance because it's best to bring it in euros or Canadian dollars. We almost didn't have enough money at the end to tip our driver and guide, even though we loved everything they did for us.

Hilarious mistranslation on a tablecloth at our casa particular

GO NOW: Lastly, I would recommend visiting Cuba sooner than later. It is changing fast. My coworker visited his family in Cuba two years ago. It was grungier and no one had cell phones; these days they are doing renovations and cleaning things up, and everyone has smart phones. Havana was blessedly free of Starbucks and McDonald's, but the more open Cuba becomes, the more these businesses will supplant the existing economy of state and local businesses. Moreover, we saw plenty of cruise ships visiting Havana, which the locals (and I) are disappointed by. If you are going to visit Cuba, really dive in and support the people with your tourism dollars. Don't just check off a box on your travel list and buy a quart of rum and some cigars.

Thanks for reading, I hope this has been helpful!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Havana: Day 3

On this, our last day in Havana, we decided to go for a morning jog on the Malecón. We weren't the only joggers out there, but it was fairly deserted - at least compared to the social hub that it becomes in the evenings.

We did about four miles, which felt like a lot in the warmth and humidity. It was far enough to get us to the beautiful Cuba sign and flag by the Hotel Nacional, which I'd been trying to get a picture of for days.

We walked through our little Vedado neighborhood one last time, taking in the faded beauty of some of the old houses. The combination of hurricanes, lack of money, and lack of raw materials makes construction and renovation a difficult thing in Cuba.

After another tasty breakfast of tropical fruit, eggs, and toast, we hit the road for Cojímar, a small fishing village east of Havana where Ernest Hemingway drank with local fisherman for years.

Our guide, Gretel, told us about the history of the area, Ernest Hemingway's influence, and issues facing Cubans who want to move. This area is appropriate for Cubans who are retired or have a car, but many younger Cubans want to move to the city and have difficulty selling their homes under current laws. Things are improving, but at a slow pace.

We enjoyed walking around Cojímar.

We visited the famous restaurant / pub, La Terraza de Cojímar, where Hemingway and other famous people have imbibed rum beverages. Hemingway's table is in the corner in the below photo, but Castro and Oliver Stone ate here about ten years ago. Weird.

At lunch, it was time to test our cooking skills in the kitchen of Casa Grande, a cute little restaurant cooking traditional Cuban food.

We jumped right in with a Cuba Libre mixing lesson. Then, properly boozed up, I sliced and chopped some dorado for ceviche, and Dave helped make chicken salad. I made the mistake of thinking this was our whole meal, and very happy to have a low-calorie, light lunch. Oh, was I wrong. We went back into the kitchen to prepare pollo relleno (butterflied chicken breasts sandwiching some vegetables), seared dorado, and grilled vegetables.

I felt like we earned the meal, but I also felt at this point in the trip like a beached whale, so I had mixed feelings about the fuller lunch, delicious as it was. Oh, and at the end they also gave us fresh mango juice and huge desserts. Seriously, I thought I was going to have to be rolled down the street like Violet Beauregarde.

Bonus, though - I learned I do like rum and coke, as long as it contains some lime juice. Cuba Libres for everyone!

After we rolled back to the taxi, we went back to Old Havana to get our last cash exchanged and visit the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana (National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana).

Gretel gamely accompanied us and explained the evolution of art in colonial Cuba, from artists who studied with European masters to the blending of styles with Afrocuban heritage to the present, post-revolution day. It was a really fascinating museum that I would recommend to anyone visiting Havana.

More on the arts after dinner.

Our last dinner in Havana was at Il DiVino, a restaurant with an atypically large wine cellar, a fun outdoor drink area, and a full menu of Cuban treats with an Italian flair.

First things first, we enjoyed Havana Club daiquiris out on the porch with an award-winning "mixologist" who shared the history of the drink and some recipes for his upcoming competition entries.

For dinner, I had the roasted lamb with vegetables and, you guessed it, rice and beans. (I love rice and beans, but half of the calories I gained on this trip was probably from too much rice and beans. Yes, Val, you don't have to eat all that they give you. But it's so good.)

After dinner, we visited one of the great modern Havana stops: Fábrica de Arte Cubano. It's a wonderful mix of contemporary art museum, music venue, and real-life Etsy shop. 

As you peruse three stories (I think) full of fascinating and edgy contemporary Cuban art, you might walk into a room where a band is playing. Watch that for a few minutes, then check out some more art, then the next room is a shop full of bags or jewelry by Cuban designers. Then more art.

One of my favorite stories that Gretel told us was about a group of older ladies that she led on a tour of Fábrica. They encountered a photo of older women wearing nothing but their underwear, all standing in a line with their arms on each other's backs. One of the older ladies immediately declared that they should reenact the photo - right there in the museum - which is exactly what they did. Gretel and the FAC staff had to close off the area while the ladies stripped and got their mostly-nude photographs taken. Fabulous.

We caught a dance DJ on our way out and swayed to the music for a bit while I photo-bombed others around us. Eventually it was time to be dropped off at the WiFi park for our last photo upload, then to bed for an early flight the next morning.

What a day, and what a trip. I'm going to share some thoughts on the trip as a whole in my next posts, as well as advice if you are planning your own trip to Cuba.


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Havana: Day 2

Welcome to day 2 of our Havana trip!

We had a delicious breakfast of tropical fruit (guava, omg), eggs, and toast at our casa particular, then tried to get a tour of the Museo del Ron Havana Club at 9:30. Turns out they don't do English tours at that time, so we had to move around some things. I said to Gretel, "No es fácil," which is something of an unofficial Cuban national motto meaning, "It's not easy."

Instead, we moved up our visit to Vista Hermosa, a cute little farm to the east of Havana. They grow many kinds of fruits and vegetables, make cheese, and raise animals for meat - primarily a commitment of beef to the government through a co-op of local farms, but also pigs, chickens, and more. This farm makes a point to work with Havana restaurants to create a farm to table relationship.

Time to feed the goats...

Our guide Gretel explained that the beef industry in Cuba is somewhat controversial. Although Cuban beef is not high quality, there is a shortage and some difficulty importing, so the beef goes mainly to pregnant women and children. Years ago, during difficult times in the 90s after the fall of the Soviet Union caused aid to slow to a trickle, people were caught illegally killing cows to feed their families, so fines and sentences were increased to the point where it is more years in prison to kill a cow than a person. 

These cows don't seem worried.

During our trip, in fact, I think we only saw beef on a restaurant menu once. 

After tasting some of the farm's wonderful watermelon, papaya, pineapple, and guava, we toured the fields and took a horseback ride to the cattle pastures and back.

You can see why the farm is called Vista Hermosa (Beautiful View)!

We drove back to Havana for lunch on the terrace at Mediterráneo, a farm-to-table restaurant that works with Vista Hermosa. The restaurant is owned / run by an Italian chef. We sampled the chorizo sausage, prosciutto, ricotta, and several other cheeses, as well as tasty spinach ravioli and some wonderful meat and veggie skewers. The ricotta was the best I have ever had. If I was pressed, I might say it was the best meal we had in Havana. Very tasty.

After lunch, we headed to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba to buy some postcards and check out the view.

I had been told that Cuban mail can take a few weeks or even months to reach the U.S., if ever, but I still wanted to send something to my grandma, mom, and in-laws. Dave also bought a small Cuban cigar to try at home.

The Hotel Nacional backs up to the Malecón and the ocean, so the views are pretty awesome. Directly to the west, you can see the U.S. Embassy (the small gray building at left), which is obviously controversial for a lot of reasons, both old and new.

Then it was time for our rescheduled English tour of the rum museum. The museum took us through the sugar plantation industry in Cuba, the evolution of slavery, the independence of the country, and Cubans' love of rum.

Of course, we got a sample at the end.

Havana Club is one of the state-owned rum companies, which apparently is now part of a shared ownership with a French company. They export to every country in the world except for - you guessed it - the United States. Boo. Still, the ubiquitousness of rum throughout Havana has convinced me that rum is a pretty tasty beverage. Usually I'm more of a beer or wine person, but rum is pretty cheap and goes well with a lot of mixers.

We took another rest at our casa, then enjoyed pre-dinner drinks in the neighborhood where we stayed (Vedado). Walking through the neighborhoods is so fascinating; a lot of buildings have been restored to their old pre-revolution (or pre-hurricane) grandeur, but a lot of them are works in progress. You could be looking at a beautiful peach colonial palace with shaded palms, then next door is a bombed-out looking building with a shirtless guy holding a chicken and smoking a cigarette on the terrace. The mix of old and new, of constant fixing and spiffing, is typical of the city today.

We enjoyed a daiquiri and a neat rum at Café Madrigal, which boasts some wonderful views of the city on a sunny day.

We enjoyed dinner at Vida, a paladar in the southern area of the city - Nuevo Vedado - that has more modern homes and many excellent views of the river. The standout from this meal were some fish croquettes. We had rice and beans - always rice and beans! - and I had a chicken dish for dinner.

It was another excellent day in Havana, and we were sad that the next day would be our last, although we certainly felt like we were fitting enough activities into our time to use it well for our cultural and educational experience. I cannot say enough good things about our guide, Gretel, our driver, Santiago, and the company, OnCuba Travel.

More on day 3!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Havana: Day 1

Dave and I visited Havana, Cuba, at the end of April, and these are my retroactive posts! (Cuba doesn't have great Internet availability at the moment, so it would have been difficult to post these during our visit.)

We have been wanting to go to Cuba for a while now; my husband's boss went and came back with really cool pictures, and I am interested in going anywhere new and interesting. It was also our first visit to any Caribbean island!

We decided to do a tour group because it's still sort of hard to plan your own trips to Cuba (see above reference to lack of Internet), and I don't speak Spanish well. Plus, the tour operators have good set-ups to get you enough educational and cultural activities to meet current US visa requirements. We used OnCuba Travel, selecting the food program Yuca y Mojito. As you will see from these posts, we were very pleased!

We flew to Miami on Monday night and caught an early flight to Havana on Tuesday morning. We dropped off our stuff at our casa particular - basically a private bed & breakfast. Many Cubans are supplementing their state income with private businesses - like B&Bs or restaurants (paladares) out of their homes. These can be a very economical and personal way to support the Cuban people.

We headed over to Habana Vieja (Old Havana) for a walking tour to see the four main squares and connecting side streets. This dapper gentleman at left is Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who stands in the oldest square, the Plaza de Armas. Important buildings line this square, such as the former mayor's residence.

Our guide, Gretel, showed us churches, architecture, and shops along the way. We stopped at the Museo del Chocolate for some tasty little bites and visited an old-style apothecary.

Another square is the Plaza Vieja (Old Square), and you can see why this is a lot of people's favorite squares. It used to be a central market for Havana and now hosts some lovely hotels, museums, and even a brewery!

From there, we walked over to the cathedral for more history, strolled by La Bodeguita del Medio, and headed to lunch. We were a little early, so we visited an art shop at the end of the alley, Taller Experimental de Gráfica de La Habana. In the workshop, artists use old-style printing presses to produce screen prints and other beautiful art pieces. I loved it!

We had our first ropa vieja (shredded beef) and picadillo (ground beef and olive stew) at Doña Eutimia, a delicious little restaurant. We hadn't walked that much around Habana Vieja - it's pretty small - but we still feel like we earned it.

After lunch, we got a tour around Havana in a classic car - a 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air in metallic lavender. This is the thing that Dave had really been looking forward to. 

You can tell that these cars are kept up with a lot of love and ingenuity, but you wonder how much longer the island can keep so many of them running for tourists like us.

The tour was wonderful - we drove through a lot of neighborhoods in Havana, the Malecón (Havana's version of Lake Shore Drive in Chicago), and stopped at Morro fortress for some views of the city.

I was very alarmed at this point that I hadn't put on enough sun screen, but it turned out I got through the day OK. (But if you go to Havana, bring a hat and more sun screen than I did.)

The classic car driver dropped us off directly at Almacenes de San José on the Port of Havana, an open-air arts & crafts market. All of our guide books had strongly recommended a visit to this market, and you can see why. There's artwork, tourist tchotchkes, cigar accoutrements, and artisanal products. I bought some wonderful-smelling soap from a friend of our guide.

Right next door to the market is a brewery I had heard about from some beer travel blogs, Cervecería Antiguo Almacén de la Madera y Tabaco. The brewery is housed in an old tobacco warehouse on the port, and the outdoor porch allowed us to enjoy some beers outside and face the port.

I have to say, the beers were delicious. I had the clara (light), which was flavorful but perfect for a hot day. Dave had the negra (dark). We have had a fair-sized sampling of beers in Peru, Panama, Costa Rica, and now Cuba, and this was by far the best.

We went back to the hotel for a little rest, because I think we were operating on something like four hours of sleep from our early flight. We had dinner reservations at Tatagua, where we enjoyed more traditional Cuban food. They made these delicious little taro root fritters, and I had roasted pork. Dave tried a national Cuban beer, Bucanero Fuerte, which obviously didn't compare to the craft beers we'd had earlier in the day.

After dinner, our guide dropped us off at La Zorra y el Cuervo, a classic Cuban jazz club that now seems to be populated mostly by tourists, although the music was very good. We saw Zule Guerra & Blues de Habana, who were fantastic. Her dreamy, staccato singing paired very well with the very talented musicians in the group.

Apparently they are so awesome that they are playing at the Kennedy Center later this month! Now I feel especially lucky to have seen them live in Havana.

At the end of the night, we walked home and stopped at a park with WiFi - this is how most Cubans currently access the Internet. Everyone goes to the WiFi park with their smart phone, logs on with a prepaid card, does their business, and logs off. You can tell these parks apart because they are full of locals at 11:30 p.m. just sitting around on their phones. We posted some photos, I did my Duolingo lessons (I didn't want to break my streak!) and we headed back to our casa.

I thought I would be worried walking around the streets of Havana after hours, but it felt very safe. Maybe we just had a good experience, or maybe things have been cleaned up since our guide books were written, but I didn't feel a risk of mugging or pick-pocketing like I have in some places in Europe, or in Lima.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Spring project progress

Each month, I have set a goal for myself of finishing two projects in my Ravelry queue. I was a few days late with my second April project, but I eventually got there with this Match & Move scarf by Martina Behm.

I went with an all German/Austrian motif here - it's Austrian yarn bought in Vienna and knitted with a German pattern. I bought the yarn at just about the cutest little yarn shop in Vienna, Wolle Wien, which I visited in September. The pattern is by a German pattern designer whose shop name - Strickmich, or, "Knit me" - I love.

The pattern was acres of knitting - all garter stitch - so I reformed my plan to do an all-garter-stitch fingering weight poncho next. I needed a break to do something chunky (more on that in a minute).

Yarn Con 2018!!

This past weekend was my favorite of the year: YarnCon in Chicago. I just love seeing the colors, the local vendors, and feeling the beautiful fibers.

I met up with some coworkers and shopped until we dropped. Actually, none of us did too much damage this year, except for one coworker (not pictured) who ended up dropping $300+ because it was her first YarnCon experience and she got a little excited. (No judgment.)

I bought two sets of yarn for two different projects. The first was a bulky merino yarn from Another Crafty Girl in a black-gray-red colorway called, wait for it, "High Functioning Psychopath." Ha!

The project is for a scarf for my good friend Mike, one of my best friends from high school, AND my former prom date, AND he does my taxes practically for free every year. So I figure I owe him. (Plus this colorway looks like our high school colors, which I am down for.)

It's knitting up in a vaguely plaid way, which I am kind of digging.

The other project is yet another tricolor fingering weight shawl. Ever since dining at The Boarding House in Chicago, I have wanted to make a shawl inspired by the colors in their main dining room: light gray, deep turquoise, and olive. I found perfect yarns at three different YarnCon vendors:

So I'm trying to finish the Lincoln-Way black & red scarf by my friend's birthday next week, and that (plus another dish cloth I made) will count as my two projects for April, even though technically the black & red scarf wasn't in my queue originally. Gotta help out a friend in need.

Happy spring, everyone!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Winter finished objects

It's been a minute since I did a run-down and commentary of finished objects. Here's what I've been up to in 2018 so far!

My coworker gave me a cute little hank of yarn that she dyed and spun herself. She declares herself more of a spinner than a knitter and gave this ball (and some others) to our yarn group at work. I improvised a cute little teapot cozy! Have never felt more British.

Next up is a big colorwork blanket for a coworker's baby. I found out about the shower two weeks before it was to occur, and I found out that the mom-to-be really likes sloths. So, she got a sloth.

I improvised the chart pattern from a cross-stitch pattern I found online. He turned out cute, but it was a little hectic to make him, especially when your mess of yarn looks like this. But I got him done, in eight shades of brown, and she was super happy with him.

Next up is a project that I started in December but then became afraid of: my Lanesplitter Skirt. I have been wanting to make a skirt for a long time, but I'm afraid I'll put in a ton of work and it won't fit. (I'm notoriously hard to fit for skirts because I have a tiny waist but big hips.)

Well, I finally pushed through and I have to say, the pattern worked out better than I could have imagined. It turned out so cute, in fact, that I ditched the skirt I was wearing that day and decided to sport this little number for the rest of the day. Hey now!

Yarn is Malabrigo Rios, colorway Anniversario.

My goal for 2018 is to finish two projects each month out of my Ravelry queue to clear it out. So far, I have succeeded, but this month might be tough. I finished one - a little cream shoulder sweater - but it's still blocking, so I'll post a photo of that next time. 

The other project I'm close(ish) to finishing is a triangle shawl worked with some hot pink hand-dyed yarn I bought in Austria on our trip last year. I am gaining an appreciation for triangle shawls as a versatile accessory that is also fun to knit.

Let's see if I can finish that puppy before Saturday!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Updates to 40 before 40

I have made some progress on the 40 before 40 list, so before my 36th birthday, I wanted to post my progress and note some revisions:

* * *

1. Scuba dive in the ocean (Panama? Hawaii? Both?)
2. Stand in Red Square in Moscow
3. Travel to Turkey
4. Visit the Taj Mahal
5. Tour the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, IL (2017)

(My travel plans are being somewhat derailed by the state of the world...)


6. Get drinks at the Aviary
7. Make chiboust
8. Eat at Calumet Fisheries
9. Eat at every Chicago restaurant on this list
10. Visit Al Bawadi Grill and The Halal Guys

(#6 was a taco list, but I revised. I don't think I have two huge food lists in me.)


11. Read War and Peace (2017)
12. Crochet or knit a sweater I actually like and wear (2017)
13. Practice flute and perform someplace publicly (2017 & 2018)
14. Finish the Time-Life World War II series
15. Participate again in NaNoWriMo (2017)
16. Complete wine cork tray craft project with saved up corks

(This one is going along swimmingly.)


17. Complete an Olympic distance triathlon (2017)
18. Complete a half marathon (2017) 
19. Complete a 5k in under 30 minutes
20. Develop a meditation habit (at least 15 min. / day) (2017-)
21. Get back to Salzburg weight range

(I did get below a major milestone in weight in February and hope to get to Salzburg weight range in 2018. I do NOT think I will ever complete a half marathon at a 10-minute mile pace, so I revised down just to do a half marathon.)


22. See a Bears game, Bulls game, and Blackhawks game (2017)
23. Visit historic Pullman neighborhood
24. Kayak in the Chicago River
25. Take another Chicago Architecture Foundation river cruise
26. Tour new yarn shops of Chicago, like Knit 1 LLC, Nina (2017), and Sister-Arts Studio

(I need to bang out a few of these this summer; I am sad not to have made more progress here!)


27. Remain annual fund donor at alma mater institutions (Illinois State and DePaul Law), as well as employer (Northwestern University) (2015-)
28. Complete a blanket for Project Linus
29. Serve on a charity's board (2017)
30. Earn a volunteer award somewhere
31. Do one race via Team in Training

(I don't know if giving $100 to a homeless person is the best use of my charitable dollars, so I revised to completing a blanket for Project Linus.)


32. Participate in a staff mentor program (2017)
33. Author an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy
34. Speak at DePaul Law about nontraditional legal careers (2017 & 2018)
35. Figure out my next career step

(I revised the development symposium / conference item to the mentor program item because it was something I've wanted to do for a while, and it was actually more time and effort than I expected.)


36. Start a weight loss diary and keep it every day afterward (2017-)
37. Watch Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove back to back
38. Watch Seven Samurai and eat sushi (2017)
39. Get another tattoo to expand one of my existing ones

40. At least once per month, see a member of my family (2017-)

(I revised the diary item to be a weight loss / fitness diary because I tried to do a regular diary again - I really did - but it wasn't focused and I didn't get much out of it, so I stopped doing it. The weight loss thing has been focused and helped by daily weigh-ins.)

* * *

I think revising these goals slightly (after creating them months and months ago) has helped me focus them more on what I'm trying to do now. Things change in even a few months and I shouldn't hold myself to the whim of a few moments over a year ago, if that is no longer my goal.

I'll keep updating as I make more progress. That's 11 goals down, with progress on more. See you at 40!