The Mystery Vacation

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Marla had planned a mystery vacation for us and I hadn’t a clue of where we were going. Our kids and her co-workers knew her plans and they all kept it a secret.

I finally got some clues like being told to buy a hat, pack a swimsuit and bring sun screen. Later I was to purchase some bug spray followed by her telling me that the initial flight would be five hours yet it wouldn’t be our final destination.

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Hmmm, could it be Mexico, the Bahamas, Florida or Hawaii?

The week before the flight she said that thunder storms were predicted for the entire week, where ever that was. I then packed rain coats and umbrellas.

We arrived at the airport and printed out the boarding pass to Dallas but that didn’t help much as it was the layover. After a lunch break in Dallas I got another boarding pass to Miami. Cool! The keys?  I still didn’t know but the following day I got another clue.

 

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Midnight Run

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The flight from Orange County went smoothly with a layover in Dallas.  We arrived by taxi around 10:30pm at the Miami Downtown Hilton.

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After checking in at the Hilton we were famished and were headed up to our room when out of the elevator popped two “ladies of the night”.  They were wearing short tight skirts, stiletto high heels and bras. No blouse, they were fancy bras but just bras.  We proceeded to find our room and went down to the bar and grill for some food. 

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We ordered and waited, and waited, however there were only two other groups in the lounge. Marla thinks it was closer to a 45 min period.  So I decided to have our order sent up to our room or order room service. I got up to find our server who gave me a surprised look of “oops, oh crap”. I then asked if they could send our food up to the room.  She said that they couldn’t do that and she would check to see why our order was taking so long….. not a good sign. I told her to cancel the order because it was taking too long and we would order room service instead. We doubt if it was ever ordered.

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So as we waited by the elevator again to return to our room ….. guess what? More hookers emerged wearing pouty smiles, the super short skirt uniform and lots of cleavage with a helping of side boob. We were too tired and hungry to be amused by this now. No one had invited us to this party.

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It was now midnight and room service didn’t answer the phone and the front desk didn’t answer the phone , so I called the guest service ” hot line”. 

A hot line?

They answered and told me that room service closed at 11:00 PM. The waitress didn’t mention that.

The front desk said that we could order from the bar. I then explained what had happened including that the bar was unable to bring the order to our room. Then numb nuts transferred me (to where, I’m not sure) without a reply and I hung up.

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So we did what any well traveled couple would do when faced with such tribulations, we ate trail mix and a protein bar.  Then off to sleep we went,  being a little hungry and ticked off.

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Welcome to Miami

Welcome to Miami day one.

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After going to bed hangry , hungry and angry, we awoke with the rising sun at 6:00am or 3:00am California time and went to breakfast. The Hilton had an amazing spread of fruit and berries which suited us fine with some Greek yogurt. The coffee was good and we were ready to take on the day. 

We took an Uber over to Miami beach where our tour company was located. After checking in we waited for a bus that we were told would be outside. We saw some of our group starting to walk around the corner and we followed to find a long line that had been forming. We went from first in line to last in seconds. Thanks for the heads up Miami Tour. Com.

We boarded and I promptly smacked my head on the roof of the double decker bus and let out a bad word adding “that hurt”.  The impact didn’t draw blood and we found some good seats just before jet lag and a big breakfast kicked in. I started to doze off and would awake pleased in seeing that Marla was sleeping too.

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I was out for about 30 min during the hour ride to  “Gayor National Park”.  We arrived and the sign said Gator Park. 

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At Gator Park we boarded an air boat, one of those swamp boats with a big fan on the back, and took a tour of the Everglades.

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We spotted a couple of gators on the boat ride and caught a gator show before having lunch.

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On the way back we cruised what appeared to be old downtown south beach with many interesting buildings and houses, yet our guide didn’t utter a peep. Would this narration be on or next tour? Stay tuned.

Heat, Humidity and Jet Lag

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Miami Afternoon Tour

Our next tour of the day was to include Little Havana, the sea aquarium, coconut grove and city highlights. We got off our morning bus and I asked the tour representative where the 2:30pm bus would be and he said “right here”.  I wasn’t going to fall for that again and asked if it might be around the corner? He tersely responded that someone would direct us if that was so. They didn’t and we lined up around the corner. Okay.

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The heat, humidity and jet lag was kicking in.  After all we had gotten up at 3:00am California time.  The sun rays were also intense on my white Irish skin. I decided to sit downstairs on the double decker bus and I didn’t bump my head. So far, so good. 

We sat in the back row underneath the whirring air conditioner. And then, we waited and waited. Our tour guide bounced on board with youthful energy and immediately spoke several languages to the group before deciding on English and French to narrate with.

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We pulled out into the grid lock of South Miami Beach on a Sunday. It was the kind of traffic jam were only one car per green light could get through. I calculated that to get to the end of the boulevard would take us 1 hour and we were already running behind schedule. It was about then that we notice that the air conditioner was more fan noise than cool air. Later we determined that it probably was blowing carbon monoxide as we started to doze off. Thankfully it only took about 45 minutes vs an hour to get out of town as the tour guide was running out of material.

 

Once again we heard about what island Ricky Martin lived on.  Our Uber driver and the first tour guide had also mentioned it. Upon reflection there really wasn’t that much to work with.  It’s a drive out of an old down town across a couple of bridges by an island, where Ricky Martin lives.

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The city scape skyline of high rise apartments and the blue colored water of the harbor were beautiful though.

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We pulled over to the side of the road at the sea aquarium, but not into the parking lot. Here we had considered jumping off and enjoy the air conditioning, anywhere, but decided to hold on a little longer. 

We both had napped, or passed out again from the carbon monoxide, and decided to stick it out until Little Havana.

The bus then made a U turn and that was it for the aquarium stop. No date it was built or what type of fish it contained was talked about . Was this an indicator of the rest of the tour? We once again talked about jumping ship, or bus, to anywhere else.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens Miami

Things to do in Miami: Visit the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. The Vizcaya Museum is one of the best mansions in Miami, from the Gilded Age with beautiful tropical landscaped gardens. The Vizcaya Miami is a perfect venue for Miami Photography and Miami architecture. Venture away from the tourist hotspots of Miami Beach and Miami Ocean Drive and explore the hidden secrets of the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, one of our top things to do in Miami. Read more in our Top things to do in Miami Travel guide.

The tour guide then mentioned that the Vizcaya Museum was coming up and it was his favorite.  That’s all the Browns needed to hear!  At this point we were prepared to jump from this moving hot and boring bus tour before going by Ricky Martin’s island again.

The bus pulled over at the side of the road and we hopped off relinquishing our chance to ever hop back on. The tour guide did ask how we were getting back and we said “Uber” in two part harmony.

With a wave of the hand motioning us across the street we jay walked ourselves across the boulevard to a gate in a wall. 

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We followed a small path that pointed us towards a museum. But where? We were in a small forest of trees. There was no  ubiquitous grand sweeping entrance to the museum that we could see.  We kept walking as the sound of the street grew quiet. After about 10 minutes we walked into the grand entrance of the Vizcaya Museum and later learned we were on the museum path.

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The museum was well worth the uncertainty of the path. It was cool inside with air conditioning and fans in every room, and not blowing carbon monoxide either. The Vizcaya was an old mansion built by some rich old guy and we felt like we were back in Europe again with its shaded courtyard and Spanish architecture. With the Spanish vibes and ice cream in the cafe, we were in heaven.

The Uber ride back was good and we took a needed nap before venturing out for food.

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First Day at Sea! Mystery Revealed!

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We took an Uber to the port terminal and dropped our luggage off before checking in.

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During the check in Marla handed me a form.  It was a visa for Cuba! Yes! I had hoped so after finding out that we were not headed to the airport. The process went smooth taking about 20 min before we were walking aboard.

Our room was tidy and in a similar location as our Alaskan cruise, although It was about half the size of our Alaskan ship. As a matter of fact our vessel “The Empress of the Seas” is the smallest ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet. That suited us fine as we had less walking to navigate between shows and eating.

Our first dinner was good and our waiter, Jester, was great. He came from India and Jester was his given name from his mother, as to not sound like a Portugese name, that is common from the part of India where he was raised. He spoke Portugese, something we wouldn’t have guessed.

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A watch at the jewelry shop had caught my eye and after a couple of looks while passing by, I found out it was 35% off with no sales tax. Hmmmm. I tried it on and The Citizen Eco Drive watch was mine.

I joined Marla at a comedy show and then we found a coffee bar in a lounge featuring karaoke. We entertained ourselves by trying to guess if the singers would be any good before they started by accessing their posture, swagger and the way they held the microphone. Our predictions held true.

After a stroll, the movie Pitch Perfect was playing outside by the pool and we caught the last hour of before retiring for the night.

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Bikes and Key Lime Pie!

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Thunder storms had been predicted for over a week. So when we docked in Key West I was quite relieved by the sunny sky’s!  This was great since bicycles had been arranged for Allan and I to to cruise around the island.  

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Our “Key Lime Bike Tour” was truly awesome with our knowledgeable guide Sarah.  

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About 20 of us trusting souls followed Sarah throughout Key West while rolling past stop signs and occasionally dodging cars.  Actually there really wasn’t a lot of traffic,  so all was good with no apparent fatalities.  

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Our faithful leader was able to point out key locations such Hemingway’s house, the mile 0 marker for Highway 1, as well as the sourthern most point in the continental USA.

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We took a photo from the backside of the marker to avoid the line of about 50 people waiting to get selfies.

We did all this while riding past numerous bars and eateries.

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We also took a loop past the Navy base and the cemetery while learning about the two man made islands off the shore.

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Sunset Key Island

Sunset Key island was created during the dredging of the harbor and is where the rich people live.  It’s only accessible by boat with no cars allowed.

Wisteria Island on June 9, 2006. Dale McDonald Collection.

Wisteria Island

A short swim away of maybe 100 yards is Christmas Tree island  or Wisteria Island that is also man made and technically owned by the Navy. This island has become a tent city for folks living off the grid and no one bothers them. The two islands are polar opposites of each other, and that is what Key West is all about, for extremely different people living together.

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Our harrowing ride ended with a stop at a key lime pie bakery.  How can you not like this place?

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Who let the Hens out?

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The chickens running loose on Key West are not chickens, but are Spanish game hens bred for cock fighting. Cock fighting thankfully went out of fashion.

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There are so many of these critters  running loose, that in 2004 a self proclaimed  “Chicken Catcher” was hired for a fee of $20 per bird. The birds though were so beloved by the locals that this quickly became controversial. So the Hen Catcher quit…. and that was that.

Helping also in their survival is the fact that they produce small eggs and are not such “good eats”.  Honestly they all looked like roosters to us and they loved to pose for photos.

 

 

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Key West or Bone Island?

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Key West got its name from the Spanish words for ” Bone Island” or “Isla Osteo”, That name was derived from the Indians practice of strewing bones about the beach to scare off potential settlers.The English thought that sounded like “Key West”.  It was that simple.

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Fact: most pirates were of color and had a health plan. Their gold earrings were to cover their burial expense, and it they believed it would keep them from drowning.

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Fact: When a bail of marijuana washed ashore from drug runners ditching their product in the 80’s it was called catching a square grouper fish.

We also learned that the owners of houses often hide their passions, illegal or not, within the ginger bread woodwork decorations on the front of the house. A bordello might have a heart carved in theirs, a boat captain could have a * steering wheel in their woodwork. 

Our guide Sarah told us that in the 1980’s Key West was fed up with the government’s zeal to catch drug smugglers with checkpoints because it was affecting the tourist business.  So, the island voted to succeed from the state of Florida and promptly asked for foreign aid.

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It worked, the government backed off and the island became the Conch Republic with their own flag which can be spotted all over the island. The Conch Republic then declared war on the USA by smacking an Admiral with a loaf of bread.

True story: Once a year both ” countries” wage war on each other with Super Soakers vs the Navy’s water cannons and each year the US Navy surrenders.

How cool is that?

Hemingway and The Cats

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In 1927 during prohibition, Ernest Hemingway visited Key West because the enforcement of drinking laws were a bit “lax”.  He became so enchanted with the area that he bought a house and stayed for a number of years. He later moved to Spain where he became infatuated with a army nurse.  That nurse latter married a Army officer.  His wife ended up divorcing him while she kept the house. Yet she died before him and then willed the house back to Ernest, her ex husband. How about that? Hemingway’s sons got the house after he died and they sold it to a local family who still runs it today. 

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Hurricaine Irma in 2016 missed Key West by about twenty miles. Most of the entire island evacuated, except for the felines at Hemingway’s house.  Those 54 six toe cats all survived.  They simply ran inside when the storm approached and where a few of the employees stayed with them. Those are true cat people.

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Why so Serious?

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We got a serious announcement from the Captain upon return from Key West. He started off saying that he had consulted with the Cuban government and  the US officials along with the home office. We looked at each other thinking that the day in Cuba had been cancelled due to Trump screwing something up, but no, the ship had gotten permission to port earlier. We were to now be able to disembark at 4:00PM Wednesday rather than 8:00AM on Thursday. We scrambled to book an excursion Wednesday night and booked a walking through Havana tour that started at 4:00. The Havana jazz show wouldn’t have started until 9:30PM and we would have a busy day on Thursday.

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Our day at sea had just gotten shorter. Cuba is only 90 miles from Key West, or about a 5 hour cruise and we apparently cruise around in big circles killing time before we dock. 24 hours of big giant circles. Who knows where we where, we didn’t have any idea on which way to swim if we hit an ice burg.

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Fact: Pan Am flew their first international flight from Key West to Havana in 1927

The cost of the flight was $10.00.

Cuba and the Mojito

Havana first night.

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The rain held up and the weather was perfect as we pulled into Havana harbor and passed by the La Cabana fortress.

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There it was, Cuba. Somewhat forbidden and mysterious. We were eager to start our first tour. 

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We quickly passed through customs and exchanged our money. The process was very organized and well signed. The security people who ran the x-Ray and metal detectors were all younger women, in short skirts. How devious! The tours signs were easy to the bus and we waited for our group’s stragglers longer than it took us to pass through customs. 

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Our tour guide Manny was young and handsome, and the tour bus was a brand new bus made in China, a Yutong.

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Our group walked across the street to San Fransisco Square and started our tour. Manny told us about the governments, pass rulers and founding fathers.

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He covered daily Cuban life, the economy, and education, from which he had a masters degree in Cuban education. Cubans for example, are required to take English from the third grade throughout their schooling, which like their health care is free.  Also an interesting fact to mention here is that your physician  is your local neighborhood doctor until you move.

15 Facts on Cuba and its Education System

Manny did have a serious moment at one point to say that most all Cubans realize that mistakes were made with both our countries and that they wanted to learn from the past and move forward.

We have heard similar stories from people in Russia and the Czech Republic that it’s the politicians causing the trouble not the people, the past is the past and no hard feelings.

I wonder how we will explain to our grand kids about our current buffoon in chief.

” Yes kids, that president had to pay off a porn star…”.

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We sampled  Virgin mojitos at the bar that invented them, supposedly, well maybe rumor has it.  Marla took a photo with a popular Cuban artist featured in the National Geographic magazine.

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She then dropped her mojito and the sound of breaking glass made the bar crowd that had spilled out into the narrow street groan in unison. 

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Party foul, the artist with his flowing grey beard helped to sweep up the broken glass. He asked me what I thought was “do you like tequila?” I answered no and the crowd groaned again his body reacted in pain before realizing that misunderstood. He repeated it “do you like Havana?”  And of course I answered yes.

The Browns once again avoided starting another US – Cuba Cold War, and we moved on.

Cheers.

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We walked and then rode through town visiting the National Hotel overlooking the bay where Havana mingled with gangsters before the Cold War. It was a slice of old world charm from the 1930 to the 1950’s, and we had another mojito, without dropping any glassware this time. 

The bus headed back to the harbor.

We originally thought that we would fine a place to eat near the harbor after the tour, but we’re so tired we went aboard for dinner and then crashed as we had a busy day tomorrow.

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La Libreta

 

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Partially due to poor agriculture and past US embargo’s,  grocery shopping is different in Cuba. With limited quantities of food available , a socialist food distribution system was developed after the Revolution of 1959. This is what is known as La Libreta or Libreta de Abastenciniento,  the food ration book.  Every Cuban household is issued this book which lists the number of family members and is registered with their local supermarket.

The monthly rations are as follows:

7 pounds of rice, 4 pounds of sugar, one pint of soybean oil, one packet of mixed coffee, one packet of pasta, five eggs and small quantities of chicken. Children also get one quart of milk a day until they turn seven.

 

The Best of Havana

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After breakfast we got off the boat, breezed through customs and found our tour group. Our guide, Rosie, looked like a kid. She introduced herself and immediately said that she looks 17 but was 27 years old and had been a tour guide for three years.

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There was going to be some overlap from the previous night’s tour and off we went down the Malecón or Avenida de Maceo which is the wide boulevard along the sea wall next to the bay. The sea wall is where the locals sit and enjoy the breeze while meeting and greeting. It is said that this wall will bring you luck in love and our other tour guide Manny had met his wife there. 

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It is interesting as you tour the city that a high percentage of buildings are in disrepair. It was mentioned that an average of two buildings a day collapse in Cuba. My guess would be that 90% are over due to be painted and many are abandoned or collapsed. Even most of the buildings with a beautiful harbor view need some sprucing up . We would. guess that the bar is set low in Cuba for house maintenance. The heat and humidity must take its toll on the houses and low budgets.

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Rosie pointed out the American Embassy that recently the employees have been claiming hearing loss and illness due to some mysterious sonic wave bombardment.

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The Russian embassy located a few miles away looked like a combination of a fortress and communication tower in the same building. It was tall and narrow with an array of antennas . Could they be blasting our embassy with a sonic death ray? Did they meddle in our election? You decide.

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Rosie’s first cheerful tour stop was at the Cementary de Colon. She killed it, rim shot!

Our local guide was well versed, but appeared to be giving his talk by rote. It was our first zombie encounter and it was likely that we could out run him if he attacked, nonetheless we kept our distance.  Santeria is practiced here, so you can’t be too careful.

About halfway through his tour his cell rang ” Da da-da, da DA!”, it was George Thorogood’s Bad to the Bone. A little graveside humor.

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La Milagrosa

One interesting story is the legend of “La Milagrosa” or The Miraculous Woman. The story is about an upper class woman named Amelia Goyri de la Hoz who fell in love with Jose Vicente Vicente, a man her father did not approve of.  So she waited until her father death to marry Jose.  Unfortunately about a year latter in 1903 at 23 years of age, she died along with her newborn during childbirth.  They were  buried together with her child placed at her feet. Her grieving husband would visit the grave daily over the next seventeen years until his death.  He would talk to her after tapping with the brass knockers on top of the crypt. He would then leave always walking backwards in hopes of seeing a glimps of his beloveded.  Years latter after she was exhumed, she was found with her child cradled in her arms.  Today people still bring flowers and small gifts while tapping with the bronze knockers in hopes their prayers will come true.  Our tour guide with great respect invited us to do so.

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Today Cubuns get a crypt for 2 years with a small charge of 50 cents per month and then they are moved to wherever the family now wants them buried. This is so that all families regardless of income can enjoy crypt side mourning for two years. In Havan approximately 85% of the people are buried here at Cemetery de Colon.

After paying our respects we boarded the bus where Rosie did a bit of an awkward rant about Cuban/ American relations and how the USA were the jerks of the relationship. Was the government listening in? You decide. Okay…we liked Manny from our previous tour!

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Our next stop was Ernest Hemingway’s Cuba house, which is located 10 miles east of Havana in the town of San Francisco de Paul. It took about 45 min to get there and we saw  lot’s of ”Local Color”, our travel term for ghetto neighborhoods and blight. If Ernest could see what has happen ( or didn’t happen) to his beloved Cuban neighborhood, he would spin in his grave.

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The house was built by Spanish architect  Miguel Pascual y Baguer in 1886.  It was named Finca Vigia or “Lookout House”.  Hemingway bought the house in 1940 for $12,500.

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Hemingway’s estate was cool.  There were plenty of Cuban babushka ladies to keep people from going in the house, you could only peer in from the Windows. Sad.  In Key West we went all through his house and the grounds. Oh well, when in Cuba.

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After wandering around the lower floors of the residence we ascended up a four story tower where the Hemingway’s had added on a writing room.  The view was awesome.  Also one very kind lady took took photos for us inside the room.

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Farther out on the estate we found Hemingway’s restored boat the Pilar , which is permanently dry docked on the tennis court.  We were also able to check out his swimming pool and baseball diamond.  The pool seemed smaller then expected.

In the 20 years that Hemingway lived here he wrote two of his great works, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and The Sea”.

Then in 1960 during the Castro led Revolution,  Hemingway with his fourth wife Mary fled Cuba. After Hemingway’s death in 1961 and with special permission from the Kennedy administration, Mary returned to Finca Vigia to retrieve as many possessions that she could carry.  Fidel Castro, a huge fan of Hemingway’s, presumably helped.

In that same year the Cuban government took over the properties ownership and upon which it fell into disrepair.  It wasn’t until 2002 with the cooperation between a Boston based nonprofit the “Finca Vigia Foundation” and the Cuban government that restoration efforts were put in place.

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After our visit we headed back to the bus where we cruised over to the barrio of Jaimanitas.  This neighborhood features art work from the artist Jose Fuster, who was influenced by Gaudi after visiting Barcelona. The walls along the street were decorated with broken tile artwork.

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The followers of Fuster have continued to create Gaudi like figures, whimsical art and murals. It was like a scene from Alice In Wonderland.

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One art gallery was packed with tile art and we didn’t have enough time to enjoy it. Sticking to a schedule is life on a tour. We were about to board the bus when a man shouted “Come see the worst art gallery in Cuba” and we all laughed at his marketing ploy. This schedule seemed a little tight and we spent too much time getting to locations than at the location, it wouldn’t have been so bad if the scenery was pretty and not so * colorful.

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The next stop was lunch and we were promised a free lobster dinner. The restaurant was a little Cuban place overlooking the ocean complete with a three piece band that started to play just as we were having a good conversation with our table mates.

Our table mates were three sisters from Alabama, Florida and Connecticut cruising with their mother who was celebrating her 80 th birthday. The three sisters planed a cruise to coincide with all their and mom’s schedule. One of the sisters had lived in Corona Del Mar  not far from us. We talked about travel and cruises and I happen to ask if any of them had done genetic testing from Ancestry. Com or 23 and Me, and they all gushed “yes” with some conspiratorial glances at each other. I then asked if there were any surprises thinking a different lineage may have popped up other than originally thought. They answered with nodding heads and laughs. Apparently one of the sisters had recently taken the DNA test and a half sister popped up that no one knew about. They concluded that their father had probably not know about her either. She was older and born in a home for unmarried women before their father married their mother. They had met with her in Florida just before the cruise and were still giddy having a new sister. She had been adopted into a good family and had been successful in her own career. What a story!  The new sister wanted to know all about her father and had never really investigated her biological parents, until now. 

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The so-so lobster lunch finished and we visited a cigar and rum shop on the way to Revolution Square. Of course two cigars were purchased for band mates. 

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At Revolution Square the famous Cuban taxis were out in full force. It looked like a classic car show. We took some photos and it started to rain. The convertibles had their tops up in seconds, and their business all but stopped, until the rain cleared.

I asked Rosie about the inordinate amount of convertible cars and she laughed that making cars into convertibles is an entire side industry. She also said that cousin’s Chevy also had various parts in it to kept it running including a Honda motor.

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Our final destination was the San Francisco Market Place and we were allotted only 35 minutes to shop. Apparently we ate up some of our shopping time at the cigar store. Darn. We could have spent at least two hours in this massive building filled with local vendor booths. We could haggle! We were only going to buy a magnet as is our tradition ( you should see our refrigerator at home), but one thing led to another.

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Everything was so cheap, that we didn’t even haggle. We bought a magnet, a clave percussion instrument, two stuffed voodoo dolls, two cigar cases and a decorative mask with ten minutes to spare. It was raining hard now and we had missed these forecasted thunderstorms all week so we didn’t mind getting soaked splashing towards the bus. The bus windows were fogging up from soaked passengers boasting about their purchases. A passenger next to me had bought a case of the best Cuban cigars, Cohibas, for his barber costing around $200.

Once again, we were too beat to hang around Havana any longer and we dashed up the gang way in the rain into the ship.

The crew was waiting with pool towels and smiles.

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