Category Archives: not really


Welcome to Cuba!

Yes, Americans can visit Cuba – as long as you are there “in support of the Cuban people.” Which we were – Biffy and Ed, Sam and Sarah, Sam’s Sarah, Joseph and his friend Cathy, and me. We got our paperwork in order in Miami and, despite my anxiety about making the connection on time, it all worked and we’re all here!

My first sight of Cuba from the plane featured lots of lush green scenery and palm trees. (Royal palms, the national tree, are everywhere.) We made our way through the slow lines to be vetted (passport control and security) and were finally sent on our way. We got on the little bus that will be carrying us about and heard a lot about Cuba from our guide, Edelso, who would prove to be terrific.

Then to our hotel, which is lovely (though with steep stairs, luckily with sturdy railings). We were met by the incomparable Marta, the boss and general factotum of the place, with a small glass of a delicious pineapple rum drink (a theme) and sweeping views from the outside deck. Across from us is an old shabby Soviet era apartment block which has clearly seen better days,

but otherwise the area is filled with nicely maintained houses and gardens, and there’s a view of the ocean just beyond.

I have a room of my own with a lovely shower, air conditioning, and two double beds

And there’s wifi though it doesn’t seem to be very robust (this proved to be an understatement!). This will be just right as a base for our trip.

Our group is led by Cressie, one of the five lawyers who worked together on a big civil rights case back in the ’80s. They get together every couple years, and thus this trip. Cressie is a lowkey guy, very knowledgeable about Cuba, where he’s visited numerous times over the last seven or eight years. This was his first trip back since the pandemic, and he noticed that many things have changed: shortages, way fewer tourists, more blackouts, etc. But he has arranged a wonderful array of visits and experiences for us.

We had dinner at the hotel (with this iconic image of Hemingway on the wall),

and then Marta told us about some logistics, including what to do about money (both Euros and dollars are universally accepted, so no need to change), and how to maintain the plumbing (don’t flush toilet paper, place it in the little container next to the toilet, something we encountered everywhere).

The company is good, the venue is lovely, and tomorrow we start our adventures!

A fort, an introduction, a monkey

Today was our first full day together, and it was a good one!  After breakfast – a buffet filled with delicious Indian food as well as hearty English fare – we piled into two minibuses for our morning out to the Amber Fort (above pic is from the bus).  We transferred at the bottom of the hill to several jeeps for the steep ride up.

But first, a famous step well, built 400 years  ago to collect water during the rainy season. The structure is well-known for its Escher-like stairs.  Some claim that you can’t go up and down using the same set of stairs unless you’re a local. I didn’t dare try!  Another view:

It was also a gathering place for women (as it was for us!). 

Carol and Caron sitting in one of the little gazebos at the top.

And of course, the ubiquitous monkeys.

Back in the jeeps for the final stretch up the steep hill to the fort or palace, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and an example of Mughal-Indian architecture.  Once inside, you enter a series of beautiful courtyards.  (Thanks, Getty images.)

We met our guide who explained the fort to us, though between the noise of the crowds and his strong accent,  it was not terribly illuminating. There are three palaces here, winter, summer and monsoon, where the princesses lived. No man was allowed in except for the king. Again, we marvelled at beautiful carvings and painted walls. Inside the palaces were more decorated walls, the winter palace with inserted mirrors to reflect the light on cold winter days.  This one featured sparkling inlaid glass in intricate patterns.

and more beautiful carvings and decorations.

And looking up from the fort, long walls along the ridgeline to keep out…someone?

Elephants were seen everywhere, including in real life (though one is advised not to take a ride for the sake of the animals’ health).

It was a fascinating site, though I felt very much like a tourist. But it’s a great memory to invoke when I next read about the Mughals.

On our way back, here’s a glimpse of the small town of Amer from our jeep.  I was trying to capture the incredible traffic and the millions of small food stands and shops though I missed the elephant lumbering along, so you must just imagine it. 

After the Amber fort we stopped by a bookstore with an interesting selection. I’m really liking the Dalrymple book so hope to read more of him when I get home.  Here we are waiting for the rest of the group:  Pamela, Janice, Marty, Carol, Lucie, Caron and Cathy.After all this glory, we took the minibuses back to the Trident for lunch and a brief break. After lunch we each introduced ourselves to the group. There were many stories to tell (some on the bus ride from Agra, and some here):   Pati and her benign optic nerve tumor,  Sujata and her recovery from breast cancer, Amy and her year of refocusing that included a decision to stop designing fabric, Ginger and her story of finding her true love in Saskatchewan, et al.  It is an amazing group of women!

At this point, we were supposed to visit the Jaipur Literary Festival (William Dalrymple is one of the organizers!), but Sujata and Amy got word that it would involve big crowds and lots of waiting in line, so instead we went into Jaipur and visited the Patrika Gate.

This is a modern tourist attraction that opens out to a park right in the middle of Jaipur.  The arches and ceilings are covered with beautifully detailed paintings of local heroes, sites and mythology.

As always, the patterns and colors were mesmerizing, and I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

After this, we stopped by a local crafts area that was here as part of the Pink City Festival. 

The craft booths were mildly interesting, but this creepy monkey man was the most memorable. 

He just looks odd here, and people are certainly laughing, but he was very creepy, and some of the children were really scared of him.  He scurried around just like a monkey and tried to steal things from people.  I think he must have been a version of Hanuman.

Our final stop was to a popup shop that catered to the not-me audience, lovely things like shoes, purses and clothes, but I was really dead on my feet by now.  Home, late dinner and then fell into bed.  A rich, full day!

Wildlife and exoticism

This was not a nature trip, but you can’t help noticing the animals everywhere in India.  In my neighborhood I’m likely to see cats, dogs and squirrels, along with robins, wrens, finches, woodpeckers, chickadees, hawks, etc.  But here was a new array of everyday creatures!

Dogs are hardly unusual, but they were everywhere in the streets, never on a leash or seeming to belong to anyone.  This one was enjoying the sunshine while stretched out on block-printed fabric drying in Bagru. 

They appeared healthy and were beautifully behaved, so I asked one of our guides who took care of them.  He said that when you made your chapatis in the morning, you made one for the dog, and when you made your chapatis in the evening, you made one for the cow.  I’m not sure if that was metaphorical or literal…

There were several kinds of cows, some dairy cows and some not. 

This dairy cow was strolling through Bagur.

This beauty was surrounded by words that I can’t decipher.

And this one seems to have been decorated?

Monkeys were ubiquitous, climbing up telephone poles, along the rooftops, and hanging from wires. 

These monkeys were outside of the vegetable market in Jaipur.

This one was strolling along among the tourists at the Taj Mahal.

This monkey is posing with a kite at the step well. (Kite flying is a huge pastime in Jaipur, and we saw these tiny kites in the sky all the time, especially at the end of the day.  When they coat the strings with powdered glass for competitions, they can be a danger to people and especially to birds, but it is beautiful to watch them soar.)

This mama and baby were climbing above electrical wires in the spice market in Delhi.  We were cautioned not to play with them or feed them, and, fascinating though they were, I wasn’t tempted.

We saw a few elephants thumping along the streets, but the only one I captured with my camera is this one, decorated for tourists, along the lake.

Cathy is paying the driver for permission to pet it.

Camels were seen more often, usually as beasts of burden but for tourists, too.  Here’s a glimpse of one in the street in Sanganer that carried a load on its back.

This one was waiting for customers down the road from our hotel who could be tempted into a ride.

But the creepiest of all was this human monkey.  He was roaming around in a craft market we visited.  If I had managed to get a video, you would have seen just how awful he was, coming up behind people and grabbing their bags, racing along on all fours like a real monkey, and in general behaving like a scary creature that’s supposed to be funny.  I think he might have been a representation of Hanuman, a god who is “generally depicted as a man with the face of a monkey and a long tail.”  Although the people in these pictures are laughing, there were a couple of children in tears.

Finally, a note on exoticism.  It’s defined as “the charm of the unfamiliar,” but it can also be a way of distancing yourself from what you are seeing.  In a culture as different from mine as India is, I’m afraid that some of what I saw was just that:  a strange and fascinating way of life that I don’t really understand.  But I’m trying!