January 24, 2016
When I was in my early 20’s, I shared a tented camp for many months in Kenya’s Maasai Mara with my first husband, a filmmaker. We lived a very local life amongst the Maasai. One day, as I was tending to chores in our al fresco kitchen, I looked up to see a very tall, older man approaching on foot with two Samburu youths. No one was ever seen walking in the Mara with the exception of the Maasai, themselves, and us who had been given permission by the warden to move around on foot. I welcomed the trio to our campfire and was introduced to the great Arabian explorer, Wilfred Thesiger. After having spent much of his life walking through Arabia, he had come to spend his later years in Samburu in the north of Kenya.
Subsequently, I read Thesiger’s masterpiece, Arabian Sands, and devoured his autobiography, The Life of My Choice, as well as his book on the Marsh Arabs. A good writer, Thesiger was also a wonderful photographer and his gorgeous black and white photographs of worlds that no longer exist captured my imagination. The Empty Quarter and the soaring reed houses of the marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq were the standouts, for me, in his book, A Vanished World. The latter are gone, I am told, but the Empty Quarter – a vast desert of fine sand and soaring dunes, is very much there. On my bucket list for years, I have just spent two nights marveling at its beauty.
The Empty Quarter exists primarily in Saudi Arabia, but Yemen, Oman and UAE each share a part of this vast sea of sand. At Qasr al Sarab, Anantara’s crenellated palace in the desert, you can head off on foot, on camel or in 4×4 and, in less than 10 minutes lose sight of any human hand. There is much to marvel at – the shapes, the shadows, the colors, the striations, the wind ripples, the salt beds, the dried wadis, the powder texture – and contemplate upon. The Saudi border is less than 5 km away, and yet this is a sea that one crosses only at your own peril. Even the Bedu would only traverse the desert close to edges; the Empty Quarter is beautiful but unforgiving. All of that has changed now, of course. The Bedu and their nomadic life is gone. The Empty Quarter and the rest of the Arabian desert is now truly empty.
January 18, 2016
The approach is vertiginous, whether you descend by driving or by paragliding. Tucked in to a perfect crescent of a beach on Oman’s Musandam coast, Zighy Bay Six Senses cannot help but take your breath away, so perfectly blended is it into this starkly beautiful, bone dry landscape. Who would have had the imagination and courage to create a resort here? Three owners deserve the credit for the vision, the patience and the resources that it took to build the 80 villas (all materials came in initially by boat as there was no road) which are clustered like a village on the seashore.
And Six Senses, a brand that started in the Maldives and now extends into Europe with its hotels and its world class spas, is responsible for the management. It can’t be an easy task but you would never know it. With a staff to guest ratio of 3:1, the care, attention to detail, and the ease with which Zighy Bay conducts itself is equally impressive. This is real barefoot luxury existence except that the luxury part of it is so relaxed, so inherent to the soul of the place that you feel completely at home. The staff, from many nations – as is usual in this part of the world – seem to love being here and their welcome is warm. The menus, designed by the Canadian chef, are diverse and utterly delicious. Villa pools are temperature controlled, sand is raked, lounge chairs carefully aligned with freshly rolled towels. There are dozens of activities ranging from the aforementioned paragliding to microlighting, fishing, diving, snorkeling, archery, cooking in the sublime organic garden, tennis and, of course, that spa. And then, with each villa offering a good sized pool, summer lounge space, large courtyard and verandah, all contained by rock and split cane walls, there is the serious temptation of never leaving your house at all. A little bit of heaven.
January 17, 2016
On the road to Oman, we pass through one of the 7 Emirates, Ras al Khaimah, the most fertile in the country. Quieter than Dubai, Ras al Khaimah has lovely beach and water, and its desert is greener than that of Dubai. It is poised to become another major tourism destination for the European market. Currently, there are three charters arriving into RAK weekly from Germany. For other European and US travelers, Dubai still serves as the best hub and the drive takes only one hour from Al Maktoum International Airport.
Waldorf Astoria occupies an extraordinary beachside property that was built by Sheikh Al Quasimi as a palace. With 235 rooms, it overlooks a quiet sea (once called the Pirate Coast). A man-made island draws the eye in to the deep blue.
A full service resort with very good restaurants, tennis courts, water activities and spacious rooms, it is, nevertheless, a singular property in a landscape that is still being shaped out of the desert.
January 16, 2016
One’s impressions of places have so much to do with who you travel with, what you see, weather and your own state of mind. My last visit to the Arabian Gulf – four years ago this month – lasted but a week and was divided between Oman, Dubai and Doha. It was warm but gray and, while I found the area unique and interesting, I could not understand why my clients would want to spend any extended time in the region nor why my friends who live here could be so happy.
This trip – a two week whirlwind that has started in Dubai and takes in many hotels and activities both in the cities and in the desert – has changed my perception. Life here is ordered and orderly, weather is wonderful, infrastructure is up-to-the-minute new, service is phenomenal, smiles abound, food is excellent, the mood is welcoming, one feels safe. I love the fact that the population is so international – I have spoken more Swahili in the last week than I have in years – and rubbing shoulders with Indians, Filipinos, Pakistanis and the more than 40 nationalities that make up the 3000 staff of the Jumeirah Madinat hotel, is a real pleasure. UAE nationals number only 18% of the population and, while one has very little interaction with Emeratis, there is a real sense of welcome that starts at immigration on arrival.
Much of what Dubai has to offer is great weather and warm water. But it is also an incredible Disneyesque adventure for the young who can enjoy the highest, the biggest, the deepest, the coolest, the most action packed few days available anywhere. On order, in no particular order, are: Atlantis aquarium with incredibly beautiful fish displays, the possibility of swimming inside the larges aquarium in the world surrounded by mantas and sharks and endless other fish species;
the usual swimming with dolphins and sea lions; a private visit to the top of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa; skiing or snow boarding in the Mall of the Emirates, an extraordinary venue with three ski lifts to runs of varying difficulty, with man made snow that is groomed nightly; a sky diving center which is, I am told, world class. Of course shopping is tax free and a huge draw for those from the region and on offer is every brand you can think of in fashion, accessory and home furnishings.
But there is more..there is the desert as well which I was unable to visit when I was last here. The magical desert of your imagination is a mere 40 minutes from the city center, a landscape of orange sand dunes, cresting away into the distance. There are various outfits that offer desert excursions but the best is perhaps Heritage-Platinum Safaris. Located in a wildlife conservation of many hectares, they take guests out in classic land rovers to view oryx and gazelles, to journey out on camels or horses, and to dine under the stars in desert camps aesthetically positioned in the sand dunes. The landscape is beautiful. It is shared by Al Maha Resort, a property owned by the royal family and operated by Starwood. This is a wonderful place for anyone interested in quiet, beautiful scenery, good spa services and no children.
December 24, 2015
Cuba astounds me.
I could get lost here, in this place that is so close and yet so far.
I could lose myself in its story-rich pentimento and in its exuberant, creative potential.
This is a moment, in a place, where the past and the future touch each other.
Easily, and with great sweetness, I am drawn by the kinship that is our history,
and I long for more.
Havana, Cub. Photo: Lisa Lindblad
December 11, 2015
Day #8 – So Close and Yet So Far
Travel is as much about the imagination as it is about reality. Travel 101, as you all know, is about setting expectations. But how can you even begin to set expectations when the experience of traveling in Cuba is so deeply personal, refracted through the prism of your life journey. For me, arriving in Cuba felt like slipping behind a heavy curtain on to the stage of a play that has yet to perform before an audience. I think about the Iron Curtain that dropped with such finality in Eastern Europe and sense that there is a similarity. But, remembering my travels in Romania when the curtain was in tatters, the differences are night and day. Cuba feels a happy place, lit with humor, music, youth, art, possibility and probability.
I came here with my own expectations shaped by the specificity of my life: the Cuban family connection; the dreamy memories of early childhood vacations in Varadero; the classroom under-desk drills during the Crisis; the romance of Norman Mailer’s Fidel; books and more books, fiction and non, pro and con.
Everyone travels with a specific interior landscape but I can think of no other place on earth where one comes as unprepared for the reality of what you will find. Maybe I have only seen a sliver of life – and a privileged one at that – but I am convinced that my travel antennae have not been fooled.
I am at the airport, sad to be leaving. The flight, due to depart in an hour, has not even left Miami yet. I have a vague sense that I could find myself lost here, that there is the chance I would not find my way back through the curtain, that no one would notice, that I would disappear.
I imagined, before I came, that this would be a gray place, tired, unkempt, poor. Poor it may be materially, but I have seen nothing but richness in spirit and in pentimento. Last night we visited the Museum of Ceramics located in a wonderful 1840 house in the old town that belonged, once upon a time, to the Aguilera family. Now its two floors hold a range of ceramics, from containers to installations, gathered since the early 1950s by Alejandro Alonso, a lovely old man of uncertain health and great sensibility. In the courtyard, after a visit to each room, we were entertained by classical guitar maestro, Luis Manuel Molino. Darkness had fallen, the gracious rooms leading on to the arched courtyard glowed in the night, and I closed my eyes when it came to the final adagio, letting the music envelop me.
This morning we managed to snag an appointment at the Cohiba factory. Founded in 1966 by Cecilia Sanchez Mandulay, Fidel’s secretary during the revolution, it is located in the fancy part of town – Country Club Road – in the expropriated home of Alberto Fowler. The lovely bones of the house astonish, and the surrounding gardens are still well maintained. The many rooms hold row upon row of hand workers sorting, smoothing and rolling tobacco leaves into one of four types of cigar. Almost 2 million are produced each year by these nimble fingers garnering, I am told, 8 million dollars. I have never seen such labor-intensive work and yet the smiles were easy and individuality abounded in nail polish, funky hair styles and casual clothing.
The last visit of the trip was to the National Theatre of Cuba to attend the morning class of the Contemporary Dance Troop. Taught by a hugely energetic instructor, the 25 male and female dancers started their class with head rolls and progressed slowly through an array of movement that blended yoga with Afro dance. The singular exercises began to pick up speed and, before long, bodies were in the air, on the floor, spinning and dropping. And then the music began…congas, rattles, singing, and the room erupted. The concentrated faces broke open with laughter as they rumba’d, swayed, stomped and howled.
What a perfect note to end the trip on.
December 9, 2015
We have had no internet for the last two days on top of which we have been in the car for long hours on each of them. One thing you have to realize when planning a trip here is that the island is deceptively big; On Monday, we travelled to the west of the island to Vinales, the tobacco growing region of the country and a wonderful karst landscape that has been incorporated in to a National Park. There are all manner of hike circuits to be had and one can go horseback riding as well. But the drive was a good 2.5 hours each way and, with no place to overnight, it becomes difficult to include into an itinerary. We stopped at the farm of a small-holding tobacco farmer – frankly I bet he makes more money these days meeting tourists and explaining the tobacco growing, rolling and smoking process than producing tobacco leaves – who looked the part: John Wayne meets Marlboro man with all the bonhomie of a Ronald Reagan. My takeaway? If you haven’t ever run your fingers over a tobacco leaf, you must as it is a sensation that is surprisingly delicious.
On our return to Havana we stopped at Julio’s garage and had another of those people to people encounters that are Cuban stunners. Julio, (looks a bit like Gov. Chris Christie) is as passionate about classic cars as I am about my internet connection at this point in time! Seriously…he is the son of a garage mechanic with a degree in electrical engineering. His passion for vintage cars comes from his Dad and started collecting them years back. He now has a company called Nostalgicars and he has a team of workers who refurbish them meticulously by hand with any material at hand and a huge dose of ingenuity and cretivity. They are called Frankenstein cars. He pours over Chevrolet and Oldsmobile catalogues, looking at parts, taking measurements and then reproducing them in his garage with hammers and chisels. The black Oldsmobile in his driveway was used by John Kerry on the reopening of the American Embassy this past year. Kindly, he drove us back to our hotel in this divine car to the hotel, and, even in this city chock full of wonderful vintage vehicles, we stopped traffic.
Yesterday was an even longer day. We were in the car for a full 12 hours split in to two segments of 6..I could have flown to Tokyo and, except for jet lag, was as crippled and edgy as if I had done so by the time we rolled up to our destination last night. We departed Havana at 5AM in the rain and dark and drove east this time. We passed horse carts and vintage trucks on a highway that ribboned through rural countryside, green with sugar cane or tobacco and then turned north to the sea and Cayo Santa Maria, our destination. One of 3000 islands and islets strung along the north coast, Cayo Santa Maria is way out there in the Atlantic yet connected to the mainland by a long causeway that was started back in the Special Period and chugged along for 5 years. There is an international airport on the cayo for Canadian and European planes laden with tourists but, to date, the area has not developed to the extent expected. The reef is part of Cuba’s pristine Marine National Park and there are miles of white sand that never see a foot print. After a few hours on the boat scouting the area, we boarded our bus again and drove back another 6 hours to Matanzas and then to Varadero which lies halfway between Santa Maria and Havana. Matanzas is the third largest city on the island and, as it was dark when we arrived, I didn’t see much (though I will tomorrow when we leave and head back to Havana). But we did stop to hear a short concert of the Catalonian Chorus in the Ermitage of Montserrat Church. Founded in 1961, this group of 16 youngsters, male and female, travel throughout Cuba and abroad, sharing an eclectic repertoire of music that is mind expanding. They sang three pieces – two of them by Cuban composers and the third, in our honor, was Oh Shenandoah, an American folk song from the early 19th century. Their 16 voices, as beautiful individually as they were melded together, made my skin prickle. I was deeply moved and had to clear my throat to thank the charming gentleman whose baby this chorus is and who conducts these kids with such love.
This morning we gave ourselves a couple of hours to catch up on emails and for me to begin writing to you before heading out to sea to visit the dolphin research project. Basically composed of a huge platform enclosing two large swimming holes for two dolphins each, we spent a half hour with Jessica and Nina. Both in their 20s, they hugged and kissed us and we held on to their fins and swam with them. Normally I don’t like this kind of interaction with animals and I hate the idea that they are captive, but I don’t know their whole story and, honestly, they seemed to love our belly stroking. But then, maybe they just loved the fish they got as their reward. It was a first for me, though, and, as you know, any animal gives me such huge pleasure.
It really is all about sugar. We started off the day with a walking tour of Old Havana, a perfectly beautiful old town of 108 blocks with wide cobbled streets and houses generously large to the point of being boastful. The town was founded in the early 1500’s when Ocampo rounded the channel and stopped at the fort. Over the years 10 forts were built on both sides of the channel and Havana has in two of them both the largest and the oldest. Within a 100 years the city had running water – the aqueducts are there for you to see. By 1537 Cuba had become the stopping off point for all ships arriving and departing the region; Cuba had become the keyhole to the Gulf of Mexico. The Spaniards thought that sugar cane might be a good crop to grow in the New World and they hit pay dirt with it. The conditions in Cuba were perfect: it is a very large island (Cuba in Arawak means big); it has plenty of trees from which they could make firewood to process the sugar in to molasses; they imported a huge labor force to farm the sugar plantations – at one point Cuba’s population was 50% slave, a 1:1 ratio; and they built a railroad. The latter was the kicker for they had the foresight to move forward with the construction of a railroad that, at one point, was the 6th largest in the world. The rail system allowed them to transfer the sugar from multiple spots in the interior to the coast. The ships would then ferry the molasses along the Gulf Stream up the North American coast to Rhode Island where it was distilled in to rum and shipped across the Atlantic. Then the ships would return to Cuba with stone as ballast; the cobbles on the streets of Old Havana are from Massachusetts and so, in fact, we are walking on a bit of North America here. By the end of the 19th century, Cuba was the largest producer of sugar in the world and, after WW!, in what is now called the Fat Cow period, sugar had reached $1 per pound. The island was flush with cash and people did what people do everywhere when they make money — they display it. A wealthy class developed – from sugar and tobacco primarily – and large, glorious houses were built. 80% of the houses in Old Havana were built after the 1900’s; until WWII they were designed in the European style and, after the war, the US influence made its way down to the island. These spotty facts of mine were collected during a walking tour of the old town with a charming retired Cuban architect who moved easily between the hard facts and humorous anecdote. We ambled along looking at facades, stopped in the square for a cup of coffee, popped in to renovated courtyards, and gazed up at a wonderful stained glass ceiling designed by a woman in the first decade of the 20th century. It was great fun.
A quick change back at the Saratoga and we went for drinks at the studio of Esterio Segura, perhaps the best known contemporary artist here. Segura, in his mid 40’s, looks almost Hawaiian, with a wide face, braided pigtails, ready smile and bright eyes. His work is highly critical of Fidel and government policy but, unlike many such protest artists, his work is fine and, for me, strikes the right balance between message and aesthetic. The first floor of the National Fine Arts Museum is littered with his sculpture and his very well known piece, Goodbye My Love, a flying machine in the shape of a heart, hangs in an edition of 20 or so in the Bank of America office building off New York’s Times Square which you should go and see. His other work that has garnered huge press are his prints, and corresponding dinner ceramic place setting, called Fidel Making Love to Havana. I loved being with this man – so gentle, interesting, successful, and so comfortable in his own skin. Dinner was at Chef Ivan last night, probably the best meal I have had. Famous for its suckling pig, we all dug in to half a piglet encased in crispy skin. Quite delicious! The weather is still wet and we have not yet seen the sun but, somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter.
What a delicious day! This place, I will start off saying, is beyond fabulous. There is more potential here, more latent beauty, more intelligence and thoughtfulness, more passion than anywhere I have seen at any time. It is a stunner… We left early for the airport and picked up my colleagues. They had an hour ordeal, nothing like ours, and then we left immediately for Finca Vigia which is Hemingway’s house that he shared with Martha Gelhorn. I have known about this house forever and have seen photos – this is the house where he wrote Old Man and The Sea – and the Pilar, his boat, is still here. It is a lovely house and all of his books, typewriter, animal heads (think Green Hills of Africa) his Spanish bullfight posters are left as they were when he was in residence. What a moving morning. We made a quick stop at the Hotel Nacional (where I had met Fidel when I was 6) to have a class in Mojito making – hardly difficult to make and even easier to drink but it was just an excuse to see this massive and very beautiful hotel that desperately needs reno. Today it is filled with the film festival folks..again, I saw Ethan Hawke and deNiro is here as well. The place was crawling with people and film crews taping and interviewing. Kind of fun. Lunchtime took us to a paladar called HM7, a very cool and sophisticated restaurant, privately owned, but with a chef’s table. It was good..lobster and octopus and fancy caesar salad in a parmesan bowl. The only restaurant like it in the city. The afternoon return to the hotel was early to check in the newbies. And then at 5PM Jose Raul Linares and his wife, Cecilia, came to the hotel to give us a talk on Cuba – US relations up to the present time. Jose Raul must be in his late 70s, and is in a wheel chair having lost his foot. He was deputy minister of the interior under Fidel – a charming man of great erudition. We moved to a side room in the hotel and he had a visual presentation alongside which he talked easily. The points he stressed were that our mutual ties stretch way back over the centuries and that our closeness has waxed and waned over time but has always existed. The evidence of these ties are all around us in Cuba – a botanic garden that Harvard planted on the east of the island, whole towns built up around sugar plantations, again on the east, (two of them called Boston and Preston), Quaker, Episcopalian and Protestant communities, and so much more. He spoke of the psychological and political vacuum that exists in Cuba today, about a crisis of morale, about the use of linguistics to shape the experience of a people, about the twin threats facing the island which are ones of currency and the the growth of economic inequality..the first will manifest itself in the deletion of one of the two currencies it holds (it has the peso which is 30:1$ and the CUC which is 1:1$ and which will probably be dismantled) and the ration book which was instituted decades ago to ensure that every citizen received a full “basket” of produce so that no one went hungry..this ration book will no longer be given to everyone and the question will be who will continue to receive the ration book and the free basket of food. Both will have severe consequences. We ended late..he spoke very sweetly about me in front of the others, having read my PURE interview on line (he did his homework!) and he repeated almost verbatim some of the things I have said about travel, applying them to his own country’s need to open up the dialogue. It was quite moving to me when he equated my PURE story of the US travel embargo on Vietnam with our travel embargo on Cuba and when he congratulated me for believing that travel has the possibility of changing lives, of opening minds and hearts. He liked the fact that I said that travel should be a requirement and not a privilege. And then we went off in our classic cars – fabulous bubble gum pink 56 chevy convertible, with a cat call horn and, in three of them, we speeded down the Malecon with waves crashing over the wall..one of the coolest things I have done. How glamorous these cars are and they make you feel so glamorous just being in them – probably like cruising the Venice canals in Clooney’s Riva! We were headed to the house in Miramar of an artist called Kodir Lopes-Nieves, a 42-year old established artist who takes old industrial and other business signs (think coke, Shell, Esso), paints images over them that he perceives have some kind of connection (for example he collaged a photo of 1950 gamblers around a casino table over a Wells Fargo sign). He also has revived the art of neon and has the one neon light maker in Cuba repairing and redoing neon signs for restaurants and businesses which, on his own penny, he is putting back up on the correct buildings throughout the city even if there is no longer any business in the space. He was really interesting to talk to…he sells in LA and has been to Art Basel, etc., but he finds huge inspiration right here and, as with everyone I have met, he is articulate, realistic, and passionate about his home. And then dinner in another paladar where food was served family style..the city is busy busy so service was quite slow and the restaurant completely full. The rain poured down outside, the lightening cracked and we had a good time. Food was not memorable..more lobster, plantains, black beans..but all seemed to enjoy it.
I thought it would get light out earlier but at 6:30 it is still very dark. One of the things you notice here is the lack of lighting..many of the roads – and main ones at that – do not have street lamps or, at least, only very sparingly. And there is little light coming from the buildings. Gives one a sense of emptiness – in fact, there is an overwhelming sense that the buildings are uninhabited and yet, when you get in to the crumbling streets of the old town with bicycle rickshaws and classic car taxis weaving through scantily clad pedestrians, you feel the press of people. I am told that Cuba was the second stop for Mr. Columbus – 1492 he arrived here from DR and stopped on the eastern tip of the island. He continued on to the southern coast and then went back to Spain, convinced he had reached the mainland. It was the mariner, Ocampo, who sailed on along the south coast and then turned north and back around through the waters that are a mix of the Caribbean and Atlantic, past what is now the Malecon and into the channel that leads to Havana’s protected port. He stopped at the point where Old Havana begins and put down roots. Where Columbus thought he had reached the mainland when bumping in to Cuba, Ocampo determined that Cuba was, in fact, an island. You can see all of this, as we did, from the fort across the channel, a wonderful mirador that gives you your bearings and context. I always take guests to the highest point, if I can, when designing a trip because you must know not only where you are but why you – and the people you are visiting — are there. I was thrilled yesterday when the young man I told you about at the Ludwig Foundation, Alvaro, spoke to me about the significance of the geographical position of the island. I had asked him why he thought Cuba was such a rich seam of artistic talent and he mentioned two things I would not have thought of: that, because of its geographical position, the island became the hub for Spanish exploration of the Caribbean; the galleons would come here first, offload goods, reprovision, and then move along the gulf stream up to the US or down to other islands, thus bringing a tide of people, ideas, and materials to Cuba first. This washing of shores with newness is an important point, and we have seen it in Indonesia and on the coast of Africa, have we not? And the second point was equally important: the education of the arts. In the schools here the arts are taught with the same intensity as are the sciences and if a child evinces any predisposition, interest or talent for any kind of art – plastic, graphic, dance, theatre, film, music, design – they are given classes all the way through to university by professionals in their field. (This, actually, is changing now and the arts are only taught, I am told, for four years and not throughout the school life of the student.) So, the point being, that it is not enough to have the passion and the spark of talent, it must be disciplined and shaped. Thus you have an extraordinary flowering of talent amongst the people. I would add a 3rd point and that is that in a culture that educates equally the sciences and the arts, it changes the mentality of a people and, particularly, of the child. In our country how many times have you heard an actor or musician say that his/her parents wanted him/her to pursue a profession that made money rather than one that was financially iffy? Here, in a culture that has been (heretofore – not anymore and more on that later) literally equal in the marxist sense..where a heart surgeon made as much as a musician, there was no incentive to pursue one field over another for monetary reasons. Which leads to the question of what now? I am told there are about 2000 millionaires on the island, 80-90% here in Havana. Many of these are artists, by the way; the rest in various entrepreneurial pursuits or in real estate. That is in a population of 11.5 million. This is new and is going to turn the country topsy turvy I would imagine. And what is interesting is that, when I asked our guide, David (the one who has been a diplomat and criminal lawyer and is now the tour guide because he makes more money this way), if these millionaires were interested in reinvesting in their country, he told me NO, that they cannot because then the government would know that they were making money and were wealthier than their compatriots which, from an ideological viewpoint, is still not accepted even though, in reality, the times have changed