Mai Perso - Travel adventures

A Brief Lesson on Panama Hats

June 3, 2012


As we flew in and out of Cuba through Panama, we decided to make a short stop, check the Canal and get a feel for the place. See if it warrants a longer stay on a future trip.
The smells and sights of Cuba were still fresh in our minds. For a very short time, it felt good to be back on the grid. Our phones were working again and wifi can be found anywhere in Panama. Over two hundred emails have been waiting patiently for my attention as well as several un attended voicemails. The iPhone and iPad came back to life.
We settled in the Sheraton and left for a rendezvous with Carlos, the local cab driver turned tour guide, who will be showing us around town today.
We started at the Panama Canal. Coming from Holland, the concept of water lifts is obviously not new, and while the scale here is big, the water works in Holland are as if not more impressive, and started much earlier in time. I was more excited from the signs warning you of Crocodiles, then the history of the Canal.
Panama Canal, Check.

The skyline of Panama City is impressive. We have seen it a couple of times on the way to and from South America and this visit allowed for some more time to take it in.
We then asked Carlos to drop us in the old city of Panama. This area started as a slaves/canal diggers colony when the French made the first attempt to dig the canal in the early 19th century. The area is being fully restored with grants from the government helping the push. I could not stop thinking that Havana could look the same with the right investment.
We struck a conversation with Carlos, who turned out to be a very knowledgable guy, about Panama’s turnaround in the past thirty odd years. Going from a brutal dictatorship to a modern democracy. The initial pain of the transition and how leadership with a clear vision and determination, managed to turn Panama to a place with so many opportunities for the willing.

If you have been following my blogs in the past, you already know that I have a tendency to find out some very fundamental facts about places I travel to, en’ route to the location. In Panama I learned that Panama Hats come from Ecuador. There you have it. If you want a real, Fine Woven Panama Hat, go to Ecuador or order it online.
A Fine Panama Hat can take up to 40 days to weave, and can cost upward of 25,000 US$. Also, the Montecristi hats sold in Panama, are most likely not Montecristi. They are more often Montecrooky. They may be nice and they are probably from Panama, which I guess makes them genuine Panama Hats, but they don’t pass as such.
You get the gist of it. I’ll get off the subject. So now that I know all the Panamanian vital statistics, I can go and enjoy the place.
Carlos recommended a couple of places for lunch and dinner. Panama is considered one of the best south American culinary spots, and with Carlos’ help, we had no chance of enjoying it. Both restaurants were good, but neither was Panamanian. The food surely beat the bland Cuban meals, but failed to introduce us to the true Cuban Cuisine. We did see more Habaneros on the menus in Panama then in Havana, the cradle of the Habaneros you would think. Once again, as I have learned, Habaneros can be found in Havana but actually come from the Amazons.
So Panama Hats aren’t from Panama, Habaneros aren’t from Havana, and soon I may find out that BMW is a Korean brand….
After a long stroll criss crossing the restored streets of Panama’s colonial quarter and pondering what would Havana look like with similar investment, we took a quick break and drove to the Causeway. A stretch of landfill from the dugout of the Canal, that connects three island and the city of Panama. It includes touristic restaurants, duty free stores and a long promenade, facing the city skyline from across the bay. Yacht harbors along the walkway and a beautiful vista if you are into city silhouettes. Alas, as with many modern developments, the area lacks character and is a distant second attraction to the Casco Viejo, the old city of Panama.
We left Panama without a Hat and no authentic Panamanian food, but agreed to come back and explore it further some time. It seamed to have the combination of modern comfort and old heritage mixed with tropical nature, we like.
Maybe next time we can combine Panama and Costa Rica in a two week Motorcycle adventure. It should be easy to get our motorbikes over here…


Imagine Cuba

June 2, 2012
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A Tale of Three Economies

June 1, 2012

Here is a story for you. Say you need to get from Havana to Trinidad. A five hour travel crossing Cuba from North to South, on roads passing by scenery varying from long stretches of sugar cane fields, “The heart of the radiation and feeding the Revolucion” as one sign quoted Fidel. Mango, Avocado and Coco plantations. The road you take is a combination of freeway, smaller provincial roads and a few connecting streets through local towns or elsewhere.
If you are a tourist, you have exchanged your money, preferably Euros, since US dollars get a 10% hair-cut just because, to CUCs or Convertibles as they referred to locally.
You buy a ticket at the “Via Azul” Station for 6 CUC per person, by no means an expensive trip for a decent air conditioned bus and a 250-300 km trip. This is your Alternative economy. Managed by the Revolution, which is how Cubans refer to the central government, tourist pricing is controlled through a parallel currency.
Now if you are a regular hard-working local Cuban person, you have a few options.
Since your monthly salary is somewhere between 250 and 1,000 local Pesos. Conversion rate is 1:25 CUC, so you are making 10CUC a month if you are a worker and four or five time as much if you are a doctor at a hospital. Remember, it’s socialism. Give what you can and get what you need.
Back to our Trinidad road trip, if you are Cuban and want to travel in grand, you will pay a week’s salary and board the bus at the station with the tourists. Your luggage will be stowed and off you go. Alternatively, you will board a locals only bus, the trip will take closer to 10 hours, changing busses often and sharing the equivalent of a mini bus with two hundred other passengers. I kid you not, I lost a couple of bets on the question if all these people will fit In a bus at the station, and they always did…
This is the second economy, still state owned but tailored to the local means and supported by the Revolucion. Running on the local currency that allows the government to control subsidies, “distribution of wealth” or more like “sustainability of poverty…”
And then there is the parallel economy. We all know that many countries are run on a combo of corrupt officials or non taxable transactions, barters and the likes. In fact, Greece is about to go under for the same reason.
In Cuba, it’s a necessity since there is no other way for you, even if you are a very talented and enterprising individual, to make more money and avoid living in poverty.
Our trip to Trinidad was strewn with the triciary economy. A couple on the bus boarded in Cienfuegos at the last minute, ushered to the bus by the via Azul ticket master, with no tickets. The bus driver got a cut, the inspector may get a cut if they board the bus for control, and the ticket master will pocket the rest. Six CUCs, not bad for one tourist couple, a boost of 50% to his monthly income. The guy had Adidas shoes on…
At the edge of town, a small group of people were standing and waving with bills of local pesos. The driver stopped and picked them up. He dropped them off again at the edge of town before we arrived. Another hundred plus Pesos pocketed.
The bus stopped a half dozen times along the way, picking up Milk, Pineapples, Mangos and other produce from farmers along the way, which will be sold later today on the streets of Havana. An enterprising bus driver is a very profitable commerce profession in Cuba. You get the profit and the government picks up the tab for the cost of distribution (the bus… ), free of tax.
So here you go. Capitalism in a Social sheepskin. The entrepreneurs thrive, the “people” live a tight economical life, and people in powerful government position profit from all three economies. Kind ‘a like in the US isn’t it?
The difference, if you live in the west, you have a false sense of freedom and endless possibilities. That is if you are well off. Not the case for some hopeless family among the millions of western families, American in particular, who live at or below the poverty line.
In Cuba, you know it’s hopeless, so you just try and make the best out of it and if you are smart and quick on your feet, you have a pretty decent life.
Oh by the way, School, all the way through university, is free and so is the healthcare system. Literacy is high and kids birth mortality is low. Families have fewer kids and see them through school and into higher education more often then not.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not promoting socialism, even though my belief is that the western European Social Democratic formula is a pretty good balance between democracy and sharing of wealth. More like social responsibility then socialism. But the interesting aspect of seeing Cuba, is that since the revolution, the rich are a little less rich and the poor are a lot less poor. They support each other through life.
I don’t believe the model will last past Fidel and Raul, but the people here who are older then 54 and have experienced Totalitarian Cuba, and then Socialist Cuba, may end up opening up in a way that is closer to the European model then the “survival of the fittest” that is the core of the social economical mantra of the US.
Pardon my digression. A trip to a socialistic country tends to get me there…
It’s raining in Cuba. We are here inn June, during the rainy season. Avishy Cohen is playing a mellow jazz tune on my iPad, offset by a song by the Buena Vista Social Club. Both seem suitable to the passing by lush terrain.
I like Cuba in a special way. Reaching the final stage of this trip, back in Havana, I got all I was imagining I will. Including the three economies. It left me with a taste of more. Next time probably earlier in the season, to avoid the humidity and heat.

Cuban Cuisine & La Revolucion

June 1, 2012
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Food, in my mind, is the main victim of the Cuban revolution. Some say the people, but I am not sure I agree. I used to think that democracy is the best form of government but in reality, democracy is a form of government that always questions itself and is very vulnerable. If you extract the brutality of totalitarian regimes out of their government, they can provide a suitable and stable state for a country otherwise in flux.
The people we met and who were willing to talk to us, thought that the days of crushing government forces in Cuba were gone. It’s far from being an open free country but most people do not live in fear, and to a great extent their relationship with the police on the street is not much different then what I can see in the US for example. Surely no different then in ex totalitarian countries like Germany or Italy.
Entrepreneurs are thriving and while standard of living is low in western terms, they all get good free education through university, good healthcare and have good life expectancy. Infrastructure is worn down due to their attempt to avoid foreign dependency, following the Soviet fall.
Everybody we met was friendly, open and helpful. They all got out of their way to help us. The gentleman who sold us the tickets at the bus station, remembered our destination from the previous day, and got out of his booth to show us the direction to our bus, when we arrived at the station this morning. People joke with each other on the street. You hear laughter in the store, on the bus, at the square. There is music everywhere. People aren’t rich but they do not seem to be less happy then people in the west. Certainly not more worried or stressed then people in the US.
Nobody however seems to fight for the Cuban cuisine. To be honest, it’s day three and we are still looking a good Cuban meal.
The lady at Emillio’s Casa, cooked dinner for us which was good but the only dish that may have been local was a lobster tail in tomato sauce.
There is plenty of lush land and people can have cheap access to produce. When compared to to Caribbean cuisine, Cuba’s looks like a soviet union massive communal kitchen. The only spices they use are Salt and Habanero chillies if you go to a local joint.
Local restaurants serve a handful of very basic food, primarily chicken and pork, with rice, beans and fried or mashed Palatines. Most higher end restaurants are owned by the government, resulting in a boring menu half of which is not available due to shortage of ingredients.
In the countryside in Peru, we had a pork stew with corn and a fresh Mint and onion salad on the side. It was simple and delightful. Cuba has all of these ingredients, including the Yerba Buena, a kind of mint, which they use in abundance in their Mojitos, but the uninspired cooks have no incentive to venture off or revive their original cuisine and use the ingredients creatively.
There are great Cuban artists. We have seen them here and back home. There are a couple of very talented Cuban ballet dancers in San Francisco and Emillio’s brother has painted art exhibits on the walls of the Casa Particular, that I would not mind having hang on the walls back home. On the way to Trinidad, we saw Mangos, Coco nuts and Pineapples in abundance. The fishermen on the promenade in Havana were getting Yellow Fin Tunas out of the water and the country is lush. There is no other explanation to the miserable state of Cuban cuisine, other then it has been the primary lasting victim of the Revolucion.
If we could get on the web, I would have spent some time exploring the roots of Cuban cuisine. I suspect that it used to be no different then Jamaican or any other Caribbean island and am going to try finding one before we get back on the plane off the island.

Angelo’s Coco Taxi

June 1, 2012

When traveling, we often find a group of local people who become our support group. People who can tell us the places to go, stay, the “in” restaurants, dos and don’ts.
In Havana we befriended two people, Angelo, the Coco Taxi driver and an aspiring film maker I will call Martin (Scorsese) so that I can describe our conversations without putting him in jeopardy.
We are used to have our own transportation and going to an island that is about 1,000 km long seamed like we could cover all the main attractions in one week. By day two, and one reality check further, we agreed to focus on Havana and Trinidad for this trip. The drive to Trinidad is a six hour affair in a decent airco’d “Via Azul” bus. We had to get tickets a day earlier to ensure we get a spot. Lined along the Plaza the San Francisco de Asis in Havana Vieja, were 20 Ladas, courtesy of the Soviet era in Cuba, and a handful of old American cabs, the signature transportation of Havana. At the end of the row, was Angelo, with his Coco Taxi. The coco taxis are a coco nut like yellow shell, with a 175cc Vespa engine built into them, made for tourists. The locals use mostly the bicycle taxis who officially aren’t allowed to take tourists.
We were hassled by a group of taxi drivers and insisted on going with Angelo. The trip from Havana Vieja to the bus terminal, took about thirty minutes. Five minutes into it, we were in deep conversation with Angelo. Married, son Angelo jr. (12) and daughter Chantal (7). Angelo gave us the grand tour of Havana, stopping for photos at the house where Che and his security team lived when they got to Havana in the late fifties, through Miramar, the affluent neighborhood of town, the John Lennon square with his statue and 24 hours a day guard making sure his glasses don’t get stolen again, and the Plaza de Revolucion, surrounded with the headquarters of the defense ministry and the secret service building. Angelo kept the party line, complaining a bit about his income but praising the revolution for taking care of the people and the interest of Cuba. He also said the most important place to see and the main attraction in Havana was the Plaza de Revolucion, just in case his little three wheel coco taxi had a listening device planted in it. He invited us to a chilled glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and pointed out to us the most important building in town, not far from the Havana university campus, the house where his mother in law lives…
We took a quick round on campus and ended at a small Casa Particolare restaurant called Arie’s, across the street from the university. The place, has two dining rooms and a tiny kitchen. It aw 3pm and we were famished. A grilled filet of Red Snapper and a Lamb stew were a welcomed lunch. Both were a too salty and we’re accompanied with the standard Cuban slices of cucumber, tomato and shredded cabbage. More about the local food later. For now, we took a stall through more streets lined up with magnificent falling apart houses away for Vdado, the once glorious area lined with casinos like Vegas and owned by the American mafia, towards the ocean and back to the Casa de Emillio for a late siesta. By the time we got back to Havana Vieja, heavy rain drops were coming down with rolling thunder and gray sky. June is the beginning of the summer and a down pour of rain is a common event.
While Safta was taking a nap, I sat at the common family room and was reading about Trinidad and the Spiriti Sanctus province. A few minutes later, Martin comes by and we get into a conversation about life, career, aspiration and inevitably politics. Martin is studying marketing and communications. He is working to make the equivalent of 10 $ a month which will last him through an evening in a bar, and bare necessities.
He started by explaining that the Revolution cares about the people. The Revolution is being used here both for the uprise of Che and Fidel in the fifties as well as a general term to describe the government of Cuba. Thanks to the Revolucion, Cuba provides free education and health care that is of the best in Latin America Martin says.
As the conversation continues, he starts describing the difference between the young generation and the older generation supporting the government.the interesting thing about Cuba is that the revolution is relatively young. 54 years. So there is only one generation in the country, Martins’ that is of age and don’t experience the country before the revolution. I never thought about it this way. Martin’s Dad, lived life here and although indoctrinated by the revolution, had a different life to compare and was still passionate about the advantages of the revolution. Martin understood why but was carefully poking holes in the one size fits all approach of the government.
The discrepancy between the capability of an individual and their income drives mediocrity, he said. Lots of people have no incentive to work harder.when I challenged him with what would he choose,free school or making more money, I got him thinking. Literacy and art are big in Cuba. People born after the revolution, 50 year and younger, have a literacy rate of close to 100%, higher then most western countries and a far cry from all of south America.
At some point, as we were talking about the benefit and peril of opening up to the west, lessons learned from the Soviet era in Cuba and the post soviet period, the rain stopped. By 7 o’clock at night, the sky was blue, temperature back at 30 degrees Celsius and the only sign for the passing storm, were big puddles in the large potholes on the streets of Havana. The neighbor, across the street, used the water to wash his old brown Fiat 650cc with improvised air vents adding a Ferrari look to the ancient, and now clean, mobil.
Another quick shower, the third today, washing off the tropical stickiness of the resident humidity and off we go in search of a Mojitos, Daikiri and another spectacular local band in a local bar on Calle Obispo.

La Casa Particolare de Senior Emillio

May 28, 2012
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I lost my camera in Havana. It’s not as dramatic as loosing your way or virginity. I admit. With little coffee in my system this morning, I left it in the room when we checked out. By the time I was back looking for it, the maid has already been there. I can’t blame her. The Nikon I left behind was worth a year salary for her. Hopefully she will do something useful with the money she gets for the camera.
No sour grapes but I didn’t really like the Nikon. Short battery life and I paid way to much for it in the Nikon store in Lima Peru, earlier this year.
The only bummer is the fact that day one in Havana was all on the 32 gig mini memory card which was another two month of her salary…
We left the hotel that had a name way too long to remember and like everything else here, is operated by a state owned company, and moved to Sr. Emillio’s B&B.
It took me all of two minutes to forget the camera incident. Leo, the manager is a young charming guy, as friendly and helpful as anyone we have met here so far (including the camera maid…).
Emilio’s place puts a smile on my face. Our room is small with a bed that squeaks like the bed in the “Paris Texas” movie. No practice today…
The adjacent living room is a baroque furnished room with tasteful nude art on the walls, painted by a local artist. Chrystal chandeliers all round and a cool breeze breaking the hot and humid pattern outside. I will Seattle here later to write my blog and listen to Ibrahim Ferreira’s most suitable Social Club work from the past decade.
Our room was being cleaned, so we left our luggage behind and walked back to Obispo street for a drink and a bite. A rhythmic music session drew us into Cafe Paris where Julio’s quartet was playing a combo of famous and less known pieces. All with much flair and tempo that makes you want to get up and dance.
A couple of Mojitos and two Cristal beers further and by 13:00 I didn’t remember I ever owned a camera.
Julio and his band signed their CD for us and while we chomped on Cubano sandwich with ham and fresh cheese and some battered shrimps, his crew played ans sang a few more songs. I love this place. The people, the atmosphere, the tempo of living.
As you walk down the streets, you can imagine what will it look like when it all gets commercialized. The Cubans will be too poor to afford it all, the bars will commercialize, update, upgrade and gone is all we are experiencing now. Dolby surround cant replicate the atmosphere, the smell of cigars and old oil cranking up battered prawns in the kitchen. Something very sad about it.
On the way back to Julio’s we pass by the antique book market, with replicas of the revolution propaganda and some old memorabilia. Nothing we can’t do without, other then the traditional pin of the local flag, that Danielle buys anywhere we travel.
At the corner of the park where the book market takes place, five guitar players and percussionist play a jazzy tune. No audience and no hat collecting coins. Just like that, hanging out with the boys in the park, playing music. I can imagine the conversation at the breakfast table this morning… “Maria, I am going to the park to hang out with the guys and play some music.
No problem said Maria, just remember you promised little Natalia to take her to get Papaya slushy later today. Please be back home by the time she wakes up from her siesta.
Segura que si, said Juan Ramon, I’ll be there. We never go longer then 2-3 hours. By three o’clock in the afternoon it’s too hot in the park anyway…” with that, Juan Ramon picks his guitar, gives Natalia a kiss on her forehead and leaves the house.
Weekend in Havana…
Looks like our game plan is forming. A day trip from Havana then over to Trinidad for a couple of days, and back to Havana for the final couple of days.



Kicking the tires in Cuba

May 25, 2012
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Hopping into the Time Tunnel for this trip. Yes that black and white vortex that takes you back in time. I know it’s telling about my age when you reference the Time Tunnel, oh well…
We took off form SFO at dark o’hundred, for a four stop hop to our final destination in Havana. The travel gives me time to transition from the 160 MPH speed at work over the past few weeks, to a place where time stood still half a decade ago.
This is a MaiPerso scouting trip. I would love to take a group of my buddies for a motorcycle trip around the island, riddled with Mojitos, Music, Cigars in a colonial setting. It will be an adventure of a different kind. Not the riding challenge, no survival of the fittest but an exploration of a world, now in the news and soon to become history.
We have no plan, didn’t book hotels, and head over there wishing to see Cuba the way the locals experience it.
Using the flight time to list out the things I want to experience. And then compare notes as we get through them on the ground.
We have an added bonus. We will be spending time to and from, in Panama. We have spend an hour or two in transit there before, but this trip we will have some time to actually check it out.
The thrill of this adventure is great. For one, visiting places like Panama and Cuba, ads the smell, dialects, sounds, tastes and social vibe to my lexicon. Next time I read a book or see a movie or hear a story about Che, or Fidel, or a news bit about a tropical storm hitting the islands, I have a bother dimension of senses to go with it.
I can’t forget the first time it rode down the Rue du Soleil, the famous road that runs down France and ends in a fork in the French riviera. Left was Cannes and right is Marseilles. All I could think of was a scene from Casino Royal or some other scene from a James Bond film. Building out your sensual database feeds into everyday’s mundane experiences.
Cuba isn’t waiting for me, it probably doesn’t even know I’ll be coming by for a coffee and a Pork stew. But I am by now, dying from anticipation to our encounter. And you know what, I just know that we are about to fall in love. The sign is on the wall. The same one that carries Che’s infamous silhouette…

Touring in our own backyard

April 23, 2012
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Touring in our own backyard

My Mom on the bike, back from a trip to Sausalito and The Golden Gate bridge

More about La Mar Cebichería – Chef Gaston Acurio

February 21, 2012
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More about La Mar Cebichería - Chef Gaston Acurio

We had no expectation what so ever, from the two day stop in Lima. We were going to meet Nach and Dario for a quick catch up and compare notes for the upcoming adventure. After spending an incredible night around town, we hoped on a cab the following day and asked him to take us to a good restaurant for lunch. The driver, who happened to have great English and lived in the Bay area for a couple of years, suggested La Mar Cebicheria. A lunch only local restaurant. He mentioned that the chef had places in several other world capitals. A quick Google search brought back Chef Gaston Acurio, and the fact that he recently opened a La Mar restaurant on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, in our own back yard…
The lunch was amazing. The food original and straddled Peruvian tradition with Asian trends. True fusion and very different then the Californian fusion we are used to.
The service was great, ambience sublime and the fish and seafood fresh and tasty.
I loved the use of fresh chili peppers and lime juice without killing the fish taste in the process. the freshness of the mix allowed them to live side-by-side, rather then blend together and just be spicy.
We are looking forward to trying out La Mar in SF. In the meantime, we just have the photos to remind us of the breeze, the smells, the sounds and the flavors of the lunch at La Mar.

The Macho Pisco sticker

February 2, 2012
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